Dear Stranger

By: Suzanna Medeiros

Chapter One

Sophie Crandle knew what she had to do.

Just moments before she’d watched Henry Hearst cross the ballroom floor and leave through the garden doors. She hesitated only for a moment before following.

Despite the mask he wore, Sophie had recognised him the moment he’d arrived at the masquerade. At well over six feet in height, he was hard to miss. His golden hair shone like a beacon above most of the men present. His black mask covered the upper part of his face, but she’d spent enough time with him over the Season to know him anywhere.

Hoping no one would notice her absence, she slipped away from her less than watchful aunt and exited the ballroom through a different set of doors. The satin mask she wore lent her the courage she needed to go through with her plan.

Henry had taken her driving in Hyde Park that afternoon, and, while he hadn’t come out directly and said so, he’d made it clear that he intended to ask for her hand at the end of the Season. Aunt Jane would be thrilled. She’d chosen him as an appropriate suitor from the many who had been drawn to the inheritance she would receive in a year. Henry Hearst had everything her aunt deemed important—he came from a respectable family and there was no hint of any kind of scandal or youthful indiscretion attached to him. His brother was the Earl of Dearbourne, and, while there were numerous rumours about the earl’s exploits as a rake of the first order, Henry clearly wasn’t cut from the same cloth.

She’d hated the idea of her aunt choosing her future husband, so it had come as a great surprise when she’d discovered that she actually liked Henry. He was very handsome, but beyond that their personalities seemed to suit one another. There was, however, one thing that gave Sophie pause. One very important piece of information she lacked that made her unsure whether she could accept an offer of marriage from him.

He had yet to kiss her.

While she’d grown up imagining that her future marriage would be as full of laughter and love as that of her parents, she suffered no illusions about Henry. Theirs would be a practical union  . He would provide her with the respectability she needed to be accepted by the Ton, and she would provide him with the wealth he lacked. She simply could not, however, agree to marry a man until she knew they were compatible on at least the most basic physical level. After tonight she would know whether or not she could accept Henry’s impending offer of marriage.

It took her a moment to spot his retreating figure disappearing into the entrance of the formal gardens. She lifted the hem of her dress and hurried after him, almost running right into him when he stopped suddenly. He turned to face her, his surprise evident.

They stood staring at each other for several long moments. Sophie was already out of breath from her mad dash, but there was something in his eyes that threatened to steal the last of it.

“I appear to be interrupting your meeting. My apologies.”

He didn’t recognise her. Somehow that realisation made her feel even bolder. He turned to leave, but she stopped him with a hand on his arm. He looked down at her hand, then back at her. The air seemed to crackle between them and a shiver went through her. She’d always thought his blue eyes were a little on the cool side, but now they were anything but cold. On this dark night his eyes appeared to be a deeper shade of blue, and she feared she was in danger of drowning in them.

“I came to see you,” she said, struggling to steady her breathing.

A slow smile spread across his face. “It appears to be my lucky night, then.”

He took her hand and pulled her into the maze. They made only a few turns before he stopped.

“You have me at a disadvantage,” he said. “You appear to know me, but I am certain we haven’t met. I most definitely would remember you if we had.”

His voice was pitched low and the seductive timbre heightened her awareness that they were alone. This was a new side to Henry she hadn’t seen before. He must have realised who she was or he wouldn’t have seen to it that they were completely alone, but if he wanted to play at being strangers she was more than happy to oblige him. She found that she enjoyed pretending she was someone else. It made what she was doing more exciting. She knew she’d flush later when she recalled her brazenness, but for now the pretence of anonymity added an enthralling dimension to their encounter.

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