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Authors: Shayla Black

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“Take a deep breath. All will be well.” James’s concerned gaze touched her as he helped
her from the coach, out into the balmy night.

Nodding, Kira took hold of his arm and walked toward the Baycliffe’s Palladian-style
house. Darius walked behind her, his silent presence comforting. In front, the duke,
looking both elegant and formidable in evening black, escorted his aunt.

The dreaded evening of the assembly had arrived. Being the center of attention always
forced Kira to admit to cowardice. And now that her impending nuptials had been announced,
she would be the subject of even more speculation. As such, she had pleaded to remain
at Norfield Park tonight, but James and Darius convinced her she must attend. She
must show one and all she had nothing about which to be ashamed.

Once inside, Kira realized they had arrived late. The dancing had commenced some time
ago, based on the wilted condition of many. The scents of perfume and liquor hung
in the heavy, humid air despite the windows open to the night breeze. Villagers pressed
together in the smallish blue-walled room, fanning themselves as someone’s young daughter
played the pianoforte.

When Cropthorne and Mrs. Howland entered, the chatter reduced to a buzz. Kira’s stomach
tightened as James all but dragged her into the room next. As she feared, the moment
they stepped through the portal, talk ceased altogether.

Mr. Howland smiled and behaved as if nothing untoward had occurred. He walked by her
side, obtaining a glass of punch for her. Kira felt a roomful of incredulous, speculative
stares, heard the whispers behind lacy fans as James introduced her to Mr. Baycliffe—a
scarecrow of a man who was kinder than his wife. She closed her eyes, wishing for
a place to hide.

“Miss Melbourne, try to smile.” James encouraged her, shoulders squared. “Remember,
your goodness shines through your smile. People will see the light in you.”

Kira wished she could be half as optimistic, but she feared no one here would look
past her reputation. For James, however, she did her best to appear happy.

“Much better. Relax and all will be well,” he vowed.

Patting the hand that rested on his arm, James pulled her toward Mrs. Baycliffe, who
stood mere feet away in a fussy, lace-edged dress, speaking to three elderly men.
Kira recoiled.

“I’d prefer not to give your neighbor the opportunity to insult me again,” she whispered.

“She is our hostess. We must greet her.”

Kira sent him an expression that conveyed her disagreement.

“I understand your feelings,” James said. “We will face others like her in life who
haven’t yet found their Christian tolerance. We will persevere.”

Anxiety ate at Kira’s composure. “Must we persevere now?”

James’s glance gently scolded her as he pulled her toward their hostess.

Adorned in flounces and ruffles that accentuated her heavy bosom, Mrs. Baycliffe held
a lacy handkerchief in one hand and a glass of sherry in the other. After sending
the men a parting smile, she turned away. Her gaze found Kira and James.

As they approached her, Mrs. Baycliffe’s expression of welcome faded. She cast her
gaze down, then away, as she scurried to the other side of the room, pretending interest
in Honoria and her dance partner.

Humiliation slid through Kira, thick and choking. A quick glance about confirmed her
worst fear
, N
ot only had their hostess cut her, but the entire room had seen. Every pair of eyes
seemed to bore into her, burning with condemnation. Heat singed her face as mortification
crashed through her.

Agreeing to elope with Lord Vance had been a mistake. Couldn’t anyone believe that
she had learned from it? Couldn’t they forget her one error?

“Mrs. Baycliffe likely did not see us.”

James used the reassuring tones she’d heard him use with troubled parishioners back
in her Suffolk home. Rather than soothing her as it had a few weeks ago, his voice
now chafed. She was not just another bird in his flock, but his fiancée. And at the
moment, she wanted something more than his practiced tone and a lie. She wanted comfort.
She wanted to leave.

“Kira, are you feeling well?” Her brother studied her with concerned eyes after removing
himself from the corner he’d occupied since their arrival.

“I truly think I should go. Mrs. Baycliffe—

“Please,” James cajoled. “Just a bit longer. You’ve barely arrived, and Mrs. Baycliffe
is one person. Do not allow her to ruin your evening.”

Always the optimist, James was. Kira usually joined him in buoyant thoughts. Tonight,
however, she could not muster his idealism. Still, for James’s sake, she would try.

“I’ll stay.”

“Are you certain?” Darius’s frown was all concern.

She sent her brother a shaky nod.

James smiled. “Splendid. I’ve a feeling everything will work out. In fact, I’m going
to speak with my mother. She can help us smooth things over.”

As James turned away, Kira grabbed his arm. “No.”

“Yes,” he argued, fair hair falling boyishly across his forehead. “She will not want
to see you so
ill-treated
now that everyone knows I mean to make you part of this family.”

Mrs. Howland would not appreciate or honor such a request, she knew. Nor would Cropthorne.

Kira clutched his arm more tightly. “Please, do not involve your family. Just let
the matter be.”

James hesitated, blue eyes roaming her face, searching. With a sigh, he relented.
“As you wish. I’ll introduce you to some of our other neighbors instead.”

Satisfied, Darius again retreated to his corner where several of the local girls eyed
him with unabashed curiosity. He barely glanced in their direction. He certainly did
not encourage the blushing females with a smile. Kira ached for him. Experience had
taught them both that those with mixed blood weren’t wanted by either culture. And
Kira knew her scandal would do nothing to make Darius more comfortable about his future.
She wished she could change all of it—for him.

As she and James made their way through the room, Kira felt every eye upon her, particularly
those of men, young and old, questioning her morals with a heated, contemplative stare.
She was glad to escape their gazes when she and James reached the adjoining room filled
with guests playing cards and laughing. Kira hovered in the doorway behind him and
peered over his shoulder at the fifteen or so people scattered about in small groups
at varying tables. Would she find any friends here?

“Did you see her?” asked a nearby redheaded matron whose hat boasted a peacock plume.
“Can she possibly believe that engagement to any man, even one of Mr. Howland’s fine
stature, would induce us to believe she’s anything but a wanton?”

The question sent a coil of shock through Kira.

Another thirtyish woman, a tall, thin-faced brunette dressed in drab brown
,
played her cards on the table. “I’d sooner believe that George the Fourth is still
alive.”

The other two women at the small table joined the first two in a gale of laughter.
Kira stood rooted, stunned. Did they think she had no feeling
s
, no ears? Did they simply not care?

“Their opinions are of no concern, Miss Melbourne,” James whispered in her ear. “They
are not important—

“I’ve no doubt when I look at her,” whispered the redhead, “that she is every bit
capable of spending two days abed with Lord Vance
,
or any other lord who might be so inclined. Lord Vance described to my husband the
indelicate acts Miss Melbourne performed! And she looks like the very type of woman
who would enjoy such things.”

Shock turned to horror and infused Kira. Lord Vance’s lies, in all their offensive
detail, had reached even this small corner of England; she could not pretend that
only gossips back home cared or that Mrs. Baycliffe was simply being contrary. In
the eyes of England, she was a fallen woman.

Would anyone at Tunbridge Wells accept her? What would she do if they did not?

Embarrassment followed anxiety. She gripped James’s shoulder for support.

The women did not see her, but it was clear they did not care if others heard them—or
that they bandied her name about so cruelly without really knowing her.

“Indeed, sister.” A small brunette wearing an orange gown gave a decisive nod. “I
should not be surprised in the least to learn that she cavorted with Lord Vance like
a common strumpet. That’s to be expected, I suppose. Her mother probably grew up in
a harem and taught her a great deal.”

That was untrue! Her mother’s people were more nomadic than salacious. Ravan knew
nothing of harems.

But ridicule, the kind these four women spouted…that she knew very well, indeed.

A moment later, Kira felt a heavy stare upon her. She glanced up and found Cropthorne
watching her. He sat
at
a table near the four women, a handful of cards in his fist and a drink at his elbow.
He wore a grim expression on the angles of his strong, square face. A furrow rested
between the slashes of his dark brows.

And he had heard every slur, had seen her utterly humiliated! Oh, how he must be gloating.
Kira hated him for that as she fought the sudden urge to cry.

James turned to face her and tried to urge her away. Kira refused to move.

“Come with me, Miss Melbourne.” James pulled on her arm. “We’ll find some others with
whom to share our society.”

“No,” she whispered, a jumble of anger and hurt and shame.

“And that mouth.” The thin-faced woman at the table groaned as if disgusted. “It’s
as if she’s plying her trade every time she smiles.”

“Or even breathes, for goodness sake!” cried another.

“Their opinions mean nothing. They do not know you. Turn the other cheek.” James’s
urgent tone matched his expression.

As the women laughed, Kira looked up to find Cropthorne’s stare still upon her. She
found nothing in his expression—no pity, no surprise—nothing but acceptance.

Kira could not swallow such a slur. She simply refused
to allow such small-minded women to insult her without comment.

Doing her best to muster a blank expression, she broke away from James and approached
the vicious foursome’s table.

“Good evening, ladies.”

The gossips all looked up wearing identically stunned expressions. Only one had the
good grace to look contrite. Around them, the room seemed to stop. She had everyone’s
attention. Heart pounding, Kira took a deep breath.

“You seem misinformed about me, so I hope you will indulge me for a moment. After
all, it’s a pity intelligent, well-bred women like you would believe every lie a philandering
rake would tell his unsuspecting peers.”

The redhead sputtered, “See here—

“And come now, a harem?” Kira laughed. “It’s rather farfetched. I assure you there
is no palace that might hold such a harem in the Zagros Mountains. My mother’s people
spent far more time looking for water and surviving the elements in order to live
another day. At no time was I taught to be wanton. In fact, Islamic law discourages
women from even displaying their hair in public, much less any amount of bosom.” She
looked pointedly at the brunette’s dangerously low décolletage.

James was at her side then, his hand at her elbow, urging her away. Nearby, Cropthorne
had abandoned his cards and stood, looking ready to spring to action. His dark eyes
held a sharp warning, but she was beyond caution. Since he shared their opinion, he
could go hang himself.

“And as for my mouth, do you imagine a feature given me at birth would really determine
my proclivity for lewdness? Such learned ladies like yourselves should know better.”

The redhead stood and drew herself up to her full height, a good six inches shorter
than Kira’s own five feet, eight inches. The woman’s pinch-mouthed expression spewed
hate.

“Lord Vance is a wealthy, respectable peer. It’s shameful that a woman of such questionable
birth would use her dubious virtue to attempt to snare a husband so far above her.
To everyone who matters, you are ill-bred and ill-mannered. No one, least of all Mrs.
Baycliffe, wants you here.”

Kira had known that when she walked in the door. Still, it hurt to hear the truth
put so bluntly—and publicly. She swallowed as a new wave of humiliation lanced through
her.

Still, she lifted her chin proudly. “Then we find ourselves at a happy compromise,
for I have no desire to be among the society of small-minded simpletons.”

With the redhead’s gasp ringing in her ears, Kira whirled away and left the room.
Behind her, she heard stunned silence, followed by an agitated buzz of chatter. She
felt dozens of stares.

Stumbling through the small ballroom, Kira found a white-draped glass door and exited
into the brisk night.

Insects chirped, but the sound did not soothe her. A garden beckoned below, looking
blessedly empty of partygoers. She heeded its call, wandering down its winding path
into a profusion of spring flowers, pungent but unidentifiable in the near dark. Upon
finding a bench, Kira plopped down onto it and covered her face with her hands.

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