“Oh, of course,” he said, and Kate had the distinct impression that he would have said the same had she just declared the sky orange. Not that he wasn’t listening to her, just that it was clear he adored her to distraction.

This, Kate thought, was what she wanted for Edwina.

“Let me take half of those,” Daphne said, reaching for the wickets in her brother’s hand. “Miss Sheffield andI…that is, Kate and I”—she flashed Kate a friendly grin—“will set up three of them, and you and Simon can do the rest.”

Before Kate could even venture an opinion, Daphne had taken her by the arm and was leading her toward the lake.

“We have to make absolutely certain that Anthony loses his ball in the water,” Daphne muttered. “I have never forgiven him for last time. I thought Benedict and Colin were going to die laughing. And Anthony was the worst. He just stood there smirking. Smirking!” She turned to Kate with a most beleaguered expression. “No one smirks quite like my eldest brother.”

“I know,” Kate muttered under her breath.

Thankfully, the duchess hadn’t heard her. “If I could have killed him, I vow I would have.”

“What will happen once all your balls are lost in the lake?” Kate couldn’t resist asking. “I haven’t played with you lot yet, but you do seem rather competitive, and it seems…”

“That it would be inevitable?” Daphne finished for her. She grinned. “You’re probably right. We have no sense of sportsmanship when it comes to Pall Mall. When a Bridgerton picks up a mallet, we become the worst sorts of cheaters and liars. Truly, the game is less about winning than making sure the other players lose.”

Kate fought for words. “It sounds…”

“Awful?” Daphne grinned. “It’s not. You’ll never have more fun, I guarantee it. But at the rate we’re going, the entire set will end up in the lake ere long. I suppose we’ll have to send to France for another set.” She jammed a wicket into the ground. “It seems a waste, I know, but worth it to humiliate my brothers.”

Kate tried not to laugh, but she didn’t succeed.

“Do you have any brothers, Miss Sheffield?” Daphne asked.

Since the duchess had forgotten to use her given name, Kate deemed it best to revert to formal manners. “None, your grace,” she replied. “Edwina is my only sibling.”

Daphne shaded her eyes with her hand and scanned the area for a devilish wicket location. When she spied one—sitting right atop a tree root—she marched away, leaving Kate no choice but to follow.

“Four brothers,” Daphne said, shoving the wicket into the ground, “provide quite a marvelous education.”

“The things you must have learned,” Kate said, quite impressed. “Can you give a man a black eye? Knock him to the ground?”

Daphne grinned wickedly. “Ask my husband.”

“Ask me what?” the duke called out from where he and Colin were placing a wicket on a tree root on the opposite side of the tree.

“Nothing,” the duchess called out innocently. “I’ve also learned,” she whispered to Kate, “when it’s best just to keep one’s mouth shut. Men are much easier to manage once you understand a few basic facts about their nature.”

“Which are?” Kate prompted.

Daphne leaned forward and whispered behind her cupped hand, “They’re not as smart as we are, they’re not as intuitive as we are, and they certainly don’t need to know about fifty percent of what we do.” She looked around. “He didn’t hear that, did he?”

Simon stepped out from behind the tree. “Every word.”

Kate choked on a laugh as Daphne jumped a foot. “But it’s true,” Daphne said archly.

Simon crossed his arms. “I’ll let you think so.” He turned to Kate. “I’ve learned a thing or two about women over the years.”

“Really?” Kate asked, fascinated.

He nodded and leaned in, as if imparting a grave state secret. “They’re much easier to manage if one allows them to believe that they are smarter and more intuitive than men. And,” he added with a superior glance at his wife, “our lives are much more peaceful if we pretend that we’re only aware of about fifty percent of what they do.”

Colin approached, swinging a mallet in a low arc. “Are they having a spat?” he asked Kate.

“A discussion,” Daphne corrected.

“God save me from such discussions,” Colin muttered. “Let’s choose colors.”

Kate followed him back to the Pall Mall set, her fingers drumming against her thigh. “Do you have the time?” she asked him.

Colin pulled out his pocket watch. “A bit after half three, why?”

“I just thought that Edwina and the viscount would be down by now, that’s all,” she said, trying not to look too concerned.

Colin shrugged. “They should be.” Then, completely oblivious to her distress, he motioned to the Pall Mall set. “Here. You’re the guest. You choose first. What color do you want?”

Without giving it much thought, Kate reached in and grabbed a mallet. It was only when it was in her hand that she realized it was black.

“The mallet of death,” Colin said approvingly. “I knew she’d make a fine player.”

“Leave the pink one for Anthony,” Daphne said, reaching for the green mallet.

The duke pulled the orange mallet out of the set, turning to Kate as he said, “You are my witness that I had nothing to do with Bridgerton’s pink mallet, yes?”

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