The Lost Duke of Wyndham (Chapter Six)

Jack had always prided himself on being able to spot the irony in any situation, but as he stood in the Belgrave drawing room – correction, one of the Belgrave drawing rooms, surely there were dozens – he could find nothing but stark, cold reality.

He'd spent six years as an officer in His Majesty's army, and if he'd learned one thing from his years on the battlefield, it was that life could, and frequently did, turn on a single moment. One wrong turn, one missed clue, and he could lose an entire company of men. But once he returned to Britain, he'd somehow lost sight of that. His life was a series of small decisions and insignificant encounters. It was true that he was living a life of crime, which meant he was always dancing a few steps ahead of the hangman's noose, but it wasn't the same. No one's life depended upon his actions. No one's livelihood, even.

There was nothing serious about robbing coaches. It was a game, really, played by men with too much education and too little direction. Who would have thought that one of his insignificant decisions – to take the Lincoln road north instead of south – would lead to this? Because one thing was for certain, his carefree life on the road was over. He suspected that Wyndham would be more than happy to watch him ride away without a word, but the dowager would not be so accommodating. Miss Eversleigh's assurances aside, he was quite certain the old bat would go to extensive lengths to keep him on a leash.

Maybe she would not turn him over to the authorities, but she could certainly tell the world that her long-lost grandson was gadding about the countryside robbing coaches. Which would make it damned difficult to continue in his chosen profession.

And if he was truly the Duke of Wyndham…

God help them all.

He was beginning to hope that his aunt had lied. Because no one wanted him in a position of such authority, least of all himself.

"Could someone please explain…" He took a breath and stopped, pressing his fingers against his temples. It felt as if an entire battalion had marched across his forehead. "Could someone explain the family tree?" Because shouldn't someone have known if his father had been the heir to a dukedom? His aunt? His mother? Himself?

"I had three sons," the dowager said crisply. "Charles was the eldest; John, the middle; and Reginald the last. Your father left for Ireland just after Reginald married" – her face took on a visible expression of distaste, and she jerked her head toward Wyndham – "his mother."

"She was a Cit," Wyndham said, with no expression whatsoever. "Her father owned factories. Piles and piles of them." One of his brows lifted. Very slightly. "We own them now."

The dowager's lips tightened, but she did not acknowledge his interruption. "We were notified of your father's death in July of 1790."

Jack nodded tightly. He had been told the same.

"One year after that, my husband and my eldest son died of a fever. I did not contract the ailment. My youngest son was no longer living at Belgrave, so he, too, was spared. Charles had not yet married, and we believed John to have died without issue. Thus Reginald became duke." She paused, but other than that expressed no emotion. "It was not expected."

Everyone looked at Wyndham. He said nothing,

"I will remain," Jack said quietly, because he didn't see as he had any other choice. And maybe it wouldn't hurt to learn a thing or two of his father. A man ought to know where he comes from. That was what his uncle had always said. Jack was beginning to wonder if he'd been offering forgiveness – in advance. Just in case he decided one day that he wished to be a Cavendish.

Of course, Uncle William hadn't met these Cavendishes. If he had, he might've revised that statement entirely.

"Most judicious of you," the dowager said, clapping her hands together. "Now then, we – "

"But first," Jack cut in, "I must return to the inn to collect my belongings." He glanced around the drawing room, almost laughing at the opulence. "Meager though they are."

"Nonsense," the dowager said briskly. "Your things will be replaced." She looked down her nose at his traveling costume. "With items of far greater quality, I might add."

"I wasn't asking your permission," Jack said lightly. He did not like to allow his anger to reveal itself in his voice. It did put a man at a disadvantage.

"Nonethe – "

"Furthermore," Jack added, because really, he didn't wish to hear her voice any more than he had to, "I must make explanations to my associates." At that he looked over at Wyndham. "Nothing approaching the truth," he added dryly, lest the duke assume that he intended to spread rumors throughout the county.

"Don't disappear," the dowager directed. "I assure you, you will regret it."

"There's no worry of that," Wyndham said blandly. "Who would disappear with the promise of a dukedom?"

Jack's jaw tightened, but he forced himself to let it pass. The afternoon did not need another fistfight.

And then – bloody hell – the duke abruptly added, "I will accompany you."

Oh, good God. That was the last thing he needed. Jack swung around to face him, lifting one dubious brow. "Need I worry for my safety?"

Wyndham stiffened visibly, and Jack, who had been trained to notice even the smallest of details, saw that both of his fists clenched at his sides. So he'd insulted the duke. At this point, and considering the bruises he was likely to find staining his throat, he didn't care.

He turned to Miss Eversleigh, offering her his most self-effacing smile. "I am a threat to his very identity.

Surely any reasonable man would question his safety."

"No, you're wrong!" she cried out. "You misjudge him. The duke – "

She shot a horrified look at Wyndham, and they all were forced to share her discomfort when she realized what she'd said. But she plowed on, determined girl that she was.

"He is as honorable a man as I have ever met," she continued, her voice low and fervent. "You would never come to harm in his company."

Her cheeks had flushed with passion, and Jack was struck by the most acidic thought. Was there something between Miss Eversleigh and the duke? They resided in the same house, or castle, as it were, with only an embittered old lady for company. And while the dowager was anything but senile, Jack could not imagine that there was any lack of opportunity to engage in a dalliance under her nose.

He watched Miss Eversleigh closely, his eyes falling to her lips. He'd surprised himself when he kissed her the night before. He hadn't meant to, and he certainly had never done such a thing before whilst attempting to rob a coach. It had seemed the most natural thing in the world – to touch her chin, tilt her face up toward his, and brush his lips against hers.

It had been soft, and fleeting, and it had taken him until this moment to realize just how deeply he wanted more.

He looked at Wyndham, and his jealousy must have shown on his face because his newly discovered cousin looked coolly amused as he said, "I assure you, whatever violent urges I possess, I shall not act upon them."

"That is a terrible thing to say," Miss Eversleigh responded.

"But honest," Jack acknowledged with a nod. He did not like this man, this duke who had been brought up to view the world as his private domain. But he appreciated honesty, no matter the source.

And as Jack looked him in the eye, there seemed to develop an unspoken agreement. They did not have to be friends. They did not even have to be friendly. But they would be honest.

Which suited Jack just fine.

By Grace's calculations, the men ought to have returned within ninety minutes, two hours at most. She had not spent much time in a saddle, so she was not the best judge of speed, but she was fairly certain that two men on horseback could reach the posting inn in something less than an hour. Then Mr. Audley would need to retrieve his belongings, which could not take very long, could it? And then –

"Get away from the window," the dowager snapped.

Grace's lips tightened with irritation, but she managed to return her expression to one of placidity before she turned around.

"Make yourself useful," the dowager said.

Grace glanced this way and that, trying to decode the dowager's order. She always had something specific in mind, and Grace hated it when she was forced to guess.

"Would you like me to read to you?" she asked. It was the most pleasant of her duties; they were currently reading Pride and Prejudice, which Grace was enjoying immensely, and the dowager was pretending not to like at all.

The dowager grunted. It was a no grunt. Grace was fluent in this method of communication. She took no particular pride in this skill.

"I could pen a letter," she suggested. "Weren't you planning to respond to the recent missive from your sister?"

"I can write my own letters," the dowager said sharply, even though they both knew her spelling was atrocious. Grace always ended up rewriting all of her correspondence before it was posted.

Grace took a deep breath and then let it out slowly, the exhale shuddering through her. She did not have the energy to untangle the inner workings of the dowager's mind. Not today.

"I'm hot," the dowager announced.

Grace did not respond. She was hoping none was necessary. And then the dowager picked something up off a nearby table. A fan, Grace realized with dismay, just as the dowager snapped it open.

Oh, please, no. Not now.

The dowager regarded the fan, a rather festive blue one, with Chinese paintings in black and gold. Then she snapped it back shut, clearly just to make it easier for her to hold it before her like a baton.

"You may make me more comfortable," she said.

Grace paused. It was only for a moment, probably not even a full second, but it was her only means of rebellion. She could not say no, and she could not even allow her distaste to show in her expression. But she could pause. She could hold her body still for just enough time to make the dowager wonder.

And then, of course, she stepped forward.

"I find the air quite pleasant," she said once she had assumed her position at the dowager's side.

"That is because you are pushing it about with the fan."

Grace looked down at her employer's pinched face. Some of the lines were due to age, but not the ones near her mouth, pulling her lips into a perpetual frown. What had happened to this woman to make her so bitter? Had it been the deaths of her children? The loss of her youth? Or had she simply been born with a sour disposition?

"What do you think of my new grandson?" the dowager asked abruptly.

Grace froze, then quickly regained her composure and resumed fanning. "I do not know him well enough to form an opinion," she answered carefully.

The dowager continued to look straight ahead as she answered, "Nonsense. All of the best opinions are formed in an instant. You know that very well. 'Else you'd be married to that repulsive little cousin of yours, wouldn't you?"

Grace thought of Miles, ensconced in her old home. She had to admit, every now and then the dowager got things exactly right.

"Surely you have something to say, Miss Eversleigh."

The fan rose and fell three times before Grace decided upon, "He seems to have a buoyant sense of humor."

"Buoyant." The dowager repeated the word, her voice curious, as if she were testing it out on her tongue.

"An apt adjective. I should not have thought of it, but it is fitting."

It was about as close to a compliment as the dowager ever got.

"He is rather like his father," the dowager continued.

Grace moved the fan from one hand to the other, murmuring, "Is he?"

"Indeed. Although if his father had been a bit more… buoyant, we'd not be in this mess, would we?"

Grace choked on air. "I'm so sorry, ma'am. I should have chosen my words more carefully."

The dowager did not bother to acknowledge the apology. "His levity is much like his father. My John was never one to allow a serious moment to pass him by. He had the most cutting wit."

"I would not say that Mr. Audley is cutting," Grace said. His humor was far too sly.

"His name is not Mr. Audley, and of course he is," the dowager said sharply. "You're too besotted to see it."

"I am not besotted," Grace protested.

"Of course you are. Any girl would be. He is most handsome. Pity about the eyes, though."

"What I am," Grace said, resisting the urge to point out that there was nothing wrong with green eyes, "is overset. It has been a most exhausting day. And night," she added after a thought.

The dowager shrugged. "My son's wit was legendary," she said, setting the conversation back to where she wished it. "You wouldn't have thought it cutting, either, but that was simply because he was far too clever. It is a brilliant man who can make insult without the recipient even realizing."

Grace thought that rather sad. "What is the point, then?"

"The point?" The dowager blinked several times in rapid succession. "Of what?"

"Of insulting someone." Grace shifted the fan again, then shook out her free hand; her fingers were cramped from clutching the handle. "Or I should say," she amended, since she was quite sure the dowager could find many good reasons to cut someone down, "of insulting someone with intention of their not noticing it?"

The dowager still did not look at her, but Grace could see that she rolled her eyes. "It is a source of pride, Miss Eversleigh. I wouldn't expect you to understand."

"No," Grace said softly. "I wouldn't."

"You don't know what it means to excel at something." The dowager pursed her lips and stretched her neck slightly from side to side. "You couldn't know."

Which had to be as cutting an insult as any, except that the dowager seemed completely unaware she'd done it.

There was irony in there somewhere. There had to be.

"We live in interesting times, Miss Eversleigh," the dowager commented.

Grace nodded silently, turning her head to the side so that the dowager, should she ever choose to turn her head in her direction, would not see the tears in her eyes. Her parents had lacked the funds to travel, but theirs had been wandering hearts, and the Eversleigh home had been filled with maps and books about faraway places. Like it was yesterday, Grace remembered the time they had all been sitting in front of the fire, engrossed in their own reading, and her father looked up from his book and exclaimed, "Isn't this marvelous? In China, if you wish to insult someone, you say, 'May you live in interesting times.'"

Grace suddenly did not know if the tears in her eyes were of sorrow or mirth.

"That is enough, Miss Eversleigh," the dowager said suddenly. "I am quite cooled."

Grace shut the fan, then decided to set it down on the table by the window so she would have a reason to cross the room. Dusk hung only lightly in the air, so it was not difficult to see down the drive. She was not certain why she was so eager to have the two men back – possibly just as proof that they had not killed each other on the trip. Despite defending Thomas's sense of honor, she had not liked the look in his eyes. And she had certainly never known him to attack someone. He'd looked positively feral when he lunged for Mr. Audley. If Mr. Audley had been less of a fighting man himself, she was quite certain Thomas would have done him permanent harm.

"Do you think it will rain, Miss Eversleigh?"

Grace turned. "No."

"The wind is picking up."

"Yes." Grace waited until the dowager turned her attention to a trinket on the table next to her, and then she turned back to the window. Of course the moment she did, she heard –

"I hope it rains."

She held still. And then she turned. "I beg your pardon?"

"I hope it rains." The dowager said it again, so very matter-of-fact, as if anyone would wish for precipitation while two gentlemen were out on horseback.

"They will be drenched," Grace pointed out.

"They will be forced to take each other's measure. Which they will have to do sooner or later. Besides, my John never minded riding in the rain. In fact, he rather enjoyed it."

"That does not mean that Mr. – "

"Cavendish," the dowager inserted.

Grace swallowed. It helped her catch her patience. "Whatever he wishes to be called, I don't think we may assume that he enjoys riding in the rain just because his father did. Most people do not."

The dowager did not seem to wish to consider this. But she acknowledged the statement with, "I know nothing of the mother, that is true. She could be responsible for any number of adulterations."

"Would you care for tea, ma'am?" Grace asked. "I could ring for it."

"What do we know of her, after all? Almost certainly Irish, which could mean any number of things, all of them dreadful."

"The wind is picking up," Grace said. "I shouldn't want you to get chilled."

"Did he even tell us her name?"

"I don't believe so." Grace sighed, because direct questions made it difficult to pretend she wasn't a part of this conversation.

"Dear Lord." The dowager shuddered, and her eyes took on an expression of utter horror. "She could be Catholic."

"I have met several Catholics," Grace said, now that it was clear that her attempts to divert the subject had failed. "It was strange," she murmured. "None had horns."

"What did you say?"

"Just that I know very little about the Catholic faith," Grace said lightly. There was a reason she often directed her comments to a window or wall.

The dowager made a noise that Grace could not quite identify. It sounded like a sigh, but it was probably more of a snort, because the next words from her mouth were: "We shall have to get that taken care of."

She leaned forward, pinching the bridge of her nose with her fingers and looking extremely put out. "I suppose I shall have to contact the archbishop."

"Is that a problem?" Grace asked.

The dowager's head shook with distaste. "He is a beady little man who will be lording this over me for years."

Grace leaned forward. Was that movement she saw in the distance?

"Heaven knows what sorts of favors he shall demand," the dowager muttered. "I suppose I shall have to let him sleep in the State Bedroom, just so he can say he slept on Queen Elizabeth's sheets."

Grace watched as the two men on horseback came into view. "They are back," she said, and not for the first time that evening, wondered just what role she was meant to play in this drama. She was not family; the dowager was certainly correct in that. And despite Grace's relatively lofty position within the household, she was not included in matters pertaining to family or title. She did not expect it, and indeed she did not want it. The dowager was at her worst when matters of dynasty arose, and Thomas was at his worst when he had to deal with the dowager.

She should excuse herself. It did not matter that Mr. Audley had insisted upon her presence. Grace knew her position, and she knew her place, and it was not in the middle of a family affair.

But every time she told herself it was time to go, that she ought to turn from the window and inform the dowager that she would leave her to talk with her grandsons in private, she could not make herself move.

She kept hearing – no, feeling – Mr. Audley's voice.

She stays.

Did he need her? He might. He knew nothing of the Wyndhams, nothing of their history and the tensions that ran through the house like a vicious, intractable spiderweb. He could not be expected to navigate his new life on his own, at least not right away.

Grace shivered, hugging her arms to her chest as she watched the men dismount in the drive. How strange it was to feel needed. Thomas liked to say he needed her, but they both knew that was untrue. He could hire anyone to put up with his grandmother. Thomas needed no one. Nothing. He was marvelously self-contained. Confident and proud, all he really needed was the occasional pinprick to burst the bubble that surrounded him. He knew this, too, which was what saved him from being entirely insufferable.

He'd never said as much, but Grace knew it was why they had become friends. She was possibly the only person in Lincolnshire who did not bow and scrape and say only what she thought he wished to hear.

But he didn't need her.

Grace heard footsteps in the hall and turned, stiffening nervously. She waited for the dowager to order her gone. She even looked at her, raising her brows ever so slightly as if in a dare, but the dowager was staring at the door, determinedly ignoring her.

When the men arrived, Thomas walked in first.

"Wyndham," the dowager said briskly. She never called him anything but his title.

He nodded in response. "I had Mr. Audley's belongings sent up to the blue silk bedroom."

Grace shot a careful look over at the dowager to gauge her reaction. The blue silk bedroom was one of the nicer guest bedchambers, but it was not the largest or most prestigious. It was, however, just down the hall from the dowager.

"Excellent choice," the dowager replied. "But I must repeat. Do not refer to him as Mr. Audley in my presence. I don't know these Audleys, and I don't care to know them."

"I don't know that they would care to know you, either," commented Mr. Audley, who had entered the room behind Thomas.

The dowager lifted a brow, as if to point out her own magnificence.

"Mary Audley is my late mother's sister," Mr. Audley stated. "She and her husband, William Audley, took me in at my birth. They raised me as their own and, at my request, gave me their name. I don't care to relinquish it." He looked coolly at the dowager, as if daring her to comment.

She did not, much to Grace's surprise.

And then he turned to her, offering her an elegant bow. "You may refer to me as Mr. Audley if you wish, Miss Eversleigh."

Grace bobbed a curtsy. She was not certain if this was a requirement, since no one had any clue as to his rank, but it seemed only polite. He had bowed, after all.

She glanced at the dowager, who was glaring at her, and then at Thomas, who somehow managed to look amused and annoyed at the same time.

"She can't sack you for using his legal name," Thomas said with his usual hint of impatience. "And if she does, I shall retire you with a lifelong bequest and have her sent off to some far-flung property."

Mr. Audley looked at Thomas with surprise and approval before turning to Grace and smiling. "It's tempting," he murmured. "How far can she be flung?"

"I am considering adding to our holdings," Thomas replied. "The Outer Hebrides are lovely this time of year."

"You're despicable," the dowager hissed.

"Why do I keep her on?" Thomas wondered aloud. He walked over to a cabinet and poured himself a drink.

"She is your grandmother," Grace said, since someone had to be the voice of reason.

"Ah yes, blood." Thomas sighed. "I'm told it's thicker than water. Pity." He looked over at Mr. Audley.

"You'll soon learn."

Grace half expected Mr. Audley to bristle at Thomas's tone of condescension, but his face remained blandly unconcerned. Curious. It seemed the two men had forged some sort of truce.

"And now," Thomas announced, looking squarely at his grandmother, "my work here is done. I have returned the prodigal son to your loving bosom, and all is right with the world. Not my world," he added,

"but someone's world, I'm sure."

"Not mine," Mr. Audley said, when no one else seemed inclined to comment. And then he unleashed a smile – slow, lazy, and meant to paint himself as the careless rogue he was. "In case you were interested."

Thomas looked at him, his nose crinkling in an expression of vague indifference. "I wasn't."

Grace's head bobbed back to Mr. Audley. He was still smiling. She looked to Thomas, waiting for him to say something more.

He dipped his head toward her in wry salute, then tossed back his liquor in one shockingly large swallow.

"I am going out."

"Where?" demanded the dowager.

Thomas paused in the doorway. "I have not yet decided."

Which meant, Grace was sure, anywhere but here.