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.”
“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?”
“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.
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.”
“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.