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Five

Mercedes furrowed her eyebrows. Why did that inconsiderate man question her attire? Studying her image in the fancy glass on the mirrored sidebar, she wiped her moist palms down her skirt. Nothing was wrong with her dress. It was certainly more proper than the gowns she’d found hanging in her sister’s closets.

Her thoughts quickly came to a halt and her heart sank. Realization turned her blood cold. She’d have to dress in the same manner her sister had. Kat never once dressed modestly when she lived at home, so why would she change after marriage? Why hadn’t Mercedes thought of this before she decided to play her twin?

Her heart skipped in an erratic beat with the mere thought of having to wear something so improper. Could she actually adorn herself in such a manner? Why, it was absolutely scandalous. Her hand flew to her bosom. She’d never shown that much skin, not even while wearing her nightgown.

A sinking feeling told her she already knew the answer. Portraying her sister, she had no other choice but to wear Kat’s clothes.

The closing of the front door drew her attention to the hallway. She stepped to the doorway of the parlor and saw two small children tiptoe up the grand stairs. The lad, probably in his sixth year, looked exactly like William, chestnut hair and oval face, but the little girl looked entirely opposite. Her brilliant blonde hair curled in ringlets around her heart-shaped face. The adorable little angel, probably around four years old, held onto her brother’s hand as she limped behind him.

“Good day,” Mercedes greeted.

The children halted on the steps, their heads snapped her way. The little girl’s face lost all color, and the boy’s jaw hardened.

The boy turned and stepped down one step. “Good day, Mercedes. It pleases us to know you are home safe. We worried when Papa said you were lost.”

She sucked in her breath. Two things worried her now. First, why did they act as if they cared when Kat said William’s children hated her? And second, why were they using her real name? William called her Kat, yet the children had said the name Mercedes. As much as she wanted to know, she couldn’t ask without drawing suspicion.

Through her panic, she smiled. “Is something amiss?” She stared at the little girl. “Did you hurt your leg?”

The girl nodded, her curls bouncing all around her face, but she didn’t speak.

Wearing a stern expression, the boy stepped in front of his sister, acting the protector. “I know you told us not to run, but we couldn’t help it. The mean dog came after us again, and Lizzy couldn’t run very fast.” Big tears welled in the boy’s eyes. “Please, don’t be mad at her. I tried to stop the dog, but—” He paused, turning to show the rip on the back side of his breeches. “The dog got me, too.”

Mercedes’ heart crumbled at the tender display and she rushed to the children, kneeling on the step in front of them. She reached out to touch them and they flinched.

“Let me examine your knee, Lizzy.” Mercedes gently lifted the soiled pink dress to the scraped bloody skin underneath. “You are bleeding. We should clean that cut. It will make you feel better.” She moved to pick up the four-year-old, but the little girl darted behind her brother.

“I will do it,” the boy said with authority.

Lightly chewing on her bottom lip, Mercedes narrowed her gaze on the pair. She nodded. “If you do not mind, I would like to watch. Is that permissible?”

The boy’s brows creased as he stared back at her. “Aye.”

She followed the children up the wide staircase to the second-floor. Why were they so afraid of the woman who’d married their father? And they had yet to behave in the manner Kat had described.

A nursemaid scurried from one of the rooms and swept Lizzy up in her arms. “Oh, Mrs. Braxton, don’t you worry about these two. I will take care of them.”

“Nonetheless, I would like to assist,” Mercedes said.

This time all eyes widened. The maid finally nodded. “If you are certain, Mistress?”

“I am.” Mercedes smiled.

While she helped the maid tend to Lizzy’s knee, she listened to the boy tell about the accident. She discovered his name was James. Though she had no clue to why the girl didn’t speak. After Lizzy’s knee had been bandaged, the maid pushed James off to his room to change his breeches.

“James,” Mercedes called after him. “If you want to bring your breeches back to me, I will mend the rip and they will be like new.”

Once again, all three stopped and stared with wide eyes, but James appeared more confused than the other two with his creased forehead.

“It is all right,” she assured. “Make haste, and I will repair them.”

James glanced at the older woman who shrugged. He started to his room, but then turned back to Mercedes. “Thank you.”

She smiled. “For what?”

“For not scolding us.” He grabbed his sister’s hand and they turned and ran to their rooms.

Her heart twisted. Could her sister have lied again? What had Kat been doing to William’s children? Unless, of course, Kat had reprimanded them because of the way their father had instructed them to treat her. Yes, that must be it.

“And I thank you, Mrs. Braxton.” The maid bobbed, then turned, but Mercedes grabbed her arm and stopped her.

“Would you please explain something to me before you leave?”

“What might that be?”

“I wonder why the children call me Mercedes?”

Confusion marred the maid’s face, her forehead wrinkling her expression. Perhaps Mercedes shouldn’t have asked, but she really needed to know.

“Have you forgotten, Mrs. Braxton?”

“Apparently so.” She massaged her temples. “I think my mind has been scrambled from my long and tedious journey.”

“Well, you specifically instructed us not to use the name their father calls you. They see how upset you get when he uses that name, so they call you by your given name.”

Mercedes released an agitated sigh and trailed her fingers down to rub the back of her neck. So, that was the reason William called her Kat. It was meant to upset her. Yet, why would her sister use Mercedes’ name at all? William and the children should be calling her Katherine.

Certainly another mystery to unravel.

“I’m sorry I have frightened those poor children. I shan’t do it again. After you help them change, have them come to the parlor. I wish to speak to them.”

The maid nodded and hurried into Lizzy’s bedroom.

Mercedes took slow steps down the stairs, her heart so low as to scrape the floor. She walked into the parlor and sank into the closest chair. Before condemning their father for doing illegal activities, she had so much work to do. First, she needed to repair the hearts of those two adorable children. She couldn’t have them thinking she was a bad person. Indeed, she may be the only family they have, and if their father went to the gaol, Mercedes might be the one caring for them.

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