The Second Epilogue
She was counting again.
Counting, always counting.
Seven days since her last menses.
Six until she might be fertile.
Twenty-four to thirty-one until she might expect to bleed again, provided she didn’t conceive.
Which she probably wouldn’t.
It had been three years since she’d married Michael. Three years. She’d suffered through her courses thirty-three times. She’d counted them, of course; made depressing little hatch marks on a piece of paper she kept tucked away in her desk, in the far back corner of the middle drawer, where Michael wouldn’t see.
It would pain him. Not because he wanted a child, which he did, but rather because she wanted one so desperately.
And he wanted it for her. Maybe even more than he wanted one himself.
She tried to hide her sorrow. She tried to smile at the breakfast table and pretend that it didn’t matter that she’d a wad of cloth between her legs, but Michael always saw it in her eyes, and he seemed to hold her closer through the day, kiss her brow more often.
She tried to tell herself that she should count her blessings. And she did. Oh, how she did. Every day. She was Francesca Bridgerton Stirling, Countess of Kilmartin, blessed with two loving families—the one she’d been born into and the one she’d acquired—twice—through marriage.
She had a husband most women only dreamed of. Handsome, funny, intelligent, and as desperately in love with her as she was with him. Michael made her laugh. He made her days a joy and her nights an adventure. She loved to talk with him, to walk with him, to simply sit in the same room with him and steal glances while they were each pretending to read a book.
She was happy. Truly, she was. And if she never had a baby, at least she had this man—this wonderful, marvelous, miraculous man who understood her in a way that left her breathless.
He knew her. He knew every inch of her, and still, he never ceased to amaze and challenge her.
She loved him. With every breath in her body, she loved him.
And most of the time, it was enough. Most of the time, it was more than enough.
But late at night, after he’d fallen asleep, and she still lay awake, curled up against him, she felt an emptiness that she feared neither of them could ever fill. She would touch her abdomen, and there it was, flat as always, mocking her with its refusal to do the one thing she wanted more than anything else.
And that was when she cried.
There had to be a name for it, Michael thought as he stood at his window, watching Francesca disappear over the hillside toward the Kilmartin family plot. There had to be a name for this particular brand of pain, of torture, really. All he wanted in the world was to make her happy. Oh, for certain there were other things—peace, health, prosperity for his tenants, right-minded men in the seat of Prime Minister for the next hundred years. But when all was said and done, what he wanted was Francesca’s happiness.
He loved her. He always had. It was, or at least it should have been, the most uncomplicated thing in the world. He loved her. Period. And he would have moved heaven and earth, if it were only in his power, to make her happy.
Except the one thing she wanted most of all, the one thing she craved so desperately and fought so valiantly to hide her pain about, he could not seem to give her.
And the funny thing was, he was beginning to feel the same pain.
At first, he had felt it just for her. She wanted a child, and therefore he wanted one as well. She wanted to be a mother, and therefore he wanted her to be one. He wanted to see her holding a child, not because it would be his child, but because it would be hers.
He wanted her to have what she desired. And selfishly, he wanted to be the man to give it to her.
But lately, he’d felt the pangs himself. They would visit one of her many brothers or sisters and be immediately surrounded by the next generation of offspring. They would tug on his leg, shriek, “Uncle Michael!” and howl with laughter when he would toss them in the air, always begging for one more minute, one more twirl, one more secret peppermint candy.
The Bridgertons were marvelously fertile. They all seemed to produce exactly the number of offspring they desired. And then perhaps one more, just for good measure.
Five hundred and eighty-four days after her thirty-third menses, Francesca stepped out of the Kilmartin carriage and breathed the fresh, clean air of the Kent countryside. Spring was well under way, and the sun was warm on her cheeks, but when the wind blew, it carried with it the last hints of winter. Francesca didn’t mind, though. She’d always liked the tingle of a cold wind on her skin. It drove Michael mad—he was always complaining that he’d never quite readjusted to life in a cold climate after so many years in India.
She was sorry he had not been able to accompany her on the long ride down from Scotland for the christening of Hyacinth’s baby daughter Isabella. He would be there, of course; she and Michael never missed the christening of any of their nieces and nephews. But affairs in Edinburgh had delayed his arrival. Francesca could have delayed her trip as well, but it had been many months since she had seen her family, and she missed them.
It was funny. When she was younger, she’d always been so eager to get away, to set up her own household, her own identity. But now, as she watched her nieces and nephews grow, she’d found herself visiting more often. She didn’t want to miss the milestones. She had just happened to be visiting when Colin’s daughter Agatha had taken her first steps. It had been breathtaking. And although she had wept quietly in her bed that night, the tears in her eyes as she’d watched Aggie lurch forward and laugh had been ones of pure joy.
If she wasn’t going to be a mother, then by God, at least she would have those moments. She couldn’t bear to think of life without them.
Francesca smiled as she handed her cloak to a footman and walked down the familiar corridors of Aubrey Hall. She’d spent much of her childhood here, and at Bridgerton House in London. Anthony and his wife had made some changes, but much was still just as it had always been. The walls were still painted the same creamy white, with the barest undertone of peach. And the Fragonard her father had bought her mother for her thirtieth birthday still hung over the table just outside the door to the rose salon.
She turned. It was her mother, rising from her seat in the salon.
“How long have you been standing out there?” Violet asked, coming to greet her.
Francesca embraced her mother. “Not long. I was admiring the painting.”
Violet stood beside her and together they regarded the Fragonard. “It’s marvelous, isn’t it?” she murmured, a soft, wistful smile touching her face.
“I love it,” Francesca said. “I always have. It makes me think of Father.”
Violet turned to her in surprise. “It does?”
Francesca could understand her reaction. The painting was of a young woman holding a bouquet of flowers with a note attached. Not a very masculine subject. But she was looking over her shoulder, and her expression was a little bit mischievous, as if, given the correct provocation, she might laugh. Francesca could not remember much of her parents’ relationship; she had been but six at the time of h
er father’s death. But she remembered the laughter. The sound of her father’s deep, rich chuckle—it lived within her.
“I think your marriage must have been like that,” Francesca said, motioning to the painting.
Violet took a half step back and cocked her head to the side. “I think you’re right,” she said, looking rather delighted by the realization. “I never thought of it quite that way.”
“You should take the painting back with you to London,” Francesca said. “It’s yours, isn’t it?”
Violet blushed, and for a brief moment, Francesca saw the young girl she must have been shining out from her eyes. “Yes,” she said, “but it belongs here. This was where he gave it to me. And this”—she motioned to its spot of honor on the wall—“was where we hung it together.”
“You were very happy,” Francesca said. It wasn’t a question, just an observation.
“As are you.”