But where could she possibly go on such short notice? She considered her other property in Northamptonshire, but did she really want to shy away to a lonely castle where she knew even fewer people than she did in London? The truth of the matter was that, outside of her staff, she had only two friends: Mr. Summersby and his sister, Alexandra.
Mr. Summersby had told her that he wanted to help, and in spite of everything, she believed him. However, after what had happened between them and the things she'd said to him, he was just about the last person she wanted to crawl to for help.
That left only one person: the Countess of Trenton. With a heavy sigh, Mary began piling her father's journals into a bag, along with a few items of clothing that she placed on top. Wishing to be gone before Emma and Thornton awoke, she hurried out of the house, leaving behind a quick note, explaining to them that she'd gone to visit a friend for a few days. She then pulled her hood over her head and walked quickly toward Berkeley Square, intent on waiting by the servant's entrance to avoid waking the household too early.
When Alexandra eventually walked into breakfast at ten, she was more than a little surprised to find Mary waiting for her at the table. "I am so sorry," she said. "I do hope that I haven't kept you waiting for too long."
Mary gave her a weak smile. "Not at all, Alexandra. Your husband asked if he should wake you before he went out, but I asked him not to disturb you."
Alexandra eyed her quizzically. "You must have been here for quite some time if you managed to run into him. He usually leaves by eight."
Mary lowered her eyes to her lap, in an almost embarra.s.sed fashion that instantly piqued Alexandra's interest. "The truth is that I have been here since four."
"Good heavens!" Alexandra exclaimed. "Has something happened? Are you all right?"
Mary nodded. "Yes, yes, I am quite all right, thank you. However, there was an intruder at my house during the night. I believe I must have startled him, for he ran off. Nonetheless, I didn't feel comfortable remaining there and hoped that you wouldn't mind overly much if I came here. Forgive me, but I could think of nowhere else to go."
Alexandra dropped onto a chair, completely speechless. "You poor thing," she finally managed to say. "Of course I don't mind. But this intruder you mention: do you have any idea why he was there?"
"He was after my father's journals, I believe, for I had left one of them out on my nightstand, and it was the only thing he took." Alexandra spotted the glistening tears before they began to fall. A moment later, Mary was shaking with grief. "I am terribly sorry," she said, sobbing.
Alexandra was beside her in a second. "You mustn't be. It is quite understandable for you to be shaken, especially when something so personal and so dear to you was taken." She poured Mary a cup of tea. "Here, this will help soothe you."
Alexandra watched while Mary drank and her breathing returned to normal. "Do you have any idea why someone would want to take your father's journal, Mary?" she eventually asked.
Mary shook her head and let out a heavy sigh. "No, but I received a threat the other day, warning me not to follow in my father's footsteps. And Ryan. . .er, Mr. Summersby. . .told me that he encountered a stranger who gave a similar warning. Whatever this is about, it must be linked to my father's work in some way. I just fail to see how."
Alexandra considered that for a moment before she asked the next question. "Have you told Ryan that you are a surgeon?"
Mary looked as though she might cry again. "I wanted to, but we had a horrible fight. He told me he'd been a.s.signed to protect me. I know that if it were not for that, he wouldn't have given me a second glance, so I refused him after he. . .Oh dear, I have made such a mess of everything."
"After he what?" Alexandra asked with mounting curiosity. She had a good mind to throttle her brother if what she suspected was true. He'd been so b.l.o.o.d.y righteous in Paris when he'd caught her together with Michael, and now. . .She took a deep breath to calm herself. "Tell me what he did."
Mary sniffed and looked away. "I couldn't possibly," she groaned. "And even if I did, I cannot pretend that he is entirely to blame; we were equally responsible for what happened. It is no matter, really, only that he now believes he must marry me, and I just won't have it. I refuse to marry somebody just because he has some nitwit notion that he must, simply because society decrees it has to be so. n.o.body saw us, so n.o.body needs to know about it." She met Alexandra's gaze. "And if you tell anyone, then I shall only deny it."
Alexandra nodded. Yes, Mary Croyden was indeed very similar to herself. She couldn't help but like her, and in spite of what Mary might think, Alexandra knew that Ryan cared about her and that he wasn't just favoring her with his attention because of the a.s.signment. But she would leave Ryan to convince her ladyship of that. As for now, there was still the matter of Mary's safety to consider. "Naturally, you are more than welcome to stay here until this whole thing resolves itself," she told Mary. "We have plenty of s.p.a.ce and shall be more than happy to have you."
"Thank you, Alexandra," Mary told her with a grateful smile. "I truly appreciate that."
"In the meantime, I think it might be a good idea for you to read your father's journals. He must have left a clue for you somewhere in there, or if not, then you must at least try to find whatever it is this person was looking for. If he was so intent on getting his hands on it, then it must be important. But be careful, Mary, because whatever it is that he's up to, I'm afraid that he might just be getting started. Once he discovers that you have no intention of heeding his warnings, he may become far more vigilant."
Mary swallowed hard and nodded. "I understand."
"Good," Alexandra told her with a bright smile. "Then after breakfast, I shall teach you how to fire a pistol, and you must promise me that you will go nowhere without it."
Mary gaped at Alexandra as if she were completely mad. "Can't I just. . ." She took a sharp breath. "I'm sure that a dagger will serve just fine."
Alexandra pinned her with a hard gaze. "You need to get very close to your attacker for that to work. Most people would lose their nerve before they managed to deliver a fatal wound. A pistol is much more reliable. In any event, it is my condition for helping you." She offered her a sly smile. "Are we agreed?"
Mary responded with a slow nod. "Yes," she muttered. "We are agreed."
Later that day, after taking a much needed nap, Mary went in search of Alexandra. She found her in the parlor with her son, Richard, on her lap, tickling the chortling infant with a feather. It was such a delightful scene that Mary couldn't help but laugh. "You certainly appear to be enjoying yourselves," she said.
Looking up, Alexandra immediately favored her with a warm smile. "We certainly are; this is one of his favorite games," she said as she handed Richard over to his nurse. "Did you sleep well?"
"Oh yes, I feel quite rested now, thank you."
"Good. Then let's have some lunch before we head out," Alexandra said.
"Head out? And where, may I ask, are we going?"
"Just a little way out of town," Alexandra replied, taking Mary's arm and steering her toward the dining room. "I know of a very secluded spot where you can have your first lesson."
"Good heavens!" Mary exclaimed, recalling their earlier conversation. "I was hoping you might have forgotten."
"Well, as you can see, I have not," Alexandra said, taking her seat at the long mahogany dining table and suggesting that Mary do the same. The food was brought in a moment later: grilled trout bathed in a creamy lemon and dill sauce, small potatoes, and a tomato and onion salad.
"I'm not at all sure that I will be any good at it," Mary complained as one of the servants placed a piece of trout on her plate. She took a sip of her wine. "Not to say that you aren't an excellent teacher, for indeed I am quite certain that you are, but I've never even held a pistol in my hands before, and. . .well, to be perfectly honest, it rather frightens me."
Alexandra chuckled. "It isn't nearly as difficult as you might think. It requires practice to get your aim right, but we're not attempting to make you the finest shot there ever was. The sole purpose of this is for you to have some means of protection. Oftentimes there isn't even a need to fire; the mere fact that you are holding a pistol in your hands can be enough to deter an attacker."
"No more buts, Mary," Alexandra told her sternly. "This was my condition for letting you stay here, remember?"
Mary nodded reluctantly as she took another sip of wine. They'd made an agreement, and there was no way for her to back out of it now unless she wanted Alexandra to think her a coward-not a favorable option, by any means. No, she would simply have to calm her nerves and follow Alexandra's lead.
"This is it," Alexandra said a couple of hours later. They'd ridden through the woods on the outskirts of the city, veering off the road until they'd eventually arrived at a small clearing.
Dismounting, they tied their horses to a birch that stood to one side. "Here, take this," Alexandra said, holding a pistol out toward Mary. "Get a feel for it."
Mary hesitantly took the pistol from her. It was heavier than she'd expected. Turning it over in her hands, she studied it with growing curiosity, unable to wonder how many lead shots she'd pulled out of bleeding soldiers at Waterloo. This was the first time she was taking a close look at the sort of weapon that had delivered all those patients to her. The fact that she would soon attempt firing it made her feel slightly odd, as if she were about to commit a sin of some sort.
"How do you like it?"
Mary looked up to find Alexandra watching her with a crooked smile. "I'm not sure," she admitted. "Something about it feels wrong."
Alexandra grinned. "You'll get used to it. Here, I'll show you how to load it." She opened a leather pouch and measured a small quant.i.ty of black powder. "Pour this down the barrel-yes, just like that. Now, take the shot and wrap it in this bit of cloth. There's a ramrod right there, just beneath the barrel; take it, and ram the shot home."
Mary followed Alexandra's instructions to the letter and was swiftly met with a nod of approval, even though she'd never felt more awkward in her life. Yet she had to admit that in spite of her reluctance to learn about firearms, she was really quite grateful for the lesson.
"Now then," Alexandra said, stepping up beside her, "stand like this."
"Like this?" Mary asked, copying Alexandra's wide stance.
"Yes, just like that. Good. Now, put your right hand here and hold it firmly in place. Your index finger goes on the trigger. Then take your left hand and use it to support your right-no, not like that." She moved Mary's hand to the correct position. "Like this."
Mary glanced at Alexandra with renewed enthusiasm. "Should I try to fire?" she asked.
"You can," Alexandra told her, stepping away to a safe distance. "Aim for that tree over there and-"
A loud crack split the air as Mary pulled the trigger. But her stance had slackened in the meantime, making her completely unprepared for the sudden force that hit her. In fact, it knocked her completely off her feet and onto the ground while the pistol itself went flying.
Silence followed, and then a loud burst of laughter. "Are you all right?" Alexandra said, standing over her breathless friend, who was now lying smack on her back in the lush gra.s.s.
"I think so," Mary murmured, still mildly startled by the situation.
"Heavens, that looked funny," Alexandra said, covering her mouth with both hands in an obvious attempt to contain her giggles. "You're not hurt, I hope? Here, let me give you a hand up."
Mary frowned as she took the proffered hand. "No, I'm fine. I had no idea that it would be so difficult," she muttered, smoothing out the wrinkles in her gown. "Did I at least hit my mark?"
"You certainly did," Alexandra cheered, pointing to the tree that was now split open on the side. "So your aim is pretty decent. Now we just need to work a little on your footing."
They continued practicing for the next couple of hours, before deciding that they'd had enough for the day and that it was time to head back home.
Upon their arrival, they handed over their horses to the grooms at the mews. As they made their way toward the front of the house, Mary suddenly caught Alexandra by the arm. "Is that not Lady Ca.s.sandra, your sister-in-law?" she asked.
"It is," Alexandra said. She glanced at Mary. "I didn't realize that the two of you were acquainted with one another."
"I met her the day before yesterday when your brother took me for a ride in the park. She was chasing after her dog."
Alexandra chuckled. "That sounds just like Ca.s.s," she said.
"But who is that lady she is with? She looks so extravagant and stylish."
"That, Mary, is my mother-in-law, the d.u.c.h.ess of Willowbrook. Now, come along and I shall introduce you to her straight away. Lady Willowbrook!" she then called out, drawing the attention of the d.u.c.h.ess, a woman who still looked remarkably young for her age.
Lady Willowbrook and Lady Ca.s.sandra quickly waved in acknowledgment as they began heading toward them. "We were just considering stopping by your house for a visit," Lady Willowbrook said as they drew nearer.
"Well, you are most welcome," Alexandra replied. "In fact, I would like to introduce you to a dear friend of mine, the Marchioness of Steepleton."
"h.e.l.lo again," Lady Ca.s.sandra told Mary with a quick smile.
"No Trevor today?" Mary asked cheerfully.
"Not today." Lady Ca.s.sandra leaned closer and lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "If he were to take off like that while I'm out with Mama, I'd never hear the end of it."
"I see that the two of you have already met," Lady Willowbrook said brightly, casting a chastising glance in her daughter's direction. "Well, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, my dear."
"The pleasure is all mine, Your Grace," Mary told her.
Lady Willowbrook immediately responded with a girlish giggle as she waved her hand dismissively. "Oh no, you must not call me that. Heavens, it makes me feel rather antiquated." She took Mary firmly by the arm and began steering her toward Alexandra's front door. "We are all friends here, or at least we shall be once we have finished our tea, so I really must insist that you call me Isabella."
"Very well then," Mary said and grinned, delighting in the other woman's high spirits. "But only if you will return the favor by calling me Mary."
As soon as they were all comfortably seated in the parlor, Isabella turned to Mary and Alexandra. "We ordered some new gowns for Ca.s.sandra this morning. I daresay she'll be the belle of the ball for the remainder of the season; no young gentleman with a pair of eyes in his head will be able to resist her."
"Thank you, Mama," Ca.s.sandra said with a note of embarra.s.sment. "But the truth of the matter is, I don't have very many gowns left for the remainder of the season, after spilling punch down the front of my green one at the last ball I went to. So Mama decided to take me shopping for some new ones in hopes of replenishing my wardrobe."
"And were you successful?" Mary asked as she took a sip of her tea.
"We picked out some lovely fabrics for five new gowns, one of which should be ready just in time for the ball on Friday-the one at Glendale House," Isabella said. "It will be a light pink one, which I daresay will go extremely well with Ca.s.sandra's complexion."
"That is, of course, if I even make it to the ball without ruining it somehow," Ca.s.sandra moaned as she picked at a tear in her neckline. "I don't understand why this is always happening to me. No man in his right mind will marry someone as disorderly as I."
"Well, my dear, you shall just have to be extra careful then," Isabella told her despairing daughter. "However, you are fortunate enough to be graced with both good looks and charm. Any gentleman would be a fool not to have you, unless, of course, he cannot afford a maid to mend your gowns, in which case he isn't worth having anyway."
"I couldn't agree more," Alexandra said as she bit into a strawberry tart.
"Have you managed to form any attachments yet, Mary?" Isabella then asked with much interest. "I suppose the whole London season is rather new to you, but as an eligible marchioness, I would imagine that the young gentlemen are quite eager for your attention."
Mary shook her head sadly. She had received enough flowers to open up her own shop, but what did that matter when the only man who interested her had sought her companionship with an ulterior motive in mind? "No," she said. "But I am perfectly content with that, since I have very little desire to marry."
Isabella grinned. "I do believe that Alexandra was of the same opinion until she met my son. Is that not so?"
Looking a little startled as all eyes turned to her, Alexandra just nodded. "It is indeed," she told the d.u.c.h.ess, then shrugged a little. "In fact, the thought of falling so deeply in love terrified me. It was my father who made me realize how empty my life would be without love in it, and when the right man came along. . .well, what can I say? I had a change of heart, I suppose."
"But when I came across you and Mr. Summersby in the park the other day, you looked to be quite taken with him-and he with you," Ca.s.sandra said as she looked across at Mary.
Mary took a deep breath. This was really a topic that she'd much rather avoid, but now that all eyes in the room were on her, she would have to address the issue. "In a way you are quite correct, Ca.s.sandra. It is true that I have enjoyed Mr. Summersby's company on more than one occasion. However, we do have our differences, and, unfortunately, I have come to believe that it will be rather difficult, if not impossible, for us to overcome them."
"Well," Isabella remarked with a twinkle in her eyes, "sometimes it can be a great deal of fun overcoming such differences."
"Mama!" Ca.s.sandra exclaimed, jerking around so suddenly that half of her tea landed in her lap.
"Oh come now, my dear, we are all grown women here. Besides, judging from the sudden color in Mary's cheeks, I daresay that she agrees with me." Isabella handed her clumsy daughter a napkin.
Mary dropped her gaze to the floor. How mortifying that a woman as refined as the d.u.c.h.ess would have picked up on her true feelings. For no matter how disappointed she was at discovering that Mr. Summersby did not share her sentiments, she simply couldn't stop thinking about him and hoping that she'd somehow misjudged him.
"Whatever the case," Alexandra said, "it does appear as though our dear Mary has already gotten herself an archenemy."
"And who might that be?" Isabella asked with a sudden frown.
"Oh, it must be Lady Stephanie," Ca.s.sandra said. "Everyone knows that she's been pining for Mr. Summersby for the longest time."
"Well, you are correct in your a.s.sumption, Ca.s.s," Alexandra told her. "We had the misfortune of running into her only yesterday. She practically gave poor Mary the cut direct."
"Is that so?" Isabella ground out. She was clearly quite vexed by Lady Stephanie's audacity. "I am sorry that you had to experience such a rude encounter, Mary. There is no question that Lady Stephanie could do with some discipline. She has not only developed a rather distasteful character, she is also far too spoiled."
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