Her eyes, however, were a touch more serious. "You're not away in some foreign city where n.o.body knows you. This is Mayfair, Ryan. If you decide to ravish her, you'd best pick your locations wisely."
He knew she was right, of course. "I've no idea of ravishing her in a carriage, Alex. I merely thought we might talk."
Alexandra stared back at him with vast amounts of doubt in her eyes. "Talk?"
"As it happens, I enjoy our conversations immensely."
Stepping inside her foyer, Alexandra squeezed his arm and lowered her voice to a whisper. "If that was all you meant to do, you'd hardly need to risk scandal by getting her alone."
She had a point, and she was right, of course. Bidding her a pleasant afternoon, he strode back down the walkway and popped his head inside the carriage. "I know this is not quite proper," he said, offering Lady Steepleton a means of escape, "but I was hoping for a little more time with you than it might take for us to drive up David Street. Would you mind terribly if we asked the driver to take us about for a while?"
Again she hesitated. He ought to take her directly home if he knew what was good for both of them, but the temptation of having her to himself was too great to resist, and so he had offered her the ultimate decision.
"No," she finally said on a gush of air. "No, I don't think I would mind it in the least."
Ryan wasn't about to give her the chance to change her mind. With a curt nod, he issued directions to the driver as quickly and concisely as possible, then climbed up inside and took his seat beside her ladyship. For the next five minutes, neither one of them said a word. Instead, they both stared straight ahead. Ryan was beginning to feel more and more like a naughty child who'd deliberately thwarted his parents' wishes. Lady Steepleton shifted restlessly in her seat. He became instantly aware of her thigh brushing against his. Dear G.o.d, he really should have seated himself across from her. Whatever had he been thinking? She moved again, and it had the inexplicable effect of sending warm waves of heat scurrying through him to places he dared not even consider, for fear that other shameful thoughts might enter into his head. Too late. Blast!
She made an attempt to turn in her seat, apparently hoping to face him more directly, but she eventually gave up and let out a deep sigh of what he could only presume to be frustration. h.e.l.l, he really ought to move to the opposite bench.
"Mr. Summersby," Lady Steepleton suddenly said, turning only her head this time. She leaned back against the side of the carriage to avoid hitting him in the head with her bonnet. "There is something that I absolutely must tell you."
"And there is something that I must tell you," Ryan replied, his eyes locking onto hers. He forced a weak smile to hide his embarra.s.sment at the subject that he was about to address. They were finally alone, and he'd already wasted precious time plucking up the courage. Well, he might as well say what needed saying and pray she wouldn't gape at him with incomprehension afterward. "I. . .I don't quite understand it, but I feel. . ." He let out a sigh, not knowing quite how to go about putting his feelings into words. "I feel this constant need to be with you. And whenever I am not with you, I cannot think of anything else but our next encounter. I understand that we have only just met and that this may sound rash, but I simply cannot seem to get you out of my mind. And then, whenever you grace me with that lovely smile of yours, or I hear you laugh. . .I just want to pull you into my arms and. . ."
He noticed her fl.u.s.tered expression. Oh blast; he'd shocked her. It hadn't been his intention to do so; he'd merely hoped for her to understand the way he felt, had hoped she might reciprocate in some manner. But clearly. . .Oh h.e.l.l, if only he'd kept his mouth shut and taken her home. He took a deep breath and raked his fingers through his hair in frustration. "Forgive me. This is not the sort of thing that a gentleman ought to tell a lady. I cannot imagine what I was thinking."
"I wonder if you know," she said quietly, so quietly that Ryan had to strain to hear her, "that, as unfathomable as I find it myself, I happen to feel precisely the same way." She then allowed her hand to slide from her lap and onto the seat, where it came to rest right next to his, their two fingers brushing ever so gently against one another.
Heat rushed through him at the point of contact, and his heart leaped. He turned a steady gaze on her, knowing full well that he was flirting with disaster. But how could he resist in light of what she'd just revealed? "Do you mean that?" His voice was hushed, as his finger traced its way along hers.
She offered him an awkward little smile, refusing to meet his eyes as her cheeks turned crimson. "I do," she told him in little more than a whisper.
Ryan drew a ragged breath. He could feel his blood pumping furiously through his veins and wondered if Lady Steepleton was in any way aware of his need. She couldn't possibly be, a woman like her, so composed and demure. It hadn't been his intention to force his desires on her in the carriage. All he'd essentially wanted to do was talk, but when she'd said that she felt the same way, it was almost as if all his primeval urges had suddenly been unleashed.
His eyes drifted over the swell of her b.r.e.a.s.t.s, so taut against her bodice from the strain of her anxious breathing that the faint outline of her nipples became clearly visible beneath the muslin. He immediately felt his groin tighten at the thought of what he wanted to do to her and consequently drew a deep breath in an attempt to steady himself. Lifting his hand carefully to her cheek so as not to startle her, he waited quietly for her to relax against him, the soft contours of her cheek pressed against his palm, while her eyes drifted shut and a blissful smile played upon her lips.
How curious it was that when he'd first seen her, she'd struck him as ordinary and plain. Yet looking at her now-her hair slightly tussled beneath her bonnet, her long black eyelashes fluttering against her flushed cheeks, and her full, crimson lips-he realized that she was anything but that. In fact, she was absolutely perfect in every way: a diamond of the first water, in his eyes.
"I have no desire to do anything that you might not wish for me to do," he told her softly as he stroked his thumb against her cheek. "So I would like to ask for your permission first. May I kiss you?"
She caught her breath the moment he asked her, her gaze meeting his in one of puzzlement, as if she couldn't quite fathom what he had just asked her, and it dawned on him, with a ma.s.sive amount of regrettable sadness, that this remarkable woman did not think herself worthy. She hesitated, studying him as if to ascertain his reasons behind such a request, and for a long unbearable moment, he thought she might decline. But he held her gaze, and somehow, as if by some miracle, he watched as her misgivings subsided and were replaced by longing. On a quivering breath, she managed a small nod of approval.
Ryan didn't need a second telling. Unwilling to give her the chance to reconsider the implications of what she'd just agreed to, he leaned toward her and brushed his lips ever so slightly against hers. It was a feathery soft kiss that lasted no more than a few seconds, gentle and tender in every way. Even so, he could have sworn that his heart stopped beating, while glowing embers ignited in the pit of his belly, a slow blaze that grew in strength until it became a roaring fire.
When he pulled away to gauge her reaction, he saw that same fire reflected in her eyes, her yearning written plainly upon her face, and just like that, he lost what little restraint he'd had. Taking her firmly by the waist, he pulled her onto his lap in one easy sweep. A swift pull on the bow beneath her chin sent her bonnet toppling backward onto the carriage floor only seconds before he crushed his lips against hers.
She quivered against him when he traced his tongue along her lower lip, her posture stiff, as if she might protest at any moment. And though she surely must have considered doing so, she made no attempt to push him away. But Ryan sensed her uncertainty and knew that he must force himself to proceed at a slower pace. Pulling back a little, he placed soft kisses upon her eyelids, and then her cheeks, while his fingers worked their way through her hair, toying with the pins until her dark brown locks tumbled over her shoulders.
He kissed her chin and then her neck, inhaling the sweet scent of her lilac perfume while his hand moved up her side to rest beside her breast. He paused there, inhaling her, then exhaling her, while her pulse drummed beneath his lips, her breathing low and ragged. But then she shifted. It was ever so slight, and quite subtle, so subtle, in fact, that a less experienced man might not have noticed. But Ryan was no fledgling, and he certainly had no intention of denying either one of them when an invitation had just been offered.
With slow deliberation, his fingers crept over one breast and then over the other in soft strokes. Again she stiffened, her breath caught in her throat until a small groan of pleasure squeezed its way between her lips. So exquisite was the sound that it almost had him spending himself right then and there like a callow youth who'd never lain with a woman before. Taking courage in her response, he took one breast in his hand, squeezing it gently and testing the feel of it. She bowed her head against his, kissing his brow, then his temple, his cheek, until her lips finally found his in a deep and scorching kiss.
Once again, he ran his tongue against her lips, but this time it lasted only a moment. On a soft sigh, she parted her lips and pressed herself closer against his embrace. A low growl rose from Ryan's throat as this first hurdle was overcome. Tightening his grip to keep her steady as the carriage lurched sideways, he eased his tongue inside her mouth, tasting her warmth before coaxing her to follow his lead.
It didn't take long to discover that she was a nimble student, her pa.s.sion matching his own as she raked her fingers through his hair and tugged him closer in obvious desperation. Nothing could have pleased him more, yet it wasn't enough; he wanted more. With trembling fingers, he eased her sleeves from her shoulders and lowered his head to place soft kisses against the dip of her shoulder blade. Emboldened by her quiet murmur, he allowed himself to go a step further. Hooking his thumbs on the neckline of her bodice, he ran them slowly against her smooth flesh, brushing her gently aroused nipples. Her back arched on a loud groan, and he tugged the fine fabric away, baring her to his greedy gaze. He eased back a little so he could take a better look at her lovely delights: each breast so plump and full, and with a dark, perky nipple at its crest. It was impossible for him to look away. Instead, a devilish grin drew its way across his face. "So beautiful," he whispered as he slid his fingers across them. She responded with a sharp intake of breath. He looked her straight in the eye as he took one tender nipple between his fingers and gently squeezed. She gasped and closed her eyes. "Do you like that?" he asked, knowing full well that she did.
Still, he waited for her response: a small nod, followed by a soft "yes."
"Then I am quite certain that you will like this too." He leaned forward and licked the hardened flesh with a slowness that would have driven any warm-blooded woman half mad. "Oh G.o.d," she whimpered, pulling him against her with a fierceness that caught him completely unaware. It excited him to no end. There was a pa.s.sion within her that he'd just unleashed, an urgent need as desperate as his own. Yes, Lady Steepleton would make an ardent lover; of that he was now completely certain.
He wanted her. There was no longer any inkling of doubt in his mind. Not now, he reminded himself, forcing back the desire that threatened to overwhelm him. He'd made a vow, not only to her, but to himself, that he would not take her innocence-not now, at least-not in a lurching carriage. No, he would have to wait for his own release, even if it meant that he'd have to wait for the wedding night. One thing was now quite clear in his mind, however: he would marry her.
Easing away from her, he gently lifted her bodice, returning her to some measure of decency as he did his best to avoid the look of disappointment that shone in her eyes. Moving her off his lap, he bent to pick up her bonnet, then helped her arrange her hair in an orderly fashion. "Thank you," he muttered, taking her hand in his and pressing a tender kiss against her knuckles, "for allowing me such liberties."
She blushed deeply in response, then favored him with a dazzling smile. "It was a pleasure."
Tapping the roof of the carriage to signal the driver that it was time to take her ladyship home, he placed his arm around her shoulders, pulled her close to him, and took courage from the intimacy of the moment. "As I said before, I know that we have scarcely known one another for more than a week, but I do hope that I have just made my intentions quite clear. I plan to marry you, my lady, if you will have me, that is." Mary couldn't get a single word out of her mouth; it seemed as if they were all jammed together in her throat all at once. So she just sat there as the idea of marrying Mr. Summersby manifested itself in her mind. He was right, of course; they didn't know each other well at all, and she still had to tell him about. . .heavens, she'd meant to do it before, but he'd completely led her off track. She opened her mouth in an attempt to speak, more horrified now by his potential response than ever before, because the truth of the matter was that becoming his wife didn't trouble her in the least. In fact, it felt incredibly right.
"And if you will let me," Mr. Summersby continued, stopping her short once more, "h.e.l.l, even if you will not, I promise to do whatever I can to keep you safe. n.o.body is going to hurt you, not as long as I have anything to say about it."
Mary stiffened in her seat as the world around her came to a screeching halt. "What do you mean?" she asked numbly as she eased herself away from him.
He let out a heavy sigh and squeezed her hand as if he meant to rea.s.sure her. Instead, a slow dread swept over her as she waited to hear what he wished to tell her. "I saw the look on your face the other day when you opened that letter," he said, turning to her with deep concern in his light blue eyes. "For whatever reason, you were terrified of its contents."
"That is hardly enough for you to a.s.sume that I might be in danger," she told him cautiously. "You have no idea of what that letter said." She looked at him imploringly, hoping that he'd merely been jumping to conclusions.
"No," he agreed, "it is not. But before you and I met, I was approached by a good friend of my family's, a man whom, it appears, was also a close friend of your father's. His name is Sir Percy Foxstone." He was silent for a moment, as if waiting for her to confirm her knowledge of this gentleman, but she'd never heard of this Foxstone fellow, so she just sat there, offering Mr. Summersby a blank stare, her every nerve on sensitized alert. "He asked, on behalf of your father, that I keep an eye on you. Apparently, your father was under the impression that you would be in grave danger if anything were to happen to him; he asked Percy to ensure your protection, as a personal favor to him."
Mary gazed back at Mr. Summersby, while tears began to p.r.i.c.kle behind her eyes. How could she have been such a fool? He hadn't sought her company because of how attractive he found her, or because he liked her company more than the next woman's. As it turned out, she was nothing more than an a.s.signment to him-possibly a nuisance even. With startling clarity, she saw that he'd begun calling on her for no other reason than to keep a watchful eye on her at all times and perhaps even to gain access to whatever information he might need.
She should have known that a man like Mr. Summersby would never be drawn to a woman like her. Circ.u.mstance had thrown them together, and they'd allowed themselves to get carried away by it. The worst of it was that he was no innocent and that he would very likely have carried on in much the same way with a Covent Garden nun if his need had been great enough. But now, because she was a lady of the ton, he was planning to sacrifice himself on the wedding altar in order to save her reputation. There was no other explanation for it-unless, of course, he was after her money and had just laid a very neat trap. Her heart sank at the very thought of such a possibility.
"Why you?" she asked in a tight voice that conveyed the extent of her growing anger. "Why would this man. . .Sir Percy was it? Why would he ask this of you?"
Mr. Summersby hesitated for only a moment. "Because," he said simply, "I used to work for him as an agent for the Foreign Office. But after my last mission, I chose to return to Oxford instead, in order to finish my studies and get a degree. The fact of it is, Sir Percy wanted this matter to be kept private and confidential, so he enlisted me rather than an agent already employed by the Home Office."
Mary gaped at him. She simply did not know what to say. Clearly, they had rushed when it came to considering something as permanent as marriage; they really didn't know each other at all, yet she'd practically been prepared to toss away her innocence only five minutes earlier. It didn't even bear thinking about.
"I know you must be shocked by all of this," he told her apologetically. "I hope it does not change anything between us too drastically."
"Ryan, I. . .Mr. Summersby," she amended. "How can you possibly think that this will not change anything between us? This changes everything. Your only interest in me was based entirely on your a.s.signment. You do not really want me, sir, but you appear to be stuck with me all the same, and somehow that has clouded your better judgment. So, in answer to your previous question, no, I will not marry you. I want someone who truly cares for me, not someone who is prepared to go blindly to the altar because society dictates that he must."
Mr. Summersby stared back at her in bewilderment. A slow frown had begun to mar his handsome features. "I am sorry if you see it that way, my lady," he told her in a clipped tone. "I a.s.sure you that I meant no offense. In fact, I genuinely like you and-"
"If such a bland word is the best you can think of to describe the way you feel about me," she shot back with growing agitation, "then we truly are ill-suited for one another."
"Well, you are ent.i.tled to your own opinion, of course." He crossed his arms in a highly annoyed fashion. "However, there is still the matter of your safety to discuss. As it is, I have already encountered a stranger prowling about outside your house on two separate occasions. He asked that you stop meddling with matters that do not concern you."
Mary's eyes narrowed into two angry slits. "You've been watching my house at night?"
"My lady, I cannot help but find it rather vexing that the point which seems to have you most aggrieved is not the presence of a dubious stranger outside your home, but rather the fact that I have been trying to keep you safe from harm."
Mary grimaced. She couldn't deny that he had a point. "What did he look like?" she asked.
"I do not know. It was dark, and he was using a scarf to conceal his face."
Mary clenched her jaw. "In short, you have nothing useful to tell me, other than admitting that you've been spying on me."
"I was not spying on you, my lady. I was merely trying to determine why somebody might wish to harm you," he told her defensively.
"Well, your answer is as good as mine," she snapped as the carriage rolled to a sudden halt. Not bothering to wait for a footman, she reached for the handle and opened the door to get out.
"Then at least tell me who the young man is that I have seen leaving your house on two separate occasions. Is he a messenger of some sort?"
Mary gave him a frosty glare. "That, Mr. Summersby, is absolutely none of your concern."
He grabbed hold of her wrist before she managed to alight, forcing her to stay and listen. "I only want to help you, Mary. That is all."
Mary paused in the doorway of the carriage. She couldn't hold back the tears any longer, and against her will, they spilled over and poured down her cheeks. "Is that so? Because only a moment ago, you were telling me that you wanted to do a whole lot more." She s.n.a.t.c.hed her arm away. "And in the future, you will please refrain from using my Christian name. I am Lady Steepleton to you. I suggest you try to remember that. Good day, Mr. Summersby."
Unwilling to be detained by him a moment longer, she quickly s.n.a.t.c.hed her arm away, stepped down onto the pavement, and ran inside her house, fleeing from the ridiculous hope she'd allowed her mind to foster: that a man like him might genuinely care for a woman like her.
Mary raced up the stairs to her bedroom, locking the door firmly behind her. She didn't care that Thornton had gawked at her or that Emma had made a heroic attempt to follow. No, she needed to be alone for a while; she needed to think. Her heart raced as she contemplated her time alone with Mr. Summersby in the carriage. There was no doubt in her mind that she'd behaved in the most deplorable manner, but G.o.d help her, she'd liked it. But then to discover that he'd sought her companionship, not out of choice, but because it had been his job to do so left her heart close to the point of breaking.
Still, he'd told her something that she had to consider. The letter that she had received hadn't been the only threat. There was the stranger Mr. Summersby had mentioned. Mary contemplated this for a moment, then thought back on the conversation she'd had with Lord Woodbridge. He'd advised her to consult her father's journals, but until now she hadn't had the opportunity to do so.
Moving quickly toward her wardrobe, she yanked the door open and sank down onto her knees, pushing her shoes aside as she began pulling out the boxes that she'd brought with her from Belgium. She paused for a long while on a couple of the ones containing her father's more personal effects: his pocket watch, a monogrammed handkerchief, his favorite pipe, and a few other knickknacks.
Wiping the sentimental tears from her eyes, she put the boxes carefully aside and grabbed hold of a larger one that had been shoved into one corner. Dragging it out onto the floor, she took a deep breath before slowly lifting the lid and setting it aside on the carpet. Inside were ten leather-bound books, all arranged in two neat rows, their spines all facing up. Mary just stared at them, almost too afraid to touch. These had been her father's most prized possession, notes that he'd acc.u.mulated over a span of thirty years relating his trials and tribulations, his successes and aspirations, all with one purpose in mind: to advance medicine.
She traced her fingers over them in wonder. Was it possible that they held a secret so powerful that people she'd never even met felt threatened by it? It seemed ridiculous, yet she had the letter and had also been made aware that someone was keeping a watchful eye on her. She shook off the shudder that threatened to run down her spine and returned her attention to the books. Each volume had been branded with a gold number. Mary picked up a dark green edition with the number 1 etched into it and, opening it to the first page, began to read.
It was almost ten in the evening when Mary found herself awakened by Emma, who was kneeling beside her and urgently shaking her shoulder. "What is it?" she asked, looking about with sleepy eyes and seeing that she'd fallen asleep on the floor. Her father's journal had slipped from her fingers and was lying snugly in her lap.
"I'm terribly sorry to disturb you, my lady, but it appears that the Dowager d.u.c.h.ess of Warwick is here to see you. She claims that it is a matter of utmost importance."
Mary was confused. "Is it not the middle of the night, Emma?"
"Not quite, my lady, though I must say that it is rather late for a social call. I did attempt to tell her so, but she's a rather formidable woman and refused to take no for an answer. When she insisted upon seeing you this very instant, I found it hard to refuse her once she explained that Lady Arlington had told her about you and that she has come to seek your help. I am sorry, my lady, truly I am, but I really did not know what else to do, short of sending her on her way, which I fear would have been rather rude-especially if the matter is as urgent as she claims."
"It is quite all right, Emma. Would you please show her ladyship into the parlor and offer her some tea. I will be down shortly to greet her."
"Yes, my lady." Emma offered Mary her hand and helped her mistress off the floor before smoothing her skirts with her hands. "Should I call upon any of the other servants?"
Mary had no desire to disturb any of her staff. Still, she knew she'd probably be hungry later, having missed her supper, so rather than answer Emma's question, she asked, "You wouldn't happen to know if Thornton left a plate for me in the dining room, would you?"
"He did-some ham and cheese with bread and pickles, I believe."
"Then I do believe that we shall manage just fine without disturbing anyone else, as long as you will see to the tea. After that, you may go back to bed."
Emma bobbed a small curtsy and went to see about her business, while Mary removed her spencer. She'd been in such a hurry upon arriving home earlier that she'd quite forgotten to take it off. She thought of Mr. Summersby again and sighed in annoyance. What an infuriating man he was! Well, she was better off without him, she decided, grabbing a shawl and winding it about her shoulders. A man like that would only get in the way of her work, no matter how appealing she might find him.
I will not think of it, she told herself as she made her way downstairs to greet her uninvited guest, pausing for a brief moment in the hallway to glance at her reflection in the mirror. No, she wouldn't think of the handsome Mr. Summersby at all.
Groaning at the impossibility of the task that she was setting for herself, she quickly adjusted a few stray hairs, took a deep breath, and opened the door to the parlor. "How do you do," she said politely as she took in the slim figure of the elderly woman who was sitting on the sofa. Lady Warwick's posture was exceedingly dignified as she gracefully balanced her saucer in one hand, while holding her teacup in the other.
"I apologize for troubling you at such an unseemly hour, Lady Steepleton, but I wish to discuss a matter that requires complete discretion. I hope you will forgive me." Her voice held a distinguished tone that spoke of true aristocracy, while the intensity behind her eyes told Mary that she was in the company of a highly intelligent woman. She was immediately curious to know what had brought her ladyship to her home so late in the evening.
"Lady Arlington is my grandniece, you see, so when I visited her earlier today and discovered what you did for her. . .well, I immediately knew that I must seek your advice. You cannot begin to imagine how many physicians I've spoken to about my predicament." A deep frown creased her forehead, and her lips drew together in a thin line as she shook her head in open frustration. "They all claim that an operation will be far too risky, especially with my age taken into account. If you ask me, they're all a bunch of cowards. Still, the matter remains that I refuse to live with the pain a moment longer. I dearly hope that you will be able to help me."
Mary walked quietly over to one of the armchairs and took a seat across from Lady Warwick. "You know, it would help me a great deal if you could tell me precisely what it is that's troubling you," she told her kindly as she refilled Lady Warwick's teacup before pouring herself a cup as well.
Folding her hands in her lap, her ladyship took a deep breath before saying, "I have been told that I have an unpleasantly large kidney stone lodged inside me, and frankly. . ." She suddenly scrunched her face and gasped as she gritted out, "It's a rather unforgiving b.u.g.g.e.r."
Momentarily startled by the dowager's use of profanity, it took Mary a second longer than usual to react to what was happening, but once she did, she quickly produced a bottle of laudanum from a cabinet designed to house carafes filled with brandy and other such drinks. Instead, it contained most of Mary's medical equipment. She understood that Lady Warwick was enduring an intense amount of pain and consequently added as much of the medicine to her tea as she deemed safe. "Here, drink this," she told her quietly. "It will ease your suffering."
The dowager obediently complied. It took a few minutes for the laudanum to take effect, but once it did, she drew a deep breath and returned her cup to Mary, settling back against the sofa with a drained expression upon her face. "Thank you," she said. "I don't usually agree with taking that stuff, but it was necessary this time. It seems as if the pain is getting worse-unbearably so."
"If it is a kidney stone that you are suffering from, then I will most likely have to operate in order to have it removed." Mary met the dowager's gaze. "It will be not only an uncomfortable procedure, but a painful one as well, I'm afraid."
The dowager gave her a hard stare of determination. "I have never been the sort to be bowled over by anything, Lady Steepleton, not by men, not by the pestilent rules of society, and not by the difficulties of life itself. Consequently, I simply refuse to allow such an insolent little stone to dictate my level of well-being when I am otherwise in perfectly good health. I have reached the point where I will happily endure whatever I must, if it will only free me from this constant torture."
Mary nodded her head sympathetically. "I must also warn you that the opinion of the other physicians you've consulted must not be entirely dismissed. Such an operation is not without risk." The dowager opened her mouth as if to protest, but Mary quickly continued. "I'm not trying to dissuade you, but since you are contemplating putting your life in my hands, I do feel obligated to tell you this. My track record is good. I've lost very few patients, and none after performing a lateral lithotomy-which is what this situation will call for-of which I've done five. In addition, you will require one to three months to recover, so if we do it now, you shall be forced to miss the remainder of the season."
"Pfft. . ." The dowager waved her hand dismissively. "As it is, I haven't attended a social function in over two years due to my ailment. But if you are able to help me, then, who knows? Perhaps I'll be able to dance a jig next year."
Mary smiled. She really liked the older woman. "If you feel up to it," she said. "I can examine you right away, and then tomorrow evening, I can come to your home and perform the procedure, if that is agreeable to you. Do you have a maid or a lady-in-waiting whom you would trust enough to a.s.sist?"
The dowager nodded. "Mrs. Harper will do; she was there when my children were born, so I know she's not the squeamish sort."
Mary blinked, realizing that Mrs. Harper must be a trusty servant if she'd been in her mistress's employ for so many years. Composing herself, she got ready to examine her ladyship. It didn't take long for her to confirm that a kidney stone was indeed the culprit. "Will nine p.m. tomorrow evening suit your ladyship?" she asked as she walked the dowager to the door.
"I think it would be splendid," Lady Warwick replied. She smiled, and as she did, Mary couldn't help but notice that her eyes were sparkling with the onset of tears. "I cannot possibly thank you enough. Really, Lady Steepleton, I don't know what I would have done without your help."
Upon seeing her out, Mary retrieved the tray of food that Thornton had left for her in the dining room and then made her way back upstairs to her bedroom, completely exhausted. She was almost at her door when a soft thud, followed by a rustling sound, brought her to a halt. She paused to listen, but no other sound followed. Convincing herself that it was probably nothing, she eased her bedroom door open and instinctively glanced around the room. Nothing looked particularly out of place until a cold wind gripped her and she saw that her window stood gaping wide open. Setting down her tray, she ran across to it and looked out, just in time to see a dark shadow disappearing over the garden wall. "Oh G.o.d," she murmured as her stomach tied itself into a tight knot of despair.
Swallowing hard, she pulled the window shut with trembling fingers and locked it firmly back in place, then closed the curtains to block out the darkness. She turned around to glance about the room once more. He eyes went straight to her dresser, where she'd left her father's journal. It was gone. Anger, accompanied by an overwhelming sense of loss, poured through her. This was her father's life, written in his own words and by his own hand, that someone had stolen from her. Whatever their reason, it wasn't justified.
A thought struck her, and gripped by fear she ran over to the wardrobe and threw open the door. The boxes were still there where she'd left them, but what about the books? She lifted the lid. There they were, all of them, save for the very first volume. Mary breathed a sigh of relief. Whatever it was that the intruder had been after, she still had a chance of finding it before he did. She would need a plan, though. It was no longer safe for her to remain in her own house, at least not with the books stashed away in her wardrobe and with very little with which to protect herself. Whoever it was that had taken the first book would almost certainly return soon in search of the rest. She couldn't very well guard them every hour of every day.
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