“I’m not interested in Lady Lucinda,” he cut in, deciding it would be too dangerous to wait for Kate to draw breath.

“You’re not?”

“No. I’m not. I-” He leaned in, even though they were the only two people in the breakfast room. Somehow it seemed odd, and yes, a little bit embarrassing to shout it out. “Hermione Watson,” he said quietly. “I would like to be paired with Miss Watson.”

“Really?” Kate didn’t look disappointed exactly, but she did look slightly resigned. As if she’d heard this before. Repeatedly.

Damn.

“Yes,” Gregory responded, and he felt a rather sizable surge of irritation washing over him. First at Kate, because, well, she was right there, and he’d fallen desperately in love and all she could do was say, “Really?” But then he realized he’d been rather irked all morning. He hadn’t slept well the night before; he hadn’t been able to stop thinking about Hermione and the slope of her neck, the green of her eyes, the soft lilt of her voice. He had never-never-reacted to a woman like this, and while he was in some way relieved to have finally found the woman he planned to make his wife, it was a bit disconcerting that she had not had the same reaction to him.

Heaven knew he’d dreamed of this moment before. Whenever he’d thought about finding his true love, she had always been fuzzy in his thoughts-nameless, faceless. But she had always felt the same grand passion. She hadn’t sent him off dancing with her best friend, for God’s sake.

“Hermione Watson it is, then,” Kate said, exhaling in that way females did when they meant to tell you something you couldn’t possibly begin to understand even if they had chosen to convey it in English, which, of course they did not.

Hermione Watson it was. Hermione Watson it would be.

Soon.

Maybe even that morning.

“Do you suppose there is anything to purchase in the village aside from bows and ribbons?” Hermione asked Lucy as they pulled on their gloves.

“I certainly hope so,” Lucy responded. “They do this at every house party, don’t they? Send us off with our pin money to purchase ribbons and bows. I could decorate an entire house by now. Or at the very least, a small thatched cottage.”

Hermione smiled gamely. “I shall donate mine to the cause, and together we shall remake a…” She paused, thinking, then smiled. “A large thatched cottage!”

Lucy grinned. There was something so loyal about Hermione. Nobody ever saw it, of course. No one ever bothered to look past her face. Although, to be fair, Hermione rarely shared enough of herself with any of her admirers for them to realize what lay behind her pretty exterior. It wasn’t that she was shy, precisely, although she certainly wasn’t as outgoing as Lucy. Rather, Hermione was private. She simply did not care to share her thoughts and opinions with people she did not know.

And it drove the gentlemen mad.

Lucy peered out the window as they entered one of Aubrey Hall’s many drawing rooms. Lady Bridgerton had instructed them to arrive promptly at eleven. “At least it doesn’t look as if it might rain,” she said. The last time they’d been sent out for fripperies it had drizzled the entire way home. The tree canopy had kept them moderately dry, but their boots had been nearly ruined. And Lucy had been sneezing for a week.

“Good morning, Lady Lucinda, Miss Watson.”

It was Lady Bridgerton, their hostess, striding into the room in that confident way of hers. Her dark hair was neatly pulled back, and her eyes gleamed with brisk intelligence. “How lovely to see you both,” she said. “You are the last of the ladies to arrive.”

“We are?” Lucy asked, horrified. She hated being late. “I’m so terribly sorry. Didn’t you say eleven o’clock?”

“Oh dear, I did not mean to upset you,” Lady Bridgerton said. “I did indeed say eleven o’clock. But that is because I thought to send everyone out in shifts.”

“In shifts?” Hermione echoed.

“Yes, it’s far more entertaining that way, wouldn’t you agree? I have eight ladies and eight gentlemen. If I sent the lot of you out at once, it would be impossible to have a proper conversation. Not to mention the width of the road. I would hate for you to be tripping over one another.”

There was also something to be said for safety in numbers, but Lucy kept her thoughts to herself. Lady Bridgerton clearly had some sort of agenda, and as Lucy had already decided that she greatly admired the viscountess, she was rather curious as to the outcome.

“Miss Watson, you will be paired with my husband’s brother. I believe you made his acquaintance last night?”

Hermione nodded politely.

Lucy smiled to herself. Mr. Bridgerton had been a busy man that morning. Well done.

“And you, Lady Lucinda,” Lady Bridgerton continued, “will be escorted by Mr. Berbrooke.” She smiled weakly, almost in apology. “He is a relation of sorts,” she added, “and, ah, truly a good-natured fellow.”

“A relation?” Lucy echoed, since she wasn’t exactly certain how she was meant to respond to Lady Bridgerton’s uncharacteristically hesitant tone. “Of sorts?”

“Yes. My husband’s brother’s wife’s sister is married to his brother.”

“Oh.” Lucy kept her expression bland. “Then you are close?”

Lady Bridgerton laughed. “I like you, Lady Lucinda. And as for Neville…well, I am certain you will find him entertaining. Ah, here he is now. Neville! Neville!”

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