Series: Stand Alone
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It Was Only a Kiss...
Violet Hotchkiss is head over heels in love with Oliver Quincy, the embodiment of the perfect English gentleman in every novel she’s ever read. So why is she kissing Will Sinclair in the garden at the Twelfth Night ball?
That Led to a Night...
Violet always found Will to be too much—too tall, too handsome…too far out of reach for a bespectacled spinster to dream about. But one taste of Will releases something wild in Violet, something that will never be satisfied with just a kiss…
That Changed Everything…
Will always had a crush on smart, spirited Violet. But the bold woman who takes what she wants, and isn’t afraid to ask for more, is a revelation. Now he just has to convince Violet to take the bravest step of all—letting him love her.
29 December 1817
Miss Violet Hotchkiss never expected to walk into Sir John and Lady Sinclair’s evening soiree and fall headlong into love.
Indeed, one would hardly expect it of a bespectacled wallflower of four and twenty years who was more comfortable discussing the 1815 Corn Law than the latest in ladies’ fashion.
And yet, she had.
Only minutes earlier, Violet had been alighting from her parents’ carriage and bracing against the wintry cold with her burgundy velvet cloak wrapped tight about her, prepared for the usual sort of supper party, with all the usual local gentry.
She stopped to adjust her spectacles, which had slipped down her nose.
“Violet.” Her sister Lily rushed from her carriage, breath puffing white through the smile curving her mouth. Everyone had always agreed that of the Hotchkiss sisters Lily had the prettiest smile. It was an opinion with which Violet wholeheartedly agreed.
Lily’s arm twined through Violet’s. “Is Mr. Granville attending?” Violet asked. Only last summer Lily had become Mrs. Charles Granville. Violet still hadn’t fully adjusted to the idea of her beloved sister being a Mrs.
Lily used her fan to point out the small grouping behind them. “Charles is asking for Papa’s advice regarding an agricultural matter.” Lily leaned in conspiratorially. “I think he does it so Papa will think well of him.” Lily’s gaze flew upward and roved over the house before them. “Isn’t Somerton Manor splendidly lovely?”
Constructed of light gray stone, Somerton Manor was an elegant, rectangular house with few pediments and plain pilasters framing the front door. Perfectly symmetrical and English, it was indisputably the finest house in the neighborhood, not including the Earl and Countess of Stapleton’s magnificent estate, Willoughby Castle, which Violet didn’t include as she only saw it once a year at their annual Twelfth Night ball.
Violet gave a noncommittal murmur. It wasn’t that she disagreed with Lily’s observation. It was that her sister had made it at all. Lily had only begun commenting on other people’s houses after she’d become a married gentlelady. Violet was learning that the wedded state changed women in ways ineffable and mysterious. How lucky that she would never marry.
They took the staircase at a quick clip; such was the motivating factor of the biting wind. Of course, it was exactly the sort of night one would expect in late December. Besides, one couldn’t hold the cold against such a beautiful, clear night with the stars winking their twinkly brilliance above.
At the top, the front door swung open on smooth hinges to usher them into the inviting warmth beyond. Although Somerton Manor was a grand house from the outside, Violet had always appreciated that its interior was built to be lived in, with its downstairs of warm oak-paneled rooms that instantly made one feel cozy and at home.
After leaving their cloaks with a footman, Violet and Lily continued into the main hall, where Sir John and Lady Sinclair were receiving their guests. “If it isn’t the most lovely Mrs. Granville and the most erudite Miss Hotchkiss,” said Sir John with his familiar, paternal wink.
Violet smiled agreeably, even as she sighed on the inside. Of course.
In her thirteenth year, she’d been found shortsighted and fitted for her first pair of spectacles. In an instant, she’d gone from being a pretty-enough girl to well-read and bookish. Erudite was simply a variation on the theme. Bluestocking was yet another, but in a few years one word would surpass all others. Spinster, a word that would stick with her all the rest of her days.
Spinsterhood was the inevitable fate of well-read, bookish, erudite bluestockings, a fact that had become clear to her as their family, friends, and acquaintances had separated her and Lily into intelligent and lovely, respectively. So, Violet had taken the persona cast on her, tried it on for size, and found it fit, mostly. She enjoyed books and learning. If on occasion she viewed her sister’s life and experienced a pang of envy, it passed quickly, for she loved Lily with all her heart and begrudged her nothing.
Although, it must be admitted that a certain question did sometimes poke its sharp, little point into her: Why was that life closed off to a well-read, bookish, erudite bluestocking? It was as if the possibility never occurred to anyone else, therefore everyone expected it would never occur to her. It was easier to throw herself into books. Besides, she’d never once met a gentleman who compared to the hero of one.
“Sir John, Lady Sinclair,” Lily said, “what a perfect night for a soiree.”
“We simply had to celebrate Sinclair’s return to us,” said Lady Sinclair, as if she couldn’t quite believe the fact herself.
“Returned alive and all in one piece, I might add,” chimed Sir John on a laugh that contained a note of seriousness.
Sinclair … Will Sinclair, Sir John and Lady Sinclair’s only child, had come home after three years of travels to this and that exotic locale, clearly to the relief of his parents who had dutifully kept their neighbors informed of his latest jaunts. Lily offered her happy congratulations, and Violet smiled along. It wasn’t that she wished any harm on Sinclair. It was simply that she’d never had any doubt that he would return home, alive, and in one piece. Sinclair had always seemed a capable sort.
Sir John craned his neck around and began glancing about the hall. “Now where has the boy got off to?” But his search was cut short when Violet and Lily’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Hotchkiss, entered the hall with Mr. Granville. Now the host and hostess were on to more greetings.
Lily tugged Violet’s arm. “Come with me,” she said, sotto voce. “I have news to share.”
Violet experienced a frisson equal parts excitement and dread. Since Lily’s wedding, Violet had been expecting news. Once ensconced in a quiet corner of the drawing room, Lily grabbed both of Violet’s hands and squeezed. “Can you guess my news?”
“Oh, sister,” Violet said, sudden tears springing to her eyes, “I am overcome with joy for you.” And she was. She truly, truly was. “But you shall give me a niece first. Then you can have all the boys you like.”
“Vivi,” Lily began on a laugh, “how you do love to control matters. But even you cannot influence this outcome.”
Violet’s responding smirk did the job of suppressing the familiar pang of envy. Once she’d understood she would never marry, she’d accepted she would never have children. Lily, the younger sister by two years, had been the one destined for marriage, so the sisters had begged that they be allowed to debut together. Their parents hadn’t been able to deny the wisdom of such an arrangement and assented. At their debut dance, Mr. Granville had been first to sweep Lily across the dancing floor, and her future had been set.
“Come,” Lily began, pulling Violet forward, “let us be social. Who has arrived?”
Violet gave the room a quick once-over. “The Baring-Whites are here. And Mrs. Acton.”
“Did Mrs. Baring-White bring her spaniel?”
“One must wonder if she is allowed to leave her house without it.”
Lily flashed Violet an impish grin. How Violet loved to pull that grin from her sister. They didn’t much need words to communicate.
Across the room, Mr. Granville gave Lily a nearly imperceptible nod. Lily’s smile transformed into one entirely inscrutable to Violet. She was no longer the only person in the world with whom Lily didn’t need words to communicate. It had taken a bit of getting used to.
Drawn by the magnetic force of her husband, Lily pulled a slightly annoyed Violet along. As they joined the group, Papa was saying with an affable smile, “So, that vagabond son of yours is done traveling the world?”
Sir John beamed. “I am happy to confirm all the reports are true. Sinclair is home to stay.” He gave his longtime neighbor a clap on the back. “Though I’ve had a devil of a time keeping an eye on the boy tonight. Mayhap Quincy will know.”
“Quincy?” asked Mama. Like any attentive mother of a marriageable daughter, her ear was ever attuned to the mention of a gentleman. After all, he could be moneyed and unmarried. “Who is Quincy?”
“Mr. Oliver Quincy is my beloved sister’s son,” explained Lady Sinclair. “He is paying us a brief visit on his way up to Town.”
The tension released from Mama’s shoulders. “So, he is a good sort?” she asked, relentless.
Violet glanced at Lily, so they could share a private laugh, but Lily’s attention was fixed and doting upon Mr. Granville.
“Quincy is a fine young man, to be sure.” Sir John cast his gaze about the room. “Ah, and there he is.”
Violet followed along with everyone else to locate the young gentleman. Her heart did a funny little pitter-pat in her chest. Never once in its four and twenty years had her heart behaved so.
As he navigated toward them, one couldn’t help but be taken by Mr. Quincy’s elegance of bearing and learned air. He was of a middling height that wasn’t too tall, with fine dark hair that lay in a perfect coif and large dark eyes that conveyed the impression that they weren’t too impressed by his surroundings. A man could not be too learned, but he could be too impressed. Violet had never observed a man who so precisely personified an artist’s rendering of the perfect English gentleman.
“Sir John, you desire my presence?” asked Mr. Quincy. Even the studiously enunciated syllables of his voice were just as they should be.
“Come and meet Mr. and Mrs. Hotchkiss, my boy,” said Sir John.
“Delighted,” said Mr. Quincy as he bowed over Mama’s hand.
“And their family, Mr. and Mrs. Granville,” Sir John continued.
Mr. Quincy bowed over Lily’s hand. “Charmed.”
“And Miss Hotchkiss.”
Mr. Quincy turned to Violet. A hot flush rose inside her, and her heart was off to the races. “Enchanted,” he spoke over her hand.
Violet had difficulty drawing breath. Enchanted? She had never enchanted anyone in her entire life. A breathy “Oh,” escaped her in the form of an exhale that may have ended in a bit of a giggle.
Lily cut her a sharp glance, and Violet attempted to remember herself. She wasn’t the sort of young lady who giggled.
“Ah, there is Sinclair.” Sir John smiled, his eyes alight with pride and affection.
Once again, as one they followed the direction of his pleased smile as Sinclair approached from the opposite end of the room, politely avoiding various groupings vying for his attention.
“Oh, my, but his travels seem to have agreed with him,” murmured Mama.
“Indeed,” came Lily’s breathy reply. Mr. Granville lifted an eyebrow at the appreciation in his wife’s voice.
Violet and Sinclair were of a similar age, with him being two years her elder, and as their families were friendly neighbors, they had grown up in the way those of friendly proximity did—seeing each other about the village, at general assemblies, at teas and fêtes. Although Sir John was a baronet, he had never lorded that fact about the neighborhood. Still, Violet had always kept her distance from Sinclair. For all they’d grown up in the same environ, he’d always discomfited her.
His height had been too towering. His shoulders too massive. His face too handsome. He had been quite simply too everything.
And now, he was still in possession of these qualities, yet somehow different, as if a sharper edge ran along the length of him. She couldn’t help wondering what had forged this new quality that rendered him even more forbidding, but she dismissed the curiosity in favor of a safer man to think upon: Mr. Quincy. He was a man who wasn’t too anything.
Of a sudden, a fitting comparison between these two men struck Violet. Mr. Quincy fit the ideal of the perfect hero from a novel with his smooth, refined features. And Will Sinclair? Well, he would be the rake, a man whose overwhelming handsomeness and slightly brutish exterior many a lady would find impossible to resist.
Sinclair first greeted Mr. and Mrs. Hotchkiss, as was proper. Mama’s cheeks looked a trifle flushed as she returned his felicitations. Next, he turned to Mr. and Mrs. Granville, congratulating them on their summer nuptials.
During this time, Violet had taken a great interest in the seams of her satin gloves. Then she felt them: eyes upon her. Sinclair’s, she knew it. He possessed one of those gazes that was ever unflinching.
Once the silence had gone on a beat too long, she relented and met his deep blue eyes. Perplexingly, her breath caught in her lungs and refused to be reasonable and release. She felt strange and exposed, as if Sinclair could see down to the cockles of her soul. She didn’t remember this about him.
Sir John cleared his throat. “Miss Hotchkiss, you’ll remember Sinclair?”
Sinclair’s eyebrows drew together in confusion. “Miss Hotchkiss?” he asked.
Violet had forgotten how deep his voice was. Too deep.
All eyes swung toward her. She forced an uneasy laugh. She never did enjoy being at the center of a gathering’s attention. “That has been my name these last four and twenty years,” she chirped lightly, which did nothing to dispel the scowl on Sinclair’s face.
“But how is it you’re unwed?” he asked.
Had he truly asked such a question? In company?
She opened her mouth and closed it, flummoxed and speechless for the first time in her life.