“You should expect a visit from me at your town house tomorrow, Your Grace.”
Moreland paused on the steps of a gentlemen’s club to which he’d probably belonged since adolescence, one Archer was unlikely to ever see the inside of. To appearances, they were striking up a casual conversation between passing acquaintances, nothing more.
“Is that wise, Portmaine? To fraternize openly when such delicate matters are in train? It’s one thing to cross paths in the social crush, but a morning call to my home?”
“I will not be fraternizing with you, Your Grace. I heeded your advice the other night and undertook some flirting.”
Except it hadn’t been flirting. Talking with Morgan James had been… delightful.
“Flirting? With one of my ladies?” The old fellow looked torn between curiosity and surprise.
“I would not reach so far above myself, not that your daughters aren’t lovely women.”
Moreland tipped his hat to a trio of dowagers waving from a passing landau. “My daughters are lovely handfuls, every one of ’em.”
“And you are as proud of this as if it were exclusively the result of your paternity.” Which it well might be.
Moreland positively preened. “Before all save my duchess, I maintain that the girls take after their papa. Her Grace can take credit for the boys, but the girls are my treasures. If you’re not calling on me, and you’re not calling on an unmarried daughter of the house, then what business have you bestowing your presence on us?”
“I’ll be taking Miss Morgan James driving, weather permitting.”
His Grace gave the pink rose on Archer’s lapel a nudge. “Morgan’s brother was an earl, and her sister is married to my heir, Portmaine. Some would say Morgan is entitled to be called lady, the same as my girls are.”
Morgan apparently was not so inclined. “Are you warning me off, Your Grace?”
“Perhaps I am.”
The reply hurt a bit, but it did not surprise—nor did it deter Archer in the least. “I did not take Your Grace for a snob.”
“I am an aristocrat, though others will consider me a snob.” Rather than proceed into the building, His Grace gestured toward the fenced square across the street. “My duchess requires certain standards of me, and I am her slave in all things. Let’s enjoy a pretty day a while longer, shall we?”
In other words, there was more to be said, provided they had privacy.
Archer crossed the street with His Grace, and when they’d passed through the wrought iron fence encircling the wooded square, he waited for the older man to explain himself.
“Morgan is a pretty little thing,” His Grace observed mildly.
“What has that to do with anything?”
“In the opinion of some men, a great deal.”
Archer felt an urge to kick something—something resembling a duke. “Beautiful women are a deal of work, Your Grace, in the typical case. My tastes run to ladies with backbone, a good sense of humor, and a lively mind.” A lusty nature was an asset Archer was not about to mention to an “aristocratic” duke.
“Pragmatic of you. Many thought my duchess was plain, though none regarded her as such by our wedding day.”
The duke was a canny old veteran of more parliamentary plots and skirmishes than Archer could count, and he was circling around to something now. Rather than try to draw the old boy out, Archer ambled along in silence.
“Morgan is dear to my family, Portmaine. Very dear. The boys would fight duels for her, the girls gather for hours over the teapot when she’s with us. She is an aunt to my oldest grandson.”
Archer understood that in His Grace’s order of precedence, an aunt to his grandson stood only slightly lower than the angels and well above any pettifogging old archbishops.
“Your Grace, I mean no disrespect when I say, for all your family dotes on her, Miss James is lonely. She has few friends outside of your family circle and regards the young men slobbering at her heels as so many nuisances. The social Season is a trial for her, and if you had any understanding of her at all, you’d realize a noisy, dimly lit ballroom is torture for her.”
His Grace used his walking stick to whisk a cluster of dead leaves from their path. “Why is a ballroom, of all places, torture?”
“She can’t hear, Your Grace. With all the background noise, the chatter, the orchestra, the stomping of the dancers’ feet, she can’t hear well at all. In the dim lighting, she has a hard time reading people’s lips, and so she must always have vague, pretty replies on hand, though she knows half the time they aren’t spot on.”
His Grace’s expression turned thoughtful. “If she is so uncomfortable, then why does she attend?”
“She attends because she doesn’t want anyone to think she’s ungrateful, and please don’t ask me any more questions, because I’ve come as close as I dare to betraying her confidences.”
Which was perhaps understandable, when a man had more practice dealing in secrets than confidences.
His Grace paused to spear Archer with a glower. “You also come close to being insubordinate, young man, though if you’re going to risk such a thing, the interests of a young lady are as good a justification as any.”
While they resumed walking, Archer decided he’d just been scolded—and forgiven—in short order.
“Take Morgan driving, then, but keep a sharp eye out.”
“I always keep a sharp eye out.”
“No, my dear young man, you do not. Sometimes you sit for almost two hours among the ferns and portraits with a pretty young lady who is known to avoid lengthy conversations, and you do it in such a location that anybody might remark upon it.”
“What is Your Grace implying?” And who else had seen Archer whiling away an evening with Miss James?
“Your line of work has become dangerous, Portmaine. You need not fear much from the wives whose husbands hire you to catch the ladies at their folly, but you’ve been drawn into a game where you will make enemies. Your present task is to do nothing less than save the Regent’s life. The caliber of foe you’re facing is commensurate with that task, and so is the danger.”
His Grace sounded more like a general now than a duke, a general with a lot of battlefield experience. “You are saying any lady with whom I’m seen to associate might be in danger as well?”
“I’m suggesting it. Morgan is well dowered, attached to a prominent family, and well known in Polite Society. She’d make a fine victim of a kidnapping, wouldn’t she?”
His Grace paused to sniff an odd, blooming spray of honeysuckle, such was his sangfroid when discussing plots on the sovereign’s life.
One didn’t argue with dukes, though one might ask a question. “And absconding with Miss James would threaten the Regent’s life, how?”
The duke spoke gently. “Kidnapping Morgan James would sure as hell distract the only person close to discovering the details of this damned plot, wouldn’t it?”
His Grace wasn’t wrong. The duke’s fear was far-fetched to the point of paranoia, but it wasn’t completely wrong.
“Take her driving,” His Grace said, resuming their walk. “Just don’t favor her. Flirt with every debutante the hostesses let you get near, leer down a few of the matrons’ bodices. Take some other young lady out for the church parade this weekend. You know how the game is played.”
“I do.” Goddamn it all to hell, Archer did know how the game was played.
The duke departed, strolling briskly across the green and leaving Archer to address the surrounding maples. “I know how the damned game is played, and I’m getting bloody sick of playing it.”
“By now, I should know better than to get involved in such a stupid game.” Morgan stroked her hand over an enormous, smoky-gray, long-haired cat, more to quiet her nerves than to please the beast. “I felt like an idiot. It’s one thing to be unable to hear or speak, but that dratted man treated me as if I were invisible.”
Aquinas began to rumble with contentment on her lap.
“He expects me to call him Archer, and then he flirts with every girl, lady, and woman—he was smiling at the governesses and dairymaids, too—in the park. I do not understand it, Aquinas. He’s no better than you.”
“For a moment there, I thought I had a genuine rival.”
Shock and pleasure coursed through Morgan—quickly followed by pique—at the sound of the male voice behind her. Here in the privacy of her bedroom, it seemed as if…
“Greetings, Miss James, from the scoundrel who made such a poor showing in the park earlier today.”
She picked up the cat and rose to see Archer Portmaine standing just inside her balcony doors—wet, unsmiling, and as starkly handsome as ever.
“You will please leave, Mr. Portmaine.” She could pitch the cat at him if she had to, and that would feel good, though such an impulse would likely put Aquinas out of charity with her permanently.
“I owe you an explanation, and if you don’t mind, I’d prefer not to shout it up to you from the garden.” Gone was the flirting idiot who’d taken her driving, and in his place was a grim, damp, unhappy man.
“Stand on the hearthstones. You’re dripping on my carpet.”
He did not immediately obey. Instead he went through the awkward maneuver of tugging off his boots while standing. The boots he put right outside the balcony door. Next, he shrugged out of his coat and hung it on the back of the chair at Morgan’s vanity, then placed the chair several feet from the fire.
“Leaving your balcony door open is not wise, Morgan James.”
“Trapping Aquinas in the house isn’t either, particularly when he longs to go courting.”
Letting Archer Portmaine remain in her bedchamber was a great deal more foolish though, especially when he started unbuttoning his waistcoat.
“Where is your cravat?”
“For this type of call, I don’t usually wear one.”
“That’s why your shirt is black, isn’t it. The better to lurk and skulk on moonless nights. A white cravat would give away your location.”
He pulled his damp shirt over his head and stared at it as it hung in his grasp. “A full moon hangs above the clouds, though we can’t see it for the infernal rain.” He draped his shirt somewhere—Morgan neither knew nor cared where, for she was too busy studying the breathtaking muscular geometry of Archer Portmaine’s half-naked body.
“Are you quite comfortable, Mr. Portmaine?” For Morgan was finding it difficult to breathe evenly.
“I’m quite chilled, also exhausted, neither of which is your fault.” He sank onto the raised hearthstones, and the scent of steaming wool reached Morgan’s nose.
He was weary; she could see it in the lines of his body, sense it in the bleakness of his gaze. He was weary and alone, and she knew what that felt like.
She pulled an afghan off the back of her fainting couch and draped it around his shoulders. When she would have moved away, he wrapped an arm around her leg and rested his forehead against her thigh. “I really am sorry, Morgan.”
This afternoon, he’d gone back to Miss James-ing her, and she’d hated that as much as she’d hated his leering and flirting. She gave in to the temptation to run a hand through his damp hair. “We’ll talk.”
But first she’d pour him a cup of hot tea from the pot under the towel on her night tray. She brought it to him and held it out. With him sitting on the hearth, the moment reminded her of a knight reaching to take a chalice from a lady’s hand.
“Sit,” he said, moving a few inches to the left. “Or perhaps you should lock the door.”
She sat, but the hearth was not wide, and as she lowered herself to the stones, he opened the blanket so it enveloped her too. “The door is locked, though you’re being sufficiently familiar that I must question the wisdom of informing you of this.”
Morgan did not scold him further, nor did she move away. Her guest said nothing, just sat at her side, the tea in one hand, the other hand resting on her shoulder. A shudder passed through him, making the tea tremble in the shallow cup.
“You really are cold.”
“I’ll warm up.”
“And you’ll tell me why you were acting so oddly this afternoon?”
“Why I was acting like an absolute ass?”
She did not correct him.
He drained the teacup and set it aside, then tucked the blanket more closely around them. “When we were at the Braithwaite’s ball, you did not question me too closely about my activities in our host and hostess’s private chambers.”
“It is not my business.” Then too, she’d been far too enthralled with their conversation, a discussion where she’d been invited to talk about things most people regarded as unfortunate, if not downright shameful.
“It is not your business,” he concurred, “and I don’t want it to become your business.”
Under the scent of wet wool, she caught a whiff of something lovely and woodsy—from him. “What you’re doing is dangerous, isn’t it?”
Because they were side by side, because his arm was around her shoulders, Morgan felt him come to a decision before he spoke, a momentary weighing conducted more quickly than thought.
“My present task likely is dangerous. I was supposed to meet a man tonight at the docks. Somebody met him before I did, or possibly he decided it was too dangerous to keep our appointment.”
Dear God. “Was he a friend?”
“An acquaintance of long standing. I knew him years ago… in France.”
She was not going to ask what Archer Portmaine had been doing in a nation with which England had been at war for most of twenty years. Instead, she slipped her arm around his bare, cool back, feeling the last of her irritation with him shift into worry. “I’m sorry, Archer. This is more than a missing necklace or a straying wife, isn’t it?”
He heaved out a sigh then closed his arms around her so she was enveloped in his embrace inside the blanket. “We were followed today in the park.”
He was cool to the touch and bearing bad news, and yet his embrace was a wonderful comfort. “That’s why you took every turning and side path you could, isn’t it? Why you made sure to be seen by all and sundry—even the dairymaids?”
“That’s part of it. His Grace warned me that I must not become entangled with you, at least not until this present difficulty is resolved. I was trying to earn your disdain, if I might be honest.”
“You should have been honest much earlier. Did you think I would not comprehend such a tactic, Archer? And as for His Grace, he meddles only in the lives of people he cares for.”
“He cares for you, Morgan. The entire family cares for you.”
He sounded so tired, so bleak and burdened—who cared for him?
She felt more than sympathy for this man. Her deafness had taught her what it was to carry an entire world of communication around in silence—reactions, questions, joys, observations, all of it stored up in the airless vault of one isolated heart.
And yet, when he’d slain the present dragon, another would rise up to take its place, and his silence would expand to accommodate that one too.
“Some men need danger, they need excitement and risk. It’s how they’re built.” She tried not to make it an accusation or a lament, merely a statement of fact.
“I’m not built that way.”
“You sound sure of this.” And Morgan was also sure he was speaking with his mouth pressed against her temple, a talking kiss.
“I am damned sure of it. I thought I was going to take over the investigations from my cousin, step right into his shoes, but as a solo operation, things don’t run as well. It takes longer to sort through information, longer to gather it. I have no one with whom to parse ideas or air my brilliant and invariably erroneous theories.”
He fell silent, while behind them a log shifted on the andirons. Morgan cast around for something to ask him, something that would let her again feel both the way his mouth shaped words against her temple and the way those words vibrated through his body.
“I should be going.”
No, he should not. “You’ve barely stopped shivering, and you haven’t told me why we were followed.”
“I wish I knew why.”
A non-answer from a man too distracted, tired, or upset to effectively prevaricate. She tightened her hold on him, as if she’d prevent him bodily from leaving. “Don’t speak in riddles, Archer Portmaine. You have some idea.”
This time when she felt him assay risks and reasons, the process took longer. Maybe fatigue was making his brain sluggish, or maybe he wasn’t as indifferent to sharing a blanket with her as he seemed.
“We believe a plot is brewing against the Crown.”
He spoke slowly, each word no doubt dragged forth against the dictates of both training and habit—though he made no move to pull away.
“And the Regent has many detractors.”
“We don’t know if this plot is against Prinny himself—the target might be a high-ranking minister, though I’m damned if I can figure out which one.”
“What about the royal dukes? Aren’t they the next logical target?”
He shifted away enough to frown at her. “How do you reach that conclusion?”
“Prinny is not in good health, and his wife is past childbearing, even if they could tolerate each other. With Princess Charlotte’s death in childbirth, Prinny’s brothers must assure the succession, but they are not young men. A blow against one of the dukes could have grave consequences for the stability of the government.”
He’d been a handsome, convincing buffoon earlier in the day. Now his expression was deadly serious—and even more attractive. “Your reasoning is sound. Your reasoning is damned sound. Kent’s only daughter is but a few weeks old, and Clarence’s daughter didn’t live a single day.”
“His duchess is rumored to be carrying again.”
She’d surprised him. His reaction wasn’t visible on his face so much as it registered in a lack of expression. “How could you know such a thing?”
“I don’t hear well, but I do listen, Archer Portmaine, and I trundle about with Anna and Her Grace, making endless morning calls where there’s nothing to do but listen.”
A smile started to turn the corners of his mouth up, then his expression shuttered again. “I really must be going.”
“Damn you, Archer Portmaine, you just had an idea. You may leave if you like, but not until you tell me what you were thinking.”
While his brows drew down, and he no doubt cast around for some plausible dodge to placate her, Morgan had an idea. Her idea was wicked, wanton, and everything she’d dreamed of for years in the dim silence of a lonely young lady’s heart. Before she could reason herself out of it—it was a wicked, wanton, wonderful idea—she seized the moment and kissed him.