Keyes looked back at her, catching the flare of tension in her face. "We don't have long, Miss Duvall."
She turned and left the room, forcing herself to walk normally even though panic had begun to leak and spread inside her. Breathing in deepening pants, she cast a quick glance over her shoulder. Keyes stood at the foot of the staircase, watching her intently. He looked like a malevolent demon planning to drag her into the bowels of hell.
All she wanted was the safety of her room, to close and lock the door and hide. The stairs loomed like a mountainside before her, and she stumbled a little as she lunged and climbed upward. After an eternity passed, she found herself before the door of her room. Clumsily she closed herself inside and stood there shuddering. She was lost in the sensation of drowning, straining to breathe, her limbs stiffening against the stabbing coldness that surrounded her."Grant." She tried to say his name in a desperate plea for help, but she had lost the ability to even whisper."Grant--"
And she sank to her knees as memory came rushing over her. The night of her attack...the silver-haired man with the merciless face...wiry hands locked around her throat, thumbs digging into her throat until her windpipe was crushed shut...She lost the struggle to breathe as the darkness consumed her...and then the punishing coldness of the river, the black water pulling her beneath the surface.
Mr. Keyes had done this to her. She knew it down to the bottom of her soul. He had tried to kill her, and failing once, he would try again.
A momentary sense of betrayal cut through her terror.
Grant...how could you send him here? How could you leave me here with him?
But it was not his fault, her heart insisted stubbornly. He would never have done this to her intentionally.
She was in danger, in the place that had been such a haven until this moment. Quaking, gasping, she crawled to the chamber pot concealed in the bedside cabinet and fumbled with the concealing door in front. But in a moment the rolling wave of nausea subsided, and she filled her lungs with huge gulps of air.
Closing her eyes, she leaned against the smooth side of the mahogany cabinet, savoring the coolness of the wood against her hot, damp face. For the first time in weeks, she knew her own name. "Victoria Devane," she said aloud. "I'm Victoria." Her lips moved in countless repetitions of the sounds...her name, herreal name. It was like a key that unlocked all the sealed places in her mind. Images of her past paraded before her...the country cottage where she spent her days occupied with books and visiting schoolchildren. Her friends from the village...a long-ago trip to the seashore...her father's funeral.
Closing her eyes tightly, she pictured the patient, kind face of her father. He had been a scholarly man, a philosopher, preferring his books to the harsh reality of the world outside. Victoria had adored him, and had spent hours and days reading alongside him.
She had never loved any man in the romantic sense, had never wanted to. Since her mother had left Forest Crest, Victoria had cared only for her father and seldom-seen sister...There had been no room for anyone else. Love was too dangerous; it was much better to stay alone and safe. In the quiet haven of the village, she had few responsibilities except to look after herself. She would never have ventured away had her irresponsible sister not landed herself in more trouble than she could manage.
The relief of rediscovering herself, her memories, her identity, was overwhelming. However, the man downstairs would not be convinced that she was anyone other than her sister.
"Oh, Vivien," she whispered shakily. "If I live through this, you have a great deal to answer for."
She wiped at a trickle of sweat that traveled down her cheek to the edge of her chin. She felt like a mouse trapped in a barrel with a cat. Her first impulse was to crawl into bed and pull the covers over her head, and hope that Keyes would leave her alone. But he would not, of course. He would insist on dragging her out of here, and the servants would do nothing to stop him. They would believe him over her...they would assume that her amnesia had made her unbalanced. Any claim she made that the respected Bow Street Runner was a vicious killer would never be accepted.
Wherever it was that Keyes wanted to take her, it certainly wasn't Bow Street. Desperately she tried to decide what to do. With Grant away, the only man she trusted to protect her was Sir Ross. She had to reach him right away. A shuddering sigh escaped her lips, and she blotted her moist forehead with her sleeve. She didn't know precisely where the Bow Street office was, only that it was located somewhere on the other side of Covent Garden. But it was such a well known place, surely it could not be that difficult to find.
She sprang into action before second thoughts occurred. Hurrying to the armoire, she found a dark green long-sleeved premise with a capuchin "monk's" hood that draped in concealing folds over her hair and face. After donning the garment and changing her shoes to ankle-high walking boots, she opened the bedroom door and glanced along the empty hallway.
She clenched the edge of the doorframe with shaking fingers. It was difficult to proceed with caution when every instinct screamed for her to dart forward like a terrified rabbit. Her veins pulsed with barely contained alarm. She took one cautious step into the hallway, then another, and broke into a rapid walk toward the stairs--not the main staircase, but the small, winding one the servants used at the back of the house. Gray light from the small-paned windows provided the barest excuse for illumination as she began a hasty descent along the narrow spiral of stairs. Her hand gripped the iron balustrade at frequent intervals, steadying her balance as her feet flew down the steps.
A shadowy shape materialized at the first-floor landing, and Victoria stopped with a scream climbing in her throat.Keyes , was her first thought...but immediately she realized that the form was that of a small woman. It was Mary, the housemaid, carrying a basket of folded linens.
The maid stopped and regarded her with surprise and confusion. "Miss Duvall?" she asked hesitantly. "What are you doing here, on the servants' stairs? Is there something I can fetch for you? What can I do--"
"Don't tell anyone you've seen me," Victoria said in a low, urgent voice. "Please,please, Mary. I want everyone to think I'm still in my room."
The housemaid's gaze seemed to question her sanity. "But where could you be going, with such a fearful storm collecting outside?"
"Promise me you won't tell anyone."
"When will you come back?" the housemaid asked worriedly. "Miss, if anything happens to you, and I didn't tell anyone that I saw you leave, I could lose my position. I could find myself on the streets! Oh, please, miss, don't go anywhere--"
"Mary," Victoria said desperately, "I don't have time to stand here. I'll return when Mr. Morgan has come home. But in the meantime, don't mention this to anyone. Or if you must, then at least wait a few minutes. It's life and death to me."
Victoria brushed by the maid and continued speedily to the basement. After reaching the final landing, she passed the door to the coal vault, and after that, the kitchen quarters. Mercifully she encountered no other servants as she went to the door that led outside and pushed it open.
The air was heavy and electric with the promise of rain. Inhaling deeply, Victoria crossed a small service road and hurried along the gravel path that led to the enclosed garden. Thick poplar hedges protruded over the top of the ivy-covered brick walls. She passed beneath a pedimented arch and ran the length of the fifty-foot-long garden, skirting around a stone table surrounded by windsor chairs and stone pots of flowering nectarine trees. Her heart began to thump with exertion, but her pace did not lessen as she exited the door at the back of the garden. With each step she took away from the main house, a feeling of hope and relief surged inside. She edged around the stables and coach house, and strode swiftly through the mews that bordered the back row King Street town houses.
There was no doubt in her mind that leaving the house was the right thing to do. Let Keyes stay there and assume he had cornered her. She would be long gone by the time he realized she had disappeared. Victoria imagined his frustration upon discovering that she had already left, and a nervous, almost giddy laugh broke from her lips. She quickened her step, heading toward the welcome bustle and mayhem of Covent Garden.
The large, smooth stones of the carriageway became rough and pebbled as it led to the Garden piazza. Victoria kept to the paved walkway, pulling her hood low over her face. She brushed by mop trundlers washing soil from the walkways of elegant houses, lamplighters climbing to the suspended globes of oil lamps hung from iron brackets, and itinerant musicians playing fiddles and tambourines. The street rumbled with wagons, drays, carriages, and animals, a mass of sound that assaulted her ears.
A few more drops of rain fell, promising relief from the odors of smoke and manure that wafted through the hazy air. The storm was holding back, however, as if waiting for a cue to begin. Ladies with metal patten rings on their feet made clinking sounds on the pavement, while gentlemen kept their umbrellas tucked tightly beneath their arms and cast furtive glances at the blanket of clouds overhead. The premature darkness threw an ominous cast over the scene, and Victoria shivered beneath the folds of her premise.
Bow Street was just a short walk away, she told herself. She would cross through Covent Garden, remaining as inconspicuous as possible, and then she would reach the safety of Cannon's office.
At Mr. Keyes's request, Mrs. Buttons brought wine as they waited for Vivien to return downstairs. Holding the stem of the rare Charles I silver wine goblet between his thumb and forefinger, Keyes examined the piece closely. Its shape was elegantly simple, the rim slightly flared, the bowl smooth and highly polished. "Morgan's done very well for himself," he mused aloud, his tone not altogether admiring. "Wealthier than any Runner I've ever known. Has a knack for making the chinks, doesn't he?"
"Mr. Morgan works very hard, sir," the housekeeper replied, feeling vaguely defensive on her employer's behalf. Morgan was a clever, brave, and celebrated man--it was only right that he had been generously rewarded for his accomplishments.
"No harder than the rest of us," Keyes observed, his mouth shaping into a smile, his eyes remaining cool. "Yethe lives like a king, whereas I..." His voice faded, and his expression turned blank, as if he had regretted the words.
"Well," Mrs. Buttons said, concealing her own touch of discomfort, "I would like to thank you on behalf of Mr. Morgan's staff for taking care of Miss Duvall. We have confidence that she will be as safe under your protection as she would be with Mr. Morgan himself."
"Yes," he said beneath his breath, "I'll take care of his precious pet."
Mrs. Buttons cocked her head, not certain she had heard correctly. "Sir?" Before any reply could be made, they were interrupted by a small dark-haired housemaid, whose face was taut and streaked with tears. She was highly agitated, her hands gathered into trembling fists. "Mrs. Buttons, ma'am," she said in a small voice, standing half hidden at the side of the doorway. "Mrs. Buttons, I thought I should come to you right away, even though she asked me not to...Oh, I don't know what to do, but I wouldn't hurt her for the world, truly!"
"Mary," the housekeeper said in concern, approaching her immediately, while Keyes straightened in his chair.
"What is it?" he asked sharply. "Whom are you referring to? Is it Miss Duvall?"
The maid gave a jerky nod. "She's gone, sir."
"Gone?" Mrs. Buttons repeated in surprise, while Keyes shot up from his chair.
"What the hell do you mean, gone?" His tone turned ugly, and the women's gazes focused on him in surprise.
The maid replied in an incoherent jumble. "N-not five minutes ago...I passed her on the servants' stairs, and she s-said for me not to...Oh, I should never have told, except...well, she's indanger out there, isn't she?" She gazed at the housekeeper in abject misery. "Mrs. Buttons, have I done wrong?"
"No, Mary," the housekeeper soothed, patting the girl's arm. "You did exactly as Mr. Morgan would have wished you to."
"The damned bitch," Keyes exploded, throwing his goblet to the floor, heedless of the wine spilling over the fine hand-knotted carpet. An ugly blood-colored stain sank quickly into the yellow and blue pattern. "She won't get away from me," he vowed, striding from the room and bellowing for his coat and hat.
Mrs. Buttons rubbed her forehead as a small, insistent ache began in the front of her skull. Uneasy speculation carved deep lines into her features. "He is behaving oddly," she said, more to herself than the girl beside her. "It's plain he has no great liking for our Miss Duvall."
"I hope he finds her," Mary remarked in a subdued tone. "Then she'll be safe, won't she?"
The housekeeper did not answer, only wandered to the entrance hall and flinched as the heavy door slammed closed behind the departing Runner.
Though Covent Garden had begun as a pair of aristocratic piazzas containing spacious town mansions and a small church designed by Inigo Jones, it had undergone many incarnations in the passing centuries. In its present condition, it boasted of the most famous theaters in the world, not to mention coffeehouses filled with writers, artists, and musicians. A spectacularly large covered market had extended its tentacles outward from the piazzas into the surrounding streets and alleyways. It was at least an acre wide, attracting noise and bustle that only seemed to grow with each passing year. The nobility had long since evacuated their fine mansions, of course, and now the stately old buildings with majestic staircases were occupied by shops, taverns, and figures of the London underworld.
Cautiously Victoria stepped beneath the arches of the covered arcade, where people milled around shops and stalls. She blended into the crowd at once, letting the current push her past a profusion of flower baskets and old women who made bouquets on request. Dozens of hands skimmed over piles of vegetables, plucking and gathering the choicest ones for purchase. Strings of eels hung over fish stalls, where men deftly cleaned and gutted the freshest catch and wrapped them. A bird dealer held a screeching parrot aloft on his gloved hand, while cages of canaries, larks, and owls raucously advertised their availability for sale.
Victoria passed the doorway of an herb and root shop, where glass containers of leeches were lined along wooden shelves, and a perfumery with a window full of unguents, creams, and heavily fragrant oils encased in colored glass jars.
"'Ere, luv," came a cackling cry, and Victoria turned with a start as a clawlike hand caught at her sleeve. A diminutive, gaudily dressed old woman wearing bangles, scarves, and red skirts held tightly to her arm. "Let me tell yer fortune, dearie...a shilling to learn the secrets of tomorrow! Only a shilling, mind ye...an' wiv a face like yers, what a fine future it may be!"
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com