Kate watched them depart through narrowed eyes. She wasn’t going to win—there was no chance of that now. But if she couldn’t win, then by God, neither would Anthony. He deserved no glory this day, not after tripping her and sending her tumbling into the mud puddle.
Oh, he’d claimed it was an accident, but Kate found it highly suspicious that his ball had gone spluttering out of the puddle at the exact moment she’d stepped forward to reach her own ball. She’d had to do a little hop to avoid it and was congratulating herself on her near miss when Anthony had swung around with a patently false, “I say, are you all right?”
His mallet had swung with him, conveniently at ankle level. Kate had not been able to outhop that one, and she’d gone flying into the mud.
And then Anthony had had the gall to offer her a handkerchief.
She was going to kill him.
Kill kill kill.
But first she was going to make sure he didn’t win.
Anthony was smiling broadly—whistling, even—as he waited his turn. It was taking a ridiculously long amount of time to get back ’round to him, what with Kate so far behind that someone had to dash back to let her know when it was her turn, not to mention Edwina, who never seemed to understand the virtue of speedy play. It had been bad enough the last fourteen years, with her ambling along as if she had all day, but now she had Penelope, who would not allow her to hit the ball without her analysis and advice.
But for once, Anthony didn’t mind. He was in the lead, so far so that no one could possibly catch up. And just to make his victory all the sweeter, Kate was in last place.
So far so that she could not hope to overtake anyone.
It almost made up for the fact that Colin had snatched the mallet of death.
He turned toward the last wicket. He needed one stroke to get his ball at the ready, and one more to push it through. After that, he needed only to steer it to the final pole and end the game with a tap.
He glanced back over his shoulder. He could see Daphne standing by the old oak tree. She was at the crest of a hill, and thus could see down where he could not.
“Whose turn is it?” he called out.
She craned her neck as she watched the others playing down the hill. “Colin’s, I believe,” she said, twisting back around, “which means Kate is next.”
He smiled at that.
He’d set the course up a little differently this year, in something of a circular fashion. The players had to follow a twisting pattern, which meant that as the crow flew, he was actually closer to Kate than he was to the others. In fact, he need only move about ten yards to the south, and he’d be able to watch her as she pushed on toward the fourth wicket.
Or was it merely the third?
Either way, he wasn’t going to miss it.
So, with a grin on his face, he jogged over. Should he call out? It would irritate her more if he called out.
But that would be cruel. And on the other hand—
Anthony looked up from his ponderings just in time to see the green ball hurtling in his direction.
What the devil?
Kate let out a triumphant cackle, picked up her skirts and began running over.
“What in God’s name are you doing?” Anthony demanded. “The fourth wicket is that way.” He jabbed his finger in the appropriate direction even though he knew she knew where it was.
“I’m only on the third wicket,” she said archly, “and anyway, I’ve given up on winning. It’s hopeless at this point, don’t you think?”
Anthony looked at her, then he looked at his ball, resting peacefully near the last wicket.
Then he looked at her again.
“Oh no you don’t,” he growled.
She smiled slowly.
Like a witch.
“Watch me,” she said.
Just then Colin came dashing over the rise. “Your turn, Anthony!”
“How is that possible?” he demanded. “Kate just went, so there is Daphne, Edwina, and Simon between.”
“We went very quickly,” Simon said, striding forward. “We certainly don’t want to miss this.”
“Oh, for God’s sake,” he muttered, watching as the rest of them hurried near. He stalked over to his ball, narrowing his eyes as he prepared his aim.
“Be careful of the tree root!” Penelope called out.
Anthony grit his teeth.
“It wasn’t cheering,” she said, her face magnificently bland. “Surely a warning doesn’t qualify as cheer—”
“Shut up,” Anthony ground out.
“We all have our place in this game,” she said, lips twitching.
Anthony turned around. “Colin!” he barked. “If you don’t wish to find yourself a widower, kindly muzzle your wife.”
Colin walked over to Penelope. “I love you,” he said, kissing her on the cheek.
“Stop it!” Anthony exploded. When all eyes turned to him, he added, rather in a grunt, “I’m trying to concentrate.”
Kate danced in a little closer.
“Get away from me, woman.”
“I just want to see,” she said. “I’ve hardly had the chance to see anything this game, being so far behind the entire time.”
He narrowed his eyes. “I might be responsible for the mud, and please note my emphasis on the word might, which does not imply any sort of confirmation on my part.”
He paused, quite pointedly ignoring the rest of the gathering, all of whom were gaping at him.
“However,” he continued, “I fail to see how your position in last place is my responsibility.”
“The mud made my hands slippery,” she ground out. “I could not properly grip the mallet.”
Off to the side, Colin winced. “Weak, I’m afraid, Kate. I’ll have to grant this point to Anthony, much as it pains me.”
“Fine,” she said, after tossing Colin a withering glare. “It’s no one’s fault but my own. However.”
And then she said nothing.
“Er, however what?” Edwina finally inquired.
Kate could have been a queen with her scepter as she stood there, all covered with mud. “However,” she continued regally, “I don’t have to like it. And this being Pall Mall, and we being Bridgertons, I don’t have to play fair.”
Anthony shook his head and bent back down to make his aim.
“She has a point this time,” Colin said, irritating sod that he was. “Good sportsmanship has never been valued highly in this game.”
“Be quiet,” Anthony grunted.
“In fact,” Colin continued, “one could make the argument that—”
“I said be quiet.”
“—the opposite is true, and that bad sportsmanship—”
“Shut up, Colin.”
“—is in fact to be lauded, and—”
Anthony decided to give up and take a swing. At this rate they’d be standing there until Michaelmas. Colin was never going to stop talking, not when he thought he had a chance of irritating his brother.
Anthony forced himself to hea
r nothing but the wind. Or at least he tried.
He drew back.
Not too hard, not too hard.
The ball rolled forward, unfortunately not quite far enough. He was not going to make it through the last wicket on his next try. At least not without intervention divine enough to send his ball around a fist-sized stone.
“Colin, you’re next,” Daphne said, but he was already dashing back to his ball. He gave it a haphazard tap, then yelled out, “Kate!”
She stepped forward, blinking as she assessed the lay of the land. Her ball was about a foot away from Anthony’s. The stone, however, was on the other side, meaning that if she attempted to sabotage him, she couldn’t send him very far—surely the stone would stop the ball.
“An interesting dilemma,” Anthony murmured.
Kate circled around the balls. “It would be a romantic gesture,” she mused, “if I allowed you to win.”
“Oh, it’s not a question of your allowing,” he taunted.
“Wrong answer,” she said, and she aimed.
Anthony narrowed his eyes. What was she doing?
Kate hit the ball with a fair bit of force, aiming not squarely at his ball but at the left side. Her ball slammed into his, sending it spiraling off to the right. Because of the angle, she couldn’t send it as far as she might have with a direct shot, but she did manage to get it right to the top of the hill.
Right to the top.
Right to the top.
And then down it.
Kate let out a whoop of delight that would not have been out of place on a battlefield.
“You’ll pay,” Anthony said.
She was too busy jumping up and down to pay him any attention.
“Who do you suppose will win now?” Penelope asked.
“Do you know,” Anthony said quietly, “I don’t care.” And then he walked over to the green ball and took aim.
“Hold up, it’s not your turn!” Edwina called out.
“And it’s not your ball,” Penelope added.
“Is that so?” he murmured, and then let fly, smashing his mallet into Kate’s ball and sending it hurtling across the lawn, down the shallower slope, and into the lake.
Kate let out a huff of outrage. “That wasn’t very sporting of you!”
He gave her a maddening grin. “All’s fair and all that, wife.”