A Rake's Ruin (Devilish Lords #1)(11)

She grinned as that newfound feeling of freedom swept over her, leaving her heady. She might not believe in love, but now she was a true believer in passion and physical compatibility. Perhaps now that she was not so desperate to marry the first eligible and wealthy suitor to come along, she could wait to find a man with whom she could share delicious kisses.

“What are you smiling about?” Galwin was watching her with a smile of his own, though his was tinged with confusion.

Poor, foolish rake. She must have given him quite the shock tonight. She’d acted in such haste and with such little thought for the consequences, it almost felt like it had been an evening out of time. Like perhaps it had happened to someone else or perhaps she’d read about it in a novel.

Claire Cleveland surely hadn’t dashed out of a ball on her own to chase her brother to a gaming hell in a seedy neighborhood late at night.

It just wasn’t done. She heard her mother’s chastening voice in her mind and clapped a hand over her mouth to stifle her laugh. Even now that her mother was gone, she could still hear the lessons that had been drilled into her from the earliest age.

Her gaze met Galwin’s and she noted his confusion and his wariness. He was looking at her like he feared she’d lost her senses.

Maybe she had. The thought brought with it another nervous laugh which she swallowed down as she took a long, deep inhale. Goodness, she needed to gain control. One night of newfound freedom and she hardly recognized herself.

A moment later they turned onto Davenport’s street and she no longer felt any inclination to laugh. The sound of the ball could be heard well before the carriage pulled up to the townhouse and with the noise of music and laughter came a healthy dose of reality.

Her hands fluttered to her chest as if she could physically stop her heart from galloping off without her. Once she left this carriage, she would be back to her normal life. Back in society with its judgmental eyes. She would have to walk back into that party and hope that no one had noticed her disappearance, or that she’d returned in a carriage with Galwin—and without a chaperone.

Oh mercy, what had she done?

She pressed her back against the seat behind her to avoid being seen through the carriage window. But she could not stay here all night. At some point she would have to summon her courage and enter the ball once more. Perhaps she could feign illness or—

“Driver,” Galwin called, rudely interrupting her scheming. “Continue around the corner, please. We will get out there.”

“Around the corner?” she asked.

His smile was calm. Reassuring, even. And yes, a little smug. But she would settle for his smirks and his condescension if it meant he had a plan.

“We will slip back into the party through the garden,” he said. “If anyone asks we’ll say that you slipped out for some fresh air as the heat from the crowd made you feel ill.”

“And you?” she asked.

“I saw you leave and was worried after your health.”

She nodded. It would do—it would have to. She didn’t have a better plan, to be sure.

She watched him look both ways after he exited the carriage and once he ascertained that there were no witnesses, he helped her out.

His hand on her arm felt commonplace after such an intimate embrace. For half a second she thought about leaning against him, feeling that warmth once more before returning to her normal world.

But that was silliness. The moment had come and gone, as well it should have. It was a fleeting moment of lunacy on both their parts. Pleasant, perhaps, and a memory that she would secretly cherish. But it could not be repeated, not without paying the consequences, and that was something she couldn’t bear to think about.

It was impossible not to think about it, however, as she let Galwin lead her through a back gate that opened to Davenport’s private property. Her hasty actions tonight had not only been rash, they had been reckless.

What if someone saw her leave? What if someone caught them out here alone together?

Her heart leapt into her throat as the enormity of her foolishness struck her. She had allowed that giddy new feeling of freedom to get out of hand. She’d gone too far.

She stopped short next to Galwin as they found themselves in the midst of a thicket of trees and some overgrown weeds, the estate just out of sight.

His hand came to her arm, holding her steady. “Are you all right?” he murmured near her ear.

She shivered, but not merely from the effects of his closeness, which was no less powerful here in the thicket as it was in the alley. But the shiver was also a tremble of dread at what she would be confronted with when they entered the party.

She might have thrown away a lifetime of good deeds and perfect temperament for one act of folly. By dashing out of here and running off on her own she had put her reputation on the line.

And then there was that kiss. She bit her lip at the memory. Though hopefully no one had seen, she had still been far too reckless. Yes, it was lovely that she was no longer desperately in need of a husband. Perhaps that did afford her a bit more freedom and maybe she could ease the reins of propriety she’d learned to clutch so tightly.

But what she’d done tonight…

She took a deep breath as her mind caught up with her former actions. There was a difference between not being perfect and being ruined, and tonight she had come dangerously close to crossing it.

She peered into the trees in the direction where music was playing. There was every chance she’d already been ruined and she just didn’t know it yet. She took a deep breath, oddly grateful for Galwin’s firm, steadying grip on her arm as he moved them toward the sounds.

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