Cursed & cherished the d.., p.22
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       Cursed & Cherished: The Duke's Wilful Wife, p.22

         Part #2 of Love's Second Chance series by Bree Wolf
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  As her own eyes narrowed, Anna felt suspicion invade her being. What was he trying to hide from her? “Did he admit his guilt? Or did he deny what he had done?”

  “He confessed immediately,” Edmond stated, his eyes not as clear as they had been when she had come upon him a few minutes ago. “He was shocked to see me and did not even try to deny it.”

  “Did he say why?” Anna asked, feeling the hairs in the back of her neck stand on edge. What was the connection between Mr. Lloyd and her father? Did her husband know? From the looks of it, he did. More than anything, he seemed uncomfortable as his eyes flitted around the room, barely able to meet hers.

  He shrugged. “To enrich himself,” he merely stated. “Is there ever another reason?”

  Again Anna’s eyes narrowed. “Did he have the money with him then?”

  “Eh…well,…No, actually he had already given that to an accomplice.” Edmond dropped her hands and strode over to the stone hearth at the back wall, leaning on the mantle, staring into non-existent flames. “I’m afraid it is gone for good.”

  “An accomplice?” Anna asked, walking around to stand before him. “Who?”

  Edmond shrugged. “He wouldn’t say. The Bow Street Runners are looking into it.”

  “He wouldn’t say?” Anna asked, starting to get annoyed. Crossing her arms, she glared at him. “He confessed immediately and then he wouldn’t say?” She shook her head. “My lord, if you insist on lying to me, you ought to spend more time working on a plausible story.”

  “Lying to you?” he asked, eyes wide as though shocked by her accusation. “What do you mean? I told you exactly what happened.” Standing up straight, he once again linked his hands be-hind his back as though afraid their idleness would betray him. “He stole the money and when you asked to see the books, he took off because he was afraid to be found out.” He forced a smile on his face. “I have to thank you, my lady, for being so stubborn or he probably would have milked us for more years to come.”

  “Don’t try to distract me with flattery,” Anna hissed. “For someone who claims to know exactly when others are lying, you yourself are a pathetic liar indeed!” Hands on her hips, she stood up tall, meeting his eyes. “We already knew that Mr. Lloyd took the money and then fled when he was about to be revealed. What I want to know is the reason for his actions?” When he opened his mouth, she lifted a warning finger. “And don’t lie to me!”

  Staring at her, Edmond sighed, then closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

  “It was my father, wasn’t it?” Anna whispered, and his eyes flew open. Anna nodded, as she saw neither confusion nor shock in them, merely stunned acknowledgement. “Why would you not tell me?”

  Staring at her as though frozen in time, Edmond swallowed. “How do you−? I mean, what do you mean?”

  “The truth, Edmond,” Anna insisted, all anger leaving her body when she saw a flicker of concern flash across his features. “I promise I will not crumble under its weight, should you be concerned about that.”

  He nodded then and took a deep breath. “All right, as you wish, my lady.” Taking her hand, he led her to the settee situated to the side of the fireplace. Sitting down, they turned to face each other. “You know that your father…had Mr. Lloyd steal the money? How?”

  Closing her eyes, Anna sighed. “With you gone all day long, I went to see my parents. I had to do something. I couldn’t just sit at home.” Looking up, she found his eyes watching her. “I spoke to my father. I thought maybe he could help locate Mr. Lloyd.” Shaking her head, she scoffed at her own foolishness. “However, from his reaction I could tell that he was lying, that he knew something. But it wasn’t until later that night that I realised what my father had done.”

  “Later that night?” Edmond echoed, a frown creasing his forehead. “What do you mean?”

  “I had a dream,” Anna whispered, seeing the images of her childhood before her eyes once more. “Actually, it was a memory. I remembered something from when I was a child. I saw Mr. Lloyd in my father’s study, and then…everything fell into place and I just knew. I knew that it had been my father. He blackmailed Mr. Lloyd somehow and forced him to participate in this betrayal.” Disgusted, Anna shook her head, feeling tears sting the corners of her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, and her vision began to blur. “I’m so sorry he did this to you. I’m so sorry he forced your hand.” Swallowing, Anna wiped the tears from her eyes and found her husband’s only a small distance away.

  “What are you talking about?” he asked, taking her hand in his.

  As his thumb caressed her palm, Anna felt a shiver run down her back. “You’re tied to me because of what my father did. The only reason you needed a bride with a sizable dowry was be-cause he stole your money first.” Shaking her head, Anna scoffed. “The money you got was yours to begin with.” Feeling a lump settle in her throat, Anna faced his eyes. “You did not gain anything from marrying me, and I’m sorry. I’m sorry I made everything so hard for you. Had I known, I−”

  “Stop!” Holding on to both her hands, he pulled her closer. When she averted her eyes, he lifted her chin and forced her to look at him. “You want the truth? Well, here it is. When I found out I had to marry in order to save Brookestone, I was shocked, annoyed, even appalled. Then I met you, and I thought maybe getting married wasn’t so bad after all.” A sly twinkle shone in his eyes, and Anna felt herself smile involuntarily. “At least until I realised you loathed the very sight of me. Being the self-centred idiot that I always was, I naturally thought that any woman I chose to marry would swoon at my feet.” Seeing his ears turn pink, Anna laughed. “I know, at first I did not appreciate your…spirit,” he smirked, and Anna felt the fear melt from her heart, “but then…,” he shrugged, shaking his head, “I got to know you, and all of a sudden nothing else mattered anymore. All I wanted was…”

  “Was what?” Ann asked, seeing the effort it took him to lay down his feelings so openly.

  Closing his eyes for but a moment, he smiled. “All I wanted, all I needed was your…affection, your…your love.”

  His eyes met hers, and in them Anna saw everything she needed to know. For the first time, she knew−knew−that he truly loved her, and that knowledge broke through every wall she had erected around her own heart, freeing the feelings she had suppressed for so long. Like an avalanche, they swept over her, bringing new tears to her eyes.

  He shrugged, a shy smile playing on his lips. “All of a sudden I saw myself through your eyes, and…and I didn’t like what I saw. I wanted to be more. I wanted to be a better man, for you.” He shook his head. “I want you to know that I’ve never…I’ve never loved anyone before. Not the way I love you. And I’ve never been more afraid to be rejected.”

  Seeing the truthfulness of the words he had spoken plainly on his face, Anna squeezed his hand, smiling at him through a curtain of tears. “Maybe we are not all that ill-matched as I had first thought,” she sniffed, brushing the tears away. “I love my family. I always have, but other than them I never cared about anyone’s affection or approval. People generally disapproved of my manners, my outspokenness, my independent spirit, but I didn’t care. In a way it always made me want to spite them even more for daring to tell me who I could and could not be.”

  Edmond nodded. “I don’t even want to know what you first thought when your father told you about my offer.”

  Grinning, Anna chuckled. “I promised I would make your life a living hell.”

  Laughing, Edmond shook his head. “I have to say you did your best. At times, I was willing to give up, even agree to a divorce if you had asked.”

  His words instantly chased away the tender stirrings of a future that was not only possible but also within reach. Instead, a looming fear settled on her heart, reclaiming old footholds.

  When the smile dropped from her face and her eyes became serious once again, Edmond stopped, his expression mimicking hers. “What’s wrong? What did I say?”

  Anna sho
ok her head, drawing a deep breath. “I…It’s just…My father tricked you into marrying me, and I just think it right that…,” Anna took a deep breath, feeling a slight dizziness engulf her, “that I set you free.”

  Edmond frowned. “Set me free? What do you mean?” Then all of a sudden his eyes opened wide, and he shook his head. “You’re not−? You can’t possibly…” He swallowed, then his eyes narrowed. “Blasted woman, I just told you I love you. What makes you think I’d want a divorce?” Staring at her, he raked his hands through his hair.

  Anna shrugged, delighted with his reaction and yet unable to let it go. “I know you’re worried about social repercussions, but−”

  “Social repercussions?” he echoed as though the thought had never entered his mind.

  “I know, but I just thought since my father tricked you, maybe there was a way to declare this marriage void. After all, we’ve never even…eh…” Feeling herself blush, Anna forced herself to look at him.

  Grinning from ear to ear, he looked at her with that amused twinkle back in his eyes, making her want to slap him. “And whose fault is that?” he asked, scooting closer on the settee. “I never refused your marital rights, did I?”

  Feeling his warm breath caress her cheek, Anna once again forced her eyes up. “All I meant, my lord, was that, while I am not a lawyer, you might have grounds for a divorce.” Holding his gaze as it drilled into hers, she was certain that her nerves would snap any moment now.

  “Do you want a divorce?” he asked, his gaze as penetrating as never before.

  Anna drew a deep breath. “I just thought−”

  “Do you want a divorce?” he repeated, his voice a low growl in his throat.

  Remembering how he had bared his feelings for her, Anna ignored the trembling of her hands and the faint flutters in her stomach. “I do not.”

  “Well, then that’s settled,” he said, his voice barely betraying an emotion. All the while he held her gaze locked in his.

  Everything around her fell away as Anna lost herself in the blue depths of his eyes. At least until his hands settled on her waist, drawing her closer. When her eyes refocused on his face, she saw the deep curl of a smile play on his lips as they closed in on hers. “What do you think you’re doing, my lord?”

  “Do you intend to refuse my marital rights?” he asked, and although a mischievous sparkle shone in his eyes, his voice betrayed the seriousness of his question.

  Anna knew that she found herself at a crossroad, and the breath caught in her throat. She could refuse him now, and he would walk away. Only Anna couldn’t think of a reason why she should.

  With a smile on her face, she looked into his eyes. “I do not.”

  The words had barely left her lips, when his mouth crashed down on hers. As he lunged forward, Anna found herself on her back, his weight pressing her into the soft cushion below. As his hands roamed her body freely, Anna felt herself respond in ways she hadn’t expected. A deep ache awakened within her, and she knew she didn’t want him to stop, and yet…

  “Not here,” she whispered against his lips, remembering the door she had left ajar.

  A strangled growl rising from his throat, he pushed himself up, sweeping her into his arms as he stood. “As you wish, my lady.” Then he stalked out the door, glancing left and right, and then hurried down the corridor toward the servant’s staircase in the back of the house.

  “You seem quite motivated, my lord,” Anna observed as he climbed the stairs in large strides.

  “You have no idea, my little vixen.” When they reached the second floor, voices echoed down the corridor, and without hesitating he stepped into the first room on the right, setting her down. Then he stood by the barely opened door and peeked out into the corridor.

  Watching him, Anna could barely contain herself, and a low chuckle rose from her throat. “Of course, we could always postpone this,” she suggested, knowing exactly how he would react.

  “Postpone this?” he echoed and closed the door. “We are not−” Then he stopped, looking at her carefully, and a grin broke out on his face. “Let me tell you, my little vixen, if you knew what awaited you, you would not want me to postpone this.”

  As a shiver ran down her back, Anna masked her own emotions the same way he did; with a challenge. “My lord, is that confidence I hear in your voice?”

  Peeking out the door once more, he stated, “Yes, you most certainly do.” Sticking his head out the door, he turned left and then right, then grabbed her arm and pulled her back out into the corridor. Leaning closer, he whispered in her ear, “I promise I’ll teach you.” An enormous grin on his face, he glanced at her. “After all, haven’t you enjoyed my lessons before?”

  Anna laughed. “And have you forgotten that I am a quick study? Before long I’ll be the master and you the student.”

  Stopping in his tracks, he caught her in his arms and leaned closer until the tip of his nose touched hers, his dark eyes fixed on her own. “This might shock you, my little vixen, but…,” for a second his gaze dipped lower, “nothing you do…in there,” he glanced down the hall toward the door to her bedchamber, “will ever upset me.” Anna felt herself blush, and his grin grew broader. “Teach me all you want, little vixen.”

  Sweeping her into his arms once more, he carried her toward her bedchamber and across the threshold, like a groom carrying his new bride. As the door closed behind them, Anna wondered how different everything would be if they could have loved each other from the very beginning.

  Chapter Forty-Three − To Protect is to Lie

  Lying in the crook of her husband’s arm, Anna smiled. A feeling of delicious weightlessness settled over her body that she had never known before.

  “Happy?” a deep voice asked next to her ear. Rolling onto his side, Edmond looked down at her, his eyes shining bluer than she had ever seen them.

  Biting her lip, Anna grinned. “Quite happy, yes. My Lord, I have to admit you are a master of the…art.”

  A deep grin spread over his face, and he nipped her lower lip. “Well, it’s my pleasure to teach you, my lady.” Trailing kisses down the line of her jaw, he began nuzzling her neck, just below her ear, and Anna moaned in pleasure, feeling the ache awaken anew.

  Knowing that her desires would overrule her mind in a matter of seconds, Anna gently pushed him away, freeing her neck and allowing herself to catch her breath.

  “Is something wrong?” he asked, a puzzled look on his face.

  “It is not. But I cannot think when you do that.”

  He chuckled. “Thinking is overrated.”

  Again he lowered his head, and again she stopped him. “There is something I need to know. Something I think you’re keeping from me. Why, I do not know.”

  Sitting up, Edmond pulled the blankets around them, his hands busy, his eyes avoiding hers.

  “I told you before you were a bad liar,” Anna said, seeing her suspicions all but confirmed. Reaching for her robe, she wrapped it around herself, then sat down in front of him. She took his hand in hers and urged him to look at her. “I do not believe that you have any malintent, merely the misguided notion to protect me from the truth.”

  He smiled, closing his eyes for a moment before meeting hers openly. “You know me too well, my lady. I apologise for trying to deceive you. I promise I only had the best intentions.”

  “Of that I am certain,” Anna said, wondering about how they could have grown so close in so short a time. A mere few days ago she would have doubted his words. “Listen, I appreciate your concern for me. I really do. It feels wonderful to be loved that way, to know that there is someone who seeks to keep harm from coming your way by whatever means necessary.” A shy smile played on his lips, and she squeezed his hand. “However, it also makes me feel incompetent.” His head snapped up, the smile vanished from his face. “Maybe men really do have trouble understanding this, because they are expected to handle whatever life challenges them with. It’s a pressure put on them by society that wome
n maybe know little about.” Leaning forward, she looked deep into his eyes, urging him to understand. “But maybe we should learn from each other. Just let me explain.”

  He nodded, honest curiosity shining in his eyes. “Tell me.”

  Swallowing, Anna sought to express the dark emotions that always settled on her heart whenever she was treated as merely a woman. “I have my weak moments, yes, but I am strong.” She heard the anger she felt ringing in her voice. “And I am not just strong for a woman. I am simply strong, inside and out. I have a rational mind. I can think and understand. I am not a simpering fool who needs instructions. I can make up my own mind. And I will not crumble if someone tells me something unpleasant. It may hurt me, yes, but I will grow even stronger for it. You cannot shield me from the world, and you shouldn’t. I am not a child, and I need you to treat me like your equal.” Looking into his eyes, she took a deep breath, then asked the question that would affect their future in a way no other ever could. “Can you do that?”

  For a second he just looked at her, and Anna feared that he was not the man she had thought him to be. But then a slow smile spread over his face, and he shook his head, awe shining in his eyes. “How did you come to be so wise, little vixen?” He laughed, then sobered. “You’re right. I was trying to protect you, maybe because it has been imprinted into me from the moment I was born. Men are to be strong to protect themselves and their own. Men are not to be weak. Women are.” Again he shook his head, smiling at her, then squeezed her hands for emphasis. “But I knew from the moment I met you that you were not.” Anna drew a deep breath. “I’ve always known that you’re strong. Maybe it slipped my mind here and there, but deep down I always knew. And I’m sorry for treating you like a child. I shouldn’t have. After all, it was you, not me, who discovered the betrayal right under my eyes. It was your mind that figured out what had happened.” He smiled at her. “And I couldn’t be more proud to call you my wife.”

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