The flames enveloped everything. Mary could hear the screams of her mother and father as the fire spread.
She rushed around the top floor of the house, searching in vain for a way to slow the fire or, perhaps, to escape the house and get her family to safety.
She looked around wildly, catching a glimpse of the grounds surrounding the Earl of Linden’s home through an open window.
The flames had swallowed it, too, and was quickly making rubbish of her father’s land in mere moments. Panic seized Mary, and she raced to the stairs.
Before she could begin her descent, a large, flaming beam fell from the burning roof and crashed in front of her, blocking her access to the lower floor of the house.
She shrieked and ran back the way she came, desperate to find some way to save her family.
It was at that moment that she realized the sounds of the screams had ceased.
She prayed for her family’s safe rescue from the burning wreckage, but in her heart, she knew it was too late.
Just then, more of the roof threatened to cave on the very spot where she stood. She retraced her steps and moved towards her room, hoping the flames had not yet made refuge impossible.
The fire had just begun to climb along her bedroom walls, but there was a clear path to her window.
If she were to survive the fire, she must hope that the trellis outside her window remained intact enough so that she could descend to the ground below.
Coughing, she moved quickly to the open window. With dismay, she saw that the trellis was, indeed, demolished, and would be of no use to her.
She made her next decision in mere seconds. With a quick, silent prayer and a deep, smoke-filled breath, she leaped out the window.
Her limbs flailed as she rushed toward the ground. Upon impact, a searing pain shot through her left leg. Mary screamed…
…and bolted upright in her bed, her scream dying on her lips.
She gasped, trying to regain her bearings and steady her racing heartbeat.
It took her a moment to reconcile that she was, indeed, safe in her bedroom, and not still racing against the tragic fire that claimed the lives of her parents and brother one year prior.
A twinge of pain lingered in her left leg, and she rubbed it absently, cursing the horrible nightmares that still frequented her sleep.
She felt she should be far past continuing to relive the horror in her dreams. Wasn’t it enough that she missed her family dearly, without the endless reminder of what happened to them?
Shaking off the remnants of the dream, she swung her feet over the edge of the bed. Part of her wanted desperately to remain in her bed and rest. Despite having a full night’s sleep, the nightmare had robbed her mind and body of much-needed energy.
However, she knew that she had many responsibilities to which she must attend. As much as she wished, she knew doing such a thing would be entirely inappropriate.
Mary gingerly placed her feet on the cool, wooden floor, and the pain in her leg flared. Just then, her lady’s maid threw the bedroom door open, eyes wide.
“Are you alright, milady?” she asked.
“Oh, Susan, thank goodness. Yes, I am fine. Please, do come in,” Mary said, still trembling.
The maid stepped in quietly, closing the door behind her.
“Another dream.” Susan’s words were more of a statement than a question.
“A rather horrific one,” Mary admitted.
Susan crossed the room to the porcelain bowl filled with water sitting beside Mary’s vanity table. Satisfied that the water was clean, she plucked a clean cloth from her apron pocket and dipped it into the bowl.
She walked over to Mary and sat beside her on the bed, dabbing her face with the damp material.
“You look a terrible fright, milady,” she said. “Are you sure you are alright?”
“Yes, yes, please don’t fuss so,” Mary said, more harshly than she intended. She softened her tone. “Thank you for asking.”
Susan smiled, and Mary was relieved that her maid had not taken her abrasive words to heart.
“I could have your breakfast brought up to you if you wish,” Susan said, tucking the cloth away in her other apron pocket.
“That is very kind of you,” Mary said, “but the day waits for no one.” Not even terrified, brand new countesses with wild nightmares, she added silently.
Mary could feel Susan’s sympathetic gaze. This made her aware of the tears that had materialized.
She dabbed at her eyes and drew a shaky breath.
“No, the only thing that can be done is for me to go on as normal and handle the necessary business of the day.”
Susan nodded, still scrutinizing Mary’s features. At last, she crossed the room to Mary’s large wardrobe.
She withdrew Mary’s cane and selected a dark lavender mourning dress. She laid the items carefully on the end of Mary’s bed. Then, she began helping Mary out of her night garments.
When Susan finished, Mary regarded herself in the mirror. She didn’t hate purple hues, but she’d always preferred deep reds and golds.
But that was before tragedy gave her ample reason to mourn for, she felt, the rest of her life.
She frowned at the sight of the cane in her hand, and wished, not for the first time, that her broken leg had healed properly after her escape from her family’s burning home.
It was burdensome enough that the leg still often ached, but the limp with which she now lived was, in her eyes, very unladylike and unsightly.
Moreover, it attracted the wrong kind of attention – the kind that added to the cynics that doubted her ability to be a reliable, trustworthy heir to her father’s title and estate.
She often wondered if a miracle existed that would allow her to resolve the problematical limb. However, she also knew how foolish it was to hold such a wild hope.
Susan smiled kindly at Mary. “Are you ready to go downstairs, milady?” she asked.
“Yes, I suppose I am,” Mary said. She leaned on her cane and walked with her lady’s maid toward the stairs. Her leg ached but she masked her pain as best she could.
Weakness was something she couldn’t afford to show anymore, not even in front of Susan.
After escorting Mary to her seat, Susan retreated to the back of the room, should her mistress need her. A footman served Mary breakfast.
Her leg still throbbed, and she winced. It didn’t escape Susan’s keen eyes.
“Should I send for the doctor?” she asked. Mary shook her head firmly.
“No, that is alright,” she said. “I believe I still have some of the medicine prescribed by the doctor who examined me right after the fire.”
“Would you like me to fetch it for you?” Susan pressed. Mary thought for a moment, then shook her head again.
“As I recall, it makes me quite sleepy,” she said, a little wistful. “I might ask for some tonight before bed, though.”
This answer seemed to satisfy Susan. Mary sighed, again doubting her ability to function as a proper countess.
“Could I have a moment of privacy, please?” she asked, and everyone in the room nodded and obeyed.
Left alone with her thoughts, Mary was finally able to let out a deep breath and allow her shoulders to droop.
It was her brother who had been raised and groomed for the position of the Earl of Linden, not her. Although her great-grandfather had ensured that either a male or a female could inherit the title – for fear of having no sons of his own – her brother had been the elder sibling.
With his death, she was made the heiress, and a countess in her own right.
Her father’s role was a rather large one to fill, even for the most prepared gentleman. And her brother had most certainly been that, and more. She could not begin to guess how she could ever hope to properly fill the position.
The tears returned as she thought of her brother. Apart from being the most suitable for the title, he had also been a wonderful brother. He had been very protective of her, and she had loved him fiercely.
Her parents had been very kind and loving, too. For the first few weeks after the fire, she felt at a loss, unable to continue even breathing without them.
Had it not been for her uncle’s unconditional love and support for her during that time, she was certain she would not have survived. Without Uncle Kent, she would have failed in everything, time and time again.
While the emptiness her family’s demise had left in her heart was no secret, she did her best to not say so aloud too often.
She feared persecution by those who questioned her abilities as the countess. She knew her place, and public grieving was improper for a lady, especially one in her position.
It would also serve as fuel for the nay-sayers to perpetuate rumors that her sentiment was only because she was ill-prepared to maintain her title.
Yet now that she was alone, she could not stop the tears welling up in her eyes from falling. And, relishing the opportunity to express her sadness, if only for a brief moment, she allowed herself to weep.
At last, she dried her tears and frowned at her cooling breakfast. While the food was delicious, her emotion had quelled her appetite.
But she knew that fainting halfway through the day from hunger would do little to detract attention from herself. So, she forced herself to eat a little something, albeit without enthusiasm.
As she nibbled at her food, she allowed her mind to wander. For a few moments, she let herself imagine that she was just another normal woman of four and twenty years.
In her fantasy, she was enjoying the life of courting and marrying a handsome young man. She’d always hoped to find the love of her life and live in bliss as a doting wife and mother.
This had been the plan for her life, until she became the sole surviving heir of her father.
Now, the land was all but useless. The fire had destroyed a great portion of it, and the rest was an incredible strain to salvage. Without her family’s guidance, she hardly saw how she could manage to become a proper countess.
She thought again of her uncle, and how grateful she was to him for all the guidance and comfort he gave her.
Her faith in her abilities to successfully grow into her role was little, but her uncle believed in her wholeheartedly. And she believed in him as well. She allowed this idea to give her a measure of comfort.
At last, she pulled herself from her thoughts, pushing her plate aside. Wallowing in her misery solved nothing. There was work to be done.
She called once again for Susan. She entered the room with two housemaids who murmured greetings and cleared away her breakfast dishes.
“Could you ask Johnson to bring the mail to the study presently?” Mary asked.
Susan agreed. “Would you like me to walk with you, milady?” she offered.
“No, thank you, Susan,” Mary said smiling. Susan nodded and left to find the butler. Mary rose slowly from the table and made her way to the study.
She had to suppress a groan with each step, and again she silently cursed her malady.
By the time she reached the room, the butler was waiting for her. He held the stack of mail in his hand, which he pressed against his abdomen as he bowed to her.
“Good morning, milady,” he said.
Mary smiled, taking the letters from the butler’s hand when he rose. “Good morning, Johnson.”
“Do you require anything else just now, my lady?” he asked.
“No, thank you. That will be all for now.”
“I shall be tending to duties nearby, should you need me again,” he said. He bowed again and left the room.
After the butler exited, Mary surveyed the letters. The first, she saw, was from her dearest friend, Beatrice Beaumont.
Smiling, she opened the letter. Beatrice, too, had lost her father, though in the completely different circumstance of a mugging that went wrong while he was abroad on business.
Their shared pain and struggles served to strengthen their friendship and bring them closer together.
Her smile faded, however, as she read her friend’s letter. Beatrice seemed convinced that her father’s death was more than a terrible accident.
She believed that her father had been targeted, with the intent being murder, not robbery. She felt sure that there was some ulterior motive for the crime and had employed investigators to seek evidence of this theory.
Mary could not fathom something so sinister, and she frowned, wondering at the inspiration for such a notion.
Unsure whether she could agree with Beatrice, Mary put aside her letter for the time being. She was not even certain she could say something comforting to her friend’s distressed words.
She decided that she would make a trip to visit her friend and discuss it with her. Perhaps she could help Beatrice see reason and bring her some comfort.
Sighing, she moved to the next letter. It was, she observed, from one of her father’s old business partners in London.
With a deep breath, she opened and read the letter. The very last thing she wanted to do was face her father’s partners just then. There was still so much about his business and affairs that she did not understand. Not to mention all the paperwork in which she constantly felt she was drowning.
Nevertheless, the letter requested her prompt attention to the matter, and she felt it best that she handled it in person.
She rose, tossing the letter onto the desk and stepping out of the study, dejected by her fate. If this was how her life was going to be from now on, then she had better get used to it, fast.
She asked for her carriage to be prepared and, soon after, she was departing for the city of London.
A loud, aggressive thudding roused Duncan Winstanley, the Viscount of Tornight, from his sleep.
He sat up slowly, peeling a page from a book off his cheek. Disoriented, he glanced around, trying to understand what was happening.
After a brief moment, he realized that he was still in his office. He must have fallen asleep at his desk while studying some of his medical books the previous night.
The banging came again. Duncan recognized that the sound was coming from the door of his office. He staggered around his desk to answer it.
After a clumsy moment, he managed to turn the knob and pull open the door. His father stood poised to knock again, giving Duncan another start.
The Earl of Bellston appraised his son with a critical eye. Duncan glanced down and noticed that he looked a disheveled mess.
He tried in vain to smooth out his wrinkled clothing and smooth back his unruly hair. The older man grunted.
“Well?” he said, glaring at Duncan.
Duncan shook his head. He plastered a forced smile on his face, suppressing a groan.
“Hello, Father. Please, won’t you come in?”
The older gentleman grunted again as he pushed past his son. Without waiting for an invitation, he took a chair on the visitor’s side of the office’s desk.
“What brings you here so early, Father?” Duncan asked, reclaiming his seat.
“Hmph. Early!” his father grumbled, holding up his pocket watch.
Duncan saw that it was a quarter until 9 o’clock in the morning. Wincing, Duncan sat back in his chair, trying to keep his air light, despite his father’s simmering anger.
“Is something the matter?” Duncan asked, taking a different approach to learning why his father stopped by.
The older man looked around the office, a look of mild disgust forming on his face.
Duncan knew that his father detested the fact that his son had devoted so much of his life studying medicine and had chosen a career as a doctor.
However, he believed that the most uncomfortable part of his father’s disappointment lay in the past.
He felt his stomach knot as he waited for the older man to answer his question.
“Duncan,” he began. “Son. I’ve been rather lenient, I think, about this whole…” He raised his hand, gesturing with disapproval round his son’s office. “This doctor business. However…” he trailed off, giving way to a fit of harsh coughing.
Alarmed, Duncan rose from his seat, reaching for his father. The older man waved his son’s hand away. When the fit passed, he continued.
“However, now I fear I must refuse to continue to support your decisions. More specifically, your decision to avoid marriage for pursuing all this.”
Duncan heaved a sigh. He had heard his father’s strong opinions about marriage before, and the last thing for which he was prepared was another lecture on the subject.
He tensed his jaw but remained silent. He lowered himself back down into his chair.
“Support that decision? If your harshness has been you supporting it, I shudder to think of what would happen if you rejected it.”
The Earl stared at his son again. Duncan was surprised to see that his face had softened. He looked almost forlorn.
“Forgive me, Father,” he said. “I am still out of sorts this morning. Please, do continue.”
The Earl regarded his son for a moment, then proceeded.
“My boy, I am ill, and I fear I do not have much time left,” he said in a quiet tone.
Duncan’s eyes widened. He stared at his father for a long moment, trying to understand what his father was saying. Before he could find his voice, his father spoke again.
“Despite our… differences, you are my son. Nothing would put my soul at rest more than knowing that my title and estate were passed down to you, its rightful heir.
”However, until you are married, I cannot be assured that you will produce your own heir to continue our family’s legacy.”
The Earl stopped, another fit taking hold on him.
Duncan exhaled sharply. Despite the gravity of his father’s words, he was furious that the conversation had turned, as always, to the subject of Duncan’s marriage.
“But, Father,” he protested, struggling to keep his voice low and unoffending, “surely you know that many an earl has lived a prosperous, dignified life, without having ever married. It is not as if having a wife is a prerequisite for being an earl.”
The Earl’s face was red, although Duncan could not tell if it was from anger or his coughing spells.
“And surely you know that the legacies of those earls pass off to god-knows-what kind of ruffian once the last rightful heir dies off. And what of the rest of their families, when they lose those legacies?”
“If an earl does not marry, what family is there to consider?” Duncan pressed, determined to stand his ground.
His father did not know that he had his own, private reasons for not wishing to marry, and now was certainly not the time to mention his secret concerns.
The Earl grunted, shaking his head.
“Your mother is lucky to not be here to see your stubbornness,” he said. “She wanted nothing more for you than to live happily with a family of your own.”
Duncan froze at the mention of his mother. Since her untimely death, much of the family maintained a cool distance from him. They made it clear they wanted little to do with Duncan.
Everyone, that is, except for his cousin Theodore – a cousin from his father’s side of the family.
Theodore had been more like a brother to him all his life, and he loved him as well as he would a true brother. However, as Theodore grew into adulthood, he also grew into an affection for gambling.
As much as Theodore enjoyed gambling though, he was not good at it, and had quickly squandered away much of his money.
This, of course, was a secret that Duncan kept strictly between himself and Theodore. Well, and those to whom Theodore lost his gambling bets.
Not only did he love Theodore, but he also knew the shame that this indiscretion would bring to the rest of his family.
Not only that, but Theodore did have a wife to consider, although one would never know it with the way he continued to dig himself into deeper pits with his habits every day.
Duncan himself had even helped Theodore out of a scrape or two, but he was growing weary of doing so.
The Earl took advantage of his son’s silence.
“I was devastated to learn that you wished to learn… medicine…” the Earl said, spitting as if the word was poison, “rather than continue your grooming to inherit my title and estate.”
Duncan knew well how disappointed his father was in him, not just for his chosen vocation, but also for not being more like his best friend, Julius. Julius was an avid hunter, played sports all through school, and had quite the reputation for wooing women.
“Yes, I know,” Duncan sighed, “so you’ve told me. And everyone in the family who would listen.”
“Had you not kept it from me that you were already apprenticing under another physician like it were some shameful sin, perhaps I would not have been so hard on you.”
“We both know that is an egregious lie, Father,” Duncan said. “I hid my apprenticeship from you because you had already made your feelings about me practicing medicine quite clear.
“I hid it because, to you, it was a shameful sin. In fact, the only reason you didn’t cause a bigger scene when you discovered it, is because it would have brought shame upon the whole family in the public eye.”
“I only wanted, as I always have, the very best for you. Contrary to what you may think, I do love you, and I needed to ensure your legacy when I finally do leave this world,” the Earl said, surprisingly calm.
Duncan looked at his father, aghast.
“Yes, Father, you loved me so much that you made a spectacle of your disappointment in my chosen career path in front of the family.”
“The life of a physician is no life for a future earl. Can’t you see that? What would people think? Lord Doctor Bellston, can you imagine it? Or, would it be Doctor Lord?” He scoffed, causing another fit of coughing.
Duncan, furious, ignored the spell.
“I am a joke to you, then, isn’t that right, Father? Well, I think that the real reason you did not wish for me to pursue a career in medicine is because you hate physicians. You feel yourself above them because, in your eyes, any doctor worth his weight in salt could have saved Mother.”
This, the Earl did not find so amusing.
“Hold your tongue, Duncan, before it lashes much more than for what you are prepared,” he said, his voice thick with warning.
Duncan did not heed him.
“I loved Mother dearly, you know that. And I…” Duncan trailed off, barely cutting himself off before he spoke his entire mind.
He wished more than ever to keep his secret fears and concerns from his father. He took a long, deep breath to recollect his thoughts.
“And,” he continued at last, “had you listened to me at all, you would know that the reason I chose to practice medicine was to find a way to prevent many other people from befalling the same fate.”
Duncan’s eyes stung with tears, but he choked them back. For a man to cry, especially in front of his own father, would have been abominable.
“Besides,” he added, “I would have gone completely mad if I had been forced to endure another moment of your ‘grooming’.”
“I did not realize that being my son was such a burden,” the Earl said, true pain in his eyes.
“That is not what I meant. I love you just as I loved Mother, and I am proud to be your son. But, why must being proud mean that I also must not have a dream different from yours? Why can I not build a career apart from the family business?”
His father drew a deep breath and exhaled slowly.
“I did not come here to argue with you about your career choice again, believe it or not. However, I now fear that the rest of the conversation will be just as perilous. But there is no sense in postponing the inevitable.”
The Earl shifted in his seat and plunged ahead.
“I came to tell you that, with my health in such a decline, I must ensure that all my affairs are in order before I pass on. Those affairs include, of course, securing an heir and making all arrangements official. I intend to do these things as quickly as possible, no matter who I name as heir.”
Duncan furrowed his brow, confused. Who else was there to name as heir?
“I never wanted to resort to threats or the like,” the Earl continued. “Nonetheless, I come to you today with this message.
“If you do not find a wife within six months’ time, I shall strike your name from my will and leave my estate, the family fortune, everything, to your cousin, Theodore.”
Duncan’s face contorted from concern to horror.
“Father, you cannot! Theodore is not…” he stopped himself, perilously close to betraying his cousin’s secret.
“That is… Well, surely you do not think even a viscount capable of stepping outside his door and securing a wife the moment he snaps his fingers?” he tried to speak in jest, but in his flustered state, it sounded weak.
His father did laugh.
“Of course not. However, I do believe that you underestimate the demand for a titled man. Why, do you know how many women live for London Season for no purpose other than snagging themselves a wealthy, titled man?”
“I do. And I also know that those women are shallow, dull, and interested in nothing but the wealth and title of a man.”
“Is there anything else that should be of interest?” the Earl asked, looking genuinely perplexed.
Duncan looked at his father, bewildered.
“Certainly, there is. Love, for one thing.” He rose from his seat and began to pace behind his desk.
“Love! What has love to do with anything?” his father asked, looking more puzzled by the moment.
“You mean to tell me that you did not, in fact, love Mother?”
“Of course, I did. But that love developed after we married, and you came along,” the Earl said sternly, but his gaze dropped from his son’s.
“So, you did not know you loved Mother when you married her?”
“That is far from the point at hand,” his father said, still avoiding his eyes. “We are talking about you, and what you must do to remain my heir.”
“So, you wish me to marry a woman I do not know, let alone love, and then what? What if it turns out that she is barren? Then, all attempts to produce an heir would be for naught, and I would be stuck in an insufferable marriage. Is that about the extent of it, Father?” Duncan asked.
He knew his incredulity was etched on his face, but the conversation had exhausted him too much to mask it.
To his relief, his father did not continue to press the point. Instead, he rose and moved slowly toward the door. Duncan walked with his father to see him out, neither of them speaking until they reached the office door.
The Earl turned to face Duncan once more and put his hand on his son’s shoulder.
“I don’t expect your answer today,” he said. “That would be barbaric of me.”
Duncan exhaled a breath he had not realized was trapped in his lungs. Relieved, he nodded to his father.
“Just remember what I have said, son,” the Earl said, his hand on the door to open it.
Duncan sighed again. He was more fearful than ever of the prospect of marriage and having children, but he could not speak a word of his concerns to anyone.
Even if he did, he would likely become a laughing stock. For the time being, however, the potential ruin of the family fortune and the earl’s title was more important than his fear.
Theodore could not be allowed to inherit everything, and Duncan knew of only one way to ensure that did not happen.
He heard himself speak as though he were a spectator outside himself. He paled as the words passed his lips, but they were out before he regained his body.
“Alright, Father. I… I will begin my search for a wife.”
Although they traveled towards London mostly in silence, Mary was grateful for Susan’s company.
While she typically did not mind an opportunity to sort through her thoughts, without others telling her what those thoughts should be, she also typically had control over where her thoughts wandered.
Today, however, each thought seemed to have a mind of its own, and each one with more malicious intentions than the last.
What if her leg gave out, causing her to fall face-first in front of these prestigious business men? Should she have sent Uncle in her place?
Mary pressed her hand to her forehead, gently rubbing to try to cease the terrifying mind race. Her cool fingers felt good on her hot, throbbing head, and she closed her eyes.
“Are you alright, milady?” Susan asked.
Mary nodded. “Yes. Just a bit nervous, is all.”
The difficult night’s sleep began to take its toll, and Mary was soon in a doze, despite the jolting from the rough ride. She slept for a brief time, and even her unconscious mind enjoyed the reprieve from her troubles and menacing thoughts.
Then, all at once, she had the sensation of falling.
She looked around her and saw nothing of discernable recognition. She seemed to be falling from a strange hole in the sky and falling toward some unseen location.
She flailed her arms desperately, hoping to grab onto something from which to cling to life, although she could see nothing that would offer her aid.
Suddenly, she caught glimpses of people she knew. Friends, relatives, servants.
At first, she thought them to be falling, too. Then, she saw herself flying past them, ever downward, and noticed that they all seemed to be leaning out of windows. Yet, she could not see any buildings.
She gradually realized that the windows were just that, and they were suspended in the sky among the clouds, not attached to any bricks or stone.
Frantic, she began to reach out and call to them, hoping someone was close enough to rescue her.
None made a move to save her, though. In fact, they all simply stared at her, with blank expressions on their faces. Even her friend Beatrice merely looked down her nose as Mary plummeted.
The clouds parted, and Mary could see a group of people standing around a black drape. No, not a black drape. Part of her father’s scorched land. And not a group of people, but all men.
Men dressed in business attire, all with angry, disapproving scowls. She understood at once that they were not there to save her. In fact, they all seemed anxious to witness her calamity.
She opened her mouth to scream, but a dramatic jolt silenced her…
Her eyes flew open, and she found herself back in her carriage, which was slowing its pace.
She blinked, trying to get a look at her surroundings. She must have slept longer than she realized, because she had already arrived downtown.
“Milady?” Susan asked, her brow creasing in concern.
“The carriage slowing just gave me a start,” Mary said, giving Susan what she hoped was a confident smile.
With a huff to shake off yet another horrific dream, she pushed a few rogue strands of her light-brown hair back behind her ears.
She took a few breaths to calm herself and appear composed when the carriage rolled to a stop, which it did moments later. Forcing a smile, she took the hand of the coachman as he opened the door and held it out for her to take as she descended the coach’s steps.
She gingerly eased her lame leg to the ground, using the coachman’s arm and her cane for support. She silently hoped that she looked far more graceful than she felt while doing so. Susan exited the carriage directly behind her.
Mary glanced around at the doors she could see from where she was standing. She spotted her father’s old office building just ahead on her left.
Determined to not appear as nonplussed as she felt, she moved slowly down the sidewalk and surveyed the other businesses nearby, trying not to let on how badly her leg ached or how dependent she was on her cane.
Susan matched her stride, not touching Mary, but close enough to reach for her should she start to tumble.
The meeting went smoothly enough. A few brief, polite pleasantries, a few documents to sign, and she was on her way. She breathed a sigh of relief as she and Susan exited the building.
Pleased that the meeting had been much shorter than she had expected, Mary decided to pay Beatrice a visit.
After her friend’s letter, she was quite worried and wished to speak to her in person. She had already sent her a missive informing her of her intention when she had realized that the meeting wouldn’t last very long.
When they arrived, Beatrice rushed out of her house and threw her arms around her friend. “Oh, Mary, what a wonderful surprise!”
Mary returned her friend’s embrace. “I am sorry I was unable to inform you earlier of this visit. I do hope that is alright,” she said.
“More than alright, darling,” Beatrice said. “How about we go outside for tea? I know a wonderful little parlor.”
“That sounds lovely,” Mary agreed.
Arriving at the tea parlor, with Susan following behind them silently, Mary tried to take no notice of all the people who ceased their conversations and were now staring at her. A year of acting as Countess of Linden had not made her any more comfortable with the attention she attracted in public.
Once the women were seated, Beatrice began talking excitedly, her gray eyes sparkling.
“I cannot tell you how happy I am to see you. What brought you to town today?”
“A loathsome meeting with my father’s old business partners,” Mary said.
“Nothing too serious, I hope.”
“No. Just a delay in the process and some documents to sign.” Mary sighed. “I only wish they could have sent the documents by mail, instead of me having to make the trip here.”
“Oh, but then we would not be having tea right now,” Beatrice said, laughing.
“How is everything going with your affairs?” Mary asked.
Beatrice waved her fan, frustrated. “Oh, lovely. I have received more marriage proposals in the last week than most women ever receive in their lifetime, each one from a man more foreboding and cynical than the last.”
Mary nodded, thinking of all the men who perpetually tried to capture her attention for her title.
She sighed. “And to think, we once dreamed of marrying for love,” she mused wistfully.
“I am afraid that men will never be able to love that which they fear,” Beatrice agreed and then her demeanor changed to nervous as she shifted the subject elsewhere. “So, did you read my letter?”
Mary struggled to suppress a grimace.
“Do you really believe that something like this happened?” she asked.
Beatrice nodded firmly. “Yes, I do. With my whole heart.”
“But who would wish to harm your father? Did he have any enemies?”
“Oh, goodness no. He was very kind and gentle, and everyone he knew liked him.” Beatrice sighed. “In truth, I cannot think of anyone who could possibly have done this.”
“If he had no enemies or adversaries, then why would anyone intentionally do such a thing?”
Beatrice sighed again. Mary thought she looked like she herself was beginning to have doubts.
“I do not know. But there is this man who was referred to me. He is a private investigator, and he discussed a plan with me to search for evidence and information related to my father’s death.”
Mary bit her lip, trying to hide an expression of doubt and alarm. What was Beatrice thinking? And why was she so sure that she was right, when she herself had admitted that her father had no enemies?
Mary saw Beatrice watching her expectantly, tears beginning to fill her eyes. “Please, Mary. Tell me that I have your trust in this. Tell me that you believe me,” Beatrice pleaded.
Mary touched her arm. While she did not completely believe Beatrice’s ideas, she did love her friend, and she hated to see her so distraught. “Of course, you always have my trust.”
Beatrice regarded her for a moment, then smiled weakly.
“Thank you, dear,” she said, sounding genuinely grateful. Having found the comfort she sought, Beatrice straightened her posture and gave Mary a radiant smile.
The rest of their conversation remained of a more pleasant nature, and Mary was relieved.
She could not bear the thought of leaving Beatrice in her previous tumultuous state or feeling like her closest friend did not support her.
She would just have to prepare herself to comfort Beatrice whenever she realized that her father’s death was just as Mary had said: a tragic accident.
At last, the women said their goodbyes and parted ways. Mary hugged her friend again, promising to make arrangements for the two of them to get together again very soon. Then, she and Susan set off to board their carriage.
As they walked, Mary thought back to a conversation she had had with her uncle a few months back.
He had suggested that she marry one of her cousins. His reasoning was that her cousin could take over the family business, leaving Mary free from worries after that.
Mary, however, had rejected the idea. She could not make herself comfortable with the notion of marrying either one of her cousins, because they had been so close growing up.
Not at first, that is. Now, she began reconsidering her uncle’s suggestion.
He was right about relieving her from her worries about her father’s business. It would remove that burden from her, and perhaps take some of the questioning and critical eyes off her, also.
Besides, she could not picture anyone wanting her, now that she was all but lame in one leg.
Absorbed in her nervous state, she continued walking. She paid no heed to how far from her carriage she was moving.
So lost in her thoughts was she that she at first did not hear the commotion behind her. She only turned when she heard the sound of quickly approaching horse hooves that sounded strangely like they were clomping down the sidewalk.
She and Susan both turned, curious. To their horror, they saw that the carriage was, indeed, flying down the sidewalk, and closing in on them.
“Milady, look out!” Susan cried.
Panic struck Mary, and she looked around for any sort of salvation. She saw a doorway, just a step further on her right and with all her might, she jumped toward it.
She scrambled inside and shielded herself just as the wayward carriage smashed into the front window of a store.
Her heart pounded in her ears and she braced herself to be trampled by frightened horses or rolled over by a carriage wheel. Her left ankle screamed, but she felt sure this was the last time she would need concern herself with it.
She was so certain in her fear that she screamed when a concerned voice spoke to her. She turned her head so quickly toward the voice that she worried she had given herself a neck injury to complement her new leg issue.
She looked up, wild-eyed, into the kind, worried face of an attractive, almost beautiful man.
“Are you alright, miss?” he asked, his handsome brow furrowed in deep concern.
She tried to speak, despite quite forgetting where she left her voice. She looked around for Susan who was standing some distance away, shocked, but thankfully unharmed.
“Yes…” she managed. “I… I believe I am alright.”
The man looked down at the leg she was clasping and frowned.
“Here, let me help you inside. You were quite likely injured,” he said, gently offering his hand. “Can you stand?”
“I’m not sure…” Mary began.
Normally, she refused to accept help. Accepting help with her leg pronounced her weakness, and she couldn’t show weakness, not when she was the Countess of Linden.
But something on the gentleman’s kind face chased those concerns away from her mind. Something in his gentle eyes inspired her trust.
“Yes,” she finally said. “Yes, I do believe I am in need of assistance,” she admitted and, at last, she took his hand.
Duncan’s actions were instinctive as a physician attending an ailing person. However, his mind was reeling beneath his doctor’s instincts.
The woman who had fallen just outside his office was a vision. He admired her dress, noting the fine materials and precise tailor work. There was no doubt that she was of the nobility.
Realizing the lady was watching him carefully, he collected himself. He turned his gaze to examine her for any visible injuries. Besides a few scrapes and her wounded ankle, she seemed alright.
Relieved, he turned his attention to the shattered glass sprinkled all over the sidewalk.
“What happened?” he asked.
He saw the woman regard him fearfully before answering.
“I am not entirely sure. I was walking, and someone lost control of their horses. The carriage crashed into those windows over there. I just found refuge here before the carriage struck me.”
A woman rushed to her. “Milady!” she said in a near panic. “Are you alright?”
“Yes, Susan. I am fine. Oh, no need to cry, I am fine.”
Duncan turned his gaze from the two women and looked out into the street. A small crowd had gathered to witness the spectacle.
The carriage, which had ended up two storefronts down from his office, appeared to have suffered a little damage. It had been carrying no passengers, thankfully. The driver had jumped just in time and had only taken a tumble down the cobblestones.
The poor horses had also avoided most of the glass, but were now spooked and several people were trying to calm them down.
Duncan approached the crowd, glancing around him to ensure that no one else was injured. A few people seemed shaken; others simply curious. Beyond that, no one seemed to have suffered any serious maladies due to the accident.
His own windows had not fully escaped damage, but Duncan decided he could worry about that later.
He walked back to the woman, who had her hands on her cheeks, looking horrified.
“Oh! Look at all this mess!” she said.
“It is a mess, indeed,” Duncan agreed, “but we can hardly fault those poor animals for being spooked sometimes. However, it is far better to have a few windows broken than to see you broken.”
The words were out of his mouth before he realized it. Duncan blinked, telling himself that they were from a physician’s standpoint, not from that of a man flirting with a beautiful woman.
Her cheeks were painted by an unmistakable blush. Duncan averted his gaze and noticed that a cane lay at her feet. He bent down to retrieve it.
“Yours?” he asked, puzzled.
The lady took it from him quickly. “It is, I am afraid. Thank you,” she said, blushing even more.
Duncan wondered what could make her so timid about such a minor thing.
“Please, come inside and let me get those cuts cleaned up,” he said. “I might even be able to offer some relief for that swelling ankle.”
“Surely, that is not proper, good sir,” she said.
Duncan smiled. “It is alright, miss. I am a doctor.”
She gazed around, noticing the setup of his office for the first time. She blushed again.
“Oh, I see now. How silly of me to not have noticed where I landed. Please, forgive me, doctor.”
“Not at all. Now come, let me take a look.”
Duncan escorted the woman inside. She spoke briefly to the still upset maid, Susan, and she took a seat in the waiting room.
He ushered the lady to his examination table and helped her up, ensuring she was comfortable. Then, he began his exam.
“Forgive me for being so curious, miss,” Duncan began as he examined the woman’s leg.
“You wish to know what is wrong with my leg.”
Duncan nodded. “If you do not want to tell me, that is your prerogative. However, I believe it might be helpful in determining how best to treat you.”
She sighed. “A year ago, I fell to the ground from the second story of my home and broke it,” she said, avoiding his gaze.
Duncan was surprised. Such a fall could easily have been fatal. “You are lucky to be alive, miss,” he said.
“Lucky,” she repeated, but it did not sound like agreement.
He sensed there was more to the story but decided against pressing the matter just then. He felt it extremely unlikely that she would divulge much more information to a total stranger, even if he was a doctor.
But he got the impression that they were not exactly strangers, though he could not recall how he knew her.
It was then he realized that they had not exchanged formal introductions.
“It seems that I forgot to ask you your name,” he said, smiling.
The woman looked apprehensive. “And you forgot to give me yours, doctor,” she said, a slight tremble in her voice.
Duncan noticed her nervousness and wondered if he was making her uncomfortable.
She looked at his solemn face and smiled kindly. “I am Lady Mary Hillington, the Countess of Linden,” she said quickly.
Recognition lit up his face. “You mean… daughter to the late Lord Linden?”
“The very same,” she said reluctantly.
Duncan looked at her, surprised. He had heard about her. A woman, with a title of her own. The Countess of Linden was sitting in his doctor’s office, and there he was behaving like a clumsy animal.
“Oh, do forgive me, my lady. I mean…” he floundered and nearly dropped her leg against the hard metal table.
“Now that I have given you my name, it is only right that you give me yours,” she prompted.
Duncan cleared his throat, his charming smile returning. “Yes, of course, my lady. My name is… Doctor Duncan Winstanley.”
Now it was Mary’s turn to pause. “Winstanley. Seems as if I know that name from somewhere…” she trailed off.
Duncan grunted. “I should hope not,” he murmured, remembering his miserable conversation with his father earlier, and changed the subject before more could be said on the matter.
“Now, Lady Linden. Here is what I am going to do. I will clean and bandage these scrapes. Then, we will discuss what to do for that sprained ankle.”
He paused as she sighed with relief. “And after that, I would like to have a deeper discussion with you about your leg.”
Mary’s apprehensive expression returned. “Oh, must we?” she asked.
“I believe you might be interested in what I have to say,” he said, regaining his professional tone.
On the surface, that is. His insides were in utter turmoil. Duncan, a man of science and logic, found that it was his heart that was insistently trying to make its presence known to him.
He was now certain that he had seen her before, but his memory did not offer him more than a vague recollection.
He was aware of the irregularity of her unique situation. A woman of her station was all but unheard of. In fact, she was currently the only suo jure female peer in all of England, which was certainly frowned upon by societal standards.
Yet, he noticed that she carried herself with great dignity and poise, which he found very attractive. He could not imagine what could have happened to this refined woman that caused such a great injury to her leg, but he hoped to find a way to broach the subject and find out.
“Did your attending physician grant any opinions regarding your long-term recovery or options after your… accident?” he asked, hoping that might coax more information about the incident from her.
She hesitated a moment before speaking.
“No. He said that my leg was hopeless, and that the best I could hope for was to use a cane for mobility and a gradual decrease from excruciating pain to a dull ache, likely for the rest of my days.”
Duncan frowned. “He did not recommend that you seek the advice of a surgeon, then?” he asked.
“No,” she said.
This angered Duncan. While he was still relatively new at medicine, he knew that surgery had made great strides in recent decades. He also knew that broken bones were often far from hopeless.
He restrained himself from asking her the name of this ignorant physician, unsure if she would have even told it to him.
Now, it was he who hesitated. He did not want her to think that he thought her dull for believing her own doctor. He just wanted to give her some hope.
He took a few minutes to search for the right words. He noticed that she studied him with interest as he cleaned and bandaged her wounds. He had removed her shoe and stocking, and the intimate contact had brought a flush to her cheeks.
Duncan felt intensely nervous. He was a doctor, but he had never found himself attracted to one of his patients. He had treated many beautiful women, but none of them had made him feel as clumsy as Lady Linden just then.
He silently cursed himself for these feelings, knowing how unprofessional they were. He focused intently on wrapping her ankle with a bandage.
He spared a glance at the lady and saw that she was still watching him with mild intrigue.
“Do you have an interest in learning medicine?” he asked.
“Oh, heavens no. Could you imagine what people would think of me, then?”
“Why? Because a woman of noble birth wished to pursue a career in medicine?” he asked, a defensive tone creeping into his voice.
Mary looked at him innocently. “Because any woman dared to consider such a manly ambition,” she said.
Duncan softened. “Then those people know nothing of the medicine women of which many medical texts speak.”
“I suppose not. But, in high society, any woman who attempted to step into a man’s role would be shunned, even mocked. Especially if she were suffering from an apparent physical deformity.” Her voice dropped to just above a whisper as she spoke.
Duncan realized her discomfort with the subject of her leg. He chastised himself for pushing the subject.
“So, Lady Linden, what brings you into town?” he asked, hoping to distract her from her woes. Instead, she grew paler than ever.
“I had business with my father’s business partners,” she said, trying to look brave.
Wincing, Duncan cursed himself for his utter lack of grace in the company of women. If his father had witnessed this painful exchange, he would have surely given up on his son’s ability to claim a wife, and run straight to Theodore, papers in hand ready to sign.
He turned away from her to collect more bandages. Although he was nearly finished and did not need more, he did not want her to see the wretched humiliation on his face.
She was silent for a moment, and Duncan feared that he had ruined the conversation beyond all repair. When he dared turn back to her, she had a thoughtful look on her face.
“Forgive my hesitation, Dr. Winstanley,” Lady Linden said. “I have just been trying to recall from where I know you.”
The idea of her recalling that his father was an earl terrified him. He hoped that she had only seen him at a social event and was unaware of who his father was.
“Perhaps we met briefly at a ball some years ago?”
“Perhaps,” she mused, “but that does not feel entirely correct.”
His stomach dropped. “Have I ever seen you before in my office?”
“Oh, no. The only physician I have seen since my childhood was… the one who tended me after the accident that injured my leg. And I would surely remember a doctor with as kind a demeanor as yours.”
She seemed hesitant to mention the name of this physician, although he could not imagine why.
“You flatter me, my lady,” he said, dipping his head.
The lady blushed as though she had said something untoward. “Oh, my. Surely, your wife would not appreciate such a remark from another woman.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Lucky that there is no woman in my life with any cause for grievance.”
“Oh,” she said. Duncan wondered at the strange glimmer in her eyes.
“And, do not fear,” he added, “I shall not tell your intended that you complimented your physician.”
“No man would want me with this hideous leg of mine…” she said ruefully. “Doctor, you never did tell me what it was you wanted to say about my leg.”
This time, her subject change did not discourage him. Rather, the news she had just delivered had given him hope.
Suddenly, the idea of courting did not seem so terrible, if it were a woman such as the one before him. He wondered how she had stricken this effect in him.
He tried again to compose himself. He did not know how Lady Linden would receive his words, but he truly felt that he could help.
Moreover, he wanted desperately to help her. He chose his next words carefully, praying he did not offend her.
“I believe that I could re-break the bone and set it, in such a way that it would heal properly.”
Mary looked at him, astonished. “You suggest putting me through all that pain again?”
“I know, it sounds crude. And yes, short-term it would be uncomfortable,” he said, now wishing he could disappear through the floor. “However, in the long-term, it would heal as it should have, and be much less painful.”
She continued to stare at him, her expression unchanging. “I say that sounds like a drastic solution. Would I be able to walk again, without my cane?”
Duncan sighed. “That is not guaranteed,” he admitted. “That would depend a great deal on how you cared for yourself after the procedure.”
“In that case,” she said firmly, “I say thank you for the suggestion, but I must decline.”
His face fell. He knew he had lost any trust she might have ever placed in him. He smiled at her weakly.
“I understand,” he said. He turned from her again to put away his unused bandages, trying to hide his shame.
“Doctor, I can see that you only meant to help,” she said, the warmth returning to her voice.
“I am glad,” he said, daring to look at her face. Her kind smile lit up the room, and he again admired her beauty.
“I am afraid that I must be going if I wish to be home before nightfall,” she said apologetically.
“Of course. I am sorry for having kept you so long. Before you leave, I shall give you an address where you can contact me, should you change your mind about the procedure. Or, should you need my services again.”
Mary smiled. “Thank you, doctor. You are too kind.”
He hastily scribbled his address on a piece of paper and handed it to her. Then, he walked her to the entrance. Her maid came immediately to her side.
“Thank you for taking such good care of me,” Lady Linden said with genuine gratitude.
“You are most welcome, my lady,” he said with a smile.
She offered to pay him and he adamantly refused until she relented. Then, he watched her go, secretly hoping that she would call on him for any reason at all.
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