Continuing to shake her head, Mrs. Dobson left the office.

Cannon blew gently into his mug, causing steam to swirl up from the coffee. "Very well," he said, his gaze arrowing to Grant. "With your permission, I'll approach Lady Lichfield and ask to expand her guest list."

"Thank you." Grant paused before adding thoughtfully, "There is one bit of news I haven't yet mentioned...something Lord Gerard said when I questioned him. I'm not certain whether to give it any credence, as it wasn't confirmed by Miss Duvall's diary or anyone else I've interviewed."

"Well?" Cannon prompted.

"Gerard said that he believed Miss Duvall was expecting to marry soon. Someone with a large fortune."

"Hmm. What man of means would choose to 'buy old boots'?" Cannon mused aloud, using the popular phrase to describe someone marrying another man's mistress.

"Exactly," Grant said. "As Lord Gerard pointed out, 'one doesn't marry soiled goods like Vivien Duvall unless he wants to be the laughingstock of England.' But it's possible she found someone in his dotage, willing to take her on."

Despite Grant's effort to sound dispassionate, his tone was infected with a trace of bitterness that Cannon could hardly miss. Silently Grant cursed himself as he was subjected to Cannon's discomfiting scrutiny.

"Tell me your opinion of Miss Duvall, Morgan," the magistrate said quietly. "My opinion has no relevance." Grant stood to brush imaginary dust from the legs of his trousers. "If you're referring to evidence--"

"I asked for your opinion," Cannon said inflexibly. "Sit, please."

Abruptly the office became stifling. Grant longed to ignore the request. Cannon's cool, perceptive gaze was a jabbing annoyance. He thought of putting off the question with an insolent reply or a convenient lie...but he would be damned if he would ever fear the truth, no matter what it was. Glowering, he eased back into his chair.

"There are two women inside Miss Duvall," he said stonily. "There's the one you find in that book, experienced, jaded, greedy...a perverse bitch. And then there's the one who is currently residing in my house."

"And what is she like?"

"Intelligent...sweet...gentle. Most men's fantasy."

"And yours?" Cannon murmured.

Grant gripped the arms of his chair as if he were manacled to it. "And mine," he finally admitted gruffly.

Cannon contemplated him with a hint of sympathy that was well nigh unendurable. "Take care, Morgan," was all he said.

Grant thought of assuring him he would in his usual cocky manner...but somehow the words wouldn't come.

"All right," Cannon murmured in dismissal, and Grant took his leave with ill-concealed relief.

CHAPTER 8

"Aball?" Vivien stared at Grant as if he had gone mad. They sat in the downstairs parlor, where he had told her of the plan he had devised with Sir Ross. Although Grant appeared sympathetic to her distress, he was obviously not giving her a choice in the matter.

"You're asking me to appear in public," Vivien continued uneasily, "not merely in public, but at a large formalball, to let everyone in London know that I am alive. And then I'll be in danger at least ten times worse than now."

"You'll be under my protection," Grant replied quietly, coming to sit beside her on the gold damask-upholstered settee. He took her small, knotted fist in his hand and chafed it gently until her fingers relaxed in his. "Trust me," he said, smiling faintly as he stared into her worried face. "I would never let anyone harm you."

"I won't know anyone there," she said, clinging tightly to his hand. "I won't know what to do or say."

"You don't have to do or say anything. All you have to do is make an appearance."

"I don't want to," she pleaded, rubbing her forehead with her free hand to ease a throbbing ache. "I understand," he replied softly. "But it has to be done, Vivien. Now...I want to take you to your town house and find something for you to wear. You have at least two dozen ball gowns, and I would have the devil of a time picking one out for you. You've said you want to visit your home, and this is the perfect time to do it."

Vivien frowned at their entwined fingers and took a deep breath, trying to settle her agitated nerves. Everyone would stare at her. How could she make small talk and smile and dance when she didn't remember a single person from her former life? She didn't want to mill among strangers who would undoubtedly think of her as odd or fraudulent, or something equally disagreeable. Most of all, she dreaded making herself a highly visible target. What if the man who had attacked her came back to finish the job he had started? And what if Morgan was hurt or even killed in the process?

"It doesn't make sense," she said. "Why must I go to a ball and reveal myself in such a dramatic fashion? Why can't you leak the information in some other way? You have no idea who wants me dead, do you? This is a desperate attempt to draw him out because you can't decide on a suspect."

"I want the bastard caught," Morgan said evenly. "This is the fastest way of accomplishing it."

Drawing her from the settee, he guided her to the entrance hall and signaled the housekeeper to bring their coats. After fastening a cloak around Vivien's shoulders, he settled a velvet bonnet on her head. A veil of lilac gauze hung from the front brim, concealing her face behind a pastel haze.

Vivien sent him a simmering glare from behind the veil. "This looks like a mourning bonnet," she said. "As if I'm going to attend a funeral. I only hope it won't be my own."

He laughed softly. "It was the most concealing hat I could find. And I'm not going to let anything happen to you. The world would be a dull--albeit more peaceful--place without you."

After Morgan donned his own coat, a footman accompanied them to a carriage waiting outside. Having expected that they would use a hired vehicle, Vivien was surprised to discover that the carriage was a handsome private curricle, painted with gleaming black lacquer and touches of matte gold, and pulled by two perfectly matched chestnuts. Vivien couldn't help but be impressed by the elegance of the vehicle. "I wouldn't have thought you possessed a carriage like this," she remarked. "I thought the Runners went everywhere on foot."

His green eyes danced with amusement. "We can, if you'd rather."

Responding to the gentle teasing, she gave him a small smile. "No, thank you," she said with an effort at lightness. "I'll make do with this."

The footman helped her into the curricle and tucked a thick, cushiony cashmere robe around her. Vivien thanked him and snuggled back into the soft leather seat with an exclamation of pleasure. The wind was pleasantly crisp and biting, refreshing on her face after the past days of confinement. Climbing into the space beside her, Morgan took the ribbons in an expert grip. He waited until the footman ascended to the seat behind the vehicle, then snapped the ribbons and clicked to the horses. They started with a smooth, synchronous gait, the well-sprung carriage moving easily over the cobblestoned street.

Vivien stared blankly at the array of sights spread before them, her gaze searching for any small detail that might strike her as familiar.

Each street possessed its own character, one populated by printers and writers, another occupied by butchers and bakers, another featuring a stately row of churches. Gentlefolk cut through the meandering paths of prostitutes and beggars. Wealth and poverty were wedged together in sharp juxtaposition. The air was thick with the scents of animals, food, the brine of the river, sewage, dust...She soon lost the ability to distinguish smells as her nostrils were overwhelmed. They passed a group of urchins who were harassing a satin-clad fop...a libertine lurching drunkenly from a tavern with a trollop on each arm...peddlers carrying wooden boxes strapped around their necks and shoulders.

Soon Vivien's attention transferred to Morgan, who deftly navigated the carriage among the carts, cattle, and pedestrians that clogged a section of the street. He was completely at ease amid the bustle of town life, familiar with every alley and corner. It occurred to her that Morgan was one of the few men in London who mingled with everyone from royalty down to the meanest pickpocket.

They reached a row of elegant town houses, and stopped before one with a large bronzed door. "Is that mine?" Vivien asked hesitantly, staring at the grand arched doorway bordered with columns.

Morgan gave her an inscrutable glance. "That is yours."

The footman hurried to take charge of the horses, while Morgan helped Vivien from the carriage. He lowered her gently to the ground, bearing her weight until she gained her footing. Giving her his arm, he escorted her to the door and unlocked it.

Vivien entered the town house cautiously, standing still in the entrance hall while Morgan proceeded to light lamps and wall sconces. The place, with its flowered French fabric panels and dainty Louis XIV furniture, was beautiful, feminine...and crushingly unfamiliar. She removed her hat and placed it on the end of a stairway banister.

Light flooded the entrance hall. Slowly Vivien moved from a framed pier glass to a marble-topped giltwood table. Picking up a delicate piece of Staffordshire porcelain from the table, Vivien regarded it closely. Two figures, a gentleman and lady, were conversing while the lady reached forward to pluck wildflowers for a basket nestled in her lap. The scene was charming in its innocence. When Vivien turned the porcelain over, however, it showed the gentleman's hand intruding far beneath the lady's skirts. Frowning at the crude joke, Vivien set the figures down and glanced at Morgan. He was watching her with a strange mixture of amusement and resignation.

"Remember anything yet?" he asked.

She shook her head and went to the staircase. Morgan followed at once, his measured tread matched to hers as she made her way to the second floor. The lamp he carried threw misshapen shadows in their wake. Pausing at the top landing, Vivien wondered where to go.

"The bedroom is this way," Morgan said. He took her elbow in a light grasp and led her to the last room on the right. They entered a room lined in dark green silk, with a richly carved bed set on top of a pavilion. It reminded her of a small stage, all prepared for a performance. Frowning in discomfort, Vivien stared at the bed while Morgan lit more lamps. Then she turned and saw the painting.

For a moment all she saw was a startling expanse of skin, the artful display of female flesh...and then she realized just who was depicted.

"It's me," she said in a strangled whisper. Hectic color surged in her face. She whirled around with a gasp, unable to look any longer. "I gather you don't recall posing for it." There was a suspicious quiver of amusement in Morgan's voice. However, Vivien couldn't share his humor, or even berate him for it. She was too overcome with shame, and anger that was directed solely at herself. Until now there had always been some tiny corner of her mind in which she believed that she had not done the things he accused her of. But now the truth was there in a heavy gold frame, her past exposed and flaunted in florid detail.

"How could I...how could anyone pose for that?" she asked, covering her face with her hands.

"Artists frequently use nude models. You know that."

"Obviously that painting was not intended as any sort of artistic statement," she said scornfully. "Its only purpose is to..."

"Arouse," he suggested softly.

She lowered her hands and clenched them at her sides, still facing away from him. It seemed almost impossible that she could feel such humiliation...It scorched the very insides of her veins. "Take it down, or cover it," she said desperately.

The amusement left his voice, and he sounded faintly puzzled as he replied. "I've seen it before, Vivien."

It made no sense, but she couldn't bear the painting hanging there before them both--it was like being na*ed in front of him in person. "I don't like it," she said sharply. "I can't stay in this room with that hanging there. Do something with it,please. "

She stiffened as he approached her from behind, his hands closing over her narrow shoulders. "You're trembling," he murmured in surprise. "There's no reason to be upset."

"You wouldn't say that if it were a nude painting ofyou hanging up there."

He snickered suddenly. "I doubt there's an artist alive who would agree to paint me in the nude, sweetheart. I'm not exactly the right material."

An arguable point, she thought privately. From what she had seen of him, Morgan was as attractive as any masculine form ever committed to canvas...but she was hardly going to tell him that.

Gently he tried to turn her to face him. "Come, it's not so bad. Take a deep breath."

She resisted, stubbornly ducking her head and fixing her gaze on the floor. "I'm not going to move until you take away that painting."

A brief, warm huff of laughter fanned her ear. "All right, blast you." Releasing her, he crossed the room to the painting. A scraping noise, a faint creak of the heavy frame, and then Morgan's dry voice cut the tense silence. "You can open your eyes now."

Vivien turned to see that he had taken the painting down and propped it against the wall, back facing outward. "Thank you," she said, heaving a sigh. "I want to have that dreadful object burned."

"You may change your mind, once you recover your memory."

"I don't care what happens after my memory returns," she retorted sharply. "As I've told you before, I won't be a courtesan any longer."

Morgan regarded her with a frank skepticism that annoyed her beyond reason. "We'll see," he muttered.

Another painting caught her eye, a small oil with a delicate gilded frame. It was hung on the wall next to the dressing table, as if she had wanted to look at it while applying perfumes and powders and brushing her hair. Moving closer, she stared at the painting with growing curiosity. It didn't seem at all in keeping with the rest of the house. Obviously done by an amateur, the picture had been painted in bright, cheerful colors. The scene was of a little country cottage, timber-framed and painted white, with a carpet of lavender heather all around, and silver birch trees behind it. A profusion of rosebushes bearing dainty white blossoms covered the front of the cottage.

Vivien couldn't seem to take her eyes from the painting. She felt certain it was a place she had once visited, a place where she had been happy. "How strange," she murmured. "I think...I think this picture was given to me by someone who..." She stopped in confusion. "Oh, if only we knew where this cottage was!"

P/S: Copyright -->www_Novel12_Com

***