“I’ve told him all of it, Ellen.” Morgan hadn’t intended this disclosure, and certainly not to the woman sitting beside her on the Windham’s garden swing.
Ellen readjusted the baby in her arms, while strains of lilting piano drifted out over the Windham back gardens—for Valentine visited not only his family, but also their pianos.
“All of it? You are not much past twenty, Morgan, and you’ve had but three Seasons. What all could there be to tell?”
The baby fussed in her mother’s arms, making noises that communicated discontent for all they weren’t very loud.
“I told Mr. Portmaine that when Anna and I fled Yorkshire we went into service. I told him I’d scrubbed my hands raw in the scullery and turned my fingernails black cleaning andirons.” She’d also told him she’d emptied chamber pots, which was an appalling—and amazing—disclosure in itself. And as lovely as the physical intimacies were, this talking, sharing her life in words with Archer Portmaine for the past several nights, was to Morgan even more precious.
For the first time in years, Morgan looked forward to social events, knowing she’d spend at least part of her evening in a secluded corner with Archer.
Ellen set the swing rocking with her foot, and the baby went quiet. “I’ve washed many dishes, and so has much of the female half of England, I’ll warrant. How did Mr. Portmaine receive your confidences?”
To compose an answer required forethought, because his reaction hadn’t been anything Morgan might have anticipated.
“After I told him these things, when he bid me good night, he kissed my fingers as he handed me up into the coach. Really kissed them, and yet it wasn’t indecent.” None of what had passed between Morgan and Archer Portmaine had felt indecent, whether they were chatting in the corner of a ballroom or curled up in Morgan’s bed.
Ellen rubbed her cheek over the baby’s fuzzy crown. “Mr. Portmaine sounds like a good dinner companion.”
“He’s more than that.” They’d not made love completely yet, though Morgan was sure they would, and soon. For now, it seemed more important to hold each other and to learn one another in words. “I’ve never spent so much time in conversation with a man and had it be so little work.”
“Do you mean so little effort to hear him and follow the words, or so little effort to find things to talk about?”
An excellent question. “Both.”
“This child is finally falling asleep. Let’s stroll while we can.” Ellen settled the baby into a basket thickly padded with blankets and linked an arm through Morgan’s. “I’d like to check on His Grace’s roses. It’s still early, but the scent of even one bud is worth a trip into Town.”
Maybe this was why Morgan enjoyed Ellen’s company, for all that friendship with the woman’s husband might have made such a thing awkward. “You are the only person I know who is as fascinated with scents as I am.”
“Or maybe I’m just fascinated with moving among the flowers. When that child is truly fussy, it seems like days go by without my being able to turn loose of her. Valentine says all Windhams excel at cuddling, and—” Ellen fell silent as they moved down the graveled path, then she bent to untangle two stems of daisies. “If I recall Mr. Portmaine aright, he’s quite good-looking.”
“It’s all right, Ellen. I know Valentine is an affectionate man—and a devoted husband. I could not respect him otherwise.”
Ellen rose and smiled down at the daisies. “He treasures you, you know. At first I was jealous.”
“You were jealous? Of me?”
“A wife becomes familiar, but I think in Valentine’s mind, you will always be a little unknowable. He greatly admires how you coped with being deaf. He said it gave him courage when he faced difficulties of his own, and reassured him that if you, who were deaf for years, could still treasure music, his joy would never be entirely lost to him. I do not doubt he thinks of you as his muse.”
Archer Portmaine had gone much further: he had admired her for how she’d coped with being deaf and in service, and yet, Morgan appreciated the trust Ellen placed in her as well.
“Men are easily impressed. The roses closest to blooming are down this way, behind that hedge.”
They progressed a few steps in companionable silence before Ellen stopped short and cocked her head.
“She’s awake. I knew it was too early for her nap.” Ellen turned and headed back the way they’d just come, while Morgan held completely still and tried to hear the baby.
But try as she might, no matter how long she stood straining to hear, no matter how badly she wanted to detect the smallest sound from the crying child, Morgan heard nothing. Not the distant piano, not the fretful child. Not one sound.
“It’s bad timing.” Benjamin, the Earl of Hazelton, offered this observation along with a frown. Archer knew his cousin well enough to sense pity in that frown rather than judgment.
“It’s bloody awful timing, but then I have never been known to fix my affections on the logical woman at the logical time.” Archer continued his progress around the office Hazelton shared with his countess, and shook his head when Benjamin gestured with a decanter.
“You have no leads in the case?”
“We have nothing but leads, and each one takes us to some filthy rat hole in the stews, when my every instinct tells me that’s the wrong direction to look. Such people can’t get close to the royal family, and if we were looking at a simple assassination attempt, why all the whispers and hints?”
“Sit, Archer. Your perambulations are making me dizzy.” Benjamin toed off his boots and set them neatly at the corner of the rug, then sank onto a long leather sofa. “I can ring for tea, if that will help, but I sense that as frustrated as you are with your current assignment, you’re even more confused by your interest in Miss James.”
Confused. A prosaic word for the ongoing riot that characterized Archer’s feelings for Morgan James.
“She’s…” Archer dropped onto the sofa beside his cousin. “She’s different.”
Archer had not come around to his cousin’s town house to solicit Benjamin’s perspective on the baffling situation with Miss James. Surely a plot on the Regent’s life ought to be of greater interest to both himself and his cousin—if in fact a plot on the Regent’s life was afoot.
“Part of the difference is that she talks to me,” Archer admitted. “She has the prettiest voice, low and musical, as if there’s some Welsh in it, when I know it’s just that North Country lilt. And the things she says…”
“All the ladies talk to you. It’s part of what makes you such a good investigator.” Ben sounded amused, a shot he could take from the safety of his recently acquired marital bliss.
“Don’t be an ass. Your countess talks to you, and I’m certain you talk to her too. You tell her things you don’t tell anybody, about your boyhood, your daily frustrations and hopes, your body’s undignified little aches and betrayals. You tell her the fears and insecurities you used to not even admit to yourself.”
Benjamin slouched down against the cushions and crossed his feet at the ankles, a sure sign some philosophical profundity was to follow. “How can you have these tête-à-têtes with Miss James, Archer, when any woman you’re seen with might arguably become mixed up with this other business? The Crown’s enemies aren’t playing for farthing points.”
“We’re discreet.” They were scandalous too.
Ben gave him a long, measuring look from beneath dark brows, but Archer wasn’t about to admit he’d taken to a nightly climb into Morgan’s rooms.
Much less into her bed.
“Of course you’re discreet, but your interest in the woman is still a distraction you can’t afford.”
And there it was, probably the real reason Archer had sought his cousin’s counsel: spending time with Morgan, any time at all, took hours away from a critical investigation and increased the likelihood she’d somehow become tangled up in a very dirty business.
“I know how to keep my focus, Benjamin.” To emphasize his point, Archer appropriated a sip of Ben’s cognac and set the glass out of Ben’s reach.
“Like hell you can. Not this time.” Benjamin was exercising a friend and family member’s prerogative of simultaneously dispensing honesty and kindness when Archer needed both.
Though Archer wanted to do violence to his cousin’s person anyway. “What makes you think I’m distracted?”
“It’s only midnight, Archer, and you bear the scent of roses and spices. You’ve already been with her tonight. Your coat and hat were soaking wet, suggesting you’d not been lurking in a hackney, but rather, traipsing about Mayfair. Your shoes are a trifle muddy, and the mud is also streaked, as if you made an effort to wipe it off in the grass. My guess is you gained access to the ducal mansion through Moreland’s prized rose gardens, spent time with the lady, then took yourself here so I might deliver a birching to your conscience and your common sense.”
“This is your idea of a birching?”
“You have an alternative, you know.”
“To quit the case?” Archer rose from the sofa, as if he’d get away from the idea itself, and stood staring at the rain dribbling down the window overlooking the dark garden. “If I quit, then when Prinny’s laid out in state, I’ll have myself to thank for the poor fellow never being king. What a legacy that makes.”
“Archer, a woman who wanted to see Prinny dead would not have protected the Crown’s investigator from exposure, as Miss James did at the Braithwaite ball.”
Benjamin’s words landed like soft lashes to Archer’s frazzled nerves. “I should not have told you about that.”
Without making a sound, Ben appeared at Archer’s elbow. “She knows you’re an investigator; she knows you were skulking about Braithwaite’s personal domain for some reason other than theft. If she were a stupid woman, you would not be breaking and entering in the dead of night to gain access to her.”
Stupidity on the part of the lady was not the problem. “I’ve told her enough to explain what I was about.”
“Then you have two choices: you either bring her up-to-date on the investigation, so she knows enough to protect herself, or you cut her loose for the duration.”
Archer stood staring at the window, watching the raindrops on the glass trickling down, down, always down into the dark of night. “Not quite, though you’re close. The Frenchman has gone missing. We’re assuming the worst.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means my only option at this point is to lay enough of the situation at Miss James’s pretty feet that she’ll be safe, and then stay the hell away from her.”
The pity in Benjamin’s gaze was not veiled now. “Be careful. Be damned careful.”
Archer grabbed his hat and coat and slipped out into the cold, dark, rainy night.