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When a Stranger Loves Me
By Julianne MacLean
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
Western tip of the Jersey Islands, 1874
My Dearest Lady Chelsea,
I shall presume this letter finds 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 I am many years your senior and that I am not the handsomest of men, but I am not without pity either. I believe incharity and forgiveness, and would therefore be prepared to overlook your disgrace and take you as a wife. You are a beautiful woman, 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 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 it here 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.
And 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, however, as it reflected the sun's rays. She squinted and walked toward it, kneeling 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 strolling 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 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.
Excerpted from When a Stranger Loves Me by Julianne MacLean Copyright © 2009 by Julianne MacLean. Excerpted by permission.
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