A m.u.f.fled cry sounded, followed by a clatter and a loud thump as Robert stumbled backward and fell, the dagger protruding stiffly from the side of his neck.
"Well done!" William cheered as he rounded the table on which Mary was strapped and peered down at the Earl of Woodbridge, who now lay sprawled across the floor. Blood was rapidly pooling around him. "I say, he does look rather pale."
"Is he dead?" Ryan asked as he hastened to unfasten the straps that held Mary.
"How the devil should I know?" William asked dejectedly. "I am not a physician, you know."
Ryan helped Mary to sit up, pulling her gown closed around her as best he could, and covered her with his jacket. "Are you all right?"
She gave a small nod. "Yes, thank you."
He kissed her forehead briefly, then met her gaze dead on. "Don't move," he told her. "I shall be right back."
Leaving her side, he strode over to where William was standing and looked down at the mess he'd made. "He will bleed to death unless we do something."
"I hope you are not suggesting that we save his life," William remarked.
"That is precisely what I am suggesting," Ryan told him brusquely as he pulled the dagger from Robert's neck, grabbed some linen towels, and jammed them down hard over the gaping wound. "If he dies now, he will not have suffered nearly as much as I would have hoped. Besides, I have no desire to be charged with murdering a member of the ton, no matter how much he might deserve it." He looked up at his shocked brother. "We are going to do whatever we can to save him, William, and then we are going to send him off to Newgate to rot while he awaits his trial and sentencing. There is no doubt that he will hang for what he has done, but he will do so with the public humiliation he deserves."
William nodded wryly. "Remind me never to cross you," he said, grinning. "You have a fiercer bite than you let on."
A loud banging caught their attention.
"I had better see who that might be," William said as he headed out the door. He returned a moment later with Bryce and Percy in tow, followed by two Bow Street runners.
"Well, well, well," Bryce remarked as he glance around the room. "I daresay Lord Woodbridge has been rather busy, has he not?"
"It certainly appears so," Percy concurred, looking equally astounded by what his longtime friend had been up to.
"We will take it from here," one of the runners remarked as he glanced over at Mary. "If one of you gentlemen would be so good as to see the lady home-I believe she might be in need of a change of clothes."
"I shall take her," Ryan said, "if one of you will take over from me."
William stepped forward to help. "I will do my best," he muttered.
Leaving everything in the capable hands of William, Bryce, and Percy, Ryan hailed a hackney. "Brook Street, if you please," he told the driver as he lifted Mary up and settled her on one of the benches.
He took the seat beside her and clasped her hand tightly in his. "I am so sorry that you had to endure that." His voice cracked with emotion as he squeezed her hand.
She leaned her head against his shoulder and tucked her other hand under his arm. What an ordeal. She felt drained. "I just want to go home," she whispered, closing her eyes against the hot onset of tears. She couldn't stop them any longer. She felt a painful lump rise in her throat, and before she even knew how it had happened, Ryan was hugging her against him while she sobbed against his shoulder.
"Shh, he crooned, stroking his hand gently against her hair to soothe her. "It is over now. I will take you home so you can get a good night's rest, and in the morning, you will feel much, much better. I promise."
She sniffed loudly as she gasped for breath in an attempt to calm herself.
"Here." He offered her a handkerchief.
"I am so. . .sorry," she managed to choke out, accepting the white piece of fabric he held toward her. She dabbed at her eyes, which she knew must be red and puffy by now. Her hair was a tangled mess, and her lip where Robert had hit her hurt like blazes.
"There is nothing for you to be sorry about," Ryan told her firmly. "You did nothing wrong."
"I must look a fright, though." She gave him an awkward smile.
He kissed her lightly on the forehead. "You do," he said with a grin, squeezing her hand. "But not to worry; we can fix that. As for your height, however. . .now, that is a different issue altogether."
"My height?" She grimaced, completely caught off guard by such a backhanded statement.
"Surely you must have noticed that you are not that tall."
"I am pet.i.te," she cried.
He appeared to ponder that for a moment, and then shook his head in disagreement. "No, you are not all that pet.i.te. Of course, it is not for me to say, but if it were, I would say that you are rather gnomish."
"Gnomish?" she squeaked. She narrowed her eyes, then whacked him firmly across the shoulder.
"Did that feel gnomish to you?"
"I think someone may have just pinched me," he moaned, looking about as he pretended to search for the culprit. His eyes found hers, and his smile widened into one of mischief. "Was it you, my little gnome?"
"Well," she huffed, "if I am a gnome, then you are a big oaf-the biggest I have ever seen, in fact."
"A big oaf, you say? As long as I am not a milksop, I really do not mind."
She pouted slightly before her stern facade began to crumble into one of apology. "I am sorry I called you a milksop," she said. "You really aren't one, but you made me so angry and-"
"I know," he told her. "I said some terrible things to you too."
"You called me a jingle-brained harridan."
"Not one of my proudest moments-I am sorry about that. I don't think that you are jingle-brained or a harridan."
"But you think that I look like a gnome?" Her question held an air of disbelief.
He smiled at her cheekily. "No, not really; your feet are too big-no respectable gnome would ever have feet that size."
"Ryan Summersby, I do believe that I despise you above all others." But her eyes sparkled with the humor of it all, belying her outraged demeanor.
Thank you for the distraction, for making me forget.
"Do you really?" he asked her seriously.
"Oh, absolutely," she said.
"You don't-not really. I don't believe you," he insisted.
"Prove it," she challenged with a wry smile on her lips. "Prove that I don't detest you."
And with that he kissed her, more pa.s.sionately than ever before, unleashing every emotion he'd felt for the past few hours: his fear, his pain, his love-all present in that one simple caress.
"You will make me the happiest man in the world when you become my wife," he whispered close to her ear.
She pulled back slightly in order to look him in the eye. "Why?" Her voice was quiet, full of hope, yet worried all at the same time.
It was a simple question, one that he certainly knew the answer to. But now that the moment had come for him to tell her, the words wouldn't come. Three little words of monumental importance were stuck in his throat as if they were glued together. He stared at her blankly.
What the devil is the matter with me? Just tell her.
And then it dawned on him. He was searching for something better, something more than those three little words, which in truth, seemed suddenly, completely inadequate when it came to the way he felt about her.
But he knew that wasn't what she saw, for the look of disappointment in her eyes spoke volumes. He'd let her down like the fool he was. He opened his mouth, hoping that words would come, but then the moment had pa.s.sed. They'd arrived at her house, the steps were set down, and all Ryan could do was help her to the door.
"I apologize, I-" he told her sheepishly.
"No need to." There was pain in her eyes. "I prefer honesty to deceit. I always will."
And then she was gone, the door closing firmly behind her.
Ryan stood there for a long while. He felt like punching something, he'd never been so furious with himself in all his life. He considered knocking on the door and explaining himself to her, but he'd probably make a mess of that too. Instead, he walked back to the hackney, climbed aboard, and allowed the driver to take him the short distance to Grosvenor Square. Tomorrow he'd buy some flowers and a ring and make a proper effort to propose.
Ryan woke the following morning to the sound of incessant hammering at his bedroom door. There was no point in ignoring it; whoever it was was determined to get his attention one way or the other. Climbing out of bed, he pulled on his undergarments and walked groggily across the floor, opening the door to William, who was frantically waving a newspaper with a look of fury in his eyes.
"You are not going to believe this," William said as he pushed his way past Ryan. "Close the door; we need to talk."
"Can it wait until I'm properly dressed?" Ryan asked.
"Would I be here if it could?" William fumed.
"I suppose not." Ryan grabbed a shirt from a nearby chair and pulled it over his head. "What's the matter?" he asked.
"That. . .that despicable woman." William was so distressed he seemed unable to get the necessary words out of his mouth.
"Who on earth are you talking about?"
"Lady Stephanie, of course; who else?" He shoved the newspaper in Ryan's face. "Read this."
Ryan took the paper and unfolded it somewhat hesitantly, casting his brother a sidelong glance as he did so. He looked just about ready to explode, and that worried him-especially after last night's events. His eyes scanned the front page.
"Well?" William prompted.
When Ryan looked up at his brother, there was murder in his eyes. "I am going to kill her," he told him softly, tossing the paper aside and reaching for his boots. "I am going to b.l.o.o.d.y kill her."
"And I am coming with you." William smiled wryly. "I've never been to Clayden House before."
Stephanie's father, Peter Maplewood, the Earl of Clayden, was in his study when his butler came to inform him that the Summersbys had come to call. He knew Lord Moorland, of course, but had never spoken more than one or two words to his sons. Naturally, he couldn't help but wonder why they might have come.
An idea struck him. Was it possible that one of them had come to offer for Stephanie? He'd heard that the younger of the two had developed an attachment to the Marchioness of Steepleton, so perhaps the elder was the one with an interest in his daughter. Peter considered this thought with growing excitement. If that was the case, his daughter would one day be the Countess of Moorland.
"Show them in," he said, without further hesitation. But when the two men strode into his study, Peter knew that a marriage proposal was the furthest thing from their minds.
"Lord Clayden, did you happen to see the Mayfair Chronicle this morning?" Mr. Summersby asked without preamble.
"I. . .I am afraid not," Peter stammered, surprised by the question. When he'd come down for breakfast that morning, Stephanie had already taken the paper up to her room. He hadn't had a chance to look at it since.
"Well, perhaps you would like to read it now." Mr. Summersby tossed the paper onto Peter's desk. It landed with a thud. "And then you can tell us what the devil your daughter thinks she is playing at."
Peter read the fine print with growing concern. A shiver ran down his spine at the sight of his daughter's name. And there was Lady Arlington's name, together with Lady Warwick's. Lady Steepleton's was there too in big, bold letters, followed by more accusations than might be bestowed upon the worst kind of villain.
Dear G.o.d in heaven, what has she done?
"I can a.s.sure you, gentlemen, that I intend to have a very serious word with her about this the instant she gets home."
"So do I, Lord Clayden."
Mr. Summersby held Peter's gaze unflinchingly until the older man eventually acquiesced. "As you wish, though I must warn you that it might be a while."
"I am sure your butler can offer us a drink with which to pa.s.s the time," Lord Summersby declared, to which Peter could only nod. What a G.o.d-awful day this was turning out to be.
As it happened, Ryan and William were in for a two-hour wait. Ryan considered walking over to Mary's house a few times, just to see how she was doing. He could only imagine what she must be going through after reading the headline. But each time he got up to leave, he wondered if it wasn't best to stay and wait for Lady Stephanie. She wouldn't be getting off lightly this time-at least not if he had anything to say about it.
The front door eventually opened to the sound of chirping female voices. Lord Clayden, who'd joined Ryan and William in the parlor, got up and went to greet his wife and daughter. A moment later, the three members of the Maplewood family made their entrance.
"What a lovely surprise," Lady Clayden remarked. She practically pushed her daughter out in front of her, to be quite sure that she wouldn't go unnoticed. "Have you come to call on Stephanie?"
"Actually, my dear. . ." Lord Clayden's voice trailed off as he noticed the frosty looks the brothers were directing at his daughter.
Lady Clayden, caught up in her own little universe, missed it entirely. Lady Stephanie, on the other hand, didn't appear to do so, for she held a stubbornly arrogant tilt to her chin that made Ryan want to slap her. The urge increased when she offered both men a dazzling smile.
"We certainly have." Ryan's voice was full of disgust for the woman before him, with her fake smile and her pretentious att.i.tude. "Indeed, there is a great deal for us to discuss."
"Well, perhaps we ought to leave you to it then," Lady Clayden chuckled before turning to her husband. "Come, let us go."
"I don't think-" Lord Clayden began.
He was interrupted by Ryan. "I am generally a patient man, but it does seem as though my patience has run out. Now, please sit down, if you will."
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