Lady Vivian Defies a Duke

By: Samantha Grace

Chapter Five

Vivi jerked her hands from Foxhaven’s grasp, jumped up, and tripped backward over the stool. The duke lunged for her, but she fell hard on her backside in the dirt.

The cow swung her head toward Vivi and fixed a sad brown eye on her.

“Don’t you dare feel sorry for me,” she blurted.

Foxhaven stepped over the stool and hauled her from the ground. “Why would I feel sorry for you?”

“Not you.” Vivi dusted off her hands and jabbed a finger toward the cow. “Maggie. I don’t want her pity.”

His gaze shot between Maggie and her. His forehead wrinkled. “I see this has been a shock, Lady Vivian. Perhaps you should go lie down and we can resume our discussion later.”

There was no discussion to be had. She couldn’t ask her brother to release her from the agreement.

Foxhaven bobbed his head so he was in her line of vision again. The lines between his brows deepened. “Are you all right? You didn’t sustain an injury, did you?”

Aside from a throbbing bum, no. Unless she counted her wounded pride. Tears burned at the back of her eyes. “I have no need to lie down, Your Grace. Now, if you will excuse me, I am changing my attire and going for my morning ride. You—you have turned everything topsy-turvy with your arrival, and I’ll not stand for it any longer.”

She tried to step around Foxhaven before she blubbered a river, but he blocked her retreat. “Wait a moment. I didn’t mean to upset you.”

Upset her? Ha! She was not upset. Try devastated. Reeling. Desperate. “I have no say in our betrothal, Your Grace. My brother has made his decision.”

“Every lady should have a voice in whom she marries. Surely Ashden will listen if you try to reason with him. Your brother is too stubborn to listen to my arguments, but no good can come from this match.”

Vivi drew back. How blunt he was, and hurtful. He had made a judgment as to her suitability before he had even arrived. She pulled herself up to full height, determined to hang on to the last scraps of her dignity.

“I cannot speak with my brother. I bid you good day.”

Again she tried to escape the stall, but he lightly captured her shoulders. His touch muddled her mind and set every nerve ending aflame.

“Lady Vivian, please be reasonable. We don’t even know each other.”

“Then take your hands from my person before I remove them from your person.”

Foxhaven’s eyes rounded. He had vivid blue eyes. Bluer than anything she had ever seen. Perhaps as blue as the sea. Oh, why had she admitted she found him handsome? This was humiliating beyond the pale.

He exhaled forcefully, stirring the curls on his forehead. “Lady Vivian, could we please start anew? I will release you if you promise not to run.”

“I want to go for a ride,” she murmured. “Please.”

Foxhaven sighed and relaxed his hold. “Of course, my lady. I don’t wish to disturb your routine any more than I already have.” He dropped his hands to his sides and stepped aside. “Go prepare for your ride.”

Vivi dashed past him and out of the barn, running when she cleared the doors. Ash would never allow her to back out, and if Foxhaven refused to sign the contract, her life would be ruined. Worse, her cousin’s life would be ruined, and Vivi couldn’t live with that guilt.

She needed a long, heart-pounding ride to clear her thoughts. Maybe she would just keep going until she reached the seaside. Perhaps then she could determine if Foxhaven’s eyes were indeed the same shade of blue.

***

After changing into her riding habit, Vivi looked in on Patrice. No violent coughing greeted her this time, and her cousin’s breathing was steady and calm. Reassured that Patrice was recovering, Vivi headed outside and stopped short. Foxhaven was standing in the circle drive with the groom, who’d saddled two horses, hers and the duke’s.

She ran a hand over the split skirt Winnie had fashioned for her at the beginning of summer. She should have requested a sidesaddle instead of providing the duke with even more reason to oppose their match, but she hadn’t expected him to join her. Hadn’t she said she wanted to be alone?

Before she could escape unnoticed, Foxhaven looked up and smiled, revealing a small gap between his straight white teeth. “Lady Vivian, your man here assures me you can handle this massive beast.”

She took a deep breath, adjusted her bonnet, and approached her bay gelding. Romie’s coat shimmered like polished mahogany under the morning sun. “I’ve had him for years. He was a gift from my brother on my fifteenth birthday.” That year had been her best birthday since their parents had died.

Foxhaven stepped forward before the groom to offer assistance mounting her horse. “Ashden must have a lot of faith in you.”

Vivi frowned as she accepted the reins from the servant and placed her boot in the duke’s cupped hands. “He has faith in my ability to handle a horse, Your Grace.” His belief in her was another matter, but she had no one to blame but herself.

Foxhaven lifted her in the air, his muscled chest flexing under his waistcoat. Grasping Romie’s mane, she swung her leg over his back and settled into the saddle. She looked away quickly to hide the blush she sensed flooding her cheeks.

He patted her horse’s neck; his side brushed against her leg. “I sense a hidden meaning behind your words,” he said softly. “Does your brother think you require help with bringing a gentleman up to scratch?”

Her fingers tightened on the reins. “I cannot read thoughts, nor do I possess special insight into the workings of Ashden’s mind. Thank you for the leg up.”

“My pleasure, Lady Vivian.”

When he turned to approach his horse, she seized the moment.

She brought Romie’s head around and left Foxhaven in the drive.

***

“Devil take it!” Luke scrambled to mount Thor and give chase. The lady had an aggravating habit of running away from him, but this time she would not escape. Lady Vivian would grant him an audience even if he must wrestle her to the ground and sit on her.

He snorted. What manner of duke had to beg anyone for an audience or resort to such measures? Not his father.

Ahead, the lady veered off the lane and urged her horse into a gallop across a field. The gelding’s hooves threw up clods of grass and dirt in his wake. Luke’s body tensed, his vision narrowing on her. She handled her horse better than most men, and looked a hell of a lot better with her bottom lifted inches above the saddle.

His determination to catch her grew, his muscles quivering from the rush. At the edge of the field, he let Thor have his head. The stallion broke into a gallop, his strides long and graceful, eating up the lead she had on him. Just as he and Thor were drawing closer, she slowed her horse to a canter, preparing to stop in deference to a fence ahead.

Luke eased back on his horse’s reins. Now was his chance to corner the lady and make her see reason. But she didn’t stop. She dropped her heels, rose up in the stirrups, and sailed her horse over the fence. The magnificent animal stuck the landing and raced up the hill without pause.

A delicious shiver chased down Luke’s back. He had never had a woman run from him before, and Lady Vivian proved to be a worthy opponent. He pushed his borrowed hat low on his head, squared his horse to the fence, and sailed him over the barrier too. Thor’s hooves landed as Lady Vivian and her steed crested the small hill, scattering the sheep, and then disappeared down the other side.

When he reached the top, she and her horse were headed toward a fat ribbon of water twisting through the pasture. It appeared she planned to allow her horse a drink after his impressive performance, but Luke wouldn’t put it past her to pick up speed and barrel through the water to race up the next hill.

He refused to abandon the chase until Lady Vivian stopped and dismounted. She led her horse to the water’s edge, then released him. The bay walked into the spring, immersing his front hooves, while she wandered along the bank. She bent to pick up stones and flung them along the surface of the water.

One. Two. Three. Four. Five skips.

He drew Thor to a halt a few feet away. “Noteworthy performance, my lady.” In truth, she impressed the hell out of him. “Who taught you to ride in that manner?”

She picked up another flat stone and whipped it across the water’s surface. “My brother.”

“And skipping stones? Did he teach you this as well?”

Looking into the distance, she nodded. “I feel it is only fair to inform you he taught me to shoot and fence too.”

Luke chuckled as he dismounted and joined her at the water’s edge. “Do you mean to run me through with a sword or put a ball in my chest?”

She spun around, her mouth opened in horror. “Oh no, I didn’t mean to imply—”

“Foil or saber?”

Her expression softened, her lips curving up into a half smile. “Foil. Ash thought it unwise to teach me anything beyond the basics, and only when my sister-in-law remained behind at Ashden Manor.”

“Your brother never mentioned any of your more interesting accomplishments when we spoke.”

She dropped the stone she held and walked toward a willow tree resting along the bank. Its canopy of branches draped over the spring, trailing into the water. “I had intended to give up these pursuits when I married. I don’t suppose it matters now.”

She sat on a patch of grass and leaned back against the tree trunk. He secured Thor then assumed the place next to her, drawn to her like a hummingbird to a flower.

“I owe you an apology, Your Grace.”

“Indeed?” For which transgression?

She picked up a stick and scribbled in the dirt. “I understand your reason for wanting to dishonor our marriage settlement, and I will accept the consequences of my actions. But if any part of you is considering granting me another chance, I promise to abandon my undesirable habits. No more swimming, or riding astride, or shooting.”

“And fencing? Will you surrender this endeavor as well?”

She leaned toward him, her expression earnest. “I will devote myself entirely to ladylike occupations, so as not to embarrass you. I give my word.”

All the lightness she had awakened in him yesterday dimmed. If their circumstances were different and he could marry her, he would never ask for the concessions she was offering. She shouldn’t be forced into giving up who she was to become any man’s wife.

Your title would protect her. He scowled at the voice whispering inside his head.

“Lady Vivian, you mustn’t think you are responsible for my request to dissolve our betrothal. I possess many faults that render me a poor candidate for a husband.”

She drew back, her eyes seeming to double in size. “You do not intend to marry anyone then?”

He shrugged. His future would be determined by whether he returned safely from the voyage.

“But you are a duke. You will have need of an heir, which means you will require a wife at some point.”

“That is the current thought among our equals.”

“Then reconsider marrying me. I will provide you with an heir.”

Luke grinned, enchanted by the thought of her in his bed, but he couldn’t be foolish and allow desire to make choices on his behalf. He couldn’t guarantee she would even be with child before he left England.

She drew her knees to her chest and hugged them against her body as if retreating from a battle. “You seem amused by my suggestion.”

“Not at all.”

She studied him a long time and nibbled her lip. He knew the instant she decided to press forward. Her eyes assumed a zealous gleam. “Once I have given you a son, you need never see me again.”

“I don’t think—”

“I could live alone,” she said in a rush. “You must have several homes where I could choose to reside. I would want our children to live with me, of course, at least until our son is old enough to attend school. Young children need a mother’s love. I vow I would be no trouble for you. Could we have an understanding, Your Grace?”

She appeared to be holding her breath as she awaited his answer.

His shoulders sagged; weariness invaded his body and spirits. She spoke of a future not meant for either of them. “Do you truly wish to live alone in the country?”

Her hopeful light faded and she turned her face away from him. “I could adjust my expectations.”

Yet, she shouldn’t have to compromise on what she wanted. She was young and beautiful. She would have her choice of gentlemen in London. He had assumed the lady hadn’t been given a Season because she was shy, but clearly he had been mistaken. Why did her brother keep her hidden away?

He cleared his throat, hating that he must disappoint her. “I’m certain you would make a lovely wife. Unfortunately, I am not the husband you seek. Please tell me you will speak with your brother.”

She looked out over the water, her jaw hardening. “I am sorry to disappoint you, but I won’t ask my brother to release you. If you, on the other hand, choose to cry off after having made my acquaintance, I won’t hold a grudge. For long.”

Luke gritted his teeth. Why must she be this stubborn? “Your brother said you were amiable,” he grumbled.

“He has been known to stretch the truth, Your Grace.”

Dear Lady Vivian,

Please know I am praying for a speedy recovery on your behalf. No need to fret that I might take my leave before we have had an opportunity to further our discussion. I will remain at Brighthurst as long as necessary.

Best wishes,

Foxhaven

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