He threw back his head and laughed. It was not the reaction she’d been either expecting or hoping for. Come to think of it, she had no idea what sort of reaction she’d been hoping for, but this certainly wasn’t what she’d been expecting.

“Will you stop, my lord?” she whispered urgently. “People are starting to stare.”

“People started to stare two minutes ago,” he returned. “It’s not often a man such as I dances with a woman such as you.”

As barbs went, this one was well aimed, but sadly for him, also incorrect. “Not true,” she replied jauntily. “You are certainly not the first of Edwina’s besotted idiots to attempt to gain her favor through me.”

He grinned. “Not suitors, but idiots?”

She caught his gaze with hers and was surprised to find true mirth in his eyes. “Surely you’re not going to hand me such a delicious piece of bait as that, my lord?”

“And yet you did not take it,” he mused.

Kate looked down to see if there was some way she might discreetly step on his foot again.

“I have very thick boots, Miss Sheffield,” he said.

Her head snapped back up in surprise.

One corner of his mouth curved up in a mockery of a smile. “And quick eyes as well.”

“Apparently so. I shall have to watch my step around you, to be sure.”

“My goodness,” he drawled, “was that a compliment? I might expire from the shock of it.”

“If you’d like to consider that a compliment, I give you leave to do so,” she said airily. “You’re not likely to receive many more.”

“You wound me, Miss Sheffield.”

“Does that mean that your skin is not as thick as your boots?”

“Oh, not nearly.”

She felt herself laugh before she realized she was amused. “That I find difficult to believe.”

He waited for her smile to melt away, then said, “You did not answer my question. Why do you hate me?”

A rush of air slipped through Kate’s lips. She hadn’t expected him to repeat the question. Or at least she’d hoped that he would not. “I do not hate you, my lord,” she replied, choosing her words with great care. “I do not even know you.”

“Knowing is rarely a prerequisite for hating,” he said softly, his eyes settling on hers with lethal steadiness. “Come now, Miss Sheffield, you don’t seem a coward to me. Answer the question.”

Kate held silent for a full minute. It was true, she had not been predisposed to like the man. She certainly wasn’t about to give her blessing to his courtship of Edwina. She didn’t believe for one second that reformed rakes made the best husbands. She wasn’t even sure that a rake could be properly reformed in the first place.

But he might have been able to overcome her preconceptions. He could have been charming and sincere and straightforward, and been able to convince her that the stories about him in Whistledown were an exaggeration, that he was not the worst rogue London had seen since the turn of the century. He might have convinced her that he held to a code of honor, that he was a man of principles and honesty…

If he hadn’t gone and compared her to Edwina.

For nothing could have been more obvious a lie. She knew she wasn’t an antidote; her face and form were pleasing enough. But there was simply no way she could be compared to Edwina in this measure and emerge as her equal. Edwina was truly a diamond of the first water, and Kate could never be more than average and unremarkable.

And if this man was saying otherwise, then he had some ulterior motive, because it was obvious he wasn’t blind.

He could have offered her any other empty compliment and she would have accepted it as a gentleman’s polite conversation. She might have even been flattered if his words had struck anywhere close to the truth. But to compare her to Edwina…

Kate adored her sister. She truly did. And she knew better than anyone that Edwina’s heart was as beautiful and radiant as her face. She didn’t like to think herself jealous, but still…somehow the comparison stung right to the core.

“I do not hate you,” she finally replied. Her eyes were trained on his chin, but she had no patience for cowardice, especially within herself, so she forced herself to meet his gaze when she added, “But I find I cannot like you.”

Something in his eyes told her that he appreciated her stark honesty. “And why is that?” he asked softly.

“May I be frank?”

His lips twitched. “Please do.”

“You are dancing with me right now because you wish to court my sister. This does not bother me,” she hastened to assure him. “I am well used to receiving attentions from Edwina’s suitors.”

Her mind was clearly not on her feet. Anthony pulled his foot out of the way of hers before she could injure him again. He noticed with interest that she was back to referring to them as suitors rather than idiots. “Please continue,” he murmured.

“You are not the sort of man I would wish my sister to marry,” she said simply. Her manner was direct, and her intelligent brown eyes never left his. “You are a rake. You are a rogue. You are, in fact, notorious for being both. I would not allow my sister within ten feet of you.”

“And yet,” he said with a wicked little smile, “I waltzed with her earlier this evening.”

“An act which shall not be repeated, I can assure you.”

“And is it your place to decide Edwina’s fate?”

“Edwina trusts my judgment,” she said primly.

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