And his mouth-she knew that mouth, the look of it, the feel of it. She knew his smile, and she knew his frown, and she knew-

She knew far too much.

“You shouldn’t be here,” she said, the catch in her voice belying the stillness of her posture.

He took another step in her direction. There was no anger in his eyes, which she did not understand. But the way he was looking at her-it was hot, and it was possessive, and it was nothing a married woman should ever allow from a man who was not her husband.

“I had to know why,” he said. “I couldn’t let you go. Not until I knew why.”

“Don’t,” she whispered. “Please don’t do this.”

Please don’t make me regret. Please don’t make me long and wish and wonder.

She hugged her arms to her chest, as if maybe…maybe she could squeeze so tight that she could pull herself inside out. And then she wouldn’t have to see, she wouldn’t have to hear. She could just be alone, and-

“Lucy-”

“Don’t,” she said again, sharply this time.

Don’t.

Don’t make me believe in love.

But he moved ever closer. Slowly, but without hesitation. “Lucy,” he said, his voice warm and full of purpose. “Just tell me why. That is all I ask. I will walk away and promise never to approach you again, but I must know why.”

She shook her head. “I can’t tell you.”

“You won’t tell me,” he corrected.

“No,” she cried out, choking on the word. “I can’t! Please, Gregory. You must go.”

For a long moment he said nothing. He just watched her face, and she could practically see him thinking.

She shouldn’t allow this, she thought, a bubble of panic beginning to rise within her. She should scream. Have him ejected. She should run from the room before he could ruin her careful plans for the future. But instead she just stood there, and he said-

“You’re being blackmailed.”

It wasn’t a question.

She did not answer, but she knew that her face gave her away.

“Lucy,” he said, his voice soft and careful, “I can help you. Whatever it is, I can make it right.”

“No,” she said, “you can’t, and you’re a fool to-” She cut herself off, too furious to speak. What made him think he could rush in and fix things when he knew nothing of her travails? Did he think she had given in for something small? Something that could be easily overcome?

She was not that weak.

“You don’t know,” she said. “You have no idea.”

“Then tell me.”

Her muscles were shaking, and she felt hot…cold…everything in between.

“Lucy,” he said, and his voice was so calm, so even-it was like a fork, poking her right where she could least tolerate it.

“You can’t fix this,” she ground out.

“That is not true. There is nothing anyone could hold over you that could not be overcome.”

“By what?” she demanded. “Rainbows and sprites and the everlasting good wishes of your family? It won’t work, Gregory. It won’t. The Bridgertons may be powerful, but you cannot change the past, and you cannot bend the future to suit your whims.”

“Lucy,” he said, reaching out for her.

“No. No!” She pushed him away, rejected his offer of comfort. “You don’t understand. You can’t possibly. You are all so happy, so perfect.”

“We are not.”

“You are. You don’t even know that you are, and you can’t conceive that the rest of us are not, that we might struggle and try and be good and still not receive what we wish for.”

Through it all, he watched her. Just watched her and let her stand by herself, hugging her arms to her body, looking small and pale and heartbreakingly alone.

And then he asked it.

“Do you love me?”

She closed her eyes. “Don’t ask me that.”

“Do you?”

He saw her jaw tighten, saw the way her shoulders tensed and rose, and he knew she was trying to shake her head.

Gregory walked toward her-slowly, respectfully.

She was hurting. She was hurting so much that it spread through the air, wrapped around him, around his heart. He ached for her. It was a physical thing, terrible and sharp, and for the first time he was beginning to doubt his own ability to make it go away.

“Do you love me?” he asked.

“Gregory-”

“Do you love me?”

“I can’t-”

He placed his hands on her shoulders. She flinched, but she did not move away.

He touched her chin, nudged her face until he could lose himself in the blue of her eyes. “Do you love me?”

“Yes,” she sobbed, collapsing into his arms. “But I can’t. Don’t you understand? I shouldn’t. I have to make it stop.”

For a moment Gregory could not move. Her admission should have come as a relief, and in a way it did, but more than that, he felt his blood begin to race.

He believed in love.

Wasn’t that the one thing that had been a constant in his life?

He believed in love.

He believed in its power, in its fundamental goodness, its rightness.

He revered it for its strength, respected it for its rarity.

And he knew, right then, right there, as she cried in his arms, that he would dare anything for it.

For love.

“Lucy,” he whispered, an idea beginning to form in his mind. It was mad, bad, and thoroughly inadvisable, but he could not escape the one thought that was rushing through his brain.

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