by Christy Carlyle
For the third time in as many minutes Violet Taylor reminded herself that she had not accepted the invitation to Milly Wilcox’s garden party in the hope of seeing him. She didn’t even know for certain he would attend. It was true that he was nearly a member of the Wilcox family due to his longtime friendship with Milly’s brother. But that made no odds. He was a taciturn man whose behavior was unpredictable on the best of days.
With no thought to his attendance, she had come because Milly invited her, and it was the perfect opportunity to renew their friendship. Though, as she thought on it more, they had never truly developed a deep and meaningful friendship. Their families moved in different circles. Indeed, the Wilcoxes were the kind of family her mother called “the right sort.” The Taylors, on the other hand, were a few crucial steps behind. But that had never bothered Violet. It kept the penurious men away and allowed her a modicum of freedom to do as she pleased. Unfortunately, it also kept the quite well to do men away, and even one who was simply the best friend of a wealthy Wilcox.
He would certainly not attend a garden party. They were too spritely and colorful for such a dour, mirthless man. Of course, he would not have to spend time admiring the Wilcox’s flowers on this afternoon as the April weather had turned rainy and cool. The drawing room curtains were open so that the handful of guests could admire the gardens, but the glass obscured their colors, running them together like watercolor paints under a too damp brush.
He liked the rain, but disliked gardens. He adored the Wilcoxes, but loathed social gatherings that involved more than a couple guests. No, he would most definitely not attend. Indeed, if he did plan to attend, he was now unfashionably late. But it would be just like him to behave abominably.
“He’s here!” A chill trickled down Violet’s back as if she’d been stripped bare in a cool breeze. Her fingers gripped the delicate handle of her teacup so fiercely that she reached out to put it down before crushing the painted porcelain into dust. Watching her hand as she set the cup down, trying to steady it, she noticed that the dainty thing was painted with purple flowers. Were they violets? Not with those ruffles. Purple carnations. How apropos. They stood for capriciousness, whimsy, unreliability. Just like the man who was going to walk through the Wilcox’s drawing room door any moment.
Milly had taken her hand and leaned in close to whisper. “This is precisely why I invited you, Violet.”
“Yes,” Violet heard herself speak but did not know how she had formed the word. Her mind was busy, racing through every memory of him: every tender moment, every sweet word spoken, and every tear shed. Milly tugged at her hand, scattering memories. The poor girl was beside herself.
“Oh, Violet, I needed you here in case he came. I cannot believe he accepted my invitation. Violet, what should I say to him? I simply have no notion what to say.” In the face of Milly’s high-pitched giddiness, the haze of memory continued to fade and Violet considered the young woman’s words. She could not mean him. He was a frequent, almost constant guest of the Wilcoxes. His presence might set her world off kilter but it would not be cause for Milly’s rapture.
The Wilcox’s elderly butler appeared, silent as a wraith, at Milly’s side. “Miss Wilcox, Lord Greville has arrived.”
The man himself followed the announcement, striding into the room as if he meant to plant a flag and claim it for England. “Do forgive me, Miss Wilcox. I am unforgivably late.” The assembled guests could not take their eyes off of him and his presence was such that it encompassed the entire room. Thomas, Lord Greville, was not only the handsomest man in the county, but also one of the wealthiest. He would be forgiven anything. In two giant strides, he stood before Milly and gallantly took up her hand to brush a kiss along her knuckles. Violet felt the girl’s shiver through her glove, where Milly still clung to her.
As Greville turned away to greet the other guests, Milly found her voice and rasped out a plea. “Violet, please go and fetch Will. He and Edmund are in the billiards room. Do tell them they must put down their silly game and make Thomas...Lord Greville, that is, feel welcome.”
Now it was Violet’s turn to shiver. He was here. Edmund Carrick. The most appealing and maddening man of her acquaintance. The man who’d held her heart, her very future, in his hands. Until he’d changed his mind. Without a word, an explanation, or even an excuse, their courtship had ended. But the questions in Violet’s mind never ceased. They all began with why or what if, and she never found satisfactory answers. Only he had the answers. And now she’d been tasked with fetching him like a nanny chasing after an errant schoolboy.
Violet wasn’t even certain where to find the billiard room. How long had it been since she’d last visited the Wilcoxes? As she exited the drawing room as inconspicuously as possible, she guessed that the faithful butler, Higgins, would surely appear and send her in the right direction. The dining room snagged her attention as she passed. Two maids and a footman circled the table, placing gleaming plates and sparkling crystal just so. They spied her and finished quickly, leaving the room to her in all its glory. Spring flowers spilled from silver bowls and a grand chandelier lit every surface with an amber glow. Even the name cards at each place setting were gilded around the edges. She couldn’t resist looking down the row for Edmund’s card. That’s when she saw it.
A single sprig of flowers lay on one of the plates. Forget-me-nots. Tiny, perfect five-petaled blooms stared up at her with their bright yellow center eyes. They were a stunning blue, as bright as a robin’s egg and lighter than periwinkle. She stepped closer and read her own name on the card in a looping, elaborate hand. Who would leave flowers on her plate? And not just any flowers. These flowers represented true love and constancy. Her pulse began to flutter and she felt suddenly breathless, as if she’d run all the way across the heath. Edmund? Could Edmund have left these flowers as a declaration?
“Miss Taylor, you’ve found my offering.” Violet jumped at the sound of Lord Greville’s smooth, deep voice. She turned, her skirts brushing against his legs. He stood shockingly near.
“Lord Greville. I...” Her voice came out as a squeak, laced with as much panic as Milly’s had been just moments before.
Greville grinned down at her with the most dazzling smile she had ever seen. “I missed my mark, Miss Taylor. You see, I meant to leave those on Miss Wilcox’s plate, but that butler of theirs is quite too efficient. He swept me into the drawing room before I knew what I was about.”
He reached around her and took up the pretty blooms, moving them to a plate near the head of the table. “There. My deed is done. Do keep my secret for now, Miss Taylor. Will you?”
“Of course, my lord.” Based on his status, Violet could deny him very little, but his blue eyes, a deeper shade of forget-me-not blue, were persuasive in their own right. Good for Milly. Now, if only the girl could manage a few coherent words to the man.
Just as Greville took her hand to drop a perfunctory kiss of gratitude, another voice rang through the dining room. Deeper than Greville’s, with a distinctive rasp and a complete absence of Greville’s easy joviality, it was a voice Violet could never mistake.
“Greville. Welcome. Tom will be along soon.” The man hadn’t changed a bit. If anything, the intervening months had brought more character to his face. His dark hair was longer, but it suited him. And for a man of such height and bulk, Violet couldn’t help but notice Edmund Carrick’s grace of movement. Nor could she stifle a tiny gasp as he moved toward her. Though he had spoken to Lord Greville, his eyes were on her, boring into her, looking beyond her plain chestnut hair and pale green eyes, into her essence. She had always felt that he, more than anyone she had ever known, saw her, Violet, for who she truly was. Who she wished to be.
He cut her off, positioning himself so that he faced Greville and was neatly situated between them. “Miss Wilcox must be missing your company in the drawing room.” He paused as if expecting Greville to jump at his command. “I will escort Miss Taylor back. We are old friends.” Old friends! Violet’s mouth fell open and she snapped it shut, stifling the urge to let out a very unladylike scream.
The moment Greville strode from the room, Edmund turned to face her. Before she could speak a word of her hurt, her anger, or her many questions, he cut her off. “I have missed you, Violet.” Instantly warm syrup filled her veins and she opened her mouth to speak words of affection that had been bottled up with her pain. He reached his hand up to touch her cheek and she turned her head slightly, pressing against his warmth, relishing his familiar scent. Then, ever changeable, he snatched his hand away. Her cheek burned where he had touched her.
“What on earth were you doing exchanging flowers with Greville?” His voice was as angry as she’d ever heard it and possessive, as he had no right to be.
“We weren’t exchanging flowers.” Her tone was meant to be dismissive, but she heard it waver and felt the sting of tears she’d stifled too long. “I thought they were from you!” She shouted the final word and the release felt glorious.
He moved closer and looked toward the door, as if he feared they would be overheard. When she looked up into his eyes, she saw that their brown depths were tender. “Why did you think they were from me, Violet?” His voice had lost all trace of anger.
He reached for her again and she moved away from him. “I have no idea. It was a silly notion considering what they symbolize.” All the anger of his abandonment began to simmer, threatening to bubble over into words she could never take back.
“Symbolize? What do they symbolize?” She watched his eyes as he turned to glimpse the lovely cluster of forget-me-nots. “I would guess their name tells the meaning.”
“Yes. They mean ‘stay true to me’ and ‘don’t forget me.’”
“I could never forget you, Violet.” His deep voice was soft now, seductive. But she would not give in.
“They also symbolize constancy. So you can see why I was foolish to think them from you.” She expected him to wince or retort in anger. She was certain her arrow would sting. Instead he moved closer, his voice still low.
“What flower would you have me give you, Violet?”
“I am long past wishing for posies from you, Mr. Carrick.” If she called him Edmund, she would break. She would melt into him and lose herself again. Her anger protected her like armor, and she could not let it slip.
“Come, my lady, you know the language of flowers. Tell me what flower I should give you to say...” He paused just when she needed him to continue. “To tell you what you must already know, Miss Taylor. I am a fool.”
Violet’s throat burned with unspoken words, all of them flooding to get out, but he gave her no time to speak. Instead, he stepped forward and clasped her hand, his long, firm fingers curving into her palm. He tugged and she followed. They crossed the room and he opened the French doors along the wall. Like the drawing room, the dining room looked out onto the Wilcox’s expansive gardens.
The rain had stopped but the grass and every shrub and flower was drenched from the day’s showers. The air smelled rain-scrubbed fresh and even in the waning afternoon light, the array of colors was breathtaking.
He left her standing on the low balcony beyond the French doors and made his way into the garden. When he was knee-deep in blooms, he called back to her. “Which one, Miss Taylor? Which would you have me give you?”
The other guests in the drawing room must have heard his call as Violet saw the window slide open out of the corner of her eye. She recognized the voice of Tom, Milly’s brother, as he shouted to his friend. “Give her a rose, Carrick. All ladies love roses.”
Edmund shot her a questioning glance. “No,” she answered. She did not want a rose. Based on its color, the meaning might be lost, and the only bud visible this early was a bright pink. A rose that shade symbolized passion and desire. She wanted more than that from Edmund Carrick.
He moved onto a lovely jonquil, it’s sunny trumpet bowed by the rain. Its message was “return my affection,” but her affection for Edmund was never in question. She shook her head and he moved away, nearly tripping over a clump of poppies. Their papery petals had been battered by the rain, but a few had recovered, the bold red cup of their bloom revealing only a glimpse of their silky black center. He leaned down toward one of the tall, brazen poppies, but Violet stopped him again. Red poppies were beautiful and exotic, but they symbolized only pleasure. She wished for pleasure with Edmund, certainly, but still more.
He began to move further into the garden and nearly overlooked a neat row of graceful tulips in a variety of colors. They had held up well in the rain and stood tall, like little sentries guarding a sharply trimmed hedge of boxwood. She called out to him. “Wait. There. The tulips.” She saw his mouth shift in a momentary grin, his full lips broadening across his handsome face.
He reached down for a yellow one and then picked another. He stood as if to return to her and she stopped him. “One of the red, too, Mr. Carrick.” Though the Wilcox’s gardener would probably be appalled at Edmund’s raid on his fine work, the assembled guests seemed to take great pleasure in the spectacle he was making. Violet glimpsed Milly leaning out the drawing room window and the girl shot her a knowing smile.
In a moment he was before her, holding out the vibrant red and yellow tulips as an offering. “Now you must tell me what they mean, Miss Taylor. I hope they mean forgiveness. Perhaps even a second chance to put things right.”
Violet reached for the tulips, but he would not release them. Instead he covered her hand with his own. “Will you forgive me, Violet?” His voice was so lovely, deep and strong. It rumbled through her, though he spoke softly. She felt his warm breath skittering across her cheeks and realized she was breathing as heavily as he.
She swallowed hard, sifting the sentiments bursting the seams of her heart. “The yellow tulip symbolizes hopeless love. That is what I have been since last we met. Quite hopeless.” A hot tear slid from the corner of her eye, but she could not stop the words she needed to say. “The red tulip stands for undying love. That is what I feel for you, Edmund.” On a broken whisper, she finally said, “And what I wish from you in return.”
When he pulled her into his arms, it was an intoxicating relief. Like lead weights, the pain, anger, and hopelessness fell away and the love she’d always felt for him could lift its head once again, as vibrant and strong as the tulips she held in her grasp. She fit with him, against him, as if his body was fashioned with spaces only she could fill.
He pulled away enough to look down at her, wiping her tears away with the pad of his thumb. “You are named after a flower, my darling Violet. Tell me what a violet symbolizes.”
Violet took a long breath and closed her eyes, savoring the feel of him, the scent of the rain-soaked garden and the fresh cut tulips, imprinting the moment on her mind and heart. When she opened her eyes, she saw all that she hoped for and needed reflected back in his own dark eyes.
“Faithfulness.” She spoke the word quietly, reverently.
His jaw tensed and she saw a flash of pain in his eyes. Then he lowered his head, his lips just inches above hers. “I should have known.” The words had barely left his mouth before he pressed his lips to hers. Her whole body reacted, tautening like a tightly drawn bow, but he gave her only a taste before pulling back. “Will you still have me, Violet? Will you be my wife?” Her eyes widened at his words and he added, “We have wasted enough time, Miss Taylor.”
Violet pulled back and offered him the red and yellow tulips. With her eyes and the wide smile on her face, she echoed their message: hopeless and undying love.
The language of flowers was a means of communication, particularly popular in the Victorian-era, by which individuals sent coded messages to share secret feelings or express what could not be spoken.