Lady Stephanie's eyes grew cold with anger. "Perfectly," she ground out, making no attempt to hide her displeasure at this sudden turn of events. Turning sharply on her heel, she stalked off with an arrogant tilt to her chin.
Once Lady Stephanie was out of sight, Lord Warwick turned to Ryan with a stony expression. "I shall take my leave of you. Do try to keep her ladyship under control; she's your responsibility now." And without further ado, he marched off at a brisk pace, no doubt in search of a large brandy.
It took a while for any of them to react to what had just happened, but eventually Mr. Summersby stirred, releasing his hold on Mary's arm. "I am going to White's," he told his father decisively, dismissing Mary's existence entirely. "Don't wait up for me."
Mary clenched her jaw firmly shut, struggling to fight back the onset of tears that threatened to burst from her eyes at any moment. Mr. Summersby never as much as glanced in her direction as he walked off, not even bothering to say goodnight to his hosts.
"Keep an eye on Lady Steepleton," Alexandra told her father. "Find Michael and have him escort her safely back to my house. I am going after Ryan to knock some sense back into him."
Lord Moorland nodded. "Ay, the boy's a bigger fool than I would have thought him to be if he discredits Lady Steepleton for her obvious success. It's about time that somebody helped that poor woman; she's suffered long enough."
Mary gaped at her soon-to-be father-in-law. "You heard what Lord Warwick said. I am an unlicensed surgeon, and as a woman, I daresay no court would be very forgiving of my actions if they were to become known." She gave him a halfhearted smile. "I think it would be completely understandable if your son were to decide never to speak to me again."
Lord Moorland halted a pacing footman and picked two gla.s.ses of Champagne from his tray. He gave one to Mary. "My dear, I have been around long enough to know an honorable person when I see one, and you, Lady Steepleton, are indeed an honorable person. Not only did you disregard the risk to your own reputation, choosing instead to help a dear old woman in need, you also didn't deny a single thing when you were confronted. Instead, you faced your persecutors head on, knowing full well what the risk would be. If that is not admirable, then I do not know what is." Mary opened her mouth to say something, but Lord Moorland stopped her. "My dear woman, you are exactly the sort of wife my son needs, even if he is too preoccupied with his own anger right now to realize it. He will come around, though; I shall make d.a.m.n sure of it. So don't worry about it any further, and just enjoy your Champagne."
Well, there wasn't much else she could do, she supposed, as she linked her arm with the one Lord Moorland offered her. After all, she couldn't scream in frustration in the middle of Glendale House, which was what she really wanted to do. So instead she took a large gulp of Champagne and allowed Lord Moorland to lead her about as they began their search for Lord Trenton.
"Ryan!" Alexandra yelled with complete disregard for how unladylike she might appear, racing down the steps of Glendale House in pursuit of her brother. Seeing the back of him disappear inside a carriage, she quickened her step and leaped in after him, landing on the opposite seat with a thump.
Ryan glared at her. "What do you want?" he asked.
"Don't be a fool, Ryan," Alexandra told him, ignoring his question. "You have treated Mary very badly, walking off the way you did after having just asked her to marry you."
Ryan pinned his sister with a deadpan stare. "I have treated her badly? Alex, she is the one who has been dishonest, leading a secret life-one that she clearly had no intention of ever telling me about."
"Are you quite sure about that, Ryan? Because as far as I know, she had every intention of telling you."
"You knew about this?" Ryan asked incredulously. Alexandra nodded. "Since when?"
"Since I recalled seeing her once before. Do you remember the female surgeon William told you about? The one I practically knocked over in Ghent last year on our way back to England?"
"That was Lady Steepleton?" Ryan asked in astonishment as he sank back against the seat of the carriage. Again, Alexandra nodded. "I don't generally consider myself a stickler, but this is completely intolerable."
"Ryan, I think you are making a Cheltenham tragedy out of all of this. It may be true that you haven't known her for very long, but listen to your gut instinct. Does she strike you as the sort of woman who would do what she has apparently been doing unless she knew what she was about? I hear her father was a very skilled surgeon. Do you really believe that he would have allowed his daughter to practice unless he was confident that she would do an excellent job?"
"As if that matters," he protested. "Even if she is the best surgeon in the world, it does not change the fact that she deliberately kept it from me, or that she is breaking the law in the process. The woman is no better than a common criminal."
Alexandra glared back at her brother. "How dare you talk about her like that! Honestly, Ryan, I realize that you are angry, but resorting to insults is surely beneath you. Why not look at it like this: she knows that what she is doing might land her in a world of trouble, yet she does it all the same because of her desire to help those in need. If anything, you ought to be proud of her, just as you have always been proud of me. And stop getting so angry about the fact that she kept it from you. She only recently met you, Ryan. Did you really expect her to trust you with something of such immense importance after a few amicable conversations? One can hardly blame her for being cautious, especially after discovering that you were not exactly who you claimed to be either."
"I don't know," Ryan said with a sigh, shaking his head in frustration. "This is not at all what I bargained for: a wife who claims to be a surgeon. It is-"
"It is what, Ryan?" Alexandra asked. "Unthinkable? Preposterous? Absurd?"
"And what about me, Ryan? You never had an issue with the fact that I chose to wear breeches instead of a gown, or that I learned to fight with a sword."
"I have always admired you, Alex; you know that."
Alexandra smiled. "Well, I can a.s.sure you that Michael was not nearly as accepting of my behavior when we first met, and I can guarantee that most people would be quite appalled if they knew of all the things that I have been up to." She paused for a moment. "If you care about Mary as much as I think you do, then I would strongly advise you to talk to her, give her a chance to explain herself to you. And don't condemn her just because it is what society expects you to do. You are better than that, Ryan; I know you are. Think for yourself and make your own decision."
"I will consider it," he a.s.sured her. "But for now I am going to White's to have a drink in the hopes of clearing my head a bit. I will ask the driver to take you home after he drops me off."
"Lady Steepleton, a word if we may?"
Mary turned her head to find Robert navigating his way through the crowd that filled the Glendale ballroom. He was accompanied by two other gentlemen. Mary smiled warmly in greeting. "How lovely to see you again, Lord Woodbridge."
Lord Moorland nodded politely at each of the men. "It has been a while since you and I have had a round of faro, old chap," he told Robert. "If I am not mistaken, I made off with quite a bit of your blunt last time, and having recently looked over my expenses, I do believe that it is time for us to play again soon."
Robert grinned. "I fear you will take the shirt from off my back. Never mind, Moorland, I shall be happy to keep you out of the poorhouse."
Lord Moorland merely responded by taking a puff of his newly lit cigar.
Mary regarded Robert and the two other gentlemen whom he'd brought along with him. "Forgive me, my lord, but I do not believe that I have ever had the pleasure of meeting your friends."
"How very thoughtless of me," Robert said. "After all, our reason for coming over here was not only to congratulate you on your engagement, but also to introduce these fine gentlemen to you-they were good friends and colleagues of your father's." He paused for emphasis. "May I present Sir Bosworth and Mr. Clemens. In fact, Sir Bosworth is working on developing a means by which the patient may experience an entirely painless surgery. He will not tell me much more, but perhaps you can coerce it out of him."
"My lips are sealed, you scoundrel," Bosworth said, grinning.
"It is a pleasure to meet both of you," Mary told them sincerely. "I wonder if you might be able to shed some light on a matter that has been plaguing me of late. It appears as though my father may have been working on a theory of some sort before he died. Do either of you have any idea as to what it may have been? Lord Woodbridge says he has no idea on the matter, but perhaps-"
"I am terribly sorry," Clemens remarked, shaking his head. "I am not aware of any such theory."
"Unfortunately, your father never really discussed his work with anyone," Bosworth added. "He was always very secretive about his work."
"Yes." Mary sighed, feeling more discouraged than ever. "I have gathered as much."
"What about the journals?" Robert asked. "Did you have a chance to read through them yet? I am certain that whatever it is you are looking for must be in there somewhere."
Mary frowned. "Yes," she said. She considered Mr. Summersby's warning. The thought of any of these gentlemen being involved in the threats against her was preposterous, but news did travel on the wind, and if they found out, it was possible that the man who'd stolen her father's journal would too. She simply could not trust anybody. "But there was only the one, an account of his apprenticeship. That is all."
"I see," Robert replied, giving her a broad smile. "Well then, perhaps we shall never know what he was working on in the last few years."
"A pity," Bosworth stated.
Clemens nodded in agreement.
"Well, it was a pleasure as always, Lady Steepleton," Robert told her, offering her a bow. "We shall not keep you any longer."
"Thank you, my lord. I shall have to invite you for tea one day, perhaps together with Helmsley, whom you may recall."
"Yes, of course," Robert replied as he nodded his head in recollection of the physician who'd been like a brother to Mary's father. "I shall look forward to the invitation."
"It appears you know them well," Mary told Moorland as they walked away to continue in their search for Lord Trenton.
"Oh, yes," he remarked. "Lord Woodbridge and I are old friends-even used to visit us at Moorland Park when Lady Moorland was still alive. She would throw the most extravagant house parties, you know."
Mary gave him a sympathetic smile. He spoke of his wife with such affection that Mary knew he must still miss her terribly. "I am so sorry," she said as she gently squeezed his arm.
"There is no need for you to be," he told her mildly. "I am fortunate to have known that kind of love-few people ever do, you know. They mostly settle, marrying for the sake of convenience. I only hope that my own children will not be among them, but that they will find love matches just as I did." He gave Mary a meaningful look that had her blushing right away.
"And what of Bosworth and Clemens?" she asked in an attempt to change the subject. She really had no desire to think of Mr. Summersby at all right now. It only made her feel miserable.
"I have met them both before," Lord Moorland commented. "But I really do not know too much about either one of them, truth is. As I recall, I read about Bosworth about five years ago in the Times. It seems there was some dispute about a surgery he had performed where the patient had died. Rumor had it he made a tragic error in judgment, but the whole incident was quickly hushed up and followed by an article clearing his name of any wrongdoing."
"I see," Mary said, pondering that bit of information. "Then I take it no charges were pressed against him?"
"Oh no; it was all hearsay. It took a while for the gossip to cease, but I must say he made a full recovery. He is now one of the most respected and sought after physicians in London." Bryce took a puff of his cigar. "Ah look, there is Trenton right now."
They walked across to where Lord Trenton was standing. He appeared to be in the midst of a very animated conversation with another gentleman. "Trenton," Lord Moorland boomed when they were within three yards of him, "stop pulling caps, will you? Lady Steepleton is in need of your a.s.sistance."
"Ah, Lord Moorland, perhaps you can settle our little dispute." Lord Trenton greeted Mary politely, introducing her to his companion before turning once again to his father-in-law. "Townsend here insists that the volcanic eruption in the Dutch East Indies last year has nothing to do with the dismal climate we are experiencing this summer. I, on the other hand, agree with what the men of science are claiming: that it not only has everything to do with it, but that our economy is likely to suffer as a result."
"Come now, Lord Moorland," Townsend said. "You must admit that such a theory sounds quite absurd. That volcano is on the other side of the planet, for heaven's sake. Do you seriously expect us to believe that it would have such a dramatic effect on the British climate-a whole year later, no less?"
"Hm. . .I must admit that I agree with Trenton on this one," Lord Moorland announced after a moment's reflection. "In fact, there are still ships arriving from as far away as Australia claiming that the air there was thick with dust and ash when they embarked five months ago. I do believe it is more than likely for such a geological event to have had profound effects on the climate all over the planet. Besides, you must admit that it is rather unusual for it to snow as late as May, and we did have snow in May, if you will recall."
Townsend sighed. "I don't suppose that you are willing to side with me, Lady Steepleton?"
"I am afraid not," Mary chuckled, delighting in the conversation. "In fact, you need only look at a history book to be reminded that the climatic effect was quite similar when the Icelandic volcano-I forget its name now-erupted in the late 1700s."
All three men stared at her. "That is an odd bit of trivia to be lugging around with you," Lord Moorland finally remarked.
Mary shrugged. "I suppose I do have a tendency to remember the most absurd pieces of information. But actually, the reason that I recall it so well is because I recently read the memoirs of Benjamin Franklin. He theorized that the dramatic drop in temperature at that time was due to the blocking out of sunlight by volcanic dust and ashes."
"Well, there you are then," Trenton exclaimed triumphantly. "If one of America's most notable thinkers says it is so, then it surely must be."
"Yes," Townsend admitted. "Although I would like to point out that it was the lovely Lady Steepleton who won your case." He smiled wryly at Mary, who in turn was feeling quite pleased with herself.
"Now that that has been settled," Lord Moorland said, turning to Trenton, "Your wife requested that you escort Lady Steepleton back to your house; it seems she had to have a little discussion with Ryan."
Trenton raised an eyebrow. "I see. I hope it doesn't involve a duel."
"One never can be sure," Lord Moorland noted. "That woman is as feisty as they come, but then again, I am the one who raised her."
Townsend looked just about ready to choke on his Champagne at that exchange of dialogue, while Mary felt quite shaken at the prospect of Alexandra and Mr. Summersby drawing swords against one another. "You cannot be serious," she muttered.
"Lady Steepleton, I am always quite serious," Lord Moorland remarked with a devilish grin. "In fact, I have always prided myself on my grave demeanor."
Mary's face relaxed into a warm smile. "Well, in that case, I shall simply have to take your word for it, my lord," she told him with an edge of sarcasm.
"Yes," Lord Moorland chuckled. "Do that, Lady Steepleton, and you and I will get along just fine."
Later that evening, in a house not far from Berkeley Square, six gentlemen convened to discuss the matter of Lady Steepleton and her father's missing journals. The Raven regarded his guests with an intense stare as he took a seat in his favorite leather armchair. "Well, gentlemen," he announced, "it does appear as though we have a slight problem on our hands." A soft murmur made its way around the room. "We have but one of Lord Steepleton's journals in our possession, and the b.l.o.o.d.y thing is as good as useless. I demand an explanation."
"Apparently, our agent was caught off guard by Lady Steepleton herself. As it is, we were fortunate to recover as much as we did," one man remarked.
"And from what we have been able to gather, the marchioness is not in possession of the rest, my lord," another commented.
"She is lying," the Raven grumbled as he took a sip of his brandy.
"Then how do you suggest we proceed?" the Messenger asked as he leaned forward in his seat.
The Raven turned to him with a smirk. "Now, there is a question for us to consider." He looked at the other gentlemen who were gathered around him. "I have an idea, but it may require a great deal of patience."
"That may be a luxury we do not have," a third man said.
"Perhaps, but at least we know that her ladyship has no idea of what she is looking for. That ought to give us a bit of extra time."
"But now that she is engaged to Mr. Summersby," the second put in, "she will soon be under the protection of that entire family. They will not make our task any easier."
"Which is why we must act soon," the Raven told him as he drummed his fingers against his armrest. "However, that is not to say that we ought to be rash about it. The right moment will present itself. Of that, I am quite certain."
"Where the devil do you think you're going?"
Mary turned to find Mr. Summersby staring down at her with stormy eyes. After Lord Trenton had seen her back to his and Alexandra's home in Berkeley Square, she'd waited for him to head back out again before slipping out the front door and running as fast as her feet would carry her back to her own home on Brook Street. She'd stayed for only as long as it had taken her to get out of her evening gown and into her shirt and breeches. Then she'd given her apologies to Emma and Thornton, who'd both looked quite alarmed by their mistress' sudden antics.
"Spying on me again, are we?" she asked in a mocking tone. Her eyes were hard as steel.
"Not that I enjoy it much," he told her coolly. "But apparently it is necessary for me to keep a vigilant eye on you. You clearly have very little common sense in that stubborn head of yours." Reaching out, he grabbed her arm.
"Unhand me, you fiend," Mary snapped, matching his anger. She had a job to attend to, and nothing, not even Mr. Summersby's ill temper, was going to stand in her way.
"Not until you answer my question," he said sternly. "And while you are at it, you may as well tell me why you are dressed like that."
"I have no time for this, Ryan," Mary said irritably, letting his Christian name slip as she struggled to get her arm free from his grip. "And I certainly don't owe you an explanation."
"Oh, I believe you owe me a very good explanation, my dear. You are now my fiancee, whether you like it or not. I will not have you running about London dressing like a man and prescribing any number of harmful remedies for only G.o.d knows what. It is no longer your name alone that you are dishonoring, but mine as well."
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