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He never should have kissed her. Those sweet, sincere kisses—given so innocently—were his undoing. He absorbed her strength with each passing moment their lips touched until shame coiled within him, and he’d had to step away before it tainted her. When guilt and self-loathing overwhelmed him, he’d run from the room like a coward. She deserved so much better.
The scrap of paper on his desk mocked his life. Murderer! The note began as all the others had. How many of his countrymen, his tenants, even servants in his own household believed him to be a murderer? Tear up this note and, like Hydra, two more would grow in its place.
The whispers started the day his parents went missing. There were those who claimed he was too impatient to wait for his inheritance. After all, an untimely carriage accident could be an eager heir’s best friend. Holding his head high, he ignored the chatter, certain it would fade. But then his son died. One week a healthy boy, the next, a small, limp body. He would always remember the weight of that small, lifeless bundle in his arms as he placed him in his coffin.
Rather than waning out of respect for a man in mourning, the whispers grew in both frequency and volume. With Sorcha’s death barely a week later, the accusations became shouts. And then they became missives. This latest one particularly frank. I will take from you what you have taken from me. You will pay. His parents, his son—hadn’t he paid enough?
Sorcha’s death, well, now, that he owed for. His payment, his hell on earth, would be to find happiness and have it turn on him and spit in his face. When Elsinore learned the truth about him, she would surely grow to hate him. When the time came, she would gladly take her settlement portion and leave. But, damn his pride, if blessed again he would never let the child leave his side.
He never considered the possibility of developing feelings for his wife. But then, he never imagined having a wife such as Elsinore. Once a cuckold, trust did not come easy. His first wife betrayed him in every manner imaginable, but he’d never expected much from her to begin with. It had never been a love match. Elsinore was different. That was an understatement. She was unlike any other woman on this earth. If she stayed, if he could keep her safe…no, it was impossible—there were too many ifs involved. He didn’t deserve her love or her trust after what he’d done.
He had to be man enough to make a clean break. It was what was best for all. As he walked down the hall to her room, he practiced his apology. His earlier churlishness alarmed her and was uncalled for. He would let her know that no matter what happened, or what rumors she might hear, she had nothing to fear from him.
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