Pearce frowned as he glanced around the party. At this rate, nothing new would be forthcoming tonight either. Certainly not from the gentlemen gathered here, who were all foxed out of their minds or well on their way to it, losing great sums of money in the card room and doing their best to wiggle their hands beneath the skirts of every woman in the place.
He'd been ready to leave and call it a night. But then he'd seen that flash of red and stopped in his tracks.
"Who the devil are you?" he murmured.
The longer he stared at her, the more convinced he was that he needed to introduce himself and do the gentlemanly thing of offering to help her out of her dress at the end of the evening. With his teeth.
Even from across the room, he could see she wasn't like the other women in attendance tonight. Those women treated sex like a commodity, to be bought or sold to fit their needs. They were courtesans auditioning new protectors for the long term, less skilled light-skirts chasing the monthly rent in exchange for a few hours of bed sport, and society wives and widows escaping their normally boring lives with an evening's adventure. All safely hidden behind the anonymity of masks.
But the lady in red didn't seem to be here for any of that. Even when talking to the men, she kept herself apart in a way the other women didn't. She didn't lean in when they spoke to her; she leaned away. She didn't tap them flirtatiously with her fan; she held it between them like a shield. And she didn't view the other women as competition, giving no territorial signs toward any of them. No, she was distant. Cool. Wary. She didn't belong here, despite that dress.
Sinful and a mystery. And becoming more interesting with every passing moment.
Apparently, though, not just to him. His eyes narrowed on the Earl of Derby as the man ignored the dismissive way she turned away from his advance, slipped his arm around her waist, and yanked her back against him.
Immediately, she smacked the earl on top of his head with her fan, hard enough that the ivory guard bounced against his skull.
Pearce choked on his drink.
Good Lord, he'd never seen that before at one of these parties. Neither had Lord Derby, based on his stunned expression and the bruise undoubtedly forming on his crown.
Yet the little minx had the nerve to feign surprise at what she'd done, followed by a mumbled apology even as she attempted to sashay away.
But the earl pursued. This time, when he grabbed her fully into his arms, she gave him a hard push that sent him rocking onto his heels. Derby only laughed, still determined to find his way beneath her skirts, and grabbed her once more into his arms, this time too tightly for her to fight her way free.
Pearce's grin melted into a grimace. He snagged a glass of champagne from the tray of a passing footman and sauntered forward. That red flash of temptation not only beckoned but now also needed to be rescued.
"Scarlet," he called out. "There you are!"
Derby looked up, startled.
Seizing on the distraction, the woman shoved her way out of Derby's arms.
She wheeled around to face Pearce.
At the sight of him, her green eyes flared from behind the mask that covered everything except for her sensuous lips, and she froze like a doe startled by hunters. But then, so did he...except for his gaze, which dropped deliberately over her from head to slippers.
Sweet Lucifer. The back of her might have been pure sin, but the front was simply soul-stealing.
Her hair cascaded over one shoulder in a riot of golden curls that teased seductively at the swell of her breasts, visible above the low-cut neckline of her tight bodice. But for all that the shimmering satin of her dress captivated him and those silky tresses had him longing to brush his hands through them, what struck him was the gold locket she wore around her neck on a little blue ribbon. The schoolgirl innocence of that single piece of jewelry undercut the sinfulness of the red gown in startling contradiction.
More. The sight of the locket jarred something inside him, knocking loose from the past a memory he couldn't quite place yet one so familiar that it begged to be remembered... Damnation, did he know her?