…hope that you intend to write back soon. After the countless death threats I have thrown your way, I can understand your reluctance to respond. But we were friends once, Adam. I know you. And I know that you care for Francesca. You belong with her. So, come back. Before it's too late.
-Sent by Viscount Crafton, Lord Simon Kennedy, 4 Months After Wedding.
It was not until the blinding rays of late morning streamed
through her bedchamber window that Francesca finally managed to
drag herself out of bed and to the dining hall. It had been a
restless night of vivid contemplations on how to murder both her
brother and Anne for their inability to inform her of Adam's
return. And though sleep had not evaded her entirely, what little
rest she had received had been tainted by dreamlike recollections
of Adam's courting three years go.
She wanted to remain indifferent to him, to force him from her heart and mind as she had done so during his absence. However, his return had once more rekindled the flames of passion within her she had so valiantly attempted to repress. A part of her--however secret that part of her may be--was drawn to him still. And though his arrogance drove her nearly to the point of madness, the dominate manner in which he had captured her attentions had intrigued her in ways that the Earl of Raeford never had.
However, it was intrigue that often led to foolishness. And though he stirred her unruly passions, he also stirred her skepticism. Why had he returned to London? He had averred it was because he missed his home, but Francesca knew better. Adam lied with the very ease of the devil, and though he claimed his return was mere nostalgia, there was another purpose to his homecoming. She was certain of it!
It was whether or not his purposes concerned her that mystified her.
Forcing her attention to the fish on her plate, Francesca shoved any thought of Adam aside. She would not allow him to wreak havoc with her sanity again. It had been three years. And though she once would have died to see him, things were different now. She was no longer dazed by her infatuation.
And yet, when she had stepped into the dining hall that morning--a vision in an emerald green silk--she had been forced to quell the tiniest burst of disappointment that Adam had declined to join the first meal. It had been only Simon at the head of the table, informing her wearily that both Adam and Anne had chosen instead to take a stroll through Hyde Park.
Francesca had taken her place at the table and immediately engrossed herself in her breakfast, praying to God that her agitation would go unnoticed. But Simon, always intuitive, was unwilling to allow her to escape conversation so easily. Watching her as she played mutely with her food, he perked one sable brow, "Does your silence mean you are still upset with me?"
Francesca hardly spared him a glance. "My silence means that I am hungry, Simon."
"A convincing argument. If you happened to actually be eating your meal."
Francesca rather pointedly stabbed her fork into the salmon and took a bite.
Simon sighed. "Do you intend to ignore me forever?"
"Is it an option?" she snapped.
He stared at her for several long moments. "I wanted to tell you, Francesca. But I believed that under the circumstances, letting you find out on your own was far wiser."
She did not even pretend to be unaware of what he was speaking. "How on earth could not telling me possibly be wiser? At least if I had heard it from you, I would not have been so utterly flabbergasted when he first sought me out!"
"What good would telling you have done?" he asked, his voice surprisingly gentle despite the harsh tones of his sister. "Forced you to torture yourself until the moment you finally saw him? These past two weeks would have been miserable if I told you. His return was imminent, but your discomfort did not have to be." Releasing yet another belabored sigh, Simon rose from his vantage point at the head of the table and made his way to Francesca's side, placing one large hand on her shoulder before he continued. "I know how you feel about him, Francesca. I did not wish to see you unhappy. I thought it best to merely…postpone the inevitable."
Miraculously, Francesca's features remained impassive. "How I feel about him?"
Simon's soft chuckle was without humor. "You do not need to lie to me, Francesca. I know you better than you know yourself."
She avoided his gaze. "I do not know what you are talking about."
"You've succeeded brilliantly at picking up the fragments after Adam left," Simon said, silently observing her evasiveness, "Frankly, you have shocked me with your strength. And I am unimaginably proud of the magnificent woman you have become."
"But the remoteness of your spirit often concerns me."
She suddenly felt dreadful.
"That is not to say that you are heartless, Fran," Simon reassured her, noting the stricken expression upon her face. "Merely that there is a wall around you--a hardness I fear no man can penetrate."
She lifted her chin stubbornly. "Do you mean to say that I am insensitive?"
A soft smile touched her brother's lips. "Quite the contrary, love. You are, without a doubt, the most compassionate woman I have ever known. You feel everything--joy, sadness, love. And where Adam is concerned, I fear you feel far too much."
"I feel nothing for him," she said firmly. "Nothing besides contempt for the humiliation he forced upon me."
Simon was so quiet that for several moments, Francesca believed that he had given up. But when he spoke, the low implication of his tone warned her of the deep significance of the conversation that was about to take place. "You remind me of mother sometimes."
At that, Francesca's gaze flew to his. But despite the questions that whispered deep within her, she said not a word.
"She was always so determined to remain strong. After father died, I only saw her cry once." Simon's voice was low, heavy with emotion, "It was as if she regarded tears as a weakness. And she loved us enough that she would not allow us to witness that weakness."
Francesca blinked back tears. "She was wonderful."
"Indeed she was. Much like her daughter."
"And son," Francesca added.
"She was heartbroken after father died," Simon continued, "You were too young to remember, but…it was very difficult for her. They were a love match. And their life together was one that most peers of the realm only dream about."
"But you have that life, Simon," Francesca said gently, "You have that with Anne."
"I do," he conceded with a nod, "Though, it took me a notoriously long while to realize it."
"But you did realize it," Francesca whispered, "And that is all that matters."
Simon smiled. "That's precisely what mother said."
Francesca inhaled sharply, suddenly without words.
She felt Simon's fingers upon her chin then--and the tenderness in which he led her gaze to his nearly undid her. "You are just like her, Francesca. Sometimes, when I look at you, I see her again. She would have been so proud of you--so proud of the woman you've become."
Francesca released a tremulous breath. "But?"
"But she would also be heartbroken to see you so unhappy."
Francesca's voice was hardly a whisper. "I'm not unhappy."
"We both know that is a lie, Francesca," he said soothingly, forcing a sharp breath from her lips. "You have been unhappy since the day that Adam left. And these past three years have not changed that."
She shook her head, hoping that the quick motion would banish his words.
"You love him…"
"No…" She didn't love Adam--she couldn't love Adam! To love him was to trust him. And to trust him…was treacherous. "I don't," she choked out.
Her heart broke anew. "Simon, I--"
"My apologies, my lord," came the voice of Briarley as he made his way into the dining room, interrupting their conversation just as Francesca had been ready to break, "But Miss Kennedy has a caller. The Earl of Raeford." Clearly sensing that he had barged in on something consequential, Briarley glanced between Francesca and Simon wearily, "I could send him away?"
Francesca shook her head, swiftly brushing tears from her eyes before she turned her attention towards Briarley, "No, that will not be necessary." Her conversation with her brother had been a beautiful one--but it was also one that she was secretly overjoyed to end. The feelings that had surfaced at his words were not ones she wished to linger on. "Please inform the Earl that I shall be with him momentarily."
"Very good, ma'am," Briarley said with a quick nod, exiting the dining hall and closing the door behind him.
As soon as it was clear that the siblings were once more alone, Simon found her stare. He had taken a risk in broaching such a grave matter with her. But the emotion that he saw flickering in her eyes led him to believe that his actions had been beneficial. Watching as she rose from her chair and made her way towards the exit, he called out gently: "I only want what's best for you, Francesca."
She paused in her footsteps, her spine straight before she turned towards him with a gentle smile. "I know. And I love you dearly for it."
And as she stepped out of the room, closing the door behind her, Simon smiled in return.
Even though she could not see it.