Who: Francesca and James
When: 861 ROK
Where: Eastern Woods
Francesca bought herself two years more of freedom. First, she had begged Rafael to insist on their previous engagement. It hadn't worked since the Duchesses of the East and West could not be dissuaded, but the inter-family tension Rafael caused delayed the date her wedding to James could be scheduled.
And when it came time, Francesca ran away. She hid with Miguel Gonzalo, who had married a commoner and been ostracized from his family, and returned home with the guards who located her only after the date had passed.
The second time the wedding was scheduled, she feigned an illness.
The third time, she took a potion from a wise woman who gave her an actual illness…
But Francesca knew there would be no delaying anymore. Her mother watched her like a hawk, more than tired of having to compensate for Francesca's obstinance with political legwork, and had even punished her by making her wear this godforsaken green gown. The fabric had a lovely shine to it that glowed in the sunlight, and had it been any other color except the one in the trees around her, Francesca would have adored it. But it seemed to attract more of James' attention than usual, and that made her skin crawl.
The wedding would be in a month's time. Final preparations this week, then she would go home, pack up her life, and return with her trunks of possessions three days prior.
Today, her fresh hell was touring sites for the ceremony. Since this new date would be in the spring rather than the winter as the last time, they would take their vows in the forest, with its flowering trees and singing birds.
Francesca hesitated to take James' offered hand to help her out of the carriage, but there was no way around it, so she tried to make her forced smile as polite as possible as her feet found the forest floor.
"It's too bright here," Francesca said, immediately finding fault as she had done with the last three sites they had tried.
James let a tight smile curl his mouth, an expression of amusement at his fiancee’s complaining. “You’re right, Francesca…. Clearly we must transverse deeper into the forest” he all too readily said in reply. He breathed in the scent of the woods deeply, and turned to grin at his betrothed. “That color is delightful with your skin tone, Francesca. We approve….”
His fingers stroked the hilt of his sword on his other side, and then his hand came up to dismiss his guards to drop further back so they could walk in privacy. James clamped his elbow and her hand to his side, “...However this game you have been playing to avoid our union grows tiresome, and I want my realm”.
Francesca frowned and gave the fabric of her skirt a particularly angry tug away from her feet so she could walk without tripping. Her fiance had grown from a cute boy into a handsome man, especially with his well-muscled physique, and Francesca even liked the roguishness to the style of his casual clothing for the day, but he never gave her much time to forget how frightening he could be. The way he spoke of his armor as if it were its own person always unsettled her, but the way he touched that hilt at the same time he complimented her struck her as vaguely sexual, and she bristled. Was he going to want that creepy monstrosity in their bedchamber with them? And just as her thoughts meandered to the uncomfortable reality that she was going to have to deal with their wedding night in just a month, James drew closer and touched her. She pulled away and cast a glance over her shoulder at the Eastern guards who were falling back. Francesca had tried to find one or two among the ranks who she could entice into looking out for her, but with impressively little success. They were either very loyal, just as sadistic as their lord, or just as scared as she was...
The woods, that smile, that sword - all things he knew she loathed, and when spoke, saw that was all intentional.
Good. It was satisfying to know that she had taken two years of ruling away from him. He was old enough to be Duke already, but his mother didn't have to concede the title yet because it was traditional for that to happen at the same ceremony as the wedding. Francesca wondered if she was just making things worse for herself once she could no longer go home without his permission - her mother's advice not to "make an enemy of her husband" ringing clearly in her head - but the thought of marrying this creature was just so upsetting that she couldn't help doing everything she could to put it off.
"My health is hardly a game, my lord," Francesca said, careful with her words but unwilling to concede that any of this had been intentional. She remembered his threats well, and refused to give him a reason to follow through on them. "Perhaps you should find an Eastern bride who is less sickly. Your children will be healthier for it."
“No, it is not...my lady. But seeking shelter with Gonzalo had nothing to do with issues of health, and I will seek no other” he slowed his pace to reach out gloved fingers to touch a bush just budding flowers in the shade of the trees.
James turned to look upward at a particular tree, “You climbed this one when we were younger...oh, how our mothers fussed at the two of us”. He blinked and pressed his palm against the trunk as if he could absorb the past into himself that way. He turned to a guard and ordered in precise terms, “Have this cut down”.
The woods were quiet, with only the crunching of twigs under their shoes and the chittering of insects. “Why do you persist in prolonging the inevitable, my Francesca?” James asked as they continued through the woods, branches and foliage pulling at the fabric of their clothing as if vying for their attention. The sound of chopping in the distance as a memory was cut down to become nothing more than firewood.
“I will be the Duke of the East…..” James waved his men to enlarge their perimeter and fall back. His words were for his betrothed’s ears only, and it allowed her to speak more freely although he would brook none of her insults. “....the Green Duke”. He smiled in that unpleasant, yet charming way at her, “And you will be my bride”.
Anger flared in Francesca's chest. Her mother couldn't have made up an excuse for her after the guards found her with Miguel? Or had James found out another way? It could have been her brothers; they were James' peers and she had been dumb enough to be grateful for them socializing with James during their time in King's City because it meant she didn't have to. For a self-indulgent moment, Francesca let herself hate her mother and her brothers - and, hell, even her father who wanted her to be a Duchess more than he wanted her to be happy…
Francesca watched with confusion at the tenderness with which he touched the flower, and then the tree. And then she had that odd feeling that maybe this thing that looked like James did remember their childhoods. She looked up at the branches overhead; she didn't recall this tree in particular because they had climbed so many. But the memories of all those days came flooding back with the invitation. James would boost her up when she couldn't reach, comfort her when she fell and scraped her hands, or grab an especially red apple for her when she couldn't reach…
So she was shocked at his order. "What? Why…?" Francesca protested, before she huffed. No reason, probably, except to upset her. She wished it wouldn't work, but it did. Her teeth clenched and her eyes moistened.
With the guards out of earshot and so much vitriol burning in her chest, Francesca answered his question, her voice low but she wouldn't mince words. "Why do I prolong it? Because you killed my fiance and you're wearing his face. You're perverting everything that he was!" Francesca resisted the urge to put her hands on her hips, not wanting to project aggressive body language if the guards could still see them. "You make me sick, and every day I don't have to see that excuse for a smile is a blessing."
He walked with her, more tugging her along now. “Your James was less, you remember a gullible, naive boy. Just as I remember a girl, who was faithful” Castile growled at her. “I cut down the tree because it is false, a lie...like your affections, Francesca”.
His mouth twisted into a grin, “How quickly, my lady, forgot her James once I was entrapped and snared like a rabbit. And now that we have grown teeth and become a wolf, she seeks the company of others….. Tell me, Francesca…. Do you truly remember who I was, or just the dream attached to those memories?”
The more James pulled her, the more Francesca fought back, but it was difficult because they were far enough into the wood that those small leaves and branches would get caught in her hair or on her sleeve and the struggling made it a hundred times worse. "All I have are dreams now, don't I?" she snapped.
His words burned like acid, all the worst things she had expected him to say, if ever they met again. Calling her faithless, regretting the true love she had always known he had for her, implying she had left him to die. I know that if I was the one missing, James wouldn't rest until he'd found me, she had told Rafael, tearfully, the night of their engagement party. She had said it... but still coaxed his golden-skinned hand up her skirt not ten minutes later.
"If you want to call me a whore, you can just do it. I know you're not worried about offending me," Francesca spat. And although this was the part where she ought to defend her honor, she didn't. Her emotions were tumultuous - maybe she knew there would be no end to this cruelty and she was determined to stop letting it get to her, maybe she wanted to hurt him, maybe she just wanted to convince him that she was an unsuitable wife. Maybe she just wanted to surprise that smug grin off his face. "Because you're right. I fucked Rafael before James even disappeared. And when I needed a new husband, I chose Rafael because he was good."
"I loved James because he was a good, worthy man, who made me happy, not because he was the only one who could," Francesca said. James had been a kingdom away for most of her days, and she hadn't been willing to waste her days pining for her visits… but that was a very knightly notion, and she recalled James saying such things to her. Then she paused, and studied the man's strange face. "Is that why you're insisting on marrying me? Do you think, somehow, I'm still your one true love?"
For a moment the noble bared his teeth at her like an angry animal, lips curling back. Clearly her words had some effect on some part of her betrothed. Castile straightened and looked down his nose at Francesca. “No...you are not” he stated coldly. “Love is nothing without love in return. You are a reminder...of when we were less…”
Turning on Rossi he gripped her with both hands around her slim arms and pulled her against his chest. “You are so beautiful, Francesca… you make the sun jealous” he whispered in a breathy sigh near her ear. “Do not think so highly of yourself that we would not take you here and now, if it pleased us…” he grunted out before reaching up to push gloved hands into her hair and clamping down to tangle the golden tresses in his fingers.
James tilted his head at her for a moment, and went dead silent. Something flickering behind those dull eyes, “You were my world, Francesca…. My heart...but now it belongs here”. He untangled his hand, and the longing in his voice flattened back out to a drab monotone. “Do not anger us, my lady. We will be wed, the realm will be mine…. You may fuck whom you please, and perhaps we shall grace you to bear an offspring” he smiled unpleasantly and released her completely.
His breath on her ear, echoing the same words that had made her swoon years ago, effectively dredged up the same longing that she heard somewhere in the back of his voice. And he felt so familiar, smelled so familiar… it isn't him, she reminded herself. She pushed away from him with a snarl, choked sadness mixed with her anger, "Take his words out of your mouth."
She couldn't be surprised, then, when he grabbed her hair and pulled her head back, making her eyes water and drawing a cry from her throat. At first, his threat terrified her and she froze, squeezing her eyes shut as she resolved not to antagonize him… but with fresh anger in her heart, fed by that expression of anger she had managed to elicit, Francesca asked herself why. She wasn't afraid of sex; she had even done it with this body. He disgusted her, but he wasn't disgusting. She dreaded their wedding night because that was when she would no longer be able to say no - but there was power, she knew, in being able to say yes...
Then his words softened again like melting butter, and she thought she finally realized why he spoke of himself in the plural, for the next moment he made an awful comment about children. The thought of procreating also horrified her - but it wasn't time for that yet, and she could trust her potions.
He had a higher status. He was stronger. But he couldn't weaponize this against her. With blue eyes smouldering, her hands tugged at the laces of her dress, and the coldness in her voice rivaled his as she taunted. "I don't know - you can't smile anymore. Maybe you can't fuck, either."
Eyes narrowing he reached for her bodice and pulled her to the ground, his own weight bearing down on top. “No, not like some lovesick boy, my lady” he snapped, teeth clacking at her ear. Castile pulled her hands back and up, “You think you control anything here, in this place? This is my domain, fair Francesca”.
His mouth curled, eyes glittering like a predator. Castile inhaled deeply his eyes half closed, “Say it, my soon to be wife… I know you desire it, tell me how you hate what we are. I shall go easy on you perhaps…” He leaned in and licked her face. “So angry, it would be so much better if you were afraid”. His gloved hands pulled and tugged at her voluminous skirts.
At first, James' weight on top of her was overwhelming - but she knew she just had to hold her breath a moment and he would let up. He wouldn't pin her down too much; he would want to watch her bosom move. He did, and freed her of her top. Branches and rocks prickled at her back, but she paid them no mind; she was glad to see that stupid green fabric in the dirt. "And this domain is mine," Francesca countered, as her heartbeat rose; his sheer masculinity did start an yearning between her legs.
In turn, she grabbed the neck of his tunic and tugged, and it ripped down to his navel. It opened the opportunity for her to run her hand down his nicely-muscled torso… but instead, she shoved her palm on his cheek to to turn it away from her, refusing to indulge his request for her words or her fear. He looked just fine from the neck down....
"I didn't ask you to go easy," Francesca said, sounding somewhat bored even if there was a scowl on it after he licked her face like a dog. Bruises would only work in her favor.
When the chilly forest air hit her bare thighs, her voice was a bit lower, and she ordered, "Take your gloves off."
James grinned, and then he pulled off one glove and dragged the fine leather along her skin. Over her breast, slapping the gauntlet lightly against her flesh like a teasing hint. “We know what would hurt you, dearest Francesca” he said slyly putting a hard emphasis on the C’s in her name. But still he pulled the other glove off, and ran a cold hand against her skin.
“Hmmmmmm….. Lovely” he rumbled out moving his hands to the fastening of his breeches. There was no preamble, or foreplay. Castile simply pushed Francesca’s legs apart with his own, his fingers gripped her legs sure to leave bruises. And he paused…. And cool fingers drifted around to the juncture between her thighs… inquisitive, and then he leered and pressed down hard.
“Interesting, my lady...unexpected…” he smiled, pulling his fingers back and to his mouth.
The emotions that should have accompanied James' attentions were muted by the sensations. She hadn't experimented much with temperatures and she found it strangely exciting. The warm leather brought forward soft gasp, his cold hand a prickling of her skin that sent a shiver through her, goosebumps across her pale skin, and caused her nipple to harden… She ignored his words, and decided to replay the refrain about making the sun jealous in her mind. He sounded like a snake anyway, hissing out her name, and she wanted to hear his voice as much as she wanted to see his face.
When his hands found her legs, Francesca provided no resistance. Her eyes were closed, deliberately, and she hadn't expected him to touch her before he entered her.
Sapphire blue flew open as she arched, first in the surprise pleasure of the touch and then again when it became too severe, just to watch him put that finger in his mouth. In this state, her capacity for pleasure and pain were closely intertwined, and the strange action pushed her toward the edge. With a saucy smile that seemed to be a challenge, her eyes seemed to ask what he was waiting for….
Castile snorted like an animal, and scowled at Francesca. Gripping her legs tightly he pushed up and apart wider than necessary, and unceremoniously thrusted his engorged member into her core. It was more like a rutting beast, except for when he reached a hand for her throat. A grin curled his mouth, there would be bruises and leaving his mark on this fine skin pleased him.
He hammered into her like a ram laying siege to a castle. Castile might as will have been beating Francesca with a metal rod, it would have been just as brutal. There didn’t seem to be any pleasure in him other than trying to hurt her in a mockery of what had once been something special.
Pain ripped through Francesca, and it tore a cry from her lips. She couldn't see any comparison between this man and the boy who had been so considerate, even in his excitement, on that riverbed years ago. He didn't seem concerned about anything except hurting her, and she choked when his hand closed around her throat and her hand lifted to try to wrench it away…
But instead of fear building in response to the pain, Francesca felt hope. She fought him, leaving fingernail scratches on his neck, pushing against his weight holding her down, forcing him to hold her harder, to leave darker bruises. She couldn't control the sounds coming out of her mouth - everything from cries to gasps to curses and also the occasional groan of pleasure. Her body was warming up quickly, and while she wouldn't doubt that some of the moisture between them was actually blood, the stretched feeling of fullness was maddening as always and the power behind his thrusts ensured quick pulses against her most sensitive spot.
But the one noise she did intend to make was a scream, as loud as she could to ensure at least some echoes would make it back toward the guards. "Not even your mother will be able to say you didn't rape me now." And while that would have been overlooked between man and wife, she was still the maiden daughter of a Duke, and after this, she would be covered in dirt and blood and bruises…
“Clever girl….except they are my men, and the forest is fraught with dangers. Maybe I’ll just kill you… save myself the trouble you’re bound to bring” he said thoughtfully, fingers tightening on her neck.
“You think anyone cares if we rape you?” He laughed mirthlessly, “Perhaps you should have been more discreet with your own in discreeeeeh?” Castile’s face went flush and his hand loosened from its death grip.
He leaned in close and breathed out in a ragged whisper that was barely audible. “Frannie...help me…” His eyes flickered with something, “..Find me...save me, Frannie”.Blinking his eyes the light behind them faded, and so did Castile’s venom.
“Insufferable whelp…” the man said at seemingly no one. “... pathetic little rabbit…” And then Castile seemed to focus back on Francesca underneath him. His eyes narrowed and he growled low and deep. Rubbing his chest he looked frustrated.
“Why?” He grunted grinding his hips into her. “What’s so special about you Francesca Rossi?” Castile pushed a hand against her just under her collar bones. Pinning her but no longer choking her. “What is it that makes us spare you?”
Francesca wanted to believe he wouldn't actually kill her - he would be instantly accused if she disappeared with him in the forest after two years of insisting that she was terrified of him, and Duke Rossi was a dangerous man to cross - but logic became impossible when James' grip became tight enough that she couldn't breathe. Her fingers prying at his to release her did nothing. The struggle she was putting up meant her oxygen didn't last long, and her vision began to blur…
It was sickening to think that his climax was the only reason she was alive. She gasped for air as tears fell out of her eyes, and she knew she needed to try to get free but it seemed hopeless. Then, she heard his whisper and she immediately and desperately reacted. "Jamie, Jamie, Jamie," Francesca pleaded. She had no idea what he meant - find him? Help him? "Where are you? Don't leave me alone with him…"
In a flash, the voice was gone and the threat was back, but Francesca had to hold onto hope and so instead of begging for her life, she begged for her James. "Come back, Jamie, please come back."
A hand glided down the side of her face in an almost gentle manner. “The rabbit loves you so much…” Castile purred softly looking down at her. “...little boy lost...looking for his sun in the darkness…” His hand slid down between their legs, stroking her and he leaned, in an almost intimate fashion, close to her face. “He’s why we want you…” Castile smiled at her begging for something that was so near and yet so far away.
“You want the rabbit...your boy...don’t you Francesca Rossi?” he breathed out, as a large, calloused fingers touched her. “He misses you so much, we can feel it… Do as we request and we’ll let him out just to play with you. The good, sweet boy…. “ Castile gave a lazy smile, and said in a tempting tone “...we would give you such pleasure, Francesca Rossi”.
Francesca whimpered softly. He was tying her brain, heart, and body up in knots. One moment his hand was choking the life out of her, the next he was making her squirm in completely the opposite way. She was still crying, but she was listening, trying to decipher his words as if they were another language. And she found herself nodding - if her James, the boy in the trees and the riverbed, was the "rabbit," then she did want him...
James' false voice was making her promises that she didn't understand, but somehow she wanted to believe anyway. This marriage was inevitable, and god knew she couldn't endure this treatment every night. His voice, now soft, made it easy to believe that she could just agree, to be compliant and have her wishes granted. Be a duchess alongside the monster, but have her James to hold her at night?
She found herself clinging, hard, to his broad shoulder, fixated on the sensation between her legs because it was the only one that made sense. Everything else was a mess. She wanted to nod and agree and hope it was true and that she would live through today and maybe find a middle ground between them that she could live with since she couldn't fight the wedding anymore…. But, biting her lip, Francesca insisted. "If you can do that, give him back to me now. Let him tell me."
Castile rolled himself onto his back pulling Francesca on top of him, and as soon as the dirt and grass touched his back he looked disoriented. “Frannie?” a nervous tone croaked out of the man. He looked around with wide eyes, his mouth opened to say something and only a strangled noise came out. “Frannie!” he sobbed out, her name seemed to be the only thing that was allowed to pass from his mouth.
He tilted his head, and touched the bruises left on her skin. Face contorting in guilt and pain, blue eyes blinked up at her. Reaching up with both hands he cupped her face, pulled her to him to kiss her face feverishly. “Frannie” James crooned as he inhaled the scent of her like it was life itself.
Lifting a hand toward his own face he made a claw like gesture. It was still there, the other, the wolf, behind his eyes. She had to be careful.
Francesca found herself on top of James, and the sensation took her back to that riverbed. Without the "wolf’s” mind games, Francesca stopped second-guessing herself. He might have been watching, but if he wasn't intervening, then he was proving that he could be trusted to keep his bargain… so Francesca threw herself on James, as if he was the only thing that kept her heart beating. His kisses on her face were heaven, and her hands found the familiar softness of his hair as she eagerly returned them.
She quickly deduced that he couldn't speak to her, and she frowned, even if the sound of her name in his voice - his authentic voice - felt like water on the lips of a man wandering through the Southern desert. None of this matched what she had read about Changelings, but she could think of no other explanation, and so she ignored all metacognition and focused on the moment…
"I love you," Francesca whispered, breath hot against his ear. "I miss you. I love you, I miss you…" words devolved into groans against skin, as Francesca tried to enjoy every moment of this gift. She pleaded, shifting her weight in turn, "Make love to me, Jamie…"
But they couldn't ignore the elephant in the room and so she murmured. "Jamie - if I should marry him, say my name. If not, say nothing…?"
He held her like it might be the last time, burying his face against her neck. James sighed softly at her words, clearly he had missed her as well. Writhing under her legs, he fitted himself to her… Hands moving up and down her back, as he pulled her to his chest.
His eyes flicked up at hers with the question, and James bit his lower lip. He looked torn, and frightened. “Frannie” he whispered her name, but shook his head. No. Undulating beneath her, he laced their fingers together. He mouthed the words silently, find me.
Francesca moved with him, slowly and purposefully, enjoying every thrust and every caress even though her body hurt like it never had before. She cried freely, finally letting out all the emotion she had to manage, and it was awkward to sob while she kissed him but it was also the most healing thing she could imagine. The way he held her hand was almost more intimate than the rest, and she drew it up to kiss his fingers. They were still cold, but she didn't mind it, now.
His signals confused her, and she blinked through tears and tried to watch his face closely. It was hard, given that she had spent now two years consciously avoiding his face because the expressions there so frequently frightened her. He said her name - so yes, she should marry him? But he was shaking his head, and what words was he mouthing? She recognized them because they were the same ones he had said before.
"Where, Jamie?" Francesca asked. She had read everything she could find about changelings - Francesca had never spent so much time in the library in her life - and most scholars agreed that they were parasites that lived inside the person they replaced. But there were a few who believed the victims were imprisoned somewhere else, usually somewhere far beyond where most Eventyrians dared to venture: an island far out in the Western Ocean, or a cave in the Southern Desert. Or deep in the Eastern Woods, where James had been lost. But that didn't make sense. "Aren't you here? How can I find you if you're here?"
He kissed a bruise on her wrist and nuzzled her skin, needy to remember what had been. James eyes looked at her keenly, and he placed a his fingers at her temple. He grunted softly, pushing up into her. His time was limited, and he was only the beginning of the world tipping in a strange direction. A garbled sound escaped his mouth, as he shuddered with a burst of life and death as he reached his apex. “I love you, Frannie…” he whispered as his eyes grew dull.
"Jamie," Francesca cried out with him, his sincere declaration of love, the look on his face, and the increased pressure sending her over the edge and her muscles spasmed around him as crippling pleasure coursed from her core to every cell in her body…
His hands slid down to sit idly on her thighs, and the frown returned to the Duke’s face.He stared up at her, “He’s here….” Castile said making the same clawing gesture at his face. “...his strength, tenacity, mostly his anger...we tried to rid ourselves of those other parts… the rabbit, but he is a willful creature”.
A hand reached up to caress her shoulder, and then he roughly pushed her off of him. “He permeates us with useless feelings” Castile grunted using his hands to brush dirt from himself before he tilted his head at her, and thrust it out to offer her assistance in standing whether she wanted it or not.
“Don’t defy us, Francesca… and we’ll keep the pretty parts of your James for you. Instead of letting him erode into the dirt and roots, to fade away with time. We only want to steal your dreams, it’s such a small thing”. He smiled in that mirthless way, “No more open defiance, Francesca… we’ll even let you have your way in private, and we’ll let your James out of the cage….”
She could still feel the warmth of that climax when the light faded from his eyes, and she was shoved to the ground, where she laid, limp and still except for the sobbing she couldn't stop. She shook her head at his offered hand, but he pulled her to her feet anyway. Her body tensed, and as she caught her breath, she became more aware of her injuries, the scratches on her back, the bruises, the pain between her legs that she suspected would leave her limping for days. She wanted to pull away, but she didn't, just lowered her head and fought with herself.
Find me. Maybe if she had been a knight, she could have quested into the forest to see if the Changeling had hidden James somewhere there, but she wasn't. But maybe, if she could see her James again, she could get more information, information she could use to do something. So she nodded.
"I'll play the part," Francesca agreed, her voice soft and strained. The weight of the decision crushed her, and she was overwhelmed by the thoughts of what this would require. "Please just… don't smile. I can't bear it."
Pausing Castile nodded his head, “We can do that, my lady”. His expression was solemn, and then as if someone had prodded him… Castile removed his torn tunic top to gallantly cover Rossi’s torn dress. His guards came running up over the hills, the captain shouting “Sir, we heard screaming”.
A strong arm wrapped around Rossi’s shoulders and the Duke lied easily, “Carniflower...it’s been dealt with, but my lady requires rest and a healer”. He lifted Francesca without effort, and carried her back to the coach. Men scurried out of the way, and brought horses about chattering like rabid squirrels. Looks being tossed between soldiers but none dared to contest the story.
Castile climbed in and held Francesca in his arms like a prized possession for the entire ride back. “The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep….” he mumbled and stroked her hair. He look down at her face, and petted her cheek sweetly and said in a soft tone, “We’ll take care of you, Francesca”.
Francesca hid her face against his shoulder, curled up in his arms and hugging herself tightly. When the guard didn't question the carniflower story, she became sure she would find no sympathy among his men and her handmaiden, Flora, would take both Francesca's condition and the men's silence as a signal she wasn't safe herself. She didn't want to think about what would happen when they returned to the estate - it would be messy with their mothers and with the question of pregnancy up in the air, they might be able to downplay the incident but they couldn't ignore it...
It was torture to be stuck in the carriage alone with James, his arms around her, but she didn't dare to pull away or complain. Over time, she stopped crying, but it was replaced by a shiver that she couldn't help, even though she wasn't cold. She turned her face away when he touched her and the chill in his fingers made her shudder, and she was anything but reassured. He could hold her and stroke her hair, but he had just as easily choked her and mused about killing her. Maybe he believed that, even if she didn't, so, resigned, she simply responded, "I suppose we'll see."