Cursed & cherished the d.., p.21
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       Cursed & Cherished: The Duke's Wilful Wife, p.21

         Part #2 of Love's Second Chance series by Bree Wolf
 
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  “Start at the beginning,” Edmond said. “And leave nothing out.”

  Mr. Lloyd nodded, taking a deep breath, and began his tale. “I was always a very practical man,” he glanced up, and Edmond nodded, “I followed the rules. I prided myself on being objective and rational.” Hearing his own words echoed in Mr. Lloyd’s voice, Edmond shook his head. “And then…and then I met Jemima.” A deep smile came to his face, mixed with an incredulous expression resting in his eyes. “I saw her once. Once! For a matter of minutes, and…all of a sudden nothing else mattered. I knew I wanted to marry her, and from that moment on I worked as hard as I could to give her the life she deserved. When I applied for the steward position at Brookestone, I never thought I’d have a chance. But your father,” he glanced up at Edmond, admiration shining in his eyes, “he met with me, and we talked. He asked my opinion on a number of things concerning the estate, and by the end of the day he hired me. I couldn’t believe it. Years later, I asked him what had made him do it, and he said, ‘You seemed like the right sort of man.’” Mr. Lloyd smiled, then sadness overtook him. “I am so sorry for what I did. I never meant to betray him, or you.”

  Edmond nodded in acknowledgement. “What happened then?”

  Licking his lips, Mr. Lloyd swallowed. “I left London and took up my position at Brookestone. Whenever I had a spare minute, I would work on the house that would one day harbour our family. It took months to get everything in place, but when I returned to ask for her hand,” he paused, and pain filled his eyes, “I found her already married to Mr. Hanford.” He shook his head as though he still couldn’t believe it.

  “What? How? Why did she marry him if she thought you were to make an offer?”

  Closing his eyes, he shook his head. “It was my fault. I never said anything to her. Never told her of my intentions. Never mentioned that the position I was applying for would see us both settled.” He swallowed. “She believed I had left. For good. Without saying a word.” He drew in a deep breath, and his features grew hard. “And Ambrose Hanford, he was…he seemed like a kind man. Before I learnt what kind of a person he really was, I did like. He was a good-looking young man, making his way in the trade business. He had more to offer than I ever would. Jemima’s father immediately accepted Mr. Hanford’s proposal, and well,…what could she do? She had her own future to think of.”

  At Mr. Lloyd’s words, Anna’s face drifted before his eyes. Even when she had hated the very sight of him, no one could have taken her from him. Unbelievable relief washed over him at knowing that he could not lose her, at least not like Mr. Lloyd had lost Anna’s mother. “Did you ever speak to her after you returned?”

  He nodded. “A few weeks later we happened to meet at a friend’s wedding, and for the first time I told her that I loved her. I knew it was wrong. I never meant to. But when I saw her, I couldn’t help myself.” Closing his eyes, he wrung his hands. “She cried. She cried like I’ve never seen anyone cry. It broke my heart all over again, seeing how much I’d hurt her. She told me she loved me too.” He opened his eyes then and met Edmond’s gaze. “But what could we do?” He shrugged. “It was too late.”

  Feeling the sadness and despair of Mr. Lloyd’s lost love like a lump in his own chest, Edmond cleared his throat. “But how can Anna be your daughter? I thought you two might have…but…I mean, she is the younger sister.”

  As a deep red coloured his tear-stained cheeks, Mr. Lloyd averted his eyes. “It was years later. Judith was already born. We met again, and…we…I…”

  “I see.” Edmond nodded. “Anna doesn’t know, does she?”

  Mr. Lloyd’s eyes grew round as plates. “No. No one does, except for Jemima and myself. You, and…” He drew in a deep breath. “And Ambrose Hanford.”

  “What?” Again Edmond stared.

  Mr. Lloyd shrugged his shoulders. “To this day, I don’t know how he found out. But he did, and…”

  “What did he do?” Edmond asked, certain they were getting closer to the real reason for Mr. Lloyd’s betrayal.

  “He sent me a message, asking to meet him in his office. I didn’t want to go, but what rea-son could I give to decline.” He shook his head, remembering. “When I walked in, he had that triumphant sneer on his face, and I knew that something awful awaited me. He told me he knew that I loved his wife and that I was Anna’s real father. Hearing it almost knocked me off my feet.”

  “I can imagine,” Edmond whispered, remembering his initial dislike for his father-in-law. “Did he ask you to steal the money?”

  “I am not sure that ‘ask’ is the correct term, but yes, he told me if I did not do exactly as he said, he would…,” Mr. Lloyd swallowed, “he would divorce Jemima and reveal Anna as a bastard, effectively ruining their lives.”

  Shocked, Edmond shook his head. That, he would not have expected of his father-in-law. Was the man truly that ruthless? “Do you really think he would have done that? Such an action would have ruined him as well.”

  Mr. Lloyd shrugged. “I don’t know. I couldn’t be sure. I couldn’t risk it.” Pleading eyes turned to Edmond. “What choice did I have? I couldn’t think of a way out.”

  “He wanted money?” Edmond clarified, and Mr. Lloyd nodded. “What for? His business?” Again Mr. Lloyd nodded his head in confirmation. “And the lost investments?”

  Averting his eyes, Mr. Lloyd shook his head. “There never were investments, at least none at that amount. Your father would never have risked Brookestone.”

  “I see,” Edmond whispered, trying to keep the blood in his veins from boiling over. “So I never needed to marry in order to save Brookestone, but Mr. Hanford wanted a titled husband for one of his daughters.”

  “He did.”

  Remembering the moment, Mr. Lloyd had informed him of the enormous debt hanging over his head, Edmond felt his hands shake with anger. How dare he? After his father gave him a chance, hiring him without recommendation and previous work experience. After trusting him without question.

  Anna.

  Out of the blue her face resurfaced.

  If Mr. Lloyd hadn’t betrayed them, Edmond would never have married…He shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts. “You suggested Anna,” he said, remembering the many conversations he and Mr. Lloyd had had on the topic of choosing a suitable bride. “Of course, you steered me toward Mr. Hanford’s daughters, but you were the only one who said that Anna would be the one for me.” His eyes narrowed, observing the defeated man before him. “Everyone else encouraged me to choose Judith. In fact, they all advised me to keep my distance from Anna because she was so direct and strong-willed. They said I’d regret marrying her till the end of my days.” He leaned forward, forcing Mr. Lloyd to look at him. His eyes burning with renewed anger and suspicion. “Why did you suggest…your own daughter instead of Judith? Did you hope for any personal gain?”

  Frantically shaking his head, Mr. Lloyd stammered, “No. No. No. Please, I never thought…I just…I thought,” he swallowed, “I thought you would suit each other. I thought you could have what I lost with her mother.”

  Frowning, Edmond sat back.

  “I’ve always known that Anna was my daughter,” Mr. Lloyd began, new tears forming in the corners of his eyes. “But I never got to be her father while at the same time I had to watch Mr. Hanford use the people around him for his personal gain, including his family. More than once I wanted to step in and protect her, protect them, but I couldn’t. I knew that no matter what I did, it would only make things worse.” Brushing away the tears, he lifted his head, determination shining in his eyes. “But when Mr. Hanford revealed his plan to persuade you to marry one of his daughters, I saw my chance to free her once and for all.”

  “Free her?” Edmond shook his head. “By tying her to me? A man she didn’t even know. A man she despised for…How could you do that?”

  “Although I never got to be her father, I know her.” He nodded, the hint of a smile lighting up his features. “I’ve always kept a close eye
on her.” When Edmond frowned, he lifted a hand to halt his objections. “I know, I took the choice out of her hands just like Mr. Hanford did, but I…As well as I knew her, I knew you just as much, your grace. I watched you grow up, just like her, and I’ve always thought that you two would be the perfect match.” He shrugged. “I am sorry for not consulting you, either of you, but there was no way I could have.” He took a deep breath, then opened his mouth to speak. “Do you care for her?” he asked for the second time that night, and Edmond saw the older man’s hands trembling as he waited for an answer.

  With Anna, Edmond had only just shared his feelings, hoping that she would reciprocate. But she hadn’t. At least not in words. Could he share what he felt for her with the world?

  Looking at Mr. Lloyd, he felt reminded of his own father. How often had he seen those dark blue eyes filled with worry and concern when Edmond had gone off on another adventure? The same look he now saw in Mr. Lloyd’s eyes.

  “I do,” he finally admitted, and the other man almost fainted with relief.

  A face-splitting smile lit up the old man’s features. “Then no matter what happens, she will be safe.”

  Edmond nodded. “That I can assure you.” Clearing his throat, he leaned forward, fixing Mr. Lloyd with an icy stare. “But, what do you think will happen now?”

  Not intimidated in the least, Mr. Lloyd shrugged, fatigue clouding his eyes. “It matters little to me, as long as she is safe. She and her mother.”

  Eyes narrowing, Edmond observed his old steward carefully, trying to glimpse the depth of his character. “What were your plans after fleeing Brookestone?”

  Again Mr. Lloyd shrugged. “I had none. I merely left in order to keep my secret, mine and Jemima’s. I never wanted Anna’s true parentage revealed.”

  “I see,” Edmond mumbled, knowing only too well what plans of his own he had entered the Inn with. Demand answers, then see the man hanged for his betrayal!

  Only now he felt torn.

  Yes, Mr. Lloyd had betrayed his family, had betrayed him, and that betrayal stung. It stung because Edmond had always counted the man among his friends. He had cared about him like he would have cared about his father’s brother, and Edmond realised that the emotional betrayal hurt a thousand times more than the loss of the money ever could.

  Again a small voice in the back of his head whispered that Anna would not be his wife to-day, if Mr. Lloyd had not made the choices he had. How could he blame him? How could he see him hanged for something he would have done too? If he, Edmond, had fallen in love with Anna, and then, for whatever reason, she had married another, could he have moved on? Could he have let her go? The mere thought made his insides burn like fire!

  Glancing at the haggard man, exhaustion slumping his shoulders while relief painted a smile on his face, Edmond knew that he could not. For Anna’s sake alone, he could not have the man hanged. But feeling the urge to be completely honest, Edmond realised that despite everything that had happened, they could be allies still. Allies against a common enemy, Mr. Hanford.

  Cold-hearted like no one else Edmond had ever met, he pursued his ambitious goals, not caring who he had to betray or use in the process. Feeling new anger flare into life, Edmond squared his shoulders. Something had to be done!

  “Stay here,” he ordered, rising from the chair. “I will send word as soon as I’ve figured out what to do.”

  Puzzlement drawing down his brows, Mr. Lloyd looked up. “You are not having me arrested?”

  Pressing his lips into a tight line, Edmond met his eyes. “I am not. I intended to, but the circumstances are different now.”

  “Thank you, your grace.” With moist eyes, Mr. Lloyd looked up at him, a smile playing on his features. “I knew you would be the man for her.”

  Swallowing, Edmond opened the door. “Stay here until you hear from me.”

  Mr. Lloyd nodded. “Upon my honour, or what is left of it, I shall not leave this room.”

  Chapter Forty-One − White Lies

  Sitting in the dark carriage as it rumbled along the cobblestone street, Edmond was deep in thought. That night truly had been revealing, in more ways than one, and yet nothing was settled. What was he to do now? He had instructed Mr. Lloyd to remain at the Inn until he would send word, but at this point he didn’t have a clue what that would be.

  Although he had been furious when first learning of Mr. Lloyd’s deception, cursing his name and wishing he had never laid eyes on the man to begin with, he now realised that it was indeed this deception, which had ultimately brought happiness his way. Otherwise, he would never even have contemplated marrying Anna. And what a mistake that would have been!

  Breathing in the rather balmy night air, Edmond contemplated his options. Yes, Anna was his wife. No one could take her from him. However, unwise revelations could still injure her in a way that she would not be able to recover from. Remembering that day in the clearing when he had first seen resignation in her eyes, Edmond shivered. And yet how fiercely she had fought him because he had been the means to tie her hands and take away her choices in life. How would she react if she didn’t only find out that her father had betrayed her in a most unscrupulous way, but that on top of everything he wasn’t even her real father. And that the man who was had made decisions for her life just the same. And all the while her mother had never breathed a word to her about this.

  Climbing the stairs to their townhouse, Edmond dreaded each step.

  When he reached his bedchamber, he sneaked over to the adjoining door, pressing his ear against it. Everything was silent, and so he slowly pushed down the handle and let the door swing open.

  The dim light from the two candles he had lit illuminated a small path guiding him to his sleeping wife.

  Lying on her back, Anna’s hands rested beside her head, fingers curled into the pillow, her scarlet hair sprawled across the white linen. Occasionally, her eyes would move from side to side and a deep sigh rise from her throat, but other than that she slept peacefully.

  Taking a deep breath, Edmond closed his eyes. He could not tell her. If he did, would she ever sleep like this again? Or would her nights be tormented by the past lies he had revealed to her.

  Edmond shook his head. No, he could not tell her. Whatever he chose to do with Mr. Lloyd, he could not risk injuring her again. What if she were to withdraw from the world around her because it proved too painful to handle?

  In that moment, a quiet little voice whispered that although he truly cared for her he was not as noble as that. The real reason he did not wake her up this second was because he was afraid to lose her; more precisely because he was afraid of what losing her would do to his own life.

  Edmond was in love, for the first time that he remembered. And on top of everything he was in love with his wife. Remembering the stony path Graham and Rosabel had walked until they had found true happiness in each other’s arms, he knew he wanted this for himself.

  More than anything, he wanted Anna in his life. He wanted to see her smile and hear her laugh. He wanted to lead her into a ballroom and have all men envy him because she was his. He wanted to dance with her, argue with her and fight with her. He wanted to share his thoughts with her, his sorrows and his joys. And he wanted her to be the fierce warrior bride she was, not the re-signed shadow of a great woman who had once lived.

  He couldn’t tell her.

  And yet, if he didn’t, he too would be lying to her.

  Chapter Forty-Two − Amends

  Surprised that she had slept more than just a wink, Anna rose early the next morning. Finding the adjoining bedchamber empty, she hastened downstairs and, after enquiring after her husband’s whereabouts, came upon him in the library. He stood before the rows upon rows of books, immobile like an ancient stone pillar, hands linked behind his back.

  Careful to avoid any sound, Anna approached him, grateful for the heavy rugs swallowing up all sounds of her footsteps. And yet when she came to stand behind him, she could tell by a slight c
hange in posture that he knew she was there.

  “My father loved the library,” he said, eyes still fixed on the endless number of titles before him. “He found it peaceful and yet invigorating. Whenever something troubled him, he would come here, lock himself away for hours, and then,” shaking his head, he shrugged, “he would reappear, a smile back on his face.” He turned to look at her then, a small chuckle rising from his throat. “As a boy I was convinced there was some kind of magic at work here, and I begged my father to confide in me, but he would just laugh and say, ‘The magic is within you, my boy.’” He took a deep breath, his shoulders slumped as though a great weight rested on them. “I’m still not entirely certain I know what he meant.” His eyes travelled around the room. “But he was right, I never found any magic here.”

  “Maybe for you it is not the library that holds magic,” Anna replied, wondering what had brought on such musings. “But I am certain you have a place of your own where you seek shelter when harsh things come your way.” A smile drew up the corners of her mouth, and she took a step forward. “Is it the clearing by the woods?”

  His eyes shifted to her then, and he returned her smile. “You know me too well, my lady.” He held out his hands then, and when she took them, he pulled her into his arms, his warm breath brushing by her cheek.

  Sighing, Anna settled into his embrace, and for a second closed her eyes, savouring the moment she knew could not last. Then she lifted her head and took a step back. “Any news of Mr. Lloyd?”

  For a second he seemed startled as though he hadn’t expected the question. “There is in-deed,” he said then, and there was neither anger nor relief in his eyes, but resignation as though what he was about to tell her pained him greatly. “After receiving information that he had rented a room at an Inn last night, I immediately left to confront him.” He cleared his throat, then went silent.

 
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