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       Cursed & Cherished: The Duke's Wilful Wife, p.1

         Part #2 of Love's Second Chance series by Bree Wolf
 
Cursed & Cherished: The Duke's Wilful Wife


  Cursed & Cherished

  The Duke’s Wilful Wife

  (#2 Love’s Second Chance Series)

  by Bree Wolf

  Cursed & Cherished − The Duke’s Wilful Wife

  by Bree Wolf

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, brands, media, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner.

  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

  Cover photography by Larisa Koshkina

  Copyright © 2016 Sabrina Wolf

  www.breewolf.com

  All Rights Reserved

  Smashwords Edition

  This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

  To My Little Niece, Always be True to Yourself

  Acknowledgments

  My greatest inspiration is still the family that I know I could never do without. As annoying as I know I am during 'editing season', you still remain patient and understanding. Thanks for everything.

  A special thanks to Eve Anderson, an avid reader and reviewer. Before she came along with her wonderful name suggestion for Rosabel and Graham's little son, I had no idea what to call him. Read on to find out his name.

  Another great contributor, who has earned my eternal gratitude, is Michelle Chenoweth. Her keen eyes spotted all those pesky errors authors are prone to overlook. Thanks a million!

  About the Book

  Edmond Dunsworth, Duke of Cromwell, is bankrupt. The solution to his problem: a wife with a sizable dowry.

  Not worried in the least, Edmond takes his pick. After all, what woman could resist his charms?

  Anna Hanford, a merchant’s daughter, is faced with a difficult choice: allow her sister to marry the duke and see her happiness shattered…or marry the duke herself.

  Determined to ensure her sister’s future, Anna makes her choice. After all, isn’t marriage just a minor inconvenience in life?

  Table of Contents

  Prologue

  Chapter One − A Substantial Dowry

  Chapter Two − A Ruse Planned

  Chapter Three − The Purpose of a Charade

  Chapter Four − A Proposal

  Chapter Five − An Agreement

  Chapter Six − In the Palm of Her Hand

  Chapter Seven − Upcoming Nuptials

  Chapter Eight − A Wedding Takes Place

  Chapter Nine − A Night like No Other

  Chapter Ten − The Issue of an Heir

  Chapter Eleven − Hope May Not Be Lost

  Chapter Twelve − Worse Atrocities than a Simple Kiss

  Chapter Thirteen − Distance

  Chapter Fourteen − Trapped

  Chapter Fifteen − By the Light of the Fire

  Chapter Sixteen − Being Polite

  Chapter Seventeen − Insignificant and Worthless

  Chapter Eighteen − Revenge

  Chapter Nineteen − A Kiss Stolen

  Chapter Twenty − To Bide One's Time

  Chapter Twenty-One − Cold Steel

  Chapter Twenty-Two − The Break of Dawn

  Chapter Twenty-Three − Truce

  Chapter Twenty-Four − Let Down Your Guard

  Chapter Twenty-Five − A New Challenge

  Chapter Twenty-Six − Punishment

  Chapter Twenty-Seven − Fight Me

  Chapter Twenty-Eight − A Scar for a Scar

  Chapter Twenty-Nine − Open Words

  Chapter Thirty − A Painful Question

  Chapter Thirty-One − A Matter of the Heart

  Chapter Thirty-Two − Well-Informed

  Chapter Thirty-Three − With an Open Heart

  Chapter Thirty-Four − A Flicker of Hope

  Chapter Thirty-Five − Loss

  Chapter Thirty-Six − A New Day

  Chapter Thirty-Seven − Betrayal

  Chapter Thirty-Eight − Suspicions

  Chapter Thirty-Nine − For Nothing

  Chapter Forty − The Truth

  Chapter Forty-One − White Lies

  Chapter Forty-Two − Amends

  Chapter Forty-Three − To Protect Is to Lie

  Chapter Forty-Four − To Protect Is to Speak the Truth

  Chapter Forty-Five − To Forgive

  Epilogue

  Also by Bree Wolf

  About Bree

  Sneak-peek

  Prologue

  1805 England (or a variation thereof)

  As the late afternoon sun poured in through the tall windows, bringing a warm glow to the dark wood of his study, Edmond Dunsworth, Duke of Cromwell, sank into the leathered armchair behind his desk. Unburdened with letters of business or ledgers of any kind, its smooth surface held enough room for him to prop up his feet in leisure. If only the decanter weren’t so far away, he would never rise from this chair!

  Resting his head against the smooth leather, he closed his eyes, enjoying the peace and quiet of his family’s estate. Fleeing London after a few particularly wild weeks, Edmond felt the welcoming warmth of Brookestone engulf him like a blanket on a winter’s day. Early spring was upon them, bringing with it the awakening sounds of the woods and meadows. As he sat with his eyes closed, the noise of London slowly faded away, and the throbbing of his overstimulated mind began to subside. A slow smile curled up the corners of his mouth as the warmth of the afternoon sun touched his cheeks.

  A rap on the door shattered his small oasis, dragging him back to the here and now.

  Moaning, he opened his eyes, “Come in.”

  “I beg your pardon, your grace,” Mr. Lloyd apologised as he strode into the room. His au-burn hair meticulously combed back, he bore an expression of complete awareness as though nothing in the world could ever surprise him. His quick eyes took in Edmond’s unkempt hair as well as dishevelled clothes, his dirty boots spreading the accumulated dust of his travels across his late father’s old mahogany desk as well as the missing glass that usually filled his hand. While Edmond could detect neither judgement nor disappointment on his steward’s face, he still felt uncomfortable under the older man’s gaze. Sitting up, he ran his fingers through his hair. “Yes, what is it?”

  “I do apologise for the intrusion, your grace,” Mr. Lloyd stated in a clear, unimpressed voice, “but this matter bears no postponement.” He glanced down at the ledger in his hands, and Edmond could feel the capillaries in his skull tighten.

  Clearing his throat, he waved away his steward’s doomsday mentality. “Whatever it is, Mr. Lloyd, I am sure you can handle it.” He rose from his chair, hoping to sneak past his overly enthusiastic steward. “I have the utmost confidence in your abilities.”

  However, before he could escape the room, Mr. Lloyd placed himself in front of the door, shaking his head imperceptibly. “Not this time, your grace. This needs your attention.”

  Slumping his shoulders as though a heavy weight had settled on them, Edmond exhaled, regretting his early return with every fibre of his body. Oh, if he had only stayed in London!

  He sank into his chair once again. “Then make it quick, Old Man. I am in no mood for numbers, especially today.”

  “As you wish.” With a nod of his head, his steward approached the desk, the ledger still unopened in his hands. Edmond fervently hoped that it would remain so. “The final numbers of your late father’s overseas investments have come in, and as I had feared, they are crippling. There is no other word for them.”

  Edmond shook his head. “Aren’t you being just a touch dramatic, Old
Man? How bad can it be?”

  A slight snort escaped Mr. Lloyd’s lips, that sent a shiver down Edmond’s back, and for the first time he worried about the outcome of this conversation. “Your grace, I am afraid to tell you, should you not acquire significant funding within the next few months, Brookestone will be forfeit.”

  As the words sank into his mind, Edmond found himself staring at the man, whose trusted hands had always ensured that his family’s estate would live on. Never in his wildest dreams had he seen things come to such an end. And an end it was! Where was he to procure funds? If his steward did not know of a way to save Brookestone, how was he? Just the thought of numbers made him dizzy. More often than not, he had been absent when his childhood tutors had tried to explain to him the wonders of mathematics. To this day, he had no idea how he had managed his way through Eton, year after year.

  Blinking, he rubbed his hands over his face, trying to focus. As his eyes settled on the man patiently waiting on the other side of his desk−a desk he had never used for more than writing a personal letter−Edmond shook his head. “Is it truly this bad? How is this possible?”

  Mr. Lloyd took a deep breath, then brought the ledger in his hand forward. “It has been a long time coming, your grace.” The ledger fell open in his hands. “If you would look at the numbers, I could explain−”

  “No,” Edmond objected, shaking his head. “There is no need. You know how useless I am when it comes to these things. That’s what I have you for.” Pressing his lips together, he drew a deep breath through his nose. “What I want to hear right now is how I can fix this? Surely you have some idea,” he said, hoping beyond hope.

  Closing the ledger, Mr. Lloyd shrugged. “At this point, I do not have much of an idea. I am sorry, your grace.”

  Edmond frowned. “Not much of an idea? Then you do have one?”

  “I do not dare suggest it.” Mr. Lloyd huffed, all of a sudden unable to meet his gaze. “It is not for me to speak of such matters.”

  Shooting to his feet, Edmond banged his fists on the table. “Speak, Old Man!” he snapped. Seeing his steward’s shocked face, he took a deep breath, pulling himself together. “I apologise, but now is not the time for decency. Brookestone is at risk, and I’ll be damned if I let it slip from my grasp because the idea that might save it appears to you as too improper to mention. Now speak!”

  “As you wish,” his steward acquiesced. “The only option I can think of is a most, most advantageous marriage.” His eyebrows rose into looming arches as his penetrating eyes looked into Edmond’s. “And fast.”

  Captivated, Edmond nodded. “Marriage?” he mumbled. “I did not see myself tying the knot quite so soon, but, yes, I do need to think of an heir.” He swallowed. “An heir not only to my title but also to Brookestone.” He nodded as the idea slowly took root. “Marriage, yes.”

  “The lady will need to have a sufficient dowry,” Mr. Lloyd cautioned. “Other attributes are to be neglected.”

  Edmond cringed. He knew his steward was right, but could he marry a woman without feeling the least bit of attraction for her? Marry? Yes. Father an heir? Maybe not. Nonetheless, he swallowed his pride and asked, “Do you have a young lady in mind?”

  Chapter One − A Substantial Dowry

  “Judith, my dear, you glow!” their mother beamed, patting her daughter’s hand. “Has he declared his intentions yet?”

  Sitting on the settee in their drawing room, Judith shook her head, sending her blond curls into a soft sway as though they were dancing on her delicate shoulders. As Anna watched, a rosy blush gave colour to Judith’s cheeks, and her sister's hands twisted the handkerchief they held. “He speaks of me as the sun to his world,” she whispered, and her blush deepened. “He is always attentive, seeks my opinion and when he smiles at me…,” her voice trailed off as her eyes gazed into the distance mesmerised by the memory they relived. Anna couldn’t help but wonder what they saw.

  “It’s like you’re the only one in the world that matters?” their mother asked, a rueful smile curling up the corners of her lips. When her eldest daughter nodded, her hand reached out once more, squeezing her daughter’s affectionately. “And have you let on that a proposal would be well-received?”

  Avoiding her eyes, Judith’s own face lit up in a smile. “As much as I dared.”

  Anna laughed. “Knowing you, my dear sister, I suspect Mr. Miller is as clueless as he was at the beginning of your acquaintance.”

  “Hush, Anna,” her mother chided. “Do not upset her!”

  Eyes wide, Judith stammered, “What makes you say that? Do you consider me devoid of affection?”

  Anna shook her head, draping her own scarlet curls over her left shoulder. Taking her sister’s other hand into hers, she stated, “Not at all. But you must admit that you are all kindness and proper manners no matter whom you speak to. How is he to know that your feelings for him run deeper than for…say the butcher’s son?”

  As Judith’s eyes widened even more, their mother gave Anna a soft slap on the knee. “Now, don’t be absurd! The man may be in love, but he is not blind.”

  “As far as I am told one does not differ greatly from the other,” Anna countered, winking at her sister as she spoke. “If one is in love, one might as well be blind. Isn’t that true, Dear Sister?”

  “Then you consider me blind?” Judith asked, the shock slowly dissipating from her face at Anna’s playful tone.

  Anna’s smile widened. “Since the day you two first laid eyes on each other.” She gave her sister’s hand a gentle squeeze. “But mother is right; do not worry yourself. Even if the man is blind, there are other senses that will tell him of your affection.”

  “Anna!” Judith exclaimed, a deep red colouring her cheeks. “Of what do you speak?”

  Laughing until her sides ached, Anna found herself the unwelcome focus of two sets of eyes; one widened in shock, and the other narrowed in disapproval. “Nothing improper, I assure you,” she wheezed, drying the corners of her eyes with Judith’s handkerchief. “I merely meant to say that even if his eyes are blind to the devotion that shines in yours whenever they behold him, his ears will still tell him of the love that rings in every word leaving your lips. He will still feel the slight tremble in your hand when he assists you into the carriage and smell the faint scent of jasmines that you only wear for him.”

  While Judith’s blush deepened even more, their mother leaned back a little as though to observe her youngest daughter more closely. “Your eyes are as sharp as your wit, Anna. But do heed my words; no man under this sun will ever cherish them as long as they are not coupled with respect and proper conduct. Should you choose to continue on this line of utter honesty as you call it, my dear, I fear that spinsterhood lies in wake for you.”

  A soft shrug lifted Anna’s shoulders. “I do hear your words, Mother, as I have heard them before many times. But I cannot say that they hold sufficient warning. The picture you paint appears quite enchanting to my eyes. Freedom of speech as much as of conduct is what I seek. And I have long since been aware that a married woman will always have to answer to her husband. I, on the other hand, answer to no one.”

  “What about Father?” Judith said.

  “He has indulged me thus far; I do believe I am safe from too severe repercussions.”

  Their mother smiled, shaking her head. “My dear Anna, I hope with all my heart that you will find what you seek. However, I cannot help but find that you are still young, too young to understand the ways of the world. As strong as you are, never be too sure of your own power,” she leaned forward, her eyes looking into Anna’s as unguarded as she had ever seen them, “or you will fall.”

  Not sure how to understand her mother’s warning, Anna looked at her sister. Judith too had noticed the ring of truth in their mother’s voice, a ring born out of personal experience. Anna couldn’t help but wonder what her mother’s past held. Had she ever been too sure of her own power and fallen?

  “Mother, I−”
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  The door flew open and in walked her father, a big grin lifting the corners of his mouth. “Ah, there you are! Perfect! I have great news!”

  “What is it, Father?” Judith asked, offering him a cup of tea. “Is there news of your ship?”

  Plumping down into the armchair opposite them, their father gulped down his tea, wincing slightly as the hot liquid burned his tongue. “It did. Yes. However, that is of minor consequence today.”

  “Minor consequence?” their mother asked. “What could have happened that would shine brighter than years of hard work finally paying off? Pray tell us!”

  As her father’s eyes travelled from his wife to his daughters, his grin grew even bigger, turning his face into a grotesque mask. Almost bald, his oval-shaped head often resembled an egg, Anna thought, wondering if anyone else had noticed.

  “Tomorrow, we will receive a very special visitor,” he began his tale, and his ears turned pink with barely contained eagerness. “I have not mentioned the possibility of this before because I did not wish to alarm you.” Anna saw Judith draw in a deep breath and her mother’s hand tighten around her tea cup. “But if everything goes according to plan, one of you,” he glanced from Judith to Anna, “will be a duchess before the year is out!”

  “What?” Anna heard her mother exclaim as all colour drained from Judith’s face.

  “The Duke of Cromwell,” her father said, clearly enjoying the ring of the words, “is looking for a wife, and there is a good chance he will choose one of you.”

  Taking a deep breath, her mother set down her tea cup. “One of them? Why would he? As lovely as our daughters are, they are not of the peerage. Would he not choose a wife from among his own peers?” Grasping Judith’s hand once more, their mother gave it a slight pat.

 

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