He didn’t know why he no longer wanted to be by himself.

And she didn’t know why that was meaningful.

Nine

In which Our Story takes a turn.

The following night was the masked ball. It was to be a grand affair, not too grand, of course-Gregory’s brother Anthony wouldn’t stand for that much disruption of his comfortable life in the country. But nevertheless, it was to be the pinnacle of the house party events. All the guests would be there, along with another hundred or so extra attendees-some down from London, others straight from their homes in the country. Every last bedchamber had been aired out and prepared for occupants, and even with that, a good number of partygoers were staying at the homes of neighbors, or, for an unlucky few, at nearby inns.

Kate’s original intention had been to throw a fancy dress party-she’d been longing to fashion herself as Medusa (to the surprise of no one)-but she had finally abandoned the idea after Anthony informed her that if she had her way with this, he would choose his own costume.

The look he gave her was apparently enough for her to declare an immediate retreat.

She later told Gregory that he had still not forgiven her for costuming him as Cupid at the Billington fancy dress ball the previous year.

“Costume too cherubic?” Gregory murmured.

“But on the bright side,” she had replied, “I now know exactly how he must have looked as a baby. Quite darling, actually.”

“Until this moment,” Gregory said with a wince, “I’m not sure I understood exactly how much my brother loves you.”

“Quite a bit.” She smiled and nodded. “Quite a bit indeed.”

And so a compromise was reached. No costumes, just masks. Anthony didn’t mind that one bit, as it would enable him to abandon his duties as host entirely if he so chose (who would notice his absence, after all?), and Kate set to work designing a mask with Medusish snakes jumping out in every direction. (She was unsuccessful.)

At Kate’s insistence, Gregory arrived in the ballroom at precisely half eight, the ball’s announced start. It meant, of course, that the only guests in attendance were he, his brother, and Kate, but there were enough servants milling about to make it seem not quite so empty, and Anthony declared himself delighted with the gathering.

“It’s a much better party without everyone else jostling about,” he said happily.

“When did you grow so opposed to social discourse?” Gregory asked, plucking a champagne flute off a proffered tray.

“It’s not that at all,” Anthony answered with a shrug. “I’ve simply lost patience for stupidity of any kind.”

“He is not aging well,” his wife confirmed.

If Anthony took any exception to her comment, he made no show of it. “I simply refuse to deal with idiots,” he told Gregory. His face brightened. “It has cut my social obligations in half.”

“What’s the point of possessing a title if one cannot refuse one’s invitations?” Gregory murmured wryly.

“Indeed,” was Anthony’s reply. “Indeed.”

Gregory turned to Kate. “You have no arguments with this?”

“Oh, I have many arguments,” she answered, craning her neck as she examined the ballroom for any last-minute disasters. “I always have arguments.”

“It’s true,” Anthony said. “But she knows when she cannot win.”

Kate turned to Gregory even though her words were quite clearly directed at her husband. “What I know is how to choose my battles.”

“Pay her no mind,” Anthony said. “That is just her way of admitting defeat.”

“And yet he continues,” Kate said to no one in particular, “even though he knows that I always win in the end.”

Anthony shrugged and gave his brother an uncharacteristically sheepish grin. “She’s right, of course.” He finished his drink. “But there is no point in surrendering without a fight.”

Gregory could only smile. Two bigger fools in love had yet to be born. It was endearing to watch, even if it did leave him with a slight pang of jealousy.

“How fares your courtship?” Kate asked him.

Anthony’s ears perked up. “Your courtship?” he echoed, his face assuming its usual obey-me-I-am-the-viscount expression. “Who is she?”

Gregory shot Kate an aggravated look. He had not shared his feelings with his brother. He wasn’t sure why; surely in part because he hadn’t actually seen much of Anthony in the past few days. But there was more. It just didn’t seem like the sort of thing one wished to share with one’s brother. Especially one who was considerably more father than brother.

Not to mention…If he didn’t succeed…

Well, he didn’t particularly wish for his family to know.

But he would succeed. Why was he doubting himself? Even earlier, when Miss Watson was still treating him like a minor nuisance, he had been sure of the outcome. It made no sense that now-with their friendship growing-he should suddenly doubt himself.

Kate, predictably, ignored Gregory’s irritation. “I just adore it when you don’t know something,” she said to her husband. “Especially when I do.”

Anthony turned to Gregory. “You’re sure you want to marry one of these?”

“Not that one precisely,” Gregory answered. “Something rather like it, though.”

Kate’s expression turned somewhat pinched at having been called an “it,” but she recovered quickly, turning to Anthony and saying, “He has declared his love for-” She let one of her hands flutter in the air as if waving away a foolish idea. “Oh, never mind, I think I won’t tell you.”

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