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Excerpt: The Duke of Defiance

Excerpt: The Duke of Defiance

The Untouchables, Book 5

Chapter One

London, March 1817

“I wanted to tell you our exciting news.”

Joanna Shaw’s belly sank. She could well imagine what news her sister Nora had to share. “Are you expecting another child?” She was proud of how she kept her tone free of anguish or…jealousy.

Nora nodded, her lips spreading into a wide smile. “Titus is thrilled.”

Happiness swelled inside Jo, and she felt horrible for allowing even a moment’s upset. After everything Nora had been through in her youth, she deserved this and so much more. She’d overcome a scandal and was now happily married—to a duke who adored her—with a beautiful family. It was a dream come true.

It had certainly been Jo’s dream.

Just then, three children darted into the drawing room. The three-year-old boy was in the lead, shrieking in what sounded like glee as two girls—both five years old—chased him with odd-shaped pieces of wood clutched in their small hands.

Nora smiled, uncaring that they’d burst into the room. She and her husband, Titus, doted on their children, and it showed. Christopher and Rebecca possessed a joy for life and a freedom of expression that warmed Jo’s heart. When she thought of how her own children, if she’d had any, would’ve been treated by their father…well, it was perhaps best that she was barren.

The nurse, a cheerful woman in her fifties, stepped into the room, her gaze landing on the children, now squealing as the girls chased Christopher around one of the settees. She exhaled and looked to Nora. “Your Grace?”

Nora chuckled. “It’s fine. We’ve got them. Evie’s father will be here soon anyway.”

With a nod, the nurse turned and left, no doubt having earned a respite.

Jo pivoted on her chair so that she could see the children, who were at a bit of a stalemate on the other side of the room. Christopher, his chest heaving, stood in front of the settee, while the girls were behind it, their heads bent together just visible over the back.

“Mama, they’re plotting something,” Christopher called. He didn’t turn his head to look at his mother. Jo didn’t blame him since it was clear they were plotting something.

Jo stood and walked toward her nephew. “Are you playing pirates again?” Since coming to stay with Nora and her family a few weeks ago, she’d come to know Christopher and Becky quite well. She recognized the “weapons” the girls carried as their pistols. They’d tried swords, but Nora had put a stop to them running around with sticks.

Becky spared her aunt a quick glance, her hazel eyes narrowed with intent. “Yes. We’re deciding how to make Christopher walk the plank when we catch him.”

Christopher dashed to Jo’s side and clutched her hand. “I don’t want to walk the plank.”

Jo gave his fingers a squeeze. “Of course not. How about some cakes instead?”

His hazel eyes lit and the tip of his tongue darted over his lips. “Yes, please, Auntie.”

Chuckling, Jo guided him back to where his mother was sitting. A tea tray, stacked with cakes and biscuits, perched on the table.

Christopher climbed onto his mother’s lap and reached for a cake.

Nora helped him get situated as he gleefully ate. “I’m surprised you didn’t come here straightaway. Too preoccupied with avoiding your sister and her new friend, I’m sure.”

“How are we to make him walk the plank now?” Becky wailed from across the room.

“Find something else to do,” Nora said, smiling at her daughter. “Show Evie your favorite book.”

The book—an illustrated guide to the plants and birds of England—sat on the table near the tea tray. Becky ran to grab it, along with two biscuits, and a moment later, the two girls were sprawled in the corner happily eating and perusing the tome.

Nora gazed at them the way a mother looks at her children: with a love so palpable that the entire room seemed to glow with it. “I’m so glad she’s found a friend her age. It’s quite fortuitous that we met her father.”

“How did you make his acquaintance?”

“His godmother is Lady Dunn, and as you may recall, she’s a friend of Genie’s.” Genie was Lady Satterfield, Nora’s mother-in-law. “He’s newly returned to England since inheriting his title and doesn’t really know anyone. He left ages ago—fifteen years, I think—and never meant to return. He’s the third son and is now the earl.”

“Knightley?” Jo asked, trying to recall the name she’d heard in passing earlier.

“Knighton. His seat is on the Welsh border.” Nora held on to Christopher as he leaned forward for another cake. “Just one more,” she said softly.

“That would be a shock,” Jo mused. “To be the third son and manage to inherit the title. Where has he been?”

“The tropics. He owns a sugar plantation.”

“How exotic.” Jo couldn’t imagine such a place. She’d never left England. This was, in fact, only her third trip to London. She’d lived quite a sheltered life in their tiny village of St. Ives.

“Did I tell you he has a nickname?”

Jo plucked a biscuit from the tray. “He’s an Untouchable, then?” This was the word they’d chosen in their youth to describe the men they dreamed of marrying, men that were too far above their station. They’d giggled about it endlessly. It was, of course, the epitome of irony that Nora was now a duchess.

“Probably,” Nora said. “Time will tell if he’s truly ‘untouchable,’ but he has a nickname nonetheless. He’s the Duke of Defiance.” These nonsensical names had originated with Nora’s trio of friends who had also married Untouchables, all of whom they’d labeled the duke of something in accordance with their reputations.

“However did he earn that name?” Jo asked.

Nora glanced toward the corner. “It occurs to me that we should perhaps speak quietly. Or not at all.”

Good heavens. Jo had completely forgotten that the Duke of Defiance’s daughter was just across the room. Granted, she looked completely engrossed in the book with Becky. Jo smiled at them. “Reminds me of us when we were young.”

They’d spent countless hours combing through their father’s library. And climbing trees. And digging in the ground. And storming the kitchen—both to eat and to learn to cook. The housekeeper had been more than happy to teach them.

Jo thought of the kind woman with her curly white hair and bright blue eyes. She’d given the best hugs after their mother had died. “I wonder where Mrs. Birch is now.” She’d retired from their father’s employ shortly before Jo had married.

“I have to think she’s passed on,” Nora said quietly.

“I’d prefer to imagine her baking pastries in a cottage in the Cotswolds.”

Nora smiled. “Yes, let’s do that.”

“Excuse me.” A small feminine voice drew both of them to turn. Evie stood a few feet away from their chairs, her gaze on the table. “May I have another biscuit?”

“Yes, you may,” Nora said. She stood with Christopher, holding him on her hip. “I need to take Christopher up to wash his hands. And then it’s nap time. I’ll be back shortly.” Nora left.

Evie tiptoed to the table but hesitated, her fingers hovering over the sweets.

“Can’t decide?” Jo asked.

Evie shot her a quick glance. “I want the one I had before, but I can’t tell them apart.”

Jo scooted to the edge of her chair. “Hmm. They have subtle differences, I think. This,” she pointed to one variety, “has lemon flavoring. I see little bits of lemon rind.”

Evie made a face. “Not that one. I like them plain.”

“Ah, then this one.” Jo indicated a square stamped with a flower.

The girl’s blue-green gaze shifted to Jo for a brief moment before she gingerly picked up the biscuit. She held it to her lips and licked the edge. After a moment, she took a small nibble. A look of relief settled over her features, and she claimed a second, larger, bite.

“Is that one right, then?” Jo asked.

Evie nodded. “Thank you.” She held her free hand to her mouth. After she swallowed, she said, “My apologies. I shouldn’t talk with food in my mouth. Or so Nanny used to tell me.”

“Who’s Nanny?”

“My nurse in Barbados. I miss her.”

“She didn’t come with you to England?”

Evie shook her head, jostling her blonde waves. “Papa said it would be too much of a change for her. We’re going to hire a new one. Once Papa finds his legs. So Papa says.”

Jo imagined it was a big change for all of them. “Do you like it here?”

Evie shrugged. “It’s cold. I miss the beach and the ocean.”

A picture of this fair-haired girl dancing in the waves brought a smile to Jo’s lips. “I would miss that too. Is the ocean warm there?”

The girl’s eyes glowed. “Oh yes. And the sand can get quite hot.”

Jo wiggled her stocking-clad toes in her shoes. “That sounds lovely. What else can you tell me about Barbados?”

“We have palm trees and monkeys. And turtles. They make nests in the sand.”

“Indeed?”

Evie finished her biscuit and sidled closer to Jo. “When they hatch, all the little baby turtles run across the sand to the water. They look like crabs, but they’re much cuter. I wanted to have one as a pet, but Papa said no, that it wouldn’t be fair to keep them in a cage.”

“I think your papa sounds like a wise man.”

Evie grinned up at her, revealing a missing front tooth on the bottom. “Oh, he is.”

“And what about your mama?”

The girl’s smile faded. “She died.”

Jo’s heart squeezed. “My goodness, I’m so sorry for your loss. I didn’t know.”

Evie shrugged again. “I barely remember her.”

“Lord Knighton,” announced Nora’s butler, Abbott.

“Papa!” Evie scrambled toward the door and threw her arms around her father’s waist.

Jo rose from the chair, smoothing her hand over her skirt and dislodging a crumb in the process.

The earl hugged his daughter briefly. “Did you have a good time?” he asked quietly.

Blonde curls rioted against Evie’s shoulders as she tipped her head back to look up at her father. “Yes. Can I come again?”

The earl looked over at Jo. His eyes were a deep, dark blue, almost indigo. His gaze was direct and intense, but only for a moment until he returned his attention to Evie. “If you’re invited.”

“Of course she’s invited!” Becky chimed from the corner. “I found the picture of the hawk, Evie. Come see!”

Evie hesitated until her father gave a slight nod. Then she disengaged herself from him and tore back to Becky.

Jo curtsied to the earl. “I’m Mrs. Shaw, the duchess’s sister.”

He executed a bow. “Pleased to make your acquaintance. I am Cr—Knighton.” He shook his head.

“Your daughter is quite charming,” Jo said.

“Did she talk you into a soporific state?” His features were impassive. It sounded like it ought to be a joking remark, but she couldn’t find a hint of humor in his demeanor.

“Er, no. As I said, she’s charming. She told me about Barbados.”

He kept his gaze focused across the room, toward the girls. “She talks of little else.”

Again, she couldn’t determine the emotion behind his statement. Did that bother him? “It sounds lovely. Particularly the warm sand.”

“Yes, she misses that. She could never get enough of it, always burying her legs and rolling around in it.” He glanced at Jo. “Not terribly ladylike, I’m afraid.”

It reminded Jo of her adventures with Nora when they were girls. “No, but sometimes ladylike behavior is overrated. Often, actually.” Jo had spent eight years comporting herself with the utmost decorum as a vicar’s wife. And she’d been happy to do so. Until she’d learned what her husband had been doing behind her back.

She refused to think of Matthias. He didn’t deserve any of her time or concern. Not that she meant to think ill of the dead. No, she meant not to think of him at all.

The earl peered at her a moment, his gaze inscrutable, and she feared she’d misspoken. Perhaps he was terribly strict and didn’t appreciate her comments about ladylike behavior being overrated. She glanced toward Evie, who was a vivacious child. Surely she couldn’t be the product of someone who was rigid and stodgy?

The silence grew into something awkward, so Jo sought to break the tension. “Evie said you’re looking to hire a nurse.”

He glanced at her again, and maybe there was a hint of…relief? “Yes, I will be conducting some interviews, but what do I know of hiring a nurse?”

Nora breezed in at that moment. “Good afternoon, Lord Knighton. I see you’ve met my sister, Mrs. Shaw.” She smiled brightly and came to stand with them.

“Yes.” He only spared Nora a brief look, and Jo had the sense that he was maybe nervous. Yes, that could very well be it. Going from sugar plantation owner in Barbados with sun and beaches and baby turtles to earl in London, where there was far less sun and certainly no baby turtles except in soup had to be nerve rattling.

“If you wanted help locating a nurse, perhaps Nora can help,” Jo suggested, knowing her sister wouldn’t mind her making the offer.

“I wouldn’t wish to be a bother,” he said.

“It’s no bother,” Nora said. “I’d be delighted to help.”

“The interviews are day after tomorrow. Would you want to join me?”

“Certainly.”

“Excellent. I’ll have my secretary send over the details.”

Nora smiled warmly. “I’ll look forward to it.” She turned toward the girls, who were still bent over the book. “Oh, I hate to disrupt them. Girls!” she called. “Time for Evie to go.”

This was met with a chorus of protestations followed by both asking for more time.

“I promise you’ll get together again very soon,” Nora said. She winced as she looked over at the earl. “Provided your father says it’s all right.”

“He already said I could if I’m invited,” Evie said.

Nora laughed softly. “Then consider yourself invited.”

The girls hugged, and when they parted, Becky’s eyes widened. “I just realized… Aunt Jo isn’t married and neither is your father. They could get married, and then we would be cousins!”

Jo stiffened and willed the heat that was rising in her neck to stop before it reached her cheeks and they turned a mortifying shade of puce.

Evie pivoted toward her father. “Oh yes, Papa! You did say you should find me a mother.”

He frowned down at her. “Nonsense, I’m not going to marry the first woman I meet, Evie. I must ensure she meets our requirements.”

Jo wasn’t looking to marry but still tried not to feel slighted. It was an odd thing to say in front of her. She expected an apology or at least an apologetic glance.

He did neither.

Instead, he looked at Nora and thanked her again for having Evie over and for offering to help with his search for a nurse. He bowed to her and started to turn. Realigning himself, he gave a quick bow to Jo. “Mrs. Shaw.”

Then he took his daughter’s hand, and they left the drawing room.

Becky sighed. “I like her ever so much.”

“Me too, dear,” Nora said, bending to kiss her daughter’s head and stroking her dark reddish-brown waves. “Time to go upstairs for afternoon reading.”

“Yes, Mama.” She skipped from the room, and Nora smiled after her. Again, her mother’s love seemed a living, breathing thing.

“That was a rather odd reaction he had,” Nora said, turning toward Jo.

“Yes. You never did tell me how he got his name—the Duke of Defiance.”

Nora’s brow creased. “I’m trying to remember. I think it was Ivy who revealed that Lady Dunn had said he was a defiant child. Yes, that’s it.” Nora pursed her lips. “It’s undoubtedly a biased assessment, but then I suppose all those names are. We should probably stop referring to them in such ways.”

Yes, probably. But even Nora’s husband was still called the Forbidden Duke. It was done with deference and even admiration, however. “The nickname hasn’t gone public, has it?”

Nora shook her head. “I don’t think so. Not like the Duke of Desire.”

That was Ivy’s husband, the Duke of Clare. He’d been known for his outrageous love affairs, but all that was in the past since he’d been happily wed to Ivy last fall.

“Well, based on my limited interaction with him, I’d say the Duke of Discomfort might be a better description. He didn’t seem at all at ease.”

Nora crossed back to her chair and sat down. “I gathered that also. Peculiar to say the least.”

Jo sat too. “It has to be difficult returning here to a life he never expected.”

“True.” Nora replenished their teacups. “It’s amazing how quickly things can change.”

“And it’s usually beyond our control.” Especially as a woman. Jo had married someone out of necessity and had endured a marriage that had seemed a safe haven but had become a living hell.

Now she was in a position to perhaps find a measure of happiness. That would require good fortune, however, which was, of course, beyond Jo’s control.

***

The garments he would shortly need to don taunted him from the other side of the dressing chamber. Bran Crowther, reluctant Earl of Knighton, closed his eyes, ignoring them, and focused on the deep pressure his valet was currently working into his shoulders.

Hudson had long fingers and particularly strong hands. Bran couldn’t imagine starting his day without his massage techniques. He worked down Bran’s right arm, finishing with his wrist before moving to the left.

While he worked, Bran thought about his upcoming appointments. Three nurses to interview. The Duchess of Kendal would be here soon to provide her assistance. Bran was glad for it, especially since he was fairly certain he’d botched things before leaving her house the other day.

“Hudson, I meant to ask you something. I’m afraid I misspoke at the Duchess of Kendal’s the other day.”

The valet massaged Bran’s elbow. “In what way?”

“Evie’s friend suggested I should marry the Duchess’s sister since we are both unwed. I said I had requirements. I suspect it was insulting to Mrs. Shaw.”

Hudson moved down to Bran’s left wrist. “Probably. You do have a way of unintentionally insulting people from time to time.”

Bran exhaled. “As you said, it’s unintentional.”

Hudson finished, and Bran opened his eyes. “Perhaps I should apologize.”

“Like as not. However, that was two days ago, and she’s a mere acquaintance. Unless you think you did her grievous injury.”

“No.” Bran stood and completed his toilette.

“You are resplendent,” Hudson said, brushing a speck of lint from Bran’s coat.

Bran gave him a gimlet eye. “I miss the way I was able to dress at home.”

“Of course.”

“And I miss my tailor. Any news on that front?”

Hudson’s dark eyes lit, and he gave a subtle nod of his balding head. “In fact, I have found someone. He can start tomorrow, if that’s agreeable.”

“Yes. I’m desperate. You told him it would be a temporary arrangement?” It had to be in order to ensure his skills were acceptable. Bran was particular about his clothing. It seemed he had requirements about everything.

“Indeed.”

“I need to get downstairs,” Bran said. As he exited his chamber, his butler, a stodgy fellow called Kerr, met him in the gallery.

“There you are, my lord.” His tone carried a bit of pomposity as it usually did. “Mrs. Shaw has arrived.”

Mrs. Shaw? “Not the Duchess of Kendal?”

Kerr blinked behind his spectacles, appearing offended by Bran’s query. “I think I can tell the difference, not to mention read a calling card.”

Bran suppressed a growl. “I was expecting the Duchess.” He stalked past the butler and started down the stairs. “Is she in my office?”

“No,” Kerr said from behind him. “She’s in the hall.”

Bran turned, and Kerr had to stop short. He teetered on the stair, his small gray eyes widening as he recovered his balance. Bran ignored the man’s distress—served him right for following so damn close behind him. Hadn’t he explained to his new staff that he craved, no, he needed his space? “In the future, if I have an appointment, I should like you to show the person to my office to await my arrival.”

“What if you’re already in your office?”

“Then they won’t need to await my arrival, will they?” Bran turned with a shake of his head and descended into the hall where Mrs. Shaw stood near the door. She didn’t indicate that she’d heard any of their discussion on the stairs, but then she wouldn’t have been able to hear it from this distance.

She sank into a curtsey. “Good morning, my lord. My sister wishes to convey her deepest apologies, but her son is ill, so she asked me to come in her stead.”

Bran registered the tidy upsweep of her dark brown hair and the green-brown of her earnest eyes as well as the simplicity of her modest slate-gray gown. She was rather monochromatic, except for that hint of green in her eyes, and the tiny gold flecks that danced near the pupil. He recalled that she was widowed, which perhaps explained her somewhat dour appearance. Or maybe it was just that he was used to warmth and vibrancy and colors that defied possibility in England. Barbados seemed like an imaginary world now.

“I see. Do you have children of your own?” he asked.

Pale swaths of pink highlighted her cheeks. It was the barest bit of color, but he caught it. How could he not against the dull palette she provided?

Dull?

No, that wasn’t an apt description. Her attire was dull, her hair a bit too severe, but she possessed an attractive, feminine form. Indeed, her breasts were perhaps spectacular. And she was pretty, with long, dark lashes framing her eyes and rose-colored lips that were just a bit too full. Not too full, he amended.

“I do not,” she said, drawing his attention back to his question about whether she had children.

“Then how can you be qualified to help me with this endeavor?”

“My sister sent a list of characteristics and requirements you should seek.” She straightened her shoulders and looked him in the eye. “She also sent me with her express confidence.”

He liked her fortitude. “Well then, I suppose you will suffice. Come along.”

Her nostrils flared slightly, and her eyes widened just the tiniest bit, the gold flecks seeming to brighten. As he turned to lead her to his office, he considered that he might just have offended her again. He had called her abilities into question, but why wouldn’t he?

He strode toward the back corner of the house, where his office was located. It was a large chamber with a wall of bookshelves and windows that looked out to the garden. He moved behind the desk and indicated for her to take a chair on the opposite side.

She slowly sat, her gaze wary and her mouth tight.

He frowned. “My apologies if I insulted you.”

“If you’d rather I didn’t stay, you have only to say so.” There was a steely set to her shoulders and a clipped edge to her tone as she spoke. “Nora wanted to help you, but I’ll understand if you decide I won’t suffice.”

He dropped into his chair. She had cheek to go with her fortitude. He liked that too. He’d been prepared to deal with milksops and featherbrains when he’d returned to England—people like his mother and brothers. Not that they really were milksops or featherbrains, but they liked to put on as if they were, thinking it was somehow attractive. He supposed it wasn’t fair to assume an entire population shared the same characteristics as his family.

“I’m afraid I must also apologize for the other day. I meant no offense. Sometimes… I speak without realizing how my words might sound.”

One of her dark, slender brows arched. “Forgive me for saying so, but I’ve found that’s a trait shared by most men.”

A short, sharp laugh escaped him. “You may be right.” Hell, she was absolutely right. But he knew he was a bit worse than average. His mother had spent the first eighteen years of his life telling him so. “I should advise you that I will likely do it again. Inadvertently offend you, I mean.”

“Well, so long as it’s inadvertent.”

Yes, cheek to spare.

He glanced toward the reticule sitting in her lap. “You say your sister sent a list of requirements?”

“Yes.” She opened the reticule and withdrew a piece of folded parchment. Scooting to the edge of her chair, she set it on the edge of the desk in front of her, laying it flat. “Nora recommends someone well versed in manners, sewing and mending, and medicine.” She looked up from the paper. “Didn’t Evie have a nurse in Barbados?”

“Yes, and she excelled at all those things.” He thought of Amalie and how hard it had been for Evie to say goodbye. “Except perhaps the manners. Not that she didn’t teach them—she did. It’s just that things were different there. I didn’t imagine Evie would need to grow up as the daughter of an earl.” He bristled, the title pressing down on him like a mantle made of bricks.

“Your life has changed quite dramatically, I take it?”

In the span of eighteen months, he’d gone from third son to earl. He’d had to uproot his life, including his daughter from the only home she’d ever known. “Nothing is the same,” he said simply.

Except his feelings at being back in England. Though it had been fifteen years since he’d last walked on this ground, he was still the same eccentric Bran. Only now he was expected to lead the family and be the earl. That meant dealing with his mother, his brothers’ widows, and their daughters, of whom there were seven. He thought. Admittedly, he wasn’t sure.

Forget a mantle made of bricks, perhaps it was lead. And granite. And bricks.

But first and foremost came Evie. Always Evie.

“Whoever I hire must possess patience and kindness. Evie is…sensitive.”

“Plus she’s been through a great change. Yes, I must agree that finding someone who will help her make the transition to her new life in England is critical.”

Bran pressed his palm flat against the smooth top of his desk. His father’s desk, rather. Like everything in this house, it wasn’t his. How in the hell could he think of this as home—could Evie think of this as home—if everything had belonged to someone else?

“Do you know anything about decorating?”

She stared at him a moment before blinking, those dark lashes of hers briefly shuttering the sparkling hazel of her eyes. They were remarkable, he realized. How had he conjured the word dull in reference to her?

“Decorating?” she repeated. “Er, no. At least not here in London. I had to commission new drapes once. And order a new settee after the old one broke.”

“And how did you do that? Particularly if you weren’t in London.”

She inhaled as her gaze traveled the room. “I hired a seamstress from the village to make the drapes, and the settee came from a furniture maker in Cambridge.”

“I see.”

“I’m sure Nora could offer assistance. Or Lady Satterfield. She’s Nora’s mother-in-law.”

Bran had met her last week while visiting his godmother, Lady Dunn. In fact, he should ask the viscountess—he’d much rather seek her counsel than his mother’s. And wouldn’t that annoy his mother? She’d never cared for Lady Dunn, who’d been his father’s choice as godmother.

He shoved thoughts of his mother aside. He’d have to deal with her soon enough when she arrived from Durham, where she’d been staying with her sister.

“I’ll consult them, thank you.” Or maybe he’d just delegate refurbishment to his secretary. Wouldn’t the staid, fussy Dixon enjoy that?

Hell, what Bran really needed was a wife. And he was about as versed in searching for one of those as he was in securing nurses and furniture. It had been easy on Barbados—there simply weren’t many choices.

He eyed Mrs. Shaw and realized he couldn’t very well solicit her input on that topic.

He recalled the duchess’s daughter’s comment the other day, that both and he and Mrs. Shaw were unmarried. However, she didn’t look as though she were ready to marry again. Indeed, she seemed to perhaps still be in mourning, given her attire.

“How long ago did your husband pass away?” he asked.

She started, her shoulder twitching slightly as she blinked at him. “It’s been about a year.” She smoothed her hand along the top of her knee. “And your wife?”

“Nearly four years. She was struck by fever. Evie became ill as well, but thankfully recovered.”

“My goodness, that must have been frightful. I’m sorry for your loss.”

“And I’m sorry for yours.” He noted she didn’t offer a cause of death, and he wouldn’t ask. He could be blunt and occasionally brash, but he wasn’t a complete boor. Usually.

A soft rap on the doorframe was followed by Kerr announcing the arrival of the first candidate.

“Please show her in,” Bran said, ignoring the perennially pinched expression on Kerr’s face.

“Do you expect me to remain quiet for the duration of the interview?” Mrs. Shaw asked.

Bran hadn’t actually thought about that. “No, if you have something to ask after I’m finished with my questions, please do so.”

Mrs. Shaw gave a prim nod, then straightened her spine. As she did so, her tongue peeked between her lips, wetting them. She seemed completely unaware, but Bran was not.

The quick, innocuous gesture sent a shaft of heat straight to his groin. Of all the inconvenient times… The candidate stepped into the office, and he was forced to drive all thought of Mrs. Shaw from his mind.

For now.