“He returns the sentiment, by the way,” Hyacinth said to Violet, “but as a man, he would never say as much.”

Violet nodded. “It’s true.”

Hyacinth turned to Gregory. “And just to be perfectly clear, I never pulled your hair.”

Surely his signal to leave. Or lose his sanity. Really, it was up to him.

“Hyacinth,” Gregory said, “I adore you. You know it. Mother, I adore you as well. And now I am leaving.”

“Wait!” Violet called out.

He turned around. He should have known it wouldn’t be that easy.

“Would you be my escort?”

“To what?”

“Why, to the wedding, of course.”

Gad, what was that awful taste in his mouth? “Whose wedding? Lady Lucinda’s?”

His mother gazed at him with the most innocent blue eyes. “I shouldn’t like to go alone.”

He jerked his head in his sister’s direction. “Take Hyacinth.”

“She’ll wish to go with Gareth,” Violet replied.

Gareth St. Clair was Hyacinth’s husband of nearly four years. Gregory liked him immensely, and the two had developed a rather fine friendship, which was how he knew that Gareth would rather peel his eyelids back (and leave them that way for an indefinite amount of time) than sit through a long, drawn-out, all-day society affair.

Whereas Hyacinth was, as she did not mind putting it, always interested in gossip, which meant that she surely would not wish to miss such an important wedding. Someone would drink too much, and someone else would dance too close, and Hyacinth would hate to be the last to hear of it.

“Gregory?” his mother prompted.

“I’m not going.”

“But-”

“I wasn’t invited.”

“Surely an oversight. One that will be corrected, I am certain, after your efforts this evening.”

“Mother, as much as I would like to wish Lady Lucinda well, I have no desire to attend her or anyone’s wedding. They are such sentimental affairs.”

Silence.

Never a good sign.

He looked at Hyacinth. She was regarding him with large owlish eyes. “You like weddings,” she said.

He grunted. It seemed the best response.

“You do,” she said. “At my wedding, you-”

“Hyacinth, you are my sister. It is different.”

“Yes, but you also attended Felicity Albansdale’s wedding, and I distinctly recall-”

Gregory turned his back on her before she could recount his merriness. “Mother,” he said, “thank you for the invitation, but I do not wish to attend Lady Lucinda’s wedding.”

Violet opened her mouth as if to ask a question, but then she closed it. “Very well,” she said.

Gregory was instantly suspicious. It was not like his mother to capitulate so quickly. Further prying into her motives, however, would eliminate any chance of a quick escape.

It was an easy decision.

“I bid you both adieu,” he said.

“Where you going?” Hyacinth demanded. “And why are you speaking French?”

He turned to his mother. “She is all yours.”

“Yes,” Violet sighed. “I know.”

Hyacinth immediately turned on her. “What does that mean?”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Hyacinth, you-”

Gregory took advantage of the moment and slipped away while their attention was fixed on each other.

The party was growing more crowded, and it occurred to him that Lucy might very well have arrived while he was speaking with his mother and sister. If so, she wouldn’t have made it very far into the ballroom, however, and so he began to make his way toward the receiving line. It was a slow process; he had been out of town for over a month, and everyone seemed to have something to say to him, none of it remotely of interest.

“Best of luck with it,” he murmured to Lord Trevelstam, who was trying to interest him in a horse he could not afford. “I am sure you will have no difficulty-”

His voice left him.

He could not speak.

He could not think.

Good God, not again.

“Bridgerton?”

Across the room, just by the door. Three gentlemen, an elderly lady, two matrons, and-

Her.

It was her. And he was being pulled, as sure as if there were a rope between them. He needed to reach her side.

“Bridgerton, is something-”

“I beg your pardon,” Gregory managed to say, brushing past Trevelstam.

It was her. Except…

It was a different her. It wasn’t Hermione Watson. It was-He wasn’t sure who she was; he could see her only from the back. But there it was-that same splendid and terrible feeling. It made him dizzy. It made him ecstatic. His lungs were hollow. He was hollow.

And he wanted her.

It was just as he’d always imagined it-that magical, almost incandescent sense of knowing that his life was complete, that she was the one.

Except that he’d done this before. And Hermione Watson hadn’t been the one.

Dear God, could a man fall insanely, stupidly in love twice?

Hadn’t he just told Lucy to be wary and scared, that if she was ever overcome with such a feeling, she should not trust it?

And yet…

And yet there she was.

And there he was.

And it was happening all over again.

It was just as it had been with Hermione. No, it was worse. His body tingled; he couldn’t keep his toes still in his boots. He wanted to jump out of his skin, rush across the room and…just…just…

Just see her.

He wanted her to turn. He wanted to see her face. He wanted to know who she was.

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