Jack staggered out of bed at precisely fourteen minutes before seven. Waking had been an elaborate undertaking. He had, after Miss Eversleigh had departed the night before, rung for a maid and given her strict orders to rap on his door at fifteen minutes past six. Then, as she was leaving, he thought the better of it and revised his directive to six sharp raps at the appointed time, followed by another twelve fifteen minutes later.
It wasn't as if he was going to make it out of bed on the first attempt, anyway.
The maid had also been informed that if she did not see him at the door within ten seconds of the second set of raps, she was to enter the room and not depart until she was certain he was awake.
And finally, she was promised a shilling if she did not breathe a word of this to anyone.
"And I'll know if you do," he warned her, with his most disarming smile. "Gossip always makes its way back to me."
It was true. No matter the house, no matter the establishment, the maids always told him everything. It was amazing how far one could travel on nothing but a smile and a puppy-dog expression.
Unfortunately for Jack, however, what his plan boasted in strategy, it lacked in eventual execution.
Not that the maid could be blamed. She carried out her part to the letter. Six sharp raps at fifteen minutes past six. Precisely. Jack managed to pry one eye about two-thirds of the way open, which proved to be just enough to focus upon the clock on his bedside table.
At half six he was snoring anew, and if he only counted seven of the twelve raps, he was fairly certain the fault was his, not hers. And really, one had to admire the poor girl's adherence to plan when faced with his somewhat surly No, followed by:
Ten more minutes;
I said, ten more minutes; and
Don't you have a bloody pot to scrub?
At fifteen minutes before seven, as he teetered on his belly at the edge of his bed, one arm hanging limply over the side, he finally managed to get both eyes open, and he saw her, sitting primly in a chair across the room.
"Er, is Miss Eversleigh awake?" he mumbled, rubbing the sleep from his left eye. His right eye seemed to have shut again, trying to pull the rest of him along with it, back into sleep.
"Since twenty minutes before six, sir."
"Chipper as a bloody mockingbird, too, I'm sure."
The maid held her tongue.
He cocked his head, suddenly a bit more awake. "Not so chipper, eh?" So Miss Eversleigh was not a morning person. The day was growing brighter by the second.
"She's not so bad as you," the maid finally admitted.
Jack pushed his legs over the side and yawned. "She'd have to be dead to achieve that."
The maid giggled. It was a good, welcome sound. As long as he had the maids giggling, the house was his. He who had the servants had the world. He'd learned that at the age of six. Drove his family crazy, it did, but that just made it all the sweeter.
"How late do you imagine she would sleep if you didn't wake her?" he asked.
"Oh, I couldn't tell you that," the maid said, blushing madly.
Jack did not see how Miss Eversleigh's sleep habits might constitute a confidence, but nonetheless he had to applaud the maid for her loyalty. This did not mean, however, that he would not make every attempt to win her over.
"What about when the dowager gives her the day off?" he asked, rather offhandedly.
The maid shook her head sadly. "The dowager never gives her the day off."
"Never?" Jack was surprised. His newfound grandmother was exacting and self-important and a host of other annoying faults, but she'd struck him as, at the heart, somewhat fair-minded.
"Just afternoons," the maid said. And she leaned forward, looking first to her left and then her right, as if there might actually be someone else in the room who could hear her. "I think she does it just because she knows that Miss Eversleigh is not partial to mornings."
Ah, now that did sound like the dowager.
"She gets twice as many afternoons," the maid went on to explain, "so it does even out in the end."
Jack nodded sympathetically. "It's a shame."
"And poor Miss Eversleigh," the maid went on, her voice growing in animation. "She's ever so kind.
Lovely to all the maids. Never forgets our birthdays and gives us gifts that she says are from the dowager, but we all know it's her."
She looked up at him then, so Jack rewarded her with an earnest nod.
"And all she wants, poor dear, is one morning every other week to sleep until noon."
"Is that what she said?" Jack murmured.
"Only once," the maid admitted. "I don't think she would recall. She was very tired. I think the dowager had her up quite late the night before. Took me twice as long as usual to rouse her."
Jack nodded sympathetically.
"The dowager never sleeps," the maid went on.
"Well, I'm sure she must. But she doesn't seem to need very much of it."
"I knew a vampire bat once," Jack murmured.
"Poor Miss Eversleigh must adhere to the dowager's schedule," the maid explained.
Jack continued on with the nodding. It seemed to be working.
"But she does not complain," the maid said, clearly eager to defend her. "She would never complain about her grace."
"Never?" If he had lived at Belgrave as long as Grace, he'd have been complaining forty-eight hours a day.
The maid shook her head with a piety that would have been quite at home on a vicar's wife. "Miss Eversleigh is not one for gossip."
Jack was about to point out that everyone gossiped, and despite what they might say, everyone enjoyed it. But he did not want the maid to interpret this as a critique of her current behavior, so he nodded yet again, prodding her on with: "Very admirable."
"Not with the help, at least," the maid clarified. "Maybe with her friends."
"Her friends?" Jack echoed, padding across the room in his nightshirt. Clothing had been laid out for him, freshly washed and pressed, and it did not take more than a glance to see that they were of the finest quality.
Wyndham's, most probably. They were of a similar size. He wondered if the duke knew that his closet had been raided. Probably not.
"The Ladies Elizabeth and Amelia," the maid said. "They live on the other side of the village. In the other big house. Not as big as this, mind you."
"No, of course not," Jack murmured. He decided that this maid, whose name he really ought to learn, would be his favorite. A wealth of knowledge, she was, and all one had to do was let her get off her feet for a moment and into a comfortable chair.
"Their father's the Earl of Crowland," the maid went on, nattering away even as Jack stepped into his dressing room to don his clothing. He supposed some men would refuse to wear the duke's attire after their altercation the day before, but it seemed to him an impractical battle to pick. Assuming he was not going to succeed in luring Miss Eversleigh into a wild orgy of abandon (at least not today), he would have to dress. And his own clothes were rather worn and dusty.
Besides, maybe it would irk his dukeliness. And Jack had judged that to be a noble pursuit, indeed.
"Does Miss Eversleigh get to spend time with the Ladies Elizabeth and Amelia very often?" he called out, pulling on his breeches. Perfect fit. How fortunate.
"No. Although they were here yesterday."
The two girls he'd seen her with in the front drive. The blond ones. Of course. He should have realized they were sisters. He would have realized it, he supposed, if he'd been able to tear his eyes away from Miss Eversleigh long enough to see beyond the color of their hair.
"Lady Amelia is to be our next duchess," the maid continued.
Jack's hands, which were doing up the buttons on Wyndham's extraordinarily well-cut linen shirt, stilled.
"Really," he said. "I did not realize the duke was betrothed."
"Since Lady Amelia was a baby," the maid supplied. "We'll be having a wedding soon, I think. We've got to, really. She's getting long in the tooth. I don't think her parents'll stand for much more delay."
Jack had thought both girls had looked youthful, but he had been some distance away.
"Twenty-one, I think she is."
"That old?" he murmured dryly.
"I'm seventeen," the maid said with a sigh.
Jack decided not to comment, as he could not be sure whether she wished to be seen as older or younger than her actual years. He stepped out of the dressing room, putting the finishing touches on his cravat.
The maid jumped to her feet. "Oh, but I should not gossip."
Jack gave her a reassuring nod. "I won't say a word. I give you my vow."
She dashed toward the door, then turned around and said, "My name is Bess." She bobbed a curtsy. "If you need anything."
Jack smiled then, because he was quite certain her offer was completely innocent. There was something rather refreshing in that.
A minute after Bess left, a footman arrived, as promised by Miss Eversleigh, to escort him down to the breakfast room. He proved not nearly as informative as Bess (the footmen never were, at least not to him), and the five-minute walk was made in silence.
The fact that the trip required five minutes was not lost on Jack. If Belgrave had seemed unconscionably huge from afar, then the inside was a positive labyrinth. He was fairly certain he'd seen less than a tenth of it, and already he'd located three staircases. There were turrets, too; he'd seen them from the outside, and almost certainly dungeons as well.
There had to be dungeons, he decided, taking what had to be the sixth turn since descending the staircase.
No self-respecting castle would be without them. He decided he'd ask Grace to take him down for a peek, if only because the subterranean rooms were probably the only ones that could be counted upon not to have priceless old masters hanging on the walls.
A lover of art he might be, but this - he nearly flinched when he brushed past an El Greco - was simply too much. Even his dressing room had been hung wainscot to ceiling with priceless oils. Whoever had decorated there had an appalling fondness for cupids. Blue silk bedroom, his foot. The place ought to be renamed Corpulent Babies, Armed with Quivers and Bows Room. Subtitled: Visitors Beware.
Because, really, there ought to be a limit on how many cupids one could put in one small dressing room.
They turned a final corner, and Jack nearly sighed in delight as the familiar smells of an English breakfast wafted past his nose. The footman motioned to an open doorway, and Jack walked through it, his body tingling with an unfamiliar anticipation, only to find that Miss Eversleigh had not yet arrived.
He looked at the clock. One minute before seven. Surely that was a new, postmilitary record.
The sideboard had already been laid, so he took a plate, filled it to heaping, and chose a seat at the table.
It had been some time since he'd breakfasted in a proper house. His meals of late had been taken at inns and in rented rooms, and before that on the battlefield. It felt luxurious to sit with his meal, almost decadent.
"Coffee, tea, or chocolate, sir?"
Jack had not had chocolate for more time than he could remember, and his body nearly shuddered with delight. The footman took note of his preference and moved to another table, where three elegant pots sat in a row, their arched spouts sticking up like a line of swans. In a moment Jack was rewarded with a steaming cup, into which he promptly dumped three spoonfuls of sugar and a splash of milk.
There were, he decided, taking one heavenly sip, some advantages to a life of luxury.
He was nearly through with his food when he heard footsteps approaching. Within moments Miss Eversleigh appeared. She was dressed in a demure white frock - no, not white, he decided, more of a cream color, rather like the top of a milk bucket before it was skimmed. Whatever the hue was, it matched the swirling plaster that adorned the door frame perfectly. She needed only a yellow ribbon (for the walls, which were surprisingly cheerful for such an imposing home) and he would have sworn the room had been decorated just for that moment.
He stood, offering her a polite bow. "Miss Eversleigh," he murmured. He liked that she was blushing.
Just a little, which was ideal. Too much, and that would mean she was embarrassed. A bare hint of pale pink, however, meant that she was looking forward to the encounter.
And perhaps thought she ought not to be.
Which was even better.
"Chocolate, Miss Eversleigh?" the footman asked.
"Oh, yes, please, Graham." She sounded most relieved to get her beverage in hand. And indeed, when she finally sat across from him, her plate nearly as full as his, she sighed with delight.
"You don't take sugar?" he asked, surprised. He'd never met a woman - and very few men, for that matter - with a taste for unsweetened chocolate. He couldn't abide it himself.
She shook her head. "Not in the morning. I need it undiluted."
He watched with interest - and, to be honest, a fair bit of amusement - as she alternately sipped the brew and breathed in the scent of it. Her hands did not leave her cup until she'd drained the last drop, and then Graham, who obviously knew her preferences well, was at her side in an instant, refilling without even a hint of a request.
Miss Eversleigh, Jack decided, was definitely not a morning person.
"Have you been down long?" she asked, now that she had imbibed a full cup.
"Not long." He gave a rueful glance to his plate, which was almost clean. "I learned to eat quickly in the army."
"By necessity, I imagine," she said, taking a bite of her coddled eggs.
He let his chin dip very slightly to acknowledge her statement.
"The dowager will be down shortly," she said.
"Ah. So you mean that we must learn to converse quickly as well, if we wish to have any enjoyable discourse before the descent of the duchess."
Her lips twitched. "That wasn't exactly what I meant, but - " She took a sip of her chocolate, not that that hid her smile. " - it's close."
"The things we must learn to do quickly," he said with a sigh.
She looked up, fork frozen halfway to her mouth. A small blob of egg fell to her plate with a slap. Her cheeks were positively flaming with color.
"I didn't mean that," he said, most pleased with the direction of her thoughts. "Good heavens, I would never do that quickly."
Her lips parted. Not quite an O, but a rather attractive little oval nonetheless.
"Unless, of course I had to," he added, letting his eyes grow heavy-lidded and warm. "When faced with the choice of speed versus abstinence - "
He sat back with a satisfied smile. "I was wondering when you'd scold me."
"Not soon enough," she muttered.
He picked up his knife and fork and cut off a piece of bacon. It was thick and pink and perfectly cooked.
"And once again, there it is," he said, popping the meat into his mouth. He chewed, swallowed, then added, "My inability to be serious."
"But you claimed that wasn't true." She leaned in - just an inch or so, but the motion seemed to say - I'm watching you.
He almost shivered. He liked being watched by her.
"You said," she continued, "that you were frequently serious, and that it is up to me to figure out when."
"Is that what I said?" he murmured.
"Something rather close to it."
"Well, then." He leaned in closer, too, and his eyes captured hers, green on blue, across the breakfast table. "What do you think? Am I being serious right now?"
For a moment he thought she might answer him, but no, she just sat back with an innocent little smile and said, "I really couldn't say."
"You disappoint me, Miss Eversleigh."
Her smile turned positively serene as she returned her attention to the food on her plate. "I couldn't possibly render judgment on a subject so unfit for my ears," she murmured.
He laughed aloud at that. "You have a very devious sense of humor, Miss Eversleigh."
She appeared to be pleased by the compliment, almost as if she'd been waiting for years for someone to acknowledge it. But before she could say anything (if indeed she'd intended to say something), the moment was positively assaulted by the dowager, who marched into the breakfast room trailed by two rather harried and unhappy looking maids.
"What are you laughing about?" she demanded.
"Nothing in particular," Jack replied, deciding to spare Miss Eversleigh the task of making conversation.
After five years in the dowager's service, the poor girl deserved a respite. "Just enjoying Miss Eversleigh's enchanting company."
The dowager shot them both a sharp look. "My plate," she snapped. One of the maids rushed to the sideboard, but she was halted when the dowager said, "Miss Eversleigh will see to it."
Grace stood without a word, and the dowager turned to Jack and said, "She is the only one who does it properly." She shook her head and let out a short-tempered little puff of air, clearly lamenting the levels of intelligence commonly found in the servants.
Jack said nothing, deciding this would be as good a time as any to invoke his aunt's favorite axiom: If you can't say something nice, say nothing at all.
Although it was tempting to say something extraordinarily nice about the servants.
Grace returned, plate in hand, set it down in front of the dowager, and then gave it a little twist, turning the disk until the eggs were at nine o'clock, closest to the forks.
Jack watched the entire affair, first curious, then impressed. The plate had been divided into six equal, wedge-shaped sections, each with its own food selection. Nothing touched, not even the hollandaise sauce, which had been dribbled over the eggs with careful precision. "It's a masterpiece," he declared, arching forward. He was trying to see if she'd signed her name with the hollandaise.
Grace gave him a look. One that was not difficult to interpret.
"Is it a sundial?" he asked, all innocence.
"What are you talking about?" the dowager grumbled, picking up a fork.
"No! Don't ruin it!" he cried out - as best he could without exploding with laughter.
But she jabbed a slice of stewed apple all the same.
"How could you?" Jack accused.
Grace actually turned in her chair, unable to watch.
"What the devil are you talking about?" the dowager demanded. "Miss Eversleigh, why are you facing the window? What is he about?"
Grace twisted back around, hand over her mouth. "I'm sure I do not know."
The dowager's eyes narrowed. "I think you do know."
"I assure you," Grace said, "I never know what he is about."
"Never?" Jack queried. "What a sweeping comment. We've only just met."
"It feels like so much longer," Grace said.
"Why," he mused, "do I wonder if I have just been insulted?"
"If you've been insulted, you shouldn't have to wonder at it," the dowager said sharply.
Grace turned to her with some surprise. "That's not what you said yesterday."
"What did she say yesterday?" Mr. Audley asked.
"He is a Cavendish," the dowager said simply. Which, to her, explained everything. But she apparently held little faith in Grace's deductive abilities, and so she said, as one might speak to a child, "We are different."
"The rules don't apply," Mr. Audley said with a shrug. And then, as soon as the dowager was looking away, he winked at Grace. "What did she say yesterday?" he asked again.
Grace was not sure she could adequately paraphrase, given that she was so at odds with the overall sentiment, but she couldn't very well ignore his direct question twice, so she said, "That there is an art to insult, and if one can do it without the subject realizing, it's even more impressive."
She looked over to the dowager, waiting to see if she would be corrected. "It does not apply," the dowager said archly, "when one is the subject of the insult."
"Wouldn't it still be art for the other person?" Grace asked.
"Of course not. And why should I care if it were?" The dowager sniffed disdainfully and turned back to her breakfast. "I don't like this bacon," she announced.
"Are your conversations always this oblique?" Mr. Audley asked.
"No," Grace answered, quite honestly. "It has been a most exceptional two days."
No one had anything to add to that, probably because they were all in such agreement. But Mr. Audley did fill the silence by turning to the dowager and saying, "I found the bacon to be superb."
To that, the dowager replied, "Is Wyndham returned?"
"I don't believe so," Grace answered. She looked up to the footman. "Graham?"
"No, miss, he is not at home."
The dowager pursed her lips into an expression of irritated discontent. "Very inconsiderate of him."
"It is early yet," Grace said.
"He did not indicate that he would be gone all night."
"Is the duke normally required to register his schedule with his grandmother?" Mr. Audley murmured, clearly out to make trouble.
Grace gave him a peeved look. Surely this did not require a reply. He smiled in return. He enjoyed vexing her. This much was becoming abundantly clear. She did not read too much into it, however. The man enjoyed vexing everyone.
Grace turned back to the dowager. "I am certain he will return soon."
The dowager's expression did not budge in its irritation. "I had hoped that he would be here so that we might talk frankly, but I suppose we may proceed without him."
"Do you think that's wise?" Grace asked before she could stop herself. And indeed, the dowager responded to her impertinence with a withering stare. But Grace refused to regret speaking out. It was not right to make determinations about the future in Thomas's absence.
"Footman!" the dowager barked. "Leave us and close the doors behind you."
Once the room was secure, the dowager turned to Mr. Audley and announced, "I have given the matter great thought."
"I really think we should wait for the duke," Grace cut in. Her voice sounded a little panicked, and she wasn't sure why she was quite so distressed. Perhaps it was because Thomas was the one person who had made her life bearable in the past five years. If it hadn't been for him, she'd have forgotten the sound of her own laughter.
She liked Mr. Audley. She liked him rather too much, in all honesty, but she would not allow the dowager to hand him Thomas's birthright over breakfast.
"Miss Eversleigh - " the dowager bit off, clearly beginning a blistering set-down.
"I agree with Miss Eversleigh," Mr. Audley put in smoothly. "We should wait for the duke."
But the dowager waited for no one. And her expression was one part formidable and two parts defiant when she said, "We must travel to Ireland. Tomorrow if we can manage it."
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