It wasn’t as if he were going to ask her instead, so what would she have to gain by preventing a match between him and Edwina?

Nothing except the agony of having to see him married to her sister. And that would fade in time, wouldn’t it? It had to; she herself had just said the night before that time truly did heal all wounds. Besides, it would probably hurt just as much to see him married to some other lady; the only difference would be that she would not have to see him at holidays and christenings and the like.

Kate let out a sigh. A long, sad, weary sigh that stole every breath from her lungs and left her shoulders sagging, her posture drooping.

Her heart aching.

And then a voice filled her ears. His voice, low and smooth, like a warm swirl around her. “My goodness, you sound serious.”

Kate stood so suddenly that the backs of her legs knocked into the edge of the stone bench, setting her off balance and causing her to stumble. “My lord,” she blurted out.

His lips curved with the barest hint of a smile. “I thought I might find you here.”

Her eyes widened at the realization that he’d deliberately sought her out. Her heart started beating faster as well, but at least that was something she could keep hidden from him.

He glanced briefly down to the stone bench, signaling that she should feel free to resume her seat. “Actually, I saw you from my window. I wanted to make certain that you were feeling better,” he said quietly.

Kate sat down, disappointment rising in her throat. He was merely being polite. Of course he was merely being polite. Silly of her to dream—even for a moment—that there might be something more. He was, she’d finally realized, a nice person, and any nice person would want to make sure that she was feeling better after what had transpired the night before.

“I am,” she replied. “Very much. Thank you.”

If he thought anything of her broken, staccato sentences, he did not make any discernible reaction of it. “I’m glad,” he said as he sat beside her. “I worried about you for much of the night.”

Her heart, which had already been pounding much too quickly, skipped a beat. “You did?”

“Of course. How could I not?”

Kate swallowed. There it was, that infernal politeness again. Oh, she didn’t doubt that his interest and concern were real and true. It just hurt that they were prompted by his natural kindness of spirit, not any special feeling for her.

Not that she had expected anything different. But she’d found it impossible not to hope, anyway.

“I’m sorry to have bothered you so late at night,” she said quietly, mostly because she thought she should. In truth, she was desperately glad that he’d been there.

“Don’t be silly,” he said, straightening slightly and fixing upon her a rather stern sort of look. “I hate to think of you all alone during a storm. I’m glad I was there to comfort you.”

“I’m usually alone during storms,” she admitted.

Anthony frowned. “Your family does not offer you comfort during storms?”

She looked a little sheepish as she said, “They do not know that I still fear them.”

He nodded slowly. “I see. There are times—” Anthony paused to clear his throat, a diversionary tactic he frequently employed when he wasn’t quite certain what it was he wanted to say. “I think you would gain comfort by seeking the aid of your mother and sister, but I know—” He cleared his throat again. He knew well the singularly strange sensation of loving one’s family to distraction, and yet not feeling quite able to share one’s deepest and most intractable fears. It brought on an uncanny sense of isolation, of being remarkably alone in a loud and loving crowd.

“I know,” he said again, his voice purposely even and subdued, “that it can often be most difficult to share one’s fears with those one most deeply loves.”

Her brown eyes, wise and warm and undeniably perceptive, focused on his. For one split moment he had the bizarre thought that she somehow knew everything about him, every last detail from the moment of his birth to his certainty of his own death. It seemed, in that second, with her face tipped up toward his and her lips slightly parted, that she, more than anyone else who would ever walk this earth, truly knew him.

It was thrilling.

But more than that, it was terrifying.

“You’re a very wise man,” she whispered.

It took him a moment to remember what they’d been talking about. Ah yes, fears. He knew fears. He tried to laugh off her compliment. “Most of the time I’m a very foolish man.”

She shook her head. “No. I think you’ve hit the nail squarely on its proverbial head. Of course I would not tell Mary and Edwina. I do not want to trouble them.” She chewed on her lip for a moment—a funny little movement with her teeth that he found oddly seductive.

“Of course,” she added, “if I am to be true to myself, I must confess that my motives are not entirely unselfish. Surely, an equal part of my reluctance lies in my desire not to be seen as weak.”

“That’s not such a terrible sin,” he murmured.

“Not as far as sins go, I suppose,” Kate said with a smile. “But I would hazard a guess that it is one from which you, too, suffer.”

He didn’t say anything, just nodded his assent.

“We all have our roles to play in life,” she continued, “and mine has always been to be strong and sensible. Cringing under a table during an electrical storm is neither.”

“Your sister,” he said quietly, “is probably a great deal stronger than you think.”

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