Stranger in My Arms by Lisa Kleypas

  Lara's face flamed, and she tried to push him away, only to find that she had been caught securely against him in an unbreakable hold. His head moved, and he caught at the sensitive juncture of her neck and shoulder, biting gently through the cloth of her gown. Lara quivered at the erotic shock of it, her entire body arching. “Oh—”

  “The Indians believe that a woman's life has no value or meaning without a husband,” he said, pressing kisses over her throat and in the delicate hollow beneath her ear. A teasing note entered his voice. “They would consider you a very fortunate woman to have me return from the dead.”

  “I did very well without you,” Lara replied, gripping his rock-hard shoulders as her knees wobbled.

  She felt him smile against her ear. “In India you would have been burnt alive on my cremation pyre, to spare you the misery of living without me. It's called sati.”

  “That's barbaric!” Her eyes closed as his hands found the tense curve of her buttocks through the folds of her skirts. “Please, I don't want—”

  “Just let me touch you. It's been so long since I've held a woman.”

  “How long?” she couldn't help asking.

  “More than a year.”

  She felt his palm slide up her spine in a savoring stroke. “What if a widow doesn't want to be burnt?” she asked breathlessly.

  “She doesn't have a choice.”

  “Well, I was sorry to learn of your death, but I was hardly moved to commit suicide.”

  He laughed. “You probably considered yourself well off when you were told about the shipwreck.”

  “No,” she said automatically, but to her horror, a guilty flush spread over her face.

  Hunter drew back to look at her, and a wry smile touched his lips. “Liar,” he said, before he took her mouth in a swift, glancing kiss.

  “I really didn't—” Lara began uncomfortably, but he changed the subject with a speed that dazed her.

  “I want you to have some new gowns made. I won't have my wife wearing rags.”

  Lara looked down at her black bombazine dress, gripping a loose fold of cloth. “But the expense,” she said halfheartedly, thinking of how nice it would be to have some new clothes. She had become heartily sick of black and gray.

  “The expense doesn't matter. I want you to dispose of every mourning gown you own. Burn them all, if you like.” He fingered the material of her high neckline. “And order some negligees while you're about it.”

  In all her life, she had never worn anything but white cotton nightgowns to bed. “I don't need a negligee!” she exclaimed.

  “If you don't have one made, I'll get it for you.”

  Lara pulled away from him and fidgeted nervously, plucking* at her sleeves, her waist, her skirts. “I won't wear garments that are intended for seduction. I'm sorry if it displeases you, but…you must understand that I will never come to you of my own volition. I know it's difficult for a man to go without…and I know that you must have need of…” Lara felt herself blush until even her ears glowed. “I wish you would…that is, I hope…” She gathered whatever modicum of dignity was left at her disposal. “Please do not hesitate to go to another woman, to satisfy your masculine urges. I relinquish all claim on you, just as I did before you left.”

  Hunter wore a strange expression, as if he was insulted, amused, and annoyed all at once. “You won't be that fortunate this time, sweet. My masculine urges are going to be satisfied by one woman…and until you yield to me, I'll go without relief.”

  Lara lifted her chin in determination. “I will not be swayed on this point.”

  “Neither will I.”

  The air around them seemed to crackle with challenge. Lara's heart began a swift, heavy thudding, its rhythm resonating all through her. Her composure was further shaken when Hunter gave her a smile that held a disarming self-mockery.

  She had never bothered to consider Hunter's attractiveness before. It hadn't mattered to her if he was handsome or not—he had been the match her parents had arranged, and she had accepted their judgment. Later the unhappiness of their marriage had eclipsed any consideration of his looks. But for the first time she realized that he was handsome, exceptionally so, with a trace of subtle charm that set her decidedly off-balance.

  “We'll see how long either of us can last,” he said. Lara's expression must have betrayed her thoughts, for Hunter laughed suddenly and slid her a provocative glance as he left the room.

  Chapter 4

  LATER THAT NIGHT, Hunter tried to focus on one Goal—finding the journals—but his thoughts kept distracting him from the task at hand. Methodically he searched through the trunks that had been brought out of storage and set in his room. So far he had only discovered a few personal effects and some clothes that hung far too loosely on his lean frame.

  He sighed tersely, his gaze sweeping over the ornate red and gold brocade that covered the walls. After the simple, sometimes primitive quarters he had occupied over the past year, including the sparsely furnished cabin on the voyage home, the overdecorated suite was an assault on his senses.

  Stripping off his clothes, he donned a French brocaded silk robe he had discovered in one of the trunks. It had been tailored for a heavier man, but he folded back the wide front lapels and tied it snugly at his waist. Although it carried a stale smell from having been packed away so long, the fabric was soft and fine, made of woven brown and cream silk shot with gold stripes.

  His attention returned to the tumbled contents of the trunks. He frowned, wondering where in hell the journals were. It was possible they had been discovered after his “death,” and had either been destroyed or packed away somewhere else. He rubbed his jaw thoughtfully, scratching through the wiry bristle that had grown since that morning. He wondered if Lara had known about the journals.

  There had been no sign of Lara since dinner. She had eaten little and retired early, darting away from him like a frightened rabbit. The servants had been remarkably unobtrusive, probably at the direction of the housekeeper, Mrs. Gorst. Most likely they all assumed that he was enjoying a long-awaited homecoming.

  Unfortunately this would be the first of many nights to be spent in solitude. He would not force himself on an unwilling woman, no matter how badly he wanted her. It would take time and patience to win a place in Lara's bed. God knew she was worth the effort. Her response to his kiss that afternoon had been assurance enough on that point. She was decidedly reluctant, but not cold. For one moment she had responded to him with devastating sweetness and fire. Even now his flesh twitched and rose powerfully at the memory.

  A grim smile curved his mouth as he struggled for self-control. One thing was clear—he'd been celibate for too long. At the moment any woman would have been sufficient to serve his needs, but he'd consigned himself to live like a monk, while his exquisitely beautiful wife slept only a few doors away.

  He set his miniature of Lara on the semicircular table against the wall, and ran his finger lightly along the worn edges of the enameled frame. With an expert touch he opened the frame to reveal the delicate portrait inside. The familiar sight of her face soothed and refreshed him as always.

  The portrait artist hadn't adequately captured the lushness of her mouth, the singular sweetness of her expression, the color of her eyes, like mist in a green meadow. No mere brush on canvas could have conveyed such things.

  Lara was a rare woman with an unusual capacity for caring about others. Generous and easily entreated, she seemed to have a talent for accepting people with all their flaws. It would be easy for others to take advantage of her—she needed a man's protection and support. She needed a great many things he was all too willing to provide.

  Experiencing a sudden urge to see her again, to reassure himself that he was really here with her, he left his room and went to the suite of three rooms adjoining his.

  “Lara,” he murmured, tapping the door lightly, alert to every sound and movement within. There was nothing but stillness. Repeating her name, he tested
the door, discovering that it had been locked.

  He recognized Lara's need to put some sort of barrier between them, but primitive masculine outrage sparked inside him. She was his, and he would not be denied access to her. “Unlock the door,” he said, giving the knob a warning rattle. “Now, Lara.”

  Her response came then, in a higher-pitched voice than normal. “I-I don't wish to see you tonight.”

  “Let me in.”

  “You promised,” she accused tautly. “You said you wouldn't force yourself on me!”

  Hunter set his shoulder to the door and sent it bursting open, discovering that the small brass lock was more ornamental than useful. “There will be no locked doors between us,” he said curtly.

  Lara stood by the bed, her face stark white, slender arms wrapped tightly around herself. From her rigid posture, it was clear that she was using every ounce of self-control to keep from bolting. She looked like an angel, her body clad in layers of white muslin, her hair gathered in a dark shining stream over her shoulder. Remembering the firm tenderness of her breasts and hips in his hands, the sweetness of her mouth beneath his, Hunter felt a smoldering heat begin in his groin. He couldn't ever remember wanting a woman like this, craving the feel and scent and taste of her with every fiber of his being.

  “Please leave,” she said unsteadily.

  “I'm not going to rape you, Lara,” he said bluntly. “If that were my intention, I'd be on top of you now.”

  The crude words made her flinch. “Then why are you here?”

  “I thought you might be able to tell me where the rest of my belongings are.”

  Lara considered the question for a moment. “Arthur sold or destroyed many of your things when he moved into the house,” she said. “I wasn't in a position to object.”

  Hunter scowled, silently damning Arthur. He only hoped the bastard hadn't found the journals, or discovered the secrets they might contain…Better that they had been disposed of.

  “I asked the servants to bring whatever was left to your room,” Lara murmured. “What are you looking for?”

  He shrugged and kept his silence. There was a chance that the journals were hidden somewhere in the house. If so, he would rather not make Lara aware of their existence.

  Wandering farther into the room, he noticed the way she backed, away, preserving the distance between them. She looked lovely and wary, her small chin set defiantly. Her gaze darted over his robe, and she viewed the garment with such unease that he realized it had awakened some distasteful memory.

  “What is it?” he asked gruffly.

  A frown worked between her fine dark brows, pinching them together. “Don't you remember?”

  He shook his head. “Tell me.”

  “You wore that the last time we…the last time you visited me.” It was clear from her expression that the experience hadn't been particularly pleasant.

  He heard himself mutter some sort of apology. They were bound in uncomfortable silence, while Hunter stared at his wife in a mixture of anger and regret, wondering how to erase the apprehension in her eyes.

  “I told you it won't be like that again,” he said.

  “Yes, my lord,” she murmured, though it was clear she didn't believe him.

  Cursing beneath his breath, he paced across the Oriental carpet. He knew it would provide her withy no end of relief if he left now, but he didn't want to just yet. It had been so long since he'd enjoyed any real companionship. He was lonely, and being in her presence was the only comfort he had, despite the fact that she had no great liking for him.

  The room was decorated in the same florid style as his, only worse. The bed was a virtual monument, with carved and gilded end posts as thick as tree trunks, and valances heavy with gold and red beadwork. The ceiling was smothered in a pattern of golden shells and dolphin moldings…not to mention a huge oval mirror framed with figures of bare-breasted mermaids.

  Seeing where his attention wandered, Lara sought to break the tension with small talk. “Janet must have been very fond of her own reflection. Why would she want to watch herself going to sleep?”

  Her innocence touched him. “I don't think sleeping was the activity the mirror was intended to reflect,” he said dryly.

  “You mean she wanted to look at herself during…” Clearly the idea confounded Lara, and she turned scarlet. “But why?”

  “Some people take pleasure in watching themselves during the act.”

  “But Janet doesn't seem to be the kind of woman who would…”

  “Never be surprised by what people do in the privacy of their bedrooms,” he advised, coming to stand beside her.

  He expected her to skitter away, but she held her ground and stared at him with those translucent green eyes. He sensed her curiosity, and the unvoiced suspicions in her mind. “Have you ever—” she began, and broke off abruptly.

  “No, not beneath a mirror,” he said matter-of-factly, though the notion stimulated him immensely. He imagined pushing Lara to the bed, lifting her nightgown, burying his head between her slim thighs while their entwined bodies were reflected overhead.

  “I think it's a very silly idea,” Lara said.

  “My motto is, you shouldn't decide against something before you've even tried it.”

  A quick, almost reluctant laugh escaped her. “That motto could lead you into a great deal of trouble.”

  “So it has,” he said ruefully.

  Something about his expression told Lara that he was remembering some of his experiences in India, some of them not particularly pleasant. “Did you find what you were looking for in your travels?” she asked hesitantly. “The excitement and adventure you wanted so badly?”

  “I found that excitement and adventure are damned overrated,” he replied. “What I got from my travels was a new appreciation for home. For belonging somewhere.” He paused, staring into her eyes. “For you.”

  “But how long will that last?” she asked quietly. “You'll become bored with this place and the people in it, and me, as you did before.”

  I'll want you forever, came a nagging, yearning voice from inside, startling Hunter with its insistence. He wanted this. He wanted her. He would take his place here and fight for it as long as he had breath left.

  “Believe me,” he said gruffly, “I could spend ten thousand nights in your arms and never grow bored.”

  She shot him a glance that was both uncomfortable and skeptical, and smiled. “After a year of celibacy, my lord, I think any woman would seem alluring to you.”

  She wandered to the dressing table and began to plait her hair, slender fingers combing through the smooth river of silk. It was a subtle signal for him to leave, but Hunter ignored it. Following her, he braced his shoulder against the wall and watched her. “Celibacy is an admired virtue among the Hindus,” he remarked.

  “Is it?” she responded with deliberate coolness.

  “It demonstrates a man's mastery over himself and his environment, and brings him closer to true spiritual awareness. The Hindus practice self-control by covering their temples with erotic art. Visiting the temples is a test of faith and discipline. Only the most devout can view them without becoming aroused.”

  Lara concentrated on braiding her hair with scrupulous care. “Did you visit one of those places?”

  “Naturally. I'm afraid I wasn't numbered among the devout.”

  “How surprising,” Lara said in a gently acerbic tone that made him grin.

  “I was informed by my companions that mine was the typical English response. The Hindus are far superior at mastering the limits of pleasure and pain, until they attain supreme control over their minds and bodies.”

  “Heathens,” Lara said, finishing the braid.

  “Oh, indeed. They worship many gods, including Shiva, Lord of Beasts and God of Fertility. I was informed that he has devised millions of sexual positions, although he's only told his followers of a few thousand.”

  “M-millions of…” Lara was sufficientl
y startled to turn toward him. “But there's only the one…” She stared at him, openly perplexed.

  Hunter's enjoyment at teasing her faded, and he was suddenly at a loss for words, regarding her with an expression that must have matched her own. So that was what it had been like for her, a joyless, perfunctory act. No wonder she had welcomed him back with such reluctance.

  “Lara,” he said gently, “there were things I never showed you…things I should have done—”

  “It's all right,” she said uncomfortably. “Please, I don't wish to discuss our past—especially that part. I would like to go to sleep now. I'm very tired.” She folded back the covers and linens, her small hands smoothing over the embroidered fabric.

  Hunter knew he ought to leave then, but something impelled him to move forward and catch one of those slender hands. He brought it to his mouth, pressing her fingers over the contours of his mouth and chin, forcing her to accept the ardent kiss he placed in her palm. She quivered—he felt the vibrations that extended along her arm, but she didn't try to pull away.

  “Someday you'll make a place for me beside you,” he muttered, looking from her wide green eyes to the empty side of the bed. He released her slowly, and she rubbed her hand as if it were sore. “Did I hurt you?” he asked, frowning in concern.

  “No, it's just…no.” She held her hands to her sides, staring at him oddly.

  Awareness caused a sharp pang inside him, and he shook his head with a rueful smile. He left the room at once, knowing that if he stayed a moment longer, he wouldn't be able to keep himself from taking her. As he closed the door behind him, he glimpsed her briefly as she stood without moving, her face a lovely mask.

  Chapter 5

  TO LARA'S CONSTERNATION, the crowd of visitors they had received the previous day was nothing compared to the deluge that now overwhelmed Hawksworth Hall. It seemed that every one of the mansion's seventy-four rooms was filled to overflowing. Local political figures, gentry, and townspeople came to call, driven by curiosity and excitement over Hawksworth's return. Equipages with teams of four and six lined the long drive, while the servants' hall was filled with footmen and postilions in various shades of livery.

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