“Freddy, I’m going to kill you,” Violet muttered dangerously until she was besieged by what seemed like almost everyone in Catalpa Valley, all of them bearing gifts. She had a tottering tower of presents in her arms before she knew what was what.
“Happy Un-birthday, Aunt Violet. I think that’s so funny. Just like Alice in wonderland. Remember? You read that to me once. Isn’t this fun?” her niece Valerie exclaimed happily. She giggled and handed Violet a gift. Or at least she tried to. It slipped out of Violet’s tenuous grip and almost dropped, but a large hand shot out and caught it.
“Need help with those?”
Violet instantly recognized the voice and spun around upsetting her stack of presents further.
Victor caught them and smiled down at her. “Easy there!”
“Victor!” she hissed, rather venomously.
“Happy Un-birthday, Violet,” he said beaming down at her.
She gaped at him wordlessly for a minute, taking in his tanned face, the casual yet elegant clothing, and blast the man! He still smelled good enough to eat and could it be he was even more appealing?
“You did this. Why?” she said, giving herself a mental shake.
“What? The party? This wasn’t my idea. Really, Violet, I would never lie to you.”
“Oh, really? I’m supposed to believe that coming from a lawyer?” she hissed angrily.
“Freddy invited me. I had no idea it would also be for you,” he replied. “I would have brought you a gift if I’d known. Let’s put these down, shall we?” He took them out of her arms and placed them on a nearby table where she saw, to her horror, two cakes, one with Happy Birthday, Freddy written in bright blue icing, and --would this ever end?-- the other one in pink letters spelling Happy Un-birthday, Violet.
She turned back and caught him taking a small gift-wrapped box from an inside pocket and placing it on top of her tottering pile of gifts.
“What’s that?” she demanded.
“Nothing much,” he said innocently.
“I knew it! There was just no way this is a coincidence,” she said, glowering up at him.
“I swear to you, Violet, I had nothing to do with this. But it is rather amazing how some things catch on,” he said casually. “It’s a nice concept to give those you care about a gift for no other reason than it not being their birthday. And you can almost always guarantee it won’t be their birthday. It’s a one in three hundred and sixty-five shot, isn’t it?”
Her mouth fell open. “Is that what this is all about? You’ve been sending me un-birthday presents because I haven’t told you my birthday?” she asked totally exasperated. “It’s none of your business!”
He grinned. “That’s perfectly all right, Violet. I like not knowing. I’ll just continue with the un-birthdays. Much more fun! I love giving presents,” he replied cheerfully.
Her eyes widened. “You aren’t serious. You...you can’t just give away gifts like...like you’re Santa Claus,” she stated vehemently.
“Sure I can,” he said, just as he felt a tug on his hand. He looked down and smiled. “If it isn’t my favorite teacher! Hello, Heather honey and you have a friend with you. And what’s your name, sweetie?” he asked a three year old girl who held Heather’s other hand.
“This is Jessica. Miss Pamela is her mom. We missed you, Victor. Where did ya go?” Heather asked, her big blue eyes ever so slightly reproachful.
“Oh, I had very important things to do. Only something like that would keep me away so long,” Victor answered apologetically.
“Oh, okay,” she said pouting a bit. “Can I show you anudder song?”
He chuckled scooped them both up into his arms and said, “Of course!” He turned back to Violet and winked. “You’ll excuse me, I hope. I found my dates for the night.” And he walked away leaving her absolutely aghast.
“I knew this would work, Violet,” Laurie gushed, hugging her sister-in-law.
“What...what would work?” Violet said, now staring over Laurie’s shoulder at Victor’s retreating back, the little girls in his arms giggling delightedly.
“This un-birthday theme. It was to get you out of hibernation,” Laurie replied, almost bursting with joy. “I know how much you like Alice in Wonderland. I thought it was cute, an un-birthday party. You do like it?”
Violet snatched her eyes away from Victor and blinked dazedly at Laurie. “Oh...yes, it’s ...very nice. Uh...this...this really was all your idea? I mean...you didn’t talk about it with... anyone?” Violet asked.
“No, not really. Just kinda popped into my head and Freddy let me do whatever I wanted. It worked, right?” Laurie said, looking a bit anxious now. “You’re surprised?”
“Oh, yes, very. Thank you, Laurie, I...I’m just a bit overwhelmed. I’m not used to all this fanfare just for not having a birthday.” She giggled nervously. “I, um, I suppose I have to...uh, do something.”
She hugged Laurie again and went looking for Victor. He needed to hear an apology.
This, however, wasn’t so easy. She was stopped several times to chat with friends she hadn’t seen in a long time and others she saw every day.
“So, this is what you meant by later,” Violet said to Kerry.
“Oh! Did I do that?” she said, her brown eyes wickedly joyful. “Almost blew the whole surprise thing, huh?”
“No, I was still surprised,” Violet answered, looking around, finally spotting Victor. He was surrounded by a group of five little girls, including Molly who sat on his lap. He also cradled Cheryl’s baby, Billy, who had Victor’s tie in his mouth. She grimaced when she saw that, but it quickly turned into a tender smile. He had the whole lot of them captivated it seemed, baby Billy gurgled happily slobbering all over the tie and Victor himself couldn’t have looked happier about it.
“He’s really something, huh?” Cheryl whispered, sounding wistful and somewhat in awe as she, too, gazed at Victor. “What I wouldn’t give for a guy like that. You’re so lucky, Violet.”
“Me? No! We’re just....” Violet said, but no one listened. Cheryl had already gone to get her baby. Violet watched as they chatted and saw Victor kiss Billy before handing him over. He looked up suddenly, catching Violet’s eye. He smiled but quickly went back to listening to the girls chattering away. She marveled at his patience. Surely, the silly prattle of preschool girls couldn’t truly be of interest to a worldly man such as Victor. And yet, with the expression on his face you’d think he was listening to the secrets of the ages.
By the time Violet made it to Victor, only Molly was with him, as before, sitting on his lap. They both were looking up at the television over the bar, tuned to a sports channel.
“Daddy doesn’t like feb-berry madness,” Molly was saying in a matter-of-fact sort of way.
“You mean March madness,” Victor corrected.
She shook her head. “No, feb-berry cuz dat’s tax season,” she said with a shrug. Victor burst out laughing and kissed the top of her pretty blonde head.
Violet stood behind them and took a deep breath, ready to interrupt them, but before she could, Victor said, “Hello, Violet.” Then he turned in his seat.
“Hi, Auntie Violet,” Molly said. “Happy Un-burt-day!”
“Thank you, sweetie,” Violet said on automatic, staring incredulously at Victor. He had to be psychic.
“How did you know I was behind you?” she asked, slightly unnerved.
“I smelled your perfume. It’s nice....distinctive,” Victor replied, a knowing smile on his lips.
“It’s not perfume. It’s...it’s the bubble bath....Orange blossoms,” Violet said, a tiny pink blush coloring her cheeks.
“Yes, I know. It’s your scent. All yours,” he said. “Molly, honey, could you do me a huge favor?”
“Okay,” she said right away.
“I’m awfully hungry. Can you ask your mommy when we can have some cake?”
She giggled. “Can’t have cake til we eat dinner, silly goose!”
“Oh, I forgot,” he said hitting his forehead with the heel of his hand. “Well, you go see when we can eat, okay?”
“Okay!” she shouted, scooting off his lap and running top speed through the party guests.
“Got her eating out of your hand, don’t you? And a dozen other kids,” Violet said, half amused, half astonished.
“I love kids,” he said staring at her with those disturbing, penetrating eyes.
She was certain he could see right through her. She blushed deeper and bit her lip before trying again.
“Uh, Victor, I’m very sorry I accused you of planning all this. It was just a coincidence after all. Laurie told me it was all her idea,” she said contritely. “It’s just so...weird.”
“Yes, it is strange that we both thought of the same thing,” he conceded. “Could be you just look the part of Alice.”
She rolled her eyes and muttered, “Yeah, right.”
“But it’s not just that,” she said getting angry again. “It’s ridiculous asking friends for gifts for no reason. And it’s even worse getting presents from you.”
“Why?” he asked frowning slightly. “Didn’t you like them?”
“That’s hardly the point, Victor!”
“So, you did like them? At least the orange blossom stuff. Oh, by the way, I found that place in Florida you told me about. Winter Haven, it’s called. And you were right. They have everything, candles, air fresheners, hand soap and....”
“Victor! Will you listen to me? You shouldn’t be sending me anything, ever!”
“But why not? You liked them. You just said so.”
“I just would rather you didn’t, is all,” she said biting her lip again.
“But why?” he asked again.
“You don’t even know me,” she said, sounding on the verge of tears.
“Violet, of course I do,” he said soothingly, taking her hand and pulling her into the seat next to his. “We’re friends. Thought we had that already straightened out.”
“You just don’t get it! You just shouldn’t!”
He stared at her trying to make sense of it, but couldn’t quite do it. “I’m sorry if the gifts bothered you, Violet, but I’ve never known anyone that got annoyed by receiving gifts,” he said looking genuinely baffled.
“It’s not the gifts so much as what everybody thinks,” she said in a hushed tone, looking surreptitiously about them and hoping no one was looking.
“What who thinks about what?”
“Everybody at work, they think you’re in love with me and I don’t want them thinking that. That can’t happen. I’m married to Richard, forever!” she said adamantly.
“Then just explain that to them,” Victor said in a calm, even voice, even as he felt an invisible hand squeezing his heart.
“I have. I told them we’re just friends and they don’t believe me,” she said miserably. She looked ready to cry.
He squeezed her hand. “Violet, that’s nothing to get upset about. You can’t stop what people think,” he said gently.
“I don’t think I can do this. I can’t have you for a friend, Victor,” she said.
His stomach clenched. “You can’t be serious,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what others think.”
“I want my old life back. I want everybody to leave me alone. If I want to remember Richard for the rest of my life, I should be allowed to do it. Everybody thinks you’re my new boyfriend...”
“They don’t. You just have to tell them....”
“They don’t believe me, I told you.”
“Then I’ll tell them. They’ll believe me.”
“They won’t. Not with you sending me gifts and flowers all the time,” she threw at him.
“Violet, you’re not the only one. I give presents to all sorts of people and I’m not in love with them,” he said pointedly.
She gaped at him. “Who do you send stuff to other than me?” she asked before she could stop herself.
He grinned. “Why don’t you ask Molly and Valerie and Laurie. Plus, Jimmy, Freddy and Nick. When I find people I like, really like, I let them know it. It’s my thing, Violet.”
“But you’ve been sending stuff every single day to me,” she accused.
He chuckled. “So, I got a little carried away,” he said shrugging carelessly.
“A little?” she shrieked, causing the bartender to drop a bowl of pretzels and spilling the whole lot onto the gleaming cherry bar. “Did you not hear what I said? My friends think you’re in love with me.”
“That would mean I’m in love with your brother and his kids, not to mention his lovely wife. Don’t think he’d be happy to hear that.”
“Violet, why would you let what others think interfere with your life? People will think what they will and there’s nothing you can do about it,” he said calmly. “Just as long as we know what’s going on, it’s no one’s business but our own.”
“It’s just too complicated,” she mumbled.
“Only if you let it,” he insisted. He took a deep calming breath. “I think the best course of action would be to ignore what others say and just live your life. They might think there is something going on because you protest so much. ‘Me thinks thy doth protest too much’, you know?” he said wisely.
She stared at him, uncertainty in her expression.
Victor shook his head, grinning at her. Then, clutching her hand in his, he went down on one knee. Looking up at her he said, “Violet, please, forgive my excessive gift-giving habit and continue to be my friend. I will make it my duty to proclaim it throughout the land, Violet and I are only friends!”
Horrified she tugged him up. “Victor, what are doing? Get up before everybody thinks you’re proposing to me,” she hissed.
He stayed where he was. “Do you forgive me? Will we continue being friends?”
“Get up, get up!” she pleaded.
“I’ll get up if you promise to disregard what others think.”
“I promise, I promise! Now get up!” she shrieked.
“So, we’re still friends?” he asked, seating himself back on the stool.
She frowned biting her lip again. “Just friends, right? You know that’s all it can ever be? You aren’t in love with me, right?”
He looked down at the hand he still held. The simple circlet of unadorned white gold, her wedding ring, seemed to mock him. His heart constricted painfully. Friendship was not all he wanted from Violet. To keep her happy, however, he would have to be content with it. It was the ultimate lie. More over, less than an hour ago, he had told her he’d never lie to her and here he was thinking of doing just that, simply to keep her in his life.
He finally looked up at her. “Violet, if I wanted a girlfriend, I wouldn’t go looking for her in the one person that makes it quite clear she’s unavailable. How would that make sense?” he stated carefully.
It didn’t, she thought. She stared into his dark eyes. They looked so sincere, even trustworthy. How could she not trust him? “I guess we’ll just have to see,” she replied uneasily.
He tweaked her nose. “You are so funny.”
“Yeah, I know. I’m hysterical,” she said grumpily. “So....would you like some un-birthday cake now?”
He frowned and shook his head. “And have Molly yell at us? We better grab some dinner first,” he said as he pulled her towards the buffet table.
Violet giggled and mumbled, “Happy un-birthday to me.”