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when all the shades are gone

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The Bridgertons are truly a unique family. Surely there cannot be anyone in London who does not know that they all look remarkably alike, or that they are famously named in alphabetical order—Anthony, Benedict, Colin, Daphne, Eloise, Francesca, Gregory, and Hyacinth—or that their parents, the late viscount and the (still very much alive) dowager viscountess, were soulmates.

Yes, true soulmates. How rare is such a thing in our society, and between those of equal social status to boot? Call This Author a hopeless romantic if you must—surely my gender allows me such liberties—but it truly warms the heart to see that such a thing is possible.

—Lady Whistledown’s Society Papers, 2 June 1815

Benedict Bridgerton knew—with a certainty that he was aware was a privilege that few others could possess—that soulmates were real. Impossible to be raised with parents such as his, to see the love that had been between them and the pain that was still in his mother’s eyes whenever she was reminded of her late husband, and not believe it wholeheartedly, with every fiber of his being. Impossible to see his sister and brother with their own soulmates and not understand how real a thing it was, and how magnificent.

Impossible not to believe that he must be destined for the same thing himself.

But impossible, too, not to wish that the rest of London would stop remarking upon it.

“A Bridgerton!” people would exclaim whenever he frequented a society event, clapping their hands together with glee. “You must be a Bridgerton!”

“A Bridgerton! I can spot a Bridgerton anywhere.”

“Will tonight be the night for this Bridgerton?”

“Surely you must be eager to find your own soulmate! Will you be the next one to make your match?”

As far as the ton was concerned, it was a reasonably benign sentiment (though it was sometimes expressed in snide, cloying tones, as if the family somehow considered themselves superior for containing two soulmate matches among eight siblings, all birthed to a soulmate match themselves, when even one in a family was rare). But though Benedict did believe in such things, and did sincerely hope he made his own match, it still stung. There was nothing personal in it, no desire to see him happily wed for reasons of altruism or affection—simply the spectacle of witnessing it happen, of continuing the grand Bridgerton tradition that everyone so loved to watch. There were far worse things he could be known for, but he sometimes wished he were considered a little less a Bridgerton and a little more himself.

Tonight was no exception. The ball his mother had insisted upon hosting was supposed to be a masquerade, and Benedict had dutifully donned a black demi-mask, but everyone knew who he was. Or rather, they all almost knew.

“A Bridgerton!” trilled a woman of somewhat indeterminate age, dressed as a shepherdess, as she sauntered over to him. “I’d recognize that chestnut hair anywhere. Which are you? No, don’t say. Let me guess. You’re not the viscount, because I just saw him. You must be Number Two or Number Three.”

Benedict eyed her coolly, waiting for the inevitable. It didn’t matter which he was, after all—the follow-up was always exactly the same.

“One of the unattached brothers,” the woman added, a twinkle in her eye even behind her mask, and Benedict barely managed to suppress a growl. Here it came.

“My daughter is right over there, Mr. Bridgerton,” she said, a sly lilt to her voice. “Why don’t you take a look and tell me what color her dress is?”

Every time, Benedict thought, a muscle in his jaw twitching. Every bloody time. Every mother wanted her daughter to be the one to catch the eye of a Bridgerton, to be the one who made their vision spiral into more brilliant color than ever before.

It would, perhaps, have been flattering if they’d been so eager to snag him as a son-in-law because of who he was—because of his intelligence, sense of humor, talent with a fencing sword or sketching crayon—truly, anything about him as a person. But they didn’t want Benedict himself; they wanted their daughter to marry a Bridgerton, to be part of the near-magical legacy of soulmate matches that was developing around his family, and they didn’t much care about the man that would be filling the role of the Bridgerton-shaped son-in-law of their dreams.

And much as Benedict loved his family—much as he wanted that magical legacy for himself, too—sometimes it was damned exhausting to be seen for nothing more.

He had at least managed to excuse himself from the twittering ninnyhammer with some semblance of politeness, but a mere minute later, he was waylaid by his mother, the one person whom he could never dismiss out of hand.

Soulmate matches were rare enough to begin with; to have one, only to lose them, was a magnitude of pain few people could truly comprehend. Some people were able to find love again, even if it could never quite be the same, but it was clear that that had never really been an option for Violet Bridgerton. Instead, she had channeled all of her energy, all of her love, into raising her children, and her dearest wish was to see them all happily settled, the way she had been. It was impossible to begrudge her for that, even if the things she sometimes asked in pursuit of this goal—such as dancing with one of the Featherington sisters, even if it was the least awful of the bunch—were, at best, dreadfully dull.

So he’d just made eye contact and exchanged a rather pleasant smile with Penelope Featherington as he was approaching her when he heard a low rumble of whispers rippling across the ballroom behind him, and his curiosity got the better of him, and he turned—and saw her.

The most breathtaking woman he’d ever seen.

He couldn’t even tell if she was beautiful—with a mask on, he couldn’t even see half of her face—but it was something about the way she held herself, the way she looked about the ballroom… as if she’d never seen a more glorious sight, as if she was truly happy to be here.

She shimmered. She glowed. She was utterly radiant.

And Benedict was so mesmerized by cataloguing details about her as frantically as a starving man might gather scraps of food—the quality of her smile, the shape of her eyes beneath the mask—that he realized, quite suddenly, that her hair was dark blonde and her dress was a sparkling silver.

And more than that—that the dresses of the women around him were emerald and sapphire and amethyst. That not every shade of black among the evening kits of the gentlemen quite matched. That there were subtle rose-pink accents on the walls he’d never noticed before.

That the world around him had burst into sudden, brilliant color, more vivid than any he’d ever seen before—before he had laid eyes on her.

Her.

The only her that was ever going to matter again, as far as Benedict was concerned.

Penelope forgotten, he pushed his way through the crowd, his only objective to reach her side. Three other gentlemen had beaten him to his destination and were showering her with flattery and praise (and Benedict knew, for the first time, what it was to truly see red), and she was, in return, simply smiling at them—beaming, actually—full of pure, unadulterated joy.

Even if he hadn’t known, in his very bones, that he was meant to be with this woman, Benedict would have wanted that joy for himself.

“Excuse me, gentlemen, but the lady has already promised this dance to me.”

 

Sophie simply could not stop staring.

Not at the ballroom, which was gorgeous and elegant and decorated in the height of taste. It was clearly owned by a family of quality, but not one that felt as if they had to flaunt their wealth; rather, they had used it to furnish their home in a perfect harmony of styles, and it was almost certainly the most beautiful room Sophie had ever been in. Not at the other people at the ball—their costumes, elaborate and lavish and creative, and the variety of jewels and masks and hair styles and even faces. More people than she had ever seen in one place before, let alone in such grandeur. Lost among their number, she could pretend that she actually belonged here. Like she could dream of a world in which a ball like this would be commonplace for her, rather than a single spectacular night punctuating a lifetime of monotonous drudgery.

Not at the man whose hand was holding hers, so solid and strong, his grip so sure that she could imagine he would never let her go.

And not just because it was all so unforgettable, so unbelievable, so unlike her wildest dreams. But because the moment she’d first walked into the room, she’d felt magic in the air, and when he’d appeared before her and their had eyes met, she had known right then that he was the reason she’d stolen into the ball.

Because the world around her had suddenly burst into full, gorgeous, brilliant color. She could suddenly appreciate the décor of the ballroom and the costumes of the ton—the vivid shades of the ladies’ skirts, the glitter of the jewels and the harmonious shades of the room’s staging—all around her even more so than before. She was seeing colors in full, colors she’d only ever perceived before as pale imitations of the real thing. The world that had been so new to her, so enchanting and unreal, was suddenly a thousand times more captivating.

And even so, all of it paled before the splendor of the man beside her.

She could see the deep, soft black of his evening kit. She could see the dark, rich brown of his hair, the way that the flickering candlelight lent it a faint reddish cast. She couldn’t quite see the color of his eyes, only that they were dark, but knowing that that was because of the dim lighting and the mask he wore rather than any fault of her own vision made it almost as though she could.

Even the things she could have noticed before—the height and breadth of him, the handsomeness of his face, the smile that seemed to linger at the corner of his lips, the beard just barely touching the line of his jaw, the confidence of the way he moved—seemed more important now, lingering in her notice more sharply and clearly than they might have before. Every second that passed seemed to have a weight, each stolen moment of her new life suddenly all the more precious.

Because the most wonderful thing—the most terrible thing—that could have happened tonight had happened. He had happened.

Here, at the ball into which she had stolen on a whim—against all odds, against all reason—Sophie had met her soulmate.

It was magical.

It was awful.

Because she couldn’t have him, not truly. Soulmate matches were the stuff of fairy tales, and while society was kinder to marriages between class lines when they were between soulmates, Araminta certainly would not be. Even if, by some miracle, this gentleman’s vision, too, had burst into beautiful color when he had laid eyes on Sophie, even if he felt struck by that same wondrous connection, any future they could have forever would be tainted by Araminta’s spite and hatred. Sophie had stolen from her to come here, and if Sophie managed to steal her own happiness by that same measure—well, her stepmother would never forgive that.

Sophie had always known that she would have to leave everything she might find at the ball—an idea of the life that could have been hers; a look into the very heart of high society; a small additional measure of confidence and self-worth—behind, forever, after this night. Adding this gentleman—her gentleman—her soulmate—to the list might hurt more than any of the others, but she had never expected anything different.

As he led her out of the ballroom, moving quickly through the crowd as Sophie tripped along behind him, she caught sight of a gown in an exceptionally striking shade of violet and couldn’t help the delighted laugh that escaped her. Despite everything, despite how deeply she knew her heart would be breaking soon, she still couldn’t help but marvel at it all. She couldn’t believe how much brighter the world looked, even by candlelight. She couldn’t believe how many colors she could see now. It seemed a miracle, in the simplest and most magnificent possible form.

“Why is it,” the gentleman asked as they reached the hall outside the ballroom, “that you always seem to be laughing at me?”

And Sophie laughed again; she couldn’t help it. Even knowing she would have to leave it all behind far sooner than she would like, there was no way not to be transported by the sheer bewildering, glorious, unlikely wonder of it all. “I’m happy,” she said with a helpless shrug. “I’m just so happy to be here.”

“And why is that? A ball such as this must be routine for one such as yourself.”

Well, she thought with a grin, she must be playing her role to perfection if he wasn’t questioning that she was a member of the ton, an alumna of dozens of balls and parties.

He touched the corner of her mouth and murmured, “You keep smiling.”

“I like to smile.”

He pulled her toward him with a sure hand on her waist, and the breath left her body at the—still respectable, but suddenly seeming inconsequential—decreased distance between them. “I like to watch you smile.”

The words were low and seductive, but his voice was oddly hoarse—as if he had felt it, too. That magical moment of connection, the world bursting into color. As if Sophie wasn’t simply this evening’s conquest. As if he really meant it.

She wasn’t sure if knowing that he did would make everything better or worse, but she was sure she wasn’t about to risk everything by asking.

 

Much as Benedict loved his brother Colin, he could cheerfully have strangled him for spoiling the intimacy of the moment with—

Well, with her. The lady in silver who wasn’t going to tell him her true name.

Or rather, he found himself thinking, the lady in silver who wasn’t going to tell him her true name tonight. Because she would have to eventually, wouldn’t she? It would be absurd for them to be together and for him never to find out.

And there was no chance that they weren’t going to be together. This sort of magic didn’t happen more than once in a lifetime. There was no chance Benedict was going to let her go.

Still, something in him urged caution. It was clear she wanted to, for the time being, hide her identity, and so it followed that if he pushed too hard, he might lose her. And that, of course, was out of the question, so he would hold back. He would flirt, just as he would with any other lady, and savor the undercurrent of intensity in each of his words, and hope with everything in his heart that she felt it, too.

As she let slip her favorite color, he was almost certain of it. Color was a part of the world, of course; everyone could see it, even those who hadn’t found their soulmates. But it was understood that those who had saw the world as a brighter, more vivid place than everyone else, more nuances in shade and light, and as such it was not often discussed in polite society. No sense in making explicit the deficiencies that existed between those who were matched and those who were unmatched, after all.

So surely—surely, there was a reason she was saying it now. Did she want him to notice, and to comment, and to make explicit that they had both felt this magical connection?

But it still seemed too soon to pry, not to mention crass to force secrets from a lady who had made it clear she didn’t wish to share them. So all he could do was invite her to ask him a question—and if she wished to inquire further, surely that was all the permission she’d need.

And inquire further she did. “What, then, is your favorite color?”

Benedict went still with shock. He was certain he’d heard correctly—had half been expecting it—but he still couldn’t quite believe she’d asked.

She had to feel it, too. There could be no question about it.

“The answer is blue,” he found himself saying, as if his mouth was working faster than his brain possibly could, trapped as it was in the implications of her question.

“Why?”

He hadn’t thought he could be any more surprised, but it seemed nothing about this night would be what he expected. “Why?” he echoed.

“Yes, why? Is it because of the ocean? Or the sky? Or perhaps just because you like it?”

He couldn’t fathom why she’d asked. It was so curious; anyone else would have taken blue for an answer and left it at that. Hell, anyone else wouldn’t have asked at all. It had to mean something that she was inquiring further, that she wanted to know more.

Did she want him to confirm that he was seeing the color anew tonight, brighter and more vivid than ever before? What other motive could she have for asking?

“Are you a painter?” he asked, because he had to make sure it wasn’t just a subject of interest for her. That it was more personal than that.

She shook her head. “Just curious.”

And he still couldn’t bring himself to respond; it was all too strange, too unexpected. Too fraught with the potential for misstepping and losing her. So he asked instead, “Why is your favorite color green?”

Her expression turned nostalgic. “The grass, I suppose, and maybe the leaves. But mostly the grass. The way it feels when one runs barefoot in the summer. The smell of it after the gardeners have gone through with their scythes and trimmed it even. I used to live in the country, you see…”

It wasn’t anything unusual; without being able to see true color, the smell and the feel and the impression of the things that were meant to exhibit that color were usually all that people had. Benedict wondered what this response meant—whether she was simply accustomed to expressing herself this way, or whether she meant to indicate that she hadn’t seen the true color, after all.

Maybe she was giving him an answer, or maybe she was simply reminiscing. But Benedict couldn’t ignore the fact that stronger than anything else she might mean to say was the wistful note in her face, the distant look in her eyes. “And you were happier there?” he asked quietly.

She nodded, and looking into her eyes, Benedict thought that he saw a touch of green in them—a new color, so subtle he’d never seen its like before, and one he thought he wouldn’t be likely to forget.

“And you?” she asked, her voice soft. “Why is your favorite color blue?”

He let himself consider it, for the first time, and he found himself telling her of the lake at Aubrey Hall, a place he, too, missed, infused with all of the memories of his childhood. They spoke of the colors grey and blue, in both the water and the sky, colors he fancied he could also see in the lady’s eyes, if only for a moment. Impossible, in the dim light, even with the new brightness of his vision, to be able to tell which was the dominant color. All he could know for certain was that they weren’t brown.

And he told her of visiting Italy, of missing the rain when the sun was constantly shining, and told her that if the rain were gone, she would miss it—which evoked a surprisingly serious, thoughtful expression from her as she lapsed into silence. He found himself watching her think, the play of minor expressions across her face—so clear, even with half of her face hidden—and murmured, “You’re very quiet.”

“I was just thinking.”

“About?”

“About what I’d miss—and what I wouldn’t miss—should my life drastically change.”

He felt his breath catch, found himself leaning in a little, feeling himself drawn to her like iron to a magnet. “And do you expect it to drastically change?” he said, his voice low and intense.

But she shook her head, and even the single word she spoke had a touch of sadness so deep it broke his heart. “No.”

His voice dropped softer still, his eyes not leaving hers. “Do you want it to change?”

“Yes,” she sighed. “Oh, yes.”

Unable to stop himself, he took her hands and brought first one, then the other to his lips to kiss. “Then we shall begin right now,” he said, the words ringing with the fervency of a vow. “And tomorrow you shall be transformed.”

“Tonight I am transformed,” she whispered. “Tomorrow I shall disappear.”

The mere thought of her disappearing—of losing her—sent panic through Benedict, the urge to keep her close to him overwhelming. He forced himself to do it gently, though, to pull her towards him and drop a soft kiss to her brow. “Then we must pack a lifetime into this very night.”

 

Every moment of this night—this perfect night, with the perfect man, her soul’s true mate—would be burned into Sophie’s memory forever.

He led her to the house’s private terrace, and they spoke of their childhoods—she far more briefly, not wanting to reveal too much and being desperately curious about the Bridgerton childhood—and of Whistledown, and then he taught her to dance—moving slowly, so slowly, each gesture and touch seeming laden with far more weight than something so simple should have been.

It was a private dance on a private terrace, yes—the heavy heat of desire practically a tangible thing between them—but under other circumstances, she could have imagined that Benedict Bridgerton did such a thing all the time. That not a single ball went by without this private seduction, intimate conversation and dance lessons and warm, meaningful touches and soft, fleeting kisses.

But this was different. She had seen him, and her world had burst into color. Whatever else happened—even if they parted ways, as she knew they must—even if he hadn’t seen the world turn vivid and vibrant as she had—this night would always mean everything to her. She would never be able to remember it as anything but perfection.

And now she was dancing, actually dancing, as skillfully as if she’d done it every day of her life, her eyes locked onto Benedict’s as he swirled her in circles and spirals around the terrace, laughter caught in her throat and her breath caught in her chest.

“What do you feel?” he asked.

“Everything!” she exclaimed on an emerging laugh, because it was true. She felt alive in a way she never had before, fully present in her body and in her life for the first time. As if the rush of color in her world was the very last thing she’d needed to fully come to life, to be the person she was always meant to become.

“What do you hear?”

“The music,” she said in awe, realizing how clear it sounded, how it, too, felt like a part of her, simply because it was a part of this night. “I hear the music as if I’ve never heard it before.”

“What do you see?”

Sophie felt herself stumble, because these words—they meant more. This question meant more. Did he want her to be the first to say it? Why would he ask if he didn’t feel it, too?

She didn’t consciously think about lying—of course, she had been lying all night, at least by omission if not explicitly, but about things like this, the things that truly mattered, she didn’t think she could lie to this man—but she didn’t think she could actually speak the truth he might want to hear.

Looking into his eyes, though, she found a much more damning truth escaping her lips in a shaky whisper. “My soul. I see my very soul.”

He froze in place, his hands tightening their hold. “What did you say?” he whispered.

She stayed silent, thought she couldn’t bring herself, even now, to look away from him. She couldn’t bear to say anything else, either; she didn’t know if it would be worse to hear him say that he felt the same way or that he didn’t.

No—of course she knew. If she had to hear him say he had felt it, too, and then she had to walk away from him… She wasn’t sure if she could bear it. How could she go back to her real life after this?

“I know what you said,” Benedict said, his voice hoarse. “I heard you, and—”

“Don’t say anything,” Sophie pleaded, because she simply couldn’t stand to hear it. She would already be pining for him for the rest of her life; nothing could change that. She didn’t need it to be any harder than it already was.

“I won’t speak,” he murmured after a long moment, the air hot and heavy between them. “I won’t say a word.”

And then he kissed her, and it was as if he’d said everything, after all.

 

It was as if every prior flirtation, every prior kiss, had all been practice for this moment.

As she removed his glove, Benedict couldn’t stop himself from staring at her, feeling hunger and curiosity and urgency and… a million things far more powerful than any he’d ever felt before. It was as if, like the pale imitations of colors he’d seen up until this night, every emotion he’d experienced before had simply been shadows of what he felt now. Every part of this night felt more real than any moment he’d lived before.

All because of her.

And he didn’t even know her name.

Yet, he told himself as he cupped her cheek in his bare hand, fingertips stroking upward until he could wrap a long, soft length of golden hair around his finger. He didn’t know her name yet. Because it seemed inevitable that he would learn it. It seemed inevitable that the rest of his life would have her in it, by his side, where she belonged.

He removed her glove, and he couldn’t help himself from tracing down the length of her arm with his lips and tongue, savoring the feeling of her, soft and warm and here and—even if she hadn’t said it yet—his. She was his, and he was hers. And it turned what might have been a tawdry dalliance—kissing on a private terrace at his family’s ball—into something almost spiritual.

As his mouth found it was way to the center of her palm, he couldn’t hold it in any longer. He lifted his head, and his eyes met hers, and he asked, “Who are you?”

She shook her head.

“I have to know,” he pleaded.

“I can’t say,” she said, and then—as if in response to something in his expression—she added, “Yet.”

“I want to see you tomorrow,” he said, the words all but falling out of him. “I want to call on you and see where you live. I want to meet your parents and pet your damned dog. Do you understand what I mean?

“I want your future,” and he couldn’t stop himself from saying it, any more than he could stop himself from breathing, any more than he could stop the beating of his heart. “I want every little piece of you.”

“Don’t say anything more,” she whispered, the words a plea of her own. “Please. Not another word.”

“Then tell me your name.” She couldn’t leave him; not now. Not now that he could practically feel the connection between them. Not now that he knew she felt it, too. “Tell me how to find you tomorrow.”

And then the sound of the gong rang between them, and it sounded like a blessing, to signal the beginning of the rest of Benedict’s life. The moment when he was going to see her face.

“What is that?” she asked, her eyes widening behind her mask.

“A gong. To signal the unmasking.” He stepped closer to her. “It must be midnight. Time to remove your mask.”

But the glorious, triumphant joy he was beginning to feel was stifled at the expression of panic on her face—clear even beneath the mask she was still wearing—as she raised a hand to her face, pressing it in place more firmly.

“Are you all right?” he asked, and she blurted out, “I have to go.”

And with no further warning, she hitched up her skirts and she ran.

Away from the terrace.

Away from him.

“Wait!” he found himself exclaiming as he ran after her. He almost couldn’t believe it was happening—that she was running at all, that she was outpacing him so swiftly, that he had lost her—no, there she was, vibrant in her silver gown, so vivid even among all of the other colors, nearly running into another woman—and then he was waylaid by Lady Danbury, and by the time he managed to escape, to run outside and survey the mad crush of carriages along the length of Grosvenor Square, it was clear that she was gone.

His soulmate was gone.

And it was clear that she had no intention of letting him see her again.