It was meant as a compliment, Kate knew, but still it felt a bit hollow, and maybe a touch condescending. She’d much rather have been told that she’d make an excellent wife.

“We shall have friendship,” he announced, “and we shall have mutual respect, and children—intelligent children, thank God, since you are quite the most intelligent woman of my acquaintance.”

That made up for his condescension, but Kate had barely time to smile at his compliment before he added, “But you should not expect love. This marriage will not be about love.”

An awful lump rose in Kate’s throat, and she found herself nodding yet again, except this time every movement of her neck somehow brought pain to her heart.

“There are certain things I cannot give you,” Anthony said, “and love, I’m afraid, is one of them.”

“I see.”

“Do you?”

“Of course,” she practically snapped. “You could not make it any plainer if you wrote it on my arm.”

“I had never planned to marry for love,” he said.

“That is not what you told me when you were courting Edwina.”

“When I was courting Edwina,” he returned, “I was trying to impress you.”

Her eyes narrowed. “You are not impressing me now.”

He let out a long breath. “Kate, I did not come here to argue. I merely thought it best if we were honest with one another before the wedding on Saturday morning.”

“Of course,” she sighed, forcing herself to nod. His intention hadn’t been to insult her, and she shouldn’t have overreacted. She knew him well enough now to know that he was merely acting out of concern. He knew he would never love her; better to make that clear in the beginning.

But still it hurt. She didn’t know if she loved him, but she was fairly certain she could love him, and deathly afraid that after a few weeks of marriage, she would love him.

And it would be so nice if he could just love her back.

“It is best that we understand each other now,” he said softly.

Kate just kept nodding. A body in motion tended to remain in motion, and she was afraid that if she stopped, she might do something really stupid, like cry.

He reached across the table and took her hand, which made her flinch. “I didn’t want you to enter this marriage with any delusions,” he said. “I didn’t think you’d want that.”

“Of course not, my lord,” she said.

He frowned. “I thought I told you to call me Anthony.”

“You did,” she said, “my lord.”

He withdrew his hand. Kate watched as he returned it to his own lap, feeling strangely bereft.

“Before I go,” he said, “I have something for you.” Without taking his eyes off of her face, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a small jeweler’s box. “I must apologize for being so delayed in presenting you with a betrothal ring,” he murmured, handing it to her.

Kate smoothed her fingers over the blue velvet covering before flipping the box open. Inside lay a rather simple gold ring, adorned by a single round-cut diamond.

“It’s a Bridgerton heirloom,” he said. “There are several betrothal rings in the collection, but I thought you’d like this one best. The others were rather heavy and fussy.”

“It’s beautiful,” Kate said, quite unable to take her eyes off of it.

He reached out and took the box from her. “May I?” he murmured, plucking the ring from its velvet nest.

She held out her hand, cursing at herself when she realized she was trembling—not a great deal, but surely enough for him to notice. He didn’t say a word, though, just steadied her hand with his as he used the other to slip the ring on her finger.

“Looks rather nice, don’t you think?” he asked, still holding the tips of her fingers with his.

Kate nodded, unable to take her eyes off of it. She’d never been one for rings; this would be the first she wore with any regularity. It felt strange on her finger, heavy and cold and very, very solid. It somehow made everything that had happened in the past week seem more real. More final. It occurred to her as she was staring at the ring that she’d been half expecting a bolt of lightning to come down from heaven and stop the proceedings before they actually said their vows.

Anthony moved closer, then brought her newly adorned fingers to his lips. “Perhaps we should seal the bargain with a kiss?” he murmured.

“I’m not sure….”

He pulled her onto his lap and grinned devilishly. “I am.”

But as Kate tumbled onto him, she accidentally kicked Newton, who let out a loud, whiny bark, obviously distressed at having his nap so rudely interrupted.

Anthony raised a brow and peered over Kate at Newton. “I didn’t even see him here.”

“He was taking a nap,” Kate explained. “He’s a very sound sleeper.”

But once awake, Newton refused to be left out of the action, and with a slightly more awake bark, he leaped up onto the chair, landing on Kate’s lap.

“Newton!” she squealed.

“Oh, for the love of—” But Anthony’s mutterings were cut short by a big, sloppy kiss from Newton.

“I think he likes you,” Kate said, so amused by Anthony’s disgusted expression that she forgot to be self-conscious about her position on his lap.

“Dog,” Anthony ordered, “get down on the floor this instant.”

Newton hung his head and whined.

“Now!”

Letting out a big sigh, Newton turned about and plopped down onto the floor.

***

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