Lucy, he noticed, was tossing her crumbs methodically, one after another, precisely three seconds apart.

He counted. How could he not?

“The flock has abandoned me,” she said with a frown.

Gregory grinned as the last pigeon hopped to the feast of Bridgerton. He threw down another handful. “I always host the best parties.”

She turned, her chin dipping as she gave him a dry glance over her shoulder. “You are insufferable.”

He gave her a wicked look. “It is one of my finest qualities.”

“According to whom?”

“Well, my mother seems to like me quite well,” he said modestly.

She sputtered with laughter.

It felt like a victory.

“My sister…not as much.”

One of her brows lifted. “The one you are fond of torturing?”

“I don’t torture her because I like to,” he said, in a rather instructing sort of tone. “I do it because it is necessary.”

“To whom?”

“To all Britain,” he said. “Trust me.”

She looked at him dubiously. “She can’t be that bad.”

“I suppose not,” he said. “My mother seems to like her quite well, much as that baffles me.”

She laughed again, and the sound was…good. A nondescript word, to be sure, but somehow it got right to the heart of it. Her laughter came from within-warm, rich, and true.

Then she turned, and her eyes grew quite serious. “You like to tease, but I would bet all that I have that you would lay down your life for her.”

He pretended to consider this. “How much do you have?”

“For shame, Mr. Bridgerton. You’re avoiding the question.”

“Of course I would,” he said quietly. “She’s my little sister. Mine to torture and mine to protect.”

“Isn’t she married now?”

He shrugged, gazing out across the park. “Yes, I suppose St. Clair can take care of her now, God help him.” He turned, flashing her a lopsided smile. “Sorry.”

But she wasn’t so high in the instep to take offense. And in fact, she surprised him utterly by saying-with considerable feeling, “There is no need to apologize. There are times when only the Lord’s name will properly convey one’s desperation.”

“Why do I feel you are speaking from recent experience?”

“Last night,” she confirmed.

“Really?” He leaned in, terribly interested. “What happened?”

But she just shook her head. “It was nothing.”

“Not if you were blaspheming.”

She sighed. “I did tell you you were insufferable, didn’t I?”

“Once today, and almost certainly several times before.”

She gave him a dry look, the blue of her eyes sharpening as they fixed upon him. “You’ve been counting?”

He paused. It was an odd question, not because she’d asked it-for heaven’s sake, he would have asked the very thing, had he been given the same bait. Rather, it was odd because he had the eerie feeling that if he thought about it long enough, he might actually know the answer.

He liked talking with Lucy Abernathy. And when she said something to him…

He remembered it.

Peculiar, that.

“I wonder,” he said, since it seemed a good time to change the topic. “Is sufferable a word?”

She considered that. “I think it must be, don’t you?”

“No one has ever uttered it in my presence.”

“This surprises you?”

He smiled slowly. With appreciation. “You, Lady Lucinda, have a smart mouth.”

Her brows arched, and in that moment she was positively devilish. “It is one of my best-kept secrets.”

He started to laugh.

“I’m more than just a busybody, you know.”

The laughter grew. Deep in his belly it rumbled, until he was shaking with it.

She was watching him with an indulgent smile, and for some reason he found that calming. She looked warm…peaceful, even.

And he was happy to be with her. Here on this bench. It was rather pleasant simply to be in her company. So he turned. Smiled. “Do you have another piece of bread?”

She handed him three. “I brought the entire loaf.”

He started tearing them up. “Are you trying to fatten the flock?”

“I have a taste for pigeon pie,” she returned, resuming her slow, miserly feeding schedule.

Gregory was quite sure it was his imagination, but he would have sworn the birds were looking longingly in his direction. “Do you come here often?” he asked.

She didn’t answer right away, and her head tilted, almost as if she had to think about her answer.

Which was odd, as it was a rather simple question.

“I like to feed the birds,” she said. “It’s relaxing.”

He hurled another handful of bread chunks and quirked a smile. “Do you think so?”

Her eyes narrowed and she tossed her next piece with a precise, almost military little flick of her wrist. The following piece went out the same way. And the one after that, as well. She turned to him with pursed lips. “It is if you’re not trying to incite a riot.”

“Me?” he returned, all innocence. “You are the one forcing them to battle to the death, all for one pathetic crumb of stale bread.”

“It’s a very fine loaf of bread, well-baked and extremely tasty, I’ll have you know.”

“On matters of nourishment,” he said with overdone graciousness, “I shall always defer to you.”

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