Aaron scrubbed his face with both hands. Curse him, Fosbury had too many things right.

From the first sight of her, he’d been utterly smitten. He had a weakness for finely wrought things, and by God, Diana Highwood was just so . . . perfect. In any other village, men might sit on these barstools and debate which woman deserved the honor of most comely in town. In this tavern, that debate would begin and end over a single sip of ale. Diana Highwood took the honors, without question. She had the face of an angel. Delicate and beautiful.

But though her fair looks might have caught his eye, other qualities had snared his heart.

It had all started the night they’d spent struggling to save Finn Bright’s life. The youth had lost his foot in an explosion, and he’d been brought to the forge for surgery. Miss Highwood wasn’t a healer or a nurse, but she’d insisted on staying to help. Bringing water, mopping blood, dabbing the sweat of delirium from Finn’s brow.

That was the night Aaron had learned the truth of Diana Highwood. That her delicacy was only skin deep—but the beauty went all the way through.

The longer she lived in this village, the more he found in her to admire. She wasn’t only beautiful; she was brave as well. Then determined, intelligent, charitable. By now, she was some sort of paragon in his mind, and Aaron worried that long after she left, he’d be comparing every woman he ever met to her.

He stretched his hand, regarding it in the dim light. The pad of his thumb still burned where he’d brushed a lock of hair from her neck. It felt singed, cinder-kissed. He pressed it against the cool tankard, but it still throbbed, hot and achy.

Damn, he was hot and achy everywhere. He’d let this attraction get away from him, and now she was deep under his skin. In his blood, it seemed.

“She’s not for you,” Fosbury said.

“I know it. I know it well.” And if he’d been harboring any other thoughts, her frantic escape today would have driven them out of his head.

“She’s not the only woman in this village.”

“I know that, too. It’s just . . . so long as she’s living here, I can’t seem to take an interest in anyone else.”

Fosbury leaned close over the counter and lowered his voice. “The answer could be right under your nose. You don’t have to look far.”

The tavern keeper tilted his head in the direction of the serving girl, who’d emerged from the kitchen with a rag to wipe the tables clean. She cast a friendly smile in Aaron’s direction, and he returned the greeting with a nod.

When she was out of earshot, Aaron muttered, “You want me to court Pauline Simms?”

“She’d make you a good wife. Hardworking, clever with sums. She’s grown up well, too.” Fosbury rapped the countertop with his knuckles, then drifted away. “Think about it.”

Under the guise of stretching his neck, Aaron had another look at the girl.

He thought about it.

Fosbury was right. Pauline Simms was the sort of woman he ought to set his sights on. She was one of his kind. Working class, the daughter of a farmer. As Fosbury said, she was quick with her hands and her wits. She’d be a help to any man with a trade. Admittedly, she had a few rough edges, but nothing some care and time wouldn’t smooth.

As he watched, she tipped over a decorative plate, muttering, “Bollocks.”

He smiled. But even though they were only four years apart in age, and even though she’d long grown into a woman—a pretty one, at that—Aaron couldn’t look at Pauline Simms without seeing the gap-toothed, freckled girl who’d grown up a year behind his own sister.

That was the problem with a village this small. Every available woman felt like a sister to him. Or maybe it was his own circumstances that had permanently cast him in the big-brother role.

When his father had died ten years ago, slumped over the anvil from a heart attack, it didn’t matter that Aaron was barely seventeen. He’d needed to become the man of the family, and quick. He’d taken over the forge, working hard to support his mother and sisters.

When Spindle Cove became a retreat for well-bred young ladies, some of the other men had groused about the village being overrun . . . but it suited Aaron fine. By then, both his sisters had married, and they and his mother had moved away. So he liked having the visiting young ladies around. He mended their locks and buckles; they purchased the silver and copper trinkets he made in his spare time. It was like having a flock of little sisters to replace the ones he so sorely missed.

He’d never felt brotherly toward her.

He drained his ale. It wasn’t strong enough. “Pauline?”

She looked up from mopping a table clean. “Yes, Mr. Dawes? Anythin’ else you need?”

As was their habit, all the ladies residing in the Queen’s Ruby rooming house gathered in the parlor after dinner. A roaring fire kept the chill at bay.

Even now, hours after leaving the forge, Diana was still out-of-sorts. The bit of needlework she’d been working on wouldn’t come out right, and she’d lost patience with it.

She’d spent the better part of two years girlishly infatuated with Aaron Dawes, all the while trusting nothing could come of it. He’d mended every scrap of metal she possessed—sometimes two or three times—showing her nothing but neighborly patience.

Until today. Today, he’d shown her something much more.

And she’d panicked and fled. Not even politely, but as if he were an ogre. She was certain he’d been wounded by her hasty retreat.

Now she’d have to avoid him for as long as she remained in the village. How unbearably awkward.

She gave up on stitching and cast a glance out the window. Through the dark and wet, she saw a familiar black mare grazing on the village green.

He must be at the tavern tonight.

“This dratted rain,” her sister Charlotte moaned. “It’s setting us all on edge. Two weeks now with no country walks, no gardening, no romps through the castle ruins. No amusement at all.”

“I don’t mind rain.” This came from Miss Bertram, a young lady new in Spindle Cove this spring. “I always loved spending rainy days with Mr. Evermoore.”

Spindle Cove was a haven for odd, unconventional, and misunderstood young ladies. But even among misfits, Miss Bertram didn’t quite mix. She was hard to know—mostly because she had nothing to say that didn’t involve her relationship with this mysterious rogue, Mr. Evermoore.

“My parents didn’t approve of Mr. Evermoore,” Miss Bertram went on. Her dark eyebrows stood out like bold punctuation on an otherwise unremarkable face. “They don’t understand our attachment. That’s why I’m here, you know.”

Miss Bertram’s dark eyebrows gathered in a wounded line. “No one understands. No one.” She lifted her book before her face and turned a page with a snap.

Charlotte buried her face in her hands and convulsed with silent laughter.

“Who needs to poke it? She offers it up so readily.” Charlotte mimicked in a high whisper, “Oh, Mr. Evermoore. No one understands our love.”

“She’s hardly the first young woman to lose her head over an unsuitable man.”

“What about an imaginary one? I’d wager anything that Mr. Evermoore is Mr. Never-Was. She just wants to impress us.”

“All the more reason to show her kindness.”

Charlotte said lightly, “That’s the lovely thing about being your sister, Diana. You’re kind enough for us both.”

Diana felt a twinge of guilt. She hadn’t treated Mr. Dawes very kindly today. In her agitation, she jabbed at the fabric and pricked her finger. “Drat.”

She scouted her immediate surroundings for her thimble. It wasn’t in her sewing basket, nor caught in the folds of her skirt. “Have you seen my thimble, Charlotte?”

“No. When did you have it last?”

“This afternoon, I think. When we went to the Bull and Blossom for tea. I’m sure it was in my kit, but I can’t find it now.”

Before they could expand their search, the door creaked open, admitting a sharp blast of icy wind. Their visitor appeared in the entry, throwing back her hood to reveal a shock of white-blond hair.

Sally Bright shook off her damp cloak and hung it on a hook. Her cheeks were pink. “I brought over the post. It was dreadful late today on account of the muddy roads, and I couldn’t wait for you ladies to come collect it tomorrow.”

Diana smiled to herself. Together with her brothers, Sally kept the All Things shop, and she was the biggest gossip in the village. If she’d taken the trouble to bring over the post, that must mean there was something of interest in it.

Something she couldn’t steam open, read, and reseal with no one the wiser.

Sure enough, Sally held out a packet tied with string. “Look. It’s a lovely great package from our dear Mrs. Thorne. And it’s addressed to all of you.”

“Something from Kate?” Charlotte leaped to take the packet and wrestle with the strings. “Oh, how wonderful.”

Kate Taylor had been the village music tutor until last summer, when she’d married Corporal Thorne—now Captain Thorne—and moved away to follow his rising career. Though everyone in Spindle Cove was happy for them, Kate’s lively spirit and melodies were sorely missed.

“There’s a packet of handwritten booklets,” Charlotte said, sorting the contents. “And a letter. I suppose I should read it first.”

“Aloud, if you will,” said Sally.

Charlotte’s eyes widened as she scanned the page. “She sends us all greetings from Ambervale.”

This news was met with a general murmur of excitement.

Ambervale was the estate of the eccentric Gramercy family, headed by the Marquess of Drewe. Kate was the Gramercys’ cousin by some tenuous, and rather scandalous, connection. Nevertheless, they’d welcomed her to the fold . . . and now into their house, which was situated just a few hours away.

“I hope this means she’s coming to visit,” Diana said.

“Even better,” said Charlotte. “Lord Drewe is inviting us to visit them. All of us.”

“A ball!” Mama cried. “Oh, I knew it. I knew Lord Drewe would want another chance at you, Diana.”

“Mama, I’m sure this means nothing of the sort.”

“Of course it does! Such a handsome, elegant man. The two of you made a striking couple. Everyone could see it.”

Not again. When the Gramercys had been in Spindle Cove last summer, Mama had made the most embarrassing remarks to poor Lord Drewe, always angling for a match between him and Diana.

Charlotte gave them all a superior look. “Shall I read the letter, or would you prefer to spend the evening guessing at its contents?”

“She writes, ‘Captain Thorne and I are guests at Ambervale for the month. Thus far, it has rained every day. I can only imagine that you are enduring the same tiresome weather in Spindle Cove. My dear cousins, Lady Harriet and Lady Lark, have concocted the enclosed scheme.’ ”

“ ‘Since Lord Drewe decided dancing and cards would be poor form during Lent, the ladies devised a theatrical.’ ”

Miss Bertram perked with interest. “Mr. Evermoore is very fond of the theater.”