“He thought it an important skill,” she continued. “Even for girls. Our home is near the Dover coast, and there were always smugglers. Most of them were friendly-everyone knew who they were, even the magistrate.”

“He must have enjoyed French brandy,” Mr. Bridgerton murmured.

Lucy smiled in recollection. “As did my father. But not all of the smugglers were known to us. Some, I’m sure, were quite dangerous. And…” She leaned toward him. One really couldn’t say something like this without leaning in. Where would the fun be in that?

“And…?” he prompted.

She lowered her voice. “I think there were spies.”

“In Dover? Ten years ago? Absolutely there were spies. Although I do wonder at the advisability of arming the infant population.”

Lucy laughed. “I was a bit older than that. I believe we began when I was seven. Richard continued the lessons once my father had passed on.”

“I suppose he’s a brilliant marksman as well.”

She nodded ruefully. “Sorry.”

They resumed their stroll toward the house. “I won’t challenge him to a duel, then,” he said, somewhat offhandedly.

“I’d rather you didn’t.”

He turned to her with an expression that could only be called sly. “Why, Lady Lucinda, I do believe you have just declared your affection for me.”

Her mouth flapped open like an inarticulate fish. “I have n-what could possibly lead you to that conclusion?” And why did her cheeks feel so suddenly hot?

“It could never be a fair match,” he said, sounding remarkably at ease with his shortcomings. “Although in all truth, I don’t know that there is a man in Britain with whom I could have a fair match.”

She still felt somewhat light-headed after her previous surprise, but she managed to say, “I’m sure you overstate.”

“No,” he said, almost casually. “Your brother would surely leave a bullet in my shoulder.” He paused, considering this. “Assuming he wasn’t of a mind to put one in my heart.”

“Oh, don’t be silly.”

He shrugged. “Regardless, you must be more concerned for my welfare than you were aware.”

“I’m concerned for everybody’s welfare,” she muttered.

“Yes,” he murmured, “you would be.”

Lucy drew back. “Why does that sound like an insult?”

“Did it? I can assure you it wasn’t meant to.”

She stared at him suspiciously for so long that he finally lifted his hands in surrender. “It was a compliment, I swear to you,” he said.

“Grudgingly given.”

“Not at all!” He glanced over at her, quite obviously unable to suppress a smile.

“You’re laughing at me.”

“No,” he insisted, and then of course he laughed. “Sorry. Now I am.”

“You could at least attempt to be kind and say that you are laughing with me.”

“I could.” He grinned, and his eyes turned positively devilish. “But it would be a lie.”

She almost smacked him on the shoulder. “Oh, you are terrible.”

“Bane of my brothers’ existence, I assure you.”

“Really?” Lucy had never been the bane of anyone’s existence, and right then it sounded rather appealing. “How so?”

“Oh, the same as always. I need to settle down, find purpose, apply myself.”

“Get married?”

“That, too.”

“Is that why you are so enamored of Hermione?”

He paused-just for a moment. But it was there. Lucy felt it.

“No,” he said. “It was something else entirely.”

“Of course,” she said quickly, feeling foolish for having asked. He’d told her all about it the night before-about love just happening, having no choice in the matter. He didn’t want Hermione to please his brother; he wanted Hermione because he couldn’t not want her.

And it made her feel just a little bit more alone.

“We are returned,” he said, motioning to the door to the drawing room, which she had not even realized they had reached.

“Yes, of course.” She looked at the door, then looked at him, then wondered why it felt so awkward now that they had to say goodbye. “Thank you for the company.”

“The pleasure was all mine.”

Lucy took a step toward the door, then turned back to face him with a little “Oh!”

His brows rose. “Is something wrong?”

“No. But I must apologize-I turned you quite around. You said you like to go that way-down toward the lake-when you need to think. And you never got to.”

He looked at her curiously, his head tilting ever so slightly to the side. And his eyes-oh, she wished she could describe what she saw there. Because she didn’t understand it, didn’t quite comprehend how it made her tilt her head in concert with his, how it made her feel as if the moment were stretching…longer…longer…until it could last a lifetime.

“Didn’t you wish for time for yourself?” she asked, softly…so softly it was almost a whisper.

Slowly, he shook his head. “I did,” he said, sounding as if the words were coming to him at that very moment, as if the thought itself was new and not quite what he had expected.

“I did,” he said again, “but now I don’t.”

She looked at him, and he looked at her. And the thought quite suddenly popped into her head-

He doesn’t know why.

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