And yearned.

And then, before he even realized what he was thinking, he asked, “What has this to do with my brothers?”

She blinked uncomprehendingly, and then finally murmured, “Oh, you mean about your feeling the need to prove yourself?”

He nodded.

She pursed her lips. Thought. And then said, “I’m not sure.”

He opened his mouth. That was not the answer he had been expecting.

“I don’t know everything,” she said, and he suspected it was the first time that particular collection of words had ever crossed her lips.

“I suppose,” she said, slowly and thoughtfully, “that you…Well, it’s an odd combination, I should think. Or perhaps not so odd, when one has so many older brothers and sisters.”

Gregory waited as she collected her thoughts. The room was quiet, the air utterly still, and yet it felt as if something were bearing down on him, pressing at him from all sides.

He did not know what she was going to say, but somehow…

He knew…

It mattered.

Maybe more than anything else he’d ever heard.

“You don’t wish to ask for help,” his mother said, “because it is so important to you that your brothers see you as a man grown. And yet at the same time…Well, life has come easily to you, and so I think sometimes you don’t try.”

His lips parted.

“It is not that you refuse to try,” she hastened to add. “Just that most of the time you don’t have to. And when something is going to require too much effort…If it is something you cannot manage yourself, you decide that it is not worth the bother.”

Gregory found his eyes pulling back toward that spot on the wall, the one where the vine twisted so curiously. “I know what it means to work for something,” he said in a quiet voice. He turned to her then, looking her full in the face. “To want it desperately and to know that it might not be yours.”

“Do you? I’m glad.” She reached for her tea, then apparently changed her mind and looked up. “Did you get it?”

“No.”

Her eyes turned a little bit sad. “I’m sorry.”

“I’m not,” he said stiffly. “Not any longer.”

“Oh. Well.” She shifted in her seat. “Then I am not sorry. I imagine you are a better man for it now.”

Gregory’s initial impulse leaned toward offense, but to his great surprise, he found himself saying, “I believe you are correct.”

To his even greater surprise, he meant it.

His mother smiled wisely. “I am so glad you are able to see it in that light. Most men cannot.” She glanced up at the clock and let out a chirp of surprise. “Oh dear, the time. I promised Portia Featherington that I would call upon her this afternoon.”

Gregory stood as his mother rose to her feet.

“Do not worry about Lady Lucinda,” she said, hurrying to the door. “I shall take care of everything. And please, finish your tea. I do worry about you, living all by yourself with no woman to care for you. Another year of this, and you will waste away to skin and bones.”

He walked her to the door. “As nudges toward matrimony go, that was particularly unsubtle.”

“Was it?” She gave him an arch look. “How nice for me that I no longer even try for subtlety. I have found that most men do not notice anything that is not clearly spelled out, anyway.”

“Even your sons.”

“Especially my sons.”

He smiled wryly. “I asked for that, didn’t I?”

“You practically wrote me an invitation.”

He tried to accompany her to the main hall, but she shooed him away. “No, no, that’s not necessary. Go and finish your tea. I asked the kitchen to bring up sandwiches when you were announced. They should arrive at any moment and will surely go to waste if you don’t eat them.”

Gregory’s stomach grumbled at that exact moment, so he bowed and said, “You are a superb mother, did you know that?”

“Because I feed you?”

“Well, yes, but perhaps for a few other things as well.”

She stood on her toes and kissed him on the cheek. “You are no longer my darling boy, are you?”

Gregory smiled. It had been her endearment for him for as long as he remembered. “I am for as long as you wish it, Mother. As long as you wish it.”

Sixteen

In which Our Hero falls in love. Again.

When it came to social machinations, Violet Bridgerton was every bit as accomplished as she claimed, and indeed, when Gregory arrived at Hastings House the following evening, his sister Daphne, the current Duchess of Hastings, informed him that Lady Lucinda Abernathy would indeed be attending the ball.

He found himself rather unaccountably pleased at the outcome. Lucy had looked so disappointed when she’d told him that she would not be able to go, and really, shouldn’t the girl enjoy one last night of revelry before she married Haselby?

Haselby .

Gregory still couldn’t quite believe it. How could he have not known that she was marrying Haselby? There was nothing he could do to stop it, and really, it wasn’t his place, but dear God, it was Haselby.

Shouldn’t Lucy be told?

Haselby was a perfectly amiable fellow, and, Gregory had to allow, in possession of a more than acceptable wit. He wouldn’t beat her, and he wouldn’t be unkind, but he didn’t…he couldn’t…

He would not be a husband to her.

Just the thought of it left him grim. Lucy wasn’t going to have a regular marriage, because Haselby didn’t like women. Not the way a man was meant to.

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