“My goodness, you were lucky,” said Lady Cowper, the mother of the infamous Cressida Cowper, who, for her part, did not say two words to Kate, just sulked in the corner and glared daggers in her direction.

“I had no idea he was interested in you,” gushed Miss Gertrude Knight, with a facial expression that clearly said she still didn’t believe it, and perhaps even hoped that the betrothal might still prove to be a sham, announcement in the London Times notwithstanding.

And from Lady Danbury, who’d never been known to mince words: “Don’t know how you trapped him, but it must have been a neat trick. There are a few gels out there who wouldn’t mind taking lessons from you, mark my words.”

Kate just smiled (or tried to, at least; she suspected that her attempts at gracious and friendly response were not always convincing) and nodded, and murmured, “I am a fortunate girl,” whenever Mary poked her in the side.

As for Anthony, the lucky man had been able to avoid the harsh scrutiny she’d been forced to endure. He had told her he needed to remain at Aubrey Hall to take care of a few estate details before the wedding, which had been set for the following Saturday, only nine days after the incident in the garden. Mary had worried that such hastiness would lead to “talk,” but Lady Bridgerton had rather pragmatically explained that there would be “talk” no matter what, and that Kate would be less subject to unflattering innuendo once she had the protection of Anthony’s name.

Kate suspected that the viscountess—who had gained a certain reputation for her single-minded desire to see her adult children married off—simply wanted to get Anthony in front of the bishop before he had the chance to change his mind.

Kate found herself in agreement with Lady Bridgerton. As nervous as she was about the wedding and the marriage to follow, she’d never been the sort to put things off. Once she made a decision—or, in this case, had one made for her—she saw no reason for delay. And as for the “talk,” a hasty wedding might increase its volume, but Kate suspected that the sooner she and Anthony were married, the sooner it would die down, and the sooner she might hope to return to the normal obscurity of her own life.

Of course, her life would not be her own for much longer. She was going to have to get used to that.

Not that it felt like her own even now. Her days were a whirlwind of activity, with Lady Bridgerton dragging her from shop to shop, spending an enormous amount of Anthony’s money for her trousseau. Kate had quickly learned that resistance was useless; when Lady Bridgerton—or Violet, as she had now been instructed to call her—made up her mind, heaven help the fool who got in her way. Mary and Edwina had accompanied them on a few of the outings, but they had quickly declared themselves exhausted by Violet’s indefatigable energy and gone off to Gunter’s for a flavored ice.

Finally, a mere two days before the wedding, Kate received a note from Anthony, asking her to be at home at four that afternoon so that he might pay her a call. Kate was a little nervous at seeing him again; somehow everything seemed different—more formal—in town. Nonetheless, she seized upon the opportunity to avoid another afternoon on Oxford Street, at the dressmaker, and the milliner, and the glovemaker, and to whomever else Violet had it in mind to drag her.

And so, while Mary and Edwina were out running errands—Kate had conveniently forgotten to mention that the viscount was expected—she sat down in the drawing room, Newton sleeping contentedly at her feet, and waited.

Anthony had spent most of the week thinking. Not surprisingly, all of his thoughts were of Kate and their upcoming union.

He’d been worried that he could, if he let himself, love her. The key, it seemed, was simply not to let himself. And the more he thought about it, the more convinced he was that this would not pose a problem. He was a man, after all, and well in control of his actions and emotions. He was no fool; he knew that love existed. But he also believed in the power of the mind, and perhaps even more importantly, the power of the will. Frankly, he saw no reason why love should be an involuntary thing.

If he didn’t want to fall in love, then by damn, he wasn’t going to. It was as simple as that. It had to be as simple as that. If it weren’t, then he wasn’t much of a man, was he?

He would, however, have to have a talk with Kate on this measure prior to the wedding. There were certain things about their marriage that needed to be made clear. Not rules, exactly, but…understandings. Yes, that was a good word for it.

Kate needed to understand exactly what she could expect from him, and what he expected in return. Theirs was not a love match. And it wasn’t going to grow into one. That simply was not an option. He didn’t think she had any delusions on that measure, but just in case, he wanted to make it clear now, before any misunderstandings had the chance to grow into full-fledged disasters.

It was best to lay everything out on the proverbial table so that neither party would be unpleasantly surprised later on. Surely Kate would agree. She was a practical girl. She’d want to know where she stood. She wasn’t the sort who liked to be kept guessing.

At precisely two minutes before four, Anthony rapped twice on the Sheffields’ front door, trying to ignore the half dozen members of the ton who just happened to be strolling along Milner Street that afternoon. They were, he thought with a grimace, a bit far from their usual haunts.

But he wasn’t surprised. He might be recently returned to London, but he was well aware that his betrothal was the current scandal du jour. Whistledown was delivered all the way in Kent, after all.

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