“What do you call lovemaking, if climbing into your bed and sharing all manner of intimate pleasure with you doesn’t qualify?”
Though Archer knew what Morgan meant. They’d not indulged in actual coitus. Rogering. Intercourse. Swiving. The King’s English included a ribald horde of terms for the marital act.
“Not the tame sort of lovemaking,” she said against his throat. “The kind a lady prepares for with vinegar and sponges.”
“I see.” In his mind’s eye, Archer saw himself, freed for once of every stitch of clothing, even his breeches. He saw the lithe, naked beauty of Morgan James entwined with him on the sheets.
He saw his future, and a world of trouble preventing him from reaching for it.
“We have to talk.” He eased his arms from Morgan’s waist and led her to the bed.
They undressed each other, a ritual they’d fallen into before the third night of their clandestine trysting had passed. He untied the bows of her nightgown; she unbuttoned his shirt and took his cuff links and watch—both finished in matte black—to put on the night table.
“I’m not much interested in talking,” Morgan said. When Archer sat on the bed in only his breeches, she knelt between his legs. “Not yet.”
While he tried to muster some restraint, she undid his falls and rearranged his clothing until she could draw his cock into her hands. He gritted his teeth and endured her generosity, though it tested him sorely. She was good with her hands, knowing to linger on that spot under the tip, but not too long. She caressed his stones with just the right pressure, and she leaned close enough that Archer could feel her breath on his thighs.
He envisioned her having to learn this skill to preserve herself from intimacies of a more forced nature, and the thought brought a lurching pause to his arousal. “You should not be giving me these attentions if they’re something the footmen required of you.”
She paused, her mouth about two inches from his cock, Archer’s sanity about two inches from expiring. “Nobody required anything of me. It’s something I’m learning with you, Archer. I’ve a mind to learn a few more things, too.”
She dipped her head and licked him, a long, wet swipe of her tongue up his shaft and then—God in heaven—a flourish around the tip.
“Let me get out of my breeches.” He was half-strangled with equal parts anticipation and self-restraint, but he managed to peel himself out of the last of his clothing and drag her over him onto the bed. “I must kiss you.”
Some desperate part of his brain tried to argue that what he must do was talk to her, explain to her that their clandestine trysting, and even their public waltzes, were going to have to stop for a time.
Only for a time.
She kissed him, kissed him as if in the next hour they were going away to separate wars. Without letting their mouths part, Archer got her nightgown off and anchored both hands on her hips.
Morgan straddled him, which was a fine, fine inspiration, but when her hand glided down between their bodies, Archer realized her intent. He caught her fingers before she could bring his engorged arousal into her body.
“I have been waiting. I have waited night after night. I don’t want to wait.” She sounded not determined so much as… upset.
She’d used the vinegar and sponges, he was almost confident of that. He and she were going to have to separate for a time—he knew that too. With equal certainty, he knew he was naked in bed with the woman he intended to marry.
The woman he loved. The knowledge landed in the dark expanse of his thoughts like a sunbeam, gentle, inexorable, and sweet.
“Slowly, then. As slowly as we can.” He shifted his grip to stroke his fingers over her breasts. “I want to savor this, to wallow in the beauty of it. I want it to echo in my memory… forever.”
She closed her eyes, taking from him the only hints he could gather as to the desperation driving her, but she did not take him in her hand again.
“Morgan, shall I?” He flexed his hips, brushing his cock over her sex to complete the question. She nodded once and curled forward to brace herself over his chest on her hands.
“Kiss me, Morgan.”
Archer had always thought lust should be a merry thing, mostly pleasure and affection, generously shared and happily recalled. With Morgan, joining his body to hers became a reverent undertaking, the tenderness of it nearly eclipsing the arousal.
He leaned up to capture her mouth in a soft kiss, even as he used his hand to stroke the head of his cock along the damp crease of her sex. “Kiss me, Morgan James, and let me kiss you and love you in return.”
She touched her lips to his, her mouth open, and Archer began a gentle invasion of her every sense. Morgan smiled while he traced her lips with his tongue and her sex with his cock. By languorous degrees, he effected penetration above, then began to advance toward the same goal below.
Morgan lifted her mouth from his and went still, as if listening with her very body. Archer stopped teasing them both, stopped flirting with heaven, and let himself flex minutely into her heat.
He retreated and drove forward again, letting her body glove him by excruciating, ecstatic degrees. She was snug and hot, and so lovely, so unutterably lovely.
“Tell me this is what you want, Morgan. Tell me I am who you want.” The growling creature who’d spoken was a man at the limit of his control, and yet Archer forced himself to keep still as he posed the question.
She brushed a hand over his heart. “I want this, with you, Archer Portmaine. Now, please…” She curled down to his chest, and he wrapped his arms around her.
In the instant before desire wrested the reins from his discipline, Archer tried to name what he’d seen in her eyes. Tenderness and desperation, certainly, but not the sort of knowing arousal he might have expected.
Morgan shifted on him, anchored her body more snugly to his, and anything resembling cerebration flew from Archer’s grasp. Carefully, he pushed himself the smallest, most maddening increment into her body then retreated.
In the same careful manner, Morgan accepted him. Progress was slow at first, but after several moments, Archer was hilted inside her, his cock throbbing and his stones aching with urgency.
“Move, Morgan. I’m not going to last, and I want you—”
She shifted her hips, a slow, voluptuous sweep of pleasure and lust. Archer held still while she developed a rhythm, then moved in counterpoint to her when her breathing picked up. He managed to get a hand on her breast, and she lifted up enough that he could tease her nipple while their tempo gradually increased.
“Archer…” She was pleading, and then she was crying, and then she was coming hard, her body fisting around his cock while he drove himself into her in tight, sharp thrusts.
His own satisfaction was an afterthought, a blossoming of sensation when Morgan was again moving on him slowly, the occasional aftershock shuddering through her. He felt completion approaching but did not allow himself to return to the more emphatic passion of moments earlier. Instead, he kissed her, hilted himself in her body, and let the end come on a slow, unstoppable rush of pleasure that became more intense than if he’d been thrashing and pounding his way through it.
They would marry. They would marry and learn how to manage this great passion, learn how to be together like this and lose their souls to each other every night.
Hell, every night, most mornings, and even some afternoons.
All he had to do first was thwart a few enemies of the Crown, explain the situation to various Windham males who might think themselves Morgan’s protectors, and then convince the lady herself she belonged with him forever.
A short list, the last task being far more important than the other two.
“My love?” He cradled her closer and stroked a hand over her hair, wondering if they’d still make love like this when their children were grown.
“I want you to leave, and I never want you to come back.”
As her words penetrated the fog of pleasure and sweetness in Archer’s brain, he realized what he’d seen in her eyes as he’d joined his body with hers: despair. Where there should have been passion and joy, what he’d seen in Morgan’s eyes had been despair.
“If my children have taught me nothing else, it’s that unsolicited advice is wasted air, at best, and bad will in the making, more often.” The roses were past their prime, but His Grace paused and feigned an interest in the surrounding flowers—while making sure Portmaine was listening. “Nonetheless, I feel compelled to warn you, Portmaine: You can’t go on like this.”
The younger man turned glacially blue eyes on the duke. “The royal family is the target, we’re sure of it. Higgins intercepted a note intended, we think, for somebody in the Foreign Office. I’m not about to let up now.”
His tone was as hard as the marble bench they occupied among the duchess’s flowers.
“Oh, the Foreign Office, as if that den of intrigue wouldn’t have something to do with this.” Moreland sat back and waited, having learned patience from his children as well.
“We’re close, Your Grace, and if I have to haunt every social function every night for the rest of the Season, and follow every damned lord to his mistress’s house, or every lady to her milliner’s shop, then I’ll do it.”
Something had shifted in Portmaine’s demeanor in recent days. He’d gone from dependable to dedicated, from careful to calculating. The transition was not pretty, like the blooming roses turning to bracken and thorns were not pretty.
“And how long do you think you can work at this pace without your opponents finding you in a weak moment? How long do you think to serve your Regent with exhaustion and carelessness?”
Portmaine’s head came up, a battle light in his eyes. “Carelessness, Your Grace?”
“Sooner or later, somebody will catch you falling asleep at keyholes, young man, or worse.”
Exhaustion was indeed taking a toll, because Portmaine’s gaze traveled over the gardens and up to a certain balcony, a silent admission if ever His Grace had seen one. “Somebody already has, Your Grace.”
Portmaine scrubbed a hand over handsome, drawn features and hunched forward, bracing his elbows on his spread knees. His posture was rife with weariness, perhaps even defeat.
“I have investigated you, Your Grace.”
The Papists had a name for this “Oh-my-God, I-am-heartily-sorry…” business. “Of course, you have. I have investigated you, too. Precautionary measures are what pass for the civilities in the dark business you’re engaged in now.”
Gratifying, to see he’d surprised such a clever young man. A bee went lazily inventorying the few flowers not yet budded out.
“I have been in your home without your leave, after dark, and I’m hoping others will think I was simply nosing about in your affairs.”
A chill slithered down the ducal spine. “Portmaine, explain yourself.”
“I have come and gone from your domicile by dark of night on more than few occasions, Your Grace. I am not proud to admit this.”
“You are not ashamed either, I daresay. Was your investigation so very thorough, then, Portmaine?”
“It was, but that took only a single visit. The rest of the time…”
Young people were given to dramatics, but Portmaine wasn’t being dramatic. Beneath his cool demeanor, something dark and desperate lurked.
“Her Grace saw you, my boy. She and I trusted to your honor and Morgan’s good sense. You are no longer committing felonies on my property, I hope.”
“I am not, Morgan’s good sense having carried the day, but I fear it’s too late.”
Too late didn’t bode well at all. “Spell it out, man.”
“Somebody followed me the last time I visited Miss James, Your Grace. From the depth of the tracks left in the mud under the tree, I’m guessing they waited a good long time, until I left, then followed me home as well. I was distracted, exhausted, as you say, and careless. I hope I have not endangered you, or worse, endangered Miss James, with my folly.”
This was not good, but it explained Portmaine’s absence of a late night—also his desperation. A dozen plots might blossom against a monarch, and it was nothing more than a challenge for a good investigator, but a smitten swain could not abide danger stalking his lady.
“I would offer to thrash you, Portmaine, but your conscience has no doubt flagellated you ceaselessly. If you fear you’ve lead the enemy to my doorstep, then what in God’s name brought you here in the broad light of day? Nothing else would confirm my hand in this investigation as clearly as the conference we’re having right now.”
Something approaching a smile touched Portmaine’s lips, though it wasn’t a friendly sort of something. “I hope you’re wrong, Your Grace. I hope I can turn recent events into a way to solve the case, and sooner rather than later.”
“You have my undivided attention.”
To sit among the Moreland roses without staring at Morgan’s balcony, to make awkward confessions to His Grace, and to convince the duke to comply with an outlandish scheme had taken the last ounce of Archer’s resolve.
He was beyond tired, beyond exhausted, and into that state soldiers knew well, of curiously detached, deliberate functioning. He was no longer a man, he was a mechanical toy in human form, and he liked it that way.
Mechanical toys did not have broken hearts—they had no hearts at all.
As Moreland sauntered off toward the mews, Archer permitted himself one more glance at Morgan’s balcony. He saw her there as she’d been last week, her nightgown a pale splash against the moonlight when Archer had taken his leave.
She’d been crying silently and trying to ignore her own tears. Even in his anger at her rejection, he’d hurt for her.
Her explanation had been baffling: she could not marry him, and she could not trust herself to behave decorously around him in the future. She was sorry for having used him shamelessly, but further dealings would only put off an inevitable parting.
She had begged him to leave, and thus had begun a week of flitting from ball to musicale to wherever Morgan James was not. Archer listened at keyholes, drowsed in smoking rooms, lurked in gardens, and followed up every hint of a wisp of a ghost of a possible lead.
Until two things became clear to him.
First, he needed to dispatch the threat to the Crown.
Second, he had better execute that task with all possible haste, for if longing for Morgan didn’t kill him, his enemies well might.