Stranger in My ArmsBy: Lisa Kleypas
“LADY HAWKSWORTH, YOUR husband is not dead.”
Lara stared at James Young without blinking. She knew she had not heard the estate agent correctly…or perhaps he had been drinking, though she had never known him to tipple before. It was possible that he had grown a little dotty from having to work in the service of the current Lord and Lady Hawksworth. They would surely drive anyone mad, given enough time.
“I know it is a great shock to you all,” Young continued earnestly. Concern flared in his bespectacled eyes as he glanced at Lara. “To you in particular, my lady.”
Had the news come from a less reliable source, Lara would have dismissed it immediately. However, James Young was a cautious and trustworthy man who had served the Hawksworth family for at least a decade. He had done an excellent job of managing her trust property's income since her husband's death, no matter that there was precious little money to oversee.
Arthur, Lord Hawksworth, and his wife, Janet, regarded Young as if they, too, doubted his sanity. They were an ideally suited couple, both of them blond, tall, and spare of frame. Although they had two sons, the boys had been packed off to Eton and were seldom seen or even mentioned. Arthur and Janet seemed to care about one thing only—to enjoy their newfound wealth and status as conspicuously as possible.
“Preposterous!” Arthur exploded. “How dare you come to me with this nonsense! Explain yourself at once.”
“Very well, my lord,” Young replied. “I received word yesterday that a frigate recently arrived in London carrying a most unusual passenger. It seems that he bears an uncanny resemblance to the late earl.” He glanced respectfully at Lara as he added, “He claims to be Lord Hawksworth.”
Arthur exploded with disbelieving scorn. His lean face, carved with deep lines of cynicism, flushed a vivid shade of red. His long beak of a nose twitched angrily. “What sort of outrageous hoax is this? Hawksworth has been dead for a year. It's impossible that he could have survived the shipwreck off of Madras. My God, the vessel literally broke in half! Everyone on board was lost. Are you telling me that my nephew somehow managed to survive? The man must be a lunatic to think that any of us would believe him.”
Janet's thin lips tightened. “He'll be proved an impostor soon enough,” she said crisply, smoothing the toothlike points of dark Vandyke lace that trimmed the bodice and waist of her emerald silk gown.
Ignoring the Crosslands' furious disdain, Young approached the widow. Larissa sat in a gilt-wood armchair near the window, her gaze fixed on the carpet covering the floor. Like everything else in Hawksworth Hall, the Persian carpet was opulent to the point of tastelessness, woven in a fantastical design of surreal flowers spilling from a Chinese-style vase. The worn toe of a black leather shoe protruded from beneath the hem of Larissa's mourning dress as she absently traced the edge of a scarlet flower with her foot. She seemed lost in memories, not noticing Young's approach until he had reached her. Abruptly she straightened like a chastened schoolgirl and lifted her gaze to his face.
Even in her dark bombazine dress, as high-necked and pristine as a nun's habit, Larissa Crossland possessed a soft, elegant beauty. With her dark sable hair always seeming on the verge of tumbling from its pins, and sultry pale green eyes, she was original and striking. However, her looks generated little heat. She was often admired but never pursued…never flirted with or desired. Perhaps it was the way she used cheerfulness like a weapon, if such a thing were possible, keeping everyone at a distance.
It seemed to many in the town of Market Hill that Lara was an almost saintly figure. A woman with her looks and position could have managed to snare a second husband, yet she had chosen to stay here and involve herself in charitable works. She was unfailingly gentle and compassionate, and her generosity extended to nobleman and beggar alike. Young had never heard Lady Hawksworth utter an unkind word about anyone, not the husband who had virtually abandoned her nor the relatives who treated her with contemptible stinginess.
But for all her apparent serenity, there was something unsettling in her translucent green eyes. Some quiet turbulence that hinted at emotions and thoughts she never dared express. As far as Young could tell, Larissa had decided to content herself by living vicariously through the people around her. It was frequently said she needed a man of her own. However, no one could ever seem to think of a particular gentleman who was suited to her.
That was undoubtedly a good thing, if it turned out that the late earl really was alive.
“My lady,” Young murmured apologetically, “I did not want to distress you. But I felt you would want to be informed immediately about any matter that concerns the late earl.”
“Is there any chance it could be true?” Lara whispered, her face shadowed with a frown.
“I don't know,” came Young's careful reply. “As they never found the earl's body, I suppose there is a chance that he—”
“Of course it isn't true!” Arthur exclaimed. “Have you both taken leave of your senses?” Brushing by Young, he assumed a protective expression and settled his hand on Lara's narrow shoulder. “How dare this scoundrel put Lady Hawksworth through such torment!” he exclaimed with as much false pity as he could muster.