…a tragedy. Simon and Anne's mother was such a lovely woman. Simon is holding himself together for Francesca's sake, but it is clear to me that he is heartbroken. I hardly remember our mother—but I can imagine that losing a parent is quite difficult indeed. I wish you were here, Adam. Francesca is crushed. And you were always so good at cheering her up.
--Sent By Viscountess Crafton, Lady Anne Kennedy 9 Months After Wedding.
Dark hair the color of a raven’s wing, eyes as piercing blue as the Aegean Sea at midnight, a voice as low and beguiling as the whispers of the Prince of Darkness himself…
Francesca’s heart lurched in her chest as the unbidden image of Adam permeated the quietude of her thoughts, disrupting her slumber for what surely was the hundredth time that night. Beneath the smooth coverlet of her bedding, she shifted restlessly, hoping that the change in position would banish any remembrance of the Duke of Westmonte. But as she buried her face into her cool pillow, the image merely sharpened. With a groan from the pits of her very soul, she threw her legs over the edge of the bed and stood.
Sleep was clearly impossible.
Despite the exhaustion of her body, her mind refused to calm. Adam had quite rudely dominated her thoughts, and it was becoming increasingly obvious that until she managed to think of something—anything—else, she would get nary a wink. And so, with a frustrated sigh, Francesca made her way into the hallways, her eyes seeking the door to the library at the northern end.
Crafton Hall possessed a rather extensive collection of reading material—scientific journals collected by Simon, Greek tragedies brought by Anne, and lurid novels enjoyed by Francesca. There were enough books to entertain a small village, and Francesca was certain that at least one would provide her with the entertainment she desired to force Adam from her mind.
As a pool of light flooded from the closed door of Simon’s study, however, Francesca paused in her quest, her lips pressing together with irritation. It was hours past midnight, and though her brother had a very lovely, very pregnant wife, awaiting him upstairs, he appeared to still be awake. A sigh escaped her lips. Anne might be considerably sporting despite her pregnancy, but that did not mean her husband needed to exhaust himself by staying awake at ungodly hours. Lifting her knuckles to the door, she rapped gently on the surface before stepping inside.
But as dim candlelight flooded her vision, a small gasp escaped her lips. It was not her brother who sat on the small chaise longue in the center of the room, but Adam—his neck oddly contorted as he lay sprawled across the sofa. A soft snore escaped his lips as he lay sleeping, and despite her desire to despise him, her features quirked into a gentle smile. He looked—for a lack of any other expression—perfectly adorable. And as his eyes moved beneath closed lids, she was struck with the sudden yearning to reach forward and run her fingers through his hair.
Even in sleep, he tempted her. He looked like some sort of avenging God—virile, masculine, beautiful. Though slumber held him firmly in it’s grips, Francesca had no doubt that he was just as lethal to her heart as he was when awake. The things he made her feel both terrified and tantalized her. And though she ached for him, she could not trust him.
Moving away from his resting form with a heavy heart, she reached for the doorknob, prepared to leave. But when his voice echoed throughout the closed confines of Simon’s study, she paused: “And here I thought you had come to be my Princess Charming and awake me from my slumber with a tender kiss.” Spine stiffening, her ears perked as he moved into a sitting position on the chaise longue. “Imagine my disappointment.”
Waiting until her composure was firmly intact, she turned to face him, a slight blush coloring her cheeks. “That scenario would only be believable if you weren’t such a scrupulous devil.” She eyed him derisively. “You look more like a wolf than a helpless Prince.”
A slow grin made it’s way across his features. “Would that make you Little Red Riding Hood, then?”
“I don’t know,” she responded. “Do you intend to devour me alive?”
His eyes fell to her lips then, and the sensuousness of his expression left her shivering. When his smoldering gaze met her own, the pure hunger she saw reflected in his arctic optics kindled an answering flame within her. “Would you let me?” he murmured huskily.
Wrapping her arms around her petite form, she forced her desire to a dull roar and speared him with a cool glare. “I’d much rather play the part of the woodcutter and chop you in half.”
Adam chuckled. “You always were a bloodthirsty girl, Francesca.”
“Would you have me any other way?” Wisely stepping around him, she moved towards the desk, her eyes spotting the now empty brandy bottle sitting upon it’s mahogany surface. Her eyes narrowed. “How much have you drunk tonight?”
“Not the whole bottle, I assure you. Your brother joined me for a short while. He helped me finish off what was left.”
“Simon?” she asked, her gaze shooting to his in surprise.
Adam made an elegant gesture with his hand as if to say “who else”.
Francesca cleared her throat. “The two of you have settled your differences then?”
“Yes,” Adam murmured, a strange laugh escaping his lips. “It would appear we have.” Stretching his limbs as if to shake off the last vestiges of sleep, Francesca watched silently as his muscles flexed beneath his cotton shirt. In hindsight, she knew she should leave the room, run away and lock herself in her bedchamber till morning. But whether it was the feral glint in his eyes or the siren lure of his company, she found herself compelled to stay. “So,” he drawled with a smile. “What is it that has you awake at this late hour?”
“I couldn’t sleep,” she answered honestly. “I thought perhaps a book would help clear my head.”
He nodded as if he understood. “Yes, well, you may be right. Though, I suspect a glass of sherry would be better.” Rising from his seat, he moved towards her, his gaze darkening when she took an instinctive step backwards. When her legs crashed into the front of her brother’s desk, Adam’s eyes lit up with amusement. “Why, Miss Kennedy, I do believe you are afraid of me.”
“I’m not afraid of you,” she snapped before she could stop herself.
Moving past her, Adam made his way to the bureau containing Simon’s alcohol. When he removed a crystal glass and a decanter of sherry, he perked a brow at her. “And yet you run from me like a frightened child.” Removing the cap from the bottle, he poured the light liquid into the glass and handed it to her. “What’s the matter, Francesca? Afraid I’ll try to seduce you?”
Pressing the glass of sherry to her bosom, she turned away from him, hoping to evade his perceptive gaze. “Of course not. I merely thought it wise that at least one of us keep our distance. You’re drunk, after all. Lord knows what you are capable of under the influence of alcohol.” When nothing but silence filled the room, Francesca turned to face him, fearing that she had angered him. But when her eyes met his, the hurt she saw there surprised her. Frowning, she took a tentative step towards him. “Adam?”
“I would never hurt you, Francesca,” he said gently, his gaze intense. “I could be thoroughly foxed, and I’d sooner hurt myself than hurt you. I’m incapable of it.”
“I know,” she whispered, biting her lip. “I know that, Adam. I just…” A groan escaped her lips and she moved towards Simon’s desk, setting the glass upon it’s surface before she sighed. When she turned back to face Adam, she found his gaze on her—heavy, intense. Swallowing convulsively, she tried to ignore the quick pulsation of her heart. “I know you would not physically hurt me, Adam. I was just…saying things I didn’t mean.” A sheepish laugh fell from her lips, and she was surprised by the sincerity of the jovial sound. “You seem to bring out the worst in me.”
Adam laughed in return, his eyes suddenly brightening. She thought she saw relief in his stare, but as quickly as it had appeared, it was gone—replaced by his usual seductive charm. “Do I?” he drawled, his voice sardonic, but amused.
A wide smile crossed her features. “Without a doubt. Though I suspect I bring out much the same in you.” When he chuckled low in his throat, she blushed. How easy it was to forget that she was supposed to despise him. Shyly, she averted her gaze and cleared her throat. “We certainly seem to fight quite a bit.”
She could feel his stare upon her flesh. “That we do.”
Biting her lip, her eyes met his. “I wish we didn’t,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper as her fingers tangled together below her breasts. She was fidgeting relentlessly, but as his powerful optics assessed her, she was unable to stop. “I wish I could stop myself from wanting to act out against you, but I can’t.”
“I know,” he said, just as softly, “I deserve that.”
“Whatever transpired between us three years ago… It’s done. It no longer matters. And I know…I know I shouldn’t--” When her voice broke midsentence, she paused, attempting to gather her scattered wits. When she spoke again, her voice was heavy with emotion. “I know I shouldn’t be bitter—but I am.”
“You have every right to be bitter, Francesca. What I did was terrible. I would not blame you if you decided to never stop hating me.”
“I don’t hate you, Adam,” she said, her voice firm. “I tried to. But I couldn’t. I’ve managed quite well at disliking you for the past three years, but despite everything you’ve done, hating you is impossible.” She shrugged her shoulders, the motion surprisingly casual. “I suppose as you are incapable of hurting me, I am incapable of hating you.”
He stared at her. “I am much relieved…”
“As well you should be,” she said, her voice harsher than she had intended. But she did not change her tone. The soothing atmosphere had temporarily softened her. But now that the spell was broken, she refused to fall prey to his charm. “If I were capable of it, you may believe that you would be the subject of my ardent detestation.”
At the sudden shift of her mood, Adam scowled. “So, we’re back to that, are we?”
Francesca feigned ignorance. “Back to what?”
“Back to this,” he snapped, “Back to acting as if I am the villain in some sordid novel.”
“I thought you understood,” she drawled, her words dripping with contempt, “I thought you agreed that what you did was terrible, that you’d understand if I went on hating you forever, that--”
“So, that’s your game?” he cut in, the volume of his voice rising considerably, “Get me to beg like some sort of infatuated fool so you can use it against me? Well, I am sorry to disappoint you, Miss Kennedy, but I am not as easily managed as your precious Earl.”
Her eyes narrowed. “I should have known your apologies would prove to be as false as your intentions were three years ago.”
“Apology?” he sneered, “What apology? As I recall, I didn’t say one word about being remorseful. And why would I? Leaving you at the alter was the smartest thing I ever did. Imagine that—being shackled to you for the rest of my life. I’d sooner die.”
The jolt of pain that cut through her heart at his words was quickly dominated by the red hot rage that exploded in her chest. With a movement inspired by pure instinct alone, Francesca lifted one trembling hand, and slapped him hard across the face.
And as the cold reverberation pervaded the room, they stared at each other in silence, chests heaving with emotions they dared not speak aloud. Adam’s eyes burned with fury, with ire, with molten wrath.
And as a growl emerged from the very depths of his soul, all she could do was stand in stunned silence as his lips crashed down upon hers.
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