Stranger in My Arms by Lisa Kleypas


  The servants had been awakened by the furor. A few of them appeared in the hall, staring at the spectacle in disbelief.

  “Stop him!” Lara cried, gripping the balustrade and lurching to her feet. “Don't let them leave!”

  But none of the servants moved, and she suddenly realized why. The object in Lonsdale's hand was a pistol. In his enraged condition, he wouldn't hesitate to use it.

  “Open the doors,” Lonsdale snapped, gesturing to a footman with the weapon. “Now!”

  The footman hastened to comply. He darted to the entranceway, fumbled with the door handles, and sent the heavy portals swinging gently outward.

  To everyone's startlement, a high-pitched voice echoed through the great hall. “Stop!”

  Lara's gaze switched to the top of the stairs, where Johnny stood in his little white nightshirt, his dark hair ruffled all about his head. He held a toy pistol in his hand, the one that could be loaded with a harmless gunpowder cap.

  “I'll shoot you!” the boy shouted, pointing the pistol at Lonsdale.

  Reflexively Lonsdale lifted his own weapon and took aim at the small figure.

  “Don't!” Lara screeched to Lonsdale. “It's only a toy!”

  “Let Auntie Rachel go,” Johnny cried, and fired. The toy emitted a feeble pop, the sound causing everyone to freeze.

  Realizing the tiny pistol was harmless Lonsdale began to laugh incredulously, his mocking gaze fastened on the small, furious boy at the top of the stairs.

  All at once a shadowy figure moved through the open doorway with a lithe, animal-like spring.

  “Hunter,” Lara breathed, while he launched himself at Lonsdale with an impact that sent both men crashing to the floor.

  Rachel was thrown aside from the force of the collision, and she rolled once, twice, before her body went limp from pain and shock. She closed her eyes and fainted, her arms flung out like a discarded rag doll's.

  The men fought viciously for the gun, swearing and grunting as they pummeled each other. Lara turned and clambered up the stairs as fast as she could move. She reached Johnny in a matter of seconds and pulled him to the ground, sheltering his body with her own.

  The boy gasped with confusion, his cheeks wet with tears. “Mama, what's happening?” he asked plaintively, and she hugged him tightly.

  She risked a glance at the scene below, where Hunter twisted and grappled for the weapon. Biting her lip in terror, Lara fought to keep silent. The two large men were locked in deadly combat, rolling across the polished floor…and then the air was shattered by a thunderous explosion.

  Both men were still.

  Lara gripped Johnny, her wide eyes focused on the two long bodies and the pool of ruby red blood that seeped around them. She made a strangled sound in her throat, and covered her mouth with her hand to hold in an anguished scream.

  Hunter moved slowly, disentangling himself from the other man and pressing his large hands over the gaping wound in Lonsdale's midriff. Breathing heavily, Hunter looked at the servants nearby. “Send for Dr. Slade,” he growled at a footman, “and have someone else fetch the sheriff.” He motioned to the butler with a jerk of his head. “You—take Lady Lonsdale upstairs before she wakens.” His curt voice seemed to make sense of the chaos. They all rushed to obey, grateful for his leadership.

  Trembling with relief, Lara took Johnny's hand and pulled him away from the scene. “Don't look, darling” she murmured as he strained to glance over his shoulder.

  “He's come back,” Johnny said, gripping her fingers fervently. “He's come back.”

  It was almost dawn by the time the sheriff departed, after the prolonged questioning of the Hawksworths and the servants. The sheriff had shown no great surprise at the turn of events. As he had remarked laconically, everyone knew of Lonsdale's habitual drunkenness and violence. It had only been a matter of time before he received his comeuppance.

  Although it appeared the matter would be set aside with no charges made, Hunter couldn't dismiss it easily. Grimly he scrubbed himself in a hip tub in his room. A thick application of soap removed every trace of dirt and blood, but he still didn't feel clean.

  For most of his life he had been able to ignore his conscience. In fact, he had been fairly certain he didn't possess one. But he was deeply troubled about the consequences of bringing Rachel to Hawksworth Hall. If he hadn't, Lord Lonsdale would probably still be alive. On the other hand, if Hunter had left Rachel to her husband's mercy, she would likely be dead. Had he made the right choice? Had there been a right choice to make?

  He dressed and combed his wet hair, and thought about Lara. There were still things left to be said between them…painful things that he didn't want to say and she would not want to hear. Groaning, he dug the heels of his hands into his sore eyes. He considered how all of this had started, with his overwhelming wish to become Hunter Cameron Grassland. The surprise of it all was how natural it had felt. He had made the name his own, until even he had trouble remembering that he was living a stolen life. His other bleak existence had been closed away like a dusty attic room he had no wish to visit.

  And Lara, for some motive he couldn't begin to understand, had made it possible for the charade to continue. Perhaps she was trying to think of him as one of her many charity cases, and save him from what he was.

  But he couldn't allow Lara to become part of the lie. He couldn't bear to corrupt her any more than he already had.

  Filled with dread and longing, he went to tell Lara good-bye.

  Lara sat in a chair before her bedroom hearth, shivering as the heat of the coals wafted over her bare toes. Rachel was fast asleep in her own room, drugged by a dose of laudanum the doctor had administered. Johnny had been tucked away in the nursery, soothed by a glass of hot milk and a story. Although Lara was exhausted, she stayed resolutely awake, afraid that if she fell asleep, Hunter would leave her once again.

  Her body gave a little jump as the doorknob turned, and Hunter entered the room without knocking. She stood automatically. After one look at his remote face, she held back and wrapped her arms around her middle, hugging herself.

  “I thought you had left me after the depositions in London,” she said quietly. “I thought you weren't going to come back.”

  “I wasn't. But then I thought of you here alone with Rachel, and I realized what Lonsdale would do.” He made a sound of self-disgust. “I would have come sooner if I'd been thinking clearly.”

  “You came in time,” Lara said, her voice cracking. “Oh, Hunter…downstairs…for a moment I thought you were hurt…or dead…”

  “Don't.” He held up a hand in a silencing gesture.

  Utterly miserable, Lara held her tongue. How could they have been so intimate only a few days ago, and now stand before each other as strangers? She loved him whatever his name was, no matter whose blood ran in his veins, no matter what he believed or wanted. Just so long as he wanted her. But as she stared into his fathomless dark eyes, it seemed an impossible task to convince him.

  “Stay with me,” she said, extending a beseeching hand. “Please.”

  He looked as though he hated himself. “Don't ask that, Lara.”

  “But you love me. I know you do.”

  “That makes no difference,” he said bleakly. “You know why I have to go.”

  “You belong with me,” she persisted. “For one thing, you have a duty to take care of the child you helped to create.”

  “There is no child,” he said flatly.

  Lara approached him, closing the distance between them. Carefully she reached for the large hand that was held so stiffly at his side, and tugged it to her stomach. She pressed his palm there, as if she could make him feel the truth of her words. “I'm carrying your baby.”

  “No,” he whispered. “You can't be.”

  “I wouldn't lie to you.”

  “Not to me,” he agreed bitterly, “only to the rest of the world. For my sake.” His other arm slid around her, and he held her as if he couldn't stop hi
mself. A shiver went through his body, and he dove his face into the loose sheaves of her hair. She heard his breathing change, and she realized his mask was shattering, revealing the despair and frustrated love beneath the surface.

  “Lara, you don't know what I am.”

  “Yes, I do,” she said urgently, reaching around his back to hold him tightly. “You're a good man, even though you don't realize it. And you're my husband in every way that matters.”

  A shuddering laugh broke from his throat. “Dammit. Don't you understand that the best thing I can do for you is get out of your life?”

  Lara drew back and pushed at his head, forcing him to look at her. His dark eyes were glittering with tears, and his mouth shook with the emotions he had always suppressed until now. She drew her hands over his beautiful hair, his beloved face, as if she could heal him with her touch.

  “Stay with me,” she said, trying to give his massive shoulders a shake. His large body wouldn't budge. “I won't hear another word about it. I don't see why we should live apart and suffer when we have the chance to be together. If you don't feel worthy of me, you can work on improving yourself during the next fifty years.” She gripped the loose folds of his shirt and pulled herself hard against him. “I don't want a perfect man, anyway.”

  Hunter looked away, struggling to control himself. “You damn well haven't got one.”

  Lara gave him a wobbly smile, hearing something in his voice that gave her a flicker of hope. “I'm offering you a life you want,” she said. “A life of meaning and purpose, and love. Take it. Take me.” She pressed her lips to his hard mouth, stealing a swift kiss, and another, coaxing and enticing until he groaned in response. He crushed his mouth over hers with a raw desire that suddenly raged out of control. He searched her with his tongue, a primitive masculine sound coming from his throat, and pulled up her nightgown in frantic handfuls.

  Lara twined a bare leg around one of his, offering herself with a willingness that seemed to drive him wild. He scooped her in his arms and carried her to the bed, and Lara's weariness vanished as her blood raced with excitement. “I love you,” she said, pulling him down to her, and she felt the responsive tremor that ran through him. He tugged at her nightgown until it tore from her body. His lips sealed over her nipple and sucked firmly, while his fingers spread over her belly and hips.

  Lara moaned and cradled him with her arms and legs, needing him more than she had thought humanly possible. He raised himself higher and took her mouth again, in deep searching kisses that stole her breath away. Gasping, she tugged at his clothes and tried to unbutton his shirt.

  “I can't wait,” he muttered, reaching down to his trousers and jerking them open.

  “I want to feel your skin,” she whimpered, still struggling with his shirt.

  “Later…oh God…” He spread her legs wide and drove inside her with a demanding push. The heavy, sweet pressure filled her until she cried out, her body overcome with exquisite sensations that raced along every nerve. She arched upward and trembled in pleasure as he moved gently inside her, prolonging the delight. His thrusts deepened, a sliding, teasing rhythm of impact and withdrawal. He made love to her as if he were feasting on her, every movement carnal and deliberate. Lara reached beneath his shirt and grasped the hard muscles of his back, urging him to finish quickly. He took his time, however, seeming to relish her low moans.

  “I can't…I'm too tired,” she said. “Please, not again—”

  “Again,” he said hoarsely, deepening his thrusts until she writhed in another climax, this one almost painful in its intensity. Hunter buried himself inside her and let her inner contractions bring him to his own release, his teeth clamping together as the storm raged through him.

  Shivering and breathing erratically, they relaxed in a tangle of bedclothes. Lara sank into a peaceful lethargy, turning her face toward Hunter as she felt him stroking her hair. Daylight threatened to intrude in the quiet room, but the heavy curtains kept it at bay.

  “Even if you had left me,” Lara said drowsily, “you wouldn't have been able to stay away for long.”

  He made a rueful sound. “Because I need you,” he said, pressing his warm lips to her forehead.

  “Not nearly as much as I need you.”

  He smiled, his hands moving gently over her body. But when he spoke, his tone was serious. “How do we go on from here after all that's happened?”

  “I don't know.” She settled her head in the crook of his shoulder. “We'll just start again, that's all.”

  “Every time you look at me,” he said, “you'll remember that I took his place.”

  “No,” she said, laying her fingers over his lips, determined that no ghost from the past would haunt them now. “I suppose I'll think of him sometimes…but I never really knew him. He didn't want a life with me, nor I with him.”

  She felt his mouth twist wryly. “That's all I've ever wanted,” he muttered.

  Lara moved her hand to the steady thud of his heart. “When I look at you,” she said, “I see only you.” She nuzzled closer against his side. “I know you,” she added throatily.

  The comment drew an unwilling laugh from him, and Hunter rolled to his side to stare down at her. It was clear that he was prepared to argue the point, but as he gazed at her small face, his expression changed to one of extraordinary tenderness. “Maybe you do,” he said, and gathered her close.

  Epilogue

  AFTER TOURING THE orphanage and seeing the improvements that had just been completed, Lara was filled with satisfaction. They were ready to admit the new children now, only ten instead of the expected twelve, as two families in Market Hill had become so fond of their temporary guests that they had decided to keep them. It would be easy enough to fill the extra beds at the orphanage, Lara thought. There were always far too many children who were in need of a decent place to live.

  As she stepped from the carriage and entered Hawksworth Hall, Lara's mind was so busy with plans that she scarcely noticed the man who waited for her.

  “Lady Hawksworth…forgive me, my lady…”

  A gentleman's cultured voice repeated her name until Lara stopped and turned with an inquiring smile.

  The visitor was Lord Tufton, the shy, gentle man who had courted Rachel before her marriage to Lonsdale. He was an intellectual rather than a sportsman, with a kind, earnest manner that Lara had always liked. She had heard recently that Tufton had come into an unexpected fortune at the death of his uncle, which would undoubtedly make him sought after by many ambitious young females.

  “Lord Tufton!” Lara exclaimed with sincere pleasure. “How nice it is to see you.”

  They conversed amiably for a minute, and Tufton gestured lamely to a magnificent arrangement of roses that had been set on the table by the entrance. “I brought these for your family to enjoy,” he remarked.

  “How lovely they are,” Lara said warmly, suppressing a smile as she realized that the flowers were really for her sister. However, it wouldn't have been proper for Tufton to give them exclusively to Rachel, as she was in mourning. “Thank you. We will all enjoy them—especially my sister. She is quite fond of roses, you know.”

  “Yes, I…” He cleared his throat nervously. “Might I inquire after her health, my lady?”

  “She is quite well,” Lara assured him. “Although…she is rather quiet and downcast these days.”

  “That is only to be expected,” he remarked gently, “after the tragedy she has experienced.”

  Lara surveyed him with a thoughtful smile. Rachel had not received visitors in the two months since Lonsdale's death, but somehow Lara was certain that Tufton's face would be a welcome sight. “Lord Tufton…my sister is always out in the garden at this time of day, taking a long stroll. I'm sure she would enjoy walking with a companion.”

  He looked both eager and hesitant at the prospect. “Oh, I shouldn't like to bother her…if she desires solitude…”

  “Come with me,” Lara said, tugging him through the great
hall with relentless determination. She led him to the French doors that opened to the garden, and caught a glimpse of Rachel's black dyed bonnet as she walked among the hedges. “There she is,” Lara said triumphantly. “Go right along and join her, Lord Tufton.”

  “But I don't know if—”

  “My sister will be delighted, I assure you.” Lara opened the door and ushered him outside, and watched as he made his way through a flower-strewn parterre.

  “Mama!” Hearing Johnny's voice, Lara turned with a smile. The boy was dressed in miniature breeches and a blue jacket in preparation for a riding lesson.

  “Darling, where is the nanny?” she asked.

  “She's coming down from the schoolroom,” Johnny said, slightly breathless. “But she can't run as fast as me.”

  Lara straightened the boy's cap. “Why are you always in such a hurry?” she asked.

  “'Cause I don't want to miss anything.”

  Laughing, Lara returned her attention to the window, watching as Lord Tufton and Rachel came into view. Her sister was holding Tufton's arm as they strolled together. Beneath the brim of the black mourning bonnet was the first real smile Lara had seen on Rachel's face in far too long.

  “Who is that with Auntie Rachel?” Johnny asked.

  “I believe he's going to be her next husband,” Lara replied thoughtfully, and glanced at the boy with a conspiratorial smile. “But that's our secret for now.”

  This turn of thought led to consideration of another secret they shared, and Johnny tugged at Lara's skirts. “When can we tell everyone you're going to have a baby, Mama?”

  “When I begin to show,” Lara replied. At his look of confusion, she explained with a slight blush, “When my tummy gets bigger.”

 
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