“Lady Hawksworth, your husband is not dead.”
With those words, Lara’s life turned upside down. Hunter, Earl of Hawksworth, had been lost at sea. Or so she’d been told. Their unhappy marriage, with its cold caresses and passionless kisses was over. But now a powerful, virile man stood before her, telling secrets only a husband could know, and vowing she would once again be his wife in every way. While Lara couldn’t deny that this man with the smouldering dark eyes resembled Hunter, he was attentive and loving in ways he never was before. Soon she desperately wanted to believe, with every beat of her heart, that this stranger was truly her husband. But had this rake reformed or was Lara being seduced by a cunning stranger?
Rating: C+ for the story and A for the narration
This is a take on The Return of Martin Guerre (which was also the inspiration for the film Sommersby), in which a widow is suddenly confronted with the reappearance of her dead husband. It’s been a while since I saw either film, but if I recall correctly in both cases – as in this book – the reader isn’t in on the secret as to whether the returning husband is, in fact, the man he says he is, or an imposter come to worm his way into his ‘wife’s’ affections and establish himself in the local society for nefarious means.
In each case, the hero is sufficiently attractive and the dead husband was sufficiently unpleasant so as to make the viewer/reader root for him and want him to get the girl and the life he wants rather than to care very much about whether he’s the man he says he is.
In Stranger in my Arms Lara, Lady Hawksworth has her ordered and swelf-sacrificing existence torn apart when she is told that a man calling himself Hunter Crossland, the Earl of Hawksworth has presented himself in London. Lara’s husband had been somewhat of a boor – over fond of drink, frequently unfaithful, cruel and a man who used his wife’s body with no gentleness or finesse. Upon his death, the earldom passed to a cousin, Arthur, and his grasping wife, both of whom have run the estates into the ground in the intervening years, and who continue to spend money like water with no thought for their responsibilities to the estate workers and tenants.
They evicted Lara from her home and sent her to live in a tiny, run-down cottage on the estate, saying it is sufficient for her needs. She does not complain, preferring to reside somewhere in privacy rather than to go to live with relatives. Also, living there means she can stay close to the village of Market Hills, where she expends much of her time and money on charitable works, most notably at the local orphanage.
When Hunter returns, he is sufficiently similar in looks to her husband that Lara is unsure whether he is truly Hunter or an imposter. (Although being this is a romance, he’s slimmer, more muscular, sexier and far more handsome than Lara remembers!) Added to that is a notable change in his manner towards Lara. Whereas before he’d had no care for her whatsoever, other than as a thing he possessed, Hunter is now most solicitous of her and although he desires her, is adamant that he will not force her to his bed as he had often done before.
Of course, things develop as one would expect. Lara begins to trust Hunter more as each day passes, as he proves himself to be a changed man in more ways than one. He shows a flair for business and land management that means he will soon be able to set their finances to rights, he takes an interest in the local community and, against his own inclinations, undertakes some tasks on Lara’s behalf when she takes in an orphan who had been living with his (now hanged) father in prison.
There’s nothing new in the story, but it’s a solid and enjoyable one for the most part. Hunter is a very attractive character indeed, kind, honourable and great in bed, just as one would expect from a romantic hero. Lara is harder to like however, as in the early part of the book she comes across as priggish and self-righteous. Her previous sexual experiences were far from pleasant, yet even though she enjoys Hunter’s kisses and having his hands on her, she is adamant that she will not sleep with him willingly, even going to far as to invite his former mistress to a party in the hope that he will resume his relationship with her so as to spare Lara the marital bed. There was one point, where Hunter, in desperation, tries to bargain for a night with her and she accuses him of being unable to think of anyone except himself that I almost wanted him to tell her she wasn’t worth the aggravation!
But that aside, the story was enjoyable, if rather predictable. There’s plenty of sexual tension crackling through the encounters between Lara and Hunter, and even though the outcome was hardly unexpected, there was still enough uncertainty as to how it would come about to keep me interested.
There’s also a secondary story concerning Lara’s sister Rachel, and the physical abuse she is suffering at the hands of her husband. I thought Rachel’s attitude was portrayed realistically, and the fact that she was her husband’s property was brought home with Hunter and Lara’s knowing that they would be unable to keep her away from her husband indefinitely.
I listened to the audiobook which was read by the incomparable Rosalyn Landor, and as usual, she doesn’t disappoint – in fact, turning what would probably have been an average read into something better. All her characterisations were excellent – she pays close attention to even the most minor characters, so that all the maids and men-servants sound different, and she is also very good when it comes to voicing young children. She was able to give Lara’s voice the required amount of prigishness and yet still convey the impression that she was gradually falling under Hunter’s spell. I very much liked her interpretation of Hunter and I thought she invested him with an underlying vulnerability, especially when it came to showing his frustrations with Lara (which weren’t just sexual ones!) and showed how, even when he was trying to be manipulative, it just wasn’t in him as far as she was concerned.
I can understand that some readers/listeners may have thought Hunter’s motives for seeking Lara out were somewhat stalkerish, but then, as I’ve discovered, sometimes one person’s stalker is another person’s passionate admirer, and in this case, I prefer the latter interpretation. I think I’d have liked a little more forays into Hunter’s mind and his motivations, but then that would have been difficult given that, like Lara, the reader is unsure as to his true identity until the reveal near the end of the book.
Overall, I thought Stranger in my Arms was an enjoyable and undemanding listen.