Lady Vivian Defies a Duke

By: Samantha Grace

Chapter Two

Vivi sent her maid downstairs to inform the other servants of Lord Ellis’s impending arrival. Meanwhile, she wanted to check in on Cousin Patrice, who had been ill since yesterday.

She knocked on Patrice’s door and strained to hear a response. Easing the door open, she slipped inside and waited for her eyes to adjust to the dusky light.

“May I come in?”

“Vivi,” her cousin croaked then coughed with such violence, Vivi feared she might expel a lung.

She rushed to the side table to pour a glass of water. “Oh for heaven’s sake. Where is Bea? You shouldn’t be left alone.”

Patrice struggled to prop herself up on the bed pillows. Her breathing sounded ragged in the silence of the chamber. Perhaps Vivi should have the doctor retrieved again. “I sent Bea away,” Patrice said.

“Whatever were you thinking?” Vivi lifted the glass to her cousin’s lips to allow her a small sip. “You need her help.”

Patrice waved her off when she tried to give her another drink. “Bea is just a girl and frightened out of her wits. Besides, her mumblings about me dying and coming back to haunt her were beginning to annoy me.”

Vivi replaced the glass on the side table and huffed. “Silly girl and her ridiculous superstitions. Why, if you were to haunt anyone, I would think it would be that dreadful Mrs. Honeywell.”

Patrice’s chuckle quickly turned into another bout of hacking into her handkerchief. Vivi stepped forward to assist, but there was nothing she could do. When her cousin could breathe again, she rested her head against the pillows and closed her eyes. “You mustn’t speak that way about the good lady.”

Vivi saw nothing redeeming in Mrs. Honeywell. She was a tyrant who lorded her husband’s status as the largest landholder in the area over everyone in the village. In addition, she had been holding Vivi’s family hostage for nearly two Seasons, offering to keep Vivi’s secret in exchange for an invitation to stay with Ash and his wife in London. Vivi’s sister-in-law had been so angry about being burdened with the busybody’s company that she had refused to allow Vivi to join them. Not that she had any desire to spend more time with Mrs. Honeywell. Vivi had had quite enough of the woman’s meddling the rest of the year.

Mrs. Honeywell also possessed an unnatural interest in Patrice’s affairs. What care was it of hers if Vicar Ramsey called on Vivi’s cousin more than he did on his other parishioners? Didn’t the Bible charge Christians with the duty to visit the widowed? She couldn’t be certain—her mind did tend to wander during the vicar’s uninspiring sermons—but it sounded like a reasonable charge to her. Something that should be in the Bible if it wasn’t.

“Remember what the vicar says about turning the other cheek,” Patrice said.

Vivi lowered her gaze to give the appearance of contrition, but the gossipmonger could go jump in a lake for all she cared. “Forgive me for speaking out of turn, Cousin.”

“Thank you, dearest. I’m pleased my lessons in humility are not going unheeded.”

She repressed a sigh. She owed much to her cousin. Humility seemed a small price to pay in return. Patrice had devoted the last ten years to Vivi’s well-being, educating her and showering her with the affection she had lost after her parents died and her brother married. Vivi might have been sent to the convent as soon as her brother’s bride moved into Ashden House if not for Patrice’s plea to allow Vivi to live with her.

She swallowed around the large lump forming in her throat. No matter how many sacrifices Patrice made for her, they seemed to be made in vain. Vivi inherently disappointed everyone who cared for her.

Patrice weakly patted her hand. “Did you need something?”

She looked away, unable to meet her cousin’s eye. Her gaze landed on a welcome distraction, a stack of unopened correspondence on the writing desk. “Would you like me to sort your post?”

She started for the desk, but Patrice stopped her with a touch to her arm. “The post can wait until I am well. I should rest now, dearest.”

“Of course. Forgive me.” Vivi placed a kiss on Patrice’s forehead then turned for the door.

“Oh, Vivi?”

She stopped at the doorway and looked back over her shoulder. Patrice already had her eyes closed.

“Thank you for discussing next week’s menu with Cook. I am certain Lord Ellis will have a pleasant stay.”

“It’s my pleasure,” she mumbled.

Patrice sank against the pillows with a serene smile. “If your brother could see you, he would be proud.”

Her brother could visit her any time he wished. He had chosen to keep his distance since the incident with Owen.

Her cousin’s eyes fluttered open and she studied Vivi. “It is hard to believe you were once the high-spirited girl who arrived on my doorstep long ago. You have transformed into a beautiful lady. The duke will be delighted.”

Vivi slipped into the corridor without responding. She had become too good at hiding her true nature from Patrice. She was exactly the same hoyden who had arrived on her cousin’s doorstep, a pretender who had been caught in a lie by the one man she needed most to convince she was a lady.

***

A bright, white flash and deafening crack split the air.

“Damnation!”

Luke Forest, the Duke of Foxhaven, gripped his horse’s reins tighter. The hairs on his arms stood on end and his heart raced.

Another bolt of lightning struck a nearby tree, splintering the upper trunk. Thor jerked and nearly unseated him. He held fast, his legs clutching the horse’s quivering sides.

“You’re not afraid of a little lightning, are you?”

Deep-throated thunder rumbled the ground, earning an uneasy whinny from the horse.

“I’m not fond of it either.” Luke straightened in the saddle and urged Thor into a trot. It might be treacherous to hurry along the rutted lane in fading light, but no more dangerous than riding in a thunderstorm.

A gust of wind ripped his hat from his head, but another blinding flash and concurrent explosion discouraged him from turning back for it. Rain saturated what had been left of his dry hair and dripped into his ear. He must look like a drowned rat by this point. Certainly, he was less appealing than the water sprite he had come across earlier.

Silly chit. She either had no sense of direction, or else she had purposefully misled him as punishment for disturbing her swim. It was a good thing he had come across another gentleman on the road who was able to provide better instructions than “go that way.”

Of course, if Luke had followed her directions, he would be safely ensconced in the White Wolf Inn enjoying a thick steak and a tankard of ale. But where was the thrill in playing it safe? If he were to die, at least it would be on his terms. No chance of death catching him unaware today.

Lights flickered through the trees; shelter from the storm was close. As they rounded the bend, a house lit up like a fireworks display loomed in the distance. He grinned. This must be Brighthurst House, and the likely employer of the mischievous water sprite.

Too bad he wouldn’t have enough time to deal with the impertinent wench, but he was at Brighthurst for one purpose only. He would see this arrangement between him and the Marquess of Ashden’s sister dissolved as quickly as possible and return to London to finalize his arrangements with Captain Pendry. His task, however, was of a sensitive nature and required finesse. It was better for him to speak with Lady Vivian in person rather than entrusting his friend, Ellis, to handle the matter.

He had his father’s legacy to consider, but Lady Vivian’s welfare was at stake as well. She was an innocent in this situation. She didn’t deserve to be caught in the middle of a battle between Luke and her brother. In their last audience, her brother had vowed to call Luke out and declare his father a liar if he refused to honor the marriage settlement, a worthless threat given Ashden was more versed in Latin and antiquities than weaponry. Luke would win in a duel easily, his father would be exonerated, and yet Lady Vivian’s reputation would be in tatters.

What had his father been thinking to enter into negotiations with a man who would put his pride before his sister?

Luke had been mulling over his father’s covert actions often lately, and he was inclined to agree with his mother’s companion, Johanna Truax. This arranged marriage had been one more attempt by his father to force him into becoming what he was incapable of being. Father had refused to accept the truth about him. Luke hadn’t been the same since his accident, and no amount of browbeating could make him regain what he had lost. If not for his brother, Richard, at the helm this last year, Luke didn’t know what would have become of his family.

He didn’t wish to drag another person into his disordered life. This ridiculous betrothal could go away quietly if Lady Vivian’s brother was a reasonable man, but he wasn’t. The marquess had refused to listen to reason, but perhaps an appeal from his sister would sway him.

As Luke rode up to the house, a groom ran to greet him. He shouted instructions and handed over Thor’s reins. The driving rain drowned out the man’s response as he led Thor to the stables straightaway.

Luke bounded up the stairs, and the front door of Brighthurst House swung open. A butler waved him inside.

He bowed low. “Welcome to Brighthurst—”

“I’m flooding Lady Brighthurst’s floor, my good man. Save the pleasantries for another day.”

The man drew back, clearly aghast at his brusque manner. Luke was more concerned about ruining his hostess’s home than observing the pomp and circumstance associated with his station or shocking the butler.

He tugged off his gloves and handed them to the servant. Two footmen hurried forward, one to remove his drenched jacket and the other to extend a towel.

“Thank you. Now if you would kindly show me to my quarters so I might make myself presentable.”

The butler’s shaggy gray brows shot upward, but he nodded to one of the footmen. “Do you have no trunks, sir?”

Had he arrived before his valet and trunks again? Luke must have a discussion with his driver about dallying. Now he was in a predicament. He couldn’t request an audience with Lady Brighthurst and her charge in his sorry state, but he didn’t wish to tarry longer than necessary either. “Perhaps my staff took shelter from the storm. I expect my personal belongings will arrive tomorrow.”

The butler’s gaze swept over him as if he was trying to puzzle out what type of man traveled in the middle of a thunderstorm. The servant’s placating smile indicated he thought Luke was a tad unhinged.

“Very good, sir. I will locate a change of clothing for you to wear for dinner. Lady Brighthurst kept her late husband’s wardrobe.”

Luke hesitated rather than follow the footman above stairs. Perhaps before the loss of his father, he wouldn’t have blinked an eye at the butler’s suggestion. “Are there no other options for attire? I don’t wish to give the good lady a shock by arriving for our interview in Lord Brighthurst’s jacket.”

The servant nodded his understanding. “I fear her ladyship is indisposed and unable to receive you this evening.”

Luke suppressed a sigh. He had hoped to get to the business at hand and return to Town no later than tomorrow. “How long do you expect Lady Brighthurst will be unavailable?”

“It is difficult to say. She has taken to her bed with a chill.”

Devil take it. “I see. Please, extend my wishes for a speedy recovery.”

“Lady Vivian will fulfill her ladyship’s hostess duties this evening. She has asked me to inform you dinner will be served at eight.”

“Extend my appreciation to Lady Vivian. I look forward to dining with the lady this evening.”

He had desired her kinswoman’s blessing before speaking alone with Lady Vivian, but obviously she had been accommodating enough to procure it for him.

Accommodating and amiable. Luke had no objections to those qualities. It was the words obedient, docile, and domesticated her brother had used to describe her that left him unsettled. If Luke valued those characteristics, he could get a dog.

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