Головна When He Was Wicked

When He Was Wicked

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Рік:
2011
Видавництво:
HarperCollins
Мова:
english
ISBN 13:
9780061755903
Серії:
Bridgerton 6
Файл:
EPUB, 775 KB
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Its In His Kiss (The 2nd Epilogue)

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2006
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2

To Sir Philip, With Love (The 2nd Epilogue)

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2009
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Chapter 7


…had hoped to have received a note from you by now, but of course the post is notoriously unreliable when it must travel so far. Just last week I heard tale of the arrival of a mail pouch that was a full two years old; many of the recipients had already returned to England. My mother writes that you are well and fully recovered from your ordeal; I am glad to hear of it. My work here continues to challenge and fulfill. I have taken up residence outside the city proper, as do most Europeans here in Madras. Nonetheless, I enjoy visiting the city; it is rather Grecian in appearance; or rather, what I must imagine is Grecian, having never visited that country myself. The sky is blue, so blue it is nearly blinding, almost the bluest thing I have ever seen.

—from the Earl of Kilmartin to the Countess of Kilmartin, six months after his arrival in India







“I beg your pardon?”

She’d shocked him. He was sputtering, even. She hadn’t made her announcement to elicit this sort of reaction, but now that he was sitting there, his mouth hanging open and slack, she couldn’t help but take a small amount of pleasure from the moment.

“I want a baby,” she said with a shrug. “Is there something surprising in that?”

His lips moved before he actually made sound. “Well…no…but…”

“I’m twenty-six.”

“I know how old you are,” he said, a little testily.

“I’ll be twenty-seven at the end of April. I don’t think it’s so odd that I might want a child.”

His eyes still held a vaguely glazed sort of quality. “No, of course not, but—”

“And I shouldn’t have to explain myself to you!”

“I wasn’t asking you to,” he said, staring at her as if she’d grown two heads.

“I’m sorry,” she mumbled. “I overreacted.”

He said nothing, which irritated her. At the very least, he could have contradicted her. It would have been a lie, but it was still the kind and courteous thing to do.

Finally, because the silence was simply unbearable, she muttered, “A lot of women want children.”

“Right,” he said, coughing on the word. “Of course; . But…don’t you think you might want a husband first?”

“Of course.” She speared him with an aggravated glare. “Why do you think I came down to London early?”

He looked at her blankly.

“I am shopping for a husband,” she said, speaking to him as if he were a halfwit.

“How mercenarily put,” he murmured.

She pursed her lips. “It’s what it is. And you had probably best get used to it for your own sake. It’s precisely how the ladies will soon be talking about you.”

He ignored the latter part of her statement. “Do you have a particular gentleman in mind?”

 
She shook her head. “Not yet. I imagine someone will pop to the forefront once I start looking, though.” She was trying to sound jolly about it, but the truth was, her voice was dropping in both tone and volume. “I’m sure my brothers have friends,” she finally mumbled.

He looked at her, then slumped back slightly and stared at the water.

“I’ve shocked you,” she said.

“Well…yes.”

“Normally, I’d take great pleasure in that,” she said, her lips twisting ironically.

He didn’t reply, but he did roll his eyes slightly.

“I can’t mourn John forever,” she said. “I mean, I can, and I will, but…” She stopped, hating that she was near tears. “And the worst part of it is, maybe I can’t even have children. It took me two years to conceive with John, and look how I mucked that up.”

“Francesca,” he said fiercely, “you mustn’t blame yourself for the miscarriage.”

She let out a bitter laugh. “Can you imagine? Marrying someone just so I could have a baby and then not having one?”

“It happens to people all the time,” he said softly.

It was true, but it didn’t make her feel any better. She had a choice. She didn’t have to marry; she would be quite well provided for—and blessedly independent—if she remained a widow. If she married—no, when she married—she had to mentally commit to the idea—it wouldn’t be for love. She wasn’t going to have a marriage like the one she’d shared with John; a woman simply didn’t find love like that twice in a lifetime.

She was going to marry for a baby, and there was no guarantee that she would get one.

“Francesca?”

She didn’t look at him, just sat there and blinked, desperately trying to ignore the tears burning at the corners of her eyes.

Michael held out a handkerchief, but she didn’t want to acknowledge the gesture. If she took the cloth, then she’d have to cry. There would be nothing stopping her.

“I must move on,” she said defiantly. “I must. John is gone, and I—”

And then the strangest thing happened. Except strange wasn’t really the right word. Shocking, perhaps, or altering, or maybe there wasn’t a word for the type of surprise that stole the pulse from one’s body, leaving one immobile, unable to breathe.

She turned to him. It should have been a simple thing. She’d certainly turned to Michael before, hundreds…no, thousands of times. He might have spent the last four years in India, but she knew his face, and she knew his smile. In truth, she knew everything about him—

Except this time was different. She turned to him, but she hadn’t expected him to have already turned to her. And she hadn’t expected him to be so close that she’d see the charcoal flecks in his eyes.

But most of all, she hadn’t expected her gaze to drop to his lips. They were full, and lush, and finely molded, and she knew the shape as well as the shape of her own, except never before had she really looked at them, noticed the way they weren’t quite uniform in color, or how the curve of his lower lip was really quite sensual, and—

She stood. So quickly that she nearly lost her balance. “I have to go,” she said, stunned that her voice sounded like her own and not some freakish demon. “I have an appointment. I’d forgotten.”

“Of course,” he said, standing beside her.

“With the dressmaker,” she added, as if details would make her lie more convincing. “All my clothes are in half-mourning colors.”

He nodded. “They don’t suit you.”

“Kind of you to point it out,” she said testily.

“You should wear blue,” he said.

She nodded jerkily, still off balance and out of sorts.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

“I’m fine,” she bit off. And then, because no one would ever have been fooled by her tone, she added, more carefully, “I’m fine. I assure you. I simply detest being tardy.” That much was true, and he knew it of her, so hopefully he’d accept it as reason for her snappishness.

“Very well,” he said collegially, and Francesca chattered all the way back to Number Five. She had to put up a good front, she realized rather feverishly. She couldn’t possibly allow him to guess what had really transpired within her on the bench by the Serpentine.

She had known, of course, that Michael was handsome, even startlingly so. But it had all been an abstract sort of knowledge. Michael was handsome, just as her brother Benedict was tall, and her mother had beautiful eyes.

But suddenly…But now…

She’d looked at him, and she’d seen something entirely new.

She’d seen a man.

And it scared the very devil out of her.

 

Francesca tended to subscribe to the notion that the best course of action was more action, so when she returned to Number Five after her stroll, she sought out her mother and informed her that she needed to visit the modiste immediately. Best to make truth out of her lie as soon as possible, after all.

 
Her mother was only too delighted to see Francesca out of her half-mourning grays and lavenders, and so barely an hour passed before the two of them were comfortably ensconced in Violet’s elegant carriage, on their way to the exclusive shops on Bond Street. Normally, Francesca would have bristled at Violet’s interference; she was perfectly capable of picking out her own wardrobe, thank you very much, but today she found her mother’s presence oddly comforting.

Not that her mother wasn’t usually a comfort. Just that Francesca tended to favor her independent streak more often than not, and she rather preferred not to be thought of as “one of those Bridgerton girls.” And in a very strange way, this trip to the dressmaker was rather discomfiting. It would have required full-fledged torture to get her to admit it, but Francesca was, quite simply, terrified.

Even if she hadn’t decided it was time to remarry, shrugging off her widow’s weeds signaled a huge change, and not one she was entirely sure she was ready for.

She looked down at her sleeve as she sat in the carriage. She couldn’t see the fabric of her dress—it was covered by her coat—but she knew that it was lavender. And there was something comforting in that, something solid and dependable. She’d worn that color, or gray in its place, for three years now. And unrelenting black for a year before that. It had been a bit of a badge, she realized, a uniform of sorts. One never had to worry about who one was when one’s clothing proclaimed it so loudly.

“Mother?” she said, before she even realized that she had a question to ask.

Violet turned to her with a smile. “Yes, dear?”

“Why did you never remarry?”

 
Violet’s lips parted slightly, and to Francesca’s great surprise, her eyes grew bright. “Do you know,” Violet said softly, “this is the first time any of you has asked me that?”

“That can’t be true,” Francesca said. “Are you certain?”

Violet nodded. “None of my children has asked me. I would have remembered.”

“No, no, of course you would,” Francesca said quickly. But it was all so…odd. And unthinking, really. Why would no one have asked Violet about this? It seemed to Francesca quite the most burning question imaginable. And even if none of Violet’s children had cared about the answer for their own personal curiosity, didn’t they realize how important it was to Violet?

Didn’t they want to know their mother? Truly know her?

“When your father died…” Violet said. “Well, I don’t know how much you recall, but it was very sudden. None of us expected it.” She gave a sad little laugh, and Francesca wondered if she’d ever be able to laugh about John’s death, even if it was tinged with grief.

“A bee sting,” Violet continued, and Francesca realized that even now, more than twenty years after Edmund Bridgerton’s death, her mother still sounded surprised when she talked about it.

“Who would have thought it possible?” Violet said, shaking her head. “I don’t know how well you remember him, but your father was a very large man. As tall as Benedict and perhaps even broader in the shoulders. You just wouldn’t think that a bee…” She stopped, pulling out a crisp, white handkerchief and holding it to her lips as she cleared her throat. “Well, it was unexpected. I don’t really know what else to say, except…” She turned to her daughter with achingly wise eyes. “Except I imagine you understand better than anyone.”

 
Francesca nodded, not even trying to stem the burning sensation behind her eyes.

“Anyway,” Violet said briskly, obviously eager to move forward, “after his death, I was just so…stunned. I felt as if I were walking in a haze. I’m not at all certain how I functioned that first year. Or even the ones directly thereafter. So I couldn’t possibly even think of marriage.”

“I know,” Francesca said softly. And she did.

“And after that…well, I don’t know what happened. Maybe I just didn’t meet anyone with whom I cared to share my life. Maybe I loved your father too much.” She shrugged. “Maybe I just never saw the need. I was in a very different position from you, after all. I was older, don’t forget, and already the mother of eight children. And your father left our affairs in very good order. I knew we would never want for anything.”

“John left Kilmartin in excellent order,” Francesca said quickly.

“Of course he did,” Violet said, patting her hand. “Forgive me. I did not mean to imply otherwise. But you don’t have eight children, Francesca.” Her eyes changed somehow, grew an even deeper blue. “And you’ve quite a lot of time ahead of you to spend it all alone.”

Francesca nodded jerkily. “I know,” she said. “I know. I know, but I can’t quite…I can’t…”

“You can’t what?” Violet asked gently.

“I can’t…” Francesca looked down. She didn’t know why, but for some reason she couldn’t take her eyes off the floor. “I can’t rid myself of the feeling that I’m doing something wrong, that I’m dishonoring John, dishonoring our marriage.”

“John would have wanted you to be happy.”

“I know. I know. Of course he would. But don’t you see—” She looked up again, her eyes searching her mother’s face for something, she wasn’t sure what—maybe approval, maybe just love, since there was something comforting in looking for something she already knew she’d find. “I’m not even looking for that,” she added. “I’m not going to find someone like John. I’ve accepted that. And it feels so wrong to marry with less.”

“You won’t find someone like John, that is true,” Violet said. “But you might find a man who will suit you equally well, just in a different way.”

“You didn’t.”

“No, I didn’t,” she agreed, “but I didn’t look very hard. I didn’t look at all.”

“Do you wish you had?”

Violet opened her mouth, but not a sound came out, not even breath. Finally she said, “I don’t know, Francesca. I honestly don’t know.” And then, because the moment almost certainly needed a bit of laughter, she added, “I certainly didn’t want any more children!”

Francesca couldn’t help but smile. “I do,” she said softly. “I want a baby.”

“I thought that you did.”

“Why did you never ask me about it?”

Violet tilted her head to the side. “Why did you never ask me about why I never remarried?”

Francesca felt her lips part. She shouldn’t have been so surprised by her mother’s perceptiveness.

“If you had been Eloise, I think I would have said something,” Violet added. “Or any of your sisters, for that matter. But you—” She smiled nostalgically. “You’re not the same. You never have been. Even as a child you set yourself apart. And you needed your distance.”

Impulsively, Francesca reached out and squeezed her mother’s hand. “I love you, did you know that?”

Violet smiled. “I rather suspected it.”

“Mother!”

“Very well, of course I knew it. How could you not love me when I love you so very, very much?”

“I haven’t said it,” Francesca said, feeling rather horrified by her omission. “Not recently, anyway.”

“It’s quite all right.” Violet squeezed her hand back. “You’ve had other things on your mind.”

And for some reason that made Francesca giggle under her breath. “A bit of an understatement, I should say.”

Violet just grinned.

“Mother?” Francesca blurted out. “May I ask you one more question?”

“Of course.”

“If I don’t find someone—not like John, of course, but still not equally suited to me. If I don’t find someone like that, and I marry someone whom I rather like, but perhaps don’t love…is that all right?”

Violet was silent for several moments before she answered. “I’m afraid only you will know the answer to that,” she finally said. “I would never say no, of course. Half the ton—more than half, in truth—has marriages like that, and quite a few of them are perfectly content. But you will have to make your judgments for yourself when they arise. Everyone is different, Francesca. I suspect you know that better than most. And when a man asks for your hand, you will have to judge him on his merits and not by some arbitrary standard you have set out ahead of time.”

She was right, of course, but Francesca was so sick of life being messy and complicated that it wasn’t the answer she’d been seeking.

And none of it addressed the problem that lay most deeply within her heart. What would happen if she actually did meet someone who made her feel the way she’d felt with John? She couldn’t imagine that she would; truly, it seemed wildly improbable.

 
But what if she did? How could she live with herself then?

 

There was something rather satisfying about a foul mood, so Michael decided to indulge his completely.

He kicked a pebble all the way home.

He snarled at anyone who jostled him on the street.

He yanked open his front door with such ferocity that it slammed into the stone wall behind it. Or rather he would have done, if his sodding butler hadn’t been so on his toes and had the door open before Michael’s fingers could even touch the handle.

But he thought about slamming it open, which provided some satisfaction in and of itself.

And then he stomped up the stairs to his room—which still felt too bloody much like John’s room, not that there was anything he could do about that just then—and yanked off his boots.

Or tried to.

Bloody hell.

“Reivers!” he bellowed.

His valet appeared—or really, it seemed rather more like he apparated—in the doorway.

“Yes, my lord?”

“Would you help me with my boots?” Michael ground out, feeling rather infantile. Three years in the army and four in India, and he couldn’t remove his own damned boots? What was it about London that reduced a man to a sniveling idiot? He seemed to recall that Reivers had had to remove his boots for him the last time he’d lived in London as well.

He looked down. They were different boots. Different styles, he supposed, for different situations, and Reivers had always taken a stunningly ridiculous pride in his work. Of course he’d have wanted to outfit Michael in the very best of London fashion. He’d have—

“Reivers?” Michael said in a low voice. “Where did you get these boots?”

“My lord?”

“These boots. I do not recognize them.”

“We have not yet received all of your trunks from the ship, my lord. You didn’t have anything suitable for London, so I located these among the previous earl’s belong—”

“Jesus.”

“My lord? I’m terribly sorry if these don’t suit you. I remembered that the two of you were of a size, and I thought you’d want—”

“Just get them off. Now.” Michael closed his eyes and sat in a leather chair—John’s leather chair—marveling at the irony of it. His worst nightmare coming true, in the most literal of fashions.

“Of course, my lord.” Reivers looked pained, but he quickly went to work removing the boots.

Michael pinched the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger and let out a long breath before speaking again. “I would prefer not to use any items from the previous earl’s wardrobe,” he said wearily. Truly, he had no idea why John’s clothing was still here; the lot of it should have been given to the servants or donated to charity years ago. But he supposed that was Francesca’s decision to make, not his.

“Of course, my lord. I shall see to it immediately.”

“Good,” Michael grunted.

“Shall I have it locked away?”

Locked? Good God, it wasn’t as if the stuff were toxic. “I’m sure it is all just fine where it is,” Michael said. “Just don’t use any of it for me.”

 
“Right.” Reivers swallowed, and his Adam’s apple bobbed uncomfortably.

“What is it now, Reivers?”

“It’s just that all of the previous Lord Kilmartin’s accouterments are still here.”

“Here?” Michael asked blankly.

“Here,” Reivers confirmed, glancing about the room.

Michael sagged in his chair. It wasn’t that he wanted to wipe every last reminder of his cousin off the face of this earth; no one missed John as much as he did, no one.

Well, except maybe Francesca, he allowed, but that was different.

But he just didn’t know how he was meant to lead his life so completely and smotheringly surrounded by John’s belongings. He held his title, spent his money, lived in his house. Was he meant to wear his damned shoes as well?

“Pack it all up,” he said to Reivers. “Tomorrow. I don’t wish to be disturbed this evening.”

And besides, he probably ought to alert Francesca of his intentions.

Francesca.

He sighed, rising to his feet once the valet had departed. Christ, Reivers had forgotten to take the boots with him. Michael picked them up and deposited them outside the door. He was probably overreacting, but hell, he just didn’t want to stare at John’s boots for the next six hours.

After shutting the door with a decisive click, he padded aimlessly over to the window. The sill was wide and deep, and he leaned heavily against it, gazing through the sheer curtains at the blurry streetscape below. He pushed the thin fabric aside, his lips twisting into a bitter smile as he watched a nursemaid tugging a small child along the pavement.

 
Francesca. She wanted a baby.

He didn’t know why he was so surprised. If he thought about it rationally, he really shouldn’t have been. She was a woman, for God’s sake; of course she’d want children. Didn’t they all? And while he’d never consciously sat down and told himself that she’d pine away for John forever, he’d also never considered the idea that she might actually care to remarry one day.

Francesca and John. John and Francesca. They were a unit, or at least they had been, and although John’s death had made it sadly easy to envision one without the other, it was quite something else entirely to think of one with another.

And then of course there was the small matter of his skin crawling, which was his general reaction to the thought of Francesca with another man.

He shuddered. Or was that a shiver? Damn, he hoped it wasn’t a shiver.

He supposed he was simply going to have to get used to the notion. If Francesca wanted children, then Francesca needed a husband, and there wasn’t a damned thing he could do about it. It would have been rather nice, he supposed, if she had come to this decision and taken care of the whole odious matter last year, sparing him the nausea of having to witness the entire courtship unfold. If she’d just gone and gotten herself married last year, then it would have been over and done with, and that would have been that.

End of story.

But now he was going to have to watch. Maybe even advise.

Bloody hell.

He shivered again. Damn. Maybe he was just cold. It was March, after all, and a chilly one at that, even with a fire in the grate.

 
He tugged at his cravat, which was starting to feel unaccountably tight, then yanked it off altogether. Christ, he felt like the very devil, all hot and cold, and queerly off balance.

He sat down. It seemed the best course of action.

And then he just gave up all pretense of being well, stripping off the rest of his clothing and crawling into bed.

It was going to be a long night.

 
 







 
 
 

Bridgerton
      Family
        Tree


[image: viii]

TO SEE THE EXPANDED FAMILY TREE, PLEASE VISIT WWW.JULIAQUINN.COM











Chapter 24


…I am not certain how to tell you this, and moreover, I am not certain how the news will be received, but Michael and I were married three days ago. I don’t know how to describe the events leading up to the marriage, except to say that it simply felt like the right thing to do. Please know that this in no way diminishes the love I felt for John. He will always hold a special and cherished place in my heart, as do you…

—from the Countess of Kilmartin to the dowager Countess of Kilmartin, three days after her marriage to the Earl of Kilmartin







A quarter of an hour later, Michael was feeling remarkably better. Not well, of course; not by any stretch of the imagination could he have convinced himself—or anyone else for that matter—that he was his regular hale and hearty self. But the broth must have restored him a bit, as had the conversation, and when he got up to use the chamberpot, he found he was steadier on his legs than he would have thought. He followed this task with a bit of a makeshift bath, using a dampened cloth to wash the worst of the perspiration from his body. After donning a clean dressing gown, he felt almost human again.

He started to walk back to his bed, but he just couldn’t bring himself to slide his body back between those sweaty sheets, so instead he rang for a servant and sat down in his leather wingbacked chair, turning it slightly so that he might gaze out the window.

It was sunny. That was a nice change. The weather had been dismal for both the weeks of his marriage. He hadn’t particularly minded; when one spent as much time making love to one’s wife as he had done, one didn’t particularly care if the sun was shining.

But now, escaping his sickbed, he found that his spirits were buoyed by the sparkle of the sunlight on the dewy grass.

A movement out the window caught his eye, and he realized that it was Francesca, hurrying across the lawn. She was too far away to see clearly, but she was bundled up in her most serviceable coat, and was clutching something in her hand.

He leaned forward for a better look, but she disappeared from view, slipping behind a hedgerow.

Just then, Reivers entered the room. “You rang, my lord?”

Michael turned to face him. “Yes. Could you see to having someone come and change the sheets?”

“Of course, my lord.”

“And—” Michael had been about to ask him to have a bath drawn as well, but for some reason the following words slipped out of his mouth instead: “Do you happen to know where Lady Kilmartin went? I saw her walking across the lawn.”

Reivers shook his head. “No, my lord. She did not see fit to confide in me, although Davies did tell me that she asked him to ask the gardener to cut her some flowers.”

Michael nodded his head as he mentally followed the chain of people. He really ought to have more respect for the sheer efficiency of servants’ gossip. “Flowers, you say,” he murmured. That must have been what she was holding as she crossed the lawn a few minutes earlier.

“Peonies,” Reivers confirmed.

“Peonies,” Michael echoed, leaning forward with interest. They were John’s favorite bloom, and had been the centerpiece of Francesca’s wedding bouquet. It was almost appalling that he remembered such a detail, but while he’d gone and gotten himself rippingly drunk as soon as John and Francesca had departed the party, he remembered the actual ceremony with blinding detail.

Her dress had been blue. Ice blue. And the flowers had been peonies. They’d had to get them from a hothouse, but Francesca had insisted upon it.

And suddenly he knew exactly where she was going, bundled up against the slight nip in the air.

She was going to John’s grave.

Michael had visited the site once since his return. He’d gone alone, a few days after that extraordinary moment in his bedchamber, when he’d suddenly realized that John would have approved of his marrying Francesca. More than that, he almost thought John was up there somewhere, having a good chuckle over the whole thing.

And Michael couldn’t help but wonder—Did Francesca realize? Did she realize that John would have wanted this? For both of them?

Or was she still gripped by guilt?

Michael felt himself rise from his chair. He knew guilt, knew how it ate at one’s heart, tore at one’s soul. He knew the pain, and he knew the way it felt like acid in one’s belly.

 
And he never wanted that for Francesca. Never.

She might not love him. She might not ever love him. But she was happier now than she had been before they’d married; he was sure of it. And it would kill him if she felt any shame for that happiness.

John would have wanted her to be happy. He would have wanted her to love and be loved. And if Francesca somehow didn’t realize that—

Michael started pulling on his clothing. He might still be weak, and he might still be feverish, but by God he could make it down to the chapel graveyard. It would half kill him, but he would not allow her to sink into the same sort of guilty despair he’d suffered for so long.

She didn’t have to love him. She didn’t. He’d said those words to himself so many times during their brief marriage that he almost believed them.

She didn’t have to love him. But she did have to feel free. Free to be happy.

Because if she wasn’t happy…

Well, that would kill him. He could live without her love, but not without her happiness.

 

Francesca had known the ground would be damp, so she’d brought along a small blanket, the green and gold of the Stirling plaid making her smile wistfully as she spread it out over the grass.

“Hello, John,” she said, kneeling as she carefully arranged the peonies at the base of his headstone. His grave was a simple affair, far less ostentatious than the monuments many of the nobility erected to honor their dead.

But it was what John would have wanted. She’d known him so well, been able to predict his words half the time.

He would have wanted something simple, and he would have wanted it here, in the far corner of the churchyard, closer to the rolling fields of Kilmartin, his favorite place in the world.

And so that was what she’d given him.

“It’s a nice day,” she said, sitting back on her bottom. She hiked up her skirts so that she could sit Indian-style, then carefully arranged them back over her legs. It wasn’t the sort of position she could ever assume in polite company, but this was different.

John would have wanted her to be comfortable.

“It’s been raining for weeks,” she said. “Some days worse than others, of course, but never a day without at least a few minutes of moisture. You wouldn’t have minded it, but I must confess, I’ve been longing for the sun.”

She noticed that one of the stems wasn’t quite where she wanted it, so she leaned forward and reset it into place.

“Of course, it hasn’t really stopped me from going out,” she said with a nervous laugh. “I seem to get caught out in the rain quite a bit lately. I’m not really certain what it is—I used to be more heedful of the weather.”

She sighed. “No, I do know what it is. I’m just afraid to tell you. Silly of me, I know, but…” She laughed again, that strained noise that sounded all wrong from her lips. It was the one thing she’d never felt around John—nervous. From the moment they’d met, she’d felt so comfortable in his presence, so utterly at ease, both with him and herself.

But now…

Now she finally had cause for nerves.

“Something has happened, John,” she said, her fingers plucking at the fabric of her coat. “I…started feeling something for someone that perhaps I shouldn’t have done.”

She looked around, half expecting some sort of divine sign from above. But there was nothing, just the gentle ruffle of wind against the leaves.

She swallowed, focusing her attention back on John’s headstone. It was silly that a piece of rock might come to symbolize a man, but she had no idea where else to look when she spoke to his memory. “Maybe I shouldn’t have felt it,” she said, “or maybe I should have, and I just thought I shouldn’t have. I don’t know. All I know is it happened. I didn’t expect it, but then, there it was, and…with…”

She stopped, her mouth curving into a smile that was almost rueful. “Well, I suppose you know who it was with. Can you imagine?”

And then something remarkable happened. In retrospect, she rather thought the earth should have moved, or a shaft of light come sparkling down from the heavens across the gravesite. But there was none of that. Nothing palpable, nothing audible or visible, just an odd sense of shifting within herself, almost as if something had finally nudged itself into place.

And she knew—truly, fully knew—that John could have imagined it. And more than that, he would have wanted it.

He would have wanted her to marry Michael. He would have wanted her to marry any man with whom she’d fallen in love, but she rather thought he’d be almost tickled that it had happened with Michael.

They were his two favorite people, and he would have liked knowing that they were together.

“I love him,” she said, and she realized it was the first time she’d said it aloud. “I love Michael. I do, and John—” She touched his name, etched in the headstone. “I think you would approve,” she whispered. “Sometimes I almost think you arranged the whole thing.

“It’s so strange,” she continued, tears now filling her eyes. “I spent so much time thinking to myself that I would never fall in love again. How could I possibly? And when anyone asked me what you would have wanted for me, of course I replied that you would wish for me to find someone else. But inside—” She smiled wistfully. “Inside I knew it wouldn’t happen. I wasn’t going to fall in love. I knew it. I absolutely knew it. So it didn’t really matter what you wanted for me, did it?

“Except it did happen,” she said softly. “It happened, and I never expected it. It happened, and it happened with Michael. I love him so much, John,” she said, her voice breaking with emotion. “I kept trying to tell myself that I didn’t, but when I thought he was dying, it was just too much, and I knew…oh God, I knew it, John. I need him. I love him. I can’t live without him, and I just needed to tell you, to know that you…that you…”

She couldn’t go on. There was too much inside of her, too many emotions, all desperately pushing to get out. She put her face in her hands and cried, not out of sorrow, and not out of joy, but just because she couldn’t keep it inside.

“John,” she gasped. “I love him. And I think this is what you would have wanted. I really do, but—”

And then, from behind her, she heard a noise. A footstep, a breath. She turned, but she already knew who it would be. She could feel him in the air.

“Michael,” she whispered, staring at him like he was a specter. He was pale and gaunt and had to lean on a tree for support, but to her he looked perfect.

“Francesca,” he said, the word awkwardly passing over his lips. “Frannie.”

She rose to her feet, her eyes never leaving his. “Did you hear me?” she whispered.

“I love you,” he said hoarsely.

“But did you hear me?” she persisted. She had to know, and if he hadn’t heard her, she had to tell him.

 
He nodded jerkily.

“I love you,” she said. She wanted to go to him, she wanted to throw her arms around him, but somehow she was rooted to her spot. “I love you,” she said again. “I love you.”

“You don’t have to—”

“No, I do. I have to say it. I have to tell you. I love you. I do. I love you so much.”

And then the distance between them was gone, and his arms came around her. She buried her face against his chest, her tears soaking his shirt. She wasn’t sure why she was crying, but she didn’t really care. All she wanted was the warmth of his embrace.

In his arms she could feel the future, and it was wonderful.

Michael’s chin came to rest on her head. “I didn’t mean that you didn’t need to say it,” he murmured, “just that you didn’t have to repeat it.”

She laughed at that, even as the tears kept flowing, and both of their bodies shook.

“You have to say it,” he said. “If you feel it, then you have to say it. I’m a greedy bastard, and I want it all.”

She looked up at him, her eyes bright. “I love you.”

Michael touched her cheek. “I have no idea what I did to deserve you,” he said.

“You didn’t have to do anything,” she whispered. “You just had to be.” She reached up and touched his cheek, the gesture a perfect mirror of his own. “It just took me a while to realize it, that’s all.”

He turned his face into her hand, then brought both of his up to cover it. He pressed a kiss against her palm, stopping just to inhale the scent of her skin. He’d tried so hard to convince himself that it didn’t matter if she loved him, that having her as his wife was enough. But now…

 
Now that she’d said it, now that he knew, now that his heart had soared, he knew better.

This was heaven.

This was bliss.

This was something he’d never dared hope to feel, something he never could have dreamed existed.

This was love.

“For the rest of my life,” he vowed, “I will love you. For the rest of my life. I promise you. I will lay down my life for you. I will honor and cherish you. I will—” He was choking on the words, but he didn’t care. He just wanted to tell her. He just wanted her to know.

“Let’s go home,” she said softly.

He nodded.

She took his hand, gently pulling him away from the clearing, back toward the wooded area that lay between the churchyard and Kilmartin. Michael leaned into her tug, but before his feet lifted from the earth, he turned back toward John’s grave and mouthed the words, Thank you.

And then he let his wife lead him home.

“I wanted to tell you later,” she was saying. Her voice was still shaky with emotion, but she was starting to sound a bit more like her usual self. “I’d planned a big romantic gesture. Something huge. Something…” She turned to him, offering him a rueful smile. “Well, I don’t know what, but it would have been grand.”

He just shook his head. “I don’t need that,” he said. “All I need…I just need…”

And it didn’t matter that he didn’t know how to finish the sentence, because somehow she knew, anyway.

“I know,” she whispered. “I need the exact same thing.”









Chapter 19


…I do believe Michael might be considering a return home. He does not say so directly in his letters, but I cannot discount a mother’s intuition. I know that I should not pull him away from all his successes in India, but I think that he misses us. Wouldn’t it be lovely to have him home?

—from Helen Stirling to the Countess of Kilmartin, nine months prior to the Earl of Kilmartin’s return from India







As she felt his lips touch hers, Francesca could only wonder at the loss of her sanity. Once again, Michael had asked her permission. Once again, he had given her the opportunity to slide away, to reject him and keep herself at a safe distance.

But once again, her mind had been completely enslaved by her body, and she simply was not strong enough to deny the quickening of her breath, or the pounding of her heart.

Or the slow, hot tingle of anticipation she felt as his large, strong hands slid down her body, moving ever closer to the heart of her femininity.

“Michael,” she whispered, but they both knew that her plea was not one of rejection. She wasn’t asking him to stop—she was begging him to continue, to feed her soul as he had the night before, to remind her of all the reasons she loved being a woman, and to teach her the heady bliss of her own sensual power.

“Mmmm,” was his only response. His fingers kept busy with the buttons on her frock, and even though the fabric was still damp and awkward, he divested her of it in record time, leaving her clad only in her thin cotton chemise, made almost transparent by the rain.

“You are so beautiful,” he whispered, gazing down at the outline of her breasts, clearly defined under the white cotton. “I can’t—I don’t—”

He didn’t say anything more, which she found puzzling, and she looked at his face. These weren’t just words to him, she realized with a jolt of surprise. His throat was working with some emotion she didn’t think she’d ever seen on him before.

“Michael?” she whispered. His name was a question, although she wasn’t quite sure what she was asking.

And he, she was fairly certain, didn’t know how to answer. At least not with words. He scooped her into his arms and then carried her to the bed, stopping at the edge of the mattress to peel away her chemise.

This was where she could stop, Francesca reminded herself. She could end it here. Michael wanted her—badly, she could see quite visibly. But he would stop if she just said the word.

But she couldn’t. No matter how hard her brain argued for reason and clarity, her lips could do nothing but sway toward his, leaning in for a kiss, desperate to prolong the contact.

 
She wanted this. She wanted him. And even though she knew it was wrong, she was too wicked to stop.

He’d made her wicked.

And she wanted to revel in it.

“No,” she said, the word crossing her lips with awkward bluntness.

His hands froze.

“I will do it,” she said.

His eyes found hers, and she found herself drowning in those quicksilver depths. There were a hundred questions there, not one of which she was prepared to answer. But there was one thing she knew for herself, even if she would never speak the words aloud. If she was going to do this, if she was unable to refuse her own desire, then by God, she would do this in every way. She would take what she wanted, steal what she needed, and at the end of the day, if she managed to come to her senses and put an end to the madness, she would have had one erotic afternoon, one sizzling interlude during which she was in charge.

He’d awakened the wanton within her, and she wanted her revenge.

With one hand on his chest, she pushed him back onto the bed, and he stared up at her with fiery eyes, his lips parted with desire as he watched her in disbelief.

She took a step back, then reached down and lightly grasped the hem of her chemise. “Do you want me to take it off?” she whispered.

He nodded.

“Say it,” she demanded. She wanted to know if he was beyond words. She wanted to know if she could reduce him to madness, enslave him to his needs, the way he’d done to her.

“Yes,” he gasped, the word coming out hoarse and ripped.

 
Francesca was no innocent; she’d been married for two years to a man with healthy and active desires, a man who had taught her to celebrate the same in herself. She knew how to be brazen, understood how it could whip up her own urgency, but nothing could have prepared her for the electrical charge of this moment, for the decadent thrill of stripping for Michael.

Or the staggering rush of heat she felt when she raised her gaze to his, and watched him watching her.

This was power.

And she loved it.

With deliberate slowness, she edged the hem up, starting just above her knees, and then sliding up her thighs until she’d nearly reached her hips.

“Enough?” she teased, licking her lips into a sultry half-smile.

He shook his head. “More,” he demanded.

Demanded? She didn’t like that. “Beg me,” she whispered.

“More,” he said, more humbly.

She gave him a nod of approval, but just before she let him see the thatch of her womanhood she turned around, wiggling the chemise up and over her bottom, then across her back and finally over her head.

His breath was coming hot and heavy over his lips; she could hear every whisper of it, almost feel it caressing her back. But still she didn’t turn around. Instead she let out a slow, seductive moan and slid her hands up the sides of her body, curving slightly to the back as she passed over her derrière, then moving to the front when she reached her breasts. And then, even though she knew he couldn’t see her, she squeezed.

He would know what she was doing.

And it would drive him wild.

 
She heard rustling on the bed, heard the wooden frame creak and groan, and she let out one sharp command:

“Don’t move.”

“Francesca,” he moaned, and his voice was closer. He must’ve sat up, must’ve been seconds away from reaching for her.

“Lie down,” she said in soft warning.

“Francesca,” he said again, but now there was a hint of desperation in his voice.

It made her smile. “Lie down,” she repeated, still not looking at him.

She heard him panting, knew that he hadn’t moved, that he was still trying to decide what to do.

“Lie down,” she said, one last time. “If you want me.”

For a second there was silence, and then she heard him settle back against the bed. But she also heard his breath, now tinged with a dangerously ragged edge.

“There you go,” she whispered.

She taunted him a little more, running her hands lightly over her skin, her nails skimming the surface, raising goosebumps all along their path. “Mmmm,” she moaned, the sound a deliberate tease. “Mmmm.”

“Francesca,” he whispered.

She moved her hands to her belly, then slid them down, not deeply to touch herself—she wasn’t certain she was wicked enough to do that—but just enough cover her mound, leaving him in the dark, wondering just what it was her fingers were doing.

“Mmmm,” she murmured again. “Ohhhh.”

He made a sound, guttural, primitive, and entirely inarticulate. He was nearing his breaking point; she wouldn’t be able to push him much further.

She looked over her shoulder, licking her lips as she glanced at him. “You should take those off,” she said, letting her gaze fall to his still-covered groin. He’d not undressed entirely when he’d removed his wet clothing, and his manhood strained furiously against the fabric. “You don’t look very comfortable,” she added, infusing her voice with just the barest hint of coy innocence.

He grunted something and then practically tore off his undergarments.

“Oh my,” Francesca said, and even though she’d planned the words as a part of her teasing seduction, she found that she very much meant them. He looked huge and powerful, and she knew she was playing a dangerous game, pushing him to his very limits.

But she couldn’t stop. She was glorying in her power over him, and she couldn’t possibly stop.

“Very nice,” she purred, letting her gaze roam up and down his body, settling directly upon his manhood.

“Frannie,” he said, “enough.”

She let her eyes level onto his. “You answer to me, Michael,” she said with soft authority. “If you want me, you can have me. But I’m in charge.”

“Fr—”

“Those are my terms.”

He held still, then settled back slightly in acquiescence. But he did not lie down. He was sitting, leaning back slightly, his hands on the mattress behind him for support. His every muscle was straining, and his eyes held a feline air, as if he were poised to pounce.

He was, she realized, with a shiver of desire, simply magnificent.

And hers for the taking.

“What should I do now?” she wondered aloud.

“Come here,” he answered gruffly.

“Not quite yet,” she sighed, turning toward him until her body was in profile. She saw his gaze drop to the hardened tips of her breasts, saw his eyes darken as he licked his lips. And she felt herself tauten even more, as the mental image of his tongue on her sent a new rush of heat through her body.

She brought one hand to her breast, curving around the underside, pushing herself up, like some delectable offering. “Is this what you want?” she whispered.

His voice was nothing but a growl. “You know what I want.”

“Mmm, yes,” she murmured, “but what about in the meantime? Aren’t things sweeter when we’re forced to wait for them?”

“You have no idea,” he said roughly.

She looked down at her breast. “I wonder what would happen if I do…this,” she said, and then she moved her fingers to her nipple, rolling it about, her body twitching as the motion sent shivers down to the very center of her being.

“Frannie,” Michael groaned. She glanced up at him. His lips were parted, and his eyes were glazed with desire.

“I like it,” Francesca said, almost in wonderment. She’d never touched herself this way, never even thought to until this very moment, with Michael as her captive audience. “I like it,” she said again, then brought her other hand to her other breast and pleasured them in unison. She pushed them up and together, her hands making a sultry corset.

“Oh, my God,” Michael moaned.

“I had no idea I could do this,” she said, arching her back.

“I can do it better,” he gasped.

“Mmm, you probably could,” she acceded. “You’ve had lots of practice, haven’t you?” And she shot him a look, one of sophisticated elegance, as if she were comfortable with the fact that he’d seduced scores of women. And the strange truth was, until this very moment, she rather thought she had been.

 
But now…

Now he was hers. Hers to tempt and hers to enjoy, and as long as she had him exactly where she wanted him, she wasn’t going to think of those other women. They weren’t here in this room. It was just her, and Michael, and the sizzling heat rising between them.

She edged closer to the bed, batting his hand away when he reached toward her. “If I let you touch one, will you make me a promise?” she murmured.

“Anything.”

“Nothing more,” she said, her tone slightly officious. “You may do what I allow you and nothing more.”

He nodded jerkily.

“Lie back,” she ordered.

He did as she asked.

She climbed onto the bed, not allowing their bodies to touch in any way. Raising herself onto all fours, she let herself to sway above him, and then softly she said, “One hand, Michael. You may use one hand.”

With a groan that sounded as if it were ripped from his throat, he reached for her, his hand large enough to grasp her entire breast. “Oh, my God,” he gasped, his body jerking as he squeezed her. “Both hands, please,” he begged.

She couldn’t resist him. That one simple touch was reducing her to pure flame, and even as she wanted to exert her power over him, she couldn’t say no. Nodding because she could barely speak, she arched her back, and then suddenly both of his hands were on her, kneading, caressing, whipping her already heightened senses into a frenzy.

“The tip,” she whispered. “Do what I did.”

He smiled stealthily, giving her the impression that she might no longer be quite as much in charge as she thought, but he did as she commanded, his fingers torturing her nipples.

And as promised, he was better at it than she was.

Her body bucked, and she almost lost the strength to hold herself up. “Take me in your mouth,” she ordered, but her voice was not so authoritative any longer. She was begging him, and they both knew it.

But she wanted it. Oh, how she wanted it. John, for all his ebullience in bed, had never loved her breasts the way Michael had done the night before. He’d never suckled her, never shown her how lips and teeth could make her entire body squirm. Francesca hadn’t even known that a man and woman could do such a thing.

But now that she did, she couldn’t stop fantasizing about it.

“Come lower,” Michael said softly, “if you want me to remain lying down.”

Still on her hands and knees, she leaned down, allowing one breast to swing achingly close to his mouth.

He did nothing at first, forcing her to swing lower and lower, until her nipple was brushing lightly across his lips.

“What do you want, Francesca?” he asked, his breath hot and moist over her.

“You know,” she whispered.

“Say it again.”

She wasn’t in charge anymore. She knew it, but she was past caring. His voice held the soft edge of authority, but she was too far gone to do anything but obey.

“Take me in your mouth,” she said again.

His head snapped up and his lips nipped her, tugging her down until she was in a position for him to have his leisurely way with her. He tickled and teased, and she felt herself sinking deeper into his spell, losing her will and her strength, wanting nothing but to lie down on her back and allow him to do whatever he wanted to her.

“Now what?” he asked politely, not releasing her from his lips. “More of this? Or”—he swirled his tongue in a particularly wicked fashion—“something else?”

“Something else,” she gasped, and she wasn’t sure if it was because she wanted something else or because she didn’t think she could stand one more minute of what he was doing just then.

“You’re in charge,” he said, his voice holding the barest hint of mocking. “I’m yours to command.”

“I want…I want…” She was breathing too hard to finish the sentence. Or maybe she just didn’t know what she wanted.

“Shall I offer you a few selections?”

She nodded.

He trailed one finger down the center of her belly to her womanhood. “I could touch you here,” he said in a devilish whisper, “or if you’d prefer, I could kiss you.”

Her body tightened at the thought.

“But that presents new questions,” he said. “Do you lie back and allow me to kneel between your legs, or do you remain above me and lower yourself onto my mouth?”

“Oh, my God!” She didn’t know. She just didn’t know that such things were possible.

“Or,” he said thoughtfully, “you could take me into your mouth. I’m quite certain I would enjoy it, although I must say, it’s not really in the tenor of the interlude.”

Francesca felt her lips part with shock, and she couldn’t help but peer down at his manhood, large and ready for her. She had kissed John there once or twice, when she’d felt particularly daring, but to take it into her mouth?

It was too scandalous. Even in her present state of debauchery.

 
“No,” Michael said with an amused smile. “Another time, perhaps. I can tell you’ll be a most cunning pupil.”

Francesca nodded, unable to believe what she was promising.

“So for now,” he said, “those are our options, or…”

“Or what?” she asked, her voice more of a harsh whisper.

His hands settled on her hips. “Or we could just proceed right to the main course,” he said commandingly, exerting a gentle but steady pressure on her, guiding her down toward the evidence of his desire. “You could ride me. Have you ever done that?”

She shook her head.

“Do you want to?”

She nodded.

One of his hands left her hips and found the back of her head, pulling her down until they were nose to nose. “I’m not a gentle pony,” he said softly. “I promise you, you will have to work to keep your seat.”

“I want it,” she whispered.

“Are you ready for me?”

She nodded.

“Are you certain?” he whispered, his lips curving just enough to taunt her. She wasn’t sure what he was asking, and he knew it.

She just looked at him, her eyes widening in question.

“Are you wet?” he murmured.

Her cheeks grew hot—as if they weren’t already burning, but she nodded.

“Are you sure?” he mused. “I should probably check, just to make certain.”

Francesca’s breath caught as she watched his hand curve around her thigh, moving toward her center. He moved slowly, deliberately, drawing out the torture of anticipation. And then, just when she thought she might scream at it all, he touched her, one finger lazily drawing circles against her soft flesh.

“Very nice,” he purred, his words echoing her own.

“Michael,” she gasped.

But he was enjoying his position too much to allow her to rush things along. “I’m not sure,” he said. “You’re ready here, but what about…here?”

Francesca nearly screamed as one finger slipped inside of her.

“Oh, yes,” he murmured. “And you like it, too.”

“Michael…Michael…” It was all she could say.

Another finger slid into place next to the first. “So warm,” he whispered. “The very heart of you.”

“Michael…”

His eyes caught hers. “Do you want me?” he asked, his voice stark and direct.

She nodded.

“Now?”

She nodded again, this time with more vigor.

His fingers slid out, and his hands found her hips again, guiding her down…down…until she could feel the tip of him at her opening. She tried to move her body down onto him, but he held her in place. “Not too fast,” he whispered.

“Please…”

“Let me move you,” he said, and his hands gently pushed at her hips, edging her down until she felt herself being stretched open by him. He felt huge, and it was all so different in this position.

“Good?” he asked.

She nodded.

“More?”

She nodded again.

And he continued the torture, holding himself still, but moving her body down atop his, each impossible inch of him sliding into her, stealing her breath, her voice, her very ability to think.

“Slide up and down,” he commanded.

Her eyes flew to his.

“You can do it,” he said softly.

She did, testing the motion, moaning at the pleasure of the friction, then gasping as she realized that she was sliding farther down onto him, that he wasn’t yet entirely embedded within her body.

“Take me to the hilt,” he said.

“I can’t.” And she couldn’t. She couldn’t possibly. She knew she had done so the night before, but this was different. He couldn’t possibly fit.

His hands tightened on her, and his hips arched slightly up, and then in one mind-numbing jolt, she found herself seated directly atop him, skin to skin.

And she could barely breathe.

“Oh, my God,” he groaned.

She just sat there, rocking back and forth, unsure of what to do.

His breath was coming in fits and starts, and his body began to writhe under hers. She grasped his shoulders in an attempt to hold on, to keep her seat, and as she did, she began to move up and down, to take control, to seek pleasure for herself.

“Michael, Michael,” she moaned, her body beginning to sway from side to side, unable to hold itself up, unable to maintain strength against the hot tide of desire sweeping across her.

He just grunted, his body bucking beneath her. As promised, he wasn’t gentle, and he wasn’t tame. He forced her to work for her pleasure, to hold on tight, to move with him, and then against him, and then…

A scream ripped from her throat.

And the world quite simply fell apart.

 
She didn’t know what to do, didn’t know what to say. She let go of his shoulders as her body straightened and then arched, every muscle growing impossibly taut.

And beneath her, he exploded. His face contorted, his body lifted them both off the bed, and she knew that he was pouring himself into her. Her name was on his lips, over and over, decreasing in volume until it was the barest of whispers. And when he was done, all he said was, “Lie with me.”

She did. And she slept.

For the first time in days, she slept deeply and truly.

And she never knew that he laid awake the whole time, his lips at her temple, his hand against her hair.

Whispering her name.

Whispering other words as well.

 








 
Part One

  March, 1820
London, England








 

Extra

The Bridgerton Basics:
Ms. Quinn Fills You In





What is the order of the Bridgerton books?

Julia Quinn:

Book 1: The Duke and I

Book 2: The Viscount Who Loved Me

Book 3: An Offer From A Gentleman

Book 4: Romancing Mr. Bridgerton

Book 5: To Sir Phillip, With Love

Book 6: When He Was Wicked

Will you write books for all eight Bridgerton siblings?

Julia Quinn: Yes.

Will you write books about their children?

Julia Quinn: I don’t know.

 
Why was there no mention of Lady Whistledown in To Sir Phillip, With Love? I thought for sure there would be a scene where Eloise learned the truth!

Julia Quinn: Because Lady Whistledown had nothing to do with the plot for To Sir Phillip, With Love. The introduction of Lady Whistledown and “the big secret” would have been irrelevant, not to mention confusing for readers who have not read the previous Bridgerton books.

I do like to refer to items from previous books (Anthony’s fear of bees, for example, or Colin’s ravenous appetite), but only when they make sense within the framework of the story I’m currently telling. While the Bridgerton books are a loosely connected series, each title, first and foremost, must stand on its own as an individual novel.

I did think about this, however, while I was writing the novel, so my answer is: Colin didn’t tell Eloise because he was so furious with her for running off. Keeping her (a woman who likes to know everything!) out of the loop would be, to him, the perfect revenge.

Will you ever write a story for Violet Bridgerton?

Julia Quinn: The answer, I think, is no. Her love for Edmund was so strong and deep that I have difficulty imagining her ever remarrying. I have received requests to write their story, but I wonder if it would be too bittersweet, since so many readers would already know that he would die young.

What about Francesca Bridgerton? She was a widow in Romancing Mr. Bridgerton. What happened to her?

 
Julia Quinn: I’m still figuring that out. Look for her story (in which she finds love with her second husband) in summer 2004.

Who will get a story after Francesca?

Julia Quinn: Hyacinth.

What happened to Posy Reiling (from An Offer from A Gentleman)?

Julia Quinn: Posy married a vicar and now lives a few miles away from Benedict and Sophie in Wiltshire. Check out To Sir Phillip, With Love for a little update on her.

In Romancing Mr. Bridgerton, you thank Lisa Kleypas and Stephanie Laurens for the gracious use of their characters. Which characters were those?

Julia Quinn: I thought it would be fun to pay a little homage to my friends and colleagues, so in chapter one of Romancing Mr. Bridgerton, Penelope is reading a book called Mathilda by S.R. Fielding. This book played a big role in Dreaming of You by Lisa Kleypas (S.R. is actually Sara, the heroine). And in the Lady Whistledown column opening chapter nine, I mention Michael Anstruther-Wetherby, who is the brother of Honoria Anstruther-Wetherby, heroine of Devil’s Bride, the first book of Stephanie Laurens’s Cynster series. (I think he’s supposed to get his own book one of these days.)

 
Are The Further Observations Of Lady Whistledown and Lady Whistedown Strikes Back Bridgerton books?

Not really. The Bridgertons don’t play a role in the anthology, but since Lady Whistledown was such a part of the first four Bridgerton novels, I consider them honorary Bridgerton books.









Chapter 13


…all at home is pleasant and well, and Kilmartin thrives under Francesca’s careful stewardship. She continues to mourn John, but then of course, so do we all, as, I’m sure, do you. You might consider writing to her directly. I know that she misses you. I do pass along all of your tales, but I am certain you would relate them to her in a different fashion than you do to your mother.

—from Helen Stirling to her son, the Earl of Kilmartin, two years after his departure for India







The rest of the week passed in a supremely annoying blur of flowers, candy, and one appalling display of poetry, recited aloud, Michael recalled with a shudder, on his front steps.

Francesca, it seemed, was putting all the fresh-faced debutantes to shame. The number of men vying for her hand might not have been doubling every day, but it certainly felt like it to Michael, who was constantly tripping over some lovesick swain in the hall.

 
It was enough to make a man want to vomit. Preferably on the lovesick swain.

Of course he had his admirers as well, but as it was not suitable for a lady to call upon a gentleman, he generally only had to deal with them when he chose to do so, and not when they took it upon themselves to stop by unannounced and for no apparent reason other than to compare his eyes to—

Well, to whatever one would compare your average gray eyes. It was a stupid analogy, anyway, although Michael had been forced to listen to more than one man rhapsodize over Francesca’s eyes.

Good God, didn’t any of them have an original thought in his head? Forget that everyone made mention of her eyes; at the very least one of them could have had the creativity to compare them to something other than the water or the sky.

Michael snorted with disgust. Anyone who took the time to really look at Francesca’s eyes would have realized that they were quite their own color.

As if the sky could even compare.

Furthermore, Francesca’s nauseating parade of suitors was made all the more difficult to bear by Michael’s complete inability to stop thinking about his recent conversation with her brother.

Marriage to Francesca? He had never even let himself think about such a notion.

But now it gripped him with a fervor and intensity that left him reeling.

Marriage to Francesca. Good God. Everything about it was wrong.

Except he wanted it so badly.

It was hell watching her, hell speaking to her, hell living in the same house. He’d thought it was difficult before—loving someone who could never be his—but this…

This was a thousand times worse.

Colin knew.

He had to know. Why would he have suggested it if he didn’t?

Michael had held on to his sanity all these years for one reason and one reason only: No one knew he was in love with Francesca.

Except, apparently, he was to be denied even that last shred of dignity.

But now Colin knew, or at least he damn well suspected, and Michael couldn’t quite quash this rising sense of panic within his chest.

Colin knew, and Michael was going to have to do something about it.

Dear God, what if he told Francesca?

That question was foremost in his mind, even now, as he stood slightly off to the side at the Burwick ball, nearly a week after his momentous meeting with Colin.

“She looks beautiful tonight, doesn’t she?”

It was his mother’s voice at his ear; he had forgotten to pretend that he wasn’t watching Francesca. He turned to Helen and gave her a little bow. “Mother,” he murmured.

“Doesn’t she?” Helen persisted.

“Of course,” he agreed, quickly enough so she might think he was just being polite.

“Green suits her.”

Everything suited Francesca, but he wasn’t about to tell his mother that, so he just nodded and made a murmur of agreement.

“You should dance with her.”

“I’m sure I will,” he said, taking a sip of his champagne. He wanted to march across the ballroom and forcibly remove her from her annoying little crowd of admirers, but he couldn’t very well show such emotion in front of his mother. So he concluded with, “After I finish my drink.”

Helen pursed her lips. “Her dance card will surely be filled by then. You should go now.”

He turned to his mother and smiled, just the sort of devilish grin designed to take her mind off of whatever it was that had her so fixated. “Now why would I do that,” he queried, setting his champagne flute down on a nearby table, “when I can dance with you instead?”

“You rascal,” Helen said, but she didn’t protest when he led her out on the floor.

Michael knew he’d pay for this tomorrow; already the society matrons were circling him for the kill, and there was nothing they liked better than a rake who doted upon his mother.

The dance was a lively one, which didn’t allow for much conversation. And as he twisted and turned, dipped and bowed, he kept catching glances of Francesca, radiant in her emerald gown. No one seemed to notice that he was watching her, which suited him just fine, except that as the music reached its penultimate crescendo, Michael was forced to make one final turn away from her.

And when he turned back to face her again, she was gone.

He frowned. That didn’t seem right. He supposed she could have darted out to the ladies’ retiring room, but, pathetic fool that he was, he’d been watching her closely enough that he knew that she had done that just twenty minutes earlier.

He completed his dance with his mother, bade her farewell, then ambled casually over to the north side of the room, where he’d last seen Francesca. He had to move quickly, lest someone tried to waylay him. But he kept his ears open as he moved through the crowds. No one, however, seemed to be speaking of her.

When he reached her previous location, however, he noticed French doors, presumably to the back garden. They were curtained and closed, of course; it was only April, and not warm enough to be letting the night air in, even with a crowd of three hundred heating up the room. Michael was instantly suspicious; he’d lured too many women out to gardens himself not to be aware of what could happen in the dark of the night.

He slipped outside, making his exit unobtrusive. If Francesca was indeed out in the back garden with a gentleman, the last thing he wanted was a crowd trailing in his wake.

The rumble of the party seemed to pulsate through the glass doors, but even with that, the night felt quiet.

Then he heard her voice.

And it sliced his gut.

She sounded happy, he realized, more than content to be in the company of whatever man had lured her out into the dark. Michael couldn’t make out her words, but she was definitely laughing. It was a musical, tinkling sound, and it ended in a soul-searing, flirtatious murmur.

Michael put his hand back on the knob. He should leave. She wouldn’t want him here.

But he was rooted to the spot.

He’d never—ever—spied on her with John. Not once had he listened in on a conversation that wasn’t meant to include him. If he stumbled within earshot, he had always removed himself immediately. But now—it was different. He couldn’t explain it, but it was different, and he could not force himself to leave.

One more minute, he swore to himself. That was all. One more minute to assure that she was not in a dangerous situation, and—

 
“No, no.”

Francesca’s voice.

His ears pricked up and he took a few steps in the direction of her voice. She didn’t sound upset, but she was saying no. Of course, she could be laughing about a joke, or maybe some inane piece of gossip.

“I really must—No!”

And that was all it took for Michael to move.

 

Francesca knew that she shouldn’t have come outside with Sir Geoffrey Fowler, but he had been polite and charming, and she was feeling a trifle warm in the crowded ballroom. It was the sort of thing she’d never have done as an unmarried debutante, but widows weren’t held to quite the same standards, and besides, Sir Geoffrey had said that he would leave the door ajar.

All had been perfectly pleasant for the first few minutes. Sir Geoffrey made her laugh, and he made her feel beautiful, and it was almost heartbreaking to realize how much she’d missed that. And so she had laughed and flirted, and allowed herself to melt into the moment. She wanted to feel like a woman again—maybe not in the fullest sense of the word, but still, was it so wrong to enjoy the heady intoxication of knowing that she was desired?

Maybe they were all after her now infamous double dowry, maybe they wanted the alignment with two of Britain’s most notable families—Francesca was both a Bridgerton and a Stirling, after all. But for one lovely evening, she was going to let herself believe it was all about her.

But then Sir Geoffrey had moved closer. Francesca had backed up as discreetly as she was able, but he took another step in her direction, and then another, and before she knew it, her back was against a fat-trunked tree, and Sir Geoffrey’s hands were planted against the bark, each uncomfortably close to her head.

“Sir Geoffrey,” Francesca said, endeavoring to remain polite as long as she possibly could, “I’m afraid there has been a misunderstanding. I believe I would like to return to the party.” She kept her voice light and friendly, not wishing to provoke him into something she would regret.

His head dipped an inch closer to hers. “Now, why would you want to do that?” he murmured.

“No, no,” she said, ducking to the side as he came in closer, “people will be missing me.” Dash it all, she was going to have to stamp on his foot, or worse, unman him in the manner her brothers had taught her back when she was a green girl. “Sir Geoffrey,” she said, trying one last time for civility, “I really must—”

And then his mouth, wet and mushy and entirely unwelcome, landed on hers.

“—No!” she managed to squeal.

But he was quite determined to mash her with his lips. Francesca twisted this way and that, but he was stronger than she had realized, and he clearly had no intention of letting her escape. Still struggling, she maneuvered her leg so that she might jam her knee up into his groin, but before she could do that, Sir Geoffrey seemed to…quite simply…disappear.

“Oh!” The surprised sound flew from her lips of its own accord. There was a flurry of movement, a noise that sounded rather sickeningly like knuckles on flesh, and one very heartfelt cry of pain. By the time Francesca had any idea what was going on, Sir Geoffrey was sprawled on the ground, swearing most vehemently, and a large man loomed over him, his boot planted firmly on Sir Geoffrey’s chest.

“Michael?” Francesca asked, unable to believe her eyes.

 
“Say the word,” Michael said, in a voice she had never dreamed could cross his lips, “and I will crush his ribs.”

“No!” Francesca said quickly. She’d not have felt the least bit guilty for kneeing Sir Geoffrey between the legs, but she didn’t want Michael to kill the man.

And from the look on Michael’s face, she was quite certain he would have happily done so.

“That’s not necessary,” she said, hurrying to Michael’s side and then backing up when she saw the feral gleam in his eyes. “Er, perhaps we could just ask him to leave?”

For a moment Michael did nothing but stare at her. Hard, in the eyes, and with an intensity that robbed her of the ability to breathe. Then he ground his boot down into Sir Geoffrey’s chest. Not too very much harder, but enough to make the supine man grunt with discomfort.

“Are you certain?” Michael bit off.

“Yes, please, there’s no need to hurt him,” Francesca said. Good heavens, this would be a nightmare if anyone caught them thus. Her reputation would be tarnished, and heaven knew what they’d say about Michael, attacking a well-respected baronet. “I shouldn’t have come out here with him,” she added.

“No, you shouldn’t have done,” Michael said harshly, “but that hardly gives him leave to force his attentions on you.” Abruptly, he removed his boot from Sir Geoffrey’s chest and hauled the quivering man to his feet. Grabbing him by his lapels, he pinned him against the tree and then jerked his own body forward until the two men were nearly nose to nose.

“Doesn’t feel so good to be trapped, does it?” Michael taunted.

Sir Geoffrey said nothing, just stared at him in terror.

“Do you have something to say to the lady?”

Sir Geoffrey shook his head frantically.

 
Michael slammed his head back against the tree. “Think harder!” he growled.

“I’m sorry!” Sir Geoffrey squeaked.

Rather like a girl, Francesca thought dispassionately. She’d known he wouldn’t make a good husband, but that clinched it.

But Michael was not through with him. “If you ever step within ten yards of Lady Kilmartin again, I will personally disembowel you.”

Even Francesca flinched.

“Am I understood?” Michael ground out.

Another squeak, and this time Sir Geoffrey sounded like he might cry.

“Get out of here,” Michael grunted, shoving the terrified man away. “And while you’re at it, endeavor to leave town for a month or so.”

Sir Geoffrey looked at him in shock.

Michael stood still, dangerously so, and then shrugged one insolent shoulder. “You won’t be missed,” he said softly.

Francesca realized she was holding her breath. He was terrifying, but he was also magnificent, and it shook her to her very core to realize that she’d never seen him thus.

Never dreamed he could be like this.

Sir Geoffrey ran off, heading across the lawn to the back gate, leaving Francesca alone with Michael, alone and, for the first time since she’d known him, without a word to say.

Except, perhaps, “I’m sorry.”

Michael turned on her with a ferocity that nearly sent her reeling. “Don’t apologize,” he bit off.

“No, of course not,” she said, “but I should have known better, and—”

“He should have known better,” he said savagely.

 
It was true, and Francesca was certainly not going to take the blame for her attack, but at the same time, she thought it best not to feed his anger any further, at least not right now. She’d never seen him like this. In truth, she’d never seen anyone like this—wound so tightly with fury that he seemed as if he might snap into pieces. She’d thought he was out of control, but now, as she watched him, standing so still she was afraid to breathe, she realized that the opposite was true.

Michael was holding onto his control like a vise; if he hadn’t, Sir Geoffrey would be lying in a bloody heap right now.

Francesca opened her mouth to say something more, something placating or even funny, but she found herself without words, without the ability to do anything but watch him, this man she’d thought she knew so well.

There was something mesmerizing about the moment, and she couldn’t take her eyes off of him. He was breathing hard, obviously still struggling to control his anger, and he was, she realized with curiosity, not entirely there. He was staring at some far off horizon, his eyes unfocused, and he looked almost…

In pain.

“Michael?” she whispered.

No reaction.

“Michael?” This time, she reached out and touched him, and he flinched, whipping around so quickly that she stumbled backward.

“What is it?” he asked gruffly.

“Nothing,” she stammered, not certain what it was she’d meant to say, not even certain if she’d had something to say other than his name.

He closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them, clearly waiting for her to say more.

“I believe I will go home,” she said. The party no longer held appeal; all she wanted to do was cocoon herself where all was safe and familiar.

Because Michael was suddenly neither of those things.

“I will make your apologies inside,” he said stiffly.

“I’ll send the carriage back for you and the mothers,” Francesca added. The last she’d looked, Janet and Helen were enjoying themselves immensely. She didn’t want to cut their evening short.

“Shall I escort you through the back gate, or would you rather go through the ball?”

“The back gate, I think,” she said.

And he did, the full distance to the carriage, his hand burning at her back the entire way. But when she reached the carriage, instead of accepting his assistance to climb up, she turned to him, a question suddenly burning on her lips.

“How did you know I was in the garden?” she inquired.

He didn’t say anything. Or maybe he would have done, just not quickly enough to suit her.

“Were you watching me?” she asked.

His lips curved, not quite into a smile, not even into the beginnings of a smile. “I’m always watching you,” he said grimly.

And she was left with that to ponder for the rest of the evening.

 
 








Chapter 3


…I love him madly. Madly! Truly, I would die without him.

—from the Countess of Kilmartin to her sister Eloise Bridgerton, one week after Francesca’s wedding







“I declare, Francesca, you are the healthiest expectant mother I have ever laid eyes upon.”

Francesca smiled at her mother-in-law, who had just entered the garden of the St. James’s mansion they now shared. Overnight, it seemed, Kilmartin House had become a household of women. First Janet had taken up residence, and then Helen, Michael’s mother. It was a house full of Stirling females, or at least those who had acquired the name in marriage.

And it all felt so different.

It was strange. She would have thought that she’d sense John’s presence, feel him in the air, see him in the surroundings they’d shared for two years. But instead, he was simply gone, and the influx of women had changed the tone of the house entirely. Francesca supposed that was a good thing; she needed the support of women right now.

But it was odd, living among women. There were more flowers now—vases everywhere, it seemed. And there was no longer any lingering smell of John’s cheroot, or the sandalwood soap he’d favored.

Kilmartin House now smelled of lavender and rose-water, and every whiff of it broke Francesca’s heart.

Even Michael had been strangely distant. Oh, he came to call—several times a week, if one cared to count, which Francesca had to admit she did. But he wasn’t there, not in the way he had been before John’s death. He wasn’t the same, and she supposed she ought not to castigate him for that, even if only in her mind.

He was hurting, too.

She knew that. She reminded herself of it when she saw him, and his eyes were distant. She reminded herself of it when she didn’t know what to say to him, and when he didn’t tease her.

And she reminded herself of it when they sat together in the drawing room and had nothing to say.

She’d lost John, and now it seemed she’d lost Michael, too. And even with two mother hens fussing over her—three, if she counted her own, who came to call every single day—she was so lonely.

And sad.

No one had ever told her how sad she’d be. Who would have thought to tell her? And even if someone had, even if her mother, who had also been widowed young, had explained the pain, how could she have understood?

It was one of those things that had to be experienced to be understood. And oh, how Francesca wished she didn’t belong to this melancholy club.

And where was Michael? Why couldn’t he comfort her? Why didn’t he realize how very much she needed him? Him, not his mother. Not anyone’s mother.

She needed Michael, the one person who had known John the way she had, the only person who had loved him as fully. Michael was her one link to the husband she had lost, and she hated him for staying away.

Even when he was here at Kilmartin House, in the same dashed room as her, it wasn’t the same. They didn’t joke, and they didn’t tease. They just sat there and looked sad and grief stricken, and when they spoke, there was an awkwardness that had never been there before.

Couldn’t anything remain as it was before John had died? It had never occurred to her that her friendship with Michael might be killed off as well.

“How are you feeling, dear?”

Francesca looked up at Janet, belatedly realizing that her mother-in-law had asked her a question. Several, probably, and she’d forgotten to answer, lost in her own thoughts. She did that a lot lately.

“Fine,” she said. “No different than I ever have done.”

Janet shook her head in wonder. “It’s remarkable. I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

Francesca shrugged. “If it weren’t for the loss of my courses, I’d never know anything was different.”

And it was true. She wasn’t sick, she wasn’t hungry, she wasn’t anything. A trifle more tired than usual, she supposed, but that could be the grief as well. Her mother told her that she’d been tired for a year after her father had died.

Of course her mother had had eight children to look after. Francesca just had herself, with a small army of servants treating her like an invalid queen.

“You’re very fortunate,” Janet said, sitting down on the chair opposite Francesca’s. “When I was carrying John, I was sick every single morning. And most afternoons as well.”

Francesca nodded and smiled. Janet had told this to her before, several times. John’s death had turned his mother into a magpie, constantly chattering on, trying to fill the silence that was Francesca’s grief. Francesca adored her for it, for trying, but she suspected the only thing that would assuage her pain was time.

“I’m so pleased you’re carrying,” Janet said, leaning forward and impulsively squeezing Francesca’s hand. “It makes it all a bit more bearable. Or I suppose a bit less unbearable,” she added, not really smiling, but looking like she was trying to.

Francesca just nodded, afraid that speaking would loosen the tears in her eyes.

“I’d always wanted more children,” Janet confessed. “But it wasn’t to be. And when John died, I—Well, let’s just say that no grandchild shall ever be loved more than the one you’re carrying.” She stopped, pretending to dab her handkerchief against her nose but really aiming for her eyes. “Don’t tell anyone, but I don’t care whether it’s a boy or a girl. It’s a piece of him. That’s all that matters.”

“I know,” Francesca said softly, placing her hand on her belly. She wished there was some sign of the baby within. She knew it was too soon to feel movement; she wasn’t even three months along, by her carefully calculated estimation. But all her dresses still fit perfectly, and her food still tasted just as it always had, and she simply wasn’t experiencing any of the quirks and illnesses that other women had told her about.

She’d have been happy to have been casting up her accounts each morning, if only so that she could imagine the baby was waving its hand with a cheerful, “I’m here!”

“Have you seen Michael recently?” Janet asked.

 
“Not since Monday,” Francesca said. “He doesn’t come to call very often anymore.”

“He misses John,” Janet said softly.

“So do I,” Francesca replied, and she was horrified by the sharp edge to her voice.

“It must be very difficult for him,” Janet mused.

Francesca just stared at her, her lips parting with surprise.

“I do not mean to say it is not difficult for you, too,” Janet said quickly, “but think of the tenuousness of his position. He won’t know if he’s to be the earl for six more months.”

“There is nothing I can do about that.”

“No, of course not,” Janet assured her, “but it does put him in awkward straits. I’ve heard more than one matron say that they simply can’t consider him as a potential suitor for their daughters until and unless you give birth to a girl. It’s one thing to marry the Earl of Kilmartin. It’s quite another when it’s his impoverished cousin. And no one knows which he will be.”

“Michael isn’t impoverished,” Francesca said peevishly, “and besides, he would never marry while in mourning for John.”

“No, I suppose not, but I do hope he starts looking,” Janet said. “I do so want him to be happy. And of course if he is to be the earl, he shall have to beget an heir. Otherwise the title shall go to that awful Debenham side of the family.” Janet shuddered at the thought.

“Michael will do what he must,” Francesca said, although she wasn’t so sure. It was difficult to imagine him marrying. It had always been difficult—Michael wasn’t the sort to stay true to any woman for very long—but now it just seemed strange. For years, she had had John, and Michael had been their companion. Could she bear it if he married, and then she was the third wheel? Was her heart big enough to be happy for him while she was alone?

She rubbed her eyes. She felt very tired, and in truth a bit weak. A good sign, she supposed; she’d heard that pregnant women were supposed to be more tired than she usually was. She looked over at Janet. “I think I shall go upstairs and take a nap.”

“An excellent idea,” Janet said approvingly. “You need your rest.”

Francesca nodded and stood, then grabbed the arm of the chair to steady herself when she swayed. “I don’t know what is wrong with me,” she said, attempting a wobbly smile. “I feel very unsteady. I—”

Janet’s gasp cut her off.

“Janet?” Francesca looked at her mother-in-law with concern. She’d gone quite pale, and one shaking hand rose to meet her lips.

“What is it?” Francesca asked, and then she realized that Janet wasn’t looking at her. She was looking at her chair.

With slowly dawning horror, Francesca looked down, forcing herself to look at the seat she’d just vacated.

There, in the middle of the cushion, was a small patch of red.

Blood.

 

Life would have been easier, Michael thought wryly, if he’d been given to drink. If ever there was a time to overindulge, to drown one’s sorrows in the bottle, this was it.

But no, he’d been cursed with a robust constitution and a marvelous ability to hold his liquor with dignity and flair. Which meant that if he wanted to reach any sort of mind-numbing oblivion, he’d have to down the entire bottle of whisky sitting on his desk, and maybe even then some.

He looked out the window. It wasn’t yet dark. Even he, dissolute rake that he tried to be, couldn’t bring himself to drink an entire bottle of whisky before the sun went down.

Michael tapped his fingers against his desk, wishing he knew what to do with himself. John had been dead for six weeks now, but he was still living in his modest apartments in the Albany. He couldn’t quite bring himself to take up residence in Kilmartin House. It was the residence of the earl, and that wouldn’t be him for at least another six months.

Or maybe not ever.

According to Lord Winston, whose lectures Michael had eventually been forced to tolerate, the title would go into abeyance until Francesca delivered. And if she gave birth to a boy, Michael would remain in the same position he’d always been in—cousin to the earl.

But it wasn’t Michael’s peculiar situation that was keeping him away. He’d have been reticent to move into Kilmartin House even if Francesca hadn’t been pregnant. She was still there.

She was still there, and she was still the Countess of Kilmartin, and even if he was the earl, with no questions attached to the title, she wouldn’t be his countess, and he just didn’t know if he could take the irony of it.

He’d thought that his grief might finally overtake his longing for her, that he might finally be with her and not want her, but no, his breath still caught every time she walked into the room, and his body tightened when she brushed past him, and his heart still ached with the pain of loving her.

Except now it was all wrapped in an extra layer of guilt—as if he hadn’t had enough of that while John was alive. She was in pain, and she was grieving, and he ought to be comforting her, not lusting after her. Good God, John wasn’t even cold in his grave. What kind of monster would lust after his wife?

His pregnant wife.

He was already stepping into John’s shoes in so many ways. He would not complete the betrayal by taking his place with Francesca as well.

And so he stayed away. Not completely; that would have been too obvious, and besides, he couldn’t do that, not with his mother and John’s in residence at Kilmartin House. Plus, everyone was looking to him to manage the affairs of the earl, even though the title wasn’t potentially to be his for another six months.

He did it, though. He didn’t mind the details, didn’t care that he was spending several hours per day looking after a fortune that might go to another. It was the least he could do for John.

And for Francesca. He couldn’t bring himself to be a friend to her, not the way he ought, but he could make sure that her financial affairs were in order.

But he knew she didn’t understand. She often came to visit him while he was working in John’s study at Kilmartin House, poring over reports from various land stewards and solicitors. And he could tell that she was looking for their old camaraderie, but he just couldn’t do it.

Call him weak, call him shallow. But he just couldn’t be her friend. Not just yet, anyway.

“Mr. Stirling?”

Michael looked up. His valet was at the door, accompanied by a footman dressed in the unmistakable green and gold livery of Kilmartin House.

“A message for you,” the footman said. “From your mother.”

Michael held out his hand as the footman crossed the room, wondering what it was this time. His mother summoned him to Kilmartin House every other day, it seemed.

“She said it was urgent,” the footman added as he placed the envelope in Michael’s hand.

Urgent, eh? That was new. Michael glanced up at the footman and valet, his steady gaze a clear dismissal, and then, once the room had been emptied, slid his letter-opener under the flap.

Come quickly, was all it said. Francesca has lost the baby.

 

Michael nearly killed himself rushing to Kilmartin House, racing on horseback at a breakneck pace, ignoring the shouts from the angry pedestrians he’d nearly decapitated in his haste.

But now that he was here, standing in the hall, he had no idea what to do with himself.

Miscarriage? It seemed such a womanly thing. What was he meant to do? It was a tragedy, and he felt horrible for Francesca, but what did they think he could say? Why did they want him here?

And then it hit him. He was the earl now. It was done. Slowly but surely, he was assuming John’s life, filling every corner of the world that had once belonged to his cousin.

“Oh, Michael,” his mother said, rushing into the hall. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

He embraced her, his arms awkwardly coming around her. And he said something utterly meaningless like, “Such a tragedy,” but mostly he just stood there, feeling foolish and out of place.

“How is she?” he finally asked, once his mother stepped back.

“In shock,” she replied. “She’s been crying.”

 
He swallowed, wanting desperately to loosen his cravat. “Well, that’s to be expected,” he said. “I—I—”

“She can’t seem to stop,” Helen interrupted.

“Crying?” Michael asked.

Helen nodded. “I don’t know what to do.”

Michael measured his breaths. Even. Slow. In and out.

“Michael?” His mother was looking up to him for a response. Maybe for guidance.

As if he would know what to do.

“Her mother came by,” Helen said, when it became apparent that Michael was not going to speak. “She wants Francesca to go back to Bridgerton House.”

“Does Francesca want to?”

Helen shrugged sadly. “I don’t think she knows. It’s all such a shock.”

“Yes,” Michael said, swallowing again. He didn’t want to be here. He wanted to get out.

“The doctor said we’re not to move her for several days, in any case,” Helen added.

He nodded.

“Naturally, we called for you.”

Naturally? There was nothing natural about it. He’d never felt so out of place, so completely at a loss for words or action.

“You’re Kilmartin now,” his mother said quietly.

He nodded again. Just once. It was as much of an acknowledgment as he could muster.

“I must say I—” Helen stopped, her lips pursing in an odd, jerky manner. “Well, a mother wants the world for her children, but I didn’t—I never would have—”

“Don’t say it,” Michael said hoarsely. He wasn’t ready for anyone to say this was a good thing. And by God, if anyone offered his congratulations…

Well, he wouldn’t be responsible for the violence.

“She asked for you,” his mother said.

 
“Francesca?” he asked, his eyes flying open with surprise.

Helen nodded. “She said she wanted you.”

“I can’t,” he said.

“You have to.”

“I can’t.” He shook his head, panic making his movements too quick. “I can’t go in there.”

“You can’t abandon her,” his mother said.

“She was never mine to abandon.”

“Michael!” Helen gasped. “How can you say such a thing?”

“Mother,” he said, desperately trying to redirect the conversation, “she needs a woman. What can I do?”

“You can be her friend,” Helen said softly, and he felt eight again, scolded for a thoughtless transgression.

“No,” he said, and his voice horrified him. He sounded like a wounded animal, pained and confused. But there was one thing he knew for certain. He couldn’t see her. Not now. Not yet.

“Michael,” his mother said.

“No,” he said again. “I will…Tomorrow, I’ll…” And he strode for the door with nothing more than a “Give her my best.”

And then he fled, coward that he was.

 
 








Chapter 16


…but as you have written, Francesca is managing Kilmartin with admirable skill. I do not mean to shirk my duties, and I assure you, had I not such an able stand-in, I would return immediately.

—from the Earl of Kilmartin to his mother, Helen Stirling, two years and six months after his departure for India, written with a muttered, “She never answered my question.”







Francesca didn’t like to think of herself as a coward, but when her choices were that and fool, she chose coward. Gladly.

Because only a fool would have remained in London—in the same house, even—as Michael Stirling after experiencing his kiss.

It had been…

No, Francesca wouldn’t think about it. When she thought about it, she inevitably ended up feeling guilty and ashamed, because she wasn’t supposed to feel like this about Michael.

Not Michael.

She hadn’t planned to feel desire for anyone. Truly, the most she’d been hoping for with a husband was a mild, pleasant sensation—a kiss that felt nice against the lips but left her unaffected everywhere else.

That would have been enough.

But now…But this…

Michael had kissed her. He’d kissed her, and worse, she’d kissed him back, and since then all she could do was imagine his lips on hers, then imagine them everywhere else. And at night, when she was alone in her enormous bed, the dreams became more vivid, and her hand would creep down her body, only to halt before it reached its final destination.

She wouldn’t—No, she couldn’t fantasize about Michael. It was wrong. She would have felt terrible for feeling this kind of desire about anyone, but Michael…

He was John’s cousin. His best friend. Her best friend, too. And she shouldn’t have kissed him.

But, she thought with a sigh, it had been magnificent.

And that was why she’d had to choose coward over fool and run to Scotland. Because she had no faith in her ability to resist him again.

She’d been at Kilmartin for nearly a week now, trying to immerse herself in the regular, everyday life of the family seat. There was always much to do—accounts to review, tenants to visit—but she didn’t find the same satisfaction she usually did in such tasks. The regularity of it should have been soothing, but instead, it just made her restless, and she couldn’t force herself to focus, to center her mind on any one thing.

She was jittery and distracted, and half the time she felt as if she didn’t know what to do with herself—in the most literal and physical sense. She couldn’t seem to sit still, and so she had taken to leaving Kilmartin for hours on end, strapping on her most comfortable boots and trekking across the countryside until she was exhausted.

Not that it made her sleep any better at night, but still, at least she was trying.

And right now she was trying with great vigor, having just hauled herself up Kilmartin’s biggest hill. Breathing hard from the exertion, she glanced up at the darkening sky, trying to gauge both the time and the likelihood that it would rain.

Late, and probably.

She frowned. She should head home.

She didn’t have far to go, just down the hill and across one grassy field. But by the time she reached Kilmartin’s stately front portico, it had begun to sprinkle, and her face was lightly dusted with misty droplets. She removed her bonnet and shook it out, thankful that she’d remembered to don it before leaving—she wasn’t always that diligent—and was just heading upstairs to her bedchamber, where she thought she might indulge herself in some chocolate and biscuits, when Davies, the butler, appeared before her.

“My lady?” he said, clearly desiring her attention.

“Yes?”

“You have a visitor.”

“A visitor?” Francesca felt her brow furrow in thought. Most everyone who came calling up at Kilmartin had already removed to Edinburgh or London for the season.

“Not precisely a visitor, my lady.”

Michael. It had to be. And she couldn’t say she was surprised, not exactly. She had thought he might follow her, although she’d assumed he’d do it right away or not at all. Now, after the passage of a sennight, she’d reckoned she might be safe from his attentions.

 
Safe from her own response to them.

“Where is he?” she asked Davies.

“The earl?”

She nodded.

“Waiting for you in the rose drawing room.”

“Has he been here long?”

“No, my lady.”

Francesca nodded her dismissal and then forced her feet to carry her down the hall to the drawing room. She shouldn’t be dreading this quite so intensely. It was just Michael, for heaven’s sake.

Except she had a sinking feeling that he would never be just Michael ever again.

Still, it wasn’t as if she hadn’t gone over what she might say a million times in her head. But all of her platitudes and explanations sounded rather inadequate now that she was faced with the prospect of actually uttering them aloud.

How nice to see you, Michael, she could say, pretending that nothing had happened.

Or—You must realize that nothing will change—even though, of course, everything had changed.

Or she could make good humor her guide and open with something like—Can you believe the silliness of it all?

Except that she rather doubted either of them had found it silly.

And so she just accepted that she was going to have make it all up as she went along, and she stepped through the doorway into Kilmartin’s famed and lovely rose drawing room.

He was standing by the window—watching for her, perhaps?—and didn’t turn when she entered. He looked travelworn, with slightly wrinkled clothing and ruffled hair. He wouldn’t have ridden all the way to Scotland—only a fool or a man chasing someone to Gretna would do that. But she had traveled with Michael often enough to know that he’d probably joined the driver in front for a fair bit of the trip. He’d always hated closed carriages for long journeys and had more than once sat in the drizzle and rain rather than remain penned in with the rest of the passengers.

She didn’t say his name. She could have done, she supposed. She wasn’t buying herself very much time; he would turn around soon enough. But for now she just wanted to take the time to acclimate herself to his presence, to make sure that her breathing was under control, that she wasn’t going to do something truly foolish like burst into tears, or, just as likely, erupt with silly, nervous laughter.

“Francesca,” he said, without even turning around.

He’d sensed her presence, then. Her eyes widened, although she shouldn’t have been surprised. Ever since he’d left the army he’d had an almost catlike ability to sense his surroundings. It was probably what had kept him alive during the war. No one, apparently, could attack him from behind.

“Yes,” she said. And then, because she thought she should say more, she added, “I trust you had a pleasant journey.”

He turned. “Very much so.”

She swallowed, trying not to notice how handsome he was. He’d quite taken her breath away in London, but here in Scotland he seemed changed. Wilder, more elemental.

Far more dangerous to her soul.

“Is anything amiss in London?” she asked, hoping there was some sort of practical purpose to his visit. Because if there wasn’t, then he had come just for her, and that scared the very devil out of her.

“Nothing amiss,” he said, “although I do bear news.”

She tilted her head, waiting for his reply.

 
“Your brother has become betrothed.”

“Colin?” she asked in surprise. Her brother had been so committed to his life as a bachelor that she wouldn’t have been shocked if he’d told her that the lucky fellow was actually her younger brother Gregory, even though he was nearly ten years Colin’s junior.

Michael nodded. “To Penelope Featherington.”

“To Penel—oh, my, that is a surprise. But lovely, I should say. I think she will suit him tremendously.”

Michael took a step toward her, his hands remaining clasped behind his back. “I thought you would want to know.”

And he couldn’t have penned a letter? “Thank you,” she said. “I appreciate your thoughtfulness. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a wedding in the family. Not since—”

Mine, they both realized she’d been about to say.

The silence hung in the room like an unwanted guest, and then finally she broke it with, “Well, it has been a long time. My mother must be delighted.”

“She is quite,” Michael confirmed. “Or so your brother told me. I didn’t have an opportunity to converse with her myself.”

Francesca cleared her throat, then tried to feign comfort with the strange tableau by giving a little wave with one of her hands as she asked, “Will you stay long?”

“I haven’t decided,” he said, taking another step in her direction. “It depends.”

She swallowed. “On what?”

He’d halved the distance between them. “On you,” he said softly.

She knew what he meant, or at least she thought she did, but the last thing she wanted to do just then was acknowledge what had transpired in London, so she backed up a step—which was as far as she could go without actually fleeing the room—and pretended to misunderstand. “Don’t be silly,” she said. “Kilmartin is yours. You