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Grace let Amelia set the pace, and as soon as they were across the room, Amelia began whispering urgently about the events of the morning, and then about Thomas having needed her assistance, and then something about her mother.
Grace just nodded, her eyes constantly darting toward the door. Thomas would be there at any moment, and although she had no idea what she might do to prevent what would surely be a disastrous encounter, she could not possibly think of anything else.
Meanwhile, Amelia kept on whispering. Grace had just enough presence of mind to catch the end, when Amelia said: "...I beg of you not to contradict."
"Of course not," Grace said quickly, because surely Amelia had made the same request Thomas had minutes earlier. If not, then she had no idea what she was agreeing to when she added, "You have my word."
At that point, Grace wasn't sure she cared.
They continued walking, lapsing into silence as they promenaded past Mr. Audley, who gave them a rather knowing nod and a smile as they went by.
"Miss Eversleigh," he murmured. "Lady Amelia."
"Mr. Audley," Amelia returned. Grace managed the same, but her voice was unpleasant and croaky.
Amelia began whispering again once they were well past Mr. Audley, but just then Grace heard heavy footsteps in the hall. She twisted about to see, but it was only a footman, passing by with a trunk.
Grace swallowed. Oh, dear heavens, the dowager was already beginning to pack for their trip to Ireland, and Thomas did not even know of her plans. How could she have forgotten to tell him during their interview?
And then she became aware of Amelia, whom she'd somehow managed to forget, even though their arms were linked. "Sorry," she said quickly, since she suspected it was her turn to speak. "Did you say something?"
Amelia shook her head and said, "No." Grace was fairly certain this was a lie, but she was not inclined to argue.
And then...more footsteps in the hall.
"Excuse me," Grace said, unable to bear the suspense for one moment longer. She pulled away and hurried to the open doorway. Several more servants were passing by, all clearly in preparations for the upcoming journey to Ireland. Grace returned to Amelia's side and once again took her arm. "It wasn't the duke."
"Is someone going somewhere?" Amelia asked, watching as two footmen passed the doorway, one with a trunk and another with a hatbox.
"No," Grace said. But she hated lying, and she was terrible at it, so she added, "Well, I suppose someone might be, but I do not know about it."
Which was also a lie. Wonderful. She looked at Amelia and tried to smile cheerfully.
"Grace," Amelia said quietly, looking terribly concerned, "are you all right?"
"Oh, no...I mean, yes, I'm quite fine." She tried for the cheerful smile again, and suspected she did a worse job of it than before.
"Grace," Amelia whispered, her voice taking on a new and rather unsettlingly sly tone, "are you in love with Mr. Audley?"
"No!" Oh, good heavens, that was loud. Grace looked over at Mr. Audley. Not that she'd wanted to, but they'd just turned a corner and were facing him again, and she couldn't avoid it. His face was tilted slightly down, but she could see him looking up at her, rather bemused. "Mr. Audley," she said, because with him watching her, it seemed she should acknowledge him, even if he was too far away to hear.
But then, as soon as she had the opportunity, she turned back to Amelia, furiously whispering, "I've only just met him. Yesterday. No, the day before." Oh, she was a ninny. She shook her head and looked firmly in front of her. "I can't recall."
"You've been meeting many intriguing gentlemen lately," Amelia commented.
Grace turned to her sharply. "Whatever can you mean?"
"Mr. Audley..." Amelia teased. "The Italian highwayman."
"Oh, that's right, you said he was Scottish. Or Irish. You weren't certain." Amelia's brow scrunched in thought. "Where is Mr. Audley from? He has a bit of lilt as well."
"I do not know," Grace ground out. Where was Thomas? She dreaded his arrival, but the anticipation of it was worse.
And then Amelia - good heavens, why? - called out, "Mr. Audley!"
Grace turned and looked at a wall.
"Grace and I were wondering where you are from," Amelia said. "Your accent is unfamiliar to me."
"Ireland, Lady Amelia, a bit north of Dublin."
"Ireland!" Amelia exclaimed. "My goodness, you are far afield."
They'd finished circling the room, but Grace remained standing even after Amelia had disengaged herself and sat down. Then Grace moved toward the door as subtly as she was able.
"How are you enjoying Lincolnshire, Mr. Audley?" she heard Amelia ask.
"I find it most surprising."
Grace peered out into the hall, still half listening to the conversation behind her.
"My visit here has not been what I expected," Mr. Audley said, and Grace could well imagine his amused smile as he said that.
"Really?" Amelia responded. "What did you expect? I assure you, we are quite civilized in this corner of England."
"Very much so," he murmured. "More so than is my preference, as a matter of fact."
"Why, Mr. Audley," Amelia responded, "whatever can that mean?"
If he made a reply, Grace did not hear it. Just then she saw Thomas coming down the hall, all tidied up and looking like a duke again.
"Oh," she said, the word slipping from her lips. "Excuse me." She hurried into the hall, waving madly toward Thomas so as not to alert Amelia and Mr. Audley to her distress.
"Grace," he said, moving forward with great purpose, "what is the meaning of this? Penrith told me that Amelia was here to see me?"
He did not slow as he approached, and Grace realized he meant for her to fall in step beside him.
"Thomas, wait," she said with hushed urgency, and she grabbed his arm and yanked him to a halt.
He turned to her, one of his brows rising into a haughty arch.
"It's Mr. Audley," she said, pulling him back even farther from the door. "He is in the drawing room."
Thomas glanced toward the drawing room and then back at Grace, clearly not comprehending.
"With Amelia," she practically hissed.
All traces of his unflappable exterior vanished. "What the hell?" he cursed. He looked sharply back toward the drawing room, not that he could possibly have seen inside from his vantage point. "Why?"
"I don't know," Grace said, her voice snapping with irritation. Why would she know why? "He was in there when I arrived. Amelia said she saw him walking by the doorway and thought he was you."
His body shuddered. Visibly. "What did he say?"
"I don't know. I wasn't there. And then I couldn't very well interrogate her in his presence."
"No, of course not."
Grace waited in silence for him to say more. He was pinching the bridge of his nose, and he looked rather as if his head were aching. Trying to offer some sort of not unpleasant news, she said, "I'm quite sure that he did not reveal his..."
Oh, good heavens. How was she to put it?
"...identity to her," she finished with a wince.
Thomas gave her a thoroughly awful look.
"It is not my fault, Thomas," she retorted.
"I did not say that it was." His voice was stiff, and he did not offer any more words before stalking off to the drawing room.
From the moment Grace rushed from the room, neither Jack nor Lady Amelia had uttered a word. It was as if they had reached an unspoken agreement; silence would prevail while they both tried to make out what was being said in the hall.
Jack had always considered himself better than average in the art of eavesdropping, but he was unable to catch even the sound of their whispers. Still, he had a fair idea of what was being said. Grace was warning Wyndham that the evil Mr. Audley had got his claws into the lovely and innocent Lady Amelia.
And then Wyndham would curse - under his breath, of course, as he would never be so crass as to do so in front of a lady - and demand to know what had been said.
The whole thing would have been highly entertaining if not for her, and the morning. And the kiss.
He wanted her back. He wanted the woman he'd held in his arms, not the one who'd stiffly walked the perimeter of the room with Lady Amelia, eyeing him as if he were going to steal the silver at any moment.
He supposed it was amusing. Somehow. And he supposed he ought to congratulate himself. Whatever she felt for him, it was not disinterest. Which would have been the cruelest response of all.
But for the first time, he was finding that his conquest of a lady was not a game to be played. He did not care about the thrill of the chase, about remaining one enjoyable and entertaining step ahead, about planning the seduction and then carrying it out with flair and flourish.
He simply wanted her.
Maybe even forever.
He glanced over at Lady Amelia. She was leaning forward, her head tilted ever so slightly to the side, as if to place her ear at the best possible angle.
"You won't be able to hear them," Jack said.
The look she gave him was priceless. And completely false.
"Oh, don't pretend you weren't trying," he scolded. "I certainly was."
"Very well." Lady Amelia waited for a moment, then asked, "What do you suppose they are talking about?"
Ah, curiosity would always win out with this one. She was more intelligent than she let on at first acquaintance, he decided. He shrugged, feigning ignorance. "Difficult to say. I would never presume to understand the female mind, or that of our esteemed host."
She turned sharply in surprise. "You do not like the duke?"
"I did not say that," Jack replied. But of course they both knew that he had.
"How long do you stay at Belgrave?" she asked.
He smiled. "Eager to be rid of me, Lady Amelia?"
"Of course not. I saw the servants moving trunks about. I thought perhaps they were yours."
He fought to keep his expression even. He did not know why he was surprised that the old biddy had already begun to pack. "I imagine they belong to the dowager," he replied.
"Is she going somewhere?"
He almost laughed at the hopeful expression on her face. "Ireland," he said absently, before it occurred to him that perhaps this woman of all people ought not to be let in on the plans.
Or maybe she was the one person who truly ought to be told. She certainly deserved to know. She deserved a sainthood, in his opinion, if indeed she planned to go through with her marriage to Wyndham.
He could not imagine anything less pleasant than spending one's life with such an arrogant prig.
And then, as if summoned by his thoughts, the arrogant prig appeared.
Wyndham was standing in the doorway in all his ducal splendor. Save for the lovely eye, Jack thought with some satisfaction. It was even gorier than the evening before.
"Your grace," she replied.
"How lovely to see you," Wyndham said once he had joined them. "I see that you have met our guest."
"Yes," Lady Amelia said, "Mr. Audley is quite diverting."
"Quite," Wyndham said. Jack thought he looked as if he had just eaten a radish.
Jack had always hated radishes.
"I came to see Grace," Lady Amelia said.
"Yes, of course," Wyndham replied.
"Alas," Jack put in, enjoying the awkwardness of the exchange, "I found her first."
Wyndham's response was pure icy disdain. Jack smiled in return, convinced that would irritate him far more than anything he could have said.
"I found him, actually," Lady Amelia said. "I saw him in the hall. I thought he was you."
"Astounding, isn't it?" Jack murmured. He turned to Lady Amelia. "We are nothing alike."
"No," Wyndham said sharply, "we are not."
"What do you think, Miss Eversleigh?" Jack asked, rising to his feet. It seemed he was the only one who had noticed that she had entered the room. "Do the duke and I share any traits?"
Grace's lips parted for a full second before she spoke. "I'm afraid I do not know you well enough to be an accurate judge."
"Well said, Miss Eversleigh," he replied, offering her a nod of compliment. "May I infer, then, that you know the duke quite well?"
"I have worked for his grandmother for five years. During that time I have been fortunate enough to learn something of his character."
"Lady Amelia," Wyndham said, clearly eager to cut short the conversation, "may I escort you home?"
"Of course," she said.
"So soon?" Jack murmured, just to make trouble.
"My family will be expecting me," Lady Amelia said, even though she had not made any indication of this before Wyndham had offered to remove her.
"We will leave right now, then," Wyndham said. His fiancee took his arm and stood.
"Er, your grace!"
Jack turned immediately at the sound of Grace's voice. "If I might have a word with you," she said from her position near the door, "before you, er, depart. Please."
Wyndham excused himself and followed her into the hall. They were still visible from the drawing room, although it was difficult - indeed impossible - to glean their conversation.
"Whatever can they be discussing?" Jack said to Lady Amelia.
"I am sure I have no idea," she bit off.
"Nor I," he said, keeping his voice light and breezy. Just for contrast. Life was infinitely more entertaining that way.
And then they heard: "Ireland!"
That was Wyndham, and rather loud, too. Jack leaned forward to get a better view, but the duke took Grace's arm and steered her out of sight. And earshot.
"We have our answer," Jack murmured.
"He can't be upset that his grandmother is leaving the country," Lady Amelia said. "I would think he'd be planning a celebration."
"I rather think Miss Eversleigh has informed him that his grandmother intends that he accompany her."
"To Ireland?" Amelia shook her head. "Oh, you must be mistaken."
He shrugged, feigning indifference. "Perhaps. I am but a newcomer here."
And then she launched into quite the most ambitious speech:
"Aside from the fact that I cannot imagine why the dowager would wish to go to Ireland - not that I wouldn't like to see your beautiful country, but it does not seem in character for the dowager, whom I have heard speak disparagingly of Northumberland, the Lake District, and indeed all of Scotland..." She paused, presumably to breathe. "Ireland seems a bit of a stretch for her."
He nodded, since it seemed expected.
"But really, it makes no sense that she would wish for his grace to accompany her. They do not care for each other's company."
"How politely said, Lady Amelia," Jack commented. "Does anyone care for their company?"
Her eyes widened in shock, and it occurred to him that perhaps he should have limited his insult to the dowager alone, but just then Wyndham strode back into the room, looking angry and arrogant.
And almost certainly worthy of whatever sort of insult Jack might give to him.
"Amelia," he said with brisk indifference, "I am afraid I will not be able to see you home. I do apologize."
"Of course," she said, as if she could possibly say anything else.
"I shall make every arrangement for your comfort. Perhaps you would like to select a book from the library?"
"Can you read in a coach?" Jack queried.
"Can you not?" she returned.
"I can," he replied with great flair. "I can do almost anything in a coach. Or with a coach," he added, with a smile toward Grace, who stood in the doorway.
Wyndham glared at him and grabbed his fiancee's arm, hauling her rather unceremoniously to her feet.
"It was lovely meeting you, Mr. Audley," Lady Amelia said.
"Yes," he said lightly, "it does seem that you are leaving."
"Amelia," the duke said, his voice even more abrupt than before. He led her from the room.
Jack followed them to the doorway, looking for Grace, but she had disappeared. Ah well, perhaps that was for the best.
He glanced toward the window. The skies had darkened, and it appeared that rain would be imminent.
Time for that walk, he decided. The rain would be cold. And wet. And precisely what he needed.
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