Which made his own all the more egregious.

But, as luck would have it, this was a problem more easily solved than not. Gregory had simply moved out. It required a fair portion of his allowance to maintain his own residence, small though it was, but it was worth it, every last penny.

Even something as simple as this-just leaving the house without anyone wondering why or where (or in his mother’s case, to whom)-it was lovely. Fortifying. It was strange how a mere stroll could make one feel like one’s own man, but it did.

And then there she was. Lucy Abernathy. In Hyde Park when by all rights she ought to still be in Kent.

She was sitting on a bench, tossing bits of bread at a scruffy lot of birds, and Gregory was reminded of that day he’d stumbled upon her at the back of Aubrey Hall. She had been sitting on a bench then as well, and she had seemed so subdued. In retrospect, Gregory realized that her brother had probably just told her that her engagement had been finalized.

He wondered why she hadn’t said anything to him.

He wished she’d said something to him.

If he had known that she was spoken for, he would never have kissed her. It went against every code of conduct to which he held himself. A gentleman did not poach upon another man’s bride. It was simply not done. If he had known the truth, he would have stepped away from her that night, and he would have-

He froze. He didn’t know what he would have done. How was it that he had rewritten the scene in his mind countless times, and he only now realized that he had never quite got to the point where he pushed her away?

If he had known, would he have set her on her way right at that first moment? He’d had to take hold of her arms to steady her, but he could have shifted her toward her destination when he let go. It would not have been difficult-just a little shuffle of the feet. He could have ended it then, before anything had had a chance to begin.

But instead, he had smiled, and he had asked her what she was doing there, and then-good God, what had he been thinking-he’d asked her if she drank brandy.

After that-well, he wasn’t sure how it had happened, but he remembered it all. Every last detail. The way she was looking at him, her hand on his arm. She’d been clutching him, and for a moment it had almost felt like she needed him. He could be her rock, her center.

He had never been anyone’s center.

But it wasn’t that. He hadn’t kissed her for that. He’d kissed her because…

Because…

Hell, he didn’t know why he’d kissed her. There had just been that moment-that strange, inscrutable moment-and it had all been so quiet-a fabulous, magical, mesmerizing silence that seemed to seep into him and steal his breath.

The house had been full, teeming with guests, even, but the hallway had been theirs alone. Lucy had been gazing up at him, her eyes searching, and then…somehow…she was closer. He didn’t recall moving, or lowering his head, but her face was just a few inches away. And the next he knew…

He was kissing her.

From that moment on, he had been quite simply gone. It was as if he’d lost all knowledge of words, of rationality and thought. His mind had become a strange, preverbal thing. The world was color and sound, heat and sensation. It was as if his mind had been subsumed by his body.

And now he wondered-when he let himself wonder-if he could have stopped it. If she hadn’t said no, if she hadn’t pressed her hands to his chest and told him to stop-

Would he have done so on his own?

Could he have done so?

He straightened his shoulders. Squared his jaw. Of course he could have. She was Lucy, for heaven’s sake. She was quite wonderful, in quite a number of ways, but she wasn’t the sort men lost their heads over. It had been a temporary aberration. Momentary insanity brought on by a strange and unsettling evening.

Even now, sitting on a bench in Hyde Park with a small fleet of pigeons at her feet, she was clearly the same old Lucy. She hadn’t seen him yet, and it felt almost luxurious just to observe. She was on her own, save for her maid, who was twiddling her thumbs two benches over.

And her mouth was moving.

Gregory smiled. Lucy was talking to the birds. Telling them something. Most likely she was giving them directions, perhaps setting a date for future bread-tossing engagements.

Or telling them to chew with their beaks closed.

He chuckled. He couldn’t help himself.

She turned. She turned, and she saw him. Her eyes widened, and her lips parted, and it hit him squarely in the chest-

It was good to see her.

Which struck him as a rather odd sort of reaction, given how they’d parted.

“Lady Lucinda,” he said, walking forward. “This is a surprise. I had not thought you were in London.”

For a moment it seemed she could not decide how to act, and then she smiled-perhaps a bit more hesitantly than he was accustomed to-and held forward a slice of bread.

“For the pigeons?” he murmured. “Or me?”

Her smile changed, grew more familiar. “Whichever you prefer. Although I should warn you-it’s a bit stale.”

His lips twitched. “You’ve tried it, then?”

And then it was as if none of it had happened. The kiss, the awkward conversation the morning after…it was gone. They were back to their odd little friendship, and all was right with the world.

Her mouth was pursed, as if she thought she ought to be scolding him, and he was chuckling, because it was such good fun to bait her.

“It’s my second breakfast,” she said, utterly deadpan.

He sat on the opposite end of the bench and began to tear his bread into bits. When he had a good-sized handful, he tossed them all at once, then sat back to watch the ensuing frenzy of beaks and feathers.

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