A plump woman with well-muscled arms was pulling a flat of large buns from the depths of an inglenook hearth. "Will ye have some baked goods, sir?"
Grant shook his head. "Thank you, but I'm looking for White Rose Cottage...Can you tell me where to find it?"
"Aye. For years it was occupied by the village schoolmaster and his daughter, the Devanes. A lovely pair, they were, always up to their ears in books and surrounded by children. But poor Mr. Devane died two years ago of a weak heart. His daughter still abides there. Follow Cottage Street to the lane that goes past the Church of All Angels. Out in the heathland, ye'll see the cottage. Mind ye don't frighten the girl, she's a timid sort. We've not seen her in town for weeks. Just the maid." She paused and asked with a slight frown, "May I ask what yer business with her is, sir?"
He smiled. "You may ask, but I won't tell."
The baker's wife chuckled. "I would say she's a fortunate girl, to have a big handsome lad appear on her doorstep. Fare-thee-well!"
Returning to his carriage, Grant urged the horses forward with an impatient flick of the ribbons. The light curricle bounced and jostled along the uneven road, until Grant arrived at the thatched and timbered cottage. The little structure stood at the end of the lane in a profusion of rosebushes. It was so quiet that Grant could hear the dragonflies' wings beating the air, and the drone of insects browsing among the flowers. The heavy, powdery scent of roses surrounded him as he approached the arched doorway bordered with thick wooden posts. The cottage looked like an illustration for a fairy tale, with a stone garden shed nearby and a brook trickling amidst a grove of yew and willow.
Unconsciously Grant held his breath as he knocked at the door with two knuckles. He sensed movement within the house, a scrape, a whisper, a sudden awareness that a stranger had come to call. After what seemed an interminably long wait, he knocked again, this time using the side of his fist.
A young cook-maid came to the door, dark hair tucked beneath a blue cap, her face uncertain. "Good day, sir," she murmured.
"I'd like to speak with the lady who lives here."
"She's not at home, sir." The girl didn't lie well. "No one's at home."
Ironically Grant reflected that no one was ever "at home" when a Runner came to call. "Go fetch her," he advised softly. "I have little time, and even less patience."
The cook-maid flushed with obvious distress. "Please, sir, won't you go away?"
Before he could reply, a cool, velvety voice came from inside the cottage. "I'll speak to him, Jane. Perhapsthis will be suitable inducement for him to leave."
Grant shoved the door open wide. A woman was standing in the central room of the cottage. She wore a gown of sprigged muslin, the dainty fabric draped over the burgeoning swell of her stomach. Rapidly Grant's gaze moved over her pregnant form, and lingered at the pistol held in one small, steady hand.
The weapon wavered slightly as she saw his face. "My God," she gasped. "It's you. Morgan."
"Vivien?" He identified her in a tone loaded with dark irony. "Or are there more than two of you running around England?"
Victoria. Finally he had discovered his beloved's name. Grant had repeated it to himself at frequent intervals during his journey back to London.
Victoria and Vivien were indeed twins. Vivien had changed her last name to Duvall when she had begun her career as a courtesan. Victoria had remained in Forest Crest with her father.
There had been a feeling of warmth and coziness about White Rose Cottage, though it was clear that the Devanes had been genteelly poor. The place had been piled with books in every conceivable corner, ancient volumes with ragged covers. Small paintings of village scenes had covered the walls, executed in an amateurish but cheerful style. They had all been signed by the same person. Victoria Devane.
After talking with Vivien this afternoon, Grant still found it impossible to believe that two women who were identical on the outside could be complete opposites in every other way. Victoria was an innocent country gentlewoman who spent her time reading, teaching the local children, painting, gathering armfuls of heather in the meadow. Vivien, by contrast, was pleasure-loving and self-serving...with a moral compass that was most definitely skewed. A remnant of their conversation lingered in Grant's mind, the moment when he had accused Vivien of intentionally luring her innocent sister to London in the hopes of deflecting the danger from herself.
"You threw her to the wolves to save yourself," Grant had said with chilling matter-of-factness. "You wanted her to be mistaken for you, and she was. And after conveniently disposing of her, you decided to live here and pretend to be her."
The ugly accusation had caused the muscles of Vivien's face to work angrily. She had sounded like a hissing feline as she replied. "I chose to stay here because I'm hardly in a condition to go search for my missing sister. I've been worried sick about where she has been and what might have happened to her. I thought for certain that if she went to London to discover I wasn't there, she'd come home. And for your information, I sent a message warning hernot to come to town!"
"This one?" he had sneered, withdrawing the letter from his breast pocket.
Receiving the folded parchment, Vivien had read it quickly. "How did you get this?" "You left it at Dr. Linley's office."
"I did not!" she had said heatedly. "I posted it as soon as..." She had stopped suddenly, her fingers fluttering to her lips, and her voice had dwindled away. "I must have," she had eventually whispered. "I'm almost positive I sent the letter, but...there were so many things to worry with...Oh, God!" She had dropped the letter as if it were a snake, and stared at it sullenly. "I never wanted Victoria to come to town. It was her own fault for intruding where she wasn't wanted. I refuse to feel guilty for what happened to her, when she should have had the sense to stay here."
"No one's asking you to feel guilty," Grant had returned evenly. "All I'm asking you to do is help me--and your sister--by answering a few questions."
Vivien had complied at once, making it clear that she was more than ready to dispel the threat hanging over her head. "I'll tell you everything you want to know," she had said. "However, after we're finished, there is someone else you will want to talk to. Lord Lane."
Unfortunately Lord Lane was not to be found at his London residence this evening. Having managed to pry his whereabouts from the butler, Grant had learned that Lane spent most of his spare time at his club, Boodles, a haven for titled country gentlemen who preferred to discuss hunting over politics.
With the sky rumbling moodily and darkness descending, Grant drove his carriage to St. James Street. He was impatient and tired of traveling, and more than anything he wanted to return to Victoria.
He was filled with anticipation as he considered the moment when he would finally reach her and explain everything...her name, her identity, the hows and whys of all that had happened to her. He wanted to make her feel safe and secure. She had been through so much, and he wanted her to understand that the worst was over. From now on he would make her life comfortable, pleasurable, if only she would allow him.
Grant had never felt like this before, his head filled with plans for the future, his mood damned close to optimistic. He would conclude the mess involving Vivien Duvall, and then he was going to set about making himself happy with Victoria. After years of serving as a Runner, he was getting damned tired of alley fights and subduing riots, and chasing criminals through rookeries and cess-trenches. It was time to let some other poor bastard do the footwork...time for him to find some enjoyment and pleasure in life.
Boodle's, named after the club's original head-waiter, was an intentionally dull place where gentlemen could find peace and relaxation. They sat in heavy upholstered chairs, held cigars and brandies, and viewed the paintings of hunting, shooting, and other country pursuits. The only sounds in the benign atmosphere were the occasional rustle of a newspaper and the murmur of a servant attending the gentlemen in the coffee room. It was the kind of place that would never voluntarily admit Grant. He might have sufficient fortune, but he didn't have the distinguished family name or the country estate, and his hunting was usually confined to catching human prey.
As Grant entered the club, he paused to glance in the famous bow window where gentlemen sat and smoked. He was immediately approached by a butler who seemed none too pleased to see him.
"Sir?" The butler's face had all the expressiveness of a sea bass. "May I ask your business?"
"I was told I could find Lord Lane here. I'm Morgan, from the Bow Street office." A tiny glint of surprise appeared in the butler's eyes. Clearly it was inconceivable that a patron of Boodle's could be involved in any way with Bow Street affairs. "Is Lord Lane expecting you, Mr. Morgan?"
"Then you will have to seek him out at some other time, sir. And in some other place." Dismissively the butler reached for the edge of the door, preparing to usher Grant out.
A large, booted foot was planted firmly in the door's path, and Grant smiled insolently at the butler. "Forgive me, I've given you the wrong impression. You seem to think I was asking for permission. The fact is, I'mgoing to see Lord Lane. Tonight. Here. Now...will you tell me which room he's in, or shall I search the place myself? Mind you, I'm not always tidy in my searches. Things sometimes get broken."
The butler's face stiffened with panic as he envisioned the havoc one large, irritable Bow Street Runner could wreak in the quiet club. "This is most untoward," he gasped. "You mustn't disturb the patrons. Most appalling. I believe Lord Lane is in the coffee room. If you are capable of exercising the least amount of discretion, I beg you--"
"I'm the most discreet man I know," Grant assured him with a flashing grin. "Settle your feathers--I'll have a chat with Lane and be gone before your patrons have even noticed me."
"I doubt that," the butler said, watching in dismay as the intruder strode into the hallowed terrain.
Clusters of silent gentlemen sat at the round tables, reclining in Hepplewhite chairs upholstered in horsehair. A chandelier with chunky crystal drops was suspended from the white-paneled, vaulted ceiling. A somber painting of a stag hunt loomed over the mantelpiece, lending a solid masculine ambience to the room. Heads turned as Grant entered the coffee room, and a score of judgmental glances passed over his travel-dusty clothes and short, rumpled hair. Refusing to look gracefully abashed by his own appearance, Grant stared speculatively at each table, until he saw one man sitting alone near the fire.
The gentleman was lean and long-limbed, with iron-gray hair and an angular, deeply lined face. Staring down the length of his hawklike nose, he concentrated on a newspaper. A plate set before him contained biscuits, a spoonful of ripe Stilton, and a dab of red preserves.
Grant approached his table with a measured stride. "Lord Lane," he said quietly. The man did not look up from his paper, though he surely had heard. "I'm Morgan, of the Bow Str--"
"I know who you are," Lane murmured, appearing to finish one last paragraph before deigning to set aside the paper. His voice was cultured but exceptionally dry and brittle, like the sound of old bones rubbing together.
"I want to talk with you."
Lane's oddly colorless eyes surveyed him coldly. "How dare you approach me in my club!"
"We can go somewhere else if you like," Grant offered, in an overly polite manner that was unmistakably mocking. "What I would like, Morgan, is for you to leave."
"I'm afraid I can't oblige you, my lord. What I have to discuss can't wait. Now...shall we talk here in front of your friends, or in one of the private rooms?"
Lane glanced at a nearby servant, who surveyed them anxiously from the side of the room. The servant was clearly at a loss to know how to handle the unexpected intrusion. "I believe I'll have the club management arrange for your removal from the premises," Lane said, snapping his fingers at the servant, who approached them with alacrity.
Grant held up one hand in a restraining gesture and waved the servant back to his place by the wall. He smiled at Lane without warmth. "I'm not in the mood to play games, my lord. In fact, I'm this close"--he indicated a space of a quarter inch between his thumb and forefinger--"to dragging you out of here and taking you to the Bow Street holding room for questioning."
A flush of outrage crested Lord Lane's slanted cheeks. "You wouldn't dare."
"Oh, I would," Grant assured him. "I'm vastly entertained by the notion of arresting a member of Boodle's right in the coffee room--just to show the club patrons that it can be done. But I'll restrain myself, milord, if you make an effort to be accommodating and provide the answers I'm seeking."
Lane's eyes blazed with impotent fury. "You filthy piece of gutter scum--"
"I know, I know." Grant signaled to the servant, who crept forward uneasily. "A carafe of coffee, please. Black." He paused and arched an expectant brow at Lane. "Where shall we talk, my lord?"
"Is room number four vacant?" Lane growled at the servant.
"I believe so, milord."
"Number four it is," Grant said. "I'll take my coffee there."
With the attention of the entire room on them, the two men walked past the tables and crossed the threshold. They went down a hallway to a succession of private rooms.
"You have no idea of the extent of my influence," Lane sneered. "I can have your chief magistrate replaced in a day, if I so desire. I can have you placed in chains for your insolence, you ignorant mongrel!"
"Let's discuss Vivien Duvall," Grant suggested softly.
Lord Lane's color, which was not good to start with, faded to a shade of aged parchment. "What in God's name are you talking about?"
The servant entered the room with a tray of coffee and biscuits, poured a cup of the brew for Grant, and departed speedily. When the door was firmly closed, Grant downed half the coffee in a single swallow and lifted a steady gaze to Lane's watchful face. "Someone attempted to murder her a month ago," he said. "I suspect you may be able to shed some light on the matter." The name caused the elderly man to grit his teeth angrily. "I refuse to say anything in connection with that malicious slut."
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