The Tiger, Unleashed
Just an aside, for some strange reason, this is my favorite book I've written. I have no idea why. So if you hate it, don't tell me! LOL!
The wind whistled through the grasses of the meadow as the rabbits played with the fluttering butterflies. Deer leaped hither and yon and birds chirped with glee in the April sunshine. A lizard sunned himself on a rock nearby the pair of squirrels dancing a fine jig. The song of the meadow was melodious and bright and all the creatures frolicked during the beautiful morning.
But suddenly everything changed.
The animals stopped. A commotion came from just beyond the swell of earth. Three boys sitting on ponies were engaged in an angry debate. The animals needed no prompting to find shelter from certain danger. They smelled the palpable tension in the air and scurried away before the outcome could be determined.
Then everything was still. The breeze that had been so prominent earlier diminished to little more than a whisper. Even the boys sat silent.
Suddenly one of them pulled out a gun and the horses pranced nervously.
“Don’t do this,” the tallest boy said. “Just put the gun away and we can work this out.”
“It will never be resolved until this coward is padded beneath six feet of dirt!” another one yelled.
“Just leave it alone. I’ll go home, but I won’t go as your trophy,” said the third.
“Oh, you’ll go home alright. And I’ll be sending you there!” The second one cocked the pistol. The air rang with the sound of the explosion as the tall boy leapt off his horse in front of his friend. The boy fell motionless to the ground leaving the two quarrelling boys astride their horses staring down at him.
Violet Barnes managed a quick evaluation of the congregation without her mother’s notice as she sat on her perch at the front of the sweltering chapel. Her location made an exhibit of her, causing her to squirm uncomfortably. But she found delight in knowing she sat in greater luxury than everyone else in attendance. Mr. Henry sat next to his wife while three of their seven children sat on their laps. His sister and her family of nine were squeezed on the rest of the pew with Widow Darby hanging over the armrest at the end. A few rows back, Mrs. Forester sat fidgeting awkwardly between her two sons while her grandchildren crawled restlessly across their laps. Hands waved in front of faces in an effort to move the stifling air and Mrs. Geoffrey sat nudging her neighbor who had fallen asleep on her shoulder.
Glancing quickly at her mother, Violet returned to her observations. People were sandwiched tightly into the pews today, so to offer more room in the sanctuary, and much to Violet’s dismay, her father volunteered his family to sit on the stand with the preacher’s family. This resulted in Violet being able to freely move her arms if she so desired but she also sat in plain sight of every member of the town. Every flaw she possessed was flaunted as she sat with her hands clasped softly in her lap. She mentally checked her appearance in an effort to assure herself that she hadn’t forgotten anything that morning. Instinct propelled her to wiggle in embarrassment but she forced herself to sit still. Levi, her older brother, sat next to her and smiled reassuringly which helped to still her nervous energy.
As the mayor of their small, sun scorched California community Martin Barnes was a proud man, very well respected and held in the highest esteem. A major downfall to his being mayor – in Violet’s opinion – was that as his daughter, the members of the town expected her behavior and manners to be impeccable. Her brothers were expected to be true gentleman but the greater focus fell on her for her actions. With Levi, who had taken over the family business of the grape vineyard and winery from their grandfather and their younger brother, Wyatt, away at school studying politics, more attention was naturally focused on her.
“My, don’t you look charming in that blue dress, Violet,” Mrs. Geoffrey had said only yesterday in town. “But truly, dear, you should be wearing a white bonnet on a day like today. It is simply scandalous to go without and poor taste to wear that blue one.”
Violet took the pleasure of smiling wickedly at Mrs. Geoffrey today as her sleeping neighbor began to drool slightly. In recent years, Mrs. Geoffrey had taken it upon herself to point out every mistake Violet made and she was entertained by the idea that perhaps the woman would now find a new target.
As a result of being the only one left at home, and being the mayor’s only daughter, she found herself quite lonely at times and longing for companionship. Violet knew that many people would argue that it was impossible for her to be lonely. After all, her father had arranged for her to marry Nigel Webb, a very wealthy and upstanding politician. True, Violet had agreed to the union but she did not love him. During her quick survey of the room, she spotted him sitting in the front row of the chapel with his parents and he gave her a charming smile. He was a polite gentleman and handsome by any woman’s standards. But every time Violet thought of their upcoming nuptials, she felt impending doom creep into her heart. Still, she attempted to give him her most sincere smile.
“Violet,” her mother hissed, hitting her leg with a glove, “pay attention.”
Begrudgingly, she returned her concentration to the preacher. Reverend Henion rambled on about loving one’s neighbors despite their shortcomings. Violet didn’t understand how that subject alone could merit an entire hour long discourse, but it did. Diligently, she attempted to understand what he said, but in vain. The stifling summer air made it difficult to pay attention. She regretted not bringing her fan to church, though if she had, her mother would certainly have confiscated it by now. Instead, the preacher’s voice swirled in circles as it flowed from his mouth. The words became the syrup over the fog that enveloped the worshippers and their waving hands churned the mixture.
Her interest eventually strayed from the preacher’s droning, and she found herself staring over the sea of faces once more, taking her mind away from its rightful place – that being the sermon. She knew nearly everyone occupying the congregation on some level. Among them, she saw her best friend, Jennie Christman. Violet smiled at her friend and tried to read Jennie’s lips as the girl with the sparkling eyes silently mouthed something. However, Mrs. Christman quietly scolded her daughter and Violet looked away so as not to place her friend in further trouble.
Scanning the room further, she saw many young men directing their gaze at her. Her seat at the front of the room placed her on a pedestal for all to see. Though not a foreign or even a new concept to her, today a particular man engaged in the ritual of staring at her, unsettling her more than she cared to admit. Upon her previous surveillances of the congregation his presence had eluded her gaze. This time, however, her eyes captured a man standing at the back of the sanctuary leaning against a giant stone pillar. He was large in stature and clothed entirely in black. She almost thought him merely a shadow, for like a chameleon, he blended seamlessly into his surroundings. Yet, as Violet looked more carefully she could make out his broad shoulders and his bronzed skin, no doubt from hours spent in the sun. His facial features were well chiseled. His thick arms folded casually across his massive chest and his hair shone black as ebony with unruly curls that hung below the collar of his shirt. His eyes were as dark as night and remained fixed on her, causing her heart to beat with an unnatural pulse.
Violet instantly wondered why she had never seen this impressive looking man before. Her father made a point of being well acquainted with nearly everyone in the town yet this man’s familiarity seemed to evade her memory. He must be new, she thought, attempting to turn her attention again to Reverend Henion only to have it captured moments later by the ominously dark stranger.
His appearance captivated her as he appeared to be discretely searching for someone or something. Her gaze lingered upon him and a smile found its way to her lips. He pushed a determined hand through his satin black locks of hair in a boyish manner. After mere seconds, he turned his dark eyes upon her once more. While his eyes registered her smile, his face remained solid, without even the faintest degree of emotion evident upon it. Within seconds, his eyes turned to stone, full of hatred, as his gaze drifted from her to somewhere in the congregation. He nodded once to himself before turning his intense stare upon her for the last time.
Suddenly, her mother’s disapproving tap on her knee brought Violet out of her shameless stupor. Realizing a prayer was being offered, she quickly and respectfully bowed her head and clasped her hands together. At the prayer’s conclusion, she lifted her head immediately in search of the embodied shadow at the back of the sanctuary but he had vanished as quickly as he had appeared, as though he was nothing more than an apparition.
The chapel erupted in noise as people stood and made their way for the door and hopefully cooler temperatures. “Violet, it’s rude to sit there surveying the congregation when…” Sally Barnes was interrupted in her scolding as Mrs. Henion took her by the arm for a brief visit.
Violet breathed a sigh of relief and turned to make her way out of the building. “She’ll find you later.” She ignored Levi’s warning as she darted off the platform.
People blocked the aisles visiting but Violet slipped around them. She smiled as she passed and tried not to stop. Stopping only gave someone the opportunity to ensnare her in conversation when she desperately wanted another glimpse of the dark man. Why did he stay in the shadows? And why had he only been there briefly? Most men with his good looks would not be lurking at the edges of the crowd. What drove him to wear black? Was he in mourning?
“Tell your father, the counsel needs to consider expanding the church. It is simply too small to hold us all,” Mrs. Dixon said to her as she passed by.
“I will mention it.” Violet smiled and darted through a small opening just in front of her. She wondered why people didn’t approach her father personally about issues they wished to be addressed. That would save her a great headache. Perhaps they thought she had more pull over his decisions. They were greatly mistake. While she was certain her father loved her, he did not value her opinion. He believed that women were valued for their charms and the necessity of baring children, not for their brains.
She continued to glide past the throngs of people in an effort to escape this beautiful edifice with its hordes of imploring faces. She plastered on her best, albeit fake smile and nodded to various people in greeting while her mind replayed visions of the dark man. She found her eyes drifting to the back of the sanctuary as though they might conjure up the stranger again. She recalled the moments when his steely eyes had found hers. Even now her heart pounded madly in her chest. Her skin tingled from her head to the tip of her toes with the thought of a mystery. She felt momentarily guilty that Nigel had never caused such feelings within her but quickly dismissed the thought as the pure thrill of the dark man overwhelmed her. She longed for an adventure. Perhaps this man could provide with that.
Outside the church, Violet put a dainty, gloved hand to her eyes to shield them from the sun. Sounds of wagon wheels crunched on the dirt and the neighing of horses assaulted her ears. She had no sooner located her brother next to their carriage and wondered how he managed to beat her outside, than she found herself face to face with Nigel Webb. He gave her a slight bow and after nodded her head ever so slightly in return, he took her hand and placed it in the crook of his arm. Seconds later, Jennie Christman came up and grabbed her free arm, ignoring Nigel completely.
“Are you coming over? I have to tell you what happened with Mr. Frank after you left the Stuart’s party last night!” she squealed.
“Oh, not tonight, Jennie. Levi’s having supper with us and it would be rude to try and get away.”
“He’s coming over again? Hasn’t he been over almost every night this week?”
“Yes, and I wish he would come over all the time.”
Jennie nodded. “Well, come over tomorrow.” Jennie looked over to where her mother was calling for her. “I best be off.”
Violet smiled as Jennie ran off to meet her mother. The girl was terribly unconventional. However, when Nigel cleared his throat, she remembered she stood in his presence and would have to entertain him for several minutes.
“Let’s walk a bit, shall we?” He began to lead her to the gardens near the side of the church. Violet heard her mother call, “Fifteen minutes, Nigel,” and he put a hand up to indicate he had heard her before slipping around the building with Violet in tow.
“How did you enjoy Reverend Henion’s sermon this morning?” Nigel stopped to look at Violet once they were at the gardens.
“It was fine, as usual. He is a very gifted speaker.” She turned her attention to a nearby rose bush.
“That he is. Were there any points that stuck out to you?” His attempt to pull her attention away from a velvety pink rose was obvious. “I particularly enjoyed when he encouraged us to be like unto the Samarian priest who cared for the man who was robbed and left for dead. The tenth chapter of Luke I believe it was. Can you imagine caring for such a man? Why, he must have been a saint!” Nigel laughed.
She inclined her head to partake of the sweet fragrance of the delicate rose. When she stood again, she answered absently and without looking at him. “I would have to agree with you.”
“Miss Barnes, did you even listen to the sermon?”
“Yes.” She turned to face him. “But if you must know, my mind has been overly taxed with a great many things of late and I don’t have the patience to contemplate such things in depth.”
“What things have you been overly taxed with?”
“Well….”she stammered. “Well…such as our engagement ball coming up at the end of next week.”
“Our mothers are planning the whole blasted affair. You simply have to show up.”
“You just have to show up. I have to do far more than that,” she defended. “But I suppose you wouldn’t understand.” She turned from him again and began examining the other treasures of the garden.
He would never understand. As a member of the male species, he would never be able to comprehend the significance of this magnificent event. The ball would be a reflection on her reputation as well as establishing herself as the perfect hostess after her marriage. Her status in society would be obliterated if she could not be counted on to host the perfect social event. There were decorations to plan, menus to prepare, musicians to select, not to mention the guest list, invitations, and the gown. No woman ever just showed up to any affair. As such, her mother had made certain she had taken a very active part of planning this ball. There was, in fact, very little Violet had not done or taken part in.
The ball had been taxing her mind for weeks now. It occupied her waking thoughts as well as her dreams. However, to be honest in full, she had thought very little about the ball during the service this morning. She had merely been bored; that is until the handsomely dark man had appeared.
As she looked around the garden, her eye caught the movement of someone in the garden, but when she looked again they were gone. “Did you see that?” she asked.
“Over there.” She pointed in the direction of a nearby bush. “I’m sure I saw someone there not two seconds ago.”
“Probably just a cat.”
“May I remind you, Miss Barnes, you are often mistaking simple things for things they are not. Leaves blowing in the wind or a cat dashing behind a bush are not people lurking about, spying on the world.”
“But….” She looked into the bush once more.
“Come.” He placed her hand in the crook of his arm. “Your mother will have my neck if I don’t return you promptly.”
Violet allowed Nigel to lead her away yet her eyes continued to linger on the bush. She was sure she had seen someone or something only moments before. Perhaps it was only a cat as Nigel had suggested. But her gut instinct told her it had been the dark figure of a man. A shadow. An apparition. A mystery.
* * * * *
As evening dawned, Violet graciously declined the offer to retire to the drawing room with her family and decided rather, to take a walk around her father’s estate. A typical past-time for her, walking not only gave her a seldom, thus coveted, moment to relax but it allowed her to clear her head and enjoy life. Out among nature she let go of formalities and, to an extent, forgot propriety. Though she had been brought up in a political household, she did not hold many friendships with the majority of the people who ran in the political circle. She found a few who were genuine. Most people in the upper and political class of society were well trained and accomplished at concealing their true feelings behind their well designed masks. Her parents included, she thought grudgingly. As a result, she savored her time alone.
She strolled casually along the walkway that wound its way to the small fountain and pond in the middle of the yard. Her head was clear and not a single thing disturbed her tired mind. She resolved not to think on her engagement to a man she didn’t love, the things still needing done for the ball and the wedding. And she certainly would not think on the intriguing, dark man who… Stopping herself, she determined especially not to think on him.
Reaching a bench by the pond, she sat and allowed her gaze to scan the horizon. The yard behind her father’s house sloped downward ever so slightly so that from the property line it appeared that the house sat on a small hill. Beyond the pond and down the small hill a ways were trees and bushes that camouflaged and separated her father’s property from the small clearing on its other side. The clearing brought bittersweet memories to mind. Violet and Jennie entertained many imaginary friends during some extravagant tea parties out there as young children. Yet it was also the place where her oldest brother, Layton, had died. The land now belonged to Mr. Ross, who owned the grape vineyard to the south of her father’s property. She could almost make out the north end of his crops. Gradually, the sun began to set and though she was not facing west, she could see the reflection the pond radiated with hues of orange and red from the sunset behind her.
Her eyes wandered again to the beauty of the clearing and she was stunned to discover what had once been a vacant clearing was now home to the profile of a man on a magnificent stallion. The man and his stallion remained perfectly still and gave the impression of being a silhouette against a painted backdrop of oranges, reds and violets. The scene was breathtaking and Violet stared unabashed at the picture, wishing she had some oils and canvas with her.
Was he the man she had seen earlier at church? Strangers came to town so infrequently and when they did, her family knew almost immediately. Is that what caused her mind to dwell on him? After all, he was not a man she was normally drawn to. Yes, his appearance was breathtaking but everything about him was dark; as if he could not co-exist with light. Each time she thought of him, she could not easily dismiss the fierce anger she had seen in his eyes. What caused that anger and did it consume him? Such thoughts, though frightening, were exciting. Little tribulation ever happened in her little town. While she loved living here, her heart craved a good adventure.
She startled from her thoughts as she heard footsteps behind her and spun around, sighing with relief to discover Levi walking down the path toward her. She smiled at him before returning her attention to the clearing again. To her astonishment the man on the stallion had disappeared as quickly as he had appeared.
“Begging your pardon, little miss,” Levi started with an exaggerated yet gallant bow. “But it is terribly unwise for a beautiful creature, such as yourself, to be out alone at this time of day. Why, any number of things could happen.”
“Well then, I suppose it’s a good thing a handsome man like you has come to protect me.” She giggled and smiled up at her brother as he came to sit next to her on the bench.
Levi was her older brother by nearly three years and Violet’s favorite. She had been very young when Layton died and whenever Wyatt, her younger brother, was home he always discussed political issues with their father, which drove Violet batty. Hence, she and Levi had developed a close relationship. He lived within walking distance from their father’s home after having taken over the family business from their grandfather, a generous man with an uncanny knack for business which Levi seemed to have inherited. Violet was grateful to have her brother so close. She knew her parents loved her very much but lately it felt as though her feelings had been forgotten. Fortunately, she had Levi. Though naturally shy, he always talked to her and she was not afraid to share anything with him.
“It’s a beautiful evening.” Levi sighed.
“Yes. I simply couldn’t stay cooped up in the house any longer. Though I’m sure Mother is furious with my absence. We were supposed to finish the invitations this evening.”
Levi chuckled. “You’re right. She is livid. In fact she sent me out to fetch you.”
Violet let out a very unladylike moan and pushed herself to her feet. “I guess I really ought to go help.” She grimaced. “I really can’t see what the fuss is about. It’s just an engagement ball. Something I am simply dreading.”
“That’s what it’s all about, at least to Mother and Father. The show. You know that.” He stood and offered her his arm. “If you think this is bad, wait until the wedding draws closer.”
“If it’s going to be this bad, I think I’d rather become an old maid as opposed to marrying.”
Levi laughed heartily. “The Webbs are good people. Besides, Mother and Father would never allow such a thing. I am just grateful I’m not living at home. I’m sure Mother has been insufferable. Despite her experience with such things, she does not handle stress well.”
“It isn’t funny, Levi.” Violet gave him a shove but he didn’t affect him. “I’m the one who has to live under her scrupulous scowl. So don’t you dare make things worse for me.”
“I’ve told you before, you can always come live with me.”
“Right. I’d be disowned for sure.”
Levi laughed and she scowled.
Her parents liked to control things around them. Usually Violet could ignore this trait, but if she were to leave, her parents would feel humiliated and find it an embarrassment to acknowledge her further.
“Just be a gentleman and take me inside.”
Neither spoke again as they started for the house, each lost in thought. Violet couldn’t help wonder how different her life would be if she did live with her brother instead of marrying Nigel Webb. Would she have other suitors? Would she be able to love someone else the way she knew she would never be able to love Nigel? Of course Nigel hadn’t been anyone’s first choice, but according to her parents and his, he would do nicely. And he was a handsome, well grounded man. Still, she doubted her ability to love him. Perhaps she should defy her parents and move in with her brother. Or would her situation merely create an excuse for Levi to stay unmarried, shy, and unhappy? Perhaps it was best if she remained on her current path in life.