Colin ignored him and turned to Kate. “Has he made any strange nocturnal disappearances recently?”
She gaped at him. “You think he’s been sneaking out to play Pall Mall by the light of the moon?”
“I wouldn’t put it past him,” Colin grumbled.
“Neither would I,” Kate replied, “but I assure you, he has been sleeping in his own bed.”
“It’s not a matter of beds,” Colin informed her. “It’s a matter of competition.”
“This can’t be an appropriate conversation in front of a lady,” Simon said, but it was clear he was enjoying himself.
Anthony shot Colin an irritated look, then sent one in Simon’s direction for good measure. The conversation was growing ludicrous, and it was well past time they began the match. “Where is Edwina?” he demanded.
“I see her coming down the hill,” Kate replied.
He looked up to see Edwina Bagwell, Kate’s younger sister, trudging down the slope. She’d never been much for outdoor pursuits, and he could well imagine her sighing and rolling her eyes.
“Pink for me this year,” Daphne declared, plucking one of the remaining mallets from the stack. “I am feeling feminine and delicate.” She gave her brothers an arch look. “Deceptively so.”
Simon reached behind her and selected the yellow mallet. “Blue for Edwina, of course.”
“Edwina always gets blue,” Kate said to Penelope.
Kate paused. “I don’t know.”
“What about purple?” Penelope asked.
“Oh, we never use that.”
Kate paused again. “I don’t know.”
“Tradition,” Anthony put in.
“Then why do the rest of you switch colors every year?” Penelope persisted.
Anthony turned to his brother. “Does she always ask so many questions?”
He turned back to Penelope and said, “We like it this way.”
“I’m here!” Edwina called out cheerfully as she approached the rest of the players. “Oh, blue again. How thoughtful.” She picked up her equipment, then turned to Anthony. “Shall we play?”
He gave a nod, then turned to Simon. “You’re first, Hastings.”
“As always,” he murmured, and he dropped his ball into the starting position. “Stand back,” he warned, even though no one was within swinging distance. He drew his mallet back and then brought it forward with a magnificent crack. The ball went sailing across the lawn, straight and true, landing mere yards from the next wicket.
“Oh, well-done!” Penelope cheered, clapping her hands.
“I said no cheering,” Anthony grumbled. Couldn’t anyone follow instructions these days?
“Even for Simon?” Penelope returned. “I thought it was just Colin.”
Anthony set his ball down carefully. “It’s distracting.”
“As if the rest of us aren’t distracting,” Colin commented. “Cheer away, darling.”
But she held silent as Anthony took aim. His swing was even more powerful than the duke’s, and his ball rolled even farther.
“Hmmm, bad luck there,” Kate said.
Anthony turned on her suspiciously. “What do you mean? It was a brilliant swing.”
“Well, yes, but—”
“Out of my way,” Colin ordered, marching to the starting position.
Anthony locked eyes with his wife. “What do you mean?”
“Nothing,” she said offhandedly, “just that it’s a trifle muddy right there.”
“Muddy?” Anthony looked toward his ball, then back to his wife, then back to the ball. “It hasn’t rained for days.”
He looked back to his wife. His maddening, diabolical, and soon-to-be-locked-in-a-dungeon wife. “How did it get muddy?”
“Well, perhaps not muddy . . .”
“Not muddy,” he repeated, with far more patience than she deserved.
“Puddle-ish might be more appropriate.”
Words failed him.
“Puddly?” She scrunched her face a touch. “How does one make an adjective out of a puddle?”
He took a step in her direction. She darted behind Daphne.
“What is happening?” Daphne asked, twisting about.
Kate poked her head out and smiled triumphantly. “I do believe he’s going to kill me.”
“With so many witnesses?” Simon asked.
“How,” Anthony demanded, “did a puddle form in the midst of the driest spring of my recollection?”
Kate shot him another one of her annoying grins. “I spilled my tea.”
“An entire puddle’s worth?”
She shrugged. “I was cold.”
“And apparently clumsy, as well,” Simon put in.
Anthony glared at him.
“Well, if you are going to kill her,” Simon said, “would you mind waiting until my wife is out from between you?” He turned to Kate. “How did you know where to put the puddle?”
“He’s very predictable,” she replied.
Anthony stretched out his fingers and measured her throat.
“Every year,” she said, smiling straight at him. “You always put the first wicket in the same place, and you always hit the ball precisely the same way.”
Colin chose that moment to return. “Your play, Kate.”
She darted out from behind Daphne and scooted toward the starting pole. “All’s fair, dear husband,” she called out gaily. And then she bent forward, aimed, and sent the green ball flying.
Straight into the puddle.
Anthony sighed happily. There was justice in this world, after all.
Thirty minutes later Kate was waiting by her ball near the third wicket.
“Pity about the mud,” Colin said, strolling past.
She glared at him.
Daphne passed by a moment later. “You’ve a bit in . . .” She motioned to her hair. “Yes, there,” she added, when Kate brushed furiously against her temple. “Although there is a bit more, well . . .” She cleared her throat. “Er, everywhere.”
Kate glared at her.
Simon stepped up to join them. Good God, did everyone need to pass by the third wicket on their way to the sixth?
“You’ve a bit of mud,” he said helpfully.
Kate’s fingers wrapped more tightly around her mallet. His head was so very, very close.
“But at least it’s mixed with tea,” he added.
“What has that to do with anything?” Daphne asked.
“I’m not certain,” Kate heard him say as he and Daphne took their leave toward wicket number five, “but it seemed as if I ought to say something.”
Kate counted to ten in her head, and then sure enough, Edwina happened across her, Penelope trailing three steps behind. The pair had become something of a team, with Edwina doing all the swinging and Penelope consulting on strategy.
“Oh, Kate,” Edwina said with a pitying sigh.
“Don’t say it,” Kate growled.
“You did make the puddle,” Edwina pointed out.
“Whose sister are you?” Kate demanded.
Edwina gave her an arch smile. “Sisterly devotion does not obscure my sense of fair play.”
“This is Pall Mall. There is no fair play.”
“Apparently not,” Penelope remarked.
“Ten paces,” Kate warned.
“From Colin, not from you,” Penelope returned. “Although I do believe I shall remain at least a mallet’s length away at all times.”
“Shall we go?” Edwina inquired. She turned to Kate. “We just finished with the fourth wicket.”
“And you needed to take the long way ’round?” Kate muttered.
“It seemed only sporting to pay you a visit,” Edwina demurred.
She and Penelope turned to walk away, and then Kate blurted it out. She couldn’t
“Where is Anthony?”
Edwina and Penelope turned. “Do you really want to know?” Penelope asked.
Kate forced herself to nod.
“On the last wicket, I’m afraid,” Penelope replied.
“Before or after?” Kate ground out.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Is he before the wicket or after it?” she repeated impatiently. And then, when Penelope did not answer instantly she added, “Has he gone through the bloody thing yet?”
Penelope blinked with surprise. “Er, no. He has about two more strokes, I should think. Perhaps three.”
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?”