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No Charm Equal

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“But surely a land route would be quicker? Crossing Egypt to the Red Sea—or even trekking across Ottoman territory—seems the faster choice,” Colin insisted, voice rising to be heard over the sound of rain on the dining room’s window.  

Hastings shrugged and sipped his wine.

“If you carry nothing, yes, you are likely correct. However, if you carry cargo, remaining on one ship, even if one must navigate around the horn of Africa, is the wiser move.”

The two had been debating all aspects of travel for the past quarter of an hour. Anthony was rather thankful to them. He had never been further afield than Brittany and there was little expectation of him contributing to the conversation. No one would label his silence sullen or brooding when the conversation lingered on the shores of Cypress or the peaks of Finland.

“Besides, Colin,” Daphne interjected. “You would hardly be hurrying if you were crossing by land. Was it not you that espoused the virtues of…how did you phrase it? Meandering through a land to learn its truths?”

“Oh, Daphne. Please don’t set him off on that again,” Benedict groaned.

Anthony steeled himself for another diatribe on the wonders of Greece’s footpaths but Hastings spoke before Colin could.

“Meandering has its merits. Especially if one has the right partner.”

Daphne eagerly returned Hastings’ small smile. Anthony looked down at his plate and tried not to think about how the phrase ‘the right partner’ immediately summoned the face of Kate Sharma to the forefront of his mind.

“Have you two been converted by Colin’s tales of sun-washed ruins? Will we be waving you off on your own Mediterranean journey come the end of the season?”

Daphne laughed at Benedict’s facetious questions. Anthony saw his mother signal to one of the footmen at the door. He slipped from the room, no doubt to have a suite made up for Hastings and Daphne, plus to refresh the rooms he and Benedict still kept here. There was no reason in making their servants and horses suffer through the deluge outside when they could all sleep in Bridgerton House for the night.

“Hardly. We have been considering traveling in the future though. Perhaps in a few years, when Augie is a bit older, and Simon has mastered actually communicating with his steward, we will take an extended trip east.”

Anthony’s fork scraped harshly against his plate. Only his mother spared him a glance.

“To see Kate?” asked Eloise.

Daphne nodded.

“Yes, Mr. Dorset means to settle quite far from Bombay—near the old Dutch outpost of Pondicherry I understand,”—Kate’s mother had been born there, Anthony remembered. Was that the reason Dorset chose the city? An additional enticement for Kate?—“though if Kate will join him is still an unanswered question.”

“An unasked one,” Hastings corrected with an amused quirk of his brow.

Anthony felt a flare of anger towards his friend. Now that the duke’s matchmaking efforts would not keep Kate near, Anthony found them beyond unpalatable. That he was encouraging Dorset, enabling them to leave—

He flexed his fingers, remembering the feeling of punching Hastings last season.

“Yes, yes, I know. Though I hope the asking and the answer will come shortly so we do know. It will certainly be more difficult to visit a governess than a doctor’s wife.”

“I hardly think either visit would be appropriate, considering the lady’s complete lack of relation to our family, Daphne. That you continue to associate so freely with her astonishes me.”

His mother’s words were sharp and her voice cold. Anthony thought she felt the sting of Kate’s rejection keener than he did most days. But that was only to be expected. She knew all the offense and none of the reason.  

“Must we go over this again, Mama?” Daphne said with a sigh.

“Yes, must we?” asked Eloise. “Is it really so great a matter that all of society must be agog with it? A woman merely changed her mind.”

“And who could blame her for doing so?” added Colin with a smirk. “The reality of marrying Anthony must have struck her just as he asked for her hand. You did remember to ask for her hand, Anthony, did you not? Or did you simply demand it?”

Anthony felt his teeth clench. He breathed through his nose, reminding himself that Colin was simply upset that Anthony had not furnished his travel funds readily without a set itinerary. He would get over it soon enough, once he figured out where he wished to go.

Anthony only hoped he would not bring back any more mind-altering tea.

Or at least he would refrain from serving it to Benedict preceding dinner.

“No one could blame her,” he agreed stiffly.

“You cannot be so blasé about this! Everyone outside these doors is saying you are some kind of pervert, Anthony! That she rejected your marriage because you asked for something unnatural, or for her to participate in some sort of action or—”

Everyone is not saying that, Mama! One person is saying it, and everyone knows Lady Alayne is only spreading such rumors in defense of her friend. The friend who, may I remind you, everyone is actually saying our dear brother Simon is attempting to make his bit of muslin on the side.”

“Eloise!” cried Mother, eyes darting to Hyacinth.

Hyacinth was not paying attention, locked in a war with Gregory as she was. Two dinners ago, Hastings had introduced a more stable spoon catapult into both of their repertoires, and now no distance between their seats could stop the trading of insults or the flinging of peas.

“Oh, please Mama, your euphemisms are unnecessary. Hyacinth can read as well as the rest of us, and the gossip columnists have not stopped short of anything in their accusations. They may not use real names like Lady Whistledown, but they do go further in their gossip. The Crumley papers last week said—”

“Perhaps we should not repeat such things at the table, Eloise,” said Daphne.

Eloise acquiesced with a shrug; she’d made her point.

“Just what are you reading these days, sister?” asked Benedict with a teasing lilt. “I know our dear brother hasn’t been in top form recently, but surely he still keeps such rags from your eyes?”

“Anthony trusts me to make my own decisions on reading material”—something Anthony had not regretted until this point, when she brought up such gossip at the dinner table—“which is why he is the superior elder brother.”

Anthony ignored whatever jibe Benedict said in response, his focus returning to his mother.

“Really the whole matter has been entirely blown out of proportion by both Whistledown and Miss Sharma. If Miss Sharma would only—"

“Mother, no,” he asserted firmly.

Anthony knew what she was going to say.

His mother wanted Kate to leave London, to spend a few weeks, perhaps the rest of the season, in the country until the scandal was forgotten.

The first time she’d suggested it, Anthony had been thrown back to that carriage ride, to Kate’s wide eyes as she’d pled with him to find a wife that belonged here—in England, in London, in his thrice-damned society. He’d asked her what she had to lose by giving him a chance.

He’d been a fool. She had everything to lose. And now she nearly had.

Anthony had forbidden his mother from asking such a favor of Miss Sharma. He would not have Kate leave London a second earlier then she planned to. That was already too soon for him.

For the hundredth time since her rejection, Anthony wished she had answered him differently. That she was here beside him now, the driver of conversation instead of the topic of it.

He again reminded himself he should be thankful for her. If she had said yes that day at Aubrey Hall, they would be married now. They would be married, and he would be trapped in the exact situation he had been so determined to avoid, and—

Anthony could not deny the truth he knew himself.

If Kate had said yes, they would be married, and he would be happy. He would be happy right now instead of feeling this aching sense of loss for a thing—a person, a marriage, a life—he never truly had.

“I know you think simply ignoring the problem will make it go away, Anthony, but you can hardly stop the flames of gossip when you continue to feed it tinder.”

“And just which of my—or Miss Sharma’s—actions would you consider tinder, Mother?”

Was it his locking himself away? The way he’d shattered a dozen glass tumblers upon receipt of the archbishop’s permission for a civil marriage? How he’d lingered in the morning room whenever Daphne came for tea, obviously listening to every word she spoke about her latest outing with the Sharmas?

“Oh, please. Even without a mention in Whistledown, your calf eyes were clear to anyone in Hyde Park last week. Not that she is any better. If I could trust you two in a room together—not that I can! That much was clear after the exhibition at Somerset House—we could have tidied this up in a fortnight. Instead, we all must suffer the whispers brought on by that—”

Anthony interrupted her before she could speak whichever epithet she now considered appropriate for Kate.

“Enough, Mother. You may not agree with my decisions”—not that that was anything new for her—“but I will not hear a word against Miss Sharma at this table. Or, in fact, any further word regarding her at all. Let us move on, as we wish the rest of society would.”

Then maybe Anthony would be able to move on as well.

Their seating—him at the head of the table, his mother at the foot—meant their exchange had cut across all other conversation. Simon and Colin’s talk of travel, Benedict and Eloise’s shared sniping, and even his youngest siblings’ legume war had all been derailed by the near argument. The entire party sat in a moment of heavy silence after his embargo on the topic of Kate Sharma was declared. Anthony wondered if it would be better if he excused himself. He could have a plate delivered to his study, where he could eat in peace and the rest could gossip to their hearts’ content.

He did not stand. The dessert course would be served shortly—any moment now truly—and there was little point in exiting now that he’d already said his piece.

“Right,” said Daphne rather awkwardly. “I have settled most of the vendors for Simon and I’s ball at the end of the season, but I was hoping for some advice on a little country party I plan to put together in October. I would so love to pick your brain, Mama.”

“Of course, Daphne. You know I would love to lend my expertise.”

Anthony ignored any secondary meaning his mother could have, focusing on his plate. It was near licked clean, but he could not remember what had been served.

Lamb? Duck? A cheese tartine?

He looked up with gratitude at the sound of a door opening, eager for the last course and the end of the entire affair.

However, the sound did did not herald the arrival of dessert. No, it was Hastings’ personal valet. From his dripping hair and slightly rumpled clothing, it was clear he’d just come in from the storm outside. The servant leant next to the duke, murmuring a quick explanation before handing over a folded note.

Anthony’s hand gripped the edge of the table. He’d heard ‘Sharma’ among the man’s whispers.

Hastings did not excuse himself before tearing open the note, obviously in a hurry to read its contents. Once he was finished, he wordlessly handed it off to his wife.

“You must excuse me. Lord Bridgerton, Lady Bridgerton,” the duke said with the slightest bow to each end of the table. “It has been a most pleasant evening, but I am afraid family matters bid me to depart early. Until next time.”

Hastings pushed back his chair and left the room. His voice could be heard in the hall, ordering for his carriage to take the duchess to Danbury House, while another horse should be readied for him. 

Daphne, who had now finished the note as well, was making her own excuses.

Anthony knew it was not his place to question them, not his place to insist on the information, but he could not help it. Not after he had heard her name.

“Daphne,” he said, trying to strike the right balance between authoritative and beseeching. “Daph, what is going on?”

Daphne paused, halfway out of her seat, and looked at him. The stare was long, and if anyone else at the table spoke, Anthony did not hear them. His sister studied his face, his hard jaw, the shadows under his eyes from too little sleep, and the lines around his mouth from too much stress. His desperation must have shown through rather clearly.

“It is Kate,” she said softly.

The air went out of Anthony’s lungs. Lady Danbury would not send a note to Hastings with pleasant news, and the duke would not saddle a horse in the middle of dinner in a rush to give good tidings.

His heart pounded in time with the rain outside.

“Is she alright? Is she sick? Hurt? Did Dorset do something? Will—?”

“Lady Danbury had the Earl and Countess of Broxbourne over for dinner this evening. They are Lady Mary’s parents.”

Anthony nodded, urging her to continue.

“They…insulted Kate. Rather harshly, if I read the tone of Lady Danbury’s note correctly. Before they could be escorted out—which they were, brother, be assured of that at least—Kate decided to remove herself from the situation.”

“And?” he prompted at her continued hesitation.

“She took a horse out for a ride. She has not yet returned.”

Anthony looked to the window. The rain was falling in sheets.

The paths of Hyde Park would be flooded and the fields full of mud and newly formed mires.

Lightning streaked across the sky and a clap of thunder boomed in its wake.

Kate could not be outside in this. Not considering her fear. Anthony imagined her, frozen and frightened, caught out in the rain. Or worse, bucked off her lightning-spooked horse. Alone and injured—at best—on one of the less-traveled paths of the park.

“Let us not waste another moment then,” he said as he stood. “Ready my horse,” he instructed the remaining footman. Daphne strode towards the door, calling for her hat and gloves.

“Anthony, what are you doing?” his mother asked when he was halfway across the room.

He looked at her, and then at the rest of the table.

“Miss Sharma must be found. I must—”

“She will be found. She will have all of the servants at Danbury House searching for her, and all of those at Hastings House as well. Send ours, summon whomever you wish to help, Anthony, but do not go yourself,” she entreated.

“Perhaps she will be found without my help. Perhaps she would not be. But Mother, if I go out tonight, you will be fine. You will all be fine.” Anthony closed his eyes for a single second, gathering himself. “But if I stay here, if I do not try”—his voice nearly cracked over the word—“I will not be.”

Not if she was hurt and he did nothing. Not if she was unharmed and recovered by someone else’s power. Not if he allowed her to slip through his fingers and out of his life—by ship or by storm—because he was too cowardly to ask her to remain at his side.

He saw his mother’s stern expression fade into one of acceptance.

“Go. I’ll send the grooms on to Danbury House behind you. Your brothers as well.”

He nodded once and followed Daphne out the door.

“Anthony!” she called after him. “Bring an extra coat. She will be soaked to the bone.”