Mary looked off into the distance as she mulled this over. "Initials perhaps?" she finally suggested.
"I thought about that too," Ryan told her. "But if they are, then they don't belong to anybody that I've ever heard of."
Mary had to agree with that. Though she hadn't met all of her father's friends and colleagues, she was quite certain that she knew the names of most of them. None of these initials-if that was what they were-matched.
"So, even with this new discovery, we haven't really made any progress at all in terms of figuring out what this is all about."
"Well, I'm not so sure about that," Ryan told her with a smile. "You see, I had to read every single bit of information to find it, but eventually I did. One entry actually lists the date of the surgery and the hospital in which it was performed. When we get back to London in another couple of days, we can go to that hospital, ask them to pull the records, and see if a name matching those initials pops up."
"Oh, Ryan!" Mary exclaimed with an edge of excitement, "I could absolutely kiss you right now."
"Then by all means," he told her with a devilish grin, "go right ahead. I certainly won't be stopping you."
She looked nervously about the room, confident that someone would jump out from behind one of the ferns the minute her lips touched Ryan's. "I, er. . .I don't think. . ."
"Then I shall have to kiss you," he said as he leaned across the table between them to place a tender kiss upon her lips. "After all, I've been able to think of very little else since earlier in the day when we-"
"Ryan," she muttered, cutting him off, "someone might hear you."
"Unfortunately for you," he told her mischievously, "I really don't care. In fact, I don't mind if the whole world knows that all I can think of is you, lying naked beneath me on the bed while I-"
"Stop," Mary laughed, almost chokingly. "Please stop; it is hot enough in here as it is without your steaming up the windows by saying such indecent things. Besides, there is another matter that we need to discuss, so I really would appreciate it if you could be serious for just a moment longer."
"Only if you promise me that such an effort will be greatly rewarded upstairs in your bedroom later this evening," he murmured as he waggled his eyebrows with exaggerated fervor.
"I shall look forward to it," Mary told him with a playful smile, while a slow heat made its way toward her cheeks.
"Excellent," he said. He leaned back against his chair and folded his hands patiently in his lap. "Then by all means tell me. What is on your mind?"
She told Ryan about her conversation with her uncle and how she'd a.s.sured him that she'd check the journals for a way in which to treat his sarcoma. "I didn't get a chance to do it yet, so perhaps we could do it together and save some time. I know that my father mentioned a cancer patient in there somewhere, a woman who was treated by a Parisian surgeon, I believe. As far as I recall, her situation was quite different from what my uncle is now faced with, but maybe we can try to apply a similar cure."
Ryan looked at her skeptically. "That isn't all, though, is it? Something else is bothering you; I can tell."
"Well, with everything that has happened so far, I just don't feel very comfortable about this man whom I really do not know showing up out of nowhere and declaring to be my long-lost uncle. He mentioned the journals a couple of times and has asked me to see them under the pretext that he wants to understand his brother's reasons for leaving, and. . .Oh, I do not know, something about it just doesn't feel right."
"Well, I am quite sure that he is who he claims to be Mary, or Percy would not have brought him all the way out here. I can guarantee that a thorough background check was done to make sure that he is not an imposter, especially because of everything that has happened.
"However, it is not for me to say if he is somehow involved in the threats against you. I suppose it might make sense that a man who is as sick as he is would want to get his hands on your father's journals, where he might discover other possible treatment options that physicians in this country are otherwise ignorant of." Ryan paused for a moment, as if considering the possibility of Alistair Croyden's being the very culprit they'd been seeking. "Of course, we would need something more solid to go on than just a hunch, but I have to admit that he would also have a compelling reason to resent both you and your father."
Mary stared at Ryan, her brow furrowing into a deep frown. "Because of the inheritance?"
"Well, of course, Mary. Your grandfather snubbed Mr. Croyden in the worst possible way. When your father left, declaring he wanted nothing more to do with the family, your grandfather still left everything to him, even though your uncle stuck around, waiting and hoping, I would imagine, that just a small bit of your grandfather's fortune might go to him. But it did not. Your father was your grandfather's favorite, and your grandfather could not possibly have made that fact any clearer. It would be strange if Mr. Croyden did not hold some sort of grudge against him-and now you."
Mary leaned back against her chair. She was silent as she considered everything Ryan had said. "What should I do?" she finally asked.
"I think you should do what you can to help him with his sarcoma. Just be cautious; act under the a.s.sumption that he cannot be trusted. After all, we know very little about him aside from what he has told you."
"Very well then," Mary agreed, rising to her feet. Ryan got up as well and came toward her, offering her his arm. "I will examine him in the morning once I have gone over my father's notes." Turning her head to gaze out of the tall windows that surrounded them, Mary caught her breath. "Good heavens, Ryan, it is snowing!"
Sure enough, large plump flakes were drifting lazily toward the ground. "And this in the middle of July," Ryan muttered, sounding just as astonished as Mary. Wrapping one arm about her shoulders, they remained there for a long while, quietly watching the ground vanish beneath a smooth blanket of white.
The following morning, Mary got up early, even though she'd sat up late trying to devise a plan by which to help her uncle. The method that her father had suggested in his notes would require a bit of planning if they were to carry it out successfully, but she did believe that it might be possible.
"Mr. Croyden," she said as she took a seat across from her father's brother in the library, "my father did make an entry in one of his journals that just might be of use to us."
Mr. Croyden looked at her expectantly, almost unable to contain his enthusiasm. He was clearly eager to find out what Mary had in mind.
"He mentions a physician in Paris who, roughly forty years ago, cured a woman of cancer by applying a septic dressing. I cannot guarantee that such a treatment will work for you, but I do believe that it is worth a try."
Mr. Croyden looked mildly perplexed. "I do not even understand why something like that might work," he said.
"Well, I suppose that the infection brought on by the dressing might have somehow stimulated the woman's immune system." Mary paused for a moment as she regarded her uncle quite thoughtfully. "You have to understand that this woman went through many bouts of severe fever as a result of this, before she was finally cured."
"But she was cured?" Mr. Croyden asked hopefully. "Completely?"
Mary nodded. "Yes," she said. "It appears so."
"Excellent," Mr. Croyden remarked with a satisfied nod. "I must say that I am very pleased with your efforts."
"Well, don't thank me just yet; we still have a long way ahead of us. I shall need to examine you first, as I mentioned to you before, but I do think that-"
Mr. Croyden grinned as he waved his hands dismissively. "There will be no need for that," he said, cutting her off. "While I am immensely grateful for your efforts, I am not entirely sure that I would be very comfortable with a. . .ahem. . .a woman taking a peek at me."
Mary gaped at her uncle as if he were a complete lunatic. "I see," she told him drily as she got up and walked across to the window. The ground was still white from last night's snow. "You didn't seem to mind it in the slightest when I mentioned it yesterday."
"Please don't take offense. This is a delicate matter for me, and I. . .well, I am just not comfortable with a young woman such as yourself..." He looked at her pleadingly. "I was hoping that I might be able to borrow the journal that mentions this particular case so that I can show it to my physician in London. I will give you full credit, of course, and-"
Mary turned to him with frost in her eyes. "No," she told him sharply.
"No?" Her uncle spread his hands in exasperation. "But surely you would not deny a dying man the means by which to recover."
"You are right. I will not. But if you want to make use of the information my father gave me, then you will have to put your welfare into my hands. If not, you are welcome to return to your London physician and tell him everything that I have just told you. But the journals will remain here with me."
Mr. Croyden narrowed his eyes as he met her gaze. "You are a stubborn woman, Lady Steepleton," he told her coolly, but a second later a warm smile creased the corners of his eyes. It was enough to strengthen Mary's resolve. There was something about this man that unnerved her.
"Never mind," he told her gently, his demeanor completely changed from that which he'd shown her a moment earlier. "I completely understand. No hard feelings, ay? Come, let us join the others in the parlor. I believe the men are having a game of faro, and I would love to see how they are getting on."
"Yes, of course," Mary replied, though somewhat brusquely. She regretted the way in which she'd handled the situation, particularly since Mr. Croyden was her only relative. It hadn't been her intention to tell him that she didn't trust him, yet that was precisely what had happened anyway. And now he'd probably resent her forever.
What could she do, though, short of letting him take her father's journals with him to London, and that was out of the question. Those journals were clearly very important to somebody other than her. She had no intention of letting them out of her sight until that little mystery had been solved. With a heavy heart, she accepted the arm that her uncle offered her and allowed him to lead her down the hall and toward the parlor.
Mary awoke with a start that night. Sitting bolt upright in bed, she glanced steadily around the shadowy room. Slowly, her eyes adjusted to the faint outlines of the furniture that stood tucked away in the darkness. Everything seemed perfectly still, save for the faint ticking of the clock that sat upon the chest of drawers. Exhaling a breath of air, she was just about to settle back down again when a slight creaking caught her ears. Stiffening, she turned her head toward the bedroom door. She hadn't noticed it before, but now that she focused her eyes on that spot, she was able to see that the door stood slightly ajar. Another creak sounded, followed by the low thud of footsteps along the hallway runner.
With her heart thumping furiously in her chest, she leaped out of bed, crouching onto her knees to retrieve the box she'd hidden underneath it earlier that evening. Her fingers fumbled helplessly around the dusty s.p.a.ce, unwilling to accept that the box was no longer there. It was gone. All of her father's work-her most precious possession-had been stolen.
She jumped to her feet, flinging her robe over her shoulders and casting a quick glance at the panel door that led to Ryan's room. There was no time to lose on waking him. Whoever had taken her father's journals would already be well on their way. She had to hurry.
Grabbing the pistol that Alexandra had given her, she raced out of the room in her bare feet, her robe and nightgown billowing out behind her in the chilly hallway as she ran.
At the sound of neighing, she quickened her pace, bounding down the stairs in a desperate attempt to catch the thief before he got away. She was almost there. Her hand reached out to grasp the handle of the large front door. It swung open quickly on a gust of wind, pulling her along with it and swirling her flimsy garments about her legs while her hair whipped across her face. Steadying herself, she looked out into the night, spotting the horse, just as a hand clad in a black leather glove pressed itself over her mouth and pulled her forcefully against the frame of a st.u.r.dy figure.
"You should have stayed in bed, Lady Steepleton," a thick voice told her leeringly. "It is not safe for a woman such as yourself to be running about at this hour, unchaperoned."
A menacing laugh erupted from somewhere deep within the stranger's chest as his free arm snaked its way around her waist. Mary struggled against him, but he was stronger than her and held her in a firm grip that rendered her desperate attempts at escape completely useless. "The more you fight me, the more likely I shall be to lose my patience and serve you the same fate as your father. I must say, nothing has ever given me more pleasure than the sound of his neck snapping like a twig. And just so you know, my orders are to acquire his journals at all cost."
Mary froze. Her breath was coming in rapid bursts, while she tried to calm her pounding heart.
"That is better," her captor said. "Now, if you please, hand me that pistol before you cause an accident with it." He pried the gun out of her hand and tossed it aside. "Good; now, if I might make a suggestion, run back inside the house and do your best to pretend that this never happened." Her a.s.sailant came around to face her. He was dressed entirely in black, with a scarf covering his mouth and nose. A pair of dark eyes glistened with contemptuous delight as they swept over her. "Remember, we know who you are and all that you have done. We will ruin you without a moment's pause, my lady. So if I were you, I would forget that these journals ever existed. Go on with your life, or I promise you that you will live to regret it."
"Who. . .who are you?" Mary stammered "Who sent you, and what do they want with my father's journals?"
"You certainly have a lot of questions, don't you?" he sneered. "In answer to your first question, however, I am the Messenger. Be thankful that I will not answer the rest, for the answers would cost you your life."
With an overstated salute, the Messenger swung himself up onto his horse. The agitated creature snorted, sending clouds of hot breath out into the chilly air. He struggled a moment against the command of his master but finally surrendered to the pull of the reins, turning about and breaking into a fast gallop.
Hands hanging limply at her sides, Mary watched as the darkness closed behind them, impervious to the cold that clawed at her flesh. After several minutes, she brushed her hair away from her face, then stooped down to pick up her discarded pistol as she wiped the onset of tears from her eyes with a shaky hand. She'd lost the only worldly possession that mattered: a lifetime's worth of medical research that had been entrusted into her care. Choking back a cry of anguish, she crept slowly back inside Whickham Hall on trembling legs.
"Mary?" Ryan implored, his voice a ghostly echo in the dimly lit corridor. The candle he'd brought along with him sent flickering shadows along the walls that stretched themselves until they reached across the ceiling. Occasionally, a few scattered puffs of smoke would rise from the melting wax, obscuring his vision for the briefest of moments. He paused at the top of the stairs, sweeping the candle in a wide arc, but he could see nothing but depths of infinite blackness below. With slow, deliberate steps, he made his descent toward the front hall. Filled with an ever increasing sense of concern, he called out her name once more, his voice resonating against the stone walls of the grand entrance.
A soft whimper caught his attention. "Mary?" he asked again, this time in a softer tone.
He held his candle out at arm's length and circled the room, the soft glow spreading outward from the center of the twitching flame before blending with the shadowy darkness. He turned back and suddenly paused. There, huddled against one corner, was a small hunched figure. "Mary," Ryan murmured with a mixture of relief and despair. Never in a million years would he have imagined that she could look like this, so fragile and utterly defeated.
He hurried over to her, kneeling at her side as he placed the candle on the floor beside them. Reaching out, he set his hands upon her shoulders and started to pull her toward him, but she flinched at his touch and instantly pushed him away, arms flailing to ward off the attacker that she thought him to be.
"Mary," he whispered. "It is only me, Ryan. It is all right; you are safe now." He reached for her again, and though her body remained tense, she allowed him to wrap his arms around her in a tight embrace. A moment later, he felt her shoulders tremble, and she began to sob, burying her face against his chest and dampening his shirt in the process.
He let her cry until her breathing had steadied, running his fingers through her hair and over her head in long, soothing strokes. "Come," he told her at last, as he took her hand in his and helped her to her feet. "We cannot remain here on these cold stone slabs, or we'll catch a chill. Let us go upstairs instead, and you can tell me what happened."
Mary wiped away her tears with the handkerchief he offered her and nodded so slightly that he barely noticed her response. Then, taking her by the arm, he guided her back up the winding stairs and down the hallway toward her room, all the while alarmingly aware of how cold she felt beneath his touch.
"Is everything all right?" a voice asked from behind them just as they reached Mary's door. They both turned to find Michael standing in the doorway of his bedroom.
"There has been an incident," Ryan told him gravely as he met Mary's red-rimmed eyes. "Give me a few minutes to get Mary settled back into bed, and I will meet you in the library to tell you what happened."
Michael nodded, ignoring the impropriety of a genteel young lady being escorted unchaperoned to her bedchamber by a man whose eyes had held a roguish gleam for the past few days. Instead, he merely closed his bedroom door behind him and started off in the direction of the stairs. "I will get the claret ready," he muttered, disappearing into the darkness and thus out of sight.
"Now then," Ryan said as he eased Mary's robe off her shoulders and lifted her onto her bed, tucking the blankets around her. He brushed a few strands of stray hair from her face and gently lifted her chin so he could meet her gaze. "What exactly happened? I heard a horse ride off. Who was it? Who frightened you like this?"
Mary shrank back against her pillows and clutched his hand in hers. She closed her eyes briefly, only to find her mind flooded by visions of a dark figure mocking her with his venomous glare. "The Messenger," she whispered, meeting Ryan's eyes with a dead stare. She saw the flicker of overwhelming anger in them and caught her breath, quite unwillingly.
Swallowing hard, she forced herself to go on while Ryan listened quietly to her every word. "He took the journals," she told him in a small voice at the end. "Every last one of them. Those books meant the world to me, Ryan."
"I know," he said as he wiped a tear from her cheek with the pad of his thumb. His eyes filled with regret. "But he did not take them all, Mary; we still have one left."
Mary stared at Ryan in puzzlement while she waited for him to explain. The box was gone; the journals had all been in there.
"Earlier today, while you were speaking with your uncle in the library, I took the liberty of borrowing the last volume of your father's journals, hoping to perhaps discover something more in it. It is still on my bedside table."
Mary closed her eyes against the fresh onset of tears and breathed a huge sigh of relief. "Thank you," she said, gently squeezing his hand.
"In a way, it is the most important one," he added. "It is the one that lists the hospital where one of the many fatal surgeries took place. It is also the one that lists all of the initials. If we can work out what they stand for, we might be able to find the people who took the journals."
"You don't think that this is the doing of just one man?"
"I don't know, but I do think that the Messenger is just that: a messenger." Not to mention a cold-blooded killer. "I believe there is someone else behind him pulling the strings and telling him when to jump. I intend to find out who that somebody might be."
Mary nodded thoughtfully. "And I thought my uncle might have had a part in this," she said. "I treated him quite badly, I'm afraid, but the man I saw this evening-I couldn't see much of him-I could tell that he was no more than thirty years of age."
"I had the same impression when I met him in London," Ryan told her. "But you still ought to tread lightly. There is no harm in being cautious." He ran his hand carefully along her cheek. He couldn't read her expression in the dim light, but he knew that she'd had a terrible fright, and he was prepared to do b.l.o.o.d.y murder because of it. If something had happened to her. . .His jaw tightened at the very thought of it.
"You are right," Mary agreed as he lowered his head, kissing her briefly on the forehead. "Please be sure you put the journal somewhere safe before going downstairs to meet Trenton. I would hate for something to happen to it."
"You have my word," he told her softly as he tucked the blankets around her once more and headed toward the door. He turned for a moment to look at her, his hand resting on the handle. "I will be back to check on you before I go to bed." But Mary didn't offer a reply; she was already fast asleep.
"You say that somebody came into Lady Steepleton's room while she was sleeping and stole her father's medical journals?" Michael asked in shock. His forehead was creased in an angry frown as he paced about the library, the brandy in his gla.s.s sloshing from side to side.
Ryan sipped his claret. "That is correct."
"And she confronted this man alone?" Michael asked in even greater disbelief.
"She had a pistol," Ryan explained. He would have laughed at the absurdity of it all if it weren't so d.a.m.n serious. "Your wife gave it to her, I believe."
"Of course she did," Michael muttered as he took a large gulp of his drink. "That woman has probably handed out weapons to half the women in England. A pity that Lady Steepleton did not have the opportunity to use it, or the man would be hanging from the stable rafters by now and receiving a good whipping."
"I agree," Ryan told him. "But I intend to find the instigator behind all of this and put an end to it once and for all."
"If you need help, Ryan, I hope you know that you can count on me." There was fire in Michael's eyes. A young lady had been accosted in his home: Ryan knew that it was enough to make him l.u.s.t for revenge.
"Yes, of course. Thank you," Ryan told him sincerely before emptying his gla.s.s.
"You know," Michael said after a moment's silence, "you might do well not to trust anybody. I checked the doors myself before going to bed; they were all firmly locked. And our intruder did not make use of a window."
"Are you suggesting that-"
"I am merely stating the facts," Michael told him, placing his empty gla.s.s on the sideboard. "For whatever reason, the front door was opened after we had all retired. If anything, it certainly makes you wonder."
"I hear that there was quite a stir last night," Mr. Croyden remarked as he sat down to breakfast the following morning and proceeded to fork a large slice of ham onto his plate.
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