Stranger in My Arms by Lisa Kleypas


  It seemed almost miraculous that Rachel didn't die during the hideous carriage ride. They finally arrived at Hawksworth Hall, and Hunter carried her into the house with great care. He found old Dr. Slade already there, waiting with Lara. His wife did not seem surprised by her sister's condition, and he guessed that her imaginings had led her to expect the worst. At Lara's direction, Hunter brought the patient to his wife's own bedroom and settled her on the linen sheets. While maids bustled about and Lara bent over Rachel, and the doctor rummaged through his case, Hunter wandered from the room.

  His part was done. He supposed he should feel some sort of satisfaction at having fulfilled his promise, but instead he was troubled and restless. He went to the library and closeted himself there, drinking slowly, wondering how the hell he would deal with Lonsdale when he arrived. No matter how remorseful Lonsdale appeared, Hunter knew that he couldn't allow him to take his wife back. How could Lonsdale convince any of them that he wouldn't harm Rachel again—how could they be certain that he wouldn't eventually kill her?

  Lonsdale wouldn't change, Hunter reflected, starting on his second brandy. People never did. He thought of what Lara had said to him earlier: Somehow you've changed into a man I can trust and rely on. A man I could love. The earnest confession, spoken with such gentle hope, had filled him with bitter longing. He hadn't known how to respond, still didn't. He wanted Lara's love. He would do anything to have her, though he might prove as destructive to her in his own way as Lonsdale was to Rachel.

  A servant came to tell him that the doctor was ready to leave, and Hunter set aside his brandy. He reached the central hall just as Lara and Dr. Slade did. The old doctor's face was grave and dark with displeasure, his wrinkles more prominent than usual, giving him the look of a surly bulldog. Lara seemed composed but brittle, her facade concealing a welter of emotion.

  Hunter looked from one of them to the other, waiting for the news. “Well?” he asked impatiently.

  “Lady Lonsdale had a miscarriage,” Dr. Slade replied. “It seems she wasn't aware of her condition until the bleeding began.”

  “How did it happen?”

  “Lonsdale pushed her down the stairs,” Lara said quietly, her eyes filled with fire. “He'd been drinking again, and he was in a temper. Rachel claims he didn't know what he was doing.”

  Dr. Slade frowned heavily. “A nasty business, this,” he commented. “I never thought I would say this, but it's a blessing old Lord Lonsdale isn't alive to see what's become of his son. I remember the pride he used to take in that boy—”

  “Will she be all right?” Hunter interrupted, sensing that a long reminiscence was about to begin.

  “I believe Lady Lonsdale will recover fully,” the doctor replied, “provided she receives adequate rest and care. I would suggest that no one disturb her, as she is in a fragile state. As for her husband…” He hesitated and shook his head, silently acknowledging the matter was beyond him. “One hopes he can be persuaded that this sort of behavior is not acceptable.”

  “He will be,” Lara said steadily, before Hunter could reply. She turned without looking at either of them, and went back up the stairs to her sister's sickroom. Something about the rigidity of her spine and the regal tilt of her head made Hunter feel vaguely guilty, as if he and the doctor had been tarnished by Lonsdale's actions. As if they both had been judged and convicted of participating in some great male conspiracy against women.

  “Damn Lonsdale,” he muttered, scowling.

  The doctor reached up and patted the side of his shoulder gently. “I understand, my lad. I'm well aware of the affection you bear for your friend. But if an old man's opinion means anything to you, I am pleased that you took Lady Lonsdale under your protection. It shows a compassion that has sometimes been in short supply in the Crossland family. No offense intended.”

  Hunter's mouth twisted ironically. “I can't take offense at the truth,” he said, and sent for a carriage to take the old man home.

  Lara held vigil at Rachel's bedside through the night, until she began to doze in the chair while still sitting upright. She jerked awake as she sensed a large shape moving through the room. “What—”

  “It's me,” Hunter murmured, finding her in the darkness, his hands settling on her shoulders. “Come to bed, Lara. Your sister is sleeping—you can attend to her in the morning.”

  Lara yawned and shook her head, wincing at the knifelike pain of her strained neck muscles. “No. If she awakens…if she needs something…I want to be here.” She couldn't explain the irrational feeling that she must not leave her sister alone, that Rachel needed constant protection from monsters both real and invisible.

  His fingertips swept along her throat in a tender stroke. “You won't do her any good by exhausting yourself,” he said.

  Lara turned the side of her face in to his hand and sighed. “I want to do something, even if it's only watching her sleep.”

  His thumb caressed her temple, and he leaned over to press his mouth on her head. “Go to bed, sweetheart,” he said, his voice muffled in her hair. “I'll watch over her now.” Despite her reluctance, he pulled her from the chair and urged her from the room, and Lara made her way to her own bed like a sleepwalker.

  Lonsdale came to Hawksworth Hall the next afternoon. At first Lara was unaware of his arrival, having secluded herself in Rachel's room for most of the day. She had managed to coax Rachel into taking some soup and a spoonful of blancmange, and administered a dose of the medicine Dr. Slade had left. Silent and exhausted, Rachel seemed to welcome the oblivion the medicine offered. She fell asleep quickly, holding Lara's hand with a childish trust that broke her heart.

  Carefully Lara disengaged her hand and smoothed her sister's long brown hair. “Sleep well, dear,” she whispered. “Everything will be fine.”

  She left the room, silently debating how and when to tell her parents about what had happened to Rachel. It would be unpleasant, to say the least. She expected them to deny everything. Lonsdale was a fine man, they would say, and perhaps he had made a mistake that required everyone's understanding and forgiveness.

  Lara knew that Hunter's support was essential if she was to keep Lonsdale away from Rachel. She would have no recourse if Hunter changed his mind. He was all that prevented Lonsdale from taking his wife back and doing exactly as he wished with her. Lara was grateful for what Hunter had done so far, but she couldn't help fearing that his long friendship with Lonsdale would ultimately prevail. She couldn't quite imagine her husband denying Lonsdale access to his own wife. And if Hunter gave in to his friend's demands…Lara wasn't certain what she would do.

  As increasingly despondent thoughts ran through her mind, she neared the top of the stairs leading down to the great hall. The sound of masculine voices drifted to her, laced with alarming intensity. She scooped up a handful of her skirts, lifting the hem away from her feet, and descended the stairs quickly. As she reached the last step, she had a clear view of Hunter talking to Lonsdale.

  The sight of her brother-in-law, well dressed and boyishly handsome, filled Lara with rage. Lonsdale appeared relaxed and charming, as if nothing were wrong. She would be damned if he would ever put his hands on Rachel again—she would shoot him herself, if it came to that.

  Although Lara made no sound, Hunter sensed her presence. He turned and skewered her with a glare. “Stay there,” he said roughly. She obeyed, her heart hammering violently, while Hunter returned his attention to Lonsdale.

  “Hawksworth,” Lonsdale murmured, seeming bewildered by his cold reception. “Good God, man, how long are you going to keep me standing here? Invite me in, and we'll talk over a friendly drink.”

  “This isn't the occasion for a friendly drink,” Hunter said curtly.

  “Yes, well…the reason I'm here is obvious.” Lonsdale paused and asked in patent concern, “How is my wife?”

  “Not well.”

  “I don't pretend to understand what's going on. Rachel had an accident, and instead of allowing her
to recover at her own home, you drag her across the countryside…all to satisfy some whim of Lara's, no doubt. I understand Lara's reaction—she's like all women, with the sense of a peahen—but you…” Lonsdale shook his head in amazement. “What possessed you to do it, Hawksworth? It's not like you to bother about another man's business, especially when that man is the best damned friend you've ever had.”

  “No longer,” Hunter said softly.

  Lonsdale's blue eyes crinkled in bewilderment. “What are you saying? You're like a brother to me. No dispute over a mere woman can come between us. Just let me have Rachel, and we'll be on the upsides again.”

  “She can't be moved.”

  Lonsdale laughed incredulously at the refusal. “She will be moved if I say so. She's my wife.” He sobered as Hunter continued to stare at him implacably. “Why are you looking at me like that? What the devil is going on?”

  Hunter didn't blink. “Leave, Terrell.”

  An anxious frown crept over Lonsdale's face. “Tell me how Rachel is!”

  “She was pregnant,” Hunter said flatly. “She lost the baby.”

  Lonsdale's color seemed to drain away, and his mouth moved in a convulsive twist. “I'm going to see her.”

  Hunter shook his head, refusing to step aside. “She's being taken care of.”

  “She lost the baby because you brought her here while she was ill!” Lonsdale cried.

  Lara bit her lip in an attempt to remain quiet, but somehow her voice came bursting forth. “Rachel had a miscarriage because you pushed her down the stairs! She told me and Dr. Slade all about it.”

  “It's a lie!”

  “Lara, shut up,” Hunter growled.

  “And you wouldn't even send for a doctor,” Lara continued recklessly, ignoring him.

  “She didn't need one, damn you!” Lonsdale's temper exploded, and he started for her with a dark flush climbing his face. “You're trying to poison everyone against me. I'll close your mouth for you, you bitch—”

  Lara retreated automatically, forgetting the stairs were just behind her. She fell backward with a gasp, sitting down hard on the second step. From there she could only watch in wide-eyed horror as Hunter seized Lonsdale like a hound with a hapless fox.

  “Get out,” Hunter said, swinging his former friend toward the door.

  Lonsdale wrenched free and came toward him with both fists flying. Lara expected Hunter to react in a similar manner, adopting the traditional pugilist's stance. Both men shared a keen interest in the sport, having attended countless prizefights together in the past, and practiced at fisticuffs with their aristocratic friends.

  But what happened before Lara's bewildered gaze was not what she or anyone else could have expected. Hunter moved in a strange, fluid blur, using his knee and the heel of his hand in a way that somehow sent Lonsdale to the floor in a groaning heap. It seemed to be accomplished without thought. Hunter ended up crouched over Lonsdale, his arm drawn back in preparation for one last blow. A fatal blow, Lara realized suddenly, trying to gather her wits. She saw from Hunter's taut, strangely blank face that he was more than ready to kill the man beneath him. His reason was gone, replaced by pure lethal instinct.

  “Hunter,” she said desperately. “Hunter, wait.”

  The use of his name seemed to break through the fog that surrounded him. He glanced at her alertly, his arm lowering an inch or two. Lara nearly recoiled from what she saw in his eyes, a bloodthirst that went far beyond this situation. He was fighting to keep from sliding into some dark abyss that he had no wish to return to. There were many things she didn't understand, but she knew without doubt that she must help him by restoring normalcy as quickly as possible.

  “That's enough,” Lara said, while servants seemed to come from all directions, their bewildered gazes pinned on the two men in the center of the hall. “I believe Lord Lonsdale wishes to leave now.” She stood and brushed at her skirts, and spoke to a footman who waited nearby. “George, please assist Lord Lonsdale to his carriage.”

  The footman separated himself from a gaggle of staring servants, all of them clearly wondering what had occurred. Seeming to understand Lara's unspoken wishes, Mrs. Gorst dispersed the small audience. “On your way, now,” the housekeeper said briskly. “There's work aplenty to be done, and little time for gawking and gaping.”

  Hunter didn't move as the stupefied Lonsdale was removed from the hall. Two footmen half dragged and half carried him to the waiting vehicle. Coming to stand by her husband's side, Lara touched his arm tentatively. “My lord,” she said gratefully. “Thank you for protecting my sister. Thank you.”

  He shot her a gaze of hot black intensity. “Thank me in bed,” he said, barely audible.

  Lara stared at him, startled. “Now?” she whispered, feeling her cheeks prickle with heat. Hunter didn't reply, only continued to stare at her in that alarming way.

  She didn't dare look around them, suspecting that anyone present could discern what her husband wanted from the way he gazed at her. The thought of refusing him went through her mind. After all, she was perfectly justified in claiming that her worry over Rachel had fatigued her. It was the truth. But Hunter had never made a request in this way before. The other times they had made love, he had been seductive, teasing, encouraging…but never desperate…as if he needed her to save his soul.

  Daunted by his intensity, she lowered her lashes and turned toward the stairs. Hunter followed instantly, not allowing more than a foot of space between them. He didn't try to rush her, only kept pace as if he were stalking her. She could hear him breathing, light and quick, not from exertion but from appetite. Lara was nearly dizzy from the rapid beat of her heart. She paused at the top of the stairs, uncertain if they should go to his bedroom or hers. “Wh-where?” she asked softly.

  “I don't care,” he said in a low voice.

  She led the way to his room, which was somewhat more secluded than her own. Hunter closed the door roughly. His hungry gaze returned to her. He removed his waistcoat and shirt without the appearance of haste, but she knew what seethed just beneath his self-control. Unnerved, she reached behind her neck to unfasten her gown. She had only managed the first two buttons when he strode to her and took her head in both hands, as if he feared she would try to escape him. He kissed her, his mouth hard and eager, his tongue searching deeply.

  She reached out for him, grasping at the heavy bunched muscles of his torso. His skin was feverishly hot beneath her hands. His long fingers tightened on her skull, and he kissed her with scorching violence, the pleasure mounting until she moaned in excitement.

  Trembling with fierce desire, Hunter finally tore his mouth from hers and pushed her to the bed. Lara stumbled in confusion, but his hands were there to guide her, steadying her hips and bending her face down over the edge of the mattress. Her thoughts scattered as she felt him pulling her skirts up to her waist. There was a jagged sound as he tore her chemise and pushed the sides apart.

  “What are you doing?” she asked, beginning to push up from the bed. He pinned her back down, and she felt his fingers slide between her thighs.

  “Let me,” he muttered. “I won't hurt you. Hold still for me.” He pushed past the tangle of dark curls, one finger slipping inside the swollen entrance of her body, reaching deep into the warmth and moisture. Lara quivered and gripped the covers until they bunched in her hands. “You're ready for me,” he said hoarsely, reaching back to unfasten his trousers.

  Realizing that he meant to take her like this, from behind, Lara closed her eyes and waited, her pulse thrumming with fear and eagerness. She felt his heavy shaft against her, searching, pressing, and he entered her with a long thrust that made her cry out. Her flesh closed tightly around the invading hardness, gripping firmly as he slid even deeper.

  Holding himself inside her, he grasped the back of her gown, ripping it apart, sending delicate buttons flying across the bed and floor. Her chemise received the same treatment, the fragile muslin giving way to his aggressive hands
and falling away from her body. She felt his warm mouth on her back, kissing the tender skin of her nape, sliding along her spine, and she writhed at the exquisite sensation.

  “Now,” she begged, wanting more, and her buttocks pushed against him.

  He answered the movement, grinding his hips in small circles until she moaned and clutched even larger handfuls of the counterpane.

  “I want to touch you,” she gasped. “Please, let me—”

  “No.” He licked the edge of her ear, flicked his tongue inside it, muttered softly in the moist hollow.

  Lara trembled at the maddening pleasure, feeling him inside her, all around her, but not being able to touch or see him. “Let me turn around. Hunter, please—”

  He used his legs to widen the spread of her thighs. His hand slid around her front, down her taut belly and into the thatch of curls. Finding the sensitive bud where all pleasure centered, he stroked her gently. Caught between his teasing, tickling fingers and the deep thrusts of his hips, Lara sobbed his name. Her body was helplessly stretched and pinned beneath him, his rhythm increasing in pace, driving the pleasure higher and higher until all her senses opened and the rush of release began.

  Shaking in delight, she muffled her cries in the counterpane, and felt his face press hard against her back. He was lost in his own climax now, clenching her hips hard in his palms, pouring himself into her with a groan of satisfaction.

  In the glow of aftermath, Lara was nearly too weak to move. She stirred drowsily as she felt Hunter strip away the remains of her clothes. He removed his trousers and climbed onto the bed naked, holding her against his long body. She relaxed and slept for a time, though it was impossible to tell whether minutes or hours had passed. When she awakened, Hunter was watching her with eyes like dark velvet.

 
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