Chapter Eighteen - Francesca

The nearer they got to Richmond, the quieter Francesca became, until eventually she fell completely silent. Sebastian glanced across at her every once in a while, and she knew he was worried but she couldn't help it. Her whole body was aching as she attempted to hold her emotions firmly inside, her chest tight as nerves began to get the better of her. She wanted to cry... in fact she wanted to scream at Sebastian to turn the car around and take her back home. She wanted to tell him she couldn't do this... she was too weak. But most of all she wanted him to wrap her in his arms and tell her she was safe.

They'd spent the whole journey talking about Sebastian's family, her asking the questions and him patiently answering, until Francesca felt as though she'd known them all for years. They sounded nice... his family... a family she would be thrown into the middle of in a few short minutes. A quick glance at the clock on the dash told her they'd been driving for 1 hour 52 minutes. And Sebastian had said it would take around 2 hours. So, she was almost living on borrowed time now... any minute...

"Breathe, sweetheart, it's okay... it's okay... just breathe..."

Francesca faintly heard the click of a seat belt release and she tried to do what the voice told her, but she couldn't. She couldn't catch her breath. She was shaking violently, her hands clenched so tightly into fists she could feel her nails digging into her palms. Another click came and then she was moving across the center console, coming to rest against the hard wall of Sebastian's chest as he lowered her onto his lap and held her... just as she'd hoped he would.

It didn't take long for the panic to recede slightly, for her breathing to become easier and her heart to stop pounding sickeningly in her chest. But she couldn't for the life of her stop the trembling.

"I'm so sorry," she whispered, clinging onto Sebastian as though he may disappear if she let go. "I-I'll take a cab home."

"Like hell you will," he grunted, and there was such tenderness behind the words that Francesca immediately felt wanted. No one had ever made her feel that way before. "And don't you dare apologize for something you can't control. I've had panic attacks, Francesca. I know they're not fun. Now," he said firmly, lifting her away from him slightly so he could look in her eyes, "do you want me to take you home?"

She wanted to say yes and she knew he could see it in her eyes. But the idea of him having to drive all the way back after the drive here... and then having to come back again...

"Just so you know, if I take you home I'm staying with you."

"What? No!" she exclaimed, guilt detonating inside of her like a bomb. "You need to spend Christmas with your parents."

"Then come with me."

Her eyes narrowed as she felt a sliver of anger slice at her heart. "Are you blackmailing me?"

A full grin nearly split his face in two and Francesca frowned even more. "What's so funny?" she grumbled as she punched him playfully on the arm. "Why are you laughing?"

"Yes, I'm blackmailing you," he murmured happily. "But look at you, sweetheart; that panic attack is long gone."

And it was. The recognition brought a huge smile to her face as well, and a bright pink blush to her cheeks as she realized she was sat on Sebastian's lap on a dark street somewhere in the middle of Richmond, Virginia. But her pleasure outweighed her embarrassment, and without hesitation, she threw her arms around his neck and hugged him tightly. "Thank you for... well for being you," she whispered. "I want to be wherever you are, Sebastian. And I want that place to be your parents' home."

"Are you sure?" His words whispered into the crook of her neck sent shivers of awareness racing down her spine, the heat of his breath stirring feelings only he seemed able to arouse in her.

"Yes," she whispered. Then more firmly, "Yes."

"I won't let go of your hand unless you ask me to."

God, he was perfect. "Promise?"

He lifted his head and sank his fingers into her hair, holding her captive to his dark gaze. "I promise. Although it might be a bit tricky explaining to my parents why we need to sleep in the same room when we're nothing more than friends."

Friends. The word had the same effect on her as it always did, as if someone had thrown a bucket of ice cold water over her. Friends. It was all he would ever want from her. He might flirt with her or act as if he cared more than just as a friend. But the reality was he wasn't interested. And the sooner she got that through her thick head the better. She was here because he was too nice and too kind to leave her behind and she needed to wean herself off relying on him. So, she pushed out of his arms and maneuvered herself back into the passenger seat, her body feeling cold, her arms feeling empty without him.

"I think we'd better stick to our own bedrooms," she said as brightly as she could, the fake smile not quite reaching her eyes. "I don't want to embarrass your parents at all."

There was a heavy silence in the car as Sebastian stared at her while she stared resolutely out of the front window, refusing to look at him. After what felt like hours he shrugged slightly and refastened his seat belt. "Buckle up then, we're nearly there."

The clicking of her seat belt into place felt like a death sentence and she closed her eyes as the car pulled away from the curb once more, hoping Sebastian would think she'd fallen asleep.

In what felt like seconds rather than minutes, the car pulled to a stop on what sounded like a gravel driveway, and she felt his hand touch her shoulder. "Come on, sleepy-head, wake up. We're here." He waited until she cracked open an eye then let himself out of the car.

The sound of excited voices outside made her heart begin to race again, her mouth flooding with saliva as the urge to puke her guts up became almost overwhelming. Her stomach churned violently, her palms sweating and suddenly she knew, without a shadow of a doubt that she couldn't do this. All her earlier bravado deserted her. It was easy to sound brave over the phone or in a text message. But now... here... facing a whole day and two nights with a family... with a woman she didn't know... Francesca forgot every coping technique she'd ever been taught. She didn't hear the passenger door open, her senses beginning to shut down as blood flowed to her vital organs.

"Shit!" She heard his quiet curse then felt his hand close over hers. "Sweetheart, look at me. I won't let go of your hand... I promised you and I meant it."

The minute he touched her, the demons began to recede and she sucked in a deep lungful of air. But she couldn't do as he asked because once again she was letting him down... embarrassing him in front his parents... and she simply couldn't look into his eyes.

"Francesca, look at me... now."

Her eyes widened at his tone of voice... that same authoritative yet reassuring tone that he'd used all those weeks ago when he'd demanded she kneel in front of him. And she couldn't help but obey him instantly.

"Good girl," he whispered as their eyes met and she caught a glimpse of the concern he felt for her. "Let me sort this. Trust me."

His head disappeared out of the car and she watched as he straightened up, her hand still held firmly in his. "Mom, Dad, we've had a long drive and we're both pretty shattered. Could we just freshen up first before introductions?"

"Oh my goodness, of course, honey. We can do it in the morning if Francesca's too tired?"

To most people, those words coming from an obviously loving mother would've relaxed them and put them at their ease. But not Francesca. All she heard was a softly spoken female voice and her body instantly began to react to the trigger, her hand tightening so firmly around his that she almost felt him flinch. What she didn't expect was his reaction, nor his complete understanding.

"Mom, would you mind making some coffee? It's been a long evening and I'm pretty tired from driving. But we'll both be down once we've freshened up a bit, okay?"

Somehow he knew that once his mother wasn't around that she would be able to relax slightly.

"I'll get your bags, son," came the gruff voice of Reid Hunter as his wife disappeared into the house, slapping Sebastian lightly on the back as he rounded the car. "You two get inside before you catch your deaths."

Francesca felt a slight tug on her hand and she turned her face upwards to find Sebastian watching her, his expression guarded, and her heart sank slightly because she couldn't read him. Then he crouched down beside her again and smiled that beautiful smile that made her heart stop. "Thank you," she whispered as he leant across her again to release her seatbelt. "I know I haven't told you anything but... but you seem to understand me and-"

"You don't have to explain anything," he interrupted firmly as he pulled back and took both of her hands gently in his. "If you want to talk I'll listen, sweetheart, but right now all I want to do is get you inside out of this cold like Dad said. You okay with that?"

She dropped her eyes to their joined hands and nodded, squeezing his fingers in hers. "I'm scared about meeting your mom."

"I know," he said softly as she swung her legs out of the car. "I can't pretend to understand why, but no matter what you know I'll take care of you. And if you want to go home at any time all you have to do is say the word."

She straightened up and for the first time that night she smiled. "What, the safe word?"

"Francesca!" he hissed, his eyes darting around to see if anyone was listening. "Not that word, okay."

Her eyes widened. "Your parents don't know?"

"No! It's not something you bring up over dinner is it. Oh by the way, Mom, I have a club I go to where I like to tie women up and-"

"-spank them," she finished for him with a quiet chuckle. "No, I don't suppose it is the kind of thing you tell your parents."

He might've looked annoyed before but now his eyes were twinkling happily as he turned them towards the house. "If you want to leave just tell me, okay?"

"I promise," she agreed, glancing up at him as they walked through the front door. He looked more relaxed than he'd been in weeks and she wondered if this house and his family did it for him. Their fingers were laced together and for the first time that night she felt almost lighthearted.

He led her upstairs and into a guest bedroom. "The bathroom's across the hall," he said, jerking his head in the general direction. "My bedroom's next door if you need anything." They stood in silence for a moment before he slipped his hand from hers and backed out of the door. "I'll be five minutes. Take a moment and breathe."

And then he was gone and Francesca was left alone with her irrational thoughts. The room was lovely but she didn't take the time to look around. Instead she sat on the floor, tucked her feet against her bottom, wrapped her arms around her legs and rested her chin on her knees. This was how she'd spent many a night when she was a child, and the position made her feel safe. It wasn't as though she hated this room... and she knew Sebastian was nearby... she was simply terrified of what her reaction to this situation might be. And how would Sebastian's family feel if they knew he'd invited a crazy person into their home? She'd spent her life making sure she never put herself into these situations and now she wasn't quite sure how she was going to deal with it.

A soft knocking at the door roused her from her thoughts, but she barely had time to register the noise before the door was opening and Sebastian was standing there in the doorway, all hot male and warm comfort. His eyes landed on her where she sat resting up against the bed and he folded his arms across his chest and leant against the wooden frame. "You haven't even taken your coat off," he chided affectionately, pushing off the frame and walking purposefully towards her.

"Hey, I was breathing," she defended herself, pushing to her feet and facing him with her hands on her hips. "You told me to breathe."

"And you do everything I tell you to?"

His question was flippant but in that moment she didn't feel particularly jokey. "No, but breathing is pretty essential," she snapped, pulling her scarf from round her neck and dropping it on the bed.

"Hey, stop that," he commanded firmly, pushing her hands away and beginning to unbutton her coat for her. "Believe it or not I was just trying to lighten the mood."

"Well to be honest I'm feeling a bit... well, a bit..."


He was pushing the coat from her shoulders now and she shrugged it off suddenly self-conscious. "I wish I could feel okay about this, Sebastian."

"And I wish you'd listen to me when I tell you I won't let anyone harm you." He laid his hands on her shoulders and bent down to look her directly in the eye. "Whatever happened in your past will never happen to you again, not here, not anywhere."

"You can tell me that a thousand times and... and I want to believe you but-"

"Do you trust me?"

"You know I do."

"Then trust me to keep you safe."

"It isn't as simple as that!" She was beginning to raise her voice again but she couldn't help it. "You make me feel safer than anyone ever has, even Tom. But that doesn't stop my head from remembering."

Without another word she found herself held in his strong embrace and she felt that same deep calming effect wash over her. He held her for what felt like forever until her heart rate began to slow. Then he pulled back and cupped her face in the palms of his hands.

"Are you sure you're ready for this?"

Francesca nodded, sucking in a breath of fortifying air. She was not a coward. She'd never been a coward and she never would be. No one could ever say she hadn't given her all to putting her past behind her no matter what obstacles were thrown in her way. And she wasn't about to let this latest setback ruin the first proper Christmas she'd had in what felt like forever. She didn't want to let Sebastian down... not after he'd offered to share his family with her.

So instead of crawling under the blankets and staying there until Christmas was over like she really wanted to do, she did something she hadn't done in years; she took hold of a man's hand and held on for dear life.

"Please don't let go?" she pleaded quietly, hating how weak she sounded. But she knew she wouldn't be able to get through it without his support.

His hand tightened and his fingers linked through hers. "I won't, sweetheart." His dark eyes were full of tenderness and warmth, not a hint of the frustration she knew he must be feeling. From his reactions tonight, she knew neither Tom nor Michelle had said anything, so Sebastian had no idea what had happened in her childhood to make her behave this way. And yet he'd never demanded any answers from her. He'd treated her this way from the day they'd met, quietly supporting and protecting her, and she'd never been more grateful to anyone in her life.

Silently he led her out of the room back down the stairs, paying no attention to the way her hand tightened around his the nearer they got to the kitchen. She could hear voices talking excitedly from beyond the doorway and her heart began to pound sickeningly in her throat. Sebastian must've felt her hesitation because he turned around and smiled... the kind of smile that lit up his face and made him look like a little kid and made her heart beat faster for a totally different reason. He gave a tug on her hand and pulled her against his body, his free hand sliding into her hair as he gently tilted her head back. "I'm so happy you're here, Francesca," he whispered happily, his thumb stroking across her cheekbone. "Christmas is my favorite time of year and to share it with you..."

"I like it too," she admitted shyly, matching his smile with a genuine one of her own. "Thank you for letting me crash your family time."

"You might take that back when my brother's get their hands on you."

The lighthearted atmosphere faded as his eyes darkened almost angrily and he tightened his hold on her. For a moment Francesca couldn't breathe, his dark, intense gaze holding her paralyzed. Then a noise from behind made her jump and the spell was broken.

"Sebby! Francesca!" Sebastian released Francesca and turned just as his mother threw her arms around his neck. "Oh, honey, I'm so glad you came tonight." He hugged her enthusiastically with one arm, the other still occupied with Francesca's hand and she felt herself relax again. He hadn't let go, just as he'd promised.

After a moment he pulled away and moved to stand closer to Francesca. "Mom, this is my friend, Francesca Randall; Francesca this is my mother, Alicia Hunter."

Francesca was so terrified that Mrs Hunter would try and hug her as well that she almost missed her incorrect surname... almost but not quite. Her eyes lifted to study Sebastian curiously. If he thought her surname was Randall then surely he had no idea she'd ever been in the foster system... which would mean Michelle hadn't told him that either. The distraction was good, because by the time she realized Mrs Hunter wasn't going to hug her, she also realized she hadn't had time to panic. The other woman held her hand out and Francesca took it gingerly.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Mrs Hunter. Thank you for welcoming me into your home, especially for Christmas."

"Oh the pleasure's all mine, honey," she laughed, her eyes twinkling happily as she smiled up at her son, her observant gaze catching their joined hands. "And call me Alicia, please. Now come on the pair of you. Coffee's brewing. Come and sit down and tell me all about how you met."

Francesca followed Alicia into the kitchen, Sebastian behind her, and sat herself down at the table. Mr Hunter slapped his son on the back and grinned, looking so much like Sebastian that Francesca immediately liked him. "Come on, son, let's leave these two women alone to gossip."

Panic hit her like a blow to the chest, then immediately receded when Sebastian shook his head and slipped into the chair next to her. "Nah, it's okay thanks, Dad. It would be nice if we could all catch up together."

Introductions were made and when the older version of Sebastian hugged her tightly she didn't flinch. And even when Alicia took the seat right next to her, she simply grabbed tighter hold of Sebastian and didn't panic. Eventually she began to relax enough to enjoy the conversation and she even found herself joining in with some of the banter. They were a nice family and they were treating her like one of their own already.

"So I'm assuming you're both coming to midnight mass?"

Francesca opened her mouth to answer Alicia's question that had been predominantly directed at her, when she realized she had no idea of the correct response. Were they going to midnight mass? She couldn't remember Sebastian mentioning it at all. "I um... I don't know."

Sebastian shifted beside her, squeezing her hand so she turned to face him. "Would you like to go, Francesca?"

Would she? The answer was of course yes. She'd never been given the chance before and it had always seemed like quite a magical thing to do. She wanted to go to church and sing Christmas Carols with other people who were celebrating. She wanted to feel that Christmas happiness that other people understood but which she never had. All her life she'd hidden away from this time of year because it had once meant nothing but unhappiness and pain... even the good memories had somehow become twisted and ugly. But this year she wanted to make new memories and this seemed like a good place to start. So she smiled shyly and nodded. "Yes please."

His answering smile made her world light up like shimmering diamonds... because she was the one who had made him smile like that. And he was looking at her as though she was the most precious thing in the world.

"Then the answer's yes, we will most certainly both be coming to midnight mass."

"Oh come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant. Oh come ye, oh come ye, to Bethlehem."

Francesca raised her voice in song, loudly and proudly, little prickles of emotion making all the hairs on her arms stand to attention. Her eyes had misted over a long time ago and she was embarrassingly close to tears... and all because of the arm wrapped around her shoulders, and the wonder of people all raising their voices in song. Sebastian squeezed her shoulder gently and she looked up into his tender gaze, her heart singing as loudly as her mouth as he smiled down at her. She grinned back happily then resumed singing, laughing when he forgot the words and began singing something completely different.

As the clock ticked over to midnight, Sebastian bent down and pressed his lips tenderly to the top of her head. "Merry Christmas, Francesca."

"Merry Christmas, Sebastian," she whispered back, biting her lip to try and hold all the happiness inside. Everything about her first midnight mass had been magical.