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Authors: Shayla Black

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The dark-eyed determination he speared her with told Kira he was neither kidding nor
bluffing. He really intended to remain by her side until this ordeal had ended.

And that was bad. Having him so near only reminded her of their time together. Kira
knew she could not trust him, but nor could she deny that her body—and her heart—yearned
for him. His eyes held something dangerous as well. Heat. She recognized the expression.
Gavin had looked like this before he kissed her that first time. She feared she understood
all too well what was going through his mind. It was going through hers.

That, she could not allow.

Kira jerked her arm from his grasp. “If I give you the truth, will you go away?”

“No. This is a dangerous pursuit of a treacherous man. You need protection.”

While she began to wonder if Gavin didn’t have a valid point, she had no intention
of admitting it. Instead, she thrust her nose in the air and walked past the stubborn
man to the stall that held her horse.

He stood and watched her as she saddled the tall beast, not offering to help. Nor
would she have accepted his assistance, so it made no difference anyway.

An hour into their silent journey, her stomach began to rumble. Kira frowned at herself.
Why hadn’t she thought to bring anything to break her fast?

Her stomach protested its empty state again, this time loudly. She resolved to ignore
it.

Gavin laughed. “Forget something?”

She snapped as if she’d just remembered an important fact. “Yes, those directions
to hell I meant to give you.”

His long, low-toned laugh only irritated her more. But he turned and tossed her two
of Mrs. Kerr’s heavenly scones. She caught them in thankful silence, then bit into
one with a moan.

“You’re welcome,” he murmured.

Kira ignored him after that. She didn’t need him to care for her. Yes, she had been
hungry, but she could have found her own breakfast somehow. He needn’t have acted
as if she was helpless.

Glaring at his back, another hour passed. Finally Fentlet Manor crested into view.
Happily situated in a wide valley, a small inlet bordered the house to the west, which
one could cross with a charming cobblestone bridge. The gardens were both extensive
and overgrown. While the house itself needed a bit of work to repair a sagging column
and crumbling plaster, it was in every other way idyllic. She could see why even a
man of Lord Vance’s dubious character could be persuaded to settle here, if that was
in fact his plan.

Gavin and Kira approached the house. Within a hundred yards of it, a pair of stout
men on horseback rode out to meet them. As they drew closer, Kira let out a sigh of
relief that they weren’t the same henchmen Vance had employed in Suffolk.

“This is private property,” said one with a snarl. He had an unfortunate scar that
ran from the underside of his nose all the way through his lip. Whatever injury he’d
endured had been painful.

“Unless ye have business with the earl, get ye gone,” said the other.

Gavin sat up straight and assumed his most noble demeanor. “I am the Duke of Cropthorne.
I am acquainted with his lordship and have come to visit.”

The pair exchanged glances. “`is lordship gave no mention of ye.”

“It is quite by chance that I find myself here. And when I heard that he is in residence,
I thought perhaps—

“Come with us,” Scar-lip growled, casting them a suspicious glance.

They did as they were bid. Within minutes, Kira and Gavin found themselves inside
the house, through the foyer, into a parlor. When the door shut behind them, Kira
studied the room they occupied. Thought it was sparsely furnished, Kira recognized
the purple velvet sofa from the house Vance had let in Suffolk.

Silence ensued. This wasn’t her plan at all. She’d thought to break into the house
or perhaps bribe his servants for information. Never had she imagined they would simply
request an audience and walk through the door.

“Why are we here?” she whispered.

“We’ve asked to speak with Lord Vance.”

Was he dense? “Yes, and once he sees me, he will say nothing of his activities, whatever
they may be.”

“He won’t see us.”

“Then why are we here?” She frowned, confused.

Treading quietly toward the door, Gavin cracked it open and peered outside. Whatever
he saw must have satisfied him, for he approached her on equally silent feet.

When he reached her side, the warmth and musky scent of him invaded her senses. Goosebumps
erupted on her arms
. T
he hair at the back of her neck prickled with awareness. The glance he sent her told
Kira that he knew how she felt.

Why was she so attuned to him? He had believed her the worst sort of tart and ruined
her. Even with proof to the contrary, he still refused to marry her. She should not
care one iota about him.

But she did
,
W
orse, she could not seem to stop. Those heart-stopping smiles of his, coupled with
his kind words and caring when she’d been insulted and accused by Lady Becker, Lady
Westland, and their kind still resonated with her. Despite evidence to the contrary,
she could scarcely believe it had all been a lie.

“Search the room,” Gavin whispered. “Search it well, every book, every table, every
nook of that ugly purple sofa. And do it fast. We only have a few minutes.”

Kira suddenly understood his intent and nodded. She’d never done anything clandestine.
What if they were caught?

“What am I looking for?”

“Anything incriminating.”

Gavin regarded her with stony eyes. His grip around her arm tightened. “Be careful.”

She nodded.

He released her and walked away. Kira scurried after him. “Where are you going?”

“To find his study. I’ll be back.”

“But—

With a wave of his hand he silenced her. Again, he crept to the door and cracked it,
gazing out into the hall. An instant later, he disappeared, closing the door behind
him with a near silent click.

Kira stood, staring at the white width of the door, her heart pounding. Lord Vance
was a very dangerous sort. What if Gavin were caught? What if Lord Vance entered this
parlor?

She’d deal with it
. S
he really had no choice. But Lord, was she scared.

Exhaling a shaky breath, she scanned the room and began searching everywhere Gavin
had told her and beyond. She found nothing incriminating
—or
anything at all beyond a few pieces of lint and a farthing.

Finally, Gavin returned. He’d probably been gone less than ten minutes, but to Kira
it had seemed hours she’d worried about him. Yes, she was furious with Gavin, but
she could not deny that she did not want to see him killed. Without thought, she rushed
to his side and latched onto his arm.

He looked at her, at the hands she wrapped around his arm.
W
ithout hesitation, he shifted her into his embrace, the flats of their bellies and
the warmth of their chests meeting. Kira didn’t understand why she should feel so
joined to a man who did not love or respect her enough to offer her the honor of marriage.
What was wrong with her?

“Did something happen?” he asked.

“No. Did you find anything?” She was conscious of the pounding of her heart. Whether
from the peril or his nearness, she did not want to guess.

“A letter he began yesterday but did not finish. It’s addressed to Mrs. Linde.”

“The brothel owner?” she asked, remembering Gavin asking the same question once.

He shrugged.

“What does it say?”

“We can’t take the time to read it here. Let’s go.”

Nodding, she followed. At the front door, the surprisingly young butler met them in
the foyer, his vivid green eyes giving away nothing. “Lord Vance is not at home, your
grace.”

“Ah. It’s just as well, for I suddenly remembered another engagement. I am staying
at the Tall Tree Inn, however. If his lordship has a moment to spare, perhaps he would
like to drop in and visit.”

The fine-looking man bowed his head, showing a full head of close
-
cropped brown hair. His full mouth betrayed no smile. “I shall tell him, your grace.”

With that, they exited the manor and left.

Kira waited until they crested the first rise before she asked, “Why did you tell
Lord Vance where to find us? What if he comes after us
?”

Gavin regarded her with a calculating gleam in his eyes. “I’ll wager he will do just
that. I suspect he will pay us a visit soon, in some form or fashion.”

She frowned. “It—it sounds like you’re expecting danger.”

Before he answered, Gavin withdrew the letter he’d filched from Lord Vance’s office.
As he skimmed the few words on the page,
his
scowl deepened.

“What does the missive say?” she asked, leaning closer to read it for herself. There
were precious few words on the page
,
and she wasn’t close enough to read any of them.

Gavin frowned. “He tells Mrs. Linde that he has two of the goods she seeks, rather
than the one she requested.”

“Goods? That could mean anything.”

“Yes, but I have a very bad feeling about this. Vance is dealing in stolen wares of
some kind.” Gavin cursed. “And he’s going to want to finish this letter soon, perhaps
within hours. So am I expecting danger? Indeed, I am.”

 

Chapter Fourteen

 

As Gavin predicted, it was not long before Lord Vance realized his correspondence
was missing and sent someone after it.

The afternoon swept the sky in a brilliant azure, chased by a lazy breeze. It gave
way to a crisp blue-black night filled with twinkling stars.

Kira retired to her small room chamber at the Tall Tree Inn. The soft yellow walls
and pegged wood floor combined with the dancing fire to warm the evening shadows.

Midnight had come and gone. Moss scented Kira’s downy bed, and on any other night
she would have slept easily, blissfully. Tonight, she wished for a book to distract
her from the fact Gavin lay just feet away, on the other side of their tiny, adjoining
parlor, believing the worst about her even as she pined for his love. His low opinion
hurt Kira, but she had no notion how to change it.

A scratch and a thud outside drew her attention. She frowned. What could that be?
A tree branch? A stray cat?

Then, a low curse sounded in the still night, and Kira raced to her window. She peered
out into the moonlit night and caught sight of a leg dangling outside Gavin’s window.
A ladder below leaned up to it. As he
r
heart began to race in alarm, the leg scrambled inside, disappearing into his room.

The leg was not Gavin’s
,
not unless he had suddenly developed a yen for climbing into windows wearing very
dirty boots.

Someone—perhaps a nefarious someone—was in his room.

She had to help him. Gavin might be asleep, and therefore, easy prey for the fiend
now in his lodgings.

Her stomach ground with anxiety as blood chugged through her system at a wild pace.
She looked around for a weapon. Her shawl? No, momentarily blinding him would do little
good. The knife that had come with her meal earlier was gone, retrieved by Mrs. Kerr
with the rest of the tray.
Think!
Then she spotted the poker from her fireplace.

Grabbing it, she crept into the adjoining parlor.

Inside, she heard silence. Then a curse, a shout—Gavin’s?—then a scuffle.

Kira wanted to charge in the room, take the wrongdoer by surprise
,
and whack him over the head until he was subdued. And it all sounded good, except
she’d never hit anyone in her life.

Sucking in a deep breath for courage, Kira snuck farther into the parlor, hovering
near the sofa. She heard the fracas in the adjoining room, the one that held Gavin’s
bed. Apparently, he had retired for the night because the room was darker than an
underground cave.

As her eyes adjusted to the lack of light, she heard the shuffle of feet, a grunt,
the sound of a fist meeting flesh
,
the sharp hiss of a blade.

Her heart in her throat, Kira dashed
behind a wall
, poker raised.

She quickly realized Gavin had two visitors, not one.

The first had planted himself behind Gavin and taken hold of his elbows and pulled
them back, clamping his arms to immobility. The second held a gleaming silver blade
near his belly.

The sight horrified her. Kira didn’t stop to think about anything except saving Gavin.

“Watch out!” yelled the man restraining Gavin.

“Fer what?” the man with the knife grumbled.

BOOK: Strictly Forbidden
6.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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