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The Viscount Who Loved Me: Chapter 21


It has been whispered that Lord and Lady Bridgerton were forced to marry, but even if that is true, This Author refuses to believe that theirs is anything but a love match.

LADY WHISTLEDOWN’S SOCIETY PAPERS, 15 JUNE 1814

It was strange, Kate thought as she looked at the morning repast laid upon the side table in the small dining room, how one could feel utterly famished and at the same time have no appetite. Her stomach was rumbling and churning, demanding food now, and yet everything—from the eggs to the scones to the kippers to the roast pork—looked awful.

With a dejected sigh, she reached for a solitary triangle of toast and sank into her chair with a cup of tea.

Anthony had not come home last night.

Kate took a nibble of the toast and forced it down. She’d been hoping that he might at least make an appearance in time for breakfast. She’d delayed the meal as long as she could—it was already nearly eleven in the morning and she usually ate at nine—but her husband was still absent.

“Lady Bridgerton?”

Kate looked up and blinked. A footman was standing before her bearing a small cream-colored envelope.

“This arrived for you a few minutes ago,” he said.

Kate murmured her thanks and reached for the envelope, which had been secured with a neat dollop of pale pink sealing wax. Bringing it closer to her eyes, she made out the initials EOB. One of Anthony’s relations? The E would be Eloise, of course, since all of the Bridgertons had been named in alphabetical order.

Kate carefully broke the seal and slipped out the contents—a single piece of paper, neatly folded in half.

Kate—

Anthony is here. He looks a wreck. It is, of course, none of my business, but I thought you might like to know.

Eloise

Kate stared at the note a few seconds longer, then shoved her chair back and stood. It was time she paid a call upon Bridgerton House.

Much to Kate’s surprise, when she knocked at Bridgerton House, the door was swung open not by the butler but by Eloise, who immediately said, “That was fast!”

Kate looked around the hall, half expecting another Bridgerton sibling or two to jump out at her. “Were you waiting for me?”

Eloise nodded. “And you don’t have to knock at the door, you know. Bridgerton House belongs to Anthony, after all. And you are his wife.”

Kate smiled weakly. She didn’t feel much like a wife this morning.

“I hope you don’t think me a hopeless meddler,” Eloise continued, linking her arm through Kate’s and guiding her down the hall, “but Anthony does look awful, and I had a sneaking suspicion you didn’t know he was here.”

“Why would you think that?” Kate couldn’t help asking.

“Well,” Eloise said, “he didn’t go to any great pains to tell any of us that he was here.”

Kate eyed her sister-in-law suspiciously. “Meaning?”

Eloise had the grace to blush a faint pink. “Meaning, ah, that the only reason I know he’s here is that I was spying upon him. I don’t think my mother even knows he’s in residence.”

Kate felt her eyelids blink in rapid succession. “You’ve been spying upon us?”

“No, of course not. But I happened to be up and about rather early this morning, and I heard someone come in, and so I went to investigate and I saw light coming from under the door in his study.”

“How, then, do you know he looks awful?”

Eloise shrugged. “I figured he’d have to emerge eventually to eat or relieve himself, so I waited on the steps for an hour or so—”

“Or so?” Kate echoed.

“Or three,” Eloise admitted. “It’s really not that long when one is interested in one’s subject, and besides, I had a book with me to while away the time.”

Kate shook her head in reluctant admiration. “What time did he come in last night?”

“Around four or so.”

“What were you doing up so late?”

Eloise shrugged again. “I couldn’t sleep. I often can’t. I’d gone down to get a book to read from the library. Finally, at around seven—well, I suppose it was a bit before seven, so it wasn’t quite three hours I waited—”

Kate began to feel dizzy.

“—he emerged. He didn’t head in the direction of the breakfast room, so I can only assume it was for other reasons. After a minute or two, he reemerged and headed back into his study. Where,” Eloise finished with a flourish, “he has been ever since.”

Kate stared at her for a good ten seconds. “Have you ever considered offering your services to the War Department?”

Eloise grinned, a smile so like Anthony’s Kate almost cried. “As a spy?” she asked.

Kate nodded.

“I’d be brilliant, don’t you think?”

“Superb.”

Eloise gave Kate a spontaneous hug. “I’m so glad you married my brother. Now go and see what is wrong.”

Kate nodded, straightened her shoulders, and took a step toward Anthony’s study. Turning around, she pointed a finger at Eloise and said, “You will not be listening at the door.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Eloise replied.

“I mean it, Eloise!”

Eloise sighed. “It’s time I went up to bed, anyway. I could use a nap after staying up all night.”

Kate waited until the younger girl had disappeared up the stairs, then made her way to Anthony’s study door. She put her hand on the knob, whispering, “Don’t be locked,” as she gave it a twist. To her extreme relief, it turned, and the door swung open.

“Anthony?” she called out. Her voice was soft and hesitant, and she found she didn’t like the sound of it. She wasn’t used to being soft and hesitant.

There was no reply, so Kate stepped farther into the room. The drapes were tightly closed, and the heavy velvet admitted little light. Kate scanned the room until her eyes fell on the figure of her husband, slouched over his desk, sound asleep.

Kate walked quietly across the room to the windows and pulled the drapes partway open. She didn’t want to blind Anthony when he woke up, but at the same time, she wasn’t going to conduct such an important conversation in the dark. Then she walked back over to his desk and gently shook his shoulder.

“Anthony?” she whispered. “Anthony?”

His reply was closer to a snore than anything else.

Frowning impatiently, she shook a little harder. “Anthony?” she said softly. “Anthon—”

“Yibbledeedad—!” He came awake in one sudden movement, an incoherent rush of speech bursting forth as his torso snapped upright.

Kate watched as he blinked himself into coherency, then focused on her. “Kate,” he said, his voice hoarse and husky with sleep and something else—maybe alcohol. “What are you doing here?”

“What are you doing here?” she countered. “The last time I checked, we lived nearly a mile away.”

“I didn’t want to disturb you,” he mumbled.

Kate didn’t believe that for one second, but she decided not to argue the point. Instead, she opted for the direct approach and asked, “Why did you leave last night?”

A long stretch of silence was followed by a weary, tired sigh, and Anthony finally said, “It’s complicated.”

Kate fought the urge to cross her arms. “I’m an intelligent woman,” she said in a purposefully even voice. “I’m generally able to grasp complex concepts.”

Anthony didn’t look pleased by her sarcasm. “I don’t want to go into this now.”

“When do you want to go into it?”

“Go home, Kate,” he said softly.

“Do you plan to come with me?”

Anthony let out a little groan as he raked a hand through his hair. Christ, she was like a dog with a bone. His head was pounding, his mouth tasted like wool, all he really wanted to do was splash some water on his face and clean his teeth, and here his wife would not stop interrogating him….

“Anthony?” she persisted.

That was enough. He stood so suddenly that his chair tipped back and slammed into the floor with a resounding crash. “You will cease your questions this instant,” he bit off.

Her mouth settled into a flat, angry line. But her eyes….

Anthony swallowed against the acidic taste of guilt that flooded his mouth.

Because her eyes were awash with pain.

And the anguish in his own heart grew tenfold.

He wasn’t ready. Not yet. He didn’t know what to do with her. He didn’t know what to do with himself. All his life—or at least since his father had died—he’d known that certain things were true, that certain things had to be true. And now Kate had gone and turned his world upside down.

He hadn’t wanted to love her. Hell, he hadn’t wanted to love anyone. It was the one thing—the only thing—that could make him fear his own mortality. And what about Kate? He’d promised to love and protect her. How could he do that, all the while knowing he would leave her? He certainly couldn’t tell her of his odd convictions. Aside from the fact that she’d probably think he was crazy, all it would do was subject her to the same pain and fear that wracked him. Better to let her live in blissful ignorance.

Or was it even better if she didn’t love him at all?

Anthony just didn’t know the answer. And he needed more time. And he couldn’t think with her standing there before him, those pain-filled eyes raking his face. And—

“Go,” he choked out. “Just go.”

“No,” she said with a quiet determination that made him love her all the more. “Not until you tell me what is bothering you.”

He strode out from behind his desk and took her arm. “I can’t be with you right now,” he said hoarsely, his eyes avoiding hers. “Tomorrow. I’ll see you tomorrow. Or the next day.”

“Anthony—”

“I need time to think.”

“About what?” she cried out.

“Don’t make this any harder than—” “How could it possibly get any harder?” she demanded.

“I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”

“I just need a few days,” he said, feeling like an echo. Just a few days to think. To figure out what he was going to do, how he was going to live his life.

But she twisted around until she was facing him, and then her hand was on his cheek, touching him with a tenderness that made his heart ache. “Anthony,” she whispered, “please…”

He couldn’t form a word, couldn’t make a sound.

Her hand slipped to the back of his head, and then she was drawing him closer…closer…and he couldn’t help himself. He wanted her so damned badly, wanted to feel her body pressed against his, to taste the faint salt of her skin. He wanted to smell her, to touch her, to hear the rasp of her breath in his ear.

Her lips touched his, soft and seeking, and her tongue tickled the corner of her mouth. It would be so easy to lose himself in her, to sink down to the carpet and…

“No!” The word was ripped from his throat, and by God, he’d had no idea it was there until it burst forth.

“No,” he said again, pushing her away. “Not now.”

“But—”

He didn’t deserve her. Not right now. Not yet. Not until he understood how he was meant to live out the rest of his life. And if it meant he had to deny himself the one thing that might bring him salvation, so be it.

“Go,” he ordered, his voice sounding a bit more harsh than he’d intended. “Go now. I’ll see you later.”

And this time, she did go.

She went, without looking back.

And Anthony, who’d only just learned what it was to love, learned what it was to die inside.

By the following morning, Anthony was drunk. By afternoon, he was hungover.

His head was pounding, his ears were ringing, and his brothers, who had been surprised to discover him in such a state at their club, were talking far too loudly.

Anthony put his hands over his ears and groaned. Everyone was talking far too loudly.

“Kate boot you out of the house?” Colin asked, grabbing a walnut from a large pewter dish in the middle their table and splitting it open with a viciously loud crack.

Anthony lifted his head just far enough to glare at him.

Benedict watched his brother with raised brows and the vaguest hint of a smirk. “She definitely booted him out,” he said to Colin. “Hand me one of those walnuts, will you?”

Colin tossed one across the table. “Do you want the crackers as well?”

Benedict shook his head and grinned as he held up a fat, leather-bound book. “Much more satisfying to smash them.”

“Don’t,” Anthony bit out, his hand shooting out to grab the book, “even think about it.”

“Ears a bit sensitive this afternoon, are they?”

If Anthony had had a pistol, he would have shot them both, hang the noise.

“If I might offer you a piece of advice?” Colin said, munching on his walnut.

“You might not,” Anthony replied. He looked up. Colin was chewing with his mouth open. As this had been strictly forbidden while growing up in their household, Anthony could only deduce that Colin was displaying such poor manners only to make more noise. “Close your damned mouth,” he muttered.

Colin swallowed, smacked his lips, and took a sip of his tea to wash it all down. “Whatever you did, apologize for it. I know you, and I’m getting to know Kate, and knowing what I know—”

“What the hell is he talking about?” Anthony grumbled.

“I think,” Benedict said, leaning back in his chair, “that he’s telling you you’re an ass.”

“Just so!” Colin exclaimed.

Anthony just shook his head wearily. “It’s more complicated than you think.”

“It always is,” Benedict said, with sincerity so false it almost managed to sound sincere.

“When you two idiots find women gullible enough to actually marry you,” Anthony snapped, “then you may presume to offer me advice. But until then…shut up.”

Colin looked at Benedict. “Think he’s angry?”

Benedict quirked a brow. “That or drunk.”

Colin shook his head. “No, not drunk. Not anymore, at least. He’s clearly hungover.”

“Which would explain,” Benedict said with a philosophical nod, “why he’s so angry.”

Anthony spread one hand over his face and pressed hard against his temples with his thumb and middle finger. “God above,” he muttered. “What would it take to get you two to leave me alone?”

“Go home, Anthony,” Benedict said, his voice surprisingly gentle.

Anthony closed his eyes and let out a long breath. There was nothing he wanted to do more, but he wasn’t sure what to say to Kate, and more importantly, he had no idea how he’d feel once he got there.

“Yes,” Colin agreed. “Just go home and tell her that you love her. What could be more simple?”

And suddenly it was simple. He had to tell Kate that he loved her. Now. This very day. He had to make sure she knew, and he vowed to spend every last minute of his miserably short life proving it to her.

It was too late to change the destiny of his heart. He’d tried not to fall in love, and he’d failed. Since he wasn’t likely to fall back out of love, he might as well make the best of the situation. He was going to be haunted by the premonition of his own death whether or not Kate knew of his love for her. Wouldn’t he be happier during these last few years if he spent them loving her openly and honestly?

He was fairly certain she’d fallen in love with him as well; surely she’d be glad to hear that he felt the same way. And when a man loved a woman, truly loved her from the depths of her soul to the tips of her toes, wasn’t it his God-given duty to try to make her happy?

He wouldn’t tell her of his premonitions, though. What would be the point? He might suffer the knowledge that their time together would be cut short, but why should she? Better she be struck by sharp and sudden pain at his death than suffer the anticipation of it beforehand.

He was going to die. Everyone died, he reminded himself. He was just going to have to do it sooner rather than later. But by God, he was going to enjoy his last years with every breath of his being. It might have been more convenient not to have fallen in love, but now that he had, he wasn’t going to hide from it.

It was simple. His world was Kate. If he denied that, he might as well stop breathing right now.

“I have to go,” he blurted out, standing up so suddenly that his thighs hit the edge of the table, sending walnut shell shards skittering across the tabletop.

“I thought you might,” Colin murmured.

Benedict just smiled and said, “Go.”

His brothers, Anthony realized, were a bit smarter than they let on.

“We’ll speak to you in a week or so?” Colin asked.

Anthony had to grin. He and his brothers had met at their club every day for the past fortnight. Colin’s oh-so-innocent query could only imply one thing—that it was obvious that Anthony had completely lost his heart to his wife and planned to spend at least the next seven days proving it to her. And that the family he was creating had grown as important as the one he’d been born into.

“Two weeks,” Anthony replied, yanking on his coat. “Maybe three.”

His brothers just grinned.

But when Anthony pushed through the door of his home, slightly out of breath from taking the front steps three at a time, he discovered that Kate was not in.

“Where did she go?” he asked the butler. Stupidly, he’d never once considered that she might not be at home.

“Out for a ride in the park,” the butler replied, “with her sister and a Mr. Bagwell.”

“Edwina’s suitor,” Anthony muttered to himself. Damn. He supposed he ought to be happy for his sister-in-law, but the timing was bloody annoying. He’d just made a life-altering decision regarding his wife; it would have been nice if she’d been home.

“Her creature went as well,” the butler said with a shudder. He’d never been able to tolerate what he considered the corgi’s invasion into his home.

“She took Newton, eh?” Anthony murmured.

“I imagine they’ll be back within an hour or two.”

Anthony tapped his booted toe against the marble floor. He didn’t want to wait an hour. Hell, he didn’t want to wait even a minute. “I’ll find them myself,” he said impatiently. “It can’t be that difficult.”

The butler nodded and motioned through the open doorway to the small carriage in which Anthony had ridden home. “Will you be needing another carriage?”

Anthony gave his head a single shake. “I’ll go on horseback. It’ll be quicker.”

“Very well.” The butler bent into a small bow. “I’ll have a mount brought ’round.”

Anthony watched the butler make his slow and sedate way toward the rear of the house for about two seconds before impatience set in. “I’ll take care of it myself,” he barked.

And the next thing he knew, he was dashing out of the house.

Anthony was in jaunty spirits by the time he reached Hyde Park. He was eager to find his wife, to hold her in his arms and watch her face as he told her he loved her. He prayed that she would offer words returning the sentiment. He thought she would; he’d seen her heart in her eyes on more than one occasion. Perhaps she was just waiting for him to say something first. He couldn’t blame her if that was the case; he’d made a rather big fuss about how theirs would not be a love match right before their wedding.

What an idiot he’d been.

Once he entered the park, he made the decision to turn his mount and head over to Rotten Row. The busy path seemed the most likely destination for the threesome; Kate certainly would have no reason to encourage a more private route.

He nudged his horse into as fast a trot as he could safely manage within the confines of the park, trying to ignore the calls and waves of greeting that were directed his way by other riders and pedestrians.

Then, just when he thought he’d made it through without delay, he heard an aged, female, and very imperious voice call out his name.

“Bridgerton! I say, Bridgerton! Stop at once. I’m speaking to you!”

He groaned as he turned about. Lady Danbury, the dragon of the ton. There was simply no way he could ignore her. He had no idea how old she was. Sixty? Seventy? Whatever her age, she was a force of nature, and no one ignored her.

“Lady Danbury,” he said, trying not to sound resigned as he reined in his mount. “How nice to see you.”

“Good gad, boy,” she barked, “you sound as if you’ve just taken an antidote. Perk up!”

Anthony smiled weakly.

“Where’s your wife?”

“I’m looking for her right now,” he replied, “or at least I was.”

Lady Danbury was far too sharp to miss his pointed hint, so he could only deduce that she ignored him apur-pose when she said, “I like your wife.”

“I like her, too.”

“Never could understand why you were so set on courting her sister. Nice gel, but clearly not for you.” She rolled her eyes and let out an indignant huff. “The world would be a much happier place if people would just listen to me before they up and got married,” she added. “I could have the entire Marriage Mart matched up in a week.”

“I’m sure you could.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Are you patronizing me?”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Anthony said with complete honesty.

“Good. You always seemed like the sensible sort. I…” Her mouth fell open. “What the devil is that?”

Anthony followed Lady Danbury’s horrified gaze until his eyes fell on an open-topped carriage careening out of control as it rounded a corner on two wheels. It was still too far to see the faces of the occupants, but then he heard a shriek, and then the terrified bark of a dog.

Anthony’s blood froze in his veins.

His wife was in that carriage.

With nary a word to Lady Danbury, he kicked his horse into motion and galloped full speed ahead. He wasn’t sure what he’d do once he reached the carriage. Maybe he’d grab the reins from the hapless driver. Maybe he’d be able to pull someone to safety. But he knew that he could not sit still and watch while the vehicle crashed before his eyes.

And yet that was exactly what happened.

Anthony was halfway to the drunken carriage when it veered off the path and ran up over a large rock, upsetting the balance and sending it tumbling onto its side.

And Anthony could only watch in horror as his wife died before his eyes.


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