Stranger in My Arms by Lisa Kleypas

  Her chin lifted, and she returned his gaze obstinately. “won't let you go.”

  “Dammit, haven't I done enough to you by now?”

  “Not nearly,” she said softly.

  Her words seemed to infuriate rather than please him. He released her chair with a muffled sound of frustration, and crossed the room in a few swift strides. The atmosphere was fraught with unexpected antagonism.

  Arthur returned for a hastily muttered conference with the prosecutor, who then approached the lord chancellor. Words were exchanged, and Lara saw the prosecutor's mouth press into a thin line of disapproval. Unhappily he returned to his seat, waving Arthur to do the same.

  “Now, then,” Sunbury barked, staring hard at Lara. “I hope you will enlighten us further, Lady Hawksworth. You claim that this man is your husband, yet he insists that he is not Lord Hawksworth. Which one of you is telling the truth?”

  Lara focused an earnest stare on him. “My lord, I believe my husband feels unworthy of me because of a past indiscretion. His well-known affair with a certain…” She paused as if it were painful to mention the name.

  The lord chancellor nodded, the rolls of his silver wig slipping over his shoulders. “Lady Carlysle,” he supplied. “I received her deposition earlier.”

  “Then I'm certain you've been informed about her liaison with my husband,” Lara continued, “a relationship that has caused me no small amount of grief. In his remorse over the affair, I believe my husband's intention is to punish himself in this most drastic manner, by denying his very identity. However, I wish to make him understand that I forgive him for everything.” She glanced at Hunter, who stared stonily at the floor. “Everything,” she repeated firmly. “I want to begin again, my lord.”

  “Indeed,” the lord chancellor muttered, scrutinizing Hunter's closed face, and Lara's resolute one. He returned his gaze to Hunter. “If what Lady Hawksworth claims is true, my good fellow, it's going a bit far to renounce your own name. A man makes mistakes now and again. It is up to our wives, with their superior virtue, to make up for us.” He chuckled at his own joke, heedless of the fact that no one shared his amusement.

  “Claptrap!” Arthur exclaimed as he glared at Lara. “My lord, this woman is suffering from mental derangement. She has no idea what she is saying. This cunning impostor has somehow convinced her to side with him, when only yesterday she was denouncing him!”

  “What have you to say to that, Lady Hawksworth?” Sunbury inquired.

  “I have made a terrible mistake,” Lara acknowledged. “I can only beg forgiveness for the trouble I've caused. I brought the suit against my husband in a fit of anger over his affair with Lady Carlysle, and I was influenced adversely by my uncle. I'm not usually so weak-minded…but I'm afraid my condition has made me somewhat irrational.”

  “Your condition?” Sunbury repeated, while everyone in the room stared at her openmouthed, including Hunter and Sophie.

  “Yes…” Lara flushed as she continued, hating the necessity of using her pregnancy this way. However, she intended to use every weapon at her disposal. “I'm expecting a child, my lord. I'm certain you understand the instability of a woman's temperament when she is in the family way.”

  “Indeed,” the lord chancellor murmured, stroking his chin thoughtfully.

  Hunter's face was pale beneath its golden tan. From the way he looked at her, Lara knew he thought she was lying. “Enough, Lara,” he said hoarsely.

  “More lies!” Arthur cried, standing and shaking off his attorney's restraining hand. “She's as barren as the desert. Everyone knows that she is incapable of producing a child. My lord, she's faking a pregnancy and will no doubt fake a miscarriage as soon as it's convenient!”

  Lara began to enjoy the sight of her uncle's apoplectic countenance. With the faintest of smiles, she turned to the lord chancellor. “I will submit to any physician of your choosing, my lord, if you so desire. I have nothing to fear.”

  Sunbury regarded her with a long, measuring glance, and though his face was grave, an answering smile appeared in his gray eyes. “That won't be necessary, Lady Hawksworth. It seems congratulations are in order.”

  “Excuse me,” came Lonsdale's dry voice. “I hate to puncture Lady Hawksworth's pretty story, as I enjoy a good tale as much as the next fellow. However, I can prove in less than a minute that this man is a fraud—and that our charming Lady Hawksworth is a liar.”

  The lord chancellor's thick gray eyebrows lifted. “Oh? And how may that be accomplished, Lord Lonsdale?”

  Lonsdale paused for theatrical effect. “I have information that will surprise all of you—secret information about the real Lord Hawksworth.”

  “Let us have it, then,” Sunbury replied, passing the pocket globe from one heavy palm to the other.

  “Very well.” Lonsdale stood and made a show of straightening his satin waistcoat. “The real Hawksworth and I were not only the closest of friends, but also fellows in an exclusive society. The scorpions, we call ourselves. I don't feel it is necessary to explain our purpose except to say that we have certain political aims. Although each of us has taken an oath to keep our affiliation a secret, I feel compelled to reveal it, and thereby prove that this so-called Hawksworth is an impostor. You see, just before he left for India, Hawksworth and the rest of us had a certain mark placed on the inside of the left arm. A permanent mark made with ink embedded beneath the skin. I have this mark, and so do the others. Only the true Earl of Hawksworth would have it.”

  “And this mark, I suppose, is shaped like a scorpion?” Sunbury inquired.

  “Precisely.” Lonsdale made a move to shed his coat. “If you'll allow me but a minute or two, my lord, I will show you the mark—”

  “That won't be necessary,” the Lord Chancellor said dryly. “It would be more to the point for Lord Hawksworth to display his arm.”

  All gazes turned to Hunter, who pinned Sunbury with a mutinous glare. “There's no need,” he muttered. “I'm not Hawksworth.”

  The lord chancellor returned his hard stare without blinking. “Then verify it by removing your shirt, sir.”

  “No,” Hunter said through his teeth.

  The flat refusal caused Sunbury's color to rise. “Shall I have it removed for you?” he asked gently.

  Lara breathed hard in agitation. She couldn't remember having seen any kind of mark on Hunter's arm. The thought that one small patch of ink would send all her hopes and dreams plummeting…She clenched her fists in her skirts and twisted them tightly. “I give you my word the mark is there,” she cried.

  The lord chancellor smiled sardonically. “With all due respect, Lady Hawksworth, in this instance I would prefer solid proof to your word.” He returned his gaze to Hunter's face. “The shirt, if you please.”

  Arthur began to laugh in wild glee. “Now you're done for, you damned charlatan!”

  The lord chancellor began to reprove him for the profanity, but his attention was soon diverted as Hunter stood. Scowling, Hunter set his jaw and stared at the floor, and pulled his coat off, yanking hard at the sleeves. Discarding the coat, he began on the buttons of his black waistcoat. Lara bit her lip in silent anguish, trembling as she saw dark color spread over Hunter's averted face. He set aside his waistcoat and pulled his shirt free of his breeches. Midway through the fastenings of the shirt, he paused and looked at the lord chancellor. “I'm not Hawksworth,” he growled. “Listen to me for one damned minute—”

  “Make him continue,” Arthur snapped. “I insist on it.”

  “You may speak your piece, sir,” Sunbury informed Hunter, “after I examine your arm. Proceed.”

  Hunter didn't move.

  Enraged by the hesitation, Arthur sprang forward, grabbed a loose fold of the shirt, and yanked at it until they all heard the screech of rending linen. The shirt tore away, shreds hanging from the cuffs to reveal a lean body rippling with muscle, the tanned skin marked in places by scars not unlike the old hunting wounds her husband had suffered while pursuing
boar and other wild game. Transfixed by the sight of Hunter's body, and the dreadful knowledge of what was about to happen, Lara held her breath.

  Arthur shoved Hunter toward the lord chancellor.

  “There,” he sneered. “Show him your arm, you lying bastard.”

  Hunter's fist clenched as he raised it behind his head and lifted his arm.

  From where she was sitting, Lara had a perfect view. There, a few inches above the patch of dark hair that furred his armpit, was a small design of a scorpion inked in blue.

  Lonsdale, who had come around to see, staggered backward in amazement. “How can it be?” he asked hoarsely, his gaze darting from the mark to Hunter's taut face. “How the hell did you know?”

  Lara's mind was occupied by the same question. She pondered in bewildered silence, until it occurred to her that the only way he could have reproduced the scorpion design was if he had seen it in her husband's journals.

  Arthur was incoherent with fury, Sputtering and gasping, he made his way to the nearest chair and collapsed.

  Sophie regarded Hunter with a strange look of perplexed admiration, while she addressed her words to the lord chancellor. “I should think this settles the matter quite neatly, Lord Sunbury.”

  Lonsdale's face twisted with murderous fury. “You won't win,” he hissed at Hunter. “I'll see you dead first!” He fled the room with a torrent of curses, slamming the door with a force that seemed to shake the building.

  The lord chancellor rolled his eyes and turned his attention to the pocket globe in his hands. He snapped it open to reveal a tiny map of the constellations, and drew his finger along a trail of painted stars. “Well, my lad,” he murmured, sliding a glance at Hunter's sullen face. “I'm rather inclined to believe your wife. Trying to punish yourself for an indiscretion, eh? Is that the case? Well, even the best of men sometimes struggle with that particular weakness. And in the event that you aren't the Earl of Hawksworth…I'm not inclined to argue with the majority of people who say you are. It seems reasonable to settle the question immediately in favor of Lord Hawksworth being, er…Lord Hawksworth, and I'll discharge the case forthwith.” He glanced at Hunter hopefully. “I trust you will not persist in arguing, my lord? I should very much dislike to be late for my midday meal.”

  “Where is he?” Lara exclaimed in frustration, striding·across the parlor floor under Sophie's disapproving gaze. “I can't leave London without seeing him, but I must tumult that followed the lord chancellor's decision, Hunter had disappeared. Lara had no choice but to return to the Hawksworth town house and wait for him. It had been four hours, and there was no sign of him. She wanted desperately return to Rachel and Johnny. Oh, what could have gotten into his head, to vanish like this?”

  During the to talk to him, but she felt an urgent need to leave at once for Lincolnshire. Her instincts warned that she must return to Rachel as quickly as possible. There was no telling what Lonsdale might do in his fury—Lara was certain he meant to collect his wife without delay, by force if necessary.

  An awful thought occurred to her, and she stared at Sophie in dawning horror. “You don't think Hunter has disappeared for good, do you? What if he never comes back?”

  Uncomfortable with displays of volatile emotion, Sophie frowned reprovingly. “Don't carry on so, Larissa. I promise you, he'll find you when he's ready. He isn't about to disappear after the surprise you dropped at the hearing until he discovers if it's true or not. Which leads to the question…are you expecting or not?”

  “I'm certain that I am,” Lara said shortly, too occupied with her worry over Hunter to share Sophie's evident pleasure in the news.

  The dowager settled back with a wondering smile. “Praise be. Harry's line will continue after all, it seems. A virile creature, your errant lover. He certainly had no problem in starting you breeding.”

  “Husband,” Lara corrected. “We'll refer to him as my husband from now on.”

  Sophie shrugged nonchalantly. “As you prefer, Larissa. Do calm yourself. You're far too agitated. It can't be good for the babe.”

  “I don't think he believed me about the child,” Lara murmured, standing at the window and recalling Hunter's stunned expression in the lord chancellor's office. He must have thought it was yet another lie to save him. She pressed her palms and her forehead against the cool, misty glass panes, while her chest ached with the fear that he might never return.

  Chapter 21

  LARA'S CARRIAGE REACHED Hawksworth Hall late in the evening, when most of the household was asleep. She was grateful to be spared the task of explaining an inexplicable situation to Johnny and Rachel and the others tonight. She was weary of talking and traveling and trying to ignore the thoughts buzzing in her head. With each turn of the carriage wheels that conveyed her from London, she had felt increasingly defeated and hopeless. She wanted to lose herself in sleep.

  “Lady Hawksworth,” Mrs. Gorst asked quietly, welcoming her inside, “shall Lord Arthur be returning?”

  “No,” Lara replied with a shake of her head. “The case was discharged by the lord chancellor.”

  “I see.” A genuine smile covered the housekeeper's face. “That is very good news, my lady! Shall we expect Lord Hawksworth to arrive soon?”

  “I don't know,” Lara said, her dejected manner seeming to dampen Mrs. Gorst's good spirits. Forbearing to ask further questions, the housekeeper directed a footman to bring Lara's trunk upstairs, and a maid to unpack it.

  While the servants were thus engaged, Lara hurried up two flights of stairs to the nursery where Johnny slept. Entering the room carefully, she set a single candle on the painted blue dresser. The sound of the little boy's breathing, soft and serene, made her heart contract in sudden gladness. This, at least, was something she could count on…the trust and innocent love of a child. His head was snuggled deep into the downy surface of a pillow, the babyish roundness of one cheek glowing in the candlelight.

  Lara bent low to kiss him. “I'm home,” she whispered.

  Johnny stirred and murmured, black lashes lifting to reveal slitted blue eyes. Satisfied to see her, he produced a drowsy smile before falling asleep once more.

  Lara retrieved her candle and crept from the nursery, going to her own room. It seemed very empty, even with the maids busily unpacking her belongings and turning back the covers on the bed. When they had finally departed, she changed into her nightgown and left her clothes in a heap on the floor. After extinguishing the lamps, she crawled into bed and lay on her back, staring blindly through the darkness.

  Her hand smoothed the empty space beside her. She had lain with two different men in this bed, one out of duty, one out of passion.

  Lara knew in her heart that Hunter did not intend to come back to her. He meant to atone for the wrongs he had done her. He had believed her when she told him that she could not lie for him the rest of her life. He thought it would be easier, better for her, if he disappeared once again.

  The reality was, she loved him too much to let him go. She wanted him as her husband, regardless of what the world might think. She loved him far more than propriety and duty and even honor.

  She fell into a turbulent sleep, her head filled with disquieting images. In her dreams the people she loved were walking away from her, not seeming to see or hear her. She ran after the shadowy figures, pleading, pulling at them, but they were impervious to her cries. One by one they began to vanish, until only Hunter was left…and then he, too, faded. “No,” she cried, searching frantically for him, “noooo…”

  A scream tore through the silent house.

  Lara sat upright, her heart thudding. At first she thought the cry might have been her own, but as she listened intently, she heard it again.

  “Rachel,” she breathed, and sprang from bed, galvanized into action by the sound of her sister's muffled cries. She ran from the room in her bare feet, not bothering with slippers or a robe. As she reached the top of the grand staircase, she saw a man halfway down the stairs, tugging and
dragging Rachel along with him. One of his fists was tangled in her long braid, while the other was clamped around her arm.

  “No, Terrell, please,” Rachel said, fighting him every step of the way.

  He hurled her forward, sending her tumbling down three or four steps until she collapsed in a heap on the first landing.

  Lara let out a shriek of alarm. Lonsdale…She hadn't expected he would dare to come in the middle of the night and snatch Rachel from her bed. He was flushed from drink and self-righteous rage. A sneer twisted his mouth as he looked upward and saw Lara.

  “I'm taking back what's mine,” he said in a slurred voice. “I'll teach you to cross me! You'll never see my wife again. If I ever find the two of you together, I'll kill the both of you.” He grabbed Rachel by the hair and hauled her to her feet, seeming to relish her sob of pain. “You thought you could get away from me,” he snarled. “But I own you, and I'll break and bend you to my will, you faithless bitch. The first lesson starts tonight.”

  Weeping violently, Rachel looked up at Lara. “Don't let him take me, Larissa!”

  Lara charged after the pair as Lonsdale continued to haul her sister away. “Don't you touch her,” she cried, her bare feet flying down the stairs until she reached them. She took hold of Lonsdale's arm and tugged wildly. “Let go of her, or I'll kill you!”

  “You'll do what?” he asked with an ugly laugh, and flung her away with frightening ease. The force of his arm threw her back to the landing. The back of her head struck the wall with a sharp crack. For a moment the world tipped sideways, and her mind was covered in a thick gray cloud. Blinking hard, she raised her hands to her head, becoming aware of an annoying, piercing ringing that wouldn't abate. Beneath the deafening sound, she heard Rachel's distant pleas.

  Struggling to a sitting position, Lara realized that Lonsdale was dragging her sister across the great hall, while Rachel stumbled and sobbed beside him. Despite her physical weakness, Rachel fought valiantly, pulling hard at her captured arm. Annoyed by her resistance, Lonsdale hit her on the head with some object in his hand. Rachel staggered and nearly collapsed. She moaned in pain and followed him docilely, her entire body shuddering.

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