The Lost Duke of Wyndham (Chapter Eighteen)

Three minutes," Jack said, the moment he pulled the door shut. Because truly, he did not think he could last any longer than that. Not when she was dressed in her nightgown. It was an ugly thing, really, all rough and buttoned from chin to toe, but still, it was a nightgown.

And she was Grace.

"You will never believe what has happened," she said.

"Normally an excellent opening," he acknowledged, "but after everything that has happened in the last two weeks, I find myself willing to believe almost anything." He smiled and shrugged. Two pints of fine Irish ale had made him mellow.

But then she told him the most amazing story. Thomas had given her a cottage and an income. Grace was now an independent woman. She was free of the dowager.

Jack lit the lamp in his room, listening to her excitement. He felt a prickle of jealousy, though not because he did not think she should be receiving gifts from another man – the truth was, she'd more than earned anything the duke chose to portion off to her. Five years with the dowager – Good God, she ought to be given a title in her own right as penance for such as that. No one had done more for England.

No, his jealousy was a far more basic stripe. He heard the joy in her voice, and once he'd banished the dark of the room, he saw the joy in her eyes. And quite simply, it just felt wrong that someone else had given her that.

He wanted to do it. He wanted to light her eyes with exhilaration. He wanted to be the origin of her smile.

"I will still have to go with you to County Cavan," Grace was saying. "I can't stay here by myself, and I wouldn't want Amelia to be alone. This is all terribly difficult for her, you know."

She looked up at him, so he nodded in response. Truthfully, he hadn't been thinking very much of Amelia, selfish as that was.

"I'm sure it will be awkward with the dowager," Grace continued. "She was furious."

"I can imagine," Jack murmured.

"Oh, no." Her eyes grew very wide. "This was extraordinary, even for her."

He pondered that. "I am not certain if I am sorry or relieved that I missed it."

"It was probably for the best that you were not present," Grace replied, grimacing. "She was rather unkind."

He was about to say that it was difficult to imagine her any other way, but Grace suddenly brightened and said, "But do you know, I don't care!" She giggled then, the heady sound of someone who can't quite believe her good fortune.

He smiled for her. It was infectious, her happiness. He did not intend that she should ever live apart from him, and he rather suspected that Thomas had not given her the cottage with the intention that she live there as Mrs. Jack Audley, but he understood her delight. For the first time in years, Grace had something of her own.

"I'm sorry," she said, but she could not quite hide her smile. "I should not be here. I didn't mean to wait up for you, but I was just so excited, and I wanted to tell you, because I knew you'd understand."

And as she stood there, her eyes shining up at him, his demons slipped away, one by one, until he was just a man, standing before the woman he loved. In this room, in this minute, it didn't matter that he was back in Ireland, that there were so many bloody reasons he should be running for the door and finding passage on the next ship to anywhere.

In this room, in this minute, she was his everything.

"Grace," he said, and his hand rose to touch her cheek. She curled into it, and in that moment he knew he was lost. Whatever strength he'd thought he possessed, whatever will to do the right thing –

It was gone.

"Kiss me," he whispered.

Her eyes widened.

"Kiss me."

She wanted to. He could see it in her eyes, feel it in the air around them.

He leaned down, closer…but not enough so their lips touched. "Kiss me," he said, one last time.

She rose on her toes. She moved nothing else – her hands did not come up to caress him, she did not lean in, allowing her body to rest against his. She just rose on her toes until her lips brushed his.

And then she backed away.

"Jack?" she whispered.

"I – " He almost said it. The words were right there, on his lips. I love you.

But somehow he knew – he had no idea how, just that he did – if he said it then, if he gave voice to what he was certain she knew in her heart, it would scare her away.

"Stay with me," he whispered. He was through being noble. The current Duke of Wyndham could spend his life doing nothing but the right thing, but he could not be so unselfish.

He kissed her hand.

"I shouldn't," she whispered.

He kissed her other hand.

"Oh, Jack."

He raised them both to his lips, holding them to his face, inhaling her scent.

She looked at the door.

"Stay with me," he said again. And then he touched her chin, tipped her face gently up, and laid one soft kiss on her lips. "Stay."

He watched her face, saw the conflicted shadows in her eyes. Her lips trembled, and she turned away from him before she spoke.

"If I – " Her voice was a whisper, shaky and unsure. "If I stay…"

He touched her chin but did not guide her back to face him. He waited until she was ready, until she turned on her own.

"If I stay…" She swallowed, and shut her eyes for a moment, as if summoning courage. "Can you…Is there a way you can make sure there is no baby?"

For a moment he could not speak. Then he nodded, because yes, he could make sure there was no baby.

He had spent his adult life making sure there would be no babies.

But that had been with women he did not love, women he did not intend to adore and worship for the rest of their lives. This was Grace, and the idea of making a baby with her suddenly burned within him like a shining, magical dream. He could see them as a family, laughing, teasing. His own childhood had been like that – loud and boisterous, racing across fields with his cousins, fishing in streams and never catching a thing. Meals were never formal affairs; the icy gatherings at Belgrave had been as foreign to him as a Chinese banquet.

He wanted all of that, and he wanted it with Grace. Only he hadn't realized just how much until this very moment.

"Grace," he said, holding her hands tightly. "It does not matter. I will marry you. I want to marry you."

She shook her head, the motion fast and jerky, almost frenzied. "No," she said. "You can't. Not if you are the duke."

"I will." And then, damn it all, he said it anyway. Some things were too big, too true, to keep inside. "I love you. I love you. I have never said that to another woman, and I never will. I love you, Grace Eversleigh, and I want to marry you."

She shut her eyes, looking almost pained. "Jack, you can't – "

"I can. I do. I will."

"Jack – "

"I am so tired of everyone telling me what I cannot do," he burst out, letting go of her hands to stalk across the room. "Do you understand that I don't care? I don't care about the bloody dukedom and I certainly don't care about the dowager. I care about you, Grace. You."

"Jack," she said again, "if you are the duke, you will be expected to marry a woman of high birth."

He swore under his breath. "You speak of yourself as if you were some dockside whore."

"No," she said, trying to be patient, "I do not. I know exactly what I am. I am an impoverished young lady of impeccable but undistinguished birth. My father was a country gentleman, my mother the daughter of a country gentleman. We have no connections to the aristocracy. My mother was the second cousin to a baronet, but that is all."

He stared at her as if he hadn't heard a word she'd said. Or as if he'd heard but hadn't listened.

No, Grace thought miserably. He'd listened but he hadn't heard. And sure enough, the first words from his mouth were: "I don't care."

"But everyone else does," she persisted. "And if you are the duke, there will be enough of an uproar as it is. The scandal will be amazing."

"I don't care."

"But you should." She stopped, forcing herself to take a breath before she continued. She wanted to grab her head and press her fingers into her scalp. She wanted to make fists until her fingernails bit into her skin. Anything – anything that would eat away at this awful frustration that was pulling her inside out.

Why wasn't he listening? Why couldn't he hear that –

"Grace – " he began.

"No!" She cut him off, perhaps more loudly than she ought, but it had to be said: "You will need to tread carefully if you wish to be accepted into society. Your wife does not have to be Amelia, but it must be someone like her. With a similar background. Otherwise – "

"Are you listening to me?" he cut in. He grasped her shoulders, holding her in place until she looked up at him, directly into his eyes. "I don't care about 'otherwise.' I don't need for society to accept me. All I need is you, whether I live in a castle, a hovel, or anything in between."

"Jack…" she began. He was being naive. She loved him for it, nearly wept with joy that he adored her enough to think he could so thoroughly flout convention. But he didn't know. He had not lived at Belgrave for five years. He had not traveled to London with the dowager and seen firsthand what it meant to be a member of such a family. She had. She had watched, and she had observed, and she knew exactly what was expected of the Duke of Wyndham. His duchess could not be a nobody from the neighborhood. Not if he expected anyone to take him seriously.

"Jack," she said again, trying to find the right words. "I wish – "

"Do you love me?" he cut in.

She froze. He was staring at her with an intensity that left her breathless, immobile.

"Do you love me?"

"It doesn't – "

"Do…you…love me?"

She closed her eyes. She didn't want to say it. If she did, she would be lost. She would never be able to resist him – his words, his lips. If she gave him this, she would lose her last defense.

"Grace," he said, cradling her face in his hands. He leaned down and kissed her – once, with aching tenderness. "Do you love me?"

"Yes," she whispered. "Yes."

"Then that is all that matters."

She opened her lips to try one last time to talk sense into him, but he was already kissing her, his mouth hot and passionate on her own.

"I love you," he said, kissing her cheeks, her brows, her ears. "I love you."

"Jack," she whispered, but her body had already begun to hum with desire. She wanted him. She wanted this. She did not know what tomorrow would bring, but at this moment she was willing to pretend that she did not care. As long as –

"Promise me," she said urgently, grasping his face firmly in her hands. "Please. Promise me that there will be no baby."

His eyes shuttered and flared, but finally he said, "I promise you I will try."

"You will try?" she echoed. Surely he would not lie about this. He would not ignore her plea and later pretend that he'd "tried."

"I will do what I know how to do. It is not completely foolproof."

She loosened her grip and showed her acquiescence by allowing her fingers to trail along his cheeks.

"Thank you," she whispered, leaning up for a kiss.

"But I promise you this," he said, sweeping her into his arms, "you will have our baby. I will marry you.

No matter who I am, or what my name is, I will marry you."

But she no longer had the will to argue with him. Not now, not when he was carrying her to his bed. He laid her down atop the covers and stepped back, quickly undoing the top buttons of his shirt so he could pull it over his head.

And then he was back, half beside her, half atop her, kissing her as if his life depended upon it. "My God," he almost grunted, "this thing is ugly," and Grace could not help but giggle as his fingers attempted to do their magic on her buttons. He let out a frustrated growl when they did not comply, and he actually grasped the two sides of her nightgown, clearly intending to wrench it apart and let the buttons fly where they might.

"No, Jack, you can't!" She was laughing as she said it; she didn't know why it was so funny – surely de-flowerings were meant to be serious, life-altering affairs. But there was so much joy bubbling within her.

It was difficult to keep it contained. Especially when he was trying so hard to complete such a simple task and failing so miserably.

"Are you sure?" His face was almost comical in its frustration. "Because I am fairly certain that I do a service to all mankind by destroying this."

She tried not to laugh. "It's my only nightgown."

This, he appeared to find interesting. "Are you saying that if I tear it off, you will have to sleep naked for the duration of our journey?"

She quickly moved his hand from her bodice. "Don't," she warned him.

"But it's so tempting."

"Jack…"

He sat back on his heels, gazing down at her with a mixture of hunger and amusement that made her shiver. "Very well," he said, "you do it."

She had been intending to do just that, but now, with him watching her so intently, his eyes heavy-lidded with desire, she felt almost frozen in place. How could she be so brazen as to strip before him? To peel her clothing from her body – to do it herself. There was a difference, she realized, in taking off her own clothing and allowing herself to be seduced.

Slowly, fingers trembling, she reached for the top button of her nightgown. She couldn't see it; it was far too high, almost to her chin. But her fingers knew the motions, knew the buttons, and almost without thinking, she slipped one free.

Jack sucked in his breath. "Another."

She obeyed.

"Another."

And again. And again, until she reached the one that lay between her breasts. He reached down then, his large hands slowly spreading the two sides of her gown open. It did not reveal her to him; she'd not unbuttoned enough for that. But she felt the cool air on her skin, felt the soft tickle of his breath as he leaned down to place one kiss on the flat plane of her chest.

"You are beautiful," he whispered. And when his fingers moved this time to the buttons on her nightgown, he mastered them with no difficulty at all. He took her hand and gave it a gentle tug, indicating for her to sit up. She did, closing her eyes as the nightgown fell away.

With her vision dark, she felt more keenly, and the fabric – nothing but a plain, serviceable cotton – raised shivers of sensation as it slid along her skin.

Or maybe it was just that she knew he was looking at her.

Was this what it had felt like for that woman? The one in the painting? She must have been a woman of some experience by the time she'd posed for Monsieur Boucher, but surely there had to be a first time for her, as well. Had she, too, closed her eyes so she could feel a man's gaze upon her body?

She felt Jack's hand touching her face, the tips of his fingers softly trailing along the line of her neck to the hollow of her shoulder. He paused there, but only for a moment, and Grace sucked in her breath, waiting for the intimacy that awaited her.

"Why are your eyes closed?" he murmured.

"I don't know."

"Are you afraid?"

"No."

She waited. She gasped. She even jumped, just a little, when his fingers slid along the outer curve of her breast.

She felt herself arching. It was strange. She'd never thought about this, never even wondered what it might be like to have a man's hands stroking her in this way, but now that the moment was upon her, she knew exactly what she wanted him to do.

She wanted to feel him cupping her, holding her entirely in his palm.

She wanted to feel his hand brushing against her nipples.

She wanted him to touch her…dear God, she wanted him to touch her so badly, and it was spreading. It had moved from her breasts to her belly, to the hidden spot between her legs. She felt hot, and tingly, and searingly hungry.

Hungry… there.

It was without a doubt the strangest and most compelling sensation. She could not ignore it. She didn't want to ignore it. She wanted to feed it, indulge it, let him teach her how to quench it.

"Jack," she moaned, and his hands moved until he was cradling both of her breasts. And then he kissed her.

Her eyes flew open.

His mouth was on her now, on the very tip, and she actually clasped one of her hands to her mouth, lest she scream with the pleasure of it. She hadn't imagined…She'd thought she'd known what she wanted, but this…

She hadn't known.

She clutched at his head, using him for support. It was torture, and it was bliss, and she was barely able to breathe by the time he dragged his mouth back up to hers.

"Grace…Grace…" he murmured, over and over, his voice sliding into her skin. It felt as if he was kissing her everywhere, and maybe he was – one moment it was her mouth, and next her ear, and then her neck.

And his hands – they were wicked. And relentless.

He never stopped moving, never stopped touching her. His hands were on her shoulders, and then her hips, and then one of them started sliding down her leg, tugging at her nightgown until it slipped off her entirely.

She should have been embarrassed. She should have felt awkward. But she didn't. Not with him. Not when he was gazing down at her with such love and devotion.

He loved her. He'd said he did, and she believed him, but now she felt it. The heat, the warmth. It shone from his eyes. And she understood now how a woman might find herself ruined. How could anyone resist this? How could she resist him?

He stood then, breathing hard, working at the fastenings of his breeches with frantic fingers. His chest was already bare, and all she could think was –  He's beautiful. How could a man be so beautiful? He'd not led a life of leisure; this, she could see. His body was lean and firm, his skin marred here and there with scars and calluses.

"Were you shot?" she asked, her eyes falling on a puckered scar on his upper arm.

He looked down, even as he pushed off his breeches. "A French sniper," he confirmed. He smiled, rather lopsidedly. "I am fortunate he was not better at his craft."

It should not have been so amusing. But the statement was so… him. So matter of fact, so understated and dry. She smiled in return. "I almost died, too."

"Really?"

"Fever."

He winced. "I hate fevers."

She nodded, pinching the corners of her lips to keep from smiling. "I should hate to be shot."

He looked back at her, his eyes alight with humor. "I don't recommend it."

And then she did laugh, because it was all so ludicrous. He was standing there naked, for heaven's sake, clearly aroused, and they were discussing the relative unpleasantness of gunshot wounds and fevers.

He crawled onto the bed, looming over her with a predatory expression. "Grace?" he murmured.

She looked up at him and nearly melted. "Yes?"

He smiled wolfishly. "I'm all better now."

And with that, there were no more words. When he kissed her this time, it was with an intensity and fervor that she knew would carry them through to completion. She felt it, too – this desire, this relentless need – and when he nudged his leg between hers, she opened to him immediately, without reservation, without fear.

How long he kissed her, she couldn't possibly have known. It seemed like nothing. It seemed like forever. It felt like she had been born for this moment, with this man. As if somehow, on the day of her birth, this had all been preordained – on October the twenty-eighth, the year of our Lord 1819, she would be in Room 14 of the Queen's Arms Inn, and she would give herself to this man, John Augustus Cavendish-Audley.

Nothing else could possibly have happened. This was how it was meant to be.

She kissed him back with equal abandon, clutching at his shoulders, his arms, anywhere she could gain purchase. And then, just when she thought she could handle no more, his hand slipped between her legs.

His touch was gentle, but still, she thought she might scream from the shock and wonder of it.

"Jack," she gasped, not because she wanted him to stop, but because there was no way she could remain silent amidst the onslaught of sensation brought forth by that simple touch. He tickled and teased, and she panted and writhed. And then she realized that he was no longer just touching her, he was inside of her, his fingers exploring her in a manner so intimate it left her breathless.

She could feel herself clench around him, her muscles begging for more. She didn't know what to do, didn't know anything except that she wanted him. She wanted him, and something only he could give her.

He shifted position, and his fingers moved away. His body lifted off hers, and when Grace looked up at him, he seemed to be straining against some irresistible force. He was holding himself above her, supporting himself on his forearms. Her tongue moved, preparing to say his name, but just then she felt him at her entrance, pressing gently forward.

Their eyes met.

"Shhh," he murmured. "Just wait…I promise…"

"I'm not scared," she whispered.

His mouth moved into a lopsided smile. "I am."

She wanted to ask what he meant and why he was smiling, but he began to move forward, opening her, stretching her, and it was the strangest, most amazing thing, but he was inside of her. That one person could enter another seemed the most spectacular thing. They were joined. She could not think of any other way to describe it.

"Am I hurting you?" he whispered.

She shook her head. "I like it," she whispered back.

He groaned at that, and thrust forward, the sudden motion sending a wave of sensation and pressure through her. She gasped his name and grabbed his shoulders, and then she found herself in an ancient rhythm, moving with him, as one. Moving, and pulsing, and straining, and then –

She shattered. She arched, she moaned, she nearly screamed. And when she finally came down and found the strength to breathe, she could not imagine how she could possibly still be alive. Surely a body could not feel that way and live to repeat it.

Then, abruptly, he pulled out of her and turned away, grunting and groaning his own satisfaction. She touched his shoulder, feeling the spasms of his body. And when he cried out, she did not just hear it. She felt it, through his skin, through her body.

To her heart.

For a few moments he did not move, just lay there, his breathing slowly returning to normal. But then he rolled back over and gathered her into his arms. He whispered her name and kissed the top of her head.

And then he did it again.

And again.

And when she finally fell asleep, that was what she heard in her dreams. Jack's voice. Soft, whispering her name.

Jack knew the exact moment she fell asleep. He was not sure what it was – her breathing had already softened to a slow, even sigh, and her body had long since stilled.

But when she fell asleep, he knew.

He kissed her one last time, on her temple. And as he looked down at her peaceful face, he whispered, "I will marry you, Grace Eversleigh."

It did not matter who he was. He would not let her go.