"Enough to tell you that Lady Steepleton is finding it difficult to do as she is told."
"Meaning?" If only they weren't standing on a public street in the middle of London, he'd take much pleasure in wringing this man's neck, no matter whom he might turn out to be.
"Meaning that, if I were you, Mr. Summersby, I would tell Lady Steepleton that if it is a hobby she is looking for, she ought to pick something less likely to draw awareness."
The sound of hooves clicking on the cobbles nearby drew Ryan's attention for the briefest of moments. When he looked back, the Messenger was gone.
He needed someone to talk to, not to mention a stiff drink to calm his mood. Picking up his pace, he headed down David Street, toward Berkeley Square. He knew exactly where he wanted to go.
"Can I offer you some more claret?" Alexandra asked as she regarded her brother closely. She couldn't recall the last time she'd seen him so out of sorts.
Ryan nodded, taking the bottle from his sister and filling his gla.s.s. He took a long sip. "I need your opinion on something," he finally said after a lengthy moment of silence. "Percy came to me a few days ago, asking that I keep an eye on Lady Steepleton."
"The marchioness that everyone has been so busy talking about?"
"The very one." Ryan sighed. He then went on to tell Alexandra about his conversation with Percy and about the hooded stranger he'd encountered in the street.
"And what about Lady Steepleton herself?" Alexandra asked. "Has she not given you any clue as to what might be going on?"
Ryan shook his head somewhat sheepishly, forcing a troubled sigh from his sister. She knew that he'd always felt less suited for a career in intelligence than she and William. Not that he couldn't hold his own when it came to fighting or thinking on his feet, but he just didn't have the same feel for uncovering information that had come so naturally to both William and herself. It was one of the key factors in his decision to give up on a career in the Foreign Office and continue with his studies instead. What irked Alexandra was that he seemed to consider the lack of this quality a shortcoming. On the contrary, she'd give anything for the ability to soak up knowledge the way Ryan did.
"All right," Alexandra said thoughtfully. "Let us consider everything that we know so far. You say that her father was a physician and that he was killed at Waterloo. We also know that she received a letter, which appears to have alarmed her in some way, and that upon having read it, she went to meet with Lord Woodbridge, who, by the way, also happens to be the Master of the Royal College of Surgeons. If you ask me, Ryan, whatever it is that your marchioness may be involved in, I am strongly inclined to believe that it is medically related."
"I have to agree, but I just fail to see why that would pose a threat to her in any way."
Alexandra was quiet for a moment. An idea had begun to manifest itself in her head, but it was only a guess, and to verify it, she would have to meet Lady Steepleton in person and take a good look at her. "What if I accompany you on your next visit to the marchioness?" she suggested with a bright smile. "I have a feeling that the two of us will get along famously."
"That is an excellent idea, Alex. I was planning on going over there tomorrow afternoon for tea, but if you are coming along, then perhaps we might take Lady Steepleton shopping. There are a mult.i.tude of b.a.l.l.s this season, and she is in dire need of some proper gowns to wear."
Alexandra made a sour face, as if she'd just bitten into a lemon.
"Actually," Ryan continued, shifting nervously in his seat, "I thought you might perhaps be able to act as our chaperone."
Alexandra flashed her brother a cheeky grin. "Why, Ryan, I do believe her ladyship has you smitten!"
Ryan sent his sister a scowl, but it made very little difference to her. Not once in all her life could she recall having seen her brother blush, yet there he was, as red as a ripe tomato and looking more uncomfortable than a fish out of water. "Not to worry," she told him kindly. "I promise to be on my very best behavior. I simply cannot wait to meet her."
By the time the clock in the hallway struck two on the following afternoon, Mary had managed to convince herself that Mr. Summersby simply must have recognized her the previous evening, and that, as a consequence, he would never want to call on her again. She'd also managed to drive herself half mad, worrying about whom he might have spoken to regarding what he'd seen. In all truth, she scarcely knew the man, and judging by the way in which gossip tended to spread like wildfire among the ton, it wouldn't take much to ruin her reputation, even if he hadn't recognized her. All it would take was a good imagination on his part, and if that was the case, then she might very well have to face the possibility of never touching a scalpel again.
So when Thornton came to announce the arrival of Mr. Summersby and the Countess of Trenton, she was so startled that all she could do was stare in befuddlement at her two visitors for a good three seconds.
"I do apologize for coming unannounced like this," Mr. Summersby said as he strode toward her with his sister in tow. "Apparently, it seems to have become a habit of mine."
"There is no need for you to apologize," Mary stammered, desperately trying to get her fluttering heart under control. What on earth was the matter with her? "In truth, you are most welcome."
"Thank you, my lady. You are too kind." He moved aside to make way for his sister. "May I present to you my sister, formally known as her ladyship, the Countess of Trenton."
"Good heavens, Ryan," Lady Trenton exclaimed as she stepped forward, brushing him aside in the process. "There is no need for all that." She graced Mary with a big smile. "It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Lady Steepleton. My brother has told me so much about you."
"Has he?" Mary asked warily.
And just what exactly had he told her? That he'd seen her ride off last night, disguised as a man? She studied Mr. Summersby who looked to be in a wonderful mood, not as though he'd just discovered her greatest secret. Was it possible that he hadn't? She began to relax a little. "May I offer you some tea?" she asked.
"Actually, we were rather hoping to take you shopping," Lady Trenton said. "I understand that you might be in need of a gown for the Glendale ball on Friday."
"Is that so?" Mary asked in a clipped tone as she turned a frosty gaze on Mr. Summersby. Apparently, he'd shared his opinion on her attire with the remarkably fashionable countess. What could possibly make her feel grimmer than that?
"Please do not take offense," Mr. Summersby told her, picking up on her discomfort. "We are only trying to help, and I do a.s.sure you that we have your best interests at heart."
Mary let out a quiet sigh of defeat. She nodded slowly as she shifted her gaze from one sibling to the other. "If you'll please wait a moment, I'll just go and fetch my reticule."
They visited three different fabric shops before finally arriving at one on Fleet Street, where Mary's breath was taken away by the most beautiful selection of fabrics, lace, and ribbons she'd ever seen. Bolts of shimmering silks and satins were neatly arranged in two wide mahogany cabinets that loomed like the Pillars of Hercules from behind the counter. Rolls of the finest muslins and linens were neatly stacked on shelves running from floor to ceiling along one wall, while the plushest velvets lined another.
Mary stepped gingerly forward as if in a daze, her fingers reaching out on their own accord to skim across a piece of abandoned satin that had been left out on the cutting table. She drew a breath and turned her bright eyes on her two companions. "I never imagined that such fabrics existed," she said as she continued to gaze about in wonder.
"Come," Lady Trenton told her gently, taking her by the arm and leading her farther into the shop, while Mr. Summersby followed behind in their wake. "Let's start by looking over here."
It took Mary all of fifteen minutes to decide upon a light blue silk and an overlay of lace that met the approval of both the countess and Mr. Summersby. Once this was done, she and Lady Trenton were rapidly swept through to a private sitting room, where the modiste handed them each a large pile of fashion plates.
"Take your time, ladies," Mr. Summersby told them with a smile as he put on his hat. "I am just going to run a quick errand."
As soon as he had left, Mary and Lady Trenton settled to their task and began leafing through the fashion plates. "I know it seems daunting," the countess said, "but after a while, you decide on the styles that you like, and then it goes much quicker."
"I don't have the faintest idea of what sort of gown might suit me." Mary shook her head, completely overwhelmed by the task at hand. "I never imagined that there might be so many ways in which to fashion a gown."
Lady Trenton grinned. "I know precisely how you feel. A little over a year ago I owned only two dresses, and I certainly didn't have much interest in what they looked like. They were more of a requirement than anything else."
Mary raised her eyes and looked at her as if she were speaking a foreign language. "I don't understand; you are so fashionable and elegant."
"That was not the case before my husband came along, you know. In fact, I have always favored a white shirt and a pair of breeches to the restraining garments that women are encouraged to wear. Not only were they more practical in a swordfight-after all, long gowns do have a tendency to get in the way-but they were just so much more comfortable.
"However, when I met Ashford, and I wanted to draw his attention-you know, open his eyes a little to the feminine side of me-well, let's just say that there's much to be said for a bit of lace and a low decolletage."
Mary looked at Lady Trenton in dumbfounded dismay. "You know how to handle a sword?"
"Indeed, I do. And pistols too, if you must know."
"But how did you learn?" She lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "I mean, it is completely unheard of for a woman to engage in such things-is it not?"
Lady Trenton looked up from the fashion plate she was presently admiring and fixed Mary with a meaningful look. "Not more so than it is for a woman to practice surgery, Lady Steepleton."
If Mary was the fainting sort, she would have done so that very instant. Had she heard right, or were her ears deceiving her? Whatever the case, she could barely breathe as she sat there clutching the fashion plates so tightly in her hands that her knuckles had begun to turn white.
"It's all right," Lady Trenton a.s.sured her as she casually pointed to an ill.u.s.tration of an exquisite gown. "Your secret is safe with me. In fact, I quite admire your efforts. You are a very brave woman, Lady Steepleton."
"H. . .how did you know?" Mary practically choked on the words as they came out of her mouth. She felt feverish; her whole body was trembling.
"Well, it didn't take me too long to figure it out. You see, about a year ago, when my brothers and I were pa.s.sing through Ghent on our way back to England, I stumbled into a young woman at the inn where we were staying. She was looking for her father at the time, and although I failed to notice, my brother William later remarked on how odd it was that she was wearing a surgeon's badge on her arm. When Ryan mentioned that your father was a surgeon and that he was killed at Waterloo, I thought perhaps you might be the same woman I met in Ghent. Of course, I couldn't be certain until I saw you in person, but once I did, there really was no mistaking it."
"But I don't recognize you at all. You look entirely different from the woman I remember speaking to."
Lady Trenton smiled. "Yes, I imagine that I do." She was quiet for a moment, as if deciding on whether or not to broach a delicate topic or not. "Lady Steepleton-"
"Oh, please, call me Mary. I have a feeling that you and I are going to be fast friends, and having you call me Lady Steepleton not only makes me uncomfortable, but it makes me feel positively ancient."
Alexandra grinned. "Very well, but only if you will call me Alexandra. Agreed?"
"Well then, Mary," Alexandra said, lowering her voice to a whisper, "I have to say that it is impossible for me to dislike you, for I do believe that you and I have very much in common. However, I would like to know if you plan to pursue an attachment with my brother. As it is, I've heard rumors that the two of you were spotted in the park together yesterday. I hope you'll forgive me for the intrusion, but I only wish for him to be happy. I hope you understand."
As forward as the question was, it didn't bother Mary in the slightest. After all, she could be quite direct herself and therefore considered the question very seriously for a moment before answering. She hadn't spent much time a.n.a.lyzing her feelings for Mr. Summersby yet, but she couldn't help but acknowledge the growing attraction she felt for him. Her heart would start to pound whenever he was near, her stomach flipped whenever he touched her, and when she'd wondered. . .Oh h.e.l.l, she'd wondered what it might be like to kiss him. Undoubtedly splendid.
"Do you promise not to repeat what I say, even to him?"
"I swear it," Alexandra told her solemnly.
"Then I must tell you that I had absolutely no intention of encouraging anyone's advances when I returned to London two weeks ago. I felt-and I still do-that marriage would be the end of my career since it will be impossible for any man to accept a wife who does what I do.
"But then I met your brother, and I would be lying if I were to tell you that I am not drawn to him in a way that I never thought possible. I want to learn everything there is to know about him. I find myself eagerly awaiting his company, and when he's near, I feel so jittery that I've no idea what to do with myself. If he desires to court me, I daresay I'd be unable to resist."
Alexandra smiled as she wrapped her arms around Mary and gave her a tight squeeze. "I cannot tell you how happy that makes me. However, it does mean that you will have to tell him the truth about yourself, and, if I may give a suggestion, you should do so quickly, before he has the chance to feel deceived."
"I know, I just-"
"I realize that you are worried about the way he will react, but you and I are friends now, and I want you to know that you have my full support. We shall work on Ryan together, and, who knows, perhaps the two of you can even find a way in which to collaborate. After all, you both share the same area of expertise."
"I hadn't thought of that," Mary said, her eyes suddenly sparkling with enthusiasm. "Oh, do you really think that such a thing might be possible? That we might open a practice together? Oh, Alexandra, nothing would thrill me more; really, it wouldn't."
"I am glad to see that the two of you are getting along so wonderfully well," a familiar voice sounded. It was Mr. Summersby who'd just returned and was now casually making his way toward them. "Have you decided on a design for your gown yet?"
"Oh, dear," Mary muttered. "I completely forgot what we came here for."
"How about this one?" Alexandra asked, pointing to the same one that she'd pointed at earlier.
"Oh, yes," Mary said. "That really is quite elegant. A bit risque at the neckline, perhaps, but I suppose that we can have that altered. Mr. Summersby, what do you think?"
"Well," Mr. Summersby began hesitantly, "while I do think that this particular model will suit you remarkably well, I will give it my seal of approval only if you promise not to alter the neckline."
"Good heavens!" Alexandra exclaimed with a wide smile, while her eyes twinkled with delight. "I never pegged you to be such a rogue. You have made poor Mary blush."
"I do beg your pardon, Lady Steepleton. It was not my intention to make you feel uncomfortable."
"There's really no need to apologize," Mary began, feeling the heat all the way to her earlobes. "I-"
"Why, Mr. Summersby," a melodious voice interjected. "I never imagined finding you here."
Ryan turned his head to find none other than Stephanie Maplewood gliding toward him with a brilliant smile pasted on her porcelain face. If a woman had ever looked as though she was cast from plaster, then it was truly she. He'd always considered her to be pretty, though in a somewhat unusual sort of way-the unusual part being that neither a single blemish nor the trace of a fine line marked her face. If they had, she might actually have looked human.
Upon seeing her now, his first instinct was to turn and run. After all, the woman had been chasing after him since her debut two years ago, though he couldn't imagine what had her so obsessed; he'd repeatedly made it clear that whatever she hoped for would never be. However, he was a gentleman, and as such, he did what all well-bred gentlemen were raised to do. He slapped on his most charming smile and said, "Always a pleasure, Lady Stephanie."
"I hope that I am not intruding," she remarked. "But when I saw you, I simply had to come right over."
"And we are so glad that you did," Ryan said. "Have you perhaps met my sister, the Countess of Trenton, and her ladyship, the Marchioness of Steepleton?"
"How do you do, Lady Trenton. It is always such a pleasure to see you."
"Yes, I am quite sure that it is, Lady Stephanie," Alexandra remarked in a dry tone that did very little to hide her displeasure of the other woman's sudden appearance. "It is unfortunate that we do not have more time to stop and chat, but we really are very busy, as you can see."
"Then by all means, I shall not disturb you any longer." Lady Stephanie turned to Ryan with a silky smile. "I do hope to see you again soon, Mr. Summersby-at the ball on Friday, perhaps?" And without as much as acknowledging Lady Steepleton's existence even once, she strolled off.
"Did I offend her in any way?" Lady Steepleton asked Alexandra as soon as she was gone.
Alexandra rolled her eyes heavenward and waved her hand in dismissal. "I wouldn't worry overly much about it if I were you. Stephanie Maplewood has been trying to sink her talons into my brother for years and will shun any woman he spends time with, unless she happens to be a blood relative. She is relentless in her pursuit of him." She looked up at Ryan. "Promise me that I will not have to suffer with her as my sister-in-law "You have my word on it," he promised, as his eyes strayed to the marchioness.
"We'll drop you off first, Alex," Ryan said as they got back inside the carriage after placing Lady Steepleton's order at the dressmaker's. The woman they'd spoken to there, a Madame Bessette, had a.s.sured them that the gown would be ready on Friday morning, just in time for the Glendale ball.
Ryan spotted the look of mischief on his sister's face and warned her with a frown. All he wanted was to have some time alone with Lady Steepleton so they could talk, but with the way things were, there was never a moment of privacy.
"As you wish," Alexandra replied. She looked as if she might erupt with laughter. Ryan rolled his eyes. Well, at least she wasn't enough of a stickler to stand in his way, for which he should probably count his lucky stars.
Lady Steepleton on the other hand, looked visibly shocked, her lips parting as if she were readying herself to protest. Ryan's heart hammered as he watched her most expectantly, but when Alexandra said no more, the marchioness apparently decided not to force the subject and settled back against the seat instead. Ryan's heart rate slowed. He knew he was risking her reputation, but it couldn't be helped; they would simply have to be careful. Whatever it was that was happening between them had to be explored-he could ignore it no longer. And if at the end of their conversation it appeared as though their acquaintance with one another might progress, he vowed to tell her about his a.s.signment. Better to be honest now than to deceive.
They arrived at Trenton House within fifteen minutes. Ryan watched as Alexandra gave her ladyship a quick embrace, gathered her skirts, and offered him her hand so he could help her alight. "Don't do anything untoward," Alexandra warned him as he led her up the front steps of her home. "It wouldn't do to ruin her. As it is, you're riding alone with her in a closed carriage." Ryan opened his mouth to speak, but she cut him off. "I'm not judging you or telling you what to do; the choice is yours. I'm merely advising you to use caution."
"And this should come from you," he said, grinning, and she responded with a smile.
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