Home > Once Upon a Winter's Eve (Spindle Cove #1.5)

Once Upon a Winter's Eve (Spindle Cove #1.5)
Author: Tessa Dare

Chapter One

In December of 1813, the officers’ ball had a profound effect on Spindle Cove’s economy. Seeing as how the village was mostly women, certain commodities ran scarce.

Hairpins, for one. Ribbons, for another. Curling papers came at a premium.

And corners. Corners were the scarcest thing of all.

Because there were only four in any given ballroom, and here in Spindle Cove, so many ladies were drawn to them.

As an experienced wallflower, Violet Winterbottom knew to stake her ground and guard it.

She’d claimed her niche on arrival. A comfortable alcove of the Summerfield grand hall, lightly scented with a hanging bayberry wreath and conveniently situated near the bowl of mulled wine.

“Why are you hiding in the corner, Violet?” Kate Taylor approached and took her by the arm. Lively and sensible, Kate was the Cove’s resident music tutor. “It’s Christmas. You should dance.”

Violet resisted with a smile. “Thank you. I’m happy here.”

Kate raised an eyebrow. “Are you really?”

Violet shrugged. In superficial characteristics, she didn’t fit the wallflower mold. She was a young lady of good family, possessed of a generous dowry, and she was—if not a legendary beauty—passably fair in candlelight. Her accomplishments in music and drawing didn’t merit any boasting, but she did speak six modern languages and could read several dead ones. She wasn’t clumsy or jaundiced or afflicted with a lisp.

And yet…she spent a great deal of time in the corner. More than ever, since The Disappointment.

“Let’s find you a partner,” Kate said, tugging at her wrist. “This gown of yours will look beautiful set off against a militiaman’s red coat.”

“Let her be, Miss Taylor.” Sally Bright joined them. “You know she’s out of sorts. On account of she’s leaving us tomorrow.”

Kate squeezed her hand. “Dear Violet. We’ll miss you terribly.”

“And I’ll miss all of you.”

Her parents had finally lost patience with Violet’s extended absence. They wanted to see their youngest daughter settled, and they’d determined that this coming Season would be the Season. The family carriage would come for her tomorrow, and Violet would have no choice but to pack all her belongings into it and return to London. To her family’s town house. Which was so horribly, painfully situated right next door to his.

Please don’t let him be home. Let him still be oceans away.

In a nervous gesture, Violet ran both gloved hands over her emerald silk. “My parents want me home with the family for Christmas.”

“Well, that’s nice, isn’t it?” Sally said. “We Brights always spend Christmas hoping our father don’t turn up. That old blackguard’s like the ague. He has a nasty way of coming ’round in winter.”

The Bright family shared two qualities: they all had startling white-blond hair, and they all worked together to run the village’s All Things shop. Sally tended the counter, cheerfully dealing both wares and gossip. The eldest, Errol, brought in goods from other towns. Twins Rufus and Finn stocked the place while their beleaguered mother looked after the youngest children. Their father was largely absent—and, from what Violet had gathered—not missed.

“But Violet, if you’re leaving tomorrow, that’s all the more reason you should dance tonight,” Kate said. “We should all be dancing. My goodness, look at them.”

She gestured toward the far side of the hall. There, the assembled militiamen of Spindle Cove stood in single file, as though it were their solemn duty to buttress the wall. They wore lobster-red coats, snow-white breeches, gold braid, brass buttons, and matching expressions of unease.

Kate shook her head. “After all the months we’ve waited for this ball, they mean to stand there like beanpoles and stare at us?”

“What were you expecting?” Violet asked.

“I don’t know.” Kate sighed. “Romance, perhaps? Don’t you ever dream that someday a dark, mysterious, handsome gentleman will suddenly notice you across a crowded ballroom? And he’ll cross the room to you, and ask you to dance, and fall madly in love with you forever?”

Sally shook her head. “Never happens in real life. Just ask my mother.”

Just ask me, Violet almost said aloud.

The dream Kate described had happened to her, once. In a setting much like this one, almost a year ago. A man she’d adored for years had finally noticed her. Locked gazes with her across a crowded room, then carved his way through the throng to take her hand.

But in the end, he had proved to be a disappointment.

The Disappointment.

“Happy endings do exist,” Kate insisted. “You have only to look at Lord and Lady Rycliff for the proof.”

They all turned to admire their hosts. Violet had to admit, they were a splendid couple.

“It’s so romantic, the way he keeps touching the small of her back. And the look in his eyes…” Kate sighed wistfully. “He’s devoted to her. And Susanna is the picture of bliss.”

“Of course she’s happy,” Violet said. “Lord Rycliff is a very honorable, very decent man.” Unlike some so-called gentlemen. “We all should be so lucky.”

“Perhaps,” Kate said. “But what if luck has nothing to do with it? This is Spindle Cove. Who says we must stand about waiting on the men? Perhaps we should stop hoping to be noticed and do some noticing ourselves.”

What Violet noticed was a shriek. The startled cry pierced the crowded ballroom, freezing them all in place.

“Dear Lord,” she muttered. “What was that?”

“What is that?” Kate asked.

The other guests pressed to the edges of the ballroom, revealing what Violet could not see. A set of doors that opened onto the garden had been flung open.

A figure stood silhouetted in the entry. Tall. Dark. Menacing.

The militiamen reached for the sabers slung at their sides. Violet would have felt more reassured if she didn’t know they were ornamental blades, better suited for slicing soft cheese than running an intruder through.

As the host, lord, and commanding officer, Lord Rycliff stepped forward. “Who are you?” he demanded. “What do you want?”

No answer.

But one thing was obvious, immediately. The man was not from Spindle Cove. This was a small village, and all the residents knew one another—by sight, if not by name. This intruder was a stranger to them all.

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