Stranger in My Arms by Lisa Kleypas

  They had once been proclaimed as Lincolnshire's most attractive sisters, but Lara knew that Rachel's beauty eclipsed her own. Rachel possessed perfectly classical features: large eyes, a small rosebud mouth, and a narrow, slightly upturned nose. By contrast Lara's face was round instead of oval, and her mouth was too wide, and her straight dark hair—fiercely resistant to the curling tongs—was always slipping from its pins.

  Meeting her sister at the door, Lara eagerly welcomed her inside. Rachel was expensively dressed, her brown hair pulled back to reveal the delicate point of a widow's peak. The sweet scent of violets clung to her hair and skin.

  “Dear Larissa,” Rachel said, glancing about the cottage, “for the thousandth time, why don't you come live with Terrell and me? There are a dozen rooms to spare, and you would be much more comfortable—”

  “Thank you, Rachel.” Lara hugged her sister. “But I couldn't stay under the same roof as your husband. I can't pretend to tolerate a man who doesn't treat you properly. And I'm certain that Lord Lonsdale holds me in equal disaffection.”

  “He isn't that bad—”

  “He's an abominable husband, much as you try to pretend otherwise. Lord Lonsdale doesn't give a fig about anyone but himself, and he never will.”

  Rachel frowned and seated herself by the hearth. “Sometimes I think the only person, man or woman, that Terrell ever truly liked was Lord Hawks worth.”

  “They were cut from the same cloth,” Lara agreed, “except that at least Hunter never raised a hand to me.”

  “It was only the once,” Rachel protested. “I never should have told you of it.”

  “You didn't need to tell me. The bruise on your face was evidence enough.”

  They were both silent, remembering the episode two months before when Lord Lonsdale had struck Rachel during an argument. The mark on Rachel's cheek and eye had taken weeks to fade, causing Rachel to hide in her home until she could venture out without causing suspicion. Now Rachel claimed that Lord Lonsdale deeply regretted his loss of self-control. She had forgiven him, she said, and she wished Lara would do the same.

  Lara couldn't forgive anyone who had hurt her sister, and she had the suspicion that it would happen again. It almost made her wish that Hunter really were alive. In spite of his faults, he would never have countenanced hitting a woman. Hunter would have made it clear to Lord Lonsdale that such behavior was unacceptable. And Lonsdale might have heeded him, as Hunter was one of the few people on earth whom he respected.

  “I didn't come here to talk about that, Larissa.” Rachel's gaze was loving and concerned as she watched her older sister seat herself on an upholstered footstool nearby. “1 heard the news about Lord Hawksworth. Tell me…is he actually coming back to you?”

  Lara shook her head. “No, of course not. Some crackbrain in London is claiming to be my husband. Mr. Young and Dr. Slade are visiting him, and I'm certain they'll have him confined in either Bedlam or Newgate, depending on whether he's mad or a criminal.”

  “Then there's no chance that Lord Hawksworth is alive?” Reading the answer in Lara's face, Rachel sighed. “I'm sorry to say it, but my mind is relieved. I know that your marriage was not a good one. All I want is for you to be happy.”

  “I wish the same for you,” Lara said earnestly. “And you're in far worse circumstances than I ever was, Rachel. Hunter was far from the ideal husband, but he and I got along well enough, except for…” She stopped and blushed suddenly.

  It wasn't easy for her to speak of intimate matters. She and Rachel had a puritanical upbringing, their parents kind but distant. It had been left to Lara and Rachel to learn about the act of physical intercourse on their respective wedding nights. For Lara, the discovery had been an unpleasant one.

  Rachel seemed to read her thoughts, as always. “Oh, Lara,” she murmured, the color rising in her own face, “I think Lord Hawksworth must not have been as considerate of you as he should.” Her voice lowered as she continued. “Lovemaking isn't so terrible, really. There were times with Terrell, early in our marriage, when I actually found it rather pleasant. Lately, of course, it's not at all the same. But I still remember how it once was.”

  “Pleasant?” Lara stared at her in amazement. “For once, you're managed to shock me. How you could have liked something so embarrassing and painful is beyond me—unless you're trying to make a very bad joke.”

  “Weren't there occasions when Lord Hawksworth kissed you, held you close, and you felt rather warm and…well, womanly?”

  Lara fell into a perplexed silence. She failed to see how lovemaking—ironic term for such a repulsive act—could not be painful. “No,” she said thoughtfully, “I can't ever remember feeling that way. Hunter wasn't fond of kissing or embracing. And when it was over, I was glad of it.”

  Rachel's face was soft with pity. “Did he ever say hat he loved you?”

  Lara gave a hollow laugh at the idea. “Goodness, no, Hunter would never have admitted to such a thing.” A bleak smile curved her lips. “He didn't love me. There was another woman whom he should have married instead of me. I think he often regretted his mistake.”

  “You never told me that,” Rachel exclaimed. “Who is she?”

  “Lady Carlysle,” Lara mumbled, vaguely surprised that after all this time, the name still caused a sour taste in her mouth.

  “What is she like? Did you ever meet her?”

  “Yes, on a few occasions. She and Hunter were discreet, but it was obvious that they took enormous pleasure in one another's company. She liked all the same things he did—riding, hunting, horses. I've no doubt that he visited her often in private after we were married.”

  “Why“didn't Lord Hawksworth marry Lady Carlysle in the first place?”

  Lara hugged her knees and lowered her chin, unconsciously drawing herself into a ball. “I was much younger, whereas she was past childbearing age. Hunter wanted an heir…and I suppose he thought he could mold me to his liking. I did try to please him. Unfortunately I couldn't seem to give him the one thing he wanted from me.”

  “A child,” Rachel murmured. From the expression on her face, Lara knew that Rachel was thinking of her own miscarriage, which had occurred only a few months ago. “Neither of us has had much success in that regard, have we?”

  Lara's face burned as she continued. “At least you've proven that you're able to conceive. With God's blessing you'll bear a child someday. I, on the other hand, have tried everything—I drank tonics and consulted moon charts, and put myself through any number of ridiculous and humiliating exertions. Nothing worked. When Hunter finally left for India, I was so glad that he was gone. It was a blessing to sleep alone and not have to wonder each night if I would hear his footsteps approaching my door.” Lara shivered at the memories that flashed through her mind. “I don't like sleeping with a man. I never want to again.”

  “Poor Larissa,” Rachel murmured. “You should have told me these things long before now. You're always so eager to solve others' problems, and so reluctant to discuss your own.”

  “Had I told you, it wouldn't have changed anything,” Lara pointed out, making an effort to smile.

  “Had it been left to me, I would have chosen someone far more appropriate for you than Lord Hawksworth. I think Mama and Papa were so dazzled by his position and wealth that they overlooked the fact that you didn't suit.”

  “It wasn't their fault,” Lara said. “The blame was mine…I'm not really suited to be anyone's wife. I should never have married at all. I'm much happier on my own.”

  “Neither of us landed the kind of match we hoped for, did we?” Rachel reflected with sad irony. “Terrell with his moods, and your lummox of a husband…hardly the stuff of fairy tales.”

  “At least we live close to each other,” Lara pointed out, trying to dispel the cloud of regret that seemed to hang in the air. “That makes everything bearable, at least for me.”

  “For me as well.” Rachel left the chair and went to hug her tightly. “I pray only g
ood things will happen to you from now on, dearest. May Lord Hawksworth rest in peace—and may you soon find a man who will love you as you deserve to be loved.”

  “Don't pray for that,” Lara said, her alarm half feigned and half real. “I don't want a man. Pray instead for the children at the orphanage, and poor old Mrs. Lumley, who is going blind, and Mr. Peacham's rheumatism, and—”

  “You and your ever-expanding list of unfortunates,” Rachel commented, smiling fondly at her. “Very well, I'll pray for them too.”

  The moment Lara ventured into town, she found herself inundated with questions, everyone demanding to know the details of her husband's return from the dead. No matter how often she stated that “Hawksworth's” appearance in London was most likely a hoax, the citizens of Market Hill wanted to believe otherwise.

  “Well, if 'tisn't the luckiest woman in Market Hill,” said the cheesewright as soon as Lara entered his shop, one of many that lined the town's primary street of Maingate. The air was redolent with a pleasantly milky, tangy smell that wafted from the slabs and rounds of cheese stacked on the wooden tables.

  Smiling halfheartedly, Lara set her willow basket on a long table and waited for him to produce the round of cheese she came to collect each week for the orphanage. “I'm fortunate for many reasons, Mr. Wilkins,” she replied, “but if you're referring to the rumor about my late husband—”

  “A lovely sight you'll be,” the cheesewright interrupted heartily, his jovial, big-nosed face glowing with good humor. “The lady of the manor again.” He hefted a cheese that measured nearly a foot across into her basket. The soft curds had been salted, pressed, wrapped in muslin, and dipped in wax to ensure a mild, fresh flavor.

  “Thank you,” Lara replied evenly, “but, Mr. Wilkins, I must tell you I'm sure you that the story is false. Lord Hawksworth is not coming back.”

  The Misses Withers, a pair of elderly spinster sisters, entered the shop and tittered in pleasure as they saw Lara. Identical flower-trimmed bonnets covered their small gray heads, which bobbed together in a swift exchange of gossip. One of them approached Lara and laid a frail, blue-veined hand on her sleeve. “My dear, the news reached us this morning. We're so happy for you, so happy indeed—”

  “Thank you, but it's not true,” Lara insisted. “The man who claims to be my husband is undoubtedly an impostor. It would be a miracle if the earl had managed to survive the shipwreck.”

  “I say hope for the best until you're told otherwise,” Mr. Wilkins said, while his stout wife, Glenda, emerged from the back of the shop. Eagerly she reached out and stuffed a bunch of daisies in the corner of Lara's basket. “If anyone deserves a miracle, milady,” Glenda said merrily, “it's you.”

  They all assumed that she was hopeful about the news, that she wanted Hunter to return. Flushed and uncomfortable, Lara guiltily accepted their good wishes and hurried out of the shop.

  She started on a brisk walk along the winding riverbank, passing a small, tidy churchyard and a succession of white-walled cottages. Her destination was the orphanage, a decaying manor situated on the east side of town. Set back among stockades of pine and oak, the orphanage was a distinctive place built of gritstone and blue brick, with a blue-glazed tile roof. The method used to make the special frost-resistant tiles was known only to the village potter, who had stumbled across the recipe by accident one day and swore he would someday take it to his grave.

  Puffing from the exertion of walking a long distance with a heavy basket on her arm, Lara entered the building. Once it had been a fine manor, but after the last occupant's death, the place had been abandoned and had fallen to ruin. Private donations from the townsfolk had restored the structure until it was suitable to house two dozen children. Further gifts had provided annual salaries for a handful of teachers.

  Lara ached with regret when she thought of the fortune she'd once had at her disposal—what she couldn't have done with such money now! There were many improvements she longed to make to the orphanage. She had even swallowed her pride and gone to Arthur and Janet to ask if he would make a donation for the children's sake, but she had been coldly rebuffed. The new Earl and Countess of Hawksworth were firm in their belief that the orphans must learn that the world was a harsh place, and they must make their own way in it.

  Sighing, Lara entered the building and set the basket just inside the door. Her arm trembled from the strain of carrying its weight. She caught a glimpse of a curly brown head as someone ducked behind a corner. It had to be Charles, she thought, a rebellious eleven-year-old boy who constantly searched for new ways to cause trouble.

  “I wish someone would help me carry this basket to the kitchen,” she said aloud, and Charles promptly appeared.

  “You carried it this far by yourself,” he observed sullenly.

  Lara smiled into his small, freckled, blue-eyed face. “Don't be surly, Charles. Help me with the basket, and on the way to the kitchen you can tell me why you aren't in class this morning.”

  “Miss Thornton sent me out of the schoolroom,” he replied, lifting one side of the large basket and eyeing the cheese hungrily. Together they carried it down the hall, their steps softened by the threadbare carpet. “I was making too much noise, and paid no mind to the teacher.”

  “Why is that, Charles?”

  “I learned my maths before everyone else. Why should I have to sit still and do nothing just because I'm smarter than the rest of 'em?”

  “I see,” Lara replied, reflecting ruefully that it was probably true. Charles was an intelligent child who needed more attention than the school was able to provide. “I'll speak to Miss Thornton. In the meantime, you must try to behave yourself.”

  They reached the kitchen, where the cook, Mrs. Davies, greeted her with a smile. Mrs. Davies's round face was rosy from the heat of the stove, where a large kettle of soup was kept warming. Her brown eyes were bright with interest. “Lady Hawksworth, we've heard the most astonishing rumor from town—”

  “It isn't true,” Lara interrupted ruefully. “It's merely some troubled stranger who has convinced himself—or is trying to convince us—that he is the late earl. If my husband had survived, he would have come home long before now.”

  “I suppose,” Mrs. Davies said, seeming disappointed. “It would have made a romantic story, though. If you don't mind my saying so, milady, you're too young and pretty to be a widow.”

  Lara shook her head and smiled. “I'm quite content with my situation, Mrs. Davies.”

  “I want him to stay dead,” Charles announced, causing Mrs. Davies to gasp in horror.

  “What a wee devil you are!” the cook exclaimed.

  Lara bent until she and the boy were at eye level, and smoothed his unruly hair. “Why do you say that, Charles?”

  “If he is the earl, you won't come here anymore. He'll make you stay at home and do his bidding.”

  “Charles, that's not true,” Lara replied gravely. “But there's no reason to argue the point. The earl is gone—and people don't come back from the dead.”

  Dust from the road coated Lara's skirts as she returned to the Hawksworth estate, passing tenant farms bordered with wattle-and-daub fences made of woven branches and mud. Sunlight glittered on the water that spilled lavishly beneath the bridge of the damned. As Lara neared the stone cottage, she heard her name called. She stopped in surprise at the sight of her former abigail, Naomi, running from the Hall with her skirts lifted to keep from tripping.

  “Naomi, you mustn't run like that,” Lara exclaimed. “You'll fall and hurt yourself.”

  The plump lady's maid gasped with exertion and feverish excitement. “Lady Hawksworth,” she exclaimed, struggling to catch her breath. “Oh, milady…Mr. Young sent me to tell you…he's here…at the castle…they're all here, and…you must come at once.”

  Lara blinked in confusion. “Who is here? Mr. Young has sent for me?”

  “Yes, they've brought him from London.”

  “Him?” Lara asked faintly.

nbsp; “Yes, milady. The earl has come home.”

  Chapter 2

  THE WORDS SEEMED to hover and buzz around Lara like gnats. The earl has come home, come home…“But it can't be,” she whispered.

  Why would Mr. Young have brought the stranger here from London? She licked her dry lips, the inside of her mouth feeling like parchment. When she spoke, her voice didn't sound like her own. “H-have you seen him?”

  The maid nodded, suddenly bereft of words.

  Lara stared fixedly at the ground and forced out a few halting words. “You knew my husband, Naomi. Tell me…is the man at Hawksworth Hall…” She lifted her beseeching gaze to the maid, unable to finish the sentence.

  “I think so, milady. Nay, I'm certain of it.”

  “But…the earl is gone,” Lara said numbly. “He drowned.”

  “Let me help you to the castle,” Naomi urged, taking her arm. “You look all queer and white, and 'tis no wonder. 'Tisn't every day a woman's dead husband comes back to her.”

  Lara pulled away from her with a jerky movement. “Please…I need a few minutes to myself. I'll walk up to the Hall when I'm ready.”

  “Yes, milady. I'll tell them to expect you.” Throwing her a concerned, excited glance, Naomi retreated and hurried along the path leading back to the castle.

  Stumbling into the cottage, Lara went to the wash-stand and poured lukewarm water into the chipped earthenware basin. She splashed the dust and perspiration from her face, her movements methodical, her mind whirling with frantic thoughts. She had never found herself in such an impossible situation before. She had always been a practical woman. She didn't believe in miracles, had never asked for one. Especially not this one.

  But this wasn't a miracle, Lara reminded herself, letting down her disheveled hair and trying to coil and pin it back in place. Her unsteady hands wouldn't obey, fumbling with pins and combs until they fell to the floor in a delicate clatter.

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