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From the moment Grant Morgan saw the woman, he knew thatdespite her beautyshe would never be any man's bride.
He followed the waterman through the swirls of fog, cold mist clinging to his skin and forming beads on his wool coat. He kept both hands shoved deep in his pockets, while his gaze chased restlessly around the scene. The river looked oily in the dull glow of lamps hung on the massive blocks of granite near the landing. Two or three tiny boats ferried passengers across the Thames, bobbing like toys on the water. Chilly waves lapped against the steps and face of an embankment wall. A wintry March breeze curled around Grant's face and ears and slipped persistently beneath the edge of his cravat. He suppressed a shiver as he stared at the sloshing black river. No one could survive much longer than twenty minutes in water that cold.
"Where is the body?" An impatient frown tugged at Grant's brow. He reached inside his coat, fingering the case of his pocket watch. "I don't have all night."
The Thames waterman stumbled as he twisted his head to glance at the man following him. The drifting mist surrounded them in a yellow-gray haze, causing him to squint in the effort to see better. "Ye're Morgan, aren't ye? Mr. Morgan hisself ... Why, no one will believe it when I tell 'em. A man who guards the king ... I would ha' thought you above such dirty business as this."
"Unfortunately not," Grant muttered.
"This way, sir ... and mind yer step. The stairs is awful slick by the water, specially on a dampnight like this."
Stiffening his jaw, Grant made his way down to the small, soaked form that had been hauled onto the landing stairs. In the course of his detective work he often saw dead bodies, but drowning victims were surely among the most unpleasant. The body had been left facedown, but it was clearly female. She was spread akimbo like a rag doll abandoned by a careless child, the skirts of her dress heaped in a dripping mass around her legs.
Crouching beside her, Grant clasped the woman's shoulder with a leather-gloved hand and began to turn her over. He recoiled instantly, startled, as she began to cough and retch salt water, her body spasming.
The waterman yelped in terror behind him, then drew nearer. "I thought she was dead." His voice shook with amazement. "She was cold meat, I swear it!"
"Idiot," Grant muttered. How long had this poor woman been left in the bitter cold while the waterman had sent for a Bow Street Runner to investigate? Her chances of survival would have been far greater had she been taken care of immediately. As it was, her odds weren't good. He flipped the woman over and lifted her head to his knee, her long hair soaking his trousers. Her skin was ashen in the murky light, and there was a swelling lump on the side of her head. Even so, the delicate, distinctive features were recognizable. He knew her.
"My God," Grant breathed. He made a point of never being surprised by anything ... but to find Vivien Rose Duvall here, like this ... It was inconceivable.
Her eyes half opened, dull with the knowledge of her imminent death. But Vivien was not the kind of woman to slip away without a struggle. She whimpered and reached upward, her hand brushing the front of his waistcoat in a feeble attempt to save herself. Spurred into action, Grant locked his arms around her and hauled her upward. She was small and compact, but the skirts of her waterlogged gown nearly doubled her weight. Grant held her high against his chest, giving a grunt of discomfort as the icy salt water soaked through his own clothes.
"Will you take 'er to Bow Street, Mr. Morgan?" the waterman chattered, hastening to follow Grant as he took the steps two at a time. "I 'spect I should go too, an' give my name to Sir Ross. I done someone a favor, didn't I, finding the lady afore she croaked. I wouldn't take no thanks, o' course ... just to do the right thing is enough ... but there might be a reward, mightn't there?"
"Find Dr. Jacob Linley," Grant said harshly, interrupting the man's eager speculation. "He's usually at Tom's coffeehouse this time of night. Tell him to come to my residence at King Street."
"I can't," the waterman protested. "I 'as to work, ye know ... Why, I could earn five shillings yet tonight."
"You'll be paid when you bring Linley to King Street."
"But what if I can't find 'im?"
"You'll bring him there within a half hour," Grant said curtly, "or I'll have your boat confiscatedand I'll arrange a three-day stay for you in a prison hulk. Is that motivation enough?"
"I always thought you was a fine fellow," the waterman said sourly, "until I met you. You're not a-tall like they write you in the papers. Hours I've spent in the taverns whilst they read aloud about yer doings ... " He trotted away, disappointment evident in every line of his squatty form.
Grant's mouth curved in grim amusement. He was well aware of the way his exploits were described in the papers. Editors and writers had exaggerated his accomplishments until he was made to seem superhuman. People regarded him as a legend, not as a normal man with flaws.
He had made the job of Bow Street Runner into a highly profitable one, earning a fortune from recovering stolen property for banks. He had, on occasion, taken other kinds of caseslocating an abducted heiress, serving as a personal guard to a visiting monarch, tracking down murderersbut banks were always his preferred clients. With each case solved, his name had garnered more celebrity, until he was discussed in every coffee shop and tavern in London.
To Grant's amusement, the ton had taken him to its bejeweled bosom, clamoring for his presence at their social functions. It was said that a ball's success was assured if the hostess was able to write "Mr. Morgan will attend" at the bottom of the invitation. Yet for all his apparent popularity with the nobility, it was clear to all that he was not one of them. He was more a figure of entertainment than an accepted member of the high social circles he frequented. Women were excited by the notion that he was a potentially dangerous character, and men wanted his friendship in order to appear more brave and worldly themselves. Grant was aware that he would never be accepted except in the most superficial way. And he would never be trusted by the ton ... He knew too many of their dirty secrets, their vulnerabilities, their fears and desires.
A gust of frosty air whirled around him, making the woman in his arms moan and tremble. Clutching his unwieldy burden more tightly, he left the embankment and crossed a cobblestoned street coated with mud and manure. He strode through a small, square court filled with stagnant water barrels, a fetid pigsty, and a cart with broken wheels. Covent Garden was littered with courts like these, from which dark, winding rookeries spread out in disease-ridden webs. Any gentleman in his right mind would be terrified to venture in this area of the city, rife with thieves' kitchens, whores, bullies, and criminals who would kill for a few shillings. But Grant was hardly a gentleman, and the London underworld held no terrors for him.
The woman's head lolled on his shoulder, her weak, cool breath hitting his chin. "Well, Vivien," he murmured, "there was a time I wanted you in my arms ... but this wasn't exactly what I had planned."
He found it hard to believe he was carrying London's most desirable female past Covent Garden's tumbledown booths and open stalls. Butchers and peddlers paused to stare curiously as he passed, while prostitutes ventured from the shadows. "Here, laddie," a sunken-cheeked scarecrow of a woman called, "got a nice fresh cream pot for ye!"
"Some other time," Grant said sarcastically, ignoring the whore's eager cawing.
He crossed the northwest corner of the square and reached King Street, where the decaying buildings turned abruptly into a row of tidy town houses, coffeehouses, and a publisher or two. It was a clean, prosperous street with bow-fronted houses inhabited by the upper class. Grant had purchased an elegant, airy three-story air town house there. The busy headquarters at Bow Street was only a short step away, but it seemed far removed from this serene location.
Swiftly Grant mounted the steps of his town house and gave the mahogany door a resounding kick. When there was no response from within, he drew back and kicked again. Suddenly the door opened and his housekeeper appeared, spluttering with protests at his cavalier treatment of the polished wood paneling.
Mrs. Buttons was a pleasant-faced woman in her fifties, kind of heart but bottled-up, steel-spined, and possessed of stern religious convictions. It was no secret that she disapproved of Grant's chosen profession, abhorring the physical violence and corruption he dealt with as a matter of course. Yet she tirelessly received the wide assortment of underworld callers who came to the town house, treating all with equal parts of politeness and reserve.
Like the other Bow Street Runners who worked under the direction of Sir Ross Cannon, Grant had become so immersed in the world of darkness that he sometimes questioned how much difference there was between himself and the criminals he pursued. Mrs. Buttons had once told Grant of her hopes that he would someday step into the light of Christian truth. "I'm beyond saving," he had replied cheerfully. "You'd better direct your ambitions toward an attainable goal, Mrs. Buttons."
As she beheld the dripping burden in her employer's arms, the housekeeper's normally unflappable face went slack with amazement. "Good Lord!" Mrs. Buttons exclaimed. "What happened?"
Grant's muscles were beginning to tire from the strain of carrying the woman's limp weight so far. "A near drowning," he said curtly, pushing past the housekeeper as he headed for the stairs. "I'm taking her to my room."
"But how? Who?" Mrs. Buttons gasped, making a visible effort to recover herself. "Shouldn't she be brought to a hospital?"
"She's an acquaintance of mine," he said. "I want her seen by a private doctor. God knows what they would do to her at a hospital."
"An acquaintance," the housekeeper repeated, hurrying to keep pace with his rapid strides. It was clear she was burning to know more, but wouldn't presume to ask.
"A lady of the evening, actually," Grant said dryly.
"A lady of the ... and you've brought her here ..." Her voice reeked with disapproval. "Sir, once again you have outdone yourself."
A brief grin crossed his face. "Thank you."
"It was not a compliment," the housekeeper informed him. "Mr. Morgan, wouldn't you prefer to have one of the guest rooms prepared?"
"She'll stay in mine," he said in a tone that quashed further argument.
Frowning, Mrs. Buttons directed a housemaid to wipe up the puddles they had left on the inlaid floors of the amber marble entranceway.
The town house, with its long windows, Sheraton furniture, and English hand-knotted carpets, was the kind of place Grant had once never dared to dream of living in. It was a far cry from the crowded flat he had occupied as a small child, three rooms crammed with the eight offspring of a middle-class bookseller and his wife. Or the succession of orphanages and workhouses that had come later, when his father had been thrown into debtor's prison and the family had fallen to pieces.
Grant had eventually found himself on the streets, until a Covent Garden fishmonger had taken pity and given him steady work and a pallet to sleep on at night. Snuggled up against the heat of the kitchen stove, Grant had dreamed of something better, something more, though his dreams had never taken precise shape until the day he met a Bow Street Runner.
The Runner had been patrolling the jostling market square and had caught a thief who had snatched a fish from the fishmonger's stall. Grant had stared wide-eyed at the Runner in his smart red waistcoat, armed with cutlass and pistols. He had seemed larger, finer, more powerful than ordinary men. Grant had immediately known that his only hope of escaping the life he had been consigned to was to become a Runner. He had enlisted in the Foot Patrol at age eighteen, was promoted to the Day Patrol within a year, and a few months later was chosen by Sir Ross Cannon to complete the elite force of a half dozen Bow Street Runners.
To prove his worthiness, Grant had hurled himself into his work with unflagging zeal, treating each case as if it required a personal sense of vengeance. He went to any lengths to catch a culprit, once following a murderer across the Channel to apprehend him in France. As success mounted on success, Grant had begun to charge exorbitant fees for his private services, which had only made him more sought-after.
Acting on advice from a wealthy client who owed him a favor, Grant had invested in shipping and textile companies, purchased a half interest in a hotel, and bought several choice pieces of property on the west side of London. With some luck and determination, he had climbed far higher than God or man had intended. At age thirty, he could retire with a comfortable fortune. But he couldn't bring himself to resign from the Bow Street force. The thrill of the chase, the lure of danger, were strong, almost physical needs he could never seem to satisfy. He didn't care to dwell on exactly why he couldn't settle down and lead a normal life, but he was certain it didn't speak well of his character.
Reaching his bedroom, Grant brought Vivien to the massive mahogany tester bed with draped swags carved at the headboards and foot. Much of his furniture, including the bed, had been specially made to suit his proportions. He was a tall, big-framed man, for whom the tops of doorframes and ceiling beams posed a frequent hazard.
"Oh, the counterpane!" Mrs. Buttons exclaimed as Vivien's clothes saturated the heavy velvet embroidered with gold and blue silk. "It will be ruined beyond repair!"
"Then I'll buy another," Grant said, flexing his sore arms and stripping off his drenched coat. He dropped his coat to the floor and bent over Vivien's still form. Intent on removing her clothes as quickly as possible, he tugged at the front of her gown. A curse escaped his lips as the buttons and hooks remained obstinately entrenched in the shrunken wet wool.
Grumbling about the damage that was being done to the velvet counterpane, Mrs. Buttons endeavored to assist him, then pulled back with a frustrated sigh. "They'll have to be cut off her, I suppose. Shall I fetch the scissors?"
Grant shook his head and reached for his right boot. In a smooth move born of long habit, he extracted an ivory-handled knife with a six-inch spearpoint blade.
The housekeeper gaped as he began to cut through the gown's thick woven bodice as if it were butter. "Oh, my," she faltered.
Grant focused intently on the work at hand. "No one can wield a knife like a former Covent Garden fishmonger," he remarked dryly, spreading the sides of the gown wide to reveal a wealth of white linen undergarments. Vivien's chemise was soaked and plastered to her snowy skin, revealing the rose-colored points of her nipples beneath. Although Grant had seen countless female bodies, something about Vivien's barely clad form made him hesitate. He struggled with the unaccountable feeling that he was violating somethingsomeonetender and virginal. Ludicrous, considering the fact that Vivien Duvall was an accomplished courtesan.
"Mr. Morgan," the housekeeper said, fidgeting with the edges of her large white apron, "if you would prefer, I can have one of the housemaids assist me in removing Miss ... "
"Duvall," Grant supplied softly.
"Miss Duvall's garments."
"I'll see to our guest," Grant murmured. "I'll wager at least a regiment's worth of men have had the privilege of seeing Miss Duvall naked She'd be the first to say, 'Get the job done and modesty be damned.'" Besides, after the trouble he'd gone to tonight, he was entitled to this one small pleasure.
"Yes, sir." She gave him an odd, considering look, as if he weren't quite behaving like himself. And perhaps he wasn't. A strange feeling suffused him, the chill from the outside mingling with a heat that burned at his core.
Stone-faced, Grant continued to cut away the wet clothes, slicing through one sleeve and then the other. As he lifted Vivien's slim upper torso and yanked the sodden wool from beneath her, someone walked through the half-open door and gasped loudly.
It was Kellow, his valet, a dignified young man with a prematurely balding head and a pair of round spectacles settled firmly on his nose. His eyes seemed to fill the spectacle lenses as he beheld his employer standing with a knife over the half-clad body of the unconscious woman. "Oh, dear God!"
Grant turned to fix him with a ferocious scowl. "Try to be of some use, will you? Get one of my shirts. And some towels. And now that I think of it, some tea and brandy. Now, hurry."
Kellow started to reply, appeared to think better of it, and proceeded to fetch the required articles. Carefully averting his eyes from the woman on the bed, he handed a fresh shirt to Mrs. Buttons and fled the room.
Grant's growing need to have Vivien clothed and warm overrode any desire to see her naked. He caught only a brief glimpse of her body as he and the housekeeper worked to pull Vivien's arms through the long linen sleeves ... but his brain gathered the image greedily and kept it to savor later.
Vivien wasn't perfect, but the promise of delight was captured in her imperfections. She was charmingly short-waisted, as so many petite women were, with gorgeous round breasts and softly dimpled knees. Her smooth abdomen was crowned with a triangle of spicy red hair just a few shades darker than the sunset locks on her head. No wonder she was the most highly paid prostitute in England. She was lush, pretty, dainty ... the kind of woman any man would want to keep in bed for days.
They weighted Vivien with linens and heavy blankets, and Mrs. Buttons wrapped her stiff, salt-tainted hair in one of the towels Kellow had brought. "She's a lovely woman," the housekeeper said, her face softening with reluctant pity. "And young enough to change her life for the better. I hope the Lord will choose to spare her."
"She won't die," Grant said shortly. "I won't allow it." He touched the pure ivory curve of Vivien's forehead, using his thumb to brush a tendril of hair beneath the towel. Carefully he laid a cold cloth over a bruise at her temple. "Though it seems someone will be disappointed by her survival."
"Pardon, sir, but I don't follow ... oh." Her eyes widened as Grant's fingertips swept gently over Vivien's throat, indicating the shadowy bruises that encircled her slim neck. "It looks as if someone tried to ... to ... "
"Strangle her," he said matter-of-factly.
"Who would do such a thing?" Mrs. Buttons wondered aloud, her forehead creased with horror.
"Most often in the case of a murdered woman, it's a husband or lover." His lips twitched with a humorless smile. "Females always seem to fear strangers, when it's usually the men they know who do them harm."
Shaking her head at the ugly thought, Mrs. Buttons stood and smoothed her apron. "If it pleases you, sir, I'll send up some salve for Miss Duvall's bruises and scrapes, and wait downstairs for the doctor's arrival."
Grant nodded, barely aware of the housekeeper leaving the room as he stared at Vivien's expressionless face. Gently he rearranged the cloth on her forehead. He stroked the curve of her pale cheek with a single fingertip, and made a sound of grim amusement in his throat. "I swore you would rue the day you made a fool of me, Vivien," he murmured. "But the opportunity has come a hell of lot sooner than I expected."