He sent her a far too intimate smile. "I leave you alone for two minutes and you slip away, sending me on a merry chase to find you."
Her brilliant eyes grew wider, but wisely, she said nothing.
"Shame on you." He winked at her. Trust me... Then he glanced past her to Derby, the man standing so close at her side that surely he could see right down her dress to her navel. His smile tightened. "Ah, you've been making friends."
"Pearce," Derby bit out with his own forced smile. Like half the peers in the Lords, he refused to acknowledge that Pearce was now one of them by not using his title.
The man probably considered the slight an insult. Pearce considered it a compliment.
"Derby." Pearce stepped forward and took the woman's arm to gently but possessively move her safely away from the earl and to his side. "I see you've met my Scarlet."
"Yes." Derby's mouth twisted. "I didn't realize that you'd already claimed her."
"Claimed?" Pearce clucked his tongue in chastisement, then lifted her hand to kiss the backs of her gloved fingers. "Can any man truly claim a woman like this?" He saw her arch a brow above her mask at that blatant whopper of a flirtation. "God knows I'm not man enough for her."
At that, her other hand flew up to her lips to stifle a shocked gasp. Or a laugh. With this bold woman, it could have been either.
"Something in your throat, my dear? Here." He held out the glass. "The champagne you requested."
Her eyes sparkled as effervescently as the bubbles in the wine. "How thoughtful," she mumbled as she accepted it, playing along.
"Anything for you, darling."
Her mouth fell open. She covered her surprise at his audacity by quickly raising the glass to her lips.
Biting back a grin at her expense and unable to resist, he leaned over to place a kiss to her ear. She trembled but didn't fling the champagne in his face. Good. He'd take his victories however he could get them.
He wrapped her arm around his. "Shall we dance?" Not giving her the chance to refuse, he led her toward the dance floor and tossed dismissively over his shoulder, "Goodbye, Derby."
The earl said nothing. But as he turned and stomped away, Pearce was certain the man was cursing him, his ancestry, and every stray French bullet that had somehow managed to miss killing him during the wars.
The woman began to slip her arm away.
"Not so fast." He placed his hand over hers to keep it on his jacket sleeve. "I helped you. It's only fair that you now help me."
She stiffened with wariness. "How?"
"Help me put a positive end to a very boring evening by dancing with me. That's all." When that didn't seem to mollify her, he gestured toward the dance floor. "It's for your own benefit."
"That's a novel approach for a lord to meet a woman," she drawled, her voice so low and throaty that he suspected she was purposefully attempting to disguise it. But she couldn't hide the sardonic laughter that colored it.
He crooked a grin. "I'm not an average lord." When she began to give him the cut that bit of arrogance deserved, he interrupted. "Everyone will see us together, so you can tell every other unwanted man who comes too close that you belong to me for the evening." His gaze fixed on hers. Sweet Jesus, a man could happily drown in those emerald pools...ones that seemed so oddly familiar. "They won't dare touch you then."
"You're awfully sure of yourself."
When it came to making men fear him... "I am."