The terrace was blissfully, blessedly quiet, which improved the chances Morgan would comprehend anything her escort said—and she very much wanted to understand what came out of his handsome mouth.
He set the cup of punch down after only the barest sip, for he’d likely been expecting something other than tepid orgeat.
“My usual approach with pretty ladies is to apply great quantities of flirtation and flummery to the encounter.” Portmaine moved the cup so it sat on the flagstones a foot away from his left boot, where any passing servant would know to gather it up and take it away. “I suspect flummery isn’t going to work.”
Neither would flirtation, Morgan hoped. “If you mean flummery isn’t going to distract me from interrogating you, you are quite correct, though I won’t mind if you try.”
“Very obliging of you.” He’d muttered this, but Morgan had been watching his mouth, so she caught the sense of his words.
“Are you in danger, Mr. Portmaine?”
He peered at the toes of his boots, his expression bashful and maybe a tad surprised. “I’m in danger of losing my heart to a woman who doesn’t find direct speech an unconscionable rudeness.”
Perhaps he was giving flirtation a try after all. She passed him a quarter of a pear. “I am duly charmed, but you didn’t answer the question. If your situation is perilous, the Windhams are here en masse, and they will rally to your defense out of family loyalty.”
“My situation is not perilous in the sense you mean it, else I would not be sitting here with you.”
Morgan said nothing—a woman’s company might be all the shield he needed if the danger to him was from a source bent on remaining hidden. She took a bite of her pear and indulged for a moment in the pleasure of a texture both creamy and slightly grainy, and a taste both sweet and spicy.
The Windhams did not skimp on hospitality, not ever.
“Here is my dilemma, Mr. Portmaine: if you mean mischief of any kind toward the Windhams, or more specifically toward my sister or her husband, I will do all in my power to stop you. I will be watching you the way you watched me for the first thirty minutes of this reception, and should you misstep, I will alert my in-laws.”
She munched on the rest of her slice of pear, detecting a tensing in the man beside her. He would not threaten her here, and he needed to know that loyalty was not exclusively a Windham characteristic.
“Miss James, I am going to violate every tenet of my personal philosophy, flirt with a deviation from the dictates of honor, and without doubt commit rudeness.”
“All that? Would you like some more pear while you misbehave so prodigiously?”
“Please.” Their fingers brushed, though she couldn’t think it was deliberate on his part, because the contact appeared to fluster him. The lapse was slight—a firming of his mouth, a double-blink—but Morgan excelled at reading faces, and even short acquaintance told her Archer Portmaine normally enjoyed great self-possession.
Normally, so did she. “You were saying, Mr. Portmaine?”
“I was in Westhaven’s box to elude the no-tice of a woman.” Plausible, but she did not believe him—not entirely.
“A married woman?”
Another blink. “Well, yes, but it isn’t what you think.”
Morgan finished with her pear and began to lick her fingers one by one, then caught her companion watching her. So far, he wasn’t gaining many points for originality. “Not what I think?”
“She is not a former inamorata.”
He passed her a handkerchief, tucking it into Morgan’s hand. While she made use of the monogrammed cream silk—his middle name apparently also began with an A—Morgan concluded the conversation had not yet achieved her goal.
“I know you are an investigator, Mr. Portmaine, and that you are involved with keep-ing scandal from befalling the best families in the realm.” Had he been involved in avert-ing scandal for the Windhams?
The look he shot her was barren of charm and even friendliness. “The lady was among those I’ve investigated. I do not think she could recognize me, but one doesn’t want to take chances.”
“So you were eluding embarrassment.”
“I was, and being found in Westhaven’s box ‘by accident’ might have had to serve, though I’d rather nobody knew I was there, even momentarily.” He was still at least partly lying.
“And yet, the lady is not a former inamorata.”
He studied Morgan for a moment more, which allowed her to examine him in return by the torchlight. He was an exponent of Classic English Good Looks—blond, blue-eyed, and rangy, but imbued with a little Celtic ferocity too, in the slight hook to his nose and the angle of his jaw.
“And now I shall be inexcusably crude,” he said, “which will likely earn me a sound drubbing from your musical knight. The lady, Miss James, prefers women. If I avoided her notice, it was as much to spare her as anything else.”
Morgan stopped wiping at her fingers with his handkerchief. “Prefers women?”
Several long, lonely years of practice allowed Morgan to impersonate a young lady of good family enjoying a musical evening and the company of a near-relation. Mr. Portmaine’s disclosure suggested he could see beneath that artifice, and grasp some of the past Morgan struggled to keep from Society’s sight.
For she knew exactly what he meant, and in the next instant, figured out exactly why he was back to staring at his boots. “How mortifying—for you.”
When she thought Mr. Portmaine would bid her a curt good night and stomp away, he instead turned a self-deprecating smile on her. “This revelation was rather a blow to her husband, whose grand schemes were utterly thwarted. Point to the lady, I say.”
“Oh, you poor man. I hope you were paid for your troubles.”
The words were out, blunt and only half-teasing, but they revealed gaps in Morgan’s gentility that she suspected were part of the reason she’d had no serious offers.
And as for the other part…
“I was compensated, not only for my troubles, but I suspect to hold my silence as well. Now that’s enough inexcusable crudeness for one conversation, even from me. Are you going to eat those strawberries?”
Morgan had the first inkling she might be in difficulties when she realized she rather liked the fellow when he was inexcusably crude—and since when did honesty become crudeness?
“Unless you stop me, I will eat every morsel on this plate,” Morgan said, holding the plate out to him. “So you must join me. Keeping one’s silence can be a strenuous undertaking.” Particularly when that silence lasted for years.
The moment passed, the strawberries, cheese, ham, and lemon cake disappeared, and when Mr. Portmaine offered to escort Morgan back inside, she paused before al-lowing him to assist her to her feet.
“I will keep my silence on this matter too, Mr. Portmaine. You haven’t been completely honest with me, but my guess is you’ve been as honest as you could be. You were not in Westhaven’s box with any mischievous in-tent toward my sister’s in-laws.”
“I was not.” He said this quietly, but Mor-gan heard him, and heard the truth of his words. It was enough.
“Then let us part on friendly terms, and I will wish you a pleasant evening.”
When she rose, he put her hand over his arm, and without saying a word, he smiled down at her. It wasn’t a flummery-and-flirtation smile, not in the sense he’d used the phrase, as if referring to flummery and flirtation as a set of matched pistols from Mr. Manton.
His smile was warm, genuine, and honest. She smiled back and let him return her to the noisy, crowded, uncomfortable confines of the green room proper.
“It’s damnably frustrating, Your Grace.” Archer did not need to pretty things up for the Duke of Moreland. “All we know is this plot is aimed at the Crown itself, and the French are as puzzled as we are.”
The duke nodded genially at some whiskered old fellow across the card room and raised his wineglass a few inches in salutation. “It’s a sorry day when we must rely on the Frogs for our intelligence, Portmaine. When do you think you’ll have more infor-mation?”
That was the only question that mattered, and trust Moreland to pounce on it.
“I’m circulating as much as I dare, Your Grace. All we know is people in high places are in support of whatever’s afoot. I drowse in mine host’s library of an evening, chat up the wallflowers and companions all over Mayfair, lose at cards with more skill than anybody would credit, and I’ve yet to hear even a juicy innuendo.”
“Then you keep listening, Portmaine. The Crown is worried. Very worried. Shall we put it about I’m backing you for a pocket borough?”
Shrewd blue eyes regarded Archer levelly enough that the question might be sincere, and not asked merely in the interests of justifying tête-à-têtes like this one.
“I believe, Your Grace, that the fewer political aspirations I show, the more likely somebody is to let something slip in my presence.”
“Best be flirting and courting, then.” This time, His Grace raised his glass and aimed a smile at a turbaned older woman sitting several yards away at the loo table. “Nose about this year’s herd of young beauties, turn them down the room as if you’re in contemplation of marriage.”
“That can be a perilous ruse, Your Grace.”
“Only if you’re careless. It can be a lot of fun if you’re not.”
Moreland winked at Archer, clapped him on the shoulder, and strode off in the direction of the men’s punch bowl.
Leaving Archer to take a swallow of gaggingly sweet ratafia and wonder how great a sacrifice a man was supposed to make for King and Country. He was pondering the same dismal notion as he sorted through the contents of Lord Braithwaite’s escritoire thirty minutes later.
“Nothing. Not an obscene snuffbox, not a lurid novel. Not a single indication of manly imagination, much less treason. No wonder Lady B. terrorizes the university boys.” Archer addressed his remarks to the room, then spotted a painting of foxhunters immortalized at that moment when the pack had set upon Reynard and tossed him bodily into the air. Several fellows on horseback in their pinks were pointing jovially at the carnage; another gestured with his hat while his horse shied at the commotion.
The painting was abominable, also ever so slightly askew.
“Voila.” Archer had no more than swung the thing forward on its hinges to reveal the safe behind it when the door to the adjacent sitting room opened. In the time it took to silently concoct a foul oath, he replaced the painting and took a seat on a sofa along the wall.
“Pardon me, sir! I was not expecting anyone to be in our private apartments.”
Lady Braithwaite paused in the doorway and studied Archer with more curiosity than indignation. She was on the tall side, buxom, and approaching the age when she’d be described as matronly rather than well endowed.
“My lady.” Archer rose slowly and showed only welcome in his eyes as he approached her. “I beg your pardon. I presumed, because I was certain these were the chambers of the house most certain to afford privacy. I’ll just…” He heaved a sigh and glanced around the room, wall by wall, his gaze lingering on the hapless fox. “I’ll just be going.”
“You’re Portmaine, aren’t you?” She perused Archer more closely than he’d inspected the room. “Were you waiting for a young lady, Mr. Portmaine?”
Did every member of the titled set think people had nothing better to do than swive each other and flirt?
“I am a gentleman, my lady.” Archer allowed a hint of a knowing smile into his expression. “A gentleman would not admit his good fortune were he in anticipation of an assignation.”
She approached, and observing her walk, Archer felt a sinking sensation in his middle. He was doomed, doomed, to kiss women he didn’t desire, and to bid a fond farewell to the ones he did.
“My husband would not like to find us here.” She stopped a mere foot away, scrutinizing Archer’s chest and shoulders with the same pursed lips and cocked head displayed by the fellows who looked over the equine offerings at Tatt’s. “To be alone like this is completely improper.”
“As I said, I’ll just be going.”
She proffered her hand on cue, and he grasped it in his own. If he was lucky, she’d content herself with a racy—
Over Lady Braithwaite’s shoulder, Archer watched in horror as the sitting-room door swung open to reveal Morgan James standing in the entrance. She stopped abruptly, her eyes going wide, her gloved hand covering her mouth.
Very possibly, the damned woman was hiding a smirk.