Lady Vivian Defies a Duke

By: Samantha Grace

Chapter Three


Vivi’s maid tipped her head to the side as she studied Vivi’s reflection in the looking glass. “If Lady Brighthurst thought she didn’t recognize you earlier…”

The conversation with Patrice had given Vivi an idea. She had to try something to salvage her situation, and she had nothing more to lose.

At best, Lord Ellis would return to London with reports of her eccentricity. Being considered eccentric, however, was preferable to being labeled a scandalous hoyden who swam in her unmentionables and sent gentlemen to their deaths by stranding them in storms.

As long as she didn’t take things too far… She didn’t want the distinguished title of Batty Lady Vivian bestowed on her either. She turned to the side to view her disguise from a different angle and frowned. She walked a thin line. Donning the former Lady Brighthurst’s red pouf wig practically screamed Bedlam candidate.

“What is your opinion?”

Her maid shrugged. “It’s not bad.”

In truth, the coiffure was hideous. But after searching every old trunk in the attic, the pouf—adorned with a life-size faux peahen nestled in the curls as if the bird took to roost—was the closest to normal she and Winnie could find. How very telling of the former countess’s fashion sense, or lack thereof.

“Should I trim the top again?” her maid asked.

Vivi shook her head and knocked herself off balance. She grabbed on to Winnie to steady herself, and they both had a fit of nervous giggles.

Earlier Winnie had wrestled the bird from its perch then trimmed two inches from the height of the pouf with a set of garden shears borrowed from the greenhouse. It was still a ridiculous creation that shot into the air like the Tower of Babel, but any more alterations and the wire frame underneath would show.

Their laughter died down and Vivi turned around slowly, testing the weight of the hair monstrosity. “If this abomination doesn’t hide my identity, at least it will distract Lord Ellis from looking too closely at my face.”

Winnie grinned. “And if not, falling flat on your bum should divert his attention. Although I am not sure you want him looking too closely down there either.”

Vivi moved to her dressing table to hide her embarrassment. “I told you, he didn’t see anything.”

“Indeed. He was a perfect gentleman.”

“He was.”

She didn’t know the reason she defended the man, but he had behaved with gentlemanly restraint, for the most part.

Winnie pried the lid off a tin of Patrice’s rouge, poked her finger into the jar, and with a grimace, applied the color to Vivi’s lips. “If this doesn’t work, your betrothed will receive an earful from the earl.”

“It has to work.” Vivi rose from her seat and smoothed her hands over her skirts. “Lord Ellis cannot realize it was me he saw today.”

Her maid held out a fan. “Wave it in front of your face often to obscure his view.”

“Brilliant suggestion.” She accepted the offering and walked from her chambers as quickly as the wig would allow.

As she glided down the curved staircase, she refused to acknowledge Saunders’s quizzical glance. The butler would likely report her odd fashion choice to Patrice later, but he knew his place and kept his opinions quiet. She would tell Patrice the truth once her cousin was well.

If she asked.

Or if Vivi’s plan failed.

Picking up her pace, she made her way to the formal dining room, her skirts whispering around her ankles. She had never cared for the dining room. It was self-important and stuffy, but appropriate for a visiting nobleman. Most importantly, the dining room housed a long table that was unsuited for prolonged discussions or thorough inspections of one’s dining partner. If she made it through the meal without Lord Ellis becoming wise to her, she would collapse with relief once she reached her chambers again. The moment the earl continued on his journey couldn’t come soon enough.

Dim light spilled from the opened doorway of the dining room and onto the polished marble floor. At the threshold, she paused. The servants had followed her directions nicely, leaving the room cast in shadows.

She ventured into the dining room, intent upon reaching the seat farthest from the door so her guest had no need to pass by her. Her gaze traveled to the mantel clock. She had fifteen minutes left to gather her wits.

“Lady Vivian, I presume?” The rich timbre vibrated within her chest, sending shock waves quaking through her arms and legs.

“Oh!” Vivi recoiled then shot her hands out for balance.

Lord Ellis was standing beside his chair. His quick blue eyes narrowed. “You are Lady Vivian, are you not?”

“Yes.” She snapped the fan open and fluttered it in front of her face as much to hide her identity as to cool her scorched cheeks. He was early again! A most unbecoming habit. “I didn’t see you there.”

She lowered her head and dashed past his seat.

“Perhaps the servants should light the chandelier,” he said.

Her lips strained with the effort of forcing a smile as she assumed her place at the table. “That would be wasteful, wouldn’t you agree?”

He nodded thoughtfully. “Quite right, Lady Vivian. How sensible of you.”

A frisson of pleasure rippled through her until she recognized his compliment was tainted by sarcasm. Sinking into her seat, she noted with satisfaction that the massive arrangement erected between them blocked him from her view. The earl would have a devil of a time seeing her through the floral jungle.

“Lady Vivian?” Lord Ellis leaned to the side to peer around the peonies. His black hair gleamed in the candlelight and his eyes sparkled. “Ah, there you are. I feared I had lost you for a moment.”

She lifted her arms to allow a footman to drape a napkin over her lap. “I suppose a man of your station expects more of a fuss, but as it is my cousin’s larder and not my own, I didn’t feel at liberty to prepare a lavish affair. Please forgive the oversight.”

“On the contrary. I have been made to feel comfortable at Brighthurst. Your cousin is most gracious.” He disappeared behind the arrangement again as a second footman reached his end of the table with a bottle of wine. He murmured something to the servant before returning his attention to her. “I’m sorry to hear Lady Brighthurst is unable to dine with us this evening.”

“I will convey your regrets. She will be sorry to have missed making your acquaintance.”

The footman serving Lord Ellis headed in her direction, stopped halfway, and then plucked the arrangement from the table.

Vivi stifled a gasp and snatched up her glass of lemonade. She took a long sip, trying to hide and likely failing.

A corner of Lord Ellis’s mouth kicked up. He nodded to the footman. “Lady Vivian appears thirsty. Please refill her glass.”

Once her glass had been refilled, he raised his for a toast. “To Lady Brighthurst and her entertaining kinswoman. May fortune smile upon Brighthurst House and her occupants from this day forward.”

Vivi pressed her lips together before she said something she would regret. He was laughing at her. Maybe not outright, but the humorous ring to his voice and glittering blue eyes were evidence he made sport of her. Her jaw twitched, and she barely noticed the footman placing the bowl of soup in front of her through the red clouding her vision.

Entertaining kinswoman indeed. “I’m not mad,” she blurted.

“No?” He lobbed a crooked grin toward her end of the table. “How delightful to know, my lady.”

***

A servant hurried forward to refill Luke’s wine goblet, but he waved him away. His gaze remained on Lady Vivian. Her answers to his questions had grown cooler and more clipped during the first course. She refused to meet his gaze and often seemed to be attempting to shield her face with a delicate touch of her napkin to her lips or a well-placed hand to her brow.

Did she think him too dense to recognize her from their afternoon encounter?

He didn’t wish to shatter her fantasy, but Lady Vivian would be recognizable even in a beaver hat and mustachio. The relic she wore on her head couldn’t disguise her in the least, if that indeed was her aim.

She was an Incomparable.

And unforgettable.

Had he realized when he had come upon her swimming that she was a lady instead of a maid, he would have practiced more restraint and not peeked. But he had. Long enough to make his blood run hot again as he recalled the vision: The creamy swells of her breasts. The gentle curve of her shoulders. A honey-colored curl plastered to her round cheek.

His body hummed at the prospect of pursuing her. Not that he must pursue the lady, since her brother offered her like a gift to a sultan with no regard for what she might think. The daft man. Luke would never treat his sisters with such callousness.

He loosened his grip on the carved wooden armrests where his finger had molded to the deep grooves and cleared his throat. “Your cousin’s cook is to be praised for this exquisite fare. Is this duck or goose?”

Lady Vivian looked up with a wry smile twisting her full lips.

He glanced down at his plate, realizing too late that he hadn’t touched his braised beef.

“I will pass along your compliment, my lord.” She was kind enough not to call him a dimwit, at least to his face.

He speared a carrot and tried to sort out what was happening here at Brighthurst. Ashden’s sister—if she was indeed his sister and not a maid pretending to be Lady Vivian, which seemed unlikely given her poise and the other servants’ deference to her—did not meet any of his expectations.

She was nothing like the simpering daughters of the ton he had been sidestepping these last few years.

He had wanted to be done with the matter quickly when he had arrived, but damn if he could walk away from the riddle Lady Vivian Worth posed. Captain Pendry’s expedition couldn’t go forward until Luke saw to a few matters, but he couldn’t leave Brighthurst until he had some answers.

He pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed heavily.

“Are you ill?”

Her slightly harassed tone reminded him of his manners. Smoothing his hands over the napkin on his lap, he regained his composure. “Lady Vivian, perhaps we might adjourn to the drawing room after dinner. I have a few inquiries I wish to make.”

“Inquiries?” Even from a distance, the lady’s cheeks looked flushed. She whipped out her ivory fan and waved it, sending tendrils of bronzed hair fluttering at her temples.

“Just a few questions, if you please.” He flashed a smile to show he meant no harm.

She grabbed her drink and slowly drained the contents. When she set the glass down again, she took a long time blotting the napkin to her reddened lips.

Tension coiled in his lower belly. She was either stalling or attempting to drive him to distraction.

“I am afraid I must beg off, sir. My cousin should take part in our interview, and she is abed with a chill. I hope you understand.”

She smiled, appearing too smug by half at deflecting him handily.

“I understand, Lady Vivian.” He would not allow her to dismiss him, however. “I will wait until Lady Brighthurst recovers before conducting my interview.”

The lady’s eyes flew open wide. “Wait? But it could be days. Perhaps a week.”

“Then I must find ways to occupy my time while Lady Brighthurst recovers.” He propped his elbow on the padded armrest. “I’m an early riser. Perhaps I will pay a visit to the dairy barn tomorrow.”

“Why?”

“There is a matter I would like to discuss with one of Lady Brighthurst’s servants, a milkmaid, I believe.” He was teasing her; surely she would realize he knew who she was and give up her ruse. “Of course if I can’t find the chit, I will have to ask Lady Brighthurst in what area of the house she works.”

“Oh.” Lady Vivian stared at him with lips parted. “Oh,” she said again then pushed away from the table.

Luke stood too.

She started for the door. “Forgive me. I really must look in on my kin now.”

The fear in her expression made his stomach pitch. He hadn’t meant to frighten her.

“Lady Vivian.”

She veered away from his outstretched hand. “The servants will provide you with whatever you require. Good evening.”

She dashed through the doorway and disappeared, leaving nothing but the lingering scent of her sweet perfume and the echo of her footsteps as she ran down the corridor.

He sighed and sank into his seat. Now what was he to do? Lifting his goblet, he signaled for the footman to refill his wine.

He wished he could consult with Miss Truax on how to handle Lady Vivian. He trusted his mother’s companion when it came to the workings of the female mind. She had been pivotal in coming to understand his sisters and reconnect with them after their father’s passing. But Luke was on his own this time. He would have to draw on what little he had learned about ladies’ minds from spending time with his mother and sisters this past year.

Of course, with Lady Vivian, no amount of experience or study of the fairer gender might help him. She was a mystery. One he intended to solve.

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