He walked to her side and sat. And then he said, simply, “Tell me.”

She did. He would not give in otherwise, of that she was certain.

She told him everything. About her father, and the written proof of his treason. She told him about the blackmail. She told him how she was the final payment and the only thing that would keep her brother from being stripped of his title.

Lucy stared straight ahead throughout the telling, and for that, Gregory was grateful. Because what she said-it shook him to his very core.

All day Gregory had been trying to imagine what terrible secret could possibly induce her to marry Haselby. He’d run twice through London, first to the church and then here, to Fennsworth House. He had had plenty of time to think, to wonder. But never-not once-had his imagination led him to this.

“So you see,” she said, “it is nothing so common as an illegitimate child, nothing so racy as an extramarital affair. My father-an earl of the realm-committed treason. Treason.” And then she laughed. Laughed.

The way people did when what they really wanted was to cry.

“It’s an ugly thing,” she finished, her voice low and resigned. “There is no escaping it.”

She turned to him for a response, but he had none.

Treason. Good God, he could not think of anything worse. There were many ways-many many ways-one could get oneself thrown out of society, but nothing was as unforgivable as treason. There wasn’t a man, woman, or child in Britain who had not lost someone to Napoleon. The wounds were still too fresh, and even if they weren’t…

It was treason.

A gentleman did not forsake his country.

It was ingrained in the soul of every man of Britain.

If the truth about Lucy’s father were known, the earldom of Fennsworth would be dissolved. Lucy’s brother would be left destitute. He and Hermione would almost certainly have to emigrate.

And Lucy would…

Well, Lucy would probably survive the scandal, especially if her surname was changed to Bridgerton, but she would never forgive herself. Of that, Gregory was certain.

And finally, he understood.

He looked at her. She was pale and drawn, and her hands were clenched tightly in her lap. “My family has been good and true,” she said, her voice shaking with emotion. “The Abernathys have been loyal to the crown since the first earl was invested in the fifteenth century. And my father has shamed us all. I cannot allow it to be revealed. I cannot.” She swallowed awkwardly and then sadly said, “You should see your face. Even you don’t want me now.”

“No,” he said, almost blurting out the word. “No. That is not true. That could never be true.” He took her hands, held them in his own, savoring the shape of them, the arch of her fingers and the delicate heat of her skin.

“I am sorry,” he said. “It should not have taken me so long to collect myself. I had not imagined treason.”

She shook her head. “How could you?”

“But it does not change how I feel.” He took her face in his hands, aching to kiss her but knowing he could not.

Not yet.

“What your father did-It is reprehensible. It is-” He swore under his breath. “I will be honest with you. It leaves me sick. But you-you, Lucy-you are innocent. You did nothing wrong, and you should not have to pay for his sins.”

“Neither should my brother,” she said quietly, “but if I do not complete my marriage to Haselby, Richard will-”

“Shhh.” Gregory pressed a finger to her lips. “Listen to me. I love you.”

Her eyes filled with tears.

“I love you,” he said again. “There is nothing in this world or the next that could ever make me stop loving you.”

“You felt that way about Hermione,” she whispered.

“No,” he said, almost smiling at how silly it all seemed now. “I had been waiting so long to fall in love that I wanted the love more than the woman. I never loved Hermione, just the idea of her. But with you…It’s different, Lucy. It’s deeper. It’s…it’s…”

He struggled for words, but there were none. Words simply did not exist to explain what he felt for her. “It’s me,” he finally said, appalled at the inelegance of it. “Without you, I…I am…”

“Gregory,” she whispered, “you don’t have to-”

“I am nothing,” he cut in, because he wasn’t going to allow her to tell him that he didn’t have to explain. “Without you, I am nothing.”

She smiled. It was a sad smile, but it was true, and it felt as if he’d been waiting years for that smile. “That’s not true,” she said. “You know that it’s not.”

He shook his head. “An exaggeration, perhaps, but that is all. You make me better, Lucy. You make me wish, and hope, and aspire. You make me want to do things.”

Tears began to trickle down her cheeks.

With the pads of his thumbs he brushed them away. “You are the finest person I know,” he said, “the most honorable human being I have ever met. You make me laugh. And you make me think. And I…” He took a deep breath. “I love you.”

And again. “I love you.”

And again. “I love you.” He shook his head helplessly. “I don’t know how else to say it.”

She turned away then, twisting her head so that his hands slid from her face to her shoulders, and finally, away from her body completely. Gregory could not see her face, but he could hear her-the quiet, broken sound of her breathing, the soft whimper in her voice.

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