Read the sparkling short story by New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Grace Burrowes that ties back to her popular Windham series.
Archer Portmaine is investigating a plot against the Crown when he meets Morgan James, a young lady who believes her hearing problems make her a poor candidate for marriage, although her disability provides the key to unraveling Archer’s mystery—and to capturing his heart.
In a sea of chatter and movement, silence and stillness caught Archer Portmaine’s attention.
The ladies at the front of the shadowed box might have been any pretty pair enjoying a night at the orchestra, the elder exhibiting the fashionable attire of a young matron of means.
The younger woman held Archer’s focus when he ought to have been scanning the other boxes for his quarry. She did this not by craning her neck or leaning over the railing, but rather by unhurried and quiet inspection of the glittering, laughing, bejeweled throng.
Archer had the niggling sense he’d seen her before, in a different setting. He might forget the occasional face, but he did not forget the graceful turn of a woman’s bare shoulders, or a chin that shaded toward determined but stopped short of stubborn.
Her profile was classic, her brown hair tidily coiled at her nape, her cream dress the very next thing to plain. She was quietly lovely, and yet, everything about her begged to be passed over at a glance, everything except for her stillness and the way she held her own counsel in a venue where talking—loudly and cleverly—was more a part of the program than the music.
If the lady could chatter a bit while she perused the audience, or send the occasional flirtatious glance to a random, lucky swain below, she might make a passable spy.
Which notion would insult any proper lady mightily.
Archer left off watching the quiet young woman, lest even lurking at the back of this box he’d be spotted by those whose paths he’d rather not cross.
He shrank closer to the velvet curtains, glad for whatever breeze had doused the lights of the nearest chandelier. A man in pursuit ought always to be alert for pursuers and avoid even so fascinating a distraction as a pretty young woman’s silence.
“Did you know Valentine dedicated the final work on the program to you?”
Amid the hum and bustle of the orchestra tuning up and the audience gossiping and greeting one another, Morgan James was barely able to discern her sister’s soft words.
“What young lady wouldn’t want the Windham musical genius dedicating a work to her?” Especially a young lady who owed the recovery of her hearing to the selfsame musician?
Anna, Countess of Westhaven, studied her program by the limited light of the theatre’s chandeliers. “You are over Valentine, aren’t you? Please say you are.”
“I am.” Morgan felt a curious relief to say the words honestly, a weight winging aloft like the ascending scale of a flute warming up. “Valentine Windham was the first gentleman I met who behaved like a gentleman, and he was such a wonderful contrast to our late brother.” Why had she not realized these things before?
“He is obsessed with his music though, enthralled with it,” Morgan went on, “and Ellen understands this about him. I was alone in my own silent world for so long, I cannot fathom seeking an isolated existence on purpose, regardless of how much beautiful sound I could fill it with.”
“You are very sensible, Sister. Westhaven said I was fretting for nothing.” Anna’s husband often made confident pronouncements about his family, and he was right an aggravating percentage of the time.
“I consider Valentine a dear friend,” Morgan said, “and I’m certain he holds me in the same regard. The last piece is a piano sonata. I look forward to hearing it.”
She would also look forward to having the evening over, to being alone in the commodious chambers Westhaven’s family provided her, where—oddly enough—she’d begun to enjoy the silence and solitude.
Anna rose gracefully. “I’ll fetch Westhaven from the corridor. He gets caught up by his father’s cronies from the Lords and is too polite to leave them talking to themselves, which is their proper fate on what ought to be a social outing.”
The pretty, dark-haired countess bustled out of the box, off to rescue some old curmudgeon from Lord Westhaven’s endless fascination with what he called economics, leaving Morgan to wonder at her own proper fate.
Spinsterhood loomed close at hand, and likely a return of deafness not long after that. The physician had warned her, after all.
A shadow along the back wall of the box moved, distracting Morgan from her dismal thoughts. She caught the scents of rain on wool, laced with cedar. Cool scents, masculine and beguilingly pleasant.
And yet, those scents belonged to someone who had no business in that dark corner. People chatted and strolled in the corridor only a few yards away, so Morgan couldn’t be alarmed, but neither was she pleased at the intrusion. “Make yourself known, sir, and explain why you lurk in the Windham family’s private box.”
As her eyes adjusted to the gloom, Morgan made out a few more details: height, blond hair, broad shoulders. Westhaven’s plummy baritone came drifting in from the passage, followed by Anna’s quieter tones, something about not leaving Morgan alone.
The intruder pressed a finger to his lips, a signal for silence, then winked and blew Morgan a kiss. His teeth gleamed in a smile, audacious behavior indeed for a trespasser.
Anna sailed into the box, followed by her husband at a more decorous pace.
“My love, I was not lecturing old Quimbey, I was engaged in Socratic dialogue such as men of reason and intellect often enjoy with one another.” Westhaven did not sound as if he were defending himself, but Morgan knew her sister’s husband well.
Next, he’d start in with the nuzzling and cozening, and sure enough, as he assisted Anna into her seat at the front of the box, he leaned down closer than the situation warranted. “You were about to take him on yourself, weren’t you, dearest Wife? You’re as inclined to rational discourse as any member of either House. Morgan will support me in this observation.”
The earl was subtle about it, but managed to land his lips on Anna’s neck right there in the theatre box with a stranger looking on. Morgan turned and rose, intending to take the stranger to task again… only to find he no longer lurked in the shadows.
The smiling, kiss-blowing, silent man who bore the scent of fresh night air and northern forests had simply vanished.
Valentine Windham crossed the green room and possessed himself of Morgan James’s hand. “My dear, you are looking delectable, as usual.” He bowed low but did not presume to kiss her knuckles. “Panford, allow me to appropriate the lady’s company for a moment. I cannot take my leave without hearing her opinion of the night’s performance.”
Val kept his tone jovial, though he’d spoken nothing less than the truth.
Panford was a talented, handsome cellist—also quite married and the sole support of a wife and several small children. Val tucked Morgan’s hand around his arm and waited just long enough for Panford to stammer his parting.
“The performance was delightful,” Morgan said. “The Sixth is a lovely piece, cheerful and lively.”
Val walked her in the direction of the refreshment table. “And the piano sonata?”
Morgan had a sense of reserve Val had taken some while to puzzle out. A person deprived of sound for ten years learned a quality of focus that the hearing population never acquired. Despite the restoration of her hearing, Morgan yet had that stillness, an utter calm that was unusual in a woman with only a few Seasons to her name.
“In the first two movements, you were trying to create silence with sound,” she said. “That is quite a challenge.”
He’d been trying to re-create her world, her calm. “Did I succeed?”
She smiled up at him, a winsome flash of teeth and benevolence. “Oh, yes, Valentine. You succeeded, and the robust, romping final movement was a pure delight. I do thank you.”
Her smile allowed something inside him to unknot, to come to a restful cadence, for Morgan’s discernment regarding music was as keen as it was honest. He’d tried thinking of her as a sister, but she wasn’t quite, and yet, as young as she was, he’d never considered pursuing her with marriage in mind.
“Morgan, would you thank me for introducing you to that blond fellow by the mirror?” He’d spoken softly, as if they flirted or exchanged confidences—or as if Val might have been willing for her to ignore his question.
“Who is he?”
Val suffered a small pang of chagrin that she didn’t dismiss the man altogether, though the fellow had been studying her for some minutes in repeated, all too casual passing glances. “I thought you preferred the tall, dark-haired, handsome types.”
“With green eyes and bottomless musical talent? Those fellows are fine to have as friends, they are wonderful to have as friends, in fact, but whoever he is, he’s a credit to his tailor.”
The blighter was good-looking enough, if a woman’s tastes ran to golden hair, aristocratic features on the skinny, aesthetic side, and eyes of an infantile blue all wrapped up in conservative evening attire. Women, in their well-intended generosity, might call those eyes captivating.
“He is Archer Portmaine, a cousin to my sister Maggie’s husband. He was Hazelton’s business partner, also his heir until the baby showed up. You might have been introduced to him at Ben and Maggie’s wedding.” Though if Morgan had been introduced to Portmaine, she’d forgotten the encounter—cheering thought.
Curiosity lit in Morgan’s eyes at the mention of Portmaine’s role in the business. “He’s an investigator?”
“Keep your voice down, if you please. I haven’t any idea what the man’s prospects are. Portmaine might still be employed in such a capacity, but Hazelton himself no longer snoops.”
Val hoped. As a man with a wife, a mother, and five sisters taking an interest in his welfare, Val hardly needed one of those sisters marrying a professional investigator.
“Introduce us, please.” Morgan sounded very certain.
Valentine tended to the civilities, keeping Morgan’s hand on his arm the entire time. Portmaine was not as tall as Val—not much over six feet—which was some consolation. The smile he beamed at Morgan made Val want to break the man’s perfect white teeth.
“And Lord Valentine.” Portmaine turned that smile on Val. “My compliments on a lovely interpretation of the Sixth. F major has a reputation as a restful, sanguine key, though I’d be interested to hear an accomplished musician’s opinion on the matter.”
Val said some damned thing about well-tempered tuning and concert hall acoustics, but in truth he would have preferred if Archer Portmaine, of the charming smile and guileless blue eyes, were cursed with a bit of tone deafness.
Charm was a discreet investigator’s best weapon. This was the first lesson Archer had learned when he began nosing into the shadier dealings of Polite Society. As he smiled and bowed over Morgan James’s hand, he found himself in the unusual position of having that weapon turned on himself.
She didn’t have to say anything save his name, and Archer wished every other person in the room—most especially the glowering Lord Valentine—to Jericho.
Her smile held a warmth, a benevolence that suggested she’d been waiting all evening to find him and bestow that very smile upon him alone. Her voice was low for a woman, but even in the simple utterance of his name, he could hear that smile.
“Miss James, a very great pleasure.”
When he held her hand the requisite moment-too-long, she didn’t simper or blush. She instead kept his hand in her grasp for an instant when he went to pull away.
Maybe Windham caught something of that opening salvo, because he shifted closer to Miss James. “Morgan, perhaps you’d like some refreshment? My darling wife has been swept into the ducal clutches, and I am quite without worthy company.”
Windham’s tone was possessive, and his insult to Archer blatant, which was exactly the kind of complication Archer did not need—particularly when years in the music room had apparently given his lordship the muscles of a stevedore.
“I’ll excuse myself, then, my lord. Again, a lovely performance. Miss James, a pleasure.” Archer launched a slow, obsequious bow—-even bowing could require a touch of art—when Miss James laid a hand on his arm.
“Mr. Portmaine can escort me to the refreshments, Lord Valentine. Your baroness is by the window, encircled by adoring swains. I believe His Grace has abandoned your wife to go in search of your mother.”
Something flickered in Windham’s eyes before he bowed and withdrew, and Archer revised his assessment: Windham wasn’t possessive of the lovely Miss James. He was protective. Regarding his wife, however, he was possessive and protective.
“Miss James, did you just manipulate that poor man into leaving you in the care of a stranger?”
She turned placid eyes on him. “Some punch is in order, and perhaps a bite of cake.”
As they made their way through the crowd, Archer silently congratulated her on having self-possession sufficient to ignore a question he really should not have asked. “May I fix you a plate, Miss James?”
She left off her study of the offerings on the buffet. “I beg your pardon?”
“May I fix you a plate?” He’d leaned closer, as if the hubbub of the crowd made such a thing necessary. A scent hit him, one emanating from her person. His nose filled with the fragrance of roses laced with spices—a touch of nutmeg, maybe clove or cinnamon. He was at risk of sniffing her when a second realization came barreling into his awareness.
Morgan James was watching his mouth. Her gaze was fixed on his lips, staring at the part of him that was willing to steal and bestow kisses, sometimes even in the line of duty.
“A plate is a fine idea,” she said. “Some sustenance would be appreciated.”
They moved down the buffet line, with Archer taking every opportunity to keep close to her. He told himself he was trying to parse out her scent—his cousin Benjamin had an extraordinarily acute sense of smell—but he was also admiring the curve of her nape and the way she made her choices easily and decisively.
In the same manner, she led him to a back terrace off the green room. Other couples were at the railing, and the place was adequately lit by torches, but Miss James took a bench in a quiet corner near the building.
“Please sit,” she said, setting down her cup of punch and reaching for the plate. “And before you start with the small talk, you will explain why you were lurking in Westhaven’s box. Your cousin Benjamin has married Maggie Windham, which means you’re nearly family to the Windhams. Skulking about on your part makes no sense at all.”
Archer sat, felled by the very same combination of charm and boldness he often used in the line of duty. Lest his explanation tumble forth without any planning whatsoever, he took a sip of the punch, realizing too late, he’d brought the lady’s own cup to his lips.