Stranger in My Arms by Lisa Kleypas


  “I'm trying to work,” he growled. “I can't think with your breasts hanging in my face.”

  Stung, Lara drew back. “You were the one who insisted that I have some gowns made. I merely wanted to show one to you. I had some misbegotten idea of thanking you.”

  “Yes, well…” He half laughed, half groaned, and reached for her before she could turn away. He caught her hips with one arm, clamping it hard around her buttocks. Pulling her between his thighs, he stared at her hungrily. “The gown is beautiful,” he muttered. “And so are you. As a matter of fact, it hurts to look at you.”

  “Hurts?”

  “My entire body is one large ache.” Bringing her one step closer, he pulled at the silk scarf and dropped it to the floor. With a suddenness that left her stunned, he buried his face in her exposed cleavage, his half-open mouth dragging over her breast, tongue touching the cool ivory smoothness. “You're making me insane,” he mumbled, the bristle of his jaw making her skin tingle. “No, don't pull away…let me—”

  Lara jumped in shock as he found her nipple through the delicate muslin of her gown. “Stop it…stop!”

  He released her with a frustrated snarl, standing to glare at her from his full height. “You knew full well what you were doing, coming in here dressed like that. Don't blame me for snapping at the bait.”

  Lara bent and fumbled for the fallen scarf. “I-I didn't ask to be mauled.”

  “Do you know what they call a woman who deliberately arouses a man and then withholds herself?”

  “No,” she said shortly.

  “A tease.”

  “I wasn't trying to tease you. Perhaps I may have desired a kiss, or a compliment, but I hardly think—”

  “My feelings for you don't stop at kisses. Dammit, do you think it's easy for me, living under the same roof, seeing you every day and never touching you?”

  Lara stared at him in growing bewilderment and a vague sense of shame. She had misread him—she hadn't understood that he still wanted her, that it was difficult for him to live with her.

  “I want to make love to you,” he continued, his voice slightly hoarse. “I want to see you naked, kiss you everywhere…pleasure you until you beg me to stop. And wake in the morning with you in my arms. And hear your voice telling me—” He broke off and set his jaw hard, as if fighting to contain the words.

  Lara fidgeted in agitation. “I'm sorry,” she said softly. “I didn't realize that you still desired me.”

  “Here's a clue.” He seized her once more, his fingers closing around her wrist, and pulled her hand right between his legs. Ignoring her squeaking protests, he molded her hand around the stiff, straining length of his erection, until the heat of him burned through his trousers and scorched her palm. With his other arm he pressed her body tightly against him. “This is what happens every time I'm in the same room with you. A stiff cock and blue balls are a fair indication that a man wants you.”

  The memories of all her old experiences with him seemed to cloud Lara's mind. She couldn't think of the throbbing hardness beneath her hand as anything other than a weapon. It wasn't difficult to recall the knifelike thrusts, the intimate battering that had left her sore, defeated, and shamed. Never, never again. “I don't care to discuss your private parts,” she choked. She tried to jerk her hand free, but he wouldn't allow it.

  “I'm a man, not a eunuch. I can't kiss and touch you, and never have you.” He buried his mouth in the curve of her neck, making her shudder. “Let me come to you tonight. I've tried to be patient. I can't stand it any longer.”

  Close to tears, Lara finally managed to wriggle free, and tottered back a few steps. “I'm so sorry. I can't, I can't. don't know why I…Please, you must go to Lady Carlysle.”

  The mention of his former mistress seemed to be the last straw. Hunter's face twisted with furious contempt. “Maybe I will.”

  Lara was as still as a statue, watching as he went to his desk and snatched up a letter.

  “By the way,” Hunter snapped, “I've just received a letter from Lord Newmarsh—he served on a parliamentary committee to investigate prisons. Here's the information you wanted.”

  He tossed the letter to her, and she made a fumbling attempt to catch it. The folded paper fluttered past her fingers and slipped to the floor.

  Striding from the room, Hunter threw one last jeer over his shoulder. “Go help the poor and needy, Lady Bountiful.”

  Lara scooped up the letter and turned to glare at the door as it slammed behind him. “Lecherous goat,” she said, but a trickle of guilt seeped through her annoyance. Hunter had been right—she had known what she was doing. She had wanted him to admire her. She had wanted him to desire her. What had possessed her to provoke him when she had no wish to sleep with him? Why hadn't she been able to leave well enough alone and enjoy the distant but pleasant relationship they had developed?

  She felt an overwhelming need to make peace with Hunter, but she suspected that at this point there was only one kind of apology he would accept, and that would involve crawling between the sheets with him.

  Sighing, Lara went to the chair at his desk and seated herself. She touched the leather upholstery, which seemed to hold a lingering trace of warmth from his body. If she closed her eyes, she could almost detect his scent, the hint of sandalwood that was clean, fresh, and exotic at the same time. I'm sorry, she almost said aloud, though there was no one to hear. She was sorry for not being like other women who didn't seem to mind intimacy with men, and sorry for Hunter, who wanted more than she was able to give him. Remorse and loneliness knotted inside her.

  Bending her head over the letter, she began to read.

  Hunter left on horseback, giving no word as to where he was going, and stayed away all afternoon and evening. Lara waited in the family parlor, curled on the velvet-upholstered sofa. Her knees were covered with the red and blue lap blanket that had been knitted for her by some of the orphanage girls. The housemaids had replaced it at least three times with far more elegant embroidered and fringed blankets from the linen storage, but Lara had retrieved it each time. “I like this red and blue one,” she had told Naomi, smiling into the maid's perplexed face. “I know it's not perfect, but every missed stitch or lumpy knot reminds me of the children who made it. And it's by far the most comfortable blanket in the house.”

  “If I were you, milady, I shouldn't want anything to remind me of when the Crosslands cast you out of the house,” Naomi had dared to comment, eyeing the blanket with disfavor. “'Twas a dark time for us all.”

  “I don't want to forget it.” Lara had smoothed the blanket and folded it lovingly. “I learned some important things from that experience. I've been a better person since then, I hope.”

  “Ah, milady.” Naomi had given her a warm smile. “You were always a jewel. We all thought so.”

  “What of Lord Hawksworth?” Lara had asked suddenly. “Do the servants like him better or worse since his return?”

  Naomi had frowned thoughtfully as she replied. “He was always a good master—he was liked well enough. But now he takes more notice of the servants. Like the way he sent for the doctor when he saw that one of the housemaids had an abscess in her arm, or when he said that George the footman could have his fiancée to tea in the kitchen on his days off. He never did things like that before…”

  Lara's thoughts were interrupted by the gentle peal of the longcase clock in the hall. Deciding to retire, she stirred sleepily on the sofa and pushed the blanket aside. At that moment, a dark figure shuffled past the door, and. paused to investigate the source of lamplight.

  The intruder, of course, was Hunter, with his clothes disheveled and his gait a little too loose-limbed. He had been drinking, though he didn't seem to be precisely drunk. He walked into the room with an obnoxious smile on his face—the smile of a teenaged boy who had misbehaved and was proud of it.

  Lara drew her knees up and hugged them, her fingers lacing together tightly. “I hope you're feeling better,” she
said crisply. “From the smell of you—smoke and strong drink and heavy perfume—I gather you found some trollop to satisfy your needs.”

  Hunter stopped before her, his smile turning quizzical. “For someone who wants nothing to do with my private parts, you take an unseemly interest in where they've been.”

  “I'm only glad you heeded my advice and found a woman for yourself,” she said.

  “I went drinking with Lonsdale and some friends. And there were women. But I didn't tumble any of them.”

  “That's a pity,” Lara said, though she couldn't help feeling a stab of relief at the information. “As before, I would be pleased if you took a mistress and spared me your attentions.”

  “Would you?” he asked, his tone deceptively mild. “Then why did you wait for me to return?”

  “I wasn't waiting for you…I couldn't sleep. I can't stop thinking about the letter from Lord Newmarsh, and the children who are in the same terrible circumstances Johnny was in—”

  “Twelve,” he interrupted. “There are twelve prison brats in all.” One brow arched sardonically. “I suppose you want to do something about them now.”

  “We can discuss it tomorrow, when your mood is more amiable.”

  “A few hours of rest are not going to make me amiable.” Hunter lowered himself to the opposite corner of the sofa, long legs arranged in a masculine sprawl. One large hand waved in an expansive gesture for her to proceed.

  Lara hesitated, trying to gauge his mood. There was something puzzling about his expression—patient, watchful, like an animal at its favorite hunting grounds. He was waiting for an opportunity, and when it came, he would pounce on it. She couldn't begin to guess what he had in mind, but she strongly suspected she wouldn't like it.

  “I am certain that the prisons would want these children removed from such terrible surroundings, if someone offered a suitable alternative,” Lara began carefully. Hunter responded with an agreeable nod. “Obviously they must be brought to the orphanage at Market Hill,” she continued, “but it is too small. A dozen children…well, we would need to enlarge the place, and hire more staff, and find a way to provide more food, clothes, and supplies…and that is quite an undertaking. I wish we had the means to accomplish all that—”

  “We don't,” he interrupted. “Not now, at any rate.”

  “Yes, I'm aware of that.” Lara cleared her throat and arranged her skirts with exacting care. “Therefore we must solicit funds from other sources. With all of our friends and acquaintances, it shouldn't be difficult. If I—that is, if we—arrange some sort of benefit for the orphanage—”

  “What kind of benefit?”

  “A ball. A sizable one. We could use it as a means to attract donations for the Market Hill orphanage. And to ensure that everyone will come, we could also use it as an occasion to…welcome you home.” She steeled herself not to wince at his steady dark stare. It was a good idea, actually. The ton would be so curious to see the mysteriously returned Lord Hawksworth and hear his incredible story that they would flock in droves to the ball. He was already the talk of London, and this would surely be the event of the Season.

  “So you plan to exhibit me like a two-headed freak at the county fair, and use the proceeds to benefit your orphans.”

  “It wouldn't be like that—” Lara protested.

  “It would be exactly like that.” Slowly he sat up and leaned forward, all the while pinning her with that fathomless dark stare. “After what I've been through, now I'm expected to endure an evening of probing questions and scrutiny from a herd of shallow nitwits. And for what?”

  “For the children,” Lara said earnestly. “You'll have to face the ton sooner or later. Why not do it now, and arrange the time and place to your liking? Why not have the satisfaction of saving twelve children who deserve the chance to lead a decent life?”

  “You overestimate me, sweet. I don't have a charitable bone in my body. I don't lose sleep at night thinking about orphans and beggars. I've seen too many of them. They're a fact of life—they'll never disappear. Save a thousand of them, ten thousand, and there'll always be more.”

  “I don't understand you,” Lara said, shaking her head. “How can you be so kind to your own servants and so heartless to outsiders?”

  “I can only afford to care for those who live under my roof. The rest of the world can go to hell.”

  “It appears you haven't changed after all.” Sickening disappointment welled up inside her. “You're as heartless as always. For some reason I actually thought you would allow me to help those children.”

  “I haven't forbidden you to hold the ball. I'm only leading up to the conditions I'm going to impose.”

  “What conditions?” she asked warily.

  “Ask me why I didn't tumble any of the whores I was with tonight,” Hunter said. “I could have, easily. There was one with breasts the size of melons, and she kept sticking her tongue in my ear—”

  “I don't want to know about that.”

  “Lonsdale and the other fellows were grinding the wenches on the tables, the floors, against the wall—but I left when all of it started, and came home to you. Do you know why?” Hunter smiled bitterly, as if he were about to tell a dirty joke. “Because I'd rather sit outside your door and moon over you while you sleep in your celibate bed. The mere act of holding your hand, or hearing your voice, or smelling your perfume, is more exciting than bedding a hundred women.”

  “You only want me because I'm a challenge,” she said.

  “I want you because you're sweet and pure and innocent,” he said huskily. “In the past few years I've seen things more foul than you could imagine…I've done things you would never…” He stopped and let out a harsh sigh. “I want a few hours of peace. Of pleasure. I've forgotten how to be happy, if I ever did know. I want to sleep in my own bed with my own wife—and I'll be damned if that's a crime.”

  “What are you talking about?” Lara asked, bewildered. “What happened to you in India?”

  He shook his head, a mask dropping over his face. “It doesn't matter. As things stand now, I've been reduced to bargaining for a night with you—and I'll be damned glad to get it.”

  “If you think that I'll sleep with you in exchange for—” Her eyes widened. “You couldn't possibly mean that you won't let me hold the benefit if I don't…”

  “That's exactly what I mean. Make the arrangements and invite a thousand guests. I'm sure your efforts will be much admired, and the orphans will be grateful. Everyone will be pleased. Including me. Because at one o'clock on the night of the benefit, you're going to come upstairs with me, and get into my bed, and let me do as I wish with you.”

  “Can't you think of anyone or anything besides yourself?” Lara turned crimson. “How dare you use those poor children's misery in order to make me sleep with you?”

  “Because I'm desperate.” He smiled mockingly. “Do we have a bargain, my love?”

  She didn't answer.

  “It's not as if you haven't done this before,” he reminded her.

  Her lower lip protruded mulishly. “I hated it.”

  “You survived,” he pointed out curtly. He sat there waiting, as stalwart and unbudging as a huge block of granite, impervious to her tiny barbs. There was nothing she could say, no counteroffer he would accept. Self-serving ass! How dare he turn a noble cause into a quest for his own sexual satisfaction? She longed to throw the bargain back in his face and assure him that nothing in the world would make her subject herself to that again. But the thought of twelve children like Johnny, suffering needlessly…and the thought of what she could do for them…it was more than she could bear.

  Would it be so terrible to spend a night in Hunter's bed? He was right, she had survived the other times. She had managed to extinguish every emotion and sensation, and concentrate on other things, and ignore what was happening to her.

  Lara's heart sank in her chest as she realized that she would have to do the thing she most disliked in order to get
what she most wanted.

  “All right,” she said in a dull voice. “The night of the benefit. One time. And then…” She searched her mind for the appropriate epithet. “Then you can go to hell!”

  He showed no sign of satisfaction, but she sensed the enormous pleasure he took in her surrender. “I'm already in hell,” he said. “I just want one night of furlough.”

  Hunter left his pale, tightly strung wife, and somehow made his way to his own room. He fumbled with his boots and crawled onto the bed fully clothed. His brain was swimming with giddiness, partly because of the alcohol and partly because of the emotions that moved him. He had expected to feel triumph, but instead there was only relief. He imagined holding Lara, loving her, drinking in her sweetness like a soul in hell who had been granted a glass of cool water. “Thank God,” he mumbled into a downy pillow. “Thank God.”

  “Oh my.” Rachel's hazel eyes were round pools of amazement. “I've never heard of a husband negotiating with his wife in such a way. Of course, I've heard of the arrangements men make with their mistresses, but…you're not exactly…” She floundered and ended by saying lamely, “This is all very odd.”

  “Extremely odd,” Lara agreed grimly. “After becoming a widow and allowing myself to believe I would never again be bothered with men and their distasteful urges, I find myself in the position of having to sleep with Hunter again.” She curled herself into a tight ball on the chair and stared glumly at the fine, luxurious surroundings of Rachel's parlor. “It's even more dreadful to know about it so far in advance.”

  Rachel stared at her in a sort of fascinated sympathy. “Do you intend to keep your promise?”

  “Of course not,” Lara said promptly. “I want you to help me think of a plan. That's why I came to visit.”

  Obviously flattered and pleased that her older sister would value her ideas, Rachel set aside her needlework and concentrated on the problem. “I suppose you could make yourself so unattractive that he would no longer desire you,” she said. “Or go catch the pox from someone, and hope it spreads over your face.”

 
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