“I had an inkling.”

She decided to ignore his tone. “I wished to give you some advice.”

“Really,” he drawled. Except it wasn’t a question.

“Really.”

“And what might your advice be?”

There was really no way to make it sound any better than it was, so she looked him in the eye and said, “You’re going about this all wrong.”

“I beg your pardon,” he said stiffly.

Lucy stifled a groan. Now she’d pricked his pride, and he would surely be insufferable. “If you want to win Hermione,” she said, “you have to do something different.”

Mr. Bridgerton stared down at her with an expression that almost bordered on contempt. “I am well able to conduct my own courtships.”

“I am sure you are…with other ladies. But Hermione is different.”

He remained silent, and Lucy knew that she had made her point. He also thought Hermione different, else he wouldn’t be making such an effort.

“Everyone does what you do,” Lucy said, glancing over at the picnic to make sure that neither Hermione nor Mr. Berbrooke had got up to join them. “Everyone.”

“A gentleman does love to be compared to the flock,” Mr. Bridgerton murmured.

Lucy had any number of rejoinders for that, but she kept her mind on the task at hand and said, “You cannot act like the rest of them. You need to set yourself apart.”

“And how do you propose I do that?”

She took a breath. He wasn’t going to like her answer. “You must stop being so…devoted. Don’t treat her like a princess. In fact, you should probably leave her alone for a few days.”

His expression turned to distrust. “And allow all the other gentleman to rush in?”

“They will rush in anyway,” she said in a matter-of-fact voice. “There is nothing you can do about that.”

“Lovely.”

Lucy plodded on. “If you withdraw, Hermione will be curious as to the reason why.”

Mr. Bridgerton looked dubious, so she continued with, “Do not worry, she will know that you’re interested. Heavens, after today she’d have to be an idiot not to.”

He scowled at that, and Lucy herself couldn’t quite believe she was speaking so frankly to a man she barely knew, but desperate times surely called for desperate measures…or desperate speech. “She will know, I promise you. Hermione is very intelligent. Not that anyone seems to notice. Most men can’t see beyond her face.”

“I would like to know her mind,” he said softly.

Something in his tone hit Lucy squarely in the chest. She looked up, right into his eyes, and she had the strangest sense that she was somewhere else, and he was somewhere else, and the world was dropping away around them.

He was different from the other gentlemen she’d met. She wasn’t sure how, exactly, except that there was something more to him. Something different. Something that made her ache, deep in her chest.

And for a moment she thought she might cry.

But she didn’t. Because, really, she couldn’t. And she wasn’t that sort of female, anyway. She didn’t wish to be. And she certainly did not cry when she did not know the reason for it.

“Lady Lucinda?”

She’d stayed silent too long. It was unlike her, and-“She will not wish to allow you to,” she blurted out. “Know her mind, I mean. But you can…” She cleared her throat, blinked, regained her focus, and then planted her eyes firmly on the small patch of daisies sparkling in the sun. “You can convince her otherwise,” she continued. “I am sure that you can. If you are patient. And you are true.”

He didn’t say anything right away. There was nothing but the faint whistle of the breeze. And then, quietly, he asked, “Why are you helping me?”

Lucy turned back to him and was relieved that this time the earth remained firmly fixed beneath her feet. She was herself again, brisk, no-nonsense, and practical to a fault. And he was just another gentleman vying for Hermione’s hand.

All was normal.

“It’s you or Mr. Edmonds,” she said.

“Is that his name,” he murmured.

“He is her father’s secretary,” she explained. “He is not a bad man, and I don’t think he is only after her money, but any fool could see that you are the better match.”

Mr. Bridgerton cocked his head to the side. “Why, I wonder, does it sound as if you have just called Miss Watson a fool?”

Lucy turned to him with steel in her eyes. “Do not ever question my devotion to Hermione. I could not-” She shot a quick glance at Hermione to make sure she wasn’t looking before she lowered her voice and continued. “I could not love her better if she were my blood sister.”

To his credit, Mr. Bridgerton gave her a respectful nod and said, “I did you a disservice. My apologies.”

Lucy swallowed uncomfortably as she acknowledged his words. He looked as if he meant them, which went a long way toward mollifying her. “Hermione means the world to me,” she said. She thought about the school holidays she had spent with the Watson family, and she thought about the lonely visits home. Her returns had never seemed to coincide with those of her brother, and Fennsworth Abbey was a cold and forbidding place with only her uncle for company.

Robert Abernathy had always done his duty by his two charges, but he was rather cold and forbidding as well. Home meant long walks alone, endless reading alone, even meals alone, as Uncle Robert had never shown any interest in dining with her. When he had informed Lucy that she would be attending Miss Moss’s, her initial impulse had been to throw her arms around him and gush, “Thank you thank you thank you!”

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