Nothing Compares to the Duke – Christy Carlyle

Arabella Prescott flattened herself against the drawing room wall and held her breath until the footman passed by. Her heart beat so fiercely inside her chest, she was certain every servant in the house could hear. She’d run all the way from the garden. That was possibly the worst of her sins so far today. Her mother didn’t mind if she wasn’t good at dance lessons or spent too much time with her nose in a book. Mama loved books too, after all. But running was a grave misdeed, particularly in a pink beaded taffeta gown specially commissioned from a famous London modiste. Today, of all days, she’d be expected to display the ladylike refinements learned through all the years of tutors and governesses. Bella knew the rules and she was good at keeping them. She liked pleasing her parents. As an only child, there was no one else to make them proud. But she didn’t need lessons to know it wasn’t proper to skulk through drawing rooms when she was supposed to be attending to guests at her eighteenth birthday party. The problem was one guest had gone missing and he was the only one who mattered to Bella. After peeking around the threshold to make sure no one was about, she lifted the long skirt of her gown and dashed down the hall to the library. Rhys Forester didn’t love reading as she did, but they’d made a kind of haven out of the library together.

It was where they’d go when she helped him decipher words in books which had challenged him since he was a boy, and it was where he’d listen patiently while she talked through a new idea for one of her riddles. The room was large enough to find a private corner where they could talk for hours and Bella searched all those nooks now, only to find them empty. Stopping at one of the long windows, she pulled the drape back and looked down at the guests milling around the garden. From this high above, the party looked elegant. Tables laden with food and enormous punch bowls were arranged around a central area that servants had cordoned off for dancing. Another square of lawn had been pressed and trimmed for lawn tennis. Down there, amid the flurry of guests and servants, it felt far different. Less elegant and more panic inducing. She could only focus on the dais that had been assembled for her to stand on and give a little speech of thanks to everyone for attending. The thought of it made her stomach tumble.

Speaking in front of others was not her skill, but she knew someone who did it naturally. Effortlessly. He’d even helped her craft what she would say. In the farthest nook of the library, the one with the cushioned window seats, they’d worked together just two days prior on the speech her mother expected her to give today. And now he’d gone missing. She’d searched every drawing room, the conservatory, the morning room where they sometimes used her mother’s desk when Bella helped him with writing. He wouldn’t be upstairs, and he was nowhere to be found in the gardens. “Looking for me?” Rhys’s deep voice sent a shiver down her spine. She turned so quickly her skirt tangled around her ankles. “I thought you’d gotten bored and gone home.

” “Miss Prescott.” He pressed a hand to his chest and winced dramatically. “Your lack of faith wounds me. I would never abandon a friend and I’m determined to celebrate your day along with everyone else.” “Where were you?” Bella untangled her skirts by shaking out the fabric and moved closer. “Looking for you, of course. You’re the lady of the hour. The girl of the day.” He pulled something from his waistcoat pocket, cupped it in his hands so she couldn’t see, and hid it by sliding both hands behind his back. “If that’s a gift for my birthday, you’re meant to wrap it and present it to me properly, not hide it away.

” Her pulse quickened as she thought of what he might give her. Then she looked down and the way his shirt buttons strained across his chest made her breath speed too. Lately she was aware of everything about him in ways she’d never been before. More specifically, she’d become intensely aware of his body. Like now, when she noticed that the stubble on his chin glittered gold in the sunlight. How he smelled of fresh air and the cinnamon biscuits Cook had made for the party and that unique deeper scent that was all Rhys. “I’m not sure you’ll like it, Arry. You are known to be rather picky.” Arry was a nickname only Rhys used. He wasn’t satisfied with Bella, as everyone else called her.

He insisted on something unique. “How dare you? Everyone knows you’re the pickiest man in the village.” Bella pushed playfully at his chest as she’d done dozens of times over the course of their friendship. This time was different. He wasn’t a little boy anymore and she was no longer a little girl. That he was four years older had never mattered much when they were children, but over the course of the previous summer, she’d begun to think of him as a man. The inescapable fact was that he’d grown very appealing. And very handsome. Her feelings for him had grown too, into something she was afraid to voice. But now, standing inches from him, she found she didn’t want to pull away.

Under her palm, he radiated heat and it was as much of an enticement as discovering whatever gift he concealed behind his back. “You’re so picky, none of the girls in the village can catch your eye.” Her heart leaped in her chest as she waited for his reply. A part of her dared to hope she was the reason no other girl could tempt him. “It took you a month to decide which color of dress to wear today,” he teased. “Mama said it was the most important dress I’d ever wear, at least until the start of the Season. But she is dramatic when it comes to fashion.” He laughed and the sound was infectious. She always laughed when he did. But the sound was richer now that she could feel the reverberation against her palm.

“Show me what it is,” she insisted with a gentle push. Rhys tipped his head and looked down at where she touched him. She felt his response. His heartbeat raced faster. When his eyes met hers again, their cool blue shade seemed darker. “Turn around, Arabella,” he said on a husky whisper. Bella did as he requested without protest or hesitation. That was new too. Usually they debated everything. Her breath snagged in her throat as she waited, listening to the rustle of fabric as he brought his arms forward.

A little squeak sounded in the high-ceilinged library, like the metal-on-metal rub of a hinge giving way. A hinged box? Bella’s mind went to jewelry and then to the image of a ring and her deepest most secret wish that she was almost afraid to admit to herself. She was expected to have a wildly successful coming-out Season. Her mother had been planning for months. Years. But since her change of heart toward her best friend, Bella’s dream was an uncharacteristically rebellious one. Deep down, she hoped her Season might be unnecessary because Rhys would ask her to be his. Her parents couldn’t disapprove. They’d known Rhys as long as she had and loved him as a son, not to mention that he was heir to a dukedom. As her mother had told her a hundred times while they discussed eligible noblemen who might be promising prospects for the coming Season, “nothing compares to a duke.

” It would come as a shock to no one to discover that he’d had her heart for years. Even Rhys couldn’t doubt that. But it had always been a friendship kind of love. Now it was so much more. He swept his fingers across the back of her neck and Bella gasped. “Are my hands cold?” “N-no” was all she could manage. Her skin tingled where he’d touched her and a ribbon of warmth spread out from that spot and slid all the way down her back. She felt his other hand come up and he stretched one arm over her shoulder, then the other. Cool metal landed gently against her neck and then his fingers were fumbling at her nape again, brushing against the wisps of hair that had escaped her coiffure. He’d hooked a necklace and the thin chain tickled against her skin.

“There,” he said softly, pressing the flat of his hand to the curve between her neck and shoulder. When he let go, the chain slid down, almost to her cleavage. Bella lifted the pendant and tilted it up. A daisy flower, its petals made of opal and its center a round of etched gold. “Will it suit you? Daisies are your favorite flower, aren’t they?” “I love daisies.” But they weren’t her favorite flower. Lily of the valley was her favorite and always had been, but she couldn’t bring herself to tell him. He came around to stand in front of her and took her hands in his. “They’re as sweet and lovely as you are.” “Thank you.

” For a long awkward moment, she couldn’t get any more words out. She struggled so long that his encouraging smile faltered. “Rhys—” “Arry, I know you’re nervous about the speech. But don’t be. We practiced and you’ll pull it off beautifully.” He glanced behind her at the clock on the wall. “You should head down. It’s almost time.” “We should head down.” She’d come looking for him because she could not imagine speaking to all the guests from that dais without being able to look out and focus on his face.

He reached up and cupped her chin, tilted her head gently, and stared down at her as tenderly as he’d ever looked at her in the decade they’d known each other. Bella held her breath. Her gaze flitted down to his lips. This was it. This was the moment of her very first kiss. There would never ever be another and there was no man she would ever want to kiss more than Rhys Forester. “You,” he said emphatically, “are so much more than you know. More clever, more talented, more beautiful than you even yet realize. I hope when the Season comes a dozen men tell you so. There will be many vying for your heart and your hand.

” No! Everything in her shouted the word. A dozen men didn’t interest her in the least. Only one. This one. “Don’t break too many hearts, my sweet lovely friend.” He smiled again and bent forward. Bella leaned toward him too, stood a little straighter, and stretched up to meet his kiss. But rather than touch his mouth to hers, he pressed his lips to her forehead, lingered a moment, and then pulled back. “Return to the party.” He spoke gently, less of a command than an encouragement to do something he knew she dreaded.

He dropped his hand from her chin and took a step back and to the side, clearing a path for her to the library door. “Are you not escorting me down?” The words came out far sharper than she wished, but her heart ached. There was so much she wished to say, so many feelings burning inside her, but now she feared there would never be an opportunity to confess any of them. “There’s someone I must speak to and then I’ll join the celebration. I promise.” Bella had no notion who he planned to speak to, but there were half a dozen guests that Rhys knew as well as she did. A cousin of Bella’s had been one of his university classmates and the Debley twins, who’d idolized him when they were girls, seemed just as smitten now. Reluctantly, Bella nodded and started toward the library threshold. “If you’re not about when Mama calls me to the dais, I’m coming to find you.” He laughed, a shallower sound than his usual chuckle.

“I have no doubt.” “Come, Bella. We can’t dally any longer,” her mother said as she waved Bella’s father away from the punch bowl. He loved the lemony concoction, but sweets never agreed with him. “We told guests the party would break up at three and you’d say a few words before we sent everyone on their way.” “Soon, Mama.” Bella twisted the daisy pendant between her fingers and stood on her tiptoes to look out past a cluster of guests onto Hillcrest’s garden paths that were lined with tall box hedges. It wasn’t quite a maze, but there were places to sit and a few guests had wandered off to rest on shady benches or converse privately among the flowers. She’d seen Rhys come out of the house nearly half an hour ago, but Vicar Eames had engaged her in conversation and she’d been unable to get away. “My girl,” her mother said with barely restrained irritation, “it’s rude to make everyone wait.

” “I must find Rhys.” “Arabella.” Her mother let out a long-suffering sigh and closed her eyes. “When the Season begins you won’t be able to spend so much time with Lord Huntley.” “Precisely, Mama, which is why I intend to do so now.” Bella didn’t wait for a reply before moving past her mother and heading for the tall hedges. She had a hunch she’d find him there. The Debley twins were sitting on one of the stone benches, and looked up at her guiltily as she approached. “We were just planning to return to the party, Miss Prescott. Daisy felt a bit fatigued,” one of the twins said while gesturing to the other.

“I’m much better now,” Daisy insisted. “Good.” Bella managed a smile while glancing each way down the hedge rows. “Have you seen Lord Huntley, by any chance?” The dark-haired twins exchanged a glance before Dorothy said, “We did a while back. He went that way.” Bella didn’t have to go far before she heard voices. A woman and then a gentleman’s raspy reply. Laughter filtered through the leafy wall of the tall hedges, a low and resonant rumble so infectious it tickled in her own belly. Rhys’s laugh. She picked up her pace, lifting the skirt of her gown to keep from tripping.

The daisy pendant bounced at the base of her throat. As she drew closer, she heard a feminine moan. She rounded the corner and bile rose in the back of her throat. Blood rushed so fiercely in her ears it blocked out every other sound. Rhys shot up from the bench where he’d been reclining, nearly on top of the redheaded widow next to him. Lady Nelson pushed her skirts down and began fussing with her hair. She kept her eyes focused on Rhys and couldn’t manage a single glance Bella’s way. Stumbling back, Bella clutched at her throat. She couldn’t breathe. “Arry—” “No.

Don’t call me that.” It was a silly nickname. “What a childish fool I must seem to you.” He lifted a hand toward her. “Never a fool.” “A child, then?” Bella glared at Lady Nelson, who’d stood and composed herself. “No.” The moment Rhys stepped toward her, Bella had to escape. She couldn’t bear to look at him, to hear his voice. She didn’t want explanations or apology.

Getting away and trying to forget what she’d seen was all she needed. She stumbled along the stone path. Tears came so hot and quick her vision blurred, but she could see clearly enough to note that the Debley sisters were no longer on their bench. Bella swiped at her cheeks and nose and noticed someone waving in the distance. Her mother stood at the edge of the garden paths, gesturing her forward. A little keening sound bubbled up and her throat burned. She couldn’t give her speech. She couldn’t pretend as if her heart wasn’t shattered. Rather than head toward her mother, Bella veered left toward the house. Before she could get halfway there, footsteps rushed toward her from behind and Rhys gripped her arm.

“Arabella, please. Listen to me.” Even turning to face him took effort. She feared if she looked at him, she wouldn’t be able to walk away. “I know what you must think of me.” He let go of her and ran a hand through his hair. “And of Lady Nelson.” “I don’t give a damn about Lady Nelson.” “No, of course not, but—” “Leave.” Saying the single syllable brought a pain in the center of her chest so sharp, it felt as if getting the word out had cut her from the inside.

“Arry—” “Just go. Go!” She didn’t even realize she was shouting until he jolted back and began glancing around, as if worried she’d attract notice their way. Looking at him was too hard. Standing this close, all she ached to do was reach for him. Even now, after the unequivocal proof that he did not care for her. That he didn’t care for his own reputation. That he wasn’t a proper honorable sort of gentleman at all. And despite everything, she still wanted him. She still wished he wanted her. He bowed his head and nodded once, then walked away.

Bella wrapped her arms around her chest and bit down to stop a wave of shivers. The afternoon had turned warm after a day of unclouded sun, but inside she felt chilled. Empty. She looked up when she realized his footsteps had slowed. He’d stopped and stood looking back at her. “Good-bye, Bella.” She said nothing. There wasn’t anything left to say. Bella willed herself to stand still when he walked away, not to call out or run after him as her heart insisted. She couldn’t find her usual rational self.

This wasn’t a riddle she could unravel. Pain and confusion clouded everything, but intuition told her he wasn’t just walking out of her party. Rhys Forester had just walked out of her life. Forever.

.

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