The Lost Duke of Wyndham (Chapter Fifteen)

In his wanderings at Belgrave, Jack had, during a rainstorm that had trapped him indoors, managed to locate a collection of books devoted to art. It had not been easy; the castle boasted two separate libraries, and each must have held five hundred volumes at least. But art books, he noticed, tended to be oversized, so he was able to make his task a bit easier by searching out the sections with the tallest spines. He pulled out these books, perused them and, after some trial and error, found what he was looking for.

He didn't particularly wish to remain in the library, however; he'd always found it oppressive to be surrounded by so many books. So he'd gathered up those that looked the most interesting and took them to his new favorite room – the cream and gold drawing room at the back of the castle.

Grace's room. He would never be able to think of it as anything else.

It was to this room that he retreated after his embarrassing encounter with Grace in the great hall. He did not like to lose his temper; to be more precise, he loathed it.

He sat there for hours, tucked into place at a reading table, occasionally rising to stretch his legs. He was on his final volume – a study of the French rococo style – when a footman walked by the open doorway, stopped, then backed up.

Jack looked back at him, arching a brow in question, but the young man said nothing, just scurried off in the direction from which he'd come.

Two minutes later Jack was rewarded for his patience by the sound of feminine footsteps in the hall.

Grace's footsteps.

He pretended to be engrossed in his book.

"Oh, you're reading," she said, sounding surprised.

He carefully turned a page. "I do so on occasion."

He could practically hear her roll her eyes as she walked in. "I've been looking everywhere for you."

He looked up and affixed a smile. "And yet here I am."

She stood hesitantly in the doorway, her hands clasped tightly before her. She was nervous, he realized.

He hated himself for that.

He tilted his head in invitation, motioning to the chair beside him.

"What are you reading?" she asked, coming into the room.

He turned his book toward the empty seat at the table. "Have a look."

She did not sit immediately. Rather, she rested her hands at the edge of the table and leaned forward, peering down at the open pages. "Art," she said.

"My second favorite subject."

She gave him a shrewd look. "You wish for me to ask you what your favorite is."

"Am I so obvious?"

"You are only obvious when you wish to be."

He held up his hands in mock dismay. "And alas, it still doesn't work. You have not asked me what my favorite subject is."

"Because," she returned, sitting down, "I am quite certain the answer will contain something highly inappropriate."

He placed one hand on his chest, the dramatic gesture somehow restoring his equilibrium. It was easier to play the jester. No one expected as much from fools. "I am wounded," he proclaimed. "I promise you, I was not going to say that my favorite subject was seduction, or the art of a kiss, or the proper way to remove a lady's glove, or for that matter the proper way to remove – "

"Stop!"

"I was going to say," he said, trying to sound beleaguered and henpecked, "that my favorite subject of late is you."

Their eyes met, but only for a moment. Something unnerved her, and she quickly shifted her gaze to her lap. He watched her, mesmerized by the play of emotions on her face, by the way her hands, which were clasped together atop the table, tensed and moved.

"I don't like this painting," she said quite suddenly.

He had to look back at the book to see which image she referred to. It was a man and a woman out of doors, sitting on the grass. The woman's back was to the canvas, and she seemed to be pushing the man away. Jack was not familiar with it, but he thought he recognized the style. "The Boucher?"

"Ye –  no," she said, blinking in confusion as she leaned forward. She looked down. "Jean-Antoine Watteau," she read. "The Faux Pas."

He looked down more closely. "Sorry," he said, his voice light. "I'd only just turned the page. I think it does look rather like a Boucher, though. Don't you?"

She gave a tiny shrug. "I'm not familiar enough with either artist to say. I did not study painting – or painters – very much as a child. My parents weren't overly interested in art."

"How is that possible?"

She smiled at that, the sort of smile that was almost a laugh. "It wasn't so much that they weren't interested, just that they were interested in other things more. I think that above all they would have loved to travel. Both of them adored maps and atlases of all sorts."

Jack felt his eyes roll up at that. "I hate maps."

"Really?" She sounded stunned, and maybe just a little bit delighted by his admission. "Why?"

He told her the truth. "I haven't the talent for reading them."

"And you, a highwayman."

"What has that to do with it?"

"Don't you need to know where you're going?"

"Not nearly so much as I need to know where I've been." She looked perplexed at that, so he added,

"There are certain areas of the country – possibly all of Kent, to be honest – it is best that I avoid."

"This is one of those moments," she said, blinking several times in rapid succession, "when I am not quite certain if you are being serious."

"Oh, very much so," he told her, almost cheerfully. "Except perhaps for the bit about Kent."

She looked at him in incomprehension.

"I might have been understating."

"Understating," she echoed.

"There's a reason I avoid the South."

"Good heavens."

It was such a ladylike utterance. He almost laughed.

"I don't think I have ever known a man who would admit to being a poor reader of maps," she said once she regained her composure.

He let his gaze grow warm, then hot. "I told you I was special."

"Oh, stop." She wasn't looking at him, not directly, at least, and so she did not see his change of expression. Which probably explained why her tone remained so bright and brisk as she said, "I must say, it does complicate matters. The dowager asked me to find you so that you could aid with our routing once we disembark in Dublin."

He waved a hand. "That I can do."

"Without a map?"

"We went frequently during my school days."

She looked up and smiled, almost nostalgically, as if she could see into his memories. "I'd wager you were not the head boy."

He lifted a brow. "Do you know, I think most people would consider that an insult."

Her lips curved and her eyes glowed with mischief. "Oh, but not you."

She was right, of course, not that he was going to let her know it. "And why would you think that?"

"You would never want to be head boy."

"Too much responsibility?" he murmured, wondering if that was what she thought of him.

She opened her mouth, and he realized that she'd been about to say yes. Her cheeks turned a bit pink, and she looked away for a moment before answering. "You are too much of a rebel," she answered. "You would not wish to be aligned with the administration."

"Oh, the administration," he could not help but echo with amusement.

"Don't make fun of my choice of words."

"Well," he declared, arching one brow. "I do hope you realize you are saying this to a former officer in His Majesty's army."

This she dismissed immediately. "I should have said that you enjoy styling yourself as a rebel. I rather suspect that at heart you're just as conventional as the rest of us."

He paused, and then: "I hope you realize you are saying this to a former highwayman on His Majesty's roads."

How he said this with a straight face, he'd never know, and indeed it was a relief when Grace, after a moment of shock, burst out laughing. Because really, he didn't think he could have held that arch, offended expression for one moment longer.

He rather felt like he was imitating Wyndham, sitting there like such a stick. It unsettled the stomach, really.

"You're dreadful," Grace said, wiping her eyes.

"I try my best," he said modestly.

"And this" – she wagged a finger at him, grinning all the while – "is why you will never be head boy."

"Good God, I hope not," he returned. "I'd be a bit out of place at my age."

Not to mention how desperately wrong he was for school. He still had dreams about it. Certainly not nightmares – it could not be worth the energy. But every month or so he woke up from one of those annoying visions where he was back at school (rather absurdly at his current age of eight-and-twenty). It was always of a similar nature. He looked down at his schedule and suddenly realized he'd forgotten to attend Latin class for an entire term. Or arrived for an exam without his trousers.

The only school subjects he remembered with any fondness were sport and art. Sport had always been easy. He need only watch a game for a minute before his body knew instinctively how to move, and as for art – well, he'd never excelled at any of the practical aspects, but had always loved the study of it. For all the reasons he'd talked about with Grace his first night at Belgrave.

His eyes fell on the book, still open on the table between them. "Why do you dislike this?" he asked, motioning to the painting. It was not his favorite, but he did not find anything to offend.

"She does not like him," she said. She was looking down at the book, but he was looking at her, and he was surprised to see that her brow was wrinkled. Concern? Anger? He could not tell.

"She does not want his attentions," Grace continued. "And he will not stop. Look at his expression."

Jack peered at the image a little more closely. He supposed he saw what she meant. The reproduction was not what he would consider superior, and it was difficult to know how true it was to the actual painting.

Certainly the color would be off, but the lines seemed clear. He supposed there was something insidious in the man's expression. Still…

"But couldn't one say," he asked, "that you are objecting to the content of the painting and not the painting itself?"

"What is the difference?"

He thought for a moment. It had been some time since anyone had engaged him in what might be termed intellectual discourse. "Perhaps the artist wishes to invoke this response. Perhaps his intention is to portray this very scene. It does not mean that he endorses it."

"I suppose." Her lips pressed together, the corners tightening in a manner that he'd not seen before. He did not like it. It aged her. But more than that, it seemed to call to the fore an unhappiness that was almost entrenched. When she moved her mouth like that – angry, upset, resigned – it looked like she would never be happy again.

Worse, it looked like she accepted it.

"You do not have to like it," he said softly.

Her mouth softened but her eyes remained clouded. "No," she said, "I don't." She reached forward and flipped the page, her fingers changing the subject. "I have heard of Monsieur Watteau, of course, and he may be a revered artist, but – Oh!"

Jack was already smiling. Grace had not been looking at the book as she'd turned the page. But he had.

"Oh my…"

"Now that's a Boucher," Jack said appreciatively.

"It's not…I've never…" Her eyes were wide – two huge blue moons. Her lips were parted, and her cheeks…He only just managed to resist the urge to fan her.

"Marie-Louise O'Murphy," he told her.

She looked up in horror. "You know her?"

He shouldn't have laughed, but truly, he could not help it. "Every schoolboy knows her. Of her," he corrected. "I believe she passed on recently. In her dotage, have no fear. Tragically, she was old enough to be my grandmother."

He gazed down fondly at the woman in the painting, lounging provocatively on a divan. She was naked – wonderfully, gloriously, completely so – and lying on her belly, her back slightly arched as she leaned on the arm of the sofa, peering over the edge. She was painted from the side, but even so, a portion of the cleft of her buttocks was scandalously visible, and her legs…

Jack sighed happily at the memory. Her legs were spread wide, and he was quite certain he had not been the only schoolboy to have imagined settling himself between them.

Many a young lad had lost his virginity (in dreams, but still) to Marie-Louise O'Murphy. He wondered if the lady had ever realized the service she had provided.

He looked up at Grace. She was staring at the painting. He thought – he hoped – she might be growing aroused.

"You've never seen it before?" he murmured.

She shook her head. Barely. She was transfixed.

"She was the mistress of the King of France," Jack told her. "It was said that the king saw one of Boucher's portraits of her – not this one, I think, perhaps a miniature – and he decided he had to have her."

Grace's mouth opened, as if she wanted to comment, but nothing quite came out.

"She came from the streets of Dublin," he said, "or so I'm told. It is difficult to imagine her obtaining the surname O'Murphy anywhere else." He sighed in fond recollection. "We were always so proud to claim her as one of our own."

He moved so that he might stand behind her, leaning over her shoulder. When he spoke, he knew that his words would land on her skin like a kiss. "It's quite provocative, isn't it?"

Still, Grace seemed not to know what to say. Jack did not mind. He had discovered that watching Grace looking at the painting was far more erotic than the painting itself had ever been.

"I always wanted to go see it in person," he commented. "I believe it is in Germany now. Munich, perhaps. But alas, my travels never took me that way."

"I've never seen anything like it," Grace whispered.

"It does make one feel, does it not?"

She nodded.

And he wondered – if he had always dreamed of lying between Mademoiselle O'Murphy's thighs, did Grace now wonder what it was like to be her? Did she imagine herself lying on the divan, exposed to a man's erotic gaze?

To his gaze.

He would never allow anyone else to see her thus.

Around them, the room was silent. He could hear his own breath, each one more shaky than the last.

And he could hear hers – soft, low, and coming faster with each inhalation.

He wanted her. Desperately. He wanted Grace. He wanted her spread before him like the girl in the painting. He wanted her any way he could have her. He wanted to peel the clothes from her body, and he wanted to worship every inch of her skin.

He could practically feel it, the soft weight of her thighs in his hands as he opened her to him, the musky heat as he moved closer for a kiss.

"Grace," he whispered.

She was not looking at him. Her eyes were still on the painting in the book. Her tongue darted out, moistening the very center of her lips.

She couldn't have known what that did to him.

He reached around her, touching her fingers. She did not pull away.

"Dance with me," he murmured, wrapping his hand around her wrist. He tugged at her gently, urging her to her feet.

"There is no music," she whispered. But she stood. With no resistance, not even a hint of hesitation, she stood.

And so he said the one thing that was in his heart.

"We will make it ourselves."

There were so many moments when Grace could have said no. When his hand touched hers. When he pulled her to her feet.

When he'd asked her to dance, despite the lack of music – that would have been a logical moment.

But she didn't.

She couldn't.

She should have. But she didn't want to.

And then somehow she was in his arms, and they were waltzing, in time with the soft hum of his voice. It was not an embrace that would ever be allowed in a proper ballroom; he was holding her far too close, and with each step he seemed to draw her closer, until finally the distance between them was measured not in inches but in heat.

"Grace," he said, her name a hoarse, needy moan. But she did not hear the last bit of it, that last consonant. He was kissing her by then, all sound lost in his onslaught.

And she was kissing him back. Good heavens, she did not think she had ever wanted anything so much as she did this man, in this moment. She wanted him to surround her, to engulf her. She wanted to lose herself in him, to lay her body down and offer herself up to him.

Anything, she wanted to whisper. Anything you want.

Because surely he knew what she needed.

The painting of that woman – the French king's mistress – it had done something to her. She'd been bewitched. There could be no other explanation. She wanted to lie naked on a divan. She wanted to know the sensation of damask rubbing against her belly, while cool, fresh air whispered across her back.

She wanted to know what it felt like to lie that way, with a man's eyes burning hotly over her form.

His eyes. Only his.

"Jack," she whispered, practically throwing herself against him. She needed to feel him, the pressure of him, the strength. She did not want his touch only on her lips; she wanted it everywhere, and everywhere at once.

For a moment he faltered, as if surprised by her sudden enthusiasm, but he quickly recovered, and within seconds he had kicked the door shut and had her pinned up against the wall beside it, never once breaking their kiss.

She was on her toes, pressed so tightly between Jack and the wall that her feet would have dangled in the air if she'd been just an inch higher. His mouth was hungry, and she was breathless, and when he moved down to worship her cheek, and then her throat, it was all she could do to keep her head upright. As it was, her neck was stretching, and she could feel herself arching forward, her breasts aching for closer contact.

This was not their first intimacy, but it was not the same. Before, she'd wanted him to kiss her. She'd wanted to be kissed.

But now…It was as if every pent-up dream and desire had awoken within her, turning her into some strange fiery creature. She felt aggressive. Strong. And she was so damned tired of watching life happen around her.

"Jack…Jack…" She could not seem to say anything else, not when his teeth were tugging at the bodice of her frock. His fingers were aiding in the endeavor, nimbly unfastening the buttons at her back.

But somehow that wasn't fair. She wanted to be a part of it, too. "Me," she managed to get out, and she moved her hands, which had been reveling in the crisp silkiness of his hair, to his shirtfront. She slid down the wall, pulling him along with her, until they were both on the floor. Without missing a beat, she made frenetic work of his buttons, yanking his shirt aside once she was through.

For a moment she could do nothing but gaze. Her breath was sucked inside of her, burning to get out, but she could not seem to exhale. She touched him, laying her palm against his chest, a whoosh of air finally escaping her lips when she felt his heart leaping beneath his skin. She stroked upward, and then down, marveling at the contact, until one of his hands roughly covered hers.

"Grace," he said. He swallowed, and she could feel that his fingers were trembling.

She looked up, waiting for him to continue. He could seduce with nothing but a glance, she thought. A touch and she would melt. Did he have any idea the magic he held over her? The power?

"Grace," he said again, his breath labored. "I won't be able to stop soon."

"I don't care."

"You do." His voice was ragged, and it made her want him even more.

"I want you," she pleaded. "I want this."

He looked as if he were in pain. She knew she was.

He squeezed her hand, and they both paused. Grace looked up, and their eyes met.

And held.

And in that moment, she loved him. She didn't know what it was he'd done to her, but she was changed.

And she loved him for it.

"I won't take this from you," he said in a rough whisper. "Not like this."

Then how? she wanted to ask, but sense was trickling back into her body, and she knew he was right. She had precious little of value in this world – her mother's tiny pearl earrings, a family Bible, love letters between her parents. But she had her body, and she had her pride, and she could not allow herself to give them to a man who was not to be her husband.

And they both knew that if he turned out to be the Duke of Wyndham, then he could never be her husband. Grace did not know all of the circumstances of his upbringing, but she'd heard enough to know that he was familiar with the ways of the aristocracy. He had to know what would be expected of him.

He cupped her face in his hands and stared at her with a tenderness that took her breath away. "As God is my witness," he whispered, turning her around so he could do up her buttons, "this is the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life."

Somehow she found the strength to smile. Or at the very least, to not cry.

Later that night Grace was in the rose salon, hunting down writing paper for the dowager, who had decided – on the spur of the moment, apparently – that she must send a letter to her sister, the grand duchess of that small European country whose name Grace could never pronounce (or, indeed, remember).

This was a lengthier process than it seemed, as the dowager liked to compose her correspondence aloud (with Grace as audience), debating – at painful length – each turn of phrase. Grace then had to concentrate on memorizing the dowager's words, as she would then be required (not by the dowager; rather, by a general duty to humanity) to recopy the dowager's missive, translating her unintelligible scrawl into something a bit more neat and tidy.

The dowager did not acknowledge that she did this; in fact, the one time Grace offered, she flew into such a huff that Grace had never again whispered a word of it. But considering that her sister's next letter opened with gushes of praise on the dowager's new penmanship, Grace could not imagine that she was completely unaware.

Ah, well. It was one of those things they did not discuss.

Grace did not mind the task this evening. Sometimes it gave her a headache; she did try to do her recopying when the sun was still high and she could enjoy the advantages of natural light. But it was an endeavor that required all of her concentration, and she rather thought that it was exactly what she needed right now. Something to take her mind off…well, everything.

Mr. Audley.

Thomas. And how awful she felt.

Mr. Audley.

That painting of that woman.

Mr. Audley.

Jack.

Grace let out a short, loud sigh. For heaven's sake, who was she trying to fool? She knew exactly what she was trying so hard not to think about.

Herself.

She sighed. Maybe she ought to take herself off to the land of the unpronounceable name. She wondered if they spoke English there. She wondered if the Grand Duchess Margareta (nee Margaret, and called, she was pertly told by the dowager, Maggs) could possibly be as ill-tempered as her sister.

It did seem unlikely.

Although as a member of the royal family, Maggs presumably had the authority to order someone's head lopped off. The dowager had said they were a bit feudal over there.

Grace touched her head, decided she liked it where it was, and with renewed determination pulled open the top drawer to the escritoire, using perhaps a bit more force than necessary. She winced at the screech of wood against wood, then frowned; this really wasn't such a well-made piece of furniture. Rather out of place at Belgrave, she had to say.

Nothing in the top drawer. Just a quill that looked as if it hadn't seen use since the last King George ruled the land.

She moved to the second, reaching to the back in case anything was hiding in the shadows, and then she heard something.

Someone.

It was Thomas. He was standing in the doorway, looking rather peaked, and even in the dim light she could see that his eyes were bloodshot.

She gulped down a wave of guilt. He was a good man. She hated that she was falling in love with his rival. No, that was not it. She hated that Mr. Audley was his rival. No, not that. She hated the whole bloody situation. Every last speck of it.

"Grace," he said. Nothing else, just her name.

She swallowed. It had been some time since they'd conversed on friendly terms. Not that they had been un friendly, but truly, was there anything worse than oh-so-careful civility?

"Thomas," she said, "I did not realize you were still awake."

"It's not so late," he said with a shrug.

"No, I suppose not." She glanced up at the clock. "The dowager is abed but not yet asleep."

"Your work is never done, is it?" he asked, entering the room.

"No," she said, wanting to sigh. Then, refusing to feel sorry for herself, she explained, "I ran out of writing paper upstairs."

"For correspondence?"

"Your grandmother's," she affirmed. "I have no one with whom to correspond." Dear heavens, could that be true? It had never even occurred to her before. Had she written a single letter in the years she'd been here? "I suppose once Elizabeth Willoughby marries and moves away…" She paused, thinking how sad that was, that she needed her friend to leave so she might be able to write a letter. "…I shall miss her."

"Yes," he said, looking somewhat distracted, not that she could blame him, given the current state of his affairs. "You are good friends, aren't you?"

She nodded, reaching into the recesses of the third drawer. Success! "Ah, here we are." She pulled forth a small stack of paper, then realized that her triumph meant that she had to go tend to her duties. "I must go write your grandmother's letters now."

"She does not write them herself?" he asked with surprise.

Grace almost chuckled at that. "She thinks she does. But the truth is, her penmanship is dreadful. No one could possibly make out what she intends to say. Even I have difficulty with it. I end up improvising at least half in the copying."

She looked down at the pages in her hands, shaking them down against the top of the desk first one way and then on the side, to make an even stack. When she looked back up, Thomas was standing a bit closer, looking rather serious.

"I must apologize, Grace," he said, walking toward her.

Oh, she didn't want this. She didn't want an apology, not when she herself held so much guilt in her heart. "For this afternoon?" she asked, her voice perhaps a little too light. "No, please, don't be silly. It's a terrible situation, and no one could fault you for – "

"For many things," he cut in.

He was looking at her very strangely, and Grace wondered if he'd been drinking. He'd been doing a lot of that lately. She had told herself that she mustn't scold him; truly, it was a wonder he was behaving as well as he was, under the circumstances.

"Please," she said, hoping to put an end to the discussion. "I cannot think of anything for which you need to make amends, but I assure you, if there were, I would accept your apology, with all graciousness."

"Thank you," he said. And then, seemingly out of nowhere: "We depart for Liverpool in two days."

Grace nodded. She knew this already. And surely he should have known that she was aware of the plans.

"I imagine you have much to do before we leave," she said.

"Almost nothing," he said, but there was something awful in his voice, almost as if he were daring her to ask his meaning. And there had to be a meaning, because Thomas always had much to do, whether he had a planned departure or not.

"Oh. That must be a pleasant change," she said, because she could not simply ignore his statement.

He leaned forward slightly, and Grace smelled spirits on his breath. Oh, Thomas. She ached for him, for what he must be feeling. And she wanted to tell him: I don't want it, either. I want you to be the duke and Jack to be plain Mr. Audley, and I want all of this just to be over.

Even if the truth turned out to be not what she prayed for, she wanted to know.

But she couldn't say this aloud. Not to Thomas. Already he was looking at her in that piercing way of his, as if he knew all her secrets – that she was falling in love with his rival, that she had already kissed him – several times – and she had wanted so much more.

She would have done more, if Jack had not stopped her.

"I am practicing, you see," Thomas said.

"Practicing?"

"To be a gentleman of leisure. Perhaps I should emulate your Mr. Audley."

"He is not my Mr. Audley," she immediately replied, even though she knew he had only said as much to provoke her.

"He shall not worry," Thomas continued, as if she'd not spoken. "I have left all of the affairs in perfect order. Every contract has been reviewed and every last number in every last column has been tallied. If he runs the estate into the ground, it shall be on his own head."

"Thomas, stop," she said, because she could not bear it. For either of them. "Don't talk this way. We don't know that he is the duke."

"Don't we?" His lip curled as he looked down at her. "Come now, Grace, we both know what we will find in Ireland."

"We don't," she insisted, and her voice sounded hollow. She felt hollow, as if she had to hold herself perfectly still just to keep from cracking.

He stared at her. For far longer than was comfortable. And then: "Do you love him?"

Grace felt the blood drain from her face.

"Do you love him?" he repeated, stridently this time. "Audley."

"I know who you're talking about," she said before she could think the better of it.

"I imagine you do."

She stood still, forcing herself to unclench her fists. She'd probably ruined the writing paper; she'd heard it crumple in her hand. He'd gone from apologetic to hateful in the space of a second, and she knew he was hurting inside, but so was she, damn it.

"How long have you been here?" he asked.

She drew back, her head turning slightly to the side. He was looking at her so strangely. "At Belgrave?"

she said hesitantly. "Five years."

"And in all that time I haven't…" He shook his head. "I wonder why."

Without even thinking, she tried to step back, but the desk blocked her way. What was wrong with him?

"Thomas," she said, wary now, "what are you talking about?"

He seemed to find that funny. "Damned if I know."

And then, while she was trying to think of a suitable reply, he let out a bitter laugh and said, "What's to become of us, Grace? We're doomed, you know. Both of us."

She knew it was true, but it was terrible to hear it confirmed.

"I don't know what you're talking about," she said.

"Oh, come now, Grace, you're far too intelligent for that."

"I should go."

But he was blocking her way.

"Thomas, I – "

And then – dear heavens – he was kissing her. His mouth was on hers, and her stomach flipped in horror, not because his kiss was repulsive, because it wasn't. It was the shock of it. Five years she'd been here, and he'd never even hinted at –

"Stop!" She wrenched herself away. "Why are you doing this?"

"I don't know," he said with a helpless shrug. "I'm here, you're here…"

"I'm leaving." But one of his hands was still on her arm. She needed him to release her. She could have pulled away; he was not holding her tightly. But she needed it to be his decision.

He needed it to be his decision.

"Ah, Grace," he said, looking almost defeated. "I am not Wyndham any longer. We both know it." He paused, shrugged, held out his hand in surrender.

"Thomas?" she whispered.

And then he said, "Why don't you marry me when this is all over?"

"What?" Something akin to horror washed over her. "Oh, Thomas, you're mad." But she knew what he really meant. A duke could not marry Grace Eversleigh. But if he wasn't…If he was just plain Mr.

Cavendish…Why not?

Acid rose in her throat. He didn't mean to insult. She didn't even feel insulted. She knew the world she inhabited. She knew the rules, and she knew her place.

Jack could never be hers. Not if he was the duke.

"What do you say, Gracie?" Thomas touched her chin, tipped her face up to look at him.

And she thought –  maybe.

Would it be so very bad? She could not stay at Belgrave, that was for certain. And maybe she would learn to love him. She already did, really, as a friend.

He leaned down to kiss her again, and this time she let him, praying that her heart would pound and her pulse would race and that spot between her legs…Oh, please let it feel as it did when Jack touched her.

But there was nothing. Just a rather warm sense of friendship. Which she supposed wasn't the worst thing in the world.

"I can't," she whispered, turning her face to the side. She wanted to cry.

And then she did cry, because Thomas rested his chin on her head, comforting her like a brother.

Her heart twisted, and she heard him whisper, "I know."