11. Masquerade

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ZARA

The stranger was suddenly there, right next to me, invading my personal space with an ease that felt both intrusive and intriguing, his eyes fixated on me.

I opened my mouth, but no words came out. Something about him left me speechless, a mix of intimidation and fascination twinning in my gut. Why was his presence so unsettling?

He wasn't overtly imposing, yet his aura commanded attention, drawing me in like a moth to a flame.

"Forgive me if I startled you," he murmured. "I couldn't help but notice a beautiful lady like yourself standing here alone."

"I'm waiting for someone." My eyes scanned the crowded ballroom for any sign of Blaze, with no success. How long does it take to get those drinks?

The man closed the little gap between us, the wave of tobacco and spice from his suit invading my senses. The scent left me light-headed, as if intoxicated by the hidden depths and smouldering secrets it suggested.

"Dance with me." A charming smile played on his lips, clearly not ready to give up. "One dance while you wait for your companion couldn't hurt."

His touch was feather-light when his fingers grazed my arm, igniting a trail of heat beneath the fabric of my dress, before he extended his hand in sultry invitation.

I hesitated, my eyebrows drawn together even as my feet angled towards him. Something about him enthralled me, even as alarm bells sounded distantly in my head. But Blaze's reminder that no one here knew who I was reassured me enough to make up my mind.

Against my better judgment, I relented, curiosity edging out caution. "One dance."

The warmth of his palm seeped through the thin material of my gown as he led me to the dance floor. Lively music filled the ballroom. Though his mask concealed his features, something about him called out to me. I couldn't pinpoint what exactly made this stranger so alluring to my senses, but a magnetic pull seemed to radiate from him, one that reminded me of Blaze in a way I couldn't quite define.

As we danced, I studied him. My gaze traced the sharp angles of his jawline, more fascinated by the hidden depths his mask concealed than any of his physical features. The playful twist of his full lips captivated my attention—as if he knew every unspoken question and thought in my mind, savouring them.

"Your partner might not appreciate the way you're looking at me," he chuckled, bringing me back to the present.

Heat crept up my neck at his comment, embarrassed at being caught staring like that. My gaze fell to the floor for a second before it met his again.

"Who are you?" The question slipped from my lips; a murmur meant more for myself than him.

The corners of his mouth lifted in a subtle smile. "Does it matter? Let's just enjoy the dance."

He pulled me closer, our bodies aligning with a natural ease. His solid presence was a contrast to the softness of the music. A tingle cascaded down my spine where his fingers rested. It was like a parallel echo to the connection I shared with Blaze, yet a unique force of its own.

We swayed to the notes of the orchestra, almost as if we had danced together before—like I was here with him and not with Blaze.

He spun me around, pulling me back into his arms, and as his sleeve rode up, the inked scales of a serpent on his wrist became visible. The tattoo was barely visible beneath his cuff, though enough to send my mind spinning.

Where had I seen that before?

It was so familiar, the image tugging at my memory, just out of reach.

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