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Authors: Shayla Black

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He had not thought it possible, but he became harder still.

How on earth was he to look at her in polite company and not become as stiff as a
pike? He could just see himself now at James and Kira’s wedding, ready and eager to
do more than kiss the bride…

What in the hell was wrong with him? He was more than a few years away from the randy
imaginings of his adolescence. He had learned iron control. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t
seen naked women in his life; he had
,
dozens of them. Why did Kira Melbourne affect him so?

Gavin closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath
,
but he could still see Kira Melbourne naked in his mind, deliciously nude, contemplating
her reflection in the vanity’s mirror. Grasping for control, he counted to ten. He
went on to twenty. Then he swore.

“Blast and rot, this is ridiculous,” he whispered to himself. “She is merely a woman
and I am…”
A peeping tom? A voyeur?
No, a man determined to save his family from scandal and ruin.

Purpose firmly in mind, Gavin opened his eyes again to find James’s fiancée still
naked. He wouldn’t look at her breasts… or think about how ripe the tips would taste
in his mouth if she dangled them over his face in invitation.
Look lower,
he told himself. Wondrously, his eyes obeyed, but this time settling on the juncture
of her slender thighs and the trim thatch of dark hair covering her cleft. He imagined
her opening for him, inviting him into her, tempting him with a glance of her dewy
vulva… Lord, the tunnel was suddenly hotter than Hades.

A few moments later, Gavin forced his gaze down again, all the way to her feet. Perfect.
There was nothing sexual about feet. Except hers were long and elegant, attached to
slender ankles and nicely rounded calves, and oh, her sleek thighs, topped by her—

No. He was here for James, here to find out the truth.

If she would turn even slightly, Gavin would be able to view Kira’s left hipbone in
the vanity mirror. Once he saw the birthmark Vance had described
,
or the absence of it
,
he could drop the slat back into place and return to his room. It was all very simple.

Unfortunately, he did not remember ever having an erection that could rival granite,
so that part of him disagreed.

With a disgusted shake of his head, Gavin sighed and willed Kira to turn just a bit
in his direction so he could end this torment.

Naturally, she did no such thing. Instead, she lifted her cloth, doused it in the
water, and began scrubbing her face. Soon she moved onto her shoulders, her arms,
her long-fingered hands, washing in unhurried strokes. She returned the rag to the
water again, then squeezed the excess moisture from
the
small white scrap of linen he envied.

Before he could look away, Kira cupped one of her breasts, lifting it to the cloth
in her other hand. She washed efficiently, but her every movement had a sensual air.
He’d bet few women of the
ton
had ever really viewed themselves in the altogether before, and yet Kira seemed eminently
comfortable with her nudity.

She abandoned her breast and repeated the process with the other, pausing again to
collect fresh water from the bowl. Entranced, Gavin watched her nipples tighten, darken,
as the morning chill swept over her. Surely his heart could not take much more.

Turn, damn it!

Still, Miss Melbourne remained stubborn. She stroked the cloth in languid circles
over her abdomen before moving lower.

She parted her legs ever so slightly. Gavin closed his eyes and groaned. This manner
of torture was above and beyond familial duty, surely.

But he owed answers to Aunt Caroline, who had taken the place of the mother he could
only remember for her pale
,
lilac-scented skin and sunny smiles. He owed answers to James. His aunt and cousin
were
nearly all
the family
he had left. How could he fail to produce the truth? He could see himself now, trying
to
explain that he’d been overcome by a stiff cock…

Gavin heard another splash, followed by bare footsteps over the soft imported carpets.
Kira had turned, but in the opposite direction. She treated him to a magnificent view
of her backside, which made a perfect curve to her hips, tapered up to a pleasingly
small waist, a
sleek,
narrow back
,
and elegant shoulders.

Lord, now he was waxing poetic over her shoulders?

Kira grabbed for something off to her left, in a drawer of the mahogany chest resting
against the soft rose-painted walls. As she shook the garment out, Gavin identified
it as a clean chemise.

She tossed it over her head, turning slowly toward him, then thrust her arms through
the appropriate openings. She shimmied slightly, and Gavin watched as the chemise
slowly covered the magnificent profile of her breasts
,
then
slid down her abdomen.

Before the garment settled into place, she pivoted toward him just enough to see a
reddish birthmark on her left hipbone.

Heart-shaped—exactly as Lord Vance had described it.

Gavin cursed beneath his breath. Disappointment and lust both raced through his veins
as he slid the slat back into place and leaned against the dark tunnel’s wall, teeth
clenched.

Clearly, Brock’s information had been wrong. Vance wasn’t a sodomite
,
at least not completely. Perhaps he didn’t discriminate against anyone of any gender
who provided bed sport.

And once upon a time, that someone had been Kira Melbourne. How else could he know
of her unique birthmark?

Gavin stalked back to his room, hot candle wax dripping close to his fingers. What
would he tell Aunt Caroline now? More to the point, what would he say to James?

And why was a part of him unhappy to confirm that Kira Melbourne was a woman of easy
virtue?

* * * *

“Gavin, you’ve returned from London!” James greeted from the breakfast room before
he paused with a frown. “And in a fine mood, I see. Your face looks like a thundercloud.”

He felt more like a tornado, tightly wound and ready for battle or sex
,
preferably the latter, but Gavin knew he wouldn’t get to choose today. Damn, he wasn’t
returned from London three hours yet. Already he’d seen a most tempting naked woman—and
now he would confront his cousin because if it.

“James, I heard some very alarming gossip about your intended in London. Do you truly
mean to marry this woman?”

Apprehension clouded James’s pale face. “I implore you not to believe everything you
hear about Miss Melbourne. The gossip is simply not true.”

Gavin swore. James’s pleading expression would only make insisting he renounce Kira
Melbourne more difficult. Couldn’t his cousin see that wedding a woman of her ilk
would be tantamount to societal suicide for the whole family? That his new parish
in Kent would hear of her scandals and shun them both? That she would likely betray
and hurt him someday?

“Lord Vance says he has full carnal knowledge of your fiancée. Certainly you can see—

“He lies, I am sure of it! I have no notion why he would make such outrageous claims.
Kira says he asked her to elope with him, and because she cared for him and believed
him to be a gentleman, she agreed. She learned most painfully that Vance is not a
man of honor.” James grimaced. “Perhaps the tale sounds farfetched, but I have prayed
on this. I know she is innocent.”

Impatience nagged at Gavin. “Vance has
details.
For instance, he claims Miss Melbourne has a very unique birthmark on her…person.
I—I have it on good authority that is indeed true. There is but one way he could know
that.”

From his expression, Gavin saw that his disclosure had not swayed James. “I can only
assume you learned such information from her lady’s maid. If you did so, Lord Vance
could easily have done the same.”

Gavin could hardly refute his cousin’s assumption without implicating himself. But
he wondered if Vance might have paid a servant for the knowledge. Still, why would
he? So far, the blackguard had accomplished nothing but ruining Kira’s reputation,
and Gavin saw no gain for Vance in that.

“Miss Melbourne is a kind and honest woman, Gavin. I know she would not do such a
sinful thing.”

And apparently James had just fallen off the apple cart. James was Kira Melbourne’s
avenue to respectability and comfortable living. Couldn’t he see that? “Why would
you believe a woman you’ve scarce known for three weeks over evidence? Do you love
her?”

“I love all of God’s children.”

Sighing, Gavin dug deep for patience. “Do you love
her
in the man-woman, I-must-marry-her way?”

James hesitated. “I greatly esteem her.”

An odd relief ploughed through him. “But you don’t love her.” Before he had a chance
to become too pleased, another distasteful thought hit Gavin. “You—you didn’t compromise—

“Heavens, no!” James pulled on his stiff lapels, looking stunned. “I would never demean
her in that insulting way, nor would she allow such a thing.” Then he sighed and softened.
“Gavin, I can save Miss Melbourne from further ruination. I require a wife who will
be as committed to my cause as I. She is most eager to nourish the souls of my new
parishioners with me. We look forward to our lives together, in God’s service.”

The woman washing her breasts before the mirror a scant three hours ago hadn’t appeared
as if she’d been contemplating a life in God’s service. “I understand that you think
marriage will protect her from the ugly gossip, but that will not stop tongues from
wagging.”

“We plan to have a small ceremony here, then retire to my new parish where we shall
lead very quiet country lives. The gossip will die eventually, I am certain.”

“For you and Miss Melbourne perhaps. But in London, no. What of my sisters?  Anne
is only having her first season. And what of your mother? I do not think she can bear
another torrid scandal.”

“Romans, chapter five, verse three, says,

And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh
patience
.
’”

To hell with patience. Clearly it
,
like proof
,
would not work in the face of obstinance such as James’s.

“Mother is strong.” James looked at Gavin as if he were a misguided soul. “I feel
certain this shall pass.”

Perhaps, but not before it kills her.
“As head of this household, I could demand you forsake her.”

“Gavin, no! Give yourself a chance to truly know Miss Melbourne, please. For I would
hate to lose the cousin I have always considered a brother. That would bring me such
pain.”

James would choose the sensual strumpet over his own family? Such an assertion was
appalling—unthinkable! The thought made Gavin ruthless.

“What will you do when you come home
someday
to find another man in bed with your wife?”

“Miss Melbourne would never do that! She is loyal to our common cause. Truly, you
have misjudged my fiancée.” James shook his head at Gavin. “My higher calling to God’s
service is the one area of my life of which I am certain. I
know
this is the right thing to do. Please understand.”

“So you plan to give up your bachelorhood in supreme sacrifice to God?”

James brushed a wisp of fair hair from his forehead, his blue eyes both sad and resolute.
“I believe God put Miss Melbourne in my path so I might save her. And saving her is
exactly what I intend to do.”

 

Chapter Three

 

“This travesty has gone too far!”

Kira turned to the sound of her brother’s agitated voice, carried by the late morning
wind. With long strides, Darius marched across Norfield Park’s green lawns. The sun
hid behind a hazy gray sky, portending a storm. In keeping with the weather, his mouth
had a grim cast.

“Good morning.” She ceased walking until he reached her side. Clasping her hands before
her, Kira watched his vigorous approach, hoping the subject darkening his mood was
the weather, or even Mrs. Howland’s chilly inhospitality. But Darius’s thunderous
expression gave her little hope.

“The hell it is,” he snarled.

She sighed. “Darius, don’t—

“Don’t what? Defend you when people speak ill of you?” He scowled. “James is a good
man and you are deserving of his gentle attention and care. But I vow to you his cousin
needs a swift pounding of his face.”

So Cropthorne had managed to rouse Darius’s ire, besides her own. “His grace is rather…”

“Arrogant? Presumptuous? Lacking in judgment?”

BOOK: Strictly Forbidden
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