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Authors: Shayla Black

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Gavin nodded. Aunt Caroline’s theory made sense, but only if Miss Melbourne was naïve
enough to believe that possible.

“And you spoke to James?” his aunt asked.

“As you said, he is quite stubborn in the matter.”

His aunt seemed to collapse, her eyes clouding over with tears again. “Did you tell
him why we find her so poor a choice?”

“I did my utmost to convince him that she was unsuitable for his position, his temper,
his station in life. He was unmoved.”

“Did you remind him that she is an ill-bred strumpet?”

Gavin cleared his throat, certain his aunt could not appreciate why James would have
found such an assertion insulting. Of course the question he had instead asked James
had been no less disparaging
,
and had proven every bit as effective in rousing James’s occasional stubborn streak.

“I…asked him how he was going to feel when he found his wife abed with another man
someday. Naturally, he refused to believe that Miss Melbourne would act with so few
morals and so little discretion.”

“She will crush him!” Aunt Caroline began sobbing again. “She will destroy his tender
heart and make him the laughingstock
of
Tunbridge Wells
and the church. James believes the best of her. She is bound to deliver only the worst.
Why can we not make him see that?”

Tears made wet tracks down her tired face. Gavin saw that Aunt Caroline had done far
too much that day.

“They are not yet married. I will find some
way to put a stop to their vows.” He did his best to reassure her. “But tonight, we
can do nothing more. Go to bed and let me think on this.”

Caroline sighed, and her shoulders sank. “You’ve been a dear boy to try to end this
engagement for me. I hope we are able to think of something soon. Time is running
out.”

Nodding, Gavin helped his aunt to her feet. When she reached up to wrap her arms around
him, he followed suit and held her. Her small frame only reminded him of her frailty.
She needed protecting. Since she had sheltered and raised him as a boy
,
particularly through the thick of his father’s scandal
,
he owed her no less.

If she wanted Kira Melbourne out of James’s life, it was his duty to see her wish
come true.

“Good night,” she murmured, then slipped out the door.

Alone, Gavin poured himself a brandy and stared into the fire. Yes, he had every reason
to grant Aunt Caroline’s wish, but lacked the means to do it.

Neither guilt nor money had moved Kira. Logic had been similarly ineffective with
James. Could some other means be more persuasive in splitting them apart?

If James could see Kira’s birthmark, perhaps he would believe her a woman of loose
morals… No, he already thought Lord Vance had paid her lady’s maid for that knowledge,
rather than acquiring it while tupping her.

Bloody hell. Gavin sighed and paced toward the fire. Somehow, he had to prove to James
that Kira Melbourne was unworthy. The woman’s tears might have convinced his cousin
of her innocence; Gavin saw only that she regretted too late her decision to cavort
with Vance. But he doubted such remorse would change her natural penchant to inappropriate
behavior.

The question was, how to make James believe that? Gavin doubted that his cousin could
be swayed without seeing Miss Melbourne severely compromised with his own two eyes.

Gavin paused, stunned. His mind raced as an idea took form. Tossing the brandy against
the back of this throat, he considered the notion again. It still seemed perfect.

He would make certain James actually saw Miss Melbourne in a compromising position.
Gavin’s mind raced with possibilities.  Yes. In fact, he would seduce her himself.
And then he would arrange a time and place where James might see clearly what kind
of woman his fiancée truly was. A kiss might be just the thing, or perhaps a bit of
undress to go with it…

Seduction was the perfect solution.

But how? Miss Melbourne disliked him thoroughly and distrusted him even more. Gavin
could not dispute that she was a bright woman who would question his motives if he
suddenly indicated a desire to touch her after treating her with the contempt she
likely deserved. Besides, she’d proven her tenacity
,
and even a pleasing measure of loyalty
,
in wanting to marry James by turning down a fortune. She wasn’t likely to risk her
engagement for a torrid tryst. Also if, in agreeing to marry a clergyman, she intended
to turn over a new leaf, she would be cautious—at least until after the vows. And
no woman, unless being paid for her services
,
which Kira was not
,
would lay with a man she loathed. So what was he to do?

He sighed, mulling over his dilemma. Somehow, he would have to convince her to like
him, coax her trust. Once he did, then he would see the real Kira’s morals—or rather,
he would demonstrate for James.

Turning for the door, Gavin was determined to find Aunt Caroline and tell her of his
brilliant idea. Then he paused.

As schemes went, this was an ugly one. The less she knew the better. Of course, he’d
have to be discreet; he wanted no scandal erupting from his…dealings with James’s
fiancée. In fact, he might be better served to send his aunt on
to London, ostensibly to stem the tide of gossip there.

Gavin sat on the sofa, turning his mind to develop the plan more fully. It worked
on every level—except one. As he considered seducing Kira Melbourne, his heart raced.
Hell, even his palms sweated. The predicament with this plan slapped him in the face:
in order to seduce her, he would have to spend time with her, earn her trust,
and expose
himself to her smiles, her sharp mind. And he must touch her.

Fire raced to his groin at the thought of seeing Kira Melbourne naked again, at giving
his hands free access over her body. Though it would not be necessary to convince
James of his fiancée’s bad behavior, Gavin could not deny an urge to possess her completely.
Even the thought made him unbearably hard.

The plan was dangerous, indeed. But necessary, damn it. He would simply have to restrain
the taint of the Daggett blood creeping through his veins and keep his lust under
firm control.

But he had never known a sultry force stronger than Kira Melbourne, and he silently
acknowledged the fact he was playing with fire.

 

Chapter Six

 

The following morning, Gavin waited to enter the breakfast room until Miss Melbourne
had settled down to eat. Because James rarely rose before ten and Aunt Caroline was
already packing for London, Gavin felt certain he and Kira would be quite alone.

Day one of his plan was about to begin.

First, he would change his role from Kira’s enemy to affable friend, coupled with
a hint of ardent admirer. That would persuade her to lower her guard so he could woo
her trust, learn her weaknesses. And once he discovered them, he could use those vulnerabilities
to his advantage and seduce her. Given her history, he doubted it would be very difficult.
Then James would be forced to realize that his bride did not deserve his good name.

At the entrance to the breakfast room, Gavin paused to spy on his target. Sunlight
streamed in, lighting Kira’s dark hair with an ebony sheen. She appeared collected
this morning
,
nothing like the weeping woman in the garden last night. The shimmering gray silk
morning dress highlighted her placid profile, while the delicate embroidered muslin
half-dress pelerine draping her shoulders lent her the appearance of total femininity.
She ate a scone in silence, a cup of tea nearby. Seeing her eat and absently stir
her tea made her seem… much like any other woman.

But he did not react to her like any other woman, and Gavin did not understand. Nothing
in Kira’s appearance today made her look the part of a temptress, despite the fact
he knew she had lain with Lord Vance. Yet she still drew him more than ever, to his
frustration. The vital parts south of his waist all but begged him to lay her down
on the table and undress her.

Worse, he felt strangely reluctant about this plan. Miss Melbourne had been genuinely
hurt last night, and while he took no pleasure in injuring her further, he could not
allow Aunt Caroline to continue suffering. Nor could he allow James to ruin his life.

Discrediting Kira, seducing her, was his last chance to prevent disaster.

Gavin entered the room, doffing his hat in a gentlemanly gesture and taking care to
wear his best smile. “Good morning, Miss Melbourne.”

At the salutation, Kira lifted her gaze to find Cropthorne standing near her, looking
very well in buff-colored breeches, a fitted, knee-length coat in deep blue, and a
crisp silk cravat. The clothing accentuated his natural good looks. But his smile
kept her gaze upon him.

Kira paused as confusion set in. Cropthorne had greeted her
and
smiled? Even behaved pleasantly?

She eyed him warily. “Good morning. I am nearly finished here, so you may have the
room to yourself.”

“No need to rush out.” He set his hat on the table.

Cropthorne did not want her gone immediately or sooner?

He helped himself to a scone and some jam from the sideboard, smile still in place.
“I hope last night’s events did not prevent you from sleeping well. Lady Becker is
a close friend of Mrs. Baycliffe’s. Two more unpleasant ladies I have rarely had the
misfortune to meet.”

Her frowned deepened. Did Cropthorne actually condemn the redheaded gossip from Mrs.
Baycliffe’s party? Kira eyed him again, searching for any sign of sarcasm. She found
none. How odd. Perhaps the duke was still asleep. No, his gaze looked far too sharp.
Or he was unwell—that made sense…except he looked exceedingly robust, magnificent
even, too much so to be struggling under the burden of illness.

Why, then, did he not only speak to her, but behave as if she didn’t annoy him to
the ends of the earth?

“I found them to be quite unpleasant,” she murmured, at a loss to say anything else.

“Do not feel as if you’re alone.”

Cropthorne pulled out a chair—not his usual at the head of the table, but the one
directly beside her. He smiled again. His grin dazzled, charmed. It made her most
suspicious.

More than likely his grace had concocted another ploy to shove her from James’s life,
and while she had no notion how a smile could accomplish this feat, she thought it
best to leave before he demonstrated.

Kira set her napkin aside and rose. “Thank you for setting me straight about Lady
Becker. Enjoy your breakfast.”

She no more turned away and took a single step before he called out to her. “Wait!”

With a glance over her shoulder, Kira saw that Cropthorne had risen to his feet. He
stood tall and wide-shouldered, looking both tense and hesitant. Definitely odd behavior
after his smiles.

“Yes?”

“Sit, please. I


—he stumbled, hesitated—“I should like to say something to you.”

She raised a sharp brow, both questioning and challenging him. Apparently, he understood.

The duke grimaced, his expression surprisingly contrite. “What I must say will be
pleasant, I vow.”

Pleasant? From him? That sounded dubious. Kira did not trust him, but he did intrigue
her—regularly. This moment was a prime example. For some odd reason, she wanted to
hear his “pleasant” conversation, even as she doubted his ability to engage in it.

Still, she sat as he requested. “I’m listening.”

He remained standing. “Certainly you’ve noted the fact I am protective of my family.”

Irony laced her smile. “Indeed.”

“James is fully eight years my junior and does not always have the experience to make
sound decisions.”

Did he mean to imply that asking for her hand had been a rash and immature choice?
Kira glared at the duke.

“Do not misunderstand me. The fault lies with me. I am so accustomed to looking after
James, and even questioning his decisions, that I sometimes forget his choices might
be perfectly agreeable.”

Did Cropthorne mean he now approved? If so, Kira did not believe the implication or
him.

“You’ve never found me agreeable,” she pointed out.

He nodded, looking somewhat sheepish. “I confess, however, that last night proved
my error to me.” The duke met her gaze, eyes like the darkest velvet, delving into
hers. “Tears that honest demonstrated to me that Lady Becker and her friends’ words
hurt you. Had their lies been true, I daresay a guilty woman would have behaved much
differently.”

How…observant of him. Kira regarded her nemesis in surprise, watching as he picked
up his hat in what appeared to be a nervous gesture.

“Indeed?” She watched him warily, hope scratching at her.

“Coupled with the manner in which you assisted my aunt last week, I begin to think
I’ve drawn some horribly unfair conclusions about you based on nothing more than party
gossip.”

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