The Lost Duke of Wyndham Chapter Ten


Jack's usual response when delivered unpleasant tidings was to smile. This was his response to pleasant news as well, of course, but anyone could grin when offered a compliment. It took talent to curve one's lips in an upward direction when ordered, say, to clean out a chamber pot or risk one's life by sneaking behind enemy lines to determine troop numbers.

But he generally managed it. Excrement...moving defenseless among the French...he always reacted with a dry quip and a lazy smile.

This was not something he'd had to cultivate. Indeed, the midwife who'd brought him into the world swore to her dying day that he was the only baby she'd ever seen who emerged from his mother's womb smiling.

He disliked conflict. He always had, which had made his chosen professions - the military, followed by genteel crime - somewhat interesting. But firing a weapon at a nameless frog or lifting a necklace from the neck of an overfed aristocrat - this was not conflict.

Conflict - to Jack - was personal. It was a lover's betrayal, a friend's insult. It was two brothers vying for their father's approval, a poor relation forced to swallow her pride. It involved a sneer, or a shrill voice, and it left a body wondering if he'd offended someone.

Or disappointed another.

He had found, with a near one hundred percent success rate, that a grin and a jaunty remark could defuse almost any situation. Or change any topic. Which meant that he very rarely had to discuss matters that were not of his choosing.

Nonetheless, this time, when faced with the dowager and her unexpected (although, really, he should have expected it) announcement, all he could do was stare at her and say, "I beg your pardon?"

"We must go to Ireland," she said again, in that obey-me tone he expected she had been born with.

"There is no way we shall get to the bottom of the matter without visiting the site of the marriage. I assume Irish churches keep records?"

Good God, did she think all of them were illiterate? Jack forced down a bit of bile and said quite tightly,


"Good." The dowager turned back to her breakfast, the matter good and settled in her mind. "We shall find whoever performed the ceremony and obtain the register. It is the only way."

Jack felt his fingers bending and flexing beneath the table. It felt as if his blood were going to burst through his skin. "Wouldn't you prefer to send someone in your stead?" he inquired.

The dowager regarded him as she might an idiot. "Who could I possibly trust with a matter of such importance? No, it must be me. And you, of course, and Wyndham, since I expect he will want to see whatever proof we locate as well."

The usual Jack would never have let such a comment pass without his own, exceedingly ironic, One would think, but this current Jack - the one who was desperately trying to figure out how he might travel to Ireland without being seen by his aunt, uncle, or any of his cousins - actually bit his lip.

"Mr. Audley?" Grace said quietly.

He didn't look at her. He refused to look at her. She'd see far more in his face than the dowager ever would.

"Of course," he said briskly. "Of course we must go." Because really, what else could he say? Terribly sorry, but I can't go to Ireland, as I killed my cousin?

Jack had been out of society for a number of years, but he was fairly certain this would not be considered good breakfast table conversation.

And yes, he knew that he had not pulled a trigger, and yes, he knew that he had not forced Arthur to buy a commission and enter the army along with him, and yes - and this was the worst of it - he knew that his aunt would never even dream of blaming him for Arthur's death.

But he had known Arthur. And more importantly, Arthur had known him. Better than anyone. He'd known his every strength - and his every weakness - and when Jack had finally closed the door on his disastrous university career and headed off to the military, Arthur had refused to allow him to go alone.

And they both knew why.

"It might be somewhat ambitious to try to depart tomorrow," Grace said. "You will have to secure passage, and - "

"Bah!" was the dowager's response. "Wyndham's secretary can manage it. It's about time he earned his wages. And if not tomorrow, then the next day."

"Will you wish for me to accompany you?" Grace asked quietly.

Jack was just about to interject that, damn yes, she'd be going, or else he would not, but the dowager gave her a haughty look and replied, "Of course. You do not think I would make such a journey without a companion? I cannot bring maids - the gossip, you know - and so I will need someone to help me dress."

"You know that I am not very good with hair," Grace pointed out, and to Jack's horror, he laughed. It was just a short little burst of it, tinged with a loathsome nervous edge, but it was enough for both ladies to stop their conversation, and their meal, and turn to him.

Oh. Brilliant. How was he to explain this? Don't mind me, I was simply laughing at the ludicrousness of it all. You with your hair, me with my dead cousin.

"Do you find my hair amusing?" the dowager asked sharply.

And Jack, because he had absolutely nothing to lose, just shrugged and said, "A bit."

The dowager let out an indignant huff, and Grace positively glared at him.

"Women's hair always amuses me," he clarified. "So much work, when all anyone really wants is to see it down."

They both seemed to relax a bit. His comment may have been risque, but it took the personal edge off the insult. The dowager tossed one last irritated look in his direction, then turned to Grace to continue their previous conversation. "You may spend the morning with Maria," she directed. "She will show you what to do. It can't be that difficult. Pull one of the scullery maids up from the kitchen and practice upon her.

She'll be grateful for the opportunity, I'm sure."

Grace looked not at all enthused, but she nodded and murmured, "Of course."

"See to it that the kitchen work does not suffer," the dowager said, finishing the last of her stewed apples.

"An elegant coiffure is compensation enough."

"For what?" Jack asked.

The dowager turned to him, her nose somehow looking pointier than usual.

"Compensation for what?" he restated, since he felt like being contrary.

The dowager stared at him a moment longer, then must have decided he was best ignored, because she turned back to Grace. "You may commence packing my things once you are done with Maria. And after that, see to it that a suitable story is set about for our absence." She waved her hand in the air as if it were a trifle. "A hunting cottage in Scotland will do nicely. The Borders, I should think. No one will believe it if you say I went to the Highlands."

Grace nodded silently.

"Somewhere off the well-trod path, however," the dowager continued, looking as if she were enjoying herself. "The last thing I need is for one of my friends to attempt to see me."

"Do you have many friends?" Jack asked, his tone so perfectly polite that she'd be wondering all day if she'd been insulted.

"The dowager is much admired," Grace said quickly, perfect little companion that she was.

Jack decided not to comment.

"Have you ever been to Ireland?" Grace asked the dowager. But Jack caught the angry look she shot him before turning to her employer.

"Of course not." The dowager's face pinched. "Why on earth would I have done so?"

"It is said to have a soothing effect on one's temperament," Jack said.

"Thus far," the dowager retorted, "I am not much impressed with its influences upon one's manners."

He smiled. "You find me impolite?"

"I find you impertinent."

Jack turned to Grace with a sad sigh. "And here I thought I was meant to be the prodigal grandson, able to do no wrong."

"Everyone does wrong," the dowager said sharply. "The question is how little wrong one does."

"I would think," Jack said quietly, "that it is more important what one does to rectify the wrong."

"Or perhaps," the dowager snapped angrily, "one could manage not to make the mistake in the first place."

Jack leaned forward, interested now. "What did my father do that was so very very wrong?"

"He died," she said, and her voice was so bitter and full of chill that Jack heard Grace suck in her breath from across the table.

"Surely you cannot blame him for that," Jack murmured. "A freak storm, a leaky boat..."

"He should never have stayed so long in Ireland," the dowager hissed. "He should never have gone in the first place. He was needed here."

"By you," Jack said softly.

The dowager's face lost some of its usual stiffness, and for a moment he thought he saw her eyes grow moist. But whatever emotion came over her, it was swiftly tamped down, and she stabbed at her bacon and bit off, "He was needed here. By all of us."

Grace suddenly stood. "I will go find Maria now, your grace, if that is amenable."

Jack rose along with her. There was no way she was leaving him alone with the dowager. "I believe you promised me a tour of the castle," he murmured.

Grace looked from the dowager to him and back again. Finally the dowager flicked her hand in the air and said, "Oh, take him about. He should see his birthright before we leave. You may have your session with Maria later. I will remain and await Wyndham."

But as they reached the doorway, they heard her add softly, "If that is indeed still his name."

Grace was too angry to wait politely outside the doorway, and indeed, she was already halfway down the hall before Mr. Audley caught up with her.

"Is this a tour or a race?" he asked, his lips forming that now familiar smile. But this time it did nothing but raise her ire.

"Why did you bait her?" she burst out. "Why would you do such a thing?"

"The comment about her hair, do you mean?" he asked, and he gave her one of those annoying innocent whatever-could-I-have-done-wrong looks. When of course he had to have known, perfectly well.

"Everything," she replied hotly. "We were having a perfectly lovely breakfast, and then you - "

"You might have been having a perfectly lovely breakfast," he cut in, and his voice held a newly sharp edge. "I was conversing with Medusa."

"Yes, but you didn't have to make things worse by provoking her."

"Isn't that what his holiness does?"

Grace stared at him in angry confusion. "What are you talking about?"

"Sorry." He shrugged. "The duke. I've not noticed that he holds his tongue in her presence. I thought to emulate."

"Mr. Aud - "

"Ah, but I misspoke. He's not holy, is he? Merely perfect."

She could do nothing but stare. What had Thomas done to earn such contempt? By all rights Thomas should be the one in a blackened mood. He probably was, to be fair, but at least he'd taken himself off to be furious elsewhere.

"His grace, it is, isn't it?" Mr. Audley continued, his voice losing none of his derision. "I'm not so uneducated that I don't know the correct forms of address."

"I never said you were. Neither, I might add, did the dowager." Grace let out an irritated exhale. "She shall be difficult all day now."

"She isn't normally difficult?"

Good heavens, she wanted to hit him. Of course the dowager was normally difficult. He knew that. What could he possibly have to gain by remarking upon it other than the enhancement of his oh so dry and wry persona?

"She shall be worse," she ground out. "And I shall be the one to pay for it."

"My apologies, then," he said, and he offered a contrite bow.

Grace felt suddenly uncomfortable. Not because she thought he was mocking her, but rather because she was quite sure he was not. "It was nothing," she mumbled. "It is not your place to worry over my situation."

"Does Wyndham?"

Grace looked up at him, somehow captured by the directness of his gaze. "No," she said softly. "Yes, he does, but no..."

No, he didn't. Thomas did look out for her, and had, on more than one occasion, interceded when he felt she was being treated unfairly, but he never held his tongue with his grandmother just to keep the peace.

And Grace would never dream of asking him to. Or scold him for not doing so.

He was the duke. She could not speak to him that way, no matter their friendship.

But Mr. Audley was...

She closed her eyes for a moment, turning away so he could not see the turmoil on her face. He was just Mr. Audley for now, not so very far above her. But the dowager's voice, soft and menacing, still rang in her ears -

If that is indeed still his name.

She was speaking of Thomas, of course. But the counterpart was true as well. If Thomas was not Wyndham, then Mr. Audley was.

And this man...this man who had kissed her twice and made her dream of something beyond the walls of this castle - he would be this castle. The dukedom wasn't just a few words appended to the end of one's name. It was lands, it was money, it was the very history of England placed upon one man's shoulders.

And if there was one thing she had learned during her five years at Belgrave, it was that the aristocracy were different from the rest of humanity. They were mortals, true, and they bled and cried just like everyone else, but they carried within them something that set them apart.

It didn't make them better. No matter the dowager's lectures on the subject, Grace would never believe that. But they were different. And they were shaped by the knowledge of their history and their roles.

If Mr. Audley's birth had been legitimate, then he was the Duke of Wyndham, and she was an overreaching spinster for even dreaming of his face.

Grace took a deep, restorative breath, and then, once her nerves were sufficiently calmed, turned back to him. "Which part of the castle would you like to see, Mr. Audley?"

He must have recognized that this was not the time to press her, and so he answered cheerfully, "Why, all of it, of course, but I imagine that is not feasible for a single morning. Where do you suggest we begin?"

"The gallery?" He had been so interested in the paintings in his room the night before. It seemed a logical place to start.

"And gaze upon the friendly faces of my supposed ancestors?" His nostrils flared, and for a moment he almost looked as if he'd swallowed something distasteful. "I think not. I've had enough of my ancestors for one morning, thank you very much."

"These are dead ancestors," Grace murmured, hardly able to believe her cheek.

"Which is how I prefer them, but not this morning."

She glanced across the hall to where she could see sunlight dappling in through a window. "I could show you the gardens."

"I'm not dressed for it."

"The conservatory?"

He tapped his ear. "Made of tin, I'm afraid."

She pressed her lips together, waited a moment, then said, "Do you have any location in mind?"

"Many," he answered promptly, "but they'd leave your reputation in tatters."

"Mr. Au - "

"Jack," he reminded her, and somehow there was less space between them. "You called me Jack last night."

Grace did not move, despite the fact that her heels were itching to scoot backwards. He was not close enough to kiss her, not even close enough to accidentally brush his hand against her arm. But her lungs felt suddenly devoid of air, and her heart had begun to race, beating erratically in her chest.

She could feel it forming on her tongue -  Jack. But she could not say it. Not in this moment, with the image of him as the duke still fresh in her mind. "Mr. Audley," she said, and although she tried for sternness, she did not quite manage it.

"I am heartbroken," he said, and he did it with the exact right note of levity to restore her equilibrium.

"But I shall carry on, painful though it may be."

"Yes, you look to be in despair," she murmured.

One of his brows rose. "Do I detect a hint of sarcasm?"

"Just a hint."

"Good, because I assure you" - he thumped one hand against his heart - "I am dying on the inside."

She laughed, but she tried to hold it in, so it came out more like a snort. It should have been embarrassing; with anyone else it would have been. But he had set her back at ease, and instead she felt herself smile. She wondered if he realized what a talent it was - to return any conversation to a smile.

"Come with me, Mr. Audley," she said, motioning for him to accompany her down the hall. "I shall show you my very favorite room."

"Are there cupids?"

She blinked. "I beg your pardon?"

"I was attacked by cupids this morning," he said with a shrug, as if such a thing were a common day occurrence. "In my dressing room."

And again she smiled, this time even more broadly. "Ah. I'd forgotten. It's a bit much, isn't it?"

"Unless one is partial to naked babies."

Again her laughter snorted out.

"Something in your throat?" he asked innocently.

She answered him with a dry look, then said, "I believe the dressing room was decorated by the present duke's great-grandmother."

"Yes, I'd assumed it wasn't the dowager," he said cheerfully. "She doesn't seem the sort for cherubs of any stripe."

The image that brought forth was enough to make her laugh aloud.

"Finally," he said, and at her curious look, added, "I thought you were going to choke on it earlier."

"You seem to have regained your good mood as well," she pointed out.

"It requires only the removal of my presence from her presence."

"But you only just met the dowager yesterday. Surely you've had a disagreeable moment before that."

He flashed her a broad grin. "Happy since the day I was born."

"Oh, come now, Mr. Audley."

"I never admit to my black moods."

She raised her brows. "You merely experience them?"

He chuckled at that. "Indeed."

They walked companionably toward the rear of the house, Mr. Audley occasionally pressing her for information of their destination.

"I shan't tell you," Grace said, trying to ignore the giddy sense of anticipation that had begun to slide through her. "It sounds like nothing special in words."

"Just another drawing room, eh?"

To anyone else, perhaps, but for her it was magical.

"How many are there, by the way?" he asked.

She paused, trying to count. "I am not certain. The dowager is partial to only three, so we rarely use the others."

"Dusty and molding?"

She smiled. "Cleaned every day."

"Of course." He looked about him, and it occurred to her that he did not seem cowed by the grandeur of his surroundings, just...amused.

No, not amused. It was more of a wry disbelief, as if he were still wondering if he could trade this all in and get himself kidnapped by a different dowager duchess. Perhaps one with a smaller castle.

"Penny for your thoughts, Miss Eversleigh," he said. "Although I'm sure they are worth a pound."

"More than that," she said over her shoulder. His mood was infectious, and she felt like a coquette. It was unfamiliar. Unfamiliar and lovely.

He held up his hands in surrender. "Too steep a price, I'm afraid. I am but an impoverished highwayman."

She cocked her head. "Wouldn't that make you an unsuccessful highwayman?"

"Touche," he acknowledged, "but alas, untrue. I have had a most lucrative career. The life of a thief suits my talents perfectly."

"Your talents are for pointing guns and removing necklaces off ladies' necks?"

"I charm the necklaces off their necks." He shook his head in a perfect imitation of offense. "Kindly make the distinction."

"Oh, please."

"I charmed you."

She was all indignation. "You did not."

He reached out, and before she could step away, he'd grasped her hand and raised it to his lips. "Recall the night in question, Miss Eversleigh. The moonlight, the soft wind."

"There was no wind."

"You're spoiling my memory," he growled.

"There was no wind," she stated. "You are romanticizing the encounter."

"Can you blame me?" he returned, smiling at her wickedly. "I never know who is going to step through the carriage door. Most of the time I get a wheezy old badger."

Grace's initial inclination was to ask him if badger referred to a man or a woman, but she decided this would only encourage him. Plus, he was still holding her hand, his thumb idly stroking her palm, and she was finding that such intimacies severely restricted her talents for witty repartee.

"Where are you taking me, Miss Eversleigh?" His voice was a murmur, brushing softly against her skin.

He was kissing her again, and her entire arm shivered with the excitement of it.

"It is just around the corner," she whispered. Because her voice seemed to have abandoned her. It was all she could do to breathe.

He straightened then, but did not release her hand. "Lead on, Miss Eversleigh."

She did, tugging him gently as she moved toward her destination. To everyone else, it was just a drawing room, decorated in shades of cream and gold, with the occasional accent of the palest, mintiest of greens.

But Grace's dowager-inflicted schedule had given her cause to enter in the morning, when the eastern sun still hung low on the horizon.

The air shimmered in the early morning, somehow golden with the light, and when it streamed through the windows in this far-flung, unnamed drawing room, the world somehow sparkled. By midmorning it would be just an expensively decorated room, but now, while the larks were still chirping softly outside, it was magic.

If he didn't see that...

Well, she did not know what it would mean if he did not see that. But it would be disappointing. It was a small thing, meaningless to anyone but her, and yet...

She wanted him to see it. The simple magic of the morning light. The beauty and grace in the one room at Belgrave that she could almost imagine was hers.

"Here we are," she said, a little breathless with the anticipation. The door was open, and as they approached, she could see the light slanting out, landing gently on the smooth surface of the floor. There was such a golden hue to it, she could see every speck of dust that hung floating in the air.

"Is there a private choir?" he teased. "A fantastical menagerie?"

"Nothing so ordinary," she replied. "But close your eyes. You should see it all at once."

He took her hands and, still facing her, placed them over his eyes. It brought her achingly close to him, her arms stretched up, the bodice of her dress just a whisper away from his finely tailored coat. It would be so easy to lean forward, to sigh into him. She could let her hands drop and close her own eyes, tilting her face toward his. He would kiss her, and she would lose her breath, her will, her very desire to, in that moment, be only herself.

She wanted to melt into him. She wanted to be a part of him. And the strangest part was - right there, right then, with the golden light rippling down upon them - it seemed the most natural thing in the world.

But his eyes were closed, and for him, one little piece of the magic was missing. It had to have been, because if he had felt everything that was floating around her - through her - he never would have said, his voice utterly charming -

"Are we there yet?"

"Almost," she said. She should have been grateful that the moment was broken. She should have been relieved that she did not do something she was sure to regret.

But she wasn't. She wanted her regrets. She wanted them desperately. She wanted to do something she knew she should not, and she wanted to lie in bed at night letting the memory keep her warm.

But she was not brave enough to initiate her own downfall. Instead, she led him to the open doorway and said softly, "Here we are."

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