Cursed & cherished the d.., p.19
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       Cursed & Cherished: The Duke's Wilful Wife, p.19

         Part #2 of Love's Second Chance series by Bree Wolf
 
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  “My lady, you cannot be serious,” Edmond said, adding a truly pained tone to his voice. “You cannot truly choose these dusty books over my pleasurable company.” Again his brows rose into arches as he grinned at her. “I promise to be very, very pleasurable.”

  Unable to suppress a smile, Anna shook her head. “I am sorry to disappoint, my lord. Un-fortunately, I am already otherwise engaged.” Batting her eyelashes at him, she smiled devilishly. “Maybe another time.”

  As she turned and walked down the corridor, she could almost hear his shoulders slump as he moaned, “Now, you’re just being cruel.”

  Chapter Thirty-Six − A New Day

  Resting comfortably against a propped up pillow on her sizable canopy bed, Anna had the ledgers spread out before her. Night had long since fallen, and her eyelids grew heavy; however, the need to know, to understand drove Anna on.

  Besides the withdrawals from the year before her wedding ominously marked ‘miscellaneous’ and the fact that their collective sum almost exactly matched the amount of her dowry, Anna could not find anything else that peaked her curiosity.

  At least not, until she went further back than the past year.

  Although Mr. Lloyd was usually very detailed about every kind of expenditure, she once more discovered withdrawals simply marked ‘miscellaneous’. Flipping through the ledgers, scanning the pages roughly before moving on to the next, Anna found rather small withdrawals month for month dating back at least ten years.

  What had this money been used for? Even if Mr. Lloyd should try to explain its usage as an investment payment, Anna would never believe him. There was something about the way these small amounts were fitted into the regular payments for the upkeep of the estate that made her think that someone−probably Mr. Lloyd−had sought to hide them. But why? Had he embezzled the money? Had he counted on Edmond’s hatred for numbers, knowing that he would never ask to see the ledgers?

  Feeling the need for answers burn in her veins, Anna would have liked nothing more but to drag Mr. Lloyd from his bed and demand them right then and there. However, the rational part of her mind cautioned that such a reaction would be unwise. Should she tell Edmond what she had found? How would he react? From what he had told her Mr. Lloyd was well thought of, almost considered family. He had been in employment on the estate even before Edmond had been born. What would he do now if he found out the man he had trusted his whole life had betrayed not only him but his father before him as well? But whatever his reaction would be, Anna knew that he would have to be told. There was no way around it.

  Tears formed in the corners of her eyes as she contemplated the betrayal he would feel upon learning of his steward’s deceit, and the thought pained her.

  Anna shook her head. Only a few days ago, she had wished him to the farthest regions of the earth, hoping that he would finally see that their marriage would never be one built on affection, but merely convenience. What had changed since then?

  A shy smile curled up the corners of her mouth as she remembered those three little words that had made all the difference, I love you.

  Had he truly meant it? Anna couldn’t help but wonder. She knew she had accepted their truthfulness almost without hesitation, but now, removed from his presence and the temptation of his deep blue eyes and smirking lips, she knew she ought to question them before allowing herself to risk her heart.

  But was it not too late for that already? A small voice whispered. Had she not already given him her heart without thinking? Without even noticing? How had he done it? How had he found a way around the defences she had so carefully erected around herself? Almost from the beginning she had been aware of his charms, had seen other women succumb to them; and yet knowing all that she had she had still been unable to fight him off.

  Deep down she had known all along that should he not succeed in provoking her to kill him she would fall for him heart and soul. Only she had never allowed herself to admit it.

  Drat! That man was a nuisance!

  Yet the question remained, was she wise to have done so? Or should she do her utmost to slowly−and painfully−reclaim her heart and shield it from his influence? If she didn’t, what would he do with it? Would he guard it? Or would the day come when he would rip it from her chest and break it into a thousand pieces?

  A painful throbbing began to pound behind her temples, and yet when Anna closed her eyes all she saw where his eyes looking into hers. What was she to do?

  ***

  The next morning Anna rose with the sun. Unable to sleep, she had spent the night tossing and turning, counting the minutes until she could finally reveal her discoveries.

  After slipping into a simple gown, she tied her hair in the back, not bothering to call for a maid. Then she approached the door, separating her own bedchamber from that of her husband, and knocked. When the door didn’t open, and she didn’t even hear him stir, Anna knocked again. This time with more vehemence, feeling her own impatience like a demon sitting on her shoulder.

  After a small eternity, she finally heard footsteps approach the door, but still felt annoyed with how slow he moved. Almost jumping up and down with eagerness, she grabbed his hand the second the door opened and pulled him through. “We need to talk! I carefully looked over every-thing and−”

  A wide grin met her as he casually leaned in the door frame, the top button of his breeches still undone and his shirt hanging open from collar to navel.

  Anna’s eyes grew wide as she only now noticed his state of undress. Spinning on her heel, she turned her back to him. “You could have gotten dressed!”

  He laughed. “It seemed you were in a hurry to speak to me.” Footsteps echoed behind her before his hands descended on her shoulders, urging her to turn around.

  Keeping her eyes fixed on the ceiling, Anna faced him…and the smirk once again decorating his features.

  Again he laughed, clearly delighted with her embarrassment. “Look at me, Anna.” Reluctantly, she lowered her eyes to his face. “Better. Now, what were you so anxious to see me about?” Again his eye brows arched up at the word ‘see’.

  Anna took a deep breath and closed her eyes, feeling the old desire to end his life once again take root. Silently she counted to ten before meeting his gaze once more. “As I said I went through the ledgers.” The smirk on his face vanished, replaced by an expression of sheer boredom. Ignoring his disinterest, Anna continued to explain her findings. “I assume you cannot provide me with an answer, but do you have any idea what ‘miscellaneous’ is? What it could mean?”

  Edmond shook his head, his brows now drawn down in concern, a hint of anger coming to his features. “I have no idea. But I’m starting to think I should.”

  This time Anna raised her eyebrows at him.

  “Yes, I know. You told me all along I should take an interest.” He nodded, looking like a school boy scolded by his teacher. “I suppose you were right.”

  Trying to suppress a grin but unable to do so completely, Anna rolled her eyes at him. “You might as well get used to that.”

  Chuckling, he reached for her and quick as lightning pulled her into his arms.

  Anna froze, dropping her hands to her side.

  Lowering his head to hers, he looked into her eyes, his own dark with meaning. “And you might as well get used to looking at me,” he whispered, brushing his lips against hers. “As soon as this is settled,” he continued, moulding her body against his. “I am claiming my marital rights.”

  Anna drew in a deep breath. Although she knew he was serious, she also detected a hint of a challenge in his tone. Never had she surrendered to his demands, did he really think she would now?

  Gathering all her courage, she gave him an indulgent smile, then lifted her hands to his chest and once again freed herself from his embrace. “My lord, I must protest. Your attitude does not serve our current purpose.” Crossing her arms, she glared at him. “I suggest you get properly attired so that we can consult Mr. Lloyd.”

 
; “Fine,” he consented, sounding utterly disappointed. However, before the door closed be-hind him, he turned back to her, a smirk on his face. “Let me be clear, my lady, I am very much looking forward to a purpose that does not require us to be properly attired.”

  Once again, Anna felt her cheeks burn as though on fire, and yet her fingers still tingled from the short moment they had brushed against his skin. Was that why he had challenged her? So she would push him away? So she would touch him?

  Was everything a game?

  Chapter Thirty-Seven − Betrayal

  Once again they approached his steward’s office. Only this time, Edmond felt great apprehension as the oak door came within view. More than anything, he wanted to turn back and ignore Anna’s discoveries. Life would be a lot easier if he could.

  Unfortunately, that was not an option. He owed it to Anna, to his father, to Brookestone…yes, and even to himself to find out if the man he had always put his complete trust in had betrayed him.

  The thought alone seemed ludicrous!

  His legs striding forward with an angry hunger for revenge that his heart had not quite embraced yet, Edmond found his fist pounding on the heavy oak door a moment later. Somewhat startled, he lowered his hand, waiting to be granted entry. When no reply came, he knocked, then opened the door.

  The room lay in darkness, only the first few tentative rays of the early morning sun casting the light inside.

  “Maybe he is still in his quarters,” Anna suggested behind him. “Should we wait?” Her voice sounded less emotional than it had before. Could she sense the anger slowly building within him? Did he scare her? Or was she simply trying to balance his mood with her own?

  “No!” he growled under his breath, giving her a half-hearted smile as he took her hand and led her back the corridor they had come. When they reached the stables, he did not wait for a stable boy to assist him. Instead, he took a bridle, threw it on the nearest gelding and led it outside into the courtyard.

  “Where are we going?” Anna asked, eyeing him curiously. “Does Mr. Lloyd not live here?”

  “He does,” Edmond replied, swinging himself on the horse’s back. “Out by the main gate.” Leaning forward, he held out his hand to her. Before she took it, a smile lit up her features. Then she pulled herself up behind him.

  Urging his horse to a gallop, Edmond revelled in the feel of her leaning against his back, her arms wrapped around him. And yet, his anger and disappointment seeped through, spoiling the moment.

  That morning when she had first spoken of her discoveries, Edmond’s mind had distanced itself from the emotions that later coursed through him. Detached, he could not believe the words she had spoken. But then as he had removed himself to his own chamber to dress, equally removing himself from her rather distracting presence, the truth of her words had slowly made themselves heard. By the time he had joined her again, he had been fuming with anger.

  Reaching the small cobblestone house near the main gate, Edmond felt a sense of doom falling over him before he had even set a foot inside. Reining in his horse, he extended his arm to help Anna down before jumping to the ground himself.

  Approaching the front of the building, they found the door ajar. “Blasted hell! He took off!” Pushing the door open with such force that it banged against the wall, Edmond went from room to room. The floors were littered with hastily dropped clothing as well as papers and food. Returning to the front room, he stopped, shaking his head. “I cannot believe it.”

  Stepping toward him, Anna took his hand. “I know. Betrayal is always the worst to take, especially when you do not see it coming.”

  “But I should have!” he snapped, dropping her hand. Pacing the room, he looked at her. “Shouldn’t I? You would have. You would have taken an interest from the beginning. No one would have been able to sneak something like that past you.” He slapped his forehead. “It was right before my eyes!”

  “Do not blame yourself,” she counselled, once again taking his hand. Her eyes looked into his, and to his relief he did not read judgement in them, only understanding. “We all have our faults, and we all have to live with them.”

  He nodded, knowing her words to be true, and yet… “This is a man I trusted. He was like family. I…”

  “We all have our price,” she said, and his head snapped back to stare at her. “Some of us you can buy for less, some of us for more money. But does that really make a difference?”

  Shocked at the resigned tone in her voice, Edmond looked at her. He saw the pain over his selfish proposal, over her father’s arrogant motives. He saw the anger that had fuelled her and the resignation at having her life taken out of her hands. And for the first time, he understood. He understood how money can alter a relationship. How it can poison everything there is until you cannot be certain of anything anymore.

  His steward’s betrayal was minor compared to the one she had suffered, and yet it stung and burned like the fires of hell.

  How could he ever make amends? How could she ever forgive him?

  How could she ever love him?

  In that moment Edmond realised that, although he had spoken of his love for her, she had not reciprocated.

  How could she?

  Chapter Thirty-Eight − Suspicions

  Upon their return to London, her husband immediately set off to enquire after Mr. Lloyd’s whereabouts.

  “Why do you think he is here?” Anna wondered aloud, following him down the corridor to-ward the front hall.

  Edmond shrugged. “It is easier to disappear in a city of tens of thousands than out in the country.” Stopping at the front door, he turned to her, the lines on his face hard as she had never seen them before. “I will find him, and he will pay for what he did.”

  Anna nodded, ignoring the sense of dread that settled in her stomach. “Why do you think he stole the money?”

  Edmond shook his head. “Greed, I suppose. Why else do people steal?” Planting a kiss on her cheek, he left her standing in the doorway, wondering what this day would bring.

  Why do people steal?

  Anna spent the remainder of the morning asking herself that very question. Although greed usually was an important factor, Anna could not quite make sense of it with regard to Mr. Lloyd. He had been in the duke’s employ for decades, and from what she could tell had started stealing money about fifteen years ago. Had he stashed the money away for his future? Had he planned to leave sometime soon? Why hadn’t he already? After all, he had only now left when he was about to be discovered.

  From what Edmond had told her, Mr. Lloyd had never married. He had no family and only few acquaintances. According to Edmond, the only thing Mr. Lloyd had ever done was work.

  Why? Anna wondered again and again. What other reasons were there but greed? Necessity maybe? Could it be that Mr. Lloyd had needed the money for something important or someone in need? Then why had he not spoken to the family? Would they not have helped him?

  Probably not, Anna thought, considering the amount of money he had needed.

  When noon came around, Anna had worn a hole in the expensive Persian rug in the drawing room. And yet still no word from Edmond.

  Making up her mind, Anna rang for the carriage and set off to her parents’ house. With his connections in trade, maybe her father knew something. At the very least, it gave her something to do other than waiting.

  Since her father was out when Anna arrived, she sat down to a cup of tea with her mother.

  “Why are you so agitated, child?”

  Forcing her hands to still and drop the hem of her dress before they could work a hole in it, Anna sighed. “I hardly know where to begin. Something awful has happened.”

  Setting down her cup of tea, her mother came to sit beside her. Her brows drew down in concern, and she took Anna’s hands in hers. “What is it, Anna?”

  Collecting her thoughts, Anna informed her mother of Mr. Lloyd’s duplicity. With every word, Anna spoke, her mother grew paler and paler. “
And is there any word?” her mother breathed. “Has your husband been able to find him?”

  Shaking her head in frustration, Anna huffed, “None. That’s why I came. I feel like losing my mind just sitting at home, having nothing to do.”

  Eyes distant, her mother nodded. “And are you certain it was Mr. Lloyd who stole the money? He seemed like such a trustworthy man.”

  “How do you know? When did you meet him?” Anna frowned, then her eyes cleared. “Oh yes, at the wedding.” She shrugged. “It seems like it. Who else could it have been? He was the one to handle all the finances, and he is the one who is gone. What other conclusion is there?”

  Rising from her seat, her mother walked over to the window, staring out at the busy street. “I suppose there is none.”

  Worry creeping into her heart, Anna eyed her mother’s turned back. “Are you all right, Mother?”

  “Yes.” Wringing her hands, her mother turned to look at her, a forced smile on her lips. “It’s just such an awful story. I am sorry you have to go through this. I−”

  A loud bang echoed over from the front hall.

  “Father is here!” Anna jumped up, her feet carrying her out the door before her mother could finish the sentence. Just short of running, Anna rushed across the hall to her father’s study. After a quick knock, she opened the door the second her father bid her to enter.

  “Anna?” His eyebrows went up. “I didn’t know you were back in London. Is everything all right? You look rather flustered.”

  Coming to stand before his desk, Anna drew in a deep breath to calm her nerves. “I need to speak with you. It is rather urgent. Do you have a moment?”

  A concerned frown on his face, her father gestured for her to take a seat. “What on earth has happened?”

  And for the second time that day, Anna told the story of Mr. Lloyd’s betrayal. “And when we went to confront him, we found him gone.”

 
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