Stranger in My Arms by Lisa Kleypas

  Lara set aside the pestle and stared questioningly at the maid.

  “'Tis about Lady Lonsdale,” Naomi continued. “I'm friends with her lady's maid, Betty, you see, and we fell to talking…” Clearly uncomfortable, Naomi took a deep breath and finished quickly. “And-Betty-said-'twas-a-secret-but-Lady-Lonsdale-is-ill.”

  Aware that the others were listening, Lara pulled the maid to the corner of the kitchen and whispered rapidly. “Ill? But that couldn't be…Why wouldn't I have been told?”

  “Betty says the family doesn't want anyone to know.”

  “How ill?” Lara asked urgently. “Naomi, did Rachel's maid tell you…did Lonsdale do my sister some violence?”

  The maid's eyes lowered. “'Twas a fall down the stairs, Lady Lonsdale said. Betty wasn't there to see it, but she says it looks worse than a simple fall. She says Lady Lonsdale is in a bad way, and they haven't even sent for the doctor.”

  Horror, turmoil, and most of all rage…Lara trembled from a torrent of emotions. Lonsdale had beaten Rachel again. She was certain of it. And as with the other times, he had been remorseful afterward—and too ashamed to send for a doctor when Rachel needed medical attention. Lara's mind clicked with plans…She had to reach Rachel, take her from Lonsdale, bring her to a safe place, make her well.

  “Milady,” the maid said tentatively, “please don't tell anyone as how you found out. I wouldn't want Betty dismissed on account of this.”

  “Of course I won't,” Lara replied, somewhat amazed by her own calmness when all was chaos inside. “Thank you, Naomi. You did well to tell me.”

  “Yes, milady.” Seeming relieved, Naomi gathered her bonnet and left the kitchen.

  Not looking at the cook and kitchen maids, who had begun to whisper, Lara wandered in a daze until she found herself in the gentlemen's room. The walls were covered with an assortment of stuffed and mounted game Hunter and his father had shot. Eerily shining glass eyes were set in somber animal faces. The aura of smug masculine victoriousness, bred through generations of Hawksworths, seemed to fill the room.

  Springing into action, Lara went to the cabinets beside the long row of gun cases and opened them furtively, finding bags of shot, cleaning implements, powder horns, and mahogany boxes of pistols cushioned in velvet. Pistols with handles of pearl, wood, silver…carved, engraved, adorned as lavishly as religious artifacts.

  Lara had never actually fired a pistol before, but she had seen Hunter and other men of her acquaintance with them. The loading and operation of them seemed simple enough. Fueled by rage that worsened with each passing minute, she hardly noticed that someone had entered the room until Hunter spoke.

  Having returned from an inspection of new fence that had been built on the estate, Hunter was dressed in riding clothes. “Is there going to be a duel?” he asked lightly, coming forward to remove a pistol from her unsteady grasp. “If you're going to kill someone, I insist on knowing in advance.”

  Lara resisted him, hugging the weapon against her midriff. “Yes,” she said, her anguished fury breaking forth as she stared into his taut face. Tears spilled from her eyes. “Yes…I'm going to kill your friend Lonsdale. He's done it to Rachel again, again…I don't know what condition she's in, but I intend to take her away from that place. I should have done it long ago! I only hope Lonsdale is there when I arrive, so I can put a bullet in his heart—”

  “Hush.” Hunter's large hand closed around the pistol and he took it from her, setting it on a side table with care. He turned back to Lara, his alert gaze raking over her tearful face. Somehow the solid reality of his presence eased her panic. He folded her in his arms, anchoring her against his chest, murmuring quietly into her hair.

  Sniffling, Lara reached inside his waistcoat until her palm rested over the steady beat of his heart. The sensation of his warm breath sinking down to her scalp made her quiver. It was so terribly intimate, crying in his arms…even more personal than making love. She hated feeling so helpless. But he had never felt so much like a husband to her as he did in this moment. Quieting, she inhaled his familiar scent and let out a shaking sigh.

  Hunter located a handkerchief and wiped her sodden face. “All right,” he said gently, blotting her nose. “Tell me what happened.”

  Lara shook her head, knowing he would not be of any help, not where Lonsdale was concerned. They had been friends for too long. To men like Hunter and Lonsdale, friendship was more sacred than marriage. A wife, as Hunter had said long ago, was an inevitable necessity. All other women were for recreation. A man's friends, however, were carefully chosen and cultivated for life.

  “You mentioned Lonsdale,” Hunter prodded as Lara remained silent. “What happened?”

  Lara struggled out of his arms. “I don't want to discuss it,” she said. “You'll only defend Lonsdale, as you have in the past. Men always side with each other in matters like this.”

  “Tell me, Lara.”

  “Naomi heard a rumor in the village today that Rachel is ill. Something about Rachel being injured after a fall down the stairs. Knowing what I do about my sister and her husband, I am convinced that something much more despicable has happened.”

  “It's only gossip, then. Until it's confirmed by evidence—”

  “Can you doubt it?” Lara cried. “Lonsdale uses any excuse to vent his temper on my sister. Everyone knows it, but no one dares to interfere. And Rachel will go to the grave before admitting it. She'll never leave him, or say one word against him.”

  “She's a grown woman, Lara. Leave her to make her own judgments on the matter.”

  Lara glared at him. “Rachel is not fit to make decisions about Lonsdale. She believes along with everyone else that a wife is a husband's property. A man can kick his dog, whip his horse, or beat his wife—it all falls within his rights.” Lara's eyes welled with fresh, raw tears. “I don't know how badly he's hurt Rachel this time, but I think something is terribly wrong. I'm not asking you to do anything, as I'm well aware of your friendship with Lonsdale. All I require is that you stand aside while I do what I must.”

  “Not when you start pawing through my pistol cabinet.” He caught her as she reached for another mahogany box. “Lara, look at me. I'll ride to the Lonsdale estate and find out if there's cause for concern. Will that satisfy you?”

  “No,” she said stubbornly. “I want to go, too. And no matter what the state of Rachel's health, I want her brought here.”

  “You're not making sense,” he said in a hard voice. “You can't interfere in a man's marriage and forcibly remove his wife from her own house.”

  “I don't care about the law. I only care about my sister's safety.”

  “And what do you suggest we do to keep her here when she wants to go home?” he jeered. “Lock her in a room? Chain her to the furniture?”

  “Yes!” Lara burst out, though she knew it was illogical. “Yes, anything to keep her away from that monster.”

  “You're not going,” Hunter said grimly. “If Rachel is ill, you'll only make it worse by distressing her.”

  Lara wrenched free of him and went to a gun case, pressing her hands on a cool glass panel and smudging the pristine surface. “You have no brothers or sisters,” she said, swallowing the tears that kept pooling in her throat. “If you did, you would understand how I feel about Rachel. Ever since she was born I've wanted to take care of her.” She scrubbed at her stinging eyes. “I remember one time when we were little, and Rachel wanted to climb a large tree in our yard. Even though Papa had forbidden it, I helped Rachel to climb up with me. We were sitting on one of the limbs, swinging our legs, when suddenly she lost her balance and fell. She broke her arm and collarbone when she hit the ground. I was too slow to save her. All I could do was watch her fall through the air, and my stomach flipped over and dropped as if I were the one falling. I would have given anything to put myself in her place. That's how I feel now, knowing that something terrible is happening to her while all I can do is watch.”

  Lara's chin quivere
d violently, and she clenched her jaw to keep from crying again.

  A long time passed. The room was so still that she might have thought Hunter had left, except that part of his reflection shone in the smudged glass. “I know you can't do anything,” Lara said stiffly. “You don't want to make an enemy of your closest friend, and that's what will happen if you dare to interfere.”

  Hunter gave a curse that raised the hairs on the back of her neck. “Stay here, damn you,” he said gruffly. “I'll bring Rachel to you.”

  She spun around and stared at him in round-eyed amazement. “You will?”

  “I swear it,” he said curtly.

  Relief swamped her. “Oh, Hunter…”

  He shook his head, scowling. “Don't thank me for doing something I have no damned desire to do.”

  “Then why—”

  “Because it's bloody obvious you won't give me a moment's rest otherwise.” He looked as though he wanted to throttle her. “Unlike you, I have no overwhelming need to save the world—I'd just like to find a bit of peace for myself. After this little episode, I'd appreciate a few days of not worrying about orphans or old people or otherwise unfortunate creatures. I want an evening or two of privacy. If that's not too much to ask.”

  Lara's searching gaze meshed with his furious one. He didn't want to appear the chivalrous knight, she realized, and he was trying to make it clear that his motives were more selfish than benevolent.

  But it wasn't working. Nothing could disguise the fact that once again Hunter was doing the right thing. Silently Lara marveled at how he had changed. “I must confess something,” she said.

  “What?” he asked icily.

  “Once, years ago…I actually envied Rachel because…” Her gaze dropped from his wrathful face and fixed on the carpet. “When Rachel married Lonsdale, she thought herself to be in love with him. Lonsdale seemed so dashing and romantic, and when I compared the two of you in my mind, you came off rather…worse. You were so infinitely serious and self-absorbed, and you had little of Lonsdale's charm. Certainly it's no surprise that I didn't love you. My parents arranged our marriage and I accepted it as a sensible choice. But I couldn't help thinking, when I saw the affection between Rachel and Lonsdale, that she had made the better match. I never intended to admit such a thing to you, it's only that now—” Lara twisted her hands into a tight, white knot. “Now I see how wrong I was. You've become so…” She stopped and flushed, before gratitude and some deeper, more dynamic emotion forced her to finish. “You're more than I hoped you could be. Somehow you've changed into a man I can trust and rely on. A man I could love.”

  She didn't dare look at him, having no idea whether her admission was something he wanted or not. Hunter walked past her, his boots moving across the edge of her field of vision, and he went through the half-open doorway…leaving her alone with the echo of her own impetuous confession.

  Chapter 16

  IT SEEMED THAT the servants of the Lonsdale estate had chosen sides by gender, the males supporting the master while the females were in sympathy with the lady of the manor. A pair of footmen and a stoic butler did their best to prevent Hunter from entering the Lonsdale mansion, while the housekeeper and lady's maid hovered nearby, watching anxiously. Hunter sensed that the women were more than willing to show him to his sister-in-law's room.

  Hunter made his face expressionless as he locked stares with the butler, an elderly man who had given decades of loyalty to the Lonsdales. No doubt he had seen or helped to conceal many a misdeed committed by the family. The man was polite and dignified as he greeted Hunter, but a flicker of uneasiness in his eyes revealed that something was not as it should be. He was flanked by a pair of towering footmen who seemed prepared to carry Hunter bodily from the mansion.

  “Where is Lonsdale?” Hunter asked tersely.

  “The master is away, my lord.”

  “I've been told that Lady Lonsdale is ill. I came to ascertain her condition for myself.”

  The butler spoke with the requisite hauteur, but it seemed that his color heightened slightly. “I cannot confirm any details regarding Lady Lonsdale's health, my lord. Naturally it is a private matter. Perhaps you could take it up with Lord Lonsdale when he returns.”

  Hunter glanced at the footmen and the two women by the stairs. Their frozen expressions made him realize that Rachel was ill indeed.

  The situation reminded him of an occasion in India when he visited the house of a dying friend and found the place filled with relatives from both sides of the family. Their silent despair had hung in the air like a haze of smoke. They had all known that if the man died, his wife would be burned alive with his corpse. Hunter remembered the red-paint handprint the bereaved wife had left on the doorway just before going to fulfill the ancient tradition of sati. The mark was all that had remained to remind the world of her existence. To Hunter's sickening frustration, he could do nothing to help her. The Indians felt so strongly about sati that they were apt to kill a foreigner who dared to interfere.

  How little a woman's life was valued in so many cultures. Even in this one, supposedly so modern and enlightened. Hunter hadn't been able to argue with Lara's assessment that in the eyes of English law a man's wife was his property to do with as he saw fit. Judging from the anxious gloom hovering in this place, the unfortunate Lady Lonsdale was about to fall victim to society's callous disregard. Unless someone intervened.

  Hunter spoke to the butler, though his words were directed to all of them. “If she dies,” he said quietly, “you'll likely be charged as accomplices to murder.”

  He could feel, even without looking, how the comment affected the group. A current of fear, guilt, and concern rippled through the room. They all remained motionless, even the butler, as Hunter went to the stairs. He stopped before the plump housekeeper. “Show me to Lady Lonsdale's room.”

  “Yes, my lord.” She ascended the stairs with such swiftness that Hunter was obliged to take them two at a time.

  It was dim and still in Rachel's bedroom, a sweet, dry note of perfume in the air, the velvet curtains closed except for a six-inch space that allowed a hint of sunlight. Rachel reclined on large lace-trimmed pillows, her hair long and loose, her fragile body swathed in a white gown. There were no bruises apparent on her face or arms, but she had a strangely waxen complexion, and her lips were chapped and bloodless.

  Becoming aware that someone was in the room, Rachel opened her eyes and squinted at Hunter's dark shape. A whimper of fright escaped her, and he realized that she thought he was Lonsdale.

  “Lady Lonsdale,” he said quietly, coming to her side. “Rachel.” He looked down at her as she tried to shrink away. “What happened to you? How long have you been ill?” He took her thin, cold hand in his large one and gently chafed her fingers.

  She stared at him with the eyes of a wounded animal. “I don't know,” she whispered. “I don't know what happened. He didn't mean to do it, I'm certain…but somehow I fell. Rest…that's all I need. It's just that…it hurts dreadfully…I can't seem to sleep.”

  She needed a hell of a lot more than rest, starting with a visit from Dr. Slade. Hunter had never taken much notice of Rachel, thinking of her only as an attractive but less interesting imitation of Lara. However, seeing the faint resemblance she bore to his wife, and her obvious suffering, he was aware of a twist of pity in his chest. “Lara sent me for you,” he muttered. “God knows you shouldn't be moved, but I promised her—” He broke off abruptly, filled with frustration.

  Lara's name seemed to pierce through Rachel's pain-fogged nightmare. “Oh, yes…Larissa. I want Larissa. Please.”

  Hunter cast a sideways glare at the housekeeper, who stood nearby. “What the hell is going on?”

  “She's been bleeding, sir,” the housekeeper replied softly. “Ever since the fall. Nothing we do seems to stop it. I wanted to send for the doctor, but the master forbade it.” Her voice dropped until it was barely audible. “Please, sir…take her away from here before he comes back
. There's no telling what might happen if you don't.”

  Hunter looked back at the listless figure on the bed, and pulled the covers back. There were rusty splotches of dried blood on Rachel's nightgown, and more beneath her. Gruffly he ordered the housekeeper to assist him, and together they pulled a soft cambric robe around the ailing woman. Rachel tried to help, gamely lifting her arms into the sleeves, but even the smallest movement seemed to cause her agony. Her lips were blue and tightly compressed as the housekeeper buttoned the front of the robe.

  Hunter leaned over and slid his arms beneath her, speaking as if she were a small child. “Good girl,” he murmured, lifting her easily. “I'll take you to Larissa, and you'll be better soon.” He tried to be gentle, but she moaned in pain as he cradled her against his chest, her bare feet dangling. Swearing silently, Hunter wondered if moving her would result in her death.

  “Go on, milord,” the housekeeper urged at his hesitation. “It's for the best—you must believe me.”

  Hunter nodded and carried Rachel from the room. Her head dropped on his shoulder, and he thought she had fainted, but as he brought her down the stairs, he heard a feeble whisper. “Thank you…whoever you are.”

  The pain and blood loss must have made her delirious, he thought. “I'm Hawksworth,” he said, trying not to jostle her as they continued down the staircase.

  “No, you're not,” came her faint but certain reply…and her thin fingers touched his cheek in gentle benediction.

  The carriage ride to Hawksworth Hall was torturous, Rachel white-faced and ill, gasping every time the wheels hit a rut or hole in the road. She lay curled on the length of the velvet seat, cushioned by pillows and blankets that did little to ease her misery. After a while Hunter found himself flinching at Rachel's quiet moans, her pain affecting him more than he expected.

  Like everyone else, Hunter had wanted to ignore Lonsdale's past treatment of Rachel, reasoning that what transpired between a married couple in the privacy of their own home was not his concern. He had no doubt that many people would say that he was going too far in removing Rachel from the Lonsdale estate. Damn them all, he thought savagely, as Rachel whimpered in misery. It was the fault of everyone in Market Hill and all the Lonsdales' friends and relatives—they had collectively allowed the situation to come to this.

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