“Less?” Eloise supplied.
Eloise sat up straighter and opened her eyes. “No.”
“Really?” It wasn’t that Francesca didn’t believe her. She loved her nieces and nephews with every breath in her body; she would have laid down her life for any one of them—Oliver and Amanda included—without even a moment’s hesitation. But she hadn’t ever given birth. She had never carried a child in her womb—not for long, anyway—and didn’t know if somehow that made it different. Made it more.
If she had a baby, one of her own, born of her blood and Michael’s, would she suddenly realize that this love she felt now for Charlotte and Oliver and Miles and all the others—Would it suddenly feel like a wisp next to what was in her heart for her own child?
Did it make a difference?
Did she want it to make a difference?
“I thought it would,” Eloise admitted. “Of course I loved Oliver and Amanda long before I had Penelope. How could I not? They are pieces of Phillip. And,” she continued, her face growing thoughtful, as if she had never quite delved into this before, “they are . . . themselves. And I am their mother.”
Francesca smiled wistfully.
“But even so,” Eloise continued, “before I had Penelope, and even when I was carrying her, I thought it would be different.” She paused. “It is different.” She paused again. “But it’s not less. It’s not a question of levels or amounts, or even . . . really . . . the nature of it.” Eloise shrugged. “I can’t explain it.”
Francesca looked back to the game, which had resumed with new intensity. “No,” she said softly, “I think you did.”
There was a long silence, and then Eloise said, “You don’t . . . talk about it much.”
Francesca shook her head gently. “No.”
“Do you want to?”
She thought about that for a moment. “I don’t know.” She turned to her sister. They had been at sixes and sevens for much of their childhood, but in so many ways Eloise was like the other half of her coin. They looked so alike, save for the color of their eyes, and they even shared the same birthday, just one year apart.
Eloise was watching her with a tender curiosity, a sympathy that, just a few weeks ago, would have been heartbreaking. But now it was simply comforting. Francesca didn’t feel pitied, she felt loved.
“I’m happy,” Francesca said. And she was. She really was. For once she didn’t feel that aching emptiness hiding underneath. She’d even forgotten to count. She didn’t know how many days it had been since her last menses, and it felt so bloody good.
“I hate numbers,” she muttered.
“I beg your pardon?”
She bit back a smile. “Nothing.”
The sun, which had been obscured behind a thin layer of cloud, suddenly popped into the open. Eloise shaded her eyes with her hand as she sat back. “Good heavens,” she remarked. “I think Oliver just sat on Miles.”
Francesca laughed, and then, before she even knew what she was about, stood. “Do you think they’ll let me play?”
Eloise looked at her as if she’d gone mad, which, Francesca thought with a shrug, perhaps she had.
Eloise looked at Francesca, and then at the boys, and then back at Francesca. And then she stood. “If you do it, I’ll do it.”
“You can’t do it,” Francesca said. “You’re pregnant.”
“Barely,” Eloise said with a scoff. “Besides, Oliver wouldn’t dare sit on me.” She held out her arm. “Shall we?”
“I believe we shall.” Francesca linked her arm through her sister’s, and together they ran down the hill, shouting like banshees and loving every minute of it.
“I heard you made quite a scene this afternoon,” Michael said, perching on the edge of the bed.
Francesca did not move. Not even an eyelid. “I’m exhausted” was all she said.
He took in the dusty hem of her dress. “And dirty, too.”
“Too tired to wash.”
“Anthony said that Miles said that he was quite impressed. Apparently you throw quite well for a girl.”
“It would have been brilliant,” she replied, “had I been informed that I wasn’t meant to use my hands.”
He chuckled. “What game, exactly, were you playing?”
“I have no idea.” She let out an exhausted little moan. “Would you rub my feet?”
He pushed himself farther onto the bed and slid her dress up to mid-calf. Her feet were filthy. “Good Lord,” he exclaimed. “Did you go barefoot?”
“I couldn’t very well play in my slippers.”
“How did Eloise fare?”
“She, apparently, throws like a boy.”
“I thought you weren’t meant to use your hands.”
At that, she pushed herself indignantly up on her elbows. “I know. It depended on what end of the field one was at. Whoever heard of such a thing.”
He took her foot in his hands, making a mental note to wash them later—his hands that was, she could take care of her own feet. “I had no idea you were so competitive,” he remarked.
“It runs in the family,” she mumbled. “No, no, there. Yes, right there. Harder. Oooooohhhh . . .”
“Why do I feel as if I heard this before,” he mused, “except that I was having much more fun?”
“Just be quiet and keep rubbing my feet.”
“At your service, Your Majesty,” he murmured, smiling when she realized she was perfectly content to be referred to as such. After a minute or two of silence, save for the occasional moan from Francesca, he asked, “How much longer do you wish to stay?”
“Are you eager to return home?”
“I do have matters to attend to,” he replied, “but nothing that cannot wait. I’m rather enjoying your family, actually.”
She quirked a brow—and a smile. “Actually?”
“Indeed. Although it was a bit daunting when your sister beat me at the shooting match.”
“She beats everyone. She always has. Shoot with Gregory next time. He can’t hit a tree.”
Michael moved on to the other foot. Francesca looked so happy and relaxed. Not just now, but at the supper table, and in the drawing room, and when she was chasing her nieces and nephews, and even at night, when he was making love to her in their huge four-poster bed. He was ready to go home, back to Kilmartin, which was ancient and drafty but indelibly theirs. But he’d happily remain here forever, if it meant Francesca would always look like this.
“I think you’re right,” she said.
“Of course,” he replied, “but about what, exactly?”
“It’s time to go home.”
“I didn’t say that it was. I merely inquired as to your intentions.”
“You didn’t have to say it,” she said.
“If you want to stay—”
She shook her head. “I don’t. I want to go home. Our home.” With a stiff groan, she sat up all the way, curling her legs beneath her. “This has been lovely, and I have had such a wonderful time, but I miss Kilmartin.”
“Are you certain?”
“I miss you.”
He lifted his brows. “I’m right here.”
She smiled and leaned forward. “I miss having you to myself.”
“You need only say the word, my lady. Anytime, anywhere. I’ll whisk you off and let you have your way with me.”
She chuckled. “Perhaps right now.”
He thought that was an excellent idea, but chivalry forced him to say, “I thought you were sore.”
“Not that sore. Not if you do all the work.”
“That, my dear, is not a problem.” He pulled his shirt over his head and lay down beside her, giving her a long, delicious kiss. He pulled back with a contented sigh and then just gazed at her. “You’re beautiful,” he whispered. “More than ever.”
She smiled—that lazy, warm smile that meant she’d been recently pleasured, or knew she was about to be.
He loved that smil
He went to work on the buttons at the back of her frock and was halfway down when all of a sudden a thought popped into his head. “Wait,” he said. “Can you?”
“Can I what?”
He stopped, frowning as he tried to count it out in his head. Oughtn’t she be bleeding? “Isn’t it your time?” he asked.
Her lips parted, and she blinked. “No,” she said, sounding a little bit startled—not by his question but by her answer. “No, I’m not.”
He shifted position, moving back a few inches so that he could better see her face. “Do you think . . . ?”
“I don’t know.” She was blinking rapidly now, and he could hear that her breathing had grown more rapid. “I suppose. I could . . .”
He wanted to whoop with joy, but he dared not. Not yet. “When do you think—”