Eyes widening, eighteen-year-old Annabelle Green stepped back from Quinton Carlisle, against whose hard front she’d just so scandalously pressed herself. She brought her hand against her lips. Swollen, hot, wet…Oh heavens, he’d been kissing her.
Dear God, she’d let him!
She bit back a groan of self-recrimination. Let? She’d practically jumped into the scoundrel’s arms to be kissed.
“Annabelle?” he asked softly with concern. The noise from the Countess of St James’s crowded ball barely reached them beneath the thick rose bower at the rear of the garden, where dark shadows cocooned them together.
She stared at him, for the life of her not knowing what to say. A few minutes ago, she’d slid out the library terrace door to escape the crush of the party, to take a short turn around the garden. To give herself a few minutes of peace when she wasn’t the object of whispers and laughter from the other ladies at the ball who thought she was overreaching. She was only a lady’s companion, after all, with no real right to wear silk and jewels or to dance with eligible gentlemen.
But she’d come across Quinton Carlisle in the shadows. And then she’d found herself in his arms, being given the most incredible kiss imaginable.
“Are you all right?” he pressed. From the expression on his shadow-darkened face, he was just as bewildered as she was.
“You—you kissed me,” she whispered around her fingers, still pressed to her mouth.
“I certainly did.” A devilish grin quirked at this lips. “And you kissed me back.”
“I did not!”
He arched an amused brow at that wholly obvious lie.
Annabelle groaned. It hadn’t been only a kiss, either. It had been a full-out embrace, eager and hungry, with nibbles and sucks and wandering hands—
“I’d like to do it again.” He stepped forward to close the distance between them. His hot gaze dropped to her mouth. “Very much.”
Her hand fell away from her lips, not to encourage him but because she was utterly confused. What on earth had come over them? “But we don’t even like each other!” she squeaked out.
Well, he didn’t like her, at any rate.
He was Quinton Carlisle, for heaven’s sake. She’d known him since she was ten. He had a quick smile that always set butterflies swirling in her belly and a golden handsomeness she was certain would have made Adonis jealous. One of London’s most charming scoundrels, he turned the heads of bored society widows and wives everywhere he went, even at just twenty-one. Belle would have had to be dead or eighty not to be attracted to him.
But he was also the bane of her existence. He never seemed to tire of teasing her, just as he had since they were children. They were friends, certainly, but this season he seemed to take great delight in angering her until flames could have shot out of her head. While she might have fantasized about him, he certainly never gave a second thought about her.
Until tonight. When his arms had been around her. His hard body had pressed against her soft one, and his lips had played over hers, teasing kiss after kiss from her until she thought she might explode from the throbbing ache he spun through her.
Oh, what a delicious mouth he had! No wonder all those women in the ton practically threw themselves at him. When he knew how to kiss like that, why would they care about his reputation as one of the wild Carlisle brothers?
But Belle cared. Her reputation already hung by a thread, simply because of who she was. Nothing but the homeless daughter of one of Lord Ainsley’s former housekeepers whom he and Lady Ainsley had pitied enough to take in, a penniless companion whose mother was dead and whose convict father was serving in prison. Despite Lord and Lady Ainsley’s attempts to bring her into society’s graces, not one person inside that ball tonight was willing to accept her. And all of them let her know it, too. Repeatedly.
Now she’d put even that tenuous position into jeopardy. Heavens, how could she have gotten herself into this situation? With Quinton Carlisle, no less! Her head swam with it.
“But I do like you, Belle,” he corrected in a deep and husky voice.
Then her head practically whirled itself right off her neck. He…liked her?
His mouth hovered just above hers, close enough that she felt the heat of his breath shiver across her lips. “I can show you how much if you don’t believe me.”
She pressed her hand flat against his chest to keep him away, although her traitorous fingertips curled into the brocade of his waistcoat to keep him right there. “Why did you kiss me like that?”
He lowered his head, to briefly bring his lips to hers. Yet that kiss was so much more than a peck. It held promises of all kinds of wicked things he’d do to her if she let him…all kinds of deliciously tempting things. “Because I wanted to.”
He grinned at her in the shadows, then leaned in to kiss her again, this time with clearly more in mind than a mere touch of lips—
Her hand flew up to his shoulder, stopping him. “Why did you kiss me, Quinton?”
He shifted back at that, perplexed. Then he answered softly, “Honestly? I don’t know.”
Oh, that was exactly the last thing a young lady wanted to hear after giving away her first kiss! He couldn’t even come up with a good lie to explain himself, or some affectionate compliment that he was so expert at giving to other ladies.
Apparently she didn’t even merit empty flattery.
His eyes gleamed. “Annabelle, you’re definitely not the sort of woman I normally end up with in the shadows.”
The raw honesty of that burned into her chest. But he chuckled, as if he found their predicament humorous.
She blinked but couldn’t clear the gathering tears from her eyes. “Was this only a joke to you?” Just another way for him to tease and torment her? She knew he was a rascal, but she never thought he’d stoop so low as this!
His expression grew serious beneath the shadows. “At first, yes,” he admitted. “But it didn’t end that way.”
Anger and shame pulsed through her. With a soft cry, she shoved him back. She turned to hurry out from beneath the bower—
Her toe caught on a root, and she fell forward. Off-balance and unable to stop herself, she hit her shoulder on the post framing the entrance. The loud rip of tearing fabric sounded in her ears only heartbeats before her knees hit the dirt. For one moment, she could do nothing in her stunned shock but rest there on her hands and knees, her head hanging with mortification and her bodice sagging loose.
“Belle!” Quinton knelt beside her and reached for her arm. “Are you hurt?”
Squeezing her eyes shut against the hot tears, she shook her head. A lie. Because her heart had shattered.
He helped her to her feet. With her arms clamped tightly over her bodice to keep it in place, as if she could also physically fight back the embarrassment pouring through her, she wrestled her arm free from his grip. Her vision was too blurred with tears and shadows to see his face clearly—oh, she was glad of it! She couldn’t have borne to see his pity. The humiliation would have killed her.
“Are you all right?” he quietly demanded, taking her shoulders in both hands so she couldn’t pull away again.
A sob choked from her. “My dress…” She’d ruined the expensive ivory and pearl silk gown that Lady Ainsley insisted she wear for her first ball. Her ripped bodice gaped open over her breasts, the skirt stained with dirt.
“Let me help.” He reached for her.
“Go away!” She twisted away from him. “Haven’t you done enough to me tonight?”
He stared at her incredulously, his lips parting at her angry rebuke. Then his eyes narrowed. “I’ve done nothing—”
“Carlisle!” A man’s voice rang out through the quiet of the garden, followed by a jarring laugh. “There you are!”
“Christ,” he snapped out, then tried to remove his jacket for her. But it was too late.
Two men came upon them in the dark garden, with lit cheroots and glasses of whiskey in their hands. They froze when they saw Belle in her torn dress and Quinton half out of his jacket. Then lecherous grins spread across their faces, their teeth gleaming in the moonlight.
“And he’s busy,” the first man drawled.
The second one looped his arm over his friend’s shoulders and tapped his glass against the man’s chest. “Deliciously so.”
Fresh humiliation cascaded through Belle, and she cringed at the lascivious looks the two men gave her, slowly raking their gazes over her from her dirtied hem to her torn bodice. She turned away, but it was too late. They’d surely recognized her, even in the shadows. And what they must have thought she and Quinn had been up to—
“Go away,” he growled, stepping between her and the men. His hands drew into fists at his sides.
The first man tsked his tongue. “And let you have all the fun?”
Belle recognized him—Burton Williams, Viscount Houghton’s youngest son. Her stomach sickened. Oh God, not that scapegrace and male gossip!
“I never would have figured you for a piece like this, though,” Williams muttered disdainfully.
Belle’s chest tightened so hard that she couldn’t breathe, that she was certain her heart would stop beneath the pressure of it. She lowered her head to hide her face as the first tear slid down her cheek.
“Go away,” Quinton repeated in a snarl through gritted teeth. “This isn’t your concern.”
Ignoring that, Williams laughed. He was having far too much fun chiding Quinn and humiliating her to leave. “Tore your dress, did you, pet?”
The other man slapped Williams on the shoulder and gestured toward her skirt. “Before or after she was on her knees, do you think?”
Quinton’s broad body stiffened with anger so intense that it pulsed palpably on the midnight air. “Leave,” he ordered. “And don’t say a word about this to anyone.”
“Or what?” Williams taunted, throwing his glass away into the bushes to empty his hands to fight.
Amusement fled from the two men. Their faces turned hard, and they pulled themselves up straight. Tension sizzled like electricity in the air.
“Quinn, don’t.” She rested her hand on his right arm to stop the fisticuffs that were about to occur. Because if a fight broke out in the garden, then everyone in the ballroom would surely come pouring outside to see. All of London would find her looking like this and make the same assumption about her and Quinton that Williams and his friend had. “Just walk away. Please.”
His eyes flashed like brimstone. “And let them get away with insulting you?”
“Yes!” she choked out, afraid she would burst into sobs. “It doesn’t mean any—”
“Tupping a bluestocking?” The friend laughed. “That’s desperate.”
“Unless bluestockings taste like blueberries. Do they, Carlisle?” Williams took a step toward Quinn. “Is she a ripe juicy blueberry, ready to pop on a man’s tongue?”
Quinn’s arm muscles tensed beneath her fingertips as she felt his simmering anger flame into rage.
“Quinton, don’t do this,” she begged. “Please.”
But he shrugged her hand away and stepped forward, fists clenched and heading straight into the fight. In an instant, punches hurled between all three men, followed by the sickeningly dull thuds of landed fists.
Panic surged inside her. She couldn’t be caught out here, not looking like this! Not with one of Mayfair’s favorite rakes bare-knuckle brawling over her.
Without thinking, only knowing she had to get away before she was seen, she ran toward the house. She was desperate to find the retiring room, to hide there until Lady Ainsley could rescue her and put an end to this nightmare.
“Belle, wait!” Quinn called out. She glanced over her shoulder only long enough to see him land a punch that sent Williams reeling. “Stop!”
But the last thing she would do was face him in her disgrace, or watch him get himself beaten up over her. When she heard him running toward her, the fight abandoned to chase after her, she hurried faster through the dark shadows toward the terrace door. Her shaking hand grabbed for the door handle—
She flung open the door and rushed inside. Then halted in mid-step to suck in a soft scream of surprise when she saw four of the ton’s biggest busybodies sitting in the library. They stared at her, as if she belonged in the mews rather than in the grand town house with them. Then their gazes roamed slowly over her, taking in the torn and sagging bodice, the dirt stains on her skirt…Oh God.
Quinton arrived at her side a heartbeat later, looking disheveled and mussed from the fight. Knowing smiles spread across the women’s faces, and their eyes gleamed like hyenas relishing a feast. A scoundrel and a woman they considered too ill-bred to ever be one of them—
He shed his jacket and placed it over her shoulders to cover her, but it was too late. The damage had been done. Her ripped and dirty dress provided all the proof—and ammunition—they needed to ruin her.