“Well, no,” she admitted. “Not for your losing, anyway. But I didn’t intend for you to freeze your toes off.”
Anthony was suddenly gripped by the most insane desire to see her toes. It was a horrible thought. He had no business lusting after this woman. He didn’t even like her.
He sighed. That wasn’t true. He supposed he did like her in an odd, paradoxical sort of way. And he thought, strangely enough, she might be beginning to like him in much the same manner.
“You would have done the same thing if you were me,” she called out.
He said nothing, just continued his slow wade.
“You would have!” she insisted.
He leaned down and scooped up the ball, getting his sleeve wet in the process. Damn. “I know,” he replied.
“Oh,” she said, sounding surprised, as if she hadn’t expected him to admit it.
He waded back out, thankful that the ground by the shore was firmly packed, so that dirt didn’t stick to his feet.
“Here,” she said, holding out what looked like a blanket. “It was in the shed. I stopped by on my way down. I thought you might need something to dry your feet.”
Anthony opened his mouth, but oddly enough, no sound emerged. Finally, he managed, “Thank you,” and took the blanket from her hands.
“I’m not such a terrible person, you know,” she said with a smile.
“Neither am I.”
“Perhaps,” she allowed, “but you shouldn’t have tarried so long with Edwina. I know you did it just to vex me.”
He lifted a brow as he sat on the rock so he could dry his feet, dropping the ball onto the ground next to him. “Don’t you think it’s possible that my delay had anything to do with my wanting to spend time with the woman I’m considering making my wife?”
She colored slightly, but then muttered, “This has to be the most self-centered thing I’ve ever said, but no, I think you just wanted to vex me.”
She was right, of course, but he wasn’t going to tell her so. “As it happens,” he said, “Edwina was delayed. Why, I do not know. I deemed it impolite to seek her out in her room and demand that she hurry along, so I waited in my study until she was ready.”
There was a long moment of silence, then she said, “Thank you for telling me that.”
He smiled wryly. “I’m not such a terrible person, you know.”
She sighed. “I know.”
Something about her resigned expression made him grin. “But maybe a little terrible?” he teased.
She brightened, their return to levity obviously making her much more comfortable with the conversation. “Oh, for certain.”
“Good. I’d hate to be boring.”
Kate smiled, watching him as he pulled on his stockings and boots. She reached down and picked up the pink ball. “I’d better carry this back to the shed.”
“In case I’m overcome by an uncontrollable urge to toss it back in the lake?”
She nodded. “Something like that.”
“Very well.” He stood. “I’ll take the blanket, then.”
“A fair trade.” She turned to walk up the hill, then spied Colin and Edwina disappearing into the distance. “Oh!”
Anthony turned quickly around. “What is it? Oh, I see. It seems your sister and my brother have decided to head back without us.”
Kate scowled at their errant siblings, then shrugged in resignation as she started trudging up the hill. “I suppose I can tolerate your company for a few more minutes if you can tolerate mine.”
He didn’t say anything, which surprised her. It seemed just the sort of comment to which he’d have a witty and perhaps even cutting comeback. She looked up at him, then drew back slightly in surprise. He was staring at her in the oddest manner…
“Is—is everything all right, my lord?” she asked hesitantly.
He nodded. “Fine.” But he sounded rather distracted.
The rest of the trip to the shed was met with silence. Kate set the pink ball in its spot in the Pall Mall cart, noting that Colin and Edwina had cleared the course and put everything neatly away, including the errant purple mallet and ball. She stole a glance at Anthony and had to smile. It was obvious from his beleaguered frown that he’d noticed as well.
“The blanket goes in here, my lord,” she said with a hidden grin, stepping out of his way.
Anthony shrugged. “I’ll bring it up to the house. It probably needs a good cleaning.”
She nodded in agreement, and they shut the door and were off.
There is nothing like a spot of competition to bring out the worst in a man—or the best in a woman.
LADY WHISTLEDOWN’S SOCIETY PAPERS, 4 MAY 1814
Anthony whistled as they ambled up the path to the house, stealing glances at Kate when she wasn’t looking. She really was quite an attractive woman in her own right. He didn’t know why this always surprised him, but it did. His memory of her never quite lived up to the enchanting reality of her face. She was always in motion, always smiling or frowning or pursing her lips. She’d never master the placid, serene expression to which young ladies were meant to aspire.
He’d fallen into the same trap as had the rest of society—of thinking of her only in terms of her younger sister. And Edwina was so stunning, so amazingly, startlingly beautiful that anyone near to her couldn’t help but fade into the background. It was, Anthony allowed, difficult to look at anyone else when Edwina was in the room.
He frowned. And yet he’d barely spared Edwina a glance through the entire Pall Mall game. This might have been understandable simply because it was Bridgerton Pall Mall, and it brought out the worst in anyone named Bridgerton; hell, he probably wouldn’t have spared a glance for the Prince Regent if he’d deigned to join the game.
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