Lady Lucinda smiled faintly in greeting, and it struck him that she didn’t look quite herself. Her eyes seemed tired, and her posture was not quite straight.

She looks vulnerable, he thought, rather unexpectedly. Her brother must have brought unhappy tidings.

“You’re wearing a somber expression,” he said, walking politely to her side. “May I join you?”

She nodded, offering him a bit of a smile. But it wasn’t a smile. Not quite.

He took a seat beside her. “Did you have an opportunity to visit with your brother?”

She nodded. “He passed along some family news. It was…not important.”

Gregory tilted his head as he regarded her. She was lying, clearly. But he did not press further. If she’d wanted to share, she would have done. And besides, it wasn’t his business in any case.

He was curious, though.

She stared off in the distance, presumably at some tree. “It’s quite pleasant here.”

It was an oddly bland statement, coming from her.

“Yes,” he said. “The lake is just a short walk beyond these trees. I often come in this direction when I wish to think.”

She turned suddenly. “You do?”

“Why are you so surprised?”

“I-I don’t know.” She shrugged. “I suppose you don’t seem the sort.”

“To think?” Well, really.

“Of course not,” she said, giving him a peevish look. “I meant the sort who needed to get away to do so.”

“Pardon my presumptuousness, but you don’t seem the sort, either.”

She thought about that for a moment. “I’m not.”

He chuckled at that. “You must have had quite a conversation with your brother.”

She blinked in surprise. But she didn’t elaborate. Which again didn’t seem like her. “What are you here to think about?” she asked.

He opened his mouth to reply, but before he could utter a word, she said, “Hermione, I suppose.”

There seemed little point in denying it. “Your brother is in love with her.”

That seemed to snap her out of her fog. “Richard? Don’t be daft.”

Gregory looked at her in disbelief. “I can’t believe you haven’t seen it.”

“I can’t believe you have. For heaven’s sake, she thinks of him as a brother.”

“That may well be true, but he does not return the sentiment.”

“Mr. Br-”

But he halted her with a lifted hand. “Now, now, Lady Lucinda, I daresay I have been witness to more fools in love than you have-”

The laughter quite literally exploded from her mouth. “Mr. Bridgerton,” she said, once she was able, “I have been constant companion these last three years to Hermione Watson. Hermione Watson,” she added, just in case he hadn’t understood her meaning. “Trust me when I tell you there is no one who has been witness to more lovesick fools than I.”

For a moment Gregory did not know how to respond. She did have a point.

“Richard is not in love with Hermione,” she said with a dismissive shake of her head. And a snort. A ladylike one, but still. She snorted at him.

“I beg to differ,” he said, because he had seven siblings, and he certainly did not know how to gracefully bow out of an argument.

“He can’t be in love with her,” she said, sounding quite certain of her statement. “There is someone else.”

“Oh, really?” Gregory didn’t even bother to get his hopes up.

“Really. He’s always nattering on about a girl he met through one of his friends,” she said. “I think it was someone’s sister. I can’t recall her name. Mary, perhaps.”

Mary. Hmmph. He knew that Fennsworth had no imagination.

“Ergo,” Lady Lucinda continued, “he is not in love with Hermione.”

At least she seemed rather more like herself. The world seemed a bit steadier with Lucy Abernathy yipping along like a terrier. He’d felt almost off-balance when she’d been staring morosely at the trees.

“Believe what you will,” Gregory said with a lofty sigh. “But know this: your brother will be nursing a broken heart ere long.”

“Oh, really?” she scoffed. “Because you are so convinced of your own success?”

“Because I’m convinced of his lack of it.”

“You don’t even know him.”

“And now you are defending him? Just moments ago you said he wasn’t interested.”

“He’s not.” She bit her lip. “But he is my brother. And if he were interested, I would have to support him, wouldn’t you think?”

Gregory lifted a brow. “My, how quickly your loyalties shift.”

She looked almost apologetic. “He is an earl. And you…are not.”

“You shall make a fine society mama.”

Her back stiffened. “I beg your pardon.”

“Auctioning your friend off to the highest bidder. You’ll be well-practiced by the time you have a daughter.”

She jumped to her feet, her eyes flashing with anger and indignation. “That is a terrible thing to say. My most important consideration has always been Hermione’s happiness. And if she can be made happy by an earl…who happens to be my brother…”

Oh, brilliant. Now she was going to try to match Hermione with Fennsworth. Well done, Gregory. Well done, indeed.

“She can be made happy by me,” he said, rising to his feet. And it was true. He’d made her laugh twice this morning, even if she had not done the same for him.

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