There were some bonds, he was coming to realize, that were stronger than those of blood. These were not bonds he had room for in his life.

Which was why, when he married, the face behind the veil would have to be Edwina Sheffield’s.

Kate had expected to be impressed by Aubrey Hall. She had not expected to be enchanted.

The house was smaller than she’d expected. Oh, it was still far, far larger than anything she’d ever had the honor to call home, but the country manor was not a hulking behemoth rising out of the landscape like a misplaced medieval castle.

Rather, Aubrey Hall seemed almost cozy. It seemed a bizarre word to use to describe a house with surely fifty rooms, but its fanciful turrets and crenellations almost made it seem like something out of a fairy story, especially with the late afternoon sun giving the yellow stone an almost reddish glow. There was nothing austere or imposing about Aubrey Hall, and Kate liked it immediately.

“Isn’t it lovely?” Edwina whispered.

Kate nodded. “Lovely enough to make a week spent in the company of that awful man almost bearable.”

Edwina laughed and Mary scolded, but even Mary could not resist an indulgent smile. But she did say, casting an eye to the footman, who had gone around the back of the coach to unload their luggage, “You should not say such things, Kate. One never knows who is listening, and it is unbecoming to speak thusly about our host.”

“Have no fear, he didn’t hear me,” Kate replied. “And besides, I thought Lady Bridgerton was our hostess. She did issue the invitation.”

“The viscount owns the house,” Mary returned.

“Very well,” Kate acceded, motioning to Aubrey Hall with a dramatic wave of her arm. “The moment I enter those hallowed halls, I shall be nothing but sweetness and light.”

Edwina snorted. “That will certainly be a sight to behold.”

Mary shot Kate a knowing look. “ ‘Sweetness and light’ applies to the gardens as well,” she said.

Kate just smiled. “Truly, Mary, I shall be on my best behavior. I promise.”

“Just do your best to avoid the viscount.”

“I will,” Kate promised. As long as he does his best to avoid Edwina.

A footman appeared at their side, his arm sweeping toward the hall in a splendid arc. “If you will step inside,” he said, “Lady Bridgerton is eager to greet her guests.”

The three Sheffields immediately turned and made their way to the front door. As they mounted the shallow steps, however, Edwina turned to Kate with a mischievous grin and whispered, “Sweetness and light begins here, sister mine.”

“If we weren’t in public,” Kate returned, her voice equally hushed, “I might have to hit you.”

Lady Bridgerton was in the main hall when they stepped inside, and Kate could see the ribboned hems of walking dresses disappearing up the stairs as the previous carriage’s occupants made their way to their rooms.

“Mrs. Sheffield!” Lady Bridgerton called out, crossing over toward them. “How lovely to see you. And Miss Sheffield,” she added, turning to Kate, “I am so glad you were able to join us.”

“It was kind of you to invite us,” Kate replied. “And it is truly a pleasure to escape the city for a week.”

Lady Bridgerton smiled. “You are a country girl at heart, then?”

“I’m afraid so. London is exciting, and always worth a visit, but I do prefer the green fields and fresh air of the countryside.”

“My son is much the same way,” Lady Bridgerton said. “Oh, he spends his time in the city, but a mother knows the truth.”

“The viscount?” Kate asked doubtfully. He seemed such the consummate rake, and everyone knew a rake’s natural habitat was the city.

“Yes, Anthony. We lived here almost exclusively when he was a child. We went to London during the season, of course, since I do love to attend parties and balls, but never for more than a few weeks. It was only after my husband passed away that we moved our primary residence to town.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Kate murmured.

The viscountess turned to her with a wistful expression in her blue eyes. “That is very sweet of you. He has been gone for many years, but I do still miss him each and every day.”

Kate felt a lump forming in her throat. She remembered how well Mary and her father had loved each other, and she knew that she was in the presence of another woman who had experienced true love. And suddenly she felt so very sad. Because Mary had lost her husband and the viscountess had lost hers as well, and…

And maybe most of all because she would probably never know the bliss of true love herself.

“But we’re becoming so maudlin,” Lady Bridgerton suddenly said, smiling a little too brightly as she turned back to Mary, “and here I haven’t even met your other daughter.”

“Have you not?” Mary asked, her brow furrowing. “I suppose that must be true. Edwina was not able to attend your musicale.”

“I have, of course, seen you from afar,” Lady Bridgerton said to Edwina, bestowing upon her a dazzling smile.

Mary made the introductions, and Kate could not help but notice the appraising manner in which Lady Bridgerton regarded Edwina. There could be no doubt about it. She’d decided Edwina would make an excellent addition to her family.

After a few more moments of chitchat, Lady Bridgerton offered them tea while their bags were being delivered to their rooms, but they declined, as Mary was tired and wanted to lie down.

“As you wish,” Lady Bridgerton said, signaling to a housemaid. “I shall have Rose show you to your rooms. Dinner is at eight. Is there anything else I may do for you before you retire?”


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