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Excerpt for The Countess's Mistress (Pirates of Flaundia #3) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords





The Countess’s Mistress

(Pirates of Flaundia #3)


By

KT Grant






Forgiveness, reader, is, I think, something very much like hope and love - a powerful, wonderful thing. And a ridiculous thing, too.”

Kate DiCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux


The Countess’s Mistress Copyright 2019 by KT Grant

Cover art Copyright 2019 by Insatiable Fantasy Designs

Smashwords Edition

The reproduction or utilization of this book in any form by mechanical or other means is forbidden by law. Copyright infringement is investigated by the FBI and may result in fines of up to $250,000 or imprisonment.


This book is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.


Mrs. Julia Whitney, a widow of two years, blames herself for her husband’s suicide. She hides a dark secret that could ruin her good family’s name, which has become the target of cruel gossip because her sister has been locked away in an asylum for the criminally insane. She has no one to turn to for comfort, even though Isaiah, her former childhood friend, and father’s protégé wants to marry her.

Things become complicated when she makes the acquaintance of Katherine, the Countess Guetall, who happens to be the cousin of the man Julia’s sister attacked and kidnapped. Kat holds no ill will, and extends an olive branch in the hopes she and the timid widow can become friends.

Kat’s affection heals Julia’s broken heart, and soon they embark on a secret love affair. When Isaiah learns of the affair, he resorts to blackmail and threats to claim Julia as his own. Julia may have no other choice but to comply with Isaiah’s wicked plan even if it means sacrificing herself in order to protect those she loves.



CHAPTER ONE


“Kiss! Kiss!”

The newly married couple kissed at the urging of their guests. The groom tugged his bride, whom he had promised to cherish and obey the remaining days of his life less than two hours ago, into his arms.

If Mrs. Julia Whitney had been a romantic, she would have sighed like the rest of the women in the room, including her mother, the Viscountess Veiga, and her grandmother, Lady Ransome. But she was skeptical the bride and groom were a love match. Maria Southey, now Mrs. Lang, had once been a close friend to Julia, so much so she had once known Maria’s innermost secrets and dreams. But that had been years ago, before she married. Maria had waited much longer, and finally embraced the bonds of holy matrimony at the age of thirty. Her days of spinsterhood were now over, whereas Julia still came to terms with her status as a widow of two years.

She glanced away from the happy couple and stared at her punch. Maria appeared blissful and glowing, as everyone expected from most brides on their wedding day. Perhaps she did love her husband, Luis, owner of the biggest logging company in the county. Perhaps Maria had decided marriage to a well-respected and handsome man with a fortune was better than remaining a spinster reflecting on those unattainable dreams, such as having Julia live with her as her companion. But Maria hadn’t requested a private meeting since returning to Deerhirst to visit. Soon, she and Mother would return home to Father for the Christmas holiday, and she had yet to speak to Maria alone. Her once close confidante no longer had any use for her.

She sighed, disheartened by her friend’s rejection. She finished her punch and searched for a server carrying a tray of champagne. She had never been inebriated before. No one would frown upon her if she imbibed. The majority of the wedding guests had already drunk their fill, anyway, based on their loud laughter and enthusiastic dancing.

Her mother, Cornelia, sipped from her fourth glass of champagne and swayed to and fro as the musicians struck up a lively tune. It had been some time since she’d seen Mother in high spirits—understandable, considering her younger daughter, Ramona, had been admitted to an asylum for the insane six months ago.

“Julia, if you continue to pout like you’ve been doing for the past hour, you’ll end up with permanent wrinkles around your mouth.” Grandmother Isa tapped Julia’s arm with her fan.

“Smiling can cause wrinkles also, Grandmother.” She relaxed her mouth into a straight line to appease the older woman, though. She had come to expect her grandmother’s criticisms, much like those of her mother, who rarely had a compliment for her eldest daughter.

Grandmother Isa laughed and squeezed Julia’s gloved hand. She rarely attended a ball or any type of celebration elegant enough for wearing gloves. Nor did she have an appropriate gown for the occasion, so she chose to wear her most suitable and elegant attire—an Oxford-blue bombazine dress. Most of her gowns were in somber shades to denote her mourning period for her deceased husband. David had always liked her in darker colors anyway. He said it brought out her amber eyes and milky-white skin tone.

“Now, that’s what I want to see.” Grandmother Isa rapped her fan once again on Julia’s arm. “Light in your eyes and some color to your cheeks. What crossed your mind just now?”

“Mama, your eyes must be playing tricks on you. Julia looks exactly the same as she did moments ago.” Mother frowned. “For once, can you act like you’re enjoying yourself?”

If Mother knew the real reason she didn’t want to be here—that she had feelings for Maria—she would end up with Ramona in the asylum. But it was inconsequential to act on them again. A future with Maria was impossible.

She stopped any further complaints from her mother and smiled, showing teeth. “Grandmother is correct. I’m thinking of my wedding to David.” It had been a wretched day of sleet and snow six years ago. David had sneezed through the entire ceremony. She had been riddled with nerves and nausea. They had retired to their bridal suite early and didn’t consummate their marriage until days later. But it had been nice to fall asleep in his arms. He had been such a gentle and loving soul.

Sympathy crossed her grandmother’s face. “David may be gone, but he’ll always have a place in your heart.”

“I know.” She nodded, keeping her smile intact. “He was my best friend.”

“And now your other friend is married to the love of her life.” Mother set her palm on her chest, covering her pearl necklace, a gift from her husband. Her diamond wedding ring sparkled.

Julia peered at her bare hand. Her wedding band lay hidden in her jewelry box. She had put it in there after David’s funeral, ashamed to wear it. Most people assumed her unmarried, unless she corrected them. She responded more so to her maiden name than Mrs. Whitney. After David died, she hadn’t felt right keeping his name. Unbeknownst to all, she had been somewhat responsible for his suicide.

The music changed to a jauntier tune, and Maria and Luis walked out on the dance floor. Other couples joined them, clapping. Mother hummed, and Grandmother tapped her foot. Julia lifted her hair off the back of her neck. The room had warmed considerably, and she longed to go to the small cemetery to visit David’s grave. Even at the end of November, the weather had stayed comfortable and hadn’t grown too chilly yet. It would no longer be the case come December when the first frost arrived.

A gentleman with mutton chops and a big bushy beard approached them. Her mother smiled in greeting.

“I would love to dance, Percival. Thank you for asking.” Mother blushed. She thrust her half-empty glass of champagne at Julia and allowed the man to escort her onto the dance floor.

“Mother!” She gasped in shock at her mother who danced with a man not her husband, even though the other man had been married for forty years with eight children and fifteen grandchildren.

Grandmother Isa chuckled at her granddaughter’s disgusted expression. “Child, Cornelia and Percival have known each other for years. He’s a great friend to your father. There’s nothing to be miffed about.”

Her mother and her dancing partner swung around the room with great delight. She then spotted Maria in the arms of her husband. Maria locked eyes with her. Julia turned away and faced her grandmother. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by Mother’s antics. She loves attention and enjoys embarrassing Father. He must have been thrilled to have been left alone while we were on our holiday,” she commented and drank the rest of her mother’s champagne.

Grandmother Isa’s face darkened, and her jovial mood vanished. She seized Julia by the wrist and tugged her to a window.

“Your mother can be a handful, but she’s well aware of her surroundings. She would never intentionally hurt or humiliate your father. Alastair loves your mother, as she does him. Those two have been through thick and thin. From the moment your father asked your mother to dance with him at her coming-out ball, I knew they would marry.” She wagged her finger in front of Julia’s face. “Not many married couples experience true love like your parents. You may not be aware, but your father has written your mother every week since you’ve been away. He misses her desperately and wants you both to come home.”

She stared out the window, blinded by the setting sun. Purple spots floated in front of her eyes, but she blinked them away, truly ashamed for her cruel opinion about her parents’ marriage. She had never experienced an all-consuming love, not with David or even with Maria. “I apologize for my recent behavior. It’s.…” She swallowed. “I’m not ready to return to Flaundia. The gossip about Ramona will be cruel, and most of our neighbors will cut us off. I’m afraid Mother won’t be able to handle the rejection. Father must be under a great deal of stress—”

“It will all turn out for the best.” Grandmother lifted a finger in the air. “People do love a good scandal, but some other distraction will come along your neighbors will concentrate on. Based on your father’s letters, it looks like things have settled down, and you and your mother won’t be ridiculed or given the cut direct at social gatherings.”

She wanted to believe her grandmother, but she knew all too well how people reacted to something shocking, such as David’s suicide. Returning to the scene of the crime after a year still hadn’t diminished the stares and whispers. During the past three months, while she and Mother had stayed with her grandparents, she had grown paranoid their neighbors continued to gossip about her.

“I guess we’ll have to wait and see,” she said, resigned to the fact she may be treated as a leper upon returning to Flaundia.

“You have survived one misfortune, and you’ll survive this recent one with your younger sister.” Grandmother Isa shook her head. “Time heals all wounds.” Something caught her eye, and she nodded. “Your grandfather is waving me over. He’ll want to dance the quadrille soon. I guess I should do what the old buzzard wants.”

She covered her mouth and snickered then snuck a peek at her grandfather, who winked at her.

“Would you like to come with me? The unattached gentlemen near your grandfather would be more than honored to dance with you.” Grandmother Isa elbowed Julia’s side.

Other than David and his male cousins she had once associated with while growing up, no man had ever asked her to dance. Most of the men here sought women who were pleasant to look at and who could carry on a conversation, unlike her, with such an unassuming and quiet nature.

“I’m not in the mood to dance. I think I’ll visit David’s grave.” She peered out the window at the cemetery next to the small church.

Grandmother Isa nodded in understanding. “Don’t forget to wear your shawl.”

“I will. Thank you for the chat.” She kissed her grandmother on the cheek.

Grandmother Isa patted Julia’s arm. “When you leave the room, stand up straight and lift your chin. It will make your bosom look bigger.”

“Grandmother!” she groaned.

With a swish of her skirts, her grandmother sauntered over to her grandfather, who drew her to his side.

She ventured to the exit, grabbing two flutes of champagne from a passing server. While she drank, she caught sight of Maria kissing her husband to the delight of their guests and to her resentment.



CHAPTER TWO


The late afternoon chill didn’t deter Julia from her course of action. The wrap she wore, and the amount of champagne she drank, warmed her adequately to brave the elements. She always enjoyed this time of year, and looked forward to the cold and snow expected in the coming weeks.

She studied her husband’s grave, the final resting place the church didn’t sanction at first because David took his own life. If not for her father and Isaiah Reiner, David’s much respected and rich cousin, his body would have never been buried in consecrated ground. It gave her some peace to have David buried in the cemetery where his parents had also been laid to rest.

She set the champagne flute on top of the stone, along with a white carnation she’d snatched from one of the flower arrangements lining the walls in the hall of Maria’s wedding reception. She still heard the music from inside, a more sedate melody than before, which seemed appropriate for what she had to do.

Her prayers were few and far between. God never answered them, anyway, not when she asked for advice regarding her confusing feelings for Maria or after she and David had fought when he accused her of no longer loving him. She had cared for him, but more as a friend, and not as a wife should love her husband. If only she had been in love with him, maybe then he would still be alive, and she wouldn’t feel such loneliness and bleak uncertainty for her future.

He had once been her biggest comfort. But she had destroyed everything because of her shameful actions. Those actions had torn her family apart and led to Ramona’s madness, which had put others in danger.

“Oh, David, I hope you have forgiven me.” She blinked back tears. “I’ve been so unhappy. I guess I deserve to feel this way. I wish you were here to advise me on how to overcome my wretched melancholia.”

“I would be more than happy to help you find peace and joy again.”

She dropped her arms to her side. She should have kept her thoughts quiet. The owner of the voice was apt at eavesdropping and suggesting solutions to problems whether welcomed or not.

She turned to face Isaiah Reiner, Deerhirst’s sheriff and David’s older cousin. He folded his hands behind his back and bowed. She curtsied in return. When he held out his arms, she had no choice but to accept his hug.

He’d visited her at least twice a week since her return to Deerhirst. After she moved to Flaundia, he had written to her many times, but she never wrote him back. She wanted distance from everyone she had known while married to David. It meant Isaiah and his younger brother Jude, who ran the family’s textile business. Their older brother, Lance, had moved away from the area some ten years ago to parts unknown.

Isaiah didn’t release her, even when she pressed his chest to push him away, his satin waistcoat soft under her palms. He cut a fine figure in his expensive garments, unlike David who wore simple tweed jackets and buckskin breeches. She stared up at Isaiah as he smiled at her, incredibly handsome with arresting chocolate-brown eyes, a chiseled face, and silky golden-blond hair. He was toned and fit and tanned. David had been his complete opposite, far too stout with too much body hair. He had a soul of a poet, but the outward appearance of a demon. Isaiah was an angel on the outside, but when displeased, he came across as brutish and spiteful.

“I’ve missed seeing you today.” He kissed her cheek.

She patted his chest to get him to release her. After placing an unwelcome kiss near her ear, he let her go. She fisted her hands in her skirt rather than wipe the spot where his mouth had landed. He had always been far too familiar. But he behaved the same way with her mother, and once with Ramona, who had adored him before her attentions had transformed into a sick obsession with another man.

“You and Jude missed the ceremony?” She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.

“Jude had some things to take care of at the warehouse, and I had to check paperwork for the court cases scheduled next week. But I’m here now, and I can claim you for a few dances before the reception ends.”

She stepped back when he moved forward with his arms raised. “I’m not up for dancing.”

“Is it because of your memories of David?”

Many times, he had been curt with David, but her husband had thought the world of Isaiah and had welcomed his opinions and critiques. She had known the Reiners, including Maria, since childhood. She had once found great contentment with these friends, but as she matured into an adult, she had become more reserved because of what she witnessed between Isaiah and David. At times, Isaiah’s cutting remarks toward David had unnerved her, and because of it, she had tried to love David with everything inside of her.

“Yes, I’ve had a bad case of ennui.” She studied the gravestone. “We would have been married six years this January.”

Isaiah rested his hand on her shoulder. He exhaled, his warm breath sweeping the crown of her head. “It’s been three years since Father’s passing. But I know he’s watching over me, Lance, and Jude.”

She squeezed his hand and turned. His hand landed on her hip, but when she stiffened, he moved it away. He shrugged in apology, which she accepted with a small smile.

“Your father was a good man,” she fibbed. The Reiner matriarch had pressured his sons to succeed in life, anything less than perfection unsatisfactory. For the most part, his sons endured their father’s discipline but at a cost. Lance had run away without a backward glance, and Jude had become too reserved and quiet. As for Isaiah, he needed approval and recognition for his success, thus turning to law enforcement as his current position.

“Father did the best as a widower with three unruly boys. At least Lance and I knew Mother, if only for a short time. Jude was far too young,” Isaiah said in a reflective, almost muted tone. He shook his head, and a playful light came to his eyes. “Enough of this dreary talk. Today is to celebrate love.” He took her hands in his warm grip. “These past few months with you have been wonderful. I’m so glad you’ve returned. I hope we can be close again.”

But without David between us. They had always been together with others around. But, recently, he’d recommended they take walks, just the two of them, or sit with each other alone in a room with the door closed. If she didn’t know better, she would say he courted her.

“Isaiah, I—”

“Now with your mourning coming to an end, you can buy a new wardrobe and throw out those dour dresses like the one you’re wearing.” He held out her arms and inspected her. “I want you to wear bright colors like pinks and yellow. You’re always so pretty in yellow.”

“Isaiah—”

He pressed his finger to her mouth. “There’s no sense in arguing. I know what’s best. I’ve already talked to Cornelia, and she agrees your grief isn’t good for your constitution. You’ve lost too much weight.” He ogled her chest.

“I appreciate the concern—”

“We’re all concerned for your welfare.” He kissed her knuckles. “It will be my mission to make you laugh and smile again.”

“Something we all can agree on,” Maria, the bride, spoke.

She stared past Isaiah’s shoulder, catching sight of her former lover. The bride’s white silk gown showed off her curves and petite frame perfectly, her hair styled in an up-do with diamond pins and curls framing her face. A diamond rhinestone necklace decorated her neck and rested near the top of her bosom. She had once touched Maria’s breasts and her raspberry-colored nipples without the restrains of her corset and chemise. She also had tasted many places elsewhere on the woman’s body one summer afternoon a little more than two years ago.

She blinked at Isaiah when he touched her cheek. Curiosity floated in his piercing eyes.

She welcomed greeting the new bride as an excuse to step aside. “Hello, Maria. What are you doing out here?” She rubbed her arms, although not cold. “Where’s your husband?”

“Luis is smoking cigars with his father and brothers. I noticed you and Isaiah slipped out and wanted to join you.”

She wanted to correct Maria’s assumption she welcomed Isaiah’s company, but he might agree with Maria and she would look like a fool. She remained silent while Isaiah congratulated Maria on her nuptials. Maria smiled, flashing the dimple in her left cheek, and grasped her hands.

“I’m so happy you both attended my wedding. It means the world to me for you to be here.” Maria stared straight at Julia while she spoke, her smile full of cheer but a layer of nervousness in her eyes.

They’d last spoken the day before she and her family left for Flaundia. Maria had broken down in tears, rejecting Julia’s pleas to remain friends, claiming it best if they cut off all ties. She had begged her to reconsider, but she refused.

“Isaiah, Claudine is dying to dance with you.” Maria still kept Julia’s hands captive. “Would you be a dear and take a turn with my little sister?”

He planted his palm on his heart. “I would love to dance the reel with the sweet Claudine. She’ll soon be sixteen, correct?”

“Yes. She has the biggest crush on you, old man.”

Maria’s tinkling laugh traveled all the way to her toes. She wished she had the same delightful laugh. Hers sounded like a cross between a horse neighing and a cat screeching.

Isaiah tapped Maria under the chin and then studied Julia, the tip of his tongue wetting his bottom lip. She inspected the ground, waiting for him to leave.

“I hope you and your mother are free tomorrow. I have wonderful news to share.”

She peered back at him. He had a triumphant air to him. He always enjoyed having something important to reveal.

“Should we expect you for tea?” she asked, not entirely welcoming.

“You can count on it.” He rubbed her back, and after a loud kiss on her cheek and a wink at Maria, he strode in the hall.

Maria finally dropped Julia’s hands. Her fingers tingled, and she rubbed her palms together.

Maria tilted her head to the side. “I’ve wanted to talk to you since your return, but I’ve been busy with wedding preparations. It’s why I haven’t responded to the two notes you sent.”

A lie. She hadn’t wanted to talk before her marriage. But what would be the point in correcting her otherwise? She had made her intentions clear the last time they spoke, which led to their argument.

“Now you’re free to speak, during your reception?” She hugged her arms to her chest.

“I have a time to chat. The reason I haven’t asked you to visit me is because I feared we would end up fighting or—”

“Or what? Falling on one another and making passionate love on your drawing room floor?”

A blush spread on Maria’s cheeks, and she twisted her wedding band around. “Either. We spent an incredible afternoon together, but what we shared then will never happen again.”

“Why? Because engaging in sexual acts together are unnatural and wicked?” Her voice cracked.

“Because of David. You committed adultery on your husband. Did you stop and think how he would feel if he found out about us?”

She had to live with her sin every day. One small mistake on her part and she had destroyed a good man who adored her. If only she had been stronger and not fallen into temptation.

“You’re right. I kissed you first, and I didn’t stop when you told me to.” She rubbed away at the ache in her chest but to no avail.

“I didn’t want you to stop. I liked it. I enjoyed your mouth on mine and your hands on my body.” Maria’s face reddened.

“I seduced you,” she whispered.

Maria lifted her arms but then dropped them when Julia shook her head and backed away to stand behind David’s grave.

“Please don’t be angry at me for asking, but I must know. Do you think David killed himself because he found out about us?” Maria asked in a hushed voice.

David had never accused her of being unfaithful, only questioning her love for him. Their marriage had started to crumble for those reasons. His lack of self-esteem, combined with her viper of a sister’s objective of making her miserable, eroded his trust, the final nail in the coffin the letters Ramona wrote to David, expressing her “concerns” about Julia having a lover. She only learned about them, when Ramona admitted everything in order to hurt her. After Ramona had been committed to the asylum, she searched through her things and found the letters. David’s broke her heart, his words of fear and shame at not being a man she respected and admired. She had been sick for days afterward, almost considering a way out; much like David had done when he hung himself.

“I’ll never know if he killed himself because he thought I had been unfaithful.” So many other factors led him to ending his life. The urgency for her acceptance and her love consumed him, so much so he’d descended into a dark place, refusing to recover even when she tried giving him what he wanted.

Maria bowed her head. “David is in my prayers. You, as well.”

All the prayers in the world wouldn’t save her, but it gave her some comfort that Maria still thought of her in a kind manner.

“You pray for our souls?” she asked lightly, hoping she hid her yearning for some type of salvation.

“Yes. A little prayer can go a long way.” Maria took a pink peony from her hair and laid it next to the flower Julia had set down.

“When did you become so religious?” she asked, thinking back to all the times Maria skipped church.

“I found my faith because of Luis.” Maria’s eyes sparkled with joy. “I met him at a baptism. Our eyes met across the pew, and I was struck silent. Like a scene from those frivolous romance novels we used to read. When he introduced himself and smiled, I knew I’d found the one I’d been searching for my entire life. As silly as it sounds, I fell in love with him as soon as he told me his name.”

A sharp pang pierced Julia’s chest. She’d never had such a powerful emotional for another like Maria had for her husband. She had wished for a romantic love as a young girl. She cared for many, had a fondness for David, and a strong sexual attraction for Maria, but nothing that constituted passionate love.

“I’m happy you found true love with Luis. I wish you both the best,” she said in truth.

When Maria lay her hand on Julia’s arm, Julia kept still. Maria would never touch her in such a way again.

“I’ll always cherish you as a friend, and all we shared together.”

“After today, we won’t see one another again,” she said.

Maria sighed and dropped her hand away. “Luis and I will be going on a month-long honeymoon. We’re traveling the continent, and I don’t think I’ll have time to write. After we come home, I’ll be busy decorating our new house and—”

“I’ll be in Flaundia with my parents, unless I can convince my grandparents to let me live with them.” She stared at Maria, waiting to see what her response would be.

Maria linked her arm through Julia’s. “We should go back inside.”

She nodded and walked alongside Maria and out of the small cemetery. She glanced at David’s grave and silently told him goodbye.

“I think it’s best if you establish new friendships in Flaundia. There are too many sad memories here for you,” Maria said as they left the cemetery. “I also want to be the best possible wife for Luis, and I’m afraid—”

“You’re afraid if I stay, I’ll tempt you like the last time.”

Maria dipped her chin in answer.

The ache in her chest intensified. She didn’t want Maria to suffer. She would give Maria up and throw aside the unrealistic fantasy she had once longed for.

She took Maria’s hands. “I won’t live with my grandparents. Perhaps you’re right. It’s time for me to move on and find new friends elsewhere.”

Maria’s lips trembled, and she wiped a stray tear from her cheek. “Another man you can love and build a new life with will come along and sweep you off your feet.”

With a stiff nod, she entered the hall. Maria came up to her side but didn’t touch her. Both women moved forward and viewed the couples dancing a jig.

Isaiah swung Maria’s sister around in a circle, and she giggled as she passed them. He mouthed, You’re next to Julia, and then circled Claudine again in his arms.

She scanned the room for someone to talk to in order to beg off dancing with Isaiah. She spotted Jude near the fireplace, cornered by three young women who talked his ear off. He tugged on his cravat, and his eyes locked with hers, begging to be rescued.

“I think I’ll save poor Jude before he expires on the spot from the Strauss sisters. If he’s not careful, he’ll end up engaged before the night is over.” She hoped Maria would join her so they would have more time together.

A dreamy look came over Maria’s face. Across the room, her husband motioned for her to join him.

“My husband wants me,” she whispered in longing.

So this is it, then? She studied Maria one last time. Later in her bed, she would mourn the loss of their friendship and what might have been.

Maria nudged Julia with her hip and presented her a sly look Julia recognized all too well. Maria had a secret to share.

“It’s not my place to say, and Isaiah would be irritated if he found out I told you, but I can’t keep it to myself any longer.” She lowered her voice and stared at the dancers. “He told me your father has offered him a position in Flaundia as his under-sheriff. Jude will join him there as well. They plan to expand their exporting business, and since Flaundia has one of the busiest ports on the coast, they feel they would increase their income drastically.” She sent Julia a pleased look. “How wonderful for you!”

“Wonderful?” She shook her head in confusion. Father offered Isaiah a job? Why would Isaiah leave his lofty position as sheriff and as one of the most respected men in town?

Maria peeked at Julia from the corner of her eye while she swayed to the music. “Maybe Isaiah can help you with your grief. I think David would approve of his cousin and you finding comfort with one other.”

Stunned, tears came to her eyes when Maria kissed her cheek and said goodbye. She rushed to her husband and embraced him, planting a kiss on his mouth, to the delight of those around them. The music increased in tempo, and this time, when Isaiah whirled around, he grinned and winked at her in a roguish way that made her knees lock together, but not in a good way.




CHAPTER THREE


Once again, Julia woke up exhausted and bleary-eyed. Ever since Maria’s wedding a few days ago, she rarely slept and couldn’t bear to be around company. But it didn’t stop her mother from visiting their neighbors and playing hostess to Isaiah and Jude, who she invited to dinner almost every night before they left for Flaundia.

Isaiah’s news about moving to Flaundia and working for her father had left her disconcerted, especially when he explained he’d accepted the position because of her. Maria had been correct in surmising he wanted to comfort her, and their tentative friendship one he wanted to reshape into something more unique. He regarded her, much like Luis had stared at Maria…as a man in love—and in lust—with his wife.

She blocked out any more thoughts of Isaiah and winced as she shifted in her seat. She hated traveling by carriage, unlike Mother, who hummed while doing her cross-stitch. She had been humming for hours. She could no longer stand the incessant noise.

“Can you please cease with the humming? It makes my head hurt.” She pressed her fingers to the sides of her head to alleviate the pressure there.

Her mother finished off a stitch. “Ever since we left Deerhirst you’ve been more cankerous than usual. Have your menses arrived?”

She shot her mother a disgruntled look. “No.”

Mother set aside her embroidery. “Perhaps you’re cranky because of your separation from Isaiah. You’ll see him by the end of the week.”

She bit the inside of her cheek to stop from correcting Mother. She didn’t have any interest in Isaiah or his attempts at a possible courtship. She wanted to keep him at arm’s length. He reminded her too much of her past with David and all her regrets. After Maria’s rejection, she refused to open herself up to any more heartbreak. She wanted to be left alone.

“I’m homesick, and I miss Father.” She hoped her excuse would mollify her mother.

“I miss him dreadfully. It will be wonderful to see him again. We’ve never been separated this long.” Mother peered out the window as they made their way up the drive to the estate.

She thought back to what her grandmother said about her parents loving one another. When the carriage came to a stop, Mother patted her hair, fixed the lace on her bodice, and, without waiting for the footman to open the door, she threw it open and hopped out.

She collected her mother’s cross stitch and her bag and stepped down from the carriage. Her parents embraced and shared kisses. Father cupped Mother’s face and stared at her in adoration. Her mother rested her palm on her father’s cheek. He laughed and hugged her tightly.

Her parents rarely shared such affections, let alone in public and for the staff to see. But she didn’t mind their display. It had been so long since there had been happiness in the Veiga household because of Ramona’s institutionalization.

Her father, whom many considered one of the most commanding and imposing men in all the land, held out his arms. She rushed to him, swept up in a welcoming hug.


* * *

“I can’t eat another bite!” Mother patted her mouth with her napkin. She nodded in approval when a servant took her plate away. “I haven’t had much of an appetite while we traveled.”

Father shared a concerned look with his daughter over his wife’s lack of appetite and constant exhaustion because of lack of sleep. For the past six months, she’d heard her mother crying late at night. Since they’d returned home, she’d hoped Mother would regain the weight she lost and the shadows under her eyes she tried hiding with cosmetics would disappear.

Her father grasped his wife’s hand. “I’ll tell Cook to make all your favorite dishes. I can’t have my lady wasting away.”

Mother swatted her husband’s arm. “Alistair, you—” She yawned, covering her mouth. “Oh dear, I’m tired. I shall retire to my bedroom for a nap.” She brushed her fingers on the back of Father’s hand and gifted him a languid look. She wasn’t much for subtlety regarding Father when in the privacy of their home.

Mother rose from her chair and yawned again. “Dear husband, before I nap, you should come upstairs and see the presents I have bought back from my travels. You’ll be pleased by what I have to show you.”

She stared at the table when a flirted, and when her hands started to roam, Kat asked for a tour of the house, hoping they would be alone to explore their attraction. Later she would blame the brandy on her actions and come to regret it, but at the time, she was interested in what Edith offered. It had been a while since she’d tasted and touched another woman, and when Edith took her up to her bedroom and kissed her, she’d thought she struck gold. Edith wanted her to do most of the work, which she didn’t mind. She had been about to appreciate Edith’s breasts with her mouth and see if the woman’s quim was damp and hers for the taking, when Mr. Roland interrupted them.

She winced at a jerk on her hair, and she opened her eyes. Dora stared at her in the mirror with a raised eyebrow.

“Let me guess what happened next. You and the horny wife found a room to become better acquainted, and soon after, the curious husband joined you with his happy cockstand, and fun was had by all.”

“Unfortunately, Mr. Roland had one too many glasses of his homemade brandy and passed out on top of his wife ruining the mood. She apologized profusely for his behavior and invited me to join them next week for dinner.” She rolled her eyes and opened her jewelry box.

“Madam, you should take extra precautions. The people here are stodgier and more uppity than in Calastair. They have a strong opinion of what’s right and wrong,” Dora warned.

She contemplated the diamond-encrusted pearl necklace Oliver had given her for their tenth wedding anniversary. It was too much for her to wear for her usual riding jaunt. But it brought a smile to her face. Her Oliver had been extremely tolerant and understanding when it came to their bedroom activities. He welcomed her creativity and enjoyed experimentation with their lovemaking, not minding one bit when another joined them, which usually happened to be of the female variety. Five years after his death, she still missed her husband, who never frowned on her peccadilloes and encouraged her to embrace them.

“It’s really not the same without Oliver.” She traced a pearl with her fingernail. “I don’t know what I was thinking last night. I guess I was bored or needed some sort of affection. It’s been so long since I’ve had someone warm my bed.” When Dora rested her hand on Kat’s shoulder, she grasped the woman’s hand. “Now entering my fortieth year, I’m afraid I’ll spend my remaining days alone with no one to love or to give and receive pleasure from.”

Dora drew her arm around Kat and kissed her cheek. “You’re talking nonsense. You have me, and don’t forget your three boys and your first grandchild, born last week.”

“Those boys didn’t come from my womb. I love them as if they were my own flesh and blood, but they’re Oliver’s legacy,” she lamented, refusing to think of her beautiful daughter, the only child she had with Oliver, lying underground.

“Now, you hush.” Dora swatted Kat’s shoulder and started brushing her hair again. “I refuse to listen to you feeling sorry for yourself. Soon enough you’ll see your family at Christmas. Then all this second-guessing about your sons’ love and whether they think of you as their real mother or not won’t matter.”

“I’m just in one of my moods.” She nodded in approval when Dora finished with her hair. “It’s a beautiful day out for a ride. It will improve my disposition.”

“While you’re gone, I’ll run some errands in town and visit with my brother.”

She didn’t have any qualms about Dora spending time in the village center. Quite the coincidence her older brother, Benjamin was Flaundia’s resident doctor. It had been years since she had seen Benjamin, and she was ecstatic when the Langley siblings reunited. Benjamin had taken Oliver’s advice and had gone to medical school after his stint at sea. Her husband had been very generous in paying for Benjamin’s school and helping Benjamin reinvent himself as a respected gentleman when he left the employ of a sea captain turned pirate. The Langley siblings had been near and dear to Oliver, for he knew their parents when they were children.

“Please tell Ben I expect him for dinner one night. I won’t take any more excuses from him.” She wagged her finger at Dora, who set out Kat’s riding habit and underclothes on the bed.

“Maybe he’ll come if you invite some of his patients or neighbors.” Dora snapped her fingers. “Didn’t you want the sheriff and his family to dine with you one night?”

She held a dangling pearl earring to her ear and viewed her reflection in the mirror. “I told the viscount the last time I saw him, once his wife and daughter returned from their holiday, they should all come for dinner.”

“I wonder what your cousin Thomas would think about you inviting those people over?” Dora muttered something under her breath.

She twisted in her seat and faced Dora. She recognized the irate tone in her servant’s voice all too well and frowned. “For the time being this is my home, even though I’m taking care of the property while Thomas is away. Are you feeling homesick for Calastair?”

“Not too much.” Dora nibbled on the side of her finger. “You’re not going to like what I have to say, but I don’t understand how you can play nice with the viscount after what his loon of a daughter did to your cousin. You have nothing to gain from his friendship or his harpy of a wife and his eldest daughter, who I hear is priggish and dresses like a nun.”

She rolled her eyes, tsking at the younger woman who didn’t have the decency to act intimidated by her employer.

“I had a long talk with Thomas about the Veigas before he left, and he has no ill will toward the viscount and his family. He sympathizes for Veiga’s youngest daughter, who kidnapped him because of her insanity. It’s bad enough this provincial town has turned their noses up at the Veigas, specifically the viscountess and her eldest daughter, whose only crimes are guilt by association. They’re victims as well, and I refuse to see their good name slandered any longer. I hate narrow-mindedness and there’s a great deal of it going around here.” She pointed at Dora. “I’ll extend an invitation to the Veigas this week to discuss the holiday party I’m hosting next weekend in order to show my amity and friendship.”

Dora lowered her eyes in humility. “I apologize, madam. I run off at the mouth too often. I wish I were more of a compassionate soul like you.”

“I lead by example. Oliver taught me.” She rose from her seat then rubbed Dora’s shoulder to soften her rebuke. She appreciated Dora’s forthright manner, but sometimes, the woman didn’t think before she spoke. She always had to show the younger the error of her ways.

“I’ll make certain to remember,” Dora said in a restrained voice.

“Good.” With a shimmy of her hips, her nightgown fell to the floor. “Help me get dressed, and then you can go see your brother.”


* * *

Sunlight cascaded on Julia, giving her the perfect light to read. She sat under a tree, quite comfortable, even with a slight nip in the air. Brightly colored leaves blanketed the ground, and birds chirped in the tree branches over her head. For the last hour or so, she had pored over the notes and invitations to tea and various social functions from many names she didn’t recognize. Most addressed to her mother and made no mention of her. She should have been insulted, but she guessed it was to be expected. She had never been adept at forming new friendships and had relied on David and Maria for companionship. But now with them both gone from her life, she would have to search elsewhere for company, or turn to Isaiah for companionship.

She sighed in regret at the idea her only friend left in the world was Isaiah.

“I’m so lonely.” She stared at an invitation written in bold, yet feminine handwriting. The words blurred on the page, and she swiped at her eyes. Enough with the tears. Crying made her head throb and her face red and splotchy. She cleared her throat and scanned the paper on her lap. Her eyes widened as she absorbed the information on the invitation from the countess Guetall for her holiday party at the de Fleurre estate the first Saturday of December, which happened to be in less than ten days.

A leaf landed on her skirt. She flicked it away, inspecting the dull cotton fabric in repugnance. Most of her wardrobe consisted of drab-colored frocks. Her only suitable gown for the countess’s party was buttercup colored and she’d worn it at the ball her parents had hosted to introduce them to Flaundia society. The orange undertones made her look pasty, unfortunately. For some reason, her mother felt yellow suited Julia. It had always been the case because Ramona’s wardrobe had consisted of brightly colored frocks. Also, Ramona would have pitched a fit if she dared outshine her.

But no longer! If she so chose, she would wear whatever colored gowns she wanted, and Ramona wouldn’t be there to criticize or have some sort of tantrum. What a shame she couldn’t fit into any of her sister’s dresses. Ramona was petite and curvy, unlike her own tall and lanky frame.

“I hope you haven’t received sad news. Those worry lines on your forehead tell me that may be a possibility.”

She jerked upon hearing the breathless-sounding female voice. The papers almost tumbled from her lap as she stared at the woman standing over her. The glare of the sun blinded her, and she shaded her eyes to get a clearer picture of her visitor.

“I’m sorry for disturbing you, but my horse needed a rest. Please don’t mind the intrusion.” The woman knelt and held out her hand. “I’m Katherine, the countess of Guetall, but you can call me Kat.”

Julia’s jaw dropped. Not only because this lady knelt before her, possibly staining her skirt with grass and mud, but because she was struck dumb by this beautiful, vibrant woman with a halo of hair bursting with radiant color. The heavy-lidded, dark-brown eyes staring at her in friendly concern had long, thick lashes. Her skin tone darker than most gentile ladies, she had a swanlike neck leading into a chest hidden by a tight riding jacket. Even with the lady’s bosom covered, she found much to admire there.

“Oh, do people not shake hands in this section of the country?” The countess lowered her palm to her knee and shrugged in apology.

Julia pressed her lips together and climbed to her feet. The countess joined her and continued staring at her in a shrewd way that made her face warm. The countess’s lips twitched, and eyes she couldn’t stop staring at lit up in amusement.

Realizing she’d crumpled the paper she still held, she loosened her grip and curtseyed. “Forgive me, Lady Guetall, for my rudeness.”

The countess snorted. “Please, there’s no need to stand on ceremony with me. For all I know you could be a duchess or some visiting princess from some foreign land that’s hard to pronounce.”

She released a combination snort-laugh. Instead of slapping a palm on her mouth to cover her gaffe, she coughed and brushed away any stray dirt on her skirt. “My father is Viscount Veiga, the sheriff. I’m his oldest daughter, Mrs. Julia Whitney.”

The countess smiled and, to Julia’s astonishment, grasped her hand. She’d never had a woman shake her hand. She’d only ever held hands with another woman when she and Maria had been intimate the one time.

“It’s a pleasure to finally meet you! Your father has spoken highly of you.”

“He has?”

The countess nodded. “I invited him over for lunch soon after I arrived in Flaundia. We had a nice chat about you and your mother. We’ve talked many times, usually when one saw the other in the main square or when I left church.” She squeezed Julia’s fingers. “This Sunday you and your parents are more than welcome to sit with me during Mass.”

She pulled her hand away and hid it behind her back. The countess looked abashed. She had a funny feeling the countess would try to grab her again. She hated being rude, but it unsettled her how the countess’s thumb had brushed her knuckles. She wiped the back of her hand in the folds of her skirt to stop the tingling sensation.

“We…um, my family doesn’t attend church, my lady. But thank you for the offer.” She braced for the countess’s prying questions or intrusive comments on her lack of faith and disregard for God.

“You don’t have to worry I’m going to preach to you. My parents were atheists. I started attending church after marrying my Oliver, God rest his soul. He was good friends with our local priest. I enjoyed volunteering at my church in Calastair, where I reside. But for now, I’m staying at my cousins’ estate. You’re well aware of the de Fleurres,” the countess stated.

“Ah yes.” She wished the ground would swallow her up. “My younger sister Ramona terrorized and kidnapped your cousin.”

“Yes.” The countess shook her head. “Such an unfortunate situation for both our families.”

How can this woman be so forgiving and kind? Shouldn’t she be ranting and raving, accusing me of being horrid just like Ramona? “Why would you want to be seen with me or my parents after the horrible thing my sister has done? You should be cursing me to hell and back.” She hugged her chest, as if it would protect her from the insults to follow.

The countess’s tinkling laugh annoyed Julia. She stomped her foot, growing angrier by the second. If the countess mocked her, she would bid her farewell and leave as quickly as possible.

“Oh Julia, you poor creature. Do you always expect the worst in people?” the countess asked, mirth in her voice.

“I didn’t give you permission to use my name.” She glared at the woman who found joy in teasing her.

“I give you permission to call me Kat. And I will call you Julia. I’m glad it all has been settled,” the countess said with finality.

She softly gasped. The audacity of this woman was unlike any she had ever seen!

“You like getting your way,” she accused.

“Yes, I do. I’m a titled woman with a great deal of respect from those in my employ and among my friends and acquaintances. It’s to be expected.”

She gritted her teeth and blurted out, “You’re very spoiled.”

Kat giggled and tilted her face up to the sky.

She licked her lips as a teardrop of sweat fell down the middle of the woman’s throat and vanished inside her cleavage. What’s wrong with me? She rubbed her damp forehead. Her dress constricted, and her bodice scratched her tightening nipples.

Speechless at her body’s embarrassing response, she backed up a step, ready to dart away. She hadn’t felt this way in such a long time, not since she and Maria had been together. She had been the forceful one at first, pushing her kisses on Maria, until Maria succumbed. What utter madness she wanted to do to the same to Kat, who stared at her merriment, but the look changed to concern when she knelt to grab the papers on the ground.

“Let me help you.” Kat bent down and grasped the one paper Julia didn’t want her to see—the invitation to her holiday party.

She snatched the paper away. “I should return home before—”

Something close to distress crossed Kat’s face. “I’ve muddled our introduction, haven’t I? I never intended to mock you or upset you. I have an admission to make. I knew who you were before you told me your name. I thought if I introduced myself and we talked, we could—”

“We could what?” she whispered and squeezed her eyes shut.

“Put aside the past and perhaps become friends? To be honest, it’s been difficult for me to make any friends here.”

She opened her eyes, and her chest stung at what she saw. The assured and bold Kat replaced by a crestfallen and forlorn woman. “How can this be, my lady? Anyone would be honored to have you as their friend.”

Kat gave her a small smile. “I should correct myself. Most have gone out of their way to visit me at home. When I’m out and about, they’re friendly and want to chat, but I feel they’re only hospitable because of my title. And again, it would please me if you call me by my given name.”

“But why me?” She had to be one of the least exciting and dullest people in all of Flaundia. Why would this striking and charming woman wanted to build a relationship with her, of all people.

“Why not? You look like you need a friend,” Kat said kindly.

“Is it because you pity me?” It would make sense if the countess—Kat—did.

“You think I pity you because of your sister?” She tapped Julia’s knee. “Actually, I admire you. It shows great courage to stand up to those who would condemn you. I can tell from our discussion here you’re brave enough to handle the gossiping biddies.”

She stared at the paper she clutched. Kat had no clue how she longed to run away and hide where no one knew her identity. The only reason she had returned to Flaundia and didn’t stay with her grandparents was because of the debacle between her and Maria, and David’s suicide.

“Stop it, you silly girl!”

Startled, she looked up at Kat’s outburst. The horse butted Kat’s shoulder. She bit her lip to stop from laughing as Kat rose and confronted the animal nibbling on her hair.

Kat produced an apple from her pocket and fed it to the hungry animal. She patted the horse’s head and glanced over her shoulder at Julia. “This is, or rather, was my cousin Daisy’s horse, Melon. She has an appetite for my hair. I’m not sure if I should be annoyed or pleased a horse finds me appetizing.”

She stood and held back the laugh tickling her throat. “Horses have a good judge of character.”

Kat twisted around and faced Julia while she stroked the animal’s mane. “Melon approves of me. She should be enough proof I have no ulterior motives regarding you or your family. I really want to be a good neighbor and all it entails.”

“Your idea of being a good neighbor is hosting a party and me and my parents as your special guests?” She waved the invitation.

“Exactly,” Kat said with a satisfied smile. “Your father knows about it and approves. He led me to believe you and your mother would be more than happy to attend.”

She knew with utmost certainty her mother would be thrilled to hobnob with the countess and the crème de la crème of Flaundia society. Maybe it was for the best if she attended. She would use it as an excuse to learn more about Kat and alleviate her suspicions about this woman who befuddled her with benevolence and physical charms that made her insides topsy-turvy.

“I’ll discuss it with my parents.” Her roundabout answer didn’t seem to upset Kat, who nodded and patted her horse.

“I should be off.” She grabbed the rest of the papers and stuffed them in the bag she had brought along and picked up her cloak.

“You can ride with me. I’ll drop you off at home.”

She noticed the higher pitch in Kat’s voice, which confused her. Why would Kat act hesitant suddenly, when right from the start she had been self-assured in her assumptions? She would chalk it up to her ears playing tricks on her. Also to her shame, she had never harnessed the skill of horse riding. The last time she dared to ride a horse, she had grown dizzy and almost passed out.

“Thank you for the offer, but I prefer to walk. I don’t think there will be many pleasant days left once winter arrives next month.” Pleased by her own explanation, she started walking away. She jumped slightly when Melon snorted at her. She frowned at the horse and took several steps back, keeping the animal and its mistress in her sights.

If Kat noticed her trepidation, she didn’t comment. She kissed Melon’s nose and whispered some endearment.

Apparently, Kat had dismissed her. Her shoulders drooped, disappointed by the woman’s reaction for some reason. “Have a lovely afternoon. Goodbye.”

“It’s not goodbye, but farewell.” Kat climbed atop the horse, straddling the animal.


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