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The Lost Duke of Wyndham Chapter Eight

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And so he kissed her. He couldn’t help it.

No, he couldn’t stop it.

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His hand was on her arm, and he could feel her skin, feel the soft warmth of it, and then when he looked down, her face was tilted toward his, and her eyes, deep and blue but so completely unmysterious, were gazing up at him, and in truth there was no way – simply no way – he could do anything in that moment but kiss her.

Anything else would have been a tragedy.

There was an art to kissing – he’d long known that, and he’d been told he was an expert. But this kiss, with this woman – the one time it should have been art, it was all breathless nerves, because never in his life had he wanted someone in quite the manner he wanted Miss Grace Eversleigh.

And never had he wanted quite so much to get it all right.

He couldn’t scare her. He had to please her. He wanted her to want him, and he wanted her to want to know him. He wanted her to cling to him, to need him, to whisper in his ear that he was her hero and she’d never want to so much as breathe the air near another man.

He wanted to taste her. He wanted to devour her. He wanted to drink in whatever it was that made her her, and see if it would transform him into the man he sometimes thought he ought to be. In that moment she was his salvation.

And his temptation.

And everything in between.

“Grace,” he whispered, his voice brushing across her lips. “Grace,” he said again, because he loved saying it.

She moaned in response, a soft whimpering sound that told him everything he wanted to know.

He kissed her softly. Thoroughly. His lips and tongue found every corner of her soul, and then he wanted more.

“Grace,” he said again, his voice hoarser now. His hands slid around to her back, pressing her against him so he could feel her body as a part of the kiss. She was not corseted under her gown, and every lush curve became known to him, every warm contour. He wanted more than the shape of her, though. He wanted the taste, the smell, the touch.

The kiss was seduction.

And he was the one being seduced.

“Grace,” he said again, and this time she whispered –

“Jack.”

It was his undoing. The sound of his name on her lips, the single, soft syllable – it shot through him like no Mr. Audley ever could. His mouth grew urgent and he pressed her more tightly to his body, too far gone to care that he’d gone hard against her.

He kissed her cheek, her ear, her neck, moving down to the hollow of her collarbone. One of his hands moved along the side of her rib cage, the pressure plumping her breast up until the upper curve was so close to his lips, so tantalizingly –

“No…”

It was more of a whisper than anything else, but still, she pushed him away.

He stared at her, his breath rushed and heavy. Her eyes were dazed, and her lips looked wet and well-kissed. His body was thrumming with need, and his eyes slid down to her belly, as if he could somehow see through the folds of her dress, down, down to the V where her legs met.

Whatever he’d been feeling just then – it tripled. Dear God, he hurt with it.

With a shuddering groan, he tore his gaze back up to her face. “Miss Eversleigh,” he said, since the moment called for some thing, and there was no way he was going to apologize. Not for something that good.

“Mr. Audley,” she replied, touching her lips.

And he realized, in a single blinding moment of pure terror, that everything he saw on her face, every stunned blink of her eyes – he felt it, too.

But no, that was impossible. He’d just met her, and beyond that, he did not do love. Amendment: he did not do the heart-pounding, mind-fogging, overabundance of lust that was so often confused with love.

He loved women, of course. He liked them, too, which he was aware made him rather unique among men. He loved the way they moved, and he loved the sounds they made, whether they were melting in his arms or clucking their disapproval. He loved how each one smelled different, and how each moved differently, and how even so, there was something about them all as a group that seemed to brand them together. I am woman, the air around them seemed to say. I am most definitely not you.

And thank heavens for that.

But he had never loved a woman. And he did not have any inclination to do so. Attachments were messy things, given to all sorts of unpleasantries. He preferred to move from affaire to affaire. It fit his life – and his soul – much better.

He smiled. Just a little one. Exactly the sort one would expect from a man like him at a time like this.

Perhaps with a little extra tilt in one corner. Just enough to lend some wry wit to his tone when he said,

“You stepped into my room.”

She nodded, but the motion was so slow he couldn’t be sure she even realized she was doing it. When she spoke, there was a certain dazedness to it, as if perhaps she was talking to herself. “I won’t do it again.”

Now, that would be a tragedy. “I wish you would,” he said, offering her his most disarming smile. He reached out, and before she could guess his intentions, took her hand and raised it to his lips. “It was certainly,” he murmured, “the most pleasant welcome of my day here at Belgrave.”

He did not let go of her fingers as he added, “I very much enjoyed discussing that painting with you.”

It was true. He had always liked the smart women best.

“As did I,” she answered, and then she gave her hand a gentle tug, forcing him to relinquish his hold. She took a few steps toward the door, then paused, turning partway around as she said, “The collection here rivals any of the great museums.”

“I look forward to viewing it with you.”

“We shall begin in the gallery.”

He smiled. She was clever. But just before she reached the door, he called out, “Are there nudes?”

She froze.

“I was wondering,” he said innocently.

“There are,” she replied, but she did not turn around. He longed to see the color of her cheeks.

Vermillion, or merely pink?

“In the gallery?” he asked, because surely it would be impolite to ignore his query. He wanted to see her face. One last time.

“Not in the gallery, no,” she said, and she did turn then. Just enough so he could see the sparkle in her eyes. “It is a portrait gallery.”

“I see.” He made his expression appropriately grave. “No nudes, then, please. I confess to a lack of desire to see Great-Grandfather Cavendish au naturel.”

Her lips pressed together, and he knew it was with humor, not disapproval. He wondered just what it would take to nudge her further, to dislodge the laughter that was surely bubbling at the base of her throat.

“Or, good heavens,” he murmured, “the dowager.”

She sputtered at that.

He brought a hand to his forehead. “My eyes,” he moaned. “My eyes.”

And then, bloody hell, he missed it. She laughed. He was sure that she did, even though it was more of a choking sound than anything else. But he had his hand over his eyes.

“Good night, Mr. Audley.”

He returned his hand to its proper place at his side. “Good night, Miss Eversleigh.” And then – and he would have sworn he’d been prepared to allow her to depart – he heard himself call out, “Will I see you at breakfast?”

She paused, her hand on the outer doorknob. “I expect so, if you are an early riser.”

He absolutely was not.

“Absolutely I am.”

“It is the dowager’s favorite meal,” she explained.

“Not the chocolate and the newspaper?” He wondered if he remembered everything she’d said that day.

Quite possibly.

She shook her head. “That is at six. Breakfast is laid at seven.”

“In the breakfast room?”

“You know where it is, then?”

“Haven’t a clue,” he admitted. “But it seemed a likely choice. Will you meet me here, to escort me down?”

“No,” she said, her voice dipping slightly with amusement (Or exasperation? He couldn’t be sure), “but I will arrange to have someone else lead you there.”

“Pity.” He sighed. “It won’t be the same.”

“I should hope not,” she said, slowly shutting the door between them. And then, through the wood, he heard, “I plan to send a footman.”

He laughed at that. He loved a woman with a sense of humor.

At precisely six the following morning, Grace entered the dowager’s bedroom, holding the heavy door open for the maid who had followed her with the tray from the kitchen.

The dowager was awake, which was no great surprise. She always woke early, whether the summer sun was slipping in around the curtain edges, or the winter gloom hung heavy on the morning. Grace, on the other hand, would have gladly slept until noon if permitted. She’d taken to sleeping with her drapes open since her arrival at Belgrave – the better to let the sunlight batter her eyelids open every morning.

It didn’t work very well, nor did the chiming clock she’d installed upon her bedside table years earlier.

She thought she would have adapted to the dowager’s schedule by this point, but apparently her inner timepiece was her one rebellion – the last little bit of her that refused to believe that she was, and forever would be, companion to the dowager Duchess of Wyndham.

All in all, it was a good thing she’d befriended the housemaids. The dowager might have Grace to start her day, but Grace had the maids, who took turns each morning, slipping into her room and shaking her shoulder until she moaned, “Enough…”

How strange about Mr. Audley. She would never have pegged him for a morning person.

“Good morning, your grace,” Grace said, moving to the windows. She pulled open the heavy velvet curtains. It was overcast, with a light mist, but the sun seemed to be making a good effort. Perhaps the clouds would burn off by afternoon.

The dowager sat up straight against her pillows, queenly in her elaborately styled, domed canopy bed.

She was nearly done with her series of morning exercises, which consisted of a flexing of the fingers, followed by a pointing of the toes, finishing with a twisting of her neck to the left and right. She never stretched it side to side, Grace had noticed. “My chocolate,” she said tersely.

“Right here, ma’am.” Grace moved to the desk, where the maid had left the tray before hurrying off. “Be careful, ma’am. It’s hot.”

The dowager waited while Grace arranged the tray on her lap, then smoothed out the newspaper. It was only two days old (three was standard in this region) and had been neatly ironed by the butler.

“My reading glasses.”

They were already in Grace’s hand.

The dowager perched them on the tip of her nose, taking a gingerly sip of her chocolate as she perused the paper. Grace sat in the straight-back chair by the desk. It was not the most convenient location – the dowager was as demanding in the morning as she was the rest of the day, and would surely have her hopping up and down and across the room to her bed. But Grace was not permitted to actually sit next to the bed. The dowager complained that it felt as if Grace were trying to read over her shoulder.

Which was true, of course. Grace now had the newspaper transferred to her room once the dowager was through with it. It was still only two and a half days old when she read it, which was twelve hours better than anyone else in the district.

It was strange, really, the things that made one feel superior.

“Hmmm.”

Grace tilted her head but did not inquire. If she inquired, the dowager would never tell.

“There was a fire at Howath Hall,” the dowager said.

Grace was not certain where that was. “I do hope no one was injured.”

The dowager read a few more lines, then answered, “Just a footman. And two maids.” And then a moment later: “The dog perished. Oh my, that is a shame.”

Grace did not comment. She did not trust herself to engage in early morning conversations until she’d had her own cup of chocolate, which she was generally not able to do until breakfast at seven.

Her stomach rumbled at the thought. For someone who detested mornings as she did, she’d come to adore breakfast fare. If they could only serve kippers and eggs for supper each evening, she’d have been in heaven.

She glanced at the clock. Only fifty-five more minutes. She wondered if Mr. Audley was awake.

Probably. Morning people never awoke with only ten minutes to spare before breakfast.

She wondered what he looked like, all sleepy and rumpled.

“Is something wrong, Miss Eversleigh?” the dowager sharply inquired.

Grace blinked. “Wrong, ma’am?”

“You… chirped.” She said this with considerable distaste, as if handling something with a particularly foul smell.

“I’m so sorry, ma’am,” Grace said quickly, looking down at her hands folded in her lap. She could feel her cheeks growing warm, and she had a feeling that even in the morning light and with the dowager’s diminished vision, her blush would be clearly visible.

Really, she should not be imagining Mr. Audley, and especially not in any state of dishabille. Heaven only knew what sorts of inappropriate sounds she would make the next time.

But he was handsome. Even when all she’d seen of him was the lower half of his face and his mask, that much had been clear. His lips were the sort that always held a touch of humor. She wondered if he even knew how to frown. And his eyes…Well, she hadn’t been able to see those that first night, and that was almost certainly a good thing. She’d never seen anything quite so emerald. They far outshone the dowager’s emeralds, which, Grace was still chagrined to remember, she’d risked her life (in theory, at least) to keep safe.

“Miss Eversleigh!”

Grace jerked upright. “Ma’am?”

The dowager pierced with a stare. “You snorted.”

“I did?”

“Are you questioning my hearing?”

“Of course not, ma’am.” The dowager abhorred the notion that any part of her might be susceptible to the usual impairments of age. Grace cleared her throat. “I apologize, ma’am. I was not aware. I must have, ehrm, breathed heavily.”

“Breathed heavily.” The dowager appeared to find that as appealing as she had Grace’s earlier chirp.

Grace touched a hand lightly to her chest. “A bit of congestion, I’m afraid.”

The dowager’s nostrils flared as she peered down at the cup in her hands. “I do hope you did not breathe on my chocolate.”

“Of course not, ma’am. The kitchen maids always carry the tray up.”

The dowager evidently did not find any reason to ponder that further, and she turned back to her newspaper, leaving Grace alone once more with her thoughts of Mr. Audley.

Mr. Audley.

“Miss Eversleigh!”

At that Grace stood. This was getting ridiculous. “Yes, ma’am?”

“You sighed.”

“I sighed?”

“Do you deny it?”

“No,” Grace replied. “That is to say, I did not notice that I sighed, but I certainly allow that I could have done so.”

The dowager waved an irritated hand in her direction. “You are most distracting this morning.”

Grace felt her eyes light up. Did this mean she’d escape early?

“Sit down, Miss Eversleigh.”

She sat. Apparently not.

The dowager set down her newspaper and pressed her lips together. “Tell me about my grandson.”

And the blush returned. “I beg your pardon?”

The dowager’s right eyebrow did a rather good imitation of a parasol top. “You did show him to his room last night, didn’t you?”

“Of course, ma’am. At your directive.”

“Well? What did he say? I am eager to learn what sort of man he is. The future of the family may very well rest in his hands.”

Grace thought guiltily of Thomas, whom she’d somehow forgotten in the past twelve hours. He was everything a duke ought to be, and no one knew the castle as he did. Not even the dowager. “Er, don’t you think that might be a bit premature, your grace?”

“Defending my other grandson, are we?”

Grace’s eyes widened. Something about the dowager’s tone sounded positively malevolent. “I consider his grace a friend,” she said carefully. “I would never wish him ill.”

“Pfft. If Mr. Cavendish – and don’t you dare call him Mr. Audley – really is the legitimate issue of my John, then you are hardly wishing Wyndham ill. The man ought to be grateful.”

“For having his title pulled from beneath his feet?”

“For having had the good fortune to have had it for as long as he did,” the dowager retorted. “If Mr. – oh, bloody hell, I’m going to call him John – “

Jack, Grace thought.

“If John really is my John’s legitimate son, then Wyndham never really had the title to begin with. So one could hardly call it stripping.”

“Except that he has been told since birth that it is his.”

“That’s not my fault, is it?” scoffed the dowager. “And it has hardly been since birth.”

“No,” Grace allowed. Thomas had ascended to the title at the age of twenty, when his father perished of a lung ailment. “But he has known since birth that it would one day be his, which is much the same thing.”

The dowager grumbled a bit about that, using the same peevish undertone she always used when presented with an argument to which she had no ready contradiction. She gave Grace one final glare and then picked up her newspaper again, snapping it upright in front of her face.

Grace took advantage of the moment to let her posture slip. She did not dare close her eyes.

And sure enough, only ten seconds passed before the dowager brought the paper back down and asked sharply, “Do you think he will make a good duke?”

“Mr. Au – ” Grace caught herself just in time. “Er, our new guest?”

The dowager rolled her eyes at her verbal acrobatics. “Call him Mr. Cavendish. It is his name.”

“But it is not what he wishes to be called.”

“I don’t give a damn what he wishes to be called. He is who he is.” The dowager took a long gulp of her chocolate. “We all are. And it’s a good thing, too.”

Grace said nothing. She’d been forced to endure the dowager’s lectures on the natural order of man far too many times to risk provoking a repeat performance.

“You did not answer my question, Miss Eversleigh.”

Grace took a moment to decide upon her reply. “I really could not say, ma’am. Not on such a short acquaintance.”

It was mostly true. It was difficult to think of anyone besides Thomas holding the title, but Mr.

Audley – for all his lovely friendliness and humor – seemed to lack a certain gravitas. He was intelligent, certainly, but did he possess the acumen and judgment necessary to run an estate the size of Wyndham?

Belgrave might have been the family’s primary domicile, but there were countless other holdings, both in England and abroad. Thomas employed at least a dozen secretaries and managers to aid him in his stewardship, but he was no absentee landlord. If he had not walked every inch of the Belgrave lands, she would wager that he’d come close. And Grace had substituted for the dowager on enough of her duties around the estate to know that Thomas knew nearly all of his tenants by name.

Grace had always thought that a remarkable achievement for one brought up as he had been, with a constant emphasis on the Wyndham place in the hierarchy of man. (Just below the king, and well above you, thank you very much.)

Thomas liked to present to the world the image of a slightly bored, sophisticated man of the ton, but there was quite a bit more to him. It was why he was so very good at what he did, she supposed.

And why it was so callous of the dowager to treat him with such a lack of regard. Grace supposed that one had to possess feelings in order to have a care for those of others, but really, the dowager had quite gone beyond her usual selfishness.

Grace had no idea whether Thomas had returned the night before, but if he hadn’t…well, she wouldn’t blame him.

“More chocolate, Miss Eversleigh.”

Grace stood and refilled the dowager’s cup from the pot she’d left on the bedside table.

“What did you talk about last night?”

Grace decided to feign obtuseness. “I retired early.” She tilted the pot back, careful not to drip. “With your very kind permission.”

The dowager scowled. Grace avoided the expression by returning the chocolate pot to its spot on the table. It took her an impressively long time to get it just so.

“Did he speak of me?” the dowager asked.

“Er, not so very much,” Grace hedged.

“Not very much or not at all?”

Grace turned. There was only so much interrogation she could avoid before the dowager lost her temper.

“I’m certain he mentioned you.”

“What did he say?”

Good heavens. How was she meant to say that he’d called her an old bat? And if he hadn’t called her that, then he’d probably called her something worse. “I don’t recall precisely, ma’am,” Grace said. “I’m terribly sorry. I was not aware you wished for me to take note of his words.”

“Well, next time, do so,” the dowager muttered. She turned to her newspaper, then looked up toward the window, her mouth in a straight, recalcitrant line. Grace stood still, her hands clasped in front of her, and waited patiently while the dowager fussed and turned and sipped and ground her teeth, and then – it was hard to believe, but Grace thought she might actually feel sorry for the older woman.

“He reminds me of you,” she said, before she could think the better of it.

The dowager turned to her with delighted eyes. “He does? How?”

Grace felt her stomach drop, although she was not certain if this was due to the uncharacteristic happiness on the dowager’s face or the fact that she had no idea what to say. “Well, not completely, of course,” she stalled, “but there is something in the expression.”

But after about ten seconds of smiling blandly, it became apparent to Grace that the dowager was waiting for more. “His eyebrow,” she said, in what she thought was a stroke of genius. “He lifts it like you do.”

“Like this?” The dowager’s left brow shot up so fast Grace was surprised it did not fly off her face.

“Er, yes. Somewhat like that. His are…” Grace made awkward motions near her own brows.

“Bushier?”

“Yes.”

“Well, he is a man.”

“Yes.” Oh, yes.

“Can he do both?”

Grace stared at her blankly. “Both, ma’am?”

The dowager began lifting and dropping her brows in alternation. Left, right, left, right. It was a singularly bizarre spectacle.

“I do not know,” Grace said. Quickly. To cut her off.

“Very strange,” the dowager said, returning both of her brows back to where Grace hoped she’d keep them. “My John could not do it.”

“Heredity is very mysterious,” Grace agreed. “My father could not do this” – she took her thumb and bent it back until it touched her forearm – “but he said his father could.”

“Aah!” The dowager turned aside in disgust. “Put it back! Put it back!”

Grace smiled and said with perfect mildness, “You will not wish to see what I can do with my elbow, then.”

“Good Lord, no.” The dowager snorted and waved toward the door. “I am through with you. Go see to breakfast.”

“Shall I have Nancy help you dress?”

The dowager let out the most amazingly long-suffering sigh, as if a lifetime of aristocratic privilege was just too much. “Yes,” she agreed gracelessly, “if only because I can’t bear to look at your thumb.”

Grace chuckled. And she must have been feeling especially bold, because she did not even attempt to stifle it.

“Are you laughing at me, Miss Eversleigh?”

“Of course not!”

“Don’t,” the dowager said sharply, “even think about saying you’re laughing with me.”

“I was just laughing, ma’am,” Grace said, her face twitching with the smile she could not keep contained.

“I do that sometimes.”

“I have never witnessed it.” Said as if this meant it couldn’t possibly be true.

Grace could not say any of the three rejoinders that immediately sprang to mind –

That is because you are not listening, your grace.

That is because I rarely have cause to laugh in your presence.

or

What of it?

So instead she smiled – warmly, even. Now this was strange. She’d spent so much of her time swallowing her retorts, and it always left a bitter taste in her mouth.

But not this time. This time she felt light. Unfettered. If she could not speak her mind to the dowager, she didn’t much care. She had too much to look forward to this morning.

Breakfast. Bacon and eggs. Kippers. Toast with butter and marmalade, too, and…

And him.

Mr. Audley.

Jack.

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