Mr. Cavendish, I Presume

Page 22


“Well, in that case, I am Jack Audley. Formerly of His Majesty’s esteemed army, more recently of the dusty road.”

Thomas opened his mouth to tell him just what he thought of that answer, but his grandmother beat him to the punch. “Who are these Audleys?” she demanded, striding angrily to his side. “You are no Audley. It is there in your face. In your nose and chin and in every bloody feature save your eyes, which are quite the wrong color.”

Thomas turned to her with impatient confusion. What could she possibly be blithering on about this time?

“The wrong color?” the other man responded.

“Really?” He turned to Grace, his expression all innocence and cheek. “I was always told the ladies like green eyes. Was I misinformed?”

“You are a Cavendish!” the dowager roared. “You are a Cavendish, and I demand to know why I was not informed of your existence.”

A Cavendish? Thomas stared at the stranger, and then at his grandmother, and then back to the stranger.

“What the devil is going on?”

No one had an answer, so he turned to the only person he deemed trustworthy. “Grace?”

She did not meet his eyes. “Your grace,” she said with quiet desperation, “perhaps a word in private?”

“And spoil it for the rest of us?” Mr. Audley said.

He let out a self-righteous huff. “After all I’ve been through . . . ”

Thomas looked at his grandmother.

“He is your cousin,” she said sharply.

He paused. He could not have heard that correctly.

He looked to Grace, but she added, “He is the highwayman.”

While Thomas was attempting to digest that, the insolent sod turned so that they might all make note of his bound hands and said, “Not here of my own voli-tion, I assure you.”

“Your grandmother thought she recognized him last night,” Grace said.

“I knew I recognized him,” the dowager snapped.

She flicked her hand toward the highwayman. “Just look at him.”

The highwayman looked at Thomas and said, as if he were as baffled as the rest of them, “I was wearing a mask.”

Thomas brought his left hand to his forehead, his thumb and fingers rubbing and pinching hard at the headache that had just begun to pound. Good God.

And then he thought— the portrait.

Bloody hell. So that was what that had been about. At half three in the godforsaken morning, Grace had been up and about, trying to yank the portrait of his dead uncle off the wall and—

“Cecil!” he yelled.

A footman arrived with remarkable speed.

“The portrait,” Thomas snapped. “Of my uncle.”

The footman’s Adam’s apple bobbed with dismay.

“The one we just brought up to—”

“Yes. In the drawing room.” And when Cecil did not move fast enough, Thomas practically barked, “Now!”

He felt a hand on his arm. “Thomas,” Grace said quietly, obviously trying to settle his nerves. “Please, allow me to explain.”

“Did you know about this?” he demanded, shaking her off.

“Yes,” she said, “but—”

He couldn’t believe it. Grace. The one person he had come to trust for complete honesty. “Last night,” he clarified, and he realized that he bloody well treasured last night. His life was sorely lacking in moments of pure, unadulterated friendship. The moment on the stairs, bizarre as it was, had been one of them. And that, he thought, had to explain the gut-punched feeling he got when he looked at her guilty face. “Did you know last night?”

“I did, but Thomas—”

“Enough,” he spat. “Into the drawing room. All of you.”

Grace tried to get his attention again, but he ignored her. Mr. Audley—his bloody cousin!—had his lips puckered together, as if he might whistle a happy tune at any moment. And his grandmother . . . well, the devil only knew what she was thinking. She looked dyspeptic, but then again, she always looked dyspeptic. But she was watching Audley with an intensity that was positively frightening. Audley, for his part, seemed not to notice her maniacal stare. He was too busy ogling Grace.

Who looked miserable. As well she should.

Thomas swore viciously under his breath and slammed the door to the drawing room shut once they were all out of the hall. Audley held up his hands and cocked his head to the side. “D’you think you might . . . ?”

“For the love of Christ,” Thomas muttered, grabbing a letter opener off a nearby writing table. He grasped one of Audley’s hands and with one angry swipe sliced through the bindings.

“Thomas,” Grace said, situating herself in front of him. Her eyes were urgent as she said, “I really think you ought to let me speak with you for a moment before—”

“Before what?” he snapped. “Before I am informed of another long-lost cousin whose head may or may not be wanted by the Crown?”

“Not by the Crown, I think,” Audley said mildly,

“but surely a few magistrates. And a vicar or two.” He turned to the dowager. “Highway robbery is not generally considered the most secure of all possible occupa-tions.”

“Thomas.” Grace glanced nervously over at the dowager, who was glowering at her. “Your grace,” she corrected, “there is something you need to know.”

“Indeed,” he bit off. “The identities of my true friends and confidantes, for one thing.”

Grace flinched as if struck, but Thomas brushed aside the momentary pang of guilt that struck his chest.

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