Stranger in My Arms by Lisa Kleypas







  Chapter 1

  “LADY HAWKSWORTH, YOUR husband is not dead.”…

  Chapter 2

  THE WORDS SEEMED to hover and buzz around Lara…

  Chapter 3

  LARA WOULD HAVE liked to change into a fresh gown,…

  Chapter 4

  LATER THAT NIGHT, Hunter tried to focus on one…

  Chapter 5

  TO LARA'S CONSTERNATION, the crowd of visitors they…

  Chapter 6

  LARA ENTERED THE breakfast room and felt a stab of…

  Chapter 7

  A STONE'S THROW away from the prosperous shopping…

  Chapter 8

  ACCORDING TO HUNTER'S instructions, Lara engaged…

  Chapter 9

  IT WAS LAUNDRY day, a massive undertaking that occurred…

  Chapter 10

  THE EVENING MEAL was a long, drawn-out affair, attended…

  Chapter 11

  JOHNNY SAT ON a chair next to Lara's, his seat augmented…

  Chapter 12

  TO LARA'S FRUSTRATION, the promised report concerning…

  Chapter 13

  THE ROADS HAD turned to mud by the time Lara left…

  Chapter 14

  HUNTER HAD SEEN the unmistakable guilt on Lara's…

  Chapter 15

  SOMETHING HAD TO be done with the prison children…

  Chapter 16

  IT SEEMED THAT the servants of the Lonsdale estate…

  Chapter 17

  FOR THE NEXT few days there was an ominous silence…

  Chapter 18

  LARA SAT IN the carriage as stiffly as a wax doll, while…

  Chapter 19

  UNFAZED BY LARA'S stricken stare, Sophie waited patiently…

  Chapter 20

  KNOWING THAT CAPTAIN Tyler had been called to…

  Chapter 21

  LARA'S CARRIAGE REACHED Hawksworth Hall late in…


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  Chapter 1

  “LADY HAWKSWORTH, YOUR husband is not dead.”

  Lara stared at James Young without blinking. She knew she had not heard the estate agent correctly…or perhaps he had been drinking, though she had never known him to tipple before. It was possible that he had grown a little dotty from having to work in the service of the current Lord and Lady Hawksworth. They would surely drive anyone mad, given enough time.

  “I know it is a great shock to you all,” Young continued earnestly. Concern flared in his bespectacled eyes as he glanced at Lara. “To you in particular, my lady.”

  Had the news come from a less reliable source, Lara would have dismissed it immediately. However, James Young was a cautious and trustworthy man who had served the Hawksworth family for at least a decade. He had done an excellent job of managing her trust property's income since her husband's death, no matter that there was precious little money to oversee.

  Arthur, Lord Hawksworth, and his wife, Janet, regarded Young as if they, too, doubted his sanity. They were an ideally suited couple, both of them blond, tall, and spare of frame. Although they had two sons, the boys had been packed off to Eton and were seldom seen or even mentioned. Arthur and Janet seemed to care about one thing only—to enjoy their newfound wealth and status as conspicuously as possible.

  “Preposterous!” Arthur exploded. “How dare you come to me with this nonsense! Explain yourself at once.”

  “Very well, my lord,” Young replied. “I received word yesterday that a frigate recently arrived in London carrying a most unusual passenger. It seems that he bears an uncanny resemblance to the late earl.” He glanced respectfully at Lara as he added, “He claims to be Lord Hawksworth.”

  Arthur exploded with disbelieving scorn. His lean face, carved with deep lines of cynicism, flushed a vivid shade of red. His long beak of a nose twitched angrily. “What sort of outrageous hoax is this? Hawksworth has been dead for a year. It's impossible that he could have survived the shipwreck off of Madras. My God, the vessel literally broke in half! Everyone on board was lost. Are you telling me that my nephew somehow managed to survive? The man must be a lunatic to think that any of us would believe him.”

  Janet's thin lips tightened. “He'll be proved an impostor soon enough,” she said crisply, smoothing the toothlike points of dark Vandyke lace that trimmed the bodice and waist of her emerald silk gown.

  Ignoring the Crosslands' furious disdain, Young approached the widow. Larissa sat in a gilt-wood armchair near the window, her gaze fixed on the carpet covering the floor. Like everything else in Hawksworth Hall, the Persian carpet was opulent to the point of tastelessness, woven in a fantastical design of surreal flowers spilling from a Chinese-style vase. The worn toe of a black leather shoe protruded from beneath the hem of Larissa's mourning dress as she absently traced the edge of a scarlet flower with her foot. She seemed lost in memories, not noticing Young's approach until he had reached her. Abruptly she straightened like a chastened schoolgirl and lifted her gaze to his face.

  Even in her dark bombazine dress, as high-necked and pristine as a nun's habit, Larissa Crossland possessed a soft, elegant beauty. With her dark sable hair always seeming on the verge of tumbling from its pins, and sultry pale green eyes, she was original and striking. However, her looks generated little heat. She was often admired but never pursued…never flirted with or desired. Perhaps it was the way she used cheerfulness like a weapon, if such a thing were possible, keeping everyone at a distance.

  It seemed to many in the town of Market Hill that Lara was an almost saintly figure. A woman with her looks and position could have managed to snare a second husband, yet she had chosen to stay here and involve herself in charitable works. She was unfailingly gentle and compassionate, and her generosity extended to nobleman and beggar alike. Young had never heard Lady Hawksworth utter an unkind word about anyone, not the husband who had virtually abandoned her nor the relatives who treated her with contemptible stinginess.

  But for all her apparent serenity, there was something unsettling in her translucent green eyes. Some quiet turbulence that hinted at emotions and thoughts she never dared express. As far as Young could tell, Larissa had decided to content herself by living vicariously through the people around her. It was frequently said she needed a man of her own. However, no one could ever seem to think of a particular gentleman who was suited to her.

  That was undoubtedly a good thing, if it turned out that the late earl really was alive.

  “My lady,” Young murmured apologetically, “I did not want to distress you. But I felt you would want to be informed immediately about any matter that concerns the late earl.”

  “Is there any chance it could be true?” Lara whispered, her face shadowed with a frown.

  “I don't know,” came Young's careful reply. “As they never found the earl's body, I suppose there is a chance that he—”

  “Of course it isn't true!” Arthur exclaimed. “Have you both taken leave of your senses?” Brushing by Young, he assumed a protective expression and settled his hand on Lara's narrow shoulder. “How dare this scoundrel put Lady Hawksworth through such torment!” he exclaimed with as much false pity as he could muster.

  “I'm fine,” Lara interrupted, stiffening at his touch. A frown knit her smooth brow. She pulled away and went to the window, longing to escape the over-decorated parlor. The walls were covered in bright pink silk and heavy gold scrollwork, the corners filled with vases of exotic palms. It seemed that e
very inch of available space was taken up with a collection of what Janet referred to as “friggers,” concoctions of glass birds and trees covered with clear protective domes.

  “Careful,” Janet exclaimed sharply, as Lara's heavy skirts brushed the side of a glass bowl set in a tripod mahogany stand, causing it to wobble.

  Lara glanced down at the forlorn pair of goldfish swimming in the bowl, and then back at Janet's pinched, narrow face. “They shouldn't be placed in the window,” Lara heard herself murmur. “They don't like too much light.”

  Janet let out a contemptuous laugh. “You would know best, I'm sure,” she said acidly, and Lara knew she would make a point of keeping the fish exactly where they were.

  Sighing, Lara turned her gaze to the fields surrounding Hawksworth Hall. The land extending from the former Norman stronghold was studded with groves of chestnut and oak, and cut by a wide and flowing river. The same river provided a millstream and shipping channel for the nearby town of Market Hill, a bustling and prosperous port.

  A flock of mallards settled on the artificial lake in front of the Hall, disrupting the regal progress of a pair of swans. Past the lake was a road leading to town, and an ancient stone bridge known to the locals as the “bridge of the damned.” Legend had it that the devil himself had placed the bridge there with the stated intention of collecting the soul of the first man who crossed it. As the story went, the only one who dared to set foot on the bridge was a Crossland ancestor, who had defied the devil and refused to hand over his soul. The devil had placed a curse on all his descendants, that they would always have difficulty producing male issue to carry on the line.

  Lara could almost believe the tale. Each generation of Crossland men had produced very few children, and most of the males had died at a relatively young age. Including Hunter.

  Smiling sadly, Lara forced her thoughts back to the present and turned toward Mr. Young. He was a small, slight man, his face nearly level with her own. “If this stranger is indeed my husband,” she asked calmly, “why has he not returned before now?”

  “According to his story,” Young replied, “he floated in the ocean for two days following the shipwreck, and was picked up by a fishing vessel en route to Cape Town. He was wounded in the wreck, and had no recollection of who he was. He didn't even know his own name. A few months afterward his memory returned and he set sail for England.”

  Arthur snorted contemptuously. “Not remember his own identity? I've never heard of such a thing.”

  “Apparently it is possible,” the estate manager countered. “I've discussed the matter with Dr. Slade, the family physician, and he confirms that such cases, though rare, have been reported.”

  “How interesting,” Arthur said sarcastically. “Don't tell me you give any credence to this sham, Young.”

  “None of us can determine the truth until the stranger is interviewed by those who knew Hawksworth well.”

  “Mr. Young,” Lara said, concealing her inner turmoil, “you were acquainted with my husband for many years. I would appreciate it if you would go to London and meet this man. Even if he is not the late earl, it sounds as if he could be troubled and in need of help. Something must be done for him.”

  “How very like you, Lady Hawksworth,” Young remarked. “I dare say most people wouldn't conceive of helping a stranger who is attempting to deceive them. You are a kind woman indeed.”

  “Yes,” Arthur agreed dryly. “My nephew's widow is the patron saint of beggars, orphans, and stray dogs. She can't resist giving away whatever she has to others.”

  “Which is why we haven't seen fit to supplement Lara's annuity,” Janet added. “The extra money would only slip through her fingers, as even the smallest child seems able to take advantage of her. She's given everything she owns to that shabby orphanage.”

  Lara's face burned at their snide remarks. “The orphans need money far more than I do,” she said. “They need a great many things that others could provide quite easily.”

  “I have been charged with preserving the family fortune for future generations,” Arthur snapped. “Not to squander it on parentless children.”

  “Very well,” Young interceded hastily, interrupting the brewing argument. “If it pleases all of you, I shall depart for London along with Dr. Slade, who knew the late earl since birth. We will see if there is any truth to this man's claims.” He gave Lara a reassuring smile. “Do not distress yourself, my lady. I'm sure all will turn out for the best.”

  Relieved to escape the Hawksworths' presence, Lara went to the old gamekeeper's cottage, which was set at a distance from the castle along the willow-lined riverbank. The cottage was a far cry from the large timbered Elizabethan gatehouse that had once been used as separate quarters for guests or visiting relatives. Unfortunately the interior of the gatehouse had been ruined by fire the previous year, when a careless visitor had overturned an oil lamp and set the place ablaze.

  Arthur and Janet had seen no reason to have the place restored, deciding that the unoccupied cottage was sufficient for Lara's needs. She could have cast herself on the mercy of other relatives who might have offered her more comfortable lodgings, or even accepted her mother-in-law's offer to serve as her traveling companion, but she treasured her privacy too much for that. Better to remain near familiar surroundings and friends, despite the discomforts of the cottage.

  The stone dwelling was dark and damp, with a moldy smell that no amount of washing could banish. It was rare that a meager ray of sunlight entered the lone casement window. Lara had sought to make the place more habitable by covering one wall with a patchwork counterpane, and filling it with a few simple pieces of cast-off furniture from Hawksworth Hall. The chair by the fireplace stove was draped with a blue and red lap blanket knitted by some of the older girls at the orphanage. A carved wooden salamander was placed near the hearth, a gift from an elderly man in town who had assured her that it would protect the cottage from harm.

  Closing herself in solitude, Lara lit a tallow-dipped candle and stood in the glow of its sputtering, smoky light. Suddenly her body was racked by a hard shiver.

  Hunter…alive. It couldn't be true, of course, but the very idea filled her with unease. Going to her narrow bed, she knelt on the floor, reached underneath the creaking ropes that held the mattress. She tugged out a cloth-wrapped parcel and undid the coverings to reveal a framed portrait of her late husband.

  Arthur and Janet had offered her the painting with a show of generosity, but Lara knew that they were eager to be rid of the reminder of the man who had held the title before them. She hadn't wanted the portrait either, but she had taken it, acknowledging inwardly that Hunter was part of her past. He had changed the course of her life. Perhaps someday when time had softened her memories, she would hang the portrait in full view.

  The painting depicted a large-boned, stocky man in the company of his dogs, one huge hand casually clasped around the butt of his favorite gun. Hunter had been handsome, with thick gold-brown hair, intense dark brown eyes, and a perpetually arrogant expression.

  It had been three years since Hunter had set sail for India on a semidiplomatic mission. As a minor stockholder in the East India Company, and a man of some political influence, he had been appointed to advise the Company administrators in India.

  In reality, he had been one of many hangers-on eager to join the crowd of idle debauchees in Calcutta. They lived like kings there, indulging in endless parties and orgies. It was said that each household contained at least a hundred servants who saw to every detail of their masters' comfort. Moreover, India was a sportsman's paradise, abounding in exotic game—irresistible to a man like Hunter.

  Remembering her husband's enthusiasm upon his departure, Lara smiled sadly. Hunter had been more than eager to leave her. England had begun to pall for him, and so had their marriage. There was no doubt that he and Lara had been ill matched. A wife, Hunter had once told her, was a necessary nuisance, useful only for the sake of bearing children. When Lara
had failed to conceive, he had been deeply injured. For ” man who had prided himself on his strength and virility, the absence of children was hard to bear.

  Lara's gaze fell to the bed, and cold knots formed in her stomach as she remembered Hunter's nighttime visits, his heavy body crushing hers, the painful invasion that seemed never to end. It seemed like an act of mercy when he had begun to stray from her bed and visit other women to satisfy his needs. Lara had never known anyone so physically strong and vital. She could almost believe he had lived through a violent shipwreck that no one else had managed to survive.

  Hunter had so dominated everyone around him that Lara had felt her spirit withering in his shadow over the two years they had lived together. She had been grateful when he had departed for India. Left to her own devices, Lara had become involved in the local orphanage, giving her time and attention to improving the lives of the children there. The feeling of being needed was so gratifying that Lara had soon found other projects with which to occupy herself: visiting the sick and elderly, organizing charitable events, even trying her hand at a bit of matchmaking. Upon being informed of Hunter's death, she had been saddened, but she had not missed him.

  Nor, she thought guiltily, did she want him back.

  For the next three days there was no word from Mr. Young or the Hawksworths. Lara did her best to go about her activities as usual, but the news had traveled all through Market Hill, spread by the excited gossip of the servants at Hawksworth Hall.

  Her sister, Rachel, Lady Lonsdale, was the first to visit. The black-lacquered barouche stopped midway up the drive to the Hall, and Rachel's slight form emerged to walk unaccompanied along the cottage path. Rachel was Lara's younger sister but gave the impression of being the elder, possessing greater height and a sweet solemnity that lent her an air of maturity.

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