Stranger in My Arms by Lisa Kleypas

  “Oh yes, the Tylers.” His voice was smooth and controlled, but somehow it stung like a whip. “Tell me, my sweet…how did they come to be at my table this evening?”

  “They've leased Morland Manor,” she said uneasily. “I'd heard that Captain Tyler had served in India, and I thought you would enjoy meeting him.”

  They reached the top of the stairs, and he jerked her to face him. Lara winced as his gaze raked over her face. He looked furious, accusatory, as if she had somehow betrayed him. “Hunter,” she said softly, “what have I done wrong?”

  After a moment some of the rage left him, though his eyes still contained a dangerous glitter, and he seemed to be battling ugly memories. “No more surprises,” he muttered, giving her a little shake for emphasis. “I don't like them.”

  “No more surprises,” Lara repeated, hoping that the storm had passed.

  Hunter took a deep breath and let go of her. He scratched his head with both hands, dragging his fingers through his hair until the thick locks were a disheveled mass of sun-shot gold and brown. He seemed weary, and Lara thought suddenly that he might go to his bed in search of sleep.

  Hunter punctured her budding hopes with one curt sentence. “Go and change into the negligee.”

  She was left stuttering. “I…but you couldn't possibly…I think another night would be…”

  “Tonight.” He smiled slightly, his face dark and satyric. “I've been waiting all day to have a look at you. A barrel of wine wouldn't be enough to stop me, much less a bottle or two.”

  “I'd rather wait,” Lara said with a pleading gaze.

  “Go now,” he murmured. “Or I'll assume that you want me to help you change.”

  Quietly Lara took measure of his drunken determination and squared her shoulders. She would do it, if only to prove that she wasn't afraid of anything he could do to her. “Very well,” she said evenly. “Come to my room in ten minutes.”

  He grunted in response, watching as she walked away from him with her spine held stiff and straight.

  Lara struggled with a feeling of unreality as she entered her bedroom and closed the door. She wondered if she could really make herself stand before him in a gown that had been designed to flaunt a woman's body…a gown created to arouse a man. It was more provocative than nakedness. Hunter had never asked her to do something like this before. She supposed it was a result of the sexual experience he had gained in India, or perhaps this was merely a way of reasserting his control over her, to expose and shame her until she had no pride left.

  Well, it wasn't going to work. He could humiliate her any way he chose, but he wouldn't touch the core of self-respect within her. She would put on the vulgar garment and despise him every minute that she wore it.

  Trembling with outrage, Lara went to the armoire, where she had buried the negligee in a stack of chaste undergarments. Locating the garment, she drew it out with a grimace of distaste. The fragile web of lace and silk was so fine that she could have easily pulled it through a ring.

  Awkwardly Lara undressed herself, having no desire for Naomi's assistance. She left her clothes and shoes in a heap on the floor. The negligee slid over her body in a cool whisper of silk, making her shiver. It fastened with tiny ribbons, which barely held the bodice and waist together. The skirt—if that was what it could be called—parted on both sides when she walked, exposing the entire length of her legs and part of her hips.

  Should she let her hair down? She was tempted to unpin the braided coronet atop her head and brush the long locks until they helped to conceal her body. No…Hunter would only be amused by the cowardly attempt at modesty.

  Lara went rigid as someone entered the room without knocking. Drawing close beside the armoire, half hidden by the massive piece of furniture, she peeked around it cautiously. Her husband sauntered to the Hepplewhite chair, carrying a bottle of wine. He had removed his coat and cravat, the neck of his white shirt gaping to reveal his brown throat. Seating himself in a casual sprawl on the chair, he smiled insolently as he saw her tight-lipped face. Not bothering to hide his anticipation, he took a long pull on the bottle and gestured for her to come out of hiding.

  The silent command increased Lara's furious agitation. After all, she was his wife, not some prostitute paid to perform on cue. “What shall I do?” she asked in a low, resentful voice.

  “Walk toward me.”

  There was a fire in the grate, too far away for Lara to feel its heat. Goose bumps rose on her chilled skin. Gritting her teeth, she forced herself to obey, taking one step, then another, the fine Aubusson carpet prickling beneath her bare feet. As she came near him, the firelight shone through the transparent black silk. She knew he could see everything, the flashes of ivory skin, the shape of her body, the dark triangle between her legs.

  Her face burned as she stopped before him.

  Hunter sat like a statue, his face and hair dappled with light from the dancing flames. “Oh, Lara,” he said softly. “You're so damned beautiful, I…” He stopped and swallowed, as if it were difficult for him to speak. His faint smile had died away, and he set aside the wine bottle as if his fingers had become nerveless. He barely seemed to breathe as his gaze swept from her bare feet to her breasts, lingering at the pink tips that strained against the delicate lace.

  The room no longer seemed cold, but Lara continued to tremble.

  “I made a promise not to touch you,” he said hoarsely, “but I'll be damned if I can keep it.”

  If he had grabbed or forced her in any way, she could have resisted. However, he reached for her so slowly, his fingers settling cautiously on her hips, as if he would frighten her with any sudden movement. His face was downturned, making his expression impossible to read. She heard his breathing, though, fast and scraping, in his throat.

  “I imagined this for so long,” he said thickly, “seeing you…touching you…” His large hands slid down to her buttocks, fingers shaping to the taut curves. Exerting the slightest of pressures, he brought her closer between his spread knees. Mesmerized, Lara felt his hands begin a slow, careful sojourn over her body, gliding over her back, the indentations of her waist, the fullness of hips and thighs, even the hollows behind her knees. The heat of his palms sank through the thin barrier of silk as if it weren't even there.

  Her heart pounded and she thought of pulling away, but her traitorous body wouldn't seem to obey. Hunter looked at her, his eyes filled with clear, dark heat, even as his hands began a slow upward slide to her breasts. He cupped their softness, lifting the pale weights encased in black lace. She gasped, her knees quaking until it took all her strength to keep from sinking into his lap. His fingertips stroked and lightly pulled the hardening centers, making the nipples stand in rosy peaks. He leaned forward, his breath like steam as it wafted over her skin.

  His mouth covered the tip of her breast, surrounding her with heat and moisture that seeped through the screen of lace. She felt his tongue stroking, circling, sending ripples of pleasure through her aching flesh.

  “Lara,” he said, his voice gravelly. “I want you so much. Let me kiss you…taste you…” Haste made him clumsy, and he pulled at the bodice of her gown until her shoulder was bare and the lace was uncomfortably tight.

  Lara whimpered, torn between indecision and excitement. “That's enough,” she said, her hands fluttering against his shoulders. “You shouldn't…This isn't something I…”

  But Hunter had found one of the silk ribbons and tugged it loose, the black lace spilling open to display her breasts. Filling his hands with the opulent curves, he spread greedy kisses over her tender skin. He captured a rosy nipple in his mouth and sucked greedily, while she shuddered and tried to push him away.

  “Tell me you don't want this,” he said fiercely.

  Lara couldn't answer, couldn't speak with his tongue sliding between her breasts, his hands roaming over her naked skin. He jerked the second ribbon free, and the gown sagged to her hips. Growling in pleasure, Hunter kissed her belly, his tongu
e flickering around the rim of her navel before dipping delicately inside. Lara moaned in astonishment, jerking at the hot, moist touch, her fingers clutching at the rough silk of his hair.

  Hunter pushed his head against her midriff with a tormented groan, and slid his arm around her waist. “Don't stop me,” he breathed. “Please.”

  He picked her up as if she were a child, lurching toward the bed in a few drunken strides. Placing her on the mattress, he followed immediately, his large body levering over hers, his hands framing her face. He kissed her hungrily, his tongue plunging and exploring her mouth, while she moaned in fearful delight. Tentatively she raised her arms around his neck, and his throat hummed with pleasure. His hand released its gentle clasp on her face and slid to the top of her thigh, where the thatch of dark curls was still veiled by the negligee.

  “No…wait,” Lara said, clenching her legs together.

  To her surprise, he obeyed, resting his hand on the plane of her abdomen. He dropped his head beside hers, digging his forehead into the mattress. His lungs contracted with a great shuddering sigh.

  They were both silent then, the heat of their bodies mingling. Hunter was so heavy next to her, his limbs stretching out well beyond hers.

  Another time, long ago, he would have forced himself on her.

  Filled with wonder and gratitude, Lara rested her hand on the heavy arm that crossed over her waist. She moved her palm over the hard curve of muscle, up to his shoulder. A wicked thought flashed through her mind, that she wished he had removed his shirt and exposed the tanned skin that intrigued her so.

  “Thank you,” she said, her voice a mere wisp of sound. “Thank you for not forcing me.”

  His silence emboldened her, and she stroked his shoulder in the first affectionate gesture she had ever dared to make toward him. “It's not that I find you unattractive,” she murmured. A blush covered her face as she continued. “In fact, I think you're actually rather…appealing.” She turned until her mouth was pressed furtively against the hot skin of his throat. “I'm glad you came back. Truly.”

  A soft snore rumbled near her ear.

  Startled, Lara drew back and looked at him. Her husband's eyes were shut and his lips were parted like a slumbering child's. “Hunter,” she said cautiously. He made a contented sound and snuggled against the counterpane. A raspy sigh escaped his throat, and the snoring resumed.

  Lara bit her lip to hold back a sudden laugh. She disentangled herself from him and left the bed, kicking away the negligee as it tangled around her ankles. Hurrying to the armoire, she donned a fresh nightgown and robe. Hunter remained on the bed, a peaceful heap of long limbs and rattling snores.

  Safely attired once more, Lara approached her husband. A wry smile curved her lips, and she reached for his feet, removing his shoes and stockings. She hesitated before unbuttoning his waistcoat, half expecting him to waken suddenly. He was lax and heavy, his muscles slack as she removed the well-fitted garment. Leaving him in his shirt and breeches, she pulled the side of the counterpane over him, protecting him from the chill of the night.

  Before turning down the lamp, Lara paused to take one last glance at her husband. He was like some magnificent slumbering beast, all his alertness and vitality temporarily banked, his claws sheathed. But on the morrow he would be back in his usual form, mocking, argumentative, charming…and he would resume his efforts to seduce her.

  What unnerved her was the realization that in some small way she was actually looking forward to it.

  Frowning, Lara went to his bedroom to spend the night alone.

  Chapter 11

  JOHNNY SAT ON a chair next to Lara's, his seat augmented with a pile of books that elevated him to table height. The white napkin tied around his neck was splashed with chocolate, a treat that Lara guessed he had never tasted before. After gulping down a cup of the brew so quickly that she was certain he had burned his tongue, he repeatedly demanded another.

  “First you must eat something,” Lara said, nudging a little dish of eggs baked in cream toward him. “Try some of these—they're delicious.”

  Johnny eyed the gold and white splendor of the shirred eggs with open suspicion. “I don't want those.”

  “They'll help you to grow big and strong,” Lara coaxed.


  Lara winced inwardly as she saw the disapproving look that flitted across the footman's face. Eggs were considered a luxurious treat by the servants, never to be wasted. Although they were too well trained to show open disapproval, some of the servants did not want to wait on a boy of Johnny's unsavory background. However, the boy could help matters by behaving himself and showing due appreciation for his new circumstances. If he could manage to endear himself to the servants—indeed, to the master—of the Hawksworth household, his position would be far more secure.

  “I'm sure you could manage just one little bite,” Lara coaxed, scooping up a bit of egg in a silver spoon.

  Johnny shook his head violently. “More chocolate,” he commanded, evidently having no plans to be endearing this morning.

  “Later,” Lara said firmly. “Here, take some of this toast. And a bite of ham.”

  His gaze met hers, assessing her determination, and he capitulated suddenly. “Awright.” He held a piece of toast in both hands and bit off a corner, chewing enthusiastically. Eschewing the fork near his plate, he tore a chunk of ham with his fingers and stuffed it in his mouth.

  Lara smiled, resisting the urge to lean over and crush him with a hug. For now she just wanted him to eat until his scrawny frame had filled out. The proper use of table utensils would be addressed later.

  Even with the time she had spent at the orphanage, she had never been able to oversee a particular child's daily routine and enjoy interactions such as these. She found it unexpectedly satisfying. For the first time in her life, the burden of barrenness didn't seem so crushing. Even if she couldn't have her own flesh-and-blood child, she could create a family.

  As Lara speculated silently on her husband's possible reactions to the idea of taking more children into their home, Hunter entered the breakfast room, looking uncharacteristically subdued.

  “Good morning,” Lara said cautiously.

  Hunter made no reply, only cast a loathing glance at the sideboard laden with food. Looking pale beneath his tan, he turned to the waiting footman. “Tell Mrs. Gorst to make some of her witch's brew,” he growled. “And bring a damned headache powder while you're at it.”

  “Yes, milord,” the footman said, complying hastily. The recipe for a special “morning after” remedy had been in the family for years, but only Mrs. Gorst knew what was in it.

  Johnny watched with wide eyes as Hunter poured himself a glass of water. The child looked at Lara questioningly. “Is 'e a duke?”

  “No, darling,” she replied, amused. “He's an earl.”

  Clearly disappointed, Johnny continued to stare at Hunter's broad back, and tugged at Lara's sleeve.

  “What is it?” she murmured.

  “Is 'e going to be my papa now?”

  Hunter choked on a mouthful of water. Lara's lips quivered before she managed to reply. She stroked his black hair soothingly. “No, Johnny.”

  “Why doesn't 'e say nothing?” the boy piped in a voice that seemed to grate on Hunter's nerves.

  “Hush, darling,” she whispered. “I think he has a headache.”

  “Oh.” Abandoning his interest in Hunter, Johnny looked down at the crumbs on his plate. He heaved a sigh. “I wonder how Mousie is.”

  Lara smiled, considering how to distract him from thoughts of his lost pet. “Why don't you visit the stables today?” she suggested. “You can pet the horses and feed them a carrot or two.”

  “Oh, yes!” He brightened at the idea, and wriggled eagerly atop the pile of books.

  “Wait,” Lara cautioned, removing the napkin from around his neck. “First I'll send for Naomi, and she'll help you to wash your hands and face.”

  “But I washed yes
terday,” came the indignant reply.

  Lara laughed and dabbed at his sticky face with the napkin. “You must remove the chocolate stains before you visit the stables, or you'll attract every fly in Market Hill.”

  After Johnny had been dispatched with Naomi, and the footman had brought a glass full of the mysterious remedy, Lara turned her attention to Hunter. “Do sit down,” she invited. “Perhaps a slice of toast would help you—”

  “God, no.” The suggestion made Hunter wince. He sipped the remedy cautiously, and set it aside after finishing half the glass. Standing by the window, he cast Lara a brooding glance. It seemed that he had difficulty meeting her eyes, almost as if…

  It couldn't be that he was embarrassed by his drinking spree of the previous night, could it? Lara rejected the idea immediately. There was no shame in a man drinking too much. In fact, Hunter and his peers considered it a masculine ritual to pour as much liquor down their throats as they could hold.

  Puzzled, Lara stared at his averted profile. At first she had taken his mood for surliness, but on closer inspection he wore the expression of a man with an unpleasant duty to perform. Her curiosity grew until she finally gestured to the footman to leave, and he slipped from the room to allow them privacy.

  Lara stood and wandered to the sideboard with an air of casual unconcern, while the silence thickened. It occurred to her that Hunter might be discomfited by the memory of intimacy between them, the things he had said, the way he had touched her…A bloom of heat spread over her face at the recollection.

  “My lord,” she remarked, “you seem rather quiet this morning. I hope that you are not distressed by…what happened last night.” Her blush burned brighter as she waited for his reply.

  After a moment, Hunter joined her at the sideboard, both of them staring steadily at the array of breakfast dishes. He took a deep breath. “Lara…regarding last night, I don't exactly remember what I…” He gripped the edge of the sideboard until his fingertips were white. “I hope…I didn't hurt you…did I?”

  Lara blinked in amazement. He thought he had forced himself on her. What else was he to assume, upon waking in her bed with his clothes unfastened? But why would it trouble him now, when he had done it so many times before? She risked a quick glance at him. He appeared to be overcome with remorse.

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