Cursed & cherished the d.., p.18
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       Cursed & Cherished: The Duke's Wilful Wife, p.18

         Part #2 of Love's Second Chance series by Bree Wolf
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  His heart soared as she stepped back into his embrace all the while her eyes never left his as though still evaluating the truthfulness of his words. She drew his hands around her back before her own climbed up his arms, settling on his shoulders. A shiver went through him as her body pressed into his, and her hands snaked behind his neck pulling him down to her.

  Before long her eyes closed, finally abandoning their scrutiny of his character, and her lips took over, placing the gentlest of kisses on his own.

  Holding her in his arms, Edmond wished for nothing more but for the world to stand still and let him have this moment, before she might pull away again and change her mind.

  As though clinging to her for dear life, Edmond almost crushed her in his arms, unable to loosen his hold on her. But she did not protest. Instead, she pressed herself closer, her need as strong as his own.

  And for one moment, the world did fall away, and nothing else mattered.

  Chapter Thirty-Four − A Flicker of Hope

  The moment was short-lived though.

  Holding her in his arms, Edmond could name the very second when her attention shifted back to the words they had exchanged. Her lips ceased their bold exploration of his own and stilled. Another second later, she pulled back, emerald eyes gazing up into his.

  Although Edmond would have loved nothing more but to keep her close to him for the remainder of the day, he loosened his hold on her, giving her the space she obviously still needed. Gazing back into her eyes, Edmond found them to be less guarded, filled with less distrust, and his heart soared once again.

  Hope. There was hope.

  “We need to talk,” she whispered, her own gaze occasionally shifting back to his lips.

  Edmond grinned. “We did talk. I have something better in mind.” As he pulled her closer, she looked down, a shy smile playing on her lips. As much as he loved the tough determination that usually shone in her eyes, these moments of shyness intrigued him!

  Lifting her hands to his chest, she held him back. “We need to talk,” she insisted, shaking her head as a playful smile curled up her lips. “If we are to have a chance,” she whispered, and Edmond felt his heart skip a beat, “there is a lot we need to take care of first.”

  Hope, Edmond thought once again and nodded. “All right.”

  Removing his arms from around her waist, she stepped back. “I know that to you this might seem insignificant, but to me this is essential in…reclaiming some peace of mind. Please take me seriously.”

  Understanding her words as a crossroad he faced, one way leading to a happy future while the other would direct him to a lonely existence, Edmond nodded.

  “All right, then.” She swallowed. “I need to know how you lost that money, and how my dowry was arranged. I do not believe this to be a coincidence. I’ve got that feeling…deep down…that there is more to it than meets the eye.” Her gaze focused on his, open and honest, waiting. “Will you help me?”

  This was it, the crossroad. Now, he had to make a choice.

  Without hesitation, he nodded. “I will. Tell me what you need.”

  A relieved smile spread over her face, and Edmond’s heart skipped another beat, allowing himself to believe that she desired a future with him as much as he did with her.

  “Listen, all my life I’ve watched my father do business, always intrigued by the small differences that make or break your future. I know the value of money, and I would never waste it.” She took a deep breath. “My father built his business step by step. In the very beginning−before I was born−we did not live quite as comfortably as we do today, and from stories my mother told me life was not easy, especially on her. She always feared for our future, and yet hoped that my father’s assurances would see us all safe.” A relieved smile lit up her face. “Luckily they did. More than I ever expected, I admit. I never thought he would be able to afford such a dowry, and even though I’ve seen the figures a part of me still has trouble believing it.” She shrugged, searching for the right words to explain herself. “Something seems wrong. I cannot explain it any better. I’m sorry.”

  He stepped toward her and took her hands in his. Feeling a chill run through them, he warmed them with his own. “Do you wish to speak to your father about it?”

  Anna shook her head. “My father is a very guarded man. He does not reveal the inner workings of his business arrangements. Not to me. Not even to my mother. What I’ve learnt, I’ve learnt by quietly observing what I could.” She squeezed his hands. “I want to look at the ledgers again, and then talk to your steward. He should be able to tell us what we need to know.”

  Edmond cringed at the thought of going over the numbers of his estate. Mr. Lloyd had tried to persuade him to do so for years on end. But seeing the need to know the truth in Anna’s eyes, he nodded.

  “Thank you,” she whispered. “I know you dislike the thought, but I believe this endeavour to be worth our time.” She nodded as though reassuring herself that she was doing the right thing. “This time my dowry paid for the losses to the estate. But what if it should happen again?” she asked, looking at him. “What will we do then? If we do not know what happened, we cannot pre-vent it in the future. You said, you father’s investments fell though. Can you tell me more?”

  Edmond shook his head, feeling disgusted with himself for his lack of knowledge. Drat! This was his estate! His responsibility! And now his wife and her future! She was right. He ought to know.

  “All right, then we need to find out from Mr. Lloyd,” she said, and to his relief there was no judgement in her voice. “We need to know if he is still investing money on your behalf, and if so, how risky these investments are. Did your father ever talk to you about this?”

  “No, I cannot recall him having any particular interest in that regard.” He shrugged. “But then I’ve never really paid attention in these matters. As soon as the topic of finances came up, I usually fled the room.” He chuckled, trying to cover the embarrassment that slowly built within him.

  “That has to change now,” Anna said, her green eyes once more burning into his. “If we are to have a future, we need to fix this. We need to make sure that this will never happen again.” She took a deep breath. “I do not want my children growing up with the issue of money hanging over their heads. I want them to feel safe.” She squeezed his hands, and a stern expression came to her face that stopped the breath in his throat. “And I really do not want to leave them with a major debt and no way to settle it but to marry for financial reasons.”

  The rebuke for his father’s carelessness in handling the matters of the estate stung, and yet Edmond could not regret what had happened. Had his father not invested and lost the money, forcing Edmond to marry for financial reasons, he would never have found Anna. Edmond was sure of it.

  “I do not want that either,” he assured her, before a twinkle came to his eyes as the rest of her words claimed the spotlight. “Did you say ‘children’?”

  The breath caught in her throat and a deep blush crept up her cheeks as she tried to avert her eyes.

  Smiling, Edmond placed a hand under her chin, forcing her to look at him. “My lady, I believe you’re blushing. What is it that I’ve said?”

  She smiled at him then…and slapped his hand away. “My lord, I suggest you refrain from any such comments in the future should you wish to live to see it.”

  His eyes grew wide as his hand clasped his chest in pretend shock. “My lady, you cannot truly mean what you’re saying!”

  “I assure you I do, my lord!” Advancing on him, she poked her finger at his chest. “Make no mistake, I know how to handle a foil.”

  “How on earth would you ever have learnt to handle a weapon? Let me assure you, it is no suitable pastime for the fair sex.”

  A smile spread over her face as she leaned forward. “I suppose my husband disagreed. He was the one who taught me how to handle a foil.”

  “Your husband?” Edmond shook his head in outrage. “What kind of a
man would teach his wife how to handle a weapon?”

  As her eyes searched his face, a sly smile curled up the corners of her mouth. “That I could not say. I barely know him. The future will have to answer that question.”

  Edmond swallowed, all mockery falling from his voice. “And will you keep an open mind?”

  Anna’s smile deepened, became honest and genuine. “I always do, my lord. I was led astray for a little while, but I think I once again know who I am.”

  Unable to restrain himself, Edmond swept her into his arms, feeling relief flood his heart. He crushed her to him, and when she lifted her head to look at him, he once more claimed her mouth.

  She melted into him then, parting her lips to allow him entry.

  Her resolve however wavered only for a moment, before her hands once more came up to his chest and pushed him back, freeing her mouth. “Not so fast, my lord. There will be time for…that…later.” A slight blush crept up her cheeks, and she quickly averted her eyes. “First, we need to see the ledgers.”

  Edmond sighed, reluctantly lessening his hold on her. “How much later?”

  She turned back to look at him then, and her eyes narrowed. “Are you pouting, my lord? Like a fussing child?”

  “No!” he snapped, realising too late that he was playing right into her hands. As she laughed, he smiled, nodding his head. “Well, at least it will be good practice for you, won’t it?” As he walked past her, he slapped her behind playfully, delighted to hear a not too outraged squeal.

  “You’ll pay for that, my lord!” Anna threatened as she hastened after him.

  Glancing over his shoulder, he grinned. “Oh, I most certainly hope so.”

  Chapter Thirty-Five − Loss

  “I’d appreciate it if you would refrain from any improper comments within earshot of your steward,” Anna chided as they headed down the corridor to Mr. Lloyd’s office. Seeing the devilish twinkle in her husband’s eyes, Anna focused her gaze on the floor instead, forcing her own features to remain serious and not betray her inner amusement with his behaviour.

  As they reached their destination, his hand caught her elbow, pulling her back. “Does that mean you do not object to me making improper comments when not in earshot of Mr. Lloyd?” His brows rose into arches, and he winked at her in a most scandalous way.

  Suppressing a smile, Anna swallowed. “I assure you I do object.”

  He leaned closer then, his breath tickling her ear as he whispered, “Did you know that your eyes always betray your words?” His hands settled on her waist then, pulling her closer before pushing her back against the wall, his body pressing into her. The breath caught in her throat. She knew she should stop him, but her hands wouldn’t move. “You know, I am usually good at reading people. They’re like open books to me, but with you…” He shook his head, gazing into her eyes. “You bewitched me. I couldn’t think straight.” His eyes dipped lower, and a shiver went down Anna’s back. “I still can’t.” He inched closer. “I can only feel, and I want to feel.” His lips brushed against hers, and she closed her eyes. Drat! If he kept this up, they would never get into the blasted office! “I want to feel you. More of you. All of you.” His lips closed over hers, and with a last sigh escaping her mouth Anna surrendered.

  In that moment the door opened, and Mr. Lloyd stepped out into the corridor. “Oh! Your grace!” Eyes wide, he turned on his heel, intend on returning to his office. “I apologise I…”

  While Anna felt herself blush to her roots, her husband merely cleared his throat, taking a step backward. “Old Man, your timing couldn’t be worse.”

  Eyes fixed on the ground, his own cheeks as white as a sheet, Mr. Lloyd mumbled one apology after another. “Is there anything I can do for you, your grace?” he asked when he had finally calmed down and the colour had returned to his features.

  “Indeed, there is, Old Man,” Edmond said, gesturing for his steward to return to his office. He then offered Anna his arm and led her into the small room she remembered well from her bur-glary session only a few days ago.

  “We would like to see the ledgers,” her husband stated without preamble, casting another devilish smile at her as he spoke.

  Shaking her head at him, Anna turned back to Mr. Lloyd, seeing the colour once more drain from his face.

  “The ledgers?” he asked, clearing his throat and fiddling with the collar of his overcoat. “Is there a problem?”

  “Well, I hope not,” Edmond grinned, then sobered when Mr. Lloyd seemed to pale even more. “Oh, calm down, Old Man! There is nothing to worry about. My dear wife,” again he grinned at her, “would simply like to see the numbers.” He laughed then, slapping his knee. “You should be glad, old friend. Finally, there is someone willing to stick her head into those dusty books of yours. I have to tell you it is quite a relief to me. At last, I am free to concern myself with the joyful things in life and not,” his nose crinkled up as though he smelled something rotten, “that.” He pointed at the ledgers on the shelf, shaking off the doom he had so narrowly escaped. Anna couldn’t help but laugh at him. “Have I ever thanked you for suggesting I make her my wife?”

  As Mr. Lloyd stammered something unintelligible, Anna’s eyes turned from her husband to their steward. “You did? Do you know my father?”

  “I…eh.” Clearing his throat, Mr. Lloyd once more fidgeted with the collar of his overcoat. “Not personally, no.” Again he cleared his throat. “I merely heard of his fortunate trade dealings and his interest in marrying his daughters well, preferably to titled men.” For a second, he cast down his eyes as though unable to look at her. “I apologise, your grace, if I have offended you somehow by revealing this information.”

  Anna shook her head. “Do not worry yourself, Mr. Lloyd. I am well aware of the man my father is.” She glanced at her husband, standing by her side, and for the first time she felt no anger over the arrangement that had led to her new situation in life. “Only…recently I have come to see that your involvement in this matter might be more fortunate than I first anticipated.” Ignoring the face-splitting grin that appeared on her husband’s face at her words, Anna kept her gaze focused on Mr. Lloyd, who also lit up like a Christmas tree.

  “I am glad to hear it, your grace,” Mr. Lloyd assured her, his eyes glowing. “I wish you all the happiness in the world.”

  “Thank you.” Seeing the sincerity on his face, Anna felt herself warm to the rather rigid and reserved-looking man. As she turned to the shelf holding the ledgers though, the smile slid off his face and he paled once more, making her wonder what secrets these volumes contained.

  “Your grace, I assure you I’ve done my utmost to keep an eye on the estate’s finances.” Wringing his hands, he stepped forward. “However, the lost investment which led to…well, eh…”

  “My marriage?” Anna offered.

  “Yes! No! I mean…”

  “Mr. Lloyd, just say what is on your mind.”

  He nodded, eyes cast down. “Certainly, your grace. Well, the late duke insisted on certain investments so that I was unable to prevent the loss of the money invested. Never would I have dared invest money without explicit permission, I assure you.”

  “I believe you, Mr. Lloyd,” Anna said, once again casting an eye at her husband, who had gotten himself a drink and was now lounging in one of the armchairs by the windows. “However, may I ask how long ago the late duke passed away?”

  “My father died about seven years ago,” her husband said, his voice serious without its usual cheerfulness. He walked over to them then, his drink forgotten on the desk. “Seven years,” he repeated, and Anna could clearly see the sadness over that loss in his eyes. There was a lot she did not know about her husband. At least, not yet.

  Brushing a hand down his arm, she smiled at him. “I’m sorry for your loss. I really am.” He squeezed her hand then and nodded. Taking a deep breath, Anna turned back to Mr. Lloyd. “Seven years is a long time. From what I understand the money invested was only lost during
the last year. Believing the investment to be unwise, was there nothing you could have done?”

  Not saying a word, Mr. Lloyd simply stared at her.

  “Are you all right, Old Man?” Edmond asked, frowning at his steward’s reaction to such a simple question.

  When Mr. Lloyd still remained silent, Anna stepped up to the shelf, reaching for the ledgers detailing the estate’s financials over the past ten years.

  Immediately, Mr. Lloyd came to life. “Your grace, please. I assure you there is no need for you to inspect the books.” He reached out a hand to stop her, but then thought better of it and let it fall. “I have done what I could to prevent it.”

  Anna nodded. “If that is the case, then, Mr. Lloyd, my looking at the books will do you no harm.”

  A forced smile came to his face, and he nodded. “Certainly, your grace.”

  Handing the thick volumes to her husband, Anna turned and left the office.

  As the door closed behind them, Edmond moaned, “Do you really intend to go through all these ledgers?” He eyed the stack in his hands with disgust. “That will take days. Weeks even.”

  Anna shrugged. “I need to know. What is a couple of days compared to financial stability. I think it’ll be worth it.”

  “Does that mean you will get started first thing in the morning? I had hoped we could ride out or find another entertaining activity.” Again he smirked at her, and she had no trouble reading what was on his mind.

  Feeling a glowing heat rise to her cheeks, Anna shook her head at him smiling. “I am sorry to disappoint you, but I intend on starting tonight.”

  “Tonight?” he grumbled, and his eyes narrowed. “Do you remember how I told you I liked your brilliant mind?” She nodded. “Well, I might have to take that back.”

  Elbowing him in the ribs, Anna laughed, then frowned at herself. When had they become so familiar with each other?

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