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Spring 1821, London
"I predict this evening will end in ruin."
Lady Frances Lloyd, or simply Fanny to her friends, stifled a giggle. "What an utterly outrageous thing to say," she murmured under her breath.
Perhaps she was being a trifle dramatic, Sophia privately reflected. However, during her brief stay in London, she had come to dread Town balls. And she absolutely loathed being announced. In that moment, there were too many gazes judging her choice of evening dress and watching every gesture. There were too many opportunities for her to humiliate herself.
"Chin up, my girl," Griffin said, patting her gloved hand that gripped his forearm. "We are almost through."
"I detest this," Sophia hissed softly.
"Hush." Fanny held on to Sophia's right arm as if she expected her friend to flee. "It is time."
"Presenting the Lady Sophia Northam . . . the Lady Frances Lloyd . . . Mr. Derrick Griffin."
Head held high, Sophia stared at the confusing landscape of shadow and color that usually made little sense to her brain. Had the din in the ballroom diminished as they were announced? Were people staring? The unspoken questions only heightened her apprehension.
"Stairs," Fanny murmured, reminding Sophia to pay attention. "Six steps."
Earlier, Fanny and Griffin had described the layout of the ballroom in detail. With her friends' assistance and the stylish white-and-gold walking stick that matched her dress to steady her, Sophia prayed she would not disgrace herself by tripping down the remaining three steps.
"Smile, Lady Sophia," Griffin coaxed; his warm, steady arm was a source of great comfort. "You are stiff enough to crack into pieces. Do not tell me that you are afraid to face the ton?"
Crowds frustrated her more than frightened her.
"I fear no one," Sophia said fiercely.
"An intelligent response," Griffin said, sounding amused. "What say you, Fanny?"
Her friend sighed. "Sophia, your brothers were boorish to abandon you on your first evening in Town. If they dare show their faces this evening, I intend to let them feel the sting of my displeasure."
Her connection to Fanny and Griffin could be traced back to childhood. Both families had been close friends of the Northams, and they had remained steadfast even after her parents had died in what had appeared to be a tragic murder-suicide.
Sophia's smile was genuine as she cocked her head in Fanny's direction. Above the shadows and annoying mist of her faulty eyes, she glimpsed that her friend had pinned up her dark hair for the ball. Sophia peered closer. "Did you curl your hair?"
"Yes." Fanny heavily exhaled. "You will not dissuade me from speaking my mind to your wastrel brothers, Sophia. They would have happily left you to rot in the country again if they had not been persuaded by Griffin's parents and my own."
It was true. Her brothers, Stephan and Henry, had not been pleased that Sophia had joined them in London this season. She had overheard her brothers cursing Fanny's father and debating which one of them would be saddled with the burden of escorting her about Town. Henry, in particular, lamented the expense of a sister who would never attract a husband. As far as her brother was concerned, Sophia was doomed to spend the rest of her days as a spinster.
"Most brothers look upon their younger sisters as an inconvenience," Sophia said lightly. "Stephan was just annoyed that my presence would keep him out of the card rooms."
"Ravenshaw is an arse," Griffin muttered in her ear. "Henry, doubly so. If they do anything to upset you, let me know and I will beat them bloody on your behalf."
Sophia affectionately leaned into Griffin. "It is one of the many reasons why I adore you." She felt Griffin stiffen as she straightened. "Something amiss?"
"Miss Roberts has arrived with her parents," he said breathlessly.
Ah, yes, the mysterious Miss Roberts. The lady was Viscount Burrard's daughter. Griffin had been introduced to the eighteen-year-old young woman several days ago, and according to her friend he was smitten. At seven-and-twenty and the second son of a viscount, Griffin's family had high hopes that he would secure the affections of an heiress this season. Sophia did not know if Miss Roberts was an heiress, but she had certainly captivated Griffin's interest.
"You should go and pay your respects."
His hand tightened briefly over hers. "You do not mind?"
Sophia wrinkled her nose and waved away his concerns. "I do not expect you and Fanny to watch over me all evening. I am not a helpless child."
She focused on his face and gave him a reassuring smile.
"Very well." Griffin slipped from her grasp. He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed her delicately on the knuckles before moving on to Fanny. "Wish me luck, Fanny?"
Fanny snatched her hand out of his grasp. "With your roguish charm, I should be wishing Miss Roberts luck," she said wryly.
Griffin took several steps in Miss Roberts's direction before he stopped, pivoted, and returned. "Sophia, if Ravenshaw and Henry do not make an appearance—"
Sophia's face softened at his concern. "Fanny's parents should arrive later this evening. They will see to it that I have a way home."
With an abrupt bow, Griffin disappeared into the crowd.
Fanny was quiet for several minutes, making-Sophia wonder if her friend was watching Griffin's exchange with Miss Roberts. "Does he know?"
"I beg your pardon?" Fanny absently replied.
"Is Griffin aware that you have feelings for him?" Sophia clarified.
Her friend laughed. "I doubt it. Most gentlemen are blind when it comes to love." Fanny sounded resigned and a little sad.
"If you would prefer, we could find a quiet room—"
"Oh, no," Fanny said, cutting Sophia off in mid-sentence. "You are not going to hide away the entire evening. You are going to meet people, and perhaps even dance."
"Dance? Here?" Sophia said, trying to hide her anxiety at the notion of dancing in front of strangers. She and Fanny had taken dance lessons together, but she had only practiced with their instructor and once with Griffin. "If I humiliated myself by falling, I would never hear the end of it from Stephan and Henry."
"I do not give a farthing about your brothers' feelings. Like most gentlemen, they both can be insensitive twits!" Fanny said heatedly; she was always ready to battle Stephan and Henry on Sophia's behalf.
"You are a good friend, Fanny."
The compliment seemed to drain her friend's anger. "I love you, too." Fanny sighed. "Oh, come along. I see Lord and Lady Howland up ahead. We should go pay our respects. It will not be as amusing as yelling at your brothers, but it will have to do."
With a discerning eye, Reign surveyed the crowded ballroom and found it lacking. "Tell me, my friend, why are we not at Nox? At the club, we have the opportunity of increasing the weight of our purses, imbibing decent brandy, and—"
"Flirting with immodest wenches," Vane added, his blue-green eyes twinkling with humor.
Reign could always count on the Earl of Vanewright to focus on the essential needs of the merry group the ton had dubbed the Lords of Vice. "Precisely! Instead we have agreed to join Sin and his marchioness at Lord and Lady Harper's rather staid gathering this evening."
Nicolas Towers, Duke of Huntsley, or Hunter as he was called, overheard Reign's remark as he joined the two gentlemen. Side by side, Hunter and Vane could have passed for cousins. Similar in height and build, they both had straight, dark hair, though Vane preferred to wear his short, while Hunter wore his long enough to cover the nape of his neck. There was enough resemblance between the two men that Reign would not have been surprised if his friends shared a distant ancestor.
Hunter grinned at his friends. "Come now, gents, you both are made of sterner stuff. An evening of dance and conversation will not cause any permanent damage. Besides, Sin is merely indulging his marchioness. Lady Sinclair's mother, Lady Duncombe, is good friends with Lady Harper. It would be rude to slip out too early."
Vane's gaze warmed with sensual heat as a fetching blonde in green strolled by the trio. The lady glanced back at them, but her elderly companion swiftly urged her charge in the opposite direction. "I can stomach the insult."
"As can I. You are only amendable to this tedious evening, Hunter, because Sin bribed you with Lord Harper's fine brandy," Reign grumbled, annoyed that his friend had the audacity to flaunt his prize in front of them.
"True," Hunter said, smiling as he brought the glass of brandy to his lips. "If you behave, perhaps Sin can persuade Harper into unlocking his cabinet for you as well."
"I doubt Harper's excellent stock is worth more than an hour," Reign said, feeling that he was being generous.
More than eight years had passed since his wife's tragic accident. Since that fateful morning when the servants had found Beatrice's cold, unresponsive body at the foot of her bed, Reign had been subjected to endless speculation about his part in his wife's demise. It mattered little to the ton that the magistrate had declared Beatrice's death an unfortunate accident. His selfish wife had apparently tripped and broken her neck when her head had struck one of the bedposts. Polite society, on the other hand, thrived on rumors and scandal, and his brief marriage to his countess had provided plenty of fodder. It was one of the reasons why he avoided such gatherings. After his disastrous marriage to Beatrice, he had no desire to seek out another bride.
"I concur," Vane said, clapping Reign on the shoulder. "If Sin had any sense, he should—" The earl paused as something or someone caught his attention. His fingers bit into Reign's shoulder as the man cursed.
"What is wrong with you?" Hunter asked, leaning back as he tried to guess the source of Vane's agitation. "Did one of your irate mistresses enter the room, or perhaps the lady's husband?"
"Burrard," Vane said tersely.
Reign flinched as he recognized the name. Viscount Burrard was Beatrice's father. He assumed Lady Burrard was attending the Harpers' ball as well. "This is another reason why I abhor these quaint gatherings. There is always the chance that I will encounter my former in-laws."
Hunter grimaced in sympathy. "It has been eight years, Reign. How long are you supposed to pay for what the magistrate deduced was an accident?"
Reign met Hunter's somber gaze. "The Burrards believe that I murdered their daughter. I highly doubt an eternity will satisfy them."
From across the room, Lord Burrard greeted a male companion. Together they disappeared through the open doorway that led into the card room. Reign had been so focused on the viscount's departure that he had not noticed Lady Burrard. She stood only twenty yards from Reign and his friends.
Out of respect for their loss, Reign had taken great care to avoid Beatrice's family. He had been aware of the Burrards' low opinion of him, and assumed the couple was the source of the speculation that whirled about him. However, any hope of slipping unnoticed from the Harpers' ballroom evaporated as Lady Burrard's horrified gaze remained on his face.
The viscountess shook her head as if she had glimpsed a terrifying apparition. Several ladies circled around her in a futile attempt to calm their distressed friend.
"Forget Harper's brandy," Vane said, nudging Reign toward the closest door. "Sin will understand."
"Perhaps. It depends on the mischief," said Alexius Braverton, Marquess of Sinclair, as he and his wife approached.
Excerpted from Till Dawn with the Devil by Alexandra Hawkins.
Copyright © 2010 by Alexandra Hawkins.
Published in 2010 by St. Martin's Paperbacks.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.