Except that she had never hugged him before, not in the seven years he’d been her guardian. And besides that, he had been seated behind his desk and had already returned his attention to the papers in front of him. Lucy had been dismissed.

When she arrived at school, she had thrown herself into her new life as a student. And she had adored every moment. It was so marvelous just to have people to talk to. Her brother Richard had left for Eton at the age of ten, even before their father had died, and she’d been wandering the halls of the Abbey for nearly a decade with no one but her officious governess for company.

At school people liked her. That had been the best part of all. At home she was nothing more than an afterthought, but at Miss Moss’s School for Exceptional Young Ladies the other students sought her company. They asked her questions and actually waited to hear her answer. Lucy might not have been the queen bee of the school, but she had felt that she belonged, and that she had mattered.

She and Hermione had been assigned to share a room that first year at Miss Moss’s, and their friendship had been almost instant. By nightfall of that first day, the two were laughing and chattering as if they had known each other all of their lives.

Hermione made her feel…better somehow. Not just their friendship, but the knowledge of their friendship. Lucy liked being someone’s best friend. She liked having one, too, of course, but she really liked knowing that in all the world, there was someone who liked her best. It made her feel confident.

Comfortable.

It was rather like Mr. Bridgerton and what he’d said about his family, actually.

She knew she could count on Hermione. And Hermione knew the same was true of her. And Lucy wasn’t sure that there was anyone else in the world she could say that of. Her brother, she supposed. Richard would always come to her aid if she needed him, but they saw each other so rarely these days. It was a pity, really. They had been quite close when they were small. Shut away at Fennsworth Abbey, there was rarely anyone else with whom to play, and so they’d had no choice but to turn to each other. Luckily, they’d got along, more often than not.

She forced her mind back to the present and turned to Mr. Bridgerton. He was standing quite still, regarding her with an expression of polite curiosity, and Lucy had the strangest sense that if she told him everything-about Hermione and Richard and Fennsworth Abbey and how lovely it had been to leave for school…

He would have understood. It seemed impossible that he could, coming from such a large and famously close family. He couldn’t possibly know what it was to be lonely, to have something to say but no one to say it to. But somehow-it was his eyes, really, suddenly greener than she’d realized, and so focused on her face-

She swallowed. Good heavens, what was happening to her that she could not even finish her own thoughts?

“I only wish for Hermione’s happiness,” she managed to get out. “I hope you realize that.”

He nodded, then flicked his eyes toward the picnic. “Shall we rejoin the others?” he asked. He smiled ruefully. “I do believe Mr. Berbrooke has fed Miss Watson three pieces of pie.”

Lucy felt a laugh bubbling within her. “Oh dear.”

His tone was charmingly bland as he said, “For the sake of her health, if nothing else, we ought to return.”

“Will you think about what I said?” Lucy asked, allowing him to place her hand on his arm.

He nodded. “I will.”

She felt herself grip him a little more tightly. “I am right about this. I promise you that I am. No one knows Hermione better than I. And no one else has watched all those gentlemen try-and fail-to win her favor.”

He turned, and his eyes caught hers. For a moment they stood perfectly still, and Lucy realized that he was assessing her, taking her measure in a manner that should have been uncomfortable.

But it wasn’t. And that was the oddest thing. He was staring at her as if he could see down to her very soul, and it didn’t feel the least bit awkward. In fact, it felt oddly…nice.

“I would be honored to accept your advice regarding Miss Watson,” he said, turning so that they might return to the picnic spot. “And I thank you for offering to help me win her.”

“Th-thank you,” Lucy stammered, because really, hadn’t that been her intention?

But then she realized that she no longer felt quite so nice.

Gregory followed Lady Lucinda’s directives to the letter. That evening, he did not approach Miss Watson in the drawing room, where the guests had assembled before supper. When they removed themselves to the dining room, he made no attempt to interfere with the social order and have his seat switched so that he might sit next to her. And once the gentlemen had returned from their port and joined the ladies in the conservatory for a piano recital, he took a seat at the rear, even though she and Lady Lucinda were standing quite alone, and it would have been easy-expected, even-for him to pause and murmur his greetings as he passed by.

But no, he had committed to this possibly ill-advised scheme, and so the back of the room it was. He watched as Miss Watson found a seat three rows ahead, and then settled into his chair, finally allowing himself the indulgence of gazing upon the back of her neck.

Which would have been a perfectly fulfilling pastime were he not completely unable to think of anything other than her absolute lack of interest. In him.

Truly, he could have grown two heads and a tail and he would have received nothing more than the polite half-smile she seemed to give everyone. If that.

It was not the sort of reaction Gregory was used to receiving from women. He did not expect universal adulation, but really, when he did make an effort, he usually saw better results than this.

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