Stranger in My Arms by Lisa Kleypas

  “D'ye promise?”

  “Oh, yes.”

  That reassurance seemed to be all he needed. He settled harder against her and went limp, his breathing deep and even.

  Rachel settled in a nearby chair, her wondering gaze fixed on Lara's face. “Who is he, Larissa? Why have you brought him here?”

  “He's an orphan,” Lara replied, resting her hand on the child's back. “There's no room for him anywhere. He was sent over from Holbeach Prison, where his father was hanged.”

  “A convicted felon's son!” Rachel exclaimed, causing the boy to twitch in his sleep.

  “Hush, Rachel,” Lara said with a reproving frown. “It's not his fault.” She bent over the child protectively, rubbing his back until he relaxed again.

  Rachel shook her head in bewilderment. “Even with the way you usually carry on over children, I wouldn't have expected this. Actually bringing him to your home—what will Lord Hunter say?”

  “I don't know. I'm sure Hunter won't approve, but there's something about this boy that makes me want to keep him safe.”

  “Lara, you feel that way about every child you encounter.”

  “Yes, but this one is special.” Lara felt awkward and tongue-tied as she fumbled for a rational explanation. “When I first saw him, he had a mouse in his pocket. He had brought it from prison.”

  “A mouse,” Rachel repeated, shivering suddenly. “Dead or alive?”

  “Alive and kicking,” Lara said ruefully. “Johnny was taking care of it. Isn't that remarkable? Locked away in that prison, facing horrors you and I could never imagine…and he found a little creature to love and care for.”

  Rachel shook her head and smiled as she stared at Lara. “So that's the attraction. The two of you share a habit of collecting strays. You're kindred spirits.”

  Overwhelmed by tenderness, Lara stared at the sleeping child. He had given her his trust, and she would die before failing him. “I know that I can't rescue every child in the world,” she said. “But I can save a few of them. I can save this one.”

  “What are you planning to do with him?”

  “I haven't thought of a plan yet.”

  “Surely you're not considering keeping him?”

  Lara's defensive silence was answer enough.

  Rachel sat beside her and spoke earnestly. “Dearest, I never knew Hunter very well—and even less now than before—but I know about the grief he caused you when you failed to conceive. He wants his own child, an heir…not some gutter-bred child who's come from a prison.”

  “Rachel,” Lara murmured, astonished.

  Rachel looked ashamed but resolute. “You may not like my choice of words, but I must be frank. You've become accustomed to making choices without the interference of a husband. Now Hunter has returned, and things are different. A wife must abide by her husband's decisions.”

  Lara set her jaw stubbornly. “I'm not trying to offer this boy as a substitute for the children I can't have.”

  “How else is Hunter to see it?”

  “The way I do—that this is a little boy who needs our help.”

  “Dearest.” Rachel's delicate mouth curved in a sad smile. “I don't want you to be disappointed. I don't think it is wise to cause problems between yourself and Hunter so soon after his return. A peaceful marriage is the greatest blessing imaginable.”

  Lara's attention was caught by the bleakness in her sister's expression. She looked closely at Rachel, suddenly noticing the fines of strain around her eyes and on her forehead, and the tension in her posture. “Rachel, what is wrong? More problems between you and Lord Lonsdale?”

  Her sister shook her head uncomfortably. “Not really, it's just that…Terrell is so quick to take offense of late. He is bored and unhappy, and when he indulges in strong drink he becomes so agitated…”

  “Agitated,” Lara asked in a low voice, “or abusive?”

  Rachel was silent, her gaze downcast. It seemed that she was making some unpleasant decision. After a lengthy pause, she took hold of the white lace chemisette covering the décolletage of her gown, and pulled it aside.

  Lara stared blankly at her sister's bared throat and upper chest, where two large bruises and a pattern of four shadowed fingermarks showed prominently against the translucent skin. Lord Lonsdale had done this to her…but why? Rachel was the gentlest and mildest of creatures, always mindful of her duty, living for the comfort of her husband and all those around her.

  Lara felt herself quiver with fury, tears springing to her eyes. “He's a monster!” she said sharply.

  Hurriedly Rachel replaced the concealing lace. “Larissa, no, no…I didn't show you in order to make you hate him. I don't know why I showed you. It is my fault. I complained about his gambling and incensed him beyond his capacity to bear. I must try to be a better wife. He needs something I am not able to supply. If I could only understand him better—”

  “When Hunter returns, I will have him talk to Lord Lonsdale,” Lara said, ignoring her sister's protests.

  “No! Not unless you want this to happen again—or something even worse.”

  Lara sat in miserable silence, fighting tears. She and Rachel had been brought up to believe that men were their protectors, that a husband was the superior, wiser half of a marriage. In her former sheltered innocence, she had not imagined that a man would be capable of striking his wife, or hurting her in any way. Why, of all people, was this happening to Rachel, the sweetest and gentlest woman she had ever known? And how could Rachel claim that it was her fault?

  “Rachel,” she managed to say unsteadily, “you have done nothing to deserve this. And Lord Lonsdale has proven that his word means nothing. He'll continue to inflict violence on you unless someone intervenes.”

  “You must not tell Lord Hawksworth,” Rachel begged. “I would be so humiliated. Besides, if your husband took up the matter with him, I believe Terrell would deny everything and find some way to punish me later. Please, you must keep this a secret.”

  “Then I insist that you tell Papa and Mama.”

  Rachel shook her head hopelessly. “What would you have them do? Mama would cry and beg me to try harder to please Terrell. Papa would only brood in his study. You know how they are.”

  “Then I'm to do nothing?” Lara asked in anguished protest.

  Rachel laid a gentle hand over hers. “I love him,” she said quietly. “I want to stay with him. Most of the time he is very kind to me. It's only now and then, when he can't seem to control his temper, that things become…difficult. But those times always pass quickly.”

  “How could you want to stay with someone who hurts you? Lord Lonsdale is a selfish, evil man—”

  “No.” Rachel withdrew her hand, her beautiful face turning frosty. “Not another word against him, Larissa. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have burdened you with this.”

  A housemaid came to announce the dressmaker's arrival, and the two women prepared to meet her in the downstairs parlor. Rachel left the room first, while Lara lingered behind with the sleeping child. She laid a large embroidered shawl over him, tucking it at his neck, smoothing his soft, newly shorn hair. “Rest here for now,” she whispered, kneeling by the sofa, staring into Johnny's small, peaceful face. He seemed absurdly helpless, left at the mercy of a large and uncaring world. Thinking of his plight, and of Rachel's, and the various problems of all her friends at Market Hill, Lara closed her eyes briefly.

  “Dear Father in Heaven,” she said under her breath. “There are so many who need Your mercy and protection. Help me to know what to do for them. Amen.”

  Chapter 9

  IT WAS LAUNDRY day, a massive undertaking that occurred once a week and absorbed fully half the household. As had been her habit since the early days of her marriage, Lara supervised and participated in t
he washing, folding, and mending. In a house as large as Hawksworth Hall, it was necessary to sew cloth tickets on every pillowcase, featherbed, sheet, and blanket to determine where they belonged. Articles that were too worn or damaged to use were kept in a scrap bag to be sold to the rag merchant, the proceeds of which were divided amongst the servants.

  “Bless you, milady,” one of the maids said as they folded freshly laundered linens in the washhouse. “We've all missed the extra money we used to get from the ragman. Lady Arthur kept every shilling for her own purse.”

  “Well, now everything is back the way it used to be,” Lara replied.

  “Thank heaven,” the maid said fervently, and went to collect another basket of laundry.

  Lara frowned and began to retie the loose strings of her white apron. The air in the washhouse was humid, steam rising from huge iron vats that had been filled with soaking linens. She supposed she should be glad of having returned to her duties as mistress of the household. She had always experienced a fair amount of satisfaction in keeping Hawksworth hall properly organized and efficiently managed. However, it seemed that her enjoyment in housekeeping and estate management had begun to pall.

  Before “widowhood,” she had always been too busy being the lady of the manor to notice much outside the borders of the estate. Now the time spent at the orphanage seemed far more important than anything she could accomplish here.

  The strings of the apron slipped from Lara's fingers, and she fumbled for them. Someone approached her from behind. Before she could turn around, she felt warm masculine fingers tangle briefly with hers. She went still, her chest reverberating with the thudding of her heart. Until her dying day, she would recognize the touch of those hands.

  Hawksworth tied the apron around her waist with meticulous care. Lara could feel the faint, hot puffs of his breath stirring in her hair. Although he didn't pull her against him, she sensed the towering height and strength of the body behind hers.

  “What are you doing here?” she asked weakly.

  “I live here,” he informed her, his voice like a stroke of velvet down her spine.

  “You know that I meant the washhouse. You've never set foot in this building before today.”

  “I couldn't wait to see you.”

  Out of the corner of her eye, Lara saw two maids pause uncertainly at the doorway as they saw that the master of the household was there. “You may come in, girls,” she said loudly, beckoning to them to return to their chores, but they giggled and disappeared, evidently deciding that she needed a few moments alone with Hawksworth.

  “You should have given me time to prepare myself,” Lara protested as her husband turned her to face him. She was disheveled and red-faced, her hair straggling around her moist cheeks, her body swathed in a huge apron. “I would have at least changed my gown and brushed my…” Her voice died away as she stared at him.

  Hawksworth was astonishingly handsome, his dark eyes dancing with cinnamon lights, his sun-shot brown hair brushed neatly back from his face. He wore perfectly tailored clothes that displayed—no, flaunted—the power of his body. The snug-fitting beige pantaloons lovingly followed every muscular line of his legs, and emphasized his masculine endowments in a way that brought scarlet heat to Lara's cheeks. A blindingly white shirt and cravat, elegantly patterned waistcoat, and crisp dark blue coat completed the ensemble. The exotic dark hue of his skin only made him more striking. Lara had no doubt that the mere sight of him would make any number of women swoon.

  In fact, her own insides were twisting in agitation. It definitely had to do with the way he looked at her—not a nice, respectful gaze, but the kind of look she imagined a man would give a prostitute. How was it that he could make her feel as if she were standing naked before him, when she was covered in layers of confining clothes and an apron the size of a tent?

  “Did you have a pleasant stay in London?” she asked, trying to gather her wits.

  “Not especially.” His hands tightened at her waist as she tried to pull back. “It was productive, however.”

  “My time here was also productive,” she said. “There are some things I must discuss with you later.”

  “Tell me now.” Hawksworth slid an arm around her and began to pull her from the washhouse.

  “I must help with the laundering—”

  “Let the servants take care of it.” He descended the two steps leading to the pathway that connected the building to the main house.

  “I would rather talk to you at supper,” Lara said, pausing at the top of the steps, so that their faces were level. “After you've had a few glasses of wine.”

  Hawksworth laughed and reached for her, making her gasp as he lifted her off her feet and swung her easily to the ground. “Bad news, is it?”

  “Not bad,” she said, unable to take her gaze from his wide, expressive mouth. “I would like to make some rather significant changes around here, and you may not approve.”

  “Changes.” His white teeth gleamed as he smiled sardonically. “Well, I'm always open to bargaining.”

  “I have nothing to bargain with.”

  Hawksworth stopped before they reached the house, drawing her into a secluded nook of the hedges bordering the kitchen garden. The air was fragrant with herbs and sun-warmed flowers. “For what you have, sweet wife, I would lay the world at your feet.”

  Realizing his intentions, Lara tried to twist away, only to find herself caught securely against him. His torso was as hard as iron, muscles protruding through the layers of clothing that separated them. And low against her abdomen and belly, the hot, leaping pressure of masculine flesh, instantly roused by her nearness. “My lord,” she gasped, “Hunter…don't you dare—”

  “You're not as shocked as you pretend. You're a married woman, after all.”

  “I haven't been for a long time.” She pushed in vain at his chest. “Release me at once!”

  He grinned, and his embrace only tightened. “Kiss me first.”

  “Why should I?” she returned frostily.

  “I didn't touch a single woman in London,” he said. “I only thought of you.”

  “And you expect a reward for that? I've done my best to encourage you to take a mistress.”

  He urged his hips against hers, as if she weren't already aware of his jutting arousal. “But I only want you.”

  “Haven't you ever been told that you can't have everything you want?”

  That elicited a swift grin. “Not that I recall.”

  Despite his brutish strength, he seemed boyish and mischievous, and Lara realized that it wasn't fear that made her pulse beat so wildly. She was caught in a flurry of excitement, discovering for the first time the power of holding an aroused male at bay. Deliberately she withheld what he wanted, keeping her arms wedged between them, turning her face to the side.

  “What will I gain if I kiss you?” Lara heard herself ask. The low, provocative tone didn't sound like her at all.

  The question cracked his self-control enough to reveal that he wanted her badly, in spite of his teasing demeanor. His arms became as tight as barrel stays, his body hardening against hers. “Name your price,” he muttered. “Within reason.”

  “I'm almost positive that you won't consider what I want is reasonable,” she said ruefully.

  Hawksworth sank his fingers into her disheveled hair and eased her head back. “Kiss me first. We'll talk about ‘reasonable’ later.”

  “One kiss?” she asked warily.

  He nodded, his breath catching as Lara reached up to him. Her fingers slid around the back of his neck, and she pulled his head down, her own lips softening with anticipation—

  “Lara! Lara!” A small figure came hurrying toward them, and Lara wriggled free to face Johnny. Anxiously he buried himself against her, small hands clutching at her skirts.

  “What is it?” she asked, kneeling beside him, rubbing his narrow back as he held her tightly.

  After a moment or two of consolation, Johnny lift
ed his dark head and stared at Hawksworth with a mixture of suspicion and dislike. “He was hurting ye!”

  Lara pressed her lips together to keep them from quivering with sudden amusement. “No, darling. This is Lord Hawksworth. I was merely welcoming him home. Everything is all right.”

  Clearly unconvinced, the child continued to glare at the interloper.

  Hawksworth didn't spare the boy a glance, but looked at Lara with all the annoyance of a hungry tiger just deprived of its prey. “I gather this is one of the ‘changes’ you mentioned,” he said.

  “Yes.” Sensing that it would be a mistake to show any sign of doubt, Lara stood to face him and made her reply as firm as possible. “I wish I had been able to explain before you saw him…but I intend that Johnny shall live with us from now on.”

  The passion and heat faded from Hawksworth's eyes, his expression suddenly impenetrable. “An orphanage brat?”

  She felt Johnny's little hand slip into hers, and she squeezed it reassuringly. Her gaze didn't move from Hawksworth's. “I will explain everything later in private.”

  “Yes, you will,” Hawksworth agreed in a tone that chilled her.

  Lara left Johnny in the care of the elderly gardener, Mr. Moody, who was cutting hothouse flowers and arranging them in urns and vases for various rooms at Hawksworth Hall. Lara smiled as she saw the child arranging his own little bouquet, sticking flowers in a small chipped pitcher. “Very good, lad,” the gardener praised him, carefully stripping the thorns from a miniature rose and handing it to him. “You have an eye for color. I'll show you how to make a pretty nosegay for Lady Hawksworth, and we'll fit it in a little glass tube to keep the flowers fresh.”

  Johnny shook his head at the sight of the white rose. “Not that one,” he said shyly. “She wants a pink flower.”

  Lara paused at the doorway, surprised and pleased. So far Mr. Moody was the only person besides herself to whom Johnny had spoken.

  “Does she now?” Mr. Moody's craggy face softened with a smile. He indicated the bowers of hothouse roses nearby. “Then find her the best bloom in the bunch, lad, and I'll cut it for you.”

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