Whatever trance he was in suddenly snapped, and he leaped forward, roughly grabbing one of her shoulders with one hand while his other grappled with the bodice of her gown, pulling it down to better expose her wound.

“My lord!” Kate shrieked. “Stop!”

He said nothing, but his breath was ragged and fast as he pinned her against the back of the bench, still holding her dress down, not low enough to expose her, but certainly lower than decency allowed.

“Anthony!” she tried, hoping that the use of his given name might get his attention. She didn’t know this man; he wasn’t the one who had sat at her side just two minutes earlier. He was crazed, frantic, and completely heedless of her protestations.

“Will you shut up?” he hissed, never once looking up at her. His eyes were focused on the red, swollen circle of flesh on her chest, and with trembling hands he plucked the stinger from her skin.

“Anthony, I’m fine!” she insisted. “You must—”

She gasped. He’d moved one of his hands slightly as he used the other to yank a handkerchief from his pocket, and it now rather indelicately cupped her entire breast.

“Anthony, what are you doing?” She grabbed at his hand, trying to remove it from her person, but his strength was beyond her.

He pinned her even more firmly against the back of the bench, his hand nearly pressing her breast flat. “Be still!” he barked, and then he took the handkerchief and began to press against the swollen sting.

“What are you doing?” she asked, still trying to scoot away.

He didn’t look up. “Expressing the venom.”

“Is there venom?”

“There must be,” he muttered. “There has to be. Something is killing you.”

Her mouth fell open. “Something is killing me? Are you mad? Nothing is killing me. It’s a bee sting.”

But he ignored her, too focused on his self-appointed task of treating her wound.

“Anthony,” she said in a placating voice, trying to reason with him. “I appreciate your concern, but I’ve been stung by bees at least a half dozen times, and I—”

“He’d been stung before, too,” he interrupted.

Something about his voice sent a shiver down her spine. “Who?” she whispered.

He pressed more firmly against the raised hive, dabbing the handkerchief against the clear liquid that oozed out. “My father,” he said flatly, “and it killed him.”

She couldn’t quite believe it. “A bee?”

“Yes, a bee,” he snapped. “Haven’t you been listening?”

“Anthony, a little bee cannot kill a man.”

He actually paused in his ministrations for a brief second to glance up at her. His eyes were hard, haunted. “I assure you that it can,” he bit off.

Kate couldn’t quite believe that his words were true, but she also didn’t think he was lying, and so she held still for a moment, recognizing that he needed to treat her bee sting far more than she needed to scoot away from his attentions.

“It’s still swollen,” he muttered, pressing harder with the handkerchief. “I don’t think I got it all out.”

“I’m sure I’ll be fine,” she said gently, her ire with him turning into an almost maternal concern. His brow was wrinkled with concentration, and his movements still carried an air of frantic energy. He was petrified, she realized, scared that she would drop dead right there on the garden bench, felled by a tiny little bee.

It seemed unfathomable, and yet it was true.

He shook his head. “It’s not good enough,” he said hoarsely. “I have to get it all out.”

“Anthony, I—What are you doing?”

He’d tipped her chin back and his head was closing the distance between them, almost as if he meant to kiss her.

“I’m going to have to suck the venom out,” he said grimly. “Just hold still.”

“Anthony!” she shrieked. “You can’t—” She gasped, completely unable to finish her sentence once she felt his lips settling on her skin, applying a gentle, yet inexorable pressure, pulling her into his mouth. Kate didn’t know how to respond, didn’t know whether to push him away or pull him toward her.

But in the end she just froze. Because when she lifted her head and looked over his shoulder, she saw a group of three women staring at them with equal expressions of shock.

Mary.

Lady Bridgerton.

And Mrs. Featherington, arguably the ton’s biggest gossip.

And Kate knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that her life would never be the same.

Chapter 14

And indeed, if a scandal does erupt at Lady Bridgerton’s party, those of us who remain in London may be assured that any and all titillating news shall reach our tender ears with all possible haste. With so many notorious gossips in attendance, we are all but guaranteed a full and detailed report.

LADY WHISTLEDOWN’S SOCIETY PAPERS, 4 MAY 1814

For a split second, everyone remained frozen as if in a tableau. Kate stared at the three matrons in shock. They stared back at her in utter horror.

And Anthony kept trying to suck the venom from Kate’s bee sting, completely oblivious to the fact that they had an audience.

Of the quintet, Kate found her voice—and her strength—first, shoving with all her might against Anthony’s shoulder as she let out an impassioned cry of, “Stop!”

Caught off guard, he proved surprisingly easy to dislodge, and he landed on his bum on the ground, his eyes still burning with determination to save her from what he perceived as her deathly fate.

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