Hyacinth.

“Go,” Gregory said. “Let Hyacinth take you back to the ballroom. I will follow later.”

Lucy nodded, tugging at her gown until everything was back in its proper place. “My hair,” she whispered, her eyes flying to his.

“It’s lovely,” he assured her. “You look perfect.”

She hurried to the door. “Are you certain?”

I love you, he mouthed. And his eyes said the same.

Lucy pulled open the door, and Hyacinth rushed in. “Good heavens, the two of you are slow,” she said. “We need to be getting back. Now.”

She strode to the door to the corridor, then stopped, looking first at Lucy, then at her brother. Her gaze settled on Lucy, and she lifted one brow in question.

Lucy held herself tall. “You did not misjudge me,” she said quietly.

Hyacinth’s eyes widened, and then her lips curved. “Good.”

And it was, Lucy realized. It was very good, indeed.

Eighteen

In which Our Heroine makes a terrible discovery.

She could do this.

She could.

She needed only to knock.

And yet there she stood, outside her uncle’s study door, her fingers curled into a fist, as if ready to knock on the door.

But not quite.

How long had she stood like this? Five minutes? Ten? Either way, it was enough to brand her a ridiculous ninny. A coward.

How did this happen? Why did it happen? At school she had been known as capable and pragmatic. She was the girl who knew how to get things done. She was not shy. She was not fearful.

But when it came to Uncle Robert…

She sighed. She had always been like this with her uncle. He was so stern, so taciturn.

So unlike her own laughing father had been.

She’d felt like a butterfly when she left for school, but whenever she returned, it was as if she had been stuffed right back in her tight little cocoon. She became drab, quiet.

Lonely.

But not this time. She took a breath, squared her shoulders. This time she would say what she needed to say. She would make herself heard.

She lifted her hand. She knocked.

She waited.

“Enter.”

“Uncle Robert,” she said, letting herself into his study. It felt dark, even with the late afternoon sunlight slanting in through the window.

“Lucinda,” he said, glancing briefly up before returning to his papers. “What is it?”

“I need to speak with you.”

He made a notation, scowled at his handiwork, then blotted his ink. “Speak.”

Lucy cleared her throat. This would be a great deal easier if he would just look up at her. She hated speaking to the top of his head, hated it.

“Uncle Robert,” she said again.

He grunted a response but kept on writing.

“Uncle Robert.”

She saw his movements slow, and then, finally, he looked up. “What is it, Lucinda?” he asked, clearly annoyed.

“We need to have a conversation about Lord Haselby.” There. She had said it.

“Is there a problem?” he asked slowly.

“No,” she heard herself say, even though that wasn’t at all the truth. But it was what she always said if someone asked if there was a problem. It was one of those things that just came out, like Excuse me, or I beg your pardon.

It was what she’d been trained to say.

Is there a problem?

No, of course not. No, don’t mind my wishes. No, please don’t worry yourself on my account.

“Lucinda?” Her uncle’s voice was sharp, almost jarring.

“No,” she said again, louder this time, as if the volume would give her courage. “I mean yes, there is a problem. And I need to speak with you about it.”

Her uncle gave her a bored look.

“Uncle Robert,” she began, feeling as if she were tiptoeing through a field of hedgehogs, “did you know…” She bit her lip, glancing everywhere but at his face. “That is to say, were you aware…”

“Out with it,” he snapped.

“Lord Haselby,” Lucy said quickly, desperate just to get it over with. “He doesn’t like women.”

For a moment Uncle Robert did nothing but stare. And then he…

Laughed.

He laughed.

“Uncle Robert?” Lucy’s heart began to beat far too quickly. “Did you know this?”

“Of course I knew it,” he snapped. “Why do you think his father is so eager to have you? He knows you won’t talk.”

Why wouldn’t she talk?

“You should be thanking me,” Uncle Robert said harshly, cutting into her thoughts. “Half the men of the ton are brutes. I’m giving you to the only one who won’t bother you.”

“But-”

“Do you have any idea how many women would love to take your place?”

“That is not the point, Uncle Robert.”

His eyes turned to ice. “I beg your pardon.”

Lucy stood perfectly still, suddenly realizing that this was it. This was her moment. She had never countermanded him before, and she probably never would again.

She swallowed. And then she said it. “I do not wish to marry Lord Haselby.”

Silence. But his eyes…

His eyes were thunderous.

Lucy met his stare with cool detachment. She could feel a strange new strength growing inside of her. She would not back down. Not now, not when the rest of her life was at stake.

Her uncle’s lips pursed and twisted, even as the rest of his face seemed to be made of stone. Finally, just when Lucy was certain that the silence would break her, he asked, his voice clipped, “May I ask why?”

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