My True Love Gave to Me
…seven swans a’swimming…
Lord David Barrington, Duke of Alford, swigged his port in disgust. On one side, Richard, Viscount Tetterly spoke of his upcoming nuptials as if his bride-to-be was a prized mare ripe for breeding. David could only discern that the miss in question was one of the Swann sisters, though he’d heard nothing of a betrothal. He shuddered at the thought of having to marry off seven women. He had only his sister, Cecile, to be concerned with. Ceecy was friendly with the Swanns. Surely she would have mentioned a wedding if one was in the offing.
He’d watched the family’s entrance earlier—Lord John Swann, the Earl of Cockswood, and his lady leading their flock of seven swans a’swimming through this social pond.
As much as he disliked the subject, truth be told, it was the only reason he was here for this forsaken parade of marriageable maids plumped and primed by their predatory mothers. He’d retreated to the card room to get away from the lot of them—only to be caught up in the discussion from the other side of the coin.
“What say you, your Grace?” Tetterly called for his attention.
Brow furrowed, David stared at the man. “I say you’d be wiser to mind your cards than gossiping like that gaggle of geese in the ballroom.”
The men at the card table chuckled earnestly though David suspected his title had more to do with their appreciation than any wit he might possess. He stared at the men around the table and despaired of ever finding a husband for Ceecy. The girl remained convinced she would make a love match—hopeless romantic that she was. He would be satisfied with a man who would simply take care of her in a manner that wouldn’t force him to be involved.
“Speaking of…” Tetterly tossed his cards to the table. “I should make inquiry after my intended. Lady Georgette needs a firm hand.”
The man pushed out of the chair he’d occupied with some effort and snatched a cane. “She will need to attend me this evening rather than dancing.”
Tetterly limped out, leaning heavily on the walking stick, as David exchanged looks with Lord Drake.
“The man’s a bit presumptuous. He hasn’t pressed suit with Cockswood and from what I know of the Swann sisters, Lady Georgette will stamp that pretty foot of hers and convince her father to say no. Headstrong, the lot of them. Why else would they all remain unmarried?”
Why else, indeed. Perhaps David should restrict Ceecy’s access to the Swanns. He swallowed a rather grumpy sigh and turned to leave. He needed to find his sister to ensure she was behaving herself. His need had nothing to do with the lurch in his stomach at the mention of Lady Georgette—most definitely not.
Lady Georgette Swann clung to Edwina’s hand—not out of nerves but to keep her twin sister from the dance floor. “You cannot leave me yet, Edie. You promised! Lord Tetterly is over there, and I know he is looking for me. I shall quite faint if Father accepts him.”
Edie snorted. “You? Faint? That is about as likely to happen as Father finding us all husbands tonight. What scheme have you concocted now?”
“I know the odious man. He’ll claim me and force me to sit by his side to keep him company. Drat that he can’t just go to the card room and stay there for the evening. He is unable to dance since his injury at Lord Drake’s hunting party. Mister Granby is here, and I so want to dance with him. He’s positively incomparable, Edie.” She sighed for dramatic effect. “I do wish Nicholas was more acceptable to Father.”
Her sister made a sound of disgust. “Why would you want him, Georgie? He’s a second son and his family seems to balance perpetually on the edge of poverty. At least Lord Tetterly has prospects.”
“But he’s old, Edie.” She shuddered. “Please? Go pretend to be me and keep the viscount occupied. I promise to relieve you before long.”
Edie held up her glove-clad wrist. Her dance card, more than half-filled, dangled from it. “How many names do we share?” She sighed as Georgie smiled in triumph.
“As if any of them can actually tell us apart. You are a good egg, Edie. I promise to see you dance with the most handsome man in attendance before the night is through.”
They both glanced over to find Lord Tetterly weaving awkwardly through the throng toward them. Edie flashed her a long-suffering look before plastering a smile on her face and turning to the man as Georgie made her escape.
Mister Granby—Nicholas—had claimed her card for a dance upon their arrival. She scanned the room and discovered him headed toward Edie and Lord Tetterly. She moved to intercept him.
Touching his arm to gain his attention, she smiled up at him. “Mister Granby? I do believe this is our dance?”
Granby glanced between her and her twin, now perched on the edge of the chair next to the viscount. “I…forgive me, Lady Edwina, but I thought you held me in little regard.”
Georgie formed a little moue with her mouth. “Shhh. It’s me. Georgie.” His gaze warmed as he took her hand and whisked her onto the dance floor.
David, standing in the shadows near the wall, glared at his sister as she huddled between the Swann twins. The three of them giggled conspiring behind the flutter of their fans. Over the course of several seasons, he’d found himself studying the twin Swanns—for purely academic reasons, he assured himself. He continued his scrutiny as they’d danced with various men during the course of the ball. They looked to be identical in every way, from the rose-colored gowns they wore to their dark hair swept up into knots on their heads. When they turned their heads in the candlelight, he caught flashes of fire in their locks. He’d discovered the color of their eyes—two differing shades of moss though flecks of gold highlighted each pair.
“You left Lady Georgette quite flustered after your dance, Granby. Plan to claim her for another?”
Three young bucks gathered on the other side of a pillar, and David couldn’t help but overhear them.
“I plan to do more than that. Should her father catch us in a compromising position, he’ll be forced to give her hand to me rather than Lord Tetterly. Lord Cockswood has no male heirs and his title is unentailed. He can name an heir. I should, as his son-in-law, stand a good chance of gaining the earldom.”
“Ha! That’s an unlikely gamble, Granby,” the third man interjected. “In fact, we should wager on your chances.”
The first chuckled, and the sound grated on David’s nerves. This was why he hated society and longed to see Ceecy successfully married so he could return to the quiet environs of Alford Hall.
“I’ll take that bet,” Granby piped up. “I have a far better chance of marrying the Lady Georgette than you do of pressing your suit for Lady Cecile’s hand.”
David straightened, and as the orchestra had begun to play again, stepped closer. He didn’t want to miss a word of this conversation.
Georgie had hurried up the stairs to the ladies’ retiring room in order to avoid spending more time with Lord Tetterly. The man was an absolute bore. Hunting, his wealth, and his ability at cards were the only things he spoke of. She knew he planned to speak to her father soon to arrange the nuptials. For a brief moment, she considered causing a scandal to avoid marriage to the odious man. In truth, she could not condemn her sisters by any such rash action on her part.
Since Lord Tetterly tottered about on a cane, she hoped to avoid him for the rest of the evening, or at least play cat and mouse with him chasing after both her and Edie. Resigned to her fate, she returned to the house’s first floor.
Entering the ballroom, she spied Edwina in the arms of a most striking man. She didn’t recognize him for a moment until Lady Cecile appeared at her side.
“They make a handsome couple, yes?”
“Who is that?” Georgie was curious and more than a little jealous.
Ceecy laughed gaily and tapped Georgie’s shoulder with her folded fan. “That’s David, my brother.”
Georgie gulped. “Your brother? Lord Alford?” How had she missed realizing how handsome he was before tonight?
“Indeed, the one and only Duke of Alford. He looks to be quite enjoying himself in Edie’s company.”
The music ended, the dancing couples bowed and curtsied, and Lord Alford escorted Edwina back to them. He bowed slightly before Georgie.
“Would you perhaps have an empty space on your dance card, Lady Georgette?”
The music, a lively quadrille, started before she could answer, and she found herself swept out onto the dance floor. She was quite shocked but delighted at the same time. Georgie had always considered Ceecy’s brother to be something of a staid old curmudgeon. She was elated to discover she’d been wrong.
His eyes flashed like sapphires, and a strand of dark hair fell across his forehead in a way that enticed her to brush it aside. She avoided the temptation as the dance steps required her to move away from the duke.
“Stay away from him,” her next partner growled.
Georgie blinked the stars from her eyes to realize she was now, however briefly, partnered with Nicholas Granby and that Lord Alford danced with Edie. The flow of the dance returned her to the duke’s arms, and she inhaled deeply. He smelled of wood smoke and port, of something deeper and more primal that curled through her, filling her lungs and making it hard to breathe.
She glanced up at him, and he appeared to be as dazed as she felt. Goodness but he was tall. And strong. And so very, very handsome. Her heart fluttered, causing her to miss a step, but he held her securely, smoothing over her mistake while never taking his gaze from her face.
When the music stopped—much to her chagrin—she didn’t move, reluctant to leave the warm haven presented by the duke’s presence. He’d mesmerized her. A brittle cough drew her attention.
“Ahem, Lady Georgette. I require your presence, if you would be so good.”
Startled, she jerked at the displeasure in that voice. Lord Tetterly. Only he was speaking to Edie. Who’d been dancing with Mister Granby. The man couldn’t tell them apart. Before either she or her sister could react, the viscount had taken Edie’s arm and hustled her away from the erstwhile suitor. Confused, Granby stared from her and then at her sister’s retreating back. Good heavens, he couldn’t tell them apart either.
“Perhaps some air, m’lady.” The duke’s voice urged her away, as did his warm hand on her elbow.
Somewhere between the ballroom and the terrace, the duke had procured her a cloak. Settling it about her shoulders, he captured her hand in the crook of his elbow and led her outside.
“That’s quite a game you have going with the Lady Edwina.”
His voice sounded grave, and she jerked her eyes up to gauge his expression. “How do you know I’m not Edwina?” she challenged. Oh, the smile curling his full lips quite overwhelmed her.
“Unlike the dolts who have set their eyes on your prize, I pay attention. You are nothing like your sister, Lady Georgette.”
Her chest ached as she tried to inhale. The look on his face left no doubt in her mind. He knew. He could tell them apart. Something eased around her heart. He lowered his head, and her eyelids fluttered shut as she arched up on her tiptoes to meet him.
Dash it all. What the bloody blazes was he thinking, kissing the girl out here, away from chaperones, leaving them both as fodder for the gossiping geese should anyone spy them. Why should he care? A scent that reminded him of spring in the gardens at Alford Hall wafted in the air. Georgie. He would forever think of springtime when he caught her scent—and the turnabout was true. Springtime would forever remind him of the girl in his arms. She was quite curvy—no lithe slip of a girl that could break in a man’s embrace. Her heart-shaped face appeared ethereal and angelic beneath the moon.
And her eyes. Dark green like spring moss and flecked with precious gold. He’d been reminded once more of how delightful they looked as they danced. That and the tiny birthmark behind her right ear. He’d checked the spot on Lady Edwina as he danced with her earlier, and she bore none.
Not that he needed such proof to tell the sisters apart. His heart would know the Lady Georgette anywhere. Quite gobsmacked by his feelings, he pulled her closer, his arms snaking beneath her cloak to touch her warmth. His mouth devoured the sweetness of her, and heat flared as his blood all rushed to his groin. He’d never in all his thirty-two years felt this way.
Breathless, she broke their kiss but made no move to back away.
“My lord,” she sighed. She gazed up at him, and he could see the stars shining in her eyes.
“I don’t quite know what came over me,” he began. Her face fell, and he hastened to return a smile to her mien. “I’m a quiet man, Georgie—m’lady. I’ve purposely avoided society but for the need to find a husband for Cecile.”
Her lips quivered though she swallowed hard and blinked, fighting her emotions.
“Oh my darling girl, don’t you see? You’ve quite undone me. I find myself craving your touch. Your kisses. The gift of your smile. I am not a man who believes in romance but I fear my heart has betrayed me for it is quite sure it wants no one but you.”
Georgie looked puzzled, her forehead furrowed so adorably he discovered he was incapable of resisting. He planted a kiss between her brows.
“I…what are you saying, your Grace?”
“David. Will you call me David, my darling Georgie? You’ve quite won my heart over, dearest one, and I want to marry you.”
Her countenance lightened and a smile curled her bow-shaped mouth—her most kissable mouth. He leaned down and claimed it for his own, and he decided in that moment that no man save him would ever claim this lovely swan. Georgie was his, just as soon as he asked—no, not asked—demanded Cockswood give his daughter’s hand in marriage. If he had his way, they’d waive the bans before the start of the new year.
“I’ve fallen in love with you, Georgie Swann.”
“Oh, your Grace…David. I love you, too.”
Join us again tomorrow for Chapter Eight of My True Love Gave to Me...