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.
He was still holding her hand, his thumb drawing small circles on the back as he inched her closer to him. Even though they both wore gloves, she could feel the heat of that small touch almost sear her skin. She held her breath as he lowered his head. This was it. He would finally kiss her and she would know if they were also compatible in this one last area. She closed her eyes, expecting to feel his mouth on hers. Instead, she felt his lips brush against her ear and shivered.
“Why have you followed me out here?”
His voice, barely above a whisper, made her feel strangely weak.
“I wanted…”
Her voice faltered when he released her hand and drew her fully against him. Her entire body was pressed against his and she was momentarily shocked at the intimacy of the contact, but that shock soon gave way to delight.
He raised his head and looked down at her, his eyes seeming to see right through her. Her blood sizzled with awareness
“You wanted…” he prodded.
She licked her lips and his gaze followed the movement. Her voice was barely audible when she replied.
“I wanted a kiss.”
The words were barely out when his head dipped again and he gave her what she had so immodestly asked for. His lips against hers were gentle, almost teasing. She was a little disappointed—after the intensity of the past few minutes she had expected more. She was startled to feel his tongue against her mouth, tracing the line of her closed lips.
“Open for me,” he said softly.
She parted her lips and his tongue surged into her mouth. And just like that the kiss changed. She was swept away on a tide of sensations as his mouth possessed hers.
This was a kiss she could never have imagined, but was thrilled to discover. She moved her own tongue against his and was encouraged by the sound he made. She wound her hands around his neck and clung to him as they explored one another.
Thank God she had followed him out here. To think she’d been considering rejecting his proposal because she’d doubted he wanted her as a man should want a woman—especially a woman he intended to marry. This kiss proved he did want her, but it also showed her so much more. She was very surprised at her own response to him—she never wanted the kiss to end.
When it did, he did not release her. Instead he trailed his mouth along her jaw and down the side of her neck. He caressed her bottom with one hand before bringing the lower part of her body firmly against him where she could feel a hard ridge pressed against her belly. With his other hand he traced a heated path to her breast and she squirmed under the assault to her senses.
“Tell me your name,” he said, his mouth hovering just above the edge of her bodice.
She trembled, too far gone to wonder at the request. “Sophie.”
“Lovely Sophie,” he said, pulling her bodice down and exposing her breasts to the cool night air.
She was not cold for long, however, because he cupped her breasts in his large, warm hands and lowered his mouth to suckle on one taut nipple. The movement seemed to go right through her, calling up an answering yearning much lower in her body. This was too much. She felt as though she were standing on the edge of a precipice. She gave not a thought to where she was or who might come upon them. The world existed only of this one man who was intent on laying siege to every last one of her senses.
“Henry,” she said with a moan.
He froze and Sophie whimpered with need.
“No, don’t stop,” she said. “Not now, Henry.”
He brought his hands to her shoulders and pushed her away from him. His eyes, glittering with an unnamed emotion behind his mask, went straight through her.
“What is the matter?”
He pulled her bodice back into place and regret and embarrassment rushed through her. Had she shocked him with her wantonness? Truth be told, she’d shocked herself. It was only now, as he released her and took a step back, that she remembered where she was. Good heavens, anyone could have come upon them.
His expression had cooled to the point that the man standing in front of her now bore little resemblance to the one who had stripped her of her senses just moments before. How could he remain so unaffected by their embrace after all the wonderful things he had done? Her uncertainty grew when he raised his hands to his mask, only to change to shock when he removed it. Her breath escaped with a strangled gasp.
The man she’d been kissing, the man she had practically begged to take her, was not Henry Hearst.
Her mind whirled with confusion. How was this possible? How could she have mistaken this man for Henry? True, they did look alike. Many of his features were similar, but he carried them differently. Whereas Henry’s expression was normally open and friendly, this man had an air of authority and haughtiness about him. The mask may have hidden some of that, but it hadn’t hidden the fact that his eyes were darker than Henry’s.
How blind could she have been? She’d noticed the deeper blue of his eyes. He’d even told her he didn’t know who she was, yet she’d still thrown herself at him.
She took another step back to put some much needed space between them.
“I thought you were someone else.” The excuse was feeble at best, but it was all she could manage when she finally found her voice.
“That much is apparent,” he said. Silence stretched for a long moment. His gaze swept down her figure and she saw a muscle tic along his jaw. When he met her eyes again there was a new determination in his expression. “But now that you know I am not him…”
He moved to close the distance that separated them and she knew he was going to kiss her again. Worse, with her body still craving his touch she feared she was going to let him. She had to get away before that happened—she was supposed to be salvaging her family’s reputation, not damaging it further.
She turned to escape, but had only gone a few steps when she ran straight into someone else. Strong male hands grasped her arms and steadied her.
She looked up into the face of Henry Hearst. He looked at the other man, his surprise clear, then back at her.
“What are you doing out here with my brother?”
His brother? That would explain why the two men looked so much alike. Sophie groaned inwardly as she realised the full import of what had just happened. Simply being alone with Richard Hearst, the notorious Earl of Dearbourne, could ruin a woman’s reputation. And to be found by Henry, of all people!
She could only stare at him. What could she say? That she’d come out to the garden to beg him for a kiss and had ended up doing so much more with his brother?
Dearbourne stepped forward and Sophie waited for his damning words.
“It was a simple case of mistaken identity. This young lady, Miss…?”
“Crandle,” Sophie managed.
He raised an eyebrow at that, but continued. “Miss Crandle saw me come out here and, thinking I was you, followed.”
Henry’s eyes narrowed with suspicion. “To the maze, where no one could see you?”
“Don’t be a fool, Henry, you know I find these things suffocating. All those mothers throwing their daughters at me. I came out here for a moment of peace. When she didn’t see me, Miss Crandle thought I’d gone into the maze. I heard her call your name and came to investigate. We were on our way out when you arrived.”
“Is that what happened, Sophie?” Henry asked, looking down at her for confirmation.
Grateful for the lie Dearbourne had provided, Sophie nodded.
“I thought he was you,” she said. “He removed his mask when I thought you were jesting with me.” She managed a quick glance at the earl before facing Henry again. “You never told me your brother was in town. Or that the two of you look so much alike.”
“Yes, well, he wasn’t until today.”
“It would be wise for Miss Crandle to return to the ball,” Dearbourne said. He didn’t need to add what a disaster it would be if it were discovered that she’d been outside, alone, with him.
Henry kept his attention on her and she couldn’t help but think that he knew what had really happened. “You really shouldn’t have come out here, Sophie. One never knows when there are unscrupulous men lurking about,” he said, aiming a hostile glance at his brother.
Sophie nodded, anxious now to get away. Her thoughts were a tangled mess and her body still thrummed from the feel of Dearbourne’s hands and mouth on her.
“Of course,” she said. “I didn’t think. I’d heard the gardens here were lovely and thought there would be more people about. I’ll just go now.”
She knew she was babbling. It was something she did when she was nervous. Dropping a quick curtsey, she turned and hurried out of the maze. She made her way back to the house at a much slower pace than when she’d given chase to the Earl of Dearbourne, allowing herself some much needed time to regain her composure before returning to the ball.

Richard watched as the delectable Miss Sophie Crandle departed. It had been a blow to his pride to learn that the intoxicating woman who had been coming apart in his arms had thought he was his staid younger brother. When he’d stopped it hadn’t been out of concern for Henry. No, he’d wanted Sophie to know that he, and not his brother, was the one claiming her. He had started to follow her when she’d tried to flee from him, and if Henry hadn’t intruded he’d be willing to bet she would have let him continue.
“What are you playing at, Henry?” Frustration had him not bothering to hide his annoyance. “Why would Miss Crandle be out here looking for you? I thought you fancied yourself in love with Ellen Westing.”
Henry bristled at the mention of the other woman.
“My private life is exactly that, Richard. Private. And I do not care to have you interfering in it.”
“Is this just a dalliance?”
He could see Henry was offended by the accusation. “If you must know, I plan to ask Sophie to marry me. And I’m asking you now to stay away from her.”
With that, Henry turned and stalked back to the ball.
Richard exhaled a harsh breath. Henry’s admission bothered him more than it should, and not just because he believed that his younger brother was in love with one woman while planning to marry another. He’d never placed much stock in Henry’s romantic notions. If Sophie Crandle was who he thought she was, he should be applauding Henry’s practicality.
Richard had heard the stories about the scandal surrounding Sophie’s mother. Her family had disinherited her after she’d eloped with someone who’d only recently made his fortune in trade. The Turners had wanted nothing more to do with her, despite the fact that Crandle’s wealth had increased substantially with each passing year. They’d lived outside society’s acceptance until their death in an accident last year. Sophie’s presence at tonight’s masquerade must mean her mother’s family had welcomed her into its fold, which would have gone a long way towards easing her entrance into society. As the younger son, Henry didn’t have much of an income and his interest in Sophie no doubt meant she had inherited her father’s fortune.
He didn’t care that Henry had chosen not to marry Ellen Westing, but there was no way he was going to allow his tame brother to claim the passionate Sophie Crandle for himself. He would have to find some other heiress to marry.
His decision made, he donned his mask again and returned to the ballroom. He had intended to bide his time, to keep an eye on Sophie until he could fill in the missing details about her current situation. That changed, however, when he saw Henry approach her. He was forced to watch while she laughed at something he said as he led her into a quadrille.
He was struck with the irrational urge to drag Henry away from her and smash his hand into his smug, smiling face. Instead, he made his way to where the musicians were set up at the far end of the room to have a brief word with the conductor. Several matrons tried to capture his attention when he was done, but he sidestepped them all. His attention remained fixed on Henry and Sophie as they moved through the patterns of the dance.
She was taller than most of the women there. Her hair was a rich black and her dress a deep blue—both emphasised her ivory skin, a fair bit of which was showing. It was impossible to forget the way she’d looked when he’d pulled down that dress and bared her pale breasts.
After what seemed like an eternity, the dance finished and he moved to intercept them before Henry could return Sophie to her aunt. He ignored his brother’s obvious displeasure and directed his attention to Sophie.
“I neglected to tell you how lovely you look tonight, Miss Crandle,” he said as he bowed over her hand, pleased at the blush that rose to her cheeks. “May I have the pleasure of this next dance?”
The opening notes of the waltz he had paid the conductor to play had started and he didn’t wait for her response before tucking her hand into his arm and leading her out. He said nothing when she glanced back at Henry, but the tell-tale sign that she worried about his brother’s reaction irritated him.
He knew they were being watched, but he ignored everyone else. It wouldn’t be the first time society had whispered about him.
“This is most improper,” Sophie said. “We haven’t been properly introduced.” Despite her protest, she stepped into his arms.
“As Henry’s brother, everyone will assume he introduced us.”
“I hope so.”
They danced in silence, their movements fluid and perfectly matched. After the intimacy they had already shared, being so close to Sophie wreaked havoc on his senses. He longed to pull her close to him, but somehow managed to maintain a respectable distance. That didn’t stop him from remembering how she’d felt pressed against his body. How she’d writhed against him and moaned when he’d touched her, as he longed to now. And her scent—the slight trace of lavender mixed with something else he couldn’t identify—almost drove him mad with desire. It was all he could do not to lead her through the doors that would take them out to the gardens so they could continue where they had left off.
He could almost feel Henry’s eyes boring into his back, and knew there would be no way to accomplish that goal. He could be patient, however. Not for long, but he knew Sophie would be worth the wait.
“Thank you,” she said finally, breaking the silence.
“It is always a pleasure to dance with a beautiful woman,” he said, unable to stop himself from drawing her an inch closer.
She sucked in her breath, and he couldn’t help but notice the way her beautiful breasts rose above the edge of her bodice.
“No, not for the dance. Thank you for not telling Henry about what happened outside. I hope we can forget our misunderstanding and begin anew from this moment.”
He twirled her around quickly, and missing a step she stumbled towards him.
“You’re not getting away that easily,” he said, his mouth not far from her ear.
He felt a surge of satisfaction when he saw a shiver of awareness go through her. She recovered her balance and drew away from him, but he could see the heat that coloured her cheeks. That’s right, Sophie, he thought. I’m going to make sure you don’t forget our very memorable meeting.
Their eyes met and held. He hadn’t been sure of their colour out in the garden, but now he could see hers were a dark green. Cat’s eyes that tilted slightly at the corners.
It took him a moment to realise that the music had stopped and people were staring at them in speculation. He led her back to her aunt, who was deep in conversation with another woman and didn’t appear to notice Sophie’s return.
“Until next time,” he said, dropping a kiss onto the back of her hand.
Those lovely green eyes widened at the contact. Smiling with satisfaction, he took his leave.

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