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Outside the carriage, the atmosphere was considerably less tense. The three men remained on horseback, never quite in a line. Every now and then one of them would increase his pace or fall behind, and one horse would pass another. Perfunctory greetings would be exchanged.
Occasionally someone would comment on the weather.
Lord Crowland seemed rather interested in the native birds.
Thomas didn't say much, but - Jack glanced over at him - good Lord, was he whistling?
"Are you happy?" Jack asked, his voice a bit short.
Thomas looked back in surprise. "Me?" He frowned, thinking about it. "I suppose I am. It's a rather fine day, don't you think?"
"A fine day," Jack echoed.
"None of us is trapped in the carriage with that evil old hag," Crowland announced. "We should all be happy." Then he added, "Pardon," since the evil old hag was, after all, grandmother to both of his companions.
"Pardons unnecessary on my account," Thomas said. "I agree with your assessment completely."
There had to be something significant in this, Jack thought - that their conversation kept returning to how relieved they all were not to be in the dowager's presence. It was damned strange, to tell the truth, and yet, it did make one think...
"Will I have to live with her?" he blurted out.
Thomas looked over and grinned. "The Outer Hebrides, my man, the Outer Hebrides."
"Why didn't you do it?" Jack demanded.
"Oh, believe me, I will, on the off chance I still possess any power over her tomorrow. And if I don't..."
Thomas shrugged. "I'll need some sort of employment, won't I? I always wished to travel. Perhaps I shall be your scout. I'll find the oldest, coldest place on the island. I shall have a rollicking good time."
"For God's sake," Jack swore. "Stop talking like that." He did not want this to be preordained. He did not want it to be understood. Thomas ought to be fighting for his place in the world, not blithely handing it over.
Because he himself did not want it. He wanted Grace, and he wanted his freedom, and more than anything, right at that very moment, he wanted to be somewhere else. Anywhere else.
Thomas gave him a curious look but said nothing more. And neither did Jack. Not when they reached Pollamore, or Cavan town, or even as they rode into Butlersbridge.
Night had long since fallen, but Jack knew every storefront, every last signpost and tree. There was the Derragarra Inn, where he'd got himself drunk on his seventeenth birthday. There was the butcher, and the blacksmith, and ah, yes, there was the oatmeal mill, behind which he'd stolen his first kiss.
Which meant that in five - no, make that four - more minutes, he would be home.
It was a word he had not uttered in years. It had had no meaning. He'd lived in inns and public houses and sometimes under the stars. He'd had his ragtag group of friends, but they drifted in and out of togetherness. They thieved together more by convenience than anything else. All they'd had in common was a shared past in the military, and a willingness to give a portion of their bounty to those who had returned from the war less fortunate than they.
Over the years, Jack had given money to men without legs, women without husbands, children without parents. No one ever questioned where he'd got the money. He supposed his bearing and accent were those of a gentleman, and that was enough. People saw what they wanted to see, and when a former officer (who never quite got around to sharing his name) came bearing gifts...
No one ever wanted to question it.
And through all this, he'd told no one. Who had there been to tell?
Now there was Grace.
He smiled. She would approve. Perhaps not of the means, but certainly of the end. The truth was, he'd never taken anything from anyone who hadn't looked as if they could afford it. And he'd always been careful to more thoroughly rob the most annoying of his victims.
Such scruples would not have kept him from the gallows, but it had always made him feel a bit better about his chosen profession.
He heard a horse draw up next to his, and when he turned, there was Thomas, now keeping pace beside him. "Is this the road?" he asked quietly.
Jack nodded. "Just around the bend."
"They are not expecting you, are they?"
Thomas had far too much tact to question him further, and indeed, he allowed his mount to fall back by half a length, granting Jack his privacy.
And then there it was. Cloverhill. Just as he'd remembered it, except maybe the vines had taken over a bit more of the brick facade. The rooms were lit, and the windows shone with warmth. And even though the only sounds were those made by the traveling party, Jack could swear he could hear laughter and merriment seeping out through the walls.
Dear God, he'd thought he'd missed it, but this...
This was something more. This was an ache, a true, pounding pain in his chest; an empty hole; a sob, forever caught in his throat.
This was home.
Jack wanted to stop, to take a moment to gaze at the graceful old house, but he heard the carriage drawing closer and knew that he could not keep everyone at bay while he indulged his own nostalgia.
The last thing he wanted was for the dowager to barge in ahead of him (which he was quite certain she would do), so he rode up to the entrance, dismounted, and walked up the steps on his own. He closed his eyes and drew a long breath, and then, since he wasn't likely to amass any more courage in the next few minutes, he lifted the brass knocker and brought it down.
There was no immediate reply. This was not a surprise. It was late. They were unexpected. The butler might have retired for the night. There were so many reasons they should have got rooms in the village and made their way to Cloverhill in the morning. He didn't want -
The door opened. Jack held his hands tightly behind his back. He'd tried leaving them at his sides, but they started to shake.
He saw the light of the candle first, and then the man behind it, wrinkled and stooped.
Jack swallowed. "Wimpole," he said. Good heavens, the old butler must be nearing eighty, but of course his aunt would have kept him on, for as long as he wished to work, which, knowing Wimpole, would be until the day he died.
"We were not expecting you," Wimpole said.
Jack tried for a smile. "Well, you know how I like a surprise."
"Come in! Come in! Oh, Master Jack, Mrs. Audley will be so pleased to see you. As will - " Wimpole stopped, peering out the door, his wizened old eyes creasing into a squint.
"I am afraid that I brought a few guests," Jack explained. The dowager had already been helped down from the carriage, and Grace and Amelia were right behind her. Thomas had grabbed onto his grandmother's arm - hard, from the looks of it - to give Jack a few moments alone, but the dowager was already showing signs of impending outrage.
"Wimpole?" came a feminine voice. "Who is here at this hour?"
Jack stood stiffly, hardly able to breathe. It was his aunt Mary. She sounded exactly the same. It was as if he'd never left...
Except it wasn't. If he'd never left, his heart wouldn't be pounding, his mouth wouldn't be dry. And most of all, he wouldn't feel so bloody terrified. Scared spitless at seeing the one person who had loved him his entire life, with her whole heart and without condition.
"Wimpole? I - " She'd rounded the corner and was staring at him like a ghost. "Jack?"
"In the flesh." He tried for a jovial tone but couldn't quite manage it, and deep inside, down where he kept his blackest moments, he wanted to cry. Right there, in front of everyone, it was twisting and writhing inside of him, bursting to get out.
"Jack!" she cried out, and she hurled herself forward, throwing her arms around him. "Oh, Jack. Jack, my dear sweet boy. We've missed you so." She was covering his face with kisses, like a mother would her son.
Like she should have been able to do for Arthur.
"It is good to see you, Aunt Mary," he said. He pulled her tight then and buried his face in the crook of her neck, because she was his mother, in every way that mattered. And he'd missed her. By God, he'd missed her, and in that moment it did not matter that he'd hurt her in the worst way imaginable. He just wanted to be held.
"Oh, Jack," she said, smiling through her tears, "I ought to horsewhip you for staying away so long. Why would you do such a thing? Don't you know how worried we were? How - "
Mary stopped and turned, still holding Jack's face in her hands. The dowager had made her way to the front entrance and was standing behind him on the stone steps.
"You must be the aunt," she said.
Mary just stared at her. "Yes," she finally replied. "And you are...?"
"Aunt Mary," Jack said hastily, before the dowager could speak again, "I am afraid I must introduce you to the dowager Duchess of Wyndham."
Mary let go of him and curtsied, stepping aside as the dowager swept past her. "The Duchess of Wyndham?" she echoed, looking at Jack with palpable shock. "Good heavens, Jack, couldn't you have sent notice?"
Jack smiled tightly. "It is better this way, I assure you."
The rest of the traveling party came forward at that moment, and Jack completed the introductions, trying not to notice his aunt going from paler to palest after he identified the Duke of Wyndham and the Earl of Crowland.
"Jack," she whispered frantically, "I haven't the rooms. We have nothing grand enough - "
"Please, Mrs. Audley," Thomas said with a deferential bow, "do not put yourself out on my accord. It was unforgivable for us to arrive without notice. I would not expect you to go to any great lengths.
Although" - he glanced over at the dowager, who was standing in the hall with a sour look on her face - "perhaps your finest room for my grandmother. It will be easier for everyone."
"Of course," Mary said quickly. "Please, please, it's chilly. You must all come inside. Jack, I do need to tell you - "
"Where is your church?" the dowager demanded.
"Our church?" Mary asked, looking to Jack in confusion. "At this hour?"
"I do not intend to worship," the dowager snapped. "I wish to inspect the records."
"Does Vicar Beveridge still preside?" Jack asked, trying to cut the dowager off.
"Yes, but he will surely be abed. It's half nine, I should think, and he is an early riser. Perhaps in the morning. I - "
"This is a matter of dynastic importance," the dowager cut in. "I don't care if it's after midnight. We - "
"I care," Jack cut in, silencing her with an icy expression. "You are not going to pull the vicar out of bed.
You have waited this long. You can bloody well wait until morning."
"Jack!" Mary gasped. She turned to the dowager. "I did not raise him to speak this way."
"No, you didn't," Jack said, which was the closest he was going to come to an apology while the dowager was staring him down.
"You were his mother's sister, weren't you?" the dowager said.
Mary looked a bit baffled at the sudden change of topic. "I am."
"Were you present at her wedding?"
"I was not."
Jack turned to her in surprise. "You weren't?"
"No. I could not attend. I was in confinement." She gave Jack a rueful look. "I never told you. It was a stillbirth." Her face softened. "Just one of the reasons I was so happy to have you."
"We shall make for the church in the morning," the dowager announced, uninterested in Mary's obstetrical history. "First thing. We shall find the papers and be done with it."
"The papers?" Mary echoed.
"Proof of the marriage," the dowager bit off. She looked upon Mary with icy condescension, then dismissed her with a flick of her head, adding, "Are you daft?"
It was a good thing Thomas pulled her back, because Jack would have gone for her throat.
"Louise was not married in the Butlersbridge church," Mary said. "She was married at Maguiresbridge.
In County Fermanagh, where we grew up."
"How far is that?" the dowager demanded, trying to yank her arm free of Thomas's grasp.
"Twenty miles, your grace."
The dowager muttered something quite unpleasant. Jack could not make out the exact words, but Mary blanched. She turned to him with an expression nearing alarm. "Jack? What is this all about? Why do you need proof of your mother's marriage?"
He looked at Grace, who was standing a bit behind his aunt. She offered him a tiny nod of encouragement, and he cleared his throat and said, "My father was her son."
Mary looked over at the dowager in shock. "Your father...John Cavendish, you mean..."
Thomas stepped forward. "May I intercede?"
Jack felt exhausted. "Please do."
"Mrs. Audley," Thomas said, with more dignity and collection than Jack could ever have imagined, "if there is proof of your sister's marriage, then your nephew is the true Duke of Wyndham."
"The true Duke of - " Mary covered her mouth in shock. "No. It's not possible. I remember him. Mr.
Cavendish. He was - " She waved her arms in the air as if trying to describe him with gestures. Finally, after several attempts at a more verbal explanation, she said, "He would not have kept such a thing from us."
"He was not the heir at the time," Thomas told her, "and had no reason to believe he would become so."
"Oh, my heavens. But if Jack is the duke, then you - "
"Are not," he finished wryly. "I am sure you can imagine our eagerness to have this settled."
Mary stared at him in shock. And then at Jack. And then looked as if she very much wanted to sit down.
"I am standing in the hall," the dowager announced haughtily.
"Don't be rude," Thomas chided.
"She should have seen to - "
Thomas shifted his grip on her arm and yanked her forward, brushing right past Jack and his aunt. "Mrs.
Audley," he said, "we are most grateful for your hospitality. All of us."
Mary nodded gratefully and turned to the butler. "Wimpole, would you - "
"Of course, ma'am," he said, and Jack had to smile as he moved away. No doubt he was rousing the housekeeper to have her prepare the necessary bedrooms. Wimpole had always known what Aunt Mary needed before she'd had to utter the words.
"We shall have rooms readied in no time," Mary said, turning to Grace and Amelia, who were standing off to the side. "Would the two of you mind sharing? I don't have - "
"It is no trouble at all," Grace said warmly. "We enjoy each other's company."
"Oh, thank you," Mary said, sounding relieved. "Jack, you shall have to take your old bed in the nursery, and - oh, this is silly, I should not be wasting your time here in the hall. Let us retire to the drawing room, where you may warm yourselves by the fire until your rooms are ready."
She ushered everyone in, but when Jack made to go, she placed her hand on his arm, gently holding him back.
"We missed you," she said.
He swallowed, but the lump in his throat would not dislodge. "I missed you, too," he said. He tried to smile. "Who is home? Edward must have - "
"Married," she finished for him. "Yes. As soon as we were out of mourning for Arthur. And Margaret soon after. They both live close by, Edward just down the lane, Margaret in Belturbet."
"And Uncle William?" Jack had last seen him at Arthur's funeral. He'd looked older. Older, and tired.
And stiff with grief. "He is well?"
Mary was silent, and then an unbearable sorrow filled her eyes. Her lips parted but she did not speak. She did not need to.
Jack stared at her in shock. "No," he whispered, because it could not be true. He was supposed to have had a chance to say he was sorry. He'd come all the way to Ireland. He wanted to say he was sorry.
"He died, Jack." Mary blinked several times, her eyes glistening. "It was two years ago. I didn't know how to find you. You never gave us an address."
Jack turned, taking a few steps toward the rear of the house. If he stayed where he was, someone could see him. Everyone was in the drawing room. If they looked through the doorway, they would see him, struck, ready to cry, maybe ready to scream.
"Jack?" It was Mary, and he could hear her steps moving cautiously toward him. He looked up at the ceiling, taking a shaky, open-mouthed breath. It didn't help, but it was all he could manage.
Mary laid her hand on his arm. "He told me to tell you he loved you."
"Don't say that." It was the one thing he couldn't hear. Not just now.
"He did. He told me he knew you would come home. And that he loved you, and you were his son. In his heart, you were his son."
He covered his face with his hands and found himself pressing tight, tighter, as if he could squeeze this all away. Why was he surprised? There was no reason he should be. William was not a young man; he'd been nearly forty when he married Mary. Did he think that life would have stood still in his absence?
That no one would have changed, or grown...or died?
"I should have come back," he said. "I should have - Oh, God, I'm such an idiot."
Mary touched his hand, pulled it gently down and held it. And then she pulled him out of the hall, into the nearest room. His uncle's study.
Jack walked over to the desk. It was a hulking, behemoth of a thing, the wood dark and scuffed and smelling like the paper and ink that always lain atop it.
But it had never been imposing. Funny, he'd always liked coming in here. It seemed odd, really. He'd been an out of doors sort of boy, always running and racing, and covered in mud. Even now, he hated a room with fewer than two windows.
But he had always liked it here.
He turned to look at his aunt. She was standing in the middle of the room. She'd closed the door most of the way and set her candle down on a shelf. She turned and looked back at him and said, very softly, "He knew you loved him."
He shook his head. "I did not deserve him. Or you."
"Stop this talk. I won't hear it."
"Aunt Mary, you know..." He put his fisted hand to his mouth, biting down on his knuckle. The words were there, but they burned in his chest, and it was so damned hard to speak them. "You know that Arthur would not have gone to France if not for me."
She stared at him in bewilderment, then gasped and said, "Good heavens, Jack, you do not blame yourself for his death?"
"Of course I do. He went for me. He would never have - "
"He wanted to join the army. He knew it was that or the clergy, and heaven knows he did not want that.
He'd always planned - "
"No," Jack cut in, with all the force and anger in his heart. "He hadn't. Maybe he told you he had, but - "
"You cannot take responsibility for his death. I will not let you."
"Aunt Mary - "
"Stop! Stop it!"
The heels of her hands were pressed against her temples, her fingers wrapping up and over her skull.
More than anything, she looked as if she were trying to shut him out, to put a stop to whatever it was he was trying to tell her.
But it had to be said. It was the only way she would understand.
And it would be the first time he'd uttered the words aloud.
"I cannot read."
Three words. That's all it was. Three words. And a lifetime of secrets.
Her brow wrinkled, and Jack could not tell - did she not believe him? Or was it simply that she thought she'd misheard?
People saw what they expected to see. He'd acted like an educated man, and so that was how she'd seen him.
"I can't read, Aunt Mary. I've never been able to. Arthur was the only one who ever realized."
She shook her head. "I don't understand. You were in school. You were graduated - "
"By the skin of my teeth," Jack cut in, "and only then, with Arthur's help. Why do you think I had to leave university?"
"Jack..." She looked almost embarrassed. "We were told you misbehaved. You drank too much, and there was that woman, and - and - that awful prank with the pig, and - Why are you shaking your head?"
"I didn't want to embarrass you."
"You think that wasn't embarrassing?"
"I could not do the work without Arthur's help," he explained. "And he was two years behind me."
"But we were told - "
"I'd rather have been dismissed for bad behavior than stupidity," he said softly.
"You did it all on purpose?"
He dipped his chin.
"Oh, my God." She sank into a chair. "Why didn't you say something? We could have hired a tutor."
"It wouldn't have helped." And then, when she looked up at him in confusion he said, almost helplessly,
"The letters dance. They flip about. I can never tell the difference between a d and a b, unless they are uppercase, and even then I - "
"You're not stupid," she cut in, and her voice was sharp.
He stared at her.
"You are not stupid. If there is a problem it is with your eyes, not your mind. I know you." She stood, her movements shaky but determined, and then she touched his cheek with her hand. "I was there the moment you were born. I was the first to hold you. I have been with you for every scrape, every tumble. I have watched your eyes light, Jack. I have watched you think.
"How clever you must have been," she said softly, "to have fooled us all."
"Arthur helped me all through school," he said as evenly as he was able. "I never asked him to. He said he liked - " He swallowed then, because the memory was rising in his throat like a cannonball. "He said he liked to read aloud."
"I think he did like that." A tear began to roll down her cheek. "He idolized you, Jack."
Jack fought the sobs that were choking his throat. "I was supposed to protect him."
"Soldiers die, Jack. Arthur was not the only one. He was merely..." She closed her eyes and turned away, but not so fast that Jack didn't see the flash of pain on her face.
"He was merely the only one who mattered to me," she whispered. She looked up, straight into his eyes.
"Please, Jack, I don't want to lose two sons."
She held out her arms, and before Jack knew it, he was there, in her embrace. Sobbing.
He had not cried for Arthur. Not once. He'd been so full of anger - at the French, at himself - that he had not left room for grief.
But now here it was, rushing in. All the sadness, all the times he'd witnessed something amusing and Arthur had not been there to share it with. All the milestones he had celebrated alone. All the milestones Arthur would never celebrate.
He cried for all of that. And he cried for himself, for his lost years. He'd been running. Running from himself. And he was tired of it. He wanted to stop. To stay in one place.
He would not lose her. He did not care what he had to do to ensure their future, but ensure it he would. If Grace said that she could not marry the Duke of Wyndham, then he would not be the Duke of Wyndham.
Surely there was some measure of his destiny that was still under his control.
"I need to see to the guests," Mary whispered, pulling gently away.
Jack nodded, wiping the last of his tears from his eyes. "The dowager..." Good lord, what was there to say about the dowager, except: "I'm so sorry."
"She shall have my bedchamber," Mary said.
Normally Jack would have forbidden her to give up her room, but he was tired, and he suspected she was tired, and tonight seemed like the perfect time to put ease before pride. And so he nodded. "That is very kind of you."
"I suspect it's something closer to self-preservation."
He smiled at that. "Aunt Mary?"
She'd reached the door, but she stopped with her hand on the knob, turning back around to face him.
"Miss Eversleigh," he said.
Something lit in his aunt's eyes. Something romantic. "Yes?"
"I love her."
Mary's entire being seemed to warm and glow. "I am so happy to hear it."
"She loves me, too."
"Yes," he murmured, "it is."
She motioned toward the hall. "Will you return with me?"
Jack knew he should, but the evening's revelations had left him exhausted. And he did not want anyone to see him thus, his eyes still red and raw. "Would you mind if I remained here?" he asked.
"Of course not." She smiled wistfully and left the room.
Jack turned back toward his uncle's desk, running his fingers slowly along the smooth surface. It was peaceful here, and the Lord knew, he needed a spot of peace.
It was going to be a long night. He would not sleep. There was no sense in trying. But he did not want to do anything. He did not want to go anywhere, and most of all, he did not want to think.
For this moment...for this night...he just wanted to be.
Grace liked the Audleys' drawing room, she decided. It was quite elegant, decorated in soft tones of burgundy and cream, with two seating areas, a writing desk, and several cozy reading chairs in the corners. Signs of family life were everywhere - from the stack of letters on the desk to the embroidery Mrs. Audley must have abandoned on the sofa when she'd heard Jack at the door. On the mantel sat six miniatures in a row. Grace walked over, pretending to warm her hands by the fire.
It was their family, she instantly realized, probably painted fifteen years ago. The first was surely Jack's uncle, and the next Grace recognized as Mrs. Audley. After that was...Good heavens, was that Jack? It had to be. How could someone change so little? He looked younger, yes, but everything else was the same - the expression, the sly smile.
It nearly took her breath away.
The other three miniatures were the Audley children, or so Grace assumed. Two boys and one girl. She dipped her head and said a little prayer when she reached the younger of the boys. Arthur. Jack had loved him.
Was that what he was talking about with his aunt? Grace had been the last to enter the drawing room; she'd seen Mrs. Audley pull him gently through another doorway.
After a few minutes the butler arrived, announcing that their rooms had been prepared, but Grace loitered near the fireplace. She was not ready to leave this room.
She was not sure why.
She looked up. It was Jack's aunt.
"You walk softly, Mrs. Audley," she said. "I did not hear you approach."
"That one is Jack," Mrs. Audley said, reaching out and removing his miniature from the mantel.
"I recognized him," Grace murmured.
"Yes, he is much the same. This one is my son Edward. He lives just down the lane. And this is Margaret. She has two daughters of her own now."
Grace looked at Arthur. They both did.
"I am sorry for your loss," Grace finally said.
Mrs. Audley swallowed, but she did not seem to be near tears. "Thank you." She turned then, and took Grace's hand in hers. "Jack is in his uncle's study. At the far end of the hall, on the right. Go to him."
Grace's lips parted.
"Go," Mrs. Audley said, even more softly than before.
Grace felt herself nod, and before she'd had time to consider her actions, she was already in the hall, hurrying down toward the end.
To the door on the right.
"Jack?" she said softly, pushing the door open a few inches.
He was sitting in a chair, facing the window, but he turned quickly and stood at the sound of her voice.
She let herself in and closed the door gently behind her. "Your aunt said - "
He was right there. Right there in front of her. And then her back was against the door, and he was kissing her, hard, fast, and - dear God - thoroughly.
And then he stepped away. She couldn't breathe, she could barely stand, and she knew she could not have put together a sentence if her life had depended on it.
Never in her life had she wanted anything as much as she wanted this man.
"Go to bed, Grace."
"I cannot resist you," he said, his voice soft, haggard, and everything in between.
She reached toward him. She could not help it.
"Not in this house," he whispered.
But his eyes burned for her.
"Go," he said hoarsely. "Please."
She did. She ran up the stairs, found her room, and crawled between her sheets.
But she shivered all night.
She shivered and she burned.
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