Cursed & cherished the d.., p.17
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       Cursed & Cherished: The Duke's Wilful Wife, p.17

         Part #2 of Love's Second Chance series by Bree Wolf
 
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  “What is going on?” Anna whispered, feeling absolutely certain that someone was lying to her. She just didn’t know who.

  No wonder she couldn’t trust her husband with all these lies between them.

  Chapter Thirty-One − A Matter of the Heart

  “Your grace,” Kenton said, his voice drawing her attention from the book in her hands. “You have a visitor.”

  “A visitor?” Anna mumbled, wondering who could have become aware of her presence here. “Did they give a name?”

  “Certainly. A Mrs. Miller.”

  Anna’s eyes grew wide. “Judith?” she breathed, then cleared her throat. “Please, see her in-side.”

  Giving a quick bow, Kenton left, only to return moments later with Judith in his wake. After ensuring that the two ladies had everything they needed, he bowed out, closing the doors behind him.

  “What are you doing here?” Anna exclaimed, embracing her sister warmly. Drawing her down on the settee she had only just vacated, Anna shook her head. “I never expected to see you at Brookestone.”

  “After your hasty departure, what choice did I have?” Judith asked, her eyes neither judge-mental nor angry, but concerned. “Why did you not send word you were leaving Town?”

  Anna shrugged, playing with the hem of her sleeve. “I didn’t plan to. I just woke up and…” Again she shrugged, then her eyes narrowed. “How did you know I was here?”

  Judith smiled. “Your husband.”

  Anna flinched. “He knows I am here?”

  “I suppose so,” Judith said, a frown descending upon her face. “Why would he not? You’re his wife.”

  Avoiding her sister’s slightly scrutinising gaze, Anna busied herself arranging her skirt. “I didn’t tell him. I needed some time alone.”

  “Why didn’t you come to me if there was a problem between you and your husband?” Judith asked, her eyes betraying the hurt she felt about Anna’s decision not to confide in her.

  Squeezing her sister’s hand, Anna shook her head. “I did not wish to alarm you. You and John are so happy, and I didn’t want to burden you with my problems.”

  “Anna, you’re my sister,” Judith stated. “Your pain is my pain whether you confide in me or not. Do you truly believe I have not noticed the animosities between you and your husband?” She shook her head indulgently. “I may be a bit naive at times, but I am not blind. Especially not where you are concerned. Please, tell me. What is it that has you running from London?”

  Knowing that Judith had no intention of leaving before she knew every detail of her sister’s predicament, Anna finally shared her story, leaving nothing out. At times, Judith’s face held utter shock, then changed to an indulgent smile as though Anna’s troubles could be easily solved.

  When Anna had given her reason for coming to Brookestone, Judith laughed. “Dear Sister, I know that you have truly been through a lot, and partly that is my fault, but thinking the way you do only makes everything worse.” Staring at her sister, Anna didn’t know what to say. “Despite all the reasons for mistrusting him and questioning his motives, all you truly want to know is if he loves you, do you not?”

  Feeling a deep blush burn in her cheeks, Anna averted her eyes, but nodded.

  Judith laughed, taking her sister’s hands. “Do not be ashamed of wanting to be loved! I know you believe it would endanger your independence, but without it life is rather empty; especially if you’ve already found it and are simply denying yourself the experience.”

  “Found it?” Anna mumbled, looking up with questioning eyes.

  Judith nodded. “He loves you. You may doubt him, but I don’t.”

  Feeling her heart hammering in her chest, Anna took a deep breath. “What makes you say that?”

  “I called on you, but learnt that you were absent. Instead, your husband received me. He told me of your departure and where I could find you.”

  “So?”

  Judith smiled. “You should have seen him. He was miserable. I could tell that he was pondering whether or not to go after you.” Anna’s eyes grew wide. “Do not be surprised if he comes to see you soon.” Leaning forward, Judith looked deep into her eyes. “Why do you doubt him? Be-cause he needed your dowry to save his estate? Or is there another reason?”

  Anna shrugged. “Yes and no. I do not know what to think. I want to believe him. I do! But I cannot seem to forget what Henrietta said about his true intentions. She does not believe he could possibly care for me.”

  “And do you trust her opinion more than your own?”

  Again Anna shrugged. “I do not know what to think.”

  “Listen, I do not wish to speak ill of your friend,” Judith said, her eyes holding nothing but empathy. “I do care about her. She is a remarkable young woman, and I wish her nothing but happiness, but Anna, she will never find it if she continues to mistrust everyone.” Judith took a deep breath. “Yes, there are those who only seek to forward themselves without regard for others. But these people are few in number. Most people deserve to be trusted, deserve to be met without mistrust, deserve the chance to prove themselves worthy. Do not always expect to be disappointed.” Squeezing Anna’s hand, Judith swallowed. “I do not know what is in her past, but I believe that you are aware that something happened, something that made her distrustful of people, of men in particular. She has her reasons for feeling the way she does, but her reasons are not yours. You can hear her advice, but you owe it to yourself to make your own decisions.”

  Anna nodded. “You’re right, Judith. I know you are, and yet it is not easy.”

  “It is not,” Judith agreed earnestly before a smile curled up the corners of her mouth. “But it is worth it. Give him a chance, and yourself, for I do not wish to see you so sad.”

  Attempting a smile herself, Anna nodded. “I promise I will try.”

  Chapter Thirty-Two − Well-Informed

  As Brookestone came in sight, Edmond wondered how his wife would react to his presence. After all, leaving as she had suggested she did not wish him involved.

  After spending days locked away in her bedchamber, Edmond had been relieved to hear that she had taken the carriage to visit a friend. His relief however had changed to concern upon hearing that said friend had been Henrietta Turner. What was that woman’s problem with him?

  And now she had fled to Brookestone. Granted, the destination of her escape puzzled him somewhat. He would have thought she’d seek sanctuary with her parents or her sister. Not his family home. Why did she come here?

  After handing the reigns to a stable boy, Edmond rushed up the front steps, barely returning his Kenton’s greeting, and enquired after his wife’s whereabouts. Following his butler’s directions, he hurried on to the library, absentmindedly brushing some of the road’s dust off his coat.

  Stepping inside the voluminous room, he found her standing by the row of tall windows facing the park. The sun flooded in, setting her scarlet tresses on fire, and danced on a few lonely tears rolling down her cheeks. She reached up to brush them away just as he took a step toward her.

  Absentmindedly she glanced over her shoulder, her eyes widening when she recognised him. Turning to face him, she took a deep breath. “What are you doing here? I had hoped my departure had gone unnoticed.”

  Coming to stand before her, Edmond snorted. “Do you truly believe I would not notice my wife’s absence? My lady, you wound me.” As he theatrically clapped his hand to his chest as though an arrow had pierced his heart, the ghost of a smile flitted across her beautiful features before she turned back to the window.

  Eyes focused on something he could not see, Anna sighed. “I believe the more valid question is, why did you come? Merely being informed of my departure does not necessarily demand your presence here.”

  Stepping up to the window, Edmond placed a hand at her elbow, urging her to look at him. When she didn’t, he let his hand fall. “Anna, please, I came because I care. Do you truly not know that? Have I not proved myself to you by
now?” Not once had Edmond contemplated divulging his feelings for her…much less to her, but the way she retreated from him a little more every day scared him witless. If he only knew how to reach her!

  “Proved yourself?” she whispered, still not looking at him. “The only thing I now have proof of is the exact amount my father paid you in order for you to marry me.” She sighed then, and her eyes closed for a moment. “I still don’t know if I should be flattered or insulted by the unbelievably high sum that changed hands in this transaction.” She turned to him then, eyes intend on his face. “Never have I heard of such a dowry paid.” She shook her head. “Never have I heard of a gentleman losing that kind of money.”

  Taking a deep breath, Edmond braced himself. “How do you know the amount of your dowry?”

  She shrugged. “I went through your steward’s ledgers.”

  “He showed them to you?” Edmond asked, surprised that Mr. Lloyd would not have in-formed him.

  But Anna shook her head. “I broke into his office.”

  For a second, Edmond stared at her, letting her words sink in. Then a deep smile spread over his face, and he shook his head. “You little vixen.”

  A frown appeared on her face. “You are not angry about what I did?”

  He shrugged. “Why would I be? This is your home.”

  “Well, I thought you would not want me to know.”

  “I never said that,” Edmond clarified. He took a step closer, breathing in that intoxicating scent of her. “You never asked.”

  Again a frown creased her forehead. “Are you saying you would have told me?”

  Edmond laughed. “No. But I would have asked Mr. Lloyd to tell you. As I might have stated before, I myself do not know the exact amount.”

  Rolling her eyes at him, Anna shook her head.

  “Why is that so impossible for you to belief? I have never been good with numbers. Actually, that’s an understatement. I hate them. They make me physically ill. Just thinking about looking at those ledgers gives me a migraine.” A slightly amused smile played on her features, and Edmond felt himself relax. “Please, Anna, believe me. I have no intention of keeping you in the dark about anything. If there is something you wish to know, all you have to do is ask. And I will answer, at least to the best of my abilities,” he added with a smile.

  For a moment her eyes seemed to study him, and he felt the full weight of her mistrust. Then she drew a deep breath and crossed her arms. “Very well. What I wish to know is how you lost all that money. It’s an incredibly high sum, and according to your steward’s ledgers you lost it within the last year. How is that possible? Do you have gambling debts?”

  “What? No!” Shaking his head vehemently, Edmond stepped forward. “Yes, I have indulged in a bit of gambling here and there, but never for large sums. I do not care for this pastime well enough in order to risk my livelihood.”

  Again she nodded, but Edmond could not tell if only to acknowledge his statement or be-cause she believed his words. “The other thing that I found more than just a little unusual is that all your losses add up to the exact sum of my dowry. How is that possible? Did you demand this specific amount from my father in order to marry me?”

  Edmond shook his head, fully aware that what little he could tell her would not satisfy her curiosity. “I did not. As you recall, I did not even know the exact sum.”

  “Maybe your steward did in your stead. After all, you said he has been taking care of the estate’s finances for a long time.”

  Edmond shrugged. “Well, I suppose it is possible. All I can tell you though is that after in-forming me of my father’s investments falling through, Mr. Lloyd reluctantly suggested an advantageous marriage in order to solve this financial crisis. In fact, he also suggested I speak to your father.”

  “He did? How could he know my father had the means to afford such a dowry?”

  Edmond shrugged. “He is generally well-informed.” Taking a deep breath, he placed his hands on her shoulders. In response her head snapped up and her eyes widened as they examined his face, but she did not pull away. “Are things different now?” Edmond asked, his own eyes looking into hers as intently as hers were focused on his. “Now that you know the sum of your dowry? Do you now feel differently about…eh…?” Edmond swallowed, unable to finish the sentence.

  Closing her eyes for but a moment, Anna shook her head, sadness clinging to her eyes. Reaching out a hand, she gently traced the small silver scar running down his cheek. The cut she had dealt him as retribution for his affront. The retribution he had offered her willingly, and yet he could see in her eyes that it hadn’t been enough. “I thought knowing would change things,” she whispered, and her hand fell from his face. “I hoped it would. But I feel as empty as I did before.”

  Edmond’s heart sank. From the look in her emerald eyes he could tell how much the wound he had caused still pained her, and yet riding to Brookestone he had hoped against hope that somehow receiving her answer would allow her to open her heart to him. However, it did not. What was he to do now?

  Chapter Thirty-Three − With an Open Heart

  “I’m sorry, Anna. I had truly hoped that this would allow you to move on and let the past be the past.” He felt a slight tremble run through her shoulders before she took a deep breath and took a step back. Her eyes on him, she brushed his hands away and a new and yet familiar cold settled on her features. It was as though she was erecting a wall around herself, brick by brick, keeping him out. And there was nothing he could do to change that.

  “I’m too,” she whispered, determination hardening her features once again. “I never wanted this.” Clear as day he heard the accusation in her voice. “But it is what it is. We cannot change that.” Again she turned to the window. “I would like to stay here for a while and…just have some time for myself.” She fell silent then, but the words she did not say echoed through the vaulted room.

  “You want me to go,” he said, feeling the need to clarify her wishes.

  She sighed then, and nodded.

  As though the sun had suddenly dropped from the sky, Edmond felt as though someone had plunged him into a world of darkness. He knew if he turned from her now, they would go on living their lives in separate residences, rarely setting eyes on the other. She would forever close herself off, never allowing him near, and he would lose her for good.

  An iron grip settled on his heart, slowly squeezing the life from him. Tears burned in the corners of his eyes, and the effort to hold them back nearly choked the air from his lungs. Never in his life had Edmond felt so defeated, drenched in hopelessness, only a bleak future to await him.

  It was in that moment, when the sky darkened and the flood rushed toward him, threatening to drown him, that Edmond realised that he loved her.

  Not just liked her, or cared for her, but loved her. With every fibre of his being.

  The worst had happened. He had actually come to love his wife. Love her in a way that his own happiness and well-being were hinged on her presence, on her love for him.

  Only she did not love him back.

  Gritting his teeth, Edmond felt his hands ball into fists. He was barely able to control the desire to run them through the window before him, so desperate was he to hear something other than the deafening silence that hung between them. The echo of shattering glass as its small shards dung into his skin and cascaded down onto the marble floor would have been preferable to the silent goodbye they had just exchanged.

  But Edmond held himself back. An outburst would scare her; worse, it would deepen the ravine that had opened between them. After all, had she really ever been scared of him? The hint of a smile flashed over his face at the thought of her emerald eyes, burning with anger, staring into his soul. A snarl on her lips, she had cursed him, attacked him, countless times; and he had loved her for it. Her spirit. Her temper. Her unyielding heart.

  In the very moment when his feet were ready to step back and carry him out the door and away from Brookest
one, away from Anna, his heart finally found the courage to speak up.

  “I love you,” he whispered, feeling a heavy weight being lifted off his shoulders. “I do. I love you.” As though in trance she turned away from the window, her mouth slightly agape, and looked at him with disbelieving eyes. Raising his gaze to hers, he shrugged, a shy smile flitting across his face. “I may not have loved you when we met, or when I asked your father for your hand, but I love you now. I do.” He nodded as though needing to give his words emphasis. He needed her to believe him. Now of all times, he needed her not to doubt his words. “I love who you are. You’re my match in every way, and I cannot believe that it took me so long to see it. And that I only now see it when it is too late.” Again he nodded, unable to read the emotions hiding behind her passive stare. “I just wanted you to know that.”

  He turned to leave then, but before he had taken a single step a soft weight descended on his shoulder. Looking up, he found her standing behind him, eyes narrowed, searching his face as though still unsure whether or not to believe his words.

  Unable to keep his distance, Edmond stepped toward her, one arm coming around her middle as though it belonged there. He pulled her closer as his other hand cupped her face gently. “I love you, Anna,” he whispered against her lips.

  She swallowed then, and tears formed in the corners of her eyes. Closing them, she took a deep breath, before once more looking at him with that curious and yet demanding gaze that seemed to scream, Tell me! Tell me the truth!

  Seeing on her face the desire to believe him struggling with the fear that he might be lying, Edmond released her. Holding her hands in his, he took a step back. “I love you, Anna. But if you want me to, I will go.” Again he nodded, his eyes burning into hers, willing her to see the sincerity of his words. “Take all the time you need, and should you wish to see me again, just send word and I’ll be here as soon as a horse can carry me. I promise.” A soft smile lifted up the corners of his mouth before he released her hands-only to feel her fingers curl around his, drawing him back.

 
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