Stranger in My Arms by Lisa Kleypas

  Lara struggled upward, raising on her elbow, using her free hand to touch his head, fingers tangling in his thick hair. Her heart pounded against her ribs, her vision blurred, and all awareness and feeling centered in the place his mouth covered. He worshiped, consumed, devastated her, until the twisting pleasure became too much, and she spasmed endlessly, groaning with the force of her release.

  After the last contraction had faded, Hunter raised himself to look directly into Lara's wet, bewildered eyes. His expression was serious as he used his fingers to brush away the tear-tracks on her cheeks. She touched his mouth with trembling fingers, his lips damp from the liquor of her own body.

  He urged his knee between her thighs, and she parted them at once, trusting him with every last part of herself. He fumbled with the openings of his pantaloons, and there was a blunt, heavy pressure against the soft cove of her body. She braced herself against it, knowing that now the pain would come. He entered her slowly, pushing into the yielding flesh so gradually that there was no discomfort, only the feeling of being stretched and deliciously filled. Her body accepted the massive intrusion, the thrust penetrating deeper until she moaned in astonished delight.

  Now fully joined with her, Hunter paused and buried his face in the fragrant curve of Lara's shoulder. She felt his large body shaking as he struggled to contain an eternity of pent-up passion. “It's all right,” she murmured, drawing her hand down the long plane of his back. Her hips tilted in an encouraging lift, and he gasped at the small movement.

  “No, Lara,” he said thickly. “No, wait…God, I can't…”

  She pushed upward again, managing to take more of him inside, and the silken undulation was his undoing. He groaned and climaxed without even thrusting, his body coursing with pleasure.

  A long, shivering minute later, he rolled to his side, bringing her with him. Still panting for breath, he kissed her roughly, his mouth flavored with salt and a provocative essence that was not at all unpleasant.

  Lara was the first to speak, her face pressed against his smooth chest. “Now may I turn down the lamp?”

  His laughter rumbled beneath her cheek. He obliged her and left the bed for a moment, removing his clothes and reaching for the lamp. When all trace of light had been extinguished, he came back to her in the darkness.

  Lara awakened from a dream about Psyche, the maiden who was sacrificed to a winged serpent and was carried away instead by Eros…the unknown husband who came to her at night and made love to her without being seen. Rolling to her back and stretching, Lara was almost startled to feel a man's body beside her. Instantly she reached for the sheet, which had fallen to her waist. A large hand covered hers.

  “Don't,” came Hunter's low murmur. “I like to see the moonlight on your skin.”

  He had been awake, watching her. Lara glanced down at her body, gilded by the bluish white light shining through the half-open window, and she continued to tug at the sheet.

  Hunter removed the linen from her grasp and pulled it completely away from her. He touched the tips of her breasts, the silvery curves leading down to the shadowed hollow between. She turned toward him, seeking his mouth, and he gave her a kiss so satisfying and enticing that she felt her pulse quickening once again. His hands slid to her bottom, cupping the round shapes in his palms, gripping and pulling her closer.

  The hard length of his arousal pressed against her stomach, no longer a weapon to be feared but an instrument of pleasure. Lara reached for it cautiously, encircling the shaft with her fingers, sliding them along the hot silken skin. Her touch made him shiver, his body responding eagerly to the caress. She sensed that there were things he wanted to show her, teach her, but for now he let her explore him as she liked. She moved down to the pouch between his legs, testing the pendulous weight, and slid her fingers up the shaft to the smooth, broad tip. He groaned and lowered his mouth to her throat, kissing her, telling her in guttural murmurs how much he wanted her.

  Pushing her knees upward and apart, he settled in the lee of her thighs and took her, sheathing himself in a deep slide. Lara gasped and wriggled to accommodate him. There was only an instant of discomfort before her body accepted him in dewy welcome. He began a steady rhythm, driving straight and sure within her, angling himself to press against her sex with each stroke. She lifted herself up to him, cradling him with her hips, her hands gripping the dense muscles of his back. He was hard, delicious, riding her just as she wanted, covering her with his masculine weight, plunging deeper, deeper…The pleasure of it was overwhelming.

  She cried out at the height of it, her body filled with a liquid rush of delight, a shudder of satisfaction. It was equally pleasurable to share Hunter's fulfillment, to hold him in her arms and feel him shake with sensations he could no longer control.

  He remained inside her for a long time while his mouth covered hers, caressing and tasting. Dreamily Lara stroked his thick hair and found the place behind his ear where the skin was soft and downy like a child's. She felt his weight shift as he prepared to move off her, and she moaned in protest.

  “Oh, don't…”

  “I'll crush you,” he whispered, rolling to his side.

  His thigh intruded between hers, and he played idly with the moist patch of hair, his fingers soothing and arousing at the same time. “Is this what you had with Lady Carlysle?” she asked, staring into his shadowed face.

  “I've never had this with anyone.”

  Pleased by his answer, Lara snuggled closer and rested her cheek on his chest. “Hunter?”


  “What did Lady Carlysle say to you earlier to-night?”

  The movements of his fingers stopped. She felt a new tension enter his body, and his voice was laced with exasperation as he replied. “Esther was disappointed when I made it clear that I had no interest in resuming our affair. So disappointed, in fact, that she claimed I couldn't be the real Hawksworth.”

  “Oh.” Lara kept her face pressed to his chest. “Do you think she intends to make any sort of public accusation?” she asked carefully.

  His shoulders moved in a slight shrug. “I doubt it. The ton will assume any such claim would arise from wounded vanity. And Esther has no desire to make herself appear foolish.”

  “Of course.” Lara blinked, her lashes tickling his chest. “I'm sorry.”

  “For what?”

  “For making the evening such a trying one.”

  “Well…” His fingers entered the cleft between her thighs with a gentle twist that made her quiver. He reached far inside the depths of her, exploring with subtle, diabolical knowledge. “You'll make it up to me,” he murmured. “Won't you?”

  “Yes…yes…” And her lips parted against his chest in a sigh of pleasure.

  “Mama. Mama.”

  Lara yawned and opened her eyes, squinting as the early morning sunlight assaulted her. To her dismay, she saw Johnny standing beside the bed, his small face level with her own. He stood in his nightshirt and dirty bare feet, while shocks of black hair stuck out at the top of his head.

  Realizing the child had found her in Hunter's bed, Lara glanced behind her and saw her husband beginning to awaken. She kept the covers pulled high and turned back to Johnny. “Why are you up so early?” she asked.

  “The chickens are hatching.”

  Groggily she remembered the nest of hen's eggs they had been watching for the last several days. “How do you know that, darling?”

  “I just went out to look at 'em.” His innocent gaze passed from her to Hunter, who sat up and rubbed his own disheveled hair, the sheet falling to his waist.

  “Good morning,” Hunter said calmly, as if the situation were an everyday occurrence.

  “Good morning,” Johnny replied cheerfully, and returned his attention to Lara. “Mama, why aren't you in your own bed?”

  Wincing at the question, Lara decided that the simplest explanation was best. “Because Lord Hawksworth invited me to sleep here last night.”

ere is your nightgown?”

  Her cheeks pinkened, and she steadfastly avoided looking at Hunter as she replied. “I was so sleepy last night, I must have forgotten to put it on.”

  “Silly old Mama,” he said, giggling at her oversight.

  Lara smiled back at him. “Go find your robe and slippers.”

  As the child disappeared from sight, Hunter reached for Lara, but she rolled away and slipped from the bed. Finding his discarded shirt on the floor, she snatched up the garment and used it as a temporary cover for her nakedness. She held the front closed and looked at the long sprawl of her husband's body as he stretched on the bed. Their gazes met, and they exchanged a tentative smile.

  “How are you?” Hunter asked softly.

  Lara didn't answer for a moment, struggling to name the feeling that seemed to saturate her from head to toe. It was a strange, warm gladness, more complete and certain than anything she'd felt before. She didn't want to leave him even for a minute, wanted to spend the day with him, and tomorrow, and every day after that until she had learned everything about him.

  “I'm happy,” she said. “So happy that I'm afraid.”

  His eyes were as dark and soft as molasses. “Why afraid, my love?”

  “Because I want so badly for it to last.”

  Hunter gestured for her to come to him, but she ventured close enough only for a quick, glancing kiss, and then danced out of his reach.

  “Where are you going?” he asked.

  Lara paused at the doorway and smiled back at him. “To get dressed and see the chickens, of course.”

  Chapter 15

  SOMETHING HAD TO be done with the prison children while the orphanage was being enlarged. Leaving them in their current circumstances was out of the question. Lara couldn't abide the thought of any of them spending one more night in the foul, dangerous places they had been consigned to live in. The only solution was to convince the people of Market Hill to take the children into their homes until the orphanage was ready to receive them. Unfortunately that idea was met with a general reluctance that astonished her.

  “How can they be so coldhearted?” Lara complained to Hunter after she had made a morning of calls, during which her requests on behalf of the children had been politely refused. Wandering farther into the library, she removed her bonnet and tossed it to a chair, and fanned her overheated face. “The only people I've asked to take in a child or two are families with more than enough means to support them—and it's only for a matter of months! Why won't anyone lift a finger to help? I was so certain I could count on Mrs. Hartcup, or the Wyndhams—”

  “Practical considerations,” Hunter replied matter-of-factly, pushing his chair back from his desk. He pulled Lara to his lap and began to unfasten the detachable ruff from around her neck. “All charitable impulses aside, my sweet, you have to recognize that you're not asking them to take in ordinary children. The good citizens of Market Hill regard the prison orphans as criminals in training—and who could blame them?”

  Lara stiffened in his lap and shot him a glance of displeasure. “How can you say that when Johnny has been such an angel?”

  “He's a good lad,” Hunter acknowledged, smiling wryly as he cast a glance toward the window. It was only then that Lara heard a snapping, popping noise and realized that Johnny was outside indulging in his favorite pastime, pounding tiny gunpowder caps with rocks, or firing them in his toy pistol. “But Johnny is the exception,” Hunter continued. “Many of the other children need special care and attention. Some of them can't be trusted any more than if they were wild animals set loose in the town. You can't expect the Hartcups or Wyndhams or anyone else to take on such a responsibility.”

  “Yes, I can,” she said obstinately, frowning into his sympathetic face. “Hunter, what is to be done?”

  “Wait for the new wing to the orphanage to be finished and additional teachers to be hired,” he said.

  “I can't wait. I want the children out of prison immediately. I'll bring them all here and take care of them myself if I have to.”

  “What about Johnny?” Hunter pointed out evenly. “How will you explain it when all your time and attention are devoted to a dozen other children and there's none left for him?”

  “I'll tell him…I'll simply say…” Lara stopped with a frustrated groan. “He won't understand,” she admitted.

  Hunter shook his head in the face of her obvious misery. “Sweet darling,” he murmured. “I would advise you to harden your heart just a little…but somehow I don't think you can.”

  “I can't leave those children in prison for months,” she said.

  “All right, dammit. I'll see if I can do something, though I doubt I'll have any more luck than you.”

  “You will,” Lara said, instantly hopeful. “You have a talent for getting people to do what you want.”

  Hunter grinned suddenly. “I have another talent that I intend to demonstrate tonight.”

  “Perhaps,” she said provocatively, and scooted from his lap.

  Hunter became an unexpected ally, making calls, coaxing, bargaining, and bullying with all his considerable charm until he had found temporary homes for all twelve children. Having been the object of one of Hunter's campaigns, although for a far different cause, Lara knew exactly how difficult it was for the townspeople to refuse him.

  She would never regard him in the same way after their night together, the first time she had ever experienced pleasure and fulfillment in a man's arms. Even more surprising than the physical satisfaction had been the realization that she could trust him.

  Hunter was a kind man, Lara thought with some amazement. Her husband, kind, not only to her but to the others around him…She didn't know what had caused such a change, but she was deeply grateful for it. Although he didn't approve of her philanthropic meddling in other people's lives, he seemed to understand it, and he indulged her as much as he thought reasonable.

  Hunter had always been busy, but his pursuits were far different from in the first years of their marriage. He had once been a standard figure at every hunt or sporting event, not to mention a visible fixture at gaming clubs. Lara suspected his old comrades were sorely disappointed to discover that Hunter had returned from India with a new sense of responsibility toward his dependents. He developed the Crosslands' interests in shipping, trading, and manufacturing companies, and acquired a brewery that returned a steady profit each month. Taking an interest in the workings of his own estate, he paid close attention to the harvest and farming, and undertook to make improvements the tenants had long requested.

  As a young man accustomed to privilege and filled with a sense of invulnerability, Hunter had once believed the world existed only to give him pleasure. The only time he had ever been denied anything was when he had been confronted by Lara's infertility, and he had handled it poorly. Now he seemed immeasurably older and wiser, taking nothing for granted, shouldering the responsibilities he had once done his best to avoid.

  Not that Hunter was a saint…There was a touch of the rascal about him that Lara enjoyed. He was seductive, tricky, teasing, encouraging her to lay aside her morals and romp with him in a manner she would never have believed herself capable of. One evening he visited Lara's bedroom with the stated intention of enjoying the ceiling mirror before it was removed by Possibility Smith and his assistants. Ignoring Lara's mortified protests, he made love to her beneath their reflections, and laughed as she dove under the covers immediately afterward. He took her to a dignified musical evening and whispered outrageous passages from Indian love texts in her ear…accompanied her on a private picnic and seduced her beneath the open sky.

  He was the husband she had never dared to hope for: compassionate, exciting, and strong. She loved him—it was impossible not to—although some tiny flicker of fear kept her from admitting it aloud. In time she would tell him, when she felt safe in doing so. Some part of her heart was waiting for him to prove himself, offer a signal or sign or key that would allow her to rel
inquish every last part of herself to him.

  Lara covered herself in a large apron and stood at the corner of the kitchen worktable, crushing linseed in a small marble mortar. Carefully she scraped the oily powder from the bowl and dropped the linseed into a cup of melted beeswax. It was an old family recipe for a poultice that would ease the gout—an affliction that had lately tormented a resident of Market Hill, Sir Ralph Woodfield. Although Sir Ralph was a proud man who hated to ask a favor of anyone, he had sent a servant over that morning to request a batch of the treatment.

  Enjoying the fragrance of the cooling beeswax, Lara poured another half cup of linseed into the mortar and began to grind it with circular strokes of the pestle. The cook and two kitchen maids stood at the other end of the worktable, kneading great piles of bread dough and shaping it into perfect oblong loaves. They were all entertained by one of the maids' cheerful warbling of a love song that was currently popular in the village. Her fingers plowed deftly into the dough, keeping time with the melody.

  “Oh, the lad who has me must have pockets of gold,

  A horse and carriage, and a silver watch too

  And well for him if he's handsome and bold,

  With curly brown hair and eyes so blue…”

  The song went on extravagantly extolling the virtues of the imaginary lad, until every woman in the kitchen was chuckling. “As if a man like that could be found in Market Hill!” the cook exclaimed.

  Amid the general amusement, Naomi slipped into the room, the skirt of her walking dress dusty from the walk to the village. She came to Lara at once, removing a straw bonnet to reveal a troubled frown.

  “Naomi,” Lara said, pausing in her work. “It's your day off—I thought you were going to spend the day in the village with friends.”

  “I had to come back at once, milady,” Naomi murmured, while the others continued to sing and chatter. “I don't know what to believe, or if there's a bit of truth in it, but…I heard something in the village.”

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