“Living the rest of my life without you would be unbearable.” His fingers closed around hers in a sure grip.
“A plot to kidnap such a young child had to have been undertaken with much forethought,” Her Grace observed. “What could Leopold have been thinking?”
His Grace accepted a tumbler of whiskey from the duchess, though the hour was indecently early—or indecently late if such a thing could be said of a summer dawn. “Leopold’s hands are spotless, of course. That poor young fellow from the Home Office never knew who exactly was behind the scheme, and his contact probably disappeared back across the Channel before cockcrow. His wife, however, had an infant at the breast.”
“I still don’t understand.” Morgan was perched on the sofa beside Her Grace. The girl looked tired and wore a distracted air, though the all’s well had been received from Portmaine’s superiors fifteen minutes ago. “Why kidnap a child who might not even inherit the throne? What would Leopold have to gain?”
“I can hazard a guess,” said Her Grace. “If Leopold is behind this, and if his intention was kidnapping his niece rather than something worse, then in a few weeks’ time, when the entire nation and half the Continent were in an uproar, he would be the one who ‘found’ the child. His poor sister, mad with worry, might beg her husband to keep the girl with Uncle Leo, where she’d be ‘safer’ than on English soil, and Kent, for reasons of his own, might allow it.”
“Either that,” said His Grace, passing the whiskey back to his duchess, “or at some point later in her life, dear Uncle Leopold might use the leverage of having saved the princess’s life for his own ends. The man is brilliant, in his own way, and patient for a young fellow. It’s an interesting combination.”
Her Grace’s smile was impish. “Puts me in mind of another man in his younger years.”
Morgan took to fiddling with the cuff of her night robe.
“I’m not young any longer, and staying up the entire night waiting on word of some distant drama is a taxing business.” He rose and extended a hand to his duchess. “Morgan, I advise you to take a tray in your room rather than come down for breakfast. I’ve no doubt before this day is through, you’ll receive some correspondence from Carlton House, and you’ll want to be well rested when it arrives. Your Grace.” He patted his wife’s arm. “My thanks for standing vigil with us, but you will accompany me above stairs now and cancel your appointments for the day.”
He did not like to leave Morgan alone, looking about eight years old in her night robe and slippers, but there was nothing more to be done.
Or was there? His Grace entwined his fingers through his wife’s and paused at the door to the sitting room. “Morgan, do you know what the hardest thing was about recovering from my heart seizure several years ago?”
The duchess cast a curious glance his way and held her peace.
“The fear of another, Your Grace?”
“That would be a nuisance, of course, and an inconvenience to Her Grace, but no. The hardest thing was realizing that I’d gone my entire lifetime believing that if I cared for someone, I need not suffer them to care for me in return. I alone could feel responsibility, loyalty, patience, affection, and so forth as the simple expedients of warm sentiment. It doesn’t work like that. The greatest challenge is not loving faithfully, but accepting a reciprocity of such sentiments.”
Morgan’s brows knit. “If Your Grace says so.”
“I most assuredly do, and my duchess would agree with me.” The girl was likely so tired, his words were wasted. “And now it’s time we all sought our beds.”
“Rest well, Your Graces.”
The duchess tugged discreetly on his hand and drew him into the corridor. “Percival? An inconvenience? What were you going on about?”
He moved along the corridor with her, an old fellow with his bride of several decades, feeling tired and blessed and grateful. “That was about a certain young lady being as proud and stubborn as a certain duke used to be.”
Her Grace’s smile was lovely, if tired. “Used to be, Percy?”
“Of course, and my duchess would agree with me on this as well.”
“She would—provided she was in public.”
“Why the hell didn’t you heed my letter, Portmaine?” Valentine Windham strode past Archer like some sort of one-man tempest. “Could you not, in the space of an entire week, find your way out to Oxfordshire?”
“Good day to you, too,” Archer replied. “And that’s Sir Archer to you, my lord.”
Windham leaned back against the sill of the library windows, crossed his arms, and tried for a glower that degenerated into—of all things—a lopsided smile. “I wish you the joy of your knighthood, Sir Archer. Try skulking around the drawing rooms with a knighthood hanging about your neck.”
“I just might. May I offer you refreshment, my lord, or will you grant my most heartfelt wish and take yourself off directly?”
“Spare me the tea and crumpets when a man could use decent potation.”
Archer took pity on his lordship, who might have simply asked for a tot to wash the dust from his throat. Windham looked like he’d ridden in directly from the shires, and as if he’d gotten as little sleep as Archer had. Archer poured two glasses of smooth whiskey and passed one to his guest.
His uninvited guest.
“My thanks.” Windham took a whiff of his drink before sipping, probably without realizing he did it. “Ellen said to give you more time.”
“More time before what?”
“I’m not here to apologize, if that’s what you’re hoping for.”
His lordship was here for some purpose known only to himself—and his wife, apparently. “I will manage to survive my dismay at your lack of apology.”
Another smile, but softer. No wonder the hostesses liked it when Lord Val graced their salons. “I apologized to Morgan. Ellen said I must tell you that.”
“That is between you and Morgan. If you’re not going to scamper off to some far away piano bench, shall we be seated?”
“No need. I wanted you to come out to Bel Canto to meet my family.” His lordship set his drink on the mantel and began to wander about the room.
“I know your family. I’ve met them all, including St. Just. They were at Hazelton’s wedding to your sister.” Though Morgan had not been introduced to him, of that he was certain.
“Not that family.” Windham ran a finger down the length of the mantel and then examined it, as if looking for dust. “My family. I am a papa.” His tone suggested this was an honorific somewhere between king and archangel.
Which… it should be.
“One noted the protective inclinations, also the ungovernable temper and complete inability to apply reason. That you would find a female willing to bear your young is the surprising conclusion.” Archer took Windham’s abandoned drink and set it back on the sideboard.
“Wait until it’s your turn, Port—Sir Archer.” Windham stopped before a bookcase. “The Decameron, for example, will move up to higher and higher shelves, until your children are reading, and then it will leave your household altogether.”
“It’s not even in English, for God’s sake.”
“And your prized volumes of erotic woodcuts from the exotic cultures of the East?” Windham went on. “Onto the fire, and you won’t think twice about it.”
“The volume you’re holding in your hands is nearly two hundred years old, Windham. What on earth is your point?”
He turned loose of one of Archer’s most prized inheritances and stood staring at the bookshelves. “How does a woman know she’s a mother, Portmaine?”
“Because the less-than-pleasant occasion of giving birth is indelibly imprinted on her memory, you fool. Surely your wife isn’t raising awkward questions at this late date?”
“She’ll recall giving birth, of course, but how does she know she’s a mother? A woman who can provide safety and nurturing to her babies, who can protect them and love them and give them a fair start in this often unfair life?”
He was a musical genius, the son of a wily old duke, and an arrogant exponent of his class—and a pain in Archer’s knighted backside. Valentine Windham was also, however, Morgan James’s friend. If Archer had learned anything in the long hours of conversation in Morgan’s boudoir, he’d learned that Windham alone had earned the privilege of Morgan’s friendship.
“Windham, I am about two seconds away from gratifying the need to return to you the blow you struck on my undeserving person a week ago.” The damned man began to smile again. “I will restrain myself, however, because you are responsible for finding the physician who restored Morgan’s hearing to her three years ago. I suppose a fair hearing now is the least I owe you. Now for God’s sake stop dodging and feinting and tell me what it is I must do to get the woman to marry me.”
Morgan loved the small sounds—the clink and tinkle of fine china when Her Grace served tea, the way a branch might tap a window in a gentle breeze, the song of birds on a summer morning.
Horses’ hooves on cobbled streets and the jingle of the harness on a dray. The list had been long before she’d added the sound of Archer Portmaine’s voice by firelight to the top of it. The way he groaned with pleasure…
Sir Archer. The Regent had quietly bestowed a knighthood on him for personal service to the Crown. Morgan wondered if Archer had stolen a moment to hold the baby princess in his arms. He’d saved the child from being kidnapped, or worse, possibly by her own maternal uncle.
A pang shot through her, deep inside, as a shadow fell across her little patch of the ducal garden.
“I have wondered about something, about several somethings, in fact.”
Archer’s voice, casual as you please. Morgan closed her eyes.
“May I join you, Miss James? It’s a pretty day to linger among the flowers.”
She nodded, speech being beyond her. She’d ordered him to stay away, and then when she had realized he might come to harm, she’d wanted nothing but to see him again.
Still, she kept her eyes closed. More than she wanted to see Archer Portmaine, she wanted to hear his beautiful voice.
“What have you wondered, Sir Archer?” She felt his weight settle beside her, right beside her, teasing Morgan’s nose with the fragrance of cedar and making the wooden bench creak.
“When you were in the card room, Miss James, and Braithwaite and his cohort were hatching their scheme, didn’t they realize you’d overheard them? You said they were only a few yards away?”
What an odd thing to fret over. “They spoke softly, so I heard little, but Lord Braithwaite told the other man I was known to be deaf as a post and there was no need to worry about me.”
Archer crossed his long legs and twitched at the crease of his breeches near his knee. “Interesting.”
When had she opened her eyes? “Interesting? I thought it insulting, myself. You’ve gotten some rest.”
“Some. It’s interesting to me that because they attributed a lack of hearing to you, you were able to listen to their entire conversation. I was quite proud of you, of your calm and your quick thinking, both. You’d make a wonderful investigator.”
Another pang, this one worse than one before. “Why are you here, Archer?”
“To propose, of course.”
“I wish you would not. I beg you, in fact, not to put that question before me.”
“Whyever not? I love you. I believe your regard for me sufficient that the notion of marriage has merit for us. Unless there’s someone else?”
Morgan rose and stalked off a few paces. I love you. Why had the blighted man gone and said that again? “There’s nobody else.”
“Well, there might be somebody else, in a manner of speaking.” She heard him pace up behind her in the grass, felt the heat of his nearness. “A very small someone else. Vinegar and sponges are not entirely reliable, you know.”
Among the bleak thoughts crowding her mind, Morgan seized on a very bleak thought indeed: he wasn’t going to go away, not unless she spoke plainly to him. The man deserved reasons, not mute stubbornness from her.
Morgan faced a very solemn Archer Portmaine. “That is why we cannot marry. Because of those little someone elses.”
“I met the baby princess.” His gaze became softer. “I was charmed to think someday, when I’m an old, old knight smelling of camphor and bay rum, I can tell my queen I’ve seen her wearing little more than a receiving blanket and kissed her nose.”
“You would not.”
“Marry me, and you might see if I do. What is the real problem, Morgan? You would love any child resulting from our union, and so would I. Our children would want for nothing, and neither would you.”
He stepped closer, making it nearly impossible for Morgan to keep her hands off of him. But she must. She must, or she’d lose the will to answer his question.
“I cannot be anybody’s mother.”
“Cannot?” His brows drew down. “The mandatory preliminaries seemed to agree with you.”
“Oh, blast you to Hades.” She paced away again then turned to glare at him. “The preliminaries were lovely. They were beyond anything, as lovely as Anna assured me they would be.”
His frown became fierce. “I suspected you were a virgin, and now you confirm it. I realized in hindsight that there was no scent of vinegar in the room, either. Did you even use the sponges?”
Truth was a painful, painful thing, but it would set him free. “I did not—I very much wanted you to… be with me, and I was repeating things I’d heard maids giggle about on back stairs—but surely the first time there can be no chance…?”
His smile was terrible and beautiful—a smile of triumph, possession, and tenderness all rolled into one. “There is every chance. Has the female complaint befallen you?”
No, but she’d spent most of the last week assuring herself that was a function of upset, only of upset. “I don’t want to speak of that. I want to tell you that no baby should have me for a mother. I cannot hear, Archer.”
“You hear, Morgan. Perhaps not as well as others, but you hear well enough.”
“I do not. Unless I’m facing somebody, unless we’re in a quiet room, I often miss words and phrases. I’m likely to lose more of my hearing as I age. Much more.”
“That musical bufflehead was right then. You’ve some fool notion in your head that a woman has to be able to hear to be a mother.”
Morgan couldn’t feel betrayed—she’d not sworn her friend to secrecy—but she could be surprised that Valentine would share such a thing with Archer. “Valentine overstepped if he told you that.”
“Overstepping seems to be one of his two natural talents. Come here, Morgan.”
He held out a hand to her. A bare hand, steady, masculine, strong… irresistible.
She stared at that hand. “Archer, I cannot hear.” She could feel though, feel her insides rocketing about, feel her knees trying to tremble. “I cannot hear the cry of a child, not even a b-baby crying in a quiet garden… I could not hear my children if they needed me, and that would be unbear… unbearable.”
“Living the rest of my life without you would be unbearable.” His fingers closed around hers in a sure grip. “The Regent wanted to commend you publicly, Morgan, but considered that would raise too many curious eyebrows when the matter must be kept quiet. If you hadn’t been so clever and so brave and so deaf… How can you think you could not be a mother, when no less than a princess of the realm owes her safety to you?”
He spoke nonsense, but such comforting nonsense. “Archer, I couldn’t hear Lady Ellen’s baby… We were in this very garden, and Ellen flew along the path, while I…” Hadn’t heard a blessed thing, and the child had surely been in distress.
“And what does that signify? Lord Valentine says Lady Ellen wakes up from a sound sleep, one floor down and halfway across their house from the nursery, and informs him with unwavering certainty that the child is awake or hungry or otherwise fretful. I don’t think the man has been troubled for one damned minute by an inability to hear his own child, and the faculty of hearing is precious to him indeed.”
Archer spoke these words against Morgan’s temple, which was only possible because she’d at some point wrapped herself into his arms.
“I did not save the princess. You men, with weeks of vigilance, of listening, Archer…”
“Listening, yes, but watching, too, Morgan, and thinking. We had fourteen minutes—I timed it—fourteen minutes to move that dear, tiny girl before those rogues came stealing into her nursery. If you hadn’t been so quick, the princess would at this moment likely still be in flight across the Continent. Hearing be damned.” He gathered her closer. “Give me a wife with courage, brains, and the wits to use whatever resources she has at hand. Give me a wife I can love with my whole heart.”
Hearing be damned?
Hearing be damned? The upheaval in Morgan’s middle was shifting, trying to make the leap from dread to hope. She clung to him and grabbed for that courage he seemed to think she had in such abundance.
“I want babies, Archer. I want your babies, but I want them to be safe. I need them to be safe.”
“No more than I do, and I want more than that.”
She pulled away enough to watch his mouth. What could possibly be more important than the safety of helpless little children? “What do you want?”
“Sit with me.” He drew her back to the bench and kept her hand in his. “I’ve done some thinking, Morgan, about how a knight is going to support his lady and a very large family in style.”
“I have a fat dowry thanks to Westhaven and St. Just, and I don’t need—a large family?”
“We’ve years ahead of us, and those preliminaries to conception did seem to agree with you.”
She tightened her grip on his hand. “They did. Very much.”
“Well, then. You were the one who put together that the child I knew as Princess Alexandrina Victoire was in fact Vicky.”
“Her Grace mentioned it, just talk among the ladies over tea.” And where was he going with this, and was he really, truly going to propose?
“That bit of talk was critical information. Without it, I might have set out for central France, or been guarding a bunch of aging royal dukes instead of stopping a kidnapping. Do you recall I told you weeks ago about a peer’s wife who preferred the company of women?”
“Maggie said it was common knowledge among the ladies. The woman had a penchant for walking into the wrong dressing room at the dressmakers, and so forth. The other women felt sorry for her, even as they regarded her with some curiosity.”
“I know the lady myself, but Archer, if you think I want you lurking in slums and dealing with kidnappers—”
“Us. Not me, us. And not in slums. His Grace asked me to get involved in the last matter as a favor. I assure you I have no appetite for that level of intrigue. I’m perfectly content to go after missing diaries, straying spouses, and presuming footmen, but I think the venture is more likely to succeed if I have a partner.”
“Somebody to think things through with, somebody who won’t mind that I need to stay up late sorting ideas, somebody who can bring a feminine perspective to situations that often involve women.”
“A partner.” It wasn’t upheaval now, it was clamoring, and it came from Morgan’s heart, like the pealing of a thousand church bells and the hallelujah of a throng of joyous choirs. “You want a partner?”
He leaned very close and spoke in a near whisper. “And a mother to my children and a wife and a lover and a friend. A very best friend. Say you’ll marry me, Morgan, and be my partner in all things, and the mother of my children.”
She heard him, heard every single word, and in all the decades of their marriage, his was the one voice she could always hear. Over the clamor of their nine children, over the chatter of the many social outings they enjoyed, over all the noise and nonsense of a fashionable life and the occasional investigation, Morgan always heard Archer with perfect clarity.