"Mr. Morgan," the housekeeper said, fidgeting with the edges of her large white apron, "if you would prefer, I can have one of the housemaids assist me in removing Miss..."
"Duvall," Grant supplied softly.
"Miss Duvall's garments."
"I'll see to our guest," Grant murmured. "I'll wager at least a regiment's worth of men have had the privilege of seeing Miss Duvall naked. She'd be the first to say, 'Get the job done and modesty be damned.'" Besides, after the trouble he'd gone to tonight, he was entitled to this one small pleasure.
"Yes, sir." She gave him an odd, considering look, as if he weren't quite behaving like himself. And perhaps he wasn't. A strange feeling suffused him, the chill from the outside mingling with a heat that burned at his core.
Stone-faced, Grant continued to cut away the wet clothes, slicing through one sleeve and then the other. As he lifted Vivien's slim upper torso and yanked the sodden wool from beneath her, someone walked through the half-open door and gasped loudly.
It was Kellow, his valet, a dignified young man with a prematurely balding head and a pair of round spectacles settled firmly on his nose. His eyes seemed to fill the spectacle lenses as he beheld his employer standing with a knife over the half-clad body of the unconscious woman. "Oh, dear God!"
Grant turned to fix him with a ferocious scowl. "Try to be of some use, will you? Get one of my shirts. And some towels. And now that I think of it, some tea and brandy. Now,hurry ."
Kellow started to reply, appeared to think better of it, and proceeded to fetch the required articles. Carefully averting his eyes from the woman on the bed, he handed a fresh shirt to Mrs. Buttons and fled the room.
Grant's growing need to have Vivien clothed and warm overrode any desire to see her naked. He caught only a brief glimpse of her body as he and the housekeeper worked to pull Vivien's arms through the long linen sleeves...but his brain gathered the image greedily and kept it to savor later.
Vivien wasn't perfect, but the promise of delight was captured in her imperfections. She was charmingly short-waisted, as so many petite women were, with gorgeous round br**sts and softly dimpled knees. Her smooth abdomen was crowned with a triangle of spicy red hair just a few shades darker than the sunset locks on her head. No wonder she was the most highly paid prostitute in England. She was lush, pretty, dainty...the kind of woman any man would want to keep in bed for days.
They weighted Vivien with linens and heavy blankets, and Mrs. Buttons wrapped her stiff, salttainted hair in one of the towels Kellow had brought. "She's a lovely woman," the housekeeper said, her face softening with reluctant pity. "And young enough to change her life for the better. I hope the Lord will choose to spare her."
"She won't die," Grant said shortly. "I won't allow it." He touched the pure ivory curve of Vivien's forehead, using his thumb to brush a tendril of hair beneath the towel. Carefully he laid a cold cloth over a bruise at her temple. "Though it seems someone will be disappointed by her survival."
"Pardon, sir, but I don't follow...oh." Her eyes widened as Grant's fingertips swept gently over Vivien's throat, indicating the shadowy bruises that encircled her slim neck. "It looks as if someone tried to...to..."
"Strangle her," he said matter-of-factly.
"Who would do such a thing?" Mrs. Buttons wondered aloud, her forehead creased with horror.
"Most often in the case of a murdered woman, it's a husband or lover." His lips twitched with a humorless smile. "Females always seem to fear strangers, when it's usually the men they know who do them harm."
Shaking her head at the ugly thought, Mrs. Buttons stood and smoothed her apron. "If it pleases you, sir, I'll send up some salve for Miss Duvall's bruises and scrapes, and wait downstairs for the doctor's arrival."
Grant nodded, barely aware of the housekeeper leaving the room as he stared at Vivien's expressionless face. Gently he rearranged the cloth on her forehead. He stroked the curve of her pale cheek with a single fingertip, and made a sound of grim amusement in his throat. "I swore you would rue the day you made a fool of me, Vivien," he murmured. "But the opportunity has come a hell of lot sooner than I expected."
She found herself in a waking nightmare of cold and pain. The act of breathing was an unwelcome burden on her lungs. Her throat and chest were on fire, as if she had been scoured on the inside. Trying to speak, she emitted a rough, bleating sound, and flinched in agony. "Oh..."
Strong hands adjusted her position, wedging a pillow beneath her head and neck...brushing a straggling lock of hair away from her forehead. A growl of a voice fell on her ears. "Don't try to talk. Here, this will help." She felt the edge of a warm spoon against her lips and recoiled slightly. But the man beside her persisted, cupping a huge hand around the back of her head and bringing the spoon to her mouth once more. Her teeth clattered against the metal, her body seized by trembling she couldn't control. She swallowed a spoonful of hot sugared tea, though the movement of her throat muscles was pure agony.
"Good girl. Take another."
She forced herself to swallow a second spoonful, and a third. Her head was eased back to the pillow, and a sheaf of blankets was pulled snugly over her shoulders. Only then did she try to open her eyes, wincing as they smarted from the glow of a nearby lamp. A stranger was leaning over her, his face painted half in shadow, half in light. He was dark-haired and attractive, with no trace of boyishness in his features. His complexion was tanned and slightly weathered, the grain of black shaven whiskers lending a dark cast to his jaw. The hard planes of his face were complemented by a long nose and a generous mouth, and vivid green eyes. Strange, cynical, perceptive eyes, that seemed to look right through her.
"Die...?" she asked in a hoarse croak. It hurt to talk, to move, to breathe. Icy needles stung her inside and out, and a great vise around her lungs made it nearly impossible to draw in air. Worst of all was the violent shaking in every muscle, shudders that racked her bones and joints until she feared she would come apart. If only she could make herself be still for a moment. When she tried to hold herself rigid, the shaking only intensified. She was breaking to pieces, sinking, drowning.
"No, you're not going to die," he said quietly. "And the shaking will stop eventually. It often happens in cases like yours."
Cases like hers? What had happened? Why was she here? Her swollen eyes flooded with tears of confusion, and she bit her lip to keep from crying. "Thank you," she gasped, though she had no precise idea of what to thank him for. She groped for his hand, needing the reassurance of a human touch. He moved, sitting on the side of the bed, his weight depressing the mattress, and she felt him take her fingers in his large hand. The heat of his skin, the burning vitality of his grip, shocked her.
"Please don't let go," she whispered, clinging to him as if to a lifeline. "Please."
His formidable masculine face softened in the lamplight. A strange self-mockery gleamed in his fathomless green eyes. "I can't stand a woman's tears. Keep crying and I'll leave."
"Yes," she said, chewing harder on her lip. But the tears kept leaking out, and the stranger swore beneath his breath.
He gathered her in the mass of bedclothes and carefully pulled her into his arms, compressing her trembling limbs. She gasped at the relief of it. He was so infinitely strong, holding her hard against him. Resting her head on his shoulder, she crushed her cheek against the linen of his shirt. Her vision was filled with details of him: the smooth tanned skin, the neat question-mark shape of his ear, the silky-rough locks of dark brown hair cropped unfashionably close to his head.
"I'm s-so cold..." she said, her mouth close to his ear.
"Well, a swim in the Thames will do that to you," he said dryly. "Especially this time of year." She felt him breathe against her forehead, a rush of heat, and she was flooded with desperate gratitude. She never wanted to leave his arms.
Her tongue felt thick as she tried to moisten her cracked lips. "Who are you?"
"Don't you remember?"
"No, I..." Thoughts and images eluded her efforts to capture them. She couldn't remember anything. There was blankness in every direction, a great confounding void.
He eased her head back, his warm fingers cupping around the back of her neck. A slight smile tipped the corners of his mouth. "Grant Morgan." "What h-happened to me?" She struggled to think past the pain and the distracting tremors. "I-I was in the water..." She remembered the salty coldness burning her eyes and throat, blocking her ears, paralyzing her thrashing limbs. She had lost the battle for air, felt her lungs exploding, felt herself descending as if invisible hands pulled her from below. "S-someone pulled me out. Was it you?"
"No. A waterman found you and sent for a Runner. I happened to be the only one available tonight." His hand moved over her back in slow strokes. "How did you end up in the river, Vivien?"
"Vivien?" she repeated in desperate confusion. "Why did you call me that?"
There was a moment of silence that terrified her. He expected her to recognize the name...Vivien...She struggled to think of some meaning or image to attach to the name. There was only blankness.
"Who is Vivien?" Her sore throat clenched until she could barely produce a sound. "What's happening to me?"
"Calm down," he said. "Don't you know your own name?"
"No...I don't know, I...can't rememberanything..." She shuddered with frightened sobs. "Oh...I'm going to be sick."
Morgan moved with remarkable quickness, snatching up a creamware bowl from the bedside table and lowering her head over it. Dry heaves racked her body. When the convulsion passed, she hung limply over his arm and shivered miserably. He lowered her onto his lap and rested her head against his hard thigh.
"Help me," she moaned.
Long fingers slid gently over the side of her face. "It's all right. Don't be afraid."
Incredibly, though it was clear that nothing was right and there was a great deal to fear, she took comfort in his voice, his touch, his presence. His hands moved tenderly over her body, soothing her shaking limbs. "Breathe," he said, his palm moving in circles on the middle of her chest, and somehow she drew in a gulp of air. Hazily she wondered if this was what it felt like when heavenly spirits visited to minister to the suffering...Yes, an angel's touch must be like this.
"My head hurts," she croaked. "I feel so strange...Have I gone mad? Where am I?"
"Rest," he said. "We'll sort everything out later. Just rest."
"Tell me your name again," she begged in a hoarse whisper.
"My name is Grant. You're in my home...and you're safe."
Somehow through her misery, she sensed his ambivalence toward her, his wish to remain remote and unfeeling. He hadn't wanted to be kind to her, but he couldn't help himself. "Grant," she repeated, catching at the warm hand on her chest, feebly pressing it against her heart. "Thank you." She felt him go very still, his thigh tautening under the weight of her head. Exhausted, she closed her eyes and went to sleep in his lap. Grant eased Vivien onto the pillows and tucked her neatly beneath the covers. He struggled to make sense of what was happening. He had helped women in trouble too many times to count. By now he was no longer capable of being moved by the sight of a damsel in distress. It was better for the people he served, not to mention himself, to remain efficiently impassive and get the job done. He hadn't wept in years. Nothing could break through the protective shell that had formed around his heart.
But Vivien, in all her damaged beauty and unexpected sweetness, had affected him more than he would have believed possible. He couldn't ignore a chord of elemental pleasure at seeing her in his home...in his bed.
His palm tingled at the feel of her heartbeat, as if the rhythm of her life force were captured beneath his hand. He wanted very much to stay with her, to hold her, not out of passion but from a desire to give her the warmth and protection of his own body.
Grant scrubbed his hands roughly over his face, through his short hair, and stood with a growl. What the hell was the matter with him?
The memory of the one time he and Vivien had met, two months ago, was still fresh in his mind. He had seen Vivien at a birthday ball given by Lord Wentworth for his mistress. The ball had been attended by members of the demimonde, the halfworld of high-living prostitutes, gamblers, and dandies who were not fit for theton but considered themselves far above the working classes. Since Grant's position in society was well nigh impossible for anyone to define, he was invited to gatherings of every stratum of society, from the highest to the lowest. He associated with the morally righteous, the ethically questionable, and the overtly corrupt, belonging nowhere and everywhere.
The private ballroom, with its elaborate plasterwork scenes of Neptune, mermaids, porpoises, and fish, was a perfect backdrop for Vivien. She resembled a mermaid herself, wearing a green silk gown that clung to every curve of her body. The deep neckline and hem of the gown were trimmed with ruchings of white satin and dark green gauze, and the sleeves were mere wisps of gauze at the shoulders. It did not escape Grant's or any other man's attention that Vivien had dampened her skirts to cling more closely to her legs and hips, heedless of the bitter clime outside.
That first sight of her was like a blow to the stomach. She wasn't classically beautiful, but she was as vibrant as a flame, with an intriguing combination of sweetness and witchery in her face. Her mouth was a fantasy come true, tender, full, and unmistakably carnal. The mass of her sunset-red curls had been pinned at the crown of her head, exposing a vulnerable neck and the most beautiful ivory shoulders Grant had ever seen.
Becoming aware of his intent stare, Vivien looked back at him, her red lips curved in a smile that invited and taunted at the same time.
"Ah, you've noticed Miss Duvall, I see." Lord Wentworth appeared at Grant's side, a wry expression settling on his wrinkle-scored face. "I warn you, my friend, Vivien Duvall has left a trail of broken hearts in her wake."
"Whom does she belong to?" Grant murmured, knowing that a woman of her beauty would not be unattached.
"Lord Gerard, until quite recently. He was invited to attend the ball, but declined without giving an explanation. It is my belief that he's licking his wounds in private while Vivien searches for a new protector." Wentworth chuckled at Grant's speculative expression. "Don't even consider it, man."
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com