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tempus fugit

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1.

The worst morning of Anthony Bridgerton’s life dawns with the most beautiful sunrise he has ever seen.

Anthony watches through the window of his parents’ bedchamber as the sky slowly blushes pink, daylight unfolding like a fan over the windowsill and across the bed. His father’s pale cheeks don’t warm under the sun of course but for a moment Anthony lets himself imagine that they will.

He takes out the pocket watch that his father gave him on his eighth birthday and allows himself a single minute to pretend. His father is only sleeping and soon the morning light will rouse him at last. He’ll crack one eye open, squinting in the sunlight, and ask Anthony just what on earth he’s doing sitting there in yesterday’s clothes with all those dried tears on his cheeks.

When his time is up, Anthony tucks his watch back into his pocket and puts childish daydreams away for good.

He stands up from the uncomfortable chair where he spent the night, arching his aching back and wandering over to the window to look out over the quiet grounds that now belong to him alone. Outside, the sky is brightening with all the promise of a perfect summer morning ahead, the sort that would usually have his parents insisting they all head outdoors for breakfast on the terrace.

Anthony closes the drapes on the cloudless blue sky and says, very quietly, “I have to go now, Papa.”

He should probably say something else, he thinks dimly, as he stops beside the bed and looks down at his favourite face in the world for the very last time. Something profound. Goodbye, perhaps. Thank you, certainly. I’m sorry and I love you and I’ll try. I promise I’ll try. There are so many promises to make – to guard the family name and the family fortune and above all else, the family happiness – but when Anthony opens his mouth no sound comes out at all.

He squeezes his father’s hand once and hopes that says enough.

Aubrey Hall is quietly waking up when Anthony slips out into the corridor, his heavy boots creaking against the well-trodden floors as the servants pass silently on their way to make up the fires, murmuring condolences that he acknowledges but barely hears. He wanders in the direction of his bedroom, thinking vaguely of trying to sleep, of pulling the blankets over his head for an hour or so until he has to sit down in his father’s chair at the head of the table and tell his brothers and sisters that everything will be alright.

His hand is almost on the doorknob of his bedroom when he hears the crying from the nursery, quiet at first but growing louder by the second.

Gregory.

Anthony pauses, saying a silent prayer for peace until he remembers that God is surely not listening to prayers from Aubrey Hall this week. Sure enough, his brother’s cries only grow more hysterical and so Anthony abandons his prayers, blaspheming under his breath instead as he hurries towards the nursery.

When he turns the corner he finds his old nursemaid pacing the long corridor with two year old Gregory wailing miserably in her arms, his tiny hands clenched into fists.

“The others–” Anthony warns her, casting a slightly frantic hand back towards his siblings’ bedrooms. “We must not wake them yet. Not after–”

“I know, I know,” she says, rubbing soothing circles across Gregory’s back in much the same way Anthony supposes she must once have done for him. The stray thought makes him oddly homesick, right here in his own home. “I’m sorry, I just – I cannot seem to settle him this morning.”

“Is he ill?” Anthony asks, his stomach dropping. “Please tell me he is–”

“No, no, he is quite well,” she says quickly, and Anthony sags against the wall in relief. “It is just that he awoke quite early and … well, he has been asking for his father ever since.”

Anthony feels himself slide a little further down the wall.

“It really is the strangest thing,” she goes on, shaking her head slightly. “Almost as if–”

“As if he knows,” Anthony finishes for her, barely recognising his own voice.

“A silly notion, I’m sure...” She smoothes a hand over Gregory’s tousled hair as he starts to cry again. “But then again, perhaps children can sense such things.”

“Perhaps.” Anthony watches his brother as he struggles to escape his nurse’s hold, angry blotches of red colouring his chubby little cheeks as he beats his hands against her chest. “Though you’ll forgive me if I hope that you are mistaken,” Anthony adds, before he can stop himself. “I would do anything to spare him the knowledge.”

“Of course you would.”

The pity in her kind eyes is more than Anthony can bear.

He presses his lips together, hiding his face behind his hand as he pinches hard at the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. For a long moment there is nothing in the world but the roaring in his ears, Gregory’s hiccuping cries and the soft swish of his nurse’s skirts as she rocks him back and forth.

When Anthony finally manages to drag his gaze back up to her familiar face she sighs and quietly says, “I am so sorry, Master Anthony.” And then, even quieter still, “Your father was a good man.”

The past tense slides between Anthony’s ribs like a knife.

“The best,” he says dully. “Thank you.”

“Where?!” Gregory bursts out suddenly, twisting his head around to look at Anthony. He sucks in a few fast breaths, his whole face scrunching up into a frown. “Papa?”

Something shatters inside Anthony.

And to think, he actually believed there was nothing in him left to break.

“Give him here,” he blurts, holding out his hands for his brother before he does something foolish like start crying himself. “I’ll take him outside before he wakes the other children.”

“Oh, there is no need–”

“Please,” Anthony says, trying for authority but hearing the bite of something desperate in his voice instead. “I want to.”

“Very good, Master–” With a cough, his old nursemaid swallows down the only name she has called him for eighteen years. “Lord Bridgerton,” she amends carefully, her lips lifting slightly into a hesitant, bittersweet little smile.

It’s hardly the first time someone has called Anthony by his new title – the doctors yesterday all murmured it with their polite condolences on the way out – but the words land a little differently this morning, uttered from the lips of someone who has loved him all his life. The full weight of the viscountcy seems to settle across his shoulders for the very first time, heavy and frightening and far, far too soon.

Throat too tight to speak, Anthony simply inclines his head and takes his brother into his arms.

“Now then,” he mutters quietly to Gregory as he heads off towards the stairs, “what’s all this? I thought you far too big to be crying quite so much. But I suppose you must still be a baby…”

“M’not,” Gregory says, so very firmly, and Anthony smiles for the first time since the moment yesterday afternoon when he found Daphne crying on the floor in the middle of the hall.

He keeps up a steady stream of nonsense chatter as he carries his brother across that same hall now, ignoring the acid that burns at the back of his throat when he passes the spot where Daphne sat.

Outside the morning has dawned every bit as beautiful as the sunrise promised, the sweet summer air already thick with the scent of the flowers blooming just down the hill. The warmth of the morning sun seems to melt away the last of Gregory’s tantrum so Anthony sets him down and chases him around the lawn for a while until his night-clothes are full of grass stains and the tears in his eyes are only for laughter.

“There now,” Anthony murmurs, tickling Gregory under his arms before he picks him up and tips him upside down. “This is better, is it not?”

Gregory giggles madly and for a moment, listening to his brother laugh, both of their cheeks flushing pink under the summer sun, Anthony thinks he might be able to do this.

Then he takes out his watch and checks the time, and the feeling drifts away like dew misting off the grass.

“Time to go in, Brother,” he says, setting Gregory back on his feet. “The others will be awake soon.”

“Papa?” Gregory asks hopefully, peering up at the window of their parents’ bedchamber where the heavy drapes are still tightly drawn, just as Anthony left them.

“No, dearest,” Anthony says, hoisting Gregory onto his shoulders so his brother won’t have to see the tears in his eyes, “I’m afraid you shall have to make do with me.”

 

 

2.

Siena is a warm weight in Anthony’s arms, her cheek pillowed lightly on his chest, and right now all he wants in the whole world is for her to just fall asleep.

Granted it’s not even dark outside but damn it, it really would make life so much easier.

If Siena was asleep he could simply slide out of bed and slip away, leaving a note on the side table and neatly avoiding that all too familiar look of disdain she always gives him whenever he tells her he has to go, and why.

For a few minutes Anthony stays very still, peeking down at her and willing her slow steady breathing to slide into a doze. When she doesn’t oblige he carefully rolls her onto her side and away from him so she won’t notice when he reaches behind him for his watch.

When he sees the time, Anthony just about manages not to swear out loud.

“Siena…” he says slowly, already out of bed and reaching for his shirt before she even turns to look at him. “I have to go.”

“What?” Siena sits up, tucking the bed-sheet around her. “I thought you said we would spend the evening together.”

“I did,” he agrees distractedly, tugging on one boot while searching for the other, “but–”

“Well...” she says mock-thoughtfully, and Anthony doesn’t need to be looking at her to know the expression that will be souring her pretty face, “I do not know what your definition of ‘evening’ is, my lord, but–”

“I know, I know,” Anthony says, glad to have his back turned so she can’t see him rolling his eyes. “It’s my sister–”

“Your sister.” Siena scoffs under her breath. “Isn’t it always?”

Anthony pauses his dressing for a moment, shoving down the sudden flare of his temper. “Hyacinth is ill,” he says, turning slowly to face Siena. “What exactly would you have me do?”

“Ill?” She softens immediately, sitting up and reaching out her hand for his. “I – I did not know. I’m sorry–”

“Oh no, no,” Anthony says, guilt forcing the words out before he can consider the wisdom of what he’s about to admit. “It’s nothing serious, just a cold. But–”

“Oh.” Somehow Siena injects a whole world of meaning into that one syllable, none of it good. She folds her arms across her chest, managing to look down her nose at him even as he stands above her. “If it is not serious then why exactly must you dash off to see her?”

“Because!” Anthony snaps, his fingers fumbling as he attempts to tie his cravat. He tips his head to the ceiling, letting out a groan and tugging the whole thing off to start again. “Because she is my sister,” he tries again, with a little more patience this time. “And because she is not ten years old and I promised her that I would call and see her before bed.”

Siena just stares at him mutinously, an all too familiar disappointment in her dark eyes. Anthony scrubs a hand roughly over his face, as if the pressure of his fingertips might push back the pulse of a headache he can feel growing behind his eyes.

“Please don’t be angry,” he says, sitting down gingerly at the foot of the bed and resting his hand on her leg through the sheets. “Family has to come first, surely you can understand that?”

“I would not know, my lord,” Siena says quietly, running a hand back and forth through the ends of her hair, “since I have no family to speak of.”

There’s an undercurrent of something very real and very sad beneath her bitterness that makes Anthony ache for her. Even so, as she peers up at him through wet eyelashes he can’t force his lips into the pretty lie that she so obviously wants to hear. Whatever they are to each other, it isn’t family.

“I’m sorry,” he says instead. That at least is true.

“You always say that,” she says, turning her back to him as she curls onto her side. “And you always leave.”

“Siena…” Anthony pauses in the doorway and looks back at the shape of her body under the sheets, willing her to turn over and give him something to take away with him – the hint of a smile, a nod, any scrap of kindness at all really.

He waits longer than he should but Siena doesn’t move.

Anthony checks his watch once more and leaves without another word.

It’s later than he’d like when he reaches Bridgerton House and he feels far worse than he’d like as well, tormented by his aching head and the gentle curve of Siena’s spine as she turned herself away from him. He pauses in the hall and gives himself a shake, forcing a smile onto his face before he heads into the drawing room.

“Evening all,” he says, glancing around for Hyacinth. “Now then, where’s the patient?”

Before Anthony gets his answer, several things happen at once.

Francesca, who was quietly playing the pianoforte when he arrived, suddenly strikes up a different, far louder tune at the exact same moment that Colin gets up from his chair and says, “Time for a game of chess, I think. Benedict?”

“Excellent idea,” Benedict says, throwing Anthony a grimace as he hurries to the chessboard at the far end of the room, grabbing Eloise on his way. “El, come on – you can play the winner.”

“And I’ll watch,” Daphne puts in quickly, following her brothers and sister.

Just like that, Anthony finds himself alone with his mother.

“Mother?” he prompts hesitantly, already knowing the answer that’s coming. “Where is Hyacinth?”

“I’m afraid you’ve missed her,” Violet says, snapping her book closed with a little more force than necessary. “I have already sent her up to bed.”

Anthony’s heart sinks right to his boots. Lower even, if that’s possible. He could swear it leaves his body entirely, burying itself right down into the foundations of the house he owns but does not call home.

“But…” He fumbles for his watch, checking it again. “Her bedtime is not for another–”

“Anthony!” How his mother manages to inject so much disapproval into just the three syllables of his name, Anthony will never know. “Your sister is unwell! She was practically falling asleep at the dinner table. She needed an early night.”

“I see,” Anthony says, clasping his hands behind his back to avoid the urge to check his watch again. It won’t help to guess how much earlier he would have needed to arrive to catch Hyacinth, to wonder if it was the whole visit to Siena or just those last few pathetic minutes in her doorway that cost him dear. “I suppose–”

“She wanted to wait up and see you, of course,” Violet says, every word landing like a blow. “But I’m afraid I would not let her. She really does need the rest.”

“Of course,” Anthony says quietly, into the silence between movements in Francesca’s playing. “I’m sorry.”

It’s the only thing he seems to be able to say tonight.

“Oh, Anthony...” Violet sounds his name like a sigh.

And yet again, it seems it’s the wrong thing.

“I am not the one who needs an apology, dearest.”

“I know.” Anthony drops down beside his mother on the sofa, just about resisting the urge to throw his head back against the cushions. “I really thought I was in good time to see her,” he says, massaging his aching temples. “I did not think–”

“No,” Violet says slowly, reaching out and gently patting his knee. “You did not think.”

Anthony opens his mouth, yet another apology on his lips, but his attention strays to Francesca’s playing as the piece builds to a conclusion, a sweeping, soaring finale that sounds so complicated it has everyone in the room stopping to listen and applaud. Francesca smiles at the reaction, inclining her head into a little bow, and then strikes up a new, quieter melody.

Clearly deciding that this signals the end of Anthony’s scolding, Benedict stops pretending that he’s not actually in the room. “Fancy a game, Brother?” he calls from over by the chessboard. “Won’t take me long to dispense with these two – ow! Eloise!”

Anthony grins over at his siblings just as Eloise smacks the white rook against the back of Benedict’s hand for the second time.

“Thank you but no. If I’ve missed Hyacinth, I think I shall go home.”

“Are you quite sure, my dear?’ Violet says, not bothering to hide her disappointment. “Why not stay and–”

“I’m afraid I would be poor company.” Anthony says, leaning over to brush a kiss against her cheek in farewell.

“Very well then,” she says, peering up at him with a slightly odd look in her eyes. “If you’re sure?”

“Quite,” he says. “My head is pounding, to tell you the truth. All I want is a hot bath and my bed.”

“A good idea, I think.” Violet worries at her lip, seeming to hover on the verge of saying something else and then, with a knowing look that makes him feel a fool, she leans in and murmurs in his ear, “You go off home, dearest, and wash that cheap perfume from your skin.”

“I beg your pardon?” Anthony jerks back to stare at his mother.

She doesn’t back down, only raises her eyebrows and says, rather sadly, “I’m afraid the scent does not suit you.”

“I’m sure I do not know what you mean,” Anthony says through his teeth, pasting on a smile for his brothers and sisters as he raises a hand in farewell.

“Of course not,” Violet murmurs, so placidly that Anthony wants to scream.

“You know, perhaps I will stay after all,” Anthony says, giving in to a sudden vicious urge to be contrary.

“You will?” Violet says, still in that infuriatingly even tone.

“Yes,” he snaps, sounding like a child and hating himself for it. He coughs, tugging awkwardly at his waistcoat. “I’m quite sure there are things in my office that require my attention.”

Without waiting for a reply, Anthony heads out into the hall and strides towards his office, his bad mood carrying him most of the way before a sharp pulse behind his eyes reminds him that he has a pounding headache and absolutely no desire to squint at paperwork by candlelight and make the bloody thing even worse.

He sucks in a deep breath, resolved to at least head into his office for a while, if only to pour himself a whisky and stew on his disastrous evening. But as he breathes in deeply, the scent of Siena’s heavy perfume seems to suddenly fill his senses when he hardly noticed it before, as if his mother’s pointed comments have somehow conjured it up.

His headache pulses worse than ever and quite suddenly Anthony can’t bring himself to open the door and take that scent inside with him. He can’t sit down in there like this, in his father’s old chair at his father’s old desk with his little sister sleeping away her disappointment upstairs.

Cursing under his breath, Anthony turns on his heel and heads for the front door instead.

He doesn’t even have the energy to feign surprise when he finds his mother waiting for him in the entrance hall. Of course she knew he wouldn’t stay. Probably knows why as well. Anthony screws his eyes shut tight, expecting another dressing down and even worse, feeling fairly certain that he deserves it.

Instead all she says is, “Boiled sweets.”

Anthony blinks. “I beg your pardon?”

“For Hyacinth’s throat.” There’s a sad, slightly nervous smile on her face that goes right to his heart. “Bring her a bag tomorrow and all will be forgiven.”

For a moment Anthony is seized by the strangest urge to fall into his mother’s arms and hug her like he hasn’t done since he was a boy.

Instead he simply nods his head and says, very quietly, “And what shall I bring you?”

Violet presses her lips together for a long moment, something that could be tears sparkling in her tired eyes. “Just be here,” she says and then, as if she cannot help herself she wags her finger at him and adds, “early.”

Anthony feels his lips tug up into the smallest of smiles. “Yes, Mother.”

With that, he takes his leave and heads back to his quiet lodgings, humming the melody of Francesca’s music into the silence of his empty rooms.

 

 

3.

Considering he’s supposed to be the host of this house party, Anthony supposes he ought to be doing something else after dinner than simply talking to his brothers.

Then again, he thinks with a rueful grin, considering his mother has invited only the most unremarkable gentlemen she could find, most of whom seem too paralysed by awkwardness in Anthony’s presence to manage conversation, he supposes he’s doing them all a favour by leaving them to drink their port in peace.

Content with his reasoning, Anthony sits back in his chair and takes a healthy sip of his own drink, discreetly checking his pocket watch while Colin rattles on about something from his travels.

“Calculating how much longer you can get away with hiding in here from the ladies?” The familiar voice of Simon Basset slides into Anthony’s ear just before the man himself slides into the empty chair beside him.

Anthony looks up at his oldest friend and for a wild moment that he blames entirely on the port, he considers telling him the truth. That in fact he was calculating just how quickly he might rejoin the ladies and more than that, just how much time he might need to spend talking to other guests before he can safely make his way over to Miss Katharine Sheffield without it seeming obvious that hers is the only company he is remotely interested in.

Instead he just shrugs at Simon and says, “Something like that.”

Simon laughs, entirely too pleased with himself for Anthony’s liking. Marriage really is making him insufferable. “And?” he prompts, eyeing how much port Anthony has left. “What’s the verdict?”

Anthony finishes his drink with one rather unseemly gulp. “Our time is up, I’m afraid.”

“Surely not,” Benedict protests, despite his own empty glass.

“Could we not have another?” Colin suggests, eyeing the decanter hopefully. “Surely Mother would not–”

“Come looking for us and demand we rejoin the ladies?” Anthony says. “I assure you she would.”

It’s not at all unlikely so Anthony doesn’t feel too bad about using the threat for his own benefit. He stands up and tucks away his chair, the unspoken signal leading every other gentleman to do the same, Colin and Benedict with slightly less grace than Simon, who seems to be enjoying his evening immensely.

“I’ve never quite understood why you lot are so terrified of her,” he says, as they wander through the house towards the drawing room. “She is always so sweet to me.”

“You obligingly married her daughter,” Colin says, with a wave of his hand. “And made her a Duchess, to boot.”

“And she still has no idea that there were pistols involved in the decision,” Anthony can’t help but remind him.

“A fact of which she shall remain ignorant, I hope,” Simon says, looking a little panicked.

“Whereas we,” Benedict goes on before Anthony can needle Simon any further, “remain a disappointing trio of bachelors despite her very best efforts to the contrary.”

Simon laughs. “This house party is certainly one of her grandest attempts at changing that.”

“Noticed that, did you?” Colin says, shaking his head. “I don’t know how she does it. I swear that somehow there’s more debutantes at Aubrey Hall this week than there were at the Palace for their presentation.”

“I’d wager at least one of them swoons at Anthony’s feet by the end of the week,” Benedict says. “You should count yourself lucky you’re married, Hastings–”

“Oh, I regularly do.”

“And say a prayer for the rest of us,” Colin mutters, pausing dramatically with a hand on the drawing room door.

“Come now, they’re not all bad,” Anthony says, without thinking.

Or rather, because he’s thinking. Because he can’t seem to stop thinking. About the reckless joy in Kate Sheffield’s eyes as she sent his ball flying into the lake and about whether he imagined the tiniest flash of that same feeling just after he pressed his lips to the pulsepoint of her wrist before dinner. About the angle of her jaw and the gentle curve of her waist and how she might feel underneath him, her dark hair splayed out across his pillows until his sheets smelt like her and the scent of soap and lilies weaved its way into his dreams.

“Someone in mind?” Simon asks, jolting Anthony out of his latest reverie.

“My dear brother is courting,” Colin answers for him, with a wicked grin. “If you had not realised.”

“Miss Sheffield, is it not?”

“Miss Edwina,” Benedict confirms.

Anthony blinks. Right. Edwina. Not Kate. He really must stop forgetting that. It’s becoming something of a problem.

“Edwina?” There’s something uncomfortably knowing in the look that Simon gives him, as if he can see right into Anthony’s mind to the one face he can’t seem to forget, the one that very much does not belong to Edwina Sheffield.

“Yes,” Anthony mutters, moving Colin aside and shouldering the door open before anyone can pass further comment. “Now if you’ll excuse me, my intended awaits.”

For close to half an hour, the time marked very discreetly with his watch, Anthony is the perfect host. He admires one unmemorable dress after another and applauds several efforts at the pianoforte that pale in comparison to things Francesca can play with her eyes closed. He is polite and attentive and quite sure that he will remember absolutely nothing about any of his conversations once they’re over.

What he will remember is the splutter of Kate Sheffield’s laugh from the other side of the room, louder and richer and far more real than the carefully measured giggles of the latest young lady he’s talking to. It’s torture, to hear Kate laugh and not know why, to be standing at least ten paces away from her and still smell her perfume when she passes between one group of ladies and the next.

Anthony considers the possibility that he might be going mad.

Her fault, naturally.

He checks his watch again. Ten more minutes of mingling ought to do it. Ten more minutes and then if he happens to find himself wandering over to Miss Sheffield, well then isn’t it the duty of any good host to stop and chat? Perhaps he’ll even make her laugh. The thought is far too appealing.

He shortens his estimate. Five minutes is more than enough.

Three minutes later he starts to casually move in her direction only to find his way blocked by Simon.

“So… ” he says, with a sly grin that Anthony would very much like to punch right off his face, “Edwina Sheffield, eh?”

“Indeed,” Anthony says, despite the fact that he hasn’t given the lady a second thought for the better part of a week.

Edwina,” Simon says again.

“If you have something to say, Hastings, then by all means enlighten me.”

“Oh I wouldn’t dream of it,” Simon says, with another infuriating grin. “It is far more entertaining to watch you figure it out for yourself.”

Anthony opens his mouth to offer a reply, or at the very least a damn good insult, but Colin interrupts before he has the chance to find out which.

“God above, they’re everywhere,” he mutters, appearing at Anthony’s elbow. “Save me, Brother.”

Anthony just shrugs. “Every man for themselves.”

“In that case…”

Colin’s revenge is immediate and more diabolical than he can possibly realise.

“Charades?” he announces to the room at large, before turning to Anthony with a wicked grin. “What do you say, Brother?”

“No,” Anthony says flatly, just as what seems like the entire rest of the room says, “Yes.”

“Democracy,” Colin says, with relish. “Tremendous thing, really.”

Anthony scowls at him. “Careful never to let the Queen hear you say that.”

Adding insult to injury, Simon claps a hand to Anthony’s shoulder and murmurs, “Oh dear… and you had almost made it to her side as well.”

Anthony doesn’t even have it in him to pretend he doesn’t understand. He groans, tipping his head right back to scowl at the ceiling as Hastings laughs quietly beside him.

Temporarily safe from match-making mothers, Colin happily throws himself into organising the game while Anthony considers the likelihood that Kate might be interested in playing and with that, the not at all unrelated issue of whether he is interested as well. But since luck is apparently not on his side this evening, Kate doesn’t join the group huddling around Colin by the fireplace and one sharp look from his mother paired with one pleading glance from Benedict tells Anthony that his presence is not at all optional.

Which is how he finds himself obliged to spend another half an hour fulfilling his duties as host, politely laughing equally at both the amusing and boring players, and limiting himself to only the occasional glance to see if Kate has wandered over to join the group.

If the occasion of each glance comes rather close to the last, well, he thinks he’s discreet enough that it’s not obvious. Then again, after a while Simon starts to look as though he might cry with laughter – and definitely not at the game – so Anthony is forced to consider the possibility that perhaps he’s not being as subtle as he thinks.

It really doesn’t improve his mood.

The ongoing absence of Kate Sheffield is definitely not helping, either.

“Must be time for our host to take a turn,” Simon suddenly calls out when the latest player finishes their turn. When Anthony looks sharply over at him, he could swear that Simon actually winks at him. “What do you say, Lord Bridgerton?”

“Gladly, your grace,” Anthony says, enjoying the way Simon’s smile starts to falter at his uncomplaining acceptance. “Providing of course that you take a turn after me.”

Simon’s smile slides right from his face.

With plenty of his siblings around him, all of them knowing Anthony as well as they know their own names, it’s not much of a hardship to play. Benedict guesses his first phrase before anyone not named Bridgerton even realises the game has begun and Eloise gets the second not much longer after that. And even better, as Anthony looks out across the assembled guests before his third and final turn, he finds Kate Sheffield standing at the back of the little group of observers at last, a small smile playing around her lips as she says something to her sister.

Anthony stares a little longer than he should, looking away quickly when Kate starts to look up.

This time, Simon definitely does wink at him.

Anthony tries very, very hard to scowl at him and his bloody stupid meddling but for some reason his lips can’t seem to do anything but curl up into a smile.

That’s when things start to go downhill, actually.

Anthony’s final clue isn’t at all difficult but Eloise and Benedict remain stubbornly silent, their arms crossed, the identical smirks on their faces telling Anthony that they know full well what the answer is and have decided, as only siblings can, to torture him instead. Just because. Anthony scowls at them both, which only seems to amuse them further.

As he contorts himself into a series of increasingly embarrassing attempts at representing syllables, he looks up at the crowd in exasperation and his mood goes from bad to worse in an instant.

Because Kate Sheffield is smiling.

Not in amusement, not in sympathy, but in complete and utter delight. The smirk on her irritating, beautiful, utterly unforgettable face is the mirror image of the smile on Benedict and Eloise’s faces and Anthony knows, without a shadow of a doubt, that Kate knows the answer too.

He’s simply going to have to murder the girl. There’s really nothing else for it.

As Anthony stares at her, raising his eyebrows expectantly for the answer, Kate only gives him the tiniest shrug, smiling wider still. Anthony’s heart does a very disconcerting flip at the sight.

Perhaps he’ll murder Hastings as well. In for a penny and all that.

Daphne chooses that moment to wander into the circle of players and save him at long last. Having clearly missed the silent conversation between her siblings, she guesses Anthony’s final phrase in no time at all and he groans in relief, flashing his sister a grateful smile as he excuses himself to find a drink. A strong one, preferably.

Once the pleasant burn of a decent brandy has taken the edge off his temper, Anthony wanders back towards his guests, finding their attention completely fixed on Hastings as he gamely takes his turn at charades. Kate is still standing at the very back of the rough circle gathered around the fire but Edwina seems to have moved in to speak to Eloise, leaving Kate standing completely by herself.

And ... well, finally.

Anthony doesn’t have it in him to pretend he’s not pleased. Grinning, he makes his way to her side, stepping up behind her so quietly that she doesn’t notice his presence until he tugs rather sharply at the skirt of her dress. It’s hardly an appropriate way to get a lady’s attention and definitely not a polite one but since Kate just left him to flounder at charades, Anthony decides she deserves it. And besides, for reasons he can’t possibly explain, it seems very important that he finds out what the blue silk of her gown feels like under his fingers.

Kate startles when she feels the pull on her dress and something tight in Anthony’s chest seems to loosen its grip when she turns her head and her eyes land on his at last.

“Good evening, my lord,” she murmurs, quietly enough that none of the guests in front will hear.

“Miss Sheffield.” He lets the soft silk of her gown slide through his fingers, swaying a little closer to her as he reluctantly releases his hold on her skirts.

It’s only when Kate’s lips twitch and she says, “Did you enjoy your turn at charades?” that Anthony remembers that he wants to kill her, not kiss her.

“You knew that last one, didn’t you?” he demands, folding his arms behind his back. “Honestly, was humiliating me at Pall Mall not enough for you?”

“Nothing is enough when it comes to you, Lord Bridgerton.”

She can’t possibly know what her words do to him, how his knees almost give out entirely.

“So you admit it,” he somehow manages to say, whispering the accusation into her ear and enjoying her little shiver at his proximity. “You just wanted to torture me.”

“Perhaps I was simply too nervous to volunteer an answer,” Kate says, blinking innocently up at him. “In front of all these people.”

Anthony snorts. “You must think I was born yesterday.”

“I won’t answer that,” she says, a smile playing dangerously around her lips. “But regardless of what I did or did not know … you must admit, it was rather funny.”

“Not from where I was standing,” Anthony mutters, finally earning the one and only thing he’s wanted all night long – the intoxicating sound of Kate Sheffield’s laughter in his ears. For him. Because of him.

Something warm blazes in his chest.

The feeling is wonderful and terrifying, far too much and not enough all at once and damn it, he should walk away right now. He should excuse himself and find the safety of a pleasant and entirely unremarkable conversation with Edwina instead, one that will do nothing at all to his heart and barely linger in his head when it’s over.

Instead he steps a little closer to Kate and says, “Well if nothing else, I am glad you enjoyed the game, Miss Sheffield.”

“Not as much as Pall Mall, of course,” is her immediate reply, the words slipping out as if she cannot help herself.

Anthony groans, earning another splutter of her vibrant laughter. “What exactly happened to you being on your best behaviour for this visit?”

“Perhaps it’s like you said...” Kate’s bright eyes seem to hold his gaze a little longer than they should. “I simply cannot help myself.”

“And perhaps…” Anthony says, even as he tries to stop himself, “I do not mind at all.”

And there it is again, that tiny spark of unrestrained joy in Kate's eyes. It transforms her pretty face into something else entirely, something so beautifully, vibrantly alive that Anthony knows he’ll see nothing else when he closes his eyes to sleep tonight.

But the really frightening thing – the thing that will most likely keep him staring at the ceiling instead of sleeping tonight – is that he’s not entirely sure he wants to see anything else but her, ever again.

 

 

4.

Anthony’s pocket watch reads close to midnight, so very close to ticking over to tomorrow.

To his wedding day.

He sips his whisky and tells himself to go to bed.

Five minutes later, just before the clock on the mantel strikes twelve, his mother pokes her head around the door of the study and does the same.

“Time for bed, dearest?” she says pointedly, nodding at the watch in his hands. “It’s getting rather late.”

“I thought you’d already gone up,” he says, avoiding the question.

“I had,” she says, leaning against the doorframe and drawing her heavy dressing gown tighter around herself. “I could not seem to sleep.”

“Too excited?”

“Is that what’s keeping you awake?” she fires back, arching an eyebrow.

“Perhaps,” Anthony says, shrugging.

Violet smiles softly at him and Anthony gets the strangest feeling that she knows he’s not entirely lying.

“May I…” She hovers in the doorway. “May I join you for a moment?”

“Of course,” Anthony says politely, getting up from behind the desk to join his mother at the small table in front of the fire. “Though I rather thought the talk before the wedding was just for the ladies.”

“Oh, do not remind me,” Violet says, dropping into the chair opposite him with a groan. “I have barely recovered from the mess I made of Daphne’s.”

“I’m sure I do not need to hear about that.”

“No,” she says, half-amused, half-embarrassed, “I’m quite sure you do not need to hear anything for me at all.”

Anthony gulps down a rather large amount of whisky, for want of anything better to do.

“But you will ... have a care for Kate tomorrow,” his mother goes on slowly, the blush on her cheeks visible even in the weak candlelight, “won’t you? She’ll likely be very nervous and–”

“Enough,” Anthony says, without heat. Violet falls silent at once, looking rather glad of the interruption. “You need not worry, Mother.”

“It’s not–”

“I will look after Kate,” he says, surprised at the vehemence in his voice. “In – in this and all things.” He sucks in a breath, feeling the weight of his next words before they even leave his lips and strangest of all, finding it a welcome one. “She will be my wife.”

It was probably inevitable, he thinks vaguely, from the moment he kissed her right here in this very office. Maybe even before that. Maybe from the moment she stepped on his foot on purpose in that ballroom. And now, with the warm burn of whisky in his throat and sleep scratching at his eyelids, Anthony can’t bring himself to pretend he’s not happy about it.

“I like her you know,” Violet says, turning her face to the fading warmth of the fire and smiling at the embers. “With all the rushing around this week I’m not sure I remembered to tell you that, but I do.”

“I’m glad,” Anthony says, and then, before he can stop himself, “I like her too.”

Liking her isn’t the problem of course. Or rather, not by itself. It’s just that liking Kate seems a slippery slope towards loving her and that’s the one thing he absolutely cannot allow himself.

“She’s an intelligent girl,” he adds, trying to turn his mind towards more practical matters and away from what Kate will look like in her wedding dress in the morning. And out of her wedding dress, tomorrow night. “She’ll make a fine viscountess.”

“She’ll make a fine wife,” Violet corrects gently.

“Yes,” Anthony says, blaming the whisky for the rasp in his voice. “I rather think she will.”

“Something we agree on at last,” Violet says, flashing him a wry grin. “Now then,” she adds briskly, “are you going to offer me a drink or not?

“I – of course,” Anthony says, getting up and heading to the decanter. “I didn’t know you drank whisky, Mother.”

“There’s a lot of things you do not know about me,” she says archly, accepting the glass with a smile. “Although…” She settles her free hand on his wrist, her fingers warm as she squeezes his arm. “I do hope that how much I love you is not one of them.”

Anthony pats her hand where it lays on his arm. “Of course not–”

“Or how proud I am of you.”

Anthony slides his hand away from hers. He steps back, dropping back into his chair and studying the table instead of the slightly nervous smile on his mother’s face.

“Anthony–”

“Please,” he says, his breath suddenly seeming to flutter somewhere high in his throat. “You do not need to–”

“I want to,” she corrects him gently. “I know I have been harsh on you in the past–”

“No more than I deserved, I’m sure.”

“I am not sure.” Anthony jumps as his mother drops her glass to the table with far too much force. “I am not so sure at all,” she repeats, ducking her head until he finally drags his eyes from the table to her face.

“You’ve done your best, dearest,” Violet says, so kindly that Anthony wants to cry, or scream, or shatter the crystal glass under his hand. “I know that the privilege of being the first-born brings almost as many burdens along with it. But after tomorrow … well, perhaps Kate can help you carry them.”

Without meaning to, without wanting to, Anthony feels his eyes slide to the portrait above the fire.

“Is that what you did? For Father?”

“I like to think so,” she says, following Anthony’s eyes up to the image of her husband. “But then we lost him and I – I lost a part of myself and I laid all those burdens down at your feet.”

“They were mine to bear,” Anthony says sharply.

“But you were so young…” Violet brushes impatiently at the tears on her cheeks. “We thought we would have longer to – to prepare you,” she goes on, her eyes never leaving the portrait. “And I thought I would have longer to love him.”

If Anthony needed any evidence that his decision to keep a distance from Kate is the right one then here it is, here in the tears sparkling behind his mother’s eyes, even after all these years. The thought of loving Kate and leaving her like this one day – sitting here in this very chair in front of this very fire without him at her side – makes his chest tighten up like it hasn’t done for months. Black threatens at the edges of his vision and Anthony presses a fist to his sternum, as if that might shove the feeling back inside.

“Do you think he would have liked her?” he blurts out, not aware he’s going to ask the question until the words leave his lips.

Suddenly, the answer means more to Anthony than he can bear.

His mother smiles like she understands. “What do you think, dearest?”

A hundred images of Kate flit through Anthony’s mind – furious at him right here in this office, laughing as she swings his favourite pall mall mallet in her small graceful hand, smiling as he slips a betrothal ring onto that same hand, her pretending that it isn’t shaking, him pretending that he doesn’t notice. He sees himself beside her, showing her the very worst and very best of himself, and Kate never stepping back, never looking away from any of it.

“I think so,” he says, very quietly. “I think he would have loved her.”

And Anthony would have been free to love her as well.

All these years later, his father’s death still takes and takes and takes.

The clock on the mantel quietly chimes twelve.

“Look at that,” Anthony says softly, “I’m getting married today.” Habit makes him pull out his own watch to check the time there. “In eleven and a half hours, I shall have a wife.”

“Give or take quarter of an hour,” Violet says, with a small smile. “Brides are almost always late, you know.”

“Not my bride,” Anthony says, quite sure of it without really knowing why. “I rather think Kate will be perfectly on time, actually.”

“We shall see,” Violet says. “Now, off to bed with you. I will not have you showing tired eyes to your viscountess in the morning.”

“Yes, Mother.” Anthony stands, tucking away his chair. “Are you coming?”

“In a moment,” she whispers, her eyes back on the canvas above the fireplace. “I should like to sit here by myself for a little while.”

“Very well.” Anthony presses a kiss to the top of his mother’s head, leaving her to her whisky and her memories while he climbs the stairs to sleep in his old childhood bedroom for one last night.

When he hears his mother’s quiet footsteps a little later, Anthony finds his watch on his bedside table, holding it carefully under his candle to see the time again.

“Eleven hours,” he murmurs quietly, blowing out his light and smiling like a fool into the darkness.

The next morning when his mother pops her head around the door to the study where Anthony and Benedict are waiting, she smiles and says, “Seems you were right, dearest.”

“What’s that?” Benedict asks, tugging at the sharp edge of his freshly starched collar.

“Kate’s here.” Anthony takes out his watch, rubbing his thumb over the glass to remove a smudge. “Right on time.”

 

 

5.

Kate looks down at the neatly arranged tray on her lap and sighs. “I really have to stop taking breakfast like this.”

“You’ll do no such thing,” Anthony says, stealing a kiss along with the cup of tea she offers him. He leans into her side, absurdly pleased with the simple pressure of her arm resting against his. “It’s my favourite part of the morning.”

“Well, when you put it like that...” Kate beams over at him, her delighted smile waking him up far more than the tea ever could. “Only I’m afraid it’s terribly lazy.”

Ah, Gentle Reader,” Anthony says, indulging in their latest game of inventing fictional Lady Whistledown columns for the most mundane of events, “it has reached This Author’s ears that the new Viscountess Bridgerton has taken to indulging in breakfast in bed almost every day–

And even more shocking,” Kate says, taking over seamlessly as Anthony helps himself to a some of her fruit, “I hear whispers that their cook has been forced to begin overloading the viscountess’ tray, since Lord Bridgerton has taken to stealing from his own wife’s plate.”

“I simply do not understand why breakfast in bed should be the reserve of married ladies only,” Anthony says, shrugging. “Why must I be lonely at the breakfast table?”

“Fair point, husband.”

“Heavens, did you just agree with me? I must note the date and time.”

“You’re insufferable,” she says, swatting at him with the newspaper. “Do you know that?”

“And yet you suffer me,” he says, turning his head to press a kiss against the bare skin at the top of her arm.

“I suppose I do,” she says fondly, obligingly arching her jaw to allow Anthony to continue tracing a lazy path of kisses up towards her neck. “Anthony, do we...” She loses the thread of her sentence for a moment, her words slurring into a hum of appreciation that might just be the sweetest melody Anthony has ever heard. “Do we have time for this?”

“Probably not, actually.” Anthony groans, pulling back and using Kate’s momentary distraction to steal a piece of toast from her plate. He reaches over to the bedside table for his watch and checks the time. “Oh damn, definitely not in fact. It’s already late and I have a hundred and one things to do today.”

“Are you seeing the house on Bruton Street this morning?”

“Indeed. And after that I said I’d take Gregory out for a ride,” Anthony says, washing down the toast with the last of his tea. “Then I’ve all sorts of meetings this afternoon. In fact … I’m not at all sure that I’ll be finished in time to escort you to Lady Winstead’s ball this evening.”

An uncomfortable feeling crawls up Anthony’s spine at the half-truth. He does have a busy day ahead but if he’s honest, it would hardly be impossible to make an appearance later. It’s just that he’s starting to worry that he might like their evenings a little too much. It feels dangerous, dancing with Kate under the bright chandeliers of a ballroom, knowing she will be coming home with him. It always seems so very easy to love her when she’s stepping on his toes and he’s pretending not to notice.

“I see.” Kate hides her disappointment well but not well enough to fool him. “It’s no matter, Edwina and Mary will be there and–”

“I could meet you there,” he blurts, before he can stop himself.

Well.

Perhaps mornings are just as dangerous, Anthony thinks ruefully, as the sun streams in through the window to light up Kate’s face. But when she smiles at him, her hair a knot of tangled curls and one sleeve of her nightgown slipping off her shoulder, Anthony can’t bring himself to be afraid of the warm feeling right in the centre of his chest.

“Really?” she says.

“Really,” he repeats. He just can’t be responsible for dimming that light in her eyes, that’s all there is to it. It hardly signifies. “I’ll be there, I promise.”

And after all, one more party can’t hurt.

“Very well, I suppose I could save you a dance,” Kate jokes, knocking her shoulder lightly against his.

“I shall race through my day to claim it,” he says, which is not entirely a lie. “But what of you? What’s in your diary for today?”

“Oh you know...” she says, finishing her second cup of tea and replacing the cup on its saucer, “a little of this, a little of that.”

“A little of what and a little of which?”

“You really wish to hear?” Her surprise is somehow both charming and slightly irritating.

“Should I not wish to know what my wife is up to?”

Kate shrugs, ignoring his scowl. “Many husbands do not.”

“Yes, well…” He curls one finger around a lock of her dark hair and gives the slightest tug, encouraging her to lean down so he can kiss her. “I am not most husbands.”

“No, you certainly are one of a kind,” Kate murmurs against his lips, somehow managing to make it sound like a compliment and an insult, all at once.

Anthony laughs, brushing his nose against hers. “Half of society can’t tell me apart from my brothers, actually.”

Kate laughs and leans in to kiss him again, though it’s more of a pressing of her smile against his than a kiss. Anthony likes it all the same.

“To answer your question,” Kate says when they part, “I think Edwina is calling this morning and then I need to visit the Modiste about some lighter dresses for the summer. And Newton will need a good long walk at some point too. I think he’s getting a little overweight.”

“I think the ship has rather sailed on that already, wife.”

“Hush, you. Or I shall waste all your money on the most extravagant order with Madame Delacroix–”

“Oh by all means, go ahead. Just ask her for less buttons, would you?”

“Pardon me?”

“You must have noticed they’ve been flying off all over the place,” Anthony says, nodding his head toward the bedroom floor. “If you do not get some gowns that are easier for me to remove we shall have to give your maid a raise for all the mending she’s doing.”

“Or you could simply learn patience,” Kate says, trying to look disapproving and failing rather spectacularly. “I believe it is considered a virtue.”

“Tell that to my gold silk waistcoat.”

“Yes, well, that was different,” she says, with a careless wave of her hand. “That was urgent.”

“Urgent, indeed?”

“Yes.” She shifts slightly, careful not to upset the tray as she lifts her hand to his chest and walks her fingertips under the edge of his robe, pulling it aside. “I had an urgent need to see my husband without his clothes.”

Anthony splutters a laugh, utterly charmed by the absurd combination of her bold words and the crimson blush that stains her cheeks when she says them.

“You see what I mean?” he murmurs, mirroring her movements as he hooks a finger underneath the falling shoulder of her nightgown and peels it down further. “The very, very best part of the morning.”

Anthony ducks his head to her collarbone, pressing a kiss to the spot on her chest where the bee sting sunk into her delicate skin and got them into this lovely mess in the first place. Kate’s fingers close around the edge of his robe, holding him tight against her as he traces the hollows of her collarbone with his tongue, and when she takes hold of his head and drags him up to her lips, whimpering into his open mouth, he is undone. He clutches her closer, deepening the kiss and immediately knocking into the breakfast tray with his knee, almost upsetting it altogether.

“Oh, good God!” Anthony yelps, just about catching an empty egg shell before it crushes under the sugar bowl.

And just like that, Kate is laughing instead of kissing him, her entire body shaking as she hurries to steady the tray and save the bedspread from tea-stains. Even as she laughs at him, her hair wild around her face and her hands absurdly clutching onto a saucer and two teaspoons, Anthony doesn’t want her any less. He could have her right now, laughing all the while, and he’s quite sure it would be better than anything he’s ever known before.

The thought should probably scare him but he can’t seem to stop laughing any more than she can.

“And on that note,” Kate says, wiping her eyes as she straightens a small vase containing one now very squashed tulip, “I think we ought to get up or you really will be late.”

Anthony leans over to check his watch again, groaning when he sees the time. “I hate it when you’re right.”

“Since I am always right, you must be in a constant state of dissatisfaction.”

“I’m certainly dissatisfied now,” he grumbles, watching unhappily as she straightens her nightgown back into place and slips out of bed.

“There, there.” Kate pats his cheek as she passes his side of the bed. “Think of it as practice for your new study of patience,” she says over her shoulder, grinning wickedly at him as he watches her walk away.

Over an hour later, Anthony’s mind is still firmly on the sway of Kate’s hips as he stands outside Bruton Street waiting for his mother to alight from her carriage. Clearly it’s going to be a long day. He checks his watch, idly calculating just how long it will be until he can see Kate in that almost sheer nightgown again. Or preferably out of it.

“I hope I haven’t kept you waiting, dearest?” his mother says as she steps down onto the pavement, her eyes on his watch. “Am I very late?”

“Not at all, I was early,” Anthony says, tucking the watch away. “Ah, and here’s the third member of our party now.”

“Third?” Violet asks, just as a second carriage draws up and Henry Granville steps down.

“Granville,” Anthony says, shaking his hand in greeting. “Good of you to do this. Mother, I don’t believe you’ve met Mr Henry Granville? He painted Daphne and Simon’s portrait last year. Granville, allow me to introduce my mother.”

“Lady Bridgerton.” Granville inclines his head politely. “A pleasure.”

“Likewise,” Violet says, smiling politely even as she looks curiously between the two men. “Your portrait of my daughter and son-in-law is wonderful, Mr Granville.”

“You’re very kind, Lady Bridgerton, but I’m not sure it will have survived the water damage.”

“My daughter likes it all the more for the imperfection actually,” Violet says, smiling. “Pleasant memories, you see.”

“How lovely.” Granville glances up at the facade of Bruton Street. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’d better get to it. Which room is it, Bridgerton?”

“Up the stairs, second on the left,” Anthony says. “Go ahead, the agent gave me the key so it’s already open.”

“What are we thinking – rocking horse under the window, dolls on the floor, that sort of thing?”

“And books,” Anthony says. “Lots of them.”

“Right you are.”

“Anthony?” his mother prompts, once Granville has disappeared up the steps. “What exactly is going on?”

“Kate and I thought Hyacinth seemed a bit down about the move when we were at dinner last week,” Anthony says, looping his arm through his mothers and leading her towards the front door. “So we thought it might help to see her new room as it might look when she’s in it, you know, with her things around her. It’s so bare at the moment.”

“Anthony Bridgerton…” Violet stops in her tracks. “Are you telling me you asked a celebrated portrait artist to sketch a child’s bedroom?”

“Well … yes?”

“That’s – oh, Anthony, that’s lovely.

“It’s nothing really,” Anthony says, finding it quite difficult to look directly at the glowing smile his mother is shining his way. “It was mostly Kate’s idea–”

“However did you get him to agree?”

“He’s a friend of Benedict’s,” Anthony says, shrugging. “And I also might have agreed to let him paint Kate and I later this summer. But don’t let on, I haven’t plucked up the courage to tell Kate yet.”

“Won’t she be pleased?”

“She’s never sat for a portrait before. I think she’s rather nervous about the idea.”

“Poor thing. Though I’m quite sure she’ll look as lovely on canvas as she does in person.”

“That is precisely what I said!”

“Good boy,” Violet says, with an approving pat to his hand. “Now then, let me show you around and you can tell me what you think about the place.”

They’re barely through the entrance hall before Anthony decides that Number Five Bruton Street is perfect. It’s smaller than Bridgerton House of course but there’s something oddly familiar about it, almost as if the two houses share a similar soul. A knot of something uncomfortable seems to unravel in Anthony’s chest as he walks through the empty rooms and listens to his mother rattling on happily about what furniture can go where and what colour she wants for the drawing room. He can see what she sees, he realises, can perfectly picture his family in this house, filling it with all the chaos and laughter of Bridgerton House.

“I like it,” he declares when the tour is finished and they’ve seen Granville back into his carriage with his sketches under his arm. “In fact, I love it.”

“There’s something complicated with the death duties for the previous owner,” Violet says, looking wistfully up at the closed door, “so it won’t be available for some time. I could find something sooner–”

“There’s nothing else you like as much,” Anthony interrupts. “And I’ve already examined the papers, it’s a good buy. You should wait for this one.”

“But–”

“Kate and I are quite content where we are for now.”

“Are you sure?” Violet asks, though her smile betrays her relief.

“Certainly,” Anthony says, seeing his mother into her carriage and hopping in beside her. “Kate says she needs to learn how to run our little house before she takes on Bridgerton House anyway.”

“Is she struggling?”

“Not a bit. The staff already like her far more than they like me and she’s only been there five minutes. Except for our butler, actually. But that’s down to the dog.”

The short journey back to Bridgerton House passes quickly and it’s only when they pull up outside that Anthony realises he’s spent the entire time talking about his butler’s lone stand against Newton and Kate’s rather complicated and so far unsuccessful plan to win him over.

“Sorry, Mother,” he says, “I’ve rather rattled on, haven’t I?”

“Do not dare apologise,” Violet says, a strange smile playing around her lips. She leans over suddenly, laying her hand on his and giving it a squeeze. “It does me good to see you happy at last.”

Anthony shifts in his seat. “I’ve always been happy.”

“No, dearest,” his mother replies, staring at him so intently that he has to look away. “I don’t think you have been.”

Anthony is saved from having to reply by Gregory wrenching open the door of Bridgerton House and rushing out to claim the ride that Anthony promised him. Even so, his mother’s words seem to follow him all the way around Hyde Park and further still, whispering in the back of his mind at every meeting he rushes through that afternoon.

It’s not that he thinks she’s wrong. It’s that he rather thinks she might be right.

He’s still wondering just what that might mean when Simon Basset stops him on the way out of White’s.

“Bridgerton!” he calls, gesturing to the empty chair at his table. “Have a drink with me? Daff’s booted me out for the evening.”

“What did you do this time?”

“Nothing,” Hastings says, though his eyes slide away guiltily as he says it. “I simply suggested that perhaps she should not be up and about so soon after the birth.”

“Ah.”

“Indeed.”

Simon looks so pathetic that Anthony almost gives in and drops into the open chair that Simon is silently nudging towards him with his foot. He pulls out his watch, checking the time as he weighs his options. If he leaves now he can make it home to change and meet Kate on the dancefloor within an hour, maybe an hour and half. Or he can take this excuse to miss the ball entirely, neatly re-establishing some of the carefully maintained distance that he suspects he’s been letting slip lately.

“So – will you join me?”

He should.

He even opens his mouth to say yes.

And then he remembers the way the morning sun glinted in Kate’s hair as she smiled at him in bed this morning, and he is lost.

“I can’t stay,” he says.

More than that, he realises, he really doesn’t want to.

He wants to see his wife.

“Kate’s expecting me.” Anticipation courses through his blood, banishing the ache of his long day as he claps a hand to Simon’s shoulder in farewell. “You go home too, Hastings. A little grovelling ought to do the trick.”

“Have you met Daphne?”

“Very well, a lot then. Now, I really must go.”

“Give my best to Lady Bridgerton,” Simon calls after him, laughter in his voice.

Anthony doesn’t care enough to slow down. He lets Simon laugh at him as he dashes out of White’s and into his carriage.

The strange thing is, the closer he gets to seeing Kate, the less Anthony feels able to tolerate the wait. Though she’s already left when he returns home, her perfume seems to linger in the hall, just enough to notice but not enough to satisfy him, leaving him bounding up the stairs two at a time and bellowing for his valet. By the time he’s changed and jumped back into his carriage, Anthony feels like he’s crawling out of his skin without her.

And when he finally reaches the crowded ballroom, he almost curses out loud.

It’s a terrible crush, half the Ton seem to be mingling around in front of him and worst of all, he cannot see his bloody wife anywhere. He weaves his way through the room, ignoring half a dozen calls of his name until finally – finally – his eyes land on her at last.

Anthony half-expects his heart to start racing at the sight of her but instead he feels his breathing slow right down, a strange sense of calm washing over him. He takes the deepest breath he’s taken all day and smiles at her across the ballroom.

As though she can sense his eyes on her, Kate lifts her head. Her whole face lights up as their eyes meet and Anthony decides then and there that even if he can’t let himself love her, he can let himself have this, always. He can be the man that makes Kate smile like that. The thought leaves him more light-headed than the very best champagne.

Kate beckons him over, looking utterly radiant in a pale lavender gown, her dark hair twisted up into something very complicated that Anthony is sure will lead to him having his hands full of hair pins later.

Then, just as he’s about halfway to her side, Kate very purposefully turns slightly to show him her back and Anthony stops. Just stops. Stops walking. Stops breathing. Because his wife – his clever, stunning, utterly infuriating wife – is wearing a gown with more tiny buttons down the back than he can count.

When he regains the ability to breathe, Anthony actually laughs aloud.

He closes the rest of the distance between them in no time flat, barging at least one gentleman out of his path on the way.

“I cannot believe you,” he says, by way of greeting.

Kate laughs, though the sound chokes a way as he slides his hand around her back, the action hidden by the wall she’s standing in front of. “Hello to you too, husband,” she manages, blushing as his hand slides lower.

“Were you not listening this morning or do you simply enjoy torturing me?” Anthony says, enjoying the little gasp she swallows down as he twists one of the buttons between his fingers. “On second thought, do not answer that. I already know.”

Kate laughs, her whole head tipping up to the ceiling, and Anthony is instantly transported back to their bedroom this morning, to the fantasy of hearing her laugh beneath him while he moves inside her.

“To be honest, most of them are for show,” she admits though Anthony barely hears her, too intent on the slide of satin under his fingers as he dances his hand across her back. “Oh but it was worth it, to see your face.”

“A dance, wife?” Anthony suggests suddenly, feeling quite certain that if they don’t move from beside the wall this instant he’ll do something very, very foolish indeed. “I believe I was promised at least one.”

“Oh, very well,” Kate says, feigning a put-upon sigh as she takes his hand.

Anthony keeps his hand tight to her back as he spins her around the dancefloor, feeling every single button that he’ll soon slip undone and whispering in her ear that he just might have to start on them in the carriage, if not right here. When she blushes and treads on his toes, he simply smiles up at the chandelier and carries on dancing.

“What?” he says, catching her staring at him as the music ends.

“Nothing,” Kate says. “Just … you look–”

“Happy,” he finishes for her. He leans in a little closer than is entirely proper in public, whispering the truth into the shell of her ear. “I’m happy, Kate.”

And really, what’s the harm in admitting it?

It doesn’t mean he’s in love.

 

 

(+ 1)

For a man who once swore off love entirely, Anthony really, really loves this chair.

Oh, and the woman sitting on it with him of course, but that goes without saying these days. Or rather it would, if he didn’t like saying it quite so much.

The comfortable old armchair in their little drawing room is just about big enough for two and Anthony never, ever intends to sit in it alone again. It’s far better like this – with Kate more than halfway in his lap, her shoulder curled up against his arm and her legs stretched out across his thighs.

He could, he thinks somewhat fancifully, stay here all day.

“What if I’ve forgotten how to dance?” Kate says, dragging his attention back to the matter at hand and the reason they can’t actually stay here all day – the upcoming ball at Bridgerton House that evening.

Anthony raises an eyebrow at her. “Did you ever actually learn?”

“Oh, very funny,” Kate says, batting a hand against his chest. “I am in earnest. What if my leg gives out in the middle of the quadrille?”

“Then I shall carry you home.”

“All the way? Seems a touch melodramatic when we have a carriage.”

“I was thinking romantic,” Anthony says, with a shrug.

“Oh, that too,” Kate says, giving him a peck on the cheek. “But what if–”

“Kate,” he interrupts, one hand finding its way under her skirts to rest on her almost healed leg, “if you do not want to go then we won’t go. It’s as simple as that.”

“The ball is being held in our honour!”

“So?”

“And it’s been delayed for ages because of my silly leg.”

“Please don’t insult your leg, my love,” he says, dancing his fingertips up her shin. “I’m rather fond of it, as you know.”

She bats his hand out from under her dress. “Anthony!”

“As for the ball, for all I care they can just put out Granville’s portrait of us and leave it at that. Perhaps nobody will even notice we’re not there, it is rather lifelike.”

Kate laughs, knocking her head against his shoulder. “Now there’s an idea.”

“I mean it you know,” Anthony says softly, winding his arms around her waist. “Well, maybe not the part about the painting. But you know I wouldn’t care if we stayed at home.”

“I know.” He can hear the smile in her voice when she says, “And I love you for it.”

“But…”

“But...” Kate repeats, huffing a little laugh at how well he knows her, “I do actually want to go.” She groans, the unhappy sound intruding on his good mood like a sudden rainshower. “I’ve been looking forward to it for weeks! I suppose I’m just getting rather … well, nervous. It’s been an age since we’ve been out in society and I just know that everyone will be staring at us. Or me, at least.”

“Ah,” Anthony says slowly, with dawning understanding. Lately he’s been learning that not every problem can be … challenged to a duel, so to speak. And he rather thinks this might be one of those times. “You want support and not solutions, don’t you?”

When Kate hums a happy noise of agreement, Anthony feels like the cleverest man in London.

“Oh, yes please,” she whispers, cuddling into his side and tucking her head under his chin. “Tell me everything is going to go well.”

“Well?” Anthony says, with exaggerated outrage. “It’s going to go considerably better than that. In fact I expect Lady Whistledown shall have a field day tomorrow… Dear Gentle Reader...

Kate giggles, the sound so infectious that he can feel his own voice start to quiver.

I simply must declare the ball at Bridgerton House to have been the very best of the entire Season,” he goes on, adopting the slightly high pitched voice that he always put on for this little game, the one that never fails to make Kate fall to pieces. “It was said that the new Lady Bridgerton sparkled brighter than the family diamonds, not that Lord Bridgerton allowed her to spend more than two minutes talking to any guest besides him.”

“How rude of you,” Kate puts in.

The flowers were … flowery, the music …. musical, and the Dowager Lady Bridgerton drank far too much champagne.”

“Stop, stop.” Kate laughs helplessly into his chest, clutching at his waistcoat. “I can’t...”

Sometimes, usually when it’s late and he’s had too much brandy, Anthony thinks he might have been put on this earth just to make this woman laugh.

He grins down at her, dropping a kiss to the top of her head. “Better?”

“Infinitely.” Kate pulls back to look up at him, amusement still dancing in her dark eyes. “Do you know, I cannot believe I ever thought you a serious man.”

“Hush.” Anthony presses a finger to her smiling lips. “You must promise not to let on. I have a reputation to uphold.”

“Oh, I know all about your reputation,” she says, nipping lightly at his finger.

“So you’re always telling me,” he says, tucking his hand under her chin to tilt her face up towards his. “But a reminder can’t hurt…”

He swallows her laughter with a kiss. It is, Anthony thinks vaguely, his second favourite thing to do in the world. Nothing beats silencing an argument with a kiss of course but this really is a very close second. And often far more successful.

Kate’s hands slide up from his waistcoat and into his hair, her short nails scratching pleasantly across his scalp. The sensation is more drugging than the very best brandy. Drunk on it – and on her – Anthony kisses her lazily, no particular destination in mind. Just because he can. Because she’s here and he’s here and it’s Friday afternoon and he loves her, with a fierceness that he’s rather proud of now he’s stopped being quite so terrified of it all the time.

When they eventually part – it could be five seconds or five minutes later – Anthony closes his eyes and feels like he could sleep for days. Kate seems to share the feeling, tucking her head back under his chin and humming a sleepy, contented sort of sound in the back of her throat, the kind that always makes him warm all over.

It’s little moments like this that are slowly, quietly dismantling all the silly ideas that he carried around for so long. Sometimes Kate will look into his eyes and read his mood like a book or she’ll start a sentence and he’ll hear himself finish it, and suddenly he’ll wish he could go back and shake his old self, sit him down and tell him that he’s utterly wrong about everything. That he doesn’t know intimacy at all and that one day he’ll learn that it isn’t overwhelming or desperate or any of the things he thinks. It’s far, far quieter. It’s this – it’s sitting with Kate on a rainy afternoon, knowing he can tell her anything or nothing at all.

Then again, he thinks with a sleepy laugh, his old self probably wouldn’t listen to him anyway.

It had to be Kate.

“I love you, you know,” Anthony says quietly, resting his cheek on the crown of her head. “Have I told you that today?”

“No,” comes his brother’s voice, from the doorway. “But that’s awfully sweet of you to say.”

Anthony suddenly feels very, very awake.

“What–” Kate yelps in surprise, knocking her head into Anthony’s chin in her haste to turn around. “Oh my – Benedict!”

“Hello, you two,” Benedict says, leaning against the doorframe and looking entirely too amused for Anthony’s liking.

“What the devil are you doing here?” Anthony demands, having examined his options and decided that annoyance is vastly preferable to embarrassment.

“He means, ‘hello’,” Kate amends, clearly having opted for embarrassment instead. She scrambles to get up from Anthony’s lap, batting at his chest when he offers no assistance at all. “Anthony!”

Warming rather nicely to his annoyance, Anthony decides that if his pleasant afternoon is to be interrupted then at the very least his wife will be staying exactly where she is. He tightens his arms around her.

“Anthony, let me–”

“Oh, don’t get up on my account,” Benedict says, choking on a laugh as Kate continues her graceless attempts to escape Anthony’s hold.

“I–”

“I mean it,” he says lightly, moving into the room and dropping onto the sofa opposite them. “You are in your own chair in your own house with your own husband. Why should you be made to move just because I have intruded?”

“My brother likes to think himself above society’s rules,” Anthony tells Kate. “When it suits him.”

“Well it certainly suits me,” she says suddenly, surprising them both, “if it means I do not have to get up.”

And with that, she stops struggling altogether and settles back down on Anthony’s lap.

Benedict’s face says he wasn’t actually expecting that.

“She needs to elevate her bad leg, you see,” Anthony tells his brother, his good mood quite restored by Benedict’s sudden and complete inability to look either of them in the eye. “Good of you to understand.”

Kate snorts.

“What does bring you here anyway, Brother?” Anthony asks. “Don’t tell me you’ve come to cry off fencing with Colin later?”

“No,” Benedict says. “I’ve come to see why you cried off fencing with Colin.”

“I – what? We always fence at three?”

“That we do. And it’s half past four.”

“Oh!” Anthony says, trying to think about the last time he checked. “Brother, I’m sorry. I … I completely lost track of time and–”

And the world didn’t end. Not even slightly.

Well, how about that.

Anthony hugs his wife closer to him and grins into her hair, just because.

“Not to worry,” Benedict says lightly, helping himself to a biscuit. “I trounced Colin, by the way–”

“Wait,” Kate interrupts, suddenly going quite still in Anthony’s hold. “Did you say half past four?”

“Yes, why?”

“Because…” she says in a horrified voice, “I’ve just remembered I’m expecting your–”

“Mother!”

This time Anthony doesn’t resist when Kate tries to get off his lap.

In fact, he shoves her himself.

Kate lands – not particularly gracefully and definitely not discreetly – onto the seat cushion beside him, her legs dropping heavily to the floor as Anthony stands up to greet his mother, who appears to be hovering somewhere between horror and amusement at the scene before her.

Benedict, on the other hand, is openly laughing.

Anthony considers sharpening his foil before fencing next week.

“Good afternoon.” Violet presses her lips together in a way that suggests she’s rather close to laughter. “How’s your leg, Kate?” she inquires rather pointedly, and Anthony is suddenly and forcibly reminded just where his siblings get a lot of their diabolical humour from.

Kate chokes back a laugh. Or a groan. Maybe both. “Very well, thank you,” she somehow manages to say.

“Lovely.” Violet turns to her sons. “I didn’t expect to see you here, boys. Aren’t you usually fencing on a Friday?”

“Shouldn’t you be – ah – getting ready for tonight or something,” Anthony says, ignoring her question. He sits back down beside Kate and absolutely, positively, does not look at her. He’s not sure what will happen if he does but he’s certain it won’t be good.

“I always arrange to pay a call or two on the afternoon before a ball,” Violet says, settling herself onto the sofa beside Benedict. “Takes my mind off it. And stops me annoying the servants with my meddling.”

“That’s very sensible,” Kate says, sounding so perfectly calm that Anthony has to peek at her.

Despite the blazing red blush on her cheeks she seems to have decided to plough on as if she wasn’t just caught sitting in her husband’s lap in the middle of the afternoon. By his mother, of all people.

Anthony really has to admire her fortitude.

“I must remember to do the same the first time we host a ball of our own,” Kate goes on mildly. “I’m sure I will be a wreck.”

“Oh yes,” Violet says. “It’s important to take a break and–”

“Put your feet up?” Benedict suggests, whimpering with barely contained laughter.

How on earth Anthony makes it through the rest of the visit he will never, ever know.

“I won’t be able to look your mother in the eye tonight,” Kate insists later that evening, pacing their bedroom while her maid tries desperately to get her to stop long enough to finish the fastenings at the back of Kate’s gown. “Or ever again for that matter!”

“Come now, it wasn’t that bad,” Anthony says, which isn’t remotely true of course.

It’s just that it’s hard to dwell on anything unpleasant when Kate looks like this – about two minutes away from being an absolute vision, but not quite there yet. Sometimes he thinks he likes her best like this, one shoe on and a few pieces of hair still out of place, slightly disheveled in a way that only he will ever get to see.

“Look on the bright side,” he goes on, settling into the comfortable chair beneath the window to wait for her to finish getting ready. “At least my hand wasn’t still up your skirt by the time she arrived.”

Emily, Kate’s new and rather young lady’s maid, splutters a shocked laugh.

“Sorry,” he says, when Kate glares at him. “But you must admit I have a point.”

“What I have to admit,” Kate says, finally stopping long enough for Emily to finish her buttons, “is that we are going to be terribly late and it is all your fault.”

“My fault?”

“Yes,” Kate says, shooting him a look and then glancing awkwardly at Emily. “You know why...”

“I do,” Anthony agrees. When Kate’s nerves started getting the better of her again after supper he took it upon himself to help her relax before they came upstairs to change for the ball. He leans back and crosses his hands behind his head as the memory drifts pleasantly across his mind. “Though I don’t recall you complaining at the time.”

To be fair, she very rarely complains when he has his head between her thighs.

“Stop it.”

Anthony very deliberately darts his tongue out to wet his lips, trying very hard not to laugh at the mixture of desire and irritation that crosses Kate’s face. “Don’t recall you saying that either.”

Kate sits down at her dressing table and tosses her fan at him.

Anthony supposes he should be glad she didn’t opt for something heavier.

“Thank you, Emily,” he says suddenly, getting up from his chair and opening the bedroom door. “My wife won’t be needing you again this evening.”

“Won’t I?” Kate says dryly, as her maid departs with a barely contained giggle. “Are you going to finish my hair?”

“Your hair is finished.”

Kate rolls her eyes at him in the mirror, trying to pin a stray strand back behind her ear.

He shrugs. “I like it when you leave a few pieces down around your face like that.”

“Oh,” Kate says, letting her hands fall to her lap. “Really?”

He wonders if she’ll ever stop blushing when he compliments her.

“Really.”

While she busies herself with dabbing some scent on her wrists, Anthony retrieves a velvet box from beside the bed and tucks it behind his back as he moves to stand behind her.

“In fact,” he says slowly, making a show of studying her, “you look almost perfect.”

“Almost?” Her smile says she knows he’s teasing her and has decided to indulge him.

He rather knew she would.

“There’s something missing...” Anthony places the box on the table in front of her, opening it with a slight flourish to reveal a delicate gold necklace nestled carefully in white silk.

“Anthony…” Kate goes very, very still. “What’s this?”

“The family diamonds, of course,” he says, biting back a smile as she reaches out and then snatches her hand back, as if a touch might burn her. “Or some of them, at least.”

“The – the family diamonds?”

“I did tell you earlier. Or rather, Lady Whistledown did.”

“You – you–”

He’d been expecting some sort of reaction but not speechlessness. It’s one of his favourites. And so difficult to obtain, where Kate is concerned.

“I thought you were joking!”

“Not at all,” he says lightly, giving in to his smile and feeling the warmth of it right down to his toes. He removes the necklace from its case, lifting it carefully over her head. “May I?”

“I …” Kate looks at him in the mirror, eyes wide. “Anthony, I can’t wear this!”

“Whyever not?”

“What if I – I don’t know, what if I break it?”

“That would be difficult,” Anthony says, concentrating on the tiny fastening between his fingers. “I believe diamond is widely understood to be the hardest substance there is.”

With the clasp finally closed, he leans down and presses a featherlight kiss to the back of Kate’s neck.

“There,” he says, finding his voice slightly choked. “Perfect.

Having never given much thought to the various baubles in the Bridgerton collection before, it rather surprised him how quickly he selected this particular piece for Kate tonight. It’s an older necklace, smaller and more delicate than some of the newer pieces in the family collection, but there was something about the stones when they caught the light that made it difficult to look at anything else. As Kate reaches up a hand and touches one of the diamonds resting against her throat, something like wonder in her bright eyes, Anthony knows he chose well.

“I – I can’t...” she repeats weakly, shaking her head slightly.

“You can,” Anthony says firmly, resting his hands lightly on her shoulders. He smiles softly at her reflection. “You are a Bridgerton, are you not?”

Kate’s immediate proud little smile makes him feel ten feet tall. “Yes,” she whispers.

“Then it’s yours,” he says, giving her shoulders a gentle squeeze. When she meets his eyes in the mirror he inclines his head and says, very softly, “Lady Bridgerton.”

Kate turns on the stool to face him, moving slowly so as not to crush her dress. “Lord Bridgerton,” she replies, a soft smile playing around her lips.

It’s silly really, how much it pleases him that she tilts her face up for his kiss before he even leans down. Anthony captures her cheeks under his palms and softly brushes his lips against hers, breathing her in. She still smells like soap and lilies of course but now – now it’s his soap. Sometimes that tiny difference feels like the biggest thing in the world. He takes her hand in his, pulling her to her feet and folding her into his arms.

“Oh we’re going to be so late...” Kate objects feebly, even as she melts into his embrace. “Do you even know what time it is?”

“No,” Anthony says, “I haven’t the faintest idea.”

Habit makes him wait for … something – panic, guilt, the itch to check his watch and that horrible feeling that always follows, of being trapped somewhere under the glass, always running out of time.

Anthony holds his breath for a moment and then lets it go, realising that he doesn’t even remember the last time he felt any of those things. Somewhere along the way, without even realising it, he stopped seeing all his failings and all his fears under that watchface and started seeing simply the time of day. And as he holds his wife in his arms, listening to her gentle breathing keeping time with his own, Anthony knows without a shadow of doubt that she is the reason why.

“Anthony?” Kate says, pulling back slightly to peer up at him, a curious tilt to her head. “What is it?” She lifts her hand to his face, cradling his cheek under her palm. “Are you quite alright?”

“Yes.” Anthony turns his head, pressing a kiss into her palm. “I’ve never been better.”

“Good,” Kate says, that now familiar spark of joy glittering in her eyes, the one Anthony knows he’ll never, ever stop chasing. “Neither have I.”

And, well, there’s really only one way to respond to something as wonderful as that. There’s nothing else for it, Anthony thinks, with a sudden laugh that bubbles up from somewhere deep in his chest. And now that her leg is quite healed there’s also absolutely nothing to stop him. Smiling like a fool, he wraps his arms around Kate and lifts her right off her feet, swinging her in a haphazard arc across the bedroom floor as the music of her vibrant laughter rings in his ears.