His tone was curt to the point of rudeness. Lady Clayden looked at him in astonishment. She then looked at her daughter, who was suddenly quite pale. Then she looked at her husband, who nodded toward the chair closest to her. "Very well," she said, perching herself on the edge of her seat.
"You too, Lady Stephanie."
"I would rather remain standing, if you don't mind."
"Sit down this instant, or so help me G.o.d, I will shove you into that chair myself," Ryan barked.
Lady Stephanie shrank backward, practically stumbling into her seat as she began to acknowledge the severity of the situation. Lady Clayden gaped at Ryan as if they'd all been accosted by a madman, while her husband looked rather pleased with the way in which Ryan had taken charge of his unruly child. Well, it was about time that somebody did something to put the girl in her place.
"Must you really be so. . .undisciplined, Mr. Summersby?" Lady Clayden sought out William and met his gaze. "This really is quite inappropriate, you know."
"What your daughter has done is far more inappropriate, Lady Clayden," William told her in an even tone.
"I see." The countess stiffened slightly as she turned to her daughter with an imploring look in her eyes.
"Well?" Ryan stared at Lady Stephanie with all the vehemence in the world. "Aren't you going to tell your dear mama what you have done?"
"I cannot possibly imagine what you mean," Lady Stephanie mumbled.
Ryan leaned forward until his face was inches away from hers. "Listen to me, you conniving little witch. You have deliberately tried to ruin the reputation of one of the best women in England. She is above you in every conceivable way-in rank, intellect, kindness. . .In truth, she is a thousand times the woman that you will ever be. So for you, a little rat, to try to destroy her for your own personal and selfish gain is completely unacceptable."
He straightened himself and adjusted his jacket. "Your daughter, Lady Clayden, has published an article in today's paper, a slanderous article built on nothing but hate and envy. She has taken it upon herself to spread the most outrageous lies about the Marchioness of Steepleton, my betrothed."
Lady Clayden looked as if she would faint, while Lady Stephanie appeared as though she might actually spit at Ryan in response to this final declaration.
"It's not all lies," Lady Stephanie snarled. "Lady Arlington's cesarean and Lady Warwick's surgery-"
"Ah, yes, two other ladies whom you decided to drag through the mud as well." He stared at her coldly. "Unfortunately, you are mistaken, Lady Stephanie. Neither lady was ever treated by Lady Steepleton; it seems as though your source of information was quite wrong."
"But I. . .I know from both Lady Arlington's maid and Lady Warwick's, they-"
"But who will believe you when the most outrageous evidence of all was nothing but a figment of your own twisted imagination?"
Lady Stephanie gaped at him in horror as the meaning behind his words began to sink in.
"So here is what you are going to do, Lady Stephanie," Ryan continued. "You are going to renounce every single word in that article of yours, and you are going to do so by this afternoon so that it makes tomorrow's paper. Do I make myself clear?"
"But I will be thought the worst possible liar in all of England. Everyone will hate me."
"So then, it really won't make much difference to you, will it? You are already the worst possible liar in all of England, and from what I hear, you don't have very many friends either."
"She may face charges," Lord Clayden said, realizing the implications of his daughter's actions.
"It is more than likely that she will," Ryan agreed.
"Surely there is another way." Lady Clayden quickly jumped to her daughter's defense.
"I'm afraid not," Ryan told her grimly. "As it is, your daughter may already have caused irreparable damage." He turned toward Lord Clayden. "I trust that you will help her write a plausible retraction letter, my lord."
"You have my word on it, Mr. Summersby." He rose to his feet to see his visitors out. "As to the other matter that we have discussed. . ."
"I shall have a word with Jennings right away," William promised. "He was rather eager when we last spoke, and as I mentioned before, he will be very firm with her."
Lord Clayden nodded gratefully. "That's precisely what she needs-a bit of structure and discipline. Her mother and I have, unfortunately, let those slip." He allowed the butler to open the front door. "Thank you, gentlemen, for your visit. I will do my best to ensure that Lady Steepleton's name is cleared by tomorrow morning."
"What now?" William asked once Lord Clayden's butler had closed the door behind them.
"I have to talk to Mary," Ryan told him. "It's time I made a proper proposal."
"You'll need a ring for that."
"And flowers too-roses, I believe, a big bouquet of red roses." Ryan sighed, his forehead creasing in a pensive frown. "And even with all of that I'm not entirely sure that she will still have me."
"Why the devil not? I thought the deal was as good as sealed, that the ring was just a formality."
"We didn't exactly part on the best of terms last night," Ryan admitted as he hailed a hackney to take them to Bond Street.
William waited for Ryan to get in, then jumped up onto the opposite bench. "It seems as if it's becoming quite a bad habit of yours, doesn't it?"
"Well, every time you and Lady Steepleton part ways, you always manage to put your foot in your mouth and say something that undermines all of your other efforts to woo her."
Ryan raised a critical eyebrow.
"I don't suppose you'll tell me what happened this time."
There was a tense moment of silence, after which Ryan finally met his brother's curious gaze. He sighed heavily. "She wanted me to declare myself to her, and I froze."
"You froze?" There was a note of incredulity in William's voice.
"It was awful, William. I knew what to say-what she wanted me to say-but the words just wouldn't come, and before I knew it, she was gone, and I was left standing alone on her doorstep."
"It seems to me that you might be needing more than just a ring and some flowers." William's voice was most grave. "In fact, I would suggest you bring along a string quartet and a small pony. Tie a ribbon around its neck, and that just might do the trick."
Ryan rolled his eyes, but William persisted. "I don't think you realize just how serious this is." He studied his brother for a moment. "Do you love her?"
"Of course I b.l.o.o.d.y love her, William." His voice was tinged with annoyance. "I wouldn't be marrying her otherwise."
"All right," William said and grinned. "Then let's try to salvage this relationship before it turns into an even greater fiasco."
It was almost three by the time they made it to Brook Street, much later than Ryan had ever intended. He only hoped that the outrageously expensive square-cut emerald he'd bought for Mary would work in his favor.
"May I help you?" Thornton asked upon opening the door.
Ryan straightened his spine and squared his shoulders, ready to do battle. "I have come to call upon her ladyship. May I come in?"
"I am afraid her ladyship has left town," Thornton remarked somewhat affectedly.
Ryan's jaw dropped. Left town?
"Where has she gone, if I might ask?" He did his best to keep his voice casual, but the despair he suddenly felt seeped through all the same.
"I am afraid that it is not my place to say, particularly since she specifically asked me not to."
That wasn't exactly what Ryan was hoping to hear. She'd not just run away; she'd run away from him.
"What if we were to ask you where she has gone? Would you give us an honest answer?" William asked.
"I have never been p.r.o.ne to tell fibs," Thornton remarked. "But I am also loyal."
"Yes, of course; I wouldn't dream of suggesting otherwise." William pulled a wad of bank notes from his pocket. "However, I am presuming that she either will be back at some point or intends to send for you in the near future. If not, you would already be out looking for another place of employment. So logic decrees that she has not decided to leave the country. Now, if she were from a large family, I would say that she had gone to stay with one of her relatives. However, since these appear to be in short supply, I am more inclined to believe that she might have gone to Steepleton House in Northamptonshire instead. I am also willing to bet that this fifty-pound note is about to confirm that."
Thornton eyed the money with great interest. It was obvious that he wanted it, but he was also the sort of man who'd never forgive himself for betraying his mistress. So he hesitated until Ryan and William both felt as though they were turning old and gray with each pa.s.sing second.
"Come now," Ryan urged him. "I merely wish to tell her ladyship how I feel about her." He pulled the small velvet box that the jeweler had given him from his pocket and showed Thornton the ring. "This is for her, if she will have me."
"Then by all means, you must go after her. Your brother is right. She is at Steepleton House. I will have the groom bring a couple of horses around from the mews so that you may go directly there."
"Splendid!" William exclaimed as he held the fifty-pound note toward Thornton.
The butler eyed it momentarily, then shook his head. "No," he said. "If I take that, then you will have bribed me, and I shall only feel rotten about telling you where she has gone. I would much rather believe that you managed to draw your own conclusions, which, as it happens, you did."
He looked at Ryan. "You are a good man, Mr. Summersby, and I know that her ladyship is very fond of you. I wish you all the best, and G.o.dspeed."
Mary walked along the dark and dreary hallways of Steepleton House, her gown swishing about her legs as she went. The name had certainly misled her. It wasn't a house at all, but a magnificent castle.
She'd met the housekeeper immediately upon her arrival. The poor woman, whose name was Mrs. Thompson, had been in a clear state of panic over her mistress's unexpected visit. So Mary had decided to take a closer look at her property, while Emma unpacked her things and Mrs. Thompson made certain that clean linens were put on the beds.
Entering the long gallery, Mary regarded the various works of art with dejected interest, while her feet occasionally sc.r.a.ped against the herringbone parquet. The truth was that her thoughts were elsewhere-on Ryan Summersby, to be exact.
It certainly seemed as though Stephanie Maplewood had finally gotten her wish.
Mary sighed as she crossed to the full-length windows that overlooked the countryside. It was raining again, the water distorting her view through the wavy gla.s.s.
The one thing that Ryan had insisted must never happen had come to pa.s.s anyway. Not only was her reputation now in tatters, but there was still the very real possibility that she might find herself arrested and forced to face charges. Any dream she'd ever had of marrying Ryan was gone forever. He'd always made it clear to her that he disapproved of her profession. Now that it had had such a dire effect on their lives, he'd never forgive her.
And then, of course, there was the matter of the way he felt about her. He hadn't been able to tell her he loved her, which could only mean that he didn't. Instead, he'd looked panicked and terrified as he'd fumbled about for something to say to her, something that didn't have that four-letter word in it. It was enough to break her heart.
With a heavy sigh, she settled down onto the window seat and pressed her forehead against the cold gla.s.s pane.
I have lost everything.
What reason did she really have for remaining in England? n.o.body wanted her there, and the one man who possibly did would no longer be able to have her. Wouldn't it be better for everyone if she simply went back to the continent? She could seek out some of her father's friends in Paris perhaps and. . .and what? She was still a woman who n.o.body would allow within ten yards of a patient, unless they happened to be in the middle of a battlefield-in which case, n.o.body really seemed to care.
Hopeless; absolutely hopeless.
There was also America to consider, of course, or perhaps somewhere like India, but both of these places just seemed so impossibly far away from the man she loved: Ryan.
Was that not him right now, riding as if h.e.l.l were on his heels, and with William at his side? What the blazes were they thinking? Rain was pelting down, and there they were, galloping up the drive at full speed. She wrapped her shawl tightly about her shoulders and took off at a run toward the stairs.
"Mary!" Ryan's voice rang out loud and clear against the old stone walls.
"Mr.. . .may I help you?" the housekeeper asked, looking quite shaken by the sudden arrival of two unexpected visitors.
"I have come to see Lady Steepleton," Ryan told her with a wide smile, then lowered his voice to a whisper. "Tell me where she's hiding."
"I most certainly will not," the older woman declared. "If you like, you may wait right here while I see if she would like to receive you."
"Very well, then you may tell her that Mr. Summersby and his brother, Lord Summersby, have come to call on her, that we have gotten ourselves completely drenched, and that we would very much appreciate a warm bath before we catch our deaths."
"I will pa.s.s the message along," the housekeeper told him primly as she sashayed off in search of her mistress.
She didn't have far to go. In fact, she almost walked right into her as she turned the corner on her way toward her ladyship's bedroom. "I beg your pardon," she gasped.
"No need," Mary told her gently. She'd been standing there the whole while, plucking up her courage to face Ryan. "Would you please ask a couple of the maids to prepare the baths that our guests have requested. Then speak to cook about supper; it appears as though we are going to be a few more than she expected."
Mrs. Thompson didn't argue. She gave a quick nod of confirmation before hurrying off to see about her business.
Mary took a deep breath to calm her nerves. She then stepped forward to welcome her visitors, who were both standing in puddles of water by now. They were a sorry sight to behold, the two brothers. Their clothes were clinging to their bodies, and their hair was pasted against their foreheads, dripping wet from the rain. "I have to admit that I was not expecting you," she said as she walked toward them.
"You left without a single word of explanation. What did you think I was going to do?" Ryan's gaze was anxious as it found Mary's.
"Well, in light of everything that has happened, particularly after the article in this morning's paper, I rather thought you might like to pretend that you never met me."
Ryan stared at her in open astonishment. "Never met you?" he muttered. "Mary, you are the most extraordinary woman I have ever known. I could never dream of forgetting you."
She smiled slightly at that. "It was still foolish of you to ride through the rain like that-you might get very sick, both of you. You should at least have taken a carriage."
Ryan nodded thoughtfully. "I have always heard that love will make a fool of any man, though I must admit I never thought it would happen to me."
Mary's breath caught, her heart suddenly hammering frantically while her stomach began tying itself in knots. Before she could voice a response to his comment, though, Ryan was down on one knee before her-a very soggy suitor indeed. There was a look of desperation in his eyes that went straight to Mary's heart. G.o.d, how she loved him!
"I have asked you before, and you said yes. I know that a lot has happened since then, but I am hoping, praying, that you will give me the same answer now."
Her throat tightened, while tears p.r.i.c.ked her eyes. "And what of Lady Stephanie's article in the paper? My name has been utterly and irrevocably besmirched. Think of your family, Ryan; you cannot do this to them."
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