He grinned back. “We think so.”

Mary tittered. Tittered! Kate thought she might gag.

“Kate,” Mary said again, “Mr. Bridgerton is brother to the viscount. Who is dancing with Edwina,” she added unnecessarily.

“I gathered,” Kate replied.

Colin Bridgerton shot her a sideways glance, and she knew instantly that he had not missed the vague sarcasm in her tone.

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Miss Sheffield,” he said politely. “I do hope you will favor me with one of your dances this evening.”

“I—Of course.” She cleared her throat. “I would be honored.”

“Kate,” Mary said, nudging her softly, “show him your dance card.”

“Oh! Yes, of course.” Kate fumbled for her dance card, which was tied prettily to her wrist with a green ribbon. That she had to fumble for anything actually tied to her body was a bit alarming, but Kate decided to blame her lack of composure on the sudden and unexpected appearance of a heretofore unknown Bridgerton brother.

That, and the unfortunate fact that even under the best of circumstances she was never the most graceful girl in the room.

Colin filled his name in for one of the dances later that evening, then asked if she might like to walk with him to the lemonade table.

“Go, go,” Mary said, before Kate could reply. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be just fine without you.”

“I can bring you back a glass,” Kate offered, trying to figure out if it was possible to glare at her stepmother without Mr. Bridgerton noticing.

“Not necessary. I really should get back to my position with all the other chaperones and mamas.” Mary whipped her head around frantically until she spied a familiar face. “Oh, look, there is Mrs. Featherington. I must be off. Portia! Portia!”

Kate watched her stepmother’s rapidly retreating form for a moment before turning back to Mr. Bridgerton. “I think,” she said dryly, “that she doesn’t want any lemonade.”

A sparkle of humor glinted in his emerald green eyes. “Either that or she’s planning to run all the way to Spain to pick the lemons herself.”

Despite herself, Kate laughed. She didn’t want to like Mr. Colin Bridgerton. She didn’t much want to like any Bridgerton after all she’d read about the viscount in the newspaper. But she allowed that it probably wasn’t fair to judge a man based on his brother’s misdeeds, so she forced herself to relax a bit.

“And are you thirsty,” she asked, “or were you merely being polite?”

“I am always polite,” he said with a wicked grin, “but I am thirsty as well.”

Kate took one look at that grin, lethally combined with those devastating green eyes, and nearly groaned. “You are a rake as well,” she said with a sigh.

Colin choked—on what, she did not know, but he choked nonetheless. “I beg your pardon?”

Kate’s face flushed as she realized with horror that she’d spoken aloud. “No, it is I who should beg your pardon. Please forgive me. That was unforgivably rude.”

“No, no,” he said quickly, looking terribly interested and not a little bit amused, “do continue.”

Kate swallowed. There was really no way to get out of it now. “I was merely—” She cleared her throat. “If I might be frank…”

He nodded, his sly grin telling her that he could not imagine her being anything but frank.

Kate cleared her throat yet again. Really, this was getting ridiculous. She was starting to sound as if she’d swallowed a toad. “It had occurred to me that you might be rather like your brother, that is all.”

“My brother?”

“The viscount,” she said, thinking it must be obvious.

“I have three brothers,” he explained.

“Oh.” Now she felt stupid. “I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry, too,” he said with great feeling. “Most of the time they’re a dreadful nuisance.”

Kate had to cough to cover up her small gasp of surprise.

“But at least you were not comparing me to Gregory,” he said with a dramatic sigh of relief. He shot her a cheeky, sideways look. “He’s thirteen.”

Kate caught the smile in his eyes and realized he’d been bamming her all along. This was not a man who wished his brothers off to perdition. “You’re rather devoted to your family, aren’t you?” she asked.

His eyes, which had been laughing throughout the conversation, turned dead serious without even a blink. “Utterly.”

“As am I,” Kate said pointedly.

“And that means?”

“It means,” she said, knowing she should hold her tongue but speaking anyway, “that I will not allow anyone to break my sister’s heart.”

Colin remained silent for a moment, slowly turning his head to watch his brother and Edwina, who were just then finishing up their dance. “I see,” he murmured.

“Do you?”

“Oh, indeed.” They arrived at the lemonade table, and he reached out and took two glasses, handing one to her. She’d already had three glasses of lemonade that evening, a fact of which she was sure Mary had been aware before she’d insisted Kate have some more. But it was hot in the ballroom—it was always hot in ballrooms—and she was thirsty again.

Colin took a leisurely sip, watching her over the rim of his glass, then said, “My brother has it in his mind to settle down this year.”

Two could play at this game, Kate thought. She took a sip of her lemonade—slowly—before speaking. “Is that so?”

***

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