Cursed & cherished the d.., p.8
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       Cursed & Cherished: The Duke's Wilful Wife, p.8

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

  “But I wouldn’t know what to do with it!” Anna objected. “Men are generally trained to use weapons, but don’t forget that I am a woman. He would probably disarm me before I could even make up my mind where to stab him.”

  “Well, then you need training,” Henrietta said, a twinkle in her eyes.

  Anna frowned. “What are you talking about? Who would train a woman?”

  Henrietta snorted. “Your words are true. Few men would agree to empower women by teaching them to defend themselves. Fortunately for you, we don’t need a man to train you.” Her eyes shone as she spoke.

  “Then who?”

  “Me.”

  “You?” Anna asked staring at her friend. Though tall, Henrietta generally gave the impression of being somewhat sickly. Her ash-blond hair and pale skin had chased many a suitor away, much to Henrietta’s delight. “You know how to handle a weapon? But how? Who taught you?”

  “My brother did.” Henrietta took a deep breath as a hint of sadness came to her eyes. “I made him. When it was just the two of us left, I pestered him until he finally gave in. After what Father did to Mother, I think he understood that sometimes a woman cannot rely on her husband for protection.” Again she took a deep breath before her eyes returned to Anna, once more clear and shining, radiating the strength that carried her through the day. “I will teach you what you need to know.”

  Anna swallowed. “But…”

  “But what?”

  “What if I cannot scare him off,” she asked, contemplating the idea of running Henrietta’s dagger into her husband’s ribs. “What if I really need to kill him to defend myself?”

  Eyes intent, Henrietta looked at her without blinking. “Would you rather have him in your bed?”

  “Of course not,” Anna said, not in the least sure if she meant it. “But what about everyone else? What will happen if I actually do kill my husband? With a dagger? And in my bedchamber? No one would believe that it was an accident! They’d hang me!” The thought shook Anna to the core.

  Henrietta nodded. “All right, then we will focus on fending him off. Injure him, enough to understand that he cannot do as he pleases.”

  Anna shook her head. “What? Do you really believe it is reasonable to assume that I can just stab him for demanding his marital rights and then have him behave in a more restraint manner around me?” Rolling her eyes, she stared at her friend. “If I do, he will have me hanged!”

  Henrietta shook her head. “He will not.”

  “How can you possibly know that?”

  “Because no man wants it to be publicly known that his wife can best him! He would be considered a coward. People would laugh at him wherever he went. Believe me, men are very sensitive when it comes to their pride.”

  Anna took a deep breath. Although Henrietta’s opinions appeared quite radical, her reasoning was sound. Once again Anna was faced with a choice: either she accept being a married woman or she fight her husband with all means necessary. Remembering her husband’s triumphant eyes and smug, self-assured smile, Anna felt every fibre of her body revolt against the idea to surrender. No matter what the consequences, she would fight him! And she would win!

  Chapter Thirteen − Distance

  Although constantly overshadowed by the need to eventually return to Brookestone, Anna’s days under her parents’ roof were almost blissful. Having lost both daughters to marriage within a few weeks of one another, her mother doted on her, and Anna scarcely had a moment to herself. They toured the city, called on friends and spent a few hours every day at Judith’s new home.

  A decent house, not big or small, but just right, welcomed them as their carriage turned at the end of the corner and stopped by the curb. Face aglow, Judith beckoned them inside and led them to a small parlour. Everything appeared simple, practical even, but beautifully chosen. Her sister’s eye for details and improvements had definitely brushed up John Miller’s home, who upon returning seemed unable to part with his new wife for even a moment. As they sat side by side on the settee, he held her hand carefully in his own. Watching them, Anna observed her sister snuggling into him, her eyes constantly searching his as though a secret conversation was being held without her knowledge. The intimate devotion visible in these small gestures of affection almost brought tears to her eyes.

  Yes, she was happy for Judith! After all, had she not married a stranger to secure her sister’s happiness? And yet, Anna couldn’t help but feel regret for the choice she had made so willingly not a few weeks ago. Her own situation appeared as hopeless as it possibly could. Tied to a stranger, she would be forced to lead a life full of schemes and treachery. She would always have to watch her back, constantly suspicious of what he said and did. Would she ever feel safe again?

  Relieved when they finally took their leave, Anna slumped down in the carriage, resting her head against the seat, and closed her eyes. For a moment all she wanted was to hear the soft echo of the horses’ steps on the cobblestone streets and allow the rest of the world to fall away. If only for a moment.

  “Is he good to you?” Her mother’s voice, soft and careful but tinged with concern, pulled her back to the here and now. “Your husband does he treat you well?”

  Opening her eyes, Anna found her mother’s gaze focused on her, the need to know and yet the fear to learn the truth clearly edged in her face. Knowing that voicing her own worries would neither resolve them nor give her mother peace, Anna smiled. “He is kind, yes. Although there is no need to pretend that there is mutual affection between us as there so clearly is between Judith and John, considering that we were mere strangers not too long ago, the depth of affection that has developed between us is welcoming.”

  “I am glad,” her mother breathed, and some of the strain fell from her shoulders. And yet, Anna couldn’t help but think that her mother did not believe her, but only pretended to in order to ease Anna’s mind as well. Would open words ever be spoken again?

  ***

  “Go home,” Graham insisted. “You have been hiding out here for over a week. It is time that you return and face your wife.”

  Staring at his friend, Edmond shook his head. “And here I thought you would understand the need to get away. Did you not also distance yourself from your wife when you first got married?”

  Graham glowered at him, and Edmond knew he had hit a nerve. “Yes, I did, but it was a mistake. A mistake that cost me a year of happiness. A year wasted in loneliness and anger.” Grabbing Edmond by the shoulders, he looked at him intently. “Do not make the same mistake. Go home and deal with your wife. Do not run from her.”

  Frowning, Edmond shrugged of his friend’s hands. “I do not run from her.”

  “Then what do you call this?” Graham asked.

  After pouring himself another drink, Edmond stared out the window. “I am weighing my options.”

  “I see, and what options are those?”

  Exasperated by his friend’s insistence, Edmond spun around. “Good grief, do you have to be so nagging? Quite frankly, I never expected marriage to be this much work. After what Rosabel said the other day, it appears quite time-consuming, and I am simply not willing to deal with it. At least not right now. Who knows, maybe she’ll calm down on her own. Maybe when I get back, she’ll be more willing to work things out.”

  Graham snorted. “Do you really believe that?”

  For a long moment, Edmond held his gaze before his shoulders slumped. “No!”

  “Good.” Graham strode over and took the glass from Edmond’s hand. “Then go home and get to know your wife. As I have observed over the years, you are not completely talentless when it comes to charming the ladies. Put your mind to it, and I’m sure you can win her over.”

  “Maybe you’re right,” Edmond relented. “I might as well get it over with.”

  Shaking his head, Graham snorted. “That’s the spirit.”

  Chapter Fourteen − Trapped

  “Duchess, what a delight to see you!” Lord Kinsey beamed
, hastening toward her, his ears glowing pink with glee.

  Surprised at his cordiality, Anna needed a moment to collect herself. Although reluctant, she returned the Viscount’s greeting, remembering all too well how not long ago at another ball he had looked down his nose at her because her family had acquired their fortune only recently, and through trade.

  As much as Anna had always detested these gatherings and their phony exchange of well-wishes, now she felt conflicted about her new status. Elevated to the station of duchess, people who previously had refused to exchange more than a few words with her, also possibly due to her headstrong attitude, now sought her company. While Anna enjoyed the chance to refuse their advances with an equally cold shoulder, she could not help but regret the loss of honest sentiment her title-free life had provided. Would she ever feel like herself and be accepted the same way?

  “Duchess!” another voice called, and Anna’s eyes rolled of their own accord before her ears could pick up on the slight note of sarcasm with which the person in questioned addressed her. A note of sarcasm only too familiar.

  Turning her head, Anna found Henrietta walking toward her. Relieved, a smile spread over her face, and she embraced her friend warmly. “It truly is good to see you.”

  Henrietta nodded knowingly. Ever since Anna had informed her friend of the circumstances of her marriage, they had not spoken again. Seeing Henrietta now, Anna remembered the feel of the small dagger resting rather comfortably in the palm of her hand. That very afternoon, Henrietta had given her her first instructions on how to hold and move it, as well as convenient access points should the need arise to defend herself. In private, Anna practised, familiarising herself with the small weight the dagger presented as well as its dimensions and the reach of her arm. And yet, she still felt uncomfortable even just imagining using it against another human being. Even if it was her husband. Even if he had that stupidly smug smile on his face!

  Anna felt all but certain she would not be able to harm him, and she desperately hoped she would never need to.

  “Should we take a stroll through the gardens?” Henrietta asked, taking her arm. “You look like you’re in need of some fresh air.”

  Anna nodded, grateful for her friend’s keen eyes as much as for her inability to read her mind.

  As the soft breeze brushed over her flushed face, Anna felt herself relax, and for a moment she closed her eyes, savouring the peace and quiet lingering in this rather remote corner of the Vis-count’s gardens.

  “What bothers you?” Henrietta asked into the silence. “Is it your husband?”

  Anna shrugged. “Not as you might think.” Tearing a single leaf from the hedge framing the garden, Anna began to rip it into shreds. “It is everyone else rather. Or me even. I’m not sure.” Gesturing at the house they had left behind, Anna sighed. “Wherever I go, people congratulate me on the wonderful match I’ve made.” She snorted, shaking her head. “As though my greatest dreams have come true. As though now I have everything I have ever wanted.”

  Henrietta nodded. “You have what they want, or at least what they think they want.”

  “And yet I feel trapped,” Anna admitted. “I was so focused on saving Judith that it took me a while to fully comprehend what I have done, what I have chosen. But now that Judith is safe, and happy, I can look at my own life, and…I feel trapped. A part of me is still unable to believe that this is indeed my life now. I half-expect to wake up as though I only need to bide my time and eventually I will be able to return to the way things were before.” Letting her eyes sweep over the gardens before her as well as the stately house with a cacophony of voices echoing down the lawn, Anna shook her head. “What am I to do? Right now, all I can think about is keeping my husband at a safe distance. But that’s not a life! What is my life going to be like? Just fending off my husband? Does that sound as ridiculous to you as it does to me?”

  Stepping toward her, Henrietta put her hands gently on Anna’s shoulders. “Do not panic. I understand that all these changes have come quite unexpectedly, but do not despair. You will find a way to regain your life.” Eyes imploring, her friend looked at her. “Make your point. Stand your ground, and you shall succeed.”

  Although feeling awful for disregarding her friend’s encouragements, Anna shook her head. “Succeed at what? A marriage not only without love, but also without respect and kindness? A shallow life of ballrooms and tea parties, which I never cared for even when I was free to choose? A life without children?”

  Henrietta’s eye brows rose into arcs. “You wish for children? You never said a word about that? I never knew having children was important to you.”

  Anna shrugged. “Quite frankly, I’ve never given it much thought. But if I indeed succeed at keeping my husband out of my bed, then I will never have children, and knowing that I never will is just…It’s just different from not knowing if I’ll ever be a mother. Does that make any sense? An unknown future I can handle. Anything is possible. But now, it’s like I know exactly what my life will be like, and none of it is the least bit appealing. I may as well lay down and die.”

  As desperate as Anna felt in that moment, she was even more shocked when she realised that for the first time Henrietta didn’t know what to say. No encouragements. No support. No per-suasion to continue on.

  Just silence.

  Chapter Fifteen − By the Light of the Fire

  Ascending the stairs to her parents’ house after the ball, Anna hesitated before stepping across the threshold and for a moment stood in the dimly lit night, gazing up and down the street. Then she took a deep breath and looked up at the stars above, shining as they always had. And yet Anna’s life had changed in a way she couldn’t quite grasp yet.

  Although dreadfully annoyed with social affairs, Anna had been reluctant to leave the ball and Henrietta’s company. Even if her friend could not undo the things that had chained Anna to her husband, she did her utmost to distract Anna from her gloomy thoughts. Presently, Henrietta’s presence was the only one Anna could bear, for Henrietta was the only one who knew the truth. The whole truth. With Henrietta, Anna didn’t have to pretend, didn’t have to put on a brave face, but could show her fears instead without worry of consequence.

  When goose bumps began to rise on her bare shoulders, Anna sighed and finally stepped in-side. Although most lights had been extinguished, flames danced in the fire place of the front parlour across the hall, their warmth chasing away Anna’s goose bumps even from a distance. Frowning, Anna stepped closer, seeing the candles in the candelabra lit as well. “Is someone here?” she asked, entering the room.

  At first, Anna only heard the faint sizzle of the dancing flames, their light casting shadows over the walls. Then a shadow moved from the dark surrounding the mantle, and familiar blue eyes found hers.

  Recognising him, Anna gasped. “What are you doing here?”

  His face half-hidden in shadows, her husband shrugged. “I might as well ask you the same question. I expected to find you at Brookestone.”

  Ignoring the slight trembling in her hands, Anna raised her chin. “After running away your-self, did you truly expect me to wait for you?” She snorted. “I saw no need.”

  A small smile playing on his features, her husband stepped forward, hands linked behind his back. “You made that perfectly clear, my lady.” He stopped a few steps from her, his eyes never leaving hers. “I apologise for my sudden departure. I ought to have spoken to you first.”

  Anna blinked. Had he really just apologised to her?

  “You have my apology, but please also take this.” Bringing his right hand forward, he held out a small box to her.

  Anna’s eyes narrowed. “What is this?”

  “A gift.”

  Anna frowned. “A gift?”

  “Indeed. Do you not wish to open it?” he asked, coming to stand before her, his eyes looking down into hers. For once, Anna saw no smug smile on his face, and she wondered what had happened.

  Reluctantl
y, Anna took the offered box, knowing before she opened it what it would contain. “Jewellery?” she asked, glancing at the exquisite earrings resting in the small velvety box, their diamonds catching the dim glow that hung about the room. “You cannot be serious!”

  A frown creased his forehead. “Are they not to your liking? Would you rather have had emeralds?”

  Anna laughed. “How can you spend a fortune on a trinket when you only just now avoided bankruptcy? How much of my dowry paid for these earrings?”

  Her husband’s lips thinned at her words. Now his eyes narrowed as his head slowly leaned forward until his nose almost touched hers. “You have no say in how I spend my money,” he whispered, but anger rang loud and clear in his voice.

  “Your money?” Anna scoffed. “Yes, it is indeed your money. Bargained for with immoral means.” She took a deep breath. “May I ask why you bought these earrings? Why would you spend any of your newly acquired fortune on me?”

  Straightening up, he looked at her, eyes searching her face. “Is it truly so hard to believe that I wished to see a smile on my wife’s face? Have you never heard of an instance where a husband buys jewellery for his lady?”

  “Of course I have. Only these instances differed in one major aspect from ours.”

  “Would you care to enlighten me?”

  Taking a seat on the settee, Anna smiled at him with indulgence. “Affection. Why would anyone give a gift without feeling the least bit of affection for the person to whom it is given?” She cocked her head. “Unless there is an ulterior motive, of course. Tell me, my lord, what do you hope to gain from this?”

  Exasperated, her husband threw his hands in the air. “There is no pleasing you, is there? Yes, your dowry saved my estate, but that does not mean you are of no worth to me.”

  Anna laughed. “Yes, but only because you want an heir. In every other regard, I am more of a nuisance to you.”

 
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