To Desire and Conquer Lady Temptress – Scarlett Osborne

Dear Lady Catherine: I regret to inform you that I will be unable to attend the fete celebrating your birthday on 11 March. Words cannot express my sorrow at being kept away from a celebration for such a treasured friend, but I fear that…” Lydia James’ pen paused, unable to continue. Her gaze turned upward to the immaculate velvet drapery that annoyingly blotted out most of the meager late-winter sunlight that came into her chamber. She furrowed her brow, searching for a sufficiently believable excuse out the window, on the ceiling, nestled in the sparkling recesses of the geode that stood on her writing desk. Finding none, as frequently happened in moments of quiet contemplation, her imagination began unbidden to supply instead all manner of fantastical events. Perhaps the curse of a malevolent witch could keep me from Catherine’s party, she thought with a smile, or being carried away by wild beasts. Her reverie was interrupted when she noticed the pool of ink that had flowed from her pen, ruining the paper. Stifling a mild curse, she blotted the spilled ink and drew a fresh sheet of paper from one of the desk drawers. With a mischievous grin spreading across her rosy cheeks, she began once more: “Dear Lady Catherine: Happy birthday, My Beloved Friend! It is with great sorrow that I inform you that I will not be able to extend my well wishes to you in person, as I have been carried off by a murderous gang of bandits. I write you having been forced into marriage to their Laird, a ferocious and lusty Scotsman more than seven feet tall, and consequently will also not be able to pay my respects to your Father the Marquess later this spring at his annual—” “M’lady?” came a warm voice from behind her writing desk. Surprised, Lydia dropped her pen and crumpled up her paper, the ink still wet. “What is it, Anna?” she said a bit more snappishly than she would have liked, embarrassed at having been interrupted in the middle of her fantasy. The older woman stepped into the grand chamber, her eyes politely cast downward. “His Grace requests your presence at the breakfast table, M’lady.” Lydia sighed.

She knew her father did not enjoy waiting on her, but it was so terribly difficult to predict his moods. It seemed today he would be more social than usual, which meant she needed to be at her best. She rose from her desk at once, tossing her scrap of frivolity into the fireplace as she walked to the washbasin to remove the ink from her fingers. “Writing trouble, M’lady?” Anna asked warmly. Lydia flushed with embarrassment. “Just writing a letter telling Lady Catherine that I will not be attending her birthday party. I…spilled a blot of ink on it,” she said as she washed her hands with delicate lavender soap. Anna tutted gently. “It’s most terrible His Grace won’t allow you to go to such affairs, M’lady.” Lydia sighed once more, drying her hands and adjusting her mahogany-colored hair in the mirror.

“Oh, Anna! I know he means well, but he may as well brick me away in a tower, he’s so restrictive.” It just isn’t fair! she thought plaintively. Catherine told me that everyone in London will be there. She even said her father agreed to chalking the ballroom floor, just like the Prince Regent did for his Father’s birthday last year! Lydia had little idea what “chalking” could possibly be, but that curiosity only stoked her burning desire to attend the ball. Then again, Lydia thought glumly, it’s not as though Father let me go to Catherine’s birthday last year. Or any of her other fetes. Or any other social event, for that matter. I may as well just run off to a convent right this instant, for all the excitement I’m allowed. Her radiant green eyes batted back tears as she inspected her appearance for a moment longer. Though barely twenty years old, she was chagrined to see how full her figure had become, her womanly curves pushing her fashionably plain white morning dress too far forward and outward for her taste.

She lifted a delicate hand to her too-rosy cheek, took a deep breath through her pert nose, and released it, collected once more. “Well,” she said brightly, “time for breakfast with my jailor—Father, I mean.” The high halls of Remdwin Manor were bright and cheery that chilly late March morning, and a roaring fire blazed away cheerily in the grand fireplace of the Duke’s private dining room. To Lydia, though, the elegant windows may as well have had iron bars across them, and the grounds of their estate the Chateau d’If. From somewhere deep within her, she summoned a mannerly smile as she greeted her father, who sat at the far end of the table with a platter of fresh bread and smoked fish untouched before him. The dark eyes of Frederick James, the Duke of Remdwin, were fixed on something distant out the window, his face as stony and inscrutable as if it had been carved of marble. The walls of the dining room were covered with elaborate Oriental silk coverings depicting nature scenes in vivid greens and golds. Though the sun shone through onto these silks, suffusing the room in a warm shine, they were outmatched by the shadow the Duke cast over the scene. “Father, I do apologize for keeping you waiting,” said Lydia as she sat at her usual chair opposite his. Her father started, seemingly unaware she had entered the room.

He took a deep, shuddering breath, his aging but muscular frame relaxing. “Dear Lydia, I was afraid something had happened to you. Please don’t worry me like that.” “Thank you, Mister Dunlop,” Lydia said softly to the wrinkled servant who wordlessly brought her a plate of fruit and pastries. Though her stomach complained quietly, she refrained from eating as her father still had his eyes fixed on her, a strange smile playing across his face. Poor Father, she thought to herself, her eyes fixed on the table before her though she still felt his gaze on her. He seems so unwell these days. Jailor or not, I must be patient with the poor, frightened man. At last the silence was broken—as was the bread. “You know, Lydia,” said the Duke as he absentmindedly cut into his food, “that friend of yours? Kirkwood’s daughter, you know, the, ah, Lady Catherine?” Her heart skipped a beat, one which turned out to be several beats, as his sentence remained incomplete for a few moments while he chewed his breakfast thoughtfully.

“Yes?” Lydia asked at last, unable to contain her curiosity. “Yes,” her father said, clearing his throat and wiping his chin with a napkin. “She, ah, had a birthday ball, you know. Will have, that is.” Another silence settled over the room, one that threatened to be terminal. Lydia feigned interest in her own breakfast to restrain her racing thoughts. “I’ve been hearing a great deal of gossip around town, you know, Lydia.” “About Catherine?” she blurted. “What? Oh, no, no. About you.

” What could anyone possibly have to say about me? Lydia thought, bewildered. I never go anywhere, nor do I speak with anyone. “Everyone” must be tremendous fabulists indeed! “Well, not gossip, exactly, but people have been talking,” the Duke continued. “Forgive me, Father, but I fail to see the distinction.” The slightest hint of storm clouds gathered over the face of the Duke of Remdwin. “Now, Lydia, hear me out before you interrupt.” She put her napkin to her mouth, though food still had not yet touched her lips. Her father opened his mouth to continue, then shut it again. He looked for his words in the air between them, unfortunately finding little more than a few motes of dust. Patience, Lydia, patience, she reminded herself.

It was disarming seeing her father in this state, though—was he actually embarrassed? “You’ll have to understand, for someone in my position…” he tried, then stopped once more. “The Duke of Rexhen was telling me over backgammon that he…well, yes. And Watrough has some son or young cousin or something he’s trying to—” The Duke waved his hands about, as if to clear the fog from his head, then began one last time: “Although you and I both know that the world has more than its share of cruelties…and, well, the ton possesses greater dangers still, ones that a young woman, even a maid of ten and seven—” “Father, I’m twenty years old,” she threw into the long gap between his words. She clapped a hand to her mouth, but he seemed to have forgotten his decree against interruption. “Twenty, yes, quite. The thing is, as some of my peers have reminded me of late: if someone of our station doesn’t allow their daughter to, ah, debut socially, the hazards of not appearing begin to outweigh those cruelties.” Lydia’s heart began to flutter once more. He isn’t saying…? He couldn’t be! He leaned forward and fixed her with a playfully accusing smile. “And as you’ve asked me to attend such social functions—many, many times, isn’t that so?” “Yes, Father.” Lydia’s cheeks reddened once more.

The Duke of Remdwin sighed. “You know, I have been spoiling you by allowing you to have Lady Catherine come to visit from time to time. I had hoped she would be a good influence on you, especially with so few other examples of womanhood here at the Manor. And especially because she was so good to you in the wake of all the… unpleasantness some years ago.” “She is a good influence, Father!” Lydia objected. One more the Duke scowled and raised a finger to pause her interruption. Well…it may be stretching the truth to call her a “good influence,” thought Lydia. But the prospect of losing her only friend filled her with such dread that she could hardly help herself. “As I was saying. Only because Lady Catherine is such a dear friend of yours, and only as you have proven yourself a good and obedient daughter—perhaps the day has come that my Darling Girl should begin to make herself known to society.

” Before she knew what she was doing, Lydia had jumped to her feet and rushed forward to embrace her father. “Oh, thank you, Father!” she sang, her arms draped around the velvet shoulders of his jacket. The Duke chuckled, then suddenly fell silent. She felt him stiffen under her arms, and she straightened to see a grave, fearful expression on his face. “Now, Lydia, you need to know that there are serious expectations for an adult lady’s behavior. Childish, ah, displays of affection like this must be curtailed. Do you understand?” Chastened, she bowed her head. “Yes, Father.” “This is very important, Lydia. Social functions are home to many, many dangers.

You must be chaperoned. I will naturally attend the ball with you.” “Of course, Father.” She fought to keep the smile from returning to her face. “You will stay by my side at all times, and not sneak off to dance with every rowdy young buck who…well, with any rowdy young bucks.” “Yes, Father.” “And as you have not yet had your societal debut, you will not be allowed to engage in any wild or raucous cotillions, do you understand?” Lydia scoffed. “Oh, Father, cotillions have not been in fashion for years.” At least, that’s what Catherine told me. “Lady Catherine will have the floor of her ballroom chalked! It’s frightfully popular.

” The Duke studied his daughter carefully, then sniffed. “Somehow you really have grown into a beautiful young lady right before my eyes, do you know that? You’ve become the very picture of your Mother.” She moved forward to embrace him once more, then remembered herself and curtsied daintily instead. “Thank you, F—Your Grace.” They shared a tender smile. Adventure has come for me at last! Lydia thought with glee, nearly skipping as she returned to her seat. Well, perhaps not a true adventure with bandits and gypsies and such, but it’s something, at least! “Now, Anna?” “No, M’lady, not just yet!” Lydia tried to steady her breathing, her maid’s fingers tickling and pinching as she adjusted…whatever it was she was adorning her with. I’m sure Catherine doesn’t need someone to teach her how to wear h e r gown, she grumbled to herself. Anna had suggested Lydia refrain from looking at herself in the mirror until she was completely ready to go. Lydia had laughingly agreed, closing her eyes during the dressing process.

But this was taking ages! “Now?” “Almost, M’lady.” March had come at a crawl so slow it seemed almost vindictive, with days dragging by as slow as molasses. Although Lydia was hard-pressed to remember anything that had transpired since her father had agreed to let her attend Catherine’s birthday, come to think of it. Now the glorious day had come, and when Lydia arose in the morning she realized that her impatience had been replaced with a bizarre trepidation. It was as though her stomach was attempting to gnaw a hole through her abdomen and run off into the hills. What am I so afraid of? Lydia wondered, not for the first time. All it is a party at Catherine’s house! She’s been over here a hundred times to visit at Father’s or my invitation, after all. How different could Kirkwood Hall be? Surely it will just be a grand ball with hundreds of people I don’t know and dances I’ve only studied in books and handsome young men looking to dance and…oh my, what have I— “Now, M’lady!”

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