Lady Vivian Defies a Duke

By: Samantha Grace

Chapter Nine


Luke’s family waited at the edge of the foyer while Vivi made her good-byes.

“I hate for you to travel alone.” Patrice spoke into her ear to be heard over the rambunctious screeching of the tiny girls. They reminded Vivi of eager puppies wriggling to break free from their parents’ arms.

“I fear I may never be alone on this journey,” she murmured in reply, but all in good fun.

Luke’s nieces provided ample entertainment. Their fervent exploration of anything breakable or deadly kept Lord Andrew on his toes. Vivi had grown quite accustomed to Luke’s brother launching from his chair, leaping obstacles if necessary, to snatch one of his girls back from the edge of disaster. Who knew babies were so nimble on hands and knees?

Patrice’s hug lacked its usual vigor.

Vivi held on to her and tried to force down the knot of apprehension forming in her throat. “I’ll miss you. Do you promise to rest and eat at mealtimes?”

Patrice patted her back. “You mustn’t worry about me. Just be happy. You’re to be a duchess soon.”

As part of her understanding with Luke, no one was to know of the agreement. Everyone was supposed to believe Vivi had tossed him over once it was all said and done. Were she not humoring him by pretending to participate in his scheme, guilt might compel her to be honest with her cousin. As it was, Vivi expected to be the Duchess of Foxhaven within the month, two at most.

Luke appeared in the threshold, his cheeks rosy from his morning stroll. “The carriages are ready. Have you had enough time with Lady Brighthurst to bid her farewell?”

Patrice squeezed her hand. “Go on, my dear.”

“I sent word to Vicar Ramsey requesting he look in on you while I am gone.”

Her cousin’s gaze darted to Luke, and his family gathered at the entrance. “Vivi,” she demurred. A blush climbed her neck.

Vivi smiled cheekily and sashayed toward the door. Now that Patrice no longer had to worry about her, a gentle nudge might be all her cousin needed to make a match.

Luke gave Vivi a secret wink and escorted her outside. He had just returned from carrying word to the vicar on her behalf.

Outside, her maid was waiting beside Lord Andrew’s carriage. Winnie, dressed in a dark-blue traveling gown that had once belonged to Vivi, giggled as they approached. This morning they had both admitted to being giddy at the prospect of attending a real house party.

Lord Andrew assisted the nurse with settling his daughters into his carriage while she and Lana—they had been on a first-name basis since the day the lady had arrived—prepared to climb into the ducal travel coach. Vivi accepted Luke’s help on the stairs and settled on the plush ivory seat. The gold coach lace at the windows swayed in the light breeze. With Lana seated beside her and the gentlemen situated at last, the carriage started with a small jerk.

Lana smiled at her. “I understand you’re seeking a husband among the gentlemen at Irvine Castle.”

“Lana,” Lord Andrew protested a second before he received an elbow in the ribs. “Ow! What the—”

Luke glowered at his brother. “I thought we spoke in confidence.”

“I thought you meant I shouldn’t say anything to Lady Vivian. I tell Lana everything.” He attempted a stern expression, but gazing at his wife seemed to have a strange effect on him. Lord Andrew broke into a dimpled grin that had probably shattered a thousand hearts. “You weren’t supposed to say anything.”

“Oh, dear.” The young woman touched Vivi’s arm. “You did know already, didn’t you? Luke didn’t mislead you about the journey, I hope.”

“Good Lord.” Luke dropped his head against his palm with a smack.

Vivi chuckled. It was refreshing to encounter a lady who practiced candor. “I am aware of His Grace’s plan and gave my consent. And please, don’t trouble yourself, any of you. I prefer having the situation in the open. There is less pressure on me to keep a secret.”

“Splendid.” Lana adjusted her skirts and folded her hands in her lap. “We must discuss strategy at once.”

“Strategy? This isn’t war,” Luke said.

Lana rolled her eyes in his direction. “Pay him no mind. He knows nothing about matchmaking. Had you known of his lack of expertise, I am certain you would have declined his offer. I, on the other hand, have a leg up when it comes to facilitating union  s, and thereby offer my assistance.”

“You can’t argue with her record,” Lord Andrew said when Luke opened his mouth to protest. “Lana had a hand in several betrothals, all love matches.”

Luke scoffed and looked out the window.

“You may laugh, old man, but love matches do exist.” Lord Andrew winked at his wife, activating a radiant glow on her porcelain complexion. “Lana has created a list of prospective gentlemen attending the party. All upstanding gents.”

“Lady Vivian doesn’t require a list,” Luke grumbled. “I will assist her.”

Vivi absorbed the knowing looks exchanged between Luke’s brother and sister-in-law. They were up to mischief, and she couldn’t resist aligning with them. “Do you have the list with you, my lady?”

“Why, yes. I do.” She opened her reticule and extracted a folded piece of paper.

Luke crossed his arms and turned a bored look out the window. Not the reaction Vivi had hoped for.

“First, I must apologize,” Lana said. “I married the most acceptable of the lot, but there are a few unattached gentlemen who meet with my approval.”

“Thank you, my dear,” Lord Andrew said.

“Certainly.” Clearing her throat, Lana rattled the page for maximum drama. “There is the tenth Marquis of Corby.”

The muscles in Luke’s jaw shifted, but his gaze stayed frozen to the passing landscape.

“He is such a lovely man, Vivi. I’m certain you will like him. In addition, Lord Corby has a nice title and significant property holdings with a handsome yearly income.”

“He’s too short,” Luke said.

Lana peered over the list. “Too short?”

“Yes, he is two inches shorter than Lady Vivian.”

“I hardly think his stature should have any bearing on his suitability.” She turned to Vivi. “Would you be troubled by marrying a shorter man?”

“Only if I must gaze down on his bald pate.”

Lana nodded. “Rightly so. I hadn’t considered that viewpoint. Lord Corby has a full head of hair at the moment, but one never knows.”

Luke gestured to Vivi. “And if you wished to run in another three-legged race, your stride would be off.”

“Oh, yes,” she said. “Excellent point, Your Grace. Perhaps we should eliminate Lord Corby.”

Lana lowered the paper to her lap. “Then I am afraid Lord Mitcham must come off the list, too. Did I hear you and Luke took the first-place ribbon for the three-legged race at the church picnic?”

“We did.”

“I see. Then we require a gentleman of similar height to Foxhaven.”

Vivi ran her gaze from his head to his toes as if assessing him. “Indeed. His Grace is perfect.”

Luke smiled smugly.

She leaned over the paper to see it better. “Do you have someone of similar stature on the list?”

Luke sat up straight. “Let me see the blasted thing.”

Lana held it out to him, her thin brows arching upward.

He snatched the list from his sister-in-law and read it aloud. “Mr. Pickering. Lord Blackmont. Ellis?” His hand fell to his side. “Why is Anthony on the list?”

“What issue do you have with Ellis?” Lord Andrew asked.

“If you must know, his interests lie elsewhere, namely with our little sister.”

“Exactly. Just performing my brotherly responsibilities. Gabby despises him.”

“He’s a decent chap. And he is coming off the list.” Luke perused the rest of the names and flicked it back toward Lana. “None of these gentlemen will do. No more lists. I’ll assist Lady Vivian in her search.”

Lana huffed and shoved the paper back into her reticule, but Vivi’s heart danced in victory. There were at least ten names on the list. It seemed the Duke of Foxhaven wasn’t so eager to be rid of her after all.

***

Luke adjusted his position on the bench and brushed against Vivian’s calf.

Damnation. No matter where he attempted to move his legs, she already seemed to be occupying the space. He had begun to suspect her of purposefully getting in his way.

He held rigid to keep from touching her again, because each contact sent a jagged current straight to his lower abdomen. He closed his eyes and attempted to think of anything other than touching her all over.

He was accustomed to riding in the saddle for hours at a time, not folded into a cramped carriage with a woman who aroused him merely with her proximity. The muscles in his lower back and thighs were knotted and on fire.

Gads. He had to move again.

He checked the placement of her legs before stretching, but somehow he grazed her ankle anyway. He glowered in her direction, but she was staring out the window with a peaceful half smile.

“We just passed a mill,” she said. “The village cannot be much farther.”

He sighed with relief. This was their destination for the night. Traveling with young children made it necessary to stop at a decent hour, and Luke would not complain.

When the carriage entered the coaching yard of The Bull Inn, he scooted to the edge of the bench. He had to get out of there. He alighted without waiting for the stairs, then stretched.

Vivian was grinning at him from the doorway when he turned around. Perhaps the minx knew what she was doing after all. He offered a hand to assist her from the carriage.

“Thank you, Your Grace.” The warmth of her smile enveloped him as she entwined her arm with his. His nerves buzzed like a hive of honeybees. Her action was possessive and presumptuous, but instead of wishing to extract himself, he pulled her closer.

The nurse and Vivian’s maid exited the other carriage with Chloe and Claire, and Lana and Drew went to collect them.

“Wouldn’t a stroll be lovely?” Vivian said. “I haven’t sat that long for ages.”

Lana held her arms out for Chloe and nuzzled her plump cheek when her daughter went to her. “I want nothing more than a warm bath before dinner.”

“I’m sure that can be arranged.” Drew hurried ahead and disappeared inside the inn.

Lana’s gaze darted between the inn and Vivian, resting on the inn longer. “You will need an escort if you go for a stroll.”

“There is no need to alter your plans.” Vivian nodded to her maid. “Winnie will accompany me.”

Luke missed her warmth the moment she released his arm. “It’s unsafe to wander the village without a male escort,” he said.

“I see.” She nibbled her bottom lip, hands on her slender hips. Her silver-blue eyes flashed with a stroke of brilliance. “Perhaps one of your footmen would lend his assistance.”

John halted in the middle of loosening a strap and gazed at Vivian with calf-eyes.

Luke shook his head. The servant snapped his attention back to his task with a dark frown.

“My men are occupied with their duties. Perhaps you will accept my escort instead.”

Lana tossed an overly bright smile at them. She was plotting something. He could see the mischief in her eyes. “What a splendid solution. Now I may rest without worry.”

She wandered toward the inn with the nurse and her girls, leaving him alone with Vivian and her maid.

“Shall we?” Vivian took his arm. Her eyes crinkled at the corners and her smooth cheeks plumped when she smiled up at him.

He tried to dismiss the skip of his heart as a result of too much inactivity. He was a man of action, not given to lazing about for the better part of a day. His body needed activity. When Vivian’s breast brushed against his arm, the type of activity his body desired became apparent. Perhaps he should have enlisted the footman’s services after all, but since it was too late to bow out, he led her from the coaching yard. Vivian’s maid trailed behind them but paused to allow a new arrival into the yard.

Luke stifled a groan when he spotted the crest. The carriage door flew open, and Viscount Brookhaven spilled out in a disheveled tumble of satin. A chorus of high-pitched cackles echoed inside the conveyance.

“Brookhaven, where’s the bloody fire?” Jonathan Collier appeared in the doorway, weaved, and barely grabbed the door frame before he dove headfirst on top of the viscount. Even foxed, Collier’s ability to sniff out a beauty functioned with maddening accuracy. His gaze landed on Vivian and a grin spread across his cherubic face.

Luke drew her closer to his side.

A frizz of brown hair ducked under Collier’s arm. Another head-shattering cackle burst from the owner’s crimson lips. “Foxhaven! Yoo-hoo!” Her lily-white arm shot into the air and flailed. It was the only lily-white attribute the woman possessed. “We are traveling to Irvine Castle. Is that not a happy coincidence?”

“Mrs. Price.” Luke nodded out of politeness as he directed Vivian away from the scoundrels and their entertainment for their journey.

“Pay a call later, Your Grace, if you would care for a treat.”

He would be paying a call indeed, to Brookhaven to clear up the mistaken belief that an invitation to his mother’s house party extended to trollops and ne’er-do-wells like Collier.

Vivian’s maid rounded the carriage, gaping.

“Come along, Winifred,” he said.

The girl scurried around Brookhaven, who was sitting cross-legged on the ground, and made a huge arc to escape his grasping reach.

“Help me up, wench.”

She quickened her step to catch up to her mistress.

Neither Luke nor Vivian spoke as they strolled along the pathway. Honeysuckle dripped over a meandering stone wall, and narrow strips of grass nestled up to the thatch-roofed cottages.

Vivian stared up at him with her direct blue gaze. “You failed to introduce me to your friends.”

“Lord Brookhaven and his guests are old acquaintances. I don’t classify them as friends.”

“It appears Mrs. Price would like to become reacquainted, Your Grace. You may return to speak with her if you wish.”

Her formality in addressing him rankled. A few days ago his name had rolled from her tongue as sweetly as if she had crooned it. Perhaps more galling was her lack of concern over who received his attentions.

Damnation! Why should he care? Her nonchalance meant he held no place of importance in her heart, which would facilitate his mission. If she had no tender feelings for him, she would be more apt to choose a replacement husband quickly. Another wave of irrational anger swept over him.

“It seems Mrs. Price—”

“We are finished discussing Mrs. Price,” he snapped.

Vivian planted her feet, and her maid bumped into her with a surprised cry. She opened her reticule, withdrew a coin, and wheeled around to press it into her maid’s palm. “Winnie, would you be a dear and retrieve a sweet for us?”

The servant’s forehead creased in bewilderment as she searched for and then spotted the sweet shop across the lane. “As you wish, milady.”

“Don’t forget one for yourself.”

Once Winifred crossed the lane and disappeared through the shop’s door in a tinkling of bells, Vivian looked up at him.

“Do you like sweets, Luke?”

“Pardon?”

Her eyes gleamed with a touch of wildness now that she stood toe to toe with him. “I asked if you liked sweets. It’s a simple question.”

There was nothing simple about her inquiry. Or Vivian.

He couldn’t hold back a pleased grin.

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