A Rake's Ruin (Devilish Lords #1)(2)

Gathering up her skirts, she murmured an excuse to Anne and Georgie before making her exit. Hurrying down the stairs, she kept her gaze fixed on the two men. They were both tall so it was easy to keep them in sight.

Add to the fact that Lord Nicholas was ridiculously handsome and she could keep track of them by the murmurs and stares of the ladies she passed when she lost sight of their heads in the crowd.

Lord Nicholas was one of her brother’s closest friends. He was also the bane of her existence. She had no proof to offer that Galwin was behind her brother’s gambling problems, but she was willing to wager that he’d done little to help matters.

At best he was an enabler, at worst he was a wretched influence on her weak but loveable brother. And there he was now, whispering in Jed’s ear about who knew what.

If she didn’t know better she’d think she was looking at a religious tableau come to life. The Temptation of St. Anthony. Oh, not that her brother was so very saintly, but Galwin could quite accurately be described as a devil.

She drew closer, watching as the handsome rake smiled at something Jed said.

The man had a beautiful smile—all pearly white teeth despite his rotten soul. His dark hair was neatly cut, though there was that one lock that insisted on falling into his face, as if even his hair knew that he deserved to have a roguish air.

He was too handsome, she decided as she drew close. Too handsome and he knew it. His every move held a swagger, as if he was God’s gift to mankind.

Or womankind, rather. She didn’t miss the way all female eyes in the vicinity watched him.

Please stop encouraging his ego, she wanted to tell them. But she wouldn’t say something so appallingly rude, obviously. She couldn’t.

Could she?

She stopped midstride, causing a gentleman to bump into her at her abrupt halt.

“My apologies, miss,” he said.

She gave him a smile. Or at least, she hoped she did. She intended to. But at that particular moment she was incapable of simpering, for she had been struck with a revelation.

Why couldn’t she say something rude? Her breath came in rapid bursts as the full weight of her newfound freedom struck her. For weeks now, ever since her betrothal, Anne had been trying to tell her this but only now did it truly occur to her that she could step outside the well-ordered boundaries of society.

She wouldn’t, she told herself quickly. But she could.

For most of her life, she had known that her family had an air of scandal about them. Thanks to her philandering father and his propensity for procreation, they had all been raised under scrutiny. As the eldest and most eligible female, she had been told time and again that her actions would determine the fate of the family. It had fallen to her to be the perfect lady, the epitome of righteousness and decorum.

And now? She blinked at the man who’d bumped her though she could not focus on him long enough to remember his name. Lord…something or other. That did not matter. Not now. For now, it was truly becoming clear to her. Anne had married an earl. Their financial woes were over. No one needed her to be perfect, not anymore.

She should not let this go to her head, she told herself even as her breathing grew so shallow she thought she might faint. She should not take advantage of this newfound freedom and do something scandalous.

Why shouldn’t she?

She blinked rapidly once more and then smiled brilliantly at the man who was now backing away from her, regarding her with the sort of wariness one normally reserved for pickpockets or the criminally insane. “Are you quite all right, Miss Cleveland?”

She tried to bring his face into focus. An older silver-haired gentleman, he looked remarkably like every other old man in this place. For the life of her she couldn’t remember his name. Caulwell or Cauliman…Cauliflower, perhaps. I’m quite all right, Lord Cauliflower.

She bit her lip to keep from uttering such absurdity, but she couldn’t hold back a laugh at the audacious thought.

Lord Cauliflower frowned at her and she swallowed down another laugh. “I am quite all right, my lord, thank you. If you will excuse me, I must find my brother.”

She spun away before another laugh escaped. But really, after a lifetime of being acutely aware of maintaining a demure demeanor, the notion that she might let down her guard was overwhelming.

Claire had always known she was the family’s great hope—at landing a title and then, as their brother’s gambling led them into financial distress, at saving their land and their home. Even as a child she’d been decreed a beauty and her mother had ensured that she had the best dresses, the latest hairstyle, the finest creams and lotions for her skin, and that she maintained a perfect figure, even if it meant going hungry.

But it wasn’t just her looks that made her the family’s most marriageable asset, as Anne used to call her. It was her reputation. Out of them all, she was the sole female sibling whose lineage had never been questioned by the gossips who kept the rumor mill running.

As the eldest girl, no one doubted that she was truly her mother’s daughter. It certainly helped matters that she was the very image of the great Mrs. Cleveland. Her parents may not have held titles, but their combined wealth had given them a fair amount of pull in society.

But then their wealth was gone and Claire’s marriage prospects were all they’d had…right up until Anne shocked them all by marrying the Devil of Davenport. Or rather, the Earl of Davenport. His real title took some getting used to after knowing him as the devil for so long.

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