Kate’s still coming to grips with the fact that the Bridgerton House is her home. So, being the hostess of such a grand estate is difficult to wrap her head around. Sure, being in charge of a family dinner or an afternoon tea is easy to handle. But, as long as you have enough biscuits (and an extra plate of them if Colin is in attendance), it’s bound to be a success.
However, hosting a ball as a viscountess is an entirely different venture. It consists of much more preparation, pressure, and people.
Fortunately, the ball has gone without a hitch so far. Well, except for a minor incident with a dessert tray. But, that was due to a quarrel between Gregory and Hyacinth. Those poor jam tartlets never stood a chance against a Bridgerton sibling tiff.
She and Anthony set the example for their guests earlier that evening, having the first dance of the night. Despite her two left feet, she and Anthony moved well together, anticipating each other’s every motion and misstep. She rolled her eyes when he whispered incorrigible things into her ear that definitely didn’t make her blush. Kate’s waist had burned from the touch of Anthony’s hand, singeing her skin as he pulled her closer.
Kate sometimes wonders if the heat of Anthony’s touch will fade with time. But, her body has never ceased to react when he’s near. In their two years of marriage, he still manages to set her soul and body aflame.
She would’ve danced with him all night if it hadn’t been for her obligations to their guests. So, after their dance, Kate tries her best to fulfill her duties. But, after a while of conversing and making introductions, Kate becomes tired and in dire need of a reprieve. So, she heads to the corner of the room, dodging guests. She sips a glass of lemonade to soothe her throat, which had grown sore from talking.
She spots Anthony from across the way, who’s dancing with Eloise. Somehow, he seems to sense her stare. His deep brown eyes find hers and cause a broad smile to overtake his face. Kate sends him a grin, which Anthony is so enamored by, that he becomes distracted during the dance. As a result, he misses a turn, causing Eloise to step on his foot.
Kate barks out a laugh as the siblings stumble, but she tries to hide it by pressing a hand against her mouth. Anthony catches her amusement, shooting her an infuriated look. But, his scowl only makes Kate laugh more.
Anthony turns back to Eloise, who appears to be ordering him to find her a more suitable partner. Unfortunately, the search for eligible men will likely take Anthony all night, as he believes no man is good enough for his sister. Additionally, no man Anthony suggests will be of any interest to Eloise. Thus, the journey will be fruitless but vastly entertaining.
Kate’s so absorbed with Anthony’s growing irritation as Eloise points a judgmental expression at every suitor they come across that she doesn’t even notice the woman who’s approaching her.
“Quite the evening, wouldn’t you say?”
Kate startles, turning to see a woman she could only describe as captivating. The brown curls of her hair perfectly frame her face, and her red dress displays her beautiful figure. Also, there’s an air of confidence about her. While Kate believes herself to be more self-assured than most, this woman has an ease about herself that Kate can’t help but envy.
“Yes, quite,” Kate replies with a small smile.
“I heard the hosts disappeared during a portion of the evening into the garden, wanting a private moment,” the woman says, leaning towards Kate conspiratorially. “That’s one way to stir up excitement at an event such as this where entertainment often lags.”
Kate stifles a chuckle, finding it unusual to hear a rumor typically discussed behind her back told right to her face.
“I’m sure that’s all just gossip,” Kate says eventually, trying to keep up her ruse as just another guest in attendance. “People are quite fond of creating news for Lady Whistledown to hear about, so their name will appear in her column the next day.”
“That’s a very astute observation. May I ask what your observations of our hosts for the evening are?”
Kate feels her face warm. “They’ve been said to be a love match, a pair that are inseparable.”
The woman arches her brow. “Yet, the viscountess is in the corner, and the viscount is nowhere to be seen.”
Kate grimaces, realizing the woman was playing a game of her own the entire time. She shifts her feet awkwardly. “That was a clever way to get information.”
“You’re the clever one. When I asked questions, you avoided the truth while also never stating a lie. You’re skilled in the art of deception.”
“Is that a compliment?”
“It certainly is,” the woman states, looking at Kate in admiration. She holds out her hand. “Siena Rosso.”
Kate shakes her hand kindly. “Kate Bridgerton.”
There’s a strange look in Siena’s eyes. It’s as if she’s waiting for Kate to remember something—to remember her. But, this confuses Kate. Why would Siena introduce herself to Kate if they’d already met before?
When whatever emotion Siena is looking for in Kate’s expression does not appear after a few seconds, the ease of her previous countenance falters.
“I’m sorry if I made any offense, by the way. I was told it was you and couldn’t refrain from having a little bit of fun to ease my nerves,” Siena says. “While I came here with my fiance, I still feel like the outsider I once was.”
Kate waves off her worries. “It’s quite alright. I tend to get a little bored at social gatherings, even my own, so I enjoyed the conversation.”
Siena clears her throat before stepping a fraction closer. “I’m sure Lord Bridgerton enjoys your company as well.”
“I like to think so,” Kate beams, seeing her husband across the room laughing at something Benedict says to him. She turns back to Siena, smirking. “Although I’d like to clarify, we did not go into the garden in private this evening.”
“Ah, so it’s a false rumor that will certainly be in the papers tomorrow.”
“Anthony and I will have a good laugh over it during tea in the morning.”
“Not the first time you’ll be in the papers, though, correct?” Kate squints in confusion, so Siena continues, “I mean, you two were quite the talk of the town when you were courting. Even though I wasn’t in London at the time, I heard about the whole affair.”
“I assure you the true story of how we came to be married is far less scandalous than what was printed.”
“I’m sure,” Siena says, her lips turning down a fraction. “I’m also sure because of your wit, Anthony must fancy you a great deal.”
The use of his first name strikes Kate oddly. “Do you know my husband?”
Something bittersweet flickers in Siena’s eyes. “Knew would be a better word for it.”
Siena's words douse Kate with a bucket of cold water, causing her to realize the truth behind their interaction. Siena’s prying gaze, the interest in her marriage, and the way Anthony’s name left her lips far too comfortably starts to make more sense.
While Kate feels a slap of surprise by this turn of events, she shouldn’t be shocked. After all, Kate knew Anthony had been with other women before her. It was the whole reason she objected to him when he was courting Edwina. Kate believed him to be a rake unsuited for marriage, who would destroy the happiness of her beloved sister. But, while he was indeed a rake, she learned her view of Anthony’s character was ill-formed. Anthony didn’t destroy anyone’s happiness. Instead, he provided Kate with joy she never believed she’d have the honor to feel.
His loving and steadfast nature that Kate came to see over time made her previous qualms against him seem trite. So, she hadn’t given his history with women a second thought. Well, not since Anthony proved his desire for Kate on their wedding night.
However, up until now, the women in his past had always remained faceless in her mind—easy to forget. But with Siena in front of her, Kate was confronted by the reality that Anthony wasn’t always hers. Lingering on that fact was both heart-wrenching and unpleasant.
But their relationship occurred before they met, so Siena and Anthony had done nothing wrong. Therefore, Kate had no reason to be mad at either of them. So, she pushes down the nauseating feeling akin to jealousy growing in her stomach.
Kate forces a smile. “I see.”
Siena exhales, looking guilty. “I do not mean to threaten you, or anger you, or spur any drama by approaching you. I promise. I merely wanted to meet the woman who managed to get Anthony down the aisle.”
“It wasn’t such a hard feat as you would imagine,” Kate says but grimaces as the memory of a bee sting enters her mind.
“Don’t sell yourself short. You know Anthony as well as I. He’s a man who keeps his heart close to his chest.”
Kate frowns at the observation, suddenly realizing that Siena wasn’t just one of the women in his past; she was something more.
Siena turns more serious, her voice lowering. “No matter what he says, he never lets you in completely.”
Kate’s expression tightens. “So, you didn’t come here to threaten or anger me, but you came here to warn me.”
“I see the way you look at him. It was the way I used to look at him too. If I can save anyone from the heartbreak I experienced, I will do so.”
“Exactly how involved were…I mean, did you—.”
“Love him?” Siena finishes, causing Kate to wince. But, Siena appears cavalier, as if the fact is nothing of note—something she’s moved far beyond. “I thought so, and I thought he did too. He promised me everything. Security, his affections, and to bring me out into society as his companion for everyone to see.”
Kate’s mouth opens in surprise. “And you refused?”
“I was not about to be let down by the same man again,” Siena states firmly, but her gaze turns more sympathetic as it focuses on Kate. “I want you to be prepared when he does the same thing.”
Kate stands up straighter, feeling the need to defend her husband. While Siena may have known him, she doesn’t know him now. She doesn’t know the man who he truly is. The man who brought her flowers when no one else ever had. The man who defended Penelope against Cressida’s cruel remarks. The man who held her close during the thunderstorm, whispering sweet assurances as he embraced her so tightly that Kate didn’t know where she ended and where he began.
The man Kate loved and could never stop loving—no matter what, not even when it hurt. Like when she thought he loved Edwina, or now as she faces Siena.
“With all due respect, Anthony and I are different. I’m appreciative of your warning and consideration for my feelings, but he won’t let me down.”
“Of course, Lady Bridgerton. But, may I leave you with one parting question?”
Siena leans in so that she can whisper in her ear. “If you think he has opened himself to you fully, why did he leave such a big chapter of his life that includes me closed?”
While Kate had thought the booming of thunderstorms was terrifying, the sound of Siena’s words is far more frightening. Kate didn’t want to believe what Siena was suggesting, but her insecurities latched onto her claims—acting like an itch Kate wanted to scratch, even if it injured her skin.
“Just something to consider,” Siena shrugs, taking a step back.
Kate feels so out of her senses due to the conversation that she hadn't seen Anthony approaching. He nears them with concern reflecting in his wide eyes.
Siena curtsies to him. “Lord Bridgerton.”
“Uh, Miss. Rosso,” he greets uneasily. As she walks away, his gaze snaps to Kate. Suddenly, she finds it hard to breathe, a lump forming in her throat. His stare is affectionate, too affectionate for Kate to bear. “Kate—.”
“How could you not tell me?”
“Kate, I’m sorry. I—.”
“If anyone asks, I am not feeling well and am retiring early,” Kate says curtly, trying to keep her voice even and her chin raised high. “Please convey my apologies.”
She brushes past Anthony quickly, wanting to get far away from him, Siena, and everyone else.
“Wait, Kate!” Her hurry up the stairs and Anthony’s voice cause a few guests to turn their heads to the couple. But, the couple pays them no mind. Anthony stays close behind Kate, following her down the hall. “Kate, please stop and listen to me.”
Once Kate reaches their bedroom door, she turns to face him. “One of us has to be in attendance, Lord Bridgerton.”
He puts his hands on his hips. “You’re mad if you think I’m leaving your side before we sort this out.”
“There’s nothing to sort out,” Kate shrugs, hoping her lips don’t wobble as she speaks. “You certainly didn’t believe so if you never mentioned this to me before.”
She sees Anthony wince before she yanks the door open. Then, she slams it closed behind her before Anthony can enter.
“Kate, let me in,” Anthony says, knocking loudly. When she opens the door after a few moments, he lets out a breath of relief. “Thank you, I—.”
Kate walks past him further down the hall, carrying the clothes she had gone to their room to gather.
“Wait, what are you doing?”
She remains silent as she walks towards her destination. Anthony’s eyebrows snap together when he sees which room she’s aiming for, and he dives in front of it to stop her.
“You are not sleeping in the viscountess room.”
Kate reaches behind him, grabbing the door handle. “Yes, I am.”
“No, you’re not,” Anthony says sternly. “We’ve never wanted to sleep apart. It’s remained unoccupied since we were married.”
“Well, I believed you were honest with me since we were married, but Miss. Rosso proved that is not the case. So, perhaps we need to reassess our previous notions.”
Anthony’s mouth falls open, and he stumbles backward. It allows Kate to open the door and slam it in his face again.
“Kate, please let me in,” Anthony says as Kate rests her head against the door. She rubs at her eyes, angry at the tears burning there. “I will break down this door if you don’t open it.”
She stills. “You wouldn’t.”
“Kate, I would. You know I would. You know me, let me in, and I’ll prove that you do,” Anthony whispers so softly that Kate can barely hear him through the door. She sighs, stepping back and opening the knob slowly. When Anthony sees Kate’s tear-stained cheeks, his expression crumples. “Oh, Kate...”
He steps forward, arms going out to comfort her, but she raises a hand to stop him. “Don’t come any further.”
“Kate, please. I cannot bear to see you this way, to know I caused it without being able to—.”
“I cannot bear the lie you’ve kept from me, yet here we are.”
Anthony sighs. “I’m sorry for not telling you, Kate. But honestly, I didn’t tell you about what happened with Siena because it doesn’t matter.”
“Doesn’t matter?” Kate repeats with a scoff. “Anthony, you were in love with her!”
He lowers his head shamefully. “I was.”
“You promised her things.”
“I did, and I didn’t keep those promises.”
“And you never told me,” Kate says, her voice wavering in strength.
“I’ve never told you, and I see now that was a mistake,” he says sincerely, which makes Kate’s defenses lower a little. “Kate, you have to believe that I am not that person anymore. I’m not the man you despised for being a rake when we met.”
“Anthony, I know you are not,” Kate exhales, her anger beginning to fade. “I know you had…experiences with other women. It’s something I’ve accepted and does not concern me. But, Siena wasn’t one of those women. She was something more. Wasn’t she?”
Anthony doesn’t say anything, but she’s proven right by his silence.
Kate doesn’t want to know the answer to her following query. But she needs to ask. Otherwise, she fears her heart will never stop twisting so painfully in her chest.
“Do you wish things had turned out differently between you?”
“I wish I hadn’t hurt her the way I did, but no, I would not wish that things had ended differently.”
“Because Siena and I weren’t good together, and parting from her led me to you.” Anthony steps towards Kate cautiously as if he’s afraid she’ll smack him with a mallet (which she’s never done. Well, once by accident, and it was indeed an accident—no matter what Anthony claims). But then, he raises a hand to her cheek, and she can’t help but melt into his touch. “That is something I cannot regret.”
“But feelings that are that strong don’t just go away, no matter how much you want them to,” Kate protests, chewing on her lower lip. “I know that from experience.”
Anthony’s brows furrow. “Do you think I’m still in love with her?”
There’s a horrible beat of silence before Kate can find the courage to speak.
“Kate, of course not,” he answers immediately.
Kate sighs, feeling exhausted. “Don’t say, of course not as if it’s an obvious fact.”
“To me, it is an obvious fact.” Anthony grabs her shoulders gently, forcing Kate to meet his intense gaze filled with a love that overwhelms and calms her all at once. “To anyone who knows me well, it’s obvious that this is the happiest I’ve ever been, the most in love I’ve ever been, and the most alive I’ve ever been. That’s all because I’m married to you. So what happened with Siena shouldn’t matter.”
Kate frowns, looking down at the floor. “But it does.”
“Because you were willing to risk everything for her.”
“I didn’t risk everything. I risked my status, which means nothing to me. It’s something I’m honored to have, but to lose it, I would easily survive.”
Kate knows this man’s soul, his mind, his heart, and his body. She hates that her insecurities make her question all of that, but they do. She shakes her head at him, unable to comprehend what he’s getting at even though she knows it’s the truth.
“Kate, you’re the one I’ve risked everything for—my plans, my senses, and my heart, which is something I never trusted anyone with until you,” Anthony continues, using one hand to tip up her chin so she can see the tenderness in his eyes. “And I would risk all of that time and time again if it meant that I could be yours.”
Kate exhales, breathing out as Anthony breathes in. She leans her forehead against his, letting his words sink into her bones and banish her worries.
“Kate, you have all of me,” Anthony whispers, his lips beginning to dance across Kate's cheek, making her heart flutter. “You’re not sharing with anyone. My entire soul is in your hands. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Kate says, a smile blossoming on her face.
Anthony grins in relief. “Good.”
They meet each other in the middle, kissing in a way that makes Kate’s toes, once sore from dancing, feel lighter than a feather.
“Anthony, you have me completely too,” Kate says when they part. “You know that, right?”
Anthony smirks. “Oh, I intend to have you in every way tonight.”
“What does that—?” Kate doesn’t get to finish, as Anthony interrupts her by sweeping her off of her feet. “Anthony!”
Anthony carries her out of the room, back into the one they share. He puts Kate on the bed, and she is left to gawk as he begins shedding his shirt as if his life depends on it.
“Kate Bridgerton, I’m wickedly in love with you,” he states, maneuvering on top of her and making a hot and intense need surge through her body. “I intend to do wicked things to you to prove that.”
“But we have guests downstairs.”
“So this is improper,” Kate argues, but her fingers are already weaving into the brown curls of his hair.
“That’s what you said the night of the masquerade, too, if I recall.”
Kate upturns her eyes to the ceiling, pretending to struggle for the memory of that night. “Hm, I don’t recall anything special occurring during the masquerade. Must’ve not been all that memorable.”
Anthony’s eyes glint with mischief. “Is that so?”
She nods, biting back a grin. Then, just as she’s about to kiss Anthony again, he stands up from the bed.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m going to go talk to George,” he answers, haphazardly putting on his shirt, missing a few buttons. “He’ll announce that the festivities are over tonight, and he’ll send our guests home.”
“That’s rather rude.”
He puts his hands on his hips. “It’s rather rude that my wife pretends not to remember a night that I know burns well in her memory.”
Kate smirks, folding her arms across her chest. “Maybe it does for you, but it doesn’t for me.”
“Really?” Kate nods, but she knows she’ll regret it, as he has that look in his eyes—that spark he gets when he’s prepared to rise to a challenge.
Anthony leaves the room with haste. When he returns a minute or two later, he has the look of a man on a mission. Anthony joins her on the bed, and his hands begin roaming underneath her dress. He slides off her silk stockings and her drawers.
“So, this doesn’t ring a bell?” he asks.
Kate shivers as his fingers travel up her bare leg, but she forces her face to remain neutral. “No.”
“Huh. Well, what about this?”
She intakes a sharp breath as his fingers enter her, causing stars to appear in her mind’s sky. “Not in the slightest.”
“That’s quite alright,” Anthony nods, not looking deterred at all. Instead, he seems pleased by her statement. “I suppose I’ll just have to jog your memory.”
Kate arches her body forward into his gentle but relentless touch, allowing him more access.
“Anthony,” she murmurs, unable to keep up the game.
He quirks his brows, looking satisfied.
The smug bastard, Kate thinks.
But that thought passes quickly as Anthony’s head lowers. With the press of his lips to her womanhood, he steals her breath away. Any train of thought she’d been able to hang onto thus far vanishes. Then, as Anthony’s tongue works to fulfill his promise of wickedness, Kate mutters something unintelligible.
Anthony raises his head, smiling roguishly. “Are you getting flashbacks, my dear wife?”
She loops her arms around his neck, pulling him closer. “You’ll be getting a kick in the head if you stop doing what you’re doing.”
“Well, we wouldn’t want that. I rather like my head attached to my body.”
He starts to move his head back down, but her hand stops him, resting on his cheek. Anthony looks at her quizzically as Kate takes a moment to appreciate her husband. She gazes at every contour of his features, and every inch of his being she can see within him.
She once theorized that she could fall in love with this man a little bit more every day. But perhaps that wasn’t true. Maybe it wasn’t that her love for Anthony increased over time, but that her ability to embrace it did. Every act of love or word of affection from him further broke down her defenses, allowing her feelings for him to rise to the surface.
Kate leans up, kissing him with ardency, slowly and deeply. When she parts for breath, the adoration in his eyes shatters any doubts that she had remaining.
“I love you,” Kate says.
Anthony smiles. “I know.”
When he kisses her again, Kate forgets about their guests downstairs and the women of Anthony’s past. Instead, she places her palm over his chest. At that moment, all Kate knows is the rhythm of Anthony's heart and how it somehow beats in tandem with hers.