And he liked the way he could leave it all behind when it grew too quiet and clean.

The night’s festivities were being held on the south lawn, or so he’d been told by the butler when he’d arrived earlier that evening. It seemed a good spot for an outdoor fête-level ground, a view to the lake, and a large patio with plenty of seating for the less energetic.

As he approached the long salon that opened to the outside, he could hear the low murmur of voices buzzing in through the French doors. He wasn’t certain how many people his sister-in-law had invited for her house party-probably something between twenty and thirty. Small enough to be intimate, but still large enough so that one could escape for some peace and quiet without leaving a gaping hole in the gathering.

As Gregory passed through the salon, he took a deep breath, trying in part to determine what sort of food Kate had decided to serve. There wouldn’t be much, of course; she would have already overstuffed her guests at supper.

Sweets, Gregory decided, smelling a hint of cinnamon as he reached the light gray stone of the patio. He let out a disappointed breath. He was starving, and a huge slab of meat sounded like heaven right then.

But he was late, and it was nobody’s fault but his own, and Anthony would have his head if he did not join the party immediately, so cakes and biscuits it would have to be.

A warm breeze sifted across his skin as he stepped outside. It had been remarkably hot for May; everyone was talking about it. It was the sort of weather that seemed to lift the mood-so surprisingly pleasant that one couldn’t help but smile. And indeed, the guests milling about seemed to be in happy spirits; the low buzz of conversation was peppered with frequent rumbles and trills of laughter.

Gregory looked around, both for the refreshments and for someone he knew, most preferably his sister-in-law Kate, whom propriety dictated he greet first. But as his eyes swept across the scene, instead he saw…

Her.

Her.

And he knew it. He knew that she was the one. He stood frozen, transfixed. The air didn’t rush from his body; rather, it seemed to slowly escape until there was nothing left, and he just stood there, hollow, and aching for more.

He couldn’t see her face, not even her profile. There was just her back, just the breathtakingly perfect curve of her neck, one lock of blond hair swirling against her shoulder.

And all he could think was-I am wrecked.

For all other women, he was wrecked. This intensity, this fire, this overwhelming sense of rightness-he had never felt anything like it.

Maybe it was silly. Maybe it was mad. It was probably both those things. But he’d been waiting. For this moment, for so long, he’d been waiting. And it suddenly became clear-why he hadn’t joined the military or the clergy, or taken his brother up on one of his frequent offers to manage a smaller Bridgerton estate.

He’d been waiting. That’s all it was. Hell, he hadn’t even realized how much he’d been doing nothing but waiting for this moment.

And here it was.

There she was.

And he knew.

He knew.

He moved slowly across the lawn, food and Kate forgotten. He managed to murmur his greetings to the one or two people he passed on his way, still keeping his pace. He had to reach her. He had to see her face, breathe her scent, know the sound of her voice.

And then he was there, standing mere feet away. He was breathless, awed, somehow fulfilled merely to stand in her presence.

She was speaking with another young lady, with enough animation to mark them as good friends. He stood there for a moment, just watching them until they slowly turned and realized he was there.

He smiled. Softly, just a little bit. And he said…

“How do you do?”

Lucinda Abernathy, better known to, well, everyone who knew her, as Lucy, stifled a groan as she turned to the gentleman who had crept up on her, presumably to make calf eyes at Hermione, as did, well, everyone who met Hermione.

It was an occupational hazard of being friends with Hermione Watson. She collected broken hearts the way the old vicar down by the Abbey collected butterflies.

The only difference, being, of course, that Hermione didn’t jab her collection with nasty little pins. In all fairness, Hermione didn’t wish to win the hearts of gentlemen, and she certainly never set out to break any of them. It just…happened. Lucy was used to it by now. Hermione was Hermione, with pale blond hair the color of butter, a heart-shaped face, and huge, wide-set eyes of the most startling shade of green.

Lucy, on the other hand, was…Well, she wasn’t Hermione, that much was clear. She was simply herself, and most of the time, that was enough.

Lucy was, in almost every visible way, just a little bit less than Hermione. A little less blond. A little less slender. A little less tall. Her eyes were a little less vivid in color-bluish-gray, actually, quite attractive when compared with anyone other than Hermione, but that did her little good, as she never went anywhere without Hermione.

She had come to this stunning conclusion one day while not paying attention to her lessons on English Composition and Literature at Miss Moss’s School for Exceptional Young Ladies, where she and Hermione had been students for three years.

Lucy was a little bit less. Or perhaps, if one wanted to put a nicer sheen on it, she was simply not quite.

She was, she supposed, reasonably attractive, in that healthy, traditional, English rose sort of manner, but men were rarely (oh, very well, never) struck dumb in her presence.

Hermione, however…well, it was a good thing she was such a nice person. She would have been impossible to be friends with, otherwise.

Well, that and the fact that she simply could not dance. Waltz, quadrille, minuet-it really didn’t matter. If it involved music and movement, Hermione couldn’t do it.

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