Cursed & cherished the d.., p.24
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       Cursed & Cherished: The Duke's Wilful Wife, p.24

         Part #2 of Love's Second Chance series by Bree Wolf
 
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  “Yes.” A shy smile came to her mother’s face, and she squeezed her daughter’s hands as though in apology. “It broke my heart all over again. When I saw the desperate longing in Judith’s eyes and the fear that she might be robbed of a future with the man she loved, I…I knew I could not let that happen. I didn’t want her to suffer like I did. It almost felt like it was my loss. I felt it so acutely.” She shook her head. “I’m sorry, Anna. I didn’t even truly think about your heart until it was too late. I sacrificed you to save Judith, and I feel awful about it. I may have protected Judith, but now you’re the one trapped in a marriage to a man you do not love.” Burying her face in her hands, her mother sobbed. “What have I done? I ruined your life.”

  Pulling her mother into her arms, Anna stroked her hair. “No, you didn’t. At first, I thought so too, but now…Look at me.” Slowly, her mother lifted her head, tears streaming down her face. “I am happy,” Anna smiled, realising for the first time how lucky she was that everything had turned out the way it had. “I truly am happy. I know we had a difficult start, mainly because I was determined to hate him,” remembering her own childish behaviour, Anna laughed, “but now we’ve moved passed it.”

  Drying her tears, her mother looked at her, hope shining in her eyes. “Do you truly care for him?”

  Anna nodded. “I love him.”

  Overjoyed, her mother threw herself into her arms, holding her tight. “Is this really true?” she asked, sitting back, eyes searching her daughter’s face.

  “It is,” Anna beamed, watching the last dark clouds disappear on the horizon. All of a sudden, the future felt so promising. Certainly, there were still a few things to take care of, but Anna was determined not to let anything rob her of the happiness she had only just found.

  Squeezing her mother’s hand, Anna looked at her, eyes serious. “I need to speak to Father.”

  Her mother paled.

  “Do not worry yourself,” Anna said before her mother could object. “I am certain that his threat to Mr. Lloyd was nothing but smoke and mirrors. He has no intention of ever divorcing you, not because he cares−unfortunately−but because it would harm him as well. And if there is one thing he would never do, it is making a decision that would ultimately prove disastrous for himself.” Rising from the bench, Anna smiled down at her mother. “I may not be his daughter by blood, but unwillingly he has taught me a few things over the years. Do not worry about me, Mother, or yourself. Everything will turn out all right. I will protect you.” She swallowed. “I know him. I know him well.” Shaking her head, she closed her eyes for a second. “I know I am not his daughter, and yet I cannot help but wonder why I am so much like him.”

  Smiling, her mother shook her head, moist eyes looking up at her. “You’re not,” she whispered. “I know it must seem so given your temperament, but…” An inward smile curled up her lips as her eyes became distant for a moment. Then she looked up at her daughter once more, reached for her hand and pulled her back down to sit beside her. “My mother,” she said. “Your grandmother, she died when I was very young. I barely remember her. But my father spoke of her all the time. He loved her dearly, and after she was gone no other woman ever compared. He always said she had hair like fire and eyes like raindrops glistening in the sun and a spirit to match them both.” A loving smile lit up her face. “When I look at you, I see her. You’re her image in every way, and I couldn’t be more proud. She was a great woman, and so are you.”

  Swallowing the lump in her throat, Anna sank into her mother’s arms as a feeling of peace washed over her. “Thank you,” she breathed and, sitting back up, brushed the tears from her face. “You do not know what this means to me.”

  Her mother smiled. “I think I do.” Her own tears still clinging to her eyelashes, her mother shook her head. “I do not want you to risk your own happiness, sweet child. If your husband truly cares for you, then do not risk his affection by pursuing this matter.”

  Meeting her mother’s eyes, Anna sighed, then took her mother’s hands. “I will not expose Father, but he needs to know that people, especially his family, are not meant to forward his personal gain.” A smile came to her face. “And my husband will support whatever I find necessary, of that I am certain. When he found out the truth, all he was concerned about was my well-being.”

  “He is a good man,” her mother whispered as the frown lines slowly left her face. “I am very happy for you.”

  “Thank you, Mother,” Anna said, then rose from the bench and walked back toward the house, heading straight for her father’s study.

  Outside the door, she took a deep breath, fortifying herself for what lay ahead. Then she knocked and entered without waiting for her father’s reply.

  Looking up from his desk, he put down the quill he had been writing with. “Anna, what a surprise to see you! Is there anything I can do for you?” Although he smiled at her, Anna thought to detect a hint of worry in those sharp blue eyes.

  Coming to stand before his desk, Anna smiled, then crossed her arms, chin raised. “You could tell me the truth.”

  A frown came to his face, and the worry in his eyes deepened. “The truth? About what?”

  “About your deal with Mr. Lloyd.”

  His eyes grew wide, and all colour fell from his face. Sinking into the armchair behind him, he busied himself, shuffling papers from one side to the other. “Whatever that man said is a lie!” he boomed, eyes meeting hers. “He has been trying to ruin me for years, ever since your mother turned down his proposal and married me instead.”

  Anna chuckled. “That is not the story I’ve been told.”

  “He lied!” her father snapped. Jumping to his feet, he leaned his hands on his desk. “Why would you take his word over mine? I am your father.”

  “Are you?”

  For a long moment he just looked at her, then all signs of indignation at being wrongly accused vanished and the cold, calculated sneer of superiority that Anna had seen in her dreams resurfaced. Straightening, he asked, “What do you want?”

  “Oh, nothing really,” Anna replied, her determination strengthened by the lack of compassion she was forced to witness. “I merely came here to inform you of a few changes.”

  His eyes narrowed. “Changes?” He shook his head. “You will do nothing,” he spat. “Any-thing you do will ruin your mother and you as well.” He sneered. “Just imagine what your fine husband would say if he found out that you are a bastard! His lowly steward’s daughter! A man who betrayed his employer and is now on the run!” Laughing, he shook his head. “No, my dear child, you will do nothing.”

  Although a shiver ran over her at his words, the love and devotion of her family−her true family−shielded her from the fear his words would otherwise have instilled in her. Realising that although she too had a calculating mind and a fiery spirit, she truly was not this man’s daughter. In no way. What set them apart was the compassion she felt, the respect she had for others, especially those she loved. No, she was not like him, not at all.

  “You may have been able to intimidate Mr. Lloyd with this charade, but I know you better than that.” Meeting his eyes, Anna conjured every ounce of strength and confidence she had within her. “In fact, it is you who will do nothing. For if you do, everything you hold dear will be lost.”

  He laughed, his booming voice echoing off the ceiling. “You are mistaken. I do not care for your mother’s well-being, or yours for that matter. You are merely to serve a purpose.”

  Anna grinned. “Precisely.” As her father’s brows furrowed, she mimicked his behaviour, resting her hands on his desk and leaning forward. “I am well aware that what you hold dear is no one of flesh and blood. What matters most to you in this world is your reputation and your for-tune.” Her words seemed to drain some of the colour from his cheeks. “You know as well as I do that should you breathe a word of this to anyone you would be equally ruined.” Anna shook her head. “You would never risk that. Therefore, I know that your threats
are empty.”

  Slowly, her father’s facade of confidence and disinterest began to crumble before Anna’s eyes. His gaze now held concern, fear even, as he sat down behind his desk. “You have a sharp mind, Anna, but do not for a second believe you are a match for me,” he hissed, the slight tremble in his hands betraying his feigned confidence. “Should I inform your husband of this, you will have to suffer far worse consequences than a loveless marriage.”

  Smiling, Anna shook her head. “Would you then not also have to inform him of blackmailing Mr. Lloyd all those years into stealing money from him which ultimately ended up in your pockets?” His lips pressed into a thin line, her father stared at her, disgust darkening his eyes. “Is that not where my dowry came from?”

  “How do you know this?” he forced out through gritted teeth.

  “As you said, I have a sharp mind.” Straightening her posture, Anna once again crossed her arms, sharp eyes staring down at him. “And unlike you, I do not deceive the people I care about.” The corners of her mouth curled upward. “He knows everything.” As her father’s mouth fell open, all colour drained from his face. “He knows that it was you who forced Mr. Lloyd to betray him. He knows where my dowry came from. And he knows that I am not your daughter.” Once again, Anna leaned forward, bringing her face closer to her father’s, eyes fixed on his. “And you know what? He does not care, because he loves me. So you see, all your threats are worth nothing.” Straightening, Anna once more crossed her arms. “Here is what will happen now. You will refrain from breathing a word of this to anyone. In exchange, my husband and I will refrain from ruining you in every way possible.” Eyes barely looking at her, her father drew a deep breath. “Mother will accompany me home tonight for…let’s call it an extended stay. Who knows? I might be a mother myself soon, and I will be in need of her advice and guidance.” Turning to the door, Anna stopped, then looking back, spoke over her shoulder. “In addition, I strongly advice against using any reference to my husband in your future business dealings. Goodbye…Father.”

  When the door closed behind her, Anna felt a heavy weight lifted off her shoulders. With a smile on her face, she stepped out into the sun, eyes travelling to the lone bench in the rose garden where her mother sat waiting.

  Chapter Forty-Five − To Forgive

  “Where is he?” Anna asked, rubbing her hands nervously up and down her arms.

  “In his house by the main gate,” Edmond replied, coming to stand behind her as she gazed out the window. Wrapping his arms around her, he nuzzled her ear, breathing in her warm scent. “Do not worry yourself. You do not have to see him before you are ready to do so.”

  “I know.” She nodded, and he felt her head bobbing up and down ever so slightly. “It’s just…I want to. I really do, and yet…I can’t seem to leave this room. My feet won’t move.” A faint chuckle escaped her lips. “What do you think of your warrior bride now?”

  “I am immensely proud of her,” Edmond whispered in her ear, feeling her tremble as his breath tickled her neck. “You confronted your father. You saved your mother. And you forgave your…”

  “Father?” Anna asked. “I am not sure what to call them. I have known Mr. Hanford as my father my whole life, and now that I know he is not, I still know what kind of man he is. And Mr. Lloyd, well, I’ve never even met him until our wedding. I barely know who he is, and yet he is the man who gave me life. It is all very confusing, especially since, as far as everyone else is concerned, Mr. Hanford will always be my father. So what do I call him? What do I call Mr. Lloyd?” She sighed, shaking her head.

  “It does not matter,” Edmond said, remembering how Rosabel had become Georgiana’s mother after his own sister’s death. Never had the little girl forgotten the mother who had given her life and cared for her the first few years. And yet Rosabel was her mother as well, never dreaming of undermining Leonora’s claim on her daughter’s heart. Today, Georgiana had two mothers, one in spirit and one who held her hand walking through life. “Call them whatever you like. What matters is who they are to you. Names are simply labels used to simplify life, and yet quite often they do not tell us what is underneath.”

  Although he could not see her face, Edmond felt her smile. “On occasion you do possess a certain wisdom, my lord.” She snuggled closer. “Thank you.”

  “You’re most welcome,” he whispered in her ear, drawing her tighter to him, feeling her heart beat against his chest. “Whatever you decide, do not rush yourself.” Turning her in his arms, he lifted her chin until her emerald eyes found his. “As of today, all financial matters with regard to Brookestone are in your hands.” Her eyes widened in surprise. “I would not dare trust anyone else with my family’s legacy. You have a sharp mind; it has saved us once before and I am certain it will do so time and time again. But,” he lowered his head, eyes still fixed on hers, “if you need assistance with this task−not because I do not believe you can accomplish it on your own, but merely because I’d rather have my wife spend her nights with me instead of dusty, old books,” he winked at her, and she laughed, “then I am sure Mr. Lloyd would be happy to lend a hand.”

  A frown drew down her brows. “You would trust him with your money again?”

  “As long as you oversee his work, I would, yes,” he said. Drawing her closer, he looked deep into her eyes. “He is not a bad man, Anna. I think we both know that. He deserves a second chance to prove his true character, and you deserve a chance to find out who the man that turned out to be your father truly is. Get to know him. Find the answers that you seek. Then make up your mind. If you want him gone, I’ll find him another position. But first you owe it to yourself to have an open mind.”

  “My, my, what wisdom sprouts from your lips today?” Smiling, she shook her head. “May I enquire as to what inspired these thoughts?”

  “Most certainly, my lady,” he said, grinning. “A while ago I met a young woman. Though she was beautiful, I didn’t think much of her at the time.” She kicked him in the shin, and he groaned. “My apologies, my lady. Did I offend you somehow?” He winked at her, then went on. “Well, at least until she knocked me out, and then all of a sudden everything changed.” He lowered his head to hers and nipped her lip. “She made me see that people are rarely what they seem to be.”

  “Is that so?” she whispered against his lips. “And what did you learn since then?”

  Drawing a deep breath, he ran his hands down her arms, then stroked her back. “Well, let’s see. I learnt that it is unwise to anger her; at least when I do not have a weapon to defend myself with.” Anna chuckled. “I learnt that she is capable of great kindness and compassion.” For a second she averted her eyes as though ashamed, as though he had just pointed out a flaw. “A kindness that is born out of strength and determination.” Skimming a finger over her cheek, he gazed into her eyes. “I realised that there is no one else I’d rather have standing beside me, be it at the altar or on a battlefield.” He grinned. “I learnt that she is a poor dancer, and that for the rest of my life my toes will be in mortal danger.”

  Trying to slap him, Anna laughed.

  Edmond caught her wrist though, pulling her against him. “I should really learn to take my own advice and not anger my warrior bride,” he whispered, planting a soft kiss on her lips.

  “That would be wise indeed, my lord,” she breathed, the emerald in her eyes darkening with desire. Pushing herself up, she reached for him, pulling his mouth down to hers. “It would also be wise to learn when to be quiet.”

  “Duly noted.” As his arms came around her, crushing her to him, his hungry mouth devoured hers with a passion he had never known before in his life. She was his match in every way, and he couldn’t imagine spending a single day without her. Or a single night. With her by his side, he felt complete.

  Epilogue

  One Year Later

  “Are you all right?” Edmond asked, brushing wet hair from Anna’s forehead. “For a moment there I thought…” He shook his head, awe sh
ining in his eyes. “You truly are a warrior bride. Today more than ever.” Dipping a linen cloth in a bowl with fresh water, he placed it on her fore-head and smiled when Anna sighed and closed her eyes in relief.

  “I thought so too,” she whispered, her emerald eyes finding his once more. “But I refused to surrender.”

  Edmond laughed. “That would truly have surprised me.”

  “Would you like to hold her?” Anna’s mother asked, taking the little bundle out of the mid-wife’s arms.

  “Her?” Edmond echoed, looking from his mother-in-law to his wife, an expression of stunned disbelief on his face.

  Smiling, Anna nodded. “I told you I wouldn’t give you an heir, remember?”

  Edmond laughed, then leaned down and kissed his wife. “You little vixen! I should have known you were a witch when I first saw you.” He winked at her. “After all, it didn’t take you long to bewitch me.”

  Shaking her head, Anna pushed him off the bed. “Before you say anything more that sounds as ridiculous as that, go and hold your daughter, will you?”

  “As you say, my lady.” He smiled at her, then turned and approached his daughter with great caution as though a single, loud noise could shatter her. Cooing under his breath, he held out his arms, and Anna’s mother carefully handed him the baby. A frown drew down his brows, and he looked from the baby to the midwife. “Are you certain everything is all right? She is so light.”

  “I thought this was not the first time you held a baby?” Anna asked from among the covers. “Do not worry. She will grow bigger, and heavier.”

  Unable to tear his eyes of his new-born daughter, Edmond nodded. “I’ll take your word for it.” Then his daughter wrapped her tiny, little hand around his finger, and Edmond stared at her as though in shock. Anna could see the change on his face, in the very moment that the little girl won his heart. A deep smile came to his face, and love shone in his eyes so intense like Anna had never seen it. She knew the feeling herself. Knew how overwhelming it was. Knew that it would never change, not until the end of her days.

 
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