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No Charm Equal

Chapter Text

The bodice of Kate’s gown was soaked through and her silk skirts were heavy with both water and mud. The dress was ruined. No, beyond ruined. It was utterly, disastrously, and conclusively beyond all repair.

Much like Edwina’s chances of a dowry from the Sheffields.

Kate groaned, easily picturing the lost look on her sister’s face as the Sheffields revealed their cruel feelings and utter disregard for propriety. Edwina’s heartbroken confusion when Mary pinned Kate’s scheming on both sisters was even worse to remember.

How could Kate have left her there to face it alone? How had she allowed her own hurt feelings to overwhelm her responsibility to Edwina? She had always been there when her sister needed her. She had never shirked her duty or run away when confronted with the disapproval of others.  

Nectar snorted beside her, pulling Kate from her self-chastisement. She leaned into his side. Over the stallion’s high shoulder, she could see the surrounding field. The wind whipped the tall grasses back and forth; the entire park seemed to swell and ripple like the sea.

Kate shivered again. She did not want to think of the sea.

At least the lightning, and each responding crash of thunder, had ceased. Rain still poured from the sky, as if every storm cloud in England was clustered over Hyde Park, but Kate could now shelter under a tree without fear of further calamity—at least of the electrical kind.

A calamity of the familial nature was probably still unfolding in Lady Danbury’s dining room, without Kate there to even attempt to staunch or redirect it. She could only imagine what the Sheffields had said after she’d abandoned the table. And Lady Danbury too—her storming out in the middle of dinner would cast doubts on the great lady’s decision to sponsor such an ill-mannered woman. Mary worried Kate the most. The way her stepmother’s voice had cracked over ‘my daughters,’ the way her mouth had slackened—not in realization, but in incredulity. As if Edwina and Kate’s secret contact with the Sheffields was a betrayal beyond her comprehension.

With another guilty groan, Kate let her forehead drop to the slick neck of the horse. Nectar did not so much as shift his weight.

Once she made it back to Danbury House, Kate would thank every deity she’d ever heard of for her hasty decision to saddle Nectar in place of her usual mare. The stallion’s bulk and heavy tread—the very things that had undermined any chance of a victory at his final race—were now features to be treasured.

Nectar had weathered every thunderclap and lightning strike—and Kate’s flinches at each— without a startle and had soldiered through the gusting wind and heavy rain as if they were merely a summer breeze and light afternoon shower.

Even her rather ill-advised jump over the hedgerows failed to cause an issue. The stallion had not shied from the challenge. Perhaps he, like Kate, was aware of the danger that lay in the rapidly flooding field at their back, or perhaps he was simply responding to her desperation. In either case, he’d proved a stalwart ally and a more anchoring presence than even the great oak now providing dubious shelter to them both.

“Nectar,” she sighed. “What am I going to do?”

Kate felt like a cavalryman lost on campaign, with no one to speak to but his horse as he spiraled farther from sanity. Fitting as, if Kate did not know better, she’d think the Nectar’s conduct was more in line to a war horse than a racing one.

As if party to her thoughts, Nectar snorted, jolting Kate back to herself.

It was far too early to fall to such fancy; she’d only left dinner a few hours ago. She could not allow her irrational fear to rule her. She could not afford to.

Kate gathered herself. She—uselessly—shook out her skirts and pushed her hair from her face. She’d lost most of her pins in the first half hour of rain, and her once elegant coiffure was now a sodden and bedraggled mess.

“It is a good thing you care little for appearances, my dear Nectar,” Kate jested, more to herself than the horse, as she stroked the line of his neck. The sound of a noise apart from the rain—even if it was her own voice—helped steady her. “But you must promise to tell me if you see Lady Whistledown’s carriage anywhere near. I cannot imagine anyone who’d be more pleased to see me in this dreadful state than she.”

Except perhaps Cressida Cowper. Or Ant—

No. Anthony would not be pleased to see her like this. While he might be relieved at his escape from a marriage to her once he saw her brought so low, their previous association would still reflect badly on him. Besides, Anthony was not so miserly in his courtesy. She did not doubt that if he were to happen upon her now he would do all within his power to see her safely back to Danbury House with nary a mention of her poor appearance, obvious distress, or—if he knew the circumstances—gross incompetence as a sister.

Not that it did her any good to think of such a rescue now. No, she would not linger on the thought of Anthony. If anyone found her, it would be a footman of Danbury House, and even that was unlikely. Did they even know she was gone? Did they assume her shut door and the cold silence of the room beyond were indications of her sullen mood, not its emptiness? 

She must find the way back through the storm herself. Kate tried to remember her usual route to Danbury House.

“Do you know the way back to Mayfair?” she asked Nectar. The horse knickered softly. 

“Nor I,” Kate agreed.

The park looked very different in the late evening when compared to its early morning appearance. While the bright moon clearly illuminated the surrounding parkland, the storm had reshaped the landscape—flattening brambles Kate knew well and creating rivers in the slight furrows she used to mark the way.

To put it simply: Kate had no earthly idea where she was or which way to go. That she had made it to this bit of relatively dry high ground was already something of a miracle. To re-enter the downpour, to forge through the mud and trees to find the edge of the great park was not something Kate wished to do, and that was phrasing it mildly.

Kate stared at the falling rain. Its abrupt start was like a curtain, hanging at the edge of the oak’s canopy. Earlier, when the rain began, Kate had held back her panic with the knowledge that there was no unknown disaster awaiting her return. She knew exactly what would greet her once she found her way back to Danbury House. Just as she knew the solution: her reserved berth on the next ship bound for India.

Kate’s actions—her meddling with the Sheffields, her dallying with Anthony, her matchmaking attempts for Edwina, and her inability to carry out any of these plans to their proper conclusions—had damaged their family. It was only right to remove herself. Just as it was right for this storm to arrive, to herald her exit from the Sharmas as it had her Amma’s.

The family would be just as broken as they were after that other storm—the first storm. But Kate and Appa had made do, had clung to each other and found their way forward. Now Edwina and Mary would do the same—and Mr. Bagwell with them.

And Kate, just like Amma, would slip into memory. To be remembered fondly, and talked of between friends. Perhaps Hindustani would become Mary and Edwina’s secret language, just as Tamil had become Kate and Appa’s, and every time they heard it they would think of Kate.

At least they could comfort themselves with knowledge of her life in India. It was not nearly so final as Amma’s departure.

Now, the rain fell in heavy sheets. Kate feared that her re-entry would cause her to lose herself to her childhood terrors, leaving Nectar as the more rational mind within their partnership.

She tried to remember her father’s readings, his coaxing his daughter into paying attention to the battle between Khara and Rama to distract from the fury of the monsoon outside.

Instead of her father’s voice, she heard Anthony’s. He spoke her name, just her name, as he had a dozen times during dances and promenades and dinner parties.

Miss Sharma.

She heard it clearly, as if the wind had carried his voice from the past to her ear.

The last time he had distracted her from a storm, he had not addressed her so formally. By then she had been Kate, even if she had rejected him. 

She thought of their shared reflection in his study’s window.

‘Perhaps I will think of you too.’

Was he? Thinking of her?

She’d imagined him standing on the cliffs of Dover, as she stood at the ocean’s edge in Mumbai, and knowing that the cloud that dropped a rain drop on his cheek had let another fall upon her hair. She’d hoped it would inspire a smile, if only a bittersweet one.

There was no ocean between them now, but a scant few miles. It could truly be the same cloud if Anthony only stepped out of his town home and into the downpour.

Would he? Would he want to? Or was the distance necessary for the fondness to take root? Perhaps he would only miss her once her boot touched Indian shores.

Except—

It was with the same stunning burst of clarity that had forced Kate to recognize that the Sheffields would never accept her—nor Edwina and Mr. Bagwell—that Kate realized this: she did not have to return to India.

She could stay in England.  

Edwina was not receiving a dowry from the Sheffields. That truth meant Kate had failed. Years of lessons, countless hours spent beading and even more time sewing, a hundred and one traded favors, and a dozen carefully worded letters to the Sheffields, once she’d set that final ounce of pride to the side. All futile.

Edwina had become the perfect debutante, a diamond of the first water with a trail of potential suitors, and she’d given it up for a scholar with no great fortune or title to recommend him.

A scholar who Edwina loved and who loved her in return.

That truth meant Kate had succeeded in the only way that mattered. And it meant she could stay.

The Sheffields could not force her to leave, holding a dowry at bay until her departure, nor could they hint at it, driving the sisters apart with their—and society’s—lack of approval for a baseborn elder sister.

 She could stay in England.

Except Bagwell did not have the funds to support her.

The air left her sails as quickly as it had swelled within them. Bagwell could support one additional Sharma, but not two. Kate must pay her own way in the world—and no reputable family in England, at least none that read the gossip sheets, would hire her. Not to mention the awkwardness, for Edwina and Kate’s more esteemed friends, to have a connection with a woman in near servitude.

She thought of Edwina’s cajoling—her pleading for Kate to find a position closer to home. Kate had little hope in the peace of the Continent lasting and had no wish to be a governess in a country under siege by Napoleon—or in a country compelled to fight beneath his banner.

England and the Continent were both out of the question, which left India or a much closer foreign neighbor: Scotland.

Had the duke not mentioned staying at an old friend’s family estate, just before he returned to claim his title?

The Kilmartins of Stirling? Or was it the Stirlings of Kilmartin?

Could they be in need of a governess? Or had Hastings mentioned them in his ill-advised matchmaking campaign? Kate tried to remember the conversation, but she’d cared little for mentions of Scotland before the country visit—a Scottish noble would not satisfy the Sheffields—and even less in said visit’s aftermath—when all her attention was needed to keep up her uncaring mask in front of the prying eyes of society.

Kate pressed her cheek to the side of Nectar’s warm neck, trying to find comfort in the familiar scent of horse sweat and ignoring the stain of petrichor.

Perhaps the Duke or Duchess of Hastings would help, but any family they could exert influence on—or at least explain the situation to—would necessarily be a member of their circle. She would not be able to escape the Bridgertons, nor escape knowledge of Anthony’s life as it unfolded.

The thought of watching him marry pierced her heart, but it was the next possibility—that she would not watch it happen, but hear of it later, broken gently over several paragraphs in a letter from Edwina or Daphne or Theresa—that pushed her mind straight to another thought. A more dangerous thought.  

What if she went to Bridgerton House?

Not to beg a reference from the dowager viscountess, or to leave a note for the duchess, or to seek an audience with any of the younger Miss Bridgertons.

What if she went to Bridgerton House to ask for forgiveness? Forgiveness and for a second—third? fourth?—chance from the viscount. What is she said yes now?

Would he accept her?

She allowed herself to live—just for a moment—in the future she had denied herself. Not the first, fantastical one she’d built in her mind, where Anthony loved her as much as she did him and asked her to be his wife out of affection instead of obligation. That had died its final death in Somerset House, killed by the expression of frozen horror he wore after she admitted her feelings for him.

No, it was the second fantasy, the one that was seeded after she found out Anthony’s feelings, or rather his lack thereof, for her. A future in which she would hide her love for husband, even as she tried to coax that very emotion from him. She would make him fall in love with her, or at least try her very best.

Even when she inevitably failed, she would not be relegated to the miserable life of a tragic heroine. Their courtship had shown her that to be the focus of Anthony’s attentions and charm, even without his true affection, was an enviable position to be in. It would be pleasant—enjoyable even. 

And all she had to do to make it real was go to him. Go to him and tell him she did not love him.

Could she do it?

The answer arose as quickly as the question had.

No.

She would love Anthony—she could not seem to stop herself from doing that—but she would not pine for him. She would not lie to him for the luxuries of a manor house, nor for the comfort of keeping her friends and family close, and certainly not for a marriage in which her true desire was always just out of reach.

Kate was in possession of a rational mind. She could not let it abandon her now, not to this.

She would return to Danbury House and apologize to her host, her mother, and her sister for the scene she had made. She would—privately—inquire with Lady Danbury on whether she thought Kate seeking out employment in Scotland was feasible—or wise. If the answer was no, her lifelong home still beckoned her. She knew the young Dongres would be pleased to see her at least. If the answer was yes…then she had friends who would help her find a position—and none of them required she visit Bridgerton House.

Kate stared out at the rain and mustered her courage. She could only fix things if she left her circle of safety beneath this tree’s branches. She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply—once…twice—and opened her eyes. A storm was only water. As long as she was careful it could not hurt her.

Kate checked the girth strap of Nectar’s saddle, and the buckle on each stirrup. Her eyes darted across the ground, searching for a particularly protuberant root to make the mount easier. No luck.

A brief flash of an image—Anthony kneeling before her with his hands interwoven to give her a leg up—was there and gone. Kate shook her head to dispel the dream. She could alight a horse by herself. She could find the way to Mayfair by herself. She could find employment and leave her sister and learn to live by herself.

She could.

And if Kate still mourned another life—where it was Anthony’s arms that warmed her after being caught in a storm, Anthony who defended her against the Sheffields, Anthony’s home that beckoned her back instead of Lady Danbury’s—only she had to know.

“Kate!”

His voice was clearer than ever, fed on her dreams and regrets, but she ignored it.

Tossing Nectar’s reigns over his head, she moved to step into her left stirrup.

“Kate!”

Her foot missed the stirrup and she stumbled into Nectar’s steady side.

It was no apparition, no memory, nor a ghost of her regrets.

“Kate! Thank God! You’re alright.”

It was Anthony. Here, in the midst of the storm, in the middle of Hyde Park.