The Lost Duke of Wyndham (Chapter Nineteen)
When he opened his eyes that morning, Grace had already slipped from the bed and made her way back to her own room. He was disappointed, of course; he'd been awakened by his own love and desire for her, and wanted nothing more than to gather her back into his arms.
But he had understood. Life was not as free for a woman as for a man, even a woman of independent means. Grace had her reputation to consider. Thomas and Amelia would never say a word against her, but Jack did not know Lord Crowland well enough to guess what he might do if Grace were caught in his bed. And as for the dowager…
Well, it went without saying that she'd happily destroy Grace now, if given the chance.
The traveling party – minus the dowager, to everyone's relief – met up in the inn's dining room for breakfast. Jack knew he'd been unable to keep his heart from his eyes when he saw Grace enter the room.
Would it always be this way, he wondered. Would he see her and feel this indescribable, overwhelming rush of feeling?
It wasn't even desire. It was far more than that.
It was love.
Love. With a capital L and swirly script and hearts and flowers and whatever else the angels – and yes, all those annoying little cupids – wished to use for embellishment.
Love. It could be nothing else. He saw Grace and he felt joy. Not just his joy, but everyone's. The stranger seated behind him. The acquaintance across the room. He saw it all. He felt it all.
It was amazing. Humbling. Grace looked at him, and he was a better man.
And she thought he would allow anyone to keep them apart.
It would not happen. He would not let it happen.
Throughout breakfast she did not precisely avoid him – there were far too many shared glances and secret smiles for that. But she had been careful not to seek him out, and indeed, he'd not had an opportunity to speak with her even once. He probably wouldn't have been able to do so even if Grace was not so inclined to be circumspect; Amelia slipped her hand in Grace's right after breakfast and did not let go.
Safety in numbers, Jack decided. The two ladies were stuck in the coach all day with the dowager. He would have been blindly reaching for a hand if forced to endure the same.
The three gentlemen rode on horseback, taking advantage of the fine weather. Lord Crowland decided to take a seat in the carriage after their first stop to water the horses, but thirty minutes later he was staggering back out, declaring the ride far less exhausting than the dowager.
"You would abandon your daughter to the dowager's venom?" Jack asked mildly.
Crowland did not even try to make excuses. "I did not say I was proud of myself."
"The Outer Hebrides," Thomas said, trotting by. "I'm telling you, Audley, it's the key to your happiness.
The Outer Hebrides."
"The Outer Hebrides?" Crowland echoed, looking from man to man for explanation.
"Almost as far as the Orkneys," Thomas said cheerfully. "And much more fun to say."
"Have you holdings there?" Crowland asked.
"Not yet," Thomas replied. He looked over at Jack. "Perhaps you can restore a nunnery. Something with insurmountable walls."
Jack found himself enjoying the mental picture. "How have you lived with her for so long?" he asked.
Thomas shook his head. "I have no idea."
They were talking as if it were already decided, Jack realized. They were talking as if he had already been named the duke. And Thomas did not seem to mind. If anything, he appeared to be looking forward to his imminent dispossession.
Jack looked back at the carriage. Grace had insisted that she could not marry him if he was the duke. And yet, he could not imagine doing it without her. He was unprepared for the duties that came with the title.
Astoundingly so. But she knew what to do, didn't she? She'd lived at Belgrave for five years. She had to know how the place was run. She knew the name of every last servant, and as far as he could tell, their birthdays, too.
She was kind. She was gracious. She was innately fair, of impeccable judgment, and far more intelligent than he.
He could not imagine a more perfect duchess.
But he did not want to be the duke.
He truly didn't.
He'd gone over it in his mind countless times, reminding himself of all of the reasons why he'd make a very bad Duke of Wyndham, but had he ever actually come out and said it plainly?
He did not want to be the duke.
He looked over at Thomas, who was looking up at the sun, shading his eyes with his hand.
"It must be past noon," Lord Crowland said. "Shall we stop for lunch?"
Jack shrugged. It did not matter to him.
"For the sake of the ladies," Crowland said.
As one, they turned and looked over their shoulders toward the carriage.
Jack thought he saw Crowland cringe. "It's not pretty in there," he said in a low voice.
Jack quirked a brow.
"The dowager," Crowland said, shuddering. "Amelia begged me to let her ride after we watered the horses."
"That would be too cruel to Grace," Jack said.
"That's what I told Amelia."
"As you were fleeing the carriage," Thomas murmured, smiling just a little.
Crowland cocked his head. "I would never claim otherwise."
"And I would never chastise you for it."
Jack listened to the exchange with little interest. By his estimation, they were about halfway to Butlersbridge, and it was growing increasingly difficult to find humor in the inane. "There is a clearing a mile or so ahead," he said. "I've stopped there before. It's suitable for a picnic."
The two other men nodded their agreement, and about five minutes later they'd found the spot. Jack dismounted and went immediately to the carriage. A groom was helping the ladies down, but as Grace would be the last to alight, it was easy enough for him to position himself so he might take her hand when she emerged.
"Mr. Audley," Grace said. She was nothing but polite, but her eyes shone with a secret warmth.
"Miss Eversleigh." He looked down at her mouth. The corners were moving slightly…very slightly. She wanted to smile. He could see it.
He could feel it.
"I will eat in the carriage," the dowager announced sharply. "Only heathens eat on the ground."
Jack tapped his chest and grinned. "Proud to be a heathen." He quirked his head toward Grace. "And you?"
The dowager marched once around the perimeter of the field – to stretch her legs, she said – and then disappeared back inside the carriage.
"That must have been very difficult for her," Jack commented, watching her go.
Grace had been examining the contents of a picnic basket, but at that she looked up. "Difficult?"
"There is no one to harass in the carriage," he explained.
"I think she feels that we have all ganged up upon her."
Grace looked conflicted. "Yes, but – "
Oh… no. He was not going to listen to her make excuses for the dowager. "Don't tell me that you harbor any sympathy toward her."
"No." Grace shook her head. "I wouldn't say that, but – "
"You are far too softhearted."
At that she smiled. Sheepishly. "Perhaps."
Once the blankets were laid out, Jack maneuvered them so they were seated a bit apart from the others. It was not very difficult – or very obvious – to do so; Amelia had sat down next to her father, who appeared to be delivering some sort of lecture, and Thomas had wandered off, probably in search of a tree that needed watering.
"Is this the road you traveled when you went to school in Dublin?" Grace asked, reaching for a slice of bread and cheese.
He'd tried to keep the tightness out of his voice, but he must not have succeeded, because when he looked at her, she was regarding him in that unsettling way of hers. "Why don't you want to go home?"
It was on the tip of his tongue to say that her imagination was too active, or, since he really ought to be reverting to form, something clever and grandiose, involving sunshine, twittering birds, and milk of human kindness.
Statements like that had got him out of far more delicate situations than this.
But he hadn't the energy just now, nor the will.
And, anyway, Grace knew better. She knew him better. He could be his usual flip and funny self, and most of the time – he hoped – she would love him for it. But not when he was trying to hide the truth.
Or hide from the truth.
"It's complicated," he said, because at least that wasn't a lie.
She nodded and turned to her lunch. He waited for another question, but none were forthcoming. So he picked up an apple.
He looked over. She was cutting into a slice of roast chicken, her eyes on her utensils. He opened his mouth to speak, then decided not to, then brought the apple to his mouth.
Then didn't bite into it.
"It's been over five years," he blurted out.
She looked up. "Since you've been home?"
"That's a long time."
His fingers tightened around the apple. "No."
She took a few bites of her meal, then looked up. "Would you like me to slice that apple for you?"
He handed it over, mostly because he'd forgotten he was holding it. "I had a cousin, you know." Bloody hell, where had that come from? He hadn't meant to say anything about Arthur. He'd spent the last five years trying not to think about him, trying to make sure that Arthur's was not the last face he saw before he fell asleep at night.
"I thought you'd said you had three cousins," Grace said. She wasn't looking at him; she gave every sign of giving her complete focus to the apple and knife in her hands.
"Only two now."
She looked up, her eyes large with sympathy. "I am sorry."
"Arthur died in France." The words sounded rusty. He realized it had been a long time since he'd said Arthur's name aloud. Five years, probably.
"With you?" Grace asked softly.
She looked down at the apple slices, now neatly arranged on a plate. She didn't seem to know what to do with them.
"You're not going to say that it wasn't my fault?" he said, and he hated the sound of his voice. It was hollow, and pained, and sarcastic, and desperate, and he couldn't believe what he'd just said.
"I wasn't there," she said.
His eyes flew to her face.
"I can't imagine how it would have been your fault, but I wasn't there." She reached across the food and laid her hand briefly atop his. "I'm sorry. Were you close?"
He nodded, turning away and pretending to look at the trees. "Not so much when we were young. But after we left for school…" He pinched the bridge of his nose, wondering how to explain just what Arthur had done for him. "…we found much more in common."
Her fingers tightened around his, and then she let go. "It is difficult to lose someone you love."
He looked back at her once he was satisfied that his eyes would remain dry. "When you lost your parents…"
"It was horrible," she answered. Her lips moved at the corners, but not into a smile. It was one of those flashes of movement – a tiny, little rush of emotion, escaping almost without notice. "I didn't think I should die," Grace said softly, "but I did not know how I would live."
"I wish…" But he didn't know what he wished. That he could have been there for her? What good would he have been? Five years ago he'd been broken, too.
"The dowager saved me," she said. She smiled wryly. "Isn't that funny?"
His brows rose. "Oh, come now. The dowager does nothing out of the goodness of her heart."
"I did not say why she did it, just that she did. I should have been forced to marry my cousin if she had not taken me in."
He took her hand and brought it to his lips. "I am glad you did not."
"So am I," she said, without any trace of tenderness. "He is awful."
Jack chuckled. "And here I'd hoped you were relieved to have waited for me."
She gave him an arch look and withdrew her hand. "You have not met my cousin."
He finally took one of the apple pieces and bit into it. "We have an overabundance of odious relations, you and I."
Her lips twisted in thought, and then her body twisted so that she could look back toward the carriage. "I should go to her," she said.
"No, you shouldn't," Jack said firmly.
Grace sighed. She did not want to feel sorry for the dowager, not after what the dowager had said to her the night before. But her conversation with Jack had brought back memories…and reminded her just how very much she was indebted to her.
She turned back to Jack. "She is all alone."
"She deserves to be alone." He said this with great conviction, and more than a touch of surprise, as if he could not believe the matter might be under discussion.
"No one deserves to be alone."
"Do you really believe that?"
She didn't, but…"I want to believe it."
He looked at her dubiously.
Grace started to rise. She looked this way and that, making sure no one could hear, and said, "You should not have been kissing my hand where people can see, anyway."
She stood then, stepping quickly away, before he had a chance to make a reply.
"Have you finished your lunch?" Amelia called out as she passed.
Grace nodded. "Yes. I am going to the carriage to see if the dowager needs anything."
Amelia looked at her as if she'd gone mad.
Grace gave a little shrug. "Everybody deserves a second chance." She thought about that, then added, mostly to herself, "That, I really do believe." She marched over to the carriage. It was too high for her to climb up herself, and the grooms were nowhere in sight, so she called out, "Your grace! Your grace!"
There was no reply, so she said, a little louder, "Ma'am!"
The dowager's irate visage appeared in the open doorway. "What do you want?"
Grace reminded herself that she had not spent a lifetime of Sunday mornings in church for nothing. "I wished to inquire if you needed anything, your grace."
Good heavens, she was suspicious. "Because I am a nice person," Grace said, somewhat impatiently.
And then she crossed her arms, waiting to see what the dowager said to that.
The dowager stared down at her for several moments, then said, "It is my experience that nice people don't need to advertise themselves as such."
Grace wanted to inquire what sort of experience the dowager had with nice people, since it was her own experience that most nice people fled the dowager's presence.
But that seemed catty.
She took a breath. She did not have to do this. She did not have to help the dowager in any way. She was her own woman now, and she did not need to worry over her security.
But she was, as she had noted, a nice person. And she was determined to remain a nice person, regardless of her improved circumstances. She had waited upon the dowager for the last five years because she'd had to, not because she wanted to. And now…
Well, she still didn't want to. But she'd do it. Whatever the dowager's motives five years ago, she had saved Grace from a lifetime of unhappiness. And for that, she could spend an hour attending to the dowager. But more than that, she could choose to spend an hour attending to her.
It was amazing what a difference that made.
"Ma'am?" Grace said. That was all. Just ma'am. She'd said enough. It was up to the dowager now.
"Oh, very well," she said irritably. "If you feel you must."
Grace kept her face utterly serene as she allowed Lord Crowland (who had caught the latter half of the conversation and told Grace she was mad) to help her up. She took her prescribed seat – facing backward, as far from the dowager as possible – and folded her hands neatly in her lap. She did not know how long they would be sitting here; the others had not seemed quite ready to quit their lunch.
The dowager was looking out the window; Grace kept her eyes on her hands. Every now and then she'd steal a glance up, and every time, the dowager was still turned away, her posture hard and stiff, her lips pinched tight.
And then – perhaps the fifth time Grace looked up – the dowager was staring straight at her.
"You disappoint me," she said, her voice low – not quite hiss, but something close to it.
Grace held her silence. She held everything, it seemed – her posture, her breath. She did not know what to say, except that she would not apologize. Not for having the audacity to reach out for happiness.
"You were not supposed to leave."
"I was but a servant, ma'am."
"You were not supposed to leave," the dowager said again, but this time something within her seemed to shake. Not quite her body, and not quite her voice.
Her heart, Grace realized with a shock. Her heart was shaking.
"He is not what I expected," the dowager said.
Grace blinked, trying to follow. "Mr. Audley?"
"Cavendish," the dowager said sharply.
"You did not know that he existed," Grace said, as gently as she was able. "How could you have expected anything?"
The dowager did not answer. Not that question, anyway. "Do you know why I took you into my home?"
she asked instead.
"No," Grace said softly.
The dowager's lips pressed together for a moment before she said, "It was not right. A person should not be alone in this world."
"No," Grace said again. And she believed it, with her whole heart.
"It was for the both of us. I took a terrible thing and turned it into good. For both of us." Her eyes narrowed, boring into Grace's. "You were not supposed to leave."
And then – good heavens, Grace could not believe she was saying it, but: "I will come visit you, should you wish."
The dowager swallowed, and she looked straight ahead when she said, "That would be acceptable."
Grace was saved from further reply by the arrival of Amelia, who informed them that they would depart momentarily. And indeed, she'd had barely enough time to settle into her seat when the carriage wheels creaked into motion, and they began to roll forward.
No one spoke.
It was better that way.
Several hours later, Grace opened her eyes.
Amelia was staring at her. "You fell asleep," she said quietly, then put her finger to her lips as she motioned to the dowager, who had also dozed off.
Grace covered a yawn, then asked, "How much longer do you think we have until we get there?"
"I don't know." Amelia gave a little shrug. "Perhaps an hour? Two?" She sighed then, and leaned back.
She looked tired, Grace thought. They were all tired.
"What will you do?" Grace asked, before she had the chance to think better of it.
Amelia did not open her eyes. "I don't know."
It was not much of an answer, but then again, it hadn't been a fair question.
"Do you know what the funniest part of it is?" Amelia asked quite suddenly.
Grace shook her head, then remembered that Amelia's eyes were still closed and said, "No."
"I keep thinking to myself, 'This isn't fair. I should have a choice. I should not have to be traded and bartered like some sort of commodity.' But then I think, 'How is this any different? I was given to Wyndham years ago. I never made a complaint.'"
"You were just a baby," Grace said.
Still, Amelia did not open her eyes, and when she spoke, her voice was quiet and full of recrimination. "I have had many years to lodge a complaint."
"Amelia – "
"I have no one to blame but myself."
"That's not true."
Amelia finally opened her eyes. One of them, at least. "You're just saying that."
"No, I'm not. I would," Grace admitted, because it was true. "But as it happens, I am telling the truth. It isn't your fault. It's not anyone's fault, really." She took a breath. Let it out. "I wish it were. It would be so much easier that way."
"To have someone to blame?"
And then Amelia whispered, "I don't want to marry him."
"Thomas?" Grace asked. Amelia had spent so long as his fiancee, and they did not seem to have any great affection for one another.
Amelia looked at her curiously. "No. Mr. Audley."
"You sound so shocked."
"No, of course not," Grace said hurriedly. What was she to say to Amelia – that she was so desperately in love with him herself that she could not imagine anyone not wanting him? "It's just that he's so handsome," she improvised.
Amelia gave a little shrug. "I suppose."
She supposed? Hadn't she ever seen him smile?
But then Amelia said, "Don't you find him a little too charming?"
"No." Grace immediately looked down at her hands, because her no had come out in not at all the tone of voice she'd intended. And indeed, Amelia must have heard it, too, because her next words were –
"Grace Eversleigh, do you fancy Mr. Audley?"
Grace stammered and stumbled, and managed a rather croaky, "I – " before Amelia cut in with –
"It does not signify," Grace said, because what was she supposed to say? To Amelia, who might or might not be engaged to marry him.
"Of course it signifies. Does he fancy you?"
Grace wanted to melt into the seat.
"No," Amelia said, sounding highly amused. "Don't answer. I can see from your face that he does. Well.
I certainly shall not marry him now."
Grace swallowed. Her throat tasted bitter. "You should not refuse him on my account."
"What did you just say?"
"I can't marry him if he's the duke."
Grace tried to smile, because really, it was sweet of Amelia to ignore the difference in their positions. But she could not quite manage it. "If he is the duke, he will need to marry someone suitable. Of your rank."
"Oh, don't be silly," Amelia scoffed. "It's not as if you grew up in an orphanage."
"There will be scandal enough. He must not add to it with a sensational marriage."
"An actress would be sensational. You will merely be a week's worth of gossip."
It would be more than that, but Grace saw no point in arguing further. But then Amelia said –
"I do not know Mr. Audley's mind, or his intentions, but if he is prepared to dare everything for love, then you should be, too."
Grace looked at her. How was it that Amelia suddenly looked so very wise? When had that happened?
When had she stopped being Elizabeth's little sister and become…herself?
Amelia reached out and squeezed her hand. "Be a woman of courage, Grace." She smiled then, murmuring something to herself as she turned and looked out the window.
Grace stared straight ahead, thinking…wondering…was Amelia right? Or was it just that she had never faced hardship? It was easy to talk about being courageous when one had never come face-to-face with desperation.
What would happen if a woman of her background married a duke? Thomas's mother had not been an aristocrat, but when she married his father, he was only third in line to inherit, and no one had expected her to become a duchess. By all accounts, she had been dreadfully unhappy. Miserable, even.
But Thomas's parents had not loved each other. They had not even liked each other, from what Grace had heard.
But she loved Jack.
And he loved her.
Still, it would all be so much simpler if he turned out not to be the legitimate son of John Cavendish.
And then, out of nowhere, Amelia whispered, "We could blame the dowager." As Grace turned to her in confusion, Amelia clarified, "For this. You said it would be easier if we had someone to blame."
Grace looked over at the dowager, who was seated across from Amelia. She was snoring softly, and her head was perched at what had to be an uncomfortable angle. It was remarkable, but even in repose her mouth was pinched and unpleasant.
"It's certainly more her fault than anyone else's," Amelia added, but Grace noted that she tossed a nervous glance at the dowager as she spoke.
Grace nodded, murmuring, "I cannot disagree with that."
Amelia stared off into space for several seconds, and then, just when Grace was convinced that she did not plan to respond, she said, "It didn't make me feel any better."
"Blaming the dowager?"
"Yes." Amelia's shoulders slumped a bit. "It's still horrible. The whole thing."
"Dreadful," Grace agreed.
Amelia turned and looked at her directly. "Sodding bad."
Grace gasped. "Amelia!"
Amelia's face wrinkled in thought. "Did I use that correctly?"
"I wouldn't know."
"Oh, come now, don't tell me you haven't thought something just as unladylike."
"I wouldn't say it."
The look Amelia gave her was as clear as a dare. "But you thought it."
Grace felt her lips twitch. "It's a damned shame."
"A bloody inconvenience, if you ask me," Amelia responded, fast enough so Grace knew she'd been saving that one.
"I have an advantage, you know," Grace said archly.
"Indeed. I am privy to the servants' talk."
"Oh, come now, you won't be convincing me that the housemaids at Belgrave talk like the fishmonger."
"No, but sometimes the footmen do."
"In front of you?"
"Not on purpose," Grace admitted, "but it happens."
"Very well." Amelia turned to her with quirked lips and humor in her eyes. "Do your worst."
Grace thought for a moment and then, after darting a quick glance across the carriage to make sure that the dowager was still asleep, she leaned forward and whispered in Amelia's ear.
When she was through, Amelia drew back and stared at her, blinking three times before saying, "I'm not sure I know what that means."
Grace frowned. "I don't think I do, either."
"It sounds bad, though."
"Sodding bad," Grace said with a smile, and she patted Amelia's hand.
Amelia sighed. "A damned shame."
"We're repeating ourselves," Grace pointed out.
"I know," Amelia said, with a fair bit of feeling. "But whose fault is it? Not ours. We've been far too sheltered."
"Now that," Grace announced with flair, "really is a damned shame."
"A bloody inconvenience, if you ask me."
"What the devil are the two of you talking about?"
Grace gulped, and she stole a glance at Amelia, who was staring at the now quite awake dowager with a similar look of horror.
"Well?" the dowager demanded.
"Nothing," Grace chirped.
The dowager regarded her with a most unpleasant expression, then turned her icy attentions to Amelia.
"And you, Lady Amelia. Where is your breeding?"
And then Amelia – oh, dear heavens – she shrugged her shoulders and said, "Damned if I know."
Grace tried to hold still, but her shock positively burst out of her, and she rather feared she spat upon the dowager. Which did seem ironic, that the first time she did such a thing, it should be accidental.
"You are disgusting," the dowager hissed. "I cannot believe I considered forgiving you."
"Stop picking on Grace," Amelia said. With surprising force.
Grace turned to Amelia in surprise.
The dowager, however, was furious. "I beg your pardon."
"I said, stop picking on Grace."
"And who do you think you are, to order me about?"
As Grace watched Amelia, she would have sworn she changed right before her very eyes. Gone was the unsure girl, in her place was: "The future Duchess of Wyndham, or so I'm told."
Grace's lips parted in shock. And admiration.
"Because really," Amelia added disdainfully, "if I'm not, what the devil am I doing here, halfway across Ireland?"
Grace's eyes darted from Amelia to the dowager and back. And then back again. And then –
Well, suffice it to say, it was a monstrously long moment of silence.
"Do not speak again," the dowager finally said. "I cannot tolerate the sound of your voices."
And indeed, they all remained silent for the rest of the journey. Even the dowager.