Denying a Rakish Duke by Ava MacAdams
“Come inside at once, young lady! You are in an absolutely atrocious state!”
Vanessa Farbridge could hear Petunia’s voice shouting at her from the back porch steps in the distance. The woman’s shrill tone reached her easily over the crisp summer afternoon air. Vanessa wanted nothing more than to pretend that she could not hear it. She wanted to pretend that her mother was inside, toiling away on her embroidery.
Vanessa wanted nothing more than to continue riding though her arms and legs ached with fatigue. Her cheeks were red, and her black hair was matted down to the skin of her forehead. Those strands that managed to escape the loose braid that she had placed into her hair this morning was now a fizzled mess surrounding her head like a halo of shadow.
“Faster, Apple, faster now,” Vanessa coaxed the brilliant thoroughbred between her legs to pick up speed. “If I am to be in trouble, we best make it count, right?” Vanessa nudged her mount’s sides with her heels as she leaned down closer to the mare’s neck, and she was rewarded with speed. She gripped the reins tightly in her hands and tensed the muscles in her legs as Apple carried them at breakneck speed through the complicated set of twists and turns they had been practicing for the last few weeks.
“You shall break your pretty little neck! Vanessa!” Petunia screamed from the porch, her voice cracking with rage.
Vanessa had been referred to as the dutiful daughter, the one who tended to toe the line and always did as she was told. However, with two older sisters already married and going into yet another Season without having found a husband, she was feeling more and more estranged from her mother by the day. To make things worse, Uncle Tobias was also rather displeased that she had not moved into another man’s home to become his financial problem.
Sometimes Vanessa wondered if they would notice if she moved into the stables with her beloved horses and spent her days working there. Perhaps then they would be happier if she had lessened the burden that she knew that she was quickly becoming.
By the time Vanessa dismounted, Petunia looked as if she were about to faint from irritation.
“My word! Is that any way for a proper lady to conduct herself?” Petunia stated, her hand pressed to her chest as if fighting the urge to swoon. “Gallivanting about when there are visitors on the way! And in men’s clothing no less!”
Vanessa rolled her eyes. “Mama,” she started as she pulled the gloves from her fingers and tucked them up under her arm. “I cannot ride properly in a dress; I have told you this many times already!”
“Then perhaps you ought to not be riding at all! What if somebody were to see you dressed like that?”
“With some luck, they would mistake me for a woman free to do as she pleases.”
Petunia gasped. “Go inside at once! We do not have time for your theatrics today, young lady; there are suitors coming to call any moment, and you will be in that parlor, ready to receive them, or so help me—”
“So help you what, Mama? It is not like any of those suitors are going to be here to greet me anyway, so I do not see why it matters if I am in that room or if I am out here doing something that I actually enjoy.”
“It matters!” Petunia argued.
“It matters because despite the very obvious fact that you have given up on your happiness and a prosperous future, you have a younger sister to think of! My word, I have never known you to be such a selfish creature, Vanessa!”
“Amanda already has two elder sisters married to Dukes, Mama. The single blemish on your otherwise shining family reputation will go unnoticed,” Vanessa sighed and pulled the ribbon from her braid so that she might start to untangle the mess with her fingers.
“That is where you are mistaken, my love; there are already abundant rumors about you and the reasons behind your apparent desire to become a spinster. You shun every man that offers you the slightest bit of attention, and you glare sourly at all of the rest! It is no wonder that people think that you are unpleasant!” Petunia spoke rapidly as she followed her daughter into the Manor.
Vanessa spun so quickly that Petunia nearly stumbled into her. “Do you think that I am unpleasant, Mama?” All vestiges of stubbornness faded from her tone as she asked her mother a genuine question. She was frozen in place. Vanessa valued her mother’s opinion on most things, apart from her own riding habits. However, if her mother was turning against her, she did not know if she would be able to tolerate it. Where would she be if her mother chose to see her as a burden rather than a free spirit?
Petunia’s shoulders sagged, and she exhaled slowly. “No, my love.” She lifted her arms to cup Vanessa’s elbows and leveled her daughter with a very serious look. “I am under a great deal of pressure as you can imagine. Your sister has longed to be out in Society for such a long time now. Her time is here, and she wishes to enjoy each and every minute of it. I understand that you have had many Seasons already, and the luster has quite worn off for you, but for Amanda’s sake … can you not at least pretend?”
Vanessa did not want to. She wanted so badly to say that no, she would stay in her chamber so as not to distract any visitors and perhaps to allow Amanda to have the entire spotlight, but she knew that this was not a battle she was likely to win. Reluctantly, Vanessa nodded.
Petunia brightened immediately. “Very good. Now, rush upstairs and get cleaned up. Amanda is already waiting for her visitors in the parlor, and I must join her at once. I expect you to join us the moment that you are ready.”
“Yes, Mama.” Vanessa consoled herself with the fact that at least there would be biscuits and tea in the parlor. She was famished from riding all morning. Her weary body and feet did not relish in the idea of stuffing herself into a corset and slippers, and she greatly wished that there was time for a proper bath.
* * *
“There you are!” Petunia grabbed Vanessa by her arm the moment that she was in the room— not that her presence was noticed. “You certainly took your time! All of the gentlemen have already been introduced!”
“And are any of them here to see me, Mama, or can I enjoy the biscuits already?”
Petunia pursed her lips and pulled Vanessa further into the room. “You could not have worn the yellow dress, perhaps? It would make you look so lovely.”
“They are not here to see, Mama,” Vanessa countered.
“Well, perhaps you could attempt to be pleasant anyway.” Petunia shook her head and moved further into the room. “Might I present my other daughter, Vanessa? Vanessa this is Lord Tepperage,” Petunia said to the first gentleman in the room. He was a handsome enough fellow, Vanessa supposed, only in that his face was not pockmarked or blemished— but it was covered in wrinkles. The man had to be twice as old as Petunia herself, not a preferable choice for either of the women in the room. “I shall let you speak,” Petunia said and gave the couple some space.
“Ah, Lady Vanessa— charmed to see you out and about again. You have been so difficult to find on the dance floor; I was certain that you had fallen ill!”
“Nothing of the sort, My Lord. I am quite well,” Vanessa replied, looking around him to see which other men had showed up for the afternoon.
“Well, you look fair enough, I suppose,” the man’s smile fell from his face, and he stepped directly in front of Vanessa blocking her line of sight. “Perhaps then, the issue is that nobody wishes to dance with you?”
“Perhaps so, My Lord, or perhaps the prospect of dancing with gentlemen such as yourself turns my stomach.” Vanessa folded her arms across her chest and refused to look at him.
“Hm? What was that?” the man said, sticking his finger deep into his ear with an unbecoming squelching sound. Vanessa tried to refrain from making a face and failed.
“I said, my sister summoned me, My Lord.” Vanessa stepped back as he examined the bit of wax now underneath his fingernails. He motioned as if he was not finished speaking with her, but she quickly moved away.
There, surrounded by no less than eight suitors all bearing gifts, was Amanda. She was the second prettiest of all of the sisters in Vanessa’s opinion. Vanessa placed herself last on that list, and Amanda was second only to Seraphina. They were both pale of hair and skin with a natural pink blush on their cheeks. Amanda was petite with delicate features and full pretty pink lips. A natural dancer, she had a long slender neck to rival any ballerina. She sat perfectly poised and smiled and nodded politely to the gentlemen as they spoke. Somehow, she was also the only sister to be blessed with an abundance of patience as well.
“Petunia, Petunia dear, come sit here,” Uncle Tobias called to Vanessa’s mother. His beefy hand patted the settee beside him. He left only enough space for Petunia to squeeze herself onto the chair that should have easily been able to seat three or four people.
At her side, Petunia gave a deep and long-suffering sigh. Vanessa looked at her mother strangely. Uncle Tobias was never a warm or friendly person, and so the invitation to join him was very strange. Usually, he would avoid this sort of setting at all costs. He never entertained the suitors like this. Petunia pulled her arm from Vanessa and forced a polite smile as she went to wedge herself onto the settee where Tobias sat up straighter. He kept glancing at her out of the corner of his eye.
There was no way to make it to Amanda’s side without attracting attention. While this meant that she could finally enjoy a biscuit … she could not help but to wonder what that interaction between her mother and her uncle was all about.