Dear Stranger (a novella)
During a masked ball, Sophie Crandle’s mask gives her the courage she needs to follow the man she expects to propose to her into the gardens, where she brazenly asks him for the one thing that will tell her if she can accept him—a kiss. And what a kiss it is! Her elation turns to horror, however, when she realizes she is kissing the wrong man. The man who has awakened her desire is not the man who is courting her, but his brother, the Earl of Dearbourne. A notorious rake, he is more likely to ruin Sophie than provide her with the social acceptance she needs.
Richard Hearst, the Earl of Dearbourne, receives the shock of his life when he discovers the beautiful woman falling apart in his arms thinks she is kissing someone else. He is determined to claim her for himself … even if the man she is meant for is his brother.
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Suzanna Medeiros has a terrific talent for crafting characters who are instantly loveable and steamy scenes that linger long after the final page has turned.
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.
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?”
Copyright © Suzanna Medeiros, 2012