Chapter One

London, 1816

Mary stared in disbelief at the thin, little man who sat across from her behind the heavy mahogany desk. His hair had receded well beyond his ears, and his face was pinched. His eyes, lacking any definition due to his pale eyelashes, were set on either side of a nose that would have been perfect had it not been for a slight bump upon the bridge.

Mary watched quietly as he adjusted his spectacles for the hundredth time. She then posed the only reasonable question that she could think to ask: “Are you quite certain that an error of monumental proportions has not been made, Mr. Browne?”

In response to her question, Mr. Browne nodded so profusely that Mary couldn’t help but envision his head suddenly popping off his neck and bouncing across the Persian carpet that lay stretched out upon the floor. She stifled a smirk to the best of her abilities but feared that her eyes betrayed her. In any event, Mr. Browne did not look pleased.

“Quite certain, your ladyship. Your father was very adamant about his wishes, and as you can see for yourself,” he added as he handed her the final amendment to John Croyden’s will, “he made certain that there would be no doubt about his intentions. Indeed, it’s really quite plain to see.”

“So it is,” Mary muttered, still unsure of how to respond to the enormity of what her father’s lawyer had just told her. She leafed through the crisp white pages of her father’s last wishes before pausing at the one that bewildered her the most. There, right before her very eyes, was a petition made by her father and signed by none other than the Prince Regent himself. Her gloved fingers traced the outline of the royal insignia as she read the request: that John Croyden’s daughter, Mary, be made his sole heir and a peeress in her own right, inheriting all of her father’s worldly goods, including his title.

His title?

A half hour ago, Mary hadn’t even known that he had one. She’d grown up in a modest house in Stepney, a suburb of London where she doubted few aristocrats had ever set foot. The place had served as her father’s medical practice until she was old enough to accompany him on his never-ending travels, his constant companion in his quest for knowledge. Still, they’d kept that two-story house with its much too low ceilings and worm-eaten beams, returning to it whenever they happened to be passing through the city. It was home to her, yet here she now was, sitting in a lawyer’s office, smack in the middle of Mayfair. A part of her wanted to jump up and down with delight, while another, much stronger, part wanted to scream at her father for lying to her all of these years. As an image of his kind and honest eyes came to mind, she couldn’t help but wonder how he’d managed to keep something like this from her. It must have been a herculean effort. She let out a deep sigh of frustration. “You mentioned my father’s title,” she said, as she leafed through the pages. In spite of her efforts to make sense of it all, she was finding herself too distressed to focus. “Which title did he hold, if you don’t mind my asking?”

Mr. Browne looked momentarily startled. “Why, he was a marquess, my lady—of Steepleton, to be precise.”

Mary gave Mr. Browne a blank stare. “And that would make me what exactly?”

A couple of creases appeared on Mr. Browne’s forehead from out of nowhere. Clearly, he wasn’t accustomed to explaining the ranks of nobility to the daughters of his clients. He adjusted his spectacles once more. “It makes you a marchioness, my lady; not quite as prestigious a title as that of duchess perhaps, but more esteemed than that of countess, to be sure.”

“I see,” Mary said, though she was sure it was quite obvious she didn’t see at all. She’d never had the slightest interest in the nobility, least of all in understanding which titles outranked others.

Mr. Browne coughed slightly into his fist as if he hoped to somehow fill the silence that followed. “Shall we discuss the financial aspects of the will?” he eventually asked as he leaned forward to rest his folded arms on the desk.

Mary’s head snapped to attention at that question. “What financial aspects? My father was a man who made an honest living as a physician and later as a surgeon. He had a respectable income, but he was by no means wealthy. Even so, he did his best to set aside whatever he could for me, and I have legal rights to those funds. If you’re about to suggest otherwise, then I promise you that I will contest it in a court of law. Other than that, I don’t quite see what—”

“No…it is becoming increasingly clear to me that you obviously do not,” Mr. Browne blurted out.

Mary’s eyes widened with astonishment. She was momentarily taken aback by his remark, but quickly recovered, noting that he too seemed rather shocked. She said nothing, however, but merely watched as he leaned back in his chair and drew a deep breath.

“Lady Steepleton, I am not suggesting that you must forfeit any of the money that your father left you.” He spoke in a measured tone that told of more patience than he truly possessed. “I’m merely trying to inform you that your inheritance is substantially larger than you believe it to be.”

“How much larger?” Mary asked with a great deal of caution as she shifted uneasily in her seat. She twisted the coarse, graphite-colored cotton of her dress between her fingers and waited solemnly for Mr. Browne to continue, conscious of the fact that her simple appearance hardly made her look the part of an heiress.

“Lady Steepleton, your late father has left you with a sum of no less than fifty thousand pounds,” Mr. Browne announced, in a manner that might suggest that he himself was somehow personally responsible for her dramatic increase in wealth. “He has also left you with a very comfortable house on Brook Street, not to mention Steepleton House in Northamptonshire, which I gather is a rather large estate. Suffice it to say, you are now a very affluent woman, Lady Steepleton.”

Mary simply gaped at the man as if he’d sprouted a second head, a pair of horns, or perhaps even both. Her mouth had fallen open at the mention of the fifty thousand pounds, but by the time Mr. Browne was finished, her eyes felt as though they were about to leap out of their sockets at any given moment. “You must be joking,” she stammered, for want of anything better to say.

“I assure you that I am not,” Mr. Browne told her in a tone that conveyed just how offended he was by her suggestion that he might actually consider joking about such a thing. “I take this matter quite seriously, and as you can see for yourself, it is really quite plain—”

“To see,” Mary finished with a lengthy sigh as she stared down at the page to which Mr. Browne pointed. Sure enough, there was the indisputable bank statement valuing her father’s assets at just over fifty thousand pounds, including a brief mention of his properties. At the very bottom of the page was a quickly scrawled note, identifying the members of the staff who were currently employed at the two locations.

Mary shook her head in quiet bewilderment. “Could I perhaps trouble you for a glass of water?” she asked as she sank back against her chair, her mind buzzing with an endless amount of questions that would in all likelihood never be answered. “Or better yet, make that a brandy.”

Returning home from Oxford for the holidays, Ryan Summersby was comfortably seated in his father’s landau as it swayed gently from side to side before taking a sharp turn onto Duke Street. He gazed out of the window as it continued on to Grosvenor Square, where it slowed to a steadier pace before finally coming to a complete halt outside a white brick town house that was separated from the pavement by a black, wrought iron fence. The coachman stepped down from his seat, hurrying around to the side to open the carriage door and set down the steps with speedy efficiency. A moment later, Ryan appeared. He handed his travel bag to the awaiting coachman and stepped down slowly, fully aware that his height might otherwise make him appear clumsy. Instead, he reached the ground with remarkable grace, his lips edging upward in a smile of boyish anticipation.

“Welcome home, sir,” Hutchins remarked as he reached for Ryan’s bags. The aging butler, who’d been with the Summersbys since Ryan’s older brother, William, had been born, still maintained a youthful spring to his step.

“Thank you. It’s good to be back,” Ryan said as he started up the front steps of his father’s London home. “Has Papa arrived yet?”

“No, not yet, but he should be here no later than tomorrow evening. He’s just tying up a few loose ends back at Moorland—the usual business when he’s planning on remaining in town for an extended length of time,” Hutchins replied. “And your brother will most likely be unable to join you before next week at the earliest. He was recently called away on an urgent assignment, which I believe has taken him to Scotland. But there’s a guest waiting for you in the drawing room. I won’t say who, as I’ve no desire to spoil the surprise, though I’ll wager you won’t be too disappointed.”

Ryan eyed the butler with a large degree of suspicion as he peeled off his calfskin gloves and handed them to Hutchins together with his hat. “What are you up to, old chap?”

“Oh, nothing but the usual,” Hutchins told him, his face completely lacking any kind of emotion. Still, there was a twinkle in his wise old eyes. “Just keeping you on your toes, sir.”

“Then by all means, carry on,” Ryan told him cheerfully as he headed for the drawing room door.

It took him only a second to spot the man who was standing by one of the tall bay windows looking out onto the street as he waited patiently for Ryan to arrive. He was almost as tall as Ryan, though his frame was frailer. His hair, which had turned gray in the space of one week roughly six years earlier, had surprisingly enough retained its thickness. Turning his head away from the window at the sound of the door opening, a pair of light brown eyes came into view, creasing slightly at the corners as they locked onto Ryan.

“Sir Percy!” Ryan exclaimed, unable to hide his enthusiasm as he crossed the floor and reached out to shake the older gentleman’s hand. “It’s so good to see you again. By Jove it’s been far too long.”

“Almost a full year,” Percy agreed, allowing his mouth to widen into a broad smile. “You look well, though. It does appear as if Oxford agrees with you.”

“In some aspects, it certainly does,” Ryan agreed with a lopsided smirk.

“And would that be the social aspects, by any chance?”

“You know me too well,” Ryan replied. He sighed as he made his way across the room to the side table. “Can I perhaps offer you a glass of claret?”

“Certainly, but only if you’ll join me.”

Ryan curled his fingers around the cool neck of a crystal carafe. “I do believe a drink might serve me well after suffering through all those bumps in the road for hours on end.”

“Whatever excuse works for you,” Percy quipped. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s essential to my good health. In fact, I’m quite convinced it’s what keeps me from knocking at death’s door.”

“I’ll be sure to keep that in mind,” Ryan said with a smile as he handed Percy his glass. He studied the man who’d always been like an uncle to him. Percy was one of his father’s oldest and closest friends and if that wasn’t enough, he was also the permanent secretary of the Foreign Office. It was unlikely that, with Ryan’s father out of town, he would pay a visit for no other reason than to be sociable. Something was afoot; Ryan was certain of it.

“As glad as I am to see you again, Percy, I have the distinct feeling that you’re not here to inquire about my health,” Ryan said as he gestured toward one of two green silk-clad armchairs. “Please have a seat and tell me why you’re really here.”

Percy paused for a moment while the hint of a smile played upon his lips. He gave Ryan a short nod. “Very well then,” he said as he sat down in the proffered chair and placed his glass on the small, round side table next to him. “I admit that I have an ulterior motive for coming here today.”

“I am listening,” Ryan told him with genuine interest as he sat down in the other chair and turned an expectant gaze on Percy.

“A number of years ago,” Percy began, “I made a promise to an old friend that if anything were to happen to him, I’d keep a watchful eye on his daughter. Apparently, this friend of mine was under the impression that his daughter would be in some sort of terrible danger if anything did happen.” A pensive look came over Percy’s face. He paused, narrowing his eyes on Ryan. “As it happens, he passed away almost a year ago from a gunshot wound he sustained at Waterloo. From what I understand, he was hit by a stray bullet while attending to a wounded soldier—dratted business, really. He was a good man and an excellent surgeon, the best I’ve ever seen. Such an unfortunate and unnecessary loss.

“The funny thing is, in spite of my inquiries, there hasn’t been the slightest trace of his daughter since then. I sent word out to a couple of agents who were already stationed in Belgium at the time, but they were unable to find her. It almost seemed as though she’d evaporated into thin air—until yesterday, that is, when she finally resurfaced right here in Mayfair after a two-year absence from England.” Percy paused for emphasis as his eyes met Ryan’s. “I was hoping I might be able to convince you to assist in this matter.”

“You do realize I no longer work for the Foreign Office, right?”

“First of all, if this were an official matter, it wouldn’t be handled by the Foreign Office. The Home Office would take care of it. And second of all, this is a private matter regarding a promise I’m honor bound to keep. I’d like for it to remain classified.”

“You’re leaving me with very little choice here, Percy,” Ryan argued. “I was hoping to sow some oats this summer, perhaps even attend a few mandatory balls if I have to. What you’re suggesting hardly sounds like any fun at all.”

“Oh, do stop complaining, Ryan,” Percy told him fiercely. “I’ll wager you’ve sown a whole granary full of oats by now—enough, at any rate, for you to wait a while before jumping into bed with the next actress who comes along. Damn it, boy, I’m asking you for a personal favor here.”

“Very well then,” Ryan said, still lacking any enthusiasm for this unexpected venture. “What’s the chit’s name? And more importantly, who is she?”

Percy took another sip of his claret. A slow smile began to spread its way across his face. There was an impish gleam in his eyes as he turned his gaze on Ryan. “I’d be careful about calling her a chit if I were you,” he said. “After all, being the Marchioness of Steepleton, she is a couple of steps above you on the social ladder. And to answer your question, her name is Mary Croyden.”

Ryan stared at Percy with the very unpleasant feeling that he’d just been had. He should have known that Percy would keep an ace like this up his sleeve until he’d already agreed to help. If there was one thing Percy loved, it was the element of surprise. But Ryan was not about to be played the fool, especially when he very much doubted that the Marchioness of Steepleton was even a real title. “How on earth is that even possible?” he asked dubiously.

“Do I really have to explain it to you, Ryan? I would have thought that your father might have seen to the matter by now.”

Ryan groaned. “You know perfectly well what I mean, Percy. I’ve never heard of a Marquess of Steepleton, and now there’s suddenly a marchioness? Forgive me if I’m reluctant to believe such a thing, but it hardly makes much sense.”

“Hm…I suppose you’re right. You see, here’s the thing of it: the title went into obscurity for a number of years through lack of usage. For whatever reason he might have had, Lady Steepleton’s father was determined to make his own way in life, as far away from the social constraints of the upper classes as humanly possible. All the same, he did manage to ensure that his daughter would one day inherit the title from him.

“The point is, if he believed her to be in danger, for whatever reasons he might have had, then she’s more likely to be so now that she’s returned to London and claimed her inheritance. The sudden appearance of a marchioness is going to make the headline in every gossip column this country has to offer. If someone’s out to get her, they’ll be crawling out of the woodwork before you know it, mark my word.”

Ryan nodded thoughtfully. Perhaps this wouldn’t be so boring after all, he mused. He rather liked the image he envisioned of himself dodging bullets as he saved the marchioness from imminent danger. There might even be a swordfight or two, perhaps a race across the countryside at breakneck speed while a group of ruffians chased after them and…He suddenly blinked when he heard Percy’s voice practically yelling at him.

“Ryan? Are you even listening to what I’m saying?”

“Hm? Oh, I was just wondering how I might best handle the matter.”

“Yes, I’m sure you were,” Percy told him with a frown. “You need not worry yourself about that, however. I will ensure that Lady Steepleton receives an invitation to the first ball of the season, which happens to be this Saturday evening at Richmond House, by the way. As charming as you are, I’m confident you’ll have no trouble at all in befriending her.”

“And once I find her, may I tell her why I suddenly have such a keen interest in her?”

“Ryan, you and I both know that women hate the feeling of being watched, even if it is for their own good. If she so much as suspects that your interest in her lies only in protecting her from supposed harm, she’ll most likely make it her mission in life to avoid you for the remainder of her days.”

“I see your point,” Ryan muttered as he mulled that over.

“You’re a handsome lad, Ryan. Surely it won’t be impossible for you to convince her that you are genuinely interested.”

“But I’m not,” Ryan said with a frown. “Am I to understand that you wish for me to give this woman a false impression of my true intentions?”

“It is for her own good, you know,” Percy remarked.

“Look, you know how much I despise dishonesty, Percy, and to take advantage of any woman’s desire to form an attachment just feels wrong.”

“Well, I hate to break it to you, Ryan, but spying is a pretty dishonest business.”

“Must you always mock me?” The frustration in Ryan’s voice was practically scratching at the walls. “Fine; if it will keep her alive, then I’ll agree to do whatever it takes—though I’m by no means pleased about it, I’ll have you know.”

“I am so happy to hear it,” Percy remarked rather drily as he drained his glass of its last few drops before jumping to his feet. He looked eager to be gone, no doubt before Ryan changed his mind. “I’ll see to it you get an invitation to Richmond House as well then, shall I?”

“That would certainly be an excellent idea,” Ryan replied, his words dripping with sarcasm as he walked his father’s friend to the door.

“Listen,” Percy said, turning back around on the threshold and placing a solid hand on Ryan’s shoulder, “I know this isn’t exactly the sort of thing you want to get tangled up in right now, so I appreciate your help.”

Ryan nodded. “It’s my pleasure.”

“Oh, I hardly think so,” Percy chuckled, turning about and starting down the steps that led toward the pavement. “But thank you for saying so.”

Ryan remained in the doorway a moment longer until Percy had hailed himself a hackney and climbed in. Well, perhaps he ought to ask Hutchins to press one of his black tailcoats. After all, he now had a marchioness to impress.

 

 

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