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Gentlemanly Pursuits

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Anthony sighs in resignation as he invites his mother and sister to take seats.

 

He knows when he’s been ambushed. He knows it doesn’t bode well that Daphne and his mother have barged in here and demanded to have a serious and important conversation with him.

 

It’s about his quest to find a suitable wife, he presumes. They’re here to direct his attention to some insipid blonde miss, or else to arrange a hideous ball in the name of helping him with his hunt.

 

He can’t imagine anything worse.

 

He’s been seeking a viable candidate to marry for all of three weeks, now, and already he is bored sick of young women. There is simply no one interesting in all of London, it seems to him. He’s only looking for a gently bred and beautiful young woman who can run a household, sustain an interesting conversation, and perhaps play the piano or speak half a sentence in French. Is that really too much to ask for?

 

Evidently it is.

 

Sure enough, his mother opens the conversation, and it’s just what he’s been dreading.

 

“We’re here because we know you’ve been looking for a wife, dearest, and we have a few ideas to discuss with you.”

 

“A few ideas, hmm?” He asks, short and almost rude before the conversation has even begun. “Miss Mathews? Too quiet. Lady Maria? Incompetent at arithmetic - she’d never be able to run a household. And before you bother so much as suggesting Cressida Cowper -”

 

“This is precisely the problem.” Daphne dares to interrupt him. “This is why we wished to speak to you. We know you have terrified the wits out of every debutante in the ton and found them all wanting. We’re here to suggest a better idea.”

 

“A - a better idea?” He asks, genuinely shocked. A better idea than dutiful debutantes? Is there such a thing? What on earth is all this about?

 

“Exactly so. A better idea.” His mother nods, calm and upbeat. It’s a face he’s rather familiar with after all these years - the face that has kept their family going since his father’s death, he sometimes thinks, or at least since she recovered from her initial storm of grief.

 

He bites. He’s curious. He wants to know more about this better idea, because frankly doing the rounds of the debutantes has left him with nothing. With no one, with no hope of ever marrying and doing his duty.

 

“Very well. Kindly explain your idea so I may get on with finding a wife.” He says.

 

His mother starts first. “We have been worried about you, my dear. You’re trying so hard to do the right thing and find a wife. But it occurred to us that pursuing a debutante might not be the right approach. Consider this - you want a wife who is confident and capable in the art of running a household, ready to step into her role as Viscountess.”

 

“You want someone with a little more maturity and conversation.” Daphne adds now. “I’ve heard you complain that this generation of debutantes are all too meek or quiet or foolish. But here’s a secret for you, brother - almost all debutantes are like that. There’s a reason I stood out and made a friend of Simon. No other young woman had ever had the gumption to befriend her suitors before now.”

 

“And it wouldn’t hurt if you found someone you shared some interests or common ground with.” His mother adds now. “That’s a good foundation for partnership. I know you are set on a sensible marriage - on doing your duty without regard for love - but all the same, I think it’s entirely logical to marry someone with whom you have things in common. That makes for an orderly, comfortable household.”

 

He nods. Those are all sound arguments. And they’re right - that’s largely why he’s been so dissatisfied with all the debutantes he’s met. None of them strike him as ready to take up his mother’s mantle and become the matriarch of the Bridgerton family. He’s quite certain most of them couldn’t run a small raffle, let alone an entire country house.

 

He’s actually ready to agree with his mother and Daphne on this. He’s almost grateful they came in here for a discussion of his marriage plans. This has all been far more useful and less excruciating than he expected.

 

There’s just one problem. They haven’t presented their better idea yet. And he has the feeling this is the moment when they start rattling off a list of names in his general direction.

 

“So?” He prompts them. “Do I take it you have a list of more mature or intelligent young ladies to recommend to me?”

 

“You’re missing the point, brother. Forget ages and names if you will. Think instead about a general type. Perhaps you should be looking for someone recently widowed - a woman who knows how to run a household and has proven she can bear children.”

 

He nods. That’s not a bad idea. There are some comely young widows in this world - he’s bedded one or two of them before now.

 

“A widow might suit your purposes.” His mother agrees now. “We’re all aware that you have sought out more…. worldly companionship of that sort before now. Or perhaps an unmarried lady who is not your typical debutante. Someone older, or who has been overlooked thus far. Maybe one of these new bluestocking types would suit you better than an eye-catching beauty - I know you want a sensible wife. Or perhaps an older sister who could bond with you over your experiences of caring for young siblings. In fact, Lady Danbury told me that she will be sponsoring just such a lady this season.”

 

Ah. Here. This is it. Anthony knows his mother and sister well enough to realise that this is them coming to the point at last. Amidst all these generalities, all this miscellaneous discussion of hypothetical widows and nameless bluestockings, here is the point his mother really wanted to make.

 

Lady Danbury has a charge, and his mother thinks they might suit.

 

But somehow, he finds himself not entirely against the idea. In recent days he has always bristled at any suggestion of his mother trying to set him up with anyone or throw names in his direction. But today, here and now, as he sits and listens to their arguments he’s almost convinced.

 

It’s just because he’s tired. That’s all it is. He’s sick and tired of trying and failing to do his duty, of trying desperately to find a suitable wife and coming up wanting.

 

He’s about ready to admit defeat and try this sensible older lady his mother is suggesting.

 

He takes a careful breath, tries to find a balance between encouragement and caution. “Go on, then, mother. Tell me more about this woman Lady Danbury recommends. Is she some wealthy widow? I hope she’s shapely around the hips.” He says, deliberately coarse. He’s hoping he might get a rise out of her and thereby cut straight to the chase, get the most useful information right away.

 

She doesn’t take the bait. She’s perfectly calm as she smiles and starts speaking.

 

“A Miss Sharma, due to arrive in town with her younger sister later this week. She’s almost of an age with you but has never married. She preferred to spend her time raising her sister and managing the family affairs after her father’s passing.” She says pointedly. “I understand she enjoys riding and shooting and all the gentlemanly pursuits - but has all the ladylike accomplishments as well, dancing and languages and the like.”

 

He frowns. Something doesn’t quite add up, here. “I’m surprised you’d recommend an unknown Miss Sharma from a family I’ve never heard of.” He says, eyes narrowed. “I hardly think an alliance with them would reflect well on our family.”

 

“She’s perfectly respectable - a granddaughter of the Sheffields and her mother is a particular friend of Lady Danbury, who will be sponsoring the girls this season. She has entirely suitable connections. And frankly, Anthony, I’m past caring whether you marry the diamond of the season or twice-widowed washerwoman. I just want you to be happy. I know you are set against searching for a love match, but I think you might at least be content in an easy marriage with a good girl who likes horses.”

 

He nods at that before he can think better of it. Because it’s the truth, isn’t it? The moment his mother said that silly comment about gentlemanly pursuits he was half-hooked on the idea. He can just imagine marrying a woman who would go out hunting with him, the laughs they might have whilst deerstalking. It would be like the easy, companionable way he used to laugh with Siena, perhaps - only even better, because they’d actually have something in common beyond sexual attraction.

 

He’s never really known a woman he shared common interests with before now.

 

He shakes himself a little. He’s being silly. He’s gone and fallen in love with the idea of marrying this Miss Sharma before he’s even met her, just because she can apparently ride a horse.

 

What if she’s not even good at riding horses? What then?

 

He gathers his composure and turns to his sister next. “And you, Daphne? What has all this to do with you? It sounds like a scheme mother has cooked up with Lady Danbury to me.”

 

“It was my idea.” She declares, unabashed, chin lifted. She’s grown rather brave since she married, he notes. “I approached mother and said that I had recently discovered the comfort of marrying a good friend, and I wondered if we could help you pursue something like that.”

 

Oh. Right. Well - that’s altogether more sentiment than he was prepared to deal with on a Tuesday morning.

 

He takes a careful breath, shuffles the papers on his desk for something to do.

 

“I thank you both for your attempts to help in this matter.” He says, all stiff and proper. “Naturally, the final choice will be mine - but I do appreciate that the question of my marriage affects the whole family. If you truly believe this Miss Sharma is a sensible candidate I would be very happy to make her acquaintance. You said she arrives in town later this week?”

 

“Yes. She’s expected to be at the Danbury ball on Friday.”

 

“Very good. Before then, please ask Lady Danbury for some more information about her - interests, accomplishments and the like. I shall want to be well-prepared for the introduction. I take the task of finding a wife very seriously.” He tells his mother.

 

She’s smiling. She’s trying not to, of course, but she’s got a gleeful little light in her eyes all the same.

 

“Of course, dearest. I’ll call on Lady Danbury this afternoon and note down every detail.”

 

Excellent. Fabulous. Careful note-taking is the way to find a suitable wife - he’s pleased his mother has finally caught up with that.

 

…….

 

He makes a point of learning everything he can about Miss Sharma in the next three days.

 

Three days is not much time to memorise his future wife’s entire biography, to be sure. But his duty to marry is very important to him, so he’s determined to do his best. So it is that he learns her date of birth, the name of her dog, her preferred style of sleeve.

 

He learns things he thinks are more interesting, too. She has the use of a small stables back home, just a handful of horses. She used to race a little in local races back in India, but Lady Danbury has warned her not to mention that too loudly in London. She has no experience of English game-hunting, but is proficient with shotguns and new-fangled rifles and can quite happily take down a deer with an accurate shot while mounted on a moving horse.

 

Anthony’s not even sure he can do that, honestly, and he considers himself a competent sportsman. He might have to ask this Miss Sharma to teach him a thing or two if she does consent to marry him.

 

He’s already quite set on proposing to her. She’ll do. That’s what he’s decided. She has a longer list of useful accomplishments than anyone else he’s met - languages and bookkeeping and so on. But she also has more interesting accomplishments, between the riding and the shooting.

 

The fact that his family approves so wholeheartedly of the match is just the icing on the cake.

 

He spends a little time considering his strategy before Friday rolls around, too. Best not to dive straight into a proposal, he thinks - a lady likes to be flattered and courted. He should call on her with flowers a few times first so she doesn’t think he’s offering for her entirely on account of a sensible family arrangement. And he probably ought not open with a conversation about shooting straight away - not if she’s been warned that most gentlemen won’t want to discuss sport and racing and the like.

 

He’ll start with the sleeves. That’s what he decides. Those are very fine sleeves - you have quite an eye for fashion. That’s the sort of thing he ought to say to a lady.

 

Yes. He’s feeling quite prepared for Friday’s introduction.

 

In fact - he’s almost looking forward to it.

 

…….

 

Anthony approaches his introduction to Miss Sharma in much the same way he approaches every other aspect of being a Viscount.

 

He’s thoroughly prepared. He knows his duty. He’s feeling confident, if a little harassed, and he has everything under control.

 

So it is that, on arrival at the ball, he simply marches across the floor to Lady Danbury, ready to demand the introduction.

 

There are three ladies standing with her. One is presumably the mother of the younger two. Of the sisters, one is rather tall and dressed all in purple. The other is much shorter and dressed in soft, flowy pink.

 

They’re both presentable, easy on the eye. Either will do - that’s what he decides. Whichever one of these is the sensible, knowledgeable, sporting older sister - he’ll take her.

 

Although he must admit - he does hope it’s the taller one. He’s had quite enough of dim-witted girls dressed in pale pink, lately. And he knows from his notebook that Miss Sharma has a preference for purple.

 

He clears his throat, gets to business.

 

“Lady Danbury. I have been looking forward to meeting your guests ever since I heard you were expecting them. Please - might I beg for an introduction?”

 

The old matriarch smiles at his gallantry in that knowing, somewhat smug way of hers.

 

“Lord Bridgerton. May I present Lady Mary Sharma, Miss Sharma, and Miss Edwina Sharma.”

 

Each of the ladies curtseys in turn. Thank goodness - the taller one does seem to be the elder. There’s a stroke of good luck. There’s this campaign to find a wife finally taking a turn for the better. Really, if he’d known his mother and sister were actually capable of suggesting something useful he might have asked them for help weeks ago.

 

He turns to Miss Sharma and trots out his prepared line.

 

“Miss Sharma - may I observe that those are very fine sleeves on your gown? You clearly have quite the eye for fashion.”

 

Then he waits. He waits for her to blush and giggle, to fall half in love with him in one fell swoop, to weaken at the knees and declare herself delighted with his attentions. They could have the marriage settlement signed and sealed within the month, he hopes, at this rate.

 

But then she doesn’t.

 

She doesn’t say her lines. She doesn’t play her part. She doesn’t simper, or weaken, or even look vaguely impressed.

 

On the contrary - she looks annoyed.

 

“May I ask what you mean by this flattery, sir? We have only just been introduced. I hardly think you have had time to form a genuine opinion about my sleeves, of all things.” She says, eyes narrowed, as if she’s suspicious of his motives.

 

He swallows hard. This is not what he expected at all. He didn’t expect her to be all shrewd and cynical, distrusting him for paying her a simple little compliment on such short acquaintance.

 

Right. So the sleeves are a bust. What else can he try?

 

“Have you had a chance to ride since you arrived in London? There are some very fine parks hereabouts.” He offers, carefully light. He mustn’t let his confidence falter now.

 

She frowns harder still. “I arrived but three hours ago, sir, and have spent much of that time dressing for this ball. I have hardly had the opportunity to take a leisurely ride around the city parks.”

 

“Yes. Of course. Silly of me - are you looking forward to riding tomorrow?” He asks, increasingly desperate.

 

“Perhaps - but if we could return to your strange comment about the sleeves -”

 

“Forget the sleeves!” He interrupts her, too loud, too firm.

 

He wishes he could forget the sleeves. He’s never going to live this moment down. His brothers will surely get wind of it and tease him about it for as long as he lives.

 

“I wish I could forget the sleeves.” She tells him, somehow echoing his very thoughts. “But really - that’s quite the strangest introduction I’ve ever known. You must tell me why you sought to flatter me with sleeves.” She persists.

 

Only - she doesn’t look quite so sharply suspicious now, he notes. In fact, if he really searches her face, he thinks he can perhaps see just the slightest hint of laughter there. He wouldn’t put money on it - he doesn’t know her well enough to read her expressions with any certainty.

 

But she might be amused. She could perhaps find him a very tiny bit funny. Or is she laughing at him? Viscount Bridgerton doesn’t like to be laughed at.

 

No - whatever it is, it’s progress. It’s better than suspicion, better than scorn.

 

He takes a deep breath and pushes on with the next stage of his plan.

 

“Might I have the pleasure of this dance, Miss Sharma?”

 

She doesn’t look cynical now. She looks stunned - deeply and utterly taken aback. She’s staring at him, eyes wide, mouth dropped slightly open in shock.

 

“You - that is - I don’t usually dance.” She turns as if to include Miss Edwina in the conversation. “I presumed you came over here with all your flattery to distract me so you might approach my sister.”

 

Oh. He casts the sister a quick look. She truly is very pretty, in a meek, debutante sort of way. He might have been interested in her only last week, before he gave up on the idea of marrying some chit scarcely out of the schoolroom.

 

“Ah. Miss Edwina - lovely to make your acquaintance, of course. But I really do wish to dance with you , Miss Sharma.”

 

A pause. A beat of silence between them, filled only by the sound of the music and chatter which echoes around the ballroom. Other people are getting on with their evening - dancing, flirting, laughing.

 

Meanwhile Anthony Bridgerton is staring at his future wife in tense silence and wondering what on Earth he’s doing wrong.

 

“She’d be delighted to dance.” Lady Danbury comes to the rescue - or perhaps interferes. She’s nudging Miss Sharma forward with her cane, smiling that knowing smile. “Come, Kate. The Bridgerton family are close friends of mine. I’m sure you’ll find that the Viscount is a delightful partner.”

 

So it’s done. Miss Sharma’s hand is in his. The two of them are walking out onto the dancefloor together - and still, between them, that awkward silence reigns.

 

Anthony swallows hard. So much for his dream of marrying a friend. So much for all those fantasies he’s been lost in, lately, of chatting to this mysterious Miss Sharma by day and finding her a companionable bedmate by night, too.

 

Hmm. Perhaps there’s a lesson here somewhere. Perhaps deciding to marry her on the back of a third-hand report, choosing the idea of her for a wife rather than the actuality, was not his wisest move.

 

No. He can repair this. Meeting a new friend and suddenly being thrust into company with them is often awkward at first, isn’t it? He remembers when he arrived at Oxford, it took him and Thomas the better part of a month to learn how to converse together easily.

 

So it’s fine. He can still make a true friend of Miss Sharma, still have that perfectly cheerful yet dutiful marriage he’s been dreaming of.

 

He clears his throat and tries again.

 

“It was silly of me to ask whether you’ve already been riding. Obviously you haven’t had the time - I have four sisters so I know well that ladies spend many hours getting ready for a ball. But I do hope you will enjoy the parks of London when you find the opportunity to explore them.” He offers.

 

A couple of beats of music pass. She’s dancing beautifully, he notes. She’s clearly fluent in the steps - his mother was speaking the truth when she said that to marry one of the Sharma family would be no disgrace. She’s evidently at home in high society, despite being from a little-known family and having grown up on the other side of the world.

 

At last - after what seems to be an age, but is really no more than a second or two - she answers him.

 

“Thank you. I hope to do a little riding while I’m in town.”

 

He laughs. “Come now - a little riding? I’ve heard what a fine horsewoman you are. There’s no need to dissemble with me.”

 

She frowns, levels a sharp look at him. “You’ve heard some rumours about my riding?”

 

“Not rumours as such. Information from Lady Danbury herself - as she said, she is an intimate friend of our family. I must own I have been intrigued about her new guests.” He says with a wink.

 

She either doesn’t see him wink, or doesn’t believe in such shallow flirtation. Based on this disastrous first meeting, he suspects it’s the latter.

 

“You have me at a disadvantage, sir. It sounds like you have made it your business to make enquiries about me, and meanwhile I had never heard your name until tonight. You must forgive me for mistrusting your motives.” She says carefully.

 

All at once, he understands. He sees the problem. He sees, too, that she will certainly make him a better wife than any of those debutantes ever could - there’s a sharpness, an intelligence to her which they all lacked.

 

Yet that’s also a problem, tonight. Thanks to that sharpness she’s suspicious of a stranger throwing himself at her. Any meek debutante would be thrilled at this kind of blatant interest - but not Miss Sharma. She’s too canny to be so easily taken in.

 

Hmm. It seems he might need more than sleeves and flattery to make a success of this one.

 

“I quite understand.” He says smoothly. “I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable - only to show you a warm welcome to London.”

 

“Perhaps I should make some enquiries about you and redress the balance.” She says now, with perhaps a hint of teasing. “What will I learn about you, do you think?”

 

He grins. “That’s easy. The first thing anyone will tell you is that I have far too many brothers and sisters - but they are wrong. I have exactly the right number, and I love every one of them - most of the time.”

 

She actually laughs at that. The first real laugh of their acquaintance.

 

Warming up to his theme, he continues. “The first thing Lady Featherington would tell you is that I am a Viscount, and that our family estate is vast - the usual sort of thing. But Mr Dorset would tell you I’m no scholar of Latin, and my brother Benedict would tell you that I don’t fence as well as I think I do.”

 

She definitely looks more comfortable now. She’s smiling at him, evidently pleased with his feeble attempts at humour. Clearly she thinks he can’t be such a suspicious sort, if he’s prepared to admit his own failings.

 

In fact, she’s warmed to him so much she makes the next conversational move.

 

“Very well, Lord Bridgerton. You know my weakness - I would like to hear more about the riding around here. You recommend the parks? A park sounds like a tame and boring sort of place to take a ride in my opinion.”

 

His turn to laugh. “Yes - I must own some of them are more ornamental than adventurous. But some are quite large, with more untamed parts or fences.”

 

She nods. “But still a park is not true wilderness.”

 

He almost does it. He almost breaks, then and there, and tells her that she’d be welcome to ride over his family estate any day she fancies it for all the rest of her life.

 

No. Best not overwhelm her too soon. Best keep it straightforward, for tonight, then go home to revise his plan in private. Overwhelming flattery and a marriage settled within the month are looking less likely to succeed by the second.

 

So it is that he sticks with an easy grin and starts describing Hyde Park to her. And then somehow they are onto the subject of how best to protect a horse’s forelegs whilst out hunting, and from there they reach the relative merits of flat-racing versus steeplechase.

 

It is, in short, a good dance by anyone’s definition. Lively conversation and beautiful company - what more could he ask for?

 

He returns her to Lady Danbury’s side when their dance is over. He wonders about asking for another but, again, he thinks it’s best not to throw all his interest at her, all at once. Evidently that’s not the way to secure Miss Sharma’s hand in marriage.

 

She spends the rest of the night staring at him. He can’t help but notice that. Wherever she goes, whoever she speaks to, she still seems to have her eyes fixed on him.

 

He has no idea whether that’s a good sign - or whether it’s the exact opposite.

 

……

 

He goes to call on Miss Sharma the following morning armed with a substantial bouquet in shades of purple and white. That’s a deliberate choice - purple is her favourite colour. There’s a gem of information chosen from amongst his careful courtship notes. Lady Danbury really was a most helpful informant.

 

She and his mother must be very much committed to this match.

 

That’s fine. That’s for the best. That confirms in him the conviction that he is doing his duty.

 

He presents himself at the house. There’s quite a queue of suitors here - mostly insipid, dandyish, foppish types. The masculine equivalent of debutantes, all more interested in fashion and frippery than duty or sense, he thinks dismissively. Are they his competition for Miss Sharma’s hand?

 

He’s quite confident a sensible girl like her will pick him every time.

 

All the same, he’d quite like to know whether he’s destined to stand outside with them all morning. It’ll be a shame if his bouquet wilts while he waits.

 

“Ah - Lumley - good to see you!” He says, with feigned enthusiasm. Lumley is not his usual choice companion, but at least he might be able to give some answers.

 

“Bridgerton. Goodness - what are you doing here? I never saw you dance with Miss Edwina last night.”

 

“Are you here to call on Miss Edwina, then?”

 

“We all are.” He declares, sweeping a hand at the other half-dozen men standing in line.

 

Heavens above. This all seems a bit excessive for one pretty-in-pink girl. Anthony heard a rumour that she might be a candidate for the Queen’s diamond, but all the same, this is plainly absurd.

 

He’s better off without this fashion for debutantes, he decides with conviction. In fact, every time he has that thought, he finds he’s more and more convinced he never much liked the sound of marrying such a young lady in the first place.

 

He leaves the queue. He simply steps straight out of it, overtakes all the men in front of him. If they’re waiting for Miss Edwina’s attention, he sees no reason to wait with them.

 

He’s at the door of the drawing room, about to ask the servant standing there to announce him, when Miss Sharma herself strides straight out of it.

 

“Miss Sharma!” He exclaims, clasping the bouquet before him like a kind of shield.

 

“Lord Bridgerton.” She says, rather duller and less excited.

 

“Here - these are for you.” He holds the flowers out towards her.

 

For the second time in as many days - in all two meetings of their entire acquaintance - she looks absolutely taken aback.

 

“Really - for me?”

 

“Yes. I thought to pay a call on you after our lovely dance last night. Is this a convenient time? There seems to be quite a crowd.” He says, throwing a gesture over his shoulder at the line of her sister’s suitors.

 

“I don’t receive callers.” She says flatly.

 

“You don’t receive callers? In the same way you aren’t in the habit of dancing - but you did make an exception and dance with me last night? You rather enjoyed that exception, I thought.” He dares to suggest.

 

She gives a wry smile. “I must admit it was a pleasant way to pass half an hour. But truly, sir - I don’t receive callers.”

 

“So - you have never received a caller, because these fools are always here for your sister, or you are actually morally opposed to the concept?” He asks, somewhere between intrigued and increasingly horrified.

 

What if she doesn’t like him? What if, after four days spent planning his campaign to secure her hand, she doesn’t actually want him?

 

“I don’t receive callers, because I don’t engage in courtship. I have no intention of ever marrying. So anyone calling on me would be wasting his time.” She concludes.

 

He gulps. “You don’t intend to marry?”

 

“I am entirely set against the idea. When my sister has found her match I shall return to India and seek work as a governess.”

 

He gulps harder still.

 

He’s being foolish. Of course he is. He has no real fondness for this woman - he could so easily turn on his heel, walk out the door, and not look back. Heavens - he’ll even leave behind the flowers as a peace offering. He loses nothing else if he abandons this scheme now. He’s not had time to grow attached to Miss Sharma, and besides which, he doesn’t believe in attachment or affection or love matches anyway.

 

It’s only that he has already fallen deeply in love with the idea, even if he’s incapable of loving a woman. But he’s absolutely besotted with the concept of having some comfortable, undemanding companionship in his married life. That sounds rather more attractive than either dangerous passion or dull boredom.

 

And last night, on the dance floor, he did think they were doing well at easy companionship.

 

“Very well. You’re set against marriage - but could I still call on you sometimes and bring you flowers?” He asks, increasingly desperate. He’s not sure how that would help, to be clear, but in this moment he’s clutching desperately at the fast-unravelling threads of his sensible plan.

 

She narrows her eyes at him. “Let me be plain with you, Lord Bridgerton. I do not understand why you’re here. I find myself quite at a loss as to your motivations. I am not on the marriage market. You claim you’re not pursuing my sister - but frankly, all this attention to me can only be justified as a way to gain access to my sister, the way I see it. Or do you have another angle entirely? Are you here to ruin me for your own entertainment, perhaps? I learnt from my inquiries last night that you’re quite a rake - funny that you didn’t mention that to me yourself.”

 

He has no idea what to do, what to say, how to act. This wasn’t part of his plan at all. Nowhere in his notebook did he jot down thoughts about how to handle blunt questions and sour accusations.

 

Should he just be honest with her? Should he come clean in front of all these dandies queuing in the hall for her sister?

 

No. He’s quite convinced his dignity would not survive that.

 

He tries frantically to think about how he would handle a conversation like this with a friend or peer. With Thomas, or Simon, or even his brother Benedict.

 

Privacy. Honesty. A little gruff brusqueness. He’d speak plainly, but not particularly openly - that’s his way.

 

Very well. If he wants to marry a friend, he ought to treat her like one.

 

“Might we find some privacy for a candid conversation?” He asks carefully. “Perhaps we can sit in the corner of this drawing room where your sister is receiving her callers? We can put your flowers in a vase and then I’ll be completely honest with you.”

 

That’s it. He judged that right. She’s going for it, agreeing to it, nodding briskly and leading the way.

 

Very good. He’s learnt something useful today, then. She does like it when he levels plainly with her as respectfully as he might address a peer. That’s more of a hit with her than sleeves.

 

He’ll note that down in the book when he gets home.

 

He says his greetings to the other occupants of the drawing room. He watches Miss Sharma fuss over placing the flowers in water. She takes her time over it, he notes - sniffing the scent, tracing her fingers over the petals of some deep purple blooms.

 

He’s forced to conclude that she very much likes the bouquet but doesn’t know how to go about saying it.

 

That’s understandable, he thinks. He’s beginning to understand that she’s used to people overlooking her rather than giving her flowers. That she’s spent all her youth on Miss Edwina, poured all her energy into raising her sister, rather than expecting anything good for herself.

 

Hmm. He knows a thing or two about how that feels.

 

At last, she’s sitting at his side in the corner of the drawing room.

 

“You’ve asked me a great many questions and I’ll be plain with you.” He says, before she can ask.

 

She narrows her eyes at him. “No games or lies? I’ve heard that you are a rake.”

 

“You’ve heard that I’m a rake - but I’ll warrant you’ve heard I’m honest, too. I don’t think anyone would accuse me of being a liar.”

 

She nods.

 

“Very well. So here’s how it is. I am genuinely calling on you for your own sake. I brought those flowers entirely because I thought you might like them, and with no other agenda. I must admit that our families have been meddling, as families do - Lady Danbury recommended to my mother that I might like to get to know you. But that is the only subterfuge afoot here.”

 

“That you might like to get to know me?” She asks, pointed, brows raised.

 

“That I might like to marry you.” He admits. “And - in truth - I think I might. But you are certain you don’t wish to marry, so there we have it. Personally, I don’t see why I shouldn’t call on you anyway. We might still enjoy each other’s company. As I made the journey over here I found myself wondering whether I might offer to escort you to the races this afternoon.”

 

It’s mostly the truth. It’s as much truth as he can string together, in this moment, honestly. His mind is still reeling with the idea she doesn’t want to marry. Is that it? Does that mean his plan is over? If he keeps calling on her and tries to change her mind, does that make him the worst kind of person? Will that confirm him as the thoughtless rake she thinks he is - out to use others for his own selfish wants?

 

Or is he just a lost man who was hoping for some company at the races?

 

“You understand that I am not on the marriage market, and you’re definitely not interested in my sister, and you want to escort me to the races anyway?” She asks, thoughtful, searching his face carefully.

 

“Yes. You have it exactly right.”

 

“Very well. Then I suppose we are going to the races. I never say no to a day out at the races.”

 

He grins at her. “I knew you’d see sense.”

 

She laughs a short, sharp laugh. She throws him a look - somewhere between exasperated and amused. And then -

 

“Thank you for the flowers. They’re quite lovely.”

 

So his plans to marry her are in tatters. But at least he has a cheerful companion for the races this afternoon - and at least she is pleased with the flowers.

 

At least there’s that.

 

…….

 

The afternoon at the races gets off to the best possible start. Anthony is still persevering with flattery in a sense - all his experience to date indicates that is the way to woo women, so it’s hard to break the habit of a lifetime. But this afternoon he manages to hit upon a theme for his compliments which suits Miss Sharma better than fashion, evidently.

 

“I understand you’re quite the expert on horseracing. Perhaps you could help me to place my bet wisely?” He tries, as they amble arm-in-arm towards the stands.

 

He’s as surprised as anyone that she’s holding his arm, for the record.

 

She frowns - but a thoughtful frown, this afternoon, not a displeased one. “Not many horses will like the conditions today. It’s rather hot but the recent rain has left the ground heavy. That suits no one.”

 

“I think it might suit Rising Star. She’s lightly built and full of running.” He offers.

 

She gives him a considering sort of look for that - pleasantly surprised, perhaps, as if he has exceeded her low expectations of him, or of gentlemen in general.

 

“What - you like my reasoning?” He pushes her.

 

“You might be right.” She concedes. “But I’m not sure I wish to admit that you are right so soon. Come - let us try to get a view of the horses. I’m sure I can pick out another to challenge your Rising Star.”

 

He can’t help but laugh a little at that. She’s willing to admit his logic is sound - but still not ready to hand him the victory.

 

All the same, he certainly won’t say no to spending a little time watching the horses warm up and discussing their qualities. That strikes him as a damn sight more interesting than any idle chatter he managed to share with an insipid debutante over tea last week.

 

Sure enough, they manage a good conversation over the horses. And then they manage a good conversation sitting in the stands and watching the races - and an even better conversation as they each collect their winnings, crowing over their various victories, getting competitive all over again about races already won.

 

They end up buying each other a glass of lemonade, as the afternoon draws to a close. Anthony’s not sure how that happens, honestly. He was so set on doing the gentlemanly thing and insisting on getting Miss Sharma a drink - but somehow, she’s buying one for him, too, as if they were peers or equals.

 

As if they were friends. Just chaps who went up to university together, fellows who like to discuss sport.

 

Only she’s rather easier on the eye than any of his university pals, he must admit.

 

By the time they make their way home, Anthony is entirely convinced that this has been the best day of his life. And he can’t shake off the idea that every day could be like this, if only he and Miss Sharma were to marry.

 

But she doesn’t intend to marry.

 

Yet again he finds himself musing on that particular problem. He’s hardly going to recommend himself to her as a decent man if he brings it up time and time again, if he tries to change her mind. Friends shouldn’t exert pressure on friends - he’s quite certain of that much. He remembers well one time Thomas tried to convince him to buy a volume of fashionable poetry he had no interest in, and he ended up resenting it quite sorely for a while - and husbands are rather more substantial than books, to be sure.

 

Maybe he’s looking at it all wrong. Maybe he shouldn’t spend this evening obsessing over the question of whether she will ever be persuaded to marry him. Today has been wonderful precisely because there has been no hint of marriage in the air. Rather, they have dived headfirst into a genuine friendship. So perhaps he can simply keep spending time with her in this friendly fashion, as if she were a gentleman, and hope that one day she’ll fall at his feet and beg him to propose.

 

Hmm. In his dreams.

 

…….

 

Sure enough, she does feature in his dreams that night - and he suspects she’ll be appearing for many nights thereafter.

 

But these are not respectful dreams of chaste friendship. They’re not about shared interest in gentlemanly pursuits, not about sport or horseflesh or rifles.

 

No. These are dreams of bare skin, dark eyes, coy smiles. Of her confident hands and bold lips.

 

They’re dreams of having her in his bed, as his wife in every sense of the word.

 

Has he only known her for two days? He feels like he’s been mapping her body with his eyes for years.

 

…….

 

He goes to call on her a couple of mornings later. That’s an attempt to take back control of the situation, to some extent, and put out of mind all these troublesome dreams. He knows he’s only obsessed with her because he’s so deeply in love with the idea of marrying her. So he supposes it’s a wise move to quell his passions by spending time with the real, living, woman, rather than only this perfect creature of fantasy his imagination has conjured up.

 

So it is that he presents himself at Lady Danbury’s townhouse with a bouquet of flowers and a curricule. He doesn’t try to take the curricule inside, to be sure - he hasn’t entirely lost his mind, even if his sudden obsession with Miss Sharma does seem to be playing dangerous games with his sanity. He leaves it parked in the street outside, one of the footmen watching over it, while he strides towards the drawing room.

 

He’s very careful and proper about his visit. He waits for the servant to announce him, then enters the room and bows neatly to everyone.

 

“Miss Sharma - some flowers.” He offers the bouquet to her, his brow raised at what he hopes is a jaunty angle. “They’re purple again, as you see. I want to make it quite clear that’s not because I lack imagination, but rather because you did seem so fond of the last bouquet.”

 

“Hmm. Are you protesting too much, perhaps?” She asks, teasing. “Surely the only man who would protest that he does not lack imagination, is one who fears that very accusation might be warranted.”

 

“I’ll have you know I’m very imaginative.” He argues, warming to her challenge.

 

“Really? Do you often play at games of make-believe with your younger siblings, then? Do you perhaps write plays and take part in amateur dramatics?”

 

If only she knew. If only she had any idea of the hours he has wasted, these last few days, on make-believe - on imagining a life with her at his side.

 

He chooses not to mention that to her, though, strangely enough.

 

“Would a man who lacked imagination invite you out for a drive around Hyde Park this morning?” He asks instead.

 

“Yes.” She says flatly. “That’s hardly an original idea, My Lord. Gentlemen take ladies for carriage rides all the time.”

 

He grins in victory. He’s won, here - he’s quite certain of it. She’s starting to look disappointed, all the teasing and argument deflating out of her - and so she’s going to be all the more thrilled when he unleashes the surprise he has parked up outside.

 

“Ah - this is where we arrive at the imaginative part, Miss Sharma.” He offers. “I am not simply taking you on a drive so you may look at the view and be thoroughly bored. I am inviting you to drive. Have you ever learnt? I have my curricule waiting outside.”

 

Sure enough, that’s a hit. She looks beyond pleased with his idea - and her smile seems all the brighter from coming after that slight disappointment, just now.

 

“You would trust me to drive your curricule? That seems rather brave on such short acquaintance, sir.” She teases him. “I’ve never learnt how to drive, but I believe I know the theory. If you could drive us to some quiet part of the park maybe I might practise there?”

 

“Excellent. Let’s do that. Do you need time to change?” He asks, suddenly wondering if he ought to have anticipated that stumbling block.

 

She casts a quick look down at her simple day dress. “No. This will do quite nicely. Let’s get on our way.”

 

She starts striding to the door. Anthony hasn’t even been offered tea, yet - but frankly he doesn’t care. He came here to spend some time with Miss Sharma rather than to sample the refreshments. Tea tastes the same in every household in London, as best he can tell, but this is the only place where he can enjoy her company.

 

He’s on the point of walking out of the door after her when a thought occurs to him.

 

“A moment - Miss Sharma - shouldn’t we take a chaperone?”

 

A pause. A brief, sudden silence. Evidently no one was expecting Miss Sharma to need a chaperone this morning. No one was expecting her to have a personal caller, or be invited on a drive, or anything of the kind.

 

“Perhaps we don’t need one.” She says cautiously. “I am a confirmed spinster, so really there’s no -”

 

“My maid will join you.” Lady Danbury interrupts her smoothly, ringing the bell.

 

In another life - in another world, where women can wield more than walking sticks - Anthony thinks Lady Danbury might make a good Lord High Admiral.

 

…….

 

Miss Sharma takes to driving the curricule like a duck to water.

 

Of course she does. Anthony has never even seen her ride, yet, but he’s ready to wager she would win at Ascot if she were on a halfway decent horse. Reports of her all-round competence at a range of sporting and leisure activities were evidently well-founded.

 

In short, he finds her rather impressive - but perhaps that’s only because he’s found himself growing so fond of the idea of marrying her. Perhaps it’s a sort of side effect, that she can now do no wrong in his eyes.

 

Although - she can be wrong, to be clear. He loves that most of all. There’s nothing more enjoyable than bickering with a beautiful woman he respects, it turns out.

 

He’s never had the chance to learn that before.

 

“You should have taken that left more sharply.” He tells her, an hour into her first attempt at driving. He’s nitpicking, frankly. She still got around the corner competently enough.

 

More sharply?” She asks him, brows raised. “You would have me take a more dangerous line?”

 

“I would have you judge the risks and rewards more accurately. This is a light vehicle, easy to manoeuvre at speed. There’s no need to be so cautious.”

 

He hears himself say those words, takes a moment to think back over them. Is he really talking about driving a curricule around corners? Or is he just frustrated that she won’t see the rewards that come with another risk she refuses to take? Is he implicitly accusing her of avoiding marriage because she’s scared?

 

No. Of course not. He’s just talking about driving.

 

She takes him at his word. She chooses the next right hand turn, for no other reason that to charge around it at full speed and tilt them slightly sideways, he thinks.

 

“Better?” She asks, and she sounds rather smug.

 

“Yes. Indeed. Very… aggressive.” He tries. “A good exploration of the limits of these wheels.”

 

She laughs. “I overcooked that one and we both know it.”

 

“But we stayed upright - more or less.”

 

“It was a close thing.”

 

“Yes. Perhaps there’s a middle way.”

 

There is. Her next corner is perfect - confident but comfortable.

 

He supposes it can’t hurt to tell her that, flattery being the way to woo a woman and all. Or perhaps heartfelt, genuine compliments are even better.

 

“That was nicely done. You’ve taken to this rather well.” He offers lightly.

 

She throws him a sharp grin, and drives a little faster.

 

…….

 

They go driving several more times in the days which follow. That forms the bulk of the time they spend together in friendship, but it’s not all they do. 

 

Occasionally they sit in Lady Danbury’s drawing room drinking tea, but he doesn’t think that’s either of their preferred way to spend a morning. He’s learned lately that Miss Sharma despises English tea - and honestly, he’s quite certain she despises tedious English drawing room conversation, too.

 

They attend a boxing match one afternoon. That’s not her favourite sport to spectate, she decides, but she tells him she’s glad all the same that he offered to escort her and didn’t bore her with some speech about it being no place for a lady.

 

He stores that piece of information carefully in his notebook. Miss Sharma doesn’t like to be patronised, and doesn’t like the idea of a man trying to decide what’s best for her.

 

A couple of rather agreeable weeks pass in this fashion. Driving. Conversation. Laughter and teasing and bickering, and a pair of fine eyes which haunt his dreams.

 

And then, for the first time since that first night, Anthony finds that he is due to see Miss Sharma in a crowded ballroom.

 

He’s not at all sure how to handle this. He’s been trying to jot some thoughts down in his notebook and make a plan, because he’s still clinging to that old belief that thorough preparation is the way to secure a suitable wife and a dutiful marriage. But frankly he’s been wracking his brain for days and he’s still no closer to having a plan for this evening.

 

The problem is, Miss Sharma is set against marriage. She tolerates him calling on her, going on outings with her, chatting with her in friendship. But would she be willing to partner him in a dance? Or would that smack too much of courtship for her tastes?

 

In the end he decides there is an easy way of resolving this mystery. He could just ask her.

 

So it is that he arrives at the ball. He escorts his mother and sister to a good spot in the corner near the refreshments. He pats Colin heartily on the back and encourages him to go and have fun. He knows his duty - it’s important to ensure his family are all set up for the evening before he goes to spend time with Miss Sharma.

 

At last, finally, he is standing before her and ready to ask the question. Or at least, he will be ready in just a couple of moments - just as soon as he’s finished gazing at her, drinking in the sight of her, appreciating the way her dress skims her figure and those sweet little sleeves expose her long, slender arms.

 

He really must have it bad if he’s genuinely admiring her taste in sleeves, rather than only making a bit of flattery out of it.

 

He clears his throat. Best get on with asking the question before she thinks he’s lost his tongue.

 

“How do you feel about dancing? Honestly?” He asks her plainly. “I know you’ve said before now that you don’t usually dance - but I’d ask you to partner me for a set if I thought you’d say yes.”

 

“Yes. Absolutely. Let’s dance.”

 

Oh. Well. That was all rather easier than he was expecting - almost anticlimactic, perhaps. Evidently sometimes the notebook is less useful to him than an open and honest conversation.

 

In an ironic sort of turn, he thinks he’d do well to write that in his notebook for future reference.

 

He shakes that thought off, gets on with leading her out onto the floor.

 

“How are you?” He asks, direct and straightforward, as he might ask any friend. He hasn’t seen her in over two days, now, and that’s altogether too long for his liking. He’s eager to hear all her news.

 

She cocks her head, as if considering that question, as the dance begins.

 

“Miss Sharma?” He prompts her, worried. Why the delay?

 

“I’m trying to decide how to approach your question.” She says easily. “For my own part I am well, but Edwina has been under the weather these last couple of days. You know how it is - I can never truly feel well when she is poorly or unhappy. You must be the same with your siblings.”

 

He nods. He can certainly relate to that. Not for the first time, he finds himself thinking that Miss Sharma would make a fine Viscountess - that enduring compassion for the people in her care would serve her well.

 

“I hope she feels better now?” He asks. He thinks he did see her on the dancefloor a few moments ago.

 

“Yes, she is much recovered. Or at least, she insisted she was well enough to attend tonight. I think she’ll be overtired in the morning.”

 

“I hope for both your sake and hers that she is well.” He says, heartfelt.

 

“Thank you for your good wishes. And you? How was that dinner you were so dreading last night? How is -”

 

That’s when it happens. When they miss their steps, somehow, and she ends up kicking him hard in the shin.

 

He stumbles, off balance, and tries not to curse at the sudden pain. She’s half-falling forward, grabbing at his shoulder to steady herself. They’re both making quite the scene, in short - and evidently both rather shocked by the mishap. There’s a startled light in her eyes when she manages to right herself.

 

“I do believe you’re not supposed to kick your partner.” He bites out, annoyed and in pain. She has a strong kick, as it happens.

 

“I was hardly trying to kick you, sir. You’re the one who went right when you should have gone left and met with my foot.”

 

“I met with your foot? Is that what you’re calling it? You kicked me - quite hard, may I add - and it was my own fault? I’m quite certain I went in the right direction.” He rants. 

 

He’s not a very friendly sort when he’s hurting and embarrassed, it turns out. Probably he’ll regret this later and be mortified about it. He’s certainly not doing a very convincing impression of a sensible, dutiful Viscount, just now.

 

But perhaps he is doing a good impression of a man behaving openly and naturally with a friend. If Simon caused him some genuine injury whilst they were fencing together, he’d want him to know about it.

 

But Miss Sharma isn’t answering back at him with her usual sharp wit. She’s gone quite quiet, in fact, and is simply staring at him with wide eyes rather than starting to dance again.

 

“Have you nothing to say for yourself, Miss Sharma?” He needles her.

 

She bristles. “Only that I presume you won’t want to dance with me again if I’m such an incompetent partner.”

 

All at once, he realises that he’s gone too far. That any friend would be affronted if he took a bad mood out on them like this. That this was a harmless accident, and she’s taken his blame and his harsh words to heart.

 

He scrabbles to fix his mistake. 

 

“You’re quite wrong. I’d love a second set if you’re game.” He says simply. “I promise I’ll try to be less disagreeable if you grant me another - I am sorry I lost my temper there. It - ah - it is possible that I am the one who got the steps wrong. I suppose I was loath to admit that, in the moment, when I was so embarrassed about making a scene and feeling the pain.”

 

She nods slowly. “And are you well now? Is your leg injured? Should we retire from this set?”

 

“I’m not giving up a set with you. Why - we’ve only just started. We still have three-quarters of the dance left and I intend to make the most of it.”

 

That works. That breaks the moment, has her laughing. It’s a little more tense than her usual laugh, to be sure, but he decides it’s progress all the same.

 

“I’m still waiting for a report on your health and the state of your leg.” She reminds him, mock-stern.

 

“I’m quite well.” He tells her.

 

She waits.

 

“I am physically fine.” He amends his answer. “I’m sure I’ll have a bruise in the morning, but my pride is more damaged than my shin. I - ah - I suppose my pride has always been quite fragile since I became Viscount. I was thrust into the role quite young and it has never sat easily on my shoulders.” He dares to admit.

 

She understands. Her eyes are warm and soft, and she’s nodding slowly at him. She’s started dancing again, too, leading him gently back into the flow of the steps.

 

She’s remarkable. Altogether too good for him. To think that, when he first met her not so long ago, he decided she’ll do. He remembers it well. And now he’s quite convinced there’s not a man on Earth who could come close to deserving her.

 

Maybe that’s why she’s so set against marriage.

 

“Would you like us to speak about that? Or do you prefer to discuss lighter matters whilst dancing?” She asks.

 

Of course she does. Offering him understanding but also an easy way out, right when he needs it the most. Has she really forgiven him so easily for being such a bear just now?

 

He swallows hard. He doesn’t deserve her. He can’t repay her for her kindness. He’s feeling thoroughly inferior to her in every way, tonight, frankly - despite the difference in their stations.

 

But there is, he thinks, one very small way in which he might return the favour. He might continue in his campaign to convince her that she’s worthy of a man’s notice, if ever she wants to be. To show her that if she chose to consider courtship she’d deserve all the favour in the world. To show her that flowers and flattery and morning callers can be for her, as well as for her sister.

 

“I want to talk about your sleeves.” He tells her outright. “I know you object to compliments as a general rule, but I truly do think we should discuss your sleeves tonight. They show your elegant arms off to great advantage. I really do think you should know that.” He reiterates once more for good measure.

 

She looks taken aback. Genuinely and utterly shocked. He loves that face most of all her faces - the surprised expression she keeps wearing whenever he treats her as a desirable, eligible woman.

 

“You have that many thoughts about my sleeves?” She manages to ask at last.

 

“I have a great many thoughts about your person in general.” He dares to admit. “But again, I know compliments make you uncomfortable, so I shall keep the rest of them to myself.”

 

She is definitely the next one to make a mistake in the dance, out of the two of them. She falters, misses her step while she’s staring at him wide-eyed.

 

He doesn’t make a fuss about it. He simply steers her right, steadies her with a hand on her waist and leads her into the next turn.

 

She smiles at him softly, and they go on dancing.

 

…….

 

Some weeks pass by in much the same fashion. Anthony goes driving with Miss Sharma, and tries not to stare as she becomes increasingly confident handling the reins. He tries not to wish that she’d handle him like that, one of these days.

 

He dances with her a couple more times in ballrooms, too, but thankfully there’s less of that and more of the driving. Dancing with her is worse for his sanity, he thinks. He’s never entirely comfortable when she’s dressed as an eligible young lady and they’re taking part in the more traditional rituals of courtship.

 

It is, in short, one of the better seasons of his life.

 

He hasn’t fallen in love with her, though, to be clear. He remains quite convinced that love should have no place in any marriage he might consider. Love is a messy, distressing, troublesome emotion, and he wants no part in it.

 

He simply appreciates Miss Sharma as a friend who happens to be a beautiful woman. He doesn’t love her, but he’s perfectly willing to admit he loves the idea of the future they could have together, loves the life he could live if she’d marry him. He maintains that it would be comfortable, companionable and deeply convenient if she would be his Viscountess.

 

He presumes she’s still set against marriage, though. He presumes she’d tell him if she changed her mind about a thing as serious as that.

 

She does tell him other useful things, though. She tells him about raising her sister, losing her father, and they bond over duty and bereavement in turn. She tells him that she might not mind his comments about sleeves so much after all, because in fact she does enjoy choosing her dresses almost as much as she enjoys riding or hunting.

 

And then one afternoon - one glorious sun-kissed afternoon in Hyde Park - she tells him something even more thrilling.

 

She tells him exactly where she plans to take her morning ride tomorrow, and when he might find her there, if he’s at all interested in joining her.

 

…….

 

He does join her for that ride the next morning. How could he say no to such an enticing invitation?

 

His stomach is churning in excitement as he rides out to meet her - definitely excitement, and certainly not nerves. He’s finding that setting out to see Miss Sharma feels quite like going to an assignation with Siena but a thousand times better - and infinitely more chaste.

 

He’s beginning to think he’d do anything to get her into his bed, though, for the record - and into the marriage bed most of all.

 

No. That thought has no place here. This is no morning for dwelling on such melancholy, peevish complaints. Miss Sharma won’t like it if he shows up all sour and presses her on the matter of marriage.

 

Better to wear his best sunshine face to match the dawn.

 

He arrives early. Naturally he does. He’s quite prompt, in general, since he started taking his duties more seriously and stopped dallying with Siena. It’s one of the tips he gathered in his notebook quite early on in this search for a bride, as it happens - ladies like their suitors to be on time.

 

He beats Miss Sharma, in fact. He arrives at the meeting point before her, and has a whole three minutes of sitting tense in his saddle and wondering whether she’ll really show her face after all, or whether this is all some trick or ruse.

 

No. She’s here now. She’s riding towards him, galloping over the ground at a frankly alarming rate.

 

“There’s no need to rush. You’re not late.” He calls out to her. He’d hate for her to have an accident out of fear of keeping him waiting.

 

“I know I’m not late. I’m not rushing.” She counters, with a gleeful little snatch of laughter.

 

She’s drawn level with him now. He has a go at bowing in the saddle, but mostly he greets her by staring shamelessly at her lips instead. He only has so much self control, and a dawn ride with the woman he intends to marry is already stretching it rather thin.

 

“That was my usual speed.” She continues, grinning a sharp grin. “If you thought that looked too brisk for comfort then I wish you luck with this morning ride. You’ll need it.”

 

He laughs. “You say that like you have planned some great trial for me.”

 

“I have, in a manner of speaking. Come - there’s a sort of course I like to ride in the mornings. Follow me, and learn it, and perhaps we could race over it in the future.”

 

In the future? They are to keep meeting up for informal morning rides like this in the future, too? It’s something she plans to do again - a regular excursion together?

 

She must realise that’s highly improper. And although she’s got something of a rebellious streak, he knows she doesn’t like to flout the rules of society entirely. She still likes to be respectable enough to protect her sister’s good name, if nothing else.

 

So, if she’s planning to take the risk of riding unchaperoned with him often, she must very much enjoy his company. That’s the only way the risk can be worth the reward, as he sees it.

 

Well, then. That’s brightened his morning considerably.

 

“It’s just as well I brought my notebook. We can keep a record of our wins and losses - a sort of league over many rides.” He suggests. “I used to do a similar thing for all my boxing matches with Simon when we were younger. I noted down two years’ worth of sparring with him.”

 

She’s grinning at him brighter still. “I do hope you are prepared to record a good number of defeats, My Lord.”

 

He laughs. “Don’t speak too soon. I might well surprise you and -”

 

It’s too late. In a sweet stroke of irony she’s already gone, already streaking away across the stretch of grass before them. She’s steering her horse directly at the nearest fence, leaping over it in one smooth jump.

 

He makes haste to follow her.

 

“That’s cheating!” He calls after her. “A head start like that -”

 

“How else was I supposed to show you the way?” She calls back, and her laughter comes carried with it on the breeze.

 

“You hardly need such an advantage.”

 

“Don’t get upset now, My Lord.” She teases. “We can take another circuit of the course when you lag behind on this first one. Maybe we can keep going all morning until you catch me.”

 

Damn her. Damn her infuriatingly graceful and competent riding. She’s some way ahead of him, shouting her taunts back to him, and yet she doesn’t even sound out of breath.

 

He chuckles a little to himself. He seems to remember, once upon a time, that he was worried she might not be a good rider. That she might not be such an entertaining companion for him as his mother and Lady Danbury were hoping.

 

Hmm. Well. It looks like that was a waste of a worry.

 

…….

 

His mother catches him walking into the house two hours later, tired and sweaty and wearing a huge grin.

 

She gets rather the wrong end of the stick.

 

“Where on Earth have you been, Anthony? Were you - were you dallying with that opera singer again? I thought you were serious in your search for a wife. Most ladies won’t like it if they know you’re out with a lover while you’re trying to court -”

 

“You’re wrong.” He informs her brightly. “No opera singer. No whoring. I was out riding with Miss Sharma.”

 

She looks even more scandalised at that. “Riding? With Miss Sharma? At this time in the morning?”

 

“Yes.” He agrees, tone level. “She made a point of telling me where she takes her early morning ride. She’s a great sport - a really capital girl - although I think she let me win the third. A wonderful idea of yours, mother, that I should marry someone who can be a real friend to me.”

 

She seems to have forgotten her shock, now, as she smiles softly at him. “So all is going well? You truly are planning to marry her?”

 

He frowns a little at that. “I… would like to. Now I only have to convince her to have me.”

 

“Surely that’s not in question? If she’s inviting you for improper early morning rides I rather think it’s a done deal.”

 

“She’s set against marriage.” He tells her, but this morning even that old problem cannot drag his mood down so very low. “I must admit I’m not entirely sure what to do - I think she’d find it rude and disrespectful if I tried to change her mind. But while I puzzle it out, I suppose I will keep enjoying an occasional morning ride with her. Good day, mother. The weather’s very fine out.”

 

He nods at her, bows, gives her half a hug for good measure. He’s hardly hugged his mother at all since he became Viscount, but today seems like a good day to rectify that. He’s feeling rather jolly, disposed to be pleased with the world.

 

He actually catches himself whistling as he walks off up the stairs. Whistling. He - Viscount Anthony Bridgerton - is whistling as he climbs a staircase.

 

“In fact, I think I can hear it starting to rain.” His mother calls after him, laughter in her voice.

 

Let her laugh. Let her tease him for his foolish cheerfulness, let her mock his optimistic oversight of the weather.

 

He stands by his judgement, more or less. He stands by the tone of it, if not the detail.

 

It’s a very fine day today, regardless of whether it rains.

 

…….

 

The next time he calls to take Miss Sharma driving he is met with a most unpleasant surprise.

 

“I can’t join you today.” She tells him, wearing a downcast expression even as she sniffs at the bouquet he has just handed her.

 

Hmm. He wonders what’s wrong. Normally a purple flower or two is just the thing to put her in the mood to enjoy his company.

 

“Do you have some other engagement?” He asks, puzzled. He can’t see how she could have plans with another caller when she is set against being courted. Or is she perhaps planning to make a social call on a young lady of her acquaintance?

 

He thinks that’s unlikely. His own sisters are the only women he’s ever seen her converse with at any length. Mostly he monopolises her attention at social occasions, rather than leaving her to giggle with the debutantes.

 

“No. It’s not that. I have no fixed plans.” She shoots him a look, visibly uncomfortable. “It is only that - really, I should stay at home this morning. I should stay with my sister while she receives suitors. We - ah - we had a conversation last night which made me feel rather guilty about my lack of attention to her and her prospects. I have been absent too often lately.”

 

He frowns at her. He thinks that’s utter rubbish. He’s never known anyone so devoted to their younger sibling - he’s quite certain she puts his own dutifulness to shame. This season she’s spent hours researching Miss Edwina’s suitors, hours chaperoning her, hours simply brushing her hair, as far as he can tell from the little fragments of her relationship with her sister he has glimpsed along the way.

 

In fact, the way he sees it, the time she spends on outings with him is more or less the only time she has to spend on her own pursuits, outside of her short sister’s long shadow. Even then, her health and happiness are often topics of conversation between them.

 

So, in short, he thinks she’s being an utter fool.

 

“That’s nonsense.” He tells her robustly. “You’ve been absent for an hour or two, a couple of mornings a week. I’m sure your mother and your sister have managed perfectly well without you during our outings so far, and will do so again today.”

 

She frowns at him, hard.

 

He presses on. “If you don’t wish to come driving with me there’s no need for such a poor excuse. You can just tell me honestly if you’d rather not.”

 

He’s trying to prod her into saying that she really does want to join him on an excursion, of course. He’s trying to provoke her, trying to get some clues as to where she honestly stands on the matter of spending time in his company.

 

She doesn’t take the bait.

 

“You know I take my duty to my sister’s happiness very seriously.” She says, tone level, perhaps a little too crisp. “I believe I’ve neglected that duty recently. I’ve been too swept up in our new… friendship and I’ve lost sight of my duty to her.”

 

He’s frowning harder than he’s frowned in months - since Miss Sharma walked into his life with all her sharpness and sunshine, he thinks.

 

He counted duty three times in that little speech. And frankly, he thinks that’s more than being loyal or compassionate or a good, family-focussed future Viscountess.

 

He thinks that’s just unhealthy, in fact, to put herself last as selflessly as all that.

 

She deserves better. That’s why he tries it. That’s why he makes the proposal - not a marriage proposal, but a step along the way, perhaps.

 

“Can I invite you to spend some time at Aubrey Hall - your whole family?” He asks. “I promise to invite all the eligible gentlemen for your sister. You can even help choose the list. That way you and I can spend some time out driving or hunting, safe in the knowledge that she has only suitable suitors to keep her company and is well set-up. And I suppose - that is -” He sighs, tries again. “Perhaps spending some time with me in my family home might give you a chance to see that marrying me wouldn’t be so very bad after all.”

 

She stiffens. “I’ve told you I don’t intend to marry.”

 

He sighs. “I know. I know you have. I don’t mean to - to exert any pressure on you, I suppose. If you’re still set against the idea after you’ve spent some time with me at Aubrey Hall, I’ll say no more about it. But please give me a chance, Kate - a chance to show you how perfectly we could make a life together.”

 

She blinks at him, fast, as if she has not kept up with him, for once in her life. “You’re saying you would propose to me if you thought I’d accept? You truly want to marry me?”

 

“More than I’ve ever wanted anything in my life, I think.” He admits, hoarse, his eyes fixed on the flowers in her hands.

 

That really is a fine bouquet. Can she be surprised that he wants to marry her, when he keeps appearing at her door with flowers like that? Yes, to be sure, he’s been careful to discuss friendship rather than courtship. But isn’t it obvious?

 

He’s not looking at her when she says it. When she gives him just a glimmer of hope at last.

 

“If I was going to marry anyone, I can think of worse men than you.” She says.

 

Her voice is too quiet, too unsure. She sounds most unlike herself. It’s the first time he’s ever heard her so much as engage in hypotheticals when it comes to the question of marriage, and he thinks that has to be a good sign.

 

But he shouldn’t push her. He shouldn’t press his luck. He should be a good, easy friend and back away from the subject now with a joke or a dare or an invitation. He’s not in the habit of making his gentlemen friends uncomfortable with emotional conversations - and he knows how much he hates it when his brothers try to do it to him, try to insist on talking about their father or something of the kind.

 

“So you’ll consider joining my family for a trip to the country? A house party with a few of your sister’s suitors, too? If we make our plans soon enough you’ll be in time to join in the annual family game of Pall Mall - and I know how much you would enjoy beating us all at that.” He teases her lightly.

 

She brightens. “Pall Mall? What’s that?”

 

“A sort of lawn game with mallets and wickets. You must hit a ball in the right direction - all very futile but tactical, I suppose.”

 

“You know me too well, Anthony. Pursuits which are futile but tactical are my favourite kind of pursuits.” She tells him, laughing.

 

He grins at her. In recent months he fears he’s come to know a thing or two about futile pursuits, but based on what Kate has said this morning, he begins to think he might not be pursuing her in vain after all.

 

Kate. Hmm. Funny how he’s only let that slip out just the once, and now she seems to be set on calling him Anthony in turn. Does she really listen so carefully to what he says? Does she hang on his every word? Was she just waiting for him to make use of her given name?

 

No. He’s being silly. Her grudging confession that he’s not the worst of men is hardly grounds to go dreaming that she might have developed a fondness for him.

 

All the same, though - she did call him Anthony.

 

He decides to test the waters, to seek just a little more clarity on this issue.

 

“So that’s a yes, Kate? Should I come and sit down and issue the invitation to your family and Lady Danbury now?”

 

“Yes. Yes, please do. Perhaps we could sit in the drawing room for a visit this morning even if I can’t leave and go out driving. I’m sorry - it might be more boring - but -”

 

“I’m quite sure I shan’t be bored.” He says easily.

 

“Good. Well, then. Come on and have a seat.” She gestures at last to the drawing room door. “Anthony.”

 

He feels his face break into the most absurdly broad smile, rushes to hide it behind his hand and turn it into a cough. That’s it. There’s his proof. That little pause, the warm, careful way she said his name.

 

She’s doing it knowingly, deliberately. She’s choosing to use his given name.

 

It’s official - he’s on first name terms with the friend he intends to marry.

 

…….

 

They plan the visit to Aubrey Hall together.

 

It’s magical, honestly. It’s the final proof if any were needed that she’d be an exemplary Viscountess. She doesn’t fuss and get flustered over the arrangements like a naive young debutante might. She’s perfectly confident as she chooses which of her sister’s suitors should attend, calculates how many carriages, how many seats at dinner will be needed.

 

“Miss Sharma will leave me with nothing to do. I understand she has actually sent for the florist herself.” His mother says to him, one afternoon, as she calls in at his study.

 

She doesn’t sound like she’s complaining, though. Or at least - he hopes she doesn’t.

 

“I’m sure she doesn’t mean to usurp your position.” He says carefully.

 

She laughs. “I think that’s exactly what she means to do, Anthony. I think she plans to show all of us - herself included - that she is ready to become Viscountess Bridgerton. And that’s exactly as it should be - I can’t imagine handing that title to anyone better suited to it.”

 

He gives a tight, tense little smile and hopes she’ll go away.

 

“Anthony? What is it? Whatever is the matter?”

 

Hmm. His mother has an infuriating habit of knowing and understanding her children. Sometimes he’s grateful for it, but sometimes he wishes she’d leave him alone to stew in his doubts.

 

“I suppose - it is only - it’s very important to me that this visit should go well.” He tries.

 

“I daresay it will go swimmingly, since Miss Sharma has taken such good care of all the arrangements.” His mother teases.

 

He’s not in a teasing mood. “I mean it. Everything must be perfect. We must be perfect - we need to show Miss Sharma that she would be comfortable as part of the family. She has - that is - we have discussed the question of marriage. This visit to Aubrey Hall is my chance to convince her to accept my proposal.”

 

He expects his mother to say something easy and soothing, about how lovely his little sisters and younger brothers are, or how fond Miss Sharma seems of him already. Something sort of sweet and placating and fundamentally empty.

 

She doesn’t. She surprises him with something much more substantial. He should have realised, by now, that no one ever becomes Viscountess Bridgerton without being quite a formidable sort of lady.

 

“You’re looking at it entirely wrong, dearest. Remember what we discussed the week before you first met her? We put her name forward on the basis she might be a friend to you, first and foremost. And that is how it has turned out, is it not?” She sighs, frowns, starts speaking again. “I suppose what I mean to say is that no one accepts the marriage proposal of a friend - or rejects it, either - based solely on the events of one week in the country. She will make her decision informed by every moment of your friendship and all the time you have spent together in recent months. So if you look at it that way, you have already done the better part of the work of wooing her, Anthony. You have very little left to worry about. Consider your task already mostly complete, and enjoy a week in the country with the woman you love.”

 

He gulps. He doesn’t love her. He doesn’t believe that love has any part in a sensible, functional marriage. His mother taught him all too sharply that love is just a way of asking to be hurt, an invitation to lose control.

 

But he’d love to marry her. That much is certainly true. And when he considers his mother’s logic, he supposes it does make a kind of sense. This week at Aubrey Hall will be only one part of his unconventional courtship of Kate Sharma.

 

Very well. Perhaps he will survive the experience with his nerves intact.

 

…….

 

The Sharma family have been at Aubrey Hall less than three hours by the time Anthony finds himself confronting a dangerous truth.

 

He loves Kate. He’s in love with her. He’s not just fond of her, doesn’t just love the idea of marrying her, but he’s gone and fallen thoroughly in love with the woman herself.

 

It’s a funny business. He’s been scared of love ever since he lost his father, but he’s not scared now. It turns out that falling in love is rather thrilling and exciting - even when tempered with the anxiety of wondering whether she will ever love him in turn.

 

He loves so many things about her. He can see that, now. He loves her laugh, her fire, her determination. He loves her softer side, too, and the warmth in her eyes. He loves that she’s tall, that her temper is short, and honestly, he does think she has immaculate taste in sleeves.

 

He loves every little detail about her, to be clear. He realises that rather abruptly when she trips him in the corridor.

 

She doesn’t mean to. It’s a complete accident. The hour is late - her family’s carriage was much delayed by a broken wheel - so the two of them are wandering around the house in the darkness. Anthony is just leaving the library, guided only by the flickering light of a lamp down the hall.

 

Kate is just trying to enter the library, presumably. But she never gets that far, because the two of them walk clumsily into each other, and Anthony finds himself staggering, falling, smacking sideways into the nearest wall.

 

Then he really crowns it all. Then he puts the finishing touch to this embarrassing moment by slipping down the wall until he’s sitting awkwardly on the carpet on his rear, legs sprawling out before him.

 

He must look like a complete fool. Before this season, he thinks, his pride wouldn’t have survived a moment like this. He used to be so highly strung, buttoned so tightly with all those ideas about dignity and duty.

 

But Kate has taught him to laugh, so he does just that. He sits on the carpet of his ancestral home and laughs at his own clumsiness.

 

“I’m so sorry.” She says, evidently torn between joining in his laughter and being somewhat concerned for him.

 

“Don’t be.” He tells her easily. “A silly accident, and I’m unharmed. Say - do you remember when you kicked me in that dance? You’re quite a dangerous lady to court.”

 

She lets it go. She doesn’t tell him he’s not supposed to court her, and he takes that for a success.

 

She simply crouches at his side and starts inspecting his hands.

 

“What are you doing, Kate?” He asks, curious.

 

“Checking you’re unharmed.”

 

She’s not doing anything of the kind. She’s just holding his hands, looking up into his eyes, leaning close as they curl together in corridor, just beyond the library doorway.

 

That’s it. That’s the very moment it hits him. He’s so utterly in love with her, and he’s realising it on the threshold of the library, about an hour past bedtime.

 

It’s one of the more absurd moments of his life, and that sets him to laughing all over again. And yet even as he laughs, he leans a little closer to her. Then she’s closing the gap, too, licking her lips and blinking her eyelids closed as she -

 

He pulls away. He must. He simply has to. If he doesn’t pull away now, he’s quite certain he never will.

 

“You’re dangerous.” He repeats, as he scrambles to his feet. She’s dangerous for more than just bruised shins - but he wouldn’t have her any other way.

 

She blinks up at him, eyes wide. She’s still caught in the kiss they didn’t share.

 

He’s so tempted to stoop back down and put that right.

 

No. He mustn’t. He holds a hand out to her, helps her to her feet.

 

“Were you going to the library?” He asks, carefully brisk. Best to dispel that strange, intimate mood as quickly and safely as possible.

 

“Yes. Sorry - I know it’s very late. And it’s not my library, of course.”

 

A nervous chuckle. It’ll be her library soon enough, and he’s beginning to suspect they both know it.

 

“I couldn’t sleep after a whole day cooped up in the carriage. I thought I might find something to read.”

 

“Yes. That is traditionally what one finds in a library.” He agrees, teasing. “But if you have spent too long cooped up, a book is not the best solution, I fear. I have a better idea.”

 

“Of course you do. Naturally - Anthony Bridgerton is always convinced he has a better idea.”

 

He grins at her for that. “Come on. We’re going on a walk in the gardens. It’s quite a mild evening and we’ll take a lantern.”

 

She says nothing. She just nods, eyes wide. Is she still caught up in that near-miss kiss?

 

He offers his arm and she takes it. He leads her out towards the gardens, collecting a lantern on the way, opening and closing each door on their route as softly as he can. He thinks it might give rise to a few awkward conversations, if they were to be caught on this little excursion.

 

They arrive outside. He decides to take her to the rose garden first - roses are supposed to be romantic, are they not? That seems a fitting choice for the night he realised he has truly fallen in love with her.

 

The roses look really beautiful at night, if he does say so himself. All the whites and pale pinks look luminescent in the darkness, sort of glowing under the light of the lantern.

 

He thinks he’s made a good choice. He thinks this is the perfect cheeky night time stroll for a courting couple. He turns to Kate, ready to crow about his victory when she congratulates him on his beautiful gardens and perfect choice of walk, as she surely shall.

 

Oh. Oh dear. She’s not congratulating him at all.

 

She’s weeping.

 

It’s awful. Simply horrible. He’s never seen Kate overcome by sadness before, and he’s not at all sure what to do about it. He’s seen his younger siblings cry on occasion, but not at all often - frankly, he is not the big brother they choose to lean on when they are sad.

 

He simply has no idea what to say.

 

“I’m sorry - did I - are you - that is -”

 

“I’m quite well.” She says, a little throaty, flashing him a brave smile. “I only found myself feeling quite emotional about the roses. It’s silly - I am sorry.” She starts brushing urgently at her eyes.

 

He reaches up, stills her hand. He brushes a couple of her tears away, slower and more tenderly - but then leaves her to weep. Not because he doesn’t wish to comfort her, to be clear, but because he wants to make it clear that she’s allowed to weep if she feels the need. He doesn’t want her to feel ashamed of having an emotional reaction in his presence.

 

“The roses upset you?” He asks softly, trying to make sense of this.

 

“No. Not quite. They’re truly lovely. It’s just - they always remind me of my childhood home. My father grew them, and our mother continued it for a year or two after he died but then the tradition lapsed - as such things do when someone passes away. It was a magical household - English roses but Indian tea - we grew up with the best of all the world, I think, for a time. Seeing this magical rose garden only reminded me of that.” She concludes softly.

 

“I’m sorry.” He repeats, a little helpless.

 

“Don’t be. It’s very beautiful. Thank you - a fine midnight excursion.” She says, in a carefully light tone.

 

He laughs. “It’s not yet midnight.”

 

“Then we had better keep walking.”

 

They do. But as they move off, as Kate takes a couple more shaky, snuffling breaths, he makes a point of covering her hand with his own.

 

He thinks that’s the sort of affectionate, comforting gesture which might be allowed on a midnight walk between courting friends.

 

…….

 

The following morning Kate is yawning at the breakfast table, and Anthony teases her about it mercilessly.

 

“Dear me, Miss Sharma, it would appear you’re tired.” He notes drily. “Did you not sleep well last night? Was something keeping you up - a very good book, perhaps?”

 

She gives a grudging laugh and rolls her eyes at him.

 

“Or perhaps your rest was disturbed by dreams of a dashing fellow romancing you.” Benedict suggests.

 

Anthony scowls. His brothers are not supposed to tease Kate. That’s a task for him alone.

 

Well - at least she doesn’t seem to enjoy Benedict’s teasing so much. She looks more embarrassed than entertained, he thinks. Hang on - was she dreaming of some handsome gentleman? Does Anthony need to go and challenge this rival to a duel?

 

Or is Benedict trying to tease that she was dreaming of Anthony himself? Hmm. Maybe that does make more sense. Maybe there’s no need to duel anyone on this fine morning.

 

“If you can’t stay awake you’ll struggle to win at Pall Mall.” He warns her now, mock-stern. “You’d better eat some more toast and keep your strength up at least. You’ll need all your energy when you’ve seen how Eloise plays.”

 

“Hmm. Yes. About that.” She lowers her voice to a confidential whisper. “I think we need a strategy, Anthony. We should make a plan.”

 

“A plan?” He asks, utterly drawn in. He’s heedless of the way his family are staring, as he whispers with a woman over the breakfast table. He simply doesn’t care if his siblings think he’s acting foolishly besotted with her.

 

That’s probably because he is - and he’s almost ready to admit to it, these days. He’s almost ready to admit to actually having tender feelings, almost able to open his heart again after so many years of hiding it.

 

“Yes. I’ve been thinking - we should join forces and present a united front to all your siblings. There must be a way in which we can work together to manipulate the game to our advantage. Better one of us should win than one of these younger ones.” She says, as if they are somehow a pair, a team, a couple. As if it’s only natural that she should want him to be the winner almost as much as she craves victory for herself.

 

He knows how competitive she is, so he takes that as a most remarkable compliment.

 

He nods, throws her a smile, puts another piece of toast on her plate. It’s a very fine piece of toast - just perfectly golden, toasted to the perfect degree of toastiness. And he loves her, so he wants to give her the finest toast his table has to offer.

 

Then he ducks his head low, presses his lips too close to her ear, and sets about whispering a strategy to her.

 

……..

 

Neither of them wins Pall Mall, in the end. The pair of them get far too caught up in a complex plan to sabotage Colin, and end up letting Benedict sneak straight past them.

 

Benedict - the most laid-back, least competitive of the entire family, and he wins this year’s Pall Mall contest.

 

Never mind. It doesn’t signify. And besides which, Kate and Anthony have far more luck on the hunt, bringing home a fine stag. Then there’s a day spent out riding - supposedly a leisurely picnic, but it soon becomes a race - and more time in the gardens, in the drawing room, showing her around the house.

 

Before he knows it, he finds that the ball to end the week is sneaking up on them fast.

 

”You’d better dance a set or two with me tomorrow evening.” She tells him pertly, as she drags him by the elbow around the terrace.

 

A brief promenade. That’s what she called this. That’s what she asked for, when she told him she was bored of sitting in the drawing room - and yet he could swear she’s racing to beat him, even now.

 

“I had better, had I?” He echoes, teasing.

 

She laughs. “Yes indeed. I know I am here to see my sister happily married but I might as well enjoy myself along the way.”

 

Yes. She is growing rather more relaxed about Miss Edwina - he’s noticed that over the course of the week. More and more with each passing day, she’s giving herself permission to go out on excursions with him rather than hovering over her sister.

 

He thinks it’s doing her a world of good, honestly.

 

Feeling rather comfortable and easy, in this moment, he reaches out to cover her hand with his as he makes his reply. “The first and the supper set?” He suggests.

 

“That’ll do nicely.”

 

“You don’t fancy making it a scandalous three?” He dares to ask.

 

She frowns at him, as if giving that serious consideration. “I think not. I wouldn’t like to ruin my sister’s prospects. But we shall have plenty of other opportunities to converse together, you and I, before this visit is over. In fact - what do you say we try the library again tonight? I never did get the chance to borrow a book. Someone distracted me.”

 

He nods, throws her a smile. But it’s a slightly stiff smile, he fears, because he’s struggling to keep some words bottled deep inside.

 

He’s struggling not to point out that every day could be like this, if only she would consent to marry him. Not to remind her that they could spend all their lives laughing and talking, taking promenades or meeting in the library or deerstalking over the parkland of his ancestral home.

 

He knows it’s right to keep quiet. It wouldn’t do to labour the point. That wouldn’t be friendly, wouldn’t be reasonable or respectful - and he understands better than ever, this week, that these are exactly the qualities his wonderful relationship with Kate are built on.

 

He’s ashamed to remember the man he was before she made her mark on his life. He can scarcely believe, now, that once upon a time, not so very long ago, he saw her across a ballroom and thought she’ll do.

 

She’ll do? What on Earth was he thinking? Kate’s hardly a teapot - satisfactory so long as it’s watertight. She’s a person, whole and complex and exasperating, frankly.

 

But she’s not satisfactory. She’s not good enough, not some last-chance solution to his marriage problem.

 

She’s the love of his life, pure and simple.

 

He only wishes she felt the same way.

 

…….

 

The ball is fine.

 

No - that’s too harsh. He’s being too pessimistic, as he used to be before Kate brought such sunshine into his life.

 

It’s a lovely ball. His mother and Daphne have outdone themselves with the decorations. Eloise looks a mite more relaxed than usual. Hyacinth and Gregory enjoy being allowed to stay up and watch the very first guests arrive. Miss Edwina seems somewhat serious in her affections for Lord Lumley, and he is certainly devoted to her - and seeing as he’d very much like to be her brother-in-law, Anthony notices that and is glad of it.

 

And Kate? Kate is simply radiant. She’s dressed all in gold, and whilst he thinks he’ll always have a fondness for her in purple, she does look truly regal in her beauty tonight.

 

Right. Yes. He’s definitely too far gone for her - since when does he care so much about the colour of a lady’s gown?

 

But despite it being a lovely ball, he’s disappointed all the same. He’s underwhelmed by being allowed to dance only two sets with his preferred partner. They were beautiful dances, to be sure, characterised by a mix of lively conversation and loaded, intimate silence. He couldn’t have asked for anything better.

 

No - he just wishes he could have asked for more.

 

Most of all he thinks it’s a shame that his two dances with Kate were over so early in the evening. He couldn’t have made a better choice, though, because he did want to open the occasion with her and also to have her company all throughout supper. Yet this means it’s been some three hours, now, since he had her undivided attention.

 

So it is that he’s moping in his study and wondering when he became such a lovesick fool.

 

No. He’s being daft. He shouldn’t just sit here and drink brandy - it’s a waste of fine spirits to drink alone. He won’t achieve anything by sitting here with a glass in his hand. If the cause of his melancholy is too much time spent without Kate, then he simply ought to go and find her. He’s sure she’d be amenable to a walk in the garden or something of the kind. She does seem to have enjoyed all their odd, unchaperoned and potentially scandalous excursions this week.

 

He gets to his feet, dusts his hands down on his breeches in a decisive sort of fashion, decides to take himself out of here. Quite right - much better to go find Kate and have a laugh than nurse a disappointed drink all alone.

 

He’s less than a foot from the door when she tumbles straight through it.

 

“Sorry - I didn’t mean - I was trying to be subtle.” She whispers, closing it carefully behind her.

 

He’s still staggering away from her, frankly. She rather took him by surprise there.

 

“Subtle? You were trying to be subtle by falling through my door?” He asks.

 

“I was trying to be subtle by opening it quietly and peeping through. I didn’t want to cause a scandal if any servants heard me knocking - or if you had company.”

 

“Why would I have company at two in the morning?”

 

“I’m here, aren’t I?”

 

He nods, but he frowns too. She’s not company. She’s simply Kate - the other half of his soul. She hardly counts - but in the best possible way. In as much as he’s comfortable in her presence just as he is in his own, and doesn’t feel like he has to make an effort around her at all.

 

So she’s not company. She’s better than that.

 

“It’s good that you stopped by.” He says, as if beautiful gentlewomen falling through his doorway at two in the morning is a perfectly normal occurrence. “I was just coming to look for you.”

 

“You were?”

 

“Yes. I thought we might take another walk. Or - or a dance, honestly. How do you fancy sneaking down to the ballroom now it’s empty?” He asks, warming up to that sudden idea quite quickly. “I am sorry I danced the last with my sister. It felt wrong to leave the most beautiful woman in the world standing there without a partner.” He tells her, leaning close.

 

She laughs. “Flatterer. Next thing I know you’ll be complimenting my sleeves.”

 

“You do always have immaculate taste in sleeves.”

 

They’re both laughing, now, as he reaches for her hands. “Come on. Dance with me. Let me put right my failure. Let my last dance of the evening be with you.”

 

She smiles up at him. “Very well, Anthony. But one condition - we dance here. We dance around this study and have a laugh together all the while. I must own I’m more comfortable here than in that vast ballroom.”

 

He nods. He understands her better, now. Once upon a time he complimented her sleeves rather suddenly and was surprised by her suspicion, then took her flowers and didn’t understand her stunned shock.

 

But they’re on the same page now. He knows she’s not accustomed to being the centre of social or romantic attention, for all that she’s a confident woman in so many other ways. And that’s fine. He loves her all the same, even if she still struggles to believe it every time he gives her flowers.

 

They don’t speak as they dance around the study. She’s humming some tune he doesn’t entirely recognise - something from her youth in India, he imagines - leaning her head on his chest a little when the dance allows. He’s thinking of how incredible it is that he was out riding with her this morning - or yesterday morning, now - and he’s dancing with her tonight. And they’ve jumped between those two opposites via a conversation about siblings and bookkeeping in the early afternoon, when she popped by this very study to see him trying not to resent paying for Francesca’s exorbitant piano tuition.

 

But she’s the one who says it. She’s the one who says the very thoughts he’s thinking.

 

“I never knew it could be like this.” She murmurs, her lips still close to his chest. “I never knew there could be a person in the world who would be my best friend and my perfect dance partner. Who could be my companion on the hunting field or in this study or anywhere in between. You make me laugh but you’ve seen me cry - and I don’t hate that, which is quite something, considering how much I usually hate to be seen in tears. Whatever I’m doing and however I feel, any moment is better with you.” She takes a deep, shaky breath. “I never realised love could be like this when I decided I would never marry.”

 

He feels his breath catch in his throat, swallows down a tangle of nerves and hope. “I know you’re capable of being very stubborn, Kate, but perhaps it is acceptable to change your mind sometimes.”

 

She laughs a tight, tense laugh. “Yes. That’s why I came here tonight - not to beg for a dance but to beg for a proposal, I suppose. I’m here to tell you I’ve changed my mind. I love you so deeply I can’t imagine remaining unmarried when you are in the world.”

 

His head falls to her shoulder. She’s no longer humming that tune, now. He’ll have to ask her what song it was and whether she’d like to share her memories of it with him another time. But for now, in the silence, they are still holding each other and swaying slowly.

 

“I love you.” He tells her, and the words come out as a sigh of relief more than anything.

 

But then he forces himself to do it properly, because Kate deserves that. She deserves more than a short sigh of relief and a fumbled embrace. She deserves flowers and flirtation and a proper courtship, not to feel like the spare elder sister, not to feel like she was chosen for convenience rather than anything else.

 

She deserves to feel loved, and flattered, and entirely special.

 

He pulls away from her, crouches down on one knee. He doesn’t have a ring, because he didn’t dare ask his mother to pass along the family ring while Kate was so set against marriage. It would have felt like tempting fate, somehow, to hope for a moment like this when he was unsure it could ever happen.

 

So he doesn’t have a ring, but he does have a heart full of love to lay at her feet.

 

“Miss Kathani Sharma. I think you know that I’ve been hoping to marry you for quite some time. But I must tell you that over the months we have known each other, my reasons for pursuing you have undergone quite a radical change.” He takes a deep breath. “I thought you were a sensible bride, once upon a time. Our families thought we would suit. I decided to set my cap at you out of duty.” He laughs. “Then you told me you wouldn’t marry me, and yet I persisted out of devotion. Out of love. I fell in love with you even when you were determined that I shouldn’t. And yet by some miracle, this evening - sorry, this morning - you tell me that you have done the same. So I ask you - will you marry me?”

 

“Yes. Certainly. I don’t see how I could refuse.” She says, bright and teasing. Laughing at herself, perhaps, for the fact she was set on refusing for so long. “I must congratulate you for making me fall in love with you despite myself. It was a wonderful pursuit, I must say - somehow nonchalant and gentlemanly yet quite naughty, all at once.”

 

He splutters out a laugh. He’s laughed a lot with Kate, in recent months, but as he takes her hands and gets to his feet he thinks this is the best laugh of the lot - loud and full and true, as she joins in as well.

 

He holds her close, wraps her in his arms and starts dancing again, as he keeps teasing her.

 

“Naughty? You are accusing me of being naughty?”

 

“Naughty and gentlemanly. Can you deny it when we’re dancing chastely in your study, unchaperoned, at two in the morning?”

 

“Look at us, Kate. Really look. You’ve been kissing the lapel of my coat these last ten minutes and my hands are not on your waist. You call this chaste and gentlemanly?” He asks, in a voice which he means to be teasing, and yet which comes out rather hoarse.

 

She doesn’t argue further. She’s still laughing, though, as she embraces him tighter still.

 

He’ll kiss her soon, he decides. Then he’ll marry her, and then he’ll bed her - and bed her often, frankly, if she’s willing.

 

But he’s genuinely not in a rush to do all that today, to take her virtue in the middle of the night in his study. It might be different, he thinks, if he were less comfortable and happy. If their courtship had been more of a struggle, if he didn’t have so many chances to be close to her and enjoy her company. If he were more frustrated and angry and unsure.

 

But as it is, he has his best friend in his arms - and the promise of her in his life all the rest of their days.

 

So it is that, honestly, he is entirely and wonderfully content.