Cursed & cherished the d.., p.26
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       Cursed & Cherished: The Duke's Wilful Wife, p.26

         Part #2 of Love's Second Chance series by Bree Wolf
 
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  Tears began to form in Ellie’s eyes as she slowly backed away toward the other side of the brook.

  As though in trance, their eyes followed her until Frederick turned to his friends. “Go back,” he ordered them. “Speak of this to no one.”

  For a second, Oliver seemed ready to argue, but Kenneth grabbed his arm and pulled him back through the underbrush.

  Frederick, however, remained behind.

  Crossing the stream in a shallower spot, he came toward her, his eyes never leaving hers. When he reached her side, he held out a hand, offering to help her out of the stream.

  Uncertain what to do, Ellie looked from his hand to his face.

  “Do not be afraid,” he spoke. “I mean you no harm.”

  His dark blue eyes shone as clear as the water still swirling around her legs, and her heart beat slowed. Swallowing, Ellie took his hand, surprised at how hot his skin felt compared to her own, which at this point was rather chilled. A shiver went through her, and he pulled her out of the water.

  He smiled at her. “You should put your shoes back on.”

  Ellie blushed and then hurried back to the shady spot where she had left them. Sitting down, she noted that he stood with his back to her, giving her privacy, and she quickly pulled her stockings over her legs and slipped on her shoes.

  Then she stood up, not knowing what to say.

  “Are you properly attired?” he asked.

  “Yes,” Ellie breathed, wondering if he judged her as she knew her mother would as soon as she learnt of this.

  He turned around then, a friendly smile on his face. “Allow me to escort you back.”

  Ellie took a deep breath before closing her eyes for a brief moment. When she opened them again, he stood before her, and she shrank back.

  Seeing the fear on her face, he instantly retreated a step. “I apologise. I didn’t mean to startle you, but you seemed troubled. Are you injured?”

  Ellie shook her head. “Please leave,” she whispered, her voice pleading.

  He frowned at her. “I cannot leave you alone. Who knows who else might be in these woods?”

  Never having contemplated the possibility that a threat might be looming near, Ellie glanced at the tree line in his back. Was he right? Was there danger out there?

  “If you are worried about being seen with me,” he said, trying to catch her eyes, “I assure you I have no intention of compromising you in any way. I merely suggest that I escort you as far as the gardens. From there, you can make your way back on your own. I will stay back and assure that no harm comes to you.” His deep blue eyes looked into hers, and he spoke with a sincerity beyond his years. “No one will know.”

  “What about your friends?” she asked, twirling her bonnet in her hands.

  He shook his head. “They will not say a word,” he assured her.

  Ellie took a relieved breath, and a shy smile came to her lips. “Thank you.”

  “You’re welcome,” he said, returning her smile. Then he stepped back, gesturing at the path ahead. “Shall we?”

  Ellie nodded and fell into step beside him. Brushing her blond curls back, she fastened her bonnet, keeping the sun out of her eyes.

  He glanced down at her. “May I ask your name?”

  “Ellie,” she whispered and met his eyes, feeling a warmth spread to her cheeks that she could not blame on the sun.

  He smiled. “I’m Rick.”

  For a long time, they walked in silence, a silence that felt comfortable as though they had known each other for a long time.

  When the hedges of the estate’s garden finally came in sight, Ellie whispered, “Will you tell my mother?”

  He shook his head, and relief flooded her body. “I would not dare bring any harm upon you,” he said looking down at her.

  Again, Ellie felt herself blush. “Thank you.”

  “She is highly critical of you, is she not?”

  Ellie nodded. “She counts my faults on a daily basis.”

  Rick smiled. “That shouldn’t take her long.” As they stopped by the long hedge, running along the gardens, his eyes shifted to hers. “I cannot find a single one.”

  Again, Ellie felt herself blush and quickly averted her eyes.

  “You should go,” he said, “before anyone sees us together.”

  Nodding, Ellie smiled at him, then turned and headed back toward the noise of the garden party. Although she was tempted, she did not dare turn around to see if he was still there. Even if she could not see him, she still felt his eyes on her, watching over her safe return.

  Frederick Lancaster, she mused. He would be a wonderful man one day. Ellie was sure of it. After all, he had saved her from her mother’s wrath, and in her world, there was no greater or more heroic deed than that.

  Chapter One − A Blessing in Disguise

  Twelve Years Later

  “Have you heard?” Madeline Jeffries exclaimed, almost choking on her tea as the words flew out of her mouth. Coughing, she tried to regain her composure, her dark curls bouncing up and down with each fit.

  “Heard what?” Ellie asked, setting down her teacup. She flexed her right hand to loosen her tight muscles and then absentmindedly massaged the scarred tissue between thumb and index finger. Would she ever regain the flexibility she used to have?

  Two years ago, a candle left unattended had burned down half the house, almost claiming the life of Ellie’s little brother Stephen. Although Ellie had been able to save him, she had paid a dear price. While the house had since been restored to its former glory, Ellie’s skin still spoke of the day that had changed her life.

  “Frederick Lancaster is returning from the war.”

  At his name, Ellie’s eyes snapped open, her tense muscles forgotten. “He is?” she gasped before trying to lend her enquiries a nonchalant air. “Was he injured?”

  Madeline shrugged, taking another careful sip now that she had shared her news. “I do not know. If he was, I believe it was nothing too severe. Otherwise, I am certain I would have heard of it.”

  Closing her eyes, Ellie took a deep breath. Although they had not spoken in years, Ellie had never been able to forget the honourable youth who had saved her reputation that hot afternoon long ago. Her mother had never found out, and neither Frederick or rather Rick−as she secretly thought of him−nor his friends had ever let anything slip of her daring adventure that day.

  “I am glad that he is well,” Ellie couldn’t help but say. Her friend, however, didn’t seem to think it an odd statement as she continued sipping her tea. “I worried that something might happen to him especially now that his father has passed. I am sure he will be of great comfort to his mother.”

  “I suppose so,” Madeline said. “Unfortunately for him, he is not returning to claim a title. He is still the same man he was before his father passed, and as a second son, he will always be.”

  Ellie frowned. “Even if he had inherited the title, he would still be the same man. He would only have different responsibilities.”

  Madeline laughed. “These responsibilities−as you call them−are what make and break a man. If he had inherited his father’s title, he would now command his family’s assets and could choose any woman he wanted for his bride. Her dowry in turn would allow him to further his family's standing, which he then could pass on to his heir.” Madeline shook her head. “A title is the fine line between significant…and worthless.”

  “He is not worthless!” Ellie snapped. “How can you speak so?”

  “I’m sorry, Dear Elsbeth. I did not mean to offend your delicacies, nor did I mean to offend him. I am certain Frederick Lancaster is a marvellous man. I was merely pointing out that as a second son, his possibilities are severely limited.”

  “Then maybe it is a blessing in disguise,” Ellie said smiling.

  “How do you mean?”

  “Since he does not need to choose a wife based on obligation, he is free to marry for love.”

  Shaking her head, Madeline chu
ckled. “You are a dreamer, my dear Elsbeth. Love is nothing tangible, nothing to rely on, nothing to set your sights on. People only speak of love when they have nothing else to show for themselves.” Patting Ellie’s hand, Madeline sighed. “Love is fleeting. You cannot trust it.” She took a deep breath before meeting Ellie’s eyes. “And I thought you of all people should know, having learnt that lesson in such a harsh manner.”

  Ellie couldn’t help but cringe as her friend’s words re-opened the wounds that had only just begun to heal.

  Although two years had passed since a servant’s oversight had almost cost Ellie her life, even today, she remembered the heat searing her skin as she had fought the flames with her bare hands to save her brother’s life.

  Only six years old at the time, Stephen had knocked over a candle, which had quickly set the room ablaze. Alerted by his screams, Ellie had come to his aid. Her attention completely focused on him, she had barely felt the flames until Stephen had been safe. Then all of a sudden, excruciating pain had brought her to her knees as the flames had burned away her skin.

  Yet, somehow she had survived and fought her way back into life. Today, she could smile and laugh again, and whenever her eyes fell on her little brother, she knew it had been worth it.

  Glancing out the window into the gardens, she caught a glimpse of her brother playing with his dog, Rupert. Smiling, Stephen scratched the hound's belly as the dog licked his master's face.

  Yes, everything was as it should be. Her brother was alive and well.

  Swallowing, Ellie shifted her eyes from the peaceful scene outside the window to the ugly scars that would remain a part of her forever.

  The doctor had given her a special balm to massage into her damaged skin. For although new skin had formed, it was still tender and whenever she would stretch her limbs, the skin would feel as though it might be pulled apart any second. Her hands were the worst. The fire had consumed them both. Never again would Ellie be able to sit down to embroider a cushion or draw her friend’s image. Her fingers refused to handle such a delicate task. Even holding a teacup now presented a small challenge.

  However, none of this had been able to take away her zest for life. In Ellie’s eyes, the world still held wonders that needed to be explored and happiness that begged to be found. She had been happy again even if only for a short time.

  What had finally crushed her spirit had been the loss of the man she loved. Albert Cart-wright, Viscount Haston.

  During her recovery, her dream of a shared future had given her strength. Albert had always been so attentive and caring, always considerate of her opinion. Whenever she had set foot in a ballroom, his eyes had immediately found hers, lighting up with the love he had for her.

  However, after scars tainted her beauty, travelling from her right cheek, down her throat, over her shoulder and down both arms to her hands, the light had dimmed, and now lay dead at her feet. All hope was lost.

  “Maybe the dream I had ended badly,” Ellie whispered, forcing back the tears she could feel clinging to her eyelashes, “but that does not mean it is always futile as you say.” She lifted her eyes and met her friend’s pitying gaze. “I know that you only mean to caution me, and I thank you for that, but what is life without hope for a future? Maybe I will never again have the love that I thought I once had. But that does not mean that others can’t find it.” She took a deep breath, feeling the tension in her heart spread into her limbs. “Frederick is a good man, and he deserves more than obligation. With or without a title, he is not worthless, and I am hoping with all my heart that one day he will find a woman who will make him feel…treasured.”

  Madeline swallowed, then opened her mouth and closed it again, not knowing what to say.

  “You don’t have to explain yourself.” Shaking her head, Ellie smiled at her. “I know we look at life differently, and there is nothing wrong with that. I do not want to live without someone who loves me by my side: be it a husband, a sister or a friend. I know that now.” She squeezed Madeline’s hand. “You have to find your own way.”

  Her friend took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bring tears to your eyes.”

  Hearing Madeline’s words, Ellie only then noticed the small drop rolling down her cheek until it reached the corner of her mouth. Brushing it away, she dabbed a handkerchief to her eyes. “I know,” she said, trying to smile. “I am grateful for your friendship and for your honesty. Most people only see the scars I bear and not the person underneath. They tiptoe around me as though a harsh word could do me harm. And yet, they are surprised when I smile since they are certain that nothing in the world could ever bring me joy. Many believe I should have died two years ago.” Madeline opened her mouth to object, but Ellie shook her head. “Yes, it is true. If I have no claim to happiness in my current state, what purpose does my life have?” She shrugged her shoulders. “On some days, I wonder about that myself. Even though I have a large dowry and my family is highly respected, I have no delusions about ever being a married woman.” A sad smile lifted the corners of her mouth. “I am on the shelf as they say, but does that mean my life is over?”

  For a moment, Madeline simply looked at her before a mischievous gleam came to her eyes. “It most certainly is not,” she announced, reaching for Ellie’s hands. “Life has a lot to offer, and husbands are just one small part of it.”

  Ellie laughed, treasuring the friend who had stood by her through all of this.

  “Let us speak of more important matters than husbands,” Madeline continued, her usual eagerness once more taking over. “The Midnight Ball is in a fortnight. What are we going to wear?”

  Chapter Two − A Hero’s Return

  Grey clouds hung over Elmridge as Frederick Lancaster returned home. How long had it been since he had last been here? He wondered. Long enough for him to feel like a stranger, some-one who did not belong. And yet, this was his home.

  For a long time, Frederick sat on his gelding a good distance from the manor and stared at the house that he knew so well. He saw the window that he and his brother had climbed out of more than once in yet another search for adventure, the rose garden that his mother tended with the same care and devotion she bestowed on those she loved as well as the small family cemetery that now housed his father’s remains. The property looked like it always had, and yet, nothing was the same.

  Never again would he hear his father’s gentle voice as he spoke to him about the many wonders life held. Never again would he see his mother’s smile as she looked at them, love shining in her eyes. Never again would he feel safe, almost invincible, as he had all those years he had spent on his family’s estate.

  The harsh truth had finally found him, sinking its cruel talons into his flesh, refusing to ever release its hold on him. No, nothing was the same anymore.

  Urging his horse on, Frederick felt a looming dread settle in his bones the closer he came to the manor. As he pulled up the reins, a stable boy came running to take the horse. “Welcome back, Lord Frederick.”

  Nodding at the youngster, he turned and climbed the stairs, his feet heavy as lead. Two footmen opened the large double-doors, and Frederick entered the grand hall of Elmridge, his foot-steps echoing through the vaulted room like thunder rolling off the mountains.

  He should never have returned.

  “Frederick!” his mother exclaimed behind him, and he turned toward her with a heavy heart.

  Forcing a smile on his face, he slightly bowed his head to her as her dainty feet carried her across the marble hall and she all but threw herself into his arms. Her fragile arms closed around him, embracing him with a strength he never thought possible.

  “Welcome home,” she whispered in his ear before she stepped back, her watchful eyes searching his face. Although clouded with grief, they still held a mother’s undying love for her son, and an unexpected warmth washed over his cold heart.

  As her gaze slid over his face, taking in the small scar on his left temple, her hands gently
brushed over his shoulders and down his arms as though asking about the wounds that lay hidden from her sight. She swallowed then and closed her eyes for a brief moment. When she looked at him again, a delicate smile played on her lips. “I am glad you have returned. I only wish your father were here to see you.”

  Bowing his head, Frederick swallowed. “As do I, Mother.”

  “Come,” she said, linking her arm through his. “You must be exhausted. I will have a bath drawn and food brought up to your room.”

  As they walked up the large staircase, Frederick glanced left and right, waiting for the rest of his family to appear. All remained quiet though.

  “I asked them to give you some time,” his mother said, once again knowing exactly where his thoughts had strayed. “Do not believe that they did not wish to see you,” she assured him, a tender smile curling up her lips. “However, I thought you might want some time to yourself first.” Her hand gently squeezed his arm. “I can call them if you wish.”

  Frederick shook his head. “Not yet.”

  She nodded and escorted him to the room that had been his for as long as he could remember. There she stopped, took his large hands in her small ones, looked deep into his eyes and then gave him a tender kiss on the forehead. “I’m so glad you are home,” she whispered, her voice choked with tears.

  “As am I, Mother,” he said, hoping she could not read the lie in his eyes.

  A smile came to her face, and she once more squeezed his hands before turning to go. “I’ll have water brought up,” she repeated as though reluctant to leave him.

  “Thank you, Mother,” he said and entered his room, desperate to be alone with his thoughts.

  ***

  Soaking in the tub, Frederick closed his eyes, enjoying the soothing warmth that engulfed his tense limbs. The water felt wonderful like a thick blanket wrapping him in its safety, and yet, it could not wash away the pain that lived in his heart.

 
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