Mary acknowledged her with a quick nod. "Answer me honestly, Miss Pinksworth. Are you likely to faint at the sight of blood?"
"N. . .no, my lady. I believe I shall be quite all right."
"Good, because I am going to need someone to keep the bladder out of the way while I open up the uterus. Do you think you can manage that?"
Lucy's face paled momentarily, but then she appeared to pull herself together "I. . .yes, I believe I can," she replied with a surprising amount of conviction as she watched Mary fish her tools out of the boiling water before setting them side by side on a clean white towel.
"All right," Mary said as she drew a long breath. "Then let us get started."
It took about an hour for Mary to complete the operation, and since the viscountess fainted from the pain very early on, Lord Arlington and Helmsley were left with very little to do. Lucy, on the other hand, performed admirably. She followed Mary's instructions to the letter, without flinching as much as once.
"Congratulations, Lord Arlington," Mary said as she lifted a squealing baby from its mother's womb. "It looks as though you have a very healthy baby boy." She handed the child over to Lucy and began the monotonous process of st.i.tching up her patient.
As she finished the last of the st.i.tches, Mary finally allowed herself to relax. She looked up at Helmsley, who was showing marked signs of relief. Lady Arlington and the baby were both alive for now. She knew that they weren't out of danger yet, but a strong feeling told her that all would be well with both mother and child.
A soft sniffle caught Mary's attention. "Thank you," Lord Arlington choked as he looked at her through misty eyes. "Thank you, thank you, thank you."
"You are most welcome, my lord," Mary said as she placed a rea.s.suring hand upon his arm. "Of course, we will need to monitor your wife closely for the next few days, but I do believe that she will be all right. The internal suture was done using catgut, so it will dissolve on its own, but I shall have to take out the external st.i.tches once the wound is fully healed. In the meantime, I will stay with you until she wakes up. Depending on how she is feeling, we will decide on a time for me to return and check up on her."
It was five thirty in the morning by the time Mary made her way to bed, so exhausted that she collapsed fully clothed on top of her covers, her feet dangling precariously over the edge. When she eventually woke up again, it was past noon, and by the time she made it downstairs, fully dressed and with her hair styled to perfection, it was almost one.
The minute she walked into the parlor, she froze. There were flowers not only on every surface but on the floor as well: roses in a wide array of colors, chrysanthemums, lilies, and carnations, all beautifully arranged in bouquets of varying sizes. Mary just stood there and stared. "Thornton?" The butler appeared at her side instantaneously. "What on earth is going on?"
"Well, I can take it to mean only one thing, my lady. You must have made quite an impression last night at Richmond House-these flowers have been arriving all morning. And now that it is past lunch time, you will probably be receiving your first caller at any-" The doorbell rang. "Moment," he finished.
Mary stared at Thornton in horror. "You don't mean to tell me that. . .but I just got out of bed. I cannot possibly receive anyone now."
"I can fend them off for a while, my lady, but I cannot keep them at bay forever. There is a plate of food for you in the dining room, which will no doubt do you a world of good after all that gallivanting about last night." He gave her a disapproving look. "In the meantime, I shall see who is at the door; after all, it is the polite thing to do."
Mary paused only long enough to realize that once the front door was opened, whoever had decided to call upon her would be likely to spot her straight away, leaving her with little choice but to invite them in. With a soft rustle of her skirts, she immediately fled down the hallway and into the dining room, almost grateful to discover that no ostentatious bouquets of flowers had made it that far yet.
She'd just pulled out her chair when the sound of loud voices arguing caught her attention. It sounded as if Thornton was yelling at somebody. Good heavens. Ten seconds later, the door flew open, admitting none other than Mr. Summersby.
"I am terribly sorry, my lady," Thornton apologized. "I tried to explain to him that you are not receiving visitors at the moment, but the gentleman just would not listen."
Mary scowled at Mr. Summersby. "It is quite all right, Thornton. Would you please send in another cup in case he would care for some tea."
"Very well, my lady," Thornton replied, glaring at the unwelcome guest. "Should you otherwise need me, I shall not be far."
"Thank you, Thornton, but I am sure that I shall be just fine. You may, however, ask Emma to join us."
"Yes, my lady."
Once Thornton was gone, Mary turned her full attention to the man before her. "Well, this is an unexpected surprise," she remarked. "Although Thornton did say that I could expect callers at any moment."
Mr. Summersby gave her a lopsided grin. "No true gentleman would dare to call upon a lady before three in the afternoon."
"Then I take it that you are not a true gentleman. Or are you perhaps a bit thickheaded? I thought I was quite clear about not wanting to see you again."
Mr. Summersby's mouth made an awkward twist at that remark, as if he were doing his best to refrain from laughing. "You are mistaken, Lady Steepleton," he told her. "I am the very epitome of a true gentleman. In fact, I am your knight in shining armor, come to rescue you from the horde of young pups that are sure to a.s.sault you with wagging tails and adoring eyes at any given moment. I shall vouch that they will s...o...b..r all over you."
"And just how exactly are you hoping to accomplish such a heroic feat?" Mary asked, unable to help herself from being taken in by Mr. Summersby's charms.
Will our conversations always border on the bizarre?
Thornton returned just then with another cup that he placed upon the table across form Mary's place setting. He was accompanied by Emma, who quickly bobbed a curtsy in her mistress's direction. Mary took her seat, gestured for her guest to do the same, and watched in silence as Thornton poured each of them a steaming hot cup of tea. Emma perched herself on a chair in the corner, her face turned slightly away as if to offer some measure of privacy. Mary couldn't help but be impressed by her thoughtfulness and quickly told Thornton to offer her a cup of tea as well. She then turned an expectant gaze on Mr. Summersby. "Well?"
"Well, I was thinking that a ride in the park might be just the thing to make you want to keep my company." Mary's brows rose. The gentleman certainly didn't waste his time. "I brought my carriage along, you see, and since the weather is as fine as it is today, we could perhaps even take a stroll along the Serpentine."
It did sound very tempting, yet Mary hadn't forgotten why she'd dismissed the handsome man in the first place. Well, of course there was the problem of all the lies she'd probably end up weaving, but mostly it had something to do with the way he had looked at her when she'd told him that she was a marchioness. She knew she wasn't exactly the prettiest of G.o.d's creations, but that he'd been so shocked had actually hurt her quite a bit-quite possibly more than she cared to admit.
Now, as far as her profession was concerned, perhaps she was underestimating Mr. Summersby. Was she really all that certain that he wouldn't be supportive of her? She ignored the answer that came to mind, for it wasn't at all the one she was hoping for. She contemplated the issue for a moment, knowing full well that she was probably about to make a very big mistake. But somehow, in that instant, and with him focusing his deep blue eyes on her so expectantly, she simply forgot to care. She wanted to go for that ride and to walk along the Serpentine with him. She wanted a friend, someone to talk to. "I shall join you on one condition," she told him. "Tell me, as honestly as you can, why you did not believe me when I told you that I am the Marchioness of Steepleton."
"As far as I can recall, I never said that I did not believe you," he said, his grin dimpling his cheeks.
"You implied it by staring at me like a gawking imbecile," she retorted, her eyes widening slightly as if she couldn't quite believe she'd just said that out loud.
"And you, my lady, are sure to offend somebody one day with that tongue of yours." He took a sip of tea as he looked at her from over the brim of his cup. He could practically see the steam coming out of her ears. "But, in answer to your question, you just looked too ordinary to fit the part. Your dress, for instance, as pretty as it was, lacked any form of luxury. You wore no expensive baubles, and you just did not have that air of wealth about you. You were not at all like any of the other ladies present; in fact, I quite thought that you might have been someone's distant relation, visiting from the country. I am sorry if that offends you, but that is the truth of it."
Lady Steepleton stared back at him from across the table. "There is no need for you to apologize, Mr. Summersby," she finally said in a delicate voice. "Having seen what all of those other women are like-how snooty and aggressive they can be-I do believe that you have just now given me a compliment."
"They are not all like that," Ryan a.s.sured her. "My sister, Alexandra, for instance, is very different."
"Then I shall very much like to meet her," the marchioness told him with a bright smile that instantly forced him to catch his breath. No, Lady Steepleton wasn't at all what he had expected. If anything, she was like a breath of fresh air in a baking summer heat. Now, if he could only figure out why someone might wish to harm her.
They drove Ryan's landau along a number of different paths in the park before making a turn onto Rotten Row. Given the time of day and the splendid weather, the road was packed with people in a variety of carriages or merely on horseback. "Is it always this busy?" Lady Steepleton asked as she adjusted the green ribbon on her bonnet.
"On a day like today? Yes, especially since the weather has been terribly dismal of late," Ryan told her with a smile. He'd taken the seat across from her, while her maid, who'd been brought along for the sake of propriety, sat quietly at her mistress's side, her face averted as if she were taking a remarkable interest in the scenery. Ryan had to give the woman credit for her discretion. "You see, most members of the ton enjoy being seen wearing a newly acquired hat or in the company of a particular gentleman or lady. In fact, it is often the way in which a courtship is made public."
Lady Steepleton's lips parted slightly in surprise. Ryan met her gaze and knew what she must be thinking. A smile tugged at his lips as he watched her turn her head away and apply a great deal of interest to the trees that they were just now pa.s.sing. However, he couldn't help but notice how red she'd suddenly gotten.
"I see," she whispered. "A bit conceited. . .would you not agree?"
Ryan shrugged as he leaned back against his seat, pretending not to have noticed her discomfiture. "Perhaps, my lady, but such is the life of the rich; it often lacks substance."
Lady Steepleton's head snapped around in astonishment. "Do you really mean that?"
"Oh, absolutely. It is one of the foremost reasons why my family withdrew to the country. In fact, we have only recently begun returning to London during the season." He tipped his hat as they pa.s.sed another carriage.
"Why the sudden change?" she asked, sending a smile toward the couple whom Ryan had just greeted. "If you were happier in the country, then why come to London now?"
Ryan let out a lengthy sigh. "Well, it appears as though my father has determined that it is time for my brother and me to start scouring the marriage mart a bit more thoroughly. Until now, we've been present for only part of the season, attending the occasional ball; and while it is true that my brother is the one facing the greatest amount of pressure due to his being elder, he is, unfortunately, out of town at the moment, leaving me as the sole target of my father's attempts at matchmaking."
Lady Steepleton grinned. "What about your sister?"
Ryan rolled his eyes. "She married the Earl of Trenton last year. Not only was she determined never to get hitched, but considering the type of woman she is, it just seemed very unlikely that she ever would. Now that she is settled with a husband and a child, my father is even more confident that my brother and I will both succeed in finding wives."
"I see. Then you certainly do have a very busy season ahead of you, it would seem."
"It does appear so, doesn't it?" he replied, locking his gaze with hers.
Turning away from Rotten Row, the carriage continued along an alley for a while before slowing to a steady halt. "There is a nice patch of gra.s.s over there where I thought we might be able to sit and enjoy a bit of a picnic," Ryan said, stepping down from the carriage and turning to offer first her ladyship and then her maid his hand.
"I hope you did not pack too much," Lady Steepleton said, smoothing her skirts while Emma stepped down onto the gravelly path. "After all, I just ate. Remember?"
"Just some tea and cake," Ryan replied. Taking the basket in one hand and draping a large rolled up blanket across his other arm, he walked over to a patch of sunshine and proceeded to spread the blanket on the ground. It wasn't as warm as he'd hoped; in fact, whenever the clouds blocked out the sun, it was really quite chilly. A good thing he'd settled on tea rather than wine.
"So, tell me about your studies, Mr. Summersby," Lady Steepleton asked with genuine interest once they were seated on the ground. "When we last spoke, you mentioned that you have been studying medicine at Oxford."
"And you told me that I do not strike you as a typical medical student. As I recall, you mentioned that your father was quite the physician."
"That is true," Lady Steepleton agreed. "And I am sorry about what I said; I was upset."
"Then perhaps I ought to be the one apologizing," Ryan told her with a warm smile. She returned it, and his heart swelled. It would seem that her firm facade was already beginning to crack a little, and while he still didn't know her well enough to form a detailed opinion of her, he had to admit that their conversations thus far had sparked his interest with alarming speed. He glanced at Emma. "More tea?" he offered.
"Thank you, my lord." Presenting her cup, the young woman suddenly raised her hand and waved.
Ryan turned, spotting two women approaching along the path. "Someone you know?"
"It is my younger sister with one of her friends." Emma turned her attention toward her mistress. "Would you perhaps permit me to go and greet them, my lady? I shall not go far; I promise."
"I. . ." Lady Steepleton hesitated as she darted a look in Ryan's direction, but if she had any misgivings about being left alone with him, she quickly hid them and forced a smile. "Yes, of course," she told her maid, with a pink blush to her cheeks.
Thanking her mistress, Emma got up and went to speak with her sister and her friend.
Ryan sat in silence for a while, acutely aware of the fact that their chaperone was no longer within earshot. He regarded Lady Steepleton with growing interest. She looked frazzled. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes averted, and she was nervously toying with the fabric of her dress. "Does it bother you?" he asked her suddenly.
She looked startled at the sound of his voice, as if he'd just intruded on a private thought. "What?" she asked.
"Being alone with me; does it bother you?"
"No," she chuckled, albeit with an underlying hint of nervousness. "Not at all."
"Good. Because you are perfectly safe with me, you know. I would not dream of doing anything that might damage your reputation or compromise you in any way. You have my word on that, as a gentleman."
She stared back at him as if surprised by his sudden declaration. Her mouth formed the shape of an O. "It never occurred to me that you would," she told him at last.
Did he detect the sound of disappointment in her voice? She'd said she didn't think he'd act inappropriately, but had she secretly hoped? A rush of unexpected heat buzzed through him at the thought of it. He regarded her quietly as he tried to make sense of what he was feeling. He had a job to do: that was the only reason why he was even sitting there talking to her in the first place. After all, she wasn't at all the type of woman to strike his fancy. The sort of women he'd been with in the past were far more striking and alluring than Lady Steepleton.
Yet there was something that he couldn't quite define, an attraction so strong that he felt an urgent need to push her down onto the blanket and kiss her breathless.
Ryan blinked, then noticed that she was looking at him in wonder. Her hand was gently touching his arm. When had that happened? He didn't know, but it felt wonderful. "My apologies," he said. "I fear I got a bit lost in my own thoughts there for a moment."
"That is quite all right," she told him with a smile. "As I recall, you were just about to tell me about your studies."
"Well, the truth of it is that I have been studying for years without finding the discipline to focus on any one topic."
"The eternal student on his quest for knowledge," she remarked with a twinkle in her eyes. "It is a journey that knows no end, you know; each time you find the answer to a question, another problem presents itself, and you end up tossed about between any number of different subjects, always searching and never quite satisfied."
Ryan stared at her for a moment as if she'd just discovered the key to unlocking the universe. Perhaps she had-to his universe, at least. n.o.body else had ever shown more understanding of him as a person than this woman whom he'd only just met. It was absolutely astounding.
He took a moment to compose himself before continuing. "I have covered practically everything from mathematics to art history, law to literature. My brother eventually insisted that I get a degree in something, and since I would like to make a comfortable living for myself, it really came down to a tie between law and medicine."
"So then, what was the deciding factor?" Lady Steepleton asked with growing interest.
"Well, in the end I suppose that medicine won out because it will always be able to present me with something new. It also incorporates a variety of different areas of expertise: anatomy, biology, chemistry, botany, perhaps even philosophy, to some extent. In short, it is the one area of expertise that I am least likely to grow weary of."
Lady Steepleton laughed at that, and there was a ring to her voice that lifted his soul. "You certainly have thought this through, haven't you?"
"To some degree," he admitted as he took a sip of tea.
"Would you mind if I tried a piece of the cake?" Lady Steepleton asked rather suddenly.
"Oh, how terribly rude of me; I quite forgot to offer." He quickly reached for the knife and cut a slice of cake that he then placed on a white plate, offering it to her with a tentative smile.
She studied him as he did so, the trace of a smile beginning to tug at the edge of her lips. "Are you always this forgetful and preoccupied?" she asked.
He frowned. "Why, Lady Steepleton, I do believe that you are mocking me."
"Surely not," she said, grinning, before turning quite serious. "I would never dream of it."
"I see," he muttered rather skeptically. "Then perhaps, in answer to your question, I ought to confess that I do not generally find myself in such remarkable company-hence the tendency for my mind to wander."
"Is that an attempt at flattery?" she asked, as if surprised he'd bothered to make the effort.
"That depends on whether or not it is working," he told her slyly.
"Well, it is certainly a better attempt than the one you made last night," she said. "In fact, I daresay that you hardly made any attempt at all."
"My apologies once again, my lady." He'd been a d.a.m.ned fool when she'd finally introduced herself to him the previous evening. Indeed, he'd looked at her as if she'd just dropped from the sky, but the truth of it was he'd been confounded. Looking at her now, he still considered her a conundrum. Her dress was quite plain, while her hair was pulled back so sharply he imagined the roots must be screaming. Her hands were folded neatly in her lap. Truthfully, she looked prim and unapproachable, but when she opened her mouth and spoke, he couldn't help but be impressed by her sharp rejoinders and wit. She clearly had character.
The marchioness suddenly laughed. "I am merely jesting with you," she said. "Although I must admit that your initial reaction to my true ident.i.ty was somewhat upsetting, I really cannot blame you. In fact, you were quite right to be surprised. After all, I do not exactly look like a lady of the ton, much less a marchioness."
Ryan was momentarily startled by her sudden show of self-deprecation. "Well, at least that is something that can easily be rectified by a visit to Bond Street," he said. "All you need are a few extravagant gowns."
Lady Steepleton let out a short sigh. "I suppose that might help." She started fidgeting again, and it occurred to him that he'd not only drawn direct attention to her attire, but voiced his disapproval, when all he'd meant to do was offer her a little help and advice. He groaned inwardly. It was remarkable that she was still sitting there and hadn't decided to storm off.
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