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Authors: Shayla Black

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Stifling a yawn, Kira settled deeper into the sofa and closed her eyes, only to hear
the lifting of the door’s latch.

Who would come here, after the room had been empty for days? James and Darius had
agreed to exercise the horses almost the moment the rain paused. Once alone with Mrs.
Howland, the woman had pleaded a headache and retreated to her rooms, which left—

The Duke of Cropthorne.

A glance over her shoulder confirmed he stood in the portal, watching her with dark,
unwavering eyes. Had he come here in search of privacy? Or in search of her?

“Your grace,” she greeted cautiously.

He nodded, a regal incline of his head. Then he closed the door behind him with a
decisive click.

Kira watched the improper gesture. Her mind turned. Her heart began to beat. Why would
he shut the door in such a deliberate manner? She was still an unmarried lady
,
he an unattached gentleman to whom she was not related. Reputations were ruined this
way.

Apparently he believed hers already beyond repair.

Warily, she rose to her feet, laying the poetry down on the table before her. “If
you should like the room to yourself, I will be more than happy—

“Sit.”

It was an order, not a request. Instantly, she chafed. Did he think her as biddable
as a dog? Kira cocked her head in his direction—still standing—and cast him a defiant
stare.

“Please,” he growled, jaw clenched tightly.

Kira paused. She doubted Cropthorne said the word please very often. With her arms
crossed over her chest, she took the fact he’d forced the word from his throat as
a victory and sat.

“I’d like the door open, if you please,” she said.

“No. What I have to say is better said in privacy.”

Clearly, he intended his words to be ominous. And they were.

Wordlessly, she regarded the man she feared was about to become her nemesis. He looked
tired, his dark eyes underscored by gray circles beneath. He had discarded his coat
and wore only his breeches and a crisp white shirt open just enough to show the strong
column of his neck. The garment showcased his wide shoulders and narrow torso. He’d
had his dark hair severely shorn while in London, Kira realized. She remembered the
hint of curl along his nape before his haircut. That was gone now, and she wondered
why he’d felt the need to have something so natural eradicated so completely.

“Miss Melbourne.” He moved between a pair of overstuffed chairs and settled himself
into the one closest to her. His movements held both military precision and confidence
,
as if he knew exactly what he was doing.

Kira watched, dread growing and swirling in her belly.

“You can have no illusions that my aunt or I approve of your betrothal to James.”

She had feared his words
,
suspected they were coming even
,
and still Cropthorne stunned her. He was direct, blunt. His weighty gaze never left
her.

She refused to fidget under his intense stare. “Your opinion changes nothing, your
grace, though I had hoped for amiable family relations. Only time will prove to you
that I mean to be a good wife to your cousin.”

“You do not love him, I suspect. Nor does he love you.”

An acknowledgement of such a sentiment from Cropthorne? Kira would have never thought
it possible. Thus far, he’d shown no signs of having a heart, much less believing
in it.

“Love has never been a requirement for marriage.”

“Perhaps not,” he conceded. “But if you cared anything for James, you would put a
stop to this farce.”

Anger surged. How dare the pompous duke presume to tell her what she ought to do!
“I have a great deal of affection for your cousin. He is precisely the sort of gentleman
I always conceived of wedding. He is considerate and well-mannered—

“Indeed. But what can you give him in return? Mixed blood? A damaged reputation? Do
you imagine either of those… qualities will help James advance in the church?”

Kira wouldn’t have thought it possible, but Cropthorne’s gaze sharpened yet again,
until looking at him felt like trailing a razor across her finger.

“He does not have the sort of ambition to which you refer.”

The duke scoffed. “He is intent on saving you, on making you his act of charity. Do
you imagine he would tell you of his ambitions, knowing you will likely ruin his chances?”

Kira refused to allow Cropthorne to hurt her. She was not merely charity to James;
they shared mutual respect and friendship. Day by day, she saw evidence of the boundless
goodness of his heart. He fully accepted her as she was, believed her innocent of
Lord Vance’s terrible claims. James was truly one of the best men she had ever met.

“I will care for him every day. I will cook his meals, tend his clothes, and raise
his children. I will endeavor to be the kind of wife a clergyman such as he requires.
And he wishes to marry me. Why should that not be enough for you?”

“James deserves more.” Cropthorne leaned forward aggressively in his chair. “He deserves
a woman who will not be shunned by his parishioners. He deserves a woman who can give
him the whole of her heart, not one who is merely accepting his charity. James deserves
a woman who comes to him unsullied, who can remain faithful—

“How dare you!” Hot and cold shot through her in a shock of sensations. Kira bolted
to her feet, glaring, chest heaving with angry breaths.

Cropthorne stood and stepped toward her, purposely close so he might tower above her.
He speared her with a stare that suddenly melted the ice from his eyes. In those dark
orbs where only chilliness and disapproval had inhabited, a new, heated expression
took over. Anger and frustration… and something else. A tingle danced along her nerves.
She registered his closeness, the musk of his scent, the bold slash of his mouth.
Then she looked away.

“I dare,” he said, “because I know who and what you are.”

Contempt colored every syllable. Each word felt like a slap. Kira all but vibrated
with anger. “You know
nothing
about me.”

The duke raised a challenging brow. “You, Miss Melbourne, are the kind of woman who
will seek a greener pasture one day and break James’s heart.”

“Never.”

“Within a year, for certain. You are not made for a man like James, a man both meek
and gentle in his service to God. Every one of his parishioners will know that, especially
the men. He will be unable to serve his community because—

“Whatever you think, I am not a whore!”

Her temper erupted. Kira knew she should hold her words, but she resented Cropthorne’s
attitudes and those of people like him who assumed any half-Persian woman must be
a slut.

“Do not judge me by petty gossip! I’ve done none of the things Lord Vance spews with
his foul mouth, though I am not surprised that a narrow, judgmental man like you would
believe the word of such a man over a mere woman. I will be good to James and his
parishioners, and that is all you need ever know.” She took a deep breath, willing
herself to calm. “Good day.”

Kira brushed past him and headed for the door.

Cropthorne grabbed her arm and stayed her. She drew in a deep breath to rebuke him.
As she did, his knuckles brushed the side of her breast. The jolt of his touch reached
all the way to her belly. Kira smothered a gasp. Her gaze shot up to the duke’s face.
His eyes held fury, even as they glowed with awareness.

Timeless heartbeats passed. Her belly tightened with something reckless. Kira stared
at her adversary, drawn to the roiling heat and icy scorn in his fathomless dark eyes.
He looked to be at war with himself, and she felt triumph. He should know how it felt
to dislike someone, even as something drew him nearer. She certainly understood.

Mouth dry, Kira wet her lips. Cropthorne followed the gesture with his methodical
stare. His fingers tightened about her arm. He was going to pull her closer, perhaps
even kiss her. Her heart pounded in a wild thump against her chest. She inched closer…

To her surprise
and disappointment
,
Cropthorne released her.

“Think about James, rather than yourself. You’re not good for him.”

His words were a slap in the face, and Kira intended to slap him back. “Neither are
you. He’s a man full grown, capable of making his own decisions. If you truly cared
for him, you would see that.”

Before he could reply, Kira gathered her skirts and ran for the door. At the portal,
she paused. She knew she shouldn’t, but could not stop herself from turning to gaze
at Cropthorne. He watched her still, fists clenched at his sides, hot eyes upon her.

Disturbed as much by his conversation as his gaze, Kira fled the room.

 

Chapter Four

 

The hour was barely polite for morning calls when Mrs. Baycliffe and her pale daughter
visited Norfield Park two days later. Gavin suspected the busybody had merely come
to gawk at their scandalous houseguest. As much as he disliked Mrs. Baycliffe, Gavin
loathed even more the enjoyment she gained in making his aunt feel inferior. So he
stood by Aunt Caroline’s side, greeting their neighbor and her offspring in the parlor.

Wearing a tense smile, Aunt Caroline stood to the right of the parlor door and welcomed
her unexpected company. “Harriet, how good to see you.”

“It’s been an age, Caroline. Since we’ve both returned to the country for a spell,
I decided to visit, along with Honoria, of course.” Mrs. Baycliffe glanced at her
young daughter.

“Stand up straight.” Her low-voiced snap brought the girl to attention like a soldier.
Pleased, Mrs. Baycliffe smiled and directed her attention to Gavin.

“And your grace.”

He answered her shallow curtsey with a proper bow of his own. “Mrs. Baycliffe.”

“You remember my daughter, Honoria?”

Gavin turned his attention to the girl at Mrs. Baycliffe’s side who, though fifteen,
had yet to develop much in the way of womanly curves. The gangly girl took her resemblance
from her father, who was all arms and legs, unlike Mrs. Baycliffe, who was all stomach
and bosom.

“Indeed.” He smiled at the shy, fair-haired creature, feeling sorry for her. “Good
day, Miss Baycliffe.”

His attention made her flush a furious red. “Your grace.”

“Hasn’t she grown a great deal since you saw her last?” Mrs. Baycliffe asked. “Before
much longer, she will be making her debut and be ready for marriage.”

As usual, Harriet possessed all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Gavin did his utmost
to nod and smile politely. He liked the girl well enough, but marrying her was out
of the question. While other men had married women half their age, Gavin had no interest
in following suit. She simply looked too much like a child still. Most alarming, however,
was the notion of being related to Harriet Baycliffe by marriage. The very thought
made him want to drink to excess.

“Shall we sit?” Aunt Caroline suggested.

Without awaiting a reply, his aunt gestured her company toward the blue damask sofa,
illuminated by
the
sunlight bursting into the airy room through giant rectangular windows. Then she turned
to follow the Baycliffes. Gavin found himself thankful that no one else seemed intent
on the plush rose chair far across the room.

Harriet paused and looked about the room with a critical eye as she ambled to the
sofa. “I know you adore this room, Caroline, but I do not know why. How do you bear
such direct sun in the mornings?”

“I find the sun quite cheerful.”

Gavin heard the defensive note in his aunt’s voice and wished she would not allow
the supercilious neighbor to upset her. He’d much prefer to give into his ungentlemanly
urge to ask the woman to leave.

“Cheerful? It is ill advised! I do believe the sun has faded your furniture.” Mrs.
Baycliffe looked at the sofa for confirmation. “You must be ever mindful of such things.”

Aunt Caroline’s eyes dropped to the blue sofa. Gavin followed suit, seeing nothing
slipshod.

“We’ll have the drapes drawn if you’d prefer to sit in the dark,” Gavin could not
resist saying.

With a casual toss of her hand, Mrs. Baycliffe sniffed. “That would be most pleasing.
Such brightness cannot be good for one’s eyes.”

Aunt Caroline’s smile grew more tense. “I shall ring for a servant to see to the matter
and bring some tea.”

“Very good, for I’ve come to invite you to an assembly Thursday next.” Harriet hesitated.
“Er, will your… company be departed by then?”

Aunt Caroline smiled uneasily. “I am not certain.”

Gavin wondered how to explain Kira Melbourne’s extended stay without revealing James’s
intent to make her a part of the family. Nothing came immediately to mind.

Mrs. Baycliffe displayed equal discomfort in her frown. She could not gracefully exclude
the Melbournes from the invitation she sent to Norfield Park, but she clearly did
not want Kira and her brother in attendance.

BOOK: Strictly Forbidden
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