And as she glanced hesitantly at his handsome face, it occurred to her that he probably didn’t have much experience with unrequited love. Really, who would say no to this gentleman?

Besides Hermione. But she said no to everyone. He shouldn’t take it personally.

“Lady Lucinda?” he drawled, waiting for a response.

“Of course,” she stalled, wishing he didn’t seem so very large in the closed room. “Right. Right.”

He lifted a brow. “Right.”

She swallowed. His tone was one of vaguely paternal indulgence, as if she were mildly amusing but not quite worthy of notice. She knew that tone well. It was a favorite of older brothers, for use with younger sisters. And any friends they might bring home for school holidays.

She hated that tone.

But she plowed on nonetheless and said, “I agree that my plan did not turn out to be the best course of action, but truthfully, I am not certain that anything else would have been an improvement.”

This did not appear to be what he wished to hear. She cleared her throat. Twice. And then again. “I’m terribly sorry,” she added, because she did feel badly, and it was her experience that apologies always worked when one wasn’t quite certain what to say. “But I really did think-”

“You told me,” he interrupted, “that if I ignored Miss Watson-”

“I didn’t tell you to ignore her!”

“You most certainly did.”

“No. No, I did not. I told you to back away a bit. To try to be not quite so obvious in your besottedment.”

It wasn’t a word, but really, Lucy couldn’t be bothered.

“Very well,” he replied, and his tone shifted from slightly-superior-older-brother to outright condescension. “If I wasn’t meant to ignore her, just what precisely do you think I should have done?”

“Well…” She scratched the back of her neck, which suddenly felt as if it were sprouting the most horrid of hives. Or maybe it was just nerves. She’d almost rather the hives. She didn’t much like this queasy feeling growing in her stomach as she tried to think of something reasonable to say.

“Other than what I did, that is,” he added.

“I’m not sure,” she ground out. “I haven’t oceans of experience with this sort of thing.”

“Oh, now you tell me.”

“Well, it was worth a try,” she shot back. “Heaven knows, you certainly weren’t succeeding on your own.”

His mouth clamped into a line, and she allowed herself a small, satisfied smile for hitting a nerve. She wasn’t normally a mean-spirited person, but the occasion did seem to call for just a little bit of self-congratulation.

“Very well,” he said tightly, and while she would have preferred that he apologized and then said-explicitly-that she was right and he was wrong, she supposed that in some circles, “Very well” might pass for an acknowledgment of error.

And judging by his face, it was the most she was likely to receive.

She nodded regally. It seemed the best course of action. Act like a queen and maybe she would be treated like one.

“Have you any other brilliant ideas?”

Or not.

“Well,” she said, pretending that he’d actually sounded as if he cared about the answer, “I don’t think it’s so much a question of what to do as why what you did didn’t work.”

He blinked.

“No one has ever given up on Hermione,” Lucy said with a touch of impatience. She hated when people did not understand her meaning immediately. “Her disinterest only makes them redouble their efforts. It’s embarrassing, really.”

He looked vaguely affronted. “I beg your pardon.”

“Not you,” Lucy said quickly.

“My relief is palpable.”

Lucy should have taken offense at his sarcasm, but his sense of humor was so like her own she couldn’t help but enjoy it. “As I was saying,” she continued, because she always did like to remain on the topic at hand, “no one ever seems to admit defeat and move on to a more attainable lady. Once everyone realizes that everyone else wants her, they seem to go mad. It’s as if she’s nothing but a prize to be won.”

“Not to me,” he said quietly.

Her eyes snapped to his face, and she realized instantly that he meant that Hermione was more than a prize. He cared for her. He truly cared for her. Lucy wasn’t sure why, or even how, as he had barely made her friend’s acquaintance. And Hermione hadn’t been terribly forthcoming in her conversations, not that she ever was with the gentlemen who pursued her. But Mr. Bridgerton cared for the woman inside, not just the perfect face. Or at least he thought he did.

She nodded slowly, letting all this sink in. “I thought that perhaps if someone actually stopped dancing attendance on her, she might find it intriguing. Not,” she hastened to assure him, “that Hermione sees all of this gentlemanly attention as her due. Quite to the contrary. To be honest, for the most part it’s a nuisance.”

“Your flattery knows no bounds.” But he was smiling-just a little bit-as he said it.

“I’ve never been very skilled at flattery,” she admitted.

“Apparently not.”

She smiled wryly. He hadn’t meant his words as an insult, and she wasn’t going to take them as such. “She will come around.”

“Do you think so?”

“I do. She will have to. Hermione is a romantic, but she understands how the world works. Deep down she knows she cannot marry Mr. Edmonds. It simply cannot be done. Her parents will disown her, or at the very least they will threaten to, and she is not the sort to risk that.”

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