“You and Mr. Portmaine make a lovely couple. Have you saved him a dance this evening?”
Ellen Windham’s question held no guile, of that Morgan was certain. Morgan stood beside Ellen at the edge of the Winterthur ballroom, watching as Archer turned Maggie Windham, now Maggie Portmaine, Countess of Hazelton, down the room.
“He’s a good dancer.” A good dancer and an excellent listener.
“Are you considering his prospects, Morgan? I suspect he could keep you well enough.”
Longing shot through Morgan, followed by a sharp pang of regret. “He’s a gentleman without family to speak of, other than Hazelton. I doubt he’s all that well set up.” Not that his lack of wealth would matter.
Ellen turned to regard Morgan with a look that, oddly enough, reminded Morgan of Valentine Windham in the mood to Get to the Bottom of Something. “You should talk to Maggie about her cousin-in-law, or better still, talk to Hazelton about his cousin. I have no doubt Mayfair’s best families pay dearly to have their little troubles dealt with quietly.”
They probably did, and Archer was always turned out perfectly, complete with jeweled cravat pins and gold shirt studs and cuff links. He even smelled of excellent, expensive tastes.
“His prospects are not the problem.” The music came to a close, and Archer bowed gracefully over Maggie’s hand. “I am not inclined to marry, and no, lest you even think it for a moment, I am not pining for your husband.”
“I know you are not.”
Ellen was smiling, and not unkindly. “Valentine has been over in the corner for the entire set, letting Lady Winterthur pester him about taking a turn at the piano for her guests, and you haven’t looked his way once.”
“The hostesses always pester him. I think he half enjoys it.”
“I quite agree, but the point is, you haven’t taken your eyes off Mr. Portmaine.”
Morgan took her eyes off Archer long enough to stare at Ellen. “I’m not looking at him now, am I?”
“Why not encourage his suit, Morgan? He’s comely, a gentleman despite his investigations, and connected with the Windham family. Moreover, I think he’s smitten with you. You could do much worse.”
Sometimes, it was a mercy to be able to pretend not to hear well. “Shall we get some punch? It’s quite warm in here.”
They made their way toward the refreshments, and just as Morgan was about to accept a cup of sangria from a Winterthur footman, she caught a whiff of cedar and spices.
“Good evening, my lady, Miss James.” Archer bowed very correctly, beaming what Morgan termed his Ballroom Bachelor Smile at her and Ellen both. “If your next dance is not spoken for, Miss James, would you do me the honor of a turn on the terrace? My need for fresh air grows pressing.”
“Do, Morgan. I have it on good authority you spend too much time in stuffy, noisy ballrooms.” Ellen took the cup of sangria when Morgan might have reached for it.
“From whom do you hear such things, Ellen?” Morgan asked.
“His Grace, among others. Take her outside, Mr. Portmaine, before the next sets form.”
Ellen smiled at them both as if she were particularly pleased with herself, then strolled off in the direction of the minstrel’s gallery.
“The Windham menfolk have the knack of marrying ladies who are as pretty as they are dear.” Archer winged his arm at Morgan. “Would you rather be dancing, Miss James?”
The question was rhetorical when Morgan had already confessed that the background noise in a ballroom made it one of the most difficult environments she dealt with.
“I will enjoy a respite out-of-doors.” She couldn’t quite dredge up her own Company Smile, not even when they were seated on a low bench amid the fragrant abundance of the bouquets gracing the Winterthur terrace.
“Are we far enough from the noise for you?” Archer asked.
“Not nearly, but we’re as far as we can get without causing gossip. You look tired.”
“I am tired. My days and nights are getting mixed up, and I miss you.”
Morgan had wondered. After five nights of spending hours in each other’s arms, Archer had been absent for the past two nights. When he hadn’t come gliding into her boudoir on moonlight and shadows, Morgan told herself that was for the best. If Archer did not maintain his distance, before too much longer, she would be begging him to make love to her, properly and completely.
And then begging him to leave.
Archer sat close enough that they touched from knee to shoulder, though Morgan wished they might risk holding hands. “Will you tell me the truth about something, Mr. Portmaine?”
“Something in particular?
The comment was meant to be teasing, but she’d also felt him tense up along her side. “Yes, something in particular. The first night we met, after the concert, were you working on the same project that consumes you now?”
“I’ve been working on it for weeks.”
More of a yes than a no, and a yes with an edge of frustration to it. “Would you make more progress on that project if you were getting more rest?”
He did not answer immediately, which meant he understood her oblique question. “Perhaps you are in need of more rest, Miss James? You do look a trifle fatigued.”
His tone remained solicitous while his expression became guarded. Were she stronger, she’d smile at him and agree cheerily that too many late-night diversions were not good for a lady’s health or peace of mind. He’d agree with equal good cheer, and whatever it was that grew between them in the small hours of the morning would be allowed to die an unremarked, civil death.
As it must—though not quite yet.
She was not strong enough for that, so she did not close the door between them. “I will likely turn in early tonight. My dreams lately have been very sweet.”
He studied her by the torchlight. “Mine as well. I’ll be guided by your example and also take my leave of the Winterthurs before supper.”
They rose shortly thereafter and wandered back into the ballroom, just another couple exchanging pleasantries in the soft evening air. They left the establishment within eight minutes of each other, careful not to share even a single glance as they climbed into separate coaches.
What in the bloody hell had Morgan been asking him?
Archer used the privacy of his coach to change into a black shirt and waistcoat, worn black riding breeches, and black boots. His hands discarded clothing, did up buttons, and effected the change of wardrobe without him having to concentrate, and that was fortunate.
When a man was screwing up his resolve to talk a lady into remaining a safe distance from him, he did not expect the lady to drum him out of her boudoir on her own initiative.
Morgan was up to something. Perhaps she was ready to move on; perhaps she had tired of their intimacies. Archer certainly had not—he did not think he ever would.
He was surprised to no little degree to realize that by intimacies, he had not referred exclusively to erotic pleasures, but rather to the sense of closeness that characterized all of their dealings. In some way, the closeness was part and parcel of Morgan’s poor hearing, though he could not fathom exactly how.
For a long time, Archer stood in the Moreland gardens, planning what he’d say to her.
We fear the game has turned deadly.
Somebody follows me at least half the time, and I don’t want him following me to your bedroom.
This should all be wrapped up in a matter of weeks…
Except he had no guarantee of that, and after this threat had been thwarted, there would be others.
He shoved that miserable conclusion aside and started up the tree that rose along Morgan’s balcony. As always, her door was slightly ajar, and the coals from her hearth burned low, giving her bedroom a cozy, comfortable warmth.
“You change in your coach, don’t you?”
Morgan remained on her chaise as Archer advanced into the room. The picture of feminine serenity, she folded a book closed on her lap and watched as he tugged off his boots. Usually, she embraced him before he’d taken three steps.
“I change in my coach and in other places as well. I keep all manner of disguises in convenient locations.”
The trade secrets tumbled out around her, another reason to put some distance between them—for now. A lady had no business learning the ins and outs of investigating.
“I won’t keep you long.” She got to her feet, the sight of her in a sheer silk nightgown nearly knocking Archer on his backside. The garment wasn’t even a decent summer length, but left her ankles, calves, and even her knees exposed to the firelight.
“I’m not in any hurry to leave, Miss James. Come here and greet me properly, or I’ll tackle you where you stand.”
Her lips quirked as she bundled into his embrace, the warmth and sweetness of her bringing a peculiar sort of relief.
“Are you in anticipation of the female complaint? Your mood is off, my dear.”
She buried her nose against his chest. “You are as bad as the footmen in Westhaven’s house. They had all manner of vulgar terms for a lady’s indisposition.”
“It deserves vulgar terms. You’re dodging the question.”
He propped his chin on her crown—she was the perfect height for it—and prepared to jolly her out of whatever megrim she’d fallen into. For the hundredth time, he told himself that difficult discussions could be put off just a little while longer.
“I am not indisposed, not the way you mean. When will you make love with me, Archer? Really make love?”
Esther, Duchess of Moreland, turned to greet her husband as he joined her on their private balcony. “Percival, good evening. I thought you’d be up late drafting that infernal bill.”
“It’s late enough.” Moreland came closer and slipped his arms around her waist from behind. “You are pretty at any hour, my love, but moonlight particularly becomes you.”
She leaned back against him, loving the solid, lean strength of him. “You are shameless.”
“In my preference for your company? Absolutely. What draws you out-of-doors at this hour, Esther?”
She had decided to tell him. They were in each other’s confidence and had been for more than thirty years—and he probably knew already anyway. “We have a housebreaker, Percy.”
Percival snuggled her closer. “What is the world coming to? Must I snatch up a stout poker and start beating the intruder about the head in the family tradition?”
“This housebreaker seems inclined to plunder only the treasures in Morgan’s rooms, and the one time I saw him leaving, he was empty-handed.”
Percival chuckled, for which Esther loved him dearly. “Young Portmaine is calling at unfashionable hours?”
Esther turned in his arms to regard him by moonlight. “How did you know it was he?”
“I gave him a subtle, backhanded nudge, and he rather took off at a gallop in Morgan’s direction. Do you think they’d suit?”
Percival’s idea of a nudge often bore a close resemblance to the kick of a sturdy mule. And yet, Portmaine struck Esther as a man who neither trifled with young innocents nor accepted suggestions merely because they’d been made by a meddling—if well-meaning—duke.
“Whether they suit might be a moot question if Morgan’s common sense is not asserting itself.”
“They’re young,” Percival whispered against Esther’s neck. “It’s the loveliest time of year, and they’re lonely. I’m lonely too, though a bit old to have such a pretty wife.”
“Shameless and ridiculous.” His lips grazed the spot on her nape that made Esther positively melt, even after all these years. “So you won’t intervene?”
“I thought I already had.”
“I suppose you have at that. Shall we retire, Your Grace?”
“Soon.” He turned her by the shoulders, bringing her against his body. “If you aren’t averse to the notion, I’d like to enjoy a little more of the moonlight with my beloved duchess.”
Such romance in a young man had been enough to sweep Esther off her feet. In a man of mature years, it kept her lingering on the shadowed balcony in Percival’s arms much longer than she’d intended.