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Christmas at Dragonwolde

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The evening came with yet more snow and wind. Andrea gazed out her window and pulled the shawl closer around her. She had several shawls of her own, but still clung to the one Miranda had lent her. An internal voice teased her, she was infatuated with the much-older woman and not likely to ever give the shawl back.

Turning down all the oil lamps but one, Andrea stood motionless, at a loss of what to do, in the center of her floor. Should she give the garment back? Suddenly it almost burned where it lay around her shoulders. It would only be the polite thing to do, wouldn’t it? Miranda might need it, especially since it was getting colder and the snow was coming down harder by the minute.

Deciding this was the right measure, Andrea pulled off the lovely piece of fabric, looking mournfully at it as she donned her own shawl. She missed the light, fluffiness and Miranda’s scent already.

As she tiptoed through the empty corridor, Miranda’s shawl in one hand and a candle in the other, Andrea heard giggles and murmuring from the twin’s room. Clearly, the girls weren’t asleep yet even if they’d been sent to bed already at eight o’clock. Miranda had insisted as they were not used to being so physically active—and in the cold at that. Now, Caroline and Cassidy hushed at each other, perhaps they’d heard Andrea’s steps and mistaken them for their mother’s?

Andrea stood by Miranda’s door, nervous about knocking at this hour, but unable to convince herself this could wait until tomorrow. She raised her hand and lightly rapped on the door with her fingertips.

Sure steps approached and Miranda opened the door. “Andy?” Miranda was dressed in a long, lilac nightgown, not of cotton like Andrea’s, but of silk. She wore a white, crocheted shawl, thin, yet so lovely looking, like the one Andrea had borrowed.

“Good evening. Eh. Hello. I’ve come to return your shawl.” Andrea held out the garment to Miranda. “As you can tell, I have my own and—“

“And I want you to keep the one I gave you.” Miranda leaned against the door. “I thought you understood that.”

“Understood what?” Andrea frowned. When had Miranda spelled that out? She certainly couldn’t remember her saying anything like that.

“Come in. The corridor’s awfully drafty.” Miranda stepped to the side and looked expectantly at Andrea.

Not sure why this gave her heart orders to thunder away in her chest, Andrea lingeringly  stepped over the threshold and looked around. She hadn’t been in Miranda’s bedroom as it hadn’t been part of the house tour earlier, which would have been silly, of course, but now she understood it may have been a great mistake to come in. Miranda’s scent surrounded her immediately and Andrea closed her eyes briefly as it overwhelmed her senses.

“Good Lord, please tell me you are not about to faint at my feet.” Sounding exasperated with a strangely tender undertone, Miranda took Andrea by the hand and pulled her over to a velvet settee. “Sit down.”

Obeying, even if she wasn’t the least bit light-headed, Andrea flinched as Miranda took a seat right next to her, placing an arm around her shoulders. This type of proximity was not what she was used to. Kathryn didn’t mind an occasional embrace when they’d been apart for weeks, sometimes months, but this rubbing of her arm and the support around her shoulders, was a wholly new sensation.

“Your color is returning,” Miranda said and smiled. “In fact, I have to say you blush the lovely shade of pink I’ve ever seen.” She chuckled and this of course made Andrea blush harder.

“I’m all right now,” Andrea tried to convince Miranda. “I’ll just head back to my room and go to bed. Tomorrow Kathryn’s friend—“

“Yes, yes. We’ll have more guests tomorrow.” Miranda waved dismissively with her free hand. She looked Andrea over, her eyes glittering. “Or do I make you uncomfortable?”

The question was innocent enough, but the tone wasn’t. Andrea tilted her head, not sure if she should be annoyed at the teasing or merely laugh it off. Something told her Miranda wasn’t as casual as her voice suggested, but in fact truly asking.

“No. You do not make me uncomfortable, Miranda,” Andrea said, keeping her voice soft and non-committal. “I think you’re teasing me though. Honestly, would you really care if I actually was uncomfortable? I have a feeling you instead find it infinitely humorous how easy it is to bewilder an English country-girl.”

Miranda’s expression grew stormy at Andrea’s last sentence. She moved her hands to cup Andrea’s cheeks. “Never. I know full well you’re not easily bewildered as you have deliberately chosen a different path in life—teaching instead of spending your time at the queen’s side at the court. If I bewilder you at all, it’s on a different level, because I can’t help but find you infinitely charming and so very fresh and delightful. I agree I can be a sarcastic tease, but it’s something I try to harness when I’m around you. I would never hurt you on purpose, Andy.”

Melting under the cool, soft touch, Andrea leaned into it, rather than pulling back, which she should have done, if she’d used her head instead of her unreliable heart. She raised a hand and placed it on Miranda’s left, holding it close to her burning cheek. “I believe you.”

“Then do you believe me when I tell you, I’ve thought of little else but your haunting eyes since last night?” Miranda whispered.

Andrea’s heart clenched hard and seemed to forget to open up for its next contraction. So, it wasn’t just her. Miranda had felt that confusing connection as well and perhaps she knew more of its nature. Andrea kept looking into Miranda’s dark blue eyes.

“I’ve thought of you also. I’m sure you realize this.” Andrea’s chest rose and fell as she vaguely remembered how to breathe. “What I don’t understand is why holding on to you like this steals the very breath from me…and makes me tremble?”

 

XXXXXXXXXX

 

Miranda couldn’t resist the young woman before her. As much as she realized the multitude of unfavorable repercussions that may occur, she ran an unsteady thumb across Andy’s lower lip.

“You put it very well, Andy,” Miranda whispered. “I too feel as if your proximity has derived me of oxygen—and kept it. I wonder…have you ever experienced any such thing before?”

Andy wet her lips with the tip of her tongue, something that made Miranda’s entire abdomen tense up and her legs press together under the silk nightgown.

“No. Not like this.” Andy moved the hand holding Miranda’s against her cheek. “I’ve never met anyone like you before and certainly not responded in this confusing manner.”

“So I do confuse and bewilder you? Perhaps not so much by being a tease, but how I affect you physically?” Miranda had to help Andy navigate through this. Somewhere inside a rarely heard righteous voice told her to leave the girl alone, extract herself and let Andy go on and find these feelings with someone of the right age and the right gender. The expression of undisguised and confused desire in Andy’s eyes, so damn alluring in itself, made Miranda clamp down on the disruptive voice. She allowed her free hand to slide from Andy’s cheek, down to hold her by the waist. The soft cotton in Andy’s nightgown didn’t do anything to mask the warm seeping through from Andy’s skin.

“I suppose,” Andy murmured, obviously distracted by Miranda’s hand. “I’m not a child. I know relationships between women exist. Aunt Kathryn has been quite candid with me and told me of how she herself loved a young girl once, before she met Mark—perhaps it’s the scientist in her that makes it easier for her. I had not expected to experience anything like this. Ever.” She glanced up at Miranda through her black eyelashes. “Do you wish to kiss me, or did I misread your intentions?”

A log shifted in the fireplace, making Andy jump, and Miranda stared at Andy, surprised at how bold this woman was. She wrapped one arm around Andy, her other hand still against her cheek. “I can’t think of anything I desire more at this moment.” Acutely aware of her body’s response, and how yet another inner voice, this one lecherous and lustful, came up with several other ideas of what Miranda wished to do with Andy. Her entire body ached to press Andy against her in a head-to-toe embrace. Her previous female lover has certainly never made her feel this…ravenous.

“Then, please?” Andy’s lips trembled now, but her warm eyes looked steadily into Miranda’s.

Slowly, Miranda leaned in, careful not to startle Andy. Breathing even ly through ner nose, she prayed for Andy to meet her halfway. It had to be mutual. Equal. If not, Miranda would be forced to pull back, smooth over this entire event, make excuses that would eat away at her yet again. Trembling now, Miranda knew her soul could not sustain any further cracks or it might shatter her soul a little more. Having lived in a sham of a marriage and looked for—for something more, in so many wrong places, she was wary of lowering her guard. But Andy had begun to peel away Miranda’s armor before she was even aware of it happening.

Andy shifted closer, moving both hands to Miranda’s shoulders. There, they didn’t remain still or pull Miranda closer, but caressed her in small, almost instinctive circles. Soft, plump lips pressed against Miranda’s mouth. Clearly inexperienced, they lingered there, as if awaiting guidance.

Miranda wanted to weep from sheer relief. She brushed her lips back and forth against Andy’s. The satin texture of Andy’s mouth made her lusty inner self demand entrance. Not about to be rushed, Miranda held Andy closer.

“Oh!” Andy gasped against Miranda’s lips.

Their upper bodies pressed together and this, together with Andy breathing faster through slightly parted lips, made it impossible for Miranda to keep the kiss chaste. She tilted her head further to the right, ran her tongue along Andy’s lower lip.

Andy’s tongue reciprocated, perhaps by instinct, and the sweet, shy way with which it caressed Miranda’s, turned it back to innocent and romantic somehow. This was what Miranda wanted. She hadn’t planned on kissing Andy, well, not already, but the woman in her arms had her own will and desires.

They kept up the caresses, but Miranda recognized in the back of her mind she had to find a way to stop this before they went too far, too soon. She pulled back and her lips still touched Andy’s as she whispered, “Darling, we need to stop. For now.”

“No…” And moaned. The sound nearly killed Miranda’s resolve. She ran her hands up and down Andy’s back.

“Yes. Listen to me. We need to go slower or one or both of us will do something we regret and I already promised not to hurt you. Surely you promise me the same?” She tipped her head back to meet Andy’s gaze.

“Of course!” Andy held Miranda’s hands in a firm grip. “I’d never.” Looking aghast at the idea of hurting Miranda, she frowned.

“I know. I know.” Miranda soothed her. “If you’re willing, we will kiss again. I know you’re aware of the rules society place upon us, especially as unattached women. I’ve long decided to carve my own path in life, but you’re very young and thus more vulnerable. You have a lot to think about and decide.” She ran her fingers through Andy’s silky hair. “And no matter what you choose, I will understand. No decision on your part is wrong.”

Andy regarded her in silence for what seemed like an eternity. Then, her broad, luscious smile appeared, growing until it blinded her. “I have done what thinking I require, Miranda.”

 

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Patricia thundered down the stairs, her big paws hitting the surface like a base drum. She knew if she turned at the foot of the staircase and followed the scent; the woman in charge in the kitchen would take pity on her. Patricia had perfected the use of her droopy eyes and knew how to look starving, even if she just ate. Right now she was starving and the idea of obtaining some leftovers truly excited her.

As she passed a door on the way to the kitchen, something she normally would have ignored, she had to slow her pace. In there, two of the women occupying the house, stood oddly pressed against the wall. The one with the low, stern voice; Patricia’s mum called her Miranda, held on to the friendly girl that smelled so good, Andrea. Curious at what game they may be indulging in, Patricia stopped and poked her head inside.

“I thought we agreed to take it slow,” the Miranda-human said, sounding as if she had been running.

“We are.” The wonderfully scented girl said. “Or as slow as I’m able.”

The two women pressed their mouths together and from Patricia’s standpoint, it looked as if they were licking each other. Odd. Patricia had never observed her mum doing that. She constantly tried to tell Patricia to stop this habit.

“I think we have an audience,” Andrea said, chuckling.

Miranda glared at Patricia who backed up a few steps. “So we do,” she said.

Patricia wasn’t sure how she knew this, but it was time to resume her trip to the kitchen. If those two were going to do more face-licking, she wasn’t going to stay and no doubt get blamed when her mum found out.

###

“Kathryn! Finally. I thought we would have to have to bring out the skis and continue on foot so to speak.” Nigel Kipling strode through the hallway and embraced Kathryn. “So good to see you, my dear.”

“Nigel.” Kathryn kissed his cheek. “It’s been far too long. Where’s Sharon? Don’t tell me you left her to fend for herself getting through the snow? We’ve had Mr. Neelix shoveling continuously, but the way it’s coming down—“

“No, no. She’s right behind me.” Nigel turned around the look on his face was comical as his sister wasn’t there. “What in the world?”

They hurried to the door and now Miranda and Brenda Leigh had joined them, followed by Patricia.

“Don’t fuss, Nigel,” a pleasant, husky voice said and Sharon Raydor stepped inside, shaking off her cape. “You left me to carry some of the bags. No wonder it takes longer for me to maneuver through the snow.” She removed her cape and turned to Kathryn.

“Lovely to see you again, my dear. Thank you for including me.” She didn’t say it out loud, but Kathryn knew this woman had been more or less ostracized among her peers after her divorce. Her former husband, a gambler and a drunken bully, had made Sharon’s life a living hell for many years. When both of their children were grown up and moved to live in France, Sharon had filed for a divorce, and though it had been an arduous, expensive process, she had finally been free of the cruel man she been misfortunate to marry. This had been somewhat of a scandal as Michael Raydor was a respected navy captain, stemming from a long line of naval officers.

“You’re always welcome, Sharon, every bit as much as Nigel. In fact more, as you have better manners.” Kathryn winked at the two of them, wanting to lighten the mood. She knew Sharon had suffered from the cold shoulders former friends had given her and wished for everyone’s stay at Dragonwolde to be relaxing and fun. Turning, she motioned for Miranda and Brenda Leigh to approach. Miranda greeted Sharon and Nigel politely, but to Kathryn’s astonishment, Brenda stood as rooted, staring at Sharon with darkening eyes.

Sharon in turn rounded Kathryn to greet Brenda and stopped so suddenly, her boots made a grinding sound against the stone floor. “Ms. Johnson.” Sharon’s voice sank an octave and she placed her hands on her back as if keeping them out of reach.

“You.” Brenda could clearly not even remain polite. “I had no idea.”

“Neither had I.”

“I take it you’ve met before?” Miranda drawled.

“Whatever gave you that idea?” Brenda muttered.

“I’m sorry, Kathryn, for this bad behavior on both our parts,” Sharon said. She looked as regal as Miranda as she turned, smoothing her dark-chocolate hair down at the temples. “Brenda Leigh and I have met before, during unfavorable circumstances, but I’m sure we can both disregard that.” She sent Brenda a pointed look.

“Nobody has to lecture me how to behave, Ms. Raydor.” Brenda spoke through her teeth. “Kathryn knows me well enough to realize this.”

“Why don’t we go in to Andrea and the twins before these two comes to blows?” Miranda motioned for everyone to go into the drawing room. I believe Emily has persuaded Madam Serena to actually join us for tea. Let’s not miss this opportunity to finally get to know this enigmatic person you employ, Kathryn.”

They moved to follow Miranda and Kathryn took up the rear, wondering how in the world Brenda and Sharon had met and what might have transpired to make two such amicable women loathe each other so. Or was it loathing? From Kathryn’s point of view, there seemed to linger a lot of hurt as well.

As she was about to walk through the door to the drawing room, someone caught up with her. Kathryn stopped and turned around, which obviously the person behind hadn’t counted on. Annika walked right into Kathryn began to sway. Gripping her by the waist, Annika moved her to the side, out of sight of the others.

“I am so sorry. Are you unharmed?” Annika gazed down at Kathryn.

“I am. Just lost my balance there for a moment.” Kathryn found it hard to breathe as Annika was still holding on to her. Towering over Kathryn, Annika wore her blond hair in an austere twist and as usual dressed in a sleek, black dress. It was difficult to imagine this woman ever putting on a bustle, or subject herself to other torturous items of fashion. Instead, Annika, who now stood so close to Kathryn, she could feel her warmth, moved with the lethal agility of a feline predator.

“You are staring at me,” Annika murmured. “And frequently. Am I that confusing, or perhaps disconcerting?”

“Not at all,” Kathryn said hurriedly. “If I stare it’s because you’re beautiful.” She saw Annika’s eyebrows go up. Realizing what she just said, Kathryn came close to slapping a hand over her uncensored mouth.

“Thank you.” Annika smiled faintly, a mere tugging of one corner of her mouth. “Since you are this candid, it is only appropriate for me to return the compliment. You are indeed the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.” She kept her gentle grip of Kathryn, but she really didn’t have to as Kathryn was completely held captive by Annika’s sky-blue eyes and the rare smile.

Finally, Annika let go and walked into the drawing room. Kathryn fell back against the wall, gasping for air. For how long had she held her breath? Her neck felt damp beneath her low bun and the high collar of her dress. This was the last piece of evidence of the amount of trouble she was in. How would she be able to act casually around Annika when all she wanted was to unravel that pinned up blond hair and capture those full lips?

Walking into the drawing room, she donned a polite smile. She could manage it, right? Kathryn only had to watch Miranda raise her eyebrows and glance first at Kathryn and then at Annika, to know.

Oh, damn.

 

XXXXXXXXXX

 

Miranda enjoyed the flustered expression on Kathryn’s face as her friend took her seat around the fireplace. She couldn’t say that Annika blushed exactly, but she knew her first assistant well enough to know she wasn’t unaffected regarding whatever had taken place in the hallway.

Andy and the twins sat next to Miranda on large cushions on the floor, several blankets tucked in around them. They had been playing a board game, but now the girls had curled up around a photo album. Andy leaned her back against Miranda’s chair, her arm touching Miranda’s legs through her skirt and petticoats.

The mood had altered considerably when Sharon and Brenda chose armchairs opposite of each other. Miranda figured it was a mistake even if these two women wanted to sit as far apart from each other as possible. Sitting like that meant they looked right at each other. Sharon remained unreadable and collected, but Brenda was clearly fuming.

Madam Serena looked tense. She sat straight up in her chair and her back didn’t touch the backrest. Emily sat next to her, and, oh this was going to be entertaining, looked at the stern Serena with glossy eyes. Emily, the one among them with the most impressive ancestry, shot Serena nervous glances every few seconds, but didn’t say anything. Serena didn’t return the gazes, but instead studied her laced together fingers intently.  That simply wouldn’t do.

Miranda surreptitiously caressed the back of Andy’s head, making the young woman jump. “Madam Serena, you’re a bit of a mystery. You must tell us how you came to be in Kathryn’s employ—and out here in the boondocks.”

Serena looked up, her eyes narrow. “I’m sorry. I don’t understand this boondocks, Mrs. Priestly.”

“Miranda.” Miranda met Serena’s eyes without wavering. “Boondocks means living remotely, away from other people.” Miranda raised her coffee cup and took a life-affirming sip.

“I see.” Looking displeased, but as such a question wasn’t unexpected, Serena smoothed down her skirt. “I do not think it’s a story our littlest ones need to be subjected too.”

Miranda, who had observed how her girls had begun to nod off against each other on the floor, rose and rang for the maid who arrived promptly. “Please take the girls upstairs for a nap.”

“Yes, milady.” The young maid gently helped the twins to their feet and led them out of the room.

“Yes?” Miranda looked expectantly at Serena who sighed.

“I arrived in London more than ten years ago, with a Brazilian ship, the Estephânia.” She stopped, looking at Kathryn, as if she required confirmation.

Kathryn smiled and nodded. “Go on, Serena. You’re among friends.”

“Very well.” Serena let her eyes travel the semicircle around the fire. “I came to England to remove myself from a hostile situation. I had been forced into a marriage of convenience at the age of fourteen. When I was fifteen, I could no longer tolerate my husband’s demands…his violations.”

“Oh, God,” Emily whispered and to Miranda’s amazement, she reached out and placed a hand on Serena’s lower arm.

“I ran away, lived on the streets of Rio de Janeiro for a few weeks until I managed to sell some jewelry. Enough for a ticket to England.” Her face darkened. “London was not what I expected and I had very little money. I was fortunate to meet Kathryn before I lost all hope of a future. She had just lost her husband and was hiring more staff to help with her estates and young Andrea. For some unfathomable reason, she hired me.”

“I hired you because you saved my life,” Kathryn said. “You’re being too modest, Serena. Had you not thwarted the attempt of the robber, I wouldn’t be here today.”

Andrea pressed harder against Miranda’s leg and it was obvious she was trembling. Miranda bent forward, not caring one bit if anyone thought it strange. She patted Andrea’s shoulder and let her hand caress her cheek as she leaned back again.

“I couldn’t imagine Dragonwolde without you, Serena,” Andrea whispered. “You’ve always been here. Or so it feels, at least.”

“Thank you, Andrea. I can’t imagine such a thing either,” Serena said, still with her serious expression.

Miranda wondered what it would take for Serena to smile, or laugh. Perhaps the ordeal with her husband had ruined so much of her inner joy, smiling was impossible? She glanced at Emily who still kept her hand on Serena’s arm.

“What happened when you were robbed?” Miranda asked. “I don’t remember you telling me that story.”

“It was very quick,” Kathryn said. “I was leaving a restaurant after having met with a few of my peers there for a working dinner. I had ordered my driver to bring the carriage, but he’d been held up, most likely by someone who worked together with the robber. I was alone on the pavement when a man ran into me and tugged at my purse. I screamed, of course, and then he pushed a knife to my throat.”

“Aunt Kathryn!” Andrea wrapped her arm around Miranda’s calf under her skirt, but seemed unware at just how intimately she was clinging to her. “A knife?”

“Yes. It was frightfully large and it smelled of stale blood, which was even worse. I tried to back away from him, but he pressed me up against the wall. No one was in sight and the patrons of the restaurant obviously didn’t hear me—or if they did, they didn’t care.” Kathryn smiled gently at Serena. “That’s when Serena showed up. Like some fury, she rushed at the man, kicked him and pulled at his hair. He lost the knife and screamed worse than I did. We heard the police whistle in the distance and so did he. I daresay he took off very quickly once Serena let go of him.”

“He was not a very big man.” Serena shrugged. “I could easily move him as I took him by surprise. I had heard you scream for help, but I wasn’t aware he held you at knifepoint, or I may have approached with more caution.”

“You saved my life. That’s all there is to it.” Kathryn’s gaze went from Serena to Annika who’d listened to the story, her eyes darkening by the minute.

“We’re all in Serena’s debt, then,” Nigel said, sounding shaken.

“No. Kathryn has repaid me ten times over by having me manage Dragonwolde for her. I am now a free woman in charge of my own destiny.” Serena looked at Emily’s hand and over at the wide-eyed redhead. “So you see, Emilia, this is what you get for suggesting I join you.”

“I am so glad you did,” Emily murmured and blushed.

Serena hesitated and then nodded. “As am I.”

Miranda had hardly been able to focus on the last part of the conversation as Andrea seemed content in holding onto her stocking clad leg and lean against her. Soon, someone might realize that Andrea’s out-of-sight arm was in face somewhere it shouldn’t be. Hoping her wide skirts hid most of Andrea’s right side, Miranda tried to stop herself from trembling at the innocent touch.

“Andrea,” she said, under her breath. “What are you doing?

Andrea turned her head up. “Yes? What?” She moved her hand again. “Oh. Oh!”

“Oh, indeed.” Miranda raised her eyebrows, knowing full well what effect that could have.

Andrea didn’t disappoint. She slowly slid her hand out from Miranda’s skirt and blushed the most beautiful pink as she did so. Clearing her throat, she shifted a bit, but remained where she was, tucked up against Miranda.

Miranda missed the hand around her leg as if she’d been amputated. She would just have to figure out a scenario where Andrea would have to put it back.

 

XXXXXXXXXX

 

“Caro! Over here.” Hiding behind some tapestries, the slight twins had to rub their noses with a finger as they inhaled quite a bit of dust as soon as they moved. Cassidy had found the perfect hole in the worn fabric to spy on the grownups. They spoke in low voices, knowing from experience this was much stealthier than whispers.

“What?” Caroline murmured.

“Here. This is exactly what I mean.” She nudged her sister toward the little rift. “See?”

Caroline moved to look and her mouth fell open, dust or no dust. In the minor drawing room on the second floor, their mother and Andrea sat together on a blue settee, holding onto each other by the hands. They spoke so quietly, Caroline only heard a few words every now and then.

“Andy…must be…or you…regret…” Mother said, looking concerned.

“…my own mind…trust me…not…child.” Andrea freed one hand to cup Miranda’s cheek. “Not sure…you have…another woman…”

“…won’t make any…list. Suffice to say…never this…before.”

Andrea smiled and looked at Mother as if she was the best person in the whole world. She leaned in and kissed Mother on the mouth, which made Caroline tug at Cassidy so she could watch. Apparently the kiss lingered since it was Cassidy’s time to gape.

“What’s going on?” Caroline said in a low voice right against her sister’s ear.

“Mother really likes Andrea.” Cassidy rubbed her nose again. “I have only ever known her to kiss us. I can’t even remember her kissing Father.”

“Me either.” Caroline nudged Cassidy aside and put her eye against the rift again.

Mother was now embracing Andrea, holding her close. The kiss was not like any Caroline had ever witnessed. She couldn’t find the right word for it, but surely anyone to be that close to someone, to allow them access to your mouth like that, their feelings had to be very strong.

###

“Here. This is the other secret door. Cassidy triumphantly held the tapestry in Aunt Kathryn’s study aside. “I found this when you were napping and being lazy earlier. I found four of these!”

“I was tired,” Caroline said, her tone ever as imperious as their mother’s. “But it was a good find,” she conceded. “Where does it lead?”

“There’s a small corridor and it leads to three other doors. The drawing room, the conservatory, and the library. At the far end there’s a stair case that looks dark and ghoulish.”

“I’m not sure I like ghoulish,” Caroline said, looking bothered. “But the others sound fun.”

“Come on.” Cassidy enjoyed being in the lead. Usually, when it came to academics and social interaction, Caroline was the one to shine. Now, when it was about adventure and being bold in a physical sense, Cassidy was the leader.

They entered behind yet another dusty tapestry, this one thicker and more luxurious. The door delivered them into the large drawing room, where upset voices made them jump and take each other by the hand. Cassidy carefully tiptoed along the narrow path created behind the tapestry and tugged at her sister to come with her to where two tapestries met and they could peek through.

Cassidy already knew it was Aunt Brenda Leigh and Mrs. Raydor who snarled at each other. She had rarely been privy to grownups fighting, at least not in this hissing, bitter manner. Cautiously, she peered through the tapestries and felt Caroline crouch next to her and do the same.

“I don’t understand why we can’t behave like adults and just keep up appearances for a few days.” Mrs. Raydor flung her hands in the air and then they landed on her hips. “Is that too much to ask?”

“Adult? Oh, that’s just wonderful. After what you did, you have the audacity to talk to me about acting as an adult?” Aunt Brenda spat the words and turned her back for a moment. This put her sort of face to face with the girls and for a heart-stopping moment, Cassidy thought her aunt saw her. Then Aunt Brenda pivoted back to face Mrs. Raydor.

“Sharon. You are now a divorced woman. You’re free. Yes, you’ve suffered some of the backlash for obtaining that freedom, but that will calm down.”

“I can tell you have no idea what the rumor mill has dragged me through. If you can’t understand that, you have no way of grasping why I had to leave Brighton. If I hadn’t, there would’ve been two ruined reputations instead of one.”

“So I should thank you for abandoning me? I should be grateful for showing up at your hotel, only to have the clerk tell me that Mrs. Michael Raydor had checked out and not left a forwarding address. And no message!” Aunt Brenda sat down with a thud on one of the chairs. “Not even a goodbye.”

“Brenda,” Mrs. Raydor said, and now her voice sounded raspy and raw, like Cassidy’s own voice sounded when she’d been crying so much her throat hurt. “You really don’t understand. If I had stayed and allowed myself to say goodbye, it would have…it would have killed me.”

Aunt Brenda had lowered her head as in defeat, but now she jerked and looked up at Mrs. Raydor. “What?” Her voice was barely audible, but Cassidy could see the stricken look on her face. “What are you saying?”

“You need to just listen, Brenda Leigh. You are so quick to judge and think the worst, but if you just—“

“Not as quick as you were in leaving me after everything we said…everything we…did…” Aunt Brenda stood, and now she was crying.

“Oh, no,” Caroline whispered where she crouched next to Cassidy.

“Darling.” Mrs. Raydor pulled Aunt Brenda into her arms and hugged her hard. Aunt Brenda seemed to struggle for a moment, but then relented and stood still within the embrace.

“Don’t cry. Please, Brenda Leigh. I can’t bare it if you cry.”

“I have hated you for a long time.” Aunt Brenda sniffled. “And I need a handkerchief.”

“Here.” Mrs. Raydor pushed a lace trimmed handkerchief in Aunt Brenda’s shaking hand. “I don’t blame you. Oh, sweet Lord, I have missed you.”

“Sharon…” Aunt Brenda hid her face against Mrs. Raydor for a moment. Then she pulled back, her face pale. “Once you learn more about me, you’ll think less of me. Most people would.”

“What makes you say that?” Mrs. Raydor looked puzzled.

“I just know. I have to go.” Rushing toward the door, Aunt Brenda left Mrs. Raydor standing in the middle of the room.

The last thing Cassidy saw before she and Caroline closed the gap in the tapestry, was how Mrs. Raydor covered her face with one hand and held her midsection with the other, slightly bent over as if she was in pain.

 

XXXXXXXXXX

 

Annika used the mostly empty ballroom in the east wing, the only room with enough space, to train. Dressed in narrow black trousers, a long white silk shirt, she charged forward. The sword glimmered mutedly in the pale winter light as she forced an imaginary adversary backward. Her left hand raised in the classic pose, her long, muscular legs carried her through the intricate attack.

Her shoes, especially made for this exercise, gave her excellent traction as she twirled, attacked, but never went on the defensive unless she had set a trap for her opponent.

“Oh, goodness.” A husky, breathless voice made Annika pivot, her sword automatically raised.

“Kathryn!” She immediately lowered the sword. “It is not advisable to approach me when I am armed.

“Understood.” Kathryn looked at the sword and back at Annika, her eyes large. “I have never seen anything like that. How you moved…as if you were able to slice the oxygen molecules in two.”

“That would be unlikely,” Annika said and couldn’t resist smiling. “What brings you hear? Madam Serena assured me this room was rarely in use.”

Kathryn tilted her head and scanned her entire body. “I was looking for you and, yes, it was Serena who pointed me in the right direction. I’m very glad she did. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss this—you—for anything. I didn’t realize your hair was this long, for instant.”

“My hair?” Feeling her blond ponytail, held together with a black velvet ribbon, Annika regarded Kathryn curiously. “I was unaware you took notice of something as unimportant as my hair.”

“It’s not unimportant. Not when it’s this amazing, and since it’s yours. May I?”

At first Annika thought Kathryn asked if she could touch her hair, but then realized the other woman indicated an interest in her sword. “It’s as stunning as its owner.”

“Use caution,” Annika said and handed over the sleek sword, handle first, to Kathryn. “Keep it low at a forty-five degree angle when not engaged in training or battle.”

“Battle?” Kathryn’s head snapped up. “You say that as if you’ve actually used this outside of training, or even competing.”

“I have.” Annika’s throat hurt, but she managed to sound calm. This was the part of her life any other woman would deem reproachful.

“In Miranda’s employ?” Kathryn held the sword out of her way and stepped closer to Annika.

“Indeed.”

“Good Lord. I won’t ask about the circumstances as I’m sure I don’t want to know, but I must say it bothers me.”

Annika felt her heart sink into the depth of her stomach. “I see. Of course.” She reached for her sword, but Kathryn didn’t seem to notice, not taking her eyes off Annika’s.

“I would hope you’re very good at handling this weapon or I’ll worry frightfully for you once you are back on duty, so to speak. The idea of anything this lethal even making a mark on you is heartbreaking.”

Annika’s thoughts whirled. She was trying to back up what Kathryn just said and not doing a very good job of it. “Are you saying this worries you?”

“Yes, naturally. I don’t think I even want to imagine you getting hurt.” Kathryn raised the sword some and looked at it. “When I imagine something like this piercing your body, or, God forbid, your heart…it’s as if it happens to me.” Kathryn shifted her gaze back to Annika. “I never thought I had such vivid, and horrible, imagination.” She smiled tremulously.

“I have yet to be pierced by anything. I have been cut, though, and have a few less attractive scars.” Annika stepped closer, once again holding out her hand for the sword.

“Would you show me?”

“The scars?” Annika gasped, unable to remain collected.

“Yes, eventually, please, but for now, how to use this.” Kathryn’s soft blue eyes twinkled. “In case I need to defend you at one point.”

Smiling at the now obviously flirting Dame Kathryn, Annika circled her and placed her hand over the one holding the sword. She wrapped her arm around Kathryn’s waist and was immediately engulfed by the emerald green skirts. “Raise your free hand in a ninety degree angle of both the shoulder and the elbow joints. Like so. This is the ‘en garde’. Keep your dominate leg forward, slightly bent, and the other behind you, stretched out. Yes, like so.”

Annika showed Kathryn the basic technique and it took on the form of a strange ballroom dance as they moved back and forth. Their breathing picked up speed, the small hairs below Kathryn’s elaborate hairdo curled up from perspiration, and every now and then they both laughed. Eventually Kathryn handed the sword back, rubbing her shoulder. “Oh, my. I’m going to be sore in places I was unaware of having tomorrow, I’m sure. This was great fun, Annika. I will have to dig out one of our ancient swords and persuade you to play some more.”

Play? The word made Annika’s cheeks ignite. Knowing she blushed made her self-conscious and she dipped her head, wishing she had set her hair free to cover her. This had been her habit during her childhood in Gothenburg when her aunt and uncle used their sorely lacking parental skills on her. She had quite a few scars from that time in her life also.

“It’s not a demand, Annika,” Kathryn said softly and cupped her elbow. “Just a suggestions.”

“I would be more than happy to teach you how to fence, Kathryn.” Annika raised her head, feeling quite foolish. “I do not think I could refuse you anything.”

Kathryn’s lips parted, but she didn’t speak. Instead she stepped well into Annika’s personal space and raised her hand to Annika’s cheek. Letting her fingertips slide down, her thumb ended up on Annika’s lower lip. “So beautiful. I know for a fact I could never refuse you either.”

“The way you look at me, Kathryn, is not entirely…safe.”

Tilting her head, her eyes taking on a whole new, much more dangerous, glitter, Kathryn said, “Really?”

Annika drew a deep breath and began to withdraw, ready to tuck her sword into its case. She fought against the immediate instinct to pull Kathryn into a wild embrace, crush those narrow, wine red lips to hers and quench her thirst for this woman once and for all.

“Annika?” Kathryn’s elegant once again landed on her arm. “Don’t run.”

“I must.”

“Why?”

“You do not want to know.” Annika snapped the case closed around the sword.

“I do.”

Rounding on Kathryn with fire in her belly, Annika held up her free hand, palm toward the other woman. “No. You do not.” She hurried toward the doorway, relieved the corridor was empty as she half ran toward her room.

This was the way things had to be. She had to leave Kathryn back in the ballroom. Alone. Safe.

 

XXXXXXXXXX

 

Miranda gathered her skirt and sat down on the side of the large bed where Caroline and Cassidy lay tucked in, the cover all the way up to their chin despite the roaring fire in the fireplace.

“You girls have been unusually quiet this evening. Should I worry?” Miranda eyed the two little redheads. Weren’t they closer to each other than normal? Usually, Caroline wanted her space if they shared a bed, claiming Cassidy kicked her or had cold feet. Now the two of them were shoulder to shoulder in the center of the bed.

“Not at all, “ Caroline said. “We’re just a bit cold and tired. Right, Cass?”

“Right.”

“And tired,” Caroline added again. “Right, Cass?”

“Right.”

Miranda thought back on the day and only now realized her girls had been out of sight for the main part of the day. What had they been up to? She knew they liked to play spying games and this old castle had many nooks and crannies for little girls to hide. “Did anything upset you today?” she asked as casual as it was possible.

“No. No…well, a little?” Cassidy said and then winced as Caroline must have kicked her under the covers. “Ouch.”

“What happened?” Miranda demanded an answer, albeit in the softest of tones.

“We overheard Aunt Brenda and Mrs. Raydor arguing. They were upset.” Caroline sat up now, her eyes huge. “Seems they have known each other for years. Aunt Brenda was very angry.” This clearly did not sit well with Caroline. She was always the peacemaker and Cassidy most often the protective one. Between them, these two made quite the diplomatic team.

“It is not polite to listen in on anyone else’s conversation.” Miranda made sure they knew she meant this. “And not only that, it’s wrong.”

“We’re sorry,” Cassidy said and sat up as well.

A faint knock on the door frame made Miranda turn her head. Andy poked her head in. “I’m sorry. I thought I might say good night to the girls? I won’t keep you from your usual evening ritual.”

“Andrea! Come in.” Caroline looked relieved at the interruption.

“Yes, please do,” Miranda extended a hand, thought better of it and instead pointed at the opposite side of the bed. “Come and listen to my little sweethearts’ confessions.”

The way the girls’ faces fell was almost humorous.

Andy moved to the other side of the bed, but unlike Miranda who, true to habit, kept her regal poise, she crawled up and sat on the bed just behind Miranda. Closing her eyes briefly as she inhaled Andy’s scent, Miranda moaned inwardly. Andy of course had to sit so close, didn’t she? “Go on, girls. You were saying how much you regretted spying on your Aunt Brenda.”

“Um. Yes. We’re sorry about what we overheard.” Caroline elbowed her sister. “Aren’t we?”

“Right.” Cassidy grinned now, her eyes on Andrea. “All we heard,” she said, giggling.

Caroline gave her sister an ‘oh you idiot’ look. “So, time for our evening prayer, Mother?”

“Just a minute.” Miranda turned her focus on Cassidy. “What did you mean by emphasizing the world ‘all’?”

“Nothing. I mean, just that. All of what we overheard.” Cassidy stopped grinning and moved closer to Caroline who rewarded her by pinching her side. “Ouch. Why do you always do that?”

“Because I can.” Caroline imperiously stuck out her tongue.

“Girls.” Miranda’s voice sank and octave and it amused her to no end how this made even Andy sit up straight.

“We’re sorry, Mother,” the twins echoed.

“The truth now. Who else did you spy on?”

“We didn’t spy. We were exploring and somehow just ended up behind the wall where everyone was talking.” Donning her best puppy look, Caroline looked suitably sad.

“Behind the wall?” Miranda was at a loss. “What are you talking about?” She knew about one secret door Andy showed her, but that lead directly into another room.

“I think I know.” Andy shook her head, smiling wistfully. “In fact, I think I better show you once the girls have confessed.”

“We saw Aunt Brenda and Mrs. Raydor, like we said. And we saw you and Andrea. Only for a moment and you looked really happy and we didn’t want you to know we were there cause it was private and you tell us all the time when it’s private—“

“Stop.” Miranda held up her hand. “When did you see me and Andrea?”

“After lunch. You were in the small drawing room. We couldn’t hear everything you said. I promise.”

“We did see the kiss.” Cassidy had obviously decided to be honest, which irked her sister, naturally, who pinched her again. Harder this time, judging from how Cassidy jumped. “Ow! Caro, stop it!”

“Stop talking, then,” Caroline hissed, and then seemed to remember her mother was right there. “Um. Yes. The kiss.”

Miranda wanted to thud her head against the wall. Preferably hard enough to render her unconscious over Christmas. “Oh, dear.”

“That’s all right.” Andy spoke and then shocked Miranda to the core by wrapping her arm around her shoulders from behind. “Miranda and I have quickly become very good friends and such an exchange is natural.”

“It is?” Cassidy beamed, looking relieved, but Caro was tougher and infinitely more suspicious.

“Yes, it is. Affection between adults is first and foremost their business. Not even their children get to discuss or have opinions about it. At least not in the beginning of such a friendship. Further along into such a friendship, the children are taken into account and if they’re polite and understanding enough to be trusted.” She tilted her head. “I happen to think you two are among the most understanding and trustworthy young girls I’ve ever met. Surely you are not out to prove me wrong?”

“Not at all,” both girls said simultaneously. “We never gossip. Never.” Caroline looked aghast at the thought. “Enough people on Manhattan have their views about our Mother and sometimes us as well. I don’t like that. It’s not fair.”

“No, it’s not.” Andy shook her head in dismay. “Gossip is rarely benevolent.

Cassidy yawned behind her hand. “I think I can fall asleep this very instant,” she said, snuggling down on her pillow.

“Me too.” Caroline followed her sister’s example. “Are we still in trouble?”

“Not as much as you were. How about we say our prayers now?” Miranda didn’t have the heart to scold them when they were almost asleep. She was a strong believer in ‘never allowing the sun to set on anger‘ concept.

As the girls recited their prayer, Miranda took Andy’s hand in hers; wanting her to know she appreciated her unorthodox way of calming her girls. After the prayers, the twins nodded off instantly.

“They are out like little lights,” Andy said and began sliding off the bed.

“All this fresh air and their affinity for spying must have taken a toll.” Miranda sighed. “Any idea where they might have spotted us and Brenda and Sharon?”

“Yes, come with me.” Andy held on to Miranda’s hand and led her down the staircase. “Here, put on my oldest coat. At least over your shoulders. There is no heat source inside the walls.

Miranda was sure she must’ve heard Andy wrong. Inside the walls? She took a step toward Andy who’d opened what looked like a part of the wall next to her.

“Here is one of the openings. Come.”

Miranda stepped inside and was unsure what she may see. Behind the wall was a narrow corridor and when the secret door closed, she felt she was trapped. Then, Andy pulled her into her arms and kissed her.

“Don’t worry. I’ll get a lamp.” Andy disappeared down the narrow path. “I won’t be far away.

Miranda hoped so. She also wished she had told Andrea she was prone to claustrophobia.

 

XXXXXXXXXX

 

Andrea lit the oil lamp and turned back to where she left Miranda. To her dismay, Miranda was pale and gripped her hand so hard Andrea could feel her bones grind together. “I promise it is safe in here.”

“I’m sure it is. I’m being quite ridiculous.”

“Will you be all right?” Andrea raised their joined hands and pressed a kiss to the back of Miranda’s.

“I will. Just keep holding my hand.”

“Of course.” Andrea stepped ahead of Miranda through the narrow path. “I never got around to showing you this part of the secret pathways during the house tour. I showed you the secret door between my room and yours, but this is different. These narrow pathways go all over the house between the rooms. I suppose one of my ancestors were tremendously paranoid—or curious.”

“I would wager he—or she—was both.” Miranda held on firmly to Andrea as they moved through the narrow corridor. “At least they’re clean. I was concerned they would be full of cobwebs and dust.”

“Oh, no. Madam Serena has the staff take care of the pathways as if it was just one more room. Granted, I heard from my chamber maid they often make a game of whose turn it is as some of the very young girls are superstitious and claim these corridors are haunted.” Andrea fully expected Miranda to scoff at such a thing, but instead the other woman stopped and pulled Andrea close.

“I’m not superstitious, Andy, but joking about ghosts when in this milieu is not amusing. I believe you owe me some compensation.”

Andrea’s heart picked up speed, fluttering in her chest like a captured butterfly. Miranda’s voice was low and held a certain tremor, but at the same time it was commanding in a way that thrilled her. Andrea hung the oil lamp on a hook next to one of the secret doors. She was vaguely aware of the fact the door led to a linen storage when she opened it. After peering inside, not that she really thought anyone would be in here at this late hour; she brought the lamp with them as she pulled Miranda inside. “I am always prepared to pay my debts,” Andrea said and smiled nervously at Miranda. “In what way may I compensate you, Mrs. Priestly?”

“Oh, you cheeky girl.” Miranda’s eyes glittered dangerously as she took the lamp from Andrea, putting it on a shelf. “You may bestow one of those wondrous kisses on me.”

“Very well.” Cupping Miranda’s cheeks, Andrea leaned in and brushed her lips across Miranda’s. Silky and pliant, Miranda’s mouth opened beneath hers. Andrea wrapped her arms around Miranda’s waist and held her closer, unable to resist this escalation of their embrace.

“You are clearly ready to go above and beyond.” Miranda ran her fingertips along Andrea’s throat and down across her collarbones. This made Andrea tip her head back and even if she tried to stop it, she moaned at the delicious touch.

Andrea caressed Miranda’s back, frustrated at the corset keeping her from actually feeling Miranda’s warmth. “I wish to feel more of you. See more of you. This…is exasperating.”

“I agree.” Miranda caressed all along Andrea’s décolleté, slipping her fingertips inside as if trying to reach further in. Andrea wished she could have ripped open the tiny hooks and buttons trapping their bodies inside their dresses.

“Tell me,” Andrea begged and leaned against a stool, tugging Miranda with her. “Tell me what you would do if I wasn’t wearing my dress…or my corset.”

“Oh, sweet Lord, you are cruel,” Miranda whispered. “You ask a lot of me.”

“I know. I’m sorry. No, that’s a lie. I’m not sorry at all. I wish to know.” Andrea’s legs trembled as she parted them and made room for Miranda.

“Tell me if I do anything that frightens you.” Miranda murmured, her eyes guarded as her hands kept touching what exposed skin on Andrea she found.

“I know my own body.” Andrea wanted to reassure Miranda, make her not stop by some misguided sense of protection. Self-exploration is nothing to be ashamed of.”

“Self-explo—oh!” Miranda stopped moving. Her eyes darkened and she took a fistful of Andrea’s skirts as she claimed her mouth. This time, Miranda’s kiss was filled with searing passion, her tongue plunging into Andrea’s mouth and demanding she reciprocate rather than asking.

Andrea groaned and met the forceful caress with just as much passion, her arousal soaring. The heat between her legs turned to dampness and she could feel herself growing wet and swollen. She needed Miranda’s touch so badly it hurt, but could not think of any way to express this. Mainly because her lips were busy engaging in one kiss deeper than the previous, but also since she had no words for what she wanted.

“You drive me absolutely crazy,” Miranda whispered, her breath hot against Andrea’s lips. “First you have me on edge by making my much rather forgotten claustrophobia reappear. Then you talk about pleasing yourself and burn images of this on my retina—that I will carry with me forever. And now…if only I could touch you…”

“You can.” Andrea knew now what she wanted. She may be incarcerated by the insufferable corset, but if Miranda wanted to touch her, here, like this, that could be done.

“What?” Miranda pulled back a fraction of an inch. “You would allow that?”

“Yes. As it is you.” Andrea hoped Miranda understood this. “Only you.”

“Oh, sweet girl.” Miranda embraced her again, kissing her along her neck down to her chest. “Then, instead of my telling you what I want, why don’t you tell me what to do?”

Now it was difficult to swallow, not to mention how hard it was to breathe properly—and this time Andrea could not merely blame the corset. She tugged at her skirts and petticoats. Her long, white stockings came into view, but she stopped before she showed any skin. “I wish for you to touch my skin. Above my stockings. I mean, if it pleases you?”

Miranda swayed. “You must be joking. If it pleases me? Nothing would please me more right now.” She stepped closer in between Andrea’s legs, shoving the skirts up as she did. Her hands travelled in under Andrea’s petticoats, stroking up her legs, rounded her knees and traced up her thighs.

Andrea was certain she was going to swoon. “Miranda…”

“Hold on to me. Does it feel good?”

“Oh, yes.” Andrea didn’t want to, but had to close her eyes to focus on the sensation of Miranda’s hands. “I have never felt anything…anything at all, like this.” She parted her legs further, desperate for more intimate exploration. She wore her usual cotton undergarments and it was embarrassing how badly she had wetted them. In theory Andrea knew why this happened when a woman was aroused, but it was of little comfort. Soon Miranda may reach this area and know.

Miranda’s hand was suddenly there, cupping Andrea’s sex with her palm and no doubt realizing how damp she was.

“Andy!” Miranda shifted restlessly, hoisting her own skirt up a bit, as she pressed against Andrea’s hip. “I knew. I just knew you would be incredible.” Her hand massaged Andrea between her legs, not hesitating, merely keeping up a steady pressure. At the same time, she pressed her own center against Andrea’s thigh while holding her closer. “You are wonderful. So beautiful and…oh, Andy…”

Miranda’s movements became erratic and Andrea tried to understand what was going on, but all she could do was steady herself against Miranda. Her own sex was on fire and she knew that tender relief she had obtained on her own on a few occasions, was imminent. “Miranda, press harder. I…I…” Moaning now and unable to speak, Andrea was trembling worse than before.

“I have you, darling. I have you.” As her own tremors seemed to come to a crescendo, Miranda found the opening in Andrea’s undergarment and slipped her hand through. Her fingers parted the swollen folds and then they pushed against that little sensitive nodule Andrea had discovered only recently. She had never touched herself other than on the outside of her undergarments. Now when Miranda did, the pleasure crested so fast, she nearly did faint. Andrea clung to Miranda, sobbing her name as the throbbing sensation receded slowly. She knew Miranda was also starting to breathe at a normal pace and wondered if it had felt like this for her as well.

“I should apologize for allowing our first true intimacy to take place in a linen closet,” Miranda said and smiled wryly. “However, I don’t feel very apologetic.”

“How do you feel?” Andrea only realized now that Miranda had withdrawn her hand and smoothed down both of their skirts.

“Like we started something that can’t be stopped—and that you are completely and utterly amazing. The feeling of your body responding to my caresses was like something I have never felt before.” She kissed Andrea sweetly. “As any gentleman, or in this case woman, would do, I will now escort you back to your room, from where I understand you can enter mine without anyone knowing.”

“Yes?” Andrea’s heart started pounding again.

“Not tonight. I want you to bask in this sensation for a little while and then decide if you want us to take it further.” Miranda cupped Andrea’s cheeks and kissed her again. “Because once you do, heaven help you, Andy. I don’t expect that I could ever let you go.”

 

XXXXXXXXXX

 

Sharon sat at the vanity in her room, brushing through her long, thick mane of chestnut hair. People like Dame Kathryn and Andrea had chamber maids, but she had always taken pride in her independence, which included grooming herself and getting dressed on her own. Now as her brush caught on a knot in the back of her hair, she let go of her legendary self-control for a moment and cursed under her breath. Her former husband had taught her many less than desirable things—cursing was the mildest of them.

A knock on the door surprised her and still thinking about Michael, she realized she sounded harsh when she barked, “Enter!”

Brenda Leigh stepped inside and closed the door behind her. Having expected it to be one of the maids, Sharon rose hastily and tugged her robe closer, tightening her belt. “Brenda Leigh? What can I do for you at this late hour?”

“You always were good at sounding accommodating and scathing at the same time.” Brenda Leigh stood rigidly just inside the door, her hands in fists at her side.

“People rarely tell me this to my face, but I have heard rumors.” Sharon motioned for the settee by the window where a maid had pulled the velvet drapes closed for the evening. “Please, sit down. You must have something more on your mind than point out my tone of voice.”

“Fine.” Brenda Leigh strode across the floor, sat down only to jump up instantly and start pacing back and forth. Her blonde, wavy hair ran down her back in wild tangles and Sharon’s fingers itched to run through the tresses. She had been allowed to do this four years ago. Four long, lonely years when she had suffered through the social stigma of her divorce.

“Please. It really is late,” Sharon said tiredly. “I don’t want to sound dismissive or offensive in any way, but unless you stop tearing up Kathryn’s rug and talk to me, I’m going to insist you exercise in the corridor.”

Brenda Leigh stopped so quickly, she nearly lost her balance. “You—you are so incredibly insufferable. That so called humorous approach isn’t very funny. I’m trying—I’m trying to…” Brenda’s eyes filled with tears.

Sharon had not shed one tear over Michael during or after the divorce, but seeing Brenda Leigh looking so furious and upset nearly did her in. Swallowing against a lump in her throat, Sharon stood and took Brenda Leigh gently by arm. “Come. No matter what you think of me, I never meant to hurt you. Please don’t shed tears over me. I’m not worth it.”

“You don’t understand.” Brenda Leigh reluctantly sat down, tears flowing down her cheeks. “Why do you think I’m upset?”

“Because you found out I was married.”

Brenda Leigh dabbed at her wet cheeks with a handkerchief. She tilted her head as if examining Sharon’s face, or its expression. “I was right. You really don’t understand. Yes, it was a shock to find out you were married. You also followed that up with a few other blows. I have waited so long to ask you why you left without saying goodbye. Now I learn of your divorce and this…this is completely unfathomable. If you were no longer married, why didn’t you…why didn’t you contact me?”

It was Sharon’s turn to stand up and pace. The answer to Brenda Leigh’s questions were harder to give than the other woman could ever guess. “I had already filed for divorce when I met you. If my husband or his attorneys had found out, he could have either stalled the proceedings, or even filed for divorce against me, leaving me destitute. I could not risk it.”

“And you couldn’t trust me enough to say anything about it?”

“No.” The word hurt as it passed Sharon’s vocal chords.

“I see.” Paling, Brenda Leigh twisted the handkerchief around her fingers. “And when the divorce was finalized?”

“By then I was financially set, but a social pariah in my former social circles in London. Anyone standing by me was ostracized by association.” Sharon stopped walking back and forth and sat down on the foot of her four poster bed. “The only ones rising above it all were Nigel, Kathryn, and Andrea.”

“You never gave me a chance.”

“I had already given you every reason to hate me. If I had added ruining your reputation to it just because I was…I was lonely. That would have been truly reproachable.” Sharon wished she had something to occupy her hands as well.

“You really did hurt me,” Brenda Leigh whispered. “I blamed you for a lot of things, perhaps some that weren’t really your fault.”

Sharon had to smile, despite everything. “Your passion during that summer in Brighton proved to me you are a passionate soul, Brenda Leigh.”

“I sold my house in Leeds and moved up north. To Scotland.” Brenda Leigh tucked her handkerchief into a pocket on her robe. “Everyone thought I was mad, especially Miranda and Kathryn, but I had to go where nobody knew me. I understand I have a bit of a reputation for being a recluse. It suits me fine.”

“Why is that?”

“Did you regret our time together?” Brenda Leigh didn’t answer Sharon’s question, but offered one of her own.

“What? No.” Sharon felt ambushed, but still continued. “I clung to those memories whenever things became unbearable. And they did—frequently.”

Her answer seemed to stun Brenda Leigh. “Really?”

“Really.”

“And here I thought you regretted it. All of it. Blamed me for it.”

“No. Any blame is solely mine.” Sharon realized this was her chance to set Brenda Leigh free from the memories that had clearly been haunting her. If she could do nothing else to atone for her actions in Brighton, she could at least tell this woman the truth. Only then could Brenda Leigh let it go. She moved over to the settee where she sat down and took Brenda Leigh’s cold hands in hers. “Listen to me. I will always regard our summer in Brighton as the sweetest of memories. I have cherished them for four years, even if a lot of conflicting emotions are attached to those memories. Despite that, I know the affection and love we shared—because it was love, Brenda Leigh—will have to suffice for a lifetime. I ended it badly by not really ending it at all. I am very sorry about that.”

Brenda Leigh’s fingers clung to Sharon’s as if she was afraid of falling off the settee. Her lips moved and her eyes blinked rapidly. “You loved me?” she whispered. “You claim you loved me and yet you never once…”

Frustrated, Sharon slid her hands up Brenda Leigh’s arms and grabbed hold of her. “Now it is you who don’t understand!” She held her former lover in place. “If I hadn’t protected you by staying away—“

“I never asked for protection!” Brenda in turn clasped the lapels of Sharon’s robe. “Yes, it was love, you damn woman. I loved you and you threw me away without a single consideration for what it did to me.”

“You are not listening—“

“I hear you just fine.” Brenda Leigh snarled.

“You hear me, but you’re not listening.” Sharon’s eyes filled with tears and soon she may lose that hard won self-control. “I loved you and it was always my intention to one day find you, but when I noticed how unforgiving the people around me were still four years after my divorce, I had to let go of the hope of seeing you again. I did what I could to protect you.”

Brenda Leigh sagged sideways on the settee, leaning against the backrest. Her grip was still firm of the lapels and Sharon was still holding on to her arms. She stared at Sharon, her intelligent eyes scanning each feature over and over.

“I can’t deny it,” Brenda Leigh said huskily. “I wish I could dismiss everything and call you a liar. More than that, I pray for the day I can wake up and not think of you the first and last thing I do, every day. I hate you for doing that to me. You showed me what love can be like. Everything from the tenderness, to the laughter, and the lovemaking. How could you give me all that and then just take it away. Surely you knew it could never be like that again for me—with anyone else?”

“I did. I do. If it’s any consolation, I did it to myself as well. That’s my cruelest punishment. I’m doomed to love you and be without you.” Sharon wondered why it wasn’t as shocking to her system to confess her true feelings as she had feared.

“What?” Brenda Leigh whispered.

“Now you know.” Sharon smiled wryly. “Ironic, isn’t it?”

Brenda Leigh spoke through pale, tense lips. “Ironic. Yes. And far, far too late.” She laughed joylessly. “You are not the only one who can be protective. I haven’t been as forthcoming as I should have, but then I may never have learned your truth.”

“What do you mean?” Sharon could hear the slight hysteria beneath Brenda Leigh’s chuckle and it worried her.

“I have to make a living and if people in my family, what’s left of it, knew, let alone the social circles in which they move, they would have to disown me or be part of the scandal.”

Sharon didn’t think before acting, for once. Pulling Brenda Leigh closer, she said, “Please, tell me. No matter what. Tell me.”

 

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Serena walked through the corridors of Dragonwolde, oil lamp in one hand and a fireplace poker in the other, as was her habit. She always did the final rounds around ten in the evening, making sure all the windows and doors were locked, and all the fireplaces secure. The safety of this castle and its inhabitants were her priority.

Usually, her mind was on her task at hand, but tonight, she couldn’t let go of the way Miranda had more or less made her talk about her past. Serena would rather nobody knew she rescued Kathryn that cold evening in London. She was proud of having been present at the right time, but also afraid Kathryn’s guests might wonder what she was doing outside alone on the streets of London at the time.

She returned to the corridor which held her room and some of the other staff as well. As she reached for the door knob, a shadow moved to her left and she quickly pivoted, raising the lamp and the poker.

“Serena!” a familiar voice whispered frantically. “It’s just me. Emily.”

Slumping against the door, shocked at of how close she came to hitting the other woman, she saw Emily step into the light from her lamp. She was carrying a candle holder, but the small flame did little in the way of illumination.

“Do you realize I nearly hit you?” Serena hissed. “What are you doing around the servants’ quarters?”

“I was looking for you. You didn’t join us for dinner and I was…worried.” Emily looked awkward where she stood, fiddling with her broach with her free hand, the candle trembling in the other.

“I was busy.” Serena opened her door and sighed. “You better come inside. It’s cold out here.”

“Thank you.” Polite and moving with the innate grace of an earl’s daughter, Emily passed her and stepped inside.

Serena lit the candles on her dresser and the oil lamp on the small table by the window. She never closed the curtains here on the third floor. If anyone climbed the brittle vines to peer through the windows at this level, they were more likely to fall and break their neck than get a glimpse of Serena or any of the maids.

“What can I do for you, Milady?” Serena stood rigidly at the center of the floor, hands behind her back.

“Emily. You promised to call me Emily.”

“Very well. Emily.” Serena had hoped to regain the sense of distance between the English redhead and herself, but apparently Emily had other ideas.

“As I said, I wanted to makes sure you were well. I was worried I may have pushed you too far when I insisted you join us earlier today. I had no idea Miranda was so curious about your past. She ambushed you.”

“She did no such thing. Miranda merely wanted to know who I am as I’m in charge of a lot of her children’s activities outdoors while they’re here at Dragonwolde.” Serena made sure her expression was non-committal. “I fully understand this.”

“Well, I don’t. You were there at my insistence and I felt they were prying.” Emily’s hands were balled up into tight fists. “That wasn’t my intention for having you participate.”

“No? What was your intention then?” Curious now, Serena motioned for Emily to take one of the chairs by her own fireplace as she added another log. “Please, sit down.” She barely swallowed the ‘milady’. “Emily.”

As she sat, Emily automatically assumed a perfectly pose, no doubt the result of a series of nannies and governesses. Her hands folded neatly on her laps betrayed her nerves still as they trembled. “I knew from talking to Andrea you normally eat and socialize with her and Miranda. I simply didn’t like how you reduced yourself to merely a servant just because Kathryn is entertaining.”

“This was by my own choice.” Serena didn’t want Emily to blame Kathryn or Andrea. “I was always welcome.” She rose from the fireplace and sat down on the other chair.

“I know. It bothered me you didn’t seem to find yourself worthy.” She frowned, which rendered her flawless, pale face an endearing expression of bewilderment. “Or was it perhaps because you found our presence unappealing?”

“Neither.” Serena sighed and rubbed her temple. “I am not entirely comfortable around strangers. This does not mean I pass judgment on them or find myself unworthy. I merely withdraw when Dame Kathryn is having guests. It saves her from having to answer curious questions and it gives me my privacy.”

“Are you afraid people might pass judgment on you?” Emily tilted her head.

“There have been times when this has been the case.” Serena tensed. “I haven’t found this to be true with you or anyone else in your party.”

“I should hope not. We are a motley crew and no doubt, many people have had their varied ideas about us. Miranda can’t care less what people think and one gets used to this way of thinking after a while, even if I was brought up by parents who were the direct opposites.” Emily smiled wryly. “My mother never did get over how my father gambled our fortune and estates away. She clings to her title as it is her last heirloom not auctioned off.”

“I am sorry about your family’s misfortune. Something similar happened to my family. My father, also a gambler, was about to lose our fazenda to a man he played poker with. The only way for my father to keep his estate, was to use me as a bribery. Being the youngest daughter of three, I am certain I was quite expendable.”

Emily’s green eyes grew dark. “That has got to be one of the most callous, despicable—“

“Calm down, Emily. Daughters are sold all the time to benefit the families’ desire for prosperity and to save face. I am certain my father thought he provided for me as he also provided for himself. He could not know how this man would treat me. No matter what you say about my father, he never raised his hands against my mother or his children. Some thought him weak, and perhaps he was, but in that respect, I believe he was strong. Then again, it did not prepare me for the methods my husband executed when I tried to refuse him.”

“Serena.” Emily looked uncertain, but then she pressed her lips together and stood. Walking over to Serena, she knelt to the left of the chair, taking Serena’s hand. “I hate to think anyone hurt you. My reputation among my peers and most people I interact with is that I’m cold and remote. I suppose that’s true to a degree. There is something about you who won’t allow me to assume this role.”

“I see a gentle, sensitive soul in you, little Emily.” Serena smiled faintly. This young woman, perhaps five or so years younger than herself, seemed so innocent. Still there was a passion about her when she allowed it to show. Clearly, Emily were affected by her mother’s insistence of keeping up appearances. She spoke a very posh English accent and moved as if she was the lady of the manor. Now, however, the lady was on her knees looking pleadingly at a Brazilian housekeeper. This wouldn’t do. “Emily. Please get off the cold floor. Miranda will never forgive me if you become ill.”

“I don’t want to go,” Emily whispered. Her eyes grew wide at her own words. “I’m not even sure why I dare tell you this.”

“I think I do. This household is a rare one. Here, everybody can be themselves and never be judged for it. No matter if what you feel is outside the social norms and regulations, at Dragonwolde, you are free. Do you understand, Emily?” Serena stood and helped Emily get up. “There is no other place in the world where a woman who had to resort to the type of measures I did before I met Kathryn, would be accepted.”

“What do you mean? What type of measures?”

Her heart sinking into the pit of her stomach, Serena knew this was the pivotal moment. Emily obviously liked her, enough to venture out on a limb, but the truth might be too big a test for the lady.

“Think, Lady Emily. What ways of making a living does a woman who knows no trade have when being all alone in the world?”

Emily still held on to Serena’s hands and now she clung to them as if she would fall over otherwise. “You had to become a prostitute?”

“Yes. For eight months, I served at a well-known luxurious club. Lords, dukes, judges, even royalty. I was on my way there when Kathryn was attacked. She saved me just as much as I saved her.”

Emily’s tears ran silently down her cheeks. “Who know? That could have been my fate if Miranda hadn’t employed me as part assistant, part nanny. I met her through friends of my father when I had traveled with them to New York as their daughter’s companion. I knew when I came back to England, there would be no room for me as my parents had moved to a much smaller flat.”

Serena wasn’t sure what to think. Was Emily judging her? Or was this her way of telling Serena she understood? “As you can imagine,” Serena continued, “I am grateful for holding this position in this wonderful home.”

Emily freed one hand to wipe at her cheeks. “I am so very sorry that happened to you.” She hiccupped and covered her mouth quickly.

“Don’t choke on your tears, my dear.” Serena spoke kindly. “I can arrange for a hot beverage for you.”

“No. No thank you.” Emily took Serena’s hand, holding on to both again. “What I really want is if you would allow me to stay a little longer. Something about you makes me feel I have found…something. Please, Serena?”

She still wished to stay? Serena’s chest suddenly ached when usually harnessed emotions tried to break free. “Of course you can stay. I know of a secret pathway you can use when you want to return to your room. I will show you later.”

Emily relaxed and suddenly her arms were around Serena’s waist. Being slightly shorter than the tall Brazilian, she pressed her face against Serena’s neck. Serena in turn could not resist holding Emily close. When had she last been the object of anyone’s true affection? Serena couldn’t remember ever holding someone of her own volition—someone who seemed so eager to be held.

Standing by the fireplace for long moments, Serena gently cleared her throat. “Emily? You are cold. Why don’t you climb up on the bed and I will cover us both with my duvet?”

Emily nodded shyly and looked like a bashful child as she kicked off her shoes by the bed. Once they were both huddling under the thick duvet, Serena could tell how tired her companion was. “Go to sleep, Emily. I wake up early and I will guide you back to you room through the secret pathway.”

“Thank you.” Emily cupped Serena’s cheek. “You are so beautiful.”

Not sure why she felt compelled to, Serena kissed Emily’s lips gently. “As are you, Lady Emily.”

Emily seemed fast asleep, but Serena thought she could see her smile.


Continued in part 3