The curse, followed by a loud thud, echoed from the second-floor entrance to the empty Caldwell ballroom, filtered down the stairs and across the marble foyer to the sitting room where four of the Ackerly sisters were gathered. They exchanged glances.
“Someone should make her stop,” said Faith, ever the pragmatist.
“I tried,” sighed Grace. “She’ll only occupy herself with some other activity she’s dreamed up in her quest for self-improvement.”
“What’s she doing up there, anyway?” asked Charity, who had just arrived with her two year-old twins, Charles and Charlotte. The babies got kisses from all their aunts and were whisked off to the nursery by Grace’s maid Becky to play with their cousins.
“She’s practicing walking down the ballroom stairs,” said Patience, her forehead furrowed with worry.
Charity looked horrified. “Good heavens! Has someone padded the stairs and placed pillows on the ballroom floor below the steps? She’s liable to break her neck.”
“I rather doubt she has yet to make it down more than three steps,” said Grace. Another thud and a growl of frustration made their way into the sitting room. “She’s trying to do it with a book balanced on her head.”
“Is she that worried about her debut?” asked Amity in her quiet voice. “I had no idea she would put so much stock into what the ton thinks of her.”
“Oh, she doesn’t give a fig what the ton thinks of her or of her debut. She’s doing all this to impress the Duke of Blackthorne.” Patience shook her head. “At some point this little fantasy she has built about him will tumble down around her, and she’s going to be terribly hurt.”
“Well, we’ve all tried to dissuade her a million times.” Faith shrugged. “Besides, I think it will resolve itself. Blackthorne didn’t show at a single event last season. He’s one of the few titled unmarried males of sizable fortune left in the land, and his title far outstrips the other eligible men in both rank and prestige. He’s mobbed every time he steps foot in a ballroom or appears at the theater.”
“Who is?” Mercy stomped into the sitting room looking cross.
Patience imperceptibly shook her head at her sisters, indicating they shouldn’t mention the duke. “Nobody.” She tried to divert Mercy by changing the subject. “Did you manage to conquer the ballroom steps?”
Her sister scowled. “I only made it to the bottom without dropping the book one time.”
“Maybe you should try it without the book,” advised Charity. “Unless a precariously perched book on one’s head is all the rage this year, I doubt you’ll be balancing one when you descend a staircase at an actual ball.”
Mercy flopped down in an empty chair and sighed, refusing to let herself be baited into an argument by her most volatile sister. “It’s too bad I can’t ride a horse into the ballroom. At least I know I do that well.”
Patience reached forward and patted her on the knee. “You’re going to have a lovely debut, and the entire city will be raving about you the next day. I just know it.”
“Oh! Speaking of people,” cut in Faith, “I heard Lucinda Harcourt is going to try, yet again, to find a husband this Season.”
Charity snorted. “Again?” The last time she saw Lucinda, it had been on the Marquess of Asheburton’s arm two years earlier. The sight had pushed Charity into drinking far too much champagne and making some very poor decisions. Asheburton had been forced to leave Lucinda at the ball to rush off to rescue Charity and her reputation, a situation which had culminated in her unplanned marriage to the Scottish marquess. “What is this, her sixth Season?”
“At the very least,” put in Grace. “Who else can we expect to see?”
“Therese Thomasson-Sinclair married Viscount Tegwell last year, and I’ve heard he rarely leaves his estate in the north, so I don’t think she’ll be around,” said Faith. “Her sister Maria is eighteen this year, though, and expected to make her bow.”
Amity wrinkled her pert little nose. “Therese was terribly unkind to me and Charity during our debut, and a horrible gossip as well. I hope Maria is nicer.”
Mercy, who had been staring quietly out the window, suddenly sat up straight in her chair in alarm. “I cannot sing,” she announced.
“Well, of course you can,” said Grace. She smirked. “It just doesn’t sound very nice.”
“I also cannot play an instrument or recite poetry with expression,” continued Mercy. She was beginning to look panicked.
Grace made a face. “Why in the world would you even want to do any of those things? I cannot stand being subjected to some simpering debutante and her barely tolerable talents at teas and morning calls.”
“It would make me well-rounded,” said Mercy miserably, slumping back in her chair again. “I greatly fear that I am poorly-rounded.”
Her sisters tried not to laugh. Patience, Faith and Amity succeeded. Grace smothered her laughter behind a hand, but Charity didn’t even bother trying to hide her sharp bark of hilarity.
“You shouldn’t worry about it. Anyway, I always think of pheasants when one describes a person as being well-rounded,” Charity chortled. “As though the described person is nice and fat and will make an excellent main course.”