Violet noticed this. “Have you lost your way home, little boy?” she asked pointedly.
“Oh? And do you think that wise? This weather doesn’t look very promising,” she said, looking with a tinge of concern at the large snowflakes now whipping into the windshield with increasing ferocity. “Actually, I think it’s promising to be quite horrible.”
“There now, Gretel, worry not. I have enough breadcrumbs to get us safely back home,” he responded without missing a beat. Much to his delight Violet giggled.
“Yes, Hansel, but we won’t have to worry about birds eating our trail markers. They’re all safely huddled into the pine trees if they know what’s good for them, but the snow will cover up the bread crumbs soon enough and then where will we be?” she retorted.
“We’ll stay here then,” he said as he pulled into the wide, intricately designed wrought iron gates of the Weston Botanical garden.
“What in the world? Are you insane?” Violet shrieked.
“You keep asking me that,” he said as he parked in a reserved spot, turned off the car and pocketed the keys. “Do I look as mad as a hatter?”
She gaped at him. “Are you referring to Alice in wonderland?”
“Do you know any other madhatter?”
She made a face at him and muttered, “Wise guy.”
He laughed and got out of the car before she could get another word out. He opened her door and held out his hand to her.
“Victor, the garden isn’t even opened now.”
“Hmm, I beg to differ. Gates wouldn’t be opened, would they?”
That was true enough, but still this was idiotic at best and down-right stupid at worst. “Victor, it’s freezing cold and you want to take a leisurely stroll through a frozen garden in a blizzard and at night? The madhatter was never this mad!” she said adamantly, completely ignoring his hand and staying rigidly in her seat.
“Have you never been here before?” he asked, as he leaned down and unbuckled her seatbelt even as she attempted to slap his hand away.
“Of course I have...a long time ago. Why? What difference does that make? This is still ridiculous. I’ll catch a cold.”
“Guess you’re in for a surprise even bigger than I thought. Come on like a good little girl and I’ll show you and don’t worry. I’ll keep you warm,” he said grabbing her hand and coaxing her out of the car. He put her arm through his holding her close to him, somewhat to block the wind from her, but mostly just because he wanted her near.
“What the hell is he up to?” Richard said frowning at them as they headed into the main building that leads to the gardens in back.
“You’ll see,” Heidi replied, a curious little smile tugging at her lips.
“There now, that’s a bit warmer, isn’t it?” Victor said brushing the snow from Violet’s coat once the heavy doors were closed behind them.
Violet barely noticed. She was staring at the long line of people waiting to buy their tickets. “What in the world? Are they giving away free money or has everyone lost their minds? It’s winter. There’s nothing to see out there.”
Victor chuckled and steered her passed the line of people and straight ahead where he showed the cheerful, elderly woman guarding the entrance what looked like a regular credit card. He then led Violet towards the glass doors to a magnificent conservatory.
The astonished look on Violet’s face was priceless. “Surprise,” he said happily.
“I’ll say,” she muttered. “This wasn’t here last time I came. My goodness...it’s....wow!”
“It is something. My mother used to love it here especially during a blustery winter day,” Victor told her as he helped her off with her coat, holding it for her as she looked around, her eyes wide as they would go. “She called this our magical destination.”
And it was truly that, magical. They had suddenly been transported to an indoor Eden. There were trees and shrubs, vines and even a beautifully clipped emerald green lawn. There were flowers everywhere and no florist shop ever smelled this sweet and this was just the beginning.
“There are three acres under glass and...” Victor began.
“Three acres?” she shouted. She blushed scarlet when the people passing near them glared at her.
Victor suppressed a laugh and continued as he took her hand and lead her around the perimeter.
“There are indeed three acres under glass, many theme gardens and all the different eco-systems represented, each separated into rooms. They have fruit trees and vegetables growing year round and they use the produce they grow in their little café. It’s really quite efficient.”
“Efficient, he says,” Violet mumbled, incredulous. “This is the most extraordinary place I’ve ever been, and in winter! Oh, what I wouldn’t give to have this plopped right over my house and my garden so I could have my flowers blooming all year long. And no snow to shovel!”
“Well, we’ll just have to work on that, won’t we?” he replied, as if that was entirely doable.
She barely noticed. There were fresh wonders at every turn. “Oh, Star Gazer Lilies! Look at the size of them!” she said and promptly bent over them to smell their intoxicating perfume.
When she came away she looked up at Victor and smiled. “I love Lilies,” she said needlessly.
He chuckled and brushed at her nose. “I can tell. You funny girl, you got pollen on your nose. You look like a bumble bee. Perhaps you were one in a former life.”
She giggled. “I wouldn’t doubt it. I love flowers. And I like honey, too.”
“You’re just like my mama. She could never get enough flowers. Every few days I would send her some. So, maybe now you’ll tell me your favorite flower and I can send them to you.”
She gaped at him in surprise. “Silly man. Why in the world would you send me flowers?”
He shrugged. “I kinda miss doing it for my mama. Got no one else to send them to... no one that would appreciate them like she did anyway. Surely they have your absolute favorite here somewhere. Pick one or two.”
She shook her head. “No, I simply couldn’t. I love them all. I couldn’t possibly pick just one or even my top ten.”
“Well, then a huge bouquet of every flower in existence. That can be for your birthday. Just tell me when that is and I’ll make it happen.”
“Silly man. You will do no such thing,” she said, giving him a stern look.
“I will. Just need to know your birth date. Come on, when is it?”
“Never you mind. It’s already passed so, don’t worry about it.”
“Yes, but the funny thing about birthdays is if you wait long enough they come around say, something like once a year. It’s truly amazing that way,” he replied, smirking.
She suddenly gasped as they turned into another garden totally different from the last one. “Spider mums and Snap Dragons, Scotch Broom and oh, but these Passion Flower vines are beautiful. Omigosh! What in the world is that? I’ve never seen anything like it.”
It was a five foot tall spire made up of thousands of tiny white star shaped flowers with dark green sword-like foliage. Victor bent to read the plague and said, “I couldn’t begin to pronounce its botanical name, but it says here it’s from Madagascar which explains why you never saw it in Catalpa Valley, I suppose.”
She giggled and grabbed his hand. Now she was the one leading him through the flowers and telling him the names of the ones she knew, which were many, and trying to remember the ones she didn’t.
Richard watched them, clenching his fists so tightly he could feel his fingernails cutting into his palms. Good thing he was a ghost. Otherwise he would have drawn blood for sure.
“You did this,” he hissed through gritted teeth.
“Excuse me?” Heidi said, her eyebrows raised at his hostile tone.
“This was your idea, your doing. You told Victor about her obsession with plants. How else would he know Violet would go nuts for a place like this with so many flowers?”
Heidi sighed shaking her head slowly. “Richard, it wasn’t a stretch for him to guess. A woman with a cat named Calendula, a flower that is little known by all non-gardening types, is bound to love a place like this. Victor just put two and two together. I had nothing to do with it.”
Richard didn’t believe that for a second, but as there was nothing he could do about it, he turned away from Heidi and followed Violet who was now prancing around like a little kid in the magical children’s garden which featured dancing water, touchable plants and pint-sized mazes, tunnels and hide-a-ways. Victor could but look on. He, unlike tiny Violet, was entirely too big to be allowed in such a place. Violet was so little she could go through it all sometimes not even needing to bend over.
She played a little peek-a-boo with Victor darting around topiaries in the shape of fantastic animals and in and out of tee-pees made with vines twining up bamboo poles. She was having the time of her life, but then so was he just watching her so joyful and smiling so sweetly at him.
He could feel his heart almost burst with love for her. He wondered that she didn’t see it in his eyes. He wanted to capture this moment forever because he knew it might not last. He pulled out his cell phone and took several pictures of Violet with every intention of keeping them his little secret forever.
Violet saw him with his cell phone out and asked, “Who you calling?”
He grinned. “No one, just got a text from Ronnie.”
“Oh? What’s he say?” she asked distractedly. She bent over and sniffed the collection of scented geraniums. “What are they talking about? This one doesn’t smell like pineapple at all. Oooh, but that one is definitely chocolate.”
“Spring break plans. He’s so excited,” Victor said as he surreptitiously took several more pictures of Violet. “It’s almost time.”
She looked up just then and caught him glancing at his watch. “To go home?” she said, her expression suddenly very sad.
He chuckled. “No, I have another surprise for you,” he said reaching out his hand to her. To his amazement she took it without hesitation this time.
“Don’t tell me. There’s a room full of fairies, real live fairies! I’d love to see that,” she said, giving him a grin of which any pixie would be proud.
“Funny girl. If there were such a place you would be their queen. But I think you’ll like this, too, maybe even better than pixies,” he said tucking her arm through his again although this time with no pretense of wishing to keep her warm.
Her eyes widened. “Better than fairies? No such thing,” she retorted with all the confidence in the world.
She was very wrong.
“Omigosh, there’s a concert?” she said staring up at Victor.
“Indeed, but not just any concert. I wonder, do you like harp music?” he asked smiling at the ladies at the entrance into the music chamber where stood a magnificent grand piano and several harps. It was apparent just by the look on her face that she did.
“They came all the way from Brandywine in Pennsylvania,” he said casually as they took their seats at the very front and center in the roped off reserved section.
“But, Victor, this is reserved seating,” she said, nervously looking around as if expecting to be booted out on their butts any second.
“We’re in the right seats.”
She stared at him astonished and had just opened her mouth to question him when a door opened to the side and out came a troupe of women clad in elegant white evening gowns.
“Oh, Victor, we made it just in time,” she whispered just as the performers went on stage and stood next to their own harps.
Violet sat in rapt attention, her expression one of utter, supreme delight. Victor’s attention, however, was solely on her. How long had it been that he had wished for the chance to make her this happy? How long had he hoped to banish her perpetual sadness? How long had he dreamed of having her beside him? And now all this had passed. At that moment he couldn’t imagine anything making him happier.
He was very wrong.
It was midway through the third song when her small, soft hand slid into his and she leaned toward him to whisper, “Oh, Victor, this is lovely!”
That was when he knew he was the happiest he'd ever been.
“So, did you like my little idea of taking a stroll in the dead of winter during what you called a blizzard?” he asked once they were snug in his car and heading home.
She giggled. “I did. I do believe you have some very fine ideas, Victor Romanoff. This was indeed a magical destination. I had such a wonderful evening! How can I ever thank you enough?”
“You just did. I had a great time too. I hadn’t realized how much I missed bringing someone there...that someone being my mama. She always loved it, especially the concerts, but not nearly as much as you did,” he said laughing.
Violet had applauded so enthusiastically he thought she might hurt herself. And after each number she’d say the exact same thing. “Oh, that was my favorite.” She had liked it so much he insisted on buying both CDs for her.
“It was fantastic, Victor. I never would have imagined,” she gushed, her eyes still sparkling with delight.
“They have one every few weeks. We can always come back whenever you like,” he said just as his cell phone rang. His brow creased slightly. “Who would be calling at this hour?”
“One of your boys?” Violet suggested.
“No, it’s not them. Victor Romanoff,” he spoke into the phone. His expression grew darker as he listened. “How did that happen? It was all wrapped up in a neat little package. All you had to do was....Damnit, Paul....fine....but you realize I’m leaving in little over a week....just make sure you get that done. You don’t want to know what I’ll do if you don’t. I’ll be there before noon, but you better be there at eight fixing this mess you created. Got me?”
Violet listened with mounting trepidation, but said nothing when he hung up and tossed the phone angrily away from him. They drove in silence for so long she thought they’d reach home before he spoke again.
“Violet, is there any way we can go early in the morning to get your car tomorrow?” Victor said anxiously.
“My... my car?” she said, completely confused. Then she remembered. “Oh! Oh, that. Don’t worry about it, Victor. I’m sure I can get Laurie to take me up there. Um, do I need to bring a down payment or anything? You never did say.”
Victor might have allowed her to be taken up there by someone else, but as he was the one who technically owned the car, this idea wasn’t going to fly. He needed to keep this secret just that, a secret.
“No, it’s fine. We’ll go in the morning. Bill won’t mind and then I won’t have to worry about you while I’m gone. This may take a while,” he said sounding miserable, just as he pulled into her driveway.
He turned off the car, jumped out and was at her side just as she removed the seatbelt. He helped her out and walked her to the door, holding onto her hand. Three inches of slippery snow had fallen.
“A court case?” she said tentatively.
“Yes, a very big one. I knew Paul wasn’t ready to go solo, but I got outvoted and now I have to clean up the mess. After this gets straightened out I ...I will be gone for almost two weeks,” he answered grimly. He looked up at the sky and added, “At least the snow has stopped. Didn’t think it would amount to much. Roads will be fine in the morning. Can I come by… say around seven and we can head up to Treadwell and get your car? You’ll only be a little late for work.”
“That sounds fine. I’ll have breakfast ready for you.”
This took him aback for a moment. “Violet, you don’t have to.”
“Of course I do. After this lovely evening? Least I can do. Thank you, Victor, for everything. I truly had a wonderful time. I’ll see you in the morning,” she said giving him a smile. She opened her front door, stepped inside and said, “Good night, Victor.”
“Good night, Violet. Lock the door,” he said and he stood there until she did. He drew in a breath that unaccountably hurt his chest. Oddly, he felt as if part of his heart went inside that house along with Violet.
Violet leaned on the door listening to the sound of his footfalls along the walkway, the slam of the car door and the roar of the engine as it went down the hill away from her. Strange, but now that she would finally be rid of him she realized she didn’t so much want that anymore.