Stranger in My Arms by Lisa Kleypas

  Like a nightmare descending, she became aware of two figures approaching. Arthur and Janet Cross land. So soon, she thought gloomily. But of course they would jump on the chance to regain the title, like scavengers hovering over a freshly scrapped kill. They were as tall and blond and smug as ever, wearing identical smiles as they reached her.

  Janet spoke before Arthur had the chance. “It took you long enough to come to your senses,” she said acidly. “I gather your little escapade is now concluded, and we may have back what is rightfully ours.”

  “Yes,” Lara said tonelessly. “The escapade is over.”

  Arthur bent to take her lifeless hand, and pressed it in a show of concern. “My dear niece. I sympathize with what you've suffered. You've been deceived, betrayed, humiliated-”

  “I'm perfectly aware of what I've been through,” Lara interrupted. “There's no need to recount it all.”

  Seeming surprised by her quiet rebuke, Arthur cleared his throat. “You're not yourself, Larissa. I'll overlook any rudeness on your part, as I know you're distraught and confused.”

  Janet folded her bony arms over her chest and regarded Lara with a cold smile. “She doesn't look confused to me,” she remarked. “More like a sullen child who's been deprived of her candy.”

  Arthur turned toward his wife and muttered something under his breath. Although the words weren't clear, it served to silence her temporarily. He looked back at Lara with a reptilian smile. “Your sense of timing can't be faulted, dear Larissa. It was just the thing to wait until he was off the estate and then send for me. I made certain that he was arrested in London. Although I would have preferred him to be imprisoned, I had to settle for placing him under guard in the Hawksworth town house until he's brought to trial. The thing will eventually have to be settled in the House of Lords, of course, as he must be tried by his peers…though they'll quickly discover that he is not one of them!”

  Lara tried and failed to imagine the man she had come to think of as her husband placed under guard. Surely any restraints on his freedom would drive him mad. And worse, the idea of him being tried before every influential lord in London…She stifled a small cry of anguish. He had so much pride. She didn't want to see him torn to pieces that way. “Must he be tried in the Lords?” she asked dully.

  “First the lord chancellor will receive our depositions in a private session. Unless he decides to discharge the case-which is entirely unlikely-there will indeed be a trial at the Lords.” Arthur smiled in malicious pleasure. “Oh, we'll have our pretend Hawksworth dancing on the end of a rope before long. I'll ask them to make certain his neck is not broken, so he'll gasp and turn blue as the noose crushes his throat. And I'll be there to enjoy every moment as he slowly strangles—” He stopped as Lara made an inarticulate sound. Immediately he adopted a look of solicitous concern. “My dear, we'll leave you in private to continue your reflections. But really, you'll come to see that this is all for the best.”

  Lara bit her lip and made no reply, while everything inside her cried out in protest. Surely this was the right thing, the moral thing to do. How could one go wrong by upholding the truth? But logical arguments only seemed to muddle everything. She was supporting the Crosslands and their claim to the title because it was her duty, and yet it brought her only misery. They would most likely drain the family fortune and be condescending and selfish, and everyone abiding on the Hawksworth estate would suffer. And Johnny would be deprived of the secure future she had intended for him. How could that be right?

  A single hot tear rolled down her cheek, and Janet regarded her with a vicious smile. “Cheer up, my dear,” she said gently. “You've had an exciting adventure, haven't you? And your temporary husband was a handsome fellow indeed. No doubt he was most entertaining in bed. At least you have that to be thankful for.”

  Arthur grabbed his wife's thin arm and jerked her aside. This time Lara heard his muttered words. “Shut up, you sharp-tongued bitch. Provoke her enough and we'll lose the title. We need her testimony, do you understand?” He looked back at Lara and smiled reassuringly. “Don't worry about anything, Larissa. This will all be over soon, and you'll finally be at peace. In the meantime there are only a few difficulties to get through, and I will help you every step of the way.”

  “Oh, thank you,” Lara said softly.

  He stared at her, clearly wondering if he had imagined the note of sarcasm in her reply. “I do expect civility from you, Larissa. Remember, we are all family, with one shared goal in mind. Furthermore, I expect you to be civil to Lord Lonsdale when he arrives this afternoon, regardless of the discord which seems to have sprung up between you.”

  “No!” Lara shot to her feet, her face whitening. “Why in God's name would you invite Lonsdale here?”

  “Calm yourself,” Arthur said gently, his gaze hard. “Lord Lonsdale has information that is extremely helpful to our case, which I intend to discuss with him. He also wishes to collect his wife, for which I can hardly blame him. After the way you stole your sister away from her own home—”

  “I forbid Lord Lonsdale to set one foot on this estate,” Lara said in a steely tone. “I won't have it, do you understand?”

  “You forbid it?” Arthur asked incredulously, while Janet laughed nastily. “Remember, niece, that you are no longer the lady of the manor. You have no right to remark on any of my decisions, much less to forbid anything.”

  “Nevertheless, I do,” Lara said, her eyes narrowing. “And if you cross me in this, you will not have my testimony against Hunter. I will withdraw my help, and swear to the heavens that he is and always has been my husband…unless you promise me here and now to keep Lonsdale away from my sister.”

  “For how long?” Arthur asked, staring at her as if she were a madwoman.


  He exploded with disbelieving laughter. “Keep a husband away from his own wife indefinitely…I'm afraid you ask too much, my dear.”

  “He is a violent, abusive husband. Rachel nearly died from his last beating. You have only to ask Dr. Slade.”

  “I'm sure you exaggerate,” Arthur countered.

  “I've always found Lonsdale to be a likable fellow,” Janet remarked. “Besides, if he did strike Rachel, she may have deserved it.”

  Lara shook her head slowly as she stared at Janet. “For such a remark to come from another woman…” she started, but her voice trailed away as she realized that Janet was too callous to be reasoned with. She returned her attention to Lord Arthur. “Your promise, sir, in exchange for my testimony.”

  “You're asking me to do something that's not only immoral but illegal,” Arthur protested.

  “I'm sure that shouldn't trouble you too greatly,” Lara said coolly. “You won't have my support any other way. And I expect your word to be upheld even after the trial. I only hope that you're enough of a gentleman to keep it.”

  “You stubborn, irrational, insulting-” Arthur said, his lean face coloring with rage, but Janet interrupted him with a touch of feline enjoyment.

  “Remember, darling…we need her testimony.”

  Arthur closed his mouth, the muscles of his face twitching and contorting as he labored to control his wrath. “All right,” he snapped, glaring at Lara. “Enjoy this small victory. I vow it shall be your last.” He stormed away with Janet at his heels.

  Lara's alarmed fury took a long time to fade. She sat down again, her knees trembling, and buried her face in her hands. Tears leaked from her eyes and through her fingers, and she let out a shaking sigh. “Oh, Hunter,” she whispered miserably. “Why couldn't you have been real?”

  From then on, events passed with bewildering speed. Although Hunter had apparently refused legal assistance, Mr. Young had ignored his instructions. He engaged the family solicitor, Mr. Eliot, His Majesty's attorney at King's Bench and Common Pleas, who in turn had hired a barrister, Serjeant Wilcox.

  Correspondingly, Lord and Lady Arthur had hired a lawyer to conduct the prosecution, although the
re was little that he or Serjeant Wilcox were required to do. The lord chancellor had sent a pair of clerks to Market Hill to collect depositions from anyone who had valid testimony to offer. The clerks were kept frantically busy for two days, copying down statements and opinions from what seemed to be nearly everyone in the county. Lara was almost grateful for the way Lord Arthur sheltered her from the flood of callers. He managed to keep everyone at bay, informing all acquaintances that Lara was too distraught to receive visitors.

  However, Lara did consent to visit with Mr. Young, the estate agent, when he returned from London. She knew he had seen Hunter, and in spite of her efforts to be indifferent, she longed for some news of him.

  Young appeared to be haggard from a lack of sleep. His gentle brown eyes were bloodshot and troubled. Lara welcomed him into the family parlor and closed the door, mindful of Janet's habit of eavesdropping. Here they had at least a chance of privacy.

  “How is he?” Lara asked without preamble, seating herself and gesturing for him to join her.

  Young perched on the edge of the sofa beside her, his bony knees and elbows making sharp points against his rumpled clothes. “His health is good,” he replied somberly, “but as to his emotional condition, I couldn't say. He speaks very little, and he shows neither anger nor fear. He seems peculiarly indifferent to the entire process, actually.”

  “Does he need anything?” Lara asked, her throat tight. She had the terrible urge to go to Hunter, to offer him her comfort and support.

  “If you do not mind, my lady, I should like to bring him some fresh clothes and a few personal items when I return to London tomorrow.”

  Lara nodded. “Please see that he has whatever he wants.”

  “Lady Hawksworth,” the estate agent said tentatively, “I assure you, Dr. Slade and I would never have brought Lord Hawksworth to you in the first place were we not absolutely convinced of his identity.”

  “We all wanted to believe in him,” Lara murmured. “He knew that, and he made use of it.”

  “My lady, you know that I have the deepest respect for your judgment…but I can't help believing that you're acting under the influence of your uncle. It is not too late to change your mind.” The urgency of his tone deepened as he continued. “Do you understand what will happen to your husband if you do not retract your accusations?”

  Lara smiled sadly as she looked at him. “Did he send you here to say that?”

  Young shook his head. “Hawksworth refuses to offer one word in his own defense. He will not confirm or deny his identity, only says that the entire matter must be decided by you.”

  “The matter must be settled by each of us adhering to the truth as best we can. All I can do is state my beliefs, whether or not I like the consequences.”

  The estate agent's disappointment was obvious. “I understand, Lady Hawksworth. However, I hope you will not be distressed if Dr. Slade and I lend our support to Lord Hawksworth.”

  “Quite the contrary,” Lara said, fighting to keep her voice from breaking. “It would make me happy if you would help him in every way possible, as I am unable to do so.”

  “Yes, milady.” He gave her a sorrowful smile. “Please forgive my rudeness, but I must be off now. I have many tasks to accomplish on Lord Hawksworth's behalf.”

  She stood and gave him her hand. “Do your best for him,” she said softly.

  “Of course.” Young frowned regretfully. “The two of you are a star-crossed pair, it seems. I should think you would have every reason to be happy, but fate keeps throwing obstacles in your way. I never dreamed it would all come to this.”

  “Neither did I,” Lara whispered.

  “I've never considered myself a romantic,” he said awkwardly, “but my lady, I do hope that you and he—”

  “No,” she said gently, leading him to the door. “Don't hope.”

  The nursery walls were lined with dolls and toys, and hung with pictures of children at play. Lara had tried to make the room a comforting haven for Johnny, but it seemed there was painfully little she could protect him from. She slid a book into its place on a blue-painted shelf, and resumed her seat on the edge of Johnny's bed. He seemed absurdly small as he lay back on the pillows, his black hair still damp from his bath.

  The boy's reaction to the events of the past few days was almost worse than the tears Lara had expected. He had responded to Hunter's absence with unshakable solemnity, all of his smiles and boyish energy extinguished. Lara hadn't explained the specifics of the situation to him, knowing it would overwhelm a child of his tender years. Instead she had told him simply that Hawksworth had behaved wrongly and had been arrested until a judge could sort out everything.

  “Mama,” Johnny asked, staring at her with huge blue eyes, “is Lord Hawksworth a bad man?”

  Lara smoothed his hair. “No, darling,” she murmured, “I don't think he's really bad. But he may have to be punished for some things he's done in the past.”

  “Lord Arthur says they'll hang him like they did my papa.”

  “Did he?” Lara asked gently, concealing a flash of anger toward Arthur. “Well, no one knows for certain what will happen until after we've met with the lord chancellor.”

  Johnny turned on his side, propping his head up on one small hand. “Mama, will I go to prison someday?”

  “Never,” Lara replied firmly, bending to press her lips on his dark head. “I will never let that happen to you.”

  “But if I grow up to be a bad man—”

  “You're going to be a good, fine man,” Lara said, staring at him intently, filled with tenderness and fierce love. “You mustn't worry about such things. We're going to stay together, Johnny, and everything will be fine.”

  The boy snuggled into the pillow, his face still grave and uncertain. “I want Lord Hawksworth to come back,” he said.

  Lara closed her eyes, holding back the pressure of sudden tears. “Yes, I know.” After letting out an unsteady breath, she drew the covers up to the child's narrow shoulders.

  Lara arrived in London the evening before the scheduled meeting with the lord chancellor. She had decided to stay in the Hawksworth town house, the Park Place residence where Hunter was being held under guard. The gleaming white town house, fronted by tall bay windows and a classical pediment with four pilaster columns, had been fitted up with elegant and tasteful restraint. The interiors were all wainscoted with gleaming dark oak and painted in soothing colors of stone, beige, and a rich olive that had been invented exclusively for the Hawksworths fifty years earlier. Made by combining specific amounts of Prussian blue and ocher, that particular shade of olive had caused a rage all through England when it had first appeared, and was still widely popular.

  Lara was swamped in trepidation as she approached the town house. The thought of spending the night under the same roof with Hunter, albeit in separate rooms, made her tremble uncontrollably. She wanted to ask him the questions that had been tormenting her night and day. She wasn't certain she could bring herself to face him, however. Not without breaking down before him-and the humiliation of that was something she couldn't live through.

  To Lara's relief, Lord and Lady Arthur had elected to stay in their own London house, preferring its garish familiarity to the Hawksworth address. Quietly she bade the servants to unpack her trunks in her customary bedroom, only to be informed by the butler that the room was already occupied.

  “By whom?” Lara asked warily.

  “By the dowager countess, milady.”

  Hunter's mother was here? Lara's lips parted in amazement, and she stared at the butler blankly. “When…? How…?”

  “I arrived only this afternoon,” came the dowager's voice from the top of the stairs. “After one of the letters you had sent all over Europe finally reached me, I came to London straightaway. My plan was to travel to the estate tomorrow and sort through this strange muddle myself. Instead I discovered my purported son under guard here. Obviously I came not a moment too soon.”

Lara had started up the stairs before her mother-in-law had finished speaking. As always, Sophie, the Dowager Countess of Hawksworth, was slim and attractive, with a regal pile of silver curls atop her head and her signature ropes of pearls cascading down her front. An intelligent, practical woman who refrained from showing emotion in even the direst circumstances, Sophie was difficult to love, but very easy to like.

  “Mother!” Lara exclaimed, embracing her at once.

  Sophie tolerated rather than returned the affectionate gesture, and gave Lara a fond smile. “Well, Larissa…it seems you would have been better off accepting my invitation to share my travels. You've had a difficult time of it, haven't you?”

  “Yes,” Lara said, returning the smile with a wobbly one of her own, and her eyes stung.

  “There, there,” Sophie said, her face softening. “We'll sort through this, you and I, and make some sense of it. A bottle of wine and a good long talk…that's what the situation needs.”

  After giving a few crisp instructions to the servants, Sophie took Lara's arm, and they went to the lavender room, a parlor Sophie had decorated herself. The sole exception in an otherwise masculine home, the room was exclusively frilly and feminine. It was filled with shades of mauve and lavender, with plum-colored accents and small gold-finished tables, and painted glass windows featuring violets. The scent of violets clung to Sophie's hair and wrists, having been her preferred fragrance for decades.

  Lara wondered which room Hunter was imprisoned in, and what he might be thinking, and if he knew she was there. “Have you seen him?” she asked Sophie nervously.

  The dowager took her time about replying, seating herself with care in a plush velvet wing chair. “Yes, I've seen him. We spoke at some length.”

  “He looks a great deal like Hunter, doesn't he?”

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