Stranger in My Arms by Lisa Kleypas

  The man who waited for her at Hawksworth Hall was not Hunter. He was a stranger, a cunning one if he had managed to convince Mr. Young and Dr. Slade that his claim was true. Lara would simply gather her composure, go to assess him for herself, and assure the others that he was certainly not her husband. Then the matter would be over. She took several breaths to restore herself and continued to stick pins haphazardly in her hair.

  As Lara stared in the square Queen Anne mirror poised on the chest of drawers in her room, it seemed that the atmosphere changed, the air suddenly heavy and pressing. It was so quiet in the cottage that she could hear her own mad heartbeat. She caught sight of something in the mirror, a deliberate movement that paralyzed her. Someone had entered the cottage.

  Skin prickling, Lara stood in frozen silence and stared into the mirror as another reflection joined her own. A man's bronzed face…short, sun-streaked brown hair…dark brown eyes…the hard, wide mouth she remembered so well. Tall…massive chest and shoulders…a physical power and assurance that made the room seem to shrink around him.

  Lara's breath stopped. She wanted to run, to cry out, faint, but it seemed that she had been turned to stone. He stood just behind her, his head and shoulders looming far above hers. His gaze held hers in the mirror…The eyes were the same color, yet…he had never looked at her like this, with an intensity that made every inch of her skin burn. His was the hard gaze of a predator.

  She shook in fright as his hands moved gently to her hair. One by one he slipped the confining pins from the shining sable mass, and set them on the dresser before her. Lara watched him, quivering with each light tug on her hair. “It's not true,” she whispered.

  He spoke in Hunter's voice, deep and slightly raspy. “I'm not a ghost, Lara.”

  She tore her gaze from the mirror and stumbled around to face him.

  He was so much thinner, his body lean, almost rawboned, his heavy muscles thrown into stark prominence. His skin was tanned to a copper blaze that was far too exotic for an Englishman. And his hair had lightened to the mixed gold and brown of a griffin's feathers.

  “I didn't believe…” Lara heard her own voice as if from very far away. There was a pinching sensation around her chest, and her heart could no longer sustain its own violent rhythm. Although her lungs moved in painful spasms, she couldn't seem to get enough air. A thick mist rolled over her, covering all sight and sound, and she sank swiftly into the dark abyss that opened beneath her.

  Hunter caught her as she fell. Her body was light and lush in his arms, conforming easily to his hard grip. He carried her to the narrow bed and sat on the creaking mattress, cradling her in his lap. Her head tilted back, her ivory throat encased in the banded black fabric of her mourning gown. He stared intently at her, riveted by the delicacy of her face. He'd forgotten a woman's skin could be so fair and fresh.

  Her mouth in repose was soft and a little sad, her face as vulnerable as a child's. How strange for a widow to look so unawakened. She had a tidy bandbox prettiness that appealed to him tremendously. He wanted this small, neat creature with her dainty hands and forlorn mouth. With the cold calculation that had always been integral to him, he decided he would take her, and all that came with her.

  Her eyes opened, and she stared at him gravely. He returned her wondering gaze with an opaque one, letting her see nothing of the man inside, and he curved his mouth in a reassuring smile.

  She didn't seem to notice the smile, however, only stared at him with those unblinking eyes. And then a strange softness entered the pools of translucent green, a curious, pitying tenderness…as if he were a lost soul in need of salvation. She reached up to his neck and touched the edge of a thick scar that disappeared into his hairline. Her fingertips sent fire racing through him. His breathing deepened, and he went very still. How the hell could she look this way? To her knowledge, he was either a stranger or a husband she hated.

  Bewildered and aroused by the compassion in her face, he fought the insane urge to bury his head against her breasts. Hastily he dislodged her from his lap and put a few necessary yards of distance between them.

  For the first time in his life, he was afraid of his own emotions—he, who had always prided himself on iron self-control.

  “Who are you?” she asked softly.

  “You know who I am,” he muttered.

  She shook her head, clearly dazed, and tore her gaze from his. She made her way to a set of shelves where she kept a few dishes and a small teapot. Taking refuge in a commonplace ritual, she fumbled for a parcel of tea leaves and pulled the little porcelain pot from its place on the shelf. “I-I'll make some tea,” she said faintly. “We can talk. Perhaps I can help you.”

  But her hands were shaking too badly, and the cups and saucers clattered as she reached for them.

  So she had decided he was some poor desperate fool or scavenger who was in need of her aid. A wry smile twisted his mouth, and he came to her, taking her cold hands in his warm ones. Again he experienced the sweet, unexpected shock of touching her. He was fiercely aware of the delicacy of her bones, the softness of her skin. He wanted to show her his gentleness. Something about her seemed to pull the last bitter dregs of his humanity up to the surface. She made him want to be the kind of man she needed.

  “I'm your husband,” he said. “I've come home.”

  She looked at him dumbly, her limbs stiff and her knees trembling.

  “I'm Hunter.” His voice turned soft. “Don't be afraid.”

  Lara heard her own gasping, incredulous laugh as she stared into his features, a devastating mixture of the familiar and the unknown. He looked too much like Hunter for her to dismiss him summarily, but there was a foreignness about him that she couldn't accept.

  “My husband is dead,” she said tightly.

  A small muscle twitched high in his lean cheek. “I'll make you believe me.”

  He reached for her swiftly, both hands wrapping around the back of her skull, gently gripping as he brought his mouth to hers. Ignoring her cry of alarm, he kissed her as she had never been kissed before. Her hands came up to his muscle-roped wrists, trying in vain to pry herself free. The sensation of his mouth, incendiary, delicious, stunned her. He used his teeth and lips and tongue, seducing her in a blaze of sensuality. She floundered for purchase until he let go of her head and gathered her against the hard surface of his body. She was held tight and secure in his embrace, thoroughly possessed…utterly desired. Her nostrils were filled with the scent of him: earth and air and the mild, pleasant bite of sandalwood.

  His lips slid downward, finding the sensitive place on the side of her neck. He took a deep, luxurious breath and fanned it over her skin, and pressed his face close until she felt the sweep of his lashes against her cheek. She had never been held like this, touched and tasted as if she were some exotic spice to be savored.

  “Oh, please,” she gasped, arching as he touched his tongue to her frantic pulse.

  “Say my name,” he whispered.


  “Say it.” His Viand cupped her breast, long fingers shaping the sensitive mound. Her nipple hardened in the warm cove of his palm, searching for more stimulation. In one violent movement Lara twisted out of his arms, tottering away a few steps to create a necessary space between them.

  Clasping a hand over her aching breast, Lara stared at him in astonishment. He was expression-less, but the jagged sound of his breathing revealed that he was struggling for composure just as she was.

  “How could you?” she gasped.

  “You're my wife.”

  “Hunter never liked to kiss.”

  “I've changed,” he said flatly.

  “You're not Hunter!” The words were tossed over her shoulder as she fled to the door.

  “Lara,” she heard him say, but she ignored him. “Lara, look at me.”

  Something in his voice made her pause. Reluctantly she stopped at the threshold and glanced at him.

  He was holding something in his palm.

  “What is that?” she asked.

  “Come and see.”

  Reluctantly she crept forward, transfixed by the object in his hand. Using his thumb, he pressed the tiny catch on the side, and the flat enameled box snapped open to revealed a miniature portrait of her.

  “I've stared at this every day for months,” he murmured. “Even when I didn't remember you in the days right after the shipwreck, I knew that you belonged to me.” He closed the box in his hand and tucked it back into his coat pocket.

  Lara lifted her incredulous gaze to his. She felt as if she were in a dream. “How did you get that?” she whispered.

  “You gave it to me,” he replied. “The day I left for India. Remember?”

  Yes, she remembered. Hunter had been in such a hurry to leave the estate that he'd nearly been too impatient for good-byes. But Lara had managed to draw him aside for a private moment, and had given him the miniature case. It was common for a wife or sweetheart to bestow a memento on a man going abroad, especially to a dangerous place like India, where he had an excellent chance of being killed by wild game or bloodthirsty rebels, or dying of a fever. However, the risks had appealed to Hunter, who had believed himself to be invincible.

  Hunter had actually seemed touched by Lara's gift, enough to press a careless kiss on her forehead. “Lovely,” he had muttered. “Thank you, Larissa.” The atmosphere had been thick with the memories of their unhappy two-year marriage, the mutual bitterness and disappointment of two people who had found no common ground to sustain even friendship. Yet Lara had still worried for him.

  “I will pray for your safety,” she had told him, and he had laughed into her concerned face.

  “Don't waste your prayers on me,” he had said.

  The man before her seemed to read her thoughts. “You must have spared me a prayer or two after all,” he murmured. “It's the only thing that brought me back home.”

  Lara felt the blood drain from her face, and she staggered beneath the weight of sudden realization. Only her husband would have known their parting words to each other. “Hunter?” she whispered.

  He caught her elbows, steadying her, and ducked his head to stare at her with teasing dark eyes. “You're not going to faint again, are you?”

  She was too overcome to reply. She allowed him to guide her to a nearby chair, and sat with an abrupt collapsing motion. Sinking to his haunches, the man brought their faces level. He brushed a lock of hair behind her ear, his roughened fingertips skimming the fragile curve. “Starting to believe me?” he asked.

  “F-first tell me something else that only my husband would know.”

  “Good God. I went through enough of this with Young and Slade.” He paused and glanced at the widow's weeds that covered her body, and she flinched at the intimacy of his gaze. “There's a small brown mole on the inside of your left leg,” he said softly. “And a dark freckle on your right breast. And a scar on your heel from when you cut your foot on a rock one summer when you were a girl.” He smiled at her dumbfounded expression. “Would you like me to go on? I can describe the color of your—”

  “That's enough,” Lara said swiftly, blushing hard. For the first time she allowed herself to really look at him, at the dark grain of his shaven whiskers, the hard jut of his chin, the lean hollows where his cheeks had once been round and full. “The shape of your face has changed,” she said, timidly touching the edge of his high cheekbone. “Perhaps I would have recognized you if you hadn't lost so much weight.”

  He surprised her by turning his mouth in to her palm. As Lara felt the heat of his lips against her tender skin, she snatched her hand back reflexively.

  “And your clothes are different,” she continued, starting at the gray trousers stretched taut across his thighs, the worn white shirt, and the unfashionably narrow cravat around his neck. She had always seen Hunter dressed in the finest garments: broadcloth coats, embroidered brocade vests, breeches of leather or fine wool. His evening attire had been equally superb: crisp black coats, streamlined trousers or pantaloons, gleaming white linen shirts, stiffly starched collars and neckcloths, shoes polished with champagne.

  Hunter smiled wryly at her close scrutiny. “I wanted a change of my old clothes at the Hall,” he said, “but they seem to have been misplaced.”

  “Arthur and Janet disposed of everything.”

  “Including my wife, it seems.” He glanced around the gamekeeper's cottage, his brown eyes turning cold. “My uncle will pay for putting you in such a place. I would have expected better of him than this, though God knows why.”

  “It's been comfortable enough—”

  “It's not fit for a washwoman, much less my wife.” Hunter's voice was as stinging as a whip, making Lara jump. Seeing the involuntary movement, he softened his gaze. “Never mind that. You'll be taken care of from now on.”

  “I don't want…” The words slipped out before Lara could stop them. Horrified, she clamped her lips together and stared at her lap in silent misery. It was incredible, something beyond a nightmare. Hunter was home, and he would take charge of her life as he had before, crushing her independence like a flower beneath his booted foot.

  “What is it, my love?” he asked quietly.

  Startled, Lara stared into his serious face. “You never called me that before.”

  His hand slid around the slim curve of her throat, his thumb caressing the line of her jaw. He ignored the way she shrank from his touch. “I've had a great deal of time to think, Lara. I spent months convalescing in Cape Town, and then I went through the damned long voyage here. The more I remembered about you and our marriage, the more I realized what a selfish bastard I'd been. I promised myself that as soon as I returned to you, we would begin again.”

  “I don't think that's p-possible.”

  “Why not?”

  “Too much has happened, and I…” Lara paused, swallowing hard, and tears sprang to her eyes. She struggled to keep them back, while guilt and unhappiness welled inside her. Why did Hunter have to come back? With one stroke of fate she had been sentenced once again to a life she had hated. She felt like a prisoner who had been set free, only to be closed behind bars again.

  “I see.” Hunter's hand fell away from her. Strangely, he was looking at her as if he did understand, though he had never been remotely perceptive.

  “It won't be like before,” Hunter said.

  “You can't help what you are,” Lara replied, a tear spilling down her cheek.

  She heard Hunter's swift intake of breath, and felt his fingers brush away the salty drop. Lara jerked away, but Hunter leaned forward to close the distance between them. She was imprisoned in the chair, her head and neck wedged hard against the back of it.

  “Lara,” he whispered, “I would never hurt you.”

  “I'm not afraid of you,” she said, and added with a touch of defiance, “I just don't want to be your wife again.”

  The old Hunter would have been annoyed by the sign of rebellion, would have subdued her with a few cutting words. Instead he looked at her with a calm calculation that made her unbearably nervous. “I'll see if I can change that. All I ask is that you give me a chance.”

  Lara gripped the arms of the chair tightly. “I would prefer to lead separate lives, as we did before you went to India.”

  “I can't oblige you, sweet.” His reply was gentle, but she heard the finality in it. “You're my wife. I intend to resume my place in your life…and in your bed.”

  Lara blanched at that. “Why don't you go to Lady Carlyle?” she said desperately. “She'll be overjoyed at your return. She was the one you wanted, not me.”

  Hunter's expression became guarded. “She means nothing to me now.”

  “You loved each other,” Lara said, wishing he would move away from her.

  “It wasn't love.”

  “It was quite a convincing imitation!”

  “Wanting to bed a woman isn't the same as loving her.”

  “I know that,” Lar
a replied, forcing herself to look straight into his eyes. “You made it clear to me on many occasions.”

  Hunter absorbed her statement without comment. He rose to his feet in one smooth movement. As soon as she was freed, Lara sprang from the chair and went to the other side of the room, distancing herself from him as much as possible in the confines of the cottage.

  Grimly Lara vowed to herself that she would never again welcome him into her bed. “I'll try to accommodate you in every way possible,” she said, “except one. I can't see any reason for us to be intimate with each other. Not only did I fail to please you, but I'm barren. It would be better for us both if you found someone else to satisfy your needs.”

  “I don't want anyone else.”

  “Then you'll have to take me by force,” she said, blanching as he approached her. It was impossible to read his expression. Was he angry? Was he contemptuous, or merely amused? His hands closed around her upper arms in a gentle but firm grip. Lara stared into his implacable face and felt all the old suffocating misery sweep over her.

  “No,” he replied softly. “I won't come to your bed until you're ready.”

  “That will be a long time. Forever.”

  “Perhaps.” He paused and considered her thoughtfully. “Has there been another man in my absence?”

  “No,” she said with a choked laugh, stunned he would think that was the reason she didn't want him. “My God, I wanted nothing to do with men after you left!”

  He smiled ironically at the unflattering comment. “Good. I wouldn't have blamed you for turning to another man—but I can't stand the thought of anyone else touching you.” He rubbed the back of his neck in a weary gesture, and Lara's attention was caught once more by the raised discolored line that betrayed a recently healed wound.

  “Your head…” she murmured.

  “The shipwreck,” he said warily. “There was a powerful gale. We were tossed about until the ship was driven against a reef. My head hit something, but I'll be damned if I remember what it was. I couldn't recall my own bloody name for weeks afterward.” He held still as she came closer.

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