Mary and Edwina both shook their heads no, and Kate started to follow suit, but at the last minute she blurted out, “Actually, if I might ask you a question.”

Lady Bridgerton smiled warmly. “Of course.”

“I noticed when we arrived that you have extensive flower gardens. Might I explore them?”

“Then you are a gardener as well?” Lady Bridgerton inquired.

“Not a very good one,” Kate admitted, “but I do admire the hand of an expert.”

The viscountess blushed. “I should be honored if you explored the gardens. They are my pride and joy. I don’t have much a hand in them now, but when Edmund was al—” She stopped and cleared her throat. “That is to say, when I spent more time here, I was always up to my elbows in dirt. It used to drive my mother positively mad.”

“And the gardener, too, I imagine,” Kate said.

Lady Bridgerton’s smile erupted into laughter. “Oh, indeed! He was a terrible sort. Always saying that the only thing women knew about flowers was how to accept them as a gift. But he had the greenest thumb you could ever imagine, so I learned to put up with him.”

“And he learned to put up with you?”

Lady Bridgerton smiled wickedly. “No, he never did, actually. But I didn’t let that stop me.”

Kate grinned, instinctively warming to the older woman.

“But don’t let me keep you any longer,” Lady Bridgerton said. “Let Rose take you up and get you settled in. And Miss Sheffield,” she said to Kate, “if you like, I should be happy to give you a tour of the gardens later in the week. I’m afraid I’m too busy greeting guests right now, but I would be delighted to make time for you at a later date.”

“I would like that, thank you,” Kate said, and then she and Mary and Edwina followed the maid up the stairs.

Anthony emerged from his position behind his ever-so-slightly ajar door and strode down the hall toward his mother. “Was that the Sheffields I saw you greeting?” he asked, even though he knew very well it was. But his offices were too far down the hall for him to have heard anything the quartet of women had actually said, so he decided that a brief interrogation was in order.

“Indeed it was,” Violet replied. “Such a lovely family, don’t you think?”

Anthony just grunted.

“I’m so glad I invited them.”

Anthony said nothing, although he considered grunting again.

“They were a last-minute addition to the guest list.”

“I didn’t realize,” he murmured.

Violet nodded. “I had to scrounge up three more gentlemen from the village to even the numbers.”

“So we may expect the vicar at supper this eve?”

“And his brother, who is visiting for a spell, and his son.”

“Isn’t young John only sixteen?”

Violet shrugged. “I was desperate.”

Anthony pondered this. His mother was indeed desperate to have the Sheffields join the house party if it meant inviting a spotty-faced sixteen-year-old to supper. Not that she wouldn’t have invited him for a family meal; when not formally entertaining, the Bridgertons broke with accepted standards and had all the children eat in the dining room, regardless of age. Indeed, the first time Anthony had gone to visit a friend, he’d been shocked that he was expected to take his meals in the nursery.

But still, a house party was a house party, and even Violet Bridgerton did not allow children at the table.

“I understand you’ve made the acquaintance of both Sheffield girls,” Violet said.

Anthony nodded.

“I find them both delightful myself,” she continued. “They haven’t much in the way of fortune, but I’ve always maintained that when choosing a spouse, fortune is not as important as character, provided, of course, that one isn’t in desperate straits.”

“Which I,” Anthony drawled, “as I am sure you are about to point out, am not.”

Violet sniffed and shot him a haughty look. “I should not be so quick to mock me, my son. I merely point out the truth. You should be down on your hands and knees thanking your maker every day that you don’t have to marry an heiress. Most men don’t have the luxury of free will when it comes to marriage, you know.”

Anthony just smiled. “I should be thanking my maker? Or my mother?”

“You are a beast.”

He clucked her gently under the chin. “A beast you raised.”

“And it wasn’t an easy task,” she muttered. “I can assure you of that.”

He leaned forward and dropped a kiss on her cheek. “Have fun greeting your guests, Mother.”

She scowled at him, but her heart clearly wasn’t in it. “Where are you going?” she asked as he started to move away.

“For a walk.”

“Really?”

He turned around, a bit bewildered over her interest. “Yes, really. Is there a problem with that?”

“Not at all,” she replied. “Just that you haven’t taken a walk—for the simple sake of taking a walk—in ages.”

“I haven’t been in the country in ages,” he commented.

“True,” she conceded. “In that case, you should really head out to the flower gardens. The early species are just beginning to bloom, and it’s simply spectacular. Like nothing you can ever see in London.”

Anthony nodded. “I shall see you for supper.”

Violet beamed and waved him off, watching as he disappeared back into his offices, which wrapped around the corner of Aubrey Hall and had French doors leading out to the side lawn.

***

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