LADY WHISTLEDOWN’S SOCIETY PAPERS, 27 APRIL 1814

Kate knew the minute he walked in the room.

She tried to tell herself it had nothing to do with a heightened awareness of the man. He was excruciatingly handsome; that was fact, not opinion. She couldn’t imagine that every woman didn’t notice him immediately.

He arrived late. Not very—the soprano couldn’t have been more than a dozen bars into her piece. But late enough so that he tried to be quiet as he slipped into a chair toward the front near his family. Kate remained motionless in her position at the back, fairly certain that he didn’t see her as he settled in for the performance. He didn’t look her way, and besides, several candles had been snuffed, leaving the room bathed in a dim, romantic glow. The shadows surely obscured her face.

Kate tried to keep her eyes on Miss Rosso throughout the performance. Kate’s disposition was not improved, however, by the fact that the singer could not take her eyes off of Lord Bridgerton. At first Kate had thought she must be imagining Miss Rosso’s fascination with the viscount, but by the time the soprano was halfway done, there could be no doubt. Maria Rosso was issuing the viscount a sultry invitation with her eyes.

Why this bothered Kate so much, she didn’t know. After all, it was just another piece of proof that he was every bit the licentious rake she’d always known him to be. She should have felt smug. She should have felt vindicated.

Instead, all she felt was disappointment. It was a heavy, uncomfortable feeling around her heart, one that left her slumping slightly in her chair.

When the performance was done, she couldn’t help but notice that the soprano, after graciously accepting her applause, walked brazenly up to the viscount and offered him one of those seductive smiles—the sort Kate would never learn to do if she had a dozen opera singers trying to teach her. There was no mistaking what the singer meant by that smile.

Good heavens, the man didn’t even need to chase women. They practically dropped at his feet.

It was disgusting. Really, truly disgusting.

And yet Kate couldn’t stop watching.

Lord Bridgerton offered the opera singer a mysterious half-smile of his own. Then he reached out and actually tucked an errant lock of her raven hair behind her ear.

Kate shivered.

Now he was leaning forward, whispering something in her ear. Kate felt her own ears straining in their direction, even though it was quite obviously impossible for her to hear a thing from so far away.

But still, was it truly a crime to be ravenously curious? And—

Good heavens, did he just kiss her neck? Surely he wouldn’t do that in his mother’s home. Well, she supposed Bridgerton House was technically his home, but his mother lived here, as did many of his siblings. Truly, the man should know better than that. A little decorum in the company of his family would not be remiss.

“Kate? Kate?”

It may have been a small kiss, just a feather-light brush of his lips against the opera singer’s skin, but it was still a kiss.

“Kate!”

“Right! Yes?” Kate nearly jumped half a foot as she whirled around to face Mary, who was watching her with a decidedly irritated expression.

“Stop watching the viscount,” Mary hissed.

“I wasn’t—well, all right, I was, but did you see him?” Kate whispered urgently. “He’s shameless.”

She looked back over at him. He was still flirting with Maria Rosso, and he obviously didn’t care who saw them.

Mary’s lips pursed into a tight line before she said, “I’m sure his behavior isn’t any of our business.”

“Of course it’s our business. He wants to marry Edwina.”

“We don’t know that for sure.”

Kate thought back over her conversations with Lord Bridgerton. “I’d say it’s a very, very good bet.”

“Well, stop watching him. I’m certain he wants nothing to do with you after that fiasco in Hyde Park. And besides, there are any number of eligible gentlemen here. You’d do well to stop thinking of Edwina all the time and start looking around for yourself.”

Kate felt her shoulders sag. The mere thought of trying to attract a suitor was exhausting. They were all interested in Edwina, anyway. And even though she wanted nothing to do with the viscount, it still stung when Mary said she was certain he wanted nothing to do with her.

Mary grasped her arm with a grip that brooked no protest. “Come now, Kate,” she said quietly. “Let us go forward to greet our hostess.”

Kate swallowed. Lady Bridgerton? She had to meet Lady Bridgerton? The viscount’s mother? It was hard enough to believe that a creature such as he even had a mother.

But manners were manners, and no matter how much Kate would have liked to slip out into the hall and depart, she knew she must thank her hostess for staging such a lovely performance.

And it had been lovely. Much as Kate was loath to admit it, especially while the woman in question was hanging all over the viscount, Maria Rosso did possess the voice of an angel.

With Mary’s arm firmly guiding her, Kate reached the front of the room and waited her turn to meet the viscountess. She seemed a lovely woman, with fair hair and light eyes, and rather petite to have mothered such large sons. The late viscount must have been a tall man, Kate decided.

Finally they reached the front of the small crowd, and the viscountess grasped Mary’s hand. “Mrs. Sheffield,” she said warmly, “what a delight to see you again. I so enjoyed our meeting at the Hartside ball last week. I am very glad you decided to accept my invitation.”

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