"To begin with, she'll demand a fortune."
"And if I can afford her?" Grant asked.
Wentworth tugged idly at a lock of his gray hair. "She likes her men titled and married, and...well, a trifle more refined than you, my friend. No offense intended, of course."
"None taken," Grant murmured automatically. He had never tried to conceal his rough background, had even made use of it on occasion. Many women were actually excited by his occupation and his lack of pedigree. It was possible that Vivien Duvall would enjoy a change from her aristocratic protectors with their manicured hands and self-important demeanors.
"She's dangerous, you know," Wentworth persisted. "They say she drove one poor forlorn bastard to suicide just a fortnight ago."
Grant smiled cynically. "I'm hardly the kind to expire for the love of a woman, my lord."
He continued to watch Vivien, who had extracted a jeweled patch box from her beaded reticule. Flipping the box open, she beheld her reflection in a tiny looking glass fitted behind the lid. Carefully she touched the tip of a gloved finger to the heart-shaped patch that had been strategically glued near the corner of her delectable mouth. It was clear she only half heard the nearby gentleman who was trying earnestly to engage her in conversation. Seeming annoyed by his attentions, she gestured toward the long refreshment tables. He left at once to fetch her a plate, and she continued to study her reflection intently.
Seeing his opportunity, Grant snatched a glass of wine from a tray carried by a passing waiter. He approached Vivien, who closed the patch box with a snap and slipped it back into her reticule.
"Back so soon?" she asked without looking at him, her tone languid and bored.
"Your companion should know better than to leave a beautiful woman unattended."
Surprise flickered in Vivien's midnight-blue eyes. Her gaze dropped to the proferred glass in his hand. She took the artfully twisted stem of the trumpet-shaped glass and sipped delicately. "He's not my companion." Her voice fell on his ears like a stroke of velvet. "Thank you. I am parched." She drank again, her gaze lifting to his. Like most successful courtesans, she had a flattering way of looking at a man as if he were the only one in the room.
"You were staring at me earlier," she remarked.
"I didn't mean to be rude."
"Oh, I'm accustomed to such stares," she said.
"I'm sure you are."
She smiled, revealing a flash of pearly white teeth. "We haven't been introduced." Grant smiled back at her. "Shall I go find someone to do the honors?"
"No need." Her soft pink mouth pressed against the rim of the wineglass. "You're Mr. Morgan, the Bow Street Runner. That's only a guess, but I'm sure I'm right."
"Why do you think so?"
"You fit the description. Your height and your green eyes are quite distinctive." She pursed her lips thoughtfully. "But there's something else about you...a sense that you're not quite comfortable in these surroundings. I suspect you would rather be doing anything but stand here in a stuffy room making small talk. And your cravat is too tight."
Grant smiled as he tugged at the white starched linen that bound his neck with an artful knot. The civilized confinement of high collars and stiff cravats was more than he could bear at times. "You're wrong about one thing, Miss Duvall--there's nothing I'd rather be doing than talking with you."
"How do you know my name, sir? Has someone told you about me? I insist on knowing what was said."
"I was told that you've broken many hearts."
She laughed, clearly entertained by the notion, and her blue eyes sparkled wickedly. "True. But I suspect you've broken your share of female hearts."
"It's fairly easy to break hearts, Miss Duvall. The more interesting challenge is how to keep someone's love, not to lose it."
"You speak of love too seriously," Vivien said. "It's only a game, after all."
"Is it? Tell me your rules."
"It's rather like chess. I plan my strategy carefully. I sacrifice a pawn when it's no longer useful. And I never reveal my true thoughts to my opponent."
"One has to be, in my position." Her provocative smile dimmed slightly as she stared at him. "I don't quite like your expression, Mr. Morgan."
Grant's initial attraction to her had begun to fade as he reflected that any involvement with her would ultimately lead to nothing. She was manipulative, hard-edged, offering sex without real companionship. He wanted more than that, no matter how prettily packaged she was.
Her gaze searched his impassive features, and she affected a small, delicious pout. "Tell meyour rules, Mr. Morgan."
"I only have one," he replied. "Complete honesty between myself and my partner."
A bright peal of laughter escaped her. "That can be quite inconvenient, you know." "Yes, I know."
Obviously confident in her own attractiveness, Vivien preened and posed before him, angling her br**sts outward, resting a graceful hand on the elegant curve of her hip. Grant knew that he was supposed to be admiring her, but instead he couldn't help wondering why it was that so many strikingly lovely women were self-absorbed.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Vivien's former companion bearing down on them with quick, anxious strides, a plate of tidbits clutched in his hands. Clearly the man was determined to defend his territory, and Grant was hardly inclined to argue with him. Vivien Duvall wasn't worth a public dispute.
Vivien followed his glance, and sighed shortly. "Ask me to dance before that bore returns," she said in a low voice.
"Forgive me, Miss Duvall," Grant murmured, "but I would hate to deprive him of your company. Especially after the trouble he's taken to fetch you refreshments."
Vivien's eyes widened as she realized she had been rejected. A mottled pink flush covered her cheeks and forehead, clashing with the cinnamon tones of her hair. When she managed to reply, her tone dripped with disdain. "Perhaps we'll meet again, Mr. Morgan. I'll send for you if I'm ever bothered by a pickpocket or footpad."
"Please do," he replied, utterly polite, and took his leave with a brief bow.
Grant had thought the matter was over, but unfortunately their brief encounter had not gone unnoticed by others at the ball. And Vivien, taking a petty stab at revenge, had explained the situation in a way that had the gossips snickering behind their palms. Delicately Vivien had insinuated to a host of wagging tongues that the redoubtable Mr. Morgan had made an offer for her, which she had summarily rejected. The idea of the celebrated Bow Street Runner trying and failing to win the favor of Vivien Duvall was greeted everywhere with amusement. "He's not so dangerous as they claim," someone had slyly remarked within Grant's hearing, "if he can so easily be set back on his heels by a woman."
Grant's pride had smarted at the spread of deliberate lies...but he had managed to hold his silence on the matter. He'd known that, like all rumors, it would fade more quickly if nothing was said to add fuel to the fire. Still, the mention of Vivien's name never failed to annoy him, especially when people watched so carefully for his reaction. He had done everything possible to make his indifference clear, while inwardly promising himself that Vivien would come to regret the lies she had spread. It was a promise he was still bound and determined to make good on.
Wandering to the window, Grant pushed aside the dark blue damask curtain and stared through the long panes of glass. Impatiently his gaze hunted the quiet shadowed street for a glimpse of Dr. Linley. In less than a minute, a hired hack stopped in front of the town house. Linley emerged from the vehicle, hatless as usual, his shock of dark blond hair gleaming in the light of the streetlamps. He gave no appearance of great haste, but his legs moved in long, ground-covering strides. Hefting his heavy leather doctor's case as if it weighed next to nothing, he approached the front entrance.
Grant waited at the bedroom door, giving the doctor a nod of greeting as he ascended the main staircase with the housekeeper. Linley's progressiveness and intelligence had made him one of the most sought-after doctors in London. And it hardly hurt his popularity to be a handsome bachelor in his late twenties. Wealthy society ladies clamored mightily for his services, claiming that only Dr. Linley could cure their headaches and female ailments. Grant was frequently amused by Linley's disgruntlement at being monopolized by the fashionable women of theton instead of being allowed the time he desired to take on more serious cases.
The two men shook hands briefly. They had a genuine liking for each other, both of them professional men who regularly saw the best and worst that people were capable of.
"Well, Morgan," Linley said pleasantly, "this had better be worth dragging me away from a mug of brandied coffee at Tom's. What is the matter? You seem well enough to me."
"I have a guest who requires your attention," Grant replied, opening the door and showing him into the bedroom. "She was pulled from the Thames about an hour ago. I brought her here, and she regained consciousness for a period of almost ten minutes. The odd thing is, she claims to have no memory. She couldn't tell me her own name. Is such a thing possible?"
Linley's gray eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "Yes, of course. Memory loss is more common than you think. It's often caused by aging, or excessive amounts of alcohol--"
"What about a blow to the head and a near drowning?"
The doctor's lips puckered in a silent whistle. "Poor lady," he murmured. "Yes, I once saw a case of amnesia that was caused by a head injury. The man had been wounded in a shipyard accident--a falling beam struck him on the crown, and he was unconscious for three days. When he awoke, he was beset by extreme confusion. The habits of walking, writing, and reading were easy for him, but he didn't recognize a single member of his family, and could recall nothing of his past."
"Did his memory return?"
"In five or six months. But I've heard of another case in which the memory came back in a matter of days. There's no way of predicting how long it might take. Or if it will happen at all." Brushing past Grant, Linley approached the bed and set his doctors case on the chair. As he bent over the sleeping patient, the doctor gave a startled murmur that barely reached Grant's ears. "Miss Duvall!"
"You've attended her before?"
Linley nodded, looking troubled. Something about the doctor's expression alerted Grant to the fact that Vivien's visit had been for an ailment far more serious than a headache.
"What for?" Grant asked.
"You know I can't divulge that."
"She can't remember anything--it won't make a damned bit of difference to her if you tell me or not."
Linley wasn't swayed by the argument. "Would you care to leave the room, Morgan, while I examine my patient?"
Before Grant could reply, Vivien stirred and moaned. She rubbed her eyes, squinting at the doctor's unfamiliar face. Strangely attuned to her moods, Grant sensed the exact moment she began to panic. He reached the bedside in three strides and took her trembling hand. The strength of his grip seemed to calm her. "Grant," she croaked, her gaze lifting to his face. "The doctor's here," he murmured. "I'm going to wait outside the door while he has a look at you. Is that all right?"
A long moment passed before she gave a tiny nod and released his hand.
"Good girl." Grant gently tucked a lock of her hair behind her small ear.
"You two seem to have become fast friends," Linley remarked.
"It's my way with women," Grant said. "They can't resist my charm."
Linley's mouth quirked. "Charm? I've never suspected you of having any."
They were both surprised to hear Vivien's feeble scratch of voice join in the conversation. "That's because...you're not a woman."
Grant stared at her with an unwilling smile. Half dead, she might be, but the instinct to flirt had not left her. And God help him, he was far from immune. "Rallying to my defense, are you?" He reached down to stroke the curve of her cheek with his fingertip. "I'll have to thank you later." A slow tide of pink crept over Vivien's face. Grant didn't realize his tone was unconsciously seductive until the doctor shot him a speculative glance.
Abruptly Grant left the room. Scowling, he wedged his back against the papered wall of the hallway. "Damn you, Vivien," he muttered beneath his breath.
He had found it so easy to reject Vivien before, when he'd viewed her as shallow, vain, manipulative. And he wouldn't have spared her a thought since then had it not been for the pride-stinging lies she had sprinkled all over London. Grant would have hated her if she had been worth such expenditure of emotion.
But there were times in every man or woman's life when circumstances made one vulnerable, and Vivien's time had come. Could she really have lost her memory, or was she shamming? And if her memory, really was gone...then she had been stripped of all defenses, all the grievances and pretensions that kept adult human beings from revealing their true selves to each other. How many men had been given the chance to know the real Vivien? Not one. He would bet his life on it.
A gentleman would not take advantage of the situation. But he was no gentleman.
He had once promised himself that Vivien would pay for her petty little game--and she would, with interest. Now that she was in his possession, she wasn't going to leave until his pride had been assuaged. He was going to amuse himself with her for as long as he wanted, or until her memory had returned. Whichever came first.
He smiled in satisfaction, the hot wistful ache in his chest seeming to ease.
After what seemed an unaccountably long time, Linley opened the door and welcomed him into the room. Vivien appeared calm but exhausted, her face as pale as the white linen pillow behind her head. An uncertain smile touched her lips as she saw Grant.
"Well?" Grant asked, while Linley bent over his medical case and latched it shut. Linley glanced up from his task. "It appears Miss Duvall has suffered a concussion, though not a severe one."
Grant's eyes narrowed at the unfamiliar term.
"A blow to the cranium," Linley proceeded to explain, "resulting in distress to the brain. The aftereffects usually last for a few weeks, perhaps a month, and may include confusion, nausea, and physical weakness. And also, in this particular case, amnesia."
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