The orangery. It was on the other side of the house, far from the ballroom. And it was filled, not just with orange trees, but with flowers. Gorgeous tropical plants that must have cost Lord Bridgerton a fortune to import. Elegant orchids. Rare roses. Even humble wildflowers, brought in and replanted with care and devotion.
There was no place more romantic in the moonlight, and no place her brother would feel more at ease. He loved flowers. He always had, and he possessed an astounding memory for their names, scientific and common. He was always picking something up, rattling off some sort of informational tidbit-this one only opened in the moonlight, that one was related to some such plant brought in from Asia. Lucy had always found it somewhat tedious, but she could see how it might seem romantic, if it weren’t one’s brother doing the talking.
She looked up the hall. The Bridgertons had stopped to speak to each other, and Lucy could see by their postures that the conversation was intensely felt.
Wouldn’t it be best if she were the one to find them? Without any of the Bridgertons?
If Lucy found them, she could warn them and avert disaster. If Hermione wanted to marry her brother…well, it could be her choice, not something she had to do because she’d been caught unawares.
Lucy knew how to get to the orangery. She could be there in minutes.
She took a cautious step back toward the ballroom. Neither Gregory nor Lady Bridgerton seemed to notice her.
She made her decision.
Six quiet steps, backing up carefully to the corner. And then-one last quick glance thrown down the hall-she stepped out of sight.
She picked up her skirts and ran like the wind, or at the very least, as fast as she possibly could in her heavy velvet ball gown. She had no idea how long she would have before the Bridgertons noticed her absence, and while they would not know her destination, she had no doubt that they would find her. All Lucy had to do was find Hermione and Richard first. If she could get to them, warn them, she could push Hermione out the door and claim she’d come across Richard alone.
She would not have much time, but she could do it. She knew she could.
Lucy made it to the main hall, slowing her pace as much as she dared as she passed through. There were servants about, and probably a few late-arriving guests as well, and she couldn’t afford to arouse suspicion by running.
She slipped out and into the west hallway, skidding around a corner as she took off again at a run. Her lungs began to burn, and her skin grew damp with perspiration beneath her gown. But she did not slow down. It wasn’t far now. She could do it.
She knew she could.
She had to.
And then, amazingly, she was there, at the heavy double doors that led out to the orangery. Her hand landed heavily on one of the doorknobs, and she meant to turn it, but instead she found herself bent over, struggling to catch her breath.
Her eyes stung, and she tried to stand, but when she did she was hit with what felt like a wall of panic. It was physical, palpable, and it rushed at her so quickly that she had to grab on to the wall for support.
Dear God, she didn’t want to open that door. She didn’t want to see them. She didn’t want to know what they had been doing, didn’t want to know how or why. She didn’t want this, any of this. She wanted it all back as it was, just three days earlier.
Couldn’t she have that back? It was just three days. Three days, and Hermione would still be in love with Mr. Edmonds, which really wasn’t such a problem since nothing would come of it, and Lucy would still be-
She would still be herself, happy and confident, and only practically engaged.
Why did everything have to change? Lucy’s life had been perfectly acceptable the way it was. Everyone had his place, and all was in perfect order, and she hadn’t had to think so hard about everything. She hadn’t cared about what love meant or how it felt, and her brother wasn’t secretly pining for her best friend, and her wedding was a hazy plan for the future, and she had been happy. She had been happy.
And she wanted it all back.
She grasped the knob more tightly, tried to turn it, but her hand wouldn’t move. The panic was still there, freezing her muscles, pressing at her chest. She couldn’t focus. She couldn’t think.
And her legs began to tremble.
Oh, dear God, she was going to fall. Right there in the hallway, inches from her goal, she was going to crumple to the floor. And then-
It was Mr. Bridgerton, and he was running to her, and it occurred to her that she’d failed.
She’d made it to the orangery. She’d made it in time, but then she’d just stood at the door. Like an idiot, she’d stood there, with her fingers on the bloody knob and-
“My God, Lucy, what were you thinking?”
He grabbed her by the shoulders, and Lucy leaned into his strength. She wanted to fall into him and forget. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m sorry.”
She did not know what she was sorry for, but she said it all the same.
“This is no place for a woman alone,” he said, and his voice sounded different. Hoarse. “Men have been drinking. They use the masks as a license to-”
He fell silent. And then-“People are not themselves.”
She nodded, and she finally looked up, pulling her eyes from the floor to his face. And then she saw him. Just saw him. His face, which had become so familiar to her. She seemed to know every feature, from the slight curl of his hair to the tiny scar near his left ear.
She swallowed. Breathed. Not quite the way she was meant to, but she breathed. More slowly, closer to normal.
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