Stranger in My Arms by Lisa Kleypas

  A queer, sick feeling came over Lara as she digested the news. An innocent child, living amongst hardened prisoners. What sane person would allow it? “How old is the boy?” she murmured.

  “He appears to be four or five, though children in those circumstances are usually small for their age.”

  “I must see him.”

  Miss Chapman gave her an encouraging smile. “Perhaps you'll have better luck than the rest of us. So far he hasn't spoken a word to anyone. He turned vicious when we tried to bathe him.”

  “Oh, dear.” Distressed, Lara took her leave of the botany class and headed to the old manor house. It was relatively quiet inside, the children engaged in various classes and activities. The cook, Mrs. Davies, was busy chopping root vegetables and dropping them into a large pot of mutton stew. No one seemed to be aware of the child's whereabouts.

  “An odd creature, he is,” Miss Thornton, the headmistress, remarked, emerging from a schoolroom as soon as she became aware of Lara's presence. “It's an impossible task to locate him. All I can be certain of is that he prefers the indoors. He seems to be afraid of going outside. Most unnatural for a child.”

  “Is there any room at all to spare for him?” Lara asked in concern.

  Miss Thornton shook her head decisively. “He had to spend the night on a makeshift pallet in one of the schoolrooms, and I doubt he slept a wink. After the place he's lived in, I'm hardly surprised.” She sighed. “We'll have to send him elsewhere. The question is, who will take him?”

  “I don't know,” Lara replied, troubled. “I'll have to think on the matter. In the meanwhile, would you mind if I search for him?”

  Miss Thornton regarded her doubtfully. “Would you like for me to assist you, Lady Hawksworth?”

  “No, please go on with your regular duties. I believe I can find him on my own.”

  “Yes, Lady Hawksworth,” the headmistress said, clearly relieved.

  Methodically Lara searched the house room by room, guessing that the boy would choose some quiet corner to hide in, away from the company of the boisterous children.

  Finally she located him in the corner of a converted parlor, curled beneath a writing desk, as if the cramped space offered some sort of security. Lara saw him gather into a ball as soon as she entered the room. Silently he hugged his knobby knees and watched her. He was nothing but a small bundle of rags, topped with a thatch of long, dirty black hair.

  “There you are,” Lara said softly, sinking her to her knees before him. “You seem a little lost, darling. Will you come sit with me?”

  He held back, staring at her, his intense blue eyes circled with dark smudges of weariness.

  “Will you tell me your name?” Lara sat and smiled at him, while he stayed frozen before her. She had never thought the eyes of a child could be so wounded and suspicious. Noticing that one of his hands was buried in a tattered pocket, holding something protectively, she gave him an inquiring smile. “What do you have in there?” she asked, guessing that he held a small toy, a ball of string, or some other object that little boys cherished.

  Slowly he pulled out a tiny, furry gray body—a live mouse, which peered at her over the edge of the boy's fingers with bright, beady eyes.

  Lara held back a startled squeak at the sight. “Oh,” she said weakly. “That's very…interesting. Did you find him here?”

  The boy shook his head. “'E came with me.” Gently he stroked the mouse between the ears with a grimy finger. “'E likes it when I pet 'is head like this.” Growing bolder at Lara's close attention, he continued more warmly. “We do ewerything together, Mousie an' me.”

  “Mousie? Is that his name?” So the boy considered the rodent as something of a pet…a friend. Lara's throat was tight with laughter and pity.

  “D'ye want to pet 'im?” the boy asked, extending the squirming creature to her.

  Lara couldn't bring herself to touch the thing. “Thank you, but no.”

  “Awright.” He stuffed the mouse back in his pocket and patted it lightly.

  There was a strange, sweet constriction in Lara's chest as she watched him. The poor child had nothing—no family, no friends, no future to speak of—but in his own little way, he was taking care of someone…something. Even if it was just a prison mouse.

  “You're pretty,” the boy said generously, and surprised her by crawling into her lap. Startled, Lara hesitated before responding, her arms closing around him. He was bony and light, wiry like a cat. There was a sour smell wafting from his clothes and body, and the awful thought struck her that he was probably crawling with vermin above and beyond the little pet mouse. But he leaned back against her arm, tilting his head to look at her, and Lara found herself stroking his matted dark hair. She wondered how long it had been since he had known a maternal embrace. Such a small boy, he was…and so utterly alone.

  “What is your name?” she asked. He didn't reply, only half closed his eyes, seeming to relax except for the grip of his grimy fingers on her sleeve. “My goodness, you need a bath,” she said, continuing to stroke his hair back. “There must be a handsome boy underneath all this dirt.”

  Lara continued to hold him and murmur softly until she felt his head nod against her shoulder. He was utterly exhausted. It wouldn't be long before he fell asleep. Easing him from her arms, she stood and gestured for him to come with her.

  “I'll take you to Miss Thornton,” she said. “She's a very kind woman, and you must promise to mind her. We'll find a home for you, sweetheart. I promise.”

  He went obediently to Miss Thornton's office, trotting beside Lara with his fist clutched in her skirt. They reached the small room and found Miss Thornton at her desk.

  The headmistress smiled as she saw them. “You have a way with children, Lady Hawksworth. I should have known that you would find him.” She approached the small boy and grasped his wrist. “Come with me, young sir. You've troubled her ladyship quite enough.”

  The boy huddled closer to Lara, snapping his teeth at Miss Thornton like a wild animal. “No,” he said sharply.

  The headmistress regarded him with surprise.

  “Well. It appears he can speak after all.” She renewed her efforts to pull him away. “There's no need to carry on, lad. No one is going to harm you.”

  “No, no…” He burst into tears and clutched at Lara's legs and hips.

  Distressed, Lara bent over to stroke his narrow back. “Sweet boy. I'll come back tomorrow, but you must stay here.”

  While the boy continued to howl and clutch at her, Miss Thornton left the room and reappeared with another teacher. “You're remarkable, Lady Hawksworth,” she said, laboring with the other woman to pry him away. “Only you could call a child like that ‘sweet’ and sound as if you mean it.”

  “He's not a bad boy,” Lara said, trying in vain to hush the crying child.

  The teachers managed to jerk him away, and he screamed in rage and misery. Lara stared transfixed at the sobbing boy, who was snarling and squirming like a wild cub.

  “Don't mind him,” Miss Thornton said. “I told you, he's odd and unnatural. Bless you, my lady, you've had enough to contend with of late without enduring a scene like this.”

  “That's all right. I…” Lara lost her voice, seized by anxiety as she saw them drag the little boy from the room. One of the teachers scolded him softly, gripping his arm to prevent him from escaping.

  “We'll take care of him,” Miss Thornton told Lara. “He'll be perfectly all right.”

  “Nooo!” he howled once more.

  In the midst of the struggle, there was a scuttling movement as the mouse crawled from the child's pocket and landed on the floor. Catching sight of the rodent scooting along the polished wood, the teachers shrieked in unison and released the boy.

  “Mousie!” he cr
ied, dropping to his knees and scrambling after the escaping rodent. “Mousie, come back!”

  Somehow the mouse found a hole in the seam of the wall and wiggled through, disappearing. Stupefied, the boy stared at the tiny hole and began to cry in earnest.

  As Lara stared at the tearful child, the panicked teachers, and Miss Thornton's taut face, she heard herself speak. “Let me have the boy,” she said impulsively. “I-I want him.”

  “Lady Hawksworth?” Miss Thornton asked cautiously, as if she'd taken leave of her senses.

  Lara continued rapidly. “I'll take him with me for now. I'll find a place for him.”

  “But surely you don't mean—”

  “Yes, I do.”

  The boy returned to the safety of Lara's skirts, his chest heaving with agitation. “I want Mousie,” he sniffled.

  She rested her hand on his back. “Mousie has to stay here,” she said quietly. “He'll be fine, I promise you. Will you stay here as well, or would you like to come with me?”

  He groped for her hand in answer, clinging tightly.

  Lara glanced at the headmistress with a wry smile. “I'll take good care of him, Miss Thornton.”

  “Of that, I have no doubt,” the headmistress responded. “I only hope he doesn't inconvenience you too greatly, milady.” She bent down and stared sternly into the boy's reddened face. “I hope you realize what a stroke of luck you've had, young Master Cannon. If I were you, I'd try very, very hard to please Lady Hawksworth.”

  “Cannon?” Lara repeated. “Is that his name?”

  “The family name, yes. But he won't tell us what they call him.”

  The little hand tugged at Lara's, and a pair of watery, bright blue eyes stared into hers. “Johnny,” he said distinctly.

  “Johnny,” Lara repeated, squeezing his fingers gently.

  “Lady Hawksworth,” the headmistress cautioned, “in my experience it is better not to make much of a child in his situation, or he'll grow to expect it. I know that sounds cruel, but the world isn't kind to penniless orphans—he'd best know his place in it.”

  “I understand,” Lara said, her smile fading. “Thank you, Miss Thornton.”

  The servants at Hawksworth Hall were clearly stupefied by the sight of Lara's small, shaggy guest, who never released his hold on her skirt. He seemed unaware of the overwrought grandeur of his surroundings, all his attention centered on Lara.

  “Johnny is rather shy,” Lara murmured to her personal maid, Naomi, whose overtures to the child had been quickly rebuffed. “It will take a little time for him to become accustomed to all of us.”

  Naomi's plump face regarded the boy doubtfully.

  “He looks as though he's been raised in the forest,milady.”

  Silently Lara reflected that the forest was a far more wholesome place than the diseased and dangerous environment Johnny had been living in. She drew her fingers lightly over the boy's matted hair.

  “Naomi, I want you to assist me in washing him.”

  “Yes, milady,” the maid muttered, though she looked taken aback at the prospect.

  While Lara's personal tub was painstakingly filled by a horde of housemaids carrying buckets up and down the stairs, she sent for a plate of gingerbread and a glass of milk. The child devoured every drop and crumb as if he hadn't eaten for days. When his appetite was satiated, Lara and Naomi brought him to her dressing room and removed his tattered clothes.

  The difficult part was convincing Johnny to enter the water, which he regarded with the highest degree of suspicion. He stood naked by the tub, his body so frail as to be almost delicate. “I don't want to,” he said stubbornly.

  “But you must,” Lara said, trying to suppress a laugh. “You're very dirty.”

  “Me pa says a bath'll make you die of ague.”

  “Your father was mistaken,” Lara said. “I take baths all the time, and it's a lovely feeling to be clean. Get in while the water is still warm, Johnny.”

  “No,” he said stubbornly.

  “You must have a bath,” Lara insisted. “Everyone who lives at Hawksworth Hall must bathe regularly. Isn't that right, Naomi?”

  The maid nodded emphatically.

  After a great deal of coaxing and persuading, they lifted him into the tub. The child sat rigidly, every knob on his spine prominent. Lara hummed a song to entertain him, while they washed him from head to toe. The water turned gray as they rinsed him repeatedly.

  “Look at them rats,” Naomi commented, touching one of the hopelessly thick tangles in his wet hair. “We'll have to cut 'em out.”

  “How fair he is,” Lara said, marveling at his complexion. “You're as white as a snowdrop, Johnny.”

  He regarded his spindly arms and chest with interest. “A lot o' skin come off,” he observed.

  “Not skin,” Lara said, laughing. “Just dirt.”

  Obeying their instructions, he stood from the water and allowed Lara to lift him from the bath. She wrapped him in a thick towel, blotting the water that streamed from his limbs. As she dried him, Johnny leaned close and tried to rest his head on her shoulder, soaking the bodice of her gown.

  Lara hugged him tightly. “You did well, Johnny,” she said. “You were very good in the bath.”

  “What shall I do with these, milady?” Naomiquired, poking experimentally at the little heap of filthy clothes on the floor. “I think they'll fall apart if I tried to wash 'em.”

  “Burn them,” Lara said, her gaze meeting the maid's as they both nodded in agreement. She reached for a clean shirt and a pair of drill trousers borrowed from the stableboy. Although the clothes were all that had been available on such short notice, they were far too large and baggy. “These will have to do for now,” Lara commented, fastening a purloined dog collar at the boy's waist to keep the pants from slipping down. She reached down and wiggled one of the boy's bare toes, making him jerk back with a surprised laugh. “We'll have some shoes made for you, and some proper clothes. In fact—” Her brow wrinkled as she suddenly remembered that she had arranged for the dressmaker to visit this week—good Lord, it wasn't today, was it?

  “Well, you always manage to surprise me,” came her sister's voice from the doorway, interrupting her thoughts.

  Lara looked up with a smile as she beheld Rachel. “Oh, dear. I forgot I had invited you over to help me choose dress patterns. I haven't kept you waiting, have I?”

  Rachel shook her head. “Not in the least. Don't worry, I'm a trifle early. The dressmaker hasn't even arrived yet.”

  “Thank God.” Lara pushed a damp lock of hair off her forehead. “I'm not usually such a jinglebrains, but I've been busy.”

  “So I see.” Rachel ventured farther into the room, smiling at the little mop-headed boy. Johnny returned her inspection with silent awe.

  Lara doubted the child had ever seen a woman like Rachel, at least not at this close distance. Rachel was especially lovely today, her dark hair curled in shining ringlets, pinned up to reveal the swanlike length of her neck. She wore a gown of cream-colored muslin embroidered all over with tiny pink rosebuds and green leaves, and a straw bonnet trimmed in pink ribbons and roses. Smiling in pride, Lara wondered if there was another woman in England who could equal her sister's delicate beauty.

  “Larissa, you're a fright!” Rachel exclaimed, laughing. “I can see you've been grubbing with those children at the orphanage. How can you be the same girl who used to take such pains with her appearance?”

  Ruefully Lara glanced down at her own dark, damp dress and made a futile effort to pin up the trailing strands of her board-straight hair. “The children don't care how I look,” she replied with a grin. “That's all that matters to me.” She sat the boy on a footstool and draped a towel around his shoulders. “Sit still, Johnny, while I cut your


  “Yes,” Lara said firmly. “And if you behave, then I'll have a forage cap made for you, with brass buttons on the front. Wouldn't that be nice?”

  “Awright.” Resignedly the child sat before her.

  Lara began to cut his hair, snipping carefully through the unruly mass. Her progress was slow, as she stopped frequently to comfort Johnny, who was flinching with each snip of the scissors.

  “Oh, let me,” Rachel said after a few minutes. “I was always better at this, Lara. Remember, Papa used to let me cut his hair before he lost it all.”

  Lara laughed and relinquished the child to Rachel's expert hands. She stood back to watch as great clumps of snarled hair fell to the floor. “It's beautiful,” Rachel murmured, carefully shaping the hair to the boy's head. “Black as ink, with just the hint of a curl. He's a handsome lad, isn't he? Hold still, my lad—I'll be finished in a flea's leap.”

  Her sister was right, Lara realized in surprise. Johnny was handsome, with strong features, a bold nose, glossy black hair, and bright blue eyes. He tried to return Lara's smile as he sat up straight on the stool, but his mouth stretched in an irrepressible yawn, and he swayed slightly.

  “Imp!” Rachel exclaimed. “You mustn't move. I nearly snipped the tip of your ear off!”

  “He's tired,” Lara said, coming forward to remove the towel and pull the boy off the stool. “That's enough for now, Rachel.” She carried Johnny to a nearby mahogany sofa with flowing lines and soft velvet upholstery. “Naomi, thank you for helping us. You may go now.”

  “Yes, milady,” the maid said, dipping in a quick curtsy and leaving the room.

  The child cuddled against Lara's side. It felt strangely natural to have his slight weight resting on her, his head bobbing in the crook of her shoulder. “Go to sleep, Johnny.” She stroked his head, the dark hair soft and silky beneath her fingertips. “I'll be here when you awaken.”

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