Christmas of 1899, the world looks forward to new discoveries, new inventions, and a new century. Wealthy heiress Viola Peery is looking forward to a new life and a husband, preferably one with a title, since her father has told her not to return from England without one.
A New Year’s weekend at Aescton Hall holds promise for Viola and eight other ladies of wealth. There, ten eligible bachelors will vie for their hearts and hands during dinners, skating parties, and—of course—balls. Both the charming Cedric Stanhope and the dashing Rhys Findlay catch Viola’s eye and pique her interest, and through flirty tea parties and nightly waltzes, she mulls her decision.
But one of the men holds a secret that will change her destiny and haunt her for the rest of her life.
Melancholy music drifted in from the other room. On the radio, that interesting looking Mr. Crosby was crooning about his desire for a white Christmas. Viola shook her head at the romantic nonsense, but the mental image of a house in the swirling snow caught her by surprise. Her pencil slipped and marred the angel she had been drawing. She sighed and tore off the page she had been working on, crumpled it up, and went to toss it at the wastebasket, but years of training stayed her hand. In her mind, Vi could hear her governess reprimanding her for unladylike behavior and see her mother’s disapproving frown, even though both women had been dead for more than forty years.
Today had been filled with ghosts, beginning with a dream of dancing and being held by the person she loved most in the world. She’d woken with tears on her face.
She shook her head to clear the cobwebs, set the ruined paper aside, and picked up her favorite pencil.
I remember the first time I saw Aescton Hall. Through the falling snow, I could just make out the gray stone and long, straight Georgian facade. Lines flew from her pencil as she lost herself in the past, trying to capture the beauty of the house decorated for Christmas, the laughter, and the golden gaslight.
Vi jumped. From the expression on her granddaughter’s face, Dottie must have said her name several times. “Apologies. Yes, dear? Is it time to decorate the tree?”
Dottie made a face, then quickly smoothed it over. “No, not until after Dad gets home from work.”
“Oh.” Vi set down her pencil. “Then how may I help you?”
“What were you humming?”
It was just now that Vi realized her granddaughter was wearing an apron over pants and a sweater. For a brief second, she was scandalized, then she recalled wearing pants was socially acceptable in 1955, at least at home. “Humming? I wasn’t humming.”
“Not to be impolite, but yes, you were.” Dottie hummed a lilting threequarters rhythm.
“The Rendezvous Waltz.” It had been going through her head as she drew. Am I losing my mind? She certainly was old enough to do so.
“It’s quite pretty.” Dottie hummed again.
“It was always one of my favorites, at least for dancing.” For a moment, the room shifted to a ballroom filled with whirling dancers.
“Well.” Dottie’s words caused the vision to fade. The girl put her hand in her apron pocket. “Mom asked me to bring down the boxes of Christmas decorations.”
That explains the cobwebs in her curls. Vi was tempted to brush them away, but she quashed thoughts of overt affection, as she had been taught. She gestured at her hair. “I see.”
Dottie caught the meaning and brushed at her dark bob. “I went up one more time, just to check I hadn’t missed anything, and on the rafter in the farthest corner, you know, where your trunks are, I found this.” She pulled her fist out of her pocket. “But, Nana, I could swear it wasn’t there before.” She uncurled her fingers. A ceramic ornament lay on her palm. “Is this yours? Mom said she’d never seen it before.”
The figurine stood four inches high and perhaps two and a half inches wide. From a faded scarlet ribbon, a waltzing couple dangled. Although the faces were indistinct, their body language implied them staring adoringly at each other. The woman’s scarlet gown swirled around her partner’s feet, giving the whole an impression of movement. With trembling fingers, Vi plucked it from her granddaughter’s palm. “Yes, that’s me.” Again, the lilting strains of the waltz and eyes the color of the sea after a storm filled her mind.
“It is you, or you made it?” Dottie’s forehead wrinkled.
“Both.” Vi set the figurine on the desk and levered herself to her feet. Gracefulness came hard at seventy-seven years of age. She crossed to her closet and tugged on the string. Above her head, a lightbulb snapped to life. There, on her neatly arranged shelf, in the far corner, sat a hatbox that had once been striped rose and gold, but now was a lifeless brown and pinkish-gray.
She turned to grab the chair she had been sitting on, but Dottie stopped her. “I’ll get it.” Dottie picked up the straight-backed chair and carried it to the closet. “What am I taking down?”
“The hatbox.” Vi pointed. “You may have to move the scrapbooks.” Those held other stories in them.
Dottie made unladylike noises as she shifted items about, and Vi was tempted to reprimand her, but she didn’t. The world had changed, and young women were free to behave uncouthly if they wished. “Here.” Dottie passed the ancient but still solid box to her grandmother.
“Thank you. Mind that you don’t slip getting down.” Vi nodded at the chair, and then she glided to a low table that sat in the middle of her study and placed the box on it. She slowly sank onto the late Victorian sofa. Do I want to remember? She found she did. Besides, the past intruded whether she wanted it to or not. She took a deep breath and for a moment could feel the ghost of her corset laces. Then she eased the lid off the box and pulled away the faded pink tissue paper, and the sensation vanished. Nestled on a bed of cotton wool were eight figurines similar to the one on the drawing table. The poses varied, and all of the dresses were different, but these clearly were a set.
“Oh, Nana.” Dottie’s voice was hushed. “Those are beautiful.”
Vi started. She’d forgotten about her granddaughter. “This was us.” Long ago.