A brief recollection of Kate Sharma's younger years, and her sudden ascension to adulthood.
Kate Sharma was fourteen when she caught the first glimpse of the life that her beloved stepmother Mary had left behind.
This glimpse came in the form of a mysterious invitation arriving at their door. Both Kate and Edwina had seen the elegant script on the envelope, and went quite wild with curiosity until Mary sat them both down after dinner.
“My old friend, Lady Danbury, has invited the three of us to her estate this summer,” Mary had explained to her restless daughters.
“Where does she live, mama?” Edwina asked, dark eyes wide with excitement.
“In the south of Hertfordshire. The country there is beautiful, and Lady Danbury’s grounds are some of the best I have ever seen.”
Hertfordshire! Kate had rarely ventured beyond their village, let alone as far afield as Hertfordshire.
And to add to the lustre of this promised adventure, Mary had continued, saying, “There will be another family there. From what I remember, the Bridgertons are very good, very well-bred people. They will be bringing their four eldest children, a couple of whom are around your age. I am sure you will get along splendidly.”
In the months leading up to the anticipated journey, Kate and Edwina spent long stretches of time imagining what beauty and splendor Lady Danbury’s estate could hold. They conjured everything possible in their fancies; Edwina wondered if there were secret gardens or hidden rooms where fairies could be found, and her older sister indulged her as far as was proper.
On Kate’s part, she harbored a secret desire to become well acquainted with the Bridgerton children. Though she adored Edwina, a sibling six years her junior sometimes left something to be desired.
“Mama,” Kate had whispered one night as they sat in the parlor. “Do you think they will like me? When we go?”
“I am sure they will,” Mary said, immediate and sure.
“But how can you know?”
Mary put down her needlework. “I just do, sweetheart. And…if they cannot see that you are a wonderful girl, then they must be fools; I am not sure that I want you to be friends with fools.”
At that, Kate threw her arms around Mary and laughed, letting her anxieties fade into oblivion.
The fateful day arrived.
Somehow, the Sharmas had gone through the busyness of travel no worse for wear, and by noon they were all assembled in Lady Danbury’s sitting room, taking a light luncheon.
“The Viscount and Viscountess are visiting the Crofts in the next village, and will be back by the hour,” Lady Danbury had informed them as they sat down.
Torn between her hunger and her need to drink in every detail, Kate tried to sneak glances at their hostess while digging into the entrees. The great Lady Danbury was intimidating in her straightforwardness, but she was not unkind. In fact, the Lady was kind enough to pretend not to notice it was Kate who dropped pudding on the criminally fine tablecloth.
“Do you like riding, Miss Sharma?” Lady Danbury asked after the servant discreetly covered the stain with a napkin.
“Very much, ma’am,” said Kate, who grasped for her courage. “Mama said that you like riding too, do you not?”
A slow smile spread over Lady Danbury’s face.
“When I was younger, yes, though it is harder to ride these days,” she said, tapping her cane on the floor. “As you are guests in my house, please feel free to use the stables. Heaven knows they need the exercise. Miss Edwina may have use of the ponies, if she is inclined to.”
Both sisters were so effusive in their thanks that it was only the chatter from the hall that stopped them, and the excitement only grew.
The Bridgertons had arrived.
In the flurry of introductions and reintroductions, Daphne had made fast friends with Edwina. With a hearty goodbye, the two girls skipped away to giggle in the gardens. Likewise, the younger Bridgerton boys, Benedict and Colin, wasted no time wandering off into their own mischief as soon as it was humanly possible.
And all that was left were the eldest.
As the adults converged into their own conversations, Kate had a few moments to observe the eldest Bridgerton child. His name was Anthony; he was a jovial boy two years her elder, tall for his age, though there were traces of childhood on his face still. After a significant look and encouraging nod from his father, he gave an eager bow.
“How do you do, Miss Sharma?”
Kate couldn’t help but smile proudly at the address, and gloried in how grown-up it sounded. Taking a deep breath, she curtsied as well as she could, and tried to mimic his politeness.
“I am quite well, my Lord.”
At that, Anthony Bridgerton sprang upright.
“I am loath to correct a lady, but Lord Bridgerton is my father. I am not Lord Bridgerton,” he cried, almost indignant at the idea.
“My apologies, Mr. Bridgerton,” said Kate, her embarrassment quelled partly by her amusement at the father laughing at the son. “I will not make that mistake again.”
“I mean, there was no offence taken,” was his confused response. At a loss for words, he glanced to his father yet again, and Kate felt herself generous enough to save him.
“Do you enjoy riding, Mr. Bridgerton?”
In the course of an hour’s ride, Kate discovered a great deal about Anthony, and he about her. She learned that his father was teaching him to hunt, and he was impressed when she mounted the horse astride. He listened to her vent about the impossibility of the flute, and she heard his despair at the study of Latin. They both of them found that though they adored their siblings, they were often wearied by them.
Eventually, the two were trading jokes and stories as close friends.
“I have often wished I had a brother,” Kate said. “I love Edwina with all my heart, but having a brother also, that would be wonderful.”
“Then you had better get an older brother,” was Anthony’s reply. “Since younger brothers often get on one’s nerves, and we as the oldest must be patient with them.”
“Not all the time.”
“Are you sure?”
And with that, Anthony recounted the Bridgerton’s near-disastrous trip to the Danbury Estate; Kate almost fell off her horse in laughter at his enthusiastic impersonation of Benedict’s despairing scream.
“And what of the rest of your family?,” he asked, after she had caught her breath. “Is your father away on business, and could not come to visit Lady Danbury?”
From the highest mirth did Kate’s mood drop and her chest tighten, as it always did when she was reminded of her father.
In a low voice Kate said, “He died. Six years ago in August.”
He looked aghast.
“I am sorry. I had no idea…”
“It is alright.”
They rode in silence for a little longer, before Anthony broke it with an impassioned, “And we were having such a nice time! I always seem to be putting my foot in it.”
Though Kate could not quite summon her earlier cheerfulness, she could not help but be moved by his artless outburst; she squared her shoulders and managed a small smile.
“As I said, it is alright. Have you any more stories of your siblings? I am still not convinced that younger brothers are worse, in the grand scheme of things.”
Anthony obliged, chattering on until they found themselves at the edge of the property. Struck by an idea, Anthony wheeled his horse around.
“I shall race you back to the house,” he said, mischief sparking in his eyes, “and the loser shall—hey!”
But Kate had already left him in the dust, her clear laughter ringing through the air.
“And I win again,” Anthony was crowing as they arrived at the stables. “The score is 27 to 24. It will be near impossible to catch up before you leave, Miss Sharma, so you might as well admit defeat now.”
Disheveled and breathing heavily, Kate swung herself off the horse, suppressing the urge to shake her fist at him.
“I have not lost until the final day, Mr. Bridgerton, so perhaps you should save your gloating until you have actually won.”
Anthony laughed, running after her as she swung on her heel. “Then my celebrations are to be delayed for a few days, that is all.”
Before Kate could snark back, she heard Edwina and Daphne’s light footsteps at the hall.
“Kate! We have been looking for you. Can you come play with us? Please? You promised last night.”
All annoyance melting away, Kate agreed. “Just let me wash up, Edwina. I shall be with you in a moment.”
“What a generous big sister,” said Anthony, falling in step beside her. “But what am I to do while you are playing princesses with them?”
“We are reading a play, actually,” Kate replied, setting off for her room. “Though we really could do with one more, if you wish to join. Benedict flat-out refused, and almost left Daphne in tears as he did it.”
Heaving a sigh, Anthony stopped just short of climbing the stairs with her. “Then I suppose I shall have to step up. Although you and I both are really getting too old for this sort of thing, you know. Daphne’s governess says it shall soon be too inappropriate.”
“She could not say. Though governesses always find reason to scold their charges.”
“Then perhaps it is just you, Anthony. You are one of those that are always in need of a good scolding.”
“You know, Miss Maria said that too," he said, not in the slightest bit repentant. "What part am I to read?”
“Oh, it is the part that shall suit you the most.”
“The prince? The prince? Ha! You are the ogre, of course.”
Before she could hear his sputterings, she sprinted the rest of the way up the stairs, the sweet feeling of revenge doing wonders for her mood.
The next spring, freshly fifteen and feeling that she was finally gaining wisdom, Kate spent weeks waiting for the promised invitation from Danbury estate.
“Surely she has not forgotten,” Kate said to Mary as another week whiled away without that wished-for envelope. "She did say that she would invite us again this year."
“No, my dear. I am sure she has remembered. Lady Danbury is not one to forget.”
And arrive it did, with all the excitement of the previous year. There was more, in fact, in the anticipation of meeting Anthony again – they had agreed to write, and had upheld that agreement through the long winter and budding spring.
“There is a letter here for you, Miss Sharma,” announced Carlson as the family gathered round the breakfast table.
“Already! I only wrote Anthony two days ago.”
Mary smiled down at her porridge as Kate tore open the letter with great haste.
Unfortunately, Mother will be unable to travel at that point in the year, and I have told you how Father would rather not leave her alone. I told them I was able to make the trip, but they were unsure about letting me go alone, and the younger ones are still not yet grown enough to go without them worrying.
At this point, Kate almost gasped. The Bridgertons unable to make the trip! All the schemes and plans they had talked about fell to the dust.
Luckily, they have told me that old Lady Danbury will be coming to Aubrey Hall tomorrow fortnight. I think I will be able to wheedle our parents to let at least a couple of us go back with her. Benedict and Colin had the time of their lives last summer, and I know that Daphne is raring to see Edwina again, though she is already too lady-like to admit to such sensations.
Rest assured, we will be having the race when we get to Danbury’s. I know you said that you were to beat me fairly this year, but somehow I cannot believe it.
Heart light once again, Kate returned to eating breakfast with vigor. After all, Anthony could manage it, and she had no reason to doubt his words.
Their reunion took place on an unseasonably cold, indoors sort of day, so the pair lounged inside the library, playing cards.
“I cannot believe that you have another baby brother,” Kate marveled. To have seven children! It was admirable. And a little terrifying. Kate could distantly remember the sounds coming from Mary’s room as she gave birth to Edwina; that, coupled with what she had heard about childbirth in the intervening years was not a picture of bliss.
“Do you not? I would not be surprised if I had yet another one by next summer.” There was something in his mirth that escaped her, a hidden joke in his smile. It reminded her of the jokes that she had heard the servants mutter to each other when the news of Gregory Bridgerton’s birth had been announced. Then, as now, she was unable to decipher the meaning.
“What does that mean?” Kate said, determined to not be left out of the loop.
Smirking, Anthony simply rearranged his cards. “What does what mean?”
“Why would you not be surprised?”
“My dear Miss Sharma,” he said, in that patient tone that got under her skin, “I simply mean that it is not surprising that my parents have had another child.”
“If you are being difficult, then I shall simply stop talking. You just want to tease me.”
“I am not teasing! But perhaps you should ask Mary instead. She is probably more able than me to explain something of that nature.”
And away went Kate, confident that Mary would speak to her honestly. However, by the end of a tactful but brutally clear explanation on the origin of babies, she had rather wished her mother was less honest; as the conversation went on, Kate had not known where to look. In fact, Kate was quite unable to meet her eye for the rest of the afternoon.
“Kate!” Anthony said, once he had found her again. “Where have you-"
But as soon as she raised her face to his, he wisely fell silent.
“Shall we resume our game?,” he asked instead. And wishing to see her acting as Kate again, he added, “Unless you have gotten tired of losing?”
It was ungentlemanly to goad, but it really did the trick. Kate came to and mustered her spirits admirably.
“That is a cheap shot, Mr. Bridgerton, as you well know. And untruthful to boot,” she said. Hesitating only a moment, she stuck her chin in the air. “And about what you said…I have talked to Mary about it, so that is that.”
At her statement, Anthony’s eyebrows shot up, but he simply motioned for her to lead the way, and off to the library they went.
That dreary first day was an omen of the following week, as Kate and Anthony found out to their chagrin.
“Surely you cannot spend another day indoors,” Anthony said as Kate announced her intention to go to the library.
“It is hardly good enough weather to go out,” replied Kate. “Unless you want to be sick and shivering for the rest of the week.”
“What are you talking about, it is not even drizzling!” Pointing out of the window, he gestured to the sky. It was overcast, to be sure, but he was right. There was nary a drop of rain.
Still, Kate had that…feeling in her chest. The tight, panicked ball of lead that always happened around the hint of a storm. The clouds seemed to be gathering, and that always–
“–ride out today? Kate?”
Shaking her head slightly, Kate focused on her friend again. “Pardon?”
“Shall we ride out again today?” Anthony repeated. He tilted his head. “Are you alright?”
“Yes!” The answer was too quick, too forceful. “Why would I not be?”
Anthony looked a little taken aback. “Truly, if you want to stay indoors, we can play rummy again. Or I can teach you how to play piquet.”
But Kate could see the worry in his eyes, and she hated it.
“No, you were right. We have stayed inside far too long. Let me go get ready.” Steeling herself, Kate strode away.
Of course, it was only a half hour later when she found herself cowering under a tree, eyes shut and unable to breathe as the thunder rumbled above them.
“Anthony, I-I cannot…”
Her hands clenched as she wrapped her arms around her knees, her nails digging sharp points of pain into her palms.
“It is alright, Kate, you are alright,” Anthony whispered her name as he tried to soothe her, stroking her back. “I am here, and you are safe.”
He reached out to gently grab her hand. “Kate, look at me.”
“I am here, Kate, and you are safe,” he said once more, and Kate forced herself to open her eyes. All she could see through her tears was Anthony, and she threw arms around him. He took it in his stride, continuing to rub her back as she tried to pull through.
They stayed like that, the two of them, until the storm passed – as the storm always passes, she reminded herself. Anthony insisted that she ride pillion on the way back; Kate felt his breathing, calming her with each passing minute.
Brushing off the concern of the stablehands with a noncommittal grunt, Anthony helped her down.
Mary and Edwina rushed out, identical in their concern.
“I am sorry, Mary, Edwina,” Kate said, quiet. “We rode out, and the storm happened before we could get back.”
“But you are covered in mud! Did you fall?” said Mary, checking Kate’s face for injuries.
“Only as we were getting to shelter,” Kate said, a twinge of guilt at her lie. As she met Anthony’s eyes, she willed him to understand. “As soon as I bathe and rest, I will be alright.”
Please go along with this. The last thing I want is for them to worry.
Anthony seemed to understand, but he said nothing, could only look on uneasily, as Kate was bundled into the house and out of his sight.
“Thank you,” she said when she found him later. Mary had delayed her, making sure that she was uninjured, thoroughly dry, and warm before letting her down to dinner. Anthony still looked apprehensive, so she continued, “For calming me down, and for not telling Mary and Edwina about what happened. They would worry too much.”
“I see,” he said, slow and grave.
“And I would…rather not talk about it.”
Anthony only nodded, and though Kate knew her secret was safe with him, it troubled her, in a way she could not quite express.
At sixteen, Kate had her first brush with true selfishness.
It had happened at the ebb of winter, with a rare visit from her father’s brother. Mary’s quick dismissal of her daughters after lunch aroused suspicion in Kate, who quietly crept up to the closed study door.
“The interest from George’s trust only yields half of what it used to these days,” Mary had said. “And I need to be able to retain as much of my dowry for Kate and Edwina. I would not ask if we needed it, but is it possible–“
“I think we both can agree that I have been more than generous to you and your daughters,” Uncle John interrupted. “However, I am only one man. How am I to maintain my own household, and yours? Unless you have reconsidered my earlier offer.”
“It has been above seven years, Mary. You cannot be in mourning forever.”
“John! Please. You know my answer, and it is unchanged.”
For several agonizing moments, Kate could only hear silence.
“Then I shall take my leave. I wish you luck with the future.”
As the footsteps approached the door, Kate darted back to her room, heart hammering all the while.
When Mary had reemerged, she looked as serene and composed as ever, and Kate, unwilling to reveal her eavesdropping, said nothing. And as it seemed that Mary was unwilling to speak, Kate endeavored to put it out of her mind.
It took several months, but Kate could begin to discern the purse strings tightening. First, the carriage was to be let go, then dinners became less varied. The repurposing of dresses, which had been encouraged before, was now a necessity. Still, Mary remained cheerful, and continued to encourage her and Edwina in their previous pursuits.
As summer approached, Kate became more nervous that Lady Danbury’s most recent invitation would be declined. Unlike the previous years, Mary had not sent her acceptance within the week. They had no carriage, and Kate knew that travel required money – how could they make the journey?
I am afraid I still cannot tell you when we are to arrive at Lady Danbury’s. A lot of things have changed here, and
I am still unsure I do not I will let you know as soon as possible, when Mary has made the arrangements. You need not work yourself up to desperation – as excellent as your father is, stealing the carriage and taking it all the way to Somerset would be hard to justify.
And how on earth would you be able to drive it?
I shall see you and your family soon.
Kate had nothing to fear, however, as another, rather written-through envelope from Danbury’s estate soon arrived.
After reading the letter, Mary could barely hold back her laugh.
“Well, girls, it seems that we are to go to Lady Danbury’s this summer after all.”
Though she was desperate to go to that place that had for two summers made her incalculably happy, she found that more confusion awaited.
For it was the year Anthony was to go to Oxford at last – he was on the cusp of adulthood, and Kate could feel it keenly. There had been something, something that had shifted in their relationship that year – something unsettled, something thrilling. And this always led to immediate shame; this was Anthony, one of her dear friends, one who was almost a brother to her, who thought of her as a sister.
She desperately pushed back against such thoughts, cursing her treacherous imagination. Kate had begun to pride herself on her ability to see the world as it was, and to be perturbed like this was a sore point.
For it was surely in her imagination, those sidelong glances from Anthony as they walked side-by-side. It seemed as if his eyes would dart away just as she looked at him, but Kate could never be sure.
What was not in her imagination, however, was the omnipresent chaperone that always remained in the background; Mrs. Bowery, a ladies maid who was almost intimidating as the mistress she served. Lady Danbury had stated that they were now of an age where it was simply improper to wander as they had used to.
“Think of it as practice for London society,” the Lady had said, holding up her hand when both had protested. “Both of your parents’ have agreed that this is necessary, and this is my estate. And know that I will not be pleased if I catch wind of any schemes to circumvent this situation.”
Neither dared to oppose their hostess, and so the chaperone went wherever they went, always watching.
“Let us go boating,” Anthony said, one bright morning. As Mrs Bowery made a disapproving noise, he amended his suggestion. “Alright then, let us go fishing.”
No more disapproving noises followed, though Mrs Bowery’s expression clearly announced what she thought of young men who brought their lady friends to an activity such as fishing. Fortunately for the matron’s sense of propriety, fishing bored Kate out of her mind.
“Let us ride down to the village,” said Kate. “Surely the mud will be gone by now, and we can take our time, go the long way around.”
An idea entered Anthony’s head. “That is a good idea. And, I have also brought my shotgun from home–“
“Absolutely not,” was Mrs. Bowery’s firm reply.
“Fine!” Anthony burst out, exasperated. “We shall go riding and visit the village, then come back and have dinner as proper members of society.”
“Really, Anthony, you are getting as dramatic as Benedict and Colin combined these days. And you are always smug about being above that sort of thing.”
Unreasonably amused by his resulting outrage, Kate went to fetch her riding gloves.
“I am sorry that you have to go so soon,” Kate said to Anthony as the Bridgertons took their leave, a fortnight earlier than usual. “And I know that Oxford leaves precious little time to write, but I will be waiting for your letters anyway.”
“I would expect nothing less from you, Kate,” Anthony said, about to pull her into a hug. At the last minute, he settled for a gallant kiss on the hand instead. “Take care, Miss Sharma. And you too, Miss Edwina, Lady Mary.”
It was not a week later that Kate received his fateful letter.
I cannot believe that I am writing this, I still cannot believe – my father.
Kate read with a growing horror. The Viscount, who had that past month been the pillar of health, had died. Had not only died in a senseless, horrible incident, but in his son’s arms, who could only watch, helpless and terrified. Every sentence, every word, rang with a loss and fury that she could understand too well.
She mourned for him, for his grief and the grief of his family. What could she possibly say in a mere letter? And she was unable to go to him directly, to comfort him as he needed.
It was all Kate could do to pen her condolences, to write exclamations of sorrow, of distress, and of promises to be a supportive listener, and to help however she can.
Oh Anthony, she thought as she wept. How I wish I could do more.
The response that she received, a week later, was appreciative, but there was a numbness in it that made her ache.
Only you, out of my friends, understand what we are going through right now. Thank you, Kate. You have no idea what a great comfort you have been to me.
As the Sharmas returned home, Kate was determined to continue the correspondence, to support her friend that had so recently had his world collapse. But real life, which had been so long lurking under the surface, could not be kept at bay.
“Kate.” Her mother's voice was odd, too hoarse. “Come here, I need to talk to you.”
Obediently, Kate stepped inside the study.“Yes, mama?”
“Close the door, Kate.”
Uneasiness growing in her stomach, Kate did as she was told.
“Mama, what is the matter?”
“It is the house, Kate. We shall have to leave.”
Her uncle, the interest, their dowries. A million thoughts flashed through Kate’s mind, that winter afternoon – the interrupted plea, the insinutations, the choice that Mary had faced alone. Kate was bursting with questions, but as she saw her mother’s face, she knew that this was not the time to crumble.
Instead, she took a deep breath.
“Alright. What do we have to do?”
Kate grew up, that autumn. She was no longer the carefree girl from merely a twelvemonth prior, but one that had to learned to shoulder the burdens that her mother would have otherwise had to carry alone.
And as the months ticked on, as Kate and Anthony’s responsibilities had ground themselves into comfortable grooves within their lives, disappointments became routine. The promise to meet at Danbury's the next summer came to naught, as did the promises to wait on each other in Somerset or Kent. Eventually the letters became more and more scarce, until they ceased altogether.
It happened quietly, but surely. The friendship of Miss Sharma and the Viscount Bridgerton was no more.
The Sharma sisters enter society, and some reunions are underway.
Season 2 is finally out! I loved every moment of Kate and Anthony, even though some of the subplots were disappointing. It's not a great sign when Eloise's footman is more intriguing than the Featherington heir.
Thank you for the lovely comments, they brightened my day.
At twenty-six, Kate claimed to have long since passed the age of romantic fancies, for it would not do to have her head in the clouds when there were so many concerns to keep her down on earth.
Especially since those concerns never once abated – the years had flown by without reprieve, hurtling her family towards the threat of genteel poverty that she agonized over during countless twilight hours. Their circumstances were looming over their heads, even though she was more than able to find happiness in the small joys. The country, her mother and Edwina; if it had been possible for that delicate state to have existed in perpetuity, Kate would have been content. But eventually that day had come, when it was no longer possible to economize away reality.
One night, when the three of them were sitting by the fire, Mary finally put it forth before her daughters.
“My dears, I think it is time for us to go to London.”
Before they threw themselves into the whirlwind of preparation for the season, Lady Danbury insisted on visiting, and stated her intention to sponsor them as far as was possible.
“I must insist,” Lady Danbury had said when Mary protested. “For…the proper course of things. For what I could not do thirty years ago.”
And so, the discussions were long and detailed. Mary related her advice on how to conduct themselves in the eyes of the ton, while Lady Danbury detailed the many changes that had happened since her old friend’s exile.
In the bustle of these talks, Kate kept her eye on Edwina, uncharacteristically silent throughout.
“If you are not ready,” Kate had said one evening, helping Edwina with her toilette, “then all you have to do is say the word. I am sure that Mary and Lady Danbury will understand, and we shall make it work until the next season.”
Edwina shifted before answering in her usual cheerful manner, “I am quite ready, Kate. I just...I only hope they like me, that is all.”
“Of course they will! The ton have eyes and ears, do they not? They will be falling over themselves to admire you.”
“Ha! And the ones that do not? Did you not hear Lady Danbury call it a pit of snakes?”
“I supposed she did, but it was not without affection. Besides,” said Kate, gently brushing Edwina’s hair, “you will have me by your side. And I am more than happy to be the shrew, if anyone were to vex you.”
“Kate, I wish you would not speak of yourself so,” Edwina replied. “It is your debut as well.”
“I am quite happy as I am, as you are well aware. All you have to do is focus on finding the perfect match. Someone charming, and handsome…”
“And clever, of course.”
“Yes, of course. You are far too clever to love a stupid man.”
As much as they talked of a love match, they both knew that Edwina was their real hope for an advantageous alliance. Kate knew that she was already a spinster, with her debut happening as a formality rather than with any real view of entering society and the marriage mart.
In fact, so comfortable was she in her spinsterhood, that when they visited the modiste Kate was determined that her younger sister could choose any and all of the fashions her heart desired. Edwina had a fighting chance to be crowned the season's Incomparable, after all, and the ton could have nothing to reproach her with, at least in that regard.
Both Mary and Edwina had despaired that this choice had left Kate with less than her fair share.
"With both our savings and Lady Danbury's generosity," Mary had reminded her, "there is more than enough for you both."
But Kate was satisfied, and happily went about selecting her own wardrobe. There was a sense of freedom, in selecting the colors and patterns with such little regard to de rigeur. In vain did the modiste steer her towards the soft, delicate, youthful fabrics that were so becoming on Edwina – she was sure that the elder Miss Sharma would also have the attention of the ton, that she would have no shortage of suitors, and would not want for dance partners, if only she would deign to have some more of the blush-colored silk for evening-wear.
Kate received these compliments with a polite smile and a murmured thanks. She also continued to choose as she wanted, until the poor dressmaker threw up her hands in surrender.
“Kate, Edwina, you were both simply radiant.”
Their presentation had gone as well as her affectionate mother had hoped. Kate, in particular, swelled with pride as the queen had recognised Edwina as flawless. Her only regret was that, so focused was she on her sister, it was only when they had exited the palace that she remembered the Bridgertons. In vain did she comb her memory, trying to recall if she had seen the face of her old friend in the room.
“Which families shall be in attendance at your ball tonight, my lady?,” Kate had asked at last, once Mary and Lady Danbury’s conversation on the court minutiae had reached a natural lull.
“The principal families, as always. The Bassets, the Cowpers, the Spencers…“ and on Lady Danbury went, listing names that Kate knew but could not bring herself to care about, “…and of course, the Bridgertons. I know that some of that family are more than happy to renew the acquaintanceship.”
Kate chose to ignore the look levelled at her direction, and any implied meaning it may accompany. If Lady Danbury meant to make her blush, then she had better choose a different target. It was only that he would help the season pass easier, that was all; he, at least, could be counted on as one person whom she could talk to without having to second-guess every word.
Thankfully, Edwina chose that moment to take their leave.
“Excuse us, my lady. My sister and I should go and dress for tonight.”
Lady Danbury gave a slight nod of her head, and Kate was grateful to her sister for their escape.
“I suppose we shall have to wait for the Bridgertons to approach us,” Edwina said as the maids busied themselves with her chemise.
“Etiquette dictates it so,” was Kate’s response. “Are you looking forward to seeing Daphne again?”
“Very much so. I had hoped to discern her in the crowd, but I could not see anything but the queen. At least she is come tonight.” Edwina looked at Kate in the reflection of her mirror. “And I am curious to see her husband. I read…well, I heard that they were a true love-match.”
Kate remembered the late Viscount and the Viscountess from that first summer, how Anthony often spoke of their affectionate behavior with half-embarrassment, half-pride.
“I suppose with their parents as they were, Daphne would have not settled for less. And I hope you will be able to say the same, should you find your husband here.”
Edwina smiled her gentle smile, and squeezed her sister’s hand.
The ballroom was slowly filling with a dizzying amount of people. A steady stream of young ladies and their chaperones, of gentlemen and their friends, continued to flow into the room.
“So it is true, that she has returned, and to parade her daughters as well. It really is a wonder that she would be welcomed in again with open arms. And for her younger daughter to be crowned the diamond!”
“It seems that to have Lady Danbury as a friend, and an Earl as a father may smooth over anything, even such scandalous behaviour as Lady Mary has exhibited. The Queen is most gracious indeed.”
The careless whispers would have stung, if Kate had cared. She knew, as her mother and Edwina did, that such barbs were both unavoidable and not to be entertained. It was frowned upon, after all, to argue with a stranger in public.
Not that the ton’s scrutiny had dimmed Edwina’s prospects – quite a few gentlemen were eager to be introduced to Edwina, and by extension, Kate; the sisters received them all. On her part, Kate cast her sharp eye over each one, recalling the names she had come across in her reading, noting their manners, or lack thereof, scrutinizing their comportment, their attitudes towards her sister.
“I am pleased to make your acquaintance,” Edwina must have said a dozen times over, always with good grace and charming manner. Yet, Kate could see that despite it all, to Edwina they were none of them interesting, all of them the same.
The man in front of them gave a courtesy bow to Lady Danbury, and the name 'Sir Eliot' was uttered. A handsome man, Kate noted, though with a well-known habit of siring children outside of wedlock. Before Lady Danbury could speak, Kate shook her head slightly at Edwina, and Sir Eliot's introduction was summarily rejected. To her credit, Lady Danbury refrained from giving any spoken sign of her displeasure. Instead, she chose a different approach.
“Miss Edwina’s dance card is fast filling up. What are your plans for the evening, Miss Sharma?” She looked meaningfully at the untouched dance card dangling at Kate’s wrist.
“I have no plans to dance tonight, my lady.”
“You have already journeyed to London, and it will be your home for the coming months. You may as well partake in its pleasures.”
“Pardon me, but I see no reason to, for I am not looking for a husband for myself.”
Kate had so far found that in most of polite society, anything resembling bluntness was often enough to silence unwanted topics of conversation. But Lady Danbury was not most of polite society, and so she persisted.
“For tonight, I am only talking of dancing, Miss Sharma, not matrimony. It is not a mark of selfishness to enjoy the cotillion.”
It was a foreboding sign of the weeks to come. Luckily, Kate was granted a temporary reprieve. For at that moment, the Duke and Duchess of Hastings had arrived.
The mere entrance of that lauded couple, graced with a fashionable touch of infamy, provided a diversion for nearly every attendee of the ball. Lady Danbury herself moved to catch the couple’s attention with a discreet yet unmistakable summons. As the couple drifted through the room, they left whispers about their pre-marital state of affairs in their wake – the hurried recounting of the Duchess’s spurning of a genuine prince in favor of the then-unrepentant rake of a Duke promising to provide fodder for the next quarter of an hour at least.
But as Kate observed the spirited, loving conversation that flowed from the couple, she could whole-heartedly believe that Daphne – no longer the soft-spoken girl playing at adulthood from Kate’s memory, but a woman blossomed into her own – had no regrets about giving up a shot at royalty.
Though, Kate thought to herself, if becoming a mere Duchess is a sacrifice, then I do not know how the rest of us cope.
Scarcely had she finished her thought when that same Duchess stepped in front of them.
“Miss Sharma, Miss Edwina,” exclaimed Daphne, dropping into a graceful curtsey. “I was so pleased to see you both presented at court! I do hope that you remember me?”
Both sisters returned the curtsey, Edwina overjoyed at renewing an old friendship, and Kate genuinely happy to see a familiar face, though very aware of the interested looks that their party was attracting.
“Of course, Your Grace,” was Kate’s warm reply.
“How could we forget?,” added Edwina, clasping Daphne’s hand. “I always used to look forward to when we would meet at Lady Danbury’s estate.”
“We were so little then. I still recall the time Benedict and Colin ambushed us as ghosts in the library just before supper.”
“Oh, yes. We had to ask Kate to scold some sense into them. Their apologies were very proper, very exact. Though it didn’t stop you from wanting to plot your revenge.”
Before Daphne and Edwina could leap into reminiscing over good times, her husband gave a discreet cough, having been temporarily forgotten in favor of a decade-long memory of mischief.
“May I have the honor of being introduced to your friends?”
The bemused Duke was granted his request.
“Miss Kate Sharma, Miss Edwina Sharma, allow me introduce my husband. His Grace, the Duke of Hastings,” said Daphne, prim and proper again, with an extra note of happiness on the phrase ‘my husband’.
As the Duke bowed and gallantly kissed their hands, Kate was overcome with relief that he was off the marriage market. Pleasant and gentlemanly as he was, she could only too clearly imagine him unattached, content to sow his wild oats. A year of marriage had yet to bury his reputation quite completely.
The necessary introductions made, their party relaxed into easy conversation. Daphne and Edwina continued their tête-à-tête, lost in recounting all their old escapades, leaving the chaperones to the side.
“I was telling Miss Sharma just now,” Lady Danbury said, “on the pleasures that the season affords. I am sure you remember similar advice that I had given you last year.”
This again! How Kate wished that she would let go.
“I am unable to forget, Lady Danbury,” replied the Duke, with a hint of exasperated good humour. “As you well know.”
Lady Danbury gave one of her famously disarming smiles, and turned her attentions to Mary.
“Well, Miss Sharma,” said the Duke. “Has Lady Danbury found a new target? I remember all too well the sensation of being plagued by invites to soirees and balls.”
Somehow Kate was not surprised that Lady Danbury would have influence even over a duke. She replied, “Our family is lodging with her this season, Your Grace. As you can imagine, the invitations are part of the agreement.”
“Then we must move on to less contentious subjects,” he said, a sparkle in his eye. “Perhaps you can tell me more about Daphne as a child. Unfortunately she knows much more about my youthful embarrassments than I’d like, and this may tip the scales in my favour.”
“Not if I can help it, my dear.” With her impeccable timing, Daphne swooped in with Edwina by her side. “You shall have to find your own informers, and I shall keep mine.”
Daphne smiled conspiratorially at her, and Kate felt, for the first time that day, that she could let herself relax.
After the quartet had conversed for a little while, the master of ceremonies signalled the first set. As Kate watched, the couple left to take their place and Edwina’s hand was claimed by a hopeful paramour. The elder Miss Sharma took this as an opportunity to refresh her drink.
“That Miss Edwina Sharma is a radiant little thing, is she not?”
“I am sure she will not want for suitors this season. And perhaps she will snag herself the biggest prize of all.”
“The Baron Lucas?”
“Even better. I have heard news that–" and here Kate could not quite discern the name, as a gaggle of ladies had caused her to step aside “–has decided that it is time he found a wife.”
"A coveted bachelor indeed."
“Hush! The line is moving down, he may hear you above the music. How becoming he looks!”
The small huddle of matrons murmured the agreement, and Kate could no longer hold in her curiosity - just as she turned to see who that excitement was all about, she was arrested by the sight of him.
For the man on the dance floor who had aroused such attention was Anthony. Unmistakeable was he, with the same dark brown eyes and noble face. Age had given him a refined manner, less gawkish movement and a prouder bearing. Like Daphne, he was no longer the youth in her memory.
As improper as it was, Kate let her stare linger just a touch too long. One moment – his gaze met hers. A moment of recognition, and a jolt ran through her body.
Grateful to have something take her out of that moment, she turned to Lady Danbury with an alacrity that almost made her mentor suspicious.
“Yes, my lady?”
“There is a gentleman that wishes to make your acquaintance.”
Repressing a sigh, Kate allowed herself to be led away.
The ball ended in the early hours of the morning; as the music died down, carriages were ordered, the stragglers went home, and the ladies of Danbury house retired to their apartments.
In the dark quiet of her room, curtains drawn against the rising sun, Kate lay in quiet reflection of recent events. Gratified as she was to see Edwina admired so, it was still troubling that her sister had seen no one who had caught her fancy in those long hours. It was only the first night, she reminded herself, so it was not as if there were reason to panic.
Less pleasing were the constraints of etiquette. Though she had meant to be steadfast in her declaration, and not dance at all, it was soon rendered necessary.
“I should not have to insult your intelligence,” Lady Danbury had whispered as Lady Mary had made the introductions, “by reminding you that a young lady cannot refuse a dance with a gentleman she has been introduced to, unless she is already engaged.”
Kate would have been mulish, had she not seen the flicker of disappointment in her mother’s eyes. Chastened, she strove to make herself an agreeable partner for the duration of the country dance. It was not all disagreeable, at least – Sir Hampton was pleasant enough, with none of the cloying artifice of so many of his peers.
And there was Anthony. As she made her way down the line, she saw him once more; the moment the music stopped, he had found them.
“I had the pleasure of seeing both of your presentations at court,” he had said, a hint of that old boyishness creeping into his tone. “You were every inch the proper lady, I could hardly believe my eyes.”
A decade earlier, Anthony would have continued with a bout of teasing that she would have returned in kind. But, in London and to the ton, he was a lord and she was playing a lady. How juvenile to hope they could have picked up where they left off! Kate had known that were if it were merely a case of time passing, such hopes still would have been unrealistic, and so much had changed even at the tail-end of their friendship that it was just simply impossible.
Still, there were the precious few snatches of conversation that they could spare each other in between dances and suitors and formalities. Every fond recollection, every sentence, each one was a breath of fresh air, a welcome remnant of the old comfort of those bygone summers.
No, indeed it was not all disagreeable.
The sun had risen, and finally she slept.
Everything is going perfectly well, until they don't.
That first fortnight passed in a flurry of balls, promenading, and other such events. There was hardly a moment to absorb all that happened, for it seemed to Kate that when she closed her eyes at night, she would be roused by the maid mere moments later. Her habit of early morning-rides was replaced by the ritual of dressing and breakfast, after which she would go with the other ladies and Newton to the morning-room; and there it was always the same – as soon as they were seated, there was a knock on the door.
"His lordship, Lord So-and-so” the footman would say, or he would announce, "Sir So-and-so, Mr. So-and-so and Mr. So-and-so," and all Kate could do was brace herself for the coming day.
That particular morning, it seemed as if the stream of gentlemen callers would never end; indeed, it was as if two had sprung up for every one that had left.
"But I have been abominably rude, Miss Edwina," said Lord Braybrooke, and Kate could only agree – she could count on one hand the number of words Edwina had managed to get in edgewise throughout the entire conversation. "What of your interests? I have heard that you are very much accomplished."
"I enjoy music, and dancing, and–"
"As all young ladies should! I am always telling my sisters, it is–"
Sisters! Kate’s heart went out to those poor Braybrooke girls. Meanwhile, she continued to mentally devise ways to throw him out without infringing on propriety.
"–and I do quite enjoy the classics, my lord."
Lord Braybrooke, unaccustomed as he was to being interrupted, needed a moment to decide whether to take offence. Then the beautiful Miss Edwina smiled so innocently, so brightly, and he was moved to forgiveness.
"I read classics at Oxford," he said, believing himself to be gallant by responding to her statement. "The great Greek philosophers were fascinating to me. Sometimes I wish that Aristotle were still alive – I do know there are several arguments that he set forth in The Republic that I would discuss with him, if I could."
"The Republic? I seem to recall that it was authored by Plato, my lord," Edwina said, sunny smile never moving an inch.
"Ah! Yes. Yes, I did mean Plato, of course. Was that not what I said?"
Poor Edwina. To have to sit and humor such condescension and ignorance. At least the embarrassment made his lordship less chatty. It seemed to improve his memory as well, as not five minutes passed before he suddenly recalled a previous engagement, and took his leave.
Edwina poured herself another cup of tea, before turning to her sister with a sigh.
"I cannot believe it is almost noon."
"Yes, and not a single gentleman worthy of attention has passed through in the last three hours," Kate said, obliging Newton’s silent request for a belly rub. "I am sure that Newton has more sense than all of them combined."
Her mother admonished her with a stern ‘Kate’, but made no other attempt to defend Edwina’s would-be suitors. Newton, for his part, trotted off, perfectly satisfied with himself.
"Having to separate the wheat from the chaff is one of the unfortunate side-effects of being a season’s diamond, Miss Edwina," said Lady Danbury. "Fools have always been two-a-penny in London. Your mother has enough stories to fill a novel, if I remember correctly."
The poised, proper Lady Mary laughed heartily before shaking her head.
"Those days are long gone, Lady Danbury, and I am not sorry that they are."
"Yes, you are quite right. But at least it is almost time for luncheon."
But before they could move, the footman knocked on the door yet again. Edwina met Kate’s eyes in mute exasperation, until–
"His Lordship, Viscount Bridgerton."
"Oh, thank heavens," Lady Danbury said, speaking for all of them. "I thought Lord Braybrooke had returned."
As she finished her sentence, Lord Bridgerton entered, and was received with the utmost politeness.
"I wanted to send flowers," he admitted, holding out tulips, "but business already brought me to this part of town, so I thought I would drop them off myself. Though it would seem as if you had already received more than enough today."
He was, of course, referring to the various arrangements that Edwina’s suitors had brought, crammed onto every available surface.
To her surprise, Kate received a bouquet as well.
"Thank you, my lord," Kate said, lifting it closer to her face so she could inhale the heady scent. It had been a long time since someone had brought her flowers.
Anthony stayed for a little while, the party talking about all and sundry.
"How are you finding Mayfair?" he asked Kate suddenly, once the conversation had splintered somewhat. "Have you made up your mind if true enjoyment can be found in it?"
"There is much to enjoy…but there are some things that are already tiresome. Such as all this," she said, gesturing vaguely to the souvenirs left by their morning callers. "Edwina must have received dozens by now."
"What, all these are from your sister's suitors?"
"Well, they are certainly not from mine. And the talk! To always be on your guard, looking for insinuations, veiled meanings, or hidden intentions. I would rather just a direct conversation."
"Yes,” he laughed. “I remember too well how much you prefer directness."
"As you should," was her haughty reply. "It saves a lot of time. Surely you like it as little as I do."
"Very little. It is one of the more exhausting activities in life, but it is unavoidable."
Unfortunately, his visit was wrapped up rather quickly after that.
"Would you like to join us for luncheon?" Lady Danbury said before he left.
"It is tempting, Lady Danbury, but I am afraid I am needed at home. I shall take my leave. I hope I shall see you all soon."
The next day, Kate was gratified to come across Anthony at the races, a Miss Carter on his arm and a greeting on his lips – this was soon followed by an inquiry about her being completely alone.
"Mama and Lady Danbury are getting refreshments," she explained, eyeing the stands. "And I offered to go ahead to find us a viewing spot."
"Then I hope that you are better at it than his lordship," said Miss Carter, half-laughing. "As he has been searching the crowd for an acceptable seat for the last ten minutes."
Anthony bowed in response, but said nothing. Kate had observed this tendency of his since they had become reacquainted – though he was clearly still capable of lively conversation when inclined to it, the Viscount was also sterner, moodier, more prone to silence than she had remembered.
Luckily, the trio was spared an awkward silence by the sound of someone calling Kate’s name.
"Edwina," Kate exclaimed, turning around. "I–oh. Where is his lordship?"
"His attention was called elsewhere," Edwina replied, accompanied by someone who was definitely not Lord Lumley. "He was most apologetic, and Colonel Whitford insisted that he should escort me in his lordship’s stead."
Though Kate was concerned that she had knew nothing about this Whitford, she was assuaged by the liveliness in Edwina’s manner that had been missing of late. Nor was she allowed to dwell on this concern, for as soon as greetings were exchanged between the couples, the beginning of the race was announced, and their party was obliged to sit.
"And you, Miss Sharma?"
Miss Sharma was finding it difficult to be quite present, as she kept a watchful eye on her sister and Colonel Whitford, having a spirited conversation not two inches to her right.
"I was asking if you played, Miss Sharma," Miss Carter said with exceeding patience. Anthony, seated between them, continued in his silence. "Is music not the most delightful pursuit?"
Kate thought of her poor flute tutor with a twinge of guilt.
"For many it is. As for me, I play only for myself, and my sister is far more accomplished anyhow."
Seated as close as they were, Kate felt, rather than heard, Anthony’s laughter.
"Do not tell me Miss Fairfield gave you up prematurely," he said, "when she had spent so long determined that you should grow into a flutist that could make La Poupelinière proud."
"I do not mean to slight Miss Fairfield’s effort, for it was more my choice than hers. But even I am not too proud to admit that some endeavors are at the mercy of one’s natural talents. Such as card-playing, for example."
An audible laugh this time, but he was not given the chance respond.
"You two were acquainted before the season, then?" asked Miss Carter, who proved more observant than her frothy manner had suggested.
"Our families share a few mutual acquaintances," said Kate, and did not continue, for she was wholly uninterested in discussing this subject with a near-stranger. Too much information, she felt, and it would no doubt be passed around the ton like hotcakes.
Anthony seemed to feel the same, as he changed the subject abruptly.
"The race is set to begin shortly. Which horse is your pick, Miss Carter?"
Demure and deferential once again, Miss Carter replied, "I am still unsure. What about you, my lord?"
"Oh! You sound so decided, I must make him my choice as well. Truth be told, I had always wondered how gentleman can make such predictions, and so often turn out correct."
"For this race, at least, it is the obvious choice," Anthony said before adding, “but Miss Sharma seems to disagree."
Kate certainly disagreed, and she was ready to let him know.
"High Flyer has a much better chance of victory."
"Nectar has had a string of victories in all the previous meets. He is well-bred, well-trained, and well-favored. When compared to High Flyer’s poor showing in Heath and Doncaster, it is hardly a competition," was his reply, getting more animated with each word.
"Doncaster was completely different. Here it is hot, and the track is soft. Nectar shall struggle to from the start and will likely overheat. In the final leg High Flyer will make headway, and you shall see that I am right."
"Oh we shall, shall we?"
"The horses are ready," said Miss Carter, determined that she should not be left out.
As the horses were led to the starting line Kate could not help wanting to have the final word.
She said, "It is not too late to make the right choice, my lord."
"I believe I already have, Miss Sharma."
Once the shot was fired and the horses sprang into action, Lord Bridgerton and Miss Sharma were at the edges of their seat. It was so easy to be swept up in the giddiness of the race, that Kate sprang up just moments before Anthony did the same, both only half-aware that they were shouting their support at the top of their lungs.
"Yes!" Kate screamed in triumph, as High Flyer crossed the finish line in glorious first. After a suitable celebration, Kate flung herself down on the bench again. "I must say, winning never does lose its sweetness."
Still riding on the high of her victory, she looked up at Anthony. For a moment, she saw something strangely familiar, but it was gone as quickly as it came.
"Well, Ka–Miss Sharma, it seems that you have bested me," he said, the picture of affable propriety. But she caught it, the way he had stumbled on her name. It was confusing, unsettling, and for a moment she did not know how to proceed.
At that moment, Miss Carter expressed her wish to find her mother, and the Viscount offered his services; the two took their leave.
"I am glad to see you having fun, sister," Edwina said at last, and Kate recollected where and who she was.
"Yes, it was enjoyable," Kate replied, assuming her role as guardian once more. "Tell me, Colonel Whitford, what are your interests?"
Colonel Whitford stayed by her sister’s side for a good while, to the consternation of many other gentlemen. As the couple walked through the crowd, they were trailed by the watchful Lady Mary, Lady Danbury, and of course, Miss Sharma.
"What do you know of the colonel, my lady?" Kate said, keeping pace with her chaperones.
"There are no scandals hanging over his head, if that is what you are asking," Lady Danbury answered. "The Whitfords are a respectable family, from the north."
"I have never heard a word against them," her mother added.
"Quite. Though, unfortunately, he is a second son."
A second son. Kate knew what that meant. What she did not know was whether it would be an obstacle should there be a courtship between the colonel and her sister.
"Are you saying that he has no income, my lady?"
"He has no independent fortune whatsoever, at least to my knowledge. Why, has Miss Edwina expressed an interest in him?"
"No. I would rather know of his general character sooner, that is all. I do think it part of my duty, to anticipate as much as I can."
Lady Danbury hmphed, and Kate was almost astonished to find that she had nothing else to say. Usually, the lady would use an opening such as that to talk about Kate's own prospects. Perhaps she had finally accepted Kate's declarations at face value.
Of course, it ended up simply being wishful thinking, for it was only a little while later before Lady Danbury spoke up again.
"And how was Lord Bridgerton this afternoon? I saw the two of you having quite a time up in the stands."
Though she tried not to think of it, that moment, that single moment of Anthony's hesitation, plagued her thoughts. It gnawed her, causing unrest, and it did not abate even as they returned the Danbury house in preparation for their soiree. In fact, as the evening wore on, the ‘entertainments’ prepared by the various gentlemen actually made her mood worse.
"I am in need of some fresh air," Kate murmured to Edwina at last, once she felt she could not take it anymore. She needed to collect herself before some unfortunate soul got the wrong end of the stick.
After three turns around the garden, Kate was calmed just enough to consider returning to the house. However, a burst of conversation caught her attention – feeling unequal to socializing, she hastily retreated behind some rather convenient shrubbery.
"There you are, brother! I had begun to think you had lost your courage in the face of all the young ladies and their mamas."
"I was settling some accounts at home. Benedict, are you already this deep into your cups? It has been half an hour."
Just perfect, Kate thought. She, in all her wisdom, had placed herself in a situation where she would be listening in on the Bridgertons. But it was almost impossible to leave without drawing attention to herself, and so she stayed.
Benedict – Benedict Bridgerton, she assumed – ignored Anthony’s rebuke.
"And how is your search going? Colin and I saw Miss Carter in a huff this afternoon, after you escorted her to the stands."
A third man chimed in.
"You are getting better at this, Anthony. She must have been offended, what, twenty minutes into a conversation with you? A week ago it took you a whole afternoon."
"I did not offend her. She was simply unsuitable. And what would you know about it? You arrived yesterday."
Anthony’s annoyance only seemed to fuel the good mood of his younger brothers.
"Unsuitable!" said Benedict or Colin, Kate could not tell. "And what are your requirements for a suitable wife?"
Kate, despite her better judgment, found herself intrigued, then felt ashamed for it. And yet, she did not move.
"Well, if he is going to be mysterious, I can tell you, Colin," was the eventual response.
"No, no, I want to hear it from Anthony himself."
A sigh, and Anthony said, "It is hardly some state secret. I am looking for a tolerable, dutiful woman with a pleasant face and half a brain, one who is suitable to be Viscountess. And I am trying to find her this season, but it is proving to be impossible."
"But no love?"
"I do not see a reason why I would have love in that equation."
"And childbearing hips,” Benedict added unhelpfully. “You did also stress the importance of childbearing hips."
"You are a thorn in my side, you know that?"
"I am sure that Benedict has said this, but that is the most ridiculous thing–"
"–it is not ridiculous, it is–"
"–you have ever said. And worse, there is no arguing with you. My question is, if you really seek those qualities, then why have you not approached the diamond of the season?"
Edwina! Edwina as some ornament in a loveless marriage, expected only to act as a broodmare. Kate’s face burned hot, and she no longer cared to listen. Determined to leave Lord Bridgerton to his absurdity, she rushed in the other direction.
Her fury was only second to her disappointment. For her friend, the kind, straightforward Anthony who had admired his parents so, for him to grow to be the sort of man who could speak of his future wife in such terms. It was clinical, exacting, heartless, and completely insupportable. To think that she had been so happy to see him again, these past weeks! To be taken in by the offering of flowers and charming recollections!
As she re-entered the drawing room, Kate ran into Lady Danbury. Just the sight of the woman reminded Kate of where she was, and who she owed, so she tried to adopt her usual expression. If the lady saw her distress, she did not address it.
"Miss Sharma, where have you been? Lady Mary has been looking for you for the past twenty minutes."
"Just in the garden, my lady,” Kate replied. “Where is she?"
"In the parlour."
"Then I shall go to her directly."
Just as she moved to the side hall, just as she resolved to avoid him and any unpleasant scenes that may follow in their wake, that same gentleman walked up to her side.
"Good evening, Miss Sharma," he said, provokingly cheerful. "What are you doing here? I thought you would be inside, scaring your sister’s paramours."
The formality and coldness in her tone took him aback, the smile on his face dimmed somewhat. But still he continued, a note of concern in his voice.
"Are you alright? Did something happen? You seem rather flushed."
It all seemed genuine enough. Ten minutes ago, it would have touched her heart. But now, the sight of him standing there, appearing so gallant and handsome after – well, it provoked her to anger yet again.
"I am alright. Pardon me, I must go and find mama."
"Are you sure?," Lord Bridgerton said, reaching out to take her hand. "Truly you look distressed. Are you sure you do not need any assistance?"
"I am quite sure,” she said, pulling back, unable to help the sarcasm dripping from every word. "Perhaps you should return to the soiree. After all, it would not do to be distracted from your search for the most appropriately pleasant, tolerable, dutiful girl you can find."
Realization dawned in his eyes.
"That was – you were eavesdropping?"
"It was hardly an effort, my lord. You were not at all secretive about the checklist of requirements you want in a wife."
"Kate," he said, amending his address once he saw her eyes flash with anger. "Miss Sharma, allow me to explain–"
"Explain? I am not some naïve girl, sir, who you can charm and flatter into forgetting that you are the calculating, unfeeling type of man who views the women he is courting as nothing more than chattel and breeding-stock."
She was worked up beyond reason, fists clenched at her sides. Lord Bridgerton mirrored her anger now, his back ramrod straight as he glared at her.
"I dare not suppose you are quite done," he said, as she drew breath.
"No, I am not done," she said, for the previous morning had taken on a new, sinister significance in her mind. "You will stay away from my sister. We came to London to find Edwina the match she deserves, and you have just proven that you are not what she is looking for."
"Edwina? You think I am courting–"
"–what else am I supposed to think? You called on her, just days after she was declared the diamond of the season–"
"–you honestly...I will not do this. I will not stand here and have you call me unfeeling, when I am simply doing what is best for my family. I would have thought that you, of all people, would understand, but if you are so ready to think the worst of my character, in all your stubbornness and obstinacy, then you are welcome to it."
"I will think as I please, with the information that I have!"
"Fine! Do not let me stop you."
Viscount Bridgerton and Miss Sharma spun on their heels and stormed off.
A brief period of personal disarray for Miss Sharma, as she stews over her argument with Anthony Bridgerton.
This is a shorter chapter, one that was originally meant to be part of chapter 3 but the breaks just worked better where they were.
As always, thank you for the kind comments!
For longer than she’d care to admit, Kate could not help but dwell over every word said during that disastrous encounter with Anthony Bridgerton.
"Kate, dear, are you quite alright?," Lady Mary asked one day, as they dressed for the afternoon activities. "You have barely spoken a word in the last few days."
"I am just tired, mama,” Kate replied. "I just need some rest."
Watching her with worried eyes, Edwina chimed in with, "Are you sure, Kate? You were so quiet and grave this morning. Did something happen?"
"No, nothing happened. Do not worry, for I shall sleep deeply tonight and be myself again." she said, turning to face her sister, "But enough about me. Now, which necklace did you say you preferred?"
That night, once she was in the privacy of her bedchamber, Kate sat and watched the fire. It was unlikely that she would sleep anytime soon, so she simply listened to the soft crackling, enjoying the peace…
A knock on the door.
"Come in," she called, pulling her shawl closer. To her great surprise, Lady Danbury entered – and as always, her ladyship did not mince her words.
"Your mother is worried about you," she said as she entered. "As is your sister."
Kate remained silent. She was not in the mood to be interrogated.
"I cannot help but notice that this lull in your spirits happened after your shouting match with Lord Bridgerton, at my soiree. Both of you were so loud that it could be heard two rooms over. I also seem to recall that afterwards the two of you were in a sullen mood all night, were you not?"
When there was still no answer forthcoming, Lady Danbury seated herself, and Kate just knew that she should prepare herself to be questioned at length. Lady Danbury rarely gave in without a fight.
"Miss Sharma, for the past couple of weeks you have been nothing but frank with me, and while some may argue that it is improper, there is no use stopping now. So I will ask again – is there something that happened between you and the viscount, something I should know about?"
"I believe that is my own private business."
"That is true, but when I offered to assist your family," Lady Danbury said, placing both hands on top of her cane and leaning forward, "I promised your mother that I would do everything in my power to help you both. When a young lady that I am sponsoring gets into an acrimonious row with one of the most prominent gentlemen of the season, under my own roof? It becomes my business. People will talk."
"People always talk," Kate said, refusing to cower away. "And whatever they say, it does not matter. I do not care what anyone thinks of me."
"That is an admirable trait, and one that I have noticed in you since you were fourteen."
Despite herself, Kate could not help but feel some pride for the compliment. But the older woman was not finished.
"You are no longer a child, Miss Sharma. Despite the way you have kept yourself on the fringe of things, your actions have import. It was already publicly known that you were on good terms with the viscount. There were even whispers that he–"
And here Lady Danbury stopped, for Miss Sharma was roused to speak.
"He was not courting me," Kate said, certain of at least this one thing. "And there was nothing in his manner that suggested otherwise, and nor did I take any steps that may have encouraged such a notion. I have never even danced with him!"
"Yet the idea has taken root. Frankly it is a miracle that you two have not yet been linked by Lady Whistledown. A gentleman and a lady rumoured to be courting, overheard shouting at each other in a clandestine area - and on top of it all, this argument leaves you both in foul moods for several days. Do you see how this may be misconstrued?"
Oh, Kate could imagine all too well how that incident could be twisted. It was too good of a story for the ton, the viscount and the spinster miss. A lover’s spat, perhaps over something trivial, perhaps not. And perhaps more malicious gossips may attribute the argument to something more serious. From there it was only some short steps towards a full-blown story about a jilted engagement or something of its kind.
Sighing, she knew she had to admit that Lady Danbury was right.
"Truly, my lady, it was not anything that could bring scandal. It was simply a personal disagreement…a clash of opinions."
"That is all?"
Here Kate hesitated. She was unused to exposing her such things to anyone outside of her family; but she truly believed that she had done right in her edict to the viscount. And part of knowing if it was the right thing meant being able to explain why she had done it.
"It was a disagreement over something he had said about courtship. I did not like how he approached it, and I…told him that he was not to court Edwina."
Lady Danbury’s reaction was one of silent astonishment; a less dignified personage would have snorted in disbelief.
"Yes. I realised that he may have had intentions to court my sister, and he was assuredly against having a love match. It was incompatible with what she is looking for. So I told him that he was to maintain his distance."
"I see," Lady Danbury said, absorbing the information. "Then I must tell you that you may face a slight stumbling block."
"Pardon me, my lady?"
"Her Majesty the Queen has just today told me of her plans to encourage a match between the viscount and your sister. I assume that she will begin at her matchmaking at the luncheon tomorrow."
It was Kate’s turn to be shocked, though it quickly turned into self-chastisement, for of course she should have seen this! While it had been her hope that she could protect Edwina from his advances alone, she should have realized that Her Majesty would obviously try to pair her diamond with someone as eligible as Lord Bridgerton.
As these thoughts flitted through her head, Lady Danbury watched her with that inscrutable look.
"As spirited as you are, you cannot forbid the queen from doing anything."
"No, I cannot forbid her. But…I cannot endorse it."
Kate had thought that Lady Danbury would be displeased, but to her bewilderment, the older woman was just amused.
"Miss Sharma," Lady Danbury said, "Do not make yourself desperate. All I ask is that you refrain from making a similar scene at the palace. I am sure you will not, but I will ask you all the same."
"Your ladyship, I would never do anything that may jeopardize my sister."
"I shall take you at your word. Good night, Miss Sharma."
And Lady Danbury took her leave.
The next morning, Kate related all to Edwina.
"Her Majesty means to encourage the viscount’s suit? To me?," Edwina said, mirroring her sister’s astonishment from the night before.
"Though the queen may encourage the match, remember that you are under no obligation to follow through with it. He only seeks to marry to fulfill his duty, and is therefore thoroughly unsuitable for you."
Edwina looked down, saying, "I am not interested in Lord Bridgerton, Kate. Do not worry."
Her sister's reassurance swept a wave of relief over Kate, though she still found herself dreading the luncheon.
After all, the queen would expect utmost decorum from her favorites, and by extension their inner circles. Edwina’s good standing with Her Majesty was more important than any petty arguments; as disagreeable a thought it was, Kate was determined to play nice with the viscount.
That luncheon had been a mixed state of affairs.
To almost everyone else, the meal had been a success. The diamond was in greater beauty than ever, the viscount was everything that was charming, and their two families got along splendidly.
The biggest mystery to the ton was why the inimitable Lady Danbury sent occasional glares towards the young people, but only because they could not hear the quiet barbs Lord Bridgerton and Miss Sharma flung at each other over the sandwiches.
"I am afraid that I am quite fatigued, your majesty," said Miss Edwina once the feast had been eaten, and most of the party drifted around the palace garden.
On her part, Kate was glad to see that the viscount’s charms had not worked on her sister. Her satisfaction at this, however, was somewhat soured when she saw Anthony in the riding excursion that had been arranged.
"I do not need your help, my lord," Kate hissed under her breath, fixing her polite smile in place.
The rest of their party were waiting expectantly, and Kate was very aware that she and the viscount were the only ones who had yet to mount their horses – to her annoyance, that meant that he was the one to help her get into the sidesaddle.
"Then you should have gotten on your horse faster," he muttered back, his friendly expression every bit as insincere. "I will look like a cad if I do not help you up."
Practicality soon won out, and she allowed him to spring her into the saddle; as soon as she was seated, she urged her horse as far as was polite, and hoped that was the end of it.
Unfortunately, it was a small group, often changing formation, and Kate’s peace was once again disrupted when she found herself riding beside the viscount.
"My lord," she said.
"Miss Sharma," he replied.
They rode on in silence, studiously ignoring the other until both could not stand it.
"I truly meant what I said," murmured Anthony eventually.
Kate’s hands tightened on the reins. Careful to only look ahead, she said, "I am afraid I do not know what you mean, my lord."
"My search for a wife. Truly I am doing it for the good of my family."
Kate was not inclined to say more, so she did not; it was Anthony who broke the silence once again.
"I do not understand why you are angry at me for it,” he said, “when this is simply my duty and I am trying my best to fulfil it. Love matches are rare in the ton. Everyone knows that."
Turning her head to look at him, Kate said, "Whatever the rest of the ton may do, I still wish for you to leave Edwina out of it."
"I never wanted to–"
"–Her Majesty is now trying to match you with my sister. Perhaps you did not aim to court Edwina before, but what will you do about it now?"
The viscount huffed with annoyance.
"If Miss Edwina truly wants a love match, I will simply let it fade away, like so many of these courtships do."
"She does. And you will."
"You and your orders–"
"–just because you are trying to–"
"–acting high and mighty–"
"–does not mean that I–"
"– and how are you any different to me?," Anthony snapped. "How are you doing the right thing when I am the one who is cold and unfeeling? When you are examining your sister’s suitors as I examine the young ladies that I may court?"
"Because you are a man," Kate snapped back, equally irate. "with money and freedom. Once you have sired children, you may find your happiness wherever you wish. Edwina will not be able to say the same. If she chooses wrong, that is her life. That is why it is so important that if she marries, it is to someone who sees her with respect and affection, who sees her as her own person."
"Do you think," was his reply. "That I can dispose of someone like that, simply because I do not love them? Do you think that I am a cruel man, who would not make sure my wife is well-provided for? Is that who you think I am?"
"No," Kate said, suddenly bone-tired, knowing that he did not understand. "I mean, I do not know. I do not know who you are anymore, but it does not matter, for you have already said you do not intend to court her."
Lord Bridgerton did not answer for several minutes; both of them went back to pretending that they could only see the path ahead.
Finally, he said, "You are right. It does not matter."
They rode the rest of the way in silence.
Kate and Anthony have a heart to heart over the muddy mallet of death.
If you may have noticed, I keep adding chapters, because the story keeps getting away from me. Every time I think that I can describe an event in one paragraph, it just keeps getting longer and longer.
From the day that they had met, Kate had heard much of Aubrey Hall. Even ten years on, Kate could remember how Anthony sang its praises.
"Father finally wrote to me this afternoon," Anthony had said once, as they picnicked by the river, chaperone watching from an appropriate distance. “He says he plans to extend the west wing, and it is taking up all his time.”
“I do wish I could see Aubrey Hall one day,” Kate replied. As she twisted the long grass in her fingers, she tried to picture the great house in her mind’s eye; the creeping ivy, the great windows, the pretty, comfortable rooms. “Tell me about the gardens again.”
“Father and Mother are always improving it,” he answered, puffing up his chest in pride. “You can find any flower you wish, and in the springtime they all bloom so that all you can see are the carpets of roses and violets and hyacinths and tulips.”
“That sounds wonderful,” she said, letting the vision wash over her imagination.
“Speaking of flowers,” Anthony continued, “where did you get that bouquet from this morning? I thought Lady Danbury despised yellow roses.”
“They are not from the garden,” she said, and could not help blushing, so she turned away. “Henry gave them to me.”
“Sir Evan's son? I did not know you liked roses,” he said. She did not know how he looked, but at least he did not sound like he would tease her; she was still of an age where real-life romance was a sensitive subject.
“Well, I think I shall always like tulips better. But roses are romantic," Kate replied, dreamy once more. “And he wrapped them up in a very pretty ribbon.”
“What do you know of romance, Miss Sharma?,” Anthony said, half-laughing as she turned back to scowl at him. “You do not even wear your hair up yet.”
“I did not realise that you were an expert, my lord,” she said, “and besides, it is probably time to learn, as I shall probably debut in one or two summers.”
“When you present, I will make sure that Father and Mother invite your family for a country visit,” Anthony said, “and I can finally show you Aubrey Hall. We have the largest roses in the county, and they smell better than anything you can get in Hertfordshire.”
“Really?" Kate asked, ignoring the slander of her beloved Hertfordshire. "Do you promise?”
“You have my word.”
It was a promise that Kate hardly expected him to follow through on, especially in light of recent events, so when the intricately embossed card arrived at the Danbury house, she could hardly believe her eyes.
For the past month, the viscount had become some sort of plague on her thoughts – there was not an opera she watched or a party she attended where he was not also present. It was strange that it should weigh on her so, for it was as not as if they were still quarreling; in fact, they hardly interacted at all except to perform some polite tedium.
Maddening, to feel his loss, for it was clear that she had been taken in by the lure of memories, and she had not really known the viscount as he was in front of her.
And yet…and yet.
She asked once more, just to be sure.
“The Bridgertons want us to visit them at their country estate before the rest of the ton arrives?”
“Yes, an able summary of what was written, Miss Sharma,” said Lady Danbury. “We are to accept it, of course. Unless you have any objections?”
There were certainly objections to it, but none that she thought could convince Lady Danbury to abandon propriety.
“Then it is settled.”
“I have heard that Lord Lucas is to come to Aubrey Hall tomorrow fortnight, with the ton,” Kate said as they prepared their trunks.
Well-read and articulate, Lord Lucas had distinguished himself among her sister’s beaus. Edwina had encouraged his suit, and neither Kate nor Lady Danbury could find anything that indicated a strong immoral streak.
“He is, I am sure,” Edwina replied. “He only has to settle some things in Derbyshire before coming down to Kent.”
Derbyshire, where the ancestral seat of the Lucases was situated. Surely this was a good sign, thought Kate.
“Perhaps he is preparing to propose,” she said, smiling at her sister.
“Oh,” Edwina said, looking down at her gowns. “That would be wonderful.”
There it was, that pause…it fueled that uneasy feeling Kate could not shake. For Edwina was happy when Lord Lucas called at the house, and when she danced with him at parties, had always received his courtship with cheerfulness, but it just did not seem complete.
Surely Edwina would tell her, if she were unhappy?
Kate had asked dozens of times over the weeks, and Edwina had always assured her, never giving any sign that she was unsatisfied.
“Yes, Kate,” Edwina said, already anticipating her question. “I am happy. Perhaps he has only delayed talking about marriage for so long because he needed to talk to the Dowager.”
Edwina resumed their packing, murmuring, “Yes, he will undoubtedly come.”
As Kate exited the carriage, she allowed herself a moment to admire the splendor of Aubrey Hall. It was everything that she had heard of, from those summers past; grand, elegant, the ivy-adorned walls lit up by the morning sun. She was seized by an altogether impossible desire, to explore the rooms as if they were her own, to see if they still matched the stories that had had such a hold on her fancies.
The Sharmas received a warm welcome from the Bridgertons and the Hastings.
“Lady Mary, Lady Danbury, I do hope that your journey was not uncomfortable,” Lord Bridgerton said, bowing deeply.
“Not at all,” Lady Mary said, returning the gesture. “Thank you for your invitation, it is most kind.”
The congregation drifted into the house, talking with alacrity. Kate was happy to find that Miss Eloise was present, for she had taken a liking to the energetic girl back in Mayfair.
“It is a relief that you and Miss Edwina have come,” Eloise said, animated as always. “We are always in need of some more sensible people in this house.”
Benedict, perhaps sensing an opportunity to tease his sister, appeared by their side.
“And I am glad for your arrival, Miss Sharma, for someone may be witness to how she plagues me so,” Benedict said, theatrical in his tone of distress.
Were it not for the presence of their estimable mother, Kate was sure that the two would have stuck their tongues out at each other; she could not help but laugh.
“Miss Sharma,” said a voice at her elbow, a voice that immediately her tense.
“Ah, brother,” Benedict said. "Eloise is not behaving herself."
“I hope that you are making our guests feel at home,” Anthony replied by way of response, his even tone belying the annoyance on his brow.
“They are, my lord,” Kate said. “Very welcoming.”
He looked as if he wanted to say more, but did not.
“I was about to ask Miss Sharma,” Benedict said, completely ignoring the awkward silence, “if we ever taught her about pall mall, when we were all in Hertfordshire.”
“I do remember hearing of it,” she replied. “It always sounded very entertaining.”
Yes, it was very entertaining the way Anthony got riled up by recounting the stories, the way he crowed over his victories and complained about his losses. Involuntarily, she looked to see his reaction, and caught his eye.
It was a powerful, momentary spell, his gaze, broken only by Eloise’s voice.
“Then you must play!” Eloise cried, “It is a riot, and we all argue less when there is a guest player.”
“Speak for yourself, El, because I do not think there is a game where you do not look for a quarrel.”
Somehow, the bickering ending up migrating to the sidelines, and left Anthony and Kate alone.
“Thank you for the invitation, my lord,” Kate said, mostly to keep that silence at bay. She was still confounded by that look, and wanted nothing more than to be distracted from it.
“Do not make yourself uneasy,” he said. “I thought that it a testament to the old friendship of our families.”
Curtseying once more, Kate moved away.
Edwina, once she bore witness to the vicious argument (between the eldest five and the Duke of Hastings) over the final hoop’s placement, declared herself too fatigued to play pall mall and went to sit in the shade and make merry with the mamas.
Her elder sister had no such qualms and jumped right into the chaos. Arming herself with the mallet of death – to the consternation of the man who would not admit to being its owner – she schemed and plotted and played dirty from the outset.
“Ha!,” she shouted, after finally knocking the viscount’s ball clean off of the lawn, among the trees. “Well, my lord, it seems that you are out of the game.”
“Never," he said, his predictably irritated response causing the group to erupt in laughter. "Victory and defeat are only secure at the very end."
“You should have aimed for the lake,” Daphne said, ignoring her eldest brother’s annoyance. "As we are forbidden from entering it."
"It was because of what happened during the summer tournament of 1811," Eloise whispered when she saw Miss Sharma's bemused expression. "Anthony gets more competitive every year, unfortunately."
Kate's triumph was short-lived, however, for in the next round, Colin was forced to consider a deplorable situation; after some deliberation he decided, to his deep regret, that he was bound by honour to pursue victory at all costs.
Kate watched her ball soar into those same trees in disbelief.
It must be a moral lesson, Kate reflected as she tried to pull her foot out of the mud. A mother may use her current woe as a warning tale, to illustrate the dangers of pride, and the folly of playing sports with heeled slippers.
“Help,” Kate said, holding her hand out to the viscount.
“What are you doing?”
“I am stuck.”
“Just pull yourself out.”
“I am pulling. If I could get out myself, I would have done so already,” she replied with clenched teeth. “Please help me.”
He muttered something to himself before reaching for her hand; as he pulled, she tried to wriggle free, and suddenly the horizon tipped, and she was laying flat in the mud.
Turning to see the viscount in an equally undignified state, Kate burst out in laughter, and a moment later, Anthony did too. To be half deep in mud, dressed in silk and gauze, they both knew it was ridiculous. And its ridiculousness, Kate found some comfort.
As they sat up and caught their breath, Anthony said suddenly, “I want to call a truce.”
“A truce? I think that we have already knocked each other out of the game.”
“That is not what I meant. You have been angry with me for weeks,” Anthony said, turning grave and agitated, “And I believe I have the right to know why. I intend to marry for my family, and for that you have accused me of being unfeeling, you have quarreled with me, you have hidden behind decorum. And do not hide behind the excuse of Miss Edwina’s match, for I have never courted her.”
“No, you have not.”
“Then why? Why do you hate me? You may as well just tell me what you think of me, no matter how terrible it is.”
Somehow, away from Mayfair, in the fresh country air and in possession of the happy knowledge that her sister was probably soon to be engaged, Kate was unable to conjure up the same anger from some weeks before.
“I do not hate you,” she began, and it was true; there was a sinking feeling in her heart that she could never hate him. “I just…”
He looked at her, waiting for the explanation that she did not quite know how to say.
“I find the ton callous,” she started once more, determined to get at least part of the truth in the open, “In so many ways, but especially in its approach to matrimony.”
And how disappointed I was, to find out that you were like them, that I could not understand you. How angry I was that I had expected more, where I should have known better.
Anthony listened, face unreadable.
“And ever since Edwina was a child,” Kate continued, realising that it was her chance to unburden weeks of frustration, “she has learned her instruments, her languages, her sewing, her manners, every single rule that the ton has imposed on itself for whatever ridiculous reason. After years of working twice as hard with half as much, it cannot be her reward to end up in a loveless marriage. It would be so cruel.”
“Miss Edwina is lucky, then, to have you as her older sister,” Anthony said at last. “But I have always known that.”
“Do you truly wish to be married?,” she asked, curiosity flaring up once more. "For duty?"
Anthony said, somewhat mechanically, “I am the first son of a first son, eight times over. It is unthinkable to not marry.”
“Then it seems that we are at an impasse,” Kate said, though she felt lighter for it. “Though I am still willing to call that truce.”
“Good,” he said with a smile, and hauled himself up. “I must confess I have missed our conversations, although you always did find new ways to squabble with me.”
“Squabbling with you has always been remarkably easy to do,” she said, accepting his proffered hand.
“Now, shall we go and thrash Colin?”
Kate grabbed the mallet of death once more.
“Why, my lord, it would be my absolute pleasure.”
An engagement is announced, and some new discoveries are made.
As always, thank you for all the comments and the kudos!
When Kate Sharma came of age, she tried to pursue the one way in which she could provide relief to her family’s increasingly difficult situation.
“Miss Sharma,” Mr. Matthews had said to her one afternoon. “Will you be my wife?”
Every single part of her wanted to scream no, for Mr. Matthews was an insipid, simple-minded man who was fifteen years Kate’s senior. But he was gently-bred and well-off, and the marriage articles would provide for her mother and settle a dowry on her sister. In the face of these facts, there was only one possible answer.
“It would be an honor, sir.”
However, when it was discovered that Kate had never been acknowledged by the Sheffields as a granddaughter, her fiancé demanded that she rectify it. Mr. Matthews had ambitions, and he knew that without a connection to her mother’s noble heritage, Miss Sharma was a penniless nobody who was not worth marrying.
It was beyond mortifying, but Kate could not give up when she was so close to securing their futures. And so, she swallowed her pride and wrote to the Countess, informing the lady of her circumstances. She begged, in as genteel terms as she could manage, only for their recognition, so that she may fulfill the terms that her fiancé had set down.
The reply was a fortnight in coming, and contained such abusive terms towards the elder Miss Sharma and Lady Mary, that it was not even enough to rip it into shreds; it had to be burned, and its contents never divulged to another soul.
“I am sorry, Mama,” Kate said once the news of her broken engagement had come out, leaving her angry and humiliated. “I wanted to help us, and it has come to nothing.”
She berated herself for her misguided attempt to help her family, for being worse than useless, for bringing more scandal to her mother and sister. Precious few considered courting her before this, coming as she did as from such a household, and now that she had been jilted, all marriage prospects seemed shot through.
“You have nothing to apologise for, my dear,” Mary said, taking her daughter’s hand, gently stopping her before she could spiral further. “He was cruel in treating you so. You did not deserve this, any of this.”
Kate allowed herself the comfort of Mary’s hug, but it did nothing to numb the anger in her heart.
“He has proposed!”
After a week at Aubrey Hall, Edwina announced to her mother and sister that she had received a letter, one that contained the eagerly awaited question from Lord Lucas.
“I shall say yes, of course, and he says we can begin to plan for the wedding as soon as is possible.”
“Oh, my dear,” Lady Mary said, standing to embrace her youngest child. “This is wonderful news!”
Kate was similarly delighted and did not hesitate to let her sister hear of it.
“How do you feel?” she asked once her effusiveness had run out of words.
“Beyond happy, Kate,” Edwina beamed. “How could I not be, to bring such happiness to my family?”
There it was again, that small thing that set off alarm bells in Kate’s head – no overt mention of love, despite her sister’s constant declaration of affection for her would-be fiancé.
The happy news spread once the Sharmas joined the Bridgertons in the morning-room.
“A most fortunate event,” Lady Danbury said to Kate, as they watched Edwina receive congratulations from their hosts. “Your sister has made an admirable match.”
“Yes, very fortunate,” she said softly.
After all these years, all her sleepless nights and anxious planning and Edwina’s constant efforts, it was almost over. But there was a strange ache in her chest, watching her baby sister stepping towards matrimony. There was something wanting, something that did not ease the worry in her heart, and until she could be sure of it, she could not voice her unease.
“I would like to extend my warmest congratulations, Miss Sharma,” said Daphne, after her husband had offered his.
“Thank you, Your Grace,” she said.
“Will the engagement be formally announced on his arrival at Aubrey Hall?” Daphne asked.
“Yes. He is anxious to make the announcement as soon as possible, and the wedding will hopefully take place not long after.”
“No doubt Lord Lucas is wanting to return to his estate quickly,” Lady Danbury said, “And quickness rather seems to be the fashion these days.”
Kate could have sworn that the Duke and Duchess looked embarrassed, but felt that it was not her place to say.
“And what of your plans, Miss Sharma?,” the Duke said, changing the subject. “Are you to travel up to Derbyshire with your sister?”
Kate gave a slight nod.
“My mother and I will accompany her up north, until she is settled.”
“Then will you return to Somerset?” asked Daphne.
“Oh, no,” Kate replied. “I am to set sail for India once all our affairs are in order.”
There was an astounding crash nearby, and all faces whipped round to see the cause of the commotion.
“My apologies,” Anthony said to no-one in particular as he picked up the unfortunate remains of some teacups. “My mind seems to be elsewhere today.”
As the servants swept in to clean up the mess, Anthony offered his congratulations to Miss Edwina once more, and hurried to exit the room, not saying another word.
“Do not mind him,” Daphne said when she saw the perturbed look on Kate’s face. “You know how he is in the morning.”
“Yes,” Colin said, who had somehow appeared beside them in the intermission. “And he has been even more prone to distraction as of late.”
Yet another Bridgerton materialized out of thin air before Kate could reply.
“Not to mention those towering moods of his,” Benedict added, “though with Lady Cowper hanging around – ow.”
Benedict did not finish the sentence, lest he should again feel the sharp jab of Daphne’s dainty heel on his toes. Instead, he turned to Miss Sharma with a pained smile and a new subject on his lips.
“I could not help but hear that you are to go to India? I have heard much of that great country.”
The conversation flowed on, guided by the gentle but unyielding hands of Daphne and Lady Danbury. Miss Sharma followed it as well as she could, but her eyes were forever drifting towards the door, wondering…
If someone had told Kate back in Somerset that the day of her sister’s engagement would be filled with doubts and disquiet, she would not have believed it.
Walking through the gardens, she reflected on the weeks past, quite blind to the beauty in her surroundings. She was ostensibly brooding over Edwina; indeed, Kate had watched her all morning without coming to a satisfactory conclusion, and was now turning over every conversation, every look witnessed between her sister and her professed love.
But something else kept intruding on her ruminations, a flutter of an idea that she wanted to brush away but could not, the–
In her reverie, she had somehow almost walked straight into him without even noticing.
“Sorry,” she said, “I was not paying attention.”
“Clearly not,” he answered, all traces of his earlier distraction completely erased. “Although after you pulled me into the mud–”
“I seem to remember it was you who pulled me, my lord,” Kate said, buoyed somewhat by his good humour, “I distinctly recall your yelp.”
“I do not yelp.”
After Kate had finished laughing at him and his mock affront, the two fell into step together, walking and admiring the flower beds, Anthony pointing out each detail, each project, asking Kate if she had any suggestions for future improvements.
“How do you like Aubrey Hall?” he asked at one point, seemingly unprompted.
“I like it very much, though you probably already know that,” Kate replied. “It’s even more beautiful than I used to imagine. Remember when you used to try and draw the rooms for me?”
“Yes, I do,” he laughed, “especially since you were so ruthless in your critique of them.”
“Those sketches were awful.”
“At least I was better than you,” he shot back, “or have you forgotten the time it took me ten minutes to guess that you had drawn a cat?”
“It is not my fault that you do not know what whiskers look like. Really, I do not know what kind of education they provided in Eton, but it is worrying.”
They debated their relative artistic prowess through the morning glories, and hyacinths, all the way to the tulips, by which point they had to concede that neither of them were particularly blessed in the arts.
“I did not need those drawings, anyway,” Kate said, a rush of nostalgia overtaking her, “since I always pestered you into describing every detail.”
“That you certainly did.”
“I was curious! Back then I had seen so little of the world…still have not seen, in fact.”
“Is that why you are leaving for India?,” asked Anthony, much too quiet, much too grave.
He had stopped walking, and Kate was forced to follow suit.
“Yes,” Kate replied, knowing that they had gone into uncertain territory. “I suppose you heard me this morning.”
“I–your sister and mother will miss you, will they not?”
“Edwina will be married, and she will have mama with her - they have given me their blessing. There will be no room for me in Lord Lucas’s house.”
“So you intend to quit England altogether?”
“There is nothing else for me here, my lord,” she said, without a trace of self-pity, for she had arrived at that truth long ago. “The last time I went to India, I was a very young child. It makes sense. The next step, as they say.”
“And you will go alone?,” Anthony replied, evidently intent on asking question after question until he had found whatever it was that he was looking for.
“I have been writing to a family in Madurai. They knew my father from years ago, and have kindly offered to help me find employment, as a governess, or perhaps as a companion…”
As she trailed off, Kate became aware of the fact that they were stood just a hands width away from each other, so near that she could see the growing frustration in every feature on his face, hear his quickened breath, smell his cologne–
The sound of her name roused her, breaking the charm of those few seconds so thoroughly that she took a step back in alarm.
“I shall write mama and Edwina as much as I can,” she managed to get out, reaching for anything to say. “And you, if you want, but you shall have to write back, not like Mr. Colin, I mean, not like–”
Anthony’s shoulders relaxed a little at her weak attempt to return to the levity of their earlier conversation, only to go rigid once more.
“Do not move,” he breathed, looking at a spot just above her shoulder.
“Do not move,” he repeated, and he reached out for her hand, only to pull back, uncertain.
Before she could finish, Kate heard the buzzing, and felt the sharp sting of pain.
Anthony was shaking now, and he grasped her shoulders, unable to take his eyes off of the small mark on her collarbone.
“Are you…can you…”
“Anthony, look at me,” Kate said urgently, touching his arm, “Just breathe with me.”
He was able to drag his gaze to her own, and she breathed slowly, deeply, willing him to do the same.
“I am unhurt, see?,” she said, pulling his hand to her chest, covering his hand with her own. “I am here, it is safe.”
They stood there for what was an eternity, Kate reassuring him with whatever words she could think of until Anthony’s ragged breaths slowed.
“It is alright,” Kate whispered. “You will be alright.”
And though the panic had begun to dissipate, Kate’s feet were rooted to the ground. It was highly improper, people would say, the way that they were stood, so close that she could feel his warmth. It was improper, the way he looked at her, as if she were the only real thing in his world.
Anthony’s hand, no longer shaking with fear, trailed up, up towards her cheek, his other hand finding its way to the small of her back, and he stepped forward, closing the miniscule distance between them, leaning in–
As she ran, Kate was sure that she could hear Anthony flee too, but she dared not look back until she was safely behind a wall, leaning into the cool brick and willing her senses to return to her.
That sensation that she used to read about, to daydream about, the thing that Kate had always thought would enter her life in a flutter of sighs and poetry, had come as a shock. A realization, a bolt of lightning, shaking her to her foundations.
She loved him.
This knowledge unfurled deep inside her, a warmth, an understanding, a yearning, building and building until it was white-hot, searing her veins, branding itself into her very being.
She loved him.
She had fallen for Anthony without even knowing it. Though he was often the most aggravating, vexing man she had ever met, though she had long declared she was past romance, though she had unconsciously fought it every step of the way, she had fallen for him.
And he had only to say the word. All he had to do was speak, and she would surrender her heart to him, for the rest of her life.
She was terrified.
The aftermath of the kiss, an encounter in a library, and the long-awaited ball.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
“Why? Why, why, why?”
The lilacs by her feet did not answer.
Leaning back once more, Kate closed her eyes and pictured the vivid desire in Anthony’s eyes. For he did desire her, she was sure. A spinster she may be, but she knew that a man did not look at a woman like that, hold a woman like that, if he did not intend to kiss her.
But desire was not the same as love. Kate had certainly had her share of passing fancies, in her six and twenty years on earth, but she had never even entertained the notion that she had loved any of them. Love was more than that. Deeper, profound. An unshakeable foundation, Mama had said once, that could be built upon by two people for the rest of their lives.
For God’s sake, if only the ground was merciful enough to swallow her whole.
“I was off to find somewhere to rest,” the lady said, when Kate could not find it in herself to go past a simple greeting. “Perhaps you would like to accompany me?”
Kate saw the question as the order it was, and suppressed a sigh, for she would not, in fact, like to accompany her. However, she was ever mindful of what her family owed to her ladyship, and anyhow it might prove to be a useful distraction.
“If you wish, my lady.”
The pair walked until an appropriate bench was found.
“It is a lovely day, Miss Sharma,” Lady Danbury said, after they were seated.
Having braced herself for an immediate interrogation, Kate could not help but admire once more how Lady Danbury was able to throw one off-kilter with such efficiency. A lovely day, indeed. But as always, Kate would not fold so easily.
“Truly lovely, my lady.”
“Tell me, what are you to do for the rest of the season, now that you are no longer occupied with frightening your sister’s suitors?”
“I shall be occupied with her engagement, then with her wedding,” Kate answered, hoping that it would needle her ladyship just a little.
“Are you planning to choose flower arrangements while on the edge of the dance floor?”
“My lady,” Kate said, the smallest bit exasperated, as she repeated what she had said time and time again. “My sister may now be engaged, and I am very happy for her, but that does not mean that I am looking for a match of my own.”
“Yes, you have certainly made that known,” Lady Danbury said, smiling faintly. “And yet I must still insist on making you see otherwise.”
“But why?” Kate asked, finally voicing the question that had been on her mind since that first ball back in London. “Why are you still insisting on my playing the marriage mart?”
“Because you are young, child,” Lady Danbury began, only to be met with Kate’s incredulous face. “When you get to my age, to be a mere six-and-twenty is to be young. And young people often fall into the trap of thinking that they have everything figured out when they could not be farther from the truth.”
“I should like to think I know my own mind,” Kate retorted, even though she had just seen her whole worldview upended, next to some flower beds.
“Do you know why I offered to assist your family this season?” asked Lady Danbury, who was irritatingly calm. It was certainly a shame that women could not be lawyers, for her ladyship would have been a roaring success; Kate just knew that any answer to that question would lead directly to the argument Lady Danbury wanted to make.
“Because of your friendship with my mother.”
“Precisely. I was unable to help her, back when she had first married your father, so I vowed to make up for it. She risked a great deal for her love. And all these years later, she has never regretted choosing him.”
“You do not need to tell me about the love that my parents shared,” Kate interrupted, pre-empting her ladyship’s point. “I was but a child when my father died, but I still remember it clearly. Their love was everything true and good, and it will not be used to shame me for the choice that I am making for myself.”
Lady Danbury raised an eyebrow at the outburst, but was not swayed from her goal.
“Is it truly your choice,” Lady Danbury asked, “or is it simply what you are resigning yourself to?
“You are alone,” Kate pointed out. For Lady Danbury was alone, and she still lived her life with a purpose and will that the younger woman could not help but admire, despite the exasperation the lady caused. “I have seen you, and you are more than content.”
“An astute observation,” was the sharp reply. “For I am a widow, but we are not the same. I have lived my life and embraced all that has come with it. And what of you, Miss Sharma? You who has faced a great many difficulties. No one can deny your struggles, but that does not mean that that is to be your lot in life. Despite all your mulishness, you still have the right, as your sister does, as we all do, to love and be loved. It is disheartening to see someone so young believe otherwise.”
Seeing that Kate had no response, Lady Danbury stood.
“Think about it, child. There is always time.”
In light of certain events and conversations, a sleepless night was inevitable.
Once Kate was certain that Edwina had fallen asleep, she slipped out of their bedchamber, making her way to the library. So absorbed was she in finding the novel that Eloise had recommended, that she did not notice that the storm had begun to gather.
Just as she found the book, a flash of lightning froze her in her spot.
Breathe, Kate reminded herself, staring at the shelves, clutching at her shawl. She dared not look out the window.
Breathe in, breathe out.
The storm will pass. It always passes.
Anthony was at the entrance, sounding unsure. Kate did not turn around, could not look, but felt his presence all the same.
“Are you alright?”
Kate nodded, just barely.
“I just need some time–”
Another clap of thunder almost shook the room, and Kate jumped, the fear almost stopping her heart.
“Kate,” Anthony said urgently, and in a moment he was beside her, taking her hand and leading her to a chair. “Let me help. What can I do?”
“Just…talk,” she bit out, trying to breathe the renewed panic. “Anything.”
Anthony paused only a moment before launching into steady stream of talk.
He spoke of anything and everything, of London, of the country, of the preparations for the ball. Kate was not always able to understand his rambling, but the feeling of his hand around hers, the way he stayed by her side, was comfort enough.
Breathe in, breathe out.
Anthony was still kneeling by her side, still talking. He had begun speaking of memories now, something of flowers and books and drawings, the lakeside talks and lazy picnics.
Breathe in, breathe out.
The thunder eventually ceased, and the rain dwindled to a gentle patter.
“Thank you,” she said to him quietly, once she was no longer paralyzed by her terror.
Anthony eased himself into the chair next to hers; it did not escape Kate that they were still holding hands.
“You do not need to thank me,” he answered softly.
“It is not as bad as it used to be,” Kate said, wanting to ward off any pity that he might feel. “It was just that this storm took me by surprise.”
And Kate knew he did, perhaps better than anyone else she knew.
“Why were you awake?” she asked before he could continue, wanting to move on from her moment of weakness. Nor did she want to acknowledge the feeling of his thumb, still rubbing comforting circles on her skin – it was driving her to distraction.
“I heard the storm. I remembered…I wanted to see if you were alright. And I saw a light in the library.”
They should have bid each other good night, after that, and gone to bed. But they remained there, for longer than they ought, not knowing what to say.
“Do Lady Mary and Edwina still not know?” he asked, just as Kate decided that it was probably best not to mention any uncomfortable topics.
“About the storms.”
“No,” she replied, and then waited, wondering if he would ask what was surely on his mind.
But his courage seemed to fail him, or perhaps he did not know how to finish the question – the library grew quiet once more. At least, it must have done, for Kate’s mind was too crowded with thoughts to really appreciate the silence.
Having someone beside her. Not having to be alone. The right to love. Loving Anthony, the truth of which had come to her in a moment of clarity, a truth that was now becoming muddied with doubts about how he felt in return.
If only his feelings were as easy to discern as her own! Perhaps he was only going to apologize for putting her in that position in the garden, for taking liberties with her in a moment of confusion.
Kate stood abruptly.
“Good night, my lord.”
A creak of the chair, a step, and Kate did not know exactly how it happened, but in one moment Anthony’s mouth was on hers, and he was kissing her so fiercely that her head spun. She wrapped her arms around him, hand twisting into his hair as she gasped in pleasure.
“I am sorry,” he whispered, suddenly pulling away, even though his hands refused to move from her waist. “I will stop.”
“No,” she said, half-wild, lips still burning with the ferocity of their passion. “Do not stop.”
With a groan, he leant in once more, pulling her even closer, until it felt as if they could never part. Soon his lips were traveling downwards, trailing down her neck, all the way down to her collarbone, until–
The choked exclamation jolted them back to their senses. Kate and Anthony froze as they turned to see Daphne in the doorway, shock written all over her refined face.
After an agonizing moment, the Duchess turned heel and ran.
Anthony cursed under his breath and chased after his sister, and it took only half a second for Kate to follow suit.
The Duchess of Hastings was found pouring herself a large glass of brandy in an empty parlor room.
“Daph, this is not what it looks like,” Anthony began, only to break off when he noticed Kate come up behind them. “Kate.”
“Anthony,” Kate said, a little annoyed. Aggravating man, to kiss her and then presume that it meant he could presume to speak for the both of them. Never mind that that kiss had been heaven, and that he had said what she was going to say anyway – it was the principle of the thing. “Truly, Your Grace, it is not as it seems.”
Daphne, who was already preparing her second glass, did not answer.
“You…will not tell anyone of this?” Kate continued hesitantly. Daphne was no gossip, but she was respectable and honorable; Kate did not want her to get any ideas about the conservation of honor.
“No, Miss Sharma,” Daphne replied, not unkindly, though she did not look up from the bottle. “I will not.”
Both of the perpetrators relaxed, but Daphne was not finished.
“You are lucky that it was I who had seen it,” she said, mostly in the direction of her brother. “And that I am not the one who makes a habit of demanding that other people marry.”
“For heaven’s sake, Daphne,” Anthony snapped.
“I do not think that you have the right to be angry at me, Anthony, considering your circumstances.”
The promise of silence secured from Daphne, Kate took her leave, not wishing to witness the budding row between the siblings.
Once she had shut herself into her bedchamber once again, she whisper-screamed into the pillow.
“How could you be beyond stupid!” she berated herself. “How could you do this?”
How could she let him kiss her! How lucky they were that Daphne had said she would keep the secret, for the idea of marrying Anthony on the mistake of an ill-timed kiss was unthinkable. Unbearable. Better to be alone than to be a wife hopelessly in love with her husband, knowing that he regarded their marriage as an issue of duty.
Yes, it was better to be alone.
To Kate's relief, Daphne stayed true to her promise, and no one else heard a word about the incident in the library.
“I am sorry,” Anthony had said to her the morning after the storm. “Truly I am. I did not mean to take advantage of you.”
Kate accepted the apology as naturally as she could, and soon they were back to their teasing conversations and arch rejoinders, without a whisper of the preceding day’s events. Kate almost hated herself for her cowardice, but she was not simply not prepared for any answer that he could give.
By the time the annual Hearts and Flowers ball came around, her nerves were beginning to fray around the edges. Edwina’s engagement was still yet to be formally declared, and Kate wished that the couple would hasten their announcement so that she had something else to dwell upon. Even dressing for the event took almost twice as long as usual, consumed as she was by everything that had happened since they had arrived in the country.
“Oh, for goodness sake,” she said under her breath, upon seeing where she was.
In Kate's distraction, she had taken a wrong turn and found herself in entirely the wrong wing of the house. The ball had already begun, and she knew that Lady Bridgerton appreciated punctuality.
Just as she turned to hurry in the right direction, she heard a whisper.
“You must,” Edwina was saying in low, urgent tones. “If she asks you tonight you know what you must say.”
“Miss Edwina, I–What was that?”
Lord Lucas and Edwina fell silent, and the sound of retreating footsteps followed.
Kate was agitated and confused, though she did not try to follow.
This, combined with her sister’s slightly off behavior of the past month, was worrying. What had her sister been so secretive about? But no, she checked herself. Now was not the time. She could confront Edwina after the ball, when they were alone, and all communication could be done in private.
Retracing her steps, Kate finally entered the ballroom. Her disturbed mood was not helped by the sight of Lord Bridgerton escorting the Honorable Miss Anne onto the dance floor. In fact, so off balance was she, that when a Mr. Benedict Bridgerton asked for her hand, she did not refuse.
“You know, Miss Sharma,” Benedict said as they waited for their set. “I meant to say this about a fortnight ago, but I am glad that you and Anthony are friends again.”
“He was a complete bear the entire time you two were arguing,” was his casual observation. “And whatever that was about is between the two of you, of course, but it is great that it is over, all the same. One night Eloise was this close to flinging her pudding at his head.”
“No, but I suspect that was only because mother was at the table.”
“What a shame,” Kate said. Part of her was ridiculously pleased that she could affect Anthony so. The other part just wished Eloise had gone through with it.
His sunny disposition carried the conversation for the entire half-hour, and Kate found that she enjoyed herself more than she had expected.
“You are both quite similar, you know,” Benedict said at one point, catching Kate steal yet another glance at Anthony’s profile. “Always have been, I think.”
“You and Anthony,” he explained, rather patiently. “Back when we were children at Old Danbury’s estate, the four of us always looked up to you, though we would never admit to it. Other than Edwina, I suppose.”
“You are only two years apart, are you not?” Kate asked. “You and I are the same age.”
“Ah, that is true, but you are the eldest siblings,” he said. “And that had a certain aura of respect attached to it.”
“Respect?” she laughed, “Did you and Colin not once cover him in flour?”
“There is that,” he admitted, after laughing with her. “But then he felt it his duty to scold us for what felt like an hour, so I am not sure it was worth it in the end.”
Quite strange, how heavy that word seemed even in her lighthearted conversation with Benedict. Once again, Kate was compelled to turn her gaze to the viscount and his partner.
As she watched him charm Miss Anne with his easy smile and gentlemanly manners, Kate remembered what he had said to her, about marriage, and duty, and his family. She thought of her own failed engagement, of the steps taken to ensure Edwina’s upbringing. Most of all, she thought of the sleepless nights that she knew haunted them both, and the consequences thereof.
And as charming and enjoyable as Benedict Bridgerton’s company was, she was not sorry that their dance ended soon after. He looked a little too much like his brother to keep unwanted thoughts at bay.
In fact, the ballroom itself was too crowded, too filled with revelry; Kate needed a quiet place to think. Half an hour was all she wanted, and it was not as if someone would miss her, she reasoned, so she ducked behind some decorations and made a swift exit, half-sprinting up the stairs.
As she approached the bedchambers she shared with Edwina, Kate stopped suddenly. For she could someone hear crying on the other side of the wall, the kind that could not be easily hidden, the kind that arose from deep-seated sadness or anger.
Edwina jumped up from her bed, hastily wiping away the tears that were flowing from her face.
“What is the matter?” Kate asked, rushing to her sister’s side. “Why are you crying?”
Edwina’s face crumpled once more; Kate’s heart twisted at the sight and rushed to embrace her sister.
“Tell me what happened,” said Kate, stroking Edwina’s hair. As she asked the question, she remembered Lord Lucas, the whispered conversation in the side hall, and began to feel murder rise in her heart. “Was it him? Did Lord Lucas do something?”
She felt Edwina shake her head. But her intuition told her that that was a lie.
“Are you sure?” Kate asked, hesitating a little before pressing on, “Because I heard you and Lord Lucas out in the hall–”
“What?” Edwina cried, stepping back. “You heard?”
The panic in her voice only served to feed Kate’s idea that the lord had done something terrible to her sister. Agitated, Kate tried not to let her anger overshadow her sister’s despair.
“Edwina, you do not have to shield him. If he has done something, if he has hurt you, I need–”
“He has not hurt me, Kate,” Edwina replied. She avoided Kate’s silent inquiry, and looked away.
“Then why are you crying? I cannot bear to see you like this,” Kate said. “Truly, if it is something that I should talk to him about–”
The vehemence in Edwina’s outburst caused Kate to fall silent in surprise. At the bewilderment and hurt on Kate’s face, Edwina sighed, and went to sit on the bed.
“I suppose there is no helping it,” Edwina whispered. “Since you are you and he will eventually have to tell you the truth.”
“What truth?” Kate asked, desperate to understand the situation. “Edwina, you are worrying me.”
Edwina continued to avoid her gaze, instead choosing to twist her skirt between her hands.
“I know what your suspicions may be, but Lord Lucas is not a bad man.”
Still Edwina did not look up.
“What you heard was…well, I knew that you were getting suspicious. I asked him to pretend, for my sake.”
“Lord Lucas does not love me, Kate. And nor do I love him.”
Kate was floored. So it was true! The inklings that she had harbored over the past few weeks were not unfounded – Edwina was not in love, was not attached, and had had every intention of marching into a loveless marriage with no one being the wiser.
“It was discussed, right when he had begun courting me,” Edwina continued, as if she were confessing to some great sin. “I had not found anyone suitable that I remotely liked, and he was so reasonable about it, and neither of us were ever deceived about what our partnership would be like.”
In the face of her elder sister’s shock, Edwina continued, words rushing out.
“I did not want to lie, but you were so intent on finding me a love match, I did not want to grieve you,” she said, miserable. “I am sorry, Kate, I am so very sorry, for you have done so much for so long just so that we may end up here, and here I am crying about a marriage that would help us so! I cannot seem to find the courage to do it gladly…not even when our family depends on this match.”
“Edwina, I need you to listen to me,” Kate said, finding her words at last. Fighting back the urge to cry alongside her sister, she looked straight into Edwina’s eyes, saying, “You have nothing to apologize for. It is I who should be begging you for forgiveness, for ever making you feel like you had to marry to please me.”
“Everything that I have done, every choice that I have made, I did so willingly, and with no expectations in return. You should not have to resign yourself to this match just because of me.”
Kate threw her arms around her sister once more, and Edwina could not help but start sobbing again in earnest.
“You can break the engagement,” Kate said, once Edwina had calmed somewhat. “I will not fault you for it, and neither will Mama.”
“And if I cannot find someone?” was Edwina’s response. “It feels as if I have met every eligible man in the ton.”
“If there is no one here for you,” Kate said. “Then we will finish the season with no regrets. And we can leave London, and simply look forward to the rest of our lives, no matter what it may hold. As we always have.”
The phrase was bitter in its half-truth, but Kate did not want to burden Edwina even more than she had apparently done so. Besides, this moment was between her and her sister. Their lives, and their future.
“I want to help,” said Edwina. “I must help.”
In the light from the window, Kate saw the resolution in Edwina’s eyes. Somehow it left her with a peculiar mixture of guilt and awe, seeing her sister like this. A young woman, determined to step into her own, rather than remain the girl that everyone had expected her to be.
“Yes,” Kate replied, before she could be overtaken by sadness once more.
As it turned out, Edwina’s admission was only the gateway to a longer conversation, one that had been in the making since the day that their mother had called Kate into her study. All was acknowledged, the despair, the frustrations, even the resentment that they had struggled with in their roles in life; all that was previously held silent was laid bare.
“Are you still planning on going to Madurai?” Edwina had asked after her tears had truly dried.
“I am not sure.”
“I would miss you terribly, if you still want to go. And so will Mama. But I know that you have always wanted to leave Somerset.”
The statement was recognized for what it was, a blessing, one that encouraged Kate to follow what she wanted. That day in the garden, she had said to Anthony that leaving was the obvious choice, that there was nothing left for her in England. But clearly, that was no longer true.
“May I ask you something?” Edwina said, seemingly jumping from one topic to the other.
“Is there anything between you and Lord Bridgerton?”
Kate was only a little surprised; her sister had always been perceptive, and it was easy to accept that Edwina was still able to tap into that talent during a month of tumultuous emotions. Looking down at her hands, Kate remembered the way she had held his palm over her heart in the garden, the way she had melted against him as he had kissed her, the way she surrendered to the passion.
She also remembered the quick retraction, the step back into easy camaraderie.
“I am not sure.”
Edwina simply nodded.
“Come,” Kate said, standing up at last. “We should return to the ball. Mama has probably missed us for the past hour.”
“And I must speak to Lord Lucas,” Edwina sighed as she took her sister’s outstretched hand. “I hope he understands.”
“I can come with you, if you wish,” Kate offered, though she could already guess what Edwina’s answer might be.
“I think…I think that this is something that I must do alone.”
Arm in arm, the two of them returned to the party.
“Miss Sharma,” Anthony said as she stepped into the ballroom once more. “May I have the pleasure of the next dance?”
Kate was about to reject his request, to hide her dance card, to claim that she was content just waiting at the side of the room, as she had for countless balls before that.
But then she remembered her conversation with Edwina. No regrets, Kate had promised. This was her first season, and her last, and Kate had already kissed him, anyway, so what harm did a dance do? She was already irrevocably in love. It was not as if her heart could ache any more than it did.
Holding out her hand, she smiled and curtseyed.
I kept trying to write a small part about Anthony being jealous of Benedict dancing with Kate, but since this is predominantly from her point of view I realized that at this part of the story she literally would not see it for what it was. But feel free to imagine him being overtaken by jealousy because that is definitely happening but our heroine is just not quite there yet.
The aftermath of the aftermath, where Kate (and Anthony) learn that perhaps eldest siblings deserve some happiness as well.
So I got COVID, but I needed to give Kate and Anthony their happy ending.
To her frustration, her courage could only carry her so far.
“I did not expect this of you, my lord,” Kate said as they began, in the arch manner she wielded so well, hating herself all the while. “Surely you have not yet danced with every eligible debutante tonight? It is not becoming of a man to run from a challenge.”
“Miss Sharma,” was the reply. “I do not know what you mean.”
Anthony’s mock affront was ruined by his involuntary glance towards the looming crowd of chaperones on the sidelines, the mamas who watched their every step with hawklike expressions.
“You and my brother seemed to be having a good time,” he said, graceless in his attempt to change the subject.
If Kate had been aware of anything else in the room apart from the feel of Anthony’s hand on hers, she would have caught a glimpse of the wicked grin on said brother’s face.
“He certainly lives up to his reputation,” Kate said. And what a reputation it was, for she had seen many a young lady giggle about Benedict Bridgerton’s charming manner and rakish behavior.
“Do not remind me,” Anthony replied, making a show of rolling his eyes. “As I have often been a witness to said reputation.”
“People in glass houses, my lord.”
Kate thought, with some satisfaction, that she could see him blush a little. And then she remembered how she had been party to Anthony’s rakishness, and could not drive the victory home.
The next five minutes were danced without comment, while the two of them recovered from the misstep.
“Do you know,” Kate said finally, having spent that time grasping for a topic, any topic. “That this is the first time we have danced together?”
“Well–” Anthony began, just as Kate cut him off.
“Not including the dances we had at Lady Danbury’s estate,” she said, before he could be deliberately contrary, “those do not count.”
“And how do they not count?” he replied, in that tone that he knew she found maddening. “As far as I know, bad dancing is still dancing.”
“I hope you are not accusing me of bad dancing.”
“My feet were trodden on more times than I could count,” Anthony said, putting on the most offended air he could. “And you only apologized about half the time.”
“That is because half the time it was on purpose,” Kate replied, as sweetly as possible.
How strange it was, that she could be so unsettled by him and yet still feel comfortable enough to tease and poke fun! Kate could not yet wrap her head around it. Unfortunately, the moment of lightness was interrupted, when the steps of the dance brought them closer together.
“I knew it,” Anthony said, and he was behind her now, both far too close and not close enough. She could not help the awareness of his voice, nor shiver that ran down her spine, and was glad that he could not see her face.
“Only because I told you.”
“Yes, you have never shied away from telling me anything,” he laughed, and she let herself imagine his hand resting on hers for a little longer than was proper.
Too much. He was too much. Kate was foolish to think that she could simply dance this dance, that it would be just enough to wrap up whatever they were with a tidy bow and free herself from all expectations, and hopes, and heartbreak. Being near him was a dream tainted by agony; wishing every moment together would be committed to memory while wanting to flee.
How she spent the next half hour Kate could hardly say, but fate seemed intent on intensifying her distress.
“Miss Sharma,” Anthony said abruptly, just as the final note was played. “Would you accompany me to the gardens?”
Oh, she wanted to go. But to go alone with him now, after the garden and the library, it would be more than foolish.
“I must go and find my sister,” she said, before she act on the entirely unreasonable urge to go through with a bad idea.
“Goodnight, my lord.”
“Goodnight, Miss Sharma.”
Though Kate fairly sprinted to her chambers, she could not seem to bring herself to do anything but sit on the edge of her bed, feeling every inch of her cowardice.
Mary entered the room, still in her evening finery.
“I saw you leave the ballroom,” she said, sitting down by Kate. “I was worried that you had taken ill.”
“I just needed some quiet.”
“Are you alright?”
“I am fine,” Kate replied, barely having to think of the answer. This was a conversation that had happened between her and her mother many times; over the years, the words eventually etched themselves into a groove.
Kate expected the conversation to settle into a comfortable silence, but Mary continued.
“I just wanted to let you know that Edwina has told me everything,” she said, as collected as ever. “Apparently Lord Lucas was very understanding, very reasonable. And when I spotted him just now, I would say he looked rather relieved. At least word of the engagement was kept within a small circle, so it shall be easy to inform them of its dissolvement.”
“Good,” said Kate, still watching the fire, the conversation with her sister playing once more through her mind.
“Kate,” Mary said. “There is no harm done. All that is left to do is to move forward.”
After all that had transpired, after Anthony and Edwina’s confession and her own ill judgment had been exposed, Kate could not bear the gentle understanding of her mother.
“I know. She says that all is forgiven. But I still should have known,” Kate said, harsh and unforgiving in her self-reflection. How sure-footed she had thought herself, only to find it all upended. “Because Edwina would have gone through with it. She would have married him, and been miserable, and felt that all the while that it was her responsibility.”
“But she did not, and that is what matters.”
“I should have known,” she repeated once more. “I was supposed to be looking out for Edwina’s best interests. How could I have had no idea that she–”
“Kate,” said Mary firmly. “You cannot have known how Edwina truly felt. She concealed it from everyone because she did not want to burden us. Much like you so often do.”
To her horror, Kate’s eyes threatened to fill with tears; even as she looked away, Mary reached out and embraced her, as she had done so often when Kate was a child.
“Yes, it seems that I have raised two daughters who are startlingly alike,” she murmured. “Brave, and capable, and selfless beyond belief. And I am so proud of you, but I am so very sorry too.”
Though words were beyond Kate in that moment, Mary understood Kate’s searching look.
“You should never have been left to guide Edwina alone,” she said, still stroking Kate’s hair. “You were too young to take on so much responsibility, and I should have seen that much earlier. That is my failing.”
“You were mourning appa,” Kate replied, unwilling to run from the blame.
“As were you. And you had been so young when you lost your mother too.”
“You took me in as if I were your own,” she whispered as she pulled away, “you never treated me any differently from Edwina, and you loved me and raised me, and everything I ever did, I owe it to you.”
“Oh, Kate,” Mary cried out, and Kate was surprised to hear the tremble in her mother’s voice, to see the grief in her eyes. “That is…oh, dearest, you owe me nothing.”
It was this unbearable kindness that finally broke her, and Kate burst into tears.
“Kate,” Mary said, embracing her once more. “Oh, Kate. Love is not something that is ever owed. You came into my life as a daughter, and I have never seen you as anything else. And it grieves me that you do not believe that you deserve all the love in the world.”
“I still wish…I really thought that I was helping us,” Kate sobbed.
“And you have done so much, my darling,” Mary said, still comforting her through the tears. As mortifying as it was, Kate could feel the relief – it had been so long since she had cried in front of another, since she had allowed herself the right.
“When we have returned to Lady Danbury’s house, we can decide where to go next,” Mary said, once Kate had collected herself once more. “And know that you have my love and support, wherever you may go."
There it was, that blessing to leave it all behind. It should have been an easy choice, to start afresh, away from the country where she had felt so much heartache.
Yes, Kate, she thought to herself as she finally washed her face, it should be an easy choice.
Dawn came, shining over the splendour of Aubrey Hall.
It was trickier than Kate had supposed, to sneak down to the stables; she decided it was best to avoid the last of the merrymakers, most of whom were clearly intent on entering bedrooms other than their own. That was definitely of no concern to her.
“Oh, you are a beauty,” she whispered to the mare that the stablehands readied for her.
As she galloped through the grounds, Kate rejoiced in the air whipping round her face, pretending that she could the events of the night far behind if she only went fast enough. She would have to make her choices eventually, but for now, she could forget her worries, her past, and her future, as long as she was in the saddle.
Where she went, Kate was quite insensible of, until her attention was caught by a particularly beautiful grove. Longing to explore, she decided to risk dismounting, for who would have come so far from the house at this hour?
Her famous luck!
At least in the daylight, away from the strange spell of the music and the ballroom, Kate felt surer of herself; however, it was impossible to stop the stutter of her heart as she saw him come into view, in scandalously informal shirtsleeves.
“I could not sleep,” Anthony was saying by way of explanation as he swung off his horse.
“Neither could I.”
Just then, Kate heard the wind whistle through the trees; involuntarily, she looked up, trying to discern whether those telltale clouds were coming in.
“Supposedly it is to be clear today,” Anthony said, coming up beside her. “I asked some of the farmers last night.”
“Ah,” was Kate’s only reply. She felt suddenly exposed, from the way he had anticipated her nerves, the exact way he knew how to reassure her.
From the corner of her eye, she saw Anthony play with the ring on his left hand, and she felt a little better – at least she was not the only one uncomfortable. Scarcely did this slightly ungracious thought pass through her mind when he spoke once more.
“Why are you afraid, when a storm comes?”
Kate counted them quite faithfully as she decided how to respond – to demur, to give a vague answer, or to give no answer at all. For it had been her secret for almost her whole life, kept carefully guarded even from her own family. But it felt right, somehow, to tell Anthony; so Kate began to tell the story, haltingly, stumbling her over her own words. Beginning with the buried memories of her birth mother, on that hazy day so long ago, recounting the paralyzing fear that had overcome her when she witnessed the event that still gave her nightmares.
And Anthony listened. No false platitudes were uttered, no dramatic displays of horror. Oddly enough, it gave her strength.
“Only appa knew how bad the dreams really were,” Kate finished. “I have never even told Edwina or Mama.”
“It never felt right,” she said.
It was strange – she had supposed that sharing the story would have made her feel lighter, but it was not quite that. Not worse, but different. As if she had been doused in cold water, and her body was slowly remembering how it was to feel warm again.
“Do you think you will ever tell them?”
It had been scant hours since her conversations with her mother and sister – as grateful as she was for the promise of openness, it was still a habit Kate would have to ease into.
“I suppose I shall have to tell them, some day. When I have the courage.”
“Kate Sharma, you have never been lacking in courage,” he said.
Her nerves were too raw for laughter, yet she could not help but smile.
“Not quite. I can only battle with Lady Danbury half the time, though I would never admit it in her presence.”
“That is half more than most people,” was Anthony’s reply, for he had always had some begrudging respect for the meddlesome woman. “So my point still stands.”
“How is it even when you are complimenting me,” she said, a little amused, “you still have to prove yourself right?”
“Because as it turns out, having quarrels with you is one of my favourite pastimes.”
“A strange pastime to enjoy,” Kate answered, “since you lose so many of them.”
As expected, Anthony exclaimed his disagreement in terms that left her laughing. Once they grew quiet, however, Kate felt ready to voice something that had been nagging at her since she was seventeen.
“Why did you stop replying to my letters?”
For she had been the one to send the final few letters, those years ago. It was a subject that remained unaddressed, even with the renewal of their friendship. Kate had been content to let bygones be bygones, yet now…
Anthony’s hand flew to his ring once more, but Kate forced herself to be patient. He had, after all, waited for her.
“I wanted to…but after Father died, it seemed as if everything fell to me. Mother – for a long time, it was as if she would follow him too. In spirit, if not in body.”
His eyes turned to her, eyes full of a sorrow which Kate knew all too well.
“Someone had to make sure that the estate was still running, and that my siblings were taken care of. Only Benedict was really old enough to share in the duty at times, but I did not want the same pressure upon him. Truth be told, I can hardly remember the first year after his passing. Everything about our old lives seemed to fall by the wayside.”
The words continued to leave him in a rush, almost as if he were making a confession. Kate listened carefully, just as he listened to her, as Anthony unburdened himself of years of grief and frustration.
“I am sorry,” she said hesitantly, as Anthony finally lapsed into silence. “That is terrible, to bear alone.”
If only she were more eloquent, she may have been able to offer more reassurance than those pitiful words, but he thanked her all the same.
“And I am sorry too,” he continued, rather unexpectedly.
“For not answering your letters. You helped me through the worst of it, and I never returned your support in kind.”
“Thank you,” Kate said. And then, because she knew that she could be honest with him on at least this point, she continued with, “There were times, when I thought about how things could have been easier, if we had kept in touch. I was lonely, too.”
Sensing that they were returning to dangerous waters, Kate willed herself to continue, brisk and business-like.
“But that is all in the past. When I am in India, you must promise to write me, and I will also be a faithful correspondent.”
“You are still going, then, after your sister’s wedding?”
Kate could not help but remember how this conversation had played out the previous time.
“Yes…well, not exactly,” she said, not knowing how much she could divulge. “But my plans to go to Madurai are unchanged. It is as I said, there is nothing much for me here.”
With Mama and Edwina making plans to stay for another season, she was truly finished with the ton, Kate added silently. She had been woefully inadequate in many ways, and was relieved to have the blessing to find her own path.
Quiet overtook them once more – Kate resorted to stroking her mare’s nose, just so that she would not have to look at Anthony.
“You could stay. Here, in Aubrey Hall.”
Anthony was looking at her with something intense, something inscrutable. She was not sure if it was a look that she wanted to understand.
“It is impossible to stay, much less in your house,” she said, though the offer was temptation itself; but no, there was no way she could stay in Aubrey Hall with decorum – beyond that, she could not stay and watch him marry someone else. “You know that.”
“Do you truly want to go?”
There was a strange note in his voice, one that made her heart race once more.
“How could I not? What could I do here? Besides, I think I have had more than enough of my share of London, and the behavior of the ton.”
He gave a fleeting smile at her acrid tone.
“I would have thought at least some of them would have grown on you. The rest of the family would be disappointed to hear that you have no plans to return.”
“Yes, well,” Kate began, only to find the words catch in her throat. “I will miss them too, of course.”
“No, I am going to India. It has been my intention for months, and it has not changed. Why will you not let it go?”
“Because,” he said, moving closer, “you keep telling me that you must go because it is impossible to remain here. As if it were your last resort. As if you were running away.”
Presumptuous, stubborn beyond belief, she thought to herself in agitation. How could he be so close to the truth, and yet not see that her heart was shattering at the mere thought of never seeing him again?
“I was not aware that you were privy to my thoughts,” was all that she could snap in response. “Is there anything else you would like to inform me of?”
He was close now, almost as close as he was that night in the library, his gaze bright, his voice almost a whisper.
“I love you.”
It was all she could do to choke out that single word, for Anthony had taken her hand and she was listening to a declaration she never thought she would receive.
“I love you,” he repeated. “Whether you choose to stay or to go, I must let you know that I love you. Kate, I have loved you since we were children who knew nothing of the world. I loved you when I saw you again, after all these years, and I have loved you in every dance, every conversation, every arch remark since. And if you will allow me, I intend to love you for the rest of our lives.”
You deserve all the love in the world.
In that moment, Kate knew that her mother was right. It was more, far more than she had expected, but it was willingly offered and willingly taken.
“Anthony,” she whispered. “I love you too.”
The look on his face was a sight to behold, and Kate could not take it any longer – she kissed him. It was not the wild frenzy of their first kiss, but rather a celebration; as she pulled him closer and closer, a slow, burning passion spread throughout her entire being.
“Will you marry me?” Anthony murmured to her as they broke apart, though Kate remained securely in his embrace; neither was willing to let go.
“Yes,” she replied, heart full beyond belief. “Though you must know that I do not intend to give up quarreling with you.”
“I would not dream otherwise,” laughed Anthony, before leaning in for one more kiss. And one more, and one more, until, with a hint of regret, he suggested that they return to the house lest they preempt their wedding night.
“Shall we race?” Kate called over to her fiancé as he sprang into his saddle.
“I thought you would never ask.”
Kate Sharma was six-and-twenty when she married the love of her life.
Their small ceremony, attended only by close friends and family – and the Queen, who attended out of fondness for her diamond, despite Edwina turning down every other offer from the ton – had the unintended effect of sending the ton into a whirlwind of rumors and conspiracies.
“Perhaps there is already an heir on the way,” was the oft-whispered sly remark. The newlywed’s plan to embark on a six-month honeymoon only seemed to confirm these news; it was not yet true, though not from lack of trying.
“Take care, dearest,” Mary had said through her tears, on the day of their departure from Aubrey Hall. “Safe travels, and please write as often as you can.”
“Enjoy yourself, didi,” was Edwina’s goodbye, muffled slightly through their hug. “Make sure to bring back some tea.”
His family was just as affectionate, though slightly less sentimental, with Eloise begging her brother to keep any flowery descriptions of their travels to half a sheet or less.
Once all the farewells had been uttered, and the carriage prepared, Anthony turned to his wife.
“Viscountess,” he said. “Are you ready to go?”
Cheerfully ignoring the smirks from the older Bridgertons, Kate slipped her hand through his arm, and pressed a kiss on his cheek for good measure.
“Yes, yes I am.”