The Scandalous Lady Mercy(7)

By: Maggi Andersen

“My goodness, it’s Lord Northcliffe,” Violet whispered, her cheeks turning bright pink. “Mama would be scandalized should he ask me to dance.”

Northcliffe and the stiffly formal gentleman at his side approached Mercy’s father where he stood with Liverpool and Canning. A warm conversation ensued, which, despite straining her ears, Mercy couldn’t follow. With a pleased smile, her father led the two men over to her.

“My dear, I’d like to present Colonel Black and Lord Northcliffe. Gentlemen, my youngest daughter, Lady Mercy.”

When Mercy rose from her curtsey, she saw avuncular warmth in Colonel Black’s eyes. Lord Northcliffe’s were tawny and rather more intense, with a tendency to wander from her face to the rest of her. She dropped her gaze fearing she too was flushing.

Northcliffe offered his arm. “Will you grant me this waltz, Lady Mercy?”

“I should be delighted.” Mercy tucked her hand in the crook of his arm.

Violet gasped, but Mercy was unsure if it was from surprise, or relief that he hadn’t asked her to dance. With the gentleman’s superfine sleeve beneath her gloved fingers, they joined the others advancing onto the dance floor. She glanced back at her mother’s shocked face. Father merely nodded his approval. Evidently Lord Northcliffe’s reputation didn’t bother him, Mercy supposed his impeccable linage, which Violet had mentioned earlier, had cancelled out any concerns.

The musicians took up their instruments. As the strains of a waltz flowed gently over the noisy room, Lord Northcliffe drew her into his arms. He smelled of starch and a musky cologne, with a faint trace of tobacco.

Nervous, Mercy stared at the ornate buttons on his silver waistcoat.

“You have the bluest eyes, Lady Mercy.”

“Thank you, my lord.”

“I should like to see them.”

She gazed up at him. His amber eyes held a sharp intelligence, but they softened to the color of warm honey when he smiled. He was lean and elegant, unlike the bulky Lord Gunn. The sharp planes of his shaven jaw and cheekbones gave the impression of restless impatience. He was nothing like Lord Bellamy either, who appeared a good deal more harmless by comparison. Why she thought that, Mercy had no idea. She met his gaze shyly and sought for a safe topic. “It’s cooler on the terrace, isn’t it?”

His dark eyebrows shot up. “I beg your pardon?”

“I saw you go out the French doors to the terrace. I escaped the heat myself earlier for a few moments. It’s dreadfully hot in here, is it not?” He had been out there rather longer than she had. Wondering just what had taken place, she clamped her mouth shut.

He stared at her with a bemused expression. “I don’t believe I found it much cooler outside.”

His nearness was disconcerting. Careful of her footing, she decided a change of subject was called for. “I imagine you have been to many balls.”

“Rather too many.”

She noted the slight downturn of his lips. He seemed thoughtful, a crease on his brow. She wanted him to find her exciting, to see his eyes light up with interest, but being so close to him, one hand swamping hers, and the warm fingers of his other hand spread over her lower back, she seemed to have lost the art of conversation. What did one say to such a rakish gentleman? Her pre-arranged question perhaps. Even a rake must be in search of a wife. It was why every unmarried man came to these affairs, especially those in need of an heir.

“What if once you marry, your wife wished to have an occupation apart from the home and children? Would you approve?”

“An occupation?” His gaze narrowed and he looked away from her. “I should think just having a husband alive and well, would be enough.”

She flushed. How condescending. “So you believe a husband is all a woman requires to be happy?”

“Far better than widowhood, I imagine,” he said in a low voice. “What do you have in mind, opening a literary salon where mediocre writers and poets spout their inferior prose?”

Mercy’s mouth dried. “You don’t care for writers?” she blurted, forgetting her intention for a subtle approach.

He widened his eyes at the force behind her question. “I do. That is, the best of them, Shakespeare, Byron, Tennyson, for example.” He spun her around and recited in his deep voice:

Below the thunders of the upper deep,

Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,

His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep

The Kraken sleepeth faintest sunlights flee

About his shadowy sides…”

Breathless, Mercy was pleased to have kept her feet on the floor. It wouldn’t do to be pronounced fast at her first ball.