Cursed & cherished the d.., p.20
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       Cursed & Cherished: The Duke's Wilful Wife, p.20

         Part #2 of Love's Second Chance series by Bree Wolf
 
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  “Gone?” Rubbing his hands over his face, her father blinked as beats of sweat popped up on his forehead. “What do you mean gone?”

  “He left, Father. He packed his things and left in the middle of the night.”

  Pulling a handkerchief from his pocket, her father dabbed his forehead. “And do you know where he went? Surely, your husband has some way of finding him.”

  “He is looking, but so far he has not sent word.” Eyeing her father curiously, Anna wondered at his own rather flustered state. “Father, are you all right?”

  “Me?” For a second his eyes went wide, then, laughing, he waved her concerns away. “Oh, don’t worry about me. It was simply a stressful day down at the docks. Another ship came in just yesterday, and I have a lot of work to do.”

  “Really?” Anna couldn’t help but wonder. “But you only seemed to get agitated after you heard my telling of Mr. Lloyd’s betrayal.”

  “Nonsense, child,” her father insisted, his eyes refusing to meet hers. “I am merely shocked that a man of such questionable character has been in the duke’s employ.” He nodded vigorously. “Yes, the mere thought that you might have been in danger is just horrifying. Any parent would feel the same way. After all you’re my…daughter.”

  Although his explanation was perfectly reasonable, Anna’s eyes still narrowed. “I’m sorry to have alarmed you, Father,” she said, seeing the relief over her acceptance of his explanation clearly on his face.

  Something was definitely wrong! What was her father hiding? Did he know anything of Mr. Lloyd’s whereabouts?

  “I actually came here,” Anna began, her eyes carefully watching her father’s every move. “Because I meant to ask for your assistance in locating Mr. Lloyd. Certainly, you are well-connected. Can you not make enquiries?”

  For a moment, her father’s features went rigid before a relieved smile once more drew up the corners of his mouth. “Certainly. After dinner, I shall head down to my office and have David make enquiries. I am sure something will turn up.”

  “Thank you, Father.” As Anna rose from her chair, her father returned his attention to the papers on his desk. She turned to go then, but stopped when she had reached the door…and looked back.

  Gazing out the window, her father sat leaning back in his chair, fingers steepled. A smile lit up his face; a smile that froze the blood in Anna’s veins for her father’s smile did not speak of happiness or joy, but rather of triumph and victory. It was a dark smile. A smile born out of the misfortune of others.

  And Anna knew she had seen it before.

  If she could only remember when.

  ***

  When Anna returned home in the late afternoon, Edmond was still gone. He had sent a quick message, saying that he had had no luck so far but had enlisted the help of the Bow Street runners. Disappointed, Anna went to bed early, her father’s reaction still playing before her eyes.

  Sleep wouldn’t come that night, and Anna tossed and turned until faint footsteps echoed through the closed door. Jumping up, she drew on her robe, then without knocking pulled open the door to her husband’s bedchamber. “Any news?”

  Looking up with weary eyes, Edmond shook his head. “I’m afraid not.” Stepping toward her, he drew her hands in his, an exhausted smile playing on his lips. “Were you waiting for me? Or for news of Mr. Lloyd?”

  Smiling, Anna reached up and cupped a hand to his face, feeling a slight stubble under her fingertips. “Can it be both?”

  Yawning, he nodded.

  “Go to bed,” Anna whispered. “We will talk in the morning.” Then she stepped back, ready to close the door behind her, when his hand shot out, holding her back.

  Drawing her into his arms, he skimmed a finger down her cheek, gazing into her eyes. “I missed you today.”

  Touched by his words, Anna smiled. “I missed you too.” Then she raised herself on her toes, gave him a quick kiss on the cheek and wished him a good night. Before the door fell closed behind her, she heard him sink into his mattress, a deep yawn echoing through the dark room.

  Returning to her own bed, Anna drew the covers around herself, feeling her eyelids droop. Relieved, she closed her eyes, willing sleep to take her, freeing her from the never ending array of questions her mind could not stop asking.

  Although sleep did come, it was far from restful. Dreams claimed her, pulling her under and drawing images before her eyes she had long since forgotten. One such image formed slowly as though it was incomplete.

  Anna found herself in her parents’ house, walking down the staircase to the entry hall. Her hand sliding down the rail beside her, she craned her neck, glancing into the ground floor, trying to spot her sister. They were to spend the day outside in the gardens. Looking down, Anna found a picnic basket in her other hand, her favourite doll securely fastened to its lid.

  A little surprised, Anna realised that the memory she was reliving had found her from many years in the past.

  When she found the drawing room to be empty, Anna decided to visit her father and ask if he had seen Judith.

  Stepping up to the double doors of the study, Anna found one to be ajar. Leaning forward, she peeked through the small gap.

  Sitting behind his desk was her father, a sneer on his face, narrowed eyes focused on a rather thin, immaculately dressed man, standing before him. While her father seemed completely at ease, triumphant really, the other man was ashen-faced, his hands trembling as he hung his head as though it was too heavy to hold up any longer.

  Although affection and family ties should have dictated otherwise, Anna’s little heart went out to the trembling man, who had such misery edged into his eyes that Anna looked at her own father in shock.

  Her little hands trembled as she retreated from the door, then turned and ran…the picnic all but forgotten.

  When the memory finally released her, Anna shot upright in bed, her heart pounding in her chest. At first confused, she looked about her room, dim starlight shining in through the windows, and remembered where she was.

  Catching her breath, she wiped the sleep out of her eyes, trying to hold on to the last shreds of her dream. She closed her eyes, and a shiver went over her as the scene in her father’s study appeared once more in her mind. Only too well did she remember the dark feeling that had come over her upon witnessing her father’s disdain for the well-being of others. It had been the first time in her life that she had realised that the kind man her father was in her presence was but one of many facets he harboured within himself.

  Shaking her head to rid herself of these troubling thoughts, Anna felt a new coldness spread over her when time flew onward and she once again found herself standing outside her father’s study, overhearing a conversation between her father and another man. It had been the night before her sister’s wedding. That day she had not seen the man’s face, who had found himself at the lower end of her father’s mercy, but she had heard his voice, and remembered well the disgust it had held for her father.

  Slowly, both memories began to merge, shifting into one another, each adding what the other lacked. Until she saw the truth as clear as day.

  The other man had been Mr. Lloyd.

  For a reason that first eluded her, Mr. Lloyd had been in her father’s study, at least twice, and whatever they had discussed had turned Mr. Lloyd’s stomach upside down. The look on his face as well as the tone of his voice clearly told her that he was the victim in this affair. Her father had the upper hand, exacting the power he had over him in whichever way he liked.

  What had her father done? Did he have anything to do with Mr. Lloyd’s betrayal? With the money being stolen?

  The money.

  Anna froze, remembering the monthly withdrawals as well as the lost investments adding up to the sum of her dowry. Tears came to her eyes when realisation dawned, and she could do nothing but to look truth in the eye…as ugly as it was.

  If Edmond found out, he would never forgive her.

  Breaking down into
tears, Anna sank back into the covers. In the back of her head though, a tiny voice still whispered, why?

  Chapter Thirty-Nine − For Nothing

  When Anna once more awoke, she found her husband’s bedchamber empty. He had probably set out again, trying to hunt down Mr. Lloyd.

  At the thought, her dreams of the previous night returned clear as day, and Anna groaned. Deep down, she had hoped it might not be true after all.

  Barely eating a morsel, Anna quickly returned to her chamber, feeling the almost desperate need for solitude. Since her ever-curious mind would not allow her to rest, Anna acquiesced. Closing her eyes, she sought to remember all that she could. Somehow everything fit together, she was sure of it.

  Taking a deep breath, Anna once more went over the situation that had so shockingly revealed itself to her the previous night. Determined to keep her fears and doubts at bay, Anna set out to clear her mind, wondering what she truly knew to be true and what she only feared to be.

  What had she learnt?

  Mr. Lloyd and her father knew each other, and had for a while. At least ten years or more, judging by how old she was in her childhood memory.

  Mr. Lloyd disliked her father. Their relationship was not one of friendship or a business relation, not even a mere acquaintance. From his demeanour, Anna knew that Mr. Lloyd would rather terminate the connection for good. Then why didn’t he?

  Her father on the other hand had appeared pleased with the situation. Not necessarily with Mr. Lloyd’s disgust for him, but with the fact that whether Mr. Lloyd liked it or not, he was forced to…to what? What did her father have to gain from his connection to Mr. Lloyd?

  Disgusted, Anna shook her head, unwilling to see the moral aspects of her father’s behaviour at that moment. All her life she had glimpsed small frivolities in her father’s dealings with others, but never would she have suspected him to be devoid of compassion.

  Pushing the pain and disappointment over this realisation away, Anna focused on solving the mystery that still clouded the truth she so desperately needed to find.

  Apart from the animosity between her father and Mr. Lloyd, what else did she know?

  The money. Mr. Lloyd had embezzled money for years, and now in the year before her wedding he had taken greater amounts blaming their loss on unfortunate investments. As evidenced by Mr. Lloyd’s disappearance, that was not true. Then where had the money gone? Had he truly taken it for himself? That seemed unlikely. He had no family to support. No interest in an expensive pastime. No debts to cover. At least as far as they knew, there was no good reason for Mr. Lloyd to have taken the money. He hadn’t needed it. Then why?

  If he hadn’t kept it for himself, who had he given it to? And why?

  Remembering her reaction to discovering the amount of her dowry, Anna felt a heavy lump settle in the pit of her stomach. Even then she had thought it odd that her father would have been able to afford such a sum. What if she was right and he had never earned enough money as a merchant to explain her dowry? Where had the money come from?

  Anna knew the answer, had known it ever since the forgotten memory had resurfaced last night. The only thing she did not know, could not understand, was why Mr. Lloyd had stolen money from a family he had always been loyal to in order to hand it over to a man he despised. Why had he done it?

  Unable to find a satisfying answer to her own question, Anna’s mind abandoned its pondering and turned its attention to the small ache in her heart slowly growing in intensity.

  Edmond had married her in order to save his estate from ruin. Over time, he had grown to care for her. At least that was what he had said. Maybe he had only convinced himself to care for her, even love her, because he had no choice. She was his wife. He could not choose another, even if he wanted to.

  Feeling a chill run over her, Anna closed her eyes. The dowry for which he had married her had been his all along. Mr. Lloyd had stolen his money so that her father could return it to him as her dowry, so that he would marry her, so that her father could further his business contacts. The only one to gain from this was her father. But Edmond, he had married her for nothing. And now he was trapped, trapped in a marriage he never wanted.

  Heavy tears came to her eyes, clouding her sight, as she pictured his disappointment upon learning the truth she had just discovered. Would he hate her for it?

  How could he not?

  Chapter Forty − The Truth

  A fortnight passed until Edmond finally learnt of Mr. Lloyd’s whereabouts. In addition to enlisting the help of the Bow Street runners, he had turned to an old childhood friend who had greater resources at his disposal. Within two days, he had been able to provide him with the information he needed to know.

  Chuckling to himself, Edmond shook his head. It was indeed advantageous to count the future king of England among your friends.

  Standing before the Inn, The Crooked Duck, Edmond had trouble suppressing a grin. What a suitable name for a place harbouring a traitor!

  Although he felt certain that Anna would have wanted to be informed of his discovery, Edmond had not been able to bring himself to wake her. When he had returned home, she had already been asleep, her eyes closed in a deep slumber. The past fortnight had put a strain on her as well. She slept little, and if she did, she slept fitfully, tossing and turning. Even through the closed door, he could sometimes hear agonising moans rise from her lips. Dreams seemed to plague her, dreams that even haunted her during the day. He could see it in her eyes. More than once she had opened her mouth to tell him something, he was sure of it, only to change her mind. More than once he had been tempted to ask her what troubled her so, but whenever he saw her she seemed exhausted. The little time they had together during these days, he wanted to pass in peace so he did not press the matter. When all of this was over, he would speak to her and together they would find a way to overcome whatever it was that was troubling her.

  If she let him.

  Accompanied by two Bow Street Runners, Edmond had made his way through the dark al-leys of London, leaving behind the more distinguished neighbourhoods and entering the underbelly of a city of many facets. As he stood across the street from the Inn, its old wooden sign softly swaying in the wind, Edmond wondered what that night would bring. How would Mr. Lloyd explain himself?

  Stepping inside, Edmond was immediately engulfed in the taproom’s raucous hubbub. Not even bothering to raise his voice, he merely gestured for the two Bow Street Runners to remain behind and guard the door. He wanted to speak to Mr. Lloyd alone first.

  As he climbed the stairs, he could feel the old wood creak beneath his shoes. Walking down the dim corridor, he proceeded to the last door on the right. He took a deep breath, reminding himself to remain calm, and knocked.

  When the door creaked open, revealing a wide-eyed Mr. Lloyd in its frame, Edmond lost all control. Before he knew it, his fist connected with the older man’s jaw, sending him sprawling onto the floor. Stepping inside, Edmond banged the door shut, glowering at the man, rubbing his chin and brushing tears from his eyes.

  The smell of unwashed linen hung about the small, dimly lit room. Besides a bed in one corner and a chair and table in the other, the only other items Edmond saw where Mr. Lloyd’s stuffed bags. “When they told me where to find you, a part of me would not believe it,” he snarled as Mr. Lloyd staggered back to his feet. “With all the money you stole you could afford much better accommodation.”

  Wringing his hands, Mr. Lloyd stood before him, the sight of misery. His clothing dishevelled and his eyes blood-shot, he seemed barely able to keep himself on his feet. Nothing Edmond saw reminded him of the diligent man he had known all his life.

  Edmond’s anger began to cool, and he loosened the muscles in his hands; he hadn’t even been aware they had still been curled into fists. “Tell me what happened,” he ordered. “Why did you betray me? And my father?”

  Mr. Lloyd sighed, his pale green eyes shifting to Edmond, pleading, as he almost dropped onto the bed beh
ind him, his legs shaking like pudding. “I never meant to,” he whispered, burying his face in his hands. “I didn’t know what to do. I tried, but there was no other way. I couldn’t let him…”

  Growling at the bits and pieces his steward served up to him, Edmond hissed, “You’re not making any sense, Old Man.” He dragged up the weak-looking chair and sat down across from his old steward. “Tell me what made you do this. What made you betray us?” Eyeing the raggedly old man before him, Edmond had to admit that he was far from the cunning criminal he had pictured in his mind. What had happened to this man?

  Drawing a deep breath, Mr. Lloyd swallowed, then his eyes met Edmond’s. “Do you truly care for her?” he all but whispered.

  Confused, Edmond frowned. “Who?”

  “My…your…the duchess.”

  “What?” Edmond shook his head, trying to see the connection between what he wanted to know and what his steward was offering. “What does that have to do with anything? Again, you’re not making any sense!” Feeling frustration wash over him anew, he leaned forward on his knees, hands slowly curling back into fists.

  Mr. Lloyd’s eyes shifted to the threat before him, and he quickly said, “Because she is the reason I did what I did.”

  “What?” Edmond’s eyes flew open and his mouth stood agape. “Why? Who is she to you? You’ve never even met her before−”

  “She’s my daughter.”

  Words stuck in his throat, Edmond stared. Stared at the man who had just set his world upside down with only a few simple words.

  Looking down at his hands, Mr. Lloyd sighed, his shoulders slumped. “I loved her mother. A long time ago.” Then he smiled. “Actually that is not true. I still do.”

  Clearing his throat, Edmond looked at the man, who had always seemed like an open book. A man without secrets. A man who would never surprise you. A man who was predictable. How had his instincts failed him? Had he not always prided himself on being able to see to the core of people?

 
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