Gabriel was only half serious about ravishing an innocent miss. He really craved a lady greedy enough to grant his every wicked whim without question. Gabriel openly prowled the ballroom, searching for a familiar face or a new one that tempted him.
His expression must have hinted at his dangerous mood.
Gentlemen and ladies separated, giving him a clear path. Several mothers seized their daughters by the arms and dragged them away for fear his mere presence might tarnish their daughters’ reputations. Others shyly glanced away as he passed. Gabriel heard the gasps and whispers in his wake. Scandals never truly died. They were akin to dust on old flooring that when stirred, choked the air whenever anyone dared to tread over them.
And then he saw her.
With Theodore Enright.
Well, well . . . this is most unexpected, Gabriel thought.
Lady Harper’s little ball was riddled with surprises.
Standing near a wall of potted plants, a blond-haired angel dressed in charming white satin frock with light blue Claremont braces, and matching bows and ribbons at the bottom of her skirt appeared to be hanging on every prosaic word Enright was uttering. Gabriel shook his head in disgust. Snatching the beautiful blonde away from the preening dilettante would be a pleasure. In truth, he was doing the chit a favor, though he doubted she would thank him for it.
Gabriel watched with a bland interest as the dark-haired gentleman turned a sickly pale green.
“Y-You!” he sputtered.
Concern furrowed the blonde’s brow as she peered intently at her companion. “Mr. Enright, are you ill?”
Gabriel looked hard at woman. Her concern for the sniveling bastard irritated him. “There is nothing wrong with him that a little fresh air will not cure. Is that not correct, Enright?"
“Yes.” Enright retrieved a handkerchief from the pocket of his waistcoat and blotted his upper lip. “With your permission, Lady Sophia, I will escort you to your friends.”
Gabriel’s dark blue eyes narrowed on Enright’s pinched face. “Do not trouble yourself. I have come to claim a dance from Lady Sophia.” He extended a gloved hand, but the lady rudely ignored it.
“Dance?” The lady wrinkled her nose. “I must regretfully decline, my lord . . .?”
“Reign,” Gabriel politely supplied. “And I really must insist.”
Lady Sophia squeaked as Gabriel shackled her wrist, and pulled her into his arms. Not expecting his highhanded maneuver, the lady stumbled and her walking stick went skidding across the polished marble floor. Without the stick as support, she was forced to embrace him to keep from falling on her lovely backside.
The blonde straightened, but his iron grip on her wrist prevented her from stepping away. “Oh, I do beg your pardon, my lord.”
“See here, Reign,” Enright said, working toward righteous indignation. “Lady Sophia is not–”
“Your concern, Enright,” Gabriel said, displaying plenty of sharp teeth. “Leave, at once, or I just may decide to spare Lady Sophia and play with you. The choice is yours.”
“Mr. Enright?” Lady Sophia queried hesitantly.
“Forgive me, Lady Sophia,” Enright said, backing away. As Gabriel had assumed, the coward was more than happy to leave the lady to meet her fate alone. “The devil take you, Rainecourt!”
“He already has, Enright,’ Gabriel drawled. “And he is looking forward to meeting you.”
Sophia tugged, attempting to free herself from Reign’s unyielding hold. She was convinced this man was intimately acquainted with the devil. And curse Mr. Enright for abandoning her to a Rainecourt.
This is the son.
She had forgotten that the Earl of Rainecourt had had a son. How old had Reign been when his father had cold-bloodedly murdered her parents, and then had taken his own life? Twelve? Thirteen?
Reign started to pull her toward the other dancers. “I have promised you a dance.”
“That is hardly necessary,” Sophia protested, barely keeping up with him. “If you could help me find my walking stick, I will leave you to pick a fight with someone who has actually offended you.”
Reign abruptly halted. He caught Sophia before she went sprawling forward onto the floor. “You are the clumsiest creature I have ever encountered.”
His insult was just too much to bear.
“Ooph! My eyesight is ruined, you horrid man!” Sophia seethed, resisting the urge to hit him with her reticule. “You are walking too fast and everything is scrambled. And—and I want my walking stick!”
Reign waved his hand over her eyes.
Exasperated, she said, “I said, ‘ruined’, not ‘blind’, you twit!” Utterly provoked, Sophia slapped his arm with her reticule.
Where was Fanny or Griffin? Why was Rainecourt just staring at her? Good grief, had she just made a complete fool out of herself in front of Lady Harper’s guests. She could not stop her mutinous lower lip from quivering.
“Do not move,” Reign ordered as he backed away.
Sophia dutifully stood there trembling and imagining the worst. Blinking furiously to battle the tears that threatened to fall only added to her humiliation. Through the watery blur, she overheard Reign as he exchanged a few pleasantries with a helpful gentleman who had retrieved her walking stick from the floor.
Reign held up the white and gold stick. “I have it.”
Not feeling gracious, Sophia snatched it from his hand. The smooth firmness of the painted wood clasped within her palm calmed her. It helped to banish the vulnerability she was feeling, and gave her the strength to find her way back to her friends without the assistance of the Earl of Rainecourt.
“Good evening, Lord Rainecourt,” Sophia said, grinding the tip of the walking stick into the floor as she stepped away from the infuriating gentleman.
The earl caught her elbow. “And what of our dance?”
Sophia was getting weary wrestling Reign for her freedom. “I do not dance.”
“Nonsense. Your vision is impaired, not your feet, Lady Sophia,” Reign said, leading her away from the edge of the ballroom toward the other dancers.
A waltz was playing. Staring at the flashes of movement and color made her head spin. No, she could not do this. Not with so many people looking at her. Sophia locked her ankles together refusing to move.
Reign did not seem to comprehend the meaning of the word. With a soft sigh of impatience, he captured both of her hands. He guided the hand holding the walking stick to his shoulder so her stick dangled down his back. To keep her from pulling out of his brazen embrace, he placed his free hand on her waist.
“What are you doing?”
“The waltz,” he said, immune to her outrage. “This is not the time to fuss. People are watching us.”
She ceased struggling at his announcement.
Reign grinned, melting away the grim lines around his mouth. “Enough. Everyone is curious. They will think I chased Enright off because I wanted to claim your first dance.”
Sophia did her best not to notice how handsome the man was when he wasn’t glowering at everyone. “That was not the reason why you ran Mr. Enright off.”
As they stirred the air with their movements, Sophia noted that Reign’s scent differed from Mr. Enright’s. It was heavier, a heady mix of musk, wood, and smoke. She tried not to inhale too deeply.
“No, I ran Enright off because I despise the sniveling bastard.” They slowly circled about with the other couples. “Of course, only you and I know the truth.”
“You honor me,” Sophia said, her voice laced with sarcasm.
Reign tossed his head back and laughed. “More than you know, my lady. Lord and Lady Harper’s guests are watching you with interest. Who is, Lady Sophia, the mysterious lady who lured the Earl of Rainecourt out onto the ballroom floor to dance the waltz? I wager half the ton will be knocking on your door tomorrow afternoon.”
Gracious, her brothers would be furious with her if what the earl was correct. More importantly, they would be upset when they learned that Lord Rainecourt was the reason. “I do not want to be mysterious or fascinating to the ton, my lord!”
“Liar,” the earl countered, his amusement taking the sting out of the insult. “All ladies crave attention.”
“Perhaps I am a different sort of lady, Lord Rainecourt,” she said, mildly peeved with the earl’s opinion.
“Reign,” he pleaded, infusing enough charm into the request that Sophia could not think of a reason to refuse him. “Mayhap you are correct, dear lady. After all, you have managed to do the impossible.”
“Now you are teasing me.”
“A little,” he conceded. “However, I cannot resist. Your cheeks turn a delightful pink hue and your blue-green eyes sparkle like a chest of priceless gems. It flatters a gent to think all that beauty shines for him alone.”
Sophia glanced down and would have stumbled if Reign had not pulled her closer.
“Now you truly flatter me,” Reign said, smoothly setting her apart without missing a single step. “The secret is to keep your gaze on my face. I am tolerably good looking, would you not agree?”
Sophia bit back a smile. She did find him more than tolerable in looks. Not that she would dare admit it. “You want compliments? I thought you told me that it was only the ladies who craved attention?”
“Only a fool would not desire a beautiful lady’s notice,” he said lightly.
Was Reign actually flirting with her? The deadly intent that had driven the man to separate her from Mr. Enright had vanished, and now she was uncertain on how to proceed. After all, once the earl learned of their connection, their friendly alliance would come to a sudden end.
“Ah, now you are frowning. What are you thinking about?”
Sophia gave Reign what she hoped was a scolding look. “It is rude of you to inquire?”
The annoying shadows and blurring that obscured her vision, ebbed and flowed as they circled the ballroom with the other dancing couples. Focusing on Reign’s face helped to quell her frustration. It was no hardship to study such masculine beauty. Dark brown hair that was as rich and thick as molasses. Strong cheek bones, a fine blade of a nose, but it was his eyes that drew her gaze, ensnared her. Framed by dark, thick brows and long lashes, his dark blue eyes were an unfathomable sea of restraint, confidence, and intelligence. During their brief encounter, Sophia has glimpsed in those beautiful dark blue eyes cold, mute fury, calculation, humor, and even though it rankled to silently admit it since it was directed at her—pity. What she now saw in his gaze, wasn’t pity. It was frank appreciation for the lady in his arms. Sophia’s stomach fluttered like restless butterflies in a cage at the thought that Reign’s interest was more than gallant flattery to bedazzle his dancing partner.
Reign ruined her speculative thoughts with his next words. “Squinting like that should give you a megrim.”
Sophia’s lips parted in surprise at his rude observation. Perhaps she had been wrong about the appreciation. “Forgive me. It is the reason why I never dance. My eyes . . . ,” she let her explanation trail off into silence.
His hand flexed, and then tightened over hers. “So you were telling the truth. I thought you might have exaggerated your claims in an attempt to refuse my invitation.”
Invitation? The man literally dragged her across the ballroom floor to join the other dancers. “Why would I decline such a polite invitation, Lord Rainecourt?” she asked a tad too sweetly.
The earl had the grace to wince. “If you wish to berate me for my boorish behavior, let us adjourn to a less public setting,” he muttered, taking charge of the situation in his usual highhanded manner. He took Sophia’s by the elbow and escorted her away from the dancers.
“My lord—Reign, I cannot just leave the ballroom with you!” Sophia protested.
“No one will object, Lady Sophia,” Reign said, guiding her toward the open doors that led to the garden terrace. “My reputation does provide certain benefits, and I am selfish enough savor them.”
Excerpt from TILL DAWN WITH THE DEVIL. Copyright © August 2010, Alexandra Hawkins. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any format without written permission.