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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

Chapter Text

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.”

 

XXXXXXXXXX

 

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.”

 

XXXXXXXXXX

 

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

 

Chapter Text

Kathryn couldn’t sleep. She tossed and turned, finding her room increasingly colder. As in all the other rooms at Dragonwolde, hers boasted a large fireplace, but it was as if her usual amount of firewood didn’t do enough.

A knock at the door made her jump. She turned up the oil lamp she usually kept on low during the night. “Enter.”

To Kathryn’s surprise, Annika stood in the doorway, for a moment looking uncertain before striding across the floor, her gate feline. She was dressed in her sleek black dress, wearing a fur coat over it. In her hands, she carried to baskets, which she place by the fireplace. Without asking, she put two more logs on the fire and added additional kindling as well. Soon the fire roared and the room began to feel warmer.

“Why…what are you doing, Annika?” Kathryn still sat as if hypnotized in the center of her bed.

“I ran into Mr. Neelix when he was bringing in firewood. He says the temperature has dropped below twenty degrees Celsius. It requires everyone to add firewood throughout the night as the cold will only become worse, according to Mr. Neelix’s estimates. He seems to know these things well.”

“He does.” Kathryn began to rise from the bed. “We need to tell everybody.”

“No need. Do remain in bed, Kathryn. I have made sure everyone knows. I alerted Madame Serena, and she, Emily and I have informed everybody. I instructed everyone to pair up and share a room. It seems Emily and Madame Serena had already thought of this, as had Sharon and Brenda Leigh.”

Kathryn’s eyebrows rose at this news. Interesting. “And the staff?”

“The maids already share rooms with each other and Mr. Neelix and Nigel agreed to use Nigel’s room as the rooms above the stables are harder to keep warm due to the fire hazard.” Annika poked at the logs and added a third. “There. We should be fine for a while.”

“We?” Kathryn knew she sounded hopeful, but schooled her features to an expression of mere interest.

“Yes. I assumed you would not mind us sharing your room as you and I are left over, in a manner of speaking.” Looking awkward now, her hands behind her back, Annika studied the hem of her dress, which Kathryn only now noticed were soaked through.

“You’ve been out in the snow,” she blurted and got up despite Annika’s objection. “You must remove your dress immediately. I have a nightgown that has not yet been hemmed by the maids. It should be long enough for you. Come on.” She motioned for Kathryn to join her by the dresser where she pulled out a crisp cotton nightgown. “Let me help you.”

“I can manage.”

“I am sure you can, but it will go faster if I help.” Kathryn was not going to be denied and she began pulling the fur coat from Annika’s shoulders. She placed it over one of the chairs by the fire to dry. The dress followed suit and as Annika indeed wasn’t wearing a corset, she stood in her undergarments, a cotton chemise and drawers. “Those look dry enough,” Kathryn said huskily. “Here. Put this on.” She handed Annika the nightgown and watched with sorrow how it covered her new roommate from neck to toe. “Excellent. Unless you need to use the facilities, I suggest we crawl back into bed. The floor is freezing even through the rug.”

“Very well.” Annika stood watching as Kathryn climbed in on the left side of the bed. Lingeringly, Annika slipped under the covers on the right.

“I hope you aren’t too uncomfortable sharing a bed.” Kathryn didn’t know how else to put it. Annika had chosen to stay with her instead of making other arrangements. “Wait. What about Miranda and Andrea?”

“They are with the twins. I was especially concerned about the young girls as they are more susceptible to the cold.”

“Good. Excellent.” Kathryn shifted, the cold sheets slowly warming against her. “This winter is shaping up to be very unreliable.” She groaned inwardly. Now she had resorted to talking about the damn weather. Sighing at how pathetic she sounded, she moved instinctively toward the other heat source nearby. Annika.

“Yes. Although, the weather cannot be deemed unreliable as it has never made us any promises to be the opposite.” Annika sounded amused. She too shifted until they had ended up shoulder to shoulder. “We need to take turns sleeping so the fire does not go out.”

“Agreed. Why don’t I take the first watch? I couldn’t sleep anyway before you knocked on the door.”

“Are you certain? I do not mind staying awake. I have been trained in remaining awake and alert for days on end. It is really no effort.”

“You did all the work carrying firewood to everyone. Just go to sleep. I will read some if you don’t mind the lamp?” Kathryn reached for her favorite Charles Dickens novel, A Tale of Two Cities.

“Not at all.” Annika rolled away from her and seem to fall asleep instantly, judging from her deep, even breathing.

Kathryn tried to read, having reached the middle of the novel and normally she would be thoroughly engrossed. Now her eyes kept drifting to the blond head on the pillow next to her. Annika’s warmth travelled across the short expanse of the space between them and with that, her scent as well. It was not perfume, at least no scent Kathryn had ever sampled, but something fresh and clean, mixed with an alluring hint of musk and vanilla.

About forty pages further into the novel, Annika turned in her sleep, rolling closer to Kathryn, a frown marring her perfect, alabaster complexion. Her full lips, slightly parted, moved in a low murmur. Annika flung her arm sideways, knocking Dickens from Kathryn’s hands.

“Oh, dear.” Kathryn realized Annika must be dreaming. “Let’s hope you aren’t fencing or otherwise fighting someone.” She cautiously placed a hand on Annika’s shoulder. “Shh. You are fine.”

“Mm.” Annika’s errant arm now hooked around Kathryn’s neck and pulled her close.

“Annika!” For some reason, Kathryn only managed a startled whisper. “Everything is all right.”

“Kath…” Holding Kathryn closer, Annika’s other hand wrapped around her waist and now she couldn’t move at all.

Not that she really wanted. Being pressed so deliciously against the tall body next to hers, Kathryn couldn’t resist pressing her face against Annika’s neck. “You feel so good. I wish this was what you’d want if you were awake.”

“Want…you.” Annika’s drowsy voice echoed throatily above Kathryn. “Mm.” Rolling further, Annika was on top, their legs tangled as their bodies molded to each other.

“Annika.” Raising her voice slightly, not wanting Annika to do something in her sleep that would come back to haunt her when she was awake. “Please. Wake up.” It hurt to utter the words, knowing Annika would withdraw instantly if she did.

“I am awake, Kathryn,” Annika whispered. “Am I hurting you?”

“No.” Trembling now, Kathryn was speaking the truth physically, but she was still afraid what it might do to her heart if Annika were to withdraw from her and regard her with disdain…or worse, distaste.

Annika raised her head and regarded Kathryn through eyes barely more than slits. “You are afraid.”

Swallowing spasmodically, the sound too loud in her ears, Kathryn nodded. “Yes.”

“Of me.”

“No. Of how I would feel if you let go.”

“I do not wish to.” Annika lowered her head again and pressed her forehead against Kathryn’s collarbone. “I am however concerned you will insist I do once you learn all of me. I have what Miranda calls ‘a past’.”

“We all do.” Knowing she had to take charge or Annika may simply talk herself out of Kathryn’s bed. She rolled them, ending up on top of Annika. “We all carry secrets and have the odd skeleton in a closet somewhere.”

Frowning, Annika gazed up at Kathryn. “I never left anyone behind to be found. Certainly not in any closet.”

Jerking at the sincerity in Annika’s voice, Kathryn realized as shocking as the plain truth in Annika’s voice was—she had somehow known Annika’s impromptu title as ‘henchman’ was not just from Miranda being facetious. “Very well. You stowed your skeletons better, but that is in the past,” Kathryn said lightly. She was not a fool, they would have to address this at one point, but right now, her all-overshadowing urge was to hold Annika. Claim this woman.

“Kathryn…”

“Shh. I want to kiss you. That’s all I want, Annika.” Kathryn rubbed her cheek gently against Annika’s.

“You are not good for my ability to focus,” Annika said weakly and framed Kathryn’s face with her hands. She tilted her head slightly and captured Kathryn’s lips with her own. Full, plump, Annika’s mouth pressed against Kathryn’s.

Kathryn parted her lips and graced Annika’s with the tip of her tongue. This ignited something within the woman in her arms, who rolled them once again, this time onto their sides, and pulled up Kathryn’s leg over her hip. Her nightgown rode up and then Annika’s hand was there, cupping her. Unlike Annika, Kathryn wore no underwear beneath her nightgown and this mean Annika was cupping Kathryn’s naked sex.

Aware of how wet she had been ever since Annika climbed into bed with her, Kathryn looked carefully at Annika’s expression, trying to judge her reaction to this obvious sign of arousal.

“For me?” Annika murmured against Kathryn’s mouth.

“For you.” Kathryn moaned as Annika slid her fingers in between her folds. “Oh, yes, for you.” She arched, trying to get close to the long, skilled fingers. “Mm, Annika. Please, please.” How she had longed for this. For Annika’s touch, for having the amazing, mysterious woman close like this, holding her like this. “May I touch you back?” Kathryn had to clear her throat to whisper the words.

“You may.” As regal as the words sounded, Kathryn heard the breathless arousal in Annika’s voice.

She pushed Annika’s nightgown up, making sure they were both covered by the thick duvet. Unfastening Annika’s drawers, she pushed them down enough to reach inside. Delighted to find Annika just as drenched and ready, Kathryn slid her fingers in between the engorged folds. Searching through the fabric, Kathryn found an erect nipple and captured it with her teeth. She sucked the pebbled nipple into her mouth, fabric and all, getting it just as wet.

Soon their mutual caresses became more frantic and Kathryn’s movements became erratic. She recognized how close she was to orgasm, but didn’t want to leave Annika too far behind. Biting down gently at Annika’s nipple, she rubbed her clitoris between two fingers, pushing it out of its hood. Barely touching it, she flicked the tip of her thumb over it. When Annika began to shake, Kathryn knew she could let go. She moved up and kissed Annika hard, pushing her tongue in, no longer asking for permission. Trembling, her own thighs started shaking and the orgasm she had fought to hold back washed over her. From between her legs, it seared through her legs and lower abdomen. Her heart beat so fast, she thought she might pass out, but she clung to Annika with her free hand, and knew without a doubt she was safe—right now and right here, with this woman.

“Kathryn!” Going rigid, Annika screamed her name into Kathryn’s mouth as her pleasure peaked. Kathryn massaged her gently, spreading the wetness to cool off her lover.

Yes. Annika was now her lover. Kathryn carefully withdrew the hand buried between Annika’s legs. Adjusting Annika’s nightgown, she then held the trembling woman close. Kathryn was still reeling from her own orgasm, but to her it was obvious she must tend to Annika first. Being a ‘henchman’, Kathryn doubted Annika allowed very many people to tend to her like this. If she was lucky, Kathryn wondered if Annika would permit her to take care of her again.

As they settled in against the pillows, Kathryn smiled to herself. She could think of several wonderful ways that could be done.

 

XXXXXXXXXX

 

“Mother, mother!” Cassidy stood at the window, literally jumping up and down. “It’s so pretty outside.”

Miranda wrapped her shawl closer around her and joined her daughter. Outside, the severe cold had covered everything with a thick layer of ice. “Good Lord. I will be surprised if we can even open the door today. First so much snow and then this cold. If we wanted this type of weather we could have gone to Sweden with Annika.”

“We were going to join Andrea and visit the woman who had a baby in the village. Is it going to be too cold for that?” Caroline came up to them and wrapped her arms around Miranda’s waist.

“It might. We will see if it is still this cold when Andrea plans to go. Are the two of you ready to go down to breakfast?”

The girls nodded and hurried through the door ahead of Miranda. “Don’t run!” Miranda called out after them, but either they didn’t hear or they chose not to. Not too worried about what most would consider unladylike manners, Miranda smirked and followed her daughters down the stairs.

“Miranda. Wait.” Andy caught up to her and hooked her arm around Miranda’s. “Good thing we could share a bed with the girls last night. It was so cold; it made me worry for them.”

Miranda smiled fondly toward Andy. “I’m glad you came to check on us. I would have come to get you if you hadn’t. With the girls between us, they kept warm and so did we.”

“The maids had restarted the fire in my room this morning so I could get dressed without turning blue.” Andy returned the smile.

“The girls talked about your trip to the village today. What are your plans?” Miranda began walking down the stairs again.

“I will have to talk to Mr. Neelix. He is the master when it comes to predicting weather around here. I have never known him to be wrong. If he says we can go, it will be safe to do so, weather wise.”

“All right. I trust you to take care of Caroline and Cassidy. They are very excited about going.”

They entered the breakfast room. Kathryn and Annika sat at the far end of the table, murmuring together. Miranda knew instantly that something had happened between them. Annika kept smiling, that otherwise so rare, faint smile of hers, and Kathryn’s cheeks flushed a delightful pink.

“Good morning,” Miranda said and walked over to the buffet. Pouring a large teacup of coffee, she then sat down on Kathryn’s other side. “You found a way to stay warm, I hope.” She regarded Kathryn over the edge of her cup and to her amusement; her friend glared at her and blushed even deeper. Oh, this was going to be interesting. Normally, Kathryn never talked in detail about possible lovers, but this—this was the most affected Miranda had seen Kathryn. Not even when Kathryn was married to Mark, whom been her best friend more than anything, had Miranda seen this glow on her face.

“Good morning, Miranda,” Annika said. “I have caught up on your correspondence, but I am not sure how we will deliver the last letters in this weather.”

“Andy might be able to mail them if she goes to the village today.” Miranda turned to Andy who took a seat next to Annika. “Right, dear?”

“Excuse me?” Andy blinked. “I wasn’t paying attention.”

“I can tell where your focus lies.” Miranda nodded at the plate of bacon, eggs, and sausages in front of Andy.

“And I can see you need to have more than coffee if you are going to keep warm.” Andy waved a fork at Miranda.

“You are, of course, correct.” Miranda stood and fetched some toast and marmalade. Ignoring the way Andy rolled her eyes at what she no doubt considered a sorry excuse for breakfast, she topped up her teacup with more coffee. Checking briefly on her girls, she made sure they ate properly as they were going outside later.

“Good morning,” Emily and Serena walked in and headed for the buffet. Right behind them, Brenda Leigh entered and followed Miranda’s example, opting merely for toast and marmalade to her tea.

Nigel and Sharon entered and all the seats around the table were now taken. Miranda let her gaze travel the faces around it and decided that more liaisons had been formed, although some a bit uneasy. Brenda Leigh and Sharon had chosen seats across from each other, but studiously refused to look at each other. Emily and Serena sat next to each other and the way Emily looked at the tall Brazilian woman showed clearly how smitten she was. Nigel looked relaxed and enjoyed a hefty breakfast and had poured himself two cups of coffee. Clever idea, actually.

What was it about this castle, this life-affirming ambiance that allowed them all to lower their guard in this manner? Never had Miranda expected to find such a tolerant and progressive way of living as existed within these walls. The way she lived on Manhattan, in the cutthroat business she was in and the fact she was a woman forged in battle in a man’s world, took a lot of energy. There were nights when all she had time for was three-four hours of sleep and some days she didn’t even get to see her girls.

Miranda knew she wielded a lot of power and more than one attempt at dethroning her had been executed—as well as attacks on her life. Employing Annika Hansen as her bodyguard had taken some of the stress out of her life as she learned to trust the tall blond to manage her security personnel. Being at Dragonwolde, with just Annika and Emily to help her was a blessing. Finding a woman like Andy and fall head over heels was unexpected. She couldn’t remember herself responding to anyone the way she did to Andy. Miranda extended her foot under the table and caressed Andy’s ankle.

Jumping, Andy looked up, swallowing too fast. Coughing behind her napkin, she glared at Miranda, but then her expression softened and her chocolate brown eyes sparkled.

“Are you all right, dear?” Kathryn asked and glanced back and forth between Andrea and Miranda.

“I’m splendid, Aunt Kathryn.” Andy grinned. “I was just being a little voracious.”

“Indeed.” Miranda chuckled.

As they all had their breakfast, Miranda enjoyed studying Andy when she spoke to the others around the table. Andy was the epitome of kindness and took such an honest interest in everyone around her. Every so often her gaze returned to Miranda and each time, Miranda’s heart thawed just a little bit more. She hadn’t been aware how cold she’d become until she met Andy. How would she be able to return to Manhattan when spring came and recreate the armor she so sorely needed there?

###

Later in the afternoon…

Darkness fell and so did the temperature. When tea time passed and Andrea and the twins hadn’t come back, Kathryn gave Mr. Neelix orders to arrange for the four smaller sledges. Miranda was now like a caged tigress as her girls and Andrea was more than an hour late. An hour out in this cold was very dangerous.

In front of the castle, the horses, probably stressed by the frenzy of the people handling them, tossed their heads up and down and moved back and forth between the shafts. Young lads held them by the reins as the maids hurriedly placed furs, blankets, and baskets with hot beverages in the back of the sledges.

Kathryn moved quickly to the front sledge. Raising her voice, she calmly addressed the search party. “Miranda, you are coming with me. Mr. Neelix, you will bring Annika with you. Four of the lads will be on horseback covering minor paths. We all have weapons. Two shots means we found them. ” The rest of their guests would stay at home in case Andrea and the girls returned while the others were out looking. If this was the case, the youngest two stable lads were going to head out and fire a rifle to call the search party home.

Kathryn’s heart was aching, but she refused to give in to fear. There could be a multitude of explanations why they had been delayed.

“Let’s go. Why is no one ready?” Miranda muttered next to Kathryn on the seat.

“We are going to find them and they will be unharmed.” Kathryn nudged their horse with the reins and they were off down the road toward the village. They would part when they reached a fork farther up, as they weren’t sure which way Andy had chosen when going home.

“You have better be right,” Miranda murmured, her voice stark. “Or I will have lost everything.”

 

XXXXXXXXXX

 

Dragonwolde Village – earlier in the afternoon

“Look at his little feet.” Caroline gazed dreamily at the little baby boy, only three days old. “Imagine we were this small once, Cass.”

“Smaller. Mother says we were only five pounds each. Baby Samuel is eight pounds two ounces.” Cassidy looked up at Andrea. “I’m right, aren’t I?”

“Yes, you are. This is a chubby little boy.” Andrea turned to Elizabeth, the baby’s mother. She was still pale and tired from the long labor she had endured, but beamed at her son with a world of love in her eyes. “I can imagine Angus is a proud father.”

“He is indeed, milady. He bought everyone a pint at the Duck & Moose. He has never done that in his life. You know Angus; he never spends more than he’s forced to.”

“Oh, I know. I also know, until now, you have been the only person he has ever spent anything on. I guess you have competition now.” Andrea took the baby from a pouting Caroline who clearly had fallen in love with the child. “I think this little man is getting impatient. And yes. I see a change in his future. Would you perhaps do that, Caro?” She smiled at the girl’s crinkled nose. “I didn’t think so. Well. If you show me where you keep his things, I will change him for you, Lizzie.”

“Oh, but milady…”

“And when did you start calling me milady, by the way?” Andrea shook her head. “If it’s because Caroline and Cassidy joined me here, you can relax. We are all on a first name basis. Please?”

“Very well, Andrea.” Elizabeth motioned for an old dresser in the corner of her bedroom. “I have his diapers over there.”

Andrea changed swiftly the baby who kept suckling his fist as she washed his little bottom. Closing the cloths with a safety pin, she dressed him in warm and soft wool clothes and wrapped him in the knitted blanket. “Here we go. I think he’s hungry again, the way he goes after his hand.”

“I will feed him.” Elizabeth motioned toward Caroline and Cassidy. “If you go into the stable, you’ll find our cat has kittens big enough to leave their mother. If the girls want one each, that would be a big help.”

Andrea didn’t even think twice about it. They too had cats and sometimes kittens, two more would not be a problem. “What do you say, girls? Should we say goodbye to Lizzie and Samuel for now and head home after we go to the stables?”

“Do we really get our very own kittens?” Cassidy’s eyes were huge in her freckled little face.

“Your very own. If your mother doesn’t want to bring them back to America, I promise to look after them until you come back to visit.” The pain erupting in Andrea’s chest at the thought of Miranda and the girls leaving to go home in the spring, took her breath away.

“Thank you, Mrs. Lizzie,” Cassidy gushed. “We promise to take good care of them.”

“I know you will.” Elizabeth began unbuttoning her blouse. “I saw how you both handled Samuel. I know the kittens will fare well with you.”

Andrea kissed Elizabeth’s cheek and then guided the girls back to the front door where they had hung their capes. “Wrap up properly. When you put on your scarves, make a little cradle inside for the kittens to snuggle when we drive home.”

The girls were eager to please and so excited about their new pets, Andrea had to smile as they literally bounced next to her as she put on her gloves. As they entered the warm, pungent stables, as always Andrea had to admire Angus’s organizational skills and how immaculate he kept his cows, pigs, and horses. Over by the pigs, a black cat jumped off a bale of hay. Behind her six kittens came strutting, their little tails standing straight up.

“All right. Pick one each and tuck it safely into your scarves. Then you button up properly so you keep warm—and the kittens too.” Andrea wished Miranda could have seen her girls carefully patting the cats and cooing at the little felines. Eventually, Caroline picked a black and white male kitten and Cassidy an all-black female. As they stowed the mewling little creatures into their scarves, the cat mother rubbed against Andrea’s skirts. “You are pretty happy we are taking a few of them off your hands, aren’t you, little lady? We promise to take good care of them.”

“She looks like she understands,” Caroline said. “Are you sure she won’t miss her babies?”

“She has several left and I’m sure she finds it quite hard to keep track of all of them now when they are getting bigger.” Andrea motioned for the girls to wait while she checked the horse and sledge waiting in the barn next door.

“Lady Andrea, I’m glad I didn’t miss your visit completely,” a male voice said from behind as she began to back the horse out from the barn. “Let me help you with that.”

“Angus! Congratulations on your son.” Glad to see the blonde young man Elizabeth had loved since she and Andrea were fifteen. “He’s a fine looking boy.”

“Lizzie did all the work. I was useless, tearing my hair out in the kitchen and boiling water. I boiled so much water; I even had enough for a bath of my own.” Angus grinned as he readied the horse for her. “And who are these little beauties?” He pointed behind Andrea who turned and saw the twins. She introduced them to Angus and let him know Elizabeth gave them two cats.

“Praise the Lord. I’ve been stumbling over those wee rascals everywhere I turn in the stables. That’s nice of you, Lady Andrea.”

When it came to Angus, Andrea knew better than to try and make him call her by her first name only. She had been Lady Andrea to him since they were very young.

She helped the girls into the sledge and made sure they were covered by the blankets and furs. Climbing into the driver’s seat, Andrea adjusted the reins before turning to Angus again. “I hope you and Lizzie will attend the Christmas festivities at Dragonwolde in two days? I know Lizzie will need her privacy with Samuel and I thought the three of you could use one of the guestrooms this year. We don’t want to risk Samuel getting cold.”

“Bless your heart.” Angus smiled broadly. “That will bring the color back in Lizzie’s cheeks.”

“I forgot to mention it to her when she spoke of the kittens with the girls. Please tell her for me? It wouldn’t be Christmas without you.”

“I will, Lady Andrea.” Angus frowned slightly. “I think you best be going. Temperature is dropping and we can’t let the horse get cold.”

“You are right. See you in two days, Angus.” Making a clicking sound, Andrea let the reins touch the back of her horse and soon the sledge glided along the snowy road. Earlier it had been sunny, but now darkness seemed to be coming early, which was of course not the case, rather it was massive clouds forming beyond Dragonwolde.

As they passed through the forest, Andrea estimated it would take them about an hour to reach Dragonwolde castle. The horse kept a good pace and the bells attached to his harness made for a pretty sound as they made their way toward home.

“Andrea! Andrea stop!” One of the girls, it turned out to be Cassidy, screamed. The startled horse slipped and careened toward the trees, making the sledge skid back and forth behind him.

“What’s wrong?” Andrea tried to sound calm as she fought to stop the sledge from going off the road. The horse was now spooked by the erratic movements of the sledge and had begun galloping, kicking its hind legs at the perceived danger behind him.

“My kitten. I was checking on her and she jumped out and fell into the bottom of the sledge. Are we going to crash?” The girl sounded frantic and Andrea couldn’t blame her. The horse was now running into the woods, rushing between trees with the sledge bucking like a mad bull behind him.

“Hold on, girls.” Andrea feared they may be thrown from the sledge if she couldn’t calm the horse. “Ho, there. Ho, there.” She used her voice as she had learned at a young age, and finally the horse began to calm and listen to her. Andrea had no idea how far into the woods they were when she finally got the horse to stop. She turned to the girls. “Are you two all right?”

“Yes?” Caroline sobbed. “Where are we?”

“We’re still on Dragonwolde’s grounds, just not on the road anymore. We have ended up in a part of the forest I’m not so familiar with and it’s getting dark. Did you find the kitten, Cass?”

“Yes. She’s right here.” Cassidy had scrambled in under the furs and dug out a squeaking little ball of fur, which she now tucked back into her shawl. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have yelled. I thought she’d fall out and be buried in the now, or run over by the sledge.” Now Cassidy was sobbing as well.

“Come on, girls. Make sure you’re covered properly and stay inside the blankets, close together. I’m going to see if I can back up the horse.” She wasn’t sure she could as the horse had weaved in and out among so many trees, it would be impossible to steer him right in his old tracks. Perhaps if she managed to lead him in a circle and return the same way they came? As she jumped off the sledge, she noticed it was getting increasingly darker, not to mention colder. Would they be missed yet at the castle? And when Aunt Kathryn sent out people to help find them, would they see the traces where the horse went off the road when it was dark?

Andy began pulling at the reins from the side, trying to get the horse to move. He tried to obey her, but the sledge was heavy now when he had no momentum going. The ground was uneven and Andrea kept slipping and finally she had to concede defeat. She figured her options quickly. She could never leave the girls, not even to try and go for help—and it wasn’t certain she would go in the right direction in the dark. The horse was now shivering after his panic attack when he had perspired a lot. The cold would get him fast.

Hurrying, Andrea worked to free him from the reins and harness. Her gloves made the work impossible and she impatiently dropped them in the snow. With fingertips aching from the cold she managed to unbuckle the clasps and pull the leather through.

“Now you have to go get help for us, there’s a good boy.” She knew he’d find his way home if she could make him go now when he was free from the sledge. Steeling herself, she whipped his buttock with the reins and yelled at him to go home. This should be a sure sign for Aunt Kathryn that something was wrong. Andrea could find no other way to alert Dragonwolde of their predicament.

Finally the horse began to move and as he ran among the trees, looking at least as if he knew where he was going, Andrea climbed into the sledge and under the furs and blankets with the girls. “We’re going to have to stay as warm as we can together, all five of us.” She held them both close and pulled the many blankets around them like a life-saving cocoon. “They’ll find us soon. I promise.”

Andrea held back her own tears and hoped she wasn’t promising too much.

 

XXXXXXXXXX

 

Miranda clung to the side of the sledge, tugging the furs farther up her body. She was already so cold and this brought her barely harnessed panic closer to the surface. Her girls, her life’s blood, were lost somewhere in the dark and cold countryside. Her heart pounded hard, sending ice crystals through her veins with every beat. Surely Andrea would make sure they were all right? She loved the twins and had taken to the girls immediately. This was what Miranda focused on to keep the panic at bay. Andrea would rather perish than let anything happen to Caroline or Cassidy. This thought was as reassuring as it was frightening. If the girls were all right and she lost Andrea in the process--what then? Miranda already knew. She would leave England and never set her foot in this country again. She would also leave a sizable piece of her heart behind as she now was fully aware how much she loved Andrea. If anyone had suggested only a week ago that she was able to fall head over heels in love with another human being, man or woman, in just a few days, she would have scoffed in contempt. Now she knew better.

“Someone’s coming.” Kathryn slowed the horse down. “It’s another sledge.”

“Andrea and the girls?” Her hope soaring, Miranda let go of the furs and stood up.

“Sit down, you fool. You’ll fall up and break your neck.” Kathryn yanked her unceremoniously down again. “No, it’s not them. It’s another horse.”

Miranda squinted as she could barely make out the outline of the horse in the light of the lamp next to the other driver.

“Who’s there?” Kathryn called out.

“It’s Angus, Dame Kathryn. One of your lads came to the farm on horseback. I sent word to the neighboring farms and got my horse and sledge out immediately. I drove the same way they must have taken and found tracks of a sledge going off the road.”

“Where?” Kathryn’s voice trembled. “Can you turn show us?”

“I sure can. I would’ve driven in among the trees if my sledge hadn’t been too big for the job. I thought I best get word to you.”

“Miranda, get ready fire the rifle when we’re in the right spot. We need more people as we have to go into the woods on foot.”

Miranda grabbed the rifle and held on to it with fingers numb from the cold. Angus turned the horse and sledge around and took off down the snowy road. Kathryn followed suit and all Miranda could do was hold on to the rifle and the furs--and pray.

###

Mr. Neelix and Annika were on their way back after having fruitlessly searched along the road on the other side of the fields. Neelix had muttered it was less likely Lady Andrea had taken this road, but understood they needed to cover as much terrain as possible. When all they found was untouched snow, Annika agreed they needed to turn around.

As they reached the fork in the road, two gunshots in short succession echoed over the fields. It came from the road Kathryn and Miranda had taken. Neelix whipped the horses with the reins, making it gallop. Annika calmly gripped the side of the sledge, thinking of how frantic Miranda and Kathryn must be. It wasn’t hard to see how hard Miranda had fallen for Andrea, and then there were the twins. The two girls meant everything to Miranda and if she lost them...Annika couldn’t see Miranda go on living without her girls.

Kathryn had lost everyone she held dear, except Andrea, and if the young woman had perished in the cold, Kathryn would never be the same. Annika vowed no matter what happened to be there in whatever capacity Kathryn would need her. As much as she was loyal to Miranda and her girls, her bruised heart had opened up to Kathryn.

“Over there. I see lights!” Nigel began to slow the horse down. “Looks like they’re searching among the trees.”

Annika didn’t wait for the sledge to stop completely, but jumped off, taking one of the lamps with her. Hurrying in among the trees, she caught up with Kathryn. “I saw the tracks after a sledge by the road,” she said. “We need to follow them further in.”

“We are going to, but we needed more people with us. We could hear your sledge approaching.” Kathryn began making her way through the trees.

Annika followed, but soon rounded Kathryn, wanting to be the first to find...whatever waited for them to discover. Andrea’s sledge had weaved madly back and forth between the trees and Annika surmised something must have spooked the horse and made it run out of control.

A sound made Annika stop so suddenly, Kathryn bumped into her back. “Shh,” Annika said and raised her hand with the lamp. “I heard something.”

Kathryn did the same and soon Miranda, Angus and Neelix caught up with them. “It’s a horse. Andrea's horse!” Kathryn hurried toward the animal that seemed to stomp in place over by some dense underbrush.

“Careful, Kathryn,” Annika said as they approached the clearly distraught animal. “I think he is caught on something.”

“Andrea must’ve freed him. He’s only wearing his headgear. There, boy. Calm down, calm down.” Kathryn cautiously extended her hands. “Mr. Neelix?”

“Right here, ma’am.” Neelix joined her and they walked toward the horse, as Kathryn spoke to it as if it was a frightened child.

As if the horse sensed these were benevolent, familiar people, he stopped thrashing and merely stood there, head down and gasping for air. He was shivering and Annika felt for the brave animal.

“He’s calm now. I’ll take care of him while you continue along the tracks.” Neelix patted the horse’s neck. “Bucky and I know each other well.”

“Thank you. Let’s go.” Kathryn and Annika hurried back to the tracks and kept following them with the others right behind.

Annika willed herself not to shiver, a technique she learned a long time ago. She could fool her brain into thinking she really wasn’t cold. It couldn’t go on forever that way, naturally, but as long as they hadn’t found Andrea and the girls, she would not succumb to the cold. She cast a worried glance at the compact woman beside her. Kathryn’s lips seemed blue toned, but perhaps it was because of the moonlight.

Kathryn gave a muted whimper at the sight of the leaning sledge. Dark and tilting at a twenty degree angle, there was no sign of life. “They have to be here,” Kathryn whispered. “There were no tracks from their boots anywhere.”

“They can have been disoriented and moved in the wrong direction, Kathryn,” Annika said gently.

“Caroline! Cassidy!” Miranda’s voice was like the cry of a wounded animal. “Oh, please. Please...” She stumbled forward, but Annika made sure she made it to the sledge before the others. At first sight it looked empty of people, only a bunch of furs and blankets on the floor of the sledge.

Annika hesitantly pulled at the top layer, afraid what she might find. Miranda and Kathryn caught up with her, but let her continue the careful peeling back of layers. When she still hadn’t found any of the missing girls or Andrea, Annika heard a faint, squeaking noise from the pile. “What the...?” She pushed at the remaining thick fur, revealing long, chestnut hair covering most of the huddled children.

“Oh, dear Lord,” Kathryn whispered.

Annika stared for a few moments. Andrea had her arms around the twins; clearly she had tried to give them as much warmth and protection as possible before covering them with furs and blankets. Beneath her, the twins were curled up, their arms folded in front of them as if they in turn protected something.

Then she heard the squeak again. It came from one of the girls, but it wasn’t a human sound. Leaning in and feeling for the pulse at one of the girl’s neck, she exhaled in a gush. “Cassidy is alive.” Feeling the other twin’s pulse gave the same result. “Caroline too.”

“Oh!” Miranda sobbed and knelt on the ground as she stroked her girls’ hair and cheeks. “Wake up, please. Please.”

“Andrea?” Kathryn’s voice shook. She climbed up on the sledge and pushed all the hair away to find Andrea’s neck.

Annika pressed her fingers there and now she didn’t smile. “Her pulse is slow and faint. She’s much colder than the twins as she covered them and took the brunt of the cold.”

“Oh, sweet Lord.” Kathryn bent down and kissed Andrea’s cold temple. “You brave, brave girl. Hang on. You have to.”

Miranda looked up, her expression stricken. “Andy?”

“We need help to get them home. They need warmth more than anything else.” Annika turned to Angus. “I will carry one of the twins, and Kathryn and Miranda should be able to carry the other. Can you carry Andrea?”

“I can.” Angus’s voice was stark and he proceeded to carefully turn Andrea over and pull her into his arms, one hand under her knees and one around her shoulder. “Cover her with one of the blankets. I’d prefer one of the furs, but that will make her too heavy for me. I’m going to move as fast as I can.”

“Get her back to Dragonwolde. We’ll follow with the twins in our sledges.” Annika nodded approvingly at Angus as he began finding his way back. He had no lamp, but the moon was casting such a bright light against the snow, it was easy to maneuver anyway.

As they lifted the girls from the furs and wrapped them in blankets, Miranda gasped. “What is that thing moving inside Caroline's cape?”

“Oh, my. It’s a kitten.” Kathryn hurriedly pushed the little furry head back and buttoned Caroline’s cape all the way up to her chin. “We better hurry.”

As they struggled through the snowy woods, carrying the girls, Annika feared tripping and dropping her precious burden. She heard Kathryn’s murmured prayers behind her, mixed with Miranda’s soft curses. As they approached the road, more men came to their aide, taking over Caroline from Miranda and Kathryn. Annika refused to surrender Cassidy, instead clutching the little girl to her chest as she climbed into one of the sledges.

As the rescue party began their hurried journey home to Dragonwolde, Annika found herself praying for the first time in her life. The cold air hit her face as the horse galloped toward the castle. ”Please, God, please let us have found them in time. You cannot be this cruel again. Please.”

 

XXXXXXXXXX

 

“Mama?” Caroline’s husky voice made Miranda’s head snap up so quickly, her neck ached.

“My girl. Caroline, darling, how are you feeling?” She caressed the little red head on the pillow. Her child was finally warm and unless she developed pneumonia or any other complication from the hypothermia, the doctor said she would be fine.

“I’m not cold anymore. Where is Cassidy? And where is my kitten?”

“Caroline is right next to you. She is still asleep. As for the critter you clutched to your chest, it has found somewhat of an unusual refuge.”

“It has? Where?” Cassidy’s eyelids were heavy but she clung to Miranda’s hand.

“Both kittens immediately took a liking to Patricia, Brenda L, Leigh says.”

“Maybe they think she’s their new mother.” Cassidy yawned. “I mean, the way we feel about Andrea.”

Miranda gasped at Cassidy’s words. Had the girls really picked up on her and Andrea’s feelings already? Then again, the twins were as bright as they came; she shouldn’t be surprised.

The thought of Andrea made her get up and pace. The doctor was still in Andy’s room together with Kathryn. When it came to the girls, he had been most reassuring, but for him to remain in the room with Andy this long... Miranda couldn’t remain passive any longer. She rang for the maid, but instead Brenda Leigh and Sharon came in, each carrying a little furry bundle. Patricia padded in after them and rolled up on the rug by the fire. Brenda took Sharon’s kitten and placed both of them between Patricia’s paws. “Watch them now. There’s a good girl.” The St. Bernard sniffed the kittens who appeared as exhausted as Caroline and Cassidy. The kittens curled up against the huge dog and fell asleep.

“I thought you might want to check on Andrea. We can sit with the girls.” Brenda patted Miranda’s arm in passing and sat down next to the bed. Sharon fetched a chair and did the same on the opposite side.

“We will come and get you when they wake up,” Sharon said. “Don’t worry.”

“Cassidy has been awake briefly, asking for Caroline and her kitten.”

“We will make sure they aren’t alone in here. Go.” Sharon smiled kindly. “If she wakes and wants her kitten, it’s right here.”

Certain now, her girls were safe and watched over by people she trusted, Miranda hurried along the corridor. “She has to be all right.” As she approached the door to Andy’s room, she slowed down. Keeping vigil just outside it Annika stood, ramrod straight as usual and with her hands clasped behind her. Her ice blue eyes were darker than usual and her full lips a thin line.

“Any news?” Miranda asked, her voice unsteady and barely more than a whisper.

“Kathryn just fetched more heated towels from the kitchen. The way she looked left no room for questions, Miranda. I could tell Andrea is fighting for her life. This is the second time in only a few days that she’s been subjected to the cold.”

“Oh, no. Oh, please, no.” Miranda’s knees gave in and only Annika’s lightning fast response kept her from going down completely. “I shouldn’t have let her go out in this weather. She is in this state because she chose to put the girls’ lives before her own and if I hadn’t allowed it--”

“Miranda. Stop it. Andrea is used to this type of weather. She drives the carriages and sledges all the time. Whatever happened was an unforeseen event and neither of you are to blame.” Annika’s words were clearly meant to induce reason, but her voice also trembled and Miranda realized this had to bring back memories for the woman she employed to keep her and her girls safe.

“I apologize. I need to pull myself together.” Miranda gripped Annika’s hands. “I--I can’t lose her. You know?”

“You know I do.” Annika’s face was rigid and as if was chiseled in marble. Miranda could have slapped her own cheek for being so thoughtless.

“I’m sorry, Annika. I should have been more thoughtful. I’m not thinking straight.”

“Do not worry. I realize my past has no bearing here.”

Miranda shook her head. “I think it does. You gained some other-worldly strength when you carried Cassidy all the way through the forest. She’s a petite girl, but even a small child becomes heavy if you carry them long enough. I think your past helped you find the power inside to not have to see the same thing happen.

“Perhaps.” Annika held on to Miranda’s hands. “You should go in. I know Kathryn understands how you feel about Andrea. No matter if you think you were discreet, it was obvious.”

Of course. “All right. Are you staying out here?”

“Yes. I case Kathryn needs me.”

“As you said,” Miranda smiled wistfully. “Obvious.”

Entering the room quietly, not bothering to knock, Miranda steeled herself against what she may witness. A maid was helping Kathryn cover Andrea with warm towels, while the doctor listened to her chest with his stethoscope. He nodded to himself, which Miranda prayed was a good sign.

“Miranda!” Kathryn tucked the covers back over the still young woman in the bed. “The girls?” She paled.

“Are sleeping. They’re exhausted, but doing all right. I needed...needed to see her.” Miranda gestured awkwardly at Andrea. “If I may?”

“You needn’t ask. I think your voice may well be just what she needs to hear.”

The doctor came up to them. “Are you a close friend to Andrea?” he asked tersely.

Miranda’s temper flared. “Yes. What of it?” she snarled.

“If you are particularly precious to her, I need you to climb into bed with her and talk to her.” His voice was gruff, but beyond his austere expression, there was true warmth in his eyes.

“I see. In bed, you say?”

“Your added warmth will benefit Lady Andrea, and your voice will bring her back faster. This is a method I have used before with promising results.”

“Very well.” Miranda sat down on the bed and swung her legs up. Placing her head next to Andrea’s on the soft pillow, she wrapped her arm around her waist. “Darling. It’s me. Miranda.” She probably sounded foolish, but she didn’t care. “You’re safe and back at Dragonwolde. The girls are fine. Even the little kittens have made it because of you. I don’t know about the horse yet, but we found it and Mr. Neelix is tending to it. I know you care about all these things, but right now, all I care about is for you to get warm and wake up. Wake up and come back to me. You have to.”

“I suggest we leave Mrs. Priestly and Lady Andrea alone for a moment.” The doctor grabbed his bag. “I will go and make sure the young girls continue to do as well as they did before. Change the warm towels every forty-five minutes at least.”

Kathryn bent and kissed Andrea’s forehead. She stroked Miranda’s cheek with the back of her curled fingers. “I’m going to persuade Annika to finally get changed. I will be outside while she does this and then she will want to guard the two of you again if I know her right.”

“She will.”

“I thought as much.”

“Has she really not changed out of her wet clothes yet?” Miranda was appalled that she hadn’t noticed earlier.

“No. She refused to.”

“Tell her we can’t have her become ill as well. She is far too valuable to all of us. Especially you, I believe.” Miranda gripped Kathryn’s hand.

“Ah. Yes.” Kathryn squeezed Miranda’s hand and then left.

“My Andrea. You cannot scare me like this in the future. My heart won’t be able to sustain the fear of losing you time and time again. I will never forget that first night, after tucking in my girls, I heard you having a nightmare. When I saw you here in your bed, though not eerily still like now, but instead thrashing about in fear, it was as if I had been struck by lightning. I always thought that was a silly expression and rather dramatic, but seeing you, experiencing the flurry of emotions, which I thought had long died, surge, made it an accurate analogy.

I was not aware of this ability in myself. Usually people fear me, and if they don’t fear me, they loathe me because I’m a woman of wealth, independence, and power. I suppose some envy it and some feel I am the epitome of an abomination as I am divorced and unattached. The wives of my business associates feel they need to introduce me to every available bachelor on Manhattan. This has made me wary of new friendships, and certainly cynical when it comes to love. I haven’t been in love this way before--if ever. And it’s love, Andy. I love you with all my heart and the thought of losing you frightens me as much as the idea of losing my girls. You must fight to come out of this state the cold has put you in.

You saved my girls. I can never repay you for this. You risked your own life when you covered them with your body and took the brunt of the cold. I know this is who you are as a person. I’m beyond gratitude for this--but a part of me is also so very, very frightened.”

Miranda had to wipe at her eyes. She felt Andy’s forehead, relieved to find it warming. “Even Cassidy has caught on to the connection we share. She appears quite matter of fact about it, which is reassuring. As for Caroline, she is more sensitive and unsure of things, but I have noticed how she loves being around you. I can imagine how your young students must worship you if they are anything like my girls. They are yet another reason you must live. We all love you, and most of all, you are so young and you have so much more of life to explore. I want to show you the world and I want to be better introduced to yours.

Please, darling. I will not insult your intelligence by saying I can’t live without you, but in a sense it is true. Living without you would be just that. Living. There’s a difference between living and being alive. You have unlocked the part of me that was content just living. You made every single part of me wake up and not only be alive, but be wonderously, madly happy about being alive in your presence.”

Miranda  kept talking until she was so hoarse, her voice was a mere whisper. The maid or Kathryn came in every so often to exchanged the towels. When four hours have passed and there was still no movement or sign Andrea had heard one word of what she was saying.

“Mama?” a small voice said next to the bed. Miranda turned her head and saw both her girls standing there, carrying their kittens. They were still a little pale, but looked steady on their feet. “How is Andrea doing?” Caroline asked.

“She is still sleeping. Where’s Brenda Leigh and--”

“We’re right here, Miranda,” Brenda said from the door. “The girls was adamant about seeing you and Andrea.”

“Now you have,” Miranda said mildly to her daughters. “You need mind Aunt Brenda and go back to bed. I promise to tell you the moment Andy wakes up.”

“Even if it is in the middle of the night?” Cassidy asked, her eyes huge.

“Even then. I promise.” She kissed the twins several times on their cheeks.

“She saves us, Mama.” Cassidy trembled. “I mean, I understand why she saved Caroline. She didn’t do anything wrong. But if she dies, Mama, it will all be my fault.” Cassidy nuzzled the little kitten, its fur soaking up her tears. “Will I have to go to prison then?”

“No,” a raspy voice next to Miranda croaked. “Not if I have anything to say about it.”

Cassidy’s mouth fell open. “An...Andrea?”

 

XXXXXXXXXX

 

Andrea watched with equal parts exasperation and amusement how Miranda directed the maids, Aunt Kathryn, and the other guests, as if she was a general and they mere enlisted soldiers. Not allowed to walk on her own, Andrea found herself in Mr. Neelix’s strong arms as the stocky man carried her downstairs.

“I’m too heavy for Mr. Neelix,” Andrea had tried while sitting weakly on the side of her bed, feeling more dizzy than she let on.

“Is she, Mr. Neelix?” Miranda asked slowly and turned to the stable manager who probably would have agreed to carry down both of them at the same time if that’s what Miranda ordered.

“Not in the least, Madam. Not this speck of a girl.”

And here she was, clinging to Mr. Neelix sturdy neck and shoulders, imagining him stumbling and breaking both their necks. Fortunately this didn’t happen and instead he placed her in her favorite chair by the fire in the drawing room. Andrea looked around and could hardly believe her eyes. “The Christmas tree! You put up our tree!” She regarded the tall tree sitting just inside the door to the left, adorned with a multitude of ornaments and sweets.

“Ever since you saw that picture of Queen Victoria’s and Prince Albert’s tree, you have insisted on having one.” Aunt Kathryn bent and kissed her cheek. “And we have so many extra reasons to celebrate right now, I was ready to put up a second one.”

“Aunt Kathryn...” Andrea hugged her aunt, so grateful she and the twins were home safe and sound. She had spent two days in bed, dazed and with a worrisome cough that thankfully seemed to be abating.

“Let’s get you wrapped up. The girls will be back soon. They’ve taken care of their little critters down in the kitchen. Cook is only mildly amused, I fear.” Miranda tucked a blanket around Andrea.

“Have you also a strange and unexplainable feeling you have performed this task before, Miranda?” Andrea smiled broadly at the woman who fussed over her. “And I promise you, I’m quite warm.”

“And that’s how you will remain, if I have anything to say about it. And I do.” Miranda shot her a glare.

“I believe you do too.” Andrea captured Miranda’s right hand. “I just want you to know that I’m getting stronger by the minute and you need not worry any longer.”

Miranda stood, but allowed Andrea to hold on to her hand. “I think it’s too late for that,” she said softly. “I think will always worry about you.”

Andrea opened her mouth to respond, but knew instinctively Miranda was right. No matter how safe either of them were, they would still worry, still be concerned about each others well-being.

“Mama! Aunt Kathryn!” The twins came running into the room, startling everybody. Behind them Sharon, Brenda Leigh and Annika followed, the latter with a frown on her face.

“What in the world are you two doing running like this and causing havoc?” Miranda shifted her glare to her daughters.

“But there are sledges pulling up in front of the house. Several of them and with lots of soldiers on horseback.” Cassidy was literally bouncing in place. “Who is coming? Is it a surprise?”

“If it is, it’s a surprise to me as well,” Aunt Kathryn said and turned to Neelix. “Please find out what’s going on, please, Mr. Neelix. Get the stable hands to tend to any horse needing tending to.”

“Yes, Dame Kathryn.” Nigel bowed quickly and left.

“I guess I better go find out who is surprising us. Please join me, Annika.”

Annika looked ill at ease, but nodded in agreement and followed Aunt Kathryn out into the hallway.

“Who can that be?” Andrea wanted to get up and find out with her aunt, but knew her legs were still too weak from her ordeal. She could still pull out the image on Miranda’s face when she came too and saw Miranda and Cassidy next to the bed. She was unsure of where she was and for a moment, she thought they were still in the woods and the sigh of her room a hallucination.

Andrea had found herself wrapped up in firm embraces, both by Miranda and Cassidy. Cassidy had cried miserably, stuttering, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so very sorry, Andrea.” It took Andrea a few moments before she realized Cassidy blamed herself for the accident. Reaching a similar feeling, but blaming herself instead of the child, Andrea turned to Miranda and whispered, “Don’t listen to her. She’s a child. It was my responsibility. My fault. I couldn’t hold the horse.”

“Only because I screamed about my kitten and spooked him.” Cassidy climbed into the bed and held onto Andrea from the other side. “See?”

“No,” Andrea whispered. “No, I don’t. It was an accident, sweetheart.” Her eyes grew big. “What about Caroline? Is she...?” She began to sit up, but her body was so sore, she fell back against her pillows and into Miranda’s calming embrace.

“Caroline is doing very well. Much better than you, as is Cassidy as you can tell. And the kittens.”

“Kittens? Oh. Yes. I remember. The horse?”

“The horse will be fine when Mr. Neelix is done. Just a few scratches.

“What are you thinking of?” Miranda now asked, pulling Andrea back into the presence. “Any clues who it may be?”

“None.”Andrea gratefully leaned her head against Miranda’s shoulder. “Perhaps some neighbors coming to makes sure the girls and I are recuperating...but with soldiers on horseback? That doesn’t make sense.”

“It certainly doesn’t. Kathryn will have to hurry back and tell us before I have to carry out in the hallway on my back so you can see for yourself.”

Chuckling, Andrea rubbed the tip of her nose against Miranda’s neck. “Now who is being ridiculous?” she murmured.

“I’m never ridiculous. I make perfect sense.” Miranda placed a quick kiss on Andrea’s temple and rose. “I will poke my head out and see if I can make any sense out of the ‘soldiers’, and so on.”

###

Annika stood just behind Kathryn as she opened the door to the large front yard. Outside, six large sledges formed a semicircle. Next to each sledge, several uniformed men rode on stallions. Staring at the crest on the side of the second sledge, which was also the biggest, Annika gasped. “The Royal crest!”

“Oh, dear Lord. It is.” Kathryn smoothed down her hair quickly and took a few more steps out on the front steps.

Men in red winter uniforms opened the door of the second sledge, their helmets, adorned with their horsehair plumes fluttering in the wind, showed they belonged to the palace guard. Out stepped an older woman dressed all in black. A tall man wearing a kilt joined the woman in black and offered his arm. The woman glared at him and then her face softened marginally as she accepted his gallantry.

“Is that...?” Annika breathed behind Kathryn.

“Yes. It is.”

“What? Who is that?” Miranda said, joining them. Her eyes scanned the commotion of horses and guardsmen. “Oh, my. That’s...” Her voice waned off.

“It’s her.” Kathryn’s voice sounded dazed. “It’s Queen Alexandrina Victoria, of the United Kingdom or Britain and Ireland, Empress of India.”

Annika watched the two women standing on either side of her courtesy deeply and bowing their heads. Never having performed such a task, she used every well-trained muscle in her body and lowered herself into in a full courtesy as well.

“By all means, get up from the cold ground, Dame Kathryn. I have come to ask a favor and you need not greet me as if we were at Buckingham Palace.” The queen spoke not without humor in her voice and they all stood, Annika grateful not to be forced to keep the subservient pose any longer than necessary.

“A favor, Your Majesty?” Kathryn now said, motioning for the queen to enter Dragonwolde.

“Yes, my horses has already lost several shoes.” She pulled off her gloves and handed them to the man next to her. “We are on our way to Balmoral.”

“I’ll make sure my stable manager--”

Annika placed a hand on Kathryn’s arm. “I will take care of it while you entertain Her Majesty, Kathryn,” she murmured. She was not comfortable around people at this level and assisting Mr. Neelix with some of his tasks had become a welcome outlet when the upper class circumstances became too much.

“Thank you,” Kathryn’s glance were both appreciative and understanding.

Realizing she better do a semblance of another courtesy again, Annika grabbed a shawl and hurried out the door. The last she heard was the queen’s voice, “I believe I chased your friend away, Dame Kathryn. Pity. She looked like a most interesting acquaintance.”

Walking over to Neelix with long strides, Annika wasn’t eager to hear what Kathryn replied. Most likely she was forced to say something about Annika being employed by Miranda and not a friend at all. This wasn’t Kathryn’s fault, merely part of their circumstance. As she debated with Nigel and the guardsmen in charge of the royal horses about how many new shoes they needed to replace, she pushed back her insecurities. Kathryn must do what society forced her to do--even if it meant rejecting Annika. That was just how the world worked.

 

XXXXXXXXXX

 

Miranda was used to handling any situation life threw her with her usual aplomb. She actually took pride in never being rattled, and if she on occasion experienced unease, she never, ever let it show.

Clearly, the last few days at Dragonwolde had ripped off her armored suite as if you remove a bandage sticking to you. It hurt. It was liberating. It was equal parts disarming and worrying. As if the unexpected presence of royals and guardsmen wasn’t enough, Annika was nowhere to be found, and Andy was contradicting every attempt by Miranda to keep her still.

“Queen Victoria is here and I’m not  going to sit around looking completely pathetic.” Standing on wobbly legs, Andy nearly toppled over before Miranda caught her. “This will be my only chance to make a good impression on the queen as I never made a debut at the court.”

“You won’t make much of an impression if you are lying face down on the rug. Listen to me, Andy. The queen already greeted you and inquired about your health. She realizes you are convalescing. I think you impressed her a great deal by saving my children. The queen seems very family oriented.”

“Really?” Andrea wrapped her arms around Miranda’s waist. “Are you sure? I didn’t seem entirely weak?”

“Not at all. You couldn’t be weak if you tried.” Miranda caressed Andy’s shiny hair, for the day kept in a simple low bun.

“Miranda.” Pressing her lips onto Miranda’s, Andy held on harder. “I’ve missed your embrace,” she murmured against her.

“I have held you several times every day,” Miranda objected, but knew what Andy meant.

“Yes, and it’s been wonderful, but I mean like this. Like...lovers.” Andy nuzzled Miranda’s neck.

Her mind reeling, Miranda held on to Andy, feeling the heat of her lips against her. She had put herself last, for once, since Andy’s and the girls’ ordeal, and now all the pent up love and desire came rushing back. She found Andy’s mouth again and slipped her tongue inside, eager to taste her.

“I see my sense of timing leaves a lot to be desired,” a voice said from behind, making Miranda and Andy fly apart. Andy still had to hold on to Miranda to remain vertical.

Queen Victoria stood just inside the door, regarding them calmly. “I thought I could be mistaken earlier when your aunt finally introduced us, but I am delighted I have not lost my ability to read between the lines as it were.” She entered and stopped in front of the two women.

Miranda was at a completely loss what to say. As an American she was unused to being around royalty, but also harbored a typically American love/disdain for someone inheriting an office due to an ancient birthright. America had celebrated its independence six years ago in 1876 and Miranda had been present in Philadelphia at the time. Not one for lengthy speeches, or pompous settings, she had later also addressed her board of directors and employees at a banquet, more than once commending the nation they resided in. Now she stood before the British queen, a representative of the old days, of USA’s old conquerors, and she had to grudgingly admit she was impressed.

About five feet tall, if that, the stout and dowdy woman still commanded any room she entered. Miranda could relate to the similarities between their situation, even if their kingdoms naturally did not compare.

“I apologize, Your Majesty. We had no intention of causing discomfort,” Andy said, holding on to Miranda as she did her best to courtesy. Miranda surreptitiously helped Andrea back on her feet, which of course did not escape the queen.

“I never said you did, child.” The queen took a seat by the fire, lacing her hands together. “Mr. Brown assures me the horses will be read shortly. Dame Kathryn is gathering some new reading material for me, as I always enjoy following her latest findings.”

“She speaks highly of you, Your Majesty, and cherishes the interest you take in her work.” Andy sat down again in her chair and Miranda draped a blanket over her.

“And this brings me to another matter. Why your aunt has not persuaded you to be presented at my court?” The queen raised an eyebrow.

“I am sorry, but when I was at the appropriate age, I was still very much in mourning at the loss of my parents, Your Majesty. Now I’m well over the age of such things and I am sure there are many other young girls more fit to partake in the no doubt numerous festivities.”

“And you do not?”

“No, Your--”

“Please. Address me as ‘ma’am’,” the queen interrupted.

“Thank you, Ma’am.” Andy spoke with such certainty, Miranda’s admiration for her grew even more. “I enjoy teaching the children in Dragonwolde village. Dancing can certainly be fun, and should I one day be allowed to dance with Miranda, I would no doubt find it most festive.”

Miranda wished for a hidden door to open beneath her feet and swallow her whole. As it wasn’t enough she had kissed Andy in front of the British monarch, now Andy had to bring it all up again?

“Yes, dancing with a loved one is indeed the best way to do it.” The queen’s small mouth stretched into a smile. “What do you think, Mrs. Priestly?”

“I rarely have time to dance, or indulge in festivities, but it looks like it might change, Ma’am.” Miranda sat down next to Andy, exasperated and elated at the same time.

“I admire independent women, who, like myself, work hard at holding onto this independence. I never used to feel it was important, but when my beloved Albert was taken from me, I had to eventually pull myself out of mourning and continue to live my life. Mr. Brown has been performing double duty as my most trusted servant and dearest friend. I believe you share a strong bond or neither of you would be inclined to risk everything to pursue love. Am I right, Mrs. Priestly?”

Naturally. Why wouldn’t she confess to loving Andy before the queen? Miranda braced herself. “I could not agree more, Ma’am. I love Andy...Andrea. She is brave to a fault and gladly, my children adore her as well.”

“I met your daughters when Dame Kathryn showed me her some of Dragonwolde. They most eagerly presented me with two kittens.”

“I hope they behaved,” Miranda murmured.

“They did.” The queen’s gaze lingered on the roaring fire and she seemed lost in thought. “I sense this is an unusual household. I would be careful with it if I were you, Lady Andrea. It is rare to find a refuge of sorts for women living their lives under different and unusual circumstances. It needs to be protected--as do the relationships growing between you. Discuss it with the other women currently staying here. Perhaps it would bring new life to the castle.”

Miranda found the queen’s words slightly cryptic, but when she examined them, she thought she understood. Queen Victoria had no doubt picked up on the emotions stirring between the new pairings. Perhaps she was right?

A male voice coughed discreetly from the doorway. “Your Majesty? We are ready for you.”

“Thank you, Mr. Brown.” The queen stood and the tall Scotsman offered her his arm, something Miranda was fairly certain was not the correct etiquette. Queen Victoria still took him up  on his offer and allowed him to guide her into the hallway.

Andy walked slowly behind the pair, holding onto Miranda. The queen received her cape from her ladies in waiting and bid them all farewell. The only one not present was Annika. Mystified, Miranda decided to find her as soon as she had helped Andrea back to her armchair.

As the royal convoy of sledges disappeared down the road from Dragonwolde, they all stared at each other, stunned at what just happened. Andy started giggling, then laughing out loud, which set Sharon off. Kathryn joined in and now Brenda and Miranda was chuckling along with Nigel who actually slapped his knees several times while howling his mirth.

“This Christmas will go down into history as the most eventful, unexpected, frightening and wondrous event ever.” Andy smiled, but her eyes betrayed her level of exhaustion.

“And you will go down, period, unless we help you to recline for a while.” Kathryn motioned for two of the maids to pull up a chaise-long to the fireplace. Again, Miranda tucked Andy in with blankets and small down pillows. Kissing her forehead, she spoke quietly. “I have to locate Annika.”

“Yes, I’ve noticed her absence since the queen arrived.”

“May I join you?” Kathryn asked. “I’m worried.”

This suited Miranda perfectly as she needed to talk to Kathryn about several matters. “By all means.”

###

Kathryn strode next to Miranda, pulling the cape closer around her. “Annika is on the run from something, isn’t she?”

“Yes. I can confirm this much, but when it comes to details, you have to ask her yourself.” Miranda looked solemnly at the stables. “You think we’ll find her here?”

“She has befriended Mr. Neelix and he has set up a rather cozy room at the end of the stables with a small library, a fireplace, and even a small place to cook. He has a small bedroom above it, as well as a room in the staff wing in the main house.”

“I see.” Miranda forged on as they walked close together on the trampled pathway, trying to avoid the deep snow. “The queen told me something quite extraordinary.”

“You as well? What did she way to you?” Kathryn was surprised, She hooked her arm around Miranda’s and held on as the ground kept getting more and more slippery.

“She commended you on creating a haven of sorts for independent women. Actually, she walked in on me kissing Andy.” Holding her breath as if she expected Kathryn to explode, Miranda peered at her friend.

“Oh, my. And did this bother the queen?”

“Not in the least. In fact, I got the impression she knew about finding love and friendship in unorthodox places...or people, rather.”

“I think there’s more to her than most people think. She is a woman who should never be underestimated.” Kathryn opened the stable door and they entered. “As for you kissing Andrea...I’m not blind, nor am I a hypocrite. You must have noticed how I feel about Annika?”

“I have. Does she know?”

“We have been intimate, Miranda.”Kathryn felt her cheeks warm.

“How nice for you, but again, does she know how you feel about her?”

 “Yes, Kathryn. I need to know as well.” Annika came from the back of the stable. “I also think you need to know more about me before you answer.”

Miranda looked relieved at finding Annika. “Perhaps I should leave you two alone and--”

“No.” Annika motioned for them to follow her. “There are matters you have no knowledge of and if I am to remain in your employ, Miranda, or if you intend to pursue a relationship with me, Kathryn, you need to know this.”

They sat down around the small table and Annika poured them some hot cider in pewter mugs.

“I know you suspect I’m a fugitive, Miranda,” Annika said quietly. “This is true.” She sipped her cider and kept her gaze on Kathryn who wanted to take Annika’s hand but hesitated as the other woman seemed so unapproachable.

“What happened, darling?” Kathryn whispered.

“I killed my stepfather.”

Kathryn gasped and now she didn’t falter. She took Annika’s hand as Miranda nodded slowly.

“I thought it might be something really bad,” Miranda said quietly. “What did he do?”

“You assume it was his fault?” Annika lowered her head, staring at the cup before her. “He was a violent man. He hurt my mother as soon as they were married. For some reason he was afraid of me, or at least, he didn’t attempt to physically abuse me. My younger siblings were another matter. My mother had twin boys one year before my father died. They were three years old when she married my stepfather and I was eight at the time. When the boys, Gustav and Johannes, were ten, they were typical little boys. Cheeky rascals, but they harmed no one. Our stepfather thought they were the spawn of the devil. He flogged them with his belt on a regular basis--especially if our mother was not at home.”

Kathryn pushed her chair closer to Annika’s and wrapped her arm around her waist. “Go on.”

“I worked for a fashion house at the time, showing off clothes and also delivering the garments to the patrons.One day when I came home, I found my stepfather. Lifeless and with a gunshot to his chest. In the kitchen, my mother was holding the twins tight to her chest. One of them was whimpering, but the other one was...so still...so pale. My stepfather had thrown him into the wall and broken his neck. Gustav looked up at me and stopped whimpering. He says, ‘I shot father. I took the gun and shot him.’”

Annika’s tears streamed silently down her cheeks. “I knew what I had to do. Checking on Johannes in my mother’s arms, I could tell he was no long alive. If we told the truth, they would take Gustav away from my mother as well and I could see her sanity was close to slipping. I took the weapon and fired it again into my stepfather’s chest, yelling at him for killing Johannes. All of this loud enough for our neighbors to hear. I hoped they would not remember when they heard the first shot--or when I actually came home.”

“What happened?” Miranda asked, her face pale now.

Kathryn pressed her face against Annika’s hair. “Take all the time you need, Annika.”

“I let the police lead me away. Being a young girl, they did not pay as much attention to me as they would have if I had been a man. They sat me down on a bench at the police station while debating what to charge me with. By then they knew from interviewing Gustav, my mother, and the neighbors what a horrible, abusive man my stepfather was.

I did not wait around for them to put me in a cell. When they were busy talking over my head as if I was not even there, I simply walked out. Grabbing a shawl from a clothesline and hiding my head and hair under it, nobody recognized me. Fortunately I had been paid for the last week I had worked in the store, and this made it possible for me to travel down to Helsingborg and take the ferry to Denmark. From there I went on to Copenhagen.”

All alone and with no hope of seeing her mother and brother again. Kathryn thought of how lonely Annika at fifteen must have felt. Same age as Andrea when she was orphaned, but at least Andrea had her home and Kathryn...and now Miranda.

“I ran into all kinds of people, but not until I became friends with an Asian girl and her brother in Berlin, did I find some sort of family. The brother showed me how to fight and defend myself. He worked as a protector of sorts, or as a bodyguard, and when I was good enough, he let me join him. One day he was killed while guarding a local politician’s wife. The politician offered me a substantial amount of money if I found out who the killers were and ‘deal with them’. So I did. And a new career was born.”

“I knew some of this,” Miranda said, taking one of Annika’s hands between hers. “I knew you had lived a hard life and some of the demands your former employers had placed upon you.”

“Which you never did.” Annika wiped at her wet cheeks. “Once you employed me and demanded more of my intelligence rather than my murderous skills, my life changed.” Annika hiccuped. “And now...oh, Kathryn...I’m so sorry.”

“I’m not sorry,” Kathryn muttered. Her heart ached with each spasmodic contraction. “I could have killed that man who destroyed your life and killed your little brother--and with my bare hands, I swear.” She was furious. “Have you been in contact with your mother and brother since you left?”

“I send them money through different law firms. I make sure they know its from me and that I am alive, but I have not seen them since that day. Sometimes the law firms get letters from my brother. He is a young man now and last I heard he works as a doctor. At least the money I sent was used for a worthy cause--to put Gustav through medical school.”

“Are you still wanted by the police in Sweden?”

“Yes. It has only been thirteen years and I cannot risk going back. I need to keep sending funds to my mother as my brother wrote me about her weak constitution after witnessing the Johannes’s death...and Gustav shooting her husband. I dare not try.”

Kathryn stood and pulled Annika from her chair. “Did you fear I would not understand?”

“Yes.” Annika stood rigidly in Kathryn’s arms. “I though at the very least it would make it impossible for us to become friends...let alone lovers.”

Kathryn held on to Annika until she finally began to relax. “I love you. I know it’s sudden and quite insane for it to happen like this, but I do. Perhaps it’s the magic of Dragonwolde.” She kissed an invisible line along Annika’s jaw up to her lips. “Don’t pus me away because you think you should. It would break my heart.”

Annika suddenly flung her arms around Kathryn’s neck. “Do not let me go, Kathryn. Even if I ask you to do so--don’t listen to me. Don’t let me go.”

“I won’t, darling. I promise.” And as Kathryn held the amazing woman in her arms, she vowed to keep her. “Now we just need to persuade Miranda and the others to consider Dragonwolde their home as well.”

“Interestingly, that’s what I wanted to talk to the both of you about,” Miranda said. “I have an idea and believe it or not, but it was inspired by the queen.”


Concluded in the Epilogue

Chapter Text

Like several times before, they had gathered in a semi-circle in the drawing room. Caroline and Cassidy were busy cuddling Patricia and their kittens, sitting on large cushions on the floor..

Kathryn scanned the faces around her and noticed to her immense pleasure how the woman had paired off without pretense. Only Nigel sat by himself, but seemed quite content stuffing his pipe.

Annika sat next to Kathryn, their armchairs so close together, they looked like one piece of furniture. Miranda had arranged for a small settee for her and Andrea, of course, and they sat with Andrea leaning against Miranda who kept a protective arm around her. At several times, Andrea had rolled her eyes at Miranda’s fussing over her, but Kathryn understood her friend. Andrea was not back to normal yet and tired easily.

To Andrea’s and Miranda’s left, Sharon and Brenda Leigh sat in two pushed-together armchairs, murmuring together. Every now and then, Kathryn observed her sister-in-law look at Sharon with a smoldering expression in her eyes, but also overshadowed by caution and doubt. Brenda Leigh hadn’t confided any details to Kathryn, only that she and Sharon shared a past and that it was complicated. Sharon in turn had merely told Kathryn she loved Brenda and was prepared to fight for her, now that fate had brought them together. Brenda didn’t seem as certain.

To the right of Kathryn and Annika, Emily and Madame Serena sat, the latter on a regular chair as if sitting comfortably in an armchair was too frivolous. This said, Serena did not feel the same about holding Emily’s hand. On the contrary, she kept caressing the wrist and the back of Emily’s hand as she kept it securely on her lap.

“Very well, Miranda, why don’t you let us know of your epiphany?” Kathryn said, motioning for Miranda to speak.

“Thank you.” Miranda carefully shifted so Andrea leaned against the armrest behind her. “As you know, I spoke with the queen together with Andy. When she caught us in a somewhat compromised situation, I feared she would display some form of royal wrath, but as it turns out, her response was quite enlightened.” Miranda paced around their semicircle, gazing lovely down at the children and their pets. “Whenever I thought of how I’d feel leaving Andy behind when spring comes and I have to return to Manhattan, I admit I experienced a most unpleasant sense of...of panic, to be truthful.”

Kathryn found it  touching, to see Miranda, normally the most feared woman she’d ever met, look so enamored. She could well picture her friend pacing her room, trying to come up with a solution that would help her keep Andrea close.

“I thought it was an unsolvable problem at first, but then I realized I had to widen my perspective and consider only what truly matter to me. My girls. Andy.” She gazed around the room. “True friends.”

“Don’t keep us guessing, Miranda,” Andrea said, sitting up. “I’m sure we all are bouncing with anticipation.”

“How funny that sight would be.” Miranda sent Andrea a mock glare. “All right. When I gave it some thought, the answer came quite easily to me. I asked myself simply, what would make me happy?”

Kathryn turned to Annika, wondering what was going on behind that stoic expression.

“The answer or course was, having my girls and Andrea around me as much as it is humanly possible. Thus, residing in New York is not an option. If Kathryn allows it, I hereby offer to restore the oldest part of the north wing of Dragonwolde so I can make it my headquarters.”

“Miranda?” Andrea’s voice, so fragile and still full of hope, closed the deal as far as Kathryn was concerned. The old north part of the castle had been let go over the years after a fire, leaving it in ruins. If she had wanted, she had the funds to restore it, but it had never been a priority, until now.

“Yes, Andy?” Miranda sat and took Andrea’s hands in hers.

“You’re staying?” Andrea blinked hard. “Oh, Miranda.” She flung her arms around Miranda’s neck, clearly not caring one bit they had witnesses--and why should she? “I love you. I love you so much.”

“And us,” Caroline said, holding her kitten against her cheek. “At least me. Andy loves me and Albert.”

Miranda blinked. “Albert? Who is Albert?”

“My kitten.” Caroline held up the little ball of fur. “This is Albert. Cassidy named hers Victoria. The queen seemed to think it was very funny.”

“You told the queen?” Kathryn asked weakly.

“Yes. She visited in the kitchen and we showed her the kittens. She said the names were well chosen.”

“I would have paid to witness that.” Sharon snorted and soon all of them were laughing, mildly hysterical at the idea of the queen meeting the kitten bearing her name.

“Just to make something clear, I love both of your twins.” Andrea winked at the girls. “Even if they’re unbearable rascals at times.”

“You are most welcome to join us at Dragonwolde, Miranda,” Kathryn said, once everyone had calmed down. “As you can imagine, this give me more leverage when I ask Annika to stay as well.” She laced her fingers with Annika’s. “Would you consider staying here, working for Miranda, and living...with me?”

“If you would have me here, knowing what...what I shared with you earlier.” Annika relaxed marginally. “I never thought I’d belong anywhere ever again.”

“If there is a way, we will get word to your brother and mother--if you want.”

Annika merely nodded. Kathryn caressed her cheek. “You hold my heart, Annika,” she said in a low voice. “And I give it to you freely.”

Annika seemed to have lost her voice. She merely nodded, but the way she clung to Kathryn’s hand showed her intense emotions. Kathryn in turn didn’t want Annika to feel pressured into displaying feelings in public if she wasn’t ready to do so. “You don’t have to say anything,” Kathryn whispered, “I understand. I really do.”

“As do I, Brenda Leigh,” Sharon said, earning a grateful glance from Kathryn.

“What?” Brenda flinched and held on tight to her armrests.

“I understand. It took me a while to figure it out, but I did.”

“Oh,” Brenda looked as if she was pressing hard enough against the backrest to make herself disappear. “There’s no way--”

“Then why don’t you tell us?” Miranda remained seated with Andrea back on her shoulder. “Why did you move so far away and what is it you have been doing that pays enough for you to never have to touch your trust fund?”

“Fine.” Brenda moved her hands to her lap, her small fists seeming ready to punch anyone getting too close. This didn’t ward off Sharon who simply took the closest one and held it between hers. “I write novels.”

Everyone stared. “What?” Miranda said? “Novels? As in books?”

“Yes.” Jutting her chin out, Brenda looked ready to do battle.

“As you are well aware, I am one of the largest publishers in the English speaking world--and I have never heard of Brenda Lee Johnson when it comes to novels, or even short stories.”

“But you have heard of B. L. Jackson?” Brenda asked, her voice now mild and with an undertone that Kathryn interpreted as relief.

“B. L Jackson? Of course I have, anyone calling themselves a publisher knows who...oh.” Miranda looked transfixed. “B. L. Brenda Leigh. Johnson. Men named John often go by Jack.”

“Yes.” Brenda’s lower lips trembled.

“So, you’re the author of five best selling horror novels that the literary world has deemed the most deliciously frightening pieces of literature known to man?” Miranda chuckled. “Goes to show it takes a woman to drive all the male reviewers to their knees. Good for you, Brenda.” She smiled proudly.

“Brenda, why on earth did you think this would be a bad thing?” Sharon tugged the petite blond woman to her shoulder. “Were you ashamed?”

“Not of my work, or my success, but of losing it. I always dreamed of writing, and I was drawn to the dark,” Brenda Leigh said. “It isn’t very long ago they burned people with such affinities at the stake.”

“Oh, sweetheart, you weren’t afraid of something bad happening because of your writing--but of losing it. This is how you are.A writer exploring the darkness within us and around us.”

“Yes. However it’s not all I am,” Brenda said, now sitting up straighter. “So much more defines us, doesn’t it, Sharon?”

“Yes. A coward can change and grew a new, denser backbone.” Sharon raised Brenda’s hand to her lips and kissed it.

“And a person in hiding can find the courage to stand up for herself and let the world know who she is...and whom she loves.”

“Loves?” Sharon gasped.

“Yes. You knew that already, Sharon Raydor.”

“And you know by now I always loved you, even when I chose the wrong path.”

“Yes.”

“Now it’s Emily’s turn to tell Madame Serena she loves her and we’ll be all done and ready for our tea.” Cassidy turned expectantly at Emily who colored a deep crimson.

“Cassidy, you do not put people on the spot that way,” Serena said, but she smiled gently which took the sting out of her words. “Emily may not feel the way you think--and she may not enjoy having it on display either.”

“Oh, I see.” Looking suitably chastised, Cassidy hugged Victoria close. The kitten mewled and it seemed to startle Emily into action.

“I don’t mind. I don’t think any of our feelings this Christmas is a secret--to any of us. Serena knows exactly how I feel because I told her. Since Miranda is making Dragonwolde her headquarters, I have been sitting here dazed with happiness.”

“That is the braves words I heard from you since you became my assistance and the girl’s nanny. We would never want to lose you--or risk you ending up in the claws of your family again.”

“Never.” Serena kissed Emily’s red cheek.

“Nor you, Serena,” Kathryn added. “I think we all fled from something, or struggled with it at least, and now--here at Dragonwolde, we’ve reached a cross roads, which not even I, as a scientist, can completely disregard as happenstance. I have more room here than I will ever need, and even if London is a few days away by horse and carriage and train, we’re not completely cut off from civilization. Unless it’s snowing.”

Chuckles erupted around their semicircle.

“That leaves me, then,” Nigel said, sucking on his pipe.

“Oh, dear.” Sharon sat up. “We’re so selfish. Here we ware pairing off in the most controversial of ways and we don’t even consider your future happiness.”

“I can’t work from here like the rest of you, but as long as I know I am welcome to spend time here and bring Douglas--”

“Douglas?” Sharon narrowed her eyes. “Who is Douglas?”

“A young man I’ve befriended.” Nigel smiled blithely. “You’re not the only controversial one, dear sister. I thought you knew.”

“I--I--I didn’t.” Sharon stared at her younger brother. “And this Douglas is a nice man, deserving of your affection?”

“He is.”

“Well then,” Kathryn decided and rose, pulling Annika from her chair. “I don’t know about you, but I feel these revelations have made me hungry. Cassidy asked for there tea.” Extending her free hand to Cassidy, she smiled. “You’re a girl of my own heart. Let’s all join cook in the kitchen and help her prepare tea.”

“Oh, yes, she will love that,” Serena murmured, making Emily giggle.

 ###

Sharon stood behind Brenda Leigh where she peered through the curtains out into the night. “Is it snowing?” Sharon asked quietly.

“No. It looks cold.” Brenda let go of the curtain and pivoted, wrapping her arms around herself. “I feel cold too.”

“May I warm you?” Sharon was nervous to ask. Brenda Leigh had confessed to love, but Sharon still had the feeling Brenda Leigh didn’t trust her. Now, Brenda Leigh sucked her lower lip in between her teeth while searching Sharon’s eyes with her own.

“Yes. Please, warm me. I feel I have been cold for far too long.”

Sharon unwrapped the belt to her robed and wrapped it around Brenda Leigh. “I assume only time will show you that you can trust me. I will love you and keep you warm and safe for as long as you will allow me. I have been just as cold and lonely. The only times I have felt any sort of heat has been when people’s view of me as a divorce and fallen woman has made me blush from embarrassment and anger.” Trying for a self-deprecating smile, Sharon knew it probably only looked pathetic.

“We have both suffered these last few years.” Brenda Leigh pressed her face against Sharon’s neck. “Can we just forget about it and move forward? I have had enough of feeling cold, alone, and horrible for having to hide my success.”

Of course Brenda Leigh had a point. Sharon guided her companion to her bed, glad she had insisted Brenda Leigh visit with her before they went to bed. When she had seen Brenda Leigh in her nightgown, looking like a perfect angel with her long blond hair, Sharon had found it hard to swallow. “Excellent idea, Brenda Leigh. Let’s just be cautious. If I had my way tonight, I would remove both our nightgowns and make you mine again. I’m just afraid this approach, which failed before, could fail again. I don’t want to risk that. I am ready to wait for as long as it takes for you to feel safe and secure. Only then can you freely give yourself to me--and receive me as your lover.”

“You have changed. You moved so quickly last time, I felt you were trying to make up for lost time. Now I realize you were making up for time we would lose--I just didn’t know.”

“Yes.” Sharon crawled into bed next to Brenda Leigh. Tears rose in her eyes. “You are absolutely right. I knew I was going back to a living hell in many ways and you were my very last chance...or so I thought. I’m so sorry, sweetheart.” She hugged Brenda Leigh to her.

Brenda Leigh held Sharon just as firmly, rocking her. “You did what you thought was right. Now, we are both going to make sure we are doing things the correct way.”

“Yes, we are. I will make sure of it.”

“So will I.” Brenda Leigh’s soft kisses across her forehead sent Sharon into the first full night of sleep she had experienced since Brighton.

###

Emily held Serena’s hand where they sat by the fireplace still. All the others had long gone to bed, but she and Serena had moved to one of the settees after pulling ti closer to the fireplace. Serena fetched them each a glass of brandy, smiling at Emily as she coughed after the first sip.

“It is quite strong, minha querida,” Serena said and chuckled. A rare sound from her that made the humiliating coughing worth feeling silly.

Emily attempted sitting in the perfect poise her governesses and her mother instilled in her. It only lasted a few minutes before Serena’s presence pulled her in. Not about to allow Serena’s aloof nature to keep them physically apart, Emily scooted closer and leaned her head against Serena. “This is nice. I mean, just the two of us here. Peaceful.”

Serena nodded, or Emily thought she did. She didn’t want to move from the warm and soft spot below Serena’s collarbone where Emily was resting her head. “Yes, it is, Emily,” Serena said and turned her head. This time Emily was sure of Serena’s movements as she kissed the top of Emily’s head.

“What do you think about all of us remaining here indefinitely? There won’t be much peace and quiet.” More worried than she was ready to admit about Serena’s answer, Emily placed a trembling hand on her stomach.

“I love the idea. Dragonwolde deserves to be filled with people and laughter. In that respect, I think it has had enough of peace and quiet. So have Dame Kathryn and Lady Andrea. The rest of us too. We all need to learn to trust, love and laugh again. We all carry some hurt.”

“We do indeed.” Slowly tipping her head back, Emily gazed at the severe and beautiful face of Dragonwolde’s amazingly wonderful housekeeper. If Emily’s family had thought she would marry beneath her, they would not hesitate to have her committed. Should they realize she was in love with someone of her own gender, having her committed would be fore life. And the most interesting part of this dire reasoning was...she simply didn’t care. She was going to stay here with Serena, surrounded by loyal friends, and nothing was going to stop her. For the first time she had the chance to be happy--and as shocking as it may seem to those who thought they knew her, she really did care about her own happiness...and about Serena’s. If anyone tried to hurt this woman, Emily wouldn’t hesitate to use the contacts in high places she still knew she had.

“You are tense,” Serena murmured and tipped Emily’s head further back. She dipped her head and kissed Emily for what seemed like an eternity. “Hm. Yes. Not so tense now.”

Emily giggled. “I should say not. I am positively boneless.

Talking some, laughing some, and caressing each other a lot more, Emily and Serena sat before the fireplace until it died. Then Emily took Serena’s hand din hers and escorted her back to her room near the servants quarters.

There, Serena looked deep into Emily’s eyes and then took her in her arms and closed the door. Emily smiled and held on tight to Serena.

She was home.

 ###

Kathryn found herself on her back, Annika on top of her, holding he arms firmly locked in a strong grip above her head. Trying to free herself, Kathryn tried arching and squirming beneath the tall bodyguard.

“This might work, Kathryn. I am getting quite aroused and this will eventually take my focus from the fact I should restrain you properly.”

“Or...I can try this.” Kathryn crossed her ankles at the small of Annika’s back and pressed hard.

Surprised at this move, Annika simply sat up on her heels and took Kathryn with her, now restraining Kathryn’s hands behind her back. “It could have worked,” Annika agreed.

“Oh, yes? In what way?” Kathryn blew a sweat soaked lock from her eyes.

“If you had ground your pelvic area harder against me, I would have definitely lost all focus. It may not work on just any assailant, though.”

Kathryn relaxed her arms as she bent and kissed Annika. “I would definitely kiss any other assailant than you, darling.”

“I should think not.” Smiling, Annika let go of Kathryn’s hands.

“They can’t possibly be as beautiful or as brilliant as you.” Kathryn returned the smile. “I think it’s time for bed. Training at night may be a good idea for a young lass as yourself, but I need my sleep.” Kathryn tried to hide her less than truthful statement by acting all innocent, something Annika saw through instantly.

“You wish to take me to bed and for us to continue our training there.” Annika’s eyes sparkled. “I concur with this change of venue.”

“Venue?” Kathryn blinked “Ah. The bed. Yes, yes, let’s change venues.”

Holding Annika’s hand, Kathryn began walking to the wing where her bedroom was located. She looked forward to make new plans for Dragonwolde with the rest of the women that would reside there. She would enjoy hearing Cassidy and Caroline’s happy laughter and watch them grow up, no doubt accompanied by a full menagerie of pets. Andrea seemed enthralled and enamored by Miranda, to a degree that would have worried Kathryn if she hadn’t known Miranda so well.

“Walk faster,” Annika urged her own, bringing her out of her reverie.

“Are you in a hurry, darling?” Kathryn asked, lengthening her stride.

“Yes.”

Kathryn laughed at the assertive answer, but took a firmer grip of Annika’s hand and started running. She couldn’t wait to make love to Annika again

###

Miranda climbed into bed with Andrea after having checked on the sleeping twins. “Mm, there you are.”

Reaching for Miranda, Andrea pulled her close, inhaling the intoxicating scent of the woman she’d grown to love in a few days. “Tomorrow is Christmas Eve” Andrea whispered. “Annika tells me that’s when they exchange presents in Sweden.”

“Do they now?” Miranda slipped her hands underneath Andrea’s nightgown, pushing the hem up.

“Mm-hm. In the evening, by the fire. And they write little poems on a note to go with it.”

Miranda peered up at her, her hands busy pushing up Andrea’s nightgown. “Surely you are not asking me to come up with something that rhymes, right now?”

“No, no, not right now,” Andrea sighed Miranda’s curious hands ran up and down her thighs. “I merely hoped you might want to give me a Christmas present early.” She smiled, making sure it was of the more angelic kind, as Miranda blinked in confusion. “Don’t stop what you are doing, please,” Andrea added when Miranda’s hands slowed down.

“You know I will give you anything you want, Andy.” Miranda bent to kiss the outer curve of Andrea’s hip. “Anything.”

“Oh, good.” Beaming now, Andrea rolled them. “Then you will let me make love to you the way I have dreamed of for so long?”

“Oh!” Gazing up at Andrea through her silver locks, Miranda laughed. “Is that what  you meant by early Christmas present?”

“Yes. All I want is you, Miranda. Only you.” Andrea shoved Miranda’s silk nightgown up and could have wept at the beauty before her as Miranda eagerly assisted her in removing the garment completely. Feeling they should be thoroughly balanced, Andrea pulled off her own nightgown, blushing faintly as Miranda devoured her with her eyes.

“Then take me. Any way you like.”

Andrea aligned herself with Miranda’s body, whimpering at the sensation their embrace created, skin on skin. “Oh, my Lord.” She pushed Miranda’s breasts together and began licking and nibbling her sensitive nipples--something she’d dreamed of doing ever since their heated caresses in the hidden passages. Once the nipples were bright red from her attention, Andrea branched out, kissing her way down Miranda’s stomach.

“Andy...oh, my angel...” Miranda spread her legs and made room for Andy. “Are you...do you know...I mean...?” Shuddering, Miranda could clearly not even speak in full sentences.

“Yes. I think I do.” Slipping her fingers into the wet and swollen fold between Miranda’s legs, Andy moaned together with her. So hot, Andy’s two fingers slipped inside and now Miranda’s hips danced beneath hers. “So beautiful,” Andrea said. “So utterly wonderful.”

Miranda rolled her hips against Andrea’s hand, setting a rhythm. Andrea wanted only to please Miranda, hold her close and make her feel how loved she was. Then, she felt Miranda clench her fingers, squeezing them over and over as Miranda pressed the back of her head into the pillow as she gasped for air.

Her mouth open in delighted shock at how amazing Miranda looked as her climax tore through her system, Andrea was unprepared when Miranda suddenly rolled them back and hovered over Andrea.

“Your turn. Or, I should say, my turn.”

###

Miranda didn’t waste any time. She could tell Andy was trembling beneath her and all she could think of was how desperately she wanted to taste her lover. Pressing open-mouth kisses along Andy’s sternum, making quick detours to achingly hard nipples and back again, she kissed a hot trail downward. Licking around Andy’s belly button, she smiled when Andy turned out to be ticklish.

“Open your legs for me, Andy,” Miranda murmured.

“What? Oh. Yes.” Her voice dreamy, Andy bent her knees and allowed them to fall outward.

Miranda couldn’t resist. She carefully placed her mouth against the dewy, down covered folds and let her tongue flicker against Andy’s clitoris. Andy’s reaction did not disappoint.

Arching into the most intimate of caresses, Andy called out Miranda’s name, undulating against her mouth as Miranda flattened her tongue and intensified the pleasure.

“Oh, oh! Miranda!” Andy pushed her fingers into Miranda’s hair and held on. “I never...oh, please...never thought...what you do to me...” Her thighs clenched around Miranda’s head. Carefully, Miranda added a slender index finger in between Andrea’s folds. She found her entrance and circled it, over and over, reluctant to penetrate the young woman completely just yet. She would save this for next time, when Andy was more used to the intimacy and thus ready for it.

“Oh, it’s...I...I’m going to...”

“You are going to come, Andy.” Miranda hummed the words against the pulsating clitoris against lip lips. “Come for me. Now.”

Andy cried out and Miranda lapped at the additional moisture accompanying Andy’s orgasm. Delighting in her lover’s pleasure, she slowly brought Andy back, listening to each change in her whimpers and breathing pattern.

Eventually, they snuggled close under the covers, their hands still yearning to touch all over, despite their fatigue. Andy had insisted on trying the intimate way of caressing, and her eagerness made up for her obvious lack of experience tenfold.

“Was it really because of Queen Victoria said you thought about changing your life, the girls’ life, like this?” Andy asked, her voice dazed.

“No, it wasn’t the reason, Andy. You were the reason. Then I watched how everyone here rallied around my girls when they were in danger of freezing to death. I learned of how kind your friend in the village was to them without knowing anything about them, or my wealth and power. They have thrived here, the very short time they’ve been here and it has a lot to do with you. They adore you.”

“It’s mutual.”

“And I know Cassidy was partly to blame for the accident, yet you helped her through her guilt.”

“I was equally to blame, if you want to call it that. I know how to control our horses and yet I failed to keep Bucky calm.”

“So--like you said. An accident. Had it been someone else in the same situation, my daughters would have been in a far worse situation.” Miranda kissed Andy tenderly. “I love you.”

“I love you, Miranda.”

The fire crackled, creating that special feeling that was all Dragonwolde magic. Miranda felt Andy grow heavy and warm next to her. Another sign of their difference in age; Miranda couldn’t remember falling asleep so promptly in a long time. Wrapping an arm around Andy’s waist, she nuzzled the fine hairs by her temple.

And fell promptly asleep.


THE END