"Good heavens," Alexandra muttered. "No wonder he was in a foul mood."
She studied Mary for a long moment before continuing. "You do know that he cares a great deal for you?"
"I am not at all sure that he does, Alexandra. If he did, he would not try to take the one thing that I am truly pa.s.sionate about away from me. He would not suggest that it is merely a hobby to me and that I might easily replace it with painting or botany."
"He said that?" Alexandra might have laughed if it weren't so tragic. Mary, who was looking quite glum, merely nodded. "I am sure he is only trying to protect you."
"Well, he will not have to worry about that anymore. As far as I am concerned, there is nothing left to be said about the matter. We are of two different opinions, and neither one of us is willing to budge."
Alexandra chose not to pursue the issue any further, but she decided that it was time for her to have another talk with her brother. Clearly, he was in desperate need of some pointers on how to handle a woman like Mary. One thing was for certain: he wouldn't get anywhere by threatening her freedom.
After paying a penny to view the exhibit, the two women walked alongside the display cases together, stopping every few feet to admire the contents.
"Oh, would you look at that," Mary remarked as she pointed to a tiny lizard that had been suspended in a jar of alcohol. "Fascinating how life has evolved so differently in different parts of the world, is it not?"
"Yes," Alexandra agreed. "I should love to travel as far as Australia one day and see one of those bouncing animals that I have heard so much about, or fish larger than a carriage. Can you imagine?"
Mary nodded her head thoughtfully. She'd been as far as Istanbul with her father. He'd given her a taste of what the world had to offer and an eagerness to see more. She sighed, wondering if that would be yet another dream she'd have to sacrifice if she chose to marry Ryan.
"I don't want to rush you, but I must confess that I'm terribly eager to see the Irish giant they have on display. Would you mind if I go and have a look? I'll only be a moment."
Mary grinned, acknowledging that few people were as interested in reptiles and insects as she was. "Not at all," she said, upon which Alexandra left Mary's side.
Mary moved on to a collection of b.u.t.terflies. It was almost as if they'd simply paused for a moment, their bodies suspended in midair. In fact, she half expected them to flap their wings at any moment. But as fascinating as all of these things were, what she'd really come to see was the vast collection of surgical instruments.
She was just about to turn and follow Alexandra when she felt herself grabbed firmly by the arm and shoved through a narrow archway. A door banged shut behind her, leaving her in complete darkness.
Her pulse raced, and her breath came quickly as she reached for something, anything at all, that might allow her to get her bearings.
"You have an unfortunate habit of being too inquisitive for your own good, Lady Steepleton," a deep voice told her. It was not one that she recognized, though she suspected that the speaker was attempting to mask himself by lowering his tone.
She backed away from it, hitting the wall and knocking something metallic over in the process. It clanged loudly against the stone floor. "Who is there?" she asked in a voice far calmer than she felt. "What do you want?"
"Excellent questions, my lady," the voice drawled. "As for the first one, I cannot tell you the answer to that. If I did, you would have to meet the same fate as your father much sooner than we had intended."
"Hm. . .yes, I would keep an eye on my back at all times if I were you. I am not the only one who wants your father's journals, you know."
Mary clenched her jaw tightly shut and took a deep breath to stop her voice from quivering. "The only one I had was stolen from me. I do not know where the rest of them are."
"And I do not believe you," the voice purred. "You see, I think you have them with you at Trenton House, where you have been staying for this past week."
"Oh, come now, you didn't seriously think that we wouldn't figure that much out, did you?" He sighed. "A smart move, though, on your part-placing yourself under the protection of the Summersbys and Lord Trenton. But we will get to you eventually, and those journals will be ours sooner or later, Lady Steepleton, no matter what you do to try and stop us. The only question is, how much are you willing to sacrifice?"
There was a clicking sound, followed by complete silence. Mary waited, her arms wrapped tightly about her torso to stop herself from shivering, but eventually she realized that whoever had spoken to her just now was no longer there. Feeling her way along the rough edges of the brick wall, she eventually found a door handle. She pushed down hard on it and gave the door a shove. It met with a bit of resistance, but when she put her full weight behind it, it finally gave way with a squeak.
Stumbling back out into the museum, she leaned against the wall and began taking deep breaths to steady her hammering heart. She felt like vomiting.
"Mary, where on earth have you been? I couldn't find you anywhere and. . .good heavens, are you all right? You look terrible." Alexandra put her arm around Mary's shoulders and led her toward a bench. "Please sit down and tell me what has happened." She then watched Mary with great concern as Mary told her about her encounter. "Was there anything at all familiar about this man?" Alexandra asked. "Did you recognize his voice?"
Mary shook her head feebly. "No." She met Alexandra's eyes. "I am sorry, but I just want to go home."
"All right," Alexandra agreed, feeling quite miserable herself. She'd failed to protect her friend when she'd needed her the most. Clearly, something had to be done; they had to get to the bottom of this.
Having returned from their eventful excursion in town, Alexandra and Mary were quietly enjoying their tea together in the conservatory, where several of the plants were already in full bloom, when Alexandra's butler appeared. "Mr. Summersby is here to see you, my lady," he announced in his typically affected tone.
"Thank you, Collins," Alexandra replied. "You may show him into the study."
Alexandra turned to Mary as soon as Collins had gone. "It appears as though I have a guest. I don't suppose that I can convince you to join us."
Mary gave her a sad smile. "Thank you, but no. I think I will just wait for you here, if you don't mind."
"Not at all," Alexandra said, accepting her friend's need for solitude. "Feel free to water the roses if you like. I think they might be feeling a bit neglected."
Leaving Mary to look at the flowers, Alexandra made her way to the study, where she found Ryan waiting for her. He was dressed in a smart pair of light beige trousers and a dark brown velvet frock coat with a matching waistcoat beneath it. His cravat was tied to perfection as always.
"Ah, I am so glad that you were able to see me," Ryan remarked rather jovially as Alexandra came toward him. "Considering all the times I have been shown the door here recently, I was not at all sure of my success."
"Well, you can hardly blame Mary for not wanting to see you anymore after what you said to her-painting and botany, indeed-and in spite of the advice I gave you," Alexandra admonished, shaking her head with a great deal of disapproval. "You really do have a talent for mucking things up."
"I should have known that you would be the last person to understand. h.e.l.l, you probably think it would be a wonderful idea for my wife to be the instigator of the greatest scandal this country has ever seen. Can you imagine? A female surgeon without the right to practice, riding off in the dead of night, disguised as a man. . .the papers will have a field day, Alex, and I shall have my work cut out for me, keeping her out of Newgate, or worse even, Bedlam."
Alexandra rolled her eyes heavenward and sighed with clear exasperation before slumping down onto a caramel-colored velvet armchair. "Look, I know that Mary's occupation is not exactly acceptable, but you need to show a little understanding if you hope to have any future with her whatsoever. Think of a way in which to compromise, Ryan, and while you are at it, try to consider this: do you want to retain the fiery, carefree nature that you fell in love with, or do you wish to demoralize her in every way possible?"
There was a short moment of silence as Alexandra let that sink in before she continued. "I suggest you think very carefully about how you handle the situation, Ryan. You have found a unique individual who stands out from the crowd, but if you would prefer a more sedate woman who will jump at your every command, then I suggest you leave Mary and pick one of the typical brides this season has to offer."
Ryan stared at his sister before chuckling somewhat nervously. "Alex, I think you are reading far too much into this. Mary and I have not known each other for more than, what, three weeks at most? And for the majority of that time, it seems I scarcely knew her at all. Really, Alex, I am not at all in love with her." He shook his head in open frustration, while Alexandra raised a dubious eyebrow.
"Oh, Ryan, I do believe that you are." She smiled warmly. "But you must not despair just yet. I have a strong feeling that in spite of her fierce determination to thwart your charms, Mary is very much in love with you too."
Ryan's eyes brightened instantly. "Do you really think so?"
Alexandra giggled as she nodded her head. "I wouldn't have said so if I didn't." She turned serious once again. "Still, I don't think that she has admitted that much to herself yet, so it might be best not to say anything."
"Then what do you suggest I do?" Ryan asked, raking his fingers through his hair and walking across to the window. He stared out into the rainy street beyond. "The last thing she told me was that she would never have me, no matter what."
"Yes, well, I have been thinking. Perhaps it is time for us all to get away for a bit. As it is, Mary was practically attacked this morning on our visit to the Hunterian."
"What?" Ryan spun away from the window. "Why the h.e.l.l didn't you say so before? Is she all right? What happened?"
"She is fine, but it was a nasty shock." She told him everything that she knew about the incident, while he stared back at her in horror. "So I was thinking that a house party at Whickham Hall might be just the thing."
"That does sound like an excellent idea," he muttered as he took a seat in one of the armchairs across from where Alexandra was sitting. "Any thoughts on whom you plan to invite?"
"Michael's parents perhaps, Papa, Michael's sisters-if any of them would care to join us-you, of course. . ."
"If you invite me, then I am afraid that Mary will not agree to go. I fear that you shall have to leave me out."
"Nonsense, Ryan. This is the perfect opportunity for you and Mary to patch things up a bit." She gave her brother a mischievous smile. "And since my memory has not been too good of late, I think that I may simply forget to tell Mary that you plan on attending."
"Why, Lady Trenton, you truly are a scoundrel of the worst possible kind," Ryan said and grinned. "But if your little scheme works, then I shall do my best to convince Mary to name our firstborn in honor of you."
With a great deal of cajoling, Alexandra finally managed to put together an acceptable guest list. Bryce would be attending, together with both of his sons, since William had just returned from his a.s.signment the previous day. Michael's parents had also accepted the invitation, while their daughter Ca.s.sandra was the only one of Michael's sisters who'd been eager enough to escape to the country in the middle of the season. But then, just like last year and the year before that, she hadn't been a very big success. As it happened, she'd been quite gloomy since her friend Judith's marriage to Lord Barton, whom she'd been very confident about forming an attachment with herself.
And then, of course, there was Alexandra, her husband, Michael, and their one-year-old son, Richard, and finally Mary, who was looking quite forward to a country retreat.
"Oh look, the Summersbys are here already," Michael remarked as their carriage rolled up the graveled driveway to the sound of crunching pebbles. The s.p.a.ce had been a bit tight for the duration of the journey since Richard's nurse had also joined them. Needless to say, they were all relieved to have finally made it to Whickham Hall so they could alight and stretch their legs.
"The Summersbys?" Mary asked warily as she narrowed her eyes. "Ryan is here too?"
"Yes and William, whom I am sure you will like immensely," Alexandra remarked, glancing at anything else but Mary.
"Not if he shares the same opinions as his brother." Mary lowered her voice to a whisper. "Why did you not tell me that Ryan would be here?"
"Because you never would have agreed to come if I had," Alexandra told her plainly.
"And as it is, I have a good mind to head straight back to London."
"It. . .er. . .it seems I must have put my foot in my mouth," Michael lamented. Neither woman responded to that. "I shall go and see how our guests are settling in."
"I did not peg you for a coward, Mary," Alexandra told her sternly as soon as her husband was out of earshot.
Mary froze. No, if there was one thing she'd never been, then that was truly it. "I shall stay," she acquiesced. "But I cannot promise that I will speak with Ryan, even if he addresses me. In fact, I am likely to be quite uncivil. Do you understand?"
Alexandra grinned as she took Mary's arm and began steering her toward the front entrance of Whickham Hall. "I would not have it any other way," she told her.
Alexandra's housekeeper, Mrs. Copplestone, practically swooped down on both ladies the minute they walked through the door. Naturally, since her master and mistress hadn't visited the place since early March, she had a whole string of issues she wanted to go over as soon as possible.
"I am afraid that all of this will have to wait, at least until tomorrow," Alexandra told the eager woman. "Right now I have guests to attend to. Tell me, where are my father and my brothers?"
"In the library, my lady," Mrs. Copplestone replied cheerily. "I think your father wanted to take a walk about the grounds, but now that it has begun to rain. . .honestly, I do not recall a worse summer in my life."
"Quite right, Mrs. Copplestone. Thank you, that will be all." She turned to Mary. "Well, now that we know where not to go, I will show you to your room and then give you a quick tour of the house before dinner."
"But I thought. . ." Mrs. Copplestone looked quite confused at Alexandra's determination to avoid her family.
"Once again," Alexandra said, "that will be all."
"Yes, my lady," the befuddled housekeeper replied as she bustled away to attend to her duties.
"This way, Mary," Alexandra said as she walked across to the stairs. "I thought you might like to have a room with a view of the gardens, so I have put you on the north side, if that is all right with you."
"Oh, I am sure that I shall be quite happy with whichever room you give me," Mary replied as she gazed up at the intricate woodwork adorning the ceiling.
They walked down a long corridor that had been tastefully decorated with occasional landscape paintings done in bright and cheerful colors.
"I was always of the impression that these types of homes were full of ancestral portraits," Mary remarked as she stopped to admire a cornfield dotted with poppies.
"Oh, they usually are," Alexandra agreed. "And Whickham Hall was no exception, you know, but Michael thought his ancestors looked like such a miserable bunch that he had them all carted away to the attic. I have to say that he made the right decision."
They continued onward until Alexandra opened the door to a large bedroom that had been decorated in various tones of blue. The bed had a heavy four-poster canopy with billowy white silk curtains. There was a vanity table with a mirror, a chest of drawers, and a wardrobe that must have been ten feet high. In one corner, between two armchairs, stood a round table with a vase that was overflowing with hydrangeas.
Mary gasped. "Oh, Alexandra, this is beautiful! It is so light and airy in here, so peaceful and tranquil. Thank you."
"It is my pleasure," Alexandra told her with a smile.
"And the view!" Mary exclaimed as she rushed over to the window and drew back the white voile that was meant to shade against the sun. "I have never seen anything quite like it."
"Yes. A pity that it is raining right now. On a clear day you can see for miles, but right now you can barely see the church steeple in the nearest village." She took Mary by the arm. "Come, let me show you the other parts of the house."
It took them about an hour to complete the tour. Mary made a mental note of the rooms she'd like to spend more time exploring later. So far, she'd managed to avoid seeing Ryan since he was no longer in the library by the time she and Alexandra arrived there. Mary caught her breath at the sight of all the books lining the shelves.
"You may borrow whichever books you like," Alexandra told her. "In fact, I believe there is a small collection of medical books right over there in the corner."
Mary walked over to the shelves that Alexandra had singled out, running her fingers reverently along the spine of one of them. Picking it carefully up, she leafed through it. "Al-Zahrawi's book about surgical instruments, translated into Latin. Do you have any idea how much this single book must be worth?"
Alexandra grinned. "I take it that you will not be bored."
Mary stared at her as if she might be mad. "Certainly not. My only concern is that I will not have enough time to read everything during the few days that I shall be staying."
"Well, we shall just have to invite you back then, shan't we?"
Alexandra headed for the door, stopped, and turned to wait for Mary. "Come along," she told her with a smile. "The books will wait, but I am afraid that the dinner is best enjoyed while it is still warm."
With a longing look at all the wonderful books she hoped to browse through during her visit, Mary reluctantly followed Alexandra from the room.
"I will meet you in the dining room in an hour," Alexandra told Mary once they were back by the grand staircase. "You can ring for a maid to help you dress."
"Thank you," Mary told her before rushing upstairs. If she hurried, she might just manage to return to the library for a quick read before sitting down to dinner.
"Alex told me that I might find you here."
Mary, who stood hunched over a large book, looked up, her eyes meeting Ryan's as soon as he spoke. He'd been watching her quietly for a moment from the doorway, captivated by her apparent enthusiasm for whatever it was she was reading. To his delight, she gave him a dazzling smile. "I am sorry," she said, "but I simply could not resist. Have you read this? I saw a copy of it once, a long time ago, but it is the first time that I have truly had an opportunity to study it. Oh, Ryan; the man was a genius, an absolute genius! What he achieved. . .and at that time. . .dear me, it is almost beyond comprehension."
Ryan was speechless. He'd never known anyone other than himself to be so pa.s.sionate about a subject. And the smile she'd given him: Was it possible? Dare he even hope?
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