"Well, as far as I am concerned," Mary said, "she can have Mr. Summersby all to herself. He is not the one for me."
"Oh, you mustn't say that!" Alexandra cried in horror. "I would surely die if she were to be my new sister-in-law. I would so much rather have you."
"Well, although I am not altogether sure that I like the idea of having such a responsibility placed upon my shoulders, I must admit that am quite flattered," Mary said, her cheeks already dimpling with the beginnings of a playful smile. "But, as I have already said, that is neither here nor there since I do not plan on becoming his wife."
"You will not even give him another chance?" Alexandra asked with a note of desperation.
Mary considered that for a moment. It was difficult to ignore the imploring look in Alexandra's eyes, especially after she'd been so kind to her. And Mr. Summersby was her brother, after all. "Very well, I will perhaps consider giving him one more chance," Mary said. Alexandra immediately clapped her hands together with excitement. "But before you get too carried away, I have to tell you that I cannot promise anything."
"Oh, how fabulous," Ca.s.sandra said. "We are soon to have another society wedding."
Mary groaned. "Have you not listened to a single word I have said? I just told you that-"
Ca.s.sandra dismissed her with a flick of her wrist. "You are welcome to say whatever you like, Mary. I know what I saw with my very own eyes. And I must say that it didn't take much imagination to envision little hearts and cherubs floating about both of your heads."
Well, what could she possibly say to that? Not a great deal, unless she wished to embarra.s.s herself even further. Instead, she merely sat there quietly, sipping her tea, all the while praying that Mr. Summersby had noticed no such thing.
"Where the devil can she be?"
"Who?" Bryce asked, regarding his younger son through hooded eyes while he puffed on his cigar.
"Lady Steepleton, of course. Who else?" Ryan looked about the crowded ballroom. Well, it certainly appeared as though the Glendales were having quite the squeeze. Ryan turned to his father. "Every time I went to call on her for the past few days, I was told that she had gone out, which leads me to believe that either she is avoiding me or she has simply left town."
"You seem very wound up about it," Bryce remarked with a slight smirk.
"Of course I am," Ryan snapped. "Percy specifically asked that I keep an eye on her, yet for the past three days I have not seen as much as her shadow. It is really quite disgraceful on my part, wouldn't you agree?"
Bryce grinned. "I am sure that you will find her soon enough, my boy. And I am willing to bet that when you do, you will see that she is perfectly fine."
"How can you possibly be so sure?" Ryan craned his neck in hopes of getting a better view.
"Because I do believe it must be she who is coming our way right now, together with your sister."
Ryan turned to look in the same direction as his father. He didn't see them at first because of the dense crowd, but when his eyes finally found Lady Steepleton's, his mouth fell open in utter amazement. She looked spectacular. Her hair had been fashioned into a ma.s.s of curls, all neatly arranged at the back of her head, with a few loose strands gracefully framing her face. And her gown. . .Ryan could scarcely breathe as he watched her approach. Her gown showed off a figure that every woman within a thousand-mile radius would surely envy. The combination of the light blue silk, beneath the cream-colored lace, and a deep blue silk ribbon tied beneath her b.r.e.a.s.t.s had an effect that was both elegant and alluring all at the same time. In fact, Ryan couldn't help but notice that all the male heads turned to stare at her as she pa.s.sed. His stomach tightened at the thought of any other man favoring her with his attention and immediately stepped forward to claim her before somebody else decided to do so. "Good evening, Lady Steepleton." He offered her a slight bow before turning to his sister. "Alexandra, it is good to see you again."
"Thank you, Ryan," Alexandra replied as she took him by his right arm, placing him between herself and the marchioness.
Ryan offered Lady Steepleton his other arm. "May I say that you look absolutely ravishing this evening. That gown is most becoming on you."
"Thank you, Mr. Summersby," Mary said as she began to fan herself in hopes of concealing the blush that she now felt spreading its way over her entire body. She'd never been so self-conscious of her appearance before in her life. Regardless of having left off on bad terms the last time they'd spoken, she'd still been hoping to make an impression on him this evening. No matter what she kept telling everyone, including herself, the truth of the matter was that she quite enjoyed his attention.
Well, it seemed as though she'd achieved her goal, and the way that made her feel left much to be considered. She still felt her legs turn to goo whenever he looked at her, and her stomach fluttered uncontrollably whenever he touched her in the slightest way. Still, she couldn't let herself forget that his only interest in her had been in regards to his a.s.signment, in spite of the fact that she'd recently promised Alexandra that she'd give him another chance. But at least she'd managed to show him that she wasn't as plain as he and the rest of the ton had initially thought. She felt triumphant now as he guided her toward an older gentleman whom she'd never seen before.
"Lady Steepleton," Mr. Summersby announced with much flair, "I would like to present you to my father, the Earl of Moorland."
"It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance at long last," Lord Moorland remarked as he took Mary's hand in his, bent over it, and placed a kiss upon her knuckles. "My son has told me so much about you. In fact, I fail to believe that he has ever admired anyone more-except perhaps for me," he said, grinning, as he gave Mary a good-humored wink.
Mary looked at Mr. Summersby who appeared to be turning a bright shade of red. He gave her a loopy grin. "Well, she certainly has many commendable qualities," he said.
"You are too kind," Mary replied, wondering if he would still hold her in as high a regard once he discovered that she was his superior, not only in t.i.tle, but professionally as well. Would he even be willing to accept such a thing? Whatever the case might be, it seemed as though she may have misjudged his intentions. If it was true that he admired her as much as his father claimed, then perhaps his reason for courting her hadn't been entirely based on his obligations toward Sir Percy.
"Perhaps I can persuade you to dance the next dance with me," Mr. Summersby suggested her in a voice so full of hope that Mary's heart swelled for him.
"I don't. . ." she began to say, fear setting in at the thought of the entire ton watching her dance, when in fact, the only time she'd ever danced before was on the terrace of Richmond House one week ago. And that had certainly not gone as well as she would have hoped. But she stopped herself at the pained expression that had come over Mr. Summersby's face. "I would be delighted to," she said, then leaned toward him and lowered her voice to a whisper. "But you will have to help me, for I don't know a single step."
"Well," Lord Moorland said, grinning, "you certainly are a brave girl,, willing to make a spectacle of yourself before the entire peerage, and for the sake of a simple dance. I can see why you like her, Ryan."
"You mustn't worry yourself overly much, Mary," Alexandra said, giving her arm a rea.s.suring squeeze. "Ryan is a wonderful dancer, and if I am not mistaken, then this next one will be a waltz. Just hold on tight and let him guide you."
"Shall we?" Mr. Summersby asked, offering Mary his arm before she could conjure up that proverbial hole in the ground that she hoped might swallow her up at any given moment. Instead, she straightened her spine, smiled back at him, and allowed him to guide her toward the dance floor.
Mary felt as if she were flying. They were moving so much faster than when they'd danced before on the terrace at Richmond House. Thankfully, her feet had obeyed her this time, and she'd managed to avoid embarra.s.sing herself or Mr. Summersby. Had they been alone, she would have squealed with delight for all the fun she was having. Instead, she simply enjoyed the feel of Mr. Summersby's hands holding her firmly in his arms as he guided her about the dance floor. She felt safe and oddly relaxed. In fact, aside from her career, nothing had ever felt more right than being together with him at that very moment. It both surprised her and terrified her all at once, especially since she very much doubted that the two would ever be able to coexist.
"What are you thinking?" Mr. Summersby asked as he tightened his hold on her waist and led her about in a wide circle. "You look quite serious."
She sought his eyes and stared back into them, startled once again by their blueness. "I am merely trying to concentrate," she told him with a slight frown. "I should hate to trip and fall in the middle of the ballroom."
He grinned. "That is very unlikely to happen, my lady, for I have quite a solid hold on you, and I have no intention of letting you go. Besides, as I have told you before, you dance rather well, particularly given the fact that this is only your second attempt at it."
"Well, you're not so bad yourself," Mary told him with a hint of mischief in her words.
"What a relief," he replied. "I should hate to think that all those hours spent with that infuriating instructor of mine had gone to waste."
When the music faded, Mr. Summersby leaned forward to whisper in Mary's ear, "I need to speak with you in private." His voice was urgent.
"I'm not entirely sure that that is wise," Mary replied with an impish grin. "The last time you wished to speak with me in private, you showed a remarkable lack of restraint."
"Perhaps I may remind you that you did no better."
"Quite so," Mary conceded. "And that is precisely why I am a trifle worried about being alone with you once again."
"In that case, I promise that I shall do my very best to behave," he teased as he began leading her toward a pair of closed mirrored doors at the far end of the ballroom. "But this is a matter of great importance. It really cannot wait."
Opening one of the doors just enough for them to slip through, Mr. Summersby guided Mary into the room beyond, closing the door quickly behind them so as not to draw attention. Turning to face him, Mary's eyes met his, and she instantly knew that her concerns had not been unfounded. He was watching her in precisely the same manner as he'd done in the carriage: a scalding and possessive gaze that made her heart race and her skin tingle. If she didn't know any better, he was presently contemplating lowering her onto one of the sofa's the room had to offer and. . .
"Lady Steepleton," he said, startling her. Good heavens, whatever had she been thinking? "I'm sorry about the way we parted the last time we spoke. I realize that you were hurt and angry by what I told you, but you must believe me when I say that I do consider you to be the most remarkable woman I have ever known.
"I want you to understand that I didn't offer to marry you out of obligation alone. I realize how absurd this sounds..." He took a deep breath as if to steady himself, while Mary watched with keen interest. Apparently, she wasn't the only one feeling out of sorts-a pleasing discovery, indeed. "I spoke with my father. You may not be aware of this, but he's a close friend of Wellington's and has several other important connections within the military."
Mary raised an eyebrow, curious as to why it might matter to her whom Lord Moorland's friends might be. Reaching out, Mr. Summersby took her hand in his. "For a while now I have had a nagging suspicion. I asked my father to make a few inquiries and discovered that I may have been correct in my a.s.sumption. Lady Steepleton, it seems as though your father's death was no accident. The evidence that I've managed to piece together strongly suggests that he was murdered."
Mary stood as if nailed to the floor. She couldn't move, couldn't blink, couldn't speak. But her lips did form a very distinct "no." This wasn't possible. She'd seen him when they'd brought him in from the field on a stretcher. He'd been tending to a wounded soldier and had been caught directly in the line of fire-a shot straight to his head. It didn't make any sense.
"I realize how alarming this must be for you, but from what I gather, another physician who was present at the time, and who examined your father, made a note of his neck having been broken. The shot he sustained was likely delivered at a later time, for the sake of authenticity."
"Good G.o.d!" Mary exclaimed, burying her face in her hands. "I never knew. There was so much chaos, and seeing Papa like that. . .I left as fast as my feet could carry me. I knew that it was wrong of me and that I should have stayed, but I just couldn't do it. All my life he's loved me and cared for me, and I couldn't even stay and see to it that he was properly buried." She felt her throat close and her heart ache as her eyes began to burn. She didn't want Mr. Summersby to see her like that, but it was too late, and as she drew a shaky breath, she found herself pulled toward him until his arms were around her in a tight embrace.
"You were in shock," he whispered against the top of her head. "You mustn't blame yourself, my lady. As it is, I can't imagine what your father was thinking, taking you along with him to war. Even if you were at a safe distance from the battlefield, bringing a young woman like yourself, surrounded by so many soldiers and so much carnage, not only is unseemly, but it must have been very traumatic."
Mary pushed herself away from him, accepting the handkerchief that he offered with a wobbly smile. The tears stung, but she wiped them away with a brisk hand. "Who would do such a thing?" she asked, hoping to address the more important issue at hand, yet knowing that she was using it as an excuse to divert the conversation away from herself. "It seems they went to a lot of trouble."
"Yes, it appears that whoever planned this followed you and your father to Waterloo with the intention of using the battle as a means by which to cover up his murder." Mr. Summersby paused. "I hope you understand the significance of this. You mustn't go anywhere alone. You have already been threatened, and if the person behind this was willing to kill your father, then he won't hesitate to kill you as well. Promise me that you will be careful."
Mary nodded in disbelief. Could it possibly be that her father, the man who'd bounced her on his knee when she was a child, had pursued something of so great importance that it had cost him his life? She was suddenly having a very difficult time connecting the man she'd known and loved with this apparent stranger who, it seemed, had kept nothing but secrets from her.
Her eyes met Mr. Summersby's. "I promise," she told him. "But in return, you have to give me your word of honor that you will help me find whoever did this and bring him to justice."
He gave her his word without hesitation. "As I see it, you'll never be completely safe until this man is found." He suddenly frowned and looked at her far too intensely for her liking. "I feel that there's something you're not telling me. What is it?" he asked.
She couldn't lie to him. "Somebody broke into my house a few nights ago and stole the first volume of my father's journals," she told him hesitantly.
Anger sprang to life behind his eyes. "Did you happen to see who it was?"
She shook her head. "No," she said. "I only caught the glimpse of a fleeting shadow. But it was enough to make me understand that I must not dismiss these threats. It seems that they are quite serious. The fact is that I do not have very many people I can turn to for help, so I went to your sister. I have been staying with her ever since."
"So that is why you were never able to receive me," Mr. Summersby muttered. "You were staying with Alex all along."
"Yes, she has been very kind to me. I have told her everything-more than I have told you, in fact." Mary took a deep breath. This was it, the moment of truth. "You see, you don't know me very well at all. I have done some things that I am quite sure that you would never approve of. I believe not only will you be terribly shocked, but it may alter your opinion of me forever."
Mr. Summersby stared at her quizzically. "Whatever it is, my lady, I am certain that it is not as bad as you think. These things never are, and I a.s.sure you, there is nothing you can possibly tell me that might alter my opinion of you." As if to prove his point, he pulled her closer, wrapped her in a tight embrace, and kissed her with enough pa.s.sion and desperation to make her whole body melt with pleasure.
As it happened, it was at this precise moment that Lady Glendale ordered her footmen to open the doors to the game room, the exact same room where Mr. Summersby had taken Mary for their private chat. Needless to say, an immediate hush fell over the entire ballroom at the sight of him standing there kissing the Marchioness of Steepleton in full view of the entire ton.
Turning her head, Mary gasped, horrified by all the shocked faces that were presently staring back at her in disbelief. What to do? They couldn't very well deny what had happened; that would be absurd.
One thing was for certain: she wanted to run from the room as fast as her feet could carry her and never, ever look back. This was precisely the sort of thing that would make the headlines in every gossip column. Oh, she could see it now, all the people whispering about her disgraceful behavior every time she stepped out in public. It was without question the most mortifying experience of her life.
She looked to Mr. Summersby, who suddenly appeared rather determined, as if he were planning either to flee or to face full-on battle. A scandal of monumental proportions was about to erupt, so if there was even the slightest chance of them leaving the Glendale ball that evening with their reputations intact, she hoped he'd come up with a way to make it happen-soon. He looked at her for one brief second and squeezed her hand. "Have courage," he whispered. "And follow my lead, wherever it takes us."
He then stepped forward. "Ladies and gentlemen," he said, "since you have practically found us out already, I see no reason for any of us to wait for a formal announcement in the paper. As it happens, Lady Steepleton has just made me the happiest man in London by accepting my offer of marriage."
There was only a moment's silence-the second or two that it took for the information to sink in-and then, all at once, the entire ballroom erupted into a roar of cheers and clapping.
"Well, your engagement certainly came a little sooner than I had expected," Alexandra remarked as she and Lord Moorland squeezed through the crowd to where Mr. Summersby and Mary were standing. "However, we all expected it to happen eventually. I must commend Ca.s.sandra for her astuteness, though; she was quite correct in predicting that the two of you would tie the knot this season. As for myself, I am absolutely thrilled."
"Well done, Ryan!" Lord Moorland exclaimed. "I knew it would happen sooner or later. She is a keeper, this one; I couldn't be happier for you." He turned to Mary. "Welcome to the family, my dear."
"Oh, and Mary," Alexandra continued, "I am certain that both Isabella and my father's sister will be most delighted to a.s.sist you with all of the preparations."
Mary could scarcely believe what was happening. Had Mr. Summersby really just announced their engagement before the entire ton? It was unfathomable. He didn't even know who it was he had just gotten engaged to. She felt ill at the prospect of having to tell him now when there was no longer any turning back. In a split second and without thinking, he'd sealed both of their fates with his recklessness.
Why did he have to kiss her? It was infuriating, really, especially after he'd promised to restrain himself. Well, there was no point in agonizing over it now. But blast him if she wasn't going to have a very thorough chat with him once they managed to find a moment to themselves. An apology was the very least she would expect from him. For now, however, she simply pasted a smile on her face and thanked Lord Moorland for his kindness. If only she could get out of there as quickly as possible. Some fresh air was bound to do her a world of good.
Mary froze at the sound of Lady Stephanie's silky voice drifting toward them. If she'd been as keen on snagging Mr. Summersby as Alexandra had suggested, then what could she possibly have to say to them now? An eerie sense of uneasiness crept slowly up Mary's spine.
"Ah, Lady Stephanie," Mr. Summersby remarked in a dry tone that showed very little emotion. "So good to see you again."
"Thank you, Mr. Summersby, you are most kind. I heard your little announcement and decided that I simply must come over to congratulate both of you." She cast a brief, disapproving glance in Mary's direction. "And I brought someone with me. It seems that Lord Warwick could scarcely contain his enthusiasm to make the acquaintance of your future bride."
Mary's attention went straight to the gentleman at Lady Stephanie's side. There was anger and contempt in his eyes as he glared back at her, ignoring Mr. Summersby completely. Mary stiffened. This did not bode well.
"Philip," Mr. Summersby said, turning his attention on Lord Warwick, "it has certainly been a while. I don't believe that we have seen one another since last season. How is your lovely family doing?"
Lord Warwick's gaze remained on Mary. "Emma and the children are doing quite well, though I cannot say the same for Mama."
"She is in pain again?" Mr. Summersby spoke with anguish, while Lord Moorland and Alexandra both looked very concerned.
Mary shuddered with foreboding.
"As you know, she has been for some time, but a few nights ago, she decided to take matters into her own hands without a word of warning to anyone."
"With her personality, that's hardly surprising," Lord Moorland muttered.
"The most interesting part of all, however," Lady Stephanie remarked in an annoyingly victorious voice, "is that Lady Steepleton can be found at the very center of this little intrigue."
Mr. Summersby looked confused. He turned to Mary, who was watching the scene unfold with sheer terror. He must have seen that something was amiss, for he leaned toward her with a frown. "What is it?" he whispered. But Mary couldn't speak. Her life was falling apart, and she couldn't say a single word to stop it from doing so. She hadn't considered that the dowager might have a son who'd be appalled at the idea of his mother undergoing surgery at the hands of a woman. When she'd last seen Lady Warwick, they'd agreed that she'd only allow Mrs. Harper to tend to her so as not to alert any of the other servants. Yet somehow Lord Warwick had found her out. Catching Lady Stephanie's venomous gaze, she was convinced that she must have had something to do with it. Whatever the case, it was a disaster far worse than any she could have contemplated.
"It appears that my mother underwent an unauthorized operation," Lord Warwick added as he continued to glare at Mary. "I would like to know what you might know about the matter, Lady Steepleton."
Mary took a sharp breath. Her eyes flitted from Mr. Summersby, to Alexandra, to Lord Moorland, then to Lady Stephanie, who favored her with a triumphant smirk. So that was her big plan, to discredit her and ruin her before the people that she cared about? Well, she wouldn't be called a liar as well, so there really wasn't anything else to be done but to tell the truth. And as for Mr. Summersby. . .this wasn't at all the way she'd planned on his finding out, but at least it would be done with before they headed up the aisle. Perhaps he'd even find a miraculous means by which to escape marrying her if that was what he desired to do once the truth was out.
Straightening her spine and squaring her shoulders as if she were about to head off into battle, she turned a brazen stare on Lord Warwick. "Your mother came to me for help, my lord. She was in severe pain and asked me to do whatever I could in order to alleviate it."
Mary felt Mr. Summersby stiffen by her side. She dared not look at him for fear of what she might see. He must be truly horrified.
"I have a good mind to press charges," Lord Warwick said as a look of glee spread its way across Lady Stephanie's face. It seemed that the woman could barely contain her enthusiasm. "In fact, having consulted other surgeons about the procedure in the past, I eventually deemed it far too dangerous for Mama to take such a risk. However, since the operation does appear to have been a success, and since Mama claims she'll have my head if word about this gets out, I have decided to let the matter rest. Besides, we are soon to be related since Mama is your fiance's great-aunt."
Mary felt the blood drain from her face. Mr. Summersby was related to the dowager countess and to Lord Warwick? Heaven help her!
Lord Warwick then turned to Lady Stephanie, whose venomous smile was rapidly fading. "I thank you for bringing this matter to my attention, Lady Stephanie. But in the future, I trust that you will speak of this to no one."
Lady Stephanie's jaw dropped. "But. . .but. . ." She looked at him in desperation.
"If you do, I shall not only deny every bit of it, but I shall also have you besmirched as the worst slanderer and liar that the ton has ever seen. Do I make myself clear?"
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