Hoping to draw her attention to something else, he decided to make an attempt at changing the subject. "You seemed to be quite understanding of my predicament in regards to settling upon one singular area of study. It forces me to wonder if you are to some degree a student too." Well, what was she to say to that? Of course she was, for she had never stopped studying. She nodded faintly in response, unwilling to be completely dishonest with the poor man who, it seemed, was eagerly attempting to make her happy.
"Really?" Mr. Summersby remarked with renewed enthusiasm. "And what, pray tell, has a lady such as yourself determined to study? The arts, perhaps?"
Mary could have choked on her cake at that question. Not only could she not imagine herself studying anything as dull as paintings or poetry, but she would now have to come up with an appropriate answer that wouldn't be nearly as appalling as the truth. After all, they didn't know each other well enough for her to drop that cannonball in his lap just yet. "I. . .er. . .I study people, Mr. Summersby," she told him, hoping he might be content with that answer, however vague it might be.
He looked at her quizzically. "People?" he asked. He seemed momentarily confused, but when she didn't elaborate any further, he eventually chose to draw his own conclusion. "Oh, I see; you have an interest in philosophy and the inner workings of the mind, I take it?"
Mary forced herself to hold back her reply. As it happened, she'd studied quite a bit of philosophy, but it was more of a hobby of hers than anything else. There was no doubt about the fact that Mr. Summersby had made a serious error in judgment. However, it was an error not only that she had helped him make, but one that she was not about to correct-at least not yet. "Yes," she heard herself say, increasingly horrified at how easy it had become for her to lie.
"Then you must be quite familiar with Descartes," he said as he took a sip of tea.
"Indeed, I am," she replied, brightening at the possibility of telling him something truthful for once. "I have read several of his works."
Mr. Summersby nodded appreciatively. "Then at least we have that much in common," he told her with a smile as he put his cup down. He glanced over her shoulder, and, following his line of sight, she spotted Emma, still busily chatting with her sister and her friend. Uneasiness wafted over her; they seemed to be farther away than before.
"How do you feel about that walk?" Mr. Summersby asked, forcing her attention back to him. He'd begun piling their things into the picnic basket.
"To be honest, I think I will be relieved to get up off the ground before I catch a chill," she said, waving for Emma to return. She could hardly walk off with him alone.
He gave her a sidelong glance as he carefully arranged the teacups next to the cake. He seemed so unexpectedly gentle. "I am sorry about that. I did not realize that it would be quite so cold. Perhaps we would have been better served if we had remained in the carriage."
"Whoever heard of a picnic in a carriage?" She looked back at him, her eyes meeting his in a deadpan stare. "If you and I are to get along, Mr. Summersby, then you really must stop apologizing all the time. Though I do appreciate your attempts at gallantry, I am not a fragile porcelain doll in need of constant coddling. In fact, I would rather enjoy good banter-if you are up to it."
"You don't mince words, do you?" His voice was serious, but she detected a smile behind his eyes.
"Direct conversation has always served me rather well," she quipped.
"Then I shall endeavor to refrain from apologizing further." He offered her his arm, which she quickly accepted with a warm smile, and led her down toward the path that ran along the embankment of the Serpentine. The wind had picked up a bit, making the few ducks on the river bob even more, while the ribbons on Mary's bonnet had begun to wave with increasing fury. "Do you think that we are at all likely to have a few warm days this summer?" Mr. Summersby asked as he watched her pull the shawl she'd brought along more tightly about her shoulders.
"Do you really wish for us to discuss the weather?" she asked with no attempt at hiding the smirk that played upon her lips.
"Not particularly," he told her plainly. "But since that is what most young ladies prefer to talk about, I fear that I have made a habit of it."
Mary chuckled. "Please refrain from doing so with me. I would be much obliged if we might discuss something of a little more substance than whether or not there will be clouds in the sky tomorrow."
"I see," Mr. Summersby muttered, frowning a little at her remark.
Had she been too forward?
"Would you mind telling me what you would like to discuss?"
She pondered that for a moment, then turned her face to look at him, her skin tingling with sudden excitement. "Do you believe in chance, Mr. Summersby, or do you suppose that things happen for a reason?"
The question must have stunned him, for his eyes widened in response. She knew it was an odd question to ask, but what better way to discover his true character than through thought-provoking conversation?
"If I am to understand you correctly, you are asking if I think there is a predetermined purpose to everything that occurs, one we cannot alter."
She shot him a sly smile. "Precisely."
"I think that we mere mortals often presume ourselves to be of far greater import than we actually are. The universe is a grand place, and we, but tiny specs within it. However, I do believe that I am lord of my own actions. Are these actions manipulated somehow through circ.u.mstance and my surroundings? I am confident of it. But to think that I am unwillingly moving in one particular direction, unable to veer left or right-I dread to think of it."
"You certainly are a philosopher, Mr. Summersby. Indeed, I. . .Oh, look!" she suddenly exclaimed, as she pointed ahead of them. "That little dog over there appears to have lost its master."
"I say, that looks like one of Lady Ca.s.sandra's terriers," Mr. Summersby remarked. "Let us see if we can fetch him for her. She will be ever so pleased."
Before either of them had a chance to make any such attempt, a cloud of lace came tumbling through the bushes. It landed awkwardly in the middle of the path, while a pair of arms protruding from it did their best to grab the terrified critter. Mary just stared at the spectacle, quite agog, until the ball of fabric straightened itself enough to reveal a pretty face framed by dark brown curls.
"Dear me," Mary finally managed to get out. "Are you all right? That was quite a tumble you just took."
The young lady, who was now holding the struggling terrier firmly against her chest, returned an awkward smile that told of her immediate embarra.s.sment. Not only was one side of her straw bonnet torn open, but there were also mud and gra.s.s stains on the front of her gown. In fact, she looked quite frightful. "Yes, thank you," she told Mary, then turned her attention to Mr. Summersby. "Fancy meeting you here."
"Lady Ca.s.sandra," Mr. Summersby said politely, tipping his hat in greeting, "may I present the Marchioness of Steepleton."
"Oh, you certainly may," Lady Ca.s.sandra cried with much enthusiasm as she turned her attention back to Mary. "I have heard so much about you."
Mary groaned inwardly, for the only thing that anyone might have heard about her as of yet was just how ordinary and dull she was. She made an effort to smile politely.
"Lady Ca.s.sandra is one of my brother-in-law's five sisters," Mr. Summersby said, then added, "She is the daughter of the Duke and d.u.c.h.ess of Willowbrook."
"It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance," Mary told Lady Ca.s.sandra graciously. "Can we perhaps a.s.sist you in any way? We have our carriage just over there if you would like for us to take you home."
"Thank you, but that really will not be necessary," Lady Ca.s.sandra replied, slipping the terrier's leash onto its collar. "Naturally, I did not come alone. I brought my maid along with me, you see, but when Trevor suddenly took off, I had no choice but to follow him, leaving poor Miss Baxter behind. I really ought to go and find her; she must be quite worried. But it was delightful meeting you, Lady Steepleton. I do hope that our paths will cross again soon so that we may become better acquainted."
Mary barely managed a faint nod and a smile before Lady Ca.s.sandra had bidden them both a good day and hurried off, holding the remainders of her bonnet in place with one hand, while dragging a stubborn Trevor along by the other.
"I daresay that poor Miss Baxter will have something to see to once they arrive home," Mary remarked as she and Mr. Summersby continued on their way.
"Who?" he asked with a perplexed look on his face.
"Lady Ca.s.sandra's maid, Mr. Summersby," Mary said, mildly annoyed that she had to explain that much. He clearly had not paid the least bit of attention. "She will have a gown to clean and a bonnet to mend."
"I will wager that she is quite accustomed to doing so by now," Mr. Summersby remarked. "After all, Lady Ca.s.sandra is notorious for spoiling her clothes."
"I see," Mary said. How curious, but what a relief: a young lady, similar in age to herself, who'd been raised among the ton, but who appeared to be just as far from perfection as she was. What a wonderful discovery. Perhaps the two of them could one day be friends. The wind tugged at her gown once more. She turned to Mr. Summersby. "It's getting rather nippy. Shall we return to the carriage?"
He nodded, turning them about, but not before she caught a glimpse of regret flashing behind his eyes. Curiously, she realized that she felt the same. She hadn't expected to enjoy their outing as much as she had. He had surprised her, forcing her to wonder when they might meet again. She dared not ask, for fear of giving him the wrong impression. She merely enjoyed his company, that was all. But her heart still skipped a beat when she turned her head in his direction and caught him gazing down at her. He smiled, and she caught her breath. He truly was a handsome devil.
Friends, she reminded herself, just friends.
"Another letter has arrived for you, my lady," Thornton said the minute Lady Steepleton walked through the front door of her house with Emma in tow. Ryan followed at a respectable distance, his only intention being that of seeing her ladyship home safely.
"Thank you, Thornton," she said, taking the white envelope and opening it before she'd even removed her gloves. As she unfolded the piece of paper and began to read, she drew a tight breath.
"Are you all right?" Ryan asked with marked concern.
Lady Steepleton nodded numbly, but there was terror in her eyes. "I. . ." she managed to get out in a raspy voice. "I. . .er. . .Thank you for a lovely day, Mr. Summersby. It was most pleasant."
"Are you quite certain that there is nothing I can do?" Ryan asked. "You look suddenly quite unwell."
"No, thank you," she told him firmly. "My maid will attend to me. I am just a bit tired, that is all."
Ryan knew that she was dismissing him with a lie. He gave her a curt nod. What else was there to do when the woman wouldn't turn to him for help? "I will call on you tomorrow then," he told her. "If I may."
"Yes," she whispered. "I shall look forward to it."
What the devil did that letter say, Ryan wondered as he walked back to his carriage, annoyed that she had so easily turned him away. He knew he had no right to feel that way; after all, they'd only just met. It would be presumptuous of him to think that she might share her worries with him so soon. Perhaps it was because of the connection they'd shared at the park. He thought of it and realized how extraordinary it had been, perhaps because it was unlike anything he'd ever experienced before. He shook his head, unwilling to dwell on it further. Devil take it, he had a job to do.
"Take the horses home," he told his coachman. "I will walk back from here." But instead, he went to the corner of James Street and waited, keeping a steady gaze pinned on Lady Steepleton's front door. There was no question that she was hiding something, and he had every intention of figuring out what that something might be-before she managed to get herself killed.
It didn't take more than ten minutes before she emerged from her home once more. A carriage drew up to the pavement, and she quickly climbed inside.
Where the devil is she off to now?
Ryan watched as the carriage rolled into motion. There wasn't a moment to lose if he wanted to find out where she was headed. Running into the street, he hailed the first hackney he could find. "Follow that carriage!" he called out to the driver. "And be quick about it, my good man."
Having been shown into the Earl of Woodbridge's drawing room and offered a cup of tea, Mary waited expectantly for his lordship to appear. She'd known him all her life, for he had been one of her father's closest friends and therefore more like an uncle to her than anything else. To her relief, she didn't have to wait long. "Mary," Lord Woodbridge said upon his arrival as he closed the s.p.a.ce between them and took her hand in his, pressing a soft kiss to her knuckles. "It is so good to see you again."
"It is good to see you too, Robert. I am sorry I did not contact you sooner, but there has been so much to see to since my return, and, well. . .to be perfectly honest, it has all been a little overwhelming."
"I understand," Robert told her mildly, taking the seat across from her. "It cannot have been easy for you to discover that your father kept so many secrets from you."
"No, it has not been." She met his gaze. "Did you know about it all along?"
"Let's just say that it would have been highly unlikely for us to have been such close friends if we had not shared the same social background-even if we did share the same profession."
Mary nodded with understanding but couldn't stop the feeling of betrayal that washed over her. She'd always wondered about her father's relationship with the earl, but whenever she'd questioned it, her father had explained it away with the shrug of his shoulders or the wave of his hand, claiming that they'd simply known each other forever, and that in their case their friendship transcended social status and material wealth. Lies. . .all of it.
Looking at Robert, she noticed that he was studying her with a cautious gaze. "Your father and I did not always see eye to eye, as you well know, but I was very sorry to hear about his death, Mary. I do hope that you realize that."
"Yes, of course. Thank you. I actually was hoping that you might be able to tell me if there is anything else that he might have kept from me."
He gave her an a.s.sessing look. "I am not sure I follow. Your father was a colleague of mine and a truly dependable friend. I knew him for over twenty years, Mary, and in that time he was always working on one theory or another, some more successful than others, I suppose."
"But was there nothing that stood out? Perhaps something that he spoke of with more frequency or with greater pa.s.sion?"
He frowned. "What is this about, exactly?"
"To tell you the truth, I am not at all sure," she said with a sigh, pulling a piece of paper out of her reticule. "But I received this letter this afternoon, and I am just trying to make some sense of it."
Taking it from her, Robert read it. "Heed our warning. . .do not involve yourself in matters that don't concern you." He looked at Mary with much concern in his dark brown eyes. "This is quite alarming, to say the least. I daresay you ought to take this very seriously." His eyes narrowed. "I hope you haven't done something reckless."
"No! Of course not." Mary tried to compose herself. "I have no idea what they might be referring to. I have not been toying with anything that does not concern me. Though my father may have taught me everything he knows, he never shared his notes with me."
Robert paused for a moment, mulling something over in his head. "Perhaps he was trying to protect you."
"I cannot tell you that, my dear, but if, as you say, he did not share his notes with you, then perhaps it might be wise of you to read them. Your father was a meticulous man, Mary. He pa.s.sed the piece of paper back to her. "I daresay that whatever this letter is about, it is possible that you might find the answers you are looking for in his journals."
The instant Mary returned home, she hurried upstairs to her room in search of Emma, who was busy polishing Mary's boots. The shirt and breeches were already laid out on the bed. Following her discussion with Robert, Mary was itching to take a look at her father's journals, hoping that she might find some answers. It would have to wait, however; Lady Arlington came first.
"I have no idea what it is that you are up to, my lady," Emma said as she handed Mary her hat after helping her get dressed. "Just promise me that you will be careful."
"Not to worry, Emma. I just have to pay a visit to a friend of mine, that is all."
Emma looked at her skeptically but apparently knew better than to pry into her mistress's affairs and simply nodded, for which Mary was grateful. "I will be here waiting for you to return, my lady."
With only her patient's welfare in mind, Mary walked her horse briskly toward the street corner. She stopped for a moment, glanced about, and when she was certain that she was quite alone, she placed her left foot in the stirrup.
"Excuse me, sir!"
Mary froze, her heart taking off with a gallop. She knew that voice. What in the world was Mr. Summersby doing there so late in the evening? More importantly, what the devil was she supposed to do now? She'd told Lord Arlington that she'd be back to check on his wife, and so she would-not even Mr. Summersby would stop her from keeping such a promise. She continued to mount her horse, hoping to be gone before he could catch up with her.
"Sir!" His voice echoed more insistently through the night as his footsteps broke into a run, his heels clicking loudly against the pavement.
Oh h.e.l.l, he was coming after her.
Mary didn't have time to ponder that question. In another couple of seconds he'd be upon her, and then she'd really have some explaining to do. Gritting her teeth and muttering an apology he'd never hear, she swung herself into the saddle and tightened her grip on the reins. Then, without a backward glance, she dug her heels into her horse's sides and rode off, disappearing quickly out of sight.
Ryan stood for a long while after in the middle of the street, staring after the young man who'd just ridden off, the same young man he'd seen the previous evening. He'd hoped to ask him a few questions to find out what he was up to so late. What sort of errands was Lady Steepleton sending him on, and were they related to the letter she'd received? One thing was for sure: the emissary hadn't wanted to stop for a chat.
He glanced at Lady Steepleton's house, wishing he could talk to her and perhaps find out more. d.a.m.n. There was more to it than his desire to keep her safe; he was merely looking for an excuse to see her again. Ryan raked his fingers through his hair in frustration. G.o.d help him if he wasn't falling for the woman. He'd do well to keep this growing fancy under control, especially since she appeared to be far more trouble than he ever would have imagined. She certainly wasn't as demure as he'd initially thought her to be. He reflected on that for a moment. Would he really care for the companionship of a sedate woman? Absolutely not, although he was hoping for someone a little less willful and unruly than his sister. He grinned at the very thought of it: the Marchioness of Steepleton dressed in a shirt and breeches, gallivanting about like the hoydenish Alexandra.
Not b.l.o.o.d.y likely.
Lady Steepleton might have a sharp tongue on her, but she wasn't at all the hoydenish type. Still, something was awry, and he intended to get to the bottom of it as quickly as possible.
"Not very astute, are you, Mr. Summersby?" a dry voice asked from behind his left shoulder.
Ryan turned to find the Messenger standing but a few paces away from him. In fact, with just one step, he could probably have reached out and touched him. His eyes narrowed with irritation. "What do you mean?"
"You haven't figured out who it is that keeps leaving Lady Steepleton's house in the middle of the night, running errands that are still as elusive to you as the rider's ident.i.ty."
Ryan glared back at the black-hooded figure. "And what do you know of it?"
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