In Bed with the Devil(Scoundrels of St. James,Book 1)(59) by Lorraine Heath
They’d pretended they were nothing more than passing acquaintances.
Worse, she felt silly for continuing to invite him to affairs that he had no intention of attending. Even now, knowing that he’d not make an appearance, she still kept hoping—
“Lucian Langdon, the Earl of Claybourne!”
The announcement echoed through the room like a death knell. With her heart pounding furiously, Catherine jerked her gaze to the stairs.
And there he was, standing so incredibly proudly with defiance etched in his stance.
“Oh, dear God, what’s he doing here?” Winnie asked, suddenly at Catherine’s side, clutching her arm. “I didn’t send him an invitation.”
“What? Why? Whatever were you thinking?”
“That he intrigues me.”
She watched as he descended the stairs with an air of arrogance that she now realized was nothing more than a ruse. Growing up, he’d been taught how to deceive, how to trick—but he didn’t just apply it to gain what he wanted. He wrapped it around himself like a finely tailored cloak in order to protect the core of his being.
He’d come here to prove to her that he wasn’t a coward.
His face was an unreadable mask, just as it had been the first night that she’d ever set eyes on him. He prowled now as he had prowled then. He dared anyone to refute his right to be there—and she knew now that he dared them, because he doubted his own place so much.
He wanted—needed—them to accept his position among them because he was unable to accept it himself.
As she watched him, she was struck with the realization that somehow, in spite of all the odds, she’d come to care deeply for this man. That she didn’t want him hurt. That she didn’t want him to lose that last bit of soul that he clung to.
“Since I invited him, I’ll welcome him,” Catherine said, and before Winnie could object, Catherine began walking toward their new guest.
The music had halted with the announcement and had yet to resume. As Claybourne made his way into the room, people stepped back as though a leper walked amongst them. She knew Claybourne had to be aware of the reactions, the lowered gazes, the fear, the dismay. And yet, he didn’t retreat. He strode forward with the elegance of a king, so much more worthy of respect than those who surrounded him.
When she was near enough, he stopped. If she’d not come to know him so well, she’d have not realized what this moment was costing him. Nearly every ounce of his pride.
He was not a man to bow down, and yet for her, he almost had.
She curtsied. “My Lord Claybourne, we’re so pleased you could join us tonight.”
He bowed slightly. “Lady Catherine, I’m very honored to have been invited.”
“My dance card is presently blank, but it is not the custom for a lady to ask a gentleman to dance.”
“A coward might not ask for fear of being rebuffed.”
“But then you are not a coward, my lord.”
She watched his throat work as he swallowed. “Will you honor me with a dance?”
“The honor, sir, is all mine.”
She extended her hand toward him, and as he took it, she signaled the orchestra. The strains of a waltz began to fill the room.
“I do hope we won’t be dancing alone,” he muttered.
“I don’t care one way or the other. I only care that I’m dancing with you.”
He took her in his arms then, and it was as she’d always imagined it would be. She was aware of his strength as he held her, the warmth in his eyes as he gazed upon her.
Very slowly, cautiously, others began to join them on the dance floor. Catherine suspected they were vying for nearness so they might overhear what the scandalous Devil Earl and Lady Catherine Mabry were discussing.
“Gossip about us will abound tomorrow,” he said quietly.
“I suspect it will abound tonight.”
“And you don’t care.”
“Not one whit. I have wanted to dance with you since the first ball I ever saw you attend.”
“You looked so young and innocent that night, dressed in white. Who would have thought you were such a hellion?”
She wasn’t certain whether he was striving to compliment or insult her, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was that he appeared to recall as many details about that night as she did. “You remember what I was wearing?”
“I remember everything about you that night. You wore pink ribbons in your hair and pearls against your throat.”
“The pearls were my mother’s.”
“You were standing amongst a gaggle of girls, and you stood out not because of your beauty—which far exceeded theirs—but because of your refusal to be cowed. No one has ever challenged me as you do, Catherine.”
“No one has ever intrigued me as you do, my lord.”
She feared they were skirting the edges of flirtation gone too far.
The final strains of the music wafted into silence. Catherine took a deep breath. “I’ve grown rather warm. Would you be so kind as to escort me onto the terrace where the air is cooler?”
“If that is your pleasure.”
She wound her arm around his and strolled through the room, holding her head high, meeting gazes that were quickly averted, watching as her reputation was irrevocably destroyed. Her father would never know, but if—when—her brother returned, he’d be furious. She would deal with the repercussion when it happened.
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