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The Viscount Who Loved Me: Chapter 13


There is little to report in London with so many people away in Kent at the Bridgerton house party. This Author can only imagine all the gossip that will soon reach town. There will be a scandal, yes? There is always a scandal at a house party.

LADY WHISTLEDOWN’S SOCIETY PAPERS, 4 MAY 1814

The following morning was the sort that usually follows a violent storm—bright and clear, but with a fine, damp mist that settled cold and refreshing on the skin.

Anthony was oblivious to the weather, having spent most of the night staring into the darkness and seeing nothing but Kate’s face. He’d finally fallen asleep as the first streaks of dawn fingered across the sky. By the time he woke, it was well past noon, but he did not feel rested. His body was suffused with a strange combination of exhaustion and nervous energy. His eyes felt heavy and dull in their sockets, and yet his fingers kept drumming the bed, inching toward the edge as if they alone could pull him out and to his feet.

Finally, when his stomach growled so loudly that he could swear he saw the plaster on the ceiling shake, he staggered upright and pulled on his robe. With a wide, loud yawn, he moved to the window, not because he was looking for anyone or anything in particular, but simply because the view was better than anything else in his room.

And yet in the quarter second before he looked down and gazed upon the grounds, he somehow knew what he would see.

Kate. Walking slowly across the lawn, far more slowly than he’d ever seen her walk before. Usually, she walked as if in a race.

She was much too far away for him to see her face—just a sliver of her profile, the curve of her cheek. And yet he could not take his eyes off of her. There was so much magic in her form—a strange grace in the way her arm swung as she walked, an artistry in the posture of her shoulders.

She was walking toward the garden, he realized.

And he knew he had to join her.

The weather remained in its contradictory state for most of the day, dividing the house party neatly in half, between those who insisted the bright sunshine beckoned outdoor play, and those who eschewed the wet grass and damp air for the warmer, drier clime of the drawing room.

Kate was firmly in the former group, although she was not in the mood for company. Her mind was in far too reflective a mood to make polite conversation with people she barely knew, and so she stole away once again to Lady Bridgerton’s spectacular gardens and found herself a quiet spot on a bench near the rose arbor. The stone was cold and just a little bit damp beneath her bottom, but she hadn’t slept particularly well the night before, and she was tired, and it was better than standing.

And it was, she realized with a sigh, just about the only place where she might be left to her own company. If she remained in the house, she’d surely be roped into joining the group of ladies chatting in the drawing room while they wrote correspondence to friends and family, or worse, she’d be stuck with the coterie who’d retired to the orangery to pursue their embroidery.

As for the outdoor enthusiasts, they’d also broken into two groups. One had hied off to the village to shop and see whatever sights there were to be found, and the other was taking a constitutional walk to the lake. As Kate had no interest in shopping (and she was already quite familiar with the lake) she’d eschewed their company as well.

Hence, her solitude in the garden.

She sat for several minutes, just staring off into space, her eyes focusing somewhat blindly on the tightly furled bud of a nearby rose. It was nice to be alone, where she didn’t have to cover her mouth or stifle the loud sleepy noises she made when she yawned. Nice to be alone, where no one was going to comment on the dark circles beneath her eyes or her uncommon quietude and lack of conversation.

Nice to be alone, where she could sit and attempt to sort through her muddle of thoughts about the viscount. It was a daunting task, and one she’d rather put off, but it had to be done.

But there really wasn’t all that much to sort out. Because everything she had learned in the past few days pointed her conscience in one, singular direction. And she knew that she could no longer oppose Bridgerton’s courtship of Edwina.

In the past few days he’d proven himself sensitive, caring, and principled. Even, she thought with a glimmer of a smile as she recalled the light in Penelope Featherington’s eyes when he’d saved her from the verbal talons of Cressida Cowper, heroic.

He was devoted to family.

He had used his social position and power not to lord over others but simply to spare another person insult.

He had helped her through one of her phobic attacks with a grace and sensitivity that, now that she could view it with a clear head, stunned her.

He might have been a rake and a rogue—he might still be a rake and a rogue—but clearly his behavior to those ends did not define the man. And the only objection Kate had to his marrying Edwina was…

She swallowed painfully. There was a lump the size of a cannonball in her throat.

Because deep in her heart, she wanted him for herself.

But that was selfish, and Kate had spent her life trying to be unselfish, and she knew she could never ask Edwina not to marry Anthony for such a reason. If Edwina knew that Kate was even the tiniest bit infatuated with the viscount, she would put an end to his courtship at once. And what purpose would that serve? Anthony would just find some other beautiful, eligible woman to pursue. There were plenty to choose from in London.

It wasn’t as if he were going to ask her instead, so what would she have to gain by preventing a match between him and Edwina?

Nothing except the agony of having to see him married to her sister. And that would fade in time, wouldn’t it? It had to; she herself had just said the night before that time truly did heal all wounds. Besides, it would probably hurt just as much to see him married to some other lady; the only difference would be that she would not have to see him at holidays and christenings and the like.

Kate let out a sigh. A long, sad, weary sigh that stole every breath from her lungs and left her shoulders sagging, her posture drooping.

Her heart aching.

And then a voice filled her ears. His voice, low and smooth, like a warm swirl around her. “My goodness, you sound serious.”

Kate stood so suddenly that the backs of her legs knocked into the edge of the stone bench, setting her off balance and causing her to stumble. “My lord,” she blurted out.

His lips curved with the barest hint of a smile. “I thought I might find you here.”

Her eyes widened at the realization that he’d deliberately sought her out. Her heart started beating faster as well, but at least that was something she could keep hidden from him.

He glanced briefly down to the stone bench, signaling that she should feel free to resume her seat. “Actually, I saw you from my window. I wanted to make certain that you were feeling better,” he said quietly.

Kate sat down, disappointment rising in her throat. He was merely being polite. Of course he was merely being polite. Silly of her to dream—even for a moment—that there might be something more. He was, she’d finally realized, a nice person, and any nice person would want to make sure that she was feeling better after what had transpired the night before.

“I am,” she replied. “Very much. Thank you.”

If he thought anything of her broken, staccato sentences, he did not make any discernible reaction of it. “I’m glad,” he said as he sat beside her. “I worried about you for much of the night.”

Her heart, which had already been pounding much too quickly, skipped a beat. “You did?”

“Of course. How could I not?”

Kate swallowed. There it was, that infernal politeness again. Oh, she didn’t doubt that his interest and concern were real and true. It just hurt that they were prompted by his natural kindness of spirit, not any special feeling for her.

Not that she had expected anything different. But she’d found it impossible not to hope, anyway.

“I’m sorry to have bothered you so late at night,” she said quietly, mostly because she thought she should. In truth, she was desperately glad that he’d been there.

“Don’t be silly,” he said, straightening slightly and fixing upon her a rather stern sort of look. “I hate to think of you all alone during a storm. I’m glad I was there to comfort you.”

“I’m usually alone during storms,” she admitted.

Anthony frowned. “Your family does not offer you comfort during storms?”

She looked a little sheepish as she said, “They do not know that I still fear them.”

He nodded slowly. “I see. There are times—” Anthony paused to clear his throat, a diversionary tactic he frequently employed when he wasn’t quite certain what it was he wanted to say. “I think you would gain comfort by seeking the aid of your mother and sister, but I know—” He cleared his throat again. He knew well the singularly strange sensation of loving one’s family to distraction, and yet not feeling quite able to share one’s deepest and most intractable fears. It brought on an uncanny sense of isolation, of being remarkably alone in a loud and loving crowd.

“I know,” he said again, his voice purposely even and subdued, “that it can often be most difficult to share one’s fears with those one most deeply loves.”

Her brown eyes, wise and warm and undeniably perceptive, focused on his. For one split moment he had the bizarre thought that she somehow knew everything about him, every last detail from the moment of his birth to his certainty of his own death. It seemed, in that second, with her face tipped up toward his and her lips slightly parted, that she, more than anyone else who would ever walk this earth, truly knew him.

It was thrilling.

But more than that, it was terrifying.

“You’re a very wise man,” she whispered.

It took him a moment to remember what they’d been talking about. Ah yes, fears. He knew fears. He tried to laugh off her compliment. “Most of the time I’m a very foolish man.”

She shook her head. “No. I think you’ve hit the nail squarely on its proverbial head. Of course I would not tell Mary and Edwina. I do not want to trouble them.” She chewed on her lip for a moment—a funny little movement with her teeth that he found oddly seductive.

“Of course,” she added, “if I am to be true to myself, I must confess that my motives are not entirely unselfish. Surely, an equal part of my reluctance lies in my desire not to be seen as weak.”

“That’s not such a terrible sin,” he murmured.

“Not as far as sins go, I suppose,” Kate said with a smile. “But I would hazard a guess that it is one from which you, too, suffer.”

He didn’t say anything, just nodded his assent.

“We all have our roles to play in life,” she continued, “and mine has always been to be strong and sensible. Cringing under a table during an electrical storm is neither.”

“Your sister,” he said quietly, “is probably a great deal stronger than you think.”

Her eyes flew to his face. Was he trying to tell her that he’d fallen in love with Edwina? He’d complimented her sister’s grace and beauty before, but never had he referred to her inner person.

Kate’s eyes searched his for as long as she dared, but she found nothing that revealed his true feelings. “I did not mean to imply that she wasn’t,” she finally replied. “But I am her older sister. I have always had to be strong for her. Whereas she has only had to be strong for herself.” She brought her eyes back up to his, only to find that he was staring at her with an odd intensity, almost as if he could see past her skin and into her very soul. “You are the oldest as well,” she said. “I’m sure you know what I mean.”

He nodded, and his eyes looked amused and resigned at the same time. “Exactly.”

She gave him an answering smile, the kind that passed between people who know similar experiences and trials. And as she felt herself growing more at ease next to him, almost as if she could sink into his side and bury herself against the warmth of his body, she knew that she could put off her task no longer.

She had to tell him that she’d withdrawn her opposition to his match with Edwina. It wasn’t fair to anyone to keep it to herself, just because she wanted to keep him to herself, if only for a few perfect moments right here in the gardens.

She took a deep breath, straightened her shoulders, and turned to him.

He looked at her expectantly. It was obvious, after all, that she had something to say.

Kate’s lips parted. But nothing came out.

“Yes?” he asked, looking rather amused.

“My lord,” she blurted out.

“Anthony,” he corrected gently.

“Anthony,” she repeated, wondering why the use of his given name made this all the more difficult. “I did need to speak with you about something.”

He smiled. “I’d gathered.”

Her eyes became inexplicably fastened on her right foot, which was tracing half-moons on the packed dirt of the path. “It’s…um…it’s about Edwina.”

Anthony’s brows rose and he followed her gaze to her foot, which had left half-moons behind and was now drawing squiggly lines. “Is something amiss with your sister?” he inquired gently.

She shook her head, looking back up. “Not at all. I believe she’s in the drawing room, writing a letter to our cousin in Somerset. Ladies like to do that, you know.”

He blinked. “Do what?”

“Write letters. I’m not a very good correspondent myself,” she said, her words coming forth in an oddly rushed fashion, “as I rarely have the patience to sit still at a desk long enough to write an entire letter. Not to mention that my penmanship is abysmal. But most ladies spend a goodly portion of every day drafting letters.”

He tried not to smile. “You wanted to warn me that your sister likes to write letters?”

“No, of course not,” she mumbled. “It’s just that you asked if she was all right, and I said of course, and I told you where she was, and then we were entirely off the topic, and—”

He laid his hand across hers, effectively cutting her off. “What is it you needed to tell me, Kate?”

He watched with interest as she steeled her shoulders and clenched her jaw. She looked as if she were preparing for a hideous task. Then, in one big rush of a sentence, she said, “I just wanted you to know that I have withdrawn my objections to your suit of Edwina.”

His chest suddenly felt a bit hollow. “I…see,” he said, not because he did see, just because he had to say something.

“I admit to a strong prejudice against you,” she continued quickly, “but I have come to know you since my arrival at Aubrey Hall, and in all conscience, I could not allow you to go on thinking that I would stand in your way. It would—it would not be right of me.”

Anthony just stared at her, completely at a loss. There was, he realized dimly, something a bit deflating about her willingness to marry him off to her sister, since he’d spent the better part of the last two days fighting the urge to kiss her rather senseless.

On the other hand, wasn’t this what he wanted? Edwina would make the perfect wife.

Kate would not.

Edwina fit all the criteria he’d laid out when he’d finally decided it was time to wed.

Kate did not.

And he certainly couldn’t dally with Kate if he meant to marry Edwina.

She was giving him what he wanted—exactly, he reminded himself, what he wanted; with her sister’s blessing, Edwina would marry him next week if he so desired.

Then why the devil did he want to grab her by the shoulders and shake and shake and shake until she took back every bloody little annoying word?

It was that spark. That damnable spark that never seemed to dim between them. That awful prickle of awareness that burned every time she entered a room, or took a breath, or pointed a toe. That sinking feeling that he could, if he let himself, love her.

Which was the one thing he feared most.

Perhaps the only thing he feared at all.

It was ironic, but death was the one thing he wasn’t afraid of. Death wasn’t frightening to a man alone. The great beyond held no terror when one had managed to avoid attachments here on earth.

Love was truly a spectacular, sacred thing. Anthony knew that. He’d seen it every day of his childhood, every time his parents had shared a glance or touched hands.

But love was the enemy of the dying man. It was the only thing that could make the rest of his years intolerable—to taste bliss and know that it would all be snatched away. And that was probably why, when Anthony finally reacted to her words, he didn’t yank her to him and kiss her until she was gasping, and he didn’t press his lips to her ear and burn his breath against her skin, making sure she understood that he was on fire for her, and not her sister.

Never her sister.

Instead, he just looked at her impassively, his eyes far, far steadier than his heart, and said, “I am much relieved,” all the while having the strangest feeling that he wasn’t really there, but rather watching the entire scene—nothing more than a farce, really—from outside of his body, all the while wondering what the hell was going on.

She smiled weakly and said, “I thought you might feel that way.”

“Kate, I—”

She’d never know what he meant to say. In all truth, he wasn’t even sure what he intended to say. He hadn’t even realized that he was going to speak until her name passed over his lips.

But his words would remain forever unspoken, because at that moment, he heard it.

A low buzz. A whine, really. It was the sort of sound most people found mildly annoying.

Nothing, to Anthony, could have been more terrifying.

“Don’t move,” he whispered, his voice harsh with fear.

Kate’s eyes narrowed, and of course she moved, trying to twist about. “What are you talking about? What is wrong?”

“Just don’t move,” he repeated.

Her eyes slid to the left, then her chin followed by a quarter of an inch or so. “Oh, it’s just a bee!” Her face broke out in a relieved grin, and she lifted her hand to swat it away. “For goodness’ sake, Anthony, don’t do that again. You had me scared for a moment.”

Anthony’s hand shot out and grasped her wrist with painful force. “I said don’t move,” he hissed.

“Anthony,” she said, laughing, “it’s a bee.”

He held her immobile, his grasp hard and painful, his eyes never leaving the loathsome creature, watching as it buzzed purposefully around her head. He was paralyzed by fear, and fury, and something else he couldn’t quite put his finger on.

It wasn’t as if he hadn’t come into contact with bees in the eleven years since his father’s death. One couldn’t reside in England, after all, and expect to avoid them altogether.

Until now, in fact, he’d forced himself to flirt with them in an odd, fatalistic manner. He’d always suspected that he might be doomed to follow in his father’s footsteps in all respects. If he was going to be brought down by a humble insect, by God he’d do it standing firm and holding his ground. He was going to die sooner or…well, sooner, and he wasn’t going to run from some bloody bug. And so when one flew by, he laughed, he mocked, he cursed, and he swatted it away with his hand, daring it to retaliate.

And he’d never been stung.

But seeing one fly so dangerously close to Kate, brushing by her hair, landing on the lacy sleeve of her dress—it was terrifying, almost hypnotizing. His mind raced ahead, and he saw the tiny monster sink its stinger into her soft flesh, he saw her gasping for air, sinking to the ground.

He saw her here at Aubrey Hall, laid out on the same bed that had served as his father’s first coffin.

“Just be quiet,” he whispered. “We’re going to stand—slowly. Then we’re going to walk away.”

“Anthony,” she said, her eyes crinkling in an impatiently confused manner, “what is wrong with you?”

He tugged on her hand, trying to force her to rise, but she resisted. “It’s a bee,” she said in an exasperated voice. “Stop acting so strangely. For heaven’s sake, it’s not going to kill me.”

Her words hung heavy in the air, almost like solid objects, ready to crash to the ground and shatter them both. Then, finally, when Anthony felt his throat relax enough to speak, he said in a low, intense voice, “It might.”

Kate froze, not because she meant to follow his orders, but because something in his aspect, something in his eyes, frightened her to the bone. He looked changed, possessed by some unknown demon. “Anthony,” she said in what she hoped was an even, authoritative voice, “let go of my wrist this instant.”

She pulled, but he did not relent, and the bee kept buzzing relentlessly about her.

“Anthony!” she exclaimed. “Stop this right—”

The rest of her sentence was lost as she somehow managed to yank her hand from his crushing grasp. The sudden freedom left her off balance, and her arm flailed up and about, the inside of her elbow knocking into the bee, which let out a loud, angry buzz as the force of the blow sent it hurtling through space, smashing right into the strip of bare skin above the lace-edged bodice of her afternoon dress.

“Oh, for the love of—Ow!” Kate let out a howl as the bee, no doubt infuriated by its abuse, sank its stinger into her flesh. “Oh, damn,” she swore, completely past any pretensions toward proper language. It was just a bee sting, of course, and nothing she hadn’t suffered several times before, but bloody hell, it hurt.

“Oh, bother,” she grumbled, pulling her chin against her chest so she could look down and get the best view of the red welt rising right along the edge of her bodice. “Now I’ll have to go inside for a poultice, and it’ll get all over my dress.” With a disdainful sniff, she brushed the dead carcass of the bee from her skirt, muttering, “Well, at least he’s dead, the vexing thing. It’s probably the only justice in the—”

That was when she looked up and spied Anthony’s face. He’d gone white. Not pale, not even bloodless, but white. “Oh, my God,” he whispered, and the oddest thing was that his lips didn’t even move. “Oh, my God.”

“Anthony?” she asked, leaning forward and momentarily forgetting about the painful sting on her chest. “Anthony, what is wrong?”

Whatever trance he was in suddenly snapped, and he leaped forward, roughly grabbing one of her shoulders with one hand while his other grappled with the bodice of her gown, pulling it down to better expose her wound.

“My lord!” Kate shrieked. “Stop!”

He said nothing, but his breath was ragged and fast as he pinned her against the back of the bench, still holding her dress down, not low enough to expose her, but certainly lower than decency allowed.

“Anthony!” she tried, hoping that the use of his given name might get his attention. She didn’t know this man; he wasn’t the one who had sat at her side just two minutes earlier. He was crazed, frantic, and completely heedless of her protestations.

“Will you shut up?” he hissed, never once looking up at her. His eyes were focused on the red, swollen circle of flesh on her chest, and with trembling hands he plucked the stinger from her skin.

“Anthony, I’m fine!” she insisted. “You must—”

She gasped. He’d moved one of his hands slightly as he used the other to yank a handkerchief from his pocket, and it now rather indelicately cupped her entire breast.

“Anthony, what are you doing?” She grabbed at his hand, trying to remove it from her person, but his strength was beyond her.

He pinned her even more firmly against the back of the bench, his hand nearly pressing her breast flat. “Be still!” he barked, and then he took the handkerchief and began to press against the swollen sting.

“What are you doing?” she asked, still trying to scoot away.

He didn’t look up. “Expressing the venom.”

Is there venom?”

“There must be,” he muttered. “There has to be. Something is killing you.”

Her mouth fell open. “Something is killing me? Are you mad? Nothing is killing me. It’s a bee sting.”

But he ignored her, too focused on his self-appointed task of treating her wound.

“Anthony,” she said in a placating voice, trying to reason with him. “I appreciate your concern, but I’ve been stung by bees at least a half dozen times, and I—”

“He’d been stung before, too,” he interrupted.

Something about his voice sent a shiver down her spine. “Who?” she whispered.

He pressed more firmly against the raised hive, dabbing the handkerchief against the clear liquid that oozed out. “My father,” he said flatly, “and it killed him.”

She couldn’t quite believe it. “A bee?”

“Yes, a bee,” he snapped. “Haven’t you been listening?”

“Anthony, a little bee cannot kill a man.”

He actually paused in his ministrations for a brief second to glance up at her. His eyes were hard, haunted. “I assure you that it can,” he bit off.

Kate couldn’t quite believe that his words were true, but she also didn’t think he was lying, and so she held still for a moment, recognizing that he needed to treat her bee sting far more than she needed to scoot away from his attentions.

“It’s still swollen,” he muttered, pressing harder with the handkerchief. “I don’t think I got it all out.”

“I’m sure I’ll be fine,” she said gently, her ire with him turning into an almost maternal concern. His brow was wrinkled with concentration, and his movements still carried an air of frantic energy. He was petrified, she realized, scared that she would drop dead right there on the garden bench, felled by a tiny little bee.

It seemed unfathomable, and yet it was true.

He shook his head. “It’s not good enough,” he said hoarsely. “I have to get it all out.”

“Anthony, I—What are you doing?”

He’d tipped her chin back and his head was closing the distance between them, almost as if he meant to kiss her.

“I’m going to have to suck the venom out,” he said grimly. “Just hold still.”

“Anthony!” she shrieked. “You can’t—” She gasped, completely unable to finish her sentence once she felt his lips settling on her skin, applying a gentle, yet inexorable pressure, pulling her into his mouth. Kate didn’t know how to respond, didn’t know whether to push him away or pull him toward her.

But in the end she just froze. Because when she lifted her head and looked over his shoulder, she saw a group of three women staring at them with equal expressions of shock.

Mary.

Lady Bridgerton.

And Mrs. Featherington, arguably the ton’s biggest gossip.

And Kate knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that her life would never be the same.


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