“I see,” he said in what he hoped was his most mysterious manner. “That is very interesting. I thought Edwina was an adult.”

“Edwina is but seventeen years old!”

“And you are so ancient at, what, twenty years of age?”

“Twenty-one,” she bit off.

“Ah, that makes you a veritable expert on men, and husbands in particular. Especially since you have been married yourself, yes?”

“You know I am unwed,” she ground out.

Anthony stifled the urge to smile. Good Lord, but it was fun baiting the elder Miss Sheffield. “I think,” he said, keeping his words slow and deliberate, “that you have found it relatively easy to manage most of the men who have come knocking on your sister’s door. Is that true?”

She kept her stony silence.

“Is it?”

Finally she gave him one curt nod.

“I thought so,” he murmured. “You seem the sort who would.”

She glared at him with such intensity that it was all he could do to keep from laughing. If he weren’t dancing, he probably would have stroked his chin in an affectation of deep thought. But since his hands were otherwise engaged, he had to settle for a ponderous tilt of his head, combined with an arch raise of his eyebrows. “But I also think,” he added, “that you made a grave mistake when you thought to manage me.”

Kate’s lips were set in a grim, straight line, but she managed to say, “I do not seek to manage you, Lord Bridgerton. I only seek to keep you away from my sister.”

“Which just goes to show, Miss Sheffield, how very little you know of men. At least of the rakish, roguish variety.” He leaned in closer, letting his hot breath brush against her cheek.

She shivered. He’d known she’d shiver.

He smiled wickedly. “There is very little we relish more than a challenge.”

The music drew to a close, leaving them standing in the middle of the ballroom floor, facing one another. Anthony took her arm, but before he led her back to the perimeter of the room, he put his lips very close to her ear and whispered, “And you, Miss Sheffield, have issued to me a most delicious challenge.”

Kate stepped on his foot. Hard. Enough to make him let out a small, decidedly unrakish, unroguish squeak.

When he glared at her, though, she just shrugged and said, “It was my only defense.”

His eyes darkened. “You, Miss Sheffield, are a menace.”

“And you, Lord Bridgerton, need thicker boots.”

His grasp tightened on her arm. “Before I return you to the sanctuary of the chaperones and spinsters, there is one thing we need to make clear.”

Kate held her breath. She did not like the hard tone of his voice.

“I am going to court your sister. And should I decide that she will make a suitable Lady Bridgerton, I will make her my wife.”

Kate whipped her head up to face him, fire flashing in her eyes. “And I suppose, then, that you think it is your place to decide Edwina’s fate. Do not forget, my lord, that even if you decide she will make a suitable”—she sneered the word—“Lady Bridgerton, she might choose otherwise.”

He looked down at her with the confidence of a male who is never crossed. “Should I decide to ask Edwina, she will not say no.”

“Are you trying to tell me that no woman has ever been able to resist you?”

He did not answer, just raised one supercilious brow and let her draw her own conclusions.

Kate wrenched her arm free and strode back to her stepmother, shaking with fury, resentment, and not a little bit of fear.

Because she had an awful feeling that he did not lie. And if he really did turn out to be irresistible…

Kate shuddered. She and Edwina were going to be in big, big trouble.

The next afternoon was like any following a major ball. The Sheffields’ drawing room was filled to bursting with flower bouquets, each one accompanied by a crisp white card bearing the name, “Edwina Sheffield.”

A simple “Miss Sheffield” would have sufficed, Kate thought with a grimace, but she supposed one couldn’t really fault Edwina’s suitors for wanting to make certain the flowers went to the correct Miss Sheffield.

Not that anyone was likely to make a mistake on that measure. Floral arrangements generally went to Edwina. In fact, there was nothing general about it; every bouquet that had arrived at the Sheffield residence in the last month had gone to Edwina.

Kate liked to think she had the last laugh, however. Most of the flowers made Edwina sneeze, so they tended to end up in Kate’s chamber, anyway.

“You beautiful thing,” she said, lovingly fingering a fine orchid. “I think you belong right on my bedstand. And you”—she leaned forward and sniffed at a bouquet of perfect white roses—“you will look smashing on my dressing table.”

“Do you always talk to flowers?”

Kate whirled around at the sound of a deep male voice. Good heavens, it was Lord Bridgerton, looking sinfully handsome in a blue morning coat. What the devil was he doing here?

No sense in not asking.

“What the dev—” She caught herself just in time. She would not let this man reduce her to cursing aloud, no matter how often she did it in her head. “What are you doing here?”

He raised a brow as he adjusted the huge bouquet of flowers he had tucked under his arm. Pink roses, she noted. Perfect buds. They were lovely. Simple and elegant. Exactly the sort of thing she’d choose for herself.

“I believe it’s customary for suitors to call upon young women, yes?” he murmured. “Or did I misplace my etiquette book?”

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