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No Charm Equal

Chapter Text

“Enjoy your freedom while it lasts,” Anthony said, already regretting responding to the call of these men. Their amusement at his predicament only fueled his own irritation at the situation. “You too will soon submit to this ridiculous rigamarole of courtship”—

Beside him, Hastings snorted and took a rather too-deep sip from his glass. Anthony had known the duke long enough to know he was holding back some choice commentary. Anthony narrowed his eyes but continued, venting his frustration from the past fortnight.  

—“Squiring every eligible miss around town until you’re barely able to see straight.” 

Hastings nodded to someone behind Anthony’s back, but Anthony was addressed before he could turn and greet his friend’s acquaintance himself. 

“Is one lady unlike any other?” asked Lord Cho. “Simply pick the least objectionable and get her wed, bed, and bred. Then you can return to more pleasurable pursuits.”

“And more pleasurable partners,” chimed in the rather weedy looking one. Anthony honestly couldn’t remember his name. Finch? Fitchley? Fawcett? 

Hastings looked disturbed. Anthony, as the older brother of four sisters, was sure his face showed a similar feeling. 

“Well, as a man with a wife of his own, I find this talk rather outside my taste.” 

Possibly-Finch looked horrified to be part of a conversation outside the taste of a duke, and he took the glass Hastings thrust his way with a trembling hand. 

“Come brother,” Hastings said, already turning to exclude the others from the conversation. “I need to speak with you.” 

Anthony let his brother-in-law lead him away from the other men to the opposite side of the veranda. Through the glass and a minute gap in the foliage, he could just make out Daphne holding court among the other young wives. 

“Anthony, after the business last season—”

“The business where you seduced my sister and we almost killed each other?” Anthony could not quite help the sharpness of his voice. They had made up, been forced to by Daphne, but it wasn’t something easily forgotten. 

“The business where I fell in love with your sister and agreed to a foolhardy duel because I refused to communicate with her. That and…some things that happened after…made me realize I have to be more honest with those I care for. Now, you may not extend that privilege to me anymore—”

Anthony suppressed the guilt that began to churn in his stomach at his own disagreeableness. It was frustration, not at Hastings, but at the utter dearth of prospects inside that made him churlish. 

“Hastings—”

“Ah, it doesn’t matter. I still think of you as one of my closest friends, Anthony.” The rare use of his first name did not go unnoticed. Anthony shut his mouth. “So, in the spirit of that realization, I am going to tell you something you may not wish to hear. You are making a mistake.”

“How so?” Anthony asked, trying not to sound facetious. 

“You say you want a viscountess before a wife, told Daphne and I that love had no place in your marriage, yet now I’ve heard you’re waiting for this season’s diamond of the first water,” he said the last words sarcastically, despite his own wife once holding the title. “An arbitrary achievement bestowed by the queen who, may I say, I do not believe you would wish to single-handedly pick your wife.”

Anthony was not wedded to the idea of the diamond — not yet — so conceded a nod. 

“Furthermore, diamonds are the girls just debuting who have the very best prospects. They know they can hold out for the best and—”

“You don’t think I'm the best? Who else is even looking this season? Not another duke I imagine.”

“I’m saying that you’re letting your competitiveness overtake your logic. The viscountess you say you need will not be found with a diamond.”

“Does last year’s diamond not make a good duchess?”

“Bridgerton, I married Daphne because I love her. I had no need, nor any desire, to continue on the dukedom or its legacy. If Daphne wished for me to abandon Hastings and move to the Americas I would.”

“You? Leave behind the trappings and luxuries of the nobility?”

“I didn’t say I would leave penniless, I do have standards. As does your sister. But I'd have renounced the title if she asked. Something you, Lord Bridgerton, could never do.”

“What debutante would ever wish me to? I’m a viscount, that’s what they want.”

Hastings almost looked sad at his words. Anthony cut him off before his friend could make some commentary about the power of love or self-value or whatever Daphne whispered to him as they cooed over their newborn’s cradle. 

“Just make your point.”

“You became a father at nineteen—do not protest, that is what you are to your youngest siblings. I know you felt unprepared. Most of the debutantes are even younger, and as you’ve noticed from their silly conversation topics, even less prepared. You should be looking for a woman. One ready to be a viscountess, and a mother. One not caught in the flurry of her debut and end of her childhood. One with experience, a sense of responsibility—”

“You’d have me shop the shelf rather than the dancefloor? Tell me, do you have someone in mind already? A spinster cousin? Has Lady Danbury tasked you with finding a match for a wallflower she has taken under her wing? How desperate is the girl?”

Hastings rolled his eyes. 

“Not desperate, Bridgerton. Pragmatic. And yes, Lady Danbury is sponsoring her this season.”

“Miss Sharma? The very debutante your godmother is determined to make the diamond? Isn’t she just the type you’d have me avoid?”

“Not Miss Edwina Sharma. Miss Sharma, the elder sister. Kate.”

Anthony blinked. Had his mother mentioned an elder sister? She certainly wasn't on Anthony's near-exhausted list of potential brides.

“She is here to see her sister married,” Hastings continued, “with no hopes for her own match. Her only goal is to see her sister well settled before she returns to India.” 

Return to India! Anthony could barely stand to think of Colin roaming the Continent without his protection. He could not imagine putting such distance between him and one of his sisters. At least not voluntarily. What exactly was Hastings not telling him? 

“She sounds halfway to being one of the matchmaking mamas herself. Shall I expect her to be pushing her sister at me for the rest of the season?”

“No,” the unsaid ‘you fool’ clear in his brother-in-law’s tone, “she cares for Miss Edwina’s happiness more than anything else. Miss Sharma wants her sister to have a love match. Something you will not give. What you can offer her sister are more seasons, more opportunities, and more freedoms. If you marry Miss Sharma that is.”

“A benefit surely, though not the one I’m usually pursued for. What am I gaining from this hypothetical marriage, Hastings?”

“A wife who understands what she is getting herself into.” Hastings waved away his objections. “And one who won’t mind a husband who has disavowed love. Dance with her. Interrogate her as you have all the others. She traveled across the world to get here; you can at least be sure she knows which country Napoleon hails from.”

Hastings clapped him on the back and left. Anthony sighed and finished his drink. 

One dance couldn’t hurt. 

Chapter Text

“Are you looking forward to being a mother?” Lord Bridgerton asked as he led her to the top of the dancefloor. Kate, rather valiantly she thought, did not stumble, and managed to keep the shock off her face.

“Not at all, my lord. Only a very doting aunt to my nieces and nephews.”

“And what number do you have in mind?” he continued without marking her answer. To open with such a presumptuous question and then not even listen to her answer! Kate firmly struck him from her mental list of Edwina’s potential suitors. 

“Number? Well, I rather think it up to my sister and her future husband. I’d suggest, hmm,” Her eyes darted across the room as they began to circle each other. The duchess had said they were a rather larger family, but how many was it? She counted the siblings she could find. Five. So, “no more than four. Hard to teach the eldest proper listening skills when you have too many younger children to keep track of.”

The viscount blinked. He pursed his lips and Kate could see him processing his own conversational blunder. Kate raised a brow, feeling absolutely no desire to save him from his own rudeness.

“I myself am the eldest of eight,” he said. There was just a hint of a conciliatory tone to his words, but Kate was too distracted by the number to acknowledge his unspoken apology.

“Eight!” she exclaimed. She imagined seven younger Edwinas to look after and quailed at the thought. But then, she did not have the resources of a viscount to aid her.

“Yes, I believe you met my sister Daphne, the Duchess of Hastings, along with her husband. Has she introduced you to any of the others?”

“I’ve not had the pleasure. Though she did say she wished to introduce Edwina and Eloise. They are of an age and apparently share an interest in philosophy.”

The duchess, at their shared luncheon at Danbury House, had promised an upcoming invitation to tea and the introduction. She’d also pledged her and her husband’s assistance in introducing them to society, a task the duke was apparently already working on with his introduction of the Viscount Bridgerton.

“And you? Your interests, I mean? Are you perhaps an accomplished musician as well as horsewoman?”

Kate blushed at the reference to their meeting in the park. He hadn’t mentioned a thing in front of the others, bowing over her hand as the duke made the introductions with no outward sign that he recognized her. She’d been so relieved, but now she wondered if he’d kept the meeting secret only to hold it over her head later. He seemed the type. Should she ask him not to tell anyone—especially not her hostess’s godson? Or would that make him more likely to share?

What had he asked? Did she play an instrument? Here was where she was meant to lead the conversation back to her sister, describing how Edwina’s fingers made a sitar sound unworldly, or how her fingers danced across the keys of a pianoforte as elegantly as she did across a dancefloor. But she’d struck him from Edwina’s prospects so instead—

“No. My time with my flute, while enjoyable for me, is generally the period all other occupants decide to leave the house. Even my dog tends to hide. I’ve been told it sounds similar to a dying songbird.”

“That does not sound too un—”

“A songbird that was off-key all its life, in fact.”

He stifled a laugh.

“You’ll have to forgive me for not asking you to exhibit then.”

Kate felt her own lips quirk upwards.

“And languages? Do you speak any others?” he asked before she could tease him with an invitation to her next lesson.

Perhaps the interruption was a good thing, but was this some kind of interview? To see if she was worthy of being his sister-in-law? Kate rather thought the joke was on him; she’d already deemed him unworthy of Edwina. Even if he was occasionally amusing.

“I was born in Calcutta and raised on ships traveling between London and Bombay. My step-mother is an English lady and my father was a Indian clerk. Of course I speak other languages,” she said sharply in Hindustani before she took pity on his blank face.

“Yes, several others. That was Hindustani, the...lingua franca of Northern India. I favour the modern languages, and Edwina the classical ones.”

“And your favoured dance?”

“The waltz, though I freely admit I enjoyed teaching it to my sister more than actually performing it. I prefer leading.”

Leading did not require you to trust your partner not to drop you on each dip. Or steer you into a wall.

Kate could see him drawing breath for another question.

“Tell me, Lord Bridgerton. Do you have a set of the correct answers to these questions tucked away in your jacket, or do you decide on the worth of each woman’s answer as you receive it?”

Anthony smiled wryly, but she caught the slight movement of his hand towards his breast pocket. She didn’t doubt he did have a list of questions and answers squirreled away there, along with a list of debutantes with a series of checks and crosses trailing their name. Her name would undoubtedly mirror his own on her list of suitors, suitors for Edwina that is: completely struck through.

“I take your hint, Miss Sharma, and I will leave off the questions,” he said as he followed her from the dancefloor. He ferried her over to the refreshment table, presenting a glass of lemonade to her with an unnecessary flourish that made Kate smile. “Shall we talk of recent events instead?”

Kate glanced towards her sister. She was with Lady Danbury and Lady Mary, having just been delivered back to them by Mr. Wesley. He wasn’t at the top of Kate’s list, but he was the heir to a Baronet.

She should return to them immediately, but she couldn’t seem to help herself. She took the lemonade. To be polite, she told herself, as they started their slow circuit around the room.

“Recent events? Do you mean the king-in-exile finally returning to France? I think our ships may have passed each other in the harbor.”

He let out a breath of…relief? That hardly made sense.

“Yes, I can only imagine if it’d all happened mid-season. I’m sure his sendoff would have been rather grand.”

“I’m surprised at the lack of party despite the timing. Perhaps the king and queen think he will be back to visit soon?”

Anthony’s eyes narrowed, sussing out her meaning.

“You don’t think King Louis will last?”

“France has gotten rid of their king before,” she pointed out.

“Yes, only to descend into the madness of mob rule which was then replaced by an emperor. Which, I must say, is just the name for a king who is greedy.”

“I am only suggesting that a people who know a regime change is possible are more likely to pursue it. Especially as the English are determined to keep Bonaparte alive.”

“He’s to be exiled. Completely isolated from France.”

“Exiled to Elba, an island a mere spitting distance from the place of his birth. One stumble by their king and he’ll have Frenchmen rowing across the Ligurian to retrieve him thinking he’s the better option.”

“And do you think he was better?”

“I should probably give the new king at least a month before making such a determination. Give him time to decide to invade Russia or some other nonsense. But…if I were in such a position, I’d advise British naval officers to keep their gunpowder stores well stocked.”

“Well, your knowledge of politics and geography are superior to most ladies.”

“And are most ladies encouraged to share their thoughts on either topic with potential suitors? Are your sisters?”

“Is yours?”

Kate had worked hard to make sure Edwina had access to the best instructors, the newest fashions, knowledge of the most recent trends and dances. They’d saved for ages in order to buy the secondhand pianoforte from the wife of a navy captain, and longer for lessons with a competent teacher.

The one thing they hadn’t had to save for were books. Her father’s collection was extensive—its sale generated the bulk cost of their travel to England—and any shortfalls were made up by the library of the Dongres, who kindly let the daughters of their employee borrow whatever they wished and sent over their newspapers for the women's perusal every afternoon. Their kindness continued even after the death of Kate’s father. Both Sharma sisters were well-versed in politics, but both Sharma sisters had also spent months pouring over books of British etiquette. Those books had described, in detail, what conversation topics were acceptable for young ladies. Politics was most certainly not on the list.

But Kate had never asked her sister to hide her opinions, not in anything she truly believed in.

“She may be young, but Edwina knows her own mind. Her opinions will not bow to yours or your whims. Even on matters of politics.”

“It is not just you then?”

“Pardon?”

“I thought you rather singular, Miss Sharma, but if you’re to be believed it is a family trait. One your sister should share.”

“Speaking one’s mind is hardly unique—”

“In this society?  You are new.”

They were getting closer to their destination. The light glinted off the jewel in Lady Danbury’s hair. Short on time, Kate decided to get straight to the point.

“I can assure you, Lord Bridgerton: Edwina is not who you are looking for.”

The viscount stopped.

“What I’m looking for?” he asked. “What is that, Miss Sharma?”

His eyes held her own for a long moment, his guiding hand on her elbow hot through her glove. Kate tried to gather her thoughts into a socially acceptable answer. What would make perfect Edwina objectionable?

What had made him objectionable? His poor listening skills? He’d not made the same mistake twice. His formulaic interview questions? Weren’t those what most people were just not forthright enough to ask? His good humor? His handsome face? His dancing form?

Kate bit the inside of her cheek, at a loss for words. Lord Bridgerton hadn’t looked away. What was he reading on her face? Oh, why had Lady Danbury thought a conservatory a good place to hold a ball? It was much too warm in here.

“I don’t know if I can take you at your word, Miss Sharma.  Besides, it is only fair. All the other debutantes have had personal interviews.”

His smile was back.

In a blink, he’d deposited her between Lady Mary and Lady Danbury and extended a hand for Edwina’s dance card. Kate didn’t hear a word, but watched as he penciled his name in for the next set and led her sister away.

“They make a handsome pair,” Lady Mary said. Lady Danbury murmured in agreement. Kate wanted to protest, to assert his unsuitability, but she was still drawing up blank. The Sheffields required a titled husband, and Lord Bridgerton had that, plus youth, and charm.

“Yes, and the Viscount Bridgerton is wealthy, well-connected, and from one of the ton’s most illustrious families. And, of course, a good friend of my Simon.”

Kate nodded, her eyes tracking her sister. The dance was a waltz, more intimate than the preceding quadrille. Edwina was more graceful than her, not suppressing the need to take over the lead with every step, and Kate was far from the only one watching them. A handsome pair indeed.

“And so polite!” Lady Mary added. Polite enough to ask the older sister to dance first, honoring a precedence that most of the night’s gentlemen had ignored. Etiquette. That was all.

Her lemonade was now room temperature and cloyingly sweet instead of refreshing. More than anything, she wished she had a glass of chilled mango juice. Or even a hot cup of chai. Something, anything, outside this soupy humidity, to ground her.

“He may very well be our most eligible bachelor this season. A high prize indeed.” Lady Danbury paused. “And unless Miss Edwina manages to snag the title of diamond, perhaps too high.”

Kate heard the pointed subtext. It would take a miracle for Edwina, daughter of an English lady with an uncertain dowry, to marry the viscount. For Kate, daughter of no one known here with no dowry to speak of, it was beyond impossible.

It was no matter. That was never in consideration. She was here for Edwina. And she would soon return to India.

“We should leave soon. You were right, Lady Danbury. We’re out of our depth.”

Kate needed time. She needed to interrogate Lady Danbury, and read these Whistledown papers she kept hearing whispers of, and study the newly printed edition of Debrett’s Peerage in Danbury House’s library.

“So soon, Kate?” Lady Mary asked, but their hostess only nodded in agreement, obviously seeing the truth in Kate's words.

 

Chapter Text

Kate handed off the reins to the waiting stable hand with a sigh. Riding side saddle always frustrated more than relaxed her, but she had not been able to resist her desire for a morning ride. Even if said ride kept her penned into the corner of Hyde Park closest to Danbury House and towing along a yawning maid for propriety.

It wouldn’t do to be caught riding in parks with strange men at dawn after all.

“Didi, you’re back!” her sister called from the rear patio. Kate could not help the grin she gave in answer.

“Is that my sister Edwina? Up before noon? Oh, how England has changed her!”

Edwina reached out to pinch her hand, but Kate dodged, wielding her riding crop like a rapier.

“No, I see now you cannot be my sister. My good Bon would never be up and dressed so early. Especially after a night spent dancing.”

“It is hardly a night spent dancing when one’s older sister makes you leave early,” Edwina said with a wrinkled nose.

Kate lowered the crop slowly, worried her sister felt put out by her insistence on leaving last night.

“Edwina—”

“A sister who I am most thankful for,” Edwina continued, linking their arms together. “Because our early exit meant I was well-rested and ready when the Duke and Duchess of Hastings arrived to breakfast with us this morning.”

“What?” Kate said, aghast, as they entered through the west foyer.

“Oh yes, Kate. Their Graces are sitting at the table even now, waiting on you.”

“I cannot believe they’re here so early.”

“They said the baby has made them early risers, and they knew Lady Danbury was habitually so.”

“A warning would have been nice ,” Kate grumbled. Edwina smirked but didn’t disagree. On any normal day, her younger sister would still be abed. It was pure luck she’d been ready when the Hastings arrived today, and Kate was the one unprepared. Kate headed for the stairs.

“I’m in my riding habit and smell like horse. I’ll change into something suitable and—”

“Nonsense!” came the call through the open doorway at the end of the hall. The duke appeared, smiling brightly at the two of them. “Come as you are. I rode over myself to take the air. Nothing like London at the start of the season.”

“You could have warned me they were in the sunroom,” Kate whispered.

“It smells of human sweat and desperation,” said Lady Danbury dryly from behind him. The duke barked out a laugh.

“Precisely, Lady Danbury. Ambition and opportunity.” He waved the sisters forward, through the doorway, and only sat back down when both Kate and Edwina had found their seats.

The duchess smiled warmly at them both as she spread a thick layer of marmalade on to her toast.

Kate stirred a spoonful of sugar into her freshly poured cup of disgusting English tea.

“Tell me, are you expecting callers later in the morning?” the duchess asked the table. Kate turned towards Edwina expectantly. Her sister blushed at the attention and gave a demure smile.

“A few expressed that they might find themselves here today.”

“Well? Who can I expect in my parlor, Miss Edwina? Shall I tell the footmen to search out any card from the pile in particular?”

“I doubt there will be enough callers for that, Lady Danbury. Only Lord Cho definitively said he would come, though his friend Mr. Farley intimated he’d accompany him.”

Kate hid her grimace behind her teacup. She was fairly sure Lord Cho was the man she’d heard speaking openly—at a society party—about breeding his future wife. Exactly the type of titled Englishman that made Kate hesitate in telling her sister of the Sheffield’s demands.

“Mr. Farley? Is he one of the Farleys of Farnleigh Abbey?” asked the duke.

Kate couldn’t remember a Mr. Farley in her research but, as Lady Danbury had pointed out last night, her research was not infallible.

“I’m not sure. He spoke of a home in Wiltshire?” said Edwina.

The duchess nodded eagerly. “That is them. Oh, how exciting! It seems like forever ago that I was in your shoes. Dancing all night, mulling over potential suitors, wondering if this one might be my husband.”

“It was only a year ago, Daphne.”

“A year with a baby in between, Simon. That lengthens the perception of time significantly.”

The duke rolled his eyes but dropped a quick kiss at the corner of his wife’s mouth. The table politely averted their eyes for a moment.  

“I quite agree, Your Grace. It is the lack of sleep the child brings that does it I think.”

Edwina and Kate exchanged an amazed look. Their mother speaking casually to a real duchess over breakfast. Could they ever have imagined?

“And you, Lady Mary? Perhaps a few old friends eager to welcome you back from your life abroad?” Kate could see the question was kindly meant, but it made Lady Mary wince.

“Ah. No, Your Grace. I am not…anticipating any visits,” she said weakly.

“Because her truest friend is already hosting us here. Isn’t that right, Mama?” Edwina asked sweetly.

“Surely Lady Danbury is beyond even the sobriquet of truest friend, Edwina. She needs something far more impressive and statelier for she is a friend, and lady, beyond compare,” Kate said, continuing the tease to lift Lady Mary from her low spirits.

“And one that does not hold with flattery,” Lady Danbury drawled, but she toasted the table with her tea, and motioned for a servant to pour more sweet hot chocolate into Lady Mary’s cup.

“Now that I know to be a lie,” the duke said with a wide smile. “Flattery was my only currency growing up. I know its value with you.”

“And what about you, Miss Sharma?” asked the duchess, interrupting any further reminisces by her husband. “Did anyone express their desire to call today to you?”

“Quite the opposite. I believe I drove some of my sister’s suitors to rescind their requests.”

“Nonsense, Didi!” cried Edwina.

“Not very worthy suitors then,” said the duke at just the same moment.

“My thoughts on the matter exactly, Your Grace,” agreed Kate. “My purpose here is to see my sister well settled and I consider it my duty to act as…well, not as an obstacle, but perhaps as a sieve. To ensure no fair-weather suitor wastes her time.”

“Do you not worry you may drive away the very man who could make your sister the happiest? Anthony—my eldest brother, the Viscount Bridgerton—was rather too vigorous in his own…sieving. Even as the diamond I found my parlor completely empty.”

“Yet now you find yourself happily married to the duke. Surely you cannot fault his process if this is the result,” parried Kate.

“I assure you, Miss Sharma,” the duke cut in, “our courtship prevailed despite Bridgerton’s actions, not because of them. If I had not persisted against his forceful protests we never would have been married.”

“That rather proves my point. Any gentleman who cannot persist in the face of me, who I think is a less formidable figure than a viscount, is entirely out of place as a suitor for my sister.”

The duchess conceded the point with an easy nod, but the duke added, “I wouldn’t sell yourself short. I am not sure who I would bet on, if I put you and Bridgerton head-to-head in the ring.”

“No talk of boxing at breakfast, dear. Though, speaking of the season brings me to my original purpose here.”

“Not to breakfast with us?” asked Lady Danbury with mock offence.

“Well, besides that. I have also brought invitations for the two Misses Sharma. It is for a tea I am hosting tomorrow at Hastings House. I’m afraid you’re the last to receive them, as you were likely off the coast of Portugal when I sent the others, but I assure you that you are most welcome. I do hope you’re both available?”

Edwina nodded eagerly and Kate accepted the two embossed invitations the duchess had presented them with.

“That brings you to two invitations already just this morning! I do think I can count my sponsorship as successful already.”

“Two? What was the other?” Kate asked.

“Invitations for us all to Lady Metcalf’s ball in two days’ time,” said Lady Danbury.

“Two days? That’s rather sudden,” said Lady Mary.

“Quite,” agreed Lady Danbury. “And I have a feeling that Lady Metcalf is host in name only. She has been acting as the queen’s right hand recently.”

“Do you suppose she is ready to name the season’s diamond? Lady Whistledown has been harping incessantly on it.”

“That I do. And you, Your Grace? Are you ready to meet your successor to the title?”

“Why, Lady Danbury,” said the Duchess of Hastings with an impish smile, “I have a feeling I already have.”

Chapter Text

“Oh, it was so embarrassing! I meant to impress him with my understanding, but I said Napoleon began as an officer in Catalonia instead of Corsica! The look on his face, Caro, he was horrified!” despaired Miss Goodrum to Miss Halliwell, but also to the room at large. The Duchess had stepped out with her sister, Miss Eloise Bridgerton, and the room of debutantes had quickly descended into a gossip circle about their brother.

“At least you said something. I couldn’t even get a word out; I was too busy trying to discern what my mother was mouthing behind his back,” chimed another girl.

“Better you were silent, I think, Lady Delilah. He found fault in every single thing I said,” comforted Miss Goring.  

“You’re not the only one. He had the nerve to ask after my Greek as I listed the languages I could speak. I hadn’t even finished!” This was from Lady Alayne, who Kate had gathered was a natural polyglot, and rightfully proud of the fact.

“He does seem to have exacting standards. Though I confess, I think I rather stumped him by answering his language question in Hindustani. It let me relieve a little frustration at his rudeness as well,” Kate said with a wink.

“I wish I’d done that!” said Lady Alayne. “My father doesn’t censor himself in Cantonese. I know a fair few swear words I’d like to level at Lord Bridgerton.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Alayne. If Lord Bridgerton called on you again, you and your mother both would be as fawning as the rest of us,” chimed in Cressida Cowper. “Miss Sharma has the freedom to disagree with him to his face only because she has no chance to lose with him. And even she did that in a language he doesn’t understand.”

Kate was a bit disappointed to see all the girls meekly nodding to the blonde’s statement—even Theresa Rothers, the earl’s daughter who’d been so incensed by Lord Bridgerton’s lack of appreciation for the harp. Not that she was about to be cowed by a vindictive girl; she was a grown woman!

“On the contrary, our political debate was carried out in the queen’s English. What about you, Bon? Did he lambast your musical skills, or did you dazzle him with your geographical knowledge?”

“We talked a little of the current situation in France,” Edwina said. The others nodded. It seemed a common question. Perhaps the viscount wished for a wife who read the paper outside the society columns? “And he asked after the languages I grew up speaking as well.”

“What?” demanded Miss Eaton. “Did you not get the dreaded opening volley about how many children you wish to have? Does anyone know what answer he wanted by the way? I’ve heard he frowned at every number given; from one to twelve!”

“I’m not having thirteen babies. Not even for a viscount!” said Miss Clifton. The room broke into laughter before attention returned to Kate’s sister.

“No…he didn’t ask me about children,” Edwina looked uncertainly at the room full of debutantes who were all asked a question she was not.

“Likely because he’d already asked me, dear sister, and I spoke of how much I was looking forward to being the aunt of your yet-to-be-decided number of children. No need to be inefficient by repeating questions.”

“Well, he did spend time asking after your answers.”

“See?”

“I wish my sister would talk to the viscount for me,” mumbled Miss Quinn.

“Your sister’s eleven, Lena,” said Lady Julia.

“Exactly. She’d feel none of the pressure.”

Miss Cowper, who seemed—in Kate’s opinion—to dislike merriment, searched out a mark to embarrass.

“What about you, Penelope,” she said with a sneer. “How many children did you tell the viscount you wanted?”

“Was that something he asked you? How incredibly gauche” said the Duchess of Hastings as she sailed back into the room, her sister slinking behind in her wake. “But it does nicely dovetail with the reason for this gathering, so I will not castigate him for his rudeness. Not yet anyway.”

The duchess held a stack of pamphlets, which she handed out to each lady in the room. Handed out herself. Kate looked around and noticed that all the servants had disappeared, and all of the doors were shut tight. How curious.

“Now, in the unlikely event that Lady Whistledown or some compatriot of hers is in this room, I’d like to remind her that my husband, the duke, would rather close down every private print shop in town than see his wife arrested on any ridiculous charges of vulgar conduct. And that I am doing this for your benefit, not my own, nor anyone else’s. It is my preference we keep this between ourselves and within this room. If you have any questions you may come to me at any point. I am happy to lend my own expertise, or a volume from my subject library.”

The debutantes voiced their assurances of their united confidence and Kate found herself holding a pamphlet on…the propagation of orchids?

“On the morning of my wedding, my mother told me the marital act was natural. Much in the way that a rain-soaked field yields flowers come spring. Now, this analogy did little to help me understand the marital act, but it has lent me the very imagery you hold in your hands. I have also added a large number of orchids to the conservatory as further cover. Feel free to use this as a code as to the subject matter of your call if you leave your card with my footmen in the future.”

Kate unfolded the pamphlet to confirm her suspicions. Yes, the Duchess of Hastings had handed out a guide to marital relations—the dos and don’ts—cleverly disguised as a gardening manual.

Kate took the measure of the room. Some of the girls looked horrified, others confused, and a few intrigued. Penelope Featherington was gaping in shock. Miss Eaton was turning her pamphlet every which way, as if the direction of the paper would reveal its secrets to her.

Edwina looked amused but was trying to hide it; one didn’t want to look unseemly in front of the sheltered English ladies. Kate nudged her sister's foot with her own, wondering if Edwina was remembering the same shelf in the Dongres’ library that she was, and their own accidental stumble into its contents.

“I am determined that no debutante face her wedding night in the ignorance that I did. It's entirely unnecessary, and potentially harmful to both parties in the marriage. Now, let us begin!”

And so Kate and Edwina sat through the Duchess of Hastings’ primer for the marital act, accompanied by diagrams of orchids. She wondered if the duchess had commissioned the pamphlet for this purpose, or only found it. The diagrams were quite accurate.

Afterwards, once the debutantes were left to talk amongst themselves and Miss Bridgerton had captured Edwina into a conversation on the work of Miss Wollstonecraft, the duchess approached Kate.

“I think that went rather well, don’t you?” the duchess asked.

“Very well, Your Grace. You’re a natural teacher.”

“You did not look surprised by today’s revelations.”

Now that she had moved away from her proverbially lectern, it seemed the duchess wished to return to society’s habit of polite euphemisms. Kate did her best to oblige her.

“I assure you; I was surprised when you began. The information, though, was not altogether new. It is not guarded so jealousy from our sex where I was raised. And, I should mention, it is hard to reach the advanced age of six and twenty without noticing the similarities between man and all other creatures on this earth.”

“I wish it were so unguarded here,” she said with a sigh. “The taboo of it all nearly caused an irrevocable rift within my family.”

“Your family?” Kate asked, though it may have been better to let the comment pass unmarked. 

The duchess looked embarrassed.

“I was unaware of the necessary elements required to form a child. And my husband that the…external application of one such element was no sure guarantee of lack of conception. That, as well as a few other points of miscommunication of a more personal nature”—Kate struggled to think of something of a more personal nature—“caused a falling out, between Simon and I, very early in our marriage. Once I learned the truth, and that it was something my mother or any one of my older brothers could have informed me of—especially once I was engaged—I was livid with them. My mother had eight children yet was too embarrassed to tell her daughter how they came to be? It seemed ridiculous to the point of malice!”

Kate blinked at the impassioned admittance, unsure how to reply.

“I hope you do not think me officious to the point of scandal. It is only my fear that others will suffer the same…indignities and difficulties that I did. If my family had only been open with me, or if Simon and I had been fully honest with each other, if I could have made my decisions with the full information at hand…” she trailed off for a moment. “Perhaps you were right, at breakfast yesterday, that my marriage to the duke signifies that my family should have done nothing differently. And do not think I would change my answer to his proposal if I could go back. It is just that…are we not supposed to spare others pain and confusion when we are in a position to do so?”

 “Your efforts do you credit,” Kate assured her, but inside she was in turmoil.

She agreed with the duchess. London society’s embargo on all information relating to marital relations was ridiculous—with the potential to be dangerous to the very young ladies said embargo sought to protect.

But was she not doing the same in keeping the truth of the Sheffields’ demands from Edwina? She feared, as she had told Lady Danbury last night, that telling Edwina would prompt her sister to accept any offer extended to her. That the knowledge would muddle her sister’s decisions rather than bring clarity. But was she wrong?

Kate searched out her sister. Edwina was still speaking to Miss Bridgerton, who had pulled a book from somewhere on her person and was now flipping through it frantically as if to cite some conversational point. Just then, Edwina looked up and, catching her sister’s gaze, smiled widely.

The guilt at her deception, which she’d worked so hard to suppress, gnawed at her.

“I apologize for sharing so much. I certainly did not plan to. I decided, once I saw your lack of surprise, to ask your advice. One older sister to another.”

Kate quickly returned her attention to the duchess.

“I will be hosting another tea, very much like this one, in an effort to field questions from the ladies too shy to call on me directly. And I thought I might broach the topic of childbirth. It seems cruel, even dangerous, that every woman must learn the process anew upon the day of the birth of her first child.”

“I can see that,” Kate agreed slowly. Births were a more communal affair at home, with sisters and aunts and friends—and unmarried daughters—attending to offer their support. Women only kept abed for a short time after the birth, virdi, to recover their strength rather than the extensive period of lying-in preceding the birth that they found necessary here. “Preparedness might be a good thing in this matter.”

“Yes, but I worry that if I describe that act so frankly. Well, I worry that none of them will agree to marry at all!”

Kate laughed. It wasn’t baseless. She remembered her own whispered promise to Mary, after listening to her step-mother scream and huff through her younger sister’s birth. All of seven years old, she’d vowed not to marry at all if this was what it meant. How Mary had laughed, joyful and exhausted in equal measure, claiming she’d change her mind soon enough. And Kate had, once she held Edwina and heard her laugh. Her fear during the birth seemed worth it.

But perhaps that vow had been prophetic.

“Maybe invite a smaller, more select group? As a test. Or a party for newlywed and engaged ladies, rather than the maidenly debutantes?”

“That would be possible. But does it make me horrible to withhold that information from the rest?”

“I certainly don’t think so, Your Grace. But,” Kate added, “might I suggest bringing your own son to that gathering. So that the ladies see the reward that the ordeal gifts them?”

It had worked for her after all.

Chapter Text

“Anyone here you’ve not yet offended?” Benedict asked, a near repetition of his earlier question. Anthony had ignored his brother’s ribbing, determined to get through another night of match-making mamas and their desperate daughters unscathed. He hadn’t rejected every lady he’d interviewed. Though, he thought, recalling how Miss Sharma’s eyes had flashed, it was likely he had offended them all.

“I’m shocked you are so eager to see me wed, brother. Have you not learned from Eloise’s predicament? Once the oldest son is married, mother will focus on the next.”

Benedict’s face paled and the queen’s men took up their trumpets. Their flourish was near deafening to Anthony’s ears, and he pressed further back against the wall.

When the ringing dissipated, he realized the queen was making her much anticipated announcement. Benedict elbowed him conspiratorially. Perhaps he still thought Anthony meant to court the diamond? His focus on his art really kept him behind the family’s gossip cycle.

“Allow it now to be my honor to present to you the season’s diamond,” the queen said before pausing for dramatic effect. Anthony saw his mother across the room. She was alone and looking frantic. Anthony pushed off the wall, trying to gently maneuver through the crowd. Where was Eloise?

“Miss Edwina Sharma.”

Applause filled the room and Anthony stopped for a moment to bring his own hands together. Miss Sharma looked proud; no doubt pleased at the recognition of her sister’s value. Miss Edwina deserved it, she was a sweet girl, and her dancing a credit to Kate’s teaching.

Once Miss Edwina started her procession forward, Anthony started to move himself. His mother was still alone. Anthony glanced back at Miss Sharma. Her proud expression had given way to an assessing one as she looked over the men who were moving to claim her sister’s hand for a dance. Anthony wanted to laugh. He’s sure that was the same grim look he’d stared down Daphne’s suitors with.

“Viscount Bridgerton.”

Anthony froze at being addressed by the queen. He turned and saw that the crowd on his side of the room had parted for him. How kind of them. He bowed deeply, internally cursing as he realized he stood behind a trio of suitors for the freshly anointed diamond.

“Have you yet met my new incomparable?” the queen asked. To deny the queen the pleasure of an introduction could be disastrous, but any avid reader of the gossip papers knew they’d met.

Lady Whistledown had taken great pleasure the morning after Lady Danbury’s ball in expounding on Anthony’s “shocking courtesy” as a “well-known Rake” in dancing with Miss Sharma before his turn with her sister, going on to mention his occasional “kind condescension” in dancing with “hopeless wallflowers” with whom his family shared a connection. The finishing lines of the section, which claimed his dancing with Miss Sharma suggested he was only treading water before the queen named her diamond—if he was in fact serious about finding a wife at all—had spurred an argument with his mother and a pointless visit to his solicitor.

He shot a reassuring look towards the nervous looking Miss Edwina.

“I have had that distinct pleasure, Your Majesty. She graced me with a dance at Lady Danbury’s ball.”

“And so, she will grace you again,” the queen intoned. Anthony quickly held out a hand to Edwina, hoping the move didn’t look as abrupt as it felt. When the queen commanded you dance, you danced.

He led Miss Edwina to the newly cleared center of the floor, eyes scanning the room for her sister. He found her, conversing deeply with Lady Danbury. Miss Sharma looked…happy. Satisfied. Perhaps comforted that her sister was not debuting as the diamond on the arm of an unknown?

The strains of a violin led the other instruments into the song and Anthony began to circle Edwina in the dance’s opening steps.

“Shall we continue our conversation from our waltz, my lord?”

“What was that?” Anthony asked, tearing his eyes from his dance partner’s sister. Miss Edwina looked distinctly amused. She and Miss Sharma did not have the same smile—Miss Edwina’s was wider, more carefree—but their eyes crinkled at the corners in just the same manner.

“Our conversation from two days ago.”

“Ah yes, we spoke of France. Did we not?” he recalled.

“For a measure, yes. But I meant to continue the latter topic. I do so love to speak about my dear Kate.”

“Yes, let’s speak of Kate. Ah—that is, Miss Sharma. I would be happy to hear about Miss Sharma, your sister. From you.”

Miss Edwina had a laugh like a tinkling bell. Kate’s—no, Miss Sharma’s was throatier. He could easily imagine it transforming into—

“She taught me to dance, did you know?”

“Yes, she told me.”

“She did! Can you picture it? She used to let me stand on her toes as she twirled me around our parlor. I was always so honored. My elegant fifteen-year old sister, choosing to dance with me. Of course, the waltz was considered more scandalous then. Our mother never would have let her actually perform it at parties.”

Anthony imagined Kate at fifteen. Slighter, perhaps with a rounder face, but no less sure of herself. He could almost see the smile she’d have bestowed on Miss Edwina. Some girls debuted at fifteen. Not many, but some. How old would he have been? Would he have noticed her then if she’d been in England instead of India? Anthony cast his mind back. He would have been—

His thoughts hit a wall. He would have been nineteen, newly minted as Viscount Bridgerton, struggling to make sense of his father’s account books as he desperately wished for Hyacinth to just go to sleep. There would have been no time for dancing. And the women Hastings pointed him towards then, well. They were a very different type of woman to Miss Kathani Sharma.

The reminder startled him into action.

“Is your father in attendance? I should like to speak with him.”

Miss Edwina’s face took on a forlorn cast.

“Sadly, my father died years ago.”

“Ah. I’m so sorry,” A pause. “As did mine.”

“My condolences,” Edwina said. She turned under his arm. When she turned to face him again she looked determined. “In many ways my sister, Kate, helped my mother raise me. Amma was…not in a good place when our father passed. Kate was only eighteen, but she stepped in for her, and for appa, where she could. She made sure I had a happy childhood still, despite our grief.”

Another similarity. Anthony understood why Hastings had championed her now. It was not her maturity, nor her biting wit, nor even her beauty. He could appreciate all of them, could not help to, but this was the core of the duke’s argument, even as he’d left it unspoken. The passing of her father, the absence of her mother, the sudden need to parent a younger sibling. How had Hastings phrased it? A sense of responsibility?

Miss Sharma’s eyes still followed them, followed her sister. Anthony decided then. She would understand his position; she was in just the same one.

“I quite understand,” he said.

“I thought you might, Lord Bridgerton. Though I will say this: all the ton knows any suitor of mine will need to earn Kate’s approval to ask for my hand. What they may not realize is that a suitor of Kate’s will need to gain mine as well.”

Anthony looked down at her, worried for a moment at her words. But Miss Edwina was only staring back with an encouraging expression.  Her open eagerness reminded him of Daphne, whose excitement at the start of her first season had charmed even his cynical heart. If only for a moment.

“I will strive to do so, Miss Edwina.” He bowed his head as the dance ended and held out an arm. “Shall I escort you to your party?”

“Please,” she agreed, taking his arm.

Her little trio stood just to the left and, once he’d ascertained with a glance that Eloise had returned to mother, he felt no guilt in joining them.

“The Viscount Bridgerton is a most excellent dancer,” Miss Edwina said.

“I’m glad to hear it,” replied Miss Sharma, as if she did not know it for herself from their own dance two days past.

“May I claim your next dance, Miss Sharma?” he asked. It was to be a Rigadoon, well-suited to conversation and therefore perfect for his interests.

Lady Danbury’s cane struck the ground just before his feet. Anthony jumped back a step in surprise.

“Your request is recognized but unfortunately cannot be granted. As Miss Sharma has already told Mr. Clifton, she cannot dance. She has,” Lady Danbury hesitated, “was it a twisted ankle, Miss Sharma?”

“A stubbed toe, Lady Danbury,” she said. Only a hint of a victorious smirk marred her straight face.

She’d rejected the first man who asked and could now accept no others. Good for her interests, in observing and vetting the gentleman who danced with her sister, even as it worked against his own.

“Mr. Clifton, you say? It is probably for the best. I have heard that their family’s dance instructor focused heavily on the quadrille to the painful exclusion of all else.”

“How shortsighted of them.”

“And how farsighted of you, to have stubbed a single toe to save the other nine.”

“You don’t believe I am fast enough to avoid my partner’s missteps? Or skilled enough to jump…over his feet?”

This woman! If she’d introduced herself in the park after that jump Anthony doubted he’d have needed the conversation with Hastings at all.

“A gentleman would not disparage a lady in such a way.”

“Disparage? Oh, never. Though I thought you one to question a lady’s competence. Extensively.”

“Didi!” Edwina hissed.                                         

Anthony shifted. Was she speaking of his concern in the park or his interviews?

“Only on matters of great import,”—Like the qualities of his future wife—"I assure you, Miss Sharma. For instance, if he worried she was in need of assistance.”—Because no other lady would be galloping through Hyde Park at dawn for mere pleasure—"Than it is his duty to provide. In that vein, you look a touch parched. May I retrieve you any refreshment?”

She looked rather miffed at his—and her sister’s—efforts to shift the conversation. Anthony watched in fascination as she recomposed herself. Her breathing slowed, her heightened color fled, and, when she spoke again, all the contention had been drained from her tone.

“Bon? Are you in need of a drink?”

It was good to know she could rein in her emotions so easily; not all women, not all people really, had the ability. It’d serve her well as viscountess.

“Me? Maybe a glass of punch? I am a bit thirsty.”

And yet, even as he admired her dedication to her sister, Anthony couldn’t help but miss the feeling of her eyes on him, and the archness she argued with.

“Wholly understandable, Miss Edwina,” said Lady Danbury, causing Anthony to recall her and Lady Mary’s presence. “A lady, a diamond, expected to dance all night requires fortification and has none of the time we widows possess to retrieve it for ourselves.”

“Yourself? I could not possibly do you such a disservice. I will retrieve you a glass, and one for Lady Mary as well if she gives her assent. Is the ratafia still your favored choice, Lady Danbury?”

“Have you grown another set of hands, Lord Bridgerton? To carry all this back to us?”

“Regrettably, still only the two. I have been blessed with brothers though, and it would take little work to convince Benedict to carry a glass over for such an esteemed lady as you, Lady Danbury.”

She scoffed and waggled her cane in his direction.

“Do not trouble yourself, Bridgerton,” said a newly arrived Hastings as he handed his godmother a very full glass of ratafia.

“Or rather do,” disagreed Daphne. “Should you not be hovering over Eloise, brother? I remember that being a favoured occupation of yours after my debut.”

“Which I recall you and mother both thoroughly scolding me for, Daphne. Besides, Eloise is not you. My job will be encouraging the suitors she insults, rather than rebuking the unworthy sharks you saw fit to entertain.” 

Before Hastings could protest his lack of fins, Anthony turned to ask the Sharmas their choice of refreshment.

After receiving their preferences—and noting Kate’s “Anything but lemonade” for the future—he gave a short bow and moved to retrieve them. He felt no need to actually call for Benedict as handling three glasses, while awkward, was not outside his ability.

Upon his return, he found the conversation had turned to Clyvedon. Or rather, Daphne was attempting to extract a promise from Lady Danbury and the Sharmas to visit.

“I do hope you’re not planning to upstage our own mother, Daphne. I don’t know if the Ton can handle two Bridgerton country balls in a season.” Despite her change of last name Daphne was still very much a Bridgerton.

“Not a ball, just a visit for friends. Perhaps a week or two after mother’s…”

“The first week of June,” suggested Hastings.

“Simon, that’s when the Cowpers host their midsummer ball,” Daphne protested.

“Two birds, Daphne,” Hastings said with a shrug. Both Misses Sharma took deep sips from their glasses, hiding smiles. Anthony surmised both had met Cressida Cowper.

Just then, Lord Lumley arrived to ask Miss Edwina to dance. Anthony watched her look to her sister for permission and, upon receiving the affirming nod, place her hand in Lumley’s with all the grace and poise expected of a diamond.

“Perhaps after the season altogether would be better,” Daphne concluded after Miss Edwina and her partner departed. “Clyvedon is so far. Not like Aubrey Hall.”

“Your mother has continued the family tradition then, Lord Bridgerton? I can fondly remember attending the annual country ball at Aubrey Hall when your grandfather was viscount.”

“Yes she has, Lady Mary. It is a tradition we greatly enjoy, and one I hope my own wife will continue.”

“Yes,” Daphne agreed. “It is a tradition as enshrined as Pall Mall.”

“Pall Mall?” asked Kate.

“A harrowing event, Miss Sharma,” said Hastings. “One that ensures all masks of courtesy and civility are firmly removed from the Bridgerton clan. I’d recommend refusing any invitations for the sake of your health.”

“Miss Sharma, please ignore my husband. He is still smarting from my victory over him.”—“Ignominious victory!” Hastings inserted, but Daphne continued as if he hadn’t spoken.—"It is a game we play. Similar to billiards, but much larger and outside.”

“Hope you never have cause to see it played,” said Hastings. Daphne elbowed him.

“Here I was hoping just the opposite. In fact, you should all come to Aubrey Hall early. Miss Edwina as well, of course. You can see us play, see Hastings here lose again, and appreciate the country air before the house becomes mad with guests.”

“Oh yes, you must!” said Daphne. Anthony had never felt so grateful for his sister as he observed Miss Sharma’s hesitance and Lady Danbury’s considering look.

“It would be lovely to see Aubrey Hall again,” Lady Mary finally said. “And a short break from the ton would do us all good, I think. Especially Edwina.”

Kate’s lips turned down in the most minute frown, but she nodded in agreement. “Yes, Edwina will be happy to hear of the invitation. Thank you, my lord.”

Anthony waved away their thanks, and told them to expect an invitation from Lady Bridgerton for tea so they could work out the details.

Perhaps that would finally convince mother he was serious in his requests for her ring.

Chapter Text

Kate set the Lady Whistledown paper aside. It was this morning’s edition, brought up by a maid with the hot water for her tea, and was the final issue, she determined, that she would ever willingly read. To deride the idea of the diamond just as Edwina was named such! How dare this gossipmonger?

Eloise Bridgerton had been kind enough to lend Kate a full set of the gossip papers, taken from an archive she apparently kept on hand from the previous season. Kate had spent half the night reading through them. It’d been necessary research and had even spurred a few changes to her list of top candidates. The Earl of Hartford, for one, had been moved much farther down the list once Kate was apprised of his frequent losses at the card tables. It was her duty after all, as Edwina’s “rather prickly spinster of a beast” to guard her against such characters.

Yet she couldn’t fully trust the scandal sheet. The author had spent much time on the Bridgerton family, an inordinate amount of time one might say, and Kate had noted the regularity in which Anthony was labeled a Rake. She had leapt at the charge, worried for Edwina of course. She could not trust her sister or her heart to some profligate degenerate.

And yet, the evidence of such a thing was absent. There were no ruined debutantes left broken-hearted, nor wives seduced away from their husbands, no illegitimate children populating his estate. There was not even a single widow found in a compromising position with the gentleman. Instead, the paper spoke of the slow implosion of a long-standing, and seemingly monogamous, relationship he’d carried on with an opera singer.

Lady Whistledown, Kate thought, was a bit of a prude.

“Is that the list?” Edwina asked as they met on the landing. Kate handed it over as an answer, admiring her sister. After breakfast, they’d both retreated upstairs. Kate to apply the finishing touches to the list, Edwina to perfect her appearance. Both had succeeded in their tasks.

Kate walked to the fireplace, and watched as a footman scurried by with yet another floral arrangement. They’d been arriving since breakfast, just as the calling cards had.

No gentleman had been granted entry, not yet, but the drive was already full of carriages. The queen had done them a great favor.

“Is Lord Lumley not something of a dandy?” Edwina asked, calling Kate’s attention back to her. Lady Danbury leaned over her left shoulder and Lady Mary her right, both intent on the list.

“I would use the term gallant,” Kate said. “Though, I will admit, he seems fastidious about his appearance.”

Lord Lumley’s single mention in Lady Whistledown last season had been his placement on a list of the gentleman of the ton who spent the most on their wardrobe. He had been very close to the top.

“I see you’ve left off Lord Bridgerton,” Lady Danbury said, much to Kate’s confusion.

“What?” she asked.

“Why? He is exactly what Edwina is looking for,” chimed in Lady Mary.

“An oversight on your part, my dear?”

“No, he’s on there. I know he is.”

Kate was certain of it, as she’d had to re-copy the list to ensure his entry’s uniformity with the others. It wouldn’t do for Lord Bridgerton’s name to tout eight facts when every other lord only rated one.

She took the paper from Edwina’s unresisting hands and saw the problem. The paper had gained a new crease. She pressed the list flat to the mantle to straighten it.

Viscount Bridgerton
Elder brother of 7 younger siblings, incl. Duchess of Hastings.

It was right there at the top, in Kate’s careful swirling script.

“Edwina?” she asked hesitantly. Afterall, it wasn’t Kate, Lady Mary, or Lady Danbury that had folded the paper.

“I’m not interested in the viscount,” Edwina said primly. “And I don’t think he is interested in me either.”

“But your dance last night,” started Lady Mary.

“The queen pressured him into it. He had no choice.”

“And the one before?” her mother pressed.

“Simple politeness!” Edwina said.

“He stood with us a full half-hour, Edwina, ensuring he was still there when Lumley escorted you back to us. In fact, I think he would have stayed longer if the dowager viscountess hadn’t summoned him. How can you say he is not interested?”

Lady Mary sounded genuinely bewildered. Kate understood; nothing she said was untrue. Lord Bridgerton had stayed with their group, cheerfully listening to Kate and Lady Mary’s stories of their family trip to Jaipur two years previous and Edwina’s wonder at the floating palace. It was only when Kate deemed it the most beautiful city in the world that he lost his agreeableness. He’d argued the title belonged to Canterbury; a claim Kate found laughable.

“Yes,” Lady Danbury said slowly. “He stayed the length of a full set.”

She sounded as if she were chewing over a problem in her mind, but she did not share it. It didn’t signify; Kate could no longer ignore Edwina’s pleading looks.

“You know what it is you are looking for, Bon. It is only our job to make sure you get it. If that is not Lord Bridgerton, we can bar him from the house.”

“No!” Edwina nearly shouted. She blushed as she continued at a lower volume. “No, that will not be necessary. We will receive him with all the others.”

“And receive them we must, for if we don’t let them in now that it has reached an acceptable hour, I fear they will knock down the doors,” joked Lady Danbury.

She signaled to the nearby footman, who followed them into the morning room with a silver tray full of calling cards.

Edwina happily began sorting them, pulling out the cards with names from Kate’s list.

“Mr. Kempton? Was he on the list, Didi?”

Mr. Kempton was not on the list. He was the nephew of an earl and stood to inherit a large fortune upon his father’s death. He was handsome and principled and well-educated. In nearly every way he was a brilliant match for Edwina. But he did not stand to inherit a title and therefore could not fulfill the Sheffield’s requirements.

Guilt reared again, and the voices of both Lady Danbury and the Duchess of Hastings haunted her.

“No, Edwina. He is not.”

Edwina went to replace the card on the tray, but Kate caught her hand.

“However, I saw how well you enjoyed his conversation.”

Kate guided Edwina’s hand to drop Mr. Kempton’s card in the selective pile—those who would be invited up first—and handed it off to the footman.

She might regret it later, if Edwina fell in love with the gentleman and he refused to offer for a dowerless lady, but she could not regret it now when her sister looked so pleased.

Lady Danbury frowned at Kate, obviously discerning that she had not yet told her sister the truth of things. She would, Kate decided firmly. At the end of these calls. Let Edwina form her own impressions of the gentlemen first, before she was weighed down by the additional burden. Let her have a few more hours—or days considering the number of cards—before she was consumed by title-hunting as Kate was.

Lord Lumley was shown in, and he eagerly renewed his and Edwina’s conversation from the previous evening.

Kate, who had little interest in English poetry, paid them only minimal attention. Instead, she focused on the blancmange Lady Danbury’s cooks so favored, trying to figure out what ingredients went into such a dish, and internally mulling over her options.

There was nearly always space for passengers on packet ships, but Kate needed to ensure the one she purchased a berth on boasted an honorable captain. A single female passenger on a ship without one, trapped for months…it didn’t bear thinking about. Admiral Croft had been a good man, with a wife on board as well, but he was sailing to his own retirement. He’d given her a list of names, of both Naval captains and Company ones, that he thought safe for her.  

Now it was for her to purchase a ticket. Would Edwina be settled by the end of May? Should Kate wait out the season, see her sister back from her honeymoon before she made the long trek by post to Falmouth, and then by ship all the way back to Bombay?

She stirred her tea once, twice, thrice, before taking a sip to wash away the flavor of the blancmange. She no longer winced at the taste of the tea; it’d only taken a few days to fully suppress the impulse.

Head still on ship schedules, Kate engaged in an inane back and forth with Lady Danbury about the recent weather before she decided it was time to check on the other suitors.

They were lined up directly outside the door. Not ideal, but it did inform them of their competition.

“Miss Sharma, am I to be kept at this threshold all day?” asked Lord Wyndham. Kate was about to assure him that he would soon be in the morning room—she’d only come out to ask if he’d prefer a personal audience or to bring a partner—when the gentleman behind him broke in.

“Lumley’s already had an inordinate amount of time with her!”

Kate frowned at Sir Kane. He spoke four languages but did not appear fluent in courtesy. Twenty minutes was not an inordinate amount of time, especially when Edwina looked so interested in the poetry Lord Lumley spoke of. Besides, Kate had planned on giving each visitor exactly twenty-five minutes; a decision she’d thought generous!

The other suitors bristled in their own impatience. She wished she’d brought Newton down with her. He would nip at their heels and keep them in good order just as he did with geese back home.

“That is because my sister is so enraptured with him at the moment. And you wouldn’t want me to interrupt your discourse when it was your turn, would you?” If she even allowed Sir Kane to cross the threshold.

 “I say we heed the young lady and wait with the grace our hostess affords us.”

At least one of them remembered their good manners.

“Thank you, Lord…”

“Bridgerton,” said the viscount as he ascended the stairs.

Kate sighed. She enjoyed the viscount’s conversation, even when he was being vexing, but Edwina was uninterested.

“I’m afraid you are much too late, my lord. You now find yourself at the back of a very very considerably long queue.”

“Ah, but it was my understanding this queue was for the callers of Miss Edwina Sharma. I am here to see Miss Kate Sharma,” he said with a charming smile.

Kate shook her head ruefully. She almost felt sorry for him. Edwina had obviously been wrong about his own lack of interest.

“A number of them have already tried that tactic, Lord Bridgerton. The queues, as they were, have been consolidated.”

He seemed undeterred, drawing her further down the hall.

“And have any tried asking to be your escort to the races this afternoon?”

Indeed, none had.

“I will be acting as chaperone to my sister and Lord Lumley,” she answered. A few of the crowd audibly groaned—their plans to escort Edwina themselves dashed.

Lord Bridgerton did not ask why this precluded him from escorting her—did not pose any ridiculous hypothetical in which two couples chaperoned each other—but gave a sharp bow in acceptance.

“A chance encounter it will have to be then. I look forward to it, Miss Sharma.”

He strode past the rest of the suitors, leaving Kate blinking behind him.

How could it be a chance encounter if he planned for it?

Shaking her head, she entered the morning room through the second set of doors. It was time for Lord Lumley to make his exit.

 

Chapter Text

“Are you alright, Anthony?”

“Yes. Yes, of course,” Anthony answered his brother absently. He’d left mother and the girls at the shop stands, trusting they’d catch up with lighter purses, to search the crowds for the Misses Sharma. Plus Lord Lumley he supposed; the tall chap would probably be the easiest of the trio to spot.

And there they were, Lumley a head taller than his partner. But why was Dorset sitting next to Kate? Shouldn’t he be off somewhere playing at being a doctor?

“I only ask because you are looking a bit odd. And now a bit…stare-y.”

“Ah, Colin. I’m so glad you’re back and can revel in this new Anthony with me,” said Benedict. “Hardly even a scold my way since he’s set his mind to his new prize.”

“Don’t tease him over it, Benedict. I fear even a hint of censure will cause a regression,” said Daphne as she joined them. Mother was a few paces behind, herding Hyacinth and Gregory along.

“Well, we’d never dream of doing anything Your Grace deemed wrong,” said Eloise theatrically.

“Anthony?” Colin asked again, ignoring their siblings’ sniping.

“What? Oh, it’s nothing. Just spotted my future wife. Stay here,” Anthony instructed.

He crossed the grass, coming to a stand in front of the party. Miss Edwina greeted him with a wide smile. Her sister’s, more subdued, was accompanied by a raised eyebrow.

“Dorset! I’ve never known you to be one interested in the races,” Anthony said.

“Not usually, but when an old friend spends half the night interrogating you for all you know about India, one finds themselves curious for the cause. Lady Danbury was kind enough to facilitate my introduction.”

“Planning a trip, my lord?” Miss Sharma asked.

No, a marriage. Not that he could say that with Dorset’s smirking face staring up at him.

“Not for me, unfortunately. I am simply assessing my brother’s future travel destinations. He’s just returned from Greece and is looking to leave Europe next time.”

“Oh? Your brother thinks places further afield than Canterbury worthy of his attention? This is a Bridgerton I must meet.”

“I think you will find his Kentish pride nearly as strong as mine, Miss Sharma. But I would  be happy to introduce you to Colin, to the entire family even. They’re all just over there.”

He swept his arm out, ready to display a picturesque tableau of his charming family. Which it was, if slightly marred by Eloise waving her odd dog-grooming pamphlet in Daphne’s face.

At least Hyacinth no longer attempted to trap Gregory in headlocks when they were out in public.

Lumley asked after his mother’s tea schedule, as if he were in charge of it, but he was happy to reward the man’s compliments to his family, and look magnanimous in doing so. Mother had been willing to break bread with Lady Berbrooke for Daphne; he was sure Lady Lumley was a less irksome prospect.

The Duke of Hastings, approaching from the green, forwent joining the family. Instead, he came to stand at Anthony’s side and—with barely a tip of his hat Anthony’s way—addressed Miss Sharma.

“Good God, are you sitting?” he asked incredulously. “No. No. I cannot allow you to do yourself such injury, especially not one with such a love of horses as you, Miss Sharma. Your first English race must be watched from the rail.”

Miss Sharma, shockingly, easily acquiesced and the group stood to be ushered to Hastings’ secured spot beside the track’s rail along with the rest of the Bridgertons. Anthony felt no guilt in elbowing Dorset aside to ensure that he was in place to offer Miss Sharma his arm.

As she slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow, he was struck with the scent of her. Lilies.

Dorset, rather than quitting the party, offered his arm to Eloise once the groups merged. Eloise received her own elbow, from mother, to persuade her in to accepting it.

“That was quite rude, Lord Bridgerton. Why, if I’d been your governess—"

“Pardon? If you’d been my governess? You’ve not given a thought to your own children, but you’ve thought of educating those of others?”

Her eyes narrowed. Anthony admonished himself for reminding her of his verbal missteps during their dance at Lady Danbury’s ball.

“We must all look to our own futures, my lord.”

“And yours is as a governess? Are you speaking in jest?”

“I thought Edwina would have told you. After my sister is married I will be returning to India. I plan to find employment as a governess there.”

“Returning to India?” he repeated. He vaguely remembered a mention of this by Hastings, that first night, but he’d forgotten it by the time he’d reentered the conservatory. He knew, though, that Hastings hadn’t said anything about her being a governess. “Whatever for?”

If she planned to find employment it could not be due to any standing arrangement or tendresse.

His confusion must have been clear in his voice, as hers took on an explanatory tone. Anthony was rather reminded of his own childhood tutors.

“It suits me. In many particulars, I was governess to Edwina. I have all the requisite education necessary. Indeed, with my skills in language, dance, and beadwork—not to mention my ability as a horsewoman—I am already a good candidate. But with my sister as a success story, and my own experience as a debutante in London, I will be in high demand once I return.”

“A governess in high demand,” he said flatly. The thought seemed paradoxical to him.

“Yes, I shall have my choice of employers.”

A choice of employers. Not of suitors. Were employers preferable to her, or—

Anthony recalled several interactions with a sharp clarity, each with a new shade of understanding.

“A choice of employers, as your sister has a choice of suitors.”

Miss Sharma nodded.

Pragmatic, Hastings had said. To the point of bullheadedness, Anthony wished he’d added.

“Perhaps I should hire you on for Hyacinth then,” he said lightly.

“I’m sure I’d never meet your standards, my lord.”

Not for a governess, no. Anthony could only imagine the havoc she would wreak in such a position.

“And what do you know of my standards?”

“I know how you interview newly met ladies at balls. I cannot imagine the interrogation a potential employee would be subject to.”

“Is that not what dances are for? To interview prospective spouses?” he pointed out.

“You consider your wife to be your employee?” she asked somewhat sharply.

“Not of me!” he assured her.

“Of whom then?”

“The estate,” he said. It was obvious wasn’t it? “The title. The family. Just as I am as viscount.”

Anthony thought of the long conversations he’d had with his father about his responsibility to Aubrey Hall. It was more than a duty to the land or to the family. It was a duty to the people and the country. His father had been a good viscount; it was why Antony spent so much time pouring over old ledgers, hoping the columns of numbers in his dead father’s hand would somehow hold the answer to whichever question his steward had forwarded to him that week.

“You are the viscount, and lord of your estate, with hundreds of people living at your pleasure. I would hardly call that an employee.”

Anthony remembered her own position, her dependence on the family that had once employed her father, and now on Lady Danbury. Whatever her experience, it had obviously influenced her feeling. He could only hope a visit to Aubrey Hall would mitigate whatever ills she thought him capable of.

“Yes, but we were speaking of my standards, not of the purpose of the nobility,” he started, trying to lead the conversation to less treacherous waters. “And I would lend them to you.”

“Lend me your standards?”

“Yes, you know I was in just your position last year, with Daphne—”

“Are you not in that same position now, with your sister Eloise?”

“Eloise is quite the different matter. She has no wish to find a husband, nor any pressure to do so as Daphne felt.”

She worried at her lip at the word pressure, and her eyes cut to her sister. Miss Edwina was still smiling up at Lord Lumley, though Anthony thought her eyes looked a bit glazed over as she listened to his thoughts on Cowper.

“I do not mean to exert my standards over yours, Miss Sharma, but to lend you knowledge you may not have. I am a longstanding member of London society and, as a gentleman, I have access to information you do not.”

“Lord Bridgerton, it sounds to me as if you wish to gain my trust so you can undermine your competitors.”

“Miss Sharma, my only competitor is you.”

“I see you have been reading Lady Whistledown.”

“Almost never.”—He hardly needed to; at least one of his family members was eager to summarize its contents to him every print.—"What makes you suggest it?”

“She names me a fearsome beast. A terrifying foe that makes all men of London tremble in their boots.”

“And what is so bad about that?” he asked, exasperated. So the Mister Maybe-Finchs and Lord Not-Importants fled before her. When had he ever met a challenge he would not rise to? “Do we not tremble before mountains? Or marvel at the beauty of an explosion? Here in Britain, we call our battleships she, and trust each fearsome lady will do her best to protect the sailors in her rigging, and the flag she sails beneath. A fearsome beast sounds a better woman to me than a winsome flower. Especially if she has a younger sister to care for.”

“I see you are as fond of poetry as Lord Lumley.”

“Not at all. It is you I am fond of, Miss Sharma.”

She looked shocked.

“My sister—”

Anthony realized the misunderstanding was greater than he’d supposed. He stepped closer, lowering his voice.

“Miss Edwina is a pleasant dance partner and a sweet girl, but not, as you told me, what I am looking for.”

He reached out a hand, catching one of her own. Her netted gloves were barely gloves at all.

“A wife,” she said, her inflection barely rising in question.

“Yes,” he answered. Her eyes fell to his mouth before rising to meet his gaze again.

“A viscountess?” This one was definitely a question, and one tinged by disbelief.

“Yes, that as well.”

He squeezed her hand, running his thumb over the fastening—once, twice—until it unclasped.

“Are you—” She cut short when his finger met bare skin. “Are you in earnest?”

“Entirely. Miss Sharma, I—”

“Finally!” said Hastings from just beside them. Anthony sprung back. He hadn’t realized just how close they’d been standing. How close he’d been to—

“They’ve lined up. I thought the race would never begin,” Hastings continued. “I’ll have your winnings sent over by this evening, Miss Sharma. If you are right of course.”

“Winnings? Did you make a bet, Miss Sharma?” Anthony asked.

“An unmarried lady does not place bets,” she said superiorly. She’d rebuttoned her glove and was neatening her already neat hair. Her rapid breaths could be attributed to the warmth of the day, but Anthony thought otherwise. Anthony knew otherwise.

“Though a duke may make a bet on her advice, with the understanding of due gratitude,” Hastings said with a wink that made Miss Sharma chuckle.

Anthony was not quite sure what to make of their friendliness. Just how much time were he and Daphne spending at Danbury House?

“And will you be joining me in cheering for Nectar?”

“Nectar, really?” she asked.

“Yes. He is well-bred, well-trained, and well-favored.”—She looked anything but convinced.—"Besides, I have a good feeling about him.”

“A feeling,” she scoffed, a sure sign of the return of her equanimity.

“Do not tell me you have joined Hastings in attempting to apply maths to the races. We must keep our intuitions about these things, unexplainable though they are.”

Hastings, Basset then, had spent many hours trying to convince his fellows at Oxford that any game could be predicted if one just had the right numbers.

“His case for probability theory was compelling, but not able to include all the factors I consider when making a bet.”

“Not that you made a bet,” Anthony teased.

“Of course not, but if I had, my money would not be on Nectar.”

“Just what is wrong with Nectar? He’s just won at Doncaster!”

“Nectar is the safe bet, which is exactly why so many have bet on him. Everyone says he is a fine horse, set to win, so it must be so. Just as long as one ignores the weather, the track conditions, and his owner’s poor management.”

She huffed, looking piqued at his—and the rest of the Ton’s—poor judgement.

“Besides, the odds are so ridiculously in his favor you may as well not bet at all.”

“You would bet on the higher risk.”

Their eyes locked. The horses thundered past, ruffling the flowers in her hair.  

“And win the higher reward.”

Well. Anthony could certainly understand that.

Chapter Text

Anthony burst back onto the street, disrupting the quiet morning. No one was out; it was too late for deliveries, too early for callers, and much too early for any of the theatres to be open. No, it was only Anthony. Not a carriage in sight, not even his own.

Probably because the footman and driver expected him to take longer than ten minutes inside his chosen establishment.

Anthony expected to take longer than ten minutes inside, but when he’d gotten to the room, when he’d seen her—

The problem was that his sleeping mind had tricked him. He’d dreamed he’d woken, somehow transported to his rooms in Aubrey Hall. Through the open window, he could smell the hyacinths and tulips blooming. And then something else: the scent of lilies, not carried in on the spring air, but originating much closer to him.

He’d shifted and reached out. Barely a hand width away, he’d met the source.

“Anthony,” she’d sighed, her accent lilting over the final syllable.

He’d run a hand down the length of her—not even covered by a shift—and reveled in her skin’s smoothness.

“Kate?” he’d asked in disbelief and her sleepy eyes had blinked open to meet his.

“Are you so surprised to find me here, husband?” she’d said as she smiled widely—more pleased than he’d ever seen her in truth.

“Husband?” Anthony had said dumbly.

“Have you already forgotten me, Anthony?” she asked as she lifted his hand to press a kiss over each of his knuckles. “Is a reminder due?” And then she’d drawn his hand down to the center of her, even as she surged upwards to meet him in an open-mouthed kiss.

He’d moaned at the dual sensations. The warmth and wetness. He’d wanted to pull away, to look at her, just to make sure she was truly there, but Kate, his wife, seemed determined to keep him just where he was. In a blink—too fast for reality, he should have known then—it was no longer his fingers thrusting themselves inside her, but his cock.

She’s gasped his name again and again as she’d clenched around him. He wanted to be closer, deeper, to imprint himself on his skin as thoroughly as she had on his mind. He wanted her not to smell of lilies, but of him. He wanted her to always be here, in his bed. He wanted to always be inside her.

Kate had lifted her arms from where they’d been wrapped around his shoulders to thrust her hands into his hair. With a sharp tug she’d pulled him in for another kiss and Anthony had lost himself completely.

He’d woken, this time in truth, between wet sheets—something that hadn’t happened since he was a schoolboy—and with dueling desires. The first, to take himself in hand and relive his dream for as long as he was able. The second, to get out of bed and see Kate in the waking world rather than his dreaming one.

The second had won out, though by a slimmer margin than he cared to admit.

Too impatient to track down a stableboy, he’d saddled his own horse. He had ridden to Hyde Park with high hopes, already planning the quickest route to the field where he’d first come across her.

Anthony had wanted to see her, for the pleasure of it, but also to strike the Kate in his dream from his mind. To replace that Kate—dripping for him, clenching around him, wearing his ring on her finger—with Miss Sharma. Miss Sharma, who he wanted, but could not have. Not yet. Because he was a gentleman.

A gentleman who searched Hyde Park in the hopes of coming across an unaccompanied young lady.  

Internally, he’d warred with himself. It wasn’t right to seek her out like this. It would do nothing for his reputation, or hers, and it would hardly improve her opinion of him. But ever since that first dance, when he’d chosen her for his bride, he’d been eager to see her, to speak with her. It was natural, he assured himself. The quicker he courted her, the quicker they could be married, and the quicker he could have—

The quicker he could close the bachelor chapter of his life and truly fulfill his duties as viscount.

He hadn’t found her, even after he lingered for a full quarter of an hour at the fountain closest to Danbury House. Now, with more than an hour’s distance between him and his dream, he could admit that it was better that he hadn’t. Kate Sharma on her horse, hair half down and eyes bright from exercise, was not the image of a poised debutante that would drive his dream to the deep recesses of his mind. Likely the sight would only have driven him to extremely unwise actions.

Not that her absence had saved him from that, considering his current situation. Alone in Leicester Square at an unfashionable hour after leaving a brothel more frustrated then when he’d entered it.

He’d stopped at his solicitor’s first, mostly to serve as an excuse to his mother for why he was leaving before breakfast, to inquire after his libel case against the so-called Lady Whistledown.

Unfortunately, Mr. Arden had informed him the suit was hopeless. Whistledown’s print shop did not name itself on her broadsheets, and her newsboys were paid too well to give her up. Maybe, if a large number of gentlemen banded together to press a suit, and search the city, it would be possible, but such a coalition was impossible. Too many enjoyed reading the scandal paper, and no family was named near as much as his.

With three failures under his belt for the morning, Anthony had made his way to Madame Delacey’s establishment and achieved a fourth. He’d awkwardly asked if she had a woman from India in her employ and felt a bit ill at the proprietress’s knowing look.

She’d sent a runner upstairs, to ask if Priya was willing to entertain another acquaintance of the Sharmas and received a positive answer almost immediately.

Anthony had climbed the stairs, caught between anticipation and disquietude. Just how many callers at Danbury House had made their way here after leaving the sisters’ company? And now Anthony was to join their ranks?

But he’d thought of the apparition of Kate conjured by his dream and continued upwards. He’d find no peace otherwise.

Except he hadn’t found peace with Priya either. No, one look at the girl had him backing away. She was slight instead of statuesque, with a head of bouncy curls instead of heavy tresses: more Miss Edwina than Kate.

He’d left a handful of coins on the table—she had woken up early for him—and bolted.

Madame Delacey had snorted as he’d fled. He only hoped her discretion would keep the incident from the gentlemen gossip hounds.

“Bridgerton?”

The call came from a newly arrived carriage. One Anthony had dismissed as soon as he saw the horses—four greys, not chestnuts—and deduced it was not his own. He should have looked more carefully at the heraldry.

“Hastings,” he said in greeting, lifting his hand to tip his hat. He wished his brother-in-law would drive on, so of course the duke exited the carriage to meet him on the pavement.

“What are you doing here, Bridgerton?”

Anthony glanced to the door he’d exited from.

“Why does a single gentleman linger in Leicester Square? Really. I was not so long ago for you Hastings, surely you can guess!”

Leicester Square had once been a promising neighborhood, but the first theatre had marked its end as such. As people moved out and more theatres started going up, many of the townhomes had been converted into brothels for the type of gentleman a touch too discerning for those populating Drury Lane.

“At this hour? Unless…did you spend the night here?” Hastings looked shocked, and rightly so. One did not fall asleep in brothels, even high-class ones, if one did not wish to be picked clean of all valuables.

“No, I did not. And now is the moment I will ask you: what are you, the man married to my sister, doing here?”

Hastings gestured to the corner manse.

“I have just left an invitation at Swinton House. Lady Danbury insisted they wouldn’t accept it from the hands of a simple footman.”

Lady Swinton, a grande dame of his grandfather’s generation, refused to admit that her square had descended from its height as a fashionable locale three decades past. Hers was the only great residence still remaining, and while she still drew callers—she was a founding patroness of Almack’s and a longtime ally of Lady Danbury’s—there were surely less than there would be if the lady would only change her address.

“And a duke was easier to spare than the butler?”

“In a house preparing to host a soiree? Undoubtably. And it served me well, as it allowed me to escape those very preparations.”

“Do you not have your own home to escape to?”

“A home across the street where Daphne can recall me at a moment’s notice to ask my opinion on the bouquets,” he pointed out. “No, I am much better served by spending the day at the club.”

“You are heading to White’s?” Anthony asked. It was to be his next stop.

“No, Mondrich’s new venture.”

“Colin said something about that, I think. Are you truly abandoning St. James Street? For…where is it? Somewhere in Marylebone?”

“I’ll admit I was uncertain, but I think I prefer it now. There’s no political affiliation, and no noble title required. It makes for better conversation. Besides, White’s hasn’t been the same since we broke that table.”

Anthony laughed.

“Sounds rather too inclusive for a gentleman’s club. Next you’ll tell me they accept women as members.”

“Your Miss Sharma would like that.”

“Pardon?”

“She does enjoy speaking of politics, and a number of other…gentlemanly pursuits. We talked extensively of boar hunting at breakfast. I am considering extending her an invitation to Clyvedon for my next shooting party.”

“You breakfasted with her,” said Anthony flatly. He supposed if he were a duke he could flout visiting hours whenever he wished, even when in the company of a dragon such as Lady Danbury.

“Yes, twice now. You know Danbury House’s cook refuses to give out her brambleberry jam to anyone. I can’t find it anywhere else, and my cook’s been rubbish in her attempts to replicate it.”

“So you must impose yourself at your godmother’s breakfast table.”

“Well, yes. It certainly makes Daphne happy. I think she misses having siblings to argue over scones with; the Misses Sharma help fill in the gaps. Especially the elder, her grasp of witty insults is quite good for someone raised outside society.”

“You actually like her,” Anthony said in surprise. Hastings looked confused.

“Of course I do. She’s clever and loyal. What is there not to like?”

“No, you like her. She is your friend. You wish to see her happy.”

“Yes,” Hastings said slowly, waiting for Anthony to reach his point.

“Are you so certain of me?” Anthony had to ask. Last season, Hastings had seemed near as disparaging as Daphne when faced with Anthony’s views on marriage.  

Hastings had the grace to consider his answer before replying.

“In an ideal world, I’d see Miss Sharma married to a man who loved her dearly and whom she loved in return. They’d grow old together surrounded by grandchildren and a pile of riches.”

“But this is not an ideal world.”

“No, that it is not. However, I think you fit each other well. You can at least provide the grandchildren and riches.”

“And this way you’ll never lose out on her society.”

“Yes, Daphne and I will never have to lose our friend to a boor of a husband who keeps her locked away in the country. Or to India where she’d grow old looking after the children of Company men and Naval officers.”

Anthony shivered. “Perish the thought.”

Hastings hummed in agreement before calling over one of his footmen.

“Thomas, wait here for Lord Bridgerton’s carriage and tell his men I’ve taken him on to Mondrich’s.”

Anthony said nothing in protest to his friend’s high-handedness and the man nodded to the order, moving to stand down the block, closer to Swinton House, for discretion’s sake.

“Come, Bridgerton. Let us toast to many future years of boar hunting with Miss Sharma,” Hastings said as he climbed into his carriage.

“Hopefully it will be Lady Bridgerton doing the hunting by then,” Anthony quipped as he followed in after him.

Once the door was shut, Hastings smiled at Anthony conspiratorially.

“Toast we will, but first I must tell you what Daphne has been getting up to. She’s on a mission to educate the debutantes! Had them over for tea three days ago. Gave out pamphlets and everything.”

“Educate them about what?” Anthony asked, confused over Hastings’ glee.

“Sex, Bridgerton. We have a whole new shelf in the library, with science books shelved next to erotic literature.”

Anthony’s mouth fell open in shock.

Hastings laughed aloud.

“Your face! It looks just like that of the debutantes when they left her tea!”

Chapter Text

The parlor in Hastings House was too big. Too tall, too wide, too…wobbly.

“Basset, when did you move on to a ship?” Anthony asked as they swayed to the side, arms thrown around each other's shoulders.

Basset’s laugh boomed in his ear and Anthony almost dropped him in surprise. It was much too loud. He looked to his friend to tell him so, but Basset’s wide smile and shaking form infected Anthony instead. Soon he was leaning as much as Basset, and both were laughing too hard to speak.

“Simon?” asked Daphne from the top of the stairs.

“Shh, shh. Bridgerton, shh!” Basset urged—no, it was Hastings. The Duke of Hastings. And the Husband of Daphne. Oh no.

“Simon, are you drunk?”

Anthony coughed to clear his throat—and his head—from the laughter.

“No,” he tried to say solemnly. The effort was ruined by Hastings’ own attempt at a sober face and Anthony’s resulting snort of laughter. Still, he pushed on. “We had a few drinks. But not drunk. We’re not, I mean.”

He nodded, congratulating himself on completing the sentence. Daphne had reached the bottom of the stairs and was looking at him with that special Daphne expression: a blend of disappointment and affection. Anthony was very familiar with it.

“Lovely to see you, Anthony. Did you have a nice time at your club?”

“Hello, Daphne,” Hastings said. It was a bit sickening, how his smile had changed from one of hilarity to lovesickness. If only the Basset of Oxford could see him now. Hastings attempted to push off Anthony, presumably to embrace his wife, but could not even shift his arm from his shoulders without stumbling. Luckily Anthony, a touch more sober because he still drank habitually, was able to steady him without falling himself.

“Jane,” Daphne said. “Please tell Cook my brother will be staying for dinner. And call for His Grace’s valet. It seems he will need help climbing the stairs.”

“Who’s Jane?” Anthony asked, confused.

“Maid,” Hastings mumbled, patting Anthony on the face with his free hand. “Maria’s sister.” Anthony did not know who Maria was, but he nodded. Hastings continued to pat his face. Rather hard actually. Anthony attempted to swat his hand away. “Where’s your hair?” Hastings demanded. 

“On my head, you git. Now stop it!”

“No, I meant—” Whatever Hastings had meant was lost, as he’d just spotted his wife again. “Daphne! Your hair looks lovely.”

Daphne blushed. Revolting.

“Thank you, dear. Now, you are both aware it’s three in the afternoon, yes? You’ve only just missed my last caller.”

“Caller? Was it one of your orchid girls?” Anthony asked. He’d meant to sound accusing—Daphne was playing a dangerous game—but was undermined by Hastings elbowing him in the gut. The grunt he let out halfway through the word ‘girls’ stole the quality of the scold. 

“Simon! You told him?”

“Darling, I only wanted him to be as proud of you as I am!”

The sappy look was back for Hastings—if it had ever left—but Daphne was not so easily drawn in this time.

“You wanted another gentleman to laugh with, more like.”

“No, I—"

“More the fool for you; you know you’ve learned valuable things as well. Your gentleman’s education may have been broader than mine, but it was by no means thorough.”

“I love you,” Hastings said, as if that was a valid reply and as if Anthony weren’t standing right there. Fortunately, the duke’s valet had arrived, so Anthony could push Hastings off him without facing the guilt of watching his friend fall to the floor. “I love you,” he said again, as his valet led him to the foot of the stairs. “Daphne?”

“I love you too, Simon,” she replied, freeing her husband to stop looking at her and—very necessarily—focus on keeping his feet under him as he climbed the stairs. 

“This will blow up in your face, Daph,” Anthony said. Daphne’s face twisted in annoyance.

“Far more likely your reckless ignorance will blow up in yours. Do even know the sorts of diseases you can catch? The Vicar of Hammerford has just written a pamphlet about them. It would do you well to read it.”

“You want me to take sexual advice from a vicar?” asked Anthony in askance. The liquor had made his tongue looser than it should be.

“Brother, vicars are no more barred from the act than you are. Besides, he is a man of science as well,” she said as she began to rifle around in her reticule. Her hand emerged, and she brandished the papers she clutched at him.  

Anthony caught the title— Hygiene of the Body and Soul— but dodged her handing it off to him.

“Do you carry these things around with you? Surely not in public?” 

“Only when one of my so-called orchid girls is visiting. Sometimes their mothers hover so closely we cannot escape the room. I was just putting this away before I left.”

Anthony breathed out a sigh of relief. At least his sister wasn’t hawking her pamphlets on the streets—or outside Parliament.

“Put him in the rose room, would you Edward?” Daphne said to the returned valet, ignoring Anthony’s groan. He hated the rose room; the wallpaper always gave him a headache.

“Where are you off to?” he asked.

“Hyde Park. Mother invited me to promenade with her and Eloise. An invitation I extended to the Sharmas after discovering Lady Danbury’s obligations for the afternoon.”

Anthony straightened.

“I—”

“You cannot come. It wouldn’t do for you to scare anyone off while smelling of the distillery,” she said primly. Anthony slumped back into the valet’s—Edward’s—hold. She was right. But before she left, he had to ask.

“Is Miss Sharma one of them?”

“Hmm?” Daphne was trying very hard to pretend she was not paying attention to him, but Anthony had known her all her life.

“An…orchid girl? Is she one of them?”

Daphne’s eyes gained an ambitious gleam. She stepped towards him, taking out her vicar’s tract again.

“I’ll tell you if you take the pamphlet”—she held it up to keep him from immediately snatching it from her hand—“and you promise me to read it.”

“I promise,” he swore.

Daphne laughed and placed it in his hand.

“She is,” his sister said with a wink and then she was out the door, leaving Anthony with a silent valet and an afternoon’s reading material. And the image of Kate perusing the shelf Hastings had described so vividly.   

Chapter Text

Kate had been trying to speak with Edwina for days, ever since the races, but her sister had avoided her at every turn. First by claiming a headache and bowing out of dinner, then by urging her to accept Lady Alayne’s plea for her company when she went to call on the Duchess of Hastings—despite said acceptance meaning that she would miss Edwina’s own meeting with the queen.

Lady Danbury had seconded the suggestion quickly, as the queen had not specifically requested Kate’s presence, but both the Duchess of Hastings and the Lady Alayne had. Kate would have been more tempted to protest if she hadn’t seen how Lady Mary brightened at the thought of something to do while Edwina was at the palace, even if that something was only sipping tea with the Marchioness of Montrose as their daughters browsed the library of Hastings House.  

(When she and the Lady Alayne—“Please call me Alayne!”—arrived at Hastings House, they and their mothers were shown to the conservatory. The duchess had indeed filled it with orchids. Lady Mary and the marchioness had gushed over their vibrancy, Kate had made a vague comment on their beauty, and Alayne had stammered out a single compliment of their shape. The duchess had accepted each with equal equanimity.

Kate and Alayne had then escaped to the library, where they met a blushing Miss Rothers. Miss Penelope Featherington, a step beyond, was furiously flipping through a book titled Love of the Greeks.

“My sister has that book,” Miss Rothers had whispered to them. “It does not contain much for young ladies, or old ones either, but Miss Penelope quite insisted on reading it.”

Kate had caught a glimpse of an illustration as Miss Penelope flipped past and felt her eyebrows both rise involuntarily. No, it certainly did not seem like a book meant to assist young ladies.

No one would ever say the Duchess of Hastings was not thorough.

“Your sister?” Alayne had asked in shock.

“Kathy—that is, Lady Trowbridge. Not Cynthia.”

Alayne had nodded in acceptance. Apparently Lady Trowbridge owning such a book was completely acceptable—or at least unsurprising.

“Did you come here in search of something specific, Alayne?” Kate had asked. She’d hoped they’d be moving further down the aisle—to the books that looked to be of a more scientific nature.

“Yes,” Alayne had said with a determined look. She’d studied each of the three ladies present, as if assessing their trustworthiness, before she divulged.

“My French maids have been talking of something…when they think I’m out of ear shot. They spoke of…a man putting his mouth on his lover. Down there, I mean. I was hoping for a book to tell me how it feels.”

Another hope dashed.)

After both calls, they’d promenaded with the Bridgertons in Hyde Park. Well, all the Bridgertons but one. The entire time, Edwina had kept the duchess, one of her siblings, or a convenient suitor close at hand to ensure she and Kate were never alone. When they’d parted with the prolific family and returned to Hastings House, Edwina had recounted her conversation with the queen for their benefit and answered all of her mother’s many questions before begging to retire early due to exhaustion.

Finally, this morning, Kate had rushed to dress and put up her hair before Edwina could escape downstairs, only to find that Edwina had commandeered their most gossip-prone maid to tend to her curls. Kate did not want this to end up in Lady Whistledown’s papers, so she only made a comment about Edwina’s choice of dress before descending for breakfast.

Now, with no callers left and Lady Danbury and Lady Mary off to attend a matron’s dinner with the Dowager Viscountess Bridgerton, Kate struck.

“Edwina, I think it’s time we spoke,” Kate said, as soon as Jenny, the serving girl, had left with the tea tray. Her sister had been trying to slip out after her, but Kate wouldn’t let her, not this time.

Edwina froze for a moment before she donned her placid diamond smile and retrieved her needlework, as if that were her purpose for standing all along.

“What about, Didi?”  

Her use of the nickname soothed Kate, but she knew it may be the last time she heard it for some time—or ever—if she was able to broach the topic she wanted to.

“The season, Bon. Your suitors. Your meeting with the queen. The deluge of flowers we must foist off on the servants because of your aversion. Anything. We have not spoken in days.”

Edwina avoided Kate’s eyes, focusing intently on her embroidery hoop.

“Bon?” Kate asked tentatively when her sister failed to speak. She leaned forward, trying to catch Edwina’s gaze.

“I don’t want to talk about my suitors,” she said in a rush. Kate jerked her head back.

“What? Why?”

All Edwina had wanted to talk about on the long trip from India were her suitors. She’d talked for hours—days—about the future husband that awaited her in England. She’d talked with Mary about how she’d known she loved Appa, and asked Kate to describe the glimpses she’d gotten of their illicit courtship as a young girl. Edwina had ranked her favorite heroes from her novels, and re-ranked them after the third time she had reread each. She’d described what she wanted from a husband, what she expected during a courtship, and even what philosophers she wished him to be a disciple of.  

This change didn’t make any sense.

“The day after Lady Metcalf’s ball—the first real day of callers…” Edwina trailed off. Kate tried to look encouraging. “You told me that your job was to make sure I got exactly what I was looking for, and it was only my job to know it.”

“I did,” Kate said slowly.

“But I realized I don’t know it, Didi. Everything I thought, everything I read, even what Mama said, it was all wrong! Or it is me that’s wrong. I’ve danced with so many gentlemen, and spoken with them, and I’ve felt nothing! No sparks as Mama described, or even the warm esteem Elinor Dashwood felt.”

“What? There is nothing wrong with you—”

“And I took such comfort in the list you gave me, because I could trust you to know what I wanted, but Didi, I don’t know if I can do it. Lumley is boring, and the viscount is yours,”—“The viscount isn’t mine!” Kate interjected—"and the marquis is going back to France, and Wyndham is so judgmental Kate! I told him about your skill at shooting and he suggested I cut ties with you after my marriage! As if I could ever! And the Baron Mansel! I know I could grow to love the country, but—”

“Bon!” Kate interrupted. She’d placed a finger over Edwina’s mouth to stem the flow of words and now she cautiously drew back. “Breathe, Edwina. Just breathe.”

Edwina’s chest heaved as she gasped in a few breaths. Kate did not embrace her, would not when she was in this state, but she held Edwina’s hands in her own, embroidery discarded, and took deep breaths for Edwina to match.

Her sister sniffled, blinking the tears from her eyes. Kate’s mind whirled. Her list was to be discarded; it was an obvious failure. Kate had to reevaluate everything.

Lady Danbury was hosting a soiree tomorrow, with the—extremely timely—purpose of allowing Edwina to get to know her suitors better. Now that Kate’s original choices were struck from the list, she needed to reassess all the other gentlemen available. This time, based on their personalities, not on their families’ entries in Debrett’s and the words of a scandal sheet. And, Kate acknowledged, based on what Edwina did want.

But if Edwina did not like Lumley, by far the closest man Kate could find to her storybook hero, who would do as her husband?

“What do you want? Have you liked anyone?”

Kate remembered the first day of callers, and Edwina’s hesitation over a name. But what name had it been? For the life of her, Kate couldn’t recall. All she could remember was Viscount Bridgerton’s smile as he’d asked to be her escort at the races. To get closer to Edwina, she’d thought, and maybe to win over the sister guarding the jewel of the season while he was at it.

“I don’t know, Kate! And I was just so relieved that the viscount was interested in you because he values family so—of course he will make sure Mama is provisioned for! What if I had chosen wrong, Didi? What if my husband had cast Mama or you aside? What if I had failed at the one thing you raised me for?”

Her words broke Kate’s heart. What kind of sister had Kate been, if that is what Edwina thought? What had she said to make her believe—

But Kate knew. All the lessons, all the pride she and Mary had taken in Edwina’s accomplishments, all their hopes pinned to Edwina’s beauty and charm. How could Edwina not think this? And what would she think when she knew the full truth of the Sheffield’s demands? If Edwina was feeling this much pressure without knowing, how could Kate tell her? But she knew she must. Because Edwina was feeling the pressure Kate had placed on her, that Kate was projecting constantly, and she shouldn’t have to.

“Bon,” Kate murmured, taking one hand from Edwina’s to cup her sister’s face. Edwina’s eyes were now dry, her breathing slowed, but she still trembled with emotion. She was so young. How had Kate forgotten that? Her sister was a woman grown, and mature for her age, but she was still only eighteen. Far too young to shoulder the burdens of a family; Kate knew that better than anyone. “You were not raised to be the diamond of the English debutantes.” Kate squeezed Edwina’s hand before she could protest. “You were trained for it, yes, that I freely admit. But you were raised to be Edwina Sharma, daughter and sister and woman and happy. Edwina, that is all Mary and I could ever ask of you. If you are not satisfied with any of these men, than they are not for you. It is that simple.”

Edwina took a deep breath in, a tremulous smile wavering to her lips. Kate could tell she was a second away from throwing her arms around her in an embrace.

“But,” Kate continued. “I have not been fully honest with you.”

Kate met her sister’s wide eyes, still full of trust, and pulled back her hands. She clutched them together in her own lap, worrying her fingers over each other as she spoke.

“The Sheffields, when I wrote to them, were eager to meet you as I said. When I hinted at traveling to England for your debut, they were ecstatic. The countess said her husband would provide a dowry for you, and that they’d be willing forgive Mary everything, but only if…”

“If?” Edwina asked softly. It was the same voice she’d used on the docks when they’d disembarked—when she’d asked Kate why the Sheffields had made no plans to greet them.

“Edwina, Mary is their only child, and you are their only grandchild. It is natural that they wish for a guarantee that you will stay in England, especially after so long away.”

“What guarantee, Didi?”

“The Sheffields will only provide a dowry, and will only accept Mary back, if you marry an Englishman with a title,” Kate finally admitted. She swallowed back the last stipulation, the one never explicitly stated in ink, but implied in each letter. They would provide for Mary, but not the stain of a full-Indian stepchild. Kate was to return to India so her existence, and the scandal of Mary’s marriage to her father, could fade in the ton’s memory. Perfectly understandable, she reminded herself.

“I confess their request colored the list of suitors I made, but it doesn’t matter, Bon. If you find love with a titled gentleman, we will appreciate the dowry and the introduction of the Sheffields into our society. But if your future husband brings nothing to you but love, Mama and I will still be happy for you.”

“And if I do not find love at all?” Edwina asked numbly. Here was the Rubicon Kate had worried over; that Edwina, knowing the Sheffields’ terms, would marry the first man who fulfilled them, regardless of her own love and happiness.

“I have enough funds to secure my passage back to India. If we accept lesser accommodations, those funds can stretch to cover all of us.” And if not, well, Kate would spend her hours sewing beads on to dresses in the back room of Madame Delacroix’s if that’s what it took. “We’ll return home, and we will both be governesses, and every month we will visit Mary in whichever village she’s settled in and laugh at the ridiculousness of the English over a feast of delicious—and properly spiced—food.”

Edwina did not react as Kate expected. No tears, or laughter, or further clarifying questions. Instead:

“Go back to India? Didi, you can’t! What about the viscount?”

“What of him?”

“What of him? Kate! How are you meant to marry him if you are in India and he is in England?”

Kate thought of the viscount at the races; his expressed fondness for her, the implication it was she, Kate, that he meant to take as a wife. She remembered how his eyes seemed to burn her, branding the skin they swept over, and the jolt of feeling that originated where his bare skin touched her own.

But that was before they had discussed racing, and he’d exposed himself as a complete adherent to popular opinion. Before she’d shown herself to be vulgar enough to bet—even through an intermediary. Before he’d bowed in parting and left her. Before he had failed to call yesterday, and Kate had watched her sister greet suitor after fawning suitor.

And then there were the Sheffields’ demands to contend with. Maybe he did plan to propose, but he was a viscount and Lord Sheffield was an earl and Kate…Kate was not the daughter of a gentlewoman. She was the loose end of a past scandal. If she stayed, if somehow Lord Bridgerton did really wish to marry her, what would the earl do? To her? And what could he do to the viscount?

“I do not think I will be marrying the viscount, Edwina,” she said as she stood and walked over to the window. The view of Lady Danbury’s manicured drive offered no diversion or relief and she quickly turned her back to it.

“But Kate, I see that you like him, and it was clear at Lady Danbury’s ball that he’s fallen in love with you!”

Edwina seemed to have abandoned the narrative of a storybook romance for herself, but not for her sister. Was that the issue? Had Edwina conjured up some great love on behalf of Viscount Bridgerton that made all her suitors' effusions pale in comparison?

‘Do we not tremble before mountains? Or marvel at the beauty—’

Kate stamped down the memory in her mind, crushing it beneath her imagined boot.

“In love with me? Bon, that was only the second time we met. Love is—”

“The second? We’d only just been introduced.”

Kate bit the inside of her cheek. She had meant to keep that a secret.

“We…met briefly. Before we were introduced by the duke. On my first morning ride in Hyde Park.”

Edwina clasped her hands before her breast and sighed.

“You met him the very first morning we were in England? Kate, that’s so romantic!”

“It wasn’t romantic! He was…annoying. Following me because he did not think a woman capable on a horse.”

“Well, he certainly wasn’t doubting you when I spoke to him. Our first dance was full of talk of your competence.”

“Really?” Kate said doubtfully. “I seem to remember you said that you spoke of France and your own skill at languages.”

Edwina’s eyes were near twinkling as she joined Kate at the window.

“Ah, it was your opinion on matters in France he sought, to know how often we spoke on politics, and where we read our news—oh!—and if you’d prefer a French or English cook.”

Kate snorted.

“Don’t worry, I let him know you’d need a proper cook from home to ever stay here. Which then led to a conversation on home and languages. Specifically, which ones you speak. Do you understand Kate? All he wanted to speak about was you.”

“Perhaps he did, but he has not called, therefore—”

“Didi, he called the morning after you first danced. You all but barred him from the parlor.”

“Persistence is the key to a good courtship,” Kate parried, thinking of their father and how long he had pined for Mary before she revealed her reciprocation of his love.

“You think he should have stayed despite your objections? You would like him better if he did not listen to you?”

“You know that is not what I meant, Edwina. He should have called again.”

He should have called yesterday. But Kate could not share with her sister how she’d sifted through the calling card tray yesterday afternoon, and again in the evening, hoping. It made her out as too pitiable a figure: a spinster set to a Sisyphean task. There had been so many cards to check—the footmen had been instructed not to separate them as many still left their card for Miss Kate Sharma in hopes of a quicker entry—and not even one read Bridgerton.

“Perhaps he is waiting for the right time,” Edwina suggested.

“And what time is that? In a week, when I have faced the reality of my future once more and am desperate to forgive him any trespass?”

She was too harsh, and she waited for Edwina’s standard scolding for it, but it did not come.

“Now. Right now,” Edwina said, her eyes on something in the drive.

“What?” Kate asked, and Edwina grabbed her arm to turn her.

“Kate, look!” she exclaimed as she pointed outside. There, leading a horse adorned with a giant bow up the drive, was Lord Bridgerton.

“We’re not home for callers,” Kate pointed out as she tracked his progress to the door. Lady Danbury had been emphatic on the point. It would not do for the diamond of the season to entertain unchaperoned and be caught in a compromising position.

“Oh, bakavas,” Edwina said before rushing to the door.

“Bon!” Kate said in shock. Her sister was not one for profanities—in any language. But it had made her point clearly; Edwina would accept this caller regardless of their hostess’ instructions, and Kate could only follow her.

The footman’s announcement of “the Viscount Bridgerton, ma’ams,” trailed after them, as both ladies were already out-of-doors by the time he’d read the card.

“Lord Bridgerton!” Edwina called. “We did not expect you!”

“It is rather late for a call,” Kate added. She ignored Edwina’s pointed look.

“Yes, I do apologize. I was unavoidably delayed. But I found I could not suffer waiting another entire day before presenting my gift to you, Miss Sharma.”

Lord Bridgerton’s repentant countenance gradually transformed, and by the time he spoke her name, he sported a wide grin.

“And what a gift it is!” Edwina said happily. “My sister has a great love of horses, my lord.”

“Yes. Yes, I know,” he replied, but his eyes did not leave Kate’s face. It was Kate who looked away first. She assessed the gift he’d brought her.

At the beginning of the week, she would have named it a Trojan Horse; an offering meant to win Edwina’s favor, disguised as a gift for her. Now, her mind rejected the instinctive thought. No, this was for her and, with his hair carefully braided and his coat gleaming from a thorough brush down, he was gorgeous.

Most notably though, the horse was relaxed, well-rested. A far cry from the last time she’d seen the poor animal.  

“You bought me a losing horse,” she said, even as her hand reached out to stroke Nectar.  

“I did,” he said with relish. The racehorse pulled at the lead, shifting his neck closer to Kate’s hand.

“Why?”

He cast a glance towards Edwina, who was carrying out her chaperone duties admirably. By which Kate meant she was studying the rose bush on Lady Danbury’s lawn as if it were noteworthy and not a drive-side shrub.

“When we first met, we raced.”—That was debatable, though Kate did not say so.—“But you did not call it such because I offered no competition and we had not agreed upon a finish line.”

Kate nodded in agreement.

“This is me suggesting a finish line. With Nectar as a token of my sincerity. A horse that lost as the sure bet, but could, through more prudent management and assessment, prove a champion once more.”

“I am a tad confused, my lord. Are you the rehabilitated horse in this metaphor, or am I?”

“What? Neither,” he spluttered. “The only metaphor is the finish line. For marriage. I just thought you would like him more than flowers.”

“Perhaps flowers would be a better choice, my lord. Less prone to causing misunderstandings.”

“But not as well liked by you,” he said, catching her off guard.

“You’re right,” she admitted. “Thank you. I will value him greatly. And,” she added, unable to resist. “I look forward to winning many races from his back.”

“I would expect nothing less, Miss Sharma. Though I hope you are prepared for a few losses as well. I am not so easy an opponent when I do not start ten yards behind.”

Edwina sneezed loudly, letting Kate know she’d leaned too close to the rosebush in her effort to give Kate and Lord Bridgerton privacy. The latter jumped in surprise, as if he truly had forgotten her sister’s presence. He offered Edwina a handkerchief, but she waved it off, moving to a non-flowering topiary.

“Could I interest you in a drive, Miss Sharma? I do not think you have seen the thoroughfares of Hyde Park. Say, tomorrow afternoon?”  

“I cannot. Lady Danbury is hosting a soiree in the evening, and I will not have the time for a drive. However,” she added quickly. “The following afternoon is not so full.”

“Then the following afternoon it will be.”

He handed Nectar off to a waiting groom. Without the horse’s great bulk between them, Kate felt much more exposed. She was entertaining a gentleman in the front drive, with only her much-younger sister as chaperone. Kate felt awkwardness creeping in, on the coattails of her uncertainty. If Lord Bridgerton felt anything of the same he did not show it, though he did take a step closer to her.

“Now…this soiree,” he said. “A contrivance for Miss Edwina to learn more of her suitors, I assume? Shall I come and whisper in your ear?”

“What do you imagine whispering exactly?” she asked. Not breathily. Sternly. Disdainfully even.

He chuckled.  

“Not sweet nothings, I assure you, Miss Sharma. Only the very best advice for you and your sister.”

“It will be a showing of talents,” Kate warned.

“I look forward to watching the besotted swains make fools of themselves.”

“You are not interested in performing yourself? In showing off your talents to all the ton? And to me?”

The last was added in a fit of audacity Kate could not quite believe herself capable of. In arguments, of course, but in this attempt at flirtation?

The viscount’s eyes were dark, and, when he spoke again, his voice had taken on an unfamiliar tenor.

“I’m afraid my best talents are not ones to be performed in a drawing room.”

Wholly without her consent, Kate’s mind conjured up one of the images Alayne had found in the Hastings’ library. Kate felt her breath quicken, and her cheeks heat.  

He smirked, as if he could read her thoughts. “After all, I consider myself a fine horseman and fencer, but am not an apt juggler.”

The image of him wielding a sabre was not much better. She had the irrational urge to ask for an exhibition of his talent, regardless of propriety.

How was she to survive their carriage ride?

Chapter Text

“You must be better than him at least, Miss Sharma,” Lord Bridgerton murmured as the poor flute player completed his song.

Kate smiled slightly at his reminder of their dance, but continued watching her sister. She’d circled the room early in the evening, putting in the necessary efforts as a hostess, but had soon settled in to watch her sister interact with each of her suitors. With this careful observation, she could not fail to notice Edwina was more entertained by Eloise Bridgerton’s sarcastic remarks then the gentlemen’s showings.

Not that Kate could blame her sister, considering her main source of entertainment came from Miss Bridgerton’s brother.

“Have you changed your mind about asking me to exhibit, my lord? Shall I have a maid fetch my flute?”

“Let the songbird rest tonight, please. I do not trust Mr. Dawson’s playing has left my ears undamaged, and if you spoke of your abilities truly, I do not know they could bear it.”

Kate could not help her smirk.

“If I am not to perform, someone must fill the gap,” she said with a significant look. “You are fast becoming the only man in the room who has not shown off a talent.”

“My brother Colin is also only a spectator,” he pointed out.

“Your brother is entertaining all he speaks to with tales of his travels. You are lurking against the wall like a shy miss.”

“Lurking against the wall with you, Miss Sharma. Perhaps I am making a study of how you assess your sister’s suitors. Tell me, how much weight do you give to a gentleman’s ability to clap cymbals together? Does it rank as more or less important when compared to…what was it that Lord Broome was doing? Spinning a bandalore?”

Kate’s answering parry on his own poor assessment of suitors—the Duchess of Hastings had provided a fair few stories on their recent promenade—was undermined by Lady Danbury’s arrival.

“You are quick to mock the others, Lord Bridgerton, but I find it the height of rudeness you would come to my soiree with no intention of contributing to our entertainment,” she said, her cane striking the floor for emphasis.

“As much as I esteem you, Lady Danbury, you must resign yourself to disappointment in this instance. I am not a man of poetry. I cannot write words I do not mean, nor am I one to recite the falsehoods of others.”

The mark of a true gentleman, Kate’s father used to say, was honesty. Lady Danbury did not seem to agree, based on her slight frown.

“Ah, but the idea of tonight as one for poetry reading had long been abandoned. Unless you think yourself unable to stand against even the intrepid hoop roller?”

“Alas, I find myself without a hoop, and more to—”

“I think,” Lady Danbury interrupted. “That you will find a certain Sharma would be most interested in your performance.”

Lord Bridgerton and Kate glanced to each other, both obviously bewildered. She might have suggested he participate, but only in jest. The night was for Edwina’s suitors, not Kate’s single one. And while the rest of the ton might be in a state of uncertainty regarding the viscount’s motives in speaking with Kate, Lady Danbury was not.

“Lady Danbury, I hardly think this is necessary,” Kate said. “I—”

“I was speaking of your mother, Miss Sharma. Lady Mary has been carefully noting the effort of each young man who seeks her daughter’s hand. Indeed, in that lady’s eye, I believe effort is valued over talent.”

The trio’s eyes all alit on Lady Mary, who sat poised in the armchair next to Edwina’s settee. Her eyes were focused on the gentleman currently exhibiting: Sir Christopher Rivenhall, son of Viscount Rivers and, apparently, a prodigious bugle player.

Lord Bridgeton took a step away from Kate and straightened his jacket and waistcoat.

“My lord, you do not have to—”

He shook his head sharply, his lips a flat line of determination.

“I find that I do. Miss Sharma. Lady Danbury,” he said with a bow.

“He does not even have a hoop,” Kate said to herself. Lady Danbury gave an amused sniff. 

“He will muddle through without one somehow. Of that I am sure, Miss Sharma.”

They watched as the viscount cut into the line of suitors, taking a place just behind Lord Eyre. Those whose performances were deferred by his arrival seemed more relieved than annoyed. These would be the last few to display their talents; either they thought to finish the night with a triumph—the motive Kate would ascribe to Lord Lumley’s confident posture—or they’d been delaying their disappointing exhibitions for as long as possible.

“I am pleased to see I was right,” her hostess remarked.

“Lady Danbury?” Kate asked, not understanding her meaning.

“I thought it would take a most extraordinary gentleman to change the mind of a lady such as you. A lady who was so certain of the direction of her own future.”

Kate watched Edwina clap for Sir Christopher, just as warmly as she had applauded all the preceding gentlemen. She wished her sister was not enthroned on the couch as she was; Edwina was certainly not learning anything new about her suitors from her perch. Other than their willingness to abase themselves before her.

How she wished the men’s egos had allowed for a night of poetry and conversation.

“But, a word of advice, Miss Sharma. Make sure he is certain of you.”

Kate’s eyes shifted to Mary, who looked very pleased at the smooth baritone of Lord Eyre’s singing voice, and then to Lord Bridgerton. She studied him. His clothes were neat, and his hair combed; every aspect of his appearance pressed to perfection. Yet in his fidgeting hands she saw not nervousness, but a barely caged energy. He reminded her of Newton, straining at his leash. Was he planning to perform some great physical feat? Or was this how his nerves expressed themselves?

“I will lose him,” Kate said, half to herself and half to Lady Danbury. “As soon as he knows the truth.”

Anthony took to the floor in front of Edwina’s couch. He bowed to Edwina, and Lady Mary, and then once more in the direction of Kate and Lady Danbury.

“Of the Sheffields’ stipulations? You believe he will think you mercenary?”

Kate shook her head.                                                       

From his pocket, Anthony drew out a shining silver coin.

“Do you know what this is, Miss Edwina?” Kate heard him ask.

“A schilling?” her sister answer, half a question. Next to her, Miss Bridgerton groaned.

“He used to entertain me with this. When I was about six,” she said snidely.

“Don’t let my sister fool you, Miss Edwina. She was enraptured until at least the age of ten,” the viscount said. “And you are right, it is a silver schilling.”

Kate watched as he began a routine of dancing the coin across his fingers, before having it disappear up his sleeve. Miss Bridgerton was right, it was a routine for children. Yet Lord Bridgerton’s manner was so engaging one could easily forget it. And, to Kate at least, the fact he’d learned it for his younger siblings made it all the more charming.

“I think he believes I am Lady Mary’s daughter. Once I tell him I am not… Well, English society would accept many things, but not this.”

“What is society’s censure in the face of true love?”

“Were you and Lord Danbury a love match than?” Kate asked.

“Nothing of the sort, my dear. We married for all the correct reasons: connection, wealth, and breeding. But our marriage opened doors I could never have stepped through without it. Our partnership was one we both treasured, and it was through my husband that I eventually found someone I did love. Most dearly.”

Kate looked at her hostess for the first time in their conversation. Lady Danbury was facing the viscount’s performance, but she was not attending it as Kate had been. Her eyes were locked on the fire, on memories of a time—and love—long past.

After a moment, the older woman visibly shook herself from her recollections.

“Lord Danbury was a good man,” she said with finality. “And one who knew when to tell society to go hang. As does the viscount.” 

“And my mother?” she asked, nodding a head towards the armchair her mother occupied. Lady Mary was watching Edwina with a smile—one more genuine than any of her previous ones of the night—because Edwina was laughing at Lord Bridgerton’s antics. Edwina was now freely enjoying herself—because she could, because she knew Lord Bridgerton would read nothing into her behavior—not realizing her mother had gained an air of speculation.

Lady Danbury reached out and squeezed Kate’s hand, a more demonstrative gesture of comfort than Kate ever would have expected from her.

“Lady Mary knows love and has been more willing than most to pay its consequences. Once she forgets her fear of this society and opens her eyes, she will recognize it. And which daughter it belongs to.”

Chapter Text

Anthony shifted uncomfortably. When he’d set out in his curricle, he’d thought himself clever. Finally, thanks to the short bench of the fashionable carriage, he would have time with Miss Sharma—and only Miss Sharma. No overbearing dukes, or sneezing sisters, or annoying Oxford acquaintances to interrupt them.

Instead, due to the machinations of Lady Danbury and the amused tilt of Miss Sharma’s head, he found himself squeezed into a set of four in a space meant for two.

It would have been inappropriate, Lady Danbury claimed, for them to allow two young people to drive to the park by themselves—never mind that it was completely within the bounds of propriety considering it was an open curricle. He could hardly inopportune a lady in full view of a busy street!

For a moment he’d had an ally in Lady Mary, who had started to say Kate could be trusted, but the Sharma matriarch had been easily cowed by Lady Danbury. Not that Anthony blamed the woman; he’d seen the grande dame glare Hastings into submission without a word. She did the same now; observing carefully as he handed up Miss Sharma and Miss Edwina before circling around the horses to climb up himself. He and Lord Eyre, Miss Edwina’s escort, were near hanging off the sides. Anthony could only hope no one he knew saw them on the way to Hyde Park.

Luckily, Eyre and Miss Edwina would be disembarking once they reached the park. Lady Danbury’s scheme included them promenading under her and Lady Mary’s watchful eyes, while Anthony took the elder sister down Rotten Row. He had no doubt Lady Danbury’s horses, who were known to share their mistress’s assertive demeanor, would beat them to the park, especially as Anthony did not dare encourage his team past a slow trot considering his—and Lord Eyre’s—precarious positioning.

“It is fine weather today,” Miss Edwina ventured.

“Yes,” her sister said heartily. “Perfect for a promenade. I’m sure you and Lord Eyre will enjoy walking the bank of the Serpentine.”

“You prefer walking to a comfortable conveyance, Miss Sharma?” asked Eyre.

Anthony frowned. She’d obviously meant the words to encourage her sister, not to slight his choice of activity.

“I do not have a strong preference. Although, a promenade does allow for the presence of Newton. My dog,” she added when she saw the gentlemen’s confusion. Anthony frowned again. He did not want a dog in his curricle, but felt he should, as a gentleman, offer to take her pet with them the next time. Surely, with Miss Sharma as its owner, the dog was a well-behaved one. Before he could, she continued:

“Besides, I like to control where I am going. When I am holding the reins of a horse, or directing my own feet, I do not have to rely on any one’s abilities but my own.”

“You do not trust my driving, Miss Sharma?” Anthony asked wryly.

“I am sure you are as fine a driver as the next gentleman, Lord Bridgerton, but…” she trailed off.

“But you think you could do better?”

“It seems a bit wrong, to hitch a team just to be seen on a fashionable lane,” she said in lieu of an answer. Anthony very nearly rolled his eyes—an automatic reaction to any argument he’d heard out of Eloise’s mouth.

“I would not think you one to limit yourself by necessity so strictly, Miss Sharma. You ride a horse only for the pleasure of it; unless you mean to tell me you only grace one’s back when you are traveling.”

“No, but there is joy in a horse ride, in feeling the wind in your hair, and the power of an animal beneath you.”

Eyre coughed. Anthony ignored him, and the image her words conjured in his mind.

“It is the pace of the curricle that raises your umbrage? That is easily remedied. Once we reach the park, we can take the Row at speed; we will not be the only ones.”

“Surely not at this hour!” Eyre protested. His concern had merit; many gentlemen raced carriages on Rotton Row, but not usually at the height of the fashionable hour when it was at its most crowded.

Anthony ignored him again.

“If you attended my words, my lord, you would know that is not the issue at hand. Or rather, my hand, as it does not hold the reins of the carriage regardless of its speed.”

“Have you ever driven a carriage before?” he asked shrewdly.

“Never.”

“But you expect me to hand over the reins?”

“No,” she said. “But I expect you not to question my preference when I am without control.”

It was a tease, but one of truth. Anthony could see it in the set of her mouth, the rueful smile instead of a full playful one. A shout dragged his eyes back to the street. Anthony damned the carriage and the road he drove it on. The glances he managed of her face would not do; he needed to read her expressions as well as her tone to properly carry on a conversation.

“Ah, finally! The entrance,” said Lord Eyre in relief. Anthony could only nod. He’d nearly forgotten the other two passengers, despite Eyre’s consistent intrusions.

Once they were through the gate, Lord Eyre practically leapt from the curricle, and was quick to offer his hand to Miss Edwina. She took it, turning briefly to thank Anthony for driving them, before she was hurried over to the waiting Ladies Danbury and Mary.

“I think we made him uncomfortable,” Miss Sharma said.

“I can’t imagine why. His family is wholly unpleasant. A friendly disagreement should be a balm to his daily life; the man does not even keep bachelor’s lodgings.”

“Is that why he travels so often?”

That, or he'd never broken the leading strings Lord Lee had on him since Harrow.

“I’m inclined to say yes, but I fear what that would suggest about my own family, considering Colin’s extended trip and future plans.”

She hummed in thought. Anthony could almost see her recording this new information of Lord Eyre in her mental tally of Edwina’s suitors. He imagined it looked something like the betting book at White’s: full of notes, strikethroughs, and the highest of stakes.

“I could teach you, to drive that is. Not here, you’d become a horrible driver if you learned on Rotten Row, but at Aubrey Hall. We have an open gig, and an old phaeton, and no one surrounding the grounds but loyal tenants who would never let word of your early mistakes reach outside the bounds of Kent.”

“But all of Kent would know my struggles?”

“That I cannot help, Miss Sharma. But do believe me, no one in Sussex or Surrey would hear of your shame.”

“And what do I owe you for this generous service, Lord Bridgerton?”

“You must call me Anthony, and I hope, permit me to call you by your Christian name.”

The smile of good cheer slid from her face. When she answered, her voice no longer held its playful note.

“I do not have a Christian name, my lord. My given name is Kathani, and my friends call me Kate.”

Anthony was not sure how to answer. He was no great church man, and he’d used the term without thought. Should he ignore it, and simply ask if she considered him friend enough to use the diminutive? Or would she prefer Kathani? His mind curled around the name. It seemed more intimate than the more English appellation of Kate, though her words suggested the opposite.

He tried to think of how to reassure her on the aspect of religion. No one could fault her for not being a Church of England devotee. It was the Church of England after all, not India, and she’d only just arrived. Did she expect she would be forced to convert? Anthony paused. Would she be forced to convert? Beyond his control of the vicarage livings surrounding Aubrey Hall, he had little interaction with the Church, and had given it little thought. But something in his mind was struggling to come to his attention, some past parliamentary motion he could not quite grasp.

It didn’t matter, he decided. If he could not get special dispensation for her, they’d simply marry elsewhere. The family could take a—completely respectable—trip north so they could be married before witnesses in Scotland. Or, if pressed, he could trust the peace with France would hold long enough for them to be married by a judge there.

Kate—Kathani—Miss Sharma had taken his silence for surprise. Which it was. Not at ignorance of her origins, however, but at his own lack of forethought.

She continued, gently, as if to soften the blow of the truth.

“I am not Edwina. I have no English ancestry. If you thought Lady Mary was my mother, I must disabuse you of the notion. I was nearly seven years of age when Mary married my father. My mother, who died when I was three, was the daughter of a Tamil scholar, not an English earl. I am Kathani Sharma, only allowed the Miss based on Lady Danbury’s patronage and the ton’s ignorance of my origins.”

Anthony pointed the horses to a lesser-traveled path. He had no wish to be constantly harangued by greetings as he continued this conversation. But his first answer must be said immediately; it could not wait for relative privacy.

“Miss Sharma, I knew that Lady Mary was your stepmother. An earl’s daughter forsaking her family to run away to India…it was rather big news.”—Especially since said daughter had held the favor of the queen—“Even boys of ten heard talk of it.”

And if he had not heard of it as a child, he surely would have once he’d decided she would be his wife. His man might not have been able to find much without a physical trip to India, but he’d found something.

“You know,” she said in disbelief. “But how is that— how can you mean— you said—”

For the first time in a long while, Anthony thought of Siena. Siena Rosso, the daughter of a barmaid and a butcher, who in another life—one where they made different choices—he would've married. He wondered if the knowledge would comfort Kate or upset her. He couldn’t imagine a woman, even one as reasonable as Kate, would enjoy knowing her would-be-husband had loved another when he withheld the same esteem from her.

“What does it signify? If I have my say, you will be the Viscountess Bridgerton and anyone who dislikes the fact can make themselves scarce; I will not mourn the loss of such society.”

He had been forthright in his wish to marry her—too forthright in the eyes of society perhaps; Kate could very well claim a pre-contract now by how many times he’d called her his future wife—but he could not regret it. He had never regretted pursuing what he wanted to the fullest extent.  

Anthony pulled the reins, guiding the curricle to a stop on the side of the road. He took Kate’s nearer hand in his own. Her gloves weren’t netted today, but he could still feel the warmth of her hand through the thin kid.

“Have you not heard the stories of Queen Charlotte? Half the ton turned up their noses at her arrival, and a good number of the peerage begged the king to reconsider his betrothal. But he didn’t care. Neither will I.”

“She was a princess,” she pointed out.

“It doesn’t matter to me,” he insisted.

“It might come to. In the future, when your daughters cannot find husbands. Or even your sisters, if they debut under me they will be painted by the same brush.”

“My sisters have a viscount for a brother and a duchess for a sister, and a not inconsiderable dowry each. They will have no trouble finding husbands.”

If they even wanted them. He almost missed Daphne’s insistence over the duke, when compared to Eloise’s flight when faced with any potential suitor.

A barouche passed, full to the brim with a family of redheads. Anthony didn’t recognize them. He lifted his hat in recognition of the ladies among them, while wishing he could use his body to shield Kate from their sight. He did not relish the knowledge that the next edition of Whistledown would undoubtedly include mention of him bringing Miss Sharma to near tears.

“If they do not? What if the ton never accepts the outsider you took for a wife? Perhaps you should look elsewhere. For someone English, with experience running an estate. Maybe a widow? Not Lady Trowbridge,” she said with some color. “Theresa says she is not seeking a new husband at this time.”

Anthony could admit that his pride was stung—she was trying to deter him from a proposal—but relieved at the confirmation he’d made the right choice. She was logical and loyal to her family, including her future one. Other ladies, hearing the declarations he’d made to Kate, would have accepted it as their due. Or, if they sensed some hesitance about his manner, would have attempted to move him with falsehoods or pretty distractions. Kate focused on the problem; presenting it to him in case he did not know of it, and providing a solution, even if it did not include her.  

“A widow? Next you will tell me she should have at least one child to prove her fertility.”

“That is a good point,” she agreed.

His own former list of requirements swam to the forefront of his memories. He’d forgotten it, had set it aside as soon as Hastings had pushed for the introduction, and thoroughly buried it by the end of the evening. She’d fulfilled each point—tolerable, dutiful, suitable enough hips for childbearing, and at least half a brain—but it had seemed too vulgar to linger on them. Not when his current requirements, with new ones added daily, were only descriptions of her.

“God, Kate—you sound like the men at my club.”

Referring to the gentlemen of White’s—though the word gentlemen was a stretch when describing Lords Cho and Finch discussing women—made him think of the new alternative, of Mondrich’s.

On his first and only visit, he’d found the club comfortable—too comfortable in fact. He’d let his guard down and—once something in his countenance had given him away—Hastings had plied him with drink and memories of past divulgences until he’d admitted his failure at the brothel. His friend’s reaction had not helped him reach equilibrium.

‘Let me summarize, for my own understanding. You enjoy speaking with her, even when you argue. Especially when you argue I'd guess. You admire her devotion to family and wish for her to apply it to your own. You want to lay with her. Badly. So much so that you cannot do her the disservice of sleeping with another woman. Who you paid without partaking in her services.’

‘Priya, Delacey’s girl…she looked like her sister, like Miss Edwina,’ Anthony had admitted with a shudder.

‘So, it was because you consider her family your own as well. Appreciation, respect, and lust. But you do not love her?’

‘No. And do not press me on this Hastings. I do not. I cannot.’

Any further conversation had been lost to the haze of the scotch and smoke, something Anthony was thankful for. He had these conversations with Mama and Daphne already; there was no need for Hastings to join their number. No, his friend should remain as practical as he had at the start; offering up Miss Sharma because of her diligence and Anthony due to his wealth.

Kate interrupted his remembrances.

She’d turned in her seat to angle herself towards him, and it was almost the tete-a-tete he’d imagined for them, when he’d ordered the curricle to be readied. Except his imagination had included a Kate with delight on her face—or desire in her eyes—not one who looked at him with unhappy determination as she tried to convince him of her unsuitability.

“As lovely as the dream was, Lord Bridgerton, you need a wife who belongs here. That isn’t me.”

She pulled her hand from his, the smooth leather of her glove slipping through his fingers. Taken by surprise—what was his curse, that every woman he chose thought his society closed to her?—he almost did not catch her hand in time. Almost.

“You belong here,” he said. He did not let his eyes waver from hers. He kissed the back of her hand and said it again—“You belong here”—before pressing his lips to her gloved hand again. Not to her knuckles, but to the pads of her fingers. She curled them in response, reflexively, and the material was so thin that her nails caught on his bottom lip.

“Let me convince you,” he implored.

Kate stared. She’d ceased trying to pull away, but, without breaking their locked gaze, she started to shake her head.

“What is there to lose, Kate?”

“If—my sister…she needs—”

Anthony finally remembered his true enticement. Not his title or his wealth, but what both could buy her.

“Miss Edwina has many suitors and not enough time to get to know each. She also, as the sister of a viscountess, would have little need to limit herself to a single season.”

Anthony realized he might be pushing too hard, forcing her into accepting his suit when she had no wish to. He slackened his grip on her hand, let their joined hands fall to her lap, and released her to take up the reins. They’d lingered too long.

“I am not proposing, not marriage, not today. I am asking you to allow me to court you, Miss Sharma.”

Anthony could—would—show her that she belonged here, that society would accept her as his wife as easily as they would have accepted Miss Goodrum or Lady Delilah. More easily, he thought, once they saw what he did.

“I just…I never expected to stay here,” Kate said after a few deep breaths.

“Do you wish to return to India? Do you miss it?”

“It is impossible not to miss it; it is my home—or it was.”

“And England pales in comparison.”

“Ha! Pales is the right word for it,” she said, sounding far too cheerful for a woman who had tear-glazed eyes only minutes before.

“However, it is not worse as you suggest, only very different. Smaller for one,” she paused before continuing. “I do not remember much of England from when I was young. My father brought me here, and we overstayed our schedule once he’d met Lady Mary, but my memories are dim. Mostly of a schoolroom, as he had enrolled me in Mrs. Forrester’s School for Young Ladies”—she wrinkled her nose when recalling the name—"that I only escaped on weekends. Those we spent in our small rented cottage, as he told me of work, and later of Mary. Most of my memories are of Mary actually; she was England to me.”

Anthony could only imagine how her father and stepmother’s secret romance stained her perception of the country. It at least explained her conviction in the low chance of her acceptance.

“And what I read! Oh, Edwina and I used to scour the libraries and bookshops for English histories. It seemed so terrifying—but that was because we only ever bought bloody histories or gothic novels. When I bought a battered peerage almanac I was relieved. England was not frightening at all, only ridiculous.”

“How so?” he asked. Ridiculous was better than terrifying. One could find amusement in the ridiculous. It was not much of an inducement to stay, but it was far better than fear or intimidation.

“The Bridgertons have occupied the isle since time immemorial,” she said, with a feigned snobbish inflection and a puffed out chest. “and the county of Kent only a few years less. The family claims a number of notable personages as their kin, including Adeliza, daughter of William I, who appears as Adelaide, wife of Edward Brigetun in the records of the region.”

She finished her mocking recitation with a smirk. Anthony couldn't help but be pleased that she had obviously looked at the entry quite recently.

“It seems they did take some liberties,” Anthony said. The reign of Alfred the Great was hardly time immemorial.

“Yes, it was quite the relief when Lady Danbury presented me with her own almanac. No silly family myths or histories. Much more dependable.”

“You still read my entry in the original though,” he said.

“It was not your entry; the book was published and likely shipped to India before you were even born.”

“But it was me you thought of when you searched out the entry.”

“Perhaps it was your brother Colin,” she said pertly.

“Oh? Fancy seeing if talking endlessly of one’s travels was a familial flaw instead of a personal one?”

“Hmm, I think it was arrogance I was looking for.”

“So it was about me,” he said with a grin.

Kate smiled back at him. Her hair shone in the sunshine and her eyes, not hidden in the shade of a bonnet or parasol, were bright. She was stunning, in the truest sense of the word.

Anthony congratulated himself on his choice once again. He may be marrying for duty, but his bride would be beautiful.

Chapter Text

Kate watched as Edwina and the viscount danced, completing a quartet with Cressida Cowper and the new Lord Featherington. Kate couldn’t imagine that the grouping made for good conversation, though the bitter Miss Cowper looked happier than Kate had ever seen her. Perhaps marriage would make her kinder.

“Have you noticed, Miss Sharma,” said Miss Goodrum, calling Kate’s attention to the conversation, “that Lord Bridgerton always dances this set with your sister?”

She had noticed. In fact, Kate had planned it so and the viscount had generously obliged. It was the dance preceding the supper set and the break from suitors—just before Edwina would be thrust into a lengthier conversation continued over white soup with whomever had claimed the next dance—was a welcome relief to her sister. Not that Kate could share that truth; it was Miss Goodrum’s own brother who was to be Edwina’s supper partner tonight.

“And he always dances with her before you,” the debutante continued, which was also true, when one discounted the first ball of the season.

“Well, he can’t date with Kate so early; the waltz is always later in the evening,” Alayne pointed out.

“Not true! Tonight it’s—"

“Next,” Kate said easily.

Theresa stifled a snort.

“And are you spoken for for said dance, Kate?” Alayne asked with a wink. She had been standing next to Kate when Lord Bridgerton penciled his name on to her dance card.

“Yes, I have the next with the viscount,” she confirmed. Miss Goodrum seemed to be counting the balls of the last fortnight on her fingers, probably trying to remember the waltzes. She should have asked Kate; she knew the answer was four. Five if you counted the impromptu dancing at the Rokesby garden party. Which Kate did, because it was by far her favorite event of the past two weeks.

She’d seen Lord Bridgerton nearly everyday, between promenades in Hyde Park (including one that ended with both Newton and the viscount in the Serpentine), parties at Ranelagh Gardens, a handful of dinners where the Bridgertons and Sharmas were both guests, two separate lectures at the London Institution, and even a coincidental meeting at Hatchard’s, when Kate went in search of a book. The only night he was absent was when Lady Danbury secured them seats in the Marquis of Northampton’s box at the Royal Opera House. Kate, upon reading the name of the lead soprano, quite understood.

Every event had been a new challenge or delight, and sometimes both, but the Rokesby garden party had distinguished itself handily. The invitations had specified they were for entire families—which meant that Kate finally got to see the Bridgertons all together, with the viscount at their head.

“Miss Sharma,” said the Duchess of Hastings, causing all the ladies quickly curtsy to greet her arrival, “have you seen my sister, Eloise?”

“I believe both she and Miss Penelope have slipped away to the retiring room, Your Grace.”

Or so Kate assumed. She’d seen Miss Bridgerton towing her best friend behind her as she dodged her mother and Mr. Grimston.

The duchess looked confused. “I’ve just come from there and she was nowhere in sight.” Her eyes darted around them room before she sighed in defeat. “Mr. Bagwell will just have to find his own partner, I suppose; unless he desires to hunt down my sister herself.”

Theresa and Kate glanced at each other, both already engaged for the dance, before they looked to Alayne, who shrugged.

“If you would make an introduction, Your Grace—” she started, but the duchess waved her off.

“No, no need to take it upon yourself, Lady Alayne. I only thought she might enjoy his conversation, more than the others anyway, as he’s a scholar of some sort. Please, ignore my interruption. What were you speaking of?”

“Your brother actually,” Kate said dryly. “And his monopoly on my waltzes. Miss Goodrum was searching for the reason.”

The duchess laughed. “Because the waltz does not require a partner change, of course. Anthony hates to share.”

“With so many siblings?” Theresa asked.

Because he has so many siblings,” the duchess said with another light laugh. The sound had brought the attention of her husband, and his attention had caught hers. Within moments, they’d crossed the distance between themselves and met in the middle. None of the group took offense at her abrupt departure; all of the ton was well used to the smitten duke and duchess by now.

“And here I thought it was because he favored the scandalous,” Alayne joked, though Miss Goodrum nodded in earnest.

Kate shook her head. A waltz was hardly scandalous when danced at a private ball with a known gentleman; it was not as if the viscount was some unknown officer at a public party. 

“It is nothing of the sort. The viscount knows it is my favorite. Besides, the waltz is the best for conversation.”

“One could say that is badly done, Kate; reserving all your favorite dances for one gentleman,” Alayne teased. Kate rolled her eyes. She had no line of men bitter over Lord Bridgerton’s established place on her dance card. It was Edwina’s suitors who were annoyed by him and the relaxed air her sister gained around him.

“Well, he is the only one who lets me lead,” Kate said. The others laughed. In truth, the viscount was very good at dodging her forward steps when she forgot herself. And at taking them in good humour.

“Better you than me, Kate,” Theresa put in, shaking her head.

“You would not want the attention of a viscount, Theresa? What would your mother say?”

“Not the Viscount Bridgerton.  I had his attention; it was the most stressful quarter hour of my life, remember? I’ve never played the harp worse.”

The other ladies wore looks of commiseration. Kate wondered if she’d be hearing mention of the viscount’s disastrous interviews for the rest of her life.

“He is not like that usually,” Kate assured them. After all, he had never repeated his question on the number of children she wished for.

“I would wager that he is, Kate. You just don’t notice because your focus is just as intense,” Theresa said.

“You practically bore each other’s faces off when you dance,” Alayne felt the need to add. Kate blushed.

“Are you talking about Miss Sharma and Lord Bridgerton?” said Miss Halliwell as she joined the group. She’d abandoned her partner in the middle of the dancefloor after he’d stepped on her toes one too many times. They had all watched her mother drag her off for a scolding; Kate was rather surprised she’d escaped her so quickly.

“You knew, Caro?” Miss Goodrum said. “Did everyone know but me? How has Lady Whistledown failed to mention it?”

“She has mentioned it,” Kate said. “He topped the list as the most successful of Edwina’s suitors vying for my approval. I believe she attributed this to the fact that I was susceptible to bribery.”

The scandal sheet had not said it in so stark terms, but that was the message the ton received. The gifts Edwina’s suitors laid at her feet had reached new heights of lavishness, forcing Kate to begin returning them.

“How has she not realized it is you he is courting?”

“She’s stuck on her age,” Alayne said bluntly. “Along with most of society. A blindness you should be grateful for, Kate. Imagine how cruel the mamas would be if they realized you’d already caught him. Or the pettiness of the debutantes he slighted in your favor.”

“I think Lady Whistledown is a spinster,” added Theresa, ignoring Kate’s protests on her catching the viscount. “That must be why she believes it impossible for Kate to find a husband; she could not do it herself.”

“My father thinks it’s a gentleman from Brooks’s. That’s why the paper disparages so many members at White’s,” said Miss Goodrum.  

“Surely a gentleman would not have so many opinions on modistes!” exclaimed Alayne. “And there was an entire column on bonnets in the last issue. I can’t imagine anyone from my father’s set writing that.”

“Your father is a member of White’s, isn’t he?” replied Miss Goodrum. “So, it would not be anyone from his set.”

“Oh, stop repeating your father’s words Anne,”—“But I agree with him, Caro!”—“everyone knows the writer’s a debutante, just like us. Think of the focus of her gossip.”

Previously, Kate would have agreed with Miss Halliwell. She’d thought Lady Whistledown a young lady, likely a wallflower, who had been out only a few years. But Miss Goodrum—or her father—did have a point. Kate did not know which gentlemen were members of which clubs, but there had been a political lean in some of the more recent Whistledown papers. Just hints of something, but that something was rather Whiggish.  

The song ended with a boisterous crescendo, and all the dancers seemed in high spirits as they bowed and curtsied in thanks to their partners. Lord Bridgerton, after offering her his arm, led Edwina back to Kate. Fortunately, the conversation had shifted to a far safer topic—the impressive number of pineapples the staff of Penwood House had managed to stuff into each of the centerpieces—at the first sign of an approaching gentleman.

Said gentleman was Miss Goodrum’s elder brother, Lord Railmont, and was only waiting with them so he could sweep Edwina away as soon as possible. Edwina had barely spoken a greeting to them before Lord Railmont had held out his arm and escorted her to the floor.

“Miss Sharma,” the viscount said as he bowed in front of her, “I believe this is our dance.”

“So it is, my lord,” she said as she placed her hand in his. He was quiet as they walked to the center of the room. When she turned to face him, she saw his eyes flitted between three points; her eyes, her lips, and something just above her head—and the last point held his attention the longest. Kate glanced at the balcony behind her but saw nothing unusual among the musicians.

“Is something troubling you?” she asked.

“You have an orchid in your hair,” he said, eyes not leaving the flower. Kate’s hand left his shoulder, instinctively checking to ensure the botanical ornament was in place. It was.

“Yes, your sister sent some over this afternoon. She thought one might match my gown.”

“How kind of her,” he ground out as the music began.

Kate was not sure what offended him about the orchid so. Did he share Edwina’s reaction to flowers, but only for orchids? 

She resettled her hand, sliding it down his back until it reached its proper position. His grip on her other hand tightened and when Kate turned her head, she found herself trapped by his gaze. Eyes may not be windows to the soul, but Lord Bridgerton’s were certainly windows to his desires. His eyes held every thought Kate entertained in the dark of the night, every page she’d lingered over in the Hastings’ library, every kiss he’d pressed to her gloved hands and uncovered wrists.

He stepped forward and Kate stepped back—but perhaps not as far back as she should have. Their bodies were so close that she could feel the heat of him, even through his many layers. She swayed, just a a touch closer, and was saved by the viscount’s back step.

Kate truly understood the matrons’ worry over the dance now. It was not an English country dance or a quadrille, where every couple was forced to interact with others and keep their distance. No, the pairs of the waltz allowed its dancers to get lost in it, and each other, so much so they could forget their surroundings.

She released the breath she’d been holding. Kate needed air to continue to dance, and she needed to ease the charge of the moment if they were to avoid an act so scandalous even Whistledown could not mistake it.

“Lord Bridgerton?” she said, breaking the heavy silence. He blinked, and came back to himself, the intensity draining from his expression. When he spoke, it was with a deliberate lightness. 

“You said that you would call me Anthony.”

“Only after you taught me to drive; until said lesson you must content yourself with formalities, my lord.”

“You will not grant me this on credit? Do you think me a man to skip out on his debts, Kathani?”

Kate stumbled. When had she last been called Kathani? Mary and Edwina both preferred Kate, and to everyone else in England she was Miss Sharma. It must have been Ameya, the youngest Dongre daughter, when she pressed the sachet of chai spices into Kate’s hand before they’d set out for Bombay.

“I apologize, Miss Sharma, I—”

“No, please…it only took me by surprise. My family calls me Kate; I have not been called Kathani in nearly a year.”

“A year?” he said, shocked.

“Well, the ship took six months to make the journey, and we had to travel to get to Bombay. If I added up all of the travel and delays, plus the time I have now spent in England, it has been nearly a year.”

His astounded face was something to behold.

“Have you not traveled much, my lord?”

“No. I never took a grand tour like my fellows. I’ve of course been to Calais—that can be seen from Dover on clear days—but only briefly in the year two when we had peace with France. Shortly after—” he stopped short. “Soon after that my sister Hyacinth was born, and I could not leave the family to suffer her cries alone.”

Kate knew from Lady Danbury what he was not saying. The death of his father had preceded the birth of his youngest sister, and a new viscount with seven younger siblings could not take a year to travel the Continent.

“If you could take your tour now, go anywhere, if war was no issue, nor the length of the journey, where would you go?” she asked.

“Perhaps Jaipur, you extolled on its beauty enough to make any man curious. Or maybe the Greek Isles, if only to contradict my brother’s descriptions at parties.”

“You would choose your destination just to spite others?”

“How would my falling prey to your enthusiastic descriptions be in spite? Or do you mean to tell me you would only enter the city limits of Canterbury to prove my own praises false?”

I would not choose Canterbury.”

“No, I suppose such an opportunity should be saved for somewhere you are not certain to see in the near future. Tell me, what would your choice be?”

“I always dreamed of bringing Edwina to Greece. We’d walk the streets of Athens, stand where Socrates once stood.” They spun, and on the turn Kate saw Edwina wincing through a misstep by Lord Railmont. “I suppose we both will have to settle for a husband who knows who Socrates was.”

“Can we truly know who Socrates was? Or just the character Plato constructed for his arguments?”

Kate blinked. She’d meant a husband for Edwina; she hadn’t even questioned Lord Bridgerton’s knowledge. He misread her surprise.

“It has been many years, Miss Sharma, but my tutor did ensure I knew the classics.”

“I did not doubt that, my lord.”

“Not my academic ability, only my honor. Noted, Miss Sharma. But Greece? Is that truly your choice— After you disparaged my own inclination to travel there?”

“Well, I could not imagine going to Prussia even for Edwina’s beloved Kant. It is already so cold here,” Kate said with a faux shiver.

“Both of your trips are for your sister. Where would you want to go—for you?”

Lord Bridgerton—head of his family, protector of its legacy, and champion for his siblings—was the person Kate thought she most understood among the English ton, as he was the closest to herself among their number. But still, it seemed, he did not understand her.  

What place did dreams for Kate have in her life? What benefit did they give? Ambitions, hopes, girlish fantasies: they were distractions, things she’d set aside after Appa died. She had watched her father’s body burn—disobeying the priests who insisted a funeral was not a place for women—and promised herself—and him— that she would take care of their family, that she would be just as strong, and shrewd, and loving as Malhar Sharma had been. Kate would not consider herself until Edwina and Mary were taken care of. Just as her father would not have.

“Is there anywhere you have you always wanted to go? The far east? The Americas?”

Lord Bridgerton was looking straight at her, waiting.

He had caught her wrong-footed again, as he had again and again since he’d first declared she was what he was looking for. Kate had thought she’d managed to find stability, to reorder her vision of the future so that she could be her father’s daughter without being a Sharma, but a marriage encompassed more than a name change. The responsibilities of being Viscountess Bridgerton were one thing, the assistance she could render Edwina and Mary another, but, Kate realized, it also meant this: having a husband who would not take silence for an answer.

“Pondicherry. It is where my mother was born, where she grew up. I’ve never been.”

It was a dream from long ago, from when she would take out her mother’s bangles and try to remember the shape of her face, or the sound of her voice, and come up wanting.

“Do you still have family there?”

It was likely, but Kate did not know them. She’d never even known if it was more than her father’s work that drove the couple north to Calcutta. Perhaps they were as accepting of her mother’s choice in husband as Mary’s parents were.

“If you are holding out hope for a Maharaja in the family, you will be disappointed,” Kate said lightly.

It was his turn to stumble, though his stemmed from his sudden laugh. Kate, returning his earlier favor, led them away from their closest neighbor.

“My apologies. I just had the thought that, well, none of the ton would know the difference. We could say your mother was a secret Indian princess and if Whistledown printed it, nearly all of them would swallow it without question.”

“Is that your plan? To paint a façade with affected royal ancestry?”

“No. There is, as they say, no need to gild a lily.”

“Or to guard a title already gained?”

“No,” he agreed softly. “No need for that either.”

The music swelled and Kate found herself leaning into his hand at her back, trusting it would remain there, and that he would not steer her wrong in this. It was a joy to dance like this; to dance without it being a lesson, or an interview, or a struggle.

She felt weightless, as if her feet were not even touching the ground and every time the viscount’s eyes dropped from her own to her lips, every time he shifted her just infinitesimally closer, every time Kate caught the scent of his cologne as she was spun into the space he just occupied, she felt a little swoop in her abdomen. It reminded her of that particular sensation one felt when traveling by sea: when the ship went over a wave just so, and for a moment one’s stomach felt as if it were in their chest.

The change step came and he swept her in the opposite direction, Kate could not help her smile—did not want to help it—and it only grew wider when she caught sight of Alayne, happily held in the arms of Lord Lumley.

“I wish you would realize,” he said thoughtfully, “that you do not bring the dearth of connections you’ve indicated.”

Kate gave an inquiring hum.

“You have become good friends with the Duke of Hastings—"

“He is your friend and brother-in-law!” she protested.

Anthony tutted at her interruption.

“And his wife—”

“Your sister!”

“Not to mention the Lady Alayne, who can hardly look at me without glaring but is all smiles when she sees you. Or Miss Rothers who almost gave me the cut direct in her haste to invite you to her next musicale.”

Kate enjoyed the friendships she’d struck up with the other debutantes. Both were older than most of the other unmarried ladies, Theresa because of her late debut and Alayne due to her high standards. While neither reached Kate’s advanced age, they were more mature than the tittering girls who, not yet twenty, could only speak of how much lace they needed on their next dress, or how many feathers in their next hairstyle. It was nice, to speak to women who were not Mary and Edwina, who asked for advice but not answers.

“They see me as a temporary older sister, someone to placate their mamas when they gripe about their age. I do not think they are lasting friendships.”

Lord Bridgerton looked doubtful. Kate wished he was right, but did not hold out hope.

“And your connection to the future Countess of Broxbourne?”

“What?” Kate asked, confused. Had they met Lord Sheffield’s heir without her knowledge?

“The title has no male heirs. I assumed it would pass to your mother, or directly to your sister’s son. There was some talk of the queen recreating the title altogether, this time with provisions for female heirs, if such a remainder did not already exist. Daphne thought she might, after she signaled her forgiveness of Lady Mary and named Miss Edwina the diamond.”

Edwina’s son, an earl? Or Mary a countess in her own right? Was this possible? Is this why the Sheffields had been willing to provide a dowry? Was it why Lady Danbury had been willing to help?

The music slowed, its last measure played at half-pace, and their spins slowed with it.

How many suitors were fortune hunters? Kate had thought Edwina mostly safe from those with such base motives—there were only rumors of a dowry; she hadn’t thought Edwina was known as an heiress—but what if they were not? Kate turned over each suitor in her mind, recalling the unpaid debts Lord Bridgerton had pointed out, and the uncared for estates Lady Danbury had described.

They came to a gradual stop as the final note was drawn across the cello’s bowstring.

“It was not my intention to trouble you, Miss Sharma. Let us forget this and speak of other topics over supper.”

Kate nodded absently, taking his arm. It would not do to question him over their meal. No, she must consult with Edwina, and Mary, first.

“Let us speak of Aubrey Hall instead,” she said, pushing aside her thoughts of the Sheffields and their title. “We will be there in only a few days, and I feel under prepared.”

“It is Aubrey Hall that must prepare for you, Miss Sharma. It is—”

“Wait a moment,” Kate said, pulling him from the line of couples making their way to the dining room. He followed her easily, allowing himself to be led without protest.

“I do not doubt your honor,” Kate said. He looked confused. “And I know I can trust you to teach me to drive.” Understanding dawned. “You may call me, Kate…Anthony.”

The viscount—Anthony—smiled.

“I have been waiting two weeks to hear you say that. It was worth it.” He offered his arm once more. “Shall we, Kate?”

She placed her hand in the crook of his elbow and stayed silent as they rejoined the queue. She was glad to be called Kate by him. Kathani, well. Perhaps she would allow that later, after she’d inured herself to the sound of the syllables rolling off his tongue.

Chapter Text

Kate climbed the steps to Aubrey Hall, trying not to let her awe be too apparent. The house was beautiful. When she’d stepped down from the carriage to see its flower covered face, and its lord awaiting their arrival to complete the view, Kate had felt her eyes widen. She’d never imagined her future home would be so large. Or so English.  

Even so, the hanging flowers reminded her of the pavilion gardens in Nanded, and the pleasing symmetry of the house’s stone walls was not lost on Kate. Nor was the viscount’s pleasure at seeing her small smile when faced with his home.

“Should I have presented a sketch of Aubrey Hall when we met?” he’d asked with a smirk. “It seems to have found your favor quicker than I did.”

“I would answer yes, but I cannot imagine how you would have given it to me. My horse was so much faster,” she’d said before hurrying after Eloise. She’d meant to toss one more quip over her shoulder, but saw he’d stopped to whisper to his mother.  

Anthony caught up quickly; his sister had barely had time to explain that her comments on battle referred to the yard game the Duke of Hastings so hated.

“Perhaps I should explore the grounds,” Kate was suggesting. “To mitigate some of the damage your superior knowledge of the field shall have on my chances.”

“Are you not tired from your travels?” Eloise asked, not marking her brother’s arrival.

“Long journeys seldom make me tired, but often make me restless.” She looked to Anthony, who had found her exploring Hyde Park the very first hour she’d been able to engineer an escape from Danbury House. “I fear that you’d find me wandering the house even if you do not permit an inspection of the course.”

“We can’t very well leave you to amble through the house alone,” Anthony said. “What kind of hosts would that make us?”

“Afraid I’ll make off with the candlesticks?” Kate asked.

Anthony and Eloise both laughed. Edwina, near the top of the main staircase, looked back once before continuing upwards. Her sister was one who needed her rest after traveling.

“More concerned you’ll form all the wrong impressions based on our choice of curtains, Miss Sharma. No, a house tour is in order, and I shall lead it.”

Kate noted that a house tour precluded any exploration of the Pall Mall field outside. She narrowed her eyes at Anthony.

“A tour?” cried Hyacinth from down the corridor.  

“And your advantage? Hardly gentlemanly of you to leave me with such an easily allayed hindrance,” Kate said, eyes not leaving his.

“Knowing how you do battle, Miss Sharma, I would not give it up for the world,” Anthony responded, before turning to catch Hyacinth by the waist as she nearly bounded past them in her excitement. Gregory followed a moment after, though he did not need to be caught by his brother.

“I want to come on the tour!” Hyacinth said once she was back on her feet.  She turned to Kate and confided, “Anthony grew up here, but I’ve always lived in London. I don’t want to miss out on any secret passages he plans to show you!”

“We come here every year, Hy,” Anthony said. “It is your home, just as much as it is mine.”

His voice held an odd note, sadness maybe, or perhaps disappointment—not in Hyacinth, Kate knew, but in himself. Kate watched the realization dawn on Hyacinth, the recognition that her words had upset her brother somehow.

Kate grabbed her hand before she could make any apologies.

“That is well and good, but I have never been. So, I am relying on both of you, the youngest and the oldest Bridgerton, to give me the best tour possible.” Kate squeezed Hyacinth’s hand—it was just the same size as Edwina’s at her age—and tried to look imploring. “You may not know the secret nooks that Lord Bridgerton does, but I’m sure you will fit in more of them than he will now.”

Hyacinth giggled.

“No way,” Gregory puts in. “Hyacinth’s two inches taller than me now. She won’t fit anywhere.” His face held the particular brand of triumph to let Kate know this was Hyacinth’s own insult turned back on her. Hyacinth’s stomped foot confirmed it. Gregory, ignoring his sister, grabbed Kate’s other hand.

“May I call you Kate, Miss Sharma?”

“It is a family party, Miss Sharma, surely we can discard some formalities,” said Anthony with a less-than-subtle wink.

Eloise snorted and, expressing her own disinterest in the tour, excused herself from the group. Though not before, of course, warning Anthony that he should prepare himself for his inevitable Pall Mall defeat.

With an agreement to refer to each other with their given names, the group—Anthony, Kate, Gregory, Hyacinth, and a near-silent Francesca—made their way from the entry way to the morning room, from there to the front parlor, a quick stop in his study, and then rapidly through a series of formal and informal dining rooms, each with a larger table than the last. It seemed to Kate that the Bridgertons had opened an entirely new dining room for every child they had, and never bothered to close any of the previous ones.

No secret passages were revealed, though Hyacinth did manage to convince Gregory to climb into a sideboard cabinet in search of one. Her purpose, to close the door after him, was foiled by Anthony’s stern glare.

“The music room should be next, Anthony,” said Francesca as they exited the latest dining room.

Kate was not sure what to make of Francesca. The girl hardly spoke a word, yet every time Kate looked to her, she found Francesca looking back. It was not until the third such instance that Kate recognized Francesca’s purpose. She was studying Kate, assessing her, just as Kate had done so many times for Edwina’s suitors.  It felt odd, coming from a younger sibling, but Kate could hardly begrudge Anthony’s sister for her concern.

The music room was lovely, and full of instruments that Kate could not play. She hoped that ‘competent on the piano forte’ was not one of Francesca’s requirements.

It did not seem to be. She took a seat at the piano herself and began playing a lively tune. Just loud enough to give the illusion of privacy in conversation when the player could actually hear every voice in the room. Clever.

Unfortunately for Francesca, her plan did not account for her younger siblings’ insistence on providing her accompaniment.

Hyacinth and Gregory each fetched different instruments—a guitar, two separate flutes, a mouth organ, and a violin—in turn in futile attempts to improve their sister’s reel. They did not succeed, but even Francesca was smiling at their efforts.

While Kate resisted Anthony’s attempts to lure her into a dance, she did not resist his efforts to make her laugh. He had much fun comparing Gregory—truly disastrous on the violin—favorably to a number of gentlemen at Lady Danbury’s soiree. Himself included.

Kate applauded Gregory politely, and was silently thankful that Hyacinth—now taking a turn on the lyre—was not audible over the pianoforte.

“I feel I should apologize,” Anthony said in an undertone. “You were meant to receive a tour of the house and have instead found yourself trapped in a tour of my siblings’ poor musical abilities.”

“You forget, I’ve now attended the Smythe-Smith musicale. After that, I would name both Gregory and Hyacinth’s prodigies of the first order.”

Anthony snorted, but pushed on. “Regardless I—”

“Anthony,” Kate interrupted, voice still low. “When Lady Mary married my father, she told me that she was not only choosing him; she was also choosing me. She even insisted I be a part of the wedding ceremony. Not that I was much help,” Kate added. “I couldn’t understand the Scotsman’s accent and I completely missed my cue.”

“A Scotsman? Kate…were your parents married over the anvil?”

Was he surprised?

“Of course,” Kate said. “No priest would marry an earl’s daughter to an Indian man and Mary was not so in love she would undertake a months long journey unwed. We went to Gretna Green before continuing north to catch the first ship out of Edinburgh. Luckily for us, it was not heading back to England. We spent their honeymoon in Amsterdam before we found a place on a ship heading to Bombay.”

Anthony looked…considering.

“My point though, is that I would like to emulate Mary in this. You do not come alone into this marriage. Neither do I. English ceremonies do not have much room for siblings, but,” Kate hesitated. “But there is something, a tradition, I would like to do before my wedding, something from home—from India. And all our siblings could take part.”

Kate hoped that they could buy more turmeric in London; they’d only brought enough for Edwina’s wedding.

“Oh? Is this tradition only for my siblings? Will I not receive an invitation?”

Kate imagined Anthony is a yellow kurta covered in haldi paste applied—enthusiastically—by his siblings and laughed.

“You will be there, of course. The groom must be.”

They would definitely need more turmeric. And Kate needed to figure out how to explain haldi and its importance to all the Bridgertons—especially Anthony.

“Wickets!” Eloise’s voice rang through the house, near rattling the windowpanes. Francesca stopped her playing with a discordant clang and all three younger Bridgertons were gone in a blink.

“Is the game starting already?” Kate asked. Anthony shook his head.

“No, the field has not yet been set. They are running in the hopes of setting a wicket themselves, one that will cause the rest of us no small amount of grief. Last year, Colin hid one behind the goat barn.

Kate hadn’t seen a barn anywhere near the house. Were there no limits on the size of the game? Kate thought about the Bridgertons, and how the duke had spoken of the game, and concluded the only limitation was the estate’s property line.

“And you are not eager to join them?”

“I have complete faith in my skill; I have no need for such trickery.”

“Despite your recent loss?”

“Who—Daphne,” he hissed, remembering his sister’s boasting at Lady Metcalf’s ball. “Do not let her fool you. Her win was an aberration that will not be repeated.”

“Maybe so. Her loss, however, does not guarantee you the victory.”

 “Plan on winning yourself, Kate?”

Kate felt her competitiveness rising at the challenge.

“I never plan for anything else, Anthony.”

Chapter Text

“You must not let the game of Pall Mall dismay you. Antagonism is, I’m afraid, what you must expect.”

“Did I seem dismayed?”

Kate had not thought so. It was the opposite. She felt she fit in almost too well here. The competitiveness of the siblings during Pall Mall had only added to the feeling.

“Not at first, no. You took to the game as well as a Bridgerton,” Eloise assured her. “But when you came back from the wilderness…after Anthony stormed past…”

“Do not think we were sparring with our mallets out there. Your brother remained an honorable sportsman.”—honorable in Kate’s view anyway, which meant he did not surrender the win in the hopes of appealing to her delicate female sensibilities, or of sparing his boots from a little mud— “It is only my ball ended up landing in a rather unfortunate spot,” she admitted, wary of upsetting another one of the siblings.

“Ah,” Eloise said in understanding. “You were near our father’s grave?”

Kate confirmed it with a nod.

“Unfortunate indeed. Especially for Anthony.”

“Yes, and then when estate business kept him away from dinner…”

Kate had to believe it was estate business, and not that he did not wish to join them for dinner because of her. She knew Anthony. He would not hold a poorly guided ball against her. Nor would he shirk his duties to his guests for anything less than truly pressing matters.

But the way Lady Bridgerton’s face had twisted when she said Anthony would not be joining them…it worried Kate, irrational though that worry may be.

“Well, I was concerned for him,” Kate finished. Her answer did not seem to set Eloise at ease.

She fidgeted with her book, opening it and closing it, not reading a word.

“Would you like a cup of tea?” Kate said without thought. It was what Edwina offered to nervous suitors, and Mary to recalcitrant daughters.

Eloise assented and took the proffered seat. Kate eyed the spread brought out by the maids upon her request. They’d included a second cup, as well as all the standard necessities for tea. Kate could set a cup of English tea to brew and Eloise would be none the wiser.

Instead, Kate loosened the drawstring on the bag Ameya had pressed to her hand—near empty now, despite Kate’s careful rationing—and began to brew a proper cup of tea for her future sister-in-law.

“This is chai. It is a black tea, much like the one you are used to, but it is brewed with a karha—a mixture of spices—as well. They add flavour. There are different blends; my preferred one is heavy on cardamom and badian.”

Eloise nodded along, looking truly engaged. She watched as Kate placed a star-shaped badian seed pod, and a few nutmeg and cardamom seeds, into the tea strainer.

“Can I ask you something?” Eloise asked as Kate began pouring the tea. Kate nodded, expecting a follow up question on the tea, or spices, or even on India in general.

“Why do you want to marry my brother?”

Kate’s gaze flew up to Eloise, who had raised one hand to forestall Kate’s initial response.

“I do not mean to question your affection for him, or to force you into rhapsodies of his honor of goodness or whatever it is that attracts you to him. I will leave that to my other sisters.”

Kate thought of Francesca’s narrowed eyes as she followed her through the house, and the pointed questions she’d had, when she cornered Kate after dinner. Yes, Eloise’s other sisters could be trusted with that task.

“It is just, everyone tells me it a fate worse than death to end up a spinster, but you…you have lived your whole adult life with no one to answer to but yourself. Even I can see how Lady Mary defers to your judgement. Yet now you will be marrying Anthony? Condemned to worry if you upset him over something so petty? How are you so willing to give up your independence? To be led by his judgement—his moods, his desires—in stead of your own?”

Kate set the tea pot down very carefully.

“What you must first consider, Eloise, is that I was not the head of my family by choice, but necessity. To my knowledge, I have no male relative who could have acted as my guardian and Lady Mary…Lady Mary was very affected by my father’s passing. Not to mention, she was in a land far from where she grew up, and in a society very different than the one she’d been raised to understand. I did what I had to, and I would do it again, but…” Kate trailed off, unsure how to phrase it.

“Please do not tell me some tosh about how you would rather a man had been there to do it for you!”

“I would actually,” Kate said sharply in response to Eloise’s exclamation. “As I would rather have had my father alive to take care of it all.”

Eloise looked like she’d been slapped. “I only meant—”

Kate interrupted her.

“I know what you meant, but I’d ask you to consider the implications of your words before you speak them in the future.”

That had been a lesson Edwina had taken to rather well; far better than Kate had in truth. Edwina, with Mary’s instruction, knew how to obfuscate, or imply, or steer a conversation from unpleasant topics. Of course, she also had the ability to determine the most cutting insult for any situation. Eloise had no such skill; her remarks were thoughtlessly cruel, not purposefully so.

Kate sighed.

“However, you are right. I would not have wanted an unknown gentleman to take the lead. I doubt I could have trusted a stranger, and I find myself near pitying the Featherington women who must. In the past eight years, I have answered to no one but my own conscience and my own ideas of what would be best for the family. I do not subscribe to the belief that my mind is weaker due to my sex, nor that the exercise of using it has ruined me, but…but I was never independent. I was in service to my family, to our futures, our survival.”

“You sound like my brother,” Eloise said, half into her cup.

It was the slight sneer that did it. Eloise Bridgeton was here, asking Kate about her life, drinking Kate’s tea—which she must know was a precious resource to her—and now she disparaged the man that—

It felt sacrilegious to label what she felt for Anthony as love. Love was what Kate felt for Edwina and Mary; it was the emotion that drove her everyday to ensure that they were cared for, the strength that allowed her to carry on even when all seemed lost. What she felt for Anthony was different. Just as consuming, yes, but it seemed to drive her in the opposite direction. It made her forget society’s rules, lose focus on Edwina, and ignore all the drawbacks marrying her must have for him. Guiltily, Kate thought that what she felt for Anthony made her selfish, while her love for her family had always driven her to be selfless.

Regardless, the anger at a perceived insult for one of those she—cared for—was the same.

“Then perhaps you should listen to him. Eloise, you want freedom, I understand. Women in society do not have much of it. But do not lie to yourself and claim you want the independence I hold. Frankly, you wouldn’t survive.”

The Bridgerton looked affronted. She set her cup back in the saucer, no doubt preparing to make a discourteous exit.

“What skills do you have?” Kate asked pointedly. “What qualifications? You are an intelligent girl, and well-educated to my understanding, but that will only go so far. How will you earn your way? Where will you obtain food? Do you know how to cook anything yourself? You do not like embroidery, but can you mend your own clothes? Clean your own room? If you somehow gain the money to hire someone to do these things for you, do you know how to conduct an interview to fill such a position?”

Each inquiry was sharp, and she could see that each hit their mark. Anthony had told her an amusing anecdote of his and Daphne’s shared inability to light a stove—which baffled Kate even as it made her laugh—but she thought the lack of practical knowledge more damaging to a girl who seemed on the precipice of writing off her place in society altogether.

“You do not enjoy spending time with your nephew so I can only assume you would dislike being a governess. That was my future, my independence, before I met your brother. To be in service to another man and to raise his children. You could also make your way in life as a lady’s companion, but you are not prone to false compliments or fawning behavior. I think you’d find a life in service rather outside your taste.”

“And if my husband favors such falsehoods?” Eloise finally mustered in response. “He is no better than an employer, liable to throw me away if I displease him.”

“A husband will have much power over you, which is why you must choose carefully.” Kate would never suggest a hastily chosen marriage; the whole ton knew of her efforts to ferret out flaws in her sister’s prospects. Not to mention her own slow courtship with Anthony, despite their mutual assurances of a shared future. “But there is a key difference between an employer and a husband: to be rid of a wife, a gentleman must petition for a divorce in parliament. To be rid of an employee, he must only hand over her last wages. I think you will find the latter much easier than the former.”

“And are those my only two options? Wife or servant?”

No, those were the options for Kathani Sharma. The world of Eloise Bridgerton was very different.

“I apologize, Eloise, I am being harsher than I need to be. Those are not your two options because you could never be independent. Your brother would never allow it. He would always step in to protect you or provide funds to you.”

The words were hardly as conciliatory as their face value suggested, and Eloise knew it. The girl, because she was a girl in this moment, seemed horribly put out at the thought of Anthony saving her from financial ruin. Kate hoped Anthony would forgive her for the next idea she was about to place in Eloise’s head.

“If you wish for more freedom, I recommend speaking to him. He has five other siblings to manage, perhaps allowing you control of your own dowry would be a relief.”—Though Kate did not doubt Anthony would provide even if Eloise managed to fritter her own money away.—“Invest it or take it out in the percents once you reach your majority. It is very possible you could live on it, for your entire life, without ever having to resort to marriage. The truth is that society is not exactly kind to unmarried women, but they do not look down on them so when they have a fortune of their own.”

Eloise actually looked as if she were considering her advice.

“Think about what you like, Eloise, what you want. My sister has always wanted children, it makes sense that she would wish to marry, but if you want to do something different, plan a way to carry it out.”

“Like what?” The mulish tone was back. “I am a woman; we are not allowed to do anything.”

“We are not recommended to do anything; I think you’ll find the law allows more leeway than you suspect. But…why do you not try writing? You have so much to say about Lady Whistledown.”

“You think I should become a published gossip?” she asked, horrified.

“Considering that is the aspect of Lady Whistledown you are most critical of, no, I do not. Just write, about whatever it is that interests you. Short stories, or botanical surveys, or pamphlets on the grooming of dogs. Publish anonymously as she does.”

“Who would read it?”

“I would. Hopefully before you approach a publisher; a second set of eyes always helps on these things”

Not to mention, it would give her a chance to head off anything identifiable or scandalous.

“And,” Eloise began hesitantly, “you would speak to Anthony? Convince him that I should be allowed to publish?”

“I think you should write first, and worry about publishing later,” Kate said, trying to remember the idiom of the carriage and horse. “But,” she added as she caught Eloise’s expression beginning to darken again, “I do promise to speak with him once you are ready. Not that I think he will need much convincing. Your brother wants all of you to be happy, and I have a feeling your writing will be a much less costly endeavor than Colin’s trips.”

Eloise snorted.

“What if I do not like writing?”

“Then we will find something else. You are young Eloise. You have time. Time to be a writer, or anything else; even a wife if you change your mind.”

“I will not,” she said definitively. Eloise took another sip. “But it seems hard to decide on what to be instead. Mother allowed me to delay my debut a full year, and I am grateful, but I still do not feel ready. Francesca is more poised, more eager to marry and make babies and…I just wish I was back in the schoolroom. I liked learning, even when our governess was dreadful.”

Kate thought of the lecture series open to young ladies at the London Institute. Lord Bridgerton might be able to convince them a wider selection was suitable; he was not one to think women were too delicate for education. And if not him, the Duchess of Hastings was a natural ally.

“But everything is all so stifling now. I suppose it is why we are all so competitive when it comes to Pall Mall. Gregory and Hyacinth can run around playing hide and seek or tag or even jacks while we must sit in the parlor netting purses. Pall Mall is our only acceptable outlet.”

“By whose order?” asked Kate, who, when she was Eloise’s age, spent much of her time playing children’s games to entertain Edwina. She stood. “We must find Gregory and Hyacinth and convince them to play a game of hide and seek with us. And we must impress anyone else we meet along the way to join as well.”

It was time to remind Eloise that adults could be just as playful and ridiculous as children. She’d need the knowledge—Lady Danbury had said country visits usually devolved into silly parlor games and circular gossip.

“What?” asked Eloise.

“Come along,” said Kate, heading for the door. Eloise followed her. Luckily, the first person they met was an idle looking Duke of Hastings.

“Your Grace!” Kate called softly, she did not want to wake Augie, whose nursery lay just behind the door the duke lingered in front of.

“Miss Sharma,” he greeted her, amused. “I believe we agreed you would call me Simon.” His eyes flickered to Eloise. “Everyone at Aubrey Hall now is family, or near enough to it.”

Kate had barely graduated to thinking of Anthony by his given name, and he was likely to be her husband. She was having a much harder time with the duke, despite his friendly manners.

“If you win today, I shall think on it,” she said. “Eloise and I are organizing an impromptu game of hide and seek. May we count on your participation?”

“Did you just invite me to…play hide and seek with you?” the duke asked. His face was stern and his tone incredulous, but Kate caught the mischief in his eyes.

“Oh no,” whimpered Eloise from behind her. Kate got the feeling she hadn’t spent much time with her brother-in-law.

“Yes,” Kate answered blandly.

“Good! Because I’d be delighted. I need the practice. Augie will be crawling any day now and I have a feeling he will be too wily for his nursemaid.”

Eloise nearly deflated in relief and Kate and the duke shared a quick smirk at her expense.

He offered an arm to each of the ladies, as if escorting them through the house was a great endeavor. Perhaps it was, considering the size.

“Now, who else is to partake?”

“Anyone we can find,” Kate said. She knew Anthony was still shut away with estate business, but she hoped they could rope most of the Bridgerton siblings—and Edwina—into their game. It’d be fun, and would provide a way for Hyacinth to find the secret nooks she so coveted. “Any idea where your wife is, Your Grace?”

Daphne,” he stressed the name, “is in the front parlor, languishing without purpose. She’ll be elated we’ve provided her one.”

Chapter Text

Anthony read the letter again. It was from a Sir Carlisle Stewart, representing the East India Company, and had come with a note of introduction from Lord Rundell, an old friend of Anthony’s father. Stewart wanted him to invest in a spice trading venture, something Anthony had been considering lately. He’d heard Miss Edwina’s hints that her sister would need a cook from home to be comfortable here, and any conversation he had with Kate surrounding food involved the names of a number of unfamiliar spices. But there was a reason Anthony had never invested in India before.

The Company men always seemed too fulsome to be trusted, this Stewart included. Moreover, Anthony followed his father’s maxim: If you would not take the advice of a Frenchman on business in Kent, why would you seek the advice of someone from the old world on investing in the new? He’d said it after putting off a Scotsman seeking investment for a gold mine in Ontario, but Anthony always considered its application a broad one. Of course, Anthony didn't know any man from India; that was the whole reason he’d consulted Dorset when he’d first met Kate.

Well, he now knew Kate. Though her father left behind no family, he did not know that was true of her mother. She’d never answered his question about Pondicherry. Or perhaps, he thought, the Dongres— all of the Sharmas spoke fondly of them. Anthony would do well to repay their past kindness to his bride by investing in their spice fields. If they had them that is.

Anthony added that to his mental list of things to find out, as well as their address so that he could contact them. He couldn’t ask Kate, it would ruin the surprise, but he was not sure how much Lady Mary or Miss Edwina would know. The address certainly, but he doubted either would be able to give him a comprehensive list of the Dongres’ holdings. Kate would know. Perhaps Kate would not even enjoy a surprise. She might very well like to be part of the scheme—to write to her relations or former benefactors herself.  

He would ask Miss Edwina for advice, he decided. Surely her sister would know if Kate enjoyed surprises. Satisfied with his choice, Anthony discarded Stewart’s letter.

Underneath was a stack of this quarter’s bills. Anthony groaned and signed several of the invoices before setting them aside as well. He was not in the mood for business, it had been all he’d been occupied with for the last several hours, and the entirety of the night before.

Visiting one’s country estate was meant to be relaxing, and to have plenty of opportunity to socialize with one’s guests and finally ask them important questions that had been put off due to a lack of a ring. Except he still lacked the ring; his mother had told him she would give it to him days ago, but it had not yet appeared. Anthony wondered—again—if he should circumvent his mother entirely and request her lady’s maid to bring it to him.

Anthony checked the time. It was past midday. He tried to recall his mother’s schedule for the Sharmas. When would the ladies sit down for luncheon? Was Kate free now? Anthony imagined standing up and leaving his study to find her. Perhaps he could give her the first driving lesson he had promised. He knew the exact route to take, which road to choose at the first branch to lead them to a spot by the lake out of sight of the house.

For that he needed the ring. Not that time alone with Kate would not be valuable even without the chance of a proposal, but well, he was beginning to feel a bit like a cad for not making it official yet. Everyone knew his intentions—Kate knew his intentions—and even Lady Whistledown seemed to have caught on in her last issue. Still, Anthony would feel relieved when they could announce a date.

He glared at his watch and then at his desk. Anthony wanted to be finished with this. He quickly applied his signature to the rest of the merchant bills and marked them to be sent off. He still had the dossier his parliamentary clerk had sent on from London to go through, but the few rambling sentences of Lord Hardwicke's Act he’d managed to read earlier had given Anthony his present headache. He did not relish the idea of reapplying himself to the task.

His consideration between his sideboard—and the bottle of scotch placed prominently at its center—and abandoning his study for the day was interrupted by his mother’s entrance.

“Anthony, my dearest, do you have a moment?” she asked. The smell of lilacs swept into the room with her, and Anthony knew she had visited father’s grave. She always brought a large bouquet of his favorite flowers when she did, and often ended up hugging them tightly to her, imprinting their scent on her clothing, as she revisited her grief.

Anthony did not enjoy when their visits overlapped.  

“Of course.” He shifted, ready to move to the tea table at the window, but his mother stopped in the center of the room, staring up at the painting of her late husband.

Anthony remained at his desk.

It was a long moment before she broke the room’s silence.

“I was unsure of your Miss Sharma, you know, when you first introduced her. No background, or breeding, and only a month younger than Benedict!”

“Mother,” he started, rather blindsided by the topic. She had shown no such wariness in her interactions with Kate. “I do not—"

She glanced over her shoulder at him, quelling his rebuttal. She would have her time to speak her piece.

“I could see you lusted after her,” she continued. “I think everyone could see that, but marriage is about much more than lust. And yet… it seemed after years of eschewing my efforts to find you a bride, a single dance with Miss Sharma was all it took to convince you.”

For all Kate’s concerns over the ton’s reaction to their courtship and marriage, Anthony had never worried over his family. Perhaps he should have.

“Whatever you may think of her, Mother, Kate will be a good viscountess.” He thought of Kate’s fierce protectiveness of her sister, of the comfortable way she spoke with the Hastings, of how easily she found her place at Aubrey Hall. But his mother must have already seen all that. “She has always done her duty. You will have no need for your sarcastic quips on responsibility in her presence.”

He’d meant to speak the words in good humour, but his annoyance at her criticisms cast them more as a barb than a jest. She pursed her lips.

“That is what you drew you to her, her sense of duty?”

Yes, he thought. Though it had not prevented him from noticing her many other fine qualities. Unlike, apparently, his mother.

“Would you rather I have pursued her for her fine needlework?”

He wished they were having this conversation somewhere else. Somewhere where he was not surrounded by the trapping of a viscounty she thought him undeserving of, and where his father’s portrait was not staring down at him in chastisement for speaking to his mother so.

“No. my lists were always a bit silly,” she admitted. “An outlet for my concern for your future more than anything useful. Needlework or fine manners…those are not the foundations of a strong marriage.”

Anthony did not know what to say.

“Ah, I am going about this in all the wrong order,” his mother said with a small laugh, and then she placed a small ring box in front of him.

“I mean to say that I was wrong Anthony, about Miss Sharma. My reasons to doubt her—well, they are nothing to compare to your esteem. Ever since you’ve met her…I have not seen you so burdenless before.”

Anthony looked down at the desk, covered in papers of the estate, bills for each of the girls and the upcoming ball, possible contractors for the wedding, references for potential cooks, not to mention the additional project he was taking on to get Kate the spices she missed most. He did not feel free of burden.

“Seeing you joking again, and sharing your magic tricks, and laughing…Anthony it has been so good. A return, the revival even, of the sweet boy you were before your father died and this wall went up inside you, blocking all your emotions away.”

Anthony flipped open the lid, staring down at the pearls. They’d been part of a larger betrothal ring, used for four generations of Bridgertons, before his father had them re-fashioned into this simpler setting. His mother was still speaking to him.

“I do not know if you remember, Anthony, how very sad I was to realize that Hyacinth would never know Edmund’s laugh.”

How could he not remember? Did she? Did she recall just what she’d said to him after mourning the loss of Edmund’s laughter? Did she not know how he watched her afterwards? How the servants were on alert for months, years even, to make sure she did not harm herself? That all her letter openers and hat pins had been quietly locked away?

“And she did not, Anthony. Not until this season. Until you met Miss Sharma. I never realized before that you have your father’s laugh.” She smiled tremulously. “I am so glad we all get to hear it again, now that you have found a love just like your father and I had.”

Did she not even consider how Anthony had stood over Hyacinth’s cradle himself and thought of all the ways he did not measure up to their father, how he did need his mother reminding him now that he had been a poor substitute? And now, this? A love like her and father’s?

“I do not love her. Love shall have no place in my marriage.”

“What?” She took a step back in shock.

Just then, Colin barreled through the door, causing it to crash into the wall. Instead of apologizing, he looked between Anthony and his mother, wild-eyed.

“Is anyone hiding in here?” Colin circled the room, as if to make sure no one was crouching behind his desk chair.

“Why would someone be hiding in my study?” Anthony asked.

 “Hide and seek,” Colin explained, panting to catch his breath. “Aubrey rules.”

Aubrey rules meant that any player who was found had to join the seeker’s team. If you never found another hiding player, you’d have to face the penalty. Nominally this was a flick to the forehead, but in reality it was hours of ribbing from all the other Bridgerton siblings.

“Everyone’s been found except,” still panting, Colin grasped his knees to catch his breath. He must have come sprinting across the house in the desperate hope someone had taken refuge in Anthony’s study. “Hastings and Kate. Hyacinth thinks they’ve formed an alliance against us.” 

“Colin!” bellowed Gregory from down the hall. “Ben is trying to climb the curtains again!”

“I told him there’s no one up there,” Colin groaned to himself, and was gone as quickly as he’d come.

The tension between Anthony and his mother rushed back into the space Colin’s absence left. Anthony wished he’d poured himself that drink. He sighed.

“You say a wall went up inside me when father died, but that isn’t true, Mother. It was your reaction, your grief, that built that wall. In the time after father’s death…the Bridgertons were orphans. You were barely even there. We’d lost both our parents to one sting.”

Anthony wanted to close his eyes, to turn away, but he didn’t allow himself to.

“And while I am…forever grateful you came back to yourself, I can never forget that time. I am cursed to remember every waking moment, every baby’s cry that went unanswered by you, every plea for attention you ignored, every benchmark in my siblings’ growth where they were forced to turn to me for help or congratulation instead of their mother.”

She looked stricken.

“I do not speak of this to bring you pain, but you must understand. I do not need or desire Kate’s love, just as she will not have mine. Love is not necessary. No, more than that. It is a detriment. To my security and my happiness. I pursued Miss Sharma because she understands this. Understands me,” he stressed.

“When I am gone, Kate may mourn. But it will not consume her. She will love our children, I am sure, as she does her sister. And…I need a wife who will always choose our children over me. Always. Even in the depth of her grief or fear, I can trust Kate to do that.”

“And you say you do not love her,” she said.

Anthony was sick of his family questioning his own feelings.

“Respect, Mother, is different from love entirely.”

He snatched the ring from the desk, half afraid she would try to take it back, and gave her a quick bow.

“I will see you at dinner.”

Chapter Text

Anthony straightened as he watched Kate canter into sight. He’d been wandering the gardens, sticking close to the outer wall, ever since Daphne informed him that Kate had left for a ride. He’d briefly entertained the thought of riding out after her, but decided there’d be little hope in finding her, and even less hope of catching her if he did.

Kate enjoyed racing before he’d given her a horse bred for the task.

He could now say that the waiting had been worth this view.

 Kate, astride atop the horse he’d gifted her, surrounded by the gardens of his estate, greeting the approaching footman—in his livery—with a gracious smile. It was a window to the future, as much as his short tour of Aubrey Hall had been. Only now, Anthony could feel the press of the small ring box, tucked into his breast pocket, against his chest.

Anthony quickly made his way across the lawn, though not quickly enough to assist her dismount.

“I see you do own a proper riding habit,” he called as he approached. 

“What?” she asked, in place of a returning jab. Anthony stopped short, abandoning his plan to tease her over her Hyde Park ride in her morning dress. She seemed confused, even unsteady.

“Are you alright? Is it your head still? Should I order a poultice from the apothecary?”

Kate had excused herself early from dinner last night, escaping Lady Danbury’s prodding and Benedict’s antics with an ease that made Anthony jealous. He had assumed her headache was feigned, but perhaps it was not. How long had she spent in that dusty closet waiting for someone to find her? Could it have made her ill in truth?

He stepped closer, reaching a hand out to feel her forehead as if she were a feverish Hyacinth. Kate stepped back.

“It’s fine. My mind is clear.”

That was an odd turn of phrase to indicate a lack of headache.

“I am glad to have come upon you, my lord. There is something I wish to speak with you about.”

“And is it such a grave matter that you must forego my name?”

“Do you never retreat into courtesies when you are unsure of yourself?”

Anthony thought of his early years at viscount, when it was all he could do to retreat into courtesies to keep himself upright in society. It seemed all he did was perform; for strangers, his family, even himself. It was only once he’d gained his first bit of uneasy confidence that he was able to be Anthony rather than Viscount Bridgerton.

“My apologies, Miss Sharma. Please, tell me what it is you wish to discuss.”

“Thank you,” she said, drawing in a deep breath.

Anthony took a moment to admire the wisteria vines creeping along the walls of the garden. He never enjoyed scrutiny as he marshalled his thoughts, and doubted Kate would either.

“Our courtship took me by surprise. I did not come to England in pursuit of a match for myself,” she finally said. “And it is in this surprise I have failed to ask you questions—questions I would never fail to pose to a serious suitor of Edwina’s. Questions about the essentials, as they are, of you…and your expectations.”

“An interview? I think it your right considering my early conversation.”

Anthony hoped he showed himself in the same high standard she managed in the face of his own questions.

“Right. Yes. I suppose I should begin where I am most curious. What exactly spurred your admiration for me?”

Anthony had never had a woman ask for compliments with such a solemn expression. It made him want to tease her desperately.

“First? Your determination to win perhaps,” he said. “Though I was not so enamored with your refusal to tell me your name.”

Kate’s countenance didn’t lighten, and Anthony resolved to be more serious. Her earlier comparison of this interview to one she would conduct for Edwina’s sake was a sure sign of its importance.

“At Lady Danbury’s ball, Hastings’ promotion of you seemed—"

“The duke…promoted me?” she interrupted.

“As much as I wish I could say so, I did not see you across the conservatory and beg an introduction from Hastings. It was he who raised the matter. He sang your praises, pointing out your sensibleness when compared to the other debutantes and your possession of the very sense of responsibility I found so lacking among our peers.”

She nodded, as if this was in line with her expectations.

“Upon our introduction, and the realization that providence had brought me back to my mysterious equestrienne, it only took me minutes to realize that your intellect, humour, and, well, beauty all matched your elevated sense of duty. Any doubts on the matter were put to rest by my succeeding conversation with your sister. In so many respects we seemed remarkably similar, in values and roles, though you achieved your aims with more grace than I could ever manage.”

He took her hand, wondering if this was the moment he should retrieve the ring.

“From the very first I have admired you, Kate, and it took me only a short time in your company to conclude that you were the woman I wanted to marry.”

“And the family you imagine? Your sister Hyacinth was raised in London, while you spent much of your childhood here. Would our children, would I be…”

Whatever pleasant image of their future Kate meant to paint was lost to Anthony.  

“Kate,” he said, eyes on her collar.

“…and I know some gentlemen…”

“Kate,” his voice was barely above a whisper. He was afraid even the wind of his breath might disturb the insect.

“…and while preparations are natural, I think…”

“Kathani!” he said sharply. He reached for her, hoping to stop her movement, but instead he startled her. Worse, he startled the bee.

It’s perch no longer secure, the creature flew, first—to Anthony’s horror—towards Kate’s face. She swatted it like a fly, with no care for the danger she was in. Instead of turning on its aggressor, the bee flew from her. Not towards the flowers for sustenance, but to him. His rapid retreat was not fast enough.

Anthony felt the prick of a sting, just beneath his jawline. The right instead of the left, but in all other ways a mirror image of his father.

“Lord Bridgerton?”

He was supposed to have eight more years. The thought was nonsensical; as if he was his father, as if he could ever truly fill his role. No, it was proper he should fall short in this too.

“Anthony? Are you alright?”

His hand goes up to the wound, feeling the hard press of the stinger embedded in his skin.

“Kate,” he gasped, and she was there. She looked confused, just as he had twelve years before. “Kate,” he managed again.

She tore off his cravat, searching for the source of his sudden breathlessness.

“Bee,” he said, a whisper on the back of his next gasp. He did not want her to be lost, as he was. She would have the cause from him, not the coroner.

Anthony was thankful for the ridiculousness of the duel last year. He’d made sure Benedict knew his duties. He just hoped his brother understood that any protection he’d meant for him to extend to Siena must be applied tenfold to Kate.

“Anthony, can you hear me?” Her fingers pinched his neck, as if to pull the stinger out with her nails.

“Yes,” he answered. Anthony was breathing hard, and his chest felt tight around his rapidly beating heart.

“Should I call for a doctor?” She’d placed his hand over her heart, as if willing his own failing one to match its rhythm.

They were too far from the house, and the doctor another hour’s ride beyond that.

“Don’t leave—”

There were a hundred things he wanted to do—to see a showing of Benedict’s paintings…to walk Francesca down the aisle…to travel to India…to see Gregory grow into a man…to watch Kate swell with his child…to apologize to his mother…to see Eloise settled and happy...to urge Colin to dance with Penelope Featherington…to buy that plot of land to the west he was always considering…to hug Hyacinth one last time…to thank Hastings…to establish Edwina’s dowry…to show…—but nearly every one was out of his reach now.

Nearly every one. It was cruel, Anthony recognized that, even as his vision darkened at the edges and his breaths came so shallowly he thought each would be his last. It was cruel, beyond cruel, but still he did it.

Her face was so close to his, and her eyes so wide and pleading.

“Anthony?” Kate asked.

He kissed her.

It was not the first kiss he’d planned, slow and careful to assure Miss Sharma of his seriousness. Nor was it the first kisses he’d helplessly imagined when, in the course of admiring her beauty or debating an argument or dancing a waltz, his eyes had dropped to her lips and all of his senses urged him to forget propriety altogether.

It held none of the surety of his fantasies for after their marriage and none of the sweetness a proper courting kiss should carry. No, this desperate embrace was barely a kiss at all, for all Anthony was expending his last breaths on it. His lips crushed against hers, compelling, rather than coaxing, hers to answer.

Despite its savagery, Kate did not push him away. Her hands came up to hold the neck she had bared, her lips moved against his just as fervently, and, when his arm tightened to pull her closer, she moved forward willingly, molding her body to his.

The hand she’d placed on her chest was not idle. He stroked down the line of her collarbone, then her neck, before falling to the front of her spencer. It was the work of a moment to unclasp it. Kate’s hands left his neck to shrug off the sleeves.

Her shoulder was as soft as her neck. His lips left her own to follow the path of his palm. He kissed from her jawline to the dip in her elbow, savoring each sound pulled from Kate’s lips.

“Anthony,” she sighed as he tasted the skin at her wrist. His name drew him back to her lips and he lost himself for a time in the slower, drugging kisses she pulled from him. Her hands returned to his neck before migrating to his hair. Each tug sent a spark down Anthony’s spine. His left knee pressed forward, hampered by her skirts. He wanted to be closer.

Dimly, in the midst of the sweetness of her kiss, the lily scent of her skin, the glorious sound of each moan, Anthony realized he had now outlasted his father by several minutes.

If this is the afterlife, Anthony could only be thankful. Nor would he be altogether surprised to find that his path to heaven lay between Kate Sharma’s thighs. But if it was not, if his father’s death was not a hereditary curse, then Anthony was currently despoiling a lady—near-affianced though they may be—in the center of his family’s gardens. Where any member of the newly-arrived ton could be walking to relieve their carriage-cramped legs.

He pulled back from her.

“Kathani,” he said—because something in her flush, her hooded eyes, and swollen lips was could not be bound by the more curt Kate. Not to mention the question he was about to ask warranted the use of her full name.

She pushed forward, pressing a kiss to the corner of his mouth, pulling at his hair as if to steer him back to her. Anthony succumbed to a further few kisses before he steeled his resolved with a groan.

“Kate, we must stop.”

“Do not stop.” In any other instance, Anthony would be only too happy to oblige, but this was his future wife.

“We must stop. I am a gentleman. You are a lady. I cannot continue this until we are married.”

Even as he spoke he was planning how to make the delay as short in duration as possible. The fact that, if the winds were favorable, they could be in Calais that very evening held a prominent place in his thoughts.

“I apologize. I forgot myself,” she said shaking her head.

“Yes, I rather think we both did,” Anthony said with a smile. A wife who forgets herself for such a purpose would hardly be a hardship.

He stooped to pick up her discarded spencer as Kate straightened her dress and rearranged her necklace. He could not resist pressing one last kiss to her mouth. His responsible Kate kept her lips firmly closed this time.

“What do you think of Calais?” he asked. “I have been working on the archbishop—he is a cousin of sorts—but if we are to marry sooner rather than later, France may be the better option regardless.”

Kate was tucking her few loose curls back into her braided coiffure. He wished she wouldn’t; she’d looked very fetching, slightly rumpled as she was.

“Or would you prefer Scotland? I’m sure we could find the same establishment your father married in. Would that be of interest to you?”

“A viscount married in a shop? Quite literally over the anvil?” The sarcastic edge of her words was deadened by her lack of spirit. Did she think he would judge her for her father? Or did she wish for an elaborate wedding?

“Anything good enough for Mr. Sharma,” he started, stepping closer once more, but he was cut off.

“I believe this is when I call you out, Bridgerton.” Hastings, Anthony saw from his quick glance, wore a wide grin, elated at this opportunity.

“You are not her brother or father, Hastings, so I think this is where you remain silent.”

Kate looked panicked at his brother-in-law’s appearance, and his threat of a duel. Anthony thought the threat of discovery prevented her from hearing Hastings’ teasing tone.

“I am her friend and a gentleman. I have an interest.”

“Do be quiet, Hastings. You have interrupted the very proposal you wish to force.”

“Ah. My apologies. Shall I wish you joy than?”

“No,” Kate answered, her voice weak.

“She hasn’t answered yet—thanks to you.” Actually, Anthony was not even sure he’d managed to pose the question, eager as he was to work out the particulars of location and timing.

“No,” Kate said again, her voice gaining strength. “That is my answer. No.”

“What?”

Kate stumbled a step back, a step further away from him.

“No, I cannot marry you. I’m so sorry, Anthony,” she said, and then she was fleeing through the walled garden, back to the house.

“Kate!” Anthony shouted after her. If he could just speak to her, just know what the issue was, just hold her in his arms again, surely they could move forward. Her rejection made no sense.

Kate didn’t answer and didn’t turn back.

Hasting looked apologetic. Anthony’s humiliation was complete; his rejection had a witness, and one who would not keep silent about it. At least not to Daphne. His mother would know by this evening, and the entire family by the week’s end.

He turned from Hastings and stood dumbly, watching the empty archway, with her spencer still clutched in his fist. He wanted to hold it to his face, to inhale her scent, as much as he wanted to throw it to the ground in anger. Her rejection made no sense, he thought again. What was she playing at?

“Come on, Bridgerton. Let’s go have a drink.”

Chapter Text

Whatever small chance of rest Kate had was ruined by the storm. Rain pounded against the sides of Aubrey Hall, and each clap of thunder shook the panes and shutters of her window. She’d slipped from the room she shared with Edwina, scared she would wake her sister with her jumps or cries, and wandered the house that she once thought she could be mistress of.

It looked different by the light of her lone candle—the gilt brighter, the ceilings higher, each portrait subject more noble—and each flash of lightning seemed to highlight how very small Kate was when compared to such a house.

How could a woman with her lack of background or breeding—and at her mature age—ever have been considered as its viscountess?

She had passed the music room in which Hyacinth and Gregory labored for her entertainment, and which held the closet that dashed all her hopes, without pause.

Now she stood in the master’s study, the sole room—outside his bedchamber—which must be entirely Anthony’s. It was not the reflection of him she would have expected. Kate ran a finger along the spines of the closest shelf: law books. The next contained volumes dedicated to agriculture, the one after to economics. The rest of the study was much of the same.  Valuable resources for a landowner, to be sure, but none of the histories Anthony enjoyed, or even a treatise set aside on Eloise’s recommendation. Her hand hovered over the lone book on his desk, a volume of Shakespeare, before she moved on. Eavesdropping was a favorite plot point of the Bard’s and not one Kate had any desire to contemplate at present. Upon climbing the ladder, she found a single shelf of novels, but none had been published within the last decade, and all were languishing under a coating of dust.

The impersonality could be attributed to his residence in town, but Kate did not think that was the whole of the matter. She descended the ladder—a haphazardly picked Caleb Williams in hand—and moved back to her candle.

Kate wrapped her shawl more tightly around her with a shiver; there was too much in the room she wished to avoid. It had taken her only seconds to determine the spot on the wall she must have pressed her ear to, and where Anthony and his mother must have been positioned for her to hear them so clearly.  

How she wished she had not heard! How she wished she’d gone with Simon up to the attic, to hide among the stored furniture and discarded trunks, instead of into the music room. She’d thought the closet an adequate hiding spot but when Kate, taken in by Hyacinth’s previous enthusiasm for hidden passages, had rapped on the back wall of the closet and found it rung hollow, she had not been able to resist. The edge had been pried and prodded until the secret door opened and Kate, rather too large for the endeavor, had crawled through.

She had been so excited, so ready to share her discovery with Anthony and his youngest sister, when she’d heard Lady Bridgerton voicing all of Kate’s fears regarding the match and she realized just what room was on the other side of the wall. Then came Anthony’s response, his defense and then his declaration—

Kate closed her eyes against the memory. She’d stayed curled up in that annex, questioning everything she’d thought, for much too long. Even Simon had been found—after a thorough canvassing of the attic by all of the Bridgerton siblings—when she emerged. 

But then, was it not better that she had heard? That she knew? Yes, she decided. This pain was temporary, a marriage was not.

Another flash of lightning caused Kate to fumble and nearly drop her chosen book. She did not know why she bothered. Reading to herself had never calmed her as her father’s voice had, and it seemed that lingering on more recent memories would be more effective in shutting out the storm.

If only she knew how she would explain her decision to Edwina. She imagined relaying a new conviction not to marry for anything less than the most ardent of affections before tossing the idea away. The romanticism would appeal to her sister, but it would also drive her to promote Anthony all the more.

Could she tell her the truth? Kate’s rejection based on knowledge gained through a secret passage? It was almost too much to believe. If Edwina did believe her, she would accuse Kate of self-sacrifice, that Kate was giving up on the match because she thought she couldn’t be what Anthony wanted. Which was true, Kate could not deny that she was not what Anthony wanted.

But sitting in that hall closet, thinking—

Kate had reflected on their courtship, on her father’s elopement, on Lady Danbury’s fond words on her own marriage. She’d considered how well she fit in with the Bridgertons, how her competitiveness complemented theirs, how right Aubrey Hall had felt upon her arrival. She’d remembered the heat of Anthony's eyes on her skin—and she had not known the half of it, before that kiss—and how her body felt primed to respond to his. Then there was Edwina’s relief at the lack of pressure, and Kate’s own gratitude towards Anthony for lifting away both the burden of her family’s future and the shame she’d carried since she first fully understood the Sheffield's demands.

And against all this, Anthony’s own words.

‘I do not love her. Love shall have no place in my marriage.’

Kate found those words weighed more than one might expect them to, for a spinster with no other prospects. Even as she’d drawn him into conversation, seeking clarification for his words, for his accusations towards his mother, she’d known what that weight meant.

Anthony was not what Kate wanted for a husband either.

She had long been resigned to a life without marriage, and while her courtship with Anthony had allowed her to construct an entirely new future in her mind, it was not impossible to exchange it for her old one. It hurt, desperately it hurt, but that would fade. As she waited for it to, Edwina would marry, and Kate would stand up for her. And when the ceremony was over, Kate would return home to the life she’d planned for.

All would be well.

Kate took a deep breath, careful not to look at the window. Not only to avoid the rain beating against the panes, but also due to the tea table set in front of it, which she’d complimented so well on her short tour, imagining sitting at it as she and her husband discussed estate business and the coming season.

All would be well, she assured herself again. She would leave Aubrey Hall and leave England and leave all fantasies of this life behind. She had to.

The door creaked open, startling Kate.

“Ant—Lord Bridgerton,” she stuttered out in greeting.  

He hovered in the doorway. His face was cast in shadow, and Kate could not see his expression.

“I did not mean to startle you,” he said. He remained at the door, blocking Kate’s only means of exit. “I saw a light and thought I might have left a candle lit.”

Because this was his study, and Kate’s intrusion was beyond impolite.

“No. The candle is mine.”

“Are…are you well?” he asked.

She hadn’t seen him since her refusal in the gardens. He had not joined the breakfast table until late morning—by which time Kate had long left—and she’d asked for dinner in her room.

Despite Simon’s—the duke’s, best to return to formalities with the entire family—cajoling, Kate had refused to join the gentlemen on their hunt. She was considering bowing out of the next day’s ball entirely. Anything to relieve them both of this discomfiture.

“Could you not sleep?”

His voice was rough. With sleep? With the lack of it? With regret? Kate didn’t know—couldn’t know and never would.

“It’s the storm,” she said in answer. His hand slipped down the door. He looked uncertain. He may not love her, may no longer be her future husband, but this was still the man who’d asked after her plans, her past, her dreams. It felt natural to continue, to share an aspect of herself that she hid as well as she could from everyone else.

“My mother died in a storm. Not,” she continued at his alarmed look, “from the storm itself.” Kate cast about for the right words. How should she explain a time that had so imprinted itself on her subconscious, even when she barely remembered it herself?

“It had not rained for a long time, so long the drought was measured not by months but by years. Crops were failing, people were starving, and the family my father worked for was driven from their home. They could not sustain their enterprise when they had no sugarcane or jowar to harvest. My father planned to take us north, either to Bombay or all the way back to Calcutta, but my mother fell ill.”

Anthony—the viscount, she reminded herself. He must be the viscount now.—stepped into the room, eyes not leaving her face. Behind him, the door drifted shut.

“Famine brings disease, and my father always said that Amma was not one to sit inside when others were suffering. She caught it from a family she nursed, but she held on longer than anyone else we knew, fading and strengthening in turn as the weeks passed by. I would visit at her bedside, bringing her pretty rocks I’d found, or telling her whatever little story I’d thought of that day. When asked, I would tell my friends that she had been sick for as long as it had not rained, and she would get better when it did. It was a common enough belief; everyone would get better once it rained and the food shortages ended.”

Kate’s words had a rhythm to them; it was a story her father had told her many times, though never in English, and one she’d shared with Edwina just once, when her sister asked why Kate did not call Mary ‘Amma.’

“When the rains came I ran into the street with all of the neighborhood children. We wanted to dance and drink and splash in the puddles before the flood became too dangerous to venture out in. I still remember the feeling of rain on my skin so clearly… It was the happiest I think I’d ever been.”

The viscount did not return Kate’s ironic twist of a smile.

“When I returned home, my mother was dead. I’d danced in the rain as she took her last breaths, and when the lightning illuminated her face I saw the horrible truth of it. She’d died in agony as I laughed and played. Ever since, I’ve never liked rainstorms. When inside I can pretend all is well, but when caught outdoors I am quite irrational. I freeze, can barely move, so terrified of what calamity I will return home to. Ridiculous, I know, but—”

“My father died in front of me,” he said abruptly. “After he was stung by a bee.”

A bee. Of course.

“Oh, Anthony.”

She made an aborted move to comfort him, to cup his face, or brush the mark of the sting, before thinking better of it. Her hand hung in the air between them, caught in a moment of her indecision.

“I can understand irrational, Kate,” Anthony said as he stepped forward until her hand hit his chest. Kate stared at her hand. She should pull it back, step away from him, readjust her shawl. Instead, she spread her fingers, smoothing the wrinkles of his shirt, feeling the heat of him through the thin linen. Her thumb nearly reached his open collar. If she shifted just an inch she could catch it, pull it open further.

“I have certainly been called such. And the way I acted this morning…please, Kate. If your rejection was predicated on the liberties I took with you…if I frightened you, or did anything you did not want—”

“No, that is not it at all,” Kate protested. His eyes looked very deep by candlelight. She swallowed, letting her gaze fall back to her own hand. “You did nothing to frighten me, my lord. Your touch was never unwanted. Any…liberties were enjoyed by me as well.”

In truth the kiss had frightened her, but not in the way he meant. It was the intensity of Kate’s response that alarmed her, not Anthony’s. It had shaken the last of Kate’s plans of pretension. If that was their first kiss, she could not survive a marriage, not if she was to pretend at indifference.

“Were they?” Anthony asked lowly. The sounds of the storm seemed muted now, next to the pounding of Kate’s heart and each of her short breaths. Anthony inched closer slowly. Kate had every chance to step back, away, to deny him his obvious intent. She did not.

It was the softest of kisses. Even his hands were gentle as he cradled her chin, and the caress of his lips was almost insubstantial at first. Kate sighed. Her hand, which once rested on his chest, swept over his shoulder to pull him closer.

Her chosen novel clattered to the floor as her other hand moved to grasp his waist, but neither she nor Anthony moved to separate.

He was so warm. His hands left her jaw to land at her sides. Her nightshift was thin, nothing like the velvet of her riding dress, and Kate thought she could feel the lines of his palms against her ribcage. She lifted on to her toes, deepening the kiss. Anthony responded with enthusiasm for only a moment before drawing back.

He bowed his head, pressing his face into the curve of her neck. When he spoke, she could feel the slightest brush of his lips against her throat.

“Why, Kate? I must know. Why did you say no?”

Kate thought of what’d he had said to her that morning, and how he’d defended her to his mother the previous afternoon. He’d complimented her intelligence, her competitiveness, her sense of duty.

She’d had suitors, in the too brief period before her father died when she entertained such notions, and in the even briefer period after his death when the jackals thought her vulnerable enough to accept any man who offered.

None, not even the ones she’d liked, had ever seen her so well as Anthony, which made it all the worse. He saw her so clearly, yet she still came up short.

“I cannot marry you,” she said.

He inhaled sharply before straightening to his full height. He did not step back. His left hand caught a lock of her hair. He wound the curl through his fingers before letting it fall.

“You would allow me this? And this morning? But not except my offer of marriage?”

She heard all of the unvoiced questions. What kind of woman was she? What kind of morals did she have? Who was she that she should nearly surrender her virtue to a gentleman and then refuse to marry him?

“I have said from the beginning this was madness. We were not a match that was ever meant to be.”

“I thought I’d convinced you,” he said.

“You did. For a time. But reality must always return. You were meant for a diamond, a lady. Not for me. I was not made for the type of marriage you are looking for.”

Weeks ago, Kate had told Lady Danbury she would marry for the sake of her family if she could. Now, she was throwing away her one chance at it.

Had she not thought her feelings for Anthony made her selfish?

“I have always done my duty, but I find this is a task I am not willing to take on.”

“I understand,” he said. Kate doubted it. Maybe she should just tell him. I am in love with you and cannot bear a marriage to you without that love’s return.

She didn’t have the wherewithal to deal with his rejection. Not tonight. Kate looked out the window. The rain continued, though the thunder and lightning had ceased.

“My father used to read aloud to comfort me during the monsoons. Now storms make me think of him too.” Kate tried to smile. “Perhaps sometimes I will think of you as well, if you do not mind.”

Anthony shook his head. “I do not.” He turned to the window as well. Their reflections against the dark glass flickered with the flame of her candle. “Perhaps I will think of you too.”

Kate wondered if the same cloud might rain on both of them one day, carried to her on a westerly wind.

“I must return to Edwina,” she said. It was late, and her sister was not always a deep sleeper. It would not do to have her wake to Kate’s empty bed.

Kate paused, staring at his face. She would likely never be this close to him again. She stood on her toes and pressed a kiss to his cheek.

I love you.

“Goodbye, Lord Bridgerton.”

Chapter Text

Kate could see the entire ballroom from her spot at the banister. Below her, Cressida Cowper was laughing at a joke posed by Lord Featherington. A few yards beyond, the Dowager Lady Featherington seethed at the sight of them, and prodded her daughter Prudence to stand up straight.

Eloise Bridgerton stood arm-in-arm with Penelope Featherington as they surveyed the room—much like Kate was doing. Unfortunately for Eloise, her inferior position meant she could not see her mother leading Lord Morrison across the room to her.

Alayne, near the refreshments, was attempting to sneak a pastry past her mother’s knowing eye. The marchioness was stricter than most mamas about food at a ball; she thought crumbs the absolute worst thing a man could see on a lady’s dress.

On the opposite wall, Kate spotted Benedict speaking with Sir Henry and Lady Granville, presumably about art, as Colin circled amongst the crowd, taking his shift of hosting duties early. She scanned the room for additional Bridgertons, but only found the Duke and Duchess of Hastings watching the retreating figure of Lady Danbury.

She followed Lady Danbury’s progress, a spill of bright red against the blacks and pinks of the crowd, as she moved to join Lady Mary and Edwina near the great, unlit fireplace. Kate should join them, but she remained at her sentry point. Edwina and Mary both looked pleased, and Kate did not want to ruin their good mood with her own poor one.

The scholar Daphne had invited in the hopes of intriguing Eloise had secured Edwina’s first dance. Mr. Bagwell would be a failure in the eyes of the Sheffields, a second son of an earl with no additional titled relatives to leave him a peerage, but Edwina had looked near enraptured as he’d penciled in his name. Apparently they’d sat near each other at the dinner Kate had skipped, and Mr. Bagwell’s archeological stories were more successful at charming Edwina than any verse of poetry.  If her favor continued past the dance, Kate would have to investigate further. She knew the title of his father, and that he was the cousin of Mr. Kempton, but she’d have to find out if the earl had made any provisions for him, if there were any irregularities in his travels, or if he had any outstanding debts.

She would ask Ant—no, the duke. Surely Simon could tell her any information she required, and would as a favor to Lady Danbury if not her. Their hostess had readily agreed to extend her sponsorship of Edwina an additional season—that had been the very first thing Kate assured after the…incident in the garden—and so it was in the lady’s interest for Edwina to be armed with the best knowledge her godson could provide.

Kate noticed Alayne and her mother stop bickering and turn to look at her. Theresa’s head, along with those of her equally blonde sisters, turned as well. A group of matrons Kate did not recognize suddenly seemed to find her the most interesting view of the party.

Kate heard the  sound of footfalls on the steps behind her and knew what had captured their attention. She wished she’d chosen a less conspicuous spot, instead of this almost-stage of a landing. Swallowing, Kate turned.

Behind her was Anthony.

Edwina had mocked Kate for the way she could be caught by Anthony’s gaze, but she couldn’t help it. His eyes drew hers like magnets. Every explanation she’d tried to form for Edwina seemed trite or overwrought. How could they not, when each shared look seemed halfway to a meeting of souls, a conversation without words. She’d read the desire in his gaze, the respect, the amusement, and even the annoyance in its turn. Now, the fire in his eyes was banked: hidden from her.  

Kate’s chest felt tight. He looked handsome—assiduously so in his dark, double-breasted coat and neatly tied cravat—but tired. Kate wondered if he had slept at all after she had left him in his study.

She glanced down at his arm, half expecting it to be extended towards her, as it had so many times before. In her head, she could hear his voice, asking her to dance. 

But his mouth remained shut in a tight, grim line and his arm remained at his side. He nodded once, waiting a bare second to receive her acknowledgement in return, and continued past her down the steps. It was not a cut—but only just.

She heard Cressida Cowper snigger.

Kate, and most of the room, watched as he approached Miss Patridge for the first dance. Miss Patridge, for all they were not friends, looked to her in askance. Perhaps she was seeking some form of permission, or advice, or her forgiveness. Kate tried to appear unaffected and gave the girl a nod to relieve her of any guilt.

Viscount Bridgerton still must have a wife.

Miss Patridge placed her hand in his and smiled elegantly as she was led to the floor. Kate’s fingers tightened their grip on the banister.

There were still too many eyes on Kate, judging her for the slight they didn’t understand. She ignored them all, painting a serene smile on to her face.

It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter.

It didn’t matter—for a moment, a fortnight and change, that refrain had ended like this: because she would be Viscountess Bridgerton. Because Lord Bridgerton chose her, wanted her, loved—

But it was the worst kind of folly, pinning such a thing to a man. Kate should have listened to Eloise.

The stares did not matter. The dance did not matter. Kate’s feelings did not matter.

Because this was her choice. Because only Edwina mattered. Because Kate was returning to India.

The music began and the vice within Kate’s chest tightened another notch. It was a waltz.

Undoubtably he had planned to dance the first set with her, but she wished he had thought to alert the musicians to a change of plans. Kate could not watch this.

“Kate? Would you care to take a turn on the floor?”

She tore her eyes from Cordelia Patridge and Ant—Lord Bridgerton to see the Duke of Hastings, one step beneath her, holding out a hand. She couldn’t imagine the source of the sympathy in his eyes. He had witnessed her refusal of his brother-in-law; he was one of the only people in the room who knew Anthony was wholly justified in his dismissal of her.

She searched out his wife. She stood with her mother and Miss Penelope Featherington who…well, if Kate didn’t know better, she would think Miss Penelope looked nearly as gleeful as Miss Cowper at witnessing Kate’s fall from grace. The duchess, conversely, looked as sympathetic as her husband.

Kate shook her head.

“Not eager to start in the middle of the dance? We can wait till the next?”

He was trying to save her from humiliation, but Kate could not take the lifeline he offered.

“I’m feeling a bit faint,” she said, with another shake of her head. Let them think her weak, pathetic. It did not matter. “I think I will sit for a spell.”

Chairs lined the room, generously set out for wallflowers and spinsters. She could see that Mary had collapsed into one, looking extremely uncomfortable. Lady Danbury stood by her, a protective sentinel, as her eyes tracked Edwina across the floor.

“Perhaps the quiet of the retiring room would be better,” suggested the duke.

“Yes,” she agreed. “Excuse me, Your Grace.”

Just this set, she promised herself, just the waltz. In half an hour she would return to the room and yes, everyone would stare, but she would not care.

The walk was quiet and the retiring room was, mercifully, empty at this early hour.

Kate paced its length, doing her best not to think on the ballroom she’d left behind. There were more important matters to consider. There was a chance that the dissolution of her courtship with the viscount would reflect negatively on her and, by extension, Edwina. If that was the case, Kate must make her exit before her sister’s marriage, to ensure it take place at all. As the Sheffields so often reminded her in print, the removal of a scandal’s participants was what allowed it to fade from society’s memory.

Lady Mary had been participating more lately, brought around by nostalgia for her own season, and Kate could trust Lady Danbury to steer her sister from any degenerates. Kate was…unnecessary now.

She had not been tracking the navy lists, nor keeping updated on the packet ships leaving Falmouth. That must change, though there was little she could do about it before their return to London.

She would gather her notes and try to order them into coherency for Edwina. Every debt Anthony had hinted at, every rumor Lady Whistledown had exposed, every laughing heir primed for an unexpected inheritance. Her sister was the bride-to-be and an intelligent woman; she would know how to weigh her own feelings and instincts against the more material concerns Kate outlined.  Really, Kate should have involved her more in the process from the start.

The outdated peerage would not be left behind. It wouldn’t do to leave Edwina such an unreliable source, nor to allow her sister to see the well-thumbed page near the end of the B’s. It would live in the corner of Kate’s trunk: a memento to her misconceptions she’d held before their arrival.

Accepting that there was little else she could undertake from her present location, Kate sat on the closest settee. The room had no clock and, as a woman, her ball attire included no timepiece. She tapped her foot. She had no ability to gauge how long ago she had made her exit; pacing a room alone did not lend itself to rational time keeping.

Would someone come and fetch her after the first set? Maybe Alayne or Theresa—if their next partners did not pursue them too eagerly. Not Mary, she must stay to keep watch over Edwina, and Edwina was far too in demand to take such a break. Lady Danbury might send a servant, if she could do so discreetly. 

Kate tried to remember the tour, and her later wandering of the house. Was there a path she could take that would lead her around the ballroom, allowing her to enter without use of the main staircase? Maybe if she used an exterior door and re-entered by way of the orangery path?

Kate began pacing the room again—on the opposite side of her chosen settee—as she tried to map a circumspect route to the ballroom. As she strode the length of the room for a third time, she finally looked at the sideboard.

Much of it was the standard fare. A carafe of tea, another of coffee, a tureen of chilled lemonade. A dozen dishes stacked with little dainties for a faint-headed miss to nibble on as she revived herself.

But among the small cakes and biscuits was a sweet unlike the others: jalebi.

The orange curls of fried dough were bright against the white porcelain plate. Kate stepped closer, unsure if she should believe her eyes. The snack, served on city streets as often as in a family’s dining room in India, was not one she ever expected to find in London, let alone Aubrey Hall. She wondered if this was a gesture from Lady Bridgerton, or if Anthony had ordered it made and forgotten it, much like the waltz.

A darker thought curdled into the forefront in her mind. What if he had forgotten neither? What if they were part of some effort to show her what she’d rejected? To punish her?

Well, she had little recourse if that were the case, but could take her amusement where she could. She was curious to see how an English cook handled the task of a proper dish—even such a simple one.

She plucked the topmost twist from the pile and bit into it, prepared for the worst.

It tasted perfect.

Crunchy, and chewy, and sweet in all the right ways. The only thing missing was the bowl of rabri in which to dip it.

Kate finished her first, and took a second, and then a third, savoring this little taste of home.

How had the Bridgertons managed it? None of the other meals served had a hint of anything more exotic than a French sauce. But this—

When Kate heard the sound of steps in the hall, she had the absurd urge to hide the plate. She honestly wished she had a reticule to stuff full. Good manners won out,  and she stepped away from the sideboard, trying to appear as if she had not just consumed a fistful of jalebis. 

“Good, you’re still here,” said the duke from the doorway.

“This is the ladies’ retiring room, Your Grace.”

“Ah, but I am escorting my wife, meaning there is no impropriety to be had,” he responded smugly.

“I’m sure the mamas would disagree with you, my dear. Your masculine presence corrupts the very air,” said the duchess as she slipped into the room behind him. Despite her words, she offered no rebuke when her husband took a seat next to her on the sofa. Kate eyed the open door. She could leave and allow the duke and duchess whatever privacy they sought by coming here together, but...

When she looked at the pair, they did not seem overly amorous or hopeful for her departure. And Simon had said it was good she was still here upon their arrival.

“Are you not dancing tonight?” Kate ventured to Daphne as she retook her spot on the settee. The other woman shook her head.

“Certainly not the waltz. No, I will join my husband for a more sedate country dance in a few sets,” she said, before asking her husband to fetch her a tart in an aside. “For now I am quite happy to relax away from the busyness of the ball.”

She wondered if this was a hint that Daphne was increasing once more, or just a polite way to follow Kate from the room.

“And you, Kate? Will you be dancing?” she asked before biting into the raspberry tart her husband had procured.

“No,” Kate said. Even if she had not already refused Simon's offer, it would make little sense for her to dance. “I think my focus should be with my sister.”

“Hmm,” intoned Daphne thoughtfully. “Is that why you rejected my brother's proposal? To focus on Miss Edwina?”

It seemed the duchess had little inclination to prevaricate.

“I—that is—Your Grace—”

“Forgive my curiosity, it is only that I thought you a fine addition to the family, and a better match for Anthony than I ever expected him to choose for himself. Not to mention, the besotted look you wore in each other’s presence.” The duchess delicately patted away the crumbs from her lips. “I think we were all quite shocked to see Anthony’s turn of mood after your turn in the gardens with him. But my husband seemed to believe your refusal was based on some other matter, not your own feelings for Anthony, and since he has some experience in such things,”—here she shot her husband a fond look—“I thought it best to speak to you directly.”

“Your Grace, this is not something you can fix. My refusal has been given and the courtship ended.”

The duchess looked displeased.

Kate had not considered what it meant, that the duke promoted her to Anthony, beyond that he likely found her sparring with Lady Danbury over tea amusing. Now, she suspected that the couple had made come kind of wager or game between themselves. The duke and duchess had always been extremely welcoming to her—more so than any of the other Bridgertons and more than they were in regard to Edwina.

“But surely, if there is a misunderstanding—”

“I made the decision with perfect clarity, Your Grace. The viscount wants a marriage void of love, and I find such a thing…”—impossible to give him—“outside my taste.”

To her horror, Kate felt the beginnings of tears swell in her eyes. She blinked them away the best she could.

“Please understand, my brother has been hurt in the past. When my father died—”

“I know. Anthony…hinted at such things, when he explained his role in raising his siblings, and I’ve gathered enough to piece together everything else I think.” The duchess looked as if she wished to interrupt, but Kate pressed on. “It doesn’t matter. I won’t consign myself to an emptier life because of someone else’s fears, even if that someone is Anthony.”

The duchess closed her mouth. Kate gathered herself, hating that she could still feel the prick of tears.

“I would rather be unloved as a spinster than unloved as a wife. It feels less pathetic somehow.”

Not one in fifty of the ton would agree with her, but, if there were any who would, it would be the Duke and Duchess of Hastings.

The duke, who had kept silent for their entire exchange, looked disappointed. Kate thought he might regret whatever he’d said to Anthony to convince him of her suitability.

“Kate,” the duchess started, before letting her voice trail off into silence. What could she say? She could not convince Anthony to love Kate, nor Kate to not love Anthony. The former was undesired, and the latter could only be left to time. Time and distance.

Kate swallowed. Her throat felt thick with suppressed tears.

It hurt to hold herself so tightly, with people who had been so kind, who she would lose as soon as she left the room. Unbidden, the faces of all the Bridgertons rose before her.

She would lose them all—from Hyacinth’s playful joy to Benedict’s eager art discussion. It was not just Anthony she had refused.

It was likely her other friends would go the way of the Bridgertons. A rejection from a spinster would not be believed, even if Kate was disposed to air her business to the public. No, it would be assumed that the viscount came to his senses and withdrew his suit before it ever reached the point of proposal. Him finding an objection to her would hardly be noteworthy. It was his disregarding the most readily apparent—her age, her lack of breeding, her obstinance—that had been remarkable. The other debutantes would distance themselves from her, leaving only Edwina in the unenviable position of possessing an undeniable connection.

And then she would lose even Edwina; to marriage, to the Sheffields, and to England.

Blinking could only do so much against the feeling of impending loneliness. Kate felt the first tear slip. She hastily wiped it away, but the first tear was just the beginning. A cascade of them followed, and no matter how she turned her head from the others, she could not hide the sobs that racked her body.

Kate hated it. She was angry at herself for such a showing, but the anger did not dry her eyes, and only fed more frustration into her tears.

“Oh, Kate,” said the duchess. With the experience of an older sister, she quickly came to Kate’s side to offer a handkerchief and stroke her hair. She hummed as she would to comfort her baby, and pressed circles into Kate’s back. Neither helped.

“A cup of tea, Simon?” she prompted.

“She does not like English tea,” he reminded her. “And has no taste for coffee or lemonade. I thought there was meant to be—”

Kate gasped out another sob, preventing her from hearing the rest.

“Oh, just come here,” Daphne said. Simon perched on the settee on Kate’s other side. Unlike his wife, he had no experience comforting tearful siblings. His back pats were unsteady and awkward, but reassuring all the same. They did more than Daphne’s efforts did, as they encouraged Kate to get ahold of herself to relieve him of his duty.

“I will call for chocolate,” Daphne decided and stood.

“I’m sure things will work out,” Simon said between the lessening sobs. Kate shook her head vigorously.

“Come, we will talk Bridgerton around—”

“It is not him! I was stupid! I loved him!”

The words sparked a fresh round of tears. 

Simon, in what must have been an act of desperation, gathered her into his arms. He even attempted to rock her. If she were in a more composed state of mind, Kate might have objected to being treated like Augie throwing a tantrum, but she was not. Instead, she thought on the last time she’d been held in such away. She would not place her limited embraces with Anthony in the same category. No, this was more similar to a more distant memory. Her father, holding her through a storm as he read. Appa, spinning her as he hugged her for the last time.

The thought comforted her, quieting her sobs. She wiped her face with the now-sodden cloth. Simon, pulling her closer with one arm, retrieved his own handkerchief with the other. Kate took it gratefully.

“Gracie has gone to fetch us a pot,” Daphne said. She left the door open for the maid and went to the sideboard to collect a cup and saucer.

“I told you! I am going to find someone who understands!”

“Is that Eloise?” Daphne asked.

Her question was answered immediately, with the entrance of her sister. Eloise stopped short at the sight of a tear-streaked Kate held in the arms of the duke, but her body was not enough to block the view from those who followed her: Lady Bridgerton, Penelope Featherington, and Lady Featherington.

“My word,” said the latter.

There was no scandal: the duchess was in the room, had been beside her only moments before whispering soothing words, but Kate saw the shock shared on each of their faces, and knew what it portended with a lady such as the Featherington matriarch.

“My apologies. Terribly sorry to barge in like this,” Eloise said, obviously unsure what to make of this, but trying to help by shifting the focus of the room. “It is only Lord Morrison is—”

Whatever Lord Morrison was, Kate would not find out. Simon cut off Eloise’s rambling.

“Miss Sharma twisted her ankle and is quite a bit of pain,” he said. “I think it best I bring her to her room.” He pulled Kate fully into his arms and stood before she could protest. “Daphne, do you have the ice?”

Daphne held up the bundle of ice—taken from the outer bowl of the lemonade tureen—that she’d folded into a napkin as soon as Simon began his lie. Kate doubted it would fool anyone, but no one in this room was about to accuse the duke and duchess of falsehood.

They passed through the halls unbothered, Daphne speaking soothingly the whole way. Kate could hardly attend her words. Her head ached from crying, and her pride from everything else that had transpired.

“Hastings? What’s going on here?” Kate flinched from the voice. Be strong, she told herself, you must be. It was time to build herself up again.

She had done it before, in grief for more important things than an impossible future. But without anything to do—without the work she’d thrown herself into after Appa died, with the pressure of Edwina’s prospects off her shoulders—she could not force herself into the correct form. She should push away from Simon, insist on standing on her own two feet. She should walk by the viscount with her head held high; it had been her choice to reject him after all.

“Daphne?” he asked when his brother-in-law gave no answer.

Kate gave up any thought of standing and hid her face in Simon’s shoulder.  The next time she met the viscount, they would be common and indifferent acquaintances, but she did not have the strength to pretend at such a thing now. 

“Step aside, Bridgerton.” Simon’s voice rumbled through his chest.

“If you’ve forgotten, Hastings, we’re in my—”

“Anthony,” Daphne’s voice was soft, but the iron core of it was clear. “Now is not the time.”

Silence, and Simon continued forward, carrying Kate up the stairs to her and Edwina’s room.

When they reached it, the room was quiet and dark. Edwina would be downstairs for hours more, doing everything in her power to distract the ton from Kate’s disappearance. Simon left her with Daphne, murmuring to his wife about checking in on their son, and hunting down the chocolate they’d sent for, but Kate ignored them both, only speaking to request Daphne not light any candles.

She laid in the dark, hoping Lady Mary and Lady Danbury would be receptive to her pleas of an early start the next morning. She needed to leave Aubrey Hall as soon as possible.

Chapter Text

For those of our society not lucky enough to receive an invitation to the Bridgerton country visit, let me set down a summary pieced together from my reliable sources returning from Kent.

When society arrived at the steps of Aubrey Hall, the Sharmas—and their patroness, Lady Danbury— had been in residence three days.

In the week leading up to this country-visit, it had become all too clear to even the most dull-witted member of the ton: Viscount Bridgerton had no interest in the season's diamond. No, it was Miss Kate Sharma that he held close for each waltz, Miss Kate Sharma who he made sure to sit beside at all dinner parties,  and Miss Kate Sharma that the Duchess of Hastings handed her infant earl to first. While he seemed fond of Miss Edwina, it was Miss Kate Sharma that the viscount could not tear his eyes from.

Reports from the Sharmas’ private days at Aubrey Hall did little to challenge this. The dowager viscountess solicited Miss Sharma for opinions on curtain colors and menu changes, and she participated in the family's parlor and lawn games as if she were another sister—or perhaps, a new mother. Before the ton's arrival, all was well between the Viscount and his oddly chosen match.

So why, may you ask, does the not-so-young lady return to London without a ring? Was he hesitant or she shy? Did either family object? No dear reader, I bring you something juicier than that. In a word: rejection.

And—do sit down, dear Reader, because the next truth is universally shocking—the rejection was not on the part of the viscount!

It was Miss Sharma who refused our most sought-after Viscount Bridgerton. And for what? She will not be able to catch a better husband than our beloved viscount—a match some mamas were already decrying as above her station.

But then, perhaps marriage is not the type of arrangement Miss Sharma is seeking. While her sister took a turn with a lowly scholar—leading some to speculate this Incomparable will follow the steps of her mother in choosing a husband—Miss Sharma found herself in the arms of an (allegedly) reformed rake. Not Lord Bridgerton, but his brother-in-law: the Duke of Hastings.

The duke claimed he was only comforting an injured friend—though a twisted ankle when one has not even danced a single set belies all logic—but Readers, we must ask: is it really a duke’s place to comfort a distressed debutante? Or could it be that the ‘special friendship’ cultivated between the Duke of Hastings and this mature Miss is the root cause of her lack of engagement at this country visit?

Lord Bridgerton refused to speak on the matter. In fact, he largely refused to speak at all. After opening the night with a most-surprised looking Miss Cordelia Patridge, he stalked the edges of his own party, begrudgingly fulfilling his duty as host. (It should be noted for posterity that this marked the first ball of the season that the viscount failed to ask one of the two Misses Sharmas to dance.)

Indeed, the distance between the two families was clear—and all the more stark due to the particular closeness they’d displayed before. When the Sharmas called their carriage early the next morning, no guest was truly surprised. That the Hastings carriage followed so shortly after, though, provided enough titillation for even the most exhausted miss and matron to rouse themselves…

LADY WHISTLEDOWN’S SOCIETY PAPERS, 11 MAY 1814

 


 

…of course my survey of the Cranston Ball would not be incomplete without a mention of the worst dressed among the guests. Miss Quinn put up a valiant effort, sporting an olive-green turban boasting a full five ostrich feathers, but the crown must be yielded to Miss Penelope Featherington. Her modiste must do her best, but an insistence on such a dreadful color—the yellow was more bile than sunshine for this particular gown—would not allow even the most beautiful among the debutantes to shine. And the most beautiful? Well, Miss Penelope is far from that…

LADY WHISTLEDOWN’S SOCIETY PAPERS, 14 MAY 1814

 


 

Wedding bells, long silent, have finally begun to ring in London as the first of the social season’s matches tie the knot. This author extends her most sincere congratulations to the former Miss Samantha Eaton and Baron Mansel, as it can be sure that the couple will, if they are not completely happy, pretend at such for the amusement of the rest of society. Now we must look to our other bachelors and eligible ladies to determine who is next…

 

…The young Earl Clyvedon was seen in the company of his mother, in addition to his many aunts and uncles, promenading along the Serpentine. Everyone seemed enraptured by his first sight of Rotton Row, but this author could not help but notice the Viscount Bridgerton’s disdain for the company. Is it children in general that trouble him so, or only those who remind him of the Duke of Hastings?

LADY WHISTLEDOWN’S SOCIETY PAPERS, 16 MAY 1814

 


 

…the elder Miss Sharma has hardly been seen in town, though the diamond’s visitors are quick to complain she is still in fine, prickly, form in the parlor of Danbury House. Perhaps she mourns her loss of status? Or perhaps she is only preparing for a final rustication with her duties of chaperone well over? I myself would stop for more than an ice at Gunter’s if that were the case. London offers more opportunity than the country for so many things…

 

…This season’s Miss Bridgerton continues to defy her sister’s legacy. Not one to entertain suitors in her drawing room, the young miss has taken to castigating them for sport in public. Will Lord Macclesfield ever recover from the set down? His previous tutors certainly will not, after Miss Bridgerton exposed their utter failure to instill in their charge even the most basic understanding of politics, geography, or philosophy…

LADY WHISTLEDOWN’S SOCIETY PAPERS, 20 MAY 1814

 


 

The ton is abuzz with the potential match of the season: Lord Lumley and Lady Alayne Hau. The pair has made appearances in Hyde Park, Vauxhall Gardens, and Astley’s Ampitheatre. This alone made tongues wag, as none of the lord’s friends expected him to find his chosen leg-shackle so soon. But the young lord has made it all but official: Lord Lumley secured two concurrent dances with the lady last Wednesday at Almack’s, something her mother happily approved of. Neighbors of Montrose House, keep your eyes peeled. The Marquess will surely be expecting an early morning calling today...

 

…preparations continue for the foreign sovereigns’ visit to our shores, and toasts to their arrival—and of course, the defeat of our naughty Corsican friend—have already commenced. To the disappointment of many a young lady, the handsome Prince Friedrich will not be accompanying his father to our fair shores. Perhaps he finds his memories of the isle—and its ladies—too painful to revisit, even on such a joyous occasion…

LADY WHISTLEDOWN’S SOCIETY PAPERS, 23 MAY 1814

 


 

While some may begrudge the sister of our incomparable, no one can fault the queen’s choice in Miss Edwina Sharma as diamond. With a clarity of wit and charm, matched only by her enviable beauty, she continues to dazzle the ton. It is little wonder that her sister fades when cast in her shadow. Though perhaps that too, is purposeful. If the rumors regarding Miss Edwina are true, she will not long need a sister as a guardian. Not when a husband makes such a superior one…

 

…Has Lord Bridgerton given up his search for a wife? While there is little sign he has returned to his rakish ways, the viscount has hardly resumed his efforts on the marriage mart. No unmarried lady escaped an appointment with him at the start of the season, but were their answers all so dismal he cannot give a thought to a second interview? Or has he decided he will only wait for next year, and the new crop of debutantes who will present themselves before him?...

LADY WHISTLEDOWN’S SOCIETY PAPERS, 27 MAY 1814

Chapter Text

“You must send me fabrics from India. Alayne’s family sends her watered silk, and they are always far better than anything in the import shops here,” Theresa entreated. “You will be my local agent. My secret weapon of the social season.”

“Of course,” Kate said. A group of ladies walking towards them veered wide to avoid brushing against Kate. As if scandal—or spinsterhood—was catching. Theresa ignored them, not even sneering at the mud splatter one of them picked up from walking so close to the road as Alayne would have, and continued speaking. She had noticed them though, it would be hard not to, and she tightened her hold on Kate’s arm, pulling her closer.

It was the third time that she and Theresa had ventured out together since the ton’s visit to Aubrey Hall, and the distinction was not lost on Kate. That the Earl’s daughter still saw fit to call on her—even with the lack of engagement and the rumors of scandal surrounding her friendship— was already an honor, but that she insisted on showing their continued intimacy in a public sphere did much to put off Kate’s would-be detractors. That her continued favor was shared by Alayne only helped the matter further.

“And I have been meaning to pick up the sitar. The harp has always been a passion, but it is becoming so common that it is nearly as passé as the pianoforte. Father will hire a master for me, especially if one comes at your recommendation.”

Kate agreed to this scheme as well, just as she had for Alayne’s request to send books of Indian poetry to help her expand Lord Lumley’s language horizons. It was embarrassing to have friends deputize her in such matters, transparent ploys to settle money on their less fortunate friend, but Kate was not so prideful she would not accept the help. Afterall, she did know a fair number of sitar tutors who would benefit from the trip to England, and picking fabrics and books at the market was as easily done for two as for one.

“Looks like we’ve fallen behind,” Theresa said. “Edwina and Lady Mary are nearly at the door.”

Both hurried, trying to catch up to Kate’s sister and stepmother, but when they reached Madame Delacroix’s front door, Mary and Edwina were already exiting.

“Is something wrong?” Kate asked. “Is she closed?”

“No, I just thought we might try somewhere else, actually,” said Edwina. “We’ve never bought anything from that new modiste. And any dressmaker Lady Whistledown disparages is likely to be the finest in London!”

“Edwina…”

Without the Sheffield dowry to rely on, all the Sharmas doubted the scholarly second son of an earl would satisfy, they needed to be economical with Edwina’s wedding purchases. There had been whispers that the relationship between the newly engaged Lord Lee and Miss Quinn had already fractured, and that the lady would soon withdraw her acceptance. Kate had hoped to acquire Miss Quinn’s now unneeded trousseau for Edwina, who shared a similar figure, for a discount. Said trousseau had definitely been ordered from Delacroix, not whatever high in the instep modiste Miss Cowper favored.

Without the discounted trousseau her sister would start her marriage with only cotton. Something Kate could not countenance, not when her sister’s wedding dress would already be a made over gown of Kate’s own. Her pride still asserted itself for some matters.

Not that Edwina would mind; she hardly minded anything these days, with how happy she was. Kate didn’t doubt that she and Mr. Bagwell both would float through the wedding without a falter in their smiles, even if they both wore burlap and rushes, if only they could see the other’s face.

Which made her current state of unhappy fluster—not seen since Mr. Bagwell placed his modest ring on her finger—all the more confusing. That is, until Kate spotted its source through Delacroix’s front window.

“Bon, don’t be ridiculous. It is no matter. Besides, Theresa must place an order as well, and you would not relegate her to a modiste at the far end of Bond Street, would you?”

She gave her sister a comforting smile and a squeeze of the hand, before she pushed between Edwina and Mary to open the door herself.

At the back of the shop, Miss Bridgerton stood on the raised dress dais, arguing with her sister, the duchess, and her best friend, Miss Penelope Featherington, over the neckline of her gown.

“Really Penelope, I should order you one too,” the duchess was saying. “I am considering making this shade part of the dress code for our ball at the end of the season, and I need to see it on ladies who do not share my sister and I’s coloring. And Whistledown made me realize I’ve never seen you in—”

She cut her words short when she caught sight of the shop’s new customers.

“Kate!” she said with a wide smile before greeting the rest of the group with more restraint.

“Your Grace,” Kate replied with a smooth curtsy.

With the duke and duchess strictly confined to visiting hours by Lady Danbury’s orders—an effort to stifle the scandalous rumors surrounding Kate and the duke— any conversation shared was carried out before a bevy of watchful visitors. Kate had not really spoken to her since the night of the Bridgeton Ball. It was something she was thankful for, as she needed the distance. The Duchess of Hastings could not be her correspondent and friend as Alayne, Theresa and Edwina would be. It would not be right. The Duke of Hastings, for obvious reasons, was the same.

 “Must you, Kate?” the duchess asked.

Kate avoided her eyes and focused on the selection of gloves Madame Delacroix had on display—not that she’d ever buy gloves at a modiste's shop.

Mary pulled Edwina to Madame Delacroix’s side, interrupting an oddly furtive looking tête-à-tête between the dressmaker and Miss Penelope, to inquire after the trousseau. Theresa quickly picked up a conversation with Miss Penelope as Eloise tried, and failed, to look engrossed in her fabric selection.

“You should change back into your own dress, Eloise,” Daphne said, effectively dismissing both her sister and the lady’s maid that accompanied them. They slipped into the backroom with little protest, leaving Kate and the duchess alone in the rear section of the shop.

“Neither Lady Danbury, nor any other scrutinizing matrons, are here to judge you for familiarity, Kate. You may call me Daphne.”

Kate shook her head. The informality had been encouraged to display the duchess’s approval for her brother’s match. There was no need for it now. Besides, any slip into intimacy would be misconstrued by others. Or by Kate herself, if in an entirely different manner. In this, Lady Danbury was right.

“You are married to one of the highest peers of the realm, Your Grace. It would not be proper.”—She paused before continuing—“We are no longer to be family.”

“Yes, I remember that quite well. It does not signify, as I mean for us to be friends. I expect to spend many future seasons with you, whether they be the social season in London or the shooting season at Clyvedon.”

Kate shook her head.

“I will not be here. I am returning to India,” she said. The old refrain felt odd. Perhaps because it was the first time she’d said as much to a Bridgerton, or maybe because it was the first time her sorrow was matched by relief.

“India!” Eloise exclaimed. “Has Anthony done something to drive you from the country? You must not let him!”

Apparently the shop’s walls were too thin to allow a private conversation.

“It was nothing your brother did,” Kate denied. “It was always the plan. Edwina would be married, and I would return home.”

“And your sister is recently engaged,” said the duchess.

“Yes,” Kate confirmed. “To Mr. Owen Bagwell. She’s very pleased. Be sure to wish her joy.”

“Is she so pleased with your decision to leave?”

No, she was not. Edwina knew that regular visits from her sister would be impossible; India was months away by ship and neither would have the income to fund such an extravagance more than once in a lifetime.

Edwina had tried to convince her to stay, but Mr. Bagwell’s income would already be stretched to support Mary, and Kate knew seeking employment in England would be impossible. It would stain Edwina’s reputation to have a sister in service, but more than that, there was too great a chance of awkward situations. What if her employers hosted an event Anthony attended? What if, one day, her charges were playmates with his children? Her sister’s entreaties to seek a closer situation on the Continent were more appealing, but Kate still rejected them. She would be leaving behind her family already; did she not deserve the comfort of her country as recompense?

Edwina’s last bid was an invitation to the Sheffields for a dinner. She hoped that meeting Mr. Bagwell—and Edwina herself—would convince them to provide the dowry despite his lack of title. Kate did not hold the same hopes and had sent to Falmouth for the schedule of ships departing in August. Edwina had gained that concession: Kate would not return to India until the season was well over.

“My sister understands the necessity of it. As should you. I am sure the talk will die once I am gone.”

“It will die regardless. The ton has a new scandal to crow over every week, and there is no truth to Whistledown’s dreadful insinuations about you and Simon.”

“Even so,” Kate said.

“Is there any way I could convince you to stay?” the duchess asked. 

“The petitions of a most beloved sister came to naught, Your Grace,” said Edwina as she joined them. “There is nothing you can say.”

It had taken more than one conversation for Edwina to accept Kate’s reasoning for her refusal of the viscount, but once she had, she’d cut all Bridgertons from her own social schedule in a showing of solidarity Kate had tried to discourage. Kate mourned the loss of her sisters burgeoning friendship with Eloise Bridgerton. The relationship had been good for both of them.

The duchess did not seem offended by Edwina’s caustic politeness, as she only nodded and moved to collect Miss Penelope. Still, her sudden hurry to leave was obvious.

“Kate,” Eloise said, ignoring Edwina as Edwina was ignoring her. “About my writing…That is, when we were at Aubrey Hall—when we had tea…”

For a dreaded moment, Kate thought that Eloise was going to hold her to her promise, that she would beg Kate to speak to Anthony—to the Viscount Bridgerton—on her behalf.

“I wanted to thank you, for what you said. And also, for the tea. You’ve sort of inspired me to look into seeds and spices more. I’ve been reading Elizabeth Blackwell’s encyclopedia on medicinal plants, and I thought I might try something similar, for well, non-medicinal plants. Not nearly so comprehensive as Madame Blackwell’s work but you were right in that I had no idea how to cook anything. It has been rather humbling, realizing my lack. Though our cook finds it most amusing. But all of that aside, I wondered if you would still be interested in reading my work? Even after…” Eloise trailed off. She looked so nervous, Kate couldn't bear to deny her, even if she wanted to.

“I’d like that,” she said gently. “I will have Edwina to forward my address to you, once I am settled.”—Her sister hummed in agreement, if somewhat reluctantly—“My responses will not be timely, considering how far they must travel, but I would appreciate you sending me any of your writings.”

“It is absolutely certain then? You’re leaving England?”

Kate thought of the Sheffields coming to dinner at the end of the week. There was a chance that they could be convinced of Edwina, even if she had not caught a titled husband, but Kate was sure that they would still insist on her own absence.

“It seems so,” she said. The dejection on Eloise’s face was gratifying. Though it was unseemly to admit it, knowing she would be missed could not but help to raise her spirits. “I wish you the very best, Miss Bridgerton.”

With a final farewell, Eloise joined her sister and exited. Kate crossed the shop to stand at Theresa’s side. Hopefully her friend had picked her fabrics as she waited for Mary and Madame Delacroix to finish, as Kate was rather eager to leave.

Lady Whistledown might think ices at Gunter’s trivial compared to everything else London had to offer, but Kate would place them high on the list of items to miss. Saffron kufli was delicious, but nothing cut through the heat as quickly as a bowl of muscadine ice.

Chapter Text

As soon as Anthony saw her, he knew it had been a mistake to come. He never should have bowed to his mother’s entreaties about family pride and unity; he should have remained at home, locked in his office as he had been for the larger part of the past month.

She stood before a statue of Helen, wreathed in apple blossoms, embracing Paris. Anthony watched as Kate’s eyes trailed up the intertwined bodies of the divinely-crossed lovers before they came to a rest on the wreath of flowers Paris held above Helen’s head. A temporary crown made immortal once carved in legend and stone.

The pull was still there, despite her two refusals. He took a step forward without thought. He wanted to speak with her, to tell her everything that had happened in his life since they last met and hear everything that she had done in return. He wanted to ask her for advice on the troubling reports from Gregory’s Latin tutor and discuss Francesca’s prospects for the upcoming season. He wanted to find out why it was Caleb Williams she’d chosen that night in his study, and to discuss what kind of books she read when she felt happy, instead of scared.

He wanted to know if she’d thought about him last week, when that brief summer storm had rolled over London, darkening the streets under a sudden veil of rain.

He’d thought of her.

But that was not what Kate wanted. In all likelihood, she desired the exact opposite, for him to pass through the statuary hall without acknowledging his past attentions at all.

“It isn’t true. The duchess would never allow it,” a woman insisted behind him.

“You've never ignored one of your husband’s mistresses to maintain marital felicity?”

Anthony recognized Lady Cowper’s snide tone and tensed.

“Ignored, yes but not encouraged her to use my Christian name or made friendly conversation at the modiste. You read the latest Whistledown. It was practically a retraction of her suggesting the impropriety at all!”

Lady Cowper sniffed in derisive disbelief.

“Lady Whistledown may have yielded to pressure from the duke, Henrietta, but I haven’t. Their so-called friendship was suspect from the start. In fact—”

Anthony couldn’t ignore her. He’d been thoroughly scolded for his simple nod at the Bridgerton Ball. Daphne claimed it had given credence to the rumors about Kate and Hastings, and his absent-mindedness when forced to accompany his family to Hyde Park had only fueled them further. If he made his way to the Danbury Room without comment today, the whispers would continue, and Lady Bloom’s weak defense of Kate would collapse.

He would speak with her. He would be brief, touching on only the shallowest of subject matters.

He would not mention his disastrous proposal, nor his plans for an elopement (the archbishop had, of course, granted him special dispensation not three days after she left Aubrey Hall), nor the dozen dreams he'd had of her since that night in his study.

A renewal of his attentions would embarrass them both, but a single conversation could only lessen society’s scrutiny, and might even alleviate the pull he could not rid himself of.

Anthony crossed the room to stand on the other side of the marbled embrace.  

Kate did not notice him. She was no longer admiring the statue but observing Miss Edwina and her new fiancé. Bagwell’s hands wove through the air as he spoke. He was a good man—Anthony had not been able to stop himself from looking into him when he’d heard of the engagement, from checking into his background and situation. He wasn’t sure what he would have done if he’d found something amiss. He couldn’t have told Kate himself, but he did not fancy engaging in a game of Chinese Whispers over such a matter.—and seemed to make Edwina happy. She was certainly more engaged in his conversation than she’d ever been with Lumley or Wyndham.

“Miss Sharma,” Anthony said as he circled the pedestal.

“Lord Bridgerton,” she greeted him with a dip of her head. She turned to go, caught sight of the dozen eager eyes on them, and stilled. She looked at  the floor, as the room’s sculptures, at their observers, but not at him. Anthony wished he had stayed on the other side of the statue and continued watching her through the small gap between Helen and Paris.

“Are you well?”

“Yes,” she replied, almost before he finished voicing his question. Anthony swallowed.

“And your family?”

It was not the question he wanted to ask. There was a hammering inside his head urging him to ask her again—why?

He ignored it. He had heard her answer already, and he understood her, he truly did. Kate had lived with duty her entire life, just as he had, and had shouldered every hardship she could handle. That she recognized one she could not—that she knew her breaking point without having to seek refuge in the arms of an opera singer—just meant she was wiser than he.

Anthony could not fault her for her choice, even if he resented it. Sometimes he looked at his family—not just his mother and siblings, but everything else the Bridgerton name also was: the estates, his seat in Parliament, their standing in society, the dozen business ventures he didn’t quite manage because a viscount could not participate in trade—and wondered how he had remained above water so long, how he had managed the limited success he had. And he knew Kate could see all the same cracks he could, all the moments he’d fallen short.

Anthony had no choice but to be viscount. If he had that choice, at eighteen—

He could not blame Kate for not wanting to be Viscountess Bridgerton.

“Yes, they are well also.”

“I have heard you are quitting England.”

There was no waver in his voice. Anthony’s outer display was one of complete equanimity.

“Who told you? Was it Eloise or Daphne?” she asked.

“A team effort,” he said dryly. “One of very few over the years. I should thank you for giving them a cause to unite over, even if said cause is a hatred for me.”

Both Eloise and Daphne had been shouting the news as they crossed the threshold to Bridgerton House, with no thought for the passersby on the street, their younger siblings, or the curious servants. Anthony expected Kate’s departure would be a feature of Whistledown’s next issue.

“They don’t hate you, Anthony.”

He thought of Daphne’s chilling glare when he’d come upon Hastings carrying Kate upstairs, and Eloise’s indignant accusations about his conduct.

It was not only Eloise and Daphne either. Hyacinth’s disappointment when he told her Kate would not be coming back was acute, and even Francesca’s silence had become pointed. She’d barely wished him farewell when she left for Bath with Aunt Kennard. Her sullenness had been preferable to his brothers. Gregory’s anger had been matched with his older brothers’ good humor. Anthony had felt his fists clench in time with Gregory’s every time he heard Benedict’s ill-stifled laughter at Colin’s quips about Anthony being jilted.

“I would not be so certain.”

“Siblings judge and fight and tease at inappropriate times. We keep secrets and exchange harsh words. We might even vow to never forgive the other.” Kate looked at Anthony for the first time. “But we do forgive, always. We have to. It is a consequence of being family.”

“Are you hoping to convince me or yourself, Kate?”

Kate sighed.

“Edwina has already forgiven me. She understands, as I’m sure your sisters will soon, my lord.”

“But can you forgive her for letting you go?”

She met his eyes and Anthony saw her surprise at his question. But then he watched as she emptied the emotion from her expression, composing herself so thoroughly that even her eyes were like two closed doors. Had he once admired her for that ability? Anthony hated it now; he wanted her to feel as raw as he did, to allow him to read her as easily as she read him.

“Anthony, I will be here to spread haldi across her skin, to stand up with her as she says her vows, to wave goodbye as she drives off in a carriage with her groom. I will sail away when my sister is at her happiest, and my memory of her will always be her with a smile on her face, and a person she loves at her side. Edwina will miss me—perhaps greatly in the first year—but she will soon grow used to the distance.”

Kate’s gaze returned to her sister and Bagwell across the room, as if it was anything close to a representation of the thousand of miles she’d be placing between them.

“When she does, her sister will be found more easily in inked words on a page than in her memories. I’ll be a distant figure who she can unburden herself too—more a diary than a correspondent, for all she will receive advice and reassurances months later. She will tell her children about their Aunt Kate who loves them very much despite them never meeting me. One day, if one of them inherits their father’s great love of archeology, or their mother’s taste in philosophy, they will travel to India to study the ruins or read the Vedas. And I will greet them, old and wizened, and happy. For they will be everything I have wished for my sister, and they will carry our love for each other just by existing.”

Kate smoothed her hands down her skirts and straightened the cuffs of her gloves. Her smile was full of pity.

“Do you see, Lord Bridgerton? There is no need for me to forgive Edwina. Her letting me leave…it is necessary, natural even.”—Kate took a deep, shuddering breath.—“It was the plan all along.”

“You cast yourself as a side character in your sister’s life story?”

She’d taken on the role of Miss Edwina’s thankless mother. No, less than that. As a nursemaid, meant to be grown out of, if remembered fondly.

It was a degradation, even if a self-imposed one. Kate was meant to be—

“As I will be a footnote in yours, my lord.”

“A footnote, Kate? Is that your wish? When you could have been…”

He was a fool for thinking her presence would lessen any pull he felt towards her. Hearing her voice…listening to her plans…breathing in her scent…watching every expression he could catch flit across her face…

The threads of Anthony’s honor—the very thing pushing him to respect her wishes, to never mention how he compromised her, to keep her unattached to him—grew more tenuous with every moment.  

“You still could be, Kate,” Anthony said before he could stop himself. “You could change your mind. You don’t have to leave m—”

“Please, don’t make this harder for me,” she interrupted.

“Harder for you?” he near hissed. She’d resigned herself to a life lived vicariously through a sister she would never see, and consigned him to a life—

Without her.  

Anthony had not realized how empty he had felt before he came across her in Hyde Park. He hadn’t had any confidante. No one so well-formed to understand him. The absence of her felt larger, now that he knew just what he was missing.

“Anthony—”

“Say you do not care for me,” he ordered as he took a step closer. Surely she felt the same energy he did. She would not have returned his kisses so enthusiastically if she did not. “Tell me you feel nothing, and I will walk away.”

They stood together, a touch closer than appropriate at an art show, breathing. For a minute, time slowed, and Anthony simply looked at her. Her hair was different; more curls framing her face than usual. It made her look softer.  

Kate’s composure cracked, and her next words were anguished.

“That is precisely it, my lord. I do not feel nothing; I feel too much. I love you.”

Anthony felt every one of his muscles lock into place. He was as still as the statue in front of them. Kate continued speaking in a tight voice, modulated to ensure no other exposition-goers could overhear her.

“It is not your fault. You spoke no promises, did nothing wrong. It was me. I did not understand it was to be a marriage of convenience and I did not guard my heart as well as I should have. Once I realized my mistake…well, it was all I could do to extricate myself. I found a marriage of unequal affection would not suit me, nor I believe, would you have wanted a wife who pined for you. It would have been…uncomfortable. For the both of us.”

“I…Kate…”

Anthony did not know what to say.

He remembered his mother’s despondent form, sitting day after day in the morning room with nothing but her embroidery for company. She’d embroidered a dozen waistcoats for father that summer, and each finished product had been carefully packed away with the rest of father’s things by the servants, never to be worn.

She’d thought feeding and dressing herself an achievement, and it was. It was, after the catatonia that had stolen her during the first weeks of Hyacinth’s life.

The image of his grieving mother was overlaid by Kate’s face now, broken by his persistence, and that single glimpse he’d gotten of her tears before she’d hidden herself in Hastings’ shoulder. Kate hadn’t been able to finish the night, nor the visit. She’d vanished into her carriage before he’d opened his curtains the next morning.

“I…”

“Do not be alarmed. I have already rejected your proposal, and seek no restitution on your honor or person,” she said. Absurdly, her tone had brightened. “In fact, it is just the opposite. Now that the mystery of my refusal is solved, you can return to your search for a wife without compunction. Maybe I will still be in town when you wed, if you manage before I depart at the end of the season.”

“I do not want that,” he said numbly, thinking of her on a storm-tossed ship, miles outside his reach.

“No. Of course not. Do not think I am seeking an invitation to the wedding breakfast, my lord. I just thought to encourage you, to set you at ease.”

“You claim to love me, yet you encourage me wed another woman?”

Was he truly surprised?

“I am encouraging you to be happy. As I will try to be.”

Confounded did not begin to cover Anthony’s  feelings. And yet, there was something familiar about this. He thought of Siena, shutting her front door after telling him to let her go.

For his own good.

He should be thanking Kate, just as he had managed to—internally—thank Siena for having the strength of will he lacked.

Anthony could not bring himself to.

When he still did not speak after a full minute, Kate excused herself. Anthony watched her slip her arm through her sister’s as if she had not just confessed her love to him. She laughed at some fact Bagwell shared and smiled as Lady Mary joined them, before the happy family moved on.

Anthony remained where he was.

Chapter Text

Anthony walked arm and arm with Eloise, nodding to acquaintances and lifting his hat when necessary. Ahead of them, his mother and Daphne discussed Francesca’s most recent letter, interspersed with excited plans for her upcoming first season. Anthony grimaced at the thought of next year’s bills from the dressmaker. Eloise could hardly stand to be measured and had saved him quite a bit over the past few months. Francesca, who rivalled Daphne in her love of silks and laces, would not be so kind to his accounts.

Still, he could certainly afford it and Anthony was determined that Francesca would be happier with his performance than either Daphne or Eloise had been. He would not be as overbearing as he’d been for Daphne, nor as absent as he’d been for Eloise. No, a perfect balance would be reached—with help.

“Eloise, I must beg a favor from you,” he said. Eloise, who had been listlessly watching Hyacinth and Gregory skip through the grass, turned to look at him wordlessly.

“I wish for your assistance with Francesca’s debut,” he continued. “I am in need of advice and—”

“You’d be better off asking Daphne,” she interrupted him. “Her debut was at least successful.”

Anthony let the silence stretch between them for a moment, but he made no move to release her arm to join their sister and mother.

“Eloise, did you want to get married this season?” he finally asked.

The question seemed to shock her from her stupor.

“No! Of course not! Have you not listened to a word I’ve—”

“So how has this season been a failure for you?”

Anthony thought the answer was rather obvious—it had not been a failure at all—but Eloise did not seem to share his view.

“I have not done anything. I have suffered through balls and dress fittings and dozens of calls with girls who simper insults at me and men who stutter out insincere compliments. I hate it—that much everyone knows—but I have achieved nothing of value either! I complain, but about what? I have never faced any true difficulties, never overcome any real challenges, I have always been secure in the protection of my family—"

“What is wrong with that?” Anthony interjected.

“I—nothing in and of itself, Anthony, but this season I’ve spoken to…people that have made me realize how insular my worldview was, even as I congratulated myself for being the most broadminded of my circle.”

Anthony knew exactly which people Eloise was referring to. Her debut had introduced her to many new faces, but only the Sharmas attained the intimacy necessary to show Eloise how different her life could have been, if only a few things were changed.

“I was determined to make something of myself, to act instead of just speak about acting, to become a writer instead of an unpublished critic. I even thought to write a compendium on Indian spice plants, after reading Elizabeth Blackwell’s on medicinal herbs. But then I rather thought that should be left to an Indian lady; one who lived among those plants and grew them, or at least knew how to properly use them. Besides, Blackwell has a passion for botany which I blatantly lack. I only read her book in the first place because it was written by a woman.”

Eloise sighed and her shoulders slumped.

“So, another failure to add to the pile. At this rate I will be writing pamphlets on the best way to groom a dog, if I manage to write anything at all.”

“Perhaps that is what you should write about then,” Anthony said.

“My failure? Or the fact that the absolute dearth of published works by women led me to read an entire encyclopedia of plants I could care less about?”

“Well…both, in a way. You could write about your experience as a young lady in society, about your first season and your thoughts on it. I know you have many.”

“A more personal Lady Whistledown? Gossip with a side of self-deprecation? That is sure to be a hit.”

“I am not suggesting you write about others’ misfortunes or expose scandals for your fiduciary benefit. I meant a memoir, a piece about your beliefs and dislikes, and your petty struggles—which are yours, no matter how true or real someone else deems them.”

Anthony felt a bit guilty for how little they listened to Eloise. With the way she argued and needled him and his brothers, it was easy to forget that she was many years their junior—and lived without the benefit of their gender or university educations. Perhaps this would ease his understanding of her, paper and ink helping to regiment her thoughts and bridge the gap between their worldviews.

“But Ka—” Eloise cut herself short. “It was suggested it’d be best to publish anonymously.”

“Yes, we will have to remove any singularly identifying details. Maybe you should only speak of two brothers: the dashing eldest and the younger, a young boy who likes painting and traveling and playing the bugle.”

Anthony smiled at the thought of Colin and Benedict’s faces when they realized they’d been combined into an unholy amalgamation with Gregory.

“And one sister? A piano prodigy duchess who enjoys nothing more than a game of hide and seek?” Eloise suggested.

“Precisely.”

“And you think people would be interested in reading that?”

“I would,” Anthony said without hesitation.

“That is just what—!” Eloise stopped short again. “Thank you,” she finished.

Anthony did not know if she was trying to be considerate of his feelings, or if she did not want to draw Kate’s attention by speaking her name. She needn’t have worried. Kate would not hear her. She was being rowed across the calm waters of the Serpentine by Dorset, as she had been for the past quarter of an hour. Anthony hazarded the boat another quick glance. It was still upright, and, from this distance, Kate looked content with her position.

Anthony looked away, intending to refocus on the back of his mother’s head, and caught Daphne’s eye. She’d seen the subject of his glance. Damn.

“I think others would too, Eloise. I know that we sometimes disparage your pamphlets or tease you more than we should for your political views, but I am determined to be better and will try my best to convince Benedict and Colin to do the same.”

“Why?” Eloise asked, sounding skeptical.

“You can be brash and foolhardy—neither are unique traits for Bridgertons. But your points have value, which I would be the bigger fool not to recognize. You are insightful about things most people do not notice and passionate about causes our society thinks better to ignore. Besides, anything you write will have more literary merit than the pulp being printed now. Have you seen Byron’s latest?”

Eloise huffed out a laugh; she shared Benedict’s dislike for the celebrated poet.

“Yet I must publish anonymously? Never to receive credit for my work outside the family?”

Her desire for recognition was wholly understandable, but—

“I’ve heard”—from Kate—“it is the done thing with such works, as it allows you to be a bit freer in your criticisms of society and its members. With your anonymity, you can publish a few shorter pieces so that we may gauge the situation from your readership. If they are well-received, we’ll divulge the truth of their authorship to some not-so-close-mouthed friends so everyone in the ton will know your success.”

“And if it is not?”

Anthony shrugged.

“We will move to a new printer and have you as a different and completely unconnected anonymous lady for your next publication.”

Eloise sighed.

“You say it so simply, as if all I’ve ever had to do was ask.”

He wanted to tell her that was exactly the case, but it’d be a lie. If she’d come to him last year with a request to publish, he would have rejected her out of hand. Truthfully, the thought of her writing still gave him anxiety; he could not help but think of the damage it might do her reputation—all of their reputations—if her name was attached to something scandalous.

But…for as long as he had been head of the family, he had always put them first. Now, with his past failure to listen to his sister’s wants looming large in his mind, he recognized he’d put the family name before the family members— to all of their detriment.

He looked at his sister, who was as eager as a first year at Oxford and twice as sharp.

How had he ever thought to stifle it? To encourage her to mold herself into a society standard?

“Convincing me was the easy part, Eloise. Now you must produce something fit to publish.”  

Eloise grinned, blossoming under his encouragement.

Anthony remembered of Kate’s early comments about women’s knowledge of politics, and her proud insistence her sister knew her own mind. Would he soon be bragging of his own sister’s intelligence at the club? Boasting of her political acumen with those near his bench in Parliament?

He could well imagine reaching Kate’s heights in sibling-driven pride, though he thought it likely she’d announce Edwina as a best-selling lady novelist before conceding to him that Eloise was the better sister.

As his thoughts drifted to her, so did his eyes. He watched as Kate climbed from the boat with Dorset’s assistance. Anthony’s arm twitched forward. Eloise noticed.

“You should ask her again,” she said.

Anthony shook his head.

“She’s refused me,”—three times now, though none of his family knew of his second attempt in the study, or his pleading at the art exhibition—“if I don’t respect that…”

Anthony trailed off. Kate had turned her face to him and for a moment he thought their gazes locked, even at this distance. He could imagine the furrow of her brow, the depth of her eyes, the fall of her lashes as she looked down.

She stepped off the dock, turning away and snapping him from his delusions.

“Women are only given the right of refusal,” he resumed. “To continue to ask, to pressure her into something she does not want, would make me the worst kind of man.”

It would make him no better than Berbrooke, and Kate had no besotted duke waiting in the wings to beat him bloody.

“You just look so miserable,” Eloise said glumly. Anthony squeezed her hand. There was no reassurance he could offer her on this; he was miserable, and, unlike Kate, he doubted he would be finding another partner or happiness in the near future.

“All the more reason for you to leave my side. You’ve done your sisterly duty, Eloise. Go find Penelope and have fun.”

Eloise looked uncertain, and she dithered at his side for another minute. Eventually, his encouraging looks and shooing motions won out, and she skipped off to tell her friend her good news. Anthony hoped Penelope would not pass the information on to her mother. Lady Featherington was a notorious gossip, and with her inside their confidence the ton would be aware of Eloise’s writing ambitions—and his approval of them—before she even had a chance to put down a sentence.

Daphne, incapable of leaving him in solitude for the briefest of moments, fell back to take Eloise’s place on his arm.

“Well brother, are you not going to ask after my interests and goals?” she asked, letting him know how little of his and Eloise’s conversation she’d managed to overhear.

Anthony could ask her if she was happy in her marriage, but they’d settled that long ago, and again once she’d become a mother. He could ask after her plans for the rest of the season, but he’d already heard an exhaustive account of her travel itinerary and ball decorating ideas from mother and had no need to hear them again.

“I know your ambitions; to ensure every debutante knows how orchids are pollinated and propagated.”

Daphne laughed, and Anthony saw their mother shift her attention from Gregory and Hyacinth to him and Daphne. Her soft, contented smile did not change.  

“Watch out,” he continued with a wink. “Or you’re liable to gain a reputation similar to Lady Trowbridge’s.”

“What? That Augie's father is actually the footman?”

Anthony snorted before he frowned.

“With the rumors surrounding Hastings, it is far more likely that the gossip will say he is the child of a maid snuck into the birthing room.”

“I can assure you, Augie was no warming-pan baby. If only the duke were so inclined, I might deem the pain of his infidelity almost worth it—if it meant being spared the pain of childbirth.”

Anthony paled, and quickly checked to ensure no one was within earshot.

“Oh, do not be so worried Anthony. No one will believe the rumors about Simon after you and Kate marry.”

“As I have told you, Daphne; we will not be marrying.”

Anthony was tired. Hastings had dropped his matchmaking efforts with Anthony entirely after the Bridgerton’s country ball, instead focusing on Kate. He’d watched his friend introduce gentleman after gentleman to her, each as unworthy as the last.

Though still more worthy than he.

“If only you knew her reason—” Daphne was insisting. Daphne had dropped nothing. He’d avoided half a dozen contrived meetings with Kate, each organized by his dear sister in her attempts to help him. It had to stop.  

“I do know her reason. She explained at the recent art exhibition.”

“What? Surely you cannot know the truth. She lo—”

“I know, Daphne,” he said shortly, and then again, softly. “I know.”

“She thinks you wish for a marriage without love. Tell me you disabused her of that notion!”

“I cannot. She is right.”

Daphne stared at him in disbelief.

“When our father died, mother was inconsolable. No, beyond inconsolable.”

Daphne shook her arm from his and stepped away from him.

“Do you think I did not ask her?” she asked incredulously. “I am not our mother, to choose a wife for you based on manners or purse netting skills. When you showed an interest in Kate, I made sure of a close acquaintance. With her and her family. None of us were idle Anthony—Hyacinth did not play with her merely for the joy of it, and Francesca did not skulk after you because of some natural surliness. Even Eloise reported her interactions with the Sharmas back to me. I know how she responds to setbacks, how she puts her family before herself, how she grieves. Kate is not our mother, Anthony. She would not have broken.”

Anthony remembered Daphne at eight years old, singing to Eloise to drown out his mother’s screams. How her face tilted up towards his when he stumbled back down the stairs, entirely trusting that he would know the answers, would have the reassurance needed by his younger siblings.

“We weighed her measure, all of us,” Daphne stressed, “because we care about you, Anthony.”

It seemed impossible that the woman before him was the same person as that girl. But then, it seemed impossible that he was the same boy he had been.

He looked down at her upturned face and sighed. Even now, when she was a woman full grown, he hated to disappoint her expectations like this.

“It is not Kate’s measure I worried about coming up short. Daphne, it never was.”

Perhaps for a moment, just after she confessed her love to him, he’s superimposed Kate on to his mother. He’d imagined her wracked with grief, caught in the fog of melancholia, her bright light snuffed out.

It had only lasted a moment; Kate would not stand for anything else.

She’d left him with a smile on her face and rejoined her family to continue moving forward—to continue moving on from him. She would do it; she could do it.

Soon Kate would pick from the parade of suitors Hastings offered her, and she’d become a notable of society on personality alone. In a few years, when hostesses stopped trying to separate them out of courtesy, Anthony would be able to see Kate regularly once more. See her happy, and healthy, and surrounded by people who loved her as much as he did. Now that Anthony knew he loved her, now that he'd realized perhaps he always had—

“All my life, I have attempted to live up to our father’s legacy,” he said to Daphne. “It did not come naturally. I do not have the charm he shared with Colin, nor the playfulness that lives on in Gregory. In a fit of irony for second sons the isle over, it was Benedict who inherited his easy authority.”

Daphne shook her head in denial, but Anthony pressed on.

“All I have is his sense of duty, Daphne. Everything else I have inherited from mother. All my stubbornness, my devotion to family, even my sarcasm. All can be laid at her feet.”

“You are more than parts of our parents, Anthony! You are your own man, with your own strength,” Daphne said urgently.  

“Not in this,” Anthony assured her. He took a deep breath, feeling the tension settle in his chest. “It is for my family—for my siblings and my future children, for the title, and our name, and even the estate that I am letting Kate go. I would not survive her loss, and I fear my grief would be so disastrous as to take the lot with me.”

He would be worse than mother. More prideful in his desolation. His heir—whether it be Benedict or some future son—would have to watch, unable to wrench control from his fingers, as Anthony ruined everything he would one day inherit.

“Is her return to India not considered a loss? Neither of us will ever see her again!”

“Your husband is doing his best to prevent that,” Anthony reminded her.

Daphne shook her head.

“Simon has resigned himself to her leaving; she was not swayed by any English landed gentleman. He’s thrown his lot behind Mr. Dorset now, as he seems to have the best chances, if only because he can recognize the Indian coastline. My husband plans to invest in his further medical research; research that will take him far to the east. India seems inevitable now.”

Anthony felt that last bit of hope—that he would see her from afar, married and happy, surrounded by the grandchildren he denied her, sustained by some other man’s pile of riches—die. It would have been a painful sight, but a bittersweet sort of pain. One full of grief but not regret.

His eyes sought her out. She was no longer beside Dorset. Kate had rejoined her sister and mother, and for once the trio was uninterrupted by suitors. Lady Mary gazed fondly at her two daughters as they walked arm in arm, heads bent towards each other.

He thought of what Kate had said about Edwina, how she would always remember her at her best. How every time she pictured her sister, it would be with the smile of her wedding day. Is that what Anthony had to look forward to? He would never see her, nor receive any letters as Edwina would. All he would have was his fading memory of Kate, young and beautiful, without the lines on a page or on her skin to mark the passage of time.

Young and beautiful and sad. Even now, as she smiled with her sister, he could see the sadness that lingered because of him. One day it would fade, but Anthony would not see it. It’d be chased away by an Indian sun, by the soft words, the eager touch, of Dorset, by the lack of Anthony in her life.

“Anthony?” Daphne said, pulling him from his dark reverie.

It was better this way; for the both of them. Kate had done the right thing in rejecting him.

With effort, Anthony unclenched his fists.

He did not dare look towards Kate again. To meet her eyes again would be torture, and he knew—somehow—that if he looked now, she would be looking back.

His mind spun. Some part was suggesting her exit of England would be better; that the distance would lessen the pull, but Anthony knew it would not matter. A thousand miles would be the same as a thousand feet; insignificant. They would only keep him from soothing the ache with the sight of her.

“Excuse me,” he said to his sister. It was the only leave he bothered to take. His mother called after him, but Anthony did not stop.

He would go back home—away from Daphne’s probing, the ton’s judgement, even his own thoughts—and bury himself in work. He would shore himself up as the Viscount Bridgerton once more, and when he reentered society, he would not feel the urge to kneel at Kate’s feet and beg her to stay.

Or at least he would not surrender to it.  

Chapter Text

“Really now, this is ridiculous,” said Lady Danbury with a punctuating strike of her cane. “A decade in the country does not excuse one for thinking it is appropriate to be this late.”

“Perhaps they mean to be fashionable?” suggested an optimistic Edwina. Mary, who did not pause in her nervous pacing, scoffed.

“This was a mistake,” she said in an undertone. Lady Danbury seemed to think seeing to Edwina’s education was more important than calming Mary’s nerves.

“Fashionable lateness is for balls and routs, Miss Edwina. Not for intimate dinner parties where we all must wait on them before the first course is served.”

Kate watched her stepmother complete another short circuit. She should soothe Mary. It was her turn as Edwina had done it last, before Mr. Bagwell’s arrival. But there were only so many ways to comfort Mary when she did not know the full truth. Kate eyed the last of her tea—English, unfortunately, but brewed strong and fortified with milk and honey—and sighed. It needed to be done.

She set down her cup and saucer, preparing to stand, but a knock interrupted her.

“Finally,” said Lady Danbury as she motioned to the footman at the door. He opened it to allow the entrance of—

“Lord and Lady Sheffield, it has been too long!” cried their hostess, suddenly, for all appearances, not displeased with her guests’ tardiness in the least.

The Sheffields were ushered forward to be introduced to Edwina—and Kate—who bowed as elegantly and demurely as she would have before the queen.

“Oh, my dear, look at you,” said Lady Sheffield with feeling, her eyes only on her granddaughter “Isn’t she quite as lovely as the report said?”

Lord Sheffield nodded in agreement.

Lady Danbury cut into the other lady’s effusions.

“And I also have the pleasure of presenting Mr. Owen Bagwell.”

Kate shifted nervously as Lady Sheffield’s smile faded.

“I’d rather hoped you’d made a mistake when you wrote to us, Edwina.”

Edwina had written a very nice letter inviting the Sheffields to dinner, and into her life. It had included brief mentions of Kate and Mary, but an entire paragraph on Mr. Bagwell and his attributes.

“I thought that your foreign manners…your lack of education led you to leave out a courtesy title meant for an heir. But I see you have chosen a—I’m sorry. Is he a second son? Or a third?”

Kate closed her eyes, pained, so she did not have to watch Edwina’s hopes collapse. Her sister had read over some of the Sheffields’ letters, and she’d thought Mr. Bagwell’s ‘good English breeding’—he was the son of an earl, even if he would not be one himself—would be enough to carry the reconciliation. It seemed it would not be so.

“Second, madame. And all the happier for it, I assure you,” said Mr. Bagwell.

He had the easy bonhomie of a second son comfortable with his lot.  

“Heir presumptive then? After your brother?” pressed Lady Sheffield.

Between his small personal fortune—inherited from his godfather—and the wide respect he commanded among the Royal Society—enough to ensure outside funding for any of his archeological projects—Mr. Bagwell would have little trouble supporting Edwina and Mary both, even if they insisted on accompanying him on every dig.

Kate had no cause for worry. He was a good man, and a good man for Edwina. Her sister loved to talk about him—almost as much as she loved to talk to him. Kate had learned more about the ancient Britons than she had ever cared to know, and each fact had been interspersed with descriptions of the passion in Mr. Bagwell’s eyes as he recalled the first cairn he found, or the way his hair had fallen over his forehead as he gifted Edwina a coin from Imperial Rome.

Kate liked him. He would be a fine husband, and a fair replacement for Kate as head of their family.

But she wished he would be a little more serious.

“Indeed not,” he said with a chuckle. “My elder brother is one for duty, and he and his wife have already taken care of his own heir and a spare—plus another for the clergy! I’m afraid I will remain hopelessly untitled my entire life, unless one of their majesties sees fit to reward me for some unworthy deed that is.”

Mr. Bagwell winked. Lady Sheffield’s lips pursed in distaste.

“Shall we sit down for dinner then?” prompted Lady Danbury. Her voice was odd. It held a tone Kate had never heard from the woman before. Almost nervous. Still, her status as the party’s hostess remained, and Lord Sheffield’s rustication had not engendered such rudeness that he would fail to respond to her wishes. He held out an arm to her and the pair led the party into the dining room.

The first course passed near-pleasantly. The confines of the table and good manners ensured any further comments on Mr. Bagwell’s lack of title were unspoken.  Yes, Mary’s agitation was apparent in her every movement, and Edwina’s shoulders were tight as she tried to alleviate the tension at the table, but still. Near-pleasantly. Afterall, Lady Sheffield’s remarks had been tame, if pointed, and Kate had successfully feigned interest when Mr. Bagwell spoke about the information held in differing rock layers—something Lord Sheffield seemed actually interested in.

The presentation of the second course—or perhaps the completion of her third glass of wine—appeared to break Lady Sheffield of her reserve. Kate was just cutting into her duck breast, served with a gooseberry sauce Lady Danbury was overly fond of, when the lady directed a question at Mr. Bagwell.

“Your parents, Mr. Bagwell, are the Earl and Countess of Marston?”

“Last I was aware, yes.”

Kate, expecting a question on their estate, or even a gauche one on the number of generations that had held the title, was not prepared for—

“And they do not care for you overmuch, do they? Neither deigned to be present to meet the lady you plan to marry.”

Edwina’s eyes were wide, darting between each face. None of her etiquette lessons had ever covered something like this. Kate could only imagine the horror she would be feeling if Mr. Bagwell’s parents were also witnesses to such behavior from the Sheffields.

But then maybe the Sheffields would not have acted so, in the presence of those they viewed as their equals.

“Don’t think of it as a slight, Lady Sheffield,” said Mr. Bagwell. His voice was still good-humored, but Edwina must have been able to detect a strain in it that Kate could not, as her hand began to creep across the space between them. Mr. Bagwell took it lightly in his own as he continued. “My parents are currently hosting the Prince Regent and his guests at Marston. You must admit a royal visit outranks even the most beloved of sons, second born or otherwise.”

“Indeed,” agreed Lord Sheffield. His facial expression had hardly changed the entire time. None of the disgust or indignation that his wife displayed, but certainly no disapproval of her behavior either.

“Well, if they have not met Edwina, I hardly think it appropriate that any banns were read. Were they? Read that is? Or are you purchasing a license?”

“No banns as we have not yet decided on a church, Lady Sheffield.” Edwina shared. “Owen—Mr. Bagwell that is—favors Christ Church in Oxford, but I’m not sure if we need an entire cathedral.”

“St. Clement’s is much smaller, of course,” Mr. Bagwell said in turn, “and closer to my family’s home. But I rather think Miss Edwina deserves a cathedral on her wedding day.”

The Sheffields did not appear charmed.

“No firm decision on the date either I take it?” asked Lady Sheffield, which was answered by the couple with a murmured confirmation. Something in the woman’s visage softened. “Well, you are young yet. I have always said a long engagement is the best sort of thing for a girl in her first season. Besides, it will give you time to visit our estate. It is in a most pretty part of Hertfordshire, and the surrounding lands would be very different compared to what you’re used to, with only India and the parks of London to compare.”

Edwina nodded along, eyes glistening with relief at the invitation, and the perceived acceptance it held.

“There is a tract I think you would particularly enjoy. It just neighbors ours and is owned by a very charming gentleman.”

Kate paused midbite before she slowly resumed chewing. She traced over the words internally. A long engagement? A charming neighbor?  It almost sounded as if—

“Do not tell me old Lord Ruel is still unwed! Hoping to have my daughter break her engagement as I would not?”

Mary’s voice was sharp as a knife, and it cleaved the polite façade of Lady Sheffield in two.

“I hardly think you’re fit to speak his name after you so callously rejected his suit, and embarrassed both he and us so scandalously! We are lucky he did not cut the acquaintance completely, as the rest of society did!”

“Perhaps we should speak of lighter things?” Lady Danbury suggested. “Lord and Lady Sheffield, do you plan to attend an opera while you are in town? I believe you still keep a box.”

“I do enjoy the opera,” Edwina said, seizing on the chance. “My sister, Kate is the one who introduced me to it.”

Kate smiled in acknowledgment, ready to suggest they see Bishop’s latest piece running in Covent Garden, but Lady Sheffield spoke first.

“Yes, I am sure your sister would appreciate the opera. She must find many like-minded people among their casts.”

Kate’s mouth snapped shut. Mr. Bagwell’s fell open. The implication of Lady Sheffield’s words was not lost on any of them.

“How dare you!” cried Mary.

“She comes by it honestly at least. Her father was a mere clerk who fancied himself a grand seducer—and you his willing Donna Anna! To think I raised such a fool! Was it worth it, Mary?”

“Of course it was! If you had ever taken the chance to form a connection with either of my daughters you would know. Everything was worth it!”

Lady Sheffield sneered.

“Worth it, perhaps, but not profitable, was it?”

“My dear,” started Lord Sheffield, but his wife cut across him without pause, her voice lit with anger.

“You should have fallen to your knees in gratitude for all we did for you as a child, but I suppose you think this is enough to satisfy me? You, putting on airs, even as you beg for scraps at my table?”

“It is my table we sit at tonight, and—”

“Begging for scraps? I want nothing from you! The kindest thing you ever did for me—and for them—is casting us out. Your shunning may have hurt me, but it set me free. It allowed me to raise my daughters free of your constant judgement, your social grasping, and your craven idea that wealth and titles are all that matter in life!”

“Is everyone enjoying the sauce? It is my favorite. Lady Sheffield, you have quite the sweet tooth, I do recall?” Lady Danbury tried again, but was roundly ignored.

“Fine words from you!” Lady Sheffield snarled. “You want nothing of my judgement or knowledge— only the connection to me that is found in your father’s coin purse!”

Kate met Edwina’s eyes over the centerpiece. They were as panicked as her own and carried the same too-lately-realized knowledge. They should have told Mary.

“I care nothing for your money! I have lived without—”

“And what a life it must have been, for your daughters to write to us, begging for a chance to snatch at our fortune!”

Kate watched as confusion crossed Mary’s face, then anger, hurt, and the painful grief of failure. Mary fell back in her chair, eyes rising to meet Kate’s.

“What is she talking about?” she breathed. It was a question for Kate, but Lady Sheffield answered.

“The trust fund we have set up for Edwina. The condition of which clearly states that she must marry a man of good English breeding to inherit. You did not think we would allow another generation to pollute the Sheffield name, did you?”

“Mary, I shall explain everything, I—”

“Not that my granddaughter could ever have found a proper man with such a woman at her back. No doubt she chased away any true prospects by pursuing them herself, hanging off any that gave a hint of interest in providing her unworthy person a fortune or a title beyond her standing!”

Kate changed tacks.

“Mr. Bagwell is a man of good English breeding, and a fine gentleman besides. Lady Sheffield, if you only—”

“But too poor for you is that it? No need to hound the steps of a second son when a viscount is on the line!”

Mr. Bagwell toasted Kate before knocking back the rest of his wine.

“Edwina, did you know?” asked Mary, ignoring the others.

“Mama…” Edwina started. Kate could see she did not know how to go on. Edwina had never faced Mary's disapprobation before. Her eyes sought Kate's, but she held on to Bagwell’s hand like a lifeline.

“No, that is not—" Kate began, trying to turn Mary's attention. It did not work.

“Though even the Viscount Bridgerton wised up, and now you must earn the money on your back instead of snatching it at the altar. Tell me, how is the Duke of Hastings? One hears such things in the country…”

Kate felt as if she were submerged in water, as if she had fallen off the ship during that single dreadful storm they’d weathered, and all of England had been a dream. The conversation seemed leagues away, words swimming towards her through the waves of the sea.

“…that you were even considered is doubtful, a diversion is more…”

“…remember the Devonshires? The duke’s appetites are…”

“…perhaps dessert? First meetings can be…”

Edwina and Kate had been too optimistic by far, but this? How had it devolved into this?

“…poor Lady Bridgerton…”

“…and my daughters! How could…”

“…something she inherited from her father…”

“Lady Sheffield, please…” Edwina’s pleading voice broke through the disjunction.  

“If you thought for a moment we would let you inherit the earldom, you are very much mistaken! There will be no petition from us! I’d rather the title die then let the crown make you or your mother its countess!”

“How could you, Edwina?” said Mary.

Edwina looked lost. Kate remembered her sister’s expression as the boat had pulled up its anchor in Bombay’s harbor. How Edwina’s eyes had remained on the port until it had completely faded from view, and how she had filled her obvious melancholy with hope for the future. Within a few days it was gone, entirely replaced with her hopes for the future: for England, and the family she would find there. Not just her husband, but the Sheffields as well.

All those hopes were crashing around her, and she was losing her mother in the destruction.

Kate had done this. She’d built this hope up, pulled Edwina into her schemes, and then ruined it all with her mishandling of herself. If only she had not listened at the races that day and entered a courtship, if only she’d held her composure and not leaned on the Duke of Hastings at such a public event as the Bridgerton Ball.

“I can only be glad you took that foul clerk’s name as your own! Your eldest daughter is no family of mine, and soon all of society will have forgotten the regrettable connection that lingers between us!”

No. There was no way she could have behaved that would have improved her standing in the Sheffields’ eyes. Her scandal was assured at birth, her actions only confirmed it for them. She imagined this same dinner, in some world where she had never been courted by Anthony, had never befriended Daphne or Simon or even Alayne, where she had kept silent and poised and played the perfect chaperone to Edwina with some titled gentleman who did not make Edwina smile as Bagwell did.

It would not have made a difference.

Kate pushed her chair back from the table and stood.

“Enough!”  

So Kate had fallen in love with a man who did not love her, so she embarrassed herself in front of all of English society, so she may have damaged her sister’s prospects irreparably. Kate knew she was a fool, but she was not foolish enough to put up with this. She would not allow herself to be debased so these people could feel powerful.

“If you cannot read that is no fault of Mary’s or my sister’s. Did any letter negotiating the trust contain their signature—or even a postscript bearing their well-wishes? No, they were all from me. The elder sister of unknown origin who was grasping beyond her station!"

She could feel the sneer form on her lips, could hear it in her words.

“You are correct,” Kate continued. “We are not family. I have sat here because you are family to those I love, and I wished for Edwina to have the family I lack. I thought there was a chance for Mary to regain the love of a parent which she has always extended towards me. But I do not have to sit here and listen to this. To listen to you disparage me or my family in this way. It is a mortification too far. Lady Danbury, I’ll see myself out.”

“Kate, wait!”

Kate could not stay here. She would not ask Edwina to expel her own grandparents from the table, but she would not remain in the same room as such people a minute more.

“This is precisely why I put forward the stipulation on breeding,” said Lord Sheffield evenly as he wiped the corners of his mouth with a napkin. “The hysterics of commoners are just exhausting.”

At this moment, Kate hated him more than she hated his brash wife. The hysterics of commoners? After the antics of his own noble wife? Kate seethed.

“I’m sure you’ll die in peace knowing my common hands are far away from your precious title. But know this: I’ll be laughing when the prince awards it to the next jumped-up tradesman who pleases him. And when all of society fetes the royal fishmonger as the new Earl of Broxbourne, Edwina will be a happy woman, with a proud mother and sister. You will just be dead, left alone to spin in your unvisited graves, destined to be forgotten within the year by the ton whose opinion you cared so very much for.”

If she looked at them a moment longer, she’d be unable to resist the urge to spit on Lady Sheffield’s plate.

Kate gave a quick curtsy to Lady Danbury, a silent apologetic look to her sister, and quit the room.

She turned left instead of right, moving to the back of the house instead of towards the main staircase. A night fuming in her bed, straining to listen to the evening unfolding downstairs, stewing in the knowledge she had ruined everything, would not help her.

An evening ride, however, might be just the thing to set her mind to rights.

Chapter Text

“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.”

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.