Anthony Bridgerton had always known he would die young.
Oh, not as a child. Young Anthony had never had cause to ponder his own mortality. His early years had been a young boy’s perfection, right from the very day of his birth.
It was true that Anthony was the heir to an ancient and wealthy viscountcy, but unlike most other aristocratic couples, Lord and Lady Bridgerton were very much in love, and they saw their son’s birth not as the arrival of an heir, but rather that of a child.
And so there were no parties, no fêtes, no celebration other than that of mother and father staring in wonderment at their new son.
The Bridgertons were young parents—Edmund barely twenty and Violet just eighteen—but they were sensible and they were strong, and they loved their son with a fierceness and devotion that was rarely seen in their social circles. Much to her own mother’s horror, Violet insisted upon nursing the boy herself, and Edmund never subscribed to the prevailing attitude that fathers should neither see nor hear their children. He took the infant on long hikes across the fields of Kent, spoke to him of philosophy and poetry before he could possibly understand the words, and told him a bedtime story every night.
Because the viscount and viscountess were so young and so very much in love, it came as no surprise to anyone when, just two years after Anthony’s birth, he was joined by a younger brother, christened Benedict. Edmund immediately adjusted his daily routine to take two sons on his hikes, and he spent a week holed up in the stables, working with his leatherworker to devise a special pack that would hold Anthony on his back while he held the baby Benedict in his arms.
They walked across fields and streams, and he told them of wondrous things, of perfect flowers and clear blue skies, of knights in shining armor and damsels in distress. Violet used to laugh when they returned all windblown and sun-kissed, and Edmund would say, “See? Here is our damsel in distress. Clearly we must save her.” And Anthony would throw himself into his mother’s arms, giggling as he swore he’d protect her from the fire-breathing dragon they’d seen just two miles down the road in the village.
“Two miles down the road in the village?” Violet would breathe, keeping her voice carefully laden with horror.
“Heaven above, what would I do without three strong men to protect me?”
“Benedict’s a baby,” Anthony would reply.
“But he’ll grow up,” she’d always say, tousling his hair, “just as you did. And just as you still will.”
Edmund always treated his children with equal affection and devotion, but late at night, when Anthony cradled the Bridgerton pocket watch to his chest (given to him on his eighth birthday by his father, who had received it on his eighth birthday from his father), he liked to think that his relationship with his father was just a little bit special. Not because Edmund loved him best; by that point the Bridgerton siblings numbered four (Colin and Daphne had arrived fairly close together) and Anthony knew very well that all the children were well loved.
No, Anthony liked to think that his relationship with his father was special simply because he’d known him the longest. After all, no matter how long Benedict had known their father, Anthony would always have two years on him. And six on Colin. And as for Daphne, well, besides the fact that she was a girl (the horror!), she’d known Father a full eight years less than he had and, he liked to remind himself, always would.
Edmund Bridgerton was, quite simply, the very center of Anthony’s world. He was tall, his shoulders were broad, and he could ride a horse as if he’d been born in the saddle. He always knew the answers to arithmetic questions (even when the tutor didn’t), he saw no reason why his sons should not have a tree house (and then he went and built it himself), and his laugh was the sort that warmed a body from the inside out.
Edmund taught Anthony how to ride. He taught Anthony how to shoot. He taught him to swim. He took him off to Eton himself, rather than sending him in a carriage with servants, as most of Anthony’s future friends arrived, and when he saw Anthony glancing nervously about the school that would become his new home, he had a heart-to-heart talk with his eldest son, assuring him that everything would be all right.
And it was. Anthony knew it would be. His father, after all, never lied.
Anthony loved his mother. Hell, he’d probably bite off his own arm if it meant keeping her safe and well. But growing up, everything he did, every accomplishment, every goal, every single hope and dream—it was all for his father.
And then one day, everything changed. It was funny, he reflected later, how one’s life could alter in an instant, how one minute everything could be a certain way, and the next it’s simply…not.
It happened when Anthony was eighteen, home for the summer and preparing for his first year at Oxford. He was to belong to All Souls College, as his father had before him, and his life was as bright and dazzling as any eighteen-year-old had a right to enjoy. He had discovered women, and perhaps more splendidly, they had discovered him. His parents were still happily reproducing, having added Eloise, Francesca, and Gregory to the family, and Anthony did his best not to roll his eyes when he passed his mother in the hall—pregnant with her eighth child! It was all a bit unseemly, in Anthony’s opinion, having children at their age, but he kept his opinions to himself.
Who was he to doubt Edmund’s wisdom? Maybe he, too, would want more children at the advanced age of thirty-eight.
When Anthony found out, it was late afternoon. He was returning from a long and bruising ride with Benedict and had just pushed through the front door of Aubrey Hall, the ancestral home of the Bridgertons, when he saw his ten-year-old-sister sitting on the floor. Benedict was still in the stables, having lost some silly bet with Anthony, the terms of which required him to rub down both horses.
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