The evening had reached its middle hours, neither early nor late. The beau monde swilled champagne and arranged adulterous assignations to the strains of the waltz, while the shopkeepers slept snug in their beds, and the whores trolled for custom on the street corners of Covent Garden.
In a club more respectable than prestigious—the address was technically Soho rather than Mayfair—a man sat alone behind the day’s copy of The Times. He was a surpassingly unremarkable man, his age somewhere north of five-and-thirty, though south of five-and-fifty. His hair was medium brown, his eyes medium blue, his height simply medium.
He dressed well but not ostentatiously. A careful observer might have said he looked like a diplomat, and that would have pleased him, for a diplomat he was—among other things. He was fluent in nine languages and competent in six more. His native tongue was French, though in English, his public school accent was flawless, despite the fact that the only academy he’d attended had been run by thugs and strumpets on the docks of Calais.
The young ladies of Polite Society considered him safe; the older women thought of him as a well-mannered fellow, and that would have pleased him too.
He was, at all times, in all languages, well mannered.
He assured himself yet again that every shade was down on each of the room’s four windows. At quarter past the hour precisely, the door to the reading room opened, and a young man of pale countenance and wheat-gold hair admitted himself to the diplomat’s company. The younger fellow was dressed in natty evening attire, to all appearances a scion of the beau monde enjoying an evening on the town.
The diplomat rose with a gracious smile. “You are punctual. Such an undervalued quality in a gentleman these days. May I pour you some brandy?”
“Please.” The young man did not quite stutter, but as he reached for his drink, his hand shook.
“How is your wife?”
“Fine, thank you. Quite in the pink.”
“And your son?”
The young man’s smile was sickly. “Thriving, thriving.”
And well the little shoat might be, for the wife’s propensity for lactation would be the envy of His Majesty’s pet milch cow. This had been verified by a reliable informant on more than one occasion. “Glad to hear it. Shall we sit?”
The younger fellow gave a jerky nod and appropriated a chair with its back to the window. An amateur’s mistake, but tonight was not the time to point that out.
“I gather things did not go well earlier this evening. Perhaps we should discuss it?” The diplomat let the question hang delicately while the young man downed the rest of his drink.
“Things went terribly. The Frenchman showed up, but he wasn’t at all inclined to parlay peaceably.”
Another quick nod, so the diplomat brought the bottle over to the small table near the other fellow’s chair.
“I am here to help, you know. Not every assignment will go smoothly, and the people whose interests we benefit will never be able to aid us or acknowledge our contributions. We must rely on each other.”
“I cut him. That fellow, the Frenchie, he pulled a knife, and I was afraid he’d call the watch, and it was awful.”
That the young man was rattled was to his credit. He was a reluctant traitor, after all, so the diplomat adopted his most avuncular tones. “I was proud of you.”
Wary surprise greeted this observation, probably accompanied by the young man’s first inkling that being a spy meant being spied upon. “You were there?”
“I was not about to let you handle this without some support, and under the circumstances, your mistake was understandable.”
“A man is injured, possibly dead, a man who never meant me or mine any harm, and you call it a mistake?”
Scruples were such touching, dreary inconveniences. “He meant you harm. You didn’t imagine that knife, and if you hadn’t thought to come armed yourself, he might well have brought down the authorities. That is the last thing we need.”
“And if he’d cut me? How would I explain that to Lucia?” He scrubbed a hand over his clean-shaven features while the diplomat filled the brandy glass for a third time.
“Your efforts were not in vain, you know. The evening yielded some interesting information.”
The traitor looked up from his drink. “Not from the Frenchie. He hared off without saying more than bon soir. I’ve never known a man to fight so quietly.”
Because schoolboy rows were mostly noise, while the professionals battled in silence.
“And then you demonstrated yet more sound reasoning and took yourself off, to be seen bowing over some hostess’s hand in a far better neighborhood.” To begin drinking the memory of spilled blood and injured scruples into oblivion. “I, however, remained on the scene.”
“What did you find?”
“Not a what, but a whom. Archer Portmaine came along, stealthy as a cat.”
The young man studied his glass rather than drain it. “Portmaine is the pandering idiot I followed in the park.”
Followed with all the stealth of a drunken gorilla. That too was a discussion for another night. “Not such an idiot. I have reason to think he knew the Frenchman.”
“Merely a hunch.” A hunch resulting from the way Portmaine had sauntered around the block, not once, but three times in the pouring rain. And though the fellow had lingered under the windows of a boarding house for young females, the diplomat had his doubts. “Nothing more than a hunch, one we’ll follow up on.”
“I’d rather not be the one following up, if you don’t mind. You never said anything about this business being deadly. You said I was to attend the usual parties, frequent the clubs, listen in a few card rooms, and await instructions.”
“And tonight, you followed instructions. You were to cozy up to the Frenchman, and he was not cooperative. I can assure you that in the general case, violence and killing, in particular, are frowned upon among those engaged in pursuits similar to ours. It’s messy and can bring down the authorities and the press. Nobody wants that, so killing is understood by all players to be a very, very last resort.”
“Messy?” The poor boy put his head in his hands. “I wish I’d never set foot in that damned hell.”
Such melodrama. The kindest thing to do was deliver a figurative slap to the fellow’s common sense.
“Ah, but you did. Not once, but many times, and each time, your debts grew. If you want a new start on the Continent, my friend, if you want to be on hand to see your newborn son grow to manhood, then the course you’ve adopted is the only reasonable one.”
“I’ve changed my mind.”
Oh, they always changed their minds, or tried to. The diplomat did not laugh, did not even smile. “I beg your pardon?”
“I want to go to America. When this is done, I’ll take my wife and son and go to America. The Continent is too close, and I’m bound to be recognized by some dandy making the tour.”
America, of all the barbaric notions… “If that’s your choice, I can only accommodate it.” Provided the journey to America for the young man and his little family started by way of the Low Countries.
Archer pulled his mouth away from the houri threatening to make a hash of his wits. “Morgan, for God’s sake, this isn’t—”
She silenced him by virtue of a hand anchored on the back of his head and her mouth sealed to his. He could not get away; he did not want to get away.
His fuse was so short as to be nonexistent, and before his common sense or scruples or some damned inconvenient thing could stop him, Archer scooped Morgan up and carried her to the bed. He settled her on the mattress and blanketed her with his half-naked, damp self.
“Send me away again,” he rasped against her neck. “Scream, threaten me with something dire, Morgan.” He didn’t want her to see this side of him, the side that could take, that could need blindly and selfishly.
“I’m not as innocent as you think, Archer Portmaine, and not nearly done kissing you.” She emphasized her point by spreading her legs and lifting her hips, a maneuver so bold it cut through some of the urgency fogging Archer’s brain.
“Do that again.”
She undulated more slowly this time, and much of the frustration eating at him ebbed away. “Again.”
He curled down to her shoulder, feeling a different arousal awaken and stretch through his veins as she indulged in a voluptuous rhythm. His wanting shifted from the wanting of a man in despair for a possibly deceased friend lost in pursuit of a hopeless goal—a wanting for oblivion—to the wanting of a man for the particular woman in his arms.
“I need to leave.”
“You need to stay. I was in service, Archer. A deaf girl can’t remain in service without learning much no decent female ought to know.”
He nuzzled her temple when he should have been vaulting off the bed. Her rose-and-spice fragrance was soothing, even as it muddled his tired, unhappy brain further. “What are you saying?”
She kissed his jaw. “Who is a better victim for the randy footmen than a girl who can’t say a word against them, a girl who barely knows the terms for the liberties they’re taking? Anna was as vigilant as a mother hen, but she couldn’t go everywhere with me.”
“God.” He started to climb off of her, but she wrapped both her arms and her legs around him.
“I want you to stay, Archer.” She sounded very, very certain.
“But if you were forced…” The notion was horrific enough to dampen his lust. He lifted up onto his elbows. “I’m leaving.”
He didn’t move, didn’t shift away from the scent and softness of her, though he could have broken her hold easily.
She buried her nose against his neck. “I was not forced.”
“You could not give your consent in the King’s English. You were not of age to consent to marry. You were hardly—”
She kissed him again, lingeringly, as if to remind him without words that even a woman incapable of speech or hearing could communicate some things quite well.
When Archer stopped bracing himself against her hold, Morgan let out a sigh.
“He was a running footman, more a boy than a man,” she said, her tone indicating any disclosure was a grudging concession. “I was fascinated with him because he spoke very little English, only French, and while I could read French, thanks to Anna’s diligence, I’d never seen French spoken consistently before. He noticed me.”
“How could any man with eyes in his head not notice you?”
“Not like that. He was deaf and mute in English, just as I was, you see? The difference was he could overcome the lack while I could not, but for a time…”
She opened her mouth on his shoulder and set her teeth against the muscle. She wasn’t biting him; it felt more like an exploration of his person with the part of her that had spent years unable to express her thoughts.
“For a time you did not feel so alone,” Archer concluded.
She nodded, the top of her head grazing his chin.
The wanting inside him shifted again, to a desire he’d felt frequently before—the desire to pleasure the woman in his arms—and something more, too: the desire to ease her aloneness, and even more surprisingly, to allow her to ease his.
He yearned to tell her this. Instead, he touched his mouth to hers, a slow, tender echo of her previous kiss. He would give to her, and in allowing it, she would give to him.
When he shifted slightly to the side, she tightened her arms around him. “Don’t go, Archer. Please.”
“Hush. I’m not going.” He could not go, though he should not stay.
Her grip slackened as he arranged himself along her side. “You are such a beautiful man.”
Her touch on his face was beautiful. Her skin where he untied the bows of her dressing gown and chemise was luminous. Her scent was rosy and female at the same time, and her taste when he took her nipple in his mouth was luscious.
This intimacy did not cause her to tense beneath him, as it might if she’d never felt such a thing before. She relaxed into it, tangling her fingers in his hair and sighing against his temple.
“I have longed…”
She had longed in silence, possibly for years. “Tell me.” He whispered the words against her breast then lifted his face so she might see his mouth when he spoke. “Tell me what you longed for.”
Without warning, she skimmed her hand down Archer’s belly to shape him through his falls. He was hard and aching, and her touch brought both torment and relief.
She whispered the words against his chest, nigh cindering Archer’s reason. He was already moving to unfasten his breeches when something caught his eye, a glow from the night table, or rather, two glows.
The damned cat sat there, staring at the figures on the bed. Firelight reflected against the beast’s eyes, giving its mother-of-pearl gaze a flat, otherworldly quality. Morgan’s fingers applied a slight, lovely pressure to Archer’s cock, but the moment had shifted yet again.
The cat’s eyes held reproach and a call to reason. Archer stared back for one annoyed instant before the beast silently took itself off. In that instant, Archer’s conscience regained its voice.
Morgan was not a lusty serving maid trying to find a moment of pleasure in an otherwise exhausting and lonely existence. She was aunt to the Moreland heir, much loved by her sister and her in-laws alike, no matter her life was still likely exhausting and lonely.
She deserved far more than a furtive tumble that could leave her ruined or, perhaps worse, hastily married to a man from whom she’d sought only passing comfort.
A man who owed his first allegiance, and quite possibly his life, to the Crown.
“Lie back.” Archer peeled Morgan’s grip from his cock—she knew only footmen’s words for that lovely part of his body—and kissed her fingers. “Close your eyes and trust me.”
The picture he made propped on his elbow beside her in the bed was both beautiful and erotic, despite the fact that he was still wearing his infernal breeches.
Beautiful, erotic, stern, and yet somehow beseeching too. She closed her eyes and felt him shifting on the mattress.
“Spread your legs, Morgan.” As he spoke, he shifted himself and her limbs too, so Morgan’s spread legs were draped over his thighs, giving her the impression he sat facing the headboard.
“I cannot touch you like this.” Worse, she was intimately exposed to him, vulnerable even though the dying fire would not illuminate much.
“Which arrangement works to your advantage if I’m to acquit myself properly, believe me.” He ran a hand down her midline, a slow, warm sweep of male palm against female midriff.
“How is it to my advantage?”
“I would lose my mind were you free to touch me.” He tugged gently on first one nipple, then the other, and Morgan’s ability to reason skipped off a few yards from where she lay.
She did not have to be more specific. With his two hands, and her two breasts, he explored all manner of touches and pleasures with her. He used his mouth as well, creating backfires and crosscurrents of sensation as overwhelming as they were novel. When he paused and rested his hand very low on her belly, Morgan opened her eyes.
“This is… different.” Intimate was what she meant, and precious, but she would not say either word with him looking at her so solemnly, lest she bring up what it was different from.
Furtive gropings in the stillroom, a stolen kiss or two between wet sheets flapping in a cold spring breeze, and such disappointment, no words had been necessary to convey it.
“You are different, Miss Morgan James.”
She wanted to ask him what those intriguing words meant, what they meant to him, and what they meant to him in this context, but he brushed his thumb lower, over her curls, then lower still.
For all the kissing and fondling and cuddling she’d done with Bertrand, Morgan had never felt a man’s bare fingers on her sex.
“That is…” not merely different. She cast around for a word to describe the impulse his touch raised, the impulse to move her hips, to grasp the spindles of the headboard above her pillow and to let soft, needy sounds come from her throat. “That is marvelous.”
He smiled, the sternness ebbing from his features, leaving an expression breathtaking in both its intensity and its tenderness.
And then things progressed to something far better than marvelous. Morgan was soon hanging onto the headboard for dear life, her hips thrashing beneath Archer’s hand. What happened next became unbelievably, wonderfully, miraculously better and better and better.
Then better still.
Long moments later, when Morgan could breathe again, when she could again join action and will, she reached for Archer and hauled him up over her body. “Archer Portmaine, you must hold me. Hold me tightly.” She gripped him hard, shamelessly clinging to his solid warmth and locking her ankles at the small of his back.
He worked an arm under her neck and embraced her, his hold secure and sheltering, while Morgan tried to blink away tears.
“Go ahead and cry.” His hand cradled the back of her head; his voice soothed her heart. “I’ll hold you as long as you like, as long as you need me to.”
This kindness, coupled with the feel of his lips brushing against her temple, turned a trickle into a deluge, until Morgan had to cease crying if only to assure herself she could.
“This has to be bad form, to take on so.” She spoke steadily enough, but she didn’t feel steady. She felt as if his weight was the only thing holding her body and soul together. He hadn’t given her exactly what she’d wanted, but he’d given her something she’d needed desperately instead, and she ached from having been the recipient of such generosity.
“When two people choose to share with each other like this, there is no such thing as bad form.” He sounded quite certain and damnably steady.
“Is that a royal decree?”
“If not, it should be. It’s certainly an eternal verity with me. Would you like a handkerchief?” He nuzzled her eyebrows, as if asking the question with his nose.
“I don’t want to move.”
“I account my exertions a success.” He stretched up without leaving her embrace entirely, and procured a handkerchief from the night table.
“I hate that you can form sentences and pronounce eternal verities, Archer. I cannot think…” She fell silent while he gently blotted the tears from her temple and cheeks. She tolerated it until he finished, then pitched into his chest. “I am undone.”
“Is this the sort of undone that requires discussion?” His question was amused, rather than the wary inquiry another man might have made.
“And if it does require discussion?”
“Than a different arrangement is in order.” He shifted off of her to stretch out on his back, and then it was Morgan who was hauled up over his chest to straddle him. He patted her bottom in a gesture that felt… friendly.
“Get cozy, Miss James, and talk to me.”
This was worse than when they’d shared supper at the Braithwaite’s ball. The words flowed from her in a steady stream, all about Bertrand, about the footmen who’d attempted to take more than Morgan was inclined to give, about missing the sound of human voices and church organs and even the sound of horses’ hooves on cobbled streets.
He held her and he listened, until Morgan was fighting sleep to snatch another moment of nearness with him, until she went silent for longer and longer periods.
He held her until she was silent altogether, until she was asleep, and still, he held her.