Vivien allowed her hands to remain unresisting in his. She was uncomfortably aware that the attention of the entire room was focused on them.
"Good evening, Gerard," Grant said softly.
Of course. Lord Gerard, her former protector. Vivien forced herself to smile, though her lips were trembling. Anger, protest, shame, all shot through her veins in a scorching blast. She felt as if she had been put on display for the amusement of the snobbish members of theton...and indeed, she had been.
Seeming too foxed to notice the attention they were attracting, Gerard gripped her gloved hands more tightly. He bent to whisper thickly in her ear. "Promise you'll slip away to meet me later. I must talk with you."
"I promise," she murmured, tugging at her hands until they were free.
Gerard meandered away, and Vivien headed in the opposite direction, hardly noticing where she was going. Grant followed her, seeming no more pleased by the situation than she. Striding through the doorway of the drawing room, Vivien located a long picture gallery lined with upholstered benches. She stopped before a portrait of a haughty-faced Lichfield ancestor, and stood with her arms locked tightly across her chest.
Knowing without turning around that Grant was close by, Vivien spoke through her teeth. Anger made her jaw stiff, but she kept her tone soft, mindful of another couple perusing works of art at the other end of the gallery. "How on earth did you manage it? I've met three of my past lovers before ten minutes have elapsed. Somehow you've managed to have everyone in my diary included in the guest list."
"Lady Lichfield was persuaded to send extra invitations," Grant said tonelessly.
"How helpful of her," Vivien replied bitterly.
"Who the bloody hell did you think would be attending, Vivien? You knew we were using this as an occasion for you to come out in the open."
"But you've done more than that. You've invited anyone and everyone who could possibly wish me harm! I'm being dangled before them like live bait, and you're waiting to see who will snap!"
"There are half a dozen Runners and constables attending tonight, not to mention myself and Sir Ross. We're all keeping our eyes on you. You're in no danger." His words had the effect of throwing brandy on a fire. She flared in fury, her lips drawn back from her teeth. "You could have told me what you were planning! But you didn't, because you wanted me to be unprepared, and humiliated, and shamed by the sight of the multitude I've slept with."
"So you think this is all some elaborate punishment I've devised for you?" he sneered. "Try again, Vivien. Bow Street has better things to do than support personal vendettas. My job is to catch the man that tried to kill you, and this is the best way of doing it. If you happen to be embarrassed by the evidence of your past, that's no fault of mine."
"You manipulative, arrogant..." She tried to think of the nastiest word possible, while her hand rose to slap him.
"Go on," Grant said softly, "if it makes you feel better."
Vivien stared at him, so handsome in his black evening wear, so strong and invulnerable that one slap would only amuse him. She curled her shaking hand into a fist and clenched it against her middle, using all her will to control her tumult of emotions.
"You can hardly bear to hurt anyone, can you?" Grant murmured. "Even when they deserve it. But that's not like you. You used to rip a man's heart out and crush it beneath your foot with no more concern than you would swat a damned fly. What the hell has happened to you?"
She had never truly felt like a prostitute until this moment. Suddenly she wished--for the first time--that she could instantly change back into that other Vivien, the shameless, uncaring woman who did exactly as she pleased. Perhaps then the ache of betrayal would fade away. Until now she had regarded Grant Morgan as her protector, her friend. She had fallen in love with him, though she would never have expected anything to come of it. But he was not her friend. He was as much her adversary as everyone else here tonight. She felt very much alone, like a woman about to be stoned. Well...damn them all and let them all stare.
Raising her head, she stared at Grant steadily, the color fading from her face except for two bright arcs high on her cheeks. "All right," she said in a low voice. "Tonight I'll give everyone, including you, what they want."
"What the hell does that mean?"
"Only that I intend to make your job easier for you."
She squared her shoulders and left the gallery with determined strides, plunging back into the drawing room like a gladiator. Grant followed more slowly, his gaze locked on her small, trim form. Any trace of shame or timidity had left her. She moved among the guests with a straight spine and a regal tilt to her head. It seemed as if the Vivien he had remembered was now back, as alluring and coquettish as ever.
Openly flirting and teasing, Vivien began to attract men like flies to a honey pot. Before long a circle of five had gathered around her. Three of them were former paramours, and by all appearances more than willing to renew their previous arrangements with her. Clasping a goblet of wine in her delicate fingers, Vivien finished it far too quickly and accepted another.
Grant moved forward, feeling like a starving man being forced to watch as others feasted athis picnic. At that moment he felt Sir Ross's restraining clasp on his shoulder. "Let her be," came Cannon's cool murmur. "She's doing exactly what needs to be done. A clever woman, your friend."
"Vivien is merely reverting to type," Grant said bitterly. "She can't rest until she's made every man in the room want her."
"Really." Cannon's voice turned dry and chiding. "Take a closer look, Morgan, and tell me what you see."
"A courtesan, enjoying the hell out of herself." Grant drank deeply of his brandy.
"Oh? I see a woman with perspiration on her forehead, holding her wineglass in a death grip. I see the tension of a woman attending to an unpleasant duty regardless of the embarrassment it causes her."
Grant snorted. "She isn't capable of embarrassment."
Cannon regarded him speculatively. "If you say so. Though at the moment I haven't much faith in your objectivity."
Grant waited until the magistrate left him before he replied under his breath, "Neither do I."
He continued to watch Vivien while jealousy and anger swirled in a fomenting mass inside him. This was what it would be like for any man fool enough to care about Vivien. He watched her flirting and talking with her former lovers, and he couldn't help recalling the sickening details of what she had done with each and every one of them. He wanted to smash, pummel, skewer, mangle someone...anything to release this welling violence. He hadn't known he was capable of such irrational rage, and he was appalled by it.
Until now, Vivien hadn't known it was possible to present a facade of pleasure and gaiety when she was abjectly miserable. It was the worst kind of torture to stand here and pretend sexual interest in any and all the men that surrounded her, when all she wanted was to be alone.
She did not look directly at Grant, but she saw him from the corner of her eye, a grim giant who looked as though he had swallowed a bellyful of wasps. She couldn't help thinking of him as the cause of her problems...though that wasn't quite fair. If she hadn't led the kind of life that had resulted in this unholy mess, she wouldn't need his protection. She was to blame for the entire situation. But he, damn his arrogant hide, didn't have to treat her with such ambivalence, being kind and caring one moment and sarcastic and superior the next. It would be easier for them both if he would either like or hate her, instead of tormenting her with his mercurial moods.
Lord Gerard caught her eye from afar. He was standing near the glass-paned doors that led to the outside gardens. Inclining his head questioningly, he gestured to the door.
Realizing that he wanted her to meet him outside, Vivien gave him an agreeable wink, though her heart shriveled in dread at the prospect. No doubt he would attempt to seduce her...either that or try to strangle her. As her former protector, and reputedly jealous by nature, he might very well have been the one to throw her into the Thames. She was afraid to be alone with him. But Grant had said that she would be safe, and she believed him.
Recognizing the need to separate herself from the crowd that had accumulated around her, she glanced about for Grant. Her gaze was momentarily caught by a tall, elderly man with a shock of iron-gray hair and a long, angular face. He was staring at her intently. Although he was not handsome, he was undeniably distinguished in appearance. What attracted her notice the most was the hatred in his eyes.
Uncomfortable, she tore her gaze from him and continued to look for Grant. Finding his tall, familiar form in the crowd, she sent him a meaningful glance. The subtle signal was all Grant required. He was at her side in an instant, shouldering through the besotted herd. Ignoring the group's protests, he jerked her out of their midst.
"What is it?" he muttered, bending his head to catch her soft murmur.
"Dance with me."
He scowled at the request. "I don't dance well."
"Lord Gerard has indicated that he would like to meet with me in the garden. I was hoping you would dance with me to the doors at the other side of the room, and help me to slip outside discreetly."
Grant hesitated, his gaze flickering to the outside doors. It was highly likely that a meeting between Gerard and Vivien would yield valuable information. The fact that Vivien was willing to confront the ex-lover who might have killed her, and to face him without the aid of her memory, was proof of her courage. However, he didn't want her to do it. He was jealous, and concerned for her safety, and at the moment there was nothing in the world he wanted more than to be alone with her.
"What about your ankle?" he asked.
"I'll manage," she said immediately. "I only feel a little twinge now and then."
"When you go outside, you'll stay in view of the house," he said quietly. "You won't venture past the doors leading to the lower lawns. Agreed?"
"Yes, of course."
Reluctantly he pulled her into the swirl of dancers as a waltz began. Despite the tension that had gripped each of them, or perhaps because of it, Vivien was tempted to giggle. Grant had not been falsely modest--he was definitelynot a good dancer. He was proficient but hardly graceful, handling her as if she were a rag doll.
Gamely they struggled on, making slow but steady progress to the other side of the room. Grant stared at the shiny flame-hued curls on the top of Vivien's head, mechanically drawing her through the figures of the waltz. He was terrified of stepping on her. One misplaced foot and he could cripple her for life. Vivien was silent, apparently as uncomfortable as he...and then he heard a smothered sound that sounded like weeping. He broke their rhythm long enough to shove his fingers beneath her chin and force her face upward. Her lips quivered violently, and her deep blue eyes glimmered with laughter.
"This is dreadful," Vivien gasped, and bit her lip to control an eruption of amusement.
Grant was offended and relieved at the same time. "I told you," he growled.
"The fault isn't yours. Really. You would do much better with a taller partner. We're so unsuited to each other." She shook her head, and a wistful softness swept through her tone. "We're a mismatch." "Yes." But Grant didn't agree, or more precisely, didn't care. He loved her short legs and high waist and little hands...loved the way she felt in his arms...loved every detail of her, perfect and imperfect. The knowledge spread inside him like an opiate, the kind that caused the senses to soar dizzyingly high and then crash with sickening speed. Of all the women he had known...why did it have to be her?
The music rose to a crescendo, and as the ballroom spun with color and light, Grant shoved Vivien toward the door that led outside. "Go," he muttered. "Gerard is waiting." And he shielded her with his back while she slipped out to meet her former lover.
The slope at the back of the manor had been cut in a succession of three terraces. A wide, gently angled flight of steps led to the velvety expanse of lower lawn, bordered by carefully clipped yews. It was an old-fashioned garden, perfectly manicured with geometrically shaped flower beds and box-edged paths. A wrought-iron gate admitted entrance to the lower lawns, its towering stone gate piers topped with bronze urns.
Seeing no trace of Lord Gerard, Vivien descended the stairs. Grant had warned her about not going to the lower lawns, but it appeared she had no choice. Suppressing a tense sigh, she turned full circle. The garden rustled, and a night owl hooted gustily.
"Vivien." She heard Lord Gerard's thick whisper. "This way." A hand wormed between the wrought-iron scrolls of the gate, and his finger waggled at her.
The lower gardens it would be, then. Shivering in the cool darkness, Vivien slipped past the gate and confronted Gerard. In the blue wash of moonlight, his face was as pale and formless as blancmange. He was average in height and build, his hairline beginning an inevitable recession to the top of his head. Vivien studied him, thinking that if she had indeed been lovers with this man, she should remember something, anything about him. However, the sight of his face and the sound of his voice had not summoned any ghosts from the void of her memory.
He made a move to embrace her, and she drew back at once.
Gerard laughed low in his throat and shook his head admiringly. "Vivien, you tease," he murmured. "You're as splendid as ever. God knows my eyes have missed the sight of you."
"I won't stay long," she replied, forcing herself to pout prettily. "I don't want to miss a word of gossip at the ball, as I've been away from town much too long."
"Where have you been the past month? Come, you can confide in your old friend."
"Are you my friend?" she countered softly.
"If I am not, then you have none."
Unfortunately that could very well be true. Tilting her head, Vivien affected a coquettish pose, twirling a stray tendril of hair around a slender finger. "Where I've been is none of your concern, my lord."
He paced in a half circle around her. "I believe there are a few questions I'm entitled to ask, pet." "You have five minutes. Then I will return to the ball."
"All right, then, let us begin with the subject of our dear friend Morgan. What is he to you? Surely you can't have accepted him as your latest protector--or have your standards fallen so low since last we met? Oh, I suppose he has a primitive appeal for some women...but he's a commoner. A thief-taker, for God's sake. What sort of charade are you playing at?"
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