"Thank you, but I have no money," Victoria said in a low tone, jerking her arm free and walking away.
The fortune-teller persisted, however, following with a spry step and catching once more at her wrist. "I'll tell it fer nothing, luv!" Her voice rose to an inviting screech not unlike the parrots at the bird dealer's. "Come one an' all...Who wants to 'ear the lovely lass's fortune?"
Realizing the woman intended to use her as some kind of advertisement, Victoria pulled hard against the restraining clutch of her hand. "No," she said sharply. "Let me go."
The minor scuffle attracted a few gazes, and Victoria glanced warily over the crowd as she broke free from the fortune-teller. Suddenly she caught sight of a gentleman's pale gray hat, and her chest contracted painfully with alarm. It looked exactly like the one Mr. Keyes wore. But he couldn't have followed her so quickly, could he?
She searched for another glimpse of the hat, but it was gone. Perhaps she had imagined it, she thought anxiously, and hurried eastward toward the massive pillared portico of the opera house. The towering height of the four fluted columns that fronted the building made the swarming public look like a colony of ants. Some sort of protest was being staged, a mob in front shouting at the closed doors. Gentlemen and beggars alike contributed to the tumult, all of them barking and braying about a recent increase in admittance prices.
"Old prices!" many of the disgruntled patrons were calling. "We want old prices!"
"Too high, too high!" others screamed.
Plunging into the noisy throng, Victoria pushed her way deep into the crowd until she came to the lee of one of the Doric columns. Leaning back against the cold stone, she stood very still, pulse thrumming, while the crowd surged and booed and moved around her. She stared fixedly at the reliefs set in the panel before her, a carved figure of Shakespeare, the Muses, and above it, a statue of Comedy set in a niche.
Keyes was following her; she couldfeel it.
Keyes thought she was Vivien, and he was going to kill her either out of vengeance or because he had been hired to do so. If he knew she had left the house, he would guess that her first thought of sanctuary was number 4 Bow Street. He would do everything in his power to stop her from reaching Sir Ross.
Suddenly Victoria experienced a flare of anger at the unjust situation. She was in danger through no fault of her own. She had come to London out of worry for her sister, and then one bizzare event after another had led to this.
It seemed the sky opened up, torrents of water suddenly breaking through the air, causing the mob to disperse rapidly and search for shelter. The heavy splashing rain saturated the scene, sluicing over umbrellas and hats, soaking through clothes and shoes.
Taking a deep breath, Victoria looked around the column again and glanced over the crowd. She caught sight of the gray hat again, and terror shot through her as she recognized Keyes. He was standing perhaps fifty yards away as he questioned someone, his face set and cold, his posture betraying extreme tension. "Oh, God," she whispered.
As if he sensed her gaze, Keyes turned and looked directly at her. His expressionless face suddenly contorted angrily. He shoved the man he was questioning out of the way and started for Victoria with murder in his eyes. Victoria bolted at once, pushing her way through the scattering throng and running alongside the opera house. She saw the corner of Russell Street and tripped on the cobbled carriageway. She fought to regain her balance, aware that Keyes was closing the distance between them.You won't stop me , she thought with grim determination. Shewould reach Bow Street, damn him...She had come too far to fail now.
Grant hurtled through his own front door, his face white as a skull as he beheld the unusual gathering of servants in the entrance hall, footmen and housemaids clustered around Mrs. Buttons.
"Mr. Morgan!" the housekeeper exclaimed, rushing forward without her usual calm dignity. She seemed anxious, perplexed, a few skeins of her graying hair escaping the usually immaculate coil atop her head. Grant had never seen her in such disarray.
"Where is she?" he asked savagely, though his insides were already screaming in denial at the obvious answer.
"Thank the Lord you're back," Mrs. Buttons chattered nervously. "I was about to take it upon myself to send a note to Bow Street, as we didn't know when you might return, and I thought it important to verify Sir Ross's request--"
"What the devil are you talking about?" He glanced at the assembled servants with their funereal expressions. "Where is Victoria?" he snapped.
The question caused all the faces in the entrance hall to pucker in confusion. "Victoria?" the housekeeper repeated bemusedly.
Grant shook his head impatiently. "Vivien. Miss Duvall. The woman who has been living here for the past few weeks, dammit. Where is she? Where is Keyes?"
A moment of heavy silence ensued, charging his nerves with immediate alarm and fury. No one wanted to answer him, he realized, and in his consternation he barked out a question at a volume that made all of them jump. "Someone tell me what's happened, damn you!"
Mary stepped forward, her shoulders slumped and her head slightly ducked, as if she suspected he might be tempted to strike her. "It was my fault, sir," she said in a small voice. "I saw Miss Duvall leave the house. On the servants' stairs, heading to the outside door by the kitchen. She asked me not to tell anyone. She said it was life and death to her. But I thought 'twould be best to go to Mrs. Buttons, and so I did."
Grant's blood pumped brutally hard, causing a drumming noise in his ears. "Life and death," he repeated thickly. Victoria had somehow realized the danger she was in, and bolted.
Mrs. Buttons smoothed her hands repeatedly on her apron front, as if she couldn't seem to blot her palms thoroughly enough. "You see, sir, Mr. Keyes said immediately upon his arrival that Sir Ross had asked him to bring Miss Duvall to Bow Street. His manner was rather odd and cold. In the years that I've been acquainted with him, I've never seen him quite like this. It was clear Miss Duvall did not want to go away with him, but she asked leave to change into her walking shoes. And while we waited for her in the library, she slipped out of the house. I suppose any woman in her position would be a bit fearful of strangers."
"I watched her from the window as she left." Mary interceded. "She was heading to the market, it looked like. With Mr. Keyes going right after her."
"She's going to Bow Street," Grant muttered. As far as Victoria knew, it was the only place of safety other than this house. He snapped out a command for one of the footmen to take a horse and ride hell-for-leather to Bow Street. "Tell Cannon to call out every man available. Tell him to cover every inch of Covent Garden and the surrounding streets with constables, Runners, and watchmen until Miss Duvall and Keyes are both found. Now,hurry --I want your arse in Cannon's office in less than five minutes."
"Yes, sir." The footman headed for the back of the house in an outright run, taking the shortest possible route to the stables.
Grant charged outside, barely aware of the rain that soaked his hair and clothes. A strange feeling had taken hold of him, a fear he had never experienced before. He had never given a thought to his own safety, had known that he possessed sufficient wits and physical strength to muddle through whatever danger he found himself in. But this fear for someone else, this blend of love and terror and fury, was the worst kind of agony.
He ran toward Covent Garden at a breakneck pace, while animals and carriages sloshed through the wet, dirty streets and pedestrians scattered for cover from the storm. If anything happened to Victoria...The thought caused a hellish pain in his chest, making his lungs feel as if they were filled with fire rather than air.
He passed the churchyard of St. Paul's, the sacred ground layered with two centuries worth of human remains. The charnel scent of accumulated bones greeted him as he cornered the eastern portico of the church. Covent Garden spread before him, a massive intermingling of traffic and squalor. Pickpockets, procurers, thieves, bloods, and bullies wandered freely about the place...and all of them would take a great interest in an unaccompanied woman with a pretty face and red hair. Panic welled inside him as he debated whether Victoria might have skirted around the Garden and traveled through the dark alleys filled with vagrants and criminals, or possibly gone straight through the market square. He had to find her before Keyes did. "Victoria, where are you?" he said beneath his breath, his frustration doubling with each minute that passed. It took all his self-control to keep from bellowing the question aloud.
Blinking hard against the deluge, using both hands to wipe the streaming water from her face, Victoria blundered down a side street that branched from Russell, and realized in despair that she was heading in the wrong direction. She should have reached Bow Street by now. If only she knew the way. If only a few more minutes had passed before Keyes had learned of her absence.
The hem of her rain-soaked skirts tangled around her ankles as she ran farther into an accretion of dilapidated buildings. As everywhere else in London, there was a jumble of whorehouses, thieves' kitchens, and slum cottages tucked behind the clean, well-fronted high streets. Without pausing to glance over her shoulder, Victoria darted into the nearest place of refuge. She hurried down the basement steps of a two-story building, with signs outside identifying it as a betting shop.
Struggling to catch her breath, she opened a wooden door and plunged into the shadowy, lamplit basement room. It was filled with at least a dozen men, all of them too engrossed in the proceedings to immediately notice her presence. Gentleman and louts alike huddled at a counter lined with tobacco jars and cigar bundles, studying lists of odds on the back wall. A bookmaker wearing heavy leather pouches at each hip swaggered behind the counter and conducted transactions at a rapid pace. "...got an 'eavy bag against all comers..." he was proclaiming, stroking the ends of his curly sideburns with thumb and forefinger, then jotting down bets with a stubby pencil.
There was a rank masculine smell in the air, a mixture of sweat, tobacco, and rain-dampened wool and broadcloth. Shrinking into a corner, Victoria yanked her hood down low over her face and waited with her arms wrapped tightly around herself. She prayed silently that Keyes would pass the betting shop and continue searching for her elsewhere. However, she feared the hope was futile. This area of London was well known to Keyes, as all the Runners were routinely assigned to comb through the rookeries in search of criminals. This was what the Runners excelled at--hunting and catching their prey.
"Well, now." A gentleman's cultured voice interrupted her thoughts, and a pair of black Hessian boots approached her. "It seems a pretty little bird has found a dry place to perch during the storm."
The betting was temporarily interrupted as Victoria's presence became noticed. Biting her lower lip, she steeled herself not to flinch as the man pulled away her concealing hood. She heard his breath catch, and a meaty hand reached for a damp lock of her glowing red hair. "A lovely bit of goods," he said thickly, and laughed while his gaze roved over her. "What business are you about, little bird? Searching for an evening's companion? You've found your man, then. I've got a nice big coin in my pocket for you."
"That's not all 'e's got in 'is pocket, I'll wager," someone said, and a rumble of masculine laughter ensued.
Miserably aware that she was becoming the focus of all attention, Victoria stared steadily into the man's face. He had the appearance of a gentleman, perhaps even a member of the lower nobility, his round face clean-shaven, his stocky form clad in coffee-brown breeches, a high-collared broadcloth coat, and a fancifully tied cravat.
"Someone was bothering me in the marketplace," she said in a low voice. "I though to avoid him by hiding here for a few minutes." He clucked his tongue in false sympathy and slid an arm around her back in an insultingly familiar manner. "Poor dove. I'll give you all the protection you desire." He reached for the bodice of her premise and began to pluck at the fastenings, ignoring her outraged gasp. "No need to protest--I just want to have a look at the goods."
Now the full attention of the room was on them. Even the bookmaker had taken pause to watch the goings-on, joining in the shouts of encouragement as the men clamored to see what was concealed beneath the premise.
"I came here to avoid being molested by one man," Victoria said, pushing his hands away and retreating farther into the corner. "I'm not looking for another."
The oaf merely grinned at the comment, clearly thinking she was playing a game with him. "I'm offering you a night with a randy stallion, and a generous reward for your services," he said. "What more could any woman want?"
"I'll giveyou a reward if you help me to Bow Street," she countered. "Surely you've heard of Mr. Grant Morgan, the Runner. I know he would consider it a personal favor if you would take me there safely."
Some of the lust seemed to fade from his expression, and he looked at her with new interest. "Yes, I've heard of Morgan. What connection do you have with him?"
A tendril of relief broke through her agitation. Grant's name had definitely captured his attention. If this man could somehow be persuaded to take her to Bow Street, she would be safe from Keyes. In her eagerness to convince him to help her, she caught at his sleeve and held it tightly. Before she could say a word, however, someone entered the betting shop.
After one glimpse of the man's gray hat, Victoria gave a muffled exclamation of fright. "It's him," she said shakily.
"The man who was bothering you?" her selfstyled protector asked.
Victoria nodded, her throat closing as she stared at Keyes. He was breathing rapidly from exertion, his face set and furious. As soon as he saw her, his eyes gleamed with mean-spirited triumph.
"I'm a Bow Street Runner in pursuit of a suspect," he said in a cold, clear voice. "Give the woman to me."
The announcement of a Runner on the premises caused a hubbub of consternation throughout the small crowd. The bookmaker came out from behind the counter and began an angry rant. "I'm running a straight business, I am! What will it take to keep you pigs out o' my lister?" It was well known that bookmakers and Runners despised each other, as the authorities were often wont to sift through the betting shops in search of criminals. Runners considered the bookies to be one small step above actual criminals, and usually treated them as such.
"I'm about the Crown's business," Keyes said sharply, coming toward Victoria. "I'll thank you to hand over the wench, as she is wanted for questioning."
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com