“I love you,” she finally answered, still not looking at him. “You know that I do. I will not demean us both by lying about it. And if it were only me, I would do anything-anything for that love. I would risk poverty, ruin. I would move to America, I would move to darkest Africa if that were the only way to be with you.”
She let out a long, shaky breath. “I cannot be so selfish as to bring down the two people who have loved me so well and for so long.”
“Lucy…” He had no idea what he wanted to tell her, just that he didn’t want her to finish. He knew he did not want to hear what she had to say.
But she cut him off with-“Don’t, Gregory. Please. I’m sorry. I cannot do it, and if you love me as you say you do, you will bring me back now, before Lord Davenport realizes I’ve gone missing.”
Gregory squeezed his fingers into fists, then flexed them wide and straight. He knew what he should do. He should release her, let her run downstairs to the party. He should sneak back out the servants’ door and vow never to approach her again.
She had promised to love, honor, and obey another man. She was supposed to forsake all others.
Surely, he fell under that aegis.
And yet he couldn’t give up.
“One hour,” he said, moving into a crouching position beside her. “Just give me one hour.”
She turned, her eyes doubtful and astonished and maybe-maybe-just a little bit hopeful as well. “One hour?” she echoed. “What do you think you can-”
“I don’t know,” he said honestly. “But I will promise you this. If I cannot find a way to free you from this blackmail in one hour, I will return for you. And I will release you.”
“To return to Haselby?” she whispered, and she sounded-
Did she sound disappointed? Even a little?
“Yes,” he said. Because in truth it was the only thing he could say. Much as he wished to throw caution to the wind, he knew that he could not steal her away. She would be respectable, as he would marry her as soon as Haselby agreed to the annulment, but she would never be happy.
And he knew that he could not live with himself.
“You will not be ruined if you go missing for one hour,” he said to her. “You can simply tell people you were overset. You wished to take a nap. I am sure that Hermione will corroborate your story if you ask her to.”
Lucy nodded. “Will you release my bindings?”
He gave his head a tiny shake and stood. “I would trust you with my life, Lucy, but not with your own. You’re far too honorable for your own good.”
He shrugged as he walked to the door. “Your conscience will get the better of you. You know that it will.”
“What if I promise-”
“Sorry.” One corner of his mouth stretched into a not quite apologetic expression. “I won’t believe you.”
He took one last look at her before he left. And he had to smile, which seemed ludicrous, given that he had one hour to neutralize the blackmail threat against Lucy’s family and extract her from her marriage. During her wedding reception.
By comparison, moving heaven and earth seemed a far better prospect.
But when he turned to Lucy, and saw her sitting there, on the floor, she looked…
Like herself again.
“Gregory,” she said, “you cannot leave me here. What if someone finds you and removes you from the house? Who will know I am here? And what if…and what if…and then what if…”
He smiled, enjoying her officiousness too much to actually listen to her words. She was definitely herself again.
“When this is all over,” he said, “I shall bring you a sandwich.”
That stopped her short. “A sandwich? A sandwich?”
He twisted the doorknob but didn’t yet pull. “You want a sandwich, don’t you? You always want a sandwich.”
“You’ve gone mad,” she said.
He couldn’t believe she’d only just come to the conclusion. “Don’t yell,” he warned.
“You know I can’t,” she muttered.
It was true. The last thing she wanted was to be found. If Gregory was not successful, she would need to be able to slip back into the party with as little fuss as possible.
“Goodbye, Lucy,” he said. “I love you.”
She looked up. And she whispered, “One hour. Do you really think you can do it?”
He nodded. It was what she needed to see, and it was what he needed to pretend.
And as he closed the door behind him, he could have sworn he heard her murmur, “Good luck.”
He paused for one deep breath before heading for the stairs. He was going to need more than luck; he was going to need a bloody miracle.
The odds were against him. The odds were extremely against him. But Gregory had always been one to cheer for the underdog. And if there was any sense of justice in the world, any existential fairness floating through the air…If Do unto others offered any sort of payback, surely he was due.
He knew that it did. And he would be damned if it did not exist for him.
Gregory’s first stop was Lucy’s bedchamber, on the second floor. He couldn’t very well stroll into the ballroom and request an audience with one of the guests, but he thought there was a chance that someone had noticed Lucy’s absence and gone off looking for her. God willing it would be someone sympathetic to their cause, someone who actually cared about Lucy’s happiness.
But when Gregory slipped inside the room, all was exactly as he’d left it. “Damn,” he muttered, striding back to the door. Now he was going to have to figure out how to speak to her brother-or Haselby, he supposed-without attracting attention.
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