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For Love of the Duke

By:Christi Caldwell

ere? You’ll scare a small child with that icy, ducal stare of yours.”

Jasper continued walking. “I do not see any small children,” he said in clipped tones that would have sent most grown men scurrying.

Having known one another since their early years at Eton, Jasper noticed the Marquess of Guilford was the only individual of his acquaintance who seemed undaunted by his presence. “Very well, then. You frightened that young woman off.”

Jasper thought of the tart-mouthed, fiery-eyed miss who’d stumbled into him.

“She was not scared.” The plain young woman with her brown ringlets didn’t take him as one to scare easily—mores the fool was she. The nameless creature should have sensed the peril in merely crossing in front of him.

Guilford chuckled and slapped Jasper on the back hard. “Come, Bainbridge. It is nearly Christmas, a time of merriment and joy.” He gave Jasper a long look. “You cannot be miserable forever.”

Except Jasper hadn’t been miserable forever. He’d been miserable for three, very nearly four years. He clenched and unclenched his hands into fists at his side, as he absently studied the rustic enjoyment being had by the lords and ladies upon the ice.

Laughter carried on the crisp winter wind and surrounded Jasper, mocking him, taunting him for having once been happy, and as lighthearted as the fools at the fair.

“Bainbridge,” Guilford said quietly, all traces of amusement gone from his tone.

Jasper shrugged his shoulders. “It is fine,” he bit out.

Another round of laughter in the distance punctuated his words, a jeering testament to his lie.

He felt Guilford’s stare on him, and stiffened under the scrutiny. Then, Guilford said, “It will serve you well to escape that bleak, dark castle you call home.”

The bleak, dark castle as Guilford referred to it was in fact, Castle Blackwood, Jasper's ducal seat, a Norman castle. Significant portions of the original medieval structure remained, including five towers. Imposing, dark, and menacing, it rather suited Jasper’s foul mood.

He balled his hands into fists. Then, it hadn’t always been that way. At one time there’d been laughter and joy and cheer within the castle walls.

“Bainbridge? Are you all right?”

Jasper shook his head. “Foolish taking part in such inane amusements,” he said, his tone harsh and guttural.

Guilford’s patent grin was back in place. He slapped Jasper on the back once again. “Perhaps. But it is Christmastide and the time for inane amusements.”

Jasper grunted and fell reluctantly into step beside Guilford. He kept his hard-stare trained forward, not sparing so much as a sideways glance at the brightly colored tents and the eager young ladies moving between them to purchase their fripperies.

“Egads, man, must you scowl so?”

“Yes,” Jasper bit out.

His friend rubbed his gloved hands together, as though trying to infuse warmth into the frozen digits. Served the blighter right for forcing him back into this very public setting. “Ah, just a moment.” Guilford stopped beside a tent. He pulled several coins out of his pocket and approached an old man. Passing the coins to the vendor, Guilford accepted two tankards of ale.

“I don’t want ale,” Jasper snapped, when his friend pushed the glass into his hand.

“Drink it. If for no other reason than it will warm you.”

“I’m not cold.”

Guilford snorted. “You’re always cold. A frigid, icy man, and you’ve been that way as long as I’ve known you.”

Yes, Jasper hadn’t ever been the laughing, carefree boy. Born to a loveless marriage between two unfaithful parents, Jasper had scoffed at the empty sentiment called love—until he’d met Lady Lydia Wilkes. A smiling, bright-eyed debutante, she’d captivated him, melted his chilled heart.

A muscle in the corner of his eye twitched. And how had he repaid that great gift she’d shown him? By killing her. Oh God, the muscles in his stomach tightened. The pain of her loss, a pain he’d thought he’d finally buried with her cold, dead body, mocked him for daring to think he’d ever be rid of the pain.

He shook his head. He’d not be melancholy. Lydia was—dead. Dead. Forever gone. He lashed himself with the reminder of it. His lips twisted. As though he could ever truly forget.

Jasper raised the ale to his lips, and downed it in one long, slow, steady swallow. The brew did little to thaw the cold ice that now moved through his veins. From over the rim of his glass he spied the too plain young lady who’d walked into him. With her nondescript brown hair and brown eyes, she was a foil to Lydia’s golden blonde ringlets and pale porcelain skin. There was nothing at all captivating about the fiery-eyed vixen who’d glared at him.

“She is rather lovely,” Guilford murmured at his elbow.

Jasper gave his head a curt shake. “Hardly the type of creature to ever be considered a true beauty.”

“Goodness, you are in an even blacker mood than usual,” his friend chided.

Jasper handed his tankard off to the vendor and continued walking.

Guilford hurried his step to match his stride. “Perhaps we might inspect the peddlers’ goods?”

To what end? Jasper had no family. Born the only child to the late Duke and Duchess of Bainbridge, the nearest relative was a distant gentleman on his great-great-great grandfather’s side, who resided in Northumberland. Jasper couldn’t be more different than Guilford, who had a mother, three sisters, and one brother. He motioned to the tents. “I’ll remain here and,” his lip pulled back, “enjoy the festivities while you see to the fripperies inside the tent.”

Guilford opened his mouth, and then closed it. He shook his head, dislodging his top hat. He readjusted it back into place. “I’ll be just a moment.” With that he hurried ahead to a canary yellow tent.

Jasper fought back a yawn of tedium, and continued to survey the tableau with disinterest. Ladies clinging to their suitors’ arms as they skated upon the thick surface of the frozen river, peddler

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