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Authors: Shayla Black

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BOOK: Strictly Forbidden
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Hoping to ease past the awkward moment, Gavin invited the Baycliffes to finally sit
on the blue sofa. He placed his hand at the small of his aunt’s back to escort her
to her seat.

Then he noticed a small tear in the back seam of Caroline’s lively green silk dress,
directly between her shoulders. As she took a step, the tear lengthened a bit more.
Another step, another loosening of the seam.

He frowned. How had that happened? It hardly mattered now; the damage was done. Now
he must concoct some way to keep Mrs. Baycliffe from seeing the tear
a
nd remarking upon it to his aunt, coupled with a suggestion of lazy maids, dwindling
finances, or pitying words that a duke’s aunt should be forced to buy dresses of lesser
quality
.
Any of these suggestions would likely send Aunt Caroline into a fit of pique or tears—one
never knew—the minute the door shut behind the Baycliffes.

Before everyone could sit, James strolled in, looking every inch a clergyman in somber
black. Miss Melbourne stood beside him, and despite her modest garb, appeared more
the kind of woman to warm a sinner’s bed than to grace a parson’s pew.

Gavin closed his eyes, feeling his stomach sink to his toes. Now that James had arrived
with Kira, how could he prevent his cousin from introducing Miss Melbourne and revealing
the fact she was his fiancée? By Gavin’s side, Aunt Caroline had apparently realized
they could not. She tensed.

The seam at her back unstitched a little more.

The gossip would spread rapidly, and like all unfortunate rumors, would reach London
soon.

Matters had just gone from bad to worse. Gavin sighed, resigned to a difficult morning.

Predictably, Kira looked out of place, like a fallen angel clinging to her savior.
It wasn’t her dress that gave such an impression. In fact, the soft yellow muslin
embroidered with flowers at the hem made her look almost demure—well, as demure as
a woman with her sensual face and figure could look. A creamy silken shawl draped
her slender shoulders in a modest display that might have been convincing if he knew
less about her—and if she didn’t set his blood on fire with a glance.

This appearance was his cousin’s means of quiet defiance, of integrating his fiancée
into local society, fostering acceptance. If that was his aim, James bloody ought
to know better than to begin with the wretched Mrs. Baycliffe.

Gavin held in a curse. Why would James subject himself to pity and ridicule for a
woman he did not love? Especially since Kira did not love him either, it appeared.
After all, she refused to cry off the engagement, despite the fact Gavin had explained
the harm that would befall James in wedding her.

“Good morning, ladies,” James greeted smoothly.

“And to you, Mr. Howland.” Mrs. Baycliffe directed the remark to James, but her shrewd
gaze was pinned on Kira.

“How lovely to see you. I trust you are both well?”

“Indeed.” Her mouth pinched with the word.

“Splendid.” James urged Kira closer to the Baycliffes. “Ladies, I present to you Miss
Kira Melbourne, my fiancée.”

Visible shock widened Mrs. Baycliffe’s faded blue eyes. As if realizing her
faux pas,
she cleared her throat and regarded Kira with a superior gaze.

“Honoria,” she said without taking her disapproving eyes off Kira, “Await me outside.”

The young girl blinked up at her mother, lashes fluttering in confusion. “But—

“Go now.”

Casting a surreptitious glance at Kira, Miss Baycliffe stood and, shoulders slumped,
made her way from the room.

Gavin risked a glance at Kira. She looked frozen, ashen with shock. He took a deep
breath, suddenly wishing he could insult Mrs. Baycliffe in a similar fashion.

“Miss Melbourne.” The greeting was cool. “You’ll understand my young daughter cannot
be acquainted with someone like you.”

Kira swallowed, clearly taken aback, but said nothing.

Aunt Caroline glared at James, looking as if she were angry enough to tremble. Gavin
winced, knowing better than to expect family harmony at dinner tonight.

Then he noticed his aunt’s unraveling seam loosened even more. The tear was now noticeable
to anyone who might see her back. The debacle would be humorous…if it wouldn’t embarrass
Aunt Caroline to the point of tears and start tongues wagging in Bramley Village.

“James, perhaps it might be best if you and Miss Melbourne took a stroll in the gallery,”
Aunt Caroline suggested.

Kira had been dismissed. Aunt Caroline had refused to stand by her son’s choice of
a wife. The exclusion could not have been clearer. The scene had just gone from ugly
to uglier.

Gavin saw Kira raise her head proudly. But for a moment, her pink mouth trembled.

“Your mother is right, Mr. Howland,” she said quietly. “These old friends have plenty
to discuss without us.”

Her gracious concession surprised Gavin. He wished she’d never entered the room. Hell,
he wished she had never entered his life, particularly as James’s fiancée. He did
not want her in the family, always a scandal, always a temptation just within reach…

But he hated to see Mrs. Baycliffe disparage Kira even more efficiently than Aunt
Caroline. Indeed, the contemptible woman had maligned Kira casually, as if it were
her right. It angered him. No, that wasn’t true, exactly. Gavin scowled. Actually,
Mrs. Baycliffe’s treatment of Kira distressed him for some unfathomable reason. Perhaps
it was something about Miss Melbourne herself. Maybe he’d momentarily fallen prey
to her seeming innocence. While it was likely practiced, the artlessness in her manner
made such treatment seem more than unfair.

Panic lit James’ gaze, rooting him in place, imploring Gavin to do something. His
mind racing, Gavin contemplated ways in which he might smooth this horrible situation
over.

But Miss Melbourne’s gaze upon him seemed to distract him with thoughts of laying
his mouth over hers…

Before he could say anything
,
Aunt Caroline clasped her hands at her chest, grip tense. With her rounded shoulders,
the seam at her back nearly gave way. If she turned around, everyone would see her
whalebone corset.

Damn! How to keep the bloody embarrassing tear from Mrs. Baycliffe’s view? His gaze
scrambled around the room, looking for something—a blanket, a length of fabric, even
the latest newspaper with which to cover the length of exposed underthings and spare
his aunt’s sensibility. Nothing appeared.

“Mrs. Howland.” Kira stepped toward her suddenly, drawing the silken shawl from her
shoulders. “You look positively chilled. Let me warm you with my wrap.”

Aunt Caroline looked at Kira with all the incredulity of a woman who’d heard a drunk
pronounce himself the second coming of Christ. “See here, young lady—“

“Thank you for your concern, Miss Melbourne.” Gavin stepped forward and took the shawl
from Kira. As he draped it over his aunt’s narrow shoulders, he said, “Indeed, you
look quite pale. Are you sure you’re well?”

The meaningful look he sent her convinced her to close her gaping mouth. “Perhaps
I’m not feeling just the thing today.”

“It’s the sun through this window, I vow.” Mrs. Baycliffe rose with a superior sniff,
as if she had solved the mystery.

“You may be right,” Gavin returned.
And a donkey may win the next race at Ascot.

“Indeed. Well, I must be off.” Harriet held her reticule and made her way to Gavin’s
side. “Will you be a dear boy and show me out? I’m certain Honoria would be most disappointed
not to say her farewells to you.”

Gavin felt certain that Honoria cared far less about the matter than her mother, but
if it would aid Aunt Caroline, he would see to her exit with a smile.

“My pleasure.”

As they reached the parlor door, Gavin looked back to find James examining the tear
in her dress and Aunt Caroline gaping in narrowly-averted horror.

Kira stood alone, a few feet apart, watching in silence.

Gavin frowned. She had helped his aunt
,
saved her from social ridicule. Why? Why not allow the woman who had publicly humiliated
her only moments earlier to feel the same sting?

She is a kind and honest woman,
James’s voice haunted him.

Balderdash,
he thought, looking away and escorting Mrs. Baycliffe to her conveyance. So Miss
Melbourne had done one nice thing for a woman who hated her. Likely she did it merely
to earn the family’s favor. Still, she had known how to salvage the situation when
Gavin himself had been uncertain. She had offered assistance without hesitation. And
now that the deed was done, she stood away from the family, appearing not to expect
any gratitude for her gesture.

Confused, Gavin frowned. So why had she come to Aunt Caroline’s rescue?

* * * *

Gavin strolled Norfield Park’s grounds, surrounded by lush green landscape. The golden
sun beamed down on him, descending toward twilight. In the west, twin peaks he had
never before noticed lay just below the sun, beckoning him to explore the shadowed
mounds. Had they always been there?

He began a leisurely stroll toward them, noting their symmetrical perfection. Something
about the hills dared him to climb and conquer each.

He hiked up, stopping between them. He bent to touch the softest, greenest grass ever.
A gentle breeze blew in the scents of vanilla and exotic spices, intoxicating him.
Something akin to peace permeated him. A man could stay here forever, he decided as
another breath brought more of the pungent scents. They overcame him.

A moment later, Gavin found himself in an unfamiliar tunnel. It was hot, nearly black.
Water dripped somewhere with a distant ping. Yet the liquid beneath him flowed over
his boots, to his ankles.

Someone waited for him. He wasn’t sure how he knew that, but he did. That someone
was important. Urgency rose.

He walked a step through the thick liquid covering the bottom of the tunnel. Then
another, until he was trudging his way through an ever darkening, narrowing channel.
He stumbled and reached out to the wall for support, only to find it warm and wet.

The temperature was rising with every minute, every step. He tore his shirt off and
flung it away. Someone was calling his name. Gavin could hear it faintly. The voice
belonged to a woman. He began to run.

Darkness enveloped him until he could see nothing of the tunnel, nothing of his own
person. His heart beat quickly, pounding with each step. His skin felt moist, his
legs heavy. None of that mattered; he had to reach that voice.

Suddenly, he ran out of ground and began falling…falling. He called out, arms flailing.

Then he was on his feet again, this time in the Rose Room at Norfield Park. He was
not alone. Indeed, Kira Melbourne stood inches from him, swirling in scents of vanilla
and spice, as bare as a woman could be. He swallowed.

With a crooking of her finger she beckoned him. Transfixed, he followed. With each
step he took forward, she took one back. He knew an insane urge to run after her.

Her backside reached her dressing table
,
and she inched up onto the surface. She sent him a welcoming smile as she drew the
pins out of her hair. The lush black mass cascaded down about her torso, one daring
lock curling about the underside of her bare breast, framing the taut summit.

Gavin looked. He swallowed. He wanted. There were reasons he should not, but he could
not remember them now.

Kira grasped each of her knees and slowly drew her legs apart in a tantalizing dance.
A glance confirmed that she was moist, ready.

As if by magic, as if from the mere wish of it, Gavin felt his trousers melt away.
He, too, was bare.

A step later, he reached Kira, easing his hips between her thighs. Lust jolted him
as she opened her arms in welcome. His heart slammed against his chest in a frantic
beat. Gavin felt her slender arms slide around him. She wriggled closer, pressing
a single soft kiss to his cheek. Desire rolled through him again, along with an odd
sense of peace. He belonged here.

Kira took a deep breath. Her breasts rose against him, encouraging a more intimate
touch. He bent down, took a breast in his hand and drew the dusky tip toward his mouth.
Her musky scent wafted around him in a pungent swirl flavored with other scents. Gavin
recognized the perfume from the hilltops near Norfield
,
and he sank into the wondrous smell.

His mouth closed about her nipple, hard from the first touch of his tongue. She was
like a bounty, and he feasted for seemingly endless moments. Kira tossed her head
back, gasped, and murmured his name over and over as he suckled her.

Lust multiplied, robbed him of breath. Gavin began to sweat again as he straightened
and grasped her hips. Her eyes, so deeply blue beneath the black fringe of her half-closed
lashes, welcomed him. Positioning himself at her portal, Gavin glanced into the mirror
at Kira’s back and groaned. The dressing table was the perfect place to take a woman
like Kira, for her front was exposed to his hungry gaze and her round derriere visible
in the glass behind her. He could view nearly every delectable angle of her as he
lost himself inside her.

BOOK: Strictly Forbidden
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