Cursed & cherished the d.., p.6
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       Cursed & Cherished: The Duke's Wilful Wife, p.6

         Part #2 of Love's Second Chance series by Bree Wolf
 

  However, Edmond’s mind did not dwell on that particular bit of the current situation too long. Instead it wandered off, as though of its own accord, to the chamber bordering his own. Just behind this door, his wife was waiting for him. She had retired earlier, needing time to change out of her wedding gown into something more suitable for entertaining her husband on their first night together.

  A smile curled up the corners of his mouth as he pictured the gown falling away, revealing her delicate figure in all its splendour. Her scarlet curls let loose, cascading down her back. Her emerald eyes finding his own as he approached her. Yes! He nodded. This day would end better than it had begun. Much better!

  As he walked over to the door, he hesitated for a moment, hand on the handle, and noticed with surprise a slight tremble running through his own arm. Not unexperienced with regard to the opposite gender, Edmond had not expected his wedding night to be a reason for nerves. Women generally flocked to him, and he had spent many delightful hours in their arms. And yet here he was, his usual self-confidence shaken just a bit. A chuckle rose from his throat, and he silently slid open the door and…stopped.

  Instead of finding his new bride in bed, nervously awaiting his visit, he came upon her pacing the floor. The thin fabric of her nightgown merely peeked out from under the thick robe she wore over it, its strap slung around her slim waist at least twice and, from the looks of it, secured with a fisherman’s knot.

  At least the pins had disappeared, and her curls hung wildly around her face, swaying as she went.

  She had yet to notice him, and so he stood perfectly still watching her long strides carry her around the room. Glancing at her face, Edmond found her beautiful eyes narrowed almost into slits, and he frowned. If he had to guess, he would not think her nervous or scared or even sad, but angry!

  Had something transpired that he wasn’t privileged to? He wondered.

  Just when he was about to make his presence known and ask what had so unsettled her, she once more swung around, her eyes catching sight of him.

  Instantly, she stopped in her tracks, and her eyes narrowed even more, if that were possible.

  “Are you all right?” he asked, closing the door and taking a step forward. He reached out a hand to her, offering comfort.

  Instead of welcoming his concern for her, she took a step back, her body tensing.

  He stopped, trying to decipher what had caused her change in attitude. “Is something wrong?”

  For a moment she stood still as though frozen to the spot. Then a smile slowly lifted up the corners of her mouth. However, it was not the kind of smile that would have encouraged him to approach her. This smile seemed like a threat, and he didn’t dare move forward.

  A stare full of hatred rooted him to the spot, and as a sense of doom settled in the pit of his stomach, he watched his new bride roll her eyes at him. A snort escaped her before she spoke in a voice that held nothing of the sweetness he had heard there before. “Everything is wrong. Every-thing about this,” she gestured at her surroundings in general before pointing from him to herself, “is wrong.” Again she shook her head before nervous laughter erupted from her throat. She clasped her hands to her face, still shaking her head.

  Inexperienced with weeping or hysterical females, Edmond considered withdrawing to his own chambers and giving her some time to settle into her new life. But blast it, this was his wedding night! He ought to be able to put his wife at ease.

  Taking a deep breath, he approached her. “I’m sorry,” he said, unsure of what to say. What did one say in these situations? “There is no need to be scared.” He reached out his hand to comfort her, but the second the tips of his fingers brushed over the fabric of her robe, she shrank back, hands falling from her face.

  “If you touch me, I will kill you!” she hissed, eyes burning with a hatred he had never seen before.

  ***

  Seeing her husband’s shocked face, Anna rejoiced. As trying as the past few weeks had been, now she would finally be able to let go of the tight grip she’d had on her emotions. All blood seemed to drain from his face as his eyes drifted over her snarling appearance, and she could only guess what thoughts were flooding his mind right now. Whatever they were, he had not expected to find his new bride as outspoken and defiant as she was.

  As the shock slowly fell from his face, his eyes narrowed, sweeping over her, trying to make sense of the change she had undergone. She could see the questions in his eyes and wondered if he cared to know the answers.

  He took a step forward, eyes still roaming her face. Then they seemed to light up, and a mischievous smile curled up his lips. “Am I not to your liking?” he asked, his own gaze travelling downward, boldly assessing her curves buried under two layers of clothing.

  Appalled by his question, Anna wished she could wrap herself in the thick covers of her bed to shield herself from his intrusive eyes. Instead, she simply crossed her arms, glaring at him with the hatred she felt.

  Trying to remain unconcerned, she shrugged, her own eyes travelling over his form in re-turn. Unfortunately, she had to admit that he was indeed pleasant to look at. She suspected that more than one woman had already confirmed that assessment since he was looking at her with a self-assurance only born out of experience.

  Under different circumstances, she would have welcomed that twinkle in his eyes that hinted at a rather wicked, though carefully veiled nature. It spoke to something deep within her own soul. However, she was determined to bring him to his knees and walk out the victor in this ugly business referred to as marriage.

  Again she shrugged. “I admit your physical attributes are not repulsive.” There was no sense denying the obvious. The roguish smile on his face told her he would never believe her words even if she tried. “However, your moral standards are lacking severely.”

  “My moral standards?”

  “I believe that’s what I said.”

  He smiled. “I know. Would you care to elaborate?”

  “Oh, I was wondering if your hearing might be impaired.” He laughed, and she found it hard to keep a straight face. Something about him was very disconcerting. “I suppose as your moral standards have given offence in more than one area of life, you would need clarification with regard to which issue is currently giving offence.”

  Again he laughed. “Then enlighten me. How am I currently giving offence?”

  His amusement with her reaction riled Anna. She had expected him to answer with anger instead. Anger she could handle. Anger she could answer with her own. Her lips pressed together she fixed him with her most mortifying glare. “The way in which you acquired a wife,” she spat. “It is distasteful!”

  “I see,” he said, the wicked smile still clinging to the corners of his mouth. “How foolish of me! I actually thought the way I acquired,” here he paused, and for a second she thought he would wink at her, “a wife was fairly common business procedure.”

  Her lips thinned at the word business, and Anna knew he was baiting her. She drew in a deep breath. “Let me tell you, I do not care for your tone, my lord,” she said with as much insincerity as he had spoken. “Allow me to be perfectly clear.” He nodded for her to proceed. “You made a business deal with my father. According to that deal, you receive my quite sizable dowry in order to save your estate from bankruptcy,” she noticed him swallow, “and as a catch my hand in marriage. My father on the other hand can pride himself on having a daughter well married and thus further his other business dealings. As far as I am concerned, all business has now been concluded.” She raised her chin a fraction. “Allow me to show you to the door, my lord.”

  Although the self-assured smile had vanished from his face, he did not turn to leave as his eyes still rested on her face, clearly calculating the seriousness with which she had spoken. “This is our wedding night,” he reminded her, waiting for her reaction.

  Anna took a deep breath, trying to still the trembling in her hands. What would he do? “I have said all tha
t I wished to say,” she stated as calmly as her nerves would allow. “And I meant every word.”

  Observing her closely, he nodded. Then he glanced at the door, and for a second Anna felt certain he would retire to his own chambers. But in the blink of an eye he changed direction and within two easy strides he stood before her.

  Surprised by his proximity, Anna swayed on her feet, but refused to take a step back. His nose was a mere inch from her own, and his eyes looked into hers as though challenging her to be true to her words. “Leave!” she hissed, wondering what she would do if he refused.

  The wickedness returned to his eyes just before they shifted down to her lips. “You turned your head,” he stated, once more returning his gaze to hers. “I thought it was nerves, but it wasn’t, was it?”

  Anna took a deep breath, uncomfortable with the change in topic. “No, it was not. What does it matter?”

  He nodded, and his lips curled up once more. “All right, I’ll make a deal with you.” She took a deep breath, wary of what he would suggest. “I’ll leave, for now, if you do not turn your head.”

  The initial frown that settled on her features at his words quickly dissipated when the full force of his meaning hit her. Her eyes widened, and she took an involuntary step backward, cursing herself as she saw the satisfaction at having breached her calm demeanour on his face. “Leave!” she hissed once more.

  Remaining where he was, he smiled at her, one eye brow arched in question. “I have stated my terms.” His eyes shifted to the left. “Of course, I can always see you to your bed.”

  As her hands balled into fists, Anna had trouble containing her fury. How dare he? He ought to think himself lucky she did not slit his throat. Remembering that Henrietta’s dagger was still packed somewhere in her trunks, Anna cursed herself once more. This blasted day kept getting worse!

  Fighting to calm herself, she took a deep breath. But the muscles in her body kept twitching, begging for release. And when the grin on his face grew even deeper and more self-satisfied, there was no holding back. Without conscious thought, she drew back her right hand and sent it flying toward his face, a snarl of anger escaping her lungs.

  Unfortunately, he must have seen the intention in her eyes for he caught her by the wrist a moment before her hand could slap that smug smile off his face. “I’d advise against that,” he said, amusement ringing in his voice, once more riling her anger. “So?”

  “So?” she asked, wrenching her arm free, the reason for her outburst momentarily forgotten.

  Leaning forward, he looked into her eyes. “So?”

  As the memory resurfaced, Anna gritted her teeth, her eyes shooting daggers at him. “Fine,” she hissed.

  Instantly, a victorious smile lit up his features, and she had to avert her eyes to keep from slapping him again. Or rather trying to.

  His footsteps lightly echoed on the floor as he breached the two steps between them. When his hand came to rest under her chin, Anna swallowed. Reluctantly, she lifted her head, her eyes daring him to smirk at her.

  Instead, a strangely serious expression lay on his face as his thumb slowly skimmed over her chin. Goose bumps rose on Anna’s arms, and she took a deep breath as her insides turned upside down and a light dizziness came to her head.

  Drat! What was going on? She loathed this man with every fibre of her body, and yet…there seemed to be some fibres who traitorously welcomed his advances.

  Lips pressed into a thin line, she waited for him to get on with it, but he didn’t move. In-stead, he said, “Stop frowning.”

  She shook her head. “I would not want to give the impression of participating willingly, my lord.”

  He smiled, rolling his eyes. Then his gaze sought hers before once more travelling down, tracing the curve of her lips. “Don’t be scared,” he whispered.

  Renewed anger washed over Anna at the suggestion, and she opened her mouth in outrage, too late registering the mischievous gleam in his eyes. Instantly, his lips came down on hers, cutting off any objection she could have voiced.

  Shocked, she tried to back away, but his other arm encircled her waist, holding her close. His mouth moved over hers with bold curiosity, and despite her mind’s objections, Anna felt her lips start to tingle pleasantly. She could barely stop herself from returning his kiss.

  When he released her mouth, he looked at her in wonderment, skimming his thumb over her lips. “You’re passionate,” he whispered. “Are you sure you don’t want me to stay?”

  Freeing her chin from his grasp, Anna pushed him away, relieved that he relinquished his hold on her. “Make no mistake,” she warned. “If you touch me again, I will kill you!”

  Holding her gaze for a moment, he nodded. “I see.” Then he took a step forward, his eyes burning into hers. “I might just put that to the test.” Then he turned and left, closing the door be-hind him.

  Emotionally exhausted, Anna sank down to the floor, her arms trembling.

  Chapter Ten − The Issue of an Heir

  Hoping to put the disaster of the previous night behind them, Edmond approached the breakfast parlour. Animatedly chatting voices as well as delicious scents drifted toward him, beckoning him forward. As the footman opened the door, granting him entry, Edmond was pleasantly surprised to see a charming smile decorate his wife’s face as she leaned forward to whisper something into her sister’s ear.

  As his eyes slid over Judith, Edmond wondered if he had made the right choice after all. All throughout his wedding day, Judith had seemed perfectly amiable, nothing like the unpleasant companion she had portrayed herself during their first dinner. As he had suspected, it had all been a ploy! A ploy to ensure his choice would fall on Anna. But why? From their encounter the night before, his new bride quite obviously couldn’t stand the sight of him.

  His eyes drifted to the young man standing by Judith’s side, and Edmond remembered that Judith was married now as well. From the looks the two newly-weds exchanged, Edmond deter-mined that theirs was indeed a love match.

  And all of a sudden he understood.

  Judith had been in love, possibly on the verge of matrimony, when their father had come forward with his intention of marrying one of his daughters to Edmond. And so Anna had sacrificed herself to procure her sister’s happiness.

  A heavy lump settled in Edmond’s throat, and he had to swallow a couple of times to dis-lodge it. As it travelled down, settling in his stomach, he finally understood why his wife had met him the night before with such hatred in her eyes. He had forced her hand. Would she have defied her father’s wishes if it hadn’t been for her sister’s happiness? Would she have openly refused his offer if things had been different?

  Edmond took a deep breath. Whatever their feelings toward one another, few marriages ever started out as a love match. Affection could still develop over time. Putting a smile on his face, Edmond joined their animated little circle, and to his delight, they were soon engrossed in conversation.

  Breakfast was served, and they all ate heartily. In between bites, Edmond offered a friendly comment here and there, but mostly observed his wife. A genuine smile on her face, she mostly conversed with her mother and sister, and Edmond could see the bond between them as clear as day.

  Two hours later, when they stood side by side on the front steps of Brookestone, watching her family’s carriage disappear in the distance, Edmond felt hopeful. To such a degree even, that when the carriage had moved out of sight, he turned to his wife, offering her his arm.

  However, instead of accepting it or at the very least declining his offer, Anna turned on her heel, not acknowledging his presence in the least, and marched off.

  Edmond took a deep breath, suppressing the anger that threatened to surface. She had a reason to be mad, he reminded himself.

  However, unwilling to leave things between them as they were, he went after her.

  When he entered the back parlour, Edmond found her settled in an armchair by the windows, a book in her hand. Once again,
she refused to acknowledge his presence, her eyes glued to the page before her.

  Again he took a deep breath and approached her. “Anna, can I speak to you?”

  She didn’t look up.

  “Anna.”

  Nothing.

  “I am talking to you!” he snapped, snatching the book out of her hands.

  Without a page to hold her attention, her eyes drifted up until they found his face. Hatred burned in her emerald depths. Not a word left her lips though as she rose from the chair and pushed past him toward the door.

  Seeing her intention, Edmond dropped the book on the armchair she had vacated and seized her arm, spinning her around. “You will talk to me!”

  A snarl on her face, she stared at him. “What do you wish to talk about, my lord?”

  Letting go off her arm, Edmond took a step back. “I thought that was fairly obvious. I understand that this is a difficult situation for you and I am willing to give you some time to settle into your new life. However, in return I ask that you make an effort as well.”

  “An effort?” Anna asked, a frown drawing down her lovely features. “For what?”

  At her words, he shook his head. “Do you truly wish to continue this animosity between us? Are the remainder of our days to be like this?”

  Anna shrugged. “It does not bother me, my lord. If you wanted an amiable wife, you should have made your choice based on different criteria.” Her lips curled up into a satisfied grin. “Let me remind you, my lord, that what you wanted was a dowry, and that is what you got. An amiable wife was not part of the bargain!”

  Bewildered, he stared at his wife. “You cannot be serious!”

  “Believe me, I am.” She took a step toward him, eyes staring into his. “As far as I am concerned, this marriage does not exist.” And with that, she turned on her heel and once more strode toward the door.

 
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