Once Upon a Lady – Addie Jo Ryleigh

“You simply must marry at St. George,” Countess Tinsdale exclaimed. “No wedding is complete without the perfect venue.” Lady Katherine Baxton couldn’t help but think acquiring the groom needed for the aforementioned nuptials would be the most critical detail. Given the continued chatter of the surrounding ladies, hers was not the popular opinion. “Where is Blackthorn taking you on your honeymoon?” another voice inquired, one Kate failed to identify. Considering her engagement to the Duke of Blackthorn had yet to be announced, it was a bit premature to assume there would be a bridal trip. Just as this entire conversation was a tad presumptuous. And entirely annoying. Her marriage to Blackthorn might be inevitable; after all, the man had spoken to her father and asked him for her hand, but such information was secret for the time being. The busybodies digging for gossip could wait for a forthcoming announcement, the same as the rest of London. “If it were me, I’d hold out for the biggest ring available. We all know Blackthorn can afford it.” A familiar voice injected before someone could acknowledge Lady Francesca’s crass remark. “Kate, Father is looking for you.

” Kate silently thanked Valarie, her oldest sister, also known as Lady Wipstine. Though, seeing as her father had never inquired after her during prior social events, Kate recognized the interruption for what it was . a way to escape. Beyond grateful, Kate played along. “Excuse us, ladies.” Out of earshot, she whispered, “I owe you my firstborn.” Valarie laughed. “Seeing your firstborn could quite possibly be Blackthorn’s heir and he might have an opinion on the matter, a mere thank you will suffice.” “Don’t remind me,” Kate grumbled. They continued in the direction of nowhere particular until her sister grabbed Kate’s arm and yanked her into an alcove at the side of the room.

Once released, Kate brushed at her gold silk ball gown, smoothing any wrinkles from her sister’s haste. Father would be displeased if she went about with a tear in her gown. Nothing out of place, Kate lifted a hand to her hair, the same dark shade as Valarie’s. Thankfully, and mostly due to the number of pins her maid had inserted, her long tresses had remained firmly piled on her head. “Kate, if you’re not sure, don’t marry him,” Valarie urged. “I know you wish to please Father, but not at the expense of your happiness.” Abandoning her inspection, Kate folded her arms. “Seeing as how you married a man based on duty alone, your advice is rather hypocritical.” “Not duty alone. I knew Wipstine would fit with me.

And we have. I harbor no regrets when it comes to my marriage.” “Referring to your husband by his title is hardly an endorsement for endearing affection.” “There are many levels of affection.” An unfamiliar twinkle brightened Valarie’s eyes. “I care for Blackthorn.” The duke was a good man. She could do far worse. “Enough to share his bed?” Kate’s cheeks flamed. “Since I’m marrying the man, I certainly hope so.

” “You ladies are being rather antisocial.” The words, uttered behind Kate, were teasing. Recognizing the voice that had harassed her all her life, Kate sighed in relief. With the marital bed being the topic of choice, discovery by someone other than her sister Helena would be scandalous. “Tell Kate she is being ridiculous marrying Blackthorn,” Valarie blurted. “Kate, you are being ridiculous marrying Blackthorn,” Helena intoned. While others merely tolerated their siblings, Kate loved her sisters more than sentiment could convey. A blessing since their presence was how she’d endured the rigidness of their father. She’d grieved their loss when they’d married and moved to households of their own. Her love didn’t absolve her frustration with them, though.

Valarie huffed. “It is a wonder I haven’t strangled the two of you.” “Ah, dear sister, you would miss us terribly.” Marriage to a highly respected marquess hadn’t destroyed Helena’s cheekiness, much to their father’s dismay. Thankfully, Lord Hayward found it charming. Valarie, on the other hand, did not. “You are both horrible.” “Someday when we are as old and wise as you, we will learn to be more serious.” The glint in Helena’s eye showed nothing but sisterly affection. “Now, what is this about Blackthorn and Kate being ridiculous?” “Nothing.

Valarie just thinks she knows better,” Kate offered in an attempt to end the conversation. “In this instance, I do. You will never be happy with the duke.” Kate yielded to the need to roll her eyes. “Such an unimaginable prospect. How would anyone be happy married to a well-off, handsome, polite man who also happens to be a duke?” “I’m not denying Blackthorn’s appeal. Just that he isn’t the man for you.” Given her bossiness, there was no refuting Valarie was the oldest of the three. “As much as it pains me, I have to agree with Valarie.” “Not you too, Helena?” Why couldn’t she have been born an only child? Or perhaps replace them with additional brothers.

Her existing male sibling had yet to meddle in her life. He was too preoccupied with being a perfect heir. Since he moved to his bachelor residence, she rarely saw him. Helena continued, “Kate, we know you better than you’ll ever admit. You will be bored in a marriage based on duty and obligation.” Too refined to stomp her foot, Kate resorted to narrowing her eyes. “Why would I? As I already mentioned to Valarie, the two of you are perfectly content with your husbands. Men you married as Father wished.” Helena laughed while Valarie merely smiled. “You have much to learn if that is what you think.

Father may be imposing and a tad frightening, but neither Valarie nor I would have married a man with whom we found discontent. There is more to James than one might think.” The hint of naughtiness flaring in Helena’s eyes halted Kate from asking for clarification. She wasn’t as naive as her sisters thought. Helena, referring to her husband by his Christian name, implied plenty. “Blackthorn and I suit just fine. For heaven’s sake, the man is the most sought-after bachelor. And he wants to marry me. Why can’t that be enough for the two of you?” Valarie placed a gentle hand on Kate’s arm. “It’s not that it isn’t enough for us, but rather it isn’t enough for you.

” Complete ridiculousness. Why do I have to be saddled with sisters who care for my future? Why couldn’t they be more like their brother and only care for the succession of the family title? Their interfering had become exhausting. “I sat through the same countless lectures from Father as the two of you regarding our responsibility to the dukedom. And like you, I will marry the man Father deems appropriate.” “You have nothing to prove,” Helena whispered, and it nearly became Kate’s undoing. As much as she blustered, her confidence in her future nuptials and prospective husband wavered. She didn’t doubt Blackthorn would make an exemplary husband and she’d find contentment in her marriage. He was beyond handsome and she’d be a fool to overlook every unmarried lady glaring at her with envy because she, Lady Katherine Baxton, daughter of the Duke of Cosgrove, had snared the most eligible bachelor during her first season out. Perhaps Valarie hasn’t rescued me after all. She’d much rather be sentenced with being interrogated about her not-yet-official betrothal, than subjected to the pity her sisters directed at her.

“I need to visit the retiring room. I’ll return shortly,” Kate bluntly stated. Giving her sisters no chance to interject or offer to join her, she fled the alcove. In the opposite direction of the retiring room. Chapter 2 The echoes from the ball filled the night but Kate had no desire to return. Not to her father. Not to her sisters. Certainly not to her intended. She hated entertaining doubts regarding Blackthorn. As the youngest and a female, she’d never made much of an impression upon her father.

The day Blackthorn had asked for her hand was the first time Father’s stony expression had shown a crack of pride, making her feel noticed for the first time. Regardless of her sisters’ thoughts on the matter, she would marry Blackthorn and be a dutiful wife. Her father expected it of her. The cool air of the small garden off the ballroom cleared her thoughts and beckoned her to venture further. Eventually, an iron gate blocked her path. Not ready to be the subject of more inquiries—or suggestions—regarding her inevitable marriage, she buried her reservations as she flipped the latch and proceeded through the gate. For once not impeded by heavy clouds or the ever-present London haze, moonlight offered a clear view of her surroundings. The narrow walking path winding through the grove of trees, enclosed between three houses, beckoned her, daring her to discover what lay inside. Trepidation, not to mention years of lectures on proper behavior, flashed through her mind. Were a few minutes of privacy worth possible ruin? Eighteen years of duty—and a lifetime more—loomed, giving her the answer.

Yes. She shoved all disagreeing thoughts aside. She would not be swayed. With the copse being private and away from the ball, she doubted anyone would witness her imminent folly. Even with the decision made, her heart pulsed in her ears with every step. Her father would have her head if he ever discovered her improper behavior. Kate’s pace slowed. Heaven knew what Blackthorn would think of the deed. Nowhere near the harsh man her father was, she could only hope he would be forgiving. Then again, assuming he courted her based on her impeccable reputation and not mutual affection, he might not look favorably on blemishes to her name.

Thankfully no one would ever know. Undeterred, her stride quickened once more. She’d only traveled a short distance before the sparse clouds faded entirely, illuminating the center of the grove and highlighting an overly large tree. As she approached, the moonlight suddenly dimmed and the tree faded. Wonderful, now I’m hallucinating. Streams of light returned and with it, the mysterious tree. For some unexplained reason, it lured her. Pulled by the sight, Kate hastened along the pebbled path. No longer just a heavy thumping in her chest, her pulse raced until she feared her heart would burst from her. Since a sensible woman would turn and run, she’d apparently lost all sanity.

Entering the circle of light streaming through the surrounding branches, she noted how the tree appeared older than any nearby, with its twisted and gnarled trunk. She crept closer, stepping over roots protruding from the ground and across the path. Soon, tall branches blocked the moon’s rays. The smooth golden trunk, interspersed with dark patches of rough bark, tempted her to step closer and become engulfed by the twisted branches sporting small oval leaves. Unable to resist, Kate ran the tip of her finger over the pale brown bark, resting her palm against the smooth wood. The moment her hand touched the cool hardness, a flash of heat and unexplained tingles rushed up her arm, causing her to flinch. What the devil? Holding her hand to her chest, Kate studied the solid mass. With the strong sensations still flowing through her, it felt as if the tree had reached out and grabbed her. At first sight, it appeared to be a simple tree. Older and more interesting than the others but still, merely a tree.

Except the tingle radiating through her body said otherwise. As much as she longed to stay and unravel the mystery, she knew she must return to the ball and her future. Duty demanded it of her. After one last lingering glance, she pivoted and, not wanting to retrace her steps, took a new path, hoping it would circle back to the garden gate. The further she moved from the center of the grove, the darker the night became. Until only a faint light showed the way. “Wonderful. All I need is to become lost,” Kate grumbled as she tentatively stepped forward. She managed a few steps and lurched forward, having caught her slipper on something. By pure luck alone, she regained her footing and avoided being strewn on the ground.

The fickle moonlight once again strong enough for her to see, she gathered herself and turned to inspect the cause of her blunder, anticipating a tree root or at the most, an out of place rock. Discovering a random pair of shiny black boots, abandoned in the middle of the private copse, left her mystified. Given their impeccable appearance, they couldn’t have been sitting in the elements for long. Maybe lost that evening. How exactly did one go about misplacing their footwear? She glanced around, half expecting someone to pounce from the bushes. “You are being foolish,” she whispered. “And talking to yourself. So, not only are you acting rash and hallucinating, you are now addled.” Determined to cease her silliness, Kate continued her search of the area. And became increasingly concerned for the bootless gentlemen when the deep blue superfine coat hanging on a low branch caught her eye.

Had he retained any of his clothing? She hesitated, less than prudent, before stepping in the direction of the discarded garment. I only proceed out of concern for this person’s welfare. Because, honestly, who in his right mind abandoned important articles of his outerwear? She hadn’t taken more than a dozen steps on her detour when a cravat, its pristine white emphasized by the moon, summoned her further. When a lady’s glove joined a man’s shirt, Kate paused. No doubt what awaited ahead was nothing like innocent child’s play. The prospect wasn’t great enough to prevent her from venturing on. Not after she’d gone this far. Besides, whatever she found would be far more intriguing than returning to the ball and suffering endless prying into her marital state. She’d been a faultless lady, a dutiful daughter to a duke, and would soon be a respectful wife. When would she ever be ‘just Kate?’ This could be her single chance.

Even while pretending to be daring, a sigh of relief slipped past her lips when the trees parted to expose a shallow pond without her stumbling upon a pair of breeches or a cast-off gown. She wasn’t prepared to discover that much. Cast in the shadow of the trees, Kate surveyed the opening with its glistening waters and inviting bench. The perfect place to contemplate her future. As she approached, a deep moan filled the night, pulling her scrutiny to the source. Expecting a gravely injured man who’d had the hardship of losing half his clothing, she gaped at the sight before her. Propped against the base of a tree, a half-naked man had his hands full. Extremely full considering one very large palm cupped the bared breast of a woman. Who might have retained her gown but lacked the fortune of keeping her bodice where her modiste had intended, while his mouth feasted on her freely offered neck. Compelled by the intimate sight, Kate stood frozen.

Her sensible upbringing scolded her boldness and begged for her to sneak away. The unrecognizable brashness that had seized her upon escaping the ballroom and discovering the mysterious tree, tempted her to stay. As her eyes traced over the muscled arm the man had wrapped around his companion’s waist, Kate became mesmerized by how the beams of light highlighted each dip and curve of his limb. Do all men have such powerful appendages hidden under their perfectly tailored coats? Given how the flawless specimen in her eyesight had a solid abdomen lacking the obvious paunch several gentlemen in the ballroom sported, she doubted his physique was typical. Tingles, comparable to when she’d touched the gnarled tree, snaked through her as she skimmed his solid chest. Only to land on his face. The very face no longer hidden in the neck of the woman he held. Heat washed away the tingles as Kate realized his focus had abandoned the bundle in his arms . and was now locked on her. Shielded from such wanton displays all of her life, Kate didn’t know how to react.

Moments between a man and woman should be private, reserved only for the bedroom. Despite her need to be outraged, she couldn’t tear away from the depths of his eyes. Or prevent the warmth flaring within that had nothing to do with embarrassment. Despite her discomfiture, something kept her from rushing back to the duty awaiting her in the ballroom. The same peculiar sensation rekindled, that which had surged through her when she’d touched the tree. Even though the man was a stranger, her body seemed to recognize him. She just knew, if she left now, she’d regret it forever.

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