Authors: Shayla Black
“Kira,” he called her name. The spice of her skin, combined with the tang of arousal,
answered his call.
Dying to be inside her, he lunged forward—
And woke to find himself alone. Gavin lay still, bathed in sweat. He panted, one rapid
breath following another. Every nerve tingled with arousal. He didn’t remember a time
he had been so hard.
Disoriented, he glanced about the surrounding darkness, surprised to find the familiar
his own bedchamber. Rolling to his feet with a groan, he prayed that the biting spring
wind blowing through his open windows would cool his heated body.
Gavin removed his nightshirt, which he found both damp and constricting, and flung
it across the room with an oath. Then he paced his chamber. He didn’t give a damn
that he was stark naked, that someone from the garden below might be able to view
him through the open window, moonlight permitting. He only cared that his fascination
with James’s fiancée wasn’t abating.
What was the matter with him? This strange attraction must stop, or else this kind
of lust could start influencing his decisions. Any number of men had fallen to such
a malady. Lord knew his father had planned entire weeks around tupping a new woman.
In doing so, he’d neglected his wife, his duties, his children, his reputation—everything
that mattered. Gavin refused to behave like an idiot simply to satisfy lust.
Frankly, he did not understand his reaction to Kira. He’d never had a yen for foreign
women. Oh, when visiting the Continent, he’d partaken. Italy, Spain, Portugal
, and the like
all held beautiful women. But he hadn’t wanted them so desperately that he dreamt
about them, memorized every inch of their bodies.
Nor had tawdry women, particularly ones with so infamous a past, ever held any appeal
for him. Other men fancied such creatures. Not Gavin. He always did his best to cho
se the right and proper path.
And while he appreciated Kira’s intelligence, he knew any number of clever women.
Cordelia, for instance. As much as he admired her, Gavin had never been overcome with
a desire to lead her to the nearest bed and have his wicked way with her.
What was it about Kira Melbourne that drew him? Was it knowing that she belonged to
James? Gavin shook his head, raking stiff fingers through his short, sodden hair.
He’d never been lured by the forbidden before. Certainly if his cousin had chosen
a woman with all the allure and verve of, say, Honoria Baycliffe, Gavin doubted he’d
find himself prowling his bedroom floor like a tomcat.
So it must be something about Kira herself that drew him. But what?
His mind supplied him images of her: smile hesitant upon the first day of their meeting,
posture angry when he’d asked about the uncle she’d never met, face alive when he’d
accidentally brushed his fingers against her breast, countenance seemingly innocent
as he watched her over dinner, eyes concerned as she’d brought her shawl to Aunt Caroline
to hide her dress’s tear. The woman had many facets
that intrigued him.
Before her intrusion into the family, Gavin awoke every morning certain the day would
be without change. Steadiness—he’d always appreciated that. Change brought too many
headaches. At times, he rejected the new simply because he liked the old too much
to try anything else. So why would a woman as changeable and as multi-sided as Kira
draw him to her?
Cursing, Gavin threw himself back on the bed and retrieved his sheets from the floor.
The whole argument was ridiculous. He was tired and making little sense because of
it. He did not like Kira for her mutating moods. He did not like her at all. She had
an attractive body, so his wanting it made perfect sense. The sentiment was inconvenient,
yes. But he would find some way to honor his promise to Aunt Caroline and oust Miss
Melbourne from their lives. He had to. And once she was gone, Gavin would forget her.
And life would return to its predictable cadence. It was all very simple.
* * * *
Kira had scarcely finished eating a solitary breakfast in her room when her maid knocked,
bearing the news that the duke himself wished to see her in his office now.
Did he? Well, she had no wish to oblige him. Nothing good happened when they were
alone. He usually insulted her—while staring. She read many things in his gaze, most
often disapproval. But the last time he’d confronted her had been most distressing.
As angry as she’d been with him, when he grasped her arm and pulled her near, the
shock and tingle of the connection she felt with him sizzled her anger away. Worse,
his gaze made it clear he felt the same. Those relentless dark eyes fastened on her,
communicating something so fierce she’d been stunned, rooted to her spot.
Staring out her window at the riotous multi-colored blooms in the cloud-shadowed garden,
Kira found herself identifying various flowers—climbing roses here, pink dogwoods
there, snapdragons near the fountain trickling with water—anything to avoid Cropthorne.
She did not like him, did not trust him, did not want to be alone with him again.
Resolving that the odious man could simply wait, Kira withdrew the book of poetry
she’d plucked from the library shelves and sat to read. She’d lost count of the number
of pages she turned when she heard a firm knock upon her door.
“Yes?” she called.
“Miss Melbourne, I’d like to speak with you.”
Cropthorne. So the duke had come to her. Without shock, she noted that he sounded
“Do you have something new to convey to me beyond our last discussion in the music
room? If not, I must confess I’ve no wish to hear a renewal of your insults.”
He paused. Kira pictured him grinding his teeth on the other side of her door. She
smiled at the image.
“Indeed, I do. May we speak about it more privately?”
Kira stared at the solid white door separating her from the duke. She did not really
want to see him. He’d made it perfectly clear that he held her in contempt. Though
she had always been uncomfortable with her mixed heritage, she refused to allow a
puffed-up buffoon like Cropthorne to sharpen his tongue on her. But if he truly had
something new to say, something kinder, perhaps she ought to listen. If nothing else,
her defiance would not aid her in persuading the man to accept her marriage to James.
She sighed in resignation. “I shall be down in a few moments.”
At length, Cropthorne said, “I will await you in my study.”
Retreating footfall told her he left her door. Anxiety stirred her up, made her stomach
uneasy. Only when she stood did Kira realize that she trembled. She closed her eyes,
shaking her head. Why should she allow such a shallow, unpleasant sort of man to upset
her? To matter at all?
Knowing she could no longer put off the inevitable, no matter how she wished it, Kira
lay her book of poetry aside and made her way to the duke’s lair.
After a brief knock, he bade her to enter. Reluctantly, she did so.
She had never been in this room, but it was clearly his domain and it fit him: dark,
practical, with a trace of elegance and more than a touch of wealth. Walnut paneling
covered the walls. A massive mahogany desk stood as a barrier between the two of them.
A wall of books, shelved in neat rows, lined the wall at his back, framed by heavy
forest green draperies that had been drawn against all but a sliver of the morning
“Sit, please.” He gestured to a George III mahogany library chair in front of his
Kira did so, watching his face. She did not trust his shuttered, authoritative expression.
Whatever he had to say, while perhaps not a resumption of his previous insults, would
not be pleasant, she sensed.
“Your grace, I—
He held up a large hand to stay her words. “First, let me thank you for assisting
my aunt yesterday. You came to her rescue, and for that I am indebted.”
The words were kind, yes. And they surprised Kira. But somehow she doubted he’d summoned
her here for the purpose of thanking her for her wrap.
“You are welcome.”
With a slight incline of his head, he acknowledged her. “We have another matter of
import to discuss. I realize I insulted you greatly when last we met. I am certain
you’ll find this odd, but I meant nothing personal. As head of my family, I protect
my loved ones at all costs. I still do not believe it is to James’s benefit to marry
a woman who will raise brows among his parishioners.”
She opened her mouth to object; he staved off her words with a shake of his head.
“I mean that as no judgment of you.”
Kira doubted that very much.
“The kind of gossip circulating about you, whether true or not, is damaging. You must
know that. I’m sure you’ll make a perfectly lovely wife—for someone else.”
Cropthorne clearly thought he explained himself without insulting her. What a dolt!
He believed the gossip about her. Before, that fact had simply angered her. Now it
pained her, probably because his bad opinion was the only thing that could stand between
her and the acceptance marriage to James could provide. Blast it, she wanted him to
trust in her innocence. But she sensed that he was not a trusting sort of man.
“At the risk of repeating my earlier sentiments, I told you once I would be a
exemplary wife to your cousin. I believe that, with time, the vicious gossip will
dissipate. By then, James’s parishioners will know that—
“You’re the model of English virtue?” He raised a challenging brow. “Allow me to disagree.”
With those few words, he insulted her heritage so easily, her ire rose. “I have every
bit of affection for England that you do.”
Cropthorne answered her only with a dubious stare as he paused to retrieve a piece
of paper from a drawer in his desk. He looked it over, and with a satisfied nod, slid
it across the desk in her direction.
Kira hesitated, gazing at the duke with uncertainty roiling in her belly.
Shadows clung to Cropthorne’s face. He appeared like a carved statue, marble, cold…yet
she could not deny
he was a vision of masculine perfection
and strangely enthralling for it. An odd time to notice such a thing, certainly. His
eyes looked unreadable, his full mouth firm and grim.
Their gazes connected. As if time stopped, Kira felt the breath leave her body, heard
her heart beat, once, twice. Heat flared in his eyes; she was nearly certain of it,
and her cheeks flushed. But the duke looked away too quickly.
“Well, look at it.” With a flick of his wrist, he gestured to the paper on the well-polished
desk before her.
With an odd sense of dread, she did so. As she unfolded the rectangular scrap of paper,
she saw it was a bank draft, made out in her name, in the amount of ten thousand pounds.
Afraid she understood all too well, Kira raised her gaze to him.
“Everyone in this world wants something. Whatever you desire, this should be enough
for you to acquire it. In return, I ask that you leave James today.”
Pain lanced Kira. She hated the fact she cared for Cropthorne’s opinion at all, but
he thought ill enough of her to
her a fortune simply to keep her from wedding his cousin. At least he hadn’t lied,
she thought with irony. He had not renewed his previous insults. Rather, he’d insulted
her on a deeper level. Instead of being merely of loose morals and bad blood, as he’d
earlier insinuated, now he thought her mercenary as well.
Tears stung the back of her eyes, tightened her throat. She swallowed them. His grace
was not going to destroy the happiness within her grasp. One man’s small opinion
no matter how handsome the man or how much she responded to him
mattered. His success meant her failure. She had come too far and wanted too much
to allow that.
Rising slowly, bank draft in hand, she ripped it
half. “I am insulted in every conceivable manner by your bribe. You have not the money
to buy my absence from your cousin’s life, for there is no such price.”
The shock that transformed the duke’s face might have been comical had she not been
“I will not believe that.” He stood, towering over her.
She stood as well and glared at him. “Do try. That way, when your cousin and I begin
posting the banns tomorrow, you’ll not be terribly surprised.”
That next day, James posted the first of their banns to clear the path for marriage,
as he’d promised. Kira had been pleased, despite the fact none of the villagers had
spoken to her after the church service. Still, she felt certain her dream of acceptance
and security would come true when she and James reached Tunbridge Wells as man and
wife. They simply had to.
The fact that Cropthorne and Mrs. Howland had chosen to remain behind from Sunday
services upset her—more for James than herself. They might not wish to hear the posting
of the banns, but they could not deny the reality forever. Kira understood what her
fiancé’s family thought; the duke had made their contempt quite clear. James, however,
was disheartened by their behavior, and Kira did not tell him of Cropthorne’s attempts
to force her from the family. The truth would only upset him more. Though James disliked
dissention almost as much as she, he did his utmost to protect her from the ugly gossip,
even at his own peril. Truly, he was a good friend.