She closed her eyes and visualized a quiet little hollow under an old tree next to a fast-running creek that was a favorite spot of hers. The sound of the creek rushing by, the smell of growing things, the peace of the place took hold of her heart.
My pardons, my lady, Mr. Audley mumbled in her direction. It is not personal. Amelia actually managed a nod. Not a graceful one, but maybe it was gracious. Why wasnt anyone saying anything? she remembered wondering. Why werent they asking her opinion? Why couldnt she seem to speak for herself? It was like she was watching them all from far away. They wouldnt hear her. She could scream and shout, and no one would hear her. She looked at Thomas. He was staring straight ahead, still as a stone. She looked at Grace. Surely Grace would come to her aid. She was a woman. She knew what it meant to have ones life torn out from beneath. And then it was back at Mr. Audley, who was still fumbling for any argument that would not leave him saddled with her. I did not agree to this, he said. I signed no contract. Neither did he, said her father, motioning toward Thomas with a tilt of his head. His father did it. In his name, Mr. Audley practically yelled. But her father did not even blink. That is where you are wrong, Mr. Audley. It did not specify his name at all. My daughter, Amelia Honoria Rose, was to marry the seventh Duke of Wyndham. Really? This, finally, from Thomas. Have you not looked at the papers? Mr. Audley demanded of him. No, Thomas said. I never saw the need. Good God, Mr. Audley swore, I have fallen in with a band of bloody idiots. Amelia saw no reason to contradict. Mr. Audley looked directly at her father. Sir, he said, I will not marry your daughter. Oh, you will. And that was when Amelia knew her heart was broken. Because it wasnt her father who said those words. It was Thomas. What did you say? Mr. Audley demanded. Thomas strode across the room, stopping only when he was nearly nose-to-nose with Mr. Audley. This woman has spent her entire life preparing to be the Duchess of Wyndham. I will not permit you to leave her life in shambles. Do you understand me? And all she could think was— No. No. She didnt want to be the duchess. She didnt care one way or the other. She just wanted him. Thomas. The man shed spent her whole life not knowing. Until now. Until hed stood with her, looking down at some meaningless map, and explained to her why Africa was bigger than Greenland. Until hed told her that he liked her bossy. Until hed made her feel that she mattered. That her thoughts and opinions were worth something. He had made her feel complete. But here he was, demanding that she marry someone else. And she didnt know how to stop it. Because if she spoke out, if she told them all what she wanted, and he rejected her again . . . But Thomas wasnt asking her if she understood. He was asking Mr. Audley. And Mr. Audley said, No. Amelia took a gulp of air and looked up at the ceil-ing, trying to pretend that two men were not arguing over which of them had to marry her. No, I dont understand, Mr. Audley continued, his voice insultingly provoking. Sorry. She looked back. It was hard to look away. It was like a carriage accident, except it was her own life being trampled. Thomas was looking at Mr. Audley with murder in his eyes. And then, almost conversationally, said, I believe I will kill you. Thomas! The cry sprang from her throat before she could stop to think, and she flew across the room, grabbing his arm to hold him back. You may steal my life away, Thomas growled, pulling on her arm like an angry, aggrieved animal. You may steal my very name, but by God you will not steal hers. So that was it. He thought he was doing the right thing. She wanted to cry with frustration. There would be no changing his mind. Thomas had spent his entire life doing the right thing. Never for himself. Always for Wyndham. And now he thought he was doing the right thing for her. She has a name, Mr. Audley retorted. Its Willoughby. And for the love of God, shes the daughter of an earl. Shell find someone else. If you are the Duke of Wyndham, Thomas said furiously, you will honor your commitments. If Im the Duke of Wyndham, then you cant tell me what to do. Amelia, Thomas said with deadly calm, release my arm. Instead, she tightened her grip. I dont think thats a good idea. Her father chose that moment to intercede— finally. Er, gentlemen, this is all hypothetical at this point. Perhaps we should wait until— I wouldnt be the seventh duke, anyway, Mr. Audley muttered. Her father looked somewhat irritated at the interrup-tion. I beg your pardon? I wouldnt. Mr. Audley looked over at Thomas. Would I? Because your father was the sixth duke. Except he wasnt. If I am. And then, if that werent confusing enough: Would he have been? If I was? What the devil are you talking about? Amelias father demanded. Your father died before his own father, Thomas said to Mr. Audley. If your parents were married, then you would have inherited upon the fifth dukes death, eliminating my father—and myself—from the succession entirely.Which makes me number six. Indeed, Thomas said tightly. Then I am not bound to honor the contract, Mr. Audley declared. No court in the land would hold me to it. I doubt theyd do so even if I were the seventh duke. It is not to a legal court you must appeal, Thomas said quietly, but to the court of your own moral responsibility. Amelia swallowed. How like him that was, how upstanding and true. How did one argue with a man such as that? She felt her lips begin to tremble, and she looked to the door, measuring how many steps it would take to remove her from this place. Mr. Audley stood stiffly, and when he spoke, his words were rigid as well. I did not ask for this. Thomas just shook his head. Neither did I. Amelia lurched back, choking down the cry of pain in her throat. No, hed never asked for any of this. Hed never asked for the title, for the lands, for the responsibility. Hed never asked for her. Shed known it, of course. Shed always known he hadnt picked her, but shed never thought it would hurt this much to hear him say it. She was just another of his many burdens, foisted onto him by virtue of his birth. With privilege came responsibility. How true that was. Amelia inched back, trying to get as far away from the center of the room as she could. She didnt want anyone to see her. Not like this, with eyes that threat-ened tears, hands that shook. She wanted to fly away, to leave this room and— And then she felt it. A hand in her own. She looked down first, at the two hands entwined. And then she looked up, even though she knew it was Grace. Amelia said nothing. She didnt trust her voice, didnt even trust her lips to mouth the words she wanted to say. But as her eyes met Graces, she knew that the other woman saw what was in her heart. She gripped Graces hand and squeezed. Never in her life had she needed a friend as much as she did in that moment. Grace squeezed back. And for the first time that afternoon, Amelia did not feel completely alone. Chapter 15 Four days later, at sea It was an uncommonly peaceful crossing, or so the captain told Thomas as dusk began to fall. Thomas was grateful for that; hed not quite been made physically ill by the rise and fall of the Irish Sea, but it had been a close thing. A bit more wind or tide or whatever it was that made the small ship go up and down and his stomach would surely have protested, and in a most unpleasant manner. Hed found that it was easier to remain on deck. Below, the air was thick, the quarters tight. Above, he could attempt to enjoy the tang of the salt air, the crisp sting of it on his skin. He could breathe. Farther down the railing he could see Jack, leaning against the wood, gazing out at the sea. It could not have escaped him that this was the site of his fathers death. Closer to the Irish coast, Thomas supposed, if his mother had managed to make it ashore. What must it have been like, not to know ones father? Thomas rather thought that hed prefer to have not known his, but by all accounts John Cavendish had been a much more amiable fellow than his younger brother Reginald. Was Jack wondering what his life might have been, if not for a storm? Hed have been raised at Belgrave, certainly. Ireland would have been nothing but a familiar land—the spot where his mother was raised. He might have had the opportunity to visit from time to time, but it would not have been home. He would have attended Eton, as all of the Cavendish boys did, and then gone on to Cambridge. He would have been enrolled at Peterhouse, because only the oldest of the colleges would do for the House of Wyndham, and his name would have been added to the long list of Cavendish Petreans inscribed on the wall of the library the family had donated hundreds of years earlier, back when the dukes had still been earls and the church was still Catholic. It would not have mattered what he studied, or even if he did study. Jack would have been graduated no matter his marks. He would have been the Wyndham heir. Thomas was not sure what he would have had to do to get himself dismissed; he could not imagine that anything less than complete illiteracy would have done the trick. A season in London would have followed, as it had for Thomas. Jack would have made merry there, Thomas thought dryly. His was just the sort of wit that made a young unmarried ducal heir even more wildly attractive to the ladies. The army would certainly not have been permitted. And it went without saying that he would not have been out robbing coaches on the Lincoln Road. What a difference a storm made. As for Thomas, he had no idea where he might have ended up. Farther north, most likely, at some house provided by his mothers father. Would his father have been brought into business? Managing factories? It was difficult to imagine anything Reginald Cavendish would have detested more. What might he have done with his life, had he not been born the only son of a duke? He could not imagine the freedom. From his earliest memories, his life had been mapped ahead of him. Every day he made dozens of decisions, but the important ones—the ones that mattered in his own life—had been made for him. He supposed they had all turned out well. Hed liked Eton and loved Cambridge, and if hed liked to have defended his country as Jack had—well, it did seem that His Majestys army had acquitted itself just fine without him. Even Amelia . . . He closed his eyes for a moment, allowing the pitch and roll of the boat to play games with his balance. Even Amelia would have turned out to be an excellent choice. He felt like an idiot for having taken so long to know her.
All those decisions hed not been allowed to make . . . He wondered if he would have done a better job with them himself. Probably not. Off at the bow, he could see Grace and Amelia, sitting together on a built-in bench. They were sharing a cabin with the dowager, and since she had barricaded herself inside, they had elected to remain out. Lord Crowland had been given the other cabin. He and Jack would bunk below, with the crew. Amelia didnt seem to notice that he was watching her, probably because the sun would have been in her eyes if she had looked his way. Shed taken off her bonnet and was holding it in her hands, the long rib-bons flapping in the wind. She was smiling. Hed been missing that, he realized. He hadnt seen her smile on the journey to Liverpool. He supposed she had little reason to. None of them did. Even Jack, who had so much to gain, was growing ever more anxious as they drew closer to Irish soil. He had his own demons waiting at the shore, Thomas suspected. There had to be a reason hed never gone back. He turned and looked west. Liverpool had long since disappeared over the horizon, and indeed, there was nothing to see but water, rippling below, a kaleidoscope of blue and green and gray. Strange how a lifetime of looking at maps did not prepare a man for the endless expanse of the sea. So much water. It was difficult to fathom. This was the longest sea voyage hed ever taken. Strange, that. Hed never been to the Continent. The grand tours of his fathers generation had been brought to a halt by war, and so any last educational flourishes he had made were on British soil. The army had been out of the question; ducal heirs were not permitted to risk their lives on foreign soil, no matter how patriotic or brave. Another item that would have been different, had that other ship not gone down: hed have been off fighting Napoleon; Jack would have been held at home. His world was measured in degrees from Belgrave. He did not travel far from his center. And suddenly it felt so limited. So limiting. When he turned back, Amelia was sitting alone, shading her eyes with her hand. Thomas looked about, but Grace was nowhere in sight. No one was about, save for Amelia and a young boy who was tying knots in ropes at the bow. He had not spoken to her since that afternoon at Belgrave. No, that was not true. He was fairly certain they had exchanged a few excuse mes and perhaps a good morning or two. But he had seen her. Hed watched her from afar. From near, too, when she was not looking. What surprised him—what he had not expected— was how much it hurt, just to look at her. To see her so acutely unhappy. To know that he was, at least in part, the cause. But what else could he have done? Stood up and said, Er, actually I think I would like to marry her, after all, now that my future is completely uncertain? Oh yes, that would have met with a round of applause. He had to do what was best. What was right. Amelia would understand. She was a smart girl. Hadnt he spent the last week coming to the realization that she was far more intelligent than hed thought? She was practical, too. Capable of getting things done. He liked that about her. Surely she saw that it was in her best interest to marry the Duke of Wyndham, whoever he might be. It was what had been planned. For her and for the dukedom. And it wasnt as if she loved him. Someone gave a shout—it sounded like the captain— and the young boy dropped his knots and scrambled away, leaving himself and Amelia quite alone on deck. He waited a moment, giving her the chance to leave, if she did not wish to risk being trapped into conversation with him. But she did not move, and so he walked toward her, offering her a deferential nod when he reached her side. Lady Amelia. She looked up, and then down. Your grace. May I join you? Of course. She moved to the side, as far as she could while still remaining on the bench. Grace had to go below. The dowager? Amelia nodded. She wished for Grace to fan her. Thomas could not imagine that the thick, heavy air belowdeck would be improved by pushing it about with a fan, but then again, he doubted his grandmother cared. She was most likely looking for someone to complain to. Or complain about. I should have accompanied her, Amelia said, not quite ruefully. It would have been the kind thing to do, but . . . She exhaled and shook her head. I just couldnt. Thomas waited for a moment, in case she wished to say anything more. She did not, which meant that he had no further excuse for his own silence. I came to apologize, he said. The words felt stiff on his tongue. He was not used to apologizing. He was not used to behaving in a manner that required apology. She turned, her eyes finding his with startling direct-ness. For what? What a question. He had not expected her to force him to lay it out. For what happened back at Belgrave, he said, hoping he would not have to go into more detail. There were certain memories one did not wish to keep in clarity. It was not my intention to cause you distress. She looked out over the length of the ship. He saw her swallow, and there was something melancholy in the motion. Something pensive, but not quite wistful. She looked too resigned to be wistful. And he hated that hed had any part in doing that to her. I . . . am sorry, he said, the words coming to him slowly. I think that you might have been made to feel unwanted. It was not my intention. I would never wish you to feel that way.Most people travel to Venice for the canals. She knew that, of course. Maybe that was part of the reason shed never wanted to go there. I want to see Amsterdam. I hope you shall, he said. He was quiet for just long enough to make the moment noticeable. And then, softly: Everybody should be able to realize at least one of their dreams. Amelia turned. He was looking at her with the most gentle expression. It nearly broke her heart. What was left of it, at least. So she looked away. It was too hard otherwise. Grace went below, she said. Yes, youd said. Oh. How embarrassing. Yes, of course. The fan. He did not reply, so she added, There was something about soup, as well. Soup, he repeated, shaking his head. I could not decipher the message, Amelia admitted. He gave her a rather dry half smile. Now there is one responsibility I am not sorry to shed. A little laugh rose in Amelias throat. Oh, Im sorry, she said quickly, trying to force it down. That was terribly rude of me. Not at all, he assured her. His face dipped closer to hers, his expression terribly conspiratorial. Do you think Audley will have the nerve to send her away? You didnt. He held up his hands. Shes my grandmother. She is his, as well. Yes, but he doesnt know her, lucky chap. He leaned toward her. I suggested the Outer Hebrides. Oh, stop. I did, he insisted. Told Audley I was thinking of buying something there, just so I could maroon her. This time she did laugh. We should not be speaking of her this way. Why is it, he mused, that everyone I know speaks of crotchety old ladies who, underneath their acerbic exteriors, have a heart of gold? She looked at him with amusement. Mine doesnt, he said, almost as if he could not quite believe the unfairness of it all. She tried not to smile. No. She gave up. She sputtered, then grinned. She doesnt. He looked at her, and their eyes caught each others amusement, and they both burst out laughing. Shes miserable, Thomas said. She doesnt like me, Amelia said. She doesnt like anyone. I think she likes Grace. No, she just dislikes her less than she dislikes everyone else. She doesnt even like Mr. Audley, even as she works so tirelessly to gain him the title. She doesnt like Mr. Audley? He detests her. She shook her head, then looked back out at the sunset, which was in its death throes over the horizon. What a tangle. What an understatement. What a knot? she offered, feeling very nautical. She heard him let out a little snuff of amusement, and then he rose to his feet. She looked up; he was blotting out the last shafts of the sun. Indeed, he seemed to fill her entire vision. We could have been friends, she heard herself say. Could? Would, she corrected, and she was smiling. It seemed the most amazing thing. How was it possible she had anything to smile about? I think we would have been friends, if not for . . . If all this . . . If everything were different? Yes. No. Not everything. Just . . . some things. She began to feel lighter. Happier. And she had not the slightest clue why. Maybe if wed met in London. And we hadnt been betrothed? She nodded. And you hadnt been a duke. His brows rose. Dukes are very intimidating, she explained. It would have been so much easier if you hadnt been one. And your mother had not been engaged to marry my uncle, he added. If wed just met. No history between us. None. His brows rose and he smiled. If Id seen you across a crowded room? No, no, nothing like that. She shook her head. He was not getting this at all. She wasnt talking about romance. She couldnt bear to even think of it. But friendship . . . that was something else entirely. Something far more ordinary, she said. If youd sat next to me on a bench. Like this one? Perhaps in a park. Or a garden, he murmured. You would sit down next to me— And ask your opinion of Mercator projections. She laughed. I would tell you that they are useful for navigation but that they distort area terribly. I would think—how nice, a woman who does not hide her intelligence. And I would think—how lovely, a man who does not assume I have none. He smiled. We would have been friends. Yes. She closed her eyes. Just for a moment. Not for long enough to allow her to dream. Yes, we would. He was quiet for a moment, and then he picked up her hand and kissed it. You will make a spectacular duchess, he said softly. She tried to smile, but it was difficult; the lump in her throat was blocking her way. Then, softly—but not so softly that she was not intended to hear—he said, My only regret is that you never were mine.Chapter 16 The following day, at the Queens Arms, Dublin Do you think, Thomas murmured, leaning down to speak his words in Amelias ear, that there are packets leaving directly from Dublin port, heading to the Outer Hebrides? She made a choking sound, followed by a very stern look, which amused him to no end. They were standing, along with the rest of their traveling party, in the front room of the Queens Arms, where Thomass secretary had arranged for their rooms on the way to Butlersbridge, the small village in County Cavan where Jack Audley had grown up. 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 well after dark. Thomas was tired and hungry, and he was fairly certain that Amelia, her father, Grace, and Jack were as well. His grandmother, however, was having none of it. It is not too late! she insisted, her shrill voice fill-ing every corner of the room. They were now on minute three of her tantrum. Thomas suspected that the entire neighborhood had been made aware that she wished to press on toward Butlersbridge that evening. Maam, Grace said, in that calm, soothing way of hers, 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. Thomas bit back a smile. He might actually grow to like this fellow. Dont you wish to have this matter settled, once and for all? the dowager demanded. Not really, Jack answered. Certainly not as much as I want a slice of shepherds pie and a tankard of ale. Hear hear, Thomas murmured, but only Amelia heard. It was strange, but his mood had been improving the closer they got to their destination. He would have thought hed grow more and more tortured; he was about to lose everything, after all, right down to his name. By his estimation, he ought to be snapping off heads by now. But instead he felt almost cheerful. Cheerful. It was the damnedest thing. Hed spent the entire morning on deck with Amelia, swapping tales and laughing uproariously. It had been enough to make his stomach forget to be seasick. Thank the Lord, he thought, for very large favors. It had been a close thing, the night before—keeping the three bites hed eaten of supper in his belly, where it belonged. He wondered if his odd amiability was because he had already accepted that Jack was the rightful duke. Once he had stopped fighting that, he just wanted to get the whole bloody mess over and done with. The waiting, truly, was the hardest part. Hed gotten his affairs in order. Hed done everything required for a smooth transition. All that was left was to get it done. And then he could go off and do whatever it was he would have done had he not been tied to Belgrave. Somewhere in the midst of his ponderings he realized that Jack was leaving, presumably to get that slice of shepherds pie. I do believe he has the right idea of it, Thomas murmured. Supper sounds infinitely more appealing than a night on the roads. His grandmother whipped her head around and glared at him. Not, Thomas added, 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 he wandered off to the taproom. I shall take my supper in my room, the dowager announced. Or really, it was more of a bark. Miss Eversleigh, you may attend to me. Grace sighed wearily and started to follow. No, Thomas said. No? the dowager echoed. Thomas allowed himself a small smile. He truly had got all of his affairs in order. Grace will dine with us, he told his grandmother. In the dining room. She is my companion, the dowager hissed. Oh, he was enjoying this. Far more than hed thought. Not anymore. He smiled genially at Grace, who was staring at him as if hed lost his mind. As I have not yet been removed from my position, he said, I took the liberty of making a few last minute provisions. What the devil are you talking about? the dowager demanded. He ignored her. Grace, he said, 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 couldnt bear the thought of living with her— he jerked his head toward his grandmother—without you there to act as a buffer. I dont know what to say, Grace whispered. He shrugged modestly. Normally, Id 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 dont know what you are? Do you think I would allow you in my home again? Thomas was about to intercede, but then he realized that Grace was handling the situation with far more aplomb than he could ever have managed. Her face calm and impassive, she 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. May I share your room this evening? Of course, Amelia replied promptly. She linked her arm through Graces. Let us have some supper. It was a magnificent exit, Thomas decided as he followed them, even if he could not see his grandmothers face. But he could well imagine it, red and sputtering. A cooler clime would do her good. Truly. He would have to take it up with the new duke. That was magnificent! Amelia gushed, once theyd entered the dining room. Oh, my goodness, Grace, you must be so thrilled. Grace looked dazed. I hardly know what to say. You neednt say anything, Thomas told her. Just enjoy your supper. Oh, I shall. She turned to Amelia, looking as if she might burst out laughing at any moment. I suspect this shall be the finest shepherds pie I have ever tasted. And then she did burst out laughing. They all did. They had their supper, the three of them, and they laughed and laughed and laughed. And as Thomas drifted off to sleep that night, his ribs still aching from the laughter, it occurred to him that he could not recall a finer evening. Amelia had enjoyed herself at supper as well. So much so, in fact, that the tension of the following morning hit her like a slap. She thought shed risen early; Grace was still sleeping soundly when she slipped from the room to find breakfast. But when she reached the inns private dining room, her father was already there, as was the dowager. There was no sneaking away; they had both seen her instantly, and besides, she was famished. She supposed she could put up with her fathers lectures (they had been coming with increasing frequency) and the dowagers venom (this had always been frequent) if it meant she could partake of whatever it was creating that heavenly, eggy aroma coming from the sideboard. Eggs, probably. She smiled. At least she could still amuse herself. That had to count for something. Good morning, Amelia, her father said as she sat down with her plate. She dipped her chin in polite greeting. Father. She then glanced over at the dowager. Your grace. The dowager pursed her lips and made a noise, but other than that did not acknowledge her. Did you sleep well? her father inquired. Very well, thank you, she replied, though it was not quite true. She and Grace had shared a bed, and Grace moved around a lot. We depart in half an hour, the dowager said crisply. Amelia had managed to fork one bite of eggs into her mouth, and took advantage of the time it took to chew to glance over at the doorway, which remained empty. I dont think the others will be ready. Grace is still— She is of no concern. You cant go anywhere without the two dukes, Lord Crowland pointed out. Is that supposed to be funny? the dowager demanded. Lord Crowland shrugged. How else am I meant to refer to them? Amelia knew she ought to have been outraged. It was a most cavalier statement, all things considered. But her father was so offhand, and the dowager so offended—she decided it made far more sense to be amused. Sometimes I do not know why I work so hard to advance your entry into my family, the dowager said to Amelia, giving her a scathing glare. Amelia swallowed, wishing she had a retort, because for once she rather thought shed have been brave enough to say it. But nothing came to mind, at least nothing as fabulously cutting and witty as she would have liked, and so she clamped her mouth shut and stared at a spot on the wall over the dowagers shoulder. There is no call for such talk, Augusta, Lord Crowland said. And then, as she glared at him for his use of her name—he was one of the few who did, and it always infuriated her—he added, A less equable man than I might take insult. Fortunately, the chilly moment was broken by Thomass arrival. Good morning, he said smoothly, taking his seat at the table. He seemed not at all perturbed that no one returned his greeting. Amelia supposed that her father was too busy attempting to put the dowager in her place, and the dowager—well, she rarely returned anyones greeting, so this was hardly out of character. As for herself, she would have liked to have said something. Really, it was all very lovely now, not feeling so cowed in Thomass presence. But when he sat— directly across from her—shed looked up, and hed looked up, and— It wasnt that she was intimidated, exactly. It was just that she seemed to have forgotten how to breathe. His eyes were that blue. Except for the stripe, of course. She loved that stripe. She loved that he thought it was silly. Lady Amelia, he murmured. She nodded her greeting, managing, Duke, since your grace contained far too many syllables. I am leaving, the dowager abruptly announced, her chair scraping angrily across the floor as she rose toher feet. She waited a moment, as if expecting someone to comment upon her departure. When no one did (really, Amelia thought, did she honestly think anyone would attempt to stop her?) the dowager added, We depart in thirty minutes. Then she turned the full force of her glare on her. You will ride with me in the carriage. Amelia wasnt sure why the dowager felt the need to announce it. Shed been stuck with the dowager in the carriage across England; why should Ireland be any different? Still, something about her tone turned the stomach, and as soon as the dowager was gone, she let out a weary sigh. I think I might be seasick, she said, allowing herself to slump. Her father gave her an impatient look, then rose to refill his plate. But Thomas smiled. It was mostly with his eyes, but still, she felt a kinship, warm and lovely, and perhaps enough to banish the feeling of dread that was beginning to pool in her heart. Seasick on land? he murmured, his eyes smiling. My stomach feels sour. Turning? Flipping, she affirmed. Strange, that, he said dryly, popping a piece of bacon into his mouth and finishing off the bite before continuing. My grandmother is capable of many things—I cannot imagine that plague, famine, or pestilence would be beyond her abilities. But seasickness . . . He chuckled. Im almost impressed. Amelia sighed, looking down at her food, which was now only slightly more appetizing than a plate of worms. She pushed it away. Do you know how long it will take to get to Butlersbridge? Most of the day, I should think, especially if we stop for lunch. Amelia glanced at the door through which the dowager had just exited. She wont want to. Thomas shrugged. She wont have a choice. Amelias father returned to the table just then, his plate heaping full. When you become duchess, he said to her, rolling his eyes as he sat, your first order should be to banish her to the dower house. When she became duchess. Amelia swallowed uncomfortably. It was still just awful, her own father so blithe about her future. He truly did not care which of the two men she married, so long as he was proven to be the rightful duke. She looked at Thomas. He was busy eating. So she kept her eyes on him. And waited, and waited . . . until he finally noticed her attention and met her gaze. He gave a little shrug, which she was unable to interpret. Somehow that made her feel even worse. Mr. Audley was the next to arrive for breakfast, followed about ten minutes later by Grace, who appeared to have rushed down, all pink-cheeked and breathless. Is the food not to your liking? Grace asked her, looking down at Amelias barely touched plate as she took the seat recently vacated by the dowager. Im not hungry, Amelia said, even as her stomach rumbled. There was a difference, she was coming to realize, between hunger and appetite. The former she had, the latter not at all. Grace gave her a quizzical look, then ate her own breakfast, or at least as much of it as she could in the three minutes before the innkeeper arrived, looking somewhat pained. Er, her grace . . . he began, wringing his hands. She is in the carriage. Presumably abusing your men? Thomas queried. The innkeeper nodded miserably. Grace has not finished her meal, Mr. Audley said coolly. Please, Grace insisted, let us not delay on my account. Im quite satisfied. I— She coughed then, looking terribly embarrassed, and Amelia had the singular sensation of having been left out of a joke. I overfilled my dish, Grace finally finished, motioning toward her plate, which was still well over half full. Are you certain? Thomas asked her. She nodded, but Amelia noticed that she shoveled several more forkfuls into her mouth as everyone rose to their feet. The men went ahead to see to the horses, and Amelia waited while Grace wolfed down a bit more. Hungry? she asked, now that it was just the two of them. Starving, Grace confirmed. She wiped her mouth with her serviette and followed Amelia out. I didnt want to provoke the dowager. Amelia turned, raising her brows. Further, Grace clarified, since they both knew that the dowager was always acting provoked about something or other. And sure enough, when they reached the carriage, the dowager was snapping away about this and that, apparently unsatisfied with the temperature of the hot brick that had been placed at her feet in the carriage. A hot brick? Amelia nearly sagged. It was not a warm day, but nor was it the least bit chilly. They were going to roast in that carriage. She is in fine form today, Grace murmured. Amelia! the dowager barked. Amelia reached out and grabbed Graces hand. Tightly. She had never in her life been so grateful for another persons presence. The thought of spending another day in the carriage with the dowager, without Grace as a buffer . . . She couldnt bear it. Lady Amelia, the dowager repeated, did you not hear me call your name? Im sorry, your grace, Amelia said, dragging Grace with her as she stepped forward. I did not. The dowagers eyes narrowed. She knew when she was being lied to. But she clearly had other priorities, because she flicked her head toward Grace and said, She may ride with the driver.
Said with all the affection one might show to a meal-worm. Grace started to move, but Amelia yanked her back. No, she said to the dowager. No? No. I wish for her company. I do not. Amelia thought of all the times shed marveled at Thomass cool reserve, at the way he could flay people with a stare. She took a breath, allowing some of that memory to seep into her, and then she turned it on the dowager. Oh, for heavens sake, the dowager snapped, after Amelia had stared her down for several seconds. Bring her up, then. But do not expect me to make conversation. I wouldnt dream of it, Amelia murmured, and she climbed up, Grace following behind. Unfortunately for Amelia, and for Grace, and for Lord Crowland, who had decided to ride in the carriage after theyd stopped to water the horses, the dowager decided to make conversation after all. Although conversation did imply a certain two-sidedness that Amelia was quite certain did not exist within the confines of their carriage. There were many directives, and twice that complaints. But conversation was in short supply. Amelias father lasted only thirty minutes before he banged on the front wall, demanding to be let out. Traitor, Amelia thought. Hed planned since her birth to place her in the dowagers household, and he could not manage more than a half an hour? He made a rather feeble attempt at apology at lunch—not for attempting to force her to marry some-one against her will, just for leaving the carriage that morning—but whatever sympathy she might have had for him vanished when he began to lecture her about her future and his decisions regarding thereof. Her only respite came after lunch, when both the dowager and Grace nodded off. Amelia just stared out the window, watching Ireland roll by, listening to the clip-clop of the horses hooves. And all the while she could not help but wonder how this had all come to pass. She was far too sensible to think herself dreaming, but really—how could ones life be so completely altered, almost overnight? It did not seem possible. Just last week she was Lady Amelia Willoughby, fiancée to the Duke of Wyndham. And now she was . . . Dear heavens, it was almost comical. She was still Lady Amelia Willoughby, fiancée to the Duke of Wyndham. But nothing was the same. She was in love. With what was possibly the wrong man. And did he love her? She couldnt tell. He liked her, of that she felt sure. He admired her. But love? No. Men like Thomas did not fall in love so quickly. And if they did—if he did—it would not be with someone like her, someone hed known his entire life. If Thomas fell into an overnight sort of love, it would be with a beautiful stranger. Hed see her across a crowded room, hed be struck by a powerful feeling, a knowledge that they shared a destiny. A passion. That was how Thomas would fall in love. If he fell in love. She swallowed, hating the lump in her throat, hating the smell in the air, hating the way she could see the specks of dust floating through the late afternoon sunlight. There was a lot to hate that afternoon. Across from her, Grace began to stir. Amelia watched the process. It was actually rather fascinat-ing to watch someone wake up; she didnt think shed ever done so before. Finally Grace opened her eyes, and Amelia said quietly, You fell asleep. She put a finger to her lips, motioning with her head toward the dowager. Grace covered a yawn, then asked, How much longer do you think we have until we get there? I dont know. Perhaps an hour? Two? Amelia sighed and leaned back, closing her eyes. She was tired. They were all tired, but she was feeling selfish just then and preferred to dwell upon her own exhaustion. Maybe she could nod off. Why was it that some people fell asleep so easily in carriages, and others—most notably herself—couldnt seem to do it anywhere but a bed? It didnt seem fair, and— What will you do? It was Graces voice. And much as Amelia wanted to feign ignorance, she found that she could not do it. It didnt much matter, anyway, since the answer would be wholly unsatisfying. She opened her eyes. Grace looked as if she wished she had not asked. I dont know, Amelia said. She leaned back against the seat cushion and closed her eyes again. She liked traveling with her eyes closed. She felt the rhythm of the wheels better. It was soothing. Well, most of the time. Not today. Not on her way to some heretofore unknown village in Ireland, where her future would be decided by the contents of a church register. Not today, after her father had lectured her for the entire luncheon meal, leaving her feeling rather like a recalcitrant child. Not today, when— Do you know what the funniest part of it is? Amelia asked, the words coming forth before she realized what she was saying. No. I keep thinking to myself, This isnt fair. I should have a choice. I should not have to be traded and bar-tered like some sort of commodity. But then I think, How is this any different? I was given to Wyndham years ago. I never made a complaint. She said this all to the darkness of her own eyelids. It was strangely more satisfying that way. You were just a baby, Grace said. I have had many years to lodge a complaint. Amelia— I have no one to blame but myself. Thats not true.
She finally opened her eyes. One of them, at least. Youre just saying that. No, Im not. I would, Grace said, but as it happens, I am telling the truth. Its not your fault. Its not anyones fault, really. I wish it were. It would be so much easier that way. To have someone to blame? Yes. And then Amelia whispered, I dont want to marry him. Thomas? Thomas? Whatever was she thinking? No, Amelia said. Mr. Audley. Graces lips parted with surprise. Really? You sound so shocked. No, of course not, Grace quickly replied. Its just that hes so handsome. Amelia gave a little shrug. I suppose. Dont you find him a little too charming? No. Amelia looked at Grace with newfound interest. Her no had been a tad bit more defensive than she would have expected. Grace Eversleigh, she said, lowering her voice as she darted a quick look toward the dowager, do you fancy Mr. Audley? And then it was more than obvious that she did, because Grace stammered and spluttered, and made a noise that sounded rather like a toad. Which amused Amelia to no end. You do. It does not signify, Grace mumbled. Of course it signifies, Amelia replied pertly. Does he fancy you? No, dont answer, I can see from your face that he does. Well. I certainly shall not marry him now. You should not refuse him on my account, Grace said. What did you just say? I cant marry him if hes the duke. Amelia wanted to swat her. How dare she give up on love? Why not? If he is the duke, he will need to marry someone suit-able. Grace gave her a sharp look. Of your rank. Oh, dont be silly. Its not as if you grew up in an orphanage. There will be scandal enough. He must not add to it with a sensational marriage. An actress would be sensational. You will merely be a weeks worth of gossip. She waited for Grace to comment, but she looked so flustered, and so . . . so . . . sad. Amelia could hardly bear it. She thought of Grace, in love with Mr. Audley, and she thought of herself, drifting on the tide of other peoples expectations. This wasnt how she wanted to be. This wasnt who she wanted to be. I do not know Mr. Audleys mind, she said, or his intentions, but if he is prepared to dare everything for love, then you should be, too. She reached out and squeezed Graces hand. Be a woman of courage, Grace. She smiled then, as much for herself as for Grace. And she whispered, I shall be one, too. Chapter 17 The journey to Butlersbridge proceeded much as Thomas had anticipated. Along with Jack and Lord Crowland, he rode horseback, the better to enjoy the fine weather. There was very little talk; they never quite managed to keep themselves in an even enough line to converse. Every now and then one of them would in-crease his pace or fall behind, and one horse would pass another. Perfunctory greetings would be exchanged. Occasionally someone would comment on the weather. Lord Crowland seemed rather interested in the native birds. Thomas tried to enjoy the scenery. It was all very green, even more so than Lincolnshire, and he wondered about the annual rainfall. If precipitation here was higher, would that also translate into a better crop yield? Or would this be offset by— Stop. Agriculture, animal husbandry . . . it was all academic now. He owned no land, no animals save for his horse, and maybe not even that. He had nothing. No one. Amelia . . . Her face entered his mind, unbidden and yet very welcome. She was so much more than hed anticipated. He did not love her—he could not love her, not now. But somehow . . . he missed her. Which was ridiculous, as she was just in the carriage, some twenty yards behind. And hed seen her at their noontime picnic. And theyd breakfasted together. He had no reason to miss her. And yet he did. He missed her laugh, the way it might sound at a particularly enjoyable dinner party. He missed the warm glow of her eyes, the way they would look in the early morning light. If he ever got to see her in the early morning light. Which he wouldnt. But he missed it all the same. He glanced over his shoulder, back at the carriage, half surprised to see that it looked exactly as it should, and not spitting flames through the windows. His grandmother had been in fine form that afternoon. Now there was one thing he would not miss, once he was stripped of his title. The dowager Duchess of Wyndham had been more than an albatross on his back; shed been a bloody Medusa, whose only purpose in life seemed to be to make his life as difficult as possible. But his grandmother was not the only burden hed be happy to shed. The endless paperwork. Hed not miss that. The lack of freedom. Everyone thought he could do as he pleased—all that money and power ought to lend a man utter control. But no, he was tied to Belgrave. Or he had been. He thought of Amelia, her dreams of Amsterdam. Well, hell. Come tomorrow, he could go to Amsterdam if he so desired. He could leave straight from Dublin. He could see Venice. The West Indies. There was nothing to stop him, no— Are you happy?We were high school sweethearts? Nathalie asked.
He nodded. We were, yeah.You took me to the prom?
I knew it. She squealed and laughed. What color was my dress? How did I look?It was kind of a dark blue. You were beautiful. He smiled at the memory. You always were. You still are.