Lovely house," Jack said, as he was led - hands still bound - through the grand entrance of Belgrave.
He turned to the old lady. "Did you decorate? It has that woman's touch."
Miss Eversleigh was trailing behind, but he could hear her choke back a bubble of laughter.
"Oh, let it out, Miss Eversleigh," he called over his shoulder. "Much better for your constitution."
"This way," the dowager ordered, motioning for him to follow her down the hall.
"Should I obey, Miss Eversleigh?"
She did not reply, smart girl that she was. But he was far too furious for circumspect sympathy, so he took his insolence one step further. "Yoo-hoo! Miss Eversleigh! Did you hear me?"
"Of course she heard you," the dowager snapped angrily.
Jack paused, cocking his head as he regarded the dowager. "I thought you were overjoyed to make my acquaintance."
"I am," she bit off.
"Hmmm." He turned to Miss Eversleigh, who had caught up to them during the exchange. "I don't think she sounds overjoyed, Miss Eversleigh. Do you?"
Miss Eversleigh's eyes darted from him to her employer and back before she said, "The dowager duchess is most eager to accept you into her family."
"Well said, Miss Eversleigh," he applauded. "Insightful and yet circumspect." He turned back to the dowager. "I hope you pay her well."
Two red spots appeared on the dowager's cheeks, in such stark relief to the white of her skin that he would have sworn she'd used rouge if he hadn't seen the angry marks appear with his own eyes. "You are dismissed," she ordered, not even looking at Miss Eversleigh.
"I am?" he feigned. "Lovely." He held out his bound wrists. "Would you mind?"
"Not you, her." His grandmother's jaw clenched. "As you well know."
But Jack was not in the mood to be accommodating, and in that moment he did not even care to maintain his usual jocular facade. And so he looked her in the eye, his green meeting her icy, icy blue, and as he spoke, he felt a shiver of deja vu. It was almost as if he were back on the Continent, back in battle, his shoulders straight and his eyes narrowed as he faced down the enemy.
They froze, all three of them, and Jack's eyes did not waver from the dowager's as he continued. "You brought her into this. She will remain through to the end."
He half expected Miss Eversleigh to protest. Hell, any sane person would have run as far as possible from the upcoming confrontation. But she stood utterly still, her arms stick-straight at her sides, her only movement her throat as she swallowed.
"If you want me," he said quietly, "you will take her as well."
The dowager sucked a long, angry breath through her nose and jerked her head to the side. "Grace," she barked, "the crimson drawing room. Now."
Her name was Grace. He turned and looked at her. Her skin was pale and her eyes were wide and assessing.
Grace. He liked it. It fit her.
"Don't you want to know my name?" he called out to the dowager, who was already stalking down the hall.
She stopped and turned, as he knew she would.
"It's John," he announced, enjoying the way the blood drained from her face. "Jack to friends" - he looked at Grace with heavy-lidded seduction in his eyes - "and friends."
He could have sworn he felt her shiver, which delighted him.
"Are we?" he murmured.
Her lips parted a full second before she managed to make a sound. "Are we what?"
"Friends, of course."
"I - I - "
"Will you leave my companion alone!" the dowager barked.
He sighed and shook his head toward Miss Eversleigh. "She's so domineering, don't you think?"
Miss Eversleigh blushed. Truly, it was the prettiest pink he'd ever seen.
"Pity about these bindings," he continued. "We do seem to be caught in a romantic moment, your employer's acidic presence aside, and it would be far easier to drop one exquisite kiss on the back of your hand were I able to lift it with one of mine."
This time he was certain she shivered.
"Or your mouth," he whispered. "I might kiss your mouth."
There was a lovely silence, broken rather rudely by:
"What the devil?"
Miss Eversleigh jumped back a foot or three, and Jack turned to see an extremely angry man striding his way.
"Is this man bothering you, Grace?" he demanded.
She shook her head quickly. "No, no, he's not. But - "
The newcomer turned to Jack with furious blue eyes. Furious blue eyes that rather closely resembled those of the dowager, save for the bags and wrinkles. "Who are you?"
"Who are you?" Jack countered, instantly disliking him.
"I am Wyndham," he shot back. "And you are in my home."
Jack blinked. A cousin. His new family was growing more charming by the second. "Ah. Well, in that case, I am Jack Audley. Formerly of His Majesty's esteemed army, more recently of the dusty road."
"Who are these Audleys?" the dowager demanded, crossing back over. "You are no Audley. It is there in your face. In your nose and chin and in every bloody feature save your eyes, which are quite the wrong color."
"The wrong color?" Jack responded, acting hurt. "Really?" He turned to Miss Eversleigh. "I was always told the ladies like green eyes. Was I misinformed?"
"You are a Cavendish!" the dowager roared. "You are a Cavendish, and I demand to know why I was not informed of your existence."
"What the devil is going on?" Wyndham demanded.
Jack thought it wasn't his duty to answer, so he happily kept quiet.
"Grace?" Wyndham asked, turning to Miss Eversleigh.
Jack watched the exchange with interest. They were friends, but were they friendly? He could not be sure.
Miss Eversleigh swallowed with noticeable discomfort. "Your grace," she said, "perhaps a word in private?"
"And spoil it for the rest of us?" Jack chimed in, because after what he'd been subjected to, he didn't much feel that anyone deserved a moment of privacy. And then, to achieve maximum irritation, he added, "After all I've been through..."
"He is your cousin," the dowager announced sharply.
"He is the highwayman," Miss Eversleigh said.
"Not," Jack added, turning to display his bound hands, "here of my own volition, I assure you."
"Your grandmother thought she recognized him last night," Miss Eversleigh told the duke.
"I knew I recognized him," the dowager snapped. Jack resisted the urge to duck as she flicked her hand at him. "Just look at him."
Jack turned to the duke. "I was wearing a mask." Because really, he shouldn't have to take the blame for this.
He smiled cheerfully, watching the duke with interest as he brought his hand to his forehead and pressed his temples with enough force to crush his skull. And then, just like that, his hand fell away and he yelled, "Cecil!"
Jack was about to make a quip about another lost cousin, but at that moment a footman - presumably named Cecil - came skidding down the hall.
"The portrait," Wyndham bit off. "Of my uncle."
"The one we just brought up to - "
"Yes. In the drawing room. Now! "
Even Jack's eyes widened at the furious energy in his voice.
And then - it was like acid in his belly - he saw Miss Eversleigh lay a hand on the duke's arm.
"Thomas," she said softly, surprising him with her use of his given name, "please allow me to explain."
"Did you know about this?" Wyndham demanded.
"Yes, but - "
"Last night," he said icily. "Did you know last night?"
"I did, but Thomas - "
What happened last night?
"Enough," he spat. "Into the drawing room. All of you."
Jack followed the duke, and then, once the door was shut behind them, held up his hands. "D'you think you might...?" he asked. Rather conversationally, if he did say so himself.
"For the love of Christ," Wyndham muttered. He grabbed something from a writing table near the wall and then returned. With one angry swipe, he cut through the bindings with a gold letter opener.
Jack looked down to make sure he wasn't bleeding. "Well done," he murmured. Not even a scratch.
"Thomas," Miss Eversleigh was saying, "I really think you ought to let me speak with you for a moment before - "
"Before what?" Wyndham snapped, turning on her with what Jack deemed rather unbecoming fury.
"Before I am informed of another long-lost cousin whose head may or may not be wanted by the Crown?"
"Not by the Crown, I think," Jack said mildly. He had his reputation to think of, after all. "But surely a few magistrates. And a vicar or two." He turned to the dowager. "Highway robbery is not generally considered the most secure of all possible occupations."
His levity was appreciated by no one, not even poor Miss Eversleigh, who had managed to incur the fury of both Wyndhams. Rather undeservedly, too, in his opinion. He hated bullies.
"Thomas," Miss Eversleigh implored, her tone once again causing Jack to wonder just what, precisely, existed between those two. "Your grace," she corrected, with a nervous glance over at the dowager,
"there is something you need to know."
"Indeed," Wyndham bit off. "The identities of my true friends and confidantes, for one thing."
Miss Eversleigh flinched as if struck, and at that moment Jack decided that he'd had quite enough. "I suggest," he said, his voice light but steady, "that you speak to Miss Eversleigh with greater respect."
The duke turned to him, his eyes as stunned as the silence that descended over the room. "I beg your pardon."
Jack hated him in that moment, every prideful little aristocratic speck of him. "Not used to being spoken to like a man, are we?" he taunted.
The air went electric, and Jack knew he probably should have foreseen what would come next, but the duke's face had positively twisted into fury, and Jack somehow could not seem to move as Wyndham launched himself forward, his hands wrapping themselves around his throat as the both of them went crashing down to the carpet.
Cursing himself for a fool, Jack tried to get traction as the duke's fist slammed into his jaw. Pure animalistic survival set in, and he tensed his belly into a hard knot. With one lightning-quick movement he threw his torso forward, using his head as a weapon. There was a satisfying crack as he struck Wyndham's jaw, and Jack took advantage of his stunned state to roll them over and reverse their positions.
"Don't...you.... ever strike me again," Jack growled. He'd fought in gutters, on battlefields, for his country and for his life, and he'd never had patience for men who threw the first punch.
He took an elbow in the belly and was about to return the favor with a knee to the groin when Miss Eversleigh leapt into the fray, wedging herself between the two men with nary a thought to propriety or her own safety.
"Stop it! Both of you!"
Jack managed to nudge Wyndham's upper arm just in time to stop his fist from reaching her cheek. It would have been an accident, of course, but then he'd have had to kill him, and that would have been a hanging offense.
"You should be ashamed of yourself," Miss Eversleigh scolded, looking straight at the duke.
He merely raised a brow and said, "You might want to remove yourself from my, er..." He looked down at his midsection, upon which she was now seated.
"Oh!" She jumped up, and Jack would have defended her honor except that he had to admit he'd have said the same thing were he seated under her. Not to mention that she was still holding his arm.
"Tend to my wounds?" he asked, making his eyes big and green and brimming with the world's most effective expression of seduction. Which was, of course, I need you. I need you and if you would only care for me I will forswear all other women and melt at your feet and quite possibly become filthy rich and if you'd like even royal all in one dreamy swoop.
It never failed.
Except, apparently, now. "You have no wounds," she snapped, thrusting him away. She looked over at Wyndham, who had risen to his feet beside her. "And neither do you."
Jack was about to make a comment about the milk of human kindness, but just then the dowager stepped forward and smacked her grandson - that would be the grandson of whose lineage they were quite certain - in the shoulder.
"Apologize at once!" she snapped. "He is a guest in our house."
A guest. Jack was touched.
"My house," the duke snapped back.
Jack watched the old lady with interest. She wouldn't take well to that.
"He is your first cousin," she said tightly. "One would think, given the lack of close relations in our family, that you would be eager to welcome him into the fold."
Oh, right. The duke was just brimming with joy. "Would someone," Wyndham bit off, "do me the service of explaining just how this man has come to be in my drawing room?"
Jack waited for someone to offer an explanation, and then, when none was forthcoming, offered his own version. "She kidnapped me," he said with shrug, motioning toward the dowager.
Wyndham turned slowly to his grandmother. "You kidnapped him," he said, his voice flat and strangely devoid of disbelief.
"Indeed," she replied, her chin butting up in the air. "And I would do it again."
"It's true," Miss Eversleigh said. And then she delighted him by turning in his direction and saying, "I'm sorry."
"Accepted, of course," Jack said graciously.
The duke, however, was not amused. To the extent that poor Miss Eversleigh felt the need to defend her actions with, "She kidnapped him!"
Wyndham ignored her. Jack was really starting to dislike him.
"And forced me to take part," Miss Eversleigh muttered. She, on the other hand, was quickly becoming one of his favorite people.
"I recognized him last night," the dowager announced.
Wyndham looked at her disbelievingly. "In the dark?"
"Under his mask," she answered with pride. "He is the very image of his father. His voice, his laugh, every bit of it."
Jack hadn't thought this a particularly convincing argument himself, so he was curious to see how the duke responded.
"Grandmother," he said, with what Jack had to allow was remarkable patience, "I understand that you still mourn your son - "
"Your uncle," she cut in.
"My uncle." He cleared his throat. "But it has been thirty years since his death."
"Twenty-nine," she corrected sharply.
"It has been a long time," Wyndham said. "Memories fade."
"Not mine," she replied haughtily, "and certainly not the ones I have of John. Your father I have been more than pleased to forget entirely - "
"In that we are agreed," Wyndham interrupted, leaving Jack to wonder at that story. And then, looking as if he very much still wished to strangle someone (Jack would have put his money on the dowager, since he'd already had the pleasure), Wyndham turned and bellowed, "Cecil!"
"Your grace!" came a voice from the hall. Jack watched as two footmen struggled to bring a massive painting around the corner and into the room.
"Set it down anywhere," the duke ordered.
With a bit of grunting and one precarious moment during which it seemed the painting would topple what was, to Jack's eye, an extremely expensive Chinese vase, the footmen managed to find a clear spot and set the painting down on the floor, leaning it gently against the wall.
Jack stepped forward. They all stepped forward. And Miss Eversleigh was the first to say it.
"Oh my God."
It was him. Of course it wasn't him, because it was John Cavendish, who had perished nearly three decades earlier, but by God, it looked exactly like the man standing next to her.
Grace's eyes grew so wide they hurt, and she looked back and forth and back and forth and -
"I see no one is disagreeing with me now," the dowager said smugly.
Thomas turned to Mr. Audley as if he'd seen a ghost. "Who are you?" he whispered.
But even Mr. Audley was without words. He was just staring at the portrait, staring and staring and staring, his face white, his lips parted, his entire body slack.
Grace held her breath. Eventually he'd find his voice, and when he did, surely he'd tell them all what he'd told her the night before.
My name isn't Cavendish.
But it once was.
"My name," Mr. Audley stammered, "my given name..." He paused, swallowed convulsively, and his voice shook as he said, "My full name is John Rollo Cavendish-Audley."
"Who were your parents?" Thomas whispered.
Mr. Audley - Mr. Cavendish-Audley - didn't answer.
"Who was your father?" Thomas's voice was louder this time, more insistent.
"Who the bloody hell do you think he was?" Mr. Audley snapped.
Grace's heart pounded. She looked at Thomas. He was pale and his hands were shaking, and she felt like such a traitor. She could have told him. She could have warned him.
She had been a coward.
"Your parents," Thomas said, his voice low. "Were they married?"
"What is your implication?" Mr. Audley demanded, and for a moment Grace feared that they would come to blows again. Mr. Audley brought to mind a caged beast, poked and prodded until he could stand it no more.
"Please," she pleaded, jumping between them yet again. "He doesn't know," she said. Mr. Audley couldn't know what it meant if he was indeed legitimate. But Thomas did, and he'd gone so still that Grace thought he might shatter. She looked at him, and at his grandmother. "Someone needs to explain to Mr. Audley - "
"Cavendish," the dowager snapped.
"Mr. Cavendish-Audley," Grace said quickly, because she did not know how to style him without offending someone in the room. "Someone needs to tell him that...that..."
She looked to the others for help, for guidance, for something, because surely this was not her duty. She was the only one of them there not of Cavendish blood. Why did she have to make all of the explanations?
She looked at Mr. Audley, trying not to see the portrait in his face, and said, "Your father - the man in the painting, that is - assuming he is your father - he was his grace's father's... elder brother."
No one said anything.
Grace cleared her throat. "So, if...if your parents were indeed lawfully married - "
"They were," Mr. Audley all but snapped.
"Yes, of course. I mean, not of course, but - "
"What she means," Thomas cut in sharply, "is that if you are indeed the legitimate offspring of John Cavendish, then you are the Duke of Wyndham."
And there it was. The truth. Or if not the truth, then the possibility of the truth, and no one, not even the dowager, knew what to say. The two men - the two dukes, Grace thought with a hysterical bubble of laughter - simply stared at each other, taking each other's measure, and then finally Mr. Audley's hand seemed to reach out. It shook, quivered like the dowager's when she was attempting to find purchase, and then finally, when it settled on the back of a chair, his fingers grasped tightly. With legs that were clearly unsteady, Mr. Audley sat down.
"No," he said. "No."
"You will remain here," the dowager directed, "until this matter can be settled to my satisfaction."
"No," Mr. Audley said with considerably more conviction. "I will not."
"Oh, yes, you will," she responded. "If you do not, I will turn you in to the authorities as the thief you are."
"You wouldn't do that," Grace blurted out. She turned to Mr. Audley. "She would never do that. Not if she believes that you are her grandson."
"Shut up!" the dowager growled. "I don't know what you think you are doing, Miss Eversleigh, but you are not family, and you have no place in this room."
Mr. Audley stood. His bearing was sharp, and proud, and for the first time Grace saw within him the military man he'd said he once was. When he spoke, his words were measured and clipped, completely unlike the lazy drawl she had come to expect from him.
"Do not speak to her in that manner ever again."
Something inside of her melted. Thomas had defended her against his grandmother before; indeed, he'd long been her champion. But not like this. He valued her friendship, she knew that he did. But this...this was different. She didn't hear the words.
She felt them.
And as she watched Mr. Audley's face, her eyes slid to his mouth. It came back to her...the touch of his lips, his kiss, his breath, and the bittersweet shock when he was through, because she hadn't wanted it...and then she hadn't wanted it to end.
There was perfect silence, stillness even, save for the widening of the dowager's eyes. And then, just when Grace realized that her hands had begun to tremble, the dowager bit off, "I am your grandmother."
"That," Mr. Audley replied, "remains to be determined."
Grace's lips parted with surprise, because no one could doubt his parentage, not with the proof propped up against the drawing room wall.
"What?" Thomas burst out. "Are you now trying to tell me that you don't think you are the son of John Cavendish?"
Mr. Audley shrugged, and in an instant the steely determination in his eyes was gone. He was a highwayman rogue again, devil-may-care and completely without responsibility. "Frankly," he said, "I'm not so certain I wish to gain entry into this charming little club of yours."
"You don't have a choice," the dowager said.
"So loving," Mr. Audley said with sigh. "So thoughtful. Truly, a grandmother for the ages."
Grace clamped a hand over her mouth, but her choked laughter came through nonetheless. It was so inappropriate...in so many ways...but it was impossible to keep it in. The dowager's face had gone purple, her lips pinched until the lines of anger drew up to her nose. Not even Thomas had ever provoked such a reaction, and heaven knew, he had tried.
She looked over at him. Of everyone in the room, surely he was the one with the most at stake. He looked exhausted. And bewildered. And furious, and amazingly, about to laugh. "Your grace," she said hesitantly. She didn't know what she wanted to say to him. There probably wasn't anything to say, but the silence was just awful.
He ignored her, but she knew he'd heard, because his body stiffened even more, then shuddered when he let out a breath. And then the dowager - oh why would she never learn to leave well enough alone? - bit off his name as if she were summoning a dog.
"Shut up," he snapped back.
Grace wanted to reach out to him. Thomas was her friend, but he was - and he always had been - so far above her. And now she was standing here, hating herself because she could not stop thinking about the other man in the room, the one who might very well steal Thomas's very identity.
And so she did nothing. And hated herself even more for it.
"You should remain," Thomas said to Mr. Audley. "We will need - "
Grace held her breath as Thomas cleared his throat.
"We will need to get this sorted out."
They all waited for Mr. Audley's response. He seemed to be assessing Thomas, taking his measure.
Grace prayed he would realize just how difficult it must have been for Thomas to speak to him with such civility. Surely he would respond in kind. She wanted him so badly to be a good person. He'd kissed her.
He'd defended her. Was it too much to hope that he was, underneath it all, a white knight?
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