Topics

JP: How to Save a Life #francesca #rafael


Manda
 

Who: Francesca and Rafael

When: Early January, 872 RoK

Where: A party in the West → Francesca's home in Lake City


"Here. Have a drink, Raf."


Blinking as his sister appeared at his side, Rafael automatically lifted his hand to take the offered goblet, awkwardly shifting his weight from one foot to the other and resisting the urge to tug at the high collar of his silk doublet. "I don't--" he started, only to have Mariana squeeze his arm.


"I know," she interrupted, and there was sympathy in her tone even as her brown eyes swept the room. "But it will help you to relax, little brother."


"I could have been relaxing at home," he murmured, prompting a chastising glance from Mariana. He pretended not to see it though, hiding his eye roll behind the crystal goblet as he took a sip of the ruby red wine. It was a little sweet for his tastes but not a bad vintage, all in all, and he followed up that first sip with a second.


"Well," Mariana said, linking her arm through his and taking a sip of her own. "I appreciate you making the effort." She turned and peered up at him, her painted lips pulling into a fond smile, "You look handsome tonight."


Rafael's smile was subdued, his eyes drifting away and down at the compliment, but he'd be lying if he said that he didn't appreciate his sister's appreciation. There was little he wouldn't do for her and while killing a man would have been a far preferable favor to grant, there were worst things he could be enduring than a Lord's party in the West.


Leaning in close enough that Rafael could smell the flowers in his sister's hair, Mariana whispered, "Have you seen Francesca tonight?"


Or maybe this was the worst, after all. Rafael's stomach rolled in sudden apprehension and he found his eyes skimming the small sea of faces. "No," he answered. "She's here?"


Mariana nodded, her lips pursed. "She's so very thin now . . ."


At that, Rafael's brow furrowed - mostly in curiosity but also a bit of worry. "Really? How come?"


"No one knows for sure," Mariana indulged, dropping her arm from his to smooth a hand over her rounded middle. "But rumor has it she no longer eats meat."


"That's absurd," Rafael scoffed.


Mariana nodded toward the door, "See for yourself, little brother."


Francesca entered the room escorted on the arm of their host, Lord Rufus of Wadleigh, who jovially announced her presence: "My lady, Duchess Francesca Rossi of the West!" Some toasted, bowed, gave a polite applause… but at least three ladies who were far enough away from the door to dare it muttered "whore" or "witch" under their breaths, faces pinched as if smelling spoiled milk, and excused themselves toward the dining room. Francesca's eyes darted toward the movement, but if anything, it only seemed to light a measure of amusement.


If Francesca's slimmer figure was caused by anything, it certainly was not a lack of prosperity, at least as far as her attire suggested. Her gown was an angelic white with gold, a color rare and unique because it dirtied too easily, her long hair loose and soft instead of like most ladies who braided theirs in a style that could be maintained without washing for quite a while. It was one reason Francesca was so disliked - she had no qualms flaunting wealth while ignoring obvious problems within her power to control.


"Thank you for your hospitality, Lord Rufus," Francesca said, although the peculiar way she looked outward instead of at the one she spoke would suggest it was insincere or perhaps staged to anyone paying close attention. She whispered something lower, with a conspiratorial sort of smile, and then accepted a drink from a servant who approached her with a tray. The Lord moved away then with some urgency, presumably to keep the flow of food and entertainment moving along but perhaps to fulfill whatever errand or request Francesca made so quietly, which freed the Duchess to watch the crowd of her subjects over the rim of her glass.


It had been years since Rafael had laid eyes on Francesca, mostly due to his own penchant for avoiding these sort of get-togethers, but he wasn't surprised to find her as beautiful as she ever was - if, yes, a bit thin. Maybe she had given up eating meat, Rafael silently mused. Maybe anyone would after seeing their loved ones eaten by zombies . . .


"Come on," Mariana idly suggested, slipping her arm through his again. "Let's go and say hello."


Rafael's eyes snapped to his sister but she was tugging him forward, forcing him to either take a step or dig his heels in like a child. "Mari . . ."


"I know, I know," she sighed, her tone taking on a teasing edge. "I'm forcing you to be social . . ."


That wasn't quite it - well, maybe a bit - but mostly it was that things between he and Francesca had ended on a strange note and speaking to her again meant dredging up a lot of old memories that he'd prefer to just leave buried. But there was a difference between what he wanted to do and what he should and facing that history would only help in the long run, or so Scholar Abraham had always said.


They were committed now, anyway, moving through the room with the obvious purpose of greeting the Duchess and, for a moment, Rafael felt like a man walking to the gallows. This wasn't going to be easy . . .


"Duchess Francesca," Mariana greeted with a smile and as much of a curtsy as her very pregnant form would allow. "You're looking well, my lady."


Rafael's smile was polite, if a bit forced, as he delivered a stiff bow and echoed Mariana's greeting with his own, "My lady."


Francesca's gaze lit up when she spotted the friendly faces - well, at least one friendly face in Mariana; her brother still looked sulking - of the Royal General's children. How long had it been since she had seen them? It seemed like a lifetime ago. It basically had been, with how different everything had been those days...


"Thank you, but you!" Francesca gushed cheerfully, skipping the formalities to give the other woman a familiar kiss-kiss on each cheek in greeting. The only girl in a family with three brothers, Francesca had been excited, for that short, short time, of having a sister, even if it was in law only. "You are radiant! How much longer?" Then, lowering her voice in a playful tone and lifting her glass as if to obstruct her voice and cast a flirty glance Rafael's way, "You know they say the best way to induce labor…"


Eyebrows lifting, Rafael didn't intend to meet Francesca's blue gaze and he, perhaps, looked away a little too quickly as he once again hid his expression behind his drink. While he may not have had the slightest interest in hearing about his sister's sex life, Mariana didn't share the same reservations and instead laughed and leaned in close to admit to the Duchess that it works! and that was exactly how she'd managed to spark labor with her first.


Fascinating. Could he leave now?


"It's so wonderful to see you again, my lady," Mariana continued, making a show of looking around the room for her wayward husband. "We'll have to plan a proper visit once this one decides to make an appearance." She patted her belly and then reached out to give Rafael's arm another squeeze. "But I'm sure you and Rafael would like some time to catch up. It's been years!" And with that, Mariana excused herself, leaving Rafael alone with the Duchess. Or, as alone as they could be in a room full of party-goers.


The tip of his tongue slipped out to wet his lower lip and Rafael awkwardly cleared his throat. "You, uh . . . you really do look well, Francesca." He paused. "My lady."


Mariana's hasty departure made Francesca laugh as she wished her farewell. It was no secret that Rafael's mother, and his sister now in her shoes, thought that a relationship - even one of the carnal variety - might help whatever haunted those dark eyes of his. Francesca agreed, and if anyone knew how to wield the healing power of the bedroom, it was her.


So when that tongue darted out and caught her attention, her hand followed, the pad of her thumb gently running over his full lower lip. It might have been unwelcome and intrusive, but no moreso than the Lords who exercised their rights to touch their subjects however they liked; although, perhaps, not always in so crowded a space.


"Come now, Rafael." The touch bid him to meet her eyes, and there he found a strange magnetism that had certainly not always been there. It was as if she intended to look through his eyes, between whatever bars he had constructed to protect himself, and pull his soul out to make love to it. Her smile was just as strange. "We were friends."


They'd been more than friends. They'd been lovers, confidants, sharing a passion for life that had burned bright with the promise of happiness, only to have it snatched cruelly away by three days of darkness. And when it had all fallen apart, they'd drifted apart as a result, until months without seeing each other had turned into years . . .


"It's been a long time, Fra--" Rafael paused as her thumb smoothed over his lip. "My lady." His eyes met hers again, a small crease forming just between his eyebrows as the fine hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. There was conversation all around them, bodies milling this way and that, but all of that fell away and Rafael found his mouth going dry as some instinct tapped lightly against his chest, trying to get his attention.


Francesca had always captivated him but because of the way her nose would wrinkle when she laughed, how her cheeks would flush after too much wine, how his fingertips tickling lightly over her ribs would cause her nipples to tighten. She'd captivated him with every tiny detail that made Francesca who she was, but this . . . this was different and it had him suddenly wary.


Disappointment ghosted across the Duchess's face, but she would not be dissuaded so easily. She withdrew her hand with a brief touch of his jaw - he was older now, but there was a boyishness to his face that made her suspect he would always look younger than he was. Or perhaps, their many memories together meant that she would always see the teenager, no matter how far gone the boy drinking wine and messing around in abandoned manors truly was.


The truth, though, was that she couldn't rightly be anything but My Lady while in a room crowded with her subjects. So she smiled, "Lord Rufus just had a spectacular fountain constructed in his gardens. I am certain he wouldn't mind if we admired it?" Francesca took Rafael's arm, and led the way. The crowd moved to make way for them, and while most succeeded in not staring, there were murmurs hidden behind glasses:


"...the king, and now the general's son…?"


"...engaged, years ago…"


"You're rarely home," Francesca said, when voices fell away and the warm night air welcomed them outside. She meant the statement to be just an observation, but there was undoubtedly a touch of sadness as well. At the beginning of her reign, she had kept an eye out for Rafael, at everything from births to executions, but even at tax time, she had only really ever seen his steward in his place. Rafael had been one of her few personal friends high born enough to be in her circle when she became Duchess, but he hadn't been there. "Where do you spend your days?"


Rafael's stomach flip flopped as he escorted Francesca out into the evening air, casting one last glance toward his sister to find her grabbing her husband's arm and not even trying to hide her excitement as she watched them leave. Mariana was likely to be disappointed though; the Rafael and Francesca ship had sailed long ago, regardless of how many times he'd imagined their reunion.


Because he had imagined it. No matter how much he attempted to avoid his Lordly duties and the nonsense that came along with them, he'd always known that eventually he'd come face to face with Francesca. It had been inevitable and now here they were, walking through a meticulously landscaped garden, arm in arm just like the night of their engagement dinner. That night Francesca had been mourning James and Rafael had been at a loss as to how to comfort her. In the end, he'd found himself with his hands under her dress and her moans in his ear. Somehow he doubted tonight would end the same way.


"I've been traveling," he admitted, vaguely, brown eyes lifting to study her profile. She was still so beautiful he swore it made his heart skip a beat. "I don't like staying in one place too long." It wasn't a lie, not really. Rafael did get restless but it certainly wasn't to see Eventyr's wonders - not that he didn't enjoy the occasional picturesque landscape.


He sighed, then took another swallow of wine and said, "Fran, I'm . . . I'm sorry. For everything."


Traveling, she could read between the lines easily, was a euphemism, and Francesca had to wonder why he wouldn't tell her. The last thing she could envision was Rafael visiting cities around Eventyr for leisure, sampling the food, drink, and women of each region as most other absentee lords with plenty of money and connections usually did. Surely he hadn't taken up piracy, which he wouldn't tell her to avoid being arrested - not that piracy was technically the death sentence anymore, Francesca mused, recalling the uniquely handsome pirate captain who had just brought her an untold treasure. Maybe Rafael had gone Knight Errant; he came from a line of knights, but had never been knighted himself…


But when he spoke, her train of thought paused. She paused in her step, studying his face, and wondered if it wasn't all easier than the conspiracies in her mind. Maybe he just didn't trust her, because of the unresolved tension between them. There was an instinct to offer him blanket forgiveness, as she would certainly have done years ago, in the hope that all that unpleasantness could just be swept under the rug and they could return to where they'd left off. But it wasn't that easy anymore, was it?


(continued)


Manda
 

"What is everything, Hapha?"


Rafael allowed Francesca to drew him to a stop, turning to face her as he did. What was everything? Wasn't it obvious? She was going to make him say it though; make him put words to every moment of shame and inadequacy, of every regret and wish to change the past . . .


It wasn't your fault, what happened to you, Rafael.


But he owed Francesca an apology - a sincere apology - so instead of avoiding the problem, he drew in a deep breath, jaw flexing as he struggled to force those words past his lips. They were there, all of them lined up and ready to file out of his mouth, but speaking them aloud seemed a monumental task and he lifted the wine glass again to down the rest of it in two long gulps. It didn't do much aside from wet his suddenly dry throat, though.


"I'm sorry for . . . shutting you out," he started, his hand sliding down her arm to find her fingers. They could have been amazing, the two of them, and every once in a while Rafael found himself wondering what their future together would have held. How many children would they have had? Would they have been pale and beautiful like Francesca or dark like himself? Would they have settled on an estate near the coast or out in the plains? Would he have gone on to be knighted?


"I'm sorry that I couldn't be what you needed - what you deserved. I'm sorry that I disappointed you, over and over again. I didn't want to, but it was the only thing I could do then." And maybe still now. "You were enough - you were always enough - but I couldn't see it then and I'm sorry for that . . ."


Francesca found herself shaking her head as she listened. It wasn't until hearing his apology that it occurred to her how much she owed him one of her own. Although as Duchess it was not in her vocabulary to apologize to one below her station, her voice held notes of both remorse of her own and forgiveness. "It was profoundly immature of me to expect that you should fulfill my needs." She lifted his hand entwined with her own to her lips and gave it an affectionate peck of a kiss.  "What terrible irony, that a woman's powerlessness then overburdens her men…" After all, she had only demanded more from Rafael than he could give because she had so little determination over her own life. She had needed a savior, and just because she was fond of Rafael, because he was cute and had once been such a fun lover, she had put it on his shoulders.


No wonder he hadn't wanted to see her since.


"What I deserved was to choose my own path," Francesca said, and resumed walking, her attention diverting to the impressive fountain in the center of the garden. Water spouted higher than she was tall - how did they do that...? Almost wistfully, she said, "I have that, now. Maybe it was for the best."


Then Francesca stopped short, missing a step as if she had tripped over something. Confusion crossed her face and her nose scrunched as if she had tasted sour milk. After all the "it" she had just described as "for the best" was her family's awful deaths… Why had she said that?


It was as much of an apology as Rafael knew that he'd get but it was also more than he'd expected; she hadn't done anything wrong but then . . . neither had he. They'd been barely more than children, each struggling with their own personal demons and neither equipped to handle what the other was dealing with. Was the outcome really all that unexpected, when looked at in such a light?


Rafael's eyes went to Francesca's lips as she kissed his fingers, the sensation dredging up memories that both warmed his heart and sparked a coil of arousal low in his belly, despite the chaste nature of the action. It was unexpected and he hesitated, letting her draw a step ahead of him before he followed her toward the fountain.


Her words had his brows lowering, his eyes narrowing, and reached out to catch her elbow as she missed a step. "Fran, what--?" Rafael shook his head, setting his empty glass on the edge of the fountain so he could step in closer and support her with an arm around her waist. Had she meant . . . ? Surely the freedom to make her own choices hadn't been worth the price she'd paid . . .


He brought his other hand up to touch her chin, searching her face as he asked, "You don't mean that . . . do you?"


Francesca rested her hand over Rafael's on her waist, steading herself against his touch as if she had been dizzy, but refused to meet his eyes when he sought them. Instead, she shook her head, mumbled, "No - sorry," and then moved to rest on the fountain's edge. Whatever spell of confusion came over her, it didn't impact her graceful movements, unlike their frequent drunken escapades as children. She swept her long white skirt out before settling down beside Rafael's discarded cup and sipping at her own.  


From the house, out of the door they had just exited, a small man emerged - thin but handsome, with night-black hair, pale skin, clearly Southern but wearing a soldier's uniform of the West. His eyes found Francesca and the urgency of his movements calmed; clearly, he had been looking for the Duchess and, finding her in good hands, he stayed back, standing guard near the door.


"I meant to say, maybe even some good can come of a tragedy," Francesca said, finally able to put her jumbled thoughts into words. She smiled, the confusion washing away from her face, discomfort fading, and her wistful tone returned. "My mother was always an optimist, do you remember?" She clasped Rafael's hand again. "Perhaps seeing you again has made me nostalgic."


Rafael followed Francesca to the fountain, sliding his goblet out of the way so he could sit down beside her. He wanted to reach for her again, out of familiarity and habit, but her words had left him with an uneasy feeling in his gut and instead he found his eyes drawn to the movement by the door. A guard, obviously looking for their Duchess, but there was something about him that had Rafael's hackles rising and he kept a wary eye on the man as Francesca continued, explaining her words.


Rafael wasn't really sold on her view that good things came from tragedies - or rather, he was still waiting for his good thing - but he did remember Francesca's mother and the way she tended to put a positive spin on just about everything. At the time, he'd found it vaguely irritating, but now he'd have given just about anything to have someone redirecting all of his pessimistic thoughts into optimism.


Her hand in his claimed Rafael's attention again and he let his eyes drift down to their entwined digits. Her fingernails were perfect, carefully shaped and polished, her fingers slender and delicate, and he could so clearly remember how very sinful they could be. Rafael wasn't sure if it was simply his own nostalgia romanticising his time with his first lover, or if it had just been far too long since he'd been with a woman, but the thoughts were intrusive enough to have him asking, perhaps a bit suspiciously, "Francesca, are you alright?"


Francesca smiled, a falsely pleasant expression, and said, "Of course I am alright." She assumed his question regarded how she was dealing with the loss of her family - after all, Rafael knew more about trauma than most. That he could be asking after anything else did not occur to her. But while most people would have bought the lie, or at least known better than to question their Duchess a second time, Francesca knew she wouldn't fool Rafael. So she sighed, and confessed, her voice a bit softer, "I have trouble eating. That's the only time it... gets to me." Meat, she could not abide at all, but sometimes even the soft flesh of a fruit could remind her of a zombie's teeth tearing into skin… Once, she had even asked her cook to try liquifying food so she could drink it, but the viscosity bothered her just as much.


Rafael squeezed her hand in understanding and a quick stab of regret came and went at Francesca's confession. Rafael could have helped her. She had lost her family a few years before he'd met Scholar Abraham but he'd been so selfishly wrapped up in his own head and so adamantly avoiding his responsibilities that it had never even occurred to him to reach out to Francesca and suggest she meet with the man. Maybe it would have helped, maybe it wouldn't have, but either way, it was too late now . . .


Her other hand covered his, her milky white skin against his rich brown. "I…" She hesitated, as if unsure whether to speak, but her eyes, too, focused on their hands and she pressed forward. "I understand better now, why you couldn't touch me." Her aversion to food probably did not hold a candle to how he must have felt toward sex. Her family's death had been horrific, but it had not been intentional or malicious. Francesca leaned forward, enough that her long, loose hair fell over her shoulder, as she met his eyes again. "But I cannot starve myself, Hapha… and neither should you."


Rafael went very still at her words, easily picking up on her meaning, and he found himself tempted to follow through with her suggestion. Would it help her? he couldn't help but wonder. Would it help him? He'd missed her and the years hadn't diminished the effect she had on him, that much was clear, and while there was a time that he couldn't abide anyone's hands on him, Rafael had come a long way in that respect.


His eyes drifted past her, to the guard waiting by the door, but the man was hardly a reason to say no. Guards, servants; they all witnessed the choices their nobles made and most kept their mouths shut. At the worst, there would be rumors that he and Francesca had a dalliance in the gardens . . .


But again something prickled at his instincts and Rafael's gaze went back to the Duchess. "What about King Philip?" he asked, curious to hear what she had to say. It wasn't that he cared, since Rafael had quite willingly been the 'other man' while Fran was betrothed to James, but teenaged impulsivity was a different sort of thing than this would be.


"This has nothing to do with King Philip," Francesca assured Rafael, at least doing him the courtesy of not pretending that the affair wasn't real. But her attention was completely with Rafael, her other lovers far from her mind, as she turned her torso toward him. "This is about us." Philip was a helpful political tool, but she actually cared about the boy whose brother had brought him to that abandoned mansion, the boy she had chosen as her second fiance, the boy she had pleaded with to save her from an unconscionable marriage. Despite his own struggles, and the fact that she had always wanted more from him, he had always done his best.


Her voice soft, she whispered, "I miss you, Hapha." She couldn't say, as she wanted to, that she loved him. That wasn't fair, even if it was true. It implied a promise she couldn't keep - she would have no husband, no children, she could not give up her lovers nor settle down. But that did not change the fact that she wanted to reconnect with a boy who had known her before she had been Duchess Rossi, who knew her just as Fran, and maybe help him, now, through what she had not been able to, before. Her hand lifted to cup his cheek, her thumb gently caressing his jawline...


Rafael felt his resolve faltering and almost without thought, his hand came up to twist gentle fingers around the end of a blonde lock, the backs of his knuckles brushing against Francesca's breast as he did. "I miss you, too," he admitted, softly. It wasn't exactly the same - it never would be - but it was all familiar, from the taste of her lips as he leaned in to claim them, to the action of gathering up handfuls of that pristine white dress until he could reach the skin beneath. They'd been here before; they'd done this and he'd been safe. Francesca was safe.


"Here?" he mumbled between eager kisses, idly wondering how they were going to manage, perched on the edge of the fountain as they were. And, being in clear view of the doors, it wouldn't take much for them to be seen but where else could they go? He broke the kiss just long enough to glance around, looking at the garden from a completely different perspective now, and spotted an alcove that lead to another door. It wasn't exactly private, but . . .


Francesca let out quiet moans against his lips, and it was obvious that she was restraining herself because she did not want to overwhelm him, to be too insistent, as she had been years ago. That desire simmered palpably under the surface, and she knew Rafael would see it, but she maintained eye contact better, keenly aware of him. Her hand pressed firmly against his chest, and her breath quickened as he brushed her breast, his hand under her skirt. She was far more discreet than she had been as a girl, the way she scooped up her skirt was expert, the way she caressed his earlobe felt like a kiss even though her face was clearly visible to an onlooker. Her eyes followed his, toward that alcove, as if they were both asking the same question in the same moment. She nodded, rose, and tugged his hand to follow her.


In exactly that moment, Lord Rufus emerged through the door toward his garden, obviously seeking the Duchess. She didn't miss a step, with eyes only for Rafael. Her guard, though, placed a hand on the center of the lord's chest, and met his eyes until the man, suddenly confused, returned inside…


The alcove was dark, but Francesca focused on Rafael's face. She hiked up her skirt and pulled him to her, but her attention was on his golden skin, his warmth clearly drawing her in. "Hapha," she panted, lips on his skin, "I missed you…"


Rafael knew that Francesca was holding back and part of him wanted to tell her not to, because he wanted her to be satisfied, but he also knew that if he gave up control then panic would set in and what they both wanted would never happen. He needed to take it at his own pace - which was currently breakneck.


Now in the semi privacy of the alcove, Rafael pressed eagerly against her, his hands hooking under the backs of her thighs to boost her up and put her back against the rough stone wall. Between his weight pinning her in place and Francesca's hands on his shoulders, he managed to rather awkwardly undo his pants but it was clear in the firm way that he redirected her hands that his clothes were staying on. He had no interest in explaining the scars hidden behind tailored brocade.


The distant noises of the party fell away, replaced by gasps and moans, murmured words of encouragement or direction, and sensual kisses. Gone were the complicated emotions that had tangled up inside Rafael, the messy memories that had kept him from seeking Francesca out sooner, and for once, he allowed himself to simply be present in the moment. He met her eyes, ran fingers through the silk of her hair, breathed in the warm scent of her skin . . .


(continued)


Manda
 

Even though Francesca wanted to stay present in the moment, to make sure Rafael was okay first and foremost, the moment he entered her, all her careful, conscious thinking seemed to fail. She was making more noise than she should have, the party wasn't that far away, but she couldn't help it - his familiar form, his full lips, the scent of him all took her back to simpler, happier days. They couldn't reclaim their childhoods, couldn't undo all the pain they'd had to endure, but they could enjoy this… which Francesca did, rather loudly, clinging to Rafael's shoulders and only regretting that she couldn't feel more of his beautiful, rich skin.


As she caught her breath, Francesca smiled, sparing one hand from around his neck to run her thumb across his lower lip. Of all her now numerous lovers, she swore Rafael had the sexiest lips. "Come home with me tonight," Francesca whispered, searching his eyes, her words a command, but her voice a plea. She didn't want to let this moment go, and her estate in Lake City was only an hour by carriage. Frankly she had little interest in returning to the party where she would no doubt have to spend hours watching people eat. "We can catch up, take our time…" put those lips to good use....


He'd missed her and perhaps that was why, as his breathing began to level out again and his heartbeat slowed, Rafael found himself seriously considering Francesca's invitation. Their relationship had been a tragedy of poor timing and missed opportunities but despite that, there had been no secrets between them, even if those secrets hadn't been spoken outright, and there was a part of him that wanted nothing more than to tell her everything. And maybe it was time to, he silently mused. At the very least, he could answer her question of why he spent so much time away from home . . .


And then he was nodding, his nose brushing hers in something close to a nuzzle and he agreed, "For tonight."


***


"Ohh, this is nice," Francesca sighed, sinking into the steaming bath. Her body ached in all the right ways, but ache it did. Sasha, her servant girl, was (impressively) silent (for once), kneeling beside the sunken bath to carefully pin her lady's long hair up out of the way, then rising to pluck the petals off of a rose, dropping them on the water's surface, which gave the whole room a lovely scent, and then departing to fetch more hot water. The room was gorgeous, built in the latest style, with the walls made with warm stone flecked with gold, the floor made with blue marble, and an expansive window that looked out over the water, creating the unique illusion that you were bathing outside. The window was made of the finest stained glass, with a design that depicted a mermaid - who looked to be modeled after Francesca - singing on the rocks.


"Come and join me, Hapha," Francesca said with a welcoming smile, opening her eyes to look at Rafael, who she hoped was not rethinking his decision to come with her, given the discomfort on his face. "There's plenty of room."


Pulling off his boots, Rafael watched the serving girl disappear from the room, relieved that she hadn't offered to help him undress, and only once they were alone did he turn his full attention to Francesca. Not that he hadn't looked when she'd disrobed - she'd made enough of a show of it, after all - and it hadn't taken much effort to find the familiar lines of her body in her undoubtedly thinner frame. And it was perhaps this visible proof of her trauma, similar yet different than his own, that had him willing to do as she asked.


Just because he was willing though, didn't mean it was easy for him to work free the tiny row of buttons down the center of his doublet, his eyes seemingly everywhere but Francesca. He didn't have to look to know that he had her attention; he could feel the weight of her gaze on him. It had him hesitating to shrug out of the shirt underneath but he'd come too far to stop now. The first reveal would be the worst, he told himself, so he just needed to get it over with.


"That's . . . nice," he said, nodding toward the stained glass window in a lame attempt to focus her attention elsewhere. With a deep, steadying breath, he pulled the shirt off over his head and before he could lose the momentum, his pants followed, and then he was sinking into the warmth of the bath and, finally, lifted his eyes to meet Francesca's . . .


Francesca found herself holding her breath as she watched Rafael undress. The last time she had seen him without his clothes had been prior to his horrific capture. She knew he had scars - the Gonzalo's family healer had told her some about his injuries before she had seen him, just enough to warn her not to touch him and end up hurting him - but she had never seen them. Given how guarded he had been, even now in Lord Rufus's garden he had pushed her hands away from his clothing, she assumed they were bad and she was torn between watching and looking away… but he wasn't looking at her anyway, so she supposed it didn't ultimately make a difference. She did play along when he commented on the window, but her agreement, "It's magnificent," might not entirely have referred to the design.


Instead of speaking, Francesca moved gently through the water and pulled Rafael into a kiss, slow and intimate, a kiss that said everything words couldn't. That she was so sorry that his beautiful skin had ever been marred, that he was still every bit as attractive and worthy as the boy she had met in that abandoned manor, that she still wanted him every bit as much… Her hand started at his jaw but dipped lower as Raphael relaxed, down his neck and to his chest.


The anxiety that had settled into the pit of his stomach slowly eased as Francesca kissed him, her accepting lips chasing the self conscious blush from his cheeks, and Rafael felt himself relaxing into the hot water and Fran's sweet attention. It had been so long since he'd felt bare skin against his own; even his most intimate encounters were always had with clothes as 'in place' as they could be. His hands came up to smooth along her lower back, pulling her closer--


Her hand, though, found a scar that definitely didn't feel years old, and she couldn't help the way she withdrew and blinked down at her fingers. "Hapha, these are new," she said, with concern, and then echoed her first question of the night. "Is this happening while you're away so much?"


And then she was pulling back, just enough to focus on his chest and the row of scars marching down the center of it. At first glance, it was easy to miss the 'seams' on the underside of his arms and the inside of his legs but the ones on his chest continued straight down the center, past his waist, to stop low on his abdomen. And they were hardly the only thing to see, though the water hid the slick burn scars on his thighs and back, and not even the most capable swordsmen walked away from every fight without some damage . . .


Rafael felt his throat go dry at the question but he forced himself to keep his eyes on her, to meet the question head on. "Yes," he answered, though there was so much more to it than that. "They're not--" He paused, trying to find the words to explain and in the end settled for, "I did it. They're from me." And here, his resolve faltered and he let his eyes drift away from her. "It . . . helps."


"What helps?" Francesca asked, still not understanding. She knew that people engaged in all kinds of self-destructive activities to escape or cope. Drinking, smoking, hell, plenty of people would say the same about her many affairs or how she frequently gave herself to vampires. But all of those things took their toll in exchange for pleasure, if temporarily, and Francesca couldn't imagine what pleasure could lie on the other end of these wounds. Their purposeful pattern reminded her of stitches, but there was no underlying incision that implied he had been closing a wound. What was this?


He was averting his eyes again, and so Francesca diffused the pressure for him to look at her by returning to kisses. His cheek, his jaw, his throat, enjoying the taste of his skin with splashes of rose-scented water. She was in no hurry, she didn't push, just whispered soft encouragement, "You can trust me."


I cannot starve myself, Hapha… and neither should you. Had Francesca truly realized just how starved he was when she'd spoken those words? Rafael couldn't help but wonder, as he leaned into her attentions, desperate to devour up every second of affection she bestowed upon him. Because she wasn't pushing him away, but rather pulling him closer, and it was exactly what he needed.


"The needle," he whispered, as if the words were a filthy secret. "Every stitch takes the pain away." He touched the scars on his chest, fingers tracing over the old and familiar bumps and also those that were new from his last shift, fresh and pink. "And once it's done," he continued, and the note of shame in his voice gave way to wistfulness, "there's the hunt . . . and then the kill." He nuzzled his nose along her jaw, catching a drop of water on his lips and then licking it away; a starving man placed before a buffet and he was suddenly ready to gorge himself.


Rafael's hands slid down the curve of Francesca's back again and he turned them both so he could boost her up onto the side of the tub, his hands coming to settle on her thighs. "The best part though," he admitted, enjoying that moment of anticipation hanging in the air between them, "is that, then, I get to do it all over again."


The heat in Rafael's voice was enough to get Francesca's heart rate rising, but it was the playfulness to his words that had a giant smile spreading across her face. This was supposed to be fun and joyful, and to see her old lover cross the threshold back there meant the world to her. The splash as he lifted her out of the water made her laugh, feeling quite a bit like that mermaid on the window, although the mermaid would have a much harder time spreading her thighs…


The suggestion of the pricking of the skin actually held a similarly erotic effect on Francesca. Vampires were so loathed across the kingdom, but she knew how to wield their sensuous magic, and the feeling of fangs sinking into her skin and then deep into her flesh was every bit as hot as Rafael made his needle sound. She actually had a faint scar, just a few inches from Rafael's hand, where her undead partners would feed when they shared her bed. They would spread a drop or two of their blood on the wound when they finished, and so it healed nicely, but it was reopened often enough that it was always there.


Francesca's hand brushed through Rafael's hair. Beyond the bit about needles, though, the rest of his sexy story didn't add up. Needles, hunting, killing, doing it again and again? Doing what? So, with a light flirty tone that made her sound like a teenager again, the way Rafael made her feel, she said, "What in the world are you hunting? Must be something…" She leaned back a bit, placing her leg up on his shoulder, "Exciting."


Rafael wanted to give Francesca what she was clearly asking for, and he would, but the promise of her skin against his was too much to resist at the moment and he leaned in to press one kiss after the next along her ribs, the valley between her breasts, the pale stretch of her belly. His hands guided hers toward his shoulders, a silent request for her to touch him, and then he went straight back to running greedy hands over her body. She was so enthusiastic, with every kiss and caress eliciting a highly motivating response, and he realized - certainly not for the first time tonight - just how much he'd missed her.


"Werewolves," he answered then, hands gripping her hips as he pulled her closer. "Changelings . . ." He nibbled along the junction of thigh and body, working his way closer to where she wanted him. "Vamp--" He blinked and now it was his turn to pull back, eyebrows knitting as he ran the pad of his thumb over the faint white scars high up on the inside of her thigh. It didn't necessarily mean anything though, did it? But, if she'd been fed on, even once, then what had happened to the vampire? It wouldn't have simply let her go . . .


He swallowed, lifting his eyes to her face as he asked, "Fran?"


Francesca's skin tingled with every kiss, and she was fascinated with watching those plump lips press against her skin. But the tease of each one was driving her crazy, which he could tell not just by her gasps and moans but also the pressure of her hand on the back of his head, her fingernails on his scalp. When he paused, he surprised her - she hadn't expected him of all people to comment on one small scar… but if he hunted vampires, he probably knew exactly what that meant.


"That was the last time I used a razor there," Francesca lied, seamlessly. It was a plausible enough deception, given how immaculately groomed the Duchess's nether regions were. The explanation was offered almost lazily as her eyes followed her hands across Rafael's shoulders when he requested, her fingers trailing across the lines of muscle "Now I use hot wax. It's all the fashion at court." Her hand prompted his to the soft bare area and she smiled, "See?"


Her hands dipped down his chest to tease his nipples, and she pressed a kiss to his hairline. "If you know how to kill changelings - I'll give you all of Eventyr if you'll kill James Castile for me…"


Rafael was skeptical and the way his eyes returned to those two little scars even when she was directing him to far more appealing options, made that rather clear. Yet, what she did say wasn't implausible either; leave it to noblewomen to make pubic hair - or lack thereof - a matter of fashion when, as far as he was concerned, it really didn't matter in the least.


With one last critical peek at the scars, Rafael pushed the worry from his mind, focusing instead on putting that hand to use - that was, until she literally asked him to kill the Green Duke for her. His hand stilled, dark eyes rising to meet hers again as he weighed the likelihood of her words being a joke. "Fran . . ."


He sighed, pulling back enough to brace his hands on the tiled floor, one beside each of her hips. "James isn't a changeling," he said. "A year or so back, I was in the East tracking a werewolf and I came across his hunting party. When they camped that night, I got close enough to catch his scent." It had been her worry, confessed to him in the middle of the night nearly twelve years ago, that had driven him to approach rather than keep his distance. Luckily, he'd managed to slink back into the night without catching an arrow.


He shook his head, "Whatever James is, he's not a creature."


This assertion was too much for Francesca's brain, and the look on her face was enough to suggest it would have been preferable that he hadn't told her this. Even the usually insatiable Francesca's hands went slack and she leaned away. The Changeling theory was the only explanation that held her sanity together, after all she had been through - loving her betrothed, mourning his death, understanding his strangeness and cruelty when he turned up out of the deep woods so much later, and the unfathomable loss she'd had to suffer to get away from him.


If he wasn't a Changeling, then every piece of the puzzle became so different that Francesca's worldview couldn't change enough, this quickly, to accept it. All she could do was shake her head and skip to the part that mattered most: "So, you don't know how to kill him, then. I'll have to keep working on that…" The inflection of this seemed more to imply a joke, but she didn't sell it and it was unconvincing. It wasn't as though her hatred for James was a secret from Rafael, nor were the legends that the Green Duke was invincible.

(continued)


Manda
 

Rafael had heard the rumors, of course, that James Castile couldn't be killed but he'd never put much stock in them. Every interaction he'd had with the man, few and far between as they were, had lead to the conclusion that he was just a man - a cruel, hard, man forever changed by his time lost in the Eastern Woods. And who better to relate to such a thing than Rafael? His ordeal may not have made him cruel or unfeeling, but it had damaged him enough that there were times he hardly seemed the same person . . .


No, Rafael was sure that James could be killed but whether he was willing to be the one to do it was an entirely different story. He didn't like the way Francesca's entire bearing had changed with his words though - he'd honestly expected her to be happy that James wasn't a Changeling - and it had him irrationally tempted to agree to the assassination, if only to put that smile back on her face and her hands back on his skin.


"What do you mean, scent?" Francesca asked, her mind struggling with everything he'd said. "Carniflowers have scents, obviously, and zombies stink like hell, but Changelings smell like whoever they replaced." She didn't read much, but she had read almost everything about Changelings and nothing had ever been said about a peculiar smell…


"It's . . . subtle," Rafael said, his eyes going a bit distant as he tried to put it into words. Scents were unique and multifaceted and though he'd only come across two Changelings in the time he'd been hunting, they'd both possessed the same underlying scent beneath the natural scent of the person they were mimicking. It wasn't a scent he was as familiar with as, say, a vampire or a werewolf, but it had been enough to recognize that he'd simply been smelling James.


"A werewolf smells musky. A vampire smells almost . . ." he paused, searching for an adequate word, "ethereal." He shook his head, "But a changeling smells . . . pungent, almost like vinegar. But it's so faint that a human nose could never detect it." His lips quirked into a smile then, a bit smug, "That's how I can hunt them, by smell. I'm cwn annwn - fae hound." He lifted one arm to bare the scars on the underside of his forearm, the inside of his bicep. "And that's what these are from."


The word ethereal brought a small, vague smile back to Francesca's face. She wouldn't have called it a smell, but that word certainly brought Seo-jun to mind. That lent a credibility to Rafael's words that had her paying more attention. She might not have believed him about James, but….


Slowly, Francesca seemed to work past her emotions to understand what Rafael meant. She didn't know those words, cwn annwn, but she put two and two together. He wasn't home because he was traveling Eventyr, using some magic that allowed him to smell creatures and kill them. A magic that required a blood sacrifice, self-mutilation, but gave him power to… smell creatures and kill them.


There was an instinct deep inside Francesca that took over. She knew what Rafael wanted, and how to use it to get what she needed. He wanted to feel her skin on his, and so she sank back into the water with him and pressed the full length of her body against Raphael's. Her hands played up his sides, then down his hips, and her cheek brushed his, then her nose in an intimate nuzzle, then she turned her attention to his earlobe as she whispered, "Do you hunt alone?" A gentle nip and perfect distraction, "Or, do you have a pack?"


The water may have been slowly cooling, but Francesca's skin was hot against his own, and Rafael swore his blood sang with the sensation of her hands traveling across his body. His arm slipped around her waist, holding her there against him and as she leaned in whisper her question, he turned his face into the curve of her neck. She smelled amazing, but he knew that there was so much more to her scent that he was missing without his cwn annwn senses. It was disappointing, but not enough to ruin the moment that he was thoroughly engrossed in.


"Alone," he answered, automatically. "I've never met another cwn annwn." It was a somewhat strange question, he realized after he'd answered, but not if she were worried about his well-being; hunting with others was normally safer, after all.


A smile tugged at the corners of his lips as he kissed his way along the top of her shoulder, warmed by the idea of her being worried about him. "I'm careful, though," he assured her. "If that's why you're asking."


"Yes, that's why I'm asking," she echoed, emptily.


Alone, that was good news. Seo-jun would be glad to hear there was only one threat and glad that she had uncovered this before they could be discovered, Francesca thought, even though the analysis had that peculiar distant quality to it that made her feel removed from her own mind. Her eyes followed her lover's lips across her skin. Rafael had enough status as a lord and the Royal General's son that he would be believed if he spread word about what went on in the Duchess's estate in the West, so he needed to be removed and that would be easy enough if they wouldn't draw the attention of others like him…


Removed? Francesca startled at the sudden clarity of thought, enough that she splashed the water loudly, and the same look of confusion crossed her face as at the fountain when she missed a step. Yes, Seo-jun would need to kill Rafael. For his safety, for hers, for everyone in her home and all their plans. But the idea of Rafael's death was intolerable, and she doubted he would consent to being turned into a vampire if he hated creatures so much that he was spending a life that could have been of privilege and comfort to mutilate himself and hunt them.


So, she realized, she either needed to convince a vampire not to kill a fae-hound, or the fae-hound not to kill the vampire. (Or all the vampires; there were at least five in her house at any given time.) It was an immovable object versus an irresistible force. She needed an escape hatch, and that meant getting Rafael out as soon as possible.


"I need you inside me," Francesca insisted, keeping her eyes closed as she kissed Rafael again. She couldn't bear to look at him, knowing what she would have to do to save his life and how awful it was, considering how far he had come that night…


Rafael had pulled back in confusion as Francesca seemed to startle, not unlike she had back in the gardens at Lord Rufus' estate, and that same look of confusion crossed her features. Again, he steadied her, his arm tightening around her waist but the question of her well-being, which was right on his lips, was quickly kissed away.


He made a noise of agreement in the back of his throat, easily distracted away from his worries by her body pressed firmly against his own and he guided her back toward the edge of the tub to lay her gently beneath him. He was well aware that the tiles weren't likely to be very comfortable under her back but he wasn't intending this to be the rough quickie they'd had earlier. No, he wanted to take his time and savor every second of his time with Francesca, to re-acquaint himself with every inch of her and, maybe, indulge in the fantasy that this could be a new beginning for them. Rafael knew, after all, that if she'd only ask, he'd marry her in an instant . . .


And so he set about reminding her just how special she was, how perfect, with every kiss a tiny prayer breathed against her skin and every touch an unspoken but clearly implied promise of more - as much as she wanted, and for as long as she wanted.


Francesca's eyes squeezed shut tighter, and she worked not to frown. His touch so clearly communicated his adoration that Francesca's heart melted - the way he seemed to pray to her skin made her feel like a goddess, that his caresses were worship. She should have been thrilled, to see her magic work so beautifully to heal a man who'd had this joy robbed of him for so many years. But even if her heart melted, her body couldn't quite with the guilt gnawing at her already.


It hurt her to answer his promise - better than any wedding vow he could have made her - by pushing him to hurry up. The truth was that she couldn't be sure how long Seo-jun would be gone; he'd accompanied her to Lord Rufus' party, which had killed time he would have used when they were home to feed and address business (he knew all that business in the East made her prickle, and so he handled it without her), so she had hope that Rafael had time but she couldn't be sure. His life depended on her, so even though she wanted to feel that love he was offering as well as those gorgeous lips all over her, instead she shifted to open herself up to him and snaked her arm around to give his rear an encouraging squeeze.


Part of the beauty of Francesca's magic was that she could adapt to be whatever her lover preferred - whether that was slow and sensual, playful and kinky, or even terrified and pleading. So it was painful for her to fight against her own power and resist the desire to be the long lost lover rekindling their connection, and to hide that she mourned the same loss of that same fantasy. Her face warred with itself, her lips trembling, her eyes tearing, enough that Francesca had to stop Rafael midway to insist she turn around. She loved being penetrated from behind, though, and it was easier to focus on the pleasure building in her belly when she didn't feel like she was lying to his face. After all, she might have had no choice but to break his heart, but she wasn't going to break his ego while she was at it…


There was a moment just before Francesca initiated the change of position, fleeting as it was, where Rafael's intuition prickled, hinting that something wasn't completely right, but then she was pushing her hips back toward him and he found himself thoroughly distracted by skin he had yet to explore. He ran his hands over her shoulders, traced fingertips down the delicate bumps of her spine, marveled at the soft strands of blonde hair as they trailed through his fingers, and gripped her hips firmly as she came undone in his arms.


And as he followed suit, leaning forward to breath in the scent of her hair and skin, to hold her tight against him and press as much of himself against her back as he could, he realized that he wanted to stay right there. Regret settled in his chest; he never should have called off their engagement. He should have fought for her every second . . .


"Fran," he said softly, the tip of his nose brushing against the back of her shoulder. "I'll stay here with you. We don't have to marry, but I want--" He paused, took a breath, collected himself, "I want to be at your side. Fran, I lo--"


Francesca cut him off with a shake of her head - the rest was enough to choke her throat with the threat of tears, but those words she couldn't bear to hear. Because not only did she need to get him to safety for the night… she needed to make sure he would never try to come back. After tonight, Seo-jun would know what she knew, and Rafael's life would be in enough danger without yearning to return to the lion's den.


(continue)


Manda
 

"I'm a Duchess, Rafael, I don't need a man by my side," Francesca said, and managed to twist her tone so she sounded offended by the suggestion, to put the blame for her displeasure at his feet. It wasn't a hard sell - she knew that most considered her to be a weak leader who would do the West a favor by marrying a man who would be. With a roll of her shoulder, she pushed him away, not daring to look at him before climbing from the tub. She couldn't bear to see the pain on his face and know she had caused it…


A sinking feeling settled in the pit of Rafael's belly, his mouth going dry at her words and the implication there in her tone. He hadn't meant to rule the West; hell, he had no interest in being a Duke. He simply wanted to be there with her, at her side like he should have been for the last twelve years . . .


But she was shrugging him off, putting distance between them when all he wanted was to pull her closer, and there was a tenseness in her body that proved that she was unhappy with him. But why? What had he done? She wouldn't even look at him!


His heart began to pound again and this time it had nothing to do with sex or exertion but rather the anxiety coiling through him like a serpent, whispering poisoned words into his ears. "Fran?" Rafael started, following her out of the tub and very nearly regretting it for how vulnerable he suddenly felt. But no, vulnerability could be good - he remembered Scholar Abraham saying that once - and he fought back the instinct for grab for the nearest towel or his discarded clothing. "Francesca, that wasn't what I meant. I just--" He swallowed, eyebrows knitting over chocolate brown eyes. "I thought you wanted this - me - too . . ."


I want you to be happy, Francesca longed to say. You deserve to be loved, even if I cannot be the focus of your affections. Even if I want to be…


But she couldn't say that because it was too true - he would sense the authenticity of it and it would only make him love her more. She had no choice but to be cruel; his life depended on it, and generic cruelty wouldn't be enough. She had to make it personal. And she had to do it convincingly because the fastest way to get him killed would be to let him start asking questions.


Francesca wrapped herself in a plush robe hanging within arm's reach, her gaze following her hands as she tied the silken belt around her slim waist. "I want your lips, certainly," Francesca said, and psyched herself up to dig her words in like a knife. (No, given his scars she supposed he would prefer a knife…) "And you love to please, which makes you a fun lover…" Grabbing a towel for him and moved in to wrap it around his shoulders. She let a condescending sort of smile pull at her lips as rubbed her nose against his as and cooed, "Aw, Hapha, you've always been such a puppy! Did you not have a good time?"


Completely blindsided by her words, Rafael drew back in offense, moving out of her reach even as he automatically lifted his hand to take the towel. "What?" The word slipped out without him intending it, a vocal confirmation that she'd struck a nerve. Of course he wanted to please her; what sort of lover would he be if he didn't care about his partner's pleasure? But that wasn't quite was she was referring to, he knew.


Ever since that first night in the abandoned manor, Rafael had been enamored with Francesca. His brother, Miguel, had teased him mercilessly, going on about his falling in love with the first girl to touch his penis, but it hadn't been that simple! He and Francesca had a connection, a bond, that went beyond being lovers . . . or so he'd always told himself. The truth was though, that Rafael's desire to please Francesca had gone above and beyond what was really necessary until it had broken them seemingly beyond repair.


It hurt though, that she wasn't taking him seriously - maybe never had? - because how else was he to interpret her words and her condescending tone? He thought of their earlier conversation and he couldn't help but wonder again if he had just been romanticising the past. Everything looked different through naive teenage eyes but could he really be just wildly misremembering?


"No, Francesca," he snapped, grabbing his pants and tugging them on, suddenly unable to abide the feel of her eyes on his skin. "I had a wonderful time." His shirt came next, pulled over his head with rough movements that betrayed his anger and hurt, "But next time you want a 'fun' fuck you can bring someone else home. I'm sure there's plenty willing."


"Yes, but they all want something from me," Francesca said, turning away because the tension in his body and the way he jerked his clothes on was impossible to watch. She moved into the bedchamber and spoke over her shoulder, reinforcing the dismissiveness to her words, and poured herself a cup of a sweet liquor from a crystal bottle. "You just wanted me… it's sweet, if a little much, Hapha."


There, her tone warmed with affection, just a touch, and her eyes flicked back in Rafael's direction. How many such people were there, in all of Eventyr, who would want just her? She was not smart, not strong, and she had abandoned goodness and kindness for its own sake now years ago. Her struggle and grief and then the burden of the duchy had stripped away much of who she had been, and she had filled that emptiness again with sex and schemes, but Rafael either didn't see that or he did, and he understood it. And he still wanted her. It tore her up, but the realization was all the more motivation to make sure he survived. She gulped a mouthful of the liquor to burn the taste of her words out of her mouth, words that strangely echoed a scene from more than a decade ago. That time, Rafael had been trying to free her; now, it was her turn to do the same.


"I don't need you anymore."


Rafael's struggle was clear in the way his mouth opened, closed, then his jaw tensed and his breath stuttered through his nose as his emotions swung wildly from anger to hurt, to disbelief and back again. There were a million things he could say in this moment, but none of them managed to make it past his lips before she landed the killing blow.


I don't need you anymore. The words were like a kick to the chest, knocking the breath straight from his lungs as it all became clear. This was some sort of elaborate way to get back at him; to prove that she hadn't actually understood what he'd been going through and that she certainly hadn't forgiven him. She was intentionally trying to hurt him, the way he'd hurt her all those years ago, and she didn't care how deep she cut.


Hating the way his eyes burned, Rafael managed only a sharp, "Fuck you, Francesca," before the need to escape became overwhelming. His skin was crawling, his stomach cramped with emotion and his chest tight with it; he couldn't breathe . . .


Without bothering to pick up his hastily discarded doublet, or even his belt, Rafael started for the door.


Francesca's eyes squeezed closed and she tried not to flinch, although his words hit her like a blow. At least she knew that she had succeeded; he would keep his distance, now. He wouldn't miss her, wouldn't worry about those little scars he had seen, either…


But when he was about to storm out, she panicked all of the sudden. A shirtless man, handsome and well-muscled, smelling vaguely of sex and roses, with an elevated heart rate even if it was in anger? He was going to attract a ton of attention from the undead in her home. "Wait!" she blurted out, before she had formulated any further ideas. A pale hand plucked up his clothing with a graceful swoop. There was a painful moment while she searched for words, actively working past the apology she wanted to make until she found something cruel enough to accomplish her goal. "Don't be such a child," she chided, then called her guard into the room, knowing too well that the presence of someone else would hurry Rafael to dress. "I'll call you a carriage. Antonio!"


Rafael reached out and snatched the rest of his clothes from Francesca's hand, automatically turning his back to the door as he shrugged into the doublet and began hastily buttoning it. If she wanted to have one of her men escort him out of her home and to a waiting carriage, then he wasn't going to argue, but he couldn't bear being in her presence anymore. He needed to be away from her now.


Buckling his belt around his waist, Rafael paused and lifted his eyes to her face, ignoring the man who stepped through the door. "I wish I hadn't seen you again, Francesca." The words were meant to hurt, yes, but in this moment, they were wholly honest as well. In the span of a heartbeat, his night had gone from magical to downright terrible.


The words were honest and final, and while Francesca felt them dig into her heart, they were exactly what she had been looking for. He wouldn't come back here; he wouldn't wonder if he had misinterpreted what happened tonight. He would keep his distance, and, so, hopefully his life. Knowing her work was done, Francesca turned away, as if just to reclaim her drink but more to hide the tremble in her lip. The sweet burn of a long sip made a fine excuse for the strain in her voice as she spoke over her shoulder. "Antonio, see that my lord makes it safely home."


The words seemed ordinary enough, but the guard's brows rose a bit. That wasn't just a request for a horse or a carriage, and the Duchess usually asked for precisely what she wanted. So if it was the man's safety, then Antonio would take no risks with it, even if he couldn't be sure what exactly was putting that tension in Francesca's shoulders. "My lady," he answered with a bow, and then gestured for Rafael to follow him.


"Goodbye, Hapha," Francesca whispered against the lip of her glass, miserably, as a tear ran down her cheek.


END.