Crying out in terror, she fought the statue, but it clutched her, turned toward the river...and plunged into the black, bitterly cold depths. Its weight pulled her down quickly, the surface receding far above her. She screamed beneath the water, but no one could hear her, and the choking liquid filled her mouth and throat--
"Vivien. Dammit, Vivien, wake up."
She started awake, still fighting the arms around her...then saw Morgan's face above hers. He wore an anxious scowl as he hauled her into his lap, one hand smoothing the damp hair back from her face. His upper torso was covered only by a thin linen shirt, open at the neck to reveal the hollow at the base of his throat.
Disoriented, Vivien fought to catch her breath. She glanced at their surroundings, realizing they were on the floor.
"You fell off the bed," Morgan said.
"I-I had a nightmare."
"Tell me," he said softly. As she remained silent, he stroked the ruffled arc of her eyebrow with the pad of his thumb. The intimate gesture somehow moved her to speak when words would have failed. Vivien gnawed her lower lip nervously. "I dreamed I was drowning. It was so real...I couldn't breathe."
A gentle, sandpapery sound came from his throat. He patted her back in a soothing rhythm, rocking her as if she were a child. The heat of his body permeated the layers of clothing between them, warming her. For a moment she was tempted to push him away, the memory of his distasteful accusations still fresh in her ears.
But she stayed motionless against him. Although he was hateful and arrogant, he was also large and safe. At the moment there was no more appealing place in the world than his arms. A delicious scent clung to him, a blend of brandy and salt and linen...smells that reminded her of something...someone...whose comforting image was locked deep in her memory. A father or brother, perhaps? A lover she had held dear?
Confused and frustrated, she chewed harder at her lip as she strained to remember.
"Don't do that," Morgan said, touching her mouth with gentle fingers. "Try to relax. Would you like a drink?"
"I don't know."
He held her for a moment longer, cradling her in his lap, until the frantic jerking of her heart slowed to a normal pace. His hand slid over her leg and hip and settled at the curve of her waist, and in a despairing flash, Vivien sensed that his touch was somehow familiar and natural. As if she belonged in his arms, against his body...as if they had indeed been lovers. She moved her face, blotting her tear-dampened cheek against his shirt, and she felt his mouth brush over her hair.
Carefully Morgan lifted her from the floor and placed her on the bed, and busied himself with straightening the tangled mass of sheets and blankets. Going to the bedside table, he poured a small quantity of liquor into a verriere glass etched with leaves. "I had a feeling you might need some of this during the night," he said. "You'll have dreams about it from time to time. Occasionally one of them will be so damned vivid you'll wake with a scream in your throat. It happens after one comes close to dying."
He sounded quite knowledgeable on the subject, Vivien thought, accepting the verriere. She sipped the rich, slightly fruity beverage. "Have you come close to death before?"
"Once or twice."
"What happened?" she asked.
"I never discuss my exploits." A self-mocking smile touched his lips, softening the angles of his face. "It's tempting for a Runner to develop a habit of boasting, and then we tend to spend all our time spinning elaborate tales...so it's better not to talk of work at all, or nothing gets done."
"I'll find out anyway," Vivien said. She took a larger swallow of the brandy, the pleasant fire spreading through her veins and restoring her shattered nerves. "Mrs. Buttons told me there have been a few ha'penny novels published about your adventures."
"Trash only fit to use as kindling," he said with a snort. "You won't find those in my house."
"Yes, I will. Some of your servants collect them." "The devil they do," he muttered, clearly surprised at the information. "Crackbrains. Don't believe a word any of them tells you."
"I've embarrassed you," she said with a trace of satisfaction, and buried a fleeting smile in the verriere glass.
"Whom have you been talking to? Mrs. Buttons? One of the maids? I'll have someone's head if they've been gossiping."
"The servants are all quite proud of you," Vivien said, delighted at having found a way to needle him. "It seems you're a legend. Rescuing heiresses, tracking murderers, solving impossible cases--"
"Legend, my arse." Morgan looked as though she had mocked him instead of complimenting his reputation. "Mostly I recover stolen property for banks. I have a great fondness for banks and the reward money they offer. Sir Ross and any of the Runners can tell you there's a cash box where my heart should be."
"You're trying to tell me that you're not a hero," Vivien said with a questioning lilt.
"Based on your acquaintance with me during the last twenty-four hours, wouldn't you agree?"
She considered the question and answered thoughtfully. "Obviously you are not a perfect man--as if there could be such a thing--but you have done good for many people, sometimes at the risk of your own life. That makes you heroic, even if I don't approve of you."
"Youdon't approve ofme, " he repeated blankly.
"No. I think it very wrong of you to pay for the services of a woman like me."
The comment seemed to simultaneously amuse and puzzle him. "Why, Vivien," he mocked, "you don't sound like yourself."
"Don't I?" She fiddled awkwardly with the edges of the bed linens. "I have no idea what I'm supposed to sound like, or what I should say. All I know is that the more you tell me about myself, the more I wonder why you or anyone else should desire my company. I'm not a very nice woman, am I?"
A stiff silence descended on them. Morgan's stare was searching, critical, like that of a scientist examining the unexpected results of an experiment. Wordlessly he turned and headed toward the door, and Vivien thought he was leaving. However, he picked up a tray that had been set on a side table, and returned to the bed with it.
"Your supper," he said, setting the tray on her lap, straightening a piece of silverware that had slid to the edge. "I was carrying this upstairs when I heard you fall."
"You were bringing a supper tray to me?" Vivien asked, wondering why he had not had one of the servants do it.
Morgan read the unspoken question in her expression. "I intended to offer it with an apology." His voice turned brusque as he added, "My manner with you earlier this evening was uncalled-for." Vivien was rather taken by his charming gruffness. Her instincts told her that he was sincere. Although he surely did not respect or esteem her, he was willing to apologize when he believed himself to be in the wrong. Perhaps he wasn't quite the ogre she had thought him.
She tried to meet his honesty in equal measure. "You were only relating the truth."
"I should have been far more gentle in the telling of it. I'm not what anyone would call a diplomat."
"I shouldn't have blamed you for what you said. After all, it's not your fault that I'm a--"
"A beautiful and fascinating woman," he finished for her.
Flushing, Vivien fumbled with the napkin and laid it over her midriff. She didn't feel beautiful and fascinating, and she certainly didn't feel like a worldly-wise courtesan. "Thank you," she said with difficulty. "But I'm not the woman you think I am...at least, for the present I'm not. I don't remember anything about myself. And I don't know how to behave with you."
"That's all right," Morgan interrupted, sitting in the bedside chair. He seemed relaxed and casual, but his gaze didn't leave her for a moment. "Behave however you wish. No one is going to force you to do something you don't want, least of all me."
Difficult as it was, she took a deep breath and returned his gaze. "Then you won't want me to--"
"No," he said quietly. "I've already told you that I won't bother you that way. Not until you desire it."
"And if I never desire it?" she forced herself to ask in a mortified scrape of a whisper.
"The choice is entirely yours," he assured her. A crooked smile tugged at his mouth. "But be forewarned. My attractions may grow on you."
Abashed, Vivien swiftly dropped her gaze to the dainty meal before her. The plate contained slivers of chicken, a dab of pudding, a spoonful of vegetables in cream. She picked up a bread roll and bit into it. It seemed to take an unusual amount of effort to chew and swallow the morsel. "This is your room, isn't it? I would like to move to the guest room as soon as it's convenient. I don't wish to deprive you of your own bed."
"Stay here. I want you to be comfortable."
"It's very grand, but the bed is too large for me, and..." Vivien hesitated, unable to tell him that she felt surrounded by him in this room, even when he wasn't here. His smell and his distinctly masculine aura seemed to linger in the air. "Have I been here before?" she asked suddenly. "In your house...in this room?"
"No. This is the first time you've been a guest in my home."
On the occasions when they had been intimate, she guessed they had trysted in her bed, or some other place. She was too embarrassed to ask for details. "Mr. Morgan--Grant--there is something I want to ask..."
"Yes?" "Promise you won't laugh at me. Please."
She picked up a silver fork and toyed with the prongs, focusing all her attention on the utensil. "Was there any love between us? Any affection? Or was it merely a sort of business arrangement?" She could hardly bear the thought that she might have sold her body only for money. Her face burned hot with shame as she waited for the answer. To her relief, he didn't jeer or laugh.
"It wasn't all business," he said carefully. "I thought you would offer some ease and enjoyment I needed badly."
"Then one could say we're friends?" Vivien asked, grasping the fork so hard that the prongs left scarlet marks on the flesh of her palm.
"Yes, we're--" Breaking off, Morgan took the fork from her and rubbed the sore spot on her palm with his thumb. He cradled her hand in his large one, frowning at the little red marks. "We're friends, Vivien," he muttered. "Don't distress yourself. You're hardly a cheap wh...prostitute. You're an exclusive courtesan, and few people think the worse of you for it."
"I do," Vivien said painfully. "I think very much the worse of me for it. I wish I were anything else."
"You'll get used to the idea."
"That's what I'm afraid of," she whispered.
Something in her woeful gaze seemed to bother him. Letting go of her hand, he muttered an imprecation and left the room, while she stared morosely at the cooling food on her plate.
"Oh, I couldn't wear that," Vivien said, staring at the gown that had been laid out for her. It was one of four that Mr. Morgan had brought from her town house, and while she had no doubt that the gown was hers, she very much doubted its tastefulness. Although the garment was beautifully designed and well made, the color, a dark velvet that captured the intense tones of a ripe plum or black cherries, would prove a jarring clash with her hair. She added ruefully, "Not with this carrot top. I'll look a fright."
Mrs. Buttons surveyed her critically as Mary helped her from the bath and began to dry her off with a thick length of white toweling. "I think you might be pleasantly surprised, Miss Duvall. Won't you try it on and see?"
"Yes, I'll try," Vivien said, shivering as the cool air chased over her exposed skin, raising gooseflesh from head to toe. "But there's every chance I'll look ridiculous."
"I assure you, such a thing isn't possible," Mrs. Buttons replied. Over the last three days, the housekeeper's manner with Vivien had changed from distant politeness to warm kindness, and the rest of the household staff had promptly followed suit. Sincerely grateful for the help they offered her, Vivien praised and thanked the servants whenever the opportunity presented itself.
Had Vivien been a high-ranking noblewoman, she supposed she would have accepted their service as her due, and taken care not to become familiar with them. However, she was far from an aristocrat, and in light of what she knew about her own dissolute past, she thought the servants of the Morgan household were more than kind. There was no doubt they all knew what she was, and what she had been, and still they treated her with the deference they would have accorded a duchess. When she remarked on this fact to Mrs. Buttons, the housekeeper had explained with a wry smile.
"For one thing, Mr. Morgan has made it clear that he values you, and wishes you to be treated as a respected guest. But more than that, Miss Duvall, your character speaks for itself. No matter what is said about you, the servants can see that you are a kind and decent young woman."
"But I'm not," Vivien said. Unable to look into the housekeeper's face, she bent her head. There had been a long silence, and then she had felt Mrs. Button's gentle hand on her shoulder.
"We all have mistakes to overcome," the housekeeper said quietly. "And yours aren't the worst I've heard of. Thanks to Mr. Morgan's profession, I have seen and known some of the more wretched characters imaginable, who have no bit of goodness or hope left in them. You are far from that desperate state."
"Thank you," Vivien had whispered, utterly humble. "I'll try to justify your kindness to me." Ever since that moment, Mrs. Buttons had assumed an almost motherly protectiveness toward her.
As for Grant, Vivien had seen little of him, as he occupied himself with investigating her case and one or two others. He checked on her in the mornings, talked for five minutes or so, and then was gone for the rest of the day. In the evenings he returned for a spartan and solitary supper and read books in the library.
Morgan was a mysterious figure to Vivien. The ha-penny novels that the maid, Mary, had loaned to her had shed little light on his character. The novels emphasized the adventurous side of Morgan's nature, detailing the crimes he had solved and his famous pursuit of a murderer across two continents. However, it was clear the author knew nothing of him personally. Vivien suspected that few people desired to know the real nature of the man, preferring the outsized tales of a legend. It was usually that way with famous men--people wanted to know about their accomplishments and strengths, not their vulnerabilities.
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com