She hates waiting. She sits on the third step in this old house and links her fingers together, sure there is nothing she detests more. This lack of control was torture, her stomach twisting, her palms clammy as she pressed them together. It felt as though she were vibrating with the nerves of it all, and yet, here she sat.
She glanced up at the grandfather clock that stood sentry in the entrance—eleven minutes until midnight and exactly three minutes since she last looked at the familiar hands, unsure if she was willing them to speed up or slow down. She crossed her arms tightly and heard his voice yet again in her head.
“Midnight, Vi. I’ll see you by midnight.”
He had been so angry, coiled tight, and yet barely holding himself together. She had reached out to touch his arm, but he backed away from her, and she saw the familiar closed look on his face. Her heart sank when she glimpsed the shutter go down behind his eyes. She had thought that maybe, just maybe, she wouldn’t have to see that look again. It had been a while since she watched his light slip away. She had seen him smile, heard him laugh these past weeks and began to dare herself to believe that something had shifted for good. It’s the hope that kills you.
Eight minutes until midnight, and she drops her head into her hands and nearly gives up the whole thing. It’s too much. She could just walk up these stairs and into her huge, lonely bedroom, and pretend that it didn’t matter. She could climb into that bed and sleep and sleep and convince herself that she would eventually get used to being alone. So many people had left her, willingly and unwillingly, that it made sense that it would end up this way. Every day, making the walk up this long flight of steps, the thick carpet erases any sound that she makes. This house erases any life that she might have had. Her ghosts trailing behind her, silent and empty, but real enough to keep her where she was.
But it wasn’t that easy, was it? Giving up had its appeal, but if there was a second thing that she hated most, it was giving up. And tonight she wasn’t giving up on James. So, the clock ticked on, and she waited.
Seven minutes until midnight and she closes her eyes with her face pressed into her hands and thinks of her parents.
Almost one year has passed since they left her. They had been killed in a car crash, hit by a drunk driver. A sudden, terrible rip from the life that she had known from the life that made sense. She couldn’t understand, even now, how suddenly they just simply ceased to be. People so full of life extinguished in an instant. It never stopped being brutal.
“Violet, my sweet girl, they’re gone. They’re watching down on you now, they’ll never be far away. I’m so sorry, my girl.”
Mary had spoken the words quietly, a tiny benediction that Violet knew Mary believed. She had let Mary hold her, let her smooth her hair like a child, but Violet was never so bereaved to believe the simple words that Mary had spoken to her that afternoon her parents died.
No, her mum and dad were as far away as they could be. The loving pair of them, the sweet contentment of a good life, a life of being loved and cared for, was gone. The world around Violet turned instantly colder, and she knew she could never go back to the person she had been before Mary had walked tearfully into her father’s study to tell her the news.
A part of her was glad they didn’t have to see the state of things now, happy to think of them at peace and unaware of the terrifying and unsteady nature of their beloved England in 1942. Would they even recognize it if they came back now? So much violence and uncertainty, every day on a knife’s edge. God knew there were days that Violet didn’t recognize the world around her. Boys she had gone to school with dying every day, vain attempts to “do her part” by sending care packages to the front, donating money when she could, and yet here she sat, safe in the country, safe in her big, empty house. Would her parents think her a coward? Could they know how scared she was each day?
Would they be ashamed of the way Violet had been running the house? She was trying her best, exhausted at the end of every day, trying to keep the place in order with no staff left except Mary, who had worked with Violet’s family since she was a teenager. Most days it all felt like a vapid attempt to keep up the illusion that the deaths of her parents hadn’t changed the day-to-day running of the estate. It was a deeply depressing thought, and the only thing that kept Violet putting one foot in front of the other was the notion that this house was the last link she had to them. And so, she kept going.
Five minutes until midnight and her thoughts raced, one after the other, unrelentingly reminding her of the sadness that seemed to follow her and intertwine itself into each day.
The war had stopped everything in its tracks, refocused everyone’s lives and made a new reality for Violet that three years ago she simply wouldn’t have believed was possible. And yet, here she was. Waiting on the steps of her family home that belonged to only her now, for a soldier who couldn’t fight anymore but couldn’t leave the war, either. Waiting for parents who would never walk through the huge, oak front doors to hug her again, waiting for brothers who had left her, too. Waiting and waiting as midnight came ever closer, and Violet realized just how tired she was.
Her head was still in her hands when she began to think of her older brothers. Tristan and Henry were, as her mother liked to say, exuberant about life. Impossible for her parents to reign in, they were satisfied to keep the twin boys semi-contained. The walls of the estate were their boundaries as children, and they tested them constantly, climbing the stones, scraping their knees, but eventually making their way home. The moment that they could wrangle free from the quiet country life that the three of them grew up in, they were off. To London first, then Scotland. They would write occasionally, placating their mother by telling her that they would visit soon. Always visit. They had no intention of making their home in the countryside of Buckinghamshire ever again, and none of the family they had left behind could pretend otherwise.
So, it shouldn’t have been a surprise when the house passed to Violet. The bogged down grief of the immediate days following her parents’ deaths didn’t allow the reality of that news to properly sink in, but about two weeks afterward, the night before the twins were set to leave again, it had smacked her straight in the face. The lawyer had read her name.
This place was hers—the money it took to run, the people it was responsible for employing, the whole lot was on her shoulders now. And she had no clue how to begin.
“Vi, this is what mum and dad wanted,” Henry had said, clapping a hand on her shoulder, his eyes that resembled their father’s looking down at her and twinkling now, even in their grief. “You’ll take care of this place better than Tristan and I ever could. They knew what they were doing.”
“Henry, please don’t leave. Please, I can’t do it.”
Her eyes filled again, and for the life of her she couldn’t imagine being here alone. Castle House held so many happy memories of a childhood that shaped her to the person she was today. Memories of a family—laughter and arguments, hide-and-seek and s'mores by the fire. Memories of five lives intertwined to make a single happy existence.
It was the place that her parents had made their home immediately after they were married in the small chapel in the garden outside, that had been in her father’s family for generations. The “lady of the house” Mary called her now. The weight of the title pressed down on her, the impossibility of it all, the loneliness slowly crushing her.
Her mum and dad couldn’t tell her why they had chosen her to be next. It shouldn’t have been her burden to bear. She was terrified to disappoint them; she was angry that she hadn’t been given a choice, or even a warning that her future would not be what she had intended. You chose wrong. I can’t do this. I’m sorry.
“You will do it, Vi, I know you will.”
Tristan stood with a straight back across the room watching Henry and Violet. It wasn’t like him to be the quiet one, or the one who waited to speak. Violet met his eyes, and he flashed her a smile before coming toward them.
Tristan was three minutes Henry’s senior and identical in every way, down to the thick lock of dark hair that stubbornly fell across their respective foreheads. Violet had shaken her head at the pair of them, tears burning her eyes, and she felt like the child that she knew they still saw when they looked at her.
“I can’t believe you two are leaving me, too.”
And she cried as her brothers folded their arms around her, keeping her close in the security of the space between them.
She lifted her head and stood up on the steps, unwillingly to let the past drag her down tonight. She could change nothing. Midnight was two minutes away and the rain outside was beating against the windows. She walked to the glass and tried to make out any James-like shapes in the dark, but it was futile. He’ll come. Just a little longer now.
She went back to her step and leaned against the polished banister, her eyes never leaving the door. The carpet was still warm when she sat down. A clap of thunder made her jump, and she swore under her breath. She closed her eyes a moment to steady herself, her hand tight on the stair’s spindle.
Violet and James had known each other since they were children. James had grown up in the village near her estate and within walking distance of Castle House. Their fathers had been friends since their teenage years, having served in the military together.
“Sam Addison is the brother I never had,” her father had told her once when she asked how they had met, “he’s the best man I know.”
He had said it in such a way that Violet asked nothing else. Even as a child she could tell that their bond was close, that their friendship was important to her dad. He had spoken in a soft, serious tone when he answered her, the same tone that he used when he broke the news that Leah, her pet rabbit, had died the summer before, the same way that he told Henry that he had to say goodbye to his favorite stallion when he broke his leg. The sound of his voice had been enough for her, and enough evidence to conclude that James, too, was a good person. There was no one that she trusted more than dad.
James’ father was a solicitor who often worked with Mr. Buchanan on various issues of running the estate. Many of the village’s homes were located on the Buchanan property, and there were near constant projects or problems that arose among the buildings. Tenants came to her father for help, and although he prided himself on being a conscientious landholder, even he could not keep up with the wide-ranging requests.
“Sammy, you’ve saved my life again,” her father had said to Mr. Addison during one of his many trips to Castle House when Violet was ten years old.
Violet had always loved watching him walk up their long drive, his pocket watch gleaming in the sun, his stride efficient, but never rushed. She could not help but smile each time she saw him, and not just because of the piece of chocolate or small trinket he would slip in her hand at the end of each meeting with her father. It was simply because Mr. Addison was the type of man who was easy to be around. His presence made everyone comfortable, made everything just a little bit better. Violet had always believed it was something magical that made Mr. Addison so endearing, but as she grew she learned that it was an even rarer quality that he possessed – a true desire to help people, especially those that he loved.
“I won’t let you forget it,” Mr. Addison had replied, jokingly. Her father smiled widely and shook his hand.
“I would hope not, my friend,” he said, a firm hand on Mr. Addison’s shoulder, “come on then, the work is over, let’s have a whiskey on the porch.”
“I’m certainly not going to refuse that,” Mr. Addison replied, turning to follow Violet’s father. He caught her eye and winked at her, holding out his fist and dropping a small, black rock in her hand that had been polished and smoothed. “That is a Lucky Rock,” he told her, seriously, nodding toward her hand, “it brings the owner the best of luck, as long as they’re holding it. Now, I have my own, and so does Jamie, so I thought that maybe you should, too.”
Violet held the small pebble between her fingers close to her eye, as though to check if the luck in it were visible. It was smooth in her hand, a pleasant weight in her pocket when she dropped it in and covered her hand with it protectively.
“Thank you, Mr. Addison,” she said.
Mr. Addison winked again. “You are very welcome, Violet. Jamie is lucky to have friends like you and your brothers. I hope you all remember that. Friendship, the real, loyal kind, is difficult to come by and is something none of us should take for granted.”
Violet nodded her head and patted the rock in her pocket. “I’ll remember.”
“Come on out, Sammy, whiskey is waiting on the rocks,” her father called to Mr. Addison from the back patio. He laid a hand gently on the top of her head as he walked past, out into the sunshine to drink whiskey with her father. Violet remembered wondering if Mr. Addison had his Lucky Rock in his pocket, too.
Violet, her brothers, and James ran together, played and laughed in that easy way kids who grew up being loved could. In the village where they spent their childhood, it wasn’t a given that kids could spend their time being kids. Many of the children spent spare moments working, helping to support their families; kids were simply considered a burden by their parents – more mouths to feed, more challenges to make ends meet.
Tristan, Henry, Violet and James were lucky. They didn’t worry where their next meals would come from, didn’t flinch when their parents came in the room, and were always kissed goodnight. They never gave much thought to the simple things, but for some neighbors their lives were like something out of fairy tales.
The four of them stayed friends as they grew until James moved to Birmingham after secondary school. They had written to each other while he was gone, though not as often in the recent past, but she always had an idea of how his life was going. She had missed him, his smile and his warmth. He reminded her of a simple, peaceful time, and she missed that, too. They weren’t children anymore.
She hadn’t seen him in a few years, so when he came to her parents’ burial, his presence was what had undone all the composure she had worked so hard to keep.
A small inhalation had escaped when she had seen his face that day. Relief. She had felt relieved when he came into that stuffy room and walked toward her. She had been standing between her parents’ closed coffins, a hand on each of them. He’s here.
“Thank you for coming, Jamie,” she had said to him, tears in her eyes. He had embraced her then, Violet leaning into him and closing her eyes tightly letting him take her full weight. He stood tall and wrapped her up tightly. He smelled like soap, his tie was crooked and seeing him sent her back to her childhood. Being in his arms felt like a comfort and a gaping wound, knowing she would never see him in the same room as her parents again.
“Of course, I’m here, Vi. I’m so sorry they’re gone, I’m sorry I wasn’t around when it happened. You know I loved them too, right?”
Violet had nodded and wrapped her arms tighter around his neck. She stood on her tiptoes, and James ran a hand down the back of her hair. She felt okay, standing there holding onto him. She felt okay. She didn’t feel hopeful or happy, but she felt that maybe, somehow, she could do what she had to do.
It was that moment, in that small room with all those flowers, with her mum and dad gone, but right next to her, that she knew she could not marry Ethan. She could not promise to spend her life with him, and also feel the immense steadiness and relief that washed over her while holding onto James. It wasn’t fair to Ethan, and if she was being honest with herself, it wasn’t fair to her, either.
Looking back, she felt it was like a blink of an eye since she had said goodbye to Mum and Dad. It could have been just a moment ago that James had walked into that room and woken her up to the realities that she had chosen to ignore. It might have been just been one tick of a clock’s hand since she knew that she could never be Ethan’s wife.
Violet had actually realized those feelings for James nearly a year ago, on that awful day, but it wasn’t until yesterday that she had finally listened to the voice whispering in the back of her mind and had given Ethan his ring back. He wasn’t surprised, but he was angry, and he told Violet that she wasn’t thinking clearly, that her life had been blown up in so many ways that she couldn’t see the mistake she was making.
“He’s not good for you, Violet. He came back from that goddamn war a different person, and you’re giving up what we have for him?”
“I never said anything about Jamie,” she said, shielding her eyes from the sun that afternoon on the driveway. It was bright and warm with no whisper of the storm that was coming that night.
Ethan barked a harsh, unamused laugh.
“You never said anything about him? You didn’t have to, Violet. I’m not a fucking idiot. I see the way he looks at you, the way he talks to you. The way you talk to each other. I’ve seen it since the day you buried your mum and dad. Jesus, Violet.”
She looked down at her bare feet in the grass, her cheeks burning.
“Not as sorry as you will be.”
He said it quietly, and she knew without asking that it wasn’t a threat but a warning. When she looked up at him, the color was high in his cheeks, his blonde hair across his forehead. He looked so young. He reached a fist out to her and dropped the ring into her palm.
“Just keep it a while longer, okay? Just think about it. Remember that I love you.”
He leaned down and kissed her gently, a brush against her lips, and her fingers closed around the small circle of metal. Ethan opened his mouth to say something else, but his eyes flickered away from hers and over her shoulder. She knew before she turned around who she would see.
“Jamie,” Ethan said under his breath, his teeth tight together. Before Violet could move, he ran past her. Ethan’s fist was cocked as she turned around, and she heard the sickening smack of flesh on bone and watched as James crumbled.
Ethan was breathing heavily when she ran to the two of them, his eyes wide with surprise. He looked down at James, then at his own hands.
James stood slowly, wiped his bleeding lip on his sleeve.
“Anything else, Ethan?”
James made no move toward him, but Violet could feel James’ anger, and he shook her off when she reached a hand to his arm.
“No, that’s all I have for now,” Ethan said, glancing at Violet. “Remember what I said, Vi.”
He turned on his heel and got into his car, slamming it into gear and tearing down the driveway.
“Are you okay?” Violet asked in the ringing silence.
“You didn’t punch me, what are you sorry for?”
James touched his lip again and looked down at the ring she held, sparkling in the bright sun. He nodded toward it.
“He wouldn’t take it back,” Violet said, squeezing it in her fist once more before putting it in her pocket. “Do you want to come in? Get some ice for that lip?”
James looked at her then and she felt her stomach drop. That cold look, his eyes downcast and jaw held tight – she hadn’t seen that expression on his face in so long. It was all she saw from him those first few weeks when he came home from the front with a bullet still in his shoulder, and she had forgotten how sad it made her to see him that way. It gave her an anxious, uncomfortable feeling to see the strange coldness overtake him. Not now, please.
“No, I can’t right now.”
She nodded her head, reached for his arm again. He let her touch him this time but stayed where he was, and he came no closer to her.
“OK,” she said gently, “later, then? Will you come back later?”
He glanced at her for a moment, a wave of meaning travelling through the two of them. Later, it would finally be different. Later was a new beginning, a seed of hope that may be strong enough to push itself out of the hard earth and become something beautiful.
“Midnight, Vi. I’ll see you by midnight.”
She said nothing but nodded and squeezed his arm tightly before he walked away. She wanted to ask where he would go, what he would think about, but she swallowed the words. Midnight. She could wait until midnight.
Violet opened her eyes on the stairs and let go of her grip on the spindle when she heard the first chime of the clock. It startled her enough to make her stand and once the twelve strikes had ended, she realized she was holding her breath. The rain was thrashing against the glass and she shivered, even though she was on the other side of it, warm and safe.
His knock might have been the scratch of a branch in the storm, a wild wind that knocked over a flowerpot with the rain, but she ran to the door when she heard it, sure that Jamie would be on the other side, knowing that he wouldn’t keep her waiting any longer.
He stood there with his back to the darkness and rain, framed in her doorway, soaked.
“Come in,” she said, pulling him across the threshold, and he let himself be led into the warm glow of the entryway. “You must be freezing. Do you want me to check for dry clothes? I’m sure Tristan still has some things here, or Henry…”
“No, Vi, thank you. I’m fine.” He ran his hands through his soaking hair, slid off his shoes so he would not track water over the marble tiles.
She wrung her hands together as she watched him put his shoes neatly by the door. His head was down, droplets on the floor below him, his hair raven black from the rain. She pulled her arm against herself, an old habit, as he stood up slowly. His lip was a little swollen, his eyes were tired, but he smiled at her.
“Can we sit?” he asked quietly.
The house was silent around them, as if holding its breath. Even the rain had softened outside, the world calming down, the night exhaling.
“Yes, come and sit.”
She reached for his hand and he took it without hesitating. They walked toward the staircase, back to the third step, but Violet’s eyes were no longer on the clock. Midnight had come and gone, and her waiting was over for now.