Stranger in My Arms by Lisa Kleypas


  “Shall I turn them away?” Lara had asked Hunter in the morning, when the flood of guests was just beginning. “Mrs. Gorst can tell everyone that you are indisposed—”

  “Send them in.” He sat back in the library arm-chair with an air of anticipation. “I'd like to see some familiar faces from the past.”

  “But Dr. Slade prescribed rest and privacy for the next few days, until you adjust to being back home—”

  “I've had months of rest and privacy.”

  Lara stared at him in bewilderment. Hunter, always protective of the family dignity, must be aware that it was only decent to keep themselves in seclusion for a few days and organize his reentry into society in a circumspect manner. “It will be a circus,” she managed to say. “You can't let them all in at once.”

  Hunter wore a pleasant smile, but his tone was inflexible. “I insist on it.”

  He had proceeded to welcome any and all guests with a relaxed enjoyment that stunned Lara. Although Hunter had always been competent as a host, he had never seemed to take great pleasure in it, especially where the lesser gentry and plain townfolk were concerned. Dullards, he had referred to them contemptuously. Today, however, he had taken pains to welcome each of them with equal enthusiasm.

  With easy charm, he regaled them with stories of his travels in India, carrying on two or three conversations at the same time, strolling through the gardens or the art gallery with a favored friend or two. As midday approached, he opened bottles of fine brandy and boxes of pungent cigars, while gentlemen gathered around him. At the back of the house, the kitchen clattered with the efforts of the staff as they labored to prepare refreshments for the multitude. Trays of delicate sandwiches, platters of preserved limes and figs, and plates of cakes were brought out and devoured eagerly.

  Lara did her own share of entertaining, dispensing dozens of cups of tea and fielding questions from a gaggle of happily agitated women.

  “What did you think when you first saw him?” one woman entreated, while another demanded to know, “What were his first words to you?”

  “Well,” Lara said uncomfortably, “naturally it was a very great surprise—”

  “Did you weep?”

  “Did you faint?”

  “Did he take you in his arms—”

  Bemused by the onslaught of questions, Lara stared into her own cup of tea. All at once she heard her sister's dryly amused voice from the doorway. “I should think those things are none of our concern, ladies.”

  Lara glanced upward and felt close to weeping as she saw Rachel's sympathetic face. Rachel, more man anyone, understood what Hunter's return meant to her. Struggling to conceal her relief, Lara excused herself from the gossip circle and pulled Rachel out of the room. They stopped in the private corner beneath the grand staircase, and Rachel held Lara's hands in a comforting grip.

  “I knew you'd have a surfeit of visitors,” Rachel said. “I was going to wait until later, but I couldn't stop myself from coming.”

  “None of it seems real.” Lara kept her voice low to avoid being overheard. “Things have changed so fast that I haven't had a moment to catch my breath. All of a sudden Arthur and Janet are gone, and I'm back here with Hunter…and he's a stranger.”

  “Do you mean ‘stranger’ in a figurative or literal sense?” Rachel asked gravely.

  Lara gave her a startled glance. “You know that I wouldn't acknowledge him unless I believed him to be my husband.”

  “Of course, dear, but…he's not exactly the same, is he.” It was a statement, not a question.

  “You've met him, then,” Lara murmured.

  “I happened to cross his path as he was walking with Mr. Cobbett and Lord Grimston to the smoking room. He recognized me on sight, and stopped to greet me with every semblance of brotherly affection. We drew aside and talked briefly, and he expressed his concern for all you've suffered in his absence. He asked after my husband, and seemed genuinely pleased when I told him that Terrell would come tomorrow.” Rachel's face was wreathed in a perplexed pucker. “He seems to behave and react in a manner befitting Lord Hawksworth, but…”

  “I know,” Lara said stiffly. “He is not the same. It is only to be expected that he has been altered by his experiences, but there are things about him that I can't understand or explain.”

  “How has he treated you so far?”

  Lara shrugged. “Very well, actually. He is trying to be agreeable, and…there is a sort of charm and perceptiveness about him that I don't remember from before.”

  “Odd, isn't it,” Rachel commented thoughtfully. “I noticed the same thing—he's really rather dashing. The kind of gentleman that ladies swoon over. And he wasn't that way before.”

  “No,” Lara agreed. “He's not like the man I knew.”

  “I'm curious as to what Terrell will make of him,” Rachel said. “They were such close friends. If this man is a fraud…”

  “He couldn't be,” Lara said instantly. Her mind refused to accept the frightening possibility that she was living intimately with a consummate liar and actor the likes of which she had never encountered before.

  “Larissa, if there is the slightest chance that he is an impostor, you could be in danger. You don't know what his past is, or what he might be capable of—”

  “He is my husband.” Lara remained resolute, though she felt herself turn a shade paler. “I'm sure of it.”

  “Last night, did he try to—”

  “No.”

  “I suppose that when he holds you in his arms, you'll know whether he's the man you married or not.”

  As Lara tried to reply, she remembered the hot mist of his breath over her skin, the texture of his hair against her fingers, the spice of sandalwood in her nostrils. She had felt some strange, elemental connection between them. “I don't know who he is,” she said in an uneasy whisper. “But I have to believe he's my husband, because that makes more sense than anything else. No stranger could know the things he does.”

  Evening approached and the guests lingered, despite Dr. Slade's misgivings. “He's had enough exertion for one day,” the elderly doctor told Lara. Together they glanced at Hunter, who stood at a sideboard on a distant side of the drawing room. “It is time for him to rest, Lady Hawksworth.”

  Lara watched as her husband simultaneously poured a snifter of brandy and laughed at some quip one of his companions had made, and he seemed altogether comfortable…until one noticed the faint strain around his eyes and the deepening brackets on either side of his mouth.

  It had been a performance, she realized. A skillfully executed performance designed to win the support of the township…and it had been successful. He had been every inch the lord of the manor today: confident, hospitable, and polished. If his visitors had initially harbored suspicions as to his identity, very few of them doubted him now.

  Lara felt a pull of compassion as she stared at him. In spite of the people surrounding him, he seemed very much alone. “He does look a bit fashed,” she said to Dr. Slade. “Perhaps you could use your influence to coax him to retire.”

  “I've already made the attempt,” the elderly man snorted, rubbing one of his long gray sideburns. “He's as bullheaded as ever. I expect he'll play the part of host until he drops from exhaustion.”

  Lara contemplated her husband. “He never has listened to anyone else's opinion,” she agreed, feeling reassured that this, at least, was one thing that hadn't changed about Hunter. “However, I'll do what I can about the situation.”

  Adopting a pleasant smile, she approached Hunter and the three men standing with him. She started with the closest one, Sir Ralph Woodfield, a prosperous gentleman with a passion for hunting. “Sir Ralph,” she exclaimed in delight, “it is a great pleasure to find you here!”

  “Why, thank you, Lady Hawksworth,” he responded heartily. “May I offer my congratulations on your good fortune? We've all sorely missed this fine fellow. I've no doubt you more than anyone are rejoicing over his return.” A sly wink
punctuated this sentence.

  Lara colored at his effrontery. It was hardly the first of such remarks that had been made to her that day, as if the entire town of Market Hill considered her to be a love-starved widow. Concealing her annoyance, she smiled at him. “I am indeed blessed, sir. And so will others be, as soon as I tell you about the idea that came into my head recently. I am certain that you will adore it.”

  “Oh?” Sir Ralph cocked his head, her words seeming to penetrate the comfortable brandy-induced fog around him.

  “I was thinking about your collection of Thoroughbreds, and the excellent care you give to your animals, and then it occurred to me…why doesn't Sir Ralph begin a home for old and crippled horses, right here at Market Hill?”

  His jaw hung slack. “A-A home for—”

  “A place for them to go when they become lame, ill, or otherwise unable to perform their duties. I'm certain it aggrieves you to know that so many loyal horses are needlessly destroyed after their years of service.”

  “Yes, but—”

  “I knew you would be enthused about saving the lives of all those poor animals,” she said. “You wonderful man. We will discuss this matter soon, and set out a course of action.”

  Clearly dismayed, Sir Ralph muttered something about going home to his wife, and bid them farewell as he slunk from the room.

  Lara turned to the next gentleman, a confirmed bachelor of forty-five. “As for you, Mr. Parker, I've been lending your situation a good deal of thought.”

  “My situation,” he repeated, his eyebrows converging until they formed a straight line across his forehead.

  “I've worried, you see, over the fact that you're so bereft of companionship and all the care and comfort a wife provides…Well, I have found the right woman for you.”

  “I assure you, Lady Hawksworth, there's no need—”

  “She's perfect,” Lara insisted. “Her name is Miss Mary Falconer. The two of you are remarkably similar in character: independent, practical, opinionated…It's an ideal match. I plan to introduce you with out delay.”

  “I am already acquainted with Miss Falconer,” Parker said, his teeth grinding audibly. “An aging, ill-tempered spinster is hardly what I consider a perfect mate.”

  “Aging? Ill-tempered? I assure you, sir, Miss Falconer is an absolute angel. I insist that you reacquaint yourself with her, and you will see how mistaken you are.”

  Cursing beneath his breath, Parker took a hasty leave, throwing Hunter a dark look over his shoulder, as if commanding him to take his wife in hand. Hunter merely smiled and shrugged.

  As Lara turned her benevolent attentions to the other guests, they suddenly found reasons to leave at once, quickly collecting hats and gloves and rushing to their carriages.

  As the last visitor was taking his leave, Hunter joined Lara in the entrance hall. “You have a distinct talent for emptying a room, my love.”

  Not certain whether it was a compliment or complaint, she replied warily. “Someone had to get rid of them, else they would have stayed all night.”

  “Very well, you've banished our visitors, and you have me all to yourself. I'm interested to learn the rest of your plan for this evening.”

  Disconcerted by the teasing glint in his eyes, Lara twined her fingers in a knot. “If you would care to retire, I'll have a supper tray sent up to your room—”

  “You're suggesting I go to bed early and alone?” His short grin both mocked and flirted with her. “I was hoping for a better offer than that. I believe I'll go to the library and write some letters.”

  “Shall I send your supper there?”

  He shook his head briefly. “I'm not hungry.”

  “But you must eat something,” she protested.

  He regarded her with a smile that caused an odd, sweet flutter in her stomach. “It seems you're determined to feed me. All right, we'll have supper in the family parlor upstairs.”

  Thinking of the cozy area located so near to his bedroom, Lara hesitated and shook her head. “I would prefer the dining hall down here.”

  He scowled at the notion. “I would lose my appetite. I've seen what Janet did to the room.”

  Lara smiled ruefully. “An Egyptian motif is the latest craze, I'm told.”

  “Sphinxes and crocodiles,” he muttered. “Serpents carved in the legs of the table. I thought the main hall was bad enough. I want everything restored to the way it was when I left. It's a damned strange homecoming when I can't recognize half the rooms here. Turkish tents, Chinese dragons, sphinxes…It's a nightmare.”

  Laura couldn't help laughing at his aggravated expression. “I thought so too,” she confessed. “When I saw what they were doing to the house, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry…Oh, and your mother had a dreadful fit! She actually refused to set foot here again.”

  “I suppose that's one argument for keeping the place as it is,” he said dryly.

  Lara held her fingers to her mouth, but her merriment seeped out, the sound echoing against the marble walls.

  Hunter grinned and took her hand before she had time to react. Clasping it lightly, he rubbed his thumb in her palm. “Come upstairs and have supper with me.”

  “I'm not hungry.”

  His hand tightened over hers. “You need to eat more than I do. I'd forgotten how tiny you are.”

  “I'm not tiny,” she protested, tugging at her hand in the vain attempt to retrieve it.

  “I could fit you in my pocket.” He drew her a step closer, smiling at her discomfiture. “Come upstairs. You're not afraid to be alone with me, are you?”

  “Of course not.”

  “You think I'll try to kiss you again. Is that it?”

  Lara glanced around the entrance hall, afraid they would be overheard by a passing servant. “I don't care to discuss—”

  “I won't kiss you,” he said gravely. “I won't touch you. Now say yes.”

  “Hunter—”

  “Say it.”

  A spurt of annoyed laughter escaped her. “All right, if it is so terribly important that we share a meal together.”

  “Terribly,” he said softly, his teeth flashing in a triumphant smile.

  Despite the changes Lord and Lady Arthur had made, they had kept the cook, for which Lara was grateful. The cook, Mrs. Rouilté, had been in the employ of the Hawksworths for more than a decade. Using French and Italian techniques, she prepared foods with a finesse that rivaled the best chefs in London.

  Lara had become accustomed to the simple meals she had eaten in her cottage, or the pepper pots brought by a cook maid who had occasionally come from the village. It was a delight to sit down to a meal prepared at Hawksworth Hall once more. In honor of Hunter's homecoming, Mrs. Rouillé had prepared his favorite meal: spit-roasted partridge garnished with lemon, accompanied by creamed eggplant, boiled artichokes, and a steamed macaroni pudding covered with butter and shaved cheese.

  “Oh, how I've missed this!” Lara could not help from exclaiming as the first course was brought to the table in the private parlor. She inhaled the heady aroma of fine cuisine and sighed. “I must confess, the greatest hardship was having to do without Mrs. Rouillé's cooking.”

  Hunter smiled, his face bathed in golden candlelight. It should have softened his countenance, but no trick of light or shadow could blunt the hard, elegant edges of his cheekbones or the insistent jut of his jaw. It disconcerted her to see her husband's face this way, so familiar and yet so altered.

  Lara wondered if she had ever looked at him this closely, for this long, when they were married. She couldn't seem to avoid his gaze, so intense and restlessly searching, as if he were trying to learn every secret turn of her thoughts.

  “I should have brought you some of the shipboard fare from my voyage home,” Hunter remarked. “Salted dried meat, dried peas, and grog. Not to mention tough cheese and sour beer, and an occasional helping of weevils.”

  “Weevils!” Lara exclaimed in horror.

  “They infested the hard
tack.” He laughed at her expression. “We learned to be grateful after a while—they carved perforations in the biscuit, which made it easier to break apart.”

  Lara made a face. “I don't want to hear about the weevils. You're going to spoil my supper.”

  “I'm sorry.” He attempted to look contrite, reminding her of the mischievous boys at the orphanage. “We'll change the subject, then.” His gaze fell to her bare left hand as she picked up a morsel of bread and broke it apart. “Tell me why you're not wearing the ring I gave you.”

  Lara stared at him blankly, then felt a quick shock of realization. “Oh, I…” She paused, stalling for time, while blood rushed to her cheeks.

  “Where is it?” he prompted gently.

  “I don't recall exactly…”

  “I think you do.”

  Lara nearly choked on her guilt. The ring, a carved gold band, had been the only piece of jewelry he had ever given her. “It was wrong of me, but I sold it,” she said in a rush. “I didn't have anything else of value, and I needed the money it would bring. I had no idea that you would ever know about it, or…”

  “What did you need the money for? Food? Clothing?”

  “Not for me, it was…” She took a deep breath and let it out in a controlled stream. “The children. At the orphanage. There are nearly forty of them, all different ages, and they need so many things. They didn't have enough blankets, and when I thought of the poor children shivering in their beds at night…I couldn't bear it. I went to Arthur and Janet, but they said…well, that doesn't matter. The fact was, I had to do something, and the ring was of no use to me.” She looked at him apologetically. “I didn't know you were coming back.”

  “When did your involvement with the orphanage begin?”

  “Just a few months ago, when Arthur and Janet were moving into Hawksworth Hall. They asked me to take up residence in the cottage, and I—”

 
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