“How old were you when she died?”

“It was on my third birthday. My father married Mary only a few months later. He didn’t observe the proper mourning period, and it shocked some of the neighbors, but he thought I needed a mother more than he needed to follow etiquette.”

For the first time, Anthony wondered what would have happened if it had been his mother who had died young, leaving his father with a house full of children, several of them infants and toddlers. Edmund wouldn’t have had an easy time of it. None of them would have.

Not that it had been easy for Violet. But at least she’d had Anthony, who’d been able to step in and try to act the role of surrogate father to his younger siblings. If Violet had died, the Bridgertons would have been left completely without a maternal figure. After all, Daphne—the eldest of the Bridgerton daughters—had been only ten at Edmund’s death. And Anthony was certain that his father would not have remarried.

No matter how his father would have wanted a mother for his children, he would not have been able to take another wife.

“How did your mother die?” Anthony asked, surprised by the depth of his curiosity.

“Influenza. Or at least that’s what they thought. It could have been any sort of lung fever.” She rested her chin on her hand. “It was very quick, I’m told. My father said I fell ill as well, although mine was a mild case.”

Anthony thought about the son he hoped to sire, the very reason he had finally decided to marry. “Do you miss a parent you never knew?” he whispered.

Kate considered his question for some time. His voice had held a hoarse urgency that told her there was something critical about her reply. Why, she couldn’t imagine, but something about her childhood clearly rang a chord within his heart.

“Yes,” she finally answered, “but not in the way you would think. You can’t really miss her, because you didn’t know her, but there’s still a hole in your life—a big empty spot, and you know who was supposed to fit there, but you can’t remember her, and you don’t know what she was like, and so you don’t know how she would have filled that hole.” Her lips curved into a sad sort of smile. “Does this make any sense?”

Anthony nodded. “It makes a great deal of sense.”

“I think losing a parent once you know and love them is harder,” Kate added. “And I know, because I’ve lost both.”

“I’m sorry,” he said quietly.

“It’s all right,” she assured him. “That old adage—time heals all wounds—it’s really true.”

He stared at her intently, and she could tell from his expression that he didn’t agree.

“It really is more difficult when you’re older. You’re blessed because you had the chance to know them, but the pain of the loss is more intense.”

“It was as if I’d lost an arm,” Anthony whispered.

She nodded soberly, somehow knowing that he hadn’t spoken of his sorrow to many people. She licked nervously at her lips, which had gone quite dry. Funny how that happened. All the rain in the world pounding outside, and here she was, parched as a bone.

“Perhaps it was better for me, then,” Kate said softly, “losing my mother so young. And Mary has been wonderful. She loves me as a daughter. In fact—” She broke off, startled by the sudden wetness in her eyes. When she finally found her voice again, it was an emotional whisper. “In fact, she has never once treated me differently than she has Edwina. I—I don’t think I could have loved my own mother any better.”

Anthony’s eyes burned into hers. “I’m so glad,” he said, his voice low and intense.

Kate swallowed. “She’s so funny about it sometimes. She visits my mother’s grave, just to tell her how I’m doing. It’s very sweet, actually. When I was small, I would go with her, to tell my mother how Mary was doing.”

Anthony smiled. “And was your report favorable?”

“Always.”

They sat in companionable silence for a moment, both staring at the candle flame, watching the wax drip down the taper to the candlestick. When the fourth drop of wax rolled down the candle, sliding along the column until it hardened in place, Kate turned to Anthony and said, “I’m sure I sound insufferably optimistic, but I think there must be some master plan in life.”

He turned to her and quirked a brow.

“Everything really does work out in the end,” she explained. “I lost my mother, but I gained Mary. And a sister I love dearly. And—”

A flash of lightning lit the room. Kate bit her lip, trying to force slow and even breaths through her nose. The thunder would come, but she’d be ready for it, and—

The room shook with noise, and she was able to keep her eyes open.

She let out a long exhale and allowed herself a proud smile. That hadn’t been so difficult. It certainly hadn’t been fun, but it hadn’t been impossible. It might have been Anthony’s comforting presence next to her, or simply that the storm was moving away, but she’d made it through without her heart jumping through her skin.

“Are you all right?” Anthony asked.

She looked over at him, and something inside of her melted at the concerned look on his face. Whatever he’d done in the past, however they’d argued and fought, in this moment he truly cared about her.

“Yes,” she said, hearing surprise in her voice even though she hadn’t intended it. “Yes, I think I am.”

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