A passion this tempting must be Strictly Forbidden…
Miss Kira Melbourne is anything but a proper English rose. Her exotic beauty, courtesy of her foreign mother, has marked her as an outsider, and her ghastly reputation as a woman of loose virtue has only added to that status. The victim of a devious viscount's horrible lies, Kira has the chance to redeem herself and become a member of polite society as the fiancée of a respected country clergyman. She'll finally have a place to belong…even if it's in the tepid arms of a man she doesn't love.
Gavin Daggett, Duke of Cropthorne, isn't about to let his naive country cousin marry a scandalous woman like Kira Melbourne. The solution is a simple one: Gavin will seduce the vixen and prove her unworthiness, thereby releasing his cousin from any obligation. But spending time with Kira is like awakening to a world of color and beauty, and it stirs the fiery desires Gavin has fought to suppress his entire life. Caught in his own dangerous game, sharing forbidden pleasure with Kira, Gavin knows that the price of loving her is high—and yet it is one that he will willingly pay…with every beat of his heart.
During Gavin’s youth, he had discovered the dusty secret passages from Norfield Park’s master’s suite to virtually every bedchamber in the house. Likely the corridors had been built by some ancestor who, like his father, had been mastered by his lust.
Years ago, his father had caught him navigating the paths—or more accurately, a young Gavin had espied his father peeping in on a young female houseguest. He had never ventured into the passages again, until now.
For the first time in his life, Gavin was glad his father had been a licentious bastard.
Like father, like son.
Gavin thrust the thought away. He was not like his father. He did not seek gratification with any and all human orifices he encountered. Hell, he didn’t even have a mistress at the moment, as Cordelia had so bluntly pointed out. Still, Gavin could not deny that he wanted to see Kira Melbourne naked.
Perhaps you’re more like your sire than you care to admit—wicked to the core.
Gavin ignored the voice inside him.
While it was true that on his journey back to Norfield he had been envisioning Kira Melbourne astride him, as he’d tried to piece the sultry image together, Gavin remembered Vance’s assertion that Kira had a birthmark. Instantly, he knew the means by which he could prove or disprove its existence, and thus, the scoundrel’s claims. So he’d waited for the servants to bring her fresh water. She would be awake now and dressing for the day. And he could learn the truth.
With sun shining its pale morning light on the south side of the manor, he pushed aside the tapestry that hid the passage door, took a deep breath, and lifted the latch, candle in hand.
It was dark in the tunnel, of course, as well as musty. The walls closed in around him. The low ceiling forced him to hunch over as he navigated the narrow path. He raised the candle, noting the markings by each chamber, written in his father’s hand. Leave it to dear Papa to be thorough when chasing a good voyeuristic thrill.
Finally, he came upon the rose room. The room that held Kira Melbourne. The room where, by now, she was likely performing her morning toilet.
Was Kira a seductress or an innocent?
Though the truth did not matter where the ton was concerned, because she was still a ruined woman in their eyes. Gavin was determined to know the truth. Naturally, he sought answers for James’s sake. If the woman was as wanton as Lord Vance claimed, he would have no qualms about ousting Kira from his cousin’s life. She was scandal personified, a half-Persian outcast who did not belong in the Daggett family. Gavin didn’t personally want to disprove her dissolute past for any particular reason. It hardly signified whether she’d had one lover or one hundred.
Some annoying part of him, however, hoped not to find the heart-shaped birthmark on her left hip that Lord Vance had so lewdly described.
Shielding the flickering candle flame with his damp palm, Gavin leaned toward the wall behind the rose room. Silently he removed the slat behind the old painting of some long-dead Daggett matron who would probably be spinning in her grave if she could see him now. Ignoring the racing of his heart, he peered through the two small eye-shaped openings.
Kira Melbourne stood before her mirror in a nightrail, bathed in gentle golden sunlight beaming through the room’s sheer drapes. With a sharp, clear voice she hummed a familiar tune he could not place. Her face looked soft, morning sleepy. She wore her black hair in a single glossy braid down her back. The tip of the thick tail brushed the top of her sweetly-sloped buttocks. Gavin hungered to touch her there.
A moment later, Kira splashed some water from the pitcher atop her mirrored vanity into the bowl beside it. Then she reached for the buttons at the front of her gown. Still humming, Kira released each one at a slow, measured pace, displaying the delicacy of her collarbones, the top swells of her rounded breasts, the inviting valley in-between.
As she exposed each inch of new skin, Gavin found it more difficult to draw his next breath. The lust inside him rose; his heart beat faster. Gavin reminded himself that he was only here to learn the truth—for James. He repeated that fact over and over, like a mantra.
Then Kira bent and grasped the hem of her gown. It came off in one clean sweep, exposing every lush inch of her body.
His gut knotted. Lust sizzled down his legs, burst like fire in his groin. He began to sweat. A craving to touch her, explore every curved, feminine inch of her, seized him. He wanted her slick and ready for the feel of him deep inside her.
So much for mantras. Gavin swallowed, his throat dry.
When was the last time he’d felt such driving lust? Never. Gavin frowned. He kept occasional, discreet mistresses whom he found vaguely pleasant. He had never encountered a woman who made him fierce and reckless, as his father had been. If any woman had affected him like Kira Melbourne, Gavin would have shunned her.
Now he did not have that chance. The integrity of his family name depended on him discrediting her.
With an absent flick of her wrist, Kira tossed her thin nightrail to the floor. Gavin released a shaky sigh. The air felt bloody hot.
The observation point his perverted father had established some twenty years ago allowed him to see Kira in profile, from the right. He could not see her left hipbone so he might confirm the rumor of her birthmark. Instead, he had a perfect view of the firm thrust of her breasts, coral tipped by the sun streaming through the windows, nipples erect in the morning cold. Dusky shadows softened her lithe torso.
Gavin nearly groaned aloud as his gaze traveled down her smooth belly and sleek thighs to the round curve of her soft buttocks, all covered in skin the exotic color of prime tea flavored with warm milk. She stretched, reaching her arms to the sky like a sleek cat.
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…