The characters in the story are a product of my own imagination and hopefully have no resemblance to any living persons for that matter. But if it does it is entirely coincidental. Some of the places mentioned are either fictitious and or adapted to suit the plot of the story.
This story was part of a Christmas anthology I've worked on with Affinity eBooks.
I would also like to thank all of you who sent me notes of encouragement after my copyright violation ordeal. It's really good to know that you readers actually have the author's backs. I've tried to get to each of you individually, if I haven't been in touch yet ; know that I will do so soon. Thank you again.
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Outside the fury of the blizzard tore the night asunder. The widows creaked softly under the relentless force of heavy snow.
The room was warm, and smelled faintly of wood smoke. Sprawled in a chair before the fireplace, Countess Phillipa Croft swung a half empty goblet of wine in her hand. Who would've thought that she'd be alone on Christmas Eve? She was never alone unless she wanted it that way. Bored, she looked around the luxurious hall. The servants had done a great job trying to make her self-imposed house detention as pleasant as possible. The fire, although a necessity, was a nice touch. It added to the spirit of the season. The plate with an assortment of dusted cakes was another sign that the staff wanted to make the next three days as pleasurable as possible for her.
Downing the remainder of the wine, the tall Countess pushed to her feet and made the short walk over to where the brandy decanter stood on small table. Pouring three fingers of the amber liquid in a snifter, she rolled the liquid, admiring the colour. Phil, as her close friends called her, loved the finer things in life. The more expensive it was, the more alluring she found it. This hundred-year old brandy, brewed in a century old French monastery and stored deep in the earth beneath it, was the finest of its kind. She lifted the glass to her nose and sniffed. There was only one other aroma that could rival that of this fine brandy. She quickly shook her head. She was not going to go there. A wager lost, was not what she hoped to achieve. As the only remaining member and heir to the Croft fortune, it was her duty to uphold and protect the Croft legacy. Besides, she was not keen on losing a barrel of her exquisite brandy to her friends.
There was a soft knock, and after her curt invitation, the door opened. The petite maid looked uncomfortable, her eyes averted. Phil almost smiled at the woman's bearing. Sweet, little Salome was terrified of her. The servants knew not to gossip about her and the happenings in the Croft mansion, but she had no control whatsoever over them gossiping about her amongst themselves. Salome's fear of her stems from just such gossip. The young girl undoubtedly knew about the Lady of House's unnatural lust.
Amused, Phil grinned.
How could she fault the young virgin's fear if it was justified? The whole country knew about her proclivities. She'd even heard rumours about her eyes. No woman who wanted to protect her sanity and or her maidenhood should dare make eye contact with her. Apparently, one look into Lady Phillipa Croft's midnight black eyes was enough to bewitch a woman. Phil's eyes lazily trailed over the petite form of the girl. She was old enough and her body ripe for pleasure. To be honest, Phil had been keeping her eyes on the young servant for a while, but had never made a move. Firstly, loyal servants were hard to come by nowadays and secondly, Salome was the cook's daughter and good cooks were even harder to find.
Phil took a sip from her glass. She noticed that her continued silence unnerved the girl, if the slight tremor in her small hands were anything to go by. She took pity on the girl.
“Can I help you, Salome?” She kept her tone soft and non-threatening.
“Y…Yes, milady,” Salome mumbled and lifted her head slightly. She kept her eyes chest level, avoiding Phil's eyes. “She's back again, milady.”
A soft sigh escaped Phil's lips as her face pulled into a frown. What was wrong with the woman? No being with common sense would venture out in this storm. Was she trying to catch her death? Phil drained her glass and set it down.
“She's outside, milady. When the coachman invited her in, she refused.”
Phil pushed her hands through her short dark hair. “She's outside?! In this weather? Stubborn woman!” Phil threw her hands in the air. “Tell Simon I want him to bring her in. He should use force if need be.” This was a big mistake and Phil knew it. But she couldn't let the woman catch pneumonia and die on her doorstep.
Her face hardened as she watched Simon try to gently coax the resisting woman into the house. Justine wasn't the first one who tried to extend a liaison. The others, she had rudely shown away. She'd considered doing the same with Justine, but for some reason, couldn't bring herself to do it. The woman always came back only to stand in the very spot she was in, looking up at the windows, hoping for a glimpse of Phil.
Phil wished she could regret the day two months ago when she'd first laid eyes on the young widow. But she couldn't. With Justine, she'd probably had the best sex ever. Marriage to an old, impotent Earl could starve a woman and the shy widow wasn't afraid to try new things. The attraction was mutual when they'd met at Her Ladyship, the Duchess of Compton's Annual Picnic.
The petite blonde with the vibrant blue eyes was new to the social scene. The city was an ideal place for a young widow like Justine to find a new husband. Titled, young, beautiful and rich, Justine could have her pick of willing candidates. As expected at gatherings such as this picnic, the city's most eligible bachelors quickly found and surrounded the young woman. However, the blonde's eyes had followed Phil everywhere that day.
By the time the picnic crowd began to thin, Phil was near crazy with lust for the beautiful blonde. She had kept her eyes on the blonde as a young, handsome lord monopolized her attention. Sizing up the young man, she'd noticed that his tight britches showed no formidable impression of his masculinity. She, on the other hand, had proudly shown off her newest toy from India. Dressed in tight male britches, she'd been aware of the many female eyes eagerly caressing her crotch throughout the day. The matronly partakers had scowled at her scandalised outfit, as well as the tell-tale bulge, but she ignored them all. The esteemed Duchess was her aunt. If anyone had dared to make a fuss over her, Phil knew that her mother's sister wouldn't have hesitated to throw them out and ban them from her future social gatherings.
Assured that the lord was no competition for her, Phil had stalked Justine. The next time their eyes had met, Phil made a show of walking deeper into the dense forest surrounding the estate.
She had only to wait a few minutes for Justine to join her. The blonde looked flustered and her eyes were dark with desire. As they came together, no words were needed. Knowing that they only had a few minutes together, Phil had taken the blonde hurriedly. With the skirts bunched around the blonde's shoulders, Phil had plundered the woman's body expertly and with an overwhelming hunger. Her mouth clammed over the soft lips; swallowing the young widow's screams of pleasure, their hunger for each other had catapulted them quickly over the edge. Phil still hadn't had enough. Helping Justine fix her clothes, she'd told the woman to re-join the picnic crowd, but only after she'd gotten the blonde's address.
That evening she sent Simon to collect the blonde. In-between bouts of wild sex, two bottles of champagne and sweet black grapes, Phil had broken a cardinal rule. She'd begun to talk to the woman—really talk. It was rare to find any of the aristocratic women to be well-read and aware of politics.
They were lazing on the large bed, the blonde's head on Phil's stomach when the Baroness brought up a topic regarding the threating strike of theatre owners as a direct result of the parliament's interference in the arts.
“Rumours are abundant that the Licensing Act is a mere ruse by politicians to advance their own agendas,” the blonde remarked as her hand was lazily stroking Phil's hip.
With a raised eyebrow, Phil had studied the woman carefully. Usually, women who discussed politics were regarded as troublesome and hushed. Phil was fascinated, since the only other woman she knew who was stubborn enough to disregard societal conforms, was herself. With the Crown Prince and the son of the Chair of the House of Lords, she found a perfect outlet to indulge in politics and its affairs. After all, the Crofts still held a seat in the House, with the voting right having been reverted to her aunt's husband, the Duke, since the only surviving Croft was female. Phil however made sure to keep updated on various policies and legislations. Strange that Justine felt the same about the Licensing Act. Eager to find out exactly how informed the woman really was, Phil began to quiz her. The passion coming from the woman as she defended the need to have the Arts treated as an independent entity was intense.
“I firmly believe that one man's perception of art is an inadequate reference to what could be deemed acceptable for the masses. Do we not all have personal expectations of what we would like to take away from a play?” The green eyes burnt with vehemence, making the naked woman look like a modern-day Joan of Arc, defending the voiceless. Phil had wanted to harness that fire, feel its heat. Startling the woman, she had rolled her over and positioned herself over the blonde.
“Your passion for the topic is quite thrilling, milady, and I must add distracting.” Holding the woman's gaze, she saw comprehension tint the green orbs. With a sly smile, the blonde, threw her legs wide, her invitation blatant. Aroused by the woman's unexpected wantonness, Phil had lifted the small hips toward her crotch and slid her hard passion into the soft, warm cavern. Locking their hips together, she watched as the green eyes widened and then rolled back into their sockets. The small red tipped lips fell open, and the deliciously smooth thighs hugged her hips as the dainty feet landed on Phil's buttocks, pushing her deeper into the tight channel. No other woman had ever caused such a sensory overload in her and with a deep growl; she reared back like a stallion and plunged deep. She repeated the action, its fierceness causing the headboard to slam into the wall and the springs to protest loudly as she once again plundered the smaller woman ravenously. Made slippery by the sweat that coated their bodies, Justine's legs kept slipping from around her hips, making Phil growl in frustration every time at the loss of depth. When it happened again, Phil moved back until she rested on her knees and placed Justine's legs on her shoulders. Drawing the blonde's hips closer, she penetrated her again, this time a sharp cry came from Justine.
“So deep…very deep,” the blonde moaned.
Deep guttural grunts were the only sound coming from her as Phil relished this newfound depth. She felt her clitoris swell and knew she wasn't going to last long. She witnessed small tell-tale signs that the blonde was also close, perhaps even closer. Justine was licking her lips feverishly as her head began to toss on the pillow. After speeding up her thrusts, it was but a short moment before the blonde's mouth fell open in a soundless cry and Phil felt warm liquid pouring from the woman, wetting her. Looking down, the sight of her shaft entering the woman relentlessly brought on her own climax. With a roar, she hugged the woman's legs close as she wildly plundered her depths with hard, jerky thrusts which lifted the moaning woman's hips off the bed. With a final thrust, completely drained, the Countess released the blonde's legs and collapsed on top of the blonde.
Worn out from the countless times she'd taken the woman, Phil had dozed off. As expected, her chambermaid had made sure the blonde was ushered out of the bedroom and safely returned to her house.
A week later, Justine began to show up at the Mansion. Spooked by the woman's silence as she simply stood outside and looked at the windows, Phil had stayed hidden. Justine had returned almost every second day since then.
Tonight, that would stop .
Her eyebrows shot up as Justine shook off Simon's hold and made a dash across the lawn. The burly coachman was in hot pursuit, slipping through the snow-covered vegetation. When he caught up with the blonde, he swung her up into his arms and carried her, kicking and screaming toward the front door.
Phil took another long swig from the decanter and placed it on a nearby table. She'll have to save her servants from the mad woman. And to think she'd thought she'd be having a dull three days alone. This was all but a Merry Christmas to her.
Justine's teeth clattered together as she stood motionlessly while an older woman wrapped large warm towels around her. Her mind was shattered. She had tried valiantly over the past two months to stop her fixation with Phillipa Croft. She never had the need to chase after someone in her life before, so why now?
Her husband, God rest his soul, chosen for her by her elderly uncle, never generated this kind of passion from her. Forty seven years her senior, Richard Duncan, the Seventh Earl of Bornwell, was a wonderful man. She couldn't have been luckier to find such an understanding and gentle soul. Except for one attempt on their wedding night, Richard had never bothered her again.
She wondered what he would've thought had he known that many nights, long after the house had quieted down; she made her way to the stables. The slightly mannish Martha Newton, the widow of the late groom, would be waiting for her there. Since Justine had heard the rumours of Martha's tendencies pertaining to women, she was intrigued. One night after hours of deliberation, Justine found herself at the small hut behind the stables. Surprised to find the lady of the house on her doorstep, Martha just stared at her. To this day Justine wondered what had inspired her to step forward and kiss the startled woman. Things proceeded quickly from there and before they knew it, they had been sleeping together for six months. They stopped when Richard's health began to deteriorate. While she was taking care of Richard, Martha met a young chambermaid from a neighbouring estate and moved on to be with her. A year later Richard succumbed to his illness, leaving her a widow after eight years of marriage.
Then came that fateful day at the Duchess' Annual Picnic, when she looked up from where she was chatting with one of the young nobles, to find pitch-black eyes staring out of an impossibly striking face, studying her. She was captivated. For most of the afternoon, her eyes had followed the tall, strong body of the woman who was dressed in black fitted men's trousers and a white flowing cotton shirt.
She allowed the intoxicating woman to take her on all fours, like a bitch in heat. Later that night, in Phil's bed, she whimpered and like a whore, begged for more. That was when she realised she loved the woman. As they lay facing each other letting the sweat dry on their bodies, they talked. Throughout their time together, her heart held Phil's in a tender embrace. She was stunned when unexpectedly a servant girl shook her awake and began to help her dress. It was only when she was in the empty, rambling coach, heading home that she understood what had taken place. Feeling cheap and used, Justine hid her bruised heart.
As expected of her, she had gone on boring, meaningless strolls with potential suitors, but none could compare to the obscure woman, in whose arms she'd finally found herself. That was when her impromptu visits to the Croft estate started. She would ask her coachman to stop in the driveway, and on shaky legs, she would get out and stare at the windows, praying for a mere sight of her love. A few times, she'd seen a tall dark shadow at one of the windows, only for it to quickly move away again. Still—even after the painful snub—she couldn't keep away.
Today was worse.
It was Christmas Eve and she was alone and lonely. Not even the invitations she'd received to various Christmas fêtes could sooth her restless heart. The weather even refused her a tiny bit of peace. Instead, the storm unchained her need to see the tempestuous Phil again. The last time Justine had laid eyes on the Countess was three weeks ago when Phil drove by in her coach talking to a gorgeous redhead. It had hurt tremendously knowing that Phil had moved on to her next conquest. Over the past two months, she'd heard a lot about the elusive woman. She was surprised to find out that most of the women she'd brushed shoulders with since her arrival in the city had, at one time, been fleeting guests at the Croft estate. Like herself, some still craved the Countess. It was while playing bridge one afternoon that the Baroness Bridgewell in a casual aside mentioned Phil's rule of never sleeping with the same woman twice . At that very moment, Justine heard the soft lamenting cry of her heart. Although she had no control over her feelings, Justine had felt responsible for not having guarded her heart better.
Heavy footsteps sounded on the stairs, and looking up, Justine almost wept at the sight of Phil. The woman looked dazzling with her tousled hair and intense dark eyes. Their eyes met and Justine felt like a rabbit caught in a snare. She couldn't look away. Her teeth clattered even harder, but this time from nerves, as Phil came to stand before her. A whiff of sandalwood reached her nostrils and she shuddered as she recalled how she had feasted on Phil's heated flesh as the faint smell of sandalwood, mixed with the woman's musky intimate smell, overwhelmed her sense of smell.
“You need to get out of those wet clothes,” Phil said quietly. Looking at the servant, she added, “Have blankets and warm tea brought to the private lounge.”
Phil easily picked her up in arms and headed for the stairs, taking them two at a time. They entered what looked to be Phil's study and Justine swayed a little when Phil set her down. She was grateful for Phil's closeness as she braced her weaker body against the other woman's stronger one. Justine's breath caught in her throat when Phil turned her slowly and began to unhook her dress. Her eyes were wide as she stood still while the Countess expertly helped her out of her clothes. Dressed in her shift, Phil led her to the chair before the fire.
“Drink this, while we wait for the tea.” Phil pressed a snifter filled with an amber liquid in her hand. “It will warm you up.”
Willing to try anything that would chase the chill from her body, Justine brought the glass to her lips. The contents smelt strong, but she still took a small sip. She began to cough and held the glass away from her, her eyes tearing.
Phil pushed it back at her. “Finish it.”
There was a soft knock on the door and Justine heard Phil's footsteps leading away. A soft conversation ensued and the door closed again. Phil returned and placed a tray on the table.
“The cook prepared a Christmas Eve supper. Care to join me?”
The plates were covered, but a heavenly smell came from them. She remembered that she hadn't eaten today and nodded as she turned her gaze on Phil.
“First we need to get you out of the rest of your clothes. Let me get the blankets.”
With long strides, the Phil moved out of Justine's eyesight. When she returned, she had two thick comforters with her.
There was a moment of hesitation before Phil took the glass from her and gently pulled her to her feet.
Justine saw as the dark eyes lowered to her chest and she instantly felt her nipples stiffening.
Phil's lips fell open, and she quickly lifted her gaze.
A shiver went down Justine's spine at the desire she saw in the dark eyes. Just as quickly, she saw Phil's eyes change to hide her desire. Phil pulled at the shift and Justine lifted her arms. When the shift cleared her head, Justine once again encountered desire-filled eyes. She watched as those eyes blinked a few times and the look disappeared. Justine wanted to cry at yet another missed opportunity.
Phil stepped around her and carefully wrapped a warm blanket around Justine shoulders. “You'll have to hold it while I feed you.”
Justine's eyes shot up to meet the Countess' calm, dark gaze. “Feed me?”
This was unimaginable. Everything she'd heard about Phillipa Croft, the Countess of Hereford , hinted that the woman was self-centred and never did anything for anyone unless it benefited her in the end. Could it be that the rumours were false? Justine watched carefully as Phil removed the cover from the plate. Her mouth began to water. Golden brown turkey breast in rich gravy, tender garden peas and soft, fluffy looking mash potato made her stomach growled in hunger. Phil, hearing the sound, gave her small grin.
“I take it you are satisfied with the offering. Now open your mouth.”
At the first spoonful of mashed potato, Justine's eyes closed as she rolled the food in her mouth. She'd heard that the Countess' cook was one of the best in the city, but this was unbelievable. When she opened her eyes again, it was to find Phil staring at her mouth, enthralled.
As if she suddenly became aware that she was staring, Phil quickly averted her eyes and readied another forkful.
In between bites of food and small sips of wine, Justine finished her plate. She felt considerably better with a full stomach and leaned back in the chair.
Phil carefully brought a napkin to her mouth to dab at her lips.
“Would you like a cup of tea while I eat?”
Justine shook her head. “No thank you, but please go ahead and eat. Your food must be cold by now.”
With a small smile, Phil placed the tray with the remaining plate on her lap and began to eat.
Like before, there was no conversation and Justine liked it that way. It gave her more time to watch the intriguing woman. Every time Phil opened her mouth for a bite, her tongue peeked out, playing havoc on Justine's insides. So engrossed in watching the woman, Justine was shocked to realize that her subject was actually looking back at her. Blushing furiously, she turned away, but not before she witnessed the amusement in the dark eyes. She suddenly wished she'd accepted the offer of tea. It would've given her something to do with her hands.
Phil was aware of the woman staring at her and it didn't bother her in the least. In fact, she was used to women staring at her. Her only regret was that she couldn't do anything about the attention directed toward her at the moment. She put her half-eaten plate aside and reached for her brandy snifter. What the hell was she thinking when she agreed to the wager. Would it look bad if she sent a cancellation missive to her friends, she wondered as her eyes travelled over the beautiful face of her guest. In her mind's eye, she saw her friends laughing at her request and she summarily discarded the idea. She drained her glass and sighed as the smooth liquid burnt as it slid down her throat. At least she'll manage to keep her brandy.
The blonde lifted her eyes and expressive green eyes skewered Phil. Now what, she wondered. She was sure she hadn't spoken aloud. Justine slowly came to her feet and walked closer to the fire.
With the slender body painted by the firelight, Phil was surprised to find that she liked the view. Justine looked like an angel—beautiful and pure. Unsettled by the thought, Phil quickly averted her eyes. Once she'd had a woman, she ceased thinking of them as beautiful anymore. Lingering on thoughts about them usually led to more indefinable emotions from where foolish actions were born. Sex, to her, was a means to an end. She had used Justine once already, and that was as far as she was willing to go with her.
“Why do you want the world to see you as someone you're not?”
The question came softly, but the meaning resounded like a fire alarm in Phil's head. Who was this woman to assume that she knew her? Phil got to her feet and refilled her brandy glass. She rarely gave in to emotional outbursts around women. Her reputation, coupled with her seemingly aloofness, was what attracted women. As long as she appeared unaffected and disinterested, she was safe from their tearful pleas and feeble attempts to win her heart. She took a long sip before she turned to face the blonde who still had her back turned to her.
“That's a very presumptuous question, milady.” Her tongue flicked out and licked the rim of the glass. “ After bedding you once, two months ago, I doubt that gave you enough insight to assume you know anything about me. ” The dark eyes burned into the back of the smaller woman. “Never challenge the knowledge of people who've known me since birth.”
Justine turned on her heel and came to stand before Phil. The imposing woman lifted a brow at the fire in the blondes eyes.
“I don't care what people say or think about you. I know what I know.”
Phil snorted. “Is that what brought you to my home these past weeks, and again tonight?” The green eyes sparked and for a moment, Phil believed that the woman would slap her. Instead, the blonde took a slow step back.
“Maybe, milady, you should question yourself as to why I am here.”
Phil blinked in surprise. “I'm sorry, but I fail to follow your reasoning. As it is, you are the one who stood outside my home in a dreadful storm, hoping for a glimpse of me. I'm not the one here begging for attention, now am I?”
Justine had a soft smile on her lips. It infuriated Phil not knowing what the woman found so amusing.
“I admit to coming here regularly, but I'll have you know that it's not a conscious effort from my side.”
Phil smirked at the woman's confession. There, it was in the open. Justine admitted to an infatuation with her. She took a sip of her brandy as she gave the woman a haughty look down her nose. There was no need to verbalise her point. She took another sip from her glass, but this time she didn't get to swallow the smooth liquid.
“It's your desolate heart that calls out to mine every time,” Justine said quietly.
Phil's eyes widened in shock as the mouthful of brandy she took sprayed across the room. A bout of uncontrolled coughing followed. Justine moved closer, concern written on her face, but Phil waved her away.
Hesitating for a split moment, the blonde placed her hand between Phil's shoulder blades. Justine gave it a hard thump causing the air to flee from Phil's lungs.
With a low moan, the Countess stepped away from the blonde. “Stay…away…”
Justine's eyes narrowed, but she complied and walked over to the fireplace.
Phil took the time to catch her breath while the blonde had her back turned to her. Phil hated the uncertainty she was feeling as she glared at the other woman. She took a deep breath to steady her suddenly scattered nerves. “What nonsense are you talking, woman,” she questioned the woman with not a little heat in her tone.
The blonde turned to her, her eyes intense. “You don't seem fond of hearing the truth, milady. If memory serves me right, never once, in all these weeks, have I tried to force my way into your home. I am here on your orders, dragged in, against my will, by your servant. What do you make of it?”
The calmness of the woman was maddening, causing Phil to wonder what had happened to the wary woman she had pampered only a few minutes ago.
“I'm convinced the cold has addled your brain, milady,” Phil sneered. “I was simply being a Good Samaritan in letting you out of the storm. A decision, I must add, I'm beginning to regret.” She took a threatening step closer. The blonde seemed unaffected by her advance and simply raised a brow. “My heart is more than content as it is. It has been so for as long as I can remember. What gives you the idea that its temperament had changed?”
Justine smiled gently. “Because I can feel it. I felt it as you plundered my body the first time and I feel it now as it struggles to loosen the cold grip of fear placed upon it.”
Phil stared at the woman. If her friends ever thought she was going to lose the sex bet, they were wrong. This Christmas was not one for giving from her part.
She took a deep breath. “I would like for you to leave, milady. Your presence here is ruining the essence of the holiday for me.”
Justine shrugged. Her eyes held Phil's as she dropped the blanket.
Confronted by the woman's nakedness, Phil felt her body shudder in anticipation. Her body equated a naked female body with pleasure, a habit Phil never had reason to amend—until now. A woman chasing her heart was deadly, and not welcome near her person. If only she could stop staring at the mouth-watering vision.
Justine shook with nerves as she watched the Countess looking at her. Wherever she got the courage to provoke the woman, she'll never know. The heat present in the other woman's eyes was unmistakable. From what she'd heard of Phillipa, the woman was incapable of saying no to sex, but she'd done so three times already this evening. On unsteady legs, she approached the dark woman. Phil's eyes flashed with something akin to dread as Justine came to a stop before the towering Countess.
“I'll leave, but know that your heart has been touched and it will not stop until its echo is answered. It might not be me this time, but it is coming.” She turned away and walked to where her shift lay draped over a chair. She pulled the dried out shift over her head and grabbed the blanket. “I will return this.”
She had her hand on the doorknob when she turned back to the look at the silent woman. “Thank you for the evening. It's the best Christmas Eve I've had in a long time.”
The servants were shocked when she came down the stairs. She gave a mental smirk. They were probably so used to kicking Phil's lovers out and have never encountered one leaving the house of her free will.
The matronly woman gave her a worried look. “Is…The Countess…is everything fine?”
“Yes. I left her in the study.” She looked around. “Where is the coachman? I would like to go home.”
The servant blinked at her before nodding slowly. “I will ask Simon to ready the coach for you, if milady, would give me but a few moments.”
Justine gave a weary nod. The confrontation had taken a lot out of her. Never before had she been so reckless as to try and beguile a woman of Phil's stature. The woman was a darling of the Court and the Prince Regent, counted amongst the Countess' close friends. She could have damaged her chances at a favourable joining if word leaked of her wanton behaviour. She leaned back against the wall and allowed her chin to drop on her chest. She questioned her unexpected courage again. And the lies? She had no idea what Phil's heart wanted. Never did and probably never will, but at the woman's maddening arrogance, she'd wanted to cut her down. By Phil's reaction, she'd been successful. But where did that leave her? She was thrown out and has to spend the rest of the night alone in her house, tormented by thoughts of the dark woman. The storm hasn't let up and she could still hear its ferocity from inside. The day started out bleak and it seem it would not end any different.
“Everything said about me is true.” Justine's head jerked up at the unexpected sound of Phil's voice. The Countess stood at the top of the stairs. She was too far way for Justine to read the expression in the dark eyes, but she could feel their intensity. “But never will it be said that I turned a lady out in a storm. You may stay in one of the guest suites and leave in the morning. I apologise for my rashness of earlier.”
The dark woman left and Justine stared long at the space where Phil had been a few moments before. The woman was mercurial, as if she wasn't alluring enough.
“Would you have me show you to the guest suite instead, milady?”
Justine turned to the woman and found a quizzical look on the older woman's face. It was good to know that she wasn't the only one baffled by the Countess changeable personality.
“I guess that would be in order.”
Phil downed the remaining brandy in her glass and staggered to her feet, still holding onto the back of the chair. She rubbed her eyes and snorted. The woman had the gall to imply that she, Countess Phillipa Croft, was pining for her. For the past two hours she'd sat in front of the fire fuming as Justine's words replayed in her mind. The notion was so absurd it was downright insulting. She let go of the chair once she was sure she wouldn't fall over. Her initial thought was to drink herself into a stupor and spent the night in the chair. The blankets she'd covered Justine with were thick enough to ward of the chill even when the fire died down during the night. But there was a slight problem though. The water closet was located a distance from her study, whereas her room was fitted with a perfectly well-equipped water closet.
She shuffled out of the study, trying her best to make as little noise as possible since the house was quiet, a sign that everyone else had turned in already. Carefully, she manoeuvred her large body around the hallway table, using the wall for extra support. Her room wasn't far anymore. She rested her head against the wall, but her knees buckled unexpectedly. Phil pushed out her hands to steady herself against the wall only to press against a painting which slid sideways, causing her to lose her grip.
Justine surged into a sitting position as she heard the loud crash. Phil! She jumped out of her bed and rushed to her door. The sound had come from the hallway. She stepped out into the dimly-lit hallway. She gasped when she found the Countess lying flat on her back, her hands covering her face. A soft moan came from her prone body causing Justine to jump into action. She fell to her knees next to the injured woman and gently lifted her head into her lap. The smell of alcohol was overpowering. Justine's heart missed a beat when she thought of what could've happened had the Countess, for whatever reason, tried to manoeuvre the steps while in this state. She could've been…Justine swallowed hard at the mere thought.
“Oh, my darling, what have you done to yourself,” she exclaimed as she stroked the dark hair away from a sweaty forehead. Her panic rose when she felt a slick wetness. “You're hurt!” She leaned closer to see where the injury was, only to encounter wide dark eyes staring back at her. She didn't know what caused her to act so impetuously, but she tenderly brushed a kiss over Phil's lips. She found the cut above the Countess' eyebrow and prodded the area around it. Looking around she noticed the painting lying next to the woman. The picture frame must've struck her when it came down. “Come on, love, let me help you up so I can clean the wound.”
When Phil didn't move, she peered into her eyes and found the woman staring back at her. She tried to decipher the look in the dark eyes, but with the dim light it was impossible to define what it meant. She cradled Phil's cheek again.
“I need your help to get you to the bed. Will you be able to move?”
Phil cleared her throat softly. “Yes.”
“Good.” Justine came to her feet and held her hand out to the other woman. “Slowly does it. I don't want you to injure your head any further.” She grunted as she pulled the brunette to her feet and immediately curled her arm around the woman's waist when Phil began to sway dangerously. “Easy now. I doubt we'll make it to your room before you collapse again. My room's closer.”
She steered the woman toward her room and led her over to the bed. Once Phil was seated, she rushed to the water closet to collect a wash cloth and a basin filled with water. When she returned, it was to find the woman sitting just as she'd left her, except that her eyes were intense as they followed her crossing over to the bed. Justine hesitated for a brief moment, as she held Phil's gaze. It was only when a small trickle of blood ran down the dark woman's cheek that she snapped out of the strange trance Phil's gaze had snared her in. She knelt between Phil's legs and wetting the cloth, carefully dabbed at the small cut. As she worked she deliberately avoided eye contact with Phil, but she was acutely aware of the woman's stare. With the wound cleaned she sat back.
“I don't have anything to apply to the wound now, but I doubt it will bleed again.” She leaned closer and reached for Phil's boots and began to loosen the laces. When Phil didn't react to what she was doing, she looked up and this time she saw confusion in the Countess' eyes. “I will only remove your boots and jacket. Are you fine with that?”
She saw Phil swallow hard and nod, only for the pain flash to cross her face at the movement. Justine quickly moved closer and cradled Phil's face in her hands, her fingertips pressing on the woman's temples.
“Don't move your head too much.” The dark eyes fluttered close as she massaged Phil's temples. When they opened again after a few moments, they held a blank expression. Justine smiled at the dark woman and continued to remove her boots and the jacket. When she was done she held the woman up again and moved her to the head of bed. She swung the long legs onto the bed and made sure that Phil was comfortable.
“I'll have to leave you for a spell to get you something for the pain,” Justine said and tried not to wring her hands, a sign of her nervousness. Phil's silence was unsettling, but she found that if she concentrated on the woman's injuries she forgot about her nerves. With a quick smile she left the room.
Phil took a shuddering breath as soon as Justine was gone. If her head hadn't felt like it was about to split in two she would've delved deeper into what exactly was happening here. All she knew was that something profound was happening to her. Something she had no reference for. All she knew was that never before had she been the recipient of such tender pampering. Growing up in the English countryside on her grandfather's estate, she had sustained worse injuries than the one she had now. She'd been pierced countless times with a sword as a result of her tendency to fight her male counterparts for the attention of the fair ladies. Not once had those ladies, whose honour she'd defended so valiantly, ask after her injuries. Tonight she'd sustained a mere scrape and she was the recipient of such loving care from a woman whom she treated abhorrently but a few hours ago. What was this? Had the brandy addled her brain or had the knock to her head finally opened her eyes to see there was more to a woman than an ample bosom and soft, milky thighs?
And what the hell happened to all the brandy she'd imbibed earlier? How could she have sobered up so fast? Or was it perhaps the shock she'd experienced when Justine had called her darling earlier? She closed her eyes when a wave of pain surged through her head and waited for the pain to abate. Deep thinking seemed not to be a good idea right now. Using the meditation techniques her grandfather, a philanthropist and avid traveller, had taught her, Phil expunged her mind of all thoughts as she lay back and waited for Justine to return.
Justine was eager to get back to Phil, but the tray she carried slowed her down. She was relieved to find the cook still awake. The woman had helped her to make a pot of sweetened chamomile tea and supplied an ointment for the wound. It was obvious for all her don't-care-attitude, Phil was loved dearly by her staff. The woman's concern for her employer was endearing to witness when Justine informed her about Phil's accident.
She reached the top of the stairs, and lengthening her strides, made for the bedroom. Phil's eyes were closed as she neared the bed and placed the tray on a nearby table. She hated that she'd have to wake the older woman, but the headache needed to be taken care off. Taking the pot of ointment with her she went to sit on the bed close to Phil's head. Not wanting to startle the woman, she cupped her cheek and waited for the dark eyes to open. She deftly began to apply slave to the wound after which she helped Phil up so she could drink some of the honey-sweetened tea. The concoction would help for the pain as well as counteract the hangover the Countess was surely going to suffer the next morning. Satisfied that Phil had drunk a whole cup of tea, Justine walked over the fireplace to add more wood. Turning away from the fire, she found Phil watching her with alert eyes.
“Would it bother you if I share the bed with you? I want to be close in case you need anything.”
“I don't mind sharing with you,” Phil replied and Justine was slightly surprised by the quiet tone of her voice.
“Good. Before I douse the lanterns, is there anything else you need. The water closet perhaps?”
“No. I'm fine for now.”
Justine quickly extinguished the lanterns and crawled into bed. She pulled the soft comforter over them and settled into the warm cocoon. Phil was lying on her back and in the semi darkness of the room, Justine studied the strong profile. She loved her. She loved Phillipa Croft more than she'd ever loved anyone before. It was such a great feeling to have been offered the opportunity to take care of the woman tonight. It brought her so much pleasure having the woman need her for something more than sex. But tomorrow all this will end and she'll be back at home while Phil will revert back to her womanizing. Tears burnt her eyes and she blinked rapidly to hold them back. At least she will always have this memory. Eager to cement the memory further, she shifted closer to Phil's warm body.
“Thank you for everything you've done for me tonight, Justine.”
Justine blinked back a fresh wave of tears which threatened to fall. She wanted to scream: I love you and I hoped you would allow me to keep on doing this for you. Instead, she lifted herself on her elbow and placed a soft kiss on Phil's cheek.
“It was pleasure. Merry Christmas.”
Justine settled back and closed her eyes. A startled yelp left her lips when large hands pushed under her body and she was carefully lifted onto Phil's chest. She lifted her head and placed a soft kiss on Phil's chin before she laid back on her human mattress, a wide smile on her face.
If she'd ever wished for a perfect Christmas, this one was the closest she'll ever come.
Even before she opened her eyes, Phil knew that Justine was gone. She felt the blonde's absence like a physical blow to her gut. She cannot remember a night spent with a woman where she had derived so much pleasure from just holding her. She slowly sat up and was surprised to find her head wasn't hurting and nor did she feel any effects of her brandy infused evening. The day looked brighter already, if only the blonde had waited for her to awaken before she'd left.
The door opened and Salome stepped in, she gasped at the sight of her employer. “Oh, milady, pardon me for rushing in without knocking first. The lady had left already and I thought I would clean the chamber.” The young servant stuttered nervously, avoiding eye contact as usual.
Phil studied the girl carefully. Something was different. She swung her legs off the bed, her eyes till resting on the fidgeting girl. Then it struck her. It wasn't Salome who had changed. It was her . For the first time since the girl had come of age, Phil wasn't undressing her with her eyes. All she saw before her was a young, beautiful girl. Gone were the lustful thoughts that raced through her mind whenever she'd looked at the girl. What a radical change from yesterday evening when she'd stared at the girl shamelessly. Justine . It could only be her. She came to her feet so fast that the girl shrieked in surprise, falling back.
“Before you commence with your cleaning, inform Simon that he should get the carriage ready. Tell him also to load two barrels of brandy. I will meet him downstairs in an hour.” With long, purposeful strides she made her way to her bedroom.
It took all the willpower Justine could muster to appear interested in the meaningless prattle of the four young lords sitting in her sunroom, drinking eggnog. If she'd had her way, she'd wished to be alone so she could reminisce about her evening with the intoxicating Countess. It was so difficult to leave this morning while the gorgeous woman was still asleep. Dressed, Justine had spent a few moments just looking at the sleeping woman, praying that she'd open her eyes and ask her to remain if only for a few hours more. But knowing the Countess's rule of not extending one's stay in her bed, Justine reluctantly saw herself out.
One of the young lords leaned closer and gave her a wide grin. “I doubt you've heard the latest. It seems our dear Countess Croft, has lost her most valued stash of French brandy in a wager.”
At hearing Phil's name, Justine's interest was piqued. She gave the man a coquettish look. “Do tell, dear Rupert.”
The young man's grin grew even wider. “It is rumoured that the Countess' friends, including the Regent himself, had dared her to abstain from any female attention for the duration of three days starting yesterday and lasting until Boxing Day. Failure to do so would result in her having to give up a barrel of her most treasured imported libation.”
The man paused dramatically and Justine had to keep herself from prodding him on. Instead she haughtily raised a questioning eyebrow.
“It seems our resident Domina lost the bet, for this morning I saw her coachman rolling not one , but two barrels of brandy into the house of Lord Hewes.” He giggled and was joined by the other men. “It seems the Countess had quite the evening last night. And it must've been memorable for her to part with one barrel more than was stipulated in the dare.”
Justine quickly lifted her glass of eggnog to her lips to hide the puzzlement she felt at the news. She needed to think. Her guests have been here longer than an hour already, and it was more than sufficient time for her to play the illness card. She held her cup away from her lips and gave a dainty cough. The men almost fell over their feet to assist her, but she waved them away.
“I found myself waylaid by the rain yesterday and upon returning home have tried to counteract possible effects that might befall me. But I wasn't fortunate, as you can see.” She almost laughed out loud when the men's eyes grew wide in horror. With the Christmas season upon them, many social events were planned until well into the New Year. Falling ill now would be utterly disastrous. Young and unmarried, social events were the lifeblood of the young lords, and missing even one would mean a great setback when it comes to winning the favours of young debutants.
Within ten minutes the men had left, stammering lame excuses about vague appointments. She slowly climbed the stairs to her rooms where she could dissect the news about Phil.
The grin had not left Phil face twenty minutes later as her carriage came to a stop before the large house. She could still the see the smug look on her friend's face morph into one of sheer shock. She had in no uncertain terms made it clear to Hewey that she hadn't lost the bet, but instead wanted to thank him for instigating the wager.
Simon opened the carriage door for her and giving him a warm smile, she'd wished him a Merry Christmas and told him to take the next two days off. For a moment she'd stared up at the house before knocking. As she waited for the door to be answered, Phil prayed that she never live to regret her impulsive decision for coming here. The door was opened by a young servant girl who quickly invited her in and led her to the sunroom.
“I will inform milady that she has a visitor.”
Alone in the room, Phil blew out a nervous breath. If the situation was not so terrifying, she would have laughed at the absurdity of it. Who would've thought that she would ever find herself in such a situation? But yet, here she was, having no idea what to say if asked why she was here.
The soft hesitant voice caused Phil to spin around from where she'd been staring out of the window, unseeingly. She saw Justine's eyes widen in shock.
“Phil?” Justine took a quick step, which brought her closer to Phil. “Is everything okay? How's the wound.”
Before Phil could answer, the blonde was already probing at the healing cut. “It's not bothering me at all. Thank you again for last night.”
Justine took a step back and Phil felt her palms growing moist as the woman looked at her, her head cocked to the side. “I don't understand. Then why…why are you here?”
Phil nervously cleared her voice. She had no idea what to say, but she wasn't going to say nothing. “Justine—?
“Is it about the dare? Why did you concede defeat if nothing happened between us?”
Eyes wide, Phil stared at the woman. “You know about the dare? How?”
“Rumours.” The blue eyes were apologetic. “Did I make you lose the bet?”
“No…yes…I mean…” Phil threw her hands in the air. “Look, I didn't lose the bet.”
“Then why part with your brandy?”
Phil blinked a few times at the woman before she looked away. Only the truth will suffice. “I wanted to thank Lord Hewes for initiating the bet.” She braved a quick glance at Justine before looking away again. “Had he not, I wouldn't have had the opportunity to see you as I did last night.”
When the silence stretched for longer than a moment, Phil sought out Justine's eyes. She was confused by the tears she saw in the other woman's eyes. She took a hesitant step closer. “I'm not good at this kind of thing and I'm sure my inept attempt had caused more confusion than anything else. But what I wanted to say…I wanted to say…” Phil pushed a shaky hand through her short hair. “I don't know how to say it.”
The blonde held up a hand, a brilliant smile on her wet face. “How does this sound? Justine Duncan, I have no idea what I'm doing here right now. All I know is that I have nowhere else I want to be but here. Please help me so we can find out together why I can't stay away.”
Phil was slack jawed as she stared at the woman. “That…that's exactly what I'd wanted to say. How did you know?”
Justine took another step closer and Phil felt a tremor run down her spine, when the woman burrowed into her arms. “That's exactly what went through my mind all those times I stood outside your house hoping for a glimpse of you.”
Phil closed her eyes as she thought of all the time they'd squandered. “I'm sorry I wasted so much time.”
Justine stood on tiptoes and brushed her lips over Phil's. “Promise me today that you'll make up for it. It's Christmas so you can make a false promise.” The blue eyes were serious as they searched hers.Phil felt her heart melt and she held Justine closer. “I don't have a Christmas gift for you, but I offer you this Christmas promise that I will cherish you for as long as you let me.”
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