Authors: True Colours
‘Don’t say a word!’ James ordered as he heard Alicia draw breath to speak. ‘Hear me out and then you may say whatever you wish, but do not, I beg you, refuse my offer of marriage before it is even made!’
Unusually persuadable, Alicia remained silent, and after a moment James’s stern demeanour relaxed slightly, although he did not let go of her hand.
‘On the first occasion that I proposed to you, Alicia, you accepted me without question. Things were very easy then—you knew that I loved you and you trusted me. A lot has happened since then to dispel that love and trust, but I can only hope that it’s not too late and that you do still care for me.’ He took a deep breath. ‘Because, whatever has happened, I know that I have always loved you. I might have pretended otherwise—I tried very hard to convince myself I disliked you—but in the end I knew it was not true. Now
is what I should have said when I proposed to you last time and I beg you to believe me, because you have put me to an unconscionable amount of trouble just to find you and say it!’
That sounded more like the real James, Alicia thought as, suddenly shy, she concentrated on one of the large mother-of-pearl buttons on his driving coat. Looking up after a moment, she saw that he was watching her with unwonted seriousness.
‘If you are really sure…’ she said hesitantly, and was swept into his arms in a way which left no room for doubts.
A breathless, shaken time later, James let Alicia go sufficiently to turn her in the direction of the village and start walking.
‘I almost forgot…’ The wicked smile was back in his eyes. ‘Our wedding guests will be wondering if you are cutting up rough at my high-handed tactics! No doubt Theo March will be trying to decide how long to wait for us! Come along, before I kiss you again in the middle of the road and scandalise this entire village!’
‘James!’ Alicia stopped dead in the road. ‘You really meant what you said to Miss Frensham, then…you had arranged the wedding before you even asked me?’
‘How many times am I expected to ask?’ James enquired with perfect reasonableness. ‘Twice you have rejected my suit with no consideration for my feelings and I did not intend to give you the chance to do so a third time!’
‘And now,’ Alicia said, looking down at her crumpled green travelling dress with disfavour, ‘I am expected to get married in this, and I don’t doubt that I look a shocking fright!’
James removed a leaf from her hair. ‘Indeed, my love, you look delightful! You had all the traditional trappings of a wedding at your marriage to George Carberry—this time I hope you will accept that the advantages of the groom far outweigh any superficial considerations of dress or decoration!’
‘How obviously complacent you are,’ Alicia marvelled, trying to sound cross. ‘And to think I have not even said that I love you!’
James gave her a look which made her retreat a step. ‘Not in so
many words,’ he said thoughtfully as he followed her, ‘but I am reasonably certain! Perhaps, however, I should put it to the test—’
Alicia warded him off with both hands. ‘I am content to admit it!’ she said, with a wary look for an old crone who had emerged from the nearest cottage and was eyeing them suspiciously. ‘Save your demonstrations for later, when we do not have an audience!’
As they approached the lichened church, the carriage from Ottery Manor could be seen drawing up at the lych-gate. Alicia stopped again.
‘Yes, Alicia?’ There was a sudden tension in his voice as though he expected that she was about to change her mind.
‘When we are married, may we go and see my grandmother straight away? I feel that I have neglected her of late, leaving her alone to hear of Christopher’s arrest and now this…I don’t want her to hear from anyone else that we are married!’
‘Of course.’ Tension had given way to amusement in his voice. ‘We will go up to London at once—but I hope you do not intend to stay long, for I have other plans for our honeymoon!’ He stopped to kiss her again. ‘Well, maybe we won’t go immediately,’ he said thoughtfully, when they had stopped for breath, ‘for I also have other plans for tonight!’
He let her go at last very reluctantly. ‘We must see if we can get as far as the church,’ he finished, a little huskily. ‘I have had a special licence burning a hole in my pocket for four days now and if we do not manage to get married soon I cannot answer for the consequences!’
He took her hand and they completed the final thirty yards to the church gate. Theo March was waiting in the church doorway, and his anxious face broke into a smile as he saw the two of them.
‘James, my boy! Alicia! I was so glad when James told me…And thrilled to be able to be of service…’ He looked at their radiant expressions. ‘No need to ask you if you are sure,’ he said comfortably, ‘for it is written all over your faces!’ A slight frown of puzzlement touched his features. ‘It’s strange,’ he reflected thoughtfully, ‘for when you met at the vicarage I was sure you did not even like each other. Yet now…’
Alicia, glancing at James a little shyly, saw that he was smiling. He took her hand again. ‘We were just extremely good at hiding our feelings, sir!’
Theo beamed. ‘So even then…’
‘Yes, sir,’ James said, giving Alicia a look which made her feel both warm and dizzy at the same time. ‘Even then!’
The Dowager Countess of Stansfield was feeling disconsolate. The news of Christopher Westwood’s criminal activities had quite overset her and, to make matters worse, Alicia had chosen to bury herself in the depths of Somerset without a word. Only that morning, Mrs Eddington-Buck, in the most gently malicious of terms, had hinted that Alicia’s reputation was now so tarnished that she doubted Alicia would ever dare return to Town. Lady Stansfield had given her the rightabout, but when the outraged matron had left she had slumped back in her chair, feeling sick at heart.
She stabbed viciously at her embroidery to give relief to her feelings. To think that she had been driven to take up needlework to pass the time, she who was used to so many more exciting occupations! But there was no Christopher Westwood now to flatter and cajole, no Alicia to bring light and youth into her life.
The door of the drawing-room opened softly, but her sharp old ears still caught the butler’s tread.
‘I do not wish to be disturbed, Masters!’ she snapped irascibly. ‘I am at home to no one!’
‘Of course, your ladyship.’ Masters was even more smoothly deferential than Fordyce. ‘However, I am persuaded that you would wish to see the lady and gentleman who are waiting below. Indeed, I have already told them that you will receive them.’
Lady Stansfield stared at him in outraged amazement. Had he taken leave of his senses?
She swelled with wrath. ‘Ho, have you indeed? Well, Masters, you can now go and tell them that I am not at home!’
‘No, madam.’ The butler appeared impervious to her wrath. ‘I am certain that you will make an exception.’ He executed a slight bow, then turned to throw open the drawing-room door with more than his usual aplomb.
The embroidery fell unheeded from Lady Stansfield’s lap as she got to her feet. Alicia ran into her grandmother’s arms. She was followed across the room by James Mullineaux with the broadest smile on his face that Masters thought he had ever seen. Not to be outdone, he cleared his throat with great deliberation.
‘The Marquis and Marchioness of Mullineaux!’ he announced grandly.
Copyright © 1998 by Nicola Cornick.
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