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

Page 2

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. ”
Violet nodded.
“The same France with which we are at war. ”
“Yes. ”
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. ”
“What’s that?”
She touched her fingertips to the man’s cheek. “Nedeleg laouen,” she repeated. “Merry Christmas. ”
Chapter Two
She was an angel.
His very own angel.
He had thought he would die, staggering through the cold night. Blood trickling down his neck. Seawater trickling everywhere else, freezing his clothes to his body. As he’d trudged over meadows and fields toward the bright, shining star of this place, he’d been so certain he would perish.
He’d fallen. He’d despaired. But he’d struggled to his feet and continued, because there was nothing else he could do. And when he’d almost reached the doors of this glittering warmth, he’d spied her—a vision of emerald silk and golden hair. Standing in the corner, as though she were waiting there for him. She gave him strength to drag his numb limbs forward, telling himself… If he died tonight, he would die holding that beautiful girl.
Or, as it happened, he would die with the beautiful girl holding him.
“Nedeleg laouen,” he stammered once more through frozen lips.
Her mouth curved in a little smile. Soft fingers caressed his cheek once more. “Nedeleg laouen. ”
Merciful God. A miracle. She understood him. She touched him. This was a gift he did not deserve.
Nothing had gone as it should. So many stupid mistakes. Fool. Jackass. Azen gomek. His superiors would be displeased. If he even survived to see them again, they might make him wish he’d died.
But she was here. And she was dressed in green silk and touching his face. This was heaven, for the moment.
A red coat appeared in his vision. The one they called Rycliff. Clearly the lord, or the commander, or something of both. This Rycliff took him by the collar and barked questions. First in English, then in French.
He could only answer in Breton. “Corentin Morvan eo ma anv. Me a zo un tamm peizant. ” My name is Corentin Morvan. I am a humble farmhand.
Rycliff released him, then traded remarks with the angel in green silk.
Another woman claimed his attention. This one had hair of flame, and freckles dusted like cinders across her cheeks. She didn’t bother speaking in English or French, but instead pantomimed with expansive motions. He might have found this amusing, were he in less pain.
They were going to move him, he gathered. His head would be bandaged.
He nodded his understanding.
Good, good. Let it be so.
He couldn’t go anywhere in this condition. And she would save him the unpleasant task of doing it himself.
He clasped his angel’s hand tight as the men carried him into another room. He found himself settled on a long, upholstered bench close to a fire. The sudden flare of warmth made him shiver harder.
He knew he ought to be planning. His mind should never be idle in such a situation. At the very least, he should be scanning the room for potential weapons and his fastest route of escape.
But he was too cold. Too gripped by pain. Too lost in the blue of her eyes. Too enslaved by the tenderness of her fingertips. This hour of his life must be lived in small increments. One tiny action after another.
His heart gave a soft thump in his chest.
His lungs drew a painful breath.
He gripped her pale, soft hand as if it were his only hold on consciousness. Perhaps it was. Enough pride remained to him that he did not want to faint in front of a pretty girl.
A blanket draped his body. Heavy. Warm. Hands turned him onto to his side. Somewhere beneath the upholstery, an unyielding spar of wood dug against his ribs.
Something sharp gouged his scalp. He winced and swore.
The flame-haired woman spoke words in English as she unstoppered a small glass vial. His heart rate quickened. He suspected he would not enjoy the contents of that vial.
He was right.
She turned his head. Liquid fire poured over his raw, open wound, and pain ripped through his pounding skull. The edges of his vision went black.
They meant to torture him, perhaps. But he would not break.
“Corentin Morvan eo ma anv,” he growled, beginning the standard litany. My name is Corentin Morvan. I am a humble farmhand. I know nothing. Nothing. I swear on the Virgin this is true. Pain wrenched the words from his throat and pushed them through the sieve of his clenched teeth.
When he’d mastered his breath, he looked up at his angel in green silk. Worry drew fine lines across her brow. Her blue eyes were wells of concern.
But still she touched him, so softly. So gently.
A true mercy, after all he’d done.
A needle tugged through his scalp. This time, he took no note of the pain. There would be time enough later for the pain. He concentrated on her sweet caress instead.
Leaning close, she whispered something in his ear. He could not respond, but he could enjoy the orange blossom fragrance of her hair. There was lace edging her dress. He counte
d its scallops and points, treasuring each one.
God, how he longed to touch her. She was so close, so lovely. It had been so long. He wanted to reach out and skim his chilled, callused fingertip over that lacy border and the creamy perfection of her collarbone.
A dozen armed soldiers hovered about, ready to gut him in moments, should he dare. Even so, the idea tempted. One stolen caress might have been worth his life.
But there were other lives at stake. Lives more important and worthy than the life of Corentin Morvan, a humble farmhand. So he closed his eyes and pushed temptation away.
When the stitching was finished, the flame-haired woman put away her vials and implements. She spoke with the officer. Plans were being made. Men were being dispatched.
The girl in emerald silk nodded as someone handed her a pair of gloves. Fine gloves of soft leather, lined with fur. Gloves meant for wearing in the cold.
Which meant she was leaving. They would part him from his angel.
Mustering what remained of his strength, he threw an arm about her waist and flung his head in her lap. She startled and froze, but she did not recoil. Cool silk teased against his cheek, and beneath it he felt the warmth of her skin.
“Only her,” he muttered in Breton. “No one but her. She alone understands. You cannot take her from me. ”
And then he made a true ass of himself.
He fainted dead away.
“He’s collapsed,” Susanna said. “From the pain, most likely. ”
Violet gulped, staring at the man so indecently sprawled face-down in her lap. She could view the stitches Susanna had used to mend his injury. They were neat work, but the wound was ugly. A ragged, red gash carved through his dark brown hair.
Lord Rycliff moved toward her. “I’ll get him off you. ”
“It’s all right. ” Violet laid a tentative touch across the man’s broad shoulders. “He’s wounded and confused. It’s only natural that he’d cling to the one person who understands him a little. ”
“Whether you understand him or not…” Rycliff shook his head. “I don’t trust him. ”
I’m not sure I do either, Violet thought. But she wasn’t prepared to abandon him. Not until she learned more.
“Do you mind him being in here, Papa?” Susanna asked her father. They’d all migrated to the library of Sir Lewis Finch. It had been the nearest room to the great hall with a fire in the hearth.
“Not at all, not at all,” Sir Lewis answered. “You know I collect curiosities of all sorts. But we might send in some footmen with a tarpaulin. ” He cocked his head and surveyed the growing puddle beneath the dripping man.
“And dry clothing,” Susanna added. “He ought to fit something of Bram’s. ”
Just then, Rufus Bright and Aaron Dawes entered the room, breathing hard with exertion. When the stranger had disrupted the ball, Lord Rycliff had dispatched some militiamen to assess the situation in the cove.
“Did you see anything?” Rycliff asked.
“No ships,” Rufus answered, huffing for breath. “And all’s clear at the castle. ”
“But when we took the path down to the cove, we found the remnants of a small boat,” Dawes added. “Wrecked and washed ashore. ”
“This is bollocks. ” To the side of the room, Finn Bright spoke up. “Can’t believe you lot went down to the cove without me. ”
“Of course we did,” his twin said, unapologetic. “We had to run. ”
Finn didn’t argue. He just punched the floor with his crutch.
Violet hurt for the youth. Everyone did. Finn was fifteen years old, full of energy and cleverness. And since an accident a few months ago, the lad was missing a foot. For the most part, Finn masked his frustration with a brave face and his characteristic good humor. But the fact that he had an able-bodied twin in Rufus—an exact copy of himself who could still run, march, climb, and dance with ease—had to make it more difficult.
“A boat, you say?” Susanna peered at the man in Violet’s lap, dabbing his scraped temple with a moistened cloth. “Perhaps he’s a fisherman who drifted off course and met with an accident. ”