And if she were to marry him-and there was still that big if in her mind, regardless of what she had told him-then she wanted the kind of partnership she'd spoken of at Whickham Hall. She didn't want to be considered weak or inferior by anyone, least of all by her husband. She didn't want to be brushed aside or treated like a child. And she especially didn't want him to think that if he left her side for a minute, she'd fall prey to only Lord knew what.
If that were truly the case, then she could just as well wave good-bye to her independence forever and acknowledge that she might as well remain home in bed. Her life as she knew it would be well and truly over.
The sound of twigs snapping among the trees caught her attention. She'd been so caught up in her own thoughts and the dialogue she planned to have with Ryan the next time she saw him that she'd failed to notice where she was going. She'd left the most popular area of the park behind and was now quite alone, surrounded by trees. n.o.body could see her.
Her heart quickened as another twig snapped. A rustling sound followed. It was probably just a small animal-a squirrel perhaps, or a mouse.
She gasped at the sound of that voice. Her heart leaped into her throat. She stiffened, paused, and turned around very, very slowly.
"I hope I am not intruding." It was Jack Helmsley, dressed rather casually in a beige jacket and brown trousers. "But I saw you walking and decided to follow. I must say, you certainly keep a brisk pace." He was breathing heavily from the effort of chasing after her.
Mary stared at him. She took a small step backward. "What do you want?" she asked in a strained voice.
"Not exactly the warm welcome I was expecting." He studied her for a moment.
"Well, you startled me," she said, willing her voice to stay calm. "I was deep in thought about a rather serious matter."
"I see." He wiped his brow with a white handkerchief, then looked at her much like a father might at a child he was concerned about. "There is something you ought to know, something I have not yet told you." He took a step forward. "I am afraid that I have not been very honest with you."
Mary took a sharp breath and held it. Her heart was still drumming vigorously against her chest.
"You see, your father. . .How do I put this? I. . .well, you see, the thing is that-"
"Oh, for heaven's sake, I already know that you killed him." The words were out before she could stop them. And once they were out, there was no taking them back. Mary clapped her hand over her mouth and stared at Jack.
"Is that what you think?" He gaped at her in astonishment. "How did you even. . .? Never mind; I know that you have been making inquiries."
He took another step in her direction, and she consequently tensed so much that she thought she might snap in two. "I have actually made a lot of interesting discoveries lately."
Dear G.o.d, why would I tell him that?
"I see." Jack frowned at her while he considered this. "And would these discoveries have anything to do with your father's journals, by any chance?"
"You are the worst kind of scoundrel I have ever met in my entire life," she flared as a sudden wave of anger a.s.sailed her. The last of her fear was swept away as she leaned toward him. "My father loved you like a brother; he trusted you, respected you, helped you, and this is how you repay him, by having him killed?"
"You have to listen to me," Jack told her carefully. "I-"
"No, you listen to me, Jack," Mary sneered as she pulled the pistol that Alexandra had given her from her reticule.
"What are you. . .?" Jack held up his hands in surrender. "Look, I realize how this must seem. I know your father mentioned me in the course of his investigation, but I did not sanction his death."
The laugh that Mary gave him was a mocking one. She tightened her hold on the pistol. "And why should I trust anything that you have to say? Because you told me that my life was in danger? Or perhaps because you informed me about my father's investigation? Oh, wait; you did neither of those things, did you, Jack? Instead you deliberately kept it from me."
"I am sorry, Mary," Jack told her as he stepped toward her once more. "You have every right to be suspicious of my actions."
"Stop right there," she warned. "I will shoot you-do not make the mistake of thinking I will not."
Jack sighed. He dropped his gaze to the ground. "The truth is that I was just as worried as everyone else about what might happen if the journals were not destroyed. My whole livelihood is at stake, Mary. You have to understand that I could lose everything if my errors were brought to light."
"And I am supposed to feel sorry for you?" The sneer was back in her voice again. "You had my father killed, Jack. For that I can never forgive you."
"Have you not been listening to a single word that I have said?" He looked back up at her, his eyes full of desperation. "I did not-" But just then he made the irrevocable error of reaching out toward her. It was an impulsive plea for forgiveness on Helmsley's part, a plea that Mary completely misread as a sign of aggression.
Reflex rushed into her fingers, forcing her to squeeze the trigger. She closed her eyes, just as the gun went off with a loud bang, propelling her backward against the trunk of a tree. Silence followed. Her eyes remained firmly shut for one second, two seconds, three seconds. . .She opened them slowly.
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph and all the apostles-I have killed him!
Mary peered down at the heap of limbs that lay sprawled at her feet. How curious; she couldn't seem to find the point of impact. And there wasn't much blood either. In fact, there wasn't any as far as she could tell. It had to be on the other side of him then, the side she couldn't see. She looked at her hands, still clutching the pistol. As if it had just scorched her flesh, she tossed it aside, into the bushes.
She leaned forward to take a closer look at Helmsley's body.
Closer and closer. . .
A hand reached out and grabbed her. Mary screamed, her voice shrill with startled fright.
"Mary. . ." Jack groaned, his eyes fluttering open. "What the blazes were you thinking?" His fist clutched the fabric of her skirt.
Pulling away, Mary tried to run but fell instead, her knees. .h.i.tting the ground with a thud. "Help me, Mary; my shoulder hurts like the devil."
"Unhand me, you ill-begotten scoundrel!" she cried, her hands reaching for something, anything, that might help her pull herself away from him.
"For the love of Christ, Mary," Jack muttered as he rolled over onto his side. "You shot me; you could have b.l.o.o.d.y well killed me, you little idiot."
Mary scrambled about in the dirt, desperate to get away from him. She'd tossed away her only weapon and now. . .Oh G.o.d. . .Her dress caught on some brambles and tore. Her hand curled around the root of a tree. She tried to pull herself up, but Helmsley latched onto her ankle. Kicking with all her might, she did her best to be rid of him. It was of no use.
"Is that it, then?" he asked her angrily. "Are you just going to leave me here like this?"
"What do you think? After everything you have done?"
With a pained sigh, he fell back against the undergrowth. "You do not know what you have gotten yourself into." He winced with pain as he clasped his shoulder. "You have the wrong man."
"I hardly think so," she hissed. "You have done nothing but lie to me these past few weeks-perhaps longer than that even; who knows? And of all the initials mentioned in my father's journals, you are the only one I actually knew. Yes, I have met Clemens and Bosworth recently, but they were not friends of mine. You, on the other hand, you were like family."
Grabbing onto a nearby tree for support, she lifted her free foot and stomped down as hard as she could on Helmsley's wounded shoulder. With a cry of sheer agony he released her. "Mary, please," he croaked, but she didn't stop to listen to what he might have had to say; she was running as fast as her feet could carry her, toward the corner of the park that would put her closest to Brook Street and home.
In his father's town house on Grosvenor Square, Ryan was quietly enjoying a cup of tea in the parlor while he waited for his father and brother to arrive. Percy had also been called to attend, though he was expected to be late; his brother and his father, however, were not.
Ryan tapped his fingers restlessly on the table next to him. He sighed, got up, walked to the window, and sighed again before returning to his chair. Where the devil were they? He'd told them earlier that it was a matter of great importance.
He decided to take another sip of his tea.
A few minutes later, the sound of the front door opening and closing could be heard. Hutchins's voice rang out loud and clear, there was a pause, and then the soft tread of approaching footsteps. The parlor door opened.
"So sorry," William exclaimed upon his arrival. "I was out with Jennings-had to hurry over to White's so he could place his bet against c.u.mmings."
"Ah, yes, I had forgotten about that poor devil," Ryan muttered.
"Mmm. . .better he than I-that is all I can say," William said and chuckled.
"Still not ready to set up that nursery of yours, I take it?"
"No, especially not now that you have clearly snagged the only available woman worth having."
Ryan laughed. "That may well be, though I have to say, the tongue on that woman leaves much to be desired."
"Oh, come now; it cannot possibly be any worse than Alex's."
"She called me a malodorous milksop, right in the middle of Oxford Street, for all the world to hear."
"Well, you must have done something to deserve it," William told him, jumping valiantly to Mary's defense.
"I shall remember that when you find yourself carted off to the altar by a willful chit with a mouth more foul than a Covent Garden nun," Ryan said, glowering at his brother for good measure.
"Speaking of which, you will never guess who I saw this afternoon," William remarked, directing the subject smoothly away from himself and the topic of marriage.
"Stephanie Maplewood. It appeared as though she was leaving the office of the Mayfair Chronicle."
"Jennings was quite taken with her, you know," William added.
"The man is a d.a.m.n fool if he falls into that trap," Ryan muttered.
"I thought exactly the same thing; told him so too, in fact. Yet, upon further consideration, I am not so sure about which of them would be the one getting trapped-if they were to wed, that is."
"What do you mean?" Ryan asked for the sake of asking. He really couldn't care less about Jennings or Stephanie Maplewood, least of all now when he was trying to focus on helping Mary.
Where the h.e.l.l were Bryce and Percy anyway?
"He breeds dogs, you see," William said and snorted as if he'd just said the funniest of things.
Ryan served him a blank stare. "Who?"
"Jennings, of course. Have you not been listening? I told him about Lady Stephanie's transgressions, I warned him of her conniving nature, and do you know what he told me?" William chuckled with glee. "That he would like to put a muzzle on that vixen and make her heel."
Ryan's lips began to twitch. A moment later, both men were in st.i.tches at the prospect of Lady Stephanie being bound by marriage to a man who would treat her precisely as she deserved.
They were so amused with themselves, in fact, that it took a while before they noticed Bryce and Percy standing in the doorway, staring at them as if they'd just escaped from Bedlam.
"Oh, there you are." Ryan grinned as he strode toward Percy to shake his hand. He gave his father a warm smile. "William was just telling me about Colonel Jennings's plans to woo Stephanie Maplewood."
"Well, if there is a man in all of creation who might be able to discipline that woman, then he is certainly the one." Bryce smirked. "He has one very simple rule: reward the good behavior and punish the bad."
"And you think that will work with Lady Stephanie?" William asked.
Percy was the one to answer that question. "She has been spoiled in every which way imaginable since the day she first opened her eyes on the world-a common mistake made by parents with only one child, I'm afraid. But really, she has been allowed to get away with far too much, and her recent behavior has been quite despicable, to say the least. She needs a firm hand to guide her and someone to tell her no every once in a while.
"I know Jennings well; he is tough as nails. She will not be able to wind him around her little finger, and in the end, he will be doing her a favor-if she will have him, that is. . .there is, of course, that little detail to consider."
"And while we are on the topic of Lady Stephanie," Ryan added, "William saw her earlier this afternoon leaving the office of the Mayfair Chronicle."
"What the devil is that woman doing, going to the press?" Bryce barked.
"Not sure," William told him. "But I doubt that she was merely paying a social visit."
Ryan shuddered. "Perhaps we ought to go over there ourselves and try to discover what she has been up to."
"An excellent idea," Bryce said as he sat down in one of the chairs. "But first, why don't you tell us why you have asked us all here to meet you."
Ryan lifted the teapot from the table in front of him. "Tea, anyone?" he asked.
"Do I look like a woman to you?" Bryce growled. It was a known fact that he hadn't had a cup of tea since his wife's death. He'd taken great pleasure in watching her pour, but he'd never been particularly fond of the drink itself. Now that she was gone, he really didn't see any point in the British custom of afternoon tea, which was, in his opinion, highly overrated. "Give me a brandy instead," he said as he pulled a cigar from his pocket.
"Percy?" Ryan asked, his hand still on the teapot.
"Go ahead and pour me a cup," Percy told him.
"Me too," William added.
"Right then," Ryan remarked once he was done. "You all know about the threats against Mary and that there are men out there who want to get their hands on her father's journals."
"Well, I believe that we may have determined why." Ryan took a sip of his tea; it was already cold. He winced. "Her father was conducting an investigation into what he considered to be medical malpractice cases."
"That would certainly explain a lot," Percy muttered.
"Yes. In fact, the findings are rather astounding." Ryan eyed his father. "Apparently, Mr. Clemens and Sir Bosworth were both very much involved. Each was responsible for roughly thirty or so unnecessary deaths."
"Good Lord," Bryce murmured as he stared at Ryan in disbelief. "Are you quite certain of this? It is a rather large accusation to make if. . .I mean, both of these men are very well respected and-"
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