Lady Felicity Danby had everything she ever wanted in life until the moment her husband died, turning her world upside down. A year and a half later, she is finally ready to return to Bath to spend the summer visiting family. She finds comfort in her old childhood friend, but is taken off guard when passion begins to simmer between them. She’s already lost everything once—can she possibly risk her heart a second time?
There she was.
Standing by the alcove, alone and searching the crowd. The filmy white fabric of her gown looked cloudlike against the blue velvet drapes behind her. She was beautiful, but that wasn’t what made Gavin Stark, Viscount Derington’s stomach drop at the sight of her. No, it was the fact that it was her, Felicity, the girl he knew better than any person in the world. More to the point, it was what he had come to say to her.
He’d seen her skinned knees, heard her laugh so hard she’d actually snorted, and comforted her as her tears had soaked through his best shirt following her mother’s funeral. He’d seen her tired, angry, stubborn, and even frazzled, but she’d never been anything but beautiful to him. As far as she was concerned, they’d been the best of friends since they were children.
And as far as Dering was concerned, he’d been desperately in love with her since they were fifteen.
It had been five long years since he’d fallen for her, and yet, in all that time, he had never once been able to bring himself to say anything. How could he, when he knew that the moment he did, everything would change between them? No more easy, lighthearted afternoons beside the river. No more stolen conversations in the folly, or teasing debates about the merits of stowing away on a ship to the Caribbean when the first blanket of snow covered the Somerset landscape.
Dering—the nickname his friends had given him at school that Felicity refused to use—knew that the moment he declared himself, everything would be different. It was a prospect that had scared the hell out of him, but time was of the essence.
His stomach rolled with a wave of nerves at the thought. Biting hard on the inside of his cheek, he straightened his shoulders. It was now or never. Her coming out had been postponed first by her mother’s illness, then by her mother’s death, but in a few short months, she would be off to London to make her debut.
This, his break over Christmas between the Michaelmas and Lent terms, was the last time he would see her before she left.
God knew the moment the ton got ahold of her, his chances would be destroyed. She’d be a diamond of the first water, an Incomparable for certain.
What was the overly tall heir to an earldom when there were dozens of rakish noblemen to be had? He couldn’t take the chance. Further, he simply couldn’t wait anymore.
Five years was long enough.
That thought finally pulled him from his invisible moorings and propelled him forward in her direction. He used his height and breadth to his advantage, gently but firmly bullying his way through the crush. He knew every last one of them there—his father entertained constantly and had instilled the importance of socializing in all his sons—but at that moment, none of the other guests meant a damn to him. There was exactly one person he wanted to see, and she had just noticed him coming toward her.
Felicity’s lips spread into one of her adorable, over-wide grins that made her entire countenance come to life. “Gavin,” she exclaimed, wrapping her gloved hands around his and giving a tight squeeze. “I’m so glad you’re here. I’ve been waiting for you for ages.”
His mind instantly went blank as he leaned into her touch. Her fingers fit so well in his hands. Struggling to understand her meaning, he said, “Did I forget a meeting?”
Shaking her head, she pulled him the slightest bit closer so she could whisper by his ear. “No, but waiting for your return has been torture. Meet me in the library in five minutes?”
Dear God. In all of the scenarios he had dreamed up on how he could sweep her from her feet, he never imagined she might be the one to do the initiating. His Adam’s apple bobbed against his suddenly tight cravat as he swallowed and nodded. “I’ll see you then.”
Her smile was swift and glorious, making his heart hammer in his chest. “Excellent. I think I shall go nonchalantly take a turn about the room.” With a wink, she released his hands and slipped away, leaving him to stare after her and reflect that this may very well turn out to be the greatest day of his entire twenty years on this planet.
Sucking in a deep breath, he set off to find a footman, or more specifically, a glass of champagne. No, make that two glasses of champagne. If his dream was about to come true, he damn well wanted to celebrate with the woman he loved.
Precisely three minutes later, he was pacing the marble tiles of his father’s prized library, his heart thundering with anticipation. In a few short minutes, Felicity would arrive. After all these years of wanting her so badly, but knowing he couldn’t say a word for fear of risking their friendship, it was impossible to believe that the waiting would be over. The not knowing would be over. The moment was finally here for him to show her the man he had become, declare himself, and allow the pieces to fall where they may.
Hopefully, right into his waiting arms.
The door squeaked open. He turned just as she slipped inside, her cheeks pink and her eyes fairly glowing. Drawing a steadying breath—which failed utterly to calm his nerves—he set the drinks down on the nearest table and held his hand out to her. “There you are.”
“Here I am,” she responded with a grin. She hurried to his side and slipped her hands right back into his. He wished that the soft fabric of her glove wasn’t there, so he could feel the heat of her skin against his, but that would come soon enough.
His mouth practically went dry at the thought.
“I’ve missed you,” he exclaimed, not willing to hide the truth even a moment longer. It had been almost four months since he had seen her—far too long.
“And I you. Desperately,” she added, tightening her grip on his hands.
Desperately. He nearly closed his eyes against the pleasure the word evoked. Could it possibly be that she felt the same way about him as he did about her? Desperate was exactly the word to describe the way he had felt these last few months, waiting to see her again. “Lissy,” he started to say, but his voice cracked on the second syllable. Embarrassed, he cleared his throat and tried again. “Lissy, so much has changed of late.”
She seemed to be humming with just as much energy as he was. She nodded, her pale locks swaying with the motion. “Yes, I know. Everything has changed. And there is no one with whom I can speak of it but you.”
Yes! He had been going mad, not being able to talk to anyone about his intentions. His school friends would have mocked him for actually wanting to marry, let alone for falling in love. His chest tightened as he reached into his pocket where he had stashed the betrothal ring he had commissioned. As heir to the earldom, there were literally dozens of jewels he could have chosen from, but he hadn’t wanted them. No old family heirlooms for his Felicity; he wanted her to have something created just for her. Opal, surrounded by a cluster of diamonds to represent the moon and stars that he knew she loved so much.
The gold was warm to the touch as his fingers grazed the delicate curve. “I—”
“No, please, I can’t wait another second.” She bit her lip, looking as though she would burst if she didn’t say whatever was within her. “Gavin, I’m in love!”
His ears roared with the surge of exhilaration that washed through him. They were the sweetest words he had ever heard. “Me too,” he rushed to say, relief and elation assailing him in equal parts. All this time, he had been so afraid she wouldn’t return his regard, and here they were, declaring their love for one another. It was like a dream, even better than he had imagined in his very best scenarios.
Her eyes went huge, rounding to the size of twin guineas even as she laughed with delight. “You are? With whom?”
Dering froze like a rabbit in a snare. With whom? The words reverberated through his brain like a ricocheting bullet. If she didn’t think it was her, then that could only mean . . .
She was in love with someone else.
His fingertips went numb as he stared back at her, thunderstruck. “You first,” he said, only barely able to push the words past his lips.
She sighed gustily, her eyes briefly fluttering closed. “Oh Gavin, he’s wonderful. He’s kind and handsome and smart and I haven’t told a soul yet, but we’re getting married!”
The room dimmed from Dering’s vision, fading to gray as he focused on her beautiful, beloved lips and the unbelievable words they had just delivered. “Married?” he whispered.
She nodded, her light brown eyes glittering in the room’s dim candlelight. “He spoke to my father last night, and the announcement is to be made just as soon as the contracts are signed. I’m so happy, Gavin, I could burst.”
As she wrapped her arms around him in an impromptu hug, her scent enveloped him, that soft hint of gardenia that had taunted his dreams for years, and he breathed it in even as the shock numbed his thoughts.
She was getting married. She’d soon belong to another man, and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it. If she was being forced, that would be one thing, but she had uttered the one phrase that could keep him from declaring himself, consequences be damned.
She was in love. Felicity was in love, and it wasn’t with him.
He had missed his chance after all.