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Fencing Lessons

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“She is pompous and arrogant and quite sure she knows best in every situation” Anthony seethes as he fences an indifferent Colin, “Ah, she sounds like a terrible nuisance.” He quips as he looks to his other brother, Benedict, who watches amused from the bench. “Especially since you are the one who knows best in every situation.” Benedict teases his brother as both Anthony and Colin enter the starting stance for another match. Anthony easily blocks Colin’s moves and soon disarms him, “And the victor of every match today” Colin rolls his eyes at his brother’s arrogance as Anthony replies “Less talking, more fencing. Brother.” As he did not want to be the object Anthony gets his frustrations out on, he hands the sabre to a willing and amused Benedict, wishing him luck. Benedict gets in a more relaxed stance than would be advised, while Anthony, with one hand behind his back takes a more serious stance that would make their old fencing master proud. After a brief exchange in which Anthony easily blocks Benedict’s moves, he asks, “Do you know why I win every time?”

 

 

Benedict not caring where he is trying to take the conversation replies, “Because every time you lose, you claim we cheated.” With Anthony slightly distracted he does a swift move to swing Anthony’s arm over his head and tap him on his back, taking a point. Anthony focused on the ground, ignores his brother’s comment, and corrects “Because I know my duties. What my purposes are and how to obtain them. Which I will do when I make Miss Edwina my viscountess.” During this mini-speech, Anthony is able to tap Benedict, taking a point for himself. “Miss Edwina and I are well-suited. She is a lovely young lady. She wishes for children… She will make a perfectly agreeable wife.”

 

Benedict, like all his siblings, has heard the duty speech so man times in the past decade, referencing all manners of things and he generally enjoys teasing Anthony, so he does so as he prepares to spar again, pointing out that Anthony is only going for Miss Edwina as he has dismissed and insulted every other eligible miss in town. 'It was a ridiculous that he is choosing to court this way.' Colin smirks watching his brother trying to maintain control of his temper as he hopes to beat Benedict. When he returned from his travels, it was a shock that his brother was in the marriage mart for sure, but hearing from Benedict, Anthony seems to have picked the most detach way to court the misses and he was disappointed and saddened by this.

 

 

 

“You take too much upon yourself, Brother. Perhaps your life might be easier if you pursued someone with a less disagreeable sister.” Colin points out, though he is enjoying the way Miss Sharma seems to have irked his brother, it is the most reactive to anyone outside the family Colin has seen. Anthony charges towards him, “But why should I be the one to admit defeat?!” 'Well, that certainly got him flared up... does he truly want Miss Edwina or is my brother simply wishing to beat Miss Sharma at whatever game he is envisioning'. 

 

“Regardless of which young lady I have chosen to pursue, there would’ve always been some obstinate father or meddlesome aunt in the picture. I shall certainly not let some sister especially one younger than me, keep me from getting what it is that I want.” Anthony huffs. He is tired of this; this ridiculous dance he has to do, worse still, it seems Miss Sharma is the vixen playing the tune for some reason. It would have been easy if there was someone to grant him permission and he could be wed to Miss Edwina by the end of the month, sooner if not for the reading of the banns.

 

Whom you want, you mean?” Benedict corrects irked at his words, “If Hastings had made such a speech about our dear sister, I imagine we all won’t have hesitated to call him out, don’t you think Brother?” Benedict takes a point walking away from an offended Anthony.

 

“Is this still a friendly match, or do we need to find some armour?” Colin quips at his snipping brothers. “What I’m trying to say Brother,” Benedict shows he is not going to engage in another spar yet, “is that you speak of Miss Edwina in a way that we would be offend if we heard someone speak of our sisters in such a manner. You can understand Miss Sharma is protective.”

 

“I understand her position as a sister! I just do not understand why I have to defer to her when their mother does not oppose our courtship.”

 

“Again, I would like to remind you of Hastings.”

 

“That is different, and you are naïve to think it is the same”

 

“Brother,” Colin takes a pause before sharing his thoughts making Anthony impatient. “Yes?”

 

“Why do you want the Diamond anyway?”

 

“Because… because she is the best the ton has to offer, and it will be good for me and this family to only marry the best… will save from the any headache or distractions from my duties and she should be able to dispense the duties of viscountess perfectly. Have I not already said this, are you not listening?!”

 

“I am. I only wonder whether it is worth you marrying a Diamond, or someone capable of raising a Diamond.”

 

“Miss Edwina’s mother” he replied appalled.

 

“Miss Sharma”

 

“What?!” Benedict smiles at this, mainly because Anthony has already proven to be a menace to the woman by trying to court her sister and will only be worse trying to gain Miss Sharma’s hand herself. But Colin makes a good point, and unlike Miss Edwina, Miss Sharma certainly seems like one who would actually make a good Viscountess Bridgerton; it would be foolish to simply discount the individuals in the family, as Anthony considers what would be good for the family and the family name. From his brief contact and what he knows of Miss Edwina, she is certainly sweet and agreeable, which does not bode well surviving their boisterous family, 'Hyacinth would eat her alive if she was to roll over for her each time'.

 

 

“Colin is right. From what I hear and see about her, Miss Sharma is the one guiding her sister through the season, so she is obviously capable of discharging the duties you wish for a viscountess as she has shown by raising Miss Edwina to be by your definition, perfect. Perhaps she should be the one you should court.”

 

“Are you being serious right now or have you both gone mad?” His brothers who had never should anything but disdain and boredom when he spoke of his duties are trying to say they have thought of the woman he should court and marry. With the combined thinking, came to the conclusion of Miss Sharma- the most unpleasant, maddening woman he had the displeasure of meeting. 'It wasn't a displeasure seeing her on horseback...'

 

“Look at it this way, you can either gain her favour for her hand or gain her blessing for Miss Edwina but learning more about Miss Sharma certainly benefits you more that antagonising her.” Colin points out

 

“Besides,” Benedict smiles as he says getting back to a stance, "she has already proven to being able to best you at the races; and if she is able to manage you, certainly Eloise can’t be that much of challenge. Mother certainly needs help wrangling dear sister through the season.”

 

Anthony is staring at the ground thinking about what his brothers have said. He has other reasons he would like to pursue Miss Sharma for himself but didn’t consider her for his family, plus her barbs at the Conservatory Ball have not been forgotten. She'd dressed him down in a manner that enraged him, before he got distracted by the scent she left behind. He had been acting like a cad, but he was amongst men, having a private conversation. 'She should not have been there... she should not have heard those words, perhaps things would have been...' Could it be that easy, to have her for himself and benefit his family? 'She did meet a lot of his main criteria and certainly had her way about her... Benedict and Colin seem to find something to recommend her... but she'd first have to want him and he wasn't sure she would after all that has happened... what a mess.' He is lost in thought when Benedict taps him, “Conceding dear brother, or have we dazzled you with our thoughts on Miss Sharma?”

 

“Of course I will not concede! But I will take to heart what you have said. And as a show of my gratitude, I shall honour Benedict now.” In this spar, Anthony is able to trip Benedict to the floor before helping him up. “What an honour…” Benedict rolls his eyes as Anthony helps him up.

 

“Thank you gentlemen, for the bracing exertion and the advice. Seems I may need to amend my plans for the afternoon, and perhaps secure another victory for the day.” He hugs both his brothers, handing his sabre to Colin, walking away from the befuddled men.

 

“Was that the right path to send him on?” Colin asks Benedict as they watch their brother retreat from them. “I do believe for one thing, Anthony will certainly learn some form of respect as Miss Sharma will not hold back… and honestly, somehow I think it will be good for our brother… but we shall hopefully see, shan’t we” they laugh before getting into a fighting stance and have a far more relax fencing session between the two of them.

 

 

 

 

Anthony is outside Danbury house with Nectar, trying to make sure the horse is calm, when he hears Kate barrelling towards him “How much clearer must I be?! Take your Trojan Horse elsewhere, we are quite done with your falsehoods and trickery.” Not off to a great start but he was not entirely surprised.

 

“No trickery. This is an apology. To you Miss Sharma…”

 

“Oh”, Kate was taken aback. This was not what she expected from him, but she still did not trust him and expects this was his way to win her favour in his pursuit of Edwina.

 

“What is this then?”

 

“I believe, having witnessed your logic proving sound in selecting a winner, Nectar to be an appropriate humble gift to offer my apologies. So again, I apologise for the slight you took with the deception Dorset and I played; it truly was not meant to be an offence. I hoped to gain an audience with Miss Edwina, and he with you. I took the opportunity but did not think of the impact of my actions.”

 

He seemed sincere, but Kate had to try, “Truly, this is all a game to you then; and I am merely a pawn you hope to be rid of to advance to your victory.”

 

“I am not here to play games; I am being sincere in my regret”

 

“You expect me to believe you after what I heard, your actions at the races, all I have read of you?... now you are mean to be trusted?! I certainly am yet to meet a man as brazenly presumptuous- “

 

“You do not even know me!” Anthony countered, struggling to maintain a resolve of calm against the accusations.

 

“I know you are polished. I know you are careful. I know you make promises without so much as uttering a word; and when you do not get your way, are not above deceit. There is not much more I need to know.”

 

Anthony hates how her words stings, and that there is some truth in her word. He hands Nectar to the Danbury footman. Kate looks to the gift as she realises, she is yet to thank the man for it, she briefly looks longingly at the horse, excited at the prospect of racing him in the park but she won’t back down from this; Lord Bridgerton and whatever game he has afoot.

 

“Miss Sharma, if this is about what you heard on the terrace the other night, you are not wrong; what I said is inexcusable." he looks at her and her expression is unreadable, ‘frustrating minx’ 

 

 

"But you act as if I’m some kind of villain, but as I said before, you do not even know me… you have been exceptionally clear about what it is you do not wish, for your sister, but not exactly what she has voiced she desires, so allow me to prove my mettle to you.”

 

Before Kate can reply, Edwina starts walking to them, and Anthony takes the small bouquet of flowers his footman holds for him. “Lord Bridgerton” she greets with a deep curtsey. He bows in return, acknowledging her before he hands her the bouquet. “This is an apology to you for my ungentlemanly behaviour of interrupting your time with Lord Lumley. As I have apologised to your sister with the horse you were worried about, I truly hope that in time, your opinions of me will improve.” She thanks him and he watches her beam towards Miss Sharma who gives a tight smile back.

“Thank you.” Kate says to him, surprising him. “For Nectar, it is an extremely generous gift…”

“The least you deserve Miss Sharma” smiling, clamping down on the warmth growing in his chest like the first day he saw her.

With that, he bids goodbye to both women and heads to his carriage. He looks back watching Miss Sharma who is now caressing the nose of Nectar, smiling. It seems that there was a possibility to win her over after all.

 

Lady Danbury smiles as they return to the drawing room acknowledging that the viscount is very generous with his affections seeing as he already bought Edwina a fine horse. Edwina corrects the Dowager that Nectar was purchased for Kate as an apology and Kate as is an avid rider, it works well for her. Lady Danbury is shocked but does not let her expression be read, she watches as Edwina twirls the bouquet and Kate sit pensively obviously reconsidering her opinion of the viscount. A horse is an expensive gift for merely the sister of the woman one is courting, but it seemed to at least have the elder miss reconsidering her stance on the viscount. Lady Mary regales that it is obvious the viscount’s intent, if he is ensuring to endear himself with the family.

 

 

 

 

The whole Bridgerton clan have been invited to the Danbury soiree for Edwina’s suitors. Kate ensured to include an additional thank you note for Lord Bridgerton's as her mother couldn't believe she was arguing with a man who had given her such an extraordinary gift. As they prepare to go down, Edwina is obviously excited and expresses her hopes that the viscount does something romantic. “Edwina, regardless of the viscount’s actions today, I caution you to still be careful. Men like him… I only mean to protect you Bon.”

 

“I know, Didi, but I hope that you can give him a chance. After all, you now have a horse of your own to go on your morning rides.” Kate cannot find a leg to argue against him and hopes that neither she nor her sister are not disappointed.

 

When the Bridgertons- Lady Violet, Anthony, Colin, and a very reluctant Eloise, arrive, Anthony stands to the side with Colin, watching the car crash that is being passed as the talent displayed by the men of the Ton. He walks over to Kate and Eloise and overhears part of their conversation.

 

“At least it is the men who are making fools of themselves this time.” Kate laughs

 

“Was this your idea?” Eloise asks with a laugh in her voice.

 

“I wish I could take credit, but no. Lady Danbury encouraged a poetry reading. The men, thanks to their spirit and competition, concocted the rest of this farce on their own.”

 

“Of course they did” his sister said with such derision. He feared that Miss Sharma may pair him with the group. He had spoken to Colin and Benedict earlier this evening, and they suggested that he does participate. He was starting to loathe taking advice from his brothers, as it seemed they only wanted to humiliate him. 'One day, fratricide shall be legal.'

 

“You are the viscount’s sister, yes?” Kate asks, curious about the confusing, vexing man who never seems to do or be exactly what she expects of him.

 

“One of them. But do not hold it against me.” Eloise replies, absentmindedly as she continues to watch the show, it seemed difficult to look away though there was nothing about it to recommend the continued interest.

 

“The fact the viscount is your relation almost makes me think better of him.” Kate replies. Seems that Eloise will have to join in their mini war room to help endear him to Miss Sharma.

 

“We should certainly not give him too much credit, now, should we?” they laugh. Or maybe not…

 

“Sister, Miss Sharma”

 

“Lord Bridgerton” Kate gives a tight smile and returns to watch the farce in front of them. “What talent will you be displaying tonight?”

 

“I was told it was a poetry reading. If not for Lumley, I’d think you were trying to make of fool of me.”

 

“Oh no, I trust you to do that all by yourself” she said with a smile, and Eloise laughs at the joke. ‘No, Eloise certainly may be of some help, but I will not invite her help as I court Colin and Benedict’s.’

 

Lady Danbury’s voice cuts through his thoughts as she invites him up. He stands to the front looking at Kate with a brief glance to Edwina. Eloise already laughing, even with his glares at her. He straightens his coat, coughing and looks to the poem in his hand, wondering how he got himself here. “This is not my work, but that of my brother’s. So, when anyone sees Benedict, do tell him I did this poem justice…” earning him some laughs from the audience.

“What is it, truly, to admire a woman?

To look at her and feel inspiration.

To delight in her beauty.

So much so that all your defences crumble,

that you would willingly take on any pain,

any burden for her.

To honour her being, with your deed and words.”

 

He looks up and keeping eye contact with Kate, “That is wat the true poet describes.”

 

There was a heavy silence in the room before Edwina begun the applause, and the rest of the room joined. Kate excuses herself to get some air, and Anthony tries follow her, but is stopped by Lord Fife, Lord Cho, and the same man he forgets his name every time from the conservatory ball. “Bridgerton, seem to be doing better than others in courting the diamond. I saw you speaking with the sister earlier, seems you are charming her well.”

 

“I would hardly say I have charmed her, but I’m certainly enjoying the challenge she poses. Miss Sharma is certainly a formidable and intelligent woman.”

 

The men laugh, Cho retorts “Well she would have to be, lying to herself she is protecting her sister when one can only suspect jealousy as the true reason.”

 

“I’d watch your tongue in their home Cho. Nothing Miss Sharma is doing, is any different to what I would in protection of my sisters. If you are unable to respect that, I suggest you excuse yourselves and leave.”

 

Anthony walks away irritated, 'No wonder Miss Sharma cut him, if that was the company he kept.' He almost bumps into Lady Danbury who gives her a knowing smirk before she walks away. Danbury think that Miss Sharma can have no opposition to a man who shows respect to a woman who has repeated showed him disdain. Besides, he is the only one that was not painfully terrible.

 

As the night winds down, and the guests leave, the four women retire to their rooms with much to think of. The next morning, they discuss the men and their displays. Danbury nods approvingly as Lady Mary says the viscount would not be one to engage in such activities if he was not infatuated with Edwina, and none of the women particularly like any of the other men that showcased their talent, and Lord Bridgerton was the most eligible of the ton to declare his intent for marriage this year. Kate feels unsure of raising her apprehension especially when Danbury states that the viscount has shown a turn around since Kate’s last report of his thoughts to the marriage mart. Kate does not want to seem like she is holding onto a grudge for no reason so simply nods and drinks the dreadful English tea.

 

Before they can further discuss, the footmen arriving with the train of flowers as usual, but one set is different. Lord Bridgerton has sent bouquets of pink rose buds for each woman. And the one for Kate, comes with a large bone for Newton after hearing from Eloise how fond of her dog Kate was. The note attached stated: I will not apologise for last night. I did warn you… Kate laughed softly, and the three women looked at her confused. No other woman had a message come with their flowers only his calling card. Newton takes his bone and finds himself in his favourite corner receiving some sun. Kate would not admit it to anyone, least of all Lord Bridgerton, but these were the first flowers she received here, and she did not realise how much she wanted flowers just for herself and not just the ones spilt over from Edwina’s.

 

 

The next night is a ball at the Carrington House. It is in full swing when the Sharmas and Lady Danbury arrive. Edwina is whisked away by Lumley and when Anthony comes to the group, Kate sighs still unsure why she is opposed to Lord Bridgerton but will not voice her thoughts. “Miss Sharma, you look beautiful tonight”

 

“Not every other night you’ve seen me”

 

“Kate” her mother chides.

 

Anthony smiles knowing Miss Sharma will never make this easy for him but does relish the challenge. The way she smirks and tilts her head slightly before delivering her retort. “May I have this dance, Miss Sharma?”

 

“Yes, you may…” Lady Danbury replies on her behalf, hitting her with her cane so she would step forward. Anthony takes her hand, enjoying the mini coup that led to her being in his arms and leads her to the floor. She sees Edwina who looks surprised but delighted before she turns back to Lumley. The dance begins, and Kate feels nervous or annoyed in his arms. They dance seamlessly, even though when she trades partners, the other men are certainly not as smooth as Lord Bridgerton. They spin, dance, laughing at each other wincing when their toes are trodden on by other partners, and she actually enjoys the dance with him. When it concluded, she is breathless from laughing with him, and at him. Anthony studies Kate, every smile, every time she uses her fingers to curl the loose tresses framing her face, those eyes. ‘She is stunning, that was what I first though when I saw her in the park, but now…

 

“Tell me Lord Bridgerton, how far are you willing to go to endear yourself to me in hopes I approve your courtship of my sister?” He is brought out of his revery and he realises that he had made a decision regarding the sister he wished to court, and it was not Miss Edwina, but if he tells Miss Sharma, he is unsure if she would receive his advances, not after the way he has behaved so far. They are taking a turn around the room, with many of the Ton watching them but he was focused on her. “Actually, I wanted to tell you, I will respect your wishes with regards to your sister. I… I still do not believe I am looking for a love match and if that is what your sister desires, I cannot honestly say I will provide that for her…”

 

“Thank you” Kate breathes a sigh of relief. He acknowledges what she had been hesitant of, even with his gestures, she did not believe that he was not offering love. “I’m sorry. It’s just with your gestures…”

 

“I was apologising, and even the soiree, I just... I didn’t want to seem too arrogant to not engage, though by my reading you must wish I stayed silent.” He smiled.

 

“No, you were not as terrible as you think.” She says with a laugh before turning serious, “And thank you for… Thank you. I just don’t know how I will tell Edwina.”

 

“Please, I was the one who started this. I will tell her tonight.” She nods and continues to circle the hall till they reach her party which Lady Bridgerton has joined exasperated that she has lost Eloise again. The rest of the night goes by in blur, and Anthony never had a chance to speak with Edwina, but he spent quite a bit speaking with Kate. She was delightful when she was not insulting him, and even then, though he will certainly not admit it and encourage her.

 

Benedict and Colin watched their brother as he seemed to have made his choice for who he was courting. “It seems we are to have a new sister-in-law.”

 

“We were always to have a new sister-in-law. It just seems that this is one may possibly change our dear brother for the better” Colin says as he smiles at the scene. Glad to have interfered even without predicting how well it would turn out for his brother.

 

 

 

The morning after, Anthony is promenading with his mother who is very confused about Anthony’s lack of courting Miss Edwina. He spent time with her, and her family but never escorted her to the floor. Hyacinth laughs at her older brother’s obvious frustration with their mother’s eagerness to have him married. “Mother, Anthony was courting a lot of women, maybe he hasn’t decided which one yet.”

 

“But he had decided, and now I want to know what changed his mind.” Violet said exasperated.

 

“Mother, please…” Anthony looks down, letting a breath of frustration out. As he does so, he looks up to see Dorset speaking with Miss Sharma and Miss Edwina. Lumley awkwardly standing next to them seeming bored. Anthony excused himself before his mother could continue prodding; if he didn’t do this now, it will only get worse the longer Miss Edwina thought he was still courting her.

 

“Miss Sharma, Miss Edwina, Dorset, Lumley” he greets the group. “Apologies but I was hoping for a word with you Miss Edwina, is will only take a minute Lumley.” He knew Lumley would not make a scene, but this would be the second interruption and Lumley would certainly not forgive another, but he was sure there would be no more. Miss Edwina took his hand as he led her away from the group.

 

“Miss Edwina, I appreciate your time, and again I beg your forgiveness for the interruption. But after how I spoke with you at the Diamond Ball, I thought, regardless of how brief the courtship, I felt I owe you a conversation to let you know I was withdrawing my courtship.”

 

“My lord, I do not understand.” She says startled but regains control over the tenor of her voice, “All your gifts, actions, words at the… you asked for my Appa.”

 

“When my mother announced my intention to marry, she had a romantic notion of me finding a love match but that is not my plan. The truth is, I recall what my sister endured as the diamond. Weaving through the suitors who only pursued her for her status. And I realized I did the same thing, and I know you deserve better than to be treated in a way I would never allow my sisters to be treated. I feel most of our interactions have me apologising but I want you to know I am sincere.”

 

She nods but still seems dazed. Edwina was so sure Lord Bridgerton had affections for her but by his comparison, ‘Does he see me like his sisters? Miss Eloise is out but the there are two who are not… Does he see me as merely a naïve child?!’

 

He walks her to her group, and she tries to focus on Lumley who is reciting the same poem from the Races. ‘Does this man do nothing else? Why is Kate insisting… Kate… last night Lord Bridgerton danced with Kate but not me. He was getting her blessing? Did she tell him to leave me? After all he went to endear himself to her, she still rejected him? No, Kate wouldn’t do that to me. I will speak to her once we are home.’

 

When they get home, the conversation does not go as smooth as Edwina had planned it to go as not only did Kate know he intended to end to courtship, but she still spent the rest of the night at his side like nothing had happened. Edwina stalked to her room, refusing to speak with her sister further. Her mother unsure what to do as Edwina wouldn’t receive her either. Danbury is confused as what exactly had taken place. From what Miss Edwina said, Miss Sharma was not involved; he simply repeated what he said last night to Miss Sharma to Miss Edwina this morning… but his actions? … she was certain there was more to his actions, and she was not going to be left to look a fool. She makes an incredible match last year and neither of the parties resided in her home. Her name, her connections would not fail the ones she is sponsoring. For now, she will observe what is happening, and maybe pay closer attention to Miss Sharma and Lord Bridgerton.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The next dawn after his talk with Miss Edwina, he takes a risk and goes for a morning ride with the intention of seeing Miss Sharma. He hadn’t used this route since after the Diamond Ball when he learnt the identity of the mysterious rider. He sees her caressing Nectar’s nose. ‘That has to be a good sign that she rides with Nectar…’ he thought hopefully; truly he could never really predict her, she always managed to surprise him. He trots towards her knowing their time together is short. “Miss Sharma”, Kate knows who is there before he calls to her. She turns to him glaring, still angry about her fight with Edwina even as she knew it was coming. In such a short time, he had charmed them both, but it is Edwina that is hurt. He gets off Onyx, tying his trusted stead to a nearby tree before walking tentatively towards her. “I had a feeling I would find you here this morning.”

 

“You and your feelings” she mutters rolling her eyes, before turning to fully face him. “If you knew I would be here, why is it that you came?”

 

“But of course I did!”

 

“There is nothing obvious about this, my lord, why are you here?!”

 

“Because I knew you would be upset after I ended the courtship with Miss Edwina, though there was not much to end to be…” he sees the look of rage in her face, and he tries to reassure her that he was a gentleman and endeavoured to end it with grace befitting her sister. “But I saw her face, she was disappointed, and I know how it feels to comfort your siblings. I truly did not aim to hurt Miss Edwina. You must know that; we spoke about…”

 

“I still don’t see why you are here. Of course I am upset, you are the cause of it! Why are you here?!”

 

“Because… because…”

 

“Yes”

 

“I wanted to speak with you, or listen… I don’t know… I just felt I should be here.”

 

“I do not understand you…”

 

“I barely understand myself these days to be perfectly honest but still, I imagined that there are few places you get to spend the anger you feel. If I were in your shoes I would likely be at the club with my brothers, so I am here just because…”

 

They watch each other in silence, trying to gauge the other’s reaction or what to say next. The air feels heavy, unlike how it was the first time they were in these woods. It was light, fun, an air of mystery full of excitement; turning what seemed like a dreadful drag into the season into a promising feeling of possibilities. This was not that...

 

Kate looks away first, confused by the man standing in front of her. He is exactly like the man she first met but she recalls the disappointment she felt when she overheard him on the terrace. She recalls the rage she felt seeing him dance with Edwina and try to court her. But now… this arrogant enigma of a man who for all she has come to know about him, does not concede to anyone, seems to have stopped the courtship because of her. It feels different to the men who cowered away and scurried like the rats that they were. He stood tall, spoke to her with respect he certainly did not seem to have for her when he and Dorset concocted their scheme. He danced with her the other night and seemed to have respectfully ended the courtship with Edwina, speaking with her instead of letting her find out from one of the gossip sheets or insipid members of the ton, that his attentions- certainly not affections, have shifted to another. She was confused, “I still don’t understand..."

 

“Miss Sharma…”

 

“I still don’t understand why you do not wish for a love match. In theory I understand what many of the peerage desire is, as you eloquently said, a wife to wed, bed and breed or at least a prized piece to show how easy you charmed the perfect debutante” He winced at his words and Kate found satisfaction in his shame.

“But you are respectful not only of the desires of my sister, even though Edwina would have been the perfect viscountess I can assure you of that!” he smiles at the pride she has, not in herself for raising Miss Edwina to excel but in her sister being able to excel in itself. He thinks of his siblings and how he feels about their accomplishments, with or without his help/support, his family is his pride and joy, and it seems Miss Edwina is Miss Sharma’s.

“… but of me… and I know you come from a family well known from their love stories so why deny yourself and why are you being kind to me after all that has passed between us these first few days of our acquaintance?”

 

“That is a lot to ask an acquaintance to regale don’t you think” he said with a smirk

 

She huffs impatiently as Anthony smiles at her frustration, ‘She is certainly easy to rattle, why do I enjoy this so much?’

 

“Are you always this antagonistic to everyone?” He had to know. Was this thing between them her or was it the two of them. Do other men feel this when she speaks with them?...

 

“Have you considered that it is you that inspires such antagonism”

 

“You seem to have a special spite towards me despite the fact that some of the words you throw against me were not mine”

 

“But you agreed with the sentiment”

 

“But do you treat other gentlemen as you do me?”

 

“You aren’t always present, you cannot know how I treat the other, as you call them, gentlemen. Though nothing so far leads me to believe they are such”

 

“I am trying to make amends; you must see that! I am not here to argue but you always seem to have a barb at the tip of your tongue for me and… this is not how I foresaw this conversation, not that anything with you is ever as I imagined it to be.”

 

“Because I am not falling for your charms or grand gestures”

 

“Miss Sharma…” God, she was infuriating! Is this what he is resigned to, courting the most difficult women in all of England... probably the world, he could travel like Colin and still not anyone like her.

 

“I do not understand all this!”

 

“All what?” For heaven's sake what is it that I do that frustrates this woman, as if she is not the frustrating one!

 

“Your actions, your behaviours, the fact that you are here! And again, your drastic change?!”

 

“To answer your earlier question about the love match, the demand of the viscountcy takes a lot from me especially when added to the demands of my family, we are quite large as you know” she bites back a smile at the affection he is unable to hide in his tone as he speaks of his family.

“I came into the viscountcy young and earlier than expected so how I have learnt to manage it leaves little room for the nuisance that love would be in a marriage so I seek an amiable partner who is capable and will be in a marriage of respect. Though I know my words that day did not inspire confidence that I would respect my wife, I have 4 sisters and would treat my wife in a manner I expect my sisters to be treated in their marriages. That’s why I sought the diamond, the best the Ton has to offer, but it made me no better than the toads that sought Daphne’s hand last year.”

He held his hand to stop her before she interrupted and threw his words in his face again. ‘I swear, even on my death bed she will not let me live them down; probably find a way to have them on my tombstone’. Anthony was shocked at the fact he is able to think of his end in such a light-hearted manner; even more shocked that he already imagines Miss Sharma there, he just is not set on what capacity. She is stubborn about her sister, he imagines her to be twice as difficult should he broach the subject of courting her and time is not on their side at the moment, he notes as light starts to filter into the space.

 

“My life has had a certain pattern to it- I wake up to a list of duties to fulfil, break my fast with my family, and on the days I do not have meetings, calls, or parliament, the only time I see another person in my office, is when they have a request of me. So, in that room I stay until the late hours unless there is some mind-numbing event I need to attend. I go to bed knowing the next day and every day after will be the same. It is endless! I need a wife who will not add to that duty but is capable of assisting and thinking independently; and I do not believe you want me to insult your sister by claiming she is not, but she requires something I cannot give.”

 

She is still quiet, and Anthony is unsure if she understands what he has just said. No one, especially his family, seems to understand he is willing to do this, have a loveless, respectable marriage so he keeps his family in the respectable position they have and are used to and still ensure he is always able to provide them what they need; including the space to chase love for themselves and not worry about respectability.

 

“When my father died, it was difficult. Two women and a 10-year-old girl facing a world of men. I too stayed in an office, unable to call it my own because I am a woman, staring at numbers till I was dizzy and barely sane. No prospects for employment that would provide fully for our family and the men that would want to marry, had no problems saying they would discard the rest of us, taking only a wife, whether it was me, my mama or Edwina. It didn’t matter, they never saw their wife’s family as part of it. I do not want my sister to have to make that choice, that is why I want her to have love, as a man in love would never throw his wife’s mother out; so with love, I know our mama will be safe… and it is why I am focused on Edwina; her and our mother’s happiness are the most important thing to me, and I will not see them left without. So, I understand your principles in the matter as I too am willing to sacrifice anything for that.”

 

Anthony stares surprised that she does not only understand, but she is the same. She does not care for what the ton thinks of her as long as they think kindly of her sister, to give her sister a chance. She would not tolerate fools, he certainly didn’t with Daphne last year- ‘Well except for the mishap with Berbrooke…’ She is wise, kind, practical, proven capable… they certainly seem amiable right now. He knows he is attracted to her, who wouldn’t be, but more than that, he imagines she would be just as protective of his sisters as she is of Miss Edwina, just simply thinking back to her interaction with Eloise the other night. ‘It seems it would not be foolish to court Miss Sharma, I just have to find a way to charm her into accepting…’

 

“I respect the position you are in; as the eldest you certainly understand duty a lot more than most men of the ton, including my brothers who endlessly tease me but do not hesitate to reap the benefits of me attending to those duties” this illicit a laugh from Kate thinking about all she sacrificed to get her family here and Edwina asking like it magically appeared for her as it was her due. Anthony smiles at her laugh, hoping this would not be the last time he hears it. “I recall the difficulties guiding my sister last year, even more I recall my mistakes that would have left her unhappy saved for my mother interference. I see how you care for your family and the difference in the challenges you face navigating the ton, even with the dragon’s help.” This time, Kate laughs out, clapping her hand to her mouth, realising she cannot be caught alone with Lord Bridgerton, ‘For one, their ridiculous culture will require me to marry him if only to save Edwina from ruin and the death to part them will come sooner rather than later…’

 

“I am a gentleman and know more about some of the men courting your sister as there are things only men can say when not in the company of ladies, barring the ones who take to eavesdropping.” She glares at him but there is no heat in her stare. ‘He is teasing me’

 

“I will happily offer insight into the men you consider for your sister if you wish to have it; as I said, I know how easy it is to bumble through the marriage mart, which is why I waited until Daphne was settled before announcing my intention.”

 

“First of all, your mother announced your intention, and secondly, why would you do that. Are you trying to get rid of your competition?”

 

“I have already said I am not going to court your sister and I keep my word, and ask you respect that I will”

 

“But why help?”

 

“Because you are the first person that I can have a conversation with outside my family that does not make me want to pull my hair out. If I am to converse with you, I imagine you would not want to be distracted from your sister and it is the least I could do that will not lead you to giving me another dressing down.”

 

“So, I am some sort of respite, a haven away from the mamas and their daughter you wish to avoid”

 

“I do not mean it as an insult, I simply enjoy our time together and respect that you need that time to be more productive for your sister” Kate holds the riding crop, twisting it in her hands sheepishly as she avoids looking into his eyes. 'They always confuse me'. She doesn’t completely trust him but if he can help, she will not turn it down. Plus, he has not done anything today to earn her ire today, and yet she cannot help but push and challenge until he gives as good as she does. She realises she did enjoy his company at the ball, it was the first dance of the season she did enjoy. She is even enjoying speaking to him here, now though she fought his presence initially. So, she relents...

 

“Okay… I have a list, but I did not bring it here…”

 

“Perhaps I call on you today and we discuss it”

 

“I need to chaperone Edwina’s calls!”

 

“Your mother and Lady Danbury are there, you will better at chaperoning when armed with the information, don’t you think?” She pauses thinking about what it means for him to call on her.

 

“I want to help, and do not want you to be like I was, the protective older sibling who lost sight of the sibling they were guiding”

 

“Fine… but I do hope to hear more of your bumbling, I heard some titbits, but I imagine the full story is far more entertaining” after another heavy pause when they realise how close they got, the walk back away from each other, shaking the realisation of the impropriety of their situation.

“Miss Sharma, that is a secret you must earn in this acquaintance” She laughs rolling her eyes at him. “but I must to ask..." stopping her as she seems ready to walk away. They should leave, it is early now

"We have been talking about your sister and her matches, but not of yours. Are you, like my other siblings, out but do not wish to marry?”

 

“I am here for my sister…” she ground out, for some reason not saying she was never considering herself or telling him of her plans to return after Edwina is settled.

 

“Ah… so when you are sure your sister is settled then you make plans for yourself.”

 

“What makes you think I do not already have plans; I simply am not sharing them with you.” She began to walk towards Nectar and got up without assistance impressing Anthony.  He walks to her and with a smirk he retorts, “Not yet…” and returns to his horse, missing her needing to regain her composure before she disappeared just like she did when they first met.

 

 

 

 

 

At the next ball, Kate has feigned a wound to avoid dancing. It seems more gentlemen are trying to escort her to the floor either to speak on Edwina, or some of the foolish ones who believe Lord Bridgerton to be courting her and are attempting to court her too. ‘Mindless sheep’. After the last two days, Lord Bridgerton had called once on the day of their meeting in the woods but sent flowers to her only on both days. So instead of taking to the floor, he offers commentary on Edwina’s suitors causing her to laugh, and at times he laughs out loud to her responses drawing attention to them both. This usually leads to them turning their head up to the ceiling to avoid eye contact with others before they look at each other again and laugh anew. Edwina has been giving Kate the cold shoulder, so Kate gives her insight to her mother and Lady Danbury who are impressed with what the viscount shares, 'maybe I shouldn't be with him like this after he hurt her, but he is trying to help… she will understand'.

Lady Danbury keeping to her word has paid attention to Miss Sharma and Lord Bridgerton, and sees not only how well they suit, but that they do not seem open to courting each other and have deluded themselves to see each other as merely friends.

 

‘That will not do; Miss Edwina as Diamond can still get an esteemed match, but to match Miss Sharma, a woman without a direct noble lineage that the ton deemed on the shelf to the most eligible bachelor of the season, that certainly will be the coup of the season and by my hand no less. Two esteemed matches of the women I am hosting, let’s see what Whistledown will say about that.’

 

Edwina returns from one of her dances to find Kate smiling beside Lord Bridgerton. ‘Why is he here after snubbing me? And why is Kate entertaining it? She is my sister, has she no loyalty?’ He attempts to greet her but receives a cold response, Lady Danbury quips to Miss Sharma and Lord Bridgerton about their laughter, and how they must need refreshments if they are to continue to fill the hall with it. Lord Bridgerton escorts Kate to the refreshment table as Edwina tries to temper the rolling her eyes at the slight. “I had hoped not to deal with fools this season” Lady Danbury comments to Edwina.

 

“Yes, he is a fool for ending the courtship and still not having the decency to stay away.”

 

“I am talking about you!” she hisses in reply

 

“ME?! How am I a fool?” she hissed back

 

“First of all, watch your tone, I am not your sister that permits your insolence. Secondly, he danced with you once and never called once as he came late, walking into my home like he should be accommodated. Then on your outing with Lord Lumley, crashed it and still spent most of the races speaking with your sister. I hardly call that a courtship. The only difference between him and other suitors that did the same, was he told you of his lack of interest and not simply walk away.”

 

“So, what you are saying is that he did not want me but wishes to court Kate!”

 

“And what exactly is the problem with that?! Besides, at the moment, he is simply being a gentleman and even helping with your courtship with the information he shares with your sister”

 

“So, he does not wish to court me but would like to manage my prospect, what right…”

 

“He manages nothing, he tells more than he is obligated to that frames the picture your mother and I use to view your prospects. You would do well to show gratitude to both Lord Bridgerton and your sister” with that, Lady Danbury stalks away as the next mind and toe-numbing suitor takes Edwina to the floor for the next set.

 

 

 

The next day is a luncheon hosted by the Queen, but the Danbury house receives morning callers who wish to escort the Sharmas to the event. Dorset has returned from a short visit to his family estate; he had sent flowers as an apology, but this will be the second time since the races he saw Kate, but first where he can declare his intentions to her. He brings a beautiful bouquet of tulips that she adores, and they stay on a table near them as he calls. She enjoys his company, he is a pleasant man who should not be judged by his acquaintances, especially as she recently adopted that same acquaintance. She steals glances at Edwina who is being called on by Lord Furling, but he is fortunately not escorting Edwina as Lord Lumley dedicated in his pursuit secured that honour. Lord Bridgerton had no objections, but Edwina doesn’t seem set on him.

 

As she speaks with Dorset, the footmen come in with five grand bouquets of lilies, but of different colours. She begins to laugh as she can already tell they were for her and all from Lord Bridgerton who she teased the not knowing her favourite flower, despite his unfailing resources. He seemed to have taken it as a challenge, and she hates to admit that he won quite extraordinarily. She looks to her mother who seems shocked at the displays, and a footman brings the note: I know it is lilies, the question is what colour do you favour more? I hope you give me some assistance in knowing so I may never make the mistake of sending the wrong flowers. She smiles at the note, which Dorset notes sadly as he looks to his bouquet. She has them sent to her room, requesting the orange ones to be on her bedside. She returns to her conversation with Dorset, her countenance changed.

 

“It seems you have had a turnaround about the viscount”

 

“No one is more shocked than me, but he has been earnest in his apologies, and he is respectful to my family. It seems he is not such a terrible acquaintance after all”

 

“And that is all he is to you then…”

 

“Please do not tell me you are like the rest believing he is courting me”

 

“I think Miss Sharma, you are the only one who does not subscribe to that truth.”

 

Before she can reply, Lady Danbury reports she needs to attend to the Queen so the group must leave for the Luncheon soon. The callers are escorted out and Kate walks into her room pondering what Mr. Dorset had said. ‘It could not be… this is not the first time friends had sent her flowers… nothing this grand but she had never befriended a viscount. These English sensibilities.’ She thinks about why she is enjoying the attention but does not let herself dwell as the ladies’ maids come to help her change for the luncheon.

 

 

At the luncheon, Lady Danbury is with Queen Charlotte who is confused as to why Whistledown reported that the viscount was not courting her Diamond. Lady Danbury explains, “The viscount certainly danced and even met Miss Edwina at the races. But he is a man in charge of a large family, including siblings older than Miss Edwina who should they marry, she would be expected to launch. She is lovely and has not shortage of suitors, but for a family man such as Lord Bridgerton, they are important in his consideration and I noted how similar he is to Lady Mary’s eldest, Miss Sharma.”

 

They both look up to see Miss Sharma speaking with Hyacinth and Francesca. They make her laugh as Hyacinth excitedly shows her something on a pamphlet and Francesca smiles at her sister’s antics. Over them, they see Lord Bridgerton, distracted from his conversation with Sir Partridge as he smiles at the three. “Hmmm… he does seem smitten”

 

“Yes, but they are both just as stubborn as they are dutiful. I do understand you wish for an illustrious match for Miss Edwina, but as both their sponsor, you can understand I want what is best for them as well as what pleases you.” Lady Danbury looks warily at the Queen who could take offence to Lord Bridgerton’s snobbery of the diamond, though she herself does not view it as such. The Queen has Brimsley bring Miss Sharma who intelligently schools her surprise as she approaches the Queen. Edwina watches and fears, like Lord Bridgerton, Kate is about to take the Queen’s favour from her but cannot find a way to excuse herself from another one of Lord Lumley’s poems. ‘I said he is a dandy, why am I still here? Why is Kate being called? Am I not the diamond? This is not the season Kate and mama promised!’

 

Kate seats with the Queen and Lady Danbury, she is poised and graceful with an air of confidence and strength many of the ton lack in the presence of the Queen. ‘I like her…’

 

“Tell me Miss Sharma, how is the season so far, I understand you lived in the palace in India. How does the English palace compare?”

 

“Your Majesty, our visit to the palace was most breath taking, and I am grateful for the invitation to such a glorious home. The Palace in India became a home and I fear I won’t do it justice as I mostly recall the hidden places the Rajas and Ranis play hide and seek with Edwina and me. I imagine the intimate knowledge you have of you home gives it an additional layer of beauty; it hides from the rest of us.” Queen Charlotte was impressed, without actually comparing the palaces, she made both personal and complimented them well.

 

They speak more on her relationship with the Royal Court of India, and it seems to the Queen that she could have been a match to one of the Rajas if she did not elect to come to England for her sister’s future instead. They talk about bot their disappointments with Miss Edwina’s prospects, with Kate speaking about more than Edwina’s competences but her passions and interests. The Queen tells her that her nephew, the Prince, was visiting again this season, with his plans to move here and hopefully find a match. She looks at Lady Danbury as she says that, and she hides a knowing smile. Kate expresses her gratitude for the Queen’s kind favour and tries to return to her mother and sister, but they are already joining the Queen, so she goes to Anthony instead.

 

“He almost married Daphne; I gave my approval, but she accepted Simon instead. And she is certainly happy for the love match she found. I hope your sister finds that with him. He is a good man.”

 

“I am grateful to the Queen for everything… this season was not going as expected and she again is being very generous to my family…”

 

“Which is very much deserved. You have a wonderful family, and I am happy you sister is getting that esteemed match which will…”

 

“Do you think a Prince of Prussia counts as an Englishman of nobility?”

 

“What do you mean?” Kate looks at his confused face searching for something in his eyes. She must have found it as she quietly and briefly tells him of Lady Mary’s family, their history and stipulations made for Edwina's dowery.

 

“That’s why you have been quite selective...”

 

“Yes and no. I told you, a kind man, one in love will not turn our mama away and that is what I care about, both my sister and mother taken care of, regardless of his position or title; as long as Edwina is in love, that will always take precedent over titles.”

 

“What of you?”

 

“What of me?”

 

“You speak of your sister and mother being taken care of, by either Miss Edwina’s match or your grandpar…”

 

“They are not my grandparents”, she said defensively. “I am not Lady Mary’s by birth, you know that. And they ensure I never forget. I was not in the deal, in fact, I'm sure they'll be glad to pay only to be rid of me. I only agreed to it as the two most important people in my life would be cared for.”

 

“You agreed to it?…”

 

“They do not know… I did not wish that burden on Edwina”

 

“So, you took it for yourself.”

 

“Would you not have?” For his family, yes. He is fortunate, even with the burdens of the viscountcy, he nor any of his family, had to want for anything.

 

He gives a non-committal hmm, “I do what I must and what I can for those I love. Nothing is impossible as long as they are healthy, happy, and safe. That is my duty, and I will never drop it.”

 

Anthony smiles at that. “What?” Kate asks, “I said the same thing once” He replied.

 

The continue to enjoy the luncheon, not noting Lady Violet Bridgerton watching her son fall in love, smiling as she makes eye contact with her third youngest who seems to approve. She may not be the diamond, but she brings out a smile in her son she has not seen for a long time.

 

 

 

 

When the parties return to their homes, Violet corners her son in his office and asks about his change of heart.

 

“Mother…”

 

“I like her Anthony… I like her for you. I know you were set to court the diamond and I was not sure why you stopped, but I am happy you found Miss Sharma. She is wonderful. Hyacinth cannot stop talking about her. It seems she promised to promenade with her so she may meet her dog.”

 

“Newton, yes… the menace” he muttered recalling the dog's growl when he tried to pet him. Kate laughed saying he was a good judge of character. Of course, the dog would take its mistress' side.

 

“What?”

 

“Nothing, I am glad Hyacinth likes her, but I am not courting…”

 

“But you spend so much time with her!”

 

“Yet, I am not courting her yet. Mother... She is fixed on settling her sister and as you recall last year’s debacle, us eldest can get ahead of ourselves. I will express my intentions when next I see her and hope she will be receptive.”

 

Violet smiles and says she will call on Lady Danbury and see how she may help, which Anthony declines. “Mother, if you think me stubborn, be grateful for Miss Sharma is certainly worse… she will never do anything unless she wants to, and I need her to want to be courted not made to be…” She nods and agrees but plans to prepare and early invitation to the country visit to the Sharmas. ‘Better to have it ready for when he asks!’

 

 

 

At the Danbury house, Edwina reports that the Queen wishes invite her to the palace later in the season when the Prince arrives. Kate remarks that the Queen had been disappointed with the meagre options the ton offered and told her of the Prince’s plans to eventually settle in England. “But she does hope we suit right?”

 

“Yes. It seems like you, he shares your passion for reading, I was discussing your…”

 

“Why would you tell her about that? You said before men do not like a woman who challenges their intelligence.”

 

“Yes, but that does not mean their intelligence shouldn’t be challenged. Bon, I want you to be able to be yourself in the courtship so that there are no surprises in the marriage”

 

“Oh, so I am not letting men court me properly, is that why the viscount withdrew his suit?”

 

“Edwina, he told you he does not want a love match which is what you want correct”

 

“But you believe you can inspire a change in him for yourself?”

 

“Edwina, he is not courting me. We are merely friends…”

 

“Again Miss Edwina, I do not believe if he was courting your sister, it is any of your concern!” Lady Danbury retorted at the pathetic child; she was beginning to lose her patience with her.

 

“But my courtship is hers!”

 

“It is due to how well your sister spoke of you that the Queen suggested the Prince. And she has explained Lord Bridgerton’s insights as the Prince did plan to propose to his sister so he got to know him well enough to approve the match, so this tantrum you are displaying is insulting to her.”

 

Edwina huffs turning away from the party. “I think, when the time comes for the visit, it will be best for mama to escort me”

 

“We shall all go as the Queen invited your sister as well and without my connections, you wouldn’t the opportunity to be invited in the first place.”

 

With that, she stalks out of the room and locks herself in her room. Lady Danbury dismisses Kate’s attempt at an apology saying, her cuddling has led to this, and she needs to stand up to her sister as she is ungrateful to all that Kate is to her.

 

They all retire to their rooms, Mary reassuring Kate that she is a good sister and Edwina will see it. She reminds Kate none of this will be possible without her, including her bravery to face the ton after she left all those years ago. “You are one of a kind, my love. Your strength lends me the strength to be here. You are doing more for her than she realises it and I will ensure she knows it. Lady Danbury is right, we cuddled her, and this is not the Edwina we raised, I will not stand for it any longer. I will speak with her tomorrow.”

 

 

At the next ball, the Queen is attendance, and when the Sharmas go to greet her, like at the Diamond Ball, Anthony is close by, and the Queen suggests a dance between him and Miss Sharma. She laughs at the fact that Anthony seems to have inherited another matchmaking mama that pushes him to dance. He believes she does see them as courting or is at least open to it and plans to take her somewhere they can talk just in case she wishes to argue. ‘Knowing her, she’ll find the most abstract point to argue’.

 

She tells him of the argument with Edwina and how even though she saw their mother speaking to her, it had not made a difference. She thanks him for his help, but Edwina seems set on a Prince she hasn’t met and is not open to either of their help. He apologises that things have been difficult, repeating what has been said by her mother and Lady Danbury, that it is undeserved the ire Edwina shows her. After the dance, he goes to get refreshments for her, while she is with Lady Danbury who is no longer patient about the lack of official courtship. ‘The ton reports they are courting, Lady Whistledown reports they are courting, THE QUEEN reports they are courting, so who are they to say they are not.’

 

“Lord Bridgerton is certainly singular in his courtship of you, I do not believe any other lady held his attention quite like you.”

 

“We are not courting Lady Danbury; you know that he is being kind…”

 

“He is never kind without reason outside his family, who I remind you, you have managed to endear yourself to as the only other names I see on your dance card are his brothers. And did you not pass a pleasant time with his sisters; I recall Miss Eloise at the soiree and the youngest two at the luncheon.”

 

“I am still going back to India; I am to become a governess. That is the plan Lady Danbury you know this; I do not plan to marry. This is not my home…”

 

“Your home is a place without your family?” Kate lets out a deep breath. She knows it will be difficult without her mother and sister, but England hold more hurt that love for her. Even Edwina seems changed in this world. She is proud of her parents and will not stay where they are ridiculed for no reason other than them being capable of working.

 

“Miss Sharma” she looks back to a sullen Anthony who hands her a glass of punch. ‘Thank goodness he recalls her distaste for what the English call lemonade.”

 

He asks for her next dance which is for one of his brothers who joins them. “Colin, Miss Sharma has other dances free, I hope you do not mind me taking her to the floor”

 

Colin schools his face so as not to burst out laughing at the unintended implication. ‘Two dances, brother, I should advise you more often. He likes her...’

 

“So that was the plan you didn’t want to share with me” she pales knowing he heard. She is not even sure why; she feels ashamed he learnt about it this way. She wants to apologise but finds she cannot articulate to herself why she owes the apology. “We both have plans my Lord, mine for my sister and leaving; and yours for your viscountess. Why do you oppose my plan?”

 

“Because I had hoped to ask your permission tonight to court you!”

 

“What?”

 

“Miss Sharma, since the first ball we danced, I have not interviewed another woman. I wish to court you but with the earlier missteps, I hoped to gain your trust and ask when you would be receptive to my attentions.”

 

“WHAT?!” she truly cannot think of anything else to say, and is shocked that even in her confusion, they manage not to miss a step. He sighs and explains that he had not stopped thinking about her since their first race in the park, the dressed down at Danbury’s ball spurred him to want to see her again, even if it was to argue against her points and after the Diamond Ball, he was shocked that she was the Diamond’s sister but happy that it meant more time with her.

 

“When I stopped courting Miss Edwina, especially after speaking to my brothers who pointed out that you’d probably better suit having raised a diamond. I wanted to court you but could not do so immediately. Mainly because I knew you’d oppose. I hoped we’d get to know each other better; prove to you the type of man I am because I know my title does nothing but annoy you. But if I could show you, that it is you, I want… I could only hope you would feel the same for me.”

 

“I am six and twenty, you know my lineage which is not what you desire, we mostly argue so genteel you cannot say of me… I do not think I met any of your criteria for the perfect viscountess you espoused about mere weeks ago… and you don’t want a love match!”

 

“By the sounds of your plans, neither do you… Besides, I have learnt from my words, I would hope that you could see that. Miss Sharma, I am not saying you should come to Greta Green with me tonight, I just wish you to be open to the possibility of us.”

 

“Without love?”

 

“Having seen how easy Dorset has it, to openly court you and the fact, now knowing your plan he is probably better suited for you… Ka… Miss Sharma, I know I do not want to lose you… to the distance or another man. Fortunately, you have been quite ignorant of not only my intentions but others as well…” she glares at him, thinking he is making fun of her. “I want you, but right now I cannot say love… I will not lie to you but… being with you is the closest I have ever gotten to what a love match is.”

 

Kate watches him, angry now that everyone was right in a sense. He wasn’t courting her but making her open to the idea. She should respect the fact he did not jump in impulsively as he had done with Edwina and he was being honest, no false or empty promises. But this was not the plan. Every part of the plan falling apart could be traced to him and now he wants to alter her future, her freedom.

 

“I know the type of woman you are…”

 

“Do you now?”

 

“From the moment we raced in the park I could see that being limited, control, stifled goes against your very nature. I do not wish to do that, and I understand that the ton in its infinite vapidness has not endeared itself to you and I am sorry. But come to Aubrey Hall. It is my family’s ancestral home; come early with your family and see for yourself the life I wish to offer you. Get to know the England I wish you to share with me, please Miss Sharma, just this one chance and if it does not suit then like all others, I will respect your decision…”

 

She hated the turmoil going on inside her. She was always set- plan, execute, result… but the plan was not going accordingly but the results… well Edwina could be a princess, as dire as the season seemed to her, Anthony had kept her laughing and sane through it all. She was not sure how he endeared himself so quickly to her, but she knew; she was halfway in love with him and if the life her offered her suited them, there will be no turning back from her feelings. ‘Could I marry him regardless of his lack of affection? I did say there was nothing I wouldn’t do for my family and if they were to be in England and I had a good chance to stay too, shouldn’t I take it?’

 

“If it doesn’t suit, you will pay for my return and cart my belonging to the docks for me.”

 

He smiles, “I’m open to going to India to ensure your safe return”

 

“Do not jest! You would never leave your family behind!”

 

“No, we are not ones to leave the ones we love, are we?” he smiles.

 

‘This was a bad idea...’ she thought as she agreed to come to Aubrey Hall and to his courtship.

 

"By the way, I like the red ones. They were not my initial favourite until I saw them..." she tries to be casual, looking away from him as they return to her party.

 

Anthony smiles hopefully, as they continue their dance. Maybe this will work...

Chapter Text

Kate had felt restless returning from the ball. She had never felt so uncertain about anything, there was simply no room for that in her life. She made a choice, planned, and she stuck to it. It was how she cared for their family, fought for them, and got them to this deprived world her mother came from. So stifled and controlled by the ways they wish to lord their power, wealth, and titles over each other. ‘This is the world you brought Edwina to marry into, the one you could…’

 

She shook her head and went to her room to change out of her dress. Edwina was not enjoying the season, understandably, none of the men had been remotely interesting let alone exciting. ‘Except the viscount… but no, he would not do for Edwina… but why would he do for you. If he is not good enough for your sister, are you settling… Like one could settle for a viscount; what was it Lady Danbury said: ‘Wealthy, well-connected and from one of the most illustrious families of the ton’. Yes, a six- and twenty-year-old with no dowry and no noble connections is stepping down to be courted by a respected member of the peerage’. She rolled her eyes at her own arrogance, thinking about how they both certainly think highly of themselves.

 

Her maid assists her out of her ballgown and into her nightdress, and after pacing enough to burn a hole into the floor, she makes her way to her mother. Something she has not done in years, but her mother has done this before, she has been courted. She too was a Diamond and was being courted by men of nobility till her father took her heart. Since his passing, decisions big or small, fell to her and she never sought her mother’s advice, support or soothing. She has to care for both her mother and sister, and she did not regret it. it was her duty and she held nothing in higher esteem. Lady Danbury advice tonight was a condescending comment about not seeing the problem. She hoped to get something better from her mother. She knocks on the matron’s door before opening it, not waiting on an invite.

 

“Kate, is everything alright?” Kate was shocked how desperately she wanted to fold herself into her mother’s arms and cry. ‘What is happening to me?!’

 

“Mama, the viscount wishes to court me!” she blurts, standing against the closed door, looking shocked at the prospect. Her mother blinks back confused.

 

“Isn’t that what he has been doing?”

 

“No,” she pushed off and began to pace again, causing her mother to watch her daughter act like a caged animal seeking its freedom, “I’m glad to say I was right when I said to everyone who asked that he was not. But he was… he was trying to see if I would be open especially after the Danbury ball”

 

“Kate”, Mary was beginning to worry her daughter’s long held grudge may prevent her from the happiness she hoped she’d find.

 

She was not excited about Kate’s wishes to return to India, alone at that. The journey the first time with her husband and Kate, left much to be desired that it took some convincing to do it in reverse, to a land where her parents probably awaited her to come crawling back to them, begging for forgiveness. And she will never give them the satisfaction. They may not be wealthy, but they were blessed in many ways her daughters and her. They had each other, she had Kate… her formidable daughter, an epitome of so much grace and strength, she had to thank the mother you gave her life, for Mary could not say such strength came from her raising Kate as her own. Lady Danbury, a friend decades ago, opening her home to her family this season, giving her daughter a chance at a good life, one she failed to give them. The Queen, even in her anger to her, granted her youngest, the blessing of her birthing a piece of her husband, Edwina was the diamond of the season like she was. Only, she was left to find love, regardless of the title, but it seems both her girls will not have to make that choice between love and security. Kate with the ever-attentive viscount, ‘For an intelligent woman, her daughter is surely foolish to not see his affections’, and Edwina has a chance with a Prince! The other men of the ton have been as lacklustre as the Earl her parents probably still haven’t shut up about since she spurned him two decades ago.

 

Kate had derived herself of so much and Mary knew that was on her for failing her children in the early years of her grief. If she was being honest with herself, she was still failing them this season, leaving a lot of the work to Kate and Lady Danbury. If not for the viscount’s attention, she would not have been spurned to take a more active role with Edwina’s courtship, though she felt she was still making a mess of things. Edwina had been acting so cold and jealous of Kate. It could not be because of the viscount exactly, she may have misled her youngest initially, but there is certainly no mistaking his affections for her eldest. She sees it in their laugh, the way they could not stay away from each other. She catches them looking for one and other and is reminded so much of the early days with her husband before he even introduced himself to her. It was like her entire being was always alert to where he was without even seeing or hearing him. And when she did, a sense of calm would wash over her.

 

Kate had that now, and the young lady did not even see that she was being courted. Edwina had not found that, and they had only asked for a season from Lady Danbury, but it was barely a month in. There was still time for a suitor to sweep her off her feet, the way Kate would have been if she didn’t act like she had buried herself deep in the ground to prevent even the strongest monsoons from sweeping her off. Fortunately, the viscount was persistent. He called often and sent flowers always. Kate appreciated his steadfastness towards his duties, because of course her dutiful daughter would never want a lazy impassionate man.

 

Like Kate, the viscount stepped into the role of head of house quite young and is known to be devoted to his family and never shirking his responsibilities. It was one of the things that made him more eligible than men with higher titles. His wealth was impressive, more so that he was the one that multiplied it exponentially when he took the role. His brothers unlike other second, third and so on sons, were still being cared for by him, and considering that means caring for 7 siblings, that was no small expense. The size of sister’s doweries were well known, though Miss Eloise seems to ensure the ton knew she was more trouble than the fortune was worth the way she scared off her suitors. Lady Bridgerton always looked ready to expire when she caught her second daughter attempting to flee the ballrooms. She was much like Kate in that regard, as Kate certainly deserves as much attention and courtship as Edwina had. Her daughters were beautiful- inside, and out. But Kate’s age was a hurdle for the ton, certainly not as much as her dearest’s attitude, but Mary had resigned herself to not worry as Kate did not want to marry. But the viscount seems to have changed that. Kate certainly did not say anything about the kind doctor that called on her before the luncheon. The viscount had bought her a horse that Kae adored and made her smile in a way she had almost forgotten about. Her daughter was getting a season too, and she was grateful the viscount seems to have taken his time as knowing Kate, if he declared himself earlier, she would have been on a boat back to India earlier. ‘I swear this child…’

 

“But it’s true, mama. Even he knew it would not be so easy, which I don’t know how that makes me feel or seem to be thought to be difficult, but he asked… he asked to court me, saying he wanted to earn my forgiveness first before asking. And now I don’t know what to do, I had a plan and now…”

 

“Kate dearest, I want you to be happy, and from what I see he at least makes you laugh. Why not be courted and see if he makes you happy.”

 

“But he changed his mind with Edwina, and she’s the diamond!”

 

“It was a dance, he hardly courted her. Lady Danbury and I got ahead of ourselves, and I regret that it took me a while to see that he was setting his cap for you. But after your dance, he has had many more with you, spent time with you and his mother says he is different with you.”

 

“Different how?”

 

“The way you seem different with him” Kate stopped for a moment. First since she began pacing and Mary was grateful as her daughter was making her dizzy following her movements.

 

“I don’t know. This man confuses me, he has since… since”

 

“Since?… Kate? You said he looked familiar at the conservatory ball… where pray tell, had you seen him before.” She had the good sense to look sheepish. A look that never graced her face before the viscount. Her sharp wit daughter never shirked, simpered or minced for anyone.

 

“I didn’t go to the gardens that morning we arrived, I went for a ride”

 

“Kate!”

 

“I was careful, mama, and it was so early, we had been on that boat for so long I needed something before the season start and everything changed. I needed to feel the air against my face in some last moment of freedom before the air would get stifled with all the rules and expectations of the season. I’m sorry mama but I just needed to feel free even if it was for a moment.” Kate looked pleadingly at her mother who just nodded for her to continue. Mary couldn’t let her daughter see how guilty she felt that Kate was made to feel so caged, not just by society, but likely her as well. Trapping her in a role when she was much too young to attend and she almost kept her there saved for the viscount’s attention that let Kate relax, even if it was only in the moments, he was near.

 

“We saw each other and spoke briefly as he confused me, didn’t expect to see anyone so early but we did not exchange names, I got turned around, lost and he had to correct my bearings which was exasperating as I wouldn’t have gotten lost if not for him… then we saw him at the ball and the mess with races… but since then…”

 

“Since then, he has been at your side when you do not wish to dance, danced when you do. Sent flowers, lilies that you keep in your room each time he sends them, he has been kind to share what he knows of Edwina’s suitors which is another discussion heavens help us… but Kate, you could stay now… we could be near and not in a way that you would require further sacrifice yourself but you could have a husband, children of your own, oh my love! Why do you run from this? And do not say you are not; I know what it is to flee what is difficult. Please tell me I have not made you feel you do not deserve your own happiness, Kate!

 

“Mama, you have been kinder to me than I could ever know. You have been the only mother I have known, and I only want what is best for you and Edwina, you deserve the best”

 

“And so do you! How can you not see yourself as deserving?! You, my beautiful kind brave generous daughter… my first child… the one who even took care of me when I was scared of the journey to India, telling me stories of all you would show me, all you did show me! You are wonderful, my Kathani and I was sad that you wished to return, but I respected your desire for your independence. You have been saddled with caring for me and Edwina for far too long and I am grateful to the viscount for giving you the adoration you deserve, giving me a chance to have both my children here, because this place, it is empty without you.”

 

“I was not saddled…”

 

“After all I say, you focus on the part you wish to reassure me, Kate… give him a chance… And if he is not up to snuff then please my dearest, open your mind to the others trying.” Kate scoffs at this and Mary rolls her eyes, ‘How could she not see that she is wanted?’

 

“Please mama, there aren’t enough flowers to endear me to any off those fools.”

 

“But it seems that the viscount does not count among them so there is that at least.” Mary teases her daughter before tsking her hands and leading her to seat on the bed with her. “See the man he is, if he is capable of giving you the happiness you sought, alone in India. Let him court you, because you deserve nothing less than adoration… see what is there between you before you decide. But please Kate, do not close yourself off. I have allowed it for far too long but no more.” She hugged her daughter, allowing herself a feeling for pride for being there for her, taking care of her. ‘I am a mother, not just in name… I shall care for my daughters, and they will be happy. I declare it Milan, our daughters will be happy.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bridgertons left London a week after, and Anthony called on Kate every day prior to their departure, bringing flowers for all the ladies now that his intentions were clear and there would be no misunderstandings. Miss Edwina did not seem warm to his courtship of her sister, which mirrored Miss Sharma’s displeasure towards him. ‘They are protective of each other,’ he thought wistfully, happy that Miss Sharma had a fierce defender in her sister. But as the week went on, he wasn’t so sure Miss Edwina was protective of her sister’s courtship prospect or unhappy that her sister was being courted. Miss Sharma had not said anything to raise concerns, and truthfully, their time was spent talking about themselves.

 

They talked of her travels and hobbies, interests he never pursued, which she was not surprised was about horses- breeding and even possibly owning a racehorse team. She teased that he bought a horse that placed second in their last race so he would need a lot of help in selecting a good stead. He challenged her to a race when they got to Aubrey Hall, as she had not seen Onyx’s true capabilities, and she was happy she could bring Nectar. ‘It would be good for her to start to see what is hers belonging at Aubrey Hall, belonging with him…” She talks on why she would make an governess, her art and her father teaching her to ride. He quips that all of that would also make her an excellent viscountess. She shies and turns away at the comment.

 

“When I planned to return to India, I knew I would be getting the independence I haven’t had for almost a decade. The freedom to be and not worry so much about my duty to my family as it would have been fulfilled.”

 

“I know the idea of marrying me brings new sets of duties, but I do not wish to take your independence… what I offer still stands, a partnership, so we are not alone in our duties…”

 

She takes into consideration what he is asking, ‘He does not want to be alone… and neither do I really’ She still struggles with opening up her mind to this future of them he speaks about. They have been earnestly honest with each other, what he wants from their courtship and marriage, what she fears from it. Even as they talk hypothetically, she knows they are negotiating, drawing up terms, setting compromises. He doesn’t offer empty reassurances and is not forceful to state the obvious, she will have far more freedom as a woman with a title, than an unmarried woman employed as a governess. ‘But she will never live in India again… could she see it? One last time, maybe suggest it as a honeymoon…’  she shakes her heard of the thoughts. She has just agreed to the courtship, was she already planning the honeymoon tour?! Every call ends the same, with Kate having much to think about and consider. But there is one fear she has not voiced but has no right to. She fears that will be the determinant of if she says yes to a proposal. For now, she feels sorry for her sister’s terribly boring suitors as she joins her mother and Lady Danbury, discussing the trip to Kent and even more trips to the modiste to finalise some dresses, she realised Lady Danbury insisted on because she foresaw the courtship. At least she is allowed some jewelled coloured dresses, the understated pale colours in England had begun to bore her.

 

 

 

 

 

Between his brothers and Eloise, he had gotten enough advice to hopefully keep Kate from seeing India as an option let alone one, she would pick. Even if she didn’t pick him, he did not want her away- not from her family for it would break her, and that would break him. One the day the Sharmas and Lady Danbury were to arrive, Daphne Basset, Duchess of Hastings and his meddlesome sister arrived with her son, Augie. Simon, her husband and Anthony’s long-time friend was held at Clyvedon due to some issues with his tenants’ farm and he could not leave for the Bridgerton’s country visit. The Duke and Duchess had elected to not engage with this season, taking time to enjoy their new little family. But as a Bridgerton, Daphne had not missed one of her mother’s balls and would not begin to do so now.

 

Anthony had been fussing and discussing with the housekeeper and butler to ensure everything the Sharmas needed was ready. They were to be in the guest suites closest to the family’s. With his apprehension of Edwina, he elected to give Kate her own room. She did not share a room in Danbury’s home so did not want to force the sister to start now. Kate’s room was filled with bouquets of red and orange lilies after she told him she favoured the red, but seemed to have a liking for the orange ones as they were the one she placed by her bedside after the first bouquets he had sent. ‘She saw them every morning and evening, and if she allowed, she would do so for the rest of their lives.’ He had to shake himself of the thoughts, as since they first met, she had been a constant in his dreams, and he could not say any of them were dreams of a gentleman.

 

 

Aubrey Hall held so many memories for him, from his childhood with his parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts. Uncle George and Aunt Billie still reside in the nearby estate, Crake House. The Rokesbys and the Bridgertons shared so many memories on both estates. But since the death of Edmund Bridgerton, his father, Aubrey Hall took far too long to feel like home again. Some days it did not even with his siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews. They often elected to have such grand family affairs with the larger family at Crake House, while his little-not-so-little family of 9 kept the intimacies of Aubrey Hall to themselves. With the exception of the country visit and Hearts & Flowers ball, his mother began again 5 years ago, having stopped after his father’s death. Today, he could not let such melancholic thoughts in, he needed to show Miss Sharma that she belonged here, and it would not do acting like his ancestral home was nothing but bad and tragic memories. ‘Perhaps we could form new memories here…’

 

 

The journey to Aubrey Hall was a short one but Kate was nervous and unable to stop her fidgeting despite the threats from her mother and sister, and the actual hit from Lady Danbury.

 

“I do not know why I agreed to this.”

 

Danbury scoffs, tired of this same conversation, “They are a powerful family, and you should be grateful for the invite. Lord Bridgerton is an excellent match, and one might I remind you anyone from the ton will actually kill to marry. Why you choose to scoff at his advances I will not know.”

 

“I do not scoff at him. He has been most kind and generous, and as you so politely put it, well desired by so many in the ton, he has his pick of the bunch… but he chose me and i…” She sighs and looks out the window not wanting to speak on this further.

 

“You doubt your competence Miss Sharma, you know he will be assessing you here, though he seems to have come to the right conclusion that you can and will perform well as his viscountess. For he would not have extended the invite if he did not.”

 

“Lady Danbury, this trip is for me to assess how we would suit, how he would perform as a husband as I have never doubted my capabilities despite the opinions of the ton… I…”

 

“You need not worry about the viscount, Kate. As Lady Danbury said, it is an exceedingly good sign that he invited us to spend a few days with the family, before the rest of the ton arrive for party… You will get to know him and his family as they you dearest. You might even have an engagement to announce…” Mary reassures and teases her daughter. They had become better at speaking to each other since the night Kate came to her room. It became a routine now with tea and stories of her husband and how he courted Mary.

 

Kate blushes but fails to fully hide her smile. In the past week, her discussions with the viscount, felt less hypothetical and more practical, inching closure to an agreement. She feared she was not going to be able to guard herself as well when there were not distractions society offered to keep her defensive.

 

Edwina is quiet through the discussion, watching her sister as she stares out the window with a wistful look in her eye. Kate may not want to acknowledge it to the matrons, but she could tell, her sister was smitten by the viscount and had probably agreed to the hypothetical proposal in her heart. She recalled all she told her about love, and what she would enjoy this season, and none of that was true for Edwina. It had been a season full of dullard, trodden toes and watching her sister have the season she promised her, and she hated her for it. And she hated herself for feeling this way. No one seemed interested in what she said when the viscount was the topic of conversation. They barely spoke of her suitors or possible courtship with the Prince. The Queen had implied she wanted the match but there had been nothing to show for it since the luncheon. The ton didn’t even know and all she heard around when people were not talking about Kate and the viscount was how they wondered if there was something wrong with her that he threw her over for her sister. Almost like she could read her thoughts, Lady Danbury looked at Edwina with a shrewd gazed, almost warning her to be on her best behaviour.

 

 

 

Daphne walks in holding her son to her chest, smiling at her siblings and mother milling about the drawing room. Francesca is the first to see her, jumping to her feet, “Sister,” she calls as she practically runs towards her, slowing down to not knock into them. Hyacinth is at Daphne’s other side as they stare at their nephew. Since her wedding last year, they hardly saw their sister. Worse for Francesca who looked up to her sister and missed her wedding due to the impromptu nature of it. She watched her sister, who with her brother Anthony had practically raised the younger three until their mother came out of her grief after their father had died suddenly. She glowed, holding her son and though she wished to still have her sister always, Francesca was glad to see her sister glow with happiness and bliss.

 

“Oh, I am so pleased you were able to come.” Violet said greeting her eldest daughter.

 

“As if I would allow dear Augie to miss out on watching his mother win this little family tradition.” Daphne replies looking to her brothers who she enjoyed beating in any competition, but none more so than Pall Mall, which the Bridgertons had taken to permit the absolute worst parts of their competitiveness. “Second year in a row, if I might add.” She teased.

 

“Charming words from a duchess.” Benedict teased his sister, unable to tame his smile as he watched her with her son.

 

“A duchess who is still a Bridgerton.” She beamed. More than her position, Daphne was proud of the family she came from as much as the one she married into. They loved fiercely and unapologetically, and last year, when her brother Anthony declared himself to marry without love, she was saddened regardless of the reassurances her husband gave. Simon didn’t come from a loving family like she did. He had the adoration and love from his godmother, Lady Danbury, but he didn’t see the warmth she grew up watching in her parents and her brother. Like all of them, but far worse, Anthony was much changed by their father’s passing, and she feared who he would marry this season. She was happy for the respite away from the ton and perhaps a chance to speak with him to dissuade him from the notion of an empty loveless marriage. Away from the mamas and their daughter, perhaps, even if he has to delay to another season, she can talk him into being open to love.

 

“Oh, come and see the baby Eloise.” Francesca called to her sister who had not moved from where she was sat reading. Francesca was usually the one separate from her boisterous family, often using the pianoforte as a way to sit away from their rowdy personalities. The quiet Bridgerton as she is often regarded enjoyed listening into conversation people didn’t think she could heard as she played. She had been so proficient, she hardly had to think as she played the keys, it left her mind free to think or listen and observe those around her. Out of all in the family, she probably knew each and every one of her siblings the best, but the one who had the honour of knowing her as deeply was Eloise. Who, when she was not in an argument with one of their siblings, was content to sit quietly with Francesca and read while she played. They shared a birthday, being exactly a year apart, and had always been called twin souls. Father especially regarded them as two halves of a whole for when one was quiet and reserved, the other was taking centre stage in some way. Swapping between them always, and she would not have that relationship with anyone else, even their sister Daphne who most matched her in their romantic notions of the world.

 

“Why? Has he changed since I saw him last?” Eloise replied, causing Francesca to sigh. Yes, somehow the same but starkly different, her sister Eloise certainly did not share Francesca and Daphne’s excitement for marriage and motherhood. But she hoped one day she would. Eloise deserves to be surrounded with people who keep her on her toes as she does the rest of the world.

 

“He’s grown at least an inch, haven’t you?” Daphne ignoring her sister’s antics excited for each and every change and development she sees in her son. Violet looks exasperated at her daughter, worrying internally about her future. She reaches out her arms to take her first grandchild from his mother, chuckling as Daphne coos at her son. Her brother are in the background making faces and entertaining Augie, Daphne smiles at the warmth of her family, praying it never leaves them again. Then watches cautiously as her mother dares to hand her son to Eloise, who looks like a deer staring at the barrel of a gun. Augie begins to cry before Colin mercifully takes his nephew teasing Eloise about needing to read something or the other.

 

“Is it not nap time? Perhaps your uncle Colin will lull you to sleep with his many tales from his travels” happy to have found an escape and regretting reminding Colin that he has a new audience to speak on his travels, ‘He already gets to travel, but he bore us with the nonsense he sees’ she thinks enviously. She walks over to the settee and is joined by Benedict who kneels behind her and teases her.

 

Everyone goes to seat on around on various chairs and settees, as Colin, Hyacinth, Gregory and Violet continue to play with Augie. “Enjoying your brief respite from the ferocious packs of marriage-minded young ladies, Brother?” Daphne teases Anthony as they sit across each other.

 

“Quite the opposite, Sister” he cannot hold the smile on his face, loving how wrong Daphne is and knowing she probably planned on speaking with him regarding his prospects anyway. He thinks how prudent it would be to get her on his side, for one thing, to contain her enthusiasm so as not to scare Miss Sharma and another, more importantly was to encourage her to show it would be normal to grow into the viscountess role. His mother would help of course but she had been in the role for close to three decades and was far removed from how overwhelming the change would be at first. Daphne was raised to marry well but being a duchess was grander than she or their mother imagined, and she didn’t have a dowager to guide her. She previously spoke about how she bumbled her way through the first month and he thinks Miss Sharma might have the same fear of making mistakes and being accepted in her new role. Though younger, Daphne will make a good role model and ally, and certainly transition her acceptance better than he would as a man.

 

“I have invited a young lady and her family to join us today.”

 

“Anthony has invited a young lady to Aubrey Hall?!” Daphne couldn’t hide the shock in her voice. Anthony always said, barring the visit and ball, only family were welcomed to their ancestral home. They were a large group anyway and there was never a dull moment with them. Now her brother has invited someone to share that space! ‘Could he have forgone his declaration from last year?’

 

“Oh yes!” Colin having left his nephew with his mother and was sat with a snickering Benedict. “Our dear brother has met his match in many ways and for some reason, she seems to like him…”

 

Anthony rolls his eyes but before he can reply, “She is lovely, she and her family come from India. She has been guiding her sister, the diamond. Miss Sharma has been a wonderful addition to the season” his mother dreamily spoke as she smiled at Augie, possibly imagining his own child with Kate in her arms. He couldn’t help but smile as he watched his mother, and his siblings noted the longing look in his eyes as well.

 

Daphne shook herself out of the revery, “My word! I cannot wait to meet this woman who appears to have captured your heart. Tell me, what is she like?”

 

Anthony notes her words but chooses not to correct her. He and Miss Sharma have a great understanding of their marriage; the fact the enjoy each other’s company and he had not stopped thinking of her, and the many things he wished to do with her, did not mean she had captured his heart. He thinks about how best to explain Kate, her wit, her strength, how she thinks so highly of herself while believing she did not deserve the world. The way she laughed, like she was not use to the sound of feeling of mirth. How she rolled her eyes at him, glared at him, held so much of what she wanted to say in those eyes. The way she protects her family against any and every slight, never holding back or backing down. How they tease each other, vex each other and half the time, he does not if he wants to walk away for his sanity or pull her closer until there is nothing between them. He is still thinking, smiling at the memories of the last two weeks, the promise of this week, he does not realise how long he is silent in thought, with his siblings and mother watching elated at their brother’s obvious happiness. When he pulls himself out of his thoughts, he settles on, “Miss Sharma is the picture of beauty, grace and strength… she is unlike any other I have met.”

 

Daphne smiles at her brother description throwing away the plans to talk to him about love as he as obviously found it. She begins planning how she can help secure an engagement, for that is a look on her brother’s face she can no longer live without.

 

“So, I will need all help to win her over, and welcome her. I wish for this to be an opportunity to show her the life I offer, which sadly includes you heathens, so I implore you to be on your best behaviour.”

 

“Do we get to go back to being ourselves when she says yes to the proposal?” Benedict quips.

 

“Brother!” Daphne breathlessly expresses her shock and delight at Anthony’s plea. “You must be smitten! Oh! Of course we will help! Fear not Anthony, seeing as though you were such a help to me last season, I certainly need to repay the favour…”

 

“Is that a promise or a threat?” It seems Miss Sharma has had an impact on her brother as he actually seems scared of her interference. ‘Good’

 

 

The family is notified when the Danbury Carriages arrive. First out of the door is Hyacinth, hoping to get Newton all to herself this visit. She and Gregory can hardly participate in a lot of the activities when the ton arrives, and even before Kate, as she is allowed to call her, will be busy being courted by Anthony. She hopes they marry, and she can have Newton all the time with her not only on promenades. She and Kate even go for ices without Anthony, and unlike her older sisters, Kate doesn’t treat her like a child. She listens to her ideas and even helped her think of a prank for Gregory. She hopes when they live together, they can prank her brother always!

 

Violet holds Augie as she and all her children descend the stairs to greet their guests. Lady Danbury is the first out, heading straight for Violet and her great godson. The two coo over him and their happiness at their successful match last year. They shall have a repeat… another love match at that too! Daphne, Francesca, Hyacinth and Gregory surround the matrons, who are soon joined by Mary and Edwina. Kate curtsies to the group but they are so enraptured by the baby, she takes a moment to look at the home promised to be hers soon. Benedict, Colin and Eloise surround her, blocking not only her view of the place but of Anthony barrelling down the stairs to her. He growls at the sight of his siblings but stops in his tracks when he hears her laugh. Slowing down he come to her side, not taking his eyes off her, and she off him.

 

“I see my plans to win you over is already working”

 

“Do not trust yourself to win me over so you recruit your siblings to do your bidding?”

 

“Well, once in a while they do prove useful”

 

“Yes, I recall some advice given… any other you’ve taken recently?”

 

“Just yours…”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“And spoil the surprise”

 

“Ah, Newton…” he looks as the Danbury footman brings the menacing beast to her. He notes his siblings are still there smiling at them, and decides to pointedly ignore them. That is until, Newton begins rubbing affectionately again Benedict’s leg.

 

“Hmmm, I did say he was a good judge of character”, Anthony tries to pet Newton who growls at him, earning a laugh from their little party.

 

“I swear… what do you tell him about me”

 

“That you are most vexing”

 

“Ah, so you do talk about me, I must admit I did not think you would confess so easily”

 

“I may just kill you this trip…”

 

“And you must be Miss Sharma” Daphne glides to her siblings and the beautiful woman they are staring at. She feels like she has interrupted something with the way Anthony glares at her, but she hears her siblings laugh and doesn’t particularly care. She must meet this woman that causes Anthony to smile so brightly.

 

“Your grace” Kate goes into a deep curtsy. “Oh please, you must call me Daphne” she spies how intensely her brother watches Miss Sharma. ‘He is nervous!’

 

Hyacinth comes to greet Kate with a hug and takes Newton’s lead as she and Gregory skip away with the dog to the back gardens leaving the adults to whatever they desired. Daphne links her arms with Kate, staring her toward the door and Eloise, takes Kate’s other side, pushing an irate Anthony away. Benedict and Colin slap their hand at his back laughing.

 

“It seems the duchess has run away with your intended Brother, it only took her a minute to do what you have been trying for a month” Benedict quips.

 

“Hush you!” Anthony replies, pulling away from his brothers as he follows the women. He knew he couldn’t show Kate to her room, but he certainly did not expect to share her with his siblings so quickly. Every single one of them seem to care for her, Gregory certainly had a tendre for her that neither of them were going to acknowledge. He was grateful to his brothers for setting him on this path, he just hoped to have walked it alone with her for a bit more, before his family came to play.

 

Kate laughs with Daphne and Eloise, not realising she had left the rest of her party. She had been nervous about meeting the duchess, but found her worries irrelevant as Daphne welcomed her and guided her with Eloise to the room she would be staying in. She walked in the elegantly decorated room filled with lilies, and found a note on the solely orange bouquet by her bed side: From my unfailing resources…  Yes, she was likely to kill this vexing man before the end of her stay, but first, she would love him and that thought scared her the most.

Chapter Text

Daphne had to be dragged away from Kate by Eloise; to allow her respite from the questions and time to get changed, but she herself would have loved to stay and speak with her friend as well. Though they were close, Eloise felt more of a kinship with Kate than Daphne. It never felt like either sister could understand the other’s position on marriage, and even as Kate was being courted by Anthony, she wasn’t like the other debutante that Eloise could not get along with, as the batted their lashes and threw themselves at her brother. Quite the opposite seemed to be happening with Anthony being besotted with Kate, who was making her brother work for her attention and affections as she should. Anthony has grown far too used to people deferring so easily to him. It did not surprise her, as Kate was clearly and intelligent woman, but she feared the person she looked to as her future of independence, not being leg-shackled by marriage, was falling into the trap herself, by her brother none the less. She should be grateful such a formidable woman who understood her would be joining her family, or rather, considering it. She certainly had not been falling at Anthony’s feet, except at balls when they never seemed able to stay away from each other.

 

 

The sisters join their siblings, Hyacinth, and Gregory still outside with Newton, while their brothers were pretended to listen to Anthony’s plan to give Miss Sharma a private tour of the estate, so she understood the role. “Heaven’s no Anthony! We already invited the Sharmas to a game of Pall Mall.” Daphne annoyed at her brother. She brittled at the possibility that Anthony was still thinking as the Viscount, a face devoid of the happiness she saw today when he was gazing at Kate. She had come to know the two sides of her brother, but the Viscount had won more often than Anthony, and Kate deserved to know her brother, not just a role. If Anthony was deluding himself that he was going to keep their marriage to duty only as he had dedicated the last decade of his life, then Daphne knew a conversation was necessary.

 

 

“No! you lot hardly behave yourselves in a more graceful setting, you are all positively gladiatorial when we play”

 

 

“WE are gladiatorial! As if the game can be played any other way” Colin scoffs. Coming from the man who would go to war for his special mallet. “Oh, I’d like to play this time!” Francesca turns from her sheet music to her siblings. As usual, they turn to her like they forgot she was ever there, surprised that she spoke.

 

 

“I am to be out next year, and I wasn’t around for much of Daphne’s season, and Eloise has been positively useless at sharing her experience, barring expressing her misery. I want to be better prepared for next year, and believe speaking with someone about it, especially one who chaperones and has been courted will benefit me greatly. El and Ant have certainly never agreed on much in life, but on their certainty on how wonderful Miss Sharma is. Besides, surely it is not ridiculous I would wish to know the woman my brother wishes to marry, AND you did say you wanted all our help, unless you do not wish for ME to help?”

 

 

“I would be honoured to receive whatever help you offer. You are likely going to be more helpful than the rest of this lot,” which caused Francesca to beam. Unlike the rest of them present, she straddled the middle in her relationship with Anthony, she was old enough to recall her father, but young enough that when he died, Anthony became who she knew to have raised her. He was her father in many ways but in name and never claimed to want to replace the man they lost, just never wanted the hurt to take her childhood. Eloise rebelled against this as a child, often seeking their mother during that time but never welcomed, until the year Eloise closed herself from seeking their mother, which was the year she returned to them. Francesca always wondered whether that is what caused her sister to have such relationships with their mother and brother. When El spoke of Miss Sharma, it seemed her sister was opening herself to her, like Anthony was. Sure, it was about how she could get to 6 and 20 without marrying, but it was guidance sought regardless of her sister’s ridiculousness.

 

 

“Excuse me, but every time we dance with Miss Sharma, it is a lot of effort telling her of your wonderful attributes, as they are so very few brother” Benedict quips resting his forearm on Anthony’s back. He liked Miss Sharma, she was sharp, quick, and funny. In the short time she had made Anthony’s acquaintance, she had become his fierce defender when he told jokes that she felt were unfair to Anthony. He had no trouble repeating these jokes to Anthony but when he speaks with her, Benedict got a new perspective on his brother and he was grateful to his usually aloof brother, for suggesting Anthony court Miss Sharma instead of the diamond. She was perfect for his brother, and in all honesty, for their family. Though nice to get this time away together, he was sure Miss Sharma would say yes to his brother’s proposal, barring he did not make a fool of himself. The woman was hardly subtle each time she would slyly look for Anthony no matter her dance partner and was never distracted when in the arms of his brother.

 

 

“Yes, I am grateful you kept the unsavoury lot sniffing about her away.” Anthony was grateful for his brothers. He knew that his attention to Kate would bring some attention from other men. She was attractive, no one could argue that, but the shallowness that even he displayed when speak with Fife and the others, did not let them see past her age or lineage. Now, she had not just any member of the peerage, but the season’s most eligible bachelor, one who many have described as a rake, courting her. Even before the courtship began, they could see he was singular in his attentions to her. and when she smiled, better still laughed, she lit up the room, and there was no one who could hold a candle to her. Now, those same men who did not want to respect her protectiveness over her sister, tripped over themselves to get her lemonade, a chance at a dance, promenade, or call. There were some that were because of Lady Danbury; it seems that when Kate showed an interest in being courted, she had already put out filler with the Earl of Gloucester, who lost his wife to influenza. He was a good man, faithful during his marriage, earned well and he can’t be faulted for the death of his wife. Simply put, he was a man that did deserve Kate’s affections, same with Thomas Dorset. But Anthony couldn’t think like that, he had earned her forgiveness, respect, and attention. And he will earn her hand… maybe her affections too. So yes, Anthony was grateful to his brothers, not for only speaking kindly of him and taking their time to get to know Kate, but from protecting her from the hounds in heat.

 

 

“It was that or mother watched in horror as you dragged either Miss Sharma to safety or fought with the unsuspecting suitor.” Colin laughs before taking a biscuit. Even as it was obvious to the ton that Anthony was courting her, Miss Sharma seemed share his brother’s jealous streak, recalling when he took to the floor with a young Miss tenacious enough get him to sign her dance card. She hardly paid attention to him asking her about her journey to England as he considered his next trip out of the continent. Anthony was worse, practically shaking with rage until the number ended and he rushed to her side. But Miss Sharma, a more subdue version, would be tense until the music stopped, relaxing only after watching Anthony stroll straight to her after practically flinging the young Miss back to her mother. They need to marry if only to spare Benedict and he from their roles of taking dances neither man wanted, but did to protect Anthony from the Misses, and Kate’s suitors from needing a doctor. She was wonderful to spend time with, except when the air seemed to change when she was singular on Anthony. Then, almost like nothing passed, she would return the conversation, like she was not previously in a trance-like state. The both of them had his head in a spin, he could hardly enjoy needling them if they did not notice anyone other than each other.

 

 

His sisters laughed, except Daphne who was not present through the season and was fascinated with each piece of information she got about her brother and Miss Sharma. This was certainly not the Anthony she had known for the last decade, but the one she grew up with the first decade of her life. She saw the smile that had vanished from him when their father died and he simply became the title, ‘The Viscount’. He was always stubborn and proud, but after their father died, it was worse; burying himself behind the role and its responsibilities, never seeking help, not that she could offer it. since becoming Duchess, she found a new appreciation for Anthony and the roles he played especially in the earlier years after. He seemed to stop being their brother and became their father, head of house, protector. He was so far removed from them, but ever present with the youngest ones who have little memories of their family (Gregory) or none (Hyacinth). He gave them what they had growing up, a warm loving childhood until their mother became attentive again.

 

 

The look in his eyes, the way he walked to her as she got out of the carriage, and even when he talked about Miss Sharma, her brother had been freed from something, and she could not imagine losing him to that shell again. If the fear was her ability to take the role of viscountess, Daphne knew she would guide her with her mother was held the role for over two decades. Having had Colin before their mother became viscountess, she had time to learn under their grandmother Alexandra. Kate will be going straight into the role similarly to Daphne, but there had been a viscountess for the past few years, unlike the lack of a Duchess of Hastings for almost three decades. ‘I wish Simon was here’ she thinks enviously as her brother smiles through the teasing.

 

 

“Oh, I can’t wait to see how she fairs on the field… Anthony what has you shared with her about the game, do you think she will be good?” Daphne asked which cause her brother to blush and turn away from her.

 

 

“I… I…”

 

 

“You did not tell her of Pall Mall?! Anthony how could you not prepare her?!”

 

 

“I am courting Miss Sharma, not reviewing her sportsmanlike conduct Your Grace.”

 

 

“Fine! For that, I shall be escorted the Sharmas to set up the course and explain the game. Honestly, you invited her here and gave her no warning. Please tell me your courtship has been more thoughtful.”

 

 

“Well, before he courted her,…” Benedict started

 

 

“I do not think we need to discuss that.”

 

 

“Which part do you fear our dear sister knowing, how you blundered it with the sister initially or the racehorse you gave her as an apology for how dreadfully you began the season with them.” Colin retorts

 

 

“Anthony! You courted her sister!”

 

 

“A dance! Why does everyone act like I was halfway to the alter with Miss Edwina based on that dance.”

 

 

“Was not the plan you had for the season, marrying the diamond and have… what was it, an amiable marriage with a dutiful, tolerable, woman with suitable childbearing hips and half a brain” Benedict continues to needle his brother. “Oh, and what did Fife say… yes a lady of impeccable quality, a pleasing face, an acceptable wit, and genteel manners… I do say that he is getting his list of requirements…”

 

 

“BENEDICT!! HUSH!! AND ANTHONY, HOW COULD YOU?!”

 

 

“I stopped did I not? Why do we still discuss this?! I have had enough of a lecture from Miss Sharma, I doubt you will tell me anything she hasn’t said to me already” he says and walks away. As he opens the doors leading out of the drawing room, he sees her coming down the steps in a lilac day dress, her hair pulled back with a floral pin to hold the style. He stood, smiling at her as she seemed to take in his home. ‘She belongs here’ he thought as she seemed to savour each picture and décor. He wanted to take her by her hands to tour Aubrey Hall, watch every emotion that crossed her face, hoping dearly she loved his home and could love it as hers… and maybe explore one very important room, though he was sure that Daphne and the matrons would kill him for simply entertaining the thought.

 

 

He was excited about the time they would spend without the ton’s inspection and expectations of them. He had heard and read the gossip. They were not always kind to him but there was some truth in their words regarding his libertine lifestyle before he declared his intentions this season. But the cruel ways Whistledown seemed to want to pit the sisters against each other, comparing Miss Edwina’s lack of good prospects to Kate’s courtship with him, their looks, countenance, favour with the Queen, the vile woman never shup up in those insipid gossip sheets. It may have been a challenge to the monarchy, but knew the words had affected Kate and possibly made her relationship with her sister fray.

 

 

Miss Edwina was in a pale pink day dress, walking alongside her sister, her energy subdued. Anthony thought that it could simply be because everything about Kate seemed so alive, so nothing could compare. When Kate and Anthony’s eyes met, she felt herself catch her breath, smiling brightly at him. Lady Danbury and Lady Mary trailing behind the young misses smiling at the scene, two young lovers lost in themselves, failing to notice everyone around them holding their breath as the electrified scene. Benedict is the one to break the spell, “Ladies, I do hope the journey was not too tiring and you shall help us best our dear brother in today’s game”

 

 

“Game?” Edwina looks confused at the group before her who seem like they are in on a joke that eludes her. She looks to Kate, who is of no use, as she blushes and continues to make eyes at the viscount. ‘Not sure who this is but certainly not the Kate that started the season with me…’

 

 

“Ah yes, it is a family tradition, or more like a battle within the family” Eloise teases smiling at Daphne who is still watching her brother’s enamoured looks.

 

 

“What can you mean?” Kate looking quizzically at the people before her.

 

 

Violet having joined the group as Eloise spoke, “Do not mind Eloise, she is always so spirited in the country, most of my children are for that matter.”

 

 

“I do believe Kate may have that in common” Mary teases

 

 

“Well, and old Anthony here had planned a boring tour…” Benedict continues

 

 

“Our home is boring now brother?” Anthony had to refrain from rolling his eyes. ‘This was not what I envisioned, bickering with his siblings… How would she see him as a man of the house, one who could provide for her, fight for her…’

 

 

“But I’m sure Daphne thought you warned when she invited you to join our wonderful afternoon playing Pall Mall” he continues ignoring his brother.

 

 

“Yes, Her Grac… I mean Daphne mentioned a game, I imagine the viscount failed to mention hoping he may win…” Kate teased, Anthony moving away from his family to her side.

 

 

“I would never aspire to not play fair, and as you know, I have no problem owning up to the rare occasions when I lose. I hope you would afford us the same grace when you lose today.”

 

 

“I very much look forward to beating you in front of your family, with or without their help.” She smiles at Colin and Benedict who are signally they shall help. They stop when Anthony turns to see what she is smiling at at glares at his traitorous brothers. The group begins to head to the gardens and Anthony is pulled away from Kate by his brothers.

 

 

Violet ushers the matrons to join her under the tent as the group heads to the back lawn, ensuring her younger two are close by and away from the rambunctious group who have included her sixth child and two guests. She prays for the continued tradition of limbs being intact.

 

 

Daphne grabs the wickets and asks Kate to come with her, not surprised Edwina and Francesca followed. The young girl has had a perpetually frightened face since Eloise declared the game a battle. She wanted to speak with her anyway, as the diamond of last season, she certainly held a soft spot for the young girl. Only two years younger than she was when she had her first season, and she is in a country she has never known, she can only imagine how overwhelming it was for Miss Edwina and felt sad this game might not ease her tension.

 

 

She puts the third wicket into the ground, “This will teach Colin”

 

 

“I am sorry about my siblings; this is my first game with them so we three should be warned how dangerous their competitiveness is” Francesca laughed.

 

 

“What? Last time he put the wicket behind the goat barn. The other time it was near the lake. We had to wait a long while before mother could trust he could get to the bottom of the lake to retrieve the red ball that Anthony had sunk!” Daphne retorted defensively. ‘She is not what I envisioned as a Duchess or a diamond… maybe I need to be a bit livelier like her and Kate… they both caught the eyes of a duke and a viscount, and all I have manage is a dandy of a Baron’ Edwina thought.

 

 

“What exactly are the rules of this game?” Kate asked, getting the feeling that the game truly was a battle of wills, but how did one know they had won?

 

 

“Pall Mall is less about the rules, more about the goal. Which is, of course, to hit your ball through each wicket. The first player to send their ball through the last wicket wins. Simple enough” Daphne explains, walking and inspecting for places to put the rest of the wickets. Her group following her and not really offering any help as she certainly did not need it.

 

 

“Or like some years, the first to ensure a sibling has no chance to win” Francesca adds looking knowingly at her sister.

 

 

 

“Well, if one is feeling devilish and can afford to use their turn to knock their opponent’s ball as far away from their next wicket as they would like… it has certainly created some very spirited reactions.” Daphne adds.

 

 

“But why would you want to waste a turn if the point is to get one’s own ball through the wicket?”

 

 

“To infuriate your opponent, I gather, or as Miss Francesca suggests ensure they shall not get the victory.”

 

 

“Precisely! It is a poor player who plays the game, and wise one who plays their opponent.”

 

 

“I believe I shall rather enjoy this game” Kate smiles turning briefly to where she last saw Anthony.

 

Francesca and Daphne exchange smiles as they continue to search for infuriating spots for the wickets. Kate looks to Edwina to ensure she is well. They still have not repair whatever it is that has created a distance. Kate knew Edwina was disappointed with the season she was having, it had been a month and there was still time. ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have agreed to this courtship… but Edwina was the one who rejected any of my advice and help… but would she have if I wasn’t so busy with Lord Bridgerton?’ Her sister kept quiet, watching Daphne place the wickets, regaling stories of past games.

 

 

Francesca seemed excited to be included, but Kate got the feeling barring her age, she was the one the picked when and for how long she engaged with her feisty siblings. The young girl had a mischievous look in her eye, like she knew more than she let on, and Kate hoped to know exactly what she knew especially about her brother. This was the time to spend with the family. At balls, she danced with his brothers, when she promenaded with the viscount, he sometimes had a sibling with him, adding the luncheons and other day events, she had spent a good amount of time with all barring Daphne. But the family was different here, freer and Kate wanted nothing more than to be herself and get to know the family, but she feared how much of herself she could share.

 

 

 

Daphne inspects the sixth wicket placed by a footman, “Right. Oh. Now Benedict is a solid shot, but he avoids conflict. Do not be like that Fran, I can see you already thinking of an alliance. No conspiring in this game, it is everyone for themselves.”

 

 

“The game is yet to start, and you are already going for my head, tell my Your Grace, do I have to worry about another ball sailing to my head this year?”

 

 

“That was Colin!” Daphne turns to their guest, “Colin is crafty. He will strike when he thinks you are least suspecting it, so always be suspecting it and… well keep your head down when warned.”

 

 

 

“I feel this game should come with a doctor on standby.” Kate chuckles.

 

 

“Don’t worry, Fran was not injured that year” she waves her hand dismissively at her sister who stares at her trying to prevent her jaw from dropping.

 

 

“Not for you lot’s lack of trying!”

 

 

“Yes, yes, mother certainly said as much. Anyway, where was I, ah yes! Eloise concentrates entirely on defeating her older brothers. The hope is that she gets so absorbed by them that she forgets about you.”

 

 

“I, of course, am a complete enigma who will divulge none of my secrets.”

 

 

“I’m sure I can find a sibling or four to be as helpful as you are to our guests.” Francesca suggests

 

 

“Hush you!”

 

 

“I believe you missed one, but from what I know already, I am sure he is a most ruthless and cutthroat player.”

 

 

“My Didi, I would think you were talking about yourself” Edwina said sweetly, but this caused Kate to tense up. Daphne had been welcoming open and kind, but she was a duchess and a possible future in-law. The family welcomed her teasing, and no one batted an eye at her behaviour at the races but still.

 

 

“Ah! You certainly have made our brother’s acquaintance! I may have to stick with you. It may be both our first game, but if you are as ruthless as Anthony, I only stand a chance with someone who can go against him quite as well.”

 

 

“Francesca! No conspiring! But do know, I do not mind lending an assistance here or there to sink Anthony’s ball.”

 

 

“I fear I may not be good at this game, there are a lot of ways to unmind others, I have never been good at that.” ‘I would have said so before but not recently’ Kate thought.

 

 

“It is not to say we lack honour, on any other field, my brothers are usually the most genteel sportsmen. Here is another matter, but I promise it will be such fun.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the other side, Anthony is stretching to mask his obvious looks at Kate. Benedict comes to block his view and is sure that may be his last day on earth should he continue to needle his brother, but it is not often, the viscount is so easily ruffled. In the early days of the viscountcy, Benedict and Colin were still at Eton. By the time he had finished and was ready for university, he briefly considered staying back to help Anthony, but his brother said he had it in hand and Benedict went off to Cambridge. No matter how often he offered to help, Anthony declined and would retreat further into himself. The younger three seemed to be the only one with a glimpse at the brother he grew up with. But that often felt like an act Anthony did not know how to put on for long.

 

 

Benedict instead became the support for their mother as she grieved, making her laugh and pulling her out her despair, whenever he was home from school. Anthony always looked shocked at their mother’s laughter, and he felt disappointed that their brother was too busy to be there for their mother as he was to his duties. But as time went on, he saw it was not all on Anthony; his broken relationship with their mother came from her as well, but neither would talk to him about it, so he could never help mend it. When she got out of her melancholy, she became the nightmare all bachelors fear- a match-making mama. After Cambridge, it became hard to avoid he obvious attempts, which have worsened this year, following Daphne’s marriage. He is only glad, that Anthony’s courtship has taken centre stage, and that his mother approves of Miss Sharma who is an absolute delight! Especially when needling Anthony! Difference is, Anthony never seems to keep the murderous look in his eye for her as he holds for his siblings. No, the look in his brother’s eyes are clear… he is in love, or at least falling in love. Far removed from that list he expelled on the way to Eloise’s debut… Eloise… now that is a problem for another day.

 

 

“Brother, do you intend to ignore the rules of the game to impress your intended?” Colin asks

 

 

“I have not asked for her hand, and if you lot keep interfering, I will not have the chance”

 

 

“We simply wish to get to know our future sister”

 

 

“There is no future as long as she continues to consider India…”

 

 

“Would you like us to ensure she wins… maybe Kate will…” Eloise starts, already fearing her new friend being gone from her.

 

 

“NO! you would not like it if we treated you as such, and the woman can certainly hold her own in competition. Besides, she has bested me enough times, I will never live it down if on her first game she wins…”

 

 

“We still could declare her a winner for simply making you require to stretch before the game” Colin quips earning him a glare from his brother.

 

 

“You really like her…” Eloise says more surprised at her brother, every time she noted his attentions to Kate. Recalling last season with Daphne, she never thought she would consider marriage. Not with all she knew of marriages in the ton, and her family and the name she bore gave her a lot of freedom she couldn’t bear losing to a man. Not there was anyone of note, still… Kate had cared for her family, she had travelled, hunted, been closely acquainted with the Indian Royal court, and planned to return to her independent life, safe for her brother’s interference and courtship. She did not want Kate to be far away, but she also feared what it meant for a woman she looked up to, to succumb to marriage, even marriage to her brother. She was not ready to think of how it seemed to rule out a lot of her reasons against the institution, when a woman such as Kate was welcoming it.

 

 

“Eloise… of course I do. I wouldn’t subject the family to a folly. She would launch Francesca, help you this season to achieve whatever it is you set out to, so long as it does not keep causing mother to look faint… she will attend to this family as I do… probably even better… I am serious in my suit, and I need your help. She likes you, and your opinion on me, on marriage to me… El, I need you.”

 

 

“Well, I could say I was already going to help solely because I do not want her to go… but I have to say brother, I do not think we have to do much.” The group turn and see the girls heading towards them, Kate smiling brightly as she watches Anthony with his siblings. The two groups meet at the caddy holding the mallets and balls, and the minute long peace is broken when Eloise tries to grab a mallet first, “What do you think you are doing?!” Anthony asks.

 

 

“Last year, we promised to let the youngest would pick first.” Eloise counters.

 

 

“That would be me El, or have you forgotten my presence already?” Francesa folds her arms over her chest staring down her sister.

 

 

“Sorry Frannie, but we pick based on alphabetical order. That is the precedent!” Anthony counters.

 

 

“Perhaps we toss a coin?” Colin suggests placing his hand on yellow mallet.

 

 

Confused at the bickering, Edwina leans over to her sister, not noticing how she is enjoying the back and forth between the siblings, “It’s meant to be a game, is it not?” Kate schools her feature to tamper the excitement. Looking at Anthony who looks ready to spar with each and every one of his siblings.

 

 

“Everyone, please, now. The only fair thing to do is to let our invited guests choose their mallets and strike first.” Daphne suggests with Anthony staring at her like she grew a second head. He holds back his annoyed smile and gestures to the caddy for the ladies to pick. “Please, Miss Sharma, Miss Edwina, take your pick…”

 

“Edwina…” Kate prompts, looking at her sister who seems fearful of making the wrong choice.

 

“Perhaps the blue one.”

 

“An excellent choice” Anthony says, bringing it with a wide smile. Edwina lets out the breath she has been holding and takes the mallet. ‘I shall get the ball after, I do not want to lose a limb’

 

 

Kate goes straight and picks up the blue ball, passing it to Edwina, before she selects the black mallet and ball. Smiling when she felt before she saw, Anthony stiffen in anger. ‘He was trying to prevent me from picking one and I still got it. An excellent choice indeed.’

 

“The Mallet of Death” Eloise looks both horrified and excited as she turns to Colin before sparing a look at a fuming Anthony. He seemed to be holding himself as he swayed, not looking at Kate at all. ‘This will be the best game ever’ she thought as she watched Kate give a faux innocuous smile to Anthony.

 

“Would you look at that, Brother?” Benedict got closer to Anthony, arms folded trying to get his brother to raise his eyes and look at any of them. Aside Miss Edwina, they all had amused looks on their face. Miss Sharma may not know the significance, but she knew immediately she took it, that it was significant to Anthony. ‘She will be a fine addition to the family’ he thought.

 

 

“Is this yours?” Kate sweetly offers the mallet in the direction of Anthony, with no intent to give it up.

 

 

“Not at all. You are welcome to it. You did pick it first, out of all the mallets including the purple one.”

 

 

“You assumed I would take the purple one?”

 

 

“It is your favourite colour…”

 

 

“Black is yours…”

 

 

“As I said, it is not my mallet.”

 

 

“You near threatened to beat me last time I touched…” Colin turned offended. As much as he was glad someone else had the mallet, he knew Anthony would not react the same to Miss Sharma but a quick deference? That was unexpected.

 

 

“You EXAGGERATE!”

 

 

Kate scoffs hearing the barely restrained anger in his voice, “Are you the superstitious sort? I know some men cannot perform without their familiar tools. Like a child with a blanket.” This illicit small laughter from the group, who have barely held it in since she took the mallet. Anthony glares at her, ‘I have been trying to be a gentleman, but she never makes it easy’

 

 

“I can play perfectly well with any mallet. I wish you the best of luck. You are surely to need it as I will not be best”

 

 

“Again?”

 

 

Kate smiles at him, and he almost forgets the mutiny she committed. Almost. He is so busy watching her he does not listen to everyone else around him.

 

 

“Are we to stand around deliberating all day, or shall we play?” Eloise asks exasperated at her brother’s obvious flirting and delayal of the game. She sees everyone else is watching the couple who are staring at each other, and she rushes for the Yellow mallet. Everyone else joins the bustle, Benedict gets the Orange mallet, Colin the Green, Daphne the Red and Francesca the Purple. She briefly considers going for the Pink to spare her brother from using it but saw his smile at Kate when he took his mallet. He hardly cares, he seems to just want to play with her. The group move to the field as Daphne declares it the ‘Field of combat’ walking ahead of the group.

 

 

Francesca takes Eloise’s arm and looks Back to See Anthony walk with Miss Sharma, who waited for Miss Edwina to catch up. The poor girl looked positively terrified, and it was obvious Miss Sharma was trying not to be too excited but didn’t seem to succeed when Anthony bumped her causing her to drop her ball and stumble back a bit. She held her mallet like a weapon, but Anthony dashed ahead, still facing her. Francesca had not seen her brother like this to anyone outside family, but there was something so much more carefree about him and she loved Miss Sharma for it.

 

 

What started as a pleasant afternoon, with few cheers that were chastised, a lot of whooping, gasps and chuckles. But then it all descended into its usual chaos before everyone got to the second wicket. The order went Miss Sharma, Miss Edwina, Anthony, Benedict, Colin, Daphne, Eloise and Francesca. Players are to follow their balls, and though he was getting it through the wickets and playing fine, Anthony seemed to be positioning himself near Miss Sharma. Benedict, Colin and Daphne called cheating, colluding, conspiring each time the two seemed to be talking. Which often led to them springing apart and glaring at the culprit.

 

“I like her” Francesca whispered to Eloise.

 

 

“Yes, Kate is fantastic. She got Anthony to read a poem at Lady Danbury’s. At balls, he isn’t shadowing me like Daphne said he did to her as he is always never her, even when he isn’t the one on the dancefloor with her!”

 

 

“Do you think she likes him? She teases him a lot but, he does not seem angry with it.”

 

 

“I think our dear Miss Sharma is taken with our brother, but she overheard him say those things about women, I think she wants to know she will be respected… like Anthony expects Simon to respect Daphne.”

 

 

“And our future husbands”

 

 

“Your future husband… I am not marrying Fran”

 

 

“I’m sure she thought the same… if you find love El, will you truly run away from it?”

 

 

“It’s my turn, I do not want to be distracted, move before I hit you”

 

 

“I’ll tell mother you did it on purpose!”

 

 

“I am simply giving you a warning”

 

 

“ELOISE PLAY!” Daphne and Benedict bellowed. Miss Sharma was laughing but it seemed more likely to be due to whatever Anthony was whispering to her. And when she looked at him, Francesca had no more worries about her feeling for her brother.

 

 

Anthony was trying to do his best at the game, but truly, she had his mallet and she looked good using it! It was cruel, and yet he spared but a second to chastise his bad play before going over to her. There were five plays after him before her turn, and his siblings took the game as seriously as he did so they sometimes took to long to play or bicker when distracted and not play till everyone was quiet, which never happened. They all enjoyed teasing his poor game, but it always brought a smile to her face, could he really care?

 

“Out of practice much, Brother?” Benedict teased, steering him away from approaching Kate, who looked disappointed with his change of direction. Benedict pointed him to his ball which was a few spaces away from Kate and her ball. When it was Kate’s turn and she got it into her next wicket in one clean move she hopped in a circle on her spot before going towards Anthony who could help but smile at her. “What a shot Kate!” Daphne exclaimed

 

“Your ball is this way, Miss Sharma.” Lady Danbury called enjoying separating the couple for no other reason than she could, and it annoyed them. Kate huffed to hide her blush and marched towards the Dowager and her ball. “I hadn’t realised you were playing”

 

 

“Come now Miss Sharma, I am merely helping the game along, the quicker you all finish, the more time you have for a chaperoned tea with the viscount”

 

 

Kate tried to hide her irritation at being chaperoned, she had missed Edwina’s play and Anthony had gotten closer to the wicket she just passed. She and Daphne were ahead, but she didn’t want to be too ahead to not allow Anthony to be beside her during the game. She was likely to win and she needed to enjoy his losing up close. He had hit the wicket, causing his ball to be at an awkward angle he would have to work at to get it through. “Ha. Rather unfortunate” Eloise quipped

 

“I trust Anthony to make a surprising turn”

 

“Thank you, Frannie!”

 

“No cheering!”

 

“How was that cheering Colin?”

 

“Are the demands of the day affecting your game, Brother? Or are you too distracted trying to get you ball closer to Kate, you have forgotten the objective of the game?” Daphne asked.

 

“I am doing no such thing!”

 

 

Colin and Benedict discuss Benedict’s distracted mind. “Your head is clearly elsewhere, brother. I know what is on Anthony’s mind, pray tell what has led you to give me such an easy shot?”

 

“I’ll admit, my thoughts are far from the field. I had hoped teasing Anthony and a game of Pall Mall distracting enough, but alas… I have applied to become a student of art at the Royal Academy Schools.”

 

“Have you? Well, congratulations. Do you not want others to know?” he asks as Benedict hesitated to speak until there was a wide enough breath between them and the family.

 

“Well, do not congratulate yet. There is nothing to tell as I await word of my acceptance. They only invite a select few to study there, it seems”

 

“But still, it is an exciting prospect.”

 

 

“Well, it is hardly a grand tour as you had with your travels. But yes, I do hope to distinguish myself too.” He says and walks away, not wanting his younger brother to see the fear in his eyes. Colin had always been fearless with his passions. They may not be singular or make money, but his passion to know and see the world was admirable. Benedict could have travelled too but did not have the heart to when Anthony could not, and their family needed him. He still could now but had little interest in it, not since meeting Henry Granville. He had not gone to any of his parties this season, as he promised Eloise to be there with her and Henry preferred to use the cover of a ball for his parties. Now he had to wait, for what he hoped will be his future. He resented his brother for the immediacy of theirs, not Anthony being Viscount so young, but knowing the path of his life by the randomness of him being born first. He never wished for the viscountcy to fall to him. It was one of the reasons he was happy his brother would marry this year, hopefully, like his sister, have a son. Whatever happened, praying for decades more for Anthony, he knew Miss Sharma would be perfect to raise the 10th Viscount and he would be around, but knew, like his time with Anthony, Kate would not seek to burden him, preferring to carry it all on her own. Perhaps that’s what made them so well suited, they knew how to carry the burden and would take the other’s burden without asking. They would take care of each other, better than he had in the 28 years he had to care for his brother.

 

 

“Watch it now, Eloise. Yes, then. Send it. SEND IT! YES! Brava!” Lady Danbury cheered.

 

“So Lady Danbury can coach and cheer but we cannot?” Francesca asked in a whisper to Kate.

 

“Even I’m not brave enough to dispute her, care to try my lord?”

 

“I am sure she holds that cane, not for her health but to beat unsuspecting people who challenge her. Or have the bruises on your shins fully recovered”

 

 

“I live with her; they never get a chance to before I apparently earn another!”

 

 

 

 

The matrons were simply watching the game, Violet, holding her grandchild. Mary would sneak a look at him and imagine holding one of her own. After Edwina, they were never able to have another child. She was so sick, and doctors did not think she nor Edwina would make it. She sometimes thought of what life would have been for Milan and Kate, to lose another wife and mother. Or if she had a son, her parents may have tried a reconciliation, or Kate would have come out early instead of them waiting for Edwina to be of age. More likely, the only thing that would change, would be the plan for her their hypothetical son. Kate would never have considered England if it was not something Mary had wanted, and Kate thought it the best place to find a husband for Edwina. England had not really been home, even as she grew up here. The warmth of a home was with Milan, Kate and Edwina. India held too many memories for Mary, and she had started to come out of her melancholy, after Kate suggested they move back when Edwina could be out for a season. Mary had written to Lady Danbury two years before they arrived. With the time it would take to be delivered and they receive a response, they had to send the letter early.

 

“Oh, I must compliment you on your daughter, Lady Mary. Your girls are a credit to you.”

 

“They are my greatest blessing indeed.”

 

“And perhaps our greatest challenge too.” Violet laughs. “During the marriage mart at least”

 

“Yes, the season can be quite cutthroat. Though I must thank your son for turning it around for my Kate. I haven’t seen her like this is a long while.”

 

“I can say the same for my Anthony.” They stare wistfully at their children. “It has been some time since you all have been on English soil, has it not?”

 

“Not since I left with Kate and my late husband, this is Edwina’s first time here. Even as I know her age, it still seems like a lifetime ago”

 

“I quite understand. Aubrey Hall holds many such memories for me as well.” The widows smile in their understanding. Having lost their great loves, trying to hold unto hope their children find the same in each other. Lady Danbury joins them again. Dropping her cane to pick up her great godson. Her oldest son and current Earl of Danbury alway favour their ancestral home, in Surrey while her daughters were in their marital homes. She somehow felt more as a family with the Bridgertons then her own children. Her husband and she were no love match, but they had respect and an understanding, and in that they raised their children who in turn married well but no love match. She felt guilty that she works so hard for the love of her godson and Daphne, the former Miss Bridgerton, and now for Lady Mary’s daughters and Viscount Bridgerton. It was too late for her children, especially her youngest daughter. She could only hope to do better when her grandchildren came of age. Starting with the next Lord Danbury; she loved her only son but somehow, he got his father’s brains, and she could not see the fearsome name she had made become an insult.

 

 

“Well, they are off to a slow start, but I have hopes of bloodshed yet.” Causing Mary to look for Edwina. Kate is sure to be fine, as long as she does not make another attempt at the Viscount, who seems to enjoy either the threat of violence, or annoying her daughter to the point without regard for his life.

 

“Lady Danbury jests. My children may be rivalrous, but we have yet to lose any limbs.”

 

They watch Daphne take a good shot, clapping for the Duchess, and having her son wave to his mother, Lady Danbury smiles as she says, “Motherhood seems to suit the duchess very well.”

 

“Yes, it does” Violet replies with pride.

 

“Our matchmaking efforts last season were quite wise indeed, Lady Bridgerton”

 

“Yes, I would say we will have success again this year, but I fear this match is all down to our children.”

 

“What do you mean?” Lady Mary asks.

 

“In truth, my son is far too stubborn to listen to anyone, but I see him speaking with his siblings. It seems after the races, my sons Colin and Benedict, pointed out Anthony’s singular attentions, and with Eloise befriending your daughter, well. Let’s just say this is the most I have seen him seek his sister. Now Daphne has joined the fray”

 

 

“Thank you…”

 

“Whatever for Lady Mary?” Violet asks the woman who was near to tears.

 

“You Agatha, for opening your home to my daughters and I, and you Violet, for your exceptional children and the kindness they show my daughters, especially Kate. I didn’t see how much I relied on her and left her to not chase a life for herself. Now, she is… she is threatening your son. KATE!”

 

“If they stay the course, I truly do not know who will kill who first…”

 

The matrons look to Lady Mary who gives a wary sigh, “My daughter will be the death of me”

 

“Anthony needs the challenge, and he is certainly enjoying the attention from your daughter. I will not worry too much.”

 

 

 

The game continues and Anthony catches up to Kate and Daphne. His ball lands closer than before to Kate’s and the Bridgertons decide to inspire further chaos.

 

“You have the chance to best him” Eloise prompts.

 

“But wouldn’t that risk her place” Francesca asks.

 

“Besides, that would not be very sportsmanlike, would it?” Colin asks

 

“I was told that unsportsmanlike conduct was a requirement for this game.” Kate replies

 

“Ah! A fast learner you are indeed, Kate.” Daphne chuckles.

 

“Besides, I do think it is time for Anthony to be on the receiving end of his signature move.” Benedict says.

 

Looking anywhere but at Kate, Kate prompts Anthony into the discussion, “What do you say, my lord? Are you in a losing mood?”

 

Anthony bites his tongue trying not to offend her. He had just caught up and was so distracted that he failed to calculate the risk. “My mood, Miss Sharma, shall remain unchanged, regardless of your choice.”

 

“Ah, is that so? You would bravely bear the crushing shame of defeat, with, how did you say it, such grace?

 

“Well, in light of my siblings’ tactics, not you Frannie, you have certainly conducted yourself with much grace indeed. Do you truly mean to change your behaviour so drastically for me?”

 

Kate sighed, looking at the balls and then at Anthony, who believes he has her. “Yes! I do, I truly do.” She swung her mallet as high as she could, placing her foot on her ball before hitting causing Anthony’s ball to tumble all the way down to the marshes. Anthony has a tight smile, surprised she actually did it. “I knew you would not mind it at all, my lord.”

 

“Well done.” Daphne cheered

 

“Told you she was wonderful. I think I love her!” Eloise says to her sisters

 

“Don’t worry Ant, there’s always next year!” Francesca failed at laughing as she tried to cheer her brother.

 

 

Benedict calls to Miss Edwina to play her turn before going to whisper to Colin. Edwina gets her ball into a massive bush, shaking her head at following it, she turns to the group resigned. “I think now is as good a time to cut out. Didi, I shall be with mama, do try not to kill anyone with your mallet”

 

“What have I done to say I had that thought in my head?”

 

“Aside from actually wielding it at me twice, I wonder where your sister could possibly get the idea” Anthony chides

 

“Have you ever heard the third times the charm?”

 

“Yes, I do believe it is how many meetings we had before I got your name”

 

Edwina shakes her head at the sparring couple. Content that her sister can hold her own here. Besides, in the entirety of the game, Kate hardly spared her a look, always with the viscount or one of his siblings. Somehow, her only sister was the only one not given such special attention. She didn’t want to seem out of sorts, Lady Danbury and her mother had given her enough lectures about the importance of this trip. She will be pleasant and hope to gain an audience with the Duchess after the game, but for now, will spend the rest of the day with the matrons.

 

Kate watches her sister join the matrons, she recalls all the feistier games with the Rajas and Ranis while Edwina was too young to join, and the Ranis her age were softer spoken like she was. She was proud of her for staying as long as she did, and even teasing her. Maybe Edwina was turning a page on their relationship, she had to at least hope she had not bungled her relationship with her sister.

 

Everyone was so focused on Anthony and Kate they did not notice Colin’s ball being moved to Kate’s by benedict. Eloise calls for her brother to play, and he does not hesitate to send Kate’s ball in the same direction as Anthony’s.

 

“Oh, what a shot Brother” Anthony cheers

 

“I thought us to be friends Mr. Bridgerton”

 

“There are no friends nor families in the game of Pall Mall Miss Sharma. It is a shame, you were so far ahead, to quit now…”

 

“Who said anything about cutting out?” Kate asked

 

“Well Anthony…” Francesca started but noted her brother already began to move towards Miss Sharma. “Never mind then…”

 

“I guess we better go fetch them.”

 

“I can still best you, you know.”

 

“We’ll see about that” they bicker as they head into the marshes.

 

“Why did you do that?” Daphne hissed at Colin.

 

“We thought they’d cut out and go for the chaperoned tea. They can’t seem to keep away from each other, we thought this would be a good out!”

 

“So, you gravely underestimated their competitiveness even as throughout the game they showed interest in each other as well as besting the game?! Truly brother how?” Francesca asked rolling her eyes.

 

“Should someone go with them?” Eloise asks

 

“They are still playing… let’s give them a moment and if that moment is too long, Colin and I will go, seeing as we are the reason they are there”

 

 

 

 

In the marshes, Anthony walks leisurely behind Kate who is searching carefully for their ball. “You seem to be gracefully accepting defeat my lord.”

 

“I am only enjoying the day, Miss Sharma; this is the first anyone has ever bested me like this. Plus, I’m bracing myself for the endless teasing I shall get for you have handed victory to my brothers. Worse than sore losers, Bridgertons are smug winners”

 

“Like you? Oh wait, you have yet to have a victory over me. Well, I do hope you get used to it. Losing to me that is”

 

“My, Miss Sharma, are we already confirming attendance for next year. And you shall be here as…”

 

Kate rolls her eyes and sees the pink ball first. Anthony turns to where she is looking, “Oh. Dash it.” There balls are in the middle of a large mud puddle, unclear how deep the puddle was but the balls did not seem to be sinking in too much.

 

“We could pluck them out. No one would be any the wiser.”

 

“But I would know, and if we are to continue the game, we might as well do it properly.”

 

“And Daphne said there was no honour in this game”

 

“She exaggerates. I suspect like she, you would loudly advertise my cheating the moment I stepped out of line”

 

“Perhaps. But you must admit you would do the same to me.”

 

“You really would not tell anyone?”

 

“Would you?”

 

They stare at each other for a moment before Kate smiles turning to their balls. “Honour” she says with derision as she yanks up her skirts and enters the mud. Anthony looks her at with a mix of shock and admiration. She bats her ball to a safe spot before looking up and smiling at Anthony. “Your play my lord. Unless you do not wish to dirty those fine boots of yours.”

 

“Do not worry about my boots. You woman, are a menace.”

 

“You do not have to come in.”

 

“We both know I do” he says as he walks in, he bats his ball close to hers again, before giving her a smug smile. She laughs, shaking her head. He offers her his hand so they may get out of the mud, shaking his head at the bottom pleats of her skirts muddy. His valet shall certainly not be impressed when he sees his boots, but they certainly will fare better than Kate dainty slippers he saw as she raised her skirts. She is stuck, and he takes both mallets and tosses them aside, taking both her upper arms, he pulls harder but slips and she lands on top of him in the mud. He feels her laughing before he hears it. The musical sound he is always chasing in the ballroom. His nose is filled with the scent of her soap or perfume, he never figured out which, but the lily smell overwhelms his. When she looks up, and into his eyes, she sees his desire, and leans forward to kiss him. The kiss is chaste at first before becoming more urgent. He feels mud on his face as she goes to put her hand in his hair, and the moment is broken. She begins laughing again. “It is not amusing”

 

“It isn’t?!” he joins her as she gets up and helps him up. “Nothing I imagined about today came close to that.”

 

“Our fall or…”

 

He answers with another kiss.

 

“We are playing with fire here my lord”

 

“I know… I just can’t… I have imagined that so many ways since we met…”

 

“So have I…”

 

“I HAVE WON!!” they hear Daphne in the background. “She will be amusing company at dinner.” Kate says with a smile.

 

“I think we better join them and get ourselves clean.”

 

“Lady Danbury will think we are avoiding our chaperoned tea.”

 

“Well…”

 

“My lord… I know this was Colin’s work, but did you wish for a private audience with me.”

 

“No, I did not organise this, though I am not unhappy with the results, muddy clothes and all”

 

“I shall get our balls; you get the mallets” she turned and picked both balls up to see Anthony staring past her at something. She looks back, and then turns to him again, “My Lord…”

 

 

He walks towards the place, past Kate, she silently follows and see the grave marker for EDMUND BRIDGERTON, the 8th Viscount who died May 1803.

 

She stands silently besides him. “I… I don’t usually come here… I haven’t realised where we were until I saw you… I’m sorry”

 

“Whatever for…”

 

“He was the best man I ever knew, becoming viscount… I knew it would happen someday, I knew what that meant, but we lived like we had forever… it is more than a title you know. To my family. I am the head of house, their wants, their needs, the security of their place in society… he did it all so effortlessly, but if you ask anyone in my family, the word effortless will never be used to describe me. I carry it like a burden and for that I know I am a lesser man than him… my family…”

 

“They mean a lot to you.”

 

“As I see yours does to you”

 

“Before we set sail, I went to visit my parent’s grave. I rarely went before then, it was to painful for Mary, and in between lessons and the coffers running lower, no work and the worst sort of people trying to take advantage of three women, I’m not sure I had the time, but I knew I was scared. Scared to see them, to let them see their daughter fail… I couldn’t protect them well enough in Bombay, but I could try and get them settled here because Mary missed here and Edwina had fantasies about here I wanted to make come true for her… now, I am oceans away from them and I still feel not enough…”

 

“When I asked to court you, for you to forgo India and make a life with me, I didn’t think how much you would give up. You had a life there, one that was denied you here years ago. And I see the gossip sheets especially Whistledown… I’m sorry if I pressured you into something you… you…”

 

“We both know you could not pressure me into anything… I want to be here. But thank you for allowing me talk about them… I don’t think I have in a long time.”

 

“I avoid talking about my father too, even with his portrait in the office, it only feels like a reminder of who I fail to live up to”

 

“All I have ever heard of you in your role as a viscount, have been wonderful… I think you too hard on yourself, my lord”

 

“I think we are long past formalities, please call me Anthony… and I can say the same about you Miss Sharma. You have done remarkably well for your family and you continue to do so, even when things are not as you planned.”

 

“Thank you… and please call me Kathani…”

 

“What?”

 

“I do not mind being called Kate while with others, but I hope it is not a strange request for you to call me Kathani… it is the name I was called growing up. We thought Kate would be better on English soil, but I much prefer Kathani.”

 

“So, you haven’t been called your name since you arrived?”

 

“On the ship, to help my mama and Edwina get used to it”

 

“It would be my honour, Kathani… fitting, a beautiful unique name for an exceptional woman” he says as he holds her hand and continues to stare at his father's grave marker.

 

 

 

“Anthony… Miss Sharma…”

Chapter Text

After a few moments, the group continue to play but Colin and Benedict head into the marshes to ensure their mother does not kill them for orchestrating the unchaperoned time for Anthony and Miss Sharma. Their sisters helped give them cover to go, with Daphne leading in the game, they knew they did not stand a chance to win anyway. ‘Besides, it was your brilliant idea so keep on with it!’, she reminded them. The brothers both hoped that they won’t walk into anything untoward, Miss Sharma was a guest of their home, and they trusted Anthony… but it was obvious he was attracted to her, and Anthony had never been subtle about how carnal he got. Evidenced by his behaviour last year whenever the soprano, Siena Rosso, was nearby. Whether it was a ball, her opera shows or a sporting event in which the man literally fucked her under the bleachers where the gentleman she came with sat! Regardless, Anthony had planned a respectable, albeit boring tour for Miss Sharma, he would not do anything in appropriate…

 

 

 

“It is not amusing” they hear Anthony scolded, though not in the harsh tone they were intimately familiar with. ‘Oh no… please tell me they are not fighting? How did thing turn so quickly?’ Benedict thought. The brothers use the cover of the bushes and watch their brother laughing with Miss Sharma as she helps him out of the mud. “How on earth did that happen?” Colin asks in a whisper, Benedict elbows him telling him to shut it. 

 

 

“Nothing I imagined about today came close to that.” Anthony says. He looks at Miss Sharma with such reverence; the brothers smiled at their elder, glad that he opened up to them, and listened to them. Whatever spell Miss Sharma had cast on their dear brother, they hoped it never broke. To see him freer and happier than he had been in the last decade.

 

 

“Our fall or…” Miss Sharma starts, before they could understand the flirtatious tone her voice seemed to inflect, Anthony responds to her with a kiss. Colin is about to call out when Benedict this time, slaps his hand over his brother’s mouth, while smiling at the development. “But it’s improper…” Colin quietly protests. “Shush… do you not trust your brother?” Benedict hisses. ‘How did we not take him to brothels after last year? It now falls to me seeing Anthony is certainly marrying Miss Sharma, especially after such liberties.”

 

 

“We are playing with fire here my lord”, Miss Sharma says, no regret or anger in her voice. She is still holding the lapel of Anthony’s jacket, still leaning close. ‘They will kiss again! And she is the one initiating! Does this count as her compromising our dear brother?’ Benedict thinks amused by what he is seeing. He is about to drag Colin back to leave them in peace; he knows it is improper, but he cannot take this from his brother. Not after years of seeing that crease permanently etched into this forehead, like he is two seconds away from collapsing from the stress of the viscountcy. He tries not to selfishly be glad that Anthony planned to marry this year, perhaps have an heir before the next season. He could not imagine taking over his brother’s duties, limiting himself from his passions, his adventures. 

 

 

Anthony may be known as the most notorious rake of the ton, but he knew, that it was a façade; Anthony would not be caught at one of the parties he attended. Being with married women or any woman so close to the ton was not a risk Anthony would take. The ‘Anthony’ his brother kept for himself was the one who lived wildly with mistresses that knew their place. Whether they were thespians, or the few widows who did fully attend societal functions, ensured he knew he would not run into them in Mayfair unless he went to see their shows, or they were hired for an event. There was a clear divide in the classes; not that Anthony was cruel or lorded his title, quite the opposite. He needed to escape all things that were the ton, society and all the responsibilities that came with it. Anything that remotely reminded him of the viscountcy and his responsibilities was not permitted where Anthony got to be Anthony. This included his bachelor lodgings, as even with an office there, he discharged his duties from Bridgerton House. This had the add advantage of giving him opportunities to spend with the family. Another association he had with his duties which Benedict sometimes resented him for.

 

 

He was his brother first and foremost, but often, felt like Anthony could not have a conversation without reminding him of the role he played and Benedict’s lack of contributions. He never complained that Benedict did not help with the finances and other roles. In fact, Anthony seemed to encourage him to flee from it, fearing he would become like him. He was grateful Anthony was protective but wished he would let him return the favour somehow. Now, Miss Sharma- Kate as she will be their new sister soon, seemed to do to Anthony, what Benedict and any Bridgerton failed to do; make him comfortable in his role as viscount, bring out Anthony to be happy in all the reminders of things he ran away from. He was not using her like his mistresses as a safe place away from his title, she seemed to simply be beside him, and make the burdens less isolating. He knew love was life changing for people, but never truly saw it till now. He had always known his parents love and saw how change his mother was after the death of their father, but he now sees the change from not having love, to being open to it at least.

 

 

 

“I HAVE WON!!” they hear Daphne in the background. The brothers are fortunate the couple is still lost in each other, they do not look around and see them. Benedict is about to tell Colin to leave, but he sees his brother shake his head, fighting tears and know he too, is thinking of the gratitude he feels towards Kate. Benedict is about to leave when he notes Anthony’s change. Kate holds their Pall Mall balls standing … she stands close to the monument erected in honour of their fathers passing. He watches Anthony walk past Kate and she follows. Stunned by the development, he looks to Colin who is just as surprised. Benedict knows now he wishes to leave the couple to their moment, but Colin is not ready to leave. 

 

 

As Benedict heads out of the marsh when he came face to face with his mother. She seemed like she was on the warpath and was glad now Colin had stayed. ‘Colin is proven wiser than us all this season.’ 

 

“Where’s your brother and Miss Sharma?!”

 

“Don’t worry, Colin is chaperone”

 

“That is hardly appropriate! Three men and a young lady.”

 

“Mother! Not only will Anthony have my head if either Colin or I had such designs on Miss Sharma, but I suspect he would want yours for the suggestion… Their balls seemed to have travelled towards father’s grave…”

 

“Oh”

 

“Likely they are still there… Anthony was speaking with her about father when I left… I don’t recall when he last spoke with any of us about father… Miss Sharma is good for him, and he will not do anything to ruin that… I will not allow it.”

 

“All of you seem to share that sentiment… I shall go see to them…”

 

“Mother…”

 

 

“My son is doing something he has avoided for years, with a woman that… Benedict, I want to see this too”

 

“Then I must warn you of their appearance; they fell into puddle it seems but like I said, nothing untoward”

 

“One! Just one! I just want a season, a marriage, free of scandal. Truly”

 

“You’ve had one child marry under scandal which was totally ignored given that it was to a duke”

 

“Are you forgetting your brother’s engagement last year”

 

Benedict winced at the memory. No wonder Colin seemed wiser; he was!

 

 

____________________________

 

 

 

Violet comes up to Colin, still watching the couple talk though their words can’t be heard. They are holding hands and she is taken aback by their muddied appearance. “I honestly thought it would be funny to see how he would woo the sister as opposed to the diamond. The way he spoke of her, I was sure they hated each other! I hadn’t truly expected that they’d match, at least not till the first ball I danced with her and really spoke to her. Now… she is so much more…”

 

“I am glad you said something… I fear I was pushing the diamond but” she tries to talk through her watery smile, “I am glad to have been wrong.”

 

She held her sons arm briefly before she walked up to the couple, “Anthony… Miss Sharma…”

 

“Mother…”

 

“Lady Bridgerton”

 

The couple are startled dropping their hands. “I thought to warn you Lady Danbury is still hoping for that tea, though I believe it will be best to have a bath. I sent Benedict to give notice to the house” she tries to be light, watching Anthony and Miss Sharma look to each other before looking back at Edmund’s stone marker. Kate gives her a curtsy and heads off, seeing Colin and feels gratitude that he was here so their moment alone was not completely unchaperoned, but also invaded on and nervous about how long Colin was there and what he witnessed. Before she can ask him what he saw, “Thank you Miss Sharma”

 

“Whatever for Mr. Bridgerton?”

 

“Anthony is rarely at our father’s grave. Not that I am especially in recent years, but I do not actively avoid it the way he does.” Colin sighs helping Kate who is feeling more uncomfortable with the dry mud stiffening her dress.

 

“Seeing him with you, watching him open up to you…”

 

“You could hear?!”

 

“No, but it is simply the fact that he was talking that was enough. When he came into the title, it was difficult for us all, especially he and our mother. She has come out of the grief, and she is the one adorning the grave with flowers. But I worry Anthony hasn’t yet come out of his.”

 

“Your brother is an incredibly strong and wonderful man, and I am very lucky to know him, for him to be open with me and permit me to do the same with him. To be invited here, to your home, and get to know all of you.”

 

“Well, so far, I can see you are certainly enjoying his company” he wiggles his eyebrows at her that remind her so much of Anthony

 

“Be warned Mr. Bridgerton, I still have my mallet, and it feels wrong to deprive it of at least an injury considering its name.”

 

Colin laughs and continues to escort her back to the field where the party laugh at her appearance, and she threatens a hug to the next person who laughs at her and the group is immediately silenced until she disappears into the house, Lady Danbury trailing beside her.

 

 

____________________________

 

 

 

Anthony takes off his jacket as his mother settles onto the bench near his father’s grave. Violet joins him silently, this is the first she has come there without flowers, but that is not what this was about. Whatever emotions stirred in her son, this would be their first time speaking on what changed when his father died, when he became viscount and Violet left this world temporarily in soul, heart and mind at least.

 

“Dearest, I hate to see you like this. So weighed down… I am grateful that at least in Miss Sharma’s presence you are lighter, but here you both were. Looking like the world was on your shoulders with no one to help you carry it.”

 

He smiles at the ignorance she still lives in. ‘Who is there to carry it? You certainly weren’t.’

 

“I am fulfilling my duty to this family, as I have always done, mother. It is what has always taken precedent above all else. Miss Sharma deserves to see all that I am, the reasons behind the man she is considering marrying.”

 

“That is good dearest…” she lets out a small laugh, “Your father used to say, you cannot show someone your best, without allowing them to see your worst. I am happy for you my dear boy”

 

He hesitates, not turning to her, closing his eyes he says, “I did not want her to love me, and I certainly did not plan to care for her the way I do now despite fighting it.”

 

Violet looks at her son and wonders how she could have made him fight against love so reverently as opposed to for love. “Just because you are dedicated to this family does not mean that there should be no room left for love, Anthony. Your father took his role as viscount seriously, but he also loved deeply. You were much the same in love, but after your father died, a wall went up inside you, as if love became some weakness instead of your greatest strength. And that is not you.”

 

“I still hear you sometimes, you know… screaming… asking him to not leave you. Telling me I am incapable of making a decision about our family, our life… telling me I was not the one to be there with you as you had Hyacinth, like I wished for it and days later telling me I made the wrong one as you both survived. Years second guessing me… even now, you still question my choice, like I am incapable.”

 

He stands walking away from her to create a physical representation of the distance she created between them “Since I started courting her, I sometimes see her in my dreams like you… broken. I have to remind myself that she is not, but it does not feel enough. I feel cruel for pursuing my desires. Yes, she will make an excellent viscountess and the family love her, but I cannot let myself feel that, for how can I leave her, like father left you?”

 

Violet feels shaken by the memory, of Edmund, of herself… of the broken son standing before her, “Losing someone like that, it is unthinkable. Someone you love. I am so sorry, that it was you who was with your father that day, and me the years after. If I could go back and change things… you have no idea…”

 

“You acted like nothing happened. Like you woke up one day and resumed your duties, attended to the children like you had not been missing from them for years. I am jealous that everyone seems to have moved on but I cannot seem to do the same. Not when the voice that tells me I am less than father is yours. Even up to last season, saying I should have made an agreement like father would have. I took your advice, yes, I chose the worst possible person but nothing you say is easy to understand. No matter what I do I fail. I was surprised you liked her, I thought for sure you’d oppose for some reason. I’m sorry mother but I must leave, the mud is hardening, and I am promised to still have tea with Miss Sharma if we are able to make the time.”

 

She stands to go to him, but he gives a curt bow and walks determinedly back to the house.

 

 

____________________________

 

 

 

With the game still going on, Mary takes Edwina for a walk to see what is going on with her youngest. She had not been the most present mother, relying on Kate far too much. Even when they arrived; the first week had Kate ensuring what Edwina wore, her comforts and even that her prospects were good, irritating their host, Lady Danbury. Since the viscount’s attentions to Kate, Edwina has been quite unkind, acting entitled and dismissing Kate’s input, especially when she says it came from the viscount. All accounts have been easy for Agatha to verify and though Mary is not as stern as Kate, neither is Edwina, they counted of Agatha’s status as the ton’s dragon to chase off the undesirable men. Sadly, it seems the only eligible man worth their time is the viscount, perhaps that is what is hurting her daughter; there seems to be no one else. But it does not excuse her begrudging Kate, her sister deserves a match of her own, a chance for them all to be together in England!

 

She had many discussions with Kate before coming to Kent, and her daughter was slightly letting go of her plan for India, regardless of the outcome of the suit. Though her daughter may be in denial, Mary already knew the outcome and did not hesitate to remind Kate. Perhaps the more she said it, the more she’d believe it. Her heart felt full watching Kate and her prospective family, they opened her up in ways she hadn’t seen since before her beloved husband passed. Even in their late-night conversation, she can see Kate holding back, and she hopes one day, her daughter will be able to bear all to her, fearing no consequence, just the listening ear of a mother.

 

“You have been quite different since the viscount began courting your sister, I do not want to think you are not only jealous but cruel enough to wish Kate did not have any attention or prospects.”

 

“Of course not mama!”

 

“Perhaps then it is the title of her prospects, I do not recall you being upset at Mr. Dorset’s attentions. Do you think Kate undeserving of someone like the viscount?”

 

“Mama? How could you think me so cruel?”

 

“I don’t know Edwina. After the viscount told you he was not intending to court you, I understood your pride might have been pricked and you did not want him around. I gave you that time, and Kate gave you that space too to be upset with him, but he has been courting your sister wonderfully and you do not seem happy that they seem to be falling in love.”

 

“Mama…”

 

“Edwina, even after she told you how much she spoke highly of you to the Queen, how in her courtship she looks out for you, as does the viscount; with everything she has done for you Edwina, you cut her out, tell her you do not wish for her to accompany you to the Palace?! Tell me, what else can I think? This season may not be exactly as we had hoped for you, but do you think if it was you being courted and falling in love, Kate would treat you as such?”

 

“She opposed the viscount, did she not?”

 

“For you! And she was right, he is better matched with her. And she never thought of him for herself until a week ago when he declared his intentions. I had to encourage her to be open to the match. She saw him as a friend, another elder sibling navigating the ton for their sister and you all but spat in her face!”

 

Edwina is ashamed, looking away. She knows she had been a brat, but she was upset at the unfulfilled promise of the season. Yes, she was jealous of Kate, she wanted to be happy for her, but she also wanted to have what Kate had. Maybe not with the viscount, it was clear he only had eyes for Kate, but someone. None of her suitors inspired her the way the viscount did Kate, she laughed so opening and loudly, they both did, when they were together. It was how Kate was with her, but it seemed she had been replaced in Kate’s affections and she did not like it. But she also did not trust the viscount; with what Kate had told her, even with all his actions to her sister, she worried he was being the perfect suitor and would have been like this to any woman he set his cap to. He was like that to her in their dance and persistent enough to gate-crash her time with Lord Lumley at the races. Perhaps, that was who he was, good at courting and the recipient did not matter, they would still feel like the centre of his attentions.

 

“Mama, I want Kate to be happy, of course, and yes, I am upset about my season, but Kate is nowhere to be found to comfort me as she always does. Her attention to the viscount is almost singular.”

 

“As it should be! Edwina, Kate deserves a life of her own. She will always be my daughter and your sister, but that is not all that she is, and it is unkind that you expect that of her. The season not going for you as promised is not her fault. She did not raise the men to be subpar. She taught all you know, preparing you for this life, but she is not omnipotent, she cannot conjure the perfect man for you. The fact that you feel entitled to the perfect season but think so little of your sister that you do not believe she deserves one too, disappoints me.”

 

Mary returns to the party, leaving Edwina with much to think on. She finds in the time she is gone; her daughter has taken a mud bath! ‘Is it too much to wish one of my daughters not act like they belong in an asylum?!’

 

 

 

 

‘Alone again’, Edwina thinks, ‘I am often alone now since coming to this country.’  Back in India, Kate was never away from her, taking her with her everywhere, trying to keep her mind active and the lessons enjoyable and practical. She did that… taught herself first and made it easy and fun for Edwina to learn as well. Now though, she was without her sister and it was her fault, she had pushed her away and into the arms to the Bridgertons. She doubts any of them felt anything to her cutting out of the game, all fighting the viscount for Kate’s attention. She had one sister, and the Bridgertons were a family of eight siblings, and she had freely handed her sister to them. They would fill her time here, as the viscount continued to court Kate, see if they are suited and the family welcomes her, which even the blind could see that! Today, after all she had said, and left unsaid, Kate still put her first to pick, checked on her during the game. It was obvious that while she struggled, Kate thrived, and her sister had to make herself small to be with her. Kate would not have to supress any part of herself with the Bridgertons, and soon her sister will prefer the family she married into to her.

 

 

 

____________________________

 

 

 

Anthony and Kate are sat in a drawing room, that allows the last rays of the sun illuminate it. Candles are lit as well as in preparation for the darkness of nightfall; the parties are either readying themselves for dinner or are ready and are milling about the rest of the home. Lady Danbury had told Kate off sternly about her muddied appearance, but Colin reassured her and Lady Mary, he was there, laughing as he told the matrons of their competitive spirits leading them to both continue the game regardless of their balls landing in the mud. Mary rolled her eyes at her daughter, never one to back down, but delighted that the family viewed her behaviour as fondly as she did, though she would not let her spirited daughter know this, fearing she’d only encourage her.

 

 

After they both had frightened both their valet and lady’s maid before being led to take a bath, Anthony meets Kate at the bottom of the stairs to escort her to the drawing room for their far delayed tea. They would hopefully have another time for the tour, preferably alone, with times to repeat that kiss that replayed in his mind as he took her hand. Happy to just sit and talk, they are on a settee close to a window looking to the rose gardens at the side of the home. Anthony smiles watching her admire the flowers. When she turns to him blushing, he remarks that the garden is his mother’s pride and joy, and much to the dismay of their gardener, she takes a hands-on approach with it. She smiles at the fondness he tries to bring into the story, but she can tell, the conversation with his mother after she left them at his father’s grave had not gone so well.

 

 

Violet had begged Daphne to chaperone in her stead, unsettled by her difficult conversation with Anthony. She loathed that the son he had become was because of her, and that she failed to see that, though he had changed during this season, she had not. She hoped giving him some room this evening and planned to spend some time tomorrow with the woman who had changed him so poignantly.

 

 

They would be able to hear the dinner bell easily when it is rung, but this gave the couple the privacy they had not had since the Sharmas, and Lady Danbury arrived. Lady Danbury, Daphne and Lady Mary sat way, engaged in their own discussion about the couple. Whispering and smiling, taking pauses to listen when they could, hoping to not be too obvious in their ploy. But this did not matter for most of the conversation as Kate and Anthony often lost in each other, would forget they are not alone, and Daphne and Lady Mary would be required to make some subtle sound to pull them from their reverie.

 

 “I do hope the afternoon was not too taxing for you”

 

“My lord, if you do not wish to speak about this afternoon…”

 

“No, no… I feel our promise to be forthright, has had an unintended consequence of me doing so with my family as well… today I had, well, it was not a pleasant discussion but necessary…”

 

“I understand…”

 

“You do, don’t you…” he looks fondly at her, “I barely have to say what I discussed but you know…”

 

She sighs slightly, “Mr. Bridgerton, Colin, said it was quite difficult for your mother after your father passed. It is one thing to care for the family, but when you become the head of the house you are raised in, your mother once giving you instructions, now has to take them from you… I don’t imagine that bodes well for a relationship between you both…”

 

“That is certainly part of it… but not what I want to discuss… at least not now.”

 

“I guess it was a taxing afternoon for you… with your loss and all”

 

“You can hardly jest, even with the Mallet of Death you lost.” They laugh thinking of the game, she tips her head back laughing at his petulance, focused still on his mallet.

 

“I’m glad you enjoyed yourself; my brothers and sisters can be wearing but it seems you are just as irksome. You shall need it if you are to spend much more time with the Bridgertons.”

 

“Irksome? Is that what you felt about …” she lets her words trail off knowing their chaperones are not too far and likely to hear better than they would like to let on. She is irked herself about the need for their presence.

 

“Well, my valet certainly felt that way when he saw the state of me, but no… not the word I would use about the entire afternoon…” they stare at each other smiling, both sparing a glance at the other’s lips before shaking themselves of the improper thoughts, lest they get an earful from the chaperones at the least.

 

“Yes, well my mother and lady Danbury gave me a minor lesson in lady like behaviour, though I suspect my mother’s heart not totally in it” she smiles looking at Lady Mary who is shaking her head and ensuring to avoid eye contact with her daughter.

 

“Well, my siblings were certainly impressed with how you held your own in your first game of Pall Mall. I suspect they shall become far more underhanded next year now that you encouraged them to go for my Mallet.”

 

“Hmm, confident that you shall get it first?”

 

“I do not imagine any guests around so we shall go as precedent dictates. You see what heathens they descend into without order.”

 

“I think you simply do not like it when your orders are not followed” to which he scoffs at amusedly. “Your siblings are wonderful, this afternoon was a delight. I look forward to more of the same this trip… minus the mud, I cannot handle another lecture.” Anthony barked out a laugh at that, Kate initially surprised soon joins him until they both needed to wipe tears falling from their eyes.

 

“Thank you for coming” he says earnestly

 

“Thank you for inviting me… and my family”

 

“Yes, of course“, he looks back reminding himself of their chaperones. They return to each other, staring silently with shy smiles on their faces.

 

“I know your family resides in the city mainly, but I cannot imagine being away from here for too long, it is wonderful. I hope to see more of it.”

 

“Well, my responsibilities keep me in the city a lot, if not moving me around quite a bit. I had hoped to show you around, I have very many fond memories of my childhood here.”

 

“Tell me about this tour everyone seems to be warning me about”

 

He sighed, “I had promised that I would show you the life I wish to offer. For you to get to know the England I wish you to share with me. I guess it does start her a bit, where I was born and lived until… well, my duties here include tending to my tenants, few own their land, but they still seek support. There are often stretches of time were I am apart from my family and I wish for you to see all that I am, as viscount that is. We have been fortunate in the last few years…”

 

“You already planned to introduce me to the tenants?” she asked hesitantly. That would be reserved for when she is viscountess. She shakes her head at herself. ‘Seems we are both getting ahead of ourselves’

 

“Er… no, I was…”

 

“I want to know all that you are, as the viscount and just as yourself. We have been doing a fine job of being open and honest with one another. Tell me, you were born here and must have a lot of memories, playing Pall Mall I imagine being one of them… tell me another”

 

“Well, in the last few years, there hasn’t been as much. I find myself mostly in my office, lost in the ledgers.”

 

“I found myself doing the same back in Bombay. One time, Edwina locked the room and hid the key. Which was frustrating in itself, but when I managed to convince her to return the key, she forgot where she placed it, I’m not sure how I let her live after that day. We spent hours looking for it and gave up because I had to start dinner.”

 

“Where did she put it?”

 

She looked irritated but amused, like she was living the memory, the fury at her meddling sister still there, but time had dulled it enough for her to find some humour.

 

“She had placed it in the spices. As I poured some out, the key fell into the pot causing a splash. Not sure how I didn’t feel it in my hand but the fiend remembered immediately and just ran before I could say anything… it is not funny. I quite like the dress and was scared the stain would never go!” Anthony needed a minute to regain his composure laughing as he imagined Kathani running after Edwina, much like he did with his siblings a decade ago, before his world shifted.

 

“Well, I’m glad to know my siblings are not the only ones talented at infuriating their elder, though I probably could top that story”

 

“You have seven siblings… that could not be fair”

 

“Ah! But it is not the number of infuriating siblings but how infuriating them can be. Like today, they totally took over. It would be easier to show you all the places they had set one trap or the other for each other.”

 

“You were not involved in these wars?”

 

“Well…”

 

“Ha! Of course!... you do know the reason they even are remotely interested in me is because of you.”

 

“After today, it only evidenced that they simply adore you and probably prefer you to me.”

 

“I do not think that to be true. I think they adore you, and wish to spend time with you. It is what I at least learnt from the hidden key incident. I am someone their brother  is considering for marriage. They simply want to see if the person he wants to spend his life with is one they will enjoy being around well.”

 

“Or convince you that you deserve better… Eloise” he answers her silent question.

 

“I think Miss Bridgerton is reserved in her gratitude and love for all that you are to her… may be in hiding in the ledgers she forgot but she sees it in other places… knows it deep down… but your inflated sense of self could do with less compliments so…”

 

“You do that a lot, compliment me and find a way to insult me… scared of how much you regard me, Miss Sharma” she glares at his pleasing smile, trying to not get lost in his eyes. She looks away, fearing she may lose her self-control for the second time today and kiss him. ‘It was not supposed to be like this, yet I have kissed him twice and close to a third… What am I doing?’

 

“I shall take your silence as an agreement…”

 

“You will do no such thing!” she says, causing the chaperones to be startled at her raised voice, and Anthony to laugh. She tries to use her fan to hide her mortified expression, but he pulls it away from her face.

 

 

After his conversation with his brothers, he took their advice to court Kathani because of her capabilities. It was not that he lost to her in his initial pursuit of the diamond, just that a diamond was not what his family needed, and that was what he was doing; finding a wife to fulfil his duty to his family. With what limits Kate had, she helped shape the diamond of the season, which will be good for his sisters and their future daughters. He knows she will be adept at navigating his family, and she understood duty and responsibilities. She was not naïve or blind to romantic notions; never held back in her questions or jabs when they disagreed, which was often but not contentious. Simply their way of communicating as they often reached an agreement or compromise. Rather, he compromised and came to her side of the argument.

 

She would be a capable partner in leading their family; so far, he knew that she spoke French, Latin, Greek- which is good for Gregory as well, and entertaining for Colin who loved to talk of his Grecian travels, she had her native languages Marathi and Hindustani played sitar, maruli, which he understood was in fashion in India. She was skilled in pianoforte- perfect for Francesca and Hyacinth, could sing and was accomplished dancer- and he was enjoyed dancing with her. There was no question she was well educated; she had been planning to be a governess after all, so Eloise had someone who like to read to speak with. She was modest about her watercolour skills, but her mother secretly showed him some of her work, and that sealed the alliance she will form with Benedict as he himself was useless with art.

 

It was easy to see all she would bring to the family, his mother and Daphne adored her, so he needed to show her what he had to offer. His title had not swayed her to stay, neither had his wealth, considering her upbringing that surprised him. He had thought she would be grateful to not have to worry about finances, but she only wanted that for her mother and sister, and that was a cruel fate she resigned herself to.

 

She had not had the best start to the season, which he certainly did not help; but Lady Whistledown and the ton had been, and were still, cruel to her and her mother. But they had his family to protect them, especially when they marry. He thought it may be the social duties she did not look forward to, but he sees the way her eyes light up when she dances, how she handles suitors who seek her to discuss her sister, how at ease she felt beside him while the took a turn around the floor. He knew she would excel, but did she want to have to deal with to be with him. She did not deserve it, but he knew, she was foreign here in the sense she had not grown up amongst the members of the ton; Lady Mary’s marriage was not only still remembered but held against her.

 

Listening to her, having watched her with his family, he knew she was also good for him. In an ironic twist of fate, Benedict was right earlier, she did fit every requirement he set to look for in a wife, even the distasteful ones she overheard and ones he did not realise he was searching for. She knew how to manage finances, to lead a household, by the sounds of things, she certainly knew how to light that infernal thing in the kitchen so no more cold milk during sleepless night… if he were to have any sleepless nights with her in his bed. He adores her… and he wants her to want to stay with him, for him, for herself…

 

 

Kate thought to herself, she could do this forever, sit and talk, tease or be in complete silence with Anthony. She knew the second she stepped out of the carriage, that there was a sense of peace which was only solidified when she felt him beside her. She was not sure she could let herself fully love him, not when he declared he did not want it in their marriage. But they enjoyed each other’s company. He made her laugh and feel light and freer than she had in years. Maybe that was enough. She had not loved the Raja and that is why she did not stay with him, and her mother wanted to return to England, to friends as she is certain her family will never receive her. Her mother and sister were still in the dark of her deal with the Sheffields. Regardless, Kate couldn’t come to England if she was married. The independence that she gained after being head of her family, was still important to her, so she was resigned to not marry and keep it. Now she could maintain her independence as head of an entirely different household, but be a wife, and maybe a mother. Anthony made her want to think about children of her own, a dream she long since abandon raising Edwina for the season.

 

She had years to come to terms with the loss of dreams of love, marriage, and children; she had accepted that she would remain alone and now in the space of a month, this confounding man had changed it all!  How could she not love him, even as he could not return her affections. She always knew for Edwina; she would do anything. If the Sheffields offered her the chance to marry for Edwina, she would and not care about the character of the man. Now was doing something for herself, accepting a half-life, different to the half-life she was convinced would make her happy. Perhaps this one will, with Anthony, his siblings, their children. Her life will be so full and busy, she would not have to think about the fact he did not love her back.

 

“I have been hesitant to ask, mainly because I feel I already know the answer. But why was India your only choice? I know we spoke about your parents, but I also know your devotion to your family… would you really leave? Leave them?”

 

“Like Aubrey Hall to you, it is where I was born, raised; it is my home, where my stories live! The home I know even without the ones I loved, seemed a better choice than a place that could never be home with the ones I loved.”

 

“Still?”

 

“No… it was wise of you to become my friend first Lord Bridgerton… Your friendship has been a blessing in the harshness of the life in the ton. I knew what I agreed to when I said yes to the courtship. I enjoy my time with you and perhaps, I am not ready to not have it. I may have prepared Edwina for this, to find her match and make her home here, but I hadn’t thought of doing the same for myself. You allowed me to consider making this place home because with you, I’m simply enjoying myself, if that makes sense. But I also get to fulfil my duty to my sister with your help, of course but I have enjoyed myself more in these weeks than that first week. It did not seem possible after that conservatory ball, but you surprised me.” She tucked a stray strain of hair behind her ear and tried to avoid his gaze as she said, “I have to confess that part of me was angry seeing you dance with Edwina because I remember being excited at seeing the man in the park, and wanting to talk to you again, perhaps even dance with you at that very first ball… that was at least until you opened your mouth”

 

“Yes, and you did not hesitate to let me exactly how displeasing you found me… I too wished to dance with you the moment I saw you again… but as you said…”

 

“I opened my mouth?”

 

“And promptly left… I was grateful to see you again, even as the fearsome gatekeeper of the diamond… I’m glad we are having the opportunity to know one another, to dance as well. You have been the saving grace of my toes this season. If you had not heard that, or rather, if I had not said any of that, would you have been open to my courtship then?”

 

“I cannot say. I was resigned to focus on Edwina and settling my mother, I do not know if I would have been open then.”

 

“Then I am glad things set out this way. We got to see the worst of each other, and are open to learning about every other part of ourselves… I am glad this courtship is going well.”

 

“What makes you think it is?” his mouth drops open

 

“Scare you are not fit enough to load my luggage onto the ship…”

 

“Menace”, and she laughs as he rolls his eyes.

 

“Yes My Lord… yes, it is going well… though I wish I could say the same for Edwina” she adds pensively. She isn’t sure she should bring it up. This time was for them, but she couldn’t stop thinking of her sister and how the season was shaping up to disappoint her. She needed her sister to be settled in the life she deserved, and her mother. Perhaps then, she won’t feel guilty about enjoying herself so much with Anthony.

 

“How are things?”

 

“Truthfully, it has been difficult, and we all needed a reprieve. Fortunately, you offered it. Men of the ton are… interesting in their lacking. I hoped time away and together as a family would do us good and give some perceptive on her suitors. The season hasn’t gone to her liken but she could have a prince as a suitor, I just… wish things are better but I think she feels I’ve taken this season from her with you courting me and lady Whistledown’s endless barbs about being thrown over for me. It seems she, like the rest of the ton, does not know of the prince yet.”

 

She tries to lower her voice, not wishing for her mother to hear this but she needs to expel this out of her. She is always dancing around it, never pointedly saying how frustrating and hurtful Edwina has been to her.

 

“Edwina was always more liked which was not hard, she is wonderful.”

 

She had always manged never to see any of her sister’s faults as her failing, feeling she and their mother had raised her to have such a sheltered, innocent life and hidden her from all the turmoil and drama of harsh reality, so was it any wonder that Edwina was blind to the exact nature of this situation?

 

“Whereas I am…”

 

“Direct,” he supplied helpfully, “It felt hypocritical to call you rude”

 

“And yet you did”

 

He smiles but it faulters thinking the strain began when they met him, “Are things really that fraught with her because of me?…”

 

“Do not flatter yourself too much.” She said rolling her eyes before staring back into his. She holds it and lets out a breath, “She isn’t receiving as much attention from me… and that is still not on you, I am the one that pulled away. We are in this new place, and we promised that it wouldn’t change us, but I was naive. You only declared you wanted to court me a few days ago and I have been a bit of a wreck! She has been feeling this way the whole journey here and through the season. As the diamond, she has the pressure of the royal court and I know how terrible they can be when they are fond of you, the queen’s first words to us were not kind and I believe she has been trying to earn her favour and that of the ton and make a match she feels is worthy of all of this… and I did not protect her. I failed her…”

 

The dinner bell is called, and the chaperones still smiling at the couple start heading towards the formal dining. He starts to escort her in but hangs back in view of their party not wanting her to feel like she is failing her sister. The marriage mart is hard for advantageous matches, harder still when looking for a love match.

 

“This season, Eloise is dedicated to not marrying and I’m fortunate she has found solace in Benedict to avoid situations that would distress her. I doubt she would ever have such trust in me especially after last year. I remember when I basically chased every suitor away from Daphne and Lady Whistledown declared her status as the diamond, a royal faux pas… worse still when Berbrooke got a special license behind our backs and declared he would marry her and we had no say, she had no choice in the matter… I never felt more like a failure than listening to my sister tell me how at that point, she’d rather not be a Bridgerton. I had been such a failure, even the name was an insult to her… We do all we can to protect them, but we make mistakes… if we dwell on those failings we’d never get out from under the weight of that guilt. Your sister needs an outlet, and you are the easy target. But you do not deserve to be, nor are you a failure, Kathani. You have done more than most with the little you had than most would be capable in your position with more. You need to know that, and never forget it.”

 

 

Kate stepped forward planning to hug him, if not kiss him right there, when they both heard someone clear their throat and realised, they had an audience far closer than they estimated. Daphne seemed to struggle to keep the emotion out of her eyes which softened the glares both Anthony and Kate were directing at her… she had heard.

 

 

 

____________________________

 

 

 

The parties were all sat for dinner, Anthony at the head and Violet at the other end. Kate is sat to Anthony’s left, Daphne to his right as the most senior ‘guest’ present. She is family but they are entertaining company and things have a proper way to be done. Benedict is at Kate’s side followed by Eloise, Gregory and Lady Danbury who is at Violet’s right. On the other side, Colin is beside Daphne, followed by Francesca, Hyacinth, Edwina and Lady Mary at Violet’s left. The soup is brought, and it is unfamiliar to most at the table, but Kathani smiles at Anthony who looks supremely smug. The chef comes out to introduce himself and the meal to the family who are unfamiliar to the dishes that will be served tonight. Anthony had surprised her with an Indian chef he enquired about in the city’s curry house, finding one open to coming and staying the whole visit. As it was a surprise for her and her family, he has no idea if the meal is good enough for her, but he had a tester before they came and found the meal delicious. Mary smiles at Violet, “Your son is marvellous, I’m not sure I have said this enough.”

 

Violet equally proud at the thoughtful gesture smiles to her guest. The meal for the Bridgertons is mild but after taking a bite from the dish the chef said would be for the Sharmas, Colin learns the hard way how differently flavoured their meals are. A jug of milk is down in a very inelegant way, much to the delight of the table. Violet hopes to have the chef cook some of the ball meal to show the Sharmas, she too wishes to ensure their culture is not lost when Kate marries into the family, because it is a question of when, not if.

 

 

 

After dinner, Daphne wants to discuss what she had overheard Anthony disclose to Kate. She has come to understand his point of view of her season since becoming duchess. The responsibilities of the house, of the name, making the right connections are never easy especially in a ton that pride itself on secrets, the ones men keep to themselves especially. The men that courted her simply wanted a diamond, or a Bridgerton connection; he knew that and didn’t want her to have her time wasted by such empty vessels. She is happy he did not do that to Edwina. He may have gone overboard, but the sentiment was still there. She had never been ashamed to be a Bridgerton, but hearing him say that, she recalled when she had told him this and felt sick she had made her brother feel like a failure. Here she was, happily married and a mother. Anthony was not entirely wrong to oppose the match but if she followed his insistence she would not be with the love of her life. He was flawed, but his heart was always for his family, and now, watching and listening to him with Kate, he was on his way to his own love match despite his proclamation last year. She was perfect for her brother, everything she imagine for him, a person so much like him and she never failed to challenge him, which Anthony needed as he did not get, or may be receive it, from his family.

 

They were in his office, he had a stack of papers to attend to, likely neglected due to spending time with Kate and the family today. “Brother, I want to apologise for what I said last season.”

 

“What are you talking about?”

 

“When I said, ‘it would be easier if I were not a Bridgerton’. I have never been ashamed of my name or my family. You were simply doing you job, protecting me and I did not appreciate it as I should have.”

 

“Daph…”

 

“No please. I know there was more to it and you did make mistakes, but none that made me ashamed of you. I was ashamed of myself and feared letting you down.”

 

“You could never… Daph, I almost had you marry that repulsive ogre, and when he managed a license himself, I failed to protect you. You and mother fixed it all yourself, even the deal with Hastings, you did that. Your marriage, the happiness you have, that is you. I could have destroyed that for you, and I failed to listen to you so many times… please do not ever fear disappointing me, I am sorry I almost did you, save for your strength, your wit… I am proud of you Daphne.”

 

“And I you… Oh brother! I am so glad for you. For Kate. She is wonderful and you deserve nothing less. I am glad you have someone you can be honest with, open to… I have never seen you so forthright as you are with her. I cannot even be jealous how well she knows you in such a short time, even with my years with you, she seems to understand better than I let myself”

 

“That is on me… I shut myself from the family. I thought it the best way to lead the family. Kathani loathes being left not knowing and will not let me be silent or lost in my own mind. She is quite stubborn you know…”

 

“Kathani?”

 

“No, no. She is Kate to you, but yes, she has permitted me to call her by her true name in private. It is something she lost in coming here and I will not allow her into this marriage with anymore losses than her home country. That is a big enough sacrifice on her part.”

 

“Brother!”

 

“I swear Daph, I know I’m your brother!” he says with a laugh.

 

Benedict and Colin find their mother with her ear to the door. Coughing she does not even pretend, waving them to go inside to ask about the courtship. Daphne seems to be talking far too low and not asking anything of note. So the two men join their siblings; Colin pours out a drink for each of them and goes to the settee by the window as Benedict and Daphne take the seats in front of Anthony’s desk.

 

“So, it is all going well, then?” Colin quips, causing Anthony to roll his eyes.

 

“It better be after such a showing in the puddle.” Bendict added

 

“You will do well not to bring that up ever. Mother gave me a lecture, Kathani got hers…”

 

“Kathani?”

 

“A name only he can call her! Isn’t it delightful” Daphne beamed.

 

“She was wonderful today at the game, El and Frannie seem to adore her. Hyacinth and Greg were sold by Newton it seems… Obviously we approve. So, brother, what do I get as a thank you for setting you on this path”

 

“Honestly Colin, you expect something from my courtship?”

 

“It wouldn’t have been your courtship weren’t for our advice. From the way she played today, if you continued on the path with the diamond, not only would Miss Edwina be miserable, but Kate probably would have killed you by now.”

 

“Yes, she said as much” Anthony mumbled to himself. The siblings smile having heard him.

 

“Who are you, and what have you done with our brother?!” Daphne asks amused

 

“Daph..”

 

“I know we speak highly of Kate and how she fits well with the family… but has she truly won your heart?” She feels she know the answer but wants to hear her brother say it.

 

“Like you are all saying; she is beautiful, delightful, funny, strong, witty and there simply is never a dull moment in her presence. Her family even fits well with ours, Mother and her mama are all but attached together, and Miss Edwina, well Frannie and El were talking to her about he literary interests during the game. Besides, right now, I am not simply wooing her to marriage; I first need her to be open to being in England as she planned to leave to India at the end of the season.”

 

“What?! She cannot be serious?!” Colin protests

 

“It is her home…”

 

“Then… then... why are you courting her?” Benedict asks, worried they set their brother up to be heartbroken

 

“Because she is everything I need for this family, and everything I want for myself. A second ago, you all but had me at the altar with her, you wish to object because she is being thoughtful, practical and considerate of her future?”

 

“Well, no… just, brother, if she decides to leave, what will happen?” Daphne asks hesitantly

 

“I said she planned to leave; she does not still hold to the plan as firmly. I need to show her that her home can be here.”

 

“Well, if you are sure… if you are certain that Kate is the one for you, we will help. If you say she is the one in whose presence, you cannot properly think, or even… or even breathe. If you say she incite that feeling.”

 

He looks to his sister who is lost in thought as she walked to the shelf and picked a random book and flip through it. “Feeling? What-”

 

All her brothers turn to her now, and she turns away thinking of Simon, of the early parts of their fake courtship, real friendship, their marriage and especially after they made new promises to each other to live happily. “The one that makes it impossible for you to look away from them at any given moment. When your body and soul feel as if they could burst into flames whenever the two of you are near. When all you are able to do in their presence is to fight the urge to lean forward and … and touch their lips with yours… If that is the feeling you have when you are with Kate, then you will give all you are to make her see that her home is with you.”

 

The siblings turn to Anthony who is lost in thought, rubbing his thumb across his lips as he thinks of how he failed to fight that very urge today. He wanted a practical marriage and Kathani was a sensible woman who happened to fit in with his family and make him feel more alive than he had in a decade. He knew from just their kiss, that laying with her would be different from anything he had experienced. ‘She fits me so well...’

 

“What if I feel for her… what you describe, what if I care for her more than I planned  and I let her in just to lose her… not to India, I think… no I know I will find a way to be okay, I have done it before. But what if, I become like mother and do not survive her death? I had thought that it would be me to leave her. Father, uncle Hugo, grandfather, they did not live long. But Kathani will survive my death. She survived the death of her mother and her father, a husband… she will survive… but what of me?”

 

“Is that why you did not want a love match?” Benedict asks, but he gets no response, so he knows he is right. “Anthony, mother came out of her melancholy. It took her years, but she is here. If you love her as we suspect you do, then do not run for fear of losing her. She is still everything you want in a viscountess. You can enjoy your life fully with her… and not let the fear win. I do not know if it will ever go, but you have lived pushing through worse… you are a great viscount and we are who we are more because of you than the legacy you try to uphold. Do not avoid living fearing yours or her death.”

 

“Yes, frankly it is a little morbid even for you.” Colin quips, causing the siblings to laugh and throw what they get their hands on at him. Anthony isn’t sure if it is so easy to do what Benedict advised, but the first advice he took from them has led him to the best month of his life, he cannot be too off with this one could he…

 

 

 

 

The maids are running a bath for Edwina as Kate sits thoughtfully with Newton on Edwina’s bed. She rubs the back of his ears happy knowing she can cuddle up with him here. Lady Danbury, to put the point across sternly, had taken to warn her in English, French and Spanish what she would do to her dear companion if he is found on ANY of her furniture. Kate hopes to have sometime to check in with her sister, came to her room for a much needed talk. The two sisters are unaware that both Lady Danbury and their mother are eavesdropping hoping against any sign of Kate running away from the match, or any evidence of a further strain between the sisters. Lady Danbury has been impressed with the turnaround of Lady Mary; it seems not having Kate to fall back on too much has forced the woman to remember her role as mother.

 

“Are you feeling well, bon?”

 

“I am fine,” Edwina said replied, she is still lost in thought of the discussion she had with her mother and thoroughly shaken by the dinner the viscount organised. He had gone above the pail, and it seems everyone was right, she was holding back against him for no reason. She would not tell her sister her cruel thoughts, but the fracture she had created between them seemed so big, she did not know how to repair it. As always, Kate did and she was reaching out now, but she was so ashamed of herself, she did not feel deserving of it.

 

Kate sighed, looking downward. “I feel I must apologize, bon. I have been so busy these past few weeks with the viscount that I have hardly spent any time alone with you. Even here, I was distracted by the Bridgertons”

 

“NO DIDI! It is I who should apologise. You are being courted and still you make time for me, I am the one who cuts you undeservedly. You should be spending time with them; they are to be your family when you wed. You need the time to consider if you will be happy here, with him, with them.”

 

“Truthfully, I knew I’d be happy with the viscount before coming to Aubrey Hall. We have such a wonderful friendship, and he makes me feel safe to talk to him about anything. I don’t know how, but I trust there shall be no secrets between us. As vexing as he might be, he makes me laugh… and he has such a beautiful heart. I think my only fear is whether I would be happy as viscountess, and head of such a large family. It is far more than I envisioned for my future.”

 

“So, spend time with the dowager, if anyone is to know the role, it would be his mother. She will probably be the best to know her children as well as the role…”

 

“I think I love each and every one of them but this fear of the rejection of the ton… it is overwhelming. You are the diamond and are lovely, when we planned for this trip, I did not fear you being rejected. I knew I would be, spinster that I am but this courtship… mama assures me it will be okay, I only wish I had that confidence as well.

 

 Edwina starts to think about her courtships; Lords of different roles from Barons to Earls were trying to woo her. And the Queen hopes to match her with her nephew, a prince and all she had thought of was about falling in love and fairy-tale endings. Never had she considered the realities of the role of a princess, of duties and responsibilities. That had always been Kate. She trusted her sister would excel as viscountess but feared not having her to guide her after her marriage. She was barely there in a courtship; as a wife and maybe mother, even just head of the Bridgerton family, would she have time for Edwina and what she would need?

 

 

In the hallway, as tears fight to spill from her eyes, Violet pulls away from the door to see a smiling Lady Danbury and an equally emotional Lady Mary. Eloise strolls in, catching the matrons trying to look casual. “Do I really wish to know?” when she receives no response but avoidant eyes, “Do not answer that.” She says and she walks away. And the matrons return to their posts to continue eavesdropping to the two sets of siblings.

Chapter Text

Anthony is used to rising early; in London, he would normally have to do so at his bachelor lodgings, so he is able to go to Bridgerton house and break his fast with the family. He ensured to have time to run through his list of appointments and duties to be fill that day with his valet as he got dress, but today, whatever documents and ledgers needed to be signed would need to wait till later in the day. Yesterday was emotionally taxing and he did not rise as early as he had hoped to go for a morning ride with Kathani.

 

In the last decade, he has spent most of his time hiding from his family, working to ensure their success and even as he espouses about his duties, does not show the work it takes to give them they life they have. Daphne had gained new insight since being Duchess, but Colin and Benedict… they were still not completely aware. Colin’s travel expenses or the money Anthony has donated to the Royal Academy School to secure his place as a student.

 

Now, he talks to them, about his courtship, his fears about love and marriage. He never thought he would speak so freely and not have his siblings dismiss him as simply being a nuisance. Since he his promise to not lie to Kathani, he finds the truth slipping from him more easily. Especially about her to his siblings. Yesterday he had yet another, albeit brief conversation about their courtship with Eloise, and he was forthright with his mother at how easily she slipped into her roles as viscountess, with warmth and he still hold the frost brought on by his father’s death, hardened by her cold words in the time after. He even spoke to Daphne, Colin, and Benedict of his fear of losing Kathani, he did not plan to feel so strongly for her and yet, he has found contentment and peace nowhere else, like he does when she is near.

 

So, he got up as early as he could, his valet reported that no one had been to the stables that morning, so it seemed they both missed their morning rides. ‘It would be simpler to just know, rather than find out from others’ he thought annoyed, before feeling scandalized by the implication. It wasn’t a surprise to him, thoughts of sharing a bed with her, he dreamed about it often enough, he had begun waking up disappointed when he found his bed empty and wanting of her. Her room not too far from his, sharing a wall with her sister but in his dreams that didn’t matter. He got out of his bed with more vigour than before knowing even if he didn’t awake with her, he would see her, maybe find time for just the two of them.

 

As he bounds down to the drawing room where he expects the breakfast spread and is surprised that he is not the first there. Kathani is laughing with his mother and Daphne, who is holding dear Augie. ‘She just fits here… with his family.’ He shakes the thought from his head as the whole point of her visit is to show she fits with him, but he finds her fitting with his life, in things he never considered for his wife.  Breakfast was far more informal than last night’s dinner. The guests and Bridgertons alike got ready leisurely and came down in batches. It’s not long before his steward takes advantage of Anthony not being with Kathani as he stated and requested for his signatures on some bills and requests.

 

Violet is glad to see Anthony leave, the questions she has for Miss Sharma would likely be harder with him here. She understands that she helped shape Miss Edwina, Lady Mary did not go into details, but she suspects that like she, Lady Mary was lost to the grief of her husband’s passing. Miss Sharma is six and twenty now, 8 years ago, she was a young woman of marriage age, probably envisioned a life of courtship and marriage and not grief. If Lady Mary was as lost as she was, it would have only been in the last few years she healed, so most of what makes Miss Edwina a diamond, came from the work of Miss Sharma, just like Anthony had done for his siblings. She may not have been the diamond as Daphne was, or her sister, but neither was Violet in her time, and she would like to think she had done well as viscountess. The Bridgertons are by far the most prolific family in the upper class of society; generations of viscounts including her husband and son saw to their fortune. While like the viscountesses before her, she saw to their respectability, always raising their social standing, expanding their connections, and throwing parties people were clamouring for an invite to.

 

Miss Sharma did not have the name or connections Violet grew up with, she did not have the fortune she came from and married into. With what she was, she raised a diamond, she navigated the ton who sneered at her and her mother with grace, poise and strength that Violet wasn’t sure she could muster in the same situation. Her son adored her, probably loved her even though he was yet to admit it. She was kind, intelligent, fit well with each of her children, which was no small feat- they were all so different and all adored this woman. ‘She would truly make an excellent viscountess, and wife for Anthony.’

 

Still, Violet had been encouraging Anthony and did like Miss Sharma; even after their first meeting where she was undeservedly curt to her, but she had made amends and shown what a wonderful young lady she was. She had come to understand a lot about her since then, Miss Sharma was so much like Anthony it was frightening. They both are rude to others due to their protectiveness of people they care about. It was a trait permitted in men but not so much in women, so she was worried about. She did not oppose the match, it had gone on for so long, an engagement was certainly expected. So why did Anthony still fear she would leave for India? She needed to be sure her son would not be hurt.

 

She remembers some of the days after she lost her husband; feeling so broken and lost. She isn’t sure when, but one day, the fog did not weigh on her as heavily and soon after, life continued, she was fulfilling her role as viscountess, mother but no longer a wife. She could step back easily because Anthony had been doing well as viscount. He made a few mistakes and she spoke to him about it, she never imagined hers was the voice that plagued him, made him doubt himself when all she saw was her son doing far better than expected of sure a young man with not enough time to have been guided into the role by his father. As time went on, she knew her time as viscountess would end and hoped he would find love like she did. But Anthony showed no interest in that side of his duties, until this season. Now she is faced with the reality of conceding another role and all she will be is a mother, and even that, she did not know how long she would do that as her children will age out of the home. She shakes the melancholy slipping in out of herself and faces her family interacting with their guest. Each one of her children enraptured by Miss Sharma, she starts to understand Anthony’s frustration.

 

 

“Miss Sharma, I was hoping you would tell me about the balls this season. Eloise has been dreadfully repetitive of her disdain; they cannot all be that terrible?” Francesca asks, shifting forward in her chair to be closer to the woman surrounded by Bridgertons.

 

Kate had moved to sit on a settee in the middle of Eloise and Edwina, Francesca managed to seat in the chair besides that settee nearer Eloise but Benedict, ignoring their mother managed to move a seat to be behind the woman. Violet had only managed to convince Hyacinth and Gregory to sit at the table with herself, Daphne, and Augie. The two seemed to have come to the table in hopes of engaging Miss Sharma as well, but they settled for Newton who Violet pretended wasn’t being fed under the table.

 

“Not at all, though as wonderful as the food, decoration and entertainment of a ball is, it has been the people that make it either pleasant or not.” Kate replies with a smile

 

“You mean the men you dance with?”

 

“Yes, and some other you happen to converse with. So, it seems Eloise as you spend time with Miss Penelope or myself, you do not much enjoy our company.”

 

“Your company is the only thing that keeps me from spending my pin money to be taken anywhere else”

 

“Eloise!” Violet chastises

 

“Well thank you for such an endorsement.” Kate says with a laugh “Miss Francesca, each ball is different, in what it brings. I must say, I did not expect to enjoy them as much as I have, but the company has mostly been pleasant and any unpleasant ones either easily forgotten due to some distraction or not worth being a memory.”

 

“Is my brother one of the pleasant companies then?” Francesca teases

 

“Do know when you are out, I reserve the right to tease back about your pleasant company…”

 

“So, he is! I’m sure he would be delighted to know.” Francesca hides her smirk with her teacup.

 

“I for one still do not see what you enjoy in these balls other than my company.” Eloise quips before taking a bite of her scone.

 

“You are used to your family, so they do not hold the same solace for you as they do me. The modiste is yet to find a way to make steel toes fashionable however practical”

 

“Ah yes, the bumbling missteps of the men” Daphne quips “Honestly, I wonder if their bragging was so distracting, that they forgot their steps”

 

“Men are not always known to multitask.” Kate adds

 

“Excuse me!” Benedict said offended, “I’ll have you know I am currently eating, sketching and listening to your conversations”

 

“Benny, I saw you bite your charcoal a minute ago thinking it was your fruit, I’m not sure you could argue that point.”  Francesca says with false sympathy that causing the room to erupt in laughter.

 

Miss Sharma is quite at ease with her children, following each conversation, not dismissing Eloise’s thoughts on balls or the season, exciting Francesca about the season but no false promises. Violet can’t help but notice the silence from Miss Edwina who is trying to hide the feeling of being overwhelmed by the rapid conversation changes happening and she is glad the young girl is spared from being considered for Anthony. She is clearly lovely, and she sees how well she gets on with Francesca and Eloise, even Colin when she speaks to them individually. But the Bridgertons are chaotic, she had to admit that. Hers and Edmund’s journey to marriage were the only simple ones; thinking back, she sees a lot of parallels with Billie and George to Anthony and Kate. Both the eldest, having different designs for their futures before realising how perfect they are for one another. She hopes for the same happiness for her son as her in-laws have, as she was blessed with, even if it was for a short while.

 

“When you marry Anthony, would you live with us?” Hyacinth asks absentmindedly.

 

“Hyacinth!” Violet chastised, “I’m sorry Miss Sharma, Hyacinth, we do not ask such questions when…”

 

Kate smiles shyly, “I imagine you want to know if you will always have access to Newton, Miss Hyacinth?”

 

The young girl turns from her mother’s stern expression to nod excitedly at Kate, “I always welcome the help and Newton certainly enjoys the attention, perhaps we take him to the lake you were telling me about later”

 

“I shall tell my governess my afternoon is with you…” before anyone can counter, she runs off to get out of any lessons she would have today.

 

“I can find out what her governess was to do with her today and include it as we play by the lake. Apologies Lady Bridgerton, I didn’t think of her lessons” Kate promises

 

“Please, she probably would have found another way out, at least an afternoon with you will be less frightening than whatever else she could come up with to do instead.”

 

“You had planned to be a governess in India, isn’t that right Miss Sharma?” Francesca asked.

 

“Yes, well… it seems regardless of other plans, I do not see myself returning, my family is here… although Lord Bridgerton did generously promise to help ensure my safe return if I do; even load my luggage on the ship personally.”

 

“Anthony did what?!”

“You aren’t still!”

“I’ll hide your luggage!”

“Take me with you!”

“Oh no!”

“I’d love to see that!”

 

All the voices raised in protest at once, Kate isn’t quite sure who said what. “I have a feeling it was yet another one of your bets with the viscount, Didi.”

 

“It was when he learnt of my plans for India before we began courting”

 

“So, you are no longer going to India?” Gregory asked, “And if other plans fail, you can still remain in England, I turn 18 soon.”

 

“Gregory! I swear, perhaps we stop the interrogation of Miss Sharma and enjoy our breakfast, she has hardly a minute to eat responding to all of you.”

 

“It’s not as bad as the questions Anthony had for the other women he seems to court” Eloise states, “I believe he asked one if she could read”

 

“What?” Kate turned to Eloise shocked at the proclamation.

 

“Ah, so it was an interview he was conducting at the diamond ball” Edwina said in a laugh.

 

“What on earth are you talking about?”

 

“He never asked you about your thoughts on children?” Edwina asks

 

“The languages you speak, or the skills you possess?” Francesca adds

 

“Or what you’ll do if your daughter has a tendency to overspend” Colin says with an ironic smile or the Bridgerton with the biggest spending budget.

 

“Because only daughter spend one’s money”

 

“You should get back at him with questions of your own” suggests Eloise

 

“I have a feeling my sister already has, judging by the questions she has for my suitors”

 

“Would you like Lord Goodrum to continue the courtship? He did have the best answers to most questions until one asked about current affairs.”

 

“Oh my god, there are two of them.” Daphne whispered to her mother “Frannie shall have no suitors next year with their combined efforts”

 

“As much as I want them to marry, he has not proposed, and it feels rude to act as such”

 

“Oh please, you see how he looks at her!”

 

“I know…” Violet says dreamily as she looks to the group again

 

“It is an efficient wat to rule out anyone you do not wish to waste your time on. Besides Bon, I’m sure my questions are in line with what you told me you wanted from a suitor. I was kind enough not to ask them what specific books they read this year, mainly because the names of your philosophical reading give me a headache, let alone the contents.”

 

“Anthony said the same about my books Miss Edwina, we shall at least have each other to speak to when the men ultimately disappoint.”

 

“Why do you call Miss Edwina ‘Bon’?” Francesca asks, Violet rolls her eyes at her daughter. Her demure behaviour compared to the rest allows her to get away with much, including her continued interrogation of Miss Sharma. Though Violet knows she approves, they all see the way the Anthony and Miss Sharma looked at each other, Francesca, more than her brothers, is most protective of Anthony.

 

“It means ‘sister’ in Bangla, while she calls me ‘Didi’, which means ‘elder sister’ in Hindi. Edwina and I speak Marathi and Hindustani in addition to French, Latin and Greek.”

 

“We only speak the continental ones” Francesca said affronted.

 

“Well, Marathi and Hindustani are our languages so it’s understandable you speak the languages of your place.”

 

“Yes, but you also speak Greek and French…”

 

“I could teach some to you if you’d like”

 

“She will not be teaching you the curse words or any bad words Francesca Sybilla Bridgerton, so do not expect such”

 

“That’s not what I asked mother!” but looking to Kate, she conveys that that was exactly what she hoped to learn, and Kate tries to pretend she was opposed to it, but Francesca could see she had won over her future sister.

 

 

 

 

Daphne takes Augie up to the nursery and Edwina joins her hoping for some advice. Gregory takes Newton with him to find Hyacinth and tell her what was discussed when she left. Benedict takes Francesca’s chair sitting in a lazy way with his legs over the arm of the chair, Francesca moved to the pianoforte, Colin continues to eat, and Eloise invites Kate for a turn in the gardens. Violet felt she got all the answers she needed; though she chastised her children’s directness, it helped her know that Miss Sharma no longer had designs for India, and she enjoyed watching how well she was with the children. She goes over to Anthony’s office with her betrothal ring, as she promised Anthony at the start of the season.

 

Violet is surprised to find him with the Bridgerton Heirloom Betrothal rings and his steward slumped in a seat, looking like he was in his own personal hell. Just like hers, the rings in the collection had been gotten somewhere in history by one of the previous viscounts or viscountesses, now used by any Bridgerton man who wished to propose. Hers was Edmund’s great grandmother’s; she was just as young as they were when she got engaged. The gems came from the mines of her parents, the viscount had commissioned it to have her bring her history into the family she was marrying into. The pearls were loose pearls in the vault he asked to have it look like a beautiful, simple flower. Edmund thought it was perfect for a woman named after a flower herself.

 

“I thought… I always imagined you would use my betrothal ring when the time came… you asked for it before…”

 

“Mother, I didn’t see you come in, sorry I should have spoken to you before bringing out the rings, but I believe… I know I asked for it when the season began, but I’m loathed to admit, I had planned a more distant marriage and thought your ring a good compromise to show some romantic notions… I am not opposed to the ring… just my early thoughts on it and well, I do not wish to disrespect you, father, or Miss Sharma so I wanted something that… honestly, I don’t know. Joseph is probably tired of listen to me say the problem with each one… I just can’t seem to pick one!”

 

“Well, you deserve the feeling I had the moment your father placed this ring on my finger. So, it is not right, I would like to help if that’s alright.”

 

“Yes!! Okay, so I thought something with rubies, but do you think it will remind her too much of her home that she will not return to? Is it cruel to have that reminder? Or this simple diamond, she is very sensible, but I don’t want it to seem underwhelming… perhaps the sapphire! It’s the closest to purple and I know she favours the colour…”

 

“It shouldn’t feel so complicated dearest… this ring,” she says pushing the box holding her betrothal ring on the desk, “it was a promise, not just of the sacred commitment that your father and I were making to one another, but a sacred love. Which of these make you think the most of Miss Sharma? Of what you feel for her?”

 

“None of these… perhaps I should have one made. It is late now, it would take time but there is no rush is there, to ask for her hand…”

 

“Well… no but you do not want to take too much time. I imagine they expect by the end of this trip, perhaps even before the rest of the ton arrives”

 

“She is not like that… she knows… she understands I would never make a fool of her…”

 

“So, you are quite set on your decision then I take it? To commission a ring for her instead?” The question of her betrothal ring remained unasked, but the hurt was evident.

 

“I believe I have made my intentions clear”

 

“That is not what I … it is a momentous occasion Anthony, and I’m grateful for having gotten to know her and her family… I like her. I like her for you, for the family. She will make an excellent viscountess to be sure. She deserves a ring you both will be proud to look at for the rest of your lives”

 

“Yes, she will be the perfect viscountess Bridgerton to be sure, and I will get a ring fitting that… I guess we both got what we wanted for me this season. My perfect viscountess in a woman I adore and will spend the rest of my life with.”

 

“You love her?” Violet asks with a smile

 

“We suit.” He responds. He was still not ready to call what he felt love… he was fond of Kathani, attracted to her, could spend every second with her and it would still not be enough… if he is to call it love… if he is to accept that fate… he first needed to talk to her and see that, she felt it too… he could not survive knowing she gave more of herself up for a man not willing to confront something as simple as his feelings. When he wished to acknowledge the feeling, to say the word everyone was throwing so freely, it would be only right to do so to Kathani first.

 

“This house carries many memories; good and bad. Some I simply wish to forget… but even those I hold dear. Losing Edmund, was...the most difficult time in my life." She began. Anthony nodded in agreement.

 

"And the pain I felt was...beyond description." It took her a moment to collect herself again. "But there is one thing that's given me a modicum of solace. Knowing, that I would choose the life I led with him, each and every time!" She smiled. "And I would undoubtedly feel the same pain I felt all over again. Because real, true, love is worth it." 

 

“For every moment with your father makes all the pain of the bad memories, of his loss, worth it. To have loved him openly and freely; it is all I have wished for you, all I have wished for all of you. I shall not soon forget this visit, the life she has brought to the family, to you. I am glad she is the one you chose”

 

Not ready to speak on the emotions she was bringing up in him, “You are simply glad I am finally marrying after many years of all but dragging me up the altar…”

 

Respecting the wall he was putting up, because she can see the love in her son’s face, Violet simply replied, “Yes well, I’m glad you are infernally stubborn; it gave you the time to be ready. Especially as she is even more stubborn than you as you say so you can get a taste of your medicine… oh you shall both be dearly happy” she holds his hand smiling brightly.

 

He looks down to the heart shaped box between them, opening it he sees it so clearly on her finger. He sees her smile as she says yes and as she holds his hands at the altar. He sees it shine as she cradles their child in her arms, as the spend the nights in their bed together, their days in the sun, on a ride… This is the ring; it has always been the ring… “Then perhaps, I still use your ring, if you will allow it.”

 

She could not hold back the brightness in her smile as she replied, “Oh yes, but of course! I would be honoured; we are glad for you Anthony… truly”

 

Furrowing his brow, “We?” Violet walks over to open the door of the study in time to see the group of Bridgerton siblings running away in different directions, causing Anthony to bury his face in his hands.

 

“I do not wish to put her in a spotlight… when I ask, I hope to do it respectfully and alone. Besides I still need to speak with her mother so please control your children.”

 

“I will try, though after you left this morning, Hyacinth already plotted her stay to usurp Newton, and there was a coup to ensure she never sees a ship to India in this lifetime”

 

“Mother!”

 

“I tried! But they are your siblings” she calls walking away to find her children and try to get them to behave. Anthony had enough on his plate to have his proposal spoilt.

 

 

 

 

 

As they walk in the garden initially silent, it is obvious to Kate there is something playing on her mind, but she has no idea how to start. They never had any unease in their friendship, getting even more comfortable when Anthony started courting Kate. Eloise turns to Kate, “Can I ask you something?”

 

“Always,”

 

“Was it your choice that you never married? Did you consider it before my brother began courting you?” Kate smiled taking a moment to respond.

 

“I’m sorry if that is too personal. My brothers tell me I have a habit of being rather direct”

 

“I think that is a habit we also both share so do not apologise”

 

“It is just… everyone tells me it is a fate worse than death to end up a spinster. But you seemed perfectly content with your situation. I must say, I had words with Anthony after the soiree at Lady Danbury’s when it seemed he wanted to court you instead. Felt like yet another woman’s choice was not being accepted, regardless of it being ‘unfashionable’”

 

Kate gives a small laugh; it seems truly everyone knew weeks ago of Anthony’s intentions but her. She smiles at the thought of Eloise fearfully defending her spinsterhood and wishing her brother left her alone. She is even more grateful the infernally stubborn man did not relent to his sister; she does not think she would have had the chance to grow their friendship the way it has without him. The idea of joining the family, having Eloise as more than a friend but a sister brings a smile to her face.

 

“You must know it is hardly ideal to be an unmarried woman. The world is not exactly welcoming; there seems to be no place in society for one, except at the edge of things.”

 

“That rather seems to be society’s flaw, not a woman’s.”

 

“Indeed, it does… but I made my choice in a sense, and society made the choice for me too. I chose my family, to be there for what they needed and not leave to a marriage for a hypothetical family that could hurt her mother and sister.”

 

“So, it was not so much a choice to be unmarried?”

 

“There was a Raja who wished to marry me, but I knew his little regard for my family, and I would never choose anyone over them. I chose the love of my family over the possibility of the love fairy tales are woven about. Few people respect that, even fewer men. As time went on and I grew even more into my independence, even with the limited work for women in society that gives little to care for the family they are born into as opposed to the ones they bear. So, when we chose to come here, to England for a chance a marriage and life for my mother and sister, I wanted for them, what I could not have for myself. It is why my plan was always to return to India. If the men I knew were opposed to my independence in my home, all I knew of English society implied I would certainly not be welcome here.”

 

“But Anthony welcomes your independence?”

 

“He seems to encourage it. Things I thought of myself to deter a suitor… that meant nothing to me because I accepted the role society cast me into merely because of my age and the choice of caring for my family… I’m happy to say, your brother admires me for it not in spite of it. Life made a choice for me when I lost my father and had to care for my mother and sister, suitors did not matter to me then; I do not regret, not considering marriage, even now. A lot of things I did not care about would have stayed the same were it not for your brother who cleverly befriended me before courting me. He makes me feel like I am gaining something as opposed to losing. Gaining a companion to share the hard choices life makes for us, without losing myself or my freedom to him. Despite what society might say or view a woman’s role, your brother does not seem to subscribe to that notion. If he did, I certainly would not have agreed to the courtship.”

 

“So, is that what marriage is to you, sharing burdens?”

 

“Sharing life is not always the good parts, the celebrations as you well know. You have experienced a range of losses and gains in your family. But as the eldest, I guess, the viscount and I are quite similar in the way we care for our family. The choices I make, I would not wish for Edwina to have to endure such.”

 

“Yes, you both seem quite protective, maybe a little too much. You do not think we younger ones can make wise decisions? I do not mean it unkindly, I simply recall Daphne’s season, how long it took Anthony to listen to her and what she wanted. I fear, it may not have been until she married that he did.”

 

“Perhaps we are blinded by our need to protect, but how often do you think of doing something like that for your brother? Anticipated his needs and trying to provide for it? It is our job as elders and as much as we complain about it, we would have it no other way. I know you feel it for Miss Francesca at least, I saw how attentive you were yesterday during the Pall Mall game.”

 

“You are correct, I do not imagine a problem Anthony would face I would be helpful in, not because I am incapable, he just never seems to need me. But he did come to me, well, all of us, for help in courting you. So, you are warned it is us all that you should be considering as we woo you. Anthony shall not hold all the credit.”

 

She smiled at that; it had felt like the whole family wanted to endear themselves to her. It made the pressure of trying to show them her capabilities less frightening. It was like they feared they were not good enough for her and she was grateful to be thought and treated with such reverence. “I must say, I said it in jest on my arrival, about recruiting you all. But I see it was not my imagination at all.”

 

“Oh no! We want you, for him and for us, as you could tell from breakfast. He is so much more pleasant to be around, and you are my friend, so I do not wish to be without you.”

 

“Thank you Eloise.”

 

“You said earlier that you wanted for your sister and mother what you could not have, not what you did not want… you do not desire love?”

 

“When you are my age, and with all I have and are capable of doing for myself without the interference of a man, I knew I couldn’t marry without love. There could be no other reason.”

 

“So, you love Anthony?” Eloise blurts out, causing Kate to blush. She hadn’t thought of what she had said.

 

When they started courting, Anthony had said what they shared was closest he had ever gotten to what a love match is. Perhaps it was not a match, but she was in love. With him, his family, the chaos and love they shared for each other was so overwhelming, she felt it pouring out into her heart and yet she still wanted more. More time with him, talking to him, fighting with him, being silent with him… kissing him and exploring every inch of his body he would let her. She never was one to admire the male form so brazenly, but there was a lot about Anthony to appreciate. She knew he did not want a love match; he wanted them to suit but she still fell in love despite only looking at the possibility of calling England home so she could be close to her sister and mother. Now she rarely thought of them when she imagined her life in England, only Anthony. She could not pretend, not find herself drawn to him. Even before they courted, the moment they met in the woods, there was something about his eyes, they way they lit up when he smiled, and he cared so deeply for his family, just like she did for hers. He understood her, she did. Not know how but he did, he looked at her and saw all of her… and yet he did not love her.

 

“You do not have to answer,” Eloise felt she had seen the response in her blush, “it is only… I am not sure it is simply marriage and motherhood I do not wish for. You said love is what drives a lot of your actions. Love of your family, love in a marriage. What of love of yourself? I do not mean it in a vain way it is just… I believe there is more to me, more I expect of me than is expect from society” They had stopped and sat on a bench facing each other. Eloise needed a moment to arrange her thoughts.

 

“I told my friend how I felt about the mart, but she seems to enjoy it and so with you I hoped that I had a kinship against the institution. Having you in my family is certainly better but it also makes me wonder if something is wrong with me. Not wanting this, wanting something entirely different. Even from what you say I can tell you wanted marriage and children but had other priorities. I don’t want either and no one seems to understand.”

 

“I do. Even as you said I had wanted it; I do want it now... I understand. Finding a place that is your own. Not define anybody but you. When I agreed to be courted by your brother, it was more him than the marriage I looked to. If we did not court, I know I would still have to find my place in this world, it is what I would have to do. Happy my family was cared for, of course, and I would not care to think of marriage and children. Whatever my future looked like I would have searched for it till I found it, and it would not be dictated by anyone’s expectations. So, if that is the path you chose, no matter my future, I will do my best to support you. But so would your brother.” Which causes Eloise to scoff.

 

“Your brother sacrifices his time to make sure your family doesn’t have to sacrifice their passions. I know for a fact that unlike me, if you wished not to marry you wouldn’t have to think of looking for work with a good family to work for, you could live on your dowry.”

 

“He hasn’t tried to force me into any dances or courtships. It isn’t your courtship that keeps him away, I think he is giving me the space I want, the space my mother never gives. I guess I did not realise to be grateful to him for his absence as much as his presence.”

 

“Trust that he cares for you deeply, for you all. I know how precarious it is making decisions for the family, hoping you are making the right ones that secures their happiness as well as their safety. If in doubt, talk to him; his motives could never be to hurt you.”

 

Eloise smiles at Kate, she never thought her brother cruel or wishing to hurt her. She knew she never had to fear any true displeasure from him. But watching her fight for him, reminded her so much of Anthony. The way he would defend any of his siblings against another, sometimes losing his patience and forcing the peace thus turning both siblings on him. Here she was repeatedly synonymising herself to her brother, not just because they were the same but, to say she was on his side. There were few times any of the Bridgertons were on Anthony’s side and she was glad he would have Kate.

 

She thought back to the soiree and felt like a cad yet again…

 

“Anthony, for someone wishing to marry the diamond, you seemed set to want to annoy Miss Sharma more.”

 

“I do not think I wish to court Miss Edwina. I am thinking perhaps, if I am able to get the insufferable woman to stop insulting me for a moment, maybe I would court Miss Sharma.”

 

“Why?! You cannot tell me that there isn’t a simple-minded debutant who actually wishes to be married you can trap into marrying you! Miss Sharma is independent and does not wish to be married. She has plans for herself and does not wish for you to come into her life and ‘rescue her’ from spinsterhood. Dare I say it, she is perfectly happy with her lot, and you have no right to take her life from her!”

 

“You really think so little of me Eloise… I do not wish to force anyone into a marriage, simple-minded debutant, or independent spinsters. If Miss Sharma does not want a courtship, I will respect it, but will you respect me for not trying to court a woman as wonderful as you espouse as Miss Sharma? Would you respect me for courting woman barely out of leading string to guide you through society? You already know her well enough; respect and really like her, is it truly horrible for me to wish to do the same?”

 

 

Before she can reply, the man in question seems to have found them in the garden. “Miss Sharma, El… it is wonderful weather we are having is it not”

 

“You wish to speak about the weather brother?”

 

“No” he says in a huff, “I was hoping, since Miss Sharma, I heard you missed your morning ride, if you would join me on a ride this afternoon, I’m sure we can find someone decent to chaperone.”

 

“I would my lord, but unfortunately, your sister, Miss Hyacinth” she clarifies after seeing the glare he sent to a confused Eloise, “has been promised a picnic by the lake… and I do not wish to break my word.”

 

“Of course, perhaps I will speak with the kitchen and make it for all of us, we are having good weather today and it should not be wasted.” With a pointed look at Eloise and a smile and bow to Kate, he left to where he came, holding the ring box in his jacket pocket, planning to find a way to be rid of his whole family. ‘How can one get a wife, if his whole maddening family refuse him a moment to propose!”

 

 

The picnic was a rowdy affair, and Anthony’s plan to have everyone distract each other so he could have Kathani’s sole attention, backfired. Benedict had gotten her to agree to time painting, Colin had traded advice on managing long voyages, Daphne had plan to usurp her with their mother for the planning of the ball later today; wanting to incorporate some Indian treats with the servings. Gregory and Hyacinth were the worse, monopolizing her attention with that infernal dog she adored. As much as he adored how much they had all welcomed her into their lives, HE WAS THE ONE THAT BROUGHT HER THERE IN THE FIRST PLACE! He just wanted more than the few minutes they had had that were always interrupted or chaperoned. Whatever they spoke of Eloise was the only one not vying for Kathani’s attention. Francesca too, but she had always preferred to observe first. From what Benedict said, she was a shark in bloody waters at breakfast, asking Kathani about her experiences at balls and designs for the future. It warmed his heart knowing his siblings were being protective of him in their own way; just as much as watching her dance, run, laugh, and smile with them.

 

His mother was right, they all had basically proposed to her in their own way, now he feared the speech he had practiced to ask for her hand would be lacklustre. Lady Mary gave no opposition, he had was grateful to the woman for her kind words. Truly, Kathani was who saved him for a dreadful season not the other way around. He had resigned himself to a content life, and so had she. He wasn’t arrogant enough to think he would be the source of her happiness, but seeing her with his family, the way she fit so well and was enjoying herself; at least they would fill her days better. She would be close to her family; their mothers were having a wonderful time together and they seem to share an understanding. Miss Edwina… she was still an enigma. He could understand why their relationship shifted so much as he had that with Daphne last year. It may not be the same situation but there was something about the marriage mart that changed the dynamics of siblings. For instance, his relationship with Eloise had warmed this season when before, they hardly said anything to each other, barely having a common ground. Perhaps it’s more to do with Kathani but still, a difference none the less.

 

He needed to get her alone and was tired of waiting around. Then her sister called to her, and Anthony knew, whatever he wanted to say, would not matter to her in that instance.

 

“I am glad you are staying Didi. To be honest, I had thought maybe during my engagement I would ensure to find a way to convince you to stay with mama and I, but we should not have so easily accepted your plans to return away from us to India after my season… I mean the season.”

 

“Bon, you know I would never have left without knowing you and mama were settled. But I am glad too that we will not be so far apart. How was your talk with Daphne? Did you two speak of your sparkles?”

 

“Her grace was very kind. She says she too had uninspiring suitors. At least none have tried to seek a marriage license behind our backs.”

 

“Yes, Anthony said…”

 

“Anthony?”

 

“Stop! But yes… he calls me Kathani”

 

“Kate! We haven’t called you… I thought you wanted…”

 

“It is what was needed; it fit this world we were coming to. I just wanted him to know my name and he liked it, so he calls me by my name. In private only, of course.”

 

“When pray tell, do you get this privacy?”

 

“Never! I love the Bridgertons, you know that… but he is the one I spend the least amount of time with here… I think the mamas might be unfairly chaperoning us because of his reputation. Both of us emerging from the Pall Mall field covered in mud did not help. But I had hoped we would have more time together that the ball rooms and promenades did not allow.”

 

“My my, how things have changed. Were you not the one who all but dragged me from him at the diamond ball, at the races?”

 

“Okay, I am beginning to feel slightly sorry for my behaviour, but…”

 

“You should not feel like you should apologise for the outcome. Mama is right, we probably would not have suited, but you do. I see the way you look at each other. Perhaps the mamas are protecting him from being compromised by you.”

 

“Oh you hush!”

 

“I did. Can you imagine what trouble you would have gotten into if you were caught with Prince Ravi…”

 

“I was 16 and curious… then he asked for my hand when we were barely out of mourning, what a fool”

 

“I think we all thought you two would marry. Now seeing you with the viscount, I can’t imagine a worse fate for you.”

 

“Ravi was not so bad, I just did not…”

 

“Love him like you love the viscount?” Kate turns away. It wasn’t that she did not love him, just that she was sure others thought Anthony loved her back but that was not the offer, the promise. The marriage was based on if they suited not if they fell in love. She did not want to see the pity in her sister’s eyes, for falling into the traps she tried to protect her from.

 

“You haven’t said it to each other yet, have you?”

 

“Again, this is only our second afternoon in Aubrey Hall, and we never have a moment alone. The ton arrives tomorrow; I only wish we had more time before…”

 

“You will have your marriage! Perhaps when he proposes he will declare it and you can return it when you say yes!”

 

“Perhaps… but enough of me, I have heard about myself far too much these last few days…”

 

 

 

 

At final dinner, Anthony, Kate, Daphne, Mary, Lady Danbury and Violet retain their prior seating from last night. Gregory took advantage of Benedict’s inebriated state and took his seat besides Kate. Colin figured there was no good place for Benedict, and so he is sat between himself and Francesca, Lady Mary on his other side. Hyacinth sits beside Daphne, and an irritated Eloise sits on her other side, with Edwina between herself and Lady Danbury.

 

“Have you noticed, Col? The twinkle of the candles, it is as—It’s as if… we sit among the stars!” Benedict declared loudly startling the table.

 

“What is wrong with you?” Eloise asks but looks to Colin who wears a sheepish expression.

 

“I was just telling Benedict how brilliant the stars were in Greece.” Colin replies, hoping to annoy the table with his tales again that it will distract from his brother’s odd behaviour.

 

“The stars Colin? Anthony, we must go to Greece at some point if even the stars have our brother in a spin” Francesca quips which earns her an eye roll from Colin.

 

When Gregory isn’t flicking peas at Hyacinth to stop her stealing Kate’s attention, he is telling her of his time at Eton, which Hyacinth interrupt with reports Anthony gets from his teachers.

 

“Hyacinth, have you been sneaking into my office again”

 

“Only when I need extra parchment, my governess is quite impressed with my Italian.”

 

“Only because she is being polite, I have heard you speak it you are dreadful!”

 

“Better than you! I’m even better with Latin, right Kate!”

 

“You were both impressive this afternoon… I’m not sure I enjoyed Latin lessons as much as I did with you. Not since Edwina at least”

 

“I am glad you are enjoying your time here, Kate.“ Daphne says, with a quiet admonishment to her youngest siblings. She has mastered their mother’s silent threats and the two children behave for a few more minutes before returning to bickering across the tables.

 

“I am very much. The buzz of the ton can leave one quite dizzy, there is something about the country air that lends to more serene thoughts.”

 

“It is a feat for you to have any serene thoughts with my siblings. I sometimes feel I bring the entire city to Aubrey Hall when the entire family is in residence.”

 

“I understand my lord. One would think with only Edwina, I would have had more peace, but alas…”

 

“She hides keys in spices, but I hear you were more of a handful growing up”

 

“What tales have you heard? From my mother? When?” Kate turns to her mother who smiles into her wine glass.

 

“Mama? You told him of the key, Didi?!”

 

“It was about how you wished to spend time with me, Bon”

 

“Do you not spend much time together in India?” Francesca asks

 

“Oh, we did. Kate taught me all the languages I know, and the musical instruments. But when our Appa passed, she got quite busy. She always has had my best interest at heart, but that is not always fun when one wishes to run around or play games”

 

“I know what you mean. Anthony gets so busy in the office, but he always makes promenades fun, and when we go to the fetes here is Kent, he plays all the games and dances with me.” Hyacinth says smiling to her brother.

 

“Kate taught me how to dance. I used to stand on her feet, and she would sneak us into the royal court when there was a ball or party.”

 

“Anthony never lets me come to the balls. Do you think I can come to this one?” Gregory asks earnestly. He had hoped to get a chance to dance with Kate, Hyacinth kept interrupting them that afternoon.

 

“You can take my place brother” Eloise offered

 

“The moment you are out in society Greg, I shall gladly take you to a ball.” Anthony retorts.

 

 “Don’t worry Mr. Bridgerton, I see many wonderful balls in your future. Would you like to know of Kate’s first ball back in Bombay?”

 

“Would you like to tell the table the tale of the mango tree?”

 

“Kate!”

 

“I want to know of the tree, was it very tall Miss Edwina?” Hyacinth looks between the sisters

 

“I wish it was about the height of the tree Miss Hyacinth, but I’m afraid I have to disappoint you as my sister is sworn to secrecy never to tell the story” Edwina glares at her sister

 

“Even from your mother, Edwina.”

 

“Look what you started Kate” but Kate is busy laughing, grateful the story of her ball forgotten.

 

“I hope to hear this story you are trying to avoid telling” Anthony says in a low voice to Kate

 

“I think it is important to have some secrets between us”

 

“I do not”

 

They silently look into each other’s eyes, leaning closer as their fingers twitching to hold the other’s when they hear a noise further down the table. Anthony sees Daphne smirk before noting Benedict seemed to have spilled his drink.

 

“Benedict dear, you alarm our guests” Violet chastises softly

 

“What is the matter with you?!” Francesca takes the napkin of her lap to prevent the spill from falling on her.

 

Lady Danbury takes her glass clinking a knife to the side to gain the tables’ attention. “Perhaps, it is time for a toast.”

 

“A good idea. To cheer our guest” Violet adds

 

“Or tend to other pressing matters.” Danbury follows with

 

“Such as tomorrow arrival, yes, Anthony would you do the honours” Violet hopes she is not too obvious in her deflection of Lady Danbury pushing for a proposal. She trusts her son, whatever private affair he hopes to have with Miss Sharma is important to him. He truly has not had much time with her this visit. The family simply adore her so much, they seem to fight over her attention. More so than her youngest fight for Newton’s, another addition she did not foresee.

 

Kate turns to Anthony and smiles at Lady Danbury’s attempt to push for a proposal. If he did it here, she would say yes, and learn to deal with the love that continues to grow in her heart. She knew he would not declare his love for he did not love her. He liked her, desired her, respected her, enjoyed her company like she did his, but not love… she did not know how to inspire that in one who did not have time for it. Since her arrival here, she had spent most time with the other Bridgertons, even when she was with Anthony, his steward was not far. He was not lying about the demands of him, the fact she could take some of it by helping his siblings in her little way made her hope he appreciated the possibility of her being able to do more… but she was not holding out for love.

 

Anthony had plans for tomorrow, on horseback just as they had met. The proposal rehearsed thoroughly in his mind did not fit this setting and he did not need lectures for some of the details he may reveal. He was not going to propose tonight. He first needed to tell her he loved her, which surprised him, and he was not sure how his ego would fare, learning she did not love him too. She like him, respected him, desired him, and even enjoyed spending time with him as he did her, but she gave nothing to suggest she loved him. She may say yes, but she was like him- dutiful, and may see this as an obligation. She had accepted his courtship, there was no objection she raised, she wanted to stay in England regardless… but not for him, not to be with him. For her, it didn’t matter, but he really wanted to matter- he wanted to matter to her.

 

“A toast. Yes” he says as he gets up; looking to the group, he tries to focus on everyone else, or else he will blurt out his desire for her in front of the family.

 

“My sincere gratitude to the Sharmas and Lady Danbury for joining us. It has been splendid having you here,” he says looking directly at Kathani.

 

“To witness what is now my second annual loss at Pall Mall. Not to be repeated, I assure you.” The table laugh, but Edwina is on the edge of her seat, looking at her sister, waiting on the grand declarations she has only read about in books. If she could not experience it herself, she is glad to witness her sister’s love story.

 

“And my special gratitude to Miss Sharma, the mallet thief. It has certainly been a privilege to make your acquaintance these past few weeks, even more so here. Though my siblings seemed set on taking your time this trip. So, I’d like to ask you, despite your loyalties to certain members, to please refrain from telling anyone back in London about yesterday’s loss. I fear the harm to my reputation would simply be too great. To the pleasant days ahead!”

 

“Uh, pleasant days” Lady Danbury say uncertain

 

“Hear! Hear!” Benedict adds before missing his mouth entirely causing the table to laugh.

 

“I shall only keep it a secret because I did not win. When I do, expect an announcement in Whistledown.” Kathani whispers to him

 

He smiles and kisses her hand. “I will hold you to that promise Kathani.”

 

Violet raises her glass to Anthony in silent toast, acknowledging her promise to let him have the proposal privately. Edwina misreads this, thinking the viscount has changed his mind and they were finding a way to avoid the proposal altogether. She thinks to every interaction today, the Bridgertons seemed happy Kate was not leaving and everything she said about the courtship pointed to a proposal. She did not understand why when given the chance the viscount backed away, and then she recalled what Kate told her, ‘He does not desire a love match’  but Kate was already in love and he was going to break her heart.

 

 

 

Kates oils Edwina’s hair as she has done for her since they were children. They always used it as an opportunity to catch up, laughing at all the witnessed in court or the market.

 

“You must know you did nothing wrong, Didi… I’m sorry for the callousness of the Bridgertons”

 

“What do you mean, Bon?”

 

“Lord Bridgerton, he did not declare himself, and I saw Lady Bridgerton, she seemed pleased. I do not think she approves the match. The rest of the ton are now set to join us here and we will be relegated to nothing but common guests.”

 

“If she didn’t, we wouldn’t be here”

 

“He could have ignored his mother, you said he invited us while you were dancing at a ball.”

 

“And the invitations followed the next day from Lady Bridgerton; on her stationary.”

 

“He could have forced her… he is the man of the house”

 

“Do you truly think so little of him? Of me?”

 

“Of course not! But he is treating you no better that than how the Raja treated his mistress; bringing her to court but not being proper and marrying her.”

 

“You see me as a mistress?”

 

“No! I do not like how he is treating you. Surely, if the viscount were to propose, he’d have done it by now. Yes?”

 

“He has treated me kindly and respectfully. Perhaps everyone who wishes for an engagement can seek one for themselves and stop watching my hand!”

 

“I am looking out for you! You are the one who vigilantly monitors my courtships to the point I have no suitors. What if I have missed my chance because of this?!”

 

“You had many suitors and disliked all of them!”

 

“Well, I shall have my prince… and from what Her grace says and Lady Whistledown reports, he is a gentleman and will not toy with me as I believe Lord Bridgerton is toying with you. You said he does not wish for love, but I can see that you love him after cautioning me, you turned into the fool here… perhaps it is for the best. Maybe from Lord Bridgerton I can add more things I do not wish to have in a suitor… being a rake and a cad for example.”

 

Edwina feels the loss of her sister as the words leave her mouth. She knows she cannot trust Lord Bridgerton, ‘Kate’s initial judgement of him was right. But she is now like a child in love, blinded from the truth but she did not deserve the words I said.’

 

She is sits quietly in front of her mirror trying to catch her sister’s eye as Kate oils her hair. When she finishes, Kate wordlessly wipes her hands and walks out of the bedroom to hers.

 

 

 

Unable to sleep, Kate takes her candle and hopes to get some warm milk to hopefully bring sleep to her. She walks through Aubrey Hall, pacing herself, taking in the home that shaped the man she loves. In the last two days, she had been able to see bits and pieces but never fully experiences the home. She desperately wished for that tour with Anthony; to spend time with him, know his home, the secrets it hid. To sooth the crease between his brow every time he got a bad memory or hold him close promising to protect him from anymore.

 

As she comes to the stairs, she finds Daphne, who is seems to have had the same thought.

 

“Seems we are of the same mind” Daphne says with a laugh

 

In getting to the kitchen, Daphne begins to find the milk while Kate lights a fire.

 

“Last year, Anthony and I came down for warm milk, both staring at each other to light the infernal thing. I think that was one of the few times I learnt my brother could not do everything.”

 

“Did you learn after?”

 

“Honestly no… one day, just no time soon.” Kate nods affectionately while tending to the milk.

 

“I am sorry if the thoughts that worry you are about Anthony not declaring himself… I trust my brother is not toying with you.”

 

“Daphne please… I trust your brother and honestly, I was simply having a wonderful time with your family. I wouldn’t have thought of a proposal hadn’t Lady Danbury unsubtly hint at pressing matters. I do not see how it is pressing. I do not wish to leave for India, we have only been courting for less than a month… marriage… it isn’t something I desire to rush into.”

 

“A month feels rushed into?”

 

“No just… every step of our courtship has felt like this engagement is inevitable so much so, no one seems to care about the courtship, about your brother and I getting to know one another. It feels like everyone has this book and they have turned to the end, but I’m left looking for the middle.”

 

“When I was being courted by the Prince, the gifts, the private events, it already felt like I was engaged to him, yet I did not know him. I certainly did not love him. When I choose, or rather circumstances choose Simon for me, everyone reacted like I had committed this great sin. Even the Queen required a special audience before she would grant us a special licence. You and my brother are wonderful together, and you do deserve to simply enjoy the courtship without the feeling of a noose around your neck waiting for you to give the response everyone desires.”

 

“Thank you Daphne… I thought I was mad. It is not at all how I foresaw this season. Honestly, there are days I wake up and think I am here only because Anthony is courting Edwina and I’m chaperoning, waiting on a wedding so I can set sail away.”

 

“Honestly, each time you speak of leaving I’m not sure which of us Bridgertons is more frightened. Probably Benedict, he would have to step in when Anthony inevitably chases you across the world.” Kate laughs at the image before it twists into an unsettling feeling. ‘He would only chase after a woman he loves…’

 

“Why do you still think of Anthony and your sister?”

 

“It isn’t really about them, I am just trying to make sense of how I am here. Edwina is always the logical answer. Everything I had done for the last 8 years has been for her. Now, she is the diamond, and I am the shrew every man wishes to slay not tame, in their noble quest to secure their prize.”

 

“My, how theatrical”

 

“Edwina is upset with your brother for not declaring himself tonight. For a moment, I imagined being in her shoes. Watching your sister get wooed and not proposed to. Perhaps I too would be upset on her behalf, but I am not… I find myself angry at her; angry that she doesn’t understand. But the truth is I do not understand how I do understand Anthony so well … I don’t know how to explain it I just simply know and am at peace.”

 

“The two of you understand each other more than we siblings are privy to. I do not begrudge you it is simply a fact.”

 

“He promised to show me all he has to offer, that includes the ton and duties as viscountess. Your family is wonderful and being a part of it these past days have been wonderful. I wish to know I can be the viscountess he deserves; show how I handle myself during the party I suppose”

 

“I truly doubt Anthony cares about that. He already chose you. And I’m sure the ton’s opinion does don’t matter to him. Besides, we the family have voted, we like you a lot and wish for you to be in our family for more than just a few days.”

 

“His duties are important to him, which includes that of the viscountess, I do not wish to dismiss it. I don’t know when this began, I never cared about things like this before, but I want to make him proud, make you all proud of me. The ton has never shared the same kind sentiment about me, not 18 years ago and certainly not now. So far, I have only alienated people since my arrival, I have been a shrew and now they are expected to accept me into their ranks.”

 

“My first act as duchess, I blundered it so badly, when I went with gifts to the town, no one took it. I learnt my mistake and corrected it. Kate, it will be a period of learning, of adjusting… no one is expecting you to be it all immediately.”

 

“But they question why he chose me, what makes me worthy or right? The ton isn’t just vapid empty minds but Anthony’s political allies and rivals; I have to gain their approval after dismissing them from my arrival. Your family is prominent, and your happiness and security are important to me, I do not wish to risk it.”

 

“My, it is like speaking to my brother. Do you both loath your own happiness so much you would risk each other for the security of your family?”

 

“There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for those I love…”

 

“And what you have done has been remarkable, both of you. But know that your families are stronger than either you and Anthony think and joining our families will only make it better. Anthony cares so deeply for you and I see you share the same affection.”

 

“Anthony has become my dearest friend; he was cunning in doing so, as even before I thought about it, I had not been planning for India for much of our acquaintance. It stopped feeling like going home when I thought about it and became a plan I was stubbornly holding onto even as the meaning was gone. I would be honoured to marry your brother; I just do not wish to be a scandal like I was for Lady Mary.”

 

“It is never a scandal to fall in love. We Bridgertons have love stories that make one wonder why take such a difficult road for a simple thing. I feared my brother would do the same, nothing is ever easy with him, but you two… well. I promise, my husband and I will stand with you, every living Bridgerton and the in laws as well. They may loathe you, jealous of the match you made, the connections you gained… but from what I hear they already fear you. The ton cannot deny you the respect you deserve as viscountess, or the life of love you will have as a Bridgerton. I will not allow it. Nor will Lady Danbury and she is far more fearsome than I could ever be.”

 

 

They clean up, laughing and talk a bit more as Daphne escorts Kate to her room. As Daphne rounds to her bedroom, she sees a figure stood outside her door. Smiling, she approaches her brother, “You both have a penchant for eavesdropping. You should have made yourself known”

 

“She needed you… she needed to hear that from you. Thank you Daph.”

 

“I did say I would help…” she says with a smile; but before she goes into her bedroom, she looks back and watches her brother skip away to his room, happier and lighter than she has seen in years…

Chapter Text

“And over there is the tavern Benedict, Colin and I visited, more times than I wish to confess to.”

 

“Speaking of your tavern visiting brother, what on earth was he screaming about last night?”

 

“Colin in his limited wisdom apparently brought a tea that lowers one’s inhibitions much like alcohol, but without the aftereffects. Offering it to Benedict so he wasn’t plagued with doubts about his place in the Royal School. Though I believe the donation I made should have secured it for him.”

 

“You paid a bribe for his place?”

 

“I didn’t want him to miss an opportunity that was clearly important to him.”

 

“You did not think he would get in on his own?”

 

“I know what thespians think of us in society, and most are not wrong. But they would be wrong to have such assumptions on Benedict and I could not allow him miss out due to their wrongly perceived notions of him.”

 

“You are a good brother, Anthony…”

 

“I’m not sure my siblings always share that notion”

 

“I think they love you deeply and sometimes, they wish for more of you than you can give…”

 

“Perhaps, but we have spent the last two days talking of or with our siblings. As much as I wish we could stay out here like this for longer, we must return before our mothers go to find us.”

 

“Mama threatened to hide my riding cloak, but she would need to find it first.”

 

“I’m glad to know you are a menace to all, not just me.” He laughed

 

“I find you equally vexing my lord” Kathani says with a laugh as she spurs Nectar off to get a head start on Anthony. Neither needed to talk about it or come to an agreement the night before. Both assuming correctly, the other would go on a morning ride. Kate loved the scenes they rode through, the hills and fields; Anthony pointing, naming and giving the history of the families and their farms. She could see them doing this every morning, or at dusk when it felt they needed to get away after a particularly bruising day.

 

She still played Edwina’s words in her head.

 

‘I do not think she approves of the match.’

‘Nothing but common guests.”

‘He is treating you no better than how the Raja treated his mistress’

‘If the viscount were to propose, he’d have done it by now.’

‘I believe Lord Bridgerton is toying with you.’

‘A rake and a cad’

 

She knew none of them were true, but the fact Edwina thought of them and spoke them to her, broke her heart more than she could express. She needed to run away; feel the wind against her face, her fears, problems, and angers far behind her. Then she saw him, saddling his horse having saddled hers. Now all she could do was stop herself from running into his arms, taking his face in her hands, and kissing him until the world melted away and it was just them again. Sadly, the stable hand was there, and she did not wish to scandalize the man.

 

They returned with Kathani beating him yet again, but Anthony didn’t mind. He could lose to her forever, following her chasing her just like the start of their acquaintance. They see the stable hands waiting on them exactly where he told them to be so they may get off and walk through the gardens. The ring burning in his pocket, he is surprised she didn’t mention his repeated patting of his pocket when he wished to be sure it was still there.

 

He gets down quickly, rushing over to her, but she ignores his offered hand, and jumps down patting her horse. She has that smile on her face. The self-assured one he could never forget seeing for the first time in the park, and he wonders how he thought he could go on with life without that smile, the glint in her eyes, promising to always surprise him with the way she never does what he imagines. They walk through the garden silent for a moment, holding each other’s hands before he pulls away, walking backwards.

 

“You know, I do enjoy seeing how much you adore Nectar, considering such a deficient horse lost at Ascot”

 

“The tracks were not in his favour and with the cruel way his former owner wished to send him to the knacker’s yard, he was obviously not cared for in the manner he deserved.”

 

Anthony stops and picks up a single tulip, giving it to her, feeling much like a child unsure what to do about the feelings twisting and turning inside of them.

 

“Nectar was our turning point” he starts, and she looks confused. “When I brought him to apologise after I lost to you at the races… Much like Nectar, I got a second chance with you.”

 

She looks down as she fiddled with the flower, then blurted out, “You shouldn’t have picked this.”

 

He smiles at her nerves, taking the flower from her hand tucking it behind her ear, still holding her face with one hand and her eyes with his. “I could always blame it on Hyacinth, or Gregory who is the worst of the men trying to steal you from me.”

 

“I belong to no one, my lord”.

 

“You could belong here, with me.”

 

“Kathani…” He whispers as he reaches his pocket for the ring, he is about to go on his knees when he hears the A low buzz. A whine, really. Then he sees it, a bee flying close to her.

 

“Do not move,” he whispered, his voice harsh with fear. Her eyes narrowed, and of course she moved, trying to twist about.

 

“Stand still, damn it!”

 

“Anthony? What are you talking about? What is wrong?” Anthony begins to pant heavily as his eyes turn downwards to the collar of her riding cloak. Her eyes followed his to the left, then her chin followed by a quarter of an inch or so. Anthony’s hand shot out and grasped her wrist with painful force. “I said don’t move,” he hissed almost pleadingly, still not looking at her. He held her immobile, his grasp hard and painful, his eyes never leaving the loathsome creature, watching as it buzzed purposefully around her neck. He was paralyzed by fear, and fury, unable to think of anything except, ‘Please not her…’

 

It wasn’t as if he hadn’t come into contact with bees in the years since his father’s death. When one flew by, he often laughed, he mocked it or cursed it, before he swats it away with his hand, daring it to retaliate. But he’d never been stung. Not since the time he was a boy and both he and his father were stung and both survived, it wasn’t the case the second time his father was stung, and he did not want to know if or how many times Kathani had been stung.

 

Seeing it fly so dangerously close to Kathani, brushing by her hair, landing on the collar of her riding cloak—it was terrifying, almost hypnotizing. His mind raced ahead, until he saw the tiny monster fly away from her and he let out the breath he had been holding; still not releasing Kathani from the tight grip of is hands. “Are you alright?” he almost whispers.

 

“It was a bee,” she said in an exasperated voice. “Why were you acting so strangely, for heaven’s sake, Anthony? It was not going to kill me.”

 

Then, finally, when Anthony felt his throat relax enough to speak, images of his father come intrusively to his mind; he said in a low, intense voice, “It could have.” And like he called for it or dared the damned creature. He was focusing on the relief of Kathani standing before him unharmed, safe, alive; it was but a second before he feels the stinger in his neck from the fiend.

 

Images of things gone pass before his eyes, and he almost feels at peace, knowing he repaired what fractures he created in his relationships with his family. The images after are what cause him to hyperventilate, unable to let go; of the woman in front of him, the promises in his mind of a life that would suit them both, seeing her in a white dress at the altar, swollen with his child, running around the lake with their daughter at her side and their son laughing as he chases them both. It is not the past that he is sad to leave, but the future he never had with the woman he loves, and never told.

 

“Kathani…” he said almost breathless. He thinks about how she is beautiful she is; wise, honourable, strong. He wished to be hers before he was gone but fate seemed to have other plans. He took his hands from her wrists and cradled her face, unable to control his breathing to apologise for leaving her, to try and tell her, if not in words but with his eyes, how much he loved and adored her, how much she burned herself into his very soul. He is lost in her eyes, seeing warmth and a calm he did not possess when he watched his father die and feared he was wrong last night, she did not love him. But it did not matter at this moment, for he loved her, and she didn’t know that, yet.

 

“Anthony, it is only a sting…you are unharmed… breath, just breath…” He did not hear anything she said, feeling like he was falling away from her, he isn’t sure how they got to their knees, when Kathani took his hands. One on his chest, feeling the thundering of his heart, and the other on hers, beating slower than his. His fingers flex as he feels the heat of her body against their tips, trying to concentrate of the beat of her heart, as his steadies to her rhythm. ‘He isn’t dying…’

 

“It was only a bee. You are unharmed.” She whispers, softly stroking his hand to comfort him, keeping her gaze on him. He isn’t sure how much time had passed but soon his breathing began to calm as she repeated her words. Forcing himself to calm down, nodding to the words she would not understand the meaning of. He rests his forehead against hers, grateful and whatever fate hasn’t decided to take from him, yet again. When he felt closer to himself again, looking into her eyes, he moved to kiss her; they heard the sound of a horse nearby and realise how close they were. On the floor, practically in a lover’s embrace where anyone could see and cause her ruin. She cradles his face, turning it back to her, but he shook himself off of her, standing and dragging her up.

 

“I’m sorry… I’m so sorry… I must leave.” with that, he took off to his office, slamming the door behind him hands against the door as if to hold the wave of emotion that flooded him mere moments ago, away from him. He turned with his back to the door and slid to the floor, taking his hand to his face when he realised the scent of lilies imprinted on his palms. He inhales deeply, steadily himself before he walks over to his chair, head in his hands again and he cries for the first time in years.

 

 

 

 

 

Kate takes a moment, blinking at the abruptness of it all. She feels the sting on her wrists and knows she did not imagine it, the tulip hanging loosely behind her ear now falls slightly over her face. She rubs her wrists as if to soothe it, removing the flower out of her face, shaking her head and taking steady breaths. She looks around and hopes no one saw them, trying not to think about why she feared being forced to marry a man she loved. A man who made less sense now than he did moments ago. She walks towards the house to find Daphne and Violet down for breakfast, both excited about the start of the country visit. The Bridgerton’s Hearts & Flowers ball, and the country visit that presided it, was the year’s most coveted invitation in the country. Events like this testing the might and mettle of its host, who right now was Lady Violet Bridgerton, Dowager Viscountess. If Edwina was indeed wrong as Kate suspected, next year, it will test her. The Duchess and Dowager were of the same mind and invited Kate to join them as the staff prepared things for the visit and the hosts’ greeting of the guests, waving any concern she had before she even spoke it.

 

 

She hurriedly changes into one of her newer dresses. Her lady’s maid, Clara, neatening the updo braided style she had, with few tresses of hair framing her face. The make-up is light and after a warm smile from Clara, she rushes off to join the ladies. Edwina is exiting her room at the same time, and Kate simply turns away, not needing anything to further spoil the mood lost after her morning ride with Anthony. She tries to push it out of her mind, but she can’t. She knows he was going to propose but then he was stung by the bee and panicked? Even before then he seemed terrified that it would sting her, and she could not make sense of it. Worse still, she could not ask Daphne as she met both her and Violet on the steps, trailed by Mrs. Wilson, the Bridgeton Housekeeper. She wondered for a moment if she would have the same relationship with Mrs. Wilson as she saw with Violet.

 

“Miss Patridge requires large amounts of sugar for her morning tea, and Lord Abernathy, he will refuse to eat any meat that is not well-cooked, while Lady Abernathy will only consume her meat bloody, I am told.”

 

Eliciting a chuckle from Daphne. “Kate, please.” The young duchess reaches out to hold her new friend close to her. “My mother has been doing this for years, if there is anyone to show you how to host a ball or country visit, it is she. This has been a tradition of our family since my grandmother was viscountess.”

 

“And make sure you put an extra blanket on Lord Weston’s bed. I hear he feels the cold.” Violet says once more to Mrs. Wilson before the lady disappears to give matching orders to the staff. Staff are a bustle, walking around with all manners of flowers, bedding, boxes of undisclosed contents. It is enough to make anyone dizzy, but Kate is trying to show the women before her, her capabilities to march on, and take control when needed. She wishes them to know that their son, brother in Daphne’s case, is not making a mistake courting her and wishing to make her viscountess even as he has not proposed.

 

“I shall be your most faithful student, Lady Bridgerton.” She says with a smile.

 

“Please. Call me Violet. With all you have survived with my children.” She hopes she is conveying to the young lady, not to worry, and the engagement will be soon. If not Anthony, she is sure Benedict will be sacrificed by the siblings to prevent her from leaving the family. Worst case, take Gregory up on his offer sooner than he thought, she thinks with a laugh. ‘No, Anthony wants her. He will not lose her.’

 

“The roses and carnations have arrived, ma’am.” A maid brings a large bouquet of flowers to the group.

 

“You may wish to add in lilac, Mama. Symbolic of first love. And perhaps make the bouquets even bigger” Daphne states causing Kate to blush. ‘Could everyone see her feelings so clearly?’

 

“What do you think, Kate?” Daphne asks with a smile

 

“Is it too late to request for some white or pink lilies? I believe they will complement the pairings quite nicely.” Kate says shyly, thinking of the lilies in her bedroom that she wakes up to every morning. “Tulips as well, I believe they symbolise passion which bodes well for one’s first love.”

 

“Of course.” The matriarch says with a knowing smile “You are both marvellous at this, I’m not quite sure if you need me.”

 

“Come now mama, there is always much to learn”

 

“Yes Lady Bridgerton, I fear I have only just begun”

 

“Violet… and I shall be glad to show you all, Miss Sharma”

 

“Please, Kate. The honour shall be mine”

 

Kate is briefly distracted looking at a footman struggle with the decorations, “Anthony shall need all the help he can get to propose in the fashion she truly deserves” Daphne whispers to her mother. Kate tries to hide the smirk as she hears her. It does not seem that the family opposes the proposal, just whatever idea Anthony had planned to propose to her. But she loved the idea of a private proposal, thinking how glad she was it was not at dinner; it would have felt too pushed, theatrics that they were constantly having to play. The garden after a horse ride, just the two of them… that was perfect. ‘So, what on earth happened?’ She shook her head and focused on the tasks ahead of her, as the three women walked off heading to the poor footman who looks ready to duel with the large piece of décor that was not compliant with him.

 

 

 

 

 

Edwina is sat in her room when Mary comes to find her youngest. She had seen Kate running around with Violet and the Duchess, even caught Miss Francesca in the music room laughing at the relief on Miss Eloise’s face when they realized she wasn’t their mother. She briefly imagined what it would have been like having more children, girls especially. But shook that from her mind. The two she had, were perfectly enough for her, they came with their special type of headache in the marriage mart and Mary commended Violet for what she foresaw as another season next year with Miss Eloise, but at least a willing Miss Francesca.

 

“Edwina?”

 

She found her daughter looking out the window, with a thoughtful expression on her face. It was obvious she had also been crying and she rushed to her side. “Edwina, what’s wrong?”

 

“Mama…” she threw herself into her mother arms, crying once again. Mary stroked her back as she did when she was really young, whispering soothing words to calm her daughter. “What’s happened dearest?”

 

“Kate and I had a fight… I told her it was not her fault the viscount did not propose, and he was cruel for toying with her…”

 

“Edwina!” Mary withdraws from her daughter holding her at arm’s length. “What has the viscount done for you to call him cruel, to think he isn’t earnest in his courtship of Kate?”

 

“By now he should have proposed, Mama!”

 

“He has asked me for her hand, he has not courted anyone other than your sister… and do not think to say your dance or the few conversations he had with ladies before meeting Kate. They do not count in anyway as courtships! Edwina… she is in his home, with his family… they have embraced her whole heartedly and you have kept him at arm’s length, why?”

 

Edwina begins to cry again but Mary sits up. Whatever is going on with her child, she has grown tired of the cruel way Kate is being treated. Edwina worshipped he ground Kate walked on growing up. Never away from her, since arriving in London, her daughter has pushed and needled her sister needlessly. Questioning her courtship undeservedly. She needed to understand what was going on because it could not be jealousy; she did not have time to form an attachment with the viscount, and she refused to think her child so shallow as to focus on the life, home, and wealth the viscount offered. Lord Bridgerton may not have the highest title, but he certainly was the wealthiest on the mart this season, and a lot came from him in the recent years as opposed to what he simply inherited. ‘He did have more siblings to consider… his father had two sisters who married into the same family and only one brother to provide a settlement for. The viscount has three! And four sisters to dower!’

 

“Edwina, I am trying to be patient with you, but this is too much. Is your head so filled with fairy tales you believe your sister would be engaged before she felt settled and knew the viscount well enough”

 

“He hasn’t offered for her to request time mama!”

 

“Are you the one chaperoning them or is it me? Try as they might to whisper, Lady Danbury and I know very well where they stand. She may have pushed for a proposal last night, but nothing suggest it is not still coming. He simply did not wish to do so at dinner. Maybe he wants a private proposal? Have you thought of whether you even know the sort of proposal your sister wants?”

 

“She deserves the best!”

 

“What is the best?! She may want something simple, sweet, earnest! Being given something you ‘deserve’ but not desired, is not thoughtful… it is callous and proud. From all I have seen and heard between them, your sister and the viscount understand each other, more so than you or I can say.”

 

“You believe he knows my sister better than I do?!”

 

“Yes! Because this is not a side to her, we have seen in 8 years Edwina! When she first came to England with us, her plan was to return to India; all she wanted was her independence. Now, she opened herself up to a courtship, having a husband, children… she desires to stay in England, with us… I will not speak of this with you again Edwina. Let your sister be, she has left you to your courtships as you asked, leave her to hers!”

 

“She loves him mama! But he doesn’t want a love match… he wants a wife that fits a role, and though I am glad he is not fool enough to find her lacking, he will break her heart.”

 

“If all you know of people, dearest, is from books. Whether they are those philosophers you admire, or the tales of love and grand adventures… if that is all you know of people, then I understand why you cannot see that he loves her too.”

 

With that, she takes her daughter to her vanity to wipes her face and be readied again. Whatever remark she wants to say, Mary makes it clear there is nothing further to discuss.

 

“We will return to Mayfair in a few days, even here at Lady Bridgerton’s ball, there will be many suitors vying for your hand… do not hold out for the Prince! Despite what Her Majesty desires, my priority are my daughters’ hearts. Your father did not have a title or rank. I fell in love with a man with the kindest eyes and the biggest heart. I love him not despite what he lacked, simply for being who he was; all he was. And that is what I wish for you and Kate. I would be glad if it was with a man who I never had to worry about your security with. Your father did his best but even he could not have foreseen a short life for us. He took care of us when he lived, but the world is cruel to a woman without a father, husband, brother, or adult son. Perhaps, like Kate, you will find someone who will love you and give you the silks and jewels you spoke so fondly of as a child. But if your heart wants a man with meagre means, I will support you, so will Kate. She is the one who secured your dowry, is she not?”

 

“Does Kate have a dowry?”

 

“No, it was one of her excuses not to participate in the marriage mart, remember?”

 

“Can’t we just divide mine then…?”

 

“I doubt your sister will accept, besides… Lord Bridgerton does not need a dowry and I can only hope his love for Kate will be enough that it does not matter. He has been respectful and kind, and when the time comes to discuss a marriage contract, I shall hope to see him act honourably to your sister.”

 

“You are putting a lot of faith in him.”

 

“I am trusting your sister; she has not stirred us wrong before. We would not be here if not for her. So even if you do not trust the viscount, trust Kate.”

 

“Perhaps I’m the reason he has not made his declaration.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Family is important to him, if he feels Kate’s family is not as close as his is, perhaps he is reconsidering… I need to find a way to get him fall in love with me as Kate has all his siblings. I will help encourage him to propose… I promise, mama.” Mary smiled sweetly at her daughter, hoping this would be the last conversation she had like this. She felt a twinge of regret that even as she guided her through the mart, it was the nightly talks with Kate that made her feel more like a mother. She hoped to have that again with Edwina, it seemed like she could never find the right balance. ‘How in heaven’s did Violet do it with eight?!’

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the guest arrived, most began to mingle amongst themselves; having tea, listening to music, play some of the lawn games. Violet, Daphne, and Kate were welcoming them; some of the men taking her left hand and unsubtly kissing the ring finger to confirm that she was indeed not wearing an engagement ring, others going as far as asking for a dance at the ball tomorrow, masking it with requests to the Duchess as well. Kate was fighting the urge to withdraw her hand each time, and smack every last one of them, but she held a tight smile, while Daphne continued to whisper as subtly as she could, the parties they were greeting.

 

The Cowpers needed no introduction as Kate has had a few run ins with Cressida Cowper and has overheard Baroness Cowper a few times make pointed comments about her mothers.

 

“Your Grace. Lady Bridgerton.” Cressida turns sourly to Kate, not hiding the derision in her voice, “Miss Sharma, what a surprise to see you here.”

 

“A surprise to see my guest, Miss Cowper.”

 

“Of course not Lady Bridgerton. I only wondered… well I guess I’m so use to Miss Sharma on the arms of Lord Bridgerton.” She responds with enough sweetness in her voice, Kate tries to supress the laugh bubbling in her.

 

“Yes well, us Bridgertons do like to share, and have commandeered Miss Sharma to our welcoming committee. She has been wonderful with mama and I getting ready for all your arrivals as well has the ball.”

 

“Of course, but…” Lady Cowper state pointedly, they expected family welcoming them, but Kate was not family; not yet. And most of the ton did not hide their surprise at Anthony’s chosen courtship. Whispers, and even direct comments to her mother, Lady Danbury and herself. Cressida and her mother were one of the many who pretended to speak quietly, but ensuring Kate heard every word. Anthony seemed spared from hearing such, but his reassurance in London and here, made it obvious he knew what was been said and hated it. They spent many moments out on the terrace with Benedict, laughing loudly with Eloise at the side of the dance floor, all to drown out the noise. Faced without him near, she did not wish to hear any further from these women and cut them off.

 

“Lord Cowper, Lady Cowper.” Kate does an imitation of Cressida’s false polite tone, “Miss Cowper, I assure you, the maids can see to you being settled, perhaps you would like to join the party. I noted Lady Hood and her daughter trying to get your attention.”

 

“Why thank you Miss Sharma. Your Grace. Lady Bridgerton” Lord Cowper responds refusing to wait around for his ladies to try and spar with their hosts, heads off to the gentlemen he sees.

 

“Daphne, Violet. If it is alright with you, I need a minute. I will check with some guests and see they are settling.”

 

“Of course dear, we shall see you later.” Violet says with a smile. She hopes their show that they trust a proposal was coming did not backfire, and Kate felt like an imposter greeting guest without a ring. Cressida Cowper has been a nightmare since she came out last year, and the Prince spurned her for Daphne. “The men seem to be hoping not to find a ring, perhaps to steal Kate from Anthony, like that could ever be a possibility.” Daphne commented

 

“And the women still hoping to be considered for viscountess… I hoped your brother would have proposed by now so we could use this as their engagement ball.”

 

“Anthony will… I saw him last night after the failed push… he is excited to marry her. He loves her mama… I just don’t know why he is taking so much time.”

 

“You should have seen him trying to pick a ring.”

 

“I thought he was using yours?”

 

“He is… but first he went through every Bridgerton heirloom trying to picture the one she would like. Make sure it didn’t remotely upset her in anyway.”

 

“I do not think Kate is that fussy”

 

“It does not matter. What matters is how much thought your brother is putting in not only for the courtship and proposal, but their lives together. He got a chef to cook meals from her home… I think he is a bit lost in his head and over complicating things.”

 

“Perhaps… but it is wonderful to see how much he cares too.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eloise, Edwina, and Colin were trying to dissuade Colin from another Greek tale, Eloise asking Edwina her views on women’s right and Edwina bringing her philosophical perspective was enough to make Colin glad that Penelope left her family to join the little group.

 

“Oh Pen! Oh, you are finally here. With only my own family to speak to, I’ve begun talking to the trees.”

 

“Is she calling me wooden?” Colin asked

 

“I believe she is calling us wooden!” Edwina said in a false affronted tone, surprised but glad Eloise found her to be family, “Welcome Miss Featherington”

 

Penelope looks at how close Edwina and Colin stood and for a moment, fears that this trip for the viscount and Miss Sharma may have brought forth another unexpected Bridgerton-Sharma courtship.

 

“Oh, I could call you much worse Colin, and Edwina, I can promise you, you are the only thing keeping me out here. Normally I would be hidden in my room until my mama or Pen hunted me down successfully.”

 

“How often was that success?”

 

“I gave up this year, didn’t I” eliciting a laugh from Edwina.

 

“Are you alright Pen, was the drive not to your liking?” Eloise asks her friend who seems tense.

 

“Of course not, how often have I done this ride. No, just shaking of the last stiffness of the journey. Someone lost an axel, and we were in the carriage longer than usual.” She lies, hoping it was convincing.

 

“Please tell me you are not to join these two on their discussion on these pamphlets Eloise brought with her. Something on women’s rights I believe.” Colin rolls his eyes, coming to Pen’s side which makes her instinctively smile, he folds his arms narrowing his eyes at his sister and soon to be sister, if Anthony hurried up and married Miss Sharma. It was a bargain he was open to, yet another annoying reader of a sister for the relative calm Miss Sharma brought out of Anthony.

 

“El is quite done with those, I take it. You brought some with you?”

 

“Prepare yourself for many quotations or references to philosophers, Pen”

 

“The printer’s pamphlet? I thought you’d realized he was not connected to Lady Whistledown. Those letter K’s have not been smudged for some time now. Have they?”

 

“I am just as much interested in their new letters now. Edwina is even helping me correct some of their materials. It is a rather radical publication, which is why I seem to like it so much.”

 

“It can be misleading some of their points especially since they reference some of the newer philosophers” Edwina adds

 

“Shouldn’t knowledge and the way we think move and change as the times do?” Eloise asked

 

“Some knowledge is universal Eloise.”

 

“But Kate said there are many things different here than in India… can’t be that universal.”

 

“Some, I didn’t say what knowledge… there are many absurdities I find in English culture, and I’m sure when you visit Mr Bridgerton, there may be some things of my culture you find absurd. Not much though."

 

“What pray tell is so absurd in our English culture, Miss Diamond of the English Ton?” Colin quips fondly

 

“We could start with your tea…”

 

“That I cannot argue with. We have begged Anthony to find out the shipping plans so we may get the spices again. We may have run out making Kate teach us.”

 

“I know” Edwina said with a false anger that made all but Penelope laugh. She could see that Miss Edwina had ingrained herself with the Bridgertons much like she had. But her sister was set to marry the viscount, though an engagement had not been announced. She could spend more time with them, though she does not think Colin is looking to marry.

 

“Anyway, the pamphlets are wonderful, the apprentice there, Mr. Theo Sharpe…”

 

“You know his name?” snapping Penelope out of the jealous spiral she was going into. “You do not think you are getting into dangerous waters, El? That side of town?”

 

“I tried to dissuade her from it.” Colin adds

 

“I thought you got them from the Ascot. Where did you get them from Eloise?” Edwina asks making Eloise shift nervously

 

“Perhaps you can convince her while I am gone today.” Colin requests

 

“Where are you going?” Edwina and Eloise ask at the same time

 

“Are you joining the men on the hunt?” Penelope asks

 

“I am not. I have decided to pay your cousin a visit, in fact.” He says to Penelope

 

“Marina?”

“Miss Thompson?”

“Who?”

 

“Miss Thompson, Lady Crane rather, is Penelope’s cousin who stayed with them last season. There was a bit of a scandal, I will tell you later.” Eloise says to Edwina before she turned to her brother. “I rather think I am not the only one getting into dangerous waters.”

 

 

“Eloise, Penelope, Miss Edwina…” they hear Violet call to them, and Colin walks away from the group before he gets roped into something himself. Violet has her arms around Eloise and Penelope, Edwina beside Eloise, smiling at the hug.

 

“I think you will find we have much to offer the young ladies today” she tells the young women. Eloise grimace and Penelope smiles at the woman she wished was her mother.

 

“Yes, well, Pen and Edwina are young ladies… and we have so much to catch up on, I don’t think Edwina and Pen have been properly introduced.

 

“Eloise, I hope you will behave yourself this week. We are hosts. Miss Edwina I’m sure will be an excellent example. You say how much you admire Kate; they are not too dissimilar”

 

“Much like Daphne and I” Eloise replies dryly, which Edwina tries not to read into the tone.

 

“Exactly!” Violet says excitedly

 

“Perhaps you ladies might like to spend some time with the other young ladies in attendance. Miss Edwina, I believe you have made some of their acquaintances.” Violet leads the group to a group of ladies. “Or, at the very least, there will be some good gossip to absorb”

 

“We would not dream of doing anything different, Lady Bridgerton.” Penelope says

 

“Yes, you need not worry about us, Lady Bridgerton” Edwina says, trying to remind herself of what her mother said and telling herself that the private toast between mother and son last night, meant something else.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kate meets Anthony in his office after speaking with the cook. He is sat on the edge of the table staring at his father’s portrait. When he looks to who knocked and entered without his prompt, he smiles weakly reaching for her. She closes the door and perches beside him on the table, as they hold hands.

 

“He—he was a great man, my father” he said softly. “A great father too. I loved him very much. He died mere months before Hyacinth was born, right before I left for Oxford… here in Aubrey Hall. Everything seems to happen here… life, death…” he takes a deep breath before he continues.

 

“How did he die?”

 

“He is one, if not the main reason I set out to… I did not want my wife to have me die and then break the same way my mother did, consumed by grief, almost in the grave with my father… I… I could not be the cause of such pain.” He takes a deep breath and looks down and away from her, trying to keep the tears at bay. She squeezes his hand hoping to give him any bit of strength she can spare in this moment. They hide away their pain, their fears… but she wanted desperately to be the person he didn’t hide from, because she knew, if he asked her anything, she wouldn’t be able to deny him, or hide the truth from him. He said it was always in her eyes, and she too saw it in his. The walls, and the burdens behind those walls.

 

“I apologise for my reaction this morning it may seem irrational, but it was a bee, Kathani… he died because he was stung by a bee.”

 

“Anthony… I… I’m so sorry. I…” she says as she comes in front of him, holding his face in her hands. She brushes away the tear that spilt out.

 

He puts his hands over hers closing his eyes for a moment before he pulls their hands away from his face, looking at them as he rubs his thumbs against the backs of her hands. “To see a great man felled by such a small creature, it was… um… it was humbling, to say the least.”

 

“You witnessed it”

 

“Yes…”

 

“So today?”

 

“I thought I would die too.”

 

“But you do not have the same reaction?”

 

“I don’t know. He had been stung before. With me in fact… I haven’t since that day. It was the first time…” she snatches her hands from him and moves back struggling to breath…

 

“You didn’t tell me! Why… why.. why didn’t… you should have said!”

 

“Kathani?”

 

The room feels like it is spinning, she isn’t sure when he guided her to sit in a chair while he kneeled in front of her. “Kathani, I am here, it is alright… breath, just breath…”

 

“You can’t keep such from me! You promised! You promised me! You said you would always tell me the truth”

 

“I hadn’t gotten to speak on it. I wasn’t… I wasn’t hiding it, I promise”

 

“You could have said… at the grave maybe… what if something happened today and I did not know what to do? Who to call? Anthony, I dismissed it as a simple sting but you…” she said cupping his face, “you could… you could have…” she could not bring herself to say the words, shaking her head. He could have died today, in front of her, in her arms… all she could do, would be to mourn what could have been because she was nothing to him, just the woman who loved him and even he did not know that.

 

“Kathani I am fine… as you said, I am unharmed.”

 

“But you could’ve been!” he moves her to the settee as they sit side by side, he still caresses her fingers, while she fights to look anywhere but his eyes. They started this, in the park. The hint of mischief behind them, the way they crinkled when he smiled. Every time she looked in them, she no longer cared for anything but the man in front of her, and she could have watch the life leave them today…

 

“I know… I know. Sometimes… sometimes it doesn’t feel real. We have rarely had to say how he died because… well, so many people, even the doctors that declared him, were surprised. ‘A little bee cannot kill a man’ they said. But even my uncle Hugo the year before… Many men do not live to 40 in my family Kathani, I didn’t want to marry someone who would… who couldn’t handle loss.”

 

“So, you picked me! Why?! Because I have lost and survived?! Do you think the life I led was one I wanted?! Living minute by minute, so scared the ground would fall from beneath my feet again.” She was pacing and he got up but could only watch her.

 

“Do you think you may meet the same fate? As your father, your uncle?”

 

“I do not know, but I have always felt certain I couldn’t possibly live any longer than my father had. He was the greatest man I’ve ever known. Not a day goes by when I don’t realize that I’m not living up to his standards. I knew that he was everything to which I could aspire. I might not ever match his greatness, but if I could come close, I’d be satisfied. That’s all I ever wanted. Just to come close.”

 

“Anthony…” she went to him again, frustrated that he could not see the wonderful man that he was, even more angered that he saw his death, the loss of him from her, as nothing. “You said your father’s death didn’t feel real to you… that is what my amma is to me sometimes. Especially after my appa died. She became whoever and whatever I desired, a phantom to give me comfort because I had none from the living. An expectation to live up to sometimes… I didn’t know her long and even with the stories my appa told me, there were so many gaps to fill, and I filled it with so much promise, I did not think I would meet but so sure she would have. I needed something, someone to aspire to, to inspire me to keep one foot in front of the other because if I had stopped moving, well… I don’t like to think where or who I’d be if I had.”

 

“Your mother, I mean Lady Mary…”

 

“It seems both our mothers were lost to us at a time we needed them the most.” She continues to pace, “My appa was so ill, for months… at one point, we had to bath him in his bed because he could not even sit, let alone stand. I had gone to get clean water for his next wash, and when I returned, mama was curled against him, frozen in the moment of his death. And she stayed like that, for so long, I couldn’t cry, I couldn’t grieve… I had another parent to care for and Edwina as well. I lost my amma, my appa, and was frightened I could lose my mama too. She remained in her grief for years; I kept Edwina distracted with her lessons, so she did not witness how far our mother fell.”

 

He realises that she was much the same as him, because she faced the same tragedy, having a living dead mother after the loss of a father. But much worse for her as she had lost a mother before and was a woman in a world with limits on her sex. Yet she was the head of her household. She had spoken about facing a world of men, including those who wished her a dreadful marriage. She had been more than a sister to Miss Edwina, probably a mother as he was the youngest Bridgertons’ father figure. Staying in an office she couldn’t call her own to ensure she provided for her family.

 

“I did the same with my siblings, though Benedict helped. It was like he became the brother I wished I could be to them instead of the viscount…”

 

“Simply because we would be able to put everyone first, able to shoulder the pain, the burdens and keep life going for others… because we have done it before and will not hesitate to do it again, doesn’t mean it should be all we are; that the thought of you gone should be an easy one for me to bear. I am strong because I have to be, it isn’t something I am always proud to be… Surviving yet again…I… I… how old was your father when he died?... I’m sorry, you do not have to ans…”

 

“Thirty-eight…”

 

“And how old are you now?”

 

“I am thirty in September.”

 

“So, by your estimation, you have eight maybe nine years left.”

 

“At most.”

 

“And you truly believe this?” He nodded.

 

“You cannot!” she sounded so defeated, Anthony hated himself for starting this conversation.

 

“I know it sounds ludicrous”

 

“That is not it you obstinate man!! I have grown rather attached to the idea of a life with you and I do not wish for it to be a short one…” He did not know what to say to that.

 

“Anthony, I could have been satisfied with my lot in life, whatever it was having not met you.  I… I never desired anything more than what I had… a simple life of work and my family was all I could see for myself. I never imagined… thoughts of a life with you, the suited one you promised… all you have shown me, it is maddening and terrifying and beautiful, all at once. To be perfectly honest, the fact of the matter is that either of us could die today, tomorrow, in a year. Still, I cannot be resigned to the idea of your early death, so please, do not keep things from me, and don’t…don’t’ give up on a life with me before we get the chance to have it."

 

He kisses her, holding her tight, scared to stop and find that she would disappear, or he would wake up and see that he is not so luck to have her in his life. Even within his family no one understood him and what his life had been like since his father’s passing, the fears that plagued him. He tries to recall anyone making him feel like he mattered in more ways than merely a provider but sees that most people leave him to his moods and do not question his reactions. But Kathani always looks for him, even if he doesn’t open up, she lets him know she is there. Today he realised he had been focused on her strength in the face of his own passing but missed the cruelty of his thoughts. It is the same that is expected of him, and she is right, it does not make it right. She would be is partner in all, someone who would always be on his side, who would keep his secrets, his fears, his burdens and help him without hesitation, just as he would be to her.

 

“I guess being the ones that hold our families up… I forgot how painful and lonely that can be. I’m sorry I assumed…”

 

“No one will be fine with your passing Anthony, no matter when it is.” She says running her thumb against his jaw.

 

“Well, as long as they are taken care of…”

 

“Isn’t that what you challenged me on? When I said I was to go to India after my family was settled? ‘We are not ones to leave the ones we love, are we?’ that is what you said! You are so much more than simply a provider to your family, and they adore you for all you are.”

 

“Anthony, I am not dismissing your fears, I feel it too… the uncertainty… we lived so long so sure of what our futures looked like, and mine has certainly changed this season. Perhaps… we take the days as they come. The knowledge of our mortality isn’t enough of a reason to make our lives so… so devoid. We do a good enough job hiding in our roles, anyway, why give ourselves more pain? I don’t want to start a life, that feels like it is already doomed…”

 

She goes back into the seat at his desk, feeling spent, her head is in her hands; Anthony returns to the kneeling position because to sit in another chair would mean he was further from her than he would like. He brings her hands away from her face to make her look at him, they are silent for the moment, taking in all they had learnt of each other; like magnets they feel the pull that seems to never die down. They about to kiss again when Benedict comes to get him for the hunt and sees them alone. He smiles and is about to quite literally squeal, thinking it is the proposal,

 

“No!”, they both say at the same time. They look to each other offended and trying to reassure the other at the same time, finding understanding that this isn’t an affront to the idea of marrying, just this is not the proposal either of them desired. They laugh at the unspoken understanding they seem to always have.

 

“Well, if this is not that, brother, then do note the hunt is to begin within the hour.”

 

“A hunt?”

 

“Yes, we are to go shooting with the other gentlemen. Seems the party is to leave soon, and I must get ready, I’m sorry Kathani, do you wish to…” Anthony expands

 

“Are only gentlemen welcome to the hunt?”

 

“Well, I do not think there are any ladies coming.”

 

“Because they do not hunt or are not allowed to?”

 

“I only mean to say…I did not think you would be interested in hunting…”

 

“Because I am a woman?”

 

“No! No, I did not say that!”

 

“But you thought it!”

 

“My sisters shoot, but I certainly will not have Eloise come with us. As great a shot she is when she aims straight in the field, she will not manage in the woods.”

 

“Good to know she is excellent shot, though I do not understand why you assume I would have any trouble managing?”

 

“Well…” the silence hangs between them, as Kate folds her hands in front of her, and Anthony struggles to fond words, any words, whether to lean further into the argument against her joining the hunting party or save face but find another way to deter her.

 

“Come on now brother, surely, we can make an exception for the woman you are courting. We are on our private lands after all. I’m sure Lady Danbury can spare a maid to act as chaperone. Oh, what fun this will be! And who knows, perhaps Kate can teach you a thing or two…” Benedict laughs as he pats his brother’s chest; Anthony does not hide that he is put out by the thought of Kathani come with a group of men, shooting. Kate on the other hand feels smug at getting to go on the trip. Benedict waits for Kate to leave, his arm still around his brother’s shoulder. He feels the frustration radiate out of him and loves that it mirrors the expression forming on Kate’s face as she realised Benedict will not leave the two alone again. She narrows her eyes at him which he returns with a bright smile. Kate rolls her eyes and leaves to get changed, slamming the door to show her discontent.

 

 

 

 

 

“I imagine your brother has gone on the hunt, but do you imagine he would have time for me later?” Edwina whispers to Eloise as the join the ladies sitting down.

 

“Why? Is something the matter?”

 

“No, only… Kate has gotten time with all of you, and you each have your own relationship with her. I am Kate’s only sister and I fear I haven’t had the chance to know your brother, and I wish to know him as you know Kate.”

 

“He is dreadfully boring, and I don’t imagine you will enjoy any conversation with him.”

 

“Perhaps before dinner tonight, Miss Edwina, ignore Eloise…” Francesca adds, having joined the group.

 

“You do not have to be here, you are not out yet, you can hide away for as long as you desire.”

 

“Mama thought Miss Edwina and Penelope not enough help to keep you … kind…” Francesca explains eliciting a laugh from Penelope and Edwina.

 

“I very much look forward to hosting gathering one day, it is a lot of fun” Edwina says excitedly

 

“Yes, as much fun as a hammer to the head” Eloise says dryly. She does like Edwina, when they talk about books and knowledgeable things, but when she begins speaking on society, balls and fashions, Eloise rather thinks she is no different to other debutantes she has been avoiding this season, some of whom are at this table.

 

“Certainly, depends on the man you marry. I quite like Lord Westbridge, though his hands certainly do wander when he dances.” Miss Eaton responds

 

“At least he is young. My mama has fixed on Sir Derryworth for me. His breath is excruciating.” Miss Hallewell complains.

 

“Why do you not just say no?” Eloise asks exhausted at the topic at hand.

 

“To our mamas?” Miss Eaton asks surprised at the notion

 

“I do not think it is that simple, El” Penelope says with a laugh.

 

Her friend complains endlessly about society but will never. Understand how privilege she is to be born into her family. They are thoughtful and actually care for each other. No matter how many men Lady Bridgerton throws Eloise’s way, she would not force her into anything she did not desire. He family followed her lead when it came to her laugh, and her friend was still unsatisfied. She loved her dearly, but she frustrated her to no end. Sometimes, she did not like to admit this, but publishing things about the Bridgertons felt like a leveller of some kind, they were not this glass room full of perfect people, they too had secret and shames just like the rest of the ton. The fact they were good at hiding it, made it all the more, juicier. But she had to be smart, she would not hurt them, tease them, report things already said in the ballroom, but never risk their reputation.

 

“I do everything my mama says.” Miss Patridge said with conviction.

 

Chuckling, Eloise replies, “Yet you still wonder why you are so miserable.” ‘Clueless… so intelligent and yet so clueless’ Penelope thought

 

“Oh, I… I know how to find my happiness, Miss Bridgerton. There is always Lady Whistledown” Miss Patridge looking to Lady Weston.

 

“Though I doubt she’ll publish anything of note this week.” Lady Weston replies.

 

“What can you mean?” Penelope asks, ensuring to modulate her voice so as not to seem too eager.

 

“We are all her, enjoying the countryside together. Anything she might print, surely, we will already know.” Lady Weston explains

 

“Is that so?” Penelope says taking a drink. The conversation seems to have died for a moment with the ladies smiling at each other.

 

“Ladies, I hope the festivities are living up to your expectations…” Francesca asks, hoping to play hostess as her mother, sister and Miss Sharma were. ‘As Eloise should be…’

 

“Very much Miss Francesca. Your mother is such a diligent hostess, and to have the duchess here as well.” Miss Hallewell replied

 

“Miss Sharma was welcoming guests with them I believe, I was quite shocked. Especially as I do not believe the viscount has asked for her hand.” Miss Patridge added

 

“Miss Edwina, you seemed to wish for a private audience with the viscount, are you trying to push for the proposal or divert his attentions to you? You are the diamond after all, and he is the most eligible man on the marriage mart this season.” Lady Weston said conspiratorially.

 

“Excuse me?!” Edwina said affronted, Eloise and Francesca turned with disgust to the young lady who held a teasing smile on her face. Francesca wondered thought perhaps Eloise was not exaggerating, with her limited contact with people in society, she only interacted with those who were family, or long-time friends of the family. She imagined most in society to be like them but the sneer on the young woman’s face when speaking on Miss Sharma, there was nothing kind about her, or at least her thoughts on Miss Sharma

 

“Only, he has been singular with his attentions but alas, no ring. My mama said she is a spinster, and it was surprising for a man such as him to shop on the shelf so to speak. Since you all have been in the country, it is unclear if the courtship continued or if…” Miss Eaton says sensing the tension, but it is still the exact wrong thing.

 

“My sister is the best person I know; her age does not take anything from her! All I am, I owe to her. The same things that make me a diamond, she knows because she taught me. Even the blind can see her beauty, barely anyone in the ton can match her wit, she is funny, brave, kind, and feeling… oh, I do not need to defend my sister’s capabilities to you or anyone!…” Edwina seethes shocking the other ladies.

 

“My brother is lucky to be in a courtship with someone as wonderful as Kate, she is far more capable that all the ton put together, and certainly more intelligent” Eloise adds sitting up and glaring at Lady Weston and Miss Easton, who she felt said the worst out of the four idiots before her.

 

“Perhaps the dullness of your courtships has you all bitter!” Francesca quipped throwing a sneer at the other two for good measure, in case they had a foolish thought add.

 

“It was no offense, only she did not entertain any other suitor, and the viscount courted no one else, we just wanted to know…” Miss Hallewell said, looking between the three women who were ready to attack. The Bridgertons are well known for their protectiveness, which has spread to the Sharmas by the looks of things. But her fear was ruin, if any of these ladies requested, she or her family disinvited from future events they host.

 

“So, you wish for gossip, regardless of the truth?” Francesca narrowed her eyes at her.

 

“A simple conversation amongst friends” Miss Patridge said with a nervous smile

 

“Friends do not insult my sister!” Edwina countered

 

“Well, I for one do not understand the wait if she is as wonderful as you say.” Lady Weston said. As the daughter of an Earl, she felt less fearful of ruin from a viscount’s family, even if it was the Bridgertons. Besides, if she is able to know what about Miss Sharma the viscount found charming and what he found lacking, she could set her cap to be viscountess and Miss Edwina will never grace her sight again, regardless of her diamond status. Plus, the two Bridgerton ladies will have to defer to her as head of house.

 

“Unless there is something wrong with the viscount that even the diamond does not desire him” she adds

 

“My brother is the best man not only for how well he plays his role n society and parliement, but how he is to our family,” Eloise says rising from her seat, followed by Francesca and Edwina, “the fact of the matter is, I very well know that if Anthony wasn’t courting Kate, you would all step over each other for a mere glance from him, desperate ladies that you are to blindly follow and never lead. Kate declined a Raja, simply because, and Anthony is the most eligible this season who intelligently went for Kate, but that doesn’t mean a refined brilliant women should not take her time to consider. She knows her worth and so does Anthony. Unlike the blind leading you, I gladly listen to Kate now, and when she becomes viscountess Bridgerton, she will make the seasons far more interesting and engaging than your empty minds could dream of.”

 

“WE can’t wait for Kate to join the family. It isn’t a matter of if, we simply know that only Anthony is sure of when. Considering how much thought he puts into courting her, I can only imagine how wonderful her proposal shall be, and the opinions will be as they always are to Bridgertons… inconsequential” Francesca says in a huff and walks away. Eloise and Edwina follow after glaring at the ladies, who have the forethought to look ashamed, except Lady Weston who holds onto her pricked pride. Penelope unable to find an excuse to stay so she may have material for Whistledown, smiles in her drink once more and walks towards Eloise, throwing an apologetic smile to Lady Bridgerton.

Chapter Text

“If this goes wrong, it’ll be your fault” Anthony chides a chuckling Benedict

 

“And here I thought you wished for more time with Miss Sharma… maybe to finally propose?”

 

“I will not ask for her hand in front of a bunch of men I am forced to host.”

 

“Well then, be prepared to fight for her hand. I understand many of the men are hoping to leave this visit with her consent to be courted. They believe a proposal would have happened by now”

 

“I would like to see them try. Hopefully, while I hold a gun”

 

“You would not need to challenge a man to a duel if you had proposed.” This causes Anthony to impatiently walk away from his brother, he knows he will never not be reminded of his duel with Simon last year. As much as he appreciated how his family set the course for Kathani, and are helping him woo her, he would appreciate everyone even more if they left them to their venture. She came to Aubrey to spend time with him and yet, most of their hours are always shared with their family.

 

The brothers almost meet up with the group, where the horses and hounds are readied. Kate and her lady’s maid Clara walk to the group themselves, and Anthony diverts his course to escort a bemused Kate. Clara continued counting to 100 in Latin in her head, trying to remind herself that she liked Miss Sharma, even though at the moment, she loathed her for bringing her on this dreadful excursion.

 

“Miss Sharma, Lord Bridgerton, Mr. Bridgerton” Dorset smiles at the approaching trio, sparing a particularly longing look for Kate.

 

“Mr. Dorset, I had no idea you were here, I must have missed your arrival.” Kate says with a smile, hoping it is not strained as she feels her hand being squeezed between Anthony’s ribs and his arm.

 

“Yes, well I am glad to meet you now. You are coming on the hunt?”

 

“Well, I’m not simply seeing Lord Bridgerton off.”

 

“You could be…” Anthony interjects light heartedly

 

“With a gun, yes, I absolutely could.” Kate retorts, turning to him

 

“Do you enjoy threatening my life?”

 

“Do you enjoy antagonizing me to the point I threaten your life?”

 

“I simply…”

 

“We should get ready, the two of them can go one for hours,” Benedict says, pulling Dorset away. Though the man did not seem willing as Benedict notes that he seeks an opening to be near Kate again.

 

Anthony goes with her to Nectar, offering a hand up which she takes. When he gets on Onyx, he sees Dorset steading his horse beside Kathani. Benedict catches up to him on his horse and reminds him that private lands are not his private cemeteries to bury his enemies. He huffs at the man making Kathani laugh, but then she looks ahead at him and he feels pride that he is the one she wants, not Dorset.

 

The group sets off, Dorset still beside Kathani talking, and Benedict and Anthony not too far behind, riding the tail end of the group. “You must play along brother, without an engagement ring, other men are either trying to sniff out Kate’s desirability or in the case of Dorset, try to win her over from you. But you needn’t worry, if Greg hasn’t stolen her, I doubt dear old Dorset could.”

 

“Everyone needs to stop acting like I do not desire to propose. We barely have time to ourselves, and I will not have yet another part of this courtship, dictated by others… will it be like this for you when you decide to marry?”

 

“Contrary to mother’s plans, that needn’t happen for a long time. You would be far too tired to keep up with my courtship, anciently ageing and all.”

 

“You are barely two years younger!”

 

“Yes, but I am forever younger! Stop glaring at him.”

 

“We were interrupted this morning,” he said after a moment, keeping his eyes on Kathani

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“I was going to propose, but… I was stung… by a bee”

 

Benedict had to maintain his composure, or he would have fallen off his horse “Anthony…”

 

“I am fine… she helped me. I was telling her about father in the office, and that’s when you came and found us. She was upset I did not tell her how he died. She felt… embarrassed that she brushed off the sting”

 

“But you are sure you are well?… A doctor, Dorset…”

 

“I am fine, I swear it. And if you ever have Dorset examine me, I may just kill you…” the joke does not quell the raising anxiety in his brother so he ensures to look into his eyes as he says, “Benedict, I would not be here if I was unwell.”

 

“Perhaps, but I will check with Kate, she seems the only one you listen to anyway”

 

Jack Featherington, following the guide, calls out, “To the right gents… oh, and Miss Sharma of course!”

 

Kate slows Nectar, shaking her head at Dorset letting Anthony catch up to her, while Benedict spurs his horse to trot up ahead. “I believe they are going the wrong way. There are tracks going off to the left. Look. In the moss, you can see the cloven shape.”

 

“I think they are heading toward our camp. I see the tracks, but it is much safer in a party of this size to stay together.”

 

“But if we go to our camp now, we may miss our quarry entirely.”

 

“Let us stay with the group… If we find nothing, there are an abundance of people I can offer you for target practice, starting with a certain someone.”

 

“Yourself?”

 

“For someone who claims they wish to see me live long, you do enjoy fantasizing about my death.”

 

“Of course not my lord, a grievous injury perhaps. Never death”

 

“So, you may nurse me back to health?”

 

“Perhaps… maybe I am stupid enough to wish to take care of you."

 

“Stupid enough?”

 

“Your mother says you were the worst when you were ill. She paints a very vivid picture of an obstinate little lord.”

 

“Speaking to my mother about me?”

 

“You were speaking to mine”

 

“Yes, I have, and I learnt a great many things... Though she did not mention that you hunted…”

 

She turns away briefly, smiling more at the memory of her childhood, and the fact her mother shared some of it with him. She wonders when that could have been and what was shared, but she hasn’t gotten a straight answer from her mother since last night. “My father was a secretary for a royal family in India. A family gracious enough to let me hunt with them. Even as a young lady. Mama and Edwina do not have the stomach for it… and as you said, it is not exactly a ladies’ sport.”

 

“I did not say that, but I see you seem to manage quite well. Much better than your maid on her horse, let us hope.” They look back at Clara who is struggling to ride side-saddled, and Kate feels bad about the giggle that leaves her.

 

“You hunt deer here?”

 

“Well, yes” looking at her curiously

 

“Speak to me when you manage to hunt a tiger, my lord.”

 

Their laugh is broken by Jack calling the group to their camp. Anthony gives a small smile before having to go to the head of the group.

 

“The two of you seem to be quite happy” Dorset comments, waking her from her reverie. As Anthony left, she watched his retreating figure, and it seems during their entire exchange, they forgot about Mr. Dorset who caught up to Kate. She thinks back and laughed at the realisation that Anthony was offering up Mr. Dorset for her target practice and smiles at his jealousy. She was never one to enjoy someone being possessive of her but thinking that Anthony contended thoughts that there could be another other than him for her, gave her some twisted satisfaction. Everyone seemed set on letting her know how lucky she was ‘bagging’ the viscount, it is good he appreciates that she could have had options if she was open. ‘But he did tell you how blind you were to his courtship and other men’s interests… perhaps I have not quite been attentive to other instances of jealousy.’

 

“Ant- Lord Bridgerton and I have certainly grown a lot since our first meeting…”

 

“So much has changed since the races… I will forever regret the poor opinion of me you formed over the business with the races”

 

“My opinion of you was certainly not as low as that of the viscount. Besides, we have all long put that behind us, have we not?”

 

“Yes, we have…” she notes he seems to watch her curiously.

 

“Is something the matter?”

 

“If I were him, I would have had you in front of a priest by now.” He replies conspiratorially which causes Kate to laugh out.

 

“Men of the ton are very confident in their declaration” she laughs slightly

 

“More aware of the worth of a wonderful woman, and not wishing to lose her.”

 

“I belong to no one”

 

“So does that mean there is a chance for my courtship?”

 

He saw the clear look of panic in her eyes before it softens seeing Anthony walk toward her; the answer is clear, but she still says, “No.”

 

She gets down from Nectar and meets part way with Anthony, who hands her a gun. Dorset continues to watch the pair, shaken from his reverie by Benedict who hands him a gun, and a stern look. It seems Lord Bridgerton is not the only one protective of Miss Sharma’s interest. Even if he were to try, she had just made it clear, that there was no one else for her, just as he had the odd feeling that he would not meet anyone else like her, for himself.

 

Anthony and Kate walk side by side, with Dorset walking with Benedict and Lord Featherington. The other men are in groups of varying sizes, with the hounds being led by the staff. Clara struggles behind Anthony and Kate, silently praying for some divine intervention that will spare her from their venture deeper into the woods, as she struggles to trek through and sigh at the love eyes between the young Miss and her suitor. Benedict turned to Kate from time to time to give her a mischievous smile or a comically arched eyebrow when the men bumble their way around the grounds. Anthony tries to temper his irritation, grateful as his brother keeps Dorset from Kate.

 

“It seems our stag may be eluding us.” Benedict quips to the men beside him.

 

“The elusiveness is part of the fun. And you cannot fault the sunshine” Jack adds.

 

Rolling her eyes, laughing softly at the weather the English adore as sunshine. She says to Anthony, “Is that the sign of a great hunt here? Men enjoying the sunshine?”

 

Anthony chuckles softly looking to see if they are being listened to. “You prefer darkness? What do you imagine the darkness offers?”

 

“That is not what I mean…” she replies trying to maintain control over the reactions his words illicit. The thoughts of them alone, away from the group, able to explore further the dreams she has been having. “I would prefer to be allowed to follow my own instincts on this hunt, instead of blindly following the guide.”

 

Anthony looks up, noting no one seems to be watching them closely. He purses his lips, looking between Kathani and the other men, the latter he is less inclined to wish to spend time with.

 

“You are still convinced we have lost our prey?” he asks as he offers to help her over a log, she raises the skirts of her gown, and he sees a flash of her thigh. Turning to ensure no one else saw.

 

“I am convinced that deer prefer the edge of the forest. This is much to open out here.” She replies. He steps to her, almost too close for propriety and stops caring about the hunt or the hunting party. Wherever she wishes to go, he will follow, and if he is lucky, it shall be a private place where he may kiss her, tease her, and feel the skin of that blast thigh, she dared show him without a care for his sanity.

 

“Yes, well… lead the way…”

 

“What?”

 

“Perhaps you're right… but they do not wish to listen. I personally would like to see the proficiency of this huntress promised to me… perhaps we make things interesting?”

 

“What did you have in mind?”

 

“Whoever bags the stag… shall be owed a boon from the other… whatever they desire, whenever they desire.”

 

“If neither of us gets the stag?”

 

“Doubting your instincts, Miss Sharma?”

 

A flash of red reminds Kate they are not alone, having forgotten the men entirely, focused only on Anthony and the challenge.

 

“Whatever they want?”

 

“Anything you desire?”

 

“I get the feeling I know exactly what you desire…”

 

“Am I wrong to say you desire it too?”

 

“It may not be the favour I ask for”

 

“But it may be… if you win…”

 

She walks away from him to Clara, whispering in the maid’s ear, and they head off after Anthony looks to see how far the party has gone, hoping no one will notice they slipped away. He is a bit put out the maid shall be there but imagines a good bribe will offer some privacy and silence.

 

 

Benedict had noted when Kate and Anthony stopped following the group closely, hoping the dreadful discussion with Featherington was a distraction enough for Dorset, who still is of the opinion that Kate is open to courtship. He would find it endearing, as he was always prone to enjoy the romantic notions in society. There are so rare, it was wonderful when they did happen. But Dorset was longing for a woman his brother loved, who loved his brother back and it was irritating the disrespect for their courtship.

 

 

Many thought that Kate was the only one to receive harsh words, but since Anthony’s courtship with Kate, the men of the ton have not hidden their lust for her. Women can be envious of titles and wealth other women marry into, but the men, their egos couldn’t handle the way Kate managed them so easily and was never swayed by their compliments, thinking she is to be a desperate spinster no one desired. They wanted to best her, subdue her, with their growing pride they declared her to be wilful and obstinate. She was beautiful, no doubt, but without a noble background, and the fact that her father and stepmother had left the country in a scandal, so many could not understand Anthony’s pursuit of her. Yet, Anthony’s courtship allowed them to see her now, not just her obvious beauty, but her capabilities, the elegant way she carried herself; now, so many of the men were jealous of Anthony. The married ones saw the heat in Kate they lacked in their bedrooms, the lonesomeness way they led their homes as their wives were nothing but pretty/noble added burdens to their accounts. The bachelors still rudely wished she was not gently bred so she may warm their bed, none willing to see past her looks.

 

They hated Anthony for the way women would easily throw them to the side for a chance at him, just for him to spur them all for Kate. The added insult of seeing how phenomenal she was, made the envy was worse. But they were still small-minded, not able to imagine their lives with someone capable of being their equal, angry that Anthony was encouraging that in Kate, thus in many women of the ton who wished to not be as neglected, in their courtships and their marriages. Kate and Anthony had inspired women to demand more, as Anthony never held back in his adoration of Kate during their courtship, from the gifts he gave her, the way he held her in his arms and with his eyes on promenades, the dancefloor… the ton was changing, but the two of them were so lost in each other, he doubts they noticed their impact this past month had been.

 

Mondrich had been graceful in telling Benedict the things he heard from other men. It helped him protect Kate the best he could by ensuring the worst of them never came near Kate and the others reminded of the power Anthony and Simon held. He only wished his brother-in-law to be here, the word of a Duke weight more than a viscount and a mere mister, even if they were Bridgertons.

 

Dorset noted he had not heard Miss Sharma’s laugh in a while, turning to see her missing with the viscount.

 

“Where on earth?”

 

“Well seems they have begged off with their chaperone. We’ll likely find them at camp when we are done” Benedict said hoping to dissuade Dorset from making a scene. The maid was with them, he saw from the corner of his eye as Kate held onto her and Anthony followed them. He was not going to bring attention to them, the hunting party were well spread out anyway. Dorset only noticed because of his obvious desire to be with Kate. Though he did not make a scene, Dorset walked off, guessing the path they went, and Benedict did not correct him.

 

“I guess we know why he pursues her, are they so flagrant in…” Jack wiggled his brows suggestively. Benedict had heard only about the man seeking investors for his mines, and aside from his courtship with Miss Cowper, there was no suggestion he sought Kate or had said anything in regard to her at all.

 

“Featherington, the Americas could not have robbed you of your senses that you would suggest anything untoward. They have a chaperone.”

 

“A maid”

 

“No different to the maids that follow you when you court, I believe it is Miss Cowper… We are on a hunt, if you wish to sit and gossip, you may return to Aubrey and sit with the ladies, I am sure there will be ample gossip.” And he walked off cursing his brother for the dramatics, and worst of all, for leaving him with the party, as if any of these men were fun in any sense of the word.

 

 

 

Clara finds a seat on a fallen tree, watching the young couple bicker yet again, this time about holding a gun!

 

“I know rules are meaningless to you…”

 

“Uh… you and your rules”

 

“But if you wish to shoot the stag, it will be best for you to hold the gun properly, so you do not injure yourself."

 

They hear the foliage rustle and Kate takes aim to where she believes the stag to be, whispering “There is something there”.

 

Anthony shakes his head, “Our bet will signify little if you mean to hold your gun that way; I would not be a gentleman if I did not make the bet fair.”

 

“I know how to hold a gun!”

 

“Evidently not a British one”

 

“You have to…” he begins to wrap himself around her to correct her posture and handling, she brushes him off, “I require no instruction!”

 

He takes a small breath having inhaled a bit of her lily scent and not wishing for her to be any more distracting. “Here. Just hold it…”

 

He adjusts where her hand is on the barrel and the way the gun is tucked under her arm, grazing her breast slightly. She fails to cover the smile on her face as she turns her eyes to him, but he is concentrating on her posture and does not seem to have registered the graze. His arm comes over her shoulder, holding the posture as his chest is pressed to her back and his chin grazes the collar of her gown, the scent of lilies, envelops him as he turns towards her face, and she does the same.

 

“BRIDGERTON!” Dorset hissed, causing them to spring apart, “You cad, Miss Sharma I hope...”

 

“What are you doing here?” Anthony charges toward the man.

 

“Obviously preventing you from taking such liberties, I thought you better than that!”

 

“Dorset be careful what you say next. How dare you...”

 

“How dare I?! You are here alone in the woods with a woman that is not your wife”

 

“Mr. Dorset, I think it highly impolite to ignore myself and Clara. I believe she is my chaperone and not you.”

 

“Miss Sharma,” Dorset trying to walk around Anthony towards Kate.

 

“I am not your charge and have done well to protect myself far longer than I have known you. I do not care for any implications”

 

“I do not mean to imply…”

 

“But you did. Furthermore, as my chaperone is present, it matters not your opinion. Nothing improper occurred and you trying to make it so is insulting”

 

“To both my character and Miss Sharma’s as well.”

 

“You had your arms around her!”

 

“To show her how to properly hold a gun!”

 

“Which I still argue that I required no instruction”

 

“You forced yourself on her!”

 

“DORSET” Anthony says menacingly, almost charging at the man when the group heard the hooves of a stag charging toward them. Without hesitation, Kate pulls up her gun, aims quickly and shoots the stag which falls and slides close to the group. Kate falls back due to the kick of the gun, and Anthony rushes to her, catching her. Smiling at her as she adjusts herself back to standing, when he is sure she is well, he can’t help but tease, “You require no instruction?”

 

“Are you currently impaled by the stag?”.

 

He doesn’t temper the grin that spreads across his face, “No’

 

“Then you are welcome”

 

Clara faints and as Dorset attends to her, Kate and Anthony find that Kate’s shot did not kill the stag, so Anthony uses the blade on his person to stab the stag in the heart for a quick death. The men of the hunt find them having heard the shot and find Anthony wiping his blade standing over the dead animal.

 

“Well done, Bridgerton” Jack Featherington patted him on the back.

 

“Actually, our resident tiger huntress is the one to congratulate. Miss Sharma shot him as he charged at us. Poor Miss Clara is a bit overcome” nodding towards Clara who was drinking the water offered like it was a lifeline. Kate tried to hide her smile, feeling guilty about the terrible time Clara was having but she was elated to have the first kill, the only kill, and to have won the bet.

 

“It seems I do get whatever I desire” She replies with a smile. Anthony returns the smile, knowing what she alludes to while the other men try to hide their indignation at being bested by a woman.

 

“You Miss Sharma are certainly full of surprises,” Benedict says coming to stand on Kate’s other side. When he notes how close Kate and Anthony stand, even in the middle of the group. Regardless that they are not alone, Kate’s chaperone is present, he does not wish for any further speculation from Featherington. He clears his throat under the guise of the need for water, but Kate and Anthony know it is pointed at them so they return his raised eyebrows with matching glares which causes him to laugh and really choke on the water he was drinking.

 

The guides begin to sort out the stag, cleaning and binding it onto the cart they brought with them. The men seem to have given up on bagging stags for themselves, some taking themselves back to the camp. Clara was still sitting on a log, cursing, praying, bargaining with any being that would hear her, that fate will spare her from a repeat of today. Even with Miss Sharma’s apologetic looks, she knew the young lady only regretted her presence here as it was obvious Clara was displeased. Miss Sharma was fearless in the face of the stag and the grumbling of men who could not do what she did. But she was too shaken from the close contact with the stag to feel pride for the young lady, still irked by how long it took their party to notice the stag due to the argument.

 

She watches the young couple leaning against a tree nearby, shaking her head at the doctor tasked to help her, who was too busy allowing his eyes to wander to Miss Sharma. The viscount seems to be recalling something particularly funny as he leaned closer to Miss Sharma when his brother, Mr Bridgerton, cleared his throat quite obviously at them, making the whole party turns towards the couple, who seem to only wish for moments of privacy they are never granted.

 

“Mr Bridgerton, I suggest honey as soon as we return. It should dislodge whatever is troubling you.” Miss Sharma says but there is no heat to it, just amusement in her eyes as she looks at the man, and the viscount simply watches her with adoration. Listening to the men and the whispers of the families wondering about a proposal, she can’t help but wonder what was taking the man so long. What else could he possibly want or be waiting for? But Miss Sharma did not seem disturbed, and she turned back to the viscount with a smile, and they continued to speak.

 

“I do not like being left out…” Benedict said coming to them to make a triangle.

 

“Yes, Benedict. Miss Sharma and I apologise for the woeful neglect of your presence.”

 

“Besides, only the other day was spent at the lake together, and we painted after that”

 

“Yes, it seems every Bridgerton has monopolised your time here…” Anthony grumbled.

 

“It’s not our fault your duties call so much, perhaps your stewards need to be trusted more to work independently.”

 

“They are, but this week has been exceptionally busy. I wish I had come earlier than the family”

 

“Did you have to delay your trip here? I hope it… not because of me?” Kate asked worriedly.

 

“No, not at all… at the time it all seemed fine. I normally come early…”

 

“To run and hide from our mother for a few days. She refused to allow him this time” Benedict whispers the last part to an amused Kate

 

“Hush!”

 

“Clara, how are you feeling?” Kate asks turning to the woman she has ignored for most of the outing.

 

“Impatient to return to the house, my lady.”

 

“I’m so sorry, I had hoped Lady Danbury suggested you because you would enjoy this.”

 

“You forget your host” she replies knowingly. More likely, Lady Danbury hoped Clara would slow Kate down so much the young miss would feel guilt and wish to turn around. She either overestimate Miss Sharma’s guilt or underestimated her allure to the viscount. Either way, Clara suffered, and that bonus promised better be worth it. She wonders if she may even join the Bridgerton staff if Miss Sharma retains her as her lady’s maid. It would be a good way to work her way to being a housekeeper when the current one either joins the Dowager in a new home as is customary.

 

As Kate continues to speak with Clara, Dorset respects the short replies she gives him, giving up on a further conversation. Benedict comes to his brother who seems set on falling into Kate. “You know the sky will not fall if you give her some room. I know the family usurped your time with her, but you will have your marriage… if you ever get round to proposing” he whispers. Before Anthony can reply, they hear a gunshot and the crack of the tree branch over them. Without thinking, he grabs and braces Kathani before the branch falls on her. It hits him hard on his head and back, but fortunately, no other person is hurt. Anthony falls to the ground onto his bottom, feeling dizzy, as Kathani kneels behind him preventing him from falling back and hitting his head again.

 

“Anthony!” Benedict comes to his knees before his brother, Dorset too.

 

“I’m all right... I’m…” Anthony replies trying to stop his head from spinning by blinking a few times. He tries to get up, only to be stopped by Dorset.

 

“You can’t stand right now Bridgerton”

 

“I’m fine Dorset”

 

“Please… just wait…”

 

“Anthony, listen to him, please” Kate pleads, it does not escape the men’s ears her use of his Christian name as she rests her hands on his shoulders. They turn to each other watching how he leans against her.

 

Dorset and Benedict help him up and lead him to the camp. As they get there, Anthony insists on riding. Still reeling from their discussion earlier, Kate finds herself angry at Anthony’s stubbornness. This would be the second time he has almost died today.

 

“You are being ridiculous”

 

“It is a minor blow, I will simply trot along, I’m sure I’ll be fine”

 

“If it was me?”

 

“That would be different… I am a gentleman”

 

“A stubborn man”

 

“Kathani, I am well. I assure you. I'm just a bit dizzy is all”

 

“Be that as it may, I suggest an early night Bridgerton.”

 

“I am fine Dorset” but he stumbles slightly

 

“You are going to listen to him, please… and if you wish to be stubborn about it, I believe today will be the day we will see of the two of us, which one is truly the most stubborn… and there is always the option to speak with your mother”

 

“You wouldn’t…” Anthony winces at the pain in his head from his protest. He knows he probably should listen to Dorset; he is a doctor after all. But he cannot shake the annoyance that retiring this early would mean missing more time with Kathani; time that Dorset might usurp. It was frustrating watching other men leer at her in London. Now, some of them were shamelessly doing it on his own property. Dorset on the other hand seemed the only determined one to pursue Kathani. He needed to propose, he would do it now if it wasn’t so ludicrous and he didn’t have the ring here anyway. He allowed himself to be helped unto his horse, blinking slowly and found Kathani at his side on Nectar.

 

“A trot Anthony, please…” Kathani asks pleading him to submission.

 

He nods and narrows his eyes at his brother who is to ride on his other side. “Benedict…”

 

“Now who could have foreseen that?!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Due to the rain due to fall, the dinner was no longer held outside. The hunting party had returned, and Anthony was sequestered in his bedroom when Violet found Benedict and Mr Dorset trying to steady him as he got off his horse. Kate was irritated at the point propriety would not let her venture further to help him, not when his mother, brother and a doctor were already providing ample assistance. She left to her room to prepare. The guests were milling about and chatting, in or near the drawing rooms that would later lead to the evening’s dining area, as they awaited other guests and the start of dinner. Kate had told her party she was going down, perhaps to see Lady Bridgerton and Daphne if they required assistance, but she was stopped from going to Anthony’s room having been caught by Lady Danbury. The matron shook her head, and she forced her to descend to the party together.

 

“Ah Your Grace! Kind of you to finally show your face this season.” Lady Danbury said sardonically to her godson, Simon Basset, Duke of Hastings.

 

“Lady Danbury, do you ever wish to welcome me without a comment on my supposed slights”

 

“Never! Now, I guess you haven’t been introduced to my guests of the season, this is Miss Sharma. She and her family are staying with me. Her sister and mother will be down shortly.”

 

“Your Grace” Kate greets with a curtsy.

 

“You would not happen to be thee Miss Sharma that I am hearing about. My wife, Daphne, wrote a letter shortly after arriving in Aubrey Hall.”

 

“Well, it depends entirely on what exactly your wife has said… if it is about her victory on the Pall Mall field, it was my first time, and I would like to think I did well, considering.”

 

“Yes! Daphne said you bested Anthony. She had to include she won but I am more interested in, yet another Bridgerton match orchestrated by my godmother. You know more than anyone how fearsome she is”

 

“She is still here and fearsome is nothing. I am the dragon after all.”

 

Lady Danbury teases her godson further, and Kate enjoys the interaction. She knows nothing personal about the Dowager's children and grandchildren; it appeared they were not close, but she obviously has a warm relationship with the Duke. She thinks to speak about it with Anthony another time, for now, her mind wanders to his room, curious about how he is fairing, has he eaten… She and the Duke join Daphne and Benedict, while Lady Danbury walked off to Violet and Mary. Kate saw Edwina from the corner of her eye with Eloise, Francesca, and Penelope Featherinton. The young ladies had formed a strong friendship and did not seem interested in letting anyone into their little group. The men hoping to court Edwina or Eloise, some even Francesca despite not being out, were ignored for their boorish behaviour toward Penelope. Kate and Edwina still had not spoken since last night, even as her sister tried to check in following the hunt, Kate simply told her she wished to rest and prepare for dinner.

 

“Where is my dear friend? I have yet to see him since I arrived”

 

“Convalescing. He saved Miss Sharma from a particularly determined tree branch” Benedict explains

 

“Yes, the shot that broke the branch irrelevant… There was an incident at the end of the hunt. Lord Hardy slipped and shot off a branch above my person, but Lord Bridgerton got me out of harm’s way.” She explains to Daphne who did not seem to know the details.

 

“How gallant!” she explains

 

“Yes, and then he stubbornly refused treatment!”

 

“That had more to do with the doctor than the patient”

 

“Not you as well Mr. Bridgerton”

 

“Oh no, I agree my brother was stubborn, but your stubbornness did win.”

 

“I haven’t heard much since…”

 

“Mama told me he was given Laudanum, he is likely asleep now, and will not awake till tomorrow,” Daphne says reassuringly

 

“No concerns…” Benedict adds before being interrupted

 

“I assure you, Miss Sharma, Lord Bridgerton will be quite well.” Mr Dorset said walking over to the group.

 

“Mr Dorset… thank you again. For Clara and Lord Bridgerton”

 

“Of course, I was glad to be of service. Your Graces, Mr Bridgerton”

 

“This is Mr Dorset, Simon, the doctor that treated Anthony” Benedict introduces him the duke and duchess

 

“And my maid”

 

“Your maid was injured”

 

“Fainted. A stag charged towards our group, and she was overcome” Kate explains

 

“Charged towards you!” Simon exclaims

 

“Yes, but Miss Sharma fell the beast. The only kill of the hunt as well.”

 

“Well Miss Sharma, you shall certainly be sat with us… I’m afraid there is much of the season I have missed, and such an excellent shot. Not many people can get an animal in motion”

 

“I believe Anthony called you a tiger huntress” Benedict smiles, nudging Kate with his shoulder slightly.

 

“Yes, in Bombay, when I joined the hunting parties, we often needed to defend ourselves from the tigers when we would sometimes encroach on their homes during such hunts. The Rajas and the few Ranis that joined were most welcoming to me”

 

“I hadn’t realised you were close to the Royal Court of India.”

 

“My father worked for one of the Royal families, I grew up with most of the regents, but England has always been my mama’s home and Edwina wished to see it as well.”

 

“I think it is safe to say we are all grateful you took the journey” says Benedict

 

“Lord Bridgerton mentioned wishing to travel. I understand men go on grand tours after university.”

 

“Yes, and some do not return for years…” Daphne says dryly

 

“Darling, I have returned, and have no intention to flee. I believe travel is the ailment that plagues your brother”

 

“Yes, speaking of my brother, where is Colin?” Daphne asked Benedict who simply shrugs.

 

 

 

 

 

When dinner is to begin, the parties find their seats and Dorset joins the other gentlemen, most of whom were obviously invited to court the uninterested Miss Bridgerton. He would be unable to defend his seating with the family, as Miss Sharma was an honoured guest, and he was not. It goes well, with Simon asking Kate about herself and her stay. He notes that she sometimes looks at the door like she is expecting someone and when she catches him, gives a shy smile, and redirect attention from herself.

 

“Are you all right Miss Sharma?” he whispers, hoping neither Daphne on his other side nor Benedict on Miss Sharma’s other side, hear their conversation. Both seem engrossed in discussions with their other dinner companions, and he hopes for a moment with her. Having been the only person to marry into this family, especially coming from his cold one, it would be nice to have an ally who loves the Bridgertons but understands how overwhelming joining a family of 9 can be, especially one with the ghost of the near-perfect father/husband, always floating around the happy family.

 

She considers shrugging off her worries and saying she is fine, but it feels harder to deny how much she is thinking about him. “I guess… without seeing him I don’t know. I trust that no one is lying to me, and I understand… I have just never had so many people around who are there and can ensure all is well… I’m sorry, I feel I'm used to doing things myself, and learning information myself directly from the source, to be left with minimal information, I do not do well…”

 

“I believe my dear friend will be well. If he wasn’t, the whole family would not leave his side. I understand it was a sharp hit but no blood.”

 

“Yes, well even without a cut, it was still a heavy branch. I’d be impressed with the strength of the bullet if the thought that it could have…”

 

“He is well, I’m sure you will see him at breakfast, with an appetite to rival Colin’s”

 

“I doubt anyone’s appetite can pose to be a rival”

 

“I hope your family will not be leaving so soon after the ball. As I said, Lady Danbury and Violet orchestrated my match to Daphne… I know how overwhelming it can be going from a smaller family to one such as theirs.”

 

“These few days before the ton arrived certainly helped. I think I have spent quite a bit of time with each sibling. Or at least, that is what your friend complains about the most,”

 

“It is always surprising how badly they do not know how to share…”

 

“Yes well, I fear he will need to get used to that… sorry, that…”

 

“No, not at all… from what I understand, the family have Benedict as a backup; Gregory as well…”

 

“Oh dear!”

 

“To be loved by one is to be loved by all. I believe it is the Bridgerton way”

 

“I understand. Still, it feels surprising every time.”

 

“Being loved by a Bridgerton is always a surprise, but when it is acknowledged, it is all-consuming. Whatever thoughts or plans for yourself become side lined and it can be hard to let go of all you became before them, the promises you made to yourself… but to love them back, is to be yourself. Only losing what stops you from happiness and gaining a life you never imagined for yourself. That also includes very intrusive siblings, but I benefit from living a day and a half away… you, on the other hand, shall be in the thick of it all. Are you ready for that?”

 

“For longer than I am willing to admit.”

 

 

 

 

 

To get her mind off Anthony, she goes early for her nightly talks with Mary. “Quite eager tonight dearest. All is well?” she motions to her daughter to sit so she could oil her hair. Kate rarely let herself be taken care of; Mary was beginning to notice it was due to the vulnerability you would see when she did. She was less guarded, even if it was for a second before she got her walls up again, saying all was well. She could never lie or hide away from Mary when sat between her legs with a mirror across them; she would spot the hidden truths before Kate could tuck them away. Giving herself away again when she looked sheepish at their reflection.

 

“I can’t see him, and everyone is trying to reassure me but…”

 

“You wish to see it for yourself… Kate, he is not sick, injured yes and the doctor has reassured you that he simply needs rest”

 

“You stayed at Appa’s side the whole time he was sick, even when I tried to get you to sleep… Oh, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t com…”

 

“From the very first moment, your father and I were drawn together. It is a very powerful thing to meet someone and feel that you know them. In a way unlike any other. No, I couldn’t bear to be apart from him; from the moment I met him until his last…” a faint smile played on her face as she tried to focus on the happier memories of her husband.

 

“Sometimes… he is all I think about, and it scares me. We came for Edwina but this match… I know what marrying into the family would mean for me, for us… I just can’t think of that, or anything when he is around. Even when he is not, merely mentioned and he is in my thoughts again, and I think of nothing else for hours… when I thought… when he was hurt, I was so scared mama. I felt like I couldn’t breathe until I was sure he was all right, and then again when we got to the house and he was taken away from me… if this was what you felt when Appa died, that feeling of something missing… I’m sorry… I’m so sorry I did not know.”

 

“Don’t! Kate, we both lost a man we loved dearly, and after you had already lost your mother too… yet you were still able to guide Edwina all these years. It is not right that I left that to you alone, I left it all to you alone. That was my failing. It was hard, yes, but I should have been stronger, for you and Edwina… I promise dearest, the viscount will be well. You need not worry. All will be well”

 

“I know I…” she looks at her mother in the mirror, uncertain what it was she wanted to say. Her guilt that she felt she had no right to mourn him should the worst have happened? The fact this was merely the second time that day she thought he would die? That he almost asked for her hand before the first? “He will be well, of course mama” Kate says in a shy smile to the mirror, shaking off her fears slightly. “How was your day? I didn’t see you today.”

 

“It was good. Spent it with Lady Danbury and some other ladies in the ton. Seems no one is taking to talking badly about me… at least, not to my face.”

 

“I had Miss Cowper all but tell me I did not belong welcoming the ton with the Bridgertons. Perhaps I overstepped but it didn’t feel that way.”

 

“Do not mind the ton, most of their lives are empty and devoid of any warmth or happiness. They seek to spread their misery and we shall no longer welcome it.”

 

“Do you sometimes wish not to have returned here?”

 

“No. for the lives I can see for you and Edwina, how could I? Besides, I feel even if your father lived, we would have returned at some point. He was open to staying when we first started speaking, and I know he would have stayed for me even with what my parents cruel said to him. So, I left instead, for our family.”

 

“When was the last time you saw your parents?”

 

“The night your dear father asked for my hand in marriage, I believe. Lord Sheffield made it clear in no uncertain terms, that he did not support the match. So, I had a choice to make between my family and my heart… and I never regretted my choice. Not for a single day.”

 

“Do you think he would like Lord Bridgerton? Would he approve?”

 

“Of course, love. I see the way you look at each other; he is a good man, kind and decent. I see it in the way he leads his family, how they tease him… Your father wanted a man that would hang the stars for you, make you laugh and know how precious you are… dearest, you have found him. I had always hoped that you and Edwina would be spared the choice between affluence and love, and now you shall.”

 

“Everyone is up in arms about the proposal…”

 

“Do you not wish for it?”

 

“No, I do… he was going to propose this morning, but we were interrupted…”

 

“I trust he will ask Kate, do not fret.”

 

“That’s my point, I am not worried. I…

 

There is a knock at the door before Edwina walks into their mother’s room. “Mama, Didi”

 

Kate looks away, and her mood changed. She still hadn’t spoken to Edwina and was not sure she desired to hear anything else from her sister. She had the ton with their unfavourable opinions of Anthony’s courtship with Kate, she did not need her sister repeating them to her.

 

“Edwina, love. Come to join us tonight?” Mary asks, noting the change in Kate and the hesitation in Edwina. Her daughters were still fighting; she hadn’t asked Kate about it, but she had hoped the conversations she had with Edwina were enough.

 

“I don’t know if you wish to have me here”

 

“Of course we do, Kate…”

 

“Depends, do you have anything more you wish to share?”

 

“Kate, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. It was wrong of me.”

 

“But you did! That’s what I am to you, a fool, and a mistress?!”

 

“Edwina!”

 

“Everything I hear from the ton about me, how we are related, mama and Anthony, I take it all because I know the ton is fickle and they just want their pound of flesh. I am the one they have turned their vices to, and I will take their cruelty because I know it is meaningless. But you Edwina, you are my sister and that you think so little of me…”

 

“I do not, Kate, I’m sorry. I don’t think…”

 

“You do not think what Edwina? You do not see me as a mistress or a fool? The ton made their sentiments clear, and perhaps I have been foolish. Foolish to think that in such difficulties, I would have my sister at my side. I knew it would be difficult for the ton to accept me. Not just in this courtship. I am sister to the diamond, the dower-less prickly spinster beast for men to toy with but not respect. The child with an uncertain background, the scandal; I hear it all Edwina. Everything has been so hard, and my sister chooses to ignore me, or throw those insults to my face; wishing I was not with her after everything we sacrificed to be here together. Then you tell me you do not wish for me to… I left you to your season as you asked and all you see in mine are lessons on how not to be. So I ask Edwina, what else is there to say?”

 

Edwina is stunned at Kate throwing her words back at her. She thinks through everything she had said to her, every admonishment because of her jealousy. Each talk pushing her sister further away from her and straight to the Bridgertons. She loved the family too. Eloise, Francesca, and Colin had somehow adopted her, and she felt like their sibling too. Even Hyacinth, Gregory, and Benedict, though the connection was not as strong as it was with the other three. Daphne was a welcomed guide as a former diamond, and the man himself had tried with her; he was investigating suitors for her because it reassured Kate, even when she callously told Kate not to involve herself with her season. They still looked out for her, and she repaid their kindness, the love her sister showered on her since the day she was born, through the grief of losing the father and the mama to the pain. Kate raised her, and she could not muster in herself, a bit of kindness to her sister.

 

She was about to turn and run when her mother moved to the door, “No, I am tired of our fights and the habit I have taught you to flee what is difficult. We will sit here all night if we must, but we will talk…”

Chapter Text

She didn’t know where or when Amma got sick, but her Appa had once said, she took a turn on a Thursday and by the following Tuesday, she was gone. She was three and didn’t have her Amma anymore. It had rained the whole time Amma was ill, and Kathani had wanted to read to her Amma just like Amma read to her when she was ill. Though her favourite story did not come from any of the books in the library.

 

 

Her parents’ love story, as childhood friends and neighbours, was always her favourite. The secret place they ran to for privacy during their courtship and engagement got more magical each time they told the tale. Kathani was sure if they told Amma the story, she would start to feel better. Maybe they could even find their own magical place as a family, but it was one of those awful monsoons that never ended so the family was confined inside for a long time. Appa and the doctors kept her from Amma, fearing contagion, but she sensed that something was wrong. The only times she saw her Appa was when he was keeping her out of the room, she is kept busy by her aunties but her mind never far from her parents.

 

 

Appa kept looking at the sky, and when she asked, he said that he was sure Amma would get better if only the rain would stop. It was silly, he knew, but every night he’d go to bed praying for the sun to peek out from the clouds. A desperate man clinging to the woman he had loved all his life; the woman he started a family with and was going to grow old with. But she was dying, and everyone knew it, he just could not accept it.

 

 

It was her birthday; she woke up excited until she saw the storm had not stopped. She didn’t care, she would use her birthday wish for her Amma and everything would be fine again. But when she went to the room, no one let her through. There were no presents, no decorations, no cake, no treats. But people were coming to the house, just not paying attention to her. It was dark when she was finally able to slip into the room; Amma was making horrible sounds and the thunder was so loud. She didn’t know how she knew it had all gone wrong. She saw her Appa on the floor crying and she went to him. When she got to him, lightning lit the room up as bright as day. The flash wasn’t over in an instant, as it should be, it almost seemed to hang in the air and that’s when everyone realised, she was in the room.

 

 

The thunder and lightning were coming on top of each other, and a bolt split the tree outside the window at the exact moment that the thunder shook the earth. The lighting illuminated the room and for a moment everyone was still, watching the three-year-old stare at her late mother, whose face was contorted and frozen in her last moments of a painful death, her eyes open and empty. Kathani moved slowly to her, “Amma,” she whispered, climbing into the bed with her, each cry became more frantic until she wailed, and her entire body heaved from the exertion of her cries. “Amma Amma Amma Amma Amma Amma Amma Amma Amma Amma . . .” Her Appa took her into his arms, pulling her off her mother’s body as they fell to the floor beside her crying.

 

 

 

 

 

Her mother’s body drifted further away from the little girl, and all that was left was the low sound of weeping that came from deep in her soul as her Appa held her, and the smell of the smoke.

 

 

 

 

 

It was just her and Appa that moved into the Palace the next summer when he got a job with the Royal family. They were kind and welcoming, opening their children’s lessons to her, but Appa insisted on a governess, so she had someone of her own. He was not ready to marry but knew Kathani needed a woman to guide her as she grew up, he just couldn’t face the thought of a wife yet and Miss Patel was kind and understanding to start with a child as young as Kathani. She hears him cry most nights after he reads to her. She feels the bed shake as he believes his daughter is asleep, unaware how tightly she clutches to him is not because of the nightmares but her way to try and take his pain he never shares with her.

 

 

When he was tasked to accompany the Ambassador for a 2-year assignment, Kathani and her governess were allowed to accompany the man who could not part from his child for so long. The trip on the ships was full of mini adventures; there were not too many five-year-olds on the ship, not many children at all really. She met people from so many walks of life, and her governess encouraged her to ask questions and learn more about the world.

 

 

A kind son of a Baron on his way home from his grand tour let her stand on his feet to waltz like her Appa used to do, and some ladies showed her the ways of being a lady in the English court. She often blushed and hid behind the skirts of Miss Patel who kept pushing her to stand tall and bask in the attention poured on her. At each port, Miss Patel ensured to teach her something about where they were, and her Appa bought her sweet treats though none were as nice as her Amma’s laddus.

 

 

Her Appa was so busy with the Ambassador, preparing for their arrival, but he always made sure the nights were still just for them, especially when it rained or stormed. He made time for their stories, sometimes tears, but Kathani always fell asleep feeling safe in her Appa’s arms. He doesn’t cry himself to sleep as often, but Kathani still tries to be the best daughter for him, so she can be enough to make him happy.

 

 

She got used to her Appa’s busy schedule in London, but Miss Patel ensured to keep her occupied. They went for ice, to a fair that had a magic show and promenaded through the gardens when she didn’t like to sit still for her lessons. Miss Patel taught her both English and Indian history and when there was a ball in the Ambassador’s home they stayed in, she snuck Kathani out of bed to see it. It was just like the stories her parents told her, and Miss Patel would point out couples and they made up love stories for each one. Some nicer than others, some filled with clandestine meetings and secret looks. She asked her Appa about his love for her Amma, but he still couldn’t tell her a story without crying. Miss Patel included a lot of love stories in her letter lessons, she found Kathani enjoyed writing the stories out and creating her own. She would stare at the stars at night wishing for her own magic love and asking her Amma to heal her Appa’s broken heart.

 

 

When the snow came, Kathani was sure England was a place full of magic, and she never wanted to leave. Her Appa begins to laugh a bit more when they have a snowball fight with Miss Patel.

 

 

 

 

 

The next season, Kathani was upset to learn they would be leaving at end of it to return to India. Appa didn’t think they would have a reason to return and promised to show her the magic of courtship and balls in India when she was 40.

 

 

Though she was used to his busy schedule, she was surprised when they started having less nights together. Until one night, she followed him out to the garden and saw him talking to a pretty lady who had come for the ball earlier in the season. She saw a look in his eyes she had seen on the men Miss Patel pointed out on the dancefloor as being in love and she ran back to her room. Her Appa no longer loved her Amma, and Miss Patel could not calm her down the next day. She does not wish for her stories with her Appa and Milan considers letting go of Mary; the first woman since Ashwini he has felt drawn to. She was kind and sweet, endlessly curious about the world, India and Kathani. But his daughter did not return the curiosity.

 

 

Miss Patel and Kathani were in the park when they saw Mary on the arm of a gentleman, she did not look happy. Even without understanding, Kathani knew it was wrong and asked Miss Patel if you could ever love more than one person. The woman smiles sweetly at the young girl, “Some people are lucky to find their one person that makes the world go quiet; like you are the only ones in the world the moment your eyes meet. And when we lose that person, it is most wonderful to find another, for it is only your true love that can send you another, so you do not live in this world alone.”

 

 

So that night, when her Appa comes to read to her, hoping his daughter would this night, she asks him to tell her his love story with Amma. Milan is able to do so without crying; as he tucks his sleeping daughter in her bed, she says in her sleep, “Amma sent her to you.”

 

 

Mary introduces Milan to her parents as the man she loves, and it does not go well. Lord Sheffield tells her he has granted the Earl permission to propose, and the marriage settlements were drawn. She was the diamond, and she would make the most enviable match of the season. She cries to her mother begging her to see that she loves Milan, and he was a good man, and she needs not any titles but that of being his wife. Her mother slaps her for the first time and they have Milan thrown out when he pulls her out of her mother's tight hold. Her lady’s maid helps her exchange letters that cannot be saved no matter how much she wished to keep them with her and read them as many times as possible. Mary cries every time she throws a note into the fire.

 

 

After a week of pretending to the ton she took ill, Mary goes for ice with the Earl. When he is distracted speaking with a gentleman, she used the opportunity to speak with a lady unfamiliar to the Earl. Before he understood what was happening, Miss Patel ushered Mary onto the carriage that was behind them, and they sped away. Kathani and Milan are inside already. The couple is married in Greta Green, with Miss Patel and a passing Scotsman serving as their witnesses. Upon their return to London, the Ambassador shields them from the wrath of the Sheffields, the Queen’s displeasure at the Sheffields showing at her guest throws the marriage into further scandal and the family is resigned to live their lives in India. It didn’t matter as long as they were together. In the middle of all of this Kathani watches her Appa reassure Mary, and they both try to reassure Kathani who is still unsure of Mary. She knows she is a kind woman and believes her Amma sent her to heal her Appa’s broken heart, but she did not want to call her Amma. All the shouting and fights she watches as many always fail to see when she snuck into the room or is hiding behind the door crying at her Appa's pain. Love is meant to be easier than this. Her Amma and Appa had it easy and beautiful. Mary brought new pains she was not sure what they meant.

 

 

Mary decides to spend the day with Kathani, answering all her questions and asking her about herself too. Miss Patel is there for her to turn to when the child feels unsure. The trip back to India is different from their journey from. They have a new passenger who in turn carries her own passenger. Everyone tries to make Mary as comfortable as possible and Milan starts to read to Kathani and Mary, telling her she will have a little sibling she will one day read to. She hears Mary cry a lot about her parents and the cruel way they spurned her. So, one night she climbs into bed with a sleeping Mary and promises her that she will take care of her new mama and little sibling, asking her not to cry anymore. Mary smiles fighting the happy tears that threaten to fall on her daughter’s head and holding her tightly against her body. This is how Milan finds his two girls cuddled up and asleep.

 

 

 

 

 

Life in India is more than Mary could imagine. They settled into their life as a family of four. Miss Patel left when Edwina was three as she got married. There was no rush to replace her, the girls were still welcome to attend lessons with the Rajas and Ranis, Mary teaching them about England and some of the lessons she took. Kathani doted on her little sister from the moment she was born. She takes it on herself to rock Edwina to sleep when she wakes, doing this when she was a baby and through her childhood whenever she has a nightmare because of the scary stories she hears from the older children in the palace. They shared a room because she insisted her sister needed her to protect her from the storms and monsters. Stories during the storms continued, only now with Edwina, Kathani and Milan, though at times Mary joined. It was such as routine, she barely felt unsettled by the rain, knowing her Appa would come and make a castle with the blankets and tell her stories- of love and grand adventures, the battles fought for true love. Her Appa got it twice, the easy growth to forever, and the daring rescue of a princess locked away. Kathani and Edwina laughed as the rescue got more outrageous, and Kathani arguing what really happened. She couldn’t wait for her turn to tell her love story, whatever it maybe.

 

 

When her Appa became sick, and couldn’t work for the Royal family, they were still kind enough to keep him and his family in his home, allowing Kate to help with some matters, pulling her away from any courtships. Unlike her mother that died within days of her illness, it was an agonising few months before he took his last breath in the arms of Mary. Kathani had lost her Amma, her Appa, and like the two, she cared for her mama to the best of her abilities, but they had to leave the home in the Palace for the new secretary. Moving into a smaller home, where she and Edwina continued to share a room, and mama never left hers for weeks. Mrs Varma (nee Patel) was kind enough to teach Edwina with her own children. Kate helped a lady in the market for some produce, translated contracts for some men who couldn’t afford the official services, and sold bits of her Amma’s jewellery and clothing, trying to ensure that as her dowry depleted, something was coming into the coffers. But this could only last so long. If they continued, the way they did, it wouldn’t simply be genteel poverty, they would be completely destitute, and she could not allow it; her Appa would never have let it get to this point.

 

 

So, she was resolved, Edwina needed to be set up well so she nor her children would never endure this should her husband meet the fate their Appa did. Without a male to provide, their options were limited. Their Appa had not yet set Edwina’s dowry so she planned to keep what was left of hers for Edwina. But as Kathani planned for a season in Bombay, Prince Ravi pointed out that few of the well-established houses would take an English bride. Regardless of her Appa’s blood in her veins, Lady Mary was an English Earl’s daughter, and the story of her marriage, though romantic and passionate, was remembered for the strained English relations that season and Edwina’s prospects would suffer for it.

 

 

Kathani thought of Edwina’s grandparents. Even if Edwina didn’t marry well, she was the granddaughter of an Earl, they could provide for her and their mama. Protect them and give them far more than Kathani could. So, she wrote to them, and a year later she received the conditions for reconciliation, a promise of a dowry that would last at least two lifetimes and provisions to care for their mama. So, it was settled, that if the Sheffields would not provide unconditional love to Edwina, then her husband will, while the Sheffields would provide the security Kathani could not give her family.

 

 

Edwina’s training intensified, but Kathani tried to make it as fun as Mrs Varma had made her lessons growing up. Kathani focused on the English style of educating a young woman, she had quite an extensive knowledge from Mrs Varma, the Royal teachers, and her travels. She was more than capable of guiding Edwina to be every bit the lady she would need to be in English court. The training also served to protect Edwina from seeing their mama broken, hearing her cries through the walls, and causing Edwina to go into her own melancholy. She got a job mending clothes in the theatre so they allowed her bring Edwina for some shows, introducing her to more culture an art than they could afford were it not for the kindness of the theatre patron.

 

 

Kathani herself was hanging by a thin thread, but her family needed her. Her mama needed to be fed at least once a day and bathed weekly and more than that would take all Kathani’s strength in addition to Edwina being raised properly.

 

 

No one but Mrs Varma noticed the pieces of Kathani being lost to the new role she took up, but she assured her governess, that all would be well, the sacrifices worth it for her family would be saved. She dismissed each time an interested suitor was brought up, Kathani had to focus on her family, and none would provide for them, she could not rely on another to fulfil her duty, not that they wished to. So many promises of grand adventures and love proclamations, all to take her away, spoil her. She was tempted, to be free, to be the priority, the one seen and cared for, but her family needed her, and she would never leave them. Edwina was 14 and the promise of her beauty clear; visits stopped being for her and now the vultures awaited Edwina coming of age. Kathani was relegated to the shelf, further behind the scenes but this gave her a better view of the men coming to her. So, she focused even more, if the men here could overlook Edwina’s blood because of her beauty, then so could the ones in England and she would have what she lacked her in India, a dowry and some semblance of control of her finances, not left wholly dependent, even if her husband passed.

 

 

Kathani often skipped meals to ensure her family ate well, she still found work along with her training of Edwina and sat in the darkness of her Appa’s office. He never lived in this house or could call it his, but no one let Kathani claim it hers, so it was always her Appa’s. She practised the instruments with Edwina and read through the night so her lesson plans for Edwina were well curated. Kept money for the journey to England, and some for her journey back. The Sheffields had made it clear she was not part of their family, and she would not stand to be a burden anyway. Edwina would wish to bring her into her husband’s house with mama, but that could risk the dowry being revoked. So, she planned to return to India, and be just like the woman who shaped her, only, without the delusion of marriage. Such dreams of love, marriage and children died slowly as she aged, and she no longer felt the pain of the death of such dreams. Left alone with it all, she was resolved to be content being alone till her death as well, leaving no one to bear pain of her loss.

 

 

Prince Ravi had offered for her when he learnt they were to go to England for Edwina but that she would return alone. She saw it for what it was, she would be without the family he did not regard but no matter where they would be, Edwina was her baby sister, the first child she would raise. Without blood, Mary was the mother she remembered not one from stories no one alive could tell her. She would not spend her life with a man that reduced the importance of both of them to nothing simply because they were English.

 

 

Eventually, their mama started being able to care for herself, removing at least one item from her list. But she could not wait long, Kathani proposed London to her mama, asking if there was anyone whom they could stay with to save the cost of renting a London home in a respectable area. Without a second thought of why her daughter wished to return to England, she told Kathani of her friend who wrote to wish her well when she and her Appa eloped. So, Mary writes to Danbury, and they begin to sell bits to reduce their luggage and ensure they are not overly reliant on the host. Everything in place, Edwina was well trained, poised and near perfect, with her kind heart and beautiful smile, Kathani was sure she would get a good husband. Their home emptied, items sold for extra spending money, their trunks packed, goodbyes said, and their last used to ensure a decent and safe journey to London. Kathani had it all in hand; and she did it all herself, her mother and sister trusting her completely to lead the family.

 

 

On the ship as they get closer to their final stop, Edwina wakes Kathani up for the first time in years with their mama, to wish her a Happy Birthday…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mary directed her daughters to sit on the bed; Kate sat angrily at one end and Edwina bashfully at the other. Mary brought the chair from her vanity, ‘If this was to work, they needed to all face each other’ she thought. The silence hung heavy, with Edwina fidgeting unable to start her sentence, shrinking each time she caught Kate’s glare. Her sister just huffed and turned away shaking her head, wondering how they raised Edwina to be their hope out of their financial strains yet here she was, unable to admit her faults and speak to the accusations she easily threw.

 

 

“I did not mean to hurt you, Didi. I was scared for you. I now know how wrong I was. I truly am sorry.”

 

 

Kate scoffs out a laugh. It isn’t about being right or wrong about the proposal. She knew Edwina was wrong, that was a given. She also knew what the ton thought of her, and it was clear Edwina shared their sentiments. “You have been cruel ever since Lord Bridgerton became my friend, growing colder when he started courting me. Do you also believe I am undeserving, like everyone in the ton? I know we came for your marital prospects. You certainly were not opposed to being courted by him, so, why should I have opposed him? At least we were friends first. He gained my trust and has always been honest with me; you simply were dazzled by his eligibility.”

 

 

“I am not some stupid child incapable of discerning a match for myself! I was intrigued, yes, but that was because he simply was the only noteworthy suitor. I have told you I do not begrudge you your match, I swear. You are better suited, and his family has all but declared you viscountess. Though he is yet to ask, but you must see how my season has been. And yet you have abandoned me to it. Our time together was to be cut short as you planned to return to India, but you were not there for me. So, when he courted you, it was as if you had already left your own family for his. You have practically replaced me with all the Bridgertons. Talking to them but not me. I even had to find time to speak with Her Grace about the Prince as you didn’t want to listen.”

 

 

“I wouldn’t listen?! You dismissed me, asked I do not chaperone, cursing my insights, and Anthony’s even as he owed you nothing! So, when you decided to pretend your words and actions did not hurt me and wished to pick up like nothing happened, I should have simply bent to your will because that is what I have always done! What do you see me as Edwina? Perhaps you are the one who sees me as one to be toyed with. To pick up and discard as you need and please.”

 

 

“Kate, Edwina and I have discussed this at length as she says, she does not begrudge you your match, she wishes for your experience of the season too, which is only natural…”

 

 

“No mama! Not this time! I will not have what I wish to say disregarded and pretend Edwina is the only one entitled to feel something! That you both are the only one who hurt! You were the diamond of your time, you shared the story of how wonderful it was, before you got bored of your suitors and met Appa. Edwina is having the same thing, with no noteworthy suitors yet somehow it is my fault! My courtship with Anthony is to be blamed!” she turns back to her sister, “All your life, you have dazzled everyone you met, they loved you and ignore me, yet I never made you feel guilty for it! I supported, cheered and was always happy for you. Men spurning me for my sister not of age, I protected you but ensured you were safe and knew how to navigate such attentions. How could you not do the same for me?! Even as your season was not what you wished; you could not put aside your disappointment to be happy for me for a moment? Why?!”

 

 

Edwina counters, “You are never around to be happy with! Even now, it is for a man you choose to stay but not your family. You say you wanted to make sure mama and I were settled but you still were to leave! You share more of yourself with the Bridgertons than us, so I guess in a way you have already left.”

 

 

“Edwina, does it really matter why Kate stays. We are to be together when you marry you would have had a different household.” Mary says as she tries to intervene; even with growing closer from their nightly sessions with Kate, she still struggles to not baby Edwina.

 

 

Ignoring Mary completely, “I was content with my plans. Everything was set, then I met Anthony, so yes, I changed it. But again, it was for you. To stay in England with you as my hopes for you was far exceeded thanks to Lady Danbury and the Queen. Perhaps I was a little selfish to get something of my own too for once. I am only grateful that his family has been most welcoming and kind. They ask about me and for once I am not simply your sister, a means for people to charm their way to you, they want to know me. And I will not apologise for the happiness I have manage to find despite never seeking it for myself.”

 

 

“Of course, I want you to be happy!”

 

 

“No, you want me to be happy on your terms! In service or gratitude to you. Available to you, yet you were the one who said you didn’t want my help. Why? Because Anthony wanted me not you?!”

 

 

“You stayed with him that night, knowing he did not want me. You made your choice then before I did. You left me behind and I have spent the rest of the season trying to catch you, a moment with you. Something that reminds me my sister is still with me.”

 

 

“That’s how I felt with your suitors long before we came to English shores. Ignored. What hurts now is that like with them, you wished for me to be anywhere but with you. Then you actually asked it of me. After the end of your courtship, Anthony tried to be your friend and you spurned him to hurt me. Unlike every other rancid man in this place, he never treated you the way your suitors treated me. Even his siblings welcomed you so you cannot say you are left behind! Not when I have lived the greater part of my life for you,” Kate said as her resentment bubbled to the surface.

 

 

For as long as she could remember, she put her family first, she tried not to resent them the freedom they took in her sacrifice but faced with enjoying herself for the first time in so long and she is being shamed for it. She did not care for her sister’s excuses, her views of Kate abandoning her when she had many opportunities in the past and never considered them. Now yet another choice that gave a chance to be close to her mother and sister, but protected, married, and even have a family of her own. It was an arrangement beneficial to all and she was made to feel a fool.  She never allowed herself a shoulder to cry on, insisting to Mrs Varma she was well, she would always be content as long as her family happy. Why could Edwina not feel the same for her? She would never want her sister to stay content; she had made it clear that no one had caught her eye, but she held out hope for someone worthy, like she found in Anthony.

 

 

He had surprised her, more so by getting her to agree to the courtship. She made it seem like it was almost Herculean for her to consent but if she was honest with herself, she thought of it the moment she saw him at the conservatory ball. Then he shown himself a chauvinist and had worked so hard to prove his words were a folly amongst his foolish peers. Maybe he did not wish for love in their union, but she had his respect, admiration, and care. That would be enough for her. She had been used to keeping people away from her heart, afraid to be hurt, afraid to be left behind or forgotten, her heart could take no more loss. Anthony had shown her the care she lacked in her family, he protected her even when she did not desire it, he sought her out to ensure she was happy, not simply content. She had been so alone in her family, especially after her Appa passed. She did not resent the grief they got to feel, the mourning they permitted themselves and in doing so denied her hers, she only wished they saw her then, and even if it was too late for that, what about now?

 

 

“I gave up on my dreams for you, my wants and needs always made irrelevant. I focused on your education and future. I gave up the last of my childhood so that I could dedicate my time to bringing you up in society whilst trying to ensure you had the same childhood I did. Appa tried to make sure that even in his grief I was provided for and cared for. Even when he wasn’t the one to do it Mrs Varma did. She taught me of the world by bringing me into it and I failed to do that with you. But in protecting you from any hurt, I couldn’t even mourn properly when Appa died because someone had to take care of the household. Someone had to make sure that mama and you were provided for. So, I promised I would not consider myself until you and Mama were taken care of. I gave what I had without regret, and I would do it again, Bon. I still do it. I give what I have in order to protect you. I took the insults of those men because they were meaningless to me. I needed to be sure they were worthy of you, that mama would be welcomed in their home even if I wasn’t. India always there so the sting of their rejection didn’t hurt.”

 

 

Edwina felt a rush of guilt as her sister spoke but pushed it away, “I never asked for any of that, Kate.”

 

 

“And you never had to,” Kate replied solemnly, “You have never known struggle, Edwina. Mama and I wished for you to grow up without lacking anything you desired. Even in her grief and pain, she put you first.”

 

 

Kate turns to her mother fighting to keep the tears in her eyes from spilling over, “She was first in everything, and I never placed. You were content to hide away when you were sure Edwina was well, why? So sure, I would be fine you never cared to ask about my needs once? I guess with your resignation, of three of us, I was always going to be the one to take care of our family. So, you may not have asked me to do it, but mama did not stop me. In my family I was alone, and never even an afterthought.” She adds the final sentence when she sees Mary trying to raise the same point as Edwina. No one asked her, no one asked anything, simply expected, and never questioned where the things they were provided came from.

 

 

“Edwina, all your life but especially the last 8 years, you need more from me than you showed any care about me. Our relationship has been about what I am doing for you, rarely with you. It is my fault focusing on your training so much we did not have time to just be. But you never bothered to understand why I was always busy, working and balancing the books to make sure that we survived. Here we are dependent on Lady Danbury and your attitude towards her has been shocking. I guess I also didn’t mind being away from you which is why I gladly acquiesced to you pushing me out, and I got to continue feeling what Anthony makes me feel, which is free.”

 

 

“Kate… I did not… I did… I wish you told me. I thought we… every night Kate, why keep this inside?”

 

 

Memories from her childhood and the first blushes of her adulthood, were flooding mind. She never complained about having to grow up quickly in order to head their household, but there were many times where she thought life would have turned out so differently if Mary had taken on the role instead.

 

 

“What good would it have done?! It could never undo the years; only make you carry a guilt that… that I do not know you can bear. I don’t want to go back to those years when you refused to leave the room, the weeks here where it was Lady Danbury and I attending events while you beg off with your headaches… I didn’t say because it didn’t matter… I never matter so why say anything. Anthony… Ant… he sees me mama, for who I am, all I am. I do not hide from him, it feels impossible, and I do not wish to. When we first met, we were just strangers at dawn, my name did not matter, my blood did not matter, but I mattered.  Enough so that he seemed pleased to see me at the ball before we fought.”

 

 

She turned back to her sister, “My whole life has changed in ways that I did not expect coming to England. We came for you, but I am not merely my connections to you Bon, I am a person with more to offer than being behind you, watching you to keep you safe. And when we planned to come here you offered nothing but excitement. You didn’t question anything, no practicalities discerned. Do you even know what I have done to secure your dowry, who I begged for help?” Mary did not miss the demure way her eyes flitted to her briefly.

 

 

“Kathani Sharma, you did not?!”

 

 

“We had minimal money, mama! To arrive here for this season, we used all that we had. We had to ask Lady Danbury to sponsor us, you had to know how dire it was. What choice did I have?! I know the Sheffields were unkind, and even now Edwina only has a dowry if she marries an English man of nobility. But I would never force a match you did not desire just for money. I wanted her to find love of course, but we are both guilty of making jokes about how it was just as easy to fall in love with a wealthy man as it was with a poor one. I only wanted her to be protected, have choices…”

 

 

Marry never wanted to be indebted to her parents, to make them feel they were right to oppose her choice. Kate had reached out to them, confessed things Mary did not know about their finances. There was no way it would not come with strings to make her daughters dance in a way she refused when she married Milan and not the Earl. But it was her fault Kate resorted to this. As angry as she was, she was ashamed for her compliance. Her eldest ensured their survival all these years and came up with a diabolical solution for the future, but it was far more than Mary did. What else had she missed?

 

 

“You sold my choice! I can only have a dowry with a man of nobility! What if they spurn me like the viscount? You have been crass and short with the other lords; tell me did it specify a minimum title? Is that why you press for one suitor and not the other? Because of your lecherous scheme!”

 

 

Kate stared open mouth at her sister. Her cruelty no longer hidden; Edwina was far harsher than she knew her capable of being. It was as if she did not know her sister, perhaps she didn’t, any more than Edwina knew her.

 

 

“Suddenly, your words fail you, Sister? After berating the men of the ton for their thoughts on women and marriage!” Edwina laughed viciously, brokenly,

 

 

“Edwina,” Kate whispered, holding the temper threatening to flare up, needing to explain.

 

 

“Oh, you cannot deny it now, Kate. How could I have been such a fool?” Her voice dipped into disappointment, “I thought that your only desire was for me to be happy. That you had the purest of intentions for me, for us this season.”

 

 

“That is the truth,” Kate pleaded.

 

 

“That cannot be the truth if you have sold me like chattel to be the wife of some lord in order to secure a dowry! After a lifetime of filling my head with nonsense, of all this talk of great, gallant notions and looks between lovers, you did not care for me to find mine!” Edwina hissed. “Does the viscount even know what a schemer you are?”

 

 

Kate pushed back standing, almost towering her sister who tried to match her stance, “Edwina, I know I should have told you before. I should have told you everything, but I did not want to place such a huge burden on your shoulders. Anthony encouraged me to be honest but understood why I hadn’t said anything. He does not judge me or expect more from me than I can give. But you… you desire anything and simply expect it to materialise, and you are surprised at the lengths I would go to secure your happiness?! Who was it that shielded you your whole life?  You do not remember when Appa died, when the world fell out from beneath us.  I gave up EVERYTHING, all so that you would never know poverty. But my dowry barely kept our heads above water, yours was not set up. There was no other fund save from my work… and it was not enough. I have no dowry and I am not of the ton, plus my age, my lack of connections and my independence. I am not naive or stupid to have thought I would get a match, so I focus on you to have everything you dreamed of. I will always do everything in my power to ensure your happiness. I would do it all again without regret. To protect my family, I would do it all again.”

 

 

“I do not know which pains me more. Your betrayal or your pity. You say you did it all for me but really, you simply gave me all you really wanted for yourself, as though my life were not my own. If you did not want a life with us, if we were such a burden why not tell us, ask for help. Or leave since that was obviously your desire!”

 

 

At this, Kate paused matching the glare from Edwina, needing to take another deep breath to fortify herself before continuing. “I had planned to return to India and like Mrs Varma, be a wonderful governess. But it would not have been my desire, it would be what was needed. I would have raised an English Diamond who married her heart’s desire, and with Mrs Varma’s recommendations, I could get a good post, retain some freedom, live in the country I grew up in, where I belong! My duty to you and mama done, I would not be your burden. I knew I was giving up my own chance of marriage and a family as the years moved swiftly. But I could not abandon you, still a child and mama who took me in and loved me like a daughter when they needed me most. I would only leave when I knew you had no need for me anymore.”

 

 

“So, I was merely a steppingstone to your freedom? Did you even think to ask me? Do you think I wished for you to be burdened? I am not a child anymore Kate! And if it was so pertinent for my dowry, knowing this you still focused on your courtship with the viscount? Perhaps you have always wished to leave us behind, find your match and as the diamond I would simply marry some other titled man. Your promises of a love match to be only that, an empty promise.”

 

 

Kate was resigned to no longer reign in her anger, if Edwina wanted to throw stones at glass wall, she could to. It was time the Sharmas stopped hiding behind their polite smiles to each other, focusing only on pleasant conversations and memories. They had spent so long avoiding wistful memories, she because they serve no other purpose than melancholy, Edwina for her natural radiance born from her youth and naïveté seemed to banish any dark thoughts choosing to focus on hopeful thoughts. But the mother, she did not do well with pain; it was evident from when her parent’s cut her out of their lives, when she was told she could have no more children and when their Appa died. Each pain spilling into the next and she could not bear it, but it was enough of that now. She watched in silence the sparring between her daughters, secrets and hidden pains pouring out of them like a crack jug that could no longer hold water.  

 

 

“You may still have your title, Edwina. You have spoken of no other lord since the Queen mentioned him.”

 

 

“And yet MY season is being wasted on your courtship as no one pays attention to me even as I am the diamond!”

 

 

“Edwina!” Mary scolding is ignored

 

 

“That is not true Edwina! The drawing room is always full of flowers for you and the only ones I get are from Anthony. Perhaps others hoping to gain your favour! So how has this season been about my singular courtship when mama and Lady Danbury are chaperoning you through the various ones you have? Do you truly even want love? Or has this become some strange battle for a title? Even without the dowry stipulations known you did not seem to care for anyone without one!”

 

 

“Those were the only men you permitted near me! And you cannot talk as you discarded Mr. Dorset as soon as the viscount came to you! Now I am here away from my courtship because of you, and you cannot even secure the proposal everyone seems so certain of while I am being ignored!”

 

 

“Please! Your suitors are here too, I had the pleasure of hunting with a few of them! And when I returned, all I heard was your time with the young ladies so tell the truth Edwina, do you want love or a title? Because if you simply want the title, I see no reason why you should be offended by the dowry stipulations, you are already chasing titles yourself!”

 

 

“You cannot say that to me when you yourself said the viscount does not desire a love match and still accepted a suit from him.”

 

 

“He may not love me, but I knew that when I agreed to the courtship that love was not what he desired but I will give him mine freely, regardless of if it is returned. I grew used to unreturned affections, at least here I get something. Respect, admiration, care and all else he chooses to give me is more than I have received in the last 8 years. I did not accept his suit because of his title but the friendship we already had. You simply desire a title so do not compare. I should have known you were not ready from the day we arrived and the type of man you described was based on his looks and title and not his substance.”

 

 

“You trained me to be a lady, to be the wife of a lord! It is what I have been preparing for my entire life; now you wish to introduce me to men who are not lords. To ease your guilt of your deception… how can I go from a life I was promised to that?”

 

 

“I did it and was happy. You were happy. We were all happy!” Mary says to Edwina before turning to her eldest, “Kate, I wish you told me all of this. I wish you spoke to me. We have spent all these nights together…”

 

 

Mary is upset with the deal but understood; she felt guilty that she did not even know Kate had a dowry and that was what they lived off. She never asked details, just simply trusted all to Kate.

 

 

“You’d always tried to be so strong,” Mary whispered. “Even when you were a tiny thing. And I left it all to you. You were just a young lady and I…”

 

 

“You trusted me to handle it all, and I did it. I just never thought I would do it alone, and for so long. Mama, things have improved with us in the last weeks, yes, but you still prefer to be ignorant of so much trusting it all to me and you cannot chastise me for my choices when you were not there to guide me, to help me?! You asked for nothing but trusted it would be provided, because that is what I am, it is all I do. You claim I am your daughter but your memory of me as a child is also my care of you. What of yours of me? You have only started now and that has only been because of my courtship, where were you before?”

 

 

“Kate…” Mary tried to step to her, but she stepped away, keeping a literal distance to the emotional one she has felt from her family all these years. Her Appa was so conscious of spending time with each of them and making time as a family to. All that died with him; so much died with him and now she has the chance to pour out her pain to confront her family for abandoning her as Edwina accuses her of leaving her behind. Kate was never with them, so far behind it is no surprise to her that she attached herself so easily to the family that showed her warmth, support, freedom from the fears of not belonging, of needing to earn her place. Anthony would never let her feel that way, they simply fit.

 

 

“Are there any other secrets you hold Didi? And do not insult me with more lies or half-truths. You wish to open all, then let us bring it all out. Aside your resentment for our family, what else do you harbour in your heart Kate?”  

 

 

Edwina’s youth was showing, the cruel way she kept pushing; a lifetime of getting what she wanted, a pattern that Kate had always ensured. “I had to ask you what you desired in a match, I gave you the lessons and sacrificed my youth in the process of preparing you, I arranged for the dowry. It is not ideal, but it is something. The journey here you enjoyed the ease of not chasing our things from port to port as I did that. Mama came to the agreement with Lady Danbury who is the one that persuaded the Queen to name you, her diamond.  Your dream for the season is all you brought with you, a wish for the kind, even tempered duke or prince to sweep you off your feet. It is my fault, I filled your head with stories, I failed to show you the harsh realities of life. But do not act like my actions wound you. Everything has been about you Edwina.”

 

 

“Well, you seem to know all. You decided I could not offer any insight of my own. You made those choices.”

 

 

“Because you are my sister and I wanted to give you the life you deserve, to save you from struggling as I did for our family”

 

 

“Your sister? Truly? Yet you treat me like a child! What I am Kate is a grown woman and I am ready to be a wife, a mother. How can I be when my sister sees me no more than a foolish child in need of cuddling?!”

 

 

“I was doing what I had always done, looked out for my family. To save us from an even worse fate, so I sold my pride and asked for help from your family. Hoping that time would have made them open to reconciliation, but it was obvious I was the wrong vessel. They still wish to have you in their lives. Both of you, but on their conditions. They would provide the dowry and care for mama… but I couldn’t be allowed to benefit from your marriage or their care. Which is why I thought it easier to leave for India. They could not say I breached the terms. But I wanted you to have love Edwina. to be a wife and mother but I could not allow you know of the bargain, and burden you with such a lack of choice. If your suitor met the conditions wonderful. If they didn’t, I hoped you would find joy in your life and your husband able to care for mama. I would have gotten work here instead perhaps to make sending funds easier…. I thought of all of that. I ask again, as you say you are a grown woman, what did you consider about the season other than the fantasies of the gallantry?”

 

“I wished to be able to make a decision based on what I would like, what I deserve and not what was expected of me. From you, Lady Danbury, the Queen, THE TON! You said you spared me from the burden, but you simply saddled me with a different one. I wish to do what pleases me, and no one else, and I need you, and need you all to understand that.”

 

 

“Haven’t you always? It may have been my idea to come here, but you wanted a season in London like mama. The dances, the promenades the courting, it may not be as magical as you desired. You may not have found love, but you are doing what you please. I have not interfered, you choose the courtships you wish to pursue, which so far have been none as you hold out for the prince. Tell me what has change but the knowledge of your dowry?”

 

 

 

Edwina is silent, seemingly taken aback my Kate’s words and her mother’s continued silence. “I on the other hand have always done what is necessary even when it did not please me. Working as many jobs as I could be granted, writing to your grandparents. Coming to this country that all but banished me. That calls me a scandal for being Appa’s daughter but not mama’s by blood. Being away from you because you asked while smiling politely at your suitors saved only when Anthony is by my side to scare them off. As pleased as I am with the courtship, I am giving up something up yet again- my home. But Anthony makes it worth it as he does not make me feel like a burden. Like me, he is the eldest and had to grow into a man faster than his peers. Life happened to us all but only Anthony and I were made to make decisions for our family which often cost us to ensure their happiness. Regardless of our earlier reasons, our courtship is something for ourselves for once. Something that pleases us.”

 

 

 

Edwina begins crying again, “This is not what it was supposed to be like, you are my sister and yet we are already separated. When Appa is dead, and mama was grieving you were always there, Kate. Now, after week into this season we worked towards, you are not with me as much. I know what I said, and I am sorry, but I was scared; the Queen has expectations, the Ton finds me lacking. Lady Danbury is always irritated with me. I feel alone and didn’t know how to handle it. I am trying with the Bridgertons as I fear that I cannot see where I will be in your new life as you now have a big family that you say are a better family to you than I. When you marry it will be worse, we will live apart, our lives will be further apart. You have barely got time with me here, as you are always with someone else. Would you even like me if I wasn’t you sister? Everyone seemed to like you for exactly who you are, but I am barely tolerated as the agreeable diamond. Could anyone just like me the way they liked you?

 

 

Kate shakes her head. Exhausted at the hours they have spent arguing still have not made Edwina see. She tells her she cannot reassure her, as she has said all she sacrificed and Edwina is only seeing what she hasn’t since they have been in England, that she only wants more of her and she cannot do it any longer.

 

 

“All I want now, is to never feel like that again, alone and broken with pieces of me used to prop you up, to protect you both. I have someone who understands that feeling too well, understands me and accepts me for all I am not what I am capable of sacrificing and compromising for their sake. He does not wish to break me, to take piece of me. He fights to stop me from doing so and I fight to make sure does not break himself for me in return. Anthony will be my home, and I will be safe in the shelter of his affections because that has given me more than the love you espouse that you have for me.”

 

“That is enough, no good can come of this at present. Let us all take a moment to calm ourselves, shall we? We can discuss this in the morning. We are all tired and it has been quite a revealing evening for all of us.” Mary tries to separate her daughters, directing Edwina to the bed and Kate to her room.