Stranger in My Arms by Lisa Kleypas

“Naturally. I would be surprised if he didn't.”

  Startled, Lara sat in her own chair and stared at her mother-in-law. “I'm sure I don't know what you mean.”

  Their gazes locked for a frozen moment. Lara had never seen Sophie look quite so perturbed. “I see,” the dowager finally murmured. “You haven't been told, then.”

  “Told what?” Frustration bubbled up inside Lara. “Good Lord, I'm weary of being surrounded with secrets!” she exclaimed. “Please, what can you reveal about the man who is under guard downstairs?”

  “To begin with,” the dowager replied acerbically, “he and my son Hunter were half brothers.”

  Chapter 19

  UNFAZED BY LARA'S stricken stare, Sophie waited patiently as a footman arrived with a bottle of red wine and a pair of glasses with diamond-shaped cuts incised in the stems. Another servant attended to the ceremony of opening the bottle. Lara bit her lip to keep silent, watching the servants proceed with maddening slowness.

  Lara gripped the stem of her wineglass until the diamond pattern made red marks on her lingers. She waited until the servants had left before speaking. “Please tell me,” she said softly.

  “My husband, Harry, had a weakness for attractive women,” Sophie said. “I tolerated it because he was discreet, and because he always came back to me. No man is perfect, Larissa. They each have some unpleasant feature or habit that must be tolerated. I loved Harry in spite of his infidelities, and they never posed a great problem for me…until one of his relationships resulted in his paramour's unwanted pregnancy.”

  “Who was she?” Lara asked. She took a sip of wine, the acrid flavor filling her mouth.

  “An ambassador's wife. She had been pursued by nearly every man in London. Harry thought her quite a prize, I'm certain. Their affair lasted for nearly a year. When she conceived, she informed Harry that she would not keep the child. It would be his to do with as he wished.”

  “But he didn't want it?”

  “Oh, Harry wanted the babe very much. He intended for it to abide with us, or at least to be raised in a place where he could visit it from time to time. However, I wouldn't hear of it. As you know, we hadn't much luck in bearing healthy children. Our first three did not survive infancy. Then we had finally been blessed with Hunter. I suppose I feared that my husband's interest in a bastard son might lessen his devotion to his legitimate child. I was quite protective of Hunter's interests. Therefore, I insisted that the bastard be given to a missionary couple who would take him so far away that we would never see him again.”

  “India,” Lara said. Each word fell on her ear like the soft clicks of puzzle pieces snapping into place.

  “Yes. I knew it would undoubtedly result in a hard life for the child, with no means or social position, and no proximity to his father. My husband was quite reluctant to send the baby away, but I was insistent.” Sophie rearranged her skirts with undue care. “I've tried for thirty years to forget about what I had done, but he's remained in the back of my mind every day…haunting me, you could say.”

  Lara set aside her wine, staring at her mother-in-law without blinking. “What was his name?”

  Sophie shrugged. “I wouldn't allow his father to choose a name. I've no idea what his surrogate parents called him.”

  “Did your real son know that he had a brother?”

  “No. I saw no reason to tell him. I never intended for Harry's bastard to interfere in our lives.” The feathery wrinkles at the corners of Sophie's mouth stretched in a wry smile. “The irony of this is priceless, is it not?”

  Being in no mood to appreciate irony, Lara did not return the dowager's smile. She felt victimized by a chain of events that had started long before her own birth. Harry's womanizing, the ambassador's wife's callous rejection of her own child, Sophie's repudiation of the bastard infant, Hunter's selfish irresponsibility…and finally, the stranger who had invaded Lara's life and seduced her with his lies.

  Lara had no influence over any of this, and yet she was the one who had ultimately been punished for their collective actions. She would have to deal with the lifelong consequences…an illegitimate child of her own. By keeping it, she would place herself outside of good society for the rest of her life. Although Lara was tempted to tell Sophie about her pregnancy, some burgeoning maternal instinct kept her silent. The only way to protect her child's interests was to keep him a secret.

  “What are we to do now?” she asked in a low voice.

  Sophie sent her an assessing glance. “That's for you to decide, Larissa.”

  Lara shook her head in protest. “I'm in no state of mind to think sensibly.”

  “I suggest that you go to the downstairs guest suite where your lover is being held, and talk to him directly. After that, I suspect you'll know how you wish to proceed.”

  Your lover…It seemed inappropriate to call him that. Even now he seemed to be very much her husband, despite their relationship having been exposed for the illicit liaison it was. “I don't know if I can face him,” Lara murmured.

  “Oh, come now,” Sophie chided gently. “If I could summon the nerve to face him after thirty years, surely you can.”

  Lara changed from her traveling clothes, donning a simple muslin gown printed with tiny pink flowers and pale green leaves. She brushed her hair and pinned it in a tight coil atop her head, and checked her appearance in a mirror. She looked pale and frightened…but it wasn't Hunter she was afraid of, it was herself.

  Squaring her shoulders, she vowed silently that no matter what transpired between them, she would not give in to tears or anger. She would preserve her dignity at all cost.

  She went to a door that was flanked by two guards, and quietly asked permission to visit the prisoner. To her relief, they were respectful and courteous, one of them bidding her to call out if she wanted assistance. Her blood raced with alarm and excitement as she walked through the door, and she knew her cheeks were stippled with bright color.

  And there he was.

  He stood in the center of the windowless room, his hair the same antiqued gold and brown as the heavy gilded picture frames that covered the walls. The guest suite was small but luxurious, the walls covered with rich olive and gold damask, the plaster painted soft gray. A pair of folding glass sash doors separated the receiving room from the bedchamber. He seemed perfectly at home in his elegant surroundings, an English gentleman in every regard. One would never guess who he was, or where he had come from. A chameleon indeed.

  “How are you?” he asked, his gaze arrowing to her face.

  The question sparked a flare of anger. How dare he affect concern for her after what he had done? But part of Lara couldn't help responding. She wanted to go to him and feel his arms close around her, and lay her head on his hard shoulder.

  “Not well,” she admitted.

  The ease and intimacy that had existed between them was still there. She was suddenly filled with the dizzying pleasure of being near him, and worse, the feeling of completeness that she would never experience with anyone else.

  “How did you find out?” he asked gruffly.

  “I spoke with Captain Tyler.”

  He nodded slightly, showing no trace of surprise or anger. He had never expected it to last, Lara realized. He had always known that the charade as Lord Hawksworth was temporary at best. Why do it, then? Why risk throwing his life away for a few months of pretending to be Hawksworth?

  “Please,” she said, hearing her own voice as if she were speaking from a dream, “help me to understand why you've done this to me.”

  He didn't reply for a moment, watching her with the concentration of man solving a mathematical problem. Then he turned partially away from her, his profile hard, his thick lashes lowering.

  “The people who raised me—” He wouldn't call them parents. They had been caretakers at best, and damned negligent ones at that. “They never made a secret of who I really was. I grew up wondering about the father that didn't want me, and the half brother who most l
ikely didn't know I existed. When I realized that Hawksworth had come to India and taken house in Calcutta, I wanted to find out more about him. For a while I watched him from a distance. Then one evening I slipped into his house while he was away.”

  “You looked through his belongings,” Lara said rather than asked, moving to sit on a small couch with scrolled ends. Her legs were suddenly unable to render any meaningful support.

  He remained standing on the other side of the room. “Yes.”

  “And you found the miniature of me.”

  “Yes. And the letters you'd sent to him.”

  “My letters?” Lara tried to remember what she had written to Hunter about. Mostly she had described her daily activities, her interactions with people in the village, and news of family and former friends. Nothing of love or longing, nothing about her inner life. “I can't think why Hunter would have saved them. They were so very ordinary.”

  “They were lovely,” he said softly. “I found them in a drawer—he kept them there along with his journals.”

  “Hunter never kept journals,” she said coldly.

  “He did,” came the calm reply. “From the way they were numbered and dated, I knew there had to be more here. I found them soon after I arrived, and destroyed them after taking what information I needed.”

  Lara shook her head, bewildered by this revelation about her husband. “What did Hunter write in these journals?”

  “He filled them with what he imagined were important secrets, political intrigues, social scandals…rubbish, most of it.”

  “Did he mention me?” she asked hesitantly. “What did he… ” She fell silent as she saw from his face that Hunter had not written fondly of her.

  “It was obvious the marriage was not a good one.”

  “He was bored by me,” Lara said.

  Hearing the defeated note in her voice, he looked at her with sudden intensity. “Hunter wanted Lady Carlysle. He married you because you were young enough to give him children.”

  And she had turned out to be barren. “Poor Hunter,” she whispered.

  “Poor stupid bastard,” he agreed. “He was too thickheaded to see what he could have had. I read your letters, and I knew what kind of woman you were. I understood exactly what he had thrown away. He'd easily discarded the life I had wanted—a life I believed I deserved.” His eyes half closed. “I took the miniature and kept it with me. I thought every moment of what you might be doing…if you were taking a bath…brushing your hair…visiting your friends in the village…sitting alone reading…laughing…crying. You became an obsession.”

  “Did you ever meet my husband?” Lara asked.

  He was silent for a long moment. “No.”

  “That's a lie,” she said softly. “Tell me what really happened.”

  He stared at Lara, so beautiful and obdurate, her fragility transformed into a stern, delicate strength that vanquished him. He could withhold nothing from her now. It seemed that his soul had cracked open, and every last secret was spilling out. He wasn't aware of moving, but he found himself in a corner of me room, leaning his forehead against the cool damask wall covering.

  “It was March, festival time…Holi and Dhuleti, they call it. The festival of colors. Bonfires are lit everywhere, and the whole city goes mad with celebration. Everyone knew Hawksworth was giving the largest party in Calcutta … ” He continued to speak absently, almost forgetting Lara was there.

  He had wandered the streets in front of Hawksworth's palace amid the riotous crowd, while people laughed and screamed and threw colored powder and paint from the rooftops. Young women used pistons of bamboo sticks to spray perfumed water and silver or red paint at passersby, while young men smeared makeup on their faces and impishly donned saris to dance in the streets.

  A horde of people wandered through Hawksworth's huge manor, an opulent home of classical design that proudly overlooked the green bank of the Hugli River. It was covered with ivory chunam stucco polished as slick as marble, while its front was adorned by a line of slender colonnades. The sea of English faces seemed identical to him, all of them splotched with colorful paint, their eyes glazed from strong drink, their cheeks sticky from gorging on delicacies of sugar and dried fruits.

  Heart pounding, he entered the manor and moved among the revelers. He had worn a hooded robe of dark red cotton, similar to the other flamboyant garments the guests had donned. The luxury of the house was breathtaking, the rooms fitted with chandeliers and filled with Titian paintings and Venetian glass.

  As he walked from room to room, tipsy women threw themselves at him, infected by the orgiastic mood of the crowd. He pushed them aside dismissively. None of them even seemed to notice the rejection, merely giggling and going in search of new prey.

  The only sober faces in the crowd were those of the Indian servants, bringing forth platters of food and drink that were instantly devoured. He asked one of the servants where Hawksworth was, and was met with a shrug and a blank stare. Searching stealthily through the manor, he came to what appeared to be the library. The door was half open, affording a view of a tall mahogany bookcase topped with a collection of marble busts, and a set of library steps fitted with a carved handrail.

  Hearing muted voices, he approached the doorway. There was a soft laugh, a gasp, a low groan…the unmistakable sounds of a couple having sex. His brow worked with a frown, and he faded back from the door to became part of the shadows. Soon all was quiet, and a dark-haired woman left the room. She was flushed and pretty, a smile on her lips as she rustled the crisp silk skirts of her pomegranatecolored gown into place and adjusted her breasts in the scooped bodice. Satisfied with her appearance, she hurried away without noticing the man in the shadowed corner.

  He entered the room quietly and saw a tall, broad-shouldered man facing away from him, jerking his trousers closed. The man's head turned to reveal a distinctive profile, long nose, well-defined chin, forehead partially obscured with a thick swipe of dark hair. It was Hawksworth.

  Hawksworth went to a pedestal desk topped with green leather and picked up a glass filled with amber liquid. Seeming to sense that he was not alone, he turned and looked directly at the intruder. “Damnation!” he exclaimed in startlement. “Who are you to come sneaking up behind me like that? Explain yourself!”

  “I'm sorry,” he replied, finding it difficult to speak. He pulled off his robe and stood facing Hawksworth, riveted by the face that was eerily similar to his own.

  The resemblance was not lost on Hawksworth. “Sweet Christ,” he muttered, setting aside his drink and coming closer to him. Two pairs of dark brown eyes gazed at each other in fascination.

  They were not identical…Hawksworth was darker, beefier, and he had the expensive, welltended look of a Thoroughbred. But anyone seeing the two of them together would have known instantly that they were related.

  “Who the hell are you?” Hawksworth snapped.

  “I'm your half brother,” he replied quietly, and watched the complex play of emotions on Hawksworth's face.

  “My God,” Hawksworth muttered, and snatched up the drink once more. He downed it rapidly and coughed, and regarded the stranger with a reddened face. “My father's by-blow,” he said hoarsely. “He once told me about you, though he wouldn't say what had become of you.”

  “I was brought up by missionaries in Nandagow—”

  “I don't give a damn about your life,” Hawksworth interrupted, bristling with angry suspicion. “I can guess why you've come to me. Believe me, I have enough bloody hangers-on tugging at my coat. Is it money you want?” He bent and fumbled in the desk drawer, and unearthed a cash box. Thrusting his hand inside the unlocked box, he withdrew a fist full of coins, and scattered them before the stranger. “Take it and leave. I assure you, it's all you'll get from me.”

  “I don't want money.” Humiliated and angry, he stood frozen amid the glittering coins.

  “Then what is it?” Hawksworth demanded.

  He couldn't answer, just
stood there like a miserable fool while all the questions he'd had about his father and his past died inside him.

  Hawksworth seemed to read his thoughts. “What did you think would happen if you came here?” he asked with biting contempt. “Should I throw my arms around you and welcome the long-lost sheep into the fold? You're not wanted or needed. You have no place in the family. I should think that needs no explanation after the way my parents shipped you out of England. You were a mistake that needed getting rid of.”

  As he listened to the jeering words, he couldn't keep from silently questioning the unfairness of fate. Why should this self-important jackass have been born as lord of the manor? Hawksworth had been given a family, land, title, fortune, a lovely young wife, and he valued it all so little that he had left England for frivolous reasons. Whereas he, born a bastard, had nothing.

  He understood Hawksworth's hostility all too well. Hawksworth had been brought up to consider himself the Crosslands' only son, legitimate or otherwise. The family had no use for a bastard offspring who would only, cause them embarrassment. “I didn't come to make a claim on you,” he murmured, interrupting Hawksworth's tirade. “I only wanted to meet you.”

  The words did nothing to mollify the irate man. “Now you've achieved your objective. I advise you to leave my home, or there'll be the devil to pay!”

  He had left Hawksworth's manor without touching a single coin on the floor, and felt a certain satisfaction in knowing that he still possessed the miniature of Lady Hawksworth. He would keep that one small piece of his brother's life for his own.

  “…I continued my service under Captain Tyler's command for a time, until I learned that Hawksworth's ship had wrecked.” he said tonelessly. “He was gone, and I knew that everything he had—everything I wanted—was here waiting for me. I resolved to do whatever was necessary to have you, if only for a little while.”

  “So you took his place in order to prove yourself the better man,” she said.

  “No, I…” He paused, forcing himself to be truthful. “That was part of it at first,” he admitted. “But I fell in love with you…and soon you became the only thing that mattered.”

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