Stranger in My Arms by Lisa Kleypas

  He didn't listen to her, only bent and took her nipple into his mouth, while his hand lifted her gossamer skirts and delved beneath them. A grunt of satisfaction escaped him as he discovered that she wasn't wearing drawers, and his large hand clasped the curve of her bare bottom. Lara jumped in shock. The music and voices from the ball were audible, reminding her of the imminent danger of being discovered. She began to struggle in earnest, succeeding only in disarranging her clothes further.

  He crushed her mouth in another ravenous kiss and slid his hand between her thighs, his fingers combing through the triangle of protective curls. She choked and writhed and moaned in protest, until he parted the soft thatch and stroked the delicate line of closed lips. Lara shuddered and went still, her nerves shattering at the intimate touch. She couldn't breathe, couldn't speak as he stroked deeper, finding a humiliating trace of moisture. Hunter lifted his mouth from hers and whispered thickly near her ear.

  “I'm going to kiss you there tonight.”

  The image shocked her, made her flush all over, and she leaned hard against him as her legs threatened to collapse. He opened the feminine folds and explored her with just one fingertip, sliding through the moisture, circling the entrance to her body, then caressing a tiny place of intense, burning sensation. Her arms wrapped around his neck, one hand gripping the opposite wrist until her nails bit into her own skin. She had never imagined he would touch her this way, the movement of his fingertip delicate and sure, using the moisture of her own body as lubrication. He stroked and teased until she began to move against his hand with small, urgent nudges of her hips.

  Hunter kissed her throat, working his way to the fragile hollow at the base. “Do you want more?” he asked, his rasping voice barely penetrating the roar of her heartbeat.

  “I…don't know what you mean.”

  “Do you?”

  “Yes, yes.” She was beyond shame or reason, not caring what he did to her, as long as he didn't stop. Her body moved in a voluptuous quiver as she felt his finger nudge inside her. “Oh…”

  He stroked the slippery silk of her body, at first advancing an inch or two, then sliding the entire length of his finger inside. Lara's head fell back, eyes closed, while the pleasure threatened to uncoil in a way that would surely make her faint. Or worse, scream. Struggling to suppress the moans that kept rising in her throat, she clamped her teeth on her lower lip. His finger moved in a delicious pattern of advance and retreat, and Lara realized that he was mimicking the movements of lovemaking. Her hips thrust in helpless response, delighting in each slow penetration, her inner muscles grasping at him hungrily.

  “Kiss me,” she said shakily, craving his mouth on hers. “Please, ow…”

  Hunter lowered his head, but his lips remained a teasing inch away from hers, their panting breaths mingling in swirls of heat. His body was tense and aroused, his skin covered with a fine, hot mist.

  “This is your punishment, Lara,” he whispered. “To burn as I do.”

  Her breath caught as she felt his finger slip away from her trembling body. Gently he reached around his neck and unlocked her taut arms. Letting go of her, he bent to retrieve his glove from the floor. Lara leaned against the wall and watched him. He was going to leave her. “No,” she said faintly. “Wait, I…”

  He gave her one scorching glance and walked away, leaving her alone in the shadow beneath the stairs. Lara stared after him…angry…aghast.

  “How could you?” she heard herself whisper. “How could you?” After a minute, she fumbled with her clothes in an effort to restore them, but her fingers were strangely clumsy. She couldn't keep her mind on any subject other than her husband, and the exciting, mortifying things he had just done to her.

  Lara never quite knew how she survived the rest of the evening. Somehow she was able to produce a sociable manner, an agreeable smile, an air of calmness that concealed the chaos within. There was only one moment when she feared her facade would crack, when it was time for the dancing to begin. Leading the first dance was a duty she might have found enjoyable if not for the fear that everyone could somehow see what had transpired between them.

  “I can't,” she whispered as Hunter came to her and pulled her hand through the crook of his arm. To her mortification, she felt a tide of red sweep over her chest and face. “Everyone is watching.”

  “You were the one who invited my exmistress here,” he muttered with an indecipherable expression. “You can't blame them for being curious as to the state of affairs between us.”

  “The gossip will be ten times worse after you and I retire early,” Lara said. “They'll assume that we're either arguing or—”

  “Or humping ourselves into exhaustion,” he finished for her, the corners of his mouth lifting in a taunting smile.

  “Must you be so crude?” she asked tightly.

  Hunter responded by treating her with an exaggerated politeness that was almost worst than crudity. Nodding to the musicians to begin a sprightly quadrille, he led Lara to the middle of the ballroom and waited for the other guests to join them. A multitude of couples fell in rapidly, and soon Lara was whirled into a pattern of sashaying, skipping feet. She had always loved dancing, and it had been a long time since she had led a quadrille, but there was painfully little enjoyment in this one.

  She felt awkward and terribly exposed, unable to escape the memory of what they had just done beneath the stairs…She nearly stumbled when she thought of her husband's gentle hands on her breasts and between her thighs.

  Midnight came, and the minutes crowded upon each other in rapid succession, until the appointed hour was nearly upon her. Lara glanced around the crowded ballroom for her husband, but there was no sign of him. Perhaps he was already upstairs…waiting. She felt as desperate as a criminal facing the moment of execution. But the moment under the stairs was still with her, the shameful delight lingering like strong perfume.

  Nearly one o'clock…Hunter had chosen the time well. The guests were moving in an inebriated, self-entertaining swarm, and her absence would scarcely be noticed. Discreetly she extricated herself from a conversation and slipped from the ballroom.

  By the time the longcase clock in the upstairs hall resonated with a single chime, Lara had reached her room. She managed to undress herself, twisting and tugging at the back of her gown, letting it fall to the floor. After adding underclothes and stockings to the heap, Lara opened the armoire and found the black negligee. It settled over her body in a shimmering rustle, light as mist.

  Her fingers were unsteady as she removed the pearls from her hair and unpinned the long braid from its neat coil. She ran a brush through the rippling tresses until they were smooth, and glanced at herself in the dressing table mirror. Her eyes were huge and her skin was bloodless. She pinched her cheeks to give them color, and took a breath so deep that her lungs ached from the pressure.

  It wouldn't be as terrible as before, she thought. She believed that Hunter, in spite of his annoyance, would try to be gentle, and in return she would be as accommodating as possible in the hopes that he would finish quickly. Then it would be over, and on the morrow things would go back to the way they had been. With that thought in mind, she left her bedchamber and padded quickly down the hall to his suite.

  Shaking with nerves, Lara entered Hunter's room without knocking. The lamp had been turned low, a quiet glow of light barely encompassing the huge bed. Hunter sat on the corner of the mattress, still dressed in his evening clothes. His dark head lifted, and a murmur left his throat as he saw her in the black negligee. He was very still as she came to him, his smoldering gaze taking in everything: the white flashes of her bare feet, the roundness of her breasts encased in black lace, the sable fall of her hair.

  “Lara,” he murmured, touching a lock of her unbound hair with unsteady fingers. “You look like an angel in black.”

  She shook her head. “My actions of this evening have proved that I'm far from an angel.”

  He didn't argue the point.
  Seeing that his earlier anger had abated, Lara began a careful apology. “My lord, about Lady Carlysle—”

  “Let's not speak of her. She doesn't signify.”

  “Yes, but I—”

  “It's all right, Lara.” He released her hair and touched the side of her throat. “Sweet…go back to your room.”

  Stunned by his words, Lara stared at him silently.

  “It's not because I don't want you,” Hunter said, standing to remove his coat. He draped the garment around her shoulders and closed it over her front. “In fact, the sight of you in that negligee is more than I can bear.”

  “Then…why?” she asked in bewilderment.

  “Because I realized tonight that I can't play games and claim your body as the prize. I thought I could, but… ” He stopped and gave a huff of self-mocking laughter. “Call it a scruple I never knew I had.”

  “I want to fulfill the bargain—”

  “I don't want you this way, as if you owe me something. You don't.”

  “Yes, I do.”

  “I'll be damned if the only way I can have you is through coercion. So…go back to your room. And lock the door.”

  The moment was a revelation. Lara's amazed stare seemed to make him uncomfortable. Hunter turned and went back to the bed, hoisting himself onto the corner and waving her to leave with an abrupt gesture.

  Lara didn't move. A new feeling of trust unfurled inside her as she realized that he would never again force himself on her, no matter what the circumstances, no matter how badly he wanted her. She had always been a little afraid of Hunter, his dominating and callous nature, but he had somehow changed the rules between them, and now…

  She felt as if she were on the edge of a chasm, suspended in the breathless instant before she threw herself over.

  It would be easy to take the escape he offered. Lara stared into her husband's expressionless face. As he had once pointed out, she had survived other nights with him. This could certainly be no worse. Perhaps it would even be a great deal better. Hesitantly she pulled the coat from her shoulders and went to her husband.

  “I want to stay with you,” she said.

  When he made no move to touch her, she crawled onto the bed beside him.

  Hunter's dark, questioning gaze locked on her face. “You don't have to.”

  “I want to.” Nervous but determined, she touched his face, his shoulder, encouraging him to take her in his arms. Hunter remained motionless, perplexed, staring as if she were an apparition from a dream.

  She slid her fingers into the space where heat collected between his shirt and cream silk waistcoat. Her hands flattened over the broad cage of ribs and muscle. His stillness encouraged her, and she moved to the carved mother-of-pearl buttons, freeing them one by one until the waistcoat gaped open. She tugged at the knot of his cravat then, finding the starched linen difficult to loosen. Although she sensed him staring at her face, she concentrated on the task before her, finally managing to unwind the length of white cloth.

  The points of his collar sagged open, revealing skin that was humid and chafed from the confining cravat. Lara tossed the starched linen aside and slid her hand to the nape of his neck, rubbing it softly. “Why do men wear their cravats so high and stiff?” she asked.

  His eyes half closed at her touch. “Brummell started them,” he muttered. “To hide his swollen neck glands.”

  “You have a very fine neck,” Lara said, drawing a fingertip down the length of his brown throat. “It's a shame to hide it.”

  The stroke of her finger made Hunter inhale sharply, and he caught her wrists with startling swiftness. “Lara,” he warned unsteadily, “don't start something you can't finish.”

  With her wrists still imprisoned, Lara leaned forward. She drew her lips over his in light, repeated brushes, tempting, offering, until he caught her with a lush openmouthed kiss. She answered the pressure and welcomed the touch of his tongue, exploring his mouth with growing curiosity.

  Hunter released her arms and lowered her to the bed, kissing her mouth and cheeks and throat. Lara reached around his neck, staring at the silhouette of his head and shoulders above her. “Don't stop kissing me,” she said, craving the taste of him.

  Hunter cradled the back of her head in his hands. His mouth covered hers in a deep, compelling kiss that made her heart race and her knees draw upward as if she could curl herself around him.

  She couldn't precisely remember the last time he had made love to her, only that it had been perfunctory, accomplished without a single word or caress. How differently he touched her now, his fingertips moving over her like butterfly wings. He drew the hem of her negligee up to her knees, then bent to her legs and kissed them…the arches of her feet, the tender inside of one ankle. Lara let him pull her leg higher, wider, and her body jerked as she felt the nip of his teeth in the sensitive hollow behind her knee.

  “Do you like that?” he asked.

  “I…no…I don't know.”

  He pressed his face against the inside of her thigh, until she felt the prickle of his beard through the thin silk of her gown. “Tell me what you like,” he said, his voice muffled. “Or what you don't like. Tell me anything you want.”

  “When I came to you tonight,” she said, “I thought I wanted you to finish this quickly.”

  He laughed suddenly, his hands gripping the sides of her legs. “I want to make it last as long as possible. I've waited for this night…God knows when I'll get another.” The heat of his mouth sank through the negligee as he kissed her thigh.

  Lara tensed and strained her legs against him, her knees bumping into the wall of his chest as he moved higher. Her gown was a slippery midnight veil between them. He strung kisses higher on her leg, while his hands kneaded her hips and slid beneath her bottom.

  His mouth moved to the verge of a private, forbidden place, and Lara reacted without thinking, trying to push his head away. Undeterred, he caught one of her hands and kissed her taut fingers, and bent his head once more to her shrinking body. She felt his tongue through the silk, a wet, voluptuous stroke right between her thighs, where the sensitive flesh wasn't protected by curls. She whimpered at the intimate sensation, and her husband settled more heavily over her, pushing her legs wider. He licked again, wetting the thin fabric, his tongue sinuous and teasing, sending paralyzing pleasure all through her.

  She gasped out something, not knowing if it was protest or encouragement, and Hunter lifted his head. “Shall we try it without the gown?” he asked huskily.


  He laughed at her quick response and levered himself upward until they were face-to-face. “Take the gown off,” he coaxed, pulling the negligee from her white shoulder.

  “First turn down the lamp.”

  “I want to see you,” he said, kissing the delicate skin he had revealed, nudging at the soft crease of her underarm. “I want you to see me.”

  Lara looked at him warily. It would be easier in the dark. Easier to separate her ordinary self from the one who participated in events that were too intimate to dwell on in the daytime. She didn't want to see what was happening between them. “No,” she said plaintively, but he heard the indecision in her voice.

  “Sweet darling,” he whispered against her shoulder. “Try it this way just once.”

  She lay unprotesting as Hunter slid the gown from her shoulders and eased it down her legs, leaving her vulnerable in the shallow pool of lamplight. He pulled her against him, her bare skin clasped against his fully clothed body. “Help me,” he said.

  Obediently Lara worked at the buttons on his shirt, the linen crumpled and warm from his skin. Although he waited patiently, his muscles were taut and trembling from eagerness, and his lungs worked hard to draw in badly needed oxygen. As Lara fumbled to unfasten his French cuffs, his hand clenched into a fist.

  “I want you,” he said hoarsely. “More than anything in my life.”

  Before she could finish the cuff, he pushed her down and c
rouched over her, his open shirt falling on either side of her naked body. His gaze slid over her, greedily absorbing every detail. He kissed her, his weight supported on his elbows and thighs, his muscle-banded chest right above her. There were so many things about him she could not remember, had never dared to investigate. Hesitantly she touched his bare chest, so, hard and smooth beneath her palms, the brown points of his nipples, the long stretch of his waist. His body had once been so sturdy and well padded, so different from this springy, lean animality.

  He slid lower on her body and played with her breasts, cupping them high in his hands, circling the peaks with his fingers. His mouth opened over the center of one plump mound, drawing the nipple inside, catching it between his teeth. Lara moaned, riveted by the sight of his dark head hovering over her chest, while he tugged and suckled, first one breast, then the other. She felt strange, feverish…Something was loosening inside her, every defense falling away. His hand moved over her stomach, and she opened her legs to invite his touch, his penetration, anything he wanted.

  Sensing her sudden abandon, Hunter dragged his mouth everywhere, tasting and kissing her waist, tummy, thighs…kissing the soft curls between them, breathing in the intimate fragrance. He used his fingers to separate the curls, gently parted her flesh to find the spot he wanted, and pressed his tongue against it. She arched against a blaze of pleasure, sharp and terrifying, while her eyes burned with salt tears. He licked in small circles of fire that made her gasp and quiver, and then she felt his tongue slide lower, deeper, invading her with exquisite softness. He used the weight of his chest to pin her legs wide, while his tongue nurtured the sensation to savage intensity.

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