“Wh-what is your question?” she asked, not realizing that she was whispering until she heard her voice, breathy and crackling like the wind.

He cocked his head slightly to the side. “Now, remember, you have to answer honestly.”

She nodded. Or at least she thought she nodded. She meant to nod. In all truth, she wasn’t entirely convinced of her ability to move.

He leaned forward, not so much that she could feel his breath, but close enough to make her shiver. “Here, Miss Sheffield, is my question.”

Her lips parted.

“Do you”—he moved closer—“still”—and another inch—“hate me?”

Kate swallowed convulsively. Whatever she’d been expecting him to ask, it hadn’t been this. She licked her lips, preparing to speak, even though she had no idea what she’d say, but not a sound emerged.

His lips curved into a slow, masculine smile. “I’ll take that as a no.”

And then, with an abruptness that left her head spinning, he pushed off the tree and said briskly, “Well, then, I do believe it’s time we went inside and prepared for the evening, don’t you?”

Kate sagged against the tree, completely devoid of energy.

“You wish to remain outside for a few moments?” He planted his hands on his hips and looked up at the sky, his demeanor pragmatic and efficient—one hundred and eighty degrees changed from the slow, lazy seducer he’d been just ten seconds earlier. “You might as well. It doesn’t look like it’s going to rain, after all. At least not in the next few hours.”

She just stared at him. Either he’d lost his mind or she’d forgotten how to talk. Or maybe both.

“Very well. I’ve always admired a woman who appreciates fresh air. I shall see you at supper, then?”

She nodded. She was surprised she even managed that.

“Excellent.” He reached out and took her hand, dropping a searing kiss on the inside of her wrist, upon the single band of bare flesh that peeked out between her glove and the hem of her sleeve. “Until tonight, Miss Sheffield.”

And then he strode off, leaving her with the oddest feeling that something rather important had just taken place.

But for the life of her, she had no idea what.

At half seven that night, Kate considered falling dreadfully ill. At quarter to eight, she’d refined her goal to an apoplectic fit. But at five minutes to the hour, as the dinner bell sounded, alerting guests that it was time to assemble in the drawing room, she squared her shoulders and walked into the hall outside her bedroom door to meet Mary.

She refused to be a coward.

She wasn’t a coward.

And she could make it through the evening. Besides, she told herself, she wasn’t likely to be seated anywhere near Lord Bridgerton. He was a viscount and the man of the house, and would therefore be at the head of the table. As the daughter of a baron’s second son, she held little rank compared to the other guests, and would most certainly be seated so far down the table that she wouldn’t even be able to see him without developing a crick in her neck.

Edwina, who was sharing a room with Kate, had already gone to Mary’s chamber to help her choose a necklace, and so Kate found herself alone in the hall. She supposed she could enter Mary’s room and wait for the two of them there, but she didn’t feel terribly conversational, and Edwina had already noticed her odd, reflective mood. The last thing Kate needed was a round of “Whatever can be wrong’s” from Mary.

And the truth was—Kate didn’t even know what was wrong. All she knew was that that afternoon, something had changed between her and the viscount. Something was different, and she freely admitted (to herself, at least) that it frightened her.

Which was normal, right? People always feared what they didn’t understand.

And Kate definitely didn’t understand the viscount.

But just as she was beginning to truly enjoy her solitude, the door across the hall opened, and out walked another young lady. Kate recognized her instantly as Penelope Featherington, the youngest of the three famed Featherington sisters—well, the three who were out in society. Kate had heard that there was a fourth still in the schoolroom.

Unfortunately for the Featherington sisters, they were famed for their lack of success on the marriage mart. Prudence and Philippa had been out for three years now, without a single proposal between the two of them. Penelope was in the midst of her second season and could usually be found at social functions trying to avoid her mother and sisters, who were universally regarded as ninnies.

Kate had always liked Penelope. The two had formed a bond ever since they’d both been skewered by Lady Whistledown for wearing gowns of an unflattering color.

Kate noted with a sad sigh that Penelope’s current gown of lemon yellow silk made the poor girl look hopelessly sallow. And if that weren’t bad enough, it had been cut with far too many frills and flounces. Penelope wasn’t a tall girl, and the gown positively overwhelmed her.

It was a pity, because she might be quite attractive if someone could convince her mother to stay away from the modiste and let Penelope choose her own clothing. She had a rather pleasing face, with the pale, pale skin of a redhead, except that her hair was truly more auburn than red, and if one really wanted to put a fine point on it, more brownish red than auburn.

Whatever you called it, Kate thought with dismay, it didn’t go with lemon yellow.

“Kate!” Penelope called out, after closing her door behind her. “What a surprise. I didn’t realize you were attending.”

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