"It could be practically anyplace in England," Grant said sardonically.
Vivien touched the signature in the corner of the canvas. "Devane," she read aloud. "How familiar that sounds. Devane. I wonder if he is a friend or perhaps even a..."
"Lover?" Grant suggested quietly.
She drew her hand back and frowned. "I suppose he might be." Memories strained behind the impenetrable wall in her mind. Frustrated, Vivien went to a massive breakfront wardrobe, fitted with huge pieces of silvered glass and flanked with cabinets of linen trays on either side. Opening one of the two sets of doors, she beheld a long row of gowns in every imaginable shade of silk, velvet, and satin, the skirts fluttering like butterfly wings. Many of the garments held a faint note of perfume, a combination of roses and spicy wood that mingled with sweet crispness in her nostrils.
"There seems to be a range of styles," she remarked, conscious of Morgan's gaze on her. "Everything from sedate to shocking. What effect are we hoping to achieve?"
"Vivien Duvall in all her glory," he said.
She looked back over her shoulder at him. "What was I wearing when we first met?"
"A mermaid gown. Green silk with little gauze sleeves."
Busily she combed through the collection until she found a gown that matched the description. "This one?" she asked, holding it up for his inspection.
He nodded, looking unaccountably grim.
Vivien held the gown up against her front and glanced down at it. The garment was beautifully made, shimmering green with little ruches of white satin at the neckline that reminded her of foam on the waves. A mermaid gown indeed. She had excellent taste in clothes, evidently...and why not? A courtesan's primary concern would be the art of displaying herself to the best advantage. "I could wear this one to the ball," she said. "What do you think? Shall we give it another outing?"
"No." A shadow flitted across his face, and he regarded the gown with obvious dislike.
Lost in thought, Vivien replaced the gown in the wardrobe. "We didn't get on well that first meeting, did we?" she asked, riffling through the row of clothes.
His voice was subtly serrated with tension. "Do you remember?"
"No...but the look on your face...Anyone could see that it wasn't a pleasant memory."
"It wasn't," he agreed curtly.
"Was it I who dislikedyou , or have I got it backward?"
"The dislike was mutual, I believe."
"Then how did we...that is, why did you ever enter into an arrangement with me?"
"You have a way of sticking in a man's craw."
"Like a fish bone," she said ruefully, and laughed. She pulled out a white gown, a bronze, and a lavender, and brought them to the bed in a colorful heap. Carefully she began to fold the delicate garments while Morgan watched her. "One of these will do nicely," she said.
"Aren't you going to try them on?" he asked.
"Why bother? They're all mine. Why shouldn't they fit?"
"You've lost a bit of weight since your dunking in the Thames." He came to measure her waist experimentally, his large hands nearly spanning the neat circumference. Vivien started at his touch, at the solid feel of him behind her back. The dual proximity of Grant Morgan and a silk-covered bed was enough to rattle her nerves. Remembering his hands, so wickedly gentle as they searched her body, and his mouth imprinting warm, delicious kisses on hers, she tried to suppress a hard shiver. He must have felt the involuntary movement, for his hands tightened at her waist, and his lips moved close to her ear until she felt the caress of his breath.
"There's no need for me to try anything on," she managed to say. "Besides, I can't fasten and unfasten rows of buttons all by myself."
"I would be willing to help."
"I'm certain you would," she replied with a smile that turned wobbly. Sensation, or the exquisite promise of it, raced through her body and pooled low in her stomach making her knees weak. For a breathless moment she thought of leaning back, arching her throat in invitation, pulling his hands up to her breasts.
However, just before her eyes closed, she caught sight of the ostentatious bed reflected in a looking glass...this room, where she had entertained so many men...The idea suddenly sickened her. It was possible Morgan had a few private fantasies that she would be expected to satisfy. Even if she wanted to sleep with him, how in the world could she live up to her own reputation? She didn't remember a single thing about how to please a man. But shouldn't she? She certainly recalled any number of things she had read in books...why had she not retained some of her vast knowledge of the sexual arts? Confused, she jerked away from him.
"Grant," she said, flustered, "there is something I must know. When you and I had...that is, when we..." She cast a miserable glance at the bed, and then looked back into his alert green eyes. "How did you find the experience? I mean...how was I? Did I justify my reputation? Did I...oh, you know what I mean!" Face reddening, she kept her gaze trained on his.
Strangely, Morgan seemed as discomfited as she by the questions. "I can't compare you to any other woman I've slept with," he said evasively.
"Yes?" she prompted, wanting him to continue.
Grant was still and tense, feeling cornered, while the memory of Lord Gerard's rapturous descriptions of Vivien's lovemaking skills buzzed in his ears. He heard himself repeating a few of Gerard's words, in a flat tone that betrayed none of his own agitation. "You have no shame in bed. It makes you an entertaining partner, to say the least."
"How strange," she muttered, her face still scarlet. "Because I have more than an ample amount of shameoutside of bed."
They regarded each other with an almost identical wariness, as if they were each protecting secrets that the other must never discover.
As the veteran of countless balls and soirees, Grant had come to view such events with a jaded eye. One was the same as any other; the parade of dark formal wear for the gentlemen, revealing gowns for the ladies...the elderly guests playing whist in the cardroom while the younger crowd danced in the drawing room and amorous couples gathered in the sitting rooms. The music played by pianist, violinist, and cellist...the ladies seated in small chairs at the side of the room, awaiting invitations to dance...the busy hum of guests in the refreshments room...the large, lukewarm supper.
And the heat, the gossip, the plague of insincere social smiles, the melange of grease-and sugarbased pomades and heavily applied perfume.
A monotonous bore, every bit of it.
But tonight would be different. He was appearing with a woman whom most of London assumed to be dead. By tomorrow the news would have spread through every layer of society that Vivien Duvall was alive--and that she had appeared at the Lichfield ball on Grant Morgan's arm. He had no doubt that after the revelations of this evening, the man who had tried to kill her would be flushed out.
Drinking from a snifter of brandy, Grant waited in the entrance hall of his home. His black and gold carriage, attended by outriders and footmen, had been stationed at the front door. It was ten minutes past the time he had bid Vivien to be ready, but he knew from experience that women were always late for such events.
One of the housemaids, Mary, descended the stairs at a rapid pace, her face glowing with excitement. "She's almost ready, sir. Mrs. Buttons is seeing to the last few details." Grant nodded shortly, glancing around and realizing that the entrance hall was becoming filled with footmen, the butler, the maids, and even his valet, Kellow, all of them staring expectantly at the stairs. It puzzled him, the feeling of pleasure they seemed to share in the proceedings. Vivien's presence had enlivened the house, had subtly altered the starkly masculine atmosphere until it no longer seemed a bachelor's residence. This could have been any ordinary gathering of servants waiting eagerly for the lady of the house to appear in her finery, a ritual that occurred in so many of the elegant residences in London...but never his.
Grant scowled at the group of servants, although none of them seemed to notice his simmering disapproval. Vivien was not the lady of the house. No one seemed to want to acknowledge that, however. She had made them like her in spite of themselves, using the power of her charm and sweetness to mesmerize everyone from the housekeeper down to the scullery maid. He had contempt for all of them, including himself, for being taken in by her.
Every thought in his head disappeared the moment Vivien appeared and a collective sigh of admiration escaped the servants. She made her way downstairs unescorted, wearing a glimmering bronze gown that swirled around her h*ps and legs as if it were liquid metal. No other color could have brought out the richness of her hair or the peaches and cream of her complexion half so well. The low, scooped bodice pushed the mounds of her br**sts up and together in a display that literally made Grant's mouth water. Swallowing hard, he stared at her while the brandy snifter wobbled precariously in his fingers. He was hardly aware of Kellow tactfully removing it from his unsteady grasp.
The short, full sleeves exposed the curves of Vivien's shoulders, while her arms were encased in full-length white gloves. A French silk scarf of bronze trimmed in gold was draped loosely around her elbows. The only ornamentation on the gown was a stomacher of woven gold and bronze, cinched just above her small waist.
As he met Vivien's gaze, the smile in her thickly lashed blue eyes made his heart slam against his ribs in a funny little extra thump. Her hair was pinned up in a regal crown of braids and curls, in a style he had never seen before but which would undoubtedly be copied by every woman in London on the morrow. She wore no jewelry--he hadn't given it a thought until now. The old Vivien would have demanded some kind of ornamentation, especially when going to a ball where all the other women would be wearing their most ostentatious jewels.
Instead, it appeared that Vivien and the servants had improvised. A length of sheer bronze gauze had been wrapped around her throat, concealing the last remaining bruises. A tiny gold cravat pin shaped like a crown had been used to secure the gauze in front. The pin was unmistakable, a gift the king had given to each and all of the Runners who had guarded him on special occasions. It was the only bit of personal finery Grant possessed.
Seeing one of the Runners' distinctive crown pins adorning Vivien's pretty throat would arouse a torrent of gossip. Everyone at the ball tonight would have no choice but to assume that Vivien was Grant's mistress.
Half pleased, half annoyed, Grant shot a questioning glance at Kellow. The valet's long, balding forehead turned pink. "Er...Mrs. Buttons asked if there were some kind of pin they might use," he said apologetically. "It was the only one I could find, sir."
"In future, don't lend my personal possessions before asking my permission," Grant muttered.
"Yes, sir." Vivien reached Grant and raised the arc of one cinnamon-colored eyebrow in silent question.
Grant stared at her without smiling. "You'll do," he said tersely. He was unable to say more without his voice cracking.
There was a moment of silence, and he was aware of the servants' chiding stares. Suddenly, as a group, they broke into effusive compliments in an effort to atone for their master's boorishness.
"You're as lovely as a picture, miss!"
"...no one there will outshine you..."
"...a queen in that gown..."
A hot, troubling feeling expanded in Grant's chest, and he wanted to snap at them for being so ungodly solicitous of the feelings of a professional harlot. But he couldn't...because he was as much under her spell as the rest of them.
The desultory conversation in the enclosed carriage faded into silence as they traveled along the entrance avenue of the Lichfields' London estate. Obviously Vivien was nervous, and Grant felt a pang of guilt for not soothing her fears. She was about to face a crowd of strangers. Added to that pressure was the knowledge that after this evening, she would once again be a target for whoever had tried to kill her. Grant admired her bravery, her outward calmness, her willingness to trust him with her own safety.
However, he deliberately withheld the reassurance that she needed. Some obstruction in his throat prevented him from making the situation easier for her. He was angry with her, for being so beautiful, for having led the kind of life that made all this necessary. He wanted to punish her for being spendthrift with her sexual favors...for not saving herself for him alone.
The thought shocked him, but he couldn't get it out of his mind. He wanted exclusive rights to Vivien, past, present, and future. Such a thing wasn't possible or reasonable.
It was hypocritical of him to hold Vivien's past against her, he told himself. After all, he had hardly led the life of a monk. And it wasn't in Vivien's power to change what she had done in the past. She claimed to regret her promiscuity, and he believed her. But he couldn't control his own jealousy...jealous of a whore...Oh, his friends and enemies alike would take malicious pleasure in the situation, if they knew. No one must ever find out, including Vivien, how he cared for her.
"How many people will attend, do you think?" Vivien asked, staring out the window at the huge gabled manor house, its E-shaped design of heavy front porch and two wings contained in a shell of amber-tinted stone. The area at the sides and back of the stately manor was surrounded by high garden walls topped with sculpted lions that seemed to survey the surroundings with regal disdain.
"At least three hundred," Grant replied briefly.
A visible shiver chased across the exposed flesh of Vivien's shoulders as she continued to lean toward the window. "So many people watching me...I'm glad I won't be able to dance." She settled back and lifted the hem of her gown to expose a trim silk-stockinged ankle, regarding it idly. Grant's eyes narrowed as he stared at her prettily turned ankle. He wanted so badly to touch it, and slide his hand up to her knee, her inner thigh, and beyond, that his fingers twitched. The atmosphere in the carriage turned deadly quiet, and Vivien stared at him in concern.
"Something is wrong," she said frankly. "Your manner is...well, you're being distant. Could it be that you're having an attack of nerves just as I am? Or is something else bothering you?"
The fact that she had to ask what was bothering him, when it would have been obvious to any woman of experience, made Grant long to grab her and shake her. "Guess," he said in one sharp, bitten-off word.
Clearly perplexed, Vivien shook her head. "If I've said or done something to offend you...oh." She stopped suddenly, her fingers flying up to the cravat pin at her throat. "It's this, isn't it?" she asked remorsefully. "I knew I shouldn't have worn it, but we had nothing else, and I wanted to hide the marks on my neck. I told Mrs. Buttons and Kellow, but they said you never..." She tried to remove the little gold pin. "I'm so sorry. Help me take it off before we go inside, and forgive me for borrowing something of yours--"
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