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Rocks and Mountains

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Kate Sharma may be a romantic soul, but she is not one to be overly enamored with the exterior of men. So, Kate agrees with a sentiment expressed in a novel she once read. The author asked her readers, what are men to rocks and mountains?

Kate’s answer to that question is that men are mere creatures. They are not god-like beings nor superior to the wonders of the earth. So why should they be revered like they are the best thing humanity has to offer? 

While Kate can appreciate a handsome man, she knows what lies beneath (or, more importantly, what does not) should serve as the basis of her judgment. As a result, she rarely ever giggles along with the women who rave about the dashing good looks of gentlemen. There are far better things to occupy her thoughts. The physical attributes of men shouldn’t hold much of her attention. 

And yet, when Kate meets Anthony Bridgerton, she finds it hard to obey that logic. 

Men may be nothing compared to rocks and mountains—but Viscount Bridgerton causes those mountains to shake and those rocks to tumble. He transforms a territory Kate’s known all her life into a new landscape. It’s rather infuriating how Anthony forces her to reassess the scenery surrounding her. She finds herself continually readjusting her balance whenever she is in his presence. 

Kate fears if she doesn’t regain her stability quickly enough, she will fall into a crack in the earth and be swallowed whole, never to resurface. 

 

🐝 🐝 🐝

 

It’s Anthony’s eyes that attract Kate first. 

After Kate takes off her hood, she meets the eyes of the man who joined her in an impromptu race. She’s immediately sucked into their depths. Even from afar, the deep brown of the gentleman’s eyes is intense. But, there’s a wild gleam in them, too, which hasn’t been tamed by well-bred society. Kate smiles, feeling a kindred thread tying them together. But, she gives him a nod and turns back around on her horse. 

He catches up with her, of course. So, she gets to see those eyes even closer. But, while she keeps her composure through their exhilarating interaction, Kate feels like she’s drowning in a sea of brown. 

Kate eventually gallops away from him, but she finds that she cannot run from his eyes. Instead, they burn in her memory. Throughout her day, she finds herself thinking back to them. They resurface yet again when Kate describes to Edwina how a man will go about winning her heart. But, Kate has no plans to marry this season, as her priority is to assure Edwina’s happiness and her family’s future. However, those gentlemen’s eyes are stuck like a pesky tune in her mind, making her want to hear the melody again. 

When Kate sees him at the ball across the room, she begs his eyes to meet hers. It was like getting a taste of something sweet, leaving her insatiable. There’s a new hunger in her stomach that she’s never felt. It should be unsettling. Yet, Kate feels thrilled by it. She craves something she does not even have the name for, only knowing he alone possesses it. 

After she learns the man whose eyes haunted her imagination is Viscount Anthony Bridgerton, she watches him dance with a poor young lady. A fondness grows in her heart as she watches him struggle with her on the dance floor. 

He needs someone who can keep up with him, Kate surmises. 

He bids the woman a polite goodbye and heads out the back doors. Kate’s feet begin to follow him before her mind has any say. 

But, when Lord Bridgerton’s eyes finally meet hers again, it’s after hearing what he desires in a wife. His words leave a bitter taste in her mouth. As Kate listens, her heart plummets from a height it should have never reached. 

Through the Viscount’s attempts to make Edwina his bride, Kate, unfortunately, has to keep staring into those eyes. During their arguments at the racetrack and Lady Danbury’s household, she witnesses a darker gleam in them. Kate can’t help but desire to match his flame. She puts just as much spite into her words and makes the fire in his eyes blaze brighter.

A part of Kate wonders if she engages in their bickering matches not to dissuade him from pursuing her sister but to keep the flame in his eyes alight. Lord Bridgertons eyes, when they go dark, send a pleasurable burning sensation throughout her body. A hidden part of herself longs to be engulfed whole by the fire. Kate wants to be brought to the brink of combustion if it means feeling that sweet release of heat.

It becomes a problem how Kate’s eyes seem to find him no matter the circumstance or distance. Anthony can sense her looking every time. It’s like their beings are one knot. When he tightens the string, she does too. When she tugs to loosen the bow, he tugs back. Kate doesn’t know if the right thing is to strengthen the knot or let it unravel. 

After returning to Lady Danbury’s soiree after her awkward departure (which she only made because his damn entrancing eyes sought hers out again), Kate finds herself in the corner of an adjoining room. Only a few servants and two men facing chairs away from her occupy the space. They laugh and chatter as they drink whiskey.

Before when Kate made her way into this room, Kate noticed Edwina leaving the Viscount’s side to converse with other suitors. Kate felt a sense of pride, knowing that Edwina was trying to be the picture of politeness—just like she taught her to be. So, maybe because other men would be keeping her engaged for the remainder of the evening, the Viscount would depart early. 

Kate stares down at her lemonade. Perhaps, if she keeps her eyes focused on the liquid, she won’t get trapped by a particular set of brown ones. 

But then Kate feels it, that tingling on the back of her neck, the sense that he is looking. 

Even as Kate hears footsteps approaching her, she doesn’t look up. Instead, she keeps her eyes on her glass. Whatever happens, Kate swears to herself that she will not glance up. The Queen’s elephant could burst into Lady Danbury’s home, and her gaze would not waver.  

“Miss Sharma, I’m glad I could attend, despite my invitation slipping through the cracks.” 

The bewitching low reverberation of his voice, paired with the irritating condescension of his tone, almost breaks her. However, Kate keeps her chin down as she speaks. Her eyes remain focused on the yellow liquid in her glass. 

“Yes, it is indeed lucky. Perhaps I should take better care of your invitation next time, giving it the same treatment as your stolen poem.”

She feels him take a step closer. Goosebumps begin spotting her skin despite her better sense. 

“Why do I feel that if you had the choice, it wouldn’t be just my invitation you would condemn to the flames, but me that would meet such an unfortunate fate?” 

Kate’s neck snaps up, unable to resist glaring daggers at him. “I would never do such a thing.”

Lord Bridgerton tilts his head, the corners of his lips lifting. “Oh no?” 

“Yes, I think a trip to the gallows would be much more my style of ridding myself of your presence,” Kate says through gritted teeth. 

Lord Bridgerton’s eyebrows scrunch together. “Was my speech so poor that you would punish me to such an extent?” 

“No, it was not poor. It was the truth,” Kate sighs reluctantly. “I admire you for not using someone else’s words as you could have done so easily.” 

“Yet, I sense you still have a problem with what I said.”

There’s a new glint in his eyes—one of intrigue. Kate curses herself internally for breaking her previous vow. If she hadn’t raised her head, she wouldn’t feel her heart beating a little faster right now.

Kate’s back straightens. “I do not have a problem with the principles you expressed, but the fact that those principles do not align with the life my sister desires is what bothers me.”

He folds his arms. “Miss Edwina told me she enjoyed my words, found them honorable, even.”

“Honesty is honorable, but it is not honorable to pursue an impressionable young lady who believes that your affections could warm despite stating the exact opposite.”

Lord Bridgerton exhales, seeing that this battle is quickly slipping away from his favor. She watches him put on a mask he most commonly uses in Edwina and her mother’s presence, that of a perfect and upstanding gentleman. Kate doesn’t understand how others don’t see through it—or why she, of all people, can. But that is a question that is probably best left unanswered. 

“Your sister is a woman with many merits, whose presence I wish to continue to be in, as I am fond of her,” he says cautiously but determinedly. 

Kate’s stare hardens. “But you do not love her.”

That throws Anthony—the Viscount, Kate reminds herself, off. Like during his poetry recitation before, his ruse falters when he meets her eyes, unable to lie. Kate may not think much of him, but this proves that Lord Bridgerton is a man of honor. She wishes he wasn’t so that she could dispute the match between him and Edwina without as much resistance from Lady Danbury. 

“No, I do not love her,” he speaks quietly.

She releases a breath at his confession, feeling relief. But this, in turn, makes her feel an odd sense of guilt. 

But, Kate cannot linger on her muddled emotions as Lord Bridgerton begins to recover from his lugubrious rumination. A teasing glimmer has returned to his eyes. He takes another step closer to her, and Kate feels her body instantly react to the proximity, going on high alert. 

“May I ask you a question now, Miss Sharma?” 

“I feel like if I said no, you’d ask anyway,” Kate grumbles. 

“What is so interesting about that lemonade?” 

Kate blinks. “What?”

“Your lemonade,” he repeats, his voice dripping with charm. “What is so entertaining about it?” 

“Nothing.” She tries to keep her expression composed, but her fingers twitch against the glass of lemonade in question. “I don’t…This is absurd. Why would you ask such a thing?”  

“Because before I came over, you were staring into it like it held the secrets to the universe.” 

Kate puts a hand on her hip. “You couldn’t have known I was staring at it unless you first stared at me.”

Lord Bridgerton’s smirk falters—looking like a deer who’s just been caught on the other end of a gun. 

“I didn’t—I wasn’t looking at you,” he stutters, causing Kate to grin in victory. “I—my sister, Eloise. I was scanning the room to assure she wasn’t getting into any trouble, and my eyes happened to stumble upon you during my search.”

Kate shrugs, coyly taking a sip of her lemonade. “Whatever you say, my lord.” 

He scowls. “Do not give me that look.” 

“Why, my lord, I have no idea what you mean.”

Lord Bridgerton’s eyes get that dark gleam, and Kate feels that fire burn in her soul.

“You, Miss Sharma, do not play the role of innocence well.”

“And you, Lord Bridgerton, do not play the role of a respectable gentleman well,” Kate snaps. 

His jaw tightens. “I assure you, I am nothing but a gentleman.”

“A gentleman, yes, but a respectable one, no.” She arches an eyebrow at him. But, then, her feet act without a thought, stepping into his orbit. “That is if what Whistledown writes about you is anything to go by.” 

“You seem very interested in what Whistledown writes about me,” he says with a wicked curl of his lips. “Are you curious about what my past exploits entailed, Miss Sharma?”

Kate rolls her eyes. “I can imagine what they entailed.” 

Before Kate realizes what’s happening, he’s approaching her, and she’s stepping backward. Suddenly, her back rests against the wall. Anthony—she calls him, just in her mind, crowds her against it. She gets an intoxicating whiff of cedarwood and a deep amber scent as he nears her. He reaches for the glass in her hand, and she lets go of it without resistance. She should be resisting, Kate thinks to herself. Why isn’t she resisting? 

After setting the glass on the table, he turns, his eyes locked on hers. 

Kate feels the lick of a flame at the core of her womanhood. 

It’s at that moment that she knows why she isn’t resisting. It’s the same reason why she looked at Anthony minutes earlier despite promising herself to do the opposite. Her world’s axis has tilted—and it can never be aligned to what it once was, what she settled for it to be. 

“Miss Sharma,” Anthony whispers, his breath hot as it lands against her cheek. “You can not begin to imagine what those exploits entailed or comprehend the pleasure they brought.” 

Kate swallows, her pulse quickening. “My lord—.” 

She moves her head to the side, glancing to see if the men behind them or anyone else is watching. But, she sees no one else in the room. The other gentlemen must have left. They are completely alone. 

Kate should be afraid. She should shove Anthony away. Yet, she looks back at him, into those brown eyes that have the inexplicable ability to change her sense of gravity. 

When her head moves a fraction closer, Anthony blinks as if suddenly coming back into his body. He takes a step back, his head widely craning around the room to see if anyone witnesses their intimate conversation. His body deflates when he sees what she saw, that they are alone. 

He pivots back around with an expression filled with shame. 

“Forgive me, Miss Sharma,” Anthony says, clasping his hands behind his back. “My words were improper. I did not mean—.”

“To expose your true nature?” Kate asks the fire that had been within her suddenly becoming cold. Her body which felt like liquid before, now is stone. She fixes him with a stern look and musters all the hatred she can manage into her tone. “Well, you have, Lord Bridgerton, for the second time tonight. It is proof that you are not the man and will never be the man for my sister.” 

She stalks past him into the adjoining room, where the suitors displayed their talents earlier. Luckily, only a few guests are still in attendance, but she pays them no mind as she heads back to her room. She feels the weight of Anthony’s stare on her back but does not turn. 

Yet, when she steps out of the carriage and looks upon Aubrey Hall a week later, her eyes again find him. They continue to seek him out—meeting his gaze, which is already focused on her. She finds that the fire between them is still very much burning. 

But as she looks into his eyes while laughing in the mud, that fire takes on a new temperature. It is no longer as smoldering. Instead, it has the soothing warmth of a fireplace, comforting her from any chill. 

Kate feels a sense of dread, realizing that this stay at Aubrey Hall may cause a wildfire that she can never control. But forces her dislike of the man to take precedence for Edwina’s sake. However, Anthony’s mask continues to slip during the beginning of their stay. During the game of Pall Mall, she learns of his family, of his devotion to them, one that matches her love of Mary and Edwina. It makes her reservation to hate him become more complex.

Even more challenging is Kate’s struggle to keep her own mask from falling. It is easy to disagree with Anthony’s courtship of Edwina when she could focus on his false facade. But, it is more difficult when Kate discovers that she and Anthony are like mirrors, reflecting what they wish to hide from each other. 

Sooner or later, she’ll run out of places to escape. 

 

🐝 🐝 🐝

 

The second thing about him is something that more so intrigues her than attracts her—although perhaps those two emotions go hand in hand. Or, at least they do, where Lord Bridgerton is concerned.

She noticed it during their game of Pall Mall. When Anthony is focused, he gets a crease between his brows. His lips press thinly together in concentration, his eyes narrow on whatever is unlucky enough to be his target, and a definitive line surfaces on his forehead. 

Why that of all things gathers Kate’s attention, she does not know. Perhaps it is like looking at a crack in a vase, something that should not be there. One wishes to learn what event led to its fracture. There’s a story there that Kate is curious to uncover. 

Well, she gets an idea of what the story is when speaking to Eloise while preparing herself some tea she can actually stomach. 

Their father’s passing weighs down Anthony. It probably aged him quickly as her father’s death did to her. Grief has a way of altering oneself, even the exterior. There’s suddenly more responsibility, more to accomplish, more of yourself to give to others that leaves little of you left. Kate wouldn’t change a single thing. She sees it as her duty to care for her family. It’s her purpose in life. However, Kate can’t deny that pieces of herself sometimes chip away as she tries to keep the pieces of others together. 

Too caught in her thoughts, Kate can’t focus on her needlepoint. Daphne suggested the activity. Edwina was thrilled by the idea, as she’s quite proficient in the hobby and excited to spend more time with her potential sister-in-law. Violet, Mary, and Francesca join them as well. However, much to Kate’s disappointment, Eloise decides to stick to reading outside. 

While Kate would rather join Eloise, she tries her best to converse with the other ladies. She watches as Lord Bridgertons siblings fall in love with Edwina’s sweet countenance and sharp mind. Kate is proud of her sister’s ability to charm others and is glad that they see just how wonderful she is. So, Edwina will (despite Kate’s best efforts) probably spend the rest of her days with this family while Kate returns to India. 

However, Kate can’t help how her heart twists in her chest at the thought. This troubles her because she should be happy that things seem to be falling into place. Yet, she feels anything but satisfied. 

She argues that her discontent is because she will miss Edwina. But, before they arrived in England, Kate knew that parting with her sister would be inevitable. She loves Edwina dearly and wants her to have a happy life here. So, Kate came to terms with their necessary parting months ago. 

So, Kate then thinks that this conflict of emotions has to do with the fact that Anthony is not the right match for Edwina. While his family is pleasant, it does not make up for the lack of his affections. He will never love her in the way she deserves. Edwina, with time, will know that and come to regret the match. 

But, a quieter voice inside Kate needles her, saying that she wouldn’t be as troubled if Edwina were to marry any other eligible man in London. 

That same timid voice whispers that Kate wants a life here herself, with this lovely family, with Anth—. 

Kate abruptly stands once that thought crosses her mind. She blurts out an excuse that she needs to check up on Newton. However, Kate does not go outside where Hyacinth and Gregory are playing with him, laughing as they throw sticks for him to fetch. Instead, she takes a sharp turn once she is out of all the ladies’ eyesights, making her way down a hall. She doesn’t know where she is going—only that she needs to get away from those thoughts which plagued her in that room. 

As Kate turns a corner, she sees that a door is cracked open. She frowns, not knowing who would have left a door ajar like this. All the others she’d passed were shut. 

Kate walks closer, her steps quiet as she nears the door. She slowly edges it further open. Luckily, it doesn’t creak and give away her position. So, she’s able to peek through the doorway into the room. Then, she finds that the person she’s been trying to run from this entire visit is the one she’s unintentionally sought out. 

Anthony sits behind a desk, scribbling swiftly on pieces of parchment. His hair is a bit tousled. He’s probably been running his fingers through it, causing curls to stick up quite handsomely on his head. He dips his quill into some ink. But, when he begins to lower it to the parchment, he stops short. His brows furrow. That sharp line Kate’s come to find alluring reveals itself as he stares at whatever work he attempts to complete. 

She’s entranced, watching a man who often wields his every duty with ease now look so tightly wound. It’s as if he’s attached to a crank that’s getting turned repeatedly. So, he has no choice but to spin endlessly in a circle—not allowing himself any moments of reprieve. 

Kate momentarily feels a strange desire to unwind his entanglement before his eyes suddenly snap up, seeing her standing in the doorway. 

They stare silently at each other for a few seconds, frozen in time. 

Then, a small smile draws on Anthony’s lips. He places his quill on his desk and leans back in his chair. It’s as if he was expecting her, even though neither of them had any idea she would be here. 

“You.” 
 
Kate’s hand clutching the doorframe falls. “I didn’t mean to intrude.”
 
“Of course, you didn’t,” he says with a low chuckle. 
 
“I was simply walking around, and I stumbled upon this room.” 
 
“And you decided to stand there and stare at me?”
 
Kate winces but tries to recover with a stubborn glare. “Well, it’s your fault for keeping your door open.” 
 
“I’m always to blame in every matter between us, aren’t I?” he asks dryly.  
 
“I’m glad to see you’re catching on.”
 
Anthony huffs, shaking his head at her insistence to always have the last word. But, he looks slightly amused, the line on his forehead less prominent. Kate swallows, looking behind her to ensure no one is there before walking further inside his study. 
 
“You are working on your ledgers, I see.” 
 
He nods, rubbing at the bags under his eyes. “Yes, they never seem to end, sometimes.” 
 
“Do you require assistance?” 
 
“And you provide that assistance?” he asks, slightly astonished. 
 
Kate grins at her ability to catch him off guard regularly. “I used to help my father balance the books. He kindly let me, seeing as I’d often help when I wanted to avoid something rather boring.”
 
Anthony’s eyes glint knowingly. “Like needlepoint?” 
 
Her lips rise in amusement. “I prefer activities that require more energy or use of the mind.”
 
“Yes, the way you took to our family game of Pall Mall rather proves that.” 
 
Kate feels a bit of joy at the memory. “It was quite entertaining, especially because I won.”
 
Anthony stands, crossing his arms. “You did not win.”
 
“But you didn’t either, and that’s a win enough for me.” 
 
He takes a step toward her, giving her a challenging look. “Miss Sharma, if we ever play again, I assure you that I will be the victor.” 
 
“How can you be the victor without the Mallet of Death?”
 
“I will be quicker to claim it next time.” 
 
“But it’s rather taken a liking to me.” Kate feels light on her feet, strolling around the desk like a shark circling its prey. “Perhaps it’s changed its loyalties.” 
 
“Maybe we should let it decide as you would with a dog, each of us holding treats on opposite ends to see who it comes to,” he says wryly. 
 
Kate looks down at his stack of work, her playful mood turning more serious. “If you would like some help, I could do so.”
 
Anthony sits back down, his expression more at ease than before when he looks up at her. “I think you’ve helped already.”
 
She stills, caught in the content of this moment. Kate wants to latch onto each second, study his every microexpression and each new feeling that courses through her body. But, she begins to hear footsteps down the hall. Her shoulders tense, and Anthony grimaces, turning his focus to his ledgers. 
 
Kate nears the door. “I should return to my family.”
 
“Yes, you should.”  
 
She reaches for the doorknob, pushing it all the way open. But, she pauses in the doorway. Then, with hesitance, she turns back around. 
 
Kate sees Anthony with that crease between his brows again. He has a contemplative stare on the parchment scattered on his desk. Somehow, leaving him like this doesn’t feel right. She wants to alleviate his struggle—even if only for a mere moment. 
 
She clears her throat. “My lord?”
 
Anthony looks up quickly. Kate then wonders if his ledgers aren’t what was engrossing him. Instead, maybe he was staring at them with some other issue in mind. Perhaps there’s something else tormenting him like the quiet voice Kate heard in her head minutes earlier was. 
 
“Yes?”
 
Kate grins, raising her chin high. “That mallet shall always be mine.”
 
Before she turns back around, she sees that line on his forehead disappear as he grins. Kate feels a rush of something inexplicable while walking back down the hall. Before, satisfaction seemed like something out of her reach. But now, Kate feels a sense of gratification that she was the one to lift that weight from Anthony’s shoulders.
 
Kate tries not to linger on the fact that she also feels a weight lifted off her own shoulders from the interaction.

 

🐝 🐝 🐝

 

It’s no surprise that his smile makes her fall further into this complicated web they’ve weaved. 

She’d been warned about the charm of a Bridgerton smile in previous Lady Whistledown columns. Yet, she hadn’t taken her advice seriously. Kate wasn’t usually one to succumb to a man’s pretty smile or a roguish smirk—it wouldn’t distract her from whatever their grins were trying to hide. 

However, she’s been on the receiving end of it multiple times and has come to understand its power. 

Kate couldn’t help but laugh as Anthony joked about her chaperone on the hunt. Seeing her laugh brought a smile onto his own face. While she’d seen him smile during their stumble in the mud, something felt different about it. 

After she is stung by a bee, everything between them feels different.

Or, perhaps not different, but more heightened. 

That day, the sun had peeked through the trees and hit Anthony’s face. It made his grin even more incandescent. Kate couldn’t resist stealing glances at him as they rode horses side by side. It felt similar to their first ride in the park—when she hadn’t known him but somehow felt more known than ever before. 

However, the mood between them always shifted into something more intense.

It happened in the garden and yet again during the hunting trip. Anthony annoyingly insisted on showing her how to hold the gun. Kate had plenty of experience and didn’t require his assistance. However, he was right that she had never held a British one before. So, she reluctantly let his arms wrap around her, and his hands landed on top of hers. 

She felt as if they had breathed as one, their lungs syncing to the same rhythm. As Anthony’s nose brushed against her neck, she let her eyes drift closed. She wanted to memorize each twitch of his fingers and the feeling of his breath as it shuttered. 

When Kate left, when Anthony married Edwina or someone else, all she would have were these stolen moments to remember. 

She wouldn’t get to see that smile of his anymore. It was one that Kate liked to think but did not dare to believe was only for her. She thought about his smile as she lay in bed after running from him in the library to calm her nerves during the thunderstorm.

It was also easier for Kate to focus on his smile instead of the raw vulnerability of their interaction. He opened up about his father, and she opened up about hers. His white shirt hung open and revealed his chest. Kate wanted to cling to it so that she could hear the beating of his heart instead of the rumble of thunder. She saw something soft overtake his eyes when she expressed her anxieties about the storm. But, they became more heated as they bridged the emotional and physical distance between them. 

When the lightning struck, and the thunder rolled, Kate jumped. But Anthony whispered, “It’s alright,” and she thought he was speaking about something else rather than the storm. That whatever was happening between them was alright, at least, when they were alone and away from their responsibilities. 

After that night, they tried their best to avoid one another. But, before the Hearts and Flowers ball, Kate reencounters him. 

She’s sitting in the library. It’s somehow like visiting a crime scene—not wanting to return but unable to resist revisiting the spot that haunts her thoughts. Kate goes there to hide from the influx of people now at Aubrey Hall and the bustle of the staff getting ready for the ball.

It feels like a sort of sanctuary here. As Kate sits at one of the tables, the pages of her book open, it’s eerily like reading a bible in the pew of a church. She comes face to face with her sins but feels a grace-like presence in the room, soothing her worries. 

Once she hears the door creaking, her head rises to see Anthony entering the room. At first, he doesn’t notice her, seeming to be on a mission to get something from a nearby shelf. But, when his head lifts, his breath hitches at her sight. 

“Good afternoon, my lord,” Kate says, trying to keep her voice plain and unrevealing, but she can hear the slight strain in her tone. 

Anthony’s hands go behind his back, giving her a small bow. “Good afternoon, Miss Sharma.” 

Kate thinks maybe that will be the end of another interaction that leaves Kate feeling breathless. She looks back down at her book, letting him find what he came in to fetch. Then, out of the corner of her eyes, she sees him walk over to a shelf at the left of the table where she sits. 

Kate swallows, unable to focus on the words on the page, wanting to prolong this moment with the two of them alone. She wonders if he’s doing the same thing as his fingers skim the spines of the books aimlessly. Whatever urgency he came into the library with is gone. 

He’s dawdling—and even though it shouldn’t be, it’s pretty charming, making Kate smile. 

“Is your book amusing?”

Kate slowly raises her gaze to him and sees an air of amusement about him. As Anthony smiles, there are crinkles next to his eyes. She doesn’t like being the butt of a joke, but she doesn’t get angry at him this time, finding that he’s not so much laughing at her but interested in her. 

She can’t very well tell him the truth behind her grin—so she’s quick to come up with an excuse. Kate’s read and enjoyed much of Shakespeare’s work but has never read this particular play. So, she must focus on the beginning, as she’s only made it through the first few pages. 

“Yes, it is amusing so far,” Kate confirms as she closes the book, giving him a challenging look. “It is about a woman who does not fall for the charms of a rake who claims he loves none. So, she rejoices, saying that him swearing off of women is a great happiness to all womankind.”

“Is that so?”

Kate nods, and he takes a step closer. When he inspects the book’s cover, seeing the title Much Ado About Nothing, a flicker of mischief lights his eyes. Kate feels a sense of danger. Not that she’s genuinely about to be threatened, but that she’s unknowingly stepped into a trap of her own making. 

Kate straightens, keeping her stare firm. “Do you not believe that a woman can detect and confront such immoral behavior?” 

“I believe a woman can, but the woman in that play recedes her objections as she falls in love with the gentleman she claimed to hate, and he falls in turn for her.” 

Kate’s not about to let Anthony think he’s bested her. So, she opens the book back up, schooling her features into nonchalance. 

“Well, I bet the gentleman must see the error of his ways and prove his worthiness to the lady if this is the case. That is the thing about fiction. The characters can often accomplish what people in real life cannot.” 

That earns a huff of exasperation from him. Kate bites back a grin, turning to the next page. But, her victory is short, as Anthony surprises her by suddenly pulling up a chair on the other side of the table. When she looks back up, his previous cockiness is absent. In its place is a look similar to the one in the library during the storm, hesitantly vulnerable. 

“Did you read it?”  

Kate’s eyebrows scrunch. “Pardon?” 

“The book you had that night,” Anthony explains, twisting the ring on his pinky, a quirk she’s noticed he does when he’s nervous. “Did you end up reading it?”

Kate swallows. “Yes, it helped calm my thoughts.”

“You said your father used to read to you, correct?” Kate’s mouth opens in surprise, but Anthony shakes his head with a grimace before she can say anything. “I apologize. I shouldn’t have—.” 

“No, it’s alright. While part of my heart will always hurt talking about him, speaking about him fills me with more joy than pain.” Anthony nods, seeing an understanding in his eyes. It makes Kate open up to him further, even though her mind reasons that she shouldn’t. “He would read to me, mainly, romantic tales.”

“Really?”

“Is that surprising?”

“Well, a bit. I didn’t think you were a romantic.”

Kate understands why he and others would think so. She’s a spinster of her own choice, after all. One wouldn’t expect her to believe in such romantic notions. For if she did, why would she isolate herself purposefully? 

“Why do you think Edwina is such a believer in true love?” Kate asks him, to which he has no answer, so she continues. “It’s because I read her the stories our Appa would read to me.”

A tenderness crosses his features. “So, you believe in true love, then?”

“I do. But, I also believe it is meant for some, and not for others.” Kate pushes a well-practiced smile on her face, one that makes Mary and Edwina not question her decision to remain unwed. “There are all kinds of love, and I am content with the love I have from my sister and mama.”

But, the smile doesn’t quite work on Anthony. Instead, his eyes narrow, studying her with an intent focus that makes her heartbeat so loud that she hears it in her ears. But, even though he may be unconvinced in her contentment, he lets any evidence of conflict he finds within her slide. He settles back in his chair with a nod. 

“I understand.”

Kate tilts her head. “You do?”

“Yes. I value my family above all else. I wouldn’t feel so obligated to fulfill my duties if I did not love them as much as I do.” Then, it’s Kate’s turn to be left speechless. He watches her struggle to speak with amusement. “Does that surprise you?”

Kate clears her throat, regathering herself. “No, if our stay here has shown me anything, it’s that you care for your family dearly.”

“If your stay here has shown me anything, it’s that you care for yours the same way.”

“Did we find something in common, my lord?” 

At her teasing tone, Anthony levels her with one of his glares of irritation. Like that one smile meant for her—Kate also thinks some of his scowls are designated solely for her. The thought makes Kate smirk. 

“It was bound to happen sooner or later,” he says, causing her to laugh. His frustration breaks at the sound, smiling along with her. They sit in companionable silence before Anthony speaks again in a gentler tone. “My father would also read to me as a child.”

“Really?” Kate asks earnestly, interested to know more about his childhood. 

“Yes, but he focused more on adventures, tales of brave heroes who explored new worlds and overcame all obstacles.”

“So, who did you want to be as a boy after hearing those stories? A knight? A pirate? A prince?”

“I am rather skilled at fencing, so being a knight at Arthur’s round table did intrigue me as a boy,” he admits with a small smile. But then, it falls, the muscles in his jaw tightening. “But then, I got older.”

“And you realized how heavy armor was?”

“More like I realized how heavy the role of Viscount was,” he sighs, with that self-deprecating smile he sported during the thunderstorm when he revealed the truth behind his fear of bees. 

“My lord,” Kate exhales, frowning. “I’m sorry.”

“For what? That I didn’t follow my boyish fantasies and slay a dragon?” 

“No.” She shakes her head, not taking his bait to ease the mood. “I’m sorry that your fantasies were cut far too short.”

“I’m sorry yours were as well,” Anthony says, causing Kate to feel her heart flutter despite how it pangs with grief. “You lost your mother as well, didn’t you?”

“I don’t remember her much, as I was so little when she passed. But, I do remember that she used to sing to me,” Kate says, smiling fondly at those hazy memories. “She had the most beautiful voice. It would always soothe me to sleep. So, while her face is blurry, her singing rings clear in my mind. I’m lucky for that, at least.”

“Can I tell you something if you promise not to tell another soul?” Kate nods, finding herself leaning forward in anticipation. “When Hyacinth was a babe, I’d often sing her to sleep. Still do, on occasion.” 

“That is quite good of you,” Kate commends, and he gives her a sheepish look in response. “Why did you not join in when Colin sang for us earlier this week?”

“Singing in public is different, far too embarrassing.”

“Yes, it would be embarrassing, which is why I must see it one day.”

One of Anthony’s hands edges towards hers on the table, their fingertips mere inches away from each other. Kate’s breathing turns ragged, feeling that agonizing but glorious pull between them. She has a strong urge to lace her fingers with his and see how they fit. She wants to know if it would feel as right as speaking with him in this intimate manner does. 

“Perhaps one day you will,” Anthony says softly, his knuckles shifting closer to hers. “We could do a duet.”

Kate feels a brief surge of lighting when the pads of their index fingers meet. The mere contact tingles her skin. She wants to clutch his hand, using it to yank him forward and crash their lips together. 

Like both of their childhood fantasies, this one comes to a crashing halt when reality hits. 

Kate reminds herself that such romantic imaginations are pointless. She’s not meant to have them, should not have them. Especially for the man who will soon be her sister’s intended.

Her hand flinches back, curling it into a fist. 

“I’m not sure our voices would suit well together,” Kate states resolutely. “You should ask Edwina. She is a perfect singer.”

Anthony draws his hand back, coming to the same conclusion as her. He stands and smiles again, but it doesn’t reach his eyes this time. 

“I do not doubt that she’s perfect.”

As he departs from the library, Kate lingers on his declaration. While it should be a fact that brings him happiness, there was a hint of disappointment in his tone. Sitting alone in the library, she hears an echo of what he left unsaid. 

Edwina is perfect for Viscount Bridgerton.

But, perhaps, she is not perfect for Anthony. 

 

🐝 🐝 🐝

 

His hands. 

It’s ridiculous that Anthony’s hands are something Kate finds herself dreaming about, but she does nonetheless. 

She dreams of how they guided her hands on the trigger of the gun. Kate feels flush as she recalls the sensation of them brushing the side of her breast as he repositioned the gun below her arm. 

In those dreams, Anthony’s touch is more daring, brazenly cupping her breast and eliciting a moan from her lips. He pads her nipple with his thumb, circling it until the touch of his hand is no longer enough. He pulls down her dress and chemise in one fluid motion. Then, he bends to take her breast in his mouth. The chill of the air is forgotten as his tongue fervently swirls and sucks her breast. 

Kate also dreams of his hands sitting on her waist, as they did while they danced at the Hearts and Flowers ball. She recalls how it felt when his bare hand grazed her upper chest, cradling her gloved hand like it was the most precious thing in the world. 

She constantly dreams of how Anthony’s hands hovered near her hips in the library that same night. Kate remembers the fire blazing in his eyes as he asked her to tell him that she did not care for him. She recalls how her eyes drifted closed, his proximity and low voice melting her from the inside out.

But, his lips reach their target in her dreams instead of being ripped away by an interruption. Anthony’s hands cup and squeeze her backside. Her legs cling around him as he lifts her and sets her on a desk. Kate’s neck arches back as his lips to her collarbone, pressing passionate kisses there. He leaves marks that will cause no repercussions, as when she wakes, they will disappear. 

Anthony’s hands always disappear. Whenever one of them regains their wits, his hand slips from hers. Despite what her dreams argue, Kate knows that this is how it should be. 

Edwina’s impending wedding and the upcoming Sheffield dinner have Kate on edge, looming over her like a storm cloud ready to drown her in rain. She feels like she’s on the tip off a cliff. Any second, her foot may slip, condemning her to the fate of a deadly fall. 

Anthony himself took a fall earlier this afternoon. Except it was not deadly. Instead, rather amusing to spectators nearby. 

But, Kate felt a different emotion altogether as she watched him tear his overcoat from his shoulders, revealing his toned arms beneath. As he ripped his cravat ferociously from his neck, she watched as his chest heaved, clearly visible from water soaking his thin white shirt. Anthony’s hand, which had only moments before been in hers, gripped the dock as he pulled himself up with a seamless display of strength. 

Kate shook her head as she walked into the park to clear herself of the image and hankering desire left unquenched in her belly. However, her fingers twitched at his side, yearning to be back in his. 

As soon as he had held out his hand to her on that dock—Kate knew taking it would mean taking a bite of the forbidden fruit. Yet, she naively believed she’d only have a brief taste. However, Anthony hadn’t let go of her hand. Instead, his fingers traced over hers. Everywhere he touched sent shivers to her core.

Anthony had done the same thing earlier when Kate had Edwina’s betrothal ring on her finger. His hands made her feel like a canvas to which he brushed. Each swish he made with purpose and ardent care.  

Kate clenches her hands, continuing her walk in the park. She numbly bobs her head to the people she passes by. As Kate walks, she pictures Anthony walking alongside her, imagining a world where holding his hand is something natural and not an act of utter betrayal. 

But, that world does not exist. So, Kate walks quicker. Her lady’s maid falls further behind Kate as she struggles to keep up with her swift pace. Soon, Kate finds herself encased in a canopy of trees, lining a more secluded park path. It allows her a second to breathe without any prying eyes watching her. But then, Kate realizes that she’s entirely lost the lady’s maid, turning and seeing no one behind her.  

Kate’s worries for the maid vanish when Kate turns back around and sees a familiar figure on the path walking in her direction. She curses whatever gods lie in the sky above for her luck. Kate refuses to run—not wanting to act like a coward. But, she can’t help how her legs shake a little when they come face to face. 

“I was just walking to clear my head,” Kate tells him. 

Anthony nods. “I had the same idea.”

“I seem to have left behind my chaperone, unintentionally.” 

The breeze is the only sound to accompany them for a few seconds. But then Anthony slowly raises his arm, gesturing for her to take it. Kate can’t find a reason to deny him. There is no one on the path. And, even if there were, they’d only see a gentleman escorting his fiancé’s sister back to the central part of the park. There is nothing else they would see. 

There can be nothing else for them to see, Kate reminds herself as they begin to walk in the direction she came. 

Kate tries not to linger on how his hand rests on her arm, radiating a heat incomparable to the sun above them.

She clears her throat. “So, I see that you’ve dried off from your dip in the water.” 

“I see your dog, which caused the dip, is not in attendance on your walk.”

“You know, you should be happy about what happened.” Anthony’s eyebrows shoot up high on his forehead at the assertion, making Kate swallow back a chuckle. “Newton was so close to your feet because his affections have warmed to you.”

“Have they?” Anthony asks, looking a little smug. 

Kate pinches her eyebrows together, chastising him with a single look. His smile broadens momentarily. But then, it breaks. It’s like when Kate snatched her hand away earlier that day, remembering the complexities of their situation and backing away before they complicated matters further. 

They stroll in silence for a moment. Kate listens to the birds chirping, free to travel from branch to branch or fly away far from here. Then, as one bird reaches a patch of blue sky above them, Anthony pulls the arm linked in his a bit tighter. 

“Have your affections warmed?”

Kate stops, feeling a thousand walls raise in front of her. “Pardon me?”

“To Mr. Dorset,” Anthony corrects, a shadow crossing his features. “You seemed to enjoy yourself with him today.”

“Yes, he is a very kind man.”

Anthony’s eyes search hers desperately. “Is that all you want, someone who is kind?”

Kate feels a sting of irritation, her arm falling from his. What right does Anthony have to ask her this? What right does he have to be interested in a potential suitor? While Kate knows that he is not one, as she only sees him as an amiable gentleman and nothing more, Anthony doesn’t need to know that. 

“What else should I want?” Kate asks thinly. “Who else should I want, my lord?” 

Anthony’s mouth opens, but no sound escapes. Kate reads the answer in his eyes. He’s practically screaming it at her—begging her to understand him. 

But, not understanding him has never been their problem. The issue is that Kate understands him far too well. Anthony understands her too, which is why he knows Mr. Dorset could not make her happy. 

His inherent knowledge in her heart is infuriating. He shouldn’t know that what she wants is someone who can match her fire instead of merely bowing to it. He shouldn’t know that her soul is set aflame by a person who not only listens to her words but hears the undertone behind them. He shouldn’t know that Kate wishes for something for herself despite constantly insisting otherwise. 

Anthony shouldn’t make her want something for herself. And yet…he does. Oh, how he does, Kate ideates. 

Kate walks forward, and he steps alongside her, continuing down this winding path of theirs. 

“Mr. Dorset is a fine man,” Kate repeats. He snorts, and she scowls. “What, you disagree?”

“I did not say that.”

“But you thought it.”

Anthony roughly exhales. “You shouldn’t presume to know my thoughts.”

“Then you shouldn’t pry into mine.”

“Do you still plan on returning to India?” he asks, clearly ignoring her statement. 

“Of course, it is the plan.”

As Kate takes her next step, Anthony catches her hand, and she meets his softened features. 

“But plans can be changed, can they not?”

Kate’s anger falls away, swimming in the urgency of his eyes, along with an emotion she cannot place. His hand adjusts his hold on hers, his fingers dancing across her knuckles. Kate can’t help but join him in the dance, slowly entwining their fingers together. She inhales a deep breath, transfixed by the curve of his fingers and how they seem to make a home with hers flawlessly. 

For once, his hands don’t slip away. Instead, he uses them to beckon Kate closer. 

But Kate doesn’t make it far. They both didn’t notice a small branch on the ground between them. Kate trips over it, her foot twisting as it meets the wood, causing her to stumble. 

“Kate?” Anthony screeches in alarm. The grip on her hand tightens, steading her. “Are you harmed? Do you feel any pain? Can you move?” 

She grimaces but waves off his questioning with her other hand. “I am fine.” 

“It’s better to be safe.” He leans down towards the ground. Anthony glances back up, his hand leaving hers to hover above her ankle. “Will you allow me?” 

“Do you have any medical knowledge I am unaware of, my lord?”

“No, but growing up with three meddlesome brothers and four energetic sisters, there were twisted ankles that often needed tending.”

Kate’s lips tug up at that. Before she can consider the danger in it, she nods. Anthony lifts her skirt. But, he doesn’t raise it further than necessary, only a few inches off the ground (much to Kate’s relief and secret displeasure). His hand encircles her ankle, feeling the muscles there. 

As he kneads her ankle, Kate’s eyes close. The pain she feels at his touch is minimal—but the sensation that overtakes her as he massages the skin beneath her stockings is overwhelming. Then, Kate imagines it is not his ankles he is touching with such precision. 

In her mind, those hands that have haunted her dreams are somewhere else. Kate bites back a moan as he reaches a tender bit of skin. The pressure he applies is firm, but his fingers move benevolently, making her ache in unmentionable places.

Then, finally, Kate breaks the moment, moving her ankle away. He lets the bit of dress he had bunched in his hand drop. 

But, Anthony remains on his knees below her for a few seconds longer, and Kate can’t help but find the sight utterly captivating. She yearns to trace his lips with her fingertips. Kate imagines tilting up Anthony’s sharp chin. He would meet her demanding eyes eagerly, give her everything she asked and teach her what she does not know. 

Kate forces the image out of her mind when he stands, keeping her stare neutral.  

“So, what is your professional opinion?”

“You shall live,” he whispers impishly. 

Kate rolls her eyes. “What good news.”

“Indeed.”

They continue walking on the path until they find themselves back in the clearing where Kate’s chaperone is waiting. She looks somewhat flustered, wandering around other inhabitants of Mayfair, searching for her. Kate waves at her across the way to get her attention and sees the woman let out a sigh in relief and begin approaching them. 

“Well, I guess I shall see you at dinner tonight,” Kate says. “Until then, my lord.” 

While Kate’s ankle feels no remaining pain, there’s a stab in her heart as she walks away.

She also can’t help but notice how cold her hand feels as it rests alone at her side. 

 

🐝 🐝 🐝

 

Anthony’s arms quickly become beloved by Kate. 

In the church, he had wrapped his arms around her waist, desperately clinging to her. Kate did the same with her hands, grasping his cheeks as the kiss deepened. She thought it would be the only time they ever did this. So, she had wanted to make it count.

Anthony also used his arms to swing his sister in the air as they danced days later. Eventually, his arms found hers. Quickly, the weight of all that had happened diminished. Kate felt light as a feather as he twirled her around, laughing while surrounded by their families. 

But, Kate felt the crushing weight return at the heartbreak in Edwina’s voice. 

Edwina couldn’t bear that Kate had left her in the dark for so long. She was angry that her sister didn’t tell her the extent of her feelings—which she so obviously saw as the two of them danced. But, even more so, Edwina was hurt that there was so much about Kate that she did not know. 

But Kate hadn’t known much of what Edwina was just now discovering. Or, Kate didn’t let herself know any of it. So it wasn’t until later that evening, when Anthony found her in the gazebo, that Kate finally understood herself and what she wanted. 

Kate wants him. 

She wants his mouth to devour hers with gentleness and crazed passion. She wants to feel the soft curls of his hair. She wants his tongue that wanders through her folds, making her reach a peak of ecstasy she hadn’t known existed. She wants his hands that clutch hers as she sees stars, grounding her to earth. 

She especially wants his arms, which are solid and warm as they hold her while she falls asleep.  

Kate wants Anthony, like this, forever. 

But Kate eventually wakes and knows that the forever they had that night cannot exist in the light of day. After she gets home, she rushes to the stables. She rides quickly, wanting to leave everything in England behind her.

But as Kate rides, her tears falling as fiercely as the rain, she knows that anything that lies ahead does not erase what’s behind. 

That’s proven when Kate hears a voice screaming her name. Her horse rears up, and she finally falls off that cliff she’s been dancing around since her first ride in that park. She hits the ground, and things around her start to blur. 

But, before everything goes back, Kate feels arms surround her like a blanket. She’s then being carried by the man she could love openly in another lifetime. As her sight goes dark, she remembers all of those features of Anthony’s that she’s come to adore over the past few weeks. 

But, her last thought is not on any of his physical traits. 

It’s that despite being far from India, far from Danbury’s residence, Kate feels at home in his presence. 

 

🐝 🐝 🐝

 

A few weeks later, Kate’s hand is no longer bare. Instead, a betrothal ring resides on one of her fingers. 

Her heart also is not empty. Instead, it’s full to the brim. Kate has a stronger love for her family, which is now based on an equal footing. She no longer feels that their affections are something to be earned but something she deserves. In addition, she has a love of the Bridgertons. They all see her as their own despite not yet being connected by marriage. 

Kate also has a love for and from Anthony Bridgerton, a man who infuriates and invigorates her at the same time. 

Anthony had called upon Kate at Lady Danbury’s earlier that evening. He brought yet another bouquet of tulips that she teased him for purchasing. Still, she displays it amongst the others with pride. Then, while talking on the couch with Lady Danbury and Mary watching them, Anthony invited them to the Bridgerton house for dinner. 

All of them could have fit into one carriage. So, Kate was surprised that the only other person to join her in the carriage was him. However, when she met his gleaming eyes and saw his rakish smirk, she knew instantly that this had all been his doing. Kate glimpsed out the window, seeing that Edwina, Mary, and Lady Danbury were taking one of their households’ carriages. 

When she caught Lady Danbury’s eyes, she gave her a warning thump of her cane before disappearing inside. Edwina, however, gave her an opposite look. She winked at her sister, grinning knowingly before stepping into their separate carriage.

Kate had laughed, feeling a rush of relief. While she knew she had her sister’s forgiveness, seeing her earnest approval of her and Anthony further calmed any guilt she had left. While Kate may never entirely forgive herself for all that transpired and the hurt she caused, she knew her sister still loved her and would always love her. That would have to be enough.

Anthony sits next to her, and Kate immediately leans into his side. She lets him take one of her hands and entwine their fingers. Kate feels a rush of joy, not yet over how she can simply do that now. 

Well, they can do that when the strict eyes of chaperones are not on them, that is. 

“How did you convince Lady Danbury to let us ride together unchaperoned?” Kate asks him after a minute passes. 

“I told her we were merely traveling a few minutes away, and we could not cause many scandals in that short time.”

“It’s strange. I’ve never gone this way to your house,” Kate ponders with amusement as she looks out the window. 

Anthony dips his head close so his mouth brushes against her ear. “That is because I asked the driver to take the scenic route.”

His voice and proximity cause a pool of heat to gather in her stomach. But, Kate cannot resist toying with him a little longer. Because now, she can readily admit to herself how handsome he looks when he’s crossed. 

Kate turns her gaze away from him with an unaffected shrug. “Then I shall enjoy the scenery.”

As she watches the Mayfair street pass by and hears Anthony grumble, she fights back a grin. 

“Kate,” he drawls. 

“Yes, my lord?”

“That is not the scenery I wish you to be exploring.”

“Really? Because nothing else in my nearest vicinity seems worthy of my attention.”

Suddenly, the heat of his body is gone. Kate snaps her attention back to Anthony. She watches as he carefully stands and sits across from her. He would look like the picture of innocence if Kate did not know that this man is never wholly innocent. 

“Perhaps you are right.”

Kate frowns. “I am?” 

“Quite.” Then, he gets on his knees between the two sides of the carriage so he’s right at her feet. His hands creep below her dress, skating across her stockings. They languidly make their way further upwards until they reach under her chemise. “I think you should try and keep your coveted attention on the outdoor scenery while I occupy my intentions elsewhere.” 

“Oh, and where would that—.” Her question gets cut off when he suddenly surges two of his fingers forward, touching her center. He begins to rub mesmerizing circles inside of her. She gasps at the contact, her head falling back in pleasure. “Anthony!”

He adds his thumb, pressing hard against that spot that makes Kate’s toes curl and a moan escape from her lips. He looks up at her through hooded eyes, glazed in utter bliss that he gets to touch her like this. He looks so wrecked from doing something solely for her pleasure, and it’s almost enough to take Kate over the edge.  

“Do you want me to stop?” he asks. 

Kate knows if she said yes, he immediately would draw his fingers away, and that’s the last thing on earth Kate wants him to do. 

“No, do not stop,” she pants, arching up into his touch so his fingers sink further inside her. “Never, ever stop.” 

He gives a wicked sort of grin. “As your fiancé, I shall obey your wishes.” 

He continues his ministrations—his fingers quick and relentless. Kate clutches onto the back of his head, yanking at strands of his hair. She groans in displeasure when his head escapes from her grasp to disappear under her dress. But, it is soon replaced with a cry of delight when his mouth kisses up her leg, sucking a spot on her thigh, and then reaches where she wants it to be most. 

Because they don’t have much time, Anthony doesn’t waste a single second. His tongue darts between her folds, and she goes a bit dizzy at the sensation. Kate soon finds herself reaching that peak he brought her to in the gazebo and two times since. 

He presses open-mouth kisses to her to soothe her through her spasms. Once Kate regains her senses, his head reappears. Slowly, she raises a hand to his lips. She wipes his glistening mouth and guides them to hers, kissing him soundly. 

He eagerly kisses her back, his lips searing as they explore hers. They lose themselves in it for a few moments. But, when the driver reaches a bump in the road, Anthony fumbles against her. 

Once he gets his footing, the two meet each other’s eyes and share a laugh. Anthony stands and sits back beside her, his hand interlocked with hers. Kate smiles, resting her head on his shoulder as she tries to steady her heavy breaths. 

“Anthony?” 

His thumb strokes her hand, touching the betrothal ring now in its rightful place. “Mhm?” 

“How often do you think we’ll find ourselves in compromising positions like these before the wedding?” 

He presses a kiss to her temple. “As many as you grant me.”

“I wish we could marry tomorrow,” Kate finds herself murmuring. 

“I know. I wish we could too.” His arm moves around her, so she can further nestle into his side. “But, my mother and Lady Danbury were right. We needed the two-week courtship and a month-long engagement. The Queen’s approval did much to dissuade gossip, but it is best if we wait until they forget entirely—until all they remember is us two being madly in love.”

Kate finds that idea strange but exciting. Someday, the ton will not see Anthony as a man who spent the beginning of their acquaintance courting her sister. Nor will they see Kate as a woman who vehemently tried to keep her future husband away from said sister. Instead, they will see them as an unbreakable pair. 

Soon, they will be husband and wife. They will attend social events together and host some themselves. Kate will someday start a family with him and watch their sons and daughters enter the marriage mart. Fortunately for them, two overly protective parents will guide them through it. Kate is most excited to see the wrinkles on Anthony’s face become more defined, and the love between them will grow more with each passing day. 

The thought of their future days reminds her of their past ones. Kate sits up, unable to stop her curiosity. 

“When?”

Anthony’s eyebrows draw in confusion. “Pardon?”

“When did you fall so madly?” 

While Anthony has proudly stated his feelings for her on multiple occasions, she can tell he still isn’t used to being so open about them. Kate can relate, so she patiently waits as he gathers his breath and thoughts. 

“I’ve told you. It started at that first race in the park. At that moment, I could not belong to anyone else—even though I did not know it at the time.” Anthony looks up, and Kate feels a tug at her heart when she sees the fondness in his eyes. “That’s why I am so happy that I will be able to have you in every way imaginable after a short but agonizing week.”

Kate blushes, thinking of the liberty they have not yet taken. “Will we stay at Aubrey Hall for our wedding night?”

“Is there somewhere else you wish to go?”

“No. I would like to have that moment there, where many of our feelings first surfaced.”

Anthony gives her a look worthy of utter scandal as he draws closer to her. “After that night, I can take you in many places.” 

Kate nudges his shoulder at the innuendo and continues on course. “I am excited to see the world with you, especially sharing where I grew up in India.”

“I am most excited for that as well, to see the place which holds such a special place in your heart.” 

She squeezes his hand, happy to hear it. But, when Kate looks back at him, his expression has become muddled. He’s twirling his ring in his other hand—trapped in tangled thoughts. 

“Anthony, what is the matter?” 

He hesitates before asking quietly, “Are you sure?”

“Of what?” 

“I do not want you to regret giving up your home to live here.” He looks out the window, where his residence is coming into view. There’s a pure love in his eyes when he looks back at her. “You will miss India dearly, won’t you?”  

“I will,” Kate confirms. But, before her fiance can get too caught away in needless worries, she tenderly cradles his face with her palms. “But I will have a new home, one I will cherish because I get to make it with you.” 

His forehead rests on hers with a shaky smile. “You are my best friend, Kate, did you know?”

“What about Benedict? Surely the person to be your best man is your best friend.”

“You are the best woman, the best person, the best creature in existence,” he states reverently, kissing her softly. “I am lucky that you will be the first thing I see when I wake and the last thing I see when I close my eyes at night.” 

Anthony tries going in for another kiss but stops short when he hears her stifle a giggle. 

“What’s so funny?”

“Nothing, it’s just that you once said you are not a man of poetry, but the number of beautiful speeches you’ve given to me is quite great indeed.” 

“Well...that is entirely your fault.”

“The happiness I feel because of you is also completely your fault,” Kate says, beaming at him with unreserved joy. “You are the best man, best person, best living thing in the world to me. I’m thankful that I’m the one with whom you share your smiles, burdens, and soul. You are my best friend too.” 

He squints disbelievingly. “Not Edwina?”

“She is more dear to me than anything.”

“But you just said I’m the best living thing in the world.”

“And she is the best living thing in the world.” 

Kate enjoys how his brows furrow at her just like she expected them to. “You cannot have it both ways.”

“I can, and I shall,” Kate insists stubbornly. 

His mouth lifts as he regards her. “Well, I suppose I can settle for a tie.”

As the carriage stops, Anthony reaches for the door. However, Kate reaches for his arm, causing him to pause. 

“Anthony?”

He turns around. “Yes?”

“You may share the title of my best friend, but you are the only one.” 

“The only one to what?”

Kate moves her hand to his chest, resting it above his heart—the thing that made her love for him irrevocable. 

“The only one who holds my heart completely and whose heart I treasure the most.”  

Anthony’s hand reaches up to hold hers on his chest. “Now, look at who is a poet.”

She moves their hands downward, traveling down his abdomen and to his breeches. “I think I much prefer actions to words, Viscount Bridgerton.”

Before Kate reaches her destination, Anthony grips her hand tight, stopping her with a warning look. “Kate, do not start something we cannot finish.”

Kate grins, arching her brow. “Well, perhaps I shall give you something to keep you occupied during dinner until we can finish.” 

Before he can speak, Kate crushes her lips against his. She swallows his gasp, her tongue seeking entrance which he grants. He pulls her flush against him, his hands curling around her waist. As he’s distracted, Kate reaches behind him for the handle and swiftly turns it. 

When the carriage door opens, Anthony stumbles back. He has to stop himself from falling two feet from the carriage by gripping the door frame. Then, when he gets his bearings, he looks back up at her with eyes blazing. 

“You, Kathani Sharma, are an extremely vexing woman.” 

He steps out of the carriage, and Kate takes the hand he offers with a confident smirk. “Would you have me any other way?”

“No,” he says, an evident affection in his tone. “No, I would not.”

“Now come. If we don’t arrive early, Colin will eat our share of the food. You know how he is—.”

Kate yelps in pleasure and shock as she feels his hands squeeze her backside. She looks around to see if anyone else noticed, but her family and his are already inside the house. So, Kate looks back at him with a stormy glare. 

Anthony walks up to her side with a devilish smile. “That is something to keep you occupied until we get through this blasted dinner.”

As they reach the door, she prods a finger to his chest. 

“You, Anthony Bridgerton, have been nothing but trouble since I first met you in that park.” 

He leans close before the servants open the door, his breath tickling her neck. “But would you have me any other way?”

The doors swing open, and he takes her arm, walking her inside the house to greet his family. Kate’s immediately pulled into a conversation with Eloise. She speaks about a book she’s been reading, and Hyacinth interrupts with questions about Newton. 

As the two sisters bicker, Kate catches eyes with Edwina across the room. She’s laughing as Benedict tells her a story with animated hand gestures. Edwina sends Kate a wave and smile before looking back to Benedict, who now scolds Colin for swiping an apple from the kitchen that he planned to paint later. Nearby, Francesca rolls her eyes and mutters something to her mother and Lady Danbury that makes them chuckle. 

Then, Kate’s eyes find Anthony, who now has his arms around Gregory. He’s speaking to him with a warmth in his tone reserved for only those he loves dearly—and Kate feels lucky to be one of those few. 

When Anthony’s head turns to her, his grin broadens. He beckons her over with a nod of his head. She raises her chin with playful defiance, standing still, as he knows how she feels about his orders. Anthony narrows his eyes with a diverted smile, telling her without words that it isn’t an order but rather a request. 

Kate takes pity on him. She saunters over and laces an arm through his, and they walk side by side to the dinner table. 

At that moment, Kate thinks back to that book quote about rocks and mountains. She still believes that most men are incomparable to such grand features of the earth. However, by Anthony’s side, Kate feels like they are both mountains—equal in height, strong in foundation, and something worthy of awe.