A few minutes later she found herself in the library. It wasn’t large by ton standards, but the walls were covered floor to ceiling with bookcases. Kate pushed the door until it was almost closed—if someone was up and about, she didn’t want to alert them to her presence by letting the door click shut—and made her way to the nearest bookcase, peering at the titles.
“Hmmm,” she murmured to herself, pulling out a book and looking at the front cover, “botany.” She did love gardening, but somehow a textbook on the subject didn’t sound terribly exciting. Should she seek out a novel, which would capture her imagination, or should she go for a dry text, which would be more likely to put her to sleep?
Kate replaced the book and moved over to the next bookcase, setting her candle down on a nearby table. It appeared to be the philosophy section. “Definitely not,” she muttered, sliding her candle along the table as she moved one bookcase to the right. Botany might put her to sleep, but philosophy was likely to leave her in a stupor for days.
She moved the candle a bit to the right, leaning forward to peer at the next set of books, when a bright and completely unexpected flash of lightning lit up the room.
A short, staccato scream burst forth from her lungs, and she jumped backward, bumping her behind against the table. Not now, she silently pleaded, not here.
But as her mind formed the word, “here,” the entire room exploded with a dull boom of thunder.
And then it was dark again, leaving Kate shaking, her fingers gripping the table so hard that her joints locked. She hated this. Oh, how she hated this. She hated the noise and the streaks of light, and the crackling tension in the air, but most of all she hated what it made her feel.
So terrified that eventually she couldn’t feel anything at all.
It had been this way all her life, or at least as long as she could remember. When she’d been small, her father or Mary had comforted her whenever it had stormed. Kate had many memories of one of them sitting on the edge of her bed, holding her hand and whispering soothing words as thunder and lightning crashed around her. But as she grew older, she managed to convince people that she was over her affliction. Oh, everyone knew that she still hated storms. But she’d managed to keep the extent of her terror to herself.
It seemed the worst sort of weakness—one with no apparent cause, and unfortunately, one with no clear cure.
She didn’t hear any rain against the windows; maybe the storm wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe it had started far away and was moving even farther. Maybe it was—
Another flash illuminated the room, squeezing out a second scream from Kate’s lungs. And this time the thunder had arrived even closer to the lightning, indicating that the storm was pulling closer.
Kate felt herself sink to the floor.
It was too loud. Too loud, and too bright, and too—
Kate huddled under the table, her legs folded up, her arms about her knees, waiting in terror for the next round.
And then the rain began.
It was a bit past midnight, and all the guests (who were keeping somewhat to country hours) had gone to bed, but Anthony was still in his study, tapping his fingers against the edge of his desk in time with the rain beating against his window. Every now and then a bolt of lightning lit up the room in a flash of brilliance, and each clap of thunder was so loud and unexpected, he jumped in his chair.
God, he loved thunderstorms.
Hard to tell why. Maybe it was just the proof of nature’s power over man. Maybe it was the sheer energy of the light and sound that pounded around him. Whatever the case, it made him feel alive.
He hadn’t been particularly tired when his mother had suggested they all turn in, and so it had seemed silly not to use these few moments of solitude to go over the Aubrey Hall books his steward had left out for him. The Lord knew his mother would have his every minute crammed with activities involving eligible young women on the morrow.
But after an hour or so of painstaking checking, the dry tip of a quill tapping against each number in the ledger as he added and subtracted, multiplied and occasionally divided, his eyelids began to droop.
It had been a long day, he allowed, closing the ledger but leaving a piece of paper sticking out to mark his place. He’d spent much of the morning visiting tenants and inspecting buildings. One family needed a door repaired. Another was having trouble harvesting their crops and paying their rent, due to the father’s broken leg. Anthony had heard and settled disputes, admired new babies, and even helped to fix a leaky roof. It was all part of being a landowner, and he enjoyed it, but it was tiring.
The Pall Mall game had been an enjoyable interlude, but once back at the house, he’d been thrust into the role of host for his mother’s party. Which had been almost as exhausting as the tenant visits. Eloise was barely seventeen and clearly had needed someone to watch over her, that bitchy Cowper girl had been tormenting poor Penelope Featherington, and someone had had to do something about that, and…
And then there was Kate Sheffield.
The bane of his existence.
And the object of his desires.
All at once.
What a muddle. He was supposed to be courting her sister, for God’s sake. Edwina. The belle of the season. Lovely beyond compare. Sweet and generous and even-tempered.
And instead he couldn’t stop thinking about Kate. Kate, who, much as she infuriated him, couldn’t help but command his respect. How could he not admire one who clung so steadfastly to her convictions? And Anthony had to admit that the crux of her convictions—devotion to family—was the one principle he held above all else.
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