Cursed & cherished the d.., p.7
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       Cursed & Cherished: The Duke's Wilful Wife, p.7

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

  “If you truly believe, you can just ignore me, my lady,” he whispered, but she stopped in her tracks nonetheless, “you are severely mistaken.” Step by step, he approached her. “I have to admit your current behaviour confused me at first, until I realised that your earlier display of a rather amiable disposition was only fuelled by the desire to see your sister happily married.”

  At that, she spun around, wide eyes searching his face. “She did not tell you that!”

  Edmond shook his head. “She did not. But it is the only explanation for your behaviour as well as hers. She was in love when my proposal came, was she not?”

  “She was,” Anna forced out through gritted teeth. “But Father didn’t care.” She took a deep breath. “It would have broken her heart.”

  “I see,” Edmond said, seeing the determination burn in her eyes. She was a fierce ally. It would serve him well to have her on his side. “And so you did what you had to to ensure my choice would fall on you.”

  Anna nodded.

  “I am sorry it came to this.”

  Anna’s lips thinned. “I am not sorry I fooled you. It was the only way, and you appeared rather disinterested in the personality of the woman that was to be your wife so long as she would provide you with the funds you required.”

  A grin came to his face. “I understand your motivation. I understand it now as I understood it then.” A frown drew down her eye brows. “You did not fool me.” He took a step closer, looking down into her sparkling eyes. “I knew who you were when I chose you. You may believe me or not, but do not for a second think that I did not want you.” His gaze shifted down to her lips, and he watched her draw in a sharp breath. A slow smile crept up his face and when his eyes found hers once more, he saw her resolve falter for a moment.

  Then she swallowed, and the moment was gone. “Be that as it may, I stand by what I said.”

  He nodded. “I thought you might say that. However, as much as I intend to be considerate of your feelings on the matter, there is one issue that I cannot easily ignore or postpone indefinitely.”

  “And what is that, my lord?”

  Eyes fixed on her face, he simply said, “The issue of an heir.”

  Again she drew in a sharp breath.

  “You were right in saying that my choice fell on one of you because of the dowry your father offered. I do not deny that.” He shook his head, taking a step closer. “But another reason for marrying was the issue of an heir. Even if you state that an amiable wife was not part of this bargain, an heir was.”

  For a long moment, she remained silent, eyes unblinking as she stared ahead. Then she drew another breath, and her eyes cleared. “Even if titled men, in particular, wish for an heir, not all can claim one.”

  “While that may be true,” he objected, feeling his lips curl into an amused smile. “Even those who fail to produce an heir do not know they will at the beginning of their marriage.” A deep grin spread over his face. “Only with trial comes error.” Smiling, he winked at her.

  Her mouth fell open, and she stared at him in shock.

  Taking another step closer, he reached for her. When his hand settled on her waist though, she shrank back.

  “I told you not to touch me!” she hissed, straightening her posture. As much as he had un-settled her with his frankness, he could see the determination not to yield in the way she stared at him now. “I do not care what you expected from this marriage. Whatever your expectations, all you can claim is my dowry. I will not relinquish anything else. Do you understand?”

  Although she held herself proudly, he detected a slight tremble in her hands as she waited for his answer.

  Not wishing to scare her though determined to make his point, Edmond again approached her. This time she did not back away, but forced her chin up, meeting his eyes. “I hear you, my lady. And I promise, I will be patient.” He leaned down as though to whisper in her ear. “But my patience has its limits. Eventually, I will claim what is mine.” With that, he strode past her and left.

  Chapter Eleven − Hope May Not Be Lost

  “That blasted woman!” Jerking the drink his friend was offering out of his hand, Edmond downed it in one gulp. “I should have married her sister! I knew she was trouble!”

  A satisfied smile curled up the corners of Graham’s mouth. “Who would have thought that there was actually a woman in this world who could resist your charms?” He chuckled. “And on top of things, she is your wife now.”

  Edmond glared at his brother-in-law. “I am glad my misery amuses you.”

  Graham’s smile grew bigger. “Now you know how I felt when you helped me find a wife three years ago. Believe me, I was less than amused.”

  “Could we focus on my problem right now?” Edmond sighed, slumping down on the settee. “What am I to do? She hates my guts. At least, Rosabel loved you.”

  Graham laughed. “She did not. At least not in the beginning. Honestly, to this day I am not sure what it was that brought me her love.” He offered his friend another drink, then took a seat in the armchair across from him. “Edmond, you are as dear to me as any brother would be, but you are an idiot!”

  Edmond’s head snapped up. “Excuse me?”

  Graham lifted his hands in surrender. “As was I,” he admitted, leaning forward in his chair, eyes intent on his brother-in-law. “We both thought we could just take our pick and have a wife that would serve whatever need we thought she ought to serve, and at the same time have her be amiable and devoted despite our own shortcomings.” Graham shook his head. “I should never have treated Rosabel the way I did in the beginning of our marriage. I consider myself the luckiest man in the world that she didn’t give up on me. Only because of her tenacity are we in love today.”

  Swinging his legs off the settee, Edmond rested his elbows on his legs. “Listen, I see what you and Rosabel have, and I am more than happy for you.” He nodded at his friend. “However, that’s not me. I never sought a love match. I like women.” A grin spread over his face. “I like them a lot, and at least generally they like me too.” He sat back, shrugging his shoulders. “And that is exactly it. I don’t want her to love me. I want us to get along. I want us to have fun. You know?” He wiggled his eyebrows in a meaningful way, and Graham laughed.

  “Well, I suppose her idea of fun differs from yours,” a soft voice echoed over from the double-doors before a moment later Rosabel entered the parlour.

  While Graham rose to his feet and extended a hand to his wife, which she took with a de-voted smile on her face, Edmond shot up and almost fell over himself bowing to her. “I apologise for what I said,” he stammered, glancing at her face. “I meant no offence.”

  “I am sure you did not,” Rosabel said. As she smiled at him, he felt himself relax. “You only spoke your mind, the way you usually do.” She sat down and the gentlemen followed. “If you don’t mind, maybe I can provide a woman’s perspective to the problem at hand.”

  Edmond nodded eagerly. “Please, tell me what I can do to resolve this.”

  At his words, an indulgent smile came to her features, and Edmond felt himself reminded of his childhood days. “Dear Edmond,” she spoke. “In many ways you see the truth. You see who people really are, what they desire and what they need. But in this case, now that you yourself are involved, you do not see what is right before your eyes.”

  His shoulders slumped, and he shook his head. “I do not understand. What is there that I don’t see? She dislikes me. More than that, she hates me. Either she ignores me completely or she snaps at me, threatening to kill me if I dare lay a hand on her.”

  “She said that?” Graham asked, gently taking Rosabel’s hand in his. She looked up at him then and smiled.

  “She did,” Edmond confirmed, starting to feel exhausted. He had thought marriage would solve all of his problems, but instead he was now faced with a completely new one. One that he had not seen coming.

  Her hazel eyes travelling over his face, Rosabel looked at him.
A small frown settled on her forehead, and Edmond could almost see the thoughts running through her mind as she contemplated how best to respond.

  “Why did you marry her?” she asked.

  Edmond shrugged. “My steward informed me that her father was willing to bestow a sizable dowry on his daughter should a desirable offer be made to him.”

  “I see,” Rosabel mumbled. “And were Mr. Hanford’s daughters the only ones in possession of a sizable dowry as you say?”

  Again Edmond shrugged. “I do not know. Why?”

  “I’m just wondering why you made your choice so quickly. Your steward suggested one of Mr. Hanford’s daughters, and you instantly agreed?”

  “We had supper first. Of course, I wanted to meet them.”

  Rosabel nodded, that indulgent smile still playing on her lips as she looked at him. He really did feel like a little boy being chided by his mother. “And then how did you make your choice? Why did you choose Anna? Why not Judith?”

  In a few words, Edmond laid down the events of that fateful evening a few weeks ago. “I knew that Anna was not the sweet-tempered woman she tried to portray. I could see it in her eyes. But−”

  “Then why did you choose her?” Rosabel insisted, her eyes still fixed on him. “If you knew what was going on, why did you not make Judith your bride?”

  Edmond shrugged. “Because I knew she didn’t want me!” He sighed. “There was sadness, even a hint of fear in her eyes whenever she looked at me. She could not mask it for all she tried.”

  “So you chose Anna because you wanted to spare Judith?” Rosabel asked, eyebrows raised.

  All the while Graham had a smug smile on his face, clearly enjoying himself immensely.

  After raking his fingers through his hair, Edmond shook his head. “No. I didn’t really think it through like that. I just…despite her efforts to appear well-behaved and poised, Anna had fire in her eyes. There was something passionate about her. I knew she was not the person she wanted me to think she was,” again he shook his head, “but not for a moment did I believe she would loathe the very sight of me. Had I known I would never have married her!”

  At his admission, a delighted smile curled Rosabel’s lips, and she glanced at her husband, her hand squeezing his. Then she turned back to Edmond, who found himself staring at her rather dumbfounded. “Are you enjoying my misery now too?”

  Rosabel shook her head. “Not at all. I am just relieved that there is still hope for you. You and Anna.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “You said you wouldn’t have married her had you known she didn’t want you.” Edmond nodded. “Well, it tells me that you care. As little as she has endeared herself to you since your wedding, you care about her happiness and her well-being.” When Edmond opened his mouth, she stopped him. “Do not deny it! For whatever reason, you two are husband and wife now. Get to know her. Find out who she really is. Be open and honest,” her eyes drilled into him, “ and patient.”

  Edmond slumped down in his seat. “That sounds like an awful lot of work!”

  Graham grinned. “Love takes time, my friend. Especially under circumstances such as yours.”

  “I told you I’m not looking for love,” Edmond objected.

  Graham shrugged. “Affection then. If you want an amiable wife, one who cares about your well-being, then you have little choice. Pursue the road you’ve walked so far and you’ll only anger her more, strengthen her resolve to make you miserable.”

  Edmond’s head snapped up. “Her resolve to make me miserable?”

  “From what you told us, she seems to be a highly intelligent woman, rather inexperienced, but intelligent. The ploy she constructed to protect her sister speaks of fierce loyalty and unconditional devotion,” Graham counselled. “And I’m sorry to tell you this, but that makes you her enemy.”

  “Her enemy?” Edmond echoed.

  Rosabel nodded. “You antagonised her, even if it was unintentionally. It will not be easy for you to convince her that you indeed care about her.”

  “You should return home,” Graham agreed. “As Rosabel said,” again he squeezed her hand affectionately, “get to know her and let her get to know you.”

  Edmond sighed. “Can’t I just buy her jewels?”

  Graham snorted while Rosabel rolled her eyes. “I thought you were bankrupt?” his friend asked.

  Edmond grinned. “Not anymore.”

  Shaking her head, Rosabel laughed. “Hope may not be lost, but neither does it look promising.”

  Chapter Twelve − Worse Atrocities Than a Simple Kiss

  Anna spent a mere day sitting in her new home with nothing to do but dwell on her miserable situation, before finally making up her mind to return to London and see her friends and family. And why shouldn’t she? After all, her husband had gone off somewhere as well. Trying to recall his words as she might, Anna could not remember where he had gone, which was not surprising in the least considering that she hadn’t been listening.

  While her parents were astonished to see her after only taking their own leave a few days earlier, they welcomed her back with open arms. Without any complications whatsoever Anna settled right back into her old life, at times only too willingly pretending that her marriage to His Grace Duke Pompous had all been a bad dream.

  “He can be so pig-headed,” she complained to Henrietta later that same afternoon. Sitting in her friend’s drawing room, sipping tea, she poured her heart out without feeling the need to watch her words lest she hurt someone by admitting her own misery. “You should see the way he grins at me.” She shook her head in disgust. “As though he could do no wrong, and it is only a matter of time before I finally see him as the great catch he believes himself to be.”

  Henrietta snorted. “Men! If only we ruled the world, life would be so much better.” She nodded her head vigorously. “For everyone involved.”

  Anna sighed. As much as she cared about Henrietta she didn’t feel like dealing with another one of her friend’s tirades against men in general. Naturally, Anna agreed that men served few purposes; however, she did not consider them inherently evil. “I can’t believe I married him. Was I daft?”

  Patting her knee, Henrietta shook her head. “You were protecting Judith, and believe me, your sister needs protecting.” She smiled at her encouragingly. “I pity you for the position you find yourself in, however, I am certain that you are well-equipped to deal with a husband such as yours. You are strong and resourceful. Do not allow him to dominate you. Fight him every step of the way.”

  “I have, and I fully intend to in the future,” Anna hastened to assure her friend. Then she shifted her eyes to the cup of steaming liquid in her hands. Inhaling the aromatic scent, she closed her eyes.

  “What is it?” Henrietta enquired after the silence had grown heavy. “What weighs on your mind?”

  Anna took a deep breath, before lifting her eyes. “He wants an heir.”

  Henrietta growled, setting down her tea cup with a bang that shook the little table. “I hope you told him no!”

  “Of course I did!” Anna lifted her hands in surrender. “But he has a way about him that I did not see coming. He tricked me into agreeing to a kiss. I thought him a simpleton, however now I am not so sure. Although surprised at my refusal, he seems to find it entertaining as though it is a game for him to win, and he is convinced that he will.”

  “How did he trick you?”

  In a few words, Anna related what had happened in her bridal chamber, embarrassed at her own lack of fortitude when it came to dealing with her new husband. From the deepened scowl on Henrietta’s face, she could tell that her friend was less than sympathetic and whole-heartedly disapproved of her acquiescence to her husband’s demand.

  “You should not have agreed,” Henrietta chastised. “But I believe you know that. Never allow him to put you in a position that portrays you as weak or pliable in any way. No matter what, you must stand your ground. If you do not, he will destroy you. I
f not today, then tomorrow.” She took a deep breath, and her eyes wandered to the overhung skies outside the window. “Believe me, the day will come. A day when you will suffer far worse atrocities than a simple kiss.”

  Seeing deep pain cloud her friend’s eyes, Anna didn’t know what to say. Never had Henrietta volunteered information about her past, and Anna had never dared to ask. But whatever cruelty her mother had suffered at the hands of her father, Anna doubted that her own husband was capable of such. As low as her opinion of him was, he did not strike her as someone capable of such things. But then again, she had only just met him. How well did she truly know his character?

  Remembering the night he had come to her chambers, expecting a welcoming wife, Anna felt her lips tingle. Even if she would never admit it to Henrietta, Anna could not hide from the fact that she had enjoyed his advances. As insufferable as he was, his kiss had set her world a-spin!

  Feeling the breath catch in her throat at the emotions the memory conjured, Anna shook her head, trying to clear her mind. Once more turning her attention to her friend, she said, “But…he is a man. I do not possess the strength that he has at his disposal. At least in that regard I am no match for him.” Her eyes searched Henrietta’s face, and in a hushed voice she admitted, “If he chose to, I could not stop him.”

  Her face still set in a scowl, Henrietta hissed, “Only a man of no character would force himself on a woman!” She took a deep breath, and her hands previously balled into fists seemed to relax a little. “Unfortunately, very few men possess any kind of character these days.”

  Anna shrugged. “Then there is nothing I can do.”

  For a long moment, Henrietta seemed to stare off into nothing before a delicate smile curled up her lips. Her eyes shifted to Anna then, and she leaned forward conspiratorially. “Do you still have the dagger I gave you?”

  Swallowing, Anna nodded.


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