Chapter One One
Violet Victoria Townsend was plenty aware that she was the very epitome of a stock character for snob.
Ask any sketch artist to draw a pampered Upper East Side princess, and Violet would skip straight to the top of the suspect list. Shiny, bouncy hair? Check. Expertly applied yet barely noticeable makeup? Check. Pretty, but not in the “look again” kind of way? Yup.
Her nails were never chipped, her ends never split. Her outfits tended toward neutrals and were always paired with a strand of simple, understated pearls around her neck. Even her home address was eye-rollingly cliché. She’d lived in the same apartment off Madison Avenue since age eleven, when her grandmother took her in.
Did that make Violet a caricature? Perhaps. But a self-aware one. Violet had heard all the Blair Waldorf, Charlotte York, and Holly Golightly comparisons and had made peace with it a long time ago.
So, yeah. She could and often did rock a headband. She had a purse dog named after a luxury brand of handbag (Coco, as in Chanel). Did she sometimes summer in the Hamptons? Indeed, and she was guilty of using summer as a verb.
But Violet Townsend was also kind to strangers, considerate of others’ feelings, and generous with her time. She always brought the perfect hostess gift to a party. Her brunches offered bountiful mimosas with high-quality bacon and vegetarian options.
Violet was also heavily involved with a half-dozen charities, volunteered as a tutor every Wednesday afternoon, and was adamantly opposed to gossip, though still somehow found herself knowing everything about everyone.
Not that she expected a medal for any of this. It was just that she figured if she was lucky enough to be born a privileged heiress, she sure as hell better be a good and generous person to go with it.
Which was why, when her late grandmother’s best friend had commanded Violet’s presence on a Sunday afternoon, Violet hadn’t hesitated to reschedule her longstanding Sunday date with her best friend.
Edith Rhodes was a precise, specific sort of woman. Violet would know; she’d been serving as Edith’s right hand of sorts ever since graduating college. But while Edith was a demanding, high-powered CEO, she was no diva. She planned everything down to the minute, believed that urgent was synonymous with ill-prepared.
In other words, not the sort of woman to cry wolf. If Edith needed Violet now, it meant now. And that something was amiss.
The January afternoon was sunny but brisk as Violet made the short walk to Edith’s Park Avenue home. She was perfectly polished as ever, because if Edith had taught Violet anything in the few years since she’d taken her under her wing, it was that emergencies were best approached with lipstick and a great pair of heels.
Violet was dressed in burgundy pumps, gray slacks, a white blouse, and, of course, the ever-present pearls that had become her trademark of sorts, even if their legacy was a bit sad.
But Violet didn’t like to think about that.
“Good afternoon, Alvin,” she said, stepping into the foyer and smiling at Edith’s live-in butler, maintenance man, and all-around loyal companion.
He looked pointedly at Violet’s feet, where Coco was usually happily prancing around her ankles. “And where is my little lady?”
“At home, getting her beauty sleep. She hates the cold, and her best sweaters are dirty,” she said with a wink, though her little Yorkie really did have a pile of doggy-sized sweaters in Violet’s laundry basket.
She gave Alvin an assessing once-over. “How are we today?”
He took her jacket with one hand and patted his slightly rounded belly with the other, looking forlorn. “It’s the stomach, dear. Probably an ulcer. Could be much worse.”
“Mmm.” She made a sympathetic noise, even as she tucked her tongue into her cheek. “I’m so sorry to hear that. What did Dr. Howell say?”
He frowned at her, looking just the slightest bit sulky, closer to six than his actual sixty.
Violet waited. Patient.
His frown deepened a little as he huffed, relenting. “Gas,” he admitted. “But the doctor seemed off his game. I may go back in a week when he’s got his head on straight.”
“Of course,” Violet said. She pointed at his foot. “And the toe?”
Last week, Alvin had self-diagnosed a sore toe as gangrene, for which amputation was the only likely cure, even as Edith had reminded him he’d stubbed that very toe on the sideboard in the dining room.
He blinked, no doubt struggling to keep track of his many ailments, then a little sheepishly said, “Oh. The toe’s better.”
“Wonderful.” Violet smiled. “I’m glad you got to keep it after all.”
He narrowed his eyes, then waggled a scolding finger at her. “When you were little, you didn’t used to sass me.”
“Who’s sassing?” she asked innocently, kissing his cheek as she moved toward the parlor. He was an exhausting hypochondriac, but he was her hypochondriac. “Edith in here?”
“Yes.” Alvin’s playful demeanor evaporated, replaced with concern, and not for his ulcer/gas.
The door was open a crack, and Edith’s head snapped up when Violet stepped into the room.
“Violet.” Edith’s utterance was more breath than word, and Violet’s stomach lurched in worry. The Edith she knew was never rattled, but the woman in front of her now looked downright fragile.
Edith seemed to sense Violet’s thoughts, because she resolutely straightened her shoulders.
“Where’s Coco?” Edith asked with a frown, glancing around the floor where Violet’s dog generally ran in circles.
“Home,” Violet said, sitting beside Edith on the love seat, taking her hand, and getting straight to the point. “What’s wrong?”
Edith swallowed, her free hand lifting to fiddle with her necklace. Violet’s concern notched up to outright alarm. Edith Rhodes did not fiddle.
The older woman slowly, deliberately dropped her hand back into her lap, as though trying to regain control. “It’s about Adam.”
Violet squeezed Edith’s hand in silent sympathy. Edith’s only son had died just a few months earlier. The loss had been hard on Edith, obviously, but Violet suspected that even Edith knew she’d lost Adam to addiction and his hard-partying ways long before he’d overdosed on a toxic mix of alcohol and heroin.
Which was why Edith’s distress now was a bit puzzling. A delayed reaction, perhaps, though Edith didn’t seem the type. She dealt with everything in the here and now.
Edith swallowed, then cleared her throat, her eyes darting nervously to the far corner of the room, before coming back to Violet. “You know that Bernard and I hoped to leave the company to Adam.”
Violet nodded, carefully hiding her skepticism about how that would have gone. The Adam Rhodes that Violet had known had been in no condition to take over a lemonade stand, much less the Rhodes International conglomerate. Violet wasn’t technically an employee herself, but as Edith’s right hand and personal assistant for several years, she’d learned enough about the business to know that multimillion-dollar real estate investment deals were on the table daily; not exactly the place for a man whose primary concern at work had been keeping his corner office sideboard stocked with his beloved bourbon.
“Knowing that Rhodes would pass out of the family made Adam’s passing doubly hard,” Edith continued, swallowing. “I should have made peace with it long ago, with Adam being who he was, and an only child who never married…”
Violet nodded again, this time in understanding. Edith had lost a beloved husband just last year, then a son months later. Since Violet had lost, well, everyone, she knew all too well the ache, the sense of being unmoored with nothing—and no one—to hold on to. “What can I do? What do you need?”
Edith’s blue gaze searched Violet’s face affectionately. “You’ve always been so good to me.”
Violet gave her a gently reprimanding look. “Says the woman who helped raise me. You’re practically family. Tell me what’s bothering you. We’ll fix it.”
Edith’s fingers went to her temples, past the point of pretending she was fine. “It’s no secret Adam was always a bit wild.”
“Well, it would seem he had one particularly wild escapade during spring break his junior year of college. He went to… Cabo… Cancún… I forget,” Edith said with a wave of her hand. “He met a girl, and, well, you know Adam. He always liked women.”
Lots of women, Violet mentally amended.
“Is there… is this woman threatening blackmail of some kind?” Violet asked, trying to keep from begging Edith to spit it out already.
Violet jolted, because the cold pronouncement hadn’t come from Edith, but from a harsh, masculine voice behind them.
Violet stood, the smooth motion belying her galloping heart as she searched for the source of the voice.
She stilled when she saw the man leaning against the mantel at the far side of the room. How in the world she had missed him when she’d entered was beyond her. Violet couldn’t make out much of him from his place lurking in the shadows, but his sheer presence seemed enormous. Looming and very male, especially when contrasted with the fussy Victorian decor of Edith Rhodes’s parlor.
For that matter, this man didn’t even look as though he knew what a parlor was. He was dressed in faded jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt, and scuffed boots, and one thing was abundantly clear: he did not belong here.
“Get out,” Violet said, taking calm command of the situation. “I don’t know who you are, but you can’t just come barging in like some sort of… some sort of—”
A very dark eyebrow lifted in insolent challenge. Some sort of what?
“Violet.” Edith’s voice was quiet.
Violet meant to look at the other woman, but she seemed to be locked in the angry, sullen gaze of the stranger.
“Violet,” Edith said, her voice a bit more steady this time. “I’d like to introduce you to my long-lost grandson.”