"I have always admired your home, Robert," Mary remarked as she stared up at the vaulted ceiling in the foyer of Woodbridge House. "I remember visiting here as a child when my father would come to call on you, and I always dreamed of what it might be like to live in such a place."
"And now you know," he told her cheerfully.
"Oh, my house on Brook Street is nothing compared to this, though you are very kind to imply so."
"I was actually thinking of Steepleton House."
Mary looked momentarily confused.
"The estate in Northamptonshire?"
"Oh, yes, of course. Unfortunately, I have not had the time to visit it yet." She paused for a moment as she ran her eyes along the railing of the wide marble staircase. "But I take it you have been?"
"Once, as a child, when your grandfather was still alive. Your father invited me along one summer. It was quite splendid.
"Come, let us go this way," he said. With heels clicking against the marble floor and his cane thumping loudly at his side, Robert led Mary through to his study.
"Now, before we get started, I would like to show you something rather special." He crossed the carpet to a door that stood between two bookcases and opened it.
Mary stepped forward. She walked past Robert, peered inside the room, and simply gaped at what she saw. "Heavens!" she exclaimed.
"Is it not marvelous?"
"It is certainly quite unusual," she told him as she glanced about the room that Robert had clearly spent much time on converting into his private operating theater.
"And yet it has served me rather well." His voice was strained with the early tones of annoyance. This room was his pride and joy, and all she had to say was how unusual it was? He wanted to slap her but stopped himself. It wouldn't do for her to lose faith in him just yet. There would be plenty of time for that later.
"Most members of the ton abhor having to venture into a hospital filled with diseased commoners," he explained. "Here, in the confines of this room, I am able to offer them absolute discretion with less chance of catching another contagious illness." He wouldn't tell her that the members of the gentry weren't the only ones who'd paid a visit here. After all, he could hardly kill off too many of them before drawing suspicion. Besides, they were the ones funding his rather elaborate lifestyle. That was not to say that he hadn't been tempted to botch up Lord Hornby's operation. He simply couldn't stomach the fool.
Now, the commoners, on the other hand, with all their putrid afflictions-n.o.body cared if one of them didn't make it. Oh, the power of the surgeon! He was like a G.o.d, holding the life of his patients in the palm of his hand. How many times had he decided to save a life, and how many times had he decided to let the poor unworthy wretch just slip away? The feeling he felt when that vital decision was made was unlike any other. It gave him wings and sent him soaring, knowing that all men who came to him were putting their lives in his hands. And yet, before each surgery began, Robert had no idea which way things would go. That was what excited him the most. Sometimes, it was out of his hands, of course, but in most cases, it would come to him about halfway through, out of nowhere. He'd suddenly know if he was going to allow the person who lay before him to live or to die. And there was nothing in the world that could make him feel more alive. It was quite exhilarating.
As for Mary, her fate had already been determined, of course. He glanced at her now as she paced about the room, examining every little detail. His mouth twisted itself into a leering grin at the prospect of what was to come. If Mary would only have looked, she would have seen it for what it was: a warning to get the h.e.l.l out of there. But she was too absorbed, too preoccupied, and too trustworthy, so she missed it, focusing her attention on the operating table instead.
"This is really quite something," she marveled as she ran her hand across one of the leather straps that were hanging from the side of the operating table in the center of the room.
"I must say it works splendidly well," he told her. "I added enough straps to keep the patient restrained at all times. You see, like this I only need to leave the straps in the area where the surgery is being performed undone. The rest will keep the patient firmly in place."
He watched her closely, saw her admiration, and decided to exploit it. "Here, how about if you climb up, and I will show you."
"I'm not exactly dressed for something like this," Mary told him hesitantly, but he could tell that she was wavering. She was just like her father, too eager to learn of the newest advances that medicine had to offer. How ironic that it would soon be her downfall.
"Come, it will only take a moment. Besides, I would like an honest opinion on the level of comfort this thing has to offer. I have tried it myself, of course, but I fear I am not as finicky as some of the ladies."
Mary grinned, rising to the challenge-and the bait. "Very well then, I will give it a go."
"Here, you can use this stool to climb up, then just lean back. . .there you go. . .comfortable?"
"As a matter of fact, I am actually," she admitted, sounding surprised.
But when she began to sit up again, Robert stopped her with his hand. "Come on, Mary; you cannot say that you have tried it unless you have really tried it. It will only take a moment." He forced a warm smile as he reached for one of the straps.
Mary hesitated. There was something in Robert's voice that she didn't like. It sent a cold chill through her, but she quickly dismissed it. His demeanor was, after all, just as charming as it had always been. Besides, she'd known him for as long as she could remember. He would never hurt her.
Her thoughts returned to Helmsley as Robert tightened the straps around her right arm. She'd known him her whole life too, and. . .what was it he'd said?
You have the wrong man.
Panic a.s.sailed her. The sudden fear of being rendered helpless in a room with just one man present, no matter who that man might be, had her heart thumping against her chest within seconds. She aimed for a calm voice. "I am sorry, Robert, but I am not feeling all that well. Please untie me."
"Not to worry, Mary, you will feel much better soon."
"Robert." She pulled at the restraints, but they wouldn't budge. "Please help me get down."
"In a minute." His voice was tight and suddenly cold.
Grabbing her left arm, he held it down to strap it in place. Mary flung her leg out sideways, kicking him as hard as she could against his head.
"You will pay for that," he sneered, holding his hand firmly against the bruise that was forming above his left eye.
And before Mary knew what hit her, Robert punched her solidly in the face, splitting her lip and knocking her out cold.
I cannot move. Why can't I move?
Mary's head was pounding. She tried to move her arms, but they wouldn't budge. Her legs seemed just as useless. Opening her eyes slowly, a blurry vision of an almost empty room greeted her.
Where am I?
Turning her head sideways, she spotted a figure. She blinked a few times, allowing her eyes to focus, and then realized who it was.
"Robert?" her voice croaked. He leaned toward her, peering down at her anxious face. "What happened?"
"You honestly don't remember?" he asked mockingly. "You were being difficult, and I had no choice but to hit you."
The fear she'd felt earlier was upon her again. She struggled helplessly against her restraints. They wouldn't budge. Tears welled in her eyes, but she held them back. She'd be d.a.m.ned if she was going to let him watch her cry.
"Why are you doing this, Robert?"
"Because you refused to listen to me, Mary. I warned you repeatedly, but you simply would not follow my advice. You insisted on snooping around in matters that did not concern you-just as your father did."
Mary took in a sharp breath. It was Robert then, not Helmsley. "But how did you find out that I was practicing?"
"Oh, that was easy enough; Helmsley told me. He's not completely innocent, you know. But he didn't know about your father's murder until after the fact. He never would have agreed to it, you see."
Mary breathed a sigh of relief. Well, at least that was something.
"So you had him killed?"
"Of course; he'd gathered far too much incriminating evidence against me. I simply couldn't allow that, I'm afraid." The unaffected tone of his voice made her shudder; he might as well be discussing the weather.
"But he was your friend. I just don't understand-"
"He would have publicized information that would have sentenced me to death, Mary. Friends don't do that to one another."
"But the initials," she muttered. "You don't match a single one of them."
"Of course I do, you silly little fool. I am VR, the Viscount of Ravenwood. I haven't used the t.i.tle since my youth, but it is mine all the same."
Heaven help me.
"So, as you can see, you are in quite a bit of trouble, my lady."
"Will you at least tell me who my father's killer was?" she asked with a growing sense of hopelessness.
Robert's lips drew together in a wide and hideous smile. His eyes glistened. "It was your very own cousin, my dear."
"My cousin? What cousin?"
"Remember your dear uncle Alistair? Well, he had a son who hated you and your father as much, if not more than, his father did. His name was Matthew, by the way, but you probably know him better as the Messenger."
Mary gulped. She was related to that man-by blood? Good grief. She considered Robert's words carefully. "Was?" she asked quietly.
"You said his name was Matthew."
"So I did," he murmured, dragging his words as though he was selecting each of them with great precision. "I shot him just outside Gerrards Cross, along with your uncle." Robert walked across to a small table with a tray on it. He picked up a scalpel, ran his finger along the edge, then smiled. He looked back at Mary. "It wasn't anything they did. In fact, they carried out their a.s.signments rather well, although I was a bit disappointed when they left behind the last of your father's journals.
"But in the end, it boiled down to one simple thing: you would eventually discover that your uncle was not suffering from a fatal illness, and once you did, you would also realize that he was somehow involved. I couldn't allow for you or anyone else to go knocking at his door. He knew too much, and so did his son."
"So now you're-"
"Tying up loose ends, so to speak." He moved closer until he was standing right next to her. "Now, would you like me to tell you what I have in mind, or would you rather be surprised?"
Mary's heart sank. This was it, her final moment. Hot tears burned her eyes, but still she did not cry.
Stall for time.
"I would like for you to tell me," she managed to say on a faint whisper as her whole body began to tremble.
Ryan banged his fist relentlessly against the tough wooden door of Woodbridge House.
"Why the devil is n.o.body coming? Are there no servants in this place?"
"Should I perhaps try to find a battering ram?" William asked as he watched the little effect his brother was having on bringing down the door.
"Be serious, William." Ryan's tone was hard as steel. "That butcher in there might very well be carving up Mary as we speak."
"I know," William muttered. "But rather than hammering away at this blasted door while he does so, we might be better off if we try to find another way inside."
Ryan paused. "You have a point," he admitted.
"All right then," William said with renewed enthusiasm as he eyed the garden wall. "I will give you a leg up, and then you can pull me up after you. Agreed?"
This wasn't the time to argue, and in any event, Ryan knew that his brother had more experience with this sort of thing than he did. He would gladly follow his advice.
A few minutes later, they landed in the garden with a thump.
Ryan straightened himself, glanced about, and then headed across the lawn toward the terrace. William followed close behind him.
"These are locked too," Ryan growled as he pulled on the French doors with all his might.
"Not to worry." William picked up a sculpture of a garden fairy that had been placed decoratively in one of the flowerbeds. "This should do the trick." And without further ado, he sent the figurine crashing through the gla.s.s, reducing it to smithereens. Reaching through the gaping hole that now greeted them, and careful not to cut himself, Ryan turned the lock. A second later, the door swung open without a glitch. They stepped through into the ballroom, a vast open s.p.a.ce with a wide marble staircase leading up to the foyer. Ryan and William hurried on, their heels clicking softly against the polished floor.
"It seems deserted," William remarked, commenting on the lack of servants that most homes such as this one would be teaming with.
"I know. It's eerily quiet." Ryan's voice echoed around them. He spotted an open door and marched toward it. "Woodbridge's study," he said as he popped his head inside to have a look. "It's empty."
He was just about to move, when a sliver of light caught his attention. It was coming from beneath a door he hadn't noticed before. Waving William over, he pointed toward it.
William arched an eyebrow. "I think we may have found our man," he whispered. "You had better pick a weapon."
d.a.m.n. Why hadn't he thought to bring a pistol along with him? He'd been in a dratted hurry and had arrived at the scene completely unprepared. Edging quietly forward with William right behind him, he moved across to Woodbridge's desk and opened the top drawer-nothing but sheets of paper.
"These will do," William whispered from the opposite corner. Ryan watched as his brother's shadowy figure reached up to remove something from above the fireplace. A moment later, William placed a large dagger in his brother's hand.
A shrill scream shook the air, and Ryan sprang into action. With his hand clasped firmly around the hilt of the dagger, he ran toward the door he'd seen and flung it open. The scene that greeted him was that of a nightmare. There was Mary, strapped to a long, wooden table, her gown slashed open down the middle to expose her entire chest and belly. Poised over her, with a scalpel grazing her creamy white skin, stood Woodbridge. He looked up the minute Ryan entered and served him a sinister smile. "I wasn't sure that you would make it in time," he muttered. "In fact, I'd quite given up on your playing the hero. But now that you have come, you will be able to enjoy the show."
"What the h.e.l.l is wrong with you, Woodbridge?" Ryan's voice was tight with contempt. "Do you really think I will just stand idly by while you cut away at Lady Steepleton?"
Mary whimpered, her eyes huge with fear as they sought out Ryan's. The imploring look in them made his blood boil.
Woodbridge chuckled. "I suppose that might be too much to hope for. But let us not forget, that by the time you make it over here with that thing," he gestured idly toward the dagger, "Mary will be long dead."
"You b.a.s.t.a.r.d!" Ryan ground out, his words hovering around them. "I will send you to h.e.l.l if you as much as touch a hair on her head."
"Now, now, let's not get carried away. As it happens, I have a much better idea." His smile was no different than the one he might have given if he were enjoying a nice cup of tea or a walk in the park. It couldn't have been more contradictory to the situation at hand. "You will do no such thing. I have a sharp scalpel here. One false move and Mary dies."
Ryan winced. He felt William stir beside him and eyed his brother with a grim expression.
"It seems as though we have little choice in the matter." William's tone was calm. In fact, it was completely devoid of emotion. It was impossible to tell what he might be thinking, but Ryan knew. Without a moment's hesitation and with a movement so swift that it was hard to follow, Ryan flung his dagger at Robert.
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