Archer let his smile degenerate into a leer and used Lady Braithwaite’s hand to tug her against his body. “I’ll leave as soon as I’ve stolen at least a kiss.”
Bother. A bit of wretched melodrama was the best he could think of, and when he’d followed through on his declaration, he saw Miss James was standing as if she’d sprouted roots, watching every moment of the performance through dancing eyes. While Lady Braithwaite’s tongue imitated an auger, boring against Archer’s lips, Archer pointed directly toward the corridor, and—to the extent a man could while enduring an oral assault—he glowered at the intruder.
Miss James withdrew, smirk and all, while Lady Braithwaite plastered herself against Archer from north to south and at every point in between. She was a substantial woman and determined on her objective.
Archer had nearly resigned himself to at least pleasuring the woman, when a bad situation threatened to become worse.
“Oh, my Lord Braithwaite! I am pathetically relieved to see you!” Morgan James sounded near tears right outside the sitting-room door. “I am completely turned about, the women’s retiring room is nowhere in sight, and my need for it is becoming urgent.”
Lady Braithwaite retracted herself as if bitten. “He mustn’t find me here. My pin money, my allowance for the modiste, my little habit at the whist tables—”
She twisted about, eyes huge, while Archer stifled the urge to clap a hand over her mouth.
“They’re leaving,” he whispered. “He’s escorting the young lady down the hall. Listen to the footsteps.”
Relief replaced panic in Lady Braithwaite’s gaze, followed by an air of wounded dignity assumed with astounding rapidity. “I must be going, Mr. Portmaine. Steal your kisses from somebody else.”
With pleasure. “My apologies, Lady Braithwaite. I should not have presumed.” He bowed low, the better to encourage her departure. If she ran true to Archer’s experience, her first stop upon returning to the ballroom would be her husband’s side. She’d fuss and coo and spend at least ten minutes making sure all and sundry observed their marital accord.
Which gave Archer about fourteen minutes to open the safe, review its contents, and return to the ballroom without being seen.
Morgan checked the clock above the mantel in the card room. Mr. Portmaine had needed approximately sixteen minutes to make his way back to the ballroom. She did not believe those minutes had been necessary to cool a passion on his part for Lady Braithwaite, but that left the question of what, exactly, he’d been about.
“You, sir, have a knack of appearing somewhere, as if you’ve been lounging in that very spot all evening.” When I know you haven’t.
“Miss James.” Mr. Portmaine’s smile was cool, his expression giving away nothing. “A pleasure to see you again.” He bowed over her hand correctly, and Morgan did not bother playing the game of keeping his hand in hers. “Might I inquire as to whether you’re engaged for the supper waltz?”
Oh, damn. “You’re not supposed to be this bold when confronted, Mr. Portmaine.”
“You’re confronting me? This confrontation is by far more charming than others in recent memory. Will you dance with me, Miss James?”
What was he trying to say? What was he trying to do? Couples positioned themselves in the middle of the ballroom, where Morgan would be able to interrogate him for at least the duration of a dance. “It would be my pleasure.”
He looked not pleased, but relieved, the scoundrel. She placed her gloved fingers over the knuckles of his proffered hand and let him escort her to the dance floor. They observed the protocol for beginning the dance, and then the orchestra swung into a lilting triple meter.
Because the Braithwaites hadn’t hired a mere quartet or trio, but an orchestra, and because that ensemble boasted a piano and a proficient double bass rather than a mere harpsichord, Morgan could feel the music.
Or perhaps her pleasure in this particular waltz had to do with her partner. “You are light on your feet, Mr. Portmaine.”
He turned her through a corner and momentarily brought her a hair closer in his arms than propriety allowed. “The better for sneaking about? You are a graceful dancer as well, Miss James.”
“I like waltzing.” With the buzz of the surrounding crowd, and the good efforts of the orchestra, Morgan would not catch Mr. Portmaine’s every word. She would, however, be able to see his face while he spoke, which helped tremendously.
“Is the appeal of the waltz its scandalous nature, Miss James?”
“Scandalous? When Wellington himself enjoys it? Hardly. I like it because of the downbeat.”
She hadn’t meant to say that.
His smile suggested he knew she hadn’t meant to say it, too. “Explain yourself, Miss James.”
“I can feel the rhythm, particularly if there’s a piano, even better if there’s tympani. One-two-three, one-two-three…” From the puzzlement on his face, Morgan realized she was in the arms of one person who hadn’t heard of her “unfortunate history.”
She regretted her disclosure for half the length of the room, then caught Mr. Portmaine regarding her closely. He was tall, but not so tall as to make her feel like an adolescent. At her come out, she’d danced with Valentine Windham…
Who was too tall for her. That, she realized between one violin trill and the next, was what had been off about every dance they’d shared—that and her besottedness with him.
“You are distracted, Miss James. Or perhaps you’re simply enjoying yourself?”
“I am planning your interrogation, sir.”
“I will answer your questions as honestly as I can.”
His reply wasn’t what she’d expected, but it allowed her to enjoy the balance of the dance and move through the buffet line beside him without further conversation. He left the choice of seating to her, so she decided on a small table far down the gallery.
“A good location for interrogation and torture, if one is allergic to roses,” he remarked. “What would you like to know?”
She wanted to know if he’d enjoyed kissing Lady Braithwaite and where he’d learned to dance so well. She wanted to know if he was in trouble, and she wanted to know what his kisses were like.
Morgan waited until they were seated, a single plate between them, before she put her first question to him.
“Why did His Grace tell you the Crown is very worried?”
The trouble was, Archer liked Morgan James. He’d bungled the search of Braithwaite’s chamber badly, and Miss James had saved him from exposure. He liked practical women, women who could deal with life’s vagaries without making a fuss.
He liked pretty women as well as the next fellow did.
He also, however, liked smart women, which was unfortunate indeed when his line of work meant how he spent his time ought to remain undiscussed, or better yet, unnoticed.
“You were not in the card room when I had a conversation with His Grace which might have included those words.” Those exact words.
“I was a few feet outside the doorway.” She tugged off her gloves, exposing hands that sported short, unpainted nails, and a sturdy, practical quality at variance with her graceful evening attire. “Care for a strawberry?”
“I would rather hear how you were privy to a discussion taking place twelve, even fifteen feet away from you. The card room was buzzing, the orchestra sawing away, and you could not have heard us.”
“I didn’t hear you. Eat something, Mr. Portmaine, or people will suspect we’re quarreling.” She served up a section of orange, along with a saucy, naughty smile.
He whipped off his gloves and set them down next to hers. “Thank you.” His mind raced over dire possibilities as he took a bite of the orange. Nobody had overheard them—nobody. He’d been sure of it.
“I do not hear well,” Miss James said.
He paused mid-chew. “I beg your pardon?”
“I do not hear well.” She looked right at him and spoke slowly, as if he didn’t hear well.
“I’m sorry to—” Hear that. He accepted another section of orange from her. “That’s too bad, though given what goes on in the typical Mayfair ballroom, you might consider yourself lucky.”
“You’re an idiot if you think deafness is a blessing.” Her voice was a low hiss, making it plain the subject was sensitive. Archer liked that the momentum of the conversation was in his hands; he did not at all like that she was upset.
She passed him some ham rolled up around a nibble of pineapple, suggesting the lady shared Archer’s penchant for fresh fruit. “Tell you what?”
“Tell me what it’s like when your hearing troubles you.”
She hadn’t expected that question—her expression was positively flummoxed. He chewed the tidbit and realized on the two occasions when he’d had substantial conversations with her, she’d chosen quiet locations.
“Hearing trouble is a constant frustration,” she said, holding up another bite of ham. “If you’re blind, people will help you. They can close their eyes and get a taste of what you deal with. It scares them, but they know it isn’t catching. If you’re deaf…”
She trailed off, staring at the food in her fingers. Archer plucked it from her grasp and held it to her lips. “Eat, Miss James. If you’re to interrogate me properly, you must keep up your strength. You were telling me what it’s like to be deaf.”
She nibbled the food from his fingers, a delectable, delicate sensation with erotic overtones Archer suspected Miss James was oblivious to.
“If you are deaf,” she said slowly, “people think you’re stupid. They shout at you—you can see when a voice is raised at you—they use little words and use them loudly. They give up trying to speak with you, and don’t think to write down their words instead. You let them give up, because the shouting causes others to stare, and the pity is worse even than the disgust.”
Archer had an image of an intelligent young woman bombarded with shouting she couldn’t hear, and jeering glances she couldn’t avoid. “I’m sorry, Miss James.” To underscore the sincerity of his sentiment, he reached across the table and wrapped her bare fingers in his own. “I’m sorry it hurt.”
“Everybody has hurts and burdens.” She said this wearily, like an aphorism passed down from exhausted, burdened mother to exhausted, burdened daughter.
“We do. Lady Braithwaite was my burden for a few moments. My thanks for waving off his lordship.”
Miss James brightened. “I considered letting him have at you, then I recalled His Grace’s comments.”
Drat the damned luck. Morgan James’s interest in a very private conversation could well be that of a woman plotting mischief against the Crown.
“How and why were you privy to that comment?” Archer still grasped her wrist, and she made no move to withdraw. Either she had the steady composure and regular pulse of a practiced spy, or she had nothing about which to be anxious.
“I saw what His Grace said. He is well known to me, so I can make out most of his words. I could not follow you as easily.”
“You saw what he said?”
“Watch my mouth.” She sat back and slipped her hand from his grasp. “How are you, Mr. Portmaine?” She did not speak audibly, and yet he knew what words she’d formed.
“I’m well enough for a man who must consider his every private word has not been private at all. The ramifications are… daunting.”
Worse than daunting, considering the safety of the Crown was at stake.
She patted his knuckles. “You needn’t worry. The ability to read lips is hard won and rare, also an imperfect skill. Every person I’ve known who had the ability was deaf. In my case, I manage much better with people I know, like His Grace.”
“What did you see him say?” Archer held out a slender hope that the lady might be able to see others’ speech, but that her recall would be significantly imperfect.
She knit her brows. “He mentioned relying on the Frogs for intelligence, said the Crown was worried—very worried. He offered to support you in a bid for a pocket borough and suggested you resort to flirting and courting. I could not see the entire exchange, because he raised his glass twice and obscured my view of his mouth.”
“And what of my words, Miss James?”
“Your back was to me for much of the conversation. I saw the word perilous though, and when Lady Braithwaite followed you from the room, I thought I’d best go along in case you needed assistance.”
“You went along to protect me?” The notion offended his dignity almost as much as it warmed his heart.
Her chin came up half an inch. “And was successful in this regard.”
“You were. My thanks.” He fed her more ham, mostly to keep her quiet while he tried not to dwell on what might have occurred if Miss James hadn’t come along. When much of the food had been consumed, Archer sat back and indulged in a curiosity lively enough to get him into trouble.
“Tell me more about being deaf.”
Miss James’s mouth quirked, and not with humor. “Deafness isn’t something one often discusses.”
“So you have a rare opportunity to enlighten a curious mind. Was it lonely?”
Her gaze shuttered. She put back the strawberry she’d just picked up.
“Forgive me, Miss James. I did not mean to presume. The line of work I’m in frequently isolates one, particularly when one no longer has a partner.” While she considered her strawberry, he forged on. “I hadn’t made that realization until this very moment. Carrying secrets makes one into a type of mute, I suppose, though nothing like… I’m babbling.”
The smile that rose in her eyes was breathtaking. “You’re also quite correct. I expect any disability leaves one lonely, deafness especially, because it’s so hard to connect your mind and heart to another’s when you dwell in silence.”
She was an emotionally fearless young lady, and perhaps deafness had bequeathed that to her as well. “You are not deaf now.”
The smile died, and Archer grieved its passing.
“A little, I still am, particularly when violent weather changes are in the offing. My physician has warned me my hearing might get worse with age.”
This possibility haunted her. Archer perceived as much by the way she popped the strawberry in her mouth and chewed it to bits. “We all lose ground as we age, and you are far from old, Miss James. May I escort you back to the ballroom?”
“You may not—yet. What were you and His Grace discussing?”
She deserved an answer, but he tried yet again to avoid giving one. “Will you desist with this inquiry if I tell it had to do with the security of the realm?”
The lady managed to contain her amusement, though Archer suspected it was a near thing. “And that interlude with Lady Braithwaite was a matter of delicate diplomacy?”
“That was an occupational hazard.” One he increasingly resented.
“You liken yourself to a chambermaid? Accosted in the course of your duties through no fault of your own?”
She was finding her balance with this exchange, so Archer rose to the spirit of mild antagonism. “What would you know about the vicissitudes of being a chambermaid? You hobnob with dukes and turn down the ballroom with their sons—when you aren’t spying on the Regent’s loyal minion.”
“I was not spying on you, Mr. Portmaine, and for your information, I was a chambermaid for three years. I know a great deal more about presuming footmen, unscrupulous gentlemen, and having to defend my virtue on the back stairs than you could possibly comprehend.”
Miss Morgan James, favorite of the Windhams, friend to their virtuoso, and potential disaster to Archer’s objectives, blinked and looked around her as if someone else had spoken.
“I beg your pardon, Mr. Portmaine. That is a disclosure I’ve not made in Polite circles since before my come-out.”
Every woman who’d ever captured Archer’s heart had been in service. This explained his attraction to her, or explained part of it, and put to rest any notion he had of disentangling himself from this extraordinary lady in the next half hour.
“You will explain yourself nonetheless, and—if I might presume on both your good nature and a family connection—I would be most pleased if you called me Archer when you did.”