Violet, page 1
VIOLET-468 -Leigh Greenwood
Copyright 2011 by Leigh Greenwood
"I don't care about your appointments or what the commodities market is doing," Fern said to Jeff. "Someone has to go to that school to see about the twins, and I can't do it."
Fern leaned back against the several pillows behind her. Jeff was being impossible, but she shouldn't have expected anything else. In the nine years she'd been married to his brother, he'd never once tried to be cooperative.
"I don't know anything about schools or girls," Jeff protested.
"You should have thought about that before you insisted Madison go to Leadville," she said. "You know I can't get out of this bed for more than a few minutes at a time."
"Rose should have kept those girls in Texas," Jeff said. "They're wilder than antelope."
"She sent them here hoping the Wolfe School would give them a little polish. George says they're growing up to look like your mother and act like your father."
"Hell! If that's true, you might as well shoot them now and save everybody a lot of trouble."
"Jeff, they're only little girls!"
"That's even worse. Nobody will believe they can be as evil as he was."
"It's been years since you've seen them. They're not evil, just high-spirited. Now stop being difficult and go see Miss Goodwin."
"You sure you can't get up for a short trip?"
"Do I look like I'm enjoying staying here?" Fern demanded. It annoyed her that Jeff made no attempt to hide his skepticism at her illness. He never got sick, and he had no sympathy for anybody who did.
"You shouldn't let Madison keep you pregnant all the time."
"That's none of your business," Fern snapped. "But even if it were, it's too late to do anything about it now. Since you saw fit to send my husband to Leadville, you can see about your nieces."
"I'm no lawyer. I can't--"
"You could have hired one. You've got enough money. What are you saving it for? Did you know the twins call you rusty money?"
"Money doesn't rust."
Fern sighed. "I'm tired of talking to you. Amy has the card with Miss Goodwin's address and the time to call. Ask her for it on your way out."
"I'll call when I have time," Jeff said, his harsh expression robbing his face of some of its natural attractiveness. "Miss Goodson--"
"--will just have to make accommodations."
Fern sighed again. "Try not to get in a fight with her. You're supposed to help the girls, not add Miss Goodwin to the list of people who pray they'll never see you again."
"I don't get into fights."
"Piss and vinegar! Half of Denver groans when they see you coming. If you weren't president of the largest bank west of San Francisco, nobody would speak to you."
"You shouldn't curse."
Jeff looked so affronted Fern almost laughed. "Why not? As you so often remind me, I'm not one of your precious southern belles. Now go away and talk to Miss Goodwin."
"Rose ought to come do it herself."
"You make a mess of this visit, and she probably will." Jeff would never admit it, but Fern knew he was a little afraid of Rose. His bitterness upset George, and nobody distressed George with impunity. Rose was small, but she was a veritable tigress when it came to protecting her husband.
Fern settled back against her pillows as the door closed behind Jeff, his bad temper and the twins forgotten. Her hand moved slowly over her swollen stomach. After four easy pregnancies, this one had been wrong from the beginning. She had only a month to go, but she couldn't forget her mother had died in childbirth. She was frightened the same thing was going to happen to her. She whispered her husband's name into the pillow. He would have stayed if she had asked him. Now she wished she had.
* * * * *
Ten days later Jeff paused on the flagstone walk before the Wolfe School for Girls. Five years before, the wealthy mothers of Denver had decided they needed a way to educate their daughters without sending them back East. Taking up subscriptions among themselves, they built this school. Composed of several stone buildings, it occupied extensive grounds on the edge of Denver's most exclusive residential district. The daughters of local millionaires were day students. For the rest, including the daughters of gold and silver barons and a few cattle kings who didn't live in Denver, the Board had provided a dormitory.
Acres of brown grass and hundreds of young trees struggled to transform this piece of prairie at the foot of the Rocky Mountains into a setting reminiscent of some eastern city. Already the stone of the buildings was becoming a weathered grey. In a few years, the Wolfe School would look like the venerable institution the Denver matrons hoped it would become.
"You'll find Miss Goodwin in the dormitory," a matronly female in the main building told him. "It'll be the second building on your right when you go back outside, just past the chapel. Dear me," she said, gazing at Jeff's empty left sleeve, "did you lose that in a mining accident?"
"An obliging Yankee shattered my elbow at Gettysburg," Jeff answered, a brittle edge on this voice. "The Yankee doctors decided it was easier to cut it off than try to fix it."
"But there's no point going about with an empty sleeve. They make such good artificial arms."
"No, they don't," Jeff snapped. "They're damnable."
He turned and stalked out of the building. He wished people would keep their comments, and their curiosity, to themselves. He supposed they were trying to be kind, but in their ignorance, they did more harm than good.
He pulled a gold watch from his pocket and frowned. He started down the path at a rapid pace. He was already five minutes behind schedule. If he didn't hurry, he'd be late for his meeting. The bank directors were going to decide whether to purchase more mining property in Leadville. He intended to see they did.
He glanced at the chapel as he passed. It was a small, square building. He hadn't been inside a church since he lost his arm.
The dormitory was a large, square, ugly building. Jeff had his hand on the door before he decided it might be best to ring the bell first. The thought of bursting in on young girls in dishabille terrified him. A uniformed maid answered the door.
"Could I help you?" the young woman asked in a clipped, British accent.
"I'm here to see Miss Violet Goodwin."
The maid looked flustered. "She doesn't have any appointments for this afternoon."
"Good. Then she won't have any difficulty meeting with me."
"I mean, since she has no appointments, she's otherwise engaged."
"I'm sure she can put whatever she's doing off to another time," Jeff said pushing his way inside. "Please tell her I'm here."
"But who are you?"
The maid looked blank.
The woman's expression remained unchanged.
"The twins' uncle."
The maid smiled broadly. "You're Mr. Jefferson Randolph."
"That's what I said."
"But you could have been any Randolph, couldn't you? Have a seat. Let me take your hat and coat. I'll see if Miss Goodwin is free to see you."
"Miss Goodwin will see me."
"I'll ask." The maid made her escape.
Jeff remained standing. He let his gaze wander over the large room. Someone had furnished it with a dismal collection of dark, heavy Victorian pieces. He felt like he was in a mausoleum. Maybe they should lock the twins in here. After an hour, they'd be too depressed to get in trouble for at least a week.
Fifteen minutes later Jeff had completed a detailed study of every picture, piece
His patience had fled, taking with it tolerance and good humor.
He considered leaving, but coming back would entail an even greater loss of time. He looked at his watch again. It would be difficult to have any sort of conversation and still be on time for his meeting. He closed the watch with a snap. His meeting was more important than whatever nonsense his nieces had been up to.
But at that moment, an apparition came into the room that stopped him in his tracks. The woman, of slim figure and medium height, was past the first blush of youth. She was attractive, her features pretty without being unusual. Deep blue eyes stared at him from under jet lashes. An incredible mass of dark, curly, copper-red hair piled atop her head struggled to escape the bondage of an army of pins.
But it was her dress that riveted his attention. It was made of yards and yards of rose-colored satin trimmed with cream lace at the throat and wrists. It looked like a gown he would have seen at a ball before his father was run out of Virginia, not something the housemother in a girl’s school would wear.
Against the setting of the dark, somber room, she looked like a bird of paradise.
She smiled. "Mr. Randolph? I'm Violet Goodwin. I apologize for keeping you waiting. Do sit down." She took a seat on a high-backed sofa, arranging her rustling skirts around her.
Jeff stood immobile. She was a Yankee. He could place her accent down to the exact county in Massachusetts. His jailor for the last two years of the war had spoken like that. Jeff would remember the sound until his dying day.
"I had expected to see the twins' mother," Miss Goodwin said. "I confess this is the first time I've had a visit from a father."
She spoke in a soft voice, rather slowly, completely unlike the man who had made Jeff's years in prison a living hell. She was very pretty when she smiled; she seemed friendly. But she was a Yankee. He wanted to turn and leave without saying a word.
"I'm their uncle."
"Oh. It's wonderful of you to take so much interest in your nieces."
Recovering slightly, Jeff snapped, "My sister-in-law is in bed and her husband's away. I'm the only one left." He took out his watch and glanced at it. "I'm going to be late for my meeting."
Miss Goodwin seemed surprised at his outburst. "I'm sure you consider your nieces' welfare more important than a meeting."
"No, I don't."
She looked rather startled. "They are your family."
"That's not my doing."
Her eyes opened a little wider. Their deep blue formed a startling contrast to her white skin and coppery red hair. She would have been arresting even if she hadn't been pretty.
"Perhaps we should discuss your nieces' situation."
"What's to discuss? My brother is paying you to turn them into ladies instead of headstrong females more at home on horses than in a parlor. I can only suppose I've been called here because you have failed."
Her expression registered shock. "You seem to be under a misapprehension as to the reason I requested this visit."
"I make it a point never to be under a misapprehension. It costs time and money."
"I'm sure it does, but in this case--"
"This case is no different from any other. You've been paid to do a job, and you haven't done it." She had no business sitting in judgment of his nieces. She couldn't understand Southern women. No female brought up in Massachusetts could. "I'm sure they haven't done anything any other spirited nine-year-old twins wouldn't do."
She appeared to be stunned by his unexpected attack, but not intimidated. That aroused his interest. People usually became agitated and flustered when subjected to one of his verbal attacks.
"As to that," she said, "I can't say. I've never been around twins before, spirited or otherwise."
"Then why are you criticizing them?"
"If you would listen for just a moment, without interrupting, I think I could clear up this misunderstanding."
Now she was criticizing him. But he should have expected that. Yankees seemed to think they had all the answers.
"I wouldn't interrupt if you'd get to the point. Why do women always talk around things?"
"Are you finished?"
She said it quietly, politely, but she didn't mean it that way. Her eyes gave her away. He guessed he had better let her get if off her chest. Otherwise, he'd never get out of here.
And she had a well-formed chest. He hadn't noticed at first -- the gown had grabbed his attention -- but she had a very fine figure. She was slender without being thin. Maturity had given her curves a lushness most young women lacked.
"Say your piece," he said.
"I'd prefer you sit down while I did."
"I'll remain standing."
She looked irritated, but she clearly had herself well under control.
"I don't make the rules at Wolfe School. Nor do I decide what to do when they've been broken. That's the responsibility of the headmistress, Miss Eleanor Settle. It's my responsibility to report any infractions and to oversee any disciplinary action."
"So why am I wasting time talking to you?"
He could see her struggle to keep her temper under control. He didn't know why that should please him. He'd always disliked temperamental women.
"In the case of the borders, I'm expected to confer with the parents when there has been a problem."
"Well, what is the problem?"
"They have been consistently breaking the rules."
"Then send them to bed without dinner and be done with it."
"We don't starve our students, Mr. Randolph."
"They won't starve by missing one meal. We went without food for days at a time during the War of Northern Aggression, but we never stopped fighting."
Her gaze went directly to his empty sleeve. She had noticed it before, but this was the first time she made no attempt to avert her gaze.
"I'm well aware of the suffering caused by that war, but it has no bearing here."
"Well you've got to do something besides talk at them. I'm not going to run over here every time they break a rule."
She took a moment to answer. She probably couldn't think of anything to say.
"I don't know what you do for a living, but you apparently have little experience with girls."
"Then let me explain."
"I'm tired of all this explaining. Get to the nub of things."
Once again she took her time answering, but Jeff had the feeling she wasn't searching for words so much as eliminating most of the ones that came to mind. That pleased him, too, though again he couldn't say why. He had no interest in what this woman thought of him.
"Perhaps that's best."
She paused, studying him. That irritated Jeff. He didn't like bold females. She ought to be a little more deferential. Men would like her better, and she might not end up an old maid. Still, she was remarkably attractive to be unmarried.
"The headmistress wishes me to inform you that unless their behavior improves, disciplinary action will be taken."
Jeff felt cold anger pour over him. "You mean you dragged me over here, made me miss an important meeting, put me through a half hour of pointless prattle, just to tell me that!"
"Miss Settle wanted you to know--"
"I don't give a damn what Miss Settle wants!" Jeff snatched up his coat. "I have too much work to do to waste time listening to you complain because my nieces have been late with their assignments or gone to bed without brushing their hair."
"It's a good deal more than that."
"Then for God's sake, say what it is!"
She fixed him with an incendiary gaze. "As of this morning, your nieces have been placed on probation. Unless there is an immediate improvement in their behavior, they will be dismissed from the school."
Jeff paused, hat in hand. If the twins
"I want to see them."
"I don't care if they're sound asleep."
Miss Goodwin rose to her feet. "I'll see if they can be disturbed."
"They sure as hell can. I've been more than disturbed."
"Mr. Randolph, it's not the custom of the Wolfe School to put up with profanity."
"And it's not my custom to put up with people trying to put me off."
* * * * *
Violet closed the door behind her. She let her breath go in a long, slow sigh. She was so angry she was almost shaking. She had never met such an insufferable man in her whole life. Her sympathy had gone out to him when she noticed he was missing an arm. She was even more sympathetic when she discovered he had lost it in the Civil War. He had fought on the opposite side from her brother, but she knew pain made no allowances for the justice or injustice of a cause.
"Is Mr. Randolph gone?" the maid asked.
"No. He wants to see his nieces."
"Poor dears. He's liable to frighten them to death."
Violet laughed softly as she regained some of her composure. "If there are any females on this earth capable of giving Mr. Randolph back his own, they're Aurelia and Juliette."
The maid giggled. "They are a handful, aren't they?"
"They're more than that. I was anxious to meet their parents, but after meeting their uncle, I'm not so sure. Go tell them to come here immediately. And Beth, tell them not to take time to change or tidy up. That man might explode if he has to wait a minute longer."
Violet wondered whether it was wise to let the girls see their uncle. It was the normal procedure. The school encouraged parents to become involved in the disciplining of their children. With wealthy clients, that was always the politic thing to do.
Violet smoothed a wrinkle out of her dress. She wondered if Mr. Randolph was rich. He certainly had all the arrogance of a man who had inherited money and thought himself all the better because he hadn't had to earn it.
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