He gave her hand a squeeze. “How long have you been like this?”

“Tonight? Or in my life?”

“Both.”

“Tonight since the first clap of thunder. I get quite nervous when it begins to rain, but as long as there is no thunder and lightning, I’m all right. It’s not the rain, actually, which upsets me, but just the fear that it might grow into something more.” She swallowed, licking her dry lips before she continued. “To answer your other query, I can’t remember a time I wasn’t terrified by storms. It’s simply a part of me. It’s quite foolish, I know—”

“It’s not foolish,” he interjected.

“You’re very sweet to think so,” she said with a sheepish half-smile, “but you’re wrong. Nothing could be more foolish than to fear something with no reason.”

“Sometimes…” Anthony said in a halting voice, “sometimes there are reasons for our fears that we can’t quite explain. Sometimes it’s just something we feel in our bones, something we know to be true, but would sound foolish to anyone else.”

Kate stared at him intently, watching his dark eyes in the flickering candlelight, and catching her breath at the flash of pain she saw in the brief second before he looked away. And she knew—with every fiber of her being—that he wasn’t speaking of intangibles. He was talking about his own fears, something very specific that haunted him every minute of every day.

Something she knew she did not have the right to ask him about. But she wished—oh, how she wished—that when he was ready to face his fears, she could be the one to help him.

But that wasn’t to be. He would marry someone else, maybe even Edwina, and only his wife would have the right to talk to him about such personal matters.

“I think I might be ready to go upstairs,” she said. Suddenly it was too hard to be in his presence, too painful to know that he would belong to someone else.

His lips quirked into a boyish smile. “Are you saying I might finally crawl out from under this table?”

“Oh, goodness!” She clapped one of her hands to her cheek in a sheepish expression. “I’m so sorry. I stopped noticing where we were sitting ages ago, I’m afraid. What a ninny you must think me.”

He shook his head, still smiling. “Never a ninny, Kate. Even when I thought you the most insufferable female creature on the planet, I had no doubts about your intelligence.”

Kate, who had been in the process of scooting out from under the table, paused. “I just don’t know if I should feel complimented or insulted by that statement.”

“Probably both,” he admitted, “but for friendship’s sake, let’s decide upon complimented.”

She turned to look at him, aware that she presented an awkward picture on her hands and knees, but the moment seemed too important to delay. “Then we are friends?” she whispered.

He nodded as he stood. “Hard to believe, but I think we are.”

Kate smiled as she took his helping hand and rose to her feet. “I’m glad. You’re—you’re really not the devil I’d originally thought you.”

One of his brows lifted, and his face suddenly took on a very wicked expression.

“Well, maybe you are,” she amended, thinking he probably was every bit the rake and rogue that society had painted him. “But maybe you’re also a rather nice person as well.”

“Nice seems so bland,” he mused.

“Nice,” she said emphatically, “is nice. And given what I used to think of you, you ought to be delighted by the compliment.”

He laughed. “One thing about you, Kate Sheffield, is that you are never boring.”

“Boring is so bland,” she quipped.

He smiled—a true grin, not that ironic curve he used at society functions, but the real thing. Kate’s throat suddenly felt very tight.

“I’m afraid I cannot walk you back to your room,” he said. “If someone should come across us at this hour…”

Kate nodded. They’d forged an unlikely friendship, but she didn’t want to get trapped into marriage with him, right? And it went without saying that he didn’t want to marry her.

He motioned to her. “And especially with you dressed like that….”

Kate looked down and gasped, yanking her robe more tightly around her. She’d completely forgotten that she wasn’t properly dressed. Her nightclothes certainly weren’t risqué or revealing, especially with her thick robe, but they were nightclothes.

“Will you be all right?” he asked softly. “It’s still raining.”

Kate stopped and listened to the rain, which had softened to a gentle patter against the windows. “I think the storm is over.”

He nodded and peered out into the hall. “It’s empty,” he said.

“I should go.”

He stepped aside to let her pass.

She moved forward, but when she reached the doorway she stopped and turned around. “Lord Bridgerton?”

“Anthony,” he said. “You should call me Anthony. I believe I’ve already called you Kate.”

“You did?”

“When I found you.” He waved a hand. “I don’t think you heard anything I said.”

“You’re probably right.” She smiled hesitantly. “Anthony.” His name sounded strange on her tongue.

He leaned forward slightly, an odd, almost devilish light in his eyes. “Kate,” he said in return.

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