Lady Vivian Defies a Duke

By: Samantha Grace

Chapter Four

“Lady Vivian, wake up.”

A warm hand grasped Vivi’s shoulder and shook her. Her eyes flew open and she blinked, her surroundings slowly coming into focus.

Floral bed curtains.

Quilted counterpane.

Her window seat.

Her location sunk in. Rolling onto her back, she stared up into Winnie’s frowning face, which was entirely too close with her leaning over the bed. “It’s time to get up, my lady.”

“But it is dark outside.” Vivi’s voice sounded gravelly, like an old man’s after forty years of pipe smoking.

Her lady’s maid straightened and nibbled her fingernail. “When did you think the cows were milked, my lady?”

Not at this ungodly hour. “They can’t desire to be awake any more than I do.” She curled on her side, pulling the sheet up to her neck. “Let the poor creatures sleep in today.”

“But if Lord Ellis wakes and ventures outside…” Winnie shook her again. “What if he goes to your cousin?”

She flopped on her back with a groan. Infuriating man! “I’m getting up.”

“You had best hurry, my lady. The milkmaid is already in the barn.” Winnie tossed a spare maid’s dress on the bed, then grabbed both of Vivi’s hands to pull her into a seated position.

Vivi rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand and yawned. This whole pretense was likely a waste of time. “I think he recognized me already.” The thought had kept her awake late into the night.

Her maid retreated to a tea cart and poured steaming chocolate from a pot. “Then why didn’t he say something at dinner?”

She shrugged and climbed from the bed before accepting the cup of chocolate. “Maybe he wants to be certain before he carries back a report to the duke.” She sipped the drink and welcomed the warmth on her scratchy throat. “I have been thinking, perhaps life in the nunnery won’t be as horrid as I have imagined. Not exciting, mind you, what with no one but the sisters to talk to and such a drab wardrobe. But I am coming to accept my fate.”

“Since when?” Winnie said with a scoff.

“Since the clock struck two this morning, Miss Impertinent.”

“Then please forgive me for speaking out of turn, my lady.” Her maid didn’t appear the least bit contrite with a small smile upon her lips. “Would you be so kind as to lift your arms?”

Vivi placed her cup on her dressing table and did as her maid requested so her nightrail could be removed. “Perhaps I can convince Lord Ellis to keep our meeting at the creek a secret. I would hate for Patrice to know the true reason behind the duke’s rejection.”

“I’ve never known you to surrender without a fight,” Winnie said while Vivi was still buried under her nightclothes. “Maybe Lord Ellis only wishes to scold you for sending him out of the way in the middle of a storm.”

Vivi’s heart lifted a fraction. If her maid was correct, Lord Ellis might say his piece and forget all about their encounter at the creek. She could still free Patrice to marry the man she loved without dooming herself to live in the convent. This was incentive enough to don the serviceable dress and pretend she knew the first thing about milking cows.

She smoothed her hands over the rough fustian gown, readjusted the white cap covering her loosely bound hair, and then turned away from her reflection. “Wish me luck at fooling the earl.”

“Oh, my lady. Can’t I wish for something more likely to come true?”

She tossed a wry smile over her shoulder. “Again, you are no comfort, dear Winnie.”

“My apologies, my lady.”

Vivi eased the door open, determined the corridor was clear, and sped toward the servants’ stairwell. A lamp at the foot of the stairs cast elongated shadows on the walls as she made her way to the ground floor. She retrieved a spare lantern hanging from a peg and lit it before opening the back door.

Outside, the cool morning air held the promise of autumn with the smell of freshly cut hay hanging on the breeze. She both loved and dreaded the season, knowing cold weather chased on its heels. Yet, on the other side of winter, there was always a new beginning. Vivi tried to keep this foremost in her mind. There was still a chance she could get out of this mess.

Worst case, Vivi wasn’t above groveling for mercy.

***

The chamber was dark when Luke woke. An unfamiliar creak as someone passed outside the door reminded him of where he was. Brighthurst. The home of his would-be betrothed. A surge of alertness swept through him, and he tossed the counterpane aside to sit on the side of the bed.

Lady Vivian wasn’t making his task easy, and not because she lived up to her brother’s definition of the perfect lady. She was a scandal waiting to happen. Most gentlemen would find it within their rights to sever the betrothal after discovering her half-nude in the creek. Luke wasn’t like most gentlemen, however.

Lady Vivian’s unorthodox pursuits provided no reason to destroy her future, and he wouldn’t consider using his discovery against her. She must make an appeal to her brother. If her brother released them from the agreement before anyone learned of it, she wouldn’t suffer. But first Luke must garner her cooperation, which required the audience he had yet to be granted.

He grumbled under his breath as he climbed from bed and made his way to the mantel to retrieve the tinderbox. There was no telling how long he would be delayed while Lady Vivian’s cousin recovered, and his business with Captain Pendry couldn’t wait. Luke’s man of business had forwarded him the ship’s manifest and an accounting of the costs required for supplies. He needed to review the documents before authorizing payment, but he had hoped to ask his friend for help. Captain Daniel Hillary could complete the task in his sleep after years of sea travel, but Hillary was leaving for Brighton at the end of the week. Luke’s hopes of catching him before he left London were dwindling. He would have to complete the work himself.

The char cloth sparked and caught fire. He lit a candle, dressed, and then pulled the documents from an inside coat pocket. Sitting down at the small desk, he resigned to get the task behind him. A tightening in his jaws began before he read half the page. Rubbing the back of his neck, he discovered bunched muscles already forming. Another blasted headache. By the second page, his vision began to blur and a band squeezed his head like an ill-fitting hat. He blinked and tried to clear his sight, but the ink remained a hazy mess on the page.

Devil take it. He threw the papers aside and pushed to his feet. The movement set off a dull drumming in his skull. He cursed aloud. Captain Pendry was at a standstill until Luke responded to his request. Why couldn’t he perform even the simplest tasks without these headaches plaguing him?

He moved to the window and shoved the drapes aside, disgusted. Dawn had begun her subtle painting of the sky. He’d watched many sunrises lately. Even before his father’s death he had been an early riser, but this past year had seen him awake more hours than asleep.

He’d lost his chance to make his father proud, and no amount of wishing would ever bring him back. Before his father’s death, Luke had been too busy raising hell. He needed adventure, craved the thrill of putting his life on the line. Sitting in a study going over ledgers was boring, and he’d avoided his father—and his duties—every chance he could.

After Luke’s accident he avoided his father for another reason. Shame. What if the duke found out he could barely read without debilitating headaches? How could he care for the estate? He would be the ruination of their family.

Sometimes fury over his father’s death expanded inside him, pushing words from his mind. How could he have died? How could he have left him alone?

This morning his usual disgust with himself was nudged aside by puzzlement as he recalled his encounters with Lady Vivian.

“Why her?”

Of course, his father couldn’t have been aware of the lady’s true nature. Her high spirits would earn his father’s disapproval, even though they appealed to Luke more than he cared to admit.

A figure passed below the window, dragging him from his reverie. It was a woman, and she held a lantern aloft, lighting amber curls spilling down her back.

His pulse quickened. “Lady Vivian?”

Without a chaperone again.

He shook his head, not believing what he was seeing. What was the minx up to now? He grabbed his jacket and left his chambers in pursuit.

He found the corridor for a back staircase, hoping for a quicker route to the barn. He held himself in check as he stepped outside, his muscles tense and his stomach churning with anticipation. He was about to engage Lady Vivian in round three.

The mewling of a calf intermingled with Lady Vivian’s rich laughter and drifted through the open door of the dairy barn as he neared. The lady expressed her mirth with hearty vigor, the smoky sound drawing him inside. He hurried his step, eager to see her again.

The smells of sweet hay and musky animal hit him as he entered. He spotted her at once, but Lady Vivian had her back to him. She was scratching behind the ears of a spotted calf tethered to a post. The baby nudged her hand and elicited another heart-stopping chuckle from the lady.

“Patience, little one. You may have your mama in a minute.”

She rose on her toes and leaned her crossed arms on the top railing of a stall to peer at a full-grown milker. The cow flicked a bored gaze in his direction, but Lady Vivian seemed unaware of his presence.

Luke cleared his throat.

She swung around with a soft gasp. The rhythmic swish, swish of milk squirting into a bucket ceased.

He meant to appear unaffected, but he couldn’t help grinning. The lady was as charming in maid’s attire as she had been soaking wet yesterday.

She dipped into a deep curtsy. “How relieved I am no harm came to you yesterday, sir.”

“Life is full of surprises, is it not?” Of course Lady Vivian was the biggest surprise, along with her tenacity. That she clung to her pretense fascinated him.

Luke approached her, caring not that he stared.

Lady Vivian’s cheeks colored. She backed around the calf, her half boots stirring the hay. He didn’t slow his advance. Not when he would reach her in two strides and earn the reward of gazing at her up close.

“Time to milk.” She dashed into the stall, avoiding direct eye contact. Avoiding him. “I am sorry for providing unclear directions yesterday, but you found Brighthurst.”

Unclear directions? The chit had purposefully misled him. He followed her into the stall. “Apology accepted.”

She tossed a look back over her shoulder. Her pale blue eyes softened. “Thank you. You are a generous soul, Lord Ellis.”

He balked. Lord Ellis? She thought he was Ellis? How could that be when he had sent word?

The servant girl—likely the true milkmaid—scooted from the stool to allow Lady Vivian to sit, then shimmed past him to exit the stall.

“Thank you, Kimberly. I will finish the task,” Lady Vivian said.

The milkmaid bobbed her head and left him alone with her mistress.

Lady Vivian offered a tight smile when he crossed his arms and regarded her. “I wish you a safe journey as you continue your travels. Good day, my lord.”

She thought to send him on his way, did she? Well, she had misjudged him. He was fond of games of strategy, and he couldn’t resist engaging with her, though he didn’t know the rules or what the winner’s spoils would be.

“I’m in no hurry to leave. I informed Lady Vivian last night I intend to stay until Lady Brighthurst recovers.”

She flinched. It was barely noticeable, but Luke hadn’t taken his eyes from her since he had entered the barn. It was a near impossible feat.

“Go on with your work. I don’t want to interrupt you.” Luke squatted beside her. “I have often wondered how one goes about milking a cow.”

“Uh…”

A becoming shade of pink climbed her neck and infused her round cheeks. He shouldn’t tease her before revealing he knew her identity, but the lengths she would go to in order to fool him were impressive. He awaited her next move with great anticipation.

“You don’t mind if I watch, do you?” he asked.

She hesitated, but then shook her head. The curls gathered at her nape swung in a gentle arc along her back. He itched to loosen the tie confining her hair and run his fingers through the fine strands. He made a fist and held it against his thigh. It wouldn’t do to treat her with anything other than the respect her station deserved.

“Go on. Don’t be shy on account of my presence.”

She closed her eyes, her darker lashes lying against her rosy skin. Perhaps she hoped when she opened them again, he would be gone.

No such luck.

She stole a quick sideways glance at him then directed her attention back to the milker. “There, there, Maggie.” Patting the animal’s side, she eased her hand under the cow, her lip curling. When the tips of her fingers touched the creature’s udders, she snatched her hand back with a soft squeal.

Luke concealed his amusement behind a fake cough. “Are the udders cold?”

Lady Vivian frowned, expressing her disdain with a lift of her nose. “They feel like flesh, my lord, but I wouldn’t expect someone like you to be privy to such information.”

“Fascinating. Just like flesh, you say? Please continue, unless you have changed your mind about milking.”

Her mouth set in a grim line. “I haven’t changed my mind.”

He admired her determination.

Taking a deep, halting breath first, she shot out her arm and seized one of the udders. A strangled moo ripped from the cow, and the animal stomped close to Lady Vivian’s foot. The lady jerked back with a cry and kicked over the pail of milk.

“Oh, drat it all anyway!”

Luke chuckled and reached out to stroke her shoulder in a comforting gesture before realizing what he was doing.

Her body grew rigid under his touch. “My lord! What, pray tell, are you doing?”

Luke dropped his hand. “My apologies. I didn’t mean—” He took a deep breath to regain control over his rapid heartbeat. “Lady Vivian, let’s end all pretenses, shall we? You are not a servant any more than I am, and I would hazard a guess that you have never milked a cow.”

Ice blue eyes, so light they reminded him of melted silver, turned on him. The defiant spark he had seen moments earlier dimmed. “You knew at dinner.”

“Yes, I’m afraid I did.” When her shoulders drooped forward, he took her hand in his. The need to ease her discomfort welled up inside him, confusing and yet too strong to ignore. “It is an honor to make your acquaintance, my lady.”

Raising her hand, he placed a chaste kiss on her fingers. Her skin was soft and warm against his lips. He hesitated to release her from his light grasp. This was an intimacy he had never experienced upon an introduction, the feel of a lady’s bare skin. Pushing the limits of propriety, he gently turned her arm to bare her wrist and grazed his mouth over the sensitive spot.

Lady Vivian trembled, her eyes wide. “Lord Ellis, release me. Please.” She yanked her arm from his hold.

Luke’s stomach dipped. What the hell was he doing? He aimed a cool smile at her. “Allow me to correct a misconception, Lady Vivian. I’m not Lord Ellis. I sent word to Lady Brighthurst three days ago. I am your intended.”

He didn’t know why he introduced himself in such a manner. When he had set out for Brighthurst House, he’d had no intention of fulfilling his father’s promise. Nothing had changed, except his unconscionable impulse to take liberties not belonging to him. Luke eased away from her, remembering himself.

Lady Vivian twisted on the stool to face him. She held her tongue, but an array of emotions flickered across her countenance until impatience threatened to claw through him.

“What are you thinking, Lady Vivian?”

She licked her lips, chipping away at his determination to release her from this farce of a betrothal.

“Do you wish for complete honesty, Your Grace?”

He grinned for real this time, relieved that his disclosure and inappropriateness hadn’t rattled her as much as he had feared. “Even partial honesty would be appreciated, my lady.”

Her gaze dropped to the ground. “Right,” she mumbled. “A little censorship might be in order.”

He captured her hands again and urged her to look at him. “On second thought, be fiercely honest. What were you thinking a moment ago?”

She tried to ease her hands from his grasp, but he held on tight. Whether it was by instinct or will, he didn’t know, but she curled her fingers around his and secured the link between them.

Her swallow was audible. “I was thinking how much I regret messing up our agreement. I never imagined you would be so handsome, Your Grace.”

Luke laughed, reveling in the warmth swirling around in his chest. He was not naive when it came to marriage. Mutual attraction couldn’t sustain a happy union   over the years, and there was no question that he was unusually attracted to the lady. Nevertheless, he had witnessed the subsequent misery of many gentlemen who were swept up by lustful urges then disappointed when the bloom of beauty faded. These were the gents sleeping at White’s every evening, complaining about their greedy mistresses and harpy wives.

He still took pleasure in Lady Vivian’s admission.

“I have no intention of dishonoring my father’s word, my lady.” He noted the lifting of her arched brows. “But perhaps you will do me the honor of speaking with your brother so we may both be freed.”

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