She didn’t say anything, just looked at him with a sympathy that made his heart break.

“I stayed with him throughout the night,” he continued, turning slightly so that he would not have to look into her eyes. “He was dead, of course, but I needed a little more time. I just sat beside him and watched his face.” Another short burst of angry laughter escaped his lips. “God, what a fool I was. I think I half expected him to open his eyes at any moment.”

“I don’t think that’s foolish,” Kate said softly. “I’ve seen death, too. It’s hard to believe that someone is gone when he looks so normal and at peace.”

“I don’t know when it happened,” Anthony said, “but by morning I was sure.”

“That he was dead?” she asked.

“No,” he said roughly, “that I would be, too.”

He waited for her to comment, he waited for her to cry, to do anything, but she just sat there staring at him with no perceptible change of expression, until finally he had to say, “I’m not as great a man as my father was.”

“He might choose to disagree,” she said quietly.

“Well, he’s not here to do that, is he?” Anthony snapped.

Again, she said nothing. Again, he felt like a heel.

He cursed under his breath and pressed his fingers against his temples. His head was starting to throb. He was starting to feel dizzy, and he realized that he couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten. “It’s my judgment to make,” he said in a low voice. “You didn’t know him.”

He sagged against a wall with a long, weary exhale, and said, “Just let me tell you. Don’t talk, don’t interrupt, don’t judge. It’s hard enough to get it out as it is. Can you do that for me?”

She nodded.

Anthony took a shaky breath. “My father was the greatest man I’ve ever known. Not a day goes by when I don’t realize that I’m not living up to his standards. I knew that he was everything to which I could aspire. I might not ever match his greatness, but if I could come close I’d be satisfied. That’s all I ever wanted. Just to come close.”

He looked at Kate. He wasn’t sure why. Maybe for reassurance, maybe for sympathy. Maybe just to see her face.

“If there was one thing I knew,” he whispered, somehow finding the courage to keep his eyes focused on hers, “it was that I would never surpass him. Not even in years.”

“What are you trying to tell me?” she whispered.

He shrugged helplessly. “I know it makes no sense. I know I can offer no rational explanation. But since that night when I sat with my father’s dead body, I knew I couldn’t possibly live any longer than he had.”

“I see,” she said quietly.

“Do you?” And then, as if a dam had burst, the words poured forth. It all gushed out of him—why he’d been so dead set against marrying for love, the jealousy he’d felt when he’d realized that she’d managed to fight her demons and win.

He watched as she brought one of her hands to her mouth and bit the end of her thumb. He’d seen her do that before, he realized—whenever she was disturbed or deep in thought.

“How old was your father when he died?” she asked.

“Thirty-eight.”

“How old are you now?”

He looked at her curiously; she knew his age. But he said it anyway. “Twenty-nine.”

“So by your estimation, we have nine years left.”

“At most.”

“And you truly believe this.”

He nodded.

She pursed her lips and let out a long breath through her nose. Finally, after what felt like an endless silence, she looked back up at him with clear, direct eyes, and said, “Well, you’re wrong.”

Oddly enough, the straightforward tone of her voice was rather reassuring. Anthony even felt one corner of his mouth lift up in the palest of smiles. “You think I’m unaware of how ludicrous it all sounds?”

“I don’t think it sounds ludicrous at all. It sounds like a perfectly normal reaction, actually, especially considering how much you adored your father.” She lifted her shoulders in a rather self-aware shrug as her head tipped to the side. “But it’s still wrong.”

Anthony didn’t say anything.

“Your father’s death was an accident,” Kate said. “An accident. A terrible, horrible twist of fate that no one could have predicted.”

Anthony shrugged fatalistically. “I’ll probably go the same way.”

“Oh, for the love of—” Kate managed to bite her tongue a split second before she blasphemed. “Anthony, I could die tomorrow as well. I could have died today when that carriage rolled on top of me.”

He paled. “Don’t ever remind me of that.”

“My mother died when she was my age,” Kate reminded him harshly. “Did you ever think of that? By your laws, I should be dead by my next birthday.”

“Don’t be—”

“Silly?” she finished for him.

Silence reigned for a full minute.

Finally, Anthony said, his voice barely above a whisper, “I don’t know if I can get past this.”

“You don’t have to get past it,” Kate said. She caught her lower lip, which had begun to tremble, between her teeth, and then laid her hand on an empty spot on the bed. “Could you come over here so I can hold your hand?”

Anthony responded instantly; the warmth of her touch flooded him, seeping through his body until it caressed his very soul. And in that moment he realized that this was about more than love. This woman made him a better person. He’d been good and strong and kind before, but with her at his side, he was something more.

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