“No,” her mother said quickly. “That wasn’t what I meant.”
“You should be delighted for them.”
“More delighted for them than you are sorry for me,” Francesca choked out.
“Francesca . . .”
Violet tried to reach for her, but Francesca pulled away. “Promise me,” she said. “You have to promise me that you will always be more happy than you are sorry.”
Violet looked at her helplessly, and Francesca realized that her mother did not know what to say. For her entire life, Violet Bridgerton had been the most sensitive and wonderful of mothers. She always seemed to know what her children needed, exactly when they needed it—whether it was a kind word or a gentle prod, or even a giant proverbial kick in the breeches.
But now, in this moment, Violet was lost. And Francesca was the one who had done it to her.
“I’m sorry, Mother,” she said, the words spilling out. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.”
“No.” Violet rushed forward to embrace her, and this time Francesca did not pull away. “No, darling,” Violet said again, softly stroking her hair. “Don’t say that, please don’t say that.”
She shushed and she crooned, and Francesca let her mother hold her. And when Francesca’s hot, silent tears fell on her mother’s shoulder, neither one of them said a word.
By the time Michael arrived two days later, Francesca had thrown herself into the preparations for little Isabella’s christening, and her conversation with her mother was, if not forgotten, at least not at the forefront of her mind. It wasn’t as if any of this was new, after all. Francesca was just as barren as she’d been every time she came to England to see her family. The only difference this time was that she’d actually talked to someone about it. A little bit.
As much as she was able.
And yet, somehow, something had been lifted from her. When she’d stood there in the hall, her mother’s arms around her, something had poured out from her along with her tears.
And while she still grieved for the babies she would never have, for the first time in a long time, she felt unreservedly happy.
It was strange and wonderful, and she positively refused to question it.
“Aunt Francesca! Aunt Francesca!”
Francesca smiled as she looped her arm through that of her niece. Charlotte was Anthony’s youngest, due to turn eight in a month’s time. “What is it, poppet?”
“Did you see the baby’s dress? It’s so long.”
“Christening dresses are meant to be frilly. Even the boys are covered in lace.”
“It seems a waste,” Charlotte said with a shrug. “Isabella doesn’t know she’s wearing anything so pretty.”
“Ah, but we do.”
Charlotte pondered this for a moment. “But I don’t care, do you?”
Francesca chuckled. “No, I don’t suppose I do. I should love her no matter what she was wearing.”
The two of them continued their stroll through the gardens, picking the grape hyacinths to decorate the chapel. They had nearly filled the basket when they heard the unmistakable sound of a carriage coming down the drive.
“I wonder who it is now,” Charlotte said, rising to her toes as if that might actually help her see the carriage any better.
“I’m not sure,” Francesca replied. Any number of relations were due that afternoon.
“Uncle Michael, maybe.”
Francesca smiled. “I hope so.”
“I adore Uncle Michael,” Charlotte said with a sigh, and Francesca almost laughed, because the look in her niece’s eye was one she’d seen a thousand times before.
Women adored Michael. It seemed even seven-year-old girls were not immune to his charm.
“Well, he is very handsome,” Francesca demurred.
Charlotte shrugged. “I suppose.”
“You suppose?” Francesca replied, trying very hard not to smile.
“I like him because he tosses me in the air when Father isn’t looking.”
“He does like to bend the rules.”
Charlotte grinned. “I know. It’s why I don’t tell Father.”
Francesca had never thought of Anthony as particularly stern, but he had been the head of the family for over twenty years, and she supposed the experience had endowed him with a certain love of order and tidiness.
And it had to be said—he did like to be in charge.
“It shall be our secret,” Francesca said, leaning down to whisper in her niece’s ear. “And anytime you wish to come visit us in Scotland, you may. We bend rules all the time.”
Charlotte’s eyes grew huge. “You do?”
“Sometimes we have breakfast for supper.”
“And we walk in the rain.”
Charlotte shrugged. “Everybody walks in the rain.”
“Yes, I suppose, but sometimes we dance.”
Charlotte stepped back. “May I go back with you now?”
“That’s up to your parents, poppet.” Francesca laughed and reached for Charlotte’s hand. “But we can dance right now.”
“Where everyone can see?”
Francesca looked around. “I don’t see anyone watching. And even if there were, who cares?”
Charlotte’s lips pursed, and Francesca could practically see her mind at work. “Not me!” she announced, and she linked her arm through Francesca’s. Together they did a little jig, followed by a Scottish reel, twisting and twirling until they were both breathless.
“Oh, I wish it would rain!” Charlotte laughed.
“Now what would be the fun in that?” came a new voice.
“Uncle Michael!” Charlotte shrieked, launching herself at him.
“And I am instantly forgotten,” Francesca said with a wry smile.
Michael looked at her warmly over Charlotte’s head. “Not by me,” he murmured.
“Aunt Francesca and I have been dancing,” Charlotte told him.
“I know. I saw you from inside the house. I especially enjoyed the new one.”
“What new one?”
Michael pretended to look confused. “The new dance you were doing.”
“We weren’t doing any new dances,” Charlotte replied, her brows knitting together.
“Then what was that one that involved throwing yourself on the grass?”
Francesca bit her lip to keep from smiling.
“We fell, Uncle Michael.”
“It was a vigorous dance,” Francesca confirmed.
“You must be exceptionally graceful, then, because it looked completely as if you’d done it on purpose.”
“We didn’t! We didn’t!” Charlotte said excitedly. “We really did just fall. By accident!”
“I suppose I will believe you,” he said with a sigh, “but only because I know you are far too trustworthy to lie.”
She looked him in the eye with a melting expression. “I would never lie to you, Uncle Michael,” she said.
He kissed her cheek and set her down. “Your mother says it’s time for dinner.”
“But you just got here!”
“I’m not going anywhere. You need your sustenance after all the dancing.”
“I’m not hungry,” she offered.
“Pity, then,” he said, “because I was going to teach you to waltz this afternoon, and you certainly cannot do that on an empty stomach.”
Charlotte’s eyes grew to near circles. “Really? Father said I cannot learn until I am ten.”
Michael gave her one of those devastating half smiles that still made Francesca tingle. “We don’t have to tell him, do we?”
“Oh, Uncle Michael, I love you,” she said fervently, and then, after one extremely vigorous hug, Charlotte ran off to Aubrey Hall.
r one falls,” Francesca said with a shake of her head, watching her niece dash across the fields.
Michael took her hand and tugged her toward him. “What is that supposed to mean?”
Francesca grinned a little and sighed a little and said, “I would never lie to you.”
He kissed her soundly. “I certainly hope not.”
She looked up into his silvery eyes and let herself ease against the warmth of his body. “It seems no woman is immune.”
“How lucky I am, then, that I fall under the spell of only one.”
“Lucky for me.”