It was several more days before Violet saw Blake Stanley again or even heard mention of his name. Levi had come over to dine with the family when the mysterious man was brought up again. Violet was amazed at how often Levi had been coming over lately but decided he was simply lonely. He and his father saw little on which to agree. As the oldest living son, instead of going into politics, Levi had chosen his grandfather’s business which Martin viewed as a foolish waste of time and energy. This, however, allowed Wyatt, Violet’s younger brother who was studying politics, to be the favorite son. If business didn’t come up, though, Levi and his father seemed to get along much better.
“Oh, Violet,” her mother began, “tomorrow we need to call on Lady Carlisle in the morning, then to the Webbs’ for a luncheon while we go over finalizations on the preparation for the ball. In the afternoon we are expected at the Nelson’s.”
Violet swallowed a groan. Tomorrow would be a long and dull day. Lady Carlisle was old and hard of hearing. Mrs. Webb and Sally would be insufferable about all the last minute details. And the Nelsons had an unmarried daughter a year older than Violet who had chased after Nigel Webb for three years. Violet groaned again, only this time it was audible. She opened her mouth in an effort to protest but Levi kicked her under the table. Shocked, she looked across at him and saw him shake his head.
“Did you know that old man Ross sold his land, Father,” Levi asked only an instant later.
“I heard that. I haven’t yet met the man who purchased it, though,” Martin replied.
“He’s nice fellow. He is planning to sell me his crop when the time comes.”
Martin muttered something under his breath and Levi’s eyes darkened for a moment. “I imagine that will be good for business.” Scorn tainted Martin’s voice but his words were civil.
“What’s his name, Levi?” Sally asked with interest, ignoring the tension in the air.
“A good, strong name,” Martin said.
“Martin, we should have him over for a visit. And Violet, we should invite him to the ball if he is agreeable.” Violet did not miss her brother’s subtle roll of his eyes at this comment. Levi possessed very little patience for his parents’ scrutiny of their guests, a trait he probably learned from his grandfather. Violet was grateful that tonight, for once, he held his tongue.
“Yes,” Martin agreed. “Send for him to come by, day after tomorrow.” He looked quite smug as he took a drink from his glass. Violet knew this meant he could get out of calling on the man personally and be saved having to entertain conversation with the man if he turned out to be unconventional.
Just then, the Richard came into the room carrying a silver tray with a small, white card on it. He walked over to Sally who retrieved it and read its contents. “Please show him to the east drawing room, Harold. We will be along shortly.”
Violet felt the hairs prickle at the back of her neck. Seldom did the family entertain guests that were unexpected. And tonight, she did not feel like entertaining guests – invited or otherwise. Tomorrow would be a long day and she wished to turn in early. Losing her appetite, she pushed away her half eaten meal and sat back in her chair waiting for everyone else to finish. As she glanced around the table at her family, she had the slightest suspicion that she remained the only one ignorant as to their guest in the other room. Her parents finished their meal in silence while Levi looked at her a couple times only to return his gaze to his food. He seemed to move things around with his fork rather than eat them.
Her mind whirled with numerous possibilities of circumstances that would lead to this situation. Who was their guest and what was his business at Barnes Hill? Pondering the guest in the other room caused her to feel uneasy, knowing she had been intentionally left uninformed. Her curiosity soared.
The family eventually finished and made their way to the drawing room. Violet was near to insanity with anxiety. Oddly enough, she felt as though she were walking to her own funeral. She entered the room last, and when she saw that their guest was Nigel Webb, none other than her intended, she breathed easier. Nothing was ever uncertain with Nigel. He always thought out and planned everything. He abhorred surprises. Still, since their guest was Nigel, she wondered why she had not been informed prior to now. Perhaps no one had known he would arrive until he did.
Martin enthusiastically shook hands with Nigel while Levi nodded and Sally gave him an affectionate hug. Violet tarried behind the others for something felt amiss. She knew Levi could barely force himself to be in the same company as her betrothed, yet his countenance was calm as though he was not surprised by their guest’s presence. He slouched in a handsome blue armchair, as thought waiting for something to happen so he could take his leave. Sally wrung her hands together while Martin babbled incessantly. Nigel seemed to be the only one in the room who possessed any kind of decent composure.
“Ah, my dear, Miss Barnes.” Nigel crossed the room to her side. He kissed the back of her hand and placed it on his arm. He led her to a plush chair next to the one which held her brother. She sat with well rehearsed grace and poise, despite her inner turmoil of emotions.
“Now that we are all here,” Martin began, “tell us the news, my good man.”
“As you know, I have been seeking employment elsewhere,” he said and Martin nodded. Violet’s eyes widened in surprise. “Mr. Stuart is an old man and, in my opinion, a little confused in his ideas for our good state. His newest ideas have to do with giving Chinese people the right to own land. An absurd idea.” Nigel shook his head. Then a broad spread across his face. “Regardless, I received word just this morning that I have been offered a job in Washington City D.C. as the assistant advisor to one of the senators there.”
“Ha, ha!” Martin laughed, his belly shaking. He slapped Nigel on the shoulder. “Well done, son. Well done!”
Violet stole a quick glance at Levi for she knew how he despised his father calling Nigel “son,” but Levi sat there non-pulsed. He appeared not to have heard any of the conversation at all. Then, slowly, his brow puckered as his face drew into a frown, but she was distracted when her mother sighed. “So far away?” Sally sank into a nearby chair. Violet’s attention was again drawn to her brother as he took a deep breath, looked at the floor and spoke in soft tones.
“When will you be leaving?”
“Well, that’s where the bad news comes in.” Nigel’s smile did not fade. “They want me to start the first part of October.”
“It’s the middle of July now, and the wedding’s scheduled for December,” Sally whimpered.
“Yes, I know. Naturally I would like Miss Barnes to accompany me as my wife. I would also like to enjoy a honeymoon before we depart.”
“So, we’ll have to bump up the wedding to the beginning of September.” Sally seemed thrilled by the challenge.
Violet was in a state of shock. How could she marry this man in a month and a half’s time and then be torn from the place she called home to an unfamiliar part of the country? It had been difficult enough to become used to the idea of marrying him in December. But September? She became short of breath and wondered whether she would remain conscious.
“Violet,” she heard her father say. “Violet, are you all right, child?” He sounded ever so concerned.
Pulling herself together, she sat up as straight as possible, not wanting to appear distraught. “I’m fine.” She stated it in such a manner that the frown on her father’s face disappeared. If there was one thing she learned well over the course of her life, it was how to lie well when necessary. “Just a little overwhelmed. There’s so much to do in such a short amount of time.” She looked around at everyone who occupied the room. Adorning her best smile, she stood. “If you will all excuse me. I need a bit of fresh air.”
She retreated through the doors at the other end of the room which lead to the verandah. Before she disappeared she heard Nigel speak. “Would you like some company, Miss Barnes?”
“Thank you, no.” The disappointment flashed across his face so she hurried on. “I appreciate the offer, but I would like to spend a few moments alone.”
Nigel gave a stiff nod and she turned but not before she heard her father say in a hushed voice, “Sometimes she needs her alone time, son. If she doesn’t get it…. Well you’d be better off to let her have it when she asks for it.”
As she meandered through the gardens, she tried to feel something other than surprise and denial. Oblivious to anything around her as she walked, she could almost see the thick fog of her misery. She neglected to think on the lush green foliage of the trees, the sweet perfumed fragrance of the flowers, and the soft songs of the birds. In fact, she was so deep in thought that she did not know anyone else was about until she felt a hand on her shoulder. She jumped and turned to see her brother looking like he had just fought death face to face and nearly lost the battle. They stood in silence, gazing at each other for a moment before a tear escaped Levi’s eye and spilled onto his cheek.
That seemed to be the grain of sand that tipped the scale. A wave of emotion rushed over Violet and she sobbed. The comforting arms of her brother gathered her into a warm embrace and he held her while she cried her tears of desperation. Occasionally she felt a tear on her head and knew Levi felt her pain and devastation. After marrying Nigel and moving to Washington City D.C. she would likely never see her brother or parents again.
“It’ll be all right somehow, little miss. It has to….” He whispered into her hair. “It just has to be.”
She pulled away to look at him. He looked as miserable as she felt and she tried to smile but it felt more like a grimace. “I’ll miss you so much, Levi.”
He wiped a tear from her face and smiled sadly down at her. “I’ll miss you too, Violet. Maybe you’ll have to convince little Jennie Christman to come visit me once in a while so I won’t miss you so much.”
At this, Violet did smile. For while she knew her brother made the comment to lighten to the mood, she had a slight suspicion that he had been patiently waiting for the girl to grow up. His eyes sparkled every time Jennie was around but because she was Violet’s best friend, the situation was complicated. “I might just do that, my handsome, devil of a brother. After all, I see the way you look at her.”
“I don’t look at her any differently than I do you.” He winked. Violet nodded, amused that he would try to deceive her. “Now I must be going. I have some things to attend to this night.” He placed a tender kiss to her cheek and whispered, “I love you, my pretty little miss.”
With that, he smiled and left her to her solace. She looked around and was not shocked to see where her feet had carried her in her state of oblivion. She often came here when sad or lonely and tonight, her heart must have sensed her need to return. A few more paces and she would be trespassing onto Blake Stanley’s property. But to her right a couple feet, stood a marble headstone which read:
Layton Martin Barnes
January 16, 1852 to March 4, 1862
A Beloved Son, A Cherished Brother,
A True Friend
As with every time Violet visited her brother’s grave, tears welled in her eyes again and her heart began to throb with pain. She didn’t remember him well, but she always experienced an overwhelming sense of loss when she visited this hallowed piece of earth. She did remember the havoc he and his best friend would cause, however. More than once, she remembered trailing after them in their adventures which usually landed them all in trouble.
She glanced around through blurry eyes to reassure herself that she was indeed alone before she dropped to her knees and, burying her face in her hands, wept bitterly. Her heart broke as she cried out her anguish. Life had dealt her such an unforgiving hand. In choosing to honor her parents’ desire for her to marry Nigel, she had lost all her freedom and dreams. The fact tore her heart in two. Everything she had ever wished for had been ripped from her. There remained nothing left for her to do but accept her future.
“It isn’t fair, Layton. I’ll be so far away from everyone I hold dear. Especially Levi.” She gasped as she tried to regulate her breathing, but as she thought of Levi, her heart constricted with a piercing pain. When she could speak again, her voice was that of a whisper. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t love Nigel, but I gave my word. Should I break my word and disappoint my parents? Everyone knows that a woman who does not keep her word cannot be trusted. Is this to be my fate? Leave everyone I love to save my honor or ruin my honor to be with the ones I love?” She gazed across the clearing that stretched out in front of her, but saw nothing. Not the grasses blowing in the breeze, nor the bees buzzing near the flowers. The tears continued to stream down her face and she felt numb to all feeling except the throbbing in her head and heart.
“I’m too young to be faced with a decision of this magnitude,” she said softly. “Of course, I’m a coward and will most likely take the easy road. Marry Nigel, move across the country, and be miserable for the remainder of my days.” She looked down at her hands which now were clasped tightly together in her lap. Upon her left wrist she wore a plane gold band given to her from Levi. He wore one that matched and had told her they were reminders of their love and friendship for each other. Tears welled in her eyes again and she continued to look at the bracelet and moved it round and round with her right hand. “Please, Layton. Please let Levi find happiness. Perhaps he and Jennie could find happiness in each other.” She stifled a sob. “Please keep them safe and help them to remember me.”
The sun was beginning to set when she rose from the ground and brushed off her skirts. She wiped the remaining moisture from her swollen eyes, and felt the beginnings of an inner sense of peace as she stared at the retreating sun; the pinks and purples painted across the sky. Perhaps this was Layton’s way of telling her that her words had not gone unheard and that everything would work out somehow. She smiled, brushed a final tear from her cheek and began to turn. Stopping abruptly, a gasp caught in her throat as she spotted the form of a man standing ten feet in front of her. She recognized him at once as Blake Stanley. The light was fading, but his expressionless, handsome face was still visible. Once again dressed in black, his loose fitting shirt, which was unbuttoned part way down, clung to his body as it rippled in the breeze revealing his well defined torso. His piercing, steel eyes were the only portion of his face that seemed to give way to any emotion. She gazed hypnotically into them. So alluring yet daunting.
His presence was dominating and she briefly wondered why he was there.
As she began to open her mouth to express her thought, her words were halted by his casual yet steady approach. His eyes never left hers and she found her feet rooted in placed as he stopped only a couple feet in front of her. His gaze held hers captive and then drifted to the marble stone behind her.
Violet shook her head as she glanced behind her, wiped a stray tear from her face and then turned back to Blake Stanley again. “No, he was my brother.”
“Your brother?” His eyes narrowed slightly. “How did he die?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Just making conversation,” he mumbled in a low, sultry tone.
Noting that his voice was lower than she remembered, she debated whether or not to answer him with full honesty or only in part. “He was shot in the heart.”
Blake quirked one eyebrow. “He seems pretty young to have been involved in a duel. Was it a hunting accident or was he into something illegal?”
“Oh no,” Violet exclaimed. “Nothing like that.” She looked toward the stone again as she spoke. “He and his best friend were riding horses through the clearing over there.” She pointed toward the clearing. “They must have had a disagreement because his friend pulled out a pistol and shot him. By the time anyone got there, Layton was dead and his friend was in hysterics.”
“I’m sorry for your loss. It must have been very hard on you.”
“Yes. I was only four at the time, but I remember feeling devastated for many years.”
He nodded and changed the subject. “I’m sorry I interrupted your private time. I was out for a walk when I came upon you.”
She smiled at him. “I was just leaving. It is getting very late. I should get back. My mother will send someone to fetch me if I don’t return soon.”
“Please, allow me to escort you.”
“Oh, that’s not necessary.”
“Yes, it is.” He held out his arm to her. “How would I ever face your father or your brother if something happened to you because I did not escort you home? It is, after all, getting very dark.”
Her eyes traveled the length of him and took in every inch of his magnificent, muscular body. She sighed with resignation as her eyes landed on his face again. Her mouth watered excessively as her gaze fell to his lips which were turned up in a smile. As her eyes finally locked with his again, she saw an amused and knowing light in them and felt him take her small hand and put it on his arm. He then turned her and, more slowly than the hour demanded, started for her father’s house.
What a strange man he seemed to be. With polished manners and the charm of the most distinguished of gentlemen, the mystery about him heightened in Violet’s mind. Why would such a gentleman hide from society, which he obviously seemed to do? And what was his interest in Violet? She admitted she craved to know his secrets, and not for gossiping purposes. Something inside her longed for such a man to fulfill all her dreams, but such was not her fate. If things were different, would a man like Blake Stanley take an interest in her and fill the emptiness in her heart?
“Can I ask you something?”
He looked at her with expressionless eyes and she went on before he could answer.
“Why do you always wear such dark colored clothing?”
He seemed to weigh the question before answering. “What makes you think I always wear dark colors?”
“Every time I see you, you look more like a shadow than a man.”
There was silence before he answered again. “Kind of a personal question to ask someone you know so little about.”
“Perhaps, but wasn’t our conversation only moments ago personal?”
He nodded. “I don’t take to being noticed.”
She stopped, and he turned to face her. Somewhere in the back of her mind a small voice screamed how inappropriate it was to stop and converse with a stranger in the dark, especially unchaperoned. Yet for some reason, she felt safe. “Don’t you think you would blend in more if you wore something less conspicuous, such as a white shirt?”
“Do you suggest I wear all the frills that your fiancé does?” His voice was hard.
“No.” She wondered how he knew of her engagement but remembered it was common knowledge even though the engagement had not yet been formally announced. “I only meant….”
“Why does it matter to you what I wear,” he growled. “You hardly know me from your deceased brother.”
His words cut like a knife and she raised a hand and slapped his face. “How dare you speak to me so, you…you brute!”
“Yes.” His growl was fierce and he did not make the slightest acknowledgement that she had just struck him. He stood there glaring at her. “I am a brute and don’t forget it. However, I am not far from the truth, nor did you take my meaning the way it was intended.” With that, he took her hand and placed it on his arm once more.
They walked the remainder of the way in silence. Violet could feel him brooding in his thoughts beside her and tried to decide how else she was supposed to have interpreted his rude remarks. Reaching the stairs to the back verandah, he turned to her. His eyes had softened and his face no longer appeared as though it were carved out of granite.
“I apologize for my rudeness earlier, Miss Barnes.” He placed a light kiss the back of her gloved hand. “I do hope you will permit me to call upon you again sometime.”
“Oh.” She was astonished and put her free hand to her bosom in an effort to still her pounding heart. “But sir, I…I’m….”
He chuckled as she stammered. “As a friend, Miss Barnes. Not a lover.” His eyes twinkled, transforming his usually handsome face into a face that rivaled the Greek Gods in good looks. She was so astonished by this change that she neglected to act appalled at his inappropriate words, as propriety demanded, and stood gawking at him.
“I’ll take that as a yes.” He grinned. “Good night then, darlin’.”
She stared after him as he turned and sauntered away with a casual swagger until he was swallowed up in the darkness moments later.