It started during the lunch rush on a Saturday.
“Good afternoon, my name is Kate may I take your—oh.”
Looking back, she wished she could have kept the low note of distaste out of her voice. It certainly would have made the situation at hand much less awkward, but then again when had she ever been able to control her emotions around the contemptible man?
One would think the practiced mask of amenability she dawned when she clocked into work would be able to weather her disdain, but he proved to be much stronger than that. Which left them there—him sitting in a corner booth and her frozen before him, clutching at her notepad.
They stared at each other for second too long before Kate turned toward his companion, a gorgeous young woman with great posture who looked slightly familiar. “Would you like to get started with something to drink? Our half-carafes are discounted today.”
The woman looked between them with an expertly crafted blankness that Kate wished she was in possession of thirty seconds before. “I’m happy with water for now.”
Kate bit back a grimace and turned toward the devil himself. “And you?” Maybe it came out a little aggressive. Who was to say?
He stared her down with a look that indicated he was not impressed with her lack of emotive control and then ordered an IPA on draft. Kate tried to muffle her snort, she really did, but as she turned on her heel to go back to the kitchen, she felt eyes burning into her back. The kind of burning that suggested that they had both noticed.
Anthony tried not to stare as she walked away from the table.
When Siena suggested the restaurant—a very cheap, mediocre Italian place the paparazzi would never trail her to—he had no reason to believe that he would run into anyone he knew.
He did, and of course it just had to be Kate; the object of all his fantasies and nightmares, the menace to society herself.
“You two know each other?” Siena drawled, her lips tilted in amusement.
“Not in the way you think,” he grunted.
“She’s a friend of Colin’s. Hates my guts because I introduced myself to her sister at a party one time. You’d think I shot her dog in the head or something.” He paused. Siena was looking at him with an unimpressed expression on her face. “What?”
“Someone else I know would react that way too.”
“Wow, I’ve never been called a hypocrite before,” Anthony deadpanned. “Not once.”
“That’s not the witty retort you think it is.”
Anthony sighed. There they went again, derisive and haughty and not the slightest bit functional. This wasn’t how one went about getting closure. “I thought we were here to make amends,” he tried.
She shrugged. “We are, but I need a drink first. And maybe some breadsticks. I want to disappoint my personal trainer one more time before we shoot the music video.”
“Charming,” he commented.
“I’ll let my people throw money at trainers and then do what I want. How can I sign to a major label and go along with their image of me? I can’t sell-out with grace.”
She rocketed to stardom after they broke up. Mostly because of the popularity of some new singles she wrote about it with her producer. He would probably even like the songs if he was into indie-pop with heavy synth.
“It’s like you haven’t changed at all,” he mused.
She gave him a defiant stare. “I haven’t.”
“Siena, you know better than that. We both have.”
This earned him a slightly raised eyebrow. “My wine isn’t here yet.”
He knew it was a joke. Of course she didn’t need alcohol in her system to have this conversation, but he had to admit the implication was a reminder of reality.
It had been almost an entire year and they’d both changed. The change started long before that, though.
“Fine. Kate’s coming back anyway.” And there she was again, tall and confident, all dark hair and steely eyes— carrying a glass of water to their table.
God, his life was a nightmare.
Kate lowered the glass and grinned at Siena. “Alright, there you are. Would you like to start with any appetizers?”
“Yes, thank you,” she glanced up from her menu. “I’ll have one of those discount Pinot Noirs you mentioned and the cheesy bread sticks.”
“Good choice.” Kate smiled, less customer service-y and more genuine. Then she turned to Anthony and the smiled dropped away in an instant. “The bar’s backed up. Your drink is coming.”
She walked away without another word.
When the beer finally did arrive it was in an open bottle, flat and lukewarm as if it had sat in the sun for ten minutes. It took his entire resolve not to complain, not to accuse her of purposefully fucking up his order. He wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of blowing up, not again. Not after the fiasco at the Serpentine.
“Thank you,” he said tightly, curling a hand around the bottle. Siena sipped on her drink with an amused glint in her eye.
Kate regarded her for a long moment before she said, “I’m sorry, but do I know you from somewhere? You look really familiar.”
“Are you sure it’s me who you recognize?” Siena stirred her drink and issued her trademark knowing look.
If Kate was thrown by this it didn’t show. “I’m sure,” she nodded.
“Then I have no idea—”
“Oh. I—oh!” The exclamation came before Siena could get the last word out. “You sing that one song I always yell along to with my sister in the car. The one about the douchebag that you keep going back to.” And then Kate faltered as if she had only just realized what was coming out of her mouth. Her jaw snapped shut and her eyes crept toward Anthony as she very clearly tried to not burst into laughter. Then her gaze landed back on Siena, forcing politeness. “Sorry for that diversion I’m sure you just want to order,” she said quickly.
“That’s alright. Anything for a friend of a friend,” Siena smirked.
Kate clenched her notepad, no doubt feeling the weight of the statement. No one had any delusions as to what was going on, not anymore. “I’m glad at least you can be generous,” she muttered.
With that, Anthony had quite enough. “Can’t you swap tables with someone else, Kate?” he demanded. “I’m not looking forward to you spitting in my food.”
She tossed him a bored look. “I tried, Bridgerton. Everyone else is slammed, and my spit doesn’t taste so bad.” She paused, once again realizing that she did not shut her mouth in time. “That was a weird thing to say. Would you like to put in your order now?” she asked Siena. “The penne ala Vodka goes great with the cheesy breadsticks.”
They both ordered and Kate scurried away to another table. When she was out of earshot Siena took a long sip and said, “Her spit doesn’t taste so bad, Anthony.”
Not you too, he almost growled. First Colin and Benedict and now her. “Can we move on please?” he huffed. “How’s mustache?”
“Rob, my producer, is good. I know you think he’s a villain in all this, but he’s the only one that isn’t trying to take a piece of me to cash in on later. And we’ve made some music that I’m really proud of.”
Anthony was distantly glad about this. He knew buddying fame wasn’t easy on her, and she didn’t have very many people after he left. A couple of friends, no family.
“I’m happy to hear it. Is—” he hesitated. “Is the album going to bring about any speculation? Are there going to be any think pieces about us in Whistledown? I know you asked for permission and I told you it was fine, but a warning would be nice.”
She smiled apologetically. She didn’t like the gossip any more than he did, but she was not the kind of person who would let it stop her from writing what she wanted to write. If she was, he probably wouldn’t have liked her so much. “I think the worst of it was in the singles,” she admitted. “I have more to say than just give the details of our breakup, you know.”
He nodded, the slightest bit relieved. He didn’t know why, but for some reason Kate popped into his head at that moment. She heard the song. Hell, she knew the song. And she called him a douchebag. Why did that make him sick to his stomach?
Siena interrupted his thoughts. “You look better. Healthier.”
“I feel better. Most of the time,” he paused. “I think I just needed to realize how long it had been since we were actually happy.”
She nodded in agreement. “Years.”
“Weirdly, I think I mourned that realization more than the actual relationship.” It might have been too honest, but she could take it. He knew her; they were in love for a couple of months two years ago and there wasn’t any way to get around it. After living under the illusion that it was something they could salvage for so long, it felt nice to be honest.
She looked down at her drink as if she wasn’t quite sure she agreed with him but there was understanding on her face. “We really beat that dead horse into the ground. It makes it hard to pretend things could have been better when you draw out the end the way we did.”
Anthony made a small half smile and lifted his warm bottle. “Cheers to—what’s the song called? Shallow as My Doorstep, club anthem of the summer.”
Kate was so focused on balancing the heavy tray over her shoulder that she didn’t notice he was alone. She stopped in front of the booth and picked up a warm plate. “Okay so we have the penne and—oh.” Her arm froze in mid-air as she looked at the empty seat.
“She’s on the phone with her record label,” Anthony supplied.
Kate set the plate down. “That sounds very important.”
He blinked at her. “You say that as if my ziti isn’t.”
She picked up his dish and set it unceremoniously in front of him. “It isn’t. I should have told the line cook to burn it.”
“Does that mean you didn’t spit in it?”
“No,” she rolled her eyes, “just a dash of arsenic for flavor.”
“I’ll tell that to my friends at the health department.”
“You have friends?!” She had to admit it wasn’t her most creative comeback, but it hit the mark.
He scowled. “Can you stop being childish for more than five minutes?”
Her lips formed a mocking pout. “Oh I’m so sorry, did I embarrass you in front of your girlfriend before?”
“Ex-girlfriend,” he ground out.
“Yeah, until next week. We’ve all heard the song before. You know, I’m honestly surprised,” she gestured toward the front door. “She seems smart, did you blackmail her into this or is it more of a hostage situation?”
“She’s dating some asshole with a mustache now. We’re just trying out not hating each other. Acting like adults, which you would clearly know nothing about.”
Anger boiled in Kate’s chest. She knew she was not the most well behaved around Anthony. Hell, sometimes she was borderline hostile, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t warranted.
“I’m astounded. You’ve finally learned to identify an adult from a teenager. Your ancient ass wasn’t so good at that when you were flirting with my nineteen-year-old sister,” she hissed.
Anthony dropped his fork to the table and leveled her with a hard stare. “I introduced myself and asked how she met Eloise. To. Be. Polite. Stop treating me like I’m a fucking cradle robber.”
She pushed forward and shook her head in his face, “If the shoe fits—”
“Excuse me,” a female voice said beside them. They turned and blinked at her. The ex-girlfriend turned popstar stood next to Kate with her cell phone in her hand, trying to maneuver into the booth.
“Oh!” Kate jumped backwards. “So sorry about that. Do you need anything else? Crushed red pepper? More breadsticks?”
The woman settled in front of her meal. “No, I’m fine. Thank you.”
Kate shot her a tight smile and turned on her heel, but just as she was about to walk away, Anthony’s stupid voice called toward her. “Hey, I want another. On draft.” He shook the bottle in his hand.
She stepped forward and wrenched it from his grip. Barely containing her fury, she said, “More piss in a bottle coming right up,” and stalked away.
Her skin was ablaze with anger when she heard a voice behind her say, “Are you sure you didn’t shoot her dog in the head?”
After that day she didn’t see him for another two weeks, but it was still far too soon for her liking. Colin invited her out to a bar on Benedict’s birthday, and lacking anything better to do, she accepted. Edwina was invited too, and Kate figured she had to go to keep that predatory jackass away from her little sister.
That was how she ended up in the corner of an unreasonably expensive club with a cocktail in hand that probably cost half of her weekly grocery bill (all her drinks went on the Bridgerton tab, thank god, but it was really just the principle of the thing), listening to Edwina gush about her anthropology TA to Eloise.
Kate had already heard all the details, but she would hear it all again for boredom’s sake. The music sucked and no one was dancing and she could not wait for them to move onto another bar.
She took a long sip of her drink and was in the middle of calculating the best way to get some prime leaning real estate against the wall when Eloise shot her an apprehensive look. “Kate, some guy is staring at you.”
Kate frowned and took another needless sip. Some guy? Why would Eloise call her own brother that? She knew Anthony had been glaring at her from across the room since she walked in that night and she’d been making every effort to ignore it. She told herself that she was going to behave for once; there was nothing like drunken drama to ruin a good night out, and if the only way to avoid it was to barely looking at him, then she would do just that.
It had been easy to not to make contact, but the weight of his eyes on her was proving harder to ignore, especially the farther into her drink she got. It didn’t help that he was, er, quite pleasant to look at as usual, all dark eyebrows and strong forearms and casually confident—but she’d known that from the moment Colin first introduced them a couple months ago.
One would think that after all this time she would finally get used to him. That maybe her senses would calm down and her nerves stop alighting at just the sight of him, but the intensity from his dark eyes was just too palpable and warming her insides far more than the clear alcohol she sipped on.
“Kate, did you hear me? Do you want one of us to flee to the bathroom with you before he comes over here?”
Flee? Anthony’s presence hardly warranted—“Hi.”
Kate spun around to find a man beside her. A man who was decidedly not Anthony Bridgerton.
She was not disappointed. In fact, she was quite pleased, because this man had a kind smile and was easy on the eyes.
She grinned and took a sloppy sip, effectively finishing her cocktail. “Hi.”
She was talking to some guy, some creep who had been making eyes at her all night. Anthony himself had maybe been staring too, but his intentions were much more chaste. Or mostly more chaste. Slightly more chaste. Whatever.
Yes, if she asked he would very gladly prop her against his countertop, hike that damn skirt up to her hips and run his lips all over her thighs until he had them memorized, but that was the fault of the brandy, and it was not the main objective of his staring either.
He was staring—nay, glaring—because she kept materializing in front of him at the most inconvenient moments. She was maddening, beguiling, and this time she hadn’t even spared a glance in his direction.
“If you scowl anymore that guy’s head might explode. And I don’t know about you, but I think that would put a damper on the party.” It was Colin at his side, being an asshole again.
“I’m not scowling.”
Colin frowned. “So do you call that a smile or—?"
“What is even the point of picking someone up here?” Anthony demanded. “It’s Benedict’s party and we’re leaving soon.”
Colin shrugged and looked in their direction. “I don’t think anyone would begrudge her the opportunity to bail and get laid if she wanted to.”
“She is not going home with that guy,” Anthony scoffed.
“And why not?” Colin grinned. “She’s letting him touch her. In fact, I think she’s leaning closer.”
“What?” Anthony’s eyes snapped back to the pair in question. Sure enough, they were at adjacent bar stools, that creep’s hand sliding over her knee. Her bare knee.
A dormant beast suddenly reared its head deep in his chest. He tried to ignore its petulant roaring, but he was never one for impulse-control.
She not leaning closer, he told himself. The thought soothed the monster considerably. She was simply drunk and losing her balance on the stool…and needed his assistance immediately. Yes.
Decision made, Anthony downed the last of his brandy and planted the glass in Colin’s hand. “Excuse me,” he told his brother and began rudely pushing through the crowds of people. He felt like he couldn’t get to Kate fast enough.
She was going to kill him. Fucking obliterate him. Steal his firstborn child and not even let Penelope see the goddamn baby. Because Colin brought him to the restaurant. And requested to be sat in her section.
Kate was confused when the hostess found her in the kitchen and said she sat a two-top by request. As she approached the men at their table near the bar, it began to make perfect sense.
She pushed her notepad into her apron and propped a hand on her hip as she halted in front of them. “Colin, what the fuck?”
Colin glanced up from his menu, feigning surprise. “Oh! Good evening to you too, Kate.”
She tapped her foot impatiently and glanced between the brothers. Anthony was looking down at the table and fiddling with his wrist watch. “What is this? Why are you here?” she demanded.
Colin gasped and pressed a hand to his chest. “You mean I can’t come visit my friend while she’s at work?”
“Can I leave?” Anthony interrupted.
“No.” Colin looked back up at her with an evil grin on his face. “So Kate, what are your drink specials today?”
“Shots of petroleum. Just for you.” She could have sworn she heard Anthony snort into his hand.
“As delicious as that sounds, I’ll have the house cabernet,” Colin said.
She turned to the older brother. He seemed like he was in a mood. “Just give me the piss again,” he said.
“What?” Colin barked.
Kate dismissed him with a wave. “Nothing.”
“Come on,” he complained.
“That’s what you get for being a meddling fuck,” Anthony muttered.
“Now you two choose to agree,” Colin mused. “Interesting.”
Kate didn’t think it was that interesting, to be honest. The third oldest Bridgerton had been wrangling her into sibling outings disturbingly often lately, and she was pretty sure his main motivation was not the prospect of her excellent company.
Asking to go out to bars, an invitation to Benedict’s birthday, and even a trip to the beach. They all went terribly, especially the birthday outing. Anthony had scared off the only halfway decent guy to hit on her in the past six months by sulking over and lecturing her on drink safety like some patronizing father-figure.
And when the guy left (she didn’t even get his name!) shooting confused glances between the two of them, Anthony had the audacity to act like he did her a favor. Both of their nights ended in a shouting match outside the front of the club: “I was going to give him my number for fuck’s sake!” she screamed.
“Then I helped him dodge a real bullet there,” Anthony scoffed back.
Kate was still thinking about the disgustingly superior look on his face as she approached their table with their drinks. Miraculously, Colin sat by himself.
Kate looked around. “Did he leave?”
Colin shook his head. “No, he’s on a work call. Better stick around until he comes back so you can take his order.”
She pulled out her notepad. “No need. He’ll want the ziti.”
“None of your business.”
Something glinted in Colin’s gaze. “Oh, have you been meeting in secret?”
Kate just rolled her eyes. “Seriously, why are you here?”
“I honestly just wanted some cheap pomodoro.”
Bullshit. All of it. “Fine,” she said. “I won’t dump you two on one of the other servers. But I swear to god if this is another setup, I’ll ruin your life.”
Colin fixed her with a knowing look. “I’m sure.”
When Anthony returned to the table a lukewarm bottle was sitting on his coaster. Of-fucking-course.
“Kate said you would want ziti. So we got you ziti.”
There was a loud screech as Anthony pulled his chair out and sat down. “Good,” he grunted.
“So tell me, why does she know your order?” Colin asked a little too pointedly.
Anthony groaned. His brothers had been under the impression for months that Anthony had feelings for Kate; they even got Daphne in on it too. He told them time and time again that the only feelings were those of rage and severe dislike, but no one ever believed him. They were all condescending smirks and knowing glances and cheeky comments.
Perhaps he could admit to himself that lust was one of those other feelings, but he was sure his siblings did not want to hear about that. At least he could tell the truth in this instance. “I came here a month and a half ago and I got seated at one of her tables. She threatened to spit in my food.”
“Can you stop with that?” Anthony glared.
Colin didn’t even try to look innocent. “Stop what?”
“With your insinuations.”
Colin rolled his eyes and sipped his wine. “Can’t you just admit that you’re obsessed with her?”
“No. I won’t.”
“No you won’t admit it or no you aren’t?”
“Lies, oh the lies,” Colin lamented.
They weren’t really lies, just little white lies, because obsessed was not the correct word. He was…morbidly intrigued. Carnally intrigued. You know, normal ways to feel about a woman.
After that lunch with Siena she kept popping up. Colin would drag her to some family event or another, parade her straight through his line of vision and laugh at his expense. And Anthony would cope. Either by leaving or drinking or walking right up to her and starting a fight to try to get that damn gnarl of emotion out of his system.
None of it ever worked. And it kept getting worse. When they went to the beach, Anthony had to put at least twenty steps between them at all times to keep from imploding at the sight of water dripping down her legs. And whenever he spotted her laughing with his siblings or playing with Gregory and Hyacinth in the sand, he suspiciously felt like he was keeping a looming tidal wave of something from crashing over him.
It was hard to fight anything that large, so the next best thing was to run from it. But with cold, hard distance came tension that strained further with each new encounter, and he wasn’t sure how much more he could take. That moment he snapped, he would ricochet back into her and god only knew what would happen after that.
“You should invite her to the Halloween party.” The words shook him from his thoughts.
Anthony blinked in horror. “That’s your party. At your place.”
“Yes, but I want to see how she’d react if you asked her,” Colin said.
“She wouldn’t come.” She couldn’t come. Keep your distance, stay away.
She didn’t know how she got there. Well okay, she did. She ordered a ride from her phone and walked inside Colin’s building with her washable green hair and flowy skirt billowing behind her. It was Halloween night and she wanted to have fun. She wanted to decompress.
But how did she end up here? With her back pressed against the cool tile of Colin’s bathroom floor and Anthony’s knee grinding between her legs, his hot breath coming out in dirty expletives against her rapidly receding neckline?
And his hands, Jesus, one of them was up her skirt—and the other peeling her costume off with a recklessness that must have been ripping some seams.
This is wrong. Bad. Very bad, she told herself, and yet—she pulled at his hair and picked his head up from where it was mouthing at her bare breasts (very bad) and attacked his mouth with hers.
Having her tongue halfway down his throat did not help jog her memory. In fact, it positively bludgeoned any sense she had left in her brain—because this, rolling around on the floor and knocking into the bathtub while he edged his fingers edged closer to the warmth of her core–was heavenly and irresistible and utterly senseless.
She groaned as one knee became two and he settled his weight between her parted legs. One hand braced on the tile beside her head while his mouth wandered from her lips to her neck to the curve of her ear, and she felt completely surrounded; powerless to him and his wickedly attentive fingers on her thighs, helpless to the pleasure of submission that had her whimpering his name.
The block heel of her shoes scraped up each of his calves when she rocked upward for more friction, and he sank some more into her hissing, “So much better than I imagined.” She did not have the mind to file that bit of information away. Instead, she let the words melt her insides and made a filthy noise as she gripped him harder.
They were the picture of insanity. She was dressed as a monster with a nasty green dye job and DIY pintrest mask that she lost between her fourth and fifth drinks. He was sporting some ridiculous black cape that someone must have loaned him at the last minute that got tangled around their limbs as he tried to hitch her skirt higher. And they were moaning. Moaning like teenagers and saying outrageous shit like Anthony, I want your fingers inside me, and Kate you’re perfect, so perfect as the Monster Mash played just outside the door. Really. The Monster Mash.
Kate had never gotten fingerbanged to Halloween music before but maybe there was a first for everything. Hell, she’d never rounded third in someone else’s bathroom either, but in that moment she was very willing to try.
There was a sudden pounding on the door. The lights were on and it was locked, so whoever was outside knew it was occupied and they were not happy.
She pulled away but he was still ravishing her as if in some sort of trance. She tried again with a stronger push to his shoulders as someone cursed in the hall.
“What—?” he blinked several times, surfacing to reality. All she could do was stare in response. His face and neck were covered in her black lipstick, dark as his lust-blown pupils.
The door rattled.
She was the first to move, pulling her clothes back into place and yelling “Just a minute!” to the patient saint outside. Anthony dumbly pried himself off of her and helped her up.
At the vanity she was all business. She wet a tissue and handed it to him. “Here, get the lipstick off,” she ordered and began smoothing out her wild hair. Neither of them said anything else as they wiped the evidence away, and whether that was because they were both piss drunk or just shocked was unclear. The sharp knocking through the door did seem to sober her right up, though.
She deemed her makeup somewhat salvaged after a minute, so she figured she’d get the fuck out while he was still working on his lip-stained face in order to preserve a shred of pride.
She turned to leave, but suddenly felt herself being tugged backward. He wordlessly grabbed her and they collided into long kiss, both of his hands firmly on either side of her face. He sighed when their lips met one last time, and Kate nearly short-circuited at the absurd sweetness of it all. And then she kissed him back. For more than a full minute too, exhaling and sucking on his lower lip, falling under into a deep dark hole.
But he pulled back as abruptly as he started. They stared some more. Unblinking. Heavy breathing.
“Kate,” he said.
Then nothing. The door shook on its hinges more urgently than before.
She turned around and swung it open before he could say another word and marched back into the party.
How did she get there, avoiding a wide-eyed looks from Edwina, averting her eyes from the amused stares of various Bridgertons? God only knew. Her interlude with Anthony started with an argument in the hall and then he pulled her into the bathroom to yell at her. Somewhere along the way one of them jumped the other.
But this here and now? This dense concentration of emotions and hormones, the shame and searing desire? She had the feeling it started long before that night, but that didn’t mean she would admit it any time soon.
He honestly tried to keep his colleague from choosing the damn restaurant, he really, truly did.
But he was unsuccessful. Obviously.
And once they were sat, he prayed to any god that was listening that they weren’t at one of her tables, so he tried everything within his power to avoid it too.
So why did dread wash over him when she stepped out of the kitchen? Why did his stomach drop to the floor when he spotted her approaching them? Unease, perhaps.
They weren’t on good terms but they also weren’t on bad terms. To be frank, Anthony had no fucking clue if they were on any terms at all.
After the incident on Colin’s bathroom floor (God help him), Kate left the party almost immediately. He couldn’t have caught up to her if he tried, what with the black lip smudges all over his face, so the next morning he sat with his coffee and a pounding headache and sent her a message on Instagram that said hey can we talk?
A day later he told himself she just hadn’t seen it yet. Two days later he told himself she might still need some time because she was uncomfortable.
A week later he had to admit that she was straight-up ignoring him, and just when he came to terms with that, he got a response.
No need. No. Need.
He wanted to type a very strongly worded message about how there was, in fact, a need, or maybe even several needs, but he didn’t allow himself to do it.
Instead, he did nothing at all but wallow for several days before he somehow found himself stuck at one of her booths again.
She was going to think he was stalking her. And no matter how much he thought over and over again about what could have happened if they hadn’t been interrupted, or what would have been if she hadn’t left the party, he was not a stalker.
He tried to communicate it with his eyes when she came up and pretended not to know him. Everything from Sorry to I didn’t meant to be here and I swear I’m not following you. Whether she interpreted any of it remained to be seen, and whether she saw the relief in his eyes because she was looking at him, smiling at him—well, he did not want to entertain that thought.
He ordered the same drink out of habit and when she came back with it to take their orders it was—miraculously—correct. A cold, draft beer in a pint glass. Anthony couldn’t decide if it was a defeat, an apology or just politeness because he had a colleague with him, but whatever it was, it did not feel like a victory for him.
She was placid and friendly and so disturbingly blank for the rest of the meal that he couldn’t take it. When she dropped off his ziti and said nothing beyond a scripted, “Enjoy. Let me know if you need anything else.” He desperately tried to catch her eye before she walked away to no avail.
That was when he decided he was done being polite. Once his co-worker left, he was staying whether she liked it or not.
And so he did.
It took ten minutes of him sitting defiantly, arms-crossed at the dirty table before she finally gave in. She was too exhausted to put up any pretense.
“What is it, Anthony?” she sighed.
It was not a rhetorical question but she had the feeling she already knew the answer. The words he sent her a week before rolled through her mind, can we talk?
The answer was a clear and firm no—she was sure he heard that loud and clear, and yet he was still sitting there at the table, waiting and waiting, just for her.
He tilted his head up and looked her right in the eye. “Is there a reason you’re ignoring me?”
Was he fucking kidding? She made a face that said as much. “Uh yeah, a pretty clear reason. I can’t imagine you’ve forgotten.”
His brow furrowed in a challenge, creasing in the middle. “I never took you as the avoidant type.”
She let out a mirthless laugh. “I’m not. It’s called being practical. I was trying to make this as painless as possible.”
“Is my presence really that painful to you? If so, I’m sorry but I don’t think I am out of line for wanting to have a conversation about this.”
“What is there to talk about?” she countered.
His arms dropped to his sides. “Jeez Kate, I don’t know, what to do now?” The words dripped with sarcasm.
She honestly hadn’t the slightest what he was on about. They’d made out on his brother’s bathroom floor while plastered and that was it. It was in the past. What more could there be to talk about? He obviously didn’t want anything more from her—he didn’t even like her. And fuck, she wasn’t some pop star or whatever, she was a 25-year-old grad student working a side job at the shittiest mid-scale Italian restaurant in town.
Edwina was the beautiful and enlightened one. Kate was just, like, a person. Trying in vain to get over her shit and be happy one day. Maybe.
She certainly couldn’t share all of this so she asked him, “Is there anything to do?”
But then something happened. His posture deflated slightly, his jaw slackened.
Was he…disappointed? What the hell?
“I’m sorry.” It was out of her mouth before she could stop it.
“Sorry—?” he echoed.
“We both know it was a mistake. Let’s just—will this be easier if we try to be civil now? I know you aren’t trying to hookup with Edwina. I guess I’ve known that for a while, and I…” she took a deep breath and steeled herself. “Never apologized for jumping to conclusions.”
She certainly hadn’t entered the conversation expecting to apologize, but there it was, the whole truth. Well, not the whole-whole truth. She had begrudgingly accepted long ago that he wasn’t the complete asshat she made him out to be. He was thoughtful with his family. And responsible. And had a strong sense of right and wrong. He was just overbearing and touched by some draining sense of masculinity that plagued most men.
They brought out extremes in each other and maybe they could meet in the middle if they tried.
Perhaps he understood all this when he swallowed and looked at her solemnly. “I’m sorry for being a dick. On purpose.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You aren’t sorry for being a dick accidentally?”
“I can’t very well say sorry for an entire personality trait,” he smiled, self-mocking. Bizarrely, it made Kate feel kind of pleasant.
“It’s not all the time,” she admitted, feeling slightly uneven on her own feet. “I never really hated you.”
His eyebrows shot up. “Not even outside the bar? I was awful.”
She thought about this for a moment. “No,” she decided. “He was going to bail anyway. You expedited the process, no matter how awful.”
“It was out of line to purposefully sabotage you, though.”
“It was,” she agreed with a nod. “But maybe I can see past it. Eventually.”
“I’m glad.” They looked at each other silently for several moments and it was so eerily similar to that last minute in the bathroom that Kate felt she might fall over. She had a whole job to get back to and yet they just kept staring. The onlookers probably thought they were crazy.
Then Anthony cleared his throat and drummed nervously against the tabletop. “Well, I guess I’ll see you around then?”
She nodded. “Friday.” This was met with a rather startled look from him before she clarified, “Ben’s show?”
The next minute he was gone, walking out the front door, back to his life. Kate watched him, and for some reason as she did, she began to idly wonder what does he do? Where does he go? What is he like when he’s alone?
It was far too late when she realized the danger in this line of thought.
Anthony was sitting in his brother’s living room when he realized how thoroughly fucked he was.
Perhaps he should have known earlier, but he was—in the words of his many siblings—an ‘oblivious idiot’ so he maintained that it was not within his power.
In fact, it was her fault because she was just so…like that.
So striking, so emotive, so damn funny. So unfairly attractive in all the right ways.
So no, he should not have realized that Friday at the show where one of Benedict’s paintings was on display. Sure, he knew the exact moment when she entered the room (he always did) and was aware whenever she so much as flicked her hand in one direction, but they had only just called a ceasefire.
It was a precarious situation and Anthony kept convincing himself to stay away, but after he spent what he thought was the appropriate amount of time attempting to contemplate art, he found himself too compelled by the glint of her hair under the lights across the room and involuntarily wandered to her side.
“Oh!” She jumped at his sudden appearance beside her but took it in stride. He had to admit the look on her face when he caught her off guard—nervous and wide-eyed—was endearing. “Hi.”
“Enjoying the—” he glanced at the work beside him. It was utterly incomprehensible. “—Paintings?” he asked.
“Very much so.” She smiled a little awkwardly and turned back to the wall, gesturing. “This one is interesting.”
“It’s certainly something,” he agreed.
She let out a chastising snort. “Anthony...”
“Kate,” he mimicked.
She started for a moment as if recalling something and took a large sip of wine to cover the silence. Once it was down, she managed, “What have you been up to?”
“Not a whole lot. I just thought—since we are being civil now, that we should practice.”
“Practice? Being civil?”
“Being friends,” he asserted. It was bold and unplanned proclamation, but he couldn’t help himself.
“I didn’t know that was the end goal.”
“I decided on my own.”
“That’s very like you,” she said not unkindly.
He tilted his head, flirtatious. “Do you have objections?”
She shook her head and an amused smile played timidly at her lips. “No, I don’t think so.”
From there on everything was weirdly easy. She sipped on wine and snuck glances at him from the corner of her eye. He leaned his shoulder against the wall next to her and made her laugh with whispered observations about their surroundings. Then they somehow ended up in the corner of the room, talking until it was time to leave. And when they finally parted ways it was more than just civil; it was friendly.
He left that night feeling slightly tipsy even though he only had one glass, and in the car back home he decided whatever friendship they managed to build was actually quite enjoyable. He enjoyed it in a way that was completely unrelated to the way he enjoyed feeling her half-naked body beneath him, he told himself sternly. And if he dreamt of her that night, more passionate and intense than ever before, it was also unrelated.
The next time he saw her was when he really should have known. They were seated next to each other while playing a needlessly competitive game of monopoly. And he ached for her. All night.
It just got worse whenever her eyes glittered at the victory of Colin landing on one of her hotels, or when she stared Anthony down beside her, sharp eyed, as she tried to barter for one of his railroads (It didn’t work).
It was the gravity of her emotions that drew him in the most. He got an almost heady satisfaction when she growled at him after landing on his property and simultaneously wanted to die and kiss her when she laughed right in his face as he got sent to jail. Even when they straight-up yelled at each other over some stupid technicality of the rules, he felt himself being pulled closer to her until their arms brushed. Until the scent of her hair hit him with the efficiency of mustard gas.
In the end, they went bankrupt one after the other with Colin claiming all of their multi-colored money. Soon after, Kate yawned and eased to her feet. “I’m going to head out. I open tomorrow and have a paper due Wednesday.”
Wood screeched against the floor as Anthony abruptly stood. Curious eyes bounced to him. “I’ll go with you.”
Kate blinked. “I don’t remember granting you an open invitation to my home?”
“No,” he smiled. “I’ll walk you. It’s late.”
She hesitated for a second, but said, “Oh. Okay,” and they were off.
Outside was all flickering street lamps, dusty clouds and light pollution, but Anthony’s eyes stayed trained on her. Shadows passed entrancingly over her face as they strolled under the warm glow of the bus stop, and in hindsight, it was astounding he didn’t maul her on the sidewalk with his mouth the second they were alone. He certainly thought about it a million times as they walked block after city block.
They were making idle conversation—could Newton beat a duck in a fight?—and Kate seemed oddly jumpy, so he tried his best to put her at ease. But as they neared closer to her place, he stopped listening. Something was growing tight in his throat: a compulsive need clawing at his insides, begging to break free.
He bit it down and fought the urge to scream at the sky in frustration. He wanted to act.
And maybe he would’ve if he wasn’t interrupted.
“I think if the duck had an injured wing then he might be able to trap it—”
“—but otherwise it would probably just fly away before he could get a good bite in and—”
“What?” she halted on the sidewalk at the insistence in his tone.
He didn’t know what he was going to say, he didn’t plan it. In fact, he was trying his best to stop it, but the words began to flow like water. “It’s just that I—"
But then her face snapped toward the sky, where water also began to flow. “Is that rain?” she asked abruptly. Her voice was eerily devoid of her normal easy humor.
“Yeah, I think I feel a few drops?”
“I need to go inside.” Before he could ask why, she took off sprinting. He went after her.
It was only a few more blocks to her building, but in the minute or so it took to get there, it began to pour. Anthony caught up to her at the front door under an awning as she fumbled with her keys, and then, lightning struck.
The silver of her keys shook in her hand under the fluorescent light. Thunder struck, and they jingled to the ground as her entire body recoiled. She looked desperately behind her and right through him toward the sky, and for some reason Anthony felt she was hollowing by the minute.
He picked them up and handed them back. “Are you okay?”
Stupid fucking question. Clearly, she was not okay, but what else was he supposed to say?
“Yeah. Yes. I just need to get this door open—” She sounded on the verge of crying and her hands were threatening to drop the keys again.
He covered her soaked palm with his and took them back. “Hey, it’s okay. I’ll help.”
A moment later he got the lock open and she rushed inside, saying nothing. He followed after her and she didn’t protest, but he was beginning to feel like she didn’t remember he was there at all.
She took the stairs two at a time and got her door open on the first try. She stumbled in, past the chubby yipping dog at her feet, through the warm lamp light of her tiny living room and into a dark hallway on the right. Anthony still followed, painfully confused, but determined that she shouldn’t be alone.
She disappeared into a dark room at the end of the hall, still silent and shaking but not from the cold. Thunder rattled the windowpanes while rain pelted the sides of the building, and as Anthony trailed behind her, unsure if he should give her space, he began to hear weeping.
Standing on the threshold of what he assumed was her bedroom, the sobs grew louder. It was dark, but not so dark that he could not see her, and when he stepped inside, his heart broke.
She sat on the floor of her closet, curled into a ball. Sniffling, trembling in fear as the dog licked at her hands. He didn’t know how, but Anthony knew it wasn’t just a first-time occurrence.
And then he crawled in after her.
She sobbed for nearly a half an hour. It took just as long for him to soothe her back to reality, cradling her head into the crook of his neck, whispering reassurances into the confines of the closet where they were crouched side by side. And even after that, when she blinked back to life with red-rimmed eyes and registered his arms wrapped around her, they still didn’t move. Or even complain about their wet clothes.
He left sometime in the middle of the night and wandered the soaked streets until dawn. The image of her broken smile through the crack in the door that whispered thank you still churned through his mind, and he was sure he couldn’t sleep because of it. And maybe he didn’t sleep for several nights after that either.
The next time he saw her was the day on the couch and he already knew how she was coping; he’d asked her in a message the morning after the storm and she claimed she was “right as rain haha,” but Anthony knew better. He knew that kind of fear and what it was like to cover up.
Weeks came and went in between and he didn’t get the chance to see her. Before, it seemed like she wouldn’t stay away but now that he actually wanted to see her, she was never around.
He kept messaging her though, and she always responded. Sometimes they would get into a long and surprisingly revealing conversations about something they had in common, and sometimes they talked about something profoundly stupid. Regardless, his heart sped up whenever his phone flashed with a notification and depending on whether it was from her, his mood would sink, sulky and low, or burst with something disturbingly akin to joy.
It got to the point where he could no longer accurately call her a friend (although he supposed he never really could) and was constantly calculating the best way to ask her out to drinks. Or even more problematically, ask her on a friendly trip to the Greek isles for the weekend.
Just two friendly friends, the clear blue water, and the plush bed of white sands where one could easily lay on their back for hours…
And obviously he never did anything about it. He couldn’t act on his worryingly intense physical—and he must admit—emotional attraction to her, and he didn’t because he had self control.
But on his brothers couch he realized how dire the situation really was.
He went there that day with the intention of—well, he didn’t even remember. The reason got undoubtedly overshadowed. Regardless, he was on Colins couch, just minding his business when Kate marched inside.
She sent him a distracted smile over her shoulder when she first saw him and Anthony’s entire chest clenched. It had been weeks. Weeks. Of thinking about how her face must look as she typed out a message to him. Of wondering if she was okay whenever a splash of rain hit his windowsill. Of fighting the best kind of gravity.
But it wasn’t until she walked right past him to Colins bedroom door and began loudly asking “What the ever-loving fuck is this urgent occasion you need me for?” that he had an epiphany:
He was capable of falling in love again.
Feelings shouldn’t be able to turn in an instant. Especially not for her, the “stubborn” daughter, but over the course of only one month she went from being reluctant friends with Anthony Bridgerton to being nearly giddy at the sight of him. There really wasn’t any other way to explain the swell of affection in her chest when she saw him at one of her tables, and it was getting to the point where she wasn’t sure she wanted it to stop either.
It was pathetic, really. Embarrassing. But that didn’t stop her from smiling at him from across the dining room. And goodness, when he smiled back, it was miraculous one of the customers didn’t slip over her as she melted into a puddle on the floor.
“You’re here,” she said somewhat breathlessly as she halted in front of his table.
He looked better than usual, which was saying something. His hair was untidy and his cheeks dark with stubble from the work day. The sleeves of his shirt were rolled up slightly, revealing a slim, classy watch on his wrist. From his dad, she recalled. He told her in a message maybe a week ago, she didn’t remember why.
She pulled her gaze away from him to focus and eyed the vacant spot across the booth. “Are you waiting for someone?”
He nodded, not breaking eye contact. “Yes.”
Her heart dropped to her feet. If it was his mother or one of his siblings, he would have told her outright. The cryptic way in which he said yes indicated something else entirely. It was probably another pop star with catchy music and lovely hair. Or a gorgeous doctor. Or an airline pilot. Someone cool.
She didn’t know why she assumed he wasn’t dating someone new. They were just friends, and barely at that. Helping someone when they’re panicking isn’t romantic, and that time on the floor of Colin’s bathroom was a fluke. There wasn’t any good reason why her gut had been telling her for several weeks that it was something more than it was, and she needed to accept that.
She blinked back the emotion pooling behind her eyes and forced out a smile. “Then I’ll be back when they come. Unless you want some water first or—”
“Kate, I meant you. I was waiting for you.” The words were delivered with a pointedness that made her flush.
“O-oh,” she stammered eloquently. “Well then what would you like? I really think you should try a different drink. Or just not drink beer with pasta in general? It’s really fucking weird to be honest, and I expected more of someone so rich.” She was rambling, complete nonsense, until—
“When do you get off?”
His dark brown gaze lifted straight to her eyes. She almost shivered. “When is your shift over?” he repeated.
He took this in stride. “Hmmm, what on this menu has the longest preparation time, then?”
She dropped her notepad in her pocket and cocked her head at him, gaining some nerve back. “If you wanted to talk to me couldn’t you just ask like a normal person?”
His answering smile was devastating. “Yes, but then I wouldn’t have the pleasure of watching you bring me things.”
“Yeah, for money,” she muttered.
He dismissed this with a wave.
“You know, this whole set-up of you coming here just to bug me and forcing your business on me could be construed as a bit insulting?” she said. “A bit of a power-imbalance?” She didn’t actually feel this way; she wasn’t so proud that she wouldn’t wait on a friend, but she wanted to make him squirm.
He didn’t, though. He just levelled her with knowing eyes and asked, “Would you prefer that I not pay you? Or better yet, I can ask for someone else and then we can talk about you while you’re gone.”
It was so oddly flirtatious that Kate couldn’t take it any other way. Her heart sped up, fluttering at the thought, but she narrowed her eyebrows to disguise her true feelings. “No, but to even it out I might owe you something now.”
His smiled widened. “Your time?” he tried. “After you’re done working?”
“A drink,” she asserted with a small smirk, and when she walked away she hoped it left him staring.
At some bar down the street three hours later Anthony came to a conclusion: something was going to happen. He could feel it in his gut, see it in the look in her eyes and the way their gazes caught and averted with perfect choreography.
He’d take a sip and lean forward, say something inflammatory or stupid. She’d smile back, almost calculating, and then whip out a retort so cutting that it triggered an intense flare of heat in his stomach.
He should walk right out and not turn back. Make up some excuse and flee before he could make a huge mistake, but instead he stayed put and flirted like a lunatic as one of her feet tapped the floor between his under the table.
She was so close and that smile of hers was stoking a flame between them. What would it take to reach out and touch her leg? What would it take to slide his hand over hers where it was planted on the table? It would take so little and it was driving him mad.
He didn’t even know why he went to find her that day. Well okay he knew why, but he didn’t know how he let himself. How, after so many months of being able to stay away, he gave in and basically fell to her feet.
Even in the restaurant he threw all caution to the wind. The two hours went by in a heated blur; she became busy soon after his arrival and didn’t have much time to linger, but he kept his eyes on her as she crisscrossed the dining room. And he knew she sensed him, could tell by the way her eyes never dared to pass over him. The way she stiffened and almost smiled to herself as she walked by.
And now they sat across from each other in some dimly lit dive bar, appraising each other so overtly that he couldn’t tear himself away.
But apparently she could.
“Now that we can consider ourselves even, I think I’m going to go home,” she sighed, standing up. “Thank you. I needed some socializing.”
He didn’t mean to get annoyed, but really? Socializing?
“No, you can’t go—!” he burst out.
“Why?” she asked slowly.
He didn’t have an answer. Not one he could say out loud.
“At least let me walk you,” he supplied.
And just like that, he bought himself ten more minutes with her.
“Or…” he said recklessly as she sat back down.
“Or?” she prompted.
He looked at her, with her hair curling wildly out from the edges of her hair tie, her dark, assessing eyes, sitting so confidently yet so innocent in her rumpled uniform. He couldn’t do it.
He shook his head quickly, “Never mind.”
She raised her eyebrows but said nothing. Less than ten minutes later, she paid the tab and they left.
They walked in silence for several minutes but it wasn’t peaceful. He was far too occupied with the game of tug of war unfolding in his body, his brain pulling him in one direction and his hormones another. He almost didn’t hear her when she asked, “Anthony?” as they strolled westward into the setting sun.
“I never thanked you for that night.” The night of the storm. The night something shifted inside him.
“You don’t need to,” he replied automatically. “It’s common decency.”
“Decency…” she echoed. Weirdly, she didn’t seem happy with this word choice. “Still, it was kind.”
He made a face. “I don’t get called that very often.”
“And I don’t lie very often,” she returned.
And suddenly he stopped on the sidewalk. “Kate.”
She slowed and turned to face him. Her face was scrunching adorably in confusion. “What?”
“I can’t tell if this is unwanted, or if you’re just dense.” He really didn’t mean to say it so plainly, but once it was out of his mouth there was no denying it was the truth.
She, of course, sensed that and didn’t like it one bit. “Excuse me?”
“I know I am the way that I am,” he said. “And I know I don’t know what I want and maybe that’s clear to you, but am I really doing such a bad a job that we’re diminished to this?” He gestured between them, several steps apart on the dirty concrete.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she dismissed.
“Yes you do.”
“No I don’t!” she insisted. “Not with you being so—so cryptic and wishy-washy.”
The conversation was swiftly going off the rails and the only way Anthony could think to salvage it was by pausing to take a deep breath. He collected himself and thought about what she said. Was he being ambiguous to avoid responsibility? Probably. Was she being purposefully obtuse as a result? Even more probable.
Then he made a decision. One that lured him so far out onto a limb that he couldn’t picture an end where he didn’t go crashing to the ground. And yet he asked the question anyway. “Do you actually want to go home? I thought—should I just fucking leave you alone?”
A long pause.
Anthony considered leaving right then and there. He couldn’t bear it if she said yes. But then—
“No.” The word sucked out all the air between them.
“To which question?”
With that, their eyes caught and Anthony couldn’t stop himself. He surged forward and grabbed her face in his hands, crashing their lips together. Her breath caught in her mouth, probably from surprise as he initiated one messy kiss. And then another.
By the third, she caught up with him and finally, finally began to respond to him. The result as intoxicating as that night in the bathroom, but this time tinged with something right and exciting. Like a small flame that had been flickering on and off for months had finally caught and grown into something steady yet fiery.
He furthered his attentions by wrapping his arms around her shoulders and pulling closer. He worshipped her mouth by licking and cradling, trying to be gentle and seductive and responsive. It was their kiss to share, not anything to give or take, and her impeccably sweet, infuriating mouth showed just as much enthusiasm as she prodded him along with sighs and bites with an affectionate smile etched on her lips.
It was only then that he realized where they were, what they were doing, and the consequences. But he ignored the last thing as his mind screamed, don’t lose your chance.
He pulled back and looked into her wide eyes, able to see every emotion on her face. Amusement, wonder, anger, desire. It made him burn. “I’ll ask you one more time, Kate. Where do you want to go?”
“Wherever you’ll take me.”
She didn’t mean it—take me—in that way initially, but as he pinned her against the wall inside his front door, the double meaning was not lost on her. And to be quite honest, she’d let him take her in multiple places.
For example, she could make out a very comfortable looking couch from over the top of his head as his face nuzzled into her neck. Or there was a table next to it that looked very sturdy and was perhaps the ideal height to be bent over.
She thought about telling him this as he undid the top of her work pants and sank his hands down inside, but he seemed to have something very compelling in mind as well. “Would you like to finish what we started several months ago?” he whispered.
The sound was so low and husky that her eyes fluttered shut. “If you put that cape on again I’ll come instantly.”
He froze against her jaw and choked out a surprised laugh. “We don’t have time to go to the store and get you more disgusting hair dye,” he chuckled.
She pulled back and made a face at him. “You didn’t dislike it at the time.”
“Because I was far too focused on this.” And then he pulled her into another searing kiss, one that made her clutch at his shoulders and fight for breath. It was amazing how just the feeling of his lips could cause her every nerve-ending to sing with bliss and make her lose all sense at the same. His oaky scent and pounding heart against hers just compounded the effect.
And then as she kissed down his neck, the vibrating tones of god Kate, you’ll be the death of me, made her all the more urgently molten.
“Do you want to see how long your knees will hold you up against the wall or do you want it on the couch?”
She made a strangled noise and stumbled. How on earth was she supposed to coherently respond to that, she did not know, but he took the appropriate cue with a wolfish grin. “Couch it is, then.” And suddenly she was swept upward, transported across the wooden floors and dropped onto the comfortable sofa.
Clothes peeled away and all sense of shame with it until she sat straddling his lap, a hand planted on each side of his bare chest as she groaned in pleasure.
His hands were working some sort of magic on her. It had only been several minutes and she was already clenching the muscles in her legs while she melted at his stoking thrusts.
“Do you like that?” he asked. His knuckles curled inside her in time with a frenzied pitch of her hips. The effect was almost her undoing, but she plowed on, warmer and open and completely desperate for him.
“More,” she breathed. “Want you to fill me.”
He growled and pressed in another finger. The result was too much but somehow still not enough. “God Kate, you’re so tight,” he moaned. “Can’t wait to fuck you. You take me so good.”
She sat up straighter and buried his head into her chest, pulling at his hair as she goaded him faster. His tongue licked deliciously at her skin. “I love the way you taste,” he nibbled upward, “and smell.”
Pleasure enveloped her so fully that she didn’t have the mind to tell him it was sweat. Instead, she let out a noise that was embarrassingly close to a keen, only to be dampened by his constant flow of filthy muttering. “You’re going to fall apart so perfectly for me. Tell me you want it.”
“Oh don’t stop,” she drew out a long breath and tilted her head back. He’d just begun doing something different, circling her clit, massaging, and working his hands just so…
It made he feel like she was on fire. Her breath shook along with her working thighs. “Yes Anthony,” she pleaded. “Yes, that’s—that’s—”
Her movements intensified with the words, forcing her hips to snap furiously down onto his hand over and over. She chased the pleasure with his strong wrist angled perfectly toward her.
Her hands raked furiously through his hair and she sought his mouth for a messy kiss. Their matching eyes were dark and blown with intensity, and as they caught in hooded stares he sighed, “Gorgeous.”
They met in a kiss mingled with hoarse breath and whines while she pushed through a sinful roll of her hips. Her blood pressure spiked. She cried out against lips. And then—
A surge of buzzing intensity traveled from her hips and through her limbs, leaving her boneless and panting. She slumped against him. Not a bad orgasm for a Thursday night, she thought.
She recovered for a moment while Anthony admired his literal handiwork. She was still hanging off him like a particularly fucked-out sloth when he ran his hands up her bare thighs and promised, “You’re getting more.”
“Oh,” she mumbled. A familiar rush of emotion was blossoming in her chest, damn love-hormones, and she couldn’t think of anything beyond how much she adored looking at his stupid face. And his eyes. And the way his fluffed hair fell on his forehead after she ravaged it.
But before she could process this or even get her head on straight, she was being brought somewhere else: his bedroom. “You are not as enthused as I would have hoped,” he commented, discarding her in a heap on top of the comforter. “Especially after all of that.”
She splayed herself out. He was towering over her and she began to feel an emptiness building between her legs again at the sight. “Sorry,” she sighed. “That was just…intense.”
He jumped on the bed and crawled over her. “In a good way?”
“A very good way,” she agreed.
He smiled, part boyish, part cocky. “Good.”
And then it started all over again; teeth biting on her bottom lip and scraping down her stomach. His trousers on the floor. Her body leaning over his side as her hand pumped shamelessly at his length while he rifled through his bedside table for protection. She even tried to bend down to accompany her hand with her mouth but he stopped her with a hiss. “We will be going absolutely nowhere if you do that.”
She raised her eyebrows and laughed as she slowed her movements, “Guess we better move on then, huh?”
He pounced, and a second later she was on her back again with their bodies flush as they kissed with reckless abandon. His lips were so attentive that Kate nearly forgot they were literal seconds away from having sex, and when he found his way back to her entrance, fully prepared, she stopped him with a palm on his stomach.
“I like it better on top,” she protested weakly.
“Sure you’re up for that?” he laughed. “And besides, I won’t be able to kiss you if I’m on my back.” He dropped one on her forehead for good measure.
“You can kiss me as much as you want afterward,” she argued.
“Or…” His tongue ran over her bottom lip. Her mouth dropped open involuntarily, always letting him in. They kissed long and noisily and Kate felt herself sinking into a deep hole. When she resurfaced a little bit later, she found that he had somehow maneuvered her on top of him and he was sitting up, his back pressed against the headboard.
“I share this wall with the next townhome. My neighbors are going to hate me with the wood ramming into it.”
“I’ll be forever in their debt.”
He gripped the back of her hair and pulled down roughly, baring her neck. “No, I think I will.”
The sex was…fucking incredible, she supposed. Their gazes were locked, boring into each other as she rode him, and not even the driving of the bed frame against the drywall was enough to pull her out of the trance.
She mewled and whimpered as he pushed her hips in sinful dips over him, and she maybe even begged for his cock as she shifted her weight to brace her hands behind her back and fucked him harder. He rambled the whole time—something she found hilarious but also kind of hot? And the words he said made her head spin. There were some “it’s never been so good’s” and “god, I don’t deserve you’s” and it just escalated from there. With her participating.
At some point she told him she’d let him do whatever he wanted to her (not true, but it certainly felt true in the moment), and after that he let out an extremely incriminating admission that she was all he’d wanted for literal months. She then proceeded to inform him that he was going to fuck her over the table later, which went over as well as she though it would (“oh my god”).
As they kept going, the increasing confessions along with their eyes on each other at all times drove her to think something was happening; like he was digging a hole through her entire being, deepening some unknown dimension of herself.
When they neared the end, Kate thought she might burst into flames or collapse in on herself in a cloud of lust. Her arms and legs trembled with pleasure and exertion, she felt emotionally whipped, and as he flipped their positions and drove into her on her back near the foot of the bed, she was incoherent.
His hips slowed to a careful pace as he tried to hold onto reality, but she cried out and begged “No Anthony—I need—come back,” like she’d never want anything ever again. “Fuck. Fuck,” he muttered. Then he lined back up and ended her in an unforgiving minute of relentless thrusting, her brain-melting orgasm triggering his own with the pulsing of her muscles.
She couldn’t remember the after. She must have cleaned herself up, went to the bathroom, and curled into bed, but she was tired and dazed like a walking zombie. The only thing she was sure of when she finally passed out, was that it felt like she hadn’t slept in five years.
It was a perfect dreamless sleep, warm and comfortable snuggled up against him, but in the harsh light of day something happened.
She was ashamed to admit what happened next.
When she went to sleep he was awake, and when she woke he was also awake, the beating stream of the showerhead noisy in the other room at 6 am.
Kate yawned, sat up from her pillow and took a good look around. She took in his perfectly rectangular room with its neat corners filled with custom wood furniture. There were photos of his family on the walls, and something about it was warm and comfortable.
Too warm and comfortable, especially for something that wouldn’t last.
A sudden vortex of dread started tunneling through her gut, and after several seconds of wondering just how long he’d been in the shower, she sprang from the bed and fled to the living room.
Locating all her articles of clothing was easy and she pulled them on quickly with urgent hands. Next she found her purse and her coat by the front door, shoved her shoes on, and just when the shower stopped, she turned the knob. She didn’t hesitate. Less than five seconds later, she was gone.
No note, no text, no nothing.
And regret didn’t come in the following days because she got nothing in return.
When he was angry and miserable everyone knew it, even people halfway across the world—or at least that’s what his siblings told him. He’d wager that his mother would agree with them too.
Which meant that everyone knew something wrong the day that she disappeared. It wouldn’t have been so frustrating if he was meant to feel upset. He was supposed to feel relieved; she gave him the perfect escape route, clearly marked with instructions on how to get out of the burning building that was their relationship, meant for dust and meant for death.
Instead, when he strolled out of his bathroom that morning ready to suggest that they finally test the strength of that table, his hopes crashed down from new heights.
The piles of pillows and blankets on his bed revealed a slight dip where her body used to be, and when he collapsed on top of it and ran his hands through his wet hair, he could feel it was still warm.
After that, he very pathetically checked his phone every five minutes and looked under the bed to make sure a stray paper hadn’t fallen beneath it. He knew he wasn’t going to find anything, and somehow it made it worse that he checked anyway.
He trudged into work that day and tried to forget about it, and spent the next few days repeating the action. A week later, he saw that she was out at a bar with Colin on Friday night and found himself terribly bothered by it. The week after that, he noticed she denied an invitation to another one of Benedict’s art showings and got so disgustingly mad that he threw his phone across the room and had to buy a new one.
It wasn’t until a third week passed that something terrible happened. Colin and Benedict had enough of his terrible mood and out of the goodness of their hearts, invited him out to dinner.
Originally they were meant to go somewhere else, but when they arrived, the reservation had been suspiciously cancelled. That’s when Colin pointed out that there was another place conveniently close by that was never too long of a wait because the food was so unimpressive; that’s when Anthony wanted to die. Or kill. Either would work, he supposed.
At first he tried to get out of it, but he couldn’t think of a decent excuse without divulging the truth or making a scene. But the more he thought about it, the more he realized he was dying to see her face, even if he couldn’t take it in his hands and kiss her senseless.
So they ended up back where he always found himself: sitting at one of her tables.
It was a nightmare from the beginning.
She was pleasant and smiling and friendly, and just as funny as ever. She got along so well with her brothers that it made his chest ache, and she remembered exactly what he wanted to order and made eye contact when she set dishware in front of him.
From a nightmare, it just became hellish.
They had just finished their meal, and his brothers were both conveniently texting “friends” under the table as they waited for Kate to bring the bill. Then Benedict suddenly claimed that he needed to pick Eloise up from the library or else something terrible would happen. Once he was gone, Anthony glared at Colin from across the booth and muttered “don’t you dare.”
Colin did, in fact, dare, and jumped up from his seat before Anthony could tackle him. He fled the restaurant, laughing.
That’s how he ended up alone and absolutely bloodthirsty when Kate returned with the check.
She glanced around with an indiscernible look in her eye in front of their empty table.
“They left on purpose,” he supplied.
“Here,” he held out his credit card. “Just take it.”
“Do you want to talk?”
He eyed her harshly. “Not particularly.”
“Oh,” she repeated dumbly. And then, after several seconds of silence, “I don’t believe you. You seem mad at me.”
“Really Kate, there’s no need.” She flinched at that, and being the asshole that he was, he kept going. “It wasn’t going to amount to anything anyway. I told you beforehand that I don’t know what I want, and I’m sure you’ve noticed that I don’t do relationships.”
“Yeah, I’ve noticed. That’s kind of why I left,” she explained. “It was cowardly, and I usually try to be straightforward, but it was also just practical. And that won out.”
A terrible feeling nudged into his gut. “So you left because you knew I wouldn’t want it to continue?”
“I thought you wouldn’t want to talk about it,” she snapped.
“Then why are you asking?!”
“Because I want to know!”
They were starting to attract curious looks so Kate took a deep breath and lowered her volume. “Fine. Yes, that’s why, if you must know. I can’t do what you do and pretend I’m unaffected.”
“So you’re blaming this all on me?” he demanded.
“No, you’re projecting. I’m not blaming it on anyone, simply giving my reasons,” she sniffed. “Reasons that you asked for.”
She was right and he hated to admit it to himself, but not as much as he hated something else she just said. “What did you mean by ‘unaffected?’”
She did not take the question well. Her face contorted into something pained and betrayed. “Are you really that cruel?” she asked coldly. Her eyes stared straight into him, sharp and unrelenting, but he didn’t know what he did wrong.
“What? I didn’t mean to—" hurt you, but she didn’t let him finish.
“Do you really expect me to confess unrequited feelings in the middle of a fucking dining room while I’m at work? Fuck you, Bridgerton. You really are a complete ass sometimes.”
It wasn’t until five seconds later that he found the mind to be mad. His brain was still spinning on unrequited when she turned to leave.
“No wait, I—” he stopped short.
She stopped in her tracks and spun around. Her hands were planted on her hips, ready for battle, but her offensive was only two simple questions. “Do you have something you want to say? Are you going to prove me wrong?”
A long silence stretched between them. The confrontation was so straightforwardly-her that he didn’t know why it caught him off guard, but he couldn’t say what he wanted to and didn’t say what he meant.
Will I prove her wrong? he asked himself. He answered himself the moment he spoke it aloud. “No.” Because she deserves better.
“I thought so.” There was no derision, no sarcasm in her voice. Just disappointment and dull resignation. It hurt more than being yelled at.
“Flag someone else down to take care of the bill,” she said and then she was gone.
He got it taken care of as fast as possible. He had to get out of this stupid restaurant, hopefully forever, but just after he stepped out of the front door into the harsh sun, he heard quick footsteps coming up behind him. He could smell her, feel her presence before he saw her, but even that didn’t prepare him for the sight in front of him.
Kate, disheveled in her uniform and flushed in her haste to follow him out the door. Her eyes were wide and dark and genuine, misting over slightly and reflecting under the bright sky. Her hand was on his shoulder and its grip burned through his shirt. “Are you sure?” she asked. “About what you said?”
She handed him a second chance on a silver platter. And he didn’t take it. “Yes.”
He didn’t look back either.
It lasted all of three days. Three bitter days, full of regrets and “I should’ve known better’s,” but it was only three and maybe that was why she didn’t put up more of a fight. She really tried to.
He never came into her workplace again, thank god. If he had, she probably would have thrown a side salad at his head on sight and ended up getting fired.
To be honest, she was surprised her bosses hadn’t threatened termination after the last time he was there, but she supposed that was just because the other servers didn’t snitch and the customers hadn’t complained. People always wanted dinner with a show, after all.
She did spend those three days on edge, though. She didn’t expect him to come back—he hadn’t so much as sent her a text since—but it would be well within reason and in-character for one of the many siblings in the herd of Bridgertons to come in and beg her to make amends with Anthony. Colin and Benedict had already tried over text and she ignored them. Accosting her when she couldn’t leave was the next logical step, especially for a bunch of people who grew up getting everything they wanted.
She wasn’t closing that night so she finished up her tables, did her side-work, and was outside by 9 pm. Despite the early night, she was exhausted. Her feet ached and it was a twenty-minute walk home. She was hungry, and on top of that she had two readings she had to do before class tomorrow.
This culminated into a less than stellar mood, something which partially explained the reaction she had when she heard his voice when she passed the bench outside.
She nearly jumped out of her skin. “Fucking Christ, Anthony! Didn’t anyone ever tell you not to sneak up on women in the dark?!”
He looked around. “This street is incredibly well-lit.”
He sprang from the bench and grabbed onto her shoulder. “No, no, please can we talk?”
She wanted to yell no, get the fuck out of my way, but all she did was tense at his touch. It still made her skin buzz, her heart flutter. After everything.
He must have sensed her breaking resolve because he pulled on her shoulder to twist her toward him. Their gazes met and the picture of him in front of her made her ache. His clothes were rumpled and his hair was messy. There were weird shadows under his eyes that were some combination of sad and alluring, and most of all he looked genuine. Disarmingly solemn and determined in a way that nearly broke her in an instant, but it was the next thing he said that did the job. “Please.” A simple, desperate, breathless request.
She tried to remain hard. “Why should I?”
“Because I need to apologize,” he said plainly. “I probably don’t deserve your time, but I can’t not ask for it anyway.”
She glanced down at the time on her phone, mostly so she had somewhere to look besides his face and his stupid perfect eyes and hair and jaw. “You have five minutes. I’m starving.”
“Well, I was talking to Colin and Benedict and—”
“They’ve been bothering you too, huh?” she muttered.
Anthony paused. “What?” He was so cute when he was confused. Dammit. She shook her head and looked at the ground, not giving him a word.
“I’ve been incredibly stupid and selfish. And cowardly,” he started. “And I don’t know, I woke up today and realized that it’s really simple. I want to be with you, so badly. So I should try.”
“It isn’t that simple,” she said. The harshness in her voice stung even her. “You flirted with me. Relentlessly. For weeks, and I didn’t expect anything. We slept together, I still didn’t expect anything. I make all the correct assumptions and bail like you want me to, and you had the audacity to get mad at me. But then you still proceeded to tell me that I was right about all of it, and afterward you rejected me when I gave you a chance to change your mind. How do you still expect me to believe you? After all of that?”
“I wasn’t honest with myself. I refused to accept the truth because I knew how good this could be and how much it could hurt both of us.”
Tears pooled behind her eyes but she kept them in. She vaguely hoped the glaze of wetness didn’t reflect under the streetlight. “We aren’t married. We were barely even friends for a couple weeks before this started! There is no proof this can work and no foundation to build anything off of.” She shook her head ruefully. “I’m forgiving when it counts, but I don’t see a way where this doesn’t happen again in several weeks. Or months. And you still haven’t given me a reason to believe you.”
“Because you don’t give up on people easily. It’s why I like you so much.” He stepped forward. “And you don’t give up on me easily even when I deserve it, and it has made me a better person.”
“Maybe that isn’t the virtue you think it is.”
“Kate, please. Give me another chance,” he pleaded.
“Why not?!” he practically shouted. “It’s been less than a month since we spent the night together. This isn’t some drawn out disaster of a relationship. I’ve been there. If you don’t have another reason besides what you’ve told me, then—” he faltered and deflated, as if just realizing something. “Then you just don’t want me enough to take the risk.” He shook his head numbly. His eyes grew dull. And Kate simply couldn’t take it. She couldn’t let him live under the delusion that he hadn’t somehow managed to capture her whole heart.
“Anthony, that’s not it,” she sighed. “I’m just trying to get a second degree so I don’t have to work at this shithole anymore. My prospects aren’t great. I’m not mysterious or brilliant or naturally anything. Or—or beautiful. I’m just. Not for you.”
When she glanced up, his eyes were cold. “Not a word of that is true,” he snapped.
She didn’t listen. “I try too hard. I run my mouth and I’m too overprotective. I’m untalented and insecure and afraid and I cry during fucking thunderstorms like a child.”
“I try way too hard too, for the record. When I do something wrong and try to fix it, I just make it worse. I’m arrogant and harsh and spoiled and bossy. I nearly have a heart attack whenever someone I know is even near a bee. And I’m terrified of being in love with you because I know I can and because I know you’re better than me,” he took a sharp breath of air and charged on with his words. “I should be the one who ‘can’t do this’ and yet here I am because I don’t want fear to control me anymore! And you shouldn’t let it either.”
Kate couldn’t say anything. It wasn’t everyday that men yelled that they could fall in love with you in the middle of the street, and on top of that, certainly not men like him. It was surreal, and the most bizarre part of it all was that she was starting to believe him. And he still kept going. Confessing, reciting some of her deepest feelings as if he plucked them straight from her head.
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt like this before. I’ve never wanted something that was good for me. Especially not so badly…and I know I can be good for you too. If you’ll let me try.”
She knew she couldn’t stay silent any longer. He just bared her heart to her on the sidewalk, and no matter how angry she was, it wasn’t enough to tell him to stop trying.
“I don’t know what I’m doing either, to be honest,” she sighed. “It’s so rare that I feel worth it. I don’t—I didn’t—want to get too used to it.” She paused as the words settled over them. The implication that he did make her feel worth it was right there in the open. She was only two sentences into forgiving him and said something incredibly vulnerable already.
And he was looking very happy about it.
She narrowed her eyes. “This is still mostly your fault though.”
“Yes it is,” he agreed quickly, stepping forward.
He was close, so close that she didn’t have to speak loudly when she said, “We can try. You won’t be the only one trying.”
They looked at each other and the air pulsed with electricity. But there was something else there too. Something solid. “I don’t want anything more than that,” he whispered.
She felt arms wrap around her shoulders and silently she brought hers around his back. The wealth of affection she’d been holding back for months broke through as she stuffed her face into his chest. They held the hug longer than was publicly appropriate, and he dropped a kiss on her hairline before pulling her chin up to look her in the eye.
And from just one second of eye contact, she knew that the swirl of emotion—of maybe love—laying within him matched hers perfectly. There was no other way.
And then they kissed and it was one of the most romantic things to ever happen to her. Which meant her stomach had to growl obscenely loud at that exact moment. “Hungry?” he asked, pulling away. She nodded in confirmation.
“We can go back inside?” he said.
She nearly laughed out loud. “God no, let’s get something decent instead. Something edible.”
“I can’t imagine the service will be able to compare. This place has great employees.”
“I suppose now would be a bad time to tell you that I actually did spit in your food,” she joked.
He laughed as his hand found hers. He began pulling her down the sidewalk. “Kate, I am very well acquainted with your spit at this point. The thought doesn’t bother me in the slightest.”
“Then I’ll just have to find other ways to torment you,” she decided.
His hand squeezed hers. “I’m sure you will.”