“Anthony,” Kate whispered again, this time with more urgency, “are you certain?” She grabbed his arm and tried to pull him away from the matrons. She gained only a few inches, but at least now they weren’t facing them.

He gazed at her with implacable eyes. “We will marry,” he said simply, his voice that of the consummate aristocrat, brooking no protest and expecting to be obeyed. “There is nothing else to do.”

“But you don’t want to marry me,” she said.

This caused him to raise a brow. “And do you want to marry me?”

She said nothing. There was nothing she could say, not if she wanted to maintain even a shred of pride.

“I suspect we shall suit well enough,” he continued, his expression softening slightly. “We’ve become friends of a sort, after all. That’s more than most men and women have at the beginning of a union.”

“You can’t want this,” she persisted. “You wanted to marry Edwina. What are you going to say to Edwina?”

He crossed his arms. “I never made any promises to Edwina. And I imagine we’ll simply tell her we fell in love.”

Kate felt her eyes rolling of their own volition. “She’ll never believe that.”

He shrugged. “Then tell her the truth. Tell her you were stung by a bee, and I was trying to aid you, and we were caught in a compromising position. Tell her whatever you want. She’s your sister.”

Kate sank back down onto the stone bench, sighing. “No one is going to believe you wanted to marry me,” she said. “Everyone will think you were trapped.”

Anthony shot a pointed glare at the three women, who were still staring at them with interest. At his, “Would you mind?” both his and Kate’s mothers stepped back several feet and turned around to afford them more privacy. When Mrs. Featherington did not follow immediately, Violet reached forward and nearly pulled her arm out of the socket.

Sitting down next to Kate, he said, “There is little we can do to prevent people from talking, especially with Portia Featherington as a witness. I don’t trust that woman to keep her mouth shut any longer than it takes her to return to the house.” He leaned back and propped his left ankle on his right knee. “So we might as well make the best of it. I have to get married this year—”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why do you have to get married this year?”

He paused for a moment. There wasn’t really an answer to that question. So he said, “Because I decided I would, and that’s a good enough reason for me. As for you, you have to get married eventually—”

She interrupted him again with, “To be honest, I rather assumed I wouldn’t.”

Anthony felt his muscles tense, and it took him several seconds to realize that what he was feeling was rage. “You planned to live your life as a spinster?”

She nodded, her eyes innocent and frank at the same time. “It seemed a definite possibility, yes.”

Anthony held himself still for several seconds, thinking he might like to murder all those men and women who had compared her to Edwina and found her lacking. Kate truly had no idea that she might be attractive and desirable in her own right.

When Mrs. Featherington had announced that they must marry, his initial reaction had been the same as Kate’s—utter horror. Not to mention a rather pricked sense of pride. No man liked to be forced into marriage, and it was particularly galling to be forced by a bee.

But as he stood there, watching Kate howl in protest (not, he thought, the most flattering of reactions, but he supposed she was allowed her pride as well), a strange sense of satisfaction washed over him.

He wanted her.

He wanted her desperately.

He wouldn’t, in a million years, have allowed himself to choose her as a wife. She was far, far too dangerous to his peace of mind.

But fate had intervened, and now that it looked like he had to marry her…well, there didn’t seem much use in putting up a big fuss. There were worse fates than finding oneself married to an intelligent, entertaining woman whom one happened to lust after around the clock.

All he had to do was make certain he didn’t actually fall in love with her. Which shouldn’t prove impossible, right? The Lord knew she drove him crazy half the time with her incessant arguing. He could have a pleasant marriage with Kate. He’d enjoy her friendship and enjoy her body and keep it at that. It didn’t have to go any deeper.

And he couldn’t have asked for a better woman to serve as mother to his sons after he was gone. That was certainly worth a great deal.

“This will work,” he said with great authority. “You’ll see.”

She looked doubtful, but she nodded. Of course, there was little else she could do. She’d just been caught by the biggest gossip in London with a man’s mouth on her chest. If he hadn’t offered to marry her, she’d have been ruined forever.

And if she’d refused to marry him…well, then she’d be branded a fallen woman and an idiot.

Anthony suddenly stood. “Mother!” he barked, leaving Kate on the bench as he strode over to her. “My fiancée and I desire a bit of privacy here in the garden.”

“Of course,” Lady Bridgerton murmured.

“Do you think that’s wise?” Mrs. Featherington asked.

Anthony leaned forward, placed his mouth very close to his mother’s ear, and whispered, “If you do not remove her from my presence within the next ten seconds, I shall murder her on the spot.”

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