Stranger in My Arms by Lisa Kleypas

  Against her will, Lara experienced a great wave of sympathy. She couldn't help it—she hated the thought of him in pain. “I'm sorry,” she said.

  He grinned. “Sorry the wound wasn't mortal, I suspect.”

  Ignoring his mockery, she couldn't resist touching the ridged scar. Her fingers slid into his thick hair, exploring his scalp. The scar was a long one. The blow that had caused it must have nearly split his skull open. As she touched his head, she heard his breath catch. “Does it hurt?” she asked, instantly removing her hand.

  He shook his head with a short laugh. “I'm afraid you're causing me another kind of pain.”

  Perplexed, Lara stared into his eyes, and her gaze dropped to his lap. To her mortification, she saw that her innocent touch had aroused him, causing a heavy, unmistakable ridge to strain against his troussers. Lara flushed and jumped back from him.

  The remnants of his grin lingered. “Pardon, sweet. A year of celibacy has erased whatever self-control I may have once possessed.” He gave her a look that made her insides knot with tension, and he extended a hand to her. “Now come with me, Lara. I want to go home.”

  Chapter 3

  LARA WOULD HAVE liked to change into a fresh gown, but she had no intention of disrobing with her husband—for she was nearly certain he told the truth—present. She pinned up her hair as neatly as possible, conscious all the while of his intent gaze on her. When she had finished, he crossed the room and proffered his arm. “Shall we?” he asked with a quirk of one thick brow. “They're all waiting with bated breath to see if you'll come with me.”

  “Do I have a choice?” she asked.

  He gave her a sardonic glance. “I'm not going to drag you there kicking and screaming.”

  Lara held back, sensing that if she took his arm and left with him, she would be committing herself to a course from which there was no retreat.

  Dropping his courtly pose, Hunter reached for her hand, his long fingers wrapping around hers. “Come,” he said, and they began the walk to Hawksworth Hall.

  “It will take some time for the earl and countess to move their belongings,” Lara said.

  “They're not the earl and countess,” he said shortly. “You and I are. And I'll have them out of Hawksworth Hall by this evening.”

  “Tonight?” Lara was stunned. “But you can't possibly send them away so soon.”

  “Can't I?” His face hardened, and he suddenly looked far more like the man she had married five years earlier. “I won't allow Arthur and Janet to disgrace my home another night. You and I will stay in the private family rooms.”

  “And Arthur and his wife will occupy the guest rooms?”

  “No,” he said inflexibly. “Let them stay here or find lodgings elsewhere.”

  Lara gave a spurt of horrified laughter at the thought. “That's going too far. We must offer them the guest rooms at the Hall.”

  “If this old gamekeeper's cottage was suitable for you, it's a damn sight too good for them.”

  “You won't get them out, in any event,” Lara said. “They'll do everything in their power to paint you as an impostor.”

  “I'll get them out,” he said grimly, and turned her to face him. “Tell me something before we reach the Hall,” he said. “Do you still have doubts?”

  “A few,” Lara forced herself to admit, trapped by his smoky dark gaze.

  “Do you intend to express them to the others?” There was no expression on his face.

  Lara hesitated. “No,” she whispered.

  “Why not?”

  “Because I…” She bit her lip and searched for a way to explain the inner sense that it was wrong somehow to deny him. The wisest course, it seemed, was to wait and see. If he wasn't the man he claimed to be, he would make a mistake sooner or later. “Because if you're not my husband,” she said, “I will find out soon enough.”

  He smiled, though it contained no warmth. “Indeed,” he said tersely, and they walked the rest of the way in silence.

  “I'm impressed with what they've done with the place,” Hunter said brusquely as they entered Hawksworth Hall. The antique Flemish tapestries and side tables bearing French porcelain vases had been replaced by nude marble statues and silk hangings in garish shades of peach and purple. The medieval fireplace, large enough to fit a dozen men inside, had been stripped of its original carved Flemish overmantel. Now a heavy mirror framed with golden trumpeting angels towered over the hearth.

  Hunter paused to survey the full effect with a scowl. “It's not everyone who can take an elegant home and decorate it like a brothel in such a short time.”

  “I wouldn't know,” Lara replied. “I'm not as well acquainted with brothels as others are.”

  He grinned at the crisp rejoinder. “As I recall, you were more than happy for me to spend my nights in brothels rather than visit your bed.”

  Uncomfortably Lara returned her attention to the vulgar decor. “Unfortunately none of this can be changed now.”

  “Why not?”

  “It would be wasteful.”

  “We can well afford the expense.”

  “You had better look through the estate books before you make any assumptions,” Lara said in a low voice. “I suspect that our accounts have been depleted in your absence. Your uncle has extravagant habits.”

  Hunter nodded grimly and took her elbow as they went through the hall. He had an air of calm authority, seeming entirely comfortable in his surroundings. Surely an impostor would have displayed some sign of uncertainty, but he showed none.

  Lara had never dreamed they would be together in this house again. She had closed away the memories of her life with him. But now he had come back with a suddenness that left her reeling. It was impossible to believe that he was here, even with his large hand on her arm and the taste of him lingering on her lips.

  The area surrounding the double curving staircases was filled with at least fifty servants: housemaids, underbutlers, footmen, kitchen staff, hallboys and odd-job men. The servants greeted them with wondering exclamations, realizing that Lara's presence beside Lord Hawksworth was a positive confirmation of his identity. No doubt they were thrilled at the prospect of getting rid of Arthur and Janet, who were demanding and impossible to please.

  The housekeeper stepped forward with a smile. “Lord Hawksworth,” she said, her round, middle-aged face glowing. “I suspect we'll all need second and third glances to assure ourselves that it's really you. I find it nearly impossible to believe my own eyes. Welcome home, sir.”

  Her sentiments were echoed by the other servants, and Hunter smiled. “Thank you, Mrs. Gorst. After being away for so long, I doubt I'll ever want to leave England again.” He glanced over the crowd inquiringly. “Where is Mr. Townley?” he asked, naming a butler who had been in the Hawksworth service for at least a dozen years.

  “I'm afraid he has engaged himself with another household, sir,” came the housekeeper's cautious reply. “He didn't wish to remain in the employ of the current earl.”

  Hunter scowled and remained silent, while Mrs. Gorst continued hastily. “I hope you don't blame Townley overmuch, my lord. He was quite distressed at your death…that is—”

  “I don't blame Townley,” Hunter assured her, and guided Lara to the family receiving rooms. “Come, sweet. It's time I set my house in order.”

  “There he is!” a voice exclaimed as they entered the upstairs receiving room, and there was a chorus of excited cries. Arthur and Janet were there, of course, as well as Mr. Young, Dr. Slade, and some Crossland relatives who had come to see the stranger for themselves.

  Arthur came forward before anyone else, regarding Hunter with contempt. “It seems you've gotten Lara to side with you.” He turned his attention to her and sneered. “An ill-advised move, my dear. I'm surprised that you would be so easily convinced to help this scoundrel in his charade. You've revealed a weakness of character I hadn't suspected until now.”

  Lara returned his gaze without blinking. “It is no char
ade, my lord.”

  Mr. Young interceded calmly. “I assure you, Lord Arthur, in my opinion this man is indeed Hunter Cameron Crossland, Lord Hawksworth.”

  “No doubt he is paying for your support,” Arthur snapped. “Well, I intend to take up the matter with the courts. I will not allow an impostor to come forth and proclaim himself as the Earl of Hawksworth. To begin with, he bears only a passing resemblance to Hawksworth, who would have outweighed him by at least three stone!”

  The man at Lara's side smiled. “It's no crime for a man to lose weight, Arthur.”

  Arthur gave him a derisive stare. “It must have been damned convenient for you to suddenly 'remember’ that you were the inheritor of a large fortune.”

  Mr. Young interceded calmly. “All the evidence confirms this man's identity, Lord Arthur. We have tested his memory and found it to be accurate. We have identified special marks on his body, including the shoulder wound from a hunting accident when he was a boy. We have even examined samples of his handwriting, which closely resembles Lord Hawksworth‘s. His appearance, though altered, is consistent with the late earl‘s, and that, combined with the recognition of everyone who has seen him so far, proves that he is Hawksworth.”

  “I do not recognize him,” Arthur said hotly. “Nor does my wife.”

  “But then, you have the most to lose if he is the earl,” Dr. Slade pointed out, a cynical smile appearing on his leathery face. “Besides, his own wife accepts him, and a woman as honorable as the countess would never accept a stranger as her husband.”

  “Unless she stands to profit by it,” Janet sneered, pointing a bony finger at Lara. “She would bed down with the first man available if it meant regaining the Hawksworth fortune.”

  Lara gasped in outrage. “I don't deserve such an accusation—”

  “A young, pretty widow, starved for a man's attention,” Janet continued sharply. “You've fooled a great many people with all your noble prattle about the orphanage, but I know what you really are—”

  “Enough,” Hunter said. There was a murderous gleam in his eyes that unnerved them all. He stared at Arthur with a vengeful gaze that caused the man to sweat visibly. “Get out of my sight,” Hunter said. “Your belongings will be sent to you, unless you dare set foot on the estate. In that case, they'll be burned. Now leave—and count yourselves fortunate that I don't pay you back in full for what you've done to my wife.”

  “We've been nothing but generous to Lara!” Janet burst out. “What lies has she been spouting?”

  “Out.” Hunter took one step toward Janet, his hands raised as if to throttle her.

  Janet hurried to the door, her eyes bulging with fear. “You have the manners of an animal,” she spat. “Don't think your ruse will fool anyone—you're no more the Earl of Hawksworth than one of the dogs in the kennel is!” Arthur joined her in the doorway and they both left while excited murmurs rippled through the assemblage.

  Hunter bent his head, his mouth close to Lara's ear. “I never meant for you to be left at their mercy. Forgive me.”

  Lara turned to stare at him in wonder. Hunter had never apologized to her for anything—he hadn't been capable of it. “There are moments when I almost agree with Janet,” she whispered. “You're not at all like the man I married.”

  “Would you rather have me back the way I was?” he asked, too quietly for the others to hear.

  Lara blinked in confusion. “I don't know.” She backed away as the crowd swarmed around him, exclaiming over the miracle of his return.

  The servants were in a muddle, scurrying to obey two masters as they packed some of Arthur and Janet's belongings. Hunter had not retreated from his position that the Crosslands must leave the estate at once—a humiliation that Lara knew they would never forgive. Janet stormed about Hawksworth Hall in explosive wrath, hurling orders and insults at everyone in her path.

  Feeling lost and uneasy, Lara wandered through the house. Some of the upstairs informal rooms had been left in their original condition, serene and tasteful, the windows swagged in pale watered silk and velvet, the French furniture light and clean.

  “Taking stock, are you?” came a silken voice from the doorway of the ladies’ reading room, and Lara turned to see Janet standing there. With her thin frame held so stiffly, she seemed as hard and sharp as a knife blade.

  Lara felt a twinge of pity for Janet, knowing that the loss of the title and estate was a devastating blow. For a woman of such overweening ambition, returning to the modest life she had known before must be difficult to bear. “I'm sorry, Lady Crossland,” she said sincerely. “I know how unfair the situation must seem—”

  “Spare me your false pity! You think you've won, don't you? Well, one way or another, we'll get the title back. Arthur is still the heir presumptive, and we have two sons—and as everyone knows, you're barren. Have you told that to the impostor claiming to be your husband?”

  Lara's face turned white. “Have you no shame?”

  “No more than you, apparently. How willing, how eager, you are to climb between the sheets with an absolute stranger!” Janet's face twisted into an ugly sneer. “For months you've played the martyr, with your angelic face and ladylike manners, while in truth you're nothing but a cat in heat—”

  Her tirade was interrupted by an angry growl, and both women froze in surprise as a lean male form entered the room with the speed of a striking cobra. Hunter seized Janet and shook her, his countenance dark and wrathful. “Be glad you're a woman,” he advised, “or I would kill you for what you just said.”

  “Let go of me!” Janet screeched.

  “Please,” Lara said, hurrying forward. “Hunter, don't.”

  His back stiffened at the sound of his name.

  “There's no reason for a scene,” Lara continued, approaching him. “No harm was done. Let her go, for my sake.”

  Suddenly he released Janet with a sound of disgust, and the woman fled the room.

  Lara blinked in amazement as her husband turned toward her. It seemed that his entire body was filled with bloodlust. She had never seen such a savage look on Hunter's face. Even at his angriest, he had never lost the polished veneer that had been his birthright. But sometime between the day he had left for India and now, his civilized facade had cracked…and a very different man was emerging.

  “Janet is a vindictive bitch,” he muttered.“

  She was speaking out of anger and pain,” Lara said. “It meant nothing to me—” She broke off with a gasp as Hunter came to her in a few strides. One huge hand settled at her waist, while the other grasped her chin and tilted her head back. His assessing gaze moved over her face.

  Lara moistened her dry lips with the tip of her tongue. She was aware of a disquieting pleasure that uncurled low in her stomach. Her breath turned choppy, and she stared at the broad chest before her face, remembering the solid feel of his body against hers, the exciting way he had kissed her.

  Janet's accusations had hit their mark. Lara couldn't deny that she was attracted to this man, and that she had never felt this way about her husband. Was it because they had both changed?…or was it proof that this man wasn't Hunter?

  Everything was happening too quickly. She needed to be alone to try to make sense of things. “Don't touch me,” she whispered. “I can't bear it.”

  Hunter released her, and she fell back a step. His eyes were the most remarkable color, a glimmering shade of brown that appeared black in certain lights. Without doubt, they were Hunter's eyes…but they were filled with an intensity she had never seen before.

  “How could you be my husband?” she exclaimed unsteadily. “But how could you be anyone else? I don't know what to think, or how to feel.”

  Hunter didn't flinch under her doubtful gaze. “If you don't accept me, go tell the others,” he said. “It all rests on you. Without your support, I don't have a chance in hell of convincing anyone else of who I am.”

  Lara passed a hand over her moist forehead. She didn't want to make such a
decision by herself, or to bear the responsibility for the mistake…if indeed it was a mistake. “We could wait for your mother to return from her travels,” she said. “Once she learns about you, she'll come here as soon as possible. I will accept whatever she decides. A mother would certainly know her own son—”

  “No.” His face was like granite. “You decide. Am I your husband, Lara?”

  “I suppose Mr. Young is right, that the evidence points to—”

  “Damn the evidence. Am I your husband?”

  “I can't be absolutely certain,” she said, stubbornly refusing to give the yes or no that he wanted. “I never knew you very well. We weren't intimate in any way except physically, and even then…” She faltered, her cheeks on fire.

  “It was always impersonal,” he acknowledged bluntly. “I had no damn idea of how to treat a wife in bed—I should have treated you like a mistress. I should have seduced you. The truth is that I was a selfish fool.”

  Lara dropped her gaze. “I wasn't the one you wanted.”

  “That wasn't your fault.”

  “You married me to have children, and I couldn't give you—”

  “That has nothing to do with this,” he interrupted. “Look at me, Lara.” When she refused, he tangled his fingers at the back of her head, loosening the simple braided twist. “I don't give a damn if you conceive or not,” he said. “It doesn't matter to me anymore.”

  “Of course it does—”

  “I've changed, Lara. Give me a chance to show you how things can be between us.” There was an endless moment of silence. Lara's gaze went to his firm, wide mouth, and she wondered in panic if he would kiss her again.

  Suddenly he seemed to make a decision, and his hand swept down the front of her body in a caress so light and swift that she had no time to react. Her breast tingled from the fleeting brush of his palm. He lowered his mouth to her neck, his breath hot and soft on her throat. Lara gasped as he touched his tongue to her pulse. “You have skin like a child's,” he whispered. “I want to undress you right here…hold you naked in my arms…love you the way I should have so long ago.”

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