Stranger in My Arms by Lisa Kleypas

  “My love,” Hunter interrupted softly, “you've already made me damned sorry. It's a constant source of regret to me, knowing that if I'd been kind to you all those years ago, I'd be in your arms right now. Instead I'm reduced to bargaining for just one glimpse of you.”

  Lara's defiant anger faded, and she regarded him with pained confusion. “It wasn't all your fault,” she said unhappily. “I wasn't the one you wanted. And I don't enjoy intimacy of that kind. I think it's the way I'm made, or just some instinct I lack—”

  “No, Lara. God. There's nothing wrong with you.” Hunter closed his eyes, while the bitter taste of regret filled his mouth. He chose his words with excruciating care. “If you could just allow yourself to believe for one moment that it doesn't have to be painful or unpleasant—”

  “Perhaps you could be more gentle than before,” Lara said, her lashes lowering. “I believe it doesn't necessarily have to be painful. But even then, I don't think you could change my feelings about the act.”

  Her lovely face was so apologetic and dejected that it took all Hunter's strength to keep from going to her. “What feelings?” he asked gruffly.

  Lara replied with obvious difficulty. “To me, what happens between a man and woman is so…sordid…shameful…and I'm such a failure at it. I have some pride, you know.” She picked up the silk garment, which hung limply in her perspiring hands. “Making me wear this is a mockery, don't you see? It reminds me of my inadequacy as a wife.”

  “No,” he said roughly. “The failure was your husband's, Lara. Never yours.”

  Lara stared at him with an arrested expression. The words he had chosen—your husband's—made it sound as if he were speaking of another man. Of course, he could be referring to himself in the third person, but it was an odd way to speak about himself. A touch of fear prodded her heart to beat more sharply, and she wondered if she should voice her suspicions. Before she could say anything, however, Hawksworth headed to the door.

  He paused at the threshold and glanced back at her. “The bargain is set, Lara. If you want the child to stay, you'll have no objections from me. You know what I want in return.”

  Lara nodded stiffly, twisting the negligee in her hands as he left.

  After Lara had changed into fresh linens and a light muslin gown, she emerged from her room to find Hawksworth waiting for her. There was an almost penitent look on his face, though she sincerely doubted that he regretted the bargain he'd made with her. “I thought you might take me around the house and describe the changes you're planning with Mr. Smith,” he said.

  “Perhaps you should consult with Mr. Smith and his assistants instead. I'm sure they are far better able to explain things than I, and if you don't approve of the schemes we've chosen, you can take it up with them directly.”

  “I approve of everything you've chosen.” He took her hand and smiled at her, lightly playing with her fingers. “And I don't want to talk to Smith. I want you. So take me around the house…please.” The last word was added with a cajoling smile she found hard to resist.

  Lara hesitated while his fingertips drifted to the tender inside of her wrist. “All right,” she said. “I'll tell you as much as I can remember, although Mr. Smith used many Italian words that I couldn't begin to pronounce.”

  Hawksworth laughed and kept her hand as they walked, threading his fingers with hers. It was an oddly pleasant feeling, her hand enclosed in his much larger one.

  They began with the ballroom, where the Moroccan statuary would be replaced by rows of gleaming windows and marble colonnades. “They'll use fleur de pêche marble, I think,” Lara said, stopping in the middle of the ballroom, the two of them standing alone on a sea of shining parquet. Her voice echoed slightly in the large room. “Mr. Smith said it contains many beautiful shades of amber. And over on that wall, they'll install ivory-colored paneling to make the room lighter.” She turned to face him, seeking his reaction. His eyes were so dark and fathomless that she almost lost her train of thought. “As for the plasterwork…”

  A long silence passed. “Yes?” Hawksworth prompted softly.

  Lara shook her head, unable to remember a word she had been about to say. She kept staring at him, fascinated by his face, as thoroughly English and aristocratic as always…and yet…there was something different about him. It was more than the exotic copper hue of his skin and the startling whiteness of his teeth. It was a trace of foreignness, a sense that he didn't belong here in this civilized home discussing its interiors.

  With an effort, Lara turned away and forced herself to continue. “They're going to strip away all the gilded plasterwork and replace it with a very subtle basso-rilievo.” Her breath caught as she felt his hand settle at her waist. Moistening her dry lips, she managed to finish. “Two artists—stuccatori, Mr. Smith called them—will be sent from Venice to do the work.”

  “Very nice,” he murmured.

  He was so tall—he was standing close behind her, with the top of her head just reaching his shoulder. Suddenly she was tempted to lean back against him and press her head to his chest until she could hear his heartbeat. She had never liked very large men, feeling dominated in their company. But his strength now seemed inviting, and she realized in silent surprise that she no longer found his touch distasteful.

  Lara stepped away from him with a nervous laugh. “I hope that Arthur and Janet will never take possession of the house again,” she said lightly. “One wonders what new schemes they might come up with.”

  Hawksworth didn't share her smile. “They won't,” he said seriously, following her, catching her easily. His warm hand slid to the small of her back. “There's nothing to fear from the Crosslands.”

  As he stared into her upturned face, he lifted his hand to the side of her throat and stroked her skin with the backs of his knuckles. Lara swallowed and stared at him, while his light touch made her shiver. “You know they must be planning some sort of legal action against you…us,” she said.

  “I'll deal with them when the time comes.” His dark gaze captured hers. “I'll take care of you, Lara. Don't doubt it for a second.”

  “No, of course I…” She stopped and gasped as she felt him stroke her waist, sliding up until the heels of his hands brushed the sides of her breasts. To her bewildered dismay, she felt a responsive ache inside. “I wish you wouldn't touch me like that,” she whispered. His head lowered, and she felt his mouth brush against her throat.

  “Why not?” he asked, searching for the tiny hollow beneath her ear.

  “Because it makes me feel so…” She groped for words, but as he pulled her closer, every rational thought flew from her head.

  He cupped her breast with tantalizing gentleness, the soft weight fitting exactly in his hand. At the same time, he caught her earlobe with his teeth and touched it with his tongue. “How does it make you feel?” he murmured, but she only gasped and pressed herself against him in an unconscious plea for more.

  He obliged her at once, capturing her lips in a long, slow kiss, his tongue gently probing and stroking inside her mouth. Skillfully he teased and caressed her, the kiss so compelling that she couldn't help responding. Her mind reeled with the improbability of the situation, finding such dizzying pleasure in her husband's embrace. They strained to be closer, her small hands clinging to his broad back, her body caught between his hard thighs. The sweeping excitement intensified, and she moaned and sagged against him until they were molded together from breast to thigh.

  Only then did Hawksworth release her with an unsteady laugh, his lungs working hard for air. He stared at her swollen lips and flushed face, and a soft curse escaped his lips. “You make it hard to concentrate on panels and cornices,” he muttered, his eyes bright with amusement.

  Lara took a deep breath and tried to collect herself. She couldn't bring herself to look at him, afraid that if she did, she would be tempted to walk straight back into his arms. “Shall we continue with the tour?” she asked in a low voice.

  Hunter appr
oached her and slid his fingers beneath her chin, tilting her face upward. “Yes,” he said with a rueful smile. “Just don't show me any of the bedrooms—unless you're prepared to deal with the consequences.”

  Chapter 10

  THE EVENING MEAL was a long, drawn-out affair, attended by fourteen guests. Excited by the prospect of meeting the celebrated Possibility Smith, some gentry from Market Hill had angled for invitations, as well as the mayor, rector, Dr. Slade, and the Misses Withers, a pair of elderly sisters with a shared passion for gardening. As an afterthought, Lara had also invited Captain and Mrs. Tyler, a couple who had recently leased a manor house not far from town.

  The guests began to arrive at seven o'clock and were shown into the drawing room, where Lara discreetly gathered them into appropriate pairs in preparation for the procession to dinner. The last to arrive were Captain and Mrs. Tyler. It appeared the Tylers were a well-matched couple, both of them small-framed and pleasant-faced. Having never met the Tylers before, Lara went to them immediately.

  “Captain and Mrs. Tyler!” she exclaimed, greeting them warmly. “Welcome to Hawksworth Hall.”

  Mrs. Tyler murmured shyly and curtsied, while Captain Tyler, a dark-haired gentleman with a neatly trimmed black mustache, made their replies. “How do you do, Lady Hawksworth?” He bent smartly over her gloved hand. “We were honored by your invitation. It was a very great kindness for you to include us.”

  “Not at all. We are in dire need of new friends to enliven the neighborhood.” She cocked her head and smiled at him inquiringly. “I had heard that you have recently returned from service in India.”

  “That is true,” he acknowledged. “It's good to be back on English soil again.”

  “You'll have a great deal in common with my husband, then, as he lived there for a time.”

  “I'm afraid I never had the pleasure of making Lord Hawksworth's acquaintance, though I had heard of him. We moved in quite different circles.” Although Captain Tyler was expressionless, Lara had the feeling that the last comment had been intended as a bit of censure. Being a military man, Tyler had probably disapproved of Hunter's lifestyle, living in a large household with at least fifty Indian servants, all of them devoted to one man's pleasure. No doubt Hunter had been a well-known roué, indulging himself freely in a land of beautiful women and sensual delights. The rumors of the endless parties and orgies held in Calcutta were rampant in London, and Lara was well aware that her husband had been no saint.

  The thought of Hunter's sexual indulgences gave her a sour, unpleasant feeling, and she sought to cover it with a bland social smile. “If you haven't met Lord Hawksworth,” she said, “we must rectify the matter immediately.” Glancing around the room, she saw Hunter talking to Lord Lonsdale. No doubt the two of them were involved in some conversation about hunting, drinking, or other masculine pursuits. She caught Hunter's eye, and he excused himself from the private conversation in order to welcome the newcomers.

  Dressed in a gleaming white waistcoat and cravat, cream breeches, and a chocolate brown coat with gilt buttons, Hunter looked every inch the aristocrat with centuries of breeding behind him. Only the deep tan of his skin and the tigerish grace of his movements distinguished him from the man he had been before. He approached them with the congenial smile of a host performing his duty…until he saw Captain Tyler's face. His steps slowed, and Lara thought she saw a flash of recognition in his gaze before his features were schooled into an inscrutable mask.

  Captain Tyler wore the same impassive facade, but his face had turned pale, and his entire body was tense.

  They knew each other—Lara was certain of it. She would have staked her life on it.

  But they behaved as if they had never met. Stunned, Lara introduced them and witnessed their stiff attempts at conversation.

  Captain Tyler stared at her husband as if he were seeing a ghost. “Congratulations on your miraculous return to England, my lord. It is the stuff of legend.”

  Hunter shook his head. “You're the legend, Captain, not I. Your accomplishments in India, particularly in suppressing the thuggees, are to be lauded.”

  The captain inclined his head. “Thank you.”

  Lara glanced at Mrs. Tyler, who seemed as bewil dered as she. Why were the two men pretending to be strangers, when it was obvious there was some shared knowledge between them? They must have met each other in India, or perhaps they had some mutual friend or event that connected them in some mysterious way.

  Although Lara looked at Hunter questioningly, he did not return her gaze. He disappeared behind a screen of impeccable politeness, betraying nothing of his true thoughts. The guests were led into the dining hall, all of them exclaiming with pleasure at the table laden with crystal, silver, candles, and flowers. Seated far away from her husband, Lara halfheartedly entertained the guests nearest her, enduring the Misses Withers's prattling about mignonette seeds and bedding plants, and Dr. Slade's accounts of his latest medical accomplishments.

  The first course was brought out, a delectable array of soups and fish. It was followed by a course of venison, puddings, and vegetables, followed by another course of partridge, duck, and quail, cheesecakes and tarts, and so forth, until sweets, fruit, and biscuits were finally brought out. Wine flowed throughout the meal, the butler expertly opening bottles of Sauterne, Bordeaux and champagne, while footmen hastened to keep the guests' glasses filled.

  Hunter was drinking a great deal, Lara saw with growing dismay. He had always been a heavy drinker, but this wasn't drinking for enjoyment's sake…this was deliberate. As if he were trying to assuage some inner pain that wouldn't abate. He raised his glass again and again, quiet except for an occasional biting comment that made the guests laugh. He spoke to Captain Tyler only once, when the conversation had turned to India, and Tyler was expounding on the idea that Indians were not fit for self-rule.

  “…history has shown that the natives are a corrupt lot and not to be trusted,” Captain Tyler said earnestly. “Only through British intervention will the Indians be brought fully into the nineteenth century. And even then, they will always require the guidance and supervision of British officers.”

  Setting down his glass, Hunter sent a cool stare in Tyler's direction. “I knew a number of Indians who had the audacity to believe they could actually govern themselves.”

  “Did you?” There was a long pause, while Tyler's gaze suddenly acquired a malicious gleam. “How interesting. According to your reputation, you've rejected the idea of provincial autonomy for the natives.”

  “I changed my mind,” Hunter snapped.

  “The Indians have proved that they are not ready for such responsibility,” Tyler rejoined. “A society which is rife with widow-burning, infanticide, brigandage, idol worship—”

  “None of which have been helped by British intervention in matters that are none of our damned business,” Hunter said, ignoring the gasps around the table at his profanity.

  “What about Christianity? I suppose you're going to claim that the Indians haven't benefitted from that, either?”

  Hunter shrugged. “Let them have their gods. They've done well enough with them. I doubt the average Hindu or Muslim is worse than any so-called Christian of my acquaintance.”

  The entire table was silent at the sacrilegious statement.

  Then Captain Tyler burst out laughing, providing relief from the tension, and smiles appeared as the group tacitly decided to treat the debate as a joke.

  The rest of the dinner passed without incident, although Lara found it hard to keep from staring at her husband. She had rarely discussed politics with Hunter, as he'd had no interest in a woman's opinion on such issues. However, there was no doubt that he had once wholeheartedly approved of the British interference in India. How was it that he now apparently held the opposite view?

  It took an eternity for the dinner party to end, with the rituals of after-dinner port and tea passing slowly, the guests staying until after midnight. Finally the last one
had left, and the servants began to clear away the remaining plates and glasses and silver. Lara made an attempt to slip away to her room, reasoning that Hunter had drunk too much to notice or care where she went. Just as she reached the grand staircase, he caught her arm in one large hand, startling her.

  Lara spun to face him, her heart jumping high in her throat. Hunter reeked of port, his eyes were glazed and his color was high, and he wasn't quite steady on his feet. “Drunk as an emperor,” her father would have put it. Some men in that condition were as mellow as cattle, while others were loud and boisterous. Hunter was neither of those things. There was a sullen curve to his mouth and a dangerous moodiness in his expression.

  “Where do you think you're going?” he asked, his grip firm on her arm.

  With a stab of alarm, Lara realized that he had every intention of seeing their bargain satisfied that night. She would have to find some way of putting him off. With him in this condition, she was not about to display herself in a provocative negligee. The worst nights of her life had begun like this, with Hunter drinking heavily and forcing himself on her. “I thought I would leave you to enjoy another glass or two of port,” she said, forcing her trembling lips into the semblance of a smile.

  “And hope, I would drink myself into a stupor,” he finished for her, returning her faltering smile with a sardonic one of his own. “You won't be that lucky, sweet.”

  He began to pull her upstairs, like a tiger dragging its prey to a convenient location for snacking. Miserably Lara stumbled along beside him. “You haven't seemed yourself this evening,” she ventured, then reflected inwardly that he never seemed himself—it was impossible to know what to expect from him. “Why did you take such an exception to Captain Tyler?”

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