She remained where she sat for several minutes, more than pleased that the other guests had not chosen to spill out into the hall. But then she heard one particular voice rise slightly above the low rumble of the crowd, followed by decidedly musical laughter, and Kate realized with horror that Lord Bridgerton and his would-be mistress were leaving the music room and entering the hall.
“Oh, no,” she groaned, trying to keep her voice to herself. The last thing she wanted was for the viscount to stumble across her sitting alone in the hall. She knew she was by herself by choice, but he’d probably think she’d fled the gathering because she was a social failure and all the ton shared his opinion of her—that she was an impertinent, unattractive menace to society.
Menace to society? Kate’s teeth clamped together. It would take a long, long time before she’d forgive him that insult.
But still, she was tired, and she didn’t feel like facing him just then, so she hitched up her skirts by a few inches to save her from tripping and ducked into the doorway next to her bench. With any luck, he and his paramour would walk on by, and she could scoot back into the music room, no one being the wiser.
Kate looked around quickly as she shut the door. There was a lighted lantern on a desk, and as her eyes adjusted to the dimness, she realized she was in some sort of office. The walls were lined with books, although not enough for this to be the Bridgertons’ library, and the room was dominated by a massive oak desk. Papers lay on top in neat piles, and a quill and inkpot still sat on the blotter.
Clearly this office was not just for show. Someone actually worked here.
Kate wandered toward the desk, her curiosity getting the better of her, and idly ran her fingers along the wooden rim. The air still smelled faintly of ink, and maybe the slightest hint of pipe smoke.
All in all, she decided, it was a lovely room. Comfortable and practical. A person could spend hours here in lazy contemplation.
But just as Kate leaned back against the desk, savoring her quiet solitude, she heard an awful sound.
The click of a doorknob.
With a frantic gasp, she dove under the desk, squeezing herself into the empty cube of space and thanking the heavens that the desk was completely solid, rather than the sort that rested on four spindly legs.
Barely breathing, she listened.
“But I had heard this would be the year we would finally see the notorious Lord Bridgerton fall into the parson’s mousetrap,” came a lilting feminine voice.
Kate bit her lip. It was a lilting feminine voice with an Italian accent.
“And where did you hear that?” came the unmistakable voice of the viscount, followed by another awful click of the doorknob.
Kate shut her eyes in agony. She was trapped in the office with a pair of lovers. Life simply could not get any worse than this.
Well, she could be discovered. That would be worse. Funny how that didn’t make her feel much better about her present predicament, though.
“It is all over town, my lord,” Maria replied. “Everyone is saying you have decided to settle down and choose a bride.”
There was a silence, but Kate could swear she could hear him shrug.
Some footsteps, most probably drawing the lovers closer together, then Bridgerton murmured, “It is probably past time.”
“You are breaking my heart, did you know that?”
Kate thought she might gag.
“Now, now, my sweet signorina”—the sound of lips on skin—“we both know that your heart is impervious to any of my machinations.”
Next came a rustling sound, which Kate took to be Maria pulling coyly away, followed by, “But I am not inclined for a dalliance, my lord. I do not look for marriage, of course—that would be most foolish. But when I next choose a protector, it shall be for, shall we say, the long term.”
Footsteps. Perhaps Bridgerton was closing the distance between them again?
His voice was low and husky as he said, “I fail to see the problem.”
“Your wife may see a problem.”
Bridgerton chuckled. “The only reason to give up one’s mistress is if one happens to love one’s wife. And as I do not intend to choose a wife with whom I might fall in love, I see no reason to deny myself the pleasures of a lovely woman like you.”
And you want to marry Edwina? It was all Kate could do not to scream. Truly, if she weren’t squatting like a frog with her hands wrapped around her ankles, she probably would have emerged like a Fury and tried to murder the man.
Then followed a few unintelligible sounds, which Kate dearly prayed were not the prelude to something considerably more intimate. After a moment, though, the viscount’s voice emerged clearly. “Would you care for something to drink?”
Maria murmured her assent, and Bridgerton’s forceful stride echoed along the floor, growing closer and closer, until…
Kate spied the decanter, sitting on the windowsill, directly opposite her hiding spot under the desk. If he just kept his face to the window as he poured, she might escape detection, but if he turned so much as halfway…
She froze. Utterly froze. Completely stopped breathing.
Eyes wide and unblinking (could eyelids make a sound?) she watched with utter and complete horror as Bridgerton came into view, his athletic frame displayed to surprising benefit from her vantage point on the floor.
The tumblers clinked slightly together as he set them down, then he pulled the stopper from the decanter and poured two fingers of amber liquid into each glass.
Don’t turn around. Don’t turn around.
“Is everything all right?” Maria called out.
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