“But you can’t escort her in!” Cressida blurted out.

Bridgerton gave her an icy stare. “I’m sorry,” he said in a voice that said he was anything but. “Had I included you in the conversation?”

Cressida shrank back, obviously mortified by her outburst. Still, it was beyond irregular for him to escort Penelope. As the man of the house, it was his duty to escort the highest-ranking woman. Kate wasn’t sure who that happened to be this evening, but it certainly wasn’t Penelope, whose father had been a mere mister.

Bridgerton offered Penelope his arm, turning his back on Cressida in the process. “I do hate a bully, don’t you?” he murmured.

Kate clapped her hand over her mouth, but she couldn’t stifle her giggle. Bridgerton offered her a small, secret smile over Penelope’s head, and in that moment Kate had the oddest feeling that she understood this man completely.

But even stranger—suddenly she wasn’t so certain that he was the soulless, reprehensible rake she’d taken such comfort in believing him.

“Did you see that?”

Kate, who, along with the rest of the assembled company, had been staring openmouthed as Bridgerton led Penelope from the room, his head bent to hers as if she were the most fascinating woman ever to walk the earth, turned to see Edwina standing next to her.

“I saw the whole thing,” Kate said in a dazed voice. “I heard the whole thing.”

“What happened?”

“He was…he was…” Kate stumbled over her words, unsure of how to describe what exactly he’d done. And then she said something she’d never thought possible: “He was a hero.”

Chapter 12

A man with charm is an entertaining thing, and a man with looks is, of course, a sight to behold, but a man with honor—ah, he is the one, dear reader, to which the young ladies should flock.

LADY WHISTLEDOWN’S SOCIETY PAPERS, 2 MAY 1814

Later that night, after supper was done and the men went off to drink their port before rejoining the ladies with superior expressions on their faces, as if they had just talked about something weightier than which horse was likely to win the Royal Ascot; after the assembled company had played a sometime tedious and sometime hilarious round of charades; after Lady Bridgerton had cleared her throat and discreetly suggested that it might be time to turn in; after the ladies had taken their candles and headed off to bed; after the gentlemen had presumably followed…

Kate couldn’t sleep.

Clearly, it was to be one of those stare-at-the-cracks-in the-ceiling sort of nights. Except that there were no cracks in the ceiling at Aubrey Hall. And the moon wasn’t even out, so there wasn’t any light filtering through the curtains, which meant that even if there were cracks, she wouldn’t be able to see them, and…

Kate groaned as she pushed back her covers and rose to her feet. One of these days she was going to have to learn how to force her brain to stop racing in eight different directions at once. She’d already lain in bed for nearly an hour, staring up into the dark, inky night, shutting her eyes every now and then and trying to will herself to sleep.

It wasn’t working.

She couldn’t stop thinking about the expression on Penelope Featherington’s face when the viscount had swooped in to her rescue. Her own expression, Kate was sure, must have been somewhat similar—a bit stunned, a little delighted, and a lot as if she were about to melt onto the floor at that very minute.

Bridgerton had been that magnificent.

Kate had spent the entire day either watching or interacting with the Bridgertons. And one thing had become clear: Everything that had been said about Anthony and his devotion to his family—it was all true.

And while she wasn’t quite ready to relinquish her opinion that he was a rake and a rogue, she was starting to realize that he might be all that and something else as well.

Something good.

Something that, if she were trying to be utterly objective about the matter, which she admitted was difficult to do, really ought not disqualify him as a potential husband for Edwina.

Oh, why why why did he have to go and be nice? Why couldn’t he have just stayed the suave but shallow libertine it had been so easy to believe him? Now he was something else altogether, someone she feared she might actually come to care for.

Kate felt her face flush, even in the dark. She had to stop thinking about Anthony Bridgerton. At this rate she wasn’t going to get any sleep for a week.

Maybe if she had something to read. She’d seen a rather large and extensive library earlier that evening; surely the Bridgertons had some tome in there that would be guaranteed to put her to sleep.

She pulled on her robe and tiptoed to the door, careful not to wake Edwina. Not that that would have been an easy task. Edwina had always slept like the dead. According to Mary, she’d even slept through the night as a baby—from the very first day of her birth.

Kate slid her feet into a pair of slippers, then moved quietly into the hall, careful to look this way and that before shutting the door behind her. This was her first country house visit, but she’d heard a thing or two about these sorts of gatherings, and the last thing she wanted to do was run into someone on his way to a bedroom not his own.

If someone was carrying on with someone not his spouse, Kate decided, she didn’t want to know about it.

A single lantern lit the hall, giving the dark air a dim, flickering glow. Kate had grabbed a candle on her way out, so she walked over and flipped the lid of the lantern to light her wick. Once the flame was steady, she started toward the stairs, making sure to pause at every corner and check carefully for passersby.

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