“I did have a lovely time at breakfast,” she said to him. “I just wanted you to know that.”

Why? Why would she say that? Did she think it would make him feel better?

Gregory hadn’t said a word. He gave her a single nod, and then walked away. The rest of them could sort the details out themselves. He had no ties to the newly affianced couple, no responsibilities to them or to propriety. He didn’t care when or how the families were informed.

It was not his concern. None of it was.

So he left. He had a bottle of brandy to locate.

And now here he was. In his brother’s office, drinking his brother’s liquor, wondering what the hell this all meant. Miss Watson was lost to him now, that much was clear. Unless of course he wanted to kidnap the girl.

Which he did not. Most assuredly. She’d probably squeal like an idiot the whole way. Not to mention the little matter of her possibly having given herself to Fennsworth. Oh, and Gregory destroying his good reputation. There was that. One did not kidnap a gently bred female-especially one affianced to an earl-and expect to emerge with one’s good name intact.

He wondered what Fennsworth had said to get her off alone.

He wondered what Hermione had meant when she’d said she fluttered.

He wondered if they would invite him to the wedding.

Hmmm. Probably. Lucy would insist upon it, wouldn’t she? Stickler for propriety, that one. Good manners all around.

So what now? After so many years of feeling slightly aimless, of waiting waiting waiting for the pieces of his life to fall into place, he’d thought he finally had it all figured out. He’d found Miss Watson and he was ready to move forward and conquer.

The world had been bright and good and shining with promise.

Oh, very well, the world had been perfectly bright and good and shining with promise before. He hadn’t been unhappy in the least. In fact, he hadn’t really minded the waiting. He wasn’t even sure he’d wanted to find his bride so soon. Just because he knew his true love existed didn’t mean he wanted her right away.

He’d had a very pleasant existence before. Hell, most men would give their eyeteeth to trade places.

Not Fennsworth, of course.

Bloody little bugger was probably plotting every last detail of his wedding night that very minute.

Sodding little b-

He tossed back his drink and poured another.

So what did it mean? What did it mean when you met the woman who made you forget how to breathe and she up and married someone else? What was he supposed to do now? Sit and wait until the back of someone else’s neck sent him into raptures?

He took another sip. He’d had it with necks. They were highly overrated.

He sat back, plunking his feet on his brother’s desk. Anthony would hate it, of course, but was he in the room? No. Had he just discovered the woman he’d hoped to marry in the arms of another man? No. More to the immediate point, had his face recently served as a punching bag for a surprisingly fit young earl?

Definitely not.

Gregory gingerly touched his left cheekbone. And his right eye.

He was not going to look attractive tomorrow, that was for sure.

But neither would Fennsworth, he thought happily.

Happily? He was happy? Who’d have thought?

He let out a long sigh, attempting to assess his sobriety. It had to be the brandy. Happiness was not on the agenda for the evening.

Although…

Gregory stood. Just as a test. Bit of scientific inquiry. Could he stand?

He could.

Could he walk?

Yes!

Ah, but could he walk straight?

Almost.

Hmmm. He wasn’t nearly as foxed as he’d thought.

He might as well go out. No sense in wasting an unexpectedly fine mood.

He made his way to the door and put his hand on the knob. He stopped, cocking his head in thought.

It had to be the brandy. Really, there was no other explanation for it.

Eleven

In which Our Hero does the one thing he would never have anticipated.

The irony of the evening was not lost on Lucy as she made her way back to her room.

Alone.

After Mr. Bridgerton’s panic over Hermione’s disappearance…after Lucy had been thoroughly scolded for running off by herself in the middle of what was turning out to be a somewhat raucous evening…after one couple had been forced to become engaged, for heaven’s sake-no one had noticed when Lucy left the masked ball by herself.

She still couldn’t believe that Lady Bridgerton had insisted upon returning her to the party. She had practically led Lucy back by the collar, depositing her in the care of someone or other’s maiden aunt before retrieving Hermione’s mother, who, it must be presumed, had no idea of the excitement that lay in wait for her.

And so Lucy had stood at the edge of the ballroom like a fool, staring at the rest of the guests, wondering how they could possibly not be aware of the events of the evening. It seemed inconceivable that three lives could be upended so completely, and the rest of the world was carrying on as usual.

No, she thought, rather sadly, actually-it was four; there was Mr. Bridgerton to be considered. His plans for the future had been decidedly different at the outset of the evening.

But no, everyone else appeared perfectly normal. They danced, they laughed, they ate sandwiches that were still distressingly mixed up on a single serving platter.

It was the strangest sight. Shouldn’t something seem different? Shouldn’t someone come up to Lucy and say, eyes quizzical-You look somewhat altered. Ah, I know. Your brother must have seduced your closest friend.

No one did, of course, and when Lucy caught sight of herself in a mirror, she was startled to see that she appeared entirely unchanged. A little tired, perhaps, maybe a little pale, but other than that, the same old Lucy.

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