The figure on the floor of the orangery twisted, and then she could see his face.
“Lucy?” He looked stunned.
“Oh, Richard.” There was a world of disappointment in those two words.
“Where is she?” Gregory demanded.
“Where is who?”
Lucy felt sick. Richard was feigning ignorance. She knew him too well. He was lying.
“Miss Watson,” Gregory ground out.
“I don’t know what y-”
A horrible gurgling noise came from Richard’s throat.
“Gregory!” Lady Bridgerton grabbed his arm. “Stop!”
He loosened his hold. Barely.
“Maybe she’s not here,” Lucy said. She knew it wasn’t true, but somehow it seemed the best way to salvage the situation. “Richard loves flowers. He always has. And he doesn’t like parties.”
“It’s true,” Richard gasped.
“Gregory,” Lady Bridgerton said, “you must let him up.”
Lucy turned to face her as she spoke, and that was when she saw it. Behind Lady Bridgerton.
Pink. Just a flash. More of a strip, actually, just barely visible through the plants.
Hermione was wearing pink. That very shade.
Lucy’s eyes widened. Maybe it was just a flower. There were heaps of pink flowers. She turned back to Richard. Quickly.
Too quickly. Mr. Bridgerton saw her head snapping around.
“What did you see?” he demanded.
But he didn’t believe her. He let go of Richard and began to move in the direction Lucy was looking, but Richard rolled to the side and grabbed one of his ankles. Gregory went down with a yell, and he quickly retaliated, catching hold of Richard’s shirt and yanking with enough force to scrape his head along the floor.
“Don’t!” Lucy cried, rushing forward. Good God, they were going to kill each other. First Mr. Bridgerton was on top, then Richard, then Mr. Bridgerton, then she couldn’t tell who was winning, and the whole time they were just pummeling each other.
Lucy wanted desperately to separate them, but she didn’t see how without risking injury to herself. The two of them were beyond noticing anything so mundane as a human being.
Maybe Lady Bridgerton could stop them. It was her home, and the guests her responsibility. She could attack the situation with more authority than Lucy could hope to muster.
Lucy turned. “Lady Br-”
The words evaporated in her throat. Lady Bridgerton was not where she had been just moments earlier.
Lucy twisted frantically about. “Lady Bridgerton? Lady Bridgerton?”
And then there she was, moving back toward Lucy, making her way through the plants, her hand wrapped tightly around Hermione’s wrist. Hermione’s hair was mussed, and her dress was wrinkled and dirty, and-dear God above-she looked as if she might cry.
“Hermione?” Lucy whispered. What had happened? What had Richard done?
For a moment Hermione did nothing. She just stood there like a guilty puppy, her arm stretched limply in front of her, almost as if she’d forgotten that Lady Bridgerton still had her by the wrist.
“Hermione, what happened?”
Lady Bridgerton let go, and it was almost as if Hermione were water, let loose from a dam. “Oh, Lucy,” she cried, her voice catching as she rushed forward. “I’m so sorry.”
Lucy stood in shock, embracing her…but not quite. Hermione was clutching her like a child, but Lucy didn’t quite know what to do with herself. Her arms felt foreign, not quite attached. She looked past Hermione’s shoulder, down to the floor. The men had finally stopped thrashing about, but she wasn’t sure she cared any longer.
“Hermione?” Lucy stepped back, far enough so that she could see her face. “What happened?”
“Oh, Lucy,” Hermione said. “I fluttered.”
An hour later, Hermione and Richard were engaged to be married. Lady Lucinda had been returned to the party, not that she would be able to concentrate on anything anyone was saying, but Kate had insisted.
Gregory was drunk. Or at the very least, doing his best to get there.
He supposed the night had brought a few small favors. He hadn’t actually come across Lord Fennsworth and Miss Watson in flagrante delicto. Whatever they’d been doing-and Gregory was expending a great deal of energy to not imagine it-they had stopped when Kate had bellowed Fennsworth’s name.
Even now, it all felt like a farce. Hermione had apologized, then Lucy had apologized, then Kate had apologized, which had seemed remarkably out of character until she finished her sentence with, “but you are, as of this moment, engaged to be married.”
Fennsworth had looked delighted, the annoying little sod, and then he’d had the gall to give Gregory a triumphant little smirk.
Gregory had kneed him in the balls.
Not too hard.
It could have been an accident. Really. They were still on the floor, locked into a stalemate position. It was entirely plausible that his knee could have slipped.
Whatever the case, Fennsworth had grunted and collapsed. Gregory rolled to the side the second the earl’s grip loosened, and he moved fluidly to his feet.
“So sorry,” he’d said to the ladies. “I’m not certain what’s come over him.”
And that, apparently, was that. Miss Watson had apologized to him-after apologizing to first Lucy, then Kate, then Fennsworth, although heaven knew why, as he’d clearly won the evening.
“No apology is needed,” Gregory had said tightly.
“No, but I-” She looked distressed, but Gregory didn’t much care just then.
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