The Lost Duke of Wyndham (Chapter Three)

F ive miles away, in a small posting inn, a man sat in his room, alone, with a bottle of expensive French brandy, an empty glass, a very small case of clothing, and a woman's ring.

His name was Jack Audley; formerly Captain John Audley of His Majesty's army; formerly Jack Audley of Butlersbridge, County Cavan, Ireland; formerly Jack Cavendish-Audley of the same place; and formerly – as formerly as one could get, as it was at the time of his christening – John Augustus Cavendish.

The miniature had meant nothing to him. He could barely see it in the night, and he'd yet to find a portraitist who could capture a man's essence on a miniature painting, anyway.

But the ring…

With an unsteady hand, he poured himself another drink.

He hadn't looked closely at the ring when he took it from the old lady's hands. But now, in the privacy of his rented room, he'd looked. And what he'd seen had shaken him to his bones.

He'd seen that ring before. On his own finger.

His was a masculine version, but the design was identical. A twisted flower, a tiny swirled D. He'd never known what it meant, as he'd been told that his father's name was John Augustus Cavendish, no capital D's to be found anywhere.

He still didn't know what the D stood for, but he knew that the old lady did. And no matter how many times he tried to convince himself that this was just a coincidence, he knew that this evening, on a deserted Lincolnshire road, he'd met his grandmother.

Good Lord.

He looked down at the ring again. He'd propped it up on the table, its face winking up at him in the candlelight. Abruptly, he twisted his own ring and yanked it off. He couldn't remember the last time his finger had been bare. His aunt had always insisted that he keep it close; it was the only keepsake they had of his father.

His mother, they told him, had been clutching it in her shivering fingers when she was pulled from the frigid waters of the Irish Sea.

Slowly, Jack held the ring out, carefully setting it down next to its sister. His lips flattened slightly as he regarded the pair. What had he been thinking? That when he got the two side by side he'd see that they were actually quite different?

He'd known little of his father. His name, of course, and that he was the younger son of a well-to-do English family. His aunt had met him but twice; her impression had been that he was somewhat estranged from his relations. He spoke of them only laughingly, in that manner people used when they did not wish to say anything of substance.

He hadn't much money, or so his aunt assumed. His clothes were fine, but well-worn, and as far as anyone could tell, he'd been wandering the Irish countryside for months. He'd said he had come to witness the wedding of a school friend and liked it so much that he stayed. His aunt saw no reason to doubt this.

In the end, all Jack knew was this: John Augustus Cavendish was a well-born English gentleman who'd traveled to Ireland, fallen in love with Louise Galbraith, married her, and then died when the ship carrying them to England had sunk off the coast of Ireland. Louise had washed ashore, her body bruised and shivering, but alive. It was over a month before anyone realized she was pregnant.

But she was weak, and she was devastated by grief, and her sister – the woman who had raised Jack as her own – said it was more of a surprise that Louise survived the pregnancy than it was that she finally succumbed at his birth.

And that fairly well summed up Jack's knowledge of his paternal heritage. He thought about his parents from time to time, wondering who they'd been and which had gifted him with his ready smile, but in truth, he'd never yearned for anything more. At the age of two days he'd been given to William and Mary Audley, and if they had ever loved their own children more, they never allowed him to know it.

Jack had grown up the de facto son of a country squire, with two brothers, a sister, and twenty acres of rolling pasture, perfect for riding, running, jumping – anything a young boy could fancy.

It had been a marvelous childhood. Damn near perfect. If he was not leading the life he'd anticipated, if he sometimes lay in bed and wondered what the hell he was doing robbing coaches in the dead of night – at least he knew that the road to this point had been paved with his own choices, his own flaws.

And most of the time, he was happy. He was reasonably cheerful by nature, and really, one could do worse than playing Robin Hood along rural British roads. At least he felt as if he had some sort of purpose. After he and the army had parted ways, he'd not known what to do with himself. He was not willing to return to his life as a soldier, and yet, what else was he qualified to do? He had two skills in life, it seemed: He could sit a horse as if he'd been born in the position, and he could turn a conversation with enough wit and flair to charm even the crustiest of individuals. Put together, robbing coaches had seemed the most logical choice.

Jack had made his first theft in Liverpool, when he'd seen a young toff kick a one-handed former soldier who'd had the temerity to beg for a penny. Somewhat buoyed by a rather potent pint of ale, Jack had followed the fellow into a dark corner, pointed a gun a his heart, and walked off with his wallet.

The contents of which he had then dispersed among the beggars on Queens Way, most of whom had fought for – and then been forgotten by – the good people of England.

Well, ninety per cent of the contents had been dispersed. Jack had to eat, too.

After that, it had been an easy step to move to highway robbery. It was so much more elegant than the life of footpad. And it could not be denied that it was much easier to get away on horseback.

And so that was his life. It was what he did. If he'd gone back to Ireland, he would probably be married by now, sleeping with one woman, in one bed, in one house. His life would be County Cavan, and his world a far, far smaller place than it was today.

His was a roaming soul. That was why he did not go back to Ireland.

He splashed a bit more brandy into his glass. There were a hundred reasons why he did not go back to Ireland. Fifty, at least.

He took a sip, then another, then drank deeply until he was too sotted to continue his dishonesty.

There was one reason he did not go back to Ireland. One reason, and four people he did not think he could face.

Rising from his seat, he walked to the window and looked out. There wasn't much to see – a small barn for horses, a thickly leaved tree across the road. The moonlight had turned the air translucent – shimmery and thick, as if a man could step outside and lose himself.

He smiled grimly. It was tempting. It was always tempting.

He knew where Belgrave Castle was. He'd been in the county for a week; one could not remain in Lincolnshire that long without learning the locations of the grand houses, even if one wasn't a thief out to rob their inhabitants. He could take a look, he supposed. He probably should take a look. He owed it to someone. Hell, maybe he owed it to himself.

He hadn't been interested in his father much…but he'd always been interested a little. And he was here.

Who knew when he'd be in Lincolnshire again? He was far too fond of his head to ever stay in one place for long.

He didn't want to talk to the old lady. He didn't want to introduce himself and make explanations or pretend that he was anything other than what he was –

A veteran of the war.

A highwayman.

A rogue.

An idiot.

An occasionally sentimental fool who knew that the softhearted ladies who'd tended the wounded had it all wrong – sometimes you couldn't go home again.

But dear Lord, what he wouldn't give just to take a peek.

He closed his eyes. His family would welcome him back. That was the worst of it. His aunt would put her arms around him. She would tell him it wasn't his fault. She would be so understanding.

But she would not understand. That was his final thought before he fell asleep.

And dreamed of Ireland.

The following day dawned bright and mockingly clear. Had it rained, Jack wouldn't have bothered to go.

He was on horseback, and he'd spent enough of his life pretending he didn't mind that he was soaked to the skin. He did not ride in the rain if he did not have to. He'd earned that much, at least.

But he was not meant to meet up with his cohorts until nightfall, so he did not have an excuse for not going. Besides, he was just going to look. Maybe see if there was some way he could leave the ring for the old lady. He suspected it meant a great deal to her, and even though he could have probably got a hefty sum for it, he knew he would not be able to bring himself to sell it.

And so he ate a hearty breakfast – accompanied by a noxious beverage the innkeeper swore would clear his head, not that Jack had said anything other than, "Eggs," before the fellow said, "I'll get what you need." Amazingly, the concoction worked (hence the ability to digest the hearty breakfast), and Jack mounted his horse and took off toward Belgrave Castle at an unhurried pace.

He'd ridden about the area frequently over the last few days, but this was the first time he found himself curious at his surroundings. The trees seemed more interesting to him for some reason – the shape of the leaves, the way they showed their backs when the wind blew. The blossoms, too. Some were familiar to him, identical to the ones that bloomed in Ireland. But others were new, perhaps native to the dales and fens of the region.

It was odd. He wasn't sure what he was meant to be thinking about. Perhaps that this vista was what his father had seen every time he'd ridden along the same road. Or maybe that, but for a freak storm in the Irish Sea, these might be the flowers and trees of his own childhood. Jack did not know whether his parents would have made their home in England or Ireland. They were apparently going over to introduce his mother to the Cavendish family when their ship had gone down. Aunt Mary had said that they were planning to decide where to live after Louise had a chance to see a bit of England.

Jack paused and plucked a leaf off a tree, for no reason other than whimsy. It wasn't as green as the ones at home, he decided. Not that it mattered, of course, except that in a strange way, it did.

He tossed the leaf to the ground and with a snort of impatience, took off at a greater speed. It was ludicrous that he felt even a niggle of guilt at going over to see the castle. Good God, it wasn't as if he was going to introduce himself. He did not want to find a new family. He owed the Audleys far more than that.

He just wanted to see it. From afar. To see what might have been, what he was glad hadn't been.

But maybe should have been.

Jack took off at a gallop, letting the wind blow the memories away. The speed was cleansing, almost forgiving, and before he knew it he was at the end of the drive. And all he could think was –

Good Lord.

Grace was exhausted.

She'd slept the night before, but not much, and not well. And even though the dowager had chosen to spend the morning in bed, Grace had not been afforded that luxury.

The dowager was powerfully demanding, whether vertical, horizontal, or, should she ever figure out how to hold the position, at a slant.

And so even though she tossed and turned, and refused to lift her head from the pillow, she still managed to summon Grace six times.

The first hour.

Finally, she had become engrossed in a batch of letters Grace had dug up for her at the bottom of her late husband's old desk, tucked in a box labeled:

JOHN, ETON.

Saved by school papers. Who would have thought?

Grace's moment of rest was interrupted not twenty minutes later, however, by the arrival of the Ladies Elizabeth and Amelia Willoughby, the pretty, blond daughters of the Earl of Crowland, longtime neighbors and, Grace was always delighted to note, friends.

Elizabeth especially. They were of an age, and before Grace's position in the world had plummeted with the death of her parents, had been considered proper companions. Oh, everyone knew that Grace would not make a match like the Willoughby girls – she would never have a London season, after all. But when they were all in Lincolnshire, they were, if not equals, then at least on something of the same level.

People weren't so fussy at the Dance and Assembly.

And when the girls were alone, rank was never something they noticed.

Amelia was Elizabeth's younger sister. Just by a year, but when they were all younger, it had seemed a massive gulf, so Grace did not know her nearly so well. That would change soon, though, she supposed.

Amelia was betrothed to Thomas, and had been from the cradle. It would have been Elizabeth, except she was promised to another young lord (also in infancy; Lord Crowland was not one to leave matters to chance). Elizabeth's fellow, however, had died quite young. Lady Crowland (who was not one for tact) had declared it all very inconvenient, but the papers binding Amelia to Thomas had already been signed, and it was deemed best to leave matters as they were.

Grace had never discussed the engagement with Thomas – they were friends, but he would never talk about something so personal with her. Still, she had long suspected that he found the entire situation rather convenient. A fiancee did keep marriage-minded misses (and their mamas) at bay. Somewhat. It was quite obvious that the ladies of England believed in hedging their bets, and poor Thomas could not go anywhere without the women attempting to put themselves in the best possible light, just in case Amelia should, oh, disappear.

Die.

Decide she didn't wish to be a duchess.

Really, Grace thought wryly, as if Amelia had any choice in the matter.

But even though a wife would be a far more effective deterrent than a fiancee, Thomas continued to drag his feet, which Grace thought dreadfully insensitive of him. Amelia was one-and-twenty, for heaven's sake. And according to Lady Crowland, at least four men would have offered for her in London if she had not been marked as the future Duchess of Wyndham.

(Elizabeth, sister that she was, said it was closer to three, but still, the poor girl had been dangling like a string for years.)

"Books!" Elizabeth announced as they entered the hall. "As promised."

At her behest, Elizabeth's mother had borrowed several books from the dowager. Not that Lady Crowland actually read the books. Lady Crowland read very little outside the gossip pages, but returning them was a fine pretext to visit Belgrave, and she was always in favor of anything that placed Amelia in the vicinity of Thomas.

No one had the heart to tell her that Amelia rarely even saw Thomas when she was at Belgrave. Most of the time, she was forced to endure the dowager's company –  company, however, being perhaps too generous a word to describe Augusta Cavendish whilst standing before the young lady who was meant to carry on the Wyndham line.

The dowager was very good at finding fault. One might even call it her greatest talent.

And Amelia was her favorite subject.

But today she had been spared. The dowager was still upstairs, reading her dead son's Latin conjugations, and so Amelia had ended up sipping tea while Grace and Elizabeth chatted.

Or rather, Elizabeth chatted. It was all Grace could do to nod and murmur in the appropriate moments.

One would think her tired mind would go utterly blank, but the opposite was true. She could not stop thinking about the highwayman. And his kiss. And his identity. And his kiss. And if she would meet him again. And that he'd kissed her. And –

And she had to stop thinking about him. It was madness. She looked over at the tea tray, wondering if it would be rude to eat the last biscuit.

" – certain you are well, Grace?" Elizabeth said, reaching forward to clasp her hand. "You look very tired."

Grace blinked, trying to focus on her dear friend's face. "I'm sorry," she said reflexively. "I am quite tired, although that is not an excuse for my inattention."

Elizabeth grimaced. She knew the dowager. They all did. "Did she keep you up late last night?"

Grace nodded. "Yes, although, truthfully, it was not her fault."

Elizabeth glanced to the doorway to make sure no one was listening before she replied, "It is always her fault."

Grace smiled wryly. "No, this time it really wasn't. We were…" Well, really, was there any reason not to tell Elizabeth? Thomas already knew, and surely it would be all over the district by nightfall. "We were accosted by highwaymen, actually."

"Oh, my heavens! Grace!" Elizabeth hastily set down her teacup. "No wonder you appear so distracted!"

"Hmmm?" Amelia had been staring off into space, as she frequently did while Grace and Elizabeth were nattering on, but this had clearly got her attention.

"I am quite recovered," Grace assured her. "Just a bit tired, I'm afraid. I did not sleep well."

"What happened?" Amelia asked.

Elizabeth actually shoved her. "Grace and the dowager were accosted by highwaymen!"

"Really?"

Grace nodded. "Last night. On the way home from the assembly." And then she thought –  Good Lord, if the highwayman is really the dowager's grandson, and he is legitimate, what happens to Amelia?

But he wasn't legitimate. He couldn't be. He might very well be a Cavendish by blood, but surely not by birth. Sons of dukes did not leave legitimate offspring littering the countryside. It simply did not happen.

"Did they take anything?" Amelia asked.

"How can you be so dispassionate?" Elizabeth demanded. "They pointed a gun at her!" She turned to Grace. "Did they?"

Grace saw it again in her mind – the cold round end of the pistol, the slow, seductive gaze of the highwayman. He wouldn't have shot her. She knew that now. But still, she murmured, "They did, actually."

"Were you terrified?" Elizabeth asked breathlessly. "I would have been. I would have swooned."

"I wouldn't have swooned," Amelia remarked.

"Well, of course you wouldn't," Elizabeth said irritably. "You didn't even gasp when Grace told you about it."

"It sounds rather exciting, actually." Amelia looked at Grace with great interest. "Was it?"

And Grace – Good heavens, she felt herself blush.

Amelia leaned forward, her eyes lighting up. "Was he handsome, then?"

Elizabeth looked at her sister as if she were mad. "Who?"

"The highwayman, of course."

Grace stammered something and pretended to drink her tea.

"He was," Amelia said triumphantly.

"He was wearing a mask," Grace felt compelled to point out.

"But you could still tell that he was handsome."

"No!"

"Then his accent was terribly romantic. French? Italian?" Amelia's eyes grew even wider. "Spanish."

"You've gone mad," Elizabeth said.

"He didn't have an accent," Grace retorted. Then she thought of that lilt, that devilish little lift in his voice that she couldn't quite place. "Well, not much of one. Scottish, perhaps? Irish? I couldn't tell, precisely."

Amelia sat back with a happy sigh. "A highwayman. How romantic."

"Amelia Willoughby!" Elizabeth scolded. "Grace was just attacked at gunpoint, and you are calling it romantic?"

Amelia opened her mouth to reply, but just then they heard footsteps in the hall.

"The dowager?" Elizabeth whispered to Grace, looking very much as if she'd like to be wrong.

"I don't think so," Grace replied. "She was still abed when I came down. She was rather…ehrm…distraught."

"I should think so," Elizabeth remarked. Then she gasped. "Did they make away with her emeralds?"

Grace shook her head. "We hid them. Under the seat cushions."

"Oh, how clever!" Elizabeth said approvingly. "Amelia, wouldn't you agree?" Without waiting for an answer, she turned back to Grace. "It was your idea, wasn't it?"

Grace opened her mouth to retort that she would have happily handed them over, but just then Thomas walked past the open doorway to the sitting room.

Conversation stopped. Elizabeth looked at Grace, and Grace looked at Amelia, and Amelia just kept looking at the now empty doorway. After a moment of held breath, Elizabeth turned to Amelia and said,

"I think he does not realize we are here."

"I don't care," Amelia declared, and Grace believed her.

"I wonder where he went," Grace murmured, although she did not think anyone heard her. They were all still watching the doorway, waiting to see if he'd return.

There was a grunt, and then a crash. Grace stood, wondering if she ought to go investigate.

"Bloody hell," she heard Thomas snap.

Grace winced, glancing over at the others. They had risen to their feet as well.

"Careful with that," she heard Thomas say.

And then, as the three ladies watched in silence, the painting of John Cavendish moved past the open doorway, two footmen struggling to keep it upright and balanced.

"Who was that?" Amelia asked once the portrait had gone by.

"The dowager's middle son," Grace murmured. "He died twenty-nine years ago."

"Why are they moving the portrait?"

"The dowager wants it upstairs," Grace replied, thinking that ought to be answer enough. Who knew why the dowager did anything?

Amelia was apparently satisfied with this explanation, because she did not question her further. Or it could have been that Thomas chose that moment to reappear in the doorway.

"Ladies," he said.

They all three bobbed curtsies.

He nodded in that way of his, when he was clearly being nothing but polite. "Pardon." And then he left.

"Well," Elizabeth said, and Grace wasn't certain whether she was trying to express outrage at his rudeness or simply fill the silence. If it was the latter, it didn't work, because no one said anything more until Elizabeth finally added, "Perhaps we should leave."

"No, you can't," Grace replied, feeling dreadful for having to be the bearer of such bad news. "Not yet.

The dowager wants to see Amelia."

Amelia groaned.

"I'm sorry," Grace said. And meant it.

Amelia sat down, looked at the tea tray and announced, "I'm eating the last biscuit."

Grace nodded. Amelia would need sustenance for the ordeal ahead. "Perhaps I should order more?"

But then Thomas returned again. "We nearly lost it on the stairs," he said to Grace, shaking his head.

"The whole thing swung to the right and nearly impaled itself on the railing."

"Oh, my."

"It would have been a stake through the heart," he said with grim humor. "It would have been worth it just to see her face."

Grace prepared to rise and make her way upstairs. If the dowager was awake, that meant her visit with the Willoughby sisters was over. "Your grandmother rose from bed, then?"

"Only to oversee the transfer. You're safe for now." He shook his head, rolling his eyes as he did so. "I cannot believe she had the temerity to demand that you fetch it for her last night. Or," he added quite pointedly, "that you actually thought you could do it."

Grace thought she ought to explain. "The dowager requested that I bring her the painting last night," she told Elizabeth and Amelia.

"But it was huge!" Elizabeth exclaimed.

"My grandmother always favored her middle son," Thomas said, with a twist of his lips that Grace would not have called a smile. He glanced across the room, and then, as if suddenly realizing his future bride was present, said, "Lady Amelia."

"Your grace," she responded.

But he couldn't possibly have heard her. He was already back to Grace, saying, "You will of course support me if I lock her up?"

"Thom – " Grace began, cutting herself off at the last moment. She supposed that Elizabeth and Amelia knew that he had given her leave to use his given name while at Belgrave, but still, it seemed disrespectful to do so when others were present.

"Your grace," she said, enunciating each word with careful resolve. "You must grant her extra patience this day. She is distraught."

Grace sent up a prayer for forgiveness as she let everyone think the dowager had been upset by nothing more than an ordinary robbery. She wasn't precisely lying to Thomas, but she suspected that in this case the sin of omission could prove equally dangerous.

She made herself smile. It felt forced.

"Amelia? Are you unwell?"

Grace turned. Elizabeth was watching her sister with concern.

"I'm perfectly fine," Amelia snapped, which was enough, of course, to show that she was not.

The pair bickered for a moment, their voices low enough so Grace could not make out their exact words, and then Amelia rose, saying something about needing some air.

Thomas stood, of course, and Grace rose to her feet as well. Amelia passed by and even reached the doorway before Grace realized that Thomas did not intend to follow.

Good heavens, for a duke, his manners were abominable. Grace elbowed him in the ribs. Someone had to, she told herself. No one ever stood up to the man.

Thomas shot her a dirty look, but he obviously realized that she was in the right, because he turned to Amelia, nodded his head the barest of inches, and said, "Allow me to escort you."

They departed, and Grace and Elizabeth sat silently for at least a minute before Elizabeth said resignedly,

"They are not a good match, are they?"

Grace glanced at the door, even though they had long since departed. She shook her head.

It was huge. It was a castle, of course, and meant to be imposing, but really.

Jack stood, open-mouthed.

This was huge.

Funny how no one had mentioned that his father was from a ducal family. Had anyone even known? He had always assumed his father had been the son of some jolly old country squire, maybe a baronet or possibly a baron. He had always been told that he was sired by John Cavendish, not Lord John Cavendish, as he must have been styled.

And as for the old lady…Jack had realized that morning that she had never given her name, but surely she was the duchess. She was far too imperious to be a maiden aunt or widowed relation.

Good Lord. He was the grandson of a duke. How was that possible?

Jack stared at the structure before him. He was not a complete provincial. He'd traveled widely whilst in the army and had gone to school with the sons of Ireland's most notable families. The aristocracy was not unknown to him. He did not consider himself uncomfortable in their midst.

But this…

This was huge.

How many rooms in the place? There had to be over a hundred. And what was the provenance? It didn't look quite medieval, despite the crenellations at the top, but it was certainly pre-Tudor. Something important must have happened there. Houses did not get this big without stumbling into the occasional historic event. A treaty, maybe? Perhaps a royal visit? It sounded like the sort of thing that would have been mentioned in school, which was probably why he didn't know it.

A scholar he was not.

The view of the castle as he'd approached had been deceptive. The area was heavy with trees, and the turrets and towers seemed to twinkle in and out of sight as he moved through the foliage. It was only when he reached the end of the drive that it had come completely into view – massive and amazing. The stone was gray in color, with a hint of a yellow undertone, and although its angles were mostly squared off, there was nothing boring about the facade. It dipped and rose, jutted out and swept back in. No long Georgian wall of windows was this.

Jack couldn't even imagine how long it would take a newcomer to find his way around inside. Or how long it would take to find the poor fellow once he got himself lost.

And so he stood and stared, trying to take it in. What would it have been like to grow up there? His father had done so, and by all accounts he'd been a nice enough fellow. Well, by one account, he supposed – his Aunt Mary was the only person he knew who'd known his father well enough to pass along a story or two.

Still, it was difficult to imagine a family living there. His own home in Ireland had not been small by any standards, but still, with four children it often felt as if they were constantly crashing into one another.

You couldn't go ten minutes or even ten steps without being swept into a conversation with a cousin or a brother or an aunt or even a dog. (He'd been a good dog, God rest his furry little soul. Better than most people.)

They had known each other, the Audleys. It was, Jack had long since decided, a very good – and very uncommon – thing.

After a few minutes there was a small flurry of movement at the front door, then three women emerged.

Two were blond. It was too far away to see their faces, but he could tell by the way they moved that they were young, and probably quite pretty.

Pretty girls, he'd long since learned, moved differently than the plain ones. It did not matter if they were aware of their beauty or not. What they weren't was aware of their plainness. Which the plain ones always were.

Jack quirked a half smile. He supposed he was a bit of a scholar of women. Which, he'd often tried to convince himself, was as noble a subject as any.

But it was the third girl – the last to emerge from the castle – who captured his breath and held him motionless, unable to look away.

It was the girl from the carriage the night before. He was sure of it. The hair was the right color – shiny and dark, but it wasn't such a unique shade that it couldn't be found elsewhere. He knew it was her because…because…

Because he did.

He remembered her. He remembered the way she moved, the way she felt pressed up against him. He remembered the soft breath of the air between their bodies when she'd moved away.

He'd liked her. He didn't often get the chance to like or dislike the people he waylaid, but he'd been thinking to himself that there was something rather appealing about the flash of intelligence in her eyes when the old lady had shoved her at him, giving him permission to hold a gun to her head.

He'd not approved of that. But he'd appreciated it all the same, because touching her, holding her – it had been an unexpected pleasure. And when the old lady returned with the miniature, his only thought had been that it was a pity he didn't have time to kiss her properly.

Jack held himself quietly as he watched her move in the drive, glancing over her shoulder, then leaning forward to say something to the other girls. One of the blondes linked arms with her and led her off to the side. They were friends, he realized with surprise, and he wondered if the girl – his girl, as he was now thinking of her – was something more than a companion. A poor relation, maybe? She was certainly not a daughter of the house, but it seemed she was not quite a servant.

She adjusted the straps of her bonnet, and then she (What was her name? He wanted to know her name) pointed to something in the distance. Jack found himself glancing the same way, but there were too many trees framing the drive for him to see whatever had captured her interest.

And then she turned.

Faced him.

Saw him.

She did not cry out, nor did she flinch, but he knew that she saw him in the way she…

In the way she simply was, he supposed, because he could not see her face from such a distance. But he knew.

His skin began to prickle with awareness, and it occurred to him that she'd recognized him, too. It was preposterous, because he was all the way down the drive, and not wearing his highwayman's garb, but he knew that she knew she was staring at the man who had kissed her.

The moment – it could only have lasted seconds – stretched into eternity. And then somewhere behind him a bird cawed, snapping him from his trance, and one thought pounded through his head.

Time to go.

He never stayed in one spot for long, but here – this place – it was surely the most dangerous of all.

He gave it one last look. Not of longing; he did not long for this. And as for the girl from the carriage – he fought down something strange and acrid, burning in his throat – he would not long for her, either.

Some things were simply untenable.

"Who was that man?"

Grace heard Elizabeth speak, but she pretended not to. They were sitting in the Willoughbys'

comfortable carriage, but their happy threesome now numbered four.

The dowager had, upon rising from her bed, taken one look at Amelia's sun-kissed cheeks (Grace did think that she and Thomas had taken quite a long walk together, all things considered), and gone into a barely intelligible tirade about the proper decorum of a future duchess. It was not every day one heard a speech containing dynasty, procreation, and sunspots – all in one sentence.

But the dowager had managed it, and now they were all miserable, Amelia most of all. The dowager had got it into her head that she needed to speak with Lady Crowland – most probably about the supposed blemishes on Amelia's skin – and so she invited herself along for the ride, giving instructions to the Wyndham stables to ready a carriage and send it after them for the return journey.

Grace had come along, too. Because, quite frankly, she didn't have any choice.

"Grace?" It was Elizabeth again.

Grace sucked in her lips and positively glued her eyes to a spot on the seat cushion just to the left of the dowager's head.

"Who was it?" Elizabeth persisted.

"No one," Grace said quickly. "Are we ready to depart?" She looked out the window, pretending to wonder why they were delayed on the drive. Any moment now they would leave for Burges Park, where the Willoughbys lived. She had been dreading the journey, short though it was.

And then she'd seen him.

The highwayman. Whose name wasn't Cavendish.

But once was.

He had left before the dowager emerged from the castle, turning his mount in a display of horsemanship so expert that even she, who was no equestrienne, recognized his skill.

But he had seen her. And he had recognized her. She was certain of it.

She'd felt it.

Grace tapped her fingers impatiently against the side of her thigh. She thought of Thomas, and of the enormous portrait that had passed by the doorway of the sitting room. She thought of Amelia, who had been raised since birth to be the bride of a duke. And she thought of herself. Her world might not be quite what she wanted, but it was hers, and it was safe.

One man had the power to send it all crashing down.

Which was why, even though she would have traded a corner of her soul for just one more kiss from a man whose name she did not know, when Elizabeth remarked that it looked as if she knew him, she said, sharply, "I do not."

The dowager looked up, her face pinched with irritation. "What are you talking about?"

"There was a man at the end of the drive," Elizabeth said, before Grace could deny anything.

The dowager's head snapped back in Grace's direction. "Who was it?" she demanded.

"I don't know. I could not see his face." Which wasn't a lie. Not the second part, at least.

"Who was it?" the dowager thundered, her voice rising over the sound of the wheels beginning their rumble down the drive.

"I don't know," Grace repeated, but even she could hear the cracks in her voice.

"Did you see him?" the dowager asked Amelia.

Grace's eyes caught Amelia's. Something passed between them.

"I saw no one, ma'am," said Amelia.

The dowager dismissed her with a snort, turning the full weight of her fury on Grace. "Was it he?"

Grace shook her head. "I don't know," she stammered. "I couldn't say."

"Stop the carriage," the dowager yelled, lurching forward and shoving Grace aside so she could bang on the wall separating the cabin and the driver. "Stop, I tell you!"

The carriage came to a sudden stop, and Amelia, who had been sitting face front beside the dowager, tumbled forward, landing at Grace's feet. She tried to get up but was blocked by the dowager, who had reached across the carriage to grab Grace's chin, her long, ancient fingers digging cruelly into her skin.

"I will give you one more chance, Miss Eversleigh," she hissed. "Was it he?"

Forgive me, Grace thought.

She nodded.