“If you call me poppet, I shall kill you.” Morgan surprised herself with both the sincerity of her threat and the fact that she’d made it to the man she’d once believed herself fated to love for all time—and in his own father’s library.
Valentine Windham lowered himself to a rocking chair at right angles to Morgan’s perch on the sofa. “I haven’t called you poppet for three years, but it’s generally considered a term of endearment. What are you reading?”
She didn’t know. She glanced at the book she’d been holding. “Byron, the silly twit.”
“Naughty twit, in any case. I might set his poetry to music one day.”
Which was relevant to the price of tea in China, how?
“I suspect you think of music at times most people can’t hold a coherent thought in their heads.” She hadn’t meant to glower at him, but really, how did Ellen stand him? When Archer Portmaine kissed a woman, he wasn’t humming some theme under his breath as Morgan suspected Valentine did. When Archer watched Morgan, his fingers weren’t twitching with a melody known only to him as Valentine’s had on many occasions.
“Your mood is off, my dear.”
The very words Archer had used. Morgan got up and shoved the book onto a random shelf.
Valentine’s dark eyebrow arched in a gesture that put Morgan in mind of His Grace, and he remained seated, the picture of calm, which was also a ploy favored by His Grace. “Are you in a taking because of Archer Portmaine’s absence from your dance card?”
She threatened murder, and her dearest friend said she was in a taking. “Mr. Portmaine is a very amiable fellow. I’m sure the other ladies are enjoying his attentions.”
Though given the stricken expression Morgan had seen on Archer’s face in her bedroom a week ago, she doubted Archer had mustered his Ballroom Bachelor Smile yet. His ability to dissemble was good, but not good enough to hide the terrible hurt Morgan had dealt him.
“Morgan, what’s wrong?”
Morgan whirled around to find Valentine Windham had silently crossed the room and stood staring down at her, his expression not the least distracted.
“Nothing is wrong, except certain men think they can drop in of a weekday afternoon and pry into my affairs at will.”
“Shall I call him out for you?” Valentine spoke softly, his green eyes lit with unholy determination. “Westhaven makes a decent second, though Hazelton might not approve. If Portmaine has offended you, Morgan, cast the slightest aspersion—”
Morgan stopped him with a hand over his fool mouth. “Nothing like that. Desist, Valentine, please. I sent him away in every sense.”
Morgan endured a long, silent scrutiny, and then another quiet question.
“From what or whom do you think you’re protecting him? You care for that handsome, skinny bastard, I know you do, and in some confounded, convoluted way, you think to set him from you for his own good. I suspect he’s mixed up in one of His Grace’s intrigues, which has nothing to say to anything. If he cares for you, you simply forbid his skulking about, and the man will come panting to your heels… Oh, for God’s sake.”
Morgan blinked furiously as Valentine dangled a monogrammed handkerchief before her eyes.
“It isn’t his fault, Valentine. He’s a good man, a dear man, and I thought—”
Damn and blast. She snatched the handkerchief from him, then let him lead her to the sofa.
“Archer Portmaine lurks about Mayfair, collecting secrets,” Val said from the sideboard. “He then darts in and out of the slums and stews to collect more. He is not dear, he is dangerous. If he broke your heart, he is also dead, or as good as.”
Morgan blotted her tears, the urge to scream now replaced by the urge to break something heavy over Valentine’s head—though a smack to his fingers would likely get his attention more effectively.
He passed her a glass with an inch of liquid in the bottom. “Drink this, and don’t argue. If you’re not going to let me draw Portmaine’s cork, then you will at least tell me what’s amiss.”
Morgan took a sip of aromatic brandy, the fruity, apple-rich fire of it easing something inside her. “No wonder your sisters are so formidable. They’ve had to contend with four more brothers in addition to you. You take after your father, you know.”
“Flattery, Miss James, will not spare you my interrogation.”
She turned a glower on him as he stood by the sofa, fists on his lean hips, a depth of concern in his eyes she had not anticipated. “I’m fine. I will be fine.”
He settled beside her when she’d intended that he take himself off. “Sometimes even when we’re fine, we could use a friend to help us sort out our difficulties. This is your good side, correct?”
The side she could hear better on. She took another sip of brandy and wondered if Her Grace, having raised nine more children like Valentine, cultivated a taste for spirits.
“I don’t have a good side. I have a less-bad side. Lord Fairly told me to think of it as having a good side and a better side, but the truth is I have a bad side and a worse side.”
She made this confession to her drink, while beside her, Valentine tossed pillows to the rug. “Are you losing your hearing again? Is that what this is about? You don’t want to saddle Portmaine with a deaf wife?”
Morgan set the drink down and tried to push some words past her lips. Damn Valentine for being so perceptive when he ought by rights to be off somewhere composing a sonata Morgan might never hear. Damn him for putting an arm around her shoulders, and damn him most of all for being her friend.
She wanted to curse at him, to curse at him roundly, as His Grace could do when the idiots in the Lords fiddled while Rome burned. She wanted to rant and bellow and carry on—to sound out her misery for all to hear—but instead, she pitched hard into her friend’s chest and silently cried into his handkerchief.
“Miss James, a pleasure.” Archer bowed over Morgan’s hand and held it in his when she tried to snatch it away. Under the guise of imparting some tidbit of gossip, he leaned closer. “Unless you want to spend the rest of the evening without one of your gloves, you will dance with me.”
She nodded, which was fortunate. Even holding her gloved hand had Archer’s vitals in an uproar. He winged his arm at her and led her to the middle of the dance floor.
He bowed. “You do not look rested, Miss James.”
She sank into a perfect curtsy and came up with a glorious smile. “You look exhausted, Mr. Portmaine, and as if you’re off your feed. Perhaps this is why you’re ignoring my request that you not approach me under any circumstance.”
They swayed into the rhythms of the waltz. “I’ve missed you, Morgan.” He made sure to look directly at her as he spoke, because the ballroom was noisy and they were turning down the side nearest the minstrel’s gallery.
She tramped on his foot, which didn’t hurt so much as it disturbed his rhythm.
“I cannot say the same, Mr. Portmaine. I am perfectly content without you bothering me at all hours.” Her usually steady alto bore a hint of tension and was pitched higher than normal.
Archer turned her through the first corner, and it seemed to him she might have clung to him a bit for balance.
“You are going to marry me,” he said quietly, clearly, and very near her ear. “Though first, I have to get other matters tidied up.”
“I cannot marry you, no matter how many other matters you tidy up. Stop being absurd, or I’ll leave you here in the middle of the dance floor.”
“That would actually help matters, but before you stomp off in a rush, please be aware that things might get sticky before this night is through, and I want you well away from here.”
“You’re sending me home?”
She might have tried for indignation, but Archer heard worry in her voice. He leaned a bit closer, gathering the scent of roses and spices. “I am asking you to leave early, or if you must be stubborn, then at least do not believe what you see, Morgan. We’ll have His Grace home by dawn, even if the Home Office indulges in unnecessary dramatics.”
He gave her the same slow wink he’d offered the first time she’d laid eyes on him, and then fell silent. As the music moved them along, he could see her mental mill wheel turning.
“Archer, are you in danger?”
Ah, to see the concern in her eyes and hear his name on her lips. “You would care if I were?”
Her eyes narrowed, and the worry vanished. “Of course, I would care.”
“One wondered. Not for very long, but one did wonder.”
“Whatever that means.”
If he said one more word, he’d be down on his knees before her, proposing publicly, and tonight of all nights he needed to focus on the task at hand rather than the woman in his arms. All too soon, the music drew to a close, and Morgan asked him to return her to Ellen’s side.
Except Lady Ellen was nowhere to be seen, which meant Archer would part with the woman he loved most in the whole world under the sternly watchful eye of Valentine Windham.
Archer hung about and chatted inanely until Ellen came swanning along from the card room and collected Morgan to make a fourth at whist.
“I need to talk to you.” Lord Valentine fairly spat the words.
“I most assuredly do not need to talk to you, my lord.” Not tonight, most especially not now, possibly not ever.
“Yes, you do.” Windham aimed a glower at the ladies’ retreating backs. “You’re going to marry Morgan James if I have to kick your sorry arse up the aisle at St. George’s.”
“That might suffice to motivate me and bruise your toes to a significant degree, but how do you propose to gain the young lady’s cooperation?”
Windham’s brows drew down, but before he said a word, the Duke of Moreland’s voice rang out over the din of dozens of conversations.
“You want to question me? You want His Grace, the Duke of Moreland, to voluntarily present himself at the Home Office? You, sir, are impertinent and a damned fool if you think a peer of the realm is going to submit to the tomfoolery that passes for state business at the Home Office. The secretary himself shall hear about this.”
“What in God’s name?” Windham started off in the direction of His Grace so quickly Archer barely managed to lay a hand on the taller man’s arm.
“Let it play out. His Grace’s liberty is not at risk.”
“Not at risk? You heard that imbecile,” Windham whispered furiously.
“You interfere now, and His Grace will not thank you.” Something of the truth of that sentiment must have penetrated Windham’s thick skull, because he turned an emerald glare on Archer.
“Mind you be right, Portmaine, or there won’t be enough of you left for Miss James to marry.”
Musicians were reported to be a flighty lot.
Windham fell silent as His Grace proceeded to dress down the Home Office functionary who’d been so foolish as to confront the Duke of Moreland in a public setting. Before His Grace concluded, the entire ballroom was listening to the exchange.
“…mine hostess will surely forgive me if I take premature leave of a gathering where such as yourself are permitted access to their betters.” His Grace turned to survey the ballroom with a gimlet gaze. “My lords, my ladies, I bid you good night.” He swept away from the dance floor, pausing only long enough to deliver a magnificent scowl and an audible sniff in Archer’s direction.
“Threat to the realm, indeed.”
Moreland brushed past both Archer and Lord Valentine, collected the duchess, and bellowed for his coach, while the ballroom erupted into a roar of conversations.
Windham shot Archer a look worthy of the duke himself, then stalked off in the direction of the card room. Pausing only long enough to be sure Lady Braithwaite was being watched by other eyes, Archer followed after Windham, not caring who saw or what they thought of his unseemly haste.
“Some commotion has interrupted the dancing.” Ellen craned her neck to look, but didn’t put down her cards. “The orchestra has fallen silent.”
Morgan couldn’t have heard much of the music at this distance, but she could see people crowding into the doorway to gawk in the direction of the dance floor.
“My dears, you’ll excuse us.” The two dowagers who had no doubt been cheating their way to a victory at whist hustled away, turbans huddled together in anticipation of some wonderful gossip.
“That’s His Grace,” Ellen said, putting her cards down. “He’s in a taking about something. Oh, I must find Valentine this instant. Will you be all right?”
Morgan waved her away with one hand and started collecting the abandoned cards. “I’ll find you.”
If being deaf spared one ballroom dramas, maybe losing her hearing again would not be such a terrible thing. What did gossip ever contribute to one’s life after all? Morgan stacked the deck tidily and caught sight of the only other people in the room who were not pressed in the doorway or trying to push through the crowd into the ballroom.
One was Lord Braithwaite, whose demeanor Morgan would have characterized as benign and avuncular. The other fellow would have been altogether nondescript—sandy hair, medium height, unremarkable evening attire—but for the grip he had on Lord Braithwaite’s arm and the fire in his eyes.
“It must be tonight!” Morgan did not hear the words, so much as she saw them forming on the man’s lips. “Now is the perfect opportunity, when suspicion has fallen on no less than the Duke of Moreland himself.”
Lord Braithwaite’s words were harder to discern, because he was in profile to Morgan, but his posture and the shake of his head suggested he was not agreeing with the other man’s importuning.
“My lord, we must act tonight. We could wait months for another chance like this. Suspicion will follow Moreland and his family, and the thing will be done. His Royal Highness will reward our quick thinking, mark me.”
Braithwaite’s indecision crumbled, as evidenced by the nod of his head and what might have been an admission that, “Now is the time.”
His Royal Highness would reward them? The Regent was styled His Royal Highness, but what could George have to do with any underhanded business? While Morgan mentally sorted through the various monarchs and dignitaries who might be suborning treachery on English soil, the nondescript man spoke again, but try as she might, Morgan could not discern every word.
“…small… Vichy… wet… coast.”
Lord Braithwaite nodded again while Morgan tried to divide her attention between shuffling the deck of cards and watching what was said in the dimly lit corner.
Her mistake was the result of nerves. She’d learned to play cards only after she’d lost her hearing. Until her hearing had been restored, she hadn’t known that cards shuffled between two hands made a loud, slapping sound, then a softer riffling noise as they were manipulated back into a single stack.
At the louder sound, the shorter man glanced up sharply. “Who the devil is that, and why isn’t she out gawking at the debacle in the ballroom?”
Archer found Morgan in the card room several minutes after His Grace had made such a stirring exit. She sat off in a corner at a little lacquered escritoire, scribbling furiously with a pencil on some foolscap.
“Miss James? Have you taken a sudden notion to catch up on your correspondence?”
She apparently hadn’t heard him, because she kept writing. Archer went down on his haunches, determined not to let her ignore him. “Miss James, is aught amiss?”
Her expression was not the vaguely irritated mask Archer had expected. Her eyes held panic, for all her features were calm and intensely focused on the paper.
“I’m almost done. Give me a moment.” She wrote a few more words then sat back. “I must speak with you privately, Mr. Portmaine. Now, if you please.”
“I thought you never wanted to see me again?”
“Archer, please. This is urgent.”
So was finding Lord Braithwaite, who had last been seen in the card room. Archer studied Morgan’s features. So pretty, and so worried.
“Come.” He rose, held out a hand, and assisted her to her feet. The only hope of quiet was out-of-doors, so he led her through French doors to a side terrace. “Now what is this urgent matter?”
“I heard Lord Braithwaite and another man speaking a few moments ago.”
“What did they say?” And where the hell had Braithwaite gotten off to?
“I’m not sure. I was watching them speak, you understand. I could not hear much, I could only see, and I can’t be sure what they said, but I’m sure that I must tell you.”
While Morgan recited what she’d caught of the conversation, Archer paced before her, four strides this way, turn, four strides that way. “And they said tonight? You’re sure they said tonight?”
“Several times. I could hear somewhat, but mostly I saw.”
“And Vichy?” What had a spa town in central France to do with anything?
“I’m almost certain that’s what he said, but again, watching people speak is not an exact business. Is this important?”
“None of the royal dukes are planning a progress through Auvergne, are they?”
Morgan nibbled a thumbnail. “I don’t know. They’re of an age to do that, but I doubt the Duke of Kent would leave his duchess so soon after her confinement.”
Something was struggling to emerge from the back of Archer’s tired brain. Something important, something that would get this infernal business taken care of.
“Not necessarily Vichy,” Morgan said, her gaze following him as he paced. “It might have been victory without much emphasis on the o, or Vickery, or Vicky, or—”
“Vickery? I doubt Lord Vickery is plotting against the Crown.”
“Archer…” Morgan brought him to a halt by virtue of grabbing both of his hands. “I don’t know if this means anything, but Kent’s new daughter, Alexandrina Victoire, is called Vicky by her doting family. Her Grace went to see the baby not two weeks ago and said Princess Vicky was such a dear, darling little thing one could hardly see her as an addition to the royal succession.”
God in heaven. “She might never rule. There could be other possibilities.” Please, God, let there be some other possibilities.
Except this had the feel of a brilliant insight, the feel of something that put all the puzzle pieces into a single, coherent picture of mischief and mayhem in high places. “His Royal Highness might refer to Leopold of Saxe-Coburg. If he’s grieving the loss of Princess Charlotte and their son badly enough, such a scheme might appeal to him.”
“Archer, Princess Vicky is a tiny baby. A tiny, helpless baby. You must stop this.”
“I shall.” But he had to do something else first.
He gathered Morgan into his arms and brought her close, then slanted his mouth over hers. For an instant, for a blessed, intoxicating instant, she yielded and kissed him back. Then a large hand clamped onto Archer’s shoulder and spun him away from Morgan.
“By God, I ought to meet you.” Valentine Windham’s palm walloped across Archer’s cheek, leaving a stinging welt in its wake. “You don’t take such liberties with a decent young woman where any telltale or gossip might see you.”
“Valentine, damn you,” Morgan bit out. “It isn’t like that. Why for once couldn’t you go play your infernal piano?”
Windham’s face showed consternation. “Because this idiot needs to be taught some manners if he’s to join the family.”
Morgan cradled Archer’s cheek against her palm. “He is not joining the family.”
“I am too.”
“He is too.”
Both men spoke at the same time. Morgan dropped her hand and looked like she was about to fly into a scold. Archer could only hope Windham would get the brunt of it.
“Morgan, where did Braithwaite go?”
“He and the other man left through the door we just used, possibly headed for the mews.”
“Tell His Grace what’s afoot, and have Windham take you home. I love you.” He planted a smacking kiss on her mouth, offered Windham a slight, ironic bow, and left his musical lordship warily regarding Morgan’s mulish expression.