“Anyway, you’re not going to tell me it’s Roddy who’s got you all upset,” she said, “so stop avoiding the issue.”
“There’s no issue. I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Francis said testily.
“Look, if you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine,” Fiona said gently, “but if you wanted to tell me what’s bothering you, you know it wouldn’t go any further. It can help, you know, to get things off your chest.”
“A fine thing to say to someone in my condition,” Francis said dryly. “Oh,
Fiona, don’t look like that, you know I was only teasing. It’s just . . .” He wiped the sheen of sweat from his face with his kerchief, waving her back to her seat when she rose to help him. “Is there someone waiting for you on Heronsay?” he asked abruptly.
The question took Fiona by surprise. She could feel herself blushing as she shook her head.
“No. There was someone, but it didn’t work out.”
“Was that why you left?”
“No. Not really. Only partly. I couldn’t we didn’t ” Fiona paused, avoiding Francis’s eyes. “Look, what has this to do with your letter?”
“It was from Emily.”
“Emily? I’m sorry, I . . .”
“My mother has never mentioned her, then?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“That’s typical of Mother. If you don’t mention something, it doesn’t exist,” Francis said with a twisted smile. “Emily Paterson is was the girl I wanted to marry. Still would if but there’s no point in dreaming.”
“Francis, never tell me your mother forbade it?” Fiona said, horrified.
He shook his head sadly.
“I broke it off, actually, when it became obvious that we didn’t have a future or, at least, that I didn’t have a future. That’s not to say my mother wouldn’t have forced the issue at some point, but she didn’t have to. I have no intentions of saddling
Emily with an invalid husband.”
“But when did this happen? I had no idea you had a fiance,” Fiona said, trying desperately to keep the pity from her voice, for it was the one thing she knew Francis couldn’t abide.
“I ended it two months ago, when Doctor Collins told me there was no hope. We’ve known each other all our lives, and have been betrothed for three years. Emily took it badly, though her father said well, he was relieved. As Emily will be, in time.”
“The letter was from her?”
“I told her not to write to me. A clean break, I said but Em is a stubborn wee thing, a bit like you, even though your backgrounds couldn’t be more different. Her family is even wealthier than mine. She’s been raised in the lap of luxury.”
“That doesn’t mean she’s not strong. If she loves you, Francis . . .”
“Don’t!” Francis hauled himself out of his chair and poured himself a glass of cordial. “She’ll get over it. She deserves better than me.”
“Do you love her?” Fiona asked gently.
“What has that to do with it?” Francis replied, angrily slamming his glass down on the marble table top, making the collection of medicinal bottles and vials wobble. “I can’t marry her, and that’s an end to it. I won’t subject her to a life with me I can’t, Fiona, don’t you see? In a few months maybe less, maybe more I won’t be myself. I don’t want her to remember me as a helpless wreck.”
“Francis, there’s always hope. This new doctor who’s coming next week ”
“Will tell me the same as the last one and the one before that,” Francis said.
Fiona was not put off.
“He may not. And even if
he does, surely it is better to have a taste of happiness than none at all?” she said wretchedly. “Your Emily ”
“She is not my Emily.”
“She obviously thinks she is, else she would not be writing to you. Won’t you even grant her the solace of visiting you, if only while you’re relatively well? Don’t you think it would make it easier her for her to cope in the long run, if she could store up some happy memories?”
“What, are you somehow in cahoots with her?”
“No, but I just know that I let’s just say it’s what I would want.”
“What about this man you’ve left behind on Heronsay? Does he have happy memories to comfort him in your absence?” Francis asked.
“That’s different. Euan and I were never betrothed.”
“So you don’t love him?”
Even now, Fiona didn’t really know what she felt about Euan, whose handsome countenance had a habit of creeping into her dreams.
“It’s complicated,” she said firmly, plumping up
Francis’s cushions absently. “Are you going to write back to her?”
“That’s not an answer.”
“I know.” Francis gazed out of the window, where the gardener was burning the last of the autumn leaves.
Fiona touched his shoulder.
“Let’s go outside and get some fresh air. Think about it, Francis. There’s nothing worse than having regrets.”
“As you would know?”
“Perhaps,” Fiona said non-committally. “Make sure and put on a scarf. I’ll go and fetch my coat.”