The Christmas Countess – K. J. Jackson

She was sinking now. Sinking up to her knees. Every step her feet descended deeper into the fluffy, bitter torture—the snow crusting about the top edges of her boots, rings of ice around her calves. One more step. It had to be only one more step. When Karta had set out into the storm after the barn door wouldn’t open for the drift in front of it, there’d still been daylight cutting through the greyness of the thick clouds blanketing the land with freezing snow. It had seemed possible. Make it to Kirkmere Abbey. It was only an hour walk on a sunny day. Maggie’s life depended upon her making it there. But now… Karta’s look shifted up from the undulating waves of snow, searching through the pellets of ice searing into her skin—each one a freezing pinprick. An eerie white glow from the moon had taken over the land as the snow had stopped falling from the sky, but now the wind whipped across the glen, vicious, blinding her to her own hand in front of her face. If she could just make it to the woodlands that lined the eastern border of Kirkmere land, the wind would be broken. Broken enough for her to see the path again. Broken enough that her legs could move through the snow without battling the drifts that made every muscle in her body scream against the torture.

Keep forward. The only choice now. She’d gone too far to even consider turning around and trying to make it back to the dower house. Death was surely waiting if she tried to retrace her footsteps through the drifts. Her breathing had been slight ever since she’d stepped out into the howling winds, afraid to let the freezing air too deeply into her lungs. But exhaustion had set into her muscles and she needed air. Real air. Needed to stop her head from swaying. She sucked in a gulp of frigid air. It chilled her from the inside out, the cold seeping even deeper into the marrow of her bones.

Keep forward. The only option. She tucked her chin back down, sinking it behind the edge of the wool cloak she held clasped at her neck and she tugged the edge of the hood far over her forehead. Thirty more steps—each one a struggle as the snow devoured her legs, holding tight to her feet as she tried to lift them from the heavy drifts—and she felt no farther along than she had been minutes ago. She stopped, hunched over against the bitter wind and gasping for air. Her breath now so cold it no longer puffed into cloud crystals as she exhaled. Each muscle in her body railed against her, demanding she yield, demanding she stop. Lie down. Maggie. Maggie was dying.

There was no time to stop. With a screech, she yanked her right foot from the bank of snow it was wedged in. Five more steps and her shoulder knocked into a tree she didn’t see. The forest. Almost there. She just had to make it through a hundred yards of woods and then across the sheep fields and help would be at hand. Her hand lifted from deep within the thick folds of her cloak, her fingers clutching the bark of the tree through her leather gloves. The forest would guide her. It had to. Keep forward.

{ Chapter 2 } Domnall Greyford muttered incoherent blasphemies under his breath as he walked to the east side door of Kirkmere Abbey. “Blasted pup, you couldn’t take care of this on the journey here?” He looked down at his favorite deerhound. No longer a pup, Theodora was full grown now, the wiry grey hairs atop her head reaching the middle of his thigh. Though for how tall he was, she was equally tall among her breed. She whined again, looking insistently from him to the door. He didn’t move quick enough and she nudged her nose under his hand. Shaking his head, he opened the door. They’d just spent the last four hours making their way through the snowstorm to get to the abbey and he hadn’t even taken his greatcoat off. Somewhere in that time, Theodora could have stopped to do her business. The deerhound took off into the eerie white of the snow under the moon.

She bounded through the tall drifts, her long legs and compact body only slightly hindered by the banks of snow. The bitter wind had died down, no longer blinding the land, though sudden gusts of whirling snow still danced over the fields. Theodora kept going. And going. Directly away from the abbey. “Theodora.” He whistled. She kept moving away, turning into a dark spec bouncing along the white blanket of snow. “Little bugger.” The last thing he wanted was to go back out into the blasted cold.

They’d only just made it here. He looked over his shoulder with a sigh. It wasn’t as though it was any warmer in the abbey. Two days from Christmastide, most of the staff had left the abbey to celebrate with their families. Only the head butler, the housekeeper, and the cook had stayed in residence. Not that he minded. He’d not sent word that he was arriving and he’d rather the employees enjoy the days away —the last thing he wanted with his new staff was to ruin their Christmastide. The only issue upon his arrival with three of his men was that there were only two fires burning in the abbey, and both were in the servants’ quarters. It would take some time for his men to get the fires lit and for warmth to eke back into several of the main rooms. Domnall stuck his head out the door, took a deep breath, and sent a long piercing whistle into the land.

Theodora always came to that whistle. Always. His eyes scanned the white terrain under the glow of the moon. Nothing. He whistled again. Barking. Short yippy barks, echoing over the fields. Like nothing he’d ever heard from the deerhound. “Damn.” She hadn’t injured herself, had she? The dog liked trouble, or trouble liked her—he was never quite sure which flip of the coin fate intended on that score.

If she hadn’t endeared herself to him when she was a pup, he wouldn’t be so quick to save her from scrape after scrape. Years ago, while her littermates would crowd his legs demanding his attention, she would sit to the side, staring at him, not sinking to their level with their desperate yaps for attention. No, Theodora was always one to wait—regal—until he came to her, tossed her the prime bone or scuffed her ears. But she was also loyal like no other—never one to stray from his heel when the other dogs would run off in a pack, frenzied in a hunt for a squirrel or a rabbit. He would—to his own disgust at times—do anything for that hound. His heartbeat quickened and Domnall stepped out of the abbey. Damn that he’d set his gloves down on a table in the foyer. But he didn’t want to lose her in the snow if the moon decided to hide behind cloud cover, so he closed the door behind him, tucked his hands up into the sleeves of his greatcoat, and crunched into the first drift of snow. It reached up past his shins, just below his knees. Deeper than he’d thought it was.

The horses had been champions earlier, trudging through the drifts with steadfast endurance. The barking stopped and he whistled again. The barks resumed. He saw Theodora running toward him, leaping over the banks of snow. Good. Not injured. He waited for her, another whistle poised on his lips if she thought to go rogue again. A hundred paces away from him, she jerked to a stop, her short yippy barks firing into the air. Barks, then she twisted in the snow, jumping high over a drift and running away from him again. “Bloody mutt.

” He pulled the lapels of his overcoat tight up against his chin and trudged forward. He would throttle the hound once he got a hold of her. It wasn’t until he’d trudged—with every step requiring him to heave his legs up high to gain just a half foot—halfway across the field that led out to the east of the abbey that he realized he was doing exactly what Theodora wanted him to do. Follow her. He’d thought he’d been chasing the miscreant—a fun game for her and no one else—but after the fourth time she turned around, coming back for him and then ran away through the snow in front of him, he realized she was leading him. Three quarters of the way across the field, Theodora stopped, barking, her wiry head popping up and down behind a drift to make sure he was still following. He sped up his steps in her tracks. His breath coming in pants for the exertion of plodding through the snow, he reached the last tall drift ten paces away from his hound. He saw it. Under the moonlight, a dark lump half buried in the snow.

Theodora licking, her snout jabbed deep into the folds of the cape. Domnall barreled his way through the last drift, sending snow flying. A dark cloak covered the body, the head. A woman curled into a ball on her side. He bent over, brushing snow away from her shoulder and he rolled her onto her back. Her body moved easily, not stiff. Possibly not even dead. Theodora looked up at him and barked. He nodded to the hound and looked down. His frozen fingers cracking as he bent them into motion, he shifted the hood of the cloak away from her face to set his hand at her nose to feel for breath.

Hell. A face he recognized. A face he would always recognize, even under a sliver of moonlight. No. Impossible. It couldn’t be. But it was. His hands fumbling through the folds of her cape, he found her shoulders and gripped them, shaking her. Too hard, he knew. But she couldn’t be dead.

No. He shook her again. Her eyelashes crusted over with ice, she didn’t open her eyes. But her hand lifted, searching until she found the sturdiness of his arm and grabbed it with all her might, weak as it was. Her mouth opened, her voice raw wisps. The wind howling through the trees just beyond them drowned whatever sound escaped her lips. “What? Tell me again.” He leaned down close to her mouth, his ear next to her lips. “Mag—Maggie—m—m—maid. Dying.

” Her words stuttered as she gasped a breath that shook her whole body. “Everyone’s g—gone at the Leviton dower h—h—house. Doc—doctor. She needs a doctor. Send a doc…” Her last words drifted into nothing. Her hand fell from his arm, her body giving up. For one long breath he was frozen in time, frozen above her, unable to move for the horror of finding her here like this. Theodora barked, nudging her cold nose into his neck. He sucked in a breath and bent over. Sliding his hands deep into the snow under her legs and back, he picked her up, clutching her to his body.

“I got ye, Karta. I got ye.”

.

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