Her eyes flew to his face. Was he trying to tell her that he’d fallen in love with Edwina? He’d complimented her sister’s grace and beauty before, but never had he referred to her inner person.
Kate’s eyes searched his for as long as she dared, but she found nothing that revealed his true feelings. “I did not mean to imply that she wasn’t,” she finally replied. “But I am her older sister. I have always had to be strong for her. Whereas she has only had to be strong for herself.” She brought her eyes back up to his, only to find that he was staring at her with an odd intensity, almost as if he could see past her skin and into her very soul. “You are the oldest as well,” she said. “I’m sure you know what I mean.”
He nodded, and his eyes looked amused and resigned at the same time. “Exactly.”
She gave him an answering smile, the kind that passed between people who know similar experiences and trials. And as she felt herself growing more at ease next to him, almost as if she could sink into his side and bury herself against the warmth of his body, she knew that she could put off her task no longer.
She had to tell him that she’d withdrawn her opposition to his match with Edwina. It wasn’t fair to anyone to keep it to herself, just because she wanted to keep him to herself, if only for a few perfect moments right here in the gardens.
She took a deep breath, straightened her shoulders, and turned to him.
He looked at her expectantly. It was obvious, after all, that she had something to say.
Kate’s lips parted. But nothing came out.
“Yes?” he asked, looking rather amused.
“My lord,” she blurted out.
“Anthony,” he corrected gently.
“Anthony,” she repeated, wondering why the use of his given name made this all the more difficult. “I did need to speak with you about something.”
He smiled. “I’d gathered.”
Her eyes became inexplicably fastened on her right foot, which was tracing half-moons on the packed dirt of the path. “It’s…um…it’s about Edwina.”
Anthony’s brows rose and he followed her gaze to her foot, which had left half-moons behind and was now drawing squiggly lines. “Is something amiss with your sister?” he inquired gently.
She shook her head, looking back up. “Not at all. I believe she’s in the drawing room, writing a letter to our cousin in Somerset. Ladies like to do that, you know.”
He blinked. “Do what?”
“Write letters. I’m not a very good correspondent myself,” she said, her words coming forth in an oddly rushed fashion, “as I rarely have the patience to sit still at a desk long enough to write an entire letter. Not to mention that my penmanship is abysmal. But most ladies spend a goodly portion of every day drafting letters.”
He tried not to smile. “You wanted to warn me that your sister likes to write letters?”
“No, of course not,” she mumbled. “It’s just that you asked if she was all right, and I said of course, and I told you where she was, and then we were entirely off the topic, and—”
He laid his hand across hers, effectively cutting her off. “What is it you needed to tell me, Kate?”
He watched with interest as she steeled her shoulders and clenched her jaw. She looked as if she were preparing for a hideous task. Then, in one big rush of a sentence, she said, “I just wanted you to know that I have withdrawn my objections to your suit of Edwina.”
His chest suddenly felt a bit hollow. “I…see,” he said, not because he did see, just because he had to say something.
“I admit to a strong prejudice against you,” she continued quickly, “but I have come to know you since my arrival at Aubrey Hall, and in all conscience, I could not allow you to go on thinking that I would stand in your way. It would—it would not be right of me.”
Anthony just stared at her, completely at a loss. There was, he realized dimly, something a bit deflating about her willingness to marry him off to her sister, since he’d spent the better part of the last two days fighting the urge to kiss her rather senseless.
On the other hand, wasn’t this what he wanted? Edwina would make the perfect wife.
Kate would not.
Edwina fit all the criteria he’d laid out when he’d finally decided it was time to wed.
Kate did not.
And he certainly couldn’t dally with Kate if he meant to marry Edwina.
She was giving him what he wanted—exactly, he reminded himself, what he wanted; with her sister’s blessing, Edwina would marry him next week if he so desired.
Then why the devil did he want to grab her by the shoulders and shake and shake and shake until she took back every bloody little annoying word?
It was that spark. That damnable spark that never seemed to dim between them. That awful prickle of awareness that burned every time she entered a room, or took a breath, or pointed a toe. That sinking feeling that he could, if he let himself, love her.
Which was the one thing he feared most.
Perhaps the only thing he feared at all.
It was ironic, but death was the one thing he wasn’t afraid of. Death wasn’t frightening to a man alone. The great beyond held no terror when one had managed to avoid attachments here on earth.
Love was truly a spectacular, sacred thing. Anthony knew that. He’d seen it every day of his childhood, every time his parents had shared a glance or touched hands.
But love was the enemy of the dying man. It was the only thing that could make the rest of his years intolerable—to taste bliss and know that it would all be snatched away. And that was probably why, when Anthony finally reacted to her words, he didn’t yank her to him and kiss her until she was gasping, and he didn’t press his lips to her ear and burn his breath against her skin, making sure she understood that he was on fire for her, and not her sister.
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