“Don’t be. I understand. We all do,” he interrupted quietly. He glanced at the others, who were chatting in subdued tones several feet away. She swallowed down her sudden swell of emotion with effort.
“It just struck me all of the sudden that I’ve never asked you about your mother,” she said in a thick voice, searching his face. When Lucien had broken his life-altering news that he and Ian were half brothers, one result had been Ian’s plunge into darkness. The other, much happier one, was that Helen Noble, who had been Lucien’s mother’s employer for a period of time, had been able to tell Lucien his biological mother’s name and the location of the city where her family resided in Morocco. “Have you found her, Lucien?”
His sudden smile was a familiar flash of brilliance that made her chest ache, but heartened her as well. “Yes. Elise and I located her together last summer. Not only her. My grandmother, my grandfather, an aunt and uncle who both have huge families. My mother never married, so I don’t have any brothers and sisters in Morocco, but I have more cousins than I can count. My mother is well. It was a very . . . special moment, meeting her for the first time. She’s been to visit Elise and me twice already, and we’ve made several trips back.”
She drank in his exultant expression like a much-needed medicine. Yes, she’d been avoiding the pain by shutting herself off from those she cared about, but she’d missed out on some wonderful things in the process as well.
“I’m so happy for you,” she said feelingly. “An entire family—all in one fell swoop.”
“It is pretty amazing,” he agreed.
“You deserve it, Lucien.”
His focus narrowed on her. “Francesca, listen,” he continued in a pressured tone. “I’m at your disposal in regard to this deal. In regard to anything,” he said pointedly, eyebrows arched. “All you have to do is call, and I’ll come by or do whatever you need to make sure you’re comfortable making this decision.”
“Thank you,” she said gratefully. “I definitely will call you after I’ve read over the proposal and contract. I want to hear about these potential risks you spoke of.” She went up on her tiptoes and kissed his cheek. Lucien cupped her shoulder with his hand.
“Are you sure you want to go to Ian’s penthouse?” he murmured, for her ears only.
“No,” she said. “But if I keep running from my past, I’ll never have a future.”
Lucien said nothing, his gray eyes looking concerned in his otherwise somber face.
* * *
Francesca accepted a cup of tea from Mrs. Hanson with a smile and shoved back a mound of papers.
“It’s chamomile. It’ll help you sleep. You look like you could use it. I’ve never seen you so thin, and you look tired,” Mrs. Hanson said, her gaze moving concernedly over her face.
“Thank you. You take such good care of me,” Francesca said, taking a sip of the soothing, hot liquid, hoping to make light of Mrs. Hanson’s maternal worry.
The four of them—Gerard, James, Anne, and she had convened in Ian’s large library-office following dinner in order to get down to work. Anne sat near the fireplace, reading portions of the proposal through a pair of stylish glasses, a knitted afghan spread across her knees. James and Gerard sat at the oval table with Francesca, perusing different portions of the contract and pausing frequently to answer Francesca’s queries. They never once grew impatient with what she suspected were very novicelike questions. Their kind support humbled her.
“We’ve been at it for hours,” Gerard said, leaning his long body back in the chair and accepting the tea from Mrs. Hanson with a gracious thank-you. He checked his watch. “It’s two in the morning. You do look dead on your feet, Francesca. You should rest. We can resume picking this apart in the morning.”
“I am a little sleepy,” Francesca said, rubbing her eyes and feeling the burn. Mrs. Hanson glanced at her hesitantly.
“I had originally thought to put you in the blue room,” the housekeeper said, referring to a guest room with which Francesca was familiar. “But Gerard thought—”
“You’re the rightful mistress of this home, so the master suite is yours,” Gerard interrupted. “I had been staying in it, but I moved everything out earlier, and Mrs. Hanson has readied it for you.”
Anne’s head came around sharply. “I hadn’t realized that,” she called across the room, sounding mildly alarmed. “Gerard, I don’t think that’s a very good idea.”
“No?” Gerard asked, bewildered. He looked at Francesca, realization dawning. “It will only take us a moment to switch. I was only thinking of your comfort. Many of your things are still in there . . .” he faded off.
“Of course you were. Thank you,” Francesca said, giving both Gerard and Anne a reassuring smile. “I’m not that fragile. But I am tired. I’ll say good night.” She stood and went to Anne, kissing her cheek.
She was proud of herself for walking so calmly out of the room.
* * *
She paused in front of the elaborately carved wood door of Ian’s suite, memories assailing her. She could see Ian’s arresting face as he looked down at her, desire gleaming in his eyes, speaking in a hushed tone.
“You’ve never done anything like this before, have you?” he’d asked.
“No,” she replied, equally as anxious as she was excited. “Is that all right with you?”
His mouth had twisted slightly in an expression she’d since identified as irritation at something he considered a personal weakness. “It wasn’t at first. I want you so much, I’ve had to come to terms with your innocence, however.”