Stranger in My Arms by Lisa Kleypas

  Touched by his devotion to his wife, Lara dared to mention the question that had bothered her for some time. “Captain Tyler,” she said cautiously, “your mention of India reminds me of something I have wondered about.”

  “Yes?” He was immediately wary, his black mustache twitching like the whiskers of a nervous cat.

  Lara proceeded with care. “When you attended the dinner at Hawksworth Hall some months past, and you and Lord Hawksworth met…I somehow had the idea that you were already acquainted with each other.”

  “No, my lady.”

  “Oh.” She made no attempt to hide her disappointment. “There are so many events connected with India that my husband refuses to discuss. For some reason I hoped you could shed some light on his experiences there.”

  “I never met Hawksworth in India.” Tyler looked directly at her. An endless pause followed, and Lara sensed that a carefully maintained pretense was suddenly falling away. “However…” he said slowly, “your husband reminds me in some ways of a man I knew there.”

  The statement seemed innocuous, but something warned her that it was an invitation to discovery. The hairs on the back of Lara's neck prickled. The subject must be dropped at once, came the urgent thought.

  “Indeed?” she murmured softly.

  Captain Tyler regarded the woman before him speculatively. Such a gentle, unguarded face she had, with a luminous prettiness he had seen only in Rembrandt paintings. From all accounts she was a kind, well-liked woman, passionate in her concern for those who were less fortunate than she. Of all people, she did not deserve to be used and betrayed…but that was the way of the world. Predators always sought out the weak and the vulnerable.

  Tyler had known about the deception being practiced on Lady Hawksworth, but there hadn't seemed a clear choice to make. For a man in his position, there were often no right choices, merely ones between lesser and greater evils. And he had found that his greatest mistakes had always resulted from decisions made in haste.

  In this particular matter of the Hawksworths, Tyler had sensed that his duty would present itself gradually as things unraveled—and he'd known without a doubt that the situation would unravel.

  Without doubt, he owed his loyalty to the man known as Hunter, Lord Hawksworth. The man had once saved his life, and Tyler hated to repay him with betrayal. At the same time, this kind, innocent woman deserved the truth, and it was left to him to tell it. Had she not come here today, Tyler knew he would have put the matter off indefinitely. But she was here, and it almost seemed that fate had arranged for the two of them to be here together with time and privacy enough to talk.

  “The man I refer to was a mercenary, actually,” Tyler said. “I first discovered him when he was employed as a factor in the East India Company. He was an extraordinarily intelligent fellow who kept to himself and seemed to have no particular ambitions. Although he was English by birth, he was brought up among the Indians by a missionary couple.”

  Tyler's narrative was interrupted by a servant bearing a tray of refreshments. “Sandwiches? Biscuits?” he asked.

  Lara refused the offer of food but accepted a glass of lemonade, welcoming the sour shock of it on her tongue. She regarded the small, delicate engraving on the upper bowl of the glass, depicting a shepherdess in a pastoral setting, and wondered why the captain was bothering to tell her so much about a man who meant nothing to her.

  “It occurred to me to make use of him in a force of a half dozen men who would assist me in restoring order to recently annexed territories. As you can imagine, there were:—are—conflicts of every kind when barbarians are brought under the protection of the British lion.”

  “No doubt many Indians are reluctant to accept the British lion's ‘protection,’” Lara said dryly.

  “Eventually they realize it is for the best,” Tyler replied gravely, missing the touch of irony in her comment. “In the meanwhile, their rebellion takes on many ugly forms. Murder, attacks, robberies, all happening in such volume that we were forced to restore order without the usual process of British law. Much as I hate to acknowledge it, there was also a strain of corruption among our own officials. Therefore I created a small unit to accomplish special and highly secretive tasks. Four of the men were already in my command, while two were brought in from outside the regiment. And this particular man I speak of, as it turned out, was ideal.”

  “Because of his intelligence and his understanding of the natives,” Lara said.

  “Precisely. But there was something else about him…a unique ability to change himself as a situation required. I've never known such a chameleon. He could become anyone, anything, at will. He was able to adopt any appearance, accent, or mannerism. I saw him mingle with the natives as if he were one of them, and later attend an ambassador's ball as a proper Englishman, causing no hint of suspicion. He was as stealthy as a tiger, and quite as remorseless. Most importantly, he had no fear of death, which made him remarkably effective in his duties. I used him as a spy, an investigator, and at times even as…” Tyler paused, looking distinctly uncomfortable. “As a weapon, one might say,” he finished quietly.

  “Did he execute people for you?” Lara asked in revulsion.

  The captain nodded. “When it had to be done quickly and without show. I believe he did it in the manner of the thuggees, using a coin knotted in a handkerchief—they're quite particular about not spilling blood, you know.” Seeing from Lara's pale face that he had gone too far, he frowned apologetically. “Forgive me, my lady. I shouldn't have been so explicit—but I did wish to convey the character of this man.”

  “Character,” Lara repeated with a humorless laugh. “It seems to me that he had a complete lack of character.”

  “Yes, one could say that.”

  “What happened to him?” Lara asked without much interest, eager to be done with the distasteful reminiscence. “Is he still prowling around India under someone else's command?”

  The captain shook his head. “He simply disappeared one day. I assumed that he had been killed, or perhaps even taken his own life. He hadn't much to live for, as far as I could tell. In any event, I never saw him again. Until…”

  “Yes?” she prompted.

  Captain Tyler waited so long that she thought he might not continue. “Until I came to England,” he finally said. “And attended the dinner party at Hawksworth Hall. And saw him at your side.” He blotted his perspiring forehead with his sleeve and stared at her with blatant pity. “My lady, the unpleasant truth is…he has taken the place of your husband.”

  Lara felt herself shrinking, dwindling, until the parlor loomed large around her, and Captain Tyler seemed to be speaking from very far away. She could only hear a faint, tinny echo of his words. “…should have said before…obligations…not certain what to…please believe…assist you any way…”

  She shook her head, feeling as if someone had struck her. Dazed, she made an effort to breathe, but something heavy was pressing on her chest, making it impossible to draw in enough air. “You're mistaken,” she managed to say. She sensed his concern, heard him asking her to stay and collect herself, have something to drink—

  “No, I mustn't stay.” To her relief, she was able to marshal a sort of brittle dignity that allowed her to speak more or less clearly. “My sister needs me. Thank you. You're wrong about my husband. He's not at all the man you described. Good day.”

  She left on shaking legs. She felt so very odd, and it was an incredible relief to walk on the arm of her own footman, and escape into the familiar interior of her carriage. Sensing that something was terribly wrong, the footman asked if she was all right. “Take me home,” Lara wheezed, staring blindly ahead.

  Chapter 18

  LARA SAT IN the carriage as stiffly as a wax doll, while thoughts and voices chattered in her head.

  The unpleasant truth is…

  Keep me with you, Lara.

  …he has taken the place of your husband.

  I don't want to leave you.
r />
  Do you love me?

  Yes, yes…

  The cruelty of it was stunning. She had finally learned to trust a man, given her heart and soul into his keeping…and it had all been an illusion.

  A chameleon, the captain had said. A man with no conscience and no capacity for remorse. A coldblooded murderer. He had come to her, manipulated, seduced, and impregnated her. He had stolen Hunter's name and money and property and even his wife. What contempt he must have for the people he had deceived.

  Any other woman would have recognized her own husband, Lara thought numbly. But she had accepted his lies, because in her heart she had wanted to believe.

  Remembering Janet Crossland's hateful accusations—How eager you are to climb between the sheets with an absolute stranger!-Lara wanted to die of shame. It had been the truth. From the very beginning she had wanted him, instinctively, impetuously. Everything inside her had been drawn to him. And so she had let it all happen.

  Humiliation and fury and anguish rippled through her. The pain was too great to contemplate. She shivered and held still, like a terrified child, and wondered why she wasn't crying. Nearly everything that mattered had just been ripped away from her. A blaze of feelings was trapped inside her, but nothing broke through the shroud of ice.

  Feebly she tried to gather her sanity. She had to make a plan. But rational thoughts kept eluding her, like slippery fish darting through her fingers. She wanted the carriage to keep going, the wheels rolling, the horses to pull its weight until they reached the edge of the earth and toppled over. She couldn't go home. She needed help. But the one person she wanted to turn to had betrayed her.

  “Hunter,” she whispered in wild grief. But the real Hunter was dead, and the man she had come to think of as her husband…She didn't even know his name. A hysterical laugh bubbled in her throat, but she suppressed it, afraid that if she started to laugh, she might never stop, and end up in some lunatic asylum. Which didn't sound all that unappealing, actually. She could appreciate a place where one could scream and laugh and hit the walls with one's head as much as one liked.

  By sheer force of will she kept silent, calm, waiting with unnatural patience for the carriage to reach Hawksworth Hall. She had no sense of time—it could have been minutes or hours until the vehicle stopped and the door opened to reveal the footman's concerned face.

  “Milady.” He escorted her carefully into the house. Lara knew there must have been something strange about her expression. It was obvious from the way the servants treated her, with the deference they might have shown to a sickly old woman.

  “Milady,” Mrs. Gorst asked carefully, “is there ought I can do? You seem rather—”

  “I'm only a little tired,” Lara said. “I want to rest in my room. Please see that I'm not disturbed.”

  She made her way up the stairs, gripping the balustrade to pull herself along.

  Catching a glimpse of herself in the upstairs hall mirror, Lara realized the source of the servants' concern. She looked feverish, her eyes bright and stricken. Her face gleamed with the burnished color she might have gotten from a sunburn. But the hot red blush was caused by the shame and fury inside, not from any external source.

  Slightly short of breath, Lara headed toward her room but found herself at Rachel's door instead. She tapped gently and looked inside, and saw that her sister was seated by the window.

  “Larissa,” Rachel said, a smile crossing her face. “Do come in and tell me about your visit with the Tylers.” As she stared at Lara, her forehead creased with lines of perplexity. “What is it? What is wrong?”

  Lara shook her head, unable to express the enormity of what she had discovered. Her throat seemed to be filled with sand. She swallowed several times, struggling to speak. “Rachel,” she managed sheepishly, “I wanted to bring you here so I could take care of you, but…I'm very much afraid…you'll have to take care of me instead.”

  Rachel's gentle hands lifted in entreaty. It was a reversal of their usual roles, with the younger sister offering comfort to the elder, but Lara went to her without hesitation.

  She sank to the floor and laid her head in Rachel's lap. “I'm such a fool,” she gasped. The story began to spill out in broken phrases, many of them incomprehensible, but somehow Rachel seemed to understand. Lara confessed everything, every humiliating, soul-wrenching detail, while Rachel's slim fingers smoothed over her hair repeatedly. Finally she was able to cry, with sobs so ugly and rending that she shook from the force of them, but her sister was steady amidst the storm. “It's all right,” Rachel murmured over and over. “It's all right.”

  “No,” Lara choked, drowning in despair. “Nothing will ever be all right again. I think I'm going to have his baby. His baby, do you understand?”

  Rachel's fingers trembled in Lara's hair. “Oh, my darling,” she whispered, and fell silent while Lara continued her wretched confession.

  “Captain Tyler may be mistaken,” Rachel said at one point. “How can anyone know for certain who Lord Hawksworth is?”

  Lara let out a shuddering sigh and shook her head. “The real Hunter is dead,” she said dully. “It's no good to pretend otherwise. This man is not my husband. I think I've known it all along, but I didn't want to face the truth. I let it happen because I wanted him. What does that make me, Rachel?”

  “You are not to blame,” her sister said resolutely. “You were lonely. You had never been in love before—”

  “There is no excuse for what I've done. Oh God, I'm so ashamed! Because the truth is that I still love him. I still don't want to let him go.”

  “Then why must you?”

  The sheer audacity of the question, coming from a principled soul like Rachel, took Lara's breath away. She stared at her sister in wonder before replying shakily. “A thousand reasons…but none of them matter as much as the fact that everything he has said and done has been a lie. I'm nothing to him except as a means to an end.”

  “He has behaved as though he truly cares for you.”

  “Only because it's been convenient for him to do so.” Suddenly Lara's entire body was immersed in a scarlet glow. “Oh, when I think of what an easy conquest I was…the poor love-starved widow…” She buried her face against Rachel's knees and began to sob again. “I never understood until now how sheltered I've been. Even Hunter's death didn't affect me as it should have. He was as much a stranger to me two years after we married as he had been before. But this man came to me like something from a dream, and insinuated himself into every part of my life…and I loved him. Every moment with him. And when he leaves, he'll take my heart with him. He's ruined me for anyone else.”

  She talked and wept without interruption until exhaustion overcame her. Her head dropped in her sister's lap, and she actually dozed for a few minutes. When she awoke, still sitting on the floor, her spine and neck were unbearably stiff. It seemed for a moment that she had been lost in a nightmare, and for a moment her heart thudded with hope. But one look at Rachel's face revealed that the nightmare was true.

  “What will you do?” Rachel asked softly.

  Lara rubbed her bleary eyes. “I must send for Lord and Lady Arthur,” she said. “The title must be restored to them. It is rightfully theirs. I owe them whatever assistance I am able to provide. As for Hunter—” She stopped, nearly choking on the name. “He'll return from London tomorrow,” she said. “I'll advise him to flee to avoid prosecution. Otherwise I've no doubt he'll be hanged, not only for what he's done to me, but for the fraud he's committed in my husband's name. Contracts, investments, loans…Oh, Lord, not one of them is valid.”

  “What about the baby?” came her sister's soft question.

  “No one must know,” Lara said instantly. “Especially not him. It has nothing to do with him now. The baby is mine, and only mine.”

  “Will you keep it?”

  “Oh, yes.” Lara covered her stomach with her hand, and fought to suppress a fresh flow of tears.

  “Is that wrong, to want th
is child in spite of every thing?”

  Rachel stroked her disheveled head. “No, dearest.”

  After a night of broken sleep, Lara awoke to face the next day with weary resolution. She felt the need to put on mourning, as if someone had died, but instead she dressed in a circumspect blue gown adorned with silk braiding at the bodice and hem. The house seemed wreathed in gloom. She knew she would have to explain something to the servants, to friends and acquaintances in Market Hill…and to Johnny. How could she make a child understand what had happened, when she didn't understand it herself? The thought of all that lay ahead filled her with indescribable weariness.

  When all of this was over, she promised herself, when Hunter was banished from her life and the Hawksworth title was restored to Arthur and Janet, she would leave this place for good. Perhaps she would make a new life in Italy or France. Somehow she might even convince Rachel to go with her. But the notion of starting anew only made her want to cry again.

  She counted the time since “Hunter”—she didn't know how else to think of him-had come to her. Three months. The most fulfilling time of her life, when she had tasted the kind of joy that few people ever knew. She had blossomed under the spell of his gentle, passionate, loving presence. Were the pain not so great, she might have considered it worth the price.

  Groping for words, Lara tried to prepare some sort of speech for when Hunter returned from London. Something dignified, calm, circumventing distasteful arguments and accusations. But all she could come up with were questions. With her emotions writhing beneath a blanket of ice, she went into the garden in search of solitude. She sat on a bench and hugged her knees, and stared at a small, splashing cherub fountain. A mild breeze rustled through the neatly trimmed yews and stirred flowers potted in great stone urns. She breathed in the hot, sweet smell of the grass, and rubbed her temples in an effort to ease the throbbing ache in her head.

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