Cursed & cherished the d.., p.13
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       Cursed & Cherished: The Duke's Wilful Wife, p.13

         Part #2 of Love's Second Chance series by Bree Wolf
 
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  “Are you enjoying yourself?” he asked. Although he already knew the answer, he was curious to find out if she would tell the truth.

  She shrugged. “How could I not? What girl wouldn’t just love being dragged out of bed in the middle of the night, not given the chance to eat a proper meal before riding through half of London to find a deserted spot in the middle of nowhere, where her husband subjects her to a laborious training?” Turning her eyes to him, a mock smile spread over her face. “Are you jesting, my lord, this is a dream come true!”

  Feeling the corners of his lips twitch, Edmond burst out laughing. Slapping his knee, he glanced at her, noticing a similar tugging on her own lips. Although she appeared to be fighting the impulse for as long as she could, she soon joined him in his laughter, until they had tears running down their cheeks. “In that case, my lady, I must tell you what a delightful company you are,” he complimented her. “I do look forward to many more mornings spend in such bliss.”

  At that, her head snapped up and the laughter died on her lips. “Many more mornings? Do you truly intend to continue this?”

  Shifting, he swung one leg over the log so that he sat astride, facing her. “It might have escaped your notice, my lady, but as I said before, the past few hours were the only time you and I seemed to be getting along. So, as long as it takes an arena for us to spend some quality time together, then−”

  “Quality time?” she interrupted. “How is this quality time? Did you not notice how much I was tempted to rip that bloody blossom of my foil and run you through every time you opened your mouth? Has that escaped your notice, my lord?”

  Leaning forward, he gazed into her eyes. “Well, then I guess I should be grateful for your restraint, but that does not change anything. To tell you the truth, I am at a loss when it comes to,” he pointed from himself to her, “us. You have made it perfectly clear that you do not desire a harmonious relationship between us. Well, in that case, this,” he gestured to the two foils resting against the trunk of an oak, “is all I have to offer.”

  “Fencing? Whatever made you think that fencing was an adequate way to deal with a woman?” Although her eyes were still narrowed, she did not glare at him anymore. Edmond thought that a good sign.

  He shrugged. “Experience.”

  Her eye brows shot up. “Have you challenged many women to a match?”

  Swallowing, he shook his head. “No, besides you, there was only one.”

  “And would you care to tell me who she was? She must have been quite special if this sort of treatment endeared you to her.”

  A smile lifted the corners of his mouth. “She was.” For a moment, he hesitated, eyes searching her face. Was he ready to take their relationship to the next level? Would he regret sharing this part of his past with her.

  Remembering how fiercely she had fought to protect her sister, Edmond made up his mind. He took a deep breath and looked her square in the eyes. “It was my sister.”

  ***

  “Your sister?” Anna echoed, shifting to face him. “I didn’t know you had a sister. Why have I never met her before?” Raking her brain, Anna could not remember meeting her at the wedding. “Is she still mad at you for subjecting her to this torture?”

  “No,” he breathed, and a sudden sadness came to his eyes that made the blood freeze in her veins. “She is not mad at me. She never was.” He hesitated, and his eyes searched hers. “She did not come to the wedding…because she is dead.”

  Anna drew in a sharp breath, seeing the loss that clearly still haunted him on his face. Instantly, an image of Judith appeared before her eyes, but she quickly brushed it away, not wanting to contemplate such a scenario. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.

  A sad smile brushed his lips. “I am too.”

  For a long moment neither one of them said another word, each lost in their own thoughts. Then, as though nothing had happened, her husband’s eyes turned to her, his usual smirk back on his face. “Well, this concludes today’s training. I hope you paid attention for tomorrow I will show no mercy.” Eyes gleaming, he winked at her.

  Torn between the deep sadness his revelation had evoked and the self-satisfied tone in his voice that made her want to slap him, Anna chose to gather the remnants of their lunch and return them to the saddle bag. As she rose from the tree stump, he did too, collecting the two foils and securing them as well.

  They rode back to town in silence, each occupied with their own thoughts.

  Anna had to admit that, as much as she had wanted to kill him, she had indeed enjoyed herself. Although she was only just beginning to learn, she liked the way the foil felt in her hand and moved when she did. It gave her strength, made her feel powerful. The feeling was truly exhilarating. Did it make him feel the same way? She wondered. Did he even suspect that teaching her to fight would make her an even worthier opponent? If he knew, would he still teach her? Probably not. Men did not seek to empower women. For them, it would be more advantageous to keep all womenfolk as weak and uneducated as possible, only providing them with enough knowledge to function as dutiful wives.

  And so Anna decided to keep her mouth shut and learn as much as she could.

  The following days her husband continued to wake her before the sun rose. In the beginning, she was equally annoyed with him as she was on their first day of training but soon began to enjoy the physical exercise. Her arms and legs grew stronger, and as more time passed she had less and less trouble keeping up with him. Her pulse remained steady, and her breathing did not threaten to do her in anymore. She felt stronger than she ever had, not only physically.

  In order to attack and defend, at least successfully, she needed to watch his every move, doing her best to anticipate what he would do next. Before she knew it, the signs of his body became as familiar to her as her own. Every twitch, every shrug spoke to her, and more than once he looked truly surprised when she thwarted his attack or even once or twice managed to score a point against him.

  The only thing Anna felt more than just a little conflicted about was the prize he demanded whenever he won a match, which at least in the beginning of the training days was the norm.

  Gracious as he was, he had only allowed her one day of training. When they reached the clearing on their second morning, he handed over a foil, his hand brushing hers in a way that was far from accidental. As her eyes flew up, she found him standing a mere step from her, eyes intent on her face. “Any more questions before we begin?”

  Anna drew in a deep breath, knowing as much as he did that she was nowhere near ready to best him in a match. What could she do but fight and lose…and ultimately pay the price? The only option she had was pay attention and learn, make his winnings as short-lived as possible.

  “Your footwork is improving,” he commented after scoring another point, making his praise sound hollow and even sarcastic in Anna’s ears.

  A mock grin drew up the corners of her mouth. “How gracious of you to notice, my lord.”

  He laughed, getting back into position. “One more point,” he whispered as though to him-self.

  Taking a deep breath, Anna brushed a strand of her unruly hair out of her eyes. Learn, she reminded herself. Do not let him bait you!

  Again he lunged, but she saw him coming and thwarted his attack, then quickly moved for-ward, the tip of her blunted foil aimed at his chest.

  Her heart leapt into her throat as she saw her own triumph within reach…only to have it snatched from her grasp at the last moment. Parrying her attack, he winked at her. Anger boiled in her veins, and for a split second she didn’t move.

  Unfortunately, it was enough time for him to tip his foil to her chest.

  Dumbfounded, Anna stared at him, before anger seized her once more. Cursing under her breath, she threw the foil across the clearing, watching it disappear in the high grass.

  “Now, that was uncalled for,” he observed in that flippant tone of his.

  Spinning on her heel, Anna growled and, without
another thought, threw herself at him, hands reaching for his throat.

  He caught her wrists in the last second, her fingernails scratching the tender skin at his throat. But even with her hands all but useless, Anna fought him, her legs kicking every which way until a painful growl rose from his throat. However, Anna barely had time to congratulate herself on inflicting pain before he allowed himself to fall backwards, pulling her with him.

  With a loud thud, he hit the ground hard, his body softening her fall.

  Instantly trying to sit up and push herself off him, Anna cursed as he pulled her back down. Then he rolled over, bringing her with him, until he had her pinned to the ground, his body preventing her from getting up.

  “Get off me!” she hissed, eyes looking at the clear blue sky and the tall swaying stalks all around her; anything but his triumphant eyes.

  “Why?” he asked innocently. “This position rather suits me.”

  “I hate you!” Anna snarled, unable to keep her eyes off him any longer. As she glared at him, he raised his eye brows in another mocking gesture that had Anna struggling against him once again.

  With no effort whatsoever, he held her pinned to the ground though, patiently waiting for her to surrender.

  Kicking herself, Anna stopped struggling. How could she have allowed herself to be put into such a demeaning position? Of course, he was enjoying this! By attacking him so blindly, she had made his triumph even greater. Instantly, that thought brought to mind the payment due for his victory, and Anna shuddered.

  As though he could read her thoughts, his gaze travelled from her eyes downward. “We still have a score to settle,” he whispered, his breath tickling her skin. “Do you concede?”

  Gritting her teeth, Anna tried to swallow the lump in her throat. “Yes,” she forced out. After all, she had agreed to this match and whether she liked to admit it or not, he had won fair and square.

  He released her wrists then, but didn’t get up. Instead, he hovered above her, resting his weight on his forearms. When she finally dared lift her eyes to his, she found him looking down at her with a serious tone sobering his gaze. He searched her face as though trying to determine what went on in her mind right then and there. “Do I repulse you?” he asked out of the blue, and her eyes opened wide.

  At first, she could not answer, wondering what had made him ask that question. He always seemed so self-assured as though nothing could shake his confidence. His eyes remained on hers, patiently waiting for her reply. Contemplating her options, Anna waited. If she said yes, he would leave her alone. She was sure of it. For once, he was not mocking or baiting her. For once, this was not a game. If she said yes, married or not, they would be done with each other.

  The only problem was it would be a lie.

  ***

  As his heart hammered in his chest, Edmond watched her. Her eyes, slightly narrowed, moved over his face. He could see that his question had surprised her. It had surprised him too, but as much as every fibre of his being disliked the vulnerable position he had put himself in, he just had to know.

  Once again, her eyes focused on his as though she had come to a decision. Fighting the urge to close his eyes, he waited as she drew in another breath before opening her mouth.

  “No,” was all she said. One word. One answer. Not even an answer to a truly meaningful question, and yet it instantly released the anxiety that had held him in its clutches, painting a smile on his face. Relief washed over him, and a small joy began to dance in his heart as her own lips curled up into an answering smile.

  For a moment, they just looked at each other as though seeing the other for the first time. Something had changed between them, he could feel it. Although for the life of him he couldn’t have said what it was.

  Eyes locked onto hers, he lowered his head then, waiting for her to tense. But she didn’t.

  His lips brushed hers in a tender kiss. It lasted but a moment. But it was enough, for now.

  Abandoning his position, he got to his feet, holding out his hand to help her up. And for once she did not slap it away. For once she took it, allowing him to help her. It was a small step forward, but Edmond cherished it like the greatest treasure the world could have bestowed upon him.

  For a moment, her hand lingered in his before she drew it back. She took another breath, then broke eye contact, head turning away as though looking for something.

  Her foil. Yes, he remembered now. Following her, they scanned the high grass, looking for the shiny weapon that was bringing them closer together. Step by step. Or rather lunge by lunge.

  Chapter Twenty-Four − Let Down Your Guard

  “I haven’t seen you in a while,” Henrietta said, a questioning look in her scrutinising eyes. Gesturing for Anna to take a seat on the settee, she reached for the tea pot and poured them both a steaming cup. “Is everything all right?”

  Taking the offered cup from Henrietta’s hands, Anna hesitated. “Well, there have been developments recently, which I find rather confusing.”

  Henrietta’s eyes narrowed as she took a careful sip. “What developments? What has he done?”

  Anna couldn’t suppress the smile that curled up her lips. As always Henrietta was quick to jump to the conclusion that her husband had done something horrible. On the other hand, Anna couldn’t really blame her. After all, had she herself not cursed her husband the first morning he had forced her out of bed?

  “For the past two weeks now, he has woken me up before the break of dawn,” Anna began her story, amused at seeing her friend’s rigid frame as she impatiently waited to hear what atrocities Anna’s husband had committed. “Then he’s led me to a little clearing just outside of town, and…”

  “And?” Henrietta urged, eyes narrowed into slits.

  Anna grinned. “And he’s begun teaching me how to fence,” she ended, watching her friend’s face intently.

  As expected, Henrietta’s eyes grew wide, and her mouth dropped open in a most unbecoming way. “What?” she breathed, as though Anna’s words had knocked the air from her lungs.

  Anna nodded. “I don’t know why though. He says he wants me to have fun, but…” She shrugged. “I’m not sure if he is serious, or if this is simply a way to distract me.”

  Slightly recovered, Henrietta once more eyed her friend with distrust written all over her face. “Distract you from what?”

  “From loathing the very sight of him,” Anna laughed, unable to meet her friend’s scrutinising stare. After all, fencing with her husband was fun. And then there were the winnings he had collected, Anna mused, feeling the colour rise in her cheeks.

  “Is he succeeding?” Henrietta’s words broke into Anna’s daydream, jarring her back to the here and now. “Have your feelings toward him changed?”

  Glancing at her friend, Anna realised that she could not honestly deny that they had not. In truth, she had almost forgotten about her animosity toward him in the past two weeks. Yes, they continued to argue, but it lacked the hostility that had dominated it before. Now, their arguments were more of a game, a continuation of their fencing.

  However, she could never admit those feelings to Henrietta.

  Clearing her throat, Anna met her friend’s eyes openly. “Do not be absurd. I merely enjoy the opportunity to fence, not his company.”

  For a moment, Henrietta’s eyes lingered, and Anna feared that she would doubt her words. Then, to her utter relief, her friend nodded. “I can see why you would. It is a marvellous exercise.”

  Surprised, Anna asked, “You know how to fence?”

  A smile broke out on Henrietta’s face. “After it was none other than myself who taught you the correct handling of a dagger, why would you assume I do not know how to handle a foil?”

  “I meant no offence,” Anna assured, but her friend quickly waved that thought away. “It is simply rare for women to be familiar with weaponry of any sort.”

  Henrietta nodded. “Unfortunately, it is. Men generally do not wish to empower women.”
She snorted in derision, then her eyes snapped up and a frown settled on her face. “What made him teach you? I assume you did not ask for it.”

  Anna shook her head, a new heat returning to her cheeks. “I did not. I…” She swallowed, trying to find the right words. “I was forced to put the dagger to his throat one night and−”

  “What?” Henrietta’s eyes once more rounded into plates. “What happened? Did he attack you?”

  “He kissed me,” Anna admitted, not elaborating on the reason why her husband had thought it his right to claim a kiss. “Luckily, the dagger was under my pillow. So, I reached for it, put it to his throat and told him to get off me.”

  A proud grin spread over Henrietta’s face, and she clapped her hands together like a child excited about Christmas. “You did right,” she assured Anna. “He ought not to have taken such liberties with you.” A frown settled on her face. “However, I cannot understand why such a reaction on your part would elicit such a response on his.”

  Anna shrugged. “I suppose he thought I would find it interesting.”

  Again Henrietta’s eyes narrowed. “You sound appreciative. Do you truly believe he decided to teach you simply because you portrayed an interest in the exercise? Do be careful! We cannot know what dark thoughts are hidden behind a smiling face! I implore you, do not let down your guard for it will be your downfall!”

  Anna nodded. “I do not intend to. I assure you. I merely enjoy the exercise and intend to learn as much as I can before he changes his mind.”

  “That is wise,” Henrietta praised. “Who knows how long it will be before you will be forced to defend yourself against his advances once again.”

  Again Anna merely nodded, her eyes cast down for fear they might betray her thoughts. Deep down, Anna had to admit that his advances were not as unwelcome as her friend believed. Remembering the night he had come to her room and stolen his kiss back, Anna knew that at least at first she had allowed the kiss. It had taken her a moment-actually a moment too long for someone honestly repulsed by her husband’s advances-to locate the dagger and put it to use. And even then, a small part of her had hoped that he would find a way around the barrier she had raised between them.

 
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