Stranger in My Arms by Lisa Kleypas

  Hunter interrupted with a warning cough. “Let's save that reminiscence for a time when my wife isn't present.”

  Just then noticing Lara's presence, Lonsdale sputtered an apology. “Forgive me, Larissa…I was so shocked by the sight of Hawksworth, I'm afraid I took no notice of anything else around me.”

  “That is quite understandable,” Lara said with a failed attempt at a smile. Witnessing the two men together recalled a host of unhappy memories. It seemed that they encouraged each other's worst traits: selfishness and a sense of masculine superiority that she found insufferable. She glanced uneasily at Hunter. If he wasn't her husband, he possessed a chameleonlike ability to become whatever others expected him to be.

  Lonsdale gave her a deceptively solicitous smile. “My dear sister-in-law…tell me, how is it to have your dear departed come back home?” There was a mocking gleam in his blue eyes. He had, of course, known about their loveless marriage, and he had encouraged Hunter's infidelities.

  Lara answered without looking at either of them. “I'm very pleased, of course.”

  “Of course,” Lonsdale jeered. Hunter laughed with him, and their hearty amusement made Lara tense with resentment.

  However, when she witnessed Hunter looking at Lonsdale in an unguarded moment, it seemed that he was none too fond of the man. What in heaven's name was going on?

  Bewildered, Lara remained at the breakfast table and toyed with the remains of her meal while the men took their leave. Hunter would surely drive her mad. Was she to trust the evidence before her eyes, or her constantly shifting feelings? All of it was contradictory. She reached to his empty place and picked up his cup, touching where his hands had touched, her fingers curving around the delicate china.

  Who is he? she thought, filled with frustration.

  As he had indicated, Hunter left early the next day. He came to Lara's room just as she began to awaken, the morning sun slipping through a space between the closed drapes and stealing across her pillow. She started as she realized that she wasn't alone in the room, and jerked the covers high under her chin.

  “Hunter,” she said, her voice raspy from sleep. She shrank deep into her pillow as he sat on the edge of the bed.

  A smile touched his dark face. “I couldn't leave without seeing you one last time.”

  “How long will you be gone?” She blinked uneasily, not daring to move as Hunter reached for the sable length of her braid.

  “No more than a week, I expect.” He pulled the braid across his palm as if enjoying the texture against his skin, and laid it back on the pillow with care. “You look so snug and warm,” he murmured. “I wish I could join you.”

  The thought of him climbing under the covers with her made her heart contract in alarm. “I wish you a safe trip,” she said breathlessly. “Good-bye.”

  Hunter grinned at her eagerness for him to leave. “Aren't you going to give me a farewell kiss?” He leaned over her, smiling into her startled face, and waited for a reply. When she remained silent, he laughed softly, his coffee-scented breath fanning over her chin. “All right. We'll put it on account. Goodbye, sweet.”

  Lara felt his weight leave the bed, and she continued to bunch the covers tightly under her chin until the door had closed behind him. In a few minutes she sprang from bed and hurried to the window. The Hawksworth equipage with its perfectly matched team of four and distinctive green and gold coach-work rolled away along the tree-lined drive.

  There was a strange mixture of feelings inside her: relief at his departure but also a touch of sadness. The last time Hunter had left her, she had somehow known that she would never see him again. How was it that he could have made his way back home?

  Chapter 7

  A STONE'S THROW away from the prosperous shopping area of the Strand, there was a series of alleys and courts that led to the slums of the London underworld. It was densely populated by a class of people with no homes, no regular means of supporting themselves, no recognition of marriage or family life or anything close to morality. The streets were sour with dung and littered with rats, their dark shapes slipping in and out of buildings with ease.

  Night was falling fast, the last feeble rays of the sun disappearing behind the ramshackle structures. Grimly Hunter shouldered his way past prostitutes, thieves, and beggars, until the winding street led him to the marketplace he sought. It was a bustling place, featuring stolen carcass meat and other purloined goods. Costermongers hawked shrunken fruits and vegetables from barrows or primitive stalls.

  A brief memory assailed him—wandering through an Indian market every bit as squalid, except the smells were different: the scents of peppery grain and spices, the fecund odor of rotting mangoes, the sweet whiff of poppy and opium, all underlaid with the peculiar pungency that belonged to the East. He didn't miss Calcutta, but he did miss the Indian countryside, the wide earth roads lined with swaths of elephant grass, the tangled forests and quiet temples, the sense of languid ease that permeated every aspect of life.

  The Indians thought that the English were an unclean race, beef eaters, ale drinkers, filled with lust and materialistic desires. Casting a sardonic glance at the scene around him, Hunter couldn't suppress a quick grin. The Indians were right.

  A drunken hag plucked at Hunter's sleeve, imploring him for a spare coin. He shrugged her away impatiently, knowing that if he showed any sign of mercy, all the beggars in the vicinity would throw themselves at him. Not to mention pickpockets, who were forming in groups and staring at him like jackals.

  By necessity the market was opened under cover of night, though any police would have been insane to venture there. The area was lit with gas flares and smoking grease lamps, making the air thick and pungent. Hunter narrowed his eyes against the irritating haze and paused by an oddly dressed man seated on a rickety stool. The dark-skinned man, French-Polynesian in appearance, was dressed in a long blue velveteen coat with carved bone buttons. A strange design had been inked on his cheek, an exotic bird in flight.

  Their gazes met, and Hunter indicated the mark on the man's face. “Can you do that?” he asked, and the man nodded.

  “It is called tatouage,” he replied in a liquid French accent.

  Hunter reached in his coat pocket and pulled out a scrap of paper…the last remaining trace of the journals. “Are you able to copy this?” he asked brusquely.

  The Frenchman took the design and examined it closely. “Bien sur…it is a simple design. It will not take long.”

  Picking up his stool, he carried it with him as he walked away, gesturing for Hunter to follow. They walked from the market to a streetside cellar, lit by guttering candles that filled it with a lurid orange glow. Two copulating couples were busy on rickety wooden cots. A few whores of varying ages lingered outside the cellar, beckoning to potential customers.

  “Out,” the Frenchman said briskly. “I have a customer.” The whores cackled and cawed, moving away from the doorway. The Frenchman cast Hunter a vaguely apologetic glance while the couples inside finished their transactions. “It's my room,” he said. “I let them use it in return for a share of the profits.”

  “An artist and a pimp,” Hunter commented. “You're a man of many talents.”

  The Frenchman paused, clearly deciding whether to be amused or offended, and finally laughed. He led Hunter down into the cellar and went to a table in the corner, setting out an assortment of tools, pouring dishes of ink. “Where would you like the design?” he asked.

  “Here.” Hunter pointed to the inside of his upper arm.

  The man raised his brows at the location, but nodded in a businesslike manner. “Remove your shirt, s'il vous plaît.”

  A group of four or five whores lingered in the cellar, ignoring the man's curt command for them to leave. “'Andsome devil,” a girl with garish red hair remarked, flashing him a friendly smile loaded with decaying teeth. “Care for a toss after Froggie's done?”

  “No, thanks,” Hunter said easily, though he was inwardly repulse
d. “I'm a married man.” That comment earned screams of delight and appreciation.

  “Ohh, he's a darling!”

  “I'll toss you for free,” a large-breasted blonde offered, giggling.

  To Hunter's discomfort, the whores stayed to watch him remove his jacket, waistcoat, and shirt. As soon as the baggy linen shirt was stripped away, they

  erupted in peals of admiration.

  “'Ere's a 'andsome bit o' beefsteak, dearies!” one of them cried, and ventured forward to touch his bare arm. “Jaysus, 'ave a look at those muscles. Built like a bloody bull, 'e is!”

  “With a nice, tight breadbasket,” another said, poking at his flat stomach.

  “What's this?” The redhead had found the scar on his shoulder, another on his side, and the star-shaped one on his lower back. She made a cooing sound and examined the marks curiously. “Seen a bit o' action, 'ave ye?” she asked, favoring him with an approving smile.

  Although Hunter kept his features emotionless, he felt a flush spreading over his face. Delighted by his obvious discomfort, the whores continued to giggle and tease, until at last the tatouage artist was finished with his preparations and ordered them out.

  “I can't work with this noise,” the Frenchman complained. “Out, girls, and don't come back until I'm finished.”

  “But where do I take the cock-stands?” one of them said plaintively.

  “The alley wall,” came the decisive reply, and the prostitutes filed out in a surly line.

  The tatouage artist looked at Hunter assessingly. “You might find it more comfortable to lie on the cot while I proceed, monsieur.”

  Hunter glanced at the semen-stained ticking on the bed and shook his head in distaste. He sat on the stool and lifted his arm, bracing his shoulders back against the wall.

  “D'accord,” the Frenchman conceded. “But I warn you, if you move or flinch, the design will be flawed.”

  “I won't move.” Hunter watched as the man approached him with two ivory instruments, one of them fitted with a short needle. After studying the drawing on the paper Hunter had given him, the Frenchman dipped the needle in a dish of black ink, placed it against Hunter's skin, and tapped it with the other instrument.

  Hunter stiffened at the fiery sting. Once again the tatouage artist dipped the needle and tapped it into his skin, this time creating a long chain of pinpricks. It was the repetition that soon proved excruciating. Each sting in itself was nothing, but endless lines of them, accompanied by the maddening clicking of the bone instruments, made his nerves screech in protest. He felt sweat collecting on his forehead, stomach, even his ankles. Soon it felt as if his arm had been set on fire. He concentrated on breathing steadily, in and out, willing himself to accept the burn instead of fighting it.

  The Frenchman paused, allowing him a moment of respite. “The pain makes most men weep, no matter how they fight it,” he commented. “I've never seen anyone bear it so well.”

  “Just get on with it,” Hunter muttered.

  Shrugging, the Frenchman picked up the instruments. “Le scorpion is an unusual design to choose,” he said, while the delicate click click of the needle resumed. “What meaning does it have for you?”

  “Everything,” Hunter said, his teeth clenching until his jaw ached.

  The Frenchman paused as the needle hit a sensitive nerve that made Hunter twitch. “Please hold still, monsieur.”

  Hunter remained steady and dry-eyed. He thought of the future that beckoned before him—of Lara—and the work of the needle became welcome indeed. For what he wanted, this was a small price to pay.

  Chapter 8

  ACCORDING TO HUNTER'S instructions, Lara engaged the services of a designer, Mr. Smith, to change the interiors of Hawksworth Hall. Accompanied by the estate manager, Mr. Young, Lara showed Smith on a tour of the house.

  “As you can see, Mr. Smith,” she said with laughing dismay, “my claim that this will be the greatest challenge of your career is not far off the mark.”

  Smith, a heavyset gentleman with a long mane of gleaming silver-white hair, grunted noncommittally and scribbled in a small notebook with gilt-edged pages. Although his real name was Mr. Hugh Smith, he was known as “Possibility” Smith, having earned the nickname from his famous habit of saying, “This place has distinct possibilities.” So far Lara had waited in vain for the magic phrase to appear.

  She had taken him on a survey of the Egyptian dining room with its sarcophagus-shaped cabinets, the baroque entrance hall, the Chinese parlors filled with faux carved bamboo, and the Moroccan ballroom lined with marble blackamoors dressed in pink togas. With each new room he beheld, Possibility Smith's countenance became darker and his silence deepened.

  “Is it worth saving, do you think?” Lara asked in a lame attempt at humor, “or shall we just burn the place to the ground and start over?”

  The silver-maned head turned toward her. “For sheer bad taste, it is unrivaled by any residence I've ever had the misfortune of viewing.”

  Mr. Young interceded tactfully. “Let me assure you, sir, that Lady Hawksworth possesses exquisite taste, and had no hand in this decor.”

  “Let us hope not,” Smith muttered, and sighed. “I must have another look at that ballroom. Then we'll visit the next floor.” He wandered away, shaking his head in regal disapproval.

  Lara put a hand over her mouth, stifling a laugh as she imagined his expression when he crossed the threshold of her multimirrored bedroom. Oh, she should have had the servants remove the one on the ceiling before he saw it!

  Regarding her pinkening face, Mr. Young gave her a sympathetic smile. “Lord and Lady Arthur certainly left their mark, didn't they?”

  Lara nodded, her eyes twinkling. “I'm afraid we can't afford the expense of changing everything…but how is anyone to live in such a horror?”

  “I shouldn't worry about the expense for long,” Mr. Young said comfortingly. “The earl discussed some of his plans with me, and I was quite impressed. With some reorganization of his properties, a much-needed loan, and a few sound investments, I believe the estate will be more prosperous than ever.”

  Lara's amusement faded, and she stared at him curiously. “Do you find the earl much as he was before, then?”

  “Yes…and no. In my humble opinion he's improved. It seems to me that Hawksworth has a greater sense of responsibility and financial acuity than he once did. He was never much interested in his business affairs, you know. At least, not as much as he was in fox-hunting and grouse-shooting—”

  “I know,” Lara said, rolling her eyes. “But what is to account for his altered character? And do you think the change is permanent?”

  “I believe it is only natural, after what he has been through,” Mr. Young continued matter-of-factly. “To be reminded so forcibly of his mortality—to see what has become of his family and property in his absence—it is actually a great gift. Yes, I believe the change is permanent. The earl now realizes how much he is needed by all of us.”

  Rather than argue that she didn't need Hunter's presence in her life, Lara nodded shortly. “Mr. Young…are there any questions in your mind as to his identity?”

  “No, not in the least.” He seemed startled by the idea. “Don't tell me that you doubt him?”

  Before she could reply, Possibility Smith rejoined them in the large hall. “Well,” he said with a huge sigh, “let's get on with the rest of it.”

  “Mr. Smith,” Lara commented wryly, “you seem rather aghast.”

  “I was aghast at least an hour ago. Now I'm horrified.” He crooked his arm for her to take. “Shall we proceed?”

  Mr. Smith and two assistants remained at the house for the rest of the week, sketching, conferring, littering the floors with books and fabric swatches. In the midst of the tumult, Lara found time to visit her friends at Market Hill, and more important, to go to the orphanage. Ev
ery problem and worry receded to the back of her mind as she saw a botany class of six children sketching plants in the garden under the supervision of a teacher, Miss Chapman. Lara felt a smile spread over her face as she walked toward them, heedless of the grass and mud that stained the hem of her gray skirt.

  The children came to her at once, abandoning pencils and sketchbooks and eagerly calling her name. Laughing, Lara sank to her haunches and embraced them. “Tom, Meggie, Maisie, Paddy, Rob…” She paused and ruffled the last one's hair. “And you, Charlie…have you been behaving well?”

  “I done awright.” He ducked his head with a sly grin.

  “He's tried very hard, Lady Hawksworth,” the teacher said. “Not quite an angel, but close enough.”

  Lara smiled and hugged Charlie despite his squirming protest. After inspecting the drawings in progress, she drew aside to confer with Miss Chapman. The teacher, a small, light-haired woman close to her own age, regarded her with friendly blue eyes. “Thank you for the artistic supplies, Lady Hawksworth. As you can see, we're making good use of them.”

  “I'm glad,” Lara replied with a rueful shake of her head. “I debated the wisdom of purchasing paint, paper, and books when clothes and food are always so badly needed.”

  “Books are as necessary as food, I think.” Miss Chapman cocked her head and regarded her curiously. “Have you seen the new boy yet, Lady Hawksworth?”

  “New boy,” Lara repeated, startled. “I wasn't aware…How and when…?”

  “He arrived last evening, the poor mite.”

  “Who sent him?”

  “I believe it was the doctor from Holbeach Prison. He sent the boy here as soon as his father was hanged. We're not quite certain what to do with him. There's not a single bed to spare.”

  “His father was hanged?” Lara's brow wrinkled in a frown. “For what crime?”

  “I wasn't informed of the particulars.” Miss Chapman lowered her voice. “The boy was living with him in prison. Evidently there was no other place for the lad to stay. Even the local workhouse refused to take him.”

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