He closed the distance between them in order to see the book that she was so enraptured by. "Ah yes, the famous al-Zahrawi." Leaning closer, he caught a whiff of her scent-hyacinths, he reckoned. Whatever the case, it ignited that fierce desire he felt whenever he was near her.
Clenching his fists, he straightened himself and moved away. He'd already made a mess of things twice. It was time for him to think carefully and to calculate his every move if he still intended to make her his wife. He looked out of the window at the pouring rain. "I have only read a few parts of it, not the entire thing."
"I don't know how you could possibly put the book down once you started reading," Mary muttered. "He describes here, for instance, a procedure that he developed: litigating the temporal artery to prevent migraines." Mary looked up from the book with a puzzled expression. "I always thought Pare developed the litigation of arteries, but apparently al-Zahrawi came up with it six hundred years earlier."
She leafed through the pages to another section. "And here," she said, pointing to a diagram. "Look at that: forceps to help in delivering a baby."
"It is quite remarkable," Ryan said, unable to take his eyes off Mary and hoping to keep up the amicable conversation. Her sudden interest in the book had made her forget how angry she was with him.
"It is more than that. There are roughly two hundred surgical instruments ill.u.s.trated here that al-Zahrawi invented. His contribution to medicine is profound, Ryan. You must read this book if you have any interest in becoming a physician; promise me that you will."
"I promise," he told her sincerely. "But for now, it will have to wait, I'm afraid, unless we want Alex to come looking for us."
"Oh dear," Mary said, putting the book back on the shelf. "I completely forgot."
"Yes, it rather seems as though you did," he said with a grin. "But I must admit that you never looked more fetching than when you were standing there in your evening gown and white gloves, your head completely immersed in that book."
Mary frowned. "I was trying to concentrate," she replied in an irritated tone.
Ryan sighed. "I didn't mean. . ." He gave up trying to explain himself. What was the point if the woman was bent on being contrary? Perhaps he should just concede and acknowledge defeat. At least then he could start looking at all the women who would be more than eager to marry him-Lady Stephanie, for instance. His head reeled at the thought of it. As pretty as she was, she was nothing but an empty sh.e.l.l, with a venomous streak to her that ought to send any young man running for the hills.
No, he had to have Lady Steepleton; there simply wasn't any other way around it. His mind was made up, and so help him G.o.d if he wasn't going to do everything in his power to make it happen.
"I was just telling Lord Willowbrook about your father," Alexandra said to Mary from across the table a short while later.
Mary looked up somewhat fl.u.s.tered from her plate. The truth was that she hadn't been paying the least bit of attention to the conversations around her. She'd been thinking about Lady Warwick instead and wondering how she might be faring now that she had her displeased son to contend with.
"I remember your father quite well, Lady Steepleton," Lord Trenton's father told her. "I cannot say that we were close friends or anything like that, but I did go to him once for treatment."
That got Mary's attention. "Really?" she asked. "For what,, if you do not mind my asking?"
"Not at all," Lord Willowbrook told her with a smile. "As it happens, I had a cataract on my right eye, it must be at least five years ago by now. Your father operated on me, and, I must say, he did a mighty good job."
Mary stared at Lord Willowbrook. She remembered her father telling her about it at the time, how angry she'd been that he hadn't allowed her to attend. Apparently, she was now sitting down to dinner with the patient himself. "Did it hurt a lot?" she asked.
Lord Willowbrook nodded. "Like the devil. But I knew I was in capable hands. Your father came highly recommended, you know, from the Regent himself."
Mary had always felt so close to her father, had loved him with all her heart, and had blindly trusted everything he'd ever told her to be the truth. Yet there were clearly two sides to the man she'd known, and he'd worked very hard at keeping one of those sides hidden from her. "I had no idea," she muttered, feeling suddenly quite faint and unwell. "I am terribly sorry," she said. "Would you please excuse me?"
"Are you quite all right?" Alexandra asked anxiously.
"Yes, I will be fine," Mary told her, almost knocking over her wine gla.s.s in her haste to leave the room. "I believe the wine may have disagreed with me. I just need some fresh air."
"Perhaps I should-" William said as they all watched Mary escape through the dining room door.
"I will go," Ryan cut in, pushing his chair back and hurrying after her.
"Our brother has certainly set his cap," William remarked as he caught Alexandra's eye.
"Yes. . .I do believe he has," she replied. "But whether or not she will have him still remains to be seen."
"What?" chimed in. "I thought the matter was settled. After all, he did propose in front of the entire ton."
"Yes, Papa," Alexandra said with a sigh, taking a sip of her wine and then licking her lips. "But he did so without Mary's consent, and since then he has not exactly been very good at persuading her to accept his impromptu proposal."
"What the devil is that supposed to mean?" Bryce demanded to know.
"Just that Ryan will not allow Mary to continue doing what she does when she becomes his wife, and Mary refuses to give it up. Things were said and, well, to cut a long story short, Ryan is doing his best to patch things up again."
"He is the one who will need patching up again if he mucks this up," Bryce fumed. "I want that woman for my daughter-in-law. So what if she is a bit eccentric? This family is comprised entirely of eccentric people."
"And what exactly is so eccentric about Lady Steepleton, Lord Moorland?" Michael's mother, Isabella, asked. "She seems perfectly respectable to me-not as flamboyant as one might expect, considering her t.i.tle, but I find that rather refreshing."
"She is a surgeon," William said simply.
"Madre mia!" Isabella exclaimed. She looked about cautiously, then lowered her voice to a whisper. "Is that even allowed?"
"No," Alexandra told her. "She doesn't have a license, and it is also unlikely that she will ever get one as a woman. But she was taught by her father since she was fourteen years of age and had a.s.sisted him on his surgeries. And at Waterloo, where n.o.body cared one way or the other about who did the cutting and suturing as long as it just got done, she lost only three of the eighty or so men that she treated."
"Blimey," Lord Willowbrook muttered. "Those numbers are nothing short of astounding."
"That practically makes her the best surgeon in the country," Ca.s.sandra piped in. "What a pity it would be for such talent to go to waste-and when you think of all the people whom she might still save. . ."
"Here, here," William and Bryce concurred in unison.
"Perhaps if we were to back her up," Isabella suggested. "We could speak to Lord Woodbridge. Surely he must have some influence as the Master of the Royal College of Surgeons."
"All he can do is put it to a vote," Michael told her. "And even then it may need to be sanctioned by Parliament."
"Good luck with that," Alexandra grumbled, taking a slow sip of her wine. It had begun to dawn on her just how difficult it would be for Mary and Ryan to find happiness together.
"Mind if I join you?" Ryan asked as he walked out onto the terrace. It had stopped raining, leaving the air fresh and the hydrangeas dripping wet.
Mary sighed. "I thought I knew him," she murmured as Ryan stepped closer. "He was my father and my only parent for so many years. We never kept secrets from one another-at least, I did not think so. But as it turns out, everything about him was one big lie. I didn't really know him at all."
She squeezed her eyes shut to stifle the tears that were already threatening to trickle down her cheeks. Ryan offered her a handkerchief, but she shook her head and turned away. "I am sorry," she said. "I must look a frightful mess."
Ryan shrugged. "You look no worse than I did when Mama died."
She nodded with understanding. "That must have been a terrible blow to your family."
"It was, in a way. But in a sense it was also a relief; she suffered quite badly toward the end, you see. Alexandra was most affected by it, I suppose. Not only was she the youngest, but she was also there during Mama's final moments. Papa's reaction had a great impact on her. I must admit that I did shed a great deal of tears myself, but the pain does get easier to bear with time-even if it doesn't feel that way right now."
"You are right; it doesn't feel that way at all. In fact, it rather feels as though a knot has been tied around my heart, squeezing it so tightly that it aches with pain." She turned away from him and looked out over the drenched garden, the branches on both trees and bushes hanging limply under the strain of the newly fallen rain.
"You know," Ryan told her softly, moving one step closer to her, "it is possible that, in spite of all the secrets he kept, you did know the real Lord Steepleton after all. I cannot help but think that every moment you spent with him was genuine. And the person that he truly was was the man that you knew him to be: an excellent surgeon who never gave a wit for his t.i.tle or his fortune."
"But why would he keep it from me? What right did he have to do that?" she sniffed, turning around to face him.
"Think about it, Mary," he quietly urged her. "You have never told me about your mother. Was she from a wealthy family?"
"The truth is I scarcely remember her," she told him. Her voice grew distant. "I was six when she died, and though I still recall the pain of losing her, I cannot seem to picture her face. But as far as I recollect, her father was a blacksmith in Stepney, where we lived."
"It seems, then, that in order for them to marry, your father was forced to move down a few steps on the social ladder, because he knew it would be difficult for her to move up. He set up his practice in the small house that you grew up in, and when your mother pa.s.sed. . .well, he made the decision to pursue his dream: the acc.u.mulation of medical knowledge.
"It may be true that he swept a few details under the rug, but he gave you an education that many society women would be green with envy over. And while you may be hurting now, in time I do think that you will come to realize that your father did what was best for you in the long run. He loved you dearly, and he held you in the highest regard. If he had not, he never would have trusted you with his life's work."
Mary stared at Ryan in astonishment. She'd been so caught up in her own little rift with him that she'd failed to realize what a great judge of character he actually was. He'd seen something that she hadn't: that it was the man she'd traveled Europe with, the one who'd struggled to teach her French and Latin and who'd opened her eyes to the wonder of medicine, that defined her father. He was precisely the person she'd known him to be, because all the rest of it-the t.i.tle, the estates, and the vast fortune-was something he'd turned his back on before she was even born.
She nodded numbly. "You are absolutely right," she told him with an edge of disbelief to her words. "Thank you."
Ryan hesitated for a brief second, then coughed somewhat awkwardly before proceeding again. "I realize that this may be a sore topic with you, but I was hoping that you might have given our recent conversation a bit more thought, especially in light of the threats you've been getting. You must realize that you cannot continue to practice medicine."
Mary's gaze cooled dramatically at that statement. "I have realized no such thing," she told him in a tight voice.
"For Christ's sake, Mary, be reasonable! Not only is it against the law, what you're doing, but you're also putting people's lives at risk."
"I'm a very competent surgeon," she argued. She could feel the anger building inside her. How could she have been so foolish as to think he could ever understand?
"I'm not disputing that, Mary, but you must consider the fact that if Lady Stephanie was able to discover that you'd operated on Lady Warwick, then it's only a matter of time before word of your illicit behavior begins to spread. Once it does, you won't be able to help anyone."
"You have a valid point, I'll give you that. I shall simply have to take greater precaution next time." She knew that she was being stubborn, but she couldn't help it; it vexed her that he was being so unsupportive of her.
"Is there no reasoning with you?" Ryan said, highly agitated.
Mary stared back at him. It didn't seem to matter how much they liked one another or enjoyed each other's company. Her need to continue with her work, regardless of the risk involved, and his opposition to it would always stand between them. She let out a slow breath in an attempt to calm herself. "Perhaps one day, when you receive your license to practice, and a desperate man or woman turns to you for help, you will understand that turning your back on them is not an option, no matter what others might think. And I will say this much: as far as morality goes, I know that I am doing the right thing. Indeed, I have no choice."
A long silence followed. She couldn't tell if her words had affected him in any way, but she hoped they had. If he was going to be the successful physician that she hoped he'd one day become, then he was going to have to start caring a little more about doing what was right for the patient and a little less about public scrutiny.
"On a different note," Ryan suddenly said, bringing her back to the present. He was eager to change the subject, but then again, so was she. "May I ask if you have had the opportunity to uncover any information in your father's journals that might be of use to us, something that might shed some light on the threats that you have been getting?"
Mary slumped her shoulders and shook her head. "I'm afraid not. I keep searching for some sort of surgical or medical breakthrough-something incredible that might justify why these people, whoever they may be, might want to get their hands on it. But I keep reading, and nothing seems to stand out."
"Would you mind if I took a look?" Ryan asked carefully.
"No; maybe you will see something that I have missed," Mary told him with a crooked smile. "In any case, I am absolutely freezing, so if we could please go back inside, I would be most grateful."
"Yes, of course, right away," he said as he stepped forward to open the door for her.
"Would you like me to bring the journals downstairs?" Mary asked. "We could take a look at them in the library."
"The men will be in there enjoying their after-dinner drinks," Ryan told her, "and the parlor will be occupied by the ladies."
"Then where do you suggest we go?"
"I think we ought to finish the evening with our host and hostess in an appropriate fashion; we have already stayed away for much too long."
Mary nodded. "Yes, you are probably right about that."
She began to walk toward the parlor, but Ryan caught her by the arm and held her back a moment longer. "I will come to your room once everyone else has gone to bed," he told her softly.
A pulse of nervous energy whipped through Mary at the thought of her and Ryan being alone together in her bedroom. Her stomach clenched as a wave of heat snaked its way along her spine. "That is not only a terrible idea, but a very improper one as well," she told him uncertainly. Her earlier annoyance had worn off a little at his willingness to help her, but she still felt that they had a great deal of issues to resolve. Being alone together in her bedroom would not be the best way to go about doing that.
"Mary, if anyone happens to discover us, then there really won't be much for them to say, short of shaking their heads disapprovingly. We are already engaged, remember? Besides, the sole purpose of my visit will be to look at your father's journals. I promise you that I will be on my best behavior."
"Have you not told me so before?" she asked, recalling a similar statement made at Glendale House only minutes before he'd kissed her.
He appeared to consider that for a moment. "I suppose I have." He grinned. "But this time, I really mean it." He waggled his eyebrows teasingly.
Mary couldn't help but laugh. "All right," she conceded. "But if you try to kiss me or touch me in any inappropriate fashion whatsoever, I will most a.s.suredly scream. Do not make the error of presuming that I will not."
"Very well then," he chuckled. "We have an agreement."
It was just past midnight by the time Mary returned to her room. No sooner had she closed the door, than she heard a soft rapping against the wall. That's odd, she thought, as she followed the sound toward the far right corner of the room. She stopped and listened. As far as she could tell, it sounded as if someone was knocking.
Picking up an oil lamp, she moved closer until she was able to discern the faint outline of a door carved directly into the wall. She stared at it blankly for a moment until she heard her name spoken from the other side of it.
"Mary? Are you there?"
"Yes," she said, recognizing Ryan's voice. "Yes, I am here."
"Pull the latch."
Once again Mary studied the door, this time a little more closely. She finally spotted the tiny latch, partially hidden by the wood molding. She pulled it, and the door swung open. Ryan stepped through. He'd discarded his jacket and waistcoat and removed his cravat. He undid the first couple of b.u.t.tons on his shirt and began rolling up the sleeves as he walked over to one of the armchairs. "Mind if I sit?" he asked.
Mary frowned at him in an attempt to conceal the way in which his scruffy appearance made her heart go pitter-patter. "Is your room just through there?" she asked instead, ignoring his question while she pointed at the open doorway.
"Well, yes; it would be rather odd for me to come that way if it were not."
"And did you know about our rooms being next to one another all along?" Her eyes narrowed even further as she searched his face for the answer.
"Of course. After all, I specifically asked Alex to arrange it that way. After everything that has happened and considering that Sir. Percy did ask me to protect you, I thought it best if I were close enough to come running should something happen."
"I see," Mary replied somewhat tightly. "Alexandra conveniently omitted that little detail when she showed me the room earlier in the day."
"She probably forgot," Ryan suggested.
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