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The Viscount Who Loved Me: Chapter 11

There is nothing like a spot of competition to bring out the worst in a man—or the best in a woman.


Anthony whistled as they ambled up the path to the house, stealing glances at Kate when she wasn’t looking. She really was quite an attractive woman in her own right. He didn’t know why this always surprised him, but it did. His memory of her never quite lived up to the enchanting reality of her face. She was always in motion, always smiling or frowning or pursing her lips. She’d never master the placid, serene expression to which young ladies were meant to aspire.

He’d fallen into the same trap as had the rest of society—of thinking of her only in terms of her younger sister. And Edwina was so stunning, so amazingly, startlingly beautiful that anyone near to her couldn’t help but fade into the background. It was, Anthony allowed, difficult to look at anyone else when Edwina was in the room.

And yet…

He frowned. And yet he’d barely spared Edwina a glance through the entire Pall Mall game. This might have been understandable simply because it was Bridgerton Pall Mall, and it brought out the worst in anyone named Bridgerton; hell, he probably wouldn’t have spared a glance for the Prince Regent if he’d deigned to join the game.

But that explanation wouldn’t wash, for his mind was filled with other images. Kate bending over her mallet, her face tense with concentration. Kate giggling as someone missed a shot. Kate cheering on Edwina when her ball rolled through the wicket—a very un-Bridgerton-like trait, that. And, of course, Kate smiling wickedly in that last second before she’d sent his ball flying into the lake.

Clearly, even if he hadn’t been able to spare a glance for Edwina, he’d been sparing plenty for Kate.

That ought to have been disturbing.

He glanced back over at her again. This time her face was tilted slightly toward the sky, and she was frowning.

“Is something wrong?” he inquired politely.

She shook her head. “Just wondering if it’s going to rain.”

He looked up. “Not anytime soon, I imagine.”

She nodded slowly in agreement. “I hate the rain.”

Something about the expression on her face—rather reminiscent of a frustrated three-year-old—made him laugh. “You live in the wrong country, then, Miss Sheffield.”

She turned to him with a sheepish smile. “I don’t mind a gentle rain. It’s just when it grows violent that I don’t like it.”

“I’ve always rather enjoyed thunderstorms,” he murmured.

She shot him a startled look but didn’t say anything, then returned her gaze to the pebbles at her feet. She was kicking one along the path as they walked, occasionally breaking her stride or stepping to the side just so she could give it a kick and keep it flying ahead of her. There was something charming about it, something rather sweet about the way her booted foot peeked out from under the hem of her dress at such regular intervals and connected with the pebble.

Anthony watched her curiously, forgetting to pull his eyes off her face when she looked back up.

“Do you think—Why are you looking at me like that?” she asked.

“Do I think what?” he returned, deliberately ignoring the second part of her question.

Her lips settled into a peevish line. Anthony felt his own quivering, wanting to smile with amusement.

“Are you laughing at me?” she asked suspiciously.

He shook his head.

Her feet ground to a halt. “I think you are.”

“I assure you,” he said, sounding even to himself as if he wanted to laugh, “that I am not laughing at you.”

“You’re lying.”

“I’m not—” He had to stop. If he spoke any further he knew he’d explode with laughter. And the strangest thing was—he hadn’t a clue why.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” she muttered. “What is the problem?”

Anthony sank against the trunk of a nearby elm, his entire body shaking with barely contained mirth.

Kate planted her hands on her hips, the expression in her eyes a little bit curious, a little bit furious. “What’s so funny?”

He finally gave in to the laughter and barely managed to lift his shoulders into a shrug. “I don’t know,” he gasped. “The expression on your face…it’s…”

He noticed that she smiled. He loved that she smiled.

“The expression on your face is not exactly unamusing yourself, my lord,” she remarked.

“Oh, I’m sure.” He took a few deep breaths and then, when he was satisfied that he had regained control, straightened. He caught sight of her face, still vaguely suspicious, and suddenly he realized that he had to know what she thought of him.

It couldn’t wait until the next day. It couldn’t wait until that evening.

He wasn’t sure how it had come about, but her good opinion meant a great deal to him. Of course he needed her approval in his much-neglected suit of Edwina, but there was more to it than that. She’d insulted him, she’d nearly dunked him in The Serpentine, she’d humiliated him at Pall Mall, and yet he craved her good opinion.

Anthony couldn’t remember the last time someone’s regard had meant so much, and frankly, it was humbling.

“I think you owe me a boon,” he said, pushing off the tree and standing straight. His mind was whirring. He needed to be clever about this. He had to know what she thought. And yet, he didn’t want her knowing how much it meant to him. Not until he understood why it meant so much to him.

“I beg your pardon?”

“A boon. For the Pall Mall game.”

She let out a ladylike snort as she leaned against the tree and crossed her arms. “If anyone owes anyone else a boon, then you owe one to me. I did win, after all.”

“Ah, but I was the one humiliated.”

“True,” she acceded.

“You would not be yourself,” he said in an extremely dry voice, “if you resisted the urge to agree.”

Kate gave him a demure glance. “A lady should be honest in all things.”

When she raised her eyes to his face, one corner of his mouth was curved into a rather knowing smile. “I was hoping you’d say that,” he murmured.

Kate felt immediately uneasy. “And why is that?”

“Because my boon, Miss Sheffield, is to ask you a question—any question of my choosing—and you must answer with the utmost honesty.” He planted one hand against the tree trunk, rather close to her face, and leaned forward. Kate suddenly felt trapped, even though it would be easy enough to dart away.

With a touch of dismay—and a shiver of excitement—she realized that she felt trapped by his eyes, which were burning rather dark and hot into hers.

“Do you think you can do that, Miss Sheffield?” he murmured.

“Wh-what is your question?” she asked, not realizing that she was whispering until she heard her voice, breathy and crackling like the wind.

He cocked his head slightly to the side. “Now, remember, you have to answer honestly.”

She nodded. Or at least she thought she nodded. She meant to nod. In all truth, she wasn’t entirely convinced of her ability to move.

He leaned forward, not so much that she could feel his breath, but close enough to make her shiver. “Here, Miss Sheffield, is my question.”

Her lips parted.

“Do you”—he moved closer—“still”—and another inch—“hate me?”

Kate swallowed convulsively. Whatever she’d been expecting him to ask, it hadn’t been this. She licked her lips, preparing to speak, even though she had no idea what she’d say, but not a sound emerged.

His lips curved into a slow, masculine smile. “I’ll take that as a no.”

And then, with an abruptness that left her head spinning, he pushed off the tree and said briskly, “Well, then, I do believe it’s time we went inside and prepared for the evening, don’t you?”

Kate sagged against the tree, completely devoid of energy.

“You wish to remain outside for a few moments?” He planted his hands on his hips and looked up at the sky, his demeanor pragmatic and efficient—one hundred and eighty degrees changed from the slow, lazy seducer he’d been just ten seconds earlier. “You might as well. It doesn’t look like it’s going to rain, after all. At least not in the next few hours.”

She just stared at him. Either he’d lost his mind or she’d forgotten how to talk. Or maybe both.

“Very well. I’ve always admired a woman who appreciates fresh air. I shall see you at supper, then?”

She nodded. She was surprised she even managed that.

“Excellent.” He reached out and took her hand, dropping a searing kiss on the inside of her wrist, upon the single band of bare flesh that peeked out between her glove and the hem of her sleeve. “Until tonight, Miss Sheffield.”

And then he strode off, leaving her with the oddest feeling that something rather important had just taken place.

But for the life of her, she had no idea what.

At half seven that night, Kate considered falling dreadfully ill. At quarter to eight, she’d refined her goal to an apoplectic fit. But at five minutes to the hour, as the dinner bell sounded, alerting guests that it was time to assemble in the drawing room, she squared her shoulders and walked into the hall outside her bedroom door to meet Mary.

She refused to be a coward.

She wasn’t a coward.

And she could make it through the evening. Besides, she told herself, she wasn’t likely to be seated anywhere near Lord Bridgerton. He was a viscount and the man of the house, and would therefore be at the head of the table. As the daughter of a baron’s second son, she held little rank compared to the other guests, and would most certainly be seated so far down the table that she wouldn’t even be able to see him without developing a crick in her neck.

Edwina, who was sharing a room with Kate, had already gone to Mary’s chamber to help her choose a necklace, and so Kate found herself alone in the hall. She supposed she could enter Mary’s room and wait for the two of them there, but she didn’t feel terribly conversational, and Edwina had already noticed her odd, reflective mood. The last thing Kate needed was a round of “Whatever can be wrong’s” from Mary.

And the truth was—Kate didn’t even know what was wrong. All she knew was that that afternoon, something had changed between her and the viscount. Something was different, and she freely admitted (to herself, at least) that it frightened her.

Which was normal, right? People always feared what they didn’t understand.

And Kate definitely didn’t understand the viscount.

But just as she was beginning to truly enjoy her solitude, the door across the hall opened, and out walked another young lady. Kate recognized her instantly as Penelope Featherington, the youngest of the three famed Featherington sisters—well, the three who were out in society. Kate had heard that there was a fourth still in the schoolroom.

Unfortunately for the Featherington sisters, they were famed for their lack of success on the marriage mart. Prudence and Philippa had been out for three years now, without a single proposal between the two of them. Penelope was in the midst of her second season and could usually be found at social functions trying to avoid her mother and sisters, who were universally regarded as ninnies.

Kate had always liked Penelope. The two had formed a bond ever since they’d both been skewered by Lady Whistledown for wearing gowns of an unflattering color.

Kate noted with a sad sigh that Penelope’s current gown of lemon yellow silk made the poor girl look hopelessly sallow. And if that weren’t bad enough, it had been cut with far too many frills and flounces. Penelope wasn’t a tall girl, and the gown positively overwhelmed her.

It was a pity, because she might be quite attractive if someone could convince her mother to stay away from the modiste and let Penelope choose her own clothing. She had a rather pleasing face, with the pale, pale skin of a redhead, except that her hair was truly more auburn than red, and if one really wanted to put a fine point on it, more brownish red than auburn.

Whatever you called it, Kate thought with dismay, it didn’t go with lemon yellow.

“Kate!” Penelope called out, after closing her door behind her. “What a surprise. I didn’t realize you were attending.”

Kate nodded. “I think we might have been issued a late invitation. We met Lady Bridgerton only just last week.”

“Well, I know I just said I was surprised, but I’m actually not surprised. Lord Bridgerton has been paying much attention to your sister.”

Kate flushed. “Er, yes,” she stammered. “He has.”

“That is what the gossips say, at least,” Penelope continued. “But then again, one can’t always trust the gossips.”

“I have rarely known Lady Whistledown to be incorrect,” Kate said.

Penelope just shrugged and then looked down at her gown with disgust. “She certainly is never incorrect about me.”

“Oh, don’t be silly,” Kate said quickly, but they both knew she was just being polite.

Penelope gave her head a weary shake. “My mother is convinced that yellow is a happy color and that a happy girl will snare a husband.”

“Oh, dear,” Kate said, snorting a giggle.

“What she doesn’t grasp,” Penelope continued wryly, “is that such a happy shade of yellow makes me look rather un happy and positively repels the gentlemen.”

“Have you suggested green?” Kate inquired. “I think you’d be smashing in green.”

Penelope shook her head. “She doesn’t like green. Says it’s melancholy.”

“Green?” Kate asked with disbelief.

“I don’t even try to understand her.”

Kate, who was wearing green, held up her sleeve near Penelope’s face, blocking the yellow as best as she could.

“Your whole face lights up,” she said.

“Don’t tell me that. It will only make the yellow more painful.”

Kate offered her a sympathetic smile. “I would loan you one of mine, but I’m afraid it would drag on the floor.”

Penelope waved away her offer. “That’s very kind of you, but I’m resigned to my fate. At least it’s better than last year.”

Kate raised a brow.

“Oh, that’s right. You weren’t out last year.” Penelope winced. “I weighed nearly two stone more than I do now.”

“Two stone?” Kate echoed. She couldn’t believe it.

Penelope nodded and made a face. “Baby fat. I begged Mama not to force me to come out until I turned eighteen, but she thought a head start might be good for me.”

Kate only had to take one look at Penelope’s face to know that it hadn’t been good for her. She felt a certain kinship with this girl, even though Penelope was nearly three years younger. Both of them knew the singular feeling of not being the most popular girl in the room, knew the exact expression you put on your face when you weren’t asked to dance but you wanted to look as if you didn’t care.

“I say,” Penelope said, “why don’t the two of us go down to supper together? It seems your family and mine are both delayed.”

Kate wasn’t in much of a rush to reach the drawing room and the inevitable company of Lord Bridgerton, but waiting for Mary and Edwina would delay the torture by only a few minutes, so she decided she might as well head down with Penelope.

They both poked their heads into their respective mother’s room, informed them of the change in plans, and linked arms, heading down the hall.

When they reached the drawing room, much of the company was already in attendance, milling about and chatting as they waited for the rest of the guests to come down. Kate, who had never attended a country house party before, noted with surprise that nearly everyone seemed more relaxed and a bit more animated than they did in London. It must be the fresh air, she thought with a smile. Or perhaps distance relaxed the strict rules of the capital. Whatever the case, she decided she preferred this atmosphere to that of a London dinner party.

She could see Lord Bridgerton across the room. Or rather she supposed she could sense him. As soon as she spotted him standing over by the fireplace, she’d kept her gaze scrupulously averted.

But she could feel him nonetheless. She knew she had to be crazy, but she’d swear she knew when he tilted his head, and heard him when he spoke and when he laughed.

And she definitely knew when his eyes were on her back. Her neck felt as if it were about to go up in flames.

“I didn’t realize Lady Bridgerton had invited so many people,” Penelope said.

Careful to keep her eyes away from the fireplace, Kate did a sweep of the room to see who was there.

“Oh, no,” Penelope half whispered, half moaned. “Cressida Cowper is here.”

Kate discreetly followed Penelope’s gaze. If Edwina had any competition for the role of 1814’s reigning beauty, it was Cressida Cowper. Tall, slender, with honey-blond hair and sparkling green eyes, Cressida was almost never without a small bevy of admirers. But where Edwina was kind and generous, Cressida was, in Kate’s estimation, a self-centered, ill-mannered witch who took her joy in the torment of others.

“She hates me,” Penelope whispered.

“She hates everyone,” Kate replied.

“No, she really hates me.”

“Whyever?” Kate turned to her friend with curious eyes. “What could you possibly have done to her?”

“I bumped into her last year and caused her to spill punch all over herself and the Duke of Ashbourne.”

“That’s all?”

Penelope rolled her eyes. “It was enough for Cressida. She’s convinced he would have proposed if she hadn’t appeared clumsy.”

Kate let out a snort that didn’t even pretend to be ladylike. “Ashbourne isn’t about to get hitched anytime soon. Everyone knows that. He’s nearly as bad a rake as Bridgerton.”

“Who is most probably going to get married this year,” Penelope reminded her. “If the gossips are correct.”

“Bah,” Kate scoffed. “Lady Whistledown herself wrote that she doesn’t think he’ll marry this year.”

“That was weeks ago,” Penelope replied with a dismissive wave of her hand. “Lady Whistledown changes her mind all the time. Besides, it’s obvious to everyone that the viscount is courting your sister.”

Kate bit her tongue before she muttered, “Don’t remind me.”

But her wince of pain was drowned out by Penelope’s hoarse whisper of, “Oh, no. She’s coming this way.”

Kate gave her arm a reassuring squeeze. “Don’t worry about her. She’s no better than you.”

Penelope shot her a sarcastic look. “I know that. But that doesn’t make her any less unpleasant. And she always goes out of her way to make sure that I have to deal with her.”

“Kate. Penelope,” Cressida trilled, drawing up alongside them, giving her shiny hair an affected shake. “What a surprise to see you here.”

“And why is that?” Kate asked.

Cressida blinked, obviously surprised that Kate had even questioned her pronouncement. “Well,” she said slowly, “I suppose it is not such a surprise to see you here, as your sister is very much in demand, and we all know that you must go where she goes, but Penelope’s presence…” She shrugged daintily. “Well, who am I to judge? Lady Bridgerton is a most kindhearted woman.”

The comment was so rude that Kate could not help but gape. And while she was staring at Cressida, openmouthed with shock, Cressida went in for the kill.

“That’s a lovely gown, Penelope,” she said, her smile so sweet that Kate would swear she could taste sugar in the air. “I do love yellow,” she added, smoothing down the pale yellow fabric of her own gown. “It takes a very special complexion to wear it, don’t you think?”

Kate ground her teeth together. Naturally Cressida looked brilliant in her gown. Cressida would look brilliant in a sackcloth.

Cressida smiled again, this time reminding Kate of a serpent, then turned slightly to motion to someone across the room. “Oh, Grimston, Grimston! Come over here for a moment.”

Kate looked over her shoulder to see Basil Grimston approaching and just barely managed to stifle a groan. Grimston was the perfect male counterpart to Cressida—rude, supercilious, and self-important. Why a lovely lady like Viscountess Bridgerton had invited him, she’d never know. Probably to even up the numbers with so many young ladies invited.

Grimston slithered over and lifted one corner of his mouth in a mockery of a smile. “Your servant,” he said to Cressida after sparing Kate and Penelope a fleeting, disdainful glance.

“Don’t you think dear Penelope looks fetching in that gown?” Cressida said. “Yellow truly must be the color of the season.”

Grimston did a slow, insulting perusal of Penelope, from the top of her head to the tips of her feet and back. He barely moved his head, letting his eyes travel up and down her frame. Kate fought a spasm of revulsion so strong it nearly brought on a wave of nausea. More than anything, she wanted to throw her arms around Penelope and give the poor girl a hug. But such attention would only single her out further as someone who was weak and easily bullied.

When Grimston was finally done with his rude inspection, he turned to Cressida and shrugged, as if he couldn’t think of anything complimentary to say.

“Don’t you have somewhere else to be?” Kate blurted out.

Cressida looked shocked. “Why, Miss Sheffield, I can hardly countenance your impertinence. Mr. Grimston and I were merely admiring Penelope’s appearance. That shade of yellow does so much for her complexion. And it is so nice to see her looking so well after last year.”

“Indeed,” Grimston drawled, his oily tone making Kate feel positively unclean.

Kate could feel Penelope shaking next to her. She hoped it was with anger, not with pain.

“I can’t imagine what you mean,” Kate said in icy tones.

“Why, surely you know,” Grimston said, his eyes glittering with delight. He leaned forward and then said in a whisper that was louder than his usual voice, loud enough so that a great many people could hear, “She was fat.”

Kate opened her mouth to give a scathing retort, but before she could make a sound, Cressida added, “It was such a pity, because there were so many more men in town last year. Of course most of us still never lack for a dance partner, but I do feel for poor Penelope when I see her sitting with the dowagers.”

“The dowagers,” Penelope ground out, “are often the only people in the room with a modicum of intelligence.”

Kate wanted to jump up and cheer.

Cressida made a breathy little “Oh” sound, as if she had any right to be offended. “Still, one cannot help but…Oh! Lord Bridgerton!”

Kate moved to the side to allow the viscount into their small circle, noticing with disgust that Cressida’s entire demeanor changed. Her eyelids began to flutter and her mouth made a pretty little cupid’s bow.

It was so appalling Kate forgot to be self-conscious around the viscount.

Bridgerton shot Cressida a hard look but did not say anything. Instead, he turned quite deliberately to Kate and Penelope and murmured their names in greeting.

Kate nearly gasped with glee. He’d given Cressida Cowper the cut direct!

“Miss Sheffield,” he said smoothly, “I hope you will excuse us as I escort Miss Featherington in to dinner.”

“But you can’t escort her in!” Cressida blurted out.

Bridgerton gave her an icy stare. “I’m sorry,” he said in a voice that said he was anything but. “Had I included you in the conversation?”

Cressida shrank back, obviously mortified by her outburst. Still, it was beyond irregular for him to escort Penelope. As the man of the house, it was his duty to escort the highest-ranking woman. Kate wasn’t sure who that happened to be this evening, but it certainly wasn’t Penelope, whose father had been a mere mister.

Bridgerton offered Penelope his arm, turning his back on Cressida in the process. “I do hate a bully, don’t you?” he murmured.

Kate clapped her hand over her mouth, but she couldn’t stifle her giggle. Bridgerton offered her a small, secret smile over Penelope’s head, and in that moment Kate had the oddest feeling that she understood this man completely.

But even stranger—suddenly she wasn’t so certain that he was the soulless, reprehensible rake she’d taken such comfort in believing him.

“Did you see that?”

Kate, who, along with the rest of the assembled company, had been staring openmouthed as Bridgerton led Penelope from the room, his head bent to hers as if she were the most fascinating woman ever to walk the earth, turned to see Edwina standing next to her.

“I saw the whole thing,” Kate said in a dazed voice. “I heard the whole thing.”

“What happened?”

“He was…he was…” Kate stumbled over her words, unsure of how to describe what exactly he’d done. And then she said something she’d never thought possible: “He was a hero.”


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