Five days later, at sea
This was not the first time Jack had crossed the Irish Sea. It was not even the second or the third. He wondered if the unease would ever leave him, if he would someday be able to look down at the dark, swirling waters below and not think of his father slipping beneath the surface, meeting his death.
Even before he had met the Cavendishes, when his father was just a wispy figment in his mind, he'd disliked this crossing.
And yet here he stood. At the railing. He could not seem to help himself. He could not be on the water and not look out. Out, and then down.
It was a gentle voyage this time, although that did little to comfort him. It was not that he feared for his own safety. It was just that it all felt so morbid, skimming atop his father's grave. He wanted it done. He wanted to be back on land. Even, he supposed, if that land was Ireland.
The last time he'd been home...
Jack pinched his lips together, and then he pinched his eyes shut. The last time he had been home was to bring back Arthur's body.
It was the hardest thing he'd ever done. Not just because his heart had broken anew with every mile, and not even because he'd dreaded his arrival at home. How could he face his aunt and uncle, delivering to them their dead son?
As if all that hadn't been enough, it was damned hard to move a body from France to England to Ireland.
He'd had to find a coffin, which was surprisingly difficult in the middle of a war. "Supply and demand,"
one of his friends told him after their first unsuccessful attempt to obtain a coffin. There were a lot of dead bodies strewn about. Coffins were the ultimate luxury on a battlefield.
But he had persisted, and he'd followed to the letter the directions he'd been given by the undertaker, filling the wooden coffin with sawdust and sealing it with tar. Even then the smell eventually seeped through, and by the time he reached Ireland, no driver would take the cargo. He'd had to buy his own wagon to get his cousin home.
The journey had disrupted his own life, too. The army refused his request to be allowed to move the body, and he was forced to sell off his commission. It was a small price to pay, to be able to do this one last service for his family. But it had meant that he'd had to leave a position for which he was - finally - a perfect fit. School had been a misery, failure after failure. He'd muddled through, mostly with help from Arthur, who, seeing his struggles, had come quietly to his aid.
But university - good God, he still could not believe he'd been encouraged to go. He had known it would be a disaster, but Portora Royal boys went on to university. It was as simple as that. But Arthur was a year behind, and without him, Jack didn't have a prayer. Failure would have been too mortifying, so he got himself booted out. Not that it took much imagination to find ways to behave in a manner unbecoming of a Trinity College student.
He had returned home, supposedly in disgrace, and it was decided that he might do well in the army. So off he went. It had been a perfect fit. Finally, a place he could succeed and thrive without books and papers and quills. It wasn't that he was unintelligent. It was just that he hated books and papers and quills. They gave him a headache.
But that was all over, and now here he was, on his way back to Ireland for the first time since Arthur's funeral service, and he might be the Duke of Wyndham, which would ensure him a bloody lifetime of books and papers and quills.
He glanced off to his left and saw Thomas standing by the bow with Amelia. He was pointing toward something - probably a bird, since Jack could not see anything else of interest. Amelia was smiling, perhaps not broadly, but enough at least to ease some of the guilt Jack was feeling about the scene back at Belgrave when he had refused to marry her. It wasn't as if he could have done anything else. Did they really think he would roll over and say, Oh, yes, give me anyone! I'll just show up at the church and be grateful.
Not that there was anything wrong with Lady Amelia. In fact, one could (and probably would) do much worse, if one were to be forced into marriage. And if he hadn't met Grace...
He might have been willing to do it.
He heard someone approaching, and when he turned, there she was, as if summoned by his thoughts.
She'd left off her bonnet, and her dark hair was ruffling in the breeze.
"It's very pleasant out here," she said, leaning against the railing next to him.
He nodded. He had not seen much of her on the voyage. The dowager had elected to remain in her cabin, and Grace was required to attend to her. She did not complain, of course. She never complained, and in truth, he supposed she did not have reason to do so. It was her job, after all, to remain by the dowager's side. Still, he could not imagine a less palatable position. And he knew he could never have lasted in the post.
Soon, he thought. Soon she would be free. They would be married, and Grace would never have to even see the dowager again if that was her desire. Jack did not care if the old bat was his grandmother. She was unkind, selfish, and he had no intention of exchanging another word with her once this was all through. If he turned out to be the duke, he would damn well buy that farm in the Outer Hebrides and send her packing. And if he wasn't, he planned to take Grace by the hand, lead her from Belgrave and never look back.
It was a rather happy dream, to tell the truth.
Grace looked down, watching the water. "Isn't it strange," she mused, "how quickly it seems to move by."
Jack glanced up at the sail. "It is a good wind."
"I know. It makes perfect sense, of course." She looked up and smiled. "It is just that I have never been on a boat before."
"Never?" It did seem difficult to imagine.
She shook her head. "Not like this. My parents took me out rowing on a lake once, but that was just for merry." She looked back down. "I have never seen water rushing by like this. It makes me wish I could lean down and dip my fingers in."
"It's cold," Jack said.
"Well, yes, of course." She leaned out, her throat arching as she seemed to catch the wind on her face.
"But I'd still like to touch it."
He shrugged. He ought to be more voluble, especially with her, but he thought he could see the first hint of land on the horizon, and his belly was clenching and twisting.
"Are you all right?" Grace asked.
"You look a bit green. Are you seasick?"
He wished. He never got seasick. He was landsick. He didn't want to go back. He'd woken up in the middle of the night, stuck down in his small berth, clammy with sweat.
He had to go back. He knew he did. But that didn't mean a very large part of him didn't want to turn coward and flee.
He heard Grace's breath catch, and when he looked at her, she was pointing out, her face alight with excitement.
It was quite possibly the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.
"Is that Dublin?" she asked. "Over there?"
He nodded. "The port. The town proper is a bit farther in."
She craned her neck, which would have been amusing had he not been in such a wretched mood. There was no way she could have seen anything from this distance. "I've heard it is a charming city," she said.
"There is much to entertain."
"It's a pity. I don't expect we shall be spending much time there."
"No. The dowager is eager to be on her way."
"Aren't you?" she asked.
At that, he took a breath and rubbed his eyes. He was tired, and he was nervous, and it felt as if he was being delivered to his downfall. "No," he said. "To be honest, I'd be quite happy to stay right here, on this boat, at this railing, for the rest of my life."
Grace turned to him with somber eyes.
"With you," he said softly. "Here at this railing, with you."
He looked back out. The port of Dublin was more than a speck on the horizon now. Soon he would be able to make out buildings and ships. Off to his left he could hear Thomas and Amelia chatting. They were pointing out over the water, too, watching the port as it seemed to grow before their eyes.
Jack swallowed. The knot in his stomach was growing as well. Good God, it was almost funny. Here he was, back in Ireland, forced to face his family, whom he'd failed so many years before. And if that weren't bad enough, he could very well find himself named the Duke of Wyndham, a position for which he was uniquely unqualified.
And then, because no injury should ever be without insult, he had to do it all in the company of the dowager.
He wanted to laugh. It was funny. It had to be funny. If it wasn't funny, then he'd have to bloody well go and cry.
But he couldn't seem to laugh. He looked out at Dublin, looming larger in the distance.
It was too late for laughter.
Several hours later, at the Queen's Arms, Dublin
"It is not too late!"
"Ma'am," Grace said, trying to be as calm and soothing as she could, "it is past seven. We are all tired and hungry, and the roads are dark and unknown to us."
"Not to him," the dowager snapped, jerking her head toward Jack.
"I am tired and hungry," Jack snapped right back, "and thanks to you, I no longer travel the roads by moonlight."
Grace bit her lip. They had been traveling over three days now, and one could almost chart the progress of their journey by the shortness of his temper. Every mile that brought them closer to Ireland had taken a notch out of his patience. He'd grown silent and withdrawn, so wholly unlike the man she knew.
The man she'd fallen in love with.
They had reached the port of Dublin in the late afternoon, but by the time they collected their belongings and made their way into town, it was nearly time for supper. Grace had not eaten much on the sea journey, and now that she was back to standing on surfaces that did not pitch and roll beneath her, she was famished. The last thing she wanted was to press on toward Butlersbridge, the small village in County Cavan where Jack had grown up.
But the dowager was being her argumentative self, so they were standing in the front room of the inn, all six of them, while she attempted to dictate the speed and direction of their journey.
"Don't you wish to have this matter settled, once and for all?" the dowager demanded of Jack.
"Not really," was his insolent response. "Certainly not as much as I want a slice of shepherd's pie and a tankard of ale." Jack turned to the rest of them, and Grace ached at the expression in his eyes. He was haunted. But by what, she could not guess.
What demons awaited him here? Why had he gone so long between visits? He'd told her he had a lovely childhood, that he adored his adoptive family and would not have traded them for the world. Didn't everyone wish for that? Didn't he want to go home? Didn't he understand how lucky he was to have a home to return to?
Grace would have given anything for that.
"Miss Eversleigh," Jack said, with a courteous nod. "Lady Amelia."
The two ladies bobbed their curtsies as he departed.
"I do believe he has the right idea of it," Thomas murmured. "Supper sounds infinitely more appealing than a night on the roads."
The dowager whipped her head toward him and glared.
"Not," he said with an extremely dry look, "that I am attempting to delay the inevitable. Even soon-to-be-dispossessed dukes get hungry."
Lord Crowland laughed aloud at that. "He has you there, Augusta," he said jovially, and wandered off to the taproom.
"I shall take my supper in my room," the dowager announced. Her tone was defiant, as if she expected someone to protest, but of course, no one did. "Miss Eversleigh," she barked, "you may attend to me."
Grace sighed wearily and started to follow.
"No," Thomas said.
The dowager froze. "No?" she echoed, all ice.
Grace turned and looked at Thomas. What could he mean? There had been nothing unusual about the dowager's order. Grace was her companion. This was exactly the sort of thing she had been hired to do.
But Thomas stared down his grandmother, a tiny, subversive smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
"Grace will dine with us. In the dining room."
"She is my companion," the dowager hissed.
Grace held her breath as she watched the exchange. Matters between Thomas and his grandmother were never cordial, but this seemed to go quite beyond the usual. Thomas almost appeared to be enjoying himself.
"As I have not yet been removed from my position," he said, speaking slowly, clearly savoring each word, "I took the liberty of making a few last minute provisions."
"What the devil are you talking about?" the dowager demanded.
"Grace," Thomas said, turning to her with friendship and memories in his eyes, "you are officially relieved of your duties to my grandmother. When you return home, you will find a cottage deeded in your name, along with funds enough to provide an income for the rest of your life."
"Are you mad?" the dowager sputtered.
Grace just stared at him in shock.
"I should have done it long ago," he said. "I was too selfish. I couldn't bear the thought of living with her" - he jerked his head toward his grandmother - "without you there to act as a buffer."
"I don't know what to say," she whispered.
"Normally, I'd advise 'thank you,' but as I am the one thanking you, a mere 'You are a prince among men' would suffice."
Grace managed a wobbly smile and whispered, "You are a prince among men."
"It is always lovely to hear it," Thomas said. "Now, would you care to join the rest of us for supper?"
Grace turned toward the dowager, who was red-faced with rage.
"You grasping little whore," she spat. "Do you think I don't know what you are? Do you think I would allow you in my home again?"
Grace stared at her in calm shock, then said, "I was about to say that I would offer you my assistance for the rest of the journey, since I would never dream of leaving a post without giving proper and courteous notice, but I believe I have reconsidered." She turned to Amelia, holding her hands carefully at her sides.
She was shaking. She was not sure if it was from shock or delight, but she was shaking. "May I share your room this evening?" she asked Amelia. Because certainly she was not going to remain with the dowager.
"Of course," Amelia replied promptly. She linked her arm through Grace's. "Let us have some supper."
It was, Grace later decided, the finest shepherd's pie she'd ever tasted.
Several hours later, Grace was up in her room staring out the window while Amelia slept.
Grace had tried to go to sleep, but her mind was still all abuzz over Thomas's astounding act of generosity. Plus, she wondered where Jack had gone off to - he'd not been in the dining room when she and Thomas and Amelia arrived, and no one seemed to know what had happened to him.
Plus plus, Amelia snored.
Grace rather enjoyed the view of Dublin below. They were not in the city center, but the street was busy enough, with local folk going about their business, and plenty of travelers on their way into or out of the port.
It was strange, this newfound sense of freedom. She still could not believe that she was here, sharing a bed with Amelia and not curled up on an uncomfortable chair at the dowager's bedside.
Supper had been a merry affair. Thomas was in remarkably good spirits, all things considered. He had not said anything more of his generous gift, but Grace knew why he'd done it. If Jack was found to be the true duke - and Thomas was convinced this would be the case - then she could not remain at Belgrave.
To have her heart broken anew, every day for the rest of her life - that, she could not bear.
Thomas knew that she'd fallen in love with Jack. She had not said so, not expressly, but he knew her well. He had to know. For him to act with such generosity, when she'd gone and fallen in love with the man who might very well be the cause of his downfall -
It brought tears to her eyes every time she thought of it.
And so now she was independent. An independent woman! She liked the sound of that. She would sleep until noon every day. She would read books. She would wallow in the sheer laziness of it all, at least for a few months, and then find something constructive to do with her time. A charity, perhaps. Or maybe she would learn to paint watercolors.
It sounded decadent. It sounded perfect.
No, she decided firmly, she would find friends. She had many friends in the district. She was glad she would not be leaving Lincolnshire, even if it did mean that she might occasionally cross paths with Jack.
Lincolnshire was home. She knew everyone, and they knew her, and her reputation would not be questioned, even if she did set up her own home. She would be able to live in peace and respectability.
It would be a good thing.
No. Not lonely. She would have funds. She could go visit Elizabeth, who would be married to her earl in the South. She could join one of those women's clubs her mother had so adored. They'd met every Tuesday afternoon, claiming they were there to discuss art and literature and the news of the day, but when the meetings were held at Sillsby, Grace had heard far too much laughter for those topics.
She would not be lonely.
She refused to be lonely.
She looked back at Amelia, snoring away on the bed. Poor thing. Grace had often envied the Willoughby girls their secure places in society. They were daughters of an earl, with impeccable bloodlines and generous dowries. It was odd, really, that her future should now be so well-defined while Amelia's was so murky.
But she had come to realize that Amelia was no more in control of her own fate than she herself had been. Her father had chosen her husband before she could even speak, before he knew who she was, what she was like. How could he know, looking upon an infant of less than one year, whether she would be suited for life as a duchess?
All of her life, Amelia had been stuck, waiting for Thomas to get around to marrying her. And even if she did not end up marrying either of the two Dukes of Wyndham, she'd still find herself obliged to follow her father's dictates.
Grace was turning back toward the window when she heard a noise in the hall. Footsteps, she decided.
Male. And because she could not help herself, she hurried to her door, opened it a crack, and peered out.
He looked rumpled and tired and achingly heartsick. He was squinting in the dark, trying to figure out which room was his.
Grace-the-companion might have retreated back into her room, but Grace-the-woman-of-independent-means was somewhat more daring, and she stepped out, whispering his name.
He looked up. His eyes flared, and Grace belatedly remembered that she was still in her nightgown. It was nothing remotely risque; in fact, she was far more covered than she would have been in an evening dress. Still, she hugged her arms to her body as she moved forward.
"Where have you been?" she whispered.
He shrugged. "Out and about. Visiting old haunts."
Something about his voice was unsettling. "Really?" she asked.
"No." He looked at her, then rubbed his eyes. "I was across the street. Having my shepherd's pie."
She smiled. "And your pint of ale?"
"Two, actually." He smiled then, a sheepish, boyish thing that tried to banish the exhaustion from his face. "I missed it."
"The English stuff is pig swill by comparison."
Grace felt herself warming inside. There was humor in his eyes, the first she'd seen in days. And it was strange - she'd thought it would be torture to be near him, to be with him and hear his voice and see his smile. But all she felt now was happiness. And relief.
She could not bear it when he was so unhappy. She needed for him to be him. Even if he could not be hers.
"You should not be out here like this," he said.
"No." She shook her head but did not move.
He grimaced and looked down at his key. "I cannot find my room."
Grace took the key from him and peered at it. "Fourteen," she said. She looked up. "The light is dim."
"It is that way," she told him, pointing down the hall. "I passed it on the way in."
"Is your room acceptable?" he asked. "Large enough for both you and the dowager?"
Grace gasped. He did not know. She'd completely forgotten. He had already left when Thomas gave her the cottage. "I'm not with the dowager," she said, unable to conceal all of her excitement. "I - "
"Someone's coming," he whispered harshly, and indeed, she heard voices and footsteps on the stairs. He started to steer her back to her room.
"No, I can't." She dug in her heels. "Amelia is there."
"Amelia? Why would she - " He muttered something under his breath and then yanked her along with him down the hall. Into Room 14.
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