“My sister,” he said, loudly enough to halt her progress toward the door, “married the Duke of Hastings. Are you familiar with his reputation?”

She paused, but she did not turn around. “He is reputed to be quite devoted to his wife.”

Anthony chuckled. “Then you are not familiar with his reputation. At least not as it was before he married.”

Kate turned slowly around. “If you are attempting to convince me that reformed rakes make the best husbands, you will meet with no success. It was in this very room, not fifteen minutes ago, that you told Miss Rosso that you saw no reason to give up a mistress for a wife.”

“I believe I said that was the case only if one does not love one’s wife.”

A funny little sound emerged from her nose—not quite a snort, but more than a breath, and it was abundantly clear, in that moment at least, that she had no respect for him. With a sharp amusement in her eyes, she asked, “And do you love my sister, Lord Bridgerton?”

“Of course not,” he replied. “And I would never insult your intelligence by saying otherwise. But,” he said loudly, warding off the interruption he knew was sure to come, “I have known your sister but a week. I have no reason to believe that I would not come to love her were we to spend many years in holy matrimony.”

She crossed her arms. “Why is it that I cannot believe a word out of your mouth?”

He shrugged. “I’m sure I do not know.” But he did know. The very reason he’d selected Edwina for his wife was that he knew he’d never come to love her. He liked her, he respected her, and he was confident that she’d make an excellent mother to his heirs, but he’d never love her. The spark simply was not there.

She shook her head, disappointment in her eyes. Disappointment that somehow made him feel less of a man. “I hadn’t thought you a liar, either,” she said softly. “A rake and a rogue, and perhaps a whole host of other things, but not a liar.”

Anthony felt her words like blows. Something unpleasant squeezed around his heart—something that made him want to lash out, to hurt her, or at least to show her she hadn’t the power to hurt him. “Oh, Miss Sheffield,” he called out, his voice a rather cruel drawl, “you won’t get far without this.”

Before she had a chance to react, he reached into his pocket, pulled out the key to the study, and tossed it in her direction, deliberately aiming it at her feet. Given no warning, her reflexes were not sharp, and when she thrust out her hands to catch the key, she missed it entirely. Her hands made a hollow clapping sound as they connected, followed by the dull thud of the key hitting the carpet.

She stood there for a moment, staring at the key, and he could tell the instant she realized he had not intended for her to catch it. She remained utterly still, and then she brought her eyes to his. They were blazing with hatred, and something worse.

Disdain.

Anthony felt as if he’d been punched in the gut. He fought the most ridiculous impulse to leap forward and grab the key from the carpet, to get down on one knee and hand it to her, to apologize for his conduct and beg her forgiveness.

But he would do none of those things. He did not want to mend this breach; he did not want her favorable opinion.

Because that elusive spark—the one so noticeably absent with her sister, whom he intended to marry—crackled and burned so strongly it seemed the room ought to be as light as day.

And nothing could have terrified him more.

Kate remained motionless for far longer than he would have thought, obviously loath to kneel before him, even if it was to gather up the key that would provide her with the escape she so obviously desired.

Anthony just forced a smile, lowering his gaze to the floor and then back up to her face. “Don’t you want to leave, Miss Sheffield?” he said, too smoothly.

He watched as her chin trembled, as her throat worked a convulsive swallow. And then, abruptly, she crouched down and scooped up the key. “You will never marry my sister,” she vowed, her low, intense voice sending chills to his very bones. “Never.”

And then, with a decisive click of the lock, she was gone.

Two days later, Kate was still furious. It didn’t help that the afternoon following the musicale, a large bouquet of flowers had arrived for Edwina, the card reading, “With my wishes for a speedy recovery. Last night was dull indeed without your shining presence.—Bridgerton.”

Mary had ooohed and aahed over the note—so poetic, she’d sighed, so lovely, so obviously the words of a man truly smitten. But Kate had known the truth. The note was more of an insult toward her than it was a compliment toward Edwina.

Dull indeed, she fumed, eyeing that note—enshrined now on a table in the sitting room—and wondering how she might make it look an accident if it somehow found itself torn into pieces. She might not know very much about matters of the heart and the affairs of men and women, but she’d bet her life that whatever the viscount had been feeling that night in the study, it had not been boredom.

He hadn’t, however, come to call. Kate couldn’t imagine why, since taking Edwina out for a drive would be an even bigger slap in the face than the note had been. In her most fanciful moments, she liked to flatter herself that he hadn’t stopped by because he was afraid to face her, but she knew that was patently untrue.

That man wasn’t afraid of anyone. Least of all, a plain, aging spinster he’d probably kissed out of a mix of curiosity, anger, and pity.

Kate crossed over to a window and gazed out over Milner Street; not the most picturesque view in London, but at least it stopped her from staring at the note. It was the pity that truly ate at her. She prayed that whatever had gone into that kiss, the curiosity and the anger had outweighed the pity.

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