Actions

Work Header

He is Only Thirteen

Work Text:

The one where Kate finally meets the other Bridgerton Brother.

 

            “Excuse me,” a voice spoke from her left. Her first instinct was to turn but, much to her surprise, she saw no face at eye level. However, she spied a wonderful mop of familiar chestnut colored hair a slight bit lower than her own leveled gaze.

 

            She conjured a smile, biting back a comment. Her curiosity did get the best of her; on some days, though, she knew better than to speak at risk of grave insult.

 

Mainly for the sake of polities when it concerned children.  

 

She had her suspicions of the young man’s identity. His likeness to someone else was uncanny.

 

“Good evening, sir,” she curtseyed.

 

“As to you,” he reciprocated with a broad grin. He was dashing, if she did say so herself. Not that she was attracted to someone who – if she suspected correctly – was only thirteen. Far be it from the truth. Rather, she was charmed by his etiquette and impressed with his presentation. A far better example than either of his devilish brothers.

 

“Pardon my manners,” he spoke warmly. “I believe we have not made proper acquaintance. I am Gregory. I mean, formally, Mr. Bridgerton,” he stammered towards the end. She realized he was glamoured by her. She could recognize that pink hue on his face anywhere. “That is,” he corrected, “if you’d like, and I do not mind, you may call me Gregory. I have so many brothers,” he chuckled, “it’s hard to keep up with any Mr. Bridgerton.”  

 

Her heart fluttered. She dared not think herself to have children when her own mind was centered upon finding her beloved sister the correct match; in the back of her mind, a murmur echoed that perhaps, if she should be blessed to have some herself, that she’d like her son to be much like the boy at her behest.

 

He was too precious and when he beamed a toothy smile and dimples, she was tempted to feign a swoon.

 

“Mr. Bridgerton,” the best one so far, she surmised. “A delight to meet you. I’ve heard so much about you.” Much better than any news she heard of his elder brothers. “If I may be so bold myself,” she teetered on a whisper as she leaned closer, “you may call Kate, if you allow me to call you Gregory, if you so prefer.”  

 

“And I, you. Pleasure to meet your acquaintance, Miss. Sheffield.” He nodded justly before a boyish grin overcame his features, dimples and all. He leaned closer until he was a mere nose length from her cheek. “I’d much rather call you Kate, if you don’t mind.”

 

If Kate could swoon…

 

She did her best to stifle a laugh behind a gloved hand and then, upon satisfaction that she fixed her face properly so, extended the very limb to the younger gentleman, who bravely approached her.

 

“I’d be honored, Gregory. I’m charmed.”

 

“Kate, would you be so kind to accompany me for the next dance?”

 

Her cheeks hurt from smiling so wide. Bless him – she truly found her favorite of the bunch. Perhaps spinsterhood wasn’t a definite conclusion to her life; if she waited this long, perhaps she could wait another seven or so years. She thought in jest: she’d never subject a child like himself to wait for an aging woman like herself. If a girl could ever be so lucky… If willing, she’d see to it herself he’d be fixed with someone worthy of his affections. Souls like his were so far and few in between ‘gentlemen’. She prayed for time to not corrupt him so.

 

“You may take the lead,” she encouraged. She’d be extra careful not to trod on his toes. If she did, she’d be genuinely remorseful.

 

“Would you like some lemonade?” he inquired, tucking his hands behind his back.

 

“You are too kind. I’d love some,” she accepted sweetly. He bid her with a kiss on the knuckles.

 

“I promise I will be back in haste,” he said as if rehearsed. “A moment away from you is a moment too long,” he said with a startling confidence. Oh – a lady killer indeed he’d become, she thought with a grin. God help the gentile in the upcoming years; he’d ruin them all.

 

Her sister spied her from across the room.

 

“Pray tell, what has you in such good spirits?” Edwina mused as she quickly evaded the blathering gentleman in pursuit of her humored elder sister.

 

“I think I met my future husband,” Kate chuckled with the most enthusiastic expression. “He is unlike his brothers. I swear – Gregory Bridgerton may be my favorite so far.”

 

“You cradle robber,” Edwina jested in good fun, knowing her sister meant nothing of it.

 

“This night has improved greatly,” Kate gleamed, swishing her skirt. “Have fun, dearest sister. I will be on the dance floor with the best of them,” she gleefully declared.

 

“Oh, he is devilishly handsome, indeed,” Edwina cooed when they both recognized the younger lad pattering their way with two flutes. “Lucky you,” she clapped. “I am envious.”

 

“Gregory, have you met my sister?” she announced heartily when he came within reach. “She is my dearest and closest friend. I’d love for you two to make acquaintances as well. Edwina, this is Mr. Bridgerton. Mr. Bridgerton, my sister, Miss. Sheffield.”

 

“Any family of Kate’s is welcomed to call me Gregory,” he gleamed a dimpled smile. Edwina laid a hand on her chest and nearly melted.

 

“What a gentleman! I’d be so glad if you were to call me Edwina,” she returned affectionately. He kissed her knuckles. “Please take care of my beloved sister. She is most delicate.”

 

“I intend to,” Gregory nodded reassuringly. “The next piece is about to begin. Would you care to join me?”

 

“I am all yours for the evening,” Kate said so boldly. Truly, she’d appreciate his company over the rest. She flashed Edwina a jubilant expression as Gregory took her hand and trotted to the center of the room, Kate towing behind with a newfound daintiness – careful not to trod on his toes or offend him by assuming the lead.

 

“Mother, oh mother, Kate is being courted!” Edwina insisted in good humor, upon searching for a familiar face.

 

“Oh my…!” Mary bequeathed, first surprised, then elated, only to fix her face into something akin of bewilderment as she noticed whom Kate had partnered with.

 

 

Colin had the best seat in the house. He knew he should be frantic, looking for his brother that his mother bestowed upon him in the latter minutes, but Gregory was determined to make haste somewhere else. Colin could scarcely keep up and once the boy disappeared, Colin’s guess was good as any.

 

It would be his good fortunate to finally see his troublesome younger brother – and from the second story bannister, he nearly erupted in howling laughter after recognizing whom he attached himself to. Instead, a loud snort followed suit, startling his other brother, Benedict, who was not nearly as amused by Gregory’s elusiveness.

 

“Brother, look!” Colin sputtered, pointing to the dance.

 

For a split second, Benedict was horrified to find Gregory so bold in a dance, yet, just like Colin, the moment he registered his taller, elder, prettier partner, fell into similar disarray of laughter. The two brothers huddled together but in a futile attempt to smother their terrible conduct.  

 

“I dare say!” Their mother admonished, identifying them immediately from afar. “You two ought to know better! Behave yourselves,” their mother chastised tersely. “Where is your brother?” She hissed, noticing the missing third in an episode of panic. Anthony, of course, she knew to be elsewhere, up to no good. At least she could control the youngest of her brood before he, too, succumbed to such bad manners.

 

“He’s…” Colin could scarcely make out, clutching his gut.

 

Benedicts face was blown up and red; he did his damnedest to retain another episode of boisterous laughter after receiving disapproving expressions from the ton. It came out a whinny, similar like a horse.

 

“Oh…!” Violet Bridgerton finally caught sight of her youngest. A smile overcame her face. “Look at him!” A frown quickly replaced it and she pinched her elder boys’ ears. They winced when she pulled them together. “How is it my youngest is more of a gentleman than either of you? At least he’s making an effort to socialize! Look at him! He’s wonderful! She’s truly enraptured. How kind – is that… oh! Is that Miss. Sheffield?”

 

“The very one,” Colin wheezed, clutching the railing for support after his mother released his delicate skin in shock.

 

“How sweet of her,” Violet tilted tenderly. “Ah, my boy. If only he were of age. He’s a wonderful dancer.”

 

“She’s not stepping on his toes,” Benedict waggled his brows.

 

Colin trembled, smothering another fit in his sleeve.

 

“What manners she has! Truly,” Violet preened. “If only any of my sons could find someone of her sensibility!” she turned to either one with narrowed eyes.

 

“Sensibility…?” Benedict whistled through his nose. Oh, the stories he heard! Kate was – quoted, of course, “a menace”. A menace indeed, should Anthony catch sight of his younger brother swaying with the elder Sheffield.

 

An idea sprung to mind with great urgency.

 

If Anthony doesn’t marry her, I will,” Colin lipped, silent with delayed laughter.  

 

“Best beat Gregory to is,” Benedict sputtered, slapping the iron rail. “We must seek our brother!”

 

“A betrothal awaits!” Colin squawked, reading Benedict’s mischievous undertone perfectly.

 

Boys! Boys! Hmmph!” Violet stomped in aggravation as they abandoned her in haste, nearly stumbling into another circle in their desperate pursuit.

 

 

“You are a superb dancer, Gregory,” she swished along as they dalliance. She did not mind his head came to her stomach or that she had to duck to spun under their united hands when the music required such a move.

 

He was a confident leader in their strides. She had minded her toes, acutely aware she was slower than the other ladies, much too cautious of her own steps at the risk imposing on his own.

 

“As are you, Kate,” he twinkled another charming smile.

 

“You flatter me so,” she sighed, not the least bit bothered by how brightly she smiled. No one had remarked of her to be a decent dancer before – she would take a compliment once in a blue moon. They circled each other once more and exchanged hands for a spin.

 

“Are you spoken for, Kate? My brothers speak highly of you.”

 

Which ones…? She wanted to ask out of morbid curiosity. She did not want to imagine was terrible words must have been uttered synonymously with her name. So enraptured were her thoughts of his brothers’ crude comments, she buzzed over the latter part of Gregory’s speech. Highly? Not the case – it couldn’t be. Unless she counted Colin who only saw her as a source of entertainment since he was determined to pit his elder brother and she together in rivalry.

 

“I am not,” she earnestly said, still consumed with apprehension that Gregory overheard unsavory words about her. Not that she cared what Anthony Bridgerton – sorry, Viscount Bridgerton – thought. It ought to be the other way around if he wanted Edwina’s hand in marriage – but dear God, if they were potentially to be family (God help her…) then surely those bonds were spoiled by harsh critiques at her expense.

 

“I am glad,” Gregory cheekily spoke. His smile broke into palpable panic. “My deepest apologies. I do not know what I am saying. Not that I am glad you are not spoken for. I am surprised no one has yet asked for your hand. You are splendid. I am glad because…”

 

She laughed it off, assuring him with a pat on her cheek. He leaned into it. Such pretty eyes – hazel would glamour any other poor girl off her feet. He’d grow up to be handsome, no doubt; pray he keep his innocence and good manners as he grew.

 

“You are too sweet,” she caressed with joyful voice.  “I care not about my own prospects when my sister is also in season. I will see to it she find herself a suitable match before I worry about my own.”

 

He grinned. “You are kind.”

 

“As are you,” she cooed, leaning in. She took his hands and held them in her own, pulling them near and dear. The dance was coming to an end and she felt positively lighthearted by his accolades.

 

“If it’s not too bold, would you care for another dance?”

 

“I wish for this evening not to end if it means spending the remainder of this ball at your side.”

 

The music changed to a more upbeat tune, prompting a faster pace. Gregory had no trouble initiating the first step, allowing her to hook her arm into his elbow as they shamelessly delved into their second dance.

 

 

Anthony thought he heard familiar ruckus. With an apprehensive, aggravated expression, he looked over his shoulder, knowing what to expect.

 

His brothers were tumbling towards him urgency. He’d suspect a scandal if it wasn’t for their gleeful smirks. He grunted and glowered, meeting them halfway.

 

“Yes?” he demanded upon hearing his name surge from their mouths simultaneously, disrupting the mood of the private gentleman’s quarters. Benedict and Colin slapped the others’ arm silly as they ungraciously came to a halt a mere foot away from Anthony.

 

“You have to see this,” Colin said breathily, out of wind.

 

Now,” Benedict pressed as if time was of the essence.

 

“Spit it out!” Anthony growled. They did not reply.

 

Rather, his wrist was pulled ahead of him, and he found himself dragged unceremoniously through the gentile, earning inquisitive looks from curious somebodies who recognized him despite his rushed pace through the gathering.

 

 

“Who taught you to dance?” Kate shrilled in delight as they stepped to the jig. She was no elegant dancer – ballerina or jig – but it did not matter she felt buoyant with happy chord of the violin. Her dress fluttered wildly and she noticed how gallant the other ladies were, brimming with smiles and squealing high to the heavens while they rowed along with progression.  She was confident they would not judge her when they themselves were enraptured by the music and their smitten partners. “I can scarcely keep up myself! I’m glad I have you to help me along!”

 

“Of course, Kate!” Gregory assured happily. “My brothers taught me well!”

 

She laughed at the thought of Anthony – rigid, stiff Anthony who she remembered being quite rough with her arm when he dragged her out for a dance. Nothing like gentle Gregory who had a light palm and even lighter step. Or Colin who she’d imagine was a more enthusiastic dancer, carefree even. He seemed the type to not take it seriously. As for Benedict, she’d offer him some benefit of the doubt.

 

They united once more as an arch was made. Gregory was the third in line. She found one hand taken by his; the other was (to its best ability) on her hip. She was sure he meant higher but she’d forgive the slight as his stature didn’t permit much flexibility.

 

The crowd clapped along and she and Gregory took their place at the end, raising their hands to retain the arch as the next couple fluttered through.

 

Her cheeks were burning. Who knew she could let loose like this? With a child, no less? No expectations – just positively good fun with perhaps the only soul that didn’t have a single agenda other than to enjoy his evening. His company was best so far, she decided with broad smiling mirroring his own.

 

She didn’t realize she was swaying with the music until Gregory matched her movements, offering his hand once more than the arch was finished, and couples resumed their set parallel to each other.

 

 

Benedict was first to reach the bannister, nearly toppling over it with enthusiasm. The music was faster this time. Footsteps stomped louder, quicker, and he knew a jig was taking place as a flute rang above rapid beats. Colin first anxious perhaps they were too late. There would be hell to pay if they dragged him for nothing.

 

Yet, as Benedict turned with a hand over his mouth, and his eyes twinkling with sheer delight, Collin dare thought perhaps their fortunate swayed heavily in their favor.

 

Colin soon saw for himself what had Benedict beaming.

 

Gregory – whom Colin made a note to share his highest regards to – was towing Kate along in elaborate steps. The boy could dance – that was common knowledge. However, what had the boys doubling over in a fine mixture of pride and absolute astonishment, was the fact Gregory had hand innocently on her hip, as per his height permitted, and waltzing her down a line. It did not besmirch her to duck under the row of hands; instead, it made her all the more beguiling – seconded by their observant mother, they noted, when catching her wonderstruck eyes. It was plain to see she was smitten, appreciating Miss Sheffield’s enthusiastic zeal with her youngest son.

 

“Surely you are not humoring this!” Anthony barked.

 

“Of course, never,” Violet said softly, unaffected. “She is so wonderful with my boy.”

 

“He is all but thirteen!”

 

She huffed and rolled her eyes. “I am not making a match between them,” she said with slight frustration, taken aback she had to explain the obvious. “Look, Anthony!”

 

“I am!” He pushed through clenched teeth. His eyes were fixated.

 

She was whirling freely. Yet, she did not tilt or slip. Bouncing more like on the balls of her feet, never missing a chance to sway as the music sped along. Gregory was beside her the whole time, his hands pursuing hers and refusing the unlatched themselves when she carried them both towards the right per melody’s instruction. The crowd yipped and clapped along.

 

“She is a bit free but Miss Sheffield is quite wonderful, humoring our boy with a grace I’d expect a woman to have as if she were hosting the festivities herself. She’s quite involved and unprejudicial, diplomatic even,” Violent praised. A brow was hiked up and lips set in an upturned angle.

 

Diplomatic, Anthony dared to counter with a scowl. She was anything but… anything but when it came the Viscount.  She was crude and outspoken; she was cruel and unstrained – menacing with an eagerness to inflict violence.

 

But that wasn’t the show she was displaying on the floor, not with his younger brother tugging on her skirt as they paraded down to the other end per cue.

 

Anthony could read the lines in between her words perfectly. She was scheming.

 

“She’s quite the leader,” Violet finished, leaving him to his thoughts as she briskly abandoned the boys in pursuit of her like-minded acquaintances.

 

“You know mother,” Benedict mused. “Anyone kind to Gregory is solid in her books.”

 

“How long has this gone on?” Anthony demanded, gripping the bannister so tightly his knuckles turned white.

 

She was smiling, broadly. It sucked the breath out of lungs, more so than it looked for her as she exerted herself on the floor, weaving and waltzing with his youngest brother.

 

Something sparked in him – simultaneously two things occurred. The first, he observed, was the damning glee on her face as she dominated the scene with certain qualities. Ones he couldn’t help but admire. She did not waver to any whispers – she was indulging a child and setting an example, establishing a pace and atmosphere that prompted more to join. The crowd had grown more involved since he last visited the ballroom.

 

It wasn’t just any child. It was his beloved younger brother. Dare he say his favorite. Colin and Benedict were close knit but he protected Gregory as if he were his own. He partially was, considering he was just a toddler when their father passed. The boy was more his responsibility than Colin or Benedict who could hold their own.

 

Her kindness in humoring Gregory without hesitation was something he did not think would strike him as hard as it did. He would surely hate her more if she rejected Gregory, no matter if society and rules would be in her favor as his brother was barely of age. Yet, her enthusiastic acceptance strung something else within him.

 

Jealousy.

 

Good God – he was jealous! She was all too happy to indulge his kid brother and dance as freely as she did, happy and content – and oh, did it show! And yet, she was all too eager to wound Anthony in their own tryst in similar circumstances. Her bias was blatant and she could employ a diverse range of emotions dependent on which brother she interacted with. Gregory had not slighted her, or her sister, which was she perceived to be Anthony’s offense. Of course, the boy would gain her company without conditions.

 

“Imagine her with her own children,” Colin fed along. “She’d be quite the attentive mother.”

 

“That’d she be,” Benedict agreed to stir the pot. Though, he hummed pleasingly, he meant what he said. “The best, much like our own.” He appreciated her kindness towards Gregory as did the rest of the ranks of his family.  

 

Not the least bit shy, Miss Sheffield. She just chose to set herself aside to allow her sister the attention she deserved. Selfless, Anthony credited with a scowl. Why was he scowling? Wasn’t such a quality commendable?

 

An image of her toting a child of her own, leading them to a dance, thus allowing the rest to join as she broke the water of anxiety that usually came with the first dance.

 

Then another, of her parading a boy of Gregory’s age in their living room in a jubilant jig – their living room? Why would he picture her under his roof?

 

He shook the image out of head fervently. Alas, he knew it’d likely reoccur in the most inconvenient times. As would her euphoric expression – smile wide and unrestrained, lit brightly by the scones and overhanging chandelier.

 

“Dare say, what a feat for our dear brother,” Colin snickered.

 

Anthony did not know he could scowl harder but he did; he wondered at who.

 

Gregory had a determined hold around her hip – an innocent slip, permitted given he was just a child, which she graciously allowed rather than embarrass him. She would face the scrutiny with the same indifference and confidence Anthony knew her to possess, should she face any. He doubt such disapproval would come – the crowd was smitten with her. Head held high and captivated by their beloved Gregory in a maternal sense, Anthony suspected, she was radiant example for the rest.

 

He was getting ideas. Terrible, ill-suited ideas. None that had foundations for his future.

 

Let her be someone else’s problem, he wanted to decree. Yet, the sentiment settled funnily in his stomach. It was a troublesome, churning feeling that he wanted rid of.

 

Then his brothers ill-decidedly to speak.

 

“The youngest courtship to date,” Benedict whined through his nose, unable to hide his laughter.

 

“Enough, let them be, and no more of it after tonight,” Anthony was certain. He’d speak to Gregory about his conduct, lightly, of course; one thing was certain, he would not be dancing with Miss Sheffield in the inevitable future.

 

 

“This was a lovely evening. Thank you for enchanting it all the more,” Kate bid with a curtsey. He bowed all the same and then kissed her knuckle.

 

She only looked down for a brief second. Then, to her shock, a warmth on her cheek.

 

An echo resounded of feminine coos and soft chuckle of men as Gregory boldly stepped forward, closing the space between them, and kissed her promptly on the cheek.

 

“Thank you,” Gregory returned softly, trying his best to meet her eyes but a blush overcame his dimples and he opted to look shyly away.

 

Feeling bold herself, she returned the sentiment. His face brightened to the deepest hue of red.

 

“You’re going to make someone very, very happy someday,” she cherished, patting his cheek affectionately.

 

He was stunned silent and merely nodded, only able to blink as she rose and, as music changed, offered her hand to cue their departure.

 

“Lemonade?” he asked, unable to form words.

 

“Of course,” she insisted brightly. “Then, I suppose, we should find your mother.”  

 

 

The clapping was deafening to Anthony as Colin and Benedict howled and hooted beside without a single care.

 

“He is smitten as a kitten,” Colin coughed out.

 

“Our boy is growing up too soon,” Benedict feigned the motion of wiping nonexistent tears.

 

“A true Bridgerton!” Colin heaped into Benedict’s embrace, not the slightest bit concerned of prying eyes.

 

“I say so myself!” Benedict joined along, leaning into them. Both threatened to tilt and Anthony had the tiniest moment hoping they’d fall over the ledge. Alas, they did not, rather finding balance last minute and congratulating themselves for being proper influences to their dearest Gregory.

 

Anthony just glared, not aware he was holding his breath until he exhaled through his nose, reminiscent of a bull ready to charge.

 

A pair of eyes looked up, hearing the collusion of joyful celebration.

 

It just so happened as Anthony looked ready to kill something – mainly, his idiot brothers – that Kate finally noticed him. How dreadful. Yet, he hoped maybe it was for the better. His aggravation would perhaps propel her away from his younger brother, to cease encouraging his spontaneous affections. Yet his relayed contempt only spurred her own as she sneered, making a show of tightening a protective hand around Gregory’s, and looking down with the gentlest expression as she gestured with her free hand to where his elder brothers resides.

 

Whatever he hoped to accomplish, whatever she hoped to accomplish, backfired severely.

 

The fact she was so protective and so aware of his brother, ensuring he would not witness their discontent with each other, spurred another feeling entirely else within him.

 

Good God – what a mother she’d be, he coincidentally seconded Benedict’s earlier sentiments.

 

Anthony fixed his face and nodded down to his brother with a stern smile. It was the best he could do. He was not angry with Gregory and he hope his brother knew that.

 

 

Kate boldly met the in the middle.

 

“Thank you for the dance,” she wished warmly to Gregory, kneeling to meet his eyes. Her hands cupped his, never minding once Anthony’s hardened gaze boring into her figure from the side.

 

“Can we do it later?” Gregory voiced.

 

“Perhaps,” she smiled, unsure of the answer. Likely not if Anthony had any say – then again, where was he to supervise Gregory? “I must be going to attend my own sibling. She is likely as curious as your brothers were about you. Mind them, will you? I suppose I’ll see you later. Your mother gave mine an invite to your party,” she whispered lowly and tenderly, as if sharing a secret.  

 

He was beyond giddy.

 

“Can I dance with you then?”

 

“You’re the first name on my dance card,” she insisted, patting his hand. “I swear it. I will not let any other man dare lead me until you do me the honors,” she said haughtily, pointing her chin sharply and then dissolving into giggles when he melted into a similar fit. “You are just too handsome for your own good,” she preened, leaning in until their noses were a hair apart. “Try your best to not let your brothers corrupt you,” she hushed, crinkling her nose and bursting into the biggest smile yet.

 

“Gregory! Let’s get along,” Anthony ushed rather pushily. Gregory stumbled first as his hand prodded him ahead, back to his brothers. Yet he defied his brother, pausing in step to glare up. “You don’t want to take up more of her time,” he sharply corrected, realizing he broke decorum when he glanced at Kate’s admonished expression.

 

 Kate rose to meet his gaze – the best she could, as he still bested her in height – and scowled, sensitive to when Gregory had his back turned, so he would not see her conduct. She’d hate to soil the evening and Gregory’s good opinion.

 

“Don’t encourage him,” Anthony hissed lowly.

 

“Funny, think I’m giving him ideas?” she countered in the same hush. He was unnerved when she feigned the most awe-striking smile he’d seen yet; quickly realizing it was because they had an impressionable audience. He felt his boy brother’s eyes burn into his back and he instinctively moved to shield Kate, clouding her shape with his own commanding stature so obstruct Gregory’s vision.

 

“Don’t play games with my brother,” he growled, boring into her.

 

She did not waver.

 

God, how maddening it was. Not the slightest shiver. All defiance. Commanding her own respect.

 

“Don’t play games with my sister,” she returned the sentiment. Her enflamed eyes and bold, steady gaze would haunt him. Oh, the things he could do to that mouth of hers, to silence it, and replace that insubordinate expression  with something else. Oh, certainly, he had plenty of ideas to render her speechless and under his thumb. Then would she dare be so defiant?

 

“And to clarify,” she leaned ever so slightly forward, “I would never dare cross that line with your brother. Unlike you, I have principles, and I will not mislead your brother like you intend with my sister.”

 

He felt punched in the gut and yet, she refused to touch him.

 

“And I dare say, he has better manners than any of you,” she added for good measure, spinning on her heel as if she couldn’t gain enough distance between them soon enough. “Bid your mother my greatest regards for raising one proper gentleman,” she haughtily huffed as she fixed herself to retreat.

 

“Kate!”

 

Anthony jolted, turning to his younger brother with shock and alarmed at the audacity of the informality.

 

Kate stopped in her step and fashioned a genuine smile.

 

“Yes, Mr. Bridgerton?”

 

He frowned ever so slightly at her regression to formalities.

 

“Have yourself a good evening, Miss Sheffield,” he bid despondently, sorrowed by the heavy mood his brothers introduced.

 

She turned to face him and curtseyed. Anthony couldn’t only look with wide set eyes and mouth ajar at the scene.

 

“And you as well,” she said politely and then the wickedest grin fixed upon her face. Anthony did have time to react though his bones shuddered in anticipation as he recognized the signs of her scheming. “Gregory,” she concluded, “as to not be confused with any other Mr. Bridgerton.”

 

Gregory giggled. “I have so many.”

 

“One may say too many,” she chided along humorously, spurring more laughter from his gut.  “I do mean this wholeheartedly, if I may be so bold to say,” she showed teeth in the most pageantry smile, “you are the best one.”

 

“Until next day,” Gregory glistened, shuffling to make himself sharper, straighter in posture – replicating his brothers no doubt.  

 

Colin and Benedict feign offense. Neither took the aimed insult to heart. They were relishing its effect on their elder brother who was too stunned to voice any sharp retort. Their witty brother was rendered incapable, stuck to the floor and helpless to salvage his own pride with an audience behind him.

 

“I look forward to it,” she raised herself up, casting one dry look to Anthony, subtle enough for him to catch but not for impressionable Gregory to translate. She then simply spun back around, the hem of her dress wisping at feet. She looked over her shoulder and gleamed, waving towards a smitten Gregory. Then, frowned heavily when she noticed Anthony still gawking in the place he stood. She disappeared with a swiftness, turning to the stairs and evading further sight.

 

“Isn’t she wonderful? Splendid, perfectly splendid,” Gregory boasted with palpable excitement. Anthony couldn’t even reply, blinking away as he fathomed any response – finding none at the ready. How unlike him!

 

“Anthony!” Gregory quipped happily. “I have a question!”

 

“Yes?” Anthony grunted, pinching his nose. His eyes squeezed shut, doing his damnedest to forget about her face. God, oh God, no, he knew it then and there he would not get sleep tonight. None at all.

 

“Is it possible…” he rolled his thumbs, smiling sheepishly, “if you’d be so nice to…”

 

Colin and Benedict stifled their laughter, poorly, suspecting the next row of words to be the perfect trigger for chaos within Anthony’s stiff stature.

 

“What is it?” Anthony urged gruffly. Gregory straightened up and swallowed.

 

“If you’d allow us to marry…?”

 

Anthony could only drop his face into his hands, massaging his temples, as Colin and Benedict spurred another scene, laughing like whinnying horses that stirred even Simon Basset, Duke of Hastings, to look up in alarm from his company on the ground level.

 

“I am too young now but later, I could, right?” Gregory pleaded, seeing his brother’s distraught face. “After you marry Edwina? Kate said she’d marry only after Edwina did!”

 

It only fueled the other two more, nearly brother to their knees behind Gregory’s bewildered form.

 

Anthony swallowed harshly. “Later,” he pushed through his teeth. He did not unlatch his face from his own prodding fingers, embedding further into his skin until it was painful.

 

“Oh brother,” Benedict and Colin enveloped Gregory, startling him. “We love you so, so much.”

 

“I dare say, I’d second the match,” Colin snickered. “I myself had the idea of asking for her hand – she is rather splendid,” he opted, earning a disgruntled glare – the best one a thirteen-year-old could muster.

 

“As would I!” Benedict ruffed up the boys’ mop of hair.

 

“I SAID ENOUGH!” Anthony boomed, not the least bit shaking either brother though Gregory winced. That was a sting on Anthony’s part and he forced himself to soften. “Later, Gregory,” he grunted with a stern expression. “Colin! Benedict! Gather yourselves!”

 

 

When Gregory sought out his audience in the comfort of his own home, Anthony had to prepare the best of arguments.

 

“You are thirteen.”

 

“I won’t be thirteen forever. Some can marry at fifteen.”

 

“Miss Sheffield is seven years or so older than you.”

 

“Her sister is much younger than you. The difference between seven and ten years is four more.”

 

Good God, the boy was so proud of himself as he calculated the math.  He was every bit as proud as any other Bridgerton man when they caught the other in a bind, and ugh! How it grated Anthony such a trait had to commence now, and over such a subject like this!

 

Sputtering from the other side of the door alerted Anthony to what he suspected. He glared at the heavy oak barrier, surprised anything could sneak past it, but he was now certain his brothers pried on the other side.

 

Get!” he commanded in direction of the door. They would not be persuaded. No scampering of feet followed his demand. He would not dignify them by rousing himself from his seat to run them off. He reclined in his chair, daring not declaring defeat, but by God, he felt it. Exhaustion settled in his bones and he sighed, feeling every fiber of his being deflate.

 

“She may not marry want to marry you,” Anthony tried to ease the truth gently. His eyes were pleading for the subject to drop. Gregory would not have it.

 

“I can see that she would not want you brother-in-law,” Gregory shrugged off.

 

The laughter was manic now. A thud hit the floor, imploring more to follow as he was sure his brother collapsed on the floor in a fit. The others must have toppled over him – he was certain Daphne came over just to pry once Colin spread the glorious news dear Gregory was fixed to marry Miss Sheffield – the elder one, not the younger one Anthony set his sights on – and did so loudly to his mother.

 

Rather than scandalized, she betrayed Anthony, and chortled – then snorted – and then soon enough, his entire family joined in on the affair at his expense. He had stomped off to his refuge, locking the office door behind him to nurse his woes in the best brandy his stock had to offer, only to find his peace evaded by Gregory’s persistence.

 

“It will not happen, I beg of you,” Anthony resorted to.

 

“Is it not to my benefit that she be older? Experienced?”

 

He wanted to implode. The boys were hollering on the other side – utterly mad, this entire thing was.

 

Do you know what that means!?” he squawked out, reddening in the face.

 

Gregory raised a brow, thinking himself educated.

 

“I just heard it…?”

 

“Heard what!” Anthony demanded, slamming his hand on the desk.

 

“That older women are experienced…? It is better for a man… to have someone…. With experience?” he fumbled out, knitting his brows together in confusion.

 

“Is Miss Sheffield experienced?” It drove Anthony mad to even pose the question. Certainly, that wasn’t the case. She was older than her sister but not a strumpet. She was too proud.

 

“She is older, I suppose,” poor Gregory fused together, knitting his fingers together in a rolling motion. “I don’t know,” he decided. “She is not married! That’s all that matters.”

 

“As to how you came upon this… notion older meant experienced… Who’d you hear that from??”

 

Oddly – and Anthony believed correctly as he gauged – the other side of the door grew oddly and with awful speed an undaunting quiet.

 

“From you,” Gregory boldly declared, feeling completely innocent in his words s his face suggested no guilt whatsoever. His words roused that same deafening roar of laughter from the other side of the door.

 

“No, I did not!”

 

“Not to me but I overheard you, when I couldn’t sleep and I walked by the room where you and Benedict were talking.”

 

Oh, bloody hell, Anthony sank in his seat. He’d never live this down. This was all his fault.

 

“Kate is lovely! I’d love to marry her! We’d be quite happy together!”

 

“That is not the problem,” Anthony choked uncomfortably. He pulled at his collar, feeling hot underneath. “You are too young. We will find you a suitable age when you much, much more mature.”

 

“Does Kate need a more mature man?” Gregory pouted.

 

The laughter had not ceased; it grew and he swore Colin was wheezing. Something was choking – good, let whoever it may be die. Save him the trial of fratricide.

 

“I suppose that’d she’d like someone her age,” Anthony amended sourly, hoping to close this conversation quickly and definitely.

 

“She’d be closer to Colin than she is to you,” Gregory guesstimated.

 

“So?”

 

“Well, you won’t ask her. Colin likely won’t either. I suppose I’m the only brave one to do so.”

 

Anthony gawked. “Pray tell me how you came to that conclusion!” he challenged.

 

“You stood there like a dead chicken when she made her leave.”

 

Colin must’ve slapped the floor because he heard four distinctive muffled raps; he must surely be one foot through the death’s door, signifying how hard he was laughing that he’d resort to beating on wood.

 

Beating wood – no, he could not go there. He needed to extend his vocabulary. He had enough plaguing his conscience as it was.

 

“I have nothing to do with this!”

 

“You want to marry her sister… who is much younger than herself, which by measure, is significantly different in age than you,” Gregory countered with a grin.

 

That is not the problem either! Anthony wanted to bellow.

 

His problem is Anthony could not be near Kate Sheffield. He could not control himself around her. Let alone condone a union between his younger brother and herself. Not that she’d entertain the idea either – ugh, and then the persistent problem should they be in-laws…

 

“I will hear no more of it. This will not happen. Leave it be, please. Gregory, I beg of you. Your infatuation will pass. I am certain of it.”

 

Gregory huffed but abided, stomping out of the room with a vengeance only to be blockaded by a pile up of siblings – including Daphne who all but utilized Elouise as a crutch.

 

He simply, as a teen would, crawled atop of them and sulked away to his room.

 

“Had your fun?” Anthony growled, seething with purpose when he approached the clumsy lot.

 

“Oh yes,” Colin heaved, still recovering.

 

“Indeed, this was worth the venture,” Daphne squeaked in the most un-duchess-like fashion. She’d would, without second thought, spill everything to her dearest husband and Anthony knew he’d never hear the end of it from the arrogant Duke. Simon lived for it – and dear God, Gregory just gave him a lifetime supply.

 

“Get. Out. Of. My. Sight.”

 

 

He didn’t for plan for things to transpire the way they did. Honest to God, his plans just… unraveled… and then fate decided to speak on his behalf, intending upon him his heart’s desire under the guise of avoiding a scandal.

 

Because one day he is rivals with Kate Sheffield and the next, he’s pacing on his wedding day, agonizing over the fact he had yet to see her, and knowing it was impossible she’d run, but still… he had to see her! It was much too long. Soon, it would be for however long God will it for them to establish a family of their own, and for her to resume the duties of a Viscountess in his absence after bearing a much important heir.

 

Simple. Practical. Invigorating, considering he planned to sire many heirs. She was delightful company. A wonderful partner, indeed, in every possible faucet. He trusted her to raise them as sharp as she was herself. She was, he determined with strong certainty, a woman meant to be in such a position. She would excel in her newfound station. His children would be so lucky.

 

While he had anticipated a jolt, he did not expect it so soon, and so sharp! He yipped and retracted his leg.

 

He looked to his right to see young Gregory incessantly kicking him in his chins.

 

“Stop!” he demanded, stilling the boy with course hands on his shoulder. “What is the meaning of this?”

 

“You did not want to marry her! You said I could not! Liar!”

 

He sighed and did his best to soothe the situation. “When you are older, you will understand. As of now, there is too much to discuss for you to fully grasp the… circumstances,” he gauged wearily.

 

“You were to marry her sister!”

 

“Plans change.”

 

“Then why can’t I marry her?”

 

“Because I’m marrying her,” Anthony growled.

 

“I wanted to be her husband!”

 

“Instead, she will be your sister, just as I am your brother.”

 

He didn’t mean to sound so callous but he had to set precedent. Gregory could not continue with his crush any longer. It would further complicate things.

 

Gregory glared and then, to Anthony’s relief, retreated in a huff.

 

Only to find, in retrospect, he had sought out Kate.

 

 

“Gregory! Are you okay?” she asked in alarm. She abandoned all her assortments and rushed to the boy who all but barged into her quarters. His mother would have admonished him if it weren’t for the fact Violet Bridgerton left to gather the rest of the attendees.

 

“Why are you marrying my brother?” he choked. He crossed his arms and looked down, hiding the moisture building in his handsome, hazel eyes she treasured so much.

 

“Because…” she began but found herself at a loss for words. “Oh, Gregory. I wish it wasn’t so sudden. I know it’s a lot for you.”

 

“You deserve better,” he muttered.

 

For Anthony’s sake, she’d never divulge what Gregory dared say. Internally, yes, she believed, at one point, those words did hold truth. The whole affair felt rushed and the intentions were less centralized on the matter of love and more on propriety. A shame, really, but then again, Kate never anticipated a wedding at all – she had half-begun to believe herself destined to be a spinster.

 

What luck she had – now she was Viscountess to the man she was certain did not deserve her own sister. A sacrifice she made, she jested to herself and herself only. It was such a union between her and Anthony – Viscount Bridgerton, she had to emphasize - that would propel Edwina a better chance as a love match – something Kate knew she herself would be denied, recalling Anthony’s cynical words only days ago. Yet, her duty as a sister overcame the rest, and she’d be happy to live her days as intended if it secured the betterment of her beloved sister.

 

“Your brother loves you very much,” she tried to console, using her own rational. “And I am most pleased to call you family.”

 

He retracted from her touch, sniffing, and then wiping his nose with his sleeve. Obviously, not the right thing to say, she surmised with guilt.

 

“If he dies, can I marry you after?”

 

“Gregory! That’s a terrible thing to say!”

 

He had the sense to feel ashamed and uttered an apology.

 

“You don’t want you brother to die, do you?”

 

“Only for a second. I was mad.”

 

She sighed and reached out once more. He did not pull away and let her rest a hand on his cheek. He even leaned on it, seeking comfort in her gloved hand.

 

“How about this – if he dies before I do, and I’m terribly lonesome with a bunch of kids – your nieces and nephews, mind you  - then you can live with me! I’ll need all the help in the world and you are so very dependable! That is, if your wife doesn’t mind,” she tried to assuage with an easy grin. “Though I think she would, once you have kids of your own but you are always free to stop by and pay me a visit!”

 

She was sure he’d forget the notion entirely. Albeit, she reasoned, a teenager was rather impulsive and forgetful. He would not remember much of this conversation, she let herself believe.

 

“Okay…” he relinquished.

 

She didn’t expect him to hug her so ardently. She did not even think of her neatly pinned hair or delicate fabric of her dress. Upon instinct, she enveloped him and assured him through her strong, determined arms that he was loved and she’d always be there for him, just as he just declared he’d be for her.

 

“I love you,” he murmured into her shoulder.

 

“And I love you, too,” she sang gleefully. “You are, after all, the better brother.”

 

“I am,” he confirmed.

 

“Now, forget all this, and press ahead, shall we?” she directed brightly, rising from her crouch. “I believe your sister is most excited to throw petals down the aisle!”

 

He scrunched his face. “Ugh. Flowers made me sneeze.”

 

“My apologizes,” she laughed. “Bear with it for one day, would you? Your mother and mine went through a lot of work to make today as perfect as possible. Your siblings were a huge help. You were and will be, too,” she declared with a glistening smile. “Can you promise to take it easy on your brother? I have a feeling he’s very nervous.”  

 

“I suppose,” he shrugged. He was going to object when the priest asked – never mind the consequence – but with Kate smiling at him like that, he’d hate to disappoint her. He’d never dream of it.

 

For what seemed like the hundredth time, Gregory was smitten, and quelled by Kate’s guiding influence.

 

 

There was a rule – where Anthony was absent (which was more often than not, since he decidedly hated function, unless his hands were forced) Gregory would fill the void. He didn’t mind one bit. The Viscountess was a delight. She managed parties, plenty of food to keep him content, including his favorites, and better, she was all the happy to converse with him while the other brothers were prone to lecture.

 

She was his refuge when it came to avoiding the inevitable chat with his brother – endless prattling about how he ought to apply himself. Kate was just a happy distraction, introducing him here and there, validating him when need be – her instincts were astute, and, finally, defending him from his brother.

 

“You play favorites!” Elouise once accused humorously.

 

“You are my favorite sister besides my own,” Kate confirmed.

 

Anthony huffed.

 

Daphne dared not refute it; it was true. Elouise had wormed herself on top of Kate’s preferential ladder. Everyone knew it. Those damned letters.

 

“And I, your favorite brother,” Colin interjected pompously.

 

“No,” Kate said with just as much certainty and casualness.

 

Anthony chortled, eyeing his wife approvingly.

 

“Who is, then?” Benedict challenge.

 

“Here I believed you to be observant given your detail to colors,” Kate mirthfully teased.

 

“That leaves him,” Colin thumbed towards Gregory dryly.

 

“He is the son I always envisioned,” Kate sang highly, patting his cheek tenderly. He preened and leaned into her shoulder. He was shameless and the rest groaned. “If it wasn’t for him, I would not have Edmund or Miles, or Charlotte.” This was, of course, being Mary surprised them all. “Truly, he’s an inspiration. I was, after all, destined to be a spinster before you scandalized me.”

 

“I am keenly aware, Lady Bridgerton,” Anthony retorted lowly, knowing very well if sides were taken, she’d defend Gregory. One, out of loyalty and a tab bit protective streak, and the other point just to challenge her dear husband. However, the jab was expired; she knew very well her circumstances were unusual and heavily dipped in her favor.

 

Then again – the fact she took on the role as the family matriarch second to their own mother was not easily forgotten. They were grateful. Both for her intervention and for the fact Anthony was truly, deeply, madly in love with the woman who happily ran him mad – amusing the whole lot as he, eventually, as predicted, caved to her whims.

 

Pall Mall was an annual delight. Damn near a family holiday.

 

Whereas Gregory was concerned, if push came to shove, then he’d happily align himself with Kate in their antics to terrorize Anthony.

 

“I just remembered something!” She declared. The thought inspired by Lady Lucinda who had accompanied her husband to Aubrey Hall.

 

His stomach bubbled – he recognized that look anywhere. So did Anthony who raised a feathered quill to his lips in deep investment.

 

“I had this strange recollection out of the blue,” she surmised, standing up to walk. Gregory and Lucinda prepared for the worst, clutching hands in apprehension. This Kate was devilish. “You have a penchant for, hmm, how do I put it? Anthony, dear,” she posed an inquisitive finger. “You remember when he tried to tip the rose petals out of Hyacinth’s basket on our wedding day?”

 

“Of course,” his sister gleamed, wiggling in her seat. She had walloped him that day and everyone laughed, much to Gregory’s bruised ego. He felt hot under the collar, fearing the worst of embarrassment to come.

 

“It was the cutest thing! You were just a boy! You rushed into my quarters just before I walked down the aisle-”

 

“You did what?” Anthony spat, solely intent on a meek Gregory.

 

“Hush. He was a boy. All is forgiven.”

 

“Kate, please,” Gregory pleaded, feeling as if he were just a boy again.

 

“You ask me-”

 

“Kate, I beg of you!”

 

“I think it was endearing! You see, Lucy, he has a slight disruptive nature about him.”

 

“Oh, I know,” Lucy merely grinned just as devilishly as her idol. She did have a penchant for Kate – only she still formally addressed her as Lady Bridgerton out of respect. Something that put Kate off – family should not be so formal in her presence.

 

“Your wedding was not the first he was willing to sabotage.”

 

“Kate!” Both Anthony and Gregory shouted.

 

“He was so besides himself,” she panned. “He asked me… no, I shouldn’t.”

 

“No, you should,” Colin all but salivated. Gregory was going to knock him out. His fist was readied.

 

“He was very upset I was marrying you and not him,” she said.

 

“I could have told you that,” Anthony gruffly retorted.

 

“Oh, but did you know he asked me-”

 

“That is enough!” Gregory interjected loudly in a panic.

 

“This is good! What did he say, Kate?” Benedict pushed, rubbing his hands together. Sophie was just as curious as the rest, leaning forward.

 

“I was just a boy! It was a passing moment! Mind you, I am married now! To a woman I very much love!”

 

“Indeed,” Lucy gloated, happily supplying her hand bearing a ring. Not to mention their plethora of kids – always the source of jokes amongst their family.

 

“Then it shouldn’t matter when I recall that,” she slyly glanced at Anthony as she spoke, “should you die, he’d wish to take your place.”

 

Gregory was merely collateral damage in whatever petty spat transpired between the two meddlesome souls. He felt his feet suddenly grow heavy with rocks as Anthony gaped like a fish on land and then – yep – he was certain Anthony just warranted his sudden, immediate death.

 

“You said if he did, and you were lonely, I could live with you!” Gregory was not dying alone on his hill! He’d drag that devil of a woman with him.

 

Colin and Benedict rose and sputtered, then fell into heap of laughter that alarmed their spouses. Penelope, good sport she was, stifled the most outrageous sound that all but projected out her mouth.

 

Daphne doubled over. Simon clapped soundly as wheezing air pushed out his lungs. His head tossed back and his feet wildly tapped the rug in what seemed like seizure.

 

Hyacinth gasped and broadened her eyes. Behind her hands, a roguish grin overcame her features, and then a snicker. Her eyes betrayed her. Gareth doubled over, not the least bit bothered by the misconduct of it all. He slapped the chair’s plush arm, desperate for air.

 

Oh, if only Francesca was there to participate. Alas, the morning was still young, and she’d be a day behind.

 

Phillip had the best head out of them all, merely averting his gaze and hiding his humor out of view of Anthony’s surveying anger.

 

Eloise was not as covert. She openly defied him, sputtering and trembling as she readied herself to utter the most unladylike wail from her lips. It passed, only spurring more laughter from the others who seems to feed off each other.

 

“To help care for you nephews and nieces! But only if your wife permitted!” She hastily defended, showing up her hands in surrender. Her eyes narrowed and her lip set in a straight line. Oh, she was determined to hold her own. Every man and woman for themselves.

 

“You two conspired! About my death?” Anthony rose in a fury. Kate charged for the door, hastily giving herself as much advantage in distance she could. “I would be replaced by him and you condoned that?”

 

“No!” Colin gasped scandalously. “Do tell!”

 

“Can you imagine? Him? Usurping us as head of the family?” Benedict whispered in good jest, covering his face and nose when a painful snort passed.

 

“You thought you would die young! Everyone has had some sort of contribution to this! I was being a good sister-in-law and consoling him!”

 

She evaded into the hallways, Colin scrambling behind her, solely for the fun it all.

 

“Tell me, brother, would you have objected if the priest prompted, too?” Colin has the beg the question as he passed the readied youngest brother. He recognized the flight position immediately.

 

Anthony was halfway out of his desk. Now or never.

 

“I had half the mind to!” he decided, standing with a quickness. Lucy knew what to expect and merely offered encouragement with pursed, alas, amused lips. She at least feigned a disapproving shake of her head.

 

Terrible,’ she mouthed humorously. Her eyes glistened happily, recalling his own antics at her wedding.

 

“I would have been of age, too!” Gregory poured fuel to the fire, tapping Lucy lovingly before he ran in the other direction. Anthony could not catch them both. Lucy shook her head, bewildered and also endeared by the chaos of the Bridgerton family.

 

Benedict spilled onto the floor in an obscene fashion, withering at his wife’s feet as she simply shook her head in dismay.

 

“You are a child,” Sophie admonished but her expression was adoring.

 

Daphne snorted into Simon’s convulsing frame, unable to help herself.

 

“Run, Kate, Run,” she choked out, wiggling tremendously as her lungs began to burn.

 

Anthony had chosen his victim, knowing damn well Gregory would crawl back sooner or later.

 

A roar reverberated throughout the walls.

 

“KAAAAATTTEEEE!”