"Lady Stephanie, as delighted as I am for your enthusiasm in regards to this subject, I simply do not think that-"
"Perhaps I did not make myself completely clear," Stephanie snapped. She took a sharp breath and stared directly at Mr. Dunn. The anxious editor was quickly taking on the likeness of a cornered animal, trapped by a merciless hunter.
"There is a lady out there," she said and pointed toward the window with a stiff finger, while her lips drew together in a tight line, "who believes that it is perfectly all right to go around cutting people open w.i.l.l.y-nilly. Well, I for one will not stand for it."
Oh, how she'd gloated when she'd discovered that Lady Arlington had undergone surgery at the hands of Lady Steepleton. The information hadn't been easy to come by, but after seeing Lady Steepleton and Ryan Summersby dance together on the terrace of Richmond House a few weeks earlier, she'd enlisted the help of her maid, offering her a bonus if she could uncover anything unsavory about the marchioness. It had taken both time and patience on her part, not to mention that she'd spent a full week's allowance on bribes. Apparently, the Warwick servants had been especially reluctant to comply, but the promise of a rather substantial reward had eventually loosened the tongue of one maid. And it had been worth it: this was precisely the sort of juicy detail that would put the presumptuous woman's name to shame forever. It was a priceless piece of information, the sort with enough meat on it to keep the gossipmongers busy for the remainder of the season.
She'd initially planned only to take Lady Warwick's and Lady Arlington's cases to the press, but she'd changed her mind at the last minute and conjured up an additional story. After all, Lady Arlington's surgery had been a great success, as had Lady Warwick's, and while these accounts would add the necessary credulity Stephanie needed, they just weren't dramatic enough.
If a scandal were to ruin Lady Steepleton's reputation for good, as Stephanie hoped it would, then something a little more shocking, like a failed surgery, would have to be contrived. Besides, it was just a small fib to a man she didn't even know or care about. While Lord Warwick's warning had given her pause, she'd eventually decided that the prospect of seeing Lady Steepleton ruined was undoubtedly worth the risk.
Stephanie stopped herself from smirking, a difficult feat when she could practically see the promise of victory staring her straight in the face in the form of a thin, little man with receding hair and a pair of spectacles perched precariously upon his skinny nose.
And once Lady Steepleton had been publically humiliated, it would be impossible for Ryan to continue to a.s.sociate with her. He'd be forced to cast her aside like a dirty dishcloth, leaving just enough s.p.a.ce for Stephanie to swoop in and offer comfort. If she had to fudge the truth a bit in order to add some drama, then so be it. In the end, it was all for a good cause.
She returned her attention to the man in front of her.
"Now, I have written an article about a rather unpleasant experience that a close friend of mine recently had to endure at the hands of this. . .this charlatan. You see, this poor woman-Miss Charlotte Hayworth, to be precise-who recently took ill, was under the impression that this woman knew what she was doing. Well, what can I say; she's a bit naive, I suppose. If she would only have come to me for advice first, I would have strongly advised her to seek proper medical attention."
Mr. Dunn leaned forward, placing his elbows on his cluttered desk as he stared back at Stephanie from behind his spectacles. "Tell me more about Miss Hayworth's experience," he encouraged her.
"Very well, though I do not see why you cannot simply read the article. All the details are there, you know, and I did go to great pains in order to write them down."
Mr. Dunn exhaled an exasperated gush of air. This woman was clearly of the more spoiled variety. Still, if what she said was true, then he would gladly endure it with as much grace as he was capable of, for it would make a wonderful story. "I understand," he told her drily. "But I would still appreciate it if you would tell me in your own words."
Lady Stephanie twisted her mouth as if considering how best to begin. "From what my friend has told me, she began experiencing pain in the lower right side of her abdomen about two weeks ago. This pain quickly accelerated, becoming so severe, in fact, that she could neither sit nor stand. Her mother noticed her discomfort, of course, but since she had little desire to be examined by their family physician in such an intimate place, she merely declared that it was nothing more than her monthly courses giving her trouble."
"I see," the Mr. Dunn remarked, trying not to roll his eyes. He was not the sort to blush or stammer at the mention of such things. "So, then what happened?"
"Well, Miss Hayworth had heard from a mutual friend of ours-Lady Arlington, to be precise-that there is a lady who has recently returned from the continent, a woman who is taking it upon herself to perform some minor surgeries for a few ladies in need."
"Good Lord!" the Mr. Dunn exclaimed, grabbing a piece of paper and dipping his quill in his inkwell. A few globs of the black liquid splattered across his desk, spraying a stack of papers with dark specks. Ignoring it, he began taking notes immediately.
"Lady Arlington, you say? And just what exactly did this. . .lady physician, for lack of a better term. . .what did she do for Lady Arlington, if I might ask?"
"Oh, have you not heard?" Lady Stephanie donned a look of unblemished innocence. "I thought that something as juicy as this would surely have reached your office by now. Judging from your expression, however, I daresay that it has not. Well, sir, let me enlighten you, for it is certainly quite intriguing. You see, she performed a cesarean for Lady Arlington."
"A what?" The poor editor felt certain that he might expire from the horror of it all.
"You know, when they cut the woman open and-"
"Yes, thank you, I know what it is." He put his quill down carefully in front of him and straightened his jacket. "But that, Lady Stephanie, is hardly something that one might dismiss as minor surgery."
"Well, I suppose not." She tilted her head and delivered a practiced smile. "Lady Arlington was fortunate, you know; her procedure went rather well. As for my friend, however. . .well, after the surgery-"
"And what surgery was that again?" Mr. Dunn scribbled furiously on the piece of paper in front of him.
"How forgetful of me." Her smile widened marginally to show her brilliant white teeth. "She had her appendix removed."
The editor's jaw dropped.
Lady Stephanie nodded to confirm that he'd heard her right. "She tells me it was quite painful. And when it became infected. . .well, she had no other choice but to have another surgeon fix that stupid woman's mistake. She was so careless, you see. Poor Miss Hayworth is very lucky to still be alive."
"How awful for her," Mr. Dunn muttered, for lack of anything better to say.
As difficult as it was for him to believe what the woman before him had just said, the promise of such a scandalous story filling the front page of the newspaper was too great a temptation to pa.s.s up. He brushed his misgivings aside.
"Yes, it was rather." Lady Stephanie's eyes met his in a steady gaze. "So you see, I would very much like to prevent another innocent woman from suffering at this lady's hands."
Mr. Dunn nodded with sympathy. "Yes, I can understand that."
"And that is not all," she added.
"It is not?"
"Oh, no," Lady Stephanie said, brushing a bit of lint from her skirt. "She also removed a kidney stone from Lady Warwick."
Mr. Dunn raked his fingers through his thinning hair as he sank back against his chair with a loud sigh. He wasn't at all sure how much more of this he could take; it was simply too outrageous.
"You mean the Dowager Countess?" he asked.
"Why, yes. Do you know her?"
Of course he knew her; everybody did.
"I have heard her name mentioned on occasion," he lied. He made a few more notes before pausing. He'd just realized that he'd missed one very vital detail.
"And what is the name of this lady, the one who seems to think herself a surgeon?"
"Oh, did I not say? Why it is the Marchioness of Steepleton-Lady Steepleton, to be exact."
"And you are quite certain that all of the details you have just given me are accurate? The Mayfair Chronicle does have a name to uphold, and-"
"I completely understand," she told him. Her gaze drifted toward the window, where raindrops were steadily gathering on the gla.s.s. She was silent for a moment before turning her attention back to Mr. Dunn. She told him simply, "You have my word on it."
Given the limited time that remained before the deadline, this would have to do if he wanted to run the article. Besides, he very much doubted that a lady would put her own reputation at risk by fabricating such information. "You understand that once your story goes into print, the repercussions could be quite severe. Lady Steepleton might very well find herself dragged to court, perhaps even to prison. Are you prepared to let that happen?"
"Why, of course; I would not have come here otherwise." Lady Stephanie gave the editor a frosty stare that sent a shiver down his spine. "Lady Steepleton has overstepped her boundaries. She has acted rather despicably, to say the least, and I simply feel that it is my duty to stop her before someone else gets hurt-or dies."
The editor nodded slowly. She had a point, though he couldn't help but wonder if there wasn't a far more personal reason behind this attack. Still, a woman practicing medicine without a license. . .the public needed to know about it.
"Well then," he told her after a short sigh, "you may look forward to seeing your article in the paper no later than tomorrow morning. After all, we cannot allow for such disgraceful behavior to carry on any longer than it already has."
"I could not agree more," Lady Stephanie told him as she picked up her reticule and rose from her seat. "I shall look forward to reading it."
Across the street, William Summersby was having a dinner jacket fitted by his tailor. It wasn't something he particularly enjoyed, rather a ch.o.r.e that his father had given him upon seeing how worn the fabric was on the ones he had. His longtime friend, Col. Conrad Jennings, waited impatiently for him to finish.
"I would like to make it to White's by five," Conrad remarked as he picked up a random hat from one of the shelves. He turned it over in his hands, glanced at the price, and then put it carelessly aside, feigning disinterest.
"Why the sudden hurry?" William couldn't help but ask. Conrad had told him earlier of course, but William had always enjoyed twisting the knife whenever Conrad was concerned.
Conrad flapped his arms in annoyance. "You know perfectly well that I want to place a wager against c.u.mmings before the deadline, which happens to be three o'clock, in case you need reminding."
Oh, dear; it was already quarter to.
"I am surprised that you have not done so already," William told him. "Why the devil would you wait until the very last minute?"
He knew this too, of course. Again, the knife. . .
"Well, I was hoping to discover if the poor sod might, by some miracle, be able to escape his fate, though it does seem that he will be married before the month is out."
"Miss Huxley certainly did her d.a.m.nedest to trap him. It would be quite the scandal if he were to refuse her now, especially if she were to start showing."
"Dear me, I had not thought of that possibility. Do you think she might be-"
"Who knows? But if she is, then there is even more reason for him to settle the matter expediently."
"You are absolutely right, and that is precisely why. . .Good Lord, who on earth is that?"
William turned his head and leaned forward to peer out of the shop window. At first he couldn't tell whom Conrad might be referring to, but then he saw her: Stephanie Maplewood with her head held high under a straw bonnet trimmed with yellow ribbons.
"What an exquisite creature," Conrad murmured, mostly to himself, but loud enough for William to hear.
Exquisitely venomous, William thought.
To Conrad he said, "If you pursue that woman, then I shall be the one placing bets at White's as to how long you will manage to survive your marriage before she does you in."
"Oh, don't be daft," Conrad told him as his eyes followed Lady Stephanie. "A woman such as that, with a face so pretty and a figure so shapely-a man would be a fool not to pursue her."
"Is that so?" It was becoming increasingly difficult for William to keep a straight face at the sight of Conrad drooling over Lady Stephanie. Conrad was generally fierce in his demeanor-a military man who didn't take nonsense from anyone. He was tough too in his bearing, the sort of man who instilled fear in his opponents. Yet here he was, ogling a woman as if she were a plum pudding he might be ready to devour.
"Trust me on this," William told him seriously. "That woman is nothing but trouble. In fact. . ."
d.a.m.nation. Was that the office of the Mayfair Chronicle that she was leaving just now? What the devil was she up to this time? William was beginning to think he'd rather not know.
"You were saying?" Conrad asked in a dreamy voice.
William eyed his friend with a grim smile. "Only that she very nearly ruined the reputation of my future sister-in-law intentionally, I will have you know."
"Why on earth would she do that?"
"Beats me, although I do suspect it has a lot to do with her affection for my brother."
"You don't say," Conrad muttered wryly.
He waved his hand as if to brush aside this last piece of information as though it held no significance whatsoever. "No matter," he said. "I shall have her all the same."
"Then you are either a fool, Jennings, or some sort of m.a.s.o.c.h.i.s.t-perhaps even both-because that woman will give you nothing but a headache, and I will happily wager that it will be from the frying pan she uses to hit you over the head."
"Feisty, is she?"
"No, not exactly; more like vicious and vile."
"So I take it you will not be visiting me much once I marry her?"
Once, not if?
"Only if I can bring a pistol with me so I can protect myself when she tries to stab me in the back."
"Have a little faith, will you?" Conrad turned to William with a grin. "Did I tell you that I recently started breeding dogs in my spare time?"
b.l.o.o.d.y h.e.l.l. Don't tell me.
"I shall look forward with great pleasure to putting a muzzle on that little vixen and making her heel." He winked at William. "You will see; I shall promptly put her in her place and have her whispering sweet nothings in my ear before you know it. You can bet on that at White's if you like."
"I will be sure that I do," William said and grinned.
He shrugged out of his jacket and handed it back to the tailor. "Let me have this in navy as well," he said. "Now then, I do believe we had best be on our way if you still want to place that bet against c.u.mmings; we have only five minutes to spare."
White fluffy clouds sped across the sky as Mary entered Hyde Park at a brisk pace that afternoon. She'd sent an invitation for tea to Lord Woodbridge earlier in the day, but before he arrived, she simply needed to get out of her house for a while.
She'd returned there yesterday, against Ryan's recommendations, but the fact of the matter was that she wasn't comfortable with continuously imposing herself on Alexandra when she had a perfectly good house of her own. After all, Alexandra had a husband and a child to see to, and though Mary liked her immensely and valued her friendship, she knew that if something were to threaten that friendship, it would likely be a houseguest who got in the way-as all houseguests eventually did if they overstayed their welcome.
So, having engaged in yet another lengthy argument with Ryan, she'd eventually gotten her way, though he had made it quite clear that he thought her a fool-a careless fool at that.
Now, as she left the footpath behind her and marched hastily across the gra.s.s, she considered all the horrible things she'd said to him in anger. Ign.o.ble cad and numbskull had certainly come up at some point, but she was perhaps slightly less proud of malodorous milksop, in response to which he had called her a jingle-brained harridan. Needless to say, they'd parted on less than amicable terms.
Jingle-brained harridan, indeed. Insufferable man!
Well, Mary had to admit that the insult she'd thrown at him with as much vigor as a spectator might apply in tossing rotten tomatoes at a poor performance in the East End had been grossly misplaced and merely a depiction of her own furious temper, which generally escalated with alarming haste whenever Ryan Summersby opened his mouth to speak.
She now wondered if she ought to apologize. After all, he did have a point, but then again, so did she. She breathed a sigh of frustration. When would he come to realize that she loved her freedom and independence and that she had no intention of sacrificing it-not for anyone.
But Ryan was already trying to dictate where she was allowed to go and for how long she was allowed to go there. He'd insisted that if he were otherwise occupied, she take Emma along with her at all times, and he'd even had the audacity to direct Thornton about, informing the aging butler that the security at her house was not up to scratch and needed seeing to immediately. The poor man had been left with no choice but to start adding locks to her bedroom door and boarding up her windows-a wise decision, considering that she was feeling increasingly compelled to jump out of one of them. In truth, Ryan was treating her like the helpless woman he clearly considered her to be, with need for constant guidance from a level-headed man, a position he'd quickly claimed without as much as asking for her acceptance.
Not that she would have given it. She couldn't deny that there were people with an incomprehensible desire to frighten her, perhaps even harm her, but even if she did find herself in the face of danger, she certainly didn't want Ryan to be lurching behind her at every turn, ready to jump in and rescue her.
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