The following morning, Violet found herself walking to town to mail her hundreds of invitations. She and her mother finally finished writing them the previous evening. Her hand still ached from the exertion of writing so many. As a result of her father being mayor, she not only had to invite nearly everyone in town, but also from other surrounding towns. It would not be so bad if the event wasn’t based primarily on appearances but Violet knew better than to say anything or complain. Her mother would only reprimand her by reminding her of her social and political standing. And under that pretense, remind her of the obligation she held, both now and in the future, to support her father and her fiancé.
Frankly, Violet saw it as a frivolous waste of time. She didn’t understand why people needed to have balls and house parties to improve their popularity among their peers and their political standing among the community. In her mind, the best way this was achieved was by actually going into the community and helping people. She never understood why her father and most of his colleagues stuck their noses in the air and refused to get their pristinely clean hands dirty. Violt felt that the working man with his dirty, calloused hands and worn-out clothes could be very appealing. Working the land was not only incredibly masculine, it gave a man a healthy glow to his face showing the pride he held for his work. Her father didn’t have that natural glow but tried to manufacture it. Though she loved her parents, she hated their superficial side.
A grimace found its way to Violet’s face as she thought on how, in less than a couple months, she would have to wake up to that every morning. Nigel was exactly like her father. Oh, if Layton were still alive, things would be different. Then she wouldn’t be marrying Nigel at all but rather….
“What’s that frown for? Do you need me to carry the bag for a while?” Jennie said as she motioned to the bag full of invitations.
“Oh!” Violet shook. “No. I’m fine, thank you.”
“Then why the sour face? You look like you’re about to meet the grim reaper himself.” Jennie giggled.
“In a manner of speaking,” Violet mumbled.
“You’re not having second thoughts about this marriage again are you?” Jennie Christman was Violet’s closest friend and they had been ever since they were young when Jennie’s family moved in across the street from the Barnes’. Despite Violet being two years older than Jennie, they had become fast friends. Neither girl had been blessed with a sister of their own so that is what they became. Each other’s sister. They kept few secrets from one another and spent nearly every week day together. Although now that Violet was engaged, the time they were able to spend together was, regrettably, drastically reduced.
“I wouldn’t call it second thoughts exactly.”
“Violet, you knew what you were getting into when you agreed to this. Why do you let it get to you so? You can’t do anything about it now.” Jennie linked arms with her.
“I know. I didn’t have much choice anyway. But yesterday at church….” Violet glanced at the beautiful blond beside her. They really could almost pass as biological sisters for their appearances were so similar. But while their hair was similar in color, Jennie’s eyes were little emeralds and she was very skinny and petite. Violet was tall at five foot seven inches with blue eyes and was more curvaceous than her small friend. And while they were the best of friends, Jennie would not like the idea of the dark man.
“Yes…?” Jennie prodded.
“Well, at church I saw a man who was very mysterious. He intrigued me.”
“Mysterious? Violet, dear, did you speak with this man?”
“No. He stood at the back of the chapel like a lost shadow.” Her mind lingered on the memory. “He appeared out of nowhere and then, after a few minutes, was gone just as quickly.”
“Well, who was he?”
“I don’t know.” Violet shrugged. “But I saw him again last night watching the sunset astride the most magnificent horse. He was on old man Ross’s land.”
“Mr. Ross sold that land to a man from down south last week.”
“Really? I wonder if he bought it. He was most intriguing.”
“Dear, intriguing and mysterious are dangerous. I hope you’re not planning to turn him into another one of your adventures. You’d better put him out of your mind before disaster strikes.”
“But,” Violet began to protest but her attention was arrested by someone calling her name. To her delight, she saw Levi crossing the street towards them. “What are you doing in town today?”
“I have some business at the park with a Mr. Stanley.” He tipped his hat to Jennie who blushed when he mumbled, “Morning, Miss Jennie.” Then he looked back to his sister and said, “Word has it he bought old man Ross’s vineyards. I want to expand things and he agreed to meet with me about buying his produce.”
“Why are you meeting him in town as opposed to at the winery?” Violet inquired.
Levi shrugged his shoulders, giving him a very boyish appeal. “Don’t know. He was very insistent that our meeting be in a public place.”
“Well, would you like to accompany us?” Violet asked as she felt the pressure of Jennie’s hand tighten around her arm. She did not need to look at her friend to know the terror that was going through her mind. Jennie had been sweet on Levi when her family moved here years and years ago and her feelings had only heightened as she grew older. Her vibrant personality seemed to give way to shyness every time he came around and it thrilled Violet to push her friend beyond comfort from time to time.
Violet also caught the quick and shy glance Levi threw to Jennie as he answered in a low, mumbled tone. “I don’t want to burden you or slow you down. I really should be on my way. I wouldn’t want to be late.”
“Nonsense!” Violet exclaimed. “We’re going right by the park on our way to the post office.”
This left Levi little choice. Violet knew she had backed him into a corner and smiled. If he refused, it would be obvious he felt uncomfortable around Jennie and Violet knew Levi would never do something so cruel.
The three of them set off down the street and for several minutes the silence seemed deafening. Violet knew that the Jennie, who was still attached to her arm, struggled to breathe regularly because her body was incredibly tense. Levi, on the other hand, tried to appear casual though it was probably a façade. He was used to business dealings and meeting new people, so Violet deduced that he was tongue tied or drawing a blank in conversation due to Jennie’s close proximity. Either way, both parties seemed uneasy, making Violet smile. They were her favorite people in the world and she had the idea to see these two happy together.
“Jennie, did you know Levi is planning to add on to the old winery? I was thinking we could perhaps make a big party of it. What do you think?”
“Oooh!” Jennie squealed. “That sounds like so much fun! Tell me, Mr. Barnes, are you only adding onto the existing structure or will there be some other renovations done as well?”
“I’m planning to convert the old office into an additional storage room. You can never have too much storage you know.” He beamed. “The addition will be yet another storage area and a roomy office with a large purchasing area. This will allow me to turn the old area into more work area.”
“When will all this begin to take place?”
“I’m hoping the middle of next week sometime.”
“Oooh! What fun this will be!” Jennie exclaimed and Levi chuckled. “I’ll have to start plans right away.” Jennie proceeded to discuss plans for a grand event involving the entire town.
Violet smiled, content that the conversation between Levi and Jennie was blossoming well. Levi spoke with confidence while Jennie listened and responded with exuberance. Jennie had always held an interest in what went on in the winery and Violet was delighted when she heard her brother offer to give Jennie a personal tour later in the week.
They were nearing the park when Violet’s attention was drawn away from the conversation to the shadow of a man. The man stood on the other side of a tree for the only evidence of his existence was his shadow that loomed on the ground. At the sound of the trio approaching, he casually slid to the other side of the tree and stared, unblinkingly, at Violet. She stalled in her walking but felt the tug on her arm, as it was still linked with her friend’s, and continued forward. Violet felt Jennie’s questioning eyes on her, but could not look away from the man who had just emerged from the shadows.
“It’s him,” she said under her breath.
“Who? You mean he’s….”
“You must be Mr. Stanley,” Levi said as he left the girls and approached the man near the tree with an outstretched hand.
“Blake,” the man corrected him in a low mumbled voice. “You are Mr. Barnes, I presume.”
“Please, call me Levi.”
The man nodded. “You are shorter than I expected.”
Levi laughed at the comment for he was only an inch taller than Violet and nearly a head shorter than Blake Stanley. “Good things often come in small packages.” Mr. Stanley nodded briefly before his gaze drifted first to Jennie and then to Violet. “Oh, forgive me.” Levi stepped aside. “Mr. Stanley, allow me to introduce my sister, Violet, and her lovely friend, Miss Jennie Christman.”
“Ladies,” Mr. Stanley mumbled with a slight bow of his head, his eyes never leaving Violet’s.
Violet was aware of her heart palpitating in her chest and the slight shortness of breath she seemed to be experiencing. Mr. Stanley was even more intriguing up close than standing an entire chapel length away. His tight trousers, which revealed every muscle in his legs, and his billowing shirt, were black as they had been on Sunday. The unruly satin curls on his head had been slicked back giving him the appearance of a respectable business man. Yet his dark eyes were what captivated her. They were tortured eyes. She saw something in them for a brief moment that tugged at her heart and made her uneasy at the same time.
He seemed to sense her discomfort and turned his gaze to her brother. “Shall we?” Blake Stanley motioned toward a park bench.
“Yes.” Levi turned to Violet and Jennie. “Thank you for the lovely company, ladies. Please excuse me.” Then he turned and walked with Blake to the bench.
Jennie and Violet continued on down the street and had passed several buildings before either spoke. “That was him was it not? Your exciting man from church.” Jennie said it as though she already knew the answer. Violet nodded and Jennie’s mouth went into a mile-a-minute discourse. “Well, dear, I know you find him intriguing and mysterious for whatever reasons you may have. Except, have you forgotten? You are engaged. And to a fine and very attractive man, I might add. You simply have to get your bearings about you. Mr. Stanley is not the kind of man you want to associate yourself with right now. I couldn’t believe the way he ogled you, as though you were his Christmas dinner and he had not eaten in a week. Not that you were any better. What were you thinking looking at him as though he was the finest piece of meat west of the Rocky Mountains? Did you not see the anger and impatience in his eyes? He’s unstable and frightening. He couldn’t even speak clearly. That right there is a sign of bad blood, if you ask me.”
“Well, I didn’t ask you.” Violet spoke more calmly than she felt. Jennie’s disregard of her feelings frustrated her. “I’m sorry I find him intriguing but that does not mean I’m planning to leave Nigel standing at the altar. Yes, I find it exciting that Mr. Stanley is mysterious and I plan to find out what it is that’s hidden beneath his dark eyes. But I don’t need you nagging me about something that is not worth the breath.”
“Violet, I only said that because I know how you feel about Nigel. You would do anything to get out of this marriage. And you love scheming. It’s entirely possible that you would do something, however unintentional, to jeopardize your engagement.”
“That’s not true and you know it,” Violet stated adamantly as she dropped Jennie’s arm and stopped to face her. “You know as well as anyone how I feel about a spoken agreement. Very few things could get me to back out. At this point, I think that is more unlikely than a bear taking up residency in my father’s home.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry.” Jennie looked at her Violet in defeat. “It’s just that Mr. Stanley makes me uncomfortable and I know how much you crave adventure. There is something not right where he’s concerned. I can feel it and I just don’t want you to fall prey to him.”
“I know. I can feel it too. Don’t worry.” Violet linked her arm with her friend again and continued down the street. “I’ll be careful. I promise.”
* * * * *
Violet tapped lightly on the office door and smiled when Levi’s mousy brown hair appeared over the pile of papers that concealed him behind his desk. He said he would be a minute, so she waited for him outside his office. Several workers passed and acknowledged her with simple pleasantries and she smiled. Within five minutes Levi appeared at her side and offered his arm.
“What brings you here?” he asked as they strolled through the winery. “You didn’t torture me enough earlier so you had to come back for a second helping?” His eyes twinkled as he was obviously delighted that she had stopped by.
“No, of course not. Besides, I know how delighted you were to have an excuse to walk with two of the most beautiful young women in town.”
Levi laughed. “You must be buttering me up for something big because you can’t possibly suppose that I find walking into town with my kid sister and her animated best friend an enjoyable pastime.”
She slapped him playfully on the arm. “You loved it.”
“Don’t you know it.” He chuckled. “So if you haven’t come to once again try and hook me up with little Miss Christman, what brings you this way?”
“Nothing important. I simply was curious how your meeting went this morning with Mr. Stanley.” She tried to sound as casual about her inquiry as possible.
“It went well. We agreed to a contract and I think we’ll both come out quite well from the deal. He’ll make a good price on his crop and I’ll make a small fortune on the wine produced from his crop. You know, Grandpappy tried for years to get old man Ross to enter into business with him. But Ross wanted nothing to do with Grandpappy. Selfish old piece of dried up cow dung.”
Violet giggled as they exited the winery and strolled around the grounds that were being prepared for the new addition. “It sounds like Mr. Stanley is an agreeable man.”
“Yes, though he’s a brooding and quiet sort of fellow.”
“No. I’m shy, but once I know a man I open up a little. Besides, business matters are different. I know this business and am very confident in what I do.”
“I know.” She smiled. Only that morning he’d been shy and withdrawn until the topic of his winery was brought up. “So what’s he like?”
“Do you have a sudden unquenchable interest for the new man in town, my pretty little miss?”
“No. I’m just curious, that’s all.”
“So you came over to hound me about him, huh?” Violet let out a frustrated sigh and Levi chuckled. “Don’t give me that, little miss. When you develop a curiosity about someone or something, you don’t rest until it’s satisfied. Well,” he said with a smile. “I guess you’d better hear it from me before the bitties start into gossiping about him around town and give him a twisted background. He doesn’t say much and keeps to himself, so the stories those bitties will concoct won’t give him the justice he deserves.” His face contorted as though he were trying to figure out how to word his thoughts. “He’s the kind of man you wouldn’t want to double cross, that’s for sure. He’s very serious and all business, but he’s pleasant enough. He’s odd though.” Levi shook his head.
Levi hesitated. “I already told you he’s the quiet type. Doesn’t like to talk about himself at all. He’s open about business matters but won’t tell you anything he doesn’t want you to know. I’ve asked around about him, too, and everyone has said the same thing. He keeps to himself and likes it that way. Hiding from something if you ask me. Like a memory or rotten relations of sorts.”
“Doesn’t that make you a tad bit nervous to do business with him?”
“But how come?”
“He seems pretty straight forward and I trust him.”
“Trusting blindly is not always a redeeming quality, my handsome big brother.”
“Perhaps not. But last week I contacted the man who employed him for the past five or six years. Stewart Pace said he’d never had anyone who worked harder and was more dedicated and honest in his work than Blake Stanley.” Levi glanced at Violet and smiled. “Is that a better source to trust than just my gut feeling, little miss?”
“I suppose.” She was not wholly convinced.
“Well, look at it this way. I buy several different people’s crops and don’t pay them until they bring in the grapes. I also have my own crop. If Mr. Stanley doesn’t show up or his crop is bad, I won’t pay him.”
Violet nodded, feeling a little better about the situation. Her protectiveness of Levi caused her to feel leery of all his business associations. He trusted people so easily and she did not want to see him taken advantage of, which surely would happen one day. This Blake Stanley was an unknown pawn on the game board and she would hate for him to be the one to take Levi for a ride. But if he did, he had better say his prayers for deliverance. Violet would see to it that death would be a pleasant option for his fate.
“Don’t worry, little miss. Everything will turn out fine,” he said as he pulled her into a hug. “My gut feelings have never led me astray before. They won’t this time either.”