“Anthony?” Lady Bridgerton gasped, her voice quavering on her son’s name, as if she couldn’t quite believe what she was seeing.
He twisted around. “Mother?”
“Anthony, what were you doing?”
“She was stung by a bee,” he said grimly.
“I’m fine,” Kate insisted, then yanked up her dress. “I told him I was fine, but he wouldn’t listen to me.”
Lady Bridgerton’s eyes misted over with understanding. “I see,” she said in a small, sad voice, and Anthony knew that she did see. She was, perhaps, the only person who could see.
“Kate,” Mary finally said, choking on her words, “he had his lips on your…on your—”
“On her breast,” Mrs. Featherington said helpfully, folding her arms over her ample bosom. A disapproving frown crossed her face, but it was clear that she was enjoying herself immensely.
“He did not!” Kate exclaimed, struggling to her feet, which wasn’t the easiest task, since Anthony had landed on one of them when she’d shoved him off the bench. “I was stung right here!” With a frantic finger, she pointed at the round red welt that was still rising on the thin skin covering her collarbone.
The three older ladies stared at her bee sting, their skin assuming identical blushes of faint crimson.
“It’s not anywhere near my breast!” Kate protested, too horrified by the direction of the conversation to remember to feel embarrassed at her rather anatomical language.
“It isn’t far,” Mrs. Featherington pointed out.
“Will someone shut her up?” Anthony snapped.
“Well!” Mrs. Featherington huffed. “I never!”
“No,” Anthony replied. “You always.”
“What does he mean by that?” Mrs. Featherington demanded, poking Lady Bridgerton in the arm. When the viscountess did not respond, she turned to Mary and repeated the question.
But Mary had eyes only for her daughter. “Kate,” she ordered, “come here this instant.”
Dutifully, Kate moved to Mary’s side.
“Well?” Mrs. Featherington asked. “What are we going to do?”
Four sets of eyes turned on her in disbelief.
“ ‘We’?” Kate questioned faintly.
“I fail to see how you have any say in the matter,” Anthony bit off.
Mrs. Featherington just let out a loud, disdainful, and rather nasal sniff. “You have to marry the chit,” she announced.
“What?” The word was ripped from Kate’s throat. “You must be mad.”
“I must be the only sensible one in the garden is what I must be,” Mrs. Featherington said officiously. “Lud, girl, he had his mouth on your bubbies, and we all saw it.”
“He did not!” Kate moaned. “I was stung by a bee. A bee!”
“Portia,” Lady Bridgerton interjected, “I hardly think there is need for such graphic language.”
“There’s little use for delicacy now,” Mrs. Featherington replied. “It’s going to make a tidy piece of gossip no matter how you describe it. The ton’s most fervent bachelor, brought down by a bee. I must say, my lord, it’s not how I imagined it.”
“There is not going to be any gossip,” Anthony growled, advancing on her with a menacing air, “because no one is going to say a word. I will not see Miss Sheffield’s reputation besmirched in any way.”
Mrs. Featherington’s eyes bugged out with disbelief. “You think you can keep something like this quiet?”
“I’m not going to say anything, and I rather doubt that Miss Sheffield will, either,” he said, planting his hands on his hips as he glared down at her. It was the sort of stare that brought grown men to their knees, but Mrs. Featherington was either impervious or simply stupid, so he continued with, “Which leaves our respective mothers, who would seem to have a vested interest in protecting our reputations. Which then leaves you, Mrs. Featherington, as the only member of our cozy little group who might prove herself a gossipy, loudmouthed fishwife over this.”
Mrs. Featherington turned a dull red. “Anyone could have seen from the house,” she said bitterly, clearly loath to lose such a prime piece of gossip. She’d be fêted for a month as the only eyewitness to such a scandal. The only eyewitness who’d talk, that is.
Lady Bridgerton glanced up at the house, her face going pale. “She’s right, Anthony,” she said. “You were in full view of the guest wing.”
“It was a bee,” Kate practically wailed. “Just a bee! Surely we can’t be forced to marry because of a bee!”
Her outburst was met with silence. She looked from Mary to Lady Bridgerton, both of whom were gazing at her with expressions hovering between concern, kindness, and pity. Then she looked at Anthony, whose expression was hard, closed, and utterly unreadable.
Kate closed her eyes in misery. This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. Even as she had told him he might marry her sister, she’d secretly wished he could be hers, but not like this.
Oh, dear Lord, not like this. Not so he’d feel trapped. Not so he’d spend the rest of his life looking at her and wishing she were someone else.
“Anthony?” she whispered. Maybe if he spoke to her, maybe if he just looked at her she might glean some clue as to what he was thinking.
“We will marry next week,” he stated. His voice was firm and clear, but otherwise devoid of emotion.
“Oh, good!” Lady Bridgerton said with great relief, clapping her hands together. “Mrs. Sheffield and I will begin preparations immediately.”
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