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For Michael Stirling, that moment came the first time he laid eyes on Francesca Bridgerton. After a lifetime of chasing women, of smiling slyly as they chased him, . The Duke and I (Bridgerton Series, Book 1) · Read more Bridgerton 04 - Romancing Mr Bridgerton Romancing Mr. Bridgerton (Bridgerton, Book 4). Set between and , the Bridgerton Series is a collection of eight novels, each Julia Quinn - Bridgertons, #4 (Romancing Mister Bridgerton).epub.

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She was, after all, stuck on a roof with a twisted ankle and a mangy cat. Anyone but him. But of course it was him. Because who else would stroll by at her lowest moment, at her most awkward and embarrassing, at the one bloody time she needed rescuing? He put his hands on his hips and squinted up at her.

He did not immediately respond. Instead he removed his tricorn hat, revealing an unpowdered head of thick, tawny brown hair, and regarded her with a steady, assessing gaze. Just a little bit. Until he rescued her, at least. First figuratively, and then literally. Be nice, she reminded herself. Even if it kills you… He smiled blandly. Well, except for that little smirk at the corner. She actually sat on her hands, she was so sure she would not be able to resist the urge to throw herself off the roof in an attempt to strangle him.

Which was really uncomfortable, all things considered. They had a history, they two, and no matter their differences, he was a Rokesby and she was a Bridgerton, and when push came to shove, they might as well be family. Their homes — Crake House for the Rokesbys and Aubrey Hall for the Bridgertons — lay a mere three miles apart in this cozy green corner of Kent. The Bridgertons had been there longer — they had arrived in the early s, when James Bridgerton had been made a viscount and granted land by Henry VIII — but the Rokesbys had outranked them since A particularly enterprising Baron Rokesby so the story went had performed an essential service to Charles II and been named the first Earl of Manston in gratitude.

The details surrounding this elevation of rank had become murky over time, but it was generally accepted that it had involved a stagecoach, a bolt of Turkish silk, and two royal mistresses. Billie could well believe it. Charm was inherited, was it not? George Rokesby might be precisely the sort of stick-in-the-mud one would expect of the heir to an earldom, but his younger brother Andrew possessed the sort of devilish joie de vivre that would have endeared him to a notorious philanderer like Charles II.

The other Rokesby brothers were not quite so roguish although she supposed that Nicholas, at only fourteen, was still honing his skills , but they easily outstripped George in all contests involving charm and amiability. But Billie supposed she could not complain. George was the only available Rokesby at the moment. Edward was off in the colonies, wielding a sword or a pistol, or heaven only knew what, and Nicholas was at Eton, probably also wielding a sword or a pistol although hopefully to considerably less effect.

He could hardly have been helpful. No, it would have to be George, and she was going to have to be civil. She smiled down at him. Well, she stretched her lips. He sighed. Just a little. A minute or so later he came back into view, his arm slung over a ladder that looked like it had last seen use during the Glorious Revolution. The ladder thunked into position, and Billie heard George climbing up. The wood looked somewhat splintered and was emitting ominous creaking noises with every step.

The creaks paused for a moment. She was in trouble, ergo he had no choice. He had to help, no matter how aggravating he found her. And he did. Oh, she knew he did. He had never made any effort to disguise it. Although to be fair, neither had she. His head popped into view, and his Rokesby-blue eyes narrowed.

All the Rokesbys had blue eyes. Every last one of them. The nearest branch was five feet up, and she had not been on the nearest branch. At one point the building must have belonged to a prosperous farmer because it was two full stories high. Which was to say, not at all. Then out. She looked up sharply. The edge of the roof was now even with his hips.

But not before a choked cry of pain tore across her lips. George was off the ladder and on the roof in a second.

He touched it clinically, cupping her heel in one hand as he tested her range of motion with the other. Billie let out a hiss of pain before she could stop herself and nodded. He moved to another spot. Without even thinking, she yanked it back from his hands. Which was a ridiculous thing to say because there was no of course about it. She hated herself right now. He smiled blandly.

Even if that had been her initial impulse. But this… This was beyond the pale. Entirely unacceptable. John, who, damn it all, was more of a brother to him than one of his own could ever have been.

John, whose family had taken him in when his father had died. John, whose father had raised him and taught him to be a man. John, with whom— Ah, bloody hell. Did he really need to do this to himself? And none of it was ever going to change one simple fact.

He could never have Francesca Bridgerton Stirling. But, he thought with a snort as he slouched into the sofa and propped his ankle over his knee, watching them across their drawing room, laughing and smiling, and making nauseating eyes at each other, he could have another drink.

Michael produced an excellent forgery of a smile and lifted his glass aloft. They were at Kilmartin House, in London, as opposed to Kilmartin no House, no Castle, just Kilmartin , up in Scotland, where the boys had grown up, or the other Kilmartin House, in Edinburgh—not a creative soul among his forbearers, Michael had often reflected; there was also a Kilmartin Cottage if one could call twenty-two rooms a cottage , Kilmartin Abbey, and, of course, Kilmartin Hall.

He snorted into his glass of whisky. In fact, he probably would be doing just that if his grandmother had found a way to manage it without actually taking the family into trade. The Queen, Michael thought dispassionately. She would have approved of Francesca Bridgerton. And now Francesca was the Countess of Kilmartin, married to his cousin John, who was one year his junior but in the Stirling household always treated with the deference due the elder; he was the heir, after all.

Francesca turned to Michael, her eyes startlingly blue, even in the candlelight.

Or maybe it was just that he knew how blue they were. He seemed to dream in blue these days. Francesca blue, the color ought to be called. No one ever took him seriously when he smiled like that, which was, of course, the point. But he just shrugged, since he was appallingly good at faking it. Michael was certain of that. When she was feeling sarcastic, or ironic, or sly, it was all there in her voice and the curious tip of her mouth.

She just looked at you with that direct stare, her lips curving ever so slightly, and— Michael swallowed reflexively, then covered it with a sip of his drink. Her lips pursed in a peevish crease. It made him feel frivolous, without substance.

And then he felt even worse, because it was probably true. Besides, what need have I? Michael had been at loose ends since decommissioning from the army several years back. And although John had never said so, Michael knew that he felt guilty for having not fought for England on the Continent, for remaining behind while Michael faced danger alone. But John had been heir to an earldom. He had a duty to marry, be fruitful and multiply. No one had expected him to go to war.

And he rather suspected that Francesca wondered the same. But she would never ask. Francesca understood men with remarkable clarity—probably from growing up with all of those brothers. Francesca knew exactly what not to ask a man.

Which always left Michael a little worried. He thought he hid his feelings well, but what if she knew? She would never speak of it, of course, never even allude to it. He rather suspected they were, ironically, alike that way; if Francesca suspected he was in love with her, she would never alter her manner in any way.

John loves it there. As if he cared to witness their anniversary celebration. Truly, all it would do was remind him of what he could never have. Which would then remind him of the guilt.

Or amplify it. Reminders were rather unnecessary; he lived with it every day. Moses must have forgotten to write that one down. Oh God, she stood, and she was walking to him. This was the worst—when she actually touched him. She laid her hand on his upper arm. Michael did his best not to flinch. She drew back. Not I, not John.

A subtle reminder that they were a unit. John and Francesca. Lord and Lady Kilmartin. But I want you to be happy. Save me. John gave up his pretense of reading and set the paper down. When he sees fit. Good God.

Even the one still in leading strings. His voice was gentle, but his meaning was clear. Michael could have kissed him for his interference. Good God, married to Eloise Bridgerton. Was Francesca trying to kill him? Michael glanced out the window. All vestiges of daylight had left the sky. We shall be perfectly safe. She turned to her husband. What do you say, darling?

Francesca turned to Michael and smiled, worming her way another inch into his heart. His was a life of carefully cultivated dissolution. He knew he should stay away, knew he should never allow himself to be alone in her company.

He would never act upon his desires, but truly, did he really need to subject himself to this sort of agony? Because her presence was all he was ever going to get. There would never be a kiss, never a meaningful glance or touch. There would be no whispered words of love, no moans of passion. All he could have was her smile and her company, and pathetic idiot that he was, he was willing to take it. Unfortunately, it could have been any number of things, all of them deliriously sexual.

And he was likely to spend the next hour cataloguing them all in his mind, imagining them being done to him. He tugged at his cravat. Maybe he could get out of this jaunt with Francesca. Maybe he could go home and draw a cold bath. Or better yet, find himself a willing woman with long chestnut hair. And if he was lucky, blue eyes as well. And of course it was. I can see it in your eyes. John could see it in his eyes.

There was no one in the world who knew him better. If something was bothering him, John would always be able to tell. He took his position in the House of Lords very seriously. Probably not. Michael watched as John rubbed his left temple. Not right. That was all he knew. And he knew John.

Inside and out. Probably better than Francesca did. It makes my mind fuzzy, and I need my wits about me for the meeting with Liverpool. Do you want me to have someone wake you?

But as she reached the bottom, she frowned. John managed a smile. At nine. I told you about it at breakfast, if you recall. They were, as so much of society had commented, like two peas in a pod, mar-velously in accord, and splendidly in love. She took a deep inhale, then let out a sigh.

They always seem to lay me especially low. Here he was, strolling through the night with the woman he loved. Lucky him. Chapter 2 … and if it were as bad as that, I suspect you would not tell me. As for the women, do at least try to make sure they are clean and free of disease. Beyond that, do what you must to make your time bearable. And please, try not to get yourself killed.

It was a funny thing, that. She was not uncomfortable around men; four brothers tended to wring the delicacy out of even the most feminine of creatures. But she was not like her sisters. Daphne and Eloise—and Hyacinth, too, she supposed, although she was still a bit young to know for sure— were so open and sunny.

But she was different. She loved them fiercely, and would have laid down her life for any one of them, but even though she looked like a Bridgerton, on the inside she always felt like a bit of a changeling. Where the rest of her family was outgoing, she was… not shy, precisely, but a bit more reserved, more careful with her words.

It was the way of her family. They laughed, they teased, they bickered. She often wondered if part of her attraction to John had been the simple fact that he removed her from the chaos that was so often the Bridgerton household. She adored him with every last breath in her body. He was her kindred spirit, so like her in so many ways. He understood her, he anticipated her. He completed her.

It had been instant. It had been sudden. And with him had come Michael, his cousin—although truth be told, the two men were much more like brothers. Well, almost everything. John was the heir to an earldom, and Michael was just his cousin, and so it was only natural that the two boys would not be treated quite the same. It was amazing to her.

And it was for that reason that Francesca loved him best. Michael would surely scoff if she tried to praise him for it, and she was quite certain that he would point to his many misdeeds none of which, she feared, were exaggerated to prove that his soul was black and he was a scoundrel through and through—but the truth of the matter was that Michael Stirling possessed a generosity of spirit and a capability for love that was unmatched among men.

Your face is an open book. Sometimes she worried that he understood her as well as John did. She laughed. He could always make her laugh. He turned and gazed down at her with a vaguely paternalistic expression. He should have been a nobleman, Francesca thought. He was far too irresponsible for the duties of a title, but when he looked at a person like that, all superciliousness and certitude, he might as well have been a royal duke.

She could always make him laugh. Something John would not approve of. Not that Michael ever told them much. He was far too discreet for that. But he dropped hints and innuendo, and Francesca and John were always thoroughly entertained. Not this Monday. I walked, I spoke, I ate, but at the end of the day, there was nothing. Even, sometimes, her. It was wicked and devilish, and she understood why half the ton— the female half, that was—fancied themselves in love with him, even with no title or fortune to his name.

The color of the sheets, perhaps? She hated that she blushed, but at least the reaction was covered by the night. Surely there was no woman who could resist him, not with that perfect face and tall, muscular body. And anyone who took the time to explore what was underneath would come to know him as she did—as a kindhearted man, loyal and true. With a hint of the devil, of course, but Francesca supposed that was what would attract the ladies in the first place.

He tilted his head back in the direction of home, and she sighed and turned around. The fresh air did me a great deal of good. She smiled as they ascended the front steps to Kil-martin House. The door opened as their feet touched the top stair—the butler must have been watching for them— and then Michael waited as Francesca was divested of her cloak in the front hall. He glanced at the clock at the end of the hall. Francesca turned to him and inclined her head, indicating that he should proceed.

Bridgerton 01 - The Duke And I

Do you still wish me to wake him? It will be better that way. And then she screamed. Do it for me. Wake him up! The bed was across the room, a good twelve feet away, but he knew. No one knew John as well as he did. No one. He was gone. His limbs felt strange and funny and gruesomely sluggish.

You can do it. And then suddenly the fire left her, and she collapsed in his arms, her tears soaking his shirt. He just had a headache. It was just a headache. And she looked broken. Not John. And as he sat there, dimly aware of the servants gathering just outside the open door, it occurred to him that Francesca was whimpering those very same words.

John had been dead barely a day.

It was still hard to make sense of anything. And now here was this puffy little man, demanding an audience, prattling on about some sacred duty to the crown. Furthermore, if she is pregnant, a member of our committee will need to be present at the birth. I beg your pardon? Lord Winston gasped, drawing back in visible horror.

And he would, he suspected. As soon as Lord Winston left, and Michael could lock the door and make sure that no one could see him, he would probably bury his face in his hands and cry.

Do I make myself clear? Good God, how had it all come to this? He was the picture of health. No one seemed to understand that Michael had never wanted this. He wanted his cousin back. And no one seemed to understand that. And he would never ask her to. Not when she was so wrecked by her own. Michael wrapped his arms against his chest as he thought of her.

John was not sleeping. He was not going to wake up. And Francesca Bridgerton Stirling was, at the tendei age of two and twenty, the saddest thing imaginable. Michael understood her despair better than anyone could ever imagine. The problem was, neither one of them had a clue what those details were. They were young; they had been carefree. They had never thought to deal with death.

Who knew, for example, that the Committee for Privileges would get involved? And demand a box seat at what ought to be a private moment for Francesca? If indeed she was even carrying. It was all he could manage. It seemed so distasteful. How could anyone possibly speak as if something good had come of all this? Michael felt himself sinking down, down, sliding against the wall until he was sitting on the floor, his legs bent in front of him, his head resting on his knees.

Had he? That was all. But not like this. Not at this cost. And guilt was squeezing its merciless fist right around his heart. Had he somehow wished for this? It was Francesca, still wearing that hollow look, her face a blank mask that tore at his heart far more than her wailing sorrow ever could have done. She would be devastated. He understood. He looked up at her.

Her chestnut hair was pulled back into a simple queue, and her face was pale. She looked young, barely out of the schoolroom, certainly too young for this sort of heartbreak. And then she said it. She said it without his having to ask. Truly, I would die without him. Overnight, it seemed, Kilmartin House had become a household of women.

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. 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. 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. He was hurting, too. She knew that. She reminded herself of it when she saw him, and his eyes were distant. And she reminded herself of it when they sat together in the drawing room and had nothing to say.

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. 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 where was Michael? Him, not his 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. They just sat there and looked sad and grief stricken, and when they spoke, there was an awkwardness that had never been there before. It had never occurred to her that her friendship with Michael might be killed off as well.

She did that a lot lately. A trifle more tired than usual, she supposed, but that could be the grief as well. 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.

And most afternoons as well. Janet had told this to her before, several times. Francesca adored her for it, for trying, but she suspected the only thing that would assuage her pain was time.

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Francesca just nodded, afraid that speaking would loosen the tears in her eyes. She wished there was some sign of the baby within. Francesca just stared at her, her lips parting with surprise. And no one knows which he will be. 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.

It was difficult to imagine him marrying. 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. She looked over at Janet. She was looking at her chair. There, in the middle of the cushion, was a small patch of red.

He looked out the window. 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. 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.

She was still there. She was in pain, and she was grieving, and he ought to be comforting her, not lusting after her. What kind of monster would lust after his wife? His pregnant wife. He would not complete the betrayal by taking his place with Francesca as well. And so he stayed away. He did it, though. It was the least he could do for John. And for Francesca. Call him weak, call him shallow. Not just yet, anyway. His valet was at the door, accompanied by a footman dressed in the unmistakable green and gold livery of Kilmartin House.

His mother summoned him to Kilmartin House every other day, it seemed. 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. Francesco has lost the baby. But now that he was here, standing in the hall, he had no idea what to do with himself.

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. Helen nodded. In and out. Maybe for guidance. As if he would know what to do. He wanted to get out. He nodded. There was nothing natural about it. He nodded again. Just once. It was as much of an acknowledgment as he could muster. What can I do?

He sounded like a wounded animal, pained and confused. But there was one thing he knew for certain. Not now. Not yet. Chapter 4 … I am sure it is not worth such high drama. I do not profess to know or understand romantic love between husband and wife, but surely it is not so all-encompassing that the loss of one would destroy the other.

You are stronger than you think, dear sister. You would survive quite handily without him, moot point though it may be. Even the baby—who was to have been the last piece of John Stirling left on earth—was gone. Except Francesca. And Michael intended to keep it that way. He would not—no, he could not offer his cousin that last insult.

Frankly, he was more relieved that she was not injured than he was upset that the baby had been lost. He no longer had energy for that kind of anger, it seemed. But for now, he was content enough in his small suite of apartments. And that was where he was, avoiding his duties, when Francesca finally sought him out. Not when John had been alive, and certainly not after. The unspoken message being: Her being here in his apartments? The circumstances of their position were so odd, so completely out of order that he had no idea which rules of etiquette were currently governing them.

She was too smart for that. But neither could he tell her the truth. Her lips quivered, and then the lower one caught be-tween her teeth. He stared at it, unable to take his eyes off her mouth, hating himself for the rush of longing that swept over him. She just stared at him, condemnation coloring her eyes. You need to talk to a woman. Her eyes flashed with anger. Behind him Francesca just sat quietly, still as death. And they remained thus for several minutes, for far too long, until she could not bear the silence any longer.

What did she want from him? He turned around. What did she want? Just stood there and waited for her to collect her thoughts, which made everything so much harder. And then, to her horror, it spilled out. Across from her, Michael opened his mouth, but only barely, and even then, nothing came out. What did I ever do? But oh, God, how she missed being held.

She was just so sick of being alone. Michael was there, and he was holding her, and she felt warm and safe for the first time in weeks. And she just cried. She cried weeks of tears. But most of all she cried for herself. Her voice was still shaky, but she managed his name, and she knew she was going to have to manage more. His embrace tightened, or maybe it loosened, but something was not quite the same. Or if he did, that he was going to pretend otherwise.

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He went pale, deathly pale. Not the way you did. His eyes flared slightly, and for a moment she could have sworn that he resembled a trapped animal, cornered and terrified, waiting for the finality of the kill. But she did know. She wanted him to grieve as she grieved. She wanted him to hurt in every way she hurt. She looked at him, but she moved her head slowly, scared by what she might see in his face.

He stopped shaking her, but his fingers bit into her shoulders as he stared down at her, his quicksilver eyes afire with something terrifying and sad. His eyes were lost, and he seemed beyond her, unreachable. And then, abruptly, he did as she asked, and he stumbled back, his face a portrait of self-loathing. Scared, but why? Michael would never hurt her. Maybe she was just scared of tomorrow. And the day after that. He just looked at her, his eyes silent in their agreement.

And Francesca left. She walked out the door and out of his house. And then she climbed into her carriage and went home.

She climbed up her stairs and she climbed into her bed. She kept thinking she should, kept feeling like she might like to.

But all she did was stare at the ceiling. Back in his apartments in the Albany, Michael grabbed his bottle of whisky and poured himself a tall glass, even though a glance at the clock revealed the day to be still younger than noon. He knew himself. She had no idea. Because she was going to keep saying tilings like that. And so, as he stood in his study, his body taut with misery and guilt, he realized two things.

The first was easy. But he had to do it. Rarely had the choices in his life been so clear. Painful, but painfully clear. And so he set down his glass, two fingers of the amber liquid remaining, and he walked down the hall to his bedchamber. Not the heat, I should think; no one seems to enjoy the heat. But the rest would enchant you. The colors, the spices, the scent of the air—they can place one in a strange, sensuous haze that is at turns unsettling and intoxicating. Most of all, I think you would enjoy the pleasure gardens.

They are rather like our London parks, except far more green and lush, and full of the most remarkable flowers you have ever seen. You have always loved to be out among nature; this you would adore, I am quite sure of it. But the pang had grown worse, into something more akin to an ache, when her sister Daphne had arrived in Scotland for a visit, all four of her children in tow.

The Hastings children had altered the very essence of Kilmartin, brought to it life and laughter that Francesca realized had been sadly lacking for years.

Just empty. From that moment on, Francesca was different. She saw a nursemaid pushing a pram, and her heart ached. She traveled to Kent to spend Christmas with her family, but when night fell, and all of her nieces and nephews were tucked into bed, she felt too alone. And with it, a small measure of peace. She enjoyed her life as Countess of Kilmartin— Michael had never married, so she retained the duties as well as the title.

It had given her something to do, something to work toward. A reason to stop staring at the ceiling. She had friends, and she had family, both Stirling and Bridgerton, and she had a full life, in Scotland and London, where she spent several months of each year. So she should have been happy. And she was, mostly. She just wanted a baby.

It had taken some time to admit this to herself. But she supposed there were some things a woman simply had to get past, and one cold February day, as she was staring out a window at Kilmartin, watching the snow slowly wrap a shroud around the tree branches, she realized that this was one of them. There were a lot of things in life to be afraid of, but strangeness ought not be among them.

And so she decided to pack her things and head down to London a bit early this year. But this season would be different. She needed a new wardrobe, for one. It was time to wear blue.

Bright, beautiful, cornflower blue. She was an eligible widow, and the rules were different. But the aspirations were the same. She was going to London to find herself a husband.

It had been too long. Michael knew that his return to Britain was well overdue, but it had been one of those things that was appallingly easy to put off. So there was nothing to feel guilty about. But a man could only run from his destiny for so long, and as he marked his third year in the tropics, he had to admit that the novelty of an exotic life had worn off, and to be completely frank, he was growing rather sick of the climate.

For the first time, Michael finally understood why John had been so enamored of his work in the British Parliament. Life-threatening episodes aside, however, his time in India had brought him a certain sense of balance. There was no escaping that. He would have to look into the blue eyes that had haunted him relentlessly and try to be her friend. But maybe now, with the benefit of time and the healing power of distance, he could manage it.

But all the same, he was glad that it would be March when he disembarked in London, too early in the year for Francesca to have arrived for the season. But he was an honest man, too, honest enough to admit that the prospect of facing Francesca was terrifying in a way that no French battlefield or toothy tiger could ever be. Oh, very well, not the dark. Night was night, after all, and she was rather overreaching to think that she had any-thing to do with the sun going down.

All would be better on the morrow, after the housekeeper and butler made a mad dash to the Bond Street shops, but for now Francesca was shivering in her bed. It had been a miserably freezing day, with a blustery wind that made it far colder than was normal for early March. The library. That was it. It was small and cozy, and if Francesca shut the door, a fire in its grate would keep the room nice and toasty. Furthermore, there was a settee on which she could lie.

Her decision made, Francesca leapt out of bed and dashed through the cold night air to her nightrobe, which was lying across the back of a chair. She hurried downstairs, her heavy wool socks slipping and sliding on the polished steps. She tumbled down the last two, thankfully landing on her feet, then ran along the runner carpet to the library.

A short, staccato scream hurled itself across her lips. There was already a fire in the grate, and a man standing in front of it, idly warming his hands. Francesca reached wildly for something—anything— that she might use as a weapon. And then he turned. He might have schooled his features into a saturnine smirk, or at the very least made sure that he was impeccably dressed and wholeheartedly immersed in his role as the unrecoverable rake. But no, there he was, just gaping at her, trying not to notice that she was wearing nothing but a dark crimson nightgown and dressing robe, so thin and sheer that he could see the outline of— He gulped.

Do not look. What are you doing here? It was, and was meant to be, a direct hit. She scowled at him. The motion seemed to embody the image he desperately needed to convey. The letter would have gone out on the same ship I did. I thought the passenger vessels were slower than the ones that take the mail.

And besides, does it really matter? Your mother will be thrilled. But she kept herself somewhat off to the side, maintaining a bit of distance between them. Four years, I believe. It was supposed to be different now. And be friends again.

She smiled in spite of herself. He turned to her then, a wry smile tilting one corner of his mouth. Oh, there were the obvious differences—the ones everyone would notice.

He was tan, quite scandalously so, and his hair, always midnight black, now sported a few odd strands of silver. But there was more. He held his mouth differently, more tightly, if that made any sense, and his smooth, lanky grace seemed to have gone missing. He had always seemed so at ease, so comfortable in his skin, but now he was… taut. With its merely frigid winds, as opposed to the icy ones of winter. Parrish assures me that the house will be restocked tomorrow. She shrugged, then inched a little closer to the fire.

She ought not stand so near to him, but dash it, she was still rather cold, and her thin nightrobe did little to ward off the chill. And he seemed terribly close. Nor did she want to admit the very same thing to herself. He looked at her again, more closely this time.

It was a bit sick of him, but he was rather pleased with himself for having offended her. She was going to have to set the boundaries. There was something different about her, something entirely unexpected. Something that shook him down to his very soul. It was a sense about her—all in his mind, really, but no less devastating. There was an air of availability, a horrible, torturous knowledge that John was gone, really, truly gon2, and the only thing stopping Michael from reaching out and touching her was his own conscience.

It was almost funny. And there she was, still without a clue, still completely unaware that the man standing next to her wanted nothing so much than to peel every layer of silk from her body and lay her down in front of the fire.

He wanted to nudge her thighs apart, sink himself into her, and— He laughed grimly. Four years, it seemed, had done little to cool his inappropriate ardor. He shrugged. Not in any of the ways that might have made his life easier to bear.

She used to do this all the time—touch his arm in friendship.

When He Was Wicked (Bridgerton Series, Book 06)

Never in public, of course, and rarely even when it had just been the two of them. John would have been there; John was always there. And it had always—always—shaken him.

But never so much as now. She withdrew her hand. You should take mine. Besides, ringing the bell would mean that a servant would arrive within minutes, which would mean that he would no longer be standing here alone with Francesca.

BRYANNA from New York
I do relish reading books softly. Browse my other posts. I'm keen on hapsagai.