Stranger in My Arms by Lisa Kleypas


  “You gave no thought to the consequences of what you were doing,” Lara said, anger pouring through her. “You've destroyed any possibility of my trusting anyone ever again. You stole another man's life, and hurt me unforgivably, and now you'll likely hang. Was it worth all of this?”

  He gave her a look that seemed to scorch her very soul, his eyes black with yearning and fierce love.

  “Yes.”

  “You selfish wretch,” she cried, her mouth trembling.

  “I would become anyone, anything for you. I would lie, steal, beg, kill for you. I'm not sorry for what I did the past few months. My life would have been nothing without them.”

  “What about my life?” she choked. “How can you claim to care for me when you've done nothing but lie and take advantage, and make me into the biggest fool that ever lived?”

  “You're not a fool, Lara. I made it easy for you to believe that I was Hunter. I knew that you would ignore your own doubts if you wanted to believe in me—and you did.”

  “None of it was real,” she said, tears beginning to slide down her face in heavy streaks. “Everything you said to me, every time you kissed me…it was all a lie.”

  “No,” he said hoarsely. He made a move to come to her, then checked himself as he saw her shrink back.

  “I don't even know your name. Oh, why did you have to pretend you were Hunter?”

  “Could I have had you any other way?” he asked, his voice raspy. It was acute torture to see her cry and not be able to comfort her. “If I'd come to you with the truth about who I was, would you have let me near you?”

  Lara was silent for a long time. “No,” she finally said.

  He nodded, her answer confirming what he had already known.

  “I can't lie for you,” Lara ventured after a moment of introspection. “I couldn't go through the rest of my life—”

  “No,” he muttered. “I wouldn't expect that.”

  Lara's entire body went rigid as he walked toward her. He moved carefully, as if he thought a sudden movement might cause her to bolt. He stopped within an arm's length of her and sank to his haunches. “I could never tire of looking at you,” he said huskily. “Your beautiful green eyes. Your sweet face.” He stared at her with such naked need that she felt scorched by the dark fire of his gaze. “Lara, there's something you have to understand. The past few months with you…the time we've had together…it's worth dying for. If it's all I can have, it's enough. So it doesn't matter what you choose to say tomorrow, or what happens to me from now on.”

  Lara couldn't speak. She had to escape him before her tears became uncontrollable. Standing jerkily, she ducked her head and made her way to the door. She thought he said her name, but she couldn't stop, couldn't bear his presence without falling apart.

  Sophie was waiting for her, her gaze arrowing to Lara's ravaged face. “You're in love with him,” she said simply, curving an arm around Lara's shoulders. Together they walked up the stairs.

  “I'm so sorry,” Lara said with a broken laugh.

  “You must despise me for feeling this way, when I never gave my love to the man who was truly entitled to it.”

  As a pragmatist who was fond of reducing any situation down to a skeleton of unvarnished fact, Sophie was not moved to agree. “Why should I despise you? I don't know that my son was entitled to your love. Did he ever make a sincere effort to win your heart?”

  “No, but—”

  “Of course he didn't. Hunter was too enamored of that Lady Carlysle, though God only knew what he saw in that mannish creature. He was mad over her, and he should have married her. To my regret, I advised him to marry you instead and keep her on the side. He could run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, I told him. It was a mistake on my part. I hoped your charms would grow on Hunter, and you would influence him for the better.”

  “Well, that didn't happen,” Lara said. Although she hadn't intended the comment to be amusing, the dowager emitted a dry laugh.

  “Obviously.” She sighed, her face sobering as they reached the family parlor. “My poor son,” she said. “I know full well that he wasn't a good husband to you. He never had a sense of responsibility. Perhaps it was that he grew up so spoiled, everything coming easily to him. He could have done with a few of the hardships that mold a man's character. But I couldn't help doting on him. He was all I had. I encouraged him in his selfishness, I'm afraid.”

  Although Lara was tempted to agree with Sophie, she held her silence. They sat close together, as before, and she rubbed her tired eyes.

  “Have you decided what you will do tomorrow?” the dowager asked briskly.

  “What choice is there? I have a responsibility to tell the truth.”

  “Nonsense.”

  “What?” Lara asked faintly.

  “I've never understood why honesty is always considered to be the highest virtue. There are more important things than truth.”

  Taken aback, Lara stared at her with wide eyes.

  “Pardon, but that seems a very odd thing to say.”

  “Is it? You've always been too conventional, Lara. Have you no concern for the dependents whose fate is being determined by the outcome of this? And is your own well-being of no consequence?”

  “You sound as if you want this stranger to take the place of your son,” Lara said incredulously.

  “My son is gone,” the dowager said. “All I can do now is take stock of the situation as it is. Arthur and his wife have proved that they will not safeguard the Hawksworth inheritance. They will do everything in their power to disgrace the title. On the other hand, legitimate or no, this young man is my husband's issue, and he seems to have performed adequately in the role of Hawksworth. To my way of thinking, he has as much right to the title as Arthur. Added to that, he seems to have won your affection. I did wrongly by him all those years ago. It was because of me that he had a very poor start in life, and yet he seems to have made himself into a capable man. Of course, I don't approve of what he has done. However, one can argue that his actions are not those of an evil man but merely a desperate one.”

  “Are you saying that he has your support?” Lara exclaimed numbly.

  “Only if you wish it. Because it is you, my dear, who will have to live with a lie for the rest of your life…you who will bear his children and act as his wife in every way. If you are willing to take him as your husband, then I am willing to take him as my son. Mind you, if we establish him now as Hawksworth, there will be no turning back.”

  “Could you actually betray the real Hunter in this way?” Lara whispered. “Would you be able to accept another man in his place?”

  “My feelings about Hunter will remain my concern and no one else's,” the dowager said with great dignity. “The question is what you desire, Larissa. Will you save this man or send him to the devil? Shall he go on as Lord Hawksworth, or will you return the title to Arthur? You must decide tonight.”

  Lara was confounded by her mother-in-law's reasoning. Never in a thousand years would she have expected Sophie to take such an outlandish position. It didn't seem right at all. She had expected Sophie to react with the appropriate outrage at having her son impersonated by another man, not supporting the charade and proposing that it continue.

  As thoughts whirled through her head, Lara recalled Rachel's voice saying, The facts aren't absolute. One could argue endlessly over them. And added to this impossible tangle, there were these facts to consider: The man downstairs…whoever he was…had been good for her. He had made her happy. He had taken care of Johnny and Rachel and everyone on the estate. No matter what he had done in the past, Lara knew that he was a good man. And she loved him down to the deepest corners of her soul.

  “But…how can I love a man I don't really know?” she asked, speaking more to herself than to Sophie. “And how can I trust that he loves me? He is a chameleon, just as Captain Tyler said. I'm not convinced he'll ever be capable of honesty. He'll always be on guard, hiding his thoughts, never all
owing anyone to see him for the man he truly is.”

  “A troubled soul,” the dowager said, with a smile that combined irony and affection and a hint of challenge that bewildered Lara. “Well, that is your forte, is it not?”

  Chapter 20

  KNOWING THAT CAPTAIN Tyler had been called to London to give his deposition, Lara had sent for him early in the morning. To her vast relief, he came at once to the Park Place town house. He was dressed in uniform, a short scarlet coat fronted with thick gold braid, gleaming white trousers, immaculate black boots, a sash, and a plumed black hat tucked beneath his arm.

  “Lady Hawksworth,” he said respectfully, striding into the parlor and bending over her proffered hand.

  “Thank you for coming so quickly,” she said.

  “I only hope I can be of service to you, my lady.”

  “So do I,” Lara said gravely, seating herself on a plump velvet chair and leaning against the carved, scrolled mahoghany back. Obeying her gesture, the captain seated himself on an identical chair nearby.

  “You're in London to give your deposition to the lord chancellor, of course,” she said.

  “Yes, my lady.” His neat black mustache twitched in discomfort. “May I again apologize for withholding the truth from you for so long, and for the distress I caused you when last we met? I will always regret my actions in this matter, and I hope that someday you will forgive my unaccountable silence—”

  “There is nothing to regret, or forgive,” she assured him sincerely. “I understand your silence concerning Lord Hawksworth, and in a way I'm grateful for it. As a matter of fact…” She drew a deep breath and looked directly into his face as she continued. “The reason I wanted to see you this morning is to ask for your continued silence.”

  He snowed no emotion save a fluttering blink of his dark eyes. “I see,” he said slowly. “You're asking me to perjure myself before the lord chancellor today. You wish for me to deny knowledge of the man masquerading as Lord Hawksworth.”

  “Yes,” she said simply.

  “May I ask why?”

  “After much reflection, I have come to believe that it would be in the Crosslands' best interests, including mine, for this man to continue as the head of the family.”

  “My lady, I may not have successfully conveyed the character of this man to you—”

  “I am fully cognizant of his character.”

  Sighing, Captain Tyler rubbed his thumb over the thick gold braiding on the sleeve of his coat in a repeated motion. “I should like to agree to your request, as it would fulfill a debt I have longed to repay. Yet…to allow him to have a position entailing such power and responsibility…to let him steal another man's life…it doesn't seem right.”

  “What debt do you owe him?” Lara asked curiously.

  He explained stiffly. “He saved my life. We—the Crown, I mean—were establishing new towns further along the Ganges, and trouble arose in the Cawnpore territory. Thuggees would lie in wait along the roads and attack travelers, killing them without mercy. Even women and children weren't spared. When they realized we weren't going to be driven away, the devils became more aggressive. Many of the men in my company were hunted and slaughtered, some in their own beds. I myself was l beset one night whilst returning from a visit to Calcutta. I was suddenly surrounded by a half dozen thugs who killed a young ensign and another escort, and were about to make short work of me.” He paused, breaking out in a sweat at the memory. “And then he came out of the night like a shadow, felling two of my attackers so swiftly that the others eventually fled, shouting that he was the messenger of some wrathful god. That was the last time I saw him…until his reincarnation as Lord Hawksworth.”

  “The scar on the back of his neck…” Lara said in a flash of intuition.

  Tyler nodded. “During the fray, one of the thugs took possession of my sword. Your ‘Hawksworth’ was fortunate not to have been beheaded. Luckily for him, he's quite agile in combat.” He reached inside his coat for a handkerchief and blotted his brow.

  “He's not an ordinary man, my lady. If I agree to your request, I cannot be held responsible for the future pain and unhappiness he may cause you.”

  Lara smiled at him steadily. “I believe he is worthy of my trust. I have no doubt that he will lead an exemplary life if only he is given a chance.”

  He regarded her as if she were either a saint or a lunatic. “Forgive me, but your trust is rather too easily given, Lady Hawksworth. With all my heart, I hope this man will prove it well founded.”

  “He will,” she said, impulsively taking his hand and pressing it hard. “I know he will, Captain.”

  Lara had been kept waiting in an antechamber to the lord chancellor's offices for only an hour, but it had seemed like forever. Sensitive to every muffled sound that occurred in the rooms and halls around her, she sat on the edge of a hard wooden chair and tried to interpret what was happening. Finally a clerk appeared in the antechamber and escorted Lara to the hall outside the lord chancellor's office. Her heart leapt as she saw the captain exiting the office. Their gazes caught, hers questioning, his reassuring. Then in response to her unspoken plea, he gave her a slight nod. It's all right, his eyes seemed to say, and some of her terrible tension eased.

  Gathering her confidence, Lara accompanied the clerk to the chancery chambers. Sunbury, the lord chancellor, rose from a chair set at a heavy mahogany table, and waited until Lara was seated before lowering himself onto the brown leather upholstery. Sun-bury cut an impressive figure in a glowing scarlet robe, his jowly face framed with a long silvery wig. As he toyed with a pocket-sized terrestrial globe covered with tiny painted maps, Lara saw that his right hand was heavy with the weight of three massive gold rings.

  Sunbury's gray eyes were small but piercing, staring lucidly out from a fleshy face. He had an innate look of importance that would have been evident even without the trappings of wealth and office. Lara wouldn't be surprised to see him on Judgment Day, positioned at the heavenly gates to assess the qualifications of aspiring angels.

  Like a magnet, her gaze was drawn to Hunter. He was seated at the far end of the long table, his head silhouetted in the glimmering light from the window. He almost seemed unearthly in his austere handsomeness, his face remote, his lean body clad in cream breeches, a black waistcoat, and a coat of dark green striped velvet. He didn't return Lara's gaze, merely watched the lord chancellor with the unblinking gaze of a wild creature.

  The room was filled with other occupants…a clerk to copy the spoken depositions onto paper, the attorneys Eliot and Wilcox, the prosecutor whose name Lara didn't recall, Sophie, Arthur and Janet…and a familiar face that made Lara stiffen in bewildered outrage. Lord Lonsdale, dressed to the nines in a satin waistcoat embroidered with butterflies, shoes with ornate buckles, and a diamond pin in his cravat. He smiled at her, his blue eyes sparkling with malicious pleasure. What was he doing here? What information could he possibly have that would merit his presence before the lord chancellor?

  Questions and protestations burned on the edge of her lips, but Lara managed to keep silent. She looked at Sophie, who toyed idly with a long strand of pearls that cascaded along the lace front of her peach gown.

  “Now the truth will out,” Arthur said triumphantly, giving Lara a commanding stare. He spoke to her as if she were a small child. “Just answer the lord chancellor's questions as honestly as you can, Larissa.”

  Resenting his patronizing tone, Lara ignored the direction and focused her attention on Sunbury.

  The lord chancellor spoke in a rumbling tone. “Lady Hawksworth, one can only hope that you will be able to shed some light on this perplexing situation.”

  “I will try,” she said softly.

  Sunbury rested his beefy hand on a thick sheaf of paper. “I have been presented with a score of depositions from people who vigorously insist that this man is, to the best of their knowledge, the Earl of Hawksworth. The Dowager Countess of Hawksworth, no less, affirms that he is indeed he
r son.” He paused and glanced at Sophie, who gave him a short, impatient nod. “However,” Sunbury resumed, “some contradictory opinions have been offered—most notably from the gentleman in question. He has insisted that he is not Lord Hawksworth, though he has refused to explain more. Tell me, my lady…who exactly is this man?”

  The room was deadly silent as Lara moistened her lips. “He is Hunter Cameron Crossland, the Earl of Hawksworth,” she said in a clear, steady voice. It was slightly unnerving to speak and watch a clerk take down every word as it left her lips. “He is my husband, he has always been, and it is my dearest hope that he always will be.”

  “What?” Arthur exclaimed, while Janet catapulted from her chair.

  “You lying bitch,” she screeched, striding toward Lara with her fingers curved into claws. Lara flinched in reaction. Before Janet reached her, Hunter leapt from his chair and caught her from behind, snatching her flailing wrists. Janet reacted like an enraged cat, twisting and yowling in a way that seemed to alarm everyone except for Arthur, who merely looked disgusted.

  “Out!” the lord chancellor thundered, his jowly face mottled with outrage. “I insist that this creature be removed from my chambers at once!”

  The pandemonium was slow to subside.

  “She is lying!” Arthur exclaimed. “Larissa, you double-tongued witch, I'll see you in hell for this—”

  “Silence!” The lord chancellor stood, his scarlet robes swirling about his large body. “I will not have my chambers disgraced by profanity and violence. Remove your wife, sir, and if you are not capable of controlling yourself henceforth, do not return!”

  Turning purple, Arthur wrested Janet's writhing body from Hunter's grasp.

  Hunter went to Lara, his gaze raking over her. Ascertaining that she had not been injured, he gripped the arms of her chair and leaned over her. His face was close to hers, and suddenly the rest of the room was blocked out, and all that existed was the two of them. His dark eyes simmered with anger. “Why are you doing this?” he asked harshly. “Tell them the truth, Lara.”

 
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