Blond hair, not too blond. Blue eyes-again, not too blue. Awkwardly shaped mouth that never quite held still the way she wanted it to, and the same nondescript nose with the same seven freckles, including the one close to her eye that no one ever noticed but her.

It looked like Ireland. She didn’t know why that interested her, but it always had.

She sighed. She’d never been to Ireland, and she probably never would. It seemed silly that this would suddenly bother her, as she didn’t even want to go to Ireland.

But if she did wish to, she’d have to ask Lord Haselby, wouldn’t she? It wasn’t much different from having to ask Uncle Robert for permission to do, well, anything, but somehow…

She shook her head. Enough. It had been a strange night, and now she was in a strange mood, stuck in all her strangeness in the middle of a masked ball.

Clearly what she needed to do was go to bed.

And so, after thirty minutes of trying to look as if she were enjoying herself, it finally became apparent that the maiden aunt entrusted with her care did not quite understand the scope of the assignment. It wasn’t difficult to deduce; when Lucy had attempted to speak to her, she had squinted through her mask and screeched, “Lift your chin, gel! Do I know you?”

Lucy decided that this was not an opportunity to be wasted, and so she had replied, “I’m sorry. I thought you were someone else,” and walked right out of the ballroom.

Alone.

Really, it was almost funny.

Almost.

She wasn’t foolish, however, and she’d traversed enough of the house that evening to know that while the guests had spilled to the west and south of the ballroom, they had not ventured to the north wing, where the family kept their private rooms. Strictly speaking, Lucy ought not to go that way, either, but after what she’d been through in the past few hours, she rather thought she deserved a bit of latitude.

But when she reached the long hall that led to the north, she saw a closed door. Lucy blinked with surprise; she’d never noticed a door there before. She supposed the Bridger-tons normally left it open. Then her heart sank. Surely it would be locked-what was the purpose of a closed door if not to keep people out?

But the doorknob turned with ease. Lucy carefully shut the door behind her, practically melting with relief. She couldn’t face going back to the party. She just wanted to crawl into bed, curl up under the covers, close her eyes, and sleep sleep sleep.

It sounded like heaven. And with any luck, Hermione would not yet have returned. Or better yet, her mother would insist upon her remaining overnight in her room.

Yes, privacy sounded extremely appealing just then.

It was dark as she walked, and quiet, too. After a minute or so, Lucy’s eyes adjusted to the dim light. There were no lanterns or candles to illuminate the way, but a few doors had been left open, allowing pale shafts of moonlight to make parallelograms on the carpet. She walked slowly, and with an odd sort of deliberation, each step carefully measured and aimed, as if she were balancing on a thin line, stretching right down the center of the hall.

One, two…

Nothing out of the ordinary. She frequently counted her steps. And always on the stairs. She’d been surprised when she got to school and realized that other people did not.

…three, four…

The runner carpet looked monochromatic in the moonlight, but Lucy knew that the big diamonds were red, and the smaller ones were gold. She wondered if it were possible to step only on gold.

…five, six…

Or maybe red. Red would be easier. This wasn’t a night to challenge herself.

…seven, eight, n-

“Oomph!”

She crashed into something. Or dear heaven, someone. She’d been looking down, following the red diamonds, and she hadn’t seen…but shouldn’t the other person have seen her?

Strong hands caught her by the arms and steadied her. And then-“Lady Lucinda?”

She froze. “Mr. Bridgerton?”

His voice was low and smooth in the darkness. “Now this is a coincidence.”

She carefully disentangled herself-he had grabbed her by the arms to keep her from falling-and stepped back. He seemed very large in the close confines of the hall. “What are you doing here?” she asked.

He offered her a suspiciously easy grin. “What’re you doing here?”

“Going to bed. This hallway seemed the best route,” she explained, then added with a wry expression, “given my state of unaccompaniment.”

He cocked his head. Scrunched his brow. Blinked. And finally: “Is that a word?”

For some reason that made her smile. Not her lips, exactly, but on the inside, where it counted. “I don’t think so,” she replied, “but really, I can’t be bothered.”

He smiled faintly, then motioned with his head to the room he must have just exited. “I was in my brother’s office. Pondering.”

“Pondering?”

“Quite a bit to ponder this evening, wouldn’t you say?”

“Yes.” She looked around the hall. Just in case there was someone else about, even though she was quite certain there was not. “I really shouldn’t be here alone with you.”

He nodded gravely. “I wouldn’t want to disrupt your practical engagement.”

Lucy hadn’t even been thinking of that. “I meant after what happened with Hermione and-” And then it seemed somehow insensitive to spell it out. “Well, I’m sure you’re aware.”

“Indeed.”

She swallowed, then tried to make it appear as if she weren’t looking at his face to see if he was upset.

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