"This is nothing. I've seen the place when the walls are straining at the seams." Looking over the crowd, Grant nodded to a plump silver-haired housekeeper who was attempting to direct the flow of human traffic to the appropriate rooms. Catching his gaze, she hurried over to him. She stopped short, her mouth forming a round O of dismay. "Dear, me," she murmured, her gaze traveling from his wet, filthy, disheveled form to Victoria's. "The two of you are a sight, Mr. Morgan."
Grant's mouth curved in a faint smile, but it was clear he was in no mood for conversation. "I need to see Cannon now," he said curtly. "We only have a few minutes. Miss Duvall...that is, Miss Devane...has been through an ordeal and requires rest."
"Yes, of course." The housekeeper regarded Victoria with kindly concern. "Come this way at once, please." She urged them through the bustling crowd and brought them to Sir Ross's office, a small room with rectangular windows facing the street. The office was furnished with oak pieces, ponderous bookshelves, and a library terrestrial globe.
Sir Ross, who was talking with two men who appeared to be clerks or assistants of some kind, stopped in midsentence as Grant brought Victoria into the room. "Morgan," he said, his gray eyes flashing as he stared at the two of them. "Where is Keyes?"
"He'll be brought here soon," Grant said flatly.
Somehow, Cannon seemed to understand exactly what had happened just by reading Grant's face. He closed his eyes, and his shoulders slumped a bit. He rubbed his temples with a thumb and forefinger, as if a tremendous headache had suddenly descended. "Mrs. Dobson," he said to the housekeeper, "bring hot drinks and blankets."
"Yes, sir." She disappeared at once.
Efficiently Cannon ushered the other two men out of the room and closed the door firmly. The noise and commotion outside the office was muted but still audible. Turning to Grant and Victoria, Cannon gestured for them to have a seat.
Victoria shivered slightly, grateful for the protective arm Grant slid behind her back as she huddled in the oak chair. Her clothes were wet and clammy, and she was uncomfortably aware of the filth that clung to her premise and hair. She had never wanted a bath as badly as she did right now. She longed to be clean and dry and to find a warm bed to sleep in.
"This won't take long," Grant murmured, seeing her weariness.
Cannon heard the quiet comment. "No indeed," he said, drawing up a chair in front of Victoria's. He startled her by taking her hand in his large, cool one and staring at her intently. Her wide gaze flew to his serious gray eyes. "Miss..." he began, and paused.
"Devane," she supplied with a tremulous smile.
"Devane," he repeated softly. "You must feel like you've gone to sea in a sieve."
Despite her exhaustion, Victoria laughed suddenly at the description. "Something like that."
"That fact that this ordeal was caused by one of my Runners grieves me more than I can say. I can offer no sufficient redress for what you've suffered...but I give you my word that if I can ever be of service to you, I will use every means at my disposal. You have only to ask."
"Thank you," Victoria replied softly, finding it a bit unnerving to have one of London's most powerful men offer her an apology.
Seeming satisfied, Cannon released her hand and waited until Mrs. Dobson had brought the blankets. When Victoria was snugly wrapped in a layer of wool and there was a steaming mug of tea clasped in her icy fingers, the magistrate's implacable gaze returned to her. "Miss Devane...please tell me as best you can what happened this evening."
Occasionally fumbling for words, Victoria described the events that had passed since Grant had left her earlier in the day. Now and then Grant interceded, filling in the necessary explanations. The only interruption came when the office door reverberated from a curious scraping motion. Victoria paused and looked around questioningly at the odd noise.
Rolling his eyes, Cannon rose and opened the door. Immediately a large striped cat with no tail sauntered inside the office and surveyed the visitors with a speculative gaze. "Chopper," Cannon said in a warning tone that would have caused any other creature to slink into the nearest corner.
Instead, Chopper flicked him a rebellious glance and jumped straight into Victoria's lap. Automatically Victoria handed her half-filled mug to Grant as the cat settled into a massive furry heap over her thighs.
Muttering an apology, Cannon began to remove the creature, but Victoria shook her head with a smile. "It's all right," she said. "I like animals."
Cannon's eyes glimmered with an answering smile. "Well, now you've met the real head of Bow Street," he remarked, indicating the smug feline, and returned to his chair.
With the cat purring quietly in her lap, Victoria finished the description of all that had happened, and blinked tiredly. The office was warm, and the realization that she was finally safe had made her feel peaceful for the first time in weeks. She felt Grant's hand settle on the back of her neck, beneath her wet, dirty hair, and his gentle touch soothed her.
A long reflective silence followed as Cannon stared absently at the landscape on his wall. The painting depicted a small, bright stream rushing over crags and rocks, against a backdrop of forest-covered hills. Victoria suspected that at times like this, the magistrate must wish to be in a place as serene as the one in the landscape.
"Keyes," the magistrate said softly, as if he were sorting through memories in his mind. Small, cold lights burned in his gray eyes, conveying fury and a hint of grief. It was a personal tragedy for Cannon, as well as a professional one.
"I'm sorry for what has happened," Victoria said sincerely, her concerned gaze turning to Grant. "Will this make things more difficult for you and the other Runners?"
Grant's green eyes were caressing as he regarded her with a slight smile. "No need to worry, sweet pea. Bow Street has weathered worse than this before." Deftly he pushed the cat from her lap, ignoring Chopper's protesting yowl, and urged her to stand. "It's time for Miss Devane to go home," he said to Cannon. "We'll deal with the official business tomorrow."
"My carriage will convey you to King Street." Cannon opened the door, summoned his errand boy, and murmured instructions to him. At the same time the housekeeper appeared, asking if there was something else she could bring for Victoria.
"We're finished for now," Cannon said. "Thank you, Miss Devane. I hope you will suffer no lasting effects from this disastrous day."
"I'll be quite well after a good rest," she assured him.
Cannon's comment caused Grant to frown in worry. "I should send for Linley," he said. "He should have a look at you, after what you've been through."
"Again?" Victoria shook her head instantly. "I certainly don't need to see a doctor twice in one day.You can go see Dr. Linley if you're so desirous of his company. I want to go home."
"Home it is," he said softly, guiding her from the office.
Mrs. Dobson stepped into the hallway to observe the pair's departure. When she glanced back at Ross, the housekeeper wore a pleased, slightly bemused expression. "Well," she remarked, "it seems our Mr. Morgan has finally fallen in love."
"And fallen hard," Ross added wryly. "Poor bastard."
An affectionate smile brightened Mrs. Dobson's plump face. "Someday, sir, a little slip of a thing may yet reduce you to the state our poor Mr. Morgan is in."
"I'll slit my own throat first," he replied calmly. "In the meanwhile, I want a jug of coffee."
The housekeeper looked outraged at the suggestion. "At this hour? I won't hear of it. What you need is rest, and plenty of it, not some brew that will shred your nerves to ribbons..."
Sighing, Cannon returned to his desk and endured the lecture that ensued.
Upon returning to King Street, Victoria was greeted by a worried Mrs. Buttons and a tearful Mary, both of whom were astonished by the news that Keyes had intended to do her harm.
"You should have told me, miss!" the housekeeper exclaimed. "If you had, I should have done whatever was necessary to help you."
"I'm sorry," Victoria replied with a wan smile. "With the sudden shock of my memory returning, and my fear of Mr. Keyes, I'm afraid I lost my head." She did not want to hurt anyone's feelings by admitting that she hadn't been certain of whether she could trust the servants to take her side against a Bow Street Runner. "And in any case," she added, "everything has turned out well, thanks to Mr. Morgan."
"I suppose we'll get another ha'penny novel out of this," Mrs. Buttons said. "More exciting adventures of the Bow Street legend, Mr. Morgan."
"The Bow Street lummox, more like," Grant muttered. "The entire situation was my fault. I had originally wanted Flagstad to guard Victoria--I should never have agreed to let Keyes do it."
"You couldn't have known," Victoria protested. "No one suspected him--not even Sir Ross."
Grant scowled in reply, obviously not accepting her defense of him. Gently he lifted a hand to her forehead and brushed back a straggling tendril of hair. "Mrs. Buttons," he said, still staring at Victoria, "I believe Miss Devane requires a bath. And perhaps some warm milk with brandy."
"Oh, yes," Victoria said, shivering in pleasure at the thought of soaking in hot soapy water.
"We'll take excellent care of her, Mr. Morgan," the housekeeper assured him, and gestured to the housemaid standing nearby. "Mary, you and the girls fill a bath for Miss Devane, and then fill a separate one in the guest room for Mr. Morgan."
"Yes, ma'am," Mary said eagerly, disappearing on swift feet.
Grant's tone was soft as he spoke to Victoria. "Shall I carry you upstairs?"
Smiling, Victoria shook her head. She was so enmeshed in the tender warmth of his gaze that she was barely aware of the housekeeper leaving them. "Will you come to me after your bath?" she asked.
His face was expressionless, but his mouth was soft as he leaned closer and pressed a kiss to her temple. "No," he murmured so quietly that she could barely hear him.
Surprised, she drew back a few inches. "You won't?"
"You've endured enough for one day--you don't need a great rutting brute in your bed tonight."
Unable to restrain herself, Victoria reached out and hugged herself against his hard chest. "What if I want him there?"
"You need to sleep," he said firmly.
"Sleep is a waste of time."
A reluctant laugh rumbled in his throat, and slowly his arms came around her. She felt him breathe into the locks of hair above her ear. "That proves how exhausted you are. You don't know what you're saying."
"I do," Victoria insisted, not allowing him to push her away.
"Sweet pea..." Grant's voice was slightly strained. "It's been a hell of a trying day for me as well. I'm afraid if I visit you tonight..." He paused to search for the appropriate words. "I don't think I would have any..."
"Strength?" she supplied.
"Oh." Victoria swallowed hard as she stared at his unfathomable face. "But if you--"
"Go," he muttered, easily prying her loose and turning her to face the stairs. He gave her a strong nudge. "I've been through too much, Victoria. I don't trust myself with you tonight. Get some rest. I'll see you in the morning."
Frowning, Victoria ascended the stairs, occasionally pausing to glance back at him. Grant waited until she had reached the top before he turned and went to the library in search of a much-needed brandy.
With the servants' help, Victoria washed and rinsed her hair twice, sighing in bliss as the hot water whisked away all traces of grime. The bath soaked away the soreness of her strained muscles, and warmed the deep-set chill from her bones. That and a cup of brandy-laced milk combined to relax her deeply. She dressed in a clean muslin night rail and premise that fastened up the front with a row of tiny peal buttons. Drowsily she sat before the fire as the servants carefully combed her damp hair and allowed the heat from the hearth to dry the crimson locks. "More milk?" Mrs. Buttons asked. "Or something to eat? A plate of toast, or a bowl of soup...an egg, perhaps--"
"Thank you, no." Victoria rubbed her eyes and yawned.
Understanding her weariness and her need for privacy, the housekeeper nodded to Mary, and they prepared to leave the room. "Ring for me if there is anything you need, Miss Devane," Mrs. Buttons said softly.
Eyes half closed, Victoria extended her bare feet toward the fire and watched the yellow light play upon her toes. She wondered if Grant had finished bathing, if perhaps he was already asleep in the guest room. She knew he would keep to his vow not to visit her tonight, having decided it was best for her to sleep. Undoubtedly he was right. But she needed to be with him, to be held and comforted, and to comfort him in return.
She had come close to dying this evening, barely a month after the first attempt on her life, and the realization made her desperate to savor every moment for the rest of her days. Sleep was indeed a waste of time...especially when the man she loved was only a room away.
Before Victoria had consciously made the decision, she was at the door of the guest suite. With fingers that trembled just a little, she turned the knob and entered the small antechamber that led to the bedroom. As in the master suite, a small fire on the grate spread ruddy flickering light over the room and made shadows dance in the corner.
And on the bed...What she beheld caused her to stop in her tracks, flustered, her heart pounding hard and heavy in her chest. Grant was stretched out on the guest bed, one foot dangling over the edge, one knee propped up slightly. He held a book in his hand, reading with a slight frown on his forehead and a moody set to his mouth. There was not a stitch of clothing anywhere in sight.
The firelight turned his skin a light shade of amber and scattered gold flecks throughout his shiny black hair. Every detail of his long, muscled body was visible, from the triangular hollow at the base of his throat, to the dusting of dark wiry hair on his legs. Amid a riot of excitement and confusion, Victoria wondered why it was that he seemed so much larger with his clothes off than on. She had never seen such a startling expanse of na*ed skin.
Victoria knew she must have made some small sound, for his narrowed gaze switched to her, and automatically he covered his lap with the open book. The defensive gesture struck her as amusing, and his forbidding scowl only heightened the comic effect. Clamping her lips together, she repressed a sudden laugh and ventured farther into the room. "You shouldn't read in such bad light," she said, her voice cracking just a little. She was more nervous than she had realized. "You'll strain your eyes."
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