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How to Lose a Bride in One Night, Page 2

Sophie Jordan

  He set his glass down and motioned to the bed with an elegant sweep of his hand. “Shall we?”

  Her pulse leapt against her throat. She nodded perhaps too briskly. With her heart beating like a drum in her chest, she moved to the bed and sat upon its edge, folding her hands in her lap. At sight of her rough, chapped fingers, she winced, wishing she could hide them within gloves. Perhaps they would soften with time and be the sort of hands more fitting of a duchess.

  He approached the bed. She stared steadfastly at his legs, too nervous to look up and meet his gaze.

  With one finger he lifted her chin. His gaze held hers, and he was looking at her in that considering way he sometimes did. It wasn’t unkind or disapproving. It was speculative. As though she was something alien, something not quite decipherable. Not unusual, she supposed. He probably never imagined himself marrying the likes of her.

  “Lie back on the bed,” he instructed evenly.

  She hesitated at his command, at the flatness of his voice, relaxing only when he smiled. “Don’t fret. We are married now, are we not?”

  She nodded and scooted back on the bed. Her heart pounded like a wild bird, fighting to burst free of her chest, of this room.

  Her nervousness grew into something else as he crawled above her on the bed, his thighs settling on either side of her hips. His eyes pinned her in place, and fear stirred in her heart. She batted it back. He was her husband. Handsome. Charming. A duke. She had waited her whole life for him. There was no reason to fear him. None at all.

  His eyes grew darker as they gazed down at her. Deep and dark. She blinked and looked away, looking back only when he said her name.

  “Annalise. Look at me.” He loomed over her, his hands coming to rest on either side of her head, trapping the long strands of her hair beneath his palms.

  She wet her lips. “Yes.”

  He brought his face closer, his mouth a hair’s breadth from hers. The brandy on his breath wafted over lips. “Are you ready?”

  She inhaled a sharp breath. No.

  “Y-Yes,” she managed to get out, knowing it was her duty to comply. It was right. The correct thing to do. Even if some vague instinct shouted at her to get up, to squeeze out from under him and flee. She nodded. He chose her. Above all others. Even the dazzling Lady Joanna. He cared for her.

  His smile deepened, a familiar dimple appearing in his cheek, softening him into that boyishly handsome man she had met so many months ago.

  He traced his finger down her cheek. “I’m sorry. This may hurt a bit.”

  She nodded jerkily. “I—I know.” She had heard as much from others. Her mother explained it once in somewhat vague terms, but she had understood. And then there had been the other shop girls who worked for Madame Brouchard. They were far more experienced than she. They had always shared stories of their exploits.

  His head cocked to the side, his dark eyes glinting. “Do you?”

  “I’ve been told as much, yes . . . but afterward it won’t hurt again.”

  He angled his head, studying her with a sharpness that made her think of the hawks that had hunted the mice in the field behind the manor home of Mrs. Danvers, her mother’s employer. “No. I suppose it won’t. You shall never feel pain again beyond this initial discomfort. That is some comfort, at least. Cling to that, my dear.”

  His hand moved so quickly then that she could not calculate his intent.

  There was a flash of white, a blur of the pillow coming toward her, but she could not comprehend its purpose.

  Until it was too late.

  Until the soft, luxuriant fabric slapped down on her face, plunging her into a world of relentless dark and pain.

  Her neck snapped back as he pushed down. Hard. Bearing her head and shoulders deep into the bed. She felt the bruising pressure of his two hands on her face, one at her cheek and another at her chin.

  She opened her mouth but couldn’t cry out. Couldn’t scream. Couldn’t breathe.

  The smooth cotton filled her mouth, covering her tongue, muffling her sounds. Wild, panicked half-words and fractured thoughts.

  No . . . Please . . . Don’t . . . Why. . .

  Her hands searched, flailed all around her, grabbing at the pillow, clenching its softness in aching-tight fingers, desperate to rip the offending object from her face.

  No good. He held tight and pushed, pushed, pushed.

  Her legs kicked. Even her lame leg lashed out, her heel beating uselessly on the bed, fighting against the crushing weight of him. Her husband. Killing her . . .

  Fear closed around her. Oh, God. I’m dying.

  A desperate burning withered her lungs. She struggled against him, against her death. Her hands found his arms, his neck, his face. She clawed, scratched, scored his flesh until she felt his blood wet her nails. His curse dimly registered. She was rewarded with a sharp explosion of knuckles to her ribs. She gasped on a mouthful of linen. No air. No air anywhere.

  A smooth blanket of calm settled over her, edging out the sharp sting of panic. Even the pain in her shriveling lungs abated.

  Fighting wouldn’t stop him. It wouldn’t save her. She was too weak.

  Faces flashed through her mind, her mother, the children in her village, Mrs. Danvers, the shop girls she lived with. Their eyes watched her, floating above her where Bloodsworth pinned her to the bed. Their eyes surveyed her as they had in life. Scornful. Judging. She could hear their voices.

  Useless cripple. Weak.

  She stilled. Utterly. Her hands fell limply at her sides, heavy as lead. Her chapped fingers opened, unfurling like the softest of petals. Fighting only proved to him she still lived. Only made him keep killing her.

  Perhaps if she held herself still he would think he had succeeded. That he had successfully murdered her.

  And perhaps he had. She could feel nothing anymore. A dark fog rolled in, dimming her awareness, eating at her thoughts, devouring the last of her.

  All there was left. All there would ever be.

  Chapter Three

  Consciousness pulled at her. Eyes still closed, Annalise floated, flying, arms suspended at her sides.

  A heavy, pulling throb in her head and a sharp sting in her ribs pawed at her—urging her to dive back into the comfort of oblivion. But something else nagged at her, urging her to wake up. A memory. Something she shouldn’t forget. It sank its teeth through the fog of her thoughts, hunting her.

  Everything came back in a rush then. She stopped herself just short of opening her eyes. She tensed and then quickly forced the tension back out, purging it from every limb as she concentrated on lying perfectly still. On not opening her eyes.

  A soft breeze swam over her. The hem of her nightgown fluttered at her calves and she knew she was outside. Still near the water. She could hear the waves lapping the sides of the barge.

  Cool hands held her. He was taking her somewhere. She knew without opening her eyes that it was Bloodsworth. Her husband. Her murderer. He thought he had killed her back in their cabin. Smothered her with a pillow. So where was he taking her now?

  It was safe to assume he would finish his gruesome task once he realized she was still alive. She hung limply in his arms, not daring to so much as lift her chest to breathe. Her life depended on his belief that he held a corpse.

  He came to a halt. It felt windier, standing in one place—wherever that was—no longer swaying with his movements. He adjusted her in his arms with the barest grunt. The moments stretched. The silence deafening. It took everything in her to play dead, to feign that she wasn’t aware of his body holding her so closely, of the hands gripping her—the same ones that had held a pillow over her face just moments ago.

  Then she was lowered unceremoniously, dropped to the hard deck. Her head hit with a hard thump, her neck snapping back sharply, but she schooled her features into a blank mask and bit t
he inside of her cheek to keep from crying out. The wind buffeted her, playing with the hem of her night rail.

  His voice rolled over her, his tones as crisp and familiar as ever. “Well, we can’t forget this, can we?”

  He seized her hand, grabbing her ring finger tightly. His fingers pulled on the wedding band he had slid on only hours before. His grip was hard and merciless, twisting her finger in an unnatural direction in his effort to reclaim his family heirloom. “Don’t want to give it up, do you, wife?”

  She prayed the ring would just slide free and rid her of this agony. At last it slid off her finger.

  The soles of Bloodsworth’s boots scraped over the deck. She sensed him standing above her. His voice rang out in satisfaction. “There we go. Saved you from that nasty bit of rubbish.”

  She envisioned him standing over her and addressing his precious family ring. She was “that nasty bit of rubbish.” How could she have ever thought he cared for her? She should have known her bridal settlement was the only thing that attracted his suit. And perhaps she had known that, but she thought he at least liked her. Enough to keep her around. Enough not to kill her.

  His arms came around her again. He hefted her up with a grunt. “Little cow, I’m thinking you’ll sink straight to the bottom. Farewell, wife.” The last word was uttered with such scathing scorn she marveled that he had stomached marrying her at all. The entire ceremony must have revolted him.

  And then she was falling through air.

  Plunging deep into the abyss. Water rushed up all around her, enveloping her. She gasped at the sudden cold, swallowing a mouthful of briny water for the effort.

  She swam to the surface, breaking free with a ragged gasp. Dragging a deep breath into her aching lungs, she tossed her head left and right against the swiftly moving waters, trying to clear the tangle of hair from her eyes.

  The view had been deceptive from her window. The river had looked calm. Peaceful. But now a captive of its freezing depths, the current sucked at her, carrying her away from her wedding barge.

  She squinted against the dark night, marking the dark looming shape of the barge, a hulking beast hunched over the waters that crept slowly away from her.

  She detected Bloodsworth’s dark figure at the railing, his face a shadowy smudge on the night. She watched as he turned and disappeared back into the bowels of the barge, free of a wife. Free of her.

  Swallowing back her terror, she kicked, grateful at least that she could swim. The shore didn’t look too far. Struggling to ignore the incessant ache in her ribs where Bloodsworth had struck her, she worked her arms and legs, only to discover that the shore was much farther than it looked, and the current was determined to keep her from it.

  Choking, she strained to keep her head above the slapping waves. Her strong leg worked three times as hard and yet it wasn’t enough. Her exhaustion grew, dragging her down. The current slapped at her face, continuing to pull at her, tugging her along. She went under again and again, popping back up only to suck in a wet breath.

  Jagged shapes emerged in the water, first only a few and then more, increasing in frequency. Rocks. She jerked to avoid them, but there were too many. Her foot scraped something sharp and jagged. She cried out and choked on water.

  Suddenly pain slammed into her lame leg, spinning her. She quickly became confused, no longer sure what direction was up. Lancing pain shot up her limb, settling deep into her bone, reverberating to every nerve in her body.

  She tried to kick her way to the surface, but one strong leg wasn’t enough to help her. Agony screamed through her lame leg, telling her something was wrong. Dreadfully wrong. She couldn’t force it to move.

  Gray edged at her vision, closing in. She couldn’t do it anymore. Couldn’t fight. Bloodsworth had succeeded after all.

  She wasn’t going to make it out of this river alive.

  Owen squinted against the afternoon’s gray sky, swaying loosely in his saddle as his mount meandered along the road. Never mind that it was overcast. The day was too bright for him. The consequences of last night’s binge with a bottle of brandy still bore its effects. Thousands of tiny hammers beat inside his head.

  He scratched at his bristly jaw, unable to recall the last time he had shaved. Perhaps a week ago. He hadn’t cared enough even when he had arrived home into the loving embrace of his family. Not that he had stayed longer than a day. It took him all of five minutes in the company of Jamie and Paget to realize he couldn’t stomach either one of them.

  His brother and bride were nauseatingly happy, and he was not fit company for happy people. It had nothing to do with the fact that his older brother had wed his own childhood sweetheart. Discovering Jamie and Paget happily wed had not overly concerned him. Not as it would have four years ago when he was besotted with Paget. When he possessed a heart. When he was more than the shell of a man he was now.

  He felt only relief to know that Paget had moved on—that she wasn’t waiting for him. There was no disappointing her. Because what he was, who he had become . . . there was no coming back from that.

  The Owen they once knew was dead. Lost halfway around the world.

  His mount quickened its pace, and he knew he was approaching the river. Reaching its banks, he dismounted and led the horse to water, holding the reins loosely in his hand as it drank.

  He scanned his surroundings, his gaze missing nothing on land or water. He might be in the land of his birth, a mere day’s ride from London, but a part of him would always be back in India scouting for rebels. Ready to kill. A talent he had perfected these past few years. It turned out he was extraordinarily good at killing.

  His gaze stopped, arresting on something several yards downriver. Everything inside him tightened with familiar alertness, his time as a soldier rushing to the surface.

  Ever wary, he moved closer. At first he thought it nothing more than a mound of fabric, discarded and washed ashore. Even soiled, the material was startling white alongside the muddy bank. But then he detected the shape of a body beneath the sopping wet fabric.

  A female body.

  She lay facedown, a limp arm stretched above her head. One leg stretched out, the pale foot and calf disappearing into the ink of water. He took a slow look around, well aware that a trap could wait anywhere. She could be the bait some nefarious brigands left to lure unsuspecting travelers to a foul end.

  The still and silent woods met his sweeping stare, the gentle slap of water the only sound. He pushed the ghosts from his head, burying the cries of dead men deep as he turned his attention back to the woman. He cautiously approached. Crouching, he carefully touched her shoulder and rolled her onto her back.

  She was young. Her face ashen. Eyes closed, her lashes fanned out against her cheeks in dark crescents that looked almost obscene against her waxy, colorless skin.

  He pressed his fingertips to her throat. Icy cold to the touch, her pulse hiccupped, the smallest, barely-there flutter. Soft as a moth’s wings. Not good.

  He leaned closer, listening for her breath. The air escaped her bloodless lips in tiny, hard-fought rasps. He compressed his lips.

  His gaze skimmed her, assessing. Scratches, cuts, and bruises marred her pale skin. The hem of her gown was streaked in faint pink tinges of blood. He tugged the gown up, checking for injuries, wincing at the sight of her leg. From the odd shape, it was clearly broken. A deep gash on her foot probably needed stitching as well. Owen glanced to the river and back at her, marveling that she was alive. Given her injuries, he couldn’t quite fathom how she had not drowned.

  Staring at her for a long moment, he brushed some of the brown hair from her forehead. “How’d you get in that river, hmm?”

  His mind quickly worked, plotting the best way to find her help. He had spent the last five years attacking sepoys, assassinating them at the behest of his commanders. He was about taking lives, not saving.

/>   They were a day’s ride from his family home—not that he wanted to return there again. The next village was a half day ride south. He’d planned on spending the night there before continuing on to London.

  Sighing, he glanced around them again, suddenly wishing someone else would happen upon them. Someone better equipped to care for a female who didn’t look as though she would live out the day.

  “Come, little one,” he murmured, slipping his arms beneath her, one beneath her legs and the other at her back, taking care not to jostle her leg more than necessary.

  Contrary to his words, she was no fragile bit of crystal. She was generously curved in his arms, and yet his six-foot-plus frame ate up the distance toward his horse as if she weighed nothing at all. After grueling conditions in India, she was only a slight burden.

  Remounting with her in his arms was a tricky task, but he managed it, laying her carefully across his lap. With her legs dangled off to one side, he grasped the reins and prodded his mount to move. Her head lolled against his chest, her face settling against his well-worn jacket. Almost trustingly, it seemed. Absurd, of course. She was unconscious.

  Disconcerted, he blinked down at her. It was impossible to recall the last time a woman had fallen asleep in his arms. There’d been women in his life, in his bed, but no one that he actually slept with. No one he had held in his arms once he satisfied his body’s need for them.

  Looking up again, he urged his mount into a faster clip, eager to reach the next town and rid himself of this newfound burden. So that he could be on his way. Just him and the demons of his past.

  The female in his arms stiffened with a sharp gasp.

  Startled, he looked down to find himself staring into a pair of brown eyes. Framed in lush lashes, the eyes were no ordinary brown. They were velvety . . . brown rimmed in the darkest black. They shined, as if lit from within. She stared directly at him, the fear there unmistakable.

  His hand reached down to cup her face, trying to offer some comfort. “Don’t be frightened. I mean you no harm.”