Cursed & cherished the d.., p.28
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       Cursed & Cherished: The Duke's Wilful Wife, p.28

         Part #2 of Love's Second Chance series by Bree Wolf
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  When he closed the door behind himself, Oliver turned from the window, and their eyes met. “It is good to see you, old friend,” Frederick greeted him, unsure whether they could simply continue their friendship as it had been before.

  “It is, indeed,” Oliver agreed, and the corners of his mouth curled up into a smile. “I hope you don’t mind,” he lifted the glass in his hand, “but I helped myself.”

  Involuntarily, Frederick felt the corners of his mouth tug up in reply. “I can’t say I am sur-prised.” Stepping forward, he gestured for his friend to sit and then took a seat himself. “What brings you here?”

  “Do you truly have to ask?” Oliver set down his glass and leaned back, his eyes even more piercing than Frederick remembered. “I thought you would come to see me or, at least, send word.” A hint of disappointment showed on his face. “Or do you still hold a grudge?”

  Frederick frowned. “A grudge? What about?”

  Shaking his head, Oliver smiled. “You truly do not hold it against me, do you?”

  “I have no idea what you speak of.” Leaning forward, Frederick rested his arms on his knees, his eyes searching his friend’s face. “I’d be much obliged if you would explain yourself.”

  “I should have gone with you,” Oliver said without preamble, and Frederick felt a shiver run down his back. “I knew I should have. I knew it even then.” He shook his head. “I never should have listened to my father.”

  Closing his eyes, Frederick drew in a deep breath before once more meeting his friend’s eyes. “Your father’s counsel was wise. We should all have heeded his words. Neither one of us should have gone.” He looked at Oliver imploringly. “He saved your life. Do not hold it against him.”

  “You make him sound more caring than he truly is,” Oliver objected with a snort. “The only reason he was concerned for my life was because I am his only heir.” He rolled his eyes. “And he did not counsel me. He ordered me to stay behind.” Frederick could see the guilt on his friend’s face as clear as day. He, himself, only knew too well how it felt to have regrets that tormented him with every breath he took. “And still, I could have gone. I could have stood up to him, at least once, and made my own way. But I didn’t. If I had, maybe…”

  “What?” Frederick asked. “Kenneth would still be alive?”

  Oliver shrugged, not meeting his eyes.

  “You couldn’t have saved him,” Frederick said as the images of their friend’s death played before his eyes. “I was there, and I couldn’t.” He took a deep breath. “Do not torment yourself for it would be in vain.”

  “Don’t you?” Oliver asked. “I can see it plainly on your face, so do not deny it.”

  Once again feeling the desperate need to escape the room, Frederick gritted his teeth as his hands balled into fists. Every muscle in his body tensed, and a drumming pain settled behind his forehead. “I am not denying anything!” he forced out through clenched teeth. “I am the very reason he…” His words trailed off, and he forced more air down his lungs.

  Oliver nodded. “How did it happen?”

  Frederick closed his eyes. He had feared that this moment would come. A moment that would force him to relive the most horrible seconds of his life. And yet, he could not deny Oliver’s request. He had a right to know what had happened.

  “Do not ask me which battle it was for they all blurred together a long time ago,” he began, his voice sounding hoarse to his own ears like that of an old man. “I only remember sweeping hills and a sunrise so beautiful that I thought for sure all this had to be a bad dream. How could the world be so breath-taking when good men lost their lives upon its soil day after day?” As Frederick closed his eyes, he heard his friend draw a strained breath. “When the battle began, we charged ahead. The icy wind whipped our faces as our horses carried us closer to the enemy. We could see their weapons, polished to perfection, gleaming in the early morning sun.”

  Frederick swallowed, and as he met his friend’s eyes, he saw in them the same reluctance to hear what had happened that he felt to recount it. Still, neither one of them had a choice. They owed it to Kenneth. “We spotted the cannons from far away,” he continued, remembering the day like no other, “as we had many times before. But we did not see it coming. Even if we had, I doubt that there would have been anything we could have done.”

  For a long time, Frederick remained silent, trapped in a memory he could not escape, watching his friend’s face twisted in the agony of death.

  “What happened then?” Oliver asked, his voice merely a whisper as though he was afraid to disturb Frederick’s thoughts.

  “They fired,” was all he said, and once again silence hung between them. A silence that stretched into a heavy burden settling onto their shoulders. A burden they would carry with them for the rest of their days.

  “One second, he was right next to me,” Frederick finally continued, “and the next, the can-non ball cut down his horse’s legs. As it slumped to the ground, Kenneth was flung out of the saddle. Only a moment later, he landed on the ground with a sickening crunch.”

  Wringing his hands, Oliver looked paler than he ever had.

  “And that was it,” Frederick said, meeting his friend’s eyes. “He was gone. From one second to the next, Kenneth was gone. He broke his neck upon hitting the ground.” Rising to his feet, Frederick started to pace. “I keep thinking that it shouldn’t have happened like that. Soldiers, who die in a war, are shot or stabbed. It should have been the cannon ball or a sabre or…” Trailing off, he shook his head. “And then I think it does not matter how it happened. Dead is dead.” He turned to look at his friend. “But shouldn’t he have had a hero’s death? He fell off a horse!” Frederick shook his head, feeling an all too familiar madness engulf him. “I still can’t believe it. And I don’t know what to think or how to look at his death. I don’t know anything anymore.” Coming to stand by the window, Frederick stared past the neatly trimmed hedges and the orderly gravel path leading up to the front steps. His eyes focused on the horizon where earth met sky, a line that looked the same no matter where he went.

  “It was not your fault,” Oliver spoke from behind him. As they stood side by side, he placed a hand on Frederick’s shoulder. “You could not have saved him. I know that if anyone could have, it would have been you.”

  For a brief moment, Frederick closed his eyes. “I know. Somehow I know that, and yet, there is a part of me that knows nothing of reason, of rational thought or of cause and consequence. It is that part that I feel rising to the surface lately. Everything I thought I knew is just…It’s gone, replaced by a black abyss, and it’s drawing me in.”

  “I don’t know what to say,” Oliver admitted, worry clinging to his words. “If I had gone with you, I might not have been able to save Kenneth, but maybe we could have saved each other. Now, you’re alone.”

  Looking at his friend, Frederick nodded. “Thank you for listening to my rambles. I appreciate-ate it.”

  Oliver shook his head. “Do not speak as though you’re standing on the brink of a cliff with no intention of turning back.” Oliver grabbed him by the shoulders and gave him a hard shake. “I lost Kenneth, but I will be damned if I lose you, too.”

  Frederick stared into his friend’s eyes, and for the first time, he thought that maybe all hope was not lost.

  Chapter Four − The Midnight Ball

  The stars sparkled in the night sky like diamonds as Ellie and Madeline ascended the stairs to Lord Branston’s residence for his annual Midnight Ball. Even early in September, the late hour brought with it a slight chill in the air, and Ellie drew the delicate shawl closer around her shoulders. Although she had chosen a dress that covered most of her scars, her neck and lower face were naturally still exposed, and so she had insisted on the shawl in order to further cover herself−as far as that was possible.

  Of course, everyone in the county knew about the accident and had heard or even seen how badly she had been injured, and yet, Ellie couldn
’t shake the feeling that most people preferred not be to reminded of it. As though looking at her would spoil their fun, she sensed their reluctance to receive her in their midst.

  Taking a deep breath, Ellie smiled at Madeline as they walked through the grand foyer side by side. Not hindered by unseemly scars, her friend had chosen a more revealing dress, its shades of dark violet enhancing the glow of her raven-black hair. Next to her, Ellie felt devoid of colour. Her own pale blond curls sat atop a simple, white dress, a light blue sash tied around her slender waist.

  As they entered the ballroom and the music reached her ears, Ellie smiled. Oh, how she loved the lively atmosphere of such an event! The laughing and dancing filled her heart with such a vibrant energy that she hardly knew how to contain herself. As though of their own accord, her feet started tapping to the rhythm, and she longed to dance.

  Her gaze followed the smiling couples as they spun across the dance floor, and a wistful glow came to her eyes. If only she could dance again. At least one last time.

  Ever since her accident, men generally treated her like an old matron, someone who watched the proceedings but did not participate. They treated her with respect, offered to fetch refreshments and enquired if she required anything, but they didn’t see the young woman she was: the young woman who longed to dance, who wanted nothing more but to forget the past for a few hours and enjoy herself.

  As expected, eligible and not so eligible gentlemen crowded around Madeline as soon as they entered the ballroom. All smiles, they sought her attention and asked for the next dance. With a dazzling smile of her own, Madeline drew their interest, and yet, avoided promises she did not care to make. Ellie admired the ease with which her friend manoeuvred through the sea of admirers that met her at every event.

  “Do you never tire of all the attention?” Ellie asked as they headed for the table of refreshments set under a looming arch by the French doors leading out onto the terrace.

  Madeline chuckled. “Certainly, I do. Even I do not care for the regard of a man I have no interest in. I merely seek to draw out the one man who deserves my undivided attention.”

  “Is that so?” Ellie smiled, pouring herself a glass of punch. “And have you made any progress?”

  A hint of disappointment in her eyes, Madeline scanned the crowd. “I’m afraid not, which I find rather frustrating. It is not like my expectations are so unreasonable. However, so far it seems like there is no man in the whole of England whom I would even consider.”

  “That is disheartening,” Ellie mumbled suppressing a laugh. As much as she adored her friend, Madeline had a tendency for dramatics; and as far as her expectations were concerned, they were, indeed, rather unreasonable. Not that Ellie would ever tell her that.

  Her eyes still sweeping the crowd, Madeline suddenly froze. Then she spun around, grabbed Ellie by the arm and pulled her to the side.

  “What is the matter?” Ellie gasped, wondering what had brought on such a strange behaviour. “Are you all right?”

  “Yes, certainly,” Madeline stammered, her eyes straying to the crowd beyond Ellie’s shoulder. “I just thought…I saw…a mouse.”

  Ellie’s eyes narrowed. “A mouse?”

  A sheepish grin came to Madeline’s face, and she reluctantly met her friend’s eyes. “Maybe it was just my imagination.”

  “Madeline, what is going on? What did you see?” Ellie tried to turn around, but Madeline once more grabbed her arm and pulled her back. Staring at her friend, Ellie’s eyes narrowed. “What could you possibly have seen that would explain this rather extreme behaviour of yours?”

  Feigning surprise, Madeline released her arm. “Me? Nothing. How about we take a turn about the room?” she asked, steering Ellie farther away from the dancing couples. “This way.”

  “All right.” Pretending to follow her friend, Ellie only took two steps before turning back. Before Madeline could stop her, she spun around, her eyes scanning the crowd.

  As she spotted them, the blood froze in her veins.

  “I’m sorry,” Madeline whispered beside her.

  Ellie swallowed, unable to tear her eyes from the man she had wanted to marry as he danced with another woman. As he looked down at her, a deep smile came to his face. A smile that Ellie recognised. A long time ago, that smile had been meant for her.

  A heavy lump settled in her stomach.

  “Who is she?” Ellie asked, not sure if she wanted to know the answer.

  “Abigail Turnton, Lord Smithen’s daughter.”

  Ellie nodded as her eyes filled with tears. Blinking them away, she took a deep breath. “This is not a mere dance, is it?” Ellie asked. “What do you know?”

  Madeline sighed before reluctantly answering Ellie’s question. “They are betrothed. He asked for her hand a fortnight ago.”

  Closing her eyes, Ellie once more drew in a deep breath. As the world began to spin, Made-line’s hand closed around hers, squeezing it gently. “Come,” her friend whispered. “You don’t have to look at them.”

  “Yes, I do,” Ellie stammered, knowing that there was no way for her to avoid seeing them while at the same time enjoy herself out in society. If she did so, she might as well return home and never set another foot outside again. “I have to make my peace with it. There is no other way.”

  As her eyes followed the happy couple as they spun around the dance floor, Madeline’s hand remained on hers, a lifeline that would keep her sane when her mind threatened to spin out of control and her heart ached so fiercely that Ellie thought it would burst into a million pieces.

  Until a familiar face drew her attention, and the breath caught in her throat.

  “What?” Madeline asked, looking at her with worried eyes.

  “He’s here,” Ellie gasped as her gaze swept over his tall stature as if a magnetic pull held them trapped. He stood to the side, his elder brother, the marquess, and his wife as well as his friend Oliver Cornell at his flanks. Although he looked every bit the gentleman, with his hair neatly brushed back and his attire meticulously groomed, he still seemed somehow out of place considering the exuberant gaiety of the evening. His eyes were hard, troubled even, and his lips were pressed into a thin line. Whenever someone would walk up to him, he bowed his head in greeting. However, the hint of a smile that came to his features seemed forced, and it disappeared as quickly as it had come.

  Despite the joy that had flooded her heart upon seeing him, Ellie was not blind to the pain so apparent in his eyes. What had happened to him? She wondered, glimpsing the thin scar running down his left temple. What nightmares had he witnessed?

  “Who’s here?” Madeline asked, interrupting her thoughts.

  Ellie swallowed and then nodded her head in his direction. “Lord Frederick Lancaster.”

  Following her friend’s gaze, Madeline smiled. “He is a handsome man, is he not?” she mused. “Easily distracts from the more important men at his side.”

  Ellie’s eyes snapped to her friend’s face and found a teasing smile curl up her lips. “Why do you tease me?”

  “Because I can see that you care for him,” Madeline said, squeezing her hand. “Is that not the reason why you defended him so passionately the other day?”

  Feeling a blush warm her cheeks, Ellie averted her eyes. “I do like him, yes. Or rather I did.” Seeing the curiosity in her friend’s eyes, Ellie added, “Years ago, he did me a service, and it endeared him to me.” She smiled shyly. “But that was years ago. I have no way of knowing what kind of man he is today.”

  Madeline shrugged, a conspiratorial smile on her face. “In my experience, people rarely change. At our very core, we are who we are. If you liked him then, he must be a good man.”

  For a moment, Ellie stared at her friend in surprise. Never would she have thought Madeline to be capable of such deep musings. And yet, her friend was one of only a handful of people who was able to see past her scars. “Yes, I believe he is.”

  “Do you wish to be reacquainted with him?

  Ellie shook her head. “No,” she whispered, eyes straying to his tall form once again. “I could not compete.” A small stab pierced her heart as she watched other young ladies vie for his attention, their smiles and glowing eyes untainted by ugly scars.

  “If you believe in love as you say you do, then there is no competition,” Madeline objected. “Either he is your match or he is not. The scars you bear, either one of you, do not matter. Maybe because of them, you’re all the more suited for each other.”

  Looking up at her friend’s glowing eyes, Ellie smiled. “You have a hidden depth, Madeline, that very few people ever get to see.”

  Eyes opening in feigned shock, Madeline gasped, “I would certainly hope so! After all, I have a reputation to protect.” Laughing, she took her leave and joined the other couples on the dance floor, now and then glancing back at Ellie, letting her know that she was not forgotten.

  While Madeline danced and flirted for the rest of the evening, her cheeks flushed from exertion and excitement, Ellie remained hidden in the shadows of the large room, her eyes involuntarily straying to the one man she felt certain could heal her broken heart. And yet, she did not dare speak to him. Would he even remember her?

  Hushed whispers floated to her ears when the music stopped, and although Ellie did her utmost not to listen, her heart could not shut out the words she heard.

  “Look at her. Even after all this time, you can still see where the fire touched her skin.”

  “I know, poor thing. What do you suppose she is doing here?”

  “Maybe her mother urged her out of the house for some entertainment. It cannot be beneficial to be alone all the time.”

  “Are you certain? The baroness is not even here. I heard she is ailing.”

  “The poor girl does not look happy, does she?”

  “How could she?”

  Ellie sighed and for a moment closed her eyes. When the musicians began to play a lively country tune, drowning out the next pitying remark, she felt herself relax. Watching the couples take their positions, she once more glanced across the room.

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