A moonlit encounter, a magical moment…
But, at first glance, the conservatory appeared to be deserted. Moonlight poured in through the glass-paneled walls, bathing the plants and stone benches in an otherworldly glow. Loosening his collar, James inhaled the warm, jasmine-scented air and felt himself relax for the first time that evening.
Hands clasped behind him, he strolled along the nearest walkway. Feathery ferns, sinuous vines, potted palms . . . he could not identify more than a few of the more exotic species, but it scarcely mattered: here, at last, were peace and tranquility. Then he rounded a corner, came to a halt at the sight of the figure standing in the middle of the conservatory, the moonlight frosting her golden hair and casting a silvery sheen upon the skirts of her blue ball gown. Her eyes were closed, her slim form swaying gently in time to the waltz music drifting in from the ballroom.
James wondered if he’d lost his mind. Hadn’t he just seen her mere moments ago, dancing in the arms of an earl? Then, looking more closely, he saw that the shade of her gown was closer to turquoise than azure, her hair dressed a touch less elaborately: subtle differences but telling nonetheless. What had Thomas said? “She and her mother and her sister . . .”
He must have made some sound, some movement, because the girl suddenly froze like a deer scenting a hunter, apprehension radiating from every inch of her.
James spoke quickly, seeking to reassure her. “Pardon me, Miss Newbold. It is Miss Newbold, is it not?”
Aurelia fought down a rush of panic and an irrational urge to flee–for all the good it would do her. The stranger’s voice was deep and pleasant, with a faint burr she could not place. She wondered if he was as attractive as he sounded; the thought made her even more reluctant to turn around.
But it would be rude not to acknowledge his presence. Keeping her face averted, she nodded. “I am Aurelia Newbold.”
“Miss Aurelia,” he amended. “My name’s Trelawney. Again, I ask your pardon. I could not help but stare–no one told me that you and your sister were identical twins.”
Aurelia swallowed, knowing she could no longer delay the inevitable. Best to get it over with, as quickly as possible “We are twins, sir. But–no longer identical.”
She turned around, letting him see the whole of her face now–thinner and paler than Amy’s, despite their maid’s skilled application of cosmetics. But no amount of paint or powder could disguise the scar that ran along the left side of her hairline before curving sharply across her cheekbone like a reversed letter J. She forced herself to meet Mr. Trelawney’s eyes, even as her stomach knotted in dread over what she would see.
And there it was–that flash of pity in his eyes; dark eyes, in a strongly handsome face that recalled portraits of dashing adventurers and soldiers of fortune. At least they held no distaste or revulsion: a small mercy. Or perhaps he was simply better at hiding them.
“A riding accident.” she said tersely, anticipating the question he was trying not to ask. “Three years ago. It’s left me with a limp as well.”
“I am sorry.” His voice was kind. “That must be difficult to bear. Do you need to sit down? I could escort you back to the ballroom, find you a chair.”
Aurelia shook her head. “That won’t be necessary, sir. I just–came to admire the conservatory.” And to escape all the stares, whether curious or pitying. She’d have preferred to stay behind in their suite at Claridge’s tonight, but Amy had refused to attend this ball without her. Beautiful Amy, who looked the way she had used to look.
“I see.” And as his dark eyes continued to study her, Aurelia had the uncomfortable feeling that Mr. Trelawney did indeed see.
“They fade, you know,” he said, almost abruptly. “Scars. When I was a boy, I knew a man who’d served in the Crimea and had a saber cut down one side of his face. Many saw it as a badge of honor. In later years, some even thought it made him look distinguished.”
“Scars on a man may be distinguished, Mr. Trelawney,” Aurelia said, more sharply than she intended. “On a woman, they’re merely ugly. And there was nothing–honorable or heroic about the way I acquired mine.” Merely stupid.
His brows drew together. “Surely you need not be defined by your scars, Miss Newbold.”
She felt her lips twist in a brittle smile. “It’s hard not to be, when they’re the first things about me that people notice.”
“But you are under no obligation to accept their valuation of you. And would you judge another solely on the basis of injury or illness?”
He spoke mildly, but she heard the faint rebuke in his voice, nonetheless. Flushing, she looked away, ashamed of her outburst. She’d thought herself resigned, if not reconciled, to her disfigurement; what was it about this man that unsettled her so? “I would hope not, especially now. Pardon me, sir, I let my–disappointment get the best of me. A graceless thing to do, and I’m sorry for it. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll return to the ballroom.” Still not looking at him, she turned towards the conservatory doors.
“Wait.” The urgency in his voice stopped her in her tracks. “Miss Newbold, may I have this dance?”
Aurelia whipped her head around, astonished. “Dance? Pray do not mock me, sir.”
Dark eyes gazed steadily into hers. “I have never been more serious in my life. You have a fine sense of rhythm–I noticed that when first I saw you. Are you fond of the waltz?”
“Well, yes,” she admitted, after a moment; there’d been a time when she loved nothing better than to whirl about the floor in her partner’s arms. “That is, I was before. But my limp–”
“A limp is surely no worse than two left feet–and the latter affliction has not prevented quite a number of people from dancing tonight.”
A breath of unwilling laughter escaped her; Mr. Trelawney’s eyes seemed to warm at the sound. He held out his hand. “I do not ask this out of mockery–or pity,” he added, with a perception that surprised her. “Will you not indulge me? We need not return to the ballroom–we can have our dance here, unseen, among the flowers. Unless you find it too physically taxing?’
He’d just handed her the perfect excuse. All she had to do was plead fatigue or discomfort, and Mr. Trelawney, gentleman that he was, would surely let her retire and not importune her further. Instead, she stepped forward–and placed her hand in his.
“From the gaslit ballrooms of Belgravia to the Cornish countryside, James and Aurelia’s love story is a complex journey of romance, intrigue, and self-discovery, brimming with evocative details of late Victorian life.”—Teresa Grant, author of Imperial Scandal
“Sherwood effortlessly evokes the world of Edith Wharton and Henry James, and her exquisite character development, memorable secondary characters, and impeccably researched historical setting infuse this elegantly written debut with a richness and depth worth savoring.”—Booklist, Starred Review
“Sherwood debuts with a lovely story where threads of family and friendship play an important role . . . the evenly flowing plot and nicely written dialogue set the tone of the era and the characters’ motivation so well that readers will be enchanted.”—RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars
“WALTZ WITH A STRANGER is a delightful and well-written historical romance . . . a worthy read for its endearing characters and thought-provoking themes.”–Ashia, The Romance Reviews, 5 Stars
“A delightful story of two sisters and one man, and their attempts to untangle an engagement. The author takes the high road, stays true to the mores of the time, and ends up leaving a wonderful impression on the reader. Waltz with a Stranger is an excellent first novel.”—Cathy Sova, The Romance Reader, 4 Hearts
“Sympathetic protagonists will keep readers engaged.”—Publishers Weekly
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