“Hermione can wear whatever color she desires,” Lucy decided. And why not? Of all the people who would be in attendance, there was no one who meant more to her than her closest friend.

“That’s very kind of you,” Richard said. He looked at her thoughtfully. “You’re a good friend, Lucy.”

Lucy knew she should have felt complimented, but instead she just wondered why it had taken him so long to realize it.

Richard gave her a smile, then looked down at the flower, still in his hands. He held it up, twirled it a few times, the stem rolling back and forth between his thumb and index finger. He blinked, his brow furrowing a touch, then he placed the flower in front of her dress. They were the same blue-slightly purple, maybe just a little bit gray.

“You should wear this color,” he said. “You look quite lovely just now.”

He sounded a little surprised, so Lucy knew that he was not just saying it. “Thank you,” she said. She’d always thought the hue made her eyes a bit brighter. Richard was the first person besides Hermione ever to comment on it. “Perhaps I will.”

“Shall we walk back to the house?” he asked. “I am sure you will wish to tell Hermione everything.”

She paused, then shook her head. “No, thank you. I think I shall remain outside for a short while.” She motioned to a spot near the path that led down to the lake. “There is a bench not too far away. And the sun feels rather pleasant on my face.”

“Are you certain?” Richard squinted up at the sky. “You’re always saying you don’t want to get freckles.”

“I already have freckles, Richard. And I won’t be very long.” She hadn’t planned to come outside when she’d gone to greet him, so she had not brought her bonnet. But it was early yet in the day. A few minutes of sunshine would not destroy her complexion.

And besides that, she wanted to. Wouldn’t it be nice to do something just because she wanted to, and not because it was expected?

Richard nodded. “I will see you at dinner?”

“I believe it is laid at half one.”

He grinned. “You would know.”

“There is nothing like a brother,” she grumbled.

“And there is nothing like a sister.” He leaned over and kissed her brow, catching her completely off-guard.

“Oh, Richard,” she muttered, aghast at her soppy reaction. She never cried. In fact, she was known for her complete lack of flowerpot tendencies.

“Go on,” he said, with enough affection to send one tear rolling down her cheek. Lucy brushed it away, embarrassed that he’d seen it, embarrassed that she’d done it.

Richard squeezed her hand and motioned with his head toward the south lawn. “Go stare at the trees and do whatever you need to do. You’ll feel better after you have a few moments to yourself.”

“I don’t feel poorly,” Lucy said quickly. “There is no need for me to feel better.”

“Of course not. You are merely surprised.”

“Exactly.”

Exactly. Exactly. Really, she was delighted, really. She’d been waiting for this moment for years. Wouldn’t it be nice to have everything settled? She liked order. She liked being settled.

It was just the surprise. That was all. Rather like when one saw a friend in an unexpected location and almost didn’t recognize her. She hadn’t expected the announcement now. Here, at the Bridgerton house party. And that was the only reason she felt so odd.

Really.

Eight

In which Our Heroine learns a truth about her brother (but does not believe it), Our Hero learns a secret about Miss Watson (but is not concerned by it), and both learn a truth about themselves (but are not aware of it).

An hour later, Gregory was still congratulating himself on the masterful combination of strategy and timing that had led to his outing with Miss Watson. They had had a perfectly lovely time, and Lord Fennsworth had-well, Fennsworth may have also had a perfectly lovely time, but if so, it had been in the company of his sister and not the lovely Hermione Watson.

Victory was indeed sweet.

As promised, Gregory had taken her on a stroll through the Aubrey Hall gardens, impressing them both with his stupendous recall of six different horticultural names. Delphinium, even, though in truth that was all Lady Lucinda’s doing.

The others were, just to give credit where it was due: rose, daisy, peony, hyacinth, and grass. All in all, he thought he’d acquitted himself well. Details never had been his forte. And truly, it was all just a game by that point.

Miss Watson appeared to be warming to his company, as well. She might not have been sighing and fluttering her lashes, but the veil of polite disinterest was gone, and twice he had even made her laugh.

She hadn’t made him laugh, but he wasn’t so certain she’d been trying to, and besides, he had certainly smiled. On more than one occasion.

Which was a good thing. Really. It was rather pleasant to once again have his wits about him. He was no longer struck by that punched-in-the-chest feeling, which one would think had to be good for his respiratory health. He was discovering he rather enjoyed breathing, an undertaking he seemed to find difficult while gazing upon the back of Miss Watson’s neck.

Gregory frowned, pausing in his solitary jaunt down to the lake. It was a rather odd reaction. And surely he’d seen the back of her neck that morning. Hadn’t she run ahead to smell one of the flowers?

Hmmm. Perhaps not. He couldn’t quite recall.

“Good day, Mr. Bridgerton.”

He turned, surprised to see Lady Lucinda sitting by herself on a nearby stone bench. It was an odd location for a bench, he’d always thought, facing nothing but a bunch of trees. But maybe that was the point. Turning one’s back on the house-and its many inhabitants. His sister Francesca had often said that after a day or two with the entire Bridgerton family, trees could be quite good company.

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