“It counts,” Kate said in a quiet voice, letting her gaze fall shamefully down to her feet. “It counts for a lot. And you are my mother. In every way that matters.”

Mary stared at her for a long moment, then started to blink rather furiously. “Oh, dear,” she choked out, reaching into her reticule for a handkerchief. “Now you’ve gone and turned me into a watering pot.”

“I’m sorry,” Kate murmured. “Oh, here, turn around so no one sees you. There you are.”

Mary pulled out a white square of linen and dabbed at her eyes, the exact same blue as Edwina’s. “I do love you, Kate. You know that, don’t you?”

“Of course!” Kate exclaimed, shocked that Mary would even ask. “And you know…you know that I…”

“I know.” Mary patted her arm. “Of course I know. It’s just that when you agree to be mother to a child you haven’t borne, your responsibility is twice as great. You must work even harder to ensure that child’s happiness and welfare.”

“Oh, Mary, I do love you. And I love Edwina.”

At the mention of Edwina’s name, they both turned and looked out across the ballroom at her, dancing prettily with the viscount. As usual, Edwina was a vision of petite loveliness. Her blond hair was swept atop her head, a few stray curls left to frame her face, and her form was the epitome of grace as she moved through the steps of the dance.

The viscount, Kate noted with irritation, was blindingly handsome. Dressed in stark black and white, he eschewed the garish colors that had become popular among the more foppish members of the ton. He was tall, stood straight and proud, and had thick chestnut hair that tended to fall forward over his brow.

He was, on the surface at least, everything man was meant to be.

“They make a handsome couple, don’t they?” Mary murmured.

Kate bit her tongue. She actually bit her tongue.

“He’s a trifle tall for her, but I don’t see that as an insurmountable obstacle, do you?”

Kate clasped her hands together and let her nails bite into her skin. It said a great deal about the strength of her grip that she could feel them all the way through her kid gloves.

Mary smiled. A rather sly smile, Kate thought. She gave her stepmother a suspicious look.

“He dances well, don’t you think?” Mary asked.

“He is not going to marry Edwina!” Kate burst out.

Mary’s smile slid straight into a grin. “I was wondering how long you’d manage to hold your silence.”

“Far longer than was my natural inclination,” Kate retorted, practically biting each word.

“Yes, that much was clear.”

“Mary, you know he is not the sort of man we want for Edwina.”

Mary cocked her head slightly to the side and raised her brows. “I believe the question ought to be whether he is the sort of man Edwina wants for Edwina.”

“He’s not that, either!” Kate replied heatedly. “Just this afternoon she told me that she wanted to marry a scholar. A scholar!” She jerked her head toward the dark-haired cretin dancing with her sister. “Does he look like a scholar to you?”

“No, but then again, you don’t look particularly like an accomplished watercolorist, and yet I know that you are.” Mary smirked a bit, which needled Kate to no end, and waited for her reply.

“I’ll allow,” Kate said through clenched teeth, “that one ought not judge a person merely on his outer appearance, but surely you must agree. From all that we have heard of him, he does not seem the sort to spend his afternoons bent over musty books in a library.”

“Perhaps not,” Mary mused, “but I had a lovely chat with his mother earlier this evening.”

“His mother?” Kate fought to follow the conversation. “What has that to do with anything?”

Mary shrugged. “I find it difficult to believe that such a gracious and intelligent lady could have raised anything but the finest of gentlemen, regardless of his reputation.”

“But Mary—”

“When you are a mother,” she said loftily, “you will understand what I mean.”

“But—”

“Have I told you,” Mary said, the purposeful tone of her voice indicating that she’d meant to interrupt, “how lovely you look in that green gauze? I’m so glad we chose it.”

Kate looked dumbly down at her dress, wondering why on earth Mary had changed the subject so suddenly.

“The color suits you well. Lady Whistledown shall not be calling you a singed blade of grass in Friday’s column!”

Kate stared at Mary in dismay. Perhaps her stepmother had become overheated. It was crowded in the ballroom, and the air had grown thick.

Then she felt Mary’s finger jabbing her directly below her left shoulder blade, and she knew something else was afoot entirely.

“Mr. Bridgerton!” Mary suddenly exclaimed, sounding as gleeful as a young girl.

Horrified, Kate jerked her head up to see a startlingly handsome man approach them. A startlingly handsome man who looked startlingly like the viscount currently dancing with her sister.

She swallowed. It was either that or let her jaw hang open.

“Mr. Bridgerton!” Mary said again. “How nice to see you. This is my daughter Katharine.”

He took her limp, gloved hand and brushed an airy kiss across her knuckles. So airy, in fact, that Kate rather suspected he hadn’t kissed her at all.

“Miss Sheffield,” he murmured.

“Kate,” Mary continued, “this is Mr. Colin Bridgerton. I met him earlier this evening while I was talking with his mother, Lady Bridgerton.” She turned to Colin and beamed. “Such a lovely lady.”

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