“—I’ll know? I don’t know. Maybe—”
“—in a month? Two?”
“Maybe two. Maybe sooner. I don’t know.” Her hand flew to her belly. “It might not take.”
“It might not,” he said carefully.
“But it might.”
He felt laughter bubbling within him, a strange giddiness in his belly, growing and tickling until it burst from his lips.
“We can’t be sure,” she warned, but he could see that she was excited, too.
“No,” he said, but somehow he knew they were.
“I don’t want to get my hopes up.”
“No, no, of course we mustn’t.”
Her eyes grew wide, and she placed both hands on her belly, still absolutely, completely flat.
“Do you feel anything?” he whispered.
She shook her head. “It would be too early, anyway.”
He knew that. He knew that he knew that. He didn’t know why he’d asked.
And then Francesca said the damnedest thing. “But he’s there,” she whispered. “I know it.”
“Frannie . . .” If she was wrong, if her heart was broken again—he just didn’t think he could bear it.
But she was shaking her head. “It’s true,” she said, and she wasn’t insisting. She wasn’t trying to convince him, or even herself. He could hear it in her voice. Somehow she knew.
“Have you been feeling ill?” he asked.
She shook her head.
“Have you— Good God, you shouldn’t have been playing with the boys this afternoon.”
“Eloise can do what she damned well pleases. She isn’t you.”
She smiled. Like a Madonna, she smiled, he would have sworn it. And she said, “I won’t break.”
He remembered when she’d miscarried years ago. It had not been his child, but he had felt her pain, hot and searing, like a fist around his heart. His cousin—her first husband—had been dead a scant few weeks, and they were both reeling from that loss. When she’d lost John’s baby . . .
He didn’t think either one of them could survive another loss like that.
“Francesca,” he said urgently, “you must take care. Please.”
“It won’t happen again,” she said, shaking her head.
“How do you know?”
She gave him a bewildered shrug. “I don’t know. I just do.”
Dear God, he prayed she was not deluding herself. “Do you want to tell your family?” he asked quietly.
She shook her head. “Not yet. Not because I have any fears,” she hastened to add. “I just want—” Her lips pressed together in the most adorably giddy little smile. “I just want it to be mine for a little while. Ours.”
He brought her hand to his lips. “How long is a little while?”
“I’m not sure.” But her eyes were growing crafty. “I’m not quite sure . . .”
One year later . . .
Violet Bridgerton loved all her children equally, but she loved them differently as well. And when it came to missing them, she did so in what she considered a most logical manner. Her heart pined the most for the one she’d seen the least. And that was why, as she waited in the drawing room at Aubrey Hall, waiting for a carriage bearing the Kilmartin crest to roll down the drive, she found herself fidgety and eager, jumping up every five minutes to watch through the window.
“She wrote that they would arrive today,” Kate reassured her.
“I know,” Violet replied with a sheepish smile. “It’s just that I haven’t seen her for an entire year. I know Scotland is far, but I’ve never gone an entire year without seeing one of my children before.”
“Really?” Kate asked. “That’s remarkable.”
“We all have our priorities,” Violet said, deciding there was no point in trying to pretend she wasn’t jumping at the bit. She set down her embroidery and moved to the window, craning her neck when she thought she saw something glinting in the sunlight.
“Even when Colin was traveling so much?” Kate asked.
“The longest he was gone was three hundred and forty-two days,” Violet replied. “When he was traveling in the Mediterranean.”
Violet shrugged. “I can’t help myself. I like to count.” She thought of all the counting she’d done when her children were growing up, making sure she had as many offspring at the end of an outing as she’d had at the beginning. “It helps to keep track of things.”
Kate smiled as she reached down and rocked the cradle at her feet. “I shall never complain about the logistics of managing four.”
Violet crossed the room to peek down at her newest grandchild. Little Mary had been a bit of a surprise, coming so many years after Charlotte. Kate had thought herself done with childbearing, but then, ten months earlier, she’d got out bed, walked calmly to the chamber pot, emptied the contents of her stomach, and announced to Anthony, “I believe we’re expecting again.”
Or so they’d told Violet. She made it a point to stay out of her grown children’s bedrooms except in the case of illness or childbirth.
“I never complained,” Violet said softly. Kate didn’t hear, but Violet hadn’t meant her to. She smiled down at Mary, sleeping sweetly under a purple blanket. “I think your mother would have been delighted,” she said, looking up at Kate.
Kate nodded, her eyes misting over. Her mother—actually her stepmother, but Mary Sheffield had raised her from a little girl—had passed away a month before Kate realized that she was pregnant. “I know it makes no sense,” Kate said, leaning down to examine her child’s face more closely, “but I would swear she looks a bit like her.”
Violet blinked and tilted her head to the side. “I think you’re right.”
“Something about the eyes.”
“No, it’s the nose.”
“Do you think? I rather thought—Oh look!” Kate pointed toward the window. “Is that Francesca?”
Violet straightened and rushed to the window. “It is!” she exclaimed. “Oh, and the sun is shining. I’m going to wait outside.”
With nary a backward glance she grabbed her shawl off a side table and dashed into the hall. It had been so long since she’d seen Frannie, but that wasn’t the only reason she was so eager to see her. Francesca had changed during her last visit, back at Isabella’s christening. It was hard to explain, but Violet had sensed that something had shifted within her.
Of all her children, Francesca had always been the most quiet, the most private. She loved her family, but she also loved being apart from them, forging her own identity, making her own life. It was not surprising that she had never chosen to share her feelings about the most painful corner of her life—her infertility. But last time, even though they had not spoken about it explicitly, something had still passed within them, and Violet had almost felt as if she’d been able to absorb some of her grief.
When Francesca had departed, the clouds behind her eyes had been lifted. Violet didn’t know whether she had finally accepted her fate, or whether she had simply learned how to rejoice in what she had, but Fran
cesca had seemed, for the first time in Violet’s recent memory, unreservedly happy.
Violet ran through the hall—really, at her age!—and pushed open the front door so that she could wait in the drive. Francesca’s carriage was nearly there, starting the final turn so that one of the doors would be facing the house.
Violet could see Michael through the window. He waved. She beamed.
“Oh, I’ve missed you!” she exclaimed, hurrying forward as he hopped down. “You must promise never to wait so long again.”
“As if I could refuse you anything,” he said, leaning down to kiss her cheek. He turned then, holding his arm out to assist Francesca.
Violet embraced her daughter, then stepped back to look at her. Frannie was . . .
She was positively radiant.
“I missed you, Mother,” she said.
Violet would have made a reply, but she found herself unexpectedly choked up. She felt her lips press together, then twitch at the corners as she fought to contain her tears. She didn’t know why she was so emotional. Yes, it had been over a year, but hadn’t she gone three hundred and forty-two days before? This was not so very different.
“I have something for you,” Francesca said, and Violet could have sworn her eyes were glistening, too.
Francesca turned back to the carriage and held out her arms. A maid appeared in the doorway, holding some sort of bundle, which she then handed down to her mistress.
Violet gasped. Dear God, it couldn’t be . . .
“Mother,” Francesca said softly, cradling the precious little bundle, “this is John.”
The tears, which had been waiting patiently in Violet’s eyes, began to roll. “Frannie,” she whispered, taking the baby into her arms, “why didn’t you tell me?”
And Francesca—her maddening, inscrutable third daughter—said, “I don’t know.”
“He’s beautiful,” Violet said, not caring that she’d been kept in the dark. She didn’t care about anything in that moment—nothing but the tiny boy in her arms, gazing up at her with an impossibly wise expression.
“He has your eyes,” Violet said, looking up at Francesca.
Frannie nodded, and her smile was almost silly, as if she couldn’t quite believe it. “I know.”