…Six geese a laying…
Olivia came to an abrupt halt on the edge of the ballroom. The six gossiping geese were huddled together in a colorful circle. Honestly, her cousin Gertie should stay away from that particular shade of yellow. It made her hair look even more orange.
One of the girls sent a quick glance in Olivia’s direction and nudged Lizzie. They really did resemble a little flock. The thought made her smile. Six geese a laying, rather appropriate given the season.
She spied a flash of green across the ballroom. Since her reputation had been shredded, thanks in large part to her cousin Gertie, Lizzie and the rest of the geese, Dinah was one of the few women still talking to her. Olivia frowned. It had been a fortnight since she’d seen Dinah. Her friend didn’t appear to be well. Concerned, Olivia headed in her direction.
“Would you look at her?” Lizzie snickered in a stage whisper. “She’s dressed in green. Shouldn’t she be wearing something more appropriate? Like scarlet.”
The rest of the geese tittered. Brainless lot, the whole bunch of them.
Olivia had half a mind to snatch Lizzie’s blond head bald and inform her that Lizzie’s drunken brother Percy was the reason Olivia’s reputation was in shreds. As if she’d ever willingly have anything to do with that wastrel!
She ducked her head, intending to hurry past them, but came to a dead stop when a handsome figure across the room caught her eye.
Lizzie had spotted him as well. The other woman turned her gem bright eyes on Olivia. With a swish of bronze skirts she crossed the short distance to Olivia.
“Too bad Andrew’s discovered you’re something of a soiled dove.”
Olivia raised her chin and met Lizzie’s gaze with her own. “You wasted no time running to him with your lies.”
Lizzie didn’t even have the grace to flush. “Actually, it was his father I gave the distressing news. Lord Randall couldn’t very well have his only son, his heir, married to a woman of your base nature.”
Olivia fought back the hurt Lizzie’s words inflicted.
Lizzie gave a tiny toss of her beautifully coifed head and smiled. “If you’ll excuse me, Olivia. I see a handsome man in need of consoling, now that he’s learned the shocking truth about his former betrothed.”
Unable to bear the sight of Andrew with Lizzie in his arms, Olivia started again toward her friend, Dinah.
She was almost to the other woman when a masculine hand took hold of hers.
Andrew tried to maneuver around debutants and mothers occupied with looking for a title—he had a feeling the man who came with it was incidental. After several very long minutes he was free of enough of the crush to have a look around.
Green. He was looking for green. He’d known Olivia Standford since she was a sweet girl with tangles in her hair and a smear of jam on her chin. She’d always favored green.
When their fathers had agreed to their betrothal Olivia told him she wanted to be married at Christmastime.
She smiled, her sapphire eyes alight with mischief. “If we’re married at Christmas my bride’s maids can wear green.”
She was wearing a dark pink gown at the time. “When my sister married,” he teased “her bride’s maids wore pink. Are you certain you wouldn’t rather--”
Olivia laughed, a sound that always lightened his cares and brightened his day.
“Men. It’s a wonder you can see the nose on your face. Pricilla’s bride’s maids wore lavender.”
“Did they?” He opened his arms to her and she came willingly. “My love, I can promise you, when the day of our wedding comes I won’t notice anyone but you.”
A throat cleared and he looked over to see Olivia’s aunt.
Olivia’s cheeks flamed, as she dropped her arms and took a step back. She gave him a mischievous wink before turning to face her aunt.
“Gertrude would look beautiful in green, don’t you agree, Aunt Esmeralda?”
His hurt and anger flared when he saw Percy Carroll, the same man his father informed him Olivia been intimate with, take Olivia’s hand.
His throat was so swollen he could barely swallow. The last thing he wanted was to smile and make polite, meaningless conversation with Lord Carroll’s youngest daughter.
“You simply must dance with me,” Lizzie said.
He wasn’t interested, but he couldn’t think of a polite way to extricate himself.
“I should think your dance card would be full,” he said.
Lizzie smiled, showing small, perfect teeth. “I saved this dance for my brother, Percy, but as you can see he’s busy with his lady.”
Olivia’s back was to him, but she and Percy did indeed appear to be occupied. Olivia, he had to remind himself that she was no longer his Olivia, had both hands pressed against Percy’s chest. The youngest of Lord Carroll’s three sons had one arm wrapped around Olivia’s waist, holding her scandalously close.
That the woman who had sworn undying love for him was now making a public display of herself with another man was almost more than he could bear.
Lizzie again held out her hand. Andrew took it.
Olivia pushed against Percy’s chest. “Will you let go of me?”
“And have you run off? I don’t think so.” His arm, already hooked around her waist, pulled her in a little closer.
“No you won’t. Your reputation is already in tatters. Screaming will just call attention to that fact.”
He leaned forward, giving her vulnerable neck a quick, vicious nip.
Olivia bit back a shriek, one hand flying to her neck. Her father would barely speak to her. Her mother had taken to bed for a fortnight after Aunt Esmeralda made a point of filling her mother in on the gossip her own daughter had spread.
“What do you want, Percy? Haven’t you done enough damage?”
She wouldn’t cry in front of him. Percy Carroll was as cruel and self-serving as his younger sister, Lizzie. Any tears she shed would no doubt please him.
“He won’t even spare you a glance, will he?” Percy taunted. “I must say, young Randall doesn’t appear too broken hearted. My sister seems to be doing a fine job of comforting him. I shouldn’t be surprise if they announce their betrothal by the end of the year.”
Her vision blurred. Andrew had been gone when the scandal involving Olivia and Percy was brought to Lord Randall’s attention.
“I believe you and young Randall were to have been married today,” Percy gloated.
She didn’t bother to correct him. They were to have been married the day before, on Christmas Eve. Why hadn’t Lord Randall come to her and asked her for the truth of what happened? Why hadn’t her father listened when she tried to tell him?
“You’re quite ruined now,” Percy said. “There’s only one thing you can do.”
She waited, half-expecting him to announce that her only honorable option was to take her own life.
“You must marry me. No one else will have you.”
His arm slid from around her waist. He pressed his hand against her stomach.
“They make such a lovely couple,” Lizzie sighed. “They are so much in love. It’s so romantic. Olivia’s cousin, Gertrude, and I have been carrying notes between them for the last few months.
“Oh, Andrew, how thoughtless of me. I quite forgot that you and Olivia were to be married. I’m certain she never intended to make a cuckold of you, but of course once they knew about the child—”
“Child!” He had only thought his heart broken before. He and Olivia had often talked about the children they would one day have. He’d longed for a child with her sapphire eyes.
Unbidden his gaze sought her. There she was, still with Percy, his hand on her stomach, as if touching the child they had made together.
Lizzie smiled. “Olivia told me that if it’s a girl, they’re going to name her Elizabeth, after me.”
Andrew stopped in the middle of the waltz, hands dropping to his sides.
Lizzie cast quick, furtive glances around the ballroom. Several of the other couples were openly staring at them.
“Andrew! What are you doing? You’re embarrassing me.”
“And you’re lying to me, pretending you and Olivia are friends.” He shook his head. “She always considered you and your brother to be cruel.”
He began walking across the crowded floor, away from Lizzie, to the spot where he had last seen Olivia.
“Let go of me,” Olivia demanded. Percy had her hand in a relentless grip as he pulled her away from the ballroom to the gardens outside. He tugged her behind the shrubbery.
The first snowflakes were starting to fall. From the ballroom, soft notes drifted on the cold, clear air. It was a beautiful night. Just a month ago she had hoped for a night like this to exchange marriage vows with Andrew.
Olivia tried to tug her hand free. “Why are you doing this? What do you want from me?”
“Why my dear, Olivia, I thought I’d already made that clear. Tonight you and I will announce our betrothal.”
“You’re insane. I loathe you. I would never agree to be your wife.”
“You’ll have no choice when I plead my case to your father. After all, I’m certain Lord Standford has no desire to see his grandchild born a bastard.”
The crack of her palm against his cheek was like the sound of ice giving way beneath a skater.
Percy’s reaction was swift and hard. The side of her face burned with sudden, sharp pain. Lights exploded behind her eyes, even as tears spilled over.
“You listen to me. I’m the third son. In the eyes of my father that makes the clergy my destiny. I’ve no wish for it. You’ll bring more of a dowry than any three women and land besides. You’re Lord Standford’s oldest child and he has no son to leave his estates to. You’ll marry me. My sister will marry Andrew Randall.”
She shook her head, one cool hand pressed to her burning cheek.
“You ruined my reputation so you could force me to marry you?”
“It was Lizzie’s idea. My sister is brilliant and ruthless. She learned that my father was considering marrying her off to Lord Cameron. Ah, I see by the look on your face that you understand her reluctance.”
Lord Cameron’s son had attended the university with Olivia’s father. What was Lord Carroll thinking, marrying his daughter off to a man old enough to be her grandfather?
“My father pointed out that Lord Cameron would most likely die in a year or two, leaving Lizzie a wealthy woman. Of course my sister is accustomed to getting what she wants, and she wanted Andrew Randall.”
“I won’t marry you,” Olivia said again.
“You’ll marry me,” he said confidently.
She took a step back, but Percy moved fast. His fingers bit into her arms as his mouth ground against hers.
Anger propelled Andrew forward. He slammed into Percy Carroll, knocking the other man to the ground. His fingers found their way around Percy’s throat.
Hands pulled at his coat. “Good heavens, Andrew, don’t kill him.” Dimly he recognized his brother-in-law, Jonathan’s, voice. The words might as well have fallen on deaf ears.
A second pair of hands tugged on his coat, and then a third.
“Andrew!” His sister’s voice merged with Olivia’s. It was the latter that stayed his hands.
He rocked back on his heels, watching dispassionately as Percy writhed on the ground, gasping for breath.
He turned his head. Olivia crouched in the garden next to him. “Are you alright?” he asked.
“I never betrayed you, Andrew. Never. Percy and Lizzie made it look like--”
“I know.” He stood slowly, taking her hands in his and bringing her to her feet as well.
“You heard?” Relief filled her voice.
“I heard, but I already knew you hadn’t been unfaithful. I realized that something was happening, something more than meets the eye, when Lizzie said you were with child by her brother, and if the child was a girl you were naming it after her. You never have liked Lizzie.”
“I never liked Percy, either.”
Jonathan chuckled. “I was dancing with my wife when we saw you rush out of the ballroom as if hell’s hounds were after you. Pricilla advised me to follow and keep you out of trouble.”
Andrew gave Olivia’s hands a squeeze. “We’re a day late,” he said.
“A day late?”
“For our wedding. The bans have already been posted. I know it’s not the wedding you would have imagined but I don’t want to wait. I came too close to losing you.” He let go of her hands and cupped her face.
“My dearest, Olivia, my love. Tonight, with my sister and her husband as witnesses, will you speak the words in front of God and man?”
She nodded, tears shining in her eyes.
Pricilla laughed. “Jonathan, you’d best go fetch the parson. It appears we’re to have a wedding this very night. And while you’re at it, you might fetch Lord and Lady Standford as well. No doubt they’d like to be at their daughter’s wedding.”
Jonathan placed a quick kiss on her brow. “Forgetting someone, my love?”
Pricilla canted her head to the side. “Am I?”
Andrew and Olivia spoke their vows in the garden, in front of a handful of family. Olivia had no doubt her new sister would spread word of the marriage before the night was over.
For now, as they settled into the carriage that would take them to Andrew’s townhouse, she was content to lean against her husband’s shoulder.
“I should have insisted on speaking to you,” Andrew said. “I let my hurt and anger--”
She pressed her fingers against his lips. “Don’t speak of it. Tonight is our wedding night. I wish only to hear how much you love me.”
As their carriage rocked down the London road, and the first day of Christmas gave way to the next, Andrew whispered to his new bride how much he loved her.
Please join us tomorrow for Seven swans a swimming