The attractive blond sitting across the table from Violet was no longer a child. Youthful to be sure, but the person chattering at her appeared more woman than girl.
How did this happen? When did my baby grow up? Violet sighed, resenting her ex-husband for the umpteenth time for insisting Margaret attend boarding school. Her daughter had done much of her growing up without Violet around to see it. Why hadn’t she divorced him earlier and raised her daughter at home? Violet tapped her fingers on the white tablecloth.
“Mom. Hello? Mother.”
“Yes, I’m sorry darling.” Violet smiled at her only child. “What were you saying?”
“My friends and I want to go to Europe this summer. Paris, Milan, Rome, London, you know—backpack through Europe.” Margaret bobbed her head expectantly.
“Backpacking? Really?” Violet narrowed her eyes. “You haven’t carried a backpack since you were seven.” She eyed Margaret’s Louis Vuitton satchel in the chair next to her.
“Figure of speech, Mom.” Margaret shrugged.
“That’s something I’ll have to think about. Your father will want to have a say. Where will you stay, for heaven’s sake?” Violet took a bite of her Caesar salad.
She’d brought Margaret to the country club for lunch to celebrate her upcoming graduation. It was difficult to believe she had a daughter who was old enough to be graduating from high school. Each time she remembered how old Margaret was, Violet forced herself to breathe in deeply. It helped calm her, or at least that’s what all those New Age gurus on television said.
“I don’t know. Maybe a hostel, maybe a hotel—I’ll be with friends.” Margaret’s nonchalance was typical of the teenage species, but it irked Violet all the same.
“A hostel? Good Lord, isn’t that the title of a horror film? Darling, surely your father can pay for you to stay in a hotel at least.” Violet’s heart raced, picturing her baby alone, in Europe, with no one to call for help, thousands of miles away from her family. The breathing technique was not helping at this point.
“What about Sophie? Did she ever hear from Vassar?” Violet asked, changing the subject to Margaret’s roommate. The topic of the poor girl’s quest to get into the college her family had attended for several generations eased Violet’s nerves.
“Not yet. Being wait-listed sucks,” Margaret said, picking up her phone to answer a text.
Wait-listed. That sounded like Violet’s love life. After years of languishing in a loveless marriage, Violet was ready to find the right guy. But waiting, as Margaret would say, sucked. Violet gazed out the wall of windows that made up most of the casual dining room, referred to as “The Clubhouse.” The vast emerald expanse was the brightest jewel in the crown of the Sugar Oaks Country Club. The immaculately groomed greens brought in golfers at the pinnacle of the sport from all over the world.
For those who didn’t give a fig about golfing, the view made a luscious backdrop for luncheons, debutante parties, and weddings. Violet peered out over the lush green landscape nestled under a canopy of ancient oaks when something caught her eye.
Or rather someone.
A man she couldn’t help but notice strolled towards the building accompanied by his golfing partner. He drew attention to himself with a magnetic force as he sauntered by, his easy manner reflecting an air of supreme confidence, though he couldn’t be more than thirty years old.
A turquoise polo shirt hung majestically from his broad shoulders, and he wore khaki shorts that showed off impressive calf muscles. His blond hair was wild, damp with sweat. When he took off his visor and wiped his brow just outside the door, the muscles in Violet’s abdomen tightened.
Unable to drag her eyes away from the Adonis about to enter the dining room, Violet couldn’t resist asking her daughter, “Who is that man in the blue shirt? He looks familiar.” She’d seen him somewhere before, but couldn’t place him.
It was absurd for her to forget a man who looked like that, but her life had been so upside down during the past few years dealing with her divorce that there were days Violet believed it was an achievement to remember her own name.
“Mom, you’re kidding. That’s Stuart Swearingen.” Margaret shook her head, a silent indictment of Violet’s recently flighty behavior.
“It is? Oh my goodness. I guess I haven’t seen him in a long time. He looks… older, I guess.”
“Well, duh. That’s what happens. People get older.” Margaret rolled her eyes and went back to texting.
The texting annoyed Violet, but if it gave her a few moments to study Stuart Swearingen undetected, she’d let it slide. She looked at her daughter’s plate and saw she’d already finished her meal. Besides, starting in on her now would only ruin their lunch. Margaret had gone the whole meal before gluing herself to her phone again. As a parent, you had to pick your battles.
Violet turned her attention back to the delicious hunk of man who now sat a few tables away. He was facing her direction so she took care not to gawk at him. Clearly she had not seen a photograph of Stuart Swearingen recently, or she would have immediately recognized him. Stuart was one of the wealthiest men in Texas.
Stuart’s father, Rex Swearingen, had been a friend of Violet’s older brother. Rex had been a legend when it came to wildcatting. He was known across the state for having a nose for finding oil. Just about every time he drilled, he struck black gold. Violet’s brothers and all his cronies swore he could literally smell it trickling beneath the ground.
To her recollection, Rex died when his son was a toddler—kicked in the head by a polo pony during a match. A tragic end for the larger-than-life oilman who’d become a well-respected business mogul. Violet wasn’t sure what happened to the child’s mother, for after her husband’s death the woman became quite a recluse. Over the years Violet had seen photographs of Stuart occasionally in magazines or newspaper articles. As the face of the family’s colossal business empire, he was frequently featured.
Violet remembered Stuart as a teen, had seen him at various occasion at the club over the years. Their families were acquainted, but he was so much younger than she was that she hadn’t taken much notice, and she hadn’t realized he’d grown into a man. Her memory of him was that of a fresh-faced adolescent zipping around in a golf cart.
The young tycoon was better looking than ever, but it was more than his looks that captured her attention. He moved with the grace of an athlete and the self-assurance of a man who had been born to great privilege. She didn’t realize she was staring until his eyes met hers. Deep aquamarine pools mesmerized her from across the room. Mortified at being caught gaping at him, she wanted to pull her eyes away, yet something stopped her.
Stuart made direct eye contact with her, stopped speaking to his companion, and took stock of her. His gaze raked over her like the relenting rays of sunshine in August, then his eyes sparkled, and his lip curled in amusement.
Violet shifted her eyes to the opposite wall, pretending to observe something of great interest. Her cheeks burned, and her heart beat erratically. What must he think? The old bag over there’s checking me out. Oh dear Lord, what if he tells his friend and they start laughing at me?
Trying not to panic, Violet took a sip of water and asked brightly, “Margaret, honey, are you about ready to go?”
“Sure.” And to Violet’s dismay, Margaret turned around and looked straight at Stuart.
He smiled politely, tilting his head in acknowledgement. Margaret gave him a small wave and turned back towards the table. “What’s up with you, Mom? Stuart’s probably a little young for you.” She made a face.
“Margaret Jane Weeks,” Violet’s eyelashes flashed fiercely. “I have no idea why you would say such a thing. Of course he is too young for me. I just wondered who he was, that’s all.”
“Gosh mom, I was just kidding. Don’t be so defensive.”
Violet straightened her jacket around her, feeling the heat creep up her neck and into her cheeks. “Well, I do not think that is funny.” She sniffed and turned her nose up.
“Okay, jeez. Sorry.”
Violet signed her ticket quickly and rushed out of the dining room as rapidly as possible without attracting undue attention to herself.
“Mom, slow down.” Margaret whined, trying to keep up.
Violet slowed and hoped Stuart didn’t see straight through her inconspicuous attempt to flee the scene. How embarrassing, but he was probably used to women ogling him wherever he went.
As hard as she tried to avoid it, she couldn’t help sneaking one last peek at him upon exiting the room. This time her glance went undetected, as he appeared lost in conversation with his golf partner. This gave her enough time to capture his image—chiseled chin, sexy blond hair, piercing blue eyes—and paste it in her head.
“So you’re saying we have no sponsors for the strings?” Violet asked.
“Yep. That’s what I’m saying. Now that Felix’s supermarkets have cancelled their pledge. Sounds like they’re in financial trouble, planning to close some of their stores so they’re pulling the plug on all donations to stop the bleeding.”
Violet was speaking, hands-free, in her car, to Holly Lewis, co-founder of Musical Mentors. Violet and Holly had been friends for years, dating back to the days when they both played for the symphony orchestra. Holly had been a flautist, while Violet had been the second chair violinist.
When Violet settled down and started a family she’d left the music world behind. However, Holly remained single and taught music lessons. Four years ago, Holly approached Violet about helping her start a charity. With Margaret away at school, and unfulfilled in her marriage, Violet had been grateful for a constructive venture to occupy her time.
Musical Mentors raised funds and provided instruments and musical instruction to schools and after-care programs in underprivileged neighborhoods. So far they’d donated over seven hundred instruments and taught over one thousand five hundred students how to play them. Twelve of those recipients had earned music scholarships to attend college.
Violet cherished how the children’s faces lit up when they heard the melodic sounds they created all by themselves. Each time she witnessed the magic of a child finding his hidden talent, or merely experiencing the joy of music, it filled her with hope for the future.
Her job was all about simple joys, but it brought Violet a sense of purpose she’d long since abandoned, and it kept her busy. She prided herself on the difference their organization had made in the lives of the children in the community.
On her way to the hairdresser’s, she’d gotten the call from Holly telling her they’d lost a key sponsor, only weeks before new instruments were to be delivered for the start of the upcoming school year. Now Violet would be searching for another way to purchase the instruments. Either that or disappoint dozens of children.
Ugh! Not the way she wanted to start her day. “Thanks for the heads up, Holly. I’ll see what I can do. Gotta run now. I’m late for an appointment. Ciao!”
Violet turned into the strip mall where the beauty shop was located. A gaudy pink and orange sign outside read Hair Affair. The place had more than a touch of kitsch to it, but everyone knew once you found a good hairdresser you followed her (or him) anywhere and this was the seventh shop where Minnie had worked since Violet discovered her.
Once inside, Minnie poked her head out from the back and told Violet she’d be with her in a jiffy. Violet chose a magazine, more tabloid than literary, and found a seat in the waiting area.
While she waited, she tried to brainstorm who she could contact for donations. Well there’s… hmm… and um… Her mind kept coming up blank. Damn this crappy economy. A few years ago getting money out of people would’ve been a breeze. She made a mental note not to start another venture that involved parting people from their money at a time when nobody had any money, even in Texas. Impatiently, she crossed and uncrossed her legs and checked her phone for the time. She didn’t want to be here all day, and Minnie was notoriously slow on a good day.
Finally Minnie resurfaced and invited her back by the shampoo bowls. Violet changed into a smock in the restroom, then sat quietly while Minnie applied color to her hair. A natural brunette, once she’d started going gray a few years ago, Violet had given in to her fantasy of becoming a redhead. Her husband, Marvin, hated it. But by that point their marriage could be characterized more as “friends who happened to share a child and live under the same roof” than as a loving, married couple.
Violet nodded with forced sympathy as Minnie told her, detail by gory detail, about an ovarian cyst that had been ailing her. Over the years Violet had absorbed more than her share of information about Minnie’s less-than-appetizing nagging health problems, but it was a small price to pay to have the best colorist in Sugarland keep her in a fabulous head of red hair.
Minnie excused herself to go smoke, and Violet dove into her tawdry reading material, eager to lose herself in the problems of celebrities. She’d worry about raising money later. But she couldn’t help but overhear some of the other patrons gossiping about Mary Jane Price’s husband leaving her for a gorgeous, younger woman. The ladies clucked and fretted over the desolate aftermath of Mary Jane’s marriage.
Violet sighed. While Marvin hadn’t exactly left her for a younger woman or cheated on her per se, it wasn’t two minutes after they’d separated that he found himself a girlfriend twenty years his junior so she assumed he’d had an eye on the woman for an inappropriate amount of time.
She clucked under her breath in disgust. Men, why did they have to get more distinguished as they got older, while women just got fatter and more wrinkly? When older women went after younger men people called them cougars. Why didn’t they have an obnoxious name for the older men who inevitably chased after younger women?
Life was definitely not fair. Maybe this was another one of God’s punishments to all women compliments of Eve’s deception. As if the pain of childbirth and monthly menstrual cramps weren’t bad enough.
After the color had set, Minnie shampooed her hair then led her to a swirling chair in the front of the salon for a haircut. “What do you want me to do this time? Same cut?” Minnie asked. Violet wore a short pixie hairstyle, a bit longer on the sides curling up onto her cheeks. It framed her face beautifully and didn’t take her long for her to fix, which Violet loved.
“Yes. Let’s keep it the same, maybe trim the ends, shape it a bit.”
Minnie nodded, wielding her shears.
“I thought about what you said last time, Minnie, that my hair was getting more curl. I did notice that the other day when it was wet. Like the underside was acting different, curlier.”
“Yeah. It’s probably menopause. Changes the hair patterns. You know how I’ve told you the texture of your hair can change every seven years? Menopause does it too. Uh huh. It’s the hormones.” Minnie stepped back to look at the task before her.
Violet watched her eyes widen in the mirror, and her stomach felt as though she’d just been told she was sitting on a live bomb. “Um, Minnie, did you say menopause?” She squeaked in disbelief.
“You can’t be serious.” Surely this was another of Minnie’s harebrained ideas, the way she thought if she just bought enough tickets she could win the lottery.
“Nope.” Minnie whispered conspiratorially, “The hairdresser is always the first to know.” She narrowed her eyes and nodded with the confidence of an ancient soothsayer.
“But, I’m not even in my mid-forties yet,” Violet stammered.
Minnie shrugged. “Hey, sometimes it happens early. With me, I was…” Minnie launched off into the lengthy story of her own body’s reactions to “the change.” Violet suppressed a shiver, while trying to process this new information and appear interested in Minnie’s account at the same time.
Studying herself in the mirror, Violet took an inventory. Some age spots. Maybe she could get some cream for those. A few wrinkles around the eyes, but not many. She already used a cream for those. Okay, usually she forgot, but she had one somewhere in her medicine cabinet. Running a finger under her chin she noticed the skin was looser than it once was. There was an infomercial she kept seeing on TV about a miracle neck cream, and Lord help her, she needed it.
She frowned at her reflection, vowing to step up her fight against aging. Crap, she probably needed to exercise more too.
Damn. Getting older is a bitch.