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The Lost Duke of Wyndham


Chapter Two

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Several hours later Grace was sitting in a chair in the corridor outside the dowager's bedchamber. She was beyond weary and wanted nothing more than to crawl into her own bed, where she was quite certain she would toss and turn and fail to find slumber, despite her exhaustion. But the dowager was so overset, and indeed had rung so many times that Grace had finally given up and dragged the chair to its present location. In the last hour she had brought the dowager (who would not leave her bed) a collection of letters, tucked at the bottom of a locked drawer; a glass of warm milk; a glass of brandy; another miniature of her long-dead son John; a handkerchief that clearly possessed some sort of sentimental value; and another glass of brandy, to replace the one the dowager had knocked over while anxiously directing Grace to fetch the handkerchief.

It had been about ten minutes since the last summons. Ten minutes to do nothing but sit and wait in the chair, thinking, thinking...

Of the highwayman.

Of his kiss.

Of Thomas, the current Duke of Wyndham. Whom she considered a friend.

Of the dowager's long-dead middle son, and the man who apparently bore his likeness. And his name.

His name. Grace took a long, uneasy breath. His name.

Good God.

She had not told the dowager this. She had stood motionless in the middle of the road, watching the highwayman ride off in the light of the partial moon. And then, finally, when she thought her legs might actually function, she set about getting them home. There was the footman to untie, and the coachman to tend to, and as for the dowager - she was so clearly upset that she did not even whisper a complaint when Grace put the injured coachman inside the carriage with her.

And then she joined the footman atop the driver's seat and drove them home. She wasn't a particularly experienced hand with the reins, but she could manage.

And she'd had to manage. There was no one else to do it. But that was something she was good at.

Managing. Making do.

She'd got them home, found someone to tend to the coachman, and then tended to the dowager, and all the while she'd thought -

Who was he?

The highwayman. He'd said his name had once been Cavendish. Could he be the dowager's grandson?

She had been told that John Cavendish died without issue, but he wouldn't have been the first young nobleman to litter the countryside with illegitimate children.

Except he'd said his name was Cavendish. Or rather, had been Cavendish. Which meant -

Grace shook her head blearily. She was so tired she could barely think, and yet it seemed all she could do was think. What did it mean that the highwayman's name was Cavendish? Could an illegitimate son bear his father's name?

She had no idea. She'd never met a bastard before, at least not one of noble origins. But she'd known others who had changed their names. The vicar's son had gone to live with relatives when he was small, and the last time he'd been back to visit, he'd introduced himself with a different surname. So surely an illegitimate son could call himself whatever he wanted. And even if it was not legal to do so, a highwayman would not trouble himself with such technicalities, would he?

Grace touched her mouth, trying to pretend she did not love the shivers of excitement that rushed through her at the memory. He had kissed her. It had been her first kiss, and she did not know who he was.

She knew his scent, she knew the warmth of his skin, and the velvet softness of his lips, but she did not know his name.

Not all of it, at least.

"Grace! Grace!"

Grace stumbled to her feet. She'd left the door ajar so she could better hear the dowager, and sure enough, her name was once again being called. The dowager must still be overset - she rarely used Grace's Christian name. It was harder to snap out in a demanding manner than Miss Eversleigh.

Grace rushed back into the room, trying not to sound weary and resentful as she asked, "May I be of assistance?"

The dowager was sitting up in bed - well, not quite sitting up. She was mostly lying down, with just her head propped up on the pillows. Grace thought she looked terribly uncomfortable, but the last time she had tried to adjust her position she'd nearly got her head bit off.

"Where have you been?"

Grace did not think the question required an answer, but she said, nonetheless, "Just outside your door, ma'am."

"I need you to get me something," the dowager said, and she didn't sound as imperious as she did agitated.

"What is it you would like, your grace?"

"I want the portrait of John."

Grace stared at her, uncomprehending.

"Don't just stand there!" the dowager practically screamed.

"But ma'am," Grace protested, jumping back, "I've brought you all three of the miniatures, and - "

"No, no, no," the dowager cried, her head swinging back and forth on the pillows. "I want the portrait.

From the gallery."

"The portrait," Grace echoed, because it was half three in the morning, and perhaps she was addled by exhaustion, but she thought she'd just been asked to remove a life-sized portrait from a wall and carry it up two flights of stairs to the dowager's bedchamber.

"You know the one," the dowager said. "He's standing next to the tree, and he has a sparkle in his eye."

Grace blinked, trying to absorb this. "There is only the one, I think."

"Yes," the dowager said, her voice almost unbalanced in its urgency. "There is a sparkle in his eye."

"You want me to bring it here."

"I have no other bedchamber," the dowager snapped.

"Very well." Grace swallowed. Good Lord, how was she going to accomplish this? "It will take a bit of time."

"Just drag a chair over and yank the bloody thing down. You don't need - "

Grace rushed forward as the dowager's body convulsed in a spasm of coughing. "Ma'am! Ma'am!" she said, bringing her arm around her to set her upright. "Please, ma'am. You must try to be more settled.

You are going to hurt yourself."

The dowager coughed a few last times, took a long swallow of her warm milk, then cursed and took her brandy instead. That, she finished entirely. "I'm going to hurt you," she gasped, thunking the glass back down on her bedside table, "if you don't get me that portrait."

Grace swallowed and nodded. "As you wish, ma'am." She hurried out, sagging against the corridor wall once she was out of the dowager's sight.

It had begun as such a lovely evening. And now look at her. She'd had a gun pointed at her heart, been kissed by a man whose next appointment was surely with the gallows, and now the dowager wanted her to wrestle a life-sized portrait off the gallery wall.

At half three in the morning.

"She can't possibly be paying me enough," Grace mumbled under her breath as she made her way down the stairs. "There couldn't possibly exist enough money - "

"Grace?"

She stopped short, stumbling off the bottom step. Large hands immediately found her upper arms to steady her. She looked up, even though she knew who it had to be. Thomas Cavendish was the grandson of the dowager. He was also the Duke of Wyndham and thus without question the most powerful man in the district. He was in London nearly as often as he was here, but Grace had got to know him quite well during the five years she'd acted as companion to the dowager.

They were friends. It was an odd and completely unexpected situation, given the difference in their rank, but they were friends.

"Your grace," she said, even though he had long since instructed her to use his given name when they were at Belgrave. She gave him a tired nod as he stepped back and returned his hands to his sides. It was far too late for her to ponder matters of titles and address.

"What the devil are you doing awake?" he asked. "It's got to be after two."

"After three, actually," she corrected absently, and then - good heavens, Thomas.

She snapped fully awake. What should she tell him? Should she say anything at all? There would be no hiding the fact that she and the dowager had been accosted by highwaymen, but she wasn't quite certain if she should reveal that he might have a first cousin racing about the countryside, relieving the local gentry of their valuables.

Because, all things considered, he might not. And surely it did not make sense to concern him needlessly.

"Grace?"

She gave her head a shake. "I'm sorry, what did you say?"

"Why are you wandering the halls?"

"Your grandmother is not feeling well," she said. And then, because she desperately wanted to change the subject: "You're home late."

"I had business in Stamford," he said brusquely.

His mistress. If it had been anything else, he would not have been so oblique. It was odd, though, that he was here now. He usually spent the night. Grace, despite her respectable birth, was a servant at Belgrave, and as such privy to almost all of the gossip. If the duke stayed out all night, she generally knew about it.

"We had an...exciting evening," Grace said.

He looked at her expectantly.

She felt herself hesitate, and then - well, there was really nothing to do but say it. "We were accosted by highwaymen."

His reaction was swift. "Good God," he exclaimed. "Are you all right? Is my grandmother well?"

"We are both unharmed," Grace assured him, "although our driver has a nasty bump on his head. I took the liberty of giving him three days to convalesce."

"Of course." He closed his eyes for a moment, looking pained. "I must offer my apologies," he said. "I should have insisted that you take more than one outrider."

"Don't be silly. It's not your fault. Who would have thought - " She cut herself off, because really, there was no sense in assigning blame. "We are unhurt," she repeated. "That is all that matters."

He sighed. "What did they take?"

Grace swallowed. She couldn't very well tell him they'd stolen nothing but a ring. Thomas was no idiot; he'd wonder why. She smiled tightly, deciding that vagueness was the order of the day. "Not very much," she said. "Nothing at all from me. I imagine it was obvious I am not a woman of means."

"Grandmother must be spitting mad."

"She is a bit overset," Grace hedged.

"She was wearing her emeralds, wasn't she?" He shook his head. "The old bat is ridiculously fond of those stones."

Grace declined to scold him for his characterization of his grandmother. "She kept the emeralds, actually.

She hid them under the seat cushion."

He looked impressed. "She did?"

"I did," Grace corrected, unwilling to share the glory. "She thrust them at me before they breached the vehicle."

He smiled slightly, and then, after a moment of somewhat awkward silence, said, "You did not mention why you're up and about so late. Surely you deserve a rest as well."

"I...er..." There seemed to be no way to avoid telling him. If nothing else, he'd notice the massive empty spot on the gallery wall the next day. "Your grandmother has a strange request."

"All of her requests are strange," he replied immediately.

"No, this one...well..." Grace's eyes flicked up in exasperation. How was it her life had come to this? "I don't suppose you'd like to help me remove a painting from the gallery."

"A painting."

She nodded.

"From the gallery."

She nodded again.

"I don't suppose she's asking for one of those modestly sized square ones."

"With the bowls of fruit?"

He nodded.

"No." When he did not comment, she added, "She wants the portrait of your uncle."

"Which one?"

"John."

He nodded, smiling slightly, but without any humor. "He was always her favorite."

"But you never knew him," Grace said, because the way he'd said it - it almost sounded as if he'd witnessed her favoritism.

"No, of course not. He died before I was born. But my father spoke of him."

It was clear from his expression that he did not wish to discuss the matter further. Grace could not think of anything more to say, however, so she just stood there, waiting for him to collect his thoughts.

Which apparently he did, because he turned to her and asked, "Isn't that portrait life-sized?"

Grace pictured herself wrestling it from the wall. "I'm afraid so."

For a moment it looked as if he might turn toward the gallery, but then his jaw squared and he was once again every inch the forbidding duke. "No," he said firmly. "You will not get that for her this evening. If she wants the bloody painting in her room, she can ask a footman for it in the morning."

Grace wanted to smile at his protectiveness, but by this point she was far too weary. And besides that, when it came to the dowager, she had long since learned to follow the road of least resistance. "I assure you, I want nothing more than to retire this very minute, but it is easier just to accommodate her."

"Absolutely not," he said imperiously, and without waiting, he turned and marched up the stairs. Grace watched him for a moment, and then, with a shrug, headed off to the gallery. It couldn't be that difficult to take a painting off a wall, could it?

But she made it only ten paces before she heard Thomas bark her name.

She sighed, stopping in her tracks. She should have known better. The man was as stubborn as his grandmother, not that he would appreciate the comparison.

She turned and retraced her steps, hurrying along when she heard him call out for her again. "I'm right here," she said irritably. "Good gracious, you'll wake the entire house."

He rolled his eyes. "Don't tell me you were going to get the painting by yourself."

"If I don't, she will ring for me all night, and then I will never get any sleep."

He narrowed his eyes. "Watch me."

"Watch you what?" she asked, baffled.

"Dismantle her bell cord," he said, heading upstairs with renewed determination.

"Dismantle her...Thomas!" She ran up behind him, but of course could not keep up. "Thomas, you can't!"

He turned. Grinned even, which she found somewhat alarming. "It's my house," he said. "I can do anything I want."

And while Grace digested that on an exhausted brain, he strode down the hall and into his grandmother's room. "What," she heard him bite off, "do you think you're doing?"

Grace let out a breath and hurried after him, entering the room just as he was saying, "Good heavens, are you all right?"

"Where is Miss Eversleigh?" the dowager asked, her eyes darting frantically about the room.

"I'm right here," Grace assured her, rushing forward.

"Did you get it? Where is the painting? I want to see my son."

"Ma'am, it's late," Grace tried to explain. She inched forward, although she wasn't sure why. If the dowager started spouting off about the highwayman and his resemblance to her favorite son, it wasn't as if she would be able to stop her.

But still, the proximity at least gave the illusion that she might be able to prevent disaster.

"Ma'am," Grace said again, gently, softly. She gave the dowager a careful look.

"You may instruct a footman to procure it for you in the morning," Thomas said, sounding slightly less imperious than before, "but I will not have Miss Eversleigh undertaking such manual labor, and certainly not in the middle of the night."

"I need the painting, Thomas," the dowager said, and Grace almost reached out to take her hand. She sounded pained. She sounded old. And she certainly did not sound like herself when she said, "Please."

Grace glanced at Thomas. He looked uneasy. "Tomorrow," he said. "First thing, if you wish it."

"But - "

"No," he interrupted. "I am sorry you were accosted this evening, and I shall certainly do whatever is necessary - within reason - to facilitate your comfort and health, but this does not include whimsical and ill-timed demands. Do you understand me?"

They stared at each other for so long that Grace wanted to flinch. Then Thomas said sharply, "Grace, go to bed." He didn't turn around.

Grace held still for a moment, waiting for what, she didn't know - disagreement from the dowager? A thunderbolt outside the window? When neither was forthcoming, she decided she could do nothing more that evening and left the room. As she walked slowly down the hall, she could hear them arguing - nothing violent, nothing impassioned. But then, she'd not have expected that. Cavendish tempers ran cold, and they were far more likely to attack with a frozen barb than a heated cry.

Grace let out a long, uneven breath. She would never get used to this. Five years she had been at Belgrave, and still the resentment that ran back and forth between Thomas and his grandmother shocked her.

And the worst part was - there wasn't even a reason! Once, she had dared to ask Thomas why they held each other in such contempt. He just shrugged, saying that it had always been that way. She'd disliked his father, Thomas said, his father had hated him, and he himself could have done quite well without either of them.

Grace had been stunned. She'd thought families were meant to love each other. Hers had. Her mother, her father...She closed her eyes, fighting back tears. She was being maudlin. Or maybe it was because she was tired. She didn't cry about them any longer. She missed them - she would always miss them. But the great big gaping hole their deaths had rent in her had healed.

And now...well, she'd found a new place in this world. It wasn't the one she'd anticipated, and it wasn't the one her parents had planned for her, but it came with food and clothing, and the opportunity to see her friends from time to time.

But sometimes, late at night as she lay in her bed, it was just so hard. She knew she should not be ungrateful - she was living in a castle, for heaven's sake. But she had not been brought up for this. Not the servitude, and not the sour dispositions. Her father had been a country gentleman, her mother a well-liked member of the local community. They had raised her with love and laughter, and sometimes, as they sat before the fire in the evening, her father would sigh and say that she was going to have to remain a spinster, because surely there was no man in the county good enough for his daughter.

And Grace would laugh and say, "What about the rest of England?"

"Not there, either!"

"France?"

"Good heavens, not."

"The Americas?"

"Are you trying to kill your mother, gel? You know she gets seasick if she so much as sees the beach."

And they all somehow knew that Grace would marry someone right there in Lincolnshire, and she'd live down the road, or at least just a short ride away, and she would be happy. She would find what her parents had found, because no one expected her to marry for any reason other than love. She'd have babies, and her house would be full of laughter, and she would be happy.

She'd thought herself the luckiest girl in the world.

But the fever that had struck the Eversleigh house was cruel, and when it broke, Grace was an orphan. At seventeen, she could hardly remain on her own, and indeed, no one had been sure what to do with her until her father's affairs were settled and the will was read.

Grace let out a bitter laugh as she pulled off her wrinkled clothing and readied herself for bed. Her father's directives had only made matters worse. They were in debt; not deeply so, but enough to render her a burden. Her parents, it seemed, had always lived slightly above their means, presumably hoping that love and happiness would carry them through.

And indeed they had. Love and happiness had stood up nicely to every obstacle the Eversleighs had faced.

Except death.

Sillsby - the only home Grace had ever known - was entailed. She'd known that, but not how eager her cousin Miles would be to assume residence. Or that he was still unmarried. Or that when he pushed her against a wall and jammed his lips against hers, she was supposed to let him, indeed thank the toad for his gracious and benevolent interest in her.

Instead she had shoved her elbow into his ribs and her knee up against his -

Well, he hadn't been too fond of her after that. It was the only part of the whole debacle that still made her smile.

Furious at the rebuff, Miles had tossed her out on her ear. Grace had been left with nothing. No home, no money, and no relations (she refused to count him among the last).

Enter the dowager.

News of Grace's predicament must have traveled fast through the district. The dowager had swooped in like an icy goddess and whisked her away. Not that there had been any illusion that she was to be a pampered guest. The dowager had arrived with full retinue, stared down Miles until he squirmed (literally; it had been a most enjoyable moment for Grace), and then declared to her, "You shall be my companion."

Before Grace had a chance to accept or decline, the dowager had turned and left the room. Which just confirmed what they all knew - that Grace had never had a choice in the matter to begin with.

That had been five years ago. Grace now lived in a castle, ate fine food, and her clothing was, if not the latest stare of fashion, well-made and really quite pretty. (The dowager was, if nothing else, at least not cheap.)

She lived mere miles from where she had grown up, and as most of her friends still resided in the district, she saw them with some regularity - in the village, at church, on afternoon calls. And if she didn't have a family of her own, at least she had not been forced to have one with Miles.

But much as she appreciated all the dowager had done for her, she wanted something more.

Or maybe not even more. Maybe just something else.

Unlikely, she thought, falling into bed. The only options for a woman of her birth were employment and marriage. Which, for her, meant employment. The men of Lincolnshire were far too cowed by the dowager to ever make an overture in Grace's direction. It was well-known that Augusta Cavendish had no desire to train a new companion.

It was even more well-known that Grace hadn't a farthing.

She closed her eyes, trying to remind herself that the sheets she'd slid between were of the highest quality, and the candle she'd just snuffed was pure beeswax. She had every physical comfort, truly.

But what she wanted was...

It didn't really matter what she wanted. That was her last thought before she finally fell asleep.

And dreamed of a highwayman.

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