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Authors: Shayla Black

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Amid the sounds of Aunt Caroline’s tirade, Gavin paced to her dressing table and sat
on her stool. Still, something didn’t make sense.

“If Miss Melbourne wanted an earl for a husband, why is she now settling for James?
He is a country clergyman, unlikely to shower her in wealth. Perhaps we need only
to point that out.”

Aunt Caroline slapped her hands to her heavy bosom in a dramatic gesture. “Now that
she has been compromised beyond every sensibility, she must settle for any husband
who will have her. James’s kind heart has led him to this.”

His aunt was right, Gavin realized. James always wanted to help others. As boys, his
cousin had helped care for the sick, mended wounded animals, and cried with those
who grieved. James did not love Miss Melbourne; perhaps he did not even desire her.
He pitied her, with her unfortunate heritage and fallen reputation.

Aunt Caroline continued to pace. “I spoke with James before I sent for you. He will
not be swayed.”

Gavin was not surprised. James could never be swayed when it interfered with helping
a needy soul. His cousin would give a stranger his last crumb of bread, even if he
were starving himself. James would think it simple enough to give a desperate woman
a good name.

“How am I to bear having a trollop for a daughter-in-law?”

Gavin had no answer for his aunt, no consolation to ease her, as he did not share
James’s extreme sense of charity.

Despite the impending calamity, he was rather curious to know the truth about James’s
fiancée. Even if he discerned it, however, the truth did not matter. If, by some miracle,
Kira Melbourne was as virginal as a nun, gossip had branded her a whore
,
and the
ton
had followed suit. The truth rarely repaired a woman’s reputation. The girl was simply
ruined. And James had apparently proposed, despite the trouble it would bring the
family.

“What are we to do, Gavin?”

Indeed? What could they do? If the
ton
bandied about Miss Melbourne’s name in such a fashion, the scandal would reach Gavin’s
small family. His sisters, both searching for husbands this season, would be affected.
And after his father’s disgraces
,
so hideous people still spoke of them after nearly twenty years
,
he and his family could ill afford to have tongues wagging in their direction again.
Aunt Caroline had barely survived the humiliation the first time, and Gavin was determined
to protect them all.

“Do nothing now except to cease worrying,” he advised his aunt, rising to his feet.
“Let me think on this. I shall devise something.”

* * * *

Kira entered the breakfast room the next morning so early, she expected to find it
empty. Such was not the case.

The Duke of Cropthorne sat at the head of the table, alone, scanning a series of documents
with ruthless efficiency, jotting a note here and there as he deemed necessary. In
his left hand, he held a cup of coffee. At his right elbow, sat a plate of untouched
eggs. With his dark hair brushed away from his face and his profile strong as chiseled
stone, he looked handsome indeed, like the kind of man she might have once pined for—before
Lord Vance had taught her better.

As Kira reached the threshold, he glanced up. He did not look away.

She swallowed nervously, then chided herself. He did not like her, nor did her intended’s
mother; they had both made that clear without a word. Mrs. Howland she might be able
to coax with time, assure the woman that her new daughter-in-law was neither a strumpet
nor an infidel. Cropthorne, however, seemed like an unyielding sort
,
probably far more challenging to win over.

But James thought a great deal of him, so she must be civil for both her fiancé and
family harmony.

“Good morning, your grace.” She smiled. “I apologize if I’ve interrupted you. I thought
for certain I would be the only one up this early.”

“I rise early every morning.”

Hesitating in the doorway, Kira noticed Cropthorne had neither assured her she wasn’t
interrupting nor invited her to the table with him.

“Do you enjoy early mornings, as I do?” she inquired. “I find them refreshing.”

“I find them convenient. One can accomplish more work if he starts before noon.”

“Indeed,” she murmured, hardly knowing what else to say. To her, early mornings were
serene. They were fresh and full of promise. Cropthorne found them convenient for
working. While Kira supposed that was true, she thought his attitude rather dreary.

“You may sit,” he said finally… reluctantly, as he began stacking his papers.

“Please don’t let me interrupt you. I am most happy to have some tea and a scone in
silence.” Kira made her way to the sideboard and the food waiting there.

“As it happens, this morning I must be off to London for a few days. Business calls.
So you may eat in silence as you please.”

Brusque was a polite way to describe the duke, she decided, and she set a scone on
her plate. Oh, she supposed one of his rank was accustomed to treating his inferiors
with a hearty dose of condescension. The truth was, Gavin Daggett seemed arrogant.

Still, Cropthorne had sway over gentle-hearted James, perhaps could even coerce her
intended into crying off. The duke was not a man she could afford to displease, not
if she wanted to wed James, quiet her scandal with Lord Vance, and find a place to
call home.

“Have a safe journey,” Kira said in her most pleasant voice as she sat at the table
with her small meal.

He gave an incline of his head—he did not deign to speak to her—and began to leave
the room. But as he neared her chair, he paused.

“I’m given to understand you are the Earl of Westland’s niece.”

Kira paused, the teacup halfway between the saucer and her mouth. She cast a cautious
gaze in his direction, only to find his face all but unreadable, except for the hint
of disdain
,
and curiosity
,
in his eyes.

Likely, he had already heard of her scandal. And now he had discovered her heritage.
His disapproval of her ran deeper than yesterday; his stare made that clear. Defending
herself against the scandal would do no good. And what could she say of her mixed
race? She was no more thrilled with that reality than he.

The Persians had shunned her; the English gawked and whispered. Her whole life she
had lacked a community, even a small one, who accepted her simply as a person.

Clearly, Cropthorne would not be among the first.

“Yes,” she said finally, setting her tea down. “Though I’ve been quite the country
mouse, I fear. I have not met him.”

Cropthorne nodded thoughtfully, as if digesting her news. Kira suspected he knew her
father had been cast from the family some years ago, but if he wished to play a game
of polite ignorance, she would play along.

His dark eyes seemed to rove her face, taking in all the evidence of her Persian blood
so that he might judge her. “A pity. I find him to be a most upstanding man.”

Of course the duke would admire a man who judged a woman on her heritage, Kira thought.
He was doing so himself even now.

Did Cropthorne actually imagine that she was immune to the stares both curious and
lewd? She knew people whispered when she entered a room. And deep down, Kira could
not escape her own confusion. She wanted desperately to be seen as every other woman,
the wife of a good man, a part of a kind community. But by her skin and features alone,
she would always be different.

The four years of her childhood during which she’d lived in Persia had marked her
soul somehow. As much as she longed to deny those tumultuous times, the fiery sun
setting over the Caspian Sea and the wild tulips growing all about were forever seared
in her mind. She remembered chasing the picas with their little fluffy tails, searching
for the tiny crabs that lived by the icy pools. England was a veritable garden of
green beauty, but the stark splendor of the Zagros Mountains hovering over the endless
desert below had never left her mind. And despite Mama’s faults and the pain she had
caused, Kira still loved the woman. Denying her Persian blood felt like denying her
own mother.

Marrying James and becoming a part of his small country parish might be her only opportunity
at a “normal” life. If she had to spar with Cropthorne to make him see that, she would.

“My father often speaks of his brother, so I’m certain his lordship is all you say
and more.” Kira did not add that her father called his brother both inflexible and
bigoted.

“Perhaps your paths will cross sometime so you might meet him for yourself.”

Oh, his grace would like that, to watch her receive the cut direct. He, like all narrow-minded
jackasses, assumed that being of mixed race somehow made her either more stupid or
less impacted by the hurtful, if veiled, barbs of his kind.

“Perhaps, but I confess that I am eager to settle into a quiet life at Tunbridge Wells
with Mr. Howland once we’re wed. I don’t foresee a trip to London any time soon.”

Marriage and the small parish community that James would soon preside over, babies
and the quiet country life—that was all she wanted. The sure antidote for scandal.
The balm that would help her finally find a culture in which she belonged.

“Family is very important, perhaps you might say the cornerstone of our society. There
is very little I would not do to see my relations happy and well-settled.”

His tone rang like a warning. Would he try to stop her marriage? Fear clutched her
belly. Her temper stirred but she held the angry words at the back of her throat.

“Family is important. You can be assured that I will always see to your cousin’s comfort
and welfare above all else.”

Cropthorne paused, pretending to brush a speck of lint from the sleeve of his bottle
green coat. When he returned his gaze to her once more, she saw something boil in
the stern set of his deep brown eyes.

“That is admirable,” he intoned, though he clearly found nothing admirable about her.
“But in doing so, you cannot mean to turn away indefinitely from your uncle.”

He wanted her to protest, to squirm under the weight of his suggestion, which he knew
well would only bring about her shame when his lordship rejected her. And she was
not about to satisfy his grace.

Instead, she pasted on her most brilliant smile. “You know, I shall consider your
wise words. It is very kind of you to inquire about my family. And what of yours?
You have two sisters, is that not so?”

As she expected, his grace’s expression closed up tighter than shutters against a
sudden storm. “Yes.”

“When shall I meet them? They will soon be a part of my new family. I cannot, in good
conscience, turn away from meeting them indefinitely,” she mimicked, suppressing a
grin.

The surprise on his face was priceless. Apparently, his haughty highness had not expected
to be bested by a fallen half-Persian commoner. She flashed him her brightest smile.

The duke cleared his face of all expression. “My sisters are engaged in London at
present, readying for the season. I do not foresee them returning to the country any
time in the near future. Good day to you.”

With that, Cropthorne left. Kira was torn between laughing and screaming. While she
was pleased that she had bested the self-important duke, she feared their battle was
not over. He did not approve, and she suspected he held her at fault for her mixed
blood.

Kira only hoped his business detained him in London until she and James could quietly
wed. Then Cropthorne could hang himself on his small-minded opinion, for all she cared.
In fact, she hoped he did.

 

Chapter Two

 

Inside London’s gentlemen’s clubs, talk generally degenerated in the wee hours of
the morning—after more than a few rounds of cards and drinks. As Gavin stared across
the table at the rakish Lord Vance, he hoped tonight proved no different.

“Your grace?” one of the other gents at the table prompted.

Gavin glanced at his cards as the clock struck three in the morning. No winning hand
here. It hardly mattered, though. He had money to lose, so long as he received the
answers about Miss Melbourne that he needed.

Smiling, he threw several bills on the stack. “Gentlemen?”

A fop to his left whistled at the steep bet. “Lady luck obviously sits in your lap
tonight, not mine,” he said as he threw his cards on the table and rose to his feet.
“Good evening.”

“Me, too,” said another young buck, a passing acquaintance, who nodded in Gavin’s
direction.

He watched the two leave in silence. Good, that left only himself, Lord Vance, and
some baron’s son whose name he’d forgotten. With any luck, he would finally have Vance
to himself within the half hour. Then he could ask some discreet questions about Miss
Melbourne and their…dealings.

James’s fiancée had shimmered at the edge of his thoughts all day like a bloody siren,
smiling, eyes sultry, a subject he knew he should not contemplate
, and
a beauty he could not dismiss.

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