"Stop," he said harshly. "It's not the damned pin." When she continued to tug at it, he leaned forward in the confined space of the carriage and caught her agitated hands in his. She went motionless, her small face close to his, the luscious display of her br**sts right under his nose and chin. With little effort, he could reach down and free those delectable curves, fondle and kiss them, fasten his mouth over the soft pink tips and swirl his tongue over them.
His grip tightened on Vivien's fingers until she winced, but she made no attempt to pull away from him. Grant knew his breathing was betraying him--he was starting to sound like a running footman keeping pace with his master's carriage. With each deep inhalation, he was aware of a sweet, pure fragrance that entered his nostrils and spread through his brain like a drug.
"What is that smell?" he muttered.
Vivien answered in a hushed voice. "Mrs. Buttons distilled some vanilla water for me. Do you like it?"
"We brought your perfume from the town house. Why didn't you use that?"
Her gaze flickered to his mouth and back to his eyes. "It didn't suit me," she whispered. "Too heavy."
Grant drew in another lungful of delicate vanilla-scented air. "You smell like a sugar biscuit," he said gruffly. One he badly wanted to bite into. Her scent was innocent and homey and appetizing, making his blood surge and his muscles harden in acute yearning.
Vivien's hands relaxed in his compelling grip, her body yielding to the proximity of his. Their breath mingled, and Grant saw the soft color rising in her face. Thoughts slid through his mind...He considered signaling the driver to move on, and as the carriage rolled and swayed through the streets of London, he would make love to Vivien right here, pulling her to his lap and fitting himself inside her body while she writhed in pleasure--
The footman knocked at the carriage door and opened it perfunctorily. Grant released Vivien with a suddenness that caused her to gasp. Bewildered and lovely, she occupied herself with gathering up a brown silk pelisse and pulling it over her shoulders. The night air flooded the carriage with blessed coolness, helping to restore the function of Grant's brain. He rubbed his eyes hard, as if waking from a deep sleep, and left the carriage. The footman placed a movable step beneath the carriage door and assisted Vivien as she emerged from the vehicle.
Almost immediately Vivien attracted the attention of the groups of gentlemen and ladies who were making their way to the manor's entrance. Her red hair seemed to catch every stray shaft of light from the carriage lanterns and glow with a life of its own. She took Grant's arm in a deceptively light grasp, but he felt her fingers digging into the surface of his coat.
"My God," he heard someone murmur nearby, "can it really be..."
"Just look..." someone else exclaimed.
"But I had heard..."
"Hasn't been seen..."
Muffled gossip followed them during the short walk from the carriage to the manor. Vivien's face was devoid of expression, her gaze darting from one side to the other. They merged into the stream of guests entering the house, halting at random intervals as the hostess personally welcomed each party. The interior of Lichfield House was grand and Italianate, with rich oak paneling, and ceilings and walls that had been liberally covered with gilded plasterwork. As they arrived in the massive great hall, with its pilaster-lined walls and elaborate stone mantelpiece, Vivien tugged at Grant's sleeve. He bent his head to hear her whisper.
"How long must we stay here?"
The question brought a reluctant smile to his lips. "We haven't even met Lady Lichfield, and you want to leave?"
"I don't like the way people are staring at me...as if I were a spectacle at the county fair."
Her assessment was absolutely correct. People were indeed staring openly, clearly amazed to learn that the rumors of Vivien's death had been unfounded...and at such a time and place! Her appearance at Lady Lichfield's ball--an event she would never have ordinarily been allowed to attend--was a source of shock for the ladies and profound uneasiness for the gentlemen. Many of the fine lords who were present tonight had enjoyed Vivien's favors in the past, but they hardly wanted to be confronted with her while their suspicious wives were at their sides.
Grant touched the small hand clinging to his arm, running his fingers over hers in a quick, reassuring stroke. "Of course they're looking at you," he mumured. "Rumors of your disappearance and death have been flying all over London. They're surprised to see that you're still alive."
"Now that they've seen me, I want to go home."
"Later." Grant suppressed a taut sigh, ignoring his own desire to return home with her at once, rather than put her through the gauntlet of first society. It promised to be a long evening for both of them. "In the meanwhile, try to have some backbone. The old Vivien would have enjoyed all this attention. You would have welcomed any opportunity to flaunt yourself."
"If I didn't have backbone, I wouldn't be here," she retorted beneath her breath. They reached Lady Lichfield, a plump woman in her forties who had once been considered the greatest beauty in London. Although the years of indulgence had taken a toll on her striking face, she was still remarkably attractive. The thickly lashed blue eyes were still radiant above her heavy cheeks, and her shining black hair was coiled atop her head to reveal a classic profile. She was a queen of London's elite circles, a widow who led an outwardly circumspect life--though it was rumored that she had often taken young men as lovers and rewarded them richly for their services. Indeed, she had flirted with Grant at their last meeting, a soiree at the beginning of the season, and had hinted broadly that she would like to "deepen their acquaintance."
As she caught sight of him, Lady Lichfield proffered both her hands. "How can it be that this is only the second time we have met?" she asked. "I feel as if we are old friends, Mr. Morgan."
"Say 'dear friends,'" Grant suggested, pressing an obligatory kiss to the gloved backs of her hands. "The word 'old' should never be mentioned in the same sentence with you, milady."
She giggled and preened. "I doubt I am the first, nor the last, to fall prey to your flattery, you charming rake."
He grinned and deliberately held her hands longer than was strictly proper. "Nor am I the last to fall under the spell of an enchantress with the bluest eyes in England."
The flattery obviously pleased her, though she laughed with a touch of irony. "Mr. Morgan, pray stop before you reduce me to a puddle at your feet." She turned to Vivien, subjecting her to a head-to-toe inspection. Her smile cooled considerably. "Welcome, Miss Duvall. I see you're in good health, contrary to the astonishing rumors that have flown about the past month or so."
"Thank you, my lady." Vivien curtsied and regarded her with a hesitant smile. "Please forgive me, but...have we met before?"
All traces of good humor left Lady Lichfield's expression. "No," she said softly. "Although I believe you were once quite well acquainted with my late husband."
There was no mistaking her meaning. Faced with yet more evidence of her own scandalous past, Vivien could make no reply. She was grateful when Grant ushered her away speedily, leaving Lady Lichfield to welcome more guests.
"She doesn't like me," Vivien said in a dry tone, pausing as Grant removed her cloak and handed it to a waiting servant.
"Few women do."
"Thank you for that boost to my confidence. I feel so much better after the multitude of compliments you've showered on me."
"You want compliments?" They entered an overheated drawing room, the buzz of conversation intensifying as soon as they appeared.
"One or two would hardly hurt," Vivien said in a subdued tone, wincing as hundreds of gazes arrowed to her. "Though now you'll make me out to be silly and vain for desiring it."
Seeming entirely comfortable in spite of the public scrutiny, Grant nodded in response to the greeting of a passing acquaintance, and drew Vivien to an unoccupied space at the side of the room. He stared down at her with smoldering green eyes. "You are beautiful," he said. "The most beautiful woman I've ever known, and the most desirable. I've never wanted anyone the way I want you. And I'm afraid to look at you for too long, or I'll end up taking you in the middle of the drawing room floor."
"Oh." Flustered, Vivien toyed with the edge of her stomacher. Byron, he was not. But the blunt statements caused little knots of excitement and pleasure to tighten in her stomach. She returned his gaze with a direct one of her own. "Why were you flirting with Lady Lichfield like that?" she asked. "Were you once lovers?"
"No. It amuses her to banter with younger men, and it's easy enough to indulge her. She's already proven to be a useful acquaintance. Besides, I happen to like her."
Vivien frowned, experiencing a sting of jealousy. "You wouldn't have an affair with a woman her age, would you?"
"She's hardly an ancient relic," he said. Suddenly the shadow of a smile played on his lips. "She's an attractive woman in her forties."
"But she is at least ten years older than yourself. Perhaps even fifteen."
His dark brows lifted expressively. "You don't approve of women having affairs with younger men?"
Vivien made an effort to swallow back the unpleasant tightness in her throat. "I'm hardly in a position to disapprove of anyone."
"The French have a more relaxed attitude toward these matters than we do. They believe a woman's appeal increases with maturity and experience...and if she gives her favors to a younger man, he's considered quite fortunate."
"Pray don't let me keep you from Lady Lichfield, then," Vivien said tartly. "Why don't you go to her?"
"I'm not going to have an affair with Lady Lichfield," he murmured, amusement flickering in the depths of his verdant eyes.
"Why are you smiling like that?" She felt sour and uncomfortable, as if she had somehow made a fool of herself.
"Because you're jealous."
"No, I'm not," Vivien countered in rising dismay. "Really, I'm--" She stopped as a dark figure approached them. "Who is that?" she asked warily.
Grant glanced over his shoulder, then turned to face the visitor. Although there was no change in his expression, Vivien sensed that this was a man whom Grant liked and respected very much...one of the few people on earth whose good opinion he desired. "Sir Ross," he said easily, bringing Vivien forward a step. "May I introduce Miss Duvall?"
Sir Ross Cannon, the Bow Street magistrate. Vivien curtsied and stared at him intently, finding him to be an extraordinary figure, though she couldn't quite say why. Sir Ross was a tall man, though he did not match Grant's towering height. He possessed a self-contained quality, a sense of tremendous power held in check. He had black hair, a build that was just a bit too lean, and curiously light gray eyes that seemed to have observed too much of everyone else's business. Most striking about his appearance was a distinctly remote air, as if he were not quite part of the gathering even though he was mingling among them. And he seemed comfortable with his quality of aloneness.
A mortifying thought occurred to Vivien...Grant reported to this man, consulted with him. There was no doubt that he knew all about her, including the things she had written in that dreadful book. Instinctively she moved closer to Grant.
Cannon's watchful gaze did not leave her. "Miss Duvall...a great pleasure to make your acquaintance."
"Have we..." Vivien started, then bit her tongue. She could hardly go about asking everyone at the ball if she had met them before.
Cannon understood the unfinished question, and answered gently. "To my regret, no."
She searched his expression for traces of censure or sarcasm, but found none. The cool gray eyes were comfortingly impassive.
Cannon and Grant exchanged a glance that seemed to contain an entire conversation. After bowing once more to Vivien, Cannon left them with a polite murmur.
Grant cupped his hand around Vivien's elbow. "Come, Miss Duvall," he said smoothly. "I think it's time we exchanged pleasantries with the other guests."
"Is it?" she asked, accompanying him reluctantly. She dreaded the prospect of meeting anyone, when there was no way of knowing who was friend or foe. "I was just thinking it's time to have a glass of wine. A large one."
"You'll have all the wine you want later." His hand inexorably urged her forward.
To hide her unease, Vivien made her face still and composed. They approached a group amid the sea of speculative faces, two ladies and three gentlemen, and introductions were made. Lord and Lady Wenman, Lord Fuller, and Mrs. Marshall, all of them curiously stilted and brittle as they regarded Vivien. Mercifully there seemed to be little need for her to speak. Vivien glanced frequently at Grant as he made conversation with the others. His expression was bland, but his eyes were watchful, and she sensed that he was taking measure, testing, waiting.
Vivien's gaze flickered to Lord Wenman, who appeared composed except for the subtly agitated rat-a-tat-tat of his toes on the floor. He returned her glance, his pale blue eyes filled with an insolence that perplexed her. Wenman...She did not recognize his face, but the name was oddly familiar. Where had she seen or heard it before?
Grant guided Vivien to another group, pointedly introducing her to Viscount Hatton. The viscount was an elderly gentleman with yellow-gray hair and skin like crumpled paper. Although his manner was polite, he stared at her with a mixture of accusation and wariness that was impossible to miss. It didn't take long for Vivien to remember that he and Wenman were two of the names mentioned in her diary.
She had had affairs with them. Discomfort fanned over her like an icy breeze. It was bad enough to have read the details of her own affairs in that damned book, but even worse to be forcibly brought face-to-face with the men she had slept with. How many more of her past lovers were here tonight? She turned toward Grant with an accusation leaping from her lips.
Before she could say a word, she was approached by a man with eyes like small chips of coal, set deep in a ruddy face. Unlike the others, he did not pretend to be a stranger. He came up to her immediately, taking her hands in a possessive, familiar grip, seeming unaware of the way Grant stiffened at her side.
"Good God, Vivien," the man said in a strained voice. "I literally thought you were dead. How could you disappear like that? Have you no concern for what you've put me through? I had no way to reach you, no way to assure myself of your well-being." As he spoke, his liquor-soaked breath wafted heavily into her face. "Though knowing you, I shouldn't have wasted a moment of worry." He paused to give Grant a baleful glance, then returned his attention to Vivien. "You've always landed on your feet like a cat, haven't you?"
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com