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Christmas at Dragonwolde

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“Aunt Kathryn?” Andrea said, clutching at her midsection. “I think I’m going to be sick.” She swallowed hard as the carriage rocked when the horses pulled it through yet another snowdrift.

“Stop the carriage.” Dame Kathryn knocked on the ceiling of the carriage with the handle of her umbrella. When the reaction was not as quick as she preferred she repeated the knocking even harder and raised her voice. “Mr. Neelix! Stop the carriage this instant!” Her throaty voice carried through the whistling wind. The carriage began to slow and Andrea could hear the driver as he calmed the span of four horses.

She tossed the door open and stumbled outside, not waiting for the driver to jump off his seat to assist her. The snow reached her past her shins, but she didn’t care. Greedily she inhaled the cold, crisp air. The wind tore at her bonnet and more snow had begun to fall. Andrea thought she could see light through the dense forest. Could that be Dragonwolde? Oh, how she wished for that to be true. It was dark since their journey from the train station had taken much longer than expected.

“Child, are you all right?” Dame Kathryn, Andrea’s beloved aunt, poked her head out, pulling the emerald green cap closer around her. “Did you get sick?”

“No. Breathing some of the cold air is making it go away. Thank the Lord.” Andrea knew she should go back into the carriage, but she hated nausea with a passion and the idea of rocking back and forth made her swallow hard. “Aunt Kathryn? Is that Dragonwolde’s lights through the trees?”

Kathryn peered through the forest. “You know, child, I think it is. It should only be another half hour or so if the driver can pick up some speed.” She sent the man a stern glance. “Right, Mr. Neelix?”

“Aye, Dame Kathryn.” The man, short and stocky, with tufts of reddish hair sticking out from under his knitted hat, and his face adorned with large freckles, nodded, but looked worried. “We need to get going again, please. Snow’s coming down and if the horses stand still much longer, they’ll get too cold—“

“Fine.” Kathryn waved to Andrea. “You better get back inside before you catch your death—or the horses do.”

“Oh, dear.” Andrea reluctantly climbed back into the carriage and closed the door. She pulled the blankets close around her and her aunt, hoping for some shared warmth. “Distract me from the rocking, please. Who else is joining us this year for Christmas? You’ve been awfully secretive.”

Aunt Kathryn smiled. “Curious, aren’t you, my dear. Well, at least one guest will be your age, perhaps two. Both of them young woman in the employ of Miranda.”

“Employ? They’re her servants?” Andrea was by no means snobbish, but it surprised her that Aunt Kathryn suggested she'd socialize with the staff.

“No, not her servants. Her assistants. I’m sure you’ve heard of your uncle’s Jared’s former wife Miranda and her rather controversial way of life?”

“Of course.” Miranda Priestly, their American relative was not what Andrea’s mother, who died when Andrea was fifteen, would have considered ‘a proper woman.’ This made her sound infinitely exciting to Andrea.

“Her assistants are from good families. I’ve only met Emily, the English girl, who is actually the daughter of the Earl of Charlton. Miranda’s other assistant, I cannot remember her name, is from Sweden, I believe. Her reputation precedes her. She’s unofficially known as Miranda’s henchman.”

Andrea gaped. “A woman as a henchman? And what kind of business does Miranda conduct if she needs someone like that?”

Aunt Kathryn smirked. “She’s in publishing, as you know, but hers is a man’s world and I’m sure she has every reason to surround herself with strong and unorthodox employees.

Andrea nodded thoughtfully. The thought of a strong woman fending for herself and not being reliable on any man, or anyone at all, intrigued her. She squeezed Aunt Kathryn’s arm, so excited now her nausea was forgotten. “I look forward to meeting her. “Go on. Who else?”

“Nigel is bringing his older sister, Sharon. She’s gone through a divorce and I imagine she cannot wait to leave London’s gossip circus for a while. She’s had quite enough on her plate lately.”

A divorce! Andrea knew this was a scandal very few women escaped unscathed.

“I managed to convince Brenda to join us. After we lost Mark, she’s been isolating herself and that old Scottish mansion of hers is drafty and impossible to keep warm in the winter.”

Brenda Leigh Johnson, the younger sister of Aunt Kathryn’s husband, was yet another woman living alone. Andrea had heard whispers of her having had an affair with a married man, but that was years ago and really none of her business.

“I forgot,” Aunt Kathryn said, smiling. ”Miranda’s bringing her twin girls. They’re quite young, about eleven, and it’s going to be wonderful to have children present at Christmas.”

Andrea returned the smile. She agreed. To have Dragonwolde filled with people at Christmas would drive away any shadows from the past trying to invade the holidays. She leaned against her aunt and hugged her arm. “It’ll be marvelous.”

Just as Aunt Kathryn opened her mouth to say something, the carriage lurched sideways and then swung back in the opposite direction. Andrea lost her grip of her aunt’s arm and the last thing she knew was how the door was ripped off its hinges and she fell out into the snow.

 

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Kathryn pulled the blanket up closer to Andrea’s chin. Gazing back at her housekeeper, Madam Serena, she worriedly shook her head. “She’s still unconscious. Did you send for--?”

“The doctor? Yes, Dame Kathryn.”

“Will he be able to drive here in this weather?” Kathryn sat on the edge of Andrea’s bed, feeling through her hair for any sign of a lump. When the wagon tipped dangerously to the side and then swung back as if trying to right itself, Kathryn had clung to the armrest on her seat with one hand, grasping for young Andrea with the other. When she couldn’t reach her, she gazed up just in time the door tore open. Andrea clung to the frame for a fraction of a second and then fell out. Out of sight. Snow hurled into the carriage as Kathryn screamed for Mr. Neelix to stop the horses. The carriage lurched back and forth, and Kathryn was sure at one point it would tip over completely and crush Andrea. Mr. Neelix had finally gotten the horses under control and stopped the carriage.

They found Andrea in a snowdrift, unconscious. How she managed to help Mr. Neelix, who fortunately was a stocky, strong man, lift the wet, listless girl, Kathryn had no idea. As they reached Dragonwolde a short while later—Mr. Neelix did drive like a beast escaping enraged villagers—several of the male staff helped carry Andrea to her room. There, Madam Serena, her austere and efficient housekeeper took over.

“The doctor normally rides to his patients this time of year,” Madam Serena said, her Portuguese accent vaguely noticeable. Originating from Brazil, Madam Serena had barely survived a harrowing experience in London. Eventually, she ended up at Dragonwolde and Kathryn had sworn to keep the woman’s secret. She was feared by the rest of the staff and even Kathryn found herself slightly intimidated by the younger woman’s stern demeanor. Now, Madam Serena’s eyes expressed concern, something she usually saved for Andrea whom she’d known ever since she came to Dragonwolde as a fifteen year old orphan.

Almost an hour later, determined steps echoed outside in the corridor. Kathryn stood and greeted the doctor whom she knew very little of as he had only worked in the area for six months. A sparse looking man, balding slightly, he gave a most efficient, if a bit brusque, impression. What impressed Kathryn the most was his sole focus being on Andrea. No trying to charm Kathryn, or heaven forbid, flirt, like some physicians in London seemed to think was part of their routine. Kathryn and Madam Serena stood back and let the doctor examine Andrea.

“What’s going on? Where…? Aunt Kathryn?” Andrea tried to sit up and the doctor assisted her. His stethoscope in place, he moved it over her back, nodding to himself.

“You were tossed from the carriage, sweetheart,” Kathryn said and moved to the opposite side of the four poster bed. “You’re home.”

“Dragonwolde?” Andrea blinked and looked around. Relief in her voice she said, “Oh, yes. My room.”

“This young woman was very lucky, Dame Kathryn,” the doctor said solemnly. “Keep her warm, warm beverages, water, but no alcohol. Someone needs to watch over her tonight, but I don’t foresee anything sinister. Just stay indoors for a few days and stay warm.”

“That’s the plan, Doctor.” Kathryn kissed Andrea’s forehead. “Madam Serena will make sure you have something to eat and drink before you brave the elements, Doctor.”

“Thank you, Dame Kathryn. Perhaps something hot to drink. I don’t have time to eat as a young woman is about to have her first baby in the village.”

“Oh, that has to be Lily!” Andrea began to swing her legs over the side of the bed. “I promised her I’d be there if we made it her in time—“

“Stop right there, milady.” Madam Serena moved into Andrea’s path as she stood on wobbly legs. “You’re going back into bed right this minute. I’m sure the doctor will assist your friend and you’ll know by tomorrow if she has a boy or a girl. Entendido?

“Understood,” Andrea muttered and sat down again. As Serena tucked her in, she looked imploringly at the doctor. “Please help them send word to us? Lily is my best friend in the village.”

“Hm. Of course. I’ll do my best.” The doctor’s slightly grumpy appearance mellowed marginally. “Rest now, milady. Tomorrow you should be able to get up, but not outside. Not even to see the new baby. This is important. No doubt your friend will be exhausted anyway.”

“Yes, Doctor,” Andrea said and yawned. “Actually, I’m rather…tired.” Her eyes closed and Kathryn’s heart stopped for a few moments.

“She’s only sleeping, Dame Kathryn.” Madam Serena motioned for the doctor to follow her out of the room.

Kathryn sat by her niece’s bed, so grateful it wasn’t worse. Hypothermia and no signs of concussion. She let her mind wander about the Christmas preparations and was unprepared when what had to be the big front door slammed open. She hurried out on the mezzanine overlooking the vast hallway downstairs.

“Oh, dear, we’ll be snowed in for the foreseeable future if this keeps up. Annika, Emily, get the girls inside before they’re buried. For heaven’s sake don’t dawdle. How many times to I have to yell your names?”

Covering her eyes, Kathryn shook her head. No doubt about it. Miranda Priestly and her entourage had arrived early.

 

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Miranda entered the impressive hallway of Dragonwolde, at the same time aghast at how stark and intimidating it was with its tall tapestries, old-fashioned, in her mind, oil lamps and the imposing tall ceiling. Behind her, two sleepy eleven year olds stumbled in the snow and stopped just inside the door.

“Girls, move out of the way. Let Annika and Emily arrange for the bags.”

“But Mom, we’re tired. And hungry,” Caroline said, pouting.

“And cold.”

“Then it’s a good thing we have a roaring fire in the dining room and lots of food prepared for our weary travelers.” Dame Kathryn Janeway moved regally down the winding staircase, one hand on the bannister, the other holding up the skirt of her wine red dress. “I apologize for not being downstairs right away to greet you, Miranda. We had a bit of an emergency.”

“Kathryn, my dear.” Miranda kissed the air next to Kathryn’s cheek, genuinely glad to see her friend again. When Kathryn married They’d met in New York when they were both much younger and enjoyed each other’s company immensely. Both of them no-nonsense women who didn’t like to mince words, they spoke the same language. “So good to see you. Emergency, you say? Nothing serious I hope?” She looked around. “Where’s that niece of yours? My daughters have asked about her, hoping for a new playmate.”

“Miranda, don’t you pay attention to how the years fly by? Andrea was fifteen when Mark and her parents died. That was eight years ago. But knowing Andrea, she won’t mind playing wild games with your girls.” Kathryn eyed the twins. “And you two look like you’re about to fall asleep standing up. Madame Serena?”

“Yes, Dame Kathryn.” Serena showed up out of nowhere.

“Please assist the girls with their coats and show them into the dining room by the fireplace. I think they’ll enjoy some hot cocoa there.”

“Certainly.” Serena’s strong, beautiful features softened marginally as she motioned for the girls to follow her. Just as she was about to leave the hallway, the door flew open and two young women hurried inside.

“Goodness, it’s cold!” Emily said. “Miranda? Do we know which rooms are yours yet?”

“No, not yet. Ladies, this is Dame Kathryn Janeway, our gracious hostess. Kathryn—this is my second assistant, Lady Emily Charlton, daughter to the Earl of Charlton. Behind her is Annika Hansen, my first assistant, and the one responsible for all of my arrangements.”

Emily hurried forward and nearly tripped over her cape as she seemed eager to meet the woman who’d earned the title of dame at such a young age. Kathryn greeted her politely and then turned to do the same with Annika. Miranda observed as she removed her cape, and this time, it seemed Kathryn forgot to be polite for a moment.

“Annika,” Kathryn said, sounding slightly out of breath. “An unusual name in our part of the world.”

“A perfectly ordinary name in Sweden.” Annika shook hands like men would do and this appeared to steal some of Kathryn’s breath. Interesting. Miranda stored this away for future reference. “Now, you were saying about an emergency, Kathryn?”

“Oh, yes. Our carriage nearly overturned while driving here this evening and Andrea was tossed through the door.”

Miranda frowned. “Is the child alright?”

“Yes. She’s tired and sleeping after some hypothermia, but she’ll be fine. No doubt you’ll meet her tomorrow. And, another reminder. She’s twenty-three.”

“Yes, yes. As long as she’s all right, she can be any age she wants. Is everyone else already here?” She flung her coat at one of the male servants who caught it with a shocked expression on his pale features.

“No, you’re the first. We’re expecting Brenda Leigh tomorrow and Nigel and his sister Sharon the day after that. Have you heard a lot from Brenda Leigh since she moved to that little village in Scotland?” Kathryn pushed an arm under Miranda’s and normally Miranda frowned upon such familiarity, but it was different with Kathryn.

“No. She’s my cousin and the only living family member I have, but we don’t communicate that much. She seems very busy and quite secretive in the few letters I do get.”

“Same here. I’m going to pry it out of her when she gets here. There has to be a reason for her to move to a small cottage in an even smaller village. It’s all very exciting.”

They entered the dining room where Serena stood motionless with two large mugs of hot cocoa, looking bemused at two sound asleep twins. “I don’t think you’re going to be able to wake my girls. They’ve been up for more than twenty-four hours. It really was an arduous journey this time. I’m glad we’re staying for several months.”

Kathryn looked at the two little redheads. “They’re adorable. I’ll have Albert and Finn carry them upstairs under Serena’s watchful eyes. It can wait until we’ve all had something to eat though. Annika? Emily? Would the two of you like to have the mugs of cocoa?”

Annika nodded and warmed her hands against the mug. She glanced at Kathryn and Miranda saw how her ice-blue eyes darkened momentarily. What had just passed between the two women? They didn’t know each other; both of them would’ve told her if that was the case. No, it was something else, something very curious. Miranda loved a mystery and there seemed to be several piling up.

###

Miranda had checked on her girls and was striding along the corridor, heading for her own room, when a sound made her stop. A small whimper, like from a frightened child, made her turn back and poke her head through the door. No, it hadn’t come from her girls. They were dead to the world and well tucked in under thick blankets and quilts.

She returned to the corridor and just as she passed a door that was slightly ajar, she heard it again. A whimper and then a breathless voice saying, “No. Oh, please no. No.”

Miranda opened the door and entered a bedroom. An oil lamp set to burn with the smallest of flames lit up a four poster bed. There a young woman tossed back and forth, whimpering again. Clearly the young girl, who could only be the absent Andrea, was having a nightmare.

“Shh.” Miranda stepped closer and took the young woman’s hand. Seeing the girl in the lamplight proved beyond anything she certainly wasn’t a child anymore. Her cousin’s daughter had grown up to be a stunningly beautiful woman with chestnut colored hair that spread all over the stark white pillow. Her black eyelashes cast a fluttering semicircle beneath her eyes, and the fullness of her lips stirred something in the pit of Miranda’s stomach. She told herself it was sympathy for the nightmare the woman was having, but Miranda wasn’t really a very sympathetic person.

Andrea’s eyes snapped open and she looked dazedly at Miranda. “Oh, my. Are you an angel? I mean…am I dead?” She didn’t seem upset at this preposterous deduction.

“No. You’re not dead and I’m as far from an angel as you can possibly imagine. I’m your father’s cousin by marriage, Miranda Priestly. I heard you having an uneasy sleep as I passed—“

“Miranda!” Andrea sat up so fast, she nearly toppled sideways. Miranda caught her by the shoulders. “I missed your arrival? Oh, no. I had looked forward to it so, so much. And the twins. And your servants who aren’t really servants but assistants…”

“Stop.” Miranda held up a hand when it looked like Andrea would begin another self-deprecating rant. “You were injured. We understand you were incapacitated and couldn’t greet us. We’ll get a chance to talk tomorrow.”

“Yes? Oh, good.” Andrea sighed and lied down against the pillows again. “Very good.” She smiled sleepily and patted Miranda’s hand in an oddly reassuring gesture. “You’re so beautiful. No wonder I thought you were an angel?” She frowned. “So if you’re not an angel, what are you?”

Miranda chuckled, “A lot of people call me ‘The Devil in Print.”

“That’s so rude! Anyone can see you’re no devil. It ob-obvious.” She yawned and curled up against her pillow. Somehow Miranda’s hand was still connected to one of Andrea’s and now tucked closer to her bosom. “You’re warm and sweet.”

“If you say so, Andy.” Miranda shook her head and carefully began to free herself. “You seem quite persistent, silly girl.”

“Not schilly. And no devil. Scho there.” Andy’s voice slurred even more as she closed her eyes and fell back asleep.

Miranda waited a couple of minutes to make sure the nightmare wouldn’t make a repeat appearance. When she deemed the young woman slept deeply and calmly, she tiptoed out into the corridor and resumed her normal stride toward the door.

As Emily helped her out of her dress, she thought of the beautiful woman with the supple skin and chestnut hair. How could it be that she felt a connection to her? Andy was a young woman and Miranda a middle-age, controversial businesswoman from New York. What could they possibly have in common?

 

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Kathryn stopped at the buffet style breakfast table, a habit she’d enforced after her husband passed away. When she and Andrea didn’t entertain guests, Madam Serena and the other servants joined them for their meals—something that shocked her friends and family when they first learned of it. At first it had taken Andrea by surprise when she learned of the new ways in this household. Her parents had raised her quite differently—more conservative and infinitely stricter. Serena was still invited to all meals, guests or not, but had so far refused to accept. As a matter of fact, it had taken Serena more than two years to join them at all.

“Good morning, Dame Kathryn,” a sonorous voice said, startling her. Kathryn turned her head and saw Annika, Miranda’s first assistant, standing just inside the door. “Miranda assured me I was to dine with the family. Is she correct?” Her correct, if stilted, English, with a faint trace of a Scandinavian accent, made her sound just as aloof as she looked, hands clasped behind her. She was dressed in an all-black, sleek dress and Kathryn wondered if the woman was in mourning.

“Absolutely, Annika. And do call me Kathryn. We can’t have everyone saying ‘dame’ in every other sentence when talking with me.” Kathryn carried her large teacup filled with glorious coffee over to her seat. “Come sit here next to me. There are no assigned seats unless we’re hosting something formal in this house. Christmas with family isn’t formal.”

“Thank you.” Annika moved lithely across the floor, and the way her body glided rather than merely strode, gave Kathryn the impression Annika might be a former dancer. But why would Miranda employ a dancer—and would a dancer have this almost lethal look about her?

Fetching toast and tea, Annika sat down to Kathryn’s left. “Your sense of hospitability is uncommon.”

“So I’m told. I like it this way.” Kathryn grinned. “Andrea and I are in the fortunate position to be independent and used to getting our way. I may have ruined her for any future husband by teaching her to think for herself, but nevertheless that’s what I’ve done.”

“She will be all the better for it,” Annika said after sipping her tea. “Is Lady Andrea all right? I understand she was in an accident yesterday?”

“She’s joining us any minute. I tried to persuade her to stay in bed at least until noon, but she wouldn’t hear of it. I think she must’ve had some vivid dreams last night after her ordeal though. She kept talking about angels and devils. Didn’t make sense whatsoever.”

“I’m afraid she makes more sense than you think.” Miranda stepped into the dining room. “I passed her room as she was having what sounded like a horrible nightmare. Needless to say, I couldn’t let the girl suffer, so I woke her up. She must’ve been half asleep as she assumed she was dead and I an angel.”

Annika had just sipped her tea and now coughed as some of it seemed to go down her windpipe.

“Dear Lord,” Kathryn said and stood. Patting Annika’s back, she tried to assist the wheezing woman. “Are you trying to drown her?” She shook her head at Miranda who smirked.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Kathryn. How would I be able to function without my best henchman?”

Kathryn blinked. “Henchman?” She had stopped patting Annika’s back and wasn’t aware she was gently rubbing her back instead until Miranda raised her eyebrows and tilted her head. Yanking her hand back, Kathryn met Annika’s eyes. “What does Miranda mean by that?”

“Perhaps that she employs me to perform her less desirable tasks.”

Kathryn stared at Annika and then shifted her gaze to Miranda who in turn merely shrugged. She didn’t contradict her assistant. “What could you possibly be up to that is less than desirable?” Kathryn thought better of it and put up a hand. “Wait, I don’t want to know. At least not on an empty stomach.”

“A clever conclusion,” Annika said and bit into her toast.

Miranda chuckled, only to stop as Andrea entered the dining room. Kathryn watched with fascination how the woman who was known to scare any living creature witless grew still.

 

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Andrea took in the dining room, spotting her aunt at the table with her usual teacup-with-coffee in her hands. Next to her, a tall blond woman dressed in black nodded at her. And to her left stood…the angel from last night. She had been quite sure it’d all been a dream when she woke up this morning. At first, the dream had been about being lost in the snowstorm, dressed only in her nightgown. Somehow when she was certain, she’d die from the cold, an angel brought her back to her warm and cozy bed. There it had become confusing as the angel had insisted on really being the devil, or something. Naturally it was all a dream, but how could that be when Miranda the Angel stood here in Dragonwolde’s dining room?

“It’s you. You’re real.” Andrea walked closer and noticed that Miranda now looked slightly flustered. Glancing at Aunt Kathryn and the blond woman, she saw they took gazed at Miranda in fascination.

“I most certainly am. I thought I told you that last night.” Miranda moved and kissed the air next to Andrea’s cheek. “Really, Andy, your imagination must really have gotten the best of you.”

Andy? Andrea was about to object to the boyish nickname, but as it came from Miranda, who’s air-kiss had made her heart flutter in her chest, she decided she liked it. “So it would seem,” Andrea said, and took a deep breath. Turning, she walked up to the woman in black and extended her hand. “I’m Andrea Sachs. Welcome to Dragonwolde.”

The woman stood, towering over Andrea. “Thank you. My name is Annika Hansen. I’m Miranda’s first assistant.”

“I thought you might be. Please sit. I’ll just grab some tea and toast and then I want to hear all about your, your journey, and where you come from and—“

“And we have plenty of time to interrogate poor Annika,” Aunt Kathryn interrupted mildly. “Have your breakfast, dear. You’re still trembling. Don’t think I don’t notice.”

Miranda had placed her breakfast two chairs from Kathryn, thus making room for Andrea to sit down between them. She now removed her thin shawl and wrapped it around Andrea’s shoulders as she took her seat. “This is warmer than it looks.”

It was. And it held Miranda’s amazing scent, which made Andrea a bit dizzy. She pulled it closer around her. “Thank you. Please let me know if you get cold and need it back. Dragonwolde is our paradise, but it’s a drafty one, unfortunately. You need to visit us in the summer as well, as it’s very different.”

“I’m sure we shall at one point.” Miranda smiled and drank some coffee.  “This is an excellent coffee, Kathryn. I’m very pleased.”

“And I’m relieved. I remember what you’re like after having less than satisfactory coffee,” Aunt Kathryn said, grinning.

“And you should be the one to talk.” Shaking her head, Miranda raised her cup to Aunt Kathryn in a silent toast. “What’s the weather like today?”

“Better. Still snowing, but less than yesterday, and the storm’s abated.” Aunt Kathryn motioned toward the ceiling. “Once your girls wake up and have had their breakfast, they’ll be able to have fun out there. Madam Serena can show them the slopes behind the castle. We have sledges they can use.”

“I can show them,” Andrea objected.

“You could, but you won’t. Not today, dear. Doctor’s orders.”

Disappointed at being housebound on the first day back at Dragonwolde, Andrea sighed. “All right.” Then she lit up. “I can give Miranda and Annika the house tour.”

“Sounds like a much better idea,” her aunt agreed. “And here’s, Emily, wasn’t it? And the girls.”

Miranda introduces her twins to Andrea who tried to find a way to tell the two redheads apart. She thought the one called Cassidy was a little more freckled, but if she saw them one by one, how would she know then? The two girls ate like food was about to run out, chatting with the adults without being scolded even once. This was how Andrea had been brought up, but she also knew most children weren’t allowed to eat with the adults, let alone talk with them like equals. Her admiration for Miranda grew.

Emily was a strange sort of woman. Being an earl’s daughter, destitute or not, she outranked them all. Yet she was also employed by Miranda, which made her no better than Annika or Madam Serena. She dressed very modern, but her demeanor seemed…rigid and Andrea thought she seemed nervous, for some reason. Perhaps she wasn’t comfortable around strangers. Some people were just shy. After trying to engage her in the conversation a few times and failing, Andrea relented, but just like with Annika, her curiosity was stirred and she promised herself to not give up.

Miranda was another riddle. Of course she was no angel. No woman could hold her position in New York without being tough and hardnosed. The strange thing about Miranda was not so much her social status, but what her physical proximity did to Andrea. Every time Miranda leaned closer to speak to her or Kathryn, or if their arms happened to brush against each other when reaching for their cups, Andrea gasped and had to bite down on the tip of her tongue. This was all quite involuntarily and it made absolutely no sense. Having never experienced such fluctuations in her respiratory system or her heart rate, Andrea found she had yet another mystery to solve.

“Mama, may we be excused. We want to go find Madam Serena and have her show us the slopes and the sleighs.” The twins were literally bouncing on their seats. “Please?”

“If Madam Serena isn’t inconvenienced when it comes to her duties, you may. Emily will assist you in dressing appropriately. We don’t want any more cases of hypothermia.” Miranda patted Andrea’s hand, setting off not only a new tongue-biting session, but also a series of shivers in her lower abdomen.

“Thank you, Mama.” The one Andrea thought was Caroline rose and rounded the table at impressive speed to kiss her mother. She then surprised Andrea by turning to her. “I’m sorry you were hurt and that you can’t come and play. Maybe tomorrow if you’re feeling better?”

“Yes, absolutely,” Andrea said and felt much better now that she knew the young girls still counted on her to spend time with them. “I look forward to it. We have to try skating on the lake too if your mother allows it.”

“Oh! Can we, Mama?” Cassidy had joined them and now bounced of obvious excitement next to her sister.

“Once I deem it is safe to do so, I don’t see why not. You don’t have any skates though.”

“We have several pairs that you put on your boots.” Andrea grinned at the twins. “Have fun at the slopes.”

As Emily and the girls left the dining room, Kathryn stood and refilled her cup. “I’m going to bring this into my study. I have some documents I need to look over. If you’re not too tired, you can take our guests on the house tour, Andrea.”

“Sounds delightful,” Miranda said and stood as well.

“I would have liked to attend, but I also have business to take care of for Miranda,” Annika said.

“You are welcome to join me in the study. You can use Andrea’s desk. The maids have a fire going in there since an hour ago.”

Annika nodded regally. “Thank you.”

Andrea had impatiently followed their conversation and now turned to Miranda. “All right. It looks like it’ll just be the two of us then. Are you ready?”

Miranda tapped her forefinger against her lower lip as she regarded Andrea through her eyelashes. Purring, she answered, “Oh, yes, Andy. I’m very ready.”

 

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Miranda followed Andy through the south corridor, somewhere aware of the massive stone walls, the large oil lamps, and the thick rug in the center. Most of her focus was on the young woman just in front of her. Andy wore an emerald green dress with a tight bustier, short sleeves, which was madness in this drafty old castle. Glad she’d been able to offer Andy her shawl, she didn’t mind being a little cold herself. At least she had the sense to wear a long sleeved dress.

“This is the oldest part of the castle,” Andy said brightly, turning her head to meet Miranda’s gaze. “It’s from the tenth century, originally, but it’s been rebuilt twice after different wars. We’re close to Scotland here,” she added by explanation.

“I know,” Miranda said, slightly absent minded. This woman, what was it about her that could shatter her otherwise razor focus? “I can read a map.”

“Ha-ha. Hm. Of course you can. Just didn’t know how much you were interested or knew about our local history here.” Flustered, Andrea smiled broadly and took Miranda by the hand. “Here. You have to see this!” Pulling at her guest, Andy opened a narrow door to their left, only to let go of Miranda and dart out into the hallway again. She took a small oil lamp from a narrow side table and lit it. “There are no windows in there.”

Miranda was still trying to recover from the hand-holding, as nobody normally touched her, except her children. Ever. She barely finished that thought before Andy took her hand again and pulled her into the small room. Around her, metal objects reflected the oil lamp, gleaming mutedly.

“Aren’t they amazing? They used to stand all along the corridors, but Aunt Kathryn refused to have them out after Uncle Jared died. She said it was a waste of time for the maids to keep dusting them. I admit, I sneak in here and polish one of the fellows up every now and then. I think they’re just wonderful.”

Blinking, Miranda finally realized she was looking at row after row of old knights’ armors. There had to be more than thirty of them. Stacked together, they looked like a compressed army, ready to spring into action. Well, at least the first row looked ready, having been tended to by this curious girl. “They do look—imposing.”

“I’ll say.” Andy sighed happily. “Aunt Kathryn hates them, well, not hates them, perhaps, but strongly dislikes them. Not sure why.”

Miranda had her own opinion of why Kathryn would dislike these symbols for men wielding wars for centuries, but held her tongue. This wasn’t for her to speculate. “Why do you like them so much?” She was much more interested in knowing that. And she wanted to know why she was still holding Andy’s hand and vice versa.

“I admire the work the blacksmith put into making them. Can you imagine what precision behind the designs? These men didn’t just need them for protection, they needed to be able to move, to use their swords and ride their horses. And there’s the element of intimidation. You did refer to them as imposing. That’s all in the design.” Andy looked expectantly at Miranda.

“You’re absolutely right.” What a novel way to look at something like this. “I can see what you mean.”

As if she only then realized she held onto Miranda’s hand still, Andy let go, hiding her hand behind her back. What she failed to realize was the presence of the old, speckled mirror behind her. Miranda could easily make out how Andy closed her hands in a fist as if holding onto the grip in her mind. Looking down at her own hand, she wanted to moan in exasperation when she saw she’d done the exact same thing.

“We should keep going. I’ll spare you all the bedrooms as they look the same and some aren’t in use at all, more used for storage. I’m sure you want to see the ballroom, though.” She looked hopefully at Miranda who no doubt would’ve agreed to see the barn with the cows if Andy kept those chocolate-dipped-in-brandy eyes trained on her.

“Certainly,” Miranda said and moved out into the corridor. “And I want to hear about you. What you spend your time doing and so on.”

“Nothing fancy at all, like shopping, or intricate needlework, or playing the piano. That’s doesn’t hold my interest. I do enjoy dancing at parties, but mainly, I teach.”

“Teach.” Miranda stopped halfway through the corridor, making Andy walk ahead of her a few steps before she also turned and looked questioningly at her. Her brown eyes scanned Miranda’s entire length as if Andy was trying to figure out why she wasn’t walking.

“Miranda?”

“What do you mean, teach?” Resuming her efficient stride, Miranda had Andy hurrying along her side again.

“Teach. English, mathematics, history, penmanship, and drawing. Mainly. When the weather’s nice, we do outdoor activities. The children love going on excursions to the forest or up in the hills. Not this time of year, obviously.”

“Obviously,” Miranda echoed faintly. “You are talking about teaching in an actual school.”

Andy gave her a stunned look. “But of course. Where else would I be doing it?”

“You said going to the forest and the hills. So you teach when you’re here in Yorkshire?”

“Yes, in the local village. I spend most of my time here at Dragonwolde. I thought you knew.” Andy grinned broadly. “Or did you think I was one of those automaton debutants?” She grew serious. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that, really, but—“

“But you have a brain and you use it.”

“I do,” Andy said, almost apologetically. “Can’t seem to help myself.”

And Miranda did something she hadn’t done in ages. She laughed.

 

XXXXXXXXXX

 

Annika walked into the study, stopping just inside the threshold, her eyes trying to take in the entire room at once. She had never seen quite such a room before. Accompanying Miranda all over the world, she’d seen impressive estates that by far outshone Dragonwolde, but this room was something else.

“Come in. Make yourself at home,” Kathryn said from behind her desk.

Annika nodded. Stepping further in, her shoes sank into the lush carpet that covered most of the stone floor. The walls were covered in bookshelves and tapestries, and on side tables and pedestals sat even more books. Thick drapes hung by the windows, which no doubt the maids covered in the evenings to keep the cold out. Being Swedish, Annika was used to the cold and the snow, but that didn’t mean she liked it.

“Do you ski?” Kathryn asked, breaking Annika’s reverie.

“Yes,” Annika said calmly. “I do if required.”

“But not as something you enjoy?”

“I used to. A long time ago.”

“I see. So does that mean I can’t persuade you to try it here? I’m thinking the cross country variety. I’m not bold enough for the hills.”

Annika really couldn’t care less about skiing, but for some reason, joining this intriguing woman could be worth it. It would also make it possible for her to map the terrain, something she’d intended to do anyway. “I would like to accompany you, Kathryn. I did not bring any skis though.”

“Of course not. Why haul those long objects across the Atlantic? I have everything you need.” She looked at the vicinity of Annika’s shoes and blushed for some reason. “Perhaps not boots in your size.”

Annika felt the corners of her mouth twitch. Not giving in to the rare chuckle spreading on the inside, she adjusted her features into her normal aplomb look. “I did bring boots.”

“Oh, good. I must sound awfully rude. I didn’t mean to suggest you have big feet.” Kathryn watched Annika as she made herself comfortable at the unoccupied desk. She placed the large folder containing Miranda’s correspondence on top of it.

“I have the correct size of feet for my length, I believe. How could pointing that out be rude?” She tilted her head and regarded the slightly flustered woman before her. This was rather entertaining.

“Because society insists women should have small and dainty feet.” Kathryn sighed. “Which is indeed quite ridiculous.”

“Your height suggest you possess ‘small and dainty feet’. Are you saying this doesn’t add to your beauty?” Now it was almost impossible to smile. Annika watched Kathryn’s eyes grow wide.

“You are teasing me.” Kathryn looked like she couldn’t decide on becoming angry or laugh.

“I am. However, I’m also paying you a compliment.” Annika opened the folder and began searching for the draft she’d previously written together with Miranda. Miranda had insisted on working while riding in the carriage, which made for impossible handwriting. Annika took pride in her penmanship. Having the inkhorn practically jumping around the carriage and that silly girl Emily squealing in horror in case she got any of the ink on her precious cape had not put Annika in a good mood.

“Then thank you.” Kathryn’s soft voice made Annika snap her head up. This woman, described by Miranda as an innovative re-thinker, had been given the honor of damehood for her work in science, was unique. Queen Victoria had clearly showed she favorite her, which also helped to make Kathryn less ostracized by her peers.

“Where is your laboratory?” Annika asked, curious.

“I have to show you the basement. I have a smaller laboratory down there, but most of the work takes place in London. Andrea stays here for the better part of the year, unless we miss each other too much. I’m sure she regretted travelling this time of year considering she was nearly killed last evening.” Here blue eyes growing dark grey in the silvery winter light, Kathryn pressed her lips to a thin line. “I would never have forgiven myself. We’ve had enough accidental deaths in this family to last a long time.”

“Miranda has told me the recent family history. I understand.”

Kathryn tilted her head. “I believe you do.”

###

There was a shadow in those porcelain blue eyes that made Kathryn sure she was correct. Annika carried something dark with her and sometimes a word or a gesture seemed to emphasize it. “On a brighter note, we’re very happy to have you here and today we expect Brenda Leigh today as well. None of us have seen her in quite some time.”

“I see.” Still locked on Kathryn, Annika’s eyes seemed to examine everything about her. Kathryn fought against checking her hairdo, meticulously constructed by her ladies maid. She knew her dress was meticulously kept and fit her well. She didn’t wear her bodice as tight as Andrea did, nor was her figure that curvy, but she knew she looked the part of a dame. “Honestly, Annika, you make me wonder if I spilt coffee on my dress.”

Flinching, Annika returned her gaze to her folder. “I apologize, Kathryn, I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”

“Apology accepted. So, no spills.” She made a production of examining her front.

“No, none.” Annika’s voice was suddenly husky and her expression unreadable, unless it indeed was that of…hunger?

Kathryn swallowed back a gasp and gripped her pen harder. She looked longingly at her now almost empty, cold coffee cup. She could’ve rung for another cup, but the maids had enough to do with all their guests, so she relented. Coffee was not her only vice, but the one she most often indulged in. Occasionally she might smoke a cigar, something she was aware Miranda also did at times. As she allowed her eyes to surreptitiously glance at Annika, she thought of the one vice she never indulged in. Or, she hadn’t in more than twenty years.

Kathryn could still conjure up the image of Raven. Black hair, full red lips and eyes a dark green; her roommate at the university was ever vivid in her mind. The feeling of those lips pressed against her own, with Raven’s breathless voice in her ears as they clumsily, but with great enthusiasm, explored each other’s shape on the outside of their clothes, made Kathryn press her legs tightly together. Raven had been her first love, and she, being a naïve fool, had thought her feelings were reciprocated. In fact, afterward she did think Raven had loved her, but chosen to break not only their romantic connection, but their friendship as well.

The day Raven and she graduated; Raven told her she was marrying a man she’d been betrothed to since she was fourteen. Now twenty years later, Kathryn could still feel the sensation of having a dagger piercing her heart. Admittedly, Kathryn knew it had been a utopian idea they’d be allowed a future together, but at least they could have been friends. After Raven refused to even see her, Kathryn locked herself into her laboratory and it was in that setting she met Jared. Knowing she would never truly love him the way he deserved, she still allowed him to persuade her to marry him. He’d been a good husband. Reliable, not too insistent on visiting the marital bed, or demanding too much of her. When he died, she mourned him as her best friend, rather than her beloved husband. As their marriage was childless, she’d welcomed the orphaned Andrea with open arms. The two had mourned together and built their own family unit, which meant Andrea was brought up freer and knowing her own mind than her peers.

Just the fact that Andrea preferred to work as a teacher rather than go to all the parties and balls in London, or make her debut at the royal court, was indicative of her niece being as much a re-thinker as Kathryn was. Even Queen Victoria, whom Kathryn had met on several occasions, asked about Andrea and her absence. Interestingly enough, the queen seemed quite understanding that a girl may have other dreams and goals than parading around the court.

And now, this woman. Why did Miranda really call Annika her ‘henchman’? What in Annika’s past made this informal title astute? Going skiing might be a great opportunity to pry a little more into this enigmatic Swede’s secrets. If nothing else, spending more time with Annika would show if this immediate attraction on Kathryn’s part was temporary or more of a lasting thing. If the latter, Kathryn knew she was in trouble. Annika would stay as long as Miranda did—for several months. How would she survive being around Annika all that time if she couldn’t count on keeping her hands to herself?

 

XXXXXXXXXX

 

Brenda Leigh pushed the heavy fur throw off and rose. The driver, a freckled man with the unusual name Mr. Neelix held his hand out to her as she stepped of the sleigh. When he showed up at the train station in Dragonwolde’s pride and joy, the ornamented green and gold sleigh, she’d been quite relieved as the snow had continued to fall during her train ride. This made travelling by carriage almost impossible. The sleigh on the other hand glided along the road as on butter.

“Come on, Patricia,” Brenda said and motioned for the large St. Bernard still in the sleigh. “I’m sure there’s a meal for you waiting.”

A muted woof and the dog jumped out, stopping next to her. The front door flung open, revealing Kathryn and Miranda. Brenda closed her eyes briefly. She really wasn’t happy about spending Christmas with this many people—and children. Still, it was nice to see her late brother’s wife. She was also related to Miranda as her former husband was Brenda’s cousin.

“Brenda.” Kathryn hurried out on the stairs and pulled Brenda inside. “And you brought Patty! The girls will love her.”

Of that Brenda was certain. Her dog loved people in general and children in particular. She hoped most of the focus would be on her beloved canine and not so much on herself and why she’d moved up north. Her life was finally righting itself and she wanted to protect it from potentially critical voices.

“Kathryn. Miranda.” She kissed the air next to the two women’s cheeks. “Good to see you again.” Amazing how one’s voice could feel so rusty after barely talking to anyone for so long. When Brenda was younger, she was known to be such a chatterbox, but now, she kept to herself and minded her own business. It was safer that way.

“You’re so thin,” Miranda said, half sounding admiring, half accusing. “Have you not been taking care of yourself, or is life up north so unforgiving you burn all your energy walking that monster and keeping warm?”

Casting a glance on the snow, Brenda smirked, as a tall woman closed the door. Ah, yes. Madam Serena. Brenda had met her once before when she was new in Kathryn’s household. “This part has its fair share of winter as well. I’m not thin. Just not as, hm, well-rounded as you recall, Miranda.”

“Could be.” Miranda didn’t look convince. “You’re in need of something hot to drink. What shall we have the cook prepare for you? Tea, coffee, hot chocolate?”

Kathryn was busy instructing the maids where to bring Brenda’s luggage and didn’t seem to mind Miranda playing hostess at all.

“Some hot chocolate please. Coffee makes me jittery this late in the afternoon.”

“I’m going into the kitchen to talk about the menu for the upcoming days,” Kathryn said. “Why don’t the two of you go into the drawing room and sit by the fire?”

“Excellent idea. Please have cook make me some coffee with milk. Very hot,” Miranda said.

“Certainly. A maid will bring it for you.” Kathryn nodded briskly and strode out through one of the many doors leading to the hallway.

Miranda hooked her arm through Brenda’s. “You’re shivering.” She reached out and felt the cape before the maids took it away. “Your cape’s soaked. Did the snow permeate entirely?” She patted Brenda’s back until she wanted to slap Miranda’s hands away.

“No, no. I’m fine. Just a little cold.” Brenda sighed inwardly. Miranda had always been quite overwhelming. Unlike most people who found her cousin’s former wife intimidating, Brenda actually liked Miranda, in small dosages. Right now, Brenda wished she and Patricia had stayed home. She had work to do and very little time to do it in and being around all these people—these curious, no nosy, people, was going to be too much of a distraction.

“Then come with me. Andy is already firmly planted by the fire, wrapped up in a wool blanket after yesterday’s ordeal.”

“Andy?” Brenda tried to figure out who this was as they entered the living room. “Who’s he?”

“Miranda means me, Aunt Brenda,” a female voice said from within a bundle of blankets. “And honestly, I’m being boiled in here. And slobbered.”

Brenda had to laugh. She hadn’t done so in ages, but the sight of a flustered Andrea trying to work herself out of a cocoon of blankets, while assisted by Patricia, was amusing.

“Andrea.” Bending down, Brenda kissed the top of Andrea’s head. “How lovely to see you again. What ordeal is Miranda talking about?” Suddenly concerned, her smile left her lips as she sat down across from Andrea in the other armchair.

Andrea told her of being tossed from the carriage and the brief hypothermia. “I’m perfectly fine. Aunt Kathryn and Miranda are being overly protective.”

“If you had heard her start to sneeze like she did while giving me the grand tour of the house, you would have wrapped her up in an instant as well,” Miranda said imperiously.

“I sneezed because I was trying to show you the secret door behind the tapestries in my room. I had forgotten how long it was since someone actually dusted off those things. That’s why I sneezed.” Andrea frowned at Miranda, but still smiled, oddly enough. Brenda thought she saw a completely new sparkle in Andrea’s eyes. Gazing over at Miranda, she had to blink several time to clear her vision. In her recollection, there had never been such a glimpse of tenderness and concern in that woman’s eyes before.

“Ms. Johnson? Your hot chocolate.” Madam Serena stood next to Brenda without having made a sound as she entered the room.

“Thank you.” Brenda gratefully sipped the hot chocolate as Madam Serena placed a pot containing coffee and two cups on a small table next to Andrea. She gestured for one of the male servants to pull up yet another armchair, but Miranda waved dismissively at them and merely sat down on the wide armrest on Andrea’s chair. As Andrea poured the coffee and added some milk, Miranda turned her focus on Brenda.

“Now, you must tell us, dear. Why on earth are you hiding in that godforsaken place in a house no bigger than my bathroom from all I hear? Why won’t you stay in the big house in Inverness?”

Brenda stared at the blunt woman, uncertain what to say. It wasn’t a surprise that Miranda didn’t beat around the bush, but she hadn’t expected to be put on the spot like this.

“Miranda,” Andrea chastised and looked up with a frown. “I’m sure Brenda will share details of her life when it suits her. She just got here and she’s cold and tired. Give her some space and time to find her equilibrium.”

Brenda gaped. Nobody, nobody, corrected Miranda Priestly and lived to tell. She was about to give in and just tell Miranda what she wanted to know to rescue her young niece when Miranda merely waved her hand.

“Oh, all right. Have your little secrets, Brenda. For now.” She pushed a lock of hair out of Andrea’s face. “And you— sit still and keep the blanket in place.” She pursed her lips, a sure sign of her disapproval of Andrea’s attempt to free herself.

“It was just dust,” Andrea muttered.

“As I said. Keep it on.”

And despite Miranda’s commanding tone, there it was again, Brenda thought. Tenderness. This reluctant Christmas gathering might have some interesting moments after all.


 Continued in pt 2