All seven freckles, too. God, he loved her freckles.
“I love you,” he whispered.
She laid her cheek against his chest, and her voice was hoarse, almost choked as she said, “I love you, too.”
“Are you certain you will not come with me now?” He knew her answer, but he asked, anyway.
As expected, she nodded. “I must do this myself.”
“How will your uncle react?”
He stepped back, taking her by the shoulders and even bending at the knees so that his eyes would not lose contact with hers. “Will he hurt you?”
“No,” she said, quickly enough so that he believed her. “No. I promise you.”
“Will he try to force you to marry Haselby? Lock you in your room? Because I could stay. If you think you will need me, I could remain right here.” It would create an even worse scandal than what currently lay ahead for them, but if it was a question of her safety…
There was nothing he would not do.
He silenced her with a shake of his head. “Do you understand,” he began, “how completely and utterly this goes against my every instinct, leaving you here to face this by yourself?”
Her lips parted and her eyes-
They filled with tears.
“I have sworn in my heart to protect you,” he said, his voice passionate and fierce and maybe even a little bit revelatory. Because today, he realized, was the day he truly became a man. After twenty-six years of an amiable and, yes, aimless existence, he had finally found his purpose.
He finally knew why he had been born.
“I have sworn it in my heart,” he said, “and I will swear it before God just as soon as we are able. And it is like acid in my chest to leave you alone.”
His hand found hers, and their fingers twined.
“It is not right,” he said, his words low but fierce.
Slowly, she nodded her agreement. “But it is what must be done.”
“If there is a problem,” he said, “if you sense danger, you must promise to signal. I will come for you. You can take refuge with my mother. Or any one of my sisters. They won’t mind the scandal. They would care only for your happiness.”
She swallowed, and then she smiled, and her eyes grew wistful. “Your family must be lovely.”
He took her hands and squeezed them. “They are your family now.” He waited for her to say something, but she did not. He brought her hands to his lips and kissed them each in turn. “Soon,” he whispered, “this will all be behind us.”
She nodded, then glanced over her shoulder at the door. “The servants will be waking shortly.”
And he left. He slipped out the door, boots in hand, and crept out the way he’d come in.
It was still dark when he reached the small park that filled the square across from her home. There were hours yet before the wedding, and surely he had enough time to return home to change his clothing.
But he was not prepared to chance it. He had told her he would protect her, and he would never break that promise.
But then it occurred to him-he did not need to do this alone. In fact, he should not do it alone. If Lucy needed him, she would need him well and full. If Gregory had to resort to force, he could certainly use an extra set of hands.
He had never gone to his brothers for help, never begged them to extricate him from a tight spot. He was a relatively young man. He had drunk spirits, gambled, dallied with women.
But he had never drunk too much, or gambled more than he had, or, until the previous night, dallied with a woman who risked her reputation to be with him.
He had not sought responsibility, but neither had he chased trouble.
His brothers had always seen him as a boy. Even now, in his twenty-sixth year, he suspected they did not view him as quite fully grown. And so he did not ask for help. He did not place himself in any position where he might need it.
One of his older brothers lived not very far away. Less than a quarter of a mile, certainly, maybe even closer to an eighth. Gregory could be there and back in twenty minutes, including the time it took to yank Colin from his bed.
Gregory had just rolled his shoulders back and forth, loosening up in preparation for a sprint, when he spied a chimney sweep, walking across the street. He was young-twelve, maybe thirteen-and certainly eager for a guinea.
And the promise of another, should he deliver Gregory’s message to his brother.
Gregory watched him tear around the corner, then he crossed back to the public garden. There was no place to sit, no place even to stand where he might not be immediately visible from Fennsworth House.
And so he climbed a tree. He sat on a low, thick branch, leaned against the trunk, and waited.
Someday, he told himself, he would laugh about this. Someday they would tell this tale to their grandchildren, and it would all sound very romantic and exciting.
As for now…
Romantic, yes. Exciting, not so much.
He rubbed his hands together.
Most of all, it was cold.
He shrugged, waiting for himself to stop noticing it. He never did, but he didn’t care. What were a few blue fingertips against the rest of his life?
He smiled, lifting his gaze to her window. There she was, he thought. Right there, behind that curtain. And he loved her.
He loved her.
He thought of his friends, most of them cynics, always casting a bored eye over the latest selection of debutantes, sighing that marriage was such a chore, that ladies were interchangeable, and that love was best left to the poets.
Fools, the lot of them.
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