The Lost Duke of Wyndham (Chapter Seven)

And that, Jack decided, was his cue to leave as well.

Not that he had any great love for the duke. Indeed, he'd had quite enough of his marvelous lordliness for one day and was perfectly happy to see his back as he left the room. But the thought of remaining here with the dowager…

Even Miss Eversleigh's delightful company was not enough of a temptation to endure more of that.

"I believe I shall retire as well," he announced.

"Wyndham did not retire," the dowager said peevishly. "He went out."

"Then I shall retire," Jack said. He smiled blandly. "End of sentence."

"It's barely dark," the dowager pointed out.

"I'm tired." It was true. He was.

"My John used to stay up until the wee hours," she said softly.

Jack sighed. He did not want to feel sorry for this woman. She was hard, ruthless, and thoroughly unlikable. But she had, apparently, loved her son. His father. And she'd lost him.

A mother shouldn't outlive her children. He knew this as well as he knew how to breathe. It was unnatural.

And so instead of pointing out that her John had most likely never been kidnapped, strangled, blackmailed, and stripped of his (albeit paltry) livelihood, all in one day, he walked forward and set her ring – the very one he had all but snatched from her finger – on the table next to her. His own was in his pocket. He was not quite prepared to share its existence with her. "Your ring, madam," he said.

She nodded, then took it into her hands.

"What is the D for?" he asked. His whole life, he'd wondered. He might as well gain something from this debacle.

"Debenham. My birth surname."

Ah. It made sense. She'd have given her own heirlooms to her favorite son.

"My father was the Duke of Runthorpe."

"I am not surprised," he murmured. She could decide for herself if that was a compliment. He bowed.

"Good evening, your grace."

The dowager's mouth tightened with disappointment. But she seemed to recognize that if there had been a battle that day, she was the only one who had emerged victorious, and she was surprisingly gracious as she said, "I shall have supper sent up."

Jack nodded and murmured his thanks, then turned to exit.

"Miss Eversleigh will show you to your room."

At that Jack snapped to attention, and when he looked Miss Eversleigh's way, he saw that she had, too.

He had been expecting a footman. Possibly the butler. This was a delightful surprise.

"Is that a problem, Miss Eversleigh?" the dowager asked. Her voice sounded sly, a little bit taunting.

"Of course not," Miss Eversleigh replied. Her eyes were clouded but not entirely unreadable. She was surprised. He could see it by the way her lashes seemed to reach a little higher toward her brows. She was not used to being ordered to tend to anyone except the dowager. Her employer, he decided, did not like to share her. And as his eyes fell again to her lips, he decided that he was in complete accord. If she were his, if he had any right to her…he would not wish to share her, either.

He wanted to kiss her again. He wanted to touch her, just a soft brush of hand against skin, so fleeting that it could only be deemed accidental.

But more than any of that, he wanted use of her name.

Grace.

He liked it. He found it soothing.

"See to his comfort, Miss Eversleigh."

Jack turned to the dowager with widening eyes. She sat like a statue, her hands folded primly in her lap, but the corners of her mouth were tilted ever so slightly up, and her eyes looked cunning and amused.

She was giving Grace to him. As clear as day, she was telling him to make use of her companion, if that was his desire.

Good Lord. What sort of family had he fallen into?

"As you wish, ma'am," Miss Eversleigh replied, and in that moment Jack felt soiled, almost dirty, because he was quite certain she had no idea that her employer was attempting to whore her off on him.

It was the most appalling sort of bribe. Stay the night, and you can have the girl.

It sickened him. Doubly so, because he wanted the girl. He just didn't want her given to him.

"It is most kind of you, Miss Eversleigh," he said, feeling as if he had to be extra polite to make up for the dowager. They reached the door, and then, before he forgot, he turned back. He and the duke had spoken only tersely on their outing, but on one matter they had been in accord. "Oh, by the by, should anyone ask, I am a friend of Wyndham's. From years gone by."

"From university?" Miss Eversleigh suggested.

Jack fought back a grim chuckle. "No. I did not attend."

"You did not attend!" the dowager gasped. "I was led to believe you'd had a gentleman's education."

"By whom?" Jack inquired, ever so politely.

She sputtered at that for a moment, and then finally she scowled and said, "It is in your speech."

"Felled by my accent." He looked at Miss Eversleigh and shrugged. "Pommy R's and proper H's. What's a man to do?"

But the dowager was not prepared to let the subject drop. "You are educated, are you not?"

It was tempting to claim he'd been schooled with the local lads, if only to witness her reaction. But he owed his aunt and uncle better than that, and so he turned to the dowager and said, "Portora Royal, followed by two months at Trinity College – Dublin, that is, not Cambridge – and then six years serving in His Majesty's army and protecting you from invasion." He cocked his head to the side. "I'll take those thanks now, if you will."

The dowager's lips parted with outrage.

"No?" He lifted his brows. "Funny how no one seems to care that they still speak English and curtsy to good King George."

"I do," Miss Eversleigh said. And when he looked at her, she blinked and added, "Er, thank you."

"You're welcome," he said, and it occurred to him that this was the first time he'd had cause to say it.

Sadly, the dowager was not unique in her sense of entitlement. Soldiers were occasionally feted, and it was true that the uniforms were quite effective when attracting the ladies, but no one ever thought to say thank you. Not to him, and especially not to the men who'd suffered permanent injury or disfigurement.

"Tell everyone we shared fencing lessons," Jack said to Miss Eversleigh, ignoring the dowager as best he could. "It's as good a ruse as any. Wyndham says he's passable with a sword?"

"I do not know," she said.

Of course she wouldn't. But no matter. If Wyndham had said he was passable, then he was almost certainly a master. They would be well-matched if ever they had to offer proof of their lie. Fencing had been his best subject in school. It was probably the only reason they had kept him to age eighteen.

"Shall we?" he murmured, tilting his head toward the door.

"The blue silk bedroom," the dowager called out sourly.

"She does not like to be left out of a conversation, does she?" Jack murmured, so that only Miss Eversleigh could hear.

He'd known she could not answer, not with her employer so close, but he saw her eyes dart away, as if trying to hide her amusement.

"You may retire for the night as well, Miss Eversleigh," the dowager directed.

Grace turned in surprise. "You don't wish for me to attend to you? It's early yet."

"Nancy can do it," she replied with a pinch of her lips. "She's an acceptable hand with buttons, and what's more, she doesn't say a word. I find that to be an exceptionally good trait in a servant."

As Grace held her tongue more often than not, she decided to take that as a compliment, rather than the rear-door insult it was meant to be. "Of course, ma'am," she said, bobbing a demure curtsy. "I shall see you in the morning, then, with your chocolate and the newspaper."

Mr. Audley was already at the door and was holding out his hand to motion for her to precede him, so she walked out into the hall. She had no idea what the dowager was up to, giving her the rest of the evening off, but she was not going to argue further.

"Nancy is her maid," she explained to Mr. Audley once he reached her side.

"I'd guessed."

"It's most odd." She shook her head. "She – "

Mr. Audley waited rather patiently for her to finish her sentence, but Grace decided the better of it. She had been going to say that the dowager hated Nancy. In fact, the dowager complained most bitterly and at painful length each time she had a day out and Nancy served as a substitute.

"You were saying, Miss Eversleigh?" he murmured.

She almost told him. It was strange, because she barely knew him, and furthermore, he could not possibly be interested in the trivialities of the Belgrave household. Even if he did become the duke – and the thought of it still made her somewhat sick to her stomach – well, it wasn't as if Thomas could have identified any of the housemaids. And if asked which ones his grandmother disliked, he'd surely have said, All of them.

Which, Grace thought with a wry smile, was probably true.

"You're smiling, Miss Eversleigh," Mr. Audley remarked, looking very much as if he were the one with a secret. "Do tell why."

"Oh, it's nothing," she said. "Certainly nothing that would be of interest to you." She motioned toward the staircase at the rear of the hall. "Here, the bedchambers are this way."

"You were smiling," he said again, falling in step beside her.

For some reason that made her smile anew. "I did not say that I wasn't."

"A lady who doesn't dissemble," he said approvingly. "I find myself liking you more with every passing minute."

Grace pursed her lips, eyeing him over her shoulder. "That does not indicate a very high opinion of women."

"My apologies. I should have said a person who does not dissemble." He flashed her a smile that shook her to her toes. "I would never claim that men and women are interchangeable, and thank heavens for that, but in matters of truthiness, neither sex earns high marks."

She looked at him in surprise. "I don't think truthiness is a word. In fact, I'm quite certain it is not."

"No?" His eyes darted to the side. Just for a second – not even a second, but it was long enough for her to wonder if she'd embarrassed him. Which couldn't be possible. He was so amazingly glib and comfortable in his own skin. One did not need more than a day's acquaintance to realize that. And indeed, his smile grew jaunty and lopsided, and his eyes positively twinkled as he said, "Well, it should be."

"Do you often make up words?"

He shrugged modestly. "I try to restrain myself."

She looked at him with considerable disbelief.

"I do," he protested. He clasped one hand over his heart, as if wounded, but his eyes were laughing.

"Why is it no one ever believes me when I tell them I am a moral and upstanding gentleman, on this earth with the every intention of following every rule."

"Perhaps it is because most people make your acquaintance when you order them out of a carriage with a gun?"

"True," he acknowledged. "It does color the relationship, doesn't it?"

She looked at him, at the humor lurking in his emerald eyes, and she felt her lips tickle. She wanted to laugh. She wanted to laugh the way she'd laughed when her parents were alive, when she'd had the freedom to seek out life's absurdities and the time to make merry over them.

It almost felt as if something were waking up within her. It felt lovely. It felt good. She wanted to thank him, but she'd sound the veriest fool. And so she did the next best thing.

She apologized.

"I'm sorry," she said, pausing at the base of the stairs.

That seemed to surprise him. "You're sorry?"

"I am. For…today."

"For kidnapping me." He sounded amused, vaguely so. Perhaps even condescending.

"I didn't mean to," she protested.

"You were in the carriage," he pointed out. "I do believe that any court of law would brand you an accomplice."

Oh, that was more than she could take. "This would, I assume, be the same court of law that sent you to the gallows earlier that same morning for pointing a loaded gun at a duchess."

"Tsk tsk. I told you it wasn't a hanging offense."

"No?" she murmured, echoing his earlier tone precisely. "It ought to be."

"Oh, you think?"

"If truthiness gets to be a word, then accosting a duchess with a gun ought to be enough to get one hanged."

"You're quick," he said admiringly.

"Thank you," she said, then admitted, "I'm out of practice."

"Yes." He glanced down the hall toward the drawing room, where the dowager was presumably still enthroned upon her sofa. "She does keep you rather silent, doesn't she?"

"Loquaciousness is not considered becoming in a servant."

"Is that how you see yourself?" His eyes met hers, searching her so deeply she almost stepped away. "A servant?"

And then she did step away. Because whatever it was he was going to find in her, she wasn't so sure she wanted to see it. "We should not loiter," she said, motioning for him to follow her up the stairs. "The blue silk bedroom is lovely. Very comfortable, and with excellent morning light. The artwork in particular is superb. I think you will like it."

She was babbling, but he was kind enough not to remark upon it, instead saying, "I'm sure it will be an improvement over my current lodgings."

She glanced over at him with surprise. "Oh. I had assumed – " She broke off, too embarrassed to remark that she'd thought him a homeless nomad.

"A life of posting inns and grassy fields," he said with an affected sigh. "Such is the fate of a highwayman."

"Do you enjoy it?" She surprised herself, both by asking it and also by how very curious she was in the answer.

He grinned. "Robbing coaches?"

She nodded.

"It depends on who is in the coach," he said softly. "I very much enjoyed not robbing you."

"Not robbing me?" She turned then, and the ice, which had been cracked, was officially broken.

"I didn't take a thing, did I?" he returned, all innocence.

"You stole a kiss."

"That," he said, leaning forward with great cheek, "was freely given."

"Mr. Audley…"

"I do wish you'd call me Jack," he sighed.

"Mr. Audley," she said again. "I did not – " She looked quickly about, then lowered her voice to an urgent whisper. "I did not… do…what you said I did."

He smiled lazily. "When did 'kiss' become such a dangerous word?"

She clamped her lips together because truly there was no way she would gain the upper hand in this conversation.

"Very well," he said. "I shan't torment you."

It would have been a kind and generous statement if he hadn't followed it with: "Today."

But even then, she smiled. It was difficult not to, in his presence.

They were in the upper hall now, and Grace turned toward the family apartments where he would be staying. They moved along in silence, giving her ample time to consider the gentleman beside her. She did not care what he'd said about not completing university. He was extremely intelligent, unique vocabulary notwithstanding. And there was no arguing against his charm. There was no reason he should not be gainfully employed. She could not ask him why he was robbing coaches, however. It was far too forward on so short an acquaintance.

It was ironic, that. Who would have thought she'd be worried about manners and propriety with a thief?

"This way," she said, motioning for him to follow her to the left.

"Who sleeps down there?" Mr. Audley asked, peering in the opposite direction.

"His grace."

"Ah," he said darkly. "His grace."

"He is a good man," Grace said, feeling she must speak up for him. If Thomas had not behaved as he ought, it was certainly understandable. From the day of his birth, he'd been raised to be the Duke of Wyndham. And now, with the flimsiest of fate twists, he'd been informed that he might be nothing more than plain Mr. Cavendish.

If Mr. Audley had had a rough day, well then, surely Thomas's was worse.

"You admire the duke," Mr. Audley stated. Grace couldn't quite tell if this was a question; she didn't think so. But either way, his tone was dry, as if he thought she was somewhat naive for doing so.

"He is a good man," she repeated firmly. "You will agree with me, once you further your acquaintance."

Mr. Audley let out an amused little puff of breath. "You sound like a servant now, starched and prim and properly loyal."

She scowled at him, but he clearly did not care, because he was already grinning and saying, "Are you going to defend the dowager next? I should like to hear you do it, because I'm most curious as to how, exactly, one would attempt such a feat."

Grace could not imagine that he might actually expect her to reply. She turned, though, so he could not see her smile.

"I could not manage it myself," he continued, "and I'm told I have a most silver tongue." He leaned forward, as if imparting a grave secret. "It's the Irish in me."

"You're a Cavendish," she pointed out.

"Only half." And then he added, "Thank God."

"They're not so bad."

He let out a chuckle. "They're not so bad? That's your rousing defense?"

And then heaven help her, she could not think of a single good thing to say except, "The dowager would give her life for the family."

"Pity she has not done so already."

Grace shot him a startled look. "You sound just like the duke."

"Yes, I'd noticed they had a warm and loving relationship."

"Here we are," Grace said, pushing open the door to his chamber. She stepped back then. It could not be proper for her to accompany him into his room. Five years she'd been at Belgrave, and she'd never once stepped foot inside Thomas's chambers. She might not have much in this world, but she had her self-respect, and her reputation, and she planned to keep a firm hold on both.

Mr. Audley peeked in. "How very blue," he remarked.

She could not help but smile. "And silken."

"Indeed." He stepped inside. "You're not going to join me?"

"Oh, no."

"Didn't think you would. Pity. I'm going to have to loll about all on my own, rolling in all this silken blue splendor."

"The dowager was right," Grace said with a shake of her head. "You're never serious."

"Not true. I'm quite frequently serious. It's up to you to figure out when." He shrugged as he wandered over to the writing desk, his fingers trailing idly along the blotter until they slid off the edge and back to his side. "I find it convenient to keep people guessing."

Grace said nothing, just watched him inspect his room. She ought to go. She rather thought she wanted to go, actually; all day she'd been longing to crawl into bed and go to sleep. But she stayed. Just watching him, trying to imagine what it was like to see all of this for the first time.

She had entered Belgrave Castle as a servant. He was quite possibly its master.

It had to be strange. It had to be overwhelming. She didn't have the heart to tell him that this wasn't the fanciest or most ostentatious guest bedchamber. Not even close.

"Excellent art," he commented, tilting his head as he regarded a painting on the wall.

She nodded, her lips parting, then closing again.

"You were about to tell me it's a Rembrandt."

Her lips parted again, but this time in surprise. He hadn't even been looking at her. "Yes," she admitted.

"And this?" he asked, turning his attention to the one underneath. "Caravaggio?"

She blinked. "I don't know."

"I do," he said, in a tone that was somehow both impressed and grim. "It's a Caravaggio."

"You are a connoisseur?" she asked, and she noticed that her toes had somehow crossed the threshold of the room. Her heels were still safe and proper, resting on the corridor floor, but her toes…

They itched in her slippers.

They longed for adventure.

She longed for adventure.

Mr. Audley moved to another painting – the east wall was full of them – and murmured, "I would not say that I am a connoisseur, but yes, I do like art. It's easy to read."

"To read?" Grace stepped forward. What an odd statement.

He nodded. "Yes. Look here." He pointed to a woman in what looked like a post-Renaissance work. She was seated upon a lavish chair, cushioned in dark velvet, edged with thick, twisting gold. Perhaps a throne? "Look at the way the eyes look down," he said. "She is watching this other woman. But she is not looking at her face. She's jealous."

"No, she's not." Grace moved to his side. "She's angry."

"Yes, of course. But she's angry because she's jealous."

"Of her?" Grace responded, pointing to the "other" woman in the corner. Her hair was the color of wheat, and she was clad in a filmy Grecian robe. It ought to have been scandalous; one of her breasts seemed poised to pop out at any moment. "I don't think so. Look at her." She motioned to the first woman, the one on the throne. "She has everything."

"Everything material, yes. But this woman" – he motioned to the one in the Grecian robe – "has her husband."

"How can you even know she is married?" Grace squinted and leaned in, inspecting her fingers for a ring, but the brushwork was not fine enough to make out such a small detail.

"Of course she is married. Look at her expression."

"I see nothing to indicate wifeliness."

He lifted a brow. "Wifeliness?"

"I'm quite certain it's a word. More so than truthiness, in any case." She frowned. "And if she is married, then where is the husband?"

"Right there," he said, touching the intricate gilt frame, just beyond the woman in the Grecian robe.

"How can you possibly know that? It's beyond the edge of the canvas."

"You need only to look at her face. Her eyes. She is gazing at the man who loves her."

Grace found that intriguing. "Not at the man she loves?"

"I can't tell," he said, his head tilting slightly.

They stood in silence for a moment, then he said, "There is an entire novel in this painting. One need only take the time to read it."

He was right, Grace realized, and it was unsettling, because he wasn't supposed to be so perceptive. Not him. Not the glib, jaunty highwayman who couldn't be bothered to find a proper profession.

"You're in my room," he said.

She stepped back. Abruptly.

"Steady now." His arm shot out and his hand found her elbow.

She couldn't scold him, not really, because she would have fallen. "Thank you," she said softly.

He didn't let go.

She'd regained her balance. She was standing straight.

But he didn't let go.

And she did not pull away.