"I am sorry. I know that Bosworth in particular is a good friend of yours. Unfortunately, it is true: the evidence is all in Lord Steepleton's writing."
Ryan went on to tell them about his and Mary's visit to the hospital, the records they'd found, and the initials that matched each of these men.
"Now, there are still a few initials that I have not been able to decipher. That is why I have asked you to come. I was hoping that you might be able to help me discover who they are."
"Very well," William told him. "Let us hear them."
Ryan pulled a piece of paper from his jacket pocket and cleared his throat. "There is MH, whom we have discerned to be Dr. Jack Helmsley, a close friend of Mary's father." He paused for a moment before moving on. "MT appears quite frequently, as do a few others, but the most prominent initial of all is VR."
"And the first letter of each initial denotes the man's t.i.tle?" William asked with mounting interest.
"I presume so, judging from the fact that MC stands for Mr. Clemens, while SB stands for Sir Bosworth. If Lord Steepleton was consistent, as I believe he was, judging from his meticulous notes, then, yes, the first letter denotes the t.i.tle."
"The MT could be Mr. Thornfield." Percy's voice was distant when he spoke. "I hate to think it; the man is a good friend of mine, but he must be considered. He is one of London's most prominent surgeons, after all."
"And VR?" Ryan asked expectantly.
Bryce and Percy glanced at one another knowingly. Neither of them said anything, though, as if they each hoped the other might embark upon that topic.
"Well?" Ryan persisted.
"It seems that Lady Steepleton has been stirring up quite the hornet's nest." It was Bryce who'd finally decided to enlighten his son. "Not only does she have spirit, but she has tremendous courage to take on the most prominent physicians and surgeons this city has to offer."
"Who is he?" Ryan asked with growing concern. His voice was low and quiet as he stared across at his father.
"Only one man comes to mind, I am afraid: the Viscount of Ravenwood."
"Who?" Ryan and William voiced the question simultaneously.
Percy looked as though he'd much rather be elsewhere, while Bryce merely took another sip of his brandy, smacking his lips together as he swallowed. Concern marked his aging eyes.
"You probably know him better as the Earl of Woodbridge- the master of the College of Surgeons himself."
Ryan and William both stared at their father in dumbfounded disbelief. They didn't move-they simply couldn't. They just sat there while they tried to absorb the enormity of what he'd just told them.
"That is not possible," Ryan eventually managed to say. "He is the Earl of Woodbridge; you just said so yourself. It doesn't make sense for Lord Steepleton to refer to him as VR."
"It does if that is how he remembered him," Percy said. "You must not forget, Woodbridge and Croyden were friends for years-since they were lads, in fact, and long before Croyden decided to spurn his heritage. And though both of you are too young to recall, Robert Finley was known as the Viscount of Ravenwood in his youth. He did not inherit the t.i.tle of Earl of Woodbridge until his uncle pa.s.sed away about twenty years ago."
Ryan was nothing short of stunned.
"William, come with me this instant." Ryan was out of his seat and across the floor in two bounds. He paused at the drawing room door while he waited for William to follow. "Mary is having tea with Lord Woodbridge as we speak," he explained. "I think it might do rather well if we hightailed on over there to see what the blazes is going on and more to the point, make sure that she is all right."
After the incident in the park, Mary went straight home. She'd considered stopping by Summersby House to tell Ryan about what had happened but had thought better of it. After all, this was precisely the sort of thing that would prove his point and have him hover over her like a mother hen in no time at all.
Instead, she hurried upstairs to her room with Emma on her heels and a troubled Thornton staring after her. Emma at least had the decency not to inquire as to why her mistress's gown had been torn and covered in dirt. She quietly helped her wash up instead and change into a clean dress so she would look respectable once her guest arrived. The Earl of Woodbridge would be coming for tea at any moment.
Mary now waited anxiously in the parlor for Robert to arrive. She'd asked Thornton to ensure that some tea and cuc.u.mber sandwiches would be made ready, but now she wondered whether she ought to have added some crumpets with jam since Robert had always been fond of sweets.
She sighed as she placed her hands loosely in her lap. Her encounter with Helmsley had rattled her more than she cared to admit. She'd actually tried to shoot him. No, she had shot him; what she'd tried to do was kill him. And what now? He was still alive and would almost certainly come after her again. She wasn't safe, not even in her own home.
Her thoughts went to Ryan and everything he'd told her. d.a.m.n it if he hadn't been right. She wasn't able to protect herself as well as she'd thought she could-Helmsley had just proven that.
But was she going to run crying into Ryan's arms like the stereotypically feeble female? Not b.l.o.o.d.y likely. Her stubborn pride would never allow her to follow that course of action, even though it was exactly what she wanted to do most. No, she'd argued with him and insulted him on the basis that she was strong enough to take care of herself, and so she would.
"My lady," Thornton remarked in a drier voice than usual, "Lord Woodbridge has arrived. Shall I show him in?"
"Yes, please do," Mary replied. "And please ask one of the maids to bring us the tea."
Thornton raised an eyebrow as if to say, "Do you seriously think I need reminding?" Instead he merely nodded and backed out of the door.
"Robert!" Mary exclaimed as her father's longtime friend strode into the room, his cane thumping loudly against the floor as he went. "It is so good to see you again. Thank you for coming."
"Thank you for inviting me," Robert told her with a cheerful smile. He remained standing until she'd sat down again, then took his seat in the pale blue armchair that stood next to the fireplace. A maid entered carrying a tray with a teapot and two cups. She placed it on the table, bobbed a curtsy, and left.
"I would have invited you sooner, but Lady Trenton and her husband were kind enough to let me join them in the country for a few days."
"I completely understand," Robert told her smoothly. "Did you have a good time?"
"Oh, yes. It was lovely to get away from the city for a while, especially with everything that has been happening lately."
Robert took a sip of the tea that Mary had just poured for him and frowned. "Yes, I understand that you have been quite busy since your return. And with Lady Stephanie so intent on seeing you ruined. . .well, I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for you."
"I was rather hoping that n.o.body would have heard about that little incident."
"What can I say?" Robert spread his arms wide as he leaned back against his chair. He crossed his legs and smiled. "Gossip has a remarkable way of reaching those who are interested in it, and I must admit that I have been very interested in keeping my eye on you and everything that you have been up to."
Mary felt her cheeks flush from embarra.s.sment. "I do not suppose that you have also heard that I have an uncle I never knew existed."
"Hm. . .come to think of it, your father did have a brother and a sister, I believe, though I have not heard any news about either one of them in years."
"Well, my uncle showed up a few days ago. He is terribly ill, I'm afraid, and in dire need of immediate medical attention. He wanted to know if my father might have come across an alternative treatment for a sarcoma than the one his surgeon is currently suggesting: amputation."
"I see. That does sound rather serious."
"Unfortunately, he will not allow me to help him any further. He insisted that a man attend to him."
Robert chuckled. "You must try to understand that for a gentleman-an older one, in particular-well, it really would be quiet unseemly to allow a young woman to perform any sort of examination requiring the patient's state of undress." He seemed to consider his next words with great care. "That is not to say that you are not perfectly capable; I know that you are, Mary. Your father trained you very well."
"You are right, of course," she said. "I just wish that there was something more I could do for him. He seemed so desperate."
"I imagine he would be if he had a sarcoma."
Mary nodded ruefully. "He wanted to see my father's journals, but I wouldn't let him. I did not trust him, Robert. He showed up so unexpectedly, and with everything that has happened, the threats and the thefts. . ."
Robert frowned, leaning closer as if he expected her to explain.
"I have not told you, have I?" He shook his head, his dark eyes filled with interest. Considering his longtime friendship with her father, Mary was confident that he would do whatever he could to help her. "Since my arrival in London, I have received multiple threats to abandon my practice. My bedroom has been broken into, both here and at Whickham Hall during my stay there. All of my father's work-every single one of his journals-stolen."
"That is very unfortunate," Robert murmured with a hint of gravity.
"To say the least." Mary sighed dejectedly. "Did you know that my father was murdered? No, of course you did not." Her eyes were beginning to burn. "The worst of it is that I know who did it."
"You do?" Robert shifted in his chair as if he weren't quite ready to hear what she had to say.
Mary slowly nodded. "It was a whole group of physicians and surgeons that my father had been investigating for malpractice. Mr. Clemens and Sir Bosworth, whom you introduced me to at Glendale House, are among them. So is Helmsley."
Robert's eyes widened, and Mary realized just how shocking this news must be for him. After all, these were all men whom he knew rather well- friends, in fact.
"And even though Helmsley does not appear to have been as involved as the rest," she continued, "I know that he is the one behind the threats, the thefts, and worst of all, my father's murder. He simply knew us too well for it to have been anyone else, and he took advantage of that knowledge in the worst possible way."
Robert frowned, giving Mary the impression that he was finding all of this quite difficult to digest. It was to be expected, considering that she'd just accused some very respectable members of society of murder. She watched as his expression eventually relaxed into one of sympathy. He let out a ragged sigh and slumped back against his seat. "I am so sorry," he told her. "I had no idea. It is. . .incomprehensible, to say the least."
They sat in silence for a while, contemplating the issue, before Robert eventually spoke again. "But if your father intended to make all of Helmsley's errors and careless mistakes public, then Helmsley could have not only lost his license, he could have gone to prison for a very long time."
For a brief second, it almost sounded as if Robert was defending Helmsley, but a moment later he sadly shook his head. No, he was just stating the facts to try to better understand the situation at hand. After all, she'd had some time now in which to come to terms with what had happened, while Robert was probably still in shock.
"I realize that," Mary told him. "But that does not excuse what he did or what he is still doing."
"It certainly is a rather d.a.m.nable affair, if you'll excuse my language. Tell me, how may I be of a.s.sistance?" Robert asked.
"Actually, I was hoping that you might be able to help me discover who some of the other men involved might be."
His face brightened at that request; he was obviously eager to help, for which Mary was truly grateful. She explained how she and Ryan had worked out who the other physicians were, then reached for the burgundy, leather-bound book that was lying on the table next to her. As reluctant as she was to let it out of her grasp, she had no reason not to trust Robert with it. Besides, if he was going to help her as he said he would, then the least she could do was show a little faith in him. Leaning forward, she handed the book over to him without the least bit of hesitation, watching as a look of reverence came over his face. She knew that her father had done some remarkable work in his time and appreciated that a man as prominent as the Earl of Woodbridge would treat his journal with such care and admiration.
Discovering what Helmsley had done both saddened and angered her beyond compare, but at least she knew that she could still count on Robert. There was also Ryan, whom she knew she could depend upon. Thinking of him now, she briefly wondered if he'd uncovered any new pieces of information. Probably not, or he would have hurried over and told her at once, regardless of their earlier argument. Of that she was certain.
Robert flipped open the journal and ran his fingers across the text.
"Do you see the initials at the end of each paragraph?" Mary asked, observing Robert's fascinated appreciation of her father's work.
He nodded slowly, his eyes narrowing slightly as he scanned the page. "I don't believe that I know who those initials belong to," he told her regretfully, looking up and meeting her gaze.
"Oh," Mary muttered. The disappointment she felt was overwhelming. "I had rather hoped you would, considering your connections within the medical community."
"Yes, I suppose that is true. But let's not give up hope just yet." He gave her an optimistic smile. "I have a record at my home of all the physicians and surgeons who have worked in London within the past ten years. Perhaps if we look in it, we might discover something new."
"Oh, Robert, I knew you would do everything in your power to help, and this is certainly an excellent idea." She didn't want to abuse his willingness to help, but she also felt that time was of the essence. Consequently, she only stopped herself momentarily before adding, "I know it is rather late. I don't suppose you would want to-"
"I don't mind going over it right away if that is what you wish to do," he told her gently. "I know how important this is to you."
Relief washed over her. "Thank you," she said, hoping she'd think of an appropriate means by which to repay him later. "You have always been very kind to me, and this. . .this means a lot."
"It means a great deal to me too, Mary," Robert a.s.sured her. "More than you can possibly imagine. After you?"
With a quick nod, stopping only to pick up her spencer and reticule, Mary followed Robert without a moment's hesitation, only too eager to discover who else her father had been investigating.
"Is that not Woodbridge's carriage?" William asked, pointing to the landau that was pulling away from the curb in front of Mary's house. They'd gotten there as fast as they could, running the last hundred yards out of concern for Mary's safety.
Ryan frowned. "I think so." He turned and bolted up the stairs leading to the front door of Mary's home and began hammering at it so furiously that William feared the door might break.
"May I help you?" a perplexed Thornton asked upon opening the door. He looked questioningly from one brother to the other.
"I need to see Mary," Ryan told him on a gasp of air. "Lady Steepleton, I mean. I would like to ensure that nothing has happened to her."
"She was well when I last saw her," Thornton remarked. "A matter of minutes before you arrived."
Ryan breathed a sigh of relief. "May I speak to her, please? I know it is rather late, but there is a matter of great importance that I must discuss with her at once."
"Oh, I am afraid not," Thornton told him. "Her ladyship has gone out for the evening. You are welcome to wait, of course, but I really cannot say how long she will be."
Ryan's heart leaped back into action, quickening its pace to a perilous beat.
"Where did she go?" He could scarcely get the question out. He felt faint, as if the world were folding itself in on him.
"I am really not certain, but she did leave with the Earl of Woodbridge, so she is in very good hands."
Oh, dear G.o.d in heaven!
"He is going to kill her," Ryan murmured, turning his back on the startled butler. "I just know it."
"Then we have not a moment to lose," William said as he grabbed his pale-faced brother by the arm and began dragging him along in the direction of Lord Woodbridge's mansion. "Now, pull yourself together, Ryan; the woman you love is depending on you."
He'd almost told her he loved her yesterday, but he hadn't felt it as strongly as he did now that the words had actually been spoken, even if it had been by William. Hearing it made it so much more real. Yes, he loved her, more dearly than he'd ever loved any other, and he'd be d.a.m.ned if he was going to let a villain like Woodbridge get in the way of that.
"You are quite right," he told William as he quickened his pace to a run. "I am going to find that b.a.s.t.a.r.d, and when I do, he will be sorry that he ever crossed me."
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