And then it happened. On a cry of elation, she quivered around him, her muscles contracting as she soared upward on wings of extraordinary pleasure. And as she fell back to earth, she brought him tumbling with her, breathless, and truly gratified.
For several minutes after, they just lay there, wrapped in each other's arms, spent and sated. Ryan's hand trailed lazily over Mary's thighs in a swirling motion that made her skin tickle. His eyes were half closed, and he looked immeasurably pleased.
"Ryan?" she asked suddenly. "When we are married, can we do this all the time?"
Ryan grinned. "I take it that you enjoyed it?" he said with a cheeky smile.
She cast him a sidelong smirk. "You know I did, you fiend. In fact, I was surprised by just how much I liked it."
"Is that so? Well, you can count on doing it very, very often indeed," he told her as his fingers crept down between her legs once more.
"Ryan," she gasped. "What about Alexandra?" But her legs had already fallen helplessly open in response to his touch.
"She can wait-and so can the guests, whoever they may be. In fact, the whole d.a.m.n world can b.l.o.o.d.y well wait, because I am not even close to being done with you yet."
And before Mary could manage a reply, all of her thoughts flew out the proverbial window the instant Ryan kissed her.
"Who do you suppose is here?" Mary asked a half hour later as they made their way downstairs. Having made love a second time, they'd finally managed to remove themselves to the awaiting bathtub, only to have made love once more there. Mary wasn't quite sure what the maids would think of the sopping wet carpet, but she was so giddy with joy that she barely even cared.
"I cannot begin to imagine," Ryan told her, stopping them both in front of the parlor door. "But I know what I will be thinking about while I watch you sip your tea."
Mary blushed. "I had no idea that you were such a naughty boy, Mr. Summersby," she told him sternly. But her heart was already hammering ridiculously hard at the thought of falling back into bed with him.
"My dear woman," he whispered. "you have no idea just how naughty I can be. After all, we have only just begun."
And with that, he opened the door to the parlor to find his father, Lord Willowbrook, and William entertaining Sir Percy and another gentleman whom he did not recognize, while Alexandra was seated on the sofa with Isabella and Ca.s.sandra. Everyone turned their heads at the sound of the door opening.
"Ryan!" Percy exclaimed cheerfully, breaking the hush that had fallen over the room. "Good to see you again."
"And you, Percy." Ryan nodded politely in greeting.
"I take it that this must be the lovely marchioness that I have heard so much about," Percy remarked.
"It certainly is," Bryce said as he sent Mary a pleasant smile. "May I present to you Lady Steepleton. Lady Steepleton, this is Sir Percy, an old friend of the family's."
"It is a pleasure to meet you," Mary said as she glanced quickly at Ryan. "Mr. Summersby here has told me so very much about you."
Percy grinned. "Yes, I am sure that he has, though you must forgive him; I was the one who suggested that he keep his a.s.signment under wraps. After all, women never seem to care much for being under surveillance."
"They certainly do not," Mary remarked, her voice hitching a little with annoyance. Her remark did little to aggravate Percy's countenance, however. Instead, he looked surprisingly amused.
"What brings you all the way out here, anyway?" Ryan asked Percy, trying to smooth things over before his fiancee and his father's friend came to blows. "You never leave the city."
"Well, I suppose that is true, but then I happened to meet this gentleman at my club the other evening," Percy said, gesturing to the man on his right. "This is Mr. Alistair Croyden, Lady Steepleton's uncle."
"What?" Mary blurted out, turning her attention to the man Percy had just introduced.
"It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance," Ryan said, hoping his gallantry might overshadow Mary's sudden lack of good manners.
Mr. Croyden smiled kindly at both of them. "I imagine that this must come as quite a surprise."
Mary shook her head in disbelief. "But this is impossible," she said. "My father didn't have any siblings."
"He had two, as it happens," Mr. Croyden told her. "Although I regret to say that our sister, Fiona, pa.s.sed away about three years ago."
"Good Lord," Mary murmured as she did her best to come to terms with this additional bit of information. "But he. . .he never mentioned you, not even once."
"I know," Mr. Croyden replied. "But perhaps you will understand why once I explain it all to you."
"But for now," Bryce cut in, "I think you might be well served with a warm cup of tea. After all, you have had a great many surprises to deal with lately, Lady Steepleton."
Mary simply nodded as she sank down onto a nearby chair, all the while wondering how many more secrets her father might have had that she had yet to uncover.
"Lady Steepleton!" a voice called out. It was followed by the sound of quickening footsteps.
Mary turned to see her newfound uncle hurrying after her. She'd been strolling alongside Ca.s.sandra and Isabella after Ryan had suggested that they all go for a walk together, even though the sky was a bit gray and held the promise of rain.
"Would you mind if I walked with you for a while?" Mr. Croyden asked Mary, as he eyed the other two ladies. "Not to be rude, but my niece and I have much to discuss."
"Do you mind?" Mary asked Isabella and Ca.s.sandra.
"No, not at all," Isabella told her with a gentle smile. "We completely understand, don't we, Ca.s.s?"
Ca.s.sandra gave a sheepish nod as she pulled the hem of her gown out of a puddle with a sigh of despair. Isabella appeared not to notice, or perhaps she simply chose to ignore the mess her daughter was in. "Oh, look," she said. "Alexandra is showing Michael the roses. Come, let's join them." And with a firm hold on her daughter's arm, she dragged her away in the direction of the others.
Mary and her uncle watched them go before resuming their walk.
"I understand that you have had a trying few weeks," Mr. Croyden said with a wistful smile. "And I am sure that my unexpected appearance has done little to improve upon that."
"You are quite right," Mary told him, looking over her shoulder and noting that Ryan and William were talking to Lord Moorland and Sir Percy. "I cannot deny that I was a bit taken aback by your sudden arrival."
"Well, I suppose that it is a lot to take in all at once: family members you've never even heard of before, a t.i.tle you never knew your father had, and a fortune that, I take it, is quite substantial."
Mary narrowed her eyes on Mr. Croyden. Funny that he should mention the money. "Tell me," she said, popping open the umbrella that she'd brought along. It might not be raining yet, but she wasn't comfortable with Mr. Croyden's proximity to her and hoped that the umbrella would keep him at a reasonable distance. "Why did my father never mention you or your sister, and why did he turn his back on his family? After all, he must have had a good reason."
Mr. Croyden would have had to be an idiot not to catch her meaning. He nodded thoughtfully. "I understand your concern," he told her. "You see, when your father fell in love with Harriet, your mother that is, he kept it from the family for a long time. He knew your grandfather would never allow him to marry her, especially not since he was the elder son and future heir. When your grandfather refused to stop pressuring your father into marrying a certain young lady who would have brought a great deal of money with her into the family, your father made his decision. He and Harriet eloped; they ran off to Scotland and got married in secret.
"Shortly after, when your grandfather found out about it, he was naturally furious." Mr. Croyden grinned. "In truth, I have never seen a man so livid before in all my life. For over a week, he and your father fought until our father eventually gave John an ultimatum: it was either Harriet or his inheritance. He could not have both."
Mary stopped in her tracks. "You do not paint a very pretty picture of your father," she said grimly.
"Well, you have to understand, n.o.bility doesn't have the luxury of marrying just anyone they please. They have obligations, obligations that every man in our family has always honored. . .until John met Harriet, that is. Your grandfather, however, was not capable of accepting that his firstborn son would pick a woman over everything that he and all the previous generations had worked so hard to achieve."
"But surely your father could just have let you inherit his t.i.tle instead. If he had two sons, then I don't quite see why it would be such a big issue if the elder decided to follow another course."
"No, it is probably quite difficult for you to understand," Mr. Croyden told her, but he didn't patronize. Instead, there was kindness in his voice. "John was the apple of our father's eye, you see. He doted on him since the very day that he was born, preparing him for the position he would one day fill. And even so, he never stopped him from studying medicine; he understood that John was pa.s.sionate about that and that taking it away from him would do more harm than good. But he always thought that the day would come when John would face his responsibilities, take his seat in Parliament, and honor his family name.
"In the meantime, I decided to study law. After all, I always supposed that John would inherit everything and that I would have to make my own way in the world."
"And did you succeed?" Mary asked him. "Did you become a lawyer?"
"I did," Mr. Croyden told her thoughtfully. "And a good thing too, as it turns out, because in spite of what Father had told John about cutting him out of the will, the old man was never able to follow through. I think he always imagined that John would return to pick up the reins, but as you have probably concluded, he never did."
"But the estate and the house in London-somebody must have taken care of those places after your father pa.s.sed away," Mary said, baffled by the oddity of it all.
"Oh, yes, there were caretakers, housekeepers, and butlers, all of them put in place by your father to keep things running just enough to stop them from falling into disrepair." Mr. Croyden stopped to look at Mary, studying her for a moment. "He didn't want any of it for himself, but he kept it all for you."
They walked on in silence for a while, just listening to the sound of the gravel crunching beneath their feet. Blackbirds swirled across the sky in a flurry of dark feathers before disappearing into a tree.
"I am curious, though," Mr. Croyden suddenly told her. "As a young man, your father always kept a journal."
Mary's head snapped around to stare at the man who claimed to be her uncle, but whom in reality she didn't really know from a hole in the wall. What on earth did he know about the journals, and why the sudden interest?
"I was wondering if he might have continued to do so," Mr. Croyden said, looking completely undeterred by Mary's reaction to his question.
"Why do you ask?" She did her best to sound completely dispa.s.sionate.
"Because if there is one thing that I remember about your father, it is how meticulous he always was. Even during his apprenticeships, he always questioned his superiors at every turn; drove them mad, you know. He would compare procedures, as I recall, always striving to find the best method instead of just following along like a sheep. I admired him for it, and, well, the thing is that I was hoping that he might still be able to help me."
The slightest frown appeared on Mary's forehead as she turned her head to look at her uncle. "I am sorry, Mr. Croyden, you must forgive me, but I am completely lost now. Would you please explain yourself to me?"
"Yes, of course," Mr. Croyden replied with a tight smile. "As it happens, I have recently been diagnosed with a sarcoma. The last three surgeons I spoke to have advised me to have my leg amputated, but I was hoping that there might be another option. In fact, I was hoping that if my brother did continue to keep his journals, that there might be something in them that I might be able to use."
Mary stared at him. "You have a sarcoma on your leg?"
Staring straight ahead and into the distance, Mr. Croyden grimly nodded his head.
"How big is it?"
"About the size of an egg," he muttered.
"Good heavens," Mary said softly. There was grave concern in her eyes now as she reached out to take her uncle's arm, squeezing it gently as a mark of comfort. "I will have to discuss this with Mr. Summersby since. . ." She saw the look of desperation on Mr. Croyden's face and forced herself to give him a rea.s.suring smile. "I promise that we will do what we can; I don't have much experience with such things, but I do know that amputating can worsen your condition. In fact, I once saw a patient who had chosen that exact same course of action, hoping to rid himself of a sarcoma in his arm. The cancer metastasized, and the man died." Perhaps not the most positive thing she could tell a sick man, but he deserved to know the truth.
"Oh, dear," Mr. Croyden groaned, looking more miserable than ever, then turned his head to look at her with a hint of curiosity. "Would you by any chance care to tell me how you managed to see such a thing? I know that my brother enjoyed breaking the rules, but I cannot imagine that he would have allowed his daughter to. . ."
His words died at the stony look in Mary's eyes. "Most people would disapprove," she told him calmly, waiting to gauge his reaction. "But my father taught me everything he knew about medicine. He trained me to be quite a skilled surgeon."
"Really? How very. . .unusual." There was a lack of astonishment in his voice, however, that put Mary on guard once again. Why would such an outrageous admission not shock him more?
"But what about the journals?" Mr. Croyden pressed. "Doesn't John suggest any form of treatment that might prevent me from having to cut off a limb?"
Mary sighed, her momentary suspicions set aside in light of a medically related challenge. "If I am not mistaken, he does mention a type of treatment that he came across once in Paris. He never tried it, though, and, to be honest, it would probably take a while for me to perfect it."
"But it might work? There might be a slight possibility that I can be cured?" Mr. Croyden asked hopefully.
Mary hated having to tell the man that it was very unlikely that she would be able to do anything other than what the other surgeons had offered to do. "I shall have another look at my father's journals as soon as we return to the house," she said. "Depending on what I find, we will try to determine the best course of action. I shall have to examine you, though."
"Yes, of course," her uncle said, breathing a sigh of relief. "And I can help you if you like-with the journals, I mean. I am quite curious to see what else my brother might have written about over the years."
Mary cast him a sidelong glance. She couldn't help but wonder if everything Mr. Croyden had just told her was true. Once again, Ryan's words rang loudly in her head: Don't trust anyone.
"Mary, I was wondering if I might be able to have a word with you in private," Ryan whispered as he followed her from the dining room after dinner that evening.
"Yes, of course," she said. She looked about hesitantly as the rest of the party wandered off toward the parlor. "I need to speak with you too. Where can we. . .?"
"This way," he told her, taking her by the arm and pulling her through a wide archway.
He led her toward the conservatory, where the humid air was filled with the scent of wet soil. Mary stared up at the gla.s.s dome covering the room as she took Ryan's hand and followed him along a tiled walkway toward a small seating area that looked out over the gardens.
"Mary," Ryan said gravely, releasing his hold on her so that he could arrange one of the rattan chairs for her, "I was looking through your father's journals again, just before dinner, and something stood out, something that I hadn't noticed before."
"Oh?" Mary asked with mounting curiosity as she sat down. Her eyes trailed after Ryan as he moved to the opposite side of the table.
"Remember all of those surgical cases your father mentioned? The ones where all the patients died?" He took the seat across from her and then leaned forward to rest his elbows on his thighs.
Mary nodded. Of course she remembered; she'd scarcely been able to think of anything else since Ryan had pointed it out.
"Well, at the end of each of those entries, there are always a couple of letters: MH, MC, SB, VR, MT, I think. There are a few more, but I don't recall what they are right now." He frowned. "The interesting part is that these letters keep being repeated. I believe I counted roughly thirty VR's alone."
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