Colin’s head tilted a fraction of an inch to the side, just enough to acknowledge that he’d heard the subtext in Michael’s words. “She might,” he murmured. “In fact, she probably will. Women often do, the first time you ask.”
“And how many times have you proposed marriage?”
Colin smiled slowly. “Just once, actually. This afternoon, as a matter of fact.”
It was the one thing-truly, the only thing-that Colin could have said to completely diffuse Michael’s churning emotions. “I beg your pardon?” Michael asked, his jaw dropping in shock. This was Colin Bridgerton, the eldest of the unmarried Bridgerton brothers. He’d practically created a profession of avoiding marriage.
“Indeed,” Colin said mildly. “Thought it was about time, although I suppose honesty is owed here, so I should probably admit that she did not force me to ask twice. If it makes you feel any better, however, it did take several minutes to wheedle the yes out of her.”
Michael just stared.
“Her first reaction to my query was to fall to the pavement in surprise,” Colin admitted.
Michael fought the impulse to look around to see if he’d somehow been trapped in a theatrical farce without his knowledge. “Er, is she well?” he asked.
“Oh, quite,” Colin said, picking up his drink.
Michael cleared his throat. “Might I inquire as to the identity of the lucky lady?”
The one who doesn’t speak? Michael almost blurted out. Now there was an odd match if ever he’d seen one.
“Now you really look surprised,” Colin said, thankfully with good humor.
“I did not realize you’d hoped to settle down,” Michael hastily improvised.
“Neither did I,” Colin said with a smile. “Funny how that works out.”
Michael opened his mouth to congratulate him, but instead he heard himself asking, “Has anyone told Francesca?”
“I became engaged this afternoon,” Colin reminded him, somewhat bemusedly.
“She’ll want to know.”
“I expect she will. I certainly tormented her enough as a child. I’m sure she will wish to devise some sort of wedding-related torture for me.”
“Someone needs to tell her,” Michael said forcefully, ignoring Colin’s stroll through his childhood memories.
Colin leaned back in his seat with a casual sigh. “I imagine my mother will pen her a note.”
“Your mother will be quite busy. It won’t be the first thing on her agenda.”
“I couldn’t speculate.”
Michael frowned. “Someone should tell her about it.”
“Yes,” Colin said with a smile, “someone should. I’d go myself-It’s been an age since I’ve been up to Scotland. But of course I’m going to be a touch busy here in London, seeing as how I’m getting married. Which is, of course, the entire reason for this discussion, is it not?”
Michael shot him an annoyed glance. He hated that Colin Bridgerton thought he was cleverly manipulating him, but he didn’t see how he could disabuse him of that notion without admitting that he desperately wanted to travel to Scotland to see Francesca.
“When is the wedding to be?” he asked.
“I’m not entirely sure yet,” Colin said. “Soon, I would hope.”
Michael nodded. “Then Francesca will need to be informed right away.”
Colin smiled slowly. “Yes, she will, won’t she?”
“You don’t have to marry her while you’re up there,” Colin said, “just inform her of my impending nuptials.”
Michael revisited his earlier fantasy of strangling Colin Bridgerton and found the image even more tantalizing than before.
“I’ll see you later,” Colin said as Michael headed for the door. “Perhaps a month or so?”
Meaning that he fully expected Michael not to be in London anytime soon.
Michael swore under his breath, but he did nothing to contradict him. He might hate himself for it, but now that he had an excuse to go after Francesca, he couldn’t resist making the trip.
The question was, would he be able to resist her?
And more to the point, did he even want to?
Several days later, Michael was standing at the front door of Kilmartin, his childhood home. It had been years since he’d stood here, more than four, to be precise, and he couldn’t quite halt the catch in his throat when he realized that all of this-the house, the lands, the legacy-was his. Somehow it hadn’t sunk in, perhaps in his brain, but not in his heart.
Springtime didn’t seem to have arrived in the border counties of Scotland yet, and the air, while not biting, held a chill that had him rubbing his gloved hands together. The air was misty and the skies were gray, but there was something in the atmosphere that called to him, reminding his weary soul that this, not London and not India, was home.
But his sense of place was little comfort as he prepared for what lay ahead. It was time to face Francesca.
He had rehearsed this moment a thousand times since his conversation with Colin Bridgerton back in London. What he’d say to her, how he’d make his case. And he rather thought he’d figured it out. Because before he convinced Francesca, he’d had to convince himself.
He was going to marry her.
He’d have to get her to agree, of course; he couldn’t very well force her into marriage. She’d probably come up with countless reasons why it was a mad idea, but in the end, he’d convince her.
They would marry.
It was the one dream he’d never permitted himself to consider.
But the more he thought about it, the more it made sense. Forget that he loved her, forget that he’d loved her for years. She didn’t need to know any of that; telling her would only make her feel awkward and then he’d feel like a fool.
But if he could present it to her in practical terms, explain why it made sense that they marry, he was sure he could warm her to the idea. She might not understand the emotions, not when she didn’t feel them herself, but she had a cool head, and she understood sense.
And now that he’d finally allowed himself to imagine a life with her, he couldn’t let it go. He had to make it happen. He had to.
And it would be good. He might not ever have all of her-her heart, he knew, would never be his-but he’d have most of her, and that would be enough.
It was certainly more than he had now.
And even half of Francesca-Well, that would be ecstasy.
… 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.
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.