The park was cool and still as the solitary, solemn figure of Anthony Bridgerton rode slowly on his horse through the early morning mist. Dawn had just broken; it was completely empty here between the trees and the fields, for which he was very grateful. He could just allow himself to enjoy a moment of stillness, a moment where he could just stop and be at one with nature.
He had had a busy week. During the day Anthony had courted - or rather interviewed - an overwhelming selection of eager, eligible young bachelorette girls who had just made their season debut to identify a potential wife... but to no avail. In the evenings he was locked in his study and wearily tended to the overflowing stacks of bills and accounts for his family that urgently needed to be dealt with. And at night he would engage in pointless intercourse with ladies he had rarely spoken to in brothels, in a desperate need to take his mind off all the pressures weighing on him.
Anthony sighed as he trotted sleepily down the forest path, head bowed low as the sounds of croaking and chirping of waking birds echoed through the vast park. His search for a wife had brought his spirits to an even lower point than usual. It had been an arduous and fruitless endeavor and… well, just plain disappointing.
"Good luck to you, brother. You'll definitely need it this season,' his sister Daphne had told him during Eloise's presentation at the palace the other day.
Well, she certainly wasn't wrong.
All thoughts of his former lover, the opera singer Siena Rosso, had been pushed out of Anthony's mind. He knew now that he had used her as an escape route, and he had let this affair go too far. He had left hisfeelingsalmost digress from the desire for something more. He couldn't risk something like that again, and although it had hurt him then, he was immensely grateful now that Siena had ended things when she had done it, before he too...well, before he lost sight of what really matters. After all, affection and love and silly terms like romance didn't matter at all when it came to marriage. At least not for a head of family like the Bridgertons. Certainly not for a viscount.
"I've finally identified the difficulty...love itself. Removing it from all romantic relationships will make me all the better for it." No more distractions from responsibility or being held back from the sensible path.”
Anthony was of the most adamant attitude that he would forever maintain that position he expressed to Daphne at the end of last season - no matter how many times his mother and siblings tried to convince him otherwise. His agenda for this season was simple: to find a suitable bride as quickly as possible so that he could fulfill his duty as viscount. He needed a woman who was gentle, tolerable, dutiful, relatively smart, and with suitable hips for bearing children. No less, no more. He didn't think his requirements were overly difficult or demanding, but the amount of names he'd crossed off his list of potential brides suggested otherwise.
Another heavy sigh escaped Anthony's mouth as he trudged on home. He had made this trip from the brothel to his house so many times at this hour that his horse instinctively knew the route, which was fortunate, for Anthony was feeling so tired and mentally drained that he couldn't really bother to do the Taking control of the horse reins or even being aware of its surroundings. Indeed, he scarcely noticed the pair of geese waddling slowly in front of him, simply content with each other and unaware of the stress and misery that plagued the despondent rider who trotted behind them. He hardly noticed anything.
Suddenly he heard the distant whinnying of a horse.
Anthony's face shot up immediately; he loved horses, so knew them instinctively, and he could tell from that one simple whinny that this horse was certainly not looking for a peaceful, steady morning trot. That horse, wherever it was, rodefast.
Who would ride so urgently at this hour? Had they lost control of their horse?
Through the trees, Anthony then spotted the source of the noise: someone was galloping fast through the park, his horse hurtling across the field at such a speed that it filled Anthony with a feeling of fear. The driver appeared to be wearing a hood and... dark green dress. He couldn't believe it. It was aFrau.
"Whoa, there!" Anthony yelled, immediately concerned. 'Miss! Are you in trouble?'
But the rider just kept going and shot right past him and the geese. Whether she heard him or not, Anthony didn't know, but he was sure he couldn't just turn his back on what he'd just seen. It was not common for a woman to travel alone, and certainly not with such speed and power. Her horse might have been startled by something in the woods and snatched away in a mad panic, leaving her utterly powerless to control or slow the poor creature. Whatever must have happened, she could be in danger. He had to dosomething.
"Come on!" Anthony urged his horse, suddenly feeling much more alert than he had been a moment before, and charging after the helpless rider.
After Anthony had ridden desperately behind the woman across the empty parking lot for about a minute, he slowly began to realize that maybe not everything was as it first seemed. The woman rode astride, which he had never seen before and certainly not something a lady should ever do. And he could have sworn he saw the woman look back to see him following her, only to spur her horse on even faster.
This woman, whoever she was, wasn't in trouble at all - quite the contrary. Their fast, reckless riding was intentional. And, was he just imagining it, or was she goading him?
His worried expression slowly turned to confusion as Anthony also accelerated on his horse, determined to reach them. "Come on!" he murmured in frustration.
But she was definitely more than a match for him. Her riding skills were far superior to any he had seen, especially for a woman. But then after a while he saw that she was approaching a long hedge - possibly to avoid him and put an end to this bizarre chase - and Anthony's face fell. The rider was self-confident, but she couldn't be that ruthless?!
"Careful now!" he warned loudly.
The rider simply ignored him and continued on. Anthony watched in horror; would she stop?!
"WHOAH, THERE!" he exclaimed in alarm.
His mouth dropped in awe as the rider then vaulted over the hedge, climbed to the other side to clear the bush and landed effortlessly on the ground. Anthony tugged at his reins, brought his horse to a halt just short of the hedge, and stared at the rider, breathless and utterly animated, parted-lips. Even he wouldn't have dared to take that leap. Never before had he seen such courage and such ruthless behavior in a woman. He was completely amazed.
Who on earthIsThe?!
As if reading his mind, the woman, who had ridden a short distance since jumping over the hedge, slowly pulled her horse up and came to a halt as she neared the top of the small hill ahead. She turned to remove her hood and reveal herself.
And then he saw her.
From this distance, Anthony could tell the rider was young, with dark brown skin and long, curly black hair. She looked over at him with an almost defiant, defiant expression that only enhanced her apparent beauty.
Anthony's eyes lit up curiously as he stared at her and nodded half politely, half playfully, feeling an odd formation threatening his lips - was it a smile?
The rider's eyes sparkled as she raised both her head and eyebrows in response and gave him a satisfied smile as if to say, "See? Now you know I didn't have any problems.” The sight of her looking at him practically took Anthony's breath away.
Grinning almost smugly, the rider turned, spurred her horse on, and trotted off.
Panting from her excursion, Anthony stared after her as she galloped out of sight and felt a smile spread across his face that was undoubtedly a smile. He frowned in amusement; Heneversmiled, and he certainly couldn't remember the last time he'd been so intrigued by someone he didn't even know. Her impeccable riding skills, her blatant disregard for propriety—a woman riding astrideAndalone, it was practically unheard of! – and not to mention the way she had just smiled at him…
It was no use. He had to follow her. He had to find out who this mysterious lady was.
The cold morning fog had slowly cleared when Anthony began his search for the lone rider. Luckily he knew this park very well so after taking a few shortcuts off the trails it didn't take him as long as he feared to find them.
Sunlight was streaming through the treetops now and shining directly on the rider as she trotted gently down the path, seemingly content from her quick jaunt and now enjoying the peace and quiet of the forest. Anthony's lips twitched as he saw her sigh contentedly; he urged his horse to approach her.
"Enjoying your lap of honor?" he greeted as he emerged from the trees right in front of her.
The woman's mouth fell open; He was pleased to see that she looked shocked that he had found her.
"Oh, baap re!" he heard her murmur with a groan, and she looked around quickly - whether to look for a way to get away from him or just to make sure no one else was around, he couldn't be sure.
"Your head start isn't that great this time, I assure you," Anthony said, catching up on his horse.
He couldn't take his eyes off her, he was so intrigued. They rode side by side down the path now, and he could see them up close. Her dark, lustrous hair hung down in a long, loose ponytail—again, hardly appropriate for a young lady in the barrel. Her cloak and gloves were elegant and obviously of good quality. Her chin was square, her cheekbones sharp, her lips full, her nose delicate, her eyes dark and mysterious, her eyebrows trimmed, her lashes immaculately long, her skin a rich coppery brown that glowed whenever the sun shone on it. He had never seen a lady look so stunning without being dressed for a ball, with such an immaculately made-up face, coiffed hair and dress so immaculately tailored. Here this woman was clearly her natural self, regardless of her looks, and it was most unusual and yet so incredibly refreshing.
"Excuse me, sir," said the rider, clearly unwilling to engage in conversation but aware that she had no choice. "I didn't want to upset anyone."
She had the faintest trace of an Indian accent.
The rider then turned to him and forced a small, polite smile. Anthony smiled back, not entirely convinced by her answer, and looked down. He still couldn't understand why she wasn't riding side-saddle. He hadn't even known that women were taught to ride in a different way; it certainly hadn't been his sisters.
"Does your maid know that you ride astride?" he asked, amused.
"I have no maid," the woman replied lightheartedly.
"Ah, then you're married," he said, ignoring the odd tightness in his chest as he said the words.
The rider averted her gaze from him, her confident expression suddenly fading, her smile fading from her face.
Ah. He knew that look. She wasn't married at all. She looked only a few years younger than him, which made her something almost every lady in the barrel was afraid of: an old maid. And yet that didn't bother Anthony in the slightest. On the contrary, it only made him want to know more about her.
"Forgive me," Anthony said with a polite nod, and he had to smile when he realized that this mystery lady was unattached. "Then you're lost..."
The woman cut him off, not even bothering to hide her irritation at his harassment now. 'I amnotlost too, I'm on my way back to Mayfair. It's right in front of you,” she said confidently as they continued down the path.
"Mayfair?" Anthony said in amusement, raising his eyebrows and trying not to smile. 'Well then...'
He knew he should tell her she was dead wrong that Mayfair was actually going in the opposite direction, but that would end their conversation and she would turn and leave, and he was still too intrigued by her for her presence just about to get rid of. Every woman he had met in the past week had been exactly the same. They were all so boring and polite and perfect - but of course nowhere near perfect enough to be a viscountess - and had nothing of remote interest about them. ButTheWoman, wherever she came from, was a free spirit indeed, unafraid to ride unaccompanied even though it would be frowned upon by anyone in the barrel. She should be thankful that only he had met her and no one else; Already desperate for some excitement this season, these gossip-loving, rumor-spreading Lady Whistledown fanatics would jump at any opportunity to spread the tale of a new scandal.
"I appreciate your attention, sir, but I assure you I am perfectly safe," the rider insisted, frowning at him. "Maybe we pretend this encounter never happened? You allow me to go my way and you go yours.”
But Anthony was going nowhere. He cocked his head as he watched her, more fascinated by the second. She was very outspoken and confident for a lady speaking alone with a viscount, he had to give her credit for that.
"You're worried about being seen," he said, his voice betraying the faintest hint of his odd urge to laugh.
The woman turned her head sharply back to him. "I worry when I meet strange men in parks at dawn who won't leave me alone with their questions," she said, making him smile, then look away and lift her chin.
Anthony chuckled softly. He wondered if she meant to be so seductive as she spoke those words.
"Your secret is safe with me, I won't tell a soul," he assured her.
"How grateful I am," replied the rider; he wasn't sure if she meant to sound sarcastic or not.
"Foreign men". That meant she didn't know who he was. Perhaps she had arrived in London just in time for the season. The weight of his surname and his father's legacy threatened to drown Anthony season after season, and yet this woman had no idea; She just thought he was an ordinary gentleman and it felt like a breath of fresh air. Somehow it made him feel lighter. younger even.
"Losing races against strange women in parks like this at dawn," Anthony said as they trotted through the woods, and when their eyes met, their lips twitched furtively. "I can only imagine the questionsIwould be asked.'
He chuckled again and was pleasantly surprised when she laughed as well. It was an enchanting sound.
"Is that that?" the woman said skeptically, stopping her horse while looking at him with an amused expression. 'A race?'
Anthony stopped too. "Well, isn't it?" he asked, pleased that she let go of the rigid, formal way she had first addressed him.
"Don't you need real competition to race?" she said sardonically, frowning as she sneered at Anthony and his horse.
"You could say that we decided on a finish line together, but unfortunately we didn't reach such an agreement," Anthony said indignantly, his smile faltering.
He was slightly surprised; He wasn't used to being teased or challenged by a woman. Well - a woman who wasn't a member of the Bridgerton household, anyway. But part of him liked it, he had to admit.
"Ah," the woman said in a teasing voice, "I see you're not the type to lose."
Anthony was stunned. "I'll have you..."
But he trailed off when she raised an eyebrow and grinned. He had often worn that self-confident smile himself, and yet he had never been at the recipient of such a bewitching expression. It almost left him speechless. A young lady, alone and confident, mocking a man who was a total stranger to her? It was unheard of. It was inappropriate. And it was exciting. Was this how it felt to meet someone who had wit, wit, and even arrogance? Was that why he suddenly felt so free, so light, so... different from the persona he always felt he needed to conform to? There must be a catch.
Anthony glanced down and straightened his reins. 'In therarelyWhen it comes, I have no trouble admitting that I've either lost or I'm wrong,' he said almost reluctantly. "But I'm afraid the same doesn't apply to you."
That wiped the grin off her face. 'I'm sorry, what-?'
“Mayfair is not straight. It's the other way around,' Anthony said, pointing at her and trying not to look too smug as he saw her face sag.
The woman stared at him, but was then distracted by galloping hooves and nearby chatter. She looked up to see two male riders on the trail ahead, heading in the right direction to Mayfair. It was sheer luck that none of them looked up to see her riding unattended alongside a man.
Anthony tilted his head at her in amusement. "Not lost, you said?" he said rather mockingly.
Sighing and clearly fighting the urge to curse under her breath, the woman wheeled her horse around. "Good day, sir," she said, giving him an irritated look.
Anthony's smile faded immediately as she made a clicking noise and picked up the reins, spurring on her horse and moving away from him. Startled, he turned his horse over as well, though he had no idea what he could do to stop them leaving.
No, please don't go, not yet, he wanted to say. He wanted so badly to talk to her more. He couldn't understand why. He couldn't believe it.
"We haven't introduced ourselves yet!" he called after her, protesting.
"I'm afraid that's not possible!" the Mysterious Rider called back, waving his hand in farewell as she looked back and smiled at him. "Not when I've got a lap of honor to enjoy!"
She giggled loudly as she galloped away, and as her adorable laughter echoed off the trees, Anthony found himself truly beaming for the first time in years. Giggling, he watched her with a feeling of longing and also a sense of having been completely and inexplicably revived. In those few minutes he'd spent in her company, chasing her across the park field and talking to her on that forest path, he'd felt himself come alive. He had a crush on this stranger...yet he couldn't allow himself to even acknowledge such a fact. He just couldn't allow it.
With a huge smile on his face, Anthony then continued his journey home. Luckily, his delay, caused by the unexpected arrival of such a fascinating driver, hadn't caused him to be late to go to breakfast with his family. His cheeks practically hurt when he arrived and entered the house; his facial muscles weren't used to smiling so much. He'd felt so empty leaving the brothel this morning, but now… well, briefly meeting that strange woman out in the woods had certainly strengthened him, he couldn't deny it. It was absolutely amazing what a total stranger could do to your mood.
After breakfast, the Bridgertons gathered in their family's cozy drawing room. Violet, her mother, told anyone who would listen the contents of Colin's last letter from Greece or where he was traveling, Francesca played the piano, Hyacinth and Gregory argued noisily over a game of chess, Benedict scribbled on his sketch pad, and Eloise read, mumbling bitterly to herself as usual. Anthony found himself smiling once again as he looked at them all. They were by no means perfect, but nonetheless it was a happy sight indeed. He very rarely appreciated how lucky he was to keep returning to such a beautiful home. He took his family far too much for granted.
"You seem in a much better mood this morning, Anthony," Violet said after a while over her handwork. "Did you... have a nice day yesterday?"
'Huh?' said Anthony, half-chewing some grapes from the fruit bowl. 'Oh yeah. Very pleasant, thank you.”
Violet exchanged a look with Benedict. "I was just wondering if this...improvement...maybe something to do with a young lady?" she asked hopefully.
Anthony's head shot up in horror. 'Whatever you mean?'
How could she know about the woman in the park? Had those horsemen they spotted nearby somehow known who he was and for some bizarre reason had turned up at that very house to inform his mother of his activities?!
Violet put down her embroidery and smiled. “W-well… only that you said you were courting at Gunter’s tea shop yesterday with a young lady…”
Anthony interrupted her relieved. 'Ah yes. No, I'm afraid that wasn't a success,” he said bluntly, and Violet's smile faded. 'But no problem. I will find my bride shortly, don't worry."
"I'm not worried," Violet assured him, a frown appearing on her forehead as she watched him sit down in the chair across from her. "You don't have to make any hasty decisions, you know, love..."
"I'm aware of that," Anthony replied. "I'm just practical."
"Convenient?" Violet said, half laughing as she raised her eyebrows at him pityingly. "That's hardly a word to use when you're looking for a partner to spend the rest of your life with."
Anthony closed his eyes.Not that again. Not now. Please. He had had such a pleasant morning.
"It's only a marriage, Mother," he said, trying to hide his irritation.
Violet's face practically ripped in pain. "Just getting married? My darling-'
"I'm afraid I have to take care of things elsewhere," Anthony interrupted, jumping up immediately. "Have a good day and see you later at the ball."
He hardly gave Violet a chance to reply; Before she knew it, he'd said a hasty goodbye to his siblings - quickly patting Eloise on the shoulder as a random gesture to wish her luck for her first ball tonight - and was already storming out the door.
Anthony lifted his eyes to the sky bitterly as he went outside and put on his top hat and cloak while the servant readied his horse. His mother would never understand his logic in relation to his quest for a bride, and he was tired of trying to argue with her. She just had to let him go about his business and trust him to do what was right for her family. Why didn't she trust him?
He sighed as he thought back to that exciting morning ride in the park a few hours ago, when all thoughts of marriage and finding a woman had been completely pushed out of his mind.
"I'm afraid that's not possible! Not when I have a lap of honor to enjoy!”
Anthony chuckled to himself as the woman's laughter echoed through his mind once more. He could vividly remember his very first sight of her behind the hedge; those mischievously sparkling eyes, that smug smile, that confident tilt of her head. It was a sight he knew he would never forget. Why oh why hadn't he found out who she was before they broke up? But then again, maybe it was for the best that he didn't know her name. It would be a dangerous thing to associate with a woman he couldn't deny was attracted to. He's had to keep things simple and to the point when engaging with young ladies of the ton this season, difficult as that may be.
But at least he could look back on this morning with affection. At the very least, he would always remember his enchanting encounter with this mysterious, fascinating horsewoman...while knowing that part of him would still hope that this wasn't the end of his acquaintance with her...so deep down, he prayed, though he knew he should do it not that they would actually meet again.