Free Fiction Monday: The Waltz
Ryleigh D’Artois attends the wedding of the season. Maybe even the decade.
A wedding held at a plantation house on the untamed Mississippi River. Civilization encroaching on the wilderness. It would be an adventure for a weekend, but certainly not permanently.
However, she finds out something she never expected. Something that changes everything.
Would her first social engagement be her last?
“The Waltz” by Kathryn Kelly is free on this website for one week only. the story is also available in ebook here.
It was the wedding of the season. Of the year. Maybe even the decade.
Ryleigh D’Artois leaned forward, peering out the window of the carriage as they rounded the corner. The Mississippi River was on her right, but on her left, they’d passed plantation mansion after plantation mansion. From the window on her right, she heard bells from a steamboat and on her left she could catch snippets of workers singing.
She fisted her hands in her lime-green cotton skirt and blinked at the dust that drifted in through the open window. Outside it was already hot. It was a humid summer day. In May.
The air smelled like gardenias from the newly hoed gardens juxtaposed with mud from the untamed Mississippi river. Civilization encroaching on the wilderness.
Ryleigh was nervous with anticipation.
She was about to see the grandest plantation house of them all. The mansion everyone was raving about.
It was said to have eighteen rooms. A palace.
They turned left and drove away from the river road.
Ryleigh couldn’t see anything now except the oak trees that lined the drive, no matter how she turned.
“You’re going to wear yourself out with all that wiggling,” Ryleigh’s mother said from the seat across from her.
“We missed it,” Ryleigh said. “Everyone says it’s breathtaking from the river.”
“You can walk down to the river and see it from there then. After all, we’re going to be staying there for the whole weekend.”
If Ryleigh hadn’t been practicing decorum fitting for a sixteen-year-old lady, she would have bounced up and down in her seat. Instead she just grinned across the aisle at her mother.
Ryleigh’s mother, Ava, still wore black – full black skirts and a high-neck top. At thirty-seven, she was the most beautiful woman Ryleigh had ever seen. She had the figure of someone Ryleigh’s age and luscious ebony hair that fell loosely halfway down her back. Her husband, Ryleigh’s father, had been killed in the French and Indian War two years ago, leaving the two of them alone in New Orleans.
Ava had turned away five suitors in the past year. Though it would have been a respectable amount of time for her to marry again, Ava sent them all away, their hopes of spending time with the lovely Ava D’Artois dashed.
Ryleigh, on the other hand, had had no suitors. Instead, she centered her life around her studies. She could sing like an angel and play the piano like no one else. She could read, write, and cipher with ease.
Accomplished and refined, she’d far exceeded the skills of her tutors.
When the invitation to the wedding of Nathaniel Dumon and Sierra Miller had arrived at their doorstep, Ava had declared it was time for her daughter to be presented to the world and for Ava to come out of mourning.
They’d been invited to spend three days at what had quickly become the legendary Chene Ruelle, a mansion on the Mississippi River just outside of New Orleans.
The Dumon family had moved in just three months ago, but already they had decorated with imported furnishings from France. It was rumored.
Ryleigh could barely believe their good fortune in being invited to such an enchanted place for what was sure to be a fairytale wedding.
Ryleigh’s father had been a benefactor of the arts in New Orleans and with his death, Ryleigh’s mother had become by far the wealthiest widow in New Orleans.
But it had taken the wedding of the decade to bring them back into society.
The carriage driver followed the circle drive and Ryleigh caught her first glimpse of Chene Ruelle.
She gasped as she took in the white three-story mansion with huge round columns, a wide veranda that enveloped the whole house, and a balcony with scrolled iron railings.
Even her mother, who seemed unimpressed by most everything breathed a quiet exclamation.
A few moments later the coachman opened the carriage door and helped Ryleigh and Ava down.
Ryleigh, the first one down, straightened her skirts and looked around. Gardenias in white and pink bloomed all around the front veranda. Butterflies went from flower to flower in the early afternoon sunlight.
After her mother was on the ground, the butler came outside and greeted them. “Mr. Nathaniel and Mr. Jacques are indisposed at the moment, but Mr. Alexandre will be down shortly to welcome you and show you around.
“There’s no need to disturb anyone. If you’ll show us to our room, we’ll freshen up and rest before supper,” Ava said.
“Yes ma’am,” The butler said. “I’ll send someone for your trunks if you’ll follow me.”
As they went inside, Ryleigh whispered to her mother, “Who is Mr. Alexandre?”
“He’s Nathaniel’s younger brother.”
“I don’t remember meeting him,” Ryleigh said.
“You haven’t,” her mother said. “I’ll tell you more when we’re in our room.”
Ryleigh lifted her skirts and followed her mother and the butler up the stairs.
A large grandfather clock stood in the foyer and as they passed, it chimed two times.
Everything smelled new like freshly cut wood. And a vase overflowing with yellow daffodils sitting on a little table next to the clock added a sweetness to the room.
She reached the landing halfway to the second floor and stopped at the window to admire the view of the fields on the side of the house. There were rows and rows of tilled earth as far as the eye could see. The river, meandering around a curve was visible off to the right. She placed a hand on the cool glass of the window. It was some of the clearest glass she’d seen. It had only a few waves in the glass and there were hardly any bubbles.
Her mother and the butler reached the second floor. She would have to hurry to catch up with them.
She grasped her skirts with both hands and glanced back outside once more before she continued up the stairs.
A white horse with a rider galloped in from the fields as she watched. He stopped and dismounted just below the window where Ryleigh stood.
He was wearing dark pants and what was at one time a white shirt, now covered with a coating of dust. After he swept his hat off his head, she saw that he had straight black hair that swept the edge of his shirt’s collar.
He was a handsome man. Lean and confident. His features had a boyish charm with a gentleman’s countenance.
Holding the horse’s reins in one hand and holding his hat with the other, he glanced up and froze when he saw her standing there watching him.
She, too, was frozen in place.
He bowed, then straightened and grinned at her.
She smiled back.
She gasped and, turning, darted up the steps, catching up with her mother and the butler just as they entered a bed chamber at the end of the hallway.
She caught up with them just as the butler was leaving.
Her heart was still racing as she closed the door to the bedroom, turned, and leaned against it.
Her mother looked at her, one delicate eyebrow raised questioningly. “I have a feeling it’s going to be a long weekend,” she said with a sigh.
Ryleigh couldn’t disagree.
But she secretly hoped it would, indeed, be a long weekend.
The weekend had been carefully planned, leading up to the wedding. Tonight all the guests were invited to a formal dinner. Tomorrow the day would start with the men going hunting, then they would all attend a barbeque and play jeu de mail and blind man’s buff on the lawn. After the barbeque, they would rest, then attend a late afternoon wedding. After the wedding they would all attend a grand ball.
Ryleigh twirled in front of the mirror admiring her new mint green gown. It had full hoops requiring tons of material. Her mother had helped her sweep her hair into a stylish chignon leaving enough hair down that her face was framed.
“You look beautiful,” her mother said.
Ryleigh blushed. “As do you Mama.”
Mother and daughter left the bedroom chamber and walked together down the long hallway toward the steps.
The scent of grilled turkey filled the air and as they neared the stairway, a jumble of voices told them they weren’t the first to arrive for dinner.
As they descended the stairs, Ryleigh’s heart rate tripped up a notch. Would she see the handsome man again? The one who had winked at her from the window.
They went into the ballroom which was set up with tables and chairs for everyone to have supper.
Some of the guests were already in their places. Nathaniel and Sierra were seated at a table at the front of the room. Their heads were bent together as they whispered to each other. They looked happy as two people about to be married could.
As Ryleigh followed her mother to their seats, her gaze swept the room looking for the young man. She was disappointed when she didn’t see him.
She sat next to her mother on one side and an elderly lady, Mrs. Treble, on the other.
During the course of conversation, she learned that the elderly woman lives in New Orleans, also. She knew Ryleigh’s mother, Ava, from when they attended social events several years ago. Before Ryleigh’s father had gone to war.
Ryleigh struggled to keep her attention from wandering. Each time someone entered the room, she glanced up to see if it was him.
After the main course, while they waited for dessert, Mrs. Treble spoke to the young man on her other side, leaving Ryleigh space to daydream. She watched the engaged couple at the front of the room and imagined what it would be like if she and the handsome stranger sat there instead.
“You should meet my son, Alexandre,” Mrs. Treble said.
Ryleigh smiled and said she would be delighted, but she had little interest in meeting anyone other than the handsome rider she’d seen earlier.
“He would be here,” she continued, “But he had to go into the city to handle a matter of urgency. A family matter, I believe. I hope he makes it back in time for the wedding.”
At last, the dessert came and took Mrs. Treble’s focus away from Ryleigh.
After dinner, the men retired to the study to smoke cigars and drink brandy while the women went into parlor to talk among themselves.
Ryleigh excused herself, claiming fatigue from the trip.
With relief she went upstairs to their bed chamber. To the peace and quiet.
She went to the balcony and stared at the full moon in a cloudless sky.
Where had the stranger gone? Surely he was a guest here or perhaps a family member.
Berating herself for weaving a fantasy world around someone she’d never met, Ryleigh changed into her nightgown and climbed into the comfortable feather bed.
She fell asleep instantly and dreamed of a handsome horseman on a solid white horse.
The next day passed in a whirlwind.
Ryleigh met tons of strangers at the barbeque and could hardly remember any of their names.
She had given up on seeing the handsome stranger again. Perhaps he was a doctor who had merely been visiting or someone just passing through. At any rate, he hadn’t been here at any of the wedding party events.
The wedding was held in a little chapel a few yards away from the house. Roses and rose petals were scattered everywhere and white ribbons tied into bows decorated every pew.
The sweet smell of the flowers blended with the myriad scents of perfume worn by the ladies.
The music filled the little chapel and mixed with the hum of conversation as the guests waited for the bride.
Ryleigh wore a beautiful silver ball gown with full hoops. Her hair fell in loose curls around her face and down her back. She felt elegant in her dress and white gloves.
Nathaniel stood at the altar, looking nervous and happy.
Then the music stopped and all eyes turned to the back of the chapel. Sierra wore a lovely white dress with full hoops, her face concealed behind a veil.
As the bride slowly made her way down the aisle, escorted by her father, all eyes were on her.
When Ryleigh turned back to the front of the church, along with everyone else, she was taken by surprise.
The handsome stranger she’d seen yesterday after arriving at Chene Ruelle stood next to Nathaniel. He hadn’t been there earlier, she was certain.
No one seemed to notice, but Ryleigh didn’t hear a word the priest said. She was completely focused on trying to figure out how the man she’d watched for since yesterday was suddenly there at the front of the chapel standing next to the groom.
After the wedding everyone made their way back to the main house. Ryleigh lost sight of him, but not for lack of looking.
She smiled and nodded appropriately when spoken to, but her attention was scattered.
She didn’t see him during the refreshments and began to think that she’d thought about him so much, she’d imagined him.
The ballroom, decorated with pale blue velvet curtains, was illuminated with candles.
The bride and groom took the first dance as everyone found their places around the ballroom. An orchestra, set one side of the room, played waltz music and couples joined the newlyweds on the dance floor.
Ryleigh sat next to her mother at the edge of the ballroom. She told herself she was being silly as she searched for the handsome man, but she did it anyway.
A young man about her age came up and asked her to dance.
She was about to decline when her mother jumped in.
“Dance with him Ryleigh,” she said. “It’s the polite thing to do.”
Ryleigh allowed him to take her hand, however reluctantly, and lead her out onto the dance floor.
She focused on the dance steps she’d practiced with her tutor. It was a lot different with other couples to navigate around.
He introduced himself as Mark. After that neither of them attempted conversation. The dance ended soon enough and the orchestra took a break.
Ryleigh escaped to sit next to her mother.
Ava leaned over. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
“Not really,” Ryleigh said.
“He seems like a nice young man.”
Ryleigh didn’t answer. She had no interest in him.
“The reel will be next,” Ava said. “You should take part.”
Ryleigh nodded, but she hoped that Mark didn’t return for a second dance.
The orchestra members returned a few minutes later and were soon ready to begin playing again.
But first, to Ryleigh’s dismay, their host Mr. Dumon announced that all the ladies should stand on one side of the ballroom and all the gentlemen on the other.
Ava nudged Ryleigh up and they took their places on the dance floor.
Ryleigh wondered what excuse she could use to get away.
The lively music started and after the first couple danced their way along the couples, things began to get confusing.
She found herself being twirled about and lost her way among the dancers.
Then suddenly she found herself in the arms of the handsome man she’d searched for these past two days.
Her eyes wide with surprise, she gazed into his deep blue eyes. He smiled at her. His hand was firm on her gloved hand. The seconds seemed to pass in slow motion.
Then everyone moved around again and their fingers slipped apart. She lost sight of him.
But the music and the dancing continued.
As the reel came to an end, the music drifted into a waltz, but with a slower tempo.
Ryleigh started walking off the dance floor, dodging women in hoop skirts as couples began to come together again.
Then she was face to face with him.
He bowed and held out his hand.
Her heart rate skittered all over the place. With her hand trembling, she placed it in his.
“May I have this dance?” he asked.
She nodded, unable to find her words.
Then she was swept onto the dance floor, twirling about with the other dancers.
“I should introduce myself,” he said.
“I’m Alexandre Dumon.”
She struggled to wrap her mind around this information. “I’m Ryleigh D’Artois.”
He grinned at her. “Everyone knows the most beautiful girl here, other than the bride, of course.”
“You’re Nathaniel’s brother?”
As he twirled her around the room, Ryleigh was unsure how to proceed. She’d been enamored of this man since the moment she’d set eyes on him yesterday.
And now only to discover that he was the brother of her host. But why hadn’t he been here? Only showing up at the last minute for the wedding.
“Penny for your thoughts.”
She chuckled. “I was just wondering why it is that you only showed up for the wedding at the last minute.”
He grinned. “I’m honored that you noticed.”
She blushed. “Well, you weren’t there. Then you were.”
“I think you’re the only one who noticed.”
“I doubt that,” she said, then continued at his quizzical expression. “You are, after all, the groom’s brother. I don’t think you could go unnoticed.”
“I’m not exactly the most popular one around here.”
“Why is that?”
“I rarely socialize.”
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“I keep my head down and take care of business.”
“Someone has to do it,” she said.
“I knew I liked you.”
She grinned. She couldn’t help it.
“If my sources are correct, you aren’t spoken for,” he said.
“Married or engaged.”
“No.” She shook her head. “I, too, keep my head down.”
“Is that so? Then, my dear, I believe we might be birds of a feather.”
“We might be,” she said.
They stared into each other’s eyes until moments later when the music stopped again and the orchestra took another break.
As couples filed off the dance floor, he tucked her arm into his and led her toward her mother.
“We meet again,” Ava said.
“And now I’ve met your lovely daughter. At long last.”
“You know each other?” Ryleigh asked.
“Of course,” Ava said. “Our families go way back.”
Of course. Ryleigh realized she should have known this. How else would she and her mother be invited to this wedding?
“Please, sit,” Ava said. “I’d like to talk with you about something.”
Ryleigh sat in a chair next to her mother and Alexandre sat across next to her.
“There’s something I’ve been needing to tell you,” Ava said. “But I needed you to meet Alexandre first.”
Ryleigh felt a strange feeling settle over her. A feeling that what her mother was about to tell her might be life-changing. She couldn’t explain it.
“Before your father left for the war, he left a letter for me.” Her mother took both of her hands in hers. “And for you.”
“You didn’t show it to me,” Ryleigh said.
“No. It wasn’t the right time.”
Ryleigh looked from one to the other. Whatever it was, Alexandre seemed to know what it was. He didn’t look surprised in the least.
“Your father arranged a marriage between you and Alexandre.”
Ryleigh, again, was at a loss for words. “A…what?” She glanced at Alexandre who looked… pleased.
“He wanted me to make sure you suited each other, though, before I told you.”
“And if we didn’t?” Ryleigh asked.
“Then I would rip up the paper,” Ava said.
“You knew about this?” Ryleigh asked, looking at Alexandre accusingly.
He suffered no contriteness. “I do now.”
She narrowed her eyes at him.
“No,” he said quickly. “I only learned of it two days ago. But when I saw you, I immediately went to my lawyer’s office in New Orleans. That’s why I was late to the wedding.”
“I’m confused,” Ryleigh said.
“When I saw you in the window, I knew. I knew you belonged here. At Chene Ruelle. With me.”
Ryleigh looked at her mother now with that same accusatory expression. “You didn’t tell me.”
“I’m telling you now.”
“You aren’t doing so much for my esteem,” he said.
She took a deep breath. “I’m just surprised. I came here to attend a wedding. Not to garner a betrothal.
Her mother and Alexandre exchanged worried expressions. It seemed that her refusal hadn’t been taken into consideration.
“Perhaps I should have told you already,” her mother said. “But I didn’t want to influence your reaction.”
It seemed that Ryleigh had a choice. If she wanted it. A way out.
She studied Alexandre’s handsome face. “Perhaps I can take some time to consider,” she said.
“Of course,” Alexandre said. Both he and her mother looked relieved. “May I call upon you then?”
“Yes,” she said. “You may call on me.”
Ryleigh knew that even though she was being given a choice, her heart had already decided. Her heart had decided yesterday when she’d first seen Alexandre.
And, it seemed, if her father had wanted this marriage, she couldn’t very well refuse.
The music started again. Alexandre held out his hand. “May I have this dance?” he asked.
She put her hand in his and let him lead her to the dance floor.
Ryleigh knew. She knew that this was the man she would marry.
Copyright @ 2019 by Kathryn Kelly