Inside the bedchamber of Norfolk Manor, fifteen-year-old Mercy White huddled close to her two younger sisters in the deep night. The middle child, Alice, was affixed by Mercy’s side, as was her youngest sister, Olive, who clung to the oldest sister’s arm and would not let go. Mercy stared at them fondly from above before pulling them closer.
“Have I told you the tale of the fairy and the monster?” Mercy inquired.
The two little girls’ heads shook resolutely.
Mercy attempted a jovial grin and bent her head to begin the story. “In a world filled with monsters, beasts roamed the streets and raided the caverns. They were all big and smelled horrible! Everywhere they went, they left a trail of stench that made the entire village shrivel in their wake.”
The two youngest sisters giggled softly.
Mercy raised her hands with exaggerated gestures. Her brows rose and her eyes widened as she dove into the story, making Olive and Alice lean closer with intrigue. “However, all the beasts cared about was strength and size. They believed their worth lay in their fists and their fat chests. Until one day, a small little fairy came flying through one of the ravaged villages. She was beautiful and smelled of daffodils. She left a trail of sparkles and a path of blooming flowers. The beasts were of course furious over this intruder. How could someone come in and ruin their hard work?”
“One beast walked toward the small fairy and asked, ‘What is the name of this wretched witch?’ The fairy twinkled and mused, ‘This fairy has no name. I am only here to clean the mess you’ve all made.’ The beast grew even more furious and stalked back to his other friends. They talked and talked and talked, and in the end they decided to step on the fairy! For they were enormous beasts! What could a little fairy do?”
Olive and Alice both gasped in shock, cowering behind their blankets.
“So they all marched toward the fairy and raised their feet at once,” Mercy continued, a glint of pride shone in her eyes, “only to find that the fairy had flown away, weaving between the monsters. She was so fast, they couldn’t even see her wings! One by one, the fairy sprinkled dust on the tops of their giant heads, and one by one, they fell asleep. Then, she flew away and left a trail of flowers and plants and grass in her wake. Remember, Olive and Alice, those mountains you see in the distance? Or in those books you two read from the library? Inside the mountains are sleeping beasts who were outsmarted by a small fairy. And those beasts dream of how the impossible can be made possible—that stinky beasts can turn into something beautiful.”
When she finished, Mercy looked down at Olive and Alice’s innocent brown eyes. The single candle by the bed was the only light in the room, and Mercy watched as a shadow passed over Olive’s face. Her lips began to tremble, then suddenly she started to sob.
Mercy immediately pulled Olive into her lap and wiped the tears from her cheeks. She had tried to tell the story in order to make them forget, for just a moment, what was happening at present. However, it seemed that their mother’s sickness was, of course, not an easy thing to overlook.
Olive continued to cry, and Mercy understood that she had to let Olive express her feelings. Because Mercy wanted to be someone that her little sisters could speak to and cry on.
So she asked Olive slowly, “Why are you crying? What is the matter?”
It took Olive a couple of seconds to stop her hiccups before she cried, “I’m scared.”
“Why?” Mercy’s brows furrowed. “Tell me why you’re crying.”
“I’m scared that other will leave us. I’m scared that we are going to live without her forever.”
A broken sigh escaped Mercy’s lips. She closed her eyes and willed herself to suck the tears back. She had to stay strong in front of Olive and Alice. No matter how she might feel about her ailing mother, she had to focus on the two little girls clinging to her arms right now.
“Olive,” Mercy began while tucking Olive’s brown hair behind her ear. “Don’t cry. Thoughts are all that matter. You must think positively, and you will live positively. Do not fret over Mother. She will be all right.”
Alice chimed in suddenly, “How do you know? Father said Mother is very sick! Anything could happen at any time.”
Mercy was stunned speechless for a breath for a moment. Looking at her two younger sisters, she noticed how much they had grown since she peeked into their coddles after they were born. She remembered how small and fragile they were. Alice had grown taller over the years, and Olive’s face had become very pretty. By now, they were old enough to understand their dear mother’s condition. They had every right to know and not be lied to.
Mercy grabbed and held their hands tenderly. She brought them toward her chest, right above her heart, as she gave them both a serious look. “All we can do now is pray for Mother’s safe recovery. And if something were to happen to her…know that I will always be here. No matter what happens, I will still be your sister. I will be your mother and your protector. Know that I will never leave either of you.”
Olive and Alice both nodded their heads, tears brimming from their eyes.
“Come,” Mercy said. “Let’s pray.”
They sat in a circle and bowed their heads. Mercy glimpsed Olive and Alice squeezing their eyes closed, then gently closed her own. She prayed that news would come tomorrow of Mother’s recovery. She prayed for the doctor to walk into her bedchamber and announce that her mother had become better than ever. And lastly, she prayed that she would get to see her mother’s smile again and that she may see it every day for the rest of her life.
After they had finished their prayers, Mercy stood and asked the two little ones to lie down in the bed. “If you don’t, the fairy might come and put you to sleep herself. Do you want to become mountains, too?”
The two fervently shook their heads and lied down.
Mercy tucked Alice in, then Olive. She gave them both a soft smile before blowing the candle out. “Goodnight, little fairies.”
“Good night, Mercy.”
In the dark, Mercy leaned back against the wall and waited to hear their light snores.
Barely a minute passed before a soft knock grabbed Mercy’s attention.
Roger White, the Duke of Norfolk, entered Mercy’s bedchamber. The Duke was round-waisted in a jolly way; a brown beard and thick eyebrows covered his kind face. His small brown eyes were usually filled with joy and laughter, though right now, Mercy noticed how dark they seemed. Whether it was because of the dark bedchamber or because of her mother, Mercy decided not to dwell on the change too much.
“Father?” she asked softly.
The Duke glanced at the two little girls sleeping soundly in the bed, and a look of profound love and adoration passed over his eyes. But his look was cut short by a tug of sadness that made his face sag with grief.
He gave Mercy a small smile, kind with a hint of melancholy. “Mercy, darling. Your mother wishes to speak with you.”
Surprised and filled with a sudden feeling of both elation and duty, Mercy nodded and stood from her bed quickly. Her father stepped outside the bedchamber and waited as Mercy slowly closed the door, looking at Olive and Alice in bed a final time, hoping that they were dreaming of great and happy things, that the impossible could be made possible.
Mercy and her father approached her mother’s bedchamber. As the door creaked open, Mercy saw her mother’s once-beautiful face smiling at her. A fortress of pillows bordered her mother’s thin frame, almost dwarfing her size. A big, thick quilt wrapped around her body, shielding Mercy from seeing what she might presume to be a very sick body.
Her mother’s new appearance bothered Mercy, though she tried her best not to show it. Mother used to look so strong, Mercy thought to herself. How can someone like that become so small?
She tried not to run into her mother’s arms and instead sat next to the bed. Looking at her mother’s face in the candlelight, Mercy ignored the slight pain in her chest. Her mother’s face had become terribly thin and wan. What used to be bright and glowing skin now appeared dull and sallow. Thin wisps of hair were matted from the sweat on her forehead. And her emerald green eyes had lost the glimmer of life, but they stared resolutely at Mercy, who shared her mother’s green eyes.
“Hold my hand and come closer; I must speak to my daughter,” Mercy’s mother croaked as she lifted a trembling hand toward Mercy.
Mercy grabbed the hand and moved toward her mother, who gently kissed her cheek. “My eldest and my bravest, Mercy White,” her mother whispered. “You must know that I will not live for much longer. God is calling for me, my dearest.”
Mercy could not help it. All her prayers were for naught. Tears fell from her eyes and streamed down her cheeks. She was shaking as she gasped, “Don’t say things like that. Please don’t say that to me.”
Her mother tightened her hold on their conjoined hands with the last bit of energy she possessed and said sternly, “Mercy, we must face facts. Life is important, especially the end of it. You, my child, have a long, long life ahead of you. As the oldest, you have the most responsible. You must take care of your younger sisters and your father, all right? I trust you with this duty.”
A great heave of emotion overwhelmed Mercy as she gripped her mother’s hand.
“Promise me this, Mercy. Promise me that you will make sure that Norfolk Manor remains happy, even after my death.”
Every word from her mother’s mouth pierced Mercy’s chest like a stab. She had never experienced such heartbreak in her life, and she felt, in this terrible and grand moment, that she might be dying, too.
She did not trust herself to speak, for her voice might crack and break, so she just nodded.
Her mother’s shoulders sagged as if a great deal of worry had been relieved of her. “Let me rest now, my dearest. I am growing tired.” Her mother leaned back against the pillow, and Mercy morosely moved forward to give her one last kiss.
Slowly, their fingers untwined. As Mercy turned away and left the bedchamber, she tried her best not to look back toward her mother, for she did not wish to remember how such a strong woman looked in her last moments but rather how she was when she lived. Mercy recollected all the times her mother had fixed her wounds, small and large. How her mother had always sung to them and told them stories at night. How her smile could light up an entire room. Mercy remembered all of this as she closed the doors to her mother’s bedchamber.
On the wall outside in the hallway, Mercy sat back and thought about her mother’s words.
You have a long life ahead of you…As the oldest and as the most responsible, you must take care of your younger sisters and your father... She was right. From this moment onwards, Mercy White’s life was forever changed. The fifteen-year-old child was no longer; in her place was a protector and a mother. Olive and Alice…they still needed a mother to help them grow up, to protect them. Mercy wiped away the stray tears on her cheeks with her sleeve. She could not depend on her mother’s comfort anymore—rather, people would begin to depend upon Mercy from now on.
Mercy had promised her dear mother that she would henceforth protect their family and assure their happiness. Filled with a sense of duty and determination, Mercy began to grow tired. Her eyes drooped before she could stop them.
When Mercy awoke the next morning, she found her father, the Duke of Norfolk, the great and buoyant Roger White, standing at a loss by the doors of her mother’s bedchamber, appearing entirely exhausted and crestfallen. Then he said the last words Mercy wanted to hear, but knew deep in her heart, were bound to happen.
“Mercy, your mother has passed.”
Ten Years Later
As the morning sunlight beamed into the Norfolk Manor bedchamber, Mercy White quickly rose from her slumber. She grabbed the closest gown and roughly threw it over her body—a dirt brown bodice that was as unflattering as it was comfortable. In the mirror, Mercy cursed how messy her hair looked. Overnight, her long chestnut brown hair had turned into an overgrown tree that desperately needed trimming, with a nest or two somewhere in it.
“Now, I would most certainly cut my hair,” Mercy muttered to herself in the reflection. “If only Father wasn’t so against it.”
She could not help the laugh that tumbled from her lips as she remembered a particular memory from three years before. Her father had only taken one glimpse at the pair of scissors in Mercy’s hands, poised right by her beautiful long, luscious hair, and almost fainted from shock. She had never seen her father’s face grow so red!
Mercy was trying not to roll her eyes as a long tirade assaulted her poor ears as he rambled on and on about how she must preserve her precious hair, for to cut it would be a complete waste!
“Mercy, don’t cut your hair. Listen to your father!”
“You’re being dramatic, Father. Don’t you know how difficult it is to maintain such long hair?”
Her father was as stubborn as she. “You have the most beautiful hair! Please—don’t cut it. For me.”
Mercy had pursed her lips in response.
She had only wanted to cut her hair because of the effort it took to tame it down in the morning. It was more of a nuisance than an accessory, so she had decided to chop it all off.
Her father had caught her just before doing so, though, and his shock and fear at the potential loss of her hair far outweighed her desire to cut it. The duke never asked for much, but he had asked Mercy for this.
It was only due to her love of her father that she could not refuse his request, so she placed the scissors back down and kept her hair as it was.
Snapping back into the present moment, Mercy took one last look at her tangled hair in the mirror, then quickly rushed out of the bedchambers and toward the kitchen.
A plethora of maids crowded the kitchen, promptly moving from one counter to another with a wild sense of business. Sauces and jams were hastily mixed; spoons and knives clanged against the countertops; water sloshed as a maid carried a teapot toward a waiting tray, and another swiftly brought out a batch of brioches that immediately warmed the air with their buttery smell.
Mercy clicked her tongue, dissatisfied. “Hurry up, ladies,” she ordered.
The maids stopped what they’re doing, eyes wide with a hint of fear. “Yes, Lady White!” they declared before returning to their tasks with more fervor.
Mercy turned her back on them and promptly left the noisy kitchen.
Walking through the halls of the manor, Mercy noticed the dust collecting on the floor, by each of the doors. There were multiple smudges on the windows. The carpets were ruffled. In the waiting room, the curtains were not drawn. With a great huff, Mercy called for the head maid, Mrs. Butter.
Shortly thereafter, a middle-aged woman entered the waiting room and immediately bowed her head. She had brown hair, wrapped into a low bun, with gray streaks running among the strands. Wrinkles covered her face, and they only deepened when Mercy said bluntly, “The house is still a mess. Pray tell me why the cleaning is not yet done?”
Mrs. Butter wrung her hands together, trying to hide her discomfort. Sweat coated her face from Mercy’s penetrating glare. “I—I apologize, Lady White. Please forgive me. The cleaning will be done momentarily. I do apologize.” The head maid bowed down even lower. “Please, Lady White. Forgive me!”
Holding back a retort, Mercy rolled her eyes and walked briskly out of the room. “Utterly incompetent,” she mumbled to herself.
As she entered the dining room, she was distracted from her thoughts about firing all of Norfolk Manor’s maids when she saw her two younger sisters’ bright smiles at the table. Her father entered at the same time as Mercy, and he gave her a sweet smile that immediately melted away all of Mercy’s thoughts about the inadequate maids.
“Good morning, darling.”
They all sat at the table and waited as the maids began to serve breakfast. Out came an array of pan stands, holding a batch of warm pastries: brioches, cakes, and muffins. Bowls of jam were set on the table, paired with a wooden spoon that would soon smear the red jelly onto an awaiting toasted bread. Light fluffy eggs filled half of each of their silver plates, along with sizzling hot bacon strips that made almost all of the Whites hum with pleasure.
As soon as the maids dispersed, they began their breakfast.
Mr. White was the first to speak as he placed a warm brioche on his plate. “Olive and Alice, you two look lovely this morning.”
The girls smiled in response. It was true. Olive and Alice White had grown into splendid women. Their brown wavy hair and beautiful round eyes, the same as their father’s, fit their face with such naturalness and beauty. As the years went by, ladies from the other manors began expressing their opinions on the girls’ growth, and stated that Olive and Alice White had become the most beautiful creatures in the county.
For the morning, they wore light blue and green chemises with elegantly designed corsets across their waists. Sparkling earrings hung from their ears and silver necklaces wrapped around their slim necks.
They appeared like shining jewels.
As Mr. White cut into the bacon, he slid a look toward his eldest daughter, Mercy White, and stated, “Mercy—you look…very fun! The brown gown suits your morning glow just nicely…”
Mercy gave him a funny look.
“I—I am just saying that…perhaps maybe a finer dress would have suited you better? Like your sisters’ outfits for example. Right?”
With food still half-chewed in her mouth, Mercy responded, “Father, let me ask you this: Why would I wear something so uncomfortable and unsuitable for such a feast?” She splayed her hands out toward the delicious breakfast.
“All I am saying is that it would not hurt to appear more elegant from time to time,” Mr. White sighed. “It’s good to remember that you are a lady.”
“Yes, yes, Father,” Mercy replied through the eggs in her mouth. “I am well aware that I am a lady. You don’t have to worry about me forgetting.”
Mr. White laughed softly as he shook his head. “Sometimes, it appears that you might have forgotten.”
“Dressing up in the morning is too tiresome. Brushing the tangles from my hair and decorating my face with jewelry and powder is too boring of a task.” Mercy smirked. “Why should I do all that if I can just throw on a gown and see all of you right away?”
Her father simply shook his head once more and continued eating.
Breakfast resumed its normal pace. Mercy was so distracted by the bread and the cake that she did not see the look passing between Olive and Alice.
“So, Mercy…” Olive began.
“What will you be wearing tonight?” Alice asked with an exciting look.
“Yes!” Olive squeaked. “I personally think green would look wonderful on you—”
“What is tonight?” Mercy interrupted, a confused look on her face.
Her youngest sister appeared surprised for a second before declaring, “Mercy, please don’t tell me you forgot! Alice and I have been preparing for this ball for weeks. We told you when we were invited that there would be a great ball held at Cunthor Manor!”
Mercy waved her hand dismissively. “Right, right. Forgive me for forgetting—it was just something I didn’t care to remember.”
“Oh, why not?!” Olive asked, shocked.
“You two go on without me,” Mercy answered. “Dance until your feet ache. Talk until your throat burns. Yes…do enjoy your time at the ball. I have no desire to do such tiring things.”
A frown tugged on Olive’s lips.
Alice drooped her shoulders in disappointment. “I do not want to go if you do not. It will be no fun without you, Mercy.”
“Me too,” Olive expressed. “If Mercy does not go, I will not go.”
Mr. White gingerly wiped his mouth with a napkin and cleared his throat. “Mercy, I think this is a great opportunity for you to spend time with your sisters. A ball! When was the last time you went to one?”
“Not long ago enough,” Mercy muttered.
“You should leave the manor, darling. Look at your sisters—look how sad they are already of your absence! They only want to have some fun with you. What can be the harm in that?”
Mercy parted her lips and then closed them. She spared Olive and Alice a glance, and, true to her father’s words, their frowns were deep and their eyes were filled with dramatic sadness. The last time they asked her to attend a ball, she had refused, preferring to stay in her bedchambers and read. If she rejected them again, she would not hear the end of it.
Olive and Alice both puckered their lips. “Please, Mercy. Oh, please!”
Mercy sighed. A few seconds went by as she tried to rationalize her options. When she finished, she said, rather hesitatingly, “All right…I’ll go.”
The two younger sisters’ screeches rang across the entire room, and Mercy tried not to regret her decision.
* * *
“Can I take it back?”
The three sisters were all in Olive’s bedchambers, with piles of dozens upon dozens of dresses and shoes and jewelry boxes. Olive sat by her vanity, leaning toward the mirror as she fluffed powder onto her cheeks, two faint pink splotches appearing over her pale face by the bed, Alice slid the wrinkles out of one of the pink Empire silhouette dressing gowns. She blushed as she twirled around, the long silk skirt swaying by her legs.
The smiles on both of her sisters’ faces dropped, however, at Mercy’s depressed plea.
Mercy sat on the edge of Olive’s bed with a tired expression. She was playing with a loose thread in the brown gown that she had casually thrown on this morning. She had never been so bored.
“You cannot take back your words, dear sister!” Olive reprimanded without taking her eyes off the mirror. “At the breakfast table, your very words were: All right…I’ll go.” She mimicked Mercy’s voice by deepening her tone.
“I do not speak like that.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter how you speak. What matters is what you said.”
Alice cut in. “And you said that you would go with us to the ball.”
Mercy scratched her head. “I think you both are starting to lose your memories. I don’t remember saying such a thing actually…”
Continuing on as if Mercy had not even uttered a single word, the two sisters resumed their tasks. Usually, a maid would assist them in dressing, but for today’s special occasion, the sisters decided that they would spend some alone time together. A true sibling-bonding activity. Though, Mercy would have much preferred to go hunting with them or something.
Alice bent down to retrieve another dress. This time, the dress was opal blue with a shimmering skirt that sparkled in the light. From under the bed, she grabbed a pair of dazzling silver heels that she quickly slipped on. Her pale, slender feet slid in smoothly, and a bright smile lit up her face.
“You are going to look very beautiful tonight, Alice,” Mercy said softly as she looked at the happy look on Alice’s face.
“Thank you!” Alice giggled as she twirled around to show off the shoes. She stopped suddenly, however, when she spotted something by the corner of the bed. She stooped down and grabbed the top of a green dress and splayed it out for Mercy to see. “And so will you! Look at this gorgeous dress. This is just the one for you!”
Olive spun away from the mirror, eyes widening as she gazed upon the dress. “Mercy, that is the perfect dress for you.”
A grimace filled Mercy’s expression. “Really?”
She felt nothing for the dress: A forest green gown, long and straight, with a low and wide neckline inlaid with gold embroidery. The high waistline gave way to a long green silk skirt that ended with golden trimmings that glimmered as it swayed. Mercy frowned. All she could think about was how scratchy it would make her feel and how uncomfortable it would be to dance and walk around in. Where were the trousers and the comfortable shoes? Why could women not wear more comfortable outfits to the ball? Surely the dances would be more fun.
Mercy frowned at the dress. “No,” she refused.
“No?” The sisters simultaneously asked in shock.
Olive spluttered, “It’s so beautiful, though!”
“Uncomfortable, more like…”
“Mercy…” Alice whined.
Standing abruptly from her seat, Olive planted herself right in front of Mercy and peered up at her dear old sister with an incredibly sad expression. “What if this is our last ball? What if something terrible, God forbid, happens to us, Mercy? Olive and I…we just want to experience one entertaining night with our older sister. Just the three of us, no one else.”
“Don’t forget about Father,” Mercy sighed.
“Mercy.” Alice walked around the bed and sat next to Mercy, who was beginning to grow weak. “You always say you love us, but…how much of that is true?”
“Alice!” Mercy gasped.
“Stand up. Wear this beautiful dress,” Olive said, “and join us to the ball. That’s all that we ask of you.”
Olive and Alice both stared at Mercy with puckered lips and doe-like eyes. As time went by, the thread keeping Mercy intact began to grow thinner and thinner, until it finally snapped. A long groan emitted from Mercy’s lips until she drooped over in defeat. “Fine. All right, you two, stop staring at me like that.”
Hope gleamed in their eyes.
Mercy sighed. “Give me the dress.”
After a couple of tight squeezes and multiple pinches, Mercy stood in front of the mirror, trying to hide the distaste on her face. Olive and Alice both looked over her shoulder with wonder in their eyes. The green ball dress accentuated Mercy’s green eyes, bringing out their light and sharpening them enough to make any man’s chest burn with desire. Olive had brushed Mercy’s long, unruly hair enough so that it could be wrapped into a neat, shiny chignon, exposing her entire face.
The sisters sighed, entirely in awe.
“What is it?” Mercy asked while uncomfortably squirming in place.
Olive gently wrapped her hands around Mercy’s arm and squeezed with unconstrained love. “Nobody is as beautiful as you.”
Alice nodded in agreement, grabbing Mercy’s other arm. “You are naturally beautiful. Look at your eyes, your cheeks, your already-red lips. You do not have to put on anything else because of how naturally stunning your features are!”
Upon hearing her sisters’ kind, albeit exaggerated, words, Mercy could not help but laugh. “That is nonsense! I look very plain.”
Shaking her head resolutely, Olive said with assurance, “Every lady in the ton is jealous of you, Mercy. You are too busy frowning and too bored to notice the stares that they give you! But Alice and I can see them. They wish to look like you. Your beauty is the talk of the ton.”
Mercy’s brows furrowed as she looked at her reflection once more. She could not believe Olive’s words; how could she? In the mirror, all she saw was a plain girl with plain brown hair and plain features. There was nothing to be jealous of. The ladies of the ton either had to be blind or Olive had to be lying. Otherwise, nothing of what Olive had said could be true. “Nonsense,” Mercy mumbled.
“Not only are the ladies aware of your beauty,” Alice said with a slight blush. “But the men are, too. Every man in the ton would file into a long, long line just to ask for your hand in marriage. If only you weren’t so repelled by men and so hot-tempered.”
Mercy rolled her eyes and walked away from the mirror. “I have no desire to attract a man or receive his hand in marriage. I will never marry any man, ever. Why would I? All the men in the ton are boring and much too illogical for my taste.”
When Mercy finished another one of the frequent tirades of her deep hatred of marriage and men, Olive and Alice glanced at each other, a hint of pity in each of their eyes.
Before they could retort anything, there was a knock at the door.
Mr. White walked into the room, and the sisters all immediately stood straight and smiled—well, except for Mercy, who stood off to the side, slightly hunched over with a displeased expression still plastered on her face.
Despite her look, Mr. White grinned upon seeing his daughters all dressed up. “You all look very beautiful tonight.”
Olive wore a gorgeous blue gown that highlighted her slender form and petite frame. Her curly brown hair had, just like Mercy’s, been wrapped in a chignon, revealing her rosy round cheeks and button nose.
Right beside her, Alice stood tall with the opal blue dress hugging her figure. Long white silk sleeves covered her from her elbows down, coupled with rings over her slender fingers. Her brown hair was strung up with two layers of curls framing her heart-shaped face.
Mr. White smiled at them both before turning to Mercy. He stepped forward and held both of her hands, squeezing them gently. “May I ask for one favor?”
Mercy pursed her lips before smiling slightly. “Yes, Father?”
“Please behave at the ball: Smile; don’t engage in useless arguments with anyone. And do try to at least be civil with the men.”
“That sounds like more than one favor.”
Mr. White raised a brow.
Holding back a disgruntled sigh, Mercy replied, “Yes, Father, I will try my best. Though I cannot promise anything.”
“Unfortunately the last time you said the same thing before a ball, you told Lord Pembroke—who, I heard, had asked you kindly for a single dance—that you would rather die than accept.”
Olive and Alice looked down, trying to mask their giggles with a look of disappointment.
Shaking her head, Mercy argued, “Lord Pembroke is a fool.”
“He was extremely offended and thus complained to me and no doubt to the rest of the ton. Words carry, Mercy. You must remember that.”
“I do not care how he feels—I hate the man entirely. Father. Instead of lecturing me, you should tell Lord Pembroke to stay away from me. That is the only agreeable solution.”
Understanding that his daughter would not back down, he sighed, “Just promise me that you will behave.”
Mercy fidgeted in her spot, clenching and unclenching her fists. The experience with Lord Pembroke was a nasty one and a memory that she would rather forget quickly. That such a man as Lord Pembroke would ask for a dance with her—how outrageous! The only regret Mercy had from that ball was that she had not pushed him or said something even more rude.
With a deep sigh, Mercy slowly nodded her head. “I promise.”
As if that response was enough, Mr. White smiled with relief and assisted Olive and Alice from the bedchamber to where a carriage awaited for them. Mercy followed behind with a faint frown.
Though she had promised her father to behave properly, she could not guarantee that she would. If a man like Lord Pembroke were to come up to her, the possibilities were endless, none of them good. She could not guarantee that she could plaster on a simple smile and dance with any old man. Something so tedious and boring would only give her insufferable pain.
Mercy clasped her hands together tightly as Olive and Alice hopped into the carriage, a bright, joyous expression on their faces. Her father stood by the carriage door, giving her a trusting look that could only mean he believed that she would keep her promise.
A sigh escaped her lips.
She had to keep the promise, no matter how tough it might be.
Mercy could only hope that no man would force her to break it.
In the Cornwall Mansion, the Baron of Cornwall, Caleb Griffiths, was preparing for the ball.
He stood tall in front of the mirror, adjusting the white cravat wrapped in an intricate pattern. His hands guided down to smooth the dark waistcoat that hugged his tight figure. Though his outfit might be neat and pristine, it was his handsome face that was the most awe-inspiring.
Dimples pierced the charming smile that split across his strong face, and his dark eyes, almost black, twinkled with allure. A sharp and bold jawline sculpted his face, making him appear hard and athletic. Shiny black hair curled over his forehead and left just enough exposure so that any lady in the ton might take one look at him and see all of their desires.
Caleb was aware of his attractiveness, and it was because of this that he smiled in the mirror, a hint of pride in his eyes.
Just then there was a knock at the door. Through the reflection of the mirror, Caleb watched as his best friend, Ben Morris, the Count of Sielle, entered the room. He spun around and splayed his hands outward, showcasing his whole attire, paired with a shining smile. “Ben, how does your dear old friend look?”
With a roll of his eyes, Ben sat down in one of the chairs. “When do you ever look bad?”
Caleb nodded his head, accepting his friend’s response. He laughed as he said, “I guess the only good thing I inherited from my parents was a pretty face.”
“Now, don’t be so bitter.”
“I was only joking.” Caleb looked into the mirror once more, though any hint of his previous pride was now lost. A displeased look passed over his face. “What I meant to say is that it wouldn’t have hurt to have money and a grander title to my name. Perhaps I would have had a better life with a better reputation.”
Noticing his friend’s change in demeanor, Ben uncrossed his legs and leaned forward, a serious look on his face. “If you work hard enough, surely you can still earn good money. I know of a few people who have been born into great wealth, and they grew up with a poor mindset. With great effort and perseverance, you are capable of being very rich, not just with money. And do not forget that you are also a baron, a good title to bear.”
Hearing the last sentence, Caleb shook his head. “Baron is a good title, but I would much rather be a duke.”
“Well—I cannot help you with that, my friend.”
“Was it not you who just said I could achieve anything with effort and perseverance?”
“I see you did not listen closely to my words, again. I did not say miracles can happen.”
Caleb sighed before nodding his head once. “You’re right. I know.”
“Though if you marry the daughter of a duke with no brothers, there may be a chance,” Ben said rather offhandedly.
Caleb turned around briskly, a new and inspired expression filling his face. With wide eyes lit with hope, he exclaimed excitedly, “Ben, will I be able to inherit the title of a duke if I do that? If I marry the daughter of a duke?”
Ben paused for a moment, slightly alarmed by his friend’s exhilarated face. Slowly, he said, “Well, yes. Only if the daughter is the oldest and there are no brothers in the family—no heirs to the fortune and title. If you marry her, there is a possibility that her father will pass the dukedom to his daughter’s husband.”
That is it, Caleb thought. This was the perfect way to achieve the title of duke, a wish that he had had for so long. All he had to do was find the eldest daughter of a duke, with no heirs in the family to inherit the father’s fortune and earn the dukedom by marrying the eldest girl. It was a clear path ahead of him, and Caleb could not help the determination that surged through him. He could not believe that he had not thought of this sooner! What a splendid, brilliant plan, and he had only just thought of it now. This was what he would do. Caleb Griffiths, the Baron of Cornwall, finally had hopes of becoming a duke.
“Tell me you are not actually thinking about it?” Ben asked, worried. “About something so foolish.”
“Ben, it is not foolish. It is a brilliant plan!”
“I should not have opened my mouth,” Ben cursed himself. “Caleb, listen to me. This is cheating. Marriage is a beautiful thing, and I want you to experience its beauty. Do not marry for money or for a title—you will only be alone in the end. Marry for love, my friend. For love.”
Caleb waved his hand dismissively. “Those are all ancient notions. Money is the most important thing in my life right now—my main priority—not a wife.”
Ben tried to argue once more but was disrupted by Caleb’s dragging him up from the chair. “Come on, Ben. Let’s not quarrel. We do not have the time; we must hurry to the ball!”
Looking rather dejected and concerned, Ben followed Caleb through the halls and out of the manor. Caleb, on the other hand, looked livelier than ever. A bright, mischievous gleam glinted in his dark eyes.
He would need his good looks tonight.
* * *
Upon arriving at Cunther Manor, the two men, Caleb and his friend, Ben, walked inside and were immediately bombarded with the extravagant flourishes that usually accompanied a ball. A grand chandelier hung from the high ceiling, lighting up the entire room with shimmering shades of yellow and white. The gentlemen all conversed with one another, adorned in their richest coats and trousers, a drink in their hands. The ladies, in their corsets and frilled dresses, giggled behind their white-gloved hands, their curls bouncing around their petite faces. Conversations echoed throughout the ball, along with a soft orchestral accompaniment in the background.
“What a grand ball!” Ben exclaimed.
“Yes, yes…” Caleb flippantly answered; he was too busy scouring the entire room, from one corner to the next, with only one goal in mind: To find a duke with only daughters and no male heirs. “Shall we mingle with the guests, then?”
He marched toward a small group of ladies, Ben hurriedly trailing behind him. Upon seeing these two men, the girls perked up and straightened their postures. When they snuck a glance at Caleb, however, they blushed and grew a little shy.
Caleb bowed. “Good evening, ladies.”
The girls all curtsied.
“You all look very beautiful tonight.” The ladies all expressed their gratitude. Caleb turned to the girl closest to him, who stood shorter than him by half a foot and was currently staring at him with wide eyes. When he caught her staring, she looked away, embarrassed. “May I ask for your name?” he asked, voice lowering.
Her response was quiet. “Annabelle Kent, Lord Griffiths.”
“Of course—a beautiful name for a beautiful lady.”
Annabelle’s face grew as red as a tomato.
By deep into the evening, Caleb had left a trail of more and more ladies who grew red and flustered. One girl almost spilled her drink on his coat. Another was so awed, that she could not stop hiccupping. Another lady could not stop smiling at him, which made Caleb slightly uncomfortable, such that he had to leave immediately. All of the ladies’ blushed faces and attentive eyes fueled Caleb’s flirtations. He understood this folly of women, how they might easily melt under the influence of a single conversation with an attractive man. A prolonged look or a gentle smile could go a long way. It seemed that Caleb had perfected the art of flirtation, knowing the ins and outs of what a woman desired.
He had talked to almost every lady in the room, smoothly transitioning from one group to another. His looks granted him this talent. The girls flocked to him with intrigue. Caleb saw all of it, and he was not afraid to take advantage of the power he had over all of the ladies.
Ben, who had been trailing behind Caleb the entire time, had finally had enough of it and grabbed Caleb’s arm before he could approach another group of ladies. “Stop! I beg of you—stop!”
Caleb turned, brows raised. “Is something the matter?”
A look of apprehension filled Ben’s bright blue eyes. His blonde hair was slightly disheveled due to him traipsing after Caleb’s long gait. “You are taking this too far. Several of the ladies here are being escorted by their fathers,” he reminded Caleb. “And the fathers do not take kindly to your…dalliance with their daughters.”
Caleb released his arm from Ben’s grasp and sighed. “If their father is not a duke, I do not care.”
Suddenly, everyone dispersed toward the wall, leaving the dance floor open. The orchestra switched to their next piece, one more jovial for dancing. The men turned toward their ladies and asked for a dance. As people began to float towards the dance floor, Caleb glanced around the room, looking for a partner.
Just then, his eyes fell on the Duke of Norfolk, who stood with his three daughters. Caleb paused to think about Lord White’s family. He remembered how there were no sons in the family, only three beautiful girls, who the duke cared for deeply. The eldest one, Caleb recollected, was Mercy White. Through the talk of the ton, Caleb had heard quite interesting things about her. He had once overheard how offensive she could be and that she had a difficult temperament. Quite an impossible woman to be with. He had also heard that she was without a husband. Caleb paused for a moment, anticipation slowly building in his chest. Could this be…?
“Ben,” Caleb asked for his friend without taking his eyes off the Duke of Norfolk. “Have you met the Duke of Norfolk and his family?”
“Yes, I have…”
“Brilliant. Who is the sweetest daughter?”
“Oh, that would be Olive White, the youngest. She has a very lovely disposition.”
Caleb nodded once. He knew what he had to do. His long legs strode across the room, heading toward the duke and his daughters. He quickly adjusted his tie and made sure that his coat was without any wrinkles. With a quick sweep of his hand through his otherwise perfect hair, he finally stood before Olive White, a charming grin already on his face.
“Lady Olive,” Caleb greeted with a gentle bow. “May I have this dance?”
Without hesitation, Olive nodded quickly and took his hand.
He led her to the dance floor with a poised posture. When he let go of her hand, they assumed their respective positions. Caleb took the time to observe her appearance. She had beautiful and shiny brown hair and small, kind eyes. He was not sure if it was powder or a natural blush that dusted her cheeks. Her nose was small and quite adorable; they scrunched when she smiled. Caleb was not too presumptuous to admit that she was a pretty woman. A couple of seconds went by before the strings moved and the song began. Caleb, very efficient and dominant, led Olive through the dance, holding her hand just so, and supported her back with care.
A smile lit up her face. “Thank you for this dance, Lord Griffiths.”
“It is my absolute pleasure.”
They spun and twirled, his hand gripping onto hers. Then suddenly, he dipped her, and she giggled. “You are a very good dancer!”
“A dancer can only be good if his partner is beautiful.”
The dance continued, and Caleb was appreciative of Olive White’s beauty and grace. She was kind, her words sweet and gentle. When he held her hand, she was careful not to hold it too tight. When he spun her, she greeted him with a soft and shy smile. Though she was amazing, she was not the duke’s eldest daughter.
“Do you frequently attend these sorts of balls?” Caleb inquired smoothly.
Olive nodded. “Yes, I do.”
“And your sisters accompany you?”
“I come mostly with my older sister, Alice; we do almost everything together! Although sometimes it seems like she has two left feet when she dances. Do not tell her I said that!”
Caleb laughed gently. “Your secret is safe with me. How about your other sister?”
“My oldest sister is not often interested in these types of events.”
“Yes! I do not think she understands the appeal of dances and dresses.” Olive laughed and a look of complete adoration covered her face. “She was adamant about not attending this very ball. It took a few pushes before she finally relented. People might presume her to be rude, but she is very funny and kind when she is with us.”
“You must love your sisters very much.”
“More than anything.”
The song reached a crescendo as Caleb twirled Olive once more, her pink dress swirling with her movement. He asked, “You said Lady Mercy is uninterested in balls. Why is that?”
Olive pursed her lips, contemplative. “They just don’t make her comfortable is all. I think she much prefers to spend time without the constraint of a fancy dress.”
“I see… Pardon my bluntness, but why is Lady Mercy without a husband?”
Olive blushed slightly. “She is currently looking for a potential match, the right man suitable for her disposition and interests.”
Caleb nodded. “And what are her interests, and her disinterests?”
Answering in great detail, Olive began to list Lady Mercy’s favorite activities. Caleb learned that the eldest daughter quite enjoyed her time outdoors, either hunting with her father or simply riding through the woods. Olive expressed that sometimes when she could not find her sister, she usually had to take only one look outside of the window to find Lady Mercy walking down a pathway. As for disinterests, it was apparent that Olive was being lenient. She stated that Mercy abhorred uncleanliness and disobedience. She was very strict with others, but more so with herself. Everything had to be in order. But most of all—she hated when people asked her to change.
When the music ended, Caleb bowed, and Olive curtsied. He held out his arm for her to take, and escorted her back to the duke.
“Thank you for the lovely dance and conversation, Lady Olive.”
Olive smiled and tipped her head.
Caleb looked at the duke, who regarded him with neither interest nor indifference, and bowed low. Then he spun around, walking away toward his best friend, who looked at him with raised brows. Hope lit up Caleb’s face, and a feeling of faith overwhelmed him, an emotion that he had not felt in a long time.
Tonight had been a miracle in and of itself. It could not have ended in a better way.
“How was the dance with Lady Olive?” Ben asked. “It looked as if you were interviewing her rather than dancing…”
“It went perfectly,” Caleb murmured.
“I do not like that look on your face,” Ben said. “It always means you’re up to no good.”
Caleb did not respond; he was too busy looking far off into the distance, a plan already forming in his head.
The birds twittered as the sun rose the next morning. Norfolk Manor was quiet, save for the crisp turn of a page and an occasional sound of needles in fabric. In the drawing-room, the three White sisters relaxed, soaking in the peaceful ambiance of the morning, which was very much needed after an intense night of dancing and talking.
Mercy and Alice sat next to each other on the same couch while their youngest sister Olive sat in an armchair, knitting a yarn blanket that seemed to be growing longer and longer by the second.
With a small quirk of her lips, Olive glanced at her two sisters and asked with an air of nonchalance, “At the ball last night, who did you two meet and dance with?”
Mercy raised a brow as she put the book down on her lap, noticing an interesting smile on Olive’s face. Before she could ask why Olive looked like she was hiding something, Alice answered with passion.
“Oh, I danced with several fine gentlemen last night! There was Lord Morris, the Count of Sielle, who was very gentle and kind. He had charm, and his blue eyes were very pretty, but, unfortunately, he was not my type. Then, I danced with Lord Curzon, the Earl of Carligh. My darling sisters, come closer…”
Mercy and Olive both leaned forward from their seats.
“He is everything I’ve ever wanted and more! Oh, he is just my type! His eyes, his dark hair, his height, his strength. He was a very marvelous dancer indeed! I simply floated across the floor. He held me, and I melted. What is even better is that Lord Curzon is not only gifted with looks and movement, but he is also very smart. I cannot remember how long we stood by the wall, simply conversing with one another about all of our interests! For instance, we both love to read; he even went so far as to recommend me a book, written by someone whose name I can’t even pronounce—which is what I am reading right now.” Alice giggled as she brought her book close to her chest. “Last night was magical.”
A soft smile appeared on Mercy’s lips as she watched Alice blush and grow flustered from just the thought of Lord Curzon. She was very glad that her sister had a wonderful time at the ball. In other words, she was quite glad that at least one of them had had a pleasant night out.
“How wonderful!” Olive squealed. Then she cast Mercy a Cheshire-like grin. “How about you, Mercy? Did you meet anyone like Lord Curzon?”
“Of course not. Unfortunately, several men did approach me and ask for a dance.”
“How foolish of them to even try and ask,” Mercy said with disdain.
“I simply told them that I refused to step on the dance floor. And when they pestered me some more, I confessed that I have two left feet, and if they do not wish to be stepped on and bruised for the duration of the night, then they should leave me be.”
Olive and Alice both rolled their eyes at the same time. Mercy’s behavior was not a surprise to them. To presume that Mercy would ever accept a man’s request for a dance was foolish! Every time they convinced Mercy to go along with them to a ball, something disagreeable occurred. When a man dared to approach Mercy, she would not be afraid to put them down, her outright disgust plain on her face. She would not try to hide it either. Sometimes, she would catch Olive and Alice watching the incident and panic, rushing forward to apologize on her behalf. But their efforts were all for naught, as Mercy would only just shield them behind her back and go on offending the men some more.
“Mercy,” Alice began. “You are a very talented dancer. You cannot use that poor excuse to reject all of these men.”
Mercy pondered for a moment. “Indeed, I am a great dancer, though I would rather perish than dance at any of the boring celebrations of the season. People only dance because they have a hidden incentive, not purely for the pleasure of dancing. They want something more. And they have no problem moving their feet just as much as their mouths! It seems their lips are always running; there is only gossip at those balls.”
Alice and Olive both shook their heads, unwilling to quarrel with their adamant older sister. Thus, it became Olive’s turn for answering the inquiry.
Alice turned toward Olive and asked excitedly, “Well, how about you, Olive. Surely your night turned out much better than Mercy’s?”
“It was quite an interesting night indeed.” Olive smiled with an odd glint in her eyes. “I danced with Lord Griffiths.”
A squeal flew out of Alice’s mouth, so loud and shrill that Mercy flinched. “How could I forget?! He asked you first out of any other lady in the room!”
“Do not spare any details, sister! Tell me—tell me how was it?”
After composing herself from Alice’s squeal, Mercy straightened and asked with a confused look, “Alice, why did you make that horrible noise?”
“Because Olive, our sister, danced with Lord Griffiths!”
“And?! Lord Griffiths is the most handsome man in the entire ton. He is the Baron of Cornwall, single and absolutely perfect in all of his features. His hair, dark as the night, and his eyes even darker.” She sighed. “Every lady in the ton wonders what thoughts occur behind those mysterious eyes. When he speaks, Mercy, oh when he speaks, it is a gift for all of our ears.”
Mercy raised a brow. “What happened to the handsome Lord Curzon?”
“You cannot place Lord Curzon and Lord Griffiths on the same pedestal. That is too rude.”
“Well,” Mercy began with an eye roll. “I’m sure that Lord Griffiths is not the most handsome man in the entire ton. I will admit that there are more pleasing-looking men.”
Mercy had seen the famous Lord Griffiths in passing several times at an occasional ball or two. They had never had a conversation together, and she did not plan on starting one anytime soon. He stayed in his own world, so Mercy would gladly stay in hers. When she did spare him a single glance, though, she never really focused on his appearance. She was too busy wishing to be somewhere else, either bored or exhausted, praying in her head that the Lord would not ask her for a dance or try to engage in pitiful conversation. Lord Griffiths had never once been the object of Mercy’s appreciation. So it was because of this that she could not relate to her two sisters, who seemed very, very excited about the dance the previous night.
Olive shook her head ferociously. “Alice is right, Mercy. There is no other man more handsome than Lord Griffiths. It is difficult to even try and name one.”
“Well, there is—”
“Very difficult!” Alice and Olive both shrieked.
Mercy sighed and leaned back against the sofa, playing with a stray thread on her chemise. There was no arguing with the two passionate girls.
Seeing that Mercy had backed off, Olive pushed onwards with determination. “Lord Griffiths is not only handsome, but he is kind, polite, charming, and an excellent dancer.” She joked, “Perhaps a better dancer than you, Mercy.”
Mercy rolled her eyes. “Impossible.”
“Will you court him, Olive?” Alice blurted suddenly.
There was a brief pause in the drawing-room, where Mercy and Alice stared at Olive with curiosity. Could this be Olive’s future husband, an addition to their family? How would their father react? Would he be a suitable man for the family? Of course, these were all mainly Alice’s questions; Mercy simply sweated at the thought of her little baby sister growing older.
All of these musings were cut short when Olive burst into laughter.
“We danced, but it was obvious that Lord Griffiths was thinking about someone else.”
Upon hearing this, Mercy suddenly stood from the couch, her book tumbling to the floor. A look of complete anger and distrust overcame her face. Her fists clenched by her sides. “What? He dares to ask you for dance even though he was interested in someone else?!” Of course—of course, this would happen! Men were not to be trusted. They were completely despicable and deceitful, selfish in every way possible. Her dear baby sister had been lured in by Lord Griffith’s looks, and she would be the one to suffer in the end. Why would he even ask her for a dance to begin with? If he was so distracted throughout the dance that Olive had noticed, then he was not a very kind or smart man at all! Mercy could not stop the anger from growing by the second.
She continued her tirade. “Olive, you have to be careful with men like him. They ask you to dance, then they ask for your hand in marriage. They are always scheming with ill intentions, and you will be hurt in the end. You will be trapped in a prison with a terrible man as a husband. I do not want that for you, Olive.”
Seeing how angry she had become, Olive tried to calm Mercy down. “Now, Mercy, hold on a second. Let me finish.”
Mercy clenched her jaw before slowly sitting back down.
“Lord Griffiths was thinking about someone else. It was apparent that he was interested in someone other than me—someone who obviously would reject him if he asked for a dance. So it was through me that he had to get to know that girl.”
Mercy’s brows furrowed with confusion. She did not understand. She was confused why Olive was looking at her excitedly. And when she turned to Alice, she saw that Alice, too, was looking at her with excitement, eyes widening as if something in her head had clicked; a suspicious smile also split across Alice’s face.
“I don’t understand,” Mercy said.
Alice began to laugh, almost hysterical. Her eyes squeezed shut as she covered her mouth to temper her outburst.
Mercy was more confused than ever.
“Mercy…” Olive started slowly. “Lord Griffiths, the most handsome man in the ton…”
“The one he is interested in…” Alice piped in.
“…Is you!” They both screamed joyously in unison.
The two girls erupted in laughter as a look of complete bewilderment dawned on Mercy’s face.
“During the entire dance, he only asked about you! ‘What are Lady Mercy’s interests and disinterests? Do tell me! I must know or I will simply die!’” Olive exaggerated with a dramatic flourish of her hands.
Mercy was completely silent as her two younger sisters erupted in another bout of laughter. It seemed as if her mind had entirely shut off, leaving her to stare blankly at the wall. It took a couple of seconds for her head to match up with her ears. And when it clicked, she was left completely stunned. She did not know whether to scream or cry.
Lord Griffiths was interested in her?
How was that possible?
She tried to remember every single time they had ever crossed paths. After struggling for a few seconds, she found herself at a loss. There was no spark of interest on his behalf. This simply could not be true. A man like Lord Griffiths…?
Finally finding her voice, Mercy mumbled, “You are lying.”
“I am not!” Olive argued. “His hand was on mine, but his eyes were on you!”
“Why would…” Mercy spoke slowly. “Why would someone as handsome as Lord Griffiths be interested in someone like me?”
Olive and Alice stared at her blankly, almost in shock. After a moment of stunned silence, they both said at the same time: “Because you are the most beautiful lady in the ton!”
Mercy reared back, confused.
In the few moments when she glanced in the mirror upon waking up every morning, she briefly saw a head messy brown hair and a face with normal features. She wore neither makeup nor any sparkling jewelry. Her fashion was mediocre at best. She had grown up hearing that she was an exceptional beauty, but she had never thought too much about that. The only beautiful aspect about herself was her green eyes. The same green eyes she had inherited from her mother. Now, her mother was an exceptional beauty, through and through. She was the most beautiful woman Mercy had ever seen. Mercy had always thought to herself that she could never be as pretty as the former duchess of Norfolk Manor. And now this? Suddenly Lord Griffiths—the most handsome man in the ton, by her sisters’ accounts—was intrigued by Mercy?
That could not be! Surely, Olive had misread the entire situation. He was probably only curious about Olive’s family, about her sisters. And Mercy was frequently the center of everyone’s gossip. As a man-repeller and a single woman of twenty-five years, Mercy was always talked about in a negative light. Lord Griffiths was surely just asking harmless questions about Mercy, to satiate his curiosity, such that Olive took it as him being interested in Mercy!
With this final thought, Mercy looked at Olive and said resolutely, “You must be mistaken. Lord Griffiths would never be interested in me.”
Mercy had never felt like this before. It was all so confusing and strange! It was only just this morning that she had woken up with thoughts of frustration and annoyance toward her sore feet, but now there were worse things to worry about.
Such as Lord Griffith.
Just the name gave her a migraine.
Only a few minutes had passed, and Olive and Alice were still staring at her with wide eyes, a look of complete excitement plastered on their faces. They seemed to be waiting for Mercy to say something—anything—about how she might feel about this whole ordeal.
Mercy frowned and stood abruptly from the couch.
Her sisters looked up at her with anticipation.
“I must go…out,” Mercy mumbled, slightly disoriented. “Yes, I must go to clear my head.”
“Where will you be going?” Olive asked as Mercy walked toward the door.
“I’ll be riding.”
Without allowing Olive or Alice the time to say anything more, Mercy marched out of the drawing room, out of the Manor, and toward the back garden.
At times when she needed to think., her legs always lead her to the stables. She entered through the gate and walked to her horse; Apple was a strong horse, with light brown matted fur, glistening under the heat of the sun, and big, muscular legs. Mercy could not help but smile as she caressed the horse’s neck and gently pet her snout. A feeling of calm washed over her.
Grabbing a saddle, she quickly and efficiently threw it over the horse’s back, tightening and clipping the leather until it was secured. Mercy had done this so many times that she felt as if she could do it in her sleep.
She remembered the first time she had entered the stable and how her father had taught her how to saddle a horse.
“Mercy darling,” he had said, “saddling a horse is one of the most important skills a person must learn in life!”
“Really, Father? Even for ladies?”
Her father had nodded his head resolutely. “Of course—even for ladies. Your mother rode horses all the time when she was younger, and she loved it. I want you, my first child, to learn how to ride a horse as well.”
“Yes, Father.” A large smile completely overtook Mercy’s entire face. She was so excited to see her father’s excitement. So she stood by her father the whole day, plastered by his side in the stable, as he taught her where to hold the horse and how to buckle the saddle. Though her legs were too short to reach the stirrups, she still felt like an adult, learning adult things.
When her father picked her up and placed her on the saddle, Mercy felt like she was on top of the world. The ground seemed farther away and the sky seemed closer. And when she first started riding the horse, she felt as if she was flying.
When her mother passed away, Mercy began riding horses almost every day. She remembered how she would always sneak away into the stables whenever she felt the beginnings of a migraine. Then she would ride out into the woods with her horse. The feeling of the wind whipping her hair and the leaves caressing her cheeks made her feel alive. Unlike the suffocating rooms of the manor, where Mercy could almost always feel the absence of her mother, the outside world felt like a welcoming embrace, where Mercy could simply close her eyes and breathe.
Once, in the morning of a terrible, dreary day, Mercy had run out of the house after seeing her mother’s empty spot at the breakfast table. She had never saddled a horse with such speed before, but at that point, it felt like second nature. She then hopped onto the horse, without the help of her father, and soared through the stable gates and into the woods. Mercy did not remember how long she stayed out there, but the day dragged on, and she traveled deeper and deeper into the forest. Time escaped her. Her surroundings calmed her down and quieted her rampant thoughts. Hours seem to go on until she heard her father’s voice calling her name in the distance.
“Mercy! Mercy—where are you! Mercy!” His shrill shrieks rang through the forest; a flock of birds flew from the trees.
When he had finally caught up to her, he was so worried that there were tears brimming his eyes. Mercy remembered feeling completely shocked. He embraced her, begging her never to run off like that again without telling him.
She could only nod, her voice escaping her.
Since that day, she had always been careful, though her love of horse riding had never changed.
There were times when Mercy desired to spend some time alone with herself and to clear her head. And a nice horse riding always calmed Mercy down. That would never change.
So, with her foot in the stirrup, Mercy pulled herself up and over, landing on the horse’s back with practiced ease. Grasping onto the cantle, Mercy urged Apple forward, leading them both out of the stable and into the fresh air.
She immediately turned in the direction of the woods.
Mercy closed her eyes briefly as she focused on her senses. The sound of the horse’s hoofbeats, the leaves crunching on the ground, and the wind rustling through the swaying trees cleared her head almost instantly. There was an occasional twitter of a bird. Or a crinkle of the straw patches of grass. No loud noises, no overbearing ladies of the ton, and no voices telling Mercy about things she could not understand.
She would much rather spend a peaceful day of riding horses than a gallant night out at some extravagant ball, with glittering, scratchy dresses and sore feet.
In one of the trees she passed, Mercy spotted a small nest perched in the branches. Three little eggs nestled together inside. If she were a talented artist, Mercy would paint the image on a canvas and have it framed.
Just under Apple’s hooves, a sprightly frog hopped from one log to another, so fast that Mercy almost missed it. She smiled down at the insects burrowed in the ground of the forest. There was an entire ecosystem underneath the ground she walked on. Though it might sound disgusting, the thought comforted Mercy.
Mercy had once taken Alice and Olive horse riding, just for fun and to show them how nice and enjoyable it could be. It had only lasted ten minutes before the two sisters had started screaming with fright and disgust.
“Help, Mercy—help!” Olive had shrieked. “There’s a bug on my sleeve!”
Alice had shielded her eyes with her hands. “Quick! Get it off!”
It was, in fact, not a bug but rather a dead brown leaf that had floated down from one of the trees.
They promptly returned home.
After the short ride, Alice and Olive told Mercy that she may do as she pleased, so long as the two of them weren’t pulled into it. The woods, they claimed, was not the most desirable place to be in, and that if they were forced to venture into such a place again, they would want someone else to steer the horse for them rather than make them do all the physical labor.
Mercy, at the time, had shaken her head with pity. “Now you understand how I feel when you beg me to attend those measly balls,” she wanted to say but ended up keeping the thought to herself.
They were missing out on such a peaceful activity.
Since then, she only went horse riding by herself or with her father. Mercy hadn’t complained too much about it.
As Mercy laughed softly to herself at the memories, her horse suddenly stuttered to a complete stop.
Mercy’s brows furrowed. Apple puffed a breath of air and stepped backward. Mercy began to grow wary, knowing that her horse acted like this only when something unusual occurred.
“What’s wrong, Apple?”
In the next second, the answer came.
The sound of another horse’s hoofbeats could be heard in the distance.
It came closer and closer; Mercy clenched the cantle with trepidation.
Who else could be in the woods at this hour? At the same time as Mercy herself? Usually during this time of day, the woods were empty for miles and miles. Rarely did she ever see anyone else enter the forest for a simple horse-riding excursion. Mercy’s brows pinched together with annoyance. Everything was so calming and peaceful! Who dared to disrupt the quiet?
Just then, a horse emerged through the lush trees, revealing a brilliant white stallion. On its back was a man with impossibly black hair, even darker eyes, a handsome physique, and a countenance that made Mercy’s breath stutter.
It was none other than Lord Griffiths himself!
She grit her teeth in exasperation. What were the chances! She had escaped into the quiet woods, looking for a bit of peace and quiet, away from the talk of a man named Lord Griffiths who was apparently interested in Mercy, only for her to bump into that exact man!
Mercy had to stop herself from urging the horse to retreat back home.
“Good morning, Lady Mercy,” Lord Griffiths said, his lips quirking slightly in a presumably timid smile.
She did not respond and tried to hide the shock on her face. A hoard of questions bombarded her head: Why was he out in the forest at the same time as her? Had Lord Griffiths always taken this route? What were the chances? Had he been following her?
With increasing suspicion, Mercy gave Lord Griffiths a guarded look. “Lord Griffiths, what are you doing out here in the woods, especially at this hour?”
If he was surprised at her blatant question, he did not show it. He appeared entirely unconcerned and answered with ease. “I came here to ride, as I usually do.”
“I see,” Mercy replied curtly.
The breath almost instantly left her lungs. She remembered her sisters’ words, about how Lord Griffiths was the most handsome man in the ton. In the moment, Mercy could not believe such a thing. The most handsome man in the ton! What a grand thing to say. However, now, as she stared at his face and the way he sat upon his horse, she could not help but agree. His smile was bright, so much so that the rays of the rising sun seemed to pale in comparison. His black hair rested casually, almost disheveled but purposefully so, on his forehead, right above eyes that were so brown they appeared black. They stared at Mercy without any shame at all, and Mercy began to feel her cheeks warm, just slightly.
A battle surged in her mind as she tried to remember any other man in the ton who was more beautiful than the man in front of her. There was that one man at that one ball…though his breath did smell a little odd. Oh, there was that interesting fellow at the feast thrown in her manor, who had a cute smile with friendly eyes…though he did sweat profusely through the night. How about that one man who smiled at her in the plaza? Though, as Mercy thought back on it, he did have a large wart hidden just under his chin.
Mercy groaned internally.
Her sisters were right. There was no other man in the ton who was as handsome as Lord Griffiths! No one else had such a sharp, chiseled jawline and dimples that pierced his cheeks whenever he smiled; his dark eyes were beguiling as he gazed at her from under his long lashes, in a way that no other man had ever looked at her.
This revelation did nothing to appease Mercy’s prior frustrations; it only reinforced her confusion. Yes, Lord Griffiths was a very handsome man, but why would the most handsome man in the ton be interested in Mercy, going so far as to dance with her youngest sister to ask question upon question about Mercy. Something was entirely not right!
Mercy snapped out of her thoughts. “Yes?”
“I asked you a question, but you seemed to have drifted away.”
“What was your question?”
He cleared his throat. “And you, Lady Mercy? Why are you out here in the woods at this hour?”
Mercy instantly stiffened. Did he dare to be suspicious of Mercy? Her patience snapped, and she spoke without thinking. “I am here because I always ride here, as well. And since I always take this path, I do not remember ever encountering a man such as you. So, if what you say is true, then I should have at least seen you before. However, I have never, which only means that you are lying. Tell me the truth this instance on why you have been following me!”
Lord Griffiths’ eyes widened, surprised at Mercy’s outburst and blatant accusation.
Mercy expected him to retaliate in the same manner, yelling at her or even threatening her for saying such obtuse things. However, his posture remained relaxed and poised. Though his face showed his shock, he did not appear either angry or offended.
His voice was calm as he finally responded. “I could say the same to you, Lady Mercy. I, too, have never seen you ride on this path. Does this not mean that you might be the one following me?”
Mercy was stunned. Before she could hold back her words, she retaliated. “That is not true! We are not the same—I am not a liar and a compulsive flirt like you.”
She knew that she was being too harsh on him, allowing her anger to speak for her. But she did not care. The day had been so stressful, and it was only the morning. Her younger sisters’ words had put her in such an uncomfortable state, and she had been on edge for some time now. Then the only place where she could find some peace of mind had been infiltrated by the one and only person who could make the entire situation worse.
Lord Griffiths stared at her for a couple of moments longer, making Mercy feel restless. She waited for him to say something rude or give an offhanded remark, but he only laughed softly.
Mercy was silent as he bid her farewell. “Good day, Lady Mercy.” He bowed his head slightly before steering his horse away and disappearing back into the trees.
She did not understand why he had not said anything in retort. She would much rather he yell at her rather than leave her in an awkward state of confusion.
Without dwelling on Lord Griffiths’ words and quick departure for too long, Mercy beckoned her horse to turn, and she slowly headed back home.
My New Novel is now Live on Amazon!