Victoria shrugged. "Who I am...my past...my future..."

His long fingers slid beneath her chin, and he tilted it upward until she was forced to stare into his expressionless face. "You mean your future with me," he said.

"I just want to go home and reflect on everything that's happened to me. My life has changed so quickly, don't you see?"

His short sigh conveyed a wealth of frustration. Reaching out for her, he lifted her into his lap and slid his hand beneath his coat. The warmth of his palm sank through her gown to the side of her breast. "I understand," he said reluctantly. "But I don't like the idea of you traveling alone and staying in Forest Crest without my protection."

The possessiveness in his voice made her smile. "Grant...before I met you, I lived for quite a long time without anyone's protection."

"That's about to change," he grumbled. "Let me go to Forest Crest alone," she coaxed, though they both knew she wasn't really asking.

Somehow Grant could not return her smile. All he could focus on was his own fear that if he let her out of his sight, she might decide never to marry him. After all, it was a fact that he could never give her the peaceful country life she had always been accustomed to He was not a gentleman--she had seen evidence of the roughness and violence in him, she had seen his many flaws. He was the kind of man she must have disdained and feared in her former sheltered existence.

"All right," he said with difficulty. "I'll send you to Forest Crest after the deposition. You'll go in my carriage, with my driver and a footman to protect you. And I'm going to come for you in a week."

"A week? But that's hardly sufficient--" Victoria stopped in midsentence as she realized that her protest was falling on deaf ears. Her lips curved with a wry smile. "Very well."

A new thought occurred to Grant, and he scowled. "You're not going to see any former suitors in Forest Crest, are you?"

An impish twinkle appeared in her eyes. "No, Mr. Morgan, I was never courted by any of the village lads."

"Why not? What in God's name is the matter with all of them?"

"I was never receptive to their advances," Victoria said, settling herself more comfortably on his lap. "I was always absorbed in taking care of Father, and reading books, and..." Tenderly she laid her head on his shoulder. "I suppose I was waiting for you," she said, and felt his arms tighten until he nearly crushed her.

CHAPTER 19

Having bid the coachman to let her off at the end of the unpaved drive, Victoria walked to White Rose Cottage. The familiar sight of the thatched cottage soothed her, and her gaze hungrily absorbed the peaceful scene. Her small, private world was not as well tended as when she had left it. The ivory and cream rosebushes needed pruning, and the beds of thrift, marigold, and sweet pea were choked with weeds. But it was home. Her step quickened as she approached the small arched doorway, feeling as if she had been gone for a year instead of a month.

There was only one thing to mar her happiness, the image of Grant as she had left him in London. He had refused to kiss her good-bye, and had stood watching with a sullen expression as she waved at him through the carriage window. Amused and touched and yearning, Victoria had almost signaled the driver to stop and turn back. That she had still refused to accept Grant's marriage proposal had clearly caused him no end of frustration.

She desperately wanted to marry Grant Morgan, but was a union between them advisable...or might it eventually end in ruins? She feared he might tire of her someday and come to regret marrying her...and that was something she would not be able to bear.

She badly wanted to talk to her sister, the only family she had left in the world. Despite Vivien's occasional vagaries, she was a worldly, ruthlessly pragmatic woman who knew a great deal about men. And Victoria knew that in her own way her sister loved her enough to listen to her problems and give her the best advice she could offer. As Victoria's heart pounded eagerly with a sense of homecoming, she knocked and entered without waiting for a response.

"Jane?" came a voice from inside. "I hadn't thought you would be back from the village so..." The voice trailed away as Vivien appeared in the main room and stared at the newcomer.

Victoria stared at her sister with a beaming smile. She was struck as always by the sense that Vivien was at once familiar and exotic. How was it possible to love someone and yet never understand her? Vivien belonged to a world so far removed from her own that it seemed impossible they had come from the same family, much less that they were twins.

Vivien was the first to break the silence. "It turns out you were right to refuse all my invitations to come to town. London is definitely not the place for you, country mouse."

Victoria laughed and approached her with extended arms. "Vivien...I can't believe my eyes!" Her twin was very obviously pregnant, her stomach rounded, her fair skin glowing from beneath. Vivien's condition had given her an unexpected touch of vulnerability that made her appear lovelier than ever.

"I'm fat," Vivien said.

"No, you're beautiful. Really." Victoria hugged her sister with great care, and felt Vivien relax and sigh with relief.

"Dear Victoria," she murmured, hugging her back. "I thought you might despise me for the trouble I've cause you. I've been so afraid to face you."

"I could never despise my own sister. You're all I have left." Loosening her arms, Victoria drew back and smiled. "But oh, Vivien...how I hated being you!"

Vivien looked defensive and amused by turns, then laughed. "I don't doubt you were ill at ease, posing as a demimondaine. But I promise you, it was far better than being buried alive here in Forest Crest."

"I very nearlywas buried," Victoria said dryly.

Vivien nodded contritely. "Forgive me, dear. You know I would never have intentionally caused any harm to come to you. If only you had stayed here instead of coming to London--"

"I was worried for you."

"In the future, keep in mind that I'm far better at taking care of myself than you apparently are." Vivien put a hand at the small of her own back and made her way to the worn velvet settee. "I must sit down--my feet ache."

"What can I do?" Victoria asked with instant concern.

Vivien patted the space beside her. "Sit here and talk. I gather your presence here means that everything is over?"

"Yes. The man who tried to kill me is being held at the Bow Street jail. It turns out that Lord Lane hired one of the Bow Street Runners to kill me...or you, so he thought." "Good God. Which Runner was it?"

The story came tumbling out, causing a few quiet exclamations from Vivien at infrequent intervals. To Victoria's relief, her sister had the grace not to appear pleased by the news of Lord Lane's death.

"I suppose he's with his son, Harry, now," Vivien commented, smoothing the skirts of her gown with undue care. "May they rest in peace." She looked up with a troubled expression. "They were both remarkably unhappy men, Harry being the worst. That's why I had the affair with him...I thought a few days of pleasure were just what he needed. But he refused to accept that I could not stay with him forever. Perhaps Lord Lane was right...If I hadn't slept with Harry, he might still be alive."

"But then again, he might not," Victoria replied, surprised and even a little glad that Vivien was having an attack of conscience. It was a welcome discovery that her sister was still capable of remorse. "Don't fret over 'might have beens,' Vivien. Just promise me that you won't ever pursue Harry's son again--the poor boy has suffered a great deal."

"I won't," Vivien said automatically. "If I did, I suspect that Lord Lane would haunt me from the grave. However, I do care for the boy, Victoria. He is so sweet and earnest and endearing. I doubt any man that honorable has ever loved me before. I know now that it was foolish and wrong of me to even consider his proposal. But I couldn't help being swept away by him for a little while."

Victoria reached out and squeezed her sister's hand. "What will you do now? I hope you will stay with me and let me care for you until the baby is born."

Vivien responded with a decisive shake of her head. "I'll go to Italy, I think. I have many friends there, and I have need of some amusement after the past month. Besides, there is a particular gentleman...a count, actually...who has pursued me for years. And he's rich as Croesus." She smiled with pleasurable anticipation, all trace of wistfulness vanishing. "I think it may be time to let him catch me."

"But you can't continue to live that way," Victoria murmured, stricken. "Not after the baby comes."

"Of course I can. Don't worry, I shan't allow the baby to suffer in any way. He or she will have the best of everything; you can rest assured of that. As soon as it's born and I regain my figure, I'll find a new protector and figure out some arrangement for the child. Lord knows I'll have servants aplenty to help me care for it."

Victoria was aware of a sensation of heavy disappointment at her sister's words. "But aren't you tired of living as some man's mistress? I'll do whatever I can, and so will Mr. Morgan, to help you find a new situation."

"I don't want a new situation," Vivien said matter-of-factly. "I like being a courtesan. It's pleasant, easy, and profitable. Why shouldn't I continue in a profession at which I happen to excel? And please spare me the remarks about decency and honor...I think there's a certain kind of honor in doing something to the best of one's ability."

Victoria shook her head sorrowfully. "Oh, Vivien..."

"Enough," her sister said in a brisk voice. "I don't care to discuss it further. I'm going to Italy, and that's that." "You must promise me something," Victoria persisted. "If you eventually decide you don't want the child, don't give it to servants or strangers to raise. Please. I can't stand the thought that a member of our family might...well, just send it to me."

Vivien stared at her with a skeptical frown. "How odd. Why would you want anything to do with Lord Gerard's bastard?"

"Because it's your child too...and my niece. Or nephew. Give me your promise, Vivien." As her sister continued to hesitate, Victoria added, "You owe it to me."

"Oh, all right...I promise." Stretching out her slippered feet, Vivien motioned for her to bring a cushioned stool covered in petit point flowers. As Victoria removed her sister's shoes and arranged her feet on the stool, she was aware of Vivien's speculative stare. "You haven't mentioned a word about your relationship with Mr. Morgan," Vivien remarked with deceptive idleness.

Victoria glanced up at her twin's keen blue eyes. "What did he tell you when he came here?"

Vivien laughed and coiled a stray lock of glinting cinnamon hair around her finger. "What little he didn't tell me, I was able to guess. Now, fess up, Victoria...Has he come up to scratch yet?"

Blushing, Victoria gave a slight nod. "He has proposed to me, yes."

"And have you accepted?"

Victoria shook her head reluctantly. "I have a few doubts about the suitability of the match."

"Oh, good God," Vivien murmured, looking at her with a touch of loving exasperation. "You've been thinking too much again. Well, let me hear your worries."

It was a pleasure for Victoria to unburden herself to the only person in the world who truly understood the way her life had been until now. "I don't know if this is what Father would have wanted for me," she said. "I don't know if a woman like me is meant for such a life. Oh, Vivien, Mr. Morgan is such a remarkable man--I can't help fearing that he'll need more than I can provide. We're not similar in character, background, or temperament...I don't think anyone would consider us a suitable match--"

"Then why didn't you refuse him?"

"Because I love him. It's just that I'm afraid we're not truly right for one another."

Vivien made a scoffing sound. "Let's dispense with the nonsense, Victoria. This isn't a question of suitability, yours or his. You're perfectly capable of accustoming yourself to new circumstances...and marrying a man of good fortune, though untitled, is not exactly a hardship." Vivien rolled her eyes and sighed. "It is so like you to analyze a situation until you've made it ten times more complicated that it really is! Just as Father used to do."

"Father was a wonderful man," Victoria said, stiffening.

"Yes...a wonderful, virtuous, lonely martyr. After Mama left him, Father retreated into his shell and hid from the world. And you stayed with him and tried to atone for everything that had happened by becoming exactly like him. You've been living in this same damned cottage, poring over the same bloody books. It's morbid, I tell you." "You don't understand--" Victoria began hotly. "Don't I?" Vivien interrupted. "I understand your fears better than you do. It's always been safer for you to hide here alone than take the chance of loving someone and have him leave you.That's what your real worry is. Mama abandoned you, and now you expect the same of anyone else you might love."

The ring of truth in the words stunned Victoria. She stared at her sister while her eyes prickled with tears. "I suppose..." she began, the sudden tightness of her throat making it difficult to speak. Vivien was right--she had never been the same after her mother had left her. The ability to be comfortable with love, to trust someone with her heart, had been stripped away from her, forcing her to build layers of self-protection that no one could reach through. Until Grant.

But he deserved her trust. He deserved to be loved without reservation or fear, without anything being held back. All she had to do was find the strength within herself.

"It was so much easier when Father was still alive," Victoria said. "I convinced myself that he was all I needed. We kept each other from feeling lonely. But now that he's gone..." She stopped, biting her lip as the tears overflowed.

Vivien sighed and stood with difficulty, reaching into the tiny drawer of a side table to procure a handkerchief. She dropped the linen square into Victoria's lap. "That was two years ago," she commented. "It's about time to carry on with the rest of your life."

Mopping her face with the soft linen, Victoria nodded vigorously. "Yes; I know," she said in a muffled voice. "I'm tired of mourning. I'm tired of being alone. And I love Grant Morgan so much that I can't bear the thought of losing him."

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