He placed his hand on the knob and yanked, but the weight of the door was all wrong, and Gregory wasn’t certain which happened first-the feminine shriek of surprise or the soft, warm body tumbling into his.

“You!”

“You!” he said in return. “Thank God.”

It was Hermione. The one person he knew cared for Lucy’s happiness above all else.

“What are you doing here?” she hissed. But she closed the door to the corridor, surely a good sign.

“I had to talk to Lucy.”

“She married Lord Haselby.”

He shook his head. “It has not been consummated.”

Her mouth quite literally fell open. “Good God, you don’t mean to-”

“I will be honest with you,” he cut in. “I don’t know what I mean to do, other than find a way to free her.”

Hermione stared at him for several seconds. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, she said, “She loves you.”

“She told you that?”

She shook her head. “No, but it’s obvious. Or at least with hindsight it is.” She paced the room, then turned suddenly around. “Then why did she marry Lord Haselby? I know she feels strongly about honoring commitments, but surely she could have ended it before today.”

“She is being blackmailed,” Gregory said grimly.

Hermione’s eyes grew very large. “With what?”

“I can’t tell you.”

To her credit, she did not waste time protesting. Instead, she looked up at him, her eyes sharp and steady. “What can I do to help?”

Five minutes later, Gregory found himself in the company of both Lord Haselby and Lucy’s brother. He would have preferred to have done without the latter, who looked as if he might cheerfully decapitate Gregory were it not for the presence of his wife.

Who had his arm in a viselike grip.

“Where is Lucy?” Richard demanded.

“She is safe,” Gregory replied.

“Pardon me if I am not reassured,” Richard retorted.

“Richard, stop,” Hermione cut in, forcibly pulling him back. “Mr. Bridgerton is not going to hurt her. He has her best interests at heart.”

“Oh, really?” Richard drawled.

Hermione glared at him with more animation than Gregory had ever seen on her pretty face. “He loves her,” she declared.

“Indeed.”

All eyes turned to Lord Haselby, who had been standing by the door, watching the scene with a strange expression of amusement.

No one seemed to know what to say.

“Well, he certainly made it clear this morning,” Haselby continued, settling into a chair with remarkably easy grace. “Wouldn’t you agree?”

“Er, yes?” Richard answered, and Gregory couldn’t really blame him for his uncertain tone. Haselby did seem to be taking this in a most uncommon manner. Calm. So calm that Gregory’s pulse seemed to feel the need to race twice as fast, if only to make up for Haselby’s shortcomings.

“She loves me,” Gregory told him, balling his hand into a fist behind his back-not in preparation for violence, but rather because if he didn’t move some part of his body, he was liable to jump out of his skin. “I’m sorry to say it, but-”

“No, no, not at all,” Haselby said with a wave. “I’m quite aware she doesn’t love me. Which is really for the best, as I’m sure we can all agree.”

Gregory wasn’t sure whether he was meant to answer that. Richard was flushing madly, and Hermione looked completely confused.

“Will you release her?” Gregory asked. He did not have time to dance around the subject.

“If I weren’t willing to do that, do you really think I’d be standing here speaking with you in the same tones I use to discuss the weather?”

“Er…no?”

Haselby smiled. Slightly. “My father will not be pleased. A state of affairs which normally brings me great joy, to be sure, but it does present a host of difficulties. We shall have to proceed with caution.”

“Shouldn’t Lucy be here?” Hermione asked.

Richard resumed his glaring. “Where is my sister?”

“Upstairs,” Gregory said curtly. That narrowed it down to only thirty-odd rooms.

“Upstairs where?” Richard ground out.

Gregory ignored the question. It really wasn’t the best time to reveal that she was presently tied to a water closet.

He turned back to Haselby, who was still seated, one leg crossed casually over the other. He was examining his fingernails.

Gregory felt ready to climb the walls. How could the bloody man sit there so calmly? This was the single most critical conversation either of them would ever have, and all he could do was inspect his manicure?

“Will you release her?” Gregory ground out.

Haselby looked up at him and blinked. “I said I would.”

“But will you reveal her secrets?”

At that, Haselby’s entire demeanor changed. His body seemed to tighten, and his eyes grew deadly sharp. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said, each word crisp and precise.

“Nor do I,” Richard added, stepping close.

Gregory turned briefly in his direction. “She is being blackmailed.”

“Not,” Haselby said sharply, “by me.”

“My apologies,” Gregory said quietly. Blackmail was an ugly thing. “I did not mean to imply.”

“I always wondered why she agreed to marry me,” Haselby said softly.

“It was arranged by her uncle,” Hermione put in. Then, when everyone turned to her in mild surprise, she added, “Well, you know Lucy. She’s not the sort to rebel. She likes order.”

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