"I'm not sure," the boy muttered, shaking his head in despair. "Enough to know he won't be capable of treading water for much longer."
"Hold this," Mary told him firmly as she handed him the reins as well as her jacket. She stepped out of her boots and before considering how cold the water was likely to be, she dove in and began swimming as though h.e.l.l were on her heels.
Ryan and William arrived at the scene shortly after Mary since they'd both been alarmed by her sudden change in direction. Alexandra, on the other hand, had been forced to turn back when she discovered that she'd lost all of her compet.i.tors. Ryan had immediately waded out into the water to help Mary get back to the sh.o.r.e, while William stood waiting to help at the very edge of the embankment.
With even strokes, Mary reached Ryan. She was dragging the limp body of a twelve-year-old boy behind her, while she herself gasped for breath. Together, they made it back to the sh.o.r.e, their feet struggling with the muddy lakebed as they went. "Put him on his back," Mary wheezed as William scooped the slight figure up into his arms. Exhausted from her efforts, she grabbed onto Ryan for support. "Make sure his head is lower than his body, if you can."
By the time Mary and Ryan scrambled out of the water together, William had already laid the boy on the embankment, just as Mary had told him to do. Mary rushed to the boy's side and felt for his pulse. There was still a small flutter, but they had to hurry if they wanted to save him. Mary turned a steady gaze on Ryan. "Do you want to save this boy's life?" she asked.
"I. . .I think it might be best if you-"
"Do you want to be a physician, yes or no?" she demanded. "And tell me quickly before we run out of time."
"Yes," he told her immediately.
"Then stop dallying and get over here," she said. "Be quick about it, or he will most a.s.suredly die."
Ryan didn't need to be told twice. He got down on his knees across from Mary so that the boy was lying between them.
"Handkerchief?" Mary asked.
William thrust one into her outstretched hand. She tilted the boy's head backward, opened his mouth, and placed the handkerchief over it. "Now, lean forward and breathe into his mouth," she told Ryan.
He looked as if he might protest, but the firm look on Mary's face had him following her command in a second. He took a deep breath and exhaled it into the boy's mouth.
"Now press down here," she said, pointing to the boy's chest.
Ryan did as she asked, but nothing seemed to happen.
"Keep at it," she told him sharply. "You must not stop. Repeat the process. Come on Ryan, you can do it."
After three more attempts, the boy finally moved. It appeared as though he were choking at first until he suddenly began coughing up water, sputtering and gasping for air.
"Come on, let's sit him up," Mary suggested. She looked at Ryan and smiled. "That was very nicely done, Dr. Summersby."
"I. . .I did it," he muttered in utter disbelief. "I can't believe that I actually did it."
"Thank you, sir," the other boy exclaimed. "Thank you so very much for saving him."
"It was my absolute pleasure," Ryan muttered with a loopy smile. With a nudge from Mary, his mind cleared, returning to the severity of the moment. He jumped up and pulled a saddle blanket from one of the horses. It wasn't much, but it would warm the wet child until he was able to get some dry clothes.
"No more playing near that lake," William warned the boys. "At least not until both of you learn how to swim."
"William, what if you and I escort the lads home?" Alexandra suggested in a more soothing voice. "I think Mary needs to get back to Whickham Hall before she catches cold."
Ryan grabbed Mary's jacket and held it for her so she could put it on. The fact that her corset was showing through her white shirt as the fabric clung against her skin wasn't lost on him. William had noticed the same thing and was doing his very best to look at anything other than directly at Mary.
"I will take her back to the house and see that she gets a warm bath," Ryan said as he lifted her up onto her horse. "And I will also make sure that there is a hot cup of tea waiting for the two of you when you get back."
"We shall see you in a little bit then," Alexandra said, waving them off.
"I would like to thank you," Ryan said as he followed Mary into her room a short while later. Two maids were shuffling about, busy filling a large white tub with steaming hot water. They'd added some scented oils that filled the air with the smell of roses.
Mary turned to Ryan with a smile as she shrugged out of her jacket. He drew a ragged breath at the sight of her creamy white skin teasing him from beneath her wet shirt. The swell of her b.r.e.a.s.t.s was clearly visible, while her breeches hugged her hips and thighs so tightly he could barely breathe from just looking at her.
G.o.d help him how he longed to rip those clothes right off her and. . .He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to focus.
"It feels great, doesn't it?" she asked.
"Saving that boy's life. Didn't it feel wonderful?"
Oh, right, the boy. Ryan dragged his mind away from the visions he was having of Mary lying naked on her bed. "Yes," he said. "It made me understand, in a way that nothing else ever would have, why it is that you are so reluctant to stop doing this. Saving that boy's life. . .I cannot explain it, it just. . ." Words failed him. It was impossible for him to describe what he felt right now, and seeing the way she was watching him, he knew she understood. There was no denying that this was one of those moments that would leave a deep mark on the rest of his life.
"Mary," he continued, "I know you will not marry me unless I allow you to continue your surgical work. I just. . .there's too much risk involved. Do you understand?"
She nodded slightly, wishing she could have it all and knowing that she would have regrets, regardless of which choice she made.
"I have an idea," he told her seriously. "You may not like it at first, but I hope that you will at least consider it." He stepped forward, taking her hand in his. "We could build a hospital together, for the women and children of London-a teaching hospital even. You won't be able to practice, but you will have a huge effect on health care nonetheless. And if you teach me everything you know, then together we can save thousands of lives."
Mary stared at Ryan in stunned silence. She was dumbfounded. Her initial reaction was to reject the idea. After all, if she couldn't practice, then what was the point? But pushing her own selfish goals aside and looking at the bigger picture, she caught a glimpse of what Ryan envisioned. If they could pull it off, it could be revolutionary. She would have full control over cleanliness and how each procedure was to be carried out. She would be able to promote research that centered on all of her father's findings. And the number of lives that would be saved as a result would far outnumber those she might save on her own. It was a compromise, but if she wished to marry Ryan, then it was the best offer she could hope to get.
She nodded slowly in agreement. "You have a deal," she told him hesitantly. After all, she'd need a man by her side if she wished to accomplish such a feat, and as new as the idea was to her, she was suddenly very set on realizing it. But it wasn't that simple. There were other matters to be discussed. "But on one condition. I would like to retain my independence. Therefore, if you wish to marry me, you will have to sign a settlement agreement."
Ryan frowned at that. "It is generally not customary for a wife to-"
"Do you mean to tell me that you are marrying me for my money?" she asked, fearful of what his answer might be. She knew she wasn't much to look at and couldn't help but be skeptical.
But something flickered behind Ryan's eyes that instantly made her regret asking such a question. His jaw tightened before it once again relaxed. He sighed deeply as he regarded her, and she found herself holding her breath. "No," he told her. "I have no interest in your money. So if you wish for us to have a settlement drawn up, then, by all means, I shall be happy to sign it."
Mary couldn't have been more surprised if a pink sheep had suddenly trotted by, dressed in a pinafore and a blue bonnet. She took a moment to compose herself before saying what she was certain would surprise Ryan in turn, "It has always been my greatest wish that if I were to marry, my marriage would be one of equality, a partnership between the best of friends. Naturally, we are still in the early stages of our relationship, you and I, but I do hope that we will one day feel quite strongly for one another." She had no desire to talk of love and was now forced to look away, horrified that he might think that that was what she'd just alluded to. She moved on quickly in order to change the topic. "So, as your friend, I should hate to see you subjected to a marriage wherein you have no control over the finances. If anyone were to find out, I daresay that you would find yourself quite humiliated."
Ryan appeared to consider this quite seriously for a moment. "I am sure that I will manage," he finally told her optimistically.
"Nevertheless, I do feel that I would be most comfortable if our settlement were to give us equal rights to my funds. If we are to marry, then we must trust one another just as true friends ought to."
He frowned as once again something indecipherable pa.s.sed behind his eyes. It was impossible for Mary to discern the meaning of it, much less what he might be thinking. He suddenly smiled. "Very well, my lady, I agree to your terms. Shall we seal it with a kiss?"
"The maids," Mary whispered, looking about nervously only to discover that both had completely vanished.
It suddenly hit her: she was alone in her bedroom with Ryan Summersby, and when she turned back to face him, there was no mistaking the hunger that shone in his eyes. He stared at her as he moved toward the door, nudged it shut with the heel of his boot, and turned the lock until it clicked firmly in place.
Her stomach fluttered with expectation, for in spite of all their recent arguing, she hadn't been able to forget the way he'd touched her in the carriage. Heat now flooded her veins as he walked toward her. She was still dripping wet and cold, but she didn't care. All she wanted right now was for Ryan to kiss her senseless.
Reaching out, he placed his hand against her cheek. She sighed and leaned into him, edging slowly toward him as he invited her closer. Her eyes closed on a deep sigh of contentment as she reveled in his caress. Placing her hands against his chest, she felt him stiffen for a moment. His heart was hammering wildly, and she couldn't help but smile at the knowledge that he was as affected by their closeness as she was. A moment later, she felt him relax, and he finally pulled her against him, wrapping her tightly in his embrace as he lowered his head and placed his lips against hers.
For a long moment, they remained quite still, just standing there in the silence, enjoying the closeness. But when he moved his hand against her back and she pressed herself closer, his movements grew more determined. Abandoning her mouth, he pressed soft kisses along her cheeks, one upon each of her closed eyelids, and finally upon the very tip of her nose. "Thank you," he whispered, drawing his fingers through the dark locks of hair that had somehow managed to escape their pins.
Mary's eyes shot open. She looked back at him in utter befuddlement. Thank you? "What on earth for?" she asked.
He smiled back at her with genuine adoration. "For doing me the honor of becoming my wife. And for this. . ." He kissed her again with such tenderness that it was not at all impossible for Mary to imagine that he might one day grow to love her.
Her thoughts on the subject soon vanished, however, at the feel of his hands reaching beneath her shirt and the warmth of his fingers as they traced their way along her spine. She shivered involuntarily.
"We really ought to get you out of these wet clothes," he told her in a husky tone, his breath brushing ever so gently against her ear. Another shiver shot through her, but this time it was not brought on by the cold.
His mouth closed over hers again, his tongue sweeping inside her mouth, tasting her as a soft purr of pleasure erupted from her throat. He was still as strong as she remembered, his chest more firm than she'd ever imagined. And her eager fingers seemed to have taken on a life of their own, for they now ran their way up his sides. How they'd made their way beneath his shirt she couldn't recall.
She gasped when he tightened his hold on her even further, for she could now feel him pressing against her, hard and insistent. There was no doubt about where they were heading, but she no longer cared. She wanted this-all of it-until they both cried out with pleasure. G.o.d help her, but she'd never thought herself a wanton, yet now, with the thoughts that were presently attacking her mind, she suddenly knew that she must be quite wicked indeed. Again, she did not care, although she did briefly wonder how she would ever be able to sit down to tea again with other respectable ladies of the ton without looking the part of a sinner.
Then, without warning, her wet shirt was pulled away from her, and she felt Ryan's hands roaming over her stomach. Liquid heat poured through her, pooling between her thighs, where it began to pulse with desire. She tugged at his shirt, working on the b.u.t.tons with a sudden frenzy that she'd never before possessed.
By the time she finally managed to get his shirt off, he'd already undone her corset and sent it tumbling to the floor. He hugged her against him, and she reveled in the feel of her skin against his as he dipped his head to press smoldering kisses against the tops of her b.r.e.a.s.t.s. When she moaned her response and dug her fingers into his back, he let out a guttural groan.
Easing back, his eyes met hers, and she quickly noted the seriousness behind them. "Are you quite certain that this is what you want?" He seemed reluctant to ask, but clearly, as a true gentleman, he wanted to give her the chance to change her mind. "We can't undo it later or pretend that it never happened."
As much as she appreciated his gallantry, she'd never wanted anything more. "Yes," she whispered. "I want this. . .I want you."
There was a brief pause as he devoured her words. Then, with a suddenness that caught her completely unaware, he swung her up into his arms and carried her across to the bed, where he set her down gently. "In that case, I think that it is high time we removed these," he told her cheekily as he waggled his eyebrows.
"I could not agree more," she replied with a coquettish smile, lifting her legs so he could pull off her boots.
Her breeches followed soon after, leaving her entirely naked upon the bed and uncomfortably self-aware as his eyes slid over her from head to toe. He sighed with satisfaction, and she relaxed a little, her eyes locked with his, as he quickly removed the rest of his own clothing.
Mary simply stared. She'd seen her fair share of naked male bodies because of her profession, but none would ever be able to match that of Ryan's. It was enough to make her weep from sheer admiration. Heaven help her if she wasn't the luckiest woman alive: she was about to make love to Adonis.
"This will probably hurt a little," he told her soothingly as he climbed up next to her. "But it will only be for a moment, and I promise you that I will be as gentle as possible."
Mary grinned as she wrapped her arms about him, pulling him down toward her. "That sounds like the exact sort of thing I tell my patients before I make the first incision."
"Well," Ryan told her with a smile, "in this case, the pain will be followed by endless amounts of pleasure. Something like this. . ." He kissed her neck, while his fingers trailed down over her navel to caress her between her thighs. She purred in response to the sudden rush of fire bursting through her.
"And this," Ryan murmured, pushing a finger carefully inside her, "is only the beginning."
"Ryan," Mary gasped, bucking helplessly against his touch. "Stop. . .no, don't stop, I mean. . .oh G.o.d!"
Pulling back, Ryan placed a tender kiss upon her forehead. "Well, you are more than ready for me," he told her, running his fingers lightly through the soft curls that covered her womanhood. "Now, tell me once again that you want this."
"I want this," she whispered, gazing into the depths of those wondrously blue eyes. "More than anything."
"Because if you have any doubts whatsoever about marrying me, now is the time for you to walk away."
Mary held his gaze. "I know, but I'm not going anywhere. I want this. I want you, Ryan. Please don't torture me any further-I need you inside me."
"You have no idea how much I have longed to hear you say that, Mary," he murmured as he rolled on top of her, pressing her firmly against the mattress and kissing her lightly on the lips. Dipping his head lower still, his tongue found the tip of her right nipple. He circled the dark pink bud and growled with approval when she arched against him, her fingers spreading their way across the bed to grasp at the sheets. But it wasn't enough; she wanted more, and she wanted it now.
Wrapping her legs around his waist, she pulled him toward her. His lips met hers, and a moment later, she let out a deep sigh of satisfaction at the feel of him entering her body. Heaven-she was in absolute heaven.
He moved carefully, deepening his kiss as he eased his way further inside her, his hands wandering over every part of her, caressing her and igniting her senses to a point where her need for him was almost too painful to bear. When he paused, she wanted to scream with frustration. Instead she writhed beneath him, clutching at him as if doing so might force him closer. Yet he lingered for an infuriating stretch of time, nibbling on her earlobe, kissing his way along her chest to suckle her perky nipples until she was driven mad with wanting. Then, when she feared she could stand it no longer, he plunged forward, burying himself completely within her soft, supple warmth, and as he did so, Mary yelled. It wasn't a quiet sort of yell that might have been intended to convey some minor displeasure. No, it was a loud scream of complete and utter agony, the sort of scream that was likely to bring people running from near and far, expecting to find a catastrophe.
Ryan froze. "Are you all right?" he whispered.
"How can you possibly think that I might be all right," Mary whimpered. "I have just discovered what a devilish liar you are. You said it would only hurt a little. Well, it hurt like b.l.o.o.d.y h.e.l.l, I will have you know."
"I am sorry," Ryan whispered as he kissed her softly on her cheek. "I-"
There was a loud knock on the door. "Mary? Are you all right?"
"d.a.m.n," Ryan muttered. "It's Alex."
Alexandra knocked again, even louder this time.
"You had better answer her before she decides to kick down the door," Ryan suggested.
Mary stared at the door, momentarily stupefied, then pulled herself together. "I am all right," she called out. "I. . .I stubbed my toe, that is all."
"Well, I also brought some towels for you. The maids apparently forgot, so if you could please open the door, I will just-"
"No!" Mary blurted out in wide-eyed horror. She looked at Ryan, who appeared to be one second away from erupting into a fit of laughter.
"I am not really in a position to do that right now," she called back.
"I bet she would be quite shocked by the position you are actually in," Ryan chuckled, his eyes swimming with mirth.
Mary had to bite down hard on her own lip to stop herself from laughing. "Please leave them by the door, and I will get them in a minute."
"Very well," she heard Alexandra say. "But do try to be quick about it; we have guests waiting."
"I will, er. . .I will do my very best," Mary replied, desperately struggling to keep her voice steady.
There was a soft thump on the other side of the door as Alexandra dropped the towels. This was followed by a brief pause and then the sound of retreating footsteps as she continued down the hall. As soon as she was completely gone, Mary slapped Ryan hard across his arm. "You and your. . .your. . ."
"My what?" Ryan asked as he gazed down at her, his eyes filled with merriment.
"Your. . ."
"This?" He pulled out slightly, then drove back in.
Mary moaned at the unexpected tingles that rose through her body.
"Or," Ryan said, repeating the motion with increased speed and pressure, "this?"
Lord help her if this was not the most exquisite feeling in the world. She dug her fingers into Ryan's back, arching against him as she clenched her muscles and followed his rhythm. "Yes," she groaned as she felt herself carried away on a burst of energy. "Oh G.o.d, Ryan. . .I. . .I am. . ."
"Let yourself go, Mary," he urged her, teasing her nipples while he thrust himself back inside her.
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