The Lost Duke of Wyndham Chapter Twenty-one

The Lost Duke of Wyndham Chapter Twenty-one

Can’t sleep?”

Jack looked up from where he was still sitting in his uncle’s study. Thomas was standing in the doorway.

“No,” he said.

Thomas walked in. “Nor I.”

Jack held out the bottle of brandy he’d taken from the shelf. There had not been a speck of dust on it, even though he was quite certain it had gone untouched since his uncle’s death. Aunt Mary had always run a pristine household.

“It’s good,” Jack said. “I think my uncle was saving it.” He blinked, looking down at the label, then murmured, “Not for this, I imagine.”

He motioned to a set of crystal snifters near the window, waiting with the bottle in hand as Thomas walked across the room and took one. When Thomas returned, he sat in the study’s other wingback chair, setting his snifter down on the small, low table between them. Jack reached out and poured. Generously.

Thomas took the brandy and drank, his eyes narrowing as he stared out the window. “It will be dawn soon.”

Jack nodded. There were no hints of pink in the sky, but the pale silvery glow of morning had begun to permeate the air. “Has anyone awakened?” he asked.

“Not that I’ve heard.”

They sat in silence for several moments. Jack finished his drink and considered another. He picked up the bottle to pour, but as the first drops splashed down, he realized he didn’t really want it. He looked up.

“Do you ever feel as if you are on display?”

Thomas’s face remained impassive. “All the time.”

“How do you bear it?”

“I don’t know anything else.”

Jack placed his fingers to his forehead and rubbed. He had a blistering headache and no reason to suppose it might improve. “It’s going to be hideous today.”

Thomas nodded.

Jack closed his eyes. It was easy to picture the scene. The dowager would insist upon reading the register first, and Crowland would be right over his shoulder, cackling away, ready to sell his daughter off to the highest bidder. His aunt would probably want to come, and Amelia, too – and who could blame her? She had as much at stake as anyone.

The only person who would not be there was Grace.

The only person he needed by his side.

“It’s going to be a bloody circus,” Jack muttered.

“Indeed.”

They sat there, doing nothing, and then they both looked up at precisely the same moment. Their eyes met, and Jack watched Thomas’s face as his gaze slid over toward the window.

Outside.

“Shall we?” Jack asked, and he felt the first glimmerings of a smile.

“Before anyone – “

“Right now.” Because really, no one else had a place at this table.

Thomas stood. “Lead the way.”

Jack rose to his feet and headed out the door, Thomas right behind. And as they mounted their horses and took off, the air still heavy with night, it occurred to him –

They were cousins.

And for the first time, that felt like a good thing.

Morning was well under way when they reached the Maguiresbridge church. Jack had been there several times before, visiting his mother’s family, and the old gray stone felt comfortable and familiar. The building was small, and humble, and in his opinion, everything a church ought to be.

“It does not look as if anyone is about,” Thomas said. If he was unimpressed by the plainness of the architecture, he did not indicate as much.

“The register will likely be at the rectory,” Jack said.

Thomas nodded, and they dismounted, tying their horses to a hitching post before making their way to the front of the rectory. They knocked several times before they heard footsteps moving toward them from within.

The door opened, revealing a woman of middling years, clearly the housekeeper.

“Good day, ma’am,” Jack said, offering her a polite bow. “I am Jack Audley, and this is – “

“Thomas Cavendish,” Thomas cut in, nodding in greeting.

Jack gave him a bit of a dry look at that, which the housekeeper would surely have noticed if she hadn’t been so obviously irritated by their arrival.

“We would like to see the parish register,” Jack said.

She stared at them for a moment and a half and then jerked her head toward the rear. “It’s in the back room,” she said. “The vicar’s office.”

“Er, is the vicar present?” Jack asked, although the last bit of the last word was covered by a grunt, brought on by Thomas’s elbow pressing into his side.

“No vicar just now,” the housekeeper said. “The position is vacant.” She walked over to a well-worn sofa in front of the fire and sat down. “We’re supposed to get someone new soon. They send someone from Enniskillen every Sunday to deliver a sermon.”

She then picked up a plate of toast and turned her back on them completely.

Jack looked over at Thomas. Who he found was looking over at him.

He supposed they were just meant to go in.

So they did.

The office was larger than Jack would have expected, given the tight quarters of the rest of the rectory.

There were three windows, one on the north wall and then two on the west, flanking the fireplace. A small but tidy flame was burning; Jack walked over to warm his hands.

“Do you know what a parish register looks like?” Thomas asked.

Jack shrugged and shook his head. He stretched his fingers, then flexed his feet as best as he could within the confines of his boots. His muscles were growing tense and jumpy, and everytime he tried to hold still, he realized that his fingers were drumming a frantic tattoo on his leg.

He wanted to jump out of his skin. He wanted to jump right out of his –

“This may be it.”

Jack turned. Thomas was holding a large book. It was bound in brown leather, and the cover showed signs of age.

“Shall we?” Thomas asked. His voice was even, but Jack saw him swallow spasmodically. And his hands were trembling.

“You can do it,” Jack said. He could not fake it this time. He could not stand there and pretend to read.

Some things were simply too much to bear.

Thomas stared at him in shock. “You don’t want to look with me?”

“I trust you.” It was true. Thomas could not think of a more inherently trustworthy person. Thomas would not lie. Not even about this.

“No,” Thomas said, dismissing this entirely. “I won’t do it without you.”

For a moment Jack just stood there unmoving, and then, cursing under his breath, he went over to join Thomas at the desk.

“You’re too bloody noble,” Jack bit off.

Thomas muttered something Jack could not quite make out and set the book down, opening it to one of the first pages.

Jack looked down. It was a blur, all swirls and dips, dancing before his eyes. He swallowed, stealing a glance at Thomas to see if he’d seen anything. But Thomas was staring down at the register, his eyes moving quickly from left to right as he flipped through the pages.

And then he slowed down.

Jack clenched his teeth, trying to make it out. Sometimes he could tell the bigger letters, and frequently the numbers. It was just that they were so often not where he thought they should be, or not what he thought they should be.

Ah, idiocy. It ought to have been familiar by now. But it never was.

“Do you know what month your parents would have married in?” Thomas asked.

“No.” But it was a small parish. How many weddings could there have been?

Jack watched Thomas’s fingers. They moved along the edge of the page, then slid around the edge.

And flipped it. And stopped.

Jack looked at Thomas. He was still.

He’d closed his eyes. And it was clear. On his face. It was clear.

“Dear God.” The words fell from Jack’s lips like tears. It wasn’t a surprise, and yet, he’d been hoping…praying…

That his parents hadn’t married. Or the proof had been lost. That someone, anyone, had been wrong because this was wrong. It could not be happening. He could not do this.

Just look at him now. He was standing there bloody well pretending to read the register. How in God’s name did anyone think he could be a duke?

Contracts?

Oh, that would be fun.

Rents?

He’d better get a trustworthy steward, since it wasn’t as if he could check to see if he was being cheated.

And then – he choked back a horrified laugh – it was a damned good thing he could sign his documents with a seal. The Lord knew how long it would take to learn to sign his new name without looking as if he had to think about it.

John Cavendish-Audley had taken months. Was it any wonder he’d been so eager to drop the Cavendish?

Jack brought his face to his hands, closing his eyes tight. This could not be happening. He’d known it would happen, and yet, here he was, convinced it was an impossibility.

He was going mad.

He felt like he couldn’t breathe.

“Who is Philip?” Thomas asked.

“What?” Jack practically snapped.

“Philip Galbraith. He was a witness.”

Jack looked up. And then down at the register. At the swirls and dips that apparently spelled out his uncle’s name. “My mother’s brother.”

“Does he still live?”

“I don’t know. He did the last I knew. It has been five years.” Jack thought furiously. Why was Thomas asking? Would it mean anything if Philip was dead? The proof was still right there in the register.

The register.

Jack stared at it, his lips parted and slack. It was the enemy. That one little book.

Grace had said she could not marry him if he was the Duke of Wyndham.

Thomas had made no secret of the mountains of paperwork that lay ahead.

If he was the Duke of Wyndham.

But there was only that book. There was only that page.

Just one page, and he could remain Jack Audley. All his problems would be solved.

“Tear it out,” Jack whispered.

“What did you say?”

“Tear it out.”

“Are you mad?”

Jack shook his head. “You are the duke.”

Thomas looked down at the register. “No,” he said softly, “I’m not.”

“No.” Jack’s voice grew urgent, and he grabbed Thomas by the shoulders. “You are what Wyndham needs. What everyone needs.”

“Stop, you – “

“Listen to me,” Jack implored. “You are born and bred to the job. I will ruin everything. Do you understand? I cannot do it. I cannot do it.”

But Thomas just shook his head. “I may be bred to it, but you were born to it. And I cannot take what is yours.”

“I don’t want it!” Jack burst out.

“It is not yours to accept or deny,” Thomas said, his voice numbingly calm. “Don’t you understand? It is not a possession. It is who you are.”

“Oh, for God’s sake,” Jack swore. He raked his hands through his hair. He grabbed at it, pulled entire fistfuls until his scalp felt as if it were stretching off the bone. “I am giving it to you. On a bloody silver platter. You stay the duke, and I shall leave you alone. I’ll be your scout in the Outer Hebrides. Anything.

Just tear the page out.”

“If you didn’t want the title, why didn’t you just say that your parents hadn’t been married at the outset?”

Thomas shot back. “I asked you if your parents were married. You could have said no.”

“I didn’t know that I was in line to inherit when you questioned my legitimacy.” Jack gulped. His throat tasted acrid and afraid. He stared at Thomas, trying to gauge his thoughts.

How could he be so bloody upright and noble? Anyone else would have ripped that page to shreds. But no, not Thomas Cavendish. He would do what was right. Not what was best, but what was right.

Bloody fool.

Thomas was just standing there, staring at the register. And he – he was ready to climb the walls. His entire body was shaking, his heart pounding, and he –

What was that noise?

“Do you hear that?” Jack whispered urgently.

Horses.

“They’re here,” Thomas said.

Jack stopped breathing. Through the window he could see a carriage approaching.

He was out of time.

He looked at Thomas.

Thomas was staring down at the register. “I can’t do it,” he whispered.

Jack didn’t think. He just moved. He leapt past Thomas to the church register and tore.

Thomas tackled him, trying to grab the paper away, but Jack slid out from his grasp, launching himself toward the fire.

“Jack, no!” Thomas yelled, but Jack was too quick, and even as Thomas caught hold of his arm, Jack managed to hurl the paper into the fire.

The fight drained from both of them in an instant, and they both stood transfixed, watching the paper curl and blacken.

“God in heaven,” Thomas whispered. “What have you done?”

Jack could not take his eyes off the fire. “I have saved us all.”

Grace had not expected to be included in the journey to the Maguiresbridge church. No matter how closely involved she had become in the matter of the Wyndham inheritance, she was not a member of the family. She wasn’t even a member of the household any longer.

But when the dowager discovered that Jack and Thomas went to the church without her, she had – and Grace did not believe this an exaggeration – gone mad. It required but a minute for her to recover, but for those first sixty seconds it was a terrifying sight. Even Grace had never witnessed the like.

And so when it was time to depart, Amelia had refused to leave without her. “Do not leave me alone with that woman,” she hissed in Grace’s ear.

“You won’t be alone,” Grace tried to explain. Her father would be going, of course, and Jack’s aunt had claimed a spot in the carriage as well.

“Please, Grace,” Amelia begged. She did not know Jack’s aunt, and she could not bear to sit next to her father. Not this morning.

The dowager had pitched a fit, which was not unexpected, but her tantrum only made Amelia more firm.

She grabbed hold of Grace’s hand and nearly crushed her fingers.

“Oh, do what you wish,” the dowager had snapped. “But if you are not in the carriage in three minutes, I shall leave without you.”

Which was how it came to pass that Amelia, Grace, and Mary Audley were squeezed together on one side of the carriage, with the dowager and Lord Crowland on the other.

The ride to Maguiresbridge had seemed interminably long. Amelia looked out her window, the dowager out hers, and Lord Crowland and Mary Audley did the same. Grace, squeezed in the middle facing backwards, could do nothing but stare at the spot midway between the dowager’s and Lord Crowland’s heads.

Every ten minutes or so the dowager would turn to Mary and demand to know how much longer it would be until they reached their destination. Mary answered each query with admirable deference and patience, and then finally, to everyone’s relief, she said, “We are here.”

The dowager hopped down first, but Lord Crowland was close on her heels, practically dragging Amelia behind him. Mary Audley hurried out next, leaving Grace alone at the rear. She sighed. It seemed somehow fitting.

By the time Grace reached the front of the rectory, the rest of them were already inside, pushing through the door to another room, where, she presumed, Jack and Thomas were, along with the all-important church register.

An open-mouthed woman stood in the center of the front room, a cup of tea balanced precariously in her fingers.

“Good day,” Grace said with a rushed smile, wondering if the others had even bothered to knock.

“Where is it?” she heard the dowager demand, followed by the crash of a door slamming against a wall.

“How dare you leave without me! Where is it? I demand to see the register!”

Grace made it to the doorway, but it was still blocked by the others. She couldn’t see in. And then she did the last thing she’d ever have expected of herself.

She shoved. Hard.

She loved him. She loved Jack. And whatever the day brought, she would be there. He would not be alone. She would not allow it.

She stumbled inside just as the dowager was screaming, “What did you find?”

Grace steadied herself and looked up. There he was. Jack. He looked awful.

Haunted.

Her lips formed his name, but she made no sound. She couldn’t have. It was as if her voice had been yanked right out of her. She had never seen him thus. His color was wrong – too pale, or maybe too flushed – she couldn’t quite tell. And his fingers were trembling. Couldn’t anyone else see that?

Grace turned to Thomas, because surely he would do something. Say something.

But he was staring at Jack. Just like everyone else. No one was speaking. Why wasn’t anyone speaking?

“He is Wyndham,” Jack finally said. “As he should be.”

Grace should have jumped for joy, but all she could think was – I don’t believe him.

He didn’t look right. He didn’t sound right.

The dowager turned on Thomas. “Is this true?”

Thomas did not speak.

The dowager growled with frustration and grabbed his arm. “Is…it…true?” she demanded.

Still, Thomas did not speak.

“There is no record of a marriage,” Jack insisted.

Grace wanted to cry. He was lying. It was so obvious…to her, to everyone. There was desperation in his voice, and fear, and – Dear God, was he doing this for her? Was he trying to forsake his birthright for her?

“Thomas is the duke,” Jack said again, looking frantically from person to person. “Why aren’t you listening? Why isn’t anyone listening to me?”

But there was only silence. And then:

“He lies.”

It was Thomas, in a voice that was low and even, and absolutely true.

Grace let out a choked sob and turned away. She could not bear to watch.

“No,” Jack said, “I’m telling you – “

“Oh, for God’s sake,” Thomas snapped. “Do you think no one will find you out? There will be witnesses.

Do you really think there won’t be any witnesses to the wedding? For God’s sake, you can’t rewrite the past.”

Grace closed her eyes.

“Or burn it,” Thomas said ominously. “As the case may be.”

Oh, Jack, she thought. What have you done?

“He tore the page from the register,” Thomas said. “He threw it into the fire.”

Grace opened her eyes, unable to not look at the hearth. There was no sign of paper. Nothing but black soot and ash under the steady orange flame.

“It’s yours,” Thomas said, turning to Jack. He looked him in the eye and then bowed.

Jack looked sick.

Thomas turned, facing the rest of the room. “I am – ” He cleared his throat, and when he continued, his voice was even and proud. “I am Mr. Cavendish,” he said, “and I bid you all a good day.”

And then he left. He brushed past them and walked right out the door.

At first no one could speak. And then, in a moment that was almost grotesque, Lord Crowland turned to Jack and bowed. “Your grace,” he said.

“No,” Jack said, shaking his head. He turned to the dowager. “Do not allow this. He will make a better duke.”

“True enough,” Lord Crowland said, completely oblivious to Jack’s distress. “But you’ll learn.”

And then – Jack couldn’t help it – he started to laugh. From deep within him, his sense of the absurd rose to the fore, and he laughed. Because good God, if there was one thing he’d never be able to do, it was learn. Anything.

“Oh, you have no idea,” he said. He looked at the dowager. His desperation was gone, replaced by something else – something bitter and fatalistic, something cynical and grim. “You have no idea what you’ve done,” he told her. “No idea at all.”

“I have restored you to your proper place,” she said sharply. “As is my duty to my son.”

Jack turned. He couldn’t bring himself to look at her for one moment more. But there was Grace, standing near the doorway. She looked shocked, she looked scared. But when she looked at him, he saw his entire world, falling softly into place.

She loved him. He didn’t know how or why, but he was not enough of a fool to question it. And when her eyes met his, he saw hope. He saw the future, and it was shining like the sunrise.

His entire life, he’d been running. From himself, from his faults. He’d been so desperate that no one should truly know him, that he’d denied himself the chance to find his place in the world.

He smiled. He finally knew where he belonged.

He had seen Grace when she entered the room, but she’d stood back, and he couldn’t go to her, not when he’d been trying so hard to keep the dukedom in Thomas’s hands, where it belonged.

But it seemed he’d failed in that measure.

He would not fail in this.

“Grace,” he said, and went to her, taking both of her hands in his.

“What the devil are you doing?” the dowager demanded.

He dropped to one knee.

“Marry me,” he said, squeezing her hands. “Be my bride, be my – ” He laughed, a bubble of absurdity rising from within. “Be my duchess.” He smiled up at her. “It’s a lot to ask, I know.”

“Stop that,” the dowager hissed. “You can’t marry her.”

“Jack,” Grace whispered. Her lips were trembling, and he knew she was thinking about it. She was teetering.

And he could bring her over the edge.

“For once in your life,” he said fervently, “make yourself happy.”

“Stop this!” Crowland blustered. He grabbed Jack under his arm and tried to haul him to his feet, but Jack would not budge. He would remain on one knee for eternity if that was what it took.

“Marry me, Grace,” he whispered.

“You will marry Amelia!” Crowland cut in.

Jack did not take his eyes off Grace’s face. “Marry me.”

“Jack…” she said, and he could hear it in her voice that she thought she should make an excuse, should say something about his duty or her place.

“Marry me,” he said again, before she could go on.

“She is not acceptable,” the dowager said coldly.

He brought Grace’s hands to his lips. “I will marry no one else.”

“She is not of your rank!”

He turned and gave his grandmother an icy look. He felt rather ducal, actually. It was almost entertaining.

“Do you wish for me to produce an heir? Ever?”

The dowager’s face pinched up like a fish.

“I shall take that as a yes,” he announced. “Which means that Grace shall have to marry me.” He shrugged. “It’s the only way, if I am to give Wyndham a legitimate heir.”

Grace started to blink, and her mouth – the corners were moving. She was fighting herself, telling herself she should say no. But she loved him. He knew that she did, and he would not allow her to throw that away.

“Grace – ” He scowled, then laughed. “What the devil is your middle name, anyway?”

“Catriona,” she whispered.

“Grace Catriona Eversleigh,” he said, loud and sure, “I love you. I love you with every inch of my heart, and I swear right now, before all who are assembled…” He looked around, catching sight of the rectory housekeeper, who was standing open-mouthed in the doorway. “…even – devil it,” he muttered, “what is your name?”

“Mrs. Broadmouse,” she said, eyes wide.

Jack cleared his throat. He was beginning to feel like himself. For the first time in days, he felt like himself. Maybe he was stuck with this bloody title, but with Grace at his side, he could find a way to do some good with it.

“I swear to you,” he said, “before Mrs. Broadmouse – “

“Stop this!” the dowager yelled, grabbing hold of his other arm. “Get on your feet!”

Jack gazed up at Grace and smiled. “Was there ever a proposal so beleaguered?”

She smiled back, even as tears threatened to spill from her eyes.

“You are supposed to marry Amelia!” Lord Crowland growled.

And then there was Amelia…poking her head around her father’s shoulder. “I won’t have him,” she announced, rather matter-of-fact. She caught Jack’s eye and smiled.

The dowager gasped. “You would refuse my grandson?”

“This grandson,” Amelia clarified.

Jack tore his eyes off Grace for just long enough to grin approvingly at Amelia. She grinned back, motioning with her head toward Grace, telling him in no uncertain terms to get back to the matter at hand.

“Grace,” Jack said, rubbing her hands softly with his. “My knee is beginning to hurt.”

She started to laugh.

“Say yes, Grace,” Amelia said.

“Listen to Amelia,” Jack said.

“What the devil am I going to do with you?” Lord Crowland said. To Amelia, that was, not that she seemed to care.

“I love you, Grace,” Jack said.

She was grinning now. It seemed her whole body was grinning, as if she’d been enveloped in a happiness that would not let go. And then she said it. Right in front of everyone.

“I love you, too.”

He felt all the happiness in the world swirling into him, straight to his heart. “Grace Catriona Eversleigh,” he said again, “will you marry me?”

“Yes,” she whispered. “Yes.”

He stood. “I’m going to kiss her now,” he called out.

And he did. Right in front of the dowager, in front of Amelia and her father, even in front of Mrs.

Broadmouse.

He kissed her. And then he kissed her some more. He was kissing her when the dowager departed in an angry huff, and he was kissing her when Lord Crowland dragged Amelia away, muttering something about delicate sensibilities.

He kissed her, and he kissed her, and he would have kept kissing her except that he realized that Mrs.

Broadmouse was still standing in the doorway, staring at them with a rather benign expression.

Jack grinned at her. “A spot of privacy, if you don’t mind?”

She sighed and toddled away, but before she shut the door, they heard her say –

“I do like a good love story.”

Epilogue

My dearest Amelia –

Can it only have been three weeks since I last wrote? It feels as if I have gathered at least a year of news. The children continue to thrive. Arthur is so studious! Jack declares himself boggled, but his delight is evident. We visited the Happy Hare earlier this week to discuss plans for the village fair with Harry Gladdish, and Jack complained to no end about how difficult it has been to find a new tutor now that Arthur has exhausted the last.

Harry was not fooled. Jack was proud as puff.

We were delighted to –

“Mama!”

Grace looked up from her correspondence. Her third child (and only daughter) was standing in the doorway, looking much aggrieved.

“What is it, Mary?” she asked.

“John was – “

“Just strolling by,” John said, sliding along the polished floor until he came to a stop next to Mary.

“John!” Mary howled.

John looked at Grace with utter innocence. “I barely touched her.”

Grace fought the urge to close her eyes and groan. John was only ten, but already he possessed his father’s lethal charm.

“Mama,” Mary said. “I was walking to the conservatory when – “

“What Mary means to say,” John cut in, “is that I was walking to the orangery when she bumped into me and – “

“No!” Mary protested. “That is not what I meant to say.” She turned to her mother in obvious distress.

“Mama!”

“John, let your sister finish,” Grace said, almost automatically. It was a sentence she uttered several times a day.

John smiled at her. Meltingly. Good gracious, Grace thought, it would not be long before she’d be beating the girls away with a stick.

“Mother,” he said, in exactly the same tone Jack used when he was trying to charm his way out of a tight spot, “I would not dream of interrupting her.”

“You just did!” Mary retorted.

John held up his hands, as if to say – Poor dear.

Grace turned to Mary with what she hoped was visible compassion. “You were saying, Mary?”

“He smashed an orange into my sheet music!”

Grace turned to her son. “John, is this – “

“No,” he said quickly.

Grace gave him a dubious stare. It did not escape her that she had not finished her question before he answered. She supposed she ought not read too much into it. John, is this true? was another of the sentences she seemed to spend a great deal of time repeating.

“Mother,” he said, his green eyes profoundly solemn, “upon my honor I swear to you that I did not smash an orange – “

“You lie,” Mary seethed.

“She crushed the orange.”

“After you put it under my foot!”

And then came a new voice: “Grace!”

Grace smiled with delight. Jack could now sort the children out.

“Grace,” he said, turning sideways so that he might slip by them and into the room. “I need you to – “

“Jack!” she cut in.

He looked at her, and then behind him. “What did I do?”

She motioned to the children. “Did you not notice them?”

He quirked a smile – the very same one his son had tried to use on her a few moments earlier. “Of course I noticed them,” he said. “Did you not notice me stepping around them?” He turned to the children.

“Haven’t we taught you that it is rude to block the doorway?”

It was a good thing she hadn’t been to the orangery herself, Grace thought, because she would have peened him with one. As it was, she was beginning to think she ought to keep a store of small, round, easily throwable objects in her desk drawer.

“Jack,” she said, with what she thought was amazing patience, “would you be so kind as to settle their dispute?”

He shrugged. “They’ll work it out.”

“Jack,” she sighed.

“It’s not your fault you had no siblings,” he told her. “You have no experience in intrafamilial squabbles.

Trust me, it all works out in the end. I predict we shall manage to get all four to adulthood with at least fifteen of their major limbs intact.”

Grace leveled a stare. “You, on the other hand, are in supreme danger of – “

“Children!” Jack cut in. “Listen to your mother.”

“She didn’t say anything,” John pointed out.

“Right,” Jack said. He frowned for a moment. “John, leave your sister alone. Mary, next time don’t step on the orange.”

“But – “

“I’m done here,” he announced.

And amazingly, they went on their way.

“That wasn’t too difficult,” he said. He stepped into the room. “I have some papers for you.”

Grace immediately set aside her correspondence and took the documents he held forth.

“They arrived this afternoon from my solicitor,” Jack explained.

She read the first paragraph. “About the Ennigsly building in Lincoln?”

“That’s what I was expecting,” he confirmed.

She nodded and then gave the document a thorough perusal. After a dozen years of marriage, they had fallen into an easy routine. Jack conducted all of his business affairs face-to-face, and when correspondence arrived, Grace was his reader.

It was almost amusing. It had taken Jack a year or so to find his footing, but he’d turned into a marvelous steward of the dukedom. His mind was razor sharp, and his judgment was such that Grace could not believe he’d not been trained in land management. The tenants adored him, the servants worshipped him (especially once the dowager was banished to the far side of the estate), and London society had positively fallen at his feet. It had helped, of course, that Thomas made it clear that he believed Jack was the rightful Duke of Wyndham, but still, Grace did not think herself biased to believe that Jack’s charm and wit had something to do with it as well.

The only thing it seemed he could not do was read.

When he first told her, she had not believed him. Oh, she believed that he believed it. But surely he’d had poor teachers. Surely there had been some gross negligence on someone’s part. A man of Jack’s intelligence and education did not reach adulthood illiterate.

And so she’d sat with him. Tried her best. And he put up with it. In retrospect, she couldn’t believe that he had not exploded with frustration. It was, perhaps, the oddest imaginable show of love – he’d let her try, again and again, to teach him to read. With a smile on his face, even.

But in the end she’d given up. She still did not understand what he meant when he told her the letters

“danced,” but she believed him when he insisted that all he ever got from a printed page was a headache.

“Everything is in order,” she said now, handing the documents back to Jack. He had discussed the matter with her the week prior, after all of the decisions had been made. He always did that. So that she would know precisely what she was looking for.

“Are you writing to Amelia?” he asked.

She nodded. “I can’t decide if I should tell her about John’s escapade in the church belfry.”

“Oh, do. They shall get a good laugh.”

“But it makes him seem such a ruffian.”

“He is a ruffian.”

She felt herself deflate. “I know. But he’s sweet.”

Jack chuckled and kissed her, once, on the forehead. “He’s just like me.”

“I know.”

“You needn’t sound so despairing.” He smiled then, that unbelievably devilish thing of his. It still got her, every time, just the way he wanted it to.

“Look how nicely I turned out,” he added.

“Just so you understand,” she told him, “if he takes to robbing coaches, I shall expire on the spot.”

Jack laughed at that. “Give my regards to Amelia.”

Grace was about to say I shall, but he was already gone. She picked up her pen and dipped it in ink, pausing briefly so she might recall what she’d been writing.

We were delighted to see Thomas on his visit. He made his annual pilgrimage to the dowager, who, I am sad to report, has not grown any less severe in her old age. She is as healthy as can be – it is my suspicion that she shall outlive us all.

Grace shook her head. She made the half-mile journey to the dower house but once a month. Jack had said she needn’t do even that, but she still felt an odd loyalty toward the dowager. Not to mention a fierce devotion and sympathy for the woman they’d hired to replace her as the dowager’s companion.

No servant had ever been so well-paid. Already the woman earned (at Grace’s insistence) double what she herself had been paid. Plus, they promised her a cottage when the dowager finally expired. The very same one Thomas had given to her so many years earlier.

Grace smiled to herself and continued writing, telling Amelia this and that – all those funny little anecdotes mothers loved to share. Mary looked like a squirrel with her front tooth missing. And little Oliver, only eighteen months old, had skipped crawling entirely, going straight from the oddest belly-scoot to full-fledged running. Already they’d lost him twice in the hedgerow maze.

I do miss you, dear Amelia. You must promise to visit this summer. You know how marvelous Lincolnshire is when all the flowers are in bloom. And of course –

“Grace?”

It was Jack, suddenly back in her doorway.

“I missed you,” he explained.

“In the last five minutes?”

He stepped inside, closed the door. “It doesn’t take long.”

“You are incorrigible.” But she set down her pen.

“It does seem to serve me well,” he murmured, stepping around the desk. He took her hand and tugged her gently to her feet. “And you, too.”

Grace fought the urge to groan. Only Jack would say such a thing. Only Jack would –

She let out a yelp as his lips –

Well, suffice to say, only Jack would do that.

Oh. And that.

She melted into him. And absolutely that…