Stranger in My Arms by Lisa Kleypas

  Lara wrinkled her nose. “I'm not especially fond of that idea.”

  Rachel began to wax enthusiastic about the project “You could feign illness.”

  “That would only work for so long.”

  “Perhaps there is some way to render him impotent—some herb or powder we could give him.”

  Lara considered the suggestion doubtfully. “I shouldn't want to risk making him ill…and it seems a very tricky plan. I would be so nervous that I would end up giving the whole thing away.”

  “Hmm.” Picking up a stray skein of blue silk, Rachel wound it around her finger. “Perhaps,” she said hesitantly, “you should just give yourself to him for one night and be done with it.”

  “I won't be used that way,” Lara said, suddenly fierce. “I won't be a convenience or a possession.”

  “I must disagree, Larissa. I don't know where you've gotten these strange ideas. Lord Hawksworth is your husband. You belong to him. You vowed to obey him.”

  “I did obey him. I followed his wishes concerning my behavior and the company I kept. I asked his permission for everything. I tolerated his adultery and I never once denied him my bed. But then he left for India, and for three years I only had myself to please…and I can't go back to the way it was.”

  “You may have to,” Rachel murmured. “Unless we can come up with a suitable plan to divert him.”

  They were both silent for a long time. Their unspoken thoughts were underscored by the pounding of the heavy saturating rain outside as it splashed on the graveled drive and streamed down the window-panes. A gray, dolorous day, matching Lara's mood to perfection.

  Finally Lara spoke. “The only thing that makes sense is to find someone else that Hunter will desire more than me. Then he'll be so besotted over his new discovery that he'll forget all about our bargain.”

  “But…didn't he say that you are the only woman he wants?”

  “He didn't mean it,” Lara said shortly. “I know from past experience that Hunter isn't capable of restricting himself to one woman. He likes variety. He enjoys the conquest.”

  “Whom are you going to find?” Rachel asked. “What kind of woman will be irresistible to him?”

  “That's the easy part,” Lara said, going to stand by the window, watching the sheets of rain whipping down from the sky. “You know, Rachel, I think this plan has half a chance of working.”

  Chapter 13

  THE ROADS HAD turned to mud by the time Lara left the Lonsdale estate. The heavy chaise and four moved sluggishly through the mire, making slow progress past sodden pastures, farms, and prickly hedgerows planted to keep cattle from wandering. It seemed impossible that the rain should keep falling so heavily, but it struck the roof of the carriage as if someone were dumping buckets of water on them. Concerned for the comfort of the horses, driver, and footman, Lara wished that she had waited to visit her sister until the weather was clear. It had been ill advised to venture out during a spring rain—but who would have expected such a deluge?

  She leaned forward in her seat as if she could will the carriage to reach its destination without mishap. The wheels dragged over the road, sinking into soft, mud-filled ruts while the horses strained to pull the vehicle forward. Suddenly the carriage gave a peculiar lurch and settled in a diagonal tilt, throwing Lara across the seat in a sprawl. She sat up and struggled to reach the door, wondering what had happened.

  The door opened, water and wind blasting in as the footman's worried face appeared. “Are you injured, milady?”

  “No, no, I'm fine,” she said hastily. “What about you, George? And Mr. Colby?”

  “We're all right, milady. There was a hole in the road—the carriage is stuck. Mr. Colby says we're not far from Market Hill, though. If it pleases you, we'll unhitch the horses, and I'll go to Hawksworth Hall for a lighter vehicle. Mr. Colby will stay here until I return.”

  “That sounds like a good plan. Thank you, George. Please tell Mr. Colby to wait inside the carriage with me, as he will be much more comfortable.”

  “Yes, milady.” The footman closed the door, conferred with the driver, and returned in a minute. “Lady Hawksworth, Mr. Colby says he would prefer to stand watch outside. He has an umbrella and a greatcoat to keep the rain off, he says, and one never knows about the riffraff that travels the roads.”

  “Very well,” Lara said ruefully, settling back against the seat. She suspected that it was her reputation and not her safety that the driver was concerned about. “You may tell Mr. Colby that I said he is a gentleman.”

  “Yes, milady.”

  Rain pounded on the disabled carriage, fat, aggressive drops that seemed to strike from every direction. Lightning shot across the sky, while rolls of thunder were punctuated by earsplitting cracks that made Lara jump. “What a misadventure,” she said aloud, hoping that George and Mr. Colby didn't catch their deaths after being chilled and soaked through to the skin. She would hold herself to blame if either of them became ill.

  The wait seemed interminable, but after a while there seemed to be some activity other than the storm outside. Lara stared out the window, but all she could make out were some blurry shapes moving through the grayness of the storm. She edged closer to the door and reached for the knob, intending to have a look outside. Just then the door was wrenched open, admitting a gust of wind and cold rain. Startled, Lara scrambled to the far side of the vehicle, while a huge, dark shape appeared in the open space.

  The man, swathed in a black greatcoat, removed his hat. It was Hunter, a slight smile on his lips, his long lashes spiky and wet from the water that dripped down his face.

  “I thought you were a highwayman!” Lara exclaimed.

  “Nothing so romantic,” he assured her. “Merely your husband.”

  A husband who was as dashing and unpredictable as any highwayman, she thought. “You didn't have to come out in this downpour, my lord. The servants are well able to bring me home.”

  “I had nothing better to do.” Although Hunter's tone was offhand, he swept an assessing glance over her, and Lara realized that he had been concerned for her safety. The thought caused a little glow in her heart.

  Busily she reached for a mahogany compartment underneath the seat and pulled out a set of pattens. It was the only way to keep the hems of her skirts from being ruined.

  Hunter eyed the metal rings fitted on tiny stilts with frank skepticism. “You don't need those,” he said as she endeavored to buckle the leather fastenings around her feet.

  “Yes, I do. Otherwise my skirts will become muddy.”

  That produced a hearty laugh. “I'm standing in ankle-deep mud at the moment, madam. You would sink up to your knees. Put those aside and come here.”

  Lara complied reluctantly, tying her bonnet ribbons in a neat bow. “You haven't brought a carriage?” she asked.

  “And risk having a second one stuck?” He reached for her and swept her into his arms, carrying her out into the storm. Lara gasped and ducked her head against his shoulder as stinging pellets of rain struck her face. She saw that Mr. Colby was seated on horseback, holding the reins of Hunter's chestnut gelding as he waited for them.

  Hunter lifted Lara into the empty saddle as if she weighed no more than a feather, and swung up behind her. The saddle was slick and smooth, with no pommel for Lara to hook her knee around. Instinctively she scrabbled for purchase, feeling herself slide across the horse's back. She was caught at once, a muscular arm locking around her.

  “Relax,” Hunter said close to her ear, his voice caressing. “Do you think I'd let you fall?”

  Lara couldn't reply, blinking hard against the rain, shivering as it sank through her pelisse. With one hand Hunter unbuttoned his greatcoat and pulled her inside, enveloping her in a snug cocoon. It was warm against his body, and her shivers of discomfort changed to tremors of pleasure. Breathing deeply, she filled her nostrils with the smell of damp wool, and man, and Hunter's familiar spicy scent. She slid her arms around his hard midriff, feeling utte
rly safe, tucked inside his coat with the rain coming down around them. Evidently her bonnet annoyed him, for he jerked impatiently at the ribbon, pulled it off, and threw it aside as the horse began a bone-jarring trot.

  Lara emerged from his coat in indignation. “That was my favorite—” she began, but a sheet of rain hit her face, and she ducked inside the greatcoat once

  more. The horse's gait evened into a swift, smooth canter. She had only ridden like this once before, when she was a small child and her father had taken her on horseback to the village shop and bought her an ell of ribbon for her hair. Her father had seemed so large and powerful to her, so capable of solving all her problems. As she had gotten older, her father had somehow shrunk into human proportions, and she had seen with disappointment the way he had withdrawn from both his daughters after they were married. As if she and Rachel were no longer his responsibility.

  Lord Hawksworth is your husband, Rachel's voice echoed through her mind. You belong to him…

  Hunter's arm was hard around her as he held her through the cloak, his thighs moving smoothly to control the horse. A nervous pang went through Lara's stomach as she thought of being at the mercy of this large, seemingly invulnerable man. He had promised to be gentle with her…but when a man was moved by his base desires, he had little control over his actions.

  With those unhappy thoughts in mind, the proximity of Hunter's body no longer seemed pleasant, and she shifted uncomfortably. Somewhere over her head she heard him ask something, but the storm and the thudding of the horse's hooves made it impossible to hear.

  Why had Hunter come after her himself? Once he wouldn't have considered her worth the bother. So much of his behavior was puzzling these days…the way he had bargained for her favors instead of simply forcing himself on her…the mix of mockery and endearments that never betrayed his true feelings…and now riding to her rescue when there was absolutely no need. As if he were wooing her favor. But why would he court her when he knew for a fact that she would sleep with him in a month's time?

  Lara was so distracted by the unanswered questions that it was almost a surprise to find that they were on the drive leading to Hawksworth Hall.

  They stopped before the front entrance, and servants rushed outside with umbrellas. Lara was both sorry and relieved when Hunter released her from his greatcoat and helped her from the horse. A footman held an umbrella overhead and escorted her to the entrance hall. Naomi hurried to divest Lara of the damp pelisse, while Mrs. Gorst dispatched a pair of maids to fill a bath for her. Lara stood shivering in her damp traveling gown, watching as Hunter removed his coat and hat.

  He rubbed his dripping face and scrubbed his fingers through his partly wet hair, and slanted her a crooked smile.

  Her own feelings confounded her. He was her adversary, but also her protector. He wanted her body, and in the process of pursuing it, he could very possibly break her heart. Heedless of the servants who might have seen them, Lara approached him hesitantly.

  “Thank you,” she said. Before he could reply, she stood on her toes, braced her palms on his hard chest, and pressed her lips to his smooth-shaven cheek. Hunter was very still, his breath catching slightly. The kiss was chaste by any standards, but when she drew back to look at Hunter, he wore an absorbed, intent look.

  Their gazes met, and a wry grin twisted his lips. “For one of those I'd swim the channel,” he said, and headed in the direction of the library.

  Luxuriating in the large copper bath, Lara immersed herself up to her collarbone and closed her eyes in contentment. The heat of the water seemed to penetrate to her bones, while the lavender scent Naomi had sprinkled in the bath caused fragrant steam to rise in the air. A few long wisps of her hair fell from the topknot on her head and dangled in the water. As she splashed the water over her chest and throat, someone opened the door of the dressing room without knocking.

  Lara tensed while Naomi went to intercept the visitor. “Oh, milord,” Lara heard the maid say, “Lady Hawksworth is indisposed—that is—”

  Hunter entered the dressing room and stopped at the sight of his wife in the bath, only her head and one bare foot visible. Lara's toes curled tightly over the rim of the copper tub.

  “I thought you'd be finished by now,” Hunter said, staring at her without blinking.

  “As you can see, I'm in the middle of my bath,” Lara replied, striving to sound dignified. “Naomi, please show Lord Hawksworth out.”

  “That's all right, Naomi.” Hunter turned to the lady's maid with a considerate smile. “I'll attend my wife. Why don't you go downstairs and have some tea? Rest your feet. Take the rest of the afternoon off.”

  “Wait—” Lara began, frowning, but it was too late.

  Giggling, Naomi accepted the invitation and disappeared, leaving the two of them alone together. The door closed behind her with a swift click of the latch.

  Lara directed a reproving stare at her husband. “Why did you do that?”

  He ignored the question. “You have eyes like a mermaid,” he murmured. “Soft, pale green. Beautiful.”

  “I knew it was only a matter of time before you walked in during my bath,” Lara said, trying to sound calm although her heart was pounding. “Your request to see me in that negligee made it quite evident that you're a shameless voyeur.”

  Hunter grinned. “I've been found out, it seems. But you can't blame me for it.”

  “Why not?”

  “After more than a year of sexual deprivation, a man has to have some pleasure.”

  “You could expend your energy on something more productive,” Lara suggested as he came closer to the bath. “Develop a hobby…collect something…take up chess or pugilism.”

  His eyes twinkled at her prim tone. “I do have a hobby, madam.”

  “Which is what?”

  “Admiring you.”

  She shook her head with a reluctant smile. “If you weren't so annoying, my lord, you would almost be charming.”

  “If you weren't so beautiful, I wouldn't be annoying.” He gave her an easy masculine grin. “But I plan to annoy you often, madam, and someday you'll like it.” He took another step toward the tub. “Brace yourself—I'm coming closer.”

  Lara went rigid, thinking of covering herself, screaming, splashing him…but she did none of those things. She remained in the tub, stretched before him like a pagan sacrifice. Hunter made no obvious show of staring at her, but she knew that he took in every detail of her body as it shimmered beneath the scented water. “What do you want?” she asked. Her face felt hot, warmed no longer by the steam but by her own inner agitation.

  If Hunter reached into the water right now, and pulled her out into his arms and took her to bed…she wasn't certain she would fight him. Part of her wanted him. Part of her wanted to be lost in him…and that thought didn't frighten her nearly as much as it should have.

  Hunter seemed to have difficulty breathing. He reached out and fumbled for her hand, prying her fingers loose from their grip on the tub's edge. “Here. This is for you.”

  She felt him press a small object into her palm. Her fingers curled around it. “You could have waited until after my bath.”

  “And risk not seeing you like this?” He laughed unsteadily and backed away from the tub as if he no longer trusted himself.

  Lara's wet fingers unfurled, and she looked down at the gold circlet in her hand, a heavy gold shank that supported a huge rose-cut diamond. The simple setting enhanced the fiery beauty of the water white diamond. “Oh,” she said softly, staring at the stunning piece, unable to trust her own eyes.

  “You never had a betrothal ring, as I recall,” Hunter remarked casually.

  Lara continued to stare at the sparkling gem in her hand. “But…is it wise to make such a purchase in our circumstances?”

  “We can afford it,” he said abruptly, sounding annoyed. “You leave those worries to me. If you don't like the thing, we'll have it exchanged for something you prefer.”

I…no. It's beautiful.” Hesitantly Lara slid the stone, which weighed at least four carats, onto her finger. The ring fit snugly on the fourth finger of her left hand, looking unreal in its magnificence. It felt odd to wear a ring after leaving her hand bare for so long. Finally she dared to look at Hunter. He was expressionless, but his posture betrayed his tension. At the sight of her small smile, he seemed to relax.

  “You've never given me anything like this before,” Lara said. “I hardly know what to say.”

  “You can thank me later,” Hunter replied, regaining his usual cockiness. “I believe you know how.” He left the room with an arrogant male laugh, while Lara's shy pleasure turned into annoyance. She should have expected him to ruin the tender moment with a reminder of the hideous bargain they had made.

  Settling back in the tub, she lifted her hand and regarded the ring closely. The jewel was suitable for a queen. Why had he given her such a priceless gift? She suspected that the ring had been intended as a declaration of ownership…or perhaps he wanted to convince their peers that they were by no means financially destitute. Or was it possible he had merely wanted to soften her heart toward him? Shaking her head in wonder, Lara regarded the closed door and spoke her thoughts aloud. “I don't understand you, my lord. I never have…and apparently never will.”

  Possibility Smith's labors on Hawksworth Hall were far from over, but he had more than earned his sizable fee on the ballroom alone. Gone were the marble blackamoors dressed in pink togas, and the heavy, ugly giltwork. The room was now light and fresh, the walls covered in cream paint and crowned in delicate plasterwork, the row of long windows bordered by amber marble colonnades. Four huge chandeliers hung from the ceiling, strings of glittering crystal drops shedding light on the parquet floor below.

  At Lara's instruction, the gardener, Mr. Moody, had made up massive arrangements of roses, lilies, and exotic blooms that had been placed around the ballroom. The heady fragrance spread through the air as a cool spring breeze blew through the open windows.

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