Felicity woke as if from a dream, her body still warm from Alex’s touch, her heart full, and grinning so wide her cheeks ached. But as soon she noticed morning light filtering through the sash, she’d thrown off her bedclothes in order to hastily wash and dress.
For the first time in years, she’d overslept, but she couldn’t regret a moment spent with Alex.
Now she stood outside Lady Huntingdon’s drawing room taking a few steadying breaths before stepping inside. Alex was the only person she truly wished to see, but she knew enough decorum not to rush to his room.
Even her usual morning visit to Amy’s room came too late. Her cousin had already gone down to breakfast.
From a sweet trill of laughter echoing through the drawing room door, Felicity knew her cousin was well and enjoying herself. Perhaps Lord Baxindale had already secured a spot by her side. Ladies and gentleman were gathering with Lady Forsythe to prepare for an outing to Tresswell Hill, a scenic picnicking spot not far from the Forsythe estate.
“There you are, sweetheart.” Alex strode toward her from halfway down the hall.
He’d shaved and donned a fashionable gray suit. The sight of him made her body flush with warmth, but Felicity lifted a finger to her lips to urge him to speak more quietly. Judging by the mingled voices beyond the drawing room door, the room was brimming with guests who might overhear the endearment.
“Why should I be quiet? I had considered announcing our engagement from the rooftop.” As soon as he reached her side, Alex hooked an arm around Felicity’s waist and placed a soft kiss on her forehead. “Let’s start by joining the others and sharing our news.”
“Perhaps we should wait.” Felicity focused on one of his shiny waistcoat buttons.
“No.” He stroked up and down the small of her back in a soothing motion. “I can’t contain this much happiness, and I’ve no wish to try.”
“Your aunt will never approve.” Felicity gazed up into Alex’s eyes, expecting to find her own fears mirrored in their clear gray. Instead, she saw love. A certainty that caused giddy lightness to tickle in the center of her chest.
“Shall we go inside and find out?” He clasped her hand and turned to face his aunt’s drawing room door. “Whatever comes, we’ll face the storm together. Isn’t that what we agreed last night?”
“Yes.” She was ready, and Alex was right. Together they could weather his aunt’s reservations, and the guest’s shock at finding a spinster chaperone had somehow won the affection of a viscount, and—
“I do hope Kenniston is in attendance this morning.” Alec reached for the doorknob and tipped her a mischievous grin. “I want that bounder to be the first to know you’re mine.”
Felicity couldn’t return his smile. She was too busy squeezing his hand until her knuckles ached and patting her stomach to ease the riot in her belly.
“Don’t worry, sweetheart.” He slid his warm fingers along the edge of her jaw and tilted her head up. “You love me?”
“I do.” She’d felt lonely for so long, convinced herself that passionless spinsterhood would be her fate. Alex hadn’t only captured her heart. He made her look forward to a love-filled future. And passion. A lifetime of passion.
“Remember those two words, sweetheart. You’re going to need them on our wedding day.” He bent to kiss her cheek, opened the door, and led Felicity into the drawing room.
For a moment the chatting guests carried on without noticing their entrance. Then one young lady spied their linked hands and gasped, leaning forward to whisper to her companion. Before long, it seemed everyone was whispering, pointing, and staring in their direction.
“Alexander?” Lady Forsythe stood up from a settee at the far end of the room. “What’s the meaning of this?”
Felicity tried to loosen her fingers from Alex’s, but he held tight.
“The meaning, dear aunt,” he said loudly enough for everyone to hear, “is that you’ve succeeded beyond your wildest dreams.”
“Explain yourself.” Lady Forsythe narrowed her gaze as she started toward him, and one silver brow winged up when she noted their entwined fingers.
“Gladly.” Alex drew Felicity closer and placed his arm around her waist. “You hoped I would make a match this fortnight, so you’ll be pleased to know Miss Beckett has agreed to be my bride.”
A feminine squeal sounded in the room, and Felicity glanced around Alex’s broad shoulders to see Amy with a hand clasped over her smiling face. Next to her, Lord Baxindale warily watched the confrontation between Lady Forsythe and Alex.
“Miss Beckett?” Alex’s aunt took Felicity in from her upswept hair down to the hem of her gown, scrutinizing her as if they’d just been introduced. “I don’t know what to make of you,” the countess said quietly.
As Felicity held her breath and endured the countess’s perusal, she thought perhaps Lady Forsythe was truly seeing her for the first time.
“Ladies and gentleman,” Lady Forsythe addressed her room full of gathered house guests. “If you’ll excuse us for a moment. I shall return soon and we’ll all set off for Tresswell.” After the pronouncement, Alex’s aunt nudged her chin toward the door and began striding forward.
Alex kept his reassuring hold on Fel’s hand as they followed in her wake.
“Lady Forsythe, I cannot hold my tongue.”
Felicity’s body tensed at the sound of Thomas’s voice. Alex turned and positioned himself in front of her.
“No, Kenniston. Stop. Don’t say another word.” Alex stepped toward the baron. “You won’t ruin this day for us.”
“I’m afraid you don’t know Miss Beckett as well as you—”
In a flash of movement Alex lunged forward and planted his fist with a resounding thud against Thomas’s jaw. Arms windmilling, Thomas tipped back, landing on this backside, much as Felicity had in the ballroom.
“I did warn you not to speak,” Alex said as he loomed over Lord Kenniston.
Ladies nearby cried out in shock. A footman and maid rushed forward to assist the baron to his feet, and a few gentlemen, including Lord Baxindale, choked back laughter.
“What a lively morning.” Lady Forsythe smiled at her guests, though the twist of her lips was more akin to a grimace, and her clenched fists belied her teasing tone. Heading toward the hall, she called out for her unflappable butler. “Higgins!”
“My lady?” The thin older man appeared a moment later.
Quietly, she directed, “Settle the other guests and see Lord Kenniston back to his room to collect his belongings. He’ll be departing today.” Turning toward Alex, she commanded. “Nephew, Miss Beckett, accompany me to the library. Now.”
“Aunt Georgianna,” Alex began as they entered the book-lined room, “nothing you can say will alter my intentions.” He urged Felicity toward a chair, but she was too full of nervous energy to sit.
“Tell me this, Alexander.” Lady Forsythe walked toward the window and stared out on her garden, as if she couldn’t bear looking at either of them. “Did you awake this morning hoping to cause a scandal during these last days of my party?”
“No.” He cast Felicity a glance that heated her blood. His gaze dropped to her lips, and she knew he was thinking of the kisses they’d shared. “I woke happier than I’ve been in months. Years. Perhaps ever.”
Lady Forsythe turned and approached her nephew, subjecting him to the same scrutiny she’d offered Felicity in the drawing room. As if she was looking for clues. Or the answer to some puzzling question.
“And you, Miss Beckett?” Her searching gaze scanned Felicity’s face. “What do you have to say for yourself?”
“Aunt Georgianna—“ Alex cut in to defend her.
“It’s all right.” She needed to do this herself. “My lady, I know a great deal of planning and preparation must have gone into this house party, and I’m sorry for marring the event in anyway.” Felicity glanced at Alex, and he gifted her with an encouraging grin. “However, I cannot regret my feelings for Lord Lindsay. I was honored by his proposal, and I’ve accepted.”
Alex’s aunt pinched the skin between her brows. “This won’t do, Alexander.” She waved a hand out to encompass most of the room. “I’ve filled my home with eligible young ladies. Noblewomen of impeccable breeding, connections, and plentiful dowries. And you select—“
“The lady who’s captured his heart.” A deep voice emerged from a red velvet wingback chair in front of the library’s fireplace. Felicity could make out the glint of a gentleman’s polished boots, and she thought she recognized the rumble as belonging to their host, the Earl of Forsythe.
“Robert?” Lady Forsythe started toward the chair.
“Despite your many excellent qualities, my dear Georgianna, you seem to be suffering from a frightfully short memory.” A silver-haired head arose above the chair’s edge, then broad shoulders and a burly chest as the earl got to his feet. He reached out and took his wife’s hand in his own. “Have you forgotten my mother’s reaction when I proposed to you a week after our first dance?”
The countess bit her lower lip and narrowed her eyes, as if considering her husband’s words. She cast a glance toward where Alex stood near Felicity.
“Your mother was right to be concerned,” Lady Forsythe admitted to the earl. “We were engaged on a very short acquaintance.” She made sure to tip her head in Alex and Fel’s direction for emphasis.
“Yes, and thus we know the happiness a marriage born of a quick-blooming love might bring. I have no regrets, my dear,” the earl declared. “Do you?”
“Of course not, Robert.” The countess squeezed her husband’s hand and let out a long sigh. “But there is the matter of a dowry, not to mention the need to avoid anything like scandal. After Henry’s death…”
Alex tensed beside her. Someday, when the topic was less tender, Felicity wished to know about Alex’s brother and the reason Lady Forsythe found it impossible to speak about his passing.
“But, Georgianna, how would seeing Alexander miserably matched improve the family’s reputation? Perhaps you should trust that your nephew knows his own mind,” the earl said quietly as he leaned toward his wife. He placed a soft kiss on her cheek. “And his heart.”
Alex approached Felicity and hooked his arm around her waist.
“She hasn’t given her blessing yet,” Fel whispered.
“Oh she will, love.” He dipped his head and caught her eye, a sly smile curving his mouth. “No one can convince Aunt Georgianna like her husband can.”
His prediction was soon fulfilled. After a bout of animated whispers, Lord and Lady Forsythe stepped forward. The countess still wore a chagrined expression, but the earl offered Alex his hand.
“Congratulations, Alexander. From where I’m standing, you’ve chosen well. Miss Beckett is both sensible enough to wish to join our family and enticing enough to bring a rogue such as yourself to heel.”
Alex frowned, clearly not pleased with his uncle’s characterization of his taming. Fel pressed her lips together to stifle laughter. And failed completely. She lifted a hand to cover her chuckles. When Alex turned to face her, the lines between his brows began to melt.
“Truly bringing me to heel may take a while, Felicity. Many of my bad habits are quite firmly entrenched.”
“Are you up to the challenge, Miss Beckett?” Lady Forsythe bestowed Felicity with a genuine grin.
“I believe so, my lady.” Now it was Fel’s turn to grin as she gazed up at Alex. “Precisely how long will it take to tame you?” Bad habits she could bear, and Alex’s passionate nature thrilled her, but she had no plans to share her future husband with any other woman.
He pulled her closer, holding her tight. “A lifetime, love.”