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i wish it from myself

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He’s made a mess of things. This is nothing new. Anthony’s been making a mess of things for the majority of his life. But as he watches his friend row a boat down the Serpentine with a certain Miss Sharma in it, he feels it more acutely than ever before.  

A few weeks ago, a lifetime ago, this is what he would have wanted. Or this is what he’d been telling himself that he’d wanted. Kate distracted, her discerning gaze and prying hands far away; and Edwina enamoured by him, beholden to him, by his side.

Now that he has it, he doesn’t have it in him to even pretend to be glad for it. There isn’t even the satisfaction of besting the impossible woman, a feeling he’d been quite certain he’d never tire of. Now he feels dread seep into his stomach, the overwhelming wrongness of it all that settling on him like a too-tight coat. When she laughs at something Dorset says, he feels it everywhere. He wants to drag his eyes away from the harrowing sight, but he finds himself unable to do so.

For one, Anthony is quite sure Miss Sharma - Kate - might just be the loveliest creature to ever walk the earth. There is no other explanation for the hold she has on his dreams, and his every waking thought, really. He convinces himself that he’s being fanciful every time he’s away from her only to be reminded, unpleasantly, cruelly, of how right he’d been when he sees her next.

It's gallingly awful today, especially since he knows that he’s not the only one noticing. She’s divine, her gown a rich purple against her glowing skin, the tendrils of her hair caressing her elegant face, and that smile. God in heaven, a man could die a million times to be looked at like that. And then he remembers who she’s smiling at. He clenches his fist, something terrible and hot coursing through his veins, and corrects himself. A man could kill a million times to be looked at like that.  

A bright, tinkling laugh from next to him breaks him out of his worryingly violent train of thought. Edwina. Lovely in both spirit and form. Kate’s sister. A walking reminder that he’s an unmitigated cad.

It hadn’t seemed that way when he started pursuing her. Edwina Sharma was beautiful and had seemed intelligent and kind. She shared his values and little else. She was agreeable when he had shared what he’d wanted out of a marriage. Most importantly, he was quite certain that he could never break her heart.

Something tells him that Kate would never stand for an arrangement like that. Even if he’d gone down on his knees to beg. Oh, how close he’d come to begging.

Another laugh. This one more substantial and uncaring. Dorset makes her laugh. Anthony might have found him an amusing sort of fellow once. Now, he thinks that he finds himself wanting the boat to tip over. He can't quite remember if the man can swim but it doesn't really signify, does it? Of course, Kate would be able to swim to safety. Edwina had once told him that she had been the one to teach her back in India. He finds himself intrigued by the image of her sopping wet, swimming up to him like a mermaid from one of those books Hyacinth so adores, eyes beseeching --

He will not go there. He'll likely revisit the image later, but for now. Well, he is a gentleman. He tries to peel his eyes away from her, pay attention to the woman he should be paying attention to , but his gaze goes back to her as it always does. 

Kate, Kate, Kathani.

There seems to be no end to the way she plagues him. The scent of her; floral and unmistakable, her sharp lines and jagged edges he wants to cut himself on, her voice in his dreams bleeding into reality. He thinks of the real, true laugh she tears from his throat, the things he’d told her that he’d scarcely let himself acknowledge, let alone uttered to another soul. She sees right through him like he’d made of glass. 

There is nothing more terrifying.

When Kate threads the water with her gloveless hand, he feels an uncomfortable heat spread through his body. He’d held it like that not two hours ago. He’d never been particularly taken with a woman’s hand, unless it had been wrapped around his cock, but with Kate. With Kate, the simple act of caressing his thumb against her knuckles had been transformative. It was the only thing he wanted to do, even with all the appallingly vulgar dreams that he’s had of her. It had been enough. If he closes his eyes, he can recall the exact contours of her fingers. The bump of cold metal on the fourth one. 

With some effort he turns to Edwina, who is still locked in animated conversation with Violet. She gesticulates with her right hand, his mother's ring now where he'd intended it to be. The two sisters have the same fingers according to Brooks. Yet he cannot help but feel the ring is on the wrong hand. Which is ridiculous, of course. He knows why and how they'd ended up in this accursed situation. 

He’d known why he needed to propose to Edwina then. Before that, if he’s being honest. He loves Kate. Everything he’d done is because he loves her. Everything he will do is because he cannot.

Anthony Bridgerton is used to his messes. This too will pass. And when it does, he will know that he did the right thing for everyone.

So, he should be glad that Dorset is devouring her with his eyes and that she’s letting herself be devoured (for there is nothing that happens to Kate without her permission). He should feel relief that someone else might whisk her far, far away. Dorset is a good man. Kind and supportive without being stifling. Kate’s independent spirit wouldn’t suffer under his devotion. A jolt of panic floods his body at the thought. 

She wouldn't suffer, he reasons with himself, but should she not be able to thrive? He might not control her, but he would never understand her either. He would never challenge her. He would never hold her gaze and see all the truths she insists on hiding.

Kate can never be his but doesn’t she see that Dorset could never be hers either? They’re entirely wrong for each other. Suddenly, despite his best intentions, he thinks that their boat ride has gone on for far too long. If only the infernal man would stop fucking rowing. If only Kate would look away from him and look –

And as if she's heard him, she glances up at Anthony with those stunning eyes and he swears his heart stops. She looks away quickly, of course, but it’s too late. He feels the impact of her in his very bones. How is it like this every time? How is it possible that something so simple as looking feels so earth-shattering, so life-altering? He swallows roughly and turns away at the tender smile she bestows on the other man. He shouldn’t hurt like this. Not with her sister on his arm.

But he is only a man.

There will never be another like her and he’s glad for it. All the feelings he will ever have will leave with her aboard a ship, docking an eternity away. She will forget him as soon as she finds the home she’s always yearned for. She’ll find a better man and a family who will have little to do with him and her life will be better than whatever she could have had with a ghost of a man like him.

But he cannot help but wonder what it would be like to not have to hoard the slightest slivers of information about her he comes across. What if he didn’t have to subtly nudge Edwina into telling him about their lives in India, or pause near doorways when he hears Eloise gush about Miss Sharma’s rapier wit, or scour gossip rags for mentions of how singularly prickly she proves herself to be at every turn. What if he could just sit down across from her on a boat, rowing it so her lovely hands don’t get tired, so she doesn’t have to pause as she tells him everything he’s ever wanted to know. It seems he cannot fault Dorset. That boat ride would go on very long indeed.