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The Bane of My Existence (A Bridgerton AU Textfic)

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Chapter Text



1. The Sharmas (except for Kate) are excited about her trip

 

 

2. Kate is not pleased with boss/family friend Elle Danbury

 

 

3. The Bridgertons (except Anthony) are excited about his trip

 

 

4. Anthony is not pleased with his brother Benedict

 

 

5. Elle checks on Kate

 

 

6. Kate tells Elle not to meddle

 

 

7. Anthony's mother checks on him

 

 

8. Kate has arrived for the retreat

 

 

9. Anthony has arrived for the retreat

 

 

 

10. Edwina has developed a crush


 

Chapter Text



Kathani Sharma knew her mother mostly through stories.

Kate had vague memories of the woman, her soft hands and warm, comforting arms. She couldn’t remember her mother’s voice, but occasionally something was reminiscent of her scent, though Kate could never quite say what it was. Still, it was comforting to have a real memory.

Kate had grown up listening to stories about Priya, firsthand stories from her father, and later secondhand stories from her stepmother Mary. Kate wasn’t sure if the woman she pictured in her mind was anything like her mother, but she hoped she was. She saw her mother as clever, exacting but warm, resourceful, and ambitious in a way that reminded Kate of herself.


Rahul and Priya Sharma had been very much in love. They met at medical school in Mumbai, and it had been a simple, carefree romance. There had been no roadblocks, no opposition from friends or family, no difficulties. They fit together well, complemented each other. Their life together had seemed almost charmed.

Rahul’s brother had lived in San Francisco for some years, and they had always been close. It had been a difficult choice for Priya to leave her family in Pune, but she and Rahul saw prospects in America for the children they hoped to have.

It was not long after they arrived that they welcomed the child they believed would be the first of many. Kathani was their pride and joy, sweet as she was mischievous, bright and precocious. Kate loved climbing onto her father’s back, pulling her mother’s long, curling hair. She was a happy child.

Rahul and Priya were planning for another child when tragedy struck. Priya had always avoided going to the doctor herself, and by the time she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, it had metastasized. Her prognosis was poor, though Priya fought through difficult treatments, hung on as long as she could.

Priya died at home, Rahul holding her hand as the sky stormed outside. Thunder and lightning terrified their daughter, always had. And Rahul had always been attentive to Kate when the weather turned foul, but this time, he couldn’t hear her screams and cries. He had nothing left in him to read to his daughter, distract her, comfort her. The love of his life was gone.


Losing Priya had been devastating for Rahul, both for his own sake and for the sake of his beloved daughter. But he knew he had to keep going, had to give Kate the life he and Priya had wanted for her.

It was an utter surprise when he met Mary Sheffield. They met at a medical conference and had instantly bonded, though Rahul had firmly decided to keep his distance from other people. He hadn’t wanted to date, had felt it was disrespectful to his late wife, but he hadn’t been able to ignore the pull toward Mary. He had desperately wanted to keep seeing her, seemed to know that she wasn’t someone he would be able to walk away from. Perhaps it was that Mary was comforting or that they were kindred spirits. Perhaps it was that, despite having a complicated relationship with her own family, Mary loved fiercely. Perhaps it was even partly that Mary so deeply loved Kate from the moment she met her.


Rahul and Mary’s romance was a whirlwind. He felt so grateful to be happy again, despite his guilt, despite how much he missed Priya. And Mary understood that Priya would always be an important part of the family, that there were some ways in which she would never be supplanted. But Mary didn’t mind. She loved Kate as though she were her own, could manage the nuance of the situation.

Sadly, Rahul and Priya’s families could not stomach his new marriage, felt betrayed in ways he hadn’t expected. He had felt guilt, sadness, but also overwhelming hope upon meeting Mary, and he thought they would find it in themselves to feel that same optimism for him and his child. He had anticipated that it would be hard for Priya’s family, but it hadn’t occurred to him that his own family would be unhappy that he was trying to continue his life, to give Kate a happy home.

There was a breach after that, one from which Rahul never healed.

Still, he had always been someone who moved forward, who pushed on even when things were difficult. And he was determined to enjoy his life.

When he and Mary had a child of their own – Edwina – he was delighted, truly began to feel whole again.

Still, the rift with his family had left a sour taste in his mouth, and in many ways, it set the course for how he would parent his children. He wanted Kate and Edwina to connect with their heritage, to know where they came from. But to him, memories of his life in Mumbai, of the family who was disappointed in him, only brought sadness. And he wanted to shield Mary, to protect the new family he had created for himself.

His daughters were unquestionably American, much like his brother’s children and the children of his friends. It hadn’t been “cool” to be traditional, had made them stand out in ways they didn’t want to. They didn’t mind that their father was reticent to talk about where he had come from, was only willing to share happy stories of his time with Priya.

Perhaps if relatives had wanted to connect with them, India might have felt like a place, a home with family. Instead, it was abstract, a place that had become unwelcoming to their father. The girls hadn’t understood why, had just known that their extended family was cold toward Rahul, particularly distrusting of Mary. That had been enough for his daughters to decide they wanted nothing to do with them.

He later regretted not pushing them more to connect, but his girls were protective of him, doubly protective of Mary. In some ways, connecting with their heritage felt like a betrayal, a step back.

It was only as adults that Kate and Edwina found ways to feel regret about this, expressed a wish that they knew more about where their families came from, that they could feel like they had some claim to their cultural heritage. But it was a common situation for people like them, was something they saw echoed in many of their friends. They had tenuous relationships with some parts of themselves, might have felt different if circumstances were different. 


Kate’s relationship with her father had always been one of great depth, in part because they had been alone together in the world for a time, but also because they were so very alike. Both loved to read, both had a flair for mischief. Rahul was a brilliant, caring, conscientious man. He had always spoken his mind, had always stood up for the people he loved. He prized learning, adored a good joke, was warm, silly, kind. In many ways, Kate had wanted to be just like him.

She knew that their father loved Edwina, but part of Kate had always felt special, like her father was hers in a way that he wasn’t to anyone else. She knew as an adult that it was silly, was the way a child had figured out how to feel safe in a world fraught with uncertainty and change. But her father had been a constant, was the one thing she felt like she could count on. She was safest if part of that was because she was special.

But whether or not she had been special, his loss changed her in a way nothing else could have.


To Kate, it felt like timing and tragedy had always marred the Sharma family. It was never just that something terrible happened, it was that it happened at the worst possible time, to the least deserving people.

Mary had battled depression throughout her life, but there were times when it was more acute, when Mary had trouble taking care of herself, let alone anyone else. It had distressed Rahul, had pained the girls, but they had learned to support her during these difficult times.

Things had been particularly hard this episode. Mary couldn’t get out of bed, had taken a leave of absence from work. Rahul and the girls were doing their best to care for her, which for Rahul meant neglecting to care for himself.

There had always been heart problems in his family, but he knew that most relatives had found ways to manage with diet, exercise, medications. One could never beat genetics, he knew, but he had wanted to try for his family. Still, Mary needed care, and so he would wait. Maybe things would have been different if there had been more signs, more indications that his health was worse than he suspected, but he had seemed fine. Until he wasn’t.

Rahul had gone to work that morning like any other day, and Mary had slept so late that she didn’t notice that he hadn’t made it home until checking the time on her phone. She had missed multiple calls, and when she listened to her messages, it had all been too much.

Kate still remembered Mary’s call, her voice full of shock, hopelessness, self-loathing.

Your father died this morning. Heart attack. And I didn’t know.

Mary had gone back to bed, and she had stayed there.


Kate knew she had managed everything herself, though she still wasn’t quite sure how. She had contacted her father’s family, had planned a funeral and burial, had done her best to get Mary a higher level of care. Edwina was fortunately no longer a minor, but she had also been inconsolable, had needed an abundance of support. And Mary’s grief, coming at a time when she was already doing so poorly, had incapacitated her completely.

Kate had been sad, she was sure she had been sad. But she couldn’t quite remember it. It was as though she had put it on a shelf, had packed it away to deal with later. There hadn’t been time for anything else, really. No one would make it if she didn’t keep them going. And so she had.

It had been a painful role reversal for both Kate and Mary, and three years later, they were still navigating the effects of it. Edwina went to Kate for support more often than she went to Mary, seemed wary of asking for Mary’s help, seemed more comfortable counting on Kate. Mary knew it was how the girls had coped, but it would always be hard for her to stomach being needed less than she had been before. Kate wanted so much to give Mary back her place, but years of Kate being the breadwinner, caretaker while Mary recovered and Edwina went to school, had taken a toll on all of them.


Kate hadn’t wanted to move the family, but a year after her father’s death, she was offered a job at a magazine in New York that paid far too well to pass up. She had wanted to keep Mary and Edwina in their home, wanted to find ways to support them from afar, to keep some consistency in their lives. But Mary couldn’t be on her own yet, and Kate couldn’t afford to keep homes in both San Francisco and New York, even with her ample salary.

Still, Kate reasoned, a move could be a fresh start for them all. And Mary had grown up in Manhattan, might still have friends there, familiar things that might be comforting.

Manhattan also provided somewhat of a last resort safety net in the form of Mary’s parents. They still lived in Manhattan, and they loved Mary the best way they knew how.

Mary’s relationship with them had always been complicated, Kate’s almost more so because she was so fiercely protective of Mary. The Sheffields had always met their daughter’s difficulties with pity, were patronizing to a fault. They had always been proud of themselves for supporting their child, liked very much to solicit sympathy from others, reminding everyone they could about how difficult it was to have an adult child with severe mental illness. Kate thought they had always liked Mary best when she was at her sickest, when they could question her ability to reason, when she couldn’t be independent from them. It had always been a cruel, self-serving sort of love.

They’ll never understand that it’s hardest for her.

Kate knew that the Sheffields could always be applied to for assistance if there was no other option, but she would be damned if she would ever ask for their help.


It felt like Edwina and Mary were finally recovering, were looking up instead of down, forward instead of back. But Kate felt more and more like something was dragging her down. She was tired, angry, agitated. She couldn’t connect with the sadness she had felt at losing her father, the loneliness she knew was there when she considered the gaping hole he had left in her life. She just felt rage, bitterness.

She supposed it wasn’t fair to those around her, how standoffish she had become. But she didn’t know how to curb this growing sense of distaste, discomfort, disappointment. For the first time, she seemed to be realizing how disconnected she felt from herself.

It’s too late to change anything, though.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise that everyone around her was getting concerned, wanted her to take a break. But Kate didn’t want to stop moving. She had kept herself afloat because she hadn’t stopped to think, and she wasn’t about to change that. She couldn’t risk crashing, couldn’t risk having to face everything that had happened in the past few years. There wasn’t time for it, and Mary and Edwina wouldn’t benefit.

It frustrated her that everyone wanted her to slow down, that they didn’t see how much she kept the house of cards that was their lives balanced because she was so unrelenting. Facing the feelings that were hiding somewhere, giving herself room to breathe had too high a potential cost.

She ought to have known that someone would eventually force her hand.


Kate knew she should be paying attention. She had promised she would give the retreat a real chance, that she wouldn’t automatically roll her eyes at everything everyone said. But it had already been a monumental effort.

Guests were spread out across a large room, everyone sitting cross-legged. There was a soft-spoken guide clad in a diaphanous something or other that seemed to float independently from the woman’s movements as she glided between the guests. Her voice was just above a whisper, almost sing-songy, and Kate struggled to focus.  

It was all bullshit, of course. The building was carefully designed to look like some sort of pagoda, and all of the decorations looked like someone had searched for the word “zen” on Amazon. Maybe she’d have been a little more tolerant if it hadn’t been so manufactured, if it had been a small, family business, but as it was, it was difficult to stomach. 

She knew she wasn’t being completely fair, but this was exactly the sort of event that rubbed Kate the wrong way. The guide spoke of ancient practices, the mind-body connection, Eastern medicine, all sorts of buzzwords that clearly appealed to the usual clientele.

None of whom look anything like me, Kate thought wryly.

It was hard not to scowl.


Anthony was done with all of it. He hated the people, the loopy way his guide talked, the flowy clothing everyone seemed to be wearing. The food thus far had been bland and inedible, the meditation exercises were utterly boring, and not being allowed to talk made him want to scream at everyone who passed by him.

Why the fuck didn’t I skip this?

As he sat cross-legged, stewing and plotting a creative death for the woman reciting something bizarre at the front of the room, it occurred to him that this was only the very beginning.

He hated shit like this. People pretending to be experts on things that sounded mysterious, preciousness to a fault. It was a waste of time.


Anthony had never had much patience, as his siblings often reminded him, though he supposed he had gotten worse in the past decade or so.

He was told he had been playful, sweet when he was younger, but he could mostly remember being ambitious, demanding of himself and others, determined to achieve greatness. It had only grown more acute with age, and he knew that his younger siblings would have been shocked to consider him as someone who loved a joke, someone who smiled freely.

He was the eldest of eight children, all of whom were well-meaning yet determined troublemakers. His mother Violet said he had been just the same, but it was hard to picture himself that way. He liked order, valued logic. Didn’t have time for play.

As the eldest, he supposed he had always felt the weight of responsibility, had babysat from a young age, had needed to be an adult much earlier than the others had.

It turned out to be excellent training for the life he would need to lead, but his behavior often left the rest of his family a bit on edge, a bit disappointed.

Just relax already, they often said.

He didn’t have time for that anymore.


Anthony supposed that his childhood had been idyllic.

Edmund and Violet Bridgerton were both from large New England families, and they had known each other from a young age. It had surprised no one when they began dating, and they had married quite young.

They had both wanted to have a large family, and just a year after their wedding, they welcomed a baby boy into the world.

Anthony was their first child, and though he loved both his parents, he had idolized his father from the first moment he drew breath.

Even to other adults, Edmund Bridgerton had a commanding presence. He was tall, sturdy, brilliant. To his son, he might as well have been a superhero.

Anthony followed Edmund wherever and whenever he could, trying to soak up time with him, trying to learn to be just like him. It had been annoying when he was later joined in this by other siblings, which happened a little too frequently for his liking, but Anthony had always felt in his bones that – as the eldest – he had a special place in Edmund’s heart.

Edmund and Violet had both worked in finance, but after pricing childcare, Violet had left work to care for their children herself. Edmund’s work required long hours at the office, but he also made sure to be present for his family, even when work had to come home with him. He had a home office with a sturdy desk, a comfortable chair. He often had to shoo Anthony or his other children out of the chair, but he never sent them away while he was working. He always seemed to have some task for them to do, and he always made it seem crucial to whatever project he was working on. Violet often came into the room to find an assembly line of sorts, with children seated next to each other on the floor collating, stapling papers, stamping envelopes.


It had always been clear to Anthony that his parents loved each other deeply. They were good friends as well as partners, cherished companions, complete because they had found each other. Anthony knew he and his siblings had been lucky, very lucky, to have this example. Their home had been full of love, play, laughter. As a child, he had wanted that for all of them, hadn’t foreseen that life could be any other way.

Anthony had planned to follow in his father’s footsteps, and at age eighteen, he had been looking forward to going to business school, to making his father proud. By then, he had six siblings, and his mother was pregnant with another. Anthony knew it would be important to distinguish himself.

Edmund had set up a treadmill in his home office, his doctor having been concerned about his stress level, his high blood pressure. Edmund dutifully exercised every day, but genetics had sealed his fate even before his habits had changed.

Anthony had been seated on an easy chair in Edmund’s office, reading while his father jogged next to him. Anthony had been lost in thought, his eyes dancing across the pages of his book, when he heard a loud crash.

He looked up, ready to laugh at whatever mischief his father had started.

But Edmund had hurtled to the floor, seemed to have been thrown from the treadmill.

Anthony jumped up, shouting for his mother, for anyone who might be home.

He crouched next to his father, saw his father gripping his chest, struggling to draw breath.

“What- what’s going on?” Anthony felt panicked, though everything seemed to have slowed down.

Edmund appeared to be reaching for his desk, but Anthony couldn’t figure out what he was trying to get.

He moved over to the desk drawers, opening and shutting them.

“What is it? What do you need?”

And then Anthony saw a bottle of aspirin in the top drawer, and he felt his own heart drop.

He thinks he’s having a heart attack. He may be having a heart attack.

He dialed 911 on the phone, all the while struggling to open the aspirin bottle.

Violet rushed in, then. And everything seemed to blur.

They had tried to perform CPR under the guidance of the 911 operator, had moved out of the way when EMTs rushed into the home.

Anthony had wanted to stay in the room after they arrived, but Violet had shoved him out, begged him to keep his siblings from coming any closer. She didn’t want them to see what was happening, but she also wouldn’t have left the room herself for anything.

Anthony stood outside the closed door, staring at his siblings, totally unsure what to say or do.

He heard shuffling noises, his mother pleading.

And then, a brief moment of quiet.

Anthony knew before the door opened, could tell what had happened before his mother’s screams and sobs cut through the silence.

They hadn’t been able to save Edmund. His father was gone.

His youngest siblings Francesca and Gregory were frightened, both began crying. His brothers Benedict and Colin (the second and third eldest) looked stunned, also seemed to have guessed what had happened. But they stared blankly, not sure what to do, how to react. His sister Daphne had at least thought to put an arm around his sister Eloise, seemed to be trying to distract her despite the tears welling up in her own eyes.

Anthony had nothing to give any of them. 

When he realized he was still holding something, he looked down to see the unopened bottle of aspirin.

He had wanted to scream.


Violet had been inconsolable, stopped taking care of herself to the point that there was concern for the baby.

It still surprised Anthony that it had been his instinct to step in, but there had been no one else. All of his siblings were children, some quite young. Without Edmund, without a functional Violet, it had had to be Anthony who took care of everyone.

Somehow, they had all come out of it relatively unscathed. He knew he had been strict, had demanded a lot of his siblings, but it had gotten them all through the worst time of their lives. It hadn’t been graceful or smooth, but it had seemed to be the only way to manage them all. Some part of him had wished that he could channel Edmund, could exude the cheer his father had always had, the playfulness, the warmth.

But that wasn’t Anthony anymore. He would have to settle for providing what he could, for creating structure. He did his best, but he felt his failings deeply when he awkwardly held his baby sister Hyacinth, when his brother Gregory toddled away after being ignored a little too long.

He knew he wasn’t the surrogate father any of them had wanted, but what could be done?

Each of his siblings, in their own way, tried to connect with him, and each time, he rebuffed them. He couldn’t cuddle Hyacinth the way she wanted, play games with Gregory, read to Francesca. His other siblings were all of an age that they wanted to be seen, heard, considered special. It was all he could do to think of them as anything but a nuisance.

This isn’t my fucking job, he had thought to himself a million times.

But who else would do it?

Violet had nothing left in her, couldn’t bring herself to do anything, let alone care for her children. Anthony had gotten her help, was glad that Edmund’s will could provide for that, but it had always rankled that Violet had been allowed to fall apart when he hadn’t.


Anthony knew something had changed in him when Edmund died. Nothing was quite as intriguing or inspiring. Nothing captured his imagination, made him laugh, left him feeling hopeful. In truth, he was glad of that. It made life predictable, less fraught. He just wanted to cross off the items on his endless to do list, wanted to make sure he ended each day having fulfilled his responsibilities. Anything else seemed to have fallen by the wayside. And that was fine.

Anthony did like the life he had carved out for himself, or he told himself as much. He had a high-paying job, an expensive apartment, was good-looking, dated beautiful women. He got to drink expensive alcohol, drive fast cars, travel to exotic places. He could fuck anyone he wanted. He was by no means lacking in amusements or comforts.

And yet, he couldn’t completely ignore that he felt stretched so incredibly thin, felt ready to snap at any moment. During introspective moments, which he tried to keep few and far between, he mused that he wasn’t so sure that he was exploring things that he liked, so much as leading a fast life so that the past wouldn’t catch up with him.

He no longer wanted to be like Edmund. Part of him had no hope that it could be possible, and part of him had seen too much of the pain Edmund had caused. His father had been loving, loved beyond measure, and he had left them all.

That loss was still excruciating years later, and to those who remembered Edmund, there would always seem to be a large hole in their hearts. Anthony didn’t want to feel that again, just as much as he didn’t want to be the cause of that pain to anyone else.

It had made him vigilant with other people. He had little warmth to give, dated for sex and nothing more, had only casual friends. He didn’t keep anyone around that he would miss if they went away, and he resented his family members for mattering to him.

It was too dangerous to want what Edmund had had, to be so cherished by someone when he would inevitably be ripped away, when they would certainly be taken from him.  

He had ended relationship after relationship because things had gotten too intimate, because his partner had wanted commitment, closeness that felt too vulnerable. Each time it happened, he felt relieved, insisted to his family that he was pleased with his choice.

And each time, they shook their heads at him.

You really are determined to be lonely and miserable, aren’t you? his sister Daphne had recently commented.

He wondered at that. Alone, yes. Safe from pain and complications, yes. Was he miserable?

He seemed to always be aching in some way, a pulled muscle, a sore back. He couldn’t sleep without medication, inevitably got sicker than everyone else when something was going around, purely because he tried to pretend that he wasn’t unwell, wouldn’t slow down.

But misery was something else. And he had seen it.

Misery had been his mother sobbing on the floor, unable to even hold her new baby. It had been his brothers Colin and Benedict getting into fights at school, Daphne becoming obsessed with being thin. It had been a home filled with despair, confusion, loss.

His home now was empty, and he was irritable more frequently than those around him liked, but he had what he needed. And he felt safe.


Anthony expected to feel like an outsider, particularly at something like this, but today he felt utterly enraged. He hated his brother Benedict for concocting this trip, himself for going anyway, all of the hollow idiots sitting around him.

They were doing a meditation exercise, focusing on each body part one at a time.

Feel your body where it is in this space, the guide had said.

Anthony would have liked to feel his body elsewhere.

He couldn’t believe that no one else seemed affronted, disgusted at the affectation around them.

Does no one else think this is bullshit?

Anthony glanced around, hoping to distract himself with… something.

He noticed a woman sitting across the room. Everyone else was sitting with their eyes closed, breathing deeply, but this woman looked as peeved as he felt.

Finally, someone.

He was surprised he hadn’t noticed her before. She was stunning, with dark, curling hair falling out of the bun she had tied it up into. Even from a distance, he could see the annoyance in her eyes, the quirk of her brow indicating just how little the activity impressed her.

He realized that he was staring, had been lost in thought.

She was looking straight back at him, giving him a withering look.  

Something about that made him smile.

Someone next to him loudly cleared her throat, and he looked up to see the guide standing over him.

He shot a hostile look at the guide, finally closing his eyes.

But after he heard footsteps moving away from him, he opened his eyes again, turning his head back toward the woman across the room.

Her dark eyes sparkled in amusement, and there was a hint of a smirk on her face.

He glared at her, which only made her smile grow.

She gave him a final smug look, and then she closed her eyes, posing like a model student.


They had done some sort of yoga, then another meditation, and Anthony found that his mood further soured with each activity.

Anthony was surprised to find that, as his mind wandered, he kept thinking about the mystery woman. He supposed it was that he felt a certain kinship with her. She looked like she was also incredibly unhappy, like she also hated being at the retreat. He couldn’t help but want to know the one other person who seemed to have a modicum of sense.

It would be a relief to commiserate, not that they would much be able to if he could find her. It was a silent retreat. And the few times he had seen her, they had been too far away from each other for him to even pretend to have a reason to engage her.

Nothing other than luck could have paired them together as activity partners.

It was the final activity of the day – thank fuck – and the guests had been divided into pairs for partner meditation. Anthony hadn’t known what that was, hadn’t particularly wanted to find out, but he found that he was pleased to be paired with the woman.

If she had been pleased herself, she hid it well, and she looked positively annoyed to be sitting across from someone, holding their hands, breathing deeply together.

Anthony hated it as well, but somehow, her fury made him feel a bit better. Maybe it was that she looked so disgruntled, so completely butthurt. For the first time since arriving, he wanted to laugh.

She seemed to see this in his face, and she rolled her eyes, finally closing them and trying to lose herself in the activity.  

He was supposed to do the same, but instead, he studied her as she sat across from him. She was lithe, athletic, held herself confidently. South Asian of some sort. Her eyes, when open, had been incredibly expressive.  

In truth, she wasn’t like anyone he had ever met. Women usually readily flirted with him, stared at him with twinkling eyes. He knew what he was. Handsome, successful, charming when he wanted to be. It had never been difficult to attract women. But this woman was totally unimpressed.

He wasn’t sure what compelled him to speak.

“I-”

“Shhhh.” The guide gave him a haughty look.

Kindly go fuck yourself, ma’am.

He looked back at the woman across from him, and her eyes were open again.

She wore a devilish smirk, and this time, he was the one to scowl.

She gave the barest shrug, closing her eyes again.

He watched her, thinking hard thoughts.

Not sure what is so amusing.

But then she absently tossed her hair, exposing more of her neck, her collarbone, a hint of her shoulder.

And something changed.

He felt his cock twitch.

What…

It wasn’t like him to react that dramatically, especially to so little skin.

And the move hadn’t been flirty, he wasn’t even sure it was conscious.

Where had this unexpected, powerful need come from?

It must be that I’m bored out of my mind. That I’m so relieved that someone here also thinks this is awful.

But if that was all it was, his thoughts seemed unusually willing to drift back to her.  

He closed his eyes, wondering what she was like. Clearly a pain in the ass. Difficult. Probably demanding. But her eyes were too full of life for him to think of her as cold.

He imagined what she must be like in bed, and it made him smile to himself.

Probably knows exactly what she wants and isn’t afraid to ask for it.

He wondered if she would be loud, what she would like, what she would feel like around him.

He shifted uncomfortably.

Standing up is going to be a problem.

He thought, for the millionth time, how strange it was that he couldn’t think about anything else. It wasn’t like him.

Again, you idiot, it’s because there’s nothing better to do.

That had to be it.

He chewed his lip thoughtfully, realized he could hear people beginning to move around him.

When he looked up, he saw other guests walking out of the room.  

The woman was still holding his hands, but her eyes were open, and she had an eyebrow raised.

He glared, pulling his hands away and standing.


Kate hadn’t decided yet whether she minded the man from across the room, and later, across the yoga mat. When she first saw him, she had been thoroughly entertained to see how unhappy he looked, and she had found that her own misery became less potent when she saw how furious he seemed. She was pleased that someone else seemed to be on the same wavelength she was.  

He had looked unbelievably weary, entirely unimpressed by the exercise. It had been amusing, the dourness of his face, but she couldn’t help but admit that his expression echoed everything that she felt. It was an unexpected relief that at least one other person was annoyed with the proceedings.

He was attractive, she would give him that. He wasn’t her usual type, had a stern Mr. Darcy quality to him that tended to irritate her, but she found she couldn’t stop sneaking glances at him. She wondered who he was. He was well-dressed, or as well-dressed as one could be in yoga clothing. He looked strong, and his tan could almost be mistaken for real.

He looks like he thinks highly of himself.

That normally would have been enough for her to roll her eyes, to push someone from her thoughts. But she was far away from home and had very little to distract her. She would never see him again. He was good-looking, a welcome change from the insipid idiots everywhere else. She could look. 

His eyes had seemed to be drawn to her as well, and she had been especially pleased when a guide had caught him staring rather than participating in the meditation.  

Kate had almost laughed.

But by the end of the day, her mood had declined. She was over all of it, uncomfortable, tired, hot, ready to go home. The day had been warm, and her thick hair had once again broken her hair band. She had done her best to tie it up, but her hair was long and heavy, unwilling to be tamed. She had finally given up trying to manage it.

Another time she might have been entertained that she had been paired with the man from before, might have tried to exchange a sardonic look, but she just wanted to shower and go to sleep.

He kept staring at her, and it was starting to ruffle her feathers.

She didn’t know what he wanted or expected, was doubly shocked that he had tried to speak to her.

Does he think it means something that we’ve been paired together? All it likely meant was that the two skeptics in the room were happening to share a yoga mat.

She heard people moving around them, realized she had been lost in thought.

She opened her eyes, glancing at the man, and he seemed to sense her gaze. His eyes whipped open, meeting hers.

What the hell…?

She lifted a brow, and he seemed to start.

He yanked back his hands, standing and tramping away.


Kate was relieved to finally be able to take a shower.

It had been a warm day, and it felt like her hair was sticking to her skin. She was ready to stand under a stream of water, wash the day away.

She waited until the sun was down, feeling a bit like a Victorian ghost as she shuffled down the dark hallway with her candle. It was hard to see, but at least she was alone.

There was dim lighting in the shower area, and there were a few other candles for show.

The cool water felt incredible on her skin, against her scalp. The provided soap smelled like eucalyptus and mint, but Kate soaped up with her own.

Another time, she might have gone slowly, but she just wanted to be locked in her room by herself. No one else nodding superciliously at her. No more chanting, no more affirmations.

She had seemed to get more agitated, more furious as everyone else around her relaxed. She wondered whether someone could be convinced to do them all a favor and poison them.  

She had been lost in her head when she heard another shower start, and she furrowed her brow.

She was surprised anyone else had thought to shower this late.

She rinsed her hair, listening curiously.

She heard occasional shuffling, a muttered oath after something clunked against the tile floor.

She smiled despite herself, continuing to let the water run down her body.  

She turned off the water, wringing out her hair and reaching for a towel. She wrapped herself in the towel, sighing at the plushness of it as she dried herself off. She stepped gingerly out of the shower, reaching for her candle.

It appeared that the other guest had had the same thought.

And then she realized who it was.

The man had a towel wrapped around his waist, and he was reaching for his own candle.

He was even more attractive than she had realized. He was toned, his damp brown hair somehow falling roguishly against his forehead.

He looked only momentarily startled, and then she saw amusement cross his face.

“You.”

He had a smooth baritone. A nice voice.

“Yes.”

“I was wondering if I’d see you again.”

She didn’t know why his smugness irritated her.

“And now you have.”

He grinned. “Trying to avoid the rush?”

“Yes,” she said meaningfully.

“I don’t think I got your name.”

“I’m not likely to have said it.”

He grinned at her.


The day had been horrible, but Anthony was proud that he hadn’t lost his temper. He couldn’t say he was any more relaxed than he had been when he arrived, but it was all beginning to feel a bit like a dream.

He had decided to shower late, wanted to avoid being around other guests if possible. There had been one other person showering, but that was better than a crowd. And he could be quick.

He ought to have guessed that he would run into the woman again, that when they talked, she would be as ruthless as he had suspected.

“Can I help you?” She raised a brow.

He snorted. “People usually don’t hate me this quickly.”

“Who said I hate you?” she grumbled, wringing out her hair.

“You don’t seem to like me.”

“I don’t know you.”

“I’m surprised you haven’t reminded me that talking isn’t allowed.”

“I’m happy to tell you to be quiet for other reasons.”

He felt himself grin. “You don’t sound like you’re enjoying being here.”

“I’m not. And I’m exhausted.”

“I can tell.”

“Can you?” she sniffed.

She really was gorgeous, had been made that much more beautiful by the way her wet hair framed her face, fell in damp tendrils against her shoulders.

She stood tall, her head held high as she walked away proudly. He was still surprised at her, but as she moved past him, the scent of her hit him. He felt completely thrown.

The scent was something floral, clean, delicate.

Her soap?

He would never be able to forget that smell.


The next day was equally infuriating, though Anthony felt a wave of amusement when he was once again paired with the woman. She seemed positively annoyed, and her body looked tenser than it had the day before. He supposed he looked the same way.

The guide was accompanied by a couple, apparently seated at the front to demonstrate the poses everyone was supposed to do.

He and the woman copied as best they could, but he could tell she was annoyed, could feel her back against his, her breath surprisingly shallow.

They then had to twist against each other, each placing a hand on the other’s thigh.

He felt his cock twitch again.

Are you fucking kidding me?

He was like a schoolboy with a crush.

He was trying to rein himself in when he felt her breathing becoming more ragged.

Odd.

And then he heard a sniffle.

What the fuck?

The woman jumped up, hurrying from the room.

He stared after her, dazed.


They came on suddenly like this sometimes, or they seemed to be sudden.

Kate had started having panic attacks as a child, but there had been a long lull. They returned with a vengeance after her father died, and though she wasn’t surprised, every time felt unbearable.

Her chest had felt tight all afternoon, and she hadn’t wanted to admit that it was an obvious warning sign, that it always preceded what ended up being an overwhelming, exhausting experience.

She leaned her palms against the wall, willing herself to feel the grain of the wood, the cool floor beneath her feet. There was a bit of a breeze, and she tried to keep her mind on the wind dancing across her shoulders, her hair tickling the backs of her arms.

She tried to breathe.

In for four, hold for four, out for four, hold for four.

She didn’t know why it was happening now, but she was so tense.

Maybe it was that she had spent two days gritting her teeth and trying to push through incredible frustration. Maybe it was that she had never been comfortable being touched, that physical closeness, particularly with strangers, was overwhelming to her in a way not much else was.

“Are you okay?”

The voice made her jump.

She knew who it was before she looked up.

Why did he follow me?

“You just ran out.”

She gasped. “Please. Please stop talking.”

He sounded alarmed. “Is everything okay?”

“Just… Just stop.”

She continued to gasp, felt her skin tingling and hot. Tears streamed down her face.

“What’s going on?”

“I’m fine.” But her breathing became more labored.

She knelt, leaning her head against the wall.

It felt like her vision had tunneled, the sounds around her muffled like her head was under water. 

She felt a firm hand on her arm.

“It’s okay. You’re okay.”

I’m fine, she wanted to say. This happens all the time.

She clutched at her chest, just wanted to get her breathing under control.

“It’s okay. We can… I’ll get someone to call an ambulance.” His grip was tight.

“What?” Her eyes shot to his face. “No!”

But he looked utterly terrified.

What is going on?

“I’ll just-” He stood as if to move away, looking around wildly as though trying to find something. “Do you have any jaw pain? Any numbness in your arm?”

“What… I… No. It’s… a panic attack.” She gasped again, still gripping her chest.

“A what?”

“Panic attack.”

She turned, sitting on the floor and leaning against the wall.

She held a hand against her chest, trying to open up, to keep herself from curling in and constricting her lungs.

It occurred to her that someone else was gasping, and she looked up.

She realized that the man also seemed to be having trouble breathing.

What…?

Any other time, she might have been annoyed, even amused, but she was already too overwhelmed, too spent.

“Fuck.” He closed his eyes tightly, also clutching his chest.

“Sit down.”

He flopped onto the floor next to her, leaning against the wall.

She was surprised to see tears in his eyes.

She wasn’t sure what made her do it, but she leaned her head against his, gripping his hand tightly.

We’re quite a pair.

“I’m okay,” she gasped. “We’re okay.”

She felt him nod.

“It’s okay.”

She could feel her hands shaking, realized that his were shaking as well.

Maybe that was what had prompted her.

She turned to him, wrapping her arms tightly around him and burying her face against his neck.

She wasn’t sure if it was for her or for him, but he also held onto her tightly, clearly just in need of something to ground him, comfort him.

She realized they had started breathing together, and their breathing had become slower, more controlled.

It felt like a comforting hug, somewhere safe.

He leaned his forehead against hers, she wasn’t sure why. But again, she was surprised that she didn’t mind.

How does it feel like I know him? We’ve barely spoken.

But her heart was racing, and her skin tingled where it touched his.

She pulled back slightly, wasn’t quite sure what she was reading in his eyes. But he was staring at her nakedly, also looking a bit surprised.

And then she remembered that they were strangers. And they were so close to each other. The moment had somehow become very intimate.

She loosened her grip on him, sliding back.

“I may cut out and go lie down.”

He stared, finally nodded dazedly.

They exchanged a look for a moment, and his eyes still looked watery.

She stood quickly, walking away without glancing back.

What the hell just happened?


Anthony fell asleep rapidly once he made it to his bed. It appeared that he had slept fitfully, judging from the tangle of blankets around him, but at least he had slept.

It was one of the effects of these attacks that had plagued him since his father died. His body and mind were exhausted, and all he wanted was to be alone, to rest.

He couldn’t quite believe it had happened, particularly in front of someone else. He had gotten good at hiding them, at keeping himself together until he could be on his own.

But seeing the woman gasping for air, clutching her chest, had undone him.

For a moment, he had seen Edmund lying on the floor, his breathing similarly labored.

Now that he was calm, he knew that he ought to have guessed right away what was going on with her. But he had utterly panicked, had suddenly felt his own chest constricting.

It had not been his shining moment, he had to admit. He had prided himself on being capable during emergencies, but he had simply become as distressed as the person he was trying to help.

He still didn’t know quite why he had followed her, and he wasn’t even sure she had wanted him there.  

He had always wanted to calm himself down without observers, but something about touching her soothed him in a way nothing ever had. Maybe it had been the same for her. 


Unlike the two days before, the woman seemed to be as far away from him as possible, seemed to have found ways to avoid being partnered with him.

Anthony supposed it was fine. They didn’t know each other, didn’t owe each other anything.

And yet, he felt lonely, a bit betrayed. It was as though the one friendly face in a sea of strangers had turned away from him.

If I can call her friendly, he mused.

He knew he should leave her alone, but he kept looking for her, kept finding his eyes drifting to where she was sitting.

She seemed unusually focused on the activities, and it made him wonder.

Is she embarrassed?

He wanted to make sure she was okay, for some reason wanted to take care of her. He hadn’t felt that urge, the need to really comfort someone, in years.


Everyone was headed back to their rooms for the night when Anthony saw her.

She was warily glancing around, and he wondered if she was trying to avoid him.

He was surprised to see her turn and walk away from the rooms, heading in the direction of a garden.

He followed behind her, hoped he wouldn’t completely startle her.

“Wait.”

She practically jumped out of her skin.

“What is wrong with you??” she hissed.

“Sorry, I just wanted to see if you were-”

“I’m fine. Or I was until you scared the shit out of me.”

“Sorry.”

They exchanged a long look.

“You sure you’re okay?”

“Of course I am.”

For some reason, he didn't believe her.

“I’m Anthony.”

“Yes?”

She stared, and he had to smile.

“This is where you tell me your name.”

She narrowed her eyes, but after a moment, she squared her shoulders, gave an almost business-like nod.  

“I’m Kate.” She sounded almost defiant.

“Right. Kate. You’re sure you’re okay? From yesterday?”

Now she looked annoyed. “Yes. Are you?”

“Yes.”

“Does that happen a lot?”

“Why do you ask?”

“It just seemed pretty bad. And I know how it is-”

“Clearly,” she said wryly.

“I just thought it might be good to check up on you.”

“Well, now you have.”

He felt his own irritation bubbling up.

“I was actually just trying to be helpful.”

“Which I appreciate.”

“It doesn’t seem like you do.”

“I wasn’t aware I needed to thank you for having a panic attack next to me.”

“It wasn’t on purpose. And I’m surprised that you, of all people, don’t have a little more sympathy.”

“Me of all people?”

“Since you know how it feels.”

“Ah.”

“You seemed to care yesterday.”

“Did I?”

“You hugged me. Very tightly.”

“Because I was having a panic attack of my own. You’re the one who decided to hug me back.”

“You’re serious?”

“I was just trying to feel better!”

“So was I!”

He realized they had gotten closer, were in each other’s faces.

He could smell delicate flowers, the same scent from before.

He sighed. “I’m not trying to bother you.”

“No?” She still looked annoyed, but her voice sounded wearier than before.

“No. I just… needed to make sure you were alright.”

They exchanged a look, and something seemed to have changed in her eyes.

She nodded, her face surprisingly soft. “I am.”

He wasn’t sure why he did it, but he stroked one of the curls that framed her face with the back of his knuckle. It seemed like the logical thing to do.

“You scared me.”

“I’m sorry.”

He breathed in deeply. “What is that?”

“What?”

“That scent.”

“Probably my soap. It’s lilies.”

“I’m glad you’re okay.”

He tucked the curl behind her ear.

She sighed, closing her eyes and leaning her forehead against his.

“I can go.”

“No.”

She opened her eyes again, her gaze quickly flitting to his mouth.

He closed the distance.   


It had only been a kiss, a surprising, unexpected, tantalizing kiss. Anthony wasn’t quite sure what had made him do it, what had made her do it.

But he had felt pulled toward her, felt naked in front of her in a way he didn’t understand.

He had kissed so many women, but this had been different, though he wasn’t quite sure why.

They had both seen each other with their guard down, rather unexpectedly. But rather than being embarrassed, he felt comfortable with her, soothed by her. His relief that she was alright felt tremendous, but that relief was quickly eclipsed by a deep need to keep touching her.

He still didn’t know who had moved first, but he had been struck once again by how beautiful the woman was.

Kate, he reminded himself.

Her eyes had been dark pools, had spoken volumes, and her mouth had been mesmerizing.

Her lips had been soft against his, becoming firmer as he responded to her. He tangled his fingers in her hair, tightly gripping handfuls of curls.

She cupped his face, kissing him deeply. He was surprised at how hungry he felt for her, at how desperate he felt to keep touching her.

They finally pulled away from each other, staring at each other in astonishment.

And after a long, awkward moment, she walked away.

Anthony stood alone, looking at the building, and he was surprised at how soon he saw Kate walking down the dim hallway.

The first room was dark, but after a moment, he saw a dim light flickering. That must have been her room.

He suspected Kate also hated the candles they were given to light their rooms, and he smiled to himself at the thought that – even if she was as thrown by the events of the evening as he was, she likely still felt irritated while trying to get the flame to catch.

He chewed his lip, wondering whether he was crazy for contemplating what he was. There was no guarantee she would want what he did. In all likelihood, she would punch him for having the gall to suggest it.

But nothing could have induced him to go back to his room.


Kate sat on her bed, watching the candle flame. She didn’t feel at all tired.

What the fuck is going on?

She had desperately wanted to kiss him – Anthony – and she still didn’t quite know why. Just that they had been in each other’s space, and she couldn’t pull away without touching him.

It didn’t feel like enough, but what could she do?

She was surprised to find herself touching her lip, as though some part of her was reliving the kiss.

How was she ever going to sleep?

She stared into the darkness, not sure what to do with herself.

And then there was a tap at the door.

She furrowed her brow, thought she must be hearing things.

After a moment there was another tap.

Her heart was racing, and she finally stood, moving to the sliding door.

After a third tap, she slid the door open a crack.

Anthony.

Another time, she might have wondered about how he found her room, but she was already too far gone.

She yanked him into her room, sliding the door shut behind him.


Kate had never been like this, had never thought so little about what she was doing. She just felt driven by need.

She shoved Anthony onto her bed, felt the cool air on her skin as she tore off her shirt. She straddled his lap, stifling a groan as she pressed herself against him.

She pressed her lips to his, putting her arms around his neck, grinding firmly against him.

She could feel how hard he was, and she felt a rush of wetness between her legs as she moved against him.

They kissed deeply, his hands in her hair, then trailing down to her breasts, her stomach.

Ever impatient, she sped up her movements, almost grinned when she was rewarded with a groan.

He shifted her slightly, and she could feel his cock rubbing firmly against her clit as she moved.

He isn’t even inside me, and this feels incredible.

She couldn’t stifle the moan that bubbled up.

“Shhhhh.”

She glared, grabbing his hand and putting it between her legs.

He groaned loudly.

You shhhhh.”

“I can feel how wet you are through your clothes,” he kept his voice down.

“Yes.”

He slid his hand down further, palming her. “Take these off.”

She wasted no time, jumping up and helping him tug off her pants. He yanked off her flimsy panties, tossing them somewhere, and then he settled her onto his lap again.

He teased her with the tip of his finger. He dipped his finger inside her, moving it ever so gently.

She whimpered, riding his hand when he added another finger.

It felt so good.

The heel of his palm pressed firmly against her clit, and she gripped his arms tightly, shuddering as she ground against him.

Was it somehow hotter that they needed to be quiet? That they were trying to avoid getting caught?

“Please-”

“More?”

“Mmhmm.”

He slid another finger inside her, thrusting expertly into her. She gasped, felt like she might fall off his lap.

“Like that?”

She nodded, grinding hard against his hand. “Ah, fuck. Don’t stop.”

He complied, but it still wasn’t enough.

She moved back, tugging at his shirt and tossing it aside before raking her nails down his chest, across his stomach.

She tugged his pants down as much as she could, palming his cock. It was warm and hard in her hand, and she stroked him a couple of times, grinning when he shuddered, grabbed her wrist.

“I didn’t bring condoms. To the retreat.”

She blinked, finally realizing what he was saying.

She knew she shouldn’t risk it.

“I’m clean.”

“So am I.”

“And I’m on birth control.”

He nodded. “It’s up to you.”

She straddled him, felt the tip of his cock against her clit, teasing her entrance. Now it was her turn to shudder.

“Please-” she gasped.

“Are you sure?”

 She kissed him again. “Yes.”


Anthony couldn’t quite believe his luck, couldn’t quite wrap his mind around what was happening.

Kate sank onto him, felt warm, tight, and deliciously wet. She wasted no time as she began moving on top of him, and he gripped her hips, thrusting up into her as she moved.

How the hell am I going to last?

She bit her lip to stifle a moan, and he kissed her, tugging her lip between his teeth.

“I wish I could really hear you.”

She nodded, shutting her eyes tightly.

“Look at me.”

She opened her eyes, and he could see every ounce of pleasure that she felt. He could get lost in those eyes if he let himself.

She buried her face against his neck, still trying hard not to make noise. He could tell she wanted to move faster, harder, but the bed was already creaking slightly.  

He looked around, could see the outline of her yoga mat on the floor.

He almost rolled his eyes at how cliché it would be.

He lifted her up, placing her on the mat on her knees and bending her over. She gasped as he thrust into her from behind. He grabbed her hips, slamming into her again and again, trying to keep the pace slow enough that there wouldn’t be much noise as their bodies came together.

She was bracing herself, looking down, but he pulled her up, roughly grabbing her jaw and turning her face toward his.

“Look back at me.”

He reached down, swirling his fingers against her clit again, and she gasped.

“I’m so close.”

He could feel her clenching around him, wanted nothing more than to see her come, to feel her shuddering against him as she lost herself to pleasure.

“Can you be quiet?”

“No idea.”

He loved that.

He kept stroking her, tried hard to stifle his own groans as she clenched tightly around him.

“Fuck, I’m close, too.”

“Can you be quiet?”

He grinned. “No idea.”

“Please. Harder.”

He picked up the pace, and she clamped a hand over her mouth.

I’m going to die.

“I’m-”

And then she came hard around him, shuddering and clenching the life out of him. She felt amazing, and it was all he could do to rein himself in.

“Keep going, please.”

This time she came harder, was unable to stifle a sob of pleasure as she trembled against him.

“Shhhh.”

“Ah-” she gasped. “I’m going to come again.”

He was so close, too.

“Fuck-”

“Come with me.”

He had never managed it, not at the same time, but they somehow were able to make it happen.

It wasn’t long before he was coming hard, spilling into her as she moaned, clenching tightly around him.

He pulled out, groaning at the change in sensation. Even in the candlelight, he could see the faintest stream of cum dripping from her.

He felt himself getting hard again.

Fuck.

He really wanted more.

He helped her onto the bed, kneeling between her legs as he kissed her hard.

“Fingers or mouth?” He kept his voice low.

“Hmm?” She seemed dazed.

“Fingers.” He spread her legs wider, trailed his fingers downward until they grazed her clit. “Or mouth?”

He slowly kissed his way down her chest, her stomach, holding her hips in place as he knelt, pushing her legs even further apart.

He teased her with his tongue, was pleased at her moan, the way she seemed almost out of control of her movements.   

“Ah-”

She shuddered as he dipped his tongue into her, tasting himself. He shifted slightly until he could press his tongue firmly to her clit, and he began licking her expertly.

“I definitely-” She gasped. “I won’t be able to keep quiet.”

He grinned, gently sliding a finger into her and crooking it. “Good.”

And then he resumed his ministrations.  


There had been no Earthly way they were going to stop with one night, and they seemed to reach an unspoken agreement that for as long as they were there, as everyone was meditating and/or sleeping in their rooms, they would sneak off to one of their rooms and fuck each other senseless.

Kate had never felt so out of control, so at the mercy of her body’s demands.

She was surprised at how creative they had been, how many times she had come, had made him come. Each time had been incredible.

It had been harder and harder to keep quiet, and she was surprised that there were no reactions to her stifled moans, his groans, or the sounds their bodies made moving together. It was a very unexpected, lucky thing that they were never interrupted.

It was so good, too good, and she never felt like she had gotten enough. It didn’t help that they spent the day shooting each other smoldering looks, giving each other an occasional cheeky wink.

It was their naughty little secret.


Kate couldn’t say that she remembered much of the retreat, or at least, much of the scheduled activities she knew she had participated in. But her thighs ached, and she felt utterly sated by the time she left for home.

She had run into Anthony in the parking lot, and they had exchanged a long look. He finally closed the distance, kissing her deeply.

This was it, she knew, but it felt good to end on this note.

“I’m glad I got to meet you, Kate.”

“I’m glad I got to meet you, Anthony.”

She kissed him again, tugging at his lip with her teeth.

He groaned, gripping her waist tightly.

“I will fuck you in the car if you don’t stop.”

“Will you?” she asked innocently.

“Yes, come on.”

He took her by the arm, guiding her toward his car.

And as promised, he tossed her into the back, fucking her hard into the seat.

And this time, she didn’t have to be quiet. It was late, and most other cars had driven off immediately. She could moan as loudly as she wanted, could whimper and gasp to her heart’s content.

She had never had sex like this before.  

It was a shame this would have to stop, that they would both go back to their regular lives.

But what a way for things to end.


Kate had been lost in her head as she drove off, not wanting to look back, but being unable to resist a glance.

Anthony smiled wickedly at her, and she supposed that would do as her final image of him.

She had surprised herself, and she grinned when she thought to herself that the retreat – aside from being painfully boring as far as the regular programming – had ended up being very relaxing in its own way.

Not quite the way Elle intended, but I’ll take it.

She suspected Elle would be disappointed that Kate didn’t have thorough notes, wouldn’t be able to recall much that would be any great benefit to readers. But Kate had been understandably distracted.

Reception was terrible going down the mountain, but there was only one road, and getting lost would have been an impressive feat.

Still, she forgot that she might be expecting messages, and as she neared a cell tower, her phone began dinging repeatedly. Messages arrived in abundance, and when she reached a gas station, she took a moment to look through everything she had received.

Mary had sent well wishes. Elle had sent warnings to behave herself.

Too late, Kate mused.

Edwina had sent a series of messages, but rather than the sensation of warmth that had come with reading the others, Kate felt a chill down her spine.

Elle told me more about Charlotte’s nephew’s boyfriend’s brother, the text read. She sent me a picture.

Kate stared, totally at a loss.

The photo staring back at her was as unmistakable as it was unexpected.

Anthony.

 


 

Chapter Text



1. Kate returns to civilization

 

 

2. Kate is preoccupied during the restaurant opening

 

 

3. Benedict notices that Anthony is preoccupied

 

 

4. Kate overhears something and causes a bit of a scene

 

 

5. Edwina is mad at Kate

 

 

6. The Bridgertons tease Anthony

 

 

7. Elle scolds Kate

 

 

8. Elle gives a reminder

 

 

9. Elle issues an invitation

 

 

10. Anthony considers something

 

 

11. Edwina wants Kate to be nice

 

 

12. Anthony texts Kate

 

 

13. Kate considers telling Edwina something

 

 

14. Kate gets a text from an unknown number

 

 

15. Kate is not pleased

 

 

16. Violet is concerned about Anthony

 

 

17. Mary is concerned about Kate


 

Chapter Text



Kate was worried about Edwina, had been worried since getting home.

Edwina had been talking almost nonstop about Anthony, seemed to always find a way to bring the conversation around to him. Kate wanted to be pleased to see her sister excited, happy about something, but it felt like watching an impending train wreck.

“You don’t know that you’ll actually like him, Bon. Once you meet him.”

“Didi, I’m allowed to be interested in someone.”

“I know, but if he’s all you can talk about before you’ve been in a room together...”

“I’m just filling you in on what you missed while you were gone.”

“Did something happen while I was gone?” Kate grinned.

“No, but I’m allowed to be a little excited about meeting him.”

“A little?”

Edwina chewed her lip innocently.

Kate sighed.


She and Edwina had always been different in this regard.  

Kate didn’t like to let people in, didn’t easily get attached. And she could be coarse, sometimes (often) stand-offish. 

Edwina had always deeply desired affection from other people, was hopeful about them, wanted desperately to connect. She aimed to keep things light, maintain peace, smooth things over whenever there was tension.

They were opposite sides of a coin.

And as they came to terms with the sudden death of their father, their paths continued to diverge.

Kate turned into herself, sought the safety of isolation, whereas Edwina’s need for connection became more desperate, more palpable.

Edwina was eager to let other people in, tried to gather as much love as she could. Even though she had learned that it could be dangerous, she seemed unable to keep from putting all of her cards on the table.  

In some ways, it was a wonderful, laudable quality. But it also meant that Edwina got hurt easily and often.

She never has learned to guard her heart, Kate reflected.

And since Edwina hadn’t, Kate promised herself she would do it for her.

Edwina seemed to crave and seek affection in a way that was far too naked, far too blatant for Kate’s liking. Kate hated how vulnerable it made her, hated how much it impacted Edwina even when other people couldn’t be faulted.

Edwina had always required very little encouragement to become attached, whether it was with potential friends or potential love interests. She saw politeness as evidence of attraction, had even mistaken interest in friends for interest in her. She now knew this about herself, had at least learned to be somewhat mindful of it, but habits were hard to break.  

It had always saddened Kate, who knew that Edwina was complex, discriminating, thoughtful. Her sister just seemed to have this permanent blind spot, and no amount of lectures or repeated mistakes seemed to shake her of it.


Kate wanted Edwina to truly protect herself, but she had never seemed able.  

Mary had once suggested that Edwina had gotten so used to Kate protecting her that she stopped bothering to do it herself, and it had stung.

I’ll always take care of her. Whether or not she needs it.

Sometimes that meant guarding Edwina against other people. And sometimes it had meant shielding Edwina from herself.

Kate had secretly warned people off, had discreetly (and not so discreetly) told people bent on matchmaking to go elsewhere. She hated that she needed to step in, but it was better than seeing Edwina suffer.

Still, it was complicated, often left Kate feeling ambivalent.

Kate wanted to protect Edwina from her eager heart, wanted to prevent long-term pain, but she also had no desire to see Edwina immediately disappointed, kicking herself for once again getting her hopes up with very little reason.

It had always been a delicate balance.

Kate knew she could end her sister’s interest in Anthony abruptly, could make things simpler by telling Edwina about her trip, that she had somehow slept with the very person Edwina had set her sights on.

It was awkward, unexpected, but it was the reality. And Kate had never liked shying away from the truth.

But, for some reason, this time, the situation wasn’t something about which Kate felt she could so easily share.

And maybe Edwina doesn’t actually need to know…

Anthony and Edwina were very different. He was harsh where she was mild, casual where Edwina was earnest.

And, unless I’m very much mistaken, he’s not likely to do anything remotely encouraging, Kate thought wryly.

Maybe Anthony would inadvertently make things easier on them all.


Anthony wasn’t sure how he felt about seeing Kate again. For a moment, he had been completely and totally stunned, had thought he might be dreaming. But she was actually there, was sitting at his table talking with an old family friend in a way that suggested this was no new acquaintance.

How the hell does she know Elle Danbury? Why is she here?

Nothing about it made sense.

It was hard not to keep sneaking glances at Kate. She had been beautiful before, but dressed up for the event, she was utterly breathtaking.

He wasn’t quite sure why that struck him so forcefully. He was used to casual sex, had even had a weekend fling here and there. Always with beautiful women. There wasn’t anything different this time around, and there certainly wasn’t anything between him and Kate. They had had sex, great sex, but still nothing that had meant anything.

So why did he keep feeling his eyes drifting back to her?

They had made brief eye contact, but she had quickly looked away, was clearly perfectly ready to act as though they had never met.

Good.

That was fine with him. It was refreshing that she wasn’t interested, that there was no risk of her getting attached.

Though I wouldn’t mind fucking her again.

He knew he wouldn’t do it. That was always risky, often made women optimistic in a way that made him uneasy. He didn’t think Kate was the type, but even incredible sex wasn’t worth the chance that things could get complicated.

So why couldn’t he stop looking?

Because she’s fucking gorgeous and you’ve seen her naked, that’s all.  

He appreciated what he saw. That was all it was. All it could be.


The woman next to him – Edwina – was all smiles. She was talkative, friendly, perfectly pleasant, and just like every other nice woman he had ever met. She agreed with him, laughed at his jokes, seemed impressed no matter what he talked about. It bored him to death.

He briefly caught his mother’s eye, and she seemed pleased that he was talking with Edwina, though he had no idea why.

She knows I hate this.

Still, his mother had taken to giving him this strange look when he talked to women, seemed unwilling to believe that he wasn’t looking to meet someone. He had been blunt with her, after being bothered one too many times had told her that he was only looking for people to have sex with. He thought she would be disappointed with him, but instead, she had rolled her eyes as though she was privy to secrets that hadn’t yet been revealed to him.

It annoyed him, how his family seemed to think they knew what he wanted. He had made himself perfectly clear, had been consistent about it for years.

What the hell could have possibly changed?

It wasn’t his behavior, it wasn’t anything he had said.

So why the fuck are they convinced I want something I don’t?

He picked at his food, nodding along as Edwina prattled about something or other.

He snuck a glance at Kate, wondered if she was still talking with Elle Danbury.

To his surprise, Kate was glaring in his direction.

He furrowed his brow, looking at Edwina for a moment.

Is she jealous?

That couldn’t be the case. Nothing about Kate had suggested there was anything for him to worry about.

And yet, she continued to look his way, a sour expression on her face.


Kate had tried to focus on her food, had spent an inordinately long time studying her cocktail, but it was hard not to watch Anthony closely. Most of the time, he seemed distracted by Edwina, by the man sitting on his other side. But occasionally, he met Kate’s gaze. For some reason, that made her squirm.

Not that it should.

Kate had been unfavorably surprised to see Anthony seated next to Edwina. He didn’t seem particularly lively, but he occasionally talked with Edwina, seemed willing to engage in conversation despite looking austere.

It made Kate uneasy that he was responding at all. She didn’t want him to be unkind to Edwina, would have been furious if he had been rude, but she also knew her sister. It had been enough so far that Anthony was handsome, that Edwina had heard about his good qualities. She would see something even if he had been less responsive, enough that it would appear to be the beginning of something, at least in Edwina’s eyes.

Kate hadn’t wanted to say anything to him, would have been content to keep her distance. But now it seemed best to warn him off, to explain that Edwina was off-limits. Even if it turned out he wasn't at all interested, there was too great a chance that Edwina would feel encouraged. And she would get hurt, even if it was pain primarily of her own making.

It would be easier to tell Anthony to stay away than it would be to tell her sister, would cause fewer complications. Kate would find a moment to tell Anthony that Edwina was her sister, that to avoid awkwardness, to keep things simpler, he should steer clear. He didn’t have to know the other reasons.

She felt someone kick her foot, and she realized she was still staring at him. She looked up, caught a wicked glint in Elle’s eyes.

Kate furrowed her brow, watching suspiciously as Elle got up, gliding toward the bar to stand next to Charlotte. Elle laughed along with Charlotte at something a man next to them was saying.  

Kate glared in her direction.


Kate left her seat for the bathroom, ended up needing to wait in line by the bar.

She noticed Anthony chatting with some other men at the bar. She knew two of them to be his brothers, but she didn’t recognize the others.

They were all laughing heartily.

She was surprised she could hear the conversation, but she supposed alcohol had made them a little less cautious.

She quickly wished she hadn’t been able to overhear them. 

“I’m shocked you’ve been talking to her as long as you have, Ant.”

“She’s fine.”

“Pretty, and not getting the hint.”

“I haven’t decided whether I want her to get the hint.”

“Ah. You going to go for it?”

“Why not?”

“Because her sister is likely to bite you.”

“Is that a bad thing?”

They all laughed.

“I know you’re not going for both of them.”

She saw Anthony shrug. “Might be a great evening.”

Kate narrowed her eyes.

“If not, who’s it going to be?”

“Do I have to pick?”

Kate furrowed her brow.

“The night is young.”

“Well, be careful. The younger one obviously wants to date someone, man, so she’s likely to chase you around the entire restaurant-”

“Maybe, but you know me. She can trick someone else into it.”

Kate clenched her jaw.

“Fuck, look at her at the end of the bar.”

“She’s already halfway out of that dress.”

“Could always start with her.”

Anthony again.

“You’re that convinced she’s a sure thing?”

“She will be if I ask.” She could practically see Anthony’s smirk.

“The legs on her, too.”

“Amazing tits.”

“Her friend, though. I wouldn’t pick her out of a lineup.” Whoever this was sounded very entertained with himself.

“Not with that face.”

“You can always turn her around,” Anthony quipped.

They all laughed.

For a moment, Kate thought about Anthony behind her, thrusting into her as she braced herself against her yoga mat.


Kate had stomped into the bathroom, practically pacing back and forth.

She was understandably indignant, but she was also surprised at just how ashamed she felt.

She wasn’t shocked that a group of straight men, left to their own devices, had resorted to being sexist assholes.

But somehow Anthony had surprised her. She had imagined him to be a decent human being, grumpy but ultimately someone who might do the right thing, who might realize when he needed to be gentle with someone’s feelings.

But he was just like the rest of them, was just as awful.

What possibly could have made her suspect anything else?

I’m worse than Edwina.


Kate thought she had finally calmed down, and when she walked out of the bathroom, she walked past the bar, refusing to look at any of them.

But when she got to the table, her blood ran cold.

Anthony was sitting next to Edwina, chatting amiably.

Is he fucking serious?

She stomped over.

“What the fuck are you doing?”

“I’m having a conversation?”

“I’m surprised you’d even bother.”

“Oh?”

“Why not fuck one of the women at the bar? Even if you have to turn them around?

“What?” Edwina furrowed her brow.

“Were you eavesdropping?” Anthony glared.

“I didn’t have to eavesdrop. You were telling the entire restaurant what you were planning.”

“We were having our own conversation.”

“Very loudly. And you all sounded like chauvinistic idiots.”

Kate saw a few people turning to watch.

“Did we?”

Asshole.

“And don’t be so convinced that you’re such a prize that you can fuck any of the women you’ve been ogling.”

“No?” Anthony smiled wickedly, giving her a meaningful look.

“No. I suspect they have standards.”

“I see there isn’t much of that going around these days.”

“You would be lucky if any of the women in this restaurant so much as looked at you. The least you can do is treat people with decency and talk about them like they are fucking human beings.”

“Didi, people are staring.”

“I’m pretty sure we gave lots of compliments.”

“Compliments,” Kate sneered.

Kate could see Elle across the room, giving her a warning look.

Maybe I’m being a little louder than I realized.

“Oh, right. It’s automatically sexist to say things like that.” Anthony rolled his eyes.

“Yes. And you know better than to pretend to think otherwise.”

“We were just talking-”

“That is more than enough.”

“Right.”

“Didi, what is going on?”

“And as far as me and my sister, stay the fuck away from both of us.”

“Both of you?”

The asshole didn’t know when to quit.

Kate pointed straight at him, getting in his face.

“Yes, and you know exactly why,” she spat. “Edwina, we’re going.”

She caught a glimpse of the smug expression on Anthony’s face before stomping away.


A week later, Kate was still in a terrible mood. She wanted it to be that work was stressful, and it was. People weren’t meeting deadlines, meetings kept getting added to her calendar, and she kept getting roped into maddening phone conversations. But it wasn’t just work.

It felt like her head was spinning, and nothing in the past week, the past two weeks had seemed to go as planned.

The retreat had been a rare, exquisite opportunity.

There had been something incredible about being somewhere that didn’t require her to take care of anyone else, somewhere in which she could pretend – just for a moment – that she didn’t have responsibilities. She had been able to sit with herself, rest, suspend time, let go of reality.

She had been able to be greedy, take what she wanted, touch and be touched however she wanted.

Kate had thought that, upon her return, she might actually be able to go back to work somewhat relaxed, pleased to revel in the memories of her trip. She had been ready to get back into the swing of things, was even prepared to eat her words and thank Elle for the chance to take time for herself.

Instead, she had spent the week completely irate, snapping at everyone, her mind running circles around itself.

And a week after loudly scolding Anthony in public, she was still mad at him, mad at herself, even annoyed with Edwina.

She didn’t understand why she was so upset. It had been a rude awakening, hearing Anthony talking the way he had at the restaurant. Kate knew she had reason to be appalled at everything she heard, but her rage had far surpassed anything she ought to have felt. She had seen red, had been livid in a way that she hadn’t in a long time, and she didn’t seem able to let that anger go.

She was glad to have a quiet moment to sit at her desk, was relieved that for at least a few minutes her phone had stopped ringing. But her mind was embarrassingly unsettled.

It didn’t make sense that she couldn’t stop thinking about Anthony. That whenever her mind had a moment to wander, it seemed to roam back to their exquisite time together (when she wasn’t thinking hard thoughts about him).

She shouldn’t be so preoccupied, shouldn’t be wasting time and energy thinking about him. Especially now that she knew what he was, that she hated him, that she would be happy to never see him again.

Her thoughts shouldn’t keep drifting to him, and he shouldn’t matter at all anymore.

And yet, she couldn’t get her mind in gear, and she felt so unbelievably frustrated.  

You’re just concerned about how eager Edwina still is. That’s all.

But it felt like it was something else, something that she couldn’t quite put her finger on.

It killed her that she had liked him during the retreat, had liked being around him. She hated even more that, despite her ire, she somehow still found him insanely attractive.

Anthony was everything she didn’t like – too pleased with himself, misogynistic, snide, self-important. He was everything she didn’t want to reward.

But he had also fucked her well, had given her the release she had desperately needed. He had been good in bed, sinfully good, and that appeared to be hard to forget.

To be fair, there hadn’t been much of an opportunity to see his true colors during the retreat, to learn just how much of an ass he really was.

But she had also thought that they had seen each other at their most vulnerable, that they had inadvertently shared each other’s pain. She had felt seen, felt like she had been able to see him.

You were clearly imagining things, you idiot.

She hated to think that she had been fooled.


There was a tap at her door, and Kate looked up, narrowing her eyes.

Elle glided in, not bothering to wait for a response.

“What are you doing?” Kate glared.

“Don’t ‘what are you doing?’ me. You’re still on my list.”

I’m on your list?”

“Did you not ruin a perfectly lovely event?”

“That was a fucking week ago. And I didn’t ruin anything. I was protecting my sister.”

“That line is getting old, Kate.”

“I told you he was being an asshole! As were those other fucking men.”

“Yes, yes. You told me all about it.”

“You don’t see why I didn’t like their conversation?”

“I see why you didn’t like it. What I don’t see is why you’re so angry about it. Still.”

“I’m not angry.”

“No?” Elle raised an eyebrow.  

“I’m not.”

“Then how do you feel about it?”

“What?”

“You seem to feel very strongly. So, what, if not anger?”

“I’m irritated.”

“Ah, that clears things up.”

Kate glared.

“You seemed rather annoyed with Anthony even before you decided to tell him off.”

“No, I didn’t.” She didn’t want to talk about this.

“Didn’t I say you were staring?”

“I was worried about Edwina!”

Elle rolled her eyes. “That’s also on my bingo card.”

“What else would it possibly be?”

"Nothing, I suppose." Elle shrugged. "But enough about that. I'm sure Charlotte and I can find a way to forgive you someday-"

“Seriously?”

Elle waved that away.

“Now, I know you aren’t sold on a hiking trip-”

Kate had almost forgotten another reason she was furious with Elle.

No-

“Hear me out. Backpacking and hiking and, what’s it called? Glamping.” She rolled her eyes. “They’re very in right now.”

“No! You already sent me to that fucking retreat.”

“About which you gathered very little information.”

“I’m not doing it.”

“Then you’ll have to tell the travel photographer I have coming.”

Elle poked her head out into the hall, smiling innocently.

“Mr. Dorset!”

“Are you fucking-”

“Language, Kate.”

A tall, somewhat sunburned man came walking in.

“You remember Thomas. From the restaurant.”

“Hello,” Kate said through gritted teeth.

“You should really see his portfolio, Kate. He’ll be excellent for this project.”

“What project?”

“You tell the best jokes.”

She shot daggers at Elle.

“Kate isn’t one for doing things for herself, but I thought this would be an excellent feature, and it’s something she’d love anyway. So, who better to do it than two seasoned-”

“Elle-”

Thomas seemed to also realize what was going on, and he grinned.

“You’re very sneaky, Elle Danbury.”

“Am I?” Elle’s face was a little too innocent.

“Seriously?” Kate snapped.

“Kate, you don’t have to be permanent hiking buddies,” Elle huffed. “This is for The Ton.”

“It’s not happening-”

“I am happy to help-”

“Excellent! I’ll leave the planning to the two of you.”

“Elle!”

But Elle was already gone.

Kate sighed, shaking her head. She finally looked up at Thomas.

“I will kill her.”

“She’s unusually persistent.”

“Yes.”

“I really don’t want to make you uncomfortable. I didn’t know-”

“Trust me, I know this isn’t your doing.”

“Is it actually a feature you’re thinking of?”

“Not one I was planning to do, no.”

“Is she likely to find a way to force you?”

Kate snorted, “Sadly, yes.”

“Does that mean we should just figure it out?” He smiled.

Kate sighed, “Probably.”


Kate had to admit that, despite her reluctance to continue speaking with him, Tom Dorset had been surprisingly refreshing. He was thoughtful and knowledgeable, his speech peppered with a few witty comments here and there.

Kate decided she didn’t mind quite as much that he had been rather forcefully thrust into her life. It was nice to talk to someone decent, respectful. Someone willing and able to have a reasonable conversation, whose face didn’t express every possible ounce of irritation.

She still wasn’t looking for anything, certainly didn’t want anything from him. But she found she was willing to make the best of Elle’s scheming, could find a way to get something useful from the situation.

Elle seemed to have expected this, and she smiled triumphantly when she returned to Kate’s office.

“Kate, may I borrow a pencil?” she asked angelically.

“You’re a total menace.”

“I can’t imagine what you mean.”

Thomas grinned. “We thought we’d do a backpacking feature.”

“Excellent!” Elle’s eyes twinkled. “Will you go tomorrow?”

“Oh, that’s not-”

“Next weekend, then. The weather should be lovely.”

“The weather where?”

“Everywhere, Kate.”

Kate took a deep breath to steady herself. “We should probably take more time to arrange things.”

“More than a week? Why?”

“To get our gear together, to plan where we’re going, to-”

“Hush, you have plenty of time.”

“Elle-”

“I’m looking forward to seeing the photos!” And with that, Elle sashayed away.

Kate wanted to bang her head against her desk.


To be fair, having someone to help made planning a smoother venture than Kate was used to. It had always been her putting together an itinerary, managing transportation, deciding what kinds of things would be needed while away. But Thomas was an efficient planner, was helpful in a way Kate didn’t ever expect from other people.

She hadn’t been excited about the trip, but she found that she wasn’t entirely dreading it.

“You know, I’ve been hoping to try backpacking again.” Edwina was looking over her shoulder at the map on Kate’s laptop screen.

“You have?”

“You’ve always loved it.”

“Yes, but I like the outdoors.”

“I like the outdoors.”

“You do?”

“I just need sunscreen and bug spray, Didi. I’m not that much of a city girl.”

“Well, there are lots of hiking trails you can get to by bus or train.” Kate shrugged. “You can always start with that.”

“Where are you going this weekend?”

“Oh. It’s a ten-mile trip. Probably too-”

“Is it just you and Thomas?” Edwina smiled wickedly.

“We are working together, Edwina.”

“Right. And you’re hoping to make it an intimate trip for two?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Would we get in the way if we tagged along?”

“Who’s ‘we’?”

“Pen from your office said she’d be interested.”

“She did?”

“And obviously her husband. And his brothers and Daphne could come along.”

Ah. There it was.

“Edwina…”

“I know what you think I’m doing, Didi. And it’s not that. I liked everyone when we met them. I had a great time talking to them at the opening. And I’d like to spend more time with them. Yes, with Anthony, but also with the others.”

Kate studied her sister. To be fair, it wasn’t entirely bullshit. Edwina had spent the week texting with Pen Featherington and a few of the Bridgerton sisters, had seemed to be enjoying making new friends.

I still don’t trust it.

Kate chewed her lip thoughtfully. “I don’t really want to make it a group activity. It is for work.”

“So you do want time alone with Thomas?”

“That’s not what I said.” Kate rolled her eyes.

“Great! Then I’ll email everyone.”

“Edwina, wait.”

Edwina sighed, the veneer of cheerfulness finally falling away.

“Didi, come on. It’s been a terrible few years.”

“I’m aware.”

“So, let’s just do something without thinking so much about it. I want to have a good time for once. And not be serious about every single thing. I want to make friends without you thinking something bad is going to happen. I know part of you wants that, too.”

“I do?”

“Well, I want it for me. And for you. And I want you to get to do the things you love.”

“I do when I have time.”

“You never have time. And you never make time. We haven’t done anything like this since…” She cleared her throat. “We haven’t done it just the two of us. And since you’ll be working, it may actually be good to have other people to entertain me.”

“I just don’t want… Edwina, I don’t want you to get hurt.”

“Kate. I want to do something fun. Something different. Nothing has to come of it.”

“Bon, you always tell yourself-”

“Can you trust me for once?”

Kate wanted to be able to see the justice in what Edwina was saying, knew that her sister wasn’t totally wrong.

Still…

“Bon…”

Edwina rolled her eyes. “I’m going to see if I can do any packing.”

Kate stared at Edwina’s back as she left the room.


The Bridgerton family camped frequently when Anthony was a kid, and as they got older, the elder Bridgertons had backpacked every summer with their father. Anthony had particularly loved it – in part because he loved any opportunity to spend time with Edmund, but also because he had always loved the outdoors. He sometimes thought he ought to have grown up somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Somewhere that he could have lived among the trees, somewhere with real mountains.

Anthony, Benedict, Colin, and Daphne had resumed the annual backpacking trip a few years after losing their father, and they occasionally planned smaller hikes and other brief camping vacations. It was something they had always loved doing together, and for that reason, Anthony hadn’t suspected that his siblings had been up to something until they reached the bus station.

Are you fucking kidding me?

There was no earthly reason that Kate should be at the bus station with her sister and his old friend Tom Dorset, no reason that Pen and Friedrich had also somehow managed to find themselves there.

“Great, everyone’s here!” Benedict smiled wickedly, nodding in the Sharmas’ direction. “Anthony, you remember Kate and Edwina?”

“You assholes,” Anthony said through gritted teeth.

“We didn’t say they were all coming, too?” Colin’s eyes also had a devilish glint.

“This was supposed to be a family trip.”

“Pen and Friedrich are family.” Daphne smiled.

“Why are they here?” Anthony hissed, glaring in Kate’s direction. “And fucking Dorset?”

“Oh, they’re going for work.”

“What?”

“Guys, we’re going to miss the bus,” Pen interrupted.

Anthony glared at his siblings. “I fucking hate you. All of you.”

“And yet, you’re stuck with us.” Benedict winked.


Hours later, Anthony was still stewing in his seat.

Everyone seemed to be in excellent spirits. Even Kate looked like she was enjoying herself, or at least, she had appeared to start enjoying herself upon realizing how unhappy he was.

“Apparently Ant didn’t know the rest of us were coming.” Tom Dorset laughed heartily.

I hate him.

Kate grinned, clearly delighted.

And her.

“Well, I think it will be good to have so many people. More help with tents and things,” Edwina interjected.

Anthony couldn’t help himself. “Have you set up a tent before?”

“Yes. With help.”

“Ah.”

He noticed Kate giving him a warning look, but Edwina didn’t seem particularly bothered.

She shrugged. “That’s why it’s great to have a group. People who are good at it can do it.”

“I’ll do our tent, Bon,” Kate said.

“And you’ll have some actual help this time!”

“I don’t need help.”

“Well, my hands are your hands if you need them.” Dorset grinned. “In a manner of speaking.”

The fucker winked at that.

Asshole.

Kate seemed to see Anthony’s annoyance, and she smiled beatifically. 

She’s smug, and she’s thrilled when other people are miserable, and she’s-

“Ant can also help.” Benedict was smiling.

“She said she doesn’t need help.”

“You’re right. I don’t.”

“Yes, but how else can he make himself useful?”

“Is he capable of doing that?”

Colin snorted.


Kate was surprised no one on the bus seemed to hear her grinding her teeth.

True, she was pleased to see just how furious Anthony seemed to be that he had gotten roped into joining them, had been momentarily delighted when she learned that Anthony had been tricked into going.

And she could admit that it was a relief that she wouldn’t have to entertain Tom and Edwina on her own, that – broadly speaking – she liked most of the people joining them.

But the group was a bit too large for her liking, and wrangling people during something like this was likely to be miserable.

She loved the outdoors because of the quiet, the distance from civilization.

A bit too much civilization on this trip, she thought wryly.

Kate knew that her face likely reflected every bit of her annoyance, though she supposed it was some consolation that Anthony also appeared to be glowering at everything and everyone.

“How lucky that so many of us love outdoor activities. Hard to find in New York!” Edwina winked at Kate. “Does anyone want to play the license plate game?”

Had it been anyone else, Kate might have been amused at the look Anthony gave her sister.

“Something bothering you?” She shot at him.

He glared back at her. “No.”

“That sounds great!” Benedict’s eyes twinkled devilishly. “You used to be great at that, Ant.”

“I’m not doing it.”

“Come on, it’ll be fun.”

“Just let me listen to my fucking book.” He took some headphones out of his bag.

“Ooh, what book?” Edwina smiled warmly.

Anthony looked weary.

Kate decided she was rather pleased with Edwina.

“Edwina has always been a big reader.”

Anthony glared at Kate, seemed to know exactly what she was doing.

She smiled innocently.

“I try to read every night before bed,” Edwina continued. “Mostly fiction. Real life can be a bit too depressing sometimes.”

Anthony furrowed his brow. “I’m surprised you’d find anything depressing.”

Watch yourself, asshole.

Edwina giggled, “I do try to be very positive when I can. But things aren’t always easy.”

Kate didn’t think the others caught the wistful tone in Edwina’s voice, didn’t think they saw that despite her big smile, Edwina’s eyes were pained.


Kate studied Edwina with concern, could see the discouragement in her face.  

But, to Kate’s surprise, after a thoughtful moment, Edwina seemed to shake herself, seemed to relax, and she engaged the others in conversation.

Kate had to admit that she was surprised, relieved, proud to see that, in the face of limited encouragement from Anthony, Edwina simply turned her attention to everyone else.

Kate was used to Edwina doubling down in situations like this, had expected Edwina to find ways to single Anthony out more forcefully, becoming cheerful and complimentary to the point of excess. Instead, Edwina seemed surprisingly accepting of the few terse responses Anthony had given her before putting in his headphones. And she chatted readily with the others, seemed perfectly content to enjoy herself however she could.

Maybe I have been too worried…

But it was hard for Kate not to be on her guard, hard not to be on the lookout for potential dangers to her sister.

She was so used to it, so accustomed to thinking of her sister as an easy target, as someone who got her heart set on things and couldn’t see when everything about the situation told her it was a losing battle.

Edwina had always seemed to be at a disadvantage in situations like this.

But somehow, she didn’t seem to be now.

Kate didn’t understand it.

Edwina’s interest in Anthony had been like every other crush, every other person she had gotten interested in, gone after despite evidence that there was nothing there.

What had changed?

Could it really be true that she just wants to make friends? That she’s interested in Anthony, but also willing and able to move on if she gets nothing back?

It didn’t seem possible that it could be so simple.

Have I been so busy worrying about this that I haven’t seen something right in front of me?

Had Kate been trying so hard to protect her sister that she hadn’t realized that, despite clinging to some old tendencies, Edwina was growing?

Kate was so used to being on her guard with everyone new that they met, saw everyone as potential pain for the family, potential heartbreak for Edwina.

But maybe Kate was used to seeing threats that weren’t actually present, seeing frailty in Edwina that was no longer there.

And maybe some people haven’t stuck around because I’ve scared them away.

She wondered at that.

Kate was reticent to fully let down her guard, but she decided that it might be good for both of them if she tried to be pleased that Edwina seemed happy, might be a good thing not to always watch her sister like a hawk.


Kate had been amused at first to see Anthony glaring at her like a petulant child, but after hours on the road, it was starting to rankle.

Is he going to stare like that the whole fucking time?

She was seeing more and more about him that infuriated her.

He’s rude and obnoxious and thinks he’s better than everyone else, and-

“Everything okay, Didi?” Edwina nudged her.

“Yes. Fine.” Kate gritted her teeth.

Truth be told, Kate didn’t know why her anger hadn’t dissipated. The bus was unexpectedly comfortable, and the group was a surprisingly enjoyable combination of people. Anthony was being annoying, but it had been a pleasant surprise watching her sister enjoy herself, seeing Edwina better able to temper what Kate knew would always be strong feelings.

Maybe that was it. She was so used to worrying about Edwina, and her mind, suddenly left with more time on its hands, was spinning its wheels.

There was no other reason for her racing thoughts, no reason that she was once again finding her eyes drifting to a man she very much wanted to ignore.

It’s just that he’s irritating.

She didn’t like to think that it was partly embarrassment, that her preoccupation wasn’t entirely with his behavior at the restaurant. But she had to admit that she felt ashamed.

She thought she had better taste than that, that she could read people better than that. Even though it had just been sex. She knew that sleeping with him didn’t mean that she approved of his behavior or agreed with anything he said when he opened his mouth, but she still felt like a fool. Everything good she had seen in him had been in her head.

She scowled at him again, not quite knowing how she would cope with being stuck with him for the next few days.

Maybe I can bury his body in the woods, she thought hopefully.


Kate was enjoying the hike so far, was pleased to find that Edwina seemed to be enjoying many of the things she loved about the outdoors.

“If I knew you’d like this kind of thing, I’d have brought you along more often.”

Edwina grinned. “I’m a woman of many mysteries.”

“Ah.”

Kate studied her sister. “Something’s different.”

“Yes, it’s gotten awfully cloudy.”

“Bon…”

Edwina shrugged. “Maybe I’m just taking a few things you’ve said to heart.”

“Oh? Such as?”

“People show you when they’re interested. And forcing it never works out.”

“That sounds very wise of me.”

Edwina snorted, “Yes. Can’t have been original.”

Kate gave her a shove.

“You really are alright?”

“I’m having fun. We haven’t done anything like this in… since I can remember. It’s nice to just spend time with friends.”

“Yes.” Kate chewed her lip. “What about…?”

“I still think he’s yummy. But he’s being a grump.”

“I’m surprised you aren’t trying to cheer him up.” Kate hated how loaded that sounded.

“You’ve told me enough that that doesn’t work. And it didn’t seem to work with him, so if he’s interested, he’ll have to work for it himself.”

Kate blinked. “What have you done with my sister?”

Edwina shrugged. “I think I’m used to ignoring things that people do. When I’ve decided I like them.”

“Yes.”

“You don’t have to agree.” Edwina glared.

Kate grinned.

“I just mean that it might be good to notice when people have qualities I don’t like.”

“Are there things you don’t like about Anthony?”

“There are things you don’t like about Anthony. And I trust you.”

“You do?”

“You’ve been right every other time.” There was a hint of resignation in Edwina’s voice.

“It isn’t something I’m happy about, Bon. Not something I’ve been happy about.”

“I know.”

Lightning flashed across the sky.

“Uh oh.”

After a moment, thunder boomed.

Kate felt herself tense. She hated thunderstorms, had never quite gotten over her fear of them.

“You okay?”

“Yes,” Kate said through gritted teeth.

“Yikes, does this mean we should turn back?” Daphne had removed her pack, seemed to be looking for something.

Kate remembered her own poncho.

“It may not be all that safe to keep going.” Anthony was studying the area around them.

Kate hated that she agreed with him.

“Really?” Edwina’s eyes were wide.

Kate momentarily forgot her own fears.  

“It’s fine, Bon. There’s enough of a canopy. And we aren’t by the lake.”

“I’m assuming we shouldn’t pitch a tent to get out of the rain?” Penelope said wryly.

“No, absolutely not,” Anthony said firmly.

Colin decided it was a moment for chivalry. “Pen was joking, Ant.”

“Then it’s a bad time for that. Move away from everything with metal on it.”

“Is the lightning that close?” Edwina’s hands were shaking.  

Tom nodded. “It’s close enough.”

“Close enough?” Anthony was glaring at him. “It’s right overhead.”

You’re scaring Edwina, asshole.

She put a hand on Edwina’s arm.

“We need to spread out and head back down,” Kate said loudly, trying to ignore that her breathing felt like it was becoming a bit more labored. “Stay far apart from everyone and keep under the trees unless there’s one on its own.”

“And leave our packs behind?”

“I’ll stay close enough to them that I can bring them down after everyone.”

“Are you serious?” Anthony’s eyebrows were raised.

“We may need them when we get lower.”

“We can come back for them.”

“I’ll be fine. Can you help everyone back down? Please?” She gave Anthony a pleading look, shooting a quick, meaningful glance in Edwina’s direction.

Anthony sighed, nodding.

“Please be careful.”

“Don’t tell me you’re worried.”

“I’d rather not have to carry your dead body down a mountain.”

She snorted, “Aren’t you sweet?”

“Let’s go, everyone! Keep apart!” Anthony started stomping down the trail, waving everyone along.

“Didi, you should come with us.”

“I’ll be fine, Bon.”

Edwina nodded, worry still clear in her eyes.

She finally followed the group.

Kate looked after her, glad that the rain was masking the tears forming in her eyes.

She exchanged a look with Anthony. His brow was furrowed, but he nodded.

It appears we have reached a temporary truce.

When Kate couldn’t see anyone anymore, she crouched.


The rain was still pouring down, had soaked Kate despite her poncho, despite the trees overhead.

She continued to crouch, shivering.

After the others walked away, she had finally unclenched her hands, letting them shake. She knew she was being reckless in staying where she was, but her chest was so tight, and she knew Edwina would become frantic if she saw Kate panicking.

Kate couldn’t help but feel annoyed with herself.

It didn’t usually happen at times like this. She was terrified, but her body usually waited until a quiet moment, her panic sneaking up on her later, when everything around her was calm.

This time, however, it appeared that it couldn’t wait, and she felt herself gasping for breath.

“Come on.”

She looked up.

“What… are you doing here?”

“I’m coming to fucking get you.”

Anthony was stomping toward her, or stomping as well as he could through the mud.

He crouched near her.

“You’re too… fucking close. And where’s everyone?”

 “A safe distance away from the lightning. It’s still raining, but manageable.”

“Why did you-”

“Because your sister pointed out that you are terrified of storms.”

“I’m fine!” she snapped, hating that she couldn’t hide somewhere.  

She put a hand on her chest, trying not to gasp.

She saw realization hit Anthony. 

“Are you…? Kate, breathe.”

“I told you I’m fine. And don’t pretend you fucking care!”

“I do care. I can’t believe this is why you fucking stayed up here!”

“I’m fine! Less fine now that you’re standing so close to me.”

He stood, gripping her hand and yanking her toward him.

“Let’s go.”

She felt weak, still couldn’t breathe.

“No. I can’t-”

“Just come the fuck on.”

“But our packs.”

“I will come back for them. And you know that’s not why-”

“We’re going to need them.”

He had apparently had enough.

“Can you just use some common sense? You can’t stay alone up here having a fucking panic attack.”

“Are you going to join me again?”

“Seriously?”

It felt like her lungs were screaming.

“This is just like you.”

“What is?”

“Going off on your own not paying attention to how unsafe it could be, or how anyone else is impacted-”

“Don’t pretend you’re worried about me.”

“I am.”

“And why are you the one coming after me?”

“Clearly no one else is stubborn enough to manage you.”

“At least you realize it.”

“Do you always have to be like this?”

“Like what?”

“A huge pain in the ass.”

I’m a pain in the ass?”

“Yes!”

“Then let me stay here!”

“Fine. Stay here. I give up.”

He threw up his arms, turning and stomping back down the trail.

Kate took a deep breath, knew Anthony was right even though giving in to him was the last thing she wanted to do.

It would hurt to move, and she hated that he would get to see her shake uncontrollably with every boom of thunder.

She tried to take a step, but her hiking boots didn’t appear to want to move.

Have I been stuck in the fucking mud?

“Wait!”

At first, Anthony didn't seem to hear.

“Anthony!”

He stopped, turning around. His brow was furrowed in surprise.

“I’m stuck.”

He waved a hand toward himself. “So come on.”

“I’m stuck. My foot is stuck.”

“So, pull it out.”

“Stuck as in stuck, asshole. Help me.”

He glared, moving back to her. He took her hand, tried giving her a pull.

“How long have you been in this?”

“Apparently long enough!” she huffed.

He gave her another tug, but her feet wouldn’t budge.

“Do you want my help or not?”

“I’m trying!”

He braced himself, tugging her hard.

This time, her feet did move. Unfortunately, Anthony’s did as well, and they both tumbled hard into the mud.

Kate looked over, and she had to bite her lip. Anthony was a sorry sight, covered in mud, one foot completely buried, his poncho scrunched up underneath his arms.

“Thank you for this.” He glared.

She could still barely catch her breath, but she stood, holding out a hand to help Anthony up.

She tried to tug him up, and this time, her feet skidded toward him, knocking them both over again. She fell into him, feeling not unlike Buster Keaton as they once again splatted into the mud, her poncho flying over the back of her head.

She had tried to stem the tide, but all the nervous energy inside her bubbled up, as though it had been waiting desperately for release.

Laughter burst out of her, even as thunder continued to boom around them.

“How are you laughing?” His face was furious, but she couldn’t contain herself. “This isn’t funny!”

She shook with mirth, felt tears in her eyes as she braced herself against his chest to push herself up.

Once she was standing, she held out her hand again.

Another time, she might have raised an eyebrow at his choice to wear a white t-shirt, but it was too much when she saw the rather well-defined muddy handprint she had left on his chest.

She pointed and cackled.  


Anthony looked down, his eyes widening.

“Are you fucking kidding me?”

Kate was doubled over, laughing hysterically, now seeming unable to breathe for an entirely different reason.

“Let me know when you’re done.” He rolled his eyes.

He was irate, but the more Kate laughed, the more ridiculous the situation felt.

Maybe it was that she looked like a mess, that the situation was starting to become too bizarre for words. Kate was covered in mud, impressively so, and the rain had soaked her through. He was sure he looked the same.

But her laugh was surprisingly infectious, and he was surprised to find that he still liked her smile.

When she tried to take a step and skidded for a third time, it was too much for him, and he also began to laugh.

She looked momentarily surprised to see him laughing as well, but her laughter bubbled up again when she continued to have trouble standing.

He finally guided her arms around him, and they shuffled slowly out of the mud. She leaned into him, her face against his shoulder as she continued to shake with laughter.

Why does this feel so nice?

He realized that they still had their arms around each other, though they were now firmly standing on gravel. It felt like a soothing, reassuring hug, and he found that he didn’t much want to let go.

He cleared his throat. “Did you get more mud on my shirt?”

She jabbed him in the stomach, pulling back.

Her dazzling smile hit him between the eyes.

“I… uh…” He cleared his throat.

“Should we go?”

He nodded. “Finally.”


The rest of the group was exceedingly entertained to see a very muddy Anthony and Kate approaching, though they also admitted to being relieved, given how long it had taken them to rejoin the group.

Naturally, the rain had almost completely stopped where they had ended up.  

Dorset smiled brightly at Kate when she approached them, and Anthony found that he wasn’t quite so sure that he liked having his old friend along.

“That’s an impressive amount of mud!” Edwina laughed. “Both of you.”

“Yes, we thought you might want us to bring some back.” Kate smiled, a little too brightly.

She doesn’t want anyone to know how upset she was.

“What happened?”

“We fell.”

He raised an eyebrow at that. “You fell and knocked me over. Multiple times.”

“Keep telling yourself that.”

“When do you think we can go back for the packs?” Dorset had unscrewed a large Nalgene, was handing it to Edwina.

He thinks he’s fucking Lancelot.  

Anthony looked back up the mountain, couldn’t help but feel annoyed that the storm looked like it was subsiding there as well.

“Probably soon.”

“Well, this has been fun.” Edwina grinned.

Anthony snorted. “Yes, a great time.”

He and Kate exchanged a look.

“What are you guys even going to do?” Daphne studied them, clearly amused.

Kate shrugged, yanking off her poncho. “Hope that we dry out.”

She kicked off her boots, tugging off her socks.

And then she peeled off her shirt, wringing it out and flopping it onto a large rock. The move had been entirely practical, wasn’t meant to be sexy, he was sure of that, but every single thought left his head.

“Whoa… what are-”

He stared, couldn’t help but notice that her nipples were pebbling in the cold under her wet sports bra.

Kate undid her shorts, yanking them down. Her underwear was simple, sensible, but Anthony was fairly certain he was going to die.

“You don’t want to do that… behind something?”

“And just wait there while I dry off?” She rolled her eyes, also putting her shorts on the rock.

Is she going to take off everything?

“Didi has never been very shy.” Edwina was grinning.

I see that…

Anthony stared, blinking.

Benedict elbowed him. “Maybe you should dry off, too, Ant.”

“What? Right.” He continued to stare at Kate.

“I’m fine now,” Kate said meaningfully.

“Right.”

“Anthony…” He looked back at Benedict, who was grinning mischievously.

He glared at his brother, tugging off his poncho before stomping away. He needed a minute.


Anthony didn’t know quite why he was so irritated, why seeing Kate in her underwear had caused his brain to short circuit.

He had already seen her naked, had been inside her, had felt her coming against his tongue. But seeing her like this had done something entirely unexpected to him.  

Didn’t you decide you don’t like her?

He couldn’t quite remember why.

He waited for a while, feeling very annoyed as he stood by himself in his boxer briefs.

This is ridiculous.

“Hey, Ant, we’re going back to get the packs!” He heard Colin’s voice coming from somewhere.

“Got it,” he shouted through gritted teeth.

“Then you can rejoin us!” Kate’s voice sounded amused.

He ignored her.


It was a relief when his brothers and Dorset returned with the packs, even more of a relief once the tents had been set up and he had been able to change.

Kate’s wet clothing was still laid out on the rock, but she had finally been able to change into dry clothes herself.

Anthony tried to stop himself, but he couldn’t help but stare at the sports bra and panties that were now rather indiscreetly lying next to her other clothes.

Right next to mine…

He wanted to shake his head at himself.

Just the slightest glimpse of her underwear and you can’t think straight.

He should be over this. She was utterly infuriating, had been so frustratingly stubborn when he just needed her to listen to common sense. Loathing her should have been far more than enough reason to make him ignore that she was still as gorgeous as ever.

He thought to himself, couldn’t help but remember that during the little time they had spent together, they hadn’t been able to look away from each other, hadn’t been able to keep their hands off each other. And today, she had leaned against his shoulder, had put her arms around him as they tried to steady themselves.

She had felt good against him, amazing against him.

What is wrong with me?

“Who’s cooking?” He heard her voice, surprisingly jovial.

“Not it!”

“Not it!”

“Guess it’s going to be Anthony-”

“Fuck all of you.”

He heard Kate’s laugh, and he gritted his teeth, forcing his body not to react.

What the fuck is going on?


It was starting to get dark by the time they had eaten and cleaned up, and everyone was already exhausted from the day.

Anthony had eaten quietly, had watched as Kate told stories, occasionally laughed at something Dorset had said.

I hate that man.

Kate had seemed to glow by the fireside, and her eyes danced as the flames flickered.

How had Anthony forgotten how stunning she was?

It had been difficult not to stare, and even as he settled on top of his sleeping bag, he had to will himself not to get hard.

I’m like a fucking teenager.

“Everything okay, Ant?”

Benedict shone a flashlight straight into his face.

“Fuck, stop that.”

Benedict kept the flashlight where it was.

“You’re breathing kind of heavily.”

“Everything is fine!”

He was being an idiot.


It felt wonderful to be in dry clothes, though Kate had to admit that her mind was a mess. She had told story after story by the fireside. It had seemed to be the only way to keep her mind from racing.

She hadn’t expected to be affected by touching Anthony again, by having his arms around her. And she hadn’t expected to feel her heart skip a beat when she thought about Anthony, for some reason, coming back for her during the storm.

Why the hell did she feel grateful?

I can’t stand him. Right?

She had tried to sleep, had thought it would be no problem after the exhausting day. But sleep eluded her. After tossing and turning in her sleeping bag for what felt like hours, she climbed out of the tent, walking to a clearing where she could see the lake.

She forgot how beautiful the sky could be, how clearly you could see the stars when there weren’t lights everywhere. She had always loved that.

She heard the sound of something scraping against gravel, and she practically jumped around.

“What the-”

“It’s me.”

“I thought you were an animal!”

“I might be.” Anthony sounded amused.

Her eyes had finally adjusted, and she recognized his vague form.

“Ass.”

“Sorry. Can’t sleep?”

“No.”

“Me neither. Great minds, I guess.”

“Would you say you have one?” she said wryly.

“Ha. Would you?”

“Yes.”

He was also looking at the lake, and they stared out quietly at the water.

Kate was surprised to find she was glad to have the company.  

She thought of how soothing his arms could feel, how his skin had felt against hers.

“You haven’t told anyone, have you?”

She furrowed her brow. “Hmm?”

“About us.”

What was that in his voice?

“No. Should I have?”

“No. Just curious.”

Odd.

“Are you embarrassed?”

“Should I be?” she asked wryly.

He huffed, clearly annoyed.

She shrugged. Somehow it felt different, being in the dark with him again. It felt more intimate, safer, more like it had during the retreat. Maybe that was why she felt like talking.

“How did you get into backpacking?”

“My dad.”

“Ah.”

“You?”

“Also my dad.”

“Do you still go with him?”

“He died. Three years ago.”

“I’m sorry. It’s been ten years for me.” There was resignation in his voice.

“I’m sorry.”

“We survived.”

She knew what he meant. She, Edwina, and Mary had also survived. Somehow. Despite not wanting to. Despite life no longer feeling quite as full.

“How did he die?”

“Heart attack.”

“Oh?”

She nodded. “He was at work.”

“Mine, too. Heart attack. It happened in front of me.”

Her breath caught.

She pictured him panicking in front of her, wanting to call an ambulance, being terrified as she gripped her chest.

“Anthony… I didn’t realize.”

“It’s fine.” His voice sounded brittle.

“It isn’t.” She put her hand on his arm, though she wasn’t quite sure why.

He shrugged. “You didn’t have a panic attack on purpose.”

It was dark, but she could still see the sadness in his eyes, was surprised to feel the same pull she had felt before. To comfort him, to make sure he was alright.

“No. But I’m still sorry.”

“Don’t be.” His voice was soft.

Why did that sound cryptic?

She realized she was still studying his face, cataloguing his features. His sad eyes, his strong jaw, the mouth that had driven her insane.

He seemed to also be studying her mouth.

He leaned in, his nose nuzzling hers, their lips almost touching.

What the hell is going on?

“What are you…?”

She thought about Edwina, sleeping soundly in the tent. Her sister had surprised her today, but Edwina would still be hurt if she learned that something had happened, if she saw just how drawn together Kate and Anthony seemed to be.

Why didn’t I just tell her as soon as I got home?

She had waited too long, had hidden it too long.

Even if Kate decided she didn’t hate him, Anthony had to be off-limits. Didn’t he?

For the first time, that made her sad.

She could have done so many things differently. Kept her hands to herself, slept with him only once, told Edwina the truth. She could have stopped herself from listening to the small part of her that felt relieved that they hadn’t been able to get away from each other.

I could have made things easier, and I didn’t.

Instead, she had lied to her sister, may even have lied to herself.

Kate had told herself that she hated hearing Anthony talk so crudely, that it was offensive purely on principle. And she had tried to pretend that it hadn’t also been that she felt hurt, felt disappointed at how casually he could talk about any partner.

She had hated herself for it, hated having to admit it even to herself, but until she had heard him talk, really talk, part of her had thought she was a little bit special.

Even though they hadn’t promised each other anything, hadn’t exchanged contact information. Even though it had been clear it was a fling and nothing more.

It was foolish.

She hadn’t wanted anything, still didn’t want to connect with anyone.

Especially someone who’s only looking for sex.

She felt his breath against her face, and she closed her eyes, putting a hand against his chest.

He was breathing heavily. They both were.   

It seemed like there would always be passion there, even though that was all it would ever be.

I’m so stupid.

Kate wanted him.

Even though he was an asshole. Even though he didn’t want her, not really.

She pulled back.

“I can’t.”

“Kate-”

“I should get to bed. Goodnight, Anthony.”

She headed back toward her tent without waiting for a reply.


 

 

Chapter Text



1. A trip post mortem

 

 

2. Danbury leaves a message

 

 

3. Danbury does not like being ignored

 

 

4. Elle and Kate spar (and Kate is confused)

 

 

5. The Bridgertons are back

 

 

6. The elder Bridgertons give Anthony a hard time

 

 

7. A discussion about Anthony

 

 

8. Edwina worries

 

 

9. Anthony considers something (and notices something else)

 

 

10. Kate considers something (and notices something else)

 

 

11. Kate goes for it

 

 

12. Kate rants

 

 

13. Anthony rants

 

 

14. Danbury plans for the fashion show

 

 

15. Kate rants (again)

 

 

16. Kate thinks about texting Anthony, but she realizes she doesn't know what she wants to say

 

 

17. As it turns out, Anthony is also thinking about texting Kate (and also doesn't know what he wants to say)

 

 

18. Mary worries (and makes an observation)

 

 

19. Daphne doesn't worry, but she does make an observation

 

 

20. Anthony thinks (again) about texting Kate

 

 

21. Kate thinks (again) about texting Anthony


 

 

Chapter Text



1. The Bridgertons prep

 

 

2. The Sharmas prep

 

 

3. The (former) camping buddies check in

 

 

4. Anthony and Kate bicker

 

 

5. Danbury tries to wrangle the group

 

 

6. Edwina is mad at Kate

 

 

7. Kate is mad at Danbury

 

 

8. Some speculation

 

 

9. The front row isn't full (i.e., where are Kate and Anthony?)

 

 

10. The show gets going!

 

 

11. Daphne finds Anthony and Kate


 

Chapter Text



Kate and Edwina were children when they met Elle Danbury, but as with everyone else who met her, her presence had been hard for them to forget.

Elle had been traveling in San Francisco for work, and she and one of the steep hills had had a misunderstanding that left her ankle in bad shape.

She had ended up in urgent care, and she was taken care of by the very kind, very adept Dr. Rahul Sharma. Elle had noticed that tucked into his badge was a picture of him with a woman and two children, and she had instantly recognized the woman.

“Is that Mary Sheffield?”

Rahul beamed. “Sharma, now.”

“She’s your wife?”

“I sometimes can’t believe it myself.”

“And those are your children?”

He held his badge toward her proudly. “Two girls. Kate and Edwina.”

“They’re gorgeous.”

“And very, wonderfully difficult.”

“But you love that.”

“I do. How do you know Mary?”

“I knew her when she was younger. And I know her parents. But she’s such a delight. I haven’t seen her for years.”

Rahul had looked thoughtful for a moment, and then he grinned.

“You know, it’s not usually appropriate, but my daughter Kate’s birthday is today, and if you’re feeling well enough, I’m sure Mary would love to see you. And the girls.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t want to intrude. When does it start?”

Rahul had grinned, grabbing a blank prescription pad. He scribbled on it, handing it to Elle.

“Should I be able to read this?”

“As a doctor, I’m obligated to have terrible handwriting.”

“I see that.”

“It’s our address. I prescribe one excellent girl’s birthday party, with cake-”

“And alcohol?”

“With cake.”

“I suppose I can make an exception.”

Rahul had smiled delightedly. “It will make Mary’s day to see you.”


Elle had been thrilled to see Mary, and she had been equally pleased to meet the Sharma girls. Edwina immediately insisted on getting Elle a seat, worried over her injured ankle. Kate had rolled her eyes at Edwina, but Elle couldn’t help but notice that Kate was the one who grabbed another chair for her to prop up her foot, who brought her an ice pack. She wasn’t charming about it the way Edwina was, but she saw what was needed, and she took care of things without extra fuss.

“You’re both very sweet girls.”

Kate raised an eyebrow. “Is that a compliment?”

Elle had to laugh. “You know, it was supposed to be. But I think I like you this way better.”

Kate didn’t look all that impressed.

“Your parents seem to have taught you well.” Elle gestured to her ankle.

Kate rolled her eyes. “It’s just basic first aid.”

Rahul came over, standing next to Kate. He grabbed her arm, giving her a silly shake.

“She keeps twitching like this. No idea why.”

“Stoppppp.”

He continued to shake her, giving her a bigger shove. “Sometimes she falls over.”

Kate looked annoyed, but Elle couldn’t help but see the obvious delight in her face.

She really adores him.

“Have the girls been taking good care of you?”

“Yes, very.” She turned to Kate. “You know, I can’t help but remember that you’re the guest of honor. Shouldn’t you be celebrating?”

Kate shrugged. “Edwina’s the one who likes stuff like this. I just like cake.”

“Do you have a favorite kind?”

“Chocolate,” Kate said, as though it was obvious.

“She’s going to have to race me to it.” Rahul grinned.

“It’s my birthday.”

“And I’m faster.”

“Yeah, okay.”

And then Kate took off, followed by her laughing father.

“There go my two troublemakers.”

“Mary Sheffield! Sharma, I mean to say.”

Mary leaned down, wrapping her arms tightly around Elle.

“I can’t believe you’re in San Francisco!”

“To be truthful, neither can I. As you see, the streets and I don’t get along.”

“Yes, there’s a bit of a learning curve. How long are you here?”

“Only a few days. Have you been home recently?”

Mary’s face had tightened ever so slightly. “No.”

“Ah.”

Elle didn’t know all of the details, but she did know that Mary’s relationship with her parents was complicated. The Sheffields were well-meaning, but they were devoted to maintaining an image of pleasantness. Mary had been a moody child, and her parents didn’t have time for that, didn’t like that Mary couldn’t simply put on a happy face. Elle had always been disappointed that, rather than working with her, they simply gritted their teeth and pretended she wasn’t there.

Elle had thought it was a shame. She liked Mary. Had always liked girls who were a bit complicated, precocious, outspoken. And she hated that Mary, so clearly desirous of warmth and support, didn’t seem to be getting either. She was materially well cared for, but there seemed to be no space for her in the household.

Elle had been happy to provide that space. She knew that her friends – particularly her friend Charlotte – would have teased her for being sentimental, but Elle supposed that in some sense, she was. A younger Mary had taken refuge in the luxury apartment that Elle shared with her late husband, had visited them every day, played chess with her husband, had tea with Elle. Elle had never asked why Mary wanted to visit so often, but she saw that Mary could relax, be herself, soak up kindness that had always appeared a bit lacking.

 

And now, Mary had a freshness about her, a brightness that Elle hadn’t seen on her back in New York. Elle was delighted to see it.

“And this is home now.” Mary smiled.

“I’m so happy you’re doing well.”

“Yes.”

“How long has it been? Since you’ve seen them,” Elle asked pointedly.

Mary shrugged. “I do better when they’re there and I’m here. I’ve missed you.”

“I’ve missed you, too. I didn’t quite realize how much.”

Mary took Elle’s hand. “I’m so glad I got to see you.”

Elle nodded. “As am I.”


Elle had visited with the Sharmas each time she was in San Francisco, and she had watched the girls blossom. It had been gratifying to see Kate go into publishing, and Elle had been particularly entertained by Kate’s determination not to accept professional help from her, to make her career on her own.

Elle always returned home feeling like she was leaving behind a happy family.

When word reached her of Rahul’s death, she couldn’t help but want to assist in some way.

She reached out to Mary, and to the Sheffields, but beyond a brief, polite response from the Sheffields, there was nothing. She tried again, and this time, Kate responded.

“Thank you for calling. Mom just… she’s not answering her phone right now.”

“Well, that certainly makes sense. I’m so sorry for your loss.”

“Yes.” Elle could hear the pain in Kate’s voice even through the phone.

“How are all of you doing?”

“Not well.”

“Ah…”

“Elle, I don’t think we can stay here.” Kate rarely sounded so vulnerable.

“Oh?”

“I can’t… I can’t afford it.”

“Are neither of them working?”

“They can’t.”

“And you can?”

“I have to.”

“Kate…”

“I’m not asking for help.”

There was so much behind that. Kate’s determination to be independent, her hatred of needing support from anyone else. But Elle also knew what Kate was trying to avoid, how little she wanted assistance from the Sheffields.

“I know you aren’t, dear. You never do. I’ll make a place for you on staff here at The Ton.”

“What? No!”

“It’s already done, Kate. I’ll have a contract sent to you.”

“No, that’s not- I wasn’t asking for that. I’d never ask for that. I’m sure there are plenty of people-”

“Do you mean to tell me you aren’t good at your job? That you aren’t competent? That you’d be a poor choice?”

“I didn’t say that, but-”

“Perfect. Check your email. And we’ll figure out the rest.”

“Elle…” Kate had gotten choked up.

“We’ll figure it out, dear.”


As she had been with Mary, Elle Danbury had come to be a sort of second mother figure to Kate, had been someone Kate could turn to when she felt lost. In the past few years, Elle had particularly filled that role, as Mary struggled to care for herself and Kate became the veritable head of the household.

It had hurt all three Sharmas to leave behind their home in California, but Kate would never have been able to afford to keep it after moving them. They set up a home in a modest three-bedroom rental near the Hudson River. Mary had wanted to buy something, but Kate had insisted that they hold onto as much savings as they could.

Kate hadn’t wanted to tell Mary that this apartment would be temporary, that she hoped they would all eventually be able to live alone, that she and Edwina might eventually have households of their own. She hoped that Mary could someday be independent, or barring that, at least Edwina could. It was a delicate dance, providing the support they needed while maintaining an air of hope.

I don’t want them to think they can’t have better than this.

Elle had been surprisingly gentle with her help, hadn’t been heavy-handed or blatant about the ways that she made sure the Sharma girls were comfortable. Kate refused financial help, but she appreciated the connections that Elle helped her make, with realtors, with contractors, with doctors.

And Kate had slowly become comfortable with her position at The Ton, had ultimately risen the ranks in a way that felt like it was based on merit.


New York – and Elle – had given Kate a new sort of family.

With anyone else, Kate would have fought back, would have completely declined help, refused to participate in their obvious machinations. She would have ignored anyone else, would have been firmer in her refusals. But with Elle, she felt an obligation, couldn’t ever quite find her way to put her foot down.

Maybe that was why – again and again – she found herself in situations that she didn’t want to be in, why she found herself pushed entirely outside of her comfort zone.

It’ll be good for you, Elle always said.

It often wasn’t, or it often didn’t feel like it, but Kate could see Elle’s actions for what they were. She was including her, was including her mother and sister, like they were her children. They were required not just because Elle liked them, but also because they were family, and she kept her family close.  

And much as Elle infuriated her, Kate had to admit that she liked being welcome.


Kate wished she understood why she was still feeling so unsettled. Why the progress it felt like she had been making was slipping away from her. It didn’t help that the people around her seemed to give her knowing looks, seemed to see something she wasn’t able to see.

She wasn’t lonely, wasn’t getting tired of her responsibilities. Was she?

It had felt like the retreat had knocked her off course, but she had been completely unable to get back in the swing of things. And rather than returning to the real world, she had been on unsteady footing since she came home.

She felt unsure in situations that should have been comfortable, felt aware of the people around her in ways that she wasn’t used to.

What exactly am I looking for?

Kate didn’t like that her thoughts kept coming back to Anthony. That he somehow seemed to be an important piece of the puzzle.

She didn’t like that, as terrible as he was, as she discovered more loathsome things about him, she was also discovering things about him that pleasantly surprised her. She didn’t want to let him off the hook, still fully planned to rage at him about his sexist behavior at the restaurant, but she couldn’t help but wonder if there were some redeeming qualities hiding inside him.

It didn’t make sense that she could see herself in the sour-faced man she knew. He didn’t seem the type to have cared so deeply for his family, to have given things up for his family. And though Kate expected him to be overly protective, he seemed to have a grudging respect for his female family members, didn’t watch over them in quite the way she would have expected.

She hadn’t wanted to hear about it, but she couldn’t help but be impressed after learning of what he had done for his family. She hadn’t expected him to be someone who would step in in the face of disaster, certainly not the way he appeared to have done. She couldn’t imagine that, when faced with a similar situation to hers, he had chosen to raise young children, to take care of his mother and older siblings. He had given up everything for them, and for at least a decade.

She hated having to give him credit for that. She disliked him, told herself she was repulsed by him. And yet, her eyes seemed to drift toward him. It had felt that way during the backpacking trip, particularly once they returned to camp. It was as though a door had opened, one she had been very determined to keep shut.

She hated that, upon seeing him, though she had prepared to find him infuriating, endlessly frustrating during the entire evening, her first thought was that he was still irritatingly attractive. She didn’t like that she still found him so good-looking, didn’t like much that seeing his face, his strong form, seemed to make her forget that he was a sexist pig.

I’m a fucking hypocrite.

But it seemed like it was getting harder to cling to the idea that he was truly terrible. Was it just about sex? That she just wanted to be touched again and touched well? It didn’t feel like that was it.


Anthony had arrived at the show in a foul mood. It had taken even more prodding to get everyone ready to go and into taxis, and it had been difficult not to scream at his entire family. He had even considered hopping into a cab on his own, leaving them all behind, but he knew he would hear about it for days.

He supposed his irritation was only partially related to his family.

He knew he would likely spend the entire evening frustrated with Kate, and he wouldn’t put it past her to find ways to purposefully annoy him.

She’ll probably pretend to like this fucking show just to piss me off.

It would be just like her, though everything he knew about her suggested that she would hate the event as much as he expected to.

She’s like a fucking child, he thought rather immaturely.

He had steeled himself in preparation for having to sit next to her, for having to even be around her again. But when he saw her, his reaction was the last thing he expected. 

She was talking to her sister, and he could tell just from looking at her that she was making a dry comment. Her face was serious, but her eyes danced, and her mouth formed the faintest smirk. She somehow managed to look positively wicked.

Her outfit was bold, midriff-baring, and he couldn’t ignore her toned stomach peeking through. He wondered absently whether Elle Danbury had actually given input, though he would have been surprised at any objections, seeing how incredible Kate looked. Her long, curling hair trailed down her back and shoulders, and it looked silky and wild. He knew what it was to tangle his fingers in her hair, and he was surprised to find that he itched to do it again.

What the hell is going on?

He tried to focus on his family, even on his phone that wouldn’t stop buzzing, but it was hard not to stare hungrily at Kate from across the lobby.

He should have been able to look away, but his eyes were drawn to her. Even when he wasn’t looking at her, he could feel her presence.

What was different about tonight?

Maybe it was that he hadn’t had sex since the retreat. Maybe it was just that he was hard up, that she was – objectively – sinfully attractive, was incredible in bed. Maybe this was just his body’s way of telling him he needed to take someone, anyone home.

Preferably someone without an attitude problem.

He thought about the suggestions from his mother and Daphne that he was lonely, but that was ludicrous. He wasn’t lonely. He didn’t want anything. And even if he did decide he wanted something, he wouldn’t have to resort to someone like Kate.

So why can’t I stop fucking thinking about her?

Was it that he kept learning of their similarities? That she was plagued by the same attacks he was because of her terrible loss? That, when faced with tragedy, she had held her family together. She was irritating and pig-headed, but apparently also more caring than she let on. It seemed it was getting harder to brush her off.

He realized that he was staring again when he met Kate’s eyes. She shot him a quick, wry look, and then she turned back to Edwina. 

He huffed to himself, annoyed at having been caught.

There was a small part of him that, for just a moment, wondered whether it was really so bad. He didn’t like sleeping with people multiple times, still thought of it as risky, but he knew it would be incredible if it happened again.

Maybe it’ll be less risky because she hates me, he thought wryly.

And because I hate her, he reminded himself.

He was needing to remind himself of that a little too often, a little too forcefully.


Anthony didn’t read the rest of the text conversation. He didn’t want to know what anyone said, knew it would just make him angrier.

He had hoped he and Kate would be able to keep things between them, hadn’t wanted to deal with the endless teasing that would come from their friends and family knowing about the retreat. But he could cope with it coming out. He wasn’t proud that he had chosen Kate, or at least, he wasn’t when she was talking. But he wasn’t embarrassed by what had happened. She was beautiful. It had been incredible. There were worse things to own up to.

Kate had seemed equally reticent to discuss it, which was fine, but it was Edwina’s reaction that had so puzzled him.

You just figured you wouldn’t say anything? That it wouldn’t be an issue? she had said.

Anthony couldn’t understand it.

Why would it be an issue?

There had to be something more going on.

He clenched his jaw.

It would be just like Kate to keep her cards close to her chest, to share only what was absolutely necessary.

Apparently without caring that it makes things complicated for everyone else.

He could forgive her for keeping quiet about her family situation. He had kept quiet about his own. But she had clearly been hiding something else, something that appeared to be important. He wasn't entirely sure what or from whom.

Anthony knew that he should get to his seat, but he wanted nothing more than to stay as far away from his friends and family as possible. He particularly didn’t want to be stuck next to Kate. Not while the rest of them speculated and shot them looks from down the line.

He thought, for the millionth time, how much easier life would be if Kate would just go away.

As though summoned, the object of his thoughts rushed down the hall toward an exit. She didn’t seem to be paying much attention to anything around her, was just making a beeline for the one obvious escape route.

Far be it from him to let her get off that easily.

“Kate!”

She looked up, her eyes wide.

“The show is the other way…”

She glared, turning and continuing toward the exit.

He sighed, “Kate-”

“Fuck off.”

Still a delight.

She shoved the exit door open, and he was half surprised that an alarm didn’t go off when she burst through it. He stared at the door for a moment after it slammed shut. 


Kate stomped out the door, into an alleyway of sorts. There were empty crates and wooden pallets next to the door. It was dirty and dark, but she was glad to have a moment to herself. She needed to breathe, to figure out what she was doing.

She had felt anxious before, embarrassed before, but this was a new level of guilt. She had known Edwina would be hurt, but Edwina’s pain and disappointment had been palpable.

It had never really been about Anthony, Tom, dating, anyone. They had always been honest with each other, sisters and best friends, and Kate had betrayed Edwina’s trust.

For what?

Who had she really been trying to protect?

She was used to feeling sure of things, to believing in herself and her choices.

But now, she couldn’t quite remember why she had done any of the things she’d done, made any of the choices she had. The past month had been a mess, and she had been a version of herself she didn’t know.

She had been impulsive, greedy even, and she had loved it. And then she had come back home, to her anger, to her frustration, to a life that meant putting everyone around her first.

She had been discouraged before, disappointed before, but there was something painfully disheartening about coming back after having a glimpse of what it felt like to have something of her own.

Had she returned home with a newfound bitterness? A stubbornness and need to keep something for herself?

Is that why I didn’t say anything?

It was starting to hurt, always putting Edwina first, putting her mother first. Kate wanted them taken care of, but for the first time, she ached for herself.

Edwina was in the right, of course. She had reason to be mad, was justified in her anger.

I could have handled all of this so much better.

But part of Kate also felt indignant.

Couldn’t one thing be mine?

Anthony hadn’t meant anything to her, but he had been symbolic of something.

Hope, independence, even peace.

It had been that much worse that he had been a disappointment, like everything and everyone else, but Kate had at least wanted to hold onto how it felt to have something belonging just to her.

She had hoped to cling to the memory of him, to think of him as a small, wonderful chapter in her life. But he had been real and human and messy like everyone else.

And he hadn’t gone away like he was supposed to.

It could easily have been a lucky escape, a non-issue. But Anthony seemed to be a fixture, was somehow present wherever she went. It felt like the world was laughing at her, with Edwina’s determination to see a connection with Anthony that wasn’t there, with Elle somehow happening to maneuver the people around her so that Anthony inexplicably was always nearby.

I should have known ignoring it wouldn’t make it disappear.  

But it had been too much to think about. Her surprise at herself, her guilt, and then – upon seeing Anthony’s true colors – her utter embarrassment and shame.

She had chosen poorly, very poorly. Had, for the first time, read someone very, very wrong.

Anthony had shown himself to be horrible, not at all like the person she had thought he was. He wasn’t even someone she could even be pleased to have met, someone she could laugh off as a silly mistake. And the longer she knew him, the more distasteful he had revealed himself to be. He was rude, arrogant, always snapping at people, didn’t seem to know who could handle bluntness and who required a softer touch. There were more and more reasons to dislike him.

It had become a matter of pride, she supposed, not wanting Edwina to know, not wanting anyone to know. And maybe part of her, a small part, had not wanted to be caught warning Edwina off against traits that – it appeared – weren’t all that troubling to her in every situation.

In a way, seeing how awful he was had started to make it easier. Edwina liked people who were kind, much as she could be a sucker for someone she had decided was playing hard to get. Anthony’s attitude had been destined to turn her eyes elsewhere. But it had also made it easier for Kate.

It had been a fling, nothing more. But she had been painfully attracted to him, had wanted to touch him with a desperation she had rarely felt. It might have been dangerous if, given how much they seemed doomed to see each other, he had turned out to be a nice, good person.

Maybe that was why she was so resistant to learning more about him. She wanted to hate him, wanted to keep hating him. What would it do to learn things that made him seem attractive again, that made her more conflicted?


The door opened, and Anthony poked his head out.

“No!” Kate held up a hand. “I don’t want you here.”

“Why not?”

“Because this is… it’s where I’m taking a minute to myself.”

“A dark alley?” He looked around, a brow raised.

“Yes. Any other questions?”

He closed the door behind himself.

“I don’t want you here,” she snapped.

“Why is Edwina mad?”

“It’s nothing.”

“It didn’t seem like nothing.”

“Well, it was.” She stomped toward the door, trying to pull it open, but Anthony held it shut.

“You need to tell me what’s going on.”

“I don’t need to tell you anything!” She yanked at the door again.

“Then tell me because I’m asking nicely!”

“This is you asking nicely?”

“Why the fuck is your sister pissed at me?”

“She isn’t. She’s pissed at me.”

“I guess that makes more sense.”

“Excuse me?”

“Did you do something to deserve it?”

She sputtered, “How fucking dare you!”

“Why was she mad, Kate? What is going on?”

“What do you think?”

“I have no fucking idea.”

“She didn’t know you were at the retreat. And I didn’t tell her.”

“I know. You said you didn’t tell anyone.”

“Well, I probably should have at least told her.”

“Why?”

“She… She was interested in you. Very interested. Elle showed her your picture while we were away, and she just… Edwina lets her mind run away with itself on this kind of thing.”

Anthony blinked at her. “I can count the number of times I’ve talked to her on one hand. She thinks something was going on?”

“She thinks I lied to her. And I did.”

“I don’t understand this at all.”

“She was excited about you and couldn’t stop talking about you.”

“But you and I fucked... Before I even met her. Why not just clear things up?”

"And admit that I slept with you, of all people? That my judgment was so impaired-"

“Ah.”

“And that I made such a terrible choice-”

“Is this still about the fucking restaurant?”

“Yes, it is about the restaurant! You had every opportunity to act like a decent person, and you didn’t.”

“How is this still coming up?”

“Because there are consequences to saying-”

“Yes, I was being a shit. And I was a shit afterwards. But I didn’t think-”

“That it would hurt anyone? It was just a fun chat with the guys? You were talking about women like they weren’t human beings. And you were just hoping no one who might object would hear you. But I fucking heard. How would you like to hear that someone could just turn you around so that they didn’t have to look at your face? Someone who days before had-”

She saw realization hit him.

“Kate… I was making a joke.”

“It wasn’t funny.”

“I didn’t think anyone would hear.”

“Clearly you didn’t!”

“It was a mistake.”

“At least you realize that.”

“And you know I wasn’t talking about you. You know that-”

“It doesn’t matter who you were talking about!”

“Alright. I fucked up! But you’re acting like you hate me!”

“I do hate you.”

“Do you?” he sneered.

“Yes.”

“Because you don’t want anyone to know-”

“Because you are so frustrating and smug, and you won’t just go away- You drive me absolutely crazy!”

“And what do you think you do to me?”

“What do I do to you?”

“You really don’t know?”

“No, I have no idea. And I’m fairly sure I don’t care.”

“No?” He glared, clenching his jaw.

“No. And I can’t believe I ever let you touch me.”

He looked like he’d been slapped. “Kate…”

It had been below the belt, hadn’t even been true. But she’d been trying to be hurtful.

“Seriously?” There was alarm in his eyes.

“I…” She faltered. “I should-”

She turned back toward the door, or tried to, but Anthony grabbed her by the wrist.

“Just…” His voice was surprisingly soft. “Wait.”

He moved his hand to hers, tightening his grip.

Kate furrowed her brow, meeting his eyes.

This was the face that had looked at her with concern after her panic attack, who had been gentle with her when she was overcome with fear. The face that had appeared kind, mischievous, warm when he touched her. 

It wasn’t real.

“Please don’t.”

“Don’t what?”

“Don’t pretend you’re a caring person.”

“Has it occurred to you that maybe I am?”

“No, it hasn’t.”

“Is there really nothing about me-”

“You’re like all the other men in this city. You say and do whatever you need to do to trick women into bed. And you act like you're a good person when really you’re pompous and rude and arrogant-”

“Do you really think that’s what I did? That I was just trying to trick you-”

“I don’t know what you were trying to do. But you did.”

“How?”

“You pretended you were a decent person, and that you gave a shit-”

“When you were having a panic attack? I did give a shit. Yes, the rest of it was just sex. But I gave a shit. I still give a shit.”

“This is what I mean. You don’t have to pretend to care. Just go off on your merry way-”

“I’m not pretending to care. I do actually want you to be okay.”

“Great. Then I’m doing wonderful.”

“Kate…”

“You know, Edwina gets attached easily. But it isn’t all her doing, and I sometimes forget that. It’s the men in this city.”

“She and I hadn’t even met-”

“You’re just kind enough that women think there’s someone decent underneath it all. So we forget to look out for ourselves and think you might actually be safe. But really, you’re just giving us crumbs.”

“I didn’t pretend anything, Kate. We both made it clear what we wanted.”

“Yes,” she admitted.

“Then where is this…” He looked utterly confused. “I don’t understand.”

“Do you need to?” She knew she was being petulant, but she had never had an easy time giving in.

He sighed, “Did you really mean what you said?”

“Does it matter? It isn’t happening again.”

“I wasn’t expecting it to happen again.”

Kate didn’t know how they had ended up so close to each other, didn’t even realize they had moved until she felt her lower back hit something.

A crate? A railing?

His breathing had gotten heavy, as she was sure hers had.

It had been this way on the camping trip. She hadn’t wanted to be next to him, hadn’t wanted to be so near him. And then she hadn’t wanted to pull away.

He was studying her face.

“If I wanted to touch you again, would you let me?”

“No.”

“Are you sure?”

“I… I don’t want anything.”

Was she telling him or herself?

“I know. But that’s not what I asked you.”

He moved even closer, his cheek touching hers.

He put a hand on her hip, and she felt his lips graze her neck.

Would you let me touch you again?”

Somehow it had gotten harder to think.

“What happened… It didn’t mean anything…”

“I didn’t say it did.” He kissed her throat.

“I don’t… I don’t want anything,” she said again. She barely believed herself.

“Neither do I.”

He captured her lips with his, just a whisper of a kiss.

He reached down, his hand between her legs, palming her.

She groaned.

“I know you’re wet for me.”

“I’m not.”

“No?”

He tugged up her skirt, sliding his hand underneath it.

He tugged her panties to the side, his fingers finding her clit and swirling against her. She gasped in pleasure, shuddering.

“You sure?”

Her heart was racing.

He leaned in, kissing the hollow under her ear.

“Tell me you really don’t want anything.”

“What are you…”

“Tell me you feel nothing at all, and I’ll walk away.”

She leaned her head against his.

“I feel… I feel…”

He kissed her gently.

“Tell me.” His voice was almost a whisper as he continued to stroke her.

“I…” She gasped, whimpering as the movement of his fingers became firmer.

She kissed him, gripping his lapel tightly. He cupped her face with his free hand, deepening the kiss.

She groaned against him.

“Oh, there you-”

They jumped apart, looking up to see his sister Daphne staring wide-eyed from the doorway.

“Oh…” Daphne seemed to realize what she was seeing, and she cleared her throat. “I’ll just leave you to it.”

Daphne turned, walking back inside.

“Daph-”

Anthony took a step after Daphne, but then he seemed to stop himself, turning back to Kate.

He moved toward her, helping her fix her clothes.

Kate could see him shoot a glance over his shoulder toward the door, that he wanted to follow his sister.

But he’s taking care of me.

It surprised her.

She stilled his hands.

“Go. I’m fine.”

He met her eyes, almost looked like he was thinking of leaning in again.

She realized she was hoping that he would, that they could pick up where they left off, that he would touch her and kiss her and they could ignore the rest of the world.

He walked back inside.  


Daphne had returned to her seat, and she gave him a cold look when he sat next to her. Kate didn’t come to her seat, in truth, after what had happened, it would have shocked him if she had.

“Daph-”

“Anthony, what are you doing?” she hissed.

“I’m not doing anything.” He lowered his voice.

“You were kissing. More than kissing-”

“We were talking.”

“Your hand was under her skirt, Anthony. How long has this been going on?”

“There’s nothing going on!”

“That was not nothing. I thought it was just a crush, but-”

“A crush? On who?”

“Why have the two of you been keeping this a secret?”

“There’s no secret to keep!”

“You’ve been sleeping together.”

“No-”

“Is that why she yelled at you?”

“Stop. She didn’t yell.” He gritted his teeth.

 “How long have you been seeing each other?”

“Be quiet. We aren’t seeing each other.”

Daphne lowered her voice. “No?”

“We slept together. That’s it. A month ago.”

“A month ago you were at the-”

“At that fucking retreat.” He nodded.

She raised an eyebrow. “You weren’t even allowed to talk.”

“We didn’t do much talking,” he said wryly.

“Kate isn’t coming?” Tom Dorset interjected, grinning stupidly as he glanced at the empty seat between them.

Oh, fuck off.

“I don’t know what her plans are,” Anthony said through gritted teeth.

Tom held up his hands in mock surrender.

Daphne elbowed Anthony. “Why wouldn’t you say anything?”

“Ow, fuck. What was there to say?”

“You tell me. You can’t seem to stay away from each other.”

“Because she is fucking aggravating.”

“Is that why your hand was up her skirt?”

“We just got caught up.”

“I’ve seen you watching her, Ant. This is more than getting caught up.”

“Nothing else is going to happen,” he huffed.

Daphne studied him. “And that bothers you…”

“Danbury’s going to murder her if she doesn’t sit down soon,” Dorset laughed.

“Why are you talking to me about this?”

Dorset snorted, turning to Edwina.

Daphne cocked her head, keeping her voice low. “You like her.”

Anthony glared. “No. I don’t.”

“Maybe you don’t want to like her,” Daphne snorted. “Ant, sometimes feelings are unavoidable. Even for you.”

“I don’t want that, Daph. And neither does she.”

“Ah. Is that why you don’t?”

“What?”

“Would you be interested if she was?”

“Of course not.”

“Because you’ve decided to be miserable.”

“I’m not miserable. I don’t want it-”

“You don’t want to want it, Ant. But I’m starting to think you want it anyway.”

Violet shushed them from down the line. He glared back at her, though he couldn’t help but notice Mary next to her, a worried look on her face.

“Daph, I’m not putting myself through that. Or anyone else.”

She sighed. “Sometimes I think you’re afraid to be comfortable.”

“Kate is anything but comfortable.”

“I didn’t even mean her, but…”

He rolled his eyes.

“Shhhh,” someone behind them hissed.

He looked back at a grimacing elderly woman, clad in fur and pearls.

Go fuck yourself, he wanted to say.


Kate knew that she had to go back inside, knew that Charlotte and Elle would certainly murder her if she didn’t. But she couldn’t make her feet move just yet.

She wanted to be home, hiding from the world, snuggled with Newton.

She needed to pretend – for a moment – that things were simple. That Edwina wasn’t hurt, that she was someone she recognized, that Anthony wasn’t… she didn’t know. She had very purposefully tried to distance herself from him, but it was somehow having the very opposite effect. She seemed to always know where he was in a room, could feel him nearby, seemed to know when his eyes were fixed on her. She knew it wasn’t something she wanted, but she seemed totally unable to stick to her guns when they were near each other.

And now she had kissed him again, let him touch her again.

What the hell am I doing?

It had been like this each time. She hadn’t wanted to be so close to him, certainly hadn’t wanted or expected any more to happen. And yet, once he was kissing her, touching her, she hadn’t wanted to pull away. It had felt so good, the way it had before.

Is this really who I am now?

It wasn’t like her to be so driven by desire. It particularly wasn’t like her to desire someone she couldn’t stand. She should be having no difficulty moving on, even with the added difficulties caused by him being everywhere she went. Really, none of it should have mattered.

And yet, it seemed that it did.

She picked up her phone, looking through her messages. Irritated ones from Elle, radio silence from Edwina, some concerned messages from Mary. She glanced through her conversations with Anthony – every one of them a short, swift gunfight of sorts.

Her phone rang, and she jumped, almost dropping it.

It was Elle. She swiped to answer the call.

“Hi, Elle. Listen-”

“Kate. Wherever you are, come sit down.”

“But-”

“You really aren’t going to argue with me about this now, are you? At my wife’s very important show? On the night of her even more important birthday party?”

“I…”

“I didn’t think so.”

“Elle-”

But Elle had already hung up the phone.

Kate sighed.


Anthony had finally gotten Daphne to leave him alone, though he suspected that Simon had interjected after seeing how close he was to screaming at his sister.

He remained in a daze, barely noticed anything happening in front of him. He knew that models were walking past them periodically, that cameras were flashing, but he didn’t see any of it.

Kate had finally returned to her seat, and he had scented lilies as she passed him.

It felt like he was losing his mind.

He wanted to ignore Kate, knew the last thing he should do was watch her. But he kept catching himself staring once again.

Truth be told, it was probably a good idea to keep an eye on her, given the likelihood that she would inevitably throttle him for all of it. Kissing her, touching her, looking at her now – he would be very much surprised if she didn’t object.

She sat stiffly next to him, refusing to look in his direction, replying politely when Thomas – clearly unaware of or unwilling to acknowledge the tension – periodically made a comment.

He noticed that Thomas tried, a couple of times to engage Edwina and Kate briefly about something on the runway, but Edwina only had conversation for him.

Kate’s shoulders slumped slightly, and he found that he was mad at Edwina on her behalf.

Kate was infuriating, but had she really done anything wrong? He didn’t think so. All things considered, he had rather liked the things she had done.

Charlotte walked out onto the runway with the models, and Anthony was surprised to realize that the show had ended, was vaguely aware that people were cheering, that Daphne was swatting at him to stand up for applause.

Charlotte was very much in her element as she took a bow, waving and thanking everyone. She was handed an obscenely large bouquet of flowers, and she held it lovingly like it was an infant. She looked delighted.

Still, Anthony didn’t miss the cutting look that she gave him and Kate.

Always regal, yet still with room for spite.

He snuck a glance at Kate and had to smile. Though Charlotte’s glare could have drawn blood, Kate was shooting a similar look right back at Charlotte.

“Kate!” Elle hissed.

Kate shrugged, her eyes twinkling.


The party was mercifully at the same venue, but Anthony was already tired of listening to brainless prattling and watching his siblings hanging drunkenly over their significant others. Benedict had an arm around Friedrich, and they were giggling wickedly.

When Anthony glared at them, Benedict whispered something to Friedrich, and they both laughed again.

Daphne and Simon had mercifully left early, though not without giving him some pointed looks.

“You could just talk to her, Anthony. You know, the way people normally behave when they like someone.”

“I don’t like her,” he had snapped at his sister.

But he was feeling less and less sure.

Kate was holding a glass of wine, listening absently as Tom chattered happily with Mary and Edwina. They had been joined by an elderly couple, who Anthony was fairly certain were Mary’s parents. The couple smiled rather superciliously, seemed quite ready to dote on Tom, seemed to adore Edwina.

It wasn’t his business, and it definitely shouldn’t have mattered to him, but Anthony couldn’t help but notice that they were ever so slightly different with Kate. They were all smiles, but there still seemed to be a stoniness there, an occasional sneer in response to things she said.

Edwina was also still being rather cold with Kate, and Anthony was surprised to find that it was still testing his patience.

Why do I even care?

He didn’t think she was upset, but Kate was fidgeting with something on her wrist.

He hadn’t noticed them before, but she had matching bracelets, green stones on gold. They somehow managed to be bold while still remaining delicate. She fiddled with one of them nervously, and he hadn’t realized just how fixedly he was staring again until the bracelet suddenly came free and tumbled to the floor.

She jumped back, looking down for it, but he was there without thinking. 

He knelt next to her, picking up the bracelet and standing.

“Here-”

Her jaw was clenched, but she nodded, an almost business-like thank you as she took the bracelet.

They stared at each other for a moment.

“If it isn’t the Sheffields!” Charlotte simpered. “I can’t believe all of you were able to make it tonight. And what a surprise! I really had no idea Elle planned any of this.”

Kate raised an eyebrow. “None?”

Charlotte narrowed her eyes at Kate, and Anthony couldn’t help but be amused at how easily Kate could get under Charlotte’s skin.

“Correct. None. But I’m glad I caught the two of you together.” Charlotte also shot a look at Anthony. “This will save time.”

“Oh?”

Charlotte’s grandness, in addition to being captivating, could also make her imposing. Much like her wife, she was painfully direct, quick to address slights.

“I’ve been waiting for an apology from you two, but I see it won’t happen unless I come to collect it.”

“We thought you’d be busy mingling.”

Why am I talking?

“Don’t be smart, young man. So?” She shot a look at Kate. “What happened?”


Kate and Charlotte had always had a similar relationship to the one Kate had with Elle, though Charlotte could be considered a bit more emotional, a bit more high-strung. Kate knew she would get a scolding at some point, she just hoped it would be when she was in a better mood to take it.

As it was, it was all she could do to keep from snapping back.

She just wanted to drink her wine in peace, already felt so small every time Edwina shot her a hurt look or ignored her response to something. She was never in the mood to be lectured, but this was a particularly bad night. It didn’t help that, once again, Anthony had appeared, handing her the bangle that had gotten into the habit of flying off her wrist due to a loose clasp.

He seemed surprisingly annoyed to watch her being lectured, didn’t seem at all gratified the way she might have expected.

Is he upset on my behalf?

It was hard to believe that he wouldn’t jump at a chance to see her on the back foot, and yet, he looked uncomfortable, almost worried.

“Did you have somewhere you needed to be?” Charlotte continued. “Were you kidnapped? Lost in the woods?”

“I got to my seat as quickly as I could.”

“You could at least pretend to apologize, Kate,” Charlotte said wryly, putting her hands on her hips.

“I’m sure Kate just wasn’t feeling well, dearest.” Elle took Charlotte by the arm, handing her a glass of something. “Isn’t that right, Kate?”

“What happened, dear?” Mrs. Sheffield – Kate refused to think of her as anything else – raised an eyebrow.

“I got to my seat a bit late.”

“That’s no surprise. How often have you been late for dinner?”

“That wasn’t me-” Kate caught herself.

It was Edwina’s fault, she wanted to say. But she never would.

“We’ve been on time more than we’ve been late.”

Mrs. Sheffield turned to Mary. “Raul was always like that, wasn’t he? Always running late no matter where he was going.”

“Rahul,” Mary corrected, gritting her teeth. “He liked to take his time getting ready, yes.”

“And it seems to run in the family.”

“What’s that they say? Blood will tell,” Mr. Sheffield said, snorting.

“Did your mother also run late?” Mrs. Sheffield laughed conspiratorially.

Kate let out a deep breath. “No, she was very punctual.”

Kate saw the change in Mary’s eyes, knew exactly what she was thinking.

Mary wanted to step in, was furious with her parents, but she froze around them, the words refusing to come when she needed them most. It made Mary hate herself, not being able to act on the desire to protect her children in the moment.

Kate could see that Mary’s shoulders were slumped, that her jaw was clenched tightly.

She glanced at Charlotte, hoping for a reprieve of sorts, as Charlotte rarely tolerated her thunder being stolen. But, somehow, this situation appeared to pique her interest enough that she didn’t mind.

 

Of all the times…

“I’m surprised that’s all you have to say, Kate.” Mrs. Sheffield pushed on, raising an eyebrow. “You’re usually so outspoken.”

“Some might even say rude,” Mr. Sheffield offered.

“Grandfather…” Edwina interjected uncomfortably.

“This has certainly gotten spicy.” Charlotte sipped at her wine. 

“Maybe we should change the subject.” Elle at least seemed to see the change in Mary, too. “How about a toast?”

“Something else you inherited from your father, Kate?” Mrs. Sheffield’s eyes were twinkling.

She loves baiting me.

“Like I said, dear-”

“What was it that you said?”

Kate looked up to see Anthony glaring at the Sheffields.

She was stunned. “What?”

“I beg your pardon.”

“You seemed to be leading to another snide comment about Kate, and about her parents, and I thought you might want to fill the rest of us in.”

“This really is just a family joke, dear.”

“A family joke, or are you just picking on Kate?”

What?

“I guess you haven’t heard much about our family.”

“I’ve heard and seen enough,” he said meaningfully.

“Who are you, exactly?” Mr. Sheffield’s brow was furrowed.

“Who are you?”

“Anthony!” Violet had turned to face them.  

“They’re my grandparents, Anthony.” Edwina’s voice was nervous.

“But apparently not Kate’s?”

“No. They aren’t.” Kate realized she felt rather smug.

“Ah. Then, you’ve lucked out.” He gave Kate a wry look.

“Excuse me?” Mrs. Sheffield looked aghast.

“I said she’s lucked out. I can’t imagine that, knowing what Kate has done for her mother and sister, anyone would have the audacity to sneer at her. Or talk about her parents that way, when they clearly raised someone who-”

“I think you’ll find we’ve helped Mary and the girls quite a bit. And we’ve offered to help even more.” Mrs. Sheffield looked indignant.

“It’s possible they may even be grateful.” Mr. Sheffield shot a look at Edwina.

“I hope none of them feel like they have to be grateful for any help they’ve gotten,” Anthony spat.

“Young man-” Mr. Sheffield put a hand on his hip.

“You do not help people so you can lord it over them.” Anthony looked livid.

Kate wanted to chime in, but then she saw Mary’s eyes, her shaking hands.

She’s ashamed. Of all of this.

“It’s fine, Anthony.”

“How is it fine? They-”

“Let’s just move on. Please.”

“Oh, Sweetheart, I thought you were doing better-” The Sheffields finally appeared to have noticed Mary’s distress. They exchanged a look.

“Maybe we should call your doctor.”

“That’s not what’s going on- I’ll be alright. Really, I’m fine.”

“Look where that kind of thinking got us last time.”

“She said she’s fine,” Anthony cut in again.

Kate was starting to get annoyed. “I can handle this-”

“I’m aware!”

“Anthony.” Somehow Mary found the words. “Could you get me a drink?”

“Could I what?” He blinked at her.

Kate moved toward Mary. “Mom-”

“I’m okay, Kate. I just need to take a minute.” Mary held out an arm to Anthony. “I’ll just grab it with you?”

“Right. Sure.” He took her arm, his voice soothing, kind, respectful. “Right this way.”

She nodded, and they walked away together, Kate had no idea where.

She stared after them, perplexed.


Anthony was relieved to finally be home. He had been in a daze for the remainder of the evening, but it also felt like something had changed. He knew he shouldn’t have butted into the Sharmas’ family business, but it had happened before he could stop himself. He immediately hadn’t liked the Sheffields, but when he saw how they treated Kate, how alarmed she had been about Mary, he had seen red.

He wasn’t altogether sure why it mattered to him, but he had acted without thinking.

He was very glad to be alone, to have a minute to think.

His phone rang, and he sighed, answering it. “Hi, Mom.”

“Did you make it home safely?”

“I’m a grown man.”

“Well, did you?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Good. Did you have a good time tonight?”

“I don’t know. Yes. Maybe.”

“Anthony…”

“What are you trying to get out of me, Mom?”

“You were just very vocal about the Sharmas. Very protective.”

“The Sheffields or whoever they are were being shits.”

“I’m surprised you thought to step in.”

“Even Kate doesn’t deserve to be treated that way.”

“I see. Do you plan to see her again?”

“What?”

“Kate.”

“No. Why would I?”

“Anthony, you may be a grown man, but I’m still your mother.”

He huffed, “What did Daphne tell you?”

“Nothing, but now I’m curious what she has to tell.”

Shit.

“There’s nothing to tell.”

“Ah, I see,” Violet said dubiously.

“There’s nothing to see. And I’m not seeing her again.”

“You know, I’ve been wondering why you’ve been so vocal about her. So annoyed with her whenever we’ve seen them.”

“Mom…”

“She’s why you’re lonely, isn’t she?”

“I’m not lonely!”

“Sweetheart, you couldn’t stop staring at her. And you practically yelled at her grandparents.”

“That’s not true.” His face felt warm. “We just slept together. Once. At the retreat.”

“Ah. And has there been anyone else since then?”

“Uh. No.”

“I see.”

“That doesn’t mean anything.”

“Love, you are allowed to want someone. To want to be with someone.”

“I don’t want that.”

“Why not?”

“Because I- Because I just don’t.”

“It makes me so sad to hear you say that.”

“It’s the truth.”

“For now.”

“What?”

“Sleep well, love.”

“What did you mean?”

“Nothing, Anthony. Talk soon.”


Kate could not have been more grateful to be home, behind her closed bedroom door. The evening had gone from strange to ridiculous to ludicrous, and she needed time to herself.

What the hell is going on?

She realized she was pacing back and forth in her room, fiddling with things here and there. Newton – ever loyal – was pacing with her, despite having limited to no understanding about what was going on.

Kate had to smile. She picked him up, putting him onto the bed.

He rolled onto his back, graciously offering his tummy.

“Oh, did you want scritches?” She grinned.

Newton huffed, as if to tell her to hurry up. She obliged.

Spending time with him was always soothing. She supposed it was because animals were easier, less socially complicated, less emotionally difficult. Newton asked for what he wanted, and Kate appreciated that. There were no mysteries about his wants, either. Aside from food, potty, cuddles, and sleep, there was no ambiguity, no question about what he needed.

He sighed dramatically, and she grinned again. “Exactly my thoughts.”

In truth, Newton was very likely to be having the same thoughts she was, if he had any thoughts at all.

Though she had tried to think about something else, Kate’s mind was still full of Anthony.

She didn’t understand why he had jumped in, why he had been so forceful with the Sheffields. He had seemed generally unimpressed with them, and it hadn’t surprised Kate that he had been willing to fight. Some of what he had said made her think that any situation like this might be upsetting to him, might offend his morals.

You do not help people so you can lord it over them, he had said to the Sheffields.

But he had seemed protective, not just indignant. And rather than looking annoyed, he seemed willing to help at Mary’s request, was gentle with her. No complaining, no posturing, just an arm and an escape.

Kate kept seeing glimpses of the real, devoted, good parts of Anthony. And much as she – once again – hated to eat her words, she had to admit that her first impression of him hadn’t been entirely wrong. He was difficult, but the kindness, the protectiveness she had initially thought was there had been real.

She didn’t want that to be the case. Things were already messy. She wanted to be able to hate him without complication, wanted her anger toward him to be entirely justified. She didn’t want reasons to like him, reasons to feel a kinship with him. She didn’t want them to have things in common, values in common.

She hated that it felt like there was still something there. Even as he drove her crazy, even as they fought, she felt connected with him. It had happened while they were backpacking, seemed to always happen when they texted or talked. Neither wanted to end the conversation (or perhaps both wanted to have the last word).

She grudgingly supposed he had always shown her who he was. When they had been together, he hadn’t hidden behind false chivalry or romance. She had railed against him for pretending to be a decent person, but in truth, he had been entirely honest with her about what he wanted. He had been respectful of her boundaries, had been focused on her pleasure first. He had cared that she felt safe and comfortable, or had seemed to. He could be inappropriately crude, but nothing else about his behavior suggested that he wasn’t capable of being respectful of the women around him. 

She didn’t much like the new direction her thoughts were taking.


Kate had planned for it to be a quick errand. She would run in and out of the jeweler, would pick up her bangles, and would be on her way. And then she would take Newton for a walk. Or herself for a walk. Something to help relieve the nervous energy that seemed intent on making itself known.

It had been a week of stewing at her desk, opening and closing files, clicking pens open and shut. She seemed to have a persisting headache, couldn’t get a crick in her neck to go away.

She thought absently that this was one of the times when it did seem like it would be nice to have a partner. Someone to massage her neck, rub her back, ease the load. That wasn’t for her, she knew, but it sometimes sounded nice, even if just for a moment.

It had been a confusing week, and she wasn’t quite sure what to do with herself. She kept getting stuck in her head, didn’t quite know why she couldn’t focus on the things she needed to do.

It was a relief, she told herself, that – barring an act of God – she didn’t have to see Anthony again. Anything they might both be invited to could be skipped, and she didn’t have to be in his presence or think about him ever again. Things would be simple again soon enough.

She stepped inside, a bell ringing on the inside of the door.

The shop was a small boutique, family-owned. Elle had recommended it, had gone to them for years.

For a moment, Kate wondered why the man staring back at her from next to the counter looked familiar, and then she realized that she knew the face breaking into a smile.

Benedict Bridgerton.

Of course.

“Well, look who it is!”

“Uh. Hello.”

Benedict grinned impishly. “Ant, look who’s here.”

Fuck my fucking life.

Anthony stood uncomfortably next to a glass case, looking as put upon as she felt.  

“Small world.” Benedict looked delighted.

“Yes.”

“How are you?”

“Fine. I’m fine.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Just picking up some jewelry I needed repaired.”

“Ah, so were we. Well, my mother had her ring cleaned. But we’re also window shopping for a ring.”

“Anthony is?” Kate couldn’t stop herself from blurting out.

Benedict raised an eyebrow. “I am. He’d rather jump off a cliff.”

“Ah.” Kate hated the wave of relief that washed over her.  


Anthony hoped that the ground would open up and swallow him whole. He had managed to keep his distance from Kate for a week, had told himself again and again that there was no reason they ever had to see each other, that they could move forward as though they had never met.

And he had tried to ignore the part of him that, for some reason, found disappointment in that prospect. 

It didn’t feel quite right that their sparring sessions were over, though he couldn’t for the life of him figure out why he might ever miss them.

He’d agreed to accompany Benedict to the jeweler just as something to do. He had been moping around his apartment, then had been sitting around his mother’s large apartment. Benedict, as usual, had his head in the clouds, and part of Anthony thought it would be a delight to knock him back down to Earth.

In retrospect, he should have remembered how much the universe seemed to enjoy a laugh at his expense.

There was no reason for Kate to also be at this jeweler, and yet, she was, also staring wide-eyed.

They watched each other, neither saying a word.

Fuck my fucking life.

And then the jeweler came out from the back, a small case in hand. He held it toward Anthony.

“You’re all set. Do you want to take a look?”

“Oh, I think we’re fine.”

“Ah, is this the lady?”

“What?”

He saw Kate’s eyes widen.

“Oh, definitely not.”

“Uh, no-”

He and Kate spoke at the same time.

“Let’s try it on and see what you think.”

“Oh, no. That’s not-”

“Come on. Let’s have a look.” The jeweler popped open the ring box, holding out a hand to Kate.

She shot a glance at Anthony, who wanted very much to be struck dead by a blunt instrument.

After a moment, she sighed, walking toward them.

“Let’s see your hand.”

She held out her right hand to the jeweler, who looked surprised.

“Left hand?” He raised his eyebrows encouragingly. 

“Oh, I really can’t-”

“Let’s see it.”

The jeweler took her left hand, sliding the ring onto her ring finger.

It really was an exquisite ring. A simple band with a small, dazzling stone surrounded by delicate pearls. It was a unique, old item that had been in his father’s family for generations. And it was the ring that Violet vocally hoped to pass on to Anthony if he someday met someone he wanted to marry.

“Well, what do you think?” Anthony realized the jeweler was speaking to him.

Anthony swallowed hard, finally taking Kate’s hand. He felt totally at a loss.

“It is a beautiful piece,” Kate’s voice was a mix of nerves and… what? Admiration?

“Yes.” Anthony couldn’t stop staring at her hand. “It’s my mother’s engagement ring.”

“I love it.” Kate looked dazed.

He stroked her hand absently with his thumb, and they both stared at the ring. It seemed to fit perfectly.

“Well?” The jeweler’s voice snapped them back to reality.

“I do, too.” Anthony nodded.

“Excellent.” The jeweler turned back to Kate. “Would you like to wear it out, or-”

“No.” Kate cleared her throat. “Thank you.”

She tried to pull the ring off, but it wouldn’t budge.

Anthony thought his heart would pound its way out of his chest.

“Would you look at that?” Benedict was watching, a wicked grin spread across his face.

Dickhead.

Kate looked positively alarmed.

“Just a second.” Kate tugged at the ring again.

“Looks like it’s meant to stay.” The jeweler beamed.

“Uh. No, I just- Almost there-”

The ring finally came free.

She shoved it back at the jeweler. “Here. All yours.”

She met Anthony’s eyes, but he was surprised to find that her face was unreadable.

“I should… Enjoy the rest of your day.”

“Did you need something, dear?” The jeweler looked puzzled.

“I’ll come back another time.”

It appeared she couldn’t get out of the shop fast enough.

Anthony watched her back as she disappeared down the street.


 

Chapter Text



1. Anthony thinks about texting Kate

 

 

2. Anthony and Kate have a quick text exchange

 

 

3. Kate thinks about texting Anthony

 

 

4. Kate thanks Anthony

 

 

5. Elle Danbury checks in, and Kate is still angry

 

 

6. Kate asks Edwina about Mary

 

 

7. Charlotte and Elle give away some news

 

 

8. Charlotte and Elle plan a party

 

 

9. Kate wants to make one thing clear

 

 

10. Benedict wants congratulations

 

 

11. Anthony thinks about texting Kate

 

 

12. Anthony asks Kate about her trip

 

 

13. Kate thinks about texting Anthony

 

 

14. Kate shares a fun fact

 

 

15. Kate checks on Mary

 

 

16. The Bridgertons make some plans of their own

 

 

17. Pre-gaming

 

 

18. Alcohol gets the best of Anthony

 

 

19. Kate reads over some messages

 

 

 

 


 

Chapter Text



Anthony was fairly certain that the A train had started running between his ears, and he wasn’t at all sure that he approved. He didn’t usually drink, not that much at least. Benedict had never been a good influence on that front, but last night had been… he couldn’t totally remember what it had been like. And that wasn’t good.

Anthony picked up his phone, wincing at it. He had a vague sense of… something, and that didn’t bode well.

The phone rang, and he dropped it.

“Ah, fuck.”

He picked up the phone, swiping to answer.

“What?” he snapped.

“He lives!” Benedict sounded fresh as a daisy.

“Fuck you.”

“That well, huh? Thought it might be a tough morning.”

“So why the fuck are you calling me?”

“Because I wanted to see how last night’s karaoke star was fairing.”

“WHAT?”

“Kidding. Kidding. But you have to admit, that would have been one of the best things to ever happen.”

“For you. Asshole.”

“Did you hear back from whoever you were texting?”

“What…?”

Benedict cackled. “Please tell me you’ve read your messages.”

“Fuck you. Who would I have been texting with?”

“You tell me.” His voice became slightly muffled. “Babe, come listen to this!”

“Do not put me on speakerphone.”

“Too late.”

“Hi, Ant!” Friedrich also sounded delighted.

“Friedrich.”

“Did you make it home last night?”

“What?”

“You were just texting a lot, so I figured you were making plans.”

“No plans.”

“That he knows of. He hasn’t checked his texts yet, Babe.”

“You haven’t?”

Benedict and Friedrich sounded like they were giggling.

“Fuck both of you.”

“Are you going to check?”

Anthony tried to ignore a sense of impending dread.

He swiped through his phone. He had texted his mother a blurry photo of him, Benedict, and Colin. He and Daphne had texted, or rather, she had texted him repeatedly to tell him to get off his phone. And then…

Why was I texting Kate?

He opened the messages, and his blood ran cold.  

“Oh, holy fuck.”

“What? Tell us!”

“What is it?”

“Fuck fuck fuck.”

Benedict sounded like he was weeping with laughter. “Come on. What did you write?” he snorted.

“It’s not happening, Benedict!”

“Who was it?”

“Fuck off.”

“Come onnnnnnn.”

Anthony hung up the phone.

Fuck my fucking life.


Anthony wouldn’t have been in an excellent state to read his own drunken rambles even on a good day, but his head felt like it was about to split in half. He closed the shades and flopped onto his couch.

What the actual fuck is wrong with me?

He read over the messages again and again.

Had he meant what he said?

And more interestingly, was there a reason that Kate had been so noncommittal?

She could have told me to fuck off, and she didn’t.

Fuck. He would have to apologize.

And she will absolutely love that.

He groaned, putting a pillow over his face.

Maybe I could just smother myself to death.


Kate’s difficulty sleeping hadn’t improved after hearing from Anthony, and she had tossed and turned most of the night.

It was alcohol. That’s all that was.

But it was hard not to think about what he had said, hard not to analyze every single word.

All I can think about is when I’ll be able to see you again or talk to you again.

She wasn’t quite sure why she was so fixated.

He knows I’m not looking for anything. And he isn’t looking for anything.

It had clearly been about sex.

And there are a million women in this city that he could be texting instead.

It didn’t make any sense.

She reread what she had written back. At least she hadn’t embarrassed herself. Much.

You make my head spin.

Still, she felt uneasy, and she didn’t know quite why.

And then the thought struck her that, at that same moment, Anthony might very well be reading over their texts as well.

And hating every minute of it.

She smiled devilishly.

She wondered what he would do. He was usually direct, didn’t run from things. Would this be an exception to the rule?

Her phone rang, and she jumped.

She had expected it to be Anthony, not for any particularly good reason, but it wasn’t. She swiped to answer.

“Kate, are you in today?”

“Hi, Elle. How are you?”

“Fine. Fine. Are you in?”

“Yes, is the office open earlier than usual?”

“Hush. I need help with party prep.”

“Before work? And the party is weeks from now!”

Elle huffed, “We’re going to the flower market, Kate. You order ahead of time.”

“In Chelsea?”

“Yes, Kate.”

“Why do you need me for the flower market?”

She could picture Elle rolling her eyes. “I have so much to teach you. Get dressed, and I’ll pick you up in a cab.”

“Elle, I barely slept.”

“Ooh, for fun reasons?”

“No, not really.”

“‘Not really’?”

Shit.

Not for fun reasons.”

“Did someone come over?”

“No.”

“Snapchat?”

“Do people still use Snapchat?”

“You tell me. And you’re stalling.”

“I just… got some interesting text messages.”

“From who???”

“Elle, I need to hop in the shower.”

“I’m getting it out of you.”

“Not likely.”

“Everyone under sixty is so boring. Make sure to be outside.”

“Elle-”

But Elle had already hung up the phone.


Kate had heard the Flower District was beautiful, but she had never had reason to go. She had never been much of a fan of flowers, though she also hadn’t had to deal with them often.

She was surprised at the variety of colors and blossom types, couldn’t believe there could be so much green gathered in Manhattan.

Elle thrust a bouquet of peonies at Kate. “Beautiful, aren’t they? They’re Charlotte’s favorites. Other than irises.”

“I love them!” said a cheerful voice.

Fuck my life.

“Benedict Bridgerton, what are you doing here?” Elle grinned broadly, wrapping Benedict in a warm hug.

“We were grabbing coffee and thought we’d take a look at the flowers.”

She hugged Friedrich as well. “So good to see you both!”

There was no reason that Benedict and Friedrich should have been at the flower market at that moment, aside from the fact that New York City perpetually thrust people together who had no reason to continue seeing each other.

Benedict and Friedrich seemed positively delighted to see Kate, and she caught a wicked glint in both their eyes.

She knew Anthony would rather die than tell them he had texted her, so what did they know?

“Kate, how are you?”

“Fine, thank you,” she said stiffly.

“Kate’s a bit tired.”

“Oh, really? Did someone keep you up?” Benedict’s eyes twinkled.

She narrowed her eyes at him. “No.”

“Too bad.” He winked.

It struck Kate that she hated everything and everyone.

“What are you doing here, Auntie Elle?”

“To be honest, we’re looking for flowers for the two of you. Maybe you can show me a few of your favorites.”

“Of course.”

Kate vaguely heard the others talking as she studied a small bouquet of tulips.

“Are you going up to the house this weekend?”

“Yes, we’re having a family dinner.”

“That sounds nice. Nicer if I was invited.”

“Do you want to come?”

“Not remotely.”

Kate moved around, surprised at how many different colors of tulips there were.

“Pretty, no?”

She started, realizing she had been staring intently at the flowers for some time.

A kindly older man was grinning at her from the other side of the flower containers.

“Yes, beautiful.” She smiled politely.

“For you.” He handed her a single tulip. “Beautiful flower for beautiful lady.”

“Oh, really, there’s no need.”

“Kate, would you keep up?” Elle hissed from a few stalls down.

Kate smiled shyly at the tulip man. “Thank you again.”

He blew her a kiss. “Stay sexy!”

“You, too!” Kate responded automatically, not realizing what she had replied to until it was too late.

She hurried away, wanting very much to bury her head in her hands.


Kate sat at her desk, typing furiously. She and Pen Featherington were trying to get the wording of a feature just right, but they both seemed to be having brain fog. Pen had pulled a chair next to Kate, but after an hour, they were still having trouble making meaningful progress.

“Why is this difficult today?”

Pen took a moment too long to respond.

“What, Pen?”

“You just seem like you’re having a day.”

“I didn’t sleep.”

“Ah.”

“Ah, what?”

“Any chance someone kept you up?”

Kate’s heart dropped.

Of course she would know.

“Who would have kept me up?” Kate asked a bit too innocently.

Pen shrugged. “There was just some very obvious texting going on last night.”

“Oh?”

“Kate…”

Kate sighed, “There’s nothing… He was clearly drunk.”

“Yes, I could see that, too,” Pen snorted.

Kate groaned.

“He was mostly rambling.”

“Did he make it home?”

“What? Pen, I didn’t see him last night!”

“Would you have?” Pen grinned wickedly.

“No! Wait, what do you mean you could see it, too?”

“Ant was propped against the bar ignoring the rest of us. Daph kept trying to get him to put his phone down, but he looked like a rain cloud.”

“What makes you think he was texting me?”

Pen shrugged. “I notice things.”

Kate studied Pen for a moment. “Yes, you do.”

“And you kind of confirmed it.”

“I didn’t do anything. He was clearly having a rough night.”

“Yeah, that’s Anthony, though.”

“Hmmm?”

“He’s really close with his brothers and Daph. They were a pretty tight-knit group before Simon and I showed up. And now Friedrich. He’s happy for them all, but I think it’s made him lonely. That they’ve all found someone. He’s gotten grumpier when everyone’s together.”

“Oh?” Kate was surprised at how curious she felt.

“It was just different when their dad was around, I guess. Ant was a happy kid. And then when their dad died, he really had to grow up fast. They were still close, but it was just… Col tells me it felt like Anthony was trying to make sure they all found… security or something. He stopped worrying about any of that for himself. I think he’s happy they have it, but it’s left him on his own.”

“Hmmm.”

“I know you have more to say than that.”

“I might.”

“There they are!” Elle sashayed into the room without knocking, followed by Tom and Edwina.

Kate blinked. “What are…? Bon?”

“We were having lunch in the area, and Tom suggested that we stop by and say hi!” Edwina’s voice was cheerful enough, but her eyes were cold.

Kate gritted her teeth. “Great.”

“How’s the copy coming?”

Kate shrugged at Elle. “Coming.”

“That sounds wonderfully promising.”

Kate glared.

“We’ll have it soon,” Pen said brightly.

“So, what’s this I hear all of you are going to Westchester this weekend?”

“We? Who?”

“Yes, all of you, Kate.”

“Oh, you’re coming?” Pen clapped her hands together.

“Coming where?” Kate looked back and forth between the others. “Am I asleep?”

“Uh, yeah.” Edwina chewed her lip. “Daphne asked if we wanted to go with them to their house in Westchester this weekend. Apparently, they’re throwing a big dinner for Benedict and Friedrich.”

“Daphne asked when?”

“Just last night.”

“And you didn’t say anything?”

“I’ve been busy, Didi,” Edwina snapped, trying her best to keep her voice bright.

“Why would they even want us there?”

“You have a few fans in the family, Kate.” Pen winked. She seemed to catch herself after a moment. “And you, Edwina.”

“It should be a good time.” Tom put his hand on the small of Edwina’s back.

You’re coming?” Kate raised an eyebrow.

He shrugged. “They invited me.”

“And who is he to look a gift horse in the mouth?” Elle smiled beatifically. “It should be fun, Kate. And I’m sure I can entertain Mary over the weekend.”

“Oh really-”

“Just me and Charlotte, love. Don’t worry. When do all of you leave?”

“I haven’t said I’m going!”

Elle gave Kate’s leg a shove with her cane. “You’re a pain. Just let me know if anyone needs to leave early on Friday.”

“I didn’t say-”

“Yes, yes. Edwina, Tom, let me show you my Bonsai collection.”

“Oooh, I love plants.”

“They’re small trees, dear,” Elle sighed.

Kate watched as her sister, Tom, and Elle left the room.

“I guess I’m going?”

“It sounds to me like you don’t have much of a choice.”

“Story of my life.”


The drive to Westchester had been exhausting, though Kate couldn’t decide whether taking the train would have been more grating.

Tom had an old rusty van that he used for work, and he was nice enough to drive them, though he and Edwina chatted away happily in the front without much interest in Kate. That was fine with her, or would have been, had the seatbelt worked on her seat. She spent an inordinate amount of time either climbing back onto her seat or gathering up a very confused Newton, glaring when the others laughed after either (or both) of them took a spill.

“I think it’s illegal not to have this seatbelt fixed.”

“Oh, it definitely is. I just never get around to it.”

“Great.” Kate glared.

“So how long have you guys known the Bridgertons?” As usual, Tom was annoyingly cheerful.

“Not that long. But we became very fast friends. And Kate’s worked with Pen Featherington for years.”

“Yes, but we didn’t know the rest of the family.”

“No. But we all immediately got along well.”

“Except for Kate and Anthony, so I hear.”

“Yes.”

“Don’t worry about it, Kate. He’s just like that when he’s nervous.”

“Anthony? Nervous?”

“In high school, there was a girl he wanted to ask out, but instead he just glared at her.”

“So, he’s always been charming.”

“I mean, from what I hear, it isn’t an issue now. But he used to get really quiet when he got embarrassed.”

“Did you know his dad?” Edwina had turned in her seat.

“Yeah, he was like this superhero that everyone wanted to have as their own dad. He and Ant were really close. Things were really hard after he died.”

Kate nodded.

“I didn’t see them much after that. They kind of hunkered down. And there were two really little ones. I once saw Anthony walking them both to daycare in a double stroller. He looked like he hadn’t slept in years. But when I tried to make a joke, he was really protective of them.”

“That doesn’t surprise me.”

“He’s been a good surrogate dad.”

“Daph tells me he was pretty strict.”

“Probably had to be with that gang.”

“And he seems to forget he isn’t a grumpy old man,” Edwina laughed.

A grumpy old man you were interested in not long ago, Kate thought wryly.

“You’ve never been to their house, right?”

“No.”

“It’s an experience.”


Anthony was going to kill his siblings. And his mother. And anyone else who had known that the Sharmas and fucking Tom Dorset had been invited to the house.

They knew I would object.

As it was, he knew the house was large, ostentatious, a bit too unapologetically opulent.

Kate’s going to have a field day.

He didn’t know why he cared about her opinion, but the idea of her sneering as she walked down the hallways bothered him.

He also hated that, only days after making an utter ass of himself, he would have to face her. And with an audience, no less.

He had done his best to keep the damage from the other evening to a minimum, but his siblings were ruthless, nosy to a fault, and by process of elimination – even without confirmation from him – had determined that he had at least texted Kate some when the elder Bridgertons had gone out to celebrate.

Everyone was delighted at the idea that Anthony could be that gone, even that he would make a mistake, and they had all taken to teasing him.

It was just like them to rub it in, to make sure that he had no reprieve from his embarrassment.

He was surprised that part of him was also upset on Kate’s behalf. He was the one who had made a mistake. She had been surprisingly gracious, which he still didn’t quite understand, but he found that he was readying himself for battle should his siblings decide to tease Kate.

Even though she can probably handle them better than I can.

He knew he should apologize to her, that he was being uncharacteristically quiet about it in the first place.

But what the hell do I say?

He had never done anything like that before. And he was dreading the smug look she would give him if he so much as hinted at what had happened.

Naturally, he ran into her before he was prepared.

He had been carrying suitcases upstairs when something barked at him, and he looked down to see a highly offended Corgi glaring up at him.

“Yes?”

The dog barked again.

“Who the fuck are you?”

“Newton!”

Kate came scurrying down the hall.

“Oh.” She stopped in her tracks.

“What are…?”

“I…”

They stared at each other.

“We were invited. By Daphne.” She sounded unusually nervous.

“Ah.”

“You didn’t know?”

“No.”

“Right.”

The dog growled up at him.

“Sorry. That’s Newton. Newton, come!”

The furball gracelessly hopped his way to the top of the stairs, and Anthony followed.

Anthony gritted his teeth. “Hello, Newton.”

Newton seemed unimpressed.

“Not a very nice dog, is he?”

“He’s nice to nice people.” Kate smiled serenely.

Anthony glared, putting the suitcase down on the landing.

“I… uh…”

“Everything alright?” she asked innocently.

He glared again. “You know exactly what I- Do you have to rub it in?”

“Rub what in?”

“I know I made an ass of myself. And that it probably pleases you to no end.”

“I’m surprised you aren’t still hungover.”

“To be honest, so am I. Listen, I’m sorry I… I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. Or to talk like such an idiot.”

“You seemed to be having a rough night.”

“Yes. I just wanted to… Is there any chance we can ignore all that?”

“Yes, if you want to.”

“What?”

“Yes.”

“Right.”

He stared awkwardly at her.

“Anything else?”

“I… No.”

He huffed, annoyed.

“You’re frustrated?”

“No.”

“Anthony, what-”

“You could have told me off.”

“You were drunk.”

“So?”

“What good would it have done?”

“You’ve never needed much of an incentive,” he hissed.

“I didn’t think it would make a difference.”

“Right.”

“Anthony, what do you want me to say? I assumed it was a very alcohol-fueled booty call.”

“I… Yes… I guess it was.”

“You guess?”

“Yes.”

“Then that’s it.”

Why did that disappoint him?

“So, you’re sober now.”

“Yes.”

“Good.”

“I… uh…”

“Where did Newton go?”

She was looking around at the floor.

“Kate-”

“I’d better find him. He doesn’t always handle staircases well.”

“Right.”


Kate was glad to be back in her room.

She was proud she had managed to seem so nonchalant, but she had been surprised at the inner turmoil that had raged as she spoke to Anthony.

He had been apologetic, clearly embarrassed.

Why had that been so unsatisfying?

Had she hoped he would also seem… interested? Like there was truth to what he had said?

She didn’t want that. And she had planned to jump at the chance to tease him about his actions, about the things he had said.

But in the moment, she had just felt… frustrated? Deflated? It didn’t make sense.

“Kate, are you joining us by the pool?”

“Hmmm?”

She looked up to see Edwina carrying Newton.

“There he is.”

“Yes.” Edwina’s voice was cold.

Kate sighed, annoyed. “Bon, we’re going to need to talk at some point.”

“I know.”

“You’d rather just be mad at me indefinitely?”

“That’s not what’s going on.”

“Why ask me to come with you, then?”

“Because they invited both of us.”

“You could have said you didn’t want me to come.”

“I…” Edwina looked guilty. “I knew they would be disappointed if you didn’t come.”

That surprised Kate.

“What?”

Edwina shrugged. “They like you. Everyone likes you.”

“Very few people like me, Bon.”

“That’s not true.”

Kate studied Edwina. “Is that what this is about?”

“People like you even when you don’t try. It’s work for me.”

“That’s not true. Everyone loves you, Bon.”

“People like me when I make an effort. But they notice you first. And they think of you as a capable, interesting person. I just wanted someone to notice me first,” Edwina sighed.

“A lot of people do, Bon. You may not see it.”

“I’m just the tag-along little sister no matter what I do.”

“No-”

“Yes.”

“I hate hearing you talk like this. I didn’t realize you felt this way.”

“People like me when I’m happy and helpful and can do things for them. I always have to work for it.”

“Then those aren’t good people.”

“Maybe not.” Edwina shrugged again. “I would just like it if… at least you could treat me like I’m my own person. And like I can handle things without you hiding in the background. You see how Grandmother and Grandfather are with Mom. They never think she’s capable of anything. And it hurts her.”

Kate nodded. It was true.

“I don’t like that you do the same to me. Especially since I don’t think you always know that you’re doing it.”

“I try not to.”

“I know. Try harder?” Edwina bit her lip, a small grin on her face.

Kate snorted, “I’ll do my best.”

She swooped Edwina into a hug.

“I know you’re just trying to take care of me, Didi.”

“Yes.”

“Sometimes you don’t always do it the right way-”

“Hey-”

“I said ‘sometimes.’”

Newton tried to give Kate a slurp between them.

“Ugh, Newton-”

“He loves his Mama.”

“Or something.”

Edwina put Newton down.


It was a warm day, and Anthony was grateful that they had kept up the large pool in the backyard. Most of the family was seated around the pool, some reclining on chaise lounges, and the younger Bridgertons had taken to doing cannonballs from the diving board.

Anthony was sitting comfortably on a chaise, clad in board shorts. He had rolled his towel under his neck, and he was contentedly reading.

He could vaguely hear the others around him. 

“Mom, who has the biggest splash?”

“I didn’t see the last one, Greg.”

Gregory groaned. “Will you watch this time?”

“Maybe Anthony can watch.”

“Ant?”

“Hmmm?”

“Can you judge, or no?”

He lifted his sunglasses.

“What?”

“The splashes!” Hyacinth rolled her eyes.

“Have Mom do it.”

“She said you could do it.”

He shot a look at Violet.

Thank you, Mom.

“Maybe Edwina can do it. Or Kate!” Hyacinth had a huge grin on her face.

“Why-” Whatever he had been about to say disappeared into the wind.

He hadn’t seen the sisters arrive, and he wished he’d had a moment to prepare.

Kate looked positively delicious. She had a simple white bathing suit, a sporty-looking bikini of sorts.

Edwina looked good in her suit, too, but there was something about how practical Kate’s looked. She wasn’t trying to be sexy, and yet, he felt like he was going to melt.

He’d managed to avoid Kate the rest of the morning, had been glad of the reprieve. Seeing her was a bit too much of a reminder of his idiocy, of the confusion he felt that wouldn’t go away.

And now, seeing her like this, he could barely breathe.

“Kate, can you judge us?” Hyacinth hovered around her.

“Judge what?” She tossed her towel onto a chaise.

Francesca rolled her eyes. “They’re doing a cannonball competition.”

“Um, so are you.”

“If I feel like it.”

“Well, I would judge, but how can I participate if I’m judging?”

What?

“Yesssssssssssss!!” Hyacinth jumped up and down.

“I’m a little rusty, but I’m sure I can manage if you guys give me tips on my form.”

Anthony watched, dumbfounded. How was she good with kids? And where had her grumpiness gone?

“Maybe Fran should judge, just to make sure I’m doing it right? We can always switch if you want to join.”

“Uh. Yeah. Okay.” He hadn’t seen Francesca so thrown in years.

Only Kate.

“Anyone else? El?”

“I’m reading,” Eloise huffed.

“I’m in!” Friedrich downed his drink.

“Me too!” Colin jumped up. “Simon?”

“Maybe after Augie duty.”

“I’ll join!” Tom said brightly.

Anthony felt his teeth clench.

Benedict hit him with his book. “He’s not here for her, Ant.”

Anthony shot a glare at him. “I know that. And I wasn’t- Go back to your book.”

Benedict held up his drink as if to say “cheers!”


The cannonball tournament had been loud and messy, complete with cheering and smack talking. In the end, it was ruled a tie between Kate and Gregory, though there was much discussion of cheating.

“How about we switch to diving?”

Hyacinth and Gregory groaned.

“Form doesn’t have to be good. We’re aiming for as little splash as possible.”

“That’s easy.”

“Are you sure?” Kate was annoyingly good with them. “Pretty sure I just saw the two of you splashing a lot.”

“Well, we were trying to splash.”

Kate shrugged. “I dunno. Not buying it.”

“Fine, I’ll show you!”

Gregory, Hyacinth, and Francesca all made noble efforts, as did Friedrich, who clearly had some diving experience.

But Kate had clearly been keeping something under wraps, as she did an incredible, graceful dive complete with a flip and absolutely no splash.

What the…?

“Yooo, Kate, you cheated!”

Kate surfaced like a mermaid, tugging at her top. “How did I cheat?”

“Um. Clearly you were in the Olympics or something.”

She laughed. “Definitely not the Olympics.”

Anthony only realized he had put his book down when Benedict swatted him once again.

“Careful, Ant, you’re already dying, and her top didn’t even come off.”

“Fuck you. Don’t say shit like that.”

Benedict raised his eyebrows. “What have you done with my brother?”

“Don’t say shit like that about her.”

Benedict held up his hands in mock surrender.

Kate climbed out of the pool, wringing out her hair and tying it up again on top of her head.

Anthony knew he was staring, was grateful for his dark sunglasses, but he couldn’t have stopped himself either way. He’d have been content to toss her onto a chaise and spread her wide, making her come again and again with his tongue. He wasn’t sure he’d have cared whether there was an audience at this point.

He shifted uncomfortably.

“Anthony?”

“Hmmm?”

“Oh, pool boy!”

“Mom. Stop,” he sighed.

“I’ll stop if you grab me another drink.”

He glared at Violet, but she just lowered her sunglasses slightly, giving him a smile.

“Don’t.”

He stood, tossing his book onto his chaise. He had meant to go to the cooler, but instead, he watched again as Kate did another spectacular dive.

He waited until she surfaced, and then he turned.

In retrospect, he should have looked where he was going, but he wasn’t used to there being obstacles, especially not in the form of rotund Corgis who had decided to inconveniently sun themselves next to the pool.

Before he knew it, Anthony was tumbling into the pool, taking Tom Dorset and the very round dog with him.

“Newton!” He heard someone gasp, and as he surfaced, he saw Kate reaching the dog and lifting him out of the water.

He saw Dorset bobbing next to him, laughing and shivering. His siblings, Pen, and Friedrich were laughing heartily, and he shot daggers at them.

Kate and Edwina had the dog quickly wrapped in a towel.

“I really didn’t see him.”

Why am I nervous?

“I know.”

Kate seemed to only have eyes for the dog.

Another shining moment.

“You okay?”

He looked up to see Tom watching him inquisitively.

He nodded once.

“I’m surprised you waited so long to get into the pool, Ant-”

“Shut up, Ben.”

“Haven’t seen floaties like that before, either.”

“Poor Newton!” Edwina gasped, not quite able to contain her laughter.

“Very furry!”

Kate leveled Benedict with a look.

“I’m not above tossing you into the pool with your brother.”

“You spoil us, Kate.”


It had been a surprisingly relaxing day. Though Anthony felt somewhat sorry for knocking the dog into the pool, he wasn’t entirely unconvinced that it hadn’t been character-building for the generally very self-important dog. Kate held him – Newton, he remembered – wrapped tightly in a towel, the two of them resting on her chaise.

The younger children had found some cooked sausage, and they were taking turns feeding him to console him.

He could see Kate and Edwina talking quietly. They had seemed strangely distant since they arrived, but things seemed to be warming up between them.

Why do I care about this?

“Anthony, look how fast he eats!” Hyacinth giggled.

He made his way closer.

“He’s going to get sick if you keep feeding him.”

“Kate said it’s fine.”

Kate shrugged. “He has a strong constitution.”

“And stomach,” Edwina laughed.

“How is the soggy doggy?”

Soggy doggy?

Anthony wanted to kick himself.

“As you see, very happy with his snacks.”

He nodded.

“Anthony, thank you for inviting us. We haven’t been very good at taking vacations, so it’s been nice to have the opportunities. Right, Kate?”

“Yes. It’s been very relaxing.”

“Only you would find doing cannonballs into a pool relaxing.”

“And diving.”

“And diving.”

“Did you find the pool refreshing yourself?” Kate’s eyes twinkled, and Anthony found he was staring again.

 “Surprisingly, yes.” He cleared his throat. “I’m surprised this guy can float.”

“Poor Newton!” Edwina giggled.

Kate raised an eyebrow. “Careful, he’s a very good judge of character.”

“But he likes spending time with you?”

She leveled a kick at him. “Ass.”

He laughed, and Kate cocked her head in surprise.

It surprised him, too.

He couldn’t remember the last time something had made him laugh.


The group had moved inside after sunset, and Kate found that she was surprisingly comfortable lounging with the Bridgertons in their gargantuan living room. She moved to the kitchen to get them another bottle of wine, but when she reached the doorway, she stopped in her tracks. 

Gregory was wearing a large apron that said “Kiss the Cook!” on the front, and Anthony was demonstrating knife skills to him, rather adeptly, she noted.

Of course he’s good at that, too.

Gregory copied what Anthony was doing, and Anthony grinned.

It was the smile that caught Kate off-guard. It was a gentle grin, almost sweet, proud. There was nothing sardonic about it.

Gregory’s matching grin said it all. He was proud of himself, for doing a good job, for pleasing Anthony.

Anthony’s basically his father. 

It unexpectedly warmed her heart.

Gregory looked up, smiling at Kate. “Better run before he also puts you to work.”

“I’d like to see him try.”

Anthony raised an eyebrow.

“You don’t want to learn to filet a fish?”

“How do you know I don’t already know how?”

“Do you?”

She shrugged.

“Okay, let’s see it.”

Gregory grinned brightly. “Does this mean I’m off the hook?”

“What? No.”

“I think Mom’s calling me from the other room.” Gregory yanked off the apron, tossing it onto the counter.

“Gregory.” Anthony’s voice was stern, but his brother pretended not to hear him as he jogged away. “At least wash your hands!”

“I will!” Gregory’s voice was muffled.

“He’s a good kid.” Kate smiled.

“Is he?” Anthony washed his hands, picking up the apron.

She rolled her eyes.

“I don’t need that.”

He ignored her. “Let’s see it, chef.”

“I wasn’t actually volunteering.”

But Anthony held the apron out to her.

She put her drink down, sighing, and then she put her hands into the arm holes of the apron, turning around. Anthony tied the straps above her lower back, and then he moved her hair away from her neck.

“Hold this?” His voice was soft.

She held her hair as he tied the apron. She could feel his breath against the back of her neck.

He ought to have moved away, but instead, she felt his fingers resting for a moment against her skin.

“Anthony…”

He sighed, and she released her hair.

She moved to the cutting board, picking up a knife and beginning her work. She could feel him behind her.

“Well? Does my technique meet with your approval?”

“No, but at least you’re confident.”

“Fuck you.”

“Here.”

And then his arms were around her, her hands in his hands as he guided the knife. She had to admit that the knife moved more smoothly when he changed the angle, though it annoyed her to have to give him any credit.

She felt his bare chest pressed against her back, his temple against the side of her head.

“What are you…”

“Like this.”

He guided her hands to make another cut.

“You’re good at that. Took a class?”

“Yes.”

He put the knife down, but he didn’t move away. He held up his hands, clearly not quite sure where to put them.  

“Anthony…”

“Why did you come here?”

“To the kitchen?”

“To Westchester.”

“We were invited.”

“You could have said no.”

“Edwina would have killed me.”

“That’s the only reason?”

“Should there have been another reason?”

He huffed. “Fine. Kate. Fuck.”

He moved away, going to wash his hands again.

“I’m trying to have a conversation with you-”

“A conversation.”

“Yes, a conversation.”

“We already talked about the messages.”

“Yes. We did.”

“So, what else could you want to talk about?”

“You always do this!”

“Do what?”

“Every time I think we’re actually starting to have a civil conversation-”

“What more do you want me to say? You were at a bar. Texting me when you shouldn’t have.”

“And you could have ignored me!”

“What?”

“You responded. And you didn’t tell me off.”

“Are you really saying any of that is my fault?”

“That’s not what I-”

“What should I have done?”

“I don’t know. But usually, you tell me to fuck off for a lot less. And this time you didn’t.”

“Because I… Because there would have been no point.”

“Is there ever a point?”

“Sometimes.”

“And what about what you said? I make your head spin?”

“All you think about is wanting to see me and talk to me and touch me? What should I have said to that?”

“I… I don’t know,” he admitted.

“Are you trying to say you meant it?”

“Why would I have meant it?”

“Exactly.”

He studied her.

“Would it mean something if I had?”

“Of course not. I told you. I’m not looking for a relationship.”

“Who said anything about a relationship?”

“What?”

“I said-”

“I heard you.”

“You are so fucking infuriating.”

“So you’ve said.”

“And I try to talk, but for some reason, you're determined to be the bane of my fucking existence."

I am?”

“Yes. So, you need to cut it out. Whatever it is that you’re doing.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I can’t stand being in the same room as you. But when I am, all I want to do is touch you. And I have no idea why.”

“Thanks?”

“You know what I mean.”

“Do I?”

“Yes. So, whatever you’re doing-”

“I’m not doing anything! If anything, it’s you!”

“What could I possibly be doing?”

“I don’t know, but it isn’t my fault I can’t focus whenever I’m next to you. It’s like you’re…”

 “Like I’m what?”

“I don’t know.”

He moved closer to her. “Tell me.”

She shook her head.

“I think we want the same things.”

He was so close, their noses almost touching.

“That’s not possible.”

“No? I’m sure you can imagine the things I want to do to you.”

She gasped, hated that her instinct was to lean into him.

“Some things that we’ve done. Some things we haven’t. You felt so good.”

She had to nod, couldn’t quite breathe normally.  

“We could have that again. I think you want that again.”

“I’m not looking for-”

“I know you’re not looking for anything. Neither am I. Just sex. Nothing complicated. I think we both need it.”

“Do we?” she asked wryly.

But he didn’t back down. He kissed the hollow under her ear.

“Yes. Come upstairs with me.”

“What? We’re cooking.”

“After dinner. Or later tonight.”

She let out a deep breath. “That is a terrible idea.”

“I know.” He nuzzled her nose, finally kissing her gently. “Awful.”

She wanted to touch him, but she remembered that her hands were dirty. She settled for kissing him back when he deepened the kiss.

“I want you.” His voice was low.

She sighed.

“You want me, too.”

She hated how good this felt, how right it felt. It was lust, just passion, nothing more. So why did her heart flip flop as he cupped her face, stroked her hair?

“ETA on dinner?” Benedict shouted from the other room.

They jumped apart, both breathing heavily.

“Kate is still trying to figure out how to filet.” Anthony grinned.

“Fuck you.” She swatted at him, but he evaded her hand, laughing again.

She hated how much she liked that laugh.


Kate had planned to stay in her room. Partly because anything else was a terrible idea, and partly because she didn’t want to give Anthony the satisfaction of seeing her and thinking she might be looking for him.

But she couldn’t sleep. Yes, it was difficult not to think of him elsewhere in the house. But a thunderstorm also raged outside, and they would always be distracting to her.

She stood, pacing, and she finally decided to give up on sleep.

The hallway was dark, but there was enough light for her to see her way to the library.

The library was pitch black, so she left the door slightly ajar as she wandered around, trying to find a lamp. When she reached a large, sturdy mahogany desk, she switched on a small banker’s lamp. It wasn’t bright, but there was enough light for her to see the shelves.

She found the fiction section, smiling to herself that there were even enough books for the collection to be divided in this way.

She and Edwina had always both liked fiction, had always loved to use reading as an escape. Their father had read to them both, had done voices and spoken with an inflection that made every story delightful. Reading was safety, comfort, even a connection to him.

Kate picked up a book, flipping through it.

“Trouble sleeping?”

She dropped the book.

“Shit. You scared me.”

“Sorry.” Anthony smiled sheepishly. “I heard a noise.”

He was leaning against the door frame, clad only in a pair of boxer briefs.

“You’re seriously walking around like that?” She leaned down to pick up the book.

“It’s my house.”

“It’s your mother’s house.”

“Yeah, but also mine. And you’re not that dressed up yourself.”

Kate looked down, had to admit that her pajamas were a bit skimpier than they ought to have been for a ramble around someone else’s home.

“It was too hot to wear a robe.”

“Ah.”

He walked over, holding out a hand for the book.

She handed it to him.

“I always liked this one.”

“You like Virginia Woolf?”

“Should I not?”

“I pictured you as more of a Hemingway type. Salinger.”

“I’ve read them, too. I always pictured you as a…”

“Can’t think of another female author?”

He glared.

“A South Asian author?”

“That’s not what I was saying.”

“No?”

“I was trying to think of someone angry.”

She glared.

“See? It would fit.”

“Would it?”

He grinned.

Thunder boomed, and Kate started.

She could see recognition on his face.

“You okay?”

She nodded stiffly.

“You don’t have to be.”

“I’m fine.”

“Why do they scare you so much? Storms.”

“They always have.”

“Your whole life?”

She nodded, thinking to herself. She wasn’t sure what made her share.

“The night my mother died. It was the worst storm I can remember. My dad usually read to me to distract me. He couldn’t then.”

Anthony nodded, understanding. “I’m sorry.”

She sighed, shrugging. “It was a long time ago.”

“That doesn’t always matter.”

She shook her head.


Kate’s face was thoughtful. It had felt like he was intruding on a private moment, but she looked so gorgeous in the dim light, that it had been difficult to look away, difficult not to say something.

Anthony hated seeing her flinch with each flash of lightning, each boom of thunder, but there was something gratifying about the way she steeled herself, firmly jutting out her chin.

She isn’t giving in to how scared she is.

“I should go to bed.”

He blinked.

“Are you getting tired?”

“No, but it’s your library.”

“So? You were here first.”

“It’s fine.” She took a step toward the door.

“Kate.”

She stopped.

“I’m not going to force you to do anything you don’t want to do. I really was just checking to see what the noise was.”

She was near the desk, and she fiddled with the edge of it, gliding her fingers along the woodgrain.

“Sometimes I think we’d have an easier time staying apart if we made plans to be around each other,” she said wryly.

“Yes.”

“It was only supposed to last through the retreat.”

He studied her for a moment, finally realizing what she was saying. He nodded, moving closer to her.

“I didn’t expect to see you ever again.”

He shook his head.

“And now I can’t see straight when you’re in the room.”

He shook his head again.

“It shouldn’t matter.”

He shrugged. “We were attracted to each other before.”

She nodded.

“A lot.”

She nodded again.

“Maybe that just isn’t going away.”

“It’s a bad idea. We know too many of the same people. Too many nosy people.”

He grinned. “You’re not wrong.”

“Did you mean what you said? When you texted me?”

He felt his heart skip a beat.

“You don’t have to have meant it.”

“I… I did mean it. I’m an idiot. But I meant it.”

She nodded her head.

“Did you want me to mean it?”

“I don’t know.”

He didn’t know why, but he understood.

“I wish I didn’t think about you all the time. I don’t want to think about anyone all the time.”

She nodded.

“I’ve never had any trouble moving on.”

“Neither have I.”

“You do this a lot?”

Why did that bother him?

She glared. “Do you?”

That’s fair.

“No, I don’t,” she sighed. “It isn’t like me at all. I know it’s like you.”

“What makes you say that?”

“You’re too good in bed for it not to be.”

He practically puffed up his chest.  

“What was that? I missed it.”

“Asshole.”

He moved closer to her, putting a hand on her hip, stroking her stomach with his thumb.

“I’m good in bed?”

“You know you are.”

He kissed her jaw.

“I’m also good not in bed.”

“Aren’t you clever?”

He kissed her throat. “Do you want me to stop?”

She said nothing, and he pulled back.

“Tell me you want me to stop.”

She studied his face for a moment, and then she shook her head.

He kissed her again, deepening the kiss when she responded.

This time, he felt her hands on his ass, gripping his hips, gently scratching the skin on his back.

He thought idly that a lot of women might be coy or shy in this situation, but Kate was eager, shameless. He loved it.

He ground himself against her, seating her on the desk and pushing her legs apart.

She reached between them, cupping him, and he jerked toward her.

“Fuck, Kate-”

It occurred to him that the library door was still open.

“Fuck,” he gasped. “Kate, the door.”

“Be quiet, then.”

He was going to die.

She stroked him through his briefs, moved her hand down so that she could cup his balls. 

He almost whimpered.

“Oh, fuck.”

“Quiet.”

His knees felt weak.

“Take these off.”

“Huh?”

She tugged at his waistband, letting it snap back hard against his skin.

“Take these off.”

He slid his briefs off his hips and let them fall to the floor. He didn’t miss the hungry look on her face as she stared at him, totally unashamed. 

“Onto the desk.”

“What?”

“On your back.”

He gave her an inquisitive look, but she was giving him a haughty look in return.

He felt dizzy.

He sat back on the desk, pushing himself up.

She pushed his back down against the desk, stroking him firmly.

His moan felt like it echoed against the walls.

“Shhhh.”

“Fuck, Kate.”

He watched her as she peeled off her satiny nightclothes. First a camisole, then a tiny pair of shorts.

She’s so fucking beautiful.

His eyes followed her, drinking her in as she moved to the door, locking in with a loud click.

And then she sauntered back, a wicked look on her face.

She climbed onto the desk, straddling him so that she was facing away from him.

“Wait, face me.”

“No.” She looked over her shoulder. “I’m going to ride you. But if you touch me, I’ll stop.”

He shuddered. “What?”

She sank onto him, and he felt his eyes cross. She was so tight, dripping wet.

How the fuck had it taken them so long to do this again?

She moved slowly against him, and his fingers itched to touch her.

He could see that she was cupping her breasts, teasing her nipples, and they both moaned.

She slid her fingers down, presumably gliding them against her clit.

She made little gasping noises as she moved, and he knew he wouldn’t last long.

“Fuck. Look at me. Please.”

“But then you’d have to look at my face.”

There it is…

“Fuck, Kate. Have you really been waiting to-”

“Are you seriously complaining right now?”

She picked up the pace, and he moaned loudly. He had never been this vocal, didn’t know where the sounds were coming from.

“I want to see your face.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m an asshole, and you’re fucking beautiful, and I’m sorry.”

“I see.”

“Kate, fuck. I was making a stupid joke, and it wasn’t funny, and I won’t do it again.”

She tossed a superior look over her shoulder.  

That almost undid him.

He grabbed her hips, trying to hold her in place.

“Wait.”

“Hmmm?”

“Stop, or I’m going to come.”

“Oh?”

She kept moving.

“Fuck, Kate, please.”

“You don’t want to?”

“I want you to come first.”

“That’s generous of you.”

“You know I want you to.”

She kept moving.

“Fuck, I’m so close.”

“Mmmhmm?”

He grabbed her hips more firmly, this time succeeding at keeping her still.

“I want to make you come. I want this to be good for you.”

“It is good for me-”

She tried to move, but he kept his grip tight.

She gave him a devilish look over her shoulder, and he could see she was trying to stroke her clit again. He batted her hand away.

“Do you really want this to be over that fast?”

She grinned wickedly.

He’d had enough.

In a whirlwind, he had picked her up, jumped off the desk, and tossed her onto her back. Her ass was just at the edge of the desk, and he tugged her toward him as he thrust into her.

Now it was her turn to moan loudly.

“Ah, how the tables have turned.”

“Fuck you.”

“Good idea.”

But he didn’t move just yet.

“Anthony, what the- What are you doing?”

“I’m being patient.”

“Fuck. You.”

“Taking my time to look at you.”

He ran his fingers down her body, his fingertips whispering against her skin.

“Anthony, come on. Please.”

She wrapped herself more tightly around him, kissing him desperately. That was enough.

He fucked her hard, slamming into her again and again as she let out sobs of pleasure.

“Fuck, Anthony.”

That’s it. I’m going to die.

“Touch yourself.”

“Huh?” She looked dazed, and he had to grin.

“Touch yourself.”

“I-” She was bracing herself against the desk, but she did her best, swirling her fingers against her clit.

“Fuck, you feel so good.”

“Mmhmm,” she gasped.

“Are you close?”

“I… Yes… Like that-”

“Hmm?”

“Fuck. Yes.”

He thrust harder into her, picking up his pace. Soon she was coming around him, stiffening and shuddering as she moaned loudly. Part of him was shocked no one had knocked on the door.

“Can you come again?”

She nodded, and soon he felt her clenching tightly around him, her movements becoming erratic.

He was close, but he also didn’t want this to end.

He pulled out.

“What are you- ah-”

He dipped his tongue into her, gliding up until he could take her clit into his mouth. He licked her firmly, dipping just the tips of his fingers into her.

She writhed, moaning and swearing incoherently.

“What was that?”

“Stop talking.”

He crooked his fingers inside her, and she let out a sob. “Please.”

“Come for me.”

“I think I’m going to-”

“Come on-”

“Anthony, wait-”

She reached for his wrist, tried to pull him away, but she shuddered again, crying out.

“Holy fuck.”

He pulled his hand back, and his palm and fingers were dripping wet.

He stared for a moment, awed.

She was panting, and she whimpered as he slid his cock back into her.

She tried to move again, but he held her hips in place.

He thrust into her, keeping his pace slow.

She groaned in annoyance.

“Please. Anthony. Faster.”


He pulled her up, and she could feel the dampness of his fingers against the skin of her stomach. She knew she had probably made a huge mess.

I did warn him, she thought wryly.

He cupped her face, kissing her deeply.

She could feel his other thumb swirling against her clit, and she shuddered.

“You knew you were going to squirt.”

She nodded, “I told you to wait.”

“I didn’t want to wait.”

“I saw.”

“That is the hottest thing I have ever fucking seen.”

“Right.”

He rolled his eyes. “You think I’m lying.”

“I think you’re inside me and,” she gasped, “distracted.”

“True, but I’m also not lying.”

He thrust into her harder, and she gasped.

How does this feel so good?

His movements were getting more erratic, and she knew he was close.

“Come for me.”

“Are you sure?”

Shit, we probably should have used a condom.

She found she once again didn’t care.

“Yes. Come inside me.”

“Fuck, Kate.”

After a few more thrusts, he came hard, groaning as he shuddered against her.

Fuck, I could go again.

He leaned down, kissing her again, and she whimpered.

He grinned. “More?”

She bit her lip.

He snorted, “Give me a minute.”

She felt herself smiling.

He pulled out, and they both gasped.

“Fuck, that was good.”

She nodded.

“Let’s go upstairs.”

He kissed her again, sliding one finger into her, then two.

“I promise it will be worth it.”

She groaned. “You drive a hard bargain.”

He grinned.


Kate ought to have known it would eventually happen again, and that when it did, it would be like the floodgates had opened. She and Anthony spent the rest of the night together, moving to his room, and then to his shower, after cleaning up the library.

It was morning by the time she finally laid down in her room to get a little sleep, feeling sore, but satiated.

When she went down for breakfast, Anthony was already there, as were a few of his siblings and his mother.

Had Kate been able to blush, she would have.

Edwina and Tom were also at the table, talking quietly with each other. Kate would always be slightly suspicious of anyone interested in her sister, but she had to admit that it was sweet to see them together.

“Good morning,” Violet said cheerfully.

“Good morning.” Kate grabbed herself a cup of coffee.

She tried to make eye contact with Anthony, but he wouldn’t look at her.

She furrowed her brow.

Fine.

She straightened her spine, moving toward a platter of bagels. She selected one, popping it into a toaster and hovering over it. She sipped thoughtfully at her coffee.

She supposed there was no reason to expect Anthony to act like they had spent the night together. Once again, it was just sex. Mind-blowing, knee-weakening sex. That’s all it was.

Why did that make her feel sad?

Her bagel popped up, and she quickly spread on some cream cheese, moving to the table. She sat away from Anthony, purposefully near Edwina so that she could chat with her and Tom.

She expected Anthony to continue to ignore her completely, but now he was glaring in Tom’s direction.

Ah.

She raised an eyebrow, and he started, caught.

“Did everyone sleep well?” Violet stirred her tea.

“Yes, very,” Edwina giggled.

Kate narrowed her eyes at Edwina.

What exactly were you up to last night?

Not that she should talk.

Edwina’s grin just widened, and Kate had to shrug.

At least she’s happy.

Kate was surprised to feel her jaw clench, couldn’t understand why she felt annoyed. Edwina was looking for a partner, had met someone she really liked. It made sense that she and Tom would be open about their interest in each other.

Am I jealous?

Definitely not about Tom. And surely not about the budding relationship in front of her, right?

Kate didn’t want to be in a relationship. Had made it clear to everyone around her that it wasn’t something she wanted. It was too vulnerable, too much of a time commitment, too… naked. Sex was safe. She could keep her head and heart protected, could get release without really being known, without needing someone. That was safer, preferable.

For the first time, it also felt painfully lonely.


Anthony was surprised to find that he didn’t know where to look. As usual, Kate looked incredible, even though she was clad in a simple athleisure outfit. Her long curls were piled on top of her head into a style he couldn’t begin to name, but it made her hair look wild and eminently touchable.

He wasn’t sure why he was so annoyed that she sat next to her sister and fucking Dorset. It didn’t matter where she sat. They didn’t mean anything to each other. Neither of them wanted anything, anyway.

And it was better that they keep some distance.

Last night was amazing, but there was nothing special about it. We’re just two people who are attracted to each other. And have very good sex. 

It was no good acting like there was more between them.

Not that she’s the type to get ideas…

Still, better to preserve a level of coldness, civility but no more.

He didn’t want her to seem interested, to look at him longingly, but he found that he didn’t like how easily she became engrossed in whatever her sister and Dorset were talking about. Anthony was surprised that, much as he wanted them to keep apart, much as he wanted Kate to have no visible interest in him, his fingers itched to touch her.

He’d have loved to have been able to tease her with his fingers, sneak his hand under her waistband while she tried to keep a straight face. It would have been risky, but he’d have loved to watch her as she tried to keep calm. And instead, she was far away, smugly enjoying a bagel across the table.

Benedict and Friedrich entered, glowing and holding hands, and somehow, that made Anthony even angrier. Maybe it was the stupidly serene, almost gloating expressions on their faces. These were happy people, people who had found ways to have very few cares in the world. Things that brought them joy weren’t fraught for them.

He furrowed his brow, not quite sure what had made him think that. Or why he cared as much as he appeared to.

“Good morning, all! Who is up for a hike today?” Benedict asked brightly.

“You know we are!” Dorset was game, of course.

Kate shrugged.

Anthony looked around. “Does anyone actually have hiking boots?”

There was a grin on Dorset’s stupid face. “Of course. I always bring mine when I’m in this area.”

“I brought ours, Didi.”

Kate looked surprised at Edwina. “You did?”

Edwina shrugged. “I was hoping we could go while we were here.”

“Oh.” Kate looked surprisingly pleased. “Great.”

“And the rest of you have pairs at the house. Perfect!” Violet seemed a little too happy.

“You’re just excited to get the rest of us out of your hair.”

“And to have an excuse to spend time with my favorite grandson.”

As if on cue, Daphne and Simon entered the room, a chubby toddler in Simon’s arms.

“Speak of the devil.” Violet held out her arms, and a very pleased baby Augie was handed to her. “Good morning, my love.”

Augie squealed in response. “Mama.”

Daphne grinned. “Everyone is Mama right now.”

Simon huffed, “I’ve been working on Dada, but he is not interested.”

“It’ll come,” Violet cooed.

“Mama!”

Augie seemed to be staring at Kate, and Violet smiled. “I think he likes your hair, Kate.”

“Babies tend to. It’s very tuggable.”

“Yikes, I’d better keep him over here, then.”

“I don’t mind.”

What?

Kate stood, moving toward Violet and taking Augie. As expected, the toddler immediately fisted handfuls of Kate’s hair, but she didn’t seem to mind one bit.

Anthony stared, confused.

Where was the grumpy, haughty woman he knew her to be?

Kate sat back in her seat, carrying on a conversation with the others and deftly keeping Augie’s hands away from the silverware.

When would she have had to take care of a baby?

Anthony remembered how Hyacinth and Gregory had been as toddlers, with their grubby little hands touching anything and everything they could reach. He had learned to keep everything far away from them whenever possible. Kate hadn’t moved to a place with nothing to grab, but she seemed to anticipate the things that Augie would be interested in, and she found safe substitutes that held his attention.

Of course she’s good with babies as well as with kids.

He wasn’t sure why that irritated him so much.

“Hoping to steal some time with your nephew? Anthony?”

“Hmmm?”

He looked up, and Violet had a knowing look on her face.

“No, of course not.”

“Thanks, Ant,” Daphne huffed.

“Not what I meant, Daph.”

Benedict clapped his hands together. “Well, what do you all say? A hike after breakfast?”

“Has anyone done the Rock Trail Loop? Or Anthony’s Nose?”

“That’s a real trail?” Edwina laughed.

“Yes,” Anthony grumbled. “Rock Trail is a lot harder.”

“Perfect. Let’s do that.”

“Are you sure, Bon? It’s a tough loop.”

“The challenge will be good. And I’ll have help.” Edwina smiled at Tom.

Anthony rolled his eyes.

Daphne smiled brightly, kicking Anthony under the table. “This sounds wonderful.”

“Excellent.”


Kate tapped on Edwina’s door frame.

“I’m surprised you brought my boots.”

Edwina shrugged. “I was anticipating a truce.”

Kate nodded. “I really am sorry, Bon.”

“I know.”

Kate took her boots from Edwina, sitting in a chair and tugging up her socks.

“I wasn’t trying to hurt you. I wasn’t trying to hurt anyone.”

“Kate, I know you have feelings for him.” Edwina slid on one of her own boots.

“What?” Kate felt her heart hit the floor.

“I see how you look at him.”

“I don’t look at him.”

“Kate…” Edwina said dubiously. “It’s okay that you do. It at least makes more sense.”

“I don’t look at him!”

“Sure, you don’t.”

“That’s not what’s going on.”

“What is going on?”

“Nothing.”

“Then it’s just a coincidence that you weren’t in your room last night?”

“What?” Kate felt her eyes widen.

Edwina shrugged, her eyes twinkling. “I heard you come back this morning.”

“I wasn’t… I didn’t…”

“Kate, it’s okay to like someone. It hurts that you don’t feel like you can trust me with it, but-”

“There’s nothing to- I don’t like him. I’ve never liked him.”

“But you’re sleeping together.”

“No.”

Edwina gave her a meaningful look.

“We slept together,” Kate huffed. “It wasn’t planned.”

“Has it ever been planned?”

“No. We just- It just- Each time it just… seemed to happen.”

“And you want it to happen again?”

“No!”

“Really?”

“I don’t know. But it shouldn’t. We know too many of the same people. It’s more complicated than something like this should be.”

“Something like what?”

“Nothing. It’s nothing.”

“Because you don’t want to tell me?”

“Because there’s nothing happening. I would tell you, Bon. But really.”

“Kate…” Edwina was studying her. “You always say you don’t want to date. Do you mean you don’t want to date someone like him? Or you don’t want to date at all?”

“It isn’t for me.”

“That doesn’t answer my question. You clearly like him.”

“I can’t stand him.”

“Tell that to your eyes, Didi. You can’t look away.”

“That’s not true.”

“Uh huh.” Edwina smirked.

“I don’t want it.”

“Why not?”

Kate sighed, “Things like that end. And… it’s too much when people go away.”

“Why would he go away?”

“Commitment issues, trust issues, stupidity-”

“So, you’ve thought about this?” Edwina grinned.

Kate glared at Edwina.

“You know, you’ve always worried about me getting hurt. But sometimes I think maybe it’s that you’re scared of getting hurt.”

“What?” Kate blinked.

“Yes, I sometimes get interested too quickly. But it’s a good thing that I put myself out there.”

“Is it?”

“Yes, because I get a chance to meet people and find people who are good for me. And sometimes they aren’t, and it hurts, but I survive.”

“I don’t want you to be in that kind of pain, Bon.”

“I don’t either. But I’ve learned from it. I’m starting to figure out which people are safe. You think everyone is dangerous.”

Somehow, that hurt.

“I want to protect you and Mom. Always. As much as I can.”

“Yes, but I think you also think the things that would be hard for you are the things that would be hard for us.”

“Someone leaving or being shitty would be hard for anyone!”

“Yes, but I’m willing to risk it. You aren’t.”

“Why should I?”

“Because you might find someone you love. Someone who loves you.”

Kate shook her head. “That’s not for me.”

“Why not? It should be for everyone.”

“It isn’t for me.” Kate finished tying her boots, standing. “We should get going.”

“Kate…”


It was beautiful at the trailhead, but Kate found herself on edge. She didn't quite know why. She had given up trying to predict where the weekend would take her, and she'd thought she had been feeling more relaxed. And she had.

Until breakfast.

It shouldn’t have mattered that Anthony had been cold, that there had been no hint in his behavior that he was thinking fondly (or at all) of their night together.

There was no reason he should have, and yet, it stung.

In truth, it was exactly what she expected of this kind of thing, exactly what she should have expected.

But now, Edwina’s words seemed to linger in her mind. She had been so worried about Edwina getting attached, so worried about Edwina failing to guard her heart, that it hadn’t occurred to Kate that she might share some of Edwina’s romantic notions.

It was absurd to get attached after so little, absurd to think someone owed you kindness or anything after touching you. And yet…

I’m worse than she is…

Kate didn't want relationships, didn't want deep emotional connections with others, but it was starting to occur to her that her reasoning wasn't quite what she had expected of herself. She wanted it to be that she was strong, that she liked being alone. And both were true. But there was also part of her that feared the pain that could happen if she gave her heart to someone. It was a special sort of vulnerability, was giving someone else permission to destroy you if they chose. Even people who meant the best, people who wanted to stay, could break your heart.

Kate didn’t know whether Anthony had good intentions toward anything or anyone, and she was almost certain she didn’t want anything from him, but she was becoming very concerned that, without realizing it, she had given him the key to something that she carefully guarded. She liked more and more of what she saw, even though he was an asshole, even though he had said things that disgusted her. She thought about him a lot, too much, whether she planned to or not. She had somehow, without trying, become a fixture in his family’s recent activities. And she found that she minded much less than she should.

How did I not see this coming?

She had been so busy hating him, so busy telling herself that it was just sexual attraction, that otherwise she wanted nothing more than to have him out of her sight.

But I want him.

She let out a deep breath, shooting a glance at Edwina. Edwina and Tom were happily flirting, smiling at each other. Their mutual admiration was visible, naked, unashamed. Kate couldn’t imagine ever feeling that safe.

She snuck a glance at Anthony, and she almost laughed. He was glaring at her, clearly brooding about something, and he started when he realized he’d been caught. It seemed to always be that way with them. They couldn’t help but shoot daggers at each other, were annoyed with each other, but often couldn’t look away.

That doesn’t mean anything, though.

They had talked about it. It was passion, physical attraction, lust. That was it. He’d been inside her, had touched her in deliciously sinful ways. It made sense that they’d eventually find themselves stealing glances after how erotic it had been, how good it had felt.

She looked up again, and he seemed to be looking everywhere but at her.

Fine.

It was better this way. Safer this way. And whatever was between them would pass if she gave it time.

She would keep her distance.


Anthony kicked at a pebble, not quite sure how else to release his frustration. He had planned to keep his distance from Kate, but as usual, his eyes refused to cooperate. He kept catching himself staring at her, as did Benedict and Daphne.

He didn’t even understand. He’d gotten everything he wanted last night, hadn’t he?

And what was there to see now?

He tried to look away, but he kept finding himself studying the surety with which she moved, her limberness as she scrambled onto rocks for a better view, the way her hair framed her face and blew in the breeze. He was particularly taken with her sparkling eyes, always hinting when she was saying something dry or mischievous.

He could look at her all day.

It didn’t make sense, really. He couldn’t stand her. She was utterly aggravating almost all of the time. The only times they really got along were when they were too busy touching each other to talk. That was hardly a testament to her personality.

And yet, he had slept with beautiful women before. Many beautiful women. It hadn’t been like this with them. He’d gotten it out of his system and had moved on to the next one. He hadn’t been concerned about making a good impression, about correcting assumptions they made about him. They hadn’t mattered the way Kate seemed to matter.

Well, this is bad.

He looked up again to see Daphne studying him, a smirk on her lips.

“What, Daph?”

“Just wondering when you’re going to admit it.”

“Admit what?” he huffed.

“Ant, the two of you are the only people who don’t know you’re interested in each other.”

“Two of who?”

Daphne rolled her eyes. “Don’t be an idiot.”

He glared back at her.

“I’ll never understand why you do this. As soon as it seems like there’s something with someone, anyone, it’s like you hide under a rock.”

“That’s not true.”

“No?”

“Then go after her, Ant. She stares at you just as much.”

“No.”

“Interesting I didn’t have to name anyone.”

“Fuck you.”

“Ant, you like her. And she’s good for you.”

“Daph, I don’t want that. It isn’t for me.”

“So, you’ll just sleep with her and move on? Like you do with everyone.”

“If I have to.”

“Why would you have to?”

He shrugged, “No one gets hurt.”

Daphne was quiet, and when Anthony glanced at her, he saw she was looking at him oddly.

“What?”

“That’s the most honest you’ve been with me in years.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You’ve pretended all this time that you’re an asshole who just doesn’t like anyone-”

“Thanks-”

“And we all thought it was so strange, because we know you-”

“You know what I was like as a kid.”

“I know you have a good heart, Ant. A big heart. And I’ve never understood why you pretend that you don’t.”

He shook his head ruefully. “I don’t have to pretend.”

“No, you don’t have to. But you do pretend.”

“If I do, it’s because it’s better that way.”

“Because you won’t get hurt.”

“And no one else will get hurt.”

She shook her head. “Feelings come to the surface, Ant. You can’t just decide to fall on your sword for someone. Or hide yourself from the world to stay safe.”

“Yes, I can.” He knew he sounded like a petulant child.

“Does she know you love her?”

Anthony almost tripped. “What?”

“Ah, you still don’t know. I thought you might just be keeping it to yourself.”

“Daph, that’s ludicrous.”

“Is it?” His sister’s eyes sparkled. “You’ll figure it out someday, big brother.”

“What?”

Daphne moved ahead, putting an arm around Simon’s. They chatted quietly as she leaned into him.

Anthony let out a deep breath.


It had been a long, hot day on the trail, and the group had broken into smaller groups as some people wanted to look at the scenery and some wanted to plow along.

Anthony had wanted to hurry ahead, but that would have meant joining Kate and Dorset. Edwina was with them, trying her best to pretend she wasn’t having trouble keeping up. Part of Anthony wanted to try moving ahead of them, knowing full well that Kate wouldn’t be able to handle having someone else at the head of the pack. She was always up for a challenge, whether or not she wanted to be.

He hung back with his brothers and sister, finally stopping to eat the lunch that Benedict and Friedrich had kindly brought in their packs. Kate, Tom, and Edwina were out of sight, but the group figured they would come back soon.

It was soothing to sit and look at the view, and food always tasted that much more delicious after strenuous activity. Anthony had to admit that he was glad he came.

They heard a noise, and he looked up.

Anthony expected to see the three remaining group members coming down the trail, but instead, he could only see Tom and Edwina. Edwina had an arm around Tom, and she was favoring her right knee, hopping as best she could with the help.

“Oh my God!” Daphne jumped up, rushing over to Edwina.

“What happened?”

“It’s okay. I have knee problems sometimes. I try to avoid things that will be a problem, so I don’t always remember what hurts until it’s too late.”

Tom helped Edwina sit on a rock. “Here, I think there’s an ace wrap in one of the packs if you want to make a brace of sorts.”

“Yes, if you have one.”

Tom handed Edwina his water bottle.

Anthony scanned the area.

“Where is Kate?”

“Oh, she’s right behind us.”

“Right behind you where?”

Edwina looked back. “She’s… huh… Maybe she dropped something and went back.”

Anthony felt the hair on the back of his neck standing on end.

“She’d have said something.”

Edwina studied him curiously.

Benedict elbowed him. “I’m sure she’s fine, lover boy.”

“Fuck you.” He moved to Edwina. “When’s the last time you saw her?”

“Five minutes ago? Ten?”

“And you didn’t think to stop and look for her?”

Tom’s brow was furrowed. “She’s in pain, Ant.”

Anthony picked up his own water bottle, huffing. “Then I’ll go see where she is, since no one else is concerned.”

“I’m sure she’s right behind us, Ant.” But he could hear worry creeping into Daphne’s voice.

We all know Kate would have said something if she was hanging back.


Kate felt inordinately tired, and she was surprised to find that her bed felt lumpy. She had a cushy mattress cover, soft pillows, a cozy duvet. It shouldn’t have felt like someone had put rocks in the bed.

But it seemed someone had. Rocks, and maybe dirt. Pine needles and sticks. It was an odd prank, truth be told.

But it was fine. She needed to rest, and her eyelids felt heavy. She would ask Edwina about it later. 

She shifted slightly, and her head began to throb.

“Ah, fuck.”

She touched a hand to her scalp, was surprised to find that it was wet.

Maybe she had showered, washed her hair?

Why don’t I remember?

She pulled her hand away, looking at her palm. It was red.

She furrowed her brow.

Is someone bleeding?

Nothing quite made sense. And she was so tired.

She closed her eyes, resting her head on something hard.

These fucking pillows.

It started to occur to her that something seemed wrong. Her bedroom was too cold, too breezy.

She tried to move again, and this time, searing pain shot through her ankle.

She stayed where she was.

What is going on?

She looked around, finally taking in her surroundings.

Did I sleepwalk?

She was in… a forest. Or something like that.

She looked down at herself, and she saw that the fanny pack she’d been wearing was open. She normally packed it with her phone, a compass, keys, Chapstick, a small flashlight. It was empty, save for the Chapstick.

She was still cradling her Nalgene, for which she was grateful. She drank greedily, though, after a moment, she stopped. She had no idea where she was, didn't seem to be on a trail, couldn't remember how she had gotten here. Her head throbbed, and the pain in her ankle was blinding.

It occurred to her that she might need to be far more judicious about her water intake.

Am I really lost?

Another time she might have been annoyed, even alarmed. But she was so cold, and she just needed to rest for a few minutes. And the sun was setting, which only served to make her sleepier.

Something nagged at the back of her mind, but she had no idea what it was.

I’ll figure it out later.

Her head and ankle ached painfully, and she was so, so tired. 

She curled into a ball around her water bottle, and then she laid her head down and closed her eyes.


 

Chapter Text


 


1. Mary has missed some calls

 

 

2. Kate is missing

 

 

3. Lady Whistledown shares the news

 

 

4. Edwina is upset

 

 

5. Violet is worried about Anthony

 

 

6. Edwina asks for help

 

 

7. Daphne checks in with Violet

 

 

8. Tom Dorset tries to check in with Anthony

 

 

9. Anthony checks in

 

 

10. Benedict tries to calm Anthony down

 

 

11. More checking in

 

 

12. News about Kate

 

 

13. More details from Anthony

 

 

14. Lady Whistledown shares good news!


Chapter Text


 


 

Anthony could barely breathe, and he could no longer tell if it was the altitude or the fact that the situation was eating him up inside.

It had taken ten minutes, maybe even five. And they had lost her.

How the fuck did they not hear anything?

His blood boiled. He was furious with Edwina, with Tom, with everyone else for being so casual, with Kate for – probably – deciding to do something risky on her own. With himself.

It’s my fucking fault. She was trying to stay away from me.

There was so much he wished Kate knew, so much he wished he could find a way to say. He wanted her to understand why he couldn’t help but keep his distance, why he knew there was something between them but still wanted to run. He wanted her to know that she deserved better than that, better than him.

And a selfish part of him needed her to know that, despite everything, he wanted her anyway.

How could he possibly say any of that to her? He had watched everyone around her treat her as disposable, treat her needs as optional. He had been cruel to her himself.

He had to find her. There was no other option. He couldn’t make everything right, certainly not right now. But he could find a way to make sure she was safe.

It didn’t make sense that she was so hard to find. There should be signs of her somewhere.

Fortunately, the rangers seemed fairly confident they would find her.

But will it be in time?

Because he couldn’t help but remind himself that Kate knew how to handle herself in situations like this. It wasn’t likely that she had just gotten lost.

He tried to think of reasons she might suddenly veer off the trail. Some made sense, but she wouldn’t have gone far, would have been able to find her way back.

He had been back again and again to the spot where they had eaten lunch, had circled around it. There had to be something he was missing. Something the rangers hadn’t found yet.

He examined the ground more closely. Tried to see if there were any footprints leading anywhere, anything on the ground that shouldn’t be there.

He was so tired, was starting to feel wobbly from lack of sleep, so he sat – just for a moment – on a rock. His eyes continued to scan the area around him as he drank from his water bottle, ate some somehow stale trail mix. 

And then he saw the glint of something in the sun. He wasn’t sure how he’d missed it before. Maybe he just hadn’t been close enough, or maybe the light had been wrong.

He scrambled to his feet, rushing toward whatever it was.

He crouched down, feeling dread wash over him again. It was a set of keys. He searched the ground nearby and discovered some other items. A compass. A small flashlight. A dead cell phone.

It was a rocky area, and the items – save for the keys – were stuck between large, jagged rocks.

Anthony tried to navigate them carefully, needed to hop back suddenly when a rock wobbled and his boot almost slipped between two other rocks.

He stood for a moment, the wheels turning. He moved the loose rock with his boot, tested whether his foot fit between them.

If she had gotten stuck here, which was already a stretch, where would she have ended up if she'd tried to pull free?

He looked around, and he realized that there was a hill, and below that, a gully of sorts. He wasn’t sure how he hadn’t been able to see it before. Maybe because of the rocks, maybe because… he didn’t know.

He moved closer to the gully.

And then he saw her.

His heart skipped a beat, and he stared, not quite believing it was real.

And then he remembered himself.


Anthony wasn’t sure how he had gotten down to her. He only knew that he had rushed toward her, paying very little attention to where he put his feet. Rocks wobbled slightly underneath him, but he dared them to make him fall.

He was surprised to find his eyes stinging as he reached her.

Kate was covered in dirt and curled in a ball, had seemed to be trying to shelter under a rock of some sort. It wasn’t well-suited for the task by any means, but she grasped the rock as though it could bring her safety.

He couldn’t tell if she was asleep or unconscious, but he could see that she had a bad cut on her head. Her ankle was twisted in a way that looked unnatural, and he swore under his breath. She had to be in so much pain. And she had no food with her, had a water bottle with only a few drops left.

His heart ached.

She was saving that little bit.

He knew he had to be careful, since she had an obvious head injury, but he needed to see that she was okay.

He put his arms around her, pulling her to him and resting her head against his chest.

She groaned, and he was surprised he didn’t start weeping.

“Kate. It’s me. You’re okay.”

She studied him, clearly dazed, but she accepted the water he offered her, drinking deeply.

She whimpered when he pulled the bottle away.

“Slowly. You’ll make yourself sick.”

She looked up at him, and her face looked so sad.

She’s too dehydrated to even cry.  

“Honey, we have to get you out of here.”

She groaned again, burying her face against him.

“I know it hurts, but we’re going to have to climb back up. I’ll carry you if I have to.”

He stood, tried to be gentle as he helped her onto her good leg.

She was incredibly weak, and she collapsed against him.

He wasn’t sure what made him do it, but he kissed the crown of her head.

“It’s okay. I have you. It’s okay.”


Kate wasn’t quite sure whether she was awake or dreaming or even alive, but someone was holding her, and she found that she didn’t mind. She was too tired to care.

There was a loud noise, too loud, but her throat was dry. She felt something against her head, her foot being yanked around, and she groaned loudly when her ankle screamed in pain.

“Stop. Stop,” she tried to say. But she had no voice.

“I know. He’s just splinting your leg.”

Why do I know that voice?

She furrowed her brow, felt her head throb.

How am I dizzy?

She realized someone was holding her hand, and it strangely made her want to cry.

She didn’t understand any of it.

She realized she was getting tired again.

“Kate? Kate, stay with us.”

It was an odd thing to say.

I’m right here. I can’t even go anywhere.

She succumbed to sleep.


Anthony knew everyone would be a mess, that they would all try his patience.

Why the fuck are they even at the hospital?

They hadn’t done any good before. What good could they do now?

And why did it feel like he was the only one who should be there?

He walked into the lobby, and Mary and Edwina jumped up.

Tom had a hand on Edwina’s lower back, and Anthony noticed that Edwina was shaking. 

It filled him with rage.

This is hardest on Kate, and her sister is having a meltdown.

He realized Elle was giving him a meaningful look, and he glared back.

He hadn’t even noticed his family, but Daphne wrapped him in a hug.  

She pulled back, huffing.

“You scared us shitless.”

Benedict and Colin each put a hand on one of his shoulders.

He shrugged them off. “I’m fine. She’s…”

He realized he didn’t know what to say.

She’s unconscious. When she was awake, she was barely lucid. She seemed like she was in unimaginable pain. She-

“Have you eaten? Slept?” Daphne’s eyes were narrowed at him.

“No. But she hasn’t woken up since…”

“Right. Well, the rest of us are here now. The motel is around the corner.”

He snorted derisively.

“I know you want to be here, Ant, but you’re dead on your feet.”

“I wonder why.”

“Anthony.” His sister’s voice was stern, uncannily reminiscent of their mother’s. “We’re here, and you don’t need to take all of this on yourself. You need to rest.”

“But I…”

“We’ll let you know if there’s any news. I promise.”

He didn’t know what to say.

Daphne and Benedict both knew why he was so upset. Were aware that he and Kate had slept together, and he knew they suspected there was something more, at least on his side. But what could he actually say, what right did he have to be as distressed as he was?

Kate wasn’t his. As far as most people were concerned, they weren’t even friends, couldn’t even be around each other without fighting. They didn’t know that being around her tied his heart in knots. She didn’t even know. She might not even care.

She may wake up and not even want me here.

He scanned the room, saw that Edwina and Mary were hugging, sobbing against each other as a doctor spoke to them. He knew their pain was real, but to him, it just looked dramatic, self-serving.

And yet, they have more of a right to be here than I do.

He’d been weak, too scared to just admit that Kate meant something. And now, he was on the outside looking in.

He had to leave.

“What’s the motel?”

“What?”

“Bear Rock Inn. Just that way.” Daphne gestured.

“Here.” Benedict handed him a key. “Room 207.”

“Right.”

“Anthony, you should still get something to eat. Some water.”

“I know, Daph.”

“Ant-”

“I’m fine,” he snapped.

“Anthony.”

But he ignored them as he walked away, his eyes fixed on the sliding doors.

He needed to be alone.


Anthony had learned quickly to handle things by himself.

His father was gone. His mother needed him. His siblings needed him. Edmund had been the one person Anthony allowed to see him when his walls were down, when he was vulnerable. And Edmund had been gentle with him, had assuaged his fears, had taught him to focus, problem-solve, overcome the things that were laid in front of him.

But Edmund hadn’t foreseen needing to teach his son to live without him, certainly not as a teenage boy.

And so, Anthony had had to teach himself.

He still had trouble turning to others for help, was the person that people went to when things fell apart. There was no space for him to break down, no true belief that he even could.

He knew how his mother and siblings saw him. He had been happy while Edmund lived, and he knew that he had been utterly drained of that happiness. He had become an adult overnight, and he hadn’t been the adult he had wished he was capable of being. Edmund had been so warm, so wise, so loving. He hadn’t seemed to question himself. And he had loved openly, freely, without reservation.

Anthony couldn’t do that anymore. He had been strict with his younger siblings, too strict. And he had been cold with his older siblings. It made sense to him that, much as they came to him for practical help, there were parts of themselves that they kept from him. Benedict had never been comfortable sharing his art, and Colin had never let himself openly discuss just how much he wanted to see the world. Daphne had only quietly expressed a desire for a family of her own, had pushed back when Anthony had wanted to get to know the man she had become serious about. Eloise read all the time, both because she enjoyed it, and because her books showed her an understanding that he never could. And the others were learning not to depend on him for warmth. He hated that he couldn't give them that, that so little of Edmund remained inside him.

But his father had been brave in a way that he wasn’t. Edmund didn’t fear that the world might crumble around him. He didn’t worry that sharing love meant that it could be ripped away. And until the day he died, everyone around him could have no question as to whether he loved them with his whole heart.

Anthony loved his family deeply. He knew that he did. But he felt removed from them all, separate from them all. He wanted them to be happy, healthy, taken care of. He even wanted them to feel loved, needed, supported. But he seemed to be built only for the practical.

Or maybe it was that, much as he loved them, he didn’t think they could be happy or healthy if they really knew him. He wasn’t a saint. He’d been cruel to women he’d slept with, had been dismissive of friends, had been cutthroat at work. And so much of the time, he’d been grasping at straws. How could his family possibly feel they were being watched over when it was by someone who couldn’t figure out life for himself? And, if they did see something to love in him, how much more painful would it be when he failed them?


Anthony knew he had sacrificed for his family, but he hadn’t quite realized just how much. He had given them everything he could, everything he was sure they lacked, everything he was sure they needed. But he had also given of himself utterly and completely. There was no Anthony left, not really. Just an angry shell, just an ever-rising well of resentment.

It was strange, not wanting others to see him, but also wanting them to see what he had done for them. Was it gratitude that he wanted? Understanding? Maybe it was just the benefit of the doubt.

They saw him as someone who went after the things he wanted, but Anthony knew he had stopped allowing himself that. He went after the things that were attainable, the things that were distracting and safe. His heart’s desires, which he hid with a vigilance that might have been rivaled only by the intelligence community, weren’t possible goals. He gave things up before going after them, didn’t try. And he found that it was easier to show disdain toward these things than to give in to disappointment.

He didn’t want connection with someone else, didn’t want to love someone else. But also, he did. He wanted it to be safe to be gentle and loving and silly. He knew what that felt like, and it had meant living with a warmth in his chest, the feel of a smile on his face. It had felt too good not to want it again, just like it hurt too much knowing it wasn’t for him.

Whenever he had dated, really dated, there had been a glimmer of that. But it hadn’t felt safe, wasn’t something he was going to allow himself to have. So he pushed partner after partner away, was angry and mean and dismissive in a way that kept them from getting too close.

But his mother was right, his siblings were right. He was lonely. He loved his solitude, but he also wanted the safety of being seen without consequences, of having someone else near him who really could help him shoulder the load. And he wanted the bliss, the comfort, the contentment that could only be felt in the company of someone you adored.


Maybe that was why Kate was so dangerous, or certainly one of the many reasons. She knew what it was to give things up for her family, knew better than most what it was like to live with sacrifice, regret, resentment.

But something else about her had always seemed to call to him. Was it that she could be mischievous? Or that she could be haughty and self-important with good reason? Was it that she was brilliant, beautiful, ruthless? He had no idea.

But, for the first time in a very long time, he found that there was someone he didn’t quite feel like he could live without. It was humbling, to think that it had happened under his nose.

He had been so careful, had fought it every step of the way.

Maybe that’s why I’ve always butted heads with her, he thought wryly.

But really, she had snuck through his defenses without even trying.

And now, despite his best attempts, he had been utterly wrecked by the idea of losing her, by seeing her in pain, by feeling her clutching him in relief.

It had been ten years since he had felt this way. Frantic, with an overwhelming desperation to make someone's pain go away. Wanting to hold them as close as possible, scare away their fears, comfort them and tell them they would be alright.

And barring all of that, he at least wanted Kate to know that he wanted that safety for her.

But does she even want that from me?

It was hard to ignore the dread that had settled in the pit of his stomach. They had left things in a place that was less than ideal. They had slept together, and it – as usual – had been incredible. But he had been cold, hadn’t done so much as acknowledge that something had happened between them. Had there been any sort of understanding about it? No. But it would have been the kind thing to do, the civil thing to do.

A grown-up would have acknowledged her, talked to her about it afterwards.

Even if I did want nothing else.

But he had ignored her.

And because she was Kate – fierce, strong, independent Kate – she had tossed her hair back and gotten on with her life. And she had kept her distance, too.

I could have just talked to her.

But he hadn’t. And so, she had been on her own. Had tried to do everything on her own. And she had been hurt. Cowering in the forest by herself.

He’d be lucky if she ever wanted to see him again.


Anthony didn’t know how long he had slept, wasn’t even sure that he had been alone the entire time.

But he had entered the motel room, had put the key down, and had flopped face down onto the top of one of the beds. He hadn’t even bothered to take off his boots.

He realized he was hungry and incredibly thirsty, and he thought guiltily of how starving Kate must have been, about the measly drops of water she had saved for herself as some sort of security blanket.

He sat on the edge of the bed and put his head in his hands.

When he heard the door open, he didn’t even look up.

“Ant?”

It was Daphne.

"I got you some food. Your brothers are doing their best to pretend they aren't worried and have never been touchy-feely, but you need to eat. And you need to talk to us."

“No.”

“Then eat, Anthony! I know you’re starving.”

She plunked a paper coffee cup onto the nightstand, and she tossed a paper bag at him.

“Breakfast sandwiches. And a bottle of water. And coffee.”

“I see that.”

“So, eat!”

He huffed, opening the bag and helping himself to the food. He had known he was hungry, but he hadn’t realized just how ravenous he was. His chest ached again for Kate, and he paused for a moment.

She must have been so fucking hungry. And thirsty. And in pain-

“Ant, eat.” Daphne’s voice had softened.

“Is she…?”

“She’s still unconscious, but they think she’ll wake up soon. She’s on fluids, and her ankle is in better shape. She had a bad concussion-”

“Fuck, I knew it.”

“But they sound really optimistic, Ant.”

“Right.”

“Fuck, she was concussed and just lying there and-”

“And she made it anyway.”

“She could easily not have.”

Daphne nodded. “But she did.”

He sighed, “Fuck.”

“Anthony, it isn’t your fault.”

He stopped chewing mid-bite. “Oh?”

“It isn’t.”

“I should have… I…”

He swallowed hard, the food seeming to turn to ash in his mouth.

“Ant, keep eating.”

“I’m not hungry anymore.”

Daphne sighed. “Coffee, then. Or water.”

He shook his head.

“What good is it going to do anyone if you collapse? Or make yourself sick?”

“I don’t do anyone much good otherwise.”

“Anthony…”

“I know she’s the one who’s hurt. And it isn’t about me. I just…”

He clenched his jaw.

“When are you coming back to the hospital?”

“What?”

“To see her.”

He shook his head. “She doesn’t want to see me.”

Daphne blinked at him. “Are you serious?”

He nodded, looking around for his pack. “I’ll probably just take the train home.”

“Anthony, she isn’t even awake yet.”

“I know.” His chest ached, but he tried to ignore it.

I’ll only make things worse if I stay.

“What about her mother and sister?”

“There are plenty of people who are far more comforting than I am. People who actually have reason to spend time with them.”

“I don’t understand…”

“I just… I can’t be here anymore.”

“Anthony-”

“Thanks for this.” He gestured to the food, grabbed his coffee cup. “I’ll see you when you’re home.”


Kate knew she wasn’t in her bed, partly because there was no Newton curled on top of her, and partly because she seemed to have some things attached to her arms, leg that made it hard to move.

She thought vaguely that at least there weren’t any rocks, though she wondered what had made her think that.

She looked around, saw Edwina and her mother sleeping in chairs against the wall.

Why are they in my room?

But it wasn’t her room. Of course, it was… somewhere else. A… hospital?

“Edwina.”

Edwina’s eyes shot open, and she jumped out of her chair. “Kate?”

Kate groaned, and Edwina clamped a hand over her mouth to stifle a sob. “Mom. She’s awake.”

Mary jumped up, her eyes also wide. “Kate, sweetheart.”

Kate was surprised that she already felt tired, that she already wanted to go back to sleep.

One of them must have pressed the call button, because a nurse came hurrying in.

“Well, look who’s awake.”

The woman checked Kate’s vitals, made sure everything was connected correctly.

“I’ll let the doctor on call know you’re up. How are you feeling?”

“I-” Kate’s throat was dry.

“Here.” The nurse held a small cup of water toward Kate, moving a bendy straw to Kate’s lips.

Kate sipped gratefully, still wanting very much to close her eyes. “I’m tired.”

“You’ve been through a lot the past few days. I’m not surprised.”

“There she is!” Elle Danbury burst into the room, seeming unusually peeved, her eyes uncharacteristically glassy.

“Kate, this is the closest I’ve been to crying since…”

Since losing her husband, Kate thought.

Elle took her hand, squeezing it.

She was worried about me. Really worried.

“How do you feel, dear?”

Kate furrowed her brow. “No jokes?”

“No jokes.”

Kate felt a wave of nausea, and she took a deep breath. “Awful.”

“That’s certainly to be expected.”

“I hear the invalid’s awake.” A kindly-looking doctor entered the room, looking over Kate’s chart. “Are you in pain?”

Kate felt foggy, absently answering the doctor’s questions, moving as the woman requested.

The whole time, Elle held Kate’s hand, looking away only when Charlotte entered the room with two cups of tea. Charlotte had always offered affection sparingly, after years had only deigned to show Kate slightly less coldness than she showed other people, but the gentle hand she placed on Kate’s temple spoke volumes.

She was worried, too

They were an odd bunch, her family. Difficult, often insensitive, but there could be no doubt that they loved her, in their own special ways. She hadn’t realized just how much she had come to need them.

Something occurred to her.

“Was Anthony here?”

She saw the others exchanging glances.

“I remember… He gave me water. And then he sat with me somewhere… loud.”

“He found you, dear.” Elle smiled encouragingly. “He was quite the knight in shining armor.”

Kate furrowed her brow.

“And he rode with you in the helicopter,” Edwina offered.

Helicopter?

“I…”

“You’ve had a bad concussion. And your ankle is broken. They had to airlift you out.”

Something tingled in her mind, but she couldn’t quite find the memories.

“They said you might still have some confusion for a bit. But they did an MRI, and things look good.” Mary put a hand on her shoulder, blinking back tears. “We were so worried about you, love.”

Kate looked around, hating that her eyes were searching so frantically.

All of my people are here, she thought guiltily.

Elle sighed, “He went home, love. This afternoon. Everyone else has been waiting for you to wake up, but they’ll probably start filtering out now that you’re awake.”

Elle continued, but Kate didn’t hear anything else.

He went home.

She supposed that was all she needed to know.


Newton’s snores were soothing, familiar. And she knew it was good to be home, had told herself many times that she was relieved to finally be in her own bed. But Kate felt despondent in a way she hadn’t for a long time.

Mary and Edwina had fussed over her for hours, but they had finally gone to bed, and she had finally been able to drop the grateful, sweet smile that she had plastered on her face all day. She knew it was for them, to calm them, remind them they didn’t need to worry anymore, but it was so exhausting. And it made her feel so sad.

She was so tired, but sleep eluded her. The room was dark, and there was a soothing breeze coming in through the window, but her mind wouldn’t quiet down. She wanted to blame it on her physical pain, which was overwhelming despite painkillers. But that wasn’t it.

Much as her head hurt and her leg throbbed, neither felt half so painful as her aching heart.

She was ashamed of herself.

She should be healing, should be focused on getting better. And yet, her priorities seemed to be completely off.

She was being well taken care of, was being fawned over more than she ever had. But it wasn’t reassuring, wasn’t comforting in the way it should have been.

Kate felt lonely, abandoned, lost in a way that she hadn’t felt since losing her father. It was strange to compare them, particularly given how short a time she had known Anthony, but she felt a similar ache to when her father had died. Rahul Sharma had made Kate feel seen, loved, cherished for everything good and everything not so good about her. He hadn’t needed to see a watered-down version of her to love her.

Kate realized that, despite their fighting, despite how furious he made her, Anthony had also made her feel seen. She recognized herself in him, could see that he understood where she was coming from, how she viewed the world, and why. It was a relief to know someone so fully, to have them know you, without ever having to speak a word.

It had been terrifying, being understood, but she had been starting to come around to it, was beginning to like it more and more.

She should have known.

She had let hope creep in, a tiny sliver, but still enough to turn her world upside down. And now, not surprisingly, that hope had been dashed.

Anthony had disappeared, had predictably turned out to be just the sort of man she had originally thought him to be.

She was an idiot. And now she was hurting.

I knew better, and I let it happen anyway.

She supposed she was getting what she deserved.


 

Chapter Text



1. Elle checks in with Kate

 

 

2. Elle is worried about Kate

 

 

3. The Bridgertons plan a family dinner (and give Anthony a hard time)

 

 

4. Benedict calls Anthony out

 

 

5. Edwina asks Kate how she’s really doing

 

 

6. Anthony thinks about texting Kate

 

 

7. Kate thinks about texting Anthony

 

 

8. Kate goes back to work

 

 

9. Anthony is working even longer hours

 

 

10. Charlotte issues an invitation

 

 

11. Kate snaps at Anthony

 

 

12. Elle checks in with Kate

 


 

Chapter Text


 


It was late by the time Kate got home, and she was utterly exhausted. Her walking boot had made navigating the subway stairs, not to mention the steps to the family’s walk-up, an arduous chore, but she had finally made it to the front door.

She wanted to flop onto the couch, cover her head with a blanket, and nap for a few hundred years.

Still, there was something comforting about the sight that greeted her.

Mary was seated comfortably on the sofa, her feet propped up under a soft blanket. Newton was curled up on her lap, resting contentedly like a baking sourdough boule.

Mary didn’t notice her at first, and she sipped at her tea, finally looking up and smiling.

Mary’s eyes seemed brighter than they had in a while, and Kate thought to herself with surprise that it was odd that she hadn’t noticed that before.

“How are you?”

“That’s my line, sweetheart.”

“Tired. Glad to be home. Where’s Edwina?”

“She was supposed to be home, but Tom surprised her with reservations and flowers. I really like him for her.”

“So do I.”

“I never thought I’d see the day,” Mary snorted.

Kate rolled her eyes, but she wasn’t quite able to stop the smirk that formed on her lips.

“Sit with me.”

Kate stood for a moment, finally giving in and settling into the scavenged leather easy chair that Newton usually favored.

“You’re going to have to start taking care of yourself, love.”

Kate sighed.

She supposed she had expected this.

“I’m trying.”

“Are you?”

“Some.”

Mary closed her book.

“From my end, it looks like you’re not taking care of yourself after a long time of not taking care of yourself.”

“It’s just…”

“Been a hard couple of years?” Mary quirked an eyebrow.

“Yes. For all of us, I realize.”

Mary sighed, “Yes, it has. But, sweetheart, I think… it’s been harder for you than I’ve wanted to admit. And that’s my fault.”

Kate instantly felt a wave of alarm wash over her. “No.”

Mary ran her hand along the spine of her book, picking at one of the corners.

“Yes, it has, love. I’ve had an awful time. And I haven’t been doing well for a while. Even before…” Mary cleared her throat. “Even before losing your dad. But that doesn’t mean that your needs have gone away.”

“I’ve managed. We’ve all managed.”

“You’ve taken care of us. But we haven’t taken care of you.”

“We all did what we had to do.” Kate felt her eyes stinging.

“Kate, you did more than you had to do.”

“No. I took care of all of us. And I’d do it again. Every time.”

“I know, love. But it shouldn’t have been a choice you had to make.”

“Mom-”

“I could have asked my parents for help.”

“We are never taking anything from those people.”

“I don’t want to. I didn’t want to. But it would have lightened your load, and that’s not nothing.”

“It would have hurt you too much.”

“I’m your mother, Kate. I’m supposed to take care of you.”

“It’s different when I’m an adult.”

“Is it?”

“Yes,” Kate said firmly. “And there was no way I was just going to watch you fall apart even more. I owed you better than that.”

“‘Owed’? What do you mean you owed me?”

“You took me in. And you loved me even though you didn’t have to. And you were always a mom to me from the second you met me.”

Mary’s eyes widened, horrified. “Sweetheart, you’ve never owed me anything!”

She gripped Kate’s hand tightly.

“Kate… I… When I met you, you were my daughter. That was all there was to it. Your father had talked about you every day. All the time. And I felt so lucky to finally meet you and have you in my life.”

“But then you had Edwina.”

Then you had a real daughter.

“Yes, and that made our family complete. You are both my girls.” Mary wiped at her eyes. “It hurts so much to hear you say these things, sweetheart. You’re my pride and joy. Both of you. I’ve never thought of you as anything different. I can’t believe I haven’t made that clear. And I’ll never forgive myself for not being able to take care of you better.”

Kate was out of her seat, awkwardly rushing toward Mary and putting her arms around her.

“Mom, don’t ever feel like you haven’t been enough for us.”

Mary wiped at her face. “Kate, I’m not making this about me. You’re struggling.”

“I’ll be fine.”

“Not just physically. You’re angrier. And you’re sad. And you’re keeping to yourself. I know how that goes. And it never works out well.”

“I just… I don’t know how else to take care of all of us.”

“You don’t have to, sweetheart.”

“Yes, I do,” Kate said firmly.

Mary studied her, stroking Kate’s hair the way she had many years ago. “You’ve always felt like it was your job, haven’t you?”

Kate clenched her jaw, blinking back tears. “It is my job.”

Mary shook her head. “You felt like this even when you were little. Since losing your mother.”

“Mom…”

“I don’t know how I didn’t realize this.” Mary palmed her forehead, shame written all over her face. “Sweetheart, this has never been your job. Not when you were little, and not now. Adults are responsible for taking care of themselves.”

“No. That’s not enough.”

“What do you mean?”

“Dad took care of himself. Or he thought he was. And he still… He still went away.”

Mary’s eyes widened. “You’re worried you’re going to lose us… Katie, honey.”

It may have been the use of the nickname that did it, a name Kate hadn’t associated with for a very long time. But it felt like part of her had resurfaced, a part that had been dormant for years.

Kate suddenly found that her heartbreak wasn’t so easy to ignore.

She clamped a hand over her mouth, stifling a sob.

“Oh, Kate-”

“I… I need you both to be okay. I need it.”

Now it was Mary’s turn to wrap her arms around Kate. “I know, my love, I know. But we are okay.”

“But you could just as easily not be. Dad was okay. And then he wasn’t.”

“And then nobody took care of you.” Mary let out a deep breath.

“No, that’s not-”

“You’ve felt very lonely for a long time, haven’t you, sweetheart?”

“I…”

“And you’re worried you’ll be even lonelier.”

“I get it. I’m not easy to be around. It makes sense that people wouldn’t want to spend time with me.”

Mary furrowed her brow. “Who doesn’t want to spend time with you?”

“I…” Kate realized she had said too much. “Shit. We don’t have to talk about this.”

“Sweetheart…”

“It’s fine.”

“Do you mean Anthony?”

Kate wanted to kick herself.

“No… I…”

“Kate.” Mary’s voice was stern, sterner than it had been in years.

“It’s nothing.”

“Tell me, love. I think this has been upsetting you longer than you’ve wanted to admit.”

Kate let out a deep breath. “It felt different with him. It was like we knew each other before we even talked to each other.”

“And then you thought you had to let Edwina have him.”

“I… I don’t know what I thought. I was so angry that he would say things like he did, and I was furious with myself and embarrassed, and I just… I hated that there was still something there no matter how much I didn’t like him.”

“Do you love him?”

“It doesn’t make a difference.”

“Why not?”

“He doesn’t want me. I thought maybe he did. But he doesn’t.”

“What makes you say that?”

“He could have visited. At the hospital. Here. He could have even talked to me. But he just disappeared.”

Mary nodded.

Kate wiped at her face. “I only remember parts of it, but when he found me…”

The memories still didn’t feel real, were still filtering in. But they were as potent as they were confusing.

Anthony’s arms around her, his lips pressing against her aching head.

The gentle way that he guided her up the hill, carrying her as much as he could to keep the weight off her broken ankle.

Anthony holding her close on the floor of the helicopter, his hand in hers as she cried out in pain, her face buried against his neck.

She had felt taken care of, cared for.

“I just. For a moment I thought…” Kate let out a breath, sniffling. “But he doesn’t love me.”

“And you love him.”

Kate looked at Mary, biting her lip. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Sweetheart, it always matters.”

“I’m an idiot. I didn’t think this could happen to me.”

Mary wrapped her arms around Kate once again, kissing the crown of her head. “It happens even to the best of us, love.”

Kate snorted, wiping at her face again. “I hate that it’s so painful. I hate that I’m this stupid.”

“You aren’t stupid, sweetheart. This stuff is hard.”

“How am I supposed to see him tomorrow?”

“With your head held high, love. I can’t imagine why on earth he wouldn’t want something with you, but if he’s that delusional, then you’ll have to just remind yourself that it’s his loss. And remind him, too.”

“I’m too tired for that. It’s too much.”

“Then Edwina and I will hold your hand and help you through it. It’s what families do.”

Kate felt tears sliding down her face again, and she gratefully accepted the hug Mary gave her.

She had forgotten how comforting this could be.


When Anthony arrived, his older siblings and mother had gathered in the living room. The youngest four had scurried off to their rooms after dinner, wanting nothing more than to be free from the adults in their lives. That was fine with him, he supposed, or it should have been.

It had been harder and harder not to notice how often his family told him he was in a terrible mood, how often he had to apologize for snapping at them. Gregory and Hyacinth had looked at him in surprise one too many times, and it hurt.

He was usually direct, often cutting, but he had always taken care of his mother and siblings. He had never learned how to be comfortable with hugs and gentle words, but he thought they knew he was proud of them, that he supported them.

Maybe they don’t.

It must have shown on his face, his sadness, his confusion, his exhaustion, because his mother looked up at him and immediately stood.

“Anthony, come sit.”

He sighed, plopping onto an easy chair.

Benedict handed him a glass of wine, or tried to, but he waved it away.

“What have you done with my brother?”

“I don’t feel like it.”

“Again-”

“Ben. Please.”

He saw Benedict and Colin exchange a look.

“What?”

“It’s like the wind has been taken out of your sails.”

Daphne was studying him.

“You talked to Kate today, didn’t you?”

He huffed, “Why does everything always come back to Kate?”

“It doesn’t for us, Ant.”

“It only does for me because all of you ask about her.”

Daphne was not dissuaded. “What did she say?”

“Nothing.”

“Anthony.”

“Fuck, you sound like Mom.”

“I’m going to ignore that,” Violet huffed, refreshing her wine glass.

“Come on, Ant-”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“If you don’t tell us, I’ll guess.”

He glared.

“That sounds like a fun game to me.” Benedict grinned, putting his feet up on Friedrich’s lap.

“Have I ever mentioned how much I enjoy talking to all of you?”

“She told you off, didn’t she?” Simon was smirking, swirling his wine in his glass.  

“Why are we talking about this?”

“Because we’re all worried about you, love.”

“Mom…”

“Not to mention you’re going to lose your chance with her for a very stupid reason.” Once again, Benedict looked a little too pleased with himself.

“How am I being stupid?”

"You're pretending you don't give a shit about her when I'm pretty sure the only thing both of you have wanted for the past week is for you to check on her.”

“I’ve been busy.”

“Ignoring her.”

“I haven’t been ignoring her!”

“Sweetheart-” Violet interjected.

Anthony stood. “I’m going to heat up some food.”


As promised, Violet had left a covered plate for him in the refrigerator. Anthony hadn’t realized how hungry he was until he saw the food, and he placed the plate gratefully into the microwave.

“Anthony, love-”

“Mom, I just need to eat something.”

“Have a seat.” She gestured to a stool.

“What?”

“I told you to take a seat.”

“It’s fine-”

“Anthony, I’m still your mother. Sit down.”

He huffed, finally sitting.

Violet removed his plate from the microwave, plunking it in front of him. She pulled a fork out of a drawer, handing it to him, and she watched him meaningfully until he started eating.

“Much better.”

“Thank you. This is good.”

“Friedrich made it.”

“Have you hired him as your personal chef?”

“I should. He’s very talented.”

Anthony had to admit that he was.

“Love, I can see that you’re trying to prove something. But I can’t figure out to whom.”

“Prove what?”

“You were such a sweet boy. You used to give hugs, smile, laugh.”

Anthony sighed. “That was a long time ago-”

“Maybe, but it’s like you’ve decided those are all terrible things. And love, your big heart is a strength of yours. Not a weakness.”

He shook his head. “No. It doesn’t help anything to be-”

“Anthony, I look at you, and I imagine what it would be like for you if you had a place to put all of the affection that I know you feel. If you felt safe showing it.”

“I feel safe,” he grumbled.

“Do you? It’s only in the past few months that I’ve heard you start laughing again. And I’ve seen you smiling before you catch yourself.”

“All of you keep telling me I’m angrier.”

“Yes, but there have been good moments, too. I think you’re just afraid to enjoy them.”

“What?”

“Anthony…”

“Yes?”

“You’re allowed to want things for yourself.”

“What?”

“You’re allowed to want your own life and to make your own decisions and to feel loved-”

“Mom.”

“I know you’ve felt like you haven’t had that-”

“Has that ever been a choice I could make for myself?” he sneered, immediately wincing as he heard himself say the words. “I’m sorry.”

Violet shrugged.

“Mom, I don’t blame you.”

She sat on a stool next to him.

“I should have taken care of you all. When we lost him.”

“You did what you could.”

“Anthony, I let you raise my children for me. That’s not okay.”

They had never talked about this, had never dared to broach the subject.

He shrugged. “They needed me. You needed me.”

“You also needed us, love. You were struggling just as much. Maybe more, because you never got to grieve the way the rest of us did.”

He shrugged again.

“Anthony, I know my sweet boy is still in there.”

Anthony shook his head.

“And I can see what you’re doing to yourself.”

“What am I doing?”

“You aren’t letting yourself have something that you really want.”

“That’s not-”

He had an idea where this was headed.

“You know, the first time I saw you with Kate was at the restaurant. Before you argued with each other. You kept looking at each other. I should have guessed something was going on.”

“Mom-”

“And every time I saw the two of you together after that, it was the same. So, I asked about her.”

“Asked who?”

"Elle Danbury. Daph also seemed to know about her. And it turned out the two of you had been through so much of the same thing. And I felt sad for her but also relieved for you. You've never had someone to talk to about any of this."

“She and I don’t really talk.”

“I don’t need to hear about that-”

“Not what I meant. We argue.”

“That’s it?”

He bit his lip. “No,” he admitted.

“I didn’t think so. Anthony, why not visit her? I know you love her.”

“That’s not… She doesn’t want to see me.”

“Because she’s angry?”

“She’s always angry.”

“Sweetheart, you’re good for each other. As much as you argue. You’ll only regret not having tried. Don’t lose her because you both are being stubborn.”

He sighed, “Even if we could figure something out… I could lose her even if I do try.”

“Yes, you could. But, love, you aren’t doomed because of what happened with your father-”

He shook his head. “No. I saw what you went through. I felt how awful it was myself. I can’t have that happen again. And I can’t be the reason someone else feels that way.”

“Ah.”

“Ah, what?”

“You don’t have to protect her, love. She can do that herself.”

“Yes, but-” He caught himself. “She shouldn’t have to. She’s…”

“What, Sweetheart?”

“She deserves better than that.”

“Then tell her that. And show her. Don’t give up on her. Or yourself.”

“Mom…”

“Anthony, I regret how I handled losing your father. And I regret every day how all of you have suffered. But I will never regret the time I had with him. As painful as losing him was. It’s worth it when you love someone. And when they love you.”

“I don’t know how she feels.”

“So, ask her. You’ve never been one to shy away from risks.”

“This is different.”

“Then that’s how you know it’s an important risk to take.”

He took her hand. “What if she doesn’t… She’s furious with me. And she may not want anything.”

“Maybe. But there’s only one way to find out.”


It may have been guilt, or maybe it was just an unusually maudlin evening for him, but Anthony decided he couldn’t leave without seeing his younger siblings. He usually called out a quick goodbye as he rushed out, but he found that tonight that didn’t feel like quite enough.

Anthony poked his head into Gregory and Hyacinth’s room, and he had to smile. They were under a blanket together, flashlight in hand as they told scary stories. He had done the same with their father, with his older siblings.

That felt like such a long time ago.

He crept up, suddenly lifting the blanket, and Gregory and Hyacinth both shrieked. He couldn’t help but laugh.

“Rude!”

“And we were in the middle of a story!”

“I didn’t want to miss the end.”

Hyacinth blinked at him. “What?”

“It sounded like a good story.”

“Are you not feeling well?”

“You’re not going to keep going?”

“I don’t get it.”

Anthony sighed. “I’ve never been much fun with you guys, have I?”

Gregory snorted, “Are you fun with anyone?”

“Probably not.” He felt himself grin. “You know, Dad used to tell us scary stories the same way.”

“No, he didn’t.”

“He did. And they were terrifying.  Ben, Col, Daph, and I used to try to beat him. But we never did.”

“Really?”

“We did. Daph got the closest.”

“That makes sense.”

“Yeah, it does. I was pretty good myself.”

“Probably not better than we are.”

“Oh, really? We might have to test that theory.”

Hyacinth studied him. “Are we in trouble?”

She thinks this is a trick.

That broke his heart.

“No, not at all. I’m just realizing I’ve been so busy that I haven’t spent a lot of time with either of you.”

“You assume we want to spend time with you?” Gregory grinned.

“Yes, I do. So, are you going to finish the story, or should I tell one?”

“You have to go under the blanket.”

“Done.” Anthony pulled the blanket over his head, holding it up for the others.

“Who’s going to start?”

“Please, you can’t keep up with us even if you try.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it.”

“Whatever, Ant.”

It was dark under the blanket, particularly with only one flashlight, but even through the confusion that didn’t quite disappear, Anthony could see the delight on his siblings’ faces.

Maybe he would figure some of this out after all.


Kate had always been the one who got ready quickly, but tonight, she couldn’t seem to find an outfit that felt quite right. And no matter what, her hair seemed to soak up every ounce of humidity in the air.

She would likely have to give up trying to tame her curls, but she hoped she could at least find something to wear that felt reasonably comfortable.

Edwina burst into the room, and she stood in the doorway blinking.

“You aren’t dressed?”

“You are?”

“Yes… That’s strange.”

“I already knew what I wanted to wear.”

“No chance you have my outfit picked out.”

“Are you nervous, Didi?”

“No, just having a hard time finding something I like. And that hides the boot reasonably well.”

Edwina walked to Kate’s closet, effortlessly picking out a dress.

“Done.”

Kate had to admit it was a good choice. “You’ve never been able to do that before.”

“I think maybe I’m just feeling a little more comfortable in my own skin.”

Kate studied her sister. “Yes, you seem like you are.”

“Meanwhile…” Edwina grinned meaningfully.

“It’s been a tough time. And you try feeling like yourself after getting knocked in the head.”

Kate saw Edwina’s eyes widen slightly. “Didi, I didn’t mean-”

“I’m joking, Bon. And I’ll be fine.”

Kate slipped into her outfit, brushing at it to remove a few strands of Newton’s fur. “I don’t know why I bother. It always comes right back.”

“The joys of having a furry dog.”

“Yes.”

As though on cue, Newton snored loudly from Kate’s bed.

Edwina grinned. “Tough life.”

“Yes.”

Kate moved to her dresser, looking through a small jewelry box.

“Didi…”

“Hmm?”

“It feels like we’ve really lost touch with each other.”

Kate sighed.

It did.

“It’s been a really tough couple of years.”

"Yes, but it feels like even then we don't really talk. I don't feel like I know who you are anymore. Or that you know me. And that makes me sad."

Kate nodded. “I don’t think I realized it was happening.”

“Because you were busy keeping us afloat?”

Kate shrugged. “Maybe.”

“Can we work on it? I’m not sure I like who I’ve become in the past few years, and I know I don’t like what you-

“Hey!”

“You know what I mean. You’ve done so much for us, but the Kate that I know hasn’t really been here. You used to be funny and silly, you smiled at things. You were competitive in a friendly way.”

“Was I?”

“Not really,” Edwina admitted. “But friendlier.”

Kate gave Edwina a wry look.

“Can we try? I want to feel like part of your life again. And like you feel like you can trust me with things.” Edwina’s face was earnest.

For the first time in a long time, that sounded like a blessed relief.

“Yes. I’d like that.”

“Kate.”

“Hmmm?”

“The earrings on the left.”

Kate smiled.


It had taken Kate and Edwina a while to find a shoe that Kate could wear comfortably opposite her walking boot, but they finally succeeded, despite her persistent grumbling.

The three of them stood outside the door to Elle and Charlotte’s luxury apartment, Mary tapping on the door.

Kate hadn’t realized just how nervous she was until they heard footsteps headed toward them.

The door flung open, and Elle dove at them, giving them warm hugs.

“You’ve started early with the wine,” Kate said wryly.

“Hush. It’s my birthday party. Now, shoes off, everyone.”

“Seriously?”

Elle rolled her eyes. “You know what I mean, Kate.”

Edwina grinned at that.

“How are you feeling?”

“She’s a bit wobbly-”

“Thank you, Edwina.”

“But she’s doing better than before. Right, Kate?”

“Yes.” Kate smiled placidly.

Charlotte swooped over. “It’s our girls!”

“Hi, Charlotte.” Mary gave her a warm hug, which Charlotte returned. Kate was always surprised that Charlotte didn’t supplement all greetings with air kisses, but even Charlotte wasn’t willing to be a total cliché.

“Now, we already have a full house, but please make yourselves comfortable. And Kate, don’t feel bad about kicking anyone your age out of a chair. There’s plenty of wine. And obviously the best hors d'oeuvres our nephew can make.”

“Sounds yummy,” Edwina giggled.

“Yes.”

They moved into the room, which – as Charlotte had suggested – was already packed with people.

As Kate hobbled by, Elle put a hand on her arm, whispering conspiratorially, “They’re here already, but don’t worry. I’ve told him he has to be on his best behavior.”

Kate was surprised to find she already wanted to scream.

“Ah.”

“Don’t ‘ah’ me.”

Kate glared at Elle.

“Go mingle. You’ll be fine.”

Kate shook her head, walking further into the room.


Anthony and his siblings were all carrying small plates and bowls of things from the kitchen into the living room, Violet having loudly (and very pointedly) announced that having many children was an excellent help when chores needed doing.

Anthony had rolled his eyes, but as usual, he knew he needed to set an example for the younger ones.

He hadn’t realized that the Sharmas had arrived, so, as usual, Kate’s appearance caught him completely off guard. Her dress was simple, but as with every other time he had seen her, she looked stunning. Her hair was large and curly, a bit wilder than usual, but he found that he loved it.

She poured herself a glass of wine, and he studied her for a moment, trying to figure out what seemed wrong.

And then he remembered.

“You’re not on painkillers?”

He was surprised the look she gave him didn’t knock him over.

She continued to pour her wine.

“Kate,” he sighed.

“It’s fine.”

“We both know it isn’t fine to-”

“Why do you care?” she spat.

I guess things are starting off on a good note, he thought wryly.

He sighed, “I’m just asking.”

“I’m fine.”

She turned to walk away, but the move appeared to throw her off balance, and she wobbled.

“Everything okay…?”

“Stop bothering me!” She leaned against the counter, her eyes closed. She held a hand to her head, seemed to be trying to steady her breathing. 

Panic immediately overtook him.

“Kate!” He rushed over, putting a hand on her back.

She gripped the edge of the countertop firmly, clenching her eyes even more tightly shut.

“Kate, honey- Are you-”

“It’s not a panic attack!” she snapped.

“Then what…?”

She let out a deep breath, clearly trying to steady herself. “I’m just having dizzy spells. Since the accident.”

“Fuck. Let’s sit you down.”

“I’m fine.”

“You’re having dizzy spells and you’re still drinking while taking painkillers-”

“I’ll be fine!” She tried to move away from him, but she wobbled again.

He put a hand on her arm, helping to stabilize her. “Kate, for fuck’s sake!”

“That was just the boot. It makes it awkward to walk.”

“It wasn’t the damn boot.”

Her eyes flew open. “Now you care!”

“What? Of course, I care.”

She pulled her arm free, shooting daggers at him.

“Kate…”

“Save it.”

Kate turned, stomping out of the room as best she could.

Anthony stared after her, blinking.

He knew he was furious. She was being stubborn, pig-headed, was needlessly trying to handle things on her own. Yes, there was justice in her anger as well, but he just wanted things to be smooth.

Can’t she just know I want to fix this?

He wanted to gather her into his arms.


The evening was unsurprisingly rollicking, with people periodically gathering everyone’s attention to make speeches. Charlotte and Elle were both in fabulous moods, and each had donned silly, sparkling tiaras made by Hyacinth.

It was sweet to see them humoring her, though Kate knew full well that everything about the items offended their sense of style.

But Charlotte and Elle were like that, were the way most people could be. Consistent until they weren’t. They could both be snobbish, could both be insufferable, and then something about them, a small action, a word belied the affection they felt for someone.

After a few looks from Elle, her mother, and Edwina, Kate had finally given up on her wine, though it had left her feeling even more pessimistic about the evening. She knew that she usually wrote off things like this once she decided she wouldn’t enjoy them, but she thought she would try a different approach.

And to her surprise, she found that – after leaving any and all expectations behind – she was still able to enjoy herself. Her mother and Edwina seemed happy. The Bridgertons, aside from Anthony, were entertaining. Tom doted over her sister, which pleased her greatly.

As usual, Anthony stared at her, looking like the lead actor of a noir film. But any angst or frustration he felt was entirely his to manage.

He’s had his chance.

“So, how is the wedding planning going, boys?” Charlotte asked.

“Surprisingly well. We have a pair of very opinionated aunties who hired a very opinionated wedding planner, so there are a lot of decisions we don’t have to make ourselves.”

“And someday you’ll even be grateful for that,” Elle huffed.

“Don’t count on it.” Benedict winked at her.

“Just for that, I’m changing the subject. Kate-”

Kate hadn’t realized she was starting to zone out until she was jerked out of her reverie.

“Yes?”

“How are you feeling?”

“You gave us all quite a scare!” Charlotte held a hand to her chest.

“We’re still so relieved you’re alright.”

“Have you been healing okay?” Hyacinth asked.

“I have, thank you. My leg is still in a cast, but my ankle should be mostly fine once I’m better.”

“You got hit in the head, too, right?” Gregory’s morbid curiosity was unmistakable.

“Gregory!” Violet hissed.

“It’s alright. I did. They think I hit my head on a rock.”

“But they say you’re okay now?” Hyacinth sounded worried.

“Yes. They do.”

“Right,” came a wry voice.

Kate looked up, not quite believing that Anthony had spoken.

“Excuse me?”

“Except for dizzy spells.”

“You’re serious?”

“Anthony, I don’t think we need to alarm the younger children.”

“They aren’t too bad, are they, Didi?”

“They’re fine,” Kate said through gritted teeth, glaring at Anthony.

“Are you actually taking care of yourself?”

“I beg your pardon.”

“Just asking.”

“Yes.” She jutted out her chin. “And I’m looking forward to eventually feeling better so that I can actually take a real vacation.”

“What?”

“A vacation? That sounds like my sort of thing.” Charlotte grinned.

“Probably not this one. I’m hiking the Appalachian Trail.”

“Still?” Anthony gaped at her. “Are you kidding me?”

“Why would I be kidding?”

“After… after all that…”

“After all what?”

“I can’t fucking believe you.”

He took one more look at her, and then he stormed out of the room.


Kate found him in the room at the end of the hall. Charlotte normally used it for yoga and meditation, but the serene atmosphere couldn’t quite compete with the dark cloud floating above Anthony’s head.

“You can’t believe me?”

He whirled on her. “No, I fucking can’t.”

“Excuse me?”

“After all that. Your leg is still in a fucking cast.”

“And it won’t be forever.”

“You’re just going to go off on your fucking own. On a dangerous fucking hike.”

“I’m perfectly capable of handling it.”

“Like you were last time.”

“How fucking dare you. It was an accident.”

“And you almost fucking died.”

She rolled her eyes. “I didn’t almost die.”

“Kate. Fuck. You can’t just be-”

“Can’t what?”

“It’s too risky.”

“It’s not up to you.”

“Maybe it should be.”

“I beg your fucking pardon?”

“Can’t you ever just listen to common sense? I don’t want you to get hurt again.”

“I’m not planning to get hurt again. And I don’t understand why you give a shit.”

“Kate, you weren’t even moving when I found you. You were so confused, and you couldn’t speak. I just- It killed me seeing you like that.”

“Well, if anything happens, I’ll make sure you don’t have to deal with it.”

“That’s not what I’m saying!”

“Anthony, you are just someone I fucked. That’s it. You don’t have to think about anything I’m planning to do in the future. There’s nothing here-”

She gestured between them. Another time, it might have hurt. But he just saw red.

“That is not fucking true, and you know it.”

“It is true.”

“Kate-”

“And don’t pretend you’re worried about me or that you’ve wanted to see me, because you didn’t visit me fucking once! You just got on with your life like everything was fine-”

“That’s not what happened.”

“No?”

“No. I did want to visit.”

“Wanting isn’t enough.”

“Would you have even seen me? Since I’m just someone you fucked?”

“I…” Somehow that had caught her off-guard. “Yes. I would have.”

“Right.”

“I was hoping I’d see you.”

Was that a glimmer of hope that he felt?

“You were?”

She rolled her eyes, huffing, “Yes. But obviously that wasn’t in your plans-”

“Stop. I didn’t go because I was fucking terrified of losing you. I didn’t want to visit and see that the Kate I knew was gone or that you still weren’t lucid, even if it was temporary. And I didn’t want to fucking hear that you couldn’t understand why I was visiting in the first place. After all that. I’ve been worried sick. And I’ve stayed away even though it was the last thing I wanted to do.”

“What?” She blinked at him.

“I love you. You have to know I love you. I keep hearing that everyone around me can see it. And you’re smarter than all of them, so I know you can, too.”

“I…”

The words seemed to be falling out of his mouth.

“I have loved you since we met at that fucking retreat. And every time I’ve wanted to strangle you, and every time you’ve fought me on things, and every second we’ve been together, and every second I haven’t been around you.”

“What…?”

“I know you have to feel it. Even if you don’t feel the same way. Even if you’re going to kick my ass because I have no fucking right to say any of this.”

“I just… I don’t know what to say.”

 “You don’t have to say anything.”

“You’ve fought me on absolutely everything…”

“So have you!”

“You ignored me for a week!”

He was surprised to see a glassiness in her eyes.

“I know.” He sighed, “And I know I have no right to ask you for anything. But if there’s any chance you feel the same way-”

“You don’t deserve it.”

“I know I don’t. And I know I’m a mess.”

“Yes.”

“You don’t have to agree,” he grumbled.

She shrugged, a smirk on her face, her eyes twinkling.

It was hard to tamp down the hope that he felt brewing.

He took her hands, holding them tightly.

“I’ll do whatever I need to do to figure this out. To be better than I have been. You deserve so much more than that. And I’ll do whatever it takes, because I can’t imagine my life without you in it.”

“You’re going to need to do a lot of apologizing for disappearing.”

“I know.” He nodded. “Every day if I have to.”

“That’s a start.”

“I love you,” he said quietly.

He stroked a loose curl that hung in her face.

“Please tell me you feel the same way.”

He had never felt quite so vulnerable.

He wasn’t sure what he was expecting. Maybe a slap or a kick to the shin. But instead, she surprised him.

She leaned into him, burying her face against his neck, and breathing him in deeply.

He sighed, putting his arms around her and kissing the crown of her head, the gesture almost reverent.  

She pulled back, meeting his gaze. Her eyes had always been so beautiful, had always said so much. And so, he knew before she said it.

She nodded. “I love you, too.”

His heart skipped a beat, and it took a moment to even be able to form the words.

“Even though I don’t deserve it?”

“I’m a very giving person.” She grinned.

He snorted, “You joke, but you really are.”

“Of course, I am,” she huffed.

“Is it possible we’re actually seeing eye to eye on something?”

“Don’t get used to it.”

He felt himself smile, and he cupped her face, kissing her. And when she gripped him tightly, deepening the kiss, he wanted to cheer.

When she pulled away, her eyes were sparkling.

His heart flip-flopped, and he couldn't quite believe his luck, had stopped caring that he probably looked like the Cheshire cat.

“You know we’re hiking the trail together, don’t you?”

He felt her stiffen.


Kate raised her eyebrows.

“Not because I think you can’t do it. I just don’t trust you to do it without breaking your other leg.”

She glared back at him, but Anthony’s eyes were twinkling.

“I actually…” He sounded almost nervous. “I want to be there with you. And I don’t want you to feel like you have to do things alone.”

He kissed her gently.

“I want to enjoy it with you.”

His face was softer than she had ever seen it, and suddenly, she found herself wondering why she hadn’t thought of the same idea herself.

“You know you’re going to drive me crazy. Every step of the way.”

He grinned.

“And it will only be a matter of time before I toss you off a cliff.”

His smile widened. “Is that a promise, Kathani Sharma?”

She smiled back at him. “Yes, it is.”

He kissed her again, this time more deeply, and she clung to his arms, wrapped her arms around his neck, tangled her fingers in his hair. She couldn’t get close enough.

And she couldn’t, for the life of her, figure out why they hadn’t gotten here sooner.

Because we’re both stubborn idiots, she had to admit.

 


 

Chapter Text



1. Some good-natured teasing

 

 

2. Anthony and Kate make plans for after work

 

 

3. More teasing

 

 

4. (Not surprisingly) even more teasing

 

 

5. Kate gets added to the chat

 

 

6. Elle notices Kate is taking more time for herself

 

 

7. Edwina misses Kate

 

 

8. The lovebirds are smitten

 

 

9. Kate's cast is off!

 

 

10. Edwina has news

 

 

11. Kate has questions

 

 

 

12. Kate gets support

 

 

13. Edwina is ready to travel

 

 

14. Anthony gets Kate new gear

 

 

15. Anthony and Kate make up

 

 

16. Kate's trip is about to begin (and Elle checks in)

 

 

17. Violet checks in

 

 

18. Mary gives Kate a satellite phone

 

 

19. Hitting the trail!


 

 

Chapter Text


 


He loved her, and she loved him. Kate couldn’t quite believe they had gotten here, even though, now that she knew, it felt like all roads had been slowly leading to this point.

Anthony had utterly surprised her, had confessed his love in a way that Kate thought was reserved for Hollywood romances. And yet, it had felt utterly right. She had always expected that if someone ever spoke those words to her, she wouldn't believe them, that she'd be suspicious and skeptical. But she somehow knew he was speaking the truth.

They snuck out after the dinner at Elle’s, not thinking much or caring about their friends and families in the other room. They just wanted to be alone together, to enjoy each other, to experience the relief that came from finally being on the same page.

And they had.

Sex was different when feelings were involved, though Kate couldn't say exactly how. Maybe it was that they cared that much more that they enjoyed the experience together, enjoyed each other. There was still teasing, still the agony of being brought again and again to the point before release, but release was also there, along with ecstasy, passion, love. And it felt right for them, felt like they were still themselves. There were few sweet words, but the ones they shared counted. Few gentle caresses, but the ones that happened mattered. 

They had spent almost every moment together since then, and it struck Kate that she didn't quite know what she had done with herself before that. It unnerved her, in some ways even disappointed her to be so cliché, but she knew things would even out, that the pendulum would eventually land somewhere in the middle. They were allowed this time to be happy together, to be so important to each other that few other things mattered.


It was strange, considering how little time they had been together, how little time they had known each other. It felt like they had known each other for a lifetime. Even when he did things that made her furious, Kate didn't have any doubt that she wanted Anthony in her life.

She still felt a stupendous relief, a peace that she hadn’t ever expected to feel. It sometimes made her want to laugh, knowing how much she had hated him, how much she had wanted to hate him, that he was such a comfort to her.

They had come to love each other, but perhaps they had seen something in each other all along. She had seen something in his eyes, even before they had spoken, that had made her want to know more, that had somehow told her he was a kindred spirit. The road had been a bumpy one after that, but it seemed that her first impression hadn’t been entirely wrong.

And he seemed to have learned since the night at the restaurant when he had spoken in ways that had made her skin crawl. She had heard him take male friends to task, had overheard him when he hadn't realized she was listening. It seemed that he was willing to grow for her.


The trail was beautiful in every sense. The sky a breathtaking blue, crisp leaves and pine needles crackling in the wind, the soothing crunch of gravel under the soles of their hiking boots.

Kate hadn’t expected that either of them – always full of opinions – would be so taken with the scenery that they would get lost in it.

It was strange, the comfortable way they had settled into silence. Somehow, they knew they didn’t need to talk, communicated through a look, an eyebrow raise, a hand held out to brace each other, help each other maneuver around a boulder. They were well-matched fitness-wise, and they kept a similar pace, seemed to tackle difficult patches in the same way, seemed to reach unspoken agreements about when to pause.

Maybe it was that neither was a fan of small talk, that neither enjoyed discussions of the weather, no matter how refreshing it was. They were both the type to enjoy rather than describe, watch rather than remark (at least, when things were calm).

Kate didn’t miss the occasional worry in Anthony’s face, but for the most part, he looked gratified, proud at how adept she was. She wouldn't have expected anything less. She was a seasoned backpacker, and she knew it had to show. Still, she felt herself smirking whenever he looked surprised at how deftly she managed situations that would have stymied an amateur. Likewise, she was impressed with him. She knew Anthony wasn't someone to do things he didn't excel at; still, she enjoyed seeing how comfortable he looked.


They reached a water source at sunset, and they knelt, filtering water and filling their bottles.

“Stop here?”

Anthony looked around, nodding. “There’s supposed to be a campsite nearby.”

“Perfect.”

She expected a response, but when there was none, she looked up.

He was staring at her. “I realize I’m jinxing us, but this is the least we’ve ever fought.”

“It’s almost like you’re behaving yourself.”

“Ha.”

They stood, but rather than moving away, Anthony gave her arm a gentle yank.

She stumbled into him, and he put an arm around her, kissing her temple.

“Are you as starving as I am?”

“More.”

He kissed her gently. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Part of Kate wanted to roll her eyes.

At this rate, we’re going to turn into one of those couples who hold hands on the trail.

Still, she watched as he moved back to their packs, digging in his for who knows what.

It was strange to feel so lucky.


Katie Sharma was so excited to be backpacking with her father. Her sister Edwina was still too young to join them, and Katie was secretly glad that it was just a trip for two.

It was a six-mile trip to the lake where they would be setting up camp, and to Katie, that sounded like they were traveling halfway around the world. It was a bit frightening, but she had always loved adventure.

She had been tasked with carrying toilet paper, bug spray, and sunscreen in her pack, which Rahul insisted again and again was by far the most important job. She wasn’t altogether sure she believed him, was suspicious every time he groaned and swung his pack onto his back after they took a short rest. But it made her feel like she was contributing, like the trip couldn’t have been done properly without her.

They had finally stopped, and Rahul was building a fire. Katie felt a bit woozy, but she dutifully gathered kindling, leaves, anything she thought would be helpful for starting the fire. As always, Rahul watched her proudly.

“Sometimes I think you could do all of this without my help,” he joked.

“Of course not, silly.”

“You feeling okay, lovey?”

“I just feel a little wobbly. I think it’s attitude sickness.”

“Altitude sickness?”

“Yeah, that.”

“Do you remember what to do?”

“I’m drinking Gatorade.”

“And you’re going to rest rather than climbing that cliff over there?”

She grumbled, “Yes.”

“You’ll probably adjust soon enough.”

“And then I can climb?”

“And then we can climb.”

“There’s no way you can keep up.”

“We’ll see. You’re lucky Mama and Edwina had to stay home this time. Mama is the real climber.”

“I bet I can still beat her.”

“I used to think so, too.”

“Yeah?”

“Yes. She’s incredible.”

The nakedness of the comment, the sheer awe in Rahul's voice, had almost been too much. Katie changed the subject to something lighter.

“Can I take this leaf home?”

“Remember what I said?”

“I know. ‘Take only pictures, leave only footprints.’ But it’s just one leaf.”

“What would happen if everyone took one leaf?”

“Everyone would have a nice pretty leaf. I won’t tell if you won’t.”

“But maybe I will tell!” Rahul laughed.

“Rude. And who would you tell?”

“All of these trees. And the fish in the lake.”

“There are fish in the lake???”

“Tomorrow morning, we may even catch one.”

“We will?”

“Remember I showed you my fishing license?”

“Do I need one?”

“No, you’re my assistant.”

“A fishing assistant?”

“An a-fish-tant.”

“That’s awful!” Katie laughed happily.

“Alright, fire is done!”

Katie looked at the flames, could feel warmth dancing across her face.

“Dad? Can we have dessert first?”

“You just want to try the freeze-dried ice cream.”

“It’s what astronauts eat!”

“I tell you what. You can try it if you beat me to it.”

And then Rahul lunged for his pack, Katie scrambling behind him.

It was hard to believe anything could ever top this.


There was something magical about sitting around a campfire. Kate and Anthony had set up their tent with surprisingly little fanfare, and now, it was time to relax.

They waited for the water to boil, and when they were finally able to eat, Kate thought for the millionth time how strange it was that freeze-dried food could taste so delicious.

It’s the effort, the exertion from the trail.

Still, it always surprised her how much she relished everything she ate while backpacking. It rarely ever felt like she was eating so well. It seemed that Anthony had been thinking along the same lines.  

“I always forget how good this stuff tastes.”

“Have you ever eaten it at home? Just to see?”

“The kids and I did one day. Fran, Greg, and Hy, I mean.”

“And it was terrible?”

“Worse than terrible.”

“They loved spending the time with you, didn’t they?”

Anthony nodded. “I’ve never had to do much for them to be excited about that. It isn’t fair, really.”

“You’re their dad.”

He shook his head. “They know I’m not.”

“They know you’re not. But, in most ways, you still are.”

He sighed, “They’d have loved him. They’d have loved doing this with him.”

“You’ve taken them before, haven’t you?”

“Just short trips. We had a good time.”

“But it wasn’t the same?”

“No. Have you gone with Edwina?”

“Not for years. She’s more of a city girl.”

He snorted, “I gathered that.”

“My dad and I always loved sitting around the campfire. He told scary stories. And funny stories. He had a terrible sense of humor.”

“Oh?”

“He loved dad jokes.”

“Ah, that’s where your sense of humor comes from.”

She gave him a shove. “It is not.”

“My dad used to always give us jobs. Collecting rocks or acorns. Counting fish if they were jumping in the lake. We never stopped to think why we were doing any of it. Sometimes we’d put up hammocks and just swing in them for hours.”

“We did that, too. We’d straddle them and pretend they were horses.”

Anthony smiled, his eyes sparkling.

“What?”

He shook his head, lost in thought.

She poked at the embers with a stick. “Should I add another log?”

“Not if you’re as exhausted as I am.”

She inhaled deeply, nodding. “I love that smell.”

“Smoke?”

“Smoke. The trees-”

She paused to yawn.

“I’ll deal with the fire and string up the food. I’ll meet you there.” He nodded toward their small tent.

“I can do the food.”

“You’re practically falling over. Go ahead.”


There was something sinful about kicking off her hiking boots and flopping onto the top of a sleeping bag after a long, strenuous day. Kate knew she should strip down a bit, climb into the sleeping bag, but she was too tired to care.

She looked up when Anthony entered the tent.

“You’re going to freeze.”

“Probably.”

“Come on, into the sleeping bag.”

She groaned. “I’m moving slowly.”

“Too slowly. I want to cuddle my girlfriend.”

“I never took you for a cuddler.”

“Strictly, I’m not. But it’s getting cold.”

“Such a romantic.”

“You know me.” He winked, turning off his flashlight.

Kate felt him sliding into his side of the sleeping bag, and after a moment, she followed suit.

Being in complete darkness was somehow more naked, more intimate than anything else.

It was like this during our first time together.

It was still so strange that she didn’t mind being so vulnerable, strange that Anthony didn’t seem to mind either.

“I didn’t think I’d ever find someone who would do this with me. Anyone, not just a partner.”

Kate realized she had been thinking the same thing.

She curled into him. “You sure I haven’t just tricked you into coming so that I can murder you in the woods?”

“Not entirely. But it would be a beautiful gravesite.”

“I think so.”


It hadn’t taken Kate long to fall asleep, and Anthony found that he loved how quickly she seemed to pass out when she was tired.

She always insisted that she wasn’t as tired as she was, and then, mid-conversation, she was completely out.

He wasn’t used to thinking things were cute, was still surprised that someone he had initially considered to be a veritable she-devil could do things that might even be considered cute, but she made him melt.

We’re disgusting, he thought to himself with a smirk.

It was strange to feel so comfortable with someone, to have someone who was so like him, who seemed to understand him so well, who saw his terrible parts and didn’t turn away.

He knew he would never feel like he deserved her, that it would take him a long time to believe that he was allowed to be happy. But he wanted more than anything for the woman in his arms to be happy and content with him.

He had always wanted his family members to be comfortable, but it was different with Kate. He wanted her respect, her adoration, her… what, exactly? He wanted her to look at him and be so unbelievably proud of him, to be relieved that he loved her, to love him just as much.

He hadn’t known he had it in him.

But of course, he had. That part of him had been closed off, had felt like a weakness, but it had still been there. Somehow, it felt like a strength with Kate. Being able to show someone like her his heart. He was grateful he had figured it out, that she was willing to debase herself to even look at him.

These were big thoughts for a quiet moment, but they were just the kinds of things that came to your head in the wilderness. Everything felt more serious, more solemn, more connected.


Young Anthony Bridgerton didn’t get to do much alone with his father anymore, not since his parents had decided to give him way too many brothers (and now even a sister!). But, after much begging, and after Ben, Colin, and Daphne had fortunately been signed up for a weeklong sleepaway camp, Anthony and Edmund were finally able to plan something on their own.

Anthony loved camping and backpacking with his father. It was an opportunity to show his father how much he knew about being in the wilderness. He knew, as a New York City kid, that he shouldn’t know anything about being in the woods. So, he was proud of every tidbit of knowledge that he had, always did his best to look like he was incredibly comfortable in the wild.

Edmund always praised Anthony for his ability to set up the tent, and it was only as an adult that Anthony realized how thoroughly he had been tricked. He wanted to do a good job, a great job, and Edmund knew that Anthony could be kept busy if he thought the task he had been given was important, was something only he could do well.

As a child, Anthony fell for it utterly and completely. He put up the tent himself and reveled in the praise he received, gathered logs for the fire, even staked out the “best” spot for the tent. He would do anything to make his father proud.

“Don’t eat too much of that. We’re going to need it for tomorrow.”

Anthony had been shoveling GORP into his face.

“But it’s yummy.”

“It’s even yummier when you’re on the trail.”

“We’re kind of on the trail.”

“Dinner will be ready in a few minutes. Promise.”

“What are we having?”

“You have to pick which one you want.”

“This one says ‘enchiladas.’” Anthony held up a pack skeptically.

“Just you wait. They’re going to be the best enchiladas you ever had.”

“Yeah? But they’re in a bag.”

“It’s backpacking magic. You’ll see.”

“If you say so.”

“I do say so.” Edmund checked the tea kettle resting over the fire. “A few more minutes.”

“Mom says we’re not supposed to watch it if we want it to boil.”

“She’s probably right.”

“Will she come with us next time?”

“I’m sure she’d love to. We used to go a lot before you were born.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. She’s even faster on the trail than I am.”

“No way.”

“Yes way.”

“Next time we could bring her and leave everyone else at home.”

 “I don’t think it works that way.”

“But it could!” said Anthony, cheered by the thought.

Edmund laughed.

“What are you going to eat if I have the enchiladas?”

“What else is there?”

“This one is rice and chicken. And lasagna. And chili.”

“Seems like a small package for a lasagna.”

Anthony rolled his eyes, though he wasn’t able to hold back a grin. “It isn’t a whole lasagna.”

Edmund grinned. “Too bad. I would like one whole lasagna.”

“It isn’t a whole lasagna!”

“You think the other one has a whole chicken in it?”

“No!” Anthony laughed.


Anthony could smell coffee, and he heard the faint crackling of a fire. Kate must already be up.

Sure enough, he turned to his side, and her side of the sleeping bag was empty.

He looked out the tent through the mesh, and there she was, staring into a kettle over the fire.

“It isn’t going to boil if you watch it.”

She started, dropping her water bottle and almost spitting out her toothbrush. “Shit. You scared the hell out of me.”

Anthony tugged on pants, jacket, and boots, and he climbed out of the tent, zipping it shut behind him.

“You’re up early.”

“The sun’s out.”

“Didn’t want to stay in bed?”

“Not when there was the promise of coffee. Water is almost ready.”

He kissed the crown of her head.

“How are you so incredible?”

“It’s just my nature.”

He snorted, kissing her again. “Did you take a look at the campground?”

“I did. And there’s running water.”

“Oh?”

“Showers, bathrooms, a small shop where we can stock up.”

“That sounds almost fancy.”

“It’s the fanciest we’ll have had in a week and a half.”

“Look. We stopped watching the water, and now it’s boiling.”

“Can I interest you in some instant coffee and powdered milk? Perhaps some reconstituted bananas and oatmeal.”

“You spoil me.”


It was delightful to finally be able to shower, even though the stalls were small and quarter operated.

Other than a quick dip in an occasional water source, backpacking didn’t allow for luxuries like this, certainly not the places Kate had gone in the past. But a through-hike of the trail could take up to seven months. People had to stock up, occasionally wash up, and a few campgrounds and nearby towns were kind enough to cater to travelers in need of just that.

The water was cold, but it felt so heavenly to have clean water streaming down her skin that Kate didn’t even care.

She scrubbed the dirt from her scalp, not minding that the soap in the dispenser would likely leave her hair brittle and frizzy.

“Babe?”

She waved a hand around the curtain.

“There you are.”

The curtain opened slightly, and Kate gasped.

“What are you?”

“Joining my beautiful girlfriend.”

“There’s barely room for one person-”

It appeared Anthony didn’t care.

He tugged the curtain shut behind him.


They tried to be quiet, but it was difficult not to lean into this time together. They were so exhausted every night after hiking all day that they usually just passed out next to each other in the tent, even if they spent some time kissing each other breathless.

Anthony wasn’t about to miss an opportunity to touch his girlfriend when they weren’t thoroughly spent.

He hefted her up, bracing her against the wall as she wrapped her legs around him.

They could take their time another time, but now, he just wanted to make her feel good, wanted release himself.

He thrust into her, his eyes almost crossing at her stifled moan.

“You feel so good.”

“Uh huh.” Kate bit her lip, clearly trying not to make any noise.

“There’s no one else in here.”

“So far.”

He continued to slam into her, and he hoped the tile wasn’t hurting her back. If so, she didn’t seem to care.

Kate gasped, burying her face against his neck.

“Ah, just like that.”

“You’re so tight.”

“Mmhmm.”

He glided his thumb against her clit and was rewarded with a sob of pleasure.

She clamped a hand over her mouth.

“We’ll hear if anyone else is coming.”

“Or we’ll – ah – frighten away all the animals in the area.”

“I’m not opposed to that.”

She whimpered as he changed the angle. “Fuck, this feels so good.”

“Good. Like that?”

“I’m really close.”

“Already?”

She pulled back, glaring at him.

“It’s been a minute since we-”

“I’m aware.” He grinned.

He kissed her throat, continuing to swirl his thumb against her clit.

She gasped again. “Almost there. Wait-”

They heard footsteps, and Kate’s eyes widened.

Anthony knew he should stop, but he was already too far gone himself.

“Ant- wait-”

He didn’t, only slowed his pace enough that the noise of their bodies coming together might not be quite so obvious.

Kate shuddered, looked like she was going to combust.

He whispered in her ear, “Come for me, baby. I know you’re close.”

“But- there’s-”

“Come for me.”

She did.

Kate clamped a hand over her mouth as she stiffened, clenching her eyes tightly shut and shaking hard against him as her orgasm rippled through her.

It was too much for Anthony, and after a few more thrusts, he was following behind her, feeling like he might be dying.

He leaned into her, knew he was probably heavy against the tile, but she didn’t seem to care as she kissed him again and again.

“Babe?”

“Mmmh?”

“We’re going again,” he whispered.

“They’re still here.”

“So?”

He knelt, hooking her leg over his shoulder.

“Anthony-”

“Better brace yourself.”

He could practically feel her glare.

But when he dipped his fingers into her, his tongue gliding firmly against her clit, she gripped his hair tightly, holding him in place.

It appeared she didn’t mind so much after all. 


They had gotten back late, were planning to shower and rest at Anthony’s apartment, but as usual, their families couldn’t wait to see them.

First, Edwina knocked on the door. Then Violet with Anthony’s younger siblings.

It wasn’t lost on Anthony that every one of them enveloped Kate in a huge hug before coming to find him.

“You could at least pretend you’re happy to see me,” Anthony grumbled, giving his siblings a meaningful look.

“I’m sure they’re pleased both their favorite people are back.” Edwina smiled.

Gregory snorted, “Since when is Anthony one of our favorite people?”

Anthony jabbed him in the side with a finger. “Since I gave up my good years to raise you monsters.”

“Would you say you had any good years?” Francesca smiled beatifically.

“We’re not used to passive aggression from you, Fran. You’ve grown.” Benedict and Friedrich wandered into the room.

Anthony glared. “You, too?”

“We let ourselves in. Didn’t want you to have to miss us any longer.”

“There are too fucking many of you.”

“Knock knock!” A sing-songy voice echoed from the other room.

“Should we just leave the front door open?” Anthony huffed.

“Is that Elle?” Kate grinned.

“All three of your mothers!”

Elle, Charlotte, and Mary entered the room.

“And Newton!” Kate rushed toward the dog, lifting him and covering him in kisses before throwing her free arm around Mary.

“So glad he’s here.” Anthony glared at the corgi, his voice dripping with sarcasm.

“Hush.” Elle pulled Anthony into a hug. “You’re going to have to get used to him, love. He’s going to be the man of the house soon enough.”

“Oh, is he?”

“Yes, dear, he is.”

“That was rhetorical.”

“You’re rhetorical!” Hyacinth laughed.

Anthony rolled his eyes. “You don’t know what that means, do you?”

Charlotte went to hug Anthony as well, but she stopped in her tracks, wrinkling her nose. “Dear, you smell terrible.”

“Well, we didn’t exactly get to shower before all of you showed up.”

“Good point. I’m going to hop in.” Kate put a hand on his arm.

“You’re going to abandon me to these people?”

“Of course I am.” She leaned in for a quick kiss. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Kate walked away, and Anthony caught his mother watching them, her eyes twinkling innocently.

He moved toward her. “What?”

“You’re going to ask her soon, aren’t you?”

“Ask her what?”

Violet raised an eyebrow.

“What? We’ve barely been together.”

Violet shrugged knowingly. “Sometimes you just know.”

Anthony suddenly felt very serious. “I want it to be right. She deserves… I want it to be special for her.”

“It will be, love. It always is when it’s the right person.”

“You all like her better than you like me, don’t you?”

“That’s what you get for picking a good one.”

Anthony felt himself smirk.

“Hi, all!” He heard Colin shout from the front door.

Anthony let out a beleaguered sigh.

Fuck my life.


Kate knew that they were likely to butt heads somewhat when they started living together, and she was proud of them for their efforts to keep things civil. But despite their best attempts, something was bound to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

She and Newton had moved into Anthony’s apartment a few months before, and though Newton and Anthony’s relationship remained somewhat cold, Kate felt mostly at home. She had done her best to be respectful of the fact that she was moving into a space that had – for a long time – been only Anthony’s, but she liked to think that she had found ways to settle in.

Anthony was surprisingly tolerant of the way she took her time to make her side of the bed, was unusually patient when she didn’t always immediately wash her coffee mug when she was done with it. And she had learned to be lenient when his eyes said everything she knew he was thinking about both those habits.

It was the dishwasher that did it, and as domestic battles go, it was explosive in only the way the two of them were capable of fighting.

Anthony insisted that the plates were only washed properly if they faced a certain direction. Kate didn’t care how the dishwasher was loaded so long as everything fit.

Only their friends, family, and everyone who had ever seen them together could have predicted that this would turn into a knock-down, drag-out fight.

“You see how they don’t get totally clean!”

“What are you seeing that is still there?”

He ran his finger along the middle of the plate.

“I can feel it!”

Kate took the plate, also running her finger along it.

“There’s nothing here.”

“Yes, there is! How do you not feel it?”

“Because I’m not imagining things.”

“How am I imagining things?”

“Anthony, it’s working fine.”

“It works even better if you load it the right way.”

“Should I leave dishes in the sink for you to load?”

“Of course not.”

“Then they’re loaded however they’re loaded.”

“You could just as easily have them face the right way.”

“The right way.” She rolled her eyes.

“Yes, the right way.”

“They’re fucking plates!”

“Dirty plates!”

“They aren’t. You’re just being controlling-”

I am?”

“How am I being controlling?”

“You’re insisting on doing it your way. Even though it is a shitty way that doesn’t work.”

“It works fine!”

“It doesn’t!”

“How are you still fighting me on this?”

“How are you still fighting me on this?”

“Because you’re being an idiot.”

Kate stomped toward the front door, looking around. She grabbed her purse from the entryway table.

“You’re storming out?”

“I’m taking a minute before I get really angry.”

“This is you calm?”

“Yes!” She walked out, slamming the door behind her.

Anthony stared after her.


It was late by the time Kate came home, and she was perfectly prepared for round two. Never one to back away from a challenge, she called for Anthony, walking through the apartment looking for him.

She wasn’t sure how she had missed him at first, but when she walked into the living room for a second time, she saw him lying on the couch.

He was snoring softly, and his snores were echoed by a very comfortably sleeping Newton who rested on his stomach.

Kate had to smile.

She pulled out her phone, quickly snapping a photo for blackmail purposes.

I might have this put on a t-shirt, she thought in delight.

“Babe?”

Anthony grunted, his eyes slowly fluttering open. He furrowed his brow, looking down at Newton.

“This asshole. I wondered who was sitting on my chest.”

“Not me this time.”

He blinked at her.

“Newton, go anywhere else.”

Kate grinned, running her hand through Anthony’s hair.

“I guess you were tired.”

“Should we try to have an adult conversation?”

“Do you think we’re capable?”

“Unclear, but I’m not sure we’ve ever tried.”

“True.”

He scooted to the side, making room for her on the couch. She sat next to him.

“You were being controlling.”

She could practically hear the sudden burst of steam shooting out his ears.

She cut him off before he could speak. “We were both being controlling.”

He huffed, “That’s fair.”

“We may have to learn to compromise.”

“I know how to compromise.”

“Neither of us knows how to compromise.”

“Fine,” he grumbled.

“I think we can learn.”

“Do you?” Anthony asked skeptically.

“Not really, but I’d like for us to try.”

“Okay.”

“Elle likes to remind me that when people fight, it’s never about the thing they’re fighting about.”

“Is that where you went? To Elle’s?”

“No. I went to see Mom and Edwina.”

“They didn’t have advice?”

“They did, but Elle is more like me.”

He snorted.

She gave him a warning look. “What were we really fighting about?”

“Dishes?”

“Don’t be an ass. You’re mad someone else is in your space.”

“I’m a little mad someone else is in my space.”

“I thought so.”

“I want you here more than I don’t want you here.”

“That’s almost sweet.”

“I also love you and want to figure it out.”

She nodded. “I think it doesn’t feel like any part of this is my space.”

“It’s all yours, babe.”

“Not yet.”

“Then let’s figure it out.”

“Does that mean you don’t care about the dishes?”

“I will always care about the dishes.”

She rolled her eyes. “Did you run them again after I left?”

“What do you think?”

She sighed. “Baby steps, I guess.”

He leaned in and kissed her. “Baby steps.”

For just a moment, she couldn’t remember why they had been fighting.


Anthony hadn’t planned to ask her yet, wanted to give them more time before doing anything that might make her feel any pressure.

But he hadn’t felt this happy since he could remember, had never felt so sure that he wanted someone in his life.

One of the luxuries of their apartment was that it had a gigantic bathtub. It was rare for apartments, even rarer for New York City apartments, but they loved it.

Kate had been taking a bath, and in true form, Anthony was happy to have any excuse to spend time with his girlfriend.

He had stripped down, climbing in behind her and pulling her back against his chest.

They often did this, just sitting in the tub together, quietly in each other’s company. It was soothing, comforting in a way few things were.

To be fair, it was less soothing when Newton tried his best to join them, hopping futilely next to the high sides of the tub. But tonight, Newton had an important appointment with his favorite easy chair.

Kate turned slightly, resting against Anthony’s chest and tracing a pattern against his skin.

He kissed the crown of her head, inhaling the smell of lilies.

He thought of their recent visit to his family’s Westchester home.

Violet had once again looked at him knowingly.

“Love, just ask her.”

“I’m not sure we’re ready yet.”

“Well, it will be ready when you are.”

“What?”

“I’ve tucked a little something into your suitcase.”

“You… Mom…”

“For when you’re ready.”

He had looked at the ring every day since then, had stared at it until he felt confident that he had memorized its shape, the cut of its stone, the shine on the delicate pearls.

He liked to think that Kate had loved it when she saw it, but what if she was just being polite when she saw it? Maybe she wanted something different. Something bigger? Something expensive?

It occurred to him that Kate wasn’t one to lie. If she hadn’t loved it, she’d never have said.

“Babe.”

“Mmmh?”

“Do you want to stay here?”

“I’m pretty comfortable.”

“I mean, in Manhattan.”

“What?”

“We could live somewhere near the mountains. Travel for work, but at least… Would you like that?”

She sat up, turning. “Are you feeling alright?”

He cleared his throat. “Uh. Yeah.”

She folded her arms, and it was hard not to notice the way it made her breasts press together, defining her cleavage that much more.

“Up here.” She was grinning. “You want to move to the mountains?”

“We could. In the future.”

She raised an eyebrow. “What’s going on with you?”

“I…”

Fuck it.

“My mother gave me her ring. The one you tried on. It’s in my nightstand.”

“Oh?” There was a look on Kate’s face that he couldn’t quite read.

“I told her we probably weren’t ready. But… To be honest, I’m ready.”

“For what?”

He glared. “You know what I’m saying.”

“Do I?” Her eyes twinkled.

He studied her. “Did you already know she gave me the ring?”

“She asked me if I really liked it, or if she needed to steer you toward something else.”

He huffed. “Just once, could my family-”

“It’s fine.”

“Fine?”

“Yes.”

“Anthony.”

“Hmmm?”

“Do you want to marry me?”

He felt his jaw clench. “You did not seriously beat me to that-”

She gave him a dazzling smile. “Do you?”

“That was my line.”

“I didn’t hear your answer.”

He shook his head. “You’re a pain in the ass.”

“Is that a yes?”

He tugged her toward him, wrapping his arms around her. He was sure water splashed onto the floor, but he found he didn’t care.

“It’s a yes. Do you want to marry me?”

“Yes.”

“Are we agreeing on something else?”

“We seem to be.”

“I thought I was going to be the one driving you crazy.”

“You still do.”

He cupped her face, kissing her deeply. “I want us to create a life that we both want. We don’t have to make any big changes yet. I just want you to know how I feel. What I want.”

She nodded.

He kissed her again. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

“And what luck that you’re already naked.” He gave her a cheeky grin.

“Yes.” She smiled wickedly back at him. “What luck.”


 

Chapter Text


 


1. A hint

 

 

2. Some news (and some reactions)!

 

 

3. A celebration!

 

 

4. Wedding prep (with help from Augie)

 

 

5. A wedding

 

 

6. Honeymooning

 

 

7. Back home, and Anthony is (understandably) still in awe

 

 

8. Trying

 

 

9. Succeeding!

 

 

10. Anthony is thrilled (and Kate is a little uncomfortable)

 

 

11. A new arrival

 

 

12. Some alone time

 

 

13. More news!

 

 

14. Family time

 

 

 

15. A little older

 

 

16. Not much wiser


 

Chapter Text



Kate wrinkled her nose, thinking that it smelled a bit more like a forest fire than it should.

She opened her eyes and looked around.

“Anthony?”

“Yes?” He sounded peeved.

Anthony had gotten up early with Edmund, who had insisted that he needed to go potty “right now!” They had mercifully let Kate go back to sleep, but it appeared that they hadn’t rejoined her.

“Is something burning?

“Yes, the fucking bacon.”

“Swear jar!” She could hear Hyacinth and Gregory giggling from their tent.

“Papa, look!” Edmund sounded delighted.

“Yes, it’s smoke.”

Kate sighed, sitting up. She tugged on her boots, tied up her hair, and made her way out of the tent.

Anthony looked up when he heard the crunch of her boots, and he stared just a moment too long.

He was doing this a lot lately, seemed to drink her in without trying.

What is he seeing?

She had asked once, and he had seemed embarrassed, slightly flustered.

Daphne had also noticed it, had apparently asked him as well.

He just can’t believe he got so lucky, Daphne had shared.

Truth be told, Kate couldn’t believe she had either.


Married life wasn’t anything like Kate had expected. She supposed she had movies, television, books to thank for the idea that life would eventually boil down to chores and resenting each other for things like socks on the floor or toilet seats left up. And their life wasn’t without those things, but she and Anthony had always been as vocal as they were particular. Resentments didn’t last – they spoke freely, battled each other. And they always made up, always seemed to return to the fact that they couldn’t live without each other.

Before getting together, Kate had been so used to hating Anthony, so used to looking at him with disdain. That seemed like a long time ago. She still often wanted to kill him, and as she had guessed, he drove her crazy much of the time. But now, even years into their marriage, she got butterflies in her stomach when she looked at him, and her heart skipped a beat when he smiled at her.

Maybe it was that she had never felt so seen, so accepted, so thoroughly wanted as she was. There was still a nakedness in Anthony's eyes when he looked at her, even when they fought, even on their more challenging days.

She had also started catching herself staring at him more. She noticed the slight curl of his hair, the twinkle in his eye, the dimple between his brows that she teased made him look thoughtful. Once reserved only for her, his smile seemed to flash more and more at other people.

It was delightful to see the warmth Anthony had for their son, the joy he seemed to feel at seeing Edmund learn, grow. He liked to say that Edmund was fearless like her, adventurous like her, loving like her. She liked seeing the ways Edmund mimicked his father, the way he sometimes furrowed his brow in just the way his father did, the way he put his foot down and wouldn’t budge in a way that was utterly familiar.

They were incredible, her two boys. Difficult, yes. Obstinate, yes. But loving, caring, steadfast. They were unbearably precious to her.


It also delighted Kate to see the friendship that had sprung up between Newton and Edmund. They were the best of friends, and it amused Kate to no end that Anthony seemed strangely, unexpectedly jealous.

“You didn’t even like Newton the first year we lived together,” she had pointed out.

“I still don’t like him.”

“So you’re just annoyed he gets so much time with your son?”

“Yes. What else would it be?”

“You aren’t disappointed that your napping buddy has made a new friend?”

“No.”

“No?” She grinned.

“Fine. Yes. But I also would like more time with my son.”

“So go play with them.”

“Edmund said they were busy.”

Kate wondered if the glee she felt was visible on her face.

“I’m glad you’re amused.”

I guess it is.


“There’s bacon, everyone!” Anthony plunked a paper plate of slightly charred bacon onto the picnic table.

“Smells like burned bacon, brother dearest!” Benedict shouted from the tent.

“Edmund, go throw this into your uncle’s tent.” Anthony held up a piece of what appeared to be charcoal.

“Give it to Newton, love.”

Edmund looked up at her, and then he took the burned piece of bacon, feeding it to Newton.

“He doesn’t always get that you’re joking.”

“I wasn’t joking,” Anthony huffed.

Kate picked Edmund up, giving him a hearty hug and loud kiss on the cheek. He tried to push her away, but she could still see the grin on her son’s face.

“Ignore Papa. He’s just being silly. And he’s in a mood.”

“Why?”

“You know how Papa is.”

“Stop saying that!” Anthony glared.

“Did you see if Nana and Grammy were awake?”

“They said ten minutes.”

“Ah. Still sleeping?”

“Just getting dressed.” Mary shouted from the tent she was sharing with Violet.

Augie ran over, bouncing excitedly on his feet as he snuck a piece of bacon.

“Aunt Katie.”

“Aunt Kate,” Anthony corrected.

Kate shot Anthony a look. “You can call me whatever you like, Aug.”

“Aunt Katie. Can Edmund play? I set up the hammocks.”

“What do you say, kiddo?”

Edmund furrowed his brow, clearly weighing his options. “Am I getting pancakes?”

“Of course. We’ll let you know as soon as Papa is done making them.”

“I’m pretty sure I enlisted someone to help me.”

“Your son who is a child and wants to play?”

Anthony huffed.

Kate put Edmund down, quickly fixing his messy curls. “Go on, love.”

Edmund grinned and ran after Augie in the direction of a couple of mesh hammocks.

“Is your wife an acceptable substitute sous chef?”

“How are you with pancake batter?”

“I’m an excellent observer.”

“Thought so.” He pulled Kate toward him, kissing her slowly. “I love you.”

“I love you, too. How can I help?”

“Just have some coffee and see which of my brothers and sisters you can convince to help me.”

“It’s a lost battle, love.”

“I’ll help!” Edwina said cheerfully as she and Tom strolled up.

“Perfect!” Kate smiled.

“Where’s my favorite nephew?”

Kate nodded toward Edmund and Augie, who were straddling their hammocks, excitedly swinging side to side. Violet and Mary appeared to have joined them, and they stood by cheering the boys on.

“I believe he is riding a horse.”

“Ah. I wonder who is winning the race.”

Daphne came up, pouring herself some coffee. “I told Augie to let Edmund win once in a while.”

“How do they decide who wins?” Edwina watched the boys fondly as she picked up a bag full of pancake mix.

“Unclear, but they both seem able to tell.”

Benedict and Friedrich sauntered over, hand in hand. “Who’s ready for mimosas?”

Benedict held up a cooler.

Anthony sighed, “You brought champagne.”

“And orange juice.”

“Of course you did.”

“Of course we did!” Benedict smiled.


Anthony couldn’t believe the gall of his family. Or he could. But it surprised him just how thoroughly they had managed to thwart him and Kate.

They had planned to do a small camping trip, just him, Kate, Edmund, and Newton. It would be Edmund’s first trip, and their son vibrated with excitement when he learned he would be going with his parents.

But naturally, word had spread like wildfire, and before Anthony knew it, his entire family (and Kate's!) had managed to reserve campsites around theirs.

We might as well have reserved the whole fucking forest.

It annoyed him, how thoroughly their plans had changed, how much more preparation was required, but he couldn’t ignore how thrilled Edmund looked to have his cousin to play with, to have both his grandmothers available for cuddles at a moment’s notice.

Plus, they would have plenty of time to come again, just the four of them (or, if he was really lucky, Newton might even stay home). And they would go backpacking together someday. He couldn't wait.

Kate and Edwina were giggling with each other about something, and he realized he was staring.

He kept catching himself watching Kate, had been teased about it by his siblings.

It annoyed him, the teasing, but he couldn’t fault himself for the tendency to gaze at his wife. Kate was utterly mesmerizing. Tall, beautiful, with a mischievous glint in her eye. That would have been enough. But it was her heart that took his breath away. He saw it in little things that she did, the ways she took care of people, the verve with which she attacked life. It would never make sense to him that someone so incredible had given him a second look.


He had been more nervous on their wedding day than he had in the entirety of his life.

Benedict and Colin had to keep reminding him to stop pacing, to stop fidgeting with his cuffs, to stop checking to see if his hair looked alright. He had never been so concerned with his looks, but it terrified him that Kate would walk into the chapel and see anything she didn’t want in him.

Fortunately, once he saw her, he couldn’t think of anything else.

His nerves disappeared entirely as she walked in. Kate’s hair was down, and her dress was sinfully low cut, simple and elegant in a way that was so perfectly her.

Benedict cleared his throat discreetly. “Breathe, Ant.”

“Hmm?”

Kate often made it hard for him to think, but the fact that this woman wanted him, openly, apparently permanently, stopped his mind from turning.

Do not fucking cry, idiot.

It was Kate’s smile that did it. She seemed to see his feelings in his eyes, and her own eyes were surprisingly glassy.

He hadn’t ever wanted anyone or anything more.


It still surprised (and annoyed) Anthony that he could be so sappy, that Kate somehow turned him into a sentimental fool. But it seemed that it was an unavoidable part of being with her, of being married to her.

He couldn’t help but smile fondly as she jumped up and down and cheered as the two boys raced their hammock “horses.”

Benedict elbowed him. “You two are disgusting.”

“No worse than you and Fred.”

Friedrich rolled his eyes. “Friedrich.”

“I know.”

“Did you want this?”

Anthony stared at the tin cup in Benedict’s hand, looked down at his own cup.

“I have one.”

“I’m happy to drink it. Just wanted to offer you first dibs.”

“Whose is it?”

“Kate’s.”

“She didn’t want it?”

Odd.

“I offered, and she said, ‘I can’t.’”

“She what?” Anthony almost dropped his cup.

“Maybe she just isn’t feeling well?” Benedict’s eyes twinkled.

Benedict kept talking, but Anthony didn’t hear any more of what he said.

He didn’t want to get his hopes up, not yet.

And she’d tell me, wouldn’t she?

He gaped at his wife, wanting very much for a sinkhole to swallow up the rest of his family.


Anthony tried to get a moment alone with Kate, but his family seemed bent on stealing her from him for one thing or another.

“You okay?”

“Hmmm?” He looked up at Daphne.

“You seem extra disgruntled.”

“Because I would like to have two seconds alone with my wife.”

“That’s all you need? Sad.”

“Ha. I’ve given up on that.”

“Oh?”

“We’re sharing a sleeping bag with our son.”

“This campsite has showers…” Daphne grinned.

“What?”

“Now you’ll just have to lure her away.”

“Like the rest of you will let me.”

Still, it wasn’t a bad idea.

“We like her, Ant. We love her, even.”

“So much so that you hog her all the time.”

“Life is full of these trials, Ant.”

“I’ve noticed.”


Kate was surprised it had taken this long for Anthony to corner her, and she had been startled to find herself being physically yanked away from the campsite.

“Where are we going?”

“Anywhere else. I need a minute.”

“To manhandle me?”

“Trust me. I’d love to.”

“Oh really?”

“Kate, I swear-”

“Later.”

“Really?”

She almost laughed.

“Anthony, why did you pull me away from our son?”

“You aren’t drinking.”

“No.”

“You didn’t want a mimosa?”

“I did.”

“But you didn’t take one.”

“No.”

“Kate.”

“Yes?”

“Seriously?”

“Are you asking me something?”

“You are so fucking difficult.”

“You knew that when you married me.”

“You’re pregnant.”

“Am I?”

She could see a flicker of disappointment in his eyes.

“Aren’t you?”

For once, she took pity on him.

“Anthony. We’ve been trying.”

“Yeah, but with Edmund…”

“I remember.”

That would still always hurt, was still a trial that made this time that much more of a miracle.

“Babe…”

She had been about to say it when a voice rang out from their campsite.

“Kate, you didn’t drink your mimosa??”

Edwina.

“No, I didn’t want one.”

“What?”

“You? Really?”

She could hear quieter, indistinct talking.

“What do you mean you ‘can’t’?”

“Kate??” Mary’s voice sounded thrilled.

“Could we have one fucking moment alone?” Anthony palmed his forehead.

“Swear jar!” Hyacinth and Gregory shouted.

“Wait, is Kate pregnant?” As usual, Eloise cut through the bullshit.

Anthony’s eyes shot back to Kate’s.

She smiled.

“You are?? Really?

“Yes. Really.”

Anthony stared for a moment, and then he picked her up, spinning her around. He put her down, cupping her face and kissing her hard.

Kate knew she was beaming as she pulled back.

She could hear Edwina squealing, could hear footsteps as everyone appeared to be rushing toward them.

Arms wrapped around her from behind – who could say whose they were? And she could vaguely hear chattering and cheering around them, even Newton’s barking. But she only had eyes for her husband, for her son who had run over to catch up with everyone else.

She picked up Edmund, leaning into Anthony as he kissed her again.

“I love you so much.”

“I love you, too.”

“Mama?”

They both looked down.

“How would you like a little brother or sister?”

“Do I have to?”

Kate grinned. “Yes.”