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 had 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.
“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?”
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.
He was also large. Streaked with grime. Dripping wet.
And moving. Staggering, stumbling…directly toward her alcove.
The men drew those sabers now, and some of them rushed forward. Corporal Thorne looked fully prepared to skewer the man—dull blade notwithstanding.
But the intruder did not pose a threat for long. Before any of the militiamen could reach him, he collapsed.
Right at Violet’s feet.
As he slid to the floor, he clutched at her skirts, tangling with them. By the time the man’s head met parquet with a heavy thud, a long streak of blood marred her watered silk.
Violet sank to her knees. She hadn’t much choice. She pressed her gloved hand to the intruder’s neck, searching for his pulse. Her satin-sheathed fingertips came away bright red. And trembling.
Kate and Sally crouched beside her.
“Dear heaven,” Kate breathed. “He’s just covered in blood.”
“And dirt,” Sally said. “But cor, he’s gorgeous anyhow.”
“Sally, only you could think of such a thing at a time like this.”
“You can’t tell me you didn’t notice. Just look at those cheekbones. That strong jaw. Pity about the nose, but those lips are made for sin. He’s like a fallen angel, isn’t he?”
“He’s fallen,” Kate said. “So much is certain.”
Violet removed her soiled glove and pressed her bare hand to the man’s chilled, dirt-streaked face. He moaned and tightened his grip on her skirts.
Sally gave her a sly look. “Whoever he is, he seems to be rather taken with Miss Winterbottom.”
Violet’s face heated. She never knew how to act at a ball, but this situation was entirely missing from the etiquette books. When a man lumbered across a ballroom and collapsed at a lady’s feet, shouldn’t the lady offer him some comfort? It seemed the only decent thing.
Then again, she’d made that error in the past—offering comfort to a wounded man, and letting him take too much. She’d spent the past year paying for that very mistake.
“Pardon me. Let me through.” Susanna, Lady Rycliff, pushed through the crowd and knelt at the man’s side. “I need to find the source of his bleeding.”
Lord Rycliff joined her. “Let me check him for weapons first. We don’t know who he is.”
“He’s someone who needs help,” Susanna answered. “Without delay. He’s chilled through. And he has a nasty gash to his head, see?”
“Look at the man. How can he be a threat? He’s barely conscious.”
“Lift your hands from him,” Lord Rycliff demanded in a low, stern voice. “Now.”
With a tiny huff of breath, Susanna raised both hands to shoulder height. “Fine. Do it quickly, please.”
“Thorne, see to his boots. I’ll take the pockets.” Lord Rycliff patted the man’s chest and waistband and riffled through the pockets of his simple dark-blue coat. “Nothing.”
“Naught here, either.” Thorne turned the man’s weathered, hard-toed boots upside down and shook them.
“Not even a bit of coin?” asked Kate. “Perhaps he’s the victim of a robbery.”
“May I do my work now?” Susanna asked. At her husband’s nod of consent, she motioned to a footman. “Bring blankets and bandages, immediately.” She turned to the ladies. “Kate, can you fetch my kit from the stillroom? Sally, do bring a cup of mulled wine.” After removing her gloves, she pressed her bare hands to the wounded man’s feet. “Like ice,” she muttered, wincing. “Hot bricks, please,” she called to the servants, lifting her head.
Thorne plucked a cluster of Irish moss from the man’s boot. “It’s seawater. He must have washed up in the Cove.”
“Oh, dear. But if he washed up in the Cove, how did he make it all the way here?”
Lord Rycliff’s jaw hardened. “More to the point, why?”
The stranger began to tremble violently. Words spilled from his bluish lips. He muttered a steady stream of words in a foreign tongue.
Rycliff frowned. “What language is that? Not English. Nor French.”
“Violet will know,” Susanna said. “She knows every language.”
“That’s not true,” Violet protested. “Only a dozen or so.”
“Pish. You once learned Romany in an hour, when that baby was sick.”
“I truly didn’t.”
She hadn’t learned Romany at all. She’d learned, through trial and error, that one of the women spoke a bit of Italian, and they’d translated back and forth—with a great deal of hand gestures and pantomime added to the mix. It hadn’t been elegant translation, but it had been effective in the end—enough to help a frightened mother and her feverish babe.
Language was a vast, complicated tapestry. The key to communication was finding a common thread.
To that end, Violet pushed aside her emotions and concentrated on the man’s words. “It’s…some sort of Celtic dialect, from the sound of things. Not my particular area of expertise. Perhaps he’s Welsh?”
She lifted a hand to request silence. She willed even her heartbeat to stop its pounding, so she might better hear his words.
Definitely a Celtic language of some sort. But on further listen, it didn’t sound like Welsh after all. Much less Gaelic or Manx.
“Here.” Sally returned with a steaming cup of mulled wine. “Have him drink this.”
With help, Violet lifted the man’s head and put the cup to his lips. He sipped and coughed, then sipped again.
“I’m listening,” she said in English, hoping the reassuring tone would translate even if the words did not. “Tell me how to help.”
He rolled onto his back and looked up at her.
Violet’s breath caught. A jolt of recognition struck her so hard, it set the whole ballroom spinning.
His eyes. Good heavens, those eyes. They were the rich, layered brown of spice and tobacco. They held an intelligence that belied his coarse, simple garments. They conveyed desperation, a plea for help.
But most of all, those eyes looked…familiar.
It couldn’t be, she told herself. It made no rational sense. But the longer she stared into those spice-brown eyes, the stronger her sense of affinity grew. Violet felt as though she were gazing into a face she’d seen before. A set of features more familiar than her own looking-glass reflection. The face that haunted her dreams.
“It can’t be,” she whispered.
His hand seized hers. She gasped at the sudden contact, and the painful chill of his flesh.
The flow of his words narrowed. He began to repeat one phrase. Just the same chain of syllables, over and over again. Violet listened hard. Once she caught the seam of the phrase and followed it a few times, she was able to unravel its meaning.
“Can you understand him?” Lord Rycliff asked.
“A little. I think he’s speaking in…” She paused and listened again. “Well, it’s almost Cornish. But not quite. I think it’s…Breton.”
“I’ve never studied it, so I can’t be sure. But I’ve heard some Cornish, and I know Breton is its closest lingual relation. They’re so close, you see—Cornwall and Brittany. Only separated by a small stretch of sea.”
“Brittany,” Rycliff echoed. “As in Brittany, France.”
“The same France with which we are at war.”
Everyone in the ballroom went on alert. Violet saw the alarm in their eyes as the uniformed men looked from one to another. A Frenchman, washed up on the beach in Spindle Cove? As a militia, they were organized to prevent this very occurrence.
“Ask him where he’s come from,” Rycliff said. “Are there others?”
A footman returned with blankets. But as he moved to heap them atop the shivering man, Lord Rycliff stayed him with an open hand.
“What is it he’s saying, Miss Winterbottom? We must know if the Cove is under attack.”
“He’s only saying one thing that I can understand. It’s the same phrase, over and over.”
She touched her fingertips to the man’s cheek. “Nedeleg laouen,” she repeated. “Merry Christmas.”