The Scandalous Lady Mercy(2)

By: Maggi Andersen


*

London





Laughter and bright chatter erupted through the open French doors of Lady Millburn’s London townhouse. For a moment, Mercy and Lord Burleigh were alone on the terrace. She gazed down into the garden decorated with flickering lanterns and breathed in the scents of flowers and damp grass. The moist air of an unseasonably warm spring night settled over her bare arms, the stone balustrade blessedly cool as she leaned against it.

“Lady Mercy, don’t be so cruel,” Burleigh implored in husky tones beside her. “It is every debutante’s rite of passage to be kissed on a terrace in the moonlight at her first ball.”

He stood too close. Mercy prodded his arm with her fan. “I have four married sisters, my lord, and have never heard of any such thing. I accepted your invitation to walk on the terrace because it was so dreadfully hot and stuffy inside.”

Although his pleading look made him resemble an eager puppy, she suspected she was one of many he invited to the terrace. “Shall we return to the ballroom?”

Mercy had witnessed each of her four sisters fall in love and marry wonderful men, and she’d waited with impatience for her life to begin. Her first ball held the potential for romance thrilling, swooning romance with a handsome suitor. So far, the men who partnered her had been unsatisfactory. One gentleman had knobby knees, another talked in such an affected way she couldn’t follow his conversation.

As they crossed the terrace, she fought to revive her dwindling hopes, perhaps the next man to dance with her…

A wall of heat, blended with cloying perfume, perspiration, coffee, and candle smoke greeted her as she slipped inside. The massive crystal chandelier overhead lit up the brilliantly dressed crowd, causing jewelry to flash and sparkle.

“Mercy, where have you been?” Mama watched Lord Burleigh wander off in search of a more promising victim.

“Lord Burleigh and I found the terrace much cooler.”

Mama fanned herself furiously. “It is dreadfully close tonight.” She frowned. “But please remain within these walls. There are too many rakes here tonight. I think Lady Millburn should have vetted her guests more closely.”

“Rakes, Mama?” Mercy gazed around, hoping the dull evening might improve. “Who are they? Can you point them out?”

“Lord Northcliffe for one.” Mama pointed with her chin at a tall, handsome man lounging against a stone pillar a short distance from where they sat.

Mercy stared, mesmerized by the errant lock of black hair on his forehead. Despite his easy grace, there was a sense of something mysterious about him that she found quite fascinating. So, that was a rake.

“Gossip is rife about Northcliffe’s latest exploits,” Mama said employing her fan.

Northcliffe’s gaze settled on Mercy. She thought she detected amusement in his amber eyes. Could he have heard their conversation? Captivated, she found she couldn’t look away. Neither did he. She blinked, feeling lightheaded. “What exploits?”

“Nothing fit for your ears.” Mama shook her head. “I don’t believe I shall point out the others. We can depend upon them to find you, my dear. When they do, you mustn’t give them an inch, or before you know it, that will lead to other more intimate endeavors!”

Mercy turned back to the pillar, disappointed to find Lord Northcliffe had gone. Surely, her mother was overreacting. Or had there been a rake in her past? Mama was a widow when she married Father. Her first husband had died in tragic circumstances. Mercy’s half-sister, Honor, was a child when he died. She never spoke of him.

“My sisters seemed to have successfully avoided rakes,” Mercy said, a trifle annoyed that her mother had such little faith in her. All their husbands allowed them to pursue their interests, and Mercy wanted that for herself. She would never fall in love with a man who considered women capable of little more than bearing children and managing servants.

Father’s business affairs continued to prosper. This morning at breakfast, he’d looked at Mercy with a thoughtful expression and reminded her that an earl’s daughter must marry well. She’d swallowed hard and almost choked on her toast. He had recently purchased a grand new house in Portman Square. With dismay, Mercy realized that the lenience her father had displayed with two of her sisters, who had married second sons, would not apply to her.

Honor ran a farm while her husband Edward worked as a barrister; Faith helped Vaughn with his horse stud; and Hope had given a piano recital in London to great applause when she and Daniel were last in England. Charity, now a duchess, still painted portraits with the full support of her husband, Robin. Determined not to be the sister who failed to rise above the ordinary, Mercy had devised a question to slip into her conversation with possible suitors. If they failed the test, she would do her utmost not to marry them.