It Had to be the Duke - Christi Caldwell Page 0,1

between her father and the Duke of Bentley, with the Duke Mowbray caught in between as broker of an uneasy peace.

“Come, love, why so troubled, hmm?” he asked in gentle, soothing tones as he brushed back the loose curls that had been left to hang artfully about her shoulders. “We’ve always known this would be… difficult. But not impossible.”

Yes, when she’d been a girl of seven and he a boy of nine, they’d spit into their palms, shaken hands, and promised to one day marry each other, because she was the only girl he liked, and he was the only one whom she couldn’t outclimb or outrace. But they were no longer children, afforded the same innocence and hope.

Lydia hugged her arms tight around her middle. “They’ve tolerated one another because they care first and foremost about their reputations and honor that all-important strata of social ranking…” A panicky laugh escaped her. “But letting you and I sneak off at annual summer parties and winter house parties was tolerated only because we are children.” Now, everything had changed. Pain scissored through her, and Lydia let her arms drop. She looked over at Geoffrey, holding his gaze. “They were never going to accept a marriage between us.” She’d deluded herself into believing her father would support that match.

Geoffrey shrugged. “That doesn’t matter.”

Lydia briefly closed her eyes. Only the arrogance of a man assured of his place in the world didn’t know what it was to be a woman. “It does to my father,” she said quietly.

“Fine.” Geoffrey flashed a roguish half grin, an arrogant smile he’d possessed since they’d met at Mowbray’s summer house party when they’d been mere children. “Then that leaves us as a regular old Romeo and Juliet.”

A giggle spilled from her lips. “It bears pointing out they both die at the end, Geoffrey.”

“Well, we will rewrite that story and our families’ history,” he said with the hope and optimism she so very loved him for.

Hugging her arms around her middle, she wandered deeper into the garden, presenting him her back and fighting to get her emotions under control. “He is determined that our family be connected to the Earl of Chombley’s.”

Just like that, a scowl chased away Geoffrey’s confident grin. “Chombley is an arse. All pompous and stuffy and rude. Your father would call one such as him friend.”

But that was the way of most lords. They were generally almost all those unflattering descriptors Geoffrey had affixed to the nobleman in question.

And yet… Lydia made herself draw in a slow breath through clenched teeth, the slight intake sounding shaky to her ears. “His son is not.” Lawrence Brandeis, the Viscount Wainright.

Geoffrey stilled. His gaze narrowed upon her face. “No,” he said gruffly. “Wainright is a good sort.”

Lawrence had been the hanger-on friend to her, Geoffrey, and Geoffrey’s friends Harold and James through the years.

Lawrence had also always been the cautious one among that group of wilder boys. Where Geoffrey was a wicked rogue with a wicked reputation, the Lawrence had settled down and become steady, dependable, and unfailingly respectable. It was why he would make her a good… a good…

Her mind balked, shying away from putting the thoughts to completion, even for herself.

“What of Wainright?” Geoffrey pressed.

She bit her lip hard enough that she tasted the metallic sting of blood tinge her mouth.

He made a quiet, soothing sound. “Here,” Geoffrey murmured and produced a crisp white kerchief from his pocket. He gave it a snap, and then with an infinite tenderness, he touched the fabric to the bruised flesh.

Geoffrey tended her self-inflicted wound, dabbing away traces of blood, silent all the while. But then, they didn’t need to fill the moments between them with prattle and empty words. They’d always been as comfortable in each other’s presence when they’d been teasing and telling stories as when they’d found moments of quiet at the edge of the Serpentine, when the world had slept, and they’d stolen that time on the shores of the river as their own.

And those moments… They were all about to end.

A vicious pain tore through her chest, threatening to break her apart under the steady, crushing weight of this impending loss.

Returning the kerchief to the inside of his jacket, Geoffrey raised a thumb and lightly explored her injury. “There,” he said softly. “It’s healed already.”

It’s healed already.

Unlike her heart.

Her heart was being torn apart, each piece of the fragile organ ripped free, leaving a crushing hurt that grew with every moment spent out here