When a Stranger Loves Me
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"...A beautiful, tender love story full of the heart and emotion that Julianne MacLean's books are known for. If you're longing for a stirring, character-driven historical romance, look no further."Andrea W. - Amazon Reviewer
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From bestselling author Julianne MacLean comes a grand historical romance series set in the lavish palace of an English duke, where duty and desire collide.
I saved his life, and I had much to demand in return…
When a stranger washes ashore with no memory of his life or where he came from, Lady Chelsea believes her prayers have been answered. She need no longer fear poverty and heartbreak. To secure her family’s estate, all she needs is a child. Handsome and clearly noble-born, the mysterious stranger is perfect. She must simply visit his bedchamber and seduce him.
Chelsea expects him to be a skillful, generous lover, but once in his arms, she is overcome by something far more powerful than mere passion. Before long, she realizes she has fallen hopelessly, desperately in love.
Lady Chelsea’s plan has gone shockingly awry, and when his family arrives unexpectedly to claim him, she must ask herself if she is willing to do whatever it takes to cling to a happiness she never believed possible…and to make this stranger love her.
Release date: September 17, 2020
Publisher: Julianne MacLean Publishing Inc.
Print pages: 351
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When a Stranger Loves Me
The thunderous boom from a cannon shook the ground beneath his nude body and rumbled through the foggy haze in his head.
Who am I? I do not exist. I must be dead.
He lay on his stomach. Pebbles and rocks cut into his cold skin. A pain, sharp and searing, worse than death, shot through his abdomen.
Is there a musket ball in my gut? A knife? Was I run through by a bayonet?
He could not move. He was paralyzed. The agony was unimaginable.
But I am not dead.
Another shot from the cannon startled him, sent his heart racing, but still his body would not answer his thoughts. Somehow, he found the strength to open his eyes.
The noise from the cannon echoed off the glistening walls of a black cave. Witches were shrieking, flying in circles overhead, laughing and cackling at his demise. Would they take him to Hell? Or had he already arrived?
But this was no battlefield. Everything was wet and cold and dripping. Where in God’s name was he?
Who was he?
That question, more than any other, was the most disturbing of all, for he did not know the answer. He did not even know his own name.
Western tip of the Jersey Islands, 1874
My Dearest Lady Chelsea,
I presume this letter will find you well, or as well as can be expected under your unfortunate circumstances. It cannot be easy living in the manner in which you are forced to live—hidden away from the world on that cruel, remote island, like the lowliest of social offenders condemned to prison. It must be a bleak and lonely existence for you. How you must suffer day after day, alone and ashamed, unable to change your past or correct your mistakes, with no one to sit by your side and offer comfort, other than your aging, widowed mother.
My greatest wish is that I can relieve you of your misery and provide you with some hope for what is presently a future without prospects. I shall be blunt. After ten years of marriage, your elder brother has not yet provided the family with an heir, and I have recently learned he has not been well. I was most distressed to hear it.
As I am sure you are aware, if he has no heir to succeed him, the Neufeld title shall pass to me, I will inherit all your late father’s properties, and you and your mother will be without a home.
I realize that I am many years your senior and that I am not the handsomest of men, but I am not without pity. I believe in charity and forgiveness and would therefore be prepared to overlook your disgrace and take you as a wife. You are a beautiful woman, Lady Chelsea, and that shall be enough.
I will take the liberty of presuming that this generous offer has made you happy. I will await your prompt reply.
Lord Jerome Carruthers
Lady Chelsea stood on the grassy edge of the cliff and stared at the letter while she contemplated her “bleak and lonely existence” on this cruel island prison where she was forced to live, then threw her head back and laughed.
“He cannot be serious.”
Lowering the letter to her side, she looked out at the raging sea below. A strong north wind whipped wildly at her skirts and tugged at her hat.
How fast, she wondered, would a letter, such as the one in her hand, fly through the air on a gusty morning like this?
She took a step forward, peered over the edge, and held the letter out. It flapped and fluttered between her fingers for a few desperate seconds, then the wind sucked it from her grasp. It soared upward, performed a few loop de loops, and swung down into the ferocious, oceanic abyss below.
“Quite fast indeed,” she said as she stepped back from the edge, then retied her hat ribbons under her chin.
It was a violent morning—passionate and extreme. It seemed almost as if the ocean was ranting about the storm the night before. Waves crashed onto the coastline in magnificent explosions of spray and foam, and the sea roared its displeasure like an enraged lion.
It rather mirrored her mood, thanks to that exasperating letter, which suggested that she was unhappy.
Chelsea breathed deeply of the fresh salty air and tried to push the letter from her mind. She looked up at the sky. There was not a single cloud in sight. The sun was shining, and seabirds were circling overhead, frolicking on the wind, shrieking and screeching as they swooped down to the surging whitecaps below.
She envied those birds their freedom, their ability to float on the wind, or ride it straight down fearlessly at unthinkable speeds. She wished she could somehow soar like that.
But then she strove to remind herself that she did not need to fly. She was not bored. Contrary to what Lord Jerome had written, she loved her life on the wild Jersey coast. It fired her spirit and inspired her imagination, gave her just the material she needed to pour excitement and soul into her stories.
That was what mattered most to her. Her writing. She did not need a husband to make her happy, and certainly not Jerome. The men she wrote about were far more handsome and exciting than that, and she was fulfilled. Truly she was.
Prisoner, indeed. London society and her very “generous” cousin could go to the devil for all she cared.
The tide was on its way out, so she started down the hill toward the beach, wondering if the storm had washed some treasures ashore. She picked her way down the rocky path and was soon walking along the water’s edge, dodging the foamy waves as they rolled in and slid back out again. The surf was deafening this morning. It was an incredible day. She would write about it. She would put a shipwreck in her next story, with a dashing captain who is washed ashore and falls in love with the young maiden who cares for him. Then what would happen?
Something shiny on the beach interrupted her thoughts as it reflected the sun’s rays. Chelsea squinted and walked toward it, knelt down to pick it up.
It was a gentleman’s watch on a fine gold chain, in pristine condition, though the hands had stopped at three-forty.
She rose to her feet and turned toward the sea, shaded her eyes and looked in all directions, as if there would be some clue as to where the watch had come from.
There was none, of course. There was nothing but blue water and clear skies.
She turned the watch over in her hand and inspected the initials engraved on the back: B.H.S.
Slowly, she began to stroll while she set the correct time at seven-thirty and wound the watch. She held it to her ear. Tick, tick, tick. It worked perfectly and looked very fine. It was clean and shiny, without a trace of rust, which suggested it could not have been in the water for long. She looked up at the tops of the cliffs, wondering if someone had simply dropped it while walking along this beach earlier that morning.
But who? Her family’s summer mansion was the only house for miles.
Slipping the watch into her pocket, she started off toward the sea caves, walking briskly, enjoying the vigorous use of her body. By the time she arrived at the jagged outcropping and stepped gingerly over the rocks into the first cave, she was out of breath.
She stopped for a moment in the dark confines to allow her eyes to adjust to the reduced light and breathed in the clean, salty aroma. The walls of the cave glistened with wetness. The chilly air kissed her cheeks. She listened to the sound of water dripping from the shiny rocks.
Just on the other side of those thick cave walls was another narrower grotto called Cannon Cave, where the surf surged in and out in great, thunderous explosions. It never ceased to amaze her, especially on a tumultuous day like this one.
She delved a little deeper into the cave, looking down at her feet as she hopped over shallow tidewater pools, where tiny snails in shells clung to the rocks, and seaweed danced gracefully in the current.
When she looked up, she saw something farther in. She blinked a few times and her heart beat a little faster.
Were her eyes playing tricks on her? No, they were not. She was looking at something...
Fear plunged into the pit of her stomach, and she froze on the spot. It was a man. A naked man. Facedown on the rocks.
Instinct, rather than conscious thought, drove her forward, and she dropped to her knees in a puddle beside him. She touched her hand to his cold back and shook him hard.
Was he alive? He couldn’t be. He was as cold as the grave. He must be dead.
The thought terrified her. She did not want to believe it.
He gave no response, so she pressed the heels of her hands against the side of his rib cage and rolled him over onto his back. His heavy body was limp, but not stiff.
Her eyes darted quickly across his muscular body and focused briefly on his male anatomy. It was not something she had ever seen before, and she found herself momentarily arrested, eyes wide as she swallowed.
Her fascination vanished instantly, however, when she saw that he was wounded. He had been impaled by something. Or stabbed? Had someone tried to murder him and left him here to die?
Chelsea leaned forward and pressed her ear to his chest. The weak sound of his heart revived her hopes, and she sat back on her heels. He was alive, but not for long if she didn’t soon get him out of there.
She rose to her feet and turned to face the light at the cave entrance. “Help! Someone! Help!”
But it was no use to call out. Even if there were others on the beach, they would never hear her over the thunderous roar of the surf.
Whirling around, she looked down at the man, then quickly began to unbutton her cloak. She shrugged out of it, dropped to her knees and wrapped him up tight. Then struggling to her feet, she gathered her wet skirts in her fists and stumbled briefly before dashing out of the cave to fetch help.
Three hours later Chelsea sat in the breakfast room with her mother and tapped a finger on the white-clothed tabletop. They were waiting for the doctor to come and explain the mysterious man’s condition, or at least to assure them that he was still alive.
Tap tap tap... She could not keep her finger still. Impatience was bounding around inside her brain like a rubber ball.
Her mother huffed and lowered her needlepoint to her lap. “Really, Chelsea. Must you do that? Can you not sit still?”
“Aren’t you curious what the doctor has to say?” she replied. “Are you not wondering who the man is? Or where he came from?”
“We shall find out soon enough, as soon as he wakes.” Her mother lifted her needlepoint and resumed her work. “If he wakes.”
“Let us not lose hope.”
They sat in silence for some time, then her mother cleared her throat to speak. She kept her eyes downcast, however, remaining focused on her stitching. “Did you find time to read the letter from Lord Jerome?”
How light and casual her tone was. She could have been humming a happy tune.
Chelsea stilled her finger. “Yes, as a matter of fact I did.”
“Well what, Mother?”
She set down the frame again. “He has written to me as well, and he has informed me of his intentions. Surely you must realize, dear, that it is a very generous offer, and it is likely the only one you will ever receive.”
For a long moment Chelsea stared at her mother, then she let out a derisive chuckle. “Thank you for the vote of confidence.”
“It is no laughing matter.” Her mother began stitching again. “I am disappointed, Chelsea. Clearly you have given up all hope for a happy future for yourself.”
“A happy future for me? I think it is your future you are thinking of Mother, not mine. You know I am content here. I do not require the approval of London society, nor do I wish to receive invitations and calling cards from all those snobby nobles. To get dressed up and cart myself around a congested city to go to parties and balls, praying every night for a proposal from some handsome aristocrat. I prefer Jersey. I have my writing, and I am fulfilled.” She sat back and waited uneasily for her mother’s response.
Her mother began stitching at a faster pace. “You’re being stubborn.”
“Stubborn? How old is Lord Jerome? Fifty? Sixty? He is pompous and greedy, he mistreats his horses, he does not wash, and as a result, his personal aroma is most offensive, and aside from that, all he wants is to preen with Sebastian’s title. He is only proposing to me because no one else will have him, and he thinks I am desperate enough to say yes.”
“You are young and beautiful, Chelsea. I am sure that has a great deal to do with it.”
“But that is the point, you see. If I were to marry someone, it would be someone who values me for what I am on the inside, not the outside. I would want someone who appreciates me for my mind.”
Her mother scoffed. “Like that handsome fortune hunter you ran off with seven years ago? I hardly think it was your mind that attracted him. Admit it, Chelsea. You were bamboozled by his looks and surface charm.”
Chelsea ran her open hand over the tablecloth, back and forth, trying to smooth out a ripple that refused to lie flat.
“I was only eighteen,” she quietly explained, remembering that it was more than just the young man’s surface charm. As a girl, she had always been an incurable romantic, dreaming of romance and fairy tales. She had wanted to be swept away by passion and love.
But it was something else, too—something deeper in the makeup of her character. Always, since she was a small child, she had a great need for independence. She wanted to make her own choices, even if it meant experimenting with mistakes, though she had not consciously understood it at the time.
The problem was, no one had ever let her make those mistakes, which was perhaps why she delivered such a spectacular rebellion. Someone was always standing by, warning her not to go near that bumblebee, or not to walk on that stone wall, lest she should fall—when all she wanted to do was explore.
Well, that was not exactly the whole story. She could not leave out Sebastian, the brother who was ten years older than she—and the only person who recognized and fed her curious spirit. When he came home from school, he would take her fishing and digging in the dirt for worms. He would flip a rock over so that she could see all the extraordinary wriggling creatures in the cold damp soil beneath. She would touch them with a finger, and her brother would share her fascination when a fuzzy caterpillar made its way across the back of her hand.
Sebastian had been gone for more than a year on his Grand Tour when she ran off with that fortune hunter. Looking back on it, she had probably gone a little mad from lack of mental exercise.
Her mother slammed the embroidery frame down on the table, stood up and spoke heatedly. “It was the scandal of the century, Chelsea. Your father was a very prominent member of the House with a great future ahead of him. He had many enemies who were more than ready to have an excuse to pull him down—so now here we are, ostracized. Exiled to this merciless, remote island on the edge of the Atlantic, pummeled by storms every other day, locked away from the world like traitors to the Crown.”
Chelsea spoke firmly. “If you hate it so much, why don’t you go back? Enough time has passed. I’m sure all has been forgotten. There have probably been dozens of scandals since then, far worse than mine. I would be perfectly fine here on my own. I enjoy the solitude.”
She would not ever wish for more. She had given up her childish dreams of romance long ago. Now she found pleasure and excitement through her stories.
Her mother picked up her embroidery again and sat down. She began stitching with hands that shook. “Oh no. I could never show my face. I would be mortified.”
Chelsea sighed heavily. “Well, that is your choice. As for me, I am content here. I do not need or want to marry just to get back into society’s good graces.” She cared nothing for society. It had done her no favors.
“It is not just for that,” her mother argued. “What if something happens to your brother? What then? You and I would be at the mercy of Lord Jerome, which is why I wish you would not slight him.”
Chelsea’s stomach pitched and rolled. It was a truth she preferred not to confront, for Sebastian, throughout a ten-year marriage, had not provided the family with an heir.
He walked into the room just then and poured himself a cup of coffee. “Slight who?” His blue eyes narrowed with curiosity. “The attempted murder victim upstairs?”
“No, of course not,” Chelsea answered with growing unease. “We are talking about Father’s cousin, Lord Jerome.”
“Ah, yes, our delightful cousin Jerome.” Sebastian leaned back against the sideboard and wrapped his hands around the coffee cup to warm them. “He’s not coming here, is he? Heaven help us all if he is. He’ll empty our wine cellar in a day.”
“And leave greasy smudge marks on all the mirrors,” Chelsea agreed, without smiling.
“Did you know he’s wearing a wig now?” Sebastian mentioned as he took a seat at the head of the table. “He thinks he has all the ladies fooled into believing it’s his real hair.”
“And do they actually believe it?”
He crinkled his nose and shook his head.
Their mother pushed her chair back and stood up. “That is enough, both of you. He is your father’s cousin, and presently first in line to inherit your title, Sebastian. It is time you both gave this situation the attention it demands. It is no laughing matter.”
Looking surprised at his mother’s outburst, Sebastian lowered his cup to the table. “I understand that he is my heir, Mother, but I am young and healthy.”
“You were ill last month.”
“It was a bad case of the sniffles.”
“You were on death’s door,” she argued. “We all knew it, and so did you. And even if you had not been ill, you could trip down the stairs tomorrow and kill yourself on the way to breakfast for all we know.” She paused to calm herself. “The fact of the matter is, we do not know what the future holds for any of us, and we cannot go on drifting aimlessly through the years as if we have it all under control. I agree, Lord Jerome is a horrid, pompous—” She stopped suddenly, as if she couldn’t bring herself to finish what she truly wanted to say. “The point is, we must consider our future. We cannot afford to be rude to him. We must keep all our ducks in a row.”
Sebastian leaned back in his chair and said nothing for a moment, then met Chelsea’s gaze. “It’s true, I suppose. You ought not to slight him, and maybe you should at least consider it.”
“Sebastian...” She couldn’t believe she was hearing this from him, of all people—the brother who had always understood her independent mind.
“Look, Chel,” he said, “we all know I have not been able to secure a future for you and Mother.” He raked a hand through his hair. “There’s only so much I can do. I worry about the two of you, and Melissa’s disappointment is—”
He stopped and shook his head.
Chelsea recognized his frustration, reached across the table and covered his hand with her own. “You cannot blame yourself for our situation. I did something very foolish seven years ago. I am more to blame than you.”
He reflected upon everything for a moment. “There is no point casting blame. This is where we are, and I take full responsibility for failing to provide this family with an heir.”
“He is right in at least one respect, Chelsea,” her mother said. “He does take on all the responsibility when you have been nothing but a burden to this family. You have pulled us down, and now you refuse to do the one thing that could save us.”
“But I don’t love him,” Chelsea said.
“Love!” Her mother laughed bitterly. “This is real life, Chelsea, not one of your childish stories. You of all people should know there is no hope for a happily ever after. Not for you. Any hope for that was dashed years ago when you ruined yourself, and now Lord Jerome is the only man in England who would ever make an offer, and he does so out of pity.”
The butler entered the room and they all immediately went silent. Their mother quickly sat down, picked up her needlepoint and resumed stitching. Chelsea fought to settle her distress.
“The doctor wishes to see you, my lord,” Cartwright said.
Eager to hear some news of the man upstairs, Chelsea sat up.
Sebastian nodded. “Send him in. I am sure we would all like to hear his prognosis.” As soon as the butler was out of earshot, Sebastian added under his breath, “And a change of subject would be a welcome diversion.” He threw Chelsea a look filled with apology and regret.
A moment later the doctor entered the breakfast room but remained standing just inside the door. He bowed slightly at the waist. “Good morning, my lord. Ladies.”
Sebastian stood. “How is the patient? Will he recover?”
“It is difficult to say. He has not yet regained consciousness. The good news is there was no sign of infection in the wound—at least not yet. Outside of that, he has a few bumps and bruises. His knuckles are badly cut up, which suggests he was...” The doctor glanced uneasily at the ladies. “Well, I am sure it is not my place to speculate about what brought him here.” He cleared his throat. “I have treated and dressed the wound. I have examined him. Now there is nothing to do but wait and pray.”
Chelsea settled back in her chair and worked hard to hide the level of her anxiety. She had been craving information about the man’s identity for the past three hours, and the waiting was excruciating. “He didn’t wake at all while you were treating him? Not even for a moment? Long enough to tell you his name?”
“No, Lady Chelsea, I am afraid not.”
“Hence we still have no idea who he is, or how he came to be washed up on our beach?” she said.
“Without his clothes, no less,” Sebastian added, sitting down and taking another sip of coffee.
The doctor pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “Unusual circumstances, to be sure. I confess, I am rather curious myself.”
Sebastian turned to Chelsea. “It’s just like one of your stories.”
She recalled her latest idea about a shipwreck and a handsome sea captain taken in by a young maiden. It was all very strange and extraordinary.
“He will be weak when he wakes,” the doctor told them. “He will also be confused and disoriented. It might be helpful if someone was at his side at all times, keeping an eye on him and checking the wound for any infection that might still occur. Certainly, if he develops a fever, send for me right away. And when he wakes...”
Chelsea sat forward. “Yes, Doctor?”
He shrugged. “Answer his questions, I suppose. Tell him who you are and where he is.”
“I will sit with him.” She pushed back her chair.
“You will do no such thing,” her mother declared. “It would be highly improper.”
Chelsea raised an eyebrow. “Are you worried about my reputation, Mother?”
An awkward silence ensued, and the doctor cleared his throat again. “Perhaps I should be on my way.”
Sebastian stood. “Of course, Doctor. Thank you for coming so quickly. And rest assured, we will keep a watchful eye on the patient.”
As soon as the doctor was gone, Chelsea turned to her mother. “Have a maid chaperone me if you must, though I hardly think it’s necessary. It’s not as if the man is going to ravish me. He’d have to be at least conscious for that.”
“Fine,” her mother replied. “But when he wakes, you must fetch someone immediately. We do not know anything about him. He could be dangerous.”
“If it will make you happy, Mother, I will do that.” She stood and started to leave, but her mother stopped her.
“There is only one thing you can do to make me happy, Chelsea, and you know what that is.”
Chelsea glanced back and spoke over her shoulder. “Yes, Mother, I know.”
“Promise me you will consider it, that you will not continue on this selfish path. If you marry Lord Jerome and bear him a son, your father’s title will pass directly through you, and will at least remain in our family.”
Chelsea nodded. “I understand what you are asking, Mother.”
Then she left the room to go and sit at the mysterious stranger’s bedside.
* * *
They had put the naked man in the blue guest chamber, a spacious, richly furnished room that overlooked the sea. The heavy velvet drapes were pulled open, and sunshine poured in, dazzling and balmy, while the thunderous noise of the surf kept any unwelcome silence at bay. One of the maids had placed a crystal vase of violets and bluebells on the desk, which brought the fresh scent of summer in from the outdoors.
Chelsea entered quietly and closed the door behind her with a soft click. She stood with her back to the door, eyes closed, while she contemplated her duty—marriage to Lord Jerome. A most repulsive future. She could not even bear to think of providing him with a son. That would mean she would have to let him touch her with those lecherous hands, kiss her with those thin, pitiless lips that curled over rancid, decaying teeth. She felt sick just thinking of it.
Opening her eyes, she looked at the stranger asleep in the bed. He lay flat on his back with his arms at his sides. The blue paisley coverlet was drawn up to his waist. Someone had dressed him in a white nightshirt.
She pushed away from the door and moved closer, both curious and tentative—and strangely, afraid. When she had found him in the cave, she’d been frazzled and distraught. She hadn’t noticed what his face looked like—though she did remember that his hair was jet black, shiny and wet.
She also remembered, very vividly, the image of his naked body. His legs were long and lean, his back and buttocks fit and muscular.
And when she’d rolled him over...
Well, suffice it to say, she had never seen a man’s private anatomy before, and in broad daylight no less. It had been a startling sight. She could not seem to push the image from her mind.
Not that she was trying very hard to do so. Truth be told, she hadn’t been trying at all to forget it. She was thinking of it even now as she approached him. It helped her to forget everything else that weighed upon her mind.
At last she stood beside the bed and took in the details of the stranger’s face. He was handsome, there was no question about that, despite the fact that there was a deep gash across his left eyebrow and his bottom lip was split open and swollen. He had strong, dark features—long black eyelashes, a chiseled jaw, and full, soft-looking lips. She wondered if someone in the house had shaved him that morning, because he was surprisingly well groomed. Or perhaps he had shaved at a late hour the night before, which was why he was still presentable that morning, though that seemed highly unlikely, as still as he lay.
She looked down at his arm upon the covers. On his right hand he wore a large silver ring with a shiny black stone. An onyx perhaps. The knuckles on his other hand were bruised and bloodied.
What happened to him? she wondered desperately, feeling unsettled at the sight of all his injuries. Had there been a shipwreck in the storm? Had he been hurt while clinging to the rigging as the boat went down, then tossed violently on the waves and flung like a child’s toy up onto the jagged rocks by the unforgiving power of the sea?
Or perhaps that was too romantic a thought—the product of a reclusive writer’s overactive imagination.
The more likely scenario was that he had been involved in a tavern brawl there on the island, was left for dead, then taken out on the water and tossed over the side of someone’s fishing boat.
Chelsea reached out to touch the stranger’s forearm, which was marked with abrasions, when a knock sounded at the door. She snatched her hand back.
Sebastian walked in. He moved around the foot of the bed and stood on the other side of it, looking down at their unconscious guest.
“Has he stirred?”
“No,” she answered.
Sebastian glanced at the silver ring on the man’s hand, then leaned over his face. “He’s good-looking, I’ll say that for him.”
“Yes, he certainly is.”
Sebastian raised an eyebrow at her. “Maybe he is your Prince Charming, Chel, and the fairy tale Mother mentioned earlier has finally begun. Wouldn’t that be a nice change—for someone around here to be favored with a happy ending.”
Chelsea knew he referred to Melissa, who longed so desperately to be a mother.
“Perhaps it will all work out somehow,” Chelsea said, then leaned over the stranger’s face and wondered what secrets were concealed behind those dark eyelids. She brushed a lock of hair away from his forehead. “Mother was right about one thing. We know nothing about him. He could be a dangerous criminal for all we know.”
“You’re intrigued, aren’t you?” Sebastian said, studying her intently.
“Of course I am. I’m a writer.”
“Be honest. It’s more than that. A naked man washed up onto the beach. You must have gotten an eyeful before you came for help.”
Chelsea picked up a decorative fringed pillow and biffed it at him.
He laughed, catching it in his hands. “Careful, you’ll injure him again.”
“Keep your voice down. And it’s not funny. He might not ever recover. Then you’ll regret joking about it, won’t you?”
Sebastian tossed the pillow to the foot of the bed. “Are you going to stay here and watch over him all day?”
“Probably. You heard what the doctor said. Someone should stay with him.”
He glanced at Mary, the young maid, who was sitting in the corner, acting as chaperone. “I am sure my lovely wife would be happy to sit with you. Then Mary could get back to work.”
“That would be nice,” Chelsea said.
He started for the door. “I’ll tell Melissa to come and join you when she returns from her morning ride. She’ll certainly be surprised to hear of all this.”
He left the room, and Chelsea remained standing over the bed, looking again at the stranger’s scarred forearms and large hands.
Something made her change her mind about touching him. She moved away from the bed with a strange feeling of trepidation.
Chelsea remained at her post in the blue guest chamber for the rest of the morning. She sat in the chair by the window with a book, or paced around the bed, watching the man from what her mother would have regarded as a reasonably safe distance. He did not move or make a single sound.
He remained as still as a corpse, flat on his back with his arms at his sides, showing no signs of life or even a hint of future recovery.
A maid brought Chelsea lunch on a tray, and then her sister-in-law, Melissa, arrived and sat across from her by the window, dismissing the other maid.
Chelsea described how she had found the man naked and wounded in the cave, and how distressed and frantic she had been, running up the hill for help. They also talked about Lord Jerome and his proposal, and how she’d been told she had no choice in the matter—that she owed it to the family to secure their future.
Throughout the rest of the afternoon, Chelsea read a book while Melissa worked on her needlepoint, and when teatime rolled around, they ate scones with raspberry jam and butter while they watched over the man in the bed, who still did not move a muscle or utter a single word.
A few hours later, when the sun went down and the dinner gong echoed through the corridors of the mansion, Melissa rose from her chair and stretched her arms over her head. “Are you coming?”
Chelsea glanced at the man in the bed. “I believe I will stay here, but perhaps you could have my dinner sent up. And send the maid back as well.”
“Certainly, but promise you won’t stay up too late.”
“I’ll come back before I retire and see if you need anything.” With that, Melissa left the room.
Chelsea sat for a long time, listening to the steady ticking of the clock on the mantel and the constant murmur of the sea. The sun had disappeared below the horizon, and outside the window, high in the sky, stars appeared, one by one.
Rising to her feet, she strolled to the bedside, put a hand to her mouth to stifle a yawn, then leaned over the man. He would no doubt be very weak when he opened his eyes, perhaps too weak to even speak.
Feeling a sudden wave of compassion for his suffering, she laid her open hand upon his forearm. Gently, with the tip of her finger, she traced a path around all the little scrapes and cuts, as if she were following a maze. He was warm to her touch, but so very still and lifeless.
Her eyes traveled down the length of his body. She could see, beneath the covers, the outline of his firm torso and long legs, and she remembered again his naked form in the cave. Her belly swirled with fascination and arousal, which shamed her for a moment, until she remembered that she was a flesh and blood woman—a woman who had once known passion and desire for a brief time before this seven-year exile. There was a time when she had wanted nothing more than to know a man’s body, and to be made love to by someone she adored.
Suddenly, without warning, the man’s arm snapped up. He grabbed hold of her wrist.
Panic flared in her belly. She gasped, but before she could even comprehend the pain in her arm, the man scrambled out of the bed like a wild animal and came at her with raging fury in his eyes.
Chelsea screamed as he threw her to the floor. Her head hit the rug and she squeezed her eyes shut. All the air sailed out of her lungs. The man pinned her down, tossed a leg over her hips and straddled her. When she opened her eyes, he was sitting on top of her, holding a brass candlestick over his head. It gleamed in the firelight, just like the ferocity in his wild blue eyes.
“Aaah!” he yelled as he drew the weapon back and swung.
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