A Bride of Convenience for the Broken Earl by Hazel Linwood

 

Prologue

“But I don’t understand,” the girl said, looking at her closest friend with deep sadness. “Why must you leave?”

“It’s my parents’ decision,” the boy responded, attempting to be brave but failing at it. “They’re adamant that in order to become a proper gentleman and be well received, I must have the right education. They say it’s time I went away to school.”

“Matthew, what of your governess and your tutors? Can they not teach you anymore?” she asked, twisting a lock of blonde hair nervously around her forefinger.

“No Lydia,” he said, sighing deeply as he tried to straighten his shoulders proudly. “Not at my age, it wouldn’t be proper. A boy of four-and ten should not even have a governess, you know. Father has been after Mother for years to let her go, but they’re away so often that she thought someone should remain at the house to look after me.”

Lydia was quiet, watching the water rush past her bare feet where they rested in the brook. For his part, Matthew had little desire to say anything either. Friends and playmates for as long as they could both remember, a separation of this sort should have been expected, but somehow they had failed to foresee it.

“I shall miss you terribly,” Lydia finally confessed, a statement that was both truer than anything she had ever said and empty in its sentiment. It was not quite enough to express how Matthew’s absence would hurt her.

“I know,” he replied as only an awkward young man who’d experienced little of the world could say, “but I shall be home at the holidays and we’ll catch up then. We’ll write to each other often, too. It will be as though I’m still here, only gone away on a trip. You’ll see.”

Those were the words that finally broke Lydia’s resolve. She began to cry in earnest, embarrassed at letting the sadness show in front of Matthew. She who had not cried even when she’d cut her foot on a sharp rock and who’d caught her finger in the stall door once now wept for the loss of her only friend.

“There now,” Matthew said tenderly, “I’m the one who must go off and face those horrid boys at school, not you. You shall remain here and continue to mind our pirate ship lest any enemy forces attempt to commandeer it.”

Lydia could not help but laugh at the reference to the boat the pair of them had built one summer several years ago, a ramshackle structure that still stood mired in the tall grasses along the riverbank. Matthew had endured quite a scolding when his governess found him standing ankle-deep in the mud, attempting to retrieve Lydia’s shoe from where it had fallen overboard.

“I shall protect it at all costs,” she answered more bravely than she felt. Still the tears fell, until Matthew gave her that disarming, crooked smile of his.

“It won’t be so bad, you’ll see,” he assured her. “You shall have to write to me every day and tell me how the hares are doing on the other side of the wall. Only don’t tell me if the dogs happen to snatch any of them, I don’t like to think of that.”

“I won’t. I shall make up lovely stories about all of them, and tell you when the new kits are born,” Lydia promised. “But you must promise not to take after those boys at Exton—”

“Eton,” Matthew corrected, and Lydia nodded.

“Don’t take after those boys at Eton and become such a good scholar that you no longer have time to lie in the grass while our parents are at dinner and tell me stories.” Lydia gave him a worried look, and Matthew shook his head.

“Never. I don’t care how old I get or how much knowledge I gain, I shall always tell you stories, Lydia. But I must go. Father is taking me to school in the morning, and I have yet to pack my things.” Matthew held Lydia closely for a moment, then kissed her hand gently. “Promise me. You must write to me every day, for I fear it is the only letters I will get from home.”

“I promise,” Lydia whispered, then forced a smile. “But go now, before I become too sad and keep you captive aboard our ship.”

“It would be preferable to some old school, I’m afraid,” Matthew said, trying to laugh. “I will see you at Christmastime, I promise. Only don’t forget me, all right?”

“I could never,” Lydia answered with a sad sort of smile.