Stranger in My Arms by Lisa Kleypas


  How ironic, that Hunter had never felt a drop of guilt for the times he had hurt her, and then experienced such acute shame for something he hadn't done at all. Suddenly the situation struck her as irresistibly funny, and she turned away to hide her face.

  “You were very much in your cups,” she said, struggling to sound dignified. “I suppose you didn't know what you were doing.”

  She heard a string of muffled curses, which only worsened her giggles, and she fought to contain them until her shoulders trembled.

  “God, don't cry,” Hunter said unsteadily. “Lara, please…you have to believe that I didn't mean to—”

  Lara turned toward him, and his face went blank with astonishment as he saw her mirth. “You didn't,” she gasped. “You fell asl—sleep—” She hiccuped with laughter, scooting away from him.

  “You little devil,” Hunter exploded, following her around the room. His relief was matched only by his annoyance. “I've gone through hell this morning!”

  “Good,” she said in blatant satisfaction, positioning herself on the far side of the table. “After making me wear that dreadful negligee, you deserved to feel a little discomfort.”

  Hunter tried to close the distance between them in a few strides, but she dodged him and retreated behind a chair. “I'm not sorry for making you wear the negligee—only that I barely remember seeing you in it. You'll have to put it on again.”

  “I most certainly will not!”

  “It doesn't count if I don't remember.”

  “I remember enough for the both of us. I've never been so mortified!”

  Abandoning the chase, Hunter braced his hand on the table and surveyed her with glowing dark eyes. “You were beautiful. That much I do recall.”

  She tried not to be disarmed and flattered, but it was difficult. The mood changed between them, becoming surprisingly comfortable. Lara sat at the table, while Hunter glanced at the crumb-scattered area Johnny had occupied. “Have you told the boy that he's to live with us from now on?” he asked abruptly.

  A smile touched her lips. “Not in so many words. Actually, he seems to take it for granted.”

  “He's damned lucky. Any other child in his situation would have been dispatched to a workhouse—or worse.”

  Lara picked up a fork and toyed with the remaining scraps on her plate. “My lord,” she murmured, “there is something I would like to discuss with you. I've been thinking about what happened to Johnny, having to live in prison with his father because there was no one to keep him, and…I'm certain that he isn't the only one. If it occurred at Holbeach, it must happen in other prisons as well. Right now there may be many children residing with their parents behind bars, and I can't imagine a more appalling atmosphere—”

  “Wait.” Hunter pulled out a chair and sat facing her, reaching for her hands. He covered her fingers in a warm grip and stared directly into her eyes. “You're a compassionate woman, Lara. God knows you won't rest until every orphan, every beggar, and every stray dog and cat in the world is taken care of. But don't start a crusade just now.”

  Annoyed, Lara snatched her hands away. “I haven't proposed doing anything,” she said.

  “Yet.”

  “For now, all I want is to find out if there are other children in Johnny's circumstances. I've considered writing to various prison administrators and inquiring if they lodge any children of prisoners there, but I'm afraid that even if they do, they won't admit to it. Especially if the person asking happens to be a woman.” She paused and stared at him expectantly.

  “You want me to find out,” Hunter said flatly, scowling. “Dammit, Lara, I have enough to attend to as it is.”

  “You once had many important political connections,” Lara persisted. “If you asked some government officials or inspectors for whatever information they might have…or perhaps there is a reform society that might be able to supply—”

  “There are at least three hundred prisons in England. Suppose we discover there are indeed children living with their convicted parents—ten, twenty, perhaps a hundred. What the hell would you be able to do about it? Adopt them all?” Hunter laughed without amusement, and shook his head. “Put it out of your mind, Lara.”

  “I can't,” she said passionately. “I can't be as hardhearted as you. I won't rest until I find out what I want to know. If necessary, I'll personally tour every prison I can find.”

  “I'll be damned if you'll set foot in even one of them.”

  “You can't stop me!”

  They glared at each other, and Lara felt herself turn scarlet with a mounting rage that seemed out of proportion to the situation. If only she hadn't learned what it was like to live without a husband, if only she hadn't experienced the heady feeling of making her own decisions after he had left for India, then she might have been able to accept his judgment. But now the idea of being controlled and curtailed and forbidden to do something made her livid. Terrible words rose to her lips—she wished he were back in India, or at the bottom of the sea, or any other place than in the same room with her. Somehow she kept silent, the effort making her eyes sting with furious tears.

  She heard Hunter's low voice. “Lara. You're too precious for me to let you risk one hair on your head. So rather than tying you to a bedpost to ensure that you don't visit any damned prisons…I have a proposition for you.”

  Bewildered by his sudden tenderness, Lara lowered her head and concentrated on drawing invisible circles across the surface of her skirts. “Whatever your proposition involves, I am not going to wear that negligee again.”

  He reached over to squeeze her thigh. “Here's the bargain, my love…I'll get the information you require, but in the meantime you're not to go near Hol-beach or any place like it. And when I find out what you wish to know, you won't take action of any kind without consulting me.”

  Lara looked up and opened her mouth to argue.

  “I didn't object when you told me that Johnny was going to live with us,” he reminded her. “You took matters into your own hands without saying a word to me. I chose not to stand in your way because I understood how badly you wanted to keep the boy. In the future, however, we'll act as partners. Agreed?”

  Lara was hardly able to believe that Hunter Cameron Crossland, the sixth Earl of Hawksworth, had proposed being partners with her. He had always made it clear that she was nothing more than an extension of him, an appendage…a possession.

  “Agreed,” she murmured, and shot him a suspicious glance. “What are you smiling at?”

  “You.” He surveyed her with a look of masculine interest that was rapidly becoming familiar. The lazy smile remained on his lips. “I'll wager that everyone who knows you considers you to be soft, sweet, and accommodating. But you're not.”

  “What am I, then?”

  Hunter's hand slid behind her neck, and he urged her forward until their lips were almost touching. Lara felt the warm touch of his breath, and her stomach turned over in excitement. “You're a lioness,” he said, and released her without kissing her…leaving her to grapple with an absurd sense of disappointment.

  The hallway echoed with the sounds of a child whimpering in frustration. Hunter's steps slowed. He paused in the arched opening, staring around the columns set against the wall. The boy was there, huddling on the floor with his back wedged in the corner. He wasn't crying, but he sniffled as if tears were imminent, and his cheeks were red. He stared up at Hunter and tugged nervously at his shorn black hair.

  “Why are you sitting there?” Hunter asked in vague irritation, having no experience with children, or any understanding of their needs and wants.

  “I'm lost,” the child said miserably.

  “Why isn't someone with you?” There should have been someone appointed to watch over the boy—God knew what sort of mischief he could get into. When that question elicited no response, Hunter tried another. “Where do you want to go?”

  The tiny points of his shoulders moved beneath his oversized shirt as he shrug
ged. “I 'as to piss.”

  Hunter's mouth twitched in reluctant sympathy. “Can't find the privy? Well, I'll take you to one. Come with me.”

  “I can't walk.”

  “I'll carry you, then. But you'd best hold your water, I'm warning you.” Gingerly Hunter picked up the mite and headed down the hallway. His load was surprisingly light. What strange eyes the boy had, a shade of blue so pure and dark it appeared to be violet.

  “Are you married to milady?” Johnny asked, linking his arms around Hunter's neck.

  “Yes.”

  “When I get big, I'm going to marry 'er.”

  “She can't be married to two men at the same time,” Hunter replied, amused. “What will you do with me?”

  “You can stay 'ere,” the boy offered generously. “If milady wants it.”

  Hunter grinned into the small, serious face that was so close to his. “Thank you.”

  Johnny glanced downward as they walked. “You're tall,” he said. “Ewen taller than my papa.”

  The remark sparked Hunter's interest. “Tell me, bratchet…why was your father hanged?”

  '“E was a bug 'unter, Papa was. 'E killed someone, but 'twas an accident.”

  Bug hunters—the men who robbed drunks who wandered the streets at night. Hardly a top-drawer criminal…just one of the various scum that populated the London underworld. Hunter concealed his distaste and shifted the boy in his arms. “Where is your mother?” he asked.

  “Mama's in 'eaven.”

  The boy had no one, then.

  An innocent smile crossed the boy's face, as if he could somehow read Hunter's thoughts. “You an' milady got me now, aye?”

  It was only now that Hunter began to understand Lara's attraction to the child. “Yes, I've got you,” he found himself saying, without any trace of sarcasm. Well, the boy could do worse than have the knack of making people want to take care of him.

  They reached a small room fitted up with a water supply, privy pan, and waste pipe, and Hunter set down his charge with care. “Here you go.” He paused and asked uncomfortably, “Do you need help with, er…this sort of thing?”

  “No, I can do it.” The boy entered the little room and looked back anxiously. “You'll be 'ere when I come out?”

  “I'll be here,” Hunter replied, and stood staring at the door when it closed. He was unwillingly touched by the child, the small misplaced duckling brought to live among swans. Except that Hunter himself was no swan.

  It wouldn't be comfortable to live with a child who unwittingly reminded him of his greatest weakness, day after day. A Hindu would shrug and say that it was the gods' will. Each man is responsible for his own salvation, a holy man had once instructed him—blasphemy to a Christian, but it had made sense to Hunter. In some cases salvation will happen only when one breaks with society. Johnny would come to the same understanding, if he was to survive in this corner of the world called England.

  Captain Tyler sat heavily in a leather chair, the gentlemen's room lit only by a small fire in the grate. He held a glass of brandy in both hands, letting his palms warm the liquor. He sipped it slowly, in the manner of a man who deeply appreciated small luxuries.

  Morland Manor, a small but well-maintained house, was poised on a hill like an elegant little bird that had established its preferred territory. The cloudless night loomed around them, vast and cool, making Tyler glad of his cozy sanctuary. The hour was late, and his attractive wife slept peacefully upstairs, her waist slightly thickened by a pregnancy in its early stages.

  The joy of expecting his first child should have filled Tyler with contentment. And being back in England, something he had fiercely desired for eight years, should have given him the peace he had long expected. However, the well-deserved peace and contentment eluded him, driven away by a most unexpected turn of events.

  “Damn you,” Tyler murmured, gripping the brandy tightly. “Why didn't you stay in India?”

  And then something amazing happened…something he would later acknowledge he should have expected. The shadows in the room seemed to shift and alter, and a dark figure emerged from the corner. Too stunned to react, Tyler watched as the current Earl of Hawksworth walked toward him.

  “I had better plans,” Hunter said softly.

  To his credit, Tyler remained outwardly calm while he struggled to collect himself. The trembling of the glass in his hands was all that betrayed his agitation. “Cocky bastard,” he said. “Only you would dare to accost me in my place of residence.”

  “I wanted to see you in private.”

  Tyler buried himself in his brandy, not stopping until he had drained it. “Until last night I thought you were dead,” he said gruffly. “What the devil are you doing in England?”

  “That's not your concern. I only came to warn you—don't interfere.”

  “You dare to give me orders?” Tyler turned purple. “What of Lady Hawksworth? That poor woman has a right to know—”

  “I'm taking care of her,” Hunter said, his voice softly menacing. “And I'll have your silence, Tyler…one way or the other. After all I've done for you, I deserve it.”

  Tyler seemed to swallow back a reprimand, while his conscience warred with a bitter sense of obligation. Eventually his shoulders sagged with defeat. “Perhaps you do,” he muttered. “I'll have to think on it. For pity's sake, leave now. You remind me of things I'm trying damned hard to forget.”

  Chapter 12

  TO LARA'S FRUSTRATION, the promised report concerning English houses of correction did not come the next week, or the next. She was almost grateful for the refurbishing of the house, which occupied much of her attention as Possibility Smith and an army of craftsmen and assistants went about their work. She also visited her friends at Market Hill, and the orphanage. Most of her waking hours, however, were consumed by Johnny and the task of accustoming him to the new world he had been introduced to.

  And of course, there was Hunter.

  He managed the family's affairs, dutifully attended social events, and listened to his tenants' concerns. In addition, he managed the tricky and unorthodox strategy of involving the family more deeply in trade, when other peers were aspiring to do the opposite. A man had much higher social standing when he had completely withdrawn from mercantile concerns and concentrated solely on the aristocratic business of landowning. However, Hunter demonstrated a remarkable willingness to sacrifice pride in favor of practicality.

  He was the husband Lara had once wished him to be: responsible, courteous, kind…friendly. It was this last that caused her such unexpected annoyance. In a perplexing change of tactics, Hunter appeared to seek her friendship and little else. He barely seemed to notice her as a woman.

  There had been a time when Lara would have been thrilled by this situation. She had all the benefits of a husband—security, comfort, companionship—without the physical demands she had disliked so much. Why, then, was she constantly on edge? Why did she wake in the middle of the night, empty, agitated, burning for a nameless something she couldn't identify? She craved her husband's company until she began to invent excuses to see him. And each time they were together, Hunter showed her the same maddening friendliness that caused her teeth to grind.

  Lara didn't know what she wanted from him. She dreamed about his kisses, not the brotherly pecks he sometimes gave her, but the sweet, endless joinings of lips and tongues that set her world off balance. Yes, she wanted his kisses. More than that, she wasn't certain. If she allowed him to sleep with her, he would consider it his right to take her whenever he wanted. It was better to leave things the way they were. But why did Hunter have to treat her as if she were his younger sister?

  In an impulsive moment, Lara sent word to the dressmaker to alter the gowns that were being made for her, and lower every neckline a full two inches. The collection finally arrived, a pastel rainbow of silk, muslin, and cambric, with matching bonnets trimmed in feathers or flowers…silk scarves and gloves…shoes and ornamented slippers, fans of ivor
y, paper, and lace.

  Filled with feminine pleasure in the new clothes, Lara dressed in a pale green gown that matched her eyes and made her skin seem to glow. Her breasts were pushed together by the plunging neckline, covered only by a translucent scarf. Knowing that Hunter was working alone in the library, she went to him straightaway. It was only polite, really, to thank him for his generosity.

  Her husband sat at his desk, having removed his waistcoat and rolled up his shirtsleeves, the neck of his shirt open to catch any cooling breeze that might enter the room. He gave her a brief glance and a casual smile, and returned his attention to his work. In less than a second, however, his gaze flew back to her…and stayed.

  “Is that a new gown?” he asked mildly, although he knew perfectly well that it was.

  Lara ventured farther into the room. “Do you like it?”

  There was no change in his expression, but his fingers clamped tightly around the quill until it threatened to snap. His gaze swallowed her, taking in every detail, combing restlessly over her slender body. “The fabric is very attractive,” he replied in a monotone…but a warm current ran beneath his words, and her nerves tingled responsively. He still wanted her. She didn't know why that pleased her, but it did.

  A teasing smile hovered on her lips. “The fabric is attractive? That's all you're going to say?”

  A dangerous glint appeared in his eyes. “I would compliment the design, but a large part of the bodice seems to have been omitted.”

  “A low-cut neckline is all the rage,” she replied.

  Hunter made a dismissive sound and returned his attention to the open ledger on his desk. Deliberately Lara approached his chair and feigned an interest in the book. She leaned closer, her breast brushing his upper arm. The touch was accidental, but a responsive thrill shot through her body, and she knew that Hunter felt it too. He inhaled sharply and dropped the quill, scattering drops of ink across the desk.

 
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