Stranger in My Arms by Lisa Kleypas

  “You're the last woman I'll ever make love to,” he said, stroking her breast, toying with the rosy peak.

  She stroked his sun-streaked hair and the hard nape of his neck, loving the feel of him against her. “Good,” she whispered.

  “Keep me with you, Lara. I don't want to leave you.”

  Bewildered, she slid her arms across his broad back, her fingertips not quite reaching the center. Why would Hunter worry about leaving her? Was it possible he feared some accident, some unforeseen catastrophe that would part them once again? The thought was truly awful. It hadn't been so long ago that she'd been told that he was dead…and to her shame, she hadn't really mourned him. But if something happened again, if they were somehow separated…dear Lord, she couldn't bear it now. She didn't want to live without him.

  She stared at him with glistening eyes, and her thighs opened willingly as he pushed his knee between them. “Then stay with me,” she said simply. “We won't think about the past anymore.”

  “Yes. God, yes.” He sheathed himself inside her and groaned. Lara stared into his face, the lean features gleaming with sweat, his jaw clenching. He made love to her slowly, making it last an eternity, until pleasure rippled through her in endless waves, and she felt somehow as if he were staring into her soul and showing her a glimpse of his own, all secrets burned to ashes.

  “Do you love me?”

  “Yes, yes…”

  She didn't know who asked, or who replied…only that the answer was true for each of them.

  Chapter 17

  FOR THE NEXT few days there was an ominous silence from Lord Lonsdale, who made no further attempt to visit Hawksworth Hall. Finally a short, stilted note arrived from Lonsdale, asking to be informed of his wife's condition. Lara hesitated to reply, feeling that Lonsdale had no right to know anything about Rachel after he'd caused her such harm. However, the decision was not hers to make. Reluctantly she approached her sister with the letter, as Rachel relaxed on a sofa in the family parlor.

  Dressed in a white nightgown with a lace-trimmed blanket covering her lap, Rachel looked as fragile as a porcelain figurine. A novel lay open in her lap while she stared out the window with a blank gaze.

  “Is that not to your liking, dearest?” Lara asked, nodding to the book. “I can bring up something else from the library—”

  “No, thank you.” Rachel gave her a tired, fond smile. “I can't seem to keep my attention on anything. After a minute of reading, the words stop making sense.”

  “Are you hungry?”

  Rachel shook her head. “Johnny brought a peach from the garden not long ago. He claimed it was a magic peach that would make me all better, and he insisted on staying while I ate it.”

  Lara smiled at the child's imagination. “What a darling,” she said.

  “At times I could almost swear he's yours,” Rachel continued. “With his collection of turtles and the little animals he brings in from outdoors, he's very much like you.”

  “After the way he behaved during Dr. Slade's last visit, rummaging through his medical bag and asking a hundred questions, I wouldn't be surprised if he wanted to study medicine someday.”

  “It would be convenient to have a doctor in the family,” Rachel said, then leaned her head back with a barely perceptible sigh.

  Lara knelt by her and covered her sister's cool hand with her own. “Rachel…Lonsdale has written to inquire about your condition. Shall I reply, or remain silent?”

  Rachel's face went blank, and she shook her head. “I have no idea.”

  They were both silent, while Lara continued to hold Rachel's hand in quiet support. Finally she dared to tell her sister what she had wanted to say ever since the miscarriage. “Rachel…you don't have to go back to him. Ever. You may stay with us, or take a house anywhere you'd like.”

  “No husband, no children, none of the things that make a woman's life worthwhile,” Rachel said bleakly. “What choice is that? I must go back to Lonsdale and hope that he will change.”

  “You can fill your things, Rachel—”

  “I'm not like you,” her sister interrupted quietly. “I don't have your independence. I couldn't do what you did after Hawksworth's death, and carve out a new life that doesn't include a man. If I had been in your place, I would have started searching for a new husband right away. I've always wanted my own family, you see. It's true that Lonsdale has his faults. I realized long ago that I must learn to accept his limitations—”

  “He nearly killed you, Rachel,” Lara said. “No, don't try to argue. In my opinion, Lonsdale's refusal to send for a doctor was nothing short of attempted murder. He is abominable in every regard, and I will do everything in my power to prevent you from returning to him.”

  “He was not kind,” Rachel agreed, “and I cannot defend him on every point. However, if I had realized my condition and told him, he might have become more considerate, and the accident would not have happened.”

  Lara became so agitated that she released Rachel's hand and sprang to her feet. She paced in a circle, fuming. “After this so-called accident, I am certain Lonsdale will be contrite for a while. And then he will revert to his true self…condescending, selfish, and cruel. He will not change, Rachel!”

  Rachel's hazel eyes, usually so soft, were cool and keen as she stared at Lara. “Your husband did,” she pointed out. “Didn't he?”

  Lara was bewildered by the hint of challenge in her sister's tone. “Yes,” she said warily, “Hunter has become a better man. But I frequently remind myself that the change may not be permanent.”

  Rachel regarded her for a long moment. “I think it is,” she murmured. “I think Hawksworth has become a different man altogether. The day he came to fetch me from Lonsdale House, I hardly recognized him. The pain had become quite severe, and I wasn't thinking clearly, and then he appeared…I thought he was some kind, dear stranger. I could not fathom that he was actually Hawksworth. I thought, quite literally, that he was an angel.”

  “He has his moments,” Lara admitted, while the phrase “different man altogether” echoed oddly in her mind. She stared at her sister's downturned face. “Rachel, I have the feeling you are hinting and talking around something—” She stopped and gathered her nerve before asking, “Are you trying to say that you don't believe my husband is really Hawksworth?”

  Rachel's penetrating gaze locked with hers. “I choose to believe he is Hawksworth because you've chosen to believe it.”

  “It is not a matter of choice,” Lara said, profoundly disturbed. “All the facts support his identity—”

  “The facts are not absolute. One could argue endlessly over them.” Rachel's composure only underscored Lara's inner turbulence. “The heart of the matter is, you have accepted him for reasons only you understand.” She smiled wryly. “Dearest, you are the least self-aware person I've ever known. All your thoughts and energies are turned outward and expended on others. You make decisions impulsively, instinctively, without ever examining your motives. And you involve yourself in other people's problems as an excuse to keep from looking too closely at your own.”

  “What are you saying?”

  “I'm saying that…” Rachel's voice trailed away, and she stared at Lara in loving concern. “Forgive me. I'm distressing you when there's no need. All I mean to convey is, I have chosen to believe that by some miracle your husband has come home to you, because I want your happiness so badly. And in return you must allow me to return to Lonsdale when I'm ready, and hope for a miracle of my own.”

  Lara lay on her stomach, her naked body stretched on the bed, while her husband spread scented oil between his palms. The fragrance of lavender filled the air with drugging sweetness. She stiffened as she felt Hunter's warm hands on her back. A gentle shhhh escaped his lips, the sound soothing her, and she lay still beneath his ministrations.

  He displayed astonishing knowledge of her body, finding the knotted muscles of her shoulders and the coiled places all down her back, releasing the pai
n with such precision that Lara couldn't prevent a groan of pleasure. “Oh, that feels so…oh, yes, there.”

  His thumbs fanned the sore muscles on either side of her spine in half-circular strokes that worked up to her shoulders. “Tell me what's wrong,” he said after several minutes, when she was relaxed and pliant beneath him. His hand settled on the nape of her neck, fingers compressing the knotted muscles.

  Suddenly Lara found it easy to confide the worry that had made it impossible for her to eat during supper. Despite Hunter's coaxing, she had remained mis erably silent, hunched over the plate of untouched food, until he had finally brought her to the privacy of their room. “I talked to Rachel about Lonsdale today,” she said. “She wants to return to him when she's able. Naturally I objected, and we quarreled. If only I could find the right words to convince her that she mustn't go back. I have to think of something—”

  “Lara,” he interrupted, his fingers working at the base of her neck. There was a smile in his voice. “As always, you want to charge forward with a solution and settle everything to your satisfaction. But that won't work this time. Let Rachel rest. Don't press her for answers she's not ready to give. She's not going anywhere for a while.”

  Recognizing the wisdom of his advice, Lara slumped beneath him. “I'm too impatient,” she said, berating herself. “I should never have mentioned Lonsdale so soon. When will I learn to stop meddling?”

  Hunter turned her over and smiled, his lavender-scented hand splayed over the frame of her collarbone. “I love your impatience,” he murmured. “I love your meddling.”

  Lara gazed uncertainly at the dark face above hers. “Rachel said that I involve myself with other people's problems as a way of avoiding my own. Do you agree with her?”

  “Not entirely. Do you?”

  “Well…” She drew her knees up and crossed her arms over her breasts. “I suppose it's easier to see what needs to be fixed in someone else's life than to take a hard look at my own.”

  His head lowered, and he kissed her cheek. “I think you thrive on the satisfaction of helping someone else,” he whispered. “And there's nothing wrong with that.” Gently he pulled her arms away from her body. “Why do you always try to cover yourself?” he asked. “Still shy after all we've done?”

  Lara blushed as Hunter stared intently at her nakedness. “I can't help it. I'll never feel comfortable without my clothes on.”

  “Oh yes, you will.” His lightly oiled fingers drew over her stomach in a circling stroke that made the muscles tighten. “I happen to know of a cure for shyness.”

  “What is it?” She listened as he murmured to her, her eyes widening. Before he had even finished describing his “cure,” she was sputtering in a mixture of amusement and disbelief. “Have you ever done that?” she asked.

  “I've only heard of it.”

  “I'm sure it's not even possible.”

  Hunter's teeth flashed in a grin. “We'll have to find out, won't we?” Before she could manage a reply, he covered her mouth with his, and gathered her against his aroused body.

  In a town such as Market Hill, gossip spread like the ripples from a pebble thrown in a pond. Secrets, illnesses, troubles of every kind were discovered, discussed, and soon resolved or forgotten…The community processed an endless amount of such information. It did not take long for the latest news of Captain Tyler and his wife to reach the residents of Hawksworth Hall. Evidently Mrs. Tyler, who was expecting her first child, had recently experienced pains that had led Dr. Slade to prescribe bed rest for the remainder of the pregnancy.

  Lara reacted to the news with sympathy and concern. The idea of being confined to a bed for four or five months was dreadful. Physical discomfort aside, the sheer boredom would be enough to drive any woman mad. Obviously she must do something for poor Mrs. Tyler, even if it was only to bring a few novels that might help the days to pass more swiftly.

  However, there was a difficulty to the situation. Lara still remembered her husband's reaction to the unexpected presence of the Tylers at the dinner she had given after his homecoming. He had been uncomfortable, cold, unaccountably angry. And there had been that strange moment when Lara could have sworn that Hunter and Captain Tyler knew each other quite well but pretended to be strangers. Ever since then Lara had kept her distance from the Tylers, sensing that to approach them would cause problems between her and Hunter.

  On the other hand, pleasing her husband took second place to the promptings of her own conscience. The captain's wife had been consigned to lie helpless in bed for months, and Lara could not ignore her plight. She resolved to visit Mrs. Tyler discreetly, and if Hunter discovered her activity, she would just have to deal with the consequences.

  On the day that Hunter left to conduct business in London, Lara set out for Morland Manor. She had packed a basket with puddings and choice peaches from the Hawksworth orchard, as well as a stack of novels that might help Mrs. Tyler pass the time. During the hour-long journey across the countryside, Lara stared through the carriage window at fertile green land divided into neatly fenced pastures. Fat sheep and brown-coated cattle grazed peacefully, scarcely pausing to lift their heads at the passing of the carriage.

  Although the vehicle was luxurious by any standards, Lara was uncomfortable. She shifted position several times, rearranged her skirts, and became aware of a pressing need to visit a privy. A rueful smile curved her lips as she considered her impending arrival at Morland Manor. It was hardly good manners to rush in unannounced and search for the nearest place to relieve one's needs, but that was evidently going to be the case. Strange, that her bladder had become so undependable of late.

  Lara's smile faded as she continued to ponder her own physical condition, something she had neglected in her worry over Rachel. Her body had been temperamental of late, becoming a bit heavier in spite of her physical activity, prone to twinges and minor aches…and shouldn't her menses have occurred by now? She had never been irregular in her life.

  The realization astonished her. Yes, she was late…two weeks late. For once in her life, the monthly flow that occurred with stubborn regularity had failed to appear. In any other woman, she would have acknowledged this as evidence of pregnancy. But not me, she thought, her breath turning shallow with distress. Never me.

  Lara reached for the stack of books, intending to distract herself. However, once the thought had presented itself, it was impossible to ignore. How many times during her early marriage to Hunter had she longed to conceive? The guilt, the inadequacy, the yearning…they had been unbearable. Finally she had accepted that she would always be a childless woman. It was ironic that Hunter, of all people, had now helped her to come to terms with barrenness and recognize her value beyond the ability to produce children.

  But what if…? She was afraid to hope. If only it could be true, if only…Lara closed her eyes and kept her hands over her stomach, and whispered a swift prayer. She wanted to carry Hunter's child, to bear a part of him within her. It seemed an impossible miracle that she could be gifted with what seemed so ordinary to the rest of the world. Lara screwed her eyes shut, but a tear squeezed out in spite of her efforts. She was almost sick with yearning.

  She managed to collect herself by the time the carriage reached Morland Manor. Half hidden in a grove of woodlands, the Tudor manor was fronted with half timbered walls and red brickwork that gave it an air of mellow charm. Outwardly poised, Lara directed a footman to convey the basket of delicacies and the parcel of books to the entrance hall. She was kept waiting at the door for less than a minute before Captain Tyler appeared to greet her.

  “Lady Hawksworth!” the captain exclaimed, seeming more perplexed than pleased. “It is a most unexpected honor—”

  “Forgive me if I've come at an inconvenient time,” Lara replied, giving him her gloved hand. “I only wish to give my regards to you both, and deliver a few gifts for Mrs. Tyler.”

  “How kind of you.” His momentary bewilderment was replaced by gratitude. “Please com
e in and take some refreshment. I'll send a servant upstairs to inquire if Mrs. Tyler is resting, and perhaps she'll be able to see you.”

  “You mustn't disturb her on my account. I won't stay long.” Lara accompanied him inside and removed her gloves and traveling bonnet. It was a warm day, and she pulled a lace-trimmed handkerchief from her sleeve to blot her moist forehead and cheeks.

  Welcoming Lara into a small visitor's parlor, the captain showed her to a scroll-backed sofa covered in flowered chintz. Lara arranged her skirts and regarded him with a smile as he occupied a mahogany chair. Her initial impression of him was unchanged; he seemed a pleasant if serious man. But something about his intent gaze disturbed her, as if he were keeping an uneasy silence on a matter that concerned her.

  “Lady Hawksworth,” he said carefully, “I hope it will not offend you if I ask after your sister's health?”

  “She is very well, thank you. And of course I would not be offended by your kind concern. Why should I?”

  Tyler's gaze lowered. “The circumstances of your sister's illness make it rather awkward…”

  “Yes, it is a scandal,” Lara said softly. “No doubt everyone in Market Hill has some opinion about it. But the shame of the situation belongs entirely to Lord Lonsdale.”

  Tyler folded his hands together, his fingers forming a temple. “Unfortunately this is not the first time I have learned of such dastardly behavior on the part of a husband toward his wife, nor, I fear, will it be the last.” He hesitated before adding tactfully, “I only hope that Lady Lonsdale will enjoy happier circumstances from now on.”

  “So do I,” Lara replied. They continued the conversation for a few minutes, touching on neutral subjects before reaching the more personal one of Mrs. Tyler's well-being.

  “Dr. Slade assures us that if we follow his instructions, my wife and the babe will both have an excellent chance,” Captain Tyler remarked. “And one can hardly disbelieve a man of his experience and wisdom. Nevertheless I do worry. I am excessively fond of Mrs. Tyler. She has been a faithful companion through all the trials I have brought on her, most especially the years in India.”

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