Lady Vivian Defies a Duke

By: Samantha Grace

Chapter Seven

Luke maintained a respectable distance between himself and Lady Vivian on the hard church pew. As he should have anticipated, there had been many curious looks upon their arrival together. Even now, there was a prickling sensation at his nape he often felt when someone was watching him.

The vicar would have nothing to worry about on this Sunday, as all eyes seemed to be trained on Lady Vivian and Luke. For her part, she didn’t seem to notice. A faraway smile played upon her full, pink lips. She boasted a perfect, kissable mouth, the kind that made a man forget his troubles when it was pressed against his.

She glanced in his direction and caught him staring. Her smile slipped.

Damn. Luke snapped his gaze forward. Crossing his arms, he settled in to listen to the vicar’s sermon, his blood cooling simultaneously. Nothing killed a man’s passion swifter than the sight of another man in a dress. Luke shifted away from Lady Vivian to resist the temptation of ogling her again. Nevertheless, his thoughts drifted back to her.

Not only was she breathtaking, she possessed high spirits and boldness. Most impressively, she could converse on his current topic of interest, and she’d had no qualms about putting him in his place when he had been patronizing. She was also refreshingly transparent. She disapproved of his expedition, although she hadn’t spoken out against his plans like his younger brother had.

He had tried explaining his troubles to Richard once, but his brother had shaken his head like he’d pitied him. Luke’s shame wound tightly around him and a light sheen blanketed his skin. He wasn’t even able to look at the pages of a book without a blinding headache coming over him. How was he to take care of his family when he couldn’t focus on anything but the pain? He was no longer cut out to assume his father’s title, so what purpose did his life serve?

He glanced at Lady Vivian again. She wanted to marry, bear children, and live a normal life, but Luke was incapable of being normal now. A sedate life alone in the country wouldn’t satisfy a young and lively woman for long, no matter Lady Vivian’s claims. She would desire seasons in London, the opera, and gentlemanly attentions.

His spine stiffened. Gentlemanly attentions, my arse.

The thought of bloody rakehells providing her with comfort rubbed him raw. He turned to glare at the other men in the church for good measure and realized everyone was standing.

He bolted from his seat as the first bars of “Amazing Grace” piped from the organ. Lady Vivian offered to share her hymnal. Luke gazed warily at the book before taking hold of his half.

Her strong, sensual voice surprised him. After sitting through countless musicales featuring his three younger sisters and various family friends, he had come to believe only actresses could carry a tune.

Lady Vivian’s fingers brushed his as she adjusted her position and sent a jolt up his arm. He glanced to see if she had touched him on purpose, but her attention stayed focused on the notes and lyrics.

Luke couldn’t sing any better than his sisters, so he mouthed the words. An impertinent actress had once compared his singing to the caterwauling of an alley cat. He didn’t believe his musical talent to be quite as lacking, but no one would mistake him for a nightingale.

Lady Vivian’s hip lightly bumped against his. Again, she gave no indication of being aware of what she had done. On the third stanza, he swayed to the side and bumped her back. She lifted her face, mischief dancing in her eyes. She had touched him on purpose. Holding his gaze, she finished the verse, a corner of her mouth curling up. Luke’s throat constricted as her voice washed over him, casting a spell unbroken even when she looked away. Was this her attempt at revenge for his unabashed staring earlier?

When the toe of her half boot angled to touch his foot, desire flooded through him. How could he become aroused by such innocent contact? In church, no less. Pretending to sing all seven verses of “Amazing Grace.”

Seven, for the love of God!

Curse Mr. Newton and his severely debauched life requiring seven verses to prove his rehabilitation.

As the last bars of music faded into the rafters, she took the hymnbook from him and smiled innocently up at him. “Your Grace.”

He wanted to wring her neck. Or kiss her until she babbled nonsense. Or bend her over the—

“Lady Vivian!” A shrill voice ripped into his fantasy and gave him a start.

A ruddy-cheeked older lady was frowning at them from the aisle, her heavy bosoms stressing the seams of her gown.

“Mrs. Honeywell, how nice to see you again. Did you have an enjoyable Season in London?” Lady Vivian’s polite greeting reminded him that she was a lady of good breeding. He had to stop daydreaming about compromising her.

“Where is Lady Brighthurst?” The woman’s nose wrinkled as she spoke of the viscountess. “Is your brother aware of her lax approach to chaperoning you?”

Lady Vivian stiffened beside him.

Mrs. Honeywell nailed her with a disdainful glower. “Surely, Lord Ashden would want to know of your behavior in today’s service. He would likely thank me for informing him.”

Luke eyed the woman in return. This was the harridan Lady Vivian had spoken of at dinner last night.

“Lady Vivian,” he said. “Please introduce me to your friend.”

He thought she might have snorted softly, but he kept his focus on Mrs. Honeywell.

“As you wish. Please allow me to present Mrs. Honeywell, the local—uh…”

The lady raised her severe eyebrows. “Mr. Honeywell is the largest landowner in Bedfordshire.” She paused as if waiting for Luke to say something.

“Indeed? Congratulations, Madame. You must be proud.”

“Yes, I am proud…” She blinked, bemusement fluttering across her round face.

Lady Vivian pressed her lips tightly together, struggling to school her features.

Mrs. Honeywell dismissed his comment with a flick of her wrist and regained speed, her glower focused on Lady Vivian. “When your brother hears of your brazen display today—”

“Forgive me, dear lady.” Luke smiled, aiming to charm her, although his tone left no room for mistake. She had no leave to chastise Lady Vivian, especially in his presence. “I must accept the blame. You see, I’m quite taken with my betrothed, but infatuation is no excuse for bad manners.”

“Betrothed?” Mrs. Honeywell almost choked on the word, her face blazing redder. “His lordship never mentioned finding a husband for her.”

Luke’s jaw twitched, but otherwise he hid his anger. He’d had years of practice. It would be unwise to lay claim to Lady Vivian. The negotiations between his father and Ashden were not common knowledge. Yet, the drive to protect her from this harpy was too strong. When he glanced down at Lady Vivian, he smiled. “Your brother hasn’t publicized our joyful news yet, has he?”

“I’m afraid not, Your Grace. But it is a sudden development, wouldn’t you agree?”

All color leeched from Mrs. Honeywell’s complexion. “Your Grace?”

Lady Vivian linked arms with him, playing the role of besotted maiden with relish. Lifting her face toward him, she fanned her thick lashes and beamed. Gads, his insides quivered when she gazed at him in admiration. What would it do to him if it were real?

“Mrs. Honeywell, allow me to present the Duke of Foxhaven, my very newly betrothed.”

“Oh my. The Duke of Foxhaven?” The older lady fanned her glossy cheeks.

Luke gave a perfunctory bow. “At your service. Now, if you will excuse us, Madame. I promised to escort this charming young lady to the church picnic.”

As they made to step around her, she moved to block their way. “Your Grace, perhaps you should seek me out at the picnic. I may be privy to something you might wish to know.”

“I possess everything I need to know. Good day, Madame.”

And he did. Lady Vivian would not go unscathed after their performance today. If Mrs. Honeywell was representative of the good townsfolk of Dunstable, they were a judgmental lot. He couldn’t leave Lady Vivian to face the consequences alone, but he didn’t know what to do about her either. His plan to set her free was growing more complicated every moment he spent in her presence.

***

A rush of affection for Foxhaven urged Vivi to squeeze his arm as they descended the church stairs. He had surprised her again, this time with his gallant defense. Was he reconsidering marriage to her? His response to Mrs. Honeywell seemed to indicate so.

Vivi had thought her offer the other day was sound, and to have him reject her outright had bruised her pride. Perhaps he was beginning to see the advantages of marrying a lady who would place few demands on him.

“Thank you for protecting me from the dragon back there.”

He tsked. “Lady Vivian, clearly Mrs. Honeywell is descended from Gorgons, not dragons.”

She giggled. The duke was as irreverent as she was, and she liked it.

Her behavior in church caused her a bit of embarrassment, though. Pretending to accidentally touch him had been brazen, even for her, but Foxhaven’s response when she had squeezed his leg in the carriage had left her giddy. Shameful as it was, she liked ruffling his calm. It made him seem more human.

His hand covered hers and applied pressure. “Is the woman likely to contact Ashden? I would be happy to write to him and explain.”

Some of her confidence faded. Perhaps she wasn’t bringing him up to scratch after all.

“I have learned to never underestimate Mrs. Honeywell. If Ash should hear about the incident, I will graciously accept your offer, but there is no need for action at this point.” She cocked her head to the side. “Has anyone ever told you that you play the doting suitor well?”

“Do I? Excellent. My inspiration is very…inspiring.” He winked and drew her closer. “But now you must stay by my side all afternoon so no one figures us out.”

They wandered arm-in-arm to the field behind the stone church where colorful blankets dotted the green grass like beds of flowers. Tables had been set up close to the church building, each loaded with like items for the contests—pies, lace, drawings, embroidery.

Foxhaven nodded toward the tables. “Do you enter contests?”

“Heavens, no. Although I should. To provide a boost of confidence to the other ladies.”

“Then you have never had the pleasure of taking home a ribbon to mark your achievement?”

“One must achieve something to earn a ribbon of achievement, Your Grace.”

They moved to the queue forming in front of two long tables draped in white cloths and covered with platters of chicken and cold ham, bowls of fruit, and sugar biscuits. Foxhaven passed a plate to her then allowed her to precede him through the buffet. Vivi selected what she wanted and left him at the table while she found a spot where they could sit.

A group of young ladies she had once considered friends saw her approaching and looked the other way, presenting their backs to her. The ache of loneliness had dulled over time, but their snub pricked her more sharply today. She located a blanket set apart from the others and claimed it. In a moment, Foxhaven joined her.

He pointed to a group of men stringing a finish line from one stake hammered into the ground to another. Mr. Fry, a church deacon, held strips of cloth in his fist as he supervised the placement of the finish line. The tails flapped in the breeze.

Foxhaven turned to her. “I think we could take the ribbon in the three-legged race. You’re a fast runner. Would you partner with me?”

Her first impulse was to accept, but she held back an enthusiastic yes. Checking to make certain no one sat close enough to overhear, she spoke softly. “We are already a source of gossip. If you have no intention of marrying me, I fear I have already given the townsfolk enough cause to speculate on the reason.”

His thick, black brows dropped low over his eyes. “You must know I cannot refuse, especially now. You would be ruined. Only you may cry off at this point.”

She suppressed a sigh. They were back to the same place they had begun. “If I may be frank, I have been more trouble to my cousin than I’m worth. I cannot ask her to assume responsibility for me any longer. I realize you don’t deserve to be saddled with me either, and for that, I apologize. But you are my last hope—”

“Lady Vivian.”

“Please, hear me out. All I ask is that you seriously consider my offer. Give me your name then you may do whatever you like. Discover Antarctica or search for the lost city of Atlantis, and I will lead a quiet life in the country. You wouldn’t have to be bothered by me again.”

“Stop speaking nonsense.” His blue gaze burned into her. “Your father was a nobleman, and some gentleman will make you an excellent husband. Why are you willing to settle?”

Vivi blinked back the tears threatening to embarrass her. He didn’t understand. To settle implied one had choices. “If I don’t marry you, my brother has resigned himself to send me to a convent in Scotland. My sister-in-law has been harping on the idea for at least two years now.”

Foxhaven recoiled. “A convent? Whatever for? You would do well in London. Is your brother mad?”

She shrugged. “I have often wondered the same thing about Ash. As far as his wife goes, I know for a fact she is a bit touched in the head.” She swiped at an escaping tear and forced a laugh that sounded hollow. “On second thought, Your Grace, you are probably wise to put distance between yourself and my family. The madness could be catching.”

The hardness around his mouth melted away and his foot brushed against hers. “You’re not mad. I clearly recall you telling me as much at dinner the other evening.”

She winced. “Is there any chance you might forget the other night?”

“Not even a sliver of a chance,” he said with a smirk.

“Splendid.”

“Listen. Don’t fret over anything at the moment. I may have an idea on how we can work this out.”

She turned a hopeful gaze on him. He smiled in return, showing off the small gap between his teeth. She could fall in love with that smile, so perfectly imperfect.

Setting his plate on the blanket, he stood then offered her a hand up. “Today is meant to be fun. No more gloomy talk.”

“Agreed.”

“Now, come along. I wish to take home a ribbon, but I need your assistance.”

Vivi set her food aside and took his hand. How could she deny him when he needed her?

Mr. Fry put his fingers in his mouth and let loose a sharp whistle. Most conversations halted as heads turned toward the deacon.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the three-legged race is about to begin. Come this way and select a partner.”

She and Foxhaven were the first competitors to step up to the line, but other participants soon joined them. Lastly, the reluctant stragglers came forward. Miss Heaton blushed as red as Christmas when Lord Goodrich pulled her toward the starting line, paying no notice to her fiercely whispered protests.

Mr. Fry marched down the line handing out strips of cloth. Foxhaven knelt beside Vivi and lashed their ankles together. When he stood, he slipped his arm around her waist. Her body tingled from her ankle to her hip where his hand rested lightly.

“You must hold on too,” he murmured in her ear. “You did promise to touch me back if I touched you.”

Heat flashed up her neck, but she placed her arm around his waist.

His fingers coiled into a fist against her hip and pulled her against him. She had never considered the scandalous nature of this particular race until that moment. It was a wonder the vicar and deacons allowed such goings-on. Perhaps they were unaware of the delicious sensations generated by the close proximity of a man and woman, their hips pressed together.

“Let’s try to walk,” he said. “Middle leg first. One, two, three.”

They stepped together, circling around some of the other couples for practice.

Mr. Fry waved everyone to the starting line. “On the count of three. The first team to cross the line is the winner.”

Foxhaven’s muscles shifted and tensed. Vivi glanced up at him. His jaw was set in a determined line, his gaze focused on their destination. In that moment, she recognized nothing would stop him from getting what he wanted. A ripple of unease went through her, but she set it aside. Today she wanted what he desired, and she would help him achieve it. Tomorrow was another story.

Mr. Fry held his brown beaver hat aloft. “One, two, three.” He swung his arm down. “Go!”

Two young boys lurched ahead, their screeches making her laugh. Foxhaven hugged her and matched her pace. The leaders missed a step and fell in a tangle of legs. She and Foxhaven angled away from them and continued at a steady run. Each footfall landed at the same time and they surged ahead.

Looking to her right, she caught sight of Miss Heaton and Lord Goodrich.

“Faster!” the baron shouted as if he drove a team of horses.

Vivi focused on the string a few feet ahead. She couldn’t observe the competition if she wished to see where she was going.

“Just a little farther, my dear. You’re doing magnificent.” Foxhaven’s compliment boosted her spirits. Truly, she could run like this forever at his side.

Lord Goodrich continued to shout behind them, his voice taking on an angry edge. Miss Heaton cried out in despair as they fell farther behind.

Vivi and Foxhaven crossed the line first, laughing and a little out of breath.

“Brava, Lady Vivian!” He hugged her once more then bent to sever the tie binding them.

***

Vivi fanned the winning ribbons out on her lap. There were three in total: the one she and Foxhaven had earned in the three-legged race and two the duke had won for shooting and archery.

She squinted against the blazing afternoon sun when Foxhaven steered the curricle up the lane leading to Brighthurst House. He had a comfortable confidence about him in the way he handled the grays, his legs propped wide and his hat tipped at a jaunty angle. He possessed all the self-assurance of nobility and yet surprisingly little arrogance.

She liked his nose. Not too commanding and not too perfect with a raised ridge that spoke of a past trauma. “You lost the footrace on purpose, did you not?”

He kept his eyes on the lane in front of them. A corner of his lips twitched. “What makes you think I would lose on purpose?”

“I outran Adam Randolph three summers past when he challenged me to a race at Dottie Kennicot’s garden party.” How she missed her dearest friend, Dottie. She shook off her sadness. She hadn’t had fun in a long while, and she wouldn’t spoil the moment thinking on things that couldn’t be changed. “Mr. Randolph was in a sulk for two weeks afterward. He refused all but the curtest acknowledgment of me at church.”

Foxhaven laughed. “Poor Mr. Randolph wasn’t allowed to claim his prize. It is no wonder he was brooding.”

“What prize? There were no stakes involved.”

Foxhaven must have a fountain of happiness inside him for he never seemed to run out of smiles. “A kiss, Lady Vivian. That’s what I would have demanded in his position.”

She swung away before he spotted the telling flush searing her cheeks. “You would not, Your Grace. What a terrible tease you are.”

“I assure you, I would have.”

Gathering the ribbons in a pile, she lined up the edges. Vivi didn’t know how to respond. In the art of coquettishness, she had always remained an observer. She settled for practicality. “If you kissed me, you would feel honor bound to marry me, and we both know you desire no such association.”

He pulled the carriage off the lane and parked under a tree. Brighthurst House remained in the distance, its pitched roof peeking over a hill.

Grabbing her hand, he scooted from the seat. “Come with me.”

“Why?” Vivi’s voice squeaked. She scrambled to follow lest he drag her. Good heavens, he didn’t intend to prove himself, did he?

His hands circled her waist before she tumbled from the carriage and lowered her to the ground. But even after her half boots were securely on the grass, he held on.

Oh, my molasses! She had never been kissed and she didn’t know what to do. Her eyes drifted shut, but she wasn’t sure what to do with her mouth. She licked her lips then puckered up, waiting.

A woodpecker’s rapid hammering sounded from a nearby tree. A breeze ruffled the sleeves of her gown. His fingers tightened on her waist and urged her closer.

“Blast it all.” He released her.

She blinked into the empty space where he had just been. She spotted him rounding the horses and stared as he approached an ancient, gnarled oak. Its branches twisted like arthritic fingers with unsightly knots like swollen knuckles. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he blew out a noisy breath but said nothing.

“That is a good climbing tree,” she said in place of witty repartee, anything to fill the strained silence.

He looked up at the branches. “Do you climb trees?”

She trailed after him. Admitting to yet another unladylike habit would prove how unsuited she was to be his duchess, but it wasn’t her odd endeavors that seemed to bother him.

“I have been known on occasion to climb a tree, but only if I’m wearing trousers.”

His eyes lit when he looked at her. “You’re nothing like I anticipated.”

“Thank you, Your Grace. I think.” She lowered to the grass, tucked her knees up under her skirts, and rested her forearms across her knees.

“You may refer to me as Luke if you wish, Foxhaven if my Christian name feels too familiar and offends your sensibilities. But our association warrants discarding such formalities as Your Grace.”

She looked up at him with a cautious slant of her head. “And what is the nature of our association?”

He crouched down in front of her as if indulging a child. “We are becoming fast friends, I believe.”

“You want something from me I can’t give you. I expect our friendship will be short-lived. Perhaps we shouldn’t abandon our manners too hastily.”

Plucking a blade of grass, he twirled it between his fingers. His lips thinned briefly, but then he bestowed another generous smile. His smile dazzled and did something unsettling to her insides, but she was beginning to distrust it. He used his smile as a cloak, she suspected, to hide what stirred behind his serious eyes.

“Tell me how you envision your future,” he said. “Not the one you are willing to settle for in order to avoid the convent, but the one you truly desire.”

She could easily desire what knelt in front of her. Foxhaven seemed kind and tolerant. She could grow to love him, to be a good wife, to honor him. But she couldn’t admit this to him.

“I’m no different from most ladies. I wish to make a good match. If my husband is smart with his money, not too strict, and possesses all his teeth, I will be happy.”

Foxhaven tossed his head back with a hearty, openmouthed laugh, proving he met her last requirement nicely. “Is that all? I find it hard to believe you wouldn’t want more.”

“I am hardly in a position to ask for more. You must know a woman has little say in such matters.”

He sobered and nodded thoughtfully. “What about children? You mentioned providing an heir, but don’t you wish for a family life?”

She studied the blade of grass he wound around his finger. The tip turned scarlet then bordered on plum before he released it. Did he feel like his finger, bound tightly and dying off inch by inch? She knew the pressures his station in life carried with it. Her brother often suffered under the weight of his responsibilities, and then there was Muriel. His wife’s periodic bouts of illness were a leash ’round her brother’s neck. What if Vivi’s dreams of family were a burden to Foxhaven like Muriel’s illness was to Ash?

“You don’t desire a family life, do you?” she said. “You might have a need for an heir, but you do not want a family.”

He rocked back on his heels. “I haven’t given the possibility much consideration, truthfully.”

Vivi bit her bottom lip. She could release him. The act would cost her a great deal, but being the cause of another’s suffering seemed worse than enduring misery she had brought on herself.

She swallowed hard and wished she were braver.

“I have a proposition, Lady Vivian. A solution, perhaps. I want to escort you to a house party in Northumberland.”

“A house party?” What type of daft solution was he proposing?

“My mother hosts a party every year. The entire affair is respectable and more than suited for our purpose.”

“Forgive me if I sound ungrateful. I do appreciate the invitation, but how is a house party suited to our purpose?” And what purpose would that be?

“There will be many eligible bachelors attending.” He raised his eyebrows and gestured to her as if to ask, isn’t it obvious?

It wasn’t, at least not to her.

When she didn’t respond, he sighed. “I could provide information about each gentleman—his disposition, family, financial standing—then facilitate an introduction. You could find a replacement husband then break off our agreement without anyone knowing we never intended to marry.”

“I see you have given this thought.” He may have meant no harm, but his desire to foist her off onto another gent stung. Especially after the lovely day they had shared.

He smiled broadly, appearing proud. “A respectable match should keep your brother happy and you out of the convent, and I would be released from my father’s promise without breaking his word or tarnishing your reputation. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner.”

Tightness coiled in her chest, and she absently smoothed a hand over her heart. “I’m not sure Ash would grant his permission. He thought it best to secure a betrothal without presenting me.”

“Did he now?” Foxhaven’s intense blue eyes bore into her. “For what reason?”

She shrugged one shoulder and looked away. It was wrong to hide the truth, but she had been unfairly judged and she needed this match with him. “You must admit I am different from other young ladies. I could never expect to have a successful Season with my tendency to act before thinking.”

This had been a problem for her since she was a child. Patrice had promised she would outgrow it, but she never had.

His jaw lost its hard edge and warmth radiated from his smile. “You are a breath of fresh air, Lady Vivian. Gentlemen will issue challenges to win your favor.”

“Liar,” she teased, her cheeks flushing with pleasure despite knowing he falsely flattered her. “When it comes to a choice between death and marriage to a hoyden, no one is winning in this scenario.”

“You underestimate your charms.”

And he underestimated other gentlemen’s ability to be like him. He might not run away in horror, but that didn’t mean other men wouldn’t.

“Perhaps I could persuade your brother to allow you to attend the party, but only if you give your consent. I won’t ask you to do this if it isn’t what you want.”

“Oh.” No one had ever requested her opinion on anything pertaining to her future, and she had certainly never been asked to give her permission. Tears stung the back of her eyes.

“What is your answer, my lady? Will you allow me to find a husband for you?”

She nodded slowly, repressing her silly sentiments. It meant nothing that he was showing her kindness. He still wanted to be rid of her.

“Splendid,” he said. “I will dictate a letter to your brother this evening.”

She accepted his outstretched hand and climbed to her feet. His fingers linked with hers, and he held on as they strolled to the curricle. She glanced sideways at him, trying to puzzle him out. With every word, he said he wanted to be free of her, but his actions conveyed his reluctance.

A stirring began in her heart; a question. What if he wasn’t yet aware he wanted her for his wife?

Her relentless imagination refused to slumber as he lifted her into the carriage, his touch lingering on her waist. Courtship of a man—a duke—required bravery and more than a trace of foolishness. Fortunately, she possessed the later in abundance.

“Thank you, Luke.”

His nostrils flared briefly before his neutral mask slipped back in place. Now that he wasn’t attempting to persuade her, perhaps he wanted to retract the offer to further their intimacy.

She took her place on the bench. “Do I still have leave to use your Christian name?”

“Of course, Lady Vivian.” He bounded into the carriage as sure-footed as an acrobat, sank down beside her, and retrieved the reins.

“You may call me Vivian if you like.”

Luke nodded once then signaled the grays to return to the lane. As the carriage bumped over a rut, her attention turned to a possible hitch in her plan.

She had no idea how to go about courting a man.

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