The Lost Duke of Wyndham (Chapter Twelve)
This was profoundly irritating. He had long prided himself on his ability to fall asleep at will. It had come in handy during his years as a soldier. No one ever managed to acquire the correct sleep, either in quality or amount. He would steal his slumber where he could, and his friends had been eternally jealous that he could prop up against a tree, close his eyes, and be asleep within three minutes.
But not, apparently, today, even though he'd traded a knobby tree for the finest mattress money could buy. He closed his eyes, took his customary long, slow breaths, and…nothing.
Nothing but Grace.
He'd like to have said she was haunting him, but that would have been a lie. It wasn't her fault that he was a fool. And in truth, it wasn't just that he was completely desperate for her (although he was, and most uncomfortably, too). He couldn't get her out of his mind because he didn't want to get her out of his mind. Because if he stopped thinking about Grace, he would have to start thinking about other things.
The possibility of his being the Duke of Wyndham, for one.
Possibility…Bah. He knew it was true. His parents had been married. All that was needed was to locate the parish register.
He closed his eyes, trying to push back the overwhelming feeling of dread that was bearing down on him.
He should have just lied and said that his parents had never wed. But blast it, he had not known the consequences when he said that they had. No one had told him he'd be crowned the bloody duke. All he'd known was that he was so damned furious with the dowager for kidnapping him and with Wyndham for staring at him like he was something to be swept under the rug.
And then Wyndham had said, in that smarmy, superior voice of his: If indeed your parents were married….
Jack had snapped out his reply before he had a chance to consider the consequences of his actions. These people were not better than he was. They had no right to cast aspersions on his parents.
It was too late now, though. Even if he tried to lie and recant his words, the dowager would not rest until she'd burned a trail through Ireland in search of the marriage documents.
She wanted him to inherit, that much was clear. It was difficult to imagine her caring for anyone, but she had apparently adored her middle son.
And even though the dowager had not shown any particular fondness for him – not that he had made much of an effort to impress – she clearly preferred him over her other grandson. Jack had no idea what had transpired between the dowager and the current duke, if anything. But there was little affection between the pair.
Jack stood and walked to the window, finally admitting defeat and giving up on the notion of sleep. The morning sun was already bright and high in the sky, and he was suddenly seized by a need to be out of doors, or rather, out of Belgrave. Strange, that one could feel so closed-in in such a massive dwelling.
But he did, and he wanted out.
Jack strode across the room and snatched up his coat. It was satisfyingly shabby atop the fine apparel of Wyndham's he'd donned that morning. He almost hoped he bumped into the dowager, just so she could see him all dusty and road-worn.
Almost. But not quite.
With quick, long strides he made his way down to the main hall, just about the only location he knew how to get to. His footsteps were annoyingly loud on the marble as he walked forth. Everything seemed to echo here. It was too big, too impersonal, too –
He stopped. It was a female voice. Not Grace. Young, though. Unsure of her surroundings.
"Is that – I'm so sorry." It was indeed a young woman, of medium height, blond, with rather fetching hazel eyes. She was standing near the doorway of the drawing room he had been dragged into the day before. Her cheeks were delightfully pink, with a smattering of freckles he was sure she detested. (All women did, he'd learned.) There was something exceptionally pleasant about her, he decided. If he weren't so obsessed with Grace, he would flirt with her.
"Sorry to disappoint," he murmured, offering her a roguish smile. This wasn't flirting. This was how he conversed with all ladies. The difference was in the intention.
"No," she said quickly, "of course not. It was my mistake. I was just sitting back there." She motioned behind her to a seating area. "You looked rather like the duke as you walked by."
This must be the fiancee, Jack realized. How interesting. It was difficult to imagine why Wyndham was dragging his heels on the marriage. He swept into a gracious bow. "Captain Jack Audley, at your service, ma'am." It had been some time since he'd introduced himself with his military rank, but somehow it seemed the thing to do.
She bobbed a polite curtsy. "Lady Amelia Willoughby."
"You know him, then? Oh, well, of course you do. You are a guest here. Oh, you must be his fencing partner."
"He told you about me?" The day grew more interesting by the second.
"Not much," she admitted. She blinked, staring at a spot that was not his eyes. He realized that she was looking at his cheek, which was still discolored from his altercation with her fiance the day before.
"Ah, this," he murmured, affecting mild embarrassment. "It looks much worse than it actually is."
She wanted to ask about it. He could see it in her eyes. He wondered if she'd seen Wyndham's blackened eye. That would certainly set her curiosity on fire.
"Tell me, Lady Amelia," he said conversationally, "what color is it today?"
"Your cheek?" she asked with some surprise.
"Indeed. Bruises tend to look worse as they age, have you noticed? Yesterday it was quite purple, almost regally so, with a hint of blue in it. I haven't checked in the mirror lately." He turned his head to offer her a better view. "Is it still as attractive?"
Her eyes widened, and for a moment she seemed not to know what to say. Jack wondered if she was unused to men flirting with her. Shame on Wyndham. He had done her a great disservice.
"Er, no," she replied. "I would not call it attractive."
He laughed. "No mincing words for you, eh?"
"I'm afraid those blue undertones of which you were so proud have gone a bit green."
He leaned in with a warm smile. "To match my eyes?"
"No," she said, seemingly immune to his charms, "not with the purple overlaying it. It looks quite horrible."
"Purple mixed with green makes…?"
"Quite a mess."
Jack laughed again. "You are charming, Lady Amelia. But I am sure your fiance tells you that on every possible occasion."
She did not reply. Not that she could; her only possible answers were yes, which would reveal her conceit, or no, which would reveal Wyndham's negligence. Neither was what a lady wished to show to the world.
"Do you await him here?" he asked, thinking to himself that it was time to end the conversation. Lady Amelia was charming, and he could not deny a certain level of entertainment that came from making her acquaintance without Wyndham's knowledge, but he was still a bit wound up inside, and he was looking forward to time out of doors.
"No, I just – " She cleared her throat. "I am here to see Miss Eversleigh."
And who was to say that a man could not acquire a bit of fresh air in a drawing room? One had only to crack open a window.
"Have you met Miss Eversleigh?" Lady Amelia asked.
"Indeed I have. She is most lovely."
"Yes." There was a pause, just long enough for Jack to wonder at it. "She is universally admired," Lady Amelia finished.
Jack thought about making trouble for Wyndham. A simple, murmured, It must be difficult for you, with so beautiful a lady in residence here at Belgrave, would go a long way. But it would make equal trouble for Grace, which he was not prepared to do. And so instead he chose the bland and boring: "Are you and Miss Eversleigh acquaintances?"
"Yes. I mean, no. More than that, I should say. I have known Grace since childhood. She is most friendly with my elder sister."
"And surely with you, as well."
"Of course." Lady Amelia acceded. "But more so with my sister. They are of an age, you see."
"Ah, the plight of the younger sibling," he murmured.
"You share the experience?"
"Not at all," he said with a grin. "I was the one ignoring the hangers-on." He thought back to his days with the Audleys. Edward had been but six months younger, and Arthur a mere eighteen months after that. Poor Arthur had been left out of any number of escapades, and yet wasn't it interesting – it was Arthur with whom he had ultimately formed the strongest bond.
Arthur had been uncommonly perceptive. They shared that. Jack had always been good at reading people. He'd had to. Sometimes it was his only means of gathering information. But as a boy he'd viewed Arthur as an annoying little whelp; it wasn't until they were both students at Portora Royal that he realized that Arthur saw everything, too.
And although he had never come out and said it, Jack knew that he'd seen everything in him as well.
But he refused to grow maudlin. Not right now, not with a charming lady for company and the promise of another at any moment. And so he pushed more happy thoughts of Arthur to the forefront of his mind and said, "I was the eldest of the brood. A fortuitous position, I think. I should have been most unhappy not to have been in charge."
Lady Amelia smiled at that. "I am the second of five, so I can appreciate your sentiments as well."
"Five! All girls?" he guessed.
"How did you know?"
"I have no idea," he said quite honestly, "except that it is such a charming image. It would have been a shame to have sullied it with a male."
"Is your tongue always this silver, Captain Audley?"
He gave her one of his best half smiles. "Except when it's gold."
They both turned. Grace had entered the room.
"And Mr. Audley," she said, looking surprised to see him there.
"Oh, I'm sorry," Lady Amelia said, turning to him. "I thought it was Captain Audley."
"It is," he said with a very slight shrug. "Depending upon my mood." He turned to Grace and bowed. "It is indeed a privilege to see you again so soon, Miss Eversleigh."
She blushed. He wondered if Lady Amelia noticed.
"I did not realize you were here," Grace said after bobbing a curtsy.
"There is no reason why you should have done. I was heading outside for a restorative walk when Lady Amelia intercepted me."
"I thought he was Wyndham," Lady Amelia said. "Isn't that the oddest thing?"
"Indeed," Grace replied, looking acutely uncomfortable.
"Of course I was not paying much attention," Lady Amelia continued, "which I am sure explains it. I only caught sight of him out of the corner of my eye as he strode past the open doorway."
Jack turned to Grace. "It makes so much sense when put that way, does it not?"
"So much sense," Grace echoed. She glanced over her shoulder.
"Are you waiting for someone, Miss Eversleigh?" Jack inquired.
"No, I was just thinking that his grace might like to join us. Er, since his fiancee is here, of course."
"Is he returned, then?" Jack murmured. "I was not aware."
"That is what I have been told," Grace said, and he was certain that she was lying, although he could not imagine why. "I have not seen him myself."
"Alas," Jack said, "he has been absent for some time."
Grace swallowed. "I think I should get him."
"But you only just got here."
"Nonetheless – "
"We shall ring for him," Jack said, since he wasn't going to allow her such an easy escape. Not to mention that he was rather looking forward to the duke discovering him here with both Grace and Lady Amelia. He crossed the room and gave the bellpull a yank. "There," he said. "It is done."
Grace smiled uncomfortably and moved to the sofa. "I believe I will sit down."
"I will join you," Lady Amelia said with alacrity. She hurried after Grace and took a seat right beside her.
Together they sat, stiff and awkward.
"What a fetching tableau the two of you make," he said, because really, how could he not tease them?
"And me, without my oils."
"Do you paint, Mr. Audley?" Lady Amelia inquired.
"Alas, no. But I have been thinking I might take some lessons. It is a noble pursuit for a gentleman, wouldn't you say?"
Silence, then Lady Amelia nudged Grace. "Mr. Audley is a great appreciator of art," Grace blurted out.
"You must be enjoying your stay at Belgrave, then," Lady Amelia said. Her face was the perfect picture of polite interest. He wondered how long it had taken her to hone the expression. As the daughter of an earl, she would have any number of social obligations. He imagined that the expression – placid and unmoving, yet not unfriendly – was quite useful.
"I look forward to touring the collections," Jack replied. "Miss Eversleigh has consented to show them to me."
Lady Amelia turned to Grace as best she could, considering that they were wedged up against one another. "That was very kind of you, Grace."
Grace grunted something that was probably meant to be a response.
"We plan to avoid cupids," Jack said.
"Cupids?" Lady Amelia echoed.
Grace looked the other way.
"I have discovered that I am not fond of them."
Lady Amelia regarded him with a curious mixture of irritation and disbelief.
Jack glanced at Grace to gauge her reaction, then returned his attention to Lady Amelia. "I can see that you disagree, Lady Amelia."
"What is there not to like about cupids?"
He perched himself on the arm of the opposite sofa. "You don't find them rather dangerous?"
"Chubby little babies?"
"Carrying deadly weapons," he reminded her.
"They are not real arrows."
He made another attempt to draw Grace into the conversation. "What do you think, Miss Eversleigh?"
"I don't often think about cupids," she said tersely.
"And yet we have already discussed them twice, you and I."
"Because you brought them up."
Jack turned to Lady Amelia. "My dressing room is positively awash in them."
Lady Amelia turned to Grace. "You were in his dressing room?"
"Not with him," Grace practically snapped. "But I have certainly seen it before."
Jack smiled to himself, wondering what it said about him that he so liked making trouble.
"Pardon," Grace muttered, clearly embarrassed by her outburst.
"Mr. Audley," Lady Amelia said, turning to him with determination.
"Would it be rude if Miss Eversleigh and I took a turn about the room?"
"Of course not," he said, even though he could see in her face that in fact she did think it was rude. But he did not mind. If the ladies wished to share confidences, he was not going to stand in their way.
Besides, he enjoyed watching Grace move.
"Thank you for your understanding," Lady Amelia said, linking her arm through Grace's and pulling them both to their feet. "I do feel the need to stretch my legs, and I fear that your stride would be far too brisk for a lady."
How she uttered that without choking on her tongue, he did not know. But he merely smiled and watched them as they moved as one to the window, leaving him behind and out of earshot.