He shrugged. “Not as much as I should be, given that my heart practically stopped beating the first time I saw Miss Watson.”

Lucy smiled tightly.

His head went back to vertical, and he looked at her and blinked-perfectly clear-eyed, as if he had just reached an obvious conclusion. “Which is why I suspect the brandy.”

“I see.” She didn’t, of course, but what else could she say? “You…ah…you certainly seemed upset.”

“I was cross,” he explained.

“You’re not any longer?”

He thought about that. “Oh, I’m still cross.”

And Lucy felt the need to apologize. Which she knew was ridiculous, because none of this was her fault. But it was so ingrained in her, this need to apologize for everything. She couldn’t help it. She wanted everyone to be happy. She always had. It was neater that way. More orderly.

“I’m sorry I didn’t believe you about my brother,” she said. “I didn’t know. Truly, I didn’t know.”

He looked down at her, and his eyes were kind. She wasn’t sure when it had happened, because a moment ago, he’d been flip and nonchalant. But now…he was different.

“I know you didn’t,” he said. “And there is no need to apologize.”

“I was just as startled when we found them as you were.”

“I wasn’t very startled,” he said. Gently, as if he were trying to spare her feelings. Make her feel not such a dunce for not seeing the obvious.

She nodded. “No, I suppose you wouldn’t have been. You realized what was happening, and I did not.” And truly, she did feel like a half-wit. How could she have been so completely unaware? It was Hermione and her brother, for heaven’s sake. If anyone were to detect a budding romance, it ought to have been she.

There was a pause-an awkward one-and then he said, “I will be well.”

“Oh, of course you will,” Lucy said reassuringly. And then she felt reassured, because it felt so lovely and normal to be the one trying to make everything right. That’s what she did. She scurried about. She made sure everyone was happy and comfortable.

That was who she was.

But then he asked-oh why did he ask-“Will you?”

She said nothing.

“Be well,” he clarified. “Will you be well”-he paused, then shrugged-“as well?”

“Of course,” she said, a little too quickly.

She thought that was the end of it, but then he said, “Are you certain? Because you seemed a little…”

She swallowed, waiting uncomfortably for his assessment.

“…overset,” he finished.

“Well, I was surprised,” she said, glad to have an answer. “And so naturally I was somewhat disconcerted.” But she heard a slight stammer in her voice, and she was wondering which one of them she was trying convince.

He didn’t say anything.

She swallowed. It was uncomfortable. She was uncomfortable, and yet she kept talking, kept explaining it all. And she said, “I’m not entirely certain what happened.”

Still, he did not speak.

“I felt a little…Right here…” Her hand went to her chest, to the spot where she had felt so paralyzed. She looked up at him, practically begging him with her eyes to say something, to change the subject and end the conversation.

But he didn’t. And the silence made her explain.

If he’d asked a question, said even one comforting word, she wouldn’t have told him. But the silence was too much. It had to be filled.

“I couldn’t move,” she said, testing out the words as they left her lips. It was as if by speaking, she was finally confirming what had happened. “I reached the door, and I couldn’t open it.”

She looked up at him, searching for answers. But of course he did not have any.

“I-I don’t know why I was so overcome.” Her voice sounded breathy, nervous even. “I mean-it was Hermione. And my brother. I-I’m sorry for your pain, but this is all rather tidy, really. It’s nice. Or at least it should be. Hermione will be my sister. I have always wanted a sister.”

“They are occasionally entertaining.” He said it with a half-smile, and it did make Lucy feel better. It was remarkable how much it did. And it was just enough to cause her words to spill out, this time without hesitation, without even a stammer.

“I could not believe they had gone off together. They should have said something. They should have told me that they cared for one another. I shouldn’t have had to discover it that way. It’s not right.” She grabbed his arm and looked up at him, her eyes earnest and urgent. “It’s not right, Mr. Bridgerton. It’s not right.”

He shook his head, but only slightly. His chin barely moved, and neither did his lips as he said, “No.”

“Everything is changing,” she whispered, and she wasn’t talking about Hermione any longer. But it didn’t matter, except that she didn’t want to think anymore. Not about that. Not about the future. “It’s all changing,” she whispered, “and I can’t stop it.”

Somehow his face was closer as he said, again, “No.”

“It’s too much.” She couldn’t stop looking at him, couldn’t move her eyes from his, and she was still whispering it-“It’s all too much”-when there was no more distance between them.

And his lips…they touched hers.

It was a kiss.

She had been kissed.

Her. Lucy. For once it was about her. She was at the center of her world. It was life. And it was happening to her.

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