Mercy Ackerly leaned over the banister and watched the two men disappear into the study with her brother-in-law. She sighed with happy adoration and turned back to her sixteen year-old twin siblings. “Sebastian came to the wedding with some man I’ve never seen instead of bringing another woman.”
“Another woman?” Charity laughed out loud. “You mean a woman other than you? You’re only thirteen … not even a woman yourself, much less one Blackthorne would consider being seen with.”
Mercy glared at her. “I’m nearly fourteen,” she corrected hotly. “And, besides, Sebastian is going to marry me.”
Charity rolled her eyes and opened her mouth to retort, but Amity spoke up quickly, doing her best to keep her sisters from arguing on Faith’s wedding day. “You said he came with a man you’ve never seen?”
Mercy waved a dismissive hand in the air. “Tall, dark, powerful. The usual. Doesn’t Trevor have any short, ugly friends?” The three girls pushed away from the railing on the landing, and continued their interrupted descent to the first floor.
“Maybe this mysterious new man has bad teeth or something,” said Charity, her eyes glinting with fun. “Let’s wait here in the foyer for them to come out. That way, Trevor will have to introduce us, and we can inspect the new person for flaws.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake. These men are peers of the realm, not boys from the village.” Amity pointed a stern finger at her twin. “Whatever you’re planning, don’t you dare ruin Faith’s wedding,” she warned.
Charity gave her a look of exaggerated innocence. “I’m just going to get to know the poor new person. It’ll make him feel welcome. After all, he’s amongst strangers.” She sighed with an air of sham tragedy. “He probably feels lost and all alone.”
They stopped outside the closed study doors. Mercy looked at the panels of polished mahogany longingly, wishing they’d open so she could see her beloved duke. Charity linked arms with her. “Let’s walk up and down the hall. It will look like we were just strolling by, having a harmless little chat, when they come out.”
Amity shook her head and backed away. “I’ll just go see if Grace and Faith need any help. I’d rather not be anywhere near here when those doors open.”
Inside the study, the hapless victims of Charity and Mercy’s planned ambush were having a comfortable conversation with their host, Trevor Caldwell, Earl of Huntwick, who had just finished explaining the necessity for the rather hasty wedding they were here to attend.
“I rather thought Faith’s debut might go a bit more smoothly than Grace’s,” remarked Sebastian, who was also the Duke of Blackthorne, and Trevor’s best friend. “She seemed more logical and less headstrong than the other Ackerly girls we met.”
Trevor laughed. “I don’t think ‘smooth’ is an adjective one would ever apply to a relationship with one of my wife’s sisters.” He gave the duke a pointed look. “Something you should likely bear in mind as Mercy grows older.”
Sebastian looked unconcerned, although a small smile played about his lips. “I suppose the urchin is town, too, running amok somewhere in your home today?” He was reluctantly fond of the youngest Ackerly sister, who had been the inadvertent reason the family had even entered their social sphere. Had he known the impact his decision to continue traveling, despite the late hour and diminished visibility, would have on both his life and his sense of peace, he may well have decided not to take the risk. But he had overridden Hunt’s warnings, and now the second of his friends had fallen prey to the snapping jaws of matrimony, both events stemming directly from that one foolish decision.
“Last time I saw her, she was whispering with one of the twins — I haven’t a clue which one — while watching the front door, I believe, for your noble arrival.” Trevor’s green eyes danced with fun. “I’m not sure how you managed to make it in here safely.”
The third man in the room, listening quietly up to this point, finally spoke. “Twins? How many of these Ackerly creatures exist?” Lachlan Kimball, the Scottish Marquess of Asheburton, was a cousin of Sebastian’s, although neither man could actually claim the kinship. They bore a startling resemblance to one another, and most of the ton suspected some sort of distant relationship, as both men had come into their titles through rather tenuous connections, though nobody had yet to question either man’s claim.
“There are six sisters,” said Trevor, after giving it a moment’s thought. “Patience, the eldest, who you will discover was very aptly named, my wife, Grace, and then today’s bride, Faith, followed by the twins, Amity and Charity, and finally little Mercy, who fancies herself betrothed to your cousin here.” He glanced at the clock on the mantle and stood. “Gareth and Jon should be here soon.”
Sebastian and Lachlan followed suit. “Should I be afraid to leave this room?” joked the marquess.
Trevor opened the doors and glanced out into the hall. “Absolutely,” he said, his tone colored with amused irony. He pushed the doors open wider and gave his friends a wry, apologetic look.
Mercy and Charity were walking down the hall, arms linked, pretending an absorbed interest in their conversation. Trevor cleared his throat. “Good morning, Mercy.” He raised his eyebrows and looked at the other girl in mute inquiry.
She scowled at the realization that he didn’t know her name. “I’m Charity,” she said, then added, in a dampening tone. “For the second time today.”
Trevor looked unrepentant. “Charity and Mercy Ackerly, I’d like to present you to Lachlan Kimball, the Marquess of Asheburton.”
Both girls executed half-hearted curtsies. Mercy briefly nodded in Lachlan’s direction before turning her full attention and a dauntingly bright smile on her hero, the Duke of Blackthorne.
Charity, though, seemed more focused on Lachlan. Unusually focused. She took a step closer, peering at his polite smile, which was rapidly fading. “Your teeth are beautiful,” she said in a tone that actually sounded accusatory.
Though startled at her odd statement, Lachlan merely raised his brows. “Thank you.”
“I don’t suppose you have an unsightly wart or a disfiguring scar somewhere?” She scanned the rest of his face, and then actually reached for one of his hands, as though she intended to inspect it too, before she remembered herself and snatched back her arm. “Guess not,” she muttered, tossed him an irritated look and walked away.
“Unlike Patience,” said Sebastian dryly, “Charity is not so aptly named.”
“I heard that!” Charity called from down the hall.
“You might want to cut your losses and just leave now,” Trevor advised Lachlan. “You may even consider going straight back to Scotland, where it’s safe.”
The marquess, however, was staring down the hall thoughtfully. “Interesting girl,” he remarked. “I think I can handle it.”