But that explanation wouldn’t wash, for his mind was filled with other images. Kate bending over her mallet, her face tense with concentration. Kate giggling as someone missed a shot. Kate cheering on Edwina when her ball rolled through the wicket—a very un-Bridgerton-like trait, that. And, of course, Kate smiling wickedly in that last second before she’d sent his ball flying into the lake.

Clearly, even if he hadn’t been able to spare a glance for Edwina, he’d been sparing plenty for Kate.

That ought to have been disturbing.

He glanced back over at her again. This time her face was tilted slightly toward the sky, and she was frowning.

“Is something wrong?” he inquired politely.

She shook her head. “Just wondering if it’s going to rain.”

He looked up. “Not anytime soon, I imagine.”

She nodded slowly in agreement. “I hate the rain.”

Something about the expression on her face—rather reminiscent of a frustrated three-year-old—made him laugh. “You live in the wrong country, then, Miss Sheffield.”

She turned to him with a sheepish smile. “I don’t mind a gentle rain. It’s just when it grows violent that I don’t like it.”

“I’ve always rather enjoyed thunderstorms,” he murmured.

She shot him a startled look but didn’t say anything, then returned her gaze to the pebbles at her feet. She was kicking one along the path as they walked, occasionally breaking her stride or stepping to the side just so she could give it a kick and keep it flying ahead of her. There was something charming about it, something rather sweet about the way her booted foot peeked out from under the hem of her dress at such regular intervals and connected with the pebble.

Anthony watched her curiously, forgetting to pull his eyes off her face when she looked back up.

“Do you think—Why are you looking at me like that?” she asked.

“Do I think what?” he returned, deliberately ignoring the second part of her question.

Her lips settled into a peevish line. Anthony felt his own quivering, wanting to smile with amusement.

“Are you laughing at me?” she asked suspiciously.

He shook his head.

Her feet ground to a halt. “I think you are.”

“I assure you,” he said, sounding even to himself as if he wanted to laugh, “that I am not laughing at you.”

“You’re lying.”

“I’m not—” He had to stop. If he spoke any further he knew he’d explode with laughter. And the strangest thing was—he hadn’t a clue why.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” she muttered. “What is the problem?”

Anthony sank against the trunk of a nearby elm, his entire body shaking with barely contained mirth.

Kate planted her hands on her hips, the expression in her eyes a little bit curious, a little bit furious. “What’s so funny?”

He finally gave in to the laughter and barely managed to lift his shoulders into a shrug. “I don’t know,” he gasped. “The expression on your face…it’s…”

He noticed that she smiled. He loved that she smiled.

“The expression on your face is not exactly unamusing yourself, my lord,” she remarked.

“Oh, I’m sure.” He took a few deep breaths and then, when he was satisfied that he had regained control, straightened. He caught sight of her face, still vaguely suspicious, and suddenly he realized that he had to know what she thought of him.

It couldn’t wait until the next day. It couldn’t wait until that evening.

He wasn’t sure how it had come about, but her good opinion meant a great deal to him. Of course he needed her approval in his much-neglected suit of Edwina, but there was more to it than that. She’d insulted him, she’d nearly dunked him in The Serpentine, she’d humiliated him at Pall Mall, and yet he craved her good opinion.

Anthony couldn’t remember the last time someone’s regard had meant so much, and frankly, it was humbling.

“I think you owe me a boon,” he said, pushing off the tree and standing straight. His mind was whirring. He needed to be clever about this. He had to know what she thought. And yet, he didn’t want her knowing how much it meant to him. Not until he understood why it meant so much to him.

“I beg your pardon?”

“A boon. For the Pall Mall game.”

She let out a ladylike snort as she leaned against the tree and crossed her arms. “If anyone owes anyone else a boon, then you owe one to me. I did win, after all.”

“Ah, but I was the one humiliated.”

“True,” she acceded.

“You would not be yourself,” he said in an extremely dry voice, “if you resisted the urge to agree.”

Kate gave him a demure glance. “A lady should be honest in all things.”

When she raised her eyes to his face, one corner of his mouth was curved into a rather knowing smile. “I was hoping you’d say that,” he murmured.

Kate felt immediately uneasy. “And why is that?”

“Because my boon, Miss Sheffield, is to ask you a question—any question of my choosing—and you must answer with the utmost honesty.” He planted one hand against the tree trunk, rather close to her face, and leaned forward. Kate suddenly felt trapped, even though it would be easy enough to dart away.

With a touch of dismay—and a shiver of excitement—she realized that she felt trapped by his eyes, which were burning rather dark and hot into hers.

“Do you think you can do that, Miss Sheffield?” he murmured.

***

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