Violet could sense Bug tensing up as soon as they moved into the cavernous foyer. She squeezed his hand as he looked around. She could tell without asking that painful memories assailed him like evil, flying monkeys.
“Holy Mother,” John muttered from behind them, his eyes following the three story windows to the floating cherub-and-cloud-painted ceiling.
“You actually lived here?” Rick asked stupidly.
“Sure this isn’t a museum?” Elian asked, spotting a Picasso and frowning at the asymmetrical face it represented.
Sophie smacked him on the arm. “Be nice,” she growled through clenched teeth.
“That was being nice,” he replied. “This doesn’t look like any home I’ve ever been in.”
“Then you’d be right,” Bug said, grimly. “It ceased being home when my mother died.”
The guys exchanged surprised looks, but said nothing more.
Bug braced himself before proceeding further into the room and just then, like an apparition walking through the wall, the butler emerged from a dark, book-lined room to the left. He bowed slightly and started to escort them through the house.
“This way to the veranda, if you please, Master Laurence,” he said, leading the way.
“Mr. Jeffries, I do remember where the veranda is,” Bug said, rolling his eyes.
“Do you, Sir? I am exceedingly glad to hear it,” Mr. Jefferies replied, with a touch of sarcasm.
“I…it’s really nice to see you again. It’s been a long time,” Bug said, nervously following him.
“Yes, Sir, a very long time, too long in fact,” Mr. Jeffries agreed. “I do hope this will not be the only visit you and your guests will make here.”
“I… I’m not sure about that. All depends on how this one goes, doesn’t it?” Bug answered, while searching for something else to talk of. “You look exactly as you did the last time I saw you, Mr. Jeffries.”
“I am not certain that is a good thing, but I thank you just the same. And if you don’t mind my observing, you have changed considerably, Master Laurence,” he said, giving him a penetrating look over his shoulder.
“I wish you wouldn’t call me Master Laurence anymore,” Bug mumbled, tugging on his suddenly too-tight collar.
“Should we call you your Majesty instead?” Rick joked, and promptly got another boney elbow in his ribs and a reproving glare from Sophie.
“Please, don’t,” Bug grumbled, wiping tiny beads of sweat from his brow.
Reaching tall, double French doors leading to an outdoor space with a spectacular view of the ocean, Mr. Jeffries opened them and stepped ahead of the group leading them onto the covered veranda which held thickly growing fragrant flowering vines, creating a wonderfully cool, shady respite from the heat. The lovely purple and white flowers made Violet’s gardener’s heart leap with joy.
Beyond that were steps leading down into a pool area, and at the edge of the patio surrounded by a coral wall stood a tall, broad-shouldered, blond man with his back to them. He seemed so absorbed by the view—who wouldn’t be entranced by the gentle waves lapping onto the sandy shore as the sun went down creating wonderful colored cloud formations?-- that he hadn’t noticed their approach.
“Mr. Van Gholston,” Mr. Jeffries announced, “Master Laurence and his guests have arrived.”
Mr. Jeffries stepped aside and gave Bug a nod of his silvered head and the smallest of encouraging smiles.
Violet felt silly still holding Bug’s hand so she went to tug her hand out of his grip, but he clung to it like a lifeline and she had no choice but to stay by his side as his father came forward, his expression one of rapturous delight mixed with incredulity.
“Rance, you’ve come …at long last,” he whispered his arms out stretched, taking several swift, long strides forward.
Violet felt Bug stiffen and gripped her hand almost to the point of pain, and just as she thought he would be enveloped in his father’s loving embrace—and she along with him being Bug would not relinquish his hold on her-- he thrust out his right hand, deftly avoiding the physical contact.
“Hello, Father,” he said coldly.
Violet felt the cruel rejection as if it had been directed at her.
“Scott,” she said, reproachfully, not being able to refrain from doing as any mother would upon seeing such unfeeling rudeness.
She certainly saw the pain on Laurence P. Van Gholston’s face, but it seemed to vanish as quickly as it came. He then clasped his son’s hand in both of his and forced a smile.
“Rance…Scott?” Mr. Van Gholston said, turning his gaze for a moment on Violet, who was pretty much stuck between the two men. He frowned at her, as if he’d never seen anything of her like before.
Violet suddenly felt like a bug under a microscope. She found herself way too close for comfort. She could smell his alluring cologne and recognized it as the same one Victor wore. Another savage perhaps, of the irresistible type? Heaven forbid! She vaguely wondered, as she felt blood rush to her cheeks. That’s the last thing she needed.
It was an odd expression Mr. Van Gholston wore on his face, one she couldn’t decipher. And much to her chagrin, it was, in fact, a rather handsome face, in an aging surfer boy sort of way, one she did find oddly familiar. The silence dragged on as the two men stared at each other, with Violet unwittingly stuck between the two.
“Just a nickname, one of many I have. You look well…Sir,” Bug commented, releasing his father’s hand while stepping back, taking Violet with him.
Mr. Van Gholston stared from Bug to Violet and it finally dawned on her why he looked simultaneously astonished, dismayed and annoyed. He must have thought Violet was Bug’s date, that she, amazing as it may seem, was nothing more than a cougar chasing after his very young, potentially rich son. Violet tried again in vain to pull her hand free, but she might as well have tried pulling a steak out of a tiger’s hungry jaws.
The others in the group watched this exchange with mounting bewilderment.
Rick, who was easily as wide as Sophie, Elian and John put together, turned his back on the others and quietly muttered, “Father? Not even Dad?”
“That’s cold,” Elian whispered, shaking his head.
“Arctic,” John added.
“Bug still must have some animosity toward his father,” Sophie suggested.
“Ya think?” Rick said sarcastically.
“Wonder why?” Danny said, looking to Sophie who seemed to know far more than the rest of them, even though they had known Bug several years longer.
“He’ll tell us in his own good time,” she answered, reading the question in his eyes.
“But you already know, don’t you?” Danny asked. "Tell us."
“I promised I wouldn’t,” she said, indicating they should listen to the conversation between Bug and his father as a means of discovering it for themselves.
“Yes, thank you, Rance,” Mr. Van Gholston replied, reluctantly releasing his boy’s hand. He frowned slightly at the callouses he felt there. “You’ve been working hard. Manual labor, I see.”
“Do what I can. It’s what I’d been taught, after all, to some degree anyway,” Bug said.
“Yes, I suppose so,” Mr. Van Gholston said shifting his gaze once more to Violet. “May I be introduced to your friends?”
Bug nodded, then turned to his friends. “Guys, this is my father Laurence Van Gholston, as if you haven’t figured that out yet,” he muttered. “Father, this is Rick Emory, Elian Green, John Martin, Danny Travonelli and Sophie Bennett. They make up my band and they’re my very best friends.”
“Aw, shucks, you’re gonna make me blush,” Rick said, holding his hand out to the older man. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Van Gholston. Nice digs ya got here.”
“Thank you, Rick. It was my wife’s family home,” Mr. Van Gholston said.
“Doubt you spend much time here anymore, Father,” Bug said, looking around. “You ought to sell it.”
He cast a sharp look on him. “I wouldn’t even if it were mine to sell,” he replied, offering his hand to each the boys in turn. He addressed Sophie last saying, “Ms. Bennett, are you also romantically involved with Rance?”
Sophie smiled and shook her head. “No, I think he’s learned his lesson about mixing music with romance, right, Bug….Uh…Scott… Rance? Oh, boy, I don’t know what to call you anymore,” she said, looking to her friends for advice.
“He does have more aliases than a spy, doesn’t he?” John muttered.
“Just call me Bug like you always do,” Bug said. “Only Ms. Bennett calls me Scott.”
“Another Ms. Bennett?” Mr. Van Gholston asked, looking from Violet to Sophie. “You’re sisters then, like Elizabeth and Jane?”
Violet burst out laughing. “Heavens, no! Sophie’s my daughter. I have the stretch marks to prove it,” she said, before realizing what a ridiculously crude thing that was to say.
The guys and even Mr. Van Gholston burst out laughing while Sophie hid her face in her hands.
“Mom, please,” Sophie muttered through her fingers, humiliated as all get out.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to say that,” Violet said, her heated cheeks glowing pink in the setting sun.
“That’s adorable. It’s the kind of thing Emily would have said, don’t you think, Rance?” Mr. Van Gholston said. “Emily was my wife, Rance’s long departed mother, Ms. Bennett.”
“Mrs. Bennett, Father. This is Violet Bennett…Sophie’s mother. She only just came down from New York to spend the Thanksgiving week with her…us,” Bug said, at this point releasing Violet’s hand and stepping toward his father with a menacing expression on his face he added in an undertone, “Try to control yourself, Father. She’s not a bimbo.”
Mr. Van Gholston gave his boy another sharp look before his expression softened upon turning to Violet. He smiled and held out his hand to her. “Very pleased to meet you, Mrs. Bennett,” he said, emphasizing the Mrs. “And is your husband not here with you?”
Violet shook her head. “My husband died recently.”
“Not recently, Mom,” Sophie chimed in. “A year and a half ago.”
“Seems like yesterday to me,” Violet mumbled, just as a waiter holding a tray of tall glasses adorned with mint leaves and slices of lemon, approached. She didn’t recall the last time she felt so thirsty. She smiled at the young man, took a glass and said, “Oh, thank you.”
“I know the feeling, Mrs. Bennett, believe me,” Mr. Van Gholston said, reaching for a glass as well."Not a day goes by I don't think of my Emily."
“Do you really? Hard to believe when you were chasing skirts while Mom was on her death bed,” Bug snidely said, waving the waiter away.
Violet nearly spit out her drink. “Scott!” she chided.
Mr. Van Gholston stared at his son for a second, then sighed and turned to the other boys.
“If you would rather have something other than iced tea, just tell Bastian, here. He’ll get whatever you wish,” he said.
“A beer?” Danny asked.
The waiter nodded, “Any particular brand?” he asked.
“Uh…whatcha got?” Rick asked.
Bastian grinned. “You name it,” he said.
“No shit?” Elian said, and he promptly got an elbow in the ribs from Sophie. “Sorry.”
“Bring a variety, Bastian, the good stuff,” Mr. Van Gholston said. “As I recall you liked Porters, Rance?”
Bug nodded, a bit sheepishly, turning to his friends. “It was a fun sixteenth birthday party,” he muttered. “What I remember of it, anyway.”
“Scott, you were drinking beer as soon as you turned sixteen?” Violet said, then before getting an answer she turned on his father. “And you let him? What were you thinking?”
Mr. Van Gholston gaped at her, open-mouthed, then looked to the others as if hoping to be rescued. “I… uh…”
“Have you no idea how detrimental alcohol is to an under-developed brain such as children and teenagers have and even those up to the age twenty-five?” Violet shouted. “It’s child abuse to give alcohol to kids under the age of twenty-one.”
“I… uh…” he repeated.
“Mom, you don’t accuse a millionaire of child abuse!” Sophie muttered through clenched teeth.
“If the shoe fits,” Violet snapped. “And it quite evidently does.”
Sophie hid her face in her hands again, and Bug burst out laughing.
“And what is so funny, Prescott?” Violet asked him.
“Well, Ms. Bennett,” Bug said, lifting a bottle out of the tub, taking the bottle opener which hung off his car keys, opening it, before handing it to Rick. “My twenty-first birthday was last week, so I'm all legal now…bottom’s up!”
Violet had half a notion to snatch the beer out of his hand and pour its contents all over his father’s pretty-boy blond head. Of course, the other half told her she wouldn’t like wearing cement shoes, no matter how pretty the ocean looked in Miami Beach.
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