The distant hills were skirted in every shade of crimson, yellow, and brown, the sky a blue so deep that it caused something to twist softly in the depths of Olivia Wilcott Darling’s spinsterly heart, the air crisp with the promise of an early frost, perhaps even of snow.

Olivia, busy throughout that October morning burning dry branches pruned a month earlier from the trees, shrubs, and lilac bushes growing in her yard, stopped to touch the back of one hand to her brow. The acrid, autumny scent of woodsmoke roused within her an odd but familiar feeling of sorrowful festivity. Though she mourned the summer, vibrant early on with peonies and lilacs and sleepy bees, and then later with roses, the fall was still her favorite time of year. She loved its vivid colors and strange, chilly promise and, at moments like this one, with the fragrant fire crackling cheerfully nearby, with her fine, spotless white house rising behind her, solid and very nearly grand, she felt expectant, as if something were about to happen. Something out of the ordinary, something wonderful.

A friendly female voice interrupted her revery. “Olivia? Aren’t you planning to join us at Rachel’s for the quilting bee?”

She managed a smile for Savannah Parrish, who lived with her husband and several children across the road, then approached the neatly painted fence. She’d hired young Toby McCaffrey to whitewash the pickets in the spring, and he’d done a fine job.

Savannah, a lovely woman with hair the color of copper and eyes that shone with happiness, was married to the town’s only physician. She’d told Olivia herself, right off, that she’d once been a saloon owner and singer, news that had amazed Olivia at the time, since those were not things most women would have admitted to a close friend, let alone a mere acquaintance. Now, clad in a gray cloak and a practical, lightweight woolen dress, roughly the color of cornflowers, she stood beaming at Olivia, her basket of sewing supplies over one arm, and waited expectantly for a reply.

Olivia shook her head, looked away for a moment, looked back. The women of Springwater couldn’t be accused of shunning her—she was invited to every tea party, every church social, every quilting bee. Once or twice, she had actually attended, but she had felt so painfully out of place in the swirling midst of all that joyous chatter that it seemed easier just to stay away.

“We’ll be finishing up Cornucopia’s quilt today,” Savannah prompted, smiling. “Who would have thought that trail boss would just ride into town one day, buy a pouch of tobacco from her over at the general store, and ask her to marry him, just like that?”

Olivia’s effort at a responding smile simply wouldn’t stick to her mouth. At thirty-two, she had long since given up on marriage and a family of her own—she’d been passed over and that was that, as her late aunt had so often reminded her—but that didn’t mean she didn’t still pine sometimes. While she liked Cornucopia just fine—indeed, she liked them all, Mrs. McCaffrey, Mrs. Wainwright, Mrs. Hargreaves, Mrs. Kildare, Mrs. Calloway and, of course, Savannah and all the others—secretly, she’d been bruised by the tidings of the store mistress’s good fortune. It only served to reinforce what Aunt Eloise had always said: she, Olivia, was too tall, too plain, too thin, too smart, and far too contentious to attract a good man. She might just as well accept the fact and move on. The trouble was, it wasn’t always such an easy thing to do.

“I’ve—I’ve got to tend this fire,” Olivia said, finding her tongue at last. “I’m all sooty and my clothes smell of smoke—doubtless my hair does, as well. By the time I finished making myself presentable, you’d have that quilt finished up and tied with a bow.”

Savannah shook her head, but her expression remained kindly. “Nonsense,” she said. “Everyone will be disappointed if you’re not there.”

Olivia glanced back at the fire, already settling down to embers, then met Savannah’s gaze straight on. “I’m sorry. I’m just—too busy.”

Savannah looked at her in silence for a long moment, then nodded and gave a small sigh. “Maybe next time,” she said.

“Maybe,” Olivia replied. She would have another excuse at the ready when another social occasion arose, and Savannah plainly knew that. She hesitated briefly, nodded once more, and hastened away toward the home of Rachel and Trey Hargreaves.

Olivia watched until the other woman had disappeared around the corner of the Springwater stagecoach station, and felt even lonelier than usual.

A Springwater Christmas