“Thomas? Is that really you?”
In fact, it was. Thomas had not yet cleared his solicitor’s office doorway before the stunning redhead nearly launched herself at him from across the well-appointed lobby.
“You are addressing the Earl of Harrington, miss.” The solicitor was a stuffy blowhard, as all good solicitors surely must be.
“I know exactly who he is,” the redhead declared. She beamed at him from less than an arm’s length away.
Thomas opened his mouth to say he was sorry he couldn’t say the same for her, though he would be more than pleased to make her acquaintance, when her identity struck him like a lightning bolt. “Frankie? Oh my God.”
“How long have you been back?” She smiled at him, all teeth and perfect lips. Thomas suspected it was her glorious smile that reminded him who she was. Once he knew it was her, he was flabbergasted that he hadn’t recognized her instantly, but it had been five years—five years which had treated her extraordinarily well. “Don’t tell me you’ve been back in London for days and didn’t come home because of what happened.” She took a step back and her excitement paled.
“Of course not. I docked last night. I was going to come to the house today.” He ran a hand through his hair and made an effort not to ogle.
“I certainly hope so, because if Mama found out you had arrived in town without coming to see her, she’d flay you.” She reached out a long-fingered hand and touched his coat sleeve. Her grin had faded not one bit. She was beautiful. She’d always been a pretty girl, but now she was a lovely, lovely woman.
A little blonde stepped up next to Frankie with her hand extended. “Good to see you home safely, Thomas.”
“Miss Sinclair! This is such a surprise. I surely hadn’t expected such a greeting at my solicitor’s this early in the morning.”
“I just can’t believe you’re home,” Frankie repeated, shaking her head.
“Yes, yes, he’s home indeed.” The impatient voice of the solicitor broke through the happy reunion. “I have a very busy day, Miss Sinclair. I don’t have time to dawdle between appointments.”
Thomas had forgotten what a spitfire Frankie’s friend was until she turned and gave Mr. Berger a look. “Certainly, sir, I’ll be with you in a moment. Frankie, you needn’t stay with me. I can take care of what I need to without you.”
“Are you certain?” Frankie asked, hope filling her voice.
“Absolutely. If you’re here with me, you’ll drive me crazy fidgeting and wishing you were elsewhere. You visit with Thomas. I’ll find you later.”
Thomas knew his grin was enormous. “Superb. You’re the one who can help me with my next errand.”
“Are you sure you want me?” Francesca asked. Her eyes filled with hope.
“Will you be able to control yourself in my carriage?” He grinned at her, pleased that his jest was taken in the spirit it was intended when she flashed her toothy smile back at him.
“Miss Sinclair? I really do have a very busy day.” Mr. Berger made a grand, sweeping gesture towards his office.
Frankie kissed her friend on the cheek. “Thank you. I’ll see you at home later.” She linked her arm through Thomas’s, and he swung her out the door.
“I was so sorry to hear about your brother,” Frankie told him and squeezed his arm. Thomas raised an eyebrow at her. “Well, I wasn’t sorry exactly, but that’s not a very nice thing to say. When I noted that the accident couldn’t have happened to nicer people, Mama lectured me for over an hour.”
Thomas grasped her about the waist—a tiny waist, he duly noted—and set her up in his high phaeton. He snapped the reins, and they were off, gamboling down Chancery Lane headed for St James Square. Silence stretched for a few long moments while Thomas navigated the carriage through the busy morning traffic. Most of ton society would still be in bed for hours yet, but the working class of London was busy going about their business.
He glanced at Francesca’s face and could almost see the wheels spinning in her head while he suspected she was weighing her options of what to say next. Of course, he could ease her mind and tell her that all was forgiven, that he never thought of the incident anymore, but that would be a lie.
“So what is this errand?” Apparently, she wasn’t prepared to dive into murkier waters yet. That was fine. Thomas had time.
“It’s about the house.” He turned the horses onto Upper Brooks Street. His home loomed at the end of the block, a giant white-and-gray stone building. It hunkered there, regal and important, as if it had a more strenuous job than holding down the dirt. “I can’t very well have it torn down, even though it is a monument to my father’s desperation for status.”
Frankie turned on the seat and gazed at him in shock. “You can’t really mean you want to tear it down? I understand your feelings, but it’s a beautiful house regardless.”
He slowed the horses as he approached the front. Already a lad from the stables waited at the walk for his return. Thomas took in the façade and tried to appraise it with an unjaded eye. From an architectural standpoint it was a beautiful building. His mother and father would have demanded no less from their London residence. But, unlike his parents, Thomas had no love for the bricks and stone that made up the three stories of Wallingham House.
“I think I understand how you feel.” Frankie’s tone was soft and quiet, soothing. “But it’s your house now. You can do anything you want with it. It would be a shame, though, to let him win. Wouldn’t it?”
Thomas pulled his eyes from the second-story corner window that had been his when he stayed there and turned to the lady on the seat next to him. Her eyes were such a vivid shade of kelly green they mesmerized him for a moment until she blinked and he pulled himself out of his reverie. He hopped down from the carriage and extended his hand to her. “I guess it would.” He smiled at her, and the concern in her eyes lessened.
“So how can I help?”
“If it’s not to be demolished, then I need to make it mine.”
Frankie brightened. “Oh. Can I help redecorate?”
His butler swung open the massive oak door, revealing the foyer and the first of the sculptures and paintings which had been his mother’s obsession. Thomas followed Frankie down the hall, staying close behind her as she surveyed each objet d’art. Her scent, a beguiling combination of rosemary and lemon, lingered behind her, urging him to press his nose to her hair.
“You know, I think I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been here,” Frankie told him, “which is funny considering the amount of time you spent in ours.”
“Even after I left?” He slipped a hand to the small of her back, a gesture which should have been entirely innocent yet felt anything but. He could feel the flex of her hips and spine as she continued her stroll, and the intimacy of that sensation warmed him.
“Especially after you left.” She turned to face him, and Thomas had to step back in order to avoid her breast grazing his arm. What a shame, really, since at this very moment he had a great deal of curiosity about Frankie’s breasts. “There was no way Mama was going to support your mother socially after that, and I quite agreed with her.”
“Your mother never said anything in her letters.” The duchess’s letters had been few and far between, but still as frequent as one would have expected considering there was a war and he was at sea much of the time.
“Well, she wouldn’t have, would she?”
No she wouldn’t. The duchess had been his most stalwart protector. Thomas had long known where the Belling family’s loyalties lay. Even after leaving on a bad note, he’d still believed that he would be welcomed back into that family upon his return. That knowledge was what had kept him sane when the cannonballs were flying. If he’d not had them… Thomas shuddered. There would have been nothing to live for.
“What should I do with all this…” Thomas waved his hand in a sweeping gesture, encompassing all the nonsense his mother amassed, “…stuff?”
“Is the whole house like this?”
“Indeed.” He steered her into the front parlor where there was no shortage of useless items for her to assess, then he turned to the patiently waiting butler. “Masters, have someone bring tea and something to eat. I’m starving.”
“Right away, my lord.” His man turned on his heel with a nod. Masters and the rest of the household staff may have been the finest part of his inheritance.
“Actually, I quite like this piece.” Frankie stood in a shaft of light, her back to him and the doorway. She tilted her head to the side as if to change the light on the watercolor landscape in front of her. A long tendril of auburn hair escaped the knot at the back of her head and, as Thomas watched, fascinated, it slowly slipped around the nape of her neck then curled along her collarbone. She turned her head and smiled at him. “Are you dead set on ridding the house of everything?”
Thomas blinked. “I’ll leave that up to you, I think.”
She nodded in confirmation. “I like this one. You should keep it.”
Together, they perched on the god-awful furniture, drank tea and nibbled on biscuits and pastries, and studiously avoided all the important topics of conversation that would have to be tackled eventually. Frankie asked after his war experiences, and Thomas provided bland details, told her he was never in danger. The looks of both concern and, after, relief warmed him as much as the scant contact they’d had earlier. It made the lie worth it.
Francesca laid her tea cup on the table. “I can’t say I’m sorry your family is gone. Perhaps that sentiment will award me a seat in hell, but their passing brought you home safe to us.” Frankie paused then continued barely over a whisper. “Mama fretted so. I fretted.”
“It was never my intention to make you worry, you know. There were many reasons I left.”
Frankie’s lips spread in a wan smile. “I know.” She shook her head. “You must be feeling quite overwhelmed with all you have to take over.”
She didn’t know the half of it. Between the houses, the estates, and investments, not to mention his brother’s gambling markers… “I would say that I’m a bit at sea with the whole thing, but the irony would be too much. Since they were buried before I returned, that’s one less thing for me to make a decision on. Of course Father never expected me to have any of this, such as it is. Fortunately, his secretary is competent, so I’ll figure it all out eventually.”
She reached across the space and laid her hand on his forearm. “I am absolutely certain that is true. Of course, Christian will help any way he’s able.”
Thomas had been able to count on his best friend, Frankie’s brother, for anything. “I have plans.” Granted, they had been thinly sketched, but he did have plans, and they seemed to be coming together better than he’d ever imagined.
“You know, Christian is going to be absolutely fierce when he finds out I saw you first.” Her smile took on a decidedly impish glee. “I can’t wait.”
Thomas was excited about seeing Christian and the duchess, too. But not right now. He was as surprised as anyone would be that he didn’t want to share his time with anyone but Frankie.
“Do you want to see the rest of the house?” He extended a hand to her, and she slipped her fingers into his palm. She rose from the settee with fluid poise. Francesca had been a tall girl, gangly and often awkward. No longer. Coltish gawkiness had dissolved into lithe, willowy grace.
He led her from room to room, floor to floor. Frankie schooled him in the latest styles and fashions in interior decorating. Thomas didn’t care one single bit about moldings and wallpaper and the vast differences between chintz and silk, or stripes versus floral prints. What he did care about, and what kept him absolutely riveted to the conversation, was the exhilarating, unsettled feeling that had grown in his belly and steadily moved down to his groin as they walked the floors of his parents’ home. Like a seventeen-year-old boy, he found himself scheming as they moved along, trying to maneuver himself in position to come into physical contact with her.
“I think this room would be very interesting with an Egyptian theme. What do you think?” she asked him. Before he could process the question, she was already describing the scene as she saw it, the furniture, upholstery and bric-a-brac.
“Sure,” Thomas replied, certain that whatever harebrained scheme she came up with in regards to his home would still be a far sight better than the dry mausoleum his mother had assembled.
“Do I have a budget?” she wondered as they headed up the stairs to the family apartments.
“I hardly think it prudent to give you free rein,” he said, recalling some of the epic battles the childhood Frankie had waged with her father over her allowance. “Be reasonable is all I ask.”
At the landing, Thomas turned them to the right and into the bedrooms he and his brother used as children. Should it bother him that nothing in these rooms meant anything to him? In fact, with the exception of the window and the massive tree outside whose limbs facilitated countless nighttime escapes, nothing seemed familiar enough to claim as his own.
Frankie wandered about the rooms, silent and suddenly pensive, as if the excitement had leached out of her. Her fingers slid across the top of a bureau then across the smooth counterpane on the bed as she took in the contents of the room.
“What do you want to do with these rooms?” she asked, her tone so gentle it unnerved him.
“Gut them. Take everything out. All the family rooms.”
“Oh, Thomas, I’m so sorry.” She walked swiftly across the carpet towards him. “For everything.”
“This wasn’t your fault.”
“Still, I’m sorry your father was such a bastard and your mother was so cold. I’m sorry your brother was rotten.” Tears filled her eyes, making them impossibly green and shimmery. She choked on a sob. “But mostly, I’m so sorry about what I did. I’m so sorry I made you leave. Will you ever forgive me?” Frankie flung herself, sobbing, in his arms.
For the first time ever, Thomas didn’t feel completely alone in his house.