A Rake's Ruin (Devilish Lords #1)(7)

Even though her smiles were not genuine, they were better than being ignored. And Claire Cleveland excelled at making him feel invisible. Odd, really, since he was typically the center of attention, particularly with the ladies.

But even now, when it was just the two of them in the alley—he did not count the driver, who seemed to be playing possum up there on his raised seat—she kept her back to him, her posture painfully perfect as she caught her breath.

She whirled around and his chest tightened, his heart stopped its rapid beating. The world seemed to stand still.

For the first time in his life, he was faced with the real Claire Cleveland. Her expression was one he’d never seen before—not just the narrow-eyed glare of annoyance or the judgmental stare of the haughty debutante. There was something in her features that defied description. Something wild and free and…passionate. Something so completely out of character for Claire Cleveland, it rendered him speechless.

It was astonishing. She was a revelation. Gone was the simpering, smiling debutante he loved to tease and in her place was a goddess of war. A Valkyrie in all her battle-worn glory.

Raising an arm, she pointed blindly toward the row of back-alley doors. “Go fetch him.”

He nearly laughed. Who was this woman? “No.”

She drew in a deep breath. “I am not leaving here without Jed. So either you help me or—”

“Or what?” He took a step toward her, resisting the urge to pull her back into his arms. Lord, but she was enchanting. A mesmerizing vision of temper and spirit.

He watched her flounder for a response and experienced a surge of pity at the quick flash of wild-eyed panic he caught sight of before she covered it.

Or nothing. That was the obvious answer. What could a young, unattached, untitled woman do in this situation? Nothing. She had no recourse, just him.

“He’s not gambling.” His low, softly spoken words seemed to prick a hole in her righteous anger.

Her gaze met his, her eyes unbearably wide and vulnerable. “He’s not?” Her voice wavered slightly and in a way he’d never heard. This wasn’t false or affected, it was honest concern.

This was a sister who was scared to death on her brother’s behalf.

Any lingering anger or resentment toward her and her judgmental looks faded into oblivion as he closed the distance between them. He shouldn’t touch her, but he couldn’t seem to resist.

Her pretty blue gown left her shoulders bare and he placed his hands there, trying and failing not to notice the warm silkiness of her skin.

“He’s here to right his wrongs,” he said. He wavered on how much to tell her. Jed had been close-lipped about the extent of his debts, with his family most of all. It was up to Jed to make things right, with his debtors and with Claire. “Anything more than that he must tell you himself. It’s not my story to tell.”

Her eyes searched his face, studying his expression as one might a textbook. “Are you certain he can control himself in there?”

Was he? No. Not really. But he knew that Jed needed his support right now. He was surrounded by people who didn’t trust him—rightfully, perhaps. But at this particular moment, when Jed was trying to get his life back together, he needed someone in his corner. Someone to believe in him now that he’d driven away his other friends and siblings, and all for reasons he wouldn’t fully explain, not even to him.

She noted his hesitation and planted her hands on her hips. “Nicholas, do something!”

He blinked at her use of his name. Like her brother, she typically referred to him by his family name, if she referred to him at all. “What precisely do you want me to do, love?”

Her nostrils flared at the word love. He felt that familiar flicker of satisfaction at having gotten some sort of reaction out of her, although after the events of this evening, it was becoming appallingly clear that Claire wasn’t the tepid, vapid, unemotional twit she’d pretended to be all these years.

He supposed he’d long held that suspicion, but to see it become clear right in front of his eyes was delightfully shocking. He watched breathlessly as she struggled to remain calm. Claire Cleveland! Struggling for calm! The woman had given new meaning to the term “placid,” yet here she was, battling for composure.

Still waters run deep. He supposed it was some truth to that old proverb.

A surge of affection had him reaching out again, or maybe his hands just missed the touch of her skin. When his hands settled on her shoulders once more, she didn’t move away. He kept his tone soft. “Claire, let me take you back to the ball. Your family will be missing you.”

Her eyes narrowed. Apparently whatever he’d said, it had not been correct. “What do you know about my family?”

His insides froze at her tone, so haughty and so cold. She was clearly emotional, he reminded himself. As out of character as it might seem, Miss Claire Cleveland was obviously lashing out. “There’s nothing you can do for Jed right now.” He ignored her glare as he tried to find words that would not betray her brother’s privacy while still reassuring her.

“I am not going back to the ball without him.” Her jaw was set, her nostrils flared. Lord, she was beautiful when she was brimming with anger.

Unfortunately that anger was targeted at him, but for the life of him he couldn’t imagine why. It wasn’t as though he’d dragged Jed to this den of vice. He was here for support, nothing more. Bloody hell, he didn’t even enjoy gambling.

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