It Had to be the Duke - Christi Caldwell
Thirty-two years earlier
Lady Lydia Mayweather was going to have to tell him.
She’d played it out a million different ways, how to say the words.
And yet, speaking them to a man she loved as much as she did Geoffrey, the Marquess of Downshire and the future Duke of Bentley, was an altogether different matter.
Telling him she was going to marry another was never something she could properly prepare for.
Because she’d always loved Geoffrey. Since they’d been children sneaking off to partake in some mischief or another… and then beyond that. To the time they’d grown up and become aware of each other in a different way, a romantic way. Then, she’d loved to sneak about and steal off to forbidden corners and gardens and parlors, while everyone else in the world had their heads turned and find herself in his arms. And she’d loved the feel of being in his arms.
But she also loved her younger sister, more than she loved herself.
As such, there was no choice in this, for Lydia.
There had never been a choice.
Everything she’d taken these past months had been stolen. Joy that she would take with her forever. It would be enough.
Tears pricked her eyes, burning, and she welcomed the pain.
It had to be.
So why couldn’t she bring herself to step through that door and meet him? Instead, Lydia stared blankly down at the Duke and Duchess of Bentley’s intricately carved door handle. Roses were etched upon the pewter, and at the center, a heart.
A heart that had with time landed a slight scratch that intersected that carving.
Her lips twisted in a bitterly sad smile.
How very fitting.
And yet, there were roses there, too. Roses, which were her most favorite of flowers. The blooms that had been brought to her that afternoon were a reminder that she could at least, if not know the all-consuming love that all young ladies aspired to, be happy.
Drawing in a deep breath, and before her courage deserted her, Lydia let herself outside.
Firm but gentle hands immediately caught her about the waist and guided her against the edge of the stucco wall, even as a yellow rose drifted before her eyes. Her fingers immediately collected that vibrant bud. “I wondered how long you intended to stand at that doorway, love,” Geoffrey Meadows, the future Duke of Bentley, whispered as he dropped a kiss on the side of her neck.
Moaning, Lydia tipped her head sideways, allowing him the access he sought. The fragrant hint of that bloom he’d brought her filled her senses. Glorious shivers raced from where he touched his mouth, radiating out, sending a delicious heat through her.
It was always so very wonderful in his arms.
So very good. When he held her, when he kissed her, it was like she was coming home. And it was the only place in the world she wished to be, and yet, this time, it was also… wrong.
It hadn’t been before, when he’d been her choice, and she’d believed there would be a future with him.
His sure hands guiding her hips, Geoffrey turned her about and pulled her in close so that her body pressed against his. The rose slipped from her fingers, and she clung to him. He was all muscled strength. Not an inch or ounce of padding to his tall, sinewy frame.
With an agonizing effort, she made herself turn her head away just as Geoffrey would have claimed her mouth in the kiss she yearned for.
His kiss grazed her cheek.
He went instantly still. His long, ink-black lashes swept low, concealing his gaze. But not before she saw the flare of unease there. “What is it, love?”
Oh, God. He’d make this impossible for her. As he should. “My… father summoned me to his offices this morning.”
He said nothing for a long moment. “And?” he asked gruffly.
Unable to meet his eyes, Lydia stepped away, putting distance between them, because doing this, telling him this, was agonizing enough. But to do it while he held her… “You know our families, Geoffrey… They don’t get on.”
“Ah, my sweet Lydia and her understatements,” Geoffrey murmured, and leaning down, he nuzzled her neck.
Her eyes slid closed once more. Yes, it was an understatement. Their fathers quite despised each other. That hadn’t always been the case. Her father and the Duke of Bentley, together with the Duke of Mowbray, had been the best of friends, with Lydia’s father having been expected to marry the duke’s sister. Until Lydia’s father had broken it off and married Lydia’s mother.
Everything had changed