The Lost Duke of Wyndham Chapter Sixteen

Jack did not sleep well that night, which left him irritable and out of sorts, so he dispensed with breakfast, where he was sure to run into persons with whom he might be expected to converse, and instead went directly outside for his now customary morning ride.

It was one of the finest things about horses - they never expected conversation.

He had no idea what he was meant to say to Grace once he saw her again. Lovely kissing you. Wish we'd done more.

It was the truth, even if he'd been the one to cut them off. He'd been aching for her all night.

He might have to marry this one.

Jack stopped cold. Where had that come from?

From your conscience, a niggling little voice - probably his conscience - told him.

Damn. He really needed to get a better night's sleep. His conscience was never this loud.

But could he? Marry her? It was certainly the only way he'd ever be able to bed her. Grace was not the sort of woman one dallied with. It wasn't a question of her birth, although that certainly was a factor. It was just... her. The way she was. Her uncommon dignity, her quiet and sly humor.

Marriage. What a curious notion.

It wasn't that he'd been avoiding it. It was just that he'd never considered it. He was rarely in one place for long enough to form a lasting attachment. And his income was, by nature of his profession, sporadic.

He wouldn't have dreamed of asking a woman to make a life with a highwayman.

Except he wasn't a highwayman. Not any longer. The dowager had seen to that.

"Lovely Lucy," Jack murmured, patting his gelding on the neck before dismounting at the stables. He supposed he ought to give the poor thing a man's name. They'd been together for so long, though. It'd be hard to make the change.

"My longest lasting attachment," Jack murmured to himself as he walked back to the house. "Now that's pathetic." Lucy was a prince, as far as horses went, but still, he was a horse.

What did he have to offer Grace? He looked up at Belgrave, looming over him like a stone monster, and almost laughed. A dukedom, possibly. Good Lord, but he didn't want the thing. It was too much.

And what if he wasn't the duke? He knew that he was, of course. His parents had been married; he was quite certain of that. But what if there was no proof? What if there had been a church fire? Or a flood? Or mice? Didn't mice nibble at paper? What if a mouse - no, what if an entire legion of mice had chewed through the vicarage register?

It could happen.

But what did he have to offer her if he was not the duke?

Nothing. Nothing at all. A horse named Lucy, and a grandmother who, he was growing increasingly convinced, was the spawn of Satan. He had no skills to speak of - it was difficult to imagine parlaying his talents at highway thievery into any sort of honest employment. And he would not go back into the army. Even if it was respectable, it would take him away from his wife, and wasn't that the entire point?

He supposed that Wyndham would pension him off with some cozy little rural property, as far away from Belgrave as possible. He would take it, of course; he'd never been one for misplaced pride. But what did he know about cozy little rural properties? He'd grown up in one but never bothered to pay attention to how it was run. He knew how to muck out a stall and flirt with the maids, but he was quite certain there was more to it than that, if one wanted to make a decent go of it.

And then there was Belgrave, still looming over him, still blotting out the sun. Good Lord, if he did not think he could properly manage a small rural property, what the devil would he do with this? Not to mention the dozen or so other holdings in the Wyndham portfolio. The dowager had listed them one night at supper. He couldn't begin to imagine the paperwork he'd be required to review. Mounds of contracts, and ledgers, and proposals, and letters - his brain hurt just thinking of it.

And yet, if he did not take the dukedom, if he somehow found a way to stop it all before it engulfed him - what would he have to offer Grace?

His stomach was protesting his skipped breakfast, so he made haste up the steps to the castle's entrance and went inside. The hall was quite busy, with servants moving through, carrying out their myriad tasks, and his entrance went mostly unnoticed, which he did not mind. He pulled off his gloves and was rubbing his hands together to warm them back up when he glimpsed Grace at the other end of the hall.

He did not think she'd seen him, and he started to go to her, but as he passed one of the drawing rooms, he heard an odd collection of voices and could not contain his curiosity. Pausing, he peeked in.

"Lady Amelia," he said with surprise. She was standing rather stiffly, her hands clasped tightly in front of her. He could not blame her. He was sure he'd feel tense and pinched if he were engaged to marry Wyndham.

He entered the room to greet her. "I did not realize you had graced us with your lovely presence."

It was then that he noticed Wyndham. He couldn't not, really. The duke was emitting a rather macabre sound. Almost like laughter.

Standing next to him was an older gentleman of middling height and paunch. He looked every inch the aristocrat, but his complexion was tanned and wind-worn, hinting at time spent out of doors.

Lady Amelia coughed and swallowed, looking rather queasy. "Er, Father," she said to the older man,

"may I present Mr. Audley? He is a houseguest at Belgrave. I made his acquaintance the other day when I was here visiting Grace."

"Where is Grace?" Wyndham said.

Something about his tone struck Jack as off, but nonetheless he said, "Just down the hall, actually. I was walking - "

"I'm sure you were," Wyndham snapped, not even looking at him. Then, to Lord Crowland: "Right. You wished to know my intentions."

Intentions? Jack stepped farther into the room. This could be nothing but interesting.

"This might not be the best time," Lady Amelia said.

"No," said Wyndham, his manner uncharacteristically grand. "This might be our only time."

While Jack was deciding what to make of that, Grace arrived. "You wished to see me, your grace?"

For a moment Wyndham was nonplussed. "Was I that loud?"

Graced motioned back toward the hall. "The footman heard you..."

Ah yes, footmen abounded at Belgrave. It did make one wonder why the dowager thought she might actually be able to keep the journey to Ireland a secret.

But if Wyndham minded, he did not show it. "Do come in, Miss Eversleigh," he said, sweeping his arm in welcome. "You might as well have a seat at this farce."

Jack began to feel uneasy. He did not know his newfound cousin well, nor did he wish to, but this was not his customary behavior. Wyndham was too dramatic, too grand. He was a man pushed to the edge and teetering badly. Jack recognized the signs. He had been there himself.

Should he intercede? He could make some sort of inane comment to pierce the tension. It might help, and it would certainly affirm what Wyndham already thought of him - rootless joker, not to be taken seriously.

Jack decided to hold his tongue.

He watched as Grace entered the room, taking a spot near the window. He was able to catch her eye, but only briefly. She looked just as puzzled as he, and a good deal more concerned.

"I demand to know what is going on," Lord Crowland said.

"Of course," Wyndham said. "How rude of me. Where are my manners?"

Jack looked over at Grace. She had her hand over her mouth.

"We've had quite an exciting week at Belgrave," Wyndham continued. "Quite beyond my wildest imaginings."

"Your meaning?" Lord Crowland said curtly.

"Ah, yes. You probably should know - this man, right here" - Thomas flicked a wrist toward Jack - "is my cousin. He might even be the duke." He looked at Lord Crowland and shrugged. "We're not sure."

Silence. And then:

"Oh dear God."

Jack looked sharply over to Lady Amelia. She'd gone white. He could not imagine what she must be thinking.

"The trip to Ireland..." her father was saying.

"Is to determine his legitimacy," Wyndham confirmed. And then, with a morbidly jolly expression, he continued, "It's going to be quite a party. Even my grandmother is going."

Jack fought to keep the shock off his face, then looked over at Grace. She, too, was staring at the duke in horror.

Lord Crowland's countenance, on the other hand, was nothing but grim. "We will join you," he said.

Lady Amelia lurched forward. "Father?"

Her father didn't even turn around. "Stay out of this, Amelia."

"But - "

"I assure you," Wyndham cut in, "we will make our determinations with all possible haste and report back to you immediately."

"My daughter's future hangs in the balance," Crowland returned hotly. "I will be there to examine the papers."

Wyndham's expression grew lethal, and his voice dangerously low. "Do you think we try to deceive you?"

"I only look out for my daughter's rights."

"Father, please." Amelia had come up to Crowland and placed her hand on his sleeve. "Please, just a moment."

"I said stay out of this!" her father yelled, and he shook her from his arm with enough force to cause her to stumble.

Jack stepped forward to aid her, but Wyndham was there before he could blink. "Apologize to your daughter," Wyndham said.

Crowland sputtered in confusion. "What the devil are you talking about?"

"Apologize to her!" Wyndham roared.

"Your grace," Amelia said, trying to insinuate herself between the two men. "Please, do not judge my father too harshly. These are exceptional circumstances."

"No one knows that more clearly than I." But Wyndham wasn't looking at her as he said it, nor did he remove his eyes from her father's face when he added, "Apologize to Amelia or I will have you removed from the estate."

And for the first time, Jack admired him. He had already realized that he respected him, but that was not the same thing. Wyndham was a bore, in his humble opinion, but everything he did, every last decision and action - they were for others. It was all for Wyndham - the heritage, not the person. It was impossible not to respect such a man.

But this was different. The duke wasn't standing up for his people, he was standing up for one person. It was a far more difficult thing to do.

And yet, looking at Wyndham now, he would say that it had come as naturally as breathing.

"I'm sorry," Lord Crowland finally said, looking as if he was not quite certain what had just happened.

"Amelia, you know I - "

"I know," she said, cutting him off.

And then finally Jack found himself at center stage.

"Who is this man?" Lord Crowland asked, thrusting an arm in his direction.

Jack turned to Wyndham and quirked a brow, allowing him to answer.

"He is the son of my father's elder brother," Wyndham told Lord Crowland.

"Charles?" Amelia asked.


Lord Crowland nodded, still directing his questions to Wyndham. "Are you certain of this?"

Thomas only shrugged. "You may look at the portrait yourself."

"But his name - "

"Was Cavendish at birth," Jack cut in. If he was going to be the subject of the discussion, he would bloody well be given a place in it. "I went by Cavendish-Audley at school. You may check the records, should you wish."

"Here?" Crowland asked.

"In Enniskillen. I only came to England after serving in the army."

"I am satisfied that he is a blood relation," Wyndham said quietly. "All that remains is to determine whether he is also one by law."

Jack looked to him in surprise. It was the first time he had publicly acknowledged him aloud as a relative.

The earl did not comment. Not directly, at least. He just muttered, "This is a disaster," and walked over to the window.

And said nothing.

Nor did anyone else.

And then, in a voice low and furious, came the earl's comment. "I signed the contract in good faith," he said, still staring out over the lawn. "Twenty years ago, I signed the contract."

Still no one spoke.

Abruptly, he turned around. "Do you understand?" he demanded, glaring at Wyndham. "Your father came to me with his plans, and I agreed to them, believing you to be the rightful heir to the dukedom.

She was to be a duchess. A duchess! Do you think I would have signed away my daughter had I known you were nothing but...but..."

But one such as me, Jack wanted to say. But for once it did not seem the time or the place for a light, sly quip.

And then Wyndham -  Thomas, Jack suddenly decided he wished to call him - stared the earl down and said, "You may call me Mr. Cavendish, if you so desire. If you think it might help you to accustom yourself to the idea."

It was exactly what Jack would have wanted to say. If he'd been in Thomas's shoes. If he'd thought of it.

But the earl was not cowed by the sarcastic rebuke. He glared at Thomas, practically shaking as he hissed, "I will not allow my daughter to be cheated. If you do not prove to be the right and lawful Duke of Wyndham, you may consider the betrothal null and void."

"As you wish," Thomas said curtly. He made no argument, no indication that he might wish to fight for his betrothed.

Jack looked over at Lady Amelia, then looked away. There were some things, some emotions, a gentleman could not watch.

But when he turned back, he found himself face-to-face with the earl. Her father. And the man's finger was pointed at his chest.

"If that is the case," he said, "if you are the Duke of Wyndham, then you will marry her."

It took a great deal to render Jack Audley speechless. This, however, had done it.

When he regained his voice, after a rather unattractive choking sound he assumed had come from his throat, he managed the following:

"Oh. No."

"Oh, you will," Crowland warned him. "You will marry her if I have to march you to the altar with my blunderbuss at your back."

"Father," Lady Amelia cried out, "you cannot do this."

Crowland ignored his daughter completely. "My daughter is betrothed to the Duke of Wyndham, and the Duke of Wyndham she will marry."

"I am not the Duke of Wyndham," Jack said, recovering some of his composure.

"Not yet. Perhaps not ever. But I will be present when the truth comes out. And I will make sure she marries the right man."

Jack took his measure. Lord Crowland was not a feeble man, and although he did not exude quite the same haughty power as Wyndham, he clearly knew his worth and his place in society. He would not allow his daughter to be wronged.

Jack respected that. If he had a daughter, he supposed he'd do the same. But not, he hoped, at the expense of an innocent man.

He looked at Grace. Just for a moment. Fleeting, but he caught the expression in her eyes, the subdued horror at the unfolding scene.

He would not give her up. Not for any bloody title, and certainly not to honor someone else's betrothal contract.

"This is madness," Jack said, looking around the room, unable to believe that he was the only one speaking in his defense. "I do not even know her."

"That is hardly a concern," Crowland said gruffly.

"You are mad," Jack exclaimed. "I am not going to marry her." He looked quickly at Amelia, then wished he hadn't. "My pardons, my lady," he practically mumbled. "It is not personal."

Her head jerked a bit, fast and pained. It wasn't a yes, or a no, but more of a stricken acknowledgment, the sort of motion one made when it was all one was capable of.

It ripped Jack straight through his gut.

No, he told himself. This is not your responsibility. You do not have to make it right.

And all around him, no one said a word in his defense. Grace, he understood, since it was not her position to do so, but by God, what about Wyndham? Didn't he care that Crowland was trying to give his fiancee away?

But the duke just stood there, still as a stone, his eyes burning with something Jack could not identify.

"I did not agree to this," Jack said. "I signed no contract." Surely that had to mean something.

"Neither did he," Crowland responded, with a shrug in Wyndham's direction. "His father did it."

"In his name," Jack fairly yelled.

"That is where you are wrong, Mr. Audley. It did not specify his name at all. My daughter, Amelia Honoria Rose, was to marry the seventh Duke of Wyndham."

"Really?" This, finally, from Thomas.

"Have you not looked at the papers?" Jack demanded.

"No," Thomas said simply. "I never saw the need."

"Good God," Jack swore, "I have fallen in with a band of bloody idiots."

No one contradicted him, he noticed. He looked desperately to Grace, who had to be the one sane member of humanity left in the building. But she would not meet his eyes.

That was enough. He had to put an end to this. He stood straight and looked hard into Lord Crowland's face. "Sir," he said, "I will not marry your daughter."

"Oh, you will."

But this was not said by Crowland. It was Thomas, stalking across the room, his eyes burning with barely contained rage. He did not stop until they were nearly nose-to-nose.

"What did you say?" Jack asked, certain he'd heard incorrectly. From all he had seen, which, admittedly, wasn't much, Thomas rather liked his little fiancee.

"This woman," Thomas said, motioning back to Amelia, "has spent her entire life preparing to be the Duchess of Wyndham. I will not permit you to leave her life in shambles."

Around them the room went utterly still.

Except for Amelia, who looked ready to crumble.

"Do you understand me?"

And Jack...Well, he was Jack, and so he simply lifted his brows, and he didn't quite smirk, but he was quite certain that his smile clearly lacked sincerity. He looked Thomas in the eye.


Thomas said nothing.

"No, I don't understand." Jack shrugged. "Sorry."

Thomas looked at him. And then: "I believe I will kill you."

Lady Amelia let out a shriek and leapt forward, grabbing onto Thomas seconds before he could attack Jack.

"You may steal my life away," Thomas growled, just barely allowing her to subdue him. "You may steal my very name, but by God you will not steal hers."

"She has a name," Jack said. "It's Willoughby. And for the love of God, she's the daughter of an earl.

She'll find someone else."

"If you are the Duke of Wyndham," Thomas said furiously, "you will honor your commitments."

"If I'm the Duke of Wyndham, then you can't tell me what to do."

"Amelia," Thomas said with deadly calm, "release my arm."

If anything, she pulled him back. "I don't think that's a good idea."

Lord Crowland chose that moment to step between them. "Er, gentlemen, this is all hypothetical at this point. Perhaps we should wait until - "

And then Jack saw his escape. "I wouldn't be the seventh duke, anyway," he said.

"I beg your pardon?" Crowland said, as if Jack were some irritant and not the man he was attempting to bludgeon into marrying his daughter.

"I wouldn't." Jack thought furiously, trying to put together all the details of the family history he'd learned in the past few days. He looked at Thomas. "Would I? Because your father was the sixth duke.

Except he wasn't. Would he have been? If I was?"

"What the devil are you talking about?" Crowland demanded.

But Jack saw that Thomas understood his point precisely. And indeed, he said, "Your father died before his own father. If your parents were married, then you would have inherited upon the fifth duke's death, eliminating my father - and myself - from the succession entirely."

"Which makes me number six," Jack said quietly.


"Then I am not bound to honor the contract," Jack declared. "No court in the land would hold me to it. I doubt they'd do so even if I were the seventh duke."

"It is not to a legal court you must appeal," Thomas said, "but to the court of your own moral responsibility."

"I did not ask for this," Jack said.

"Neither," Thomas said softly, "did I."

Jack said nothing. His voice felt like it was trapped in his chest, pounding and rumbling and squeezing out the air. The room was growing hot, and his cravat felt tight, and in that moment, as his life was flipping and spiraling out of his control, he knew only one thing for certain.

He had to get out.

He looked over for Grace, but she'd moved. She was standing now by Amelia, holding her hand.

He would not give her up. He could not. For the first time in his life he'd found someone who filled all the empty spaces in his heart.

He did not know who he would be, once they went to Ireland and found whatever it was they all thought they were looking for. But whoever he was - duke, highwayman, soldier, rogue - he wanted her by his side.

He loved her.

He loved her.

There were a million reasons he did not deserve her, but he loved her. And he was a selfish bastard, but he was going to marry her. He'd find a way. No matter who he was or what he owned.

Maybe he was engaged to Amelia. He probably wasn't smart enough to understand the legalities of it all - certainly not without the contract in hand and someone to translate the legalspeak for him.

He would marry Grace. He would.

But first he had to go to Ireland.

He couldn't marry Grace until he knew what he was, but more than that - he could not marry her until he'd atoned for his sins.

And that could only be done in Ireland.

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