"I somehow doubt that. In fact, I rather suspect that your sister is up to no good."
Ryan chuckled. "It wouldn't be the first time," he told her brightly. "But to rea.s.sure you, there is, as you have just seen, a lock on the door. I cannot come in unless you invite me. The same goes for you."
"I see," Mary remarked, still wary of the idea of Ryan's having access to her room at any given hour of the day without the knowledge of anyone else in the house.
Part of the problem was that, even now, sitting there so casually with his hair and clothes in disarray, he made her stomach flip uncontrollably, her heart race like a rabbit chased by a hound, and her knees turn to mush. In short, she could barely function when he was in such close proximity to her. And the last thing she wanted, the thing that just about horrified her the most, was the prospect of him finding out, because once he did, there'd be no stopping him; of that she was quite certain.
Turning stiffly about, Mary walked over to the trunk she'd brought with her. She opened it and lifted out the box that held her father's journals. Carrying it carefully across the room to where Ryan was sitting, watching her with intense interest and a crooked smile that forced her to catch her breath, she placed the box carefully on the table where the vase of hydrangeas stood. "Here they are," she said, pushing the box gently toward him.
Ryan sat perfectly still for a moment, just staring at the contents of the box. He almost appeared to be too afraid to touch them.
"Go ahead," Mary urged him. "Take a look. I am practically dying to know what you make of them."
"I don't even know which one to start with," he said. "Should I start at the beginning or at the end? What do you suggest?"
Mary shrugged. "I am not entirely sure. I have gotten as far as Volume 7 myself without finding anything. Perhaps you ought to work your way backward."
"What if we start on Volume 8 together?" he suggested instead.
Mary agreed, even though that would mean pulling her chair around so she could sit right next to him in order to see the book at the same time. With a small sigh, she prayed she wouldn't make a complete fool of herself before the night was out. Instead, she sat down, leaned a bit closer, and tried desperately to ignore his scent, a rich perfume of sandalwood.
For the next couple of hours they poured over John Croyden's notes. They varied from describing surgical procedures he'd performed to doc.u.menting all the information that he'd gathered on his travels and which he'd considered to be, in some way or another, medical breakthroughs.
"Did you happen to read this?" Ryan asked suddenly, pointing to the paragraph he'd just been reading. "He mentions something called ethereal spirits. Did your father ever talk to you about that?"
"The liquid Paracelsus wrote about?" she asked with a pensive frown.
Ryan nodded as he looked at Mary in wonder. "Apparently, he conducted some experiments and determined it to have a sleep-inducing effect on chickens."
Mary smiled slightly. She knew precisely where this was going and only waited for Ryan to continue.
"But here is the crux of the matter: Paracelsus discovered this more than 250years ago. Since then, there have been no further developments. I mean-and your father makes the same point as I am about to-this might be the very key to providing painless surgery for patients. Mary, this could be huge!"
"I know," Mary told him quietly. "And there are so many other examples just like this. Unfortunately, you practically have to scream to get anyone to pay attention. It is exhausting to say the least, and quite disheartening when the majority of the people you talk to dismiss what you say as nonsense."
"Do you think this might be the reason why these people are so eager to get their hands on the journals?" Ryan asked as he turned the next page. "They could probably make a fortune with all the information your father has gathered in here."
"I suppose it is possible," Mary told him. "I just-"
"Well, this is odd," Ryan remarked, interrupting Mary. He leafed through the rest of the pages in the journal as if searching for something.
"What is it?"
"I am not entirely sure. Let me see the last two volumes, please."
Mary handed them to him and watched silently as Ryan leafed through those as well. When he was done, he looked at her with a puzzled expression on his face. "From this point on," he told her pensively, as he pointed to a segment in Volume 8, "there is nothing but detailed accounts of surgeries."
Mary laughed lightly. "What is so strange about that? So he stopped writing about his discoveries and decided to focus on his own work instead. He was probably so frustrated by his peers' unwillingness to listen to him that he simply gave up on trying to make them."
"You don't understand," Ryan told her hesitantly. "Your father, from what I have heard, was one of the best surgeons of our time, but all of the patients listed here. . .they all died."
Mary sat for a moment in baffled silence. She leaned forward to peer down at her father's neat handwriting. "That is not possible," she finally said. "My father held the lowest fatality rate of any surgeon I have ever known. None of his patients died-at least not very often."
"Well, I don't understand it either, but it is all doc.u.mented in here, written in his own hand. One hundred and thirty-four deaths, to be exact," Ryan muttered as he turned to the last account in Volume 10. "He numbered them."
"Good Lord," Mary gasped, sinking back against her chair. "That is completely impossible, Ryan. There. . .there has to be an explanation for this, it. . .No, I do not believe it."
Ryan turned a sympathetic gaze on her. "Perhaps we ought to take a break for the night," he suggested. "It is almost two in the morning and, well, I think it might be wise for us to get some rest."
"Rest? Do you honestly think that I will be able to sleep now after you just dropped this in my lap?"
"Absolutely not," Mary told him. "I intend to read about each of those cases until I make some sense of it all."
"You will do no such thing," Ryan clipped. "You will go to bed and sleep; you look exhausted." He began piling the journals back into their box. "And just to make sure that you do not hop out of bed and stay up all night, I am taking these with me."
"You cannot do that!" Mary exclaimed. "You have no right!"
"Sleep well, Lady Steepleton," Ryan told her jovially as he made his escape, closing and locking the door behind him before she could have another say in the matter.
Mary stood for a long time staring after him. She wanted to pummel the insufferable man until he was black and blue all over. The audacity of him to think that he could tell her what to do was enough to make her blood boil.
With a disgruntled moan, she eventually decided that there was nothing to do but change into her nightgown and climb into bed. Besides, she was likely to catch a chill if she continued standing there. Her feet were already freezing through the thin soles of her slippers. When had the month of July ever been so cold? By the time she'd finished combing out her hair, she had to admit that she was feeling a tad bit tired. Five minutes later, having snuggled down beneath the wonderfully fluffy down comforter, her head nestled in the soft folds of her pillow, Mary fell fast asleep.
Earlier that evening, in a private room of one of the most opulent homes in Mayfair, the Raven swiveled his brandy as he glared across at his companion. "You had no right to defy me," he muttered grimly. "You have forced my hand by doing what you did."
"Something had to be done to knock some genuine fear into that woman, to make her understand how serious of a matter this is."
"And you thought that threatening her at the Hunterian was the way to go about it? All you have done is make her more aware of the importance of her father's journals in all of this. Don't you see? She will be much more possessive of them now than she ever was before. Honestly, I cannot begin to imagine what you must have been thinking."
"What I was thinking is that the longer she holds onto them, the greater the risk of us all ending up at the end of a rope."
"I promise you that it will not come to that," the Raven remarked. "And if you would have exercised just a little patience, we might have been able to resolve this differently and without anyone's getting hurt. However, you have forced my hand with your foolishness. I am sending the Messenger tomorrow. He will retrieve the journals and, if need be, will deal with her just as he dealt with her father."
"You mean. . .?"
The Raven raised a mocking eyebrow. "What? Don't tell me that you don't have the stomach for sending the lovely young marchioness to an early grave." The other man stared back in horror. "Better her than us. Is that not so?"
"I only meant to frighten her."
"I understand." The Raven smiled sardonically. "And if she is fortunate, then perhaps that is all that will happen to her. But I should warn you about getting cold feet, my friend-unless, of course, you intend for them to stay cold, if you understand my meaning."
The other man had begun to tremble ever so slightly, but it was enough for the Raven to take notice. He couldn't be happier; after all, fear could be a most powerful weapon. His eyes gleamed with pleasure as the man before him nodded, stammering an almost incoherent apology. "Now, be off with you," the Raven said, dismissing the coward with an air of bored superiority. "You have caused enough trouble already to make my head spin."
"Care to join me for a morning ride?" Alexandra asked Mary as she wandered into the breakfast room, where Mary was enjoying her morning tea together with Ca.s.sandra and Isabella.
Mary looked up and almost choked at the sight of her friend brazenly standing there in the doorway, dressed in her snug breeches and loose-fitting shirt, her riding crop held firmly in her hand. "I. . .er. . ." She nodded slowly. "Yes, I think I should like that a great deal, actually."
"Good. I have an extra pair of breeches that you can borrow if you like."
Mary blushed all the way to the roots of her hair. "I must admit that I did bring my own pair-just in case."
"Wonderful!" Alexandra exclaimed. "Hurry up and get changed so we can be off. The weather is quite good at the moment, but who knows how long it will last."
Mary cast a glance at Ca.s.sandra and Isabella before turning back to Alexandra. "But won't. . .I mean, what will everyone think if I. . .Oh dear."
Alexandra grinned. "n.o.body around here will care one way or the other about your choice in clothes; they have all been subjected to me for so long now that I think their sensibilities will withstand your antics as well. Is that not so, Isabella?"
The d.u.c.h.ess, who'd been following the conversation with keen interest, smiled brightly. "Certainly, my dear. In fact, if I were a few years younger, I would not mind joining in the fun."
Ca.s.sandra's head snapped around to stare at her mother with a great deal of surprise. "Really?"
"Oh, yes," Isabella said. "I may look the part of a well-bred lady, but in my youth I was just as unruly as Alexandra."
"Oh, you must tell me all about it, Mama," Ca.s.sandra gushed with great enthusiasm.
Completely forgotten by the d.u.c.h.ess and her daughter, Mary turned to Alexandra. "Give me fifteen minutes to ready myself," she said.
Alexandra nodded. "I will ask the grooms to saddle our horses in the meantime. Meet me by the stables?"
Mary quickly agreed before hurrying off upstairs to get changed. Turning a sharp corner at the top of the landing, she practically collided with Ryan, who was just then leaving his room. "Oh, I do beg your pardon," she gasped after skidding to a sudden halt.
"No need," Ryan said with a grin, moving swiftly out of her way. "I was actually coming to look for you. I thought perhaps you might like to go for a walk since the weather appears to have improved a bit."
"Thank you, but I have just agreed to go for a ride with your sister." She paused for a moment while he looked back at her somewhat expectantly. She'd been looking forward to getting away from him for a little while-heaven knew he had a knack for confusing her mind, which she otherwise prided herself on being quite sound. But now it seemed as though it would be terribly rude of her not to suggest that he come along. Deigning a most ladylike facade, she said, "You are welcome to join us, if you like."
"What an excellent idea." There was a cheekiness to the immediate smile that graced his lips, and it made her question whether or not she'd made the right decision. "Perhaps I should ask William to come along too. It has been a long time since the three of us have raced one another."
"Well, then you had better hurry," she told him as she slipped past him on the way to her own room. "I told Alexandra that I would meet her by the stables in fifteen minutes, and that was already five minutes ago. Now, if you will please excuse me, I really must get ready."
Having practically torn off her gown and left it in a heap on the bed for the maid to deal with later, Mary threw on her shirt, breeches, and Hessians before grabbing her jacket on her way out the door. As she made her way toward the stables with long, brisk steps, she adjusted her shirt, which in her rush to be punctual, she'd neglected to tuck in completely.
Rounding the corner of the house, she caught sight of two grooms holding the reins of four magnificent horses. Alexandra and her brothers, who were in the middle of some sort of animated discussion, all turned to stare at her as she strode toward them.
"Well, you certainly do look sharp," Alexandra remarked. She nudged Ryan in the ribs. "Don't you agree?"
Ryan did his best to stop his eyes from straying to the perfect outline of Mary's thighs that her snug breeches offered. Instead he concentrated himself on her face. "I. . .I actually quite liked the way Lady Steepleton looked in a gown," he confessed, adding a note of disapproval that he hoped would sound convincing. It would have been a plausible statement if it weren't for the fact that his cheeks had turned bright red.
"Is that so?" Alexandra asked wryly. "Michael always said the same thing to me, yet there was no disputing the fact that he always loved the look of my backside in a pair of breeches."
"Alex," William cut in. "That is quite enough of that; there is no need to be vulgar."
"I had no idea that it was," she muttered, casting a quick glance over her shoulder to study her own rear end.
Mary choked back a laugh, while Ryan felt about ready to expire from their sister's lack of decent behavior. William appeared to fare no better. "Still the feisty hoyden that you always were," he muttered critically.
"Oh, William," Alexandra continued on a sigh. "Haven't you realized yet that I merely enjoy watching you suffer? It is such fun."
William glowered as he turned toward his horse, placed his foot in the stirrup, and swung himself up into the saddle.
Alexandra merely grinned while Ryan hid a smile. He knew she enjoyed scandalizing him and William. "Shall we get going?" she asked, grasping the reins of her own horse. "Mary, you can take the brown mare over there. Walk her for a bit so you get a feel for her, see if you like her."
As soon as Mary was out of earshot, Alexandra turned to Ryan with a crooked smile. "You have to admit," she whispered, "that your marchioness certainly has an exquisite figure."
Ryan coughed to mask his embarra.s.sment. For a man who wasn't p.r.o.ne to blushing, he could scarcely believe how often he'd been doing so lately. And he hated being put on the spot, especially by Alexandra's outrageous remarks. "I scarcely noticed," he told her as he took the reins that the groom handed to him.
"The h.e.l.l you didn't," Alexandra chuckled as she swung herself up into the saddle of a gray stallion. "Your jaw practically hit the ground when you saw her coming."
"She is right, you know," William muttered. He'd come up alongside Alexandra and had caught the last bit of her previous comment. "You can continue on toward that gate over there," he called to Mary. "We will be along in just a second."
Ryan simply raked his fingers through his hair in frustration. "If you as much as-"
"Easy does it," Alexandra told him blithely. "We are both on your side, aren't we, William?"
William nodded with great conviction before turning his horse about and heading after Mary.
"There, you see?" Alexandra rea.s.sured him. "You have absolutely nothing to worry about." And with that, she rode off after the others, while Ryan was left to wonder how Michael had ever managed to handle his sister. Clearly, the man was a genius.
"We are going to race from here on back," Ryan told Mary when they arrived at the remains of an old farmhouse. "It is about five miles or so. If you would like, you can ride back at a slower pace."
Mary looked as though he'd just punched her in the face. "Have you learned nothing about me over these past few weeks?" she asked. "I do everything to the best of my abilities. I despise failure, especially in myself. So if there is to be a race, then I am not only going to partic.i.p.ate; I am also going to do my d.a.m.nedest to win it."
"Good Lord! They are two of a kind," William exclaimed. "Where the devil do these women come from?"
"Well, as a recent mother of one child, William, I should be more than delighted to explain that little mystery to you anytime you like," Alexandra replied coyly.
"I shall get you for that!" William yelled, kicking his horse into a gallop and taking off at a maddening pace that sent dirt flying in all directions. The rest of them followed quickly behind him, racing with the wind beating against their faces until they could barely see where they were going.
Mary had taken the rear, but the minute she spotted Whickham Hall in the distance, she urged her mare forward, dashing ahead of both Ryan and William until she was neck and neck with Alexandra. The two women grinned victoriously at one another as they closed the s.p.a.ce between them, barring the men from pa.s.sing with too much ease.
They were just coming over a rise in the meadow when a flash of movement off to the left caught Mary's attention. She tilted her head to look. It almost seemed as though someone were thrashing about in. . .was that a lake?
Without a moment's hesitation, she abandoned the race and veered off to the side. The closer she got, the clearer the scene before her became. A young boy was flailing about in the water, while his friend looked on in horror from the embankment. He turned when he heard Mary's approach.
"Help him!" the boy yelled with fear in his voice. "He can't swim, and I-"
"How long has he been in there?" Mary asked, leaping from the saddle before her mare had come to a complete stop.
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