Cannon let the silence linger uncomfortably long before speaking. "I believe I know you, Morgan...well enough to be certain that you wouldn't take advantage of this woman, no matter what your personal grievances."
Grant replied coldly. "I would never force myself on an unwilling woman."
"I wasn't referring to 'force,'" Cannon said softly. "I was referring to manipulation...opportunism...seduction."
Tempted to tell the magistrate to mind his own damned business, Grant stood and set his empty mug on the side table. "I don't need a lecture," he growled. "I won't harm Miss Duvall in any way. You have my word on that. Bear in mind, however, that she is hardly an innocent. She's a courtesan. Manipulation and seduction are tools of the trade. Her memory loss doesn't change the fact of what she is."
Unruffled, Cannon made a temple of his fingers and stared at Grant contemplatively. "Is Miss Duvall willing to accept this arrangement?"
"If she doesn't like it, she's free to go elsewhere."
"Make certain she understands that."
Biting back several choice comments, Grant inclined his head in agreement. "Anything else?" he inquired in a tone so bland as to be mocking.
Cannon continued to pin him with an assessing stare. "Perhaps you would care to explain why you wish to harbor Miss Duvall under your own roof, after all your avowed dislike of her."
"I never said I disliked her," Grant countered.
"Come now," came the gently chiding reply. "You made no secret of your resentment, after you'd been run through the rumor mill because of her."
"Call this my opportunity to make amends. Besides, it's my duty."
Cannon gave him a speaking glance. "Regardless of the lady's character--or lack thereof--I would prefer that you keep your hands off her until she recovers her memory and the investigation is concluded."
Annoyed almost beyond bearing, Grant smiled thinly. "Don't I always do as you ask?"
Cannon expelled a short, explosive sigh and turned toward his desk. "I wish to hell you would," he muttered, waving him away with a brief gesture.
"Good-bye, Chopper," Grant said lightly, but the cat turned her head with a disdain that made him grin.
Park Lane, the centerpiece of the prestigious area of Mayfair, was London's most desirable address. Suffused with an air of wealth and authority, the street was fronted with imposing columned mansions designed on a huge scale. The homes were meant to convince passersby that their inhabitants were superior to ordinary humans.
Grant had seen too much of the aristocracy's intimate personal lives to be awed by the grandeur of Park Lane. The nobility had as many flaws and foibles as average men...perhaps more. The only difference between an aristocrat and a commoner was that the former was far more resourceful at covering up his wrongdoings. And sometimes the nobility actually believed they were above the laws ordinary men were bound by. It was this kind of man that Grant most enjoyed bringing to justice.
The name of Vivien's most recent protector was William Henry Ellyot, Lord Gerard. As the future Earl of Norbury, his chief occupation was waiting for his father to die so that he could inherit a revered title and a considerable fortune. Unfortunately for Gerard, his father was in excellent health and would likely retain the earldom for many years to come. In the meantime, Gerard searched for ways to amuse himself, indulging his rampant tastes for women, drinking, gambling, and sporting. His "arrangement" with Vivien Duvall had made him the envy of many other men. She had been a lovely and highly visible trophy.
Gerard was known for his bad temper, given to violent tantrums when deprived of something he wanted. Although a gentleman was supposed to take his gambling losses with good grace, Gerard cheated and lied rather than accept defeat. It was rumored that he took out his frustrations on his servants, proving such a poor master that it was difficult to hire domestic help for his various households.
Grant mounted the steps of the classically styled manor with its columned pediment and statue-filled niches. A few strong raps on the door with his gloved fist, and one of the double portals was opened to reveal a butler's dour face.
"Your business, sir?" the butler inquired.
"Inform Lord Gerard that Mr. Morgan is here to see him."
Grant saw the instant of recognition on the butler's face, and a faint wariness threaded through the man's tone. "Sir, I regret to inform you that Lord Gerard is not at home. If you will leave your calling card, I will see that he receives it later."
Grant smiled wryly. "Not at home" was a phrase used by butlers to convey that a particular lord or lady might very well be in the house, but was unwilling to receive visitors. But if Grant wanted to question someone, social niceties were the last things to stand in his way.
"I don't leave cards," he said flatly. "Go tell your master that Mr. Morgan is here. This is not a social call."
The butler's face remained impassive, but he reeked of disapproval. Without offering a response, he left Grant at the doorstep and disappeared into the house. Grant shouldered his way inside and closed the heavy door with a hard nudge of his boot. Rocking back on his heels, he surveyed the entrance hall. It was lined with gleaming marble columns, the walls painted a soft matte shade of a fashionable color called "Parisian gray." Cool white plasterwork covered the upper portion of the walls, rising to a lofty ceiling. Directly opposite the front door was an apse containing a small statue of a winged female figure.
Approaching the statue, Grant touched one of the delicate feathery wings, admiring the elegant work.
The butler reappeared at that moment, frowning in bristling hauteur. "Sir, that is part of Lord Gerard's prized collection of Roman statuary."
Grant drew back and replied matter-of-factly, "Grecian, actually. The original sits in the hand of Athena in the Parthenon."
"Well..." The butler was clearly nonplussed. "It's not to be touched. If you would care to follow me, Lord Gerard is at home now."
Grant was shown into a large drawing room with walls covered in creamy white woodwork and octagonal panels of red damask. The ceiling was remarkable, inset with red and gold panels that spread outward from a central golden sun. Between a pair of diamond-paned windows, a series of medallion portraits displayed the fleshy, dignified faces of the past five Earls of Norbury.
"Care for a drink, Morgan?"
Lord Gerard entered the room, clad in an embroidered green velvet dressing gown. His uncombed hair sprung untidily around his heavy-cheeked face, and his skin was florid from strong drink. Holding a snifter of brandy in one hand, Gerard made his way to a massive wing chair with ball-and-claw feet, and lowered himself gingerly. Although Gerard was in his early thirties, a life dedicated to self-indulgence had made him look at least ten years older. He was relentlessly average in appearance, neither fat nor thin, neither tall nor short, neither handsome nor ugly. His only distinctive feature was his eyes, dark, small, and intense.
Gerard gestured with his snifter. "A damn fine Armagnac," he commented. "Shall you take some?"
"A bit early in the day for me," Grant said with a slight shake of his head.
"I can think of no better way to begin the day." Gerard drank deeply of the bloodred liquid.
Grant kept his expression pleasant, but something dark and ugly stirred inside him as he watched Gerard. The image of Vivien with this man, servicing him, pleasuring him, passed before Grant in a disquieting flash. She had been Gerard's whore, and would undoubtedly sell herself to the next man who could meet her price. Jealous and repulsed, Grant sat in the chair adjacent to Gerard's.
"Thank you for agreeing to talk with me," Grant murmured.
Gerard tore his attention away from the snifter long enough to manage a sour smile. "As I understood it, I hadn't much choice."
"I don't expect this will take long," Grant said. "I only have a few questions for you."
"Are you conducting an investigation of some sort? What and whom does it concern?"
Grant sat back in his chair, appearing relaxed, but his gaze did not swerve from Gerard's face. "I'd like to know your whereabouts last evening, around midnight."
"I was at my club, Craven's. I have several friends who will verify my presence there."
"When did you leave the club?"
"Four o'clock, perhaps five." Gerard's thick lips curved with a self-satisfied smile. "I had a run of luck at the hazard tables and then took a flier with one of the house wenches. An excellent evening all around."
Grant launched abruptly into the next question. "What was the nature of your relationship with Miss Vivien Duvall?"
The name seemed to puncture Gerard's sense of well-being. The flush on his face deepened, and the dark, narrow eyes resembled chips of obsidian. He leaned forward, holding his snifter in both hands. "This is about Vivien, then? What happened? Has she landed in some kind of trouble? Bloody Christ, I hope it's nasty and unholy expensive, whatever it is. Tell her that I won't lift a finger to help her, even if she comes crawling. I'd sooner kiss the pope's toe."
"Your relationship with her," Grant repeated quietly.
Gerard finished his Armagnac in a slurping swallow and blotted his mouth with his sleeve. The liquor seemed to calm him, and his face split with a crafty smile. "I believe you already know that, Morgan. You once displayed a bit of interest in her yourself, didn't you? And she wouldn't have you." He chortled, tickled by the notion, then sobered quickly. "That hellcat Vivien. Two years I had with her. I paid her bills, gave her the town house, jewelry, a carriage, horses, anything she desired. All for the exclusive right to bed her. At least, it was supposed to be exclusive. I didn't delude myself into thinking she was faithful to me, however. Vivien isn't capable of fidelity."
"Is that why your arrangement ended? Because she was unfaithful?"
"No." Gerard stared moodily at his empty glass. "Before I divulge anything further,you can explain something...Why the hell are we talking about Vivien? Has something happened to her?"
"You can answer my questions here or at Bow Street," Grant said calmly. "You wouldn't be the first peer I've inquisitioned in the strong room."
A spurt of incredulous rage caused Gerard to rise from his chair. "That you dare to threaten me...By God, someone ought to take you down a few buttons!"
Grant stood as well, eclipsing Gerard's height by almost a head. "You're welcome to try," he said softly. He rarely used his size to bully others, preferring to rely on his wits. There were too many men who tried to test their own strength against him, provoking him to fight in the hopes that they might impress their friends with their daring. Grant had long ago tired of thrashing the endless parade of bantam roosters who challenged him. He only fought when strictly necessary--and he always won. He took little pleasure in beating a man senseless. For Gerard, however, he might make an exception.
Gerard's face sagged in dismay as he beheld the giant figure before him. He smoothed the top of his disheveled head in a quick, nervous gesture. "No, I shan't take you on," he mumbled. "I wouldn't lower myself to trade blows with a common bruiser."
Grant gestured toward the wing chair with exaggerated courtesy. "Then have a seat, my lord."
A new thought seemed to occur to Gerard, and he lowered himself heavily into the upholstered cushions. "Good God," he said thickly. "Vivien's dead, isn't she? That's what this is about."
Grant sat and leaned forward, bracing his elbows on his knees. He stared intently at Gerard's flushed face. "Why do you say that?" Gerard spoke as if in a daze. "She's gone missing for the past month, ever since she broke off our arrangement. Her servants were dismissed and the town house was closed. I went to balls Vivien was supposed to have attended, a soiree, a musical evening...No one knew where she was, or why she hadn't come. Everyone assumed she had secluded herself with some new protector. But Vivien wouldn't have stayed away from London that long unless something was drastically wrong."
"Why do you say that?"
"Vivien is easily bored. She has a constant need for stimulation and amusement. A quiet evening at home would drive her mad. She hates to be alone. She insists on going to some soiree or party every night of the week. I could never match her pace." Gerard gave a small, defeated laugh. "She stayed with me longer than with any of her other protectors--I've taken some measure of comfort in that."
"Does she have any enemies that you know of?"
"No one I would label that way...but there are many who dislike her."
"What was Miss Duvall's financial situation at the time she parted from you?"
"Money pours through Vivien's fingers like water. She didn't have sufficient funds to last long. She had to find a new paramour without delay."
"Any notion of whom the next candidate might have been?"
"What do you know of her family?"
"She has none that I am aware of. As you might guess, our conversations rarely turned in that direction." Gerard sighed and nibbled at a rough spot on one of his manicured cuticles. "Will this take much longer, Morgan? I have a thirst for more Armagnac."
"What direction did your conversations turn to?" Grant asked. "Does Miss Duvall have any particular hobbies or pursuits? Any new interests she has developed of late?"
"None that exist outside of bed. Why, I doubt she's ever even read a book."
"Any new acquaintances you were aware of? Male in particular?"
Gerard rolled his eyes. "God Himself couldn't account for all of Vivien's male acquaintances."
"Tell me about the day she broke off your arrangement. Did you argue?"
"Naturally. I had invested quite heavily in her, and I saw no reason things could not continue indefinitely. I've closed my eyes whenever she cared to have a dallaince. I became quite heated--I even threatened her--but she laughed in my face. I demanded to know the name of the man who would be my replacement, as I was certain that she wouldn't leave me without first securing another arrangement. She was quite smug, and would say nothing except that she expected soon to marry into a great fortune." He snorted with bitter amusement. "The idea! One doesn't marry soiled goods like Vivien Duvall, unless he wants to be the laughingstock of England. Of course, I would put nothing past her. I suppose it's possible she could have enticed some decrepit widower to make an offer for her." "Were there witnesses to the argument?"
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