And remembered that he’d forgotten all about her. Kate wouldn’t take offense; she was a phenomenally good sport. But still, Gregory did usually try to have better manners with women to whom he was not blood related.

Lady Lucinda gave a pretty little curtsy. “Lady Bridgerton.”

Kate smiled warmly in return. “Miss Watson has asked me to inform you that she was not feeling well and has retired for the evening.”

“She has? Did she say-Oh, never mind.” Lady Lucinda gave a little wave with her hand-the sort meant to convey nonchalance, but Gregory saw the barest hint of frustration pinching at the corners of her mouth.

“A head cold, I believe,” Kate added.

Lady Lucinda gave a brief nod. “Yes,” she said, looking a bit less sympathetic than Gregory would have imagined, given the circumstances, “it would be.”

“And you,” Kate continued, turning to Gregory, “have not even seen fit to greet me. How are you?”

He took her hands, kissed them as one in apology. “Tardy.”

“That I knew.” Her face assumed an expression that was not irritated, just a little bit exasperated. “How are you otherwise?”

“Otherwise lovely.” He grinned. “As always.”

“As always,” she repeated, giving him a look that was a clear promise of future interrogation. “Lady Lucinda,” Kate continued, her tone considerably less dry, “I trust you have made the acquaintance of my husband’s brother, Mr. Gregory Bridgerton?”

“Indeed,” Lady Lucinda replied. “We have been admiring the food. The sandwiches are delicious.”

“Thank you,” Kate said, then added, “and has Gregory promised you a dance? I cannot promise music of a professional quality, but we managed to round together a string quartet amongst our guests.”

“He did,” Lady Lucinda replied, “but I released him from his obligation so that he might assuage his hunger.”

“You must have brothers,” Kate said with a smile.

Lady Lucinda looked to Gregory with a slightly startled expression before replying, “Just one.”

He turned to Kate. “I made the same observation earlier,” he explained.

Kate let out a short laugh. “Great minds, to be sure.” She turned to the younger woman and said, “It is well worth understanding the behavior of men, Lady Lucinda. One should never underestimate the power of food.”

Lady Lucinda regarded her with wide eyes. “For the benefit of a pleasing mood?”

“Well, that,” Kate said, almost offhandedly, “but one really shouldn’t discount its uses for the purpose of winning an argument. Or simply getting what you want.”

“She’s barely out of the schoolroom, Kate,” Gregory chided.

Kate ignored him and instead smiled widely at Lady Lucinda. “One is never too young to acquire important skills.”

Lady Lucinda looked at Gregory, then at Kate, and then her eyes began to sparkle with humor. “I understand why so many look up to you, Lady Bridgerton.”

Kate laughed. “You are too kind, Lady Lucinda.”

“Oh, please, Kate,” Gregory cut in. He turned to Lady Lucinda and added, “She will stand here all night if you keep offering compliments.”

“Pay him no attention,” Kate said with a grin. “He is young and foolish and knows not of what he speaks.”

Gregory was about to make another comment-he couldn’t very well allow Kate to get away with that-but then Lady Lucinda cut in.

“I would happily sing your praises for the rest of the evening, Lady Bridgerton, but I believe that it is time for me to retire. I should like to check on Hermione. She has been under the weather all day, and I wish to assure myself that she is well.”

“Of course,” Kate replied. “Please do give her my regards, and be certain to ring if you need anything. Our housekeeper fancies herself something of an herbalist, and she is always mixing potions. Some of them even work.” She grinned, and the expression was so friendly that Gregory instantly realized that she approved of Lady Lucinda. Which meant something. Kate had never suffered fools, gladly or otherwise.

“I shall walk you to the door,” he said quickly. It was the least he could do to offer her this courtesy, and besides, it would not do to insult Miss Watson’s closest friend.

They said their farewells, and Gregory fit her arm into the crook of his elbow. They walked in silence to the door to the drawing room, and Gregory said, “I trust you can make your way from here?”

“Of course,” she replied. And then she looked up-her eyes were bluish, he noticed almost absently-and asked, “Would you like me to convey a message to Hermione?”

His lips parted with surprise. “Why would you do that?” he asked, before he could think to temper his response.

She just shrugged and said, “You are the lesser of two evils, Mr. Bridgerton.”

He wanted desperately to ask her to clarify that comment, but he could not ask, not on such a flimsy acquaintance, so he instead worked to maintain an even mien as he said, “Give her my regards, that is all.”

“Really?”

Damn, but that look in her eye was annoying. “Really.”

She bobbed the tiniest of curtsies and was off.

Gregory stared at the doorway through which she had disappeared for a moment, then turned back to the party. The guests had begun dancing in greater numbers, and laughter was most certainly filling the air, but somehow the night felt dull and lifeless.

Food, he decided. He’d eat twenty more of those tiny little sandwiches and then he’d retire for the night as well.

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