Authors: Shayla Black
as Shelley Bradley
as Shelley B
Copyright 2012 Shelley Bradley LLC
Edited by Chloe Vale
Published by Shelley Bradley LLC
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Bonus Material and Excerpts at the end of the book
Bramley Village, Surrey, England – April, 1836
“You are going to love Miss Melbourne,” James Howland assured. “Truly. Once you come
to know her, I’m certain you will.”
Gavin Daggett, the fifth Duke of Cropthorne, nodded with suppressed amusement. His
usually imperturbable cousin had been babbling nervously for the past two hours.
In truth, it mattered little if he liked James’s fiancée, much less came to love her.
What mattered most was that she suited James, was appropriately well
bred, and not the kind of woman to cause scandal.
Though just the day after Easter, an unusually strong spring sun beat down. Gavin
lamented the fact
James wished to wait outside for Miss Melbourne’s arrival. Scarcely a breeze stirred,
and he was beginning to sweat in his new plum-colored coat. But if he could please
James, who had always been like a brother, with such a small act, Gavin would do it
Lifting a hand to shield his eyes from the bright afternoon rays, Gavin shifted his
attention from the narrow, dusty lane to James fidgeting beside him. He wished the
man every felicitation in marriage. Unfortunately, business in London had kept Gavin
occupied too often of late to meet Miss Melbourne. He had noted, however, that his
cousin’s correspondence had been curiously absent of her name until two weeks ago.
Still, he felt as if he should know her or had recently heard her name…
Or perhaps lack of sleep that came with launching a new railroad had finally muddled
his mind. With his thumb and forefinger, he rubbed
James grabbed his sleeve. “Truly, she is a good, God-fearing woman.”
At the note of supplication in James’s voice, Gavin faced his earnest cousin. “If
Miss Melbourne has secured your affection, I have no doubt she is all that is good
James gazed down the tree-lined lane
a whisper of a breeze ruffl
his wheat-colored hair. His shoulders remained tense. Even men of God could be nervous
about matrimony, Gavin supposed with a wry grin.
“Miss Melbourne is very good,” James said finally. “Very kind. She has that rare gift
of smiling with her whole face.”
If the nicest thing James could say about Miss Melbourne concerned her smile, she
likely lacked the beauty to be the toast of the
But such a girl would suit a country clergyman like James, who had never sought beauty,
but goodness. Gavin’s gentle cousin yearned for honesty, favored diplomacy, and did
his utmost to understand every man’s perspective
sometimes to his own detriment.
With a homely, if kind wife, James need never worry about controlling the infamous
Daggett lust, as Gavin’s late father and many other Daggetts before him had—quite
Indeed, Gavin himself had used his iron will to repress it for years.
James’s earnest expression told Gavin that his cousin looked for approval, and he
smiled. “She sounds splendid. Have you told Aunt Caroline yet?”
Pausing, James looked away, down the lane once more. “Mama has been off in London.
I thought it best to inform her of my nuptials in person.”
Gavin nodded, conceding the wisdom of that thought. Aunt Caroline had delicate sensibilities
where her only son was concerned. “True. You may share your happy news after she arrives
James answered with a stiff nod.
Curious now, Gavin ventured, “You’ve told me a bit of Miss Melbourne but nothing of
her family. Do we know them?”
“Not really.” James shrugged, seemingly fascinated by the empty lane. “They are from
Suffolk and move in country circles. Her father rarely stays in England. He prefers
to travel.” He paused. “Her mother moved… abroad some years ago.”
Moved abroad, away from her husband and children? Had they separated?
Before he could inquire further, the rumble of hoof beats and the jangle of horse
bridles sounded `round the bend, interrupting. A simple black coach rolled down the
rough-hewn lane, spewing a thin layer of dust in its wake.
“This should be Miss Melbourne and her brother now.” James folded his hands before
him, waiting with straight shoulders and a pursed mouth as the carriage came toward
Norfield Park, Gavin’s country manor house.
“Indeed.” Gavin smiled, still amused by James’s nervous gestures.
“You will like Miss Melbourne’s brother. Darius is quite the sportsman.”
“Then he will keep this countryside from being deadly dull, I’m sure.”
As the simple black conveyance lumbered and lurched to a stop at the manor house’s
steps, James cast a sober glance to Gavin. “Thank you for coming with me to greet
Miss Melbourne. I truly want you to like her.”
James was nearly as insistent as a costermonger, Gavin thought with a smile. “I am
sure I will come to think as highly of her as you.”
“That is my dearest wish.”
As James stepped toward the coach, the footmen stepped down and opened the door. Dust
floated in the gentle wind, almost like a mist around the conveyance. As usual during
the spring season, James sneezed.
The first person to depart the coach was a man. As the stranger ducked to exit, Gavin
caught a glimpse of black hair. Upon his tall, elegant frame, the man wore a stylish
riding costume with a fitted blue coat and well-polished boots. Gavin saw a flash
of very tanned cheeks and an aquiline nose before the man turned to the coach and
held out his hand.
A woman’s slender fingers appeared from the vehicle next, covered in short gloves
of cream-colored silk netting. A single gold bracelet on her right arm, just above
her glove, winked in the sunlight. A puffed poplin sleeve of muted blue flowers followed.
Then her head emerged—a pale oval bonnet atop thick black curls, as shiny as wet ink.
Narrow shoulders appeared in a delicate tiered cape that fell to her elbows. She stepped
down to the dirt lane, feet snuggly wrapped in soft kid boots. Though she was surprisingly
tall, her movements hinted at grace.
The woman, Miss Melbourne he presumed, looked up
A hint of a smile graced her mouth as her gaze tangled with his.
In an instant, her violet blue eyes stunned him like a kick in the gut.
Miss Melbourne was not exactly a beauty; he had been right about that. But she was
the most exotic creature Gavin had ever set eyes on.
was James’s betrothed?
Gavin froze, star
at the firm angle of her jaw and her wide, wanton mouth. He could not find a word
A man thought of one thing when he looked at such a woman, and it was not the latest
fashion. Gavin swallowed as lust sliced a sudden gash deep through
, straight down to his cock
. He let out a shaky breath.
Why had reserved James
a clergyman, no less
chosen a woman as sensual as Miss Melbourne for his bride? She was not the kind of
woman to blend in with a small country parish, particularly not as the parson’s wife.
She was not the kind of woman to blend in anywhere.
Had his cousin finally felt the call of the lustful Daggett blood? Always, James had
been far more interested in matters spiritual than sexual—at least until Miss Melbourne.
But since she aroused more than his own curiosity, Gavin assumed she inspired the
carnal in his cousin as well.
Too stunned to move, he watched Miss Melbourne turn toward James, her shimmering black
curls caressing her slender neck. Her eyes, framed by an extravagant border of coal-tinged
lashes, shone a pure, vivid blue. Such a hint of the demure was an intoxicating contrast
to the opulence of her face. Topped by the wings of her raven brows, her eyes were
luminous, expressive… mysterious.
All propriety, James bowed over Miss Melbourne’s hand as he greeted her with a low
murmur of words. Her smile widened into something genuine. Gavin had never been one
for poetry, but her radiant face did indeed glimmer like a sunrise.
He discovered that taking his next breath presented some unaccustomed challenges.
In fact, the more Gavin looked, the more enticing Miss Melbourne seemed.
The elegance of her angled face, the smooth curve of her cheek, the wide forehead—yes,
they were all more than agreeable. But another feature—an alarming one—snared his
gaze: her perfectly unblemished skin, an olive shade which no pure English rose would
willingly lay claim to.
The man who had first emerged from the coach stepped into Gavin’s line of vision,
eclipsing Miss Melbourne. Gavin realized this black-haired man, who possessed an even
darker complexion, must be Darius Melbourne.
James had obviously chosen a wife of foreign descent, one who claimed one or both
parents from some faraway country like Italy, Spain, or even India. That seemed unlike
traditional James, indeed.
With a nervous lift to his mouth, James placed Miss Melbourne’s hand in the crook
of his arm and stepped with her to Gavin’s side. Some emotion
carved a little furrow between her dark brows as they approached.