Stranger in My Arms by Lisa Kleypas

  Gently Hunter removed the glass from her nerveless fingers, gestured for a servant who seemed to appear from nowhere; and placed it on a silver tray. “Another?” he asked, and Lara nodded stiffly.

  Her gloved hand curled around the stem of a new glass, and she drank it as rapidly as the first, with the same results. The sparkling bubbles seemed to float into her brain, and she covered her mouth with her fingers to suppress another attack of hiccups.

  Hunter's brown eyes gleamed with amusement. “It's not going to work, my sweet.”

  “What's not going to work?”

  “You can drink until you're corned, pickled, and salted…but I'm still going to hold you to our bargain.”

  She gave him a glance of seething annoyance. “I had no such plan in mind. However, I'll drink as much champagne as I want. After all, I can't recall a time when you ever came to my bed sober.”

  His gaze evaded hers, and his mouth tightened in what was either anger or regret. “I'm sorry about that,” he said gruffly, glancing about the room as if she had made him uncomfortable. “Lara, I—”

  Something caught his attention, and he stopped in midsentence. He didn't seem startled so much as…intent…as if he were suddenly occupied with solving an important riddle. Lara followed his steady gaze, and her entire body twitched in reaction as she realized whom he was looking at.

  A tall woman stood near the doorway. Her attractiveness was the kind people usually called handsome rather than beautiful. She was lean and large-boned, her arms lightly muscled from a devotion to outdoor activities such as hawking, hunting, and archery. A man's woman. Her strong, almost stern features were balanced by rich chestnut hair, sherry-colored eyes, and a pleasantly curved mouth. A cream-colored gown draped over one shoulder and left the other bare, falling over her statuesque body in the style a Greek goddess would favor.

  Lara was puzzled by the lack of obvious recognition on Hunter's face. He glanced around the room and took note of the slew of curious gazes fastened on him, the way everyone watched for his reaction. Then he looked back at the woman, who gave him a faintly tremulous smile.

  Suddenly the woman's identity seemed to dawn on him, and he shot Lara a glance of black rage. “Damn you,” he breathed, and left her as he headed toward his former mistress, Lady Carlysle.

  Lara felt hundreds of gazes on her as the scene unfolded. The rush of gossip—amused, pitying, fascinated—threatened to drown out the musicians. Shaken, she was barely aware of her sister coming to her side.

  “All going according to plan,” Rachel remarked, trying to look as though nothing unusual were happening. “Try to smile, Larissa—everyone is watching.”

  Lara obediently curved her lips in an imitation of a smile, but her mouth felt stiff and numb.

  “Why do you look so strange, dearest?” Rachel asked softly. “He's gone to her, just as you planned. It's what you wanted, isn't it?”

  Yes, it was what she had wanted…but how could she explain that everything seemed horribly wrong? How could she explain the awful moment in which Hunter hadn't seemed to recognize his former mistress? It must be that he had been shocked by the unexpected sight—that and the fact that he hadn't seen Lady Carlysle for more than three years. It had taken him several seconds to recover.

  Lara took a deep breath, trying to calm herself, but the ache in her chest remained. She had accomplished her goal, bringing Hunter and Lady Carlysle together. Now their old passion would reignite and Lara would be left alone once more. Exactly what she wanted.

  Why, then, did she feel so betrayed? Why did she feel as if she had made a terrible mistake?

  “Here, give me that.” Rachel took the empty champagne glass from her. “You're about to snap the stem in two.” She stared closely into Lara's face. “Dearest, what is wrong? How can I help you?”

  “It's too hot in here,” Lara said thickly. “I don't feel well. Act as hostess for me, Rachel, just for a few minutes. Make certain everything goes smoothly until I return.”

  “Yes, of course.” Rachel squeezed her gloved hand. “Everything will be all right, dear.”

  “Thank you,” Lara whispered, not believing her for a moment.

  Chapter 14

  HUNTER HAD SEEN the unmistakable guilt on Lara's face, and realized in an instant what she had done. He was filled with outrage at having been manipulated by his own wife. More than that, he was aware of a wry realization that he should have expected such a maneuver. Lara was an intelligent and stubborn woman who would do anything rather than surrender to him. It had been a clever idea to stage a public reunion with his former mistress, and Lara's timing couldn't be faulted. No doubt she expected him to be occupied with Lady Carlysle in one way or another for the rest of the evening.

  He couldn't wait to enlighten his wife on a few important points.

  In the meantime, however, he would have to deal with Lady Carlysle—something he had tried to avoid ever since coming to England. A grim smile touched his lips. “You'll pay for this, sweetheart,” he said under his breath, and squared his shoulders as he reached Lady Carlysle.

  “Esther,” he said, bending over her hand, holding it a second longer than was strictly proper. Lady Carlysle's gloved fingers were long and strong, her grip uncommonly firm. He could easily see the appeal of this straightforward woman, who would never require a man to be a hero, only a companion. Except…every man had the urge to be a hero once in a while, to offer a woman his strength and protection…and thousands of years of civilization would never breed that out.

  “You heartless knave,” Lady Carlysle murmured, though her brown eyes were warm with affection. “Why haven't you come to me? I've been waiting ever since I learned of your return from the East.” She gave his fingers a light squeeze and withdrew her hand.

  “I would have chosen a more private moment than this,” he said with a slight smile.

  “The time and place wasn't of my choosing. Our dear Larissa persuaded me, by means of a charming letter, to come here tonight.”

  “Did she,” Hunter remarked pleasantly, longing to find his meddling wife and throttle her. “What exactly did she write, Esther?”

  “Oh, something along the lines of wanting you to be happy after all you had been through—and believing that I was necessary to your happiness.” Her gaze met his, her height making it nearly unnecessary for her to look up at him. “Was she right, my lord?” Coming from another woman, the question might have been coy, but she infused it with a quiet earnestness that touched Hunter.

  To hell with the ball and the avidly watching guests, he thought suddenly. He would be damned if he'd hurt this woman in front of them all. He had already provided more than enough entertainment for them, and at his own expense.

  “Let's talk,” he said bluntly, taking her elbow and pulling her from the ballroom.

  Lady Carlysle gave a low laugh of pleasurable anticipation, accompanying him willingly. “We're already talking, my dear.”

  Hunter took her to the library and closed the doors, surrounding them both in the comforting ambience of oiled wood, the smell of books, leather, and liquor. Turning the key in the lock, he fought a leaden feeling of dread. Silently he cursed Lara for maneuvering him into this situation.

  “Esther…” he said, facing her.

  She smiled and held out her arms to him. “Welcome home. Oh, it's been too long.”

  Hunter hesitated and went to her. She was an attractive, pleasant woman, but he tensed at the feel of her arms closing around him, her long body matched against his. She wasn't the one he had desired and dreamed of, and he wouldn't satisfy himself with anyone other than Lara.

  Thankfully Lady Carlysle didn't attempt to kiss him. She tilted her head back and smiled at him. “You're too lean,” she accused. “I miss the way your arms used to feel. It was like being held by a great brawny bear. Promise me you'll eat beefsteak every night until you've filled out again.”

  Hunter didn't return the smile, only stared at her seriously as he sought t
he words to tell her he had no more interest in her. God, it would have been easy if he disliked her, but the reluctant respect she inspired was a definite hindrance.

  As it turned out, explanations weren't necessary. Lady Carlysle read it all in his expression, or lack thereof. Her friendly grasp loosened, and then her arms fell away. “You don't want me, do you?” she asked incredulously.

  There was a welter of confusion and pain in her eyes, but somehow Hunter forced himself to meet her gaze. “I want to make a new start with my wife,” he said gruffly.

  “With Lara…?” Her mouth dropped open. “If you want to be rid of me, Hawksworth, you have only to say so. But don't insult me with lies.”

  “Why shouldn't I want my own wife?”

  “Because she is the last woman you would ever want! I remember the countless times we used to make sport of her. You used to despise such delicate creatures—you said Lara was as spineless and cold as a jellyfish! And now you expect me to believe that you have some sort of feeling for her? She wouldn't last five minutes with you-she never could!”

  “Things have changed, Esther.”

  “I should say so,” she retorted. “I…” She stared at him and began to look rather queer, the healthy glow of her skin undercut by an ashen paleness. “Oh, no,” she whispered. “Oh, I should have known…”

  “What is it?” Moved by concern, Hunter reached for her, but she twisted away with a sickly gasp. She threw a desperate glance at the door, briefly contemplating escape, but made her way to a chair instead. She sat down abruptly, as if her legs had been cut from beneath her.

  “A drink,” she said, staring at him in open horror. “Please.”

  Hunter knew he should have felt remorse for her obvious distress, but instead he was aware of a biting impatience. Damn you, he thought savagely, how much trouble are you going to make for me? Snatching up a glass from the sideboard, he poured a large brandy and brought it to her, not bothering with the courtesy of warming the snifter between his palms.

  Receiving the drink, Lady Carlysle sipped it until the color had returned to her face. “My God,” she said, staring at him over the rim. “I don't know why I was fool enough to hope. He didn't survive the shipwreck. He's dead. And somehow you've taken his place.” Tears glimmered in her eyes, but she dashed them away impatiently. “You're not Hawksworth. You're not half the man he was.”

  The accusation filled him with cold fury, but he kept his reply quiet and calm. “You're distraught.”

  “And you're damned convincing,” she shot back. “But Hawksworth would never have chosen Lara over me. He loved me, not her.”

  “Sometimes love doesn't last,” Hunter said, his initial liking for her fading rapidly. It was hard to understand why she was so certain of her superiority over Lara.

  Lady Carlysle's grief was suppressed in another deep pull on the liquor, and she leveled a cold stare at him, the kind that men exchanged over pistols at dawn. “Who the hell are you?”

  “I'm Lord Hawksworth,” he said, as if he were speaking to the village simpleton.

  She laughed bitterly. “Does Lara believe you? I'll wager she does, the featherbrain. She never understood Hawksworth, or gave a fig for him. It would be easy enough to convince her, especially given such a remarkable similarity of appearance. But I knew Hawksworth better than anyone on earth, and I could prove in less than a minute that you're a fraud.”

  “Try,” he invited.

  Suddenly she looked almost admiring. “What nerve you have! I would, had I anything to gain from it. But the only thing in the world I want is Hawksworth, and you can't give him back to me. I suppose there would be some satisfaction in hearing you admit that you're an impostor—”

  “You'll never hear that,” he assured her. “Because it isn't the truth.”

  “I suspect, my lord, that you wouldn't know the truth if it bit you in the ballocks.” She stood and set the empty glass aside, her balance uncertain. “Good luck,” she advised, though it was clear that she wished him anything but. “You're a talented charlatan, and anyone who believes you deserves whatever he—or she—gets. Fool them all, if you can. But you haven't deceived me, and it will be a cold day in hell when you manage to convince the dowager countess that you're her son. She'll put an end to this charade when she returns from her travels.”

  “You don't know what you're talking about.”

  “Oh, but I do. And here's something else for you to ponder—Larissa is nothing but a pretty wax doll. You won't get any more satisfaction from her than Hawksworth did. There's nothing beneath the surface, do you understand? No warmth, and precious little intelligence. Bedding her isn't worth the bother.”

  “Esther,” he said softly, “I think it's time for you to go home.”

  “Yes.” She nodded, looking furious, disappointed, and weary. “I think so too.”

  Filled with agitation, Lara sat alone in the guest parlor off the entrance hall. She relived the scene in the ballroom a dozen times, and wondered what Hunter and his former mistress were doing right now. The pair hadn't been seen for some time. Surely they wouldn't have the bad taste to arrange a tryst on the spot. On the other hand, they were passionate lovers who hadn't seen each other in over three years.

  A strange feeling bubbled up inside her-jealousy that left an acid taste in her mouth. The image of Hunter with Lady Carlysle, his hands roaming her body, his dark head bent over hers…oh, it was unbearable! Why couldn't she feel the relief she had so eagerly expected?

  Groaning, Lara stood and left the parlor. She would have one more drink, and then she would return to the ballroom and act as if she were delighted by the situation. She would toss her head and laugh, and dance until her slippers were worn through. No one, not even her husband, would be able to guess at her turmoil.

  Wandering into the great hall, she paused to exchange pleasantries with a pair of women who were strolling toward the downstairs gallery. It was a frequently trafficked area, filled with paintings, sculptures, and long marble benches. The women wandered away arm in arm, chatting animatedly, while Lara decided to head to the library. She knew that Hunter kept the sideboard well stocked with a variety of wines and spirits. One small glass of something bracing, and she would rejoin her guests in the ballroom.

  To her dismay, she saw Hunter enter the hall at the same time she began to cross it. They both stopped and stared at each other, separated by perhaps ten or fifteen yards.

  Hunter's face was as smooth and hard as granite…but the black glitter of his eyes revealed the barely contained violence inside him. Driven by a strong instinct for self-preservation, Lara turned to flee. Hunter closed the distance between them in rapid strides and caught her easily. His fingers closed over her gloved arm, and he hauled her away unceremoniously. His pace obliged her to run beside him, while she sputtered protests with every step.

  “My lord…what are you…Stop, I can't…”

  Hunter dragged her into the dark corner beneath one side of the double staircase…the convenient place where the maids sometimes consorted with their followers, or the footmen stole kisses from their sweethearts. Lara had never imagined herself being accosted in the same corner. In spite of her breathless objections, she was pinned against the wall by fourteen stone of anger-charged male. One of his hands sank into her sleek coiffure, while the other gripped her hip through the soft fabric of her gown.

  Hunter's voice was filled with fury. “Somehow I don't recall having seen Lady Carlysle's name on the guest list.”

  Lara winced as his hand tightened in her hair. “I thought I was doing you a kindness.”

  “Like hell. You thought you were getting rid of me and my unwanted attentions.”

  “Where is Lady Carlysle?”

  “She decided to leave after I explained that I have no interest in her. And now the only question left is what to do with you.”

  “We should return to the ball,” Lara managed to say. “People will wonder where we are.”

  “You weren'
t so concerned about appearances when you arranged for my reunion with Lady Carlysle in front of everyone.”

  “P-perhaps I could have been more discreet—”

  “Perhaps you could have minded your own bloody business. Perhaps you could have believed me when I told you I didn't want her.”

  “I'm sorry,” she said in an effort to placate him. “I apologize. It was very wrong of me. Now if we could return to the—”

  “I don't want an apology.” He forced her head back and glared at her, his eyes glowing like hot coals in the shadows. “By God, I could wring your neck,” he muttered. “But I have another way to punish you-something I'll enjoy a hell of a lot more.”

  More than a little alarmed, Lara gasped as he gathered her closer. The hard, swollen ridge of his erection pressed against her, while the solid wall of his chest nearly flattened her breasts. “Not here,” she said urgently, panicked by the thought that a servant or guest would pass by. “Please, someone will see—”

  “Do you think I give a damn?” he growled. “You're my wife, mine, and I'll do as I want with you.” He bent his head and sealed his mouth over hers, kissing her hard, sending his tongue deep. Lara struggled only for a moment, until the fear of being caught under the stairs disappeared in a sudden shock of pleasure.

  Hunter kissed her as if he would devour her, his mouth hungry and searching, while his hands cupped the back of her head and held her steady. The kiss tasted of brandy and the spicy essence that was uniquely him. Lara's gloved hands knotted into fists as she struggled to keep from responding, but her defenses crumbled as he possessed her mouth with deep, delicious kisses. Moaning, she clung to his broad shoulders and arched her body against his. Just one more minute, and then she would push him away. One more kiss, one more touch…

  Tearing his mouth from hers, Hunter tugged off his right glove with his teeth and dropped it to the floor. He spread his fingers over her throat, savoring the delicate skin, and dipped inside the edge of her neckline. He pulled at the fabric of her bodice so roughly that she feared it would tear, until her breast slid free of the shallow covering, her nipple hardening in the open air. He cupped her breast and captured the sensitive peak between his fingertips, pulling and stroking until she smothered a cry against his coat. “Not here…not now,” she gasped.

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