“So, where exactly are you from, Mr. Stanley.” Martin Barnes sat across from his guest, regarding him with narrowed eyes. Violet’s ears were alert but she did her best to look indifferent.
“Most recently, I’m from an area just east of Los Angeles where I worked for a man named Stewart Pace.”
“I’ve heard mention of him a time or two. Did you find him to be a good man to work for?” Martin gave a casual wave of his hand to the maid who brought in a plate of refreshments.
Violet found it difficult to concentrate on her sewing, but failed. Her eyes often caught his and lingered on him. Not for so long that her parents noticed or became suspicious, but she noticed. His dark eyes set her heart racing wildly in her chest. It was a strange sensation to feel so anxious in the company of a man. An exhilarating, intoxicating, and down right fascinating man. A strange feeling indeed. When he looked at her, for the first time in her life, she felt positively radiant.
“How long have you been in town?” Sally asked.
“Three weeks.” Her fascination grew as she realized that he gave no more information about himself than what was specifically asked. Even then, he gave only the most general of answers.
“What do you think of our little town, sir?” Violet had yet to speak and her voice quivered.
Before he answered, his gaze seemed to explore every contour of her face. The smallest hint of a smile manifest itself in his steel eyes before he answered. “It’s quaint. There are certain aspects that are truly…” his lips curved upward slightly as his eyes did a quick appraisal of her, “breathtaking.”
Her face flushed with color as he continued to stare at her with a trace of intense enthusiasm. Fortunately, neither one of her parents seemed to be aware of the way Blake Stanley’s eyes now literally seemed to be devouring Violet’s appearance. Yet she could not pull her gaze from his either. Something in his eyes spoke to her soul. They made her yearn to know him.
“What brings you to our town, Mr. Stanley? Do you have any family in these parts?” Sally asked.
“No.” The harsh, immediate answer hissed through the room as he ripped his eyes away from Violet’s. She felt shaken by his venomous reply.
“Where is your family from?” Sally asked.
“I don’t have any family.” He spoke with a little more of his collected charm.
“That’s one of the saddest things I’ve heard. Martin, did you hear that? He has no family.” Sally’s dramatic voice clearly let everyone in the room know that she pitied the man.
“Yes, dear. I heard him. I’m only sitting a few feet away.” Martin shook his head dispassionately, making it clear he was annoyed by his wife’s antics. “Do you participate in government policy at all?”
“No, sir. With all due respect, I try to stay as far away from that sort of thing as possible.”
“What do you do in your spare time, sir?” Martin asked, obviously disgruntled that he did not enjoy political conversation.
“My favorite past-time is riding my horse through the back country. I’ll often be gone for days at a time, simply riding.”
“Where do you ride?” Sally sat forward, intrigued by the new subject at hand. If there was one thing that Martin and Sally enjoyed it was horses, and more especially horse races. Though they knew very little about the animals, they enjoyed the sport with a passion.
“Here and there and nowhere really. Sometimes I go east or up north. Sometimes I attend various derbies but mostly I stay to myself.”
“Did you go to the derby near Los Angeles last month?” Martin asked.
“Yes, and it was sight to behold. There wasn’t a single breeder within one hundred miles that wasn’t at that derby.”
Martin grunted, slapped his leg with his hand, and winced at the momentary pain it caused him. “Fantastic! I wish we could have attended. I would give just about anything to have seen that derby.” He shook his head. “Blast! How I wish I could have gotten out of that meeting.”
“I’ve heard rumors circulating that there is to be a derby held here in several weeks time. Is that accurate?” Violet could see in Mr. Stanley’s eyes that he was playing to her father’s enthusiasm of the sport. Her brow furrowed, wondering at his motives.
Martin’s face brightened again. “Yes, my good man, it is. We are excitedly looking forward to it. You wouldn’t believe the revenue it generates for our town.”
“I can only imagine.”
“Of course, the final derby of the year will be only a month after that in the San Fernando Valley. We hate to miss that! Haven’t missed so many derbies in our entire married life, have we, dear?”
Sally shook her head and looked somewhat disgusted. She sighed heavily.
“What event will cause you to miss the final one?”
“Our daughter is getting married,” Sally said. “Originally the wedding was scheduled for December. But recent events have moved the date to the beginning of September.”
“It must be something pretty serious to move up such an important date.” Mr. Stanley’s tone was even and he glanced briefly to Violet.
“Oh, it is,” Martin piped up. “Her fiancé has been offered and accepted a position in Washington City D.C. starting in October. An opportunity like that doesn’t come easily or more than once in a lifetime. And when it does, you take it and ride it while the horse is charging.”
Blake Stanley’s gaze drifted back to Violet as he nodded his head. She tried to read his eyes, but they were blank. Emotionless. Void of any thought. How could someone like him feel so little? At times she was sure he was hiding emotions and feelings behind those steely eyes while at other times, such as now, it seemed he was completely unconcerned with the events around him. How could he look at her with such intensity one moment and the next not give a hoot about the fact that she would be a married woman in less than a month and a half? The two did not seem to add up and it made her very wary of him.
Of course, Jennie had told her that men like Blake Stanley were dangerous. Violet was beginning to agree with her. He was dangerous. Dangerous to her way of thinking. Ever since she had first seen him, she had done nothing but think of him and wonder what it was about him that intrigued her. Perhaps now, after witnessing this disturbing behavior, she would be more prone to listen to Jennie. However, was it truly his concern if she married and moved away or not? He barely knew her. What did he care if she married a man she did not love? A man like him could court any woman he wished.
Her heart sank as she thought of how she would never know what it was like to be courted by a spontaneous man such as Blake Stanley. She had barely been courted by Nigel. Their courting days consisted of two occasions when he had called on her at Barnes Hill for a few moments after meeting with her father. Then he and her father had discussed the arrangement of marriage and the benefits associated with it. Her father then told her he agreed to the marriage and asked her to honorably accept her duty and marry Nigel. What else was she to do?
This engagement had been arranged since her birth. Martin and Charles Webb were excellent childhood friends and wanted their children to marry. However, originally she was betrothed to the oldest son, Charlie. But after Layton died, the betrothal had been bequeathed to Nigel. Her father would not have approved of any other marriage and there would be severe consequences for not only disobeying her father but also causing him to go back on his word. So she had accepted. Now, looking at this fabulous man, she deeply regretted the opportunities she would miss out on in life.
“I hope you’ll excuse me, Mayor, Mrs. Barnes, Miss Barnes. I need to be leaving,” Blake said as he stood.
“So soon? But you’re such a delight to have.” Sally cooed as she stood also. Violet knew his interest in derbies had captured her mother’s heart and he would forever be a favorite in her book. “You will call on us again won’t you, Mr. Stanley?”
He looked first to Violet then back to Sally. “I would be delighted to.”
“Oh, good!” Sally clasped her hands together. “You simply must come to the engagement ball Saturday evening, next.”
“Send me the particulars and I’ll be there.” He took her hand and kissed her fingers lightly. She giggled and put her hand to her bosom, smiling like a silly school girl. “Good day then, Mrs. Barnes, Mayor.” His eyes looked over to Violet with something akin to desire in them. “Miss Barnes,” he mumbled, and with a slight bored bow, exited the room.
After he had left the room Martin said, “Good stock, that one.”
“Oh, he’s simply divine!” Sally cried. “Violet, we need to send him the details for the ball immediately.”
“I think I have an extra invitation in the drawer.” Violet walked over to the desk, opened the top drawer, and pulled out a piece of folded parchment. “I remember making a couple extra in case we left someone out by mistake.”
“Quickly, daughter,” Sally exclaimed. “See if you can still catch him.”
Violet left the room in a flurry of skirts and flew down the corridor to the entrance hall and out the double wide front doors. She ran down the front steps and saw him just as he was mounting his horse. “Mr. Stanley,” she called and hurried over to him. “Mr. Stanley,” she repeated and held out the invitation to him. “Here are the particulars of the ball my mother wished for me to give you.”
He looked at her with curiosity. “Do you mean to say that it is only your mother who wishes for me to attend this blessed affair? Or would you like me to attend as well?” She was uncertain if he was in earnest or not, but a blush burned upon her cheeks.
“Well, sir.” She swallowed. “My mother is the one who invited you, but I wouldn’t mind…. What I mean to say is…I would enjoy….” She took a deep breath and tried again. “It would be a pleasure to see you there.”
At this, he allowed an amused smile to grace his face. “Why don’t you call on me tomorrow around eleven and drop that by then.”
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like it now?” Her brow furrowed in confusion as she stood holding the invitation. “I would hate to inconvenience you by disrupting your day.”
“It won’t be an inconvenience, darlin’. Tell your sweet mother that you were unable to catch me and stop by in the morning.” With that, he spurred his horse and took off up the drive.
* * * * *
The following morning, Violet awoke to discover that both her parents had left just after sunup for a convention and would not return for several days. This horrifying news meant that she would be required to deliver the invitation for the ball to Mr. Stanley alone. While the thought thrilled her, it also made her nervous. She was not accustomed to meeting with a man unchaperoned. While she was sure he would not try to abuse the situation in any form, it still made her uneasy. Before she descended upon Mr. Stanley, therefore, she dropped by her brother’s home, even though it was in the opposite direction, to see if he would be available to accompany her. As luck would have it, he was too immersed in his work to get away for even the shortest amount of time. And Jennie was visiting neighbors with her mother. So, apprehensively, she made her way to her handsome neighbor’s home to drop off the invitation.
“Ah, Miss Barnes. The master is expecting you,” the butler said with a smile. His manners surprised her for she had imagined that the employees of the mysteriously, dark man would be expressionless and unfriendly. However, that was not the case. They treated her as though she were the lady of the house and all she had to do was ask and it would be seen to promptly.
The large entrance hall bore many crystal wall sconces, a large crystal chandelier, and beautiful wood floors. A few pieces of furniture lined the room but it was tastefully decorated and she noticed a large landscape painting on the wall below the curving staircase. The butler, an elderly man, led her down a corridor lined with elaborate carved moldings and several more beautiful landscape paintings. Obviously the owner of this house was a collector of art.
She entered the drawing room where Mr. Stanley awaited her. A brief look around the room told her the room was empty. Upon closer evaluation, however, she saw a dark shadow move away from the wall and, merging together with the light, become the man she was seeking. The butler nodded with a smile and left the room. Realizing that she now stood alone, with Blake Stanley, she became nervous.
“Come in, darlin’. I don’t bite.”
Seeing his knowing smile, she wasn’t sure about that. Still she approached him and proceeded to hand him the invitation. Taking the paper, he motioned for her to sit on the sofa and surprised her by sitting next to her as he read.
“Next Saturday?” He looked at her closely before he continued. “Will your mother have the necessary time to make the last minute arrangements upon her return?”
“All the arrangements have been seen to, sir. If you will look again, you will find that the ball will be held at Webb Manor not Barnes Hill.” She leaned over and indicated the spot on the invitation where it the location was written. “How did you know my parents were away?” She inquired with curiosity, still holding an edge of the invitation.
“Your father mentioned it briefly in passing yesterday,” he mumbled, his eyes focused intently upon her.
He sat no more than a foot away from her and she was still leaning into him. The heat from his body radiated off him and warmed her. She breathed deeply and couldn’t help but sigh at smell of grapes and shaving soap that clung to him. Her heart fluttered and her breath quickened. Her head became fuzzy and all she could see was him. His arm brushed her and sent a chill coursing over her arm. She glanced up to see him smile and she quickly looked away, feeling embarrassed and confused. Her pulse raced with her unregulated breath. Pulling her hand away, she leaned back against the sofa and away from him, however, not far enough away. She could still feel his dominating presence consuming her.
The silence unnerved her, though it only lasted mere seconds. When he did speak, it was as though nothing significant had happened. And in all honesty nothing had. Just her fantasies running wild in her tired mind. “Lady Webb will be hosting the event and will be making any final arrangements?” She nodded in agreement. “Of course she will,” he muttered under his breath. Had he been any farther away from her, she would not have heard this remark. His face turned to stone again and Violet found it impossible to decipher what he was thinking. Suddenly, his face broke into a smile once more as he turned and gazed at her. “Would you mind walking with me through the orchards? I have a few things I need to check on and would enjoy the company.” Standing, he offered her his hand.
“But, sir, I really should be….” She stood, but did not take his hand.
“Your parents are out of town, your brother is nose deep in work, and clearly you have nothing better to attend to, otherwise you would have been more insistent that I take the invitation yesterday.” His face was smug as he offered her his arm.
“I was planning to meet my friend, Jennie Christman, this afternoon.”
“This won’t take all day, darlin’. I was hoping to get to know you a little better, not kidnap you.”
The offer was intriguing so she linked her arm in his. If truth be told, she longed to know him a little better as well. And what better opportunity than now? Her parents were away, so no one would worry about her slightly delayed return.
As they exited the room by way of a door leading into another room, she tripped on the rug and nearly fell. Blake caught her around the waist with his free arm. Letting his hand linger on her waist, they stood there looking at each other. For some reason, when she found herself fall victim to his magnetic eyes, which seemed to be quite frequently, she lost all sense of reality. Nothing else existed except her and this mysterious man. His eyes were a little less dark today than they had been before and she wondered what had transpired to make them appear less brooding.
Blake came to his senses first, pulled his arm away from her waist and continued leading her through the next room and onto the verandah. “What a beautiful morning, don’t you think?” He inhaled deeply. She smiled up at him, thrilled that he found pleasure in Mother Nature. “Let’s start this way.” He gestured to his right. Silent, she followed his lead and took in the view. Though merely the side of the house, the scene was as beautiful as everything else she had witnessed thus far. Immediately upon leaving the house, Violet noted that there were only about ten feet of grass between the house and hundreds of rows of grapevines grew. The vines grew on a system of stakes and wires to give the fruit the best amount of sunlight allowing the grapes to ripen evenly. She knew that the produce harvested from this vineyard was immense, for old man Ross had been no pauper.
“I was out earlier this morning picking. I am pleased with my investment here,” Blake said as they approached the grapevines. Violet could see that, indeed, the vines were heavily laden with beautiful deep purple grapes.
“Levi will be excited to have these. He was pleased to have entered into a contract with you. My grandpappy tried for years to get a hold of these grapes.”
Blake smiled and led her along the rows some distance from the house. He finally turned down a row and approached a man, with a basketful of grapes.
The man harvesting the fruit looked up and smiled. Blake and Violet were about ten feet away before Blake spoke again.
“How are things coming along?”
“Fine, sir. With those new workers you’ve hired, we should be able to have a load ready for sale by the end of the weekend.” Willis beamed.
“Good, good, good. Glad to hear it. Did you check to see how the vines are doing that we grafted earlier in the spring?”
“Yes, sir, I did. Most of them seem to be taking, which is good. I think we’ve only counted a dozen or so that didn’t make it.”
Blake looked around at his vast property and nodded. This was a part of this man Violet had not witnessed before. In the past, he was always carefully guarded, hiding behind his mask of stone. But out here, he seemed to be the pleasant man he should have always been. A man who worked and tilled the land for the joy of hard labor. What had happened in his life that prevented him from being this man always? What ghosts did he hide in his closet? This was the reason she found him so fascinating. So many unanswered questions. So many complex emotions.
“Do you think you and yours can cover it today? As you see I have a very lovely guest in my company and do not wish for her to be tainted by the tediousness of the working man.” Violet blushed as Blake smiled down at her.
“We’ve got it made, sir. You attend to what you will.” Willis smiled at Violet with a nod.
“Let me know if you run into problems.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Who was that?” Violet couldn’t help asking once they were out of earshot from the other man.
“Tanner Willis. Good man. He helps me oversee much of the work around here.”
“Where ever did you find him? He seems very loyal.”
“He worked with Ross for nearly twenty years and I decided to keep him on. After all, he knows this place better than I.”
They walked in silence, seeing workers from time to time, all of whom were picking ripe grapes, much the same way Willis had done. Blake sometimes stopped to examine a plant or taste a grape. Violet took the time to drink in her surroundings as they walked. The vineyard extended south of the house. Behind the house was a vast yard with large gardens, lined with hedges, a generous patio, and a whitewashed gazebo. The yard gradually merged into the meadow which extended farther than she could see and she knew it eventually opened up to the north. This was the same meadow that bordered her father’s property.
“Would you like something to eat?” Blake asked. “I had an early breakfast and am starving.”
Violet smiled and allowed him to lead her back to the house. “Sir, I’m curious.” She sat on the patio chair and waited for the maid to bring them something to eat. “You talked with Mr. Willis about grafting some plants earlier in the year.”
“What made you decide to do that? Are you trying to breed a new kind of grape?”
“Nothing so complex.” He smiled. “Some of the plants seem to be attracted to a devilish insect. We hope that by grafting two different species of grapes, we will have a more successful product, less susceptible to disease and pestilence.”
“I see.” She leaned forward across the table. “But you told my father, you had only been in town for three weeks. How is it possible to have grafted those plants if you only recently acquired the land?”
“You’re more clever than you appear, darlin’.” A twinkle flashed in Blake’s eyes. “Your father needs to learn to ask the right questions to receive the answers he is looking for.” He looked pleasantly amused for a moment.
Violet wasn’t amused. She began to concoct different scenarios for his deceit. Was Mr. Stanley a perpetual liar? He was obviously a crafty man, yet how could he lie to authorities and get away with it. Then again, could he be lying to her now? Perhaps he and Willis had only been putting on a production for her benefit. After all, Blake knew she was coming and said he had been out working earlier that morning. Perhaps….
She saw him look at her and his smile vanished. “I know what you’re thinking and it’s the devil that has put it into your mind so get rid of those thoughts immediately,” he growled.
“How can you be so….”
“I’m not a liar. I have never told a single lie in my life and anyone who has ever accused me of such won’t be around long enough to do so again.” His eyes flashed with fire. She was shocked that his mood had changed so quickly. Almost like a dual personality.
“My thinking is only logical, sir. If you do not wish to be accused of something that is false, then perhaps you should expound on things so you don’t leave room for the imagination to wander.”
He closed his eyes and shook his head. Pushing a hand through his hair and rumpling his already unruly locks of black satin curls, he sighed, opened his eyes and spoke again. “Perhaps you’re right, although I believe I’ve told you before that I don’t take to being noticed. Well, I don’t take to being well known among people either.”
Nodding, she accepted his answer, no matter how insincere it sounded. She did not wish to spend time so much on this subject as many others. Yet, she knew that every detail she gleaned from him about his life would weave a fabulous web of who he was, and eventually everything about him, from his appearance to his manner, would somehow link together in the end. “Well, I am a girl who doesn’t take to telling strangers every secret I possess, so if you are hoping to get to know me better, for whatever intentions you may have, you’d better let me in on some of your life as well. I’m guessing this would be easier to share than many of the other secrets you hold.”
He remained silent. She watched him as his eyes scanned the meadow for some unknown source, as though it could help him decide what to tell her. Just before she gave up on him, his gaze fell on her and he leaned forward across the table. She once again became lost in the depths of the storms in his eyes. The dark orbs seemed to be brooding, stirring in an unfamiliar manner. His jaw clenched together and the muscles in his chest and shoulders twitched. The battle that obviously raged within him was one she could not begin to fathom.
After several minutes, he violently pushed a hand through his hair and leaned back in his chair. “Just because I have only resided here for three weeks does not mean I have owned this property for that long.”
“When did you purchase the land?”
“The end of January.” Short, sweet and simple. She decided she must ask questions that he had to answer in more detail.
“Why is it that old man Ross lived here until only a month ago?”
Blake Stanley smiled weakly. “It’s a long story.”
“I’ve got time.”
“I thought you were supposed to meet your friend.”
“I am, but not until nearly four.”
His smile broadened. “So you have time to listen to my personal story in a private setting yet you have to leave earlier when I wanted you to join me on a relatively public walk.”
“It was far from public, sir.”
“I see what you mean. Walking about where we were prone to run into any number of workers. Here it is just you, me, and the maid, whenever she decides to make her presence known.” He smiled triumphantly and she tried to hide the blush that crept over her face.
“You win.” She threw her hands up. “I am very curious. Now will you tell me?”
“Do you promise to call on me tomorrow after you attend church?” He eyed with a daring grin.
“I’m sure I will be preoccupied with my fiancé and his family, or my brother, sir.”
“Ah. But you do not love your fiancé, correct? If I’m not mistaken, it is somewhat of an arranged marriage.”
“That’s not the point.” She shook her head. “I will nevertheless be spending the remainder of my life with him and my brother is the most important man on earth to me.”
Blake nodded his head. “Yes, and I am just the man next door.” Then a mischievous smile found its way to his handsome face, enhancing his magnificent features. “But I am the one with the story you wish to hear.”
They sat for a few minutes, staring each other down; Blake with an amused glint in his eyes and Violet trying to look as defiant as possible. All of a sudden she snapped. “Fine!” she shrieked. “You win!” A triumphant smile appeared on his face then. “I’ll…I’ll call on you tomorrow after church.”
When he didn’t say anything after that, she glared. “Don’t you have something to tell me now?”
Just then the maid exited the house carrying a tray full of delicious foods, but Violet hardly noticed what it contained. She watched as Blake seemed to disregard their entire conversation and fix himself a plate. When she could stand it no longer she cried, “Well…?”
“After we eat, darlin’. Patience is a virtue rarely found these days.” He then turned his attention to his food as though it were his salvation.