Now was clearly the time to take action. If there ever was aromantic spot for a proposal of marriage, Aubrey Hall was it. Built in the early 1700s of warm yellow stone, it sat comfortably on a wide green lawn, surrounded by sixty acres of parkland, a full ten of which were flowering gardens. Later in the summer the roses would be out, but now the grounds were carpeted with grape hyacinths and the brilliant tulips his mother had had imported from Holland.
Anthony gazed across the room and out the window, where ancient elms rose majestically around the house. They shaded the drive and, he liked to think, made the hall seem a bit more like it was a part of nature and a bit less like the typical country homes of the aristocracy—man-made monuments to wealth, position, and power. There were several ponds, a creek, and countless hills and hollows, each one with its own special memories of childhood.
And his father.
Anthony closed his eyes and exhaled. He loved coming home to Aubrey Hall, but the familiar sights and smells brought his father to mind with a clarity so vivid it was almost painful. Even now, nearly twelve years after Edmund Bridgerton’s death, Anthony still expected to see him come bounding around the corner, the smallest of the Bridgerton children screaming with delight as he rode on his father’s shoulders.
The image made Anthony grin. The child on the shoulders might be a boy or a girl; Edmund had never discriminated between his children when it came to horseplay. But no matter who held the coveted spot at the top of the world, they would surely be chased after by a nurse, insisting that they stop this nonsense at once, and that a child’s place was in the nursery and certainly not on her father’s shoulders.
“Oh, Father,” Anthony whispered, looking up at the portrait of Edmund that hung over the fireplace, “how on earth will I ever live up to your achievements?”
And surely that had to have been Edmund Bridgerton’s greatest achievement—presiding over a family filled with love and laughter and everything that was so often absent from aristocratic life.
Anthony turned away from his father’s portrait and crossed over to the window, watching the coaches pull up the drive. The afternoon had brought a steady stream of arrivals, and every conveyance seemed to carry yet another fresh-faced young lady, her eyes alight with happiness at having been gifted with an invitation to the Bridgerton house party.
Lady Bridgerton didn’t often elect to fill her country home with guests. When she did, it was always the event of the season.
Although, truth be told, none of the Bridgertons spent much time at Aubrey Hall any longer. Anthony suspected that his mother suffered the same malady he did—memories of Edmund around every corner. The younger children had few memories of the place, having been raised primarily in London. They certainly didn’t recall the long hikes across fields, or the fishing, or the treehouse.
Hyacinth, who was now just eleven, had never even been held in her father’s arms. Anthony had tried to fill the gap as best as he could, but he knew he was a very pale comparison.
With a weary sigh, Anthony leaned heavily against the window frame, trying to decide whether or not he wanted to pour himself a drink. He was staring out over the lawn, his eyes focusing on absolutely nothing, when a carriage decidedly shabbier than the rest rolled down the drive. Not that there was anything shoddy about it; it was obviously well made and sturdy. But it lacked the gilded crests that graced the other carriages, and it seemed to bump along a tiny bit more than the rest, as if it weren’t quite well sprung enough for comfort.
This would be the Sheffields, Anthony realized. Everyone else on the guest list was in possession of a respectable fortune. Only the Sheffields would have had to hire a carriage for the season.
Sure enough, when one of the Bridgerton footmen, dressed in stylish powder-blue livery, leaped forward to open the door, out stepped Edwina Sheffield, looking a veritable vision in a pale yellow traveling dress and matching bonnet. Anthony was not close enough to see her face clearly, but it was easy enough to imagine. Her cheeks would be soft and pink, and her exquisite eyes would mirror the cloudless sky.
The next to emerge was Mrs. Sheffield. It was only when she took her place next to Edwina that he realized how closely they resembled one another. Both were charmingly graceful and petite, and as they spoke, he could see that they held themselves in the same manner. The tilt of the head was identical, as were their posture and stance.
Edwina would not outgrow her beauty. This would clearly be a good attribute in a wife, although—Anthony threw a rueful glance at his father’s portrait—he wasn’t likely to be around to watch her age.
Finally, Kate stepped down.
And Anthony realized he’d been holding his breath.
She didn’t move like the two other Sheffield women. They had been dainty, leaning on the footman, putting their hands in his with a graceful arch of the wrist.
Kate, on the other hand, practically hopped right down. She took the footman’s proffered arm, but she certainly didn’t appear to need his assistance. As soon as her feet touched the ground, she stood tall and lifted her face to gaze at the facade of Aubrey Hall. Everything about her was direct and straightforward, and Anthony had no doubt that if he were close enough to gaze into her eyes, he would find them utterly forthright.
Once she saw him, however, they would fill with disdain, and perhaps a touch of hatred as well.
Which was really all he deserved. A gentleman did not treat a lady as he had Kate Sheffield and expect her continued good favor.
Kate turned to her mother and sister and said something, causing Edwina to laugh and Mary to smile indulgently. Anthony realized he hadn’t had much opportunity to watch the three of them interact before. They were a true family, comfortable in each other’s presence, and there was a warmth one sensed in their faces when they conversed. It was especially fascinating since he knew that Mary and Kate were not blood relatives.
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