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Authors: Shayla Black

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She repressed a smile, knowing she ought not to encourage Darius in this rage.

The wind whipped a loose strand of her hair across her mouth, and Kira brushed it
aside. “I meant to say daunting, but I may be persuaded to your way of thinking.”

Darius grunted in disgust. “I overheard the pompous ass in the breakfast room with
James moments ago.”

“The duke has returned from London?”

That realization set Kira’s blood running with a tingled rush of anxiety. She’d rather
hoped he’d be gone at least another week
enough time to establish some bond with James’s mother. As it was, Mrs. Howland had
scarcely spoken to her, except with contempt in her eyes. She’d also hoped for more
time in deciding how to deal with Cropthorne and the disturbance he had on her peace
of mind. Her odd awareness of him unsettled her. He affected her in a way she did
not understand.

“Indeed,” Darius replied, “and from the sound of it, he did nothing but dig into this
nasty scandal while in Town. The jackass even did his utmost to convince your fiancé
to cry off.”

Kira swallowed, fear suddenly chilling her. From the moment James had insisted she
meet his family before they wed, she’d feared they would hate her, scorn her mixed
and believe the worst of her. Almost from their first meeting, Kira had suspected
Cropthorne would try to persuade James to end their betrothal. But to hear it stated
as fact unnerved her.

“What did Mr. Howland say?” Apprehension colored her voice no matter how hard she
tried to avoid it.

“Thankfully he remains steadfast to you, sister. But I do not think his grace accepts
his cousin’s decision. You have not heard the last of the mischief from Cropthorne.”

With a shaky nod, Kira agreed with Darius’s assessment.

“Cropthorne apparently learned of your birthmark from Lord Vance’s gossip, but he
told James he verified its existence. Might his grace have paid your lady’s maid—

“I truly think Kitty is loyal, Darius. Perhaps the duke lied to convince his cousin.”

“Perhaps. Or it’s possible one of the duke’s servants learned of it, I suppose.” Darius
swiped a frustrated hand across his face. “Why did you ever plan to elope with Vance
without telling me? Without telling anyone?”

Silence was the best response, Kira supposed. She felt all kinds of a fool for allowing
Lord Vance to convince her that a secret engagement and marriage would be so very
thrilling. How naïve he must have thought her. And she supposed she had been. Why
had she thought she ever cared for such a man?

Darius sighed in frustration at her silence. “Bloody hell. Will you at least tell
me how Vance came to learn of your birthmark?”

Kira swallowed.
No, never.
If she told her older brother that Lord Vance had taken her toward London
not Gretna Green, as promised
and bound her, stripped her naked, put his hands on her, and… She shuddered, refusing
to dwell further upon that horrible night. If Darius learned the complete truth, he
would stop at nothing to kill the cad. And since Vance was known as a crack shot,
despite the fact dueling was illegal, Kira feared her brother would lose his life
simply to protect her fallen reputation. If Darius died, her father would be heartbroken.
She would be devastated by the loss.

Would their mother care?
crept in, unbidden. She shoved it away.

What mattered now was
once she’d realized Lord Vance had no intent to wed her, she had escaped and returned

“How Lord Vance learned of my birthmark is not important. He did not physically harm
me, as I’ve told you.”

“Yes, and you say he did not rape you,” Darius returned impatiently. “But—

“He did not.” Kira hoped the assurance would set her brother’s mind somewhat at ease.

The angry flush on Darius’s cheeks bespoke his fury. “But it’s clear he hurt you in
some manner. You never smile anymore, Kira. You’re afraid of him, I can see. Why else
would you protect him? Why else would you forbid me to hunt him down and punish him?”

Closing her eyes, Kira wished her brother could easily best the cad. Instead, she
feared Darius would, in his righteous anger, become rash and
reckless and
ultimately the victim of Vance’s smoking gun at dawn. She could not bear the thought.
Enduring slander was much easier. With her father gone from the country so often,
chasing his soul across the globe like a trade wind, Darius was the only real family
she could count on. What would she do without him?

“Please, let’s not speak of this anymore.” Kira sent him an imploring look. “Mr. Howland
is standing beside me, despite his family’s disapproval. Once we wed, they will see
I am a suitable wife, capable of caring for him and, eventually, our children. They
will come to realize I can be a good clergyman’s wife, that I will not behave in a
scandalous manner, and that I am no lustful hussy.”

Her brother looked doubtful, and Kira sighed. “Time,” she assured. “Give the thing
time. Between that and marriage, the talk will all go away. The
will move on
to another scandal, and I will cease to be of import. Since I’ve never had aspirations
to social consequence, the opinions of the London rich hardly signify. Once I’m married
and we settle in to James’s new parish, I shall have no cause to see any of the nasty
gossips, I am sure.” She grabbed her brother’s hands. “I am willing to let the matter
drop. Can you not do the same?”
Darius cursed and looked away.

Kira squeezed his fingers. “Please?”

“If you only knew the vicious lies—

“I know.” And she did know, though she did not understand the reasons Vance said such
things. At this point, however, his reasons hardly mattered. “I can do nothing to
stop his lies, so I would simply rather forget them.”

“I cannot!”

Stepping on the tips of her toes, Kira put her arms around her brother’s stiff shoulders.
“Try to forget. For me.”

Darius stood still and mute for very nearly a minute. Finally, he heaved a defeated
sigh. The grip fear held over Kira’s heart loosened its hold a fraction. Perhaps now
Lord Vance wouldn’t kill her avenging brother. She simply had to protect him.

“I shall try,” he muttered finally.

With a final squeeze, Kira released her brother, then stepped away. “Thank you.”

“I only said I would try.” Defiance tightened every line of his face.

She smiled, feeling more like a mother than a sister. “Try your best. I’ll not ask
more of you than that.”

“Kira, it’s simply that— Damn it, you deserve so much better than to have your name
bandied about on the tongue of every randy buck in London.”

“I understand how you feel, but you must have faith. My every wish may yet come true.
We’ll simply have to wait and see.”

* * * *

Not long after the noon hour, Gavin answered the knock on his study door.

“Enter,” he called, fully expecting to see Aunt Caroline standing in the doorway.
He was not disappointed.

“So you’ve returned.” She shut the door behind her. Her grim expression clashed with
the gray and flaxen curls bobbing about her face. Anxiety glowed in her blue eyes.
“What have you learned?”

“I heard all about Miss Melbourne’s exploits with Lord Vance. They are every bit as
shocking as you claimed.”

Unfortunately, they were also arousing. Seeing Kira upon his return this morning—even
fully clothed
walking upon the lawn with her brother—was all his unruly mind needed to spin fantasies
of the half-Persian beauty, naked and wanton.

Since then, he’d chosen to bury his thoughts in a mountain of estate work instead.
He wished to God it had helped to take his mind off James’s fiancée.

“And I have no reason to believe she improves upon closer acquaintance.” Aunt Caroline
seated herself on the sofa across from Gavin’s desk. “She pretends such innocence.”

“Indeed.” Gavin saw no reason to tell his aunt he had verified Vance’s claim, for
she already thought Kira Melbourne guilty. “I also spoke with James. It’s as you said;
he is unwilling to discard the chit. Stubborn, naïve fool.”

“Quite!” Caroline agreed. “And I have more bad news, I fear. Gossip may already be
spreading here in Bramley Village. Only yesterday, that nosy Mrs. Baycliffe asked
if Miss Melbourne and her brother were here visiting. I can only imagine Mrs. Baycliffe
learned of their presence through the servants.” She sniffed. “I would hardly introduce
them to the neighbors.”

Gavin frowned.
ven local gossip
may well start rumors of James’s engagement, which could be damaging indeed. Such
whispers could easily reach London. “How did you reply?”

Aunt Caroline sputtered, “I—I could think of nothing to say except that James and
Mr. Melbourne are acquainted and that he and his sister are merely passing a short
visit here. I do not think Mrs. Baycliffe believed me. What are we to do, Gavin?”
She wrung her hands. “Only in recent years have I felt the shadow of your father’s
scandals fade, and now to be confronted with this…”

Pinching the bridge of his nose, Gavin tried to ward off an encroaching headache.
What would they do if another scandal darkened their door? Aunt Caroline had been
just a young bride when her brother had so publicly shocked the
and humiliated the family. She neared forty now and would likely find the strain
much more taxing. Pain bit into his gut when he remembered that hideous morning all
of London had discovered the depraved truth.

For himself, Gavin hated the whispers and stares. And he wasn’t naïve enough to believe
that all his years of wholesome living
of leashing the lust inside him
would preserve his status with society. Without question, he, and worse, his sisters,
would be judged by James’s actions
and found wanting.

“And that is not the half of my concern.” Caroline regarded him with beseeching eyes.
“I fear for James. How he will suffer! Miss Melbourne does not care for him as a wife

Gavin, patting his aunt’s shoulder, silently agreed.

“She does not look upon James with affection,” his aunt went on. “Miss Melbourne is
too worldly for my sweet boy. She will disappoint him someday and crush his trust
cruelly, I fear.”

Again, Gavin agreed with his aunt’s assessment. Miss Melbourne would eventually grow
weary of a quiet country life and the retiring position James held. She was the kind
of woman who would want excitement, adventure—passion. When she did not find that
with her husband, she was likely to seek it elsewhere. Even though James did not love
her, he would expect faithfulness from his wife. Her perfidy would devastate him
not to mention damage his status with his congregation and church superiors.

Seeing his frail aunt tremble, Gavin took her hand and patted it. “Do not fret.”

“If James marries the terrible girl, how can we stop the gossip? How can we protect
the hurt she will inevitably crush him with?” she challenged. “It’s impossible, I
fear, for he’s quite decided to wed her.”

Again, Aunt Caroline was right. Gavin sighed, knowing suddenly what he must do. “Then
James cannot be allowed to marry the girl. I will think of some way to prevent their
marriage.” He kissed Aunt Caroline’s cheek, hoping to ease the worried expression
from her loving, familiar face. “Leave everything to me.”

* * * *

The next morning, Kira entered the music room, a small brightly-colored place rarely
inhabited by others, she had observed. She eyed the pianoforte
an instrument as lovely as she had ever seen
but had no urge to play it, despite the fact she missed making music.

Instead, she sat on a cozy sofa, curling her feet beneath her, and held a volume of
poetry that included the works of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Robert Southey. In fact,
she’d been surprised to find the book here at Norfield Park; Cropthorne did not seem
the type of man to enjoy poetry.

Sighing, Kira opened the book. The fire burned cheerfully in the hearth, and peace
drenched the landscape outside the window, which had seen rain not an hour before.
It was the perfect time to relax.

Still, anxiety niggled at her. Kira knew she should be concerned about her future.
Darius wanted to confront the odious Lord Vance. Mrs. Howland disapproved of her,
though likely held her tongue for James’s sake. The duke watched her with a sharp,
disconcerting stare. Still, she refused to think of such inconveniences today. Within
a few weeks, she and James would be married, and all these problems would be behind
her. They would move to Tunbridge Wells in Kent. No one there knew her, and once she
became Mrs. James Howland, hopefully no one would know about her unfortunate incident
with Lord Vance or care about her heritage. She hoped then to
have some peace, some acceptance.

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