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The Duke and I / (by Julia Quinn, 2016) -

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The Duke and I /    (by Julia Quinn, 2016) -

The Duke and I / (by Julia Quinn, 2016) -

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The Duke and I / (by Julia Quinn, 2016) -
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2016
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Julia Quinn
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Rosalyn Landor
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/ / / / upper-intermediate
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upper-intermediate
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12:09:28
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64 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

The Duke and I / :

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: The Duke and I

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THE DUKE AND I Julia Quinn Prologue The birth of Simon Arthur Henry Fitzranulph Basset, Earl Clyvedon, was met with great celebration. Church bells rang for hours, champagne flowed freely through the gargantuan castle that the newborn would call home, and the entire village of Clyvedon quit work to partake of the feast and holiday ordered by the young earl's father. "This," the baker said to the blacksmith, "is no ordinary baby." For Simon Arthur Henry Fitzranulph Basset would not spend his life as Earl Clyvedon. That was a mere courtesy title. Simon Arthur Henry Fitzranulph Basset_ the baby who possessed more names than any baby could possibly need_was the heir to one of England's oldest and richest dukedoms. And his father, the ninth Duke of Hastings, had waited years for this moment. As he stood in the hall outside his wife's confinement room, cradling the squalling infant, the duke's heart near burst with pride. Already several years past forty, he had watched his cronies_dukes and earls, all_beget heir after heir. Some had had to suffer through a few daughters before siring a precious son, but in the end, they'd all been assured that their lines would continue, that their blood would pass forward into the next generation of England's elite. But not the Duke of Hastings. Though his wife had managed to conceive five times in the fifteen years of their marriage, only twice had she carried to full term, and both of those infants had been stillborn. After the fifth pregnancy, which had ended with a bloody miscarriage in the fifth month, surgeons and physicians alike had warned their graces that they absolutely must not make another attempt to have a child. The duchess's very life was in danger. She was too frail, too weak, and perhaps, they said gently, too old. The duke was simply going to have to reconcile himself to the fact that the dukedom would pass out of the Basset family. But the duchess, God bless her, knew her role in life, and after a six-month recuperative period, she opened the connecting door between their bedrooms, and the duke once again commenced his quest for a son. Five months later, the duchess informed the duke that she had conceived. The duke's immediate elation was tempered by his grim determination that nothing_absolutely nothing_would cause this pregnancy to go awry. The duchess was confined to her bed the minute it was realized that she'd missed her monthly courses. A physician was brought in to visit her every day, and halfway through the pregnancy, the duke located the most respected doctor in London and paid him a king's ransom to abandon his practice and take up residence at Clyvedon Castle temporarily. The duke was taking no chances this time. He would have a son, and the dukedom would remain in Basset hands. The duchess experienced pains a month early, and pillows were tucked under her hips. Gravity might keep the babe inside, Dr. Stubbs explained. The duke thought that a sound argument, and, once the doctor had retired for the evening, placed yet another pillow under his wife, raising her to a twenty-degree angle. She remained that way for a month. And then finally, the moment of truth arrived. The household prayed for the duke, who so wanted an heir, and a few remembered to pray for the duchess, who had grown thin and frail even as her belly had grown round and wide. They tried not to be too hopeful_after all, the duchess had already delivered and buried two babes. And even if she did manage to safely deliver a child, it could be, well, a girl. As the duchess's screams grew louder and more frequent, the duke shoved his way into her chamber, ignoring the protests of the doctor, the midwife, and her grace's maid. It was a bloody mess, but the duke was determined to be. present when the babe's sex was revealed. The head appeared, then the shoulders. All leaned forward to watch as the duchess strained and pushed, and then. And then the duke knew that there was a God, and He still smiled on the Bassets. He allowed the midwife one minute to clean the babe, then took the little boy into his arms and marched into the great hall to show him off. "I have a son!" he boomed. "A perfect little son!" And while the servants cheered and wept with relief, the duke looked down upon the tiny little earl, and said, "You are perfect. You are a Basset. You are mine." The duke wanted to take the boy outside to prove to everyone that he had finally sired a healthy male child, but there was a slight chill in the early April air, so he allowed the midwife to take the babe back to his mother. The duke mounted one of his prized geldings and rode off to celebrate, shouting his good fortune to all who would listen. Meanwhile, the duchess, who had been bleeding steadily since the birth, slipped into unconsciousness, and then finally just slipped away. The duke mourned his wife. He truly did. He hadn't loved her, of course, and she hadn't loved him, but they'd been friends in an oddly distant sort of way. The duke hadn't expected anything more from marriage than a son and an heir, and in that regard, his wife had proven herself an exemplary spouse. He arranged for fresh flowers to be laid at the base of her funereal monument every week, no matter the season, and her portrait was moved from the sitting room to the hall, in a position of great honor over the staircase. And then the duke got on with the business of raising his son. . There wasn't much he could do in the first year, of course. The babe was too young for lectures on land management and responsibility, so the duke left Simon in the care of his nurse and went to London, where his life continued much as it had before he'd been blessed by parenthood, except that he forced everyone_even the king_to gaze upon the miniature he'd had painted of his son shortly after his birth. The duke visited Clyvedon from time to time, then returned for good on Simon's second birthday, ready to take the young lad's education in hand. A pony had been purchased, a small gun had been selected for future use at the fox hunt, and tutors were engaged in every subject known to man. "He's too young for all that!" Nurse Hopkins exclaimed. "Nonsense," Hastings replied condescendingly. "Clearly, I don't expect him to master any of this anytime soon, but it is never too early to begin a duke's education." "He's not a duke," Nurse muttered. "He will be." Hastings turned his back on her and crouched beside his son, who was building an asymmetrical castle with a set of blocks on the floor. The duke hadn't been down to Clyvedon in several months, and was pleased with Simon's growth. He was a sturdy, healthy young boy, with glossy brown hair and clear blue eyes. "What are you building there, son?" Simon smiled and pointed. Hastings looked up at Nurse Hopkins. "Doesn't he speak?" She shook her head. "Not yet, your grace." The duke frowned. "He's two. Shouldn't he be speaking?" "Some children take longer than others, your grace. He's clearly a bright young boy." "Of course he's bright. He's a Basset." Nurse nodded. She always nodded when the duke talked about the superiority of the Basset blood. "Maybe," she suggested, "he just doesn't have anything he wants to say." The duke didn't look convinced, but he handed Simon a toy soldier, patted him on the head, and left the house to go exercise the new mare he'd purchased from Lord Worth. Two years later, however, he wasn't so sanguine. "Why isn't he talking?' he boomed. "I don't know," Nurse answered, wringing her hands. "What have you done to him?" "I haven't done anything!" "If you'd been doing your job correctly, he"_the duke jabbed an angry finger in Simon's direction_ "would be speaking." Simon, who was practicing his letters at his miniature desk, watched the exchange with interest. "He's four years old, God damn it," the duke roared. "He should be able to speak." "He can write," Nurse said quickly. "Five children I've raised, and not a one of them took to letters the way Master Simon has." "A fat lot of good writing is going to do him if he can't talk." Hastings turned to Simon, rage burning in his eyes. "Talk to me, damn you!" Simon shrank back, his lower lip quivering. "Your grace!" Nurse exclaimed. "You're scaring the child. " Hastings whipped around to face her. "Maybe he needs scaring. Maybe what he needs is a good dose of discipline. A good paddling might help him find his voice." The duke grabbed the silver-backed brush Nurse used on Simon's hair and advanced on his son. "I'll make you talk, you stupid little_" "No!" Nurse gasped. The duke dropped the brush. It was the first time they'd ever heard Simon's voice. "What did you say?" the duke whispered, tears forming in his eyes. Simon's fists balled at his sides, and his little chin jutted out as he said, "Don't you h-h-h-h-h-h-h_" The duke's face turned deathly pale. "What is he saying?" Simon attempted the sentence again. "D-d-d-d-d-d-d_" "My God," the duke breathed, horrified. "He's a moron." "He's not a moron!" Nurse cried out, throwing her arms around the boy. "D-d-d-d-d-d-d-don't you h-h-h-h-h-h-hit"_Simon took a deep breath_"me." Hastings sank onto the window seat, his head dropping into his hands. "What have I done to deserve this? What could I have possibly done ." "You should be giving the boy praise!" Nurse Hopkins admonished. "Four years you've been waiting for him to speak, and_" "And he's an idiot!" Hastings roared. "A goddamned, bloody little idiot!" Simon began to cry. "Hastings is going to go to a half-wit," the duke moaned. "All those years of praying for an heir, and now it's all for ruin. I should have let the title go to my cousin." He turned back to his son, who was sniffling and wiping his eyes, trying to appear strong for his father. "I can't even look at him," he gasped. "I can't even bear to look at him." And with that, the duke stalked out of the room. Nurse Hopkins hugged the boy close. "You're not an idiot," she whispered fiercely. "You're the smartest little boy I know. And if anyone can learn to talk properly, I know it's you ." Simon turned into her warm embrace and sobbed. "We'll show him," Nurse vowed. "He'll eat his words if it's the last thing I do ." Nurse Hopkins proved true to her word. While the Duke of Hastings removed himself to London and tried to pretend he had no son, she spent every waking minute with Simon, sounding out words and syllables, praising him lavishly when he got something right, and giving him encouraging words when he didn't. The progress was slow, but Simon's speech did improve. By the time he was six, "d-d-d-d-d-d-d-don't" had turned into "d-d-don't," and by the time he was eight, he was managing entire sentences without faltering. He still ran into trouble when he was upset, and Nurse had to remind him often that he needed to remain calm and collected if he wanted to get the words out in one piece. But Simon was determined, and Simon was smart, and perhaps most importantly, he was damned stubborn. He learned to take breaths before each sentence, and to think about his words before he attempted to say them. He studied the feel of his mouth when he spoke correctly, and tried to analyze what went wrong when he didn't. And finally, at the age of eleven, he turned to Nurse Hopkins, paused to collect his thoughts, and said, "I think it is time we went to see my father." Nurse looked up sharply. The duke had not laid eyes on the boy in seven years. And he had not answered a single one of the letters Simon had sent him. Simon had sent nearly a hundred. "Are you certain?" she asked. Simon nodded. "Very well, then. I'll order the carriage. We'll leave for London on the morrow ." The trip took a day and a half, and it was late afternoon by the time their carriage rolled up to Basset House. Simon gazed at the busy London streetscape with wonder as Nurse Hopkins led him up the steps. Neither had ever visited Basset House before, and so Nurse didn't know what to do when she reached the front door other than knock. The door swung open within seconds, and they found themselves being looked down upon by a rather imposing butler. "Deliveries," he intoned, reaching to close the door, "are made in the rear. " "Hold there!" Nurse said quickly, jamming her foot in the door. "We are not servants ." The butler looked disdainfully at her garments. "Well, I am, but he's not." She grabbed Simon's arm and yanked him forward. "This is Earl Clyvedon, and you'd do well to treat him with respect. " The butler's mouth actually dropped open, and he blinked several times before saying, "It is my understanding that Earl Clyvedon is dead. " "What?" Nurse screeched. "I most certainly am not!" Simon exclaimed, with all the righteous indignation of an eleven-year-old. The butler examined Simon, recognized immediately that he had the look of the Bassets, and ushered them in. "Why did you think I was d-dead?" Simon asked, cursing himself for misspeaking, but not surprised. He was always most likely to stutter when he was angry. "It is not for me to say," the butler replied. "It most certainly is," Nurse shot back. "You can't say something like that to a boy of his years and not explain it ." The butler was silent for a moment, then finally said, "His grace has not mentioned you in years. The last I heard, he said he had no son. He looked quite pained as he said it, so no one pursued the conversation. We_the servants, that is_assumed you'd passed on. " Simon felt his jaw clench, felt his throat working wildly. "Wouldn't he have gone into mourning?" Nurse demanded. "Did you think about that? How could you have assumed the boy was dead if his father was not in mourning?" The butler shrugged. "His grace frequently wears black. Mourning wouldn't have altered his costume. " "This is an outrage," Nurse Hopkins said. "I demand you summon his grace at once. " Simon said nothing. He was trying too hard to get his emotions under control. He had to. There was no way he'd be able to talk with his father while his blood was racing so. The butler nodded. "He is upstairs. I'll alert him immediately to your arrival. " Nurse started pacing wildly, muttering under her breath and referring to his grace with every vile word in her surprisingly extensive vocabulary. Simon remained in the center of the room, his arms angry sticks at his sides as he took deep breaths. You can do this, he shouted in his mind. You can do this. Nurse turned to him, saw him trying to control his temper, and immediately gasped. "Yes, that's it," she said quickly, dropping to her knees and taking his hands in hers. She knew better than anyone what would happen if Simon tried to face his father before he calmed down. "Take deep breaths. And make sure to think about your words before you speak. If you can control_" "I see you're still mollycoddling the boy," came an imperious voice from the doorway. Nurse Hopkins straightened and turned slowly around. She tried to think of something respectful to say. She tried to think of anything that would smooth over this awful situation. But when she looked at the duke, she saw Simon in him, and her rage began anew. The duke might look just like his son, but he was certainly no father to him. "You, sir," she spat out, "are despicable." "And you, madam, are fired. " Nurse lurched back. "No one speaks to the Duke of Hastings that way," he roared. "No one! " "Not even the king?" Simon taunted. Hastings whirled around, not even noticing that his son had spoken clearly. "You," he said in a low voice. Simon nodded curtly. He'd managed one sentence properly, but it had been a short one, and he didn't want to push his luck. Not when he was this upset. Normally, he could go days without a stutter, but now . The way his father stared at him made him feel like an infant. An idiot infant. And his tongue suddenly felt awkward and thick. The duke smiled cruelly. "What do you have to say for yourself, boy? Eh? What do you have to say?" "It's all right, Simon," Nurse Hopkins whispered, throwing a furious glance at the duke. "Don't let him upset you. You can do it, sweetling." And somehow her encouraging tone made it all the worse. Simon had come here to prove himself to his father, and now his nurse was treating him like a baby. "What's the matter?" the duke taunted. "Cat got your tongue?" Simon's muscles clenched so hard he started to shake. Father and son stared at each other for what felt like an eternity, until finally the duke swore and stalked toward the door. "You are my worst failure," he hissed at his son. "I don't know what I did to deserve you, but God help me if I ever lay eyes on you again. " "Your grace!" Nurse Hopkins said indignantly. This was no way to speak to a child. "Get him out of my sight," he spat at her. "You can keep your job just so long as you keep him away from me. " "Wait! " The duke turned slowly around at the sound of Simon's voice. "Did you say something?" he drawled. Simon took three long breaths in through his nose, his mouth still clamped together in anger. He forced his jaw to relax and rubbed his tongue against the roof of his mouth, trying to remind himself of how it felt to speak properly. Finally, just as the duke was about to dismiss him again, he opened his mouth and said, "I am your son. " Simon heard Nurse Hopkins breathe a sigh of relief, and something he'd never seen before blossomed in his father's eyes. Pride. Not much of it, but there was something there, lurking in the depths; something that gave Simon a whisper of hope. "I am your son," he said again, this time a little louder, "and I am not d_" Suddenly his throat closed up. And Simon panicked. You can do this. You can do this . But his throat felt tight, and his tongue felt thick, and his father's eyes started to narrow. "I am not d-d-d_" "Go home," the duke said in a low voice. "There is no place for you here." Simon felt the duke's rejection in his very bones, felt a peculiar kind of pain enter his body and creep around his heart. And, as hatred flooded his body and poured from his eyes, he made a solemn vow. If he couldn't be the son his father wanted, then by God, he'd be the exact opposite. Chapter 1 The Bridgertons are by far the most prolific family in the upper echelons of society. Such industriousness on the part of the viscountess and the late viscount is commendable, although one can find only banality in their choice of names for their children. Anthony, Benedict, Colin, Daphne, Eloise, Francesca, Gregory, and Hyacinth _orderliness is, of course, beneficial in all things, but one would think that intelligent parents would be able to keep their children straight without needing to alphabetize their names . Furthermore, the sight of the viscountess and all eight of her children in one room is enough to make one fear one is seeing double _or triple_or worse. Never has This Author seen a collection of siblings so ludicrously alike in their physical regard. Although This Author has never taken the time to record eye color, all eight possess similar bone structure and the same thick, chestnut hair. One must pity the viscountess as she seeks advantageous marriages for her brood that she did not produce a single child of more fashionable coloring. Still, there are advantages to a family of such consistent looks_there can be no doubt that all eight are of legitimate parentage . Ah, Gentle Reader, your devoted Author wishes that that were the case amid all large families . Lady Whistledown's Society Papers, 26 April 1813 "Ooooooooohhhhhhhhhh!" Violet Bridgerton crumpled the single-page newspaper into a ball and hurled it across the elegant drawing room . Her daughter Daphne wisely made no comment and pretended to be engrossed in her embroidery. "Did you read what she said?" Violet demanded. "Did you?" Daphne eyed the ball of paper, which now rested under a mahogany end table. "I didn't have the opportunity before you, er, finished with it." "Read it, then," Violet wailed, her arm slicing dramatically through the air. "Read how that woman has maligned us." Daphne calmly set down her embroidery and reached under the end table. She smoothed the sheet of paper out on her lap and read the paragraph about her family. Blinking, she looked up. "This isn't so bad, Mother. In fact, it's a veritable benediction compared to what she wrote about the Featheringtons last week. " "How am I supposed to find you a husband while that woman is slandering your name?" Daphne forced herself to exhale. After nearly two seasons in London, the mere mention of the word husband was enough to set her temples pounding. She wanted to marry, truly she did, and she wasn't even holding out for a true love match. But was it really too much to hope for a husband for whom one had at least some affection? Thus far, four men had asked for her hand, but when Daphne had thought about living the rest of her days in the company of any of them, she just couldn't do it. There were a number of men she thought might make reasonably good husbands, but the problem was_none of them was interested. Oh, they all liked her. Everyone liked her. Everyone thought she was funny and kind and a quick wit, and no one thought her the least bit unattractive, but at the same time, no one was dazzled by her beauty, stunned into speechlessness by her presence, or moved to write poetry in her honor. Men, she thought with disgust, were interested only in those women who terrified them. No one seemed inclined to court someone like her. They all adored her, or so they said, because she was so easy to talk to, and she always seemed to understand how a man felt. As one of the men Daphne had thought might make a reasonably good husband had said, "Deuce take it, Daff, you're just not like regular females. You're positively normal. " Which she might have managed to consider a compliment if he hadn't proceeded to wander off in search of the latest blond beauty. Daphne looked down and noticed that her hand was clenched into a fist. Then she looked up and realized her mother was staring at her, clearly waiting for her to say something. Since she had already exhaled, Daphne cleared her throat, and said, "I'm sure Lady Whistledown's little column is not going to hurt my chances for a husband." "Daphne, it's been two years!" "And Lady Whistledown has only been publishing for three months, so I hardly see how we can lay the blame at her door." "I'll lay the blame wherever I choose," Violet muttered. Daphne's fingernails bit her palms as she willed herself not to make a retort. She knew her mother had only her best interests at heart, she knew her mother loved her. And she loved her mother, too. In fact, until Daphne had reached marriageable age, Violet had been positively the best of mothers. She still was, when she wasn't despairing over the fact that after Daphne she had three more daughters to marry off. Violet pressed a delicate hand to her chest. "She cast aspersions on your parentage." "No," Daphne said slowly. It was always wise to proceed with caution when contradicting her mother. "Actually, what she said was that there could be no doubt that we are all legitimate. Which is more than one can say for most large families of the ton." "She shouldn't have even brought it up," Violet sniffed. "Mother, she's the author of a scandal sheet. It's her job to bring such things up. " "She isn't even a real person," Violet added angrily. She planted her hands on her slim hips, then changed her mind and shook her finger in the air. "Whistledown, ha! I've never heard of any Whistledowns. Whoever this depraved woman is, I doubt she's one of us. As if anyone of breeding would write such wicked lies. " "Of course she's one of us," Daphne said, her brown eyes filling with amusement. "If she weren't a, member of the ton, there is no way she'd be privy to the sort of news she reports. Did you think she was some sort of impostor, peeking in windows and listening at doors? " "I don't like your tone, Daphne Bridgerton," Violet said, her eyes narrowing. Daphne bit back another smile. "I don't like your tone," was Violet's standard answer when one of her children was winning an argument. But it was too much fun to tease her mother. "I wouldn't be surprised," she said, cocking her head to the side, "if Lady Whistledown was one of your "friends. " "Bite your tongue, Daphne. No friend of mine would ever stoop so low. " "Very well," Daphne allowed, "it's probably not one of your friends. But I'm certain it's someone we know. No interloper could ever obtain the information she reports. " Violet crossed her arms. "I should like to put her out of business once and for all. " "If you wish to put her out of business," Daphne could not resist pointing out, "you shouldn't support her by buying her newspaper. " "And what good would that do?" Violet demanded. "Everyone else is reading it. My puny little embargo would do nothing except make me look ignorant when everyone else is chuckling over her latest gossip. " That much was true, Daphne silently agreed. Fashionable London was positively addicted to Lady Whistledown's Society Papers. The mysterious newspaper had arrived on the doorstep of every member of the ton three months earlier. For two weeks it was delivered unbidden every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. And then, on the third Monday, butlers across London waited in vain for the pack of paperboys who normally delivered Whistledown, only to discover that instead of free delivery, they were selling the gossip sheet for the outrageous price of five pennies a paper. Daphne had to admire the fictitious Lady Whistledown's savvy. By the time she started forcing people to pay for their gossip, all the ton was addicted. Everyone forked over their pennies, and somewhere some meddlesome woman was getting very rich. While Violet paced the room and huffed about this "hideous slight" against her family, Daphne looked up to make certain her mother wasn't paying her any attention, then let her eyes drop to peruse the rest of the scandal sheet. Whistledown_as it was now called_was a curious mix of commentary, social news, scathing insult, and the occasional compliment. What set it apart from any previous society news sheets was that the author actually listed her subjects' names in full. There was no hiding behind abbreviations such as Lord S------and Lady G------. If Lady Whistledown wanted to write about someone, she used his full name. The ton declared themselves scandalized, but they were secretly fascinated. This most recent edition was typical Whistledown. Aside from the short piece on the Bridgertons_which was really no more than a description of the family_ Lady Whistledown had recounted the events at the previous night's ball. Daphne hadn't attended, as it had been her younger sister's birthday, and the Bridgertons always made a big fuss about birthdays. And with eight children, there were a lot of birthdays to celebrate . "You're reading that rubbish," Violet accused. Daphne looked up, refusing to feel the least bit guilty. "It's a rather good column today. Apparently Cecil Tumbley knocked over an entire tower of champagne glasses last night. " "Really?" Violet asked, trying not to look interested. "Mmm-hmm," Daphne replied. "She gives quite a good account of the Middlethorpe ball. Mentions who was talking to whom, what everyone was wearing_" "And I suppose she felt the need to offer her opinions on that point," Violet cut in. Daphne smiled wickedly. "Oh, come now, Mother. You know that Mrs. Featherington has always looked dreadful in purple." Violet tried not to smile. Daphne could see the corners of her mouth twitching as she tried to maintain the composure she deemed appropriate for a viscountess and mother. But within two seconds, she was grinning and sitting next to her daughter on the sofa. "Let me see that," she said, snatching up the paper. "What else happened? Did we miss anything important? " Daphne said, "Really, Mother, with Lady Whistledown as a reporter, one needn't actually attend any events." She waved toward the paper. "This is almost as good as actually being there. Better, probably. I'm certain we had better food last night than they did at the ball. And give that back." She yanked the paper back, leaving a torn corner in Violet's hands. "Daphne!" Daphne affected mock righteousness. "I was reading it." "Well! " "Listen to this." Violet leaned in. Daphne read: ""The rake formerly known as Earl Clyvedon has finally seen fit to grace London with his presence. Although he has not yet deigned to make an appearance at a respectable evening function, the new Duke of Hastings has been spotted several times at White's and once at Tattersall's.' " She paused to take a breath. "'His grace has resided abroad for six years. Can it be any coincidence that he has returned only now that the old duke is dead?'" Daphne looked up. "My goodness, she is blunt, isn't she? Isn't Clyvedon one of Anthony's friends?" "He's Hastings now," Violet said automatically, "and yes, I do believe he and Anthony were friendly at Oxford. And Eton as well, I think." Her brow scrunched and her blue eyes narrowed with thought. "He was something of a hellion, if my memory serves. Always at odds with his father. But reputed to be quite brilliant. I'm fairly sure that Anthony said he took a first in mathematics. Which," she added with a maternal roll of her eyes, "is more than I can say for any of my children. " "Now, now, Mother," Daphne teased. "I'm sure I would take a first if Oxford would only see fit to admit women." Violet snorted. "I corrected your arithmetic papers when your governess was ill, Daphne." "Well, maybe in history, then," Daphne said with a grin. She looked back down at the paper in her hands, her eyes straying to the new duke's name. "He sounds quite interesting," she murmured. Violet looked at her sharply. "He's quite unsuitable for a young lady of your years is what he is." "Funny how my 'years,' as you put it, volley back and forth between being so young that I cannot even meet Anthony's friends and being so old that you despair of my ever contracting a good marriage." " Daphne Bridgerton, I don't_ " " _like my tone, I know." Daphne grinned. "But you love me ." Violet smiled warmly and wrapped an arm around Daphne's shoulder. "Heaven help me, I do. " Daphne gave her mother a quick peck on the cheek. "It's the curse of motherhood. You're required to love us even when we vex you. " Violet just sighed. "I hope that someday you have children_" "_just like me, I know." Daphne smiled nostalgically and rested her head on her mother's shoulder. Her mother could be overly inquisitive, and her father had been more interested in hounds and hunting than he'd been in society affairs, but theirs had been a warm marriage, filled with love, laughter, and children. "I could do a great deal worse than follow your example, Mother," she murmured. "Why, Daphne," Violet said, her eyes growing watery, "what a lovely thing to say. " Daphne twirled a lock of her chestnut hair around her finger, and grinned, letting the sentimental moment melt into a more teasing one. "I'm happy to follow in your footsteps when it comes to marriage and children, Mother, just so long as I don't have to have eight. " * * * At that exact moment, Simon Basset, the new Duke of Hastings and the erstwhile topic of the Bridgerton ladies' conversation, was sitting at White's. His companion was none other than Anthony Bridgerton, Daphne's eldest brother. The two cut a striking pair, both tall and athletic, with thick dark hair. But where Anthony's eyes were the same deep chocolate brown as his sister's, Simon's were icy blue, with an oddly penetrating gaze. It was those eyes as much as anything that had earned him his reputation as a man to be reckoned with. When he stared at a person, clear and unwavering, men grew uncomfortable. Women positively shivered. But not Anthony. The two men had known each other for years, and Anthony just laughed when Simon raised a brow and turned his icy gaze upon him. "You forget, I've seen you with your head being lowered into a chamber pot," Anthony had once told him. "It's been difficult to take you seriously ever since. " To which Simon had replied, "Yes, but if I recall, you were the one holding me over that fragrant receptacle ." "One of my proudest moments, to be sure. But you had your revenge the next night in the form of a dozen eels in my bed. " Simon allowed himself a smile as he remembered both the incident and their subsequent conversation about it. Anthony was a good friend, just the sort a man would want by his side in a pinch. He'd been the first person Simon had looked up upon returning to England. "It's damned fine to have you back, Clyvedon," Anthony said, once they'd settled in at their table at White's. "Oh, but I suppose you'll insist I call you Hastings now. " "No," Simon said rather emphatically. "Hastings will always be my father. He never answered to anything else." He paused. "I'll assume his title if I must, but I won't be called by his name. " "If you must?" Anthony's eyes widened slightly. "Most men would not sound quite so resigned about the prospect of a dukedom. " Simon raked a hand through his dark hair. He knew he was supposed to cherish his birthright and display unwavering pride in the Basset family's illustrious history, but the truth was it all made him sick inside. He'd spent his entire life not living up to his father's expectations; it seemed ridiculous now to try to live up to his name. "It's a damned burden is what it is," he finally grumbled. "You'd best get used to it," Anthony said pragmatically, "because that's what everyone will call you. " Simon knew it was true, but he doubted if the title would ever sit well upon his shoulders. "Well, whatever the case," Anthony added, respecting his friend's privacy by not delving further into what was obviously an uncomfortable topic, "I'm glad to have you back. I might finally get some peace next time I escort my sister to a ball. " Simon leaned back, crossing his long, muscular legs at the ankles. "An intriguing remark. " Anthony raised a brow. "One that you're certain I'll explain? " "But of course. " "I ought to let you learn for yourself, but then, I've never been a cruel man. " Simon chuckled. "This coming from the man who dunked my head in a chamber pot? " Anthony waved his hand dismissively. "I was young. " "And now you're a model of mature decorum and respectability? " Anthony grinned. "Absolutely. " "So tell me," Simon drawled, "how, exactly, am I meant to make your existence that much more peaceful? " "I assume you plan to take your place in society? " "You assume incorrectly. " "But you are planning to attend Lady Danbury's ball this week," Anthony said. "Only because I am inexplicably fond of the old woman. She says what she means, and_" Simon's eyes grew somewhat shuttered. "And?" Anthony prompted. Simon gave his head a little shake. "It's nothing. Just that she was rather kind to me as a child. I spent a few school holidays at her house with Riverdale. Her nephew, you know ." Anthony nodded once. "I see. So you have no intention of entering society. I'm impressed by your resolve. But allow me to warn you_even if you do not choose to attend the ton's events, they will find you. " Simon, who had chosen that moment to take a sip of his brandy, choked on the spirit at the look on Anthony's face when he said, "they." After a few moments of coughing and sputtering, he finally managed to say, "Who, pray tell', are 'they'? " Anthony shuddered. "Mothers. " "Not having had one myself, I can't say I grasp your point. " "Society mothers, you dolt. Those fire-breathing dragons with daughters of_God help us_marriageable age. You can run, but you'll never manage to hide from them. And I should warn you, my own is the worst of the lot. " "Good God. And here I thought Africa was dangerous ." Anthony shot his friend a faintly pitying look. "They will hunt you down. And when they find you, you will find yourself trapped in conversation with a pale young lady all dressed in white who cannot converse on topics other than the weather, who received vouchers to Almack's, and hair ribbons. " A look of amusement crossed Simon's features. "I take it, then, that during my time abroad you have become something of an eligible gentleman? " "Not out of any aspirations to the role on my part, I assure you. If it were up to me, I'd avoid society functions like the plague. But my sister made her bow last year, and I'm forced to escort her from time to time. " " Daphne, you mean? " Anthony looked up in surprise. "Did the two of you ever meet? " "No," Simon admitted, "but I remember her letters to you at school, and I recalled that she was fourth in the family, so she had to start with D, and_ " "Ah, yes," Anthony said with a slight roll of his eyes, "the Bridgerton method of naming children. Guaranteed to make certain no one forgets who you are. " Simon laughed. "It worked, didn't it? " "Say, Simon," Anthony suddenly said, leaning forward, "I've promised my mother I'll have dinner at Bridgerton House later this week with the family. Why don't you join me? " Simon raised a dark brow. "Didn't you just warn me about society mothers and debutante daughters? " Anthony laughed. "I'll put my mother on her best behavior, and don't worry about Daff. She's the exception that proves the rule. You'll like her immensely. " Simon narrowed his eyes. Was Anthony playing matchmaker? He couldn't tell. As if Anthony were reading his thoughts, he laughed. "Good God, you don't think I'm trying to pair you off with Daphne, do you? " Simon said nothing. "You would never suit. You're a bit too brooding for her tastes. " Simon thought that an odd comment, but instead chose to ask, "Has she had any offers, then? " "A few." Anthony kicked back the rest of his brandy, then let out a satisfied exhale. "I've allowed her to refuse them all. " "That's rather indulgent of you ." Anthony shrugged. "Love is probably too much to hope for in a marriage these days, but I don't see why she shouldn't be happy with her husband. We've had offers from one man old enough to be her father, another old enough to be her father's younger brother, one who was rather too high in the instep for our often boisterous clan, and then this week, dear God, that was the worst! " "What happened?" Simon asked curiously. Anthony gave his temples a weary rub. "This last one was perfectly amiable, but a rather bit dim in the head. You'd think, after our rakish days, I'd be completely without feelings_ " "Really?" Simon asked with a devilish grin. "You'd think that? " Anthony scowled at him. "I didn't particularly enjoy breaking this poor fool's heart. " "Er, wasn't Daphne the one to do that? " "Yes, but I had to tell him. " "Not many brothers would allow their sister such latitude with their marriage proposals," Simon said quietly. Anthony just shrugged again, as if he couldn't imagine treating his sister in any other way. "She's been a good sister to me. It's the least I can do. " "Even if it means escorting her to Almack's?" Simon said wickedly. Anthony groaned. "Even then ." "I'd console you by pointing out that this will all be over soon, but you've what, three other sisters waiting in the wings? " Anthony positively slumped in his seat. "Eloise is due out in two years, and Francesca the year after that, but then I've a bit of a reprieve before Hyacinth comes of age. " Simon chuckled. "I don't envy you your responsibilities in that quarter." But even as he said the words, he felt a strange longing, and he wondered what it would be like to be not quite so alone in this world. He had no plans to start a family of his own, but maybe if he'd had one to begin with, his life would have turned out a bit differently . "So you'll come for supper, then?" Anthony stood. "Informal, of course. We never take meals formally when it's just family. " Simon had a dozen things to do in the next few days, but before he could remind himself that he needed to get his affairs in order, he heard himself saying, "I'd be delighted. " "Excellent. And I'll see you at the Danbury bash first? " Simon shuddered. "Not if I can help it. My aim is to be in and out in under thirty minutes. " "You really think," Anthony said, raising a doubtful brow, "that you're going to be able to go to the party, pay your respects to Lady Danbury, and leave? " Simon's nod was forceful and direct. But Anthony's snort of laughter was not terribly reassuring. Chapter 2 The new Duke of Hastings is a most interesting character. While it is common knowledge that he was not on favorable terms with his father, even This Author is unable to learn the reason for the estrangement. Lady Whistledown's Society Papers , 26 April 1813 Later that week, Daphne found herself standing on the fringes of Lady Danbury's ballroom, far away from the fashionable crowd. She was quite content with her position. Normally she would have enjoyed the festivities; she liked a good party as well as the next young lady, but earlier that evening, Anthony had informed her that Nigel Berbrooke had sought him out two days earlier and asked for her hand. Again. Anthony had, of course, refused (again!), but Daphne had the sinking feeling that Nigel was going to prove uncomfortably persistent. After all, two marriage proposals in two weeks did not paint a picture of a man who accepted defeat easily . Across the ballroom she could see him looking this way and that, and she shrank further into the shadows. She had no idea how to deal with the poor man. He wasn't very bright, but he also wasn't unkind, and though she knew she had to somehow put an end to his infatuation, she was finding it far easier to take the coward's way out and simply avoid him. She was considering slinking into the ladies' retiring room when a familiar voice stopped her in her tracks. "I say, Daphne, what are you doing all the way over here? " Daphne looked up to see her eldest brother making his way toward her. "Anthony," she said, trying to decide if she was pleased to see him or annoyed that he might be coming over to meddle in her affairs. "I hadn't realized you would be in attendance. " "Mother," he said grimly. No other words were necessary. "Ah," Daphne said with a sympathetic nod. "Say no more. I understand completely. " "She made a list of potential brides." He shot his sister a beleaguered look. "We do love her, don't we? " Daphne choked on a laugh. "Yes, Anthony, we do ." "It's temporary insanity," he grumbled. "It has to be. There is no other explanation. She was a perfectly reasonable mother until you reached marriageable age. " "Me?" Daphne squeaked. "Then this is all my fault? You're a full eight years older than I am!" "Yes, but she wasn't gripped by this matrimonial fervor until you came along. " Daphne snorted. "Forgive me if I lack sympathy. I received a list last year. " "Did you? " "Of course. And lately she's been threatening to deliver them to me on a weekly basis. She badgers me on the issue of marriage far more than you could ever imagine. After all, bachelors are a challenge. Spinsters are merely pathetic. And in case you hadn't noticed, I'm female. " Anthony let out a low chuckle. "I'm your brother. I don't notice those things." He gave her a sly, sideways look. "Did you bring it? " " My list? Heavens, no. What can you be thinking? " His smile widened. "I brought mine. " Daphne gasped. "You didn't! " "I did. Just to torture Mother. I'm going peruse it right in front of her, pull out my quizzing glass_ " " You don't have a quizzing glass. " He grinned_the slow, devastatingly wicked smile that all Bridgerton males seemed to possess. "I bought one just for this occasion ." " Anthony, you absolutely cannot. She will kill you. And then, somehow, she'll find a way to blame me. " " I'm counting on it. " Daphne swatted him in the shoulder, eliciting a loud enough grunt to cause a half dozen partygoers to send curious looks in their direction. "A solid punch," Anthony said, rubbing his arm. "A girl can't live long with four brothers without learning how to throw one." She crossed her arms. "Let me see your list ." " After you just assaulted me? " Daphne rolled her brown eyes and cocked her head in a decidedly impatient gesture. "Oh, very well." He reached into his waistcoat, pulled out a folded slip of paper, and handed it to her. "Tell me what you think. I'm sure you'll have no end of cutting remarks ." Daphne unfolded the paper and stared down at her mother's neat, elegant handwriting. The Viscountess Bridgerton had listed the names of eight women. Eight very eligible, very wealthy young women. "Precisely what I expected," Daphne murmured . "Is it as dreadful as I think? " " Worse. Philipa Featherington is as dumb as a post ." " And the rest of them? " Daphne looked up at him under raised brows. "You didn't really want to get married this year, anyway, did you? " Anthony winced. "And how was your list? " " Blessedly out-of-date, now. Three of the five married last season. Mother is still berating me for letting them slip through my fingers ." The two Bridgertons let out identical sighs as they slumped against the wall. Violet Bridgerton was undeterred in her mission to marry off her children. Anthony, her eldest son, and Daphne, her eldest daughter, had borne the brunt of the pressure, although Daphne suspected that the viscountess might have cheerfully married off ten-year-old Hyacinth if she'd received a suitable offer. " Good God, you look a pair of sad sorts. What are you doing so far off in the corner? " Another instantly recognizable voice. "Benedict," Daphne said, glancing sideways at him without moving her head. "Don't tell me Mother managed to get you to attend tonight's festivities ." He nodded grimly. "She has completely bypassed cajoling and moved on to guilt. Three times this week she has reminded me I may have to provide the next viscount, if Anthony here doesn't get busy. " Anthony groaned. "I assume that explains your flight as well to the darkest corners of the ballroom?" Benedict continued. "Avoiding Mother? " "Actually," Anthony replied, "I saw Daff skulking in the corner and_ " "Skulking?" Benedict said with mock horror. She shot them both an irritated scowl. "I came over to hide from Nigel Berbrooke," she explained. "I left Mother in the company of Lady Jersey, so she's not likely to pester me anytime soon, but Nigel_ " "Is more monkey than man," Benedict quipped. "Well, I wouldn't have put it that way precisely," Daphne said, trying to be kind, "but he isn't terribly bright, and it's so much easier to stay out of his way than to hurt his feelings. Of course now that you lot have found me, I shan't be able to avoid him for long. " Anthony voiced a simple, "Oh? " Daphne looked at her two older brothers, both an inch above six feet with broad shoulders and melting brown eyes. They each sported thick chestnut hair_much the same color as her own_and more to the point, they could not go anywhere in polite society without a small gaggle of twittering young ladies following them about. And where a gaggle of twittering young ladies went, Nigel Berbrooke was sure to follow. Already Daphne could see heads turning in their direction. Ambitious mamas were nudging their daughters and pointing to the two Bridgerton brothers, off by themselves with no company save for their sister. "I knew I should have made for the retiring room," Daphne muttered. "I say, what's that piece of paper in your hand, Daff?" Benedict inquired. Somewhat absentmindedly, she handed him the list of Anthony's supposed brides. At Benedict's loud chortle, Anthony crossed his arms, and said, "Try not to have too much fun at my expense. I predict you'll be receiving a similar list next week ." "No doubt," Benedict agreed. "It's a wonder Colin_" His eyes snapped up. "Colin! " Yet another Bridgerton brother joined the crowd. "Oh, Colin!" Daphne exclaimed, throwing her arms around him. "It's so good to see you. " "Note that we didn't receive similarly enthusiastic greetings," Anthony said to Benedict. "You I see all the time," Daphne retorted. "Colin's been away a full year." After giving him one last squeeze, she stepped back, and scolded, "We didn't expect you until next week ." Colin's one-shoulder shrug matched his lopsided smile to perfection. "Paris grew dull. " "Ah," Daphne said with a shrewd look in her eye. "Then you ran out of money. " Colin laughed and held up his hands in surrender. "Guilty as charged ." Anthony hugged his brother, and said gruffly, "It's damned fine to have you home, brother. Although the funds I sent you should have lasted you at least until_ " "Stop," Colin said helplessly, laughter still tingeing his voice. "I promise you may scold me all you want tomorrow. Tonight I merely wish to enjoy the company of my beloved family. " Benedict let out a snort. "You must be completely broke if you're calling us 'beloved.' " But he leaned forward to give his brother a hearty hug all the same. "Welcome home. " Colin, always the most devil-may-care of the family, grinned, his green eyes twinkling. "Good to be back. Although I must say the weather is not nearly so fine as on the Continent, and as for the women, well, England would be hard pressed to compete with the signorina I_ " Daphne punched him in the arm. "Kindly recall that there is a lady present, churl." But there was little ire in her voice. Of all her siblings, Colin was the closest to her in age_only eighteen months her elder. As children, they had been inseparable_and always in trouble. Colin was a natural prankster, and Daphne had never needed much convincing to go along with his schemes. "Does Mother know you're home?" she asked. Colin shook his head. "I arrived to an empty house, and_ " "Yes, Mother put the younger ones to bed early tonight," Daphne interrupted. "I didn't want to wait about and twiddle my thumbs, so Humboldt gave me your direction and I came here. " Daphne beamed, her wide smile lending warmth to her dark eyes. "I'm glad you did. " "Where is Mother?" Colin asked, craning his neck to peer over the crowd. Like all Bridgerton males, he was tall, so he didn't have to stretch very far. "Over in the corner with Lady Jersey," Daphne replied. Colin shuddered. "I'll wait until she's extricated herself. I have no wish to be flayed alive by that dragon. " "Speaking of dragons," Benedict said pointedly. His head didn't move, but his eyes flicked off to the left. Daphne followed his line of vision to see Lady Danbury marching slowly toward them. She carried a cane, but Daphne swallowed nervously and steeled her shoulders. Lady Danbury's often cutting wit was legendary among the ton. Daphne had always suspected that a sentimental heart beat under her acerbic exterior, but still, it was always terrifying when Lady Danbury pressed one into conversation. "No escape," Daphne heard one of her brothers groan. Daphne shushed him and offered the old lady a hesitant smile. Lady Danbury's brows rose, and when she was but four feet away from the group of Bridgertons, she stopped, and barked, "Don't pretend you don't see me! " This was followed by a thump of the cane so loud that Daphne jumped back just enough to trample Benedict's toe. "Euf," said Benedict. Since her brothers appeared to have gone temporarily mute (except for Benedict, of course, but Daphne didn't think that grunts of pain counted as intelligible speech) Daphne swallowed, and said, "I hope I did not give that impression, Lady Danbury, for_ " "Not you," Lady Danbury said imperiously. She jabbed her cane into the air, making a perfectly horizontal line that ended perilously close to Colin's stomach. "Them. " A chorus of mumbled greetings emerged as a response. Lady Danbury flicked the men the briefest of glances before turning back to Daphne, and saying, "Mr. Berbrooke was asking after you. " Daphne actually felt her skin turn green. "He was? " Lady Danbury gave her a curt nod. "I'd nip that one in the bud, were I you, Miss Bridgerton. " "Did you tell him where I was? " Lady Danbury's mouth slid into a sly, conspiratorial smile. "I always knew I liked you. And no, I did not tell him where you were ." "Thank you," Daphne said gratefully. "It'd be a waste of a good mind if you were shackled to that nitwit," Lady Danbury said, "and the good Lord knows that the ton can't afford to waste the few good minds we've got. " "Er, thank you," Daphne said. "As for you lot"_Lady Danbury waved her cane at Daphne's brothers_"I still reserve judgment. You"_ she pointed the cane at Anthony_"I'm inclined to be favorable toward, since you refused Berbrooke's suit on your sister's behalf, but the rest of you . Hmmph. " And with that she walked away. "'Hmmph?'" Benedict echoed. "'Hmmph?' She purports to quantify my intelligence and all she comes up with is 'Hmmph?' " Daphne smirked. "She likes me ." "You're welcome to her," Benedict grumbled. "Rather sporting of her to warn you about Berbrooke," Anthony admitted. Daphne nodded. "I believe that was my cue to take my leave." She turned to Anthony with a beseeching look. "If he comes looking for me_ " "I'll take care of it," he said gently. "Don't worry. " "Thank you." And then, with a smile to her brothers, she slipped out of the ballroom. * * * As Simon walked quietly through the halls of Lady Danbury's London home, it occurred to him that he was in a singularly good mood. This, he thought with a chuckle, was truly remarkable, considering the fact that he was about to attend a society ball and thus subject himself to all the horrors Anthony Bridgerton had laid out before him earlier that afternoon. But he could console himself with the knowledge that after today, he needn't bother with such functions again; as he had told Anthony earlier that afternoon, he was only attending this particular ball out of loyalty to Lady Danbury, who, despite her curmudgeonly ways, had always been quite nice to him as a child. His good mood, he was coming to realize, derived from the simple fact that he was pleased to be back in England. Not that he hadn't enjoyed his journeys across the globe. He'd traveled the length and breadth of Europe, sailed the exquisitely blue seas of the Mediterranean , and delved into the mysteries of North Africa. From there he'd gone on to the Holy Land, and then, when inquiries revealed that it was not yet time to return home, he crossed the Atlantic and explored the West Indies. At that point he considered moving on to the United States of America, but the new nation had seen fit to enter into conflict with Britain, so Simon had stayed away. Besides, that was when he'd learned that his father, ill for several years, had finally died. It was ironic, really. Simon wouldn't have traded his years of exploration for anything. Six years gave a man a lot of time to think, a lot of time to learn what it meant to be a man. And yet the only reason the then-twenty-two-year-old Simon had left England was because his father had suddenly decided that he was finally willing to accept his son. Simon hadn't been willing to accept his father, though, and so he'd simply packed his bags and left the country, preferring exile to the old duke's hypocritical overtures of affection. It had all started when Simon had finished at Oxford. The duke hadn't originally wanted to pay for his son's schooling; Simon had once seen a letter written to a tutor stating that he refused to let his idiot son make a fool of the family at Eton. But Simon had had a hungry mind as well as a stubborn heart, and so he'd ordered a carriage to take him to Eton, knocked on the headmaster's door, and announced his presence. It had been the most terrifying thing he'd ever done, but he'd somehow managed to convince the headmaster that the mix-up was the school's fault, that somehow Eton must have lost his enrollment papers and fees. He'd copied all of his father's mannerisms, raising an arrogant brow, lifting his chin, and looking down his nose, and generally appearing as if he thought he owned the world. And the entire time, he'd been quaking in his shoes, terrified that at any moment his words would grow garbled and land on top of each other, that "I am Earl Clyvedon, and I am here to begin classes," would instead come out as, "I am Earl Clyvedon, and I am h-h-h-h-h-h_ " But it hadn't, and the headmaster, who'd spent enough years educating England's elite to immediately recognize Simon as a member of the Basset family, had enrolled him posthaste and without question. It had taken several months for the duke (who was always quite busy with his own pursuits) to learn of his son's new status and change in residence. By that point, Simon was well ensconced at Eton, and it would have looked very bad if the duke had pulled the boy out of school for no reason. And the duke didn't like to look bad. Simon had often wondered why his father hadn't chosen to make an overture at that time. Clearly Simon wasn't tripping over his every word at Eton; the duke would have heard from the headmaster if his son weren't able to keep up with his studies. Simon's speech still occasionally slipped, but by then he'd grown remarkably proficient in covering up his mistakes with a cough or, if he was lucky enough to be taking a meal at the time, a well-timed sip of tea or milk. But the duke never even wrote him a letter. Simon supposed his father had grown so used to ignoring his son that it didn't even matter that he wasn't proving to be an embarrassment to the Basset name. After Eton, Simon followed the natural progression to Oxford, where he earned the reputations of both scholar and rake. Truth be told, he hadn't deserved the label of rake any more than most of the young bucks at university, but Simon's somewhat aloof demeanor somehow fed the persona. Simon wasn't exactly certain how it had happened, but gradually he became aware that his peers craved his approval. He was intelligent and athletic, but it seemed his elevated status had more to do with his manner than anything else. Because Simon didn't speak when words were not necessary, people judged him to be arrogant, just as a future duke should be. Because he preferred to surround himself with only those friends with whom he truly felt comfortable, people decided he was exceptionally discriminating in his choice of companions, just as a future duke should be. He wasn't very talkative, but when he did say something, he had a quick and often ironic wit_just the sort of humor that guaranteed that people would hang on his every word. And again, because he didn't constantly run off at the mouth, as did so many of the ton, people were even more obsessed with what he had to say. He was called "supremely confident," "heartstoppingly handsome," and "the perfect specimen of English manhood." Men wanted his opinion on any number of topics. The women swooned at his feet. Simon never could quite believe it all, but he enjoyed his status nonetheless, taking what was offered him, running wild with his friends, and enjoying the company of all the young widows and opera singers who sought his attention_and every escapade was all the more delicious for knowing that his father must disapprove. But, as it turned out, his father didn't entirely disapprove. Unbeknownst to Simon, the Duke of Hastings had already begun to grow interested in the progress of his only son. He requested academic reports from the university and hired a Bow Street Runner to keep him apprised of Simon's extracurricular activities. And eventually, the duke stopped expecting every missive to contain tales of his son's idiocy. It would have been impossible to pinpoint exactly when his change of heart occurred, but one day the duke realized that his son had turned out rather nicely, after all. The duke puffed out with pride. As always, good breeding had proven true in the end. He should have known that Basset blood could not produce an imbecile. Upon finishing Oxford with a first in mathematics, Simon came to London with his friends. He had, of course, taken bachelor's lodgings, having no wish to reside with his father. And as Simon went out in society, more and more people misinterpreted his pregnant pauses for arrogance and his small circle of friends for exclusivity. His reputation was sealed when Beau Brummel_the then recognized leader of society_had asked a rather involved question about some trivial new fashion. Brummel's tone had been condescending and he had clearly hoped to embarrass the young lord. As all London knew, Brummel loved nothing better than to reduce England's elite into blithering idiots. And so he had pretended to care about Simon's opinion, ending his question with a drawled, "Don't you think? " As an audience of gossips watched with baited breath, Simon, who couldn't have cared less about the specific arrangement of the Prince's cravat, simply turned his icy blue eyes on Brummel, and answered, "No. " No explanation, no elaboration, just, "No ." And then he walked away. By the next afternoon, Simon might as well have been the king of society. The irony was unnerving. Simon didn't care for Brummel or his tone, and he would probably have delivered a more loquacious set-down if he'd been sure he could do so without stumbling over his words. And yet in this particular instance, less had most definitely proven to be more, and Simon's terse sentence had turned out to be far more deadly than any long-winded speech he might have uttered. Word of the brilliant and devastatingly handsome Hastings heir naturally reached the duke's ears. And although he did not immediately seek Simon out, Simon began to hear bits and pieces of gossip that warned him that his relationship with his father might soon see a change. The duke had laughed when he'd heard of the Brummel incident, and said, "Naturally. He's a Basset." An acquaintance mentioned that the duke had been heard crowing about Simon's first at Oxford. And then the two came face-to-face at a London ball. The duke would not allow Simon to give him the cut direct. Simon tried. Oh, how he tried. But no one had the ability to crush his confidence like his father, and as he stared at the duke, who might as well have been a mirror image, albeit slightly older version, of himself, he couldn't move, couldn't even try to speak. His tongue felt thick, his mouth felt odd, and it almost seemed as if his stutters had spread from his mouth to his body, for he suddenly didn't even feel right in his own skin. The duke had taken advantage of Simon's momentary lapse of reason by embracing him with a heartfelt, "Son. " Simon had left the country the very next day. He'd known that it would be impossible to avoid his father completely if he remained in England. And he refused to act the part of his son after having been denied a father for so many years. Besides, lately he'd been growing bored of London's wild life. Rake's reputation aside, Simon didn't really have the temperament of a true debauche. He had enjoyed his nights on the town as much as any of his dissolute cronies, but after three years in Oxford and one in London, the endless round of parties and prostitutes was growing, well, old. And so he left. Now, however, he was glad to be back. There was something soothing about being home, something peaceful and serene about an English springtime. And after six years of solitary travel, it was damned good to find his friends again. He moved silently through the halls, making his way to the ballroom. He hadn't wanted to be announced; the last thing he desired was a declaration of his presence. The afternoon's conversation with Anthony Bridgerton had reaffirmed his decision not to take an active role in London society . He had no plans to marry. Ever. And there wasn't much point in attending ton parties if one wasn't looking for a wife. Still, he felt he owed some loyalty to Lady Danbury after her many kindnesses during his childhood, and truth be told, he held a great deal of affection for the forthright old lady. It would have been the height of rudeness to spurn her invitation, especially since it had come accompanied by a personal note welcoming him back to the country. Since Simon knew his way around this house, he'd entered through a side door. If all went well, he could slip unobtrusively into the ballroom, give his regards to Lady Danbury, and leave. But as he turned a corner, he heard voices, and he froze. Simon suppressed a groan. He'd interrupted a lovers' tryst. Bloody hell. How to extricate himself without notice? If his presence was discovered, the ensuing scene was sure to be replete with histrionics, embarrassment, and no end of tedious emotion. Better just to melt into the shadows and let the lovers go on their merry way. But as Simon started backing quietly up, he heard something that caught his attention. "No." No? Had some young lady been forced into the deserted hallway against her will? Simon had no great desire to be anyone's hero, but even he could not let such an insult pass. He craned his neck slightly, pressing his ear forward so that he might hear better. After all, he might have heard incorrectly. If no one needed saving, he certainly wasn't going to charge forward like some bullish fool. " Nigel," the girl was saying, "you really shouldn't have followed me out here ." " But I love you!" the young man cried out in a passionate voice. "All I want is to make you my wife ." Simon nearly groaned. Poor besotted fool. It was painful to listen to. "Nigel," she said again, her voice surprisingly kind and patient, "my brother has already told you that I cannot marry you. I hope that we may continue on as friends. " " But your brother doesn't understand! " " Yes," she said firmly, "he does. " " Dash it all! If you don't marry me, who will? " Simon blinked in surprise. As proposals went, this one was decidedly unromantic. The girl apparently thought so, too. "Well," she said, sounding a bit disgruntled, "it's not as if there aren't dozens of other young ladies in Lady Danbury's ballroom right now. I'm sure one of them would be thrilled to marry you. " Simon leaned forward slightly so that he could get a glimpse of the scene. The girl was in shadows, but he could see the man quite clearly. His face held a hangdog expression, and his shoulders were slumped forward in defeat. Slowly, he shook his head. "No," he said forlornly, "they don't. Don't you see? They.they._ Simon winced as the man fought for words. He didn't appear to be stuttering so much as emotionally overcome, but it was never pleasant when one couldn't get a sentence out. " No one's as nice as you," the man finally said. "You're the only one who ever smiles at me. " " Oh, Nigel," the girl said, sighing deeply. "I'm sure that's not true. " But Simon could tell she was just trying to be kind. And as she sighed again, it became apparent to him that she would not need any rescuing. She seemed to have the situation well in hand, and while Simon felt vague pangs of sympathy for the hapless Nigel, there wasn't anything he could do to help. Besides, he was beginning to feel like the worst sort of voyeur. He started inching backward, keeping his eye focused on a door that he knew led to the library. There was another door on the other side of that room, one that led to the conservatory. From there he could enter the main hall and make his way to the ballroom. It wouldn't be as discreet as cutting through the back corridors, but at least poor Nigel wouldn't know that his humiliation had had a witness . But then, just a footstep away from a clean getaway, he heard the girl squeal. "You have to marry me!" Nigel cried out. "You have to! I'll never find anyone else_" "Nigel, stop!" Simon turned around, groaning. It looked like he was going to have to rescue the chit, after all. He strode back into the hall, putting his sternest, most dukish expression on his face. The words, "I believe the lady asked you to stop," rested on the tip of his tongue, but it seemed that he wasn't fated to play the hero tonight, after all, because before he could make a sound, the young lady pulled back her right arm and landed a surprisingly effective punch squarely on Nigel's jaw. Nigel went down, his arms comically flailing in the air as his legs slid out from under him. Simon just stood there, watching in disbelief as the girl dropped to her knees. " Oh dear," she said, her voice squeaking slightly. "Nigel, are you all right? I didn't mean to hit you so hard." Simon laughed. He couldn't help it. The girl looked up, startled. Simon caught his breath. She had been in shadows until now, and all he'd been able to discern of her appearance was a wealth of thick, dark hair. But now, as she lifted her head to face him, he saw that she had large, equally dark eyes, and the widest, lushest mouth he'd ever seen. Her heart-shaped face wasn't beautiful by society standards, but something about her quite simply sucked the breath from his body . Her brows, thick but delicately winged, drew together. "Who," she asked, not sounding at all pleased to see him, "are you? " Chapter 3 It has been whispered to This Author that Nigel Berbrooke was seen at Moreton's Jewelry Shop purchasing a diamond solitaire ring. Can a new Mrs. Berbrooke be very far behind? Lady Whistledown's Society Papers, 28 April 1813 The night, Daphne decided, couldn't possibly get much worse. First she'd been forced to spend the evening in the darkest corner of ballroom (which wasn't such an easy task, since Lady Danbury clearly appreciated both the aesthetic and illuminating qualities of candles), then she'd managed to trip over Philipa Featherington's foot as she tried to make her escape, which had led Philipa, never the quietest girl in the room, to squeal, "Daphne Bridgerton! Are you hurt?" Which must have captured Nigel's attention, for his head had snapped up like startled bird, and he'd immediately started hurrying across the ballroom. Daphne had hoped, no prayed that she could outrun him and make it to the ladies' retiring room before he caught up with her, but no, Nigel had cornered her in the hall and started wailing out his love for her. It was all embarrassing enough, but now it appeared this man_this shockingly handsome and almost disturbingly poised stranger_had witnessed the entire thing. And worse, he was laughing! Daphne glared at him as he chuckled at her expense. She'd never seen him before, so he had to be new to London. Her mother had made certain that Daphne had been introduced to, or at least been made aware of, all eligible gentlemen. Of course, this man could be married and therefore not on Violet's list of potential victims, but Daphne instinctively knew that he could not have been long in London without all the world whispering about it . His face was quite simply perfection. It took only a moment to realize that he put all of Michelangelo's statues to shame. His eyes were oddly intense_so blue they practically glowed. His hair was thick and dark, and he was tall_as tall as her brothers, which was a rare thing. This was a man. Daphne thought wryly, who could quite possibly steal the gaggle of twittering young ladies away from the Bridgerton men for good. Why that annoyed her so much, she didn't know. Maybe it was because she knew a man like him would never be interested in a woman like her. Maybe it was because she felt like the veriest frump sitting there on the floor in his splendid presence. Maybe it was simply because he was standing there laughing as if she were some sort of circus amusement. But whatever the case, an uncharacteristic peevishness rose within her, and her brows drew together as she asked, "Who are you? " Simon didn't know why he didn't answer her question in a straightforward manner, but some devil within caused him to reply, "My intention had been to be your rescuer, but you clearly had no need of my services. " "Oh," the girl said, sounding slightly mollified. She clamped her lips together, twisting them slightly as she considered his words. "Well, thank you, then, I suppose! Pity you didn't reveal yourself ten seconds earlier. I'd rather not have had to hit him. " Simon looked down at the man on the ground. A bruise was already darkening on his chin, and he was moaning, "Laffy, oh Laffy. I love you, Laffy. " "You're Laffy, I presume?" Simon murmured, sliding his gaze up to her face. Really, she was quite an attractive little thing, and from this angle the bodice of her gown seemed almost decadently low. She scowled at him, clearly not appreciating his attempt at subtle humor_and also clearly not realizing that his heavy-lidded gaze had rested on portions of her anatomy that were not her face. "What are we to do with him?" she asked. "'We?'" Simon echoed. Her scowl deepened. "You did say you aspired to be my rescuer, didn't you? " "So I did." Simon planted his hands on his hips and assessed the situation. "Shall I drag him out into the street? " "Of course not!" she exclaimed. "For goodness sake, isn't it still raining outside? " "My dear Miss Laffy," Simon said, not particularly concerned about the condescending tone of his voice, "don't you think your concern is slightly misplaced? This man tried to attack you ." "He didn't try to attack me," she replied. "He just.He just.Oh, very well, he tried to attack me. But he would never have done me any real harm. " Simon raised a brow. Truly, women were the most contrary creatures. "And you can be sure of that? " He watched as she carefully chose her words. "Nigel isn't capable of malice," she said slowly. "All he is guilty of is misjudgement." "You're a more generous soul than I, then," Simon said quietly. The girl let out another sigh, a soft, breathy sound that Simon somehow felt across his entire body. "Nigel's not a bad person," she said with quiet dignity. "It's just that he isn't always terribly bright, and perhaps he mistook kindness on my part for something more. " Simon felt a strange sort of admiration for this girl. Most women of his acquaintance would have been in hysterics at this point, but she_whoever she was_had taken the situation firmly in hand, and was now displaying a generosity of spirit that was astounding. That she could even think to defend this Nigel person was quite beyond him. She rose to her feet, dusting her hands off on the sage green silk of her skirts. Her hair had been styled so that one thick lock fell over her shoulder, curling seductively at the top of her breast. Simon knew he should be listening to her_she was prattling on about something, as women were wont to do_but he couldn't seem to take his eyes off that single dark lock of hair. It fell like a silky ribbon across her swanlike neck, and Simon had the most appalling urge to close the distance between them and trace the line of her hair with his lips . He'd never dallied with an innocent before, but all the world had already painted him a rake. What could be the harm? It wasn't as if he were going to ravish her. Just a kiss. Just one little kiss. It was tempting, so deliriously, maddeningly tempting. " Sir! Sir! " With great reluctance, he dragged his eyes up to her face. Which was, of course, delightful in and of itself, but it was difficult to picture her seduction when she was scowling at him. " Were you listening to me? " " Of course," he lied. " You weren't ." "No," he admitted. A sound came from the back of her throat that sounded suspiciously like a growl. "Then why," she ground out, "did you say you were? " He shrugged. "I thought it was what you wanted to hear. " Simon watched with fascinated interest as she took a deep breath and muttered something to herself. He couldn't hear her words, but he doubted any of them could be construed as complimentary. Finally, her voice almost comically even, she said, "If you don't wish to aid me, I'd prefer it if you would just leave ." Simon decided it was time to stop acting like such a boor, so he said, "My apologies. Of course I'll help you. " She exhaled, and then looked back to Nigel, who was still lying on the floor, moaning incoherently. Simon looked down, too, and for several seconds they just stood there, staring at the unconscious man, until the girl said, "I really didn't hit him very hard. " " Maybe he's drunk ." She looked dubious. "Do you think? I smelled spirits on his breath, but I've never seen him drunk before. " Simon had nothing to add to that line of thought, so he just asked, "Well, what do you want to do? " "I suppose we could just leave him here," she said, the expression in her dark eyes hesitant. Simon thought that was an excellent idea, but it was obvious she wanted the idiot cared for in a more tender manner. And heaven help him, but he felt the strangest compulsion to make her happy. "Here is what we're going to do," he said crisply, glad that his tone belied any of the odd tenderness he was feeling. "I am going to summon my carriage_ " "Oh, good," she interrupted. "I really didn't want to leave him here. It seemed rather cruel." Simon thought it seemed rather generous considering the big oaf had nearly attacked her, but he kept that opinion to himself and instead continued on with his plan. "You will wait in the library while I'm gone. " " In the library? But_ " " In the library," he repeated firmly. "With the door shut. Do you really want to be discovered with Nigel's body should anyone happen to wander down this hallway? " "His body? Good gracious, sir, you needn't make it sound as if he were dead. " "As I was saying," he continued, ignoring her comment completely, "you will remain in the library. When I return, we will relocate Nigel here to my carriage ." "And how will we do that? " He gave her a disarmingly lopsided grin. "I haven't the faintest idea. " For a moment Daphne forgot to breathe. Just when she'd decided that her would-be rescuer was irredeemingly arrogant, he had to go and smile at her like that. It was one of those boyish grins, the kind that melted female hearts within a ten-mile radius. And, much to Daphne's dismay, it was awfully hard to remain thoroughly irritated with a man under the influence of such a smile. After growing up with four brothers, all of whom had seemed to know how to charm ladies from birth, Daphne had thought she was immune. But apparently not. Her chest was tingling, her stomach was turning cartwheels, and her knees felt like melted butter. "Nigel," she muttered, desperately trying to force her attention away from the nameless man standing across from her, "I must see to Nigel." She crouched down and shook him none too gently by the shoulder. "Nigel? Nigel? You have to wake up now, Nigel. " "Daphne," Nigel moaned. "Oh, Daphne. " The dark-haired stranger's head snapped around. "Daphne? Did he say Daphne? " She drew back, unnerved by his direct question and the rather intense look in his eyes. "Yes ." "Your name is Daphne? " Now she was beginning to wonder if he was an idiot. "Yes." He groaned. "Not Daphne Bridgerton." Her face slid into a puzzled frown. "The very one." Simon staggered back a step. He suddenly felt physically ill, as his brain finally processed the fact that she had thick, chestnut hair. The famous Bridgerton hair. Not to mention the Bridgerton nose, and cheekbones, and_Bugger it all, this was Anthony's sister! Bloody hell. There were rules among friends, commandments, really, and the most important one was Thou Shalt Not Lust After Thy Friend's Sister. While he stood there, probably staring at her like a complete idiot, she planted her hands on her hips, and demanded, "And who are you?" "Simon Basset," he muttered. "The duke?" she squeaked. He nodded grimly, "Oh, dear. " Simon watched with growing horror as the blood drained from her face. "Good God, woman, you're not going to swoon, are you?" He couldn't imagine why she would, but Anthony_her brother, he reminded himself_ had spent half the afternoon warning him about the effects of a young, unmarried duke on the young, unmarried female population. Anthony had specifically singled out Daphne as the exception to the rule, but still, she looked deucedly pale. "Are you?" he demanded, when she said nothing. "Going to swoon? " She looked offended that he'd even considered the notion. "Of course not! " " Good. " " It's just that_ " "What?" Simon asked suspiciously. "Well," she said with a rather dainty shrug of her shoulders, "I've been warned about you. " This was really too much. "By whom?" he demanded. She stared at him as if he were an imbecile. "By everyone. " "That, my d_" He felt something suspiciously like a stammer coming on, and so he took a deep breath to steady his tongue. He'd become a master at this kind of control. All she would see was a man who looked as if he were trying to keep his temper in check. And considering the direction of their conversation, that image could not seem terribly far-fetched. "My dear Miss Bridgerton," Simon said, starting anew in a more even and controlled tone, "I find that difficult to believe ." She shrugged again, and he had the most irritating sensation that she was enjoying his distress. "Believe what you will," she said blithely, "but it was in the paper today ." "What?' "In Whistledown," she replied, as if that explained anything. " Whistle-which? " Daphne stared at him blankly for a moment until she remembered that he was newly returned to London. "Oh, you must not know about it," she said softly, a wicked little smile crossing her lips. "Fancy that. " The duke took a step forward, his stance positively menacing. "Miss Bridgerton, I feel I should warn you that I am within an inch of strangling the information out of you. " "It's a gossip sheet," she said, hastily backing up a step. "That's all. It's rather silly, actually, but everyone reads it. " He said nothing, just arched one arrogant brow. Daphne quickly added, "There was a report of your return in Monday's edition. " "And what"_his eyes narrowed dangerously_"precisely"_now they turned to ice_"did it say? " "Not very much, ah, precisely," Daphne hedged. She tried to back up a step, but her heels were already pressing against the wall. Any further and she'd be up on her tiptoes. The duke looked beyond furious, and she was beginning to think that she should try for a quick escape and just leave him here with Nigel. The two were perfect for each other_madmen, the both of them! "Miss Bridgerton." There was a wealth of warning in his voice. Daphne decided to take pity on him since, after all, he was new to town and hadn't had time to adjust to the new world according to Whistledown. She supposed she couldn't really blame him for being so upset that he'd been written about in the paper. It had been rather startling for Daphne the first time as well, and she'd at least had the warning of a month's previous Whistledown columns. By the time Lady Whistledown got around to writing about Daphne, it had been almost anticlimactic. "You needn't upset yourself over it," Daphne said, attempting to lend a little compassion to her voice but probably not succeeding. "She merely wrote that you were a terrible rake, a fact which I'm sure you won't deny, since I have long since learned that men positively yearn to be considered rakes ." She paused and gave him the opportunity to prove her wrong and deny it. He didn't. She continued, "And then my mother, whose acquaintance I gather you must have made at some point or another before you left to travel the world, confirmed it all. " " Did she? " Daphne nodded. "She then forbade me ever to be seen in your company ." " Really?" he drawled. Something about the tone of his voice_and the way his eyes seemed to have grown almost smoky as they focused on her face_made her extremely uneasy, and it was all she could do not to shut her eyes. She refused_absolutely refused_to let him see how he'd affected her. His lips curved into a slow smile. "Let me make certain I have this correctly. Your mother told you I am a very bad man and that you are under no circumstances to be seen with me. " Confused, she nodded. "Then what," he asked, pausing for dramatic effect, "do you think your mother would say about this little scenario? " She blinked. "I beg your pardon? " "Well, unless you count Nigel here"_he waved his hand toward the unconscious man on the floor-_"no one has actually seen you in my presence. And yet." He let his words trail off, having far too much fun watching the play of emotions on her face to do anything but drag this moment out to its lengthiest extreme. Of course most of the emotions on her face were varying shades of irritation and dismay, but that made the moment all the sweeter. "And yet?" she ground out. He leaned forward, narrowing the distance between them to only a few inches. "And yet," he said softly, knowing that she'd feel his breath on her face, "here we are, completely alone." "Except for Nigel," she retorted. Simon spared the man on the floor the briefest of glances before returning his wolfish gaze to Miss Bridgerton. "I'm not terribly concerned about Nigel," he murmured. "Are you? " Simon watched as she looked down at Nigel in dismay. It had to be clear to her that her spurned suitor wasn't going to save her should Simon decide to make an amorous advance. Not that he would, of course. After all, this was Anthony's younger sister. He might have to remind himself of this at frequent intervals, but it wasn't a fact that was likely to slip his mind on a permanent basis. Simon knew that it was past time to end this little game. Not that he thought she would report the interlude to Anthony; somehow he knew that she would prefer to keep this to herself, stewing over it in privately righteous fury, and, dare he hope it_just a touch of excitement? But even as he knew it was time to stop this flirtation and get back to the business of hauling Daphne's idiotic suitor out of the building, he couldn't resist one last comment. Maybe it was the way her lips pursed when she was annoyed. Or maybe it was the way they parted when she was shocked. All he knew was that he was helpless against his own devilish nature when it came to this girl. And so he leaned forward, his eyes heavy-lidded and seductive as he said, "I think I know what your mother would say. " She looked a little befuddled by his onslaught, but still she managed a rather defiant, "Oh? " Simon nodded slowly, and he touched one finger to her chin. "She'd tell you to be very, very afraid. " There was a moment of utter silence, and then Daphne's eyes grew very wide. Her lips tightened, as if she were keeping something inside, and then her shoulders rose slightly, and then. And then she laughed. Right in his face. "Oh, my goodness," she gasped. "Oh, that was funny. " Simon was not amused. "I'm sorry." This was said between laughs. "Oh, I'm sorry, but really, you shouldn't be so melodramatic. It doesn't suit you. " Simon paused, rather irritated that this slip of a girl had shown such disrespect for his authority. There were advantages to being considered a dangerous man, and being able to cow young maidens was supposed to be one of them. "Well, actually, it does suit you, I ought to admit," she added, still grinning at his expense. "You looked quite dangerous. And very handsome, of course." When he made no comment, her face took on a bemused expression, and she asked, "That was your intention, was it not? " He still said nothing, so she said, "Of course it was. And I would be remiss if I did not tell you that you would have been successful with any other woman besides me ." A comment he couldn't resist. "And why is that?" "Four brothers." She shrugged as if that should explain everything. "I'm quite immune to your games." "Oh? " She gave his arm a reassuring pat. "But yours was a most admirable attempt. And truly, I'm quite flattered you thought me worthy of such a magnificent display of dukish rakishness." She grinned, her smile wide and unfeigned. "Or do you prefer rakish dukishness? " Simon stroked his jaw thoughtfully, trying to regain his mood of menacing predator. "You're a most annoying little chit, did you know that, Miss Bridgerton? " She gave him her sickliest of smiles. "Most people find me the soul of kindness and amiability." "Most people," Simon said bluntly, "are fools." Daphne cocked her head to the side, obviously pondering his words. Then she looked over at Nigel and sighed. "I'm afraid I have to agree with you, much as it pains me. " Simon bit back a smile. "It pains you to agree with me, or that most people are fools? " "Both." She grinned again_a wide, enchanting smile that did odd things to his brain. "But mostly the former." Simon let out a loud laugh, then was startled to realize how foreign the sound was to his ears. He was a man who frequently smiled, occasionally chuckled, but it had been a very long time since he'd felt such a spontaneous burst of joy. "My dear Miss Bridgerton," he said, wiping his eyes, "if you are the soul of kindness and amiability, then the world must be a very dangerous place. " "Oh, for certain," she replied. "At least to hear my mother tell it ." "I can't imagine why I do not recall your mother," Simon murmured, "because she certainly sounds a memorable character. " Daphne raised a brow. "You don't remember her? " He shook his head. "Then you don't know her ." "Does she look like you? " 'That's an odd question. " "Not so very odd," Simon replied, thinking that Daphne was exactly right. It was an odd question, and he had no idea why he'd voiced it. But since he had, and since she had questioned it, he added, "After all, I'm told that all of you Bridgertons look alike ." A tiny, and to Simon mysterious, frown touched her face. "We do. Look alike, that is. Except for my mother. She's rather fair, actually, with blue eyes. We all get our dark hair from our father. I'm told I have her smile, though ." An awkward pause fell across the conversation. Daphne was shifting from foot to foot, not at all certain what to say to the duke, when Nigel exhibited stellar timing for the first time in his life, and sat up. "Daphne?" he said, blinking as if he couldn't see straight. "Daphne, is that you? " "Good God, Miss Bridgerton," the duke swore, "how hard did you hit him? " "Hard enough to knock him down, but no worse than that, I swear!" Her brow furrowed. "Maybe he is drunk. " "Oh, Daphne," Nigel moaned. The duke crouched next to him, then reeled back, coughing. "Is he drunk?" Daphne asked. The duke staggered back. "He must have drunk an entire bottle of whiskey just to get up the nerve to propose. " "Who would have thought I could be so terrifying?" Daphne murmured, thinking of all the men who thought of her as a jolly good friend and nothing more. "How wonderful." Simon stared at her as if she were insane, then muttered, "I'm not even going to question that statement." Daphne ignored his comment. "Should we set our plan into action? " Simon planted his hands on his hips and reassessed the scene. Nigel was trying to rise to his feet, but it didn't appear, to Simon's eye at least, that he was going to find success anytime in the near future. Still, he was probably lucid enough to make trouble, and certainly lucid enough to make noise, which he was doing. Quite well, actually . "Oh, Daphne. I luff you so much, Daffery." Nigel managed to raise himself to his knees, weaving around as he shuffled toward Daphne, looking rather like a sotted churchgoer attempting to pray. "Please marry me, Duffne. You have to. " "Buck up, man," Simon grunted, grabbing him by the collar. 'This is getting embarrassing." He turned to Daphne. "I'm going to have to take him outside now. We can't leave him here in the hall. He's liable to start moaning like a sickened cow_" "I rather thought he'd already started," Daphne said. Simon felt one corner of his mouth twist up in a reluctant smile. Daphne Bridgerton might be a marriageable female and thus a disaster waiting to happen for any man in his position, but she was certainly a good sport. She was, it occurred to him in a rather bizarre moment of clarity, the sort of person he'd probably call friend if she were a man. But since it was abundantly obvious_to both his eyes and his body_that she wasn't a man, Simon decided it was in both of their best interests to wrap up this "situation" as soon as possible. Aside from the fact that Daphne's reputation would suffer a deadly blow if they were discovered, Simon wasn't positive that he could trust himself to keep his hands off of her for very much longer. It was an unsettling feeling, that. Especially for a man who so valued his self-control. Control was everything. Without it he'd never have stood up to his father or taken a first at university. Without it, he'd _ Without it, he thought grimly, he'd still be speaking like an idiot. "I'll haul him out of here," he said suddenly. "You go back to the ballroom. " Daphne frowned, glancing over her shoulder to the hall that led back to the party. "Are you certain? I thought you wanted me to go to the library. " "That was when we were going to leave him here while I summoned the carriage. But we can't do that if he's awake ." She nodded her agreement, and asked, "Are you sure you can do it? Nigel's a rather large man." "I'm larger. " She cocked her head. The duke, although lean, was powerfully built, with broad shoulders and firmly muscled thighs. (Daphne knew she wasn't supposed to notice such things, but, really, was it her fault that current fashions dictated such snug breeches?) More to the point, he had a certain air about him, something almost predatory, something that hinted of tightly controlled strength and power . Daphne decided she had no doubt that he'd be able to move Nigel. "Very well," she said, giving him a nod. "And thank you. It's very kind of you to help me in this way." "I'm rarely kind," he muttered. "Really?" she murmured, allowing herself a tiny smile. "How odd. I couldn't possibly think of anything else to call it. But then again, I've learned that men _" "You do seem to be the expert on men," he said, somewhat acerbically, then grunted as he hauled Nigel to his feet. Nigel promptly reached for Daphne, practically sobbing her name. Simon had to brace his legs to keep him from lunging at her. Daphne darted back a step. "Yes, well, I do have four brothers. A better education I cannot imagine. " There was no way of knowing if the duke had intended to answer her, because Nigel chose that moment to regain his energy (although clearly not his equilibrium) and yanked himself free of Simon's grip. He threw himself onto Daphne, making incoherent, drunken noises all the way . If Daphne hadn't had her back to the wall, she would have been knocked to the ground. As it was, she hit the wall with a bone-jarring thud, knocking all the breath from her body. "Oh, for the love of Christ," the duke swore, sounding supremely disgusted. He hauled Nigel off Daphne, then turned to her, and asked, "Can I hit him? " "Oh, please do go ahead," she replied, still gasping for breath. She'd tried to be kind and generous toward her erstwhile suitor, but really, enough was enough. The duke muttered something that sounded like "good" and landed a stunningly powerful blow on Nigel's chin. Nigel went down like a stone. Daphne regarded the man on the floor with equanimity. "I don't think he's going to wake up this time. " Simon shook out his fist. "No. " Daphne blinked and looked back up. "Thank you. " "It was my pleasure," he said, scowling at Nigel. "What shall we do now?" Her gaze joined his on the man on the floor_now well and truly unconscious. "Back to the original plan," he said crisply. "We leave him here while you wait in the library. I'd rather not have to drag him out until I've a carriage waiting. " Daphne gave him a sensible nod. "Do you need help righting him, or should I proceed directly to the library ?' The duke was silent for a moment. His head tilted this way and that as he analyzed Nigel's position on the floor. "Actually, a bit of help would be greatly appreciated ." "Really?' Daphne asked, surprised. "I was sure you'd say no ." That earned her a faintly amused and superior look from the duke. "And is that why you asked? " "No, of course not," Daphne replied, slightly offended. "I'm not so stupid as to offer help if I have no intention of giving it. I was merely going to point out that men, in my experiences_ " "You have too much experience," the duke muttered under his breath. " What?! " "I beg your pardon," he amended. "You think you have too much experience. " Daphne glared at him, her dark eyes smoldering nearly to black. "That is not true, and who are you to say, anyway? " "No, that's not quite right, either," the duke mused, completely ignoring her furious question. "I think it's more that I think you think you have too much experience ." "Why you_You_" As retorts went, it wasn't especially effective, but it wais all Daphne could manage to get out. Her powers of speech tended to fail her when she was angry . And she was really angry. Simon shrugged, apparently unmoved by her furious visage. "My dear Miss Bridgerton_ " "If you call me that one more time, I swear I shall scream. " "No, you won't," he said with a rakish smile. "That would draw a crowd, and if you recall, you don't want to be seen with me ." "I am considering risking it," Daphne said, each word squeezed out between her teeth. Simon crossed his arms and leaned lazily against the wall. "Really?" he drawled. "This I should like to see. " Daphne nearly threw up her arms in frustration. "Forget it. Forget me. Forget this entire evening. I'm leaving. " She turned around, but before she could even take a step, her movement was arrested by the sound of the duke's voice. "I thought you were going to help me." Drat. He had her there. She turned slowly around. "Why, yes," she said, her voice patently false, "I'd be delighted. " "You know," he said innocently, "if you didn't want to help you shouldn't have_ " "I said I'd help," she snapped. Simon smiled to himself. She was such an easy mark. "Here is what we are going to do," he said. "I'm going to haul him to his feet and drape his right arm over my shoulders. You will go around to the other side and shore him up ." Daphne did as she was bid, grumbling to herself about his autocratic attitude. But she didn't voice a single complaint. After all, for all his annoying ways, the Duke of Hastings was helping her out of a possibly embarrassing scandal. Of course if anyone found her in this position, she'd find herself in even worse straits. "I have a better idea," she said suddenly. "Let's just leave him here. " The duke's head swung around to face her, and he looked as if he'd dearly like to toss her through a window_preferably one that was still closed. "I thought," he said, clearly working hard to keep his voice even, "that you didn't want to leave him on the floor. " " That was before he knocked me into the wall. " " Could you possibly have notified me of your change of heart before I expended my energy to lift him? " Daphne blushed. She hated that men thought that women were fickle, changeable creatures, and she hated even more that she was living up to that image right then. "Very well," he said simply, and dropped Nigel. The sudden weight of him nearly took Daphne down to the floor as well. She let out a surprised squeal as she ducked out of the way. "Now may we leave?" the duke asked, sounding insufferably patient. She nodded hesitantly, glancing down at Nigel. "He looks rather uncomfortable, don't you think? " Simon stared at her. Just stared at her. "You're concerned for his comfort?" he finally asked. She gave her head a nervous shake, then a nod, then went back to the shake. "Maybe I should_That is to say_Here, just wait a moment." She crouched and untwisted Nigel's legs so he lay flat on his back. "I didn't think he deserved a trip home in your carriage," she explained as she rearranged his coat, "but it seemed rather cruel to leave him here in this position. There, now I'm done." She stood and looked up. And just managed to catch sight of the duke as he walked away, muttering something about Daphne and something about women in general and something else entirely that Daphne didn't quite catch. But maybe that was for the best. She rather doubted it had been a compliment. Chapter 4 London is awash these days with Ambitious Mamas. At Lady Worth's ball last week This Author saw no fewer than eleven Determined Bachelors, cowering in comers and eventually fleeing the premises with those Ambitious Mamas hot on their heels . It is difficult to determine who, precisely, is the worst of the lot, although This Author suspects the contest may come down to a near draw between Lady Bridgerton and Mrs. Featherington, with Mrs. F edging Lady B out by a nose. There are three Featherington misses on the market right now, after all, whereas Lady Bridgerton need only worry about one . It is recommended, however, that all safety-minded people stay far, far away from the latest crop of unmarried men when Bridgerton daughters E, F, and H come of age. Lady B is not likely to look both ways when she barrels across a ballroom with three daughters in tow, and the Lord help us all should she decide to don metal-toed boots . Lady Whistledown's Society Papers, 28 April 1813 The night, Simon decided, couldn't possibly get much worse. He wouldn't have believed it at the time, but his bizarre encounter with Daphne Bridgerton was definitely turning out to be the evening's high point. Yes, he'd been horrified to discover that he'd been lusting_even briefly_after his best friend's younger sister. Yes, Nigel Berbrooke's oafish attempts at seduction had offended every one of his rakish sensibilities. And yes, Daphne had finally exasperated him beyond endurance with her indecision over whether to treat Nigel like a criminal or care for him as she would her dearest friend. But none of that_not one bit_compared to the torture that he'd been about to endure. His oh-so-clever plan of slipping into the ballroom, giving his regards to Lady Danbury, and leaving unnoticed had fallen into instant ruin. He'd taken no more than two steps into the ballroom when he'd been recognized by an old friend from Oxford, who, much to Simon's dismay, had recently married. The wife was a perfectly charming young woman, but unfortunately one with rather high social aspirations, and she had quickly determined that her road to happiness lay in her position as the one to introduce the new duke to society. And Simon, even though he fancied himself a world-weary, cynical sort, discovered that he wasn't quite rude enough to directly insult the wife of his old university friend. And so, two hours later, he'd been introduced to every unmarried lady at the ball, every mother of every unmarried lady at the ball, and, of course, every older married sister of every unmarried lady at the ball. Simon couldn't decide which set of women was the worst. The unmarried ladies were decidedly boring, the mothers were annoyingly ambitious, and the sisters_well, the sisters were so forward Simon began to wonder if he'd stumbled into a brothel. Six of them had made extremely suggestive remarks, two had slipped him notes inviting him to their boudoirs, and one had actually run her hand down his thigh. In retrospect, Daphne Bridgerton was starting to look very good, indeed. And speaking of Daphne, where the hell was she? He'd thought he'd caught a glimpse of her about an hour earlier, surrounded by her rather large and forbidding brothers. (Not that Simon found them individually forbidding, but he'd quickly decided that any man would have to be an imbecile to provoke them as a group.) But since then she seemed to have disappeared. Indeed, he thought she might have been the only unmarried female at the party to whom he hadn't been introduced. Simon wasn't particularly worried about her being bothered by Berbrooke after he'd left them in the hall. He'd delivered a solid punch to the man's jaw and had no doubt that he'd be out for several minutes. Probably longer, considering the vast quantities of alcohol Berbrooke had consumed earlier in the evening. And even if Daphne had been foolishly tender-hearted when it came to her clumsy suitor, she wasn't stupid enough to remain in the hallway with him until he woke up. Simon glanced back over to the corner where the Bridgerton brothers were gathered, looking as if they were having a grand old time. They had been accosted by almost as many young women and old mothers as Simon, but at least there seemed to be some safety in numbers. Simon noticed that the young debutantes, didn't seem to spend half as much time in the Bridgertons' company as they did in his. Simon sent an irritated scowl in their direction. Anthony, who was leaning lazily against a wall, caught the expression and smirked, raising a glass of red wine in his direction. Then he cocked his head slightly , motioning to Simon's left. Simon turned, just in time to be detained by yet another mother, this one with a trio of daughters, all of whom were dressed in monstrously fussy frocks, replete with tucks and flounces, and of course, heaps and heaps of lace. He thought of Daphne, with her simple sage green gown. Daphne, with her direct brown eyes and wide smile. "Your grace!" the mother shrilled. "Your grace!" Simon blinked to clear his vision. The lace-covered family had managed to surround him with such efficiency that he wasn't even able to shoot a glare in Anthony's direction. "Your grace," the mother repeated, "it is such an honor to make your acquaintance. " Simon managed a frosty nod. Words were quite beyond him. The family of females had pressed in so close he feared he might suffocate. "Georgiana Huxley sent us over," the woman persisted. "She said I simply must introduce my daughters to you ." Simon didn't remember who Georgiana Huxley was, but he thought he might like to strangle her. "Normally I should not be so bold," the woman went on, "but your dear, dear papa was such a friend of mine. " Simon stiffened. "He was truly a marvelous man," she continued, her voice like nails to Simon's skull, "so conscious of his duties to the title. He must have been a marvelous father. " "I wouldn't know," Simon bit off. "Oh!" The woman had to clear her throat several times before managing to say, "I see. Well. My goodness. " Simon said nothing, hoping an aloof demeanor would prompt her to take her leave. Damn it, where was Anthony? It was bad enough having these women acting as if he were some prize horse to be bred, but to have to stand here and listen to this woman tell him what a good father the old duke had been.Simon couldn't possibly bear it. " Your grace! Your grace! " Simon forced his icy eyes back to the lady in front of him and told himself to be more patient with her. After all, she was probably only complimenting his father because she thought it was what he wanted to hear. " I merely wanted to remind you," she said, "that we were introduced several years ago, back when you were still Clyvedon ." " Yes," Simon murmured, looking for any break in the barricade of ladies through which he might make his escape. " These are my daughters," the woman said, motioning to the three young ladies. Two were pleasant-looking, but the third was still cloaked in baby fat and an orangey gown which did nothing for her complexion. She didn't appear to be enjoying the evening. "Aren't they lovely?" the lady continued. "My pride and joy. And so even-tempered ." Simon had the queasy feeling that he'd heard the same words once when shopping for a dog. "Your grace, may I present Prudence, Philipa, and Penelope ." The girls made their curtsies, not a one of them daring to meet his eye. " I have another daughter at home," the lady continued. "Felicity. But she's a mere ten years of age, so I do not bring her to such events ." Simon could not imagine why she felt the need to share this information with him, but he just kept his tone carefully bored (this, he'd long since learned, was the best way not to show anger) and prompted, "And you are. ? " "Oh, beg pardon! I am Mrs. Featherington, of course. My husband passed on three years ago, but he was your papa's, er, dearest friend." Her voice trailed off at the end of her sentence, as she remembered Simon's last reaction to mention of his father. Simon nodded curtly. "Prudence is quite accomplished on the pianoforte," Mrs. Featherington said, with forced brightness. Simon noted the oldest girl's pained expression and quickly decided never to attend a musicale chez Featherington. "And my darling Philipa is an expert watercolorist." Philipa beamed. "And Penelope?" some devil inside Simon forced him to ask. Mrs. Featherington shot a panicked look at her youngest daughter, who looked quite miserable. Penelope was not terribly attractive, and her somewhat pudgy figure was not improved by her mother's choice of attire for her. But she seemed to have kind eyes. "Penelope?" Mrs. Featherington echoed, her voice a touch shrill. "Penelope is. ah. well, she's Penelope!" Her mouth wobbled into a patently false grin. Penelope looked as if she wanted to dive under a rug. Simon decided that if he was forced to dance, he'd ask Penelope. "Mrs. Featherington," came a sharp and imperious voice that could only belong to Lady Danbury, "are you pestering the duke? " Simon wanted to answer in the affirmative, but the memory of Penelope Featherington's mortified face led him to murmur, "Of course not ." Lady Danbury raised a brow as she moved her head slowly toward him. "Liar. " She turned back to Mrs. Featherington, who had gone quite green. Mrs. Featherington said nothing. Lady Danbury said nothing. Mrs. Featherington finally mumbled something about seeing her cousin, grabbed her three daughters, and scurried off. Simon crossed his arms, but he wasn't able to keep his face completely free of amusement. "That wasn't very well done of you," he said. "Bah. She's feathers for brains, and so do her girls, except maybe that unattractive young one." Lady Danbury shook her head. "If they'd only put her in a different color." Simon fought a chuckle and lost. "You never did learn to mind your own business, did you? " " Never. And what fun would that be?" She smiled. Simon could tell she didn't want to, but she smiled. "And as for you," she continued. "You are a monstrous guest. One would have thought you'd possess the manners to greet your hostess by now ." "You were always too well surrounded by your admirers for me to dare even approach ." "So glib," she commented. Simon said nothing, not entirely certain how to interpret her words. He'd always had the suspicion that she knew his secret, but he'd never been quite sure. "Your friend Bridgerton approaches," she said. Simon's eyes followed the direction of her nod. Anthony ambled over, and was only half a second in their presence before Lady Danbury called him a coward. Anthony blinked. "I beg your pardon? " "You could have come over and saved your friend from the Featherington quartet ages ago. " "But I was so enjoying his distress. " "Hmmph." And without another word (or another grunt) she walked away. "Strangest old woman," Anthony said. "I wouldn't be surprised if she's that cursed Whistledown woman." "You mean the gossip columnist?" Anthony nodded as he led Simon around a potted plant to the corner where his brothers were waiting. As they walked, Anthony grinned, and said, "I noticed you speaking with a number of very proper young ladies." Simon muttered something rather obscene and unflattering under his breath. But Anthony only laughed. "You can't say I didn't warn you, can you? " "It is galling to admit that you might be right about anything, so please do not ask me to do so ." Anthony laughed some more. "For that comment I shall start introducing you to the debutantes myself. " "If you do," Simon warned, "you shall soon find yourself dying a very slow and painful death." Anthony grinned. "Swords or pistols?" "Oh, poison. Very definitely poison." "Ouch." Anthony stopped his stroll across the ballroom in front of two other Bridgerton men, both clearly marked by their chestnut hair, tall height, and excellent bone structure. Simon noted that one had green eyes and the other brown like Anthony, but other than that, the dim evening light made the three men practically interchangeable. "You do remember my brothers?" Anthony queried politely. "Benedict and Colin. Benedict I'm sure you recall from Eton. He was the one who dogged our footsteps for three months when he first arrived. " "Not true!" Benedict said with a laugh. "I don't know if you've met Colin, actually," Anthony continued. "He was probably too young to have crossed your path." "Pleased to meet you," Colin said jovially. Simon noted the rascally glint in the young man's green eyes and couldn't help but smile in return. "Anthony here has said such insulting things about you," Colin continued, his grin growing quite wicked, "that I know we're sure to be great friends. " Anthony rolled his eyes. "I'm certain you can understand why my mother is convinced that Colin will be the first of her children to drive her to insanity. " Colin said, "I pride myself on it, actually. " "Mother, thankfully, has had a brief respite from Colin's tender charms," Anthony continued. "He is actually just returned from a grand tour of the Continent. " "Just this evening," Colin said with a boyish grin. He had a devil-may-care youthful look about him. Simon decided he couldn't be much older than Daphne . "I have just returned from travels as well," Simon said. "Yes, except yours spanned the globe, I hear," Colin said. "I should love to hear about them someday. " Simon nodded politely. "Certainly. " "Have you met Daphne?" Benedict inquired. "She's the only Bridgerton in attendance who's unaccounted for ." Simon was pondering how best to answer that question when Colin let out a snort, and said, "Oh, Daphne's accounted for. Miserable, but accounted for. " Simon followed his gaze across the ballroom, where Daphne was standing next to what had to be her mother, looking, just as Colin had promised, as miserable as could be. And then it occurred to him_Daphne was one of those dreaded unmarried young ladies being paraded about by her mother. She'd seemed far too sensible and forthright to be such a creature, and yet of course that was what she had to be. She couldn't have been more than twenty, and as her name was still Bridgerton she was clearly a maiden. And since she had a mother_ well, of course she'd be trapped into an endless round of introductions. She looked every bit as pained by the experience as Simon had been. Somehow that made him feel a good deal better. "One of us should save her," Benedict mused. "Nah," Colin said, grinning. "Mother's only had her over there with Macclesfield for ten minutes." "Macclesfield?" Simon asked. "The earl," Benedict replied. "Castleford's son." "Ten minutes?" Anthony asked. "Poor Macclesfield." Simon shot him a curious look. "Not that Daphne is such a chore," Anthony quickly added, "but when Mother gets it in her head to, ah." "Pursue," Benedict filled in helpfully. "_a gentleman," Anthony continued with a nod of thanks toward his brother, "She can be, ah." "Relentless," Colin said. Anthony smiled weakly. "Yes. Exactly." Simon looked back over toward the trio in question. Sure enough, Daphne looked miserable, Macclesfield was scanning the room, presumably looking for the nearest exit, and Lady Bridgerton's eyes held a gleam so ambitious that Simon cringed in sympathy for the young earl. "We should save Daphne," Anthony said. "We really should," Benedict added. "And Macclesfield," Anthony said. "Oh, certainly," Benedict added. But Simon noticed that no one was leaping into action. "All talk, aren't you?" Colin chortled. "I don't see you marching over there to save her," Anthony shot back. "Hell no. But I never said we should. You, on the other hand ." "What the devil is going on?" Simon finally asked. The three Bridgerton brothers looked at him with identical guilty expressions. "We should save Daff," Benedict said. "We really should," Anthony added. "What my brothers are too lily-livered to tell you," Colin said derisively, "is that they are terrified of my mother." "It's true," Anthony said with a helpless shrug. Benedict nodded. "I freely admit it." Simon thought he'd never seen a more ludicrous sight. These were the Bridgerton brothers, after all. Tall, handsome, athletic, with every miss in the nation setting her cap after them, and here they were, completely cowed by a mere slip of a woman. Of course, it was their mother. Simon supposed one had to make allowances for that. "If I save Daff," Anthony explained, "Mother might get me into her clutches, and then I'm done for." Simon choked on laughter as his mind filled with a vision of Anthony being led around by his mother, moving from unmarried lady to unmarried lady. "Now you see why I avoid these functions like the plague," Anthony said grimly. "I'm attacked from both directions. If the debutantes and their mothers don't find me, my mother makes certain I find them." "Say!" Benedict exclaimed. "Why don't you save her, Hastings?" Simon took one look at Lady Bridgerton (who at that point had her hand firmly wrapped around Macclesfield's forearm) and decided he'd rather be branded an eternal coward. "Since we haven't been introduced, I'm sure it would be most improper," he improvised. "I'm sure it wouldn't," Anthony returned. "You're a duke." "So?" "So?" Anthony echoed. "Mother would forgive any impropriety if it meant gaining an audience for Daphne with a duke." "Now look here," Simon said hotly, "I'm not some sacrificial lamb to be slaughtered on the altar of your mother." "You have spent a lot of time in Africa, haven't you?" Colin quipped. Simon ignored him. "Besides, your sister said_" All three Bridgerton heads swung round in his direction. Simon immediately realized he'd blundered. Badly. "You've met Daphne?" Anthony queried, his voice just a touch too polite for Simon's comfort. Before Simon could even reply, Benedict leaned in ever-so-slightly closer, and asked, "Why didn't you mention this?" "Yes," Colin said, his mouth utterly serious for the first time that evening. "Why?" Simon glanced from brother to brother and it became perfectly clear why Daphne must still be unmarried. This belligerent trio would scare off all but the most determined_or stupid_of suitors. Which would probably explain Nigel Berbrooke. "Actually," Simon said, "I bumped into her in the hall as I was making my way into the ballroom. It was" _he glanced rather pointedly at the Bridgertons_"rather obvious that she was a member of your family, so I introduced myself." Anthony turned to Benedict. "Must have been when she was fleeing Berbrooke." Benedict turned to Colin. "What did happen to Berbrooke? Do you know?" Colin shrugged. "Haven't the faintest. Probably left to nurse his broken heart." Or broken head, Simon thought acerbically. "Well, that explains everything, I'm sure," Anthony said, losing his overbearing big-brother expression and looking once again like a fellow rake and best friend. "Except," Benedict said suspiciously, "why he didn't mention it." "Because I didn't have the chance," Simon bit off, about ready to throw his arms up in exasperation. "In case you hadn't noticed, Anthony, you have a ridiculous number of siblings, and it takes a ridiculous amount of time to be introduced to all of them." "There are only two of us present," Colin pointed out. "I'm going home," Simon announced. "The three of you are mad." Benedict, who had seemed to be the most protective of the brothers, suddenly grinned. "You don't have a sister, do you?" "No, thank God." "If you ever have a daughter, you'll understand." Simon was rather certain he would never have a daughter, but he kept his mouth shut. "It can be a trial," Anthony said. "Although Daff is better than most," Benedict put in. "She doesn't have that many suitors, actually." Simon couldn't imagine why not. "I'm not really sure why," Anthony mused. "I think she's a perfectly nice girl." Simon decided this wasn't the time to mention that he'd been one inch away from easing her up against the wall, pressing his hips against hers, and kissing her senseless. If he hadn't discovered that she was a Bridgerton, frankly, he might have done exactly that. "Daff's the best," Benedict agreed. Colin nodded. "Capital girl. Really good sport." There was an awkward pause, and then Simon said, "Well, good sport or not, I'm not going over there to save her, because she told me quite specifically that your mother forbade her ever to be seen in my presence. "Mother said that?" Colin asked. "You must really have a black reputation." "A good portion of it undeserved," Simon muttered, not entirely certain why he was defending himself. "That's too bad," Colin murmured. "I'd thought to ask you to take me 'round." Simon foresaw a long and terrifyingly roguish future for the boy. Anthony's fist found its way to the small of Simon's back, and he started to propel him forward. "I'm sure Mother will change her mind given the proper encouragement. Let's go." Simon had no choice but to walk toward Daphne. The alternative required making a really big scene, and Simon had long since learned that he didn't do well with scenes. Besides, if he'd been in Anthony's position, he probably would have done the exact same thing. And after an evening with the Featherington sisters and the like, Daphne didn't sound half-bad. "Mother!" Anthony called out in a jovial voice as they approached the viscountess. "I haven't seen you all evening." Simon noticed that Lady Bridgerton's blue eyes lit up when she saw her son approaching. Ambitious Mama or not, Lady Bridgerton clearly loved her children. "Anthony!" she said in return. "How nice to see you. Daphne and I were just chatting with Lord Macclesfield." Anthony sent Lord Macclesfield a commiserating look. "Yes, I see." Simon caught Daphne's eye for a moment and gave his head the tiniest shake. She responded with an even tinier nod, sensible girl that she was. "And who is this?" Lady Bridgerton inquired, her eyes lighting upon Simon's face. "The new Duke of Hastings," Anthony replied. "Surely you remember him from my days at Eton and Oxford." "Of course," Lady Bridgerton said politely. Macclesfield, who had been keeping scrupulously quiet, quickly located the first lull in the conversation, and burst in with, "I think I see my father." Anthony shot the young earl an amused and knowing glance. "Then by all means, go to him." The young earl did, with alacrity. "I thought he detested his father," Lady Bridgerton said with a confused expression. "He does," Daphne said baldly. Simon choked down a laugh. Daphne raised her brows, silently daring him to comment. "Well, he had a terrible reputation, anyway," Lady Bridgerton said. "There seems to be quite a bit of that in the air these days," Simon murmured. Daphne's eyes widened, and this time Simon got to raise his brows, silently daring her to comment. She didn't, of course, but her mother gave him a sharp look, and Simon had the distinct impression that she was trying to decide whether his newly acquired dukedom made up for his bad reputation. "I don't believe I had the chance to make your acquaintance before I left the country, Lady Bridgerton," Simon said smoothly, "but I am very pleased to do so now." "As am I." She motioned to Daphne. "My daughter Daphne." Simon took Daphne's gloved hand and laid a scrupulously polite kiss on her knuckles. "I am honored to officially make your acquaintance, Miss Bridgerton." "Officially?" Lady Bridgerton queried. Daphne opened her mouth, but Simon cut in before she could say anything. "I already told your brother about our brief meeting earlier this evening." Lady Bridgerton's head turned rather sharply in Daphne's direction. "You were introduced to the duke earlier this evening? Why did you not say anything?" Daphne smiled tightly. "We were rather occupied with the earl. And before that, with Lord Westborough. And before that, with_" "I see your point, Daphne," Lady Bridgerton ground out. Simon wondered how unforgivably rude it would be if he laughed. Then Lady Bridgerton turned the full force of her smile on him_and Simon quickly learned where Daphne got that wide, wide smile from_and Simon realized that Lady Bridgerton had decided that his bad reputation could be overlooked. A strange light appeared in her eye, and her head bobbed back and forth between Daphne and Simon. Then she smiled again. Simon fought the urge to flee. Anthony leaned over slightly, and whispered in his ear, "I am so sorry." Simon said between clenched teeth, "I may have to kill you." Daphne's icicle glare said that she'd heard both of them and was not amused. But Lady Bridgerton was blissfully oblivious, her head presumably already filling with images of a grand wedding. Then her eyes narrowed as she focused on something behind the men. She looked so overwhelmingly annoyed that Simon, Anthony, and Daphne all twisted their necks to see what was afoot. Mrs. Featherington was marching purposefully in their direction, Prudence and Philipa right behind. Simon noticed that Penelope was nowhere to be seen. Desperate times, Simon quickly realized, called for desperate measures. "Miss Bridgerton," he said, whipping his head around to face Daphne, "would you care to dance?" Chapter 5 Were you at Lady Danbury's ball last night? If not, shame on you. You missed witnessing quite the most remarkable coup of the season. It was clear to all partygoers, and especially to This Author, that Miss Daphne Bridgerton has captured the interest of the newly returned to England Duke of Hastings. One can only imagine the relief of Lady Bridgerton. How mortifying it will be if Daphne remains on the shelf for yet another season! And Lady B_with three more daughters to marry off. Oh, the horror. Lady Whistledown's Society Papers, 30 April 1813 There was no way Daphne could refuse. First of all, her mother was impaling her with her deadly I-Am-Your-Mother-Don't-You-Dare-Defy-Me gaze. Secondly, the duke had clearly not given Anthony the entire story of their meeting in the dimly lit hallway; to make a show of refusing to dance with him would certainly raise undue speculation. Not to mention that Daphne really didn't particularly relish getting drawn into a conversation with the Featheringtons, which was sure to happen if she didn't make immediate haste for the dance floor. And finally, she kind of sort of just a little teeny bit actually wanted to dance with the duke. Of course the arrogant boor didn't even give her the chance to accept. Before Daphne could manage an "I'd be delighted," or even a mere, "Yes," he had her halfway across the room. The orchestra was still producing those awful noises it makes while the musicians were getting ready to begin, so they were forced to wait a moment before they actually danced. 'Thank God you didn't refuse," the duke said with great feeling. "When would I have had the opportunity?" He grinned at her. Daphne answered that with a scowl. "I wasn't given the opportunity to accept, either, if you recall." He raised a brow. "Does that mean I must ask you again?" "No, of course not," Daphne replied, rolling her eyes. "That would be rather childish of me, don't you think? And besides, it would cause a terrible scene, which I don't think either of us desires." He cocked his head and gave her a rather assessing glance, as if he had analyzed her personality in an instant and decided she might just be acceptable. Daphne found the experience somewhat unnerving. Just then the orchestra ceased its discordant warm-up and struck the first notes of a waltz. Simon groaned, "Do young ladies still need permission to waltz?" Daphne found herself smiling at his discomfort. "How long have you been away?" "Five years. Do they?" "Yes." "Do you have it?" He looked almost pained at the prospect of his escape plan falling apart. "Of course." He swept her into his arms and whirled her into the throng of elegantly clad couples. "Good." They had made a full circle of the ballroom before Daphne asked, "How much of our meeting did you reveal to my brothers? I saw you with them, you know." Simon only smiled. "What are you grinning about?" she asked suspiciously. "I was merely marveling at your restraint." "I beg your pardon?" He shrugged slightly, his shoulders rising as his head tilted to the right. "I hadn't thought you the most patient of ladies," he said, "and here it took you a full three and a half minutes before asking me about my conversation with your brothers." Daphne fought a blush. The truth was, the duke was a most accomplished dancer, and she'd been enjoying the waltz too much even to think of conversation. "But since you asked," he said, mercifully sparing her from having to make a comment, "all I told them was that I ran into you in the hall and that, given your coloring, I instantly recognised you as a Bridgerton and introduced myself." "Do you think they believed you?" "Yes," he said softly, "I rather think they did." "Not that we have anything to hide," she added quickly. "Of course not." "If there is any villain in this piece it is most certainly Nigel." "Of course." She chewed on her lower lip. "Do you think he's still out in the hall?" "I certainly have no intention of finding out" There was an awkward moment of silence, and then Daphne said, "It has been some time since you have attended a London ball, has it not? Nigel and I must have been quite a welcome." "You were a welcome sight. He was not." She smiled slightly at the compliment. "Aside from our little escapade, have you been enjoying your evening?" Simon's answer was so unequivocally in the negative that he actually snorted a laugh before saying it. "Really?" Daphne replied, her brows arching with curiosity. "Now that is interesting." "You find my agony interesting? Remind me never to turn to you should I ever fall ill." "Oh, please," she scoffed. "It can't have been that bad." "Oh, it can." "Certainly not as bad as my evening." "You did look rather miserable with your mother and Macclesfield," he allowed. "How kind of you to point it out," she muttered. "But I still think my evening was worse." Daphne laughed, a light musical sound that warmed Simon's bones. "What a sad pair we are," she said. "Surely we can manage a conversation on a topic other than our respective terrible evenings." Simon said nothing. Daphne said nothing. "Well, I can't think of anything," he said. Daphne laughed again, this time with more gaiety, and Simon once again found himself mesmerized by her smile. "I give in," she gasped. "What has turned your evening into such a dreadful affair?" "What or whom?" "Whom?" she echoed, tilting her head as she looked at him. "This grows even more interesting." "I can think of any number of adjectives to describe all of the 'whoms' I have had the pleasure of meeting this evening, but 'interesting' is not one of them." "Now, now," she chided, "don't be rude. I did see you chatting with my brothers, after all." He nodded gallantly, tightening his hand slightly at her waist as they swung around in a graceful arc. "My apologies. The Bridgertons are, of course, excluded from my insults." "We are all relieved, I'm sure." Simon cracked a smile at her deadpan wit. "I live to make Bridgertons happy." "Now that is a statement that may come back to haunt you," she chided. "But in all seriousness, what has you in such a dither? If your evening has gone that far downhill since our interlude with Nigel, you're in sad straits, indeed." "How shall I put this," he mused, "so that I do not completely offend you?" "Oh, go right ahead," she said blithely. "I promise not to be offended." Simon grinned wickedly. "A statement that may come back to haunt you." She blushed slightly. The color was barely noticeable in the shadowy candlelight, but Simon had been watching her closely. She didn't say anything, however, so he added, "Very well, if you must know, I have been introduced to every single unmarried lady in the ballroom."' A strange snorting sound came from the vicinity of her mouth. Simon had the sneaking suspicion that she was laughing at him. "I have also," he continued, "been introduced to all of their mothers." She gurgled. She actually gurgled. "Bad show," he scolded. "Laughing at your dance partner." "I'm sorry," she said, her lips tight from trying not to smile. "No, you're not." "All right," she admitted, "I'm not. But only because I have had to suffer the same torture for two years. It's difficult to summon too much pity for a mere evening's worth." "Why don't you just find someone to marry and put yourself out of your misery?" She shot him a sharp look. "Are you asking?" Simon felt the blood leave his face. "I thought not." She took one look at him and let out an impatient exhale. "Oh, for goodness sake. You can start breathing now, your grace. I was only teasing." Simon wanted to make some sort of dry, cutting, and utterly ironic comment, but the truth was, she has so startled him that he couldn't utter a word. "To answer your question," she continued, her voice a touch more brittle than he was accustomed to hearing from her, "a lady must consider her options. There is Nigel, of course, but I think we must agree he is not a suitable candidate." Simon shook his head. "Earlier this year there was Lord Chalmers." "Chalmers?" He frowned. "Isn't he_" "On the darker side of sixty? Yes. And since I would someday like to have children, it seemed_" "Some men that age can still sire brats," Simon pointed out. "It wasn't a risk I was prepared to take," she returned. "Besides_" She shuddered slightly, a look of revulsion passing over her features. "I didn't particularly care to have children with him." Much to his annoyance, Simon found himself picturing Daphne in bed with the elderly Chalmers. It was a disgusting image, and it left him feeling faintly furious. At whom, he didn't know; maybe at himself for even bothering to imagine the damned thing, but_ "Before Lord Chalmers," Daphne continued, thankfully interrupting his rather unpleasant thought process, "there were two others, both just as repulsive." Simon looked at her thoughtfully. "Do you want to marry?" "Well, of course." Her face registered her surprise. "Doesn't everyone?" "I don't." She smiled condescendingly. "You think you don't. All men think they don't. But you will." "No," he said emphatically. "I will never marry." She gaped at him. Something in the duke's tone of voice told her that he truly meant what he said. "What about your title?" Simon shrugged. "What about it?" "If you don't marry and sire an heir, it will expire. Or go to some beastly cousin." That caused him to raise an amused brow. "And how do you know that my cousins are beastly?" "All cousins who are next in line for a title are beastly." She cocked her head in a mischievous manner. "Or at least they are according to the men who actually possess the title." "And this is information you've gleaned from your extensive knowledge of men?" he teased. She shot him a devastatingly superior grin. "Of course." Simon was silent for a moment, and then he asked, "Is it worth it?" She looked bemused by his sudden change of subject. "Is what worth it?" He let go of her hand just long enough to wave at the crowd. "This. This endless parade of parties. Your mother nipping at your heels." Daphne let out a surprised chuckle. "I doubt she'd appreciate the metaphor." She fell silent for a moment, her eyes taking on a faraway look as she said, "But yes, I suppose it is worth it. It has to be worth it." She snapped back to attention and looked back to his face, her dark eyes meltingly honest. "I want a husband. I want a family. It's not so silly when you think about it. I'm fourth of eight children. All I know are large families. I shouldn't know how to exist outside of one." Simon caught her gaze, his eyes burning hot and intense into hers. A warning bell sounded in his mind. He wanted her. He wanted her so desperately he was straining against his clothing, but he could never, ever so much as touch her. Because to do so would be to shatter every last one of her dreams, and rake or not, Simon wasn't certain he could live with himself if he did that. He would never marry, never sire a child, and that was all she wanted out of life. He might enjoy her company; he wasn't certain he could deny himself that. But he had to leave her untouched for another man. "Your grace?" she asked quietly. When he blinked, she smiled and said, "You were woolgathering." He inclined his head graciously. "Merely pondering your words." "And did they meet with your approval?" "Actually, I can't remember the last time I conversed with someone with such obvious good sense." He added in a slow voice, "It's good to know what you want out of life." "Do you know what you want?" Ah, how to answer that. There were some things he knew he could not say. But it was so easy to talk to this girl. Something about her put his mind at ease, even as his body tingled with desire. By all rights they should not have been having such a frank conversation so soon into an acquaintance, but somehow it just felt natural. Finally, he just said, "I made some decisions when I was younger. I try to live my life according to those vows." She looked ravenously curious, but good manners prevented her from questioning him further. "My goodness," she said with a slightly forced smile, "we've grown serious. And here I thought all we meant to debate was whose evening was less pleasant." They were both trapped, Simon realized. Trapped by their society's conventions and expectations. And that's when an idea popped into his mind. A strange, wild, and appallingly wonderful idea. It was probably also a dangerous idea, since it would put him in her company for long periods of time, which would certainly leave him in a perpetual state of unfulfilled desire, but Simon valued his self-control above all else, and he was certain he could control his baser urges. "Wouldn't you like a respite?" he asked suddenly. "A respite?" she echoed bemusedly. Even as they twirled across the floor, she looked from side to side. "From this?" "Not precisely. This, you'd still have to endure. What I envision is more of a respite from your mother." Daphne choked on her surprise. "You're going to remove my mother from the social whirl? Doesn't that seem a touch extreme?" "I'm not talking about removing your mother. Rather, I want to remove you." Daphne tripped over her feet, and then, just as soon as she'd regained her balance, she tripped over his. "I beg your pardon?" "I had hoped to ignore London society altogether," he explained, "but I'm finding that may prove to be impossible." "Because you've suddenly developed a taste for ratafia and weak lemonade?" she quipped. "No," he said, ignoring her sarcasm, "because I've discovered that half of my university friends married in my absence, and their wives seem to be obsessed with throwing the perfect party_" "And you've been invited?" He nodded grimly. Daphne leaned in close, as if she were about to tell him a grave secret. "You're a duke," she whispered. "You can say no." She watched with fascination as his jaw tightened. "These men," he said, "their husbands_they are my friends." Daphne felt her lips moving into an unbidden grin. "And you don't want to hurt their wives' feelings." Simon scowled, clearly uncomfortable with the compliment. "Well, I'll be," she said mischievously. "You might just be a nice person after all." "I'm hardly nice," he scoffed. "Perhaps, but you're hardly cruel, either." The music drew to a close, and Simon took her arm and guided her to the perimeter of the ballroom. Then-dance had deposited them on the opposite side of the room from Daphne's family, so they had time to continue their conversation as they walked slowly back to the Bridgertons. "What I was trying to say," he said, "before you so skillfully diverted me, was that it appears I must attend a certain number of London events." "Hardly a fate worse than death." He ignored her editorial. "You, I gather, must attend them as well." She gave him a single regal nod. "Perhaps there is a way that I might be spared the attentions of the Featheringtons and the like, and at the same time, you might be spared the matchmaking efforts of your mother." . She looked at him intently. "Go on." "We"_he leaned forward, his eyes mesmerizing hers_"will form an attachment." Daphne said nothing. Absolutely nothing. She just stared at him as if she were trying to decide if he were the rudest man on the face of the earth or simply mad in the head. "Not a true attachment," Simon said impatiently. "Good God, what sort of man do you think I am?" "Well, I was warned about your reputation," she pointed out. "And you yourself tried to terrify me with your rakish ways earlier this evening." "I did no such thing." "Of course you did." She patted his arm. "But I forgive you. I'm sure you couldn't help it." Simon gave her a startled look. "I don't believe I have ever been condescended to by a woman before." She shrugged. "It was probably past time." "Do you know, I'd thought that you were unmarried because your brothers had scared off all your suitors, but now I wonder if you did it all on your own." Much to his surprise, she just laughed. "No," she said, "I'm unmarried because everyone sees me as a friend. No one ever has any romantic interest in me." She grimaced. "Except Nigel." Simon pondered her words for a few moments, then realized that his plan could work to her benefit even more than he'd originally imagined. "Listen," he said, "and listen quickly because we're almost back to your family, and Anthony looks as if he's about to bolt in our direction any minute now." They both glanced quickly to the right. Anthony was still trapped in conversation with the Featheringtons. He did not look happy. "Here is my plan," Simon continued, his voice low and intense. "We shall pretend to have developed a tendre for each other. I won't have quite so many debutantes thrown in my direction because it will be perceived that I am no longer available." "No it won't," Daphne replied. "They won't believe you're unavailable until you're standing up before the bishop, taking your vows." The very thought made his stomach churn. "Nonsense," he said. "It may take a bit of time, but I'm sure I will eventually be able to convince society that I am not anyone's candidate for marriage." "Except mine," Daphne pointed out. "Except yours," he agreed, "but we will know that isn't true." "Of course," she murmured. "Frankly, I do not believe that this will work, but if you're convinced." "I am." "Well, then, what do I gain?" "For one thing, your mother will stop dragging you from man to man if she thinks you have secured my interest." "Rather conceited of you," Daphne mused, "_but true." Simon ignored her gibe. "Secondly," he continued, "men are always more interested in a woman if they think other men are interested." "Meaning?' "Meaning, quite simply, and pardon my conceit__he shot her a sardonic look to show that he hadn't missed her earlier sarcasm_"but if all the world thinks I intend to make you my duchess, all of those men who see you as nothing more than an affable friend will begin to view you in a new light." Her lips pursed. "Meaning that once you throw me over, I shall have hordes of suitors at my beck and call?" "Oh, I shall allow you to be the one to cry off," he said gallantly. He noticed she didn't bother to thank him. "I still think I'm gaining much more from this arrangement than you," she said. He squeezed her arm slightly. "Then you'll do it?" Daphne looked at Mrs. Featherington, who looked like a bird of prey, and then at her brother, who looked as if he had swallowed a chicken bone. She'd seen those expressions dozens of times before_except on the faces of her own mother and some hapless potential suitor. "Yes," she said, her voice firm. "Yes, I'll do it" * * * "What do you suppose is taking them so long?" Violet Bridgerton tugged on her eldest son's sleeve, unable to take her eyes off of her daughter_who appeared to have thoroughly captured the attention of the Duke of Hastings_only one week in London and already the catch of the season. "I don't know," Anthony replied, looking gratefully at the backs of the Featheringtons as they moved on to their next victim, "but it feels as if it's been hours." "Do you think he likes her?" Violet asked excitedly. "Do you think our Daphne truly has a chance to be a duchess?" Anthony's eyes filled with a mixture of impatience and disbelief. "Mother, you told Daphne she wasn't even to be seen with him, and now you're thinking of marriage?" "I spoke prematurely," Violet said with a blithe wave of her hand. "Clearly he is a man of great refinement and taste. And how, may I ask, do you know what I said to Daphne?" "Daff told me, of course," Anthony lied. "Hmmph. Well, I am certain that Portia Featherington won't be forgetting this evening anytime soon." Anthony's eyes widened. "Are you trying to marry Daphne off so that she might be happy as a wife and a mother, or are you just trying to beat Mrs. Featherington to the altar?" "The former, of course," Violet replied in a huff, "and I am offended you would even imply otherwise." Her eyes strayed off of Daphne and the duke for just long enough to locate Portia Featherington and her daughters. "But I certainly shan't mind seeing the look on her face when she realizes that Daphne will make the season's greatest match." "Mother, you are hopeless." "Certainly not. Shameless, perhaps, but never hopeless." Anthony just shook his head and muttered something under his breath. "It's impolite to mumble," Violet said, mostly just to annoy him. Then she spotted Daphne and the duke. "Ah, here they come. Anthony, behave yourself. Daphne! Your grace!" She paused as the couple made their way 'to her side. "I trust you enjoyed your dance." "Very much," Simon murmured. "Your daughter is as graceful as she is lovely." Anthony let out a snort. Simon ignored him. "I hope we may have the pleasure of dancing together again very soon." Violet positively glowed. "Oh, I'm sure Daphne would adore that." When Daphne didn't answer with all possible haste, she added, quite pointedly, "Wouldn't you, Daphne?" "Of course," Daphne said demurely. "I'm certain your mother would never be so lax as to allow me a second waltz," Simon said, looking every inch the debonair duke, "but I do hope she will permit us to take a stroll around the ballroom." "You just took a stroll around the ballroom," Anthony pointed out. Simon ignored him again. He said to Violet, "We shall, of course, remain in your sight at all times." The lavender silk fan in Violet's hand began to flutter rapidly. "I should be delighted. I mean, Daphne should be delighted. Shouldn't you, Daphne?" Daphne was all innocence. "Oh, I should." "And I," Anthony snapped, "should take a dose of laudanum, for clearly I am fevered. What the devil is going on?" . "Anthony!" Violet exclaimed. She turned hastily to Simon. "Don't mind him." "Oh, I never do," Simon said affably. "Daphne," Anthony said pointedly, "I should be delighted to act as your chaperon." "Really, Anthony," Violet cut in, "they hardly need one if they are to remain here in the ballroom." "Oh, I insist." "You two run along," Violet said to Daphne and Simon, waving her hand at them. "Anthony will be with you in just a moment." Anthony tried to follow immediately, but Violet grabbed onto his wrist hard. "What the devil do you think you're doing?" she hissed. "Protecting my sister!" "From the duke? He can't be that wicked. Actually, he reminds me of you." Anthony groaned. 'Then she definitely needs my protection." Violet patted him on the arm. "Don't be so over-protective. If he attempts to spirit her out onto the balcony, I promise you may dash out to rescue her. But until that unlikely event occurs, please allow your sister her moment of glory." Anthony glared at Simon's back. _Tomorrow I will kill him._ "Dear me," Violet said, shaking her head, "I had no idea you could be so high-strung. One would think, as your mother, I would know these things, especially since you are my firstborn, and thus I have known you for the longest of any of my children, but_" "Is that Colin?" Anthony interrupted, his voice strangled. Violet blinked, then squinted her eyes. "Why, yes, it is. Isn't it lovely that he returned early? I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw him an hour ago. In fact, I_" 'I'd better go to him," Anthony said quickly. "He looks lonely. Goodbye, Mother." Violet watched as Anthony ran off, presumably to escape her chattering lecture. "Silly boy," she murmured to herself. None of her children seemed to be on to any of her tricks. Just blather on about nothing in particular, and she could be rid of any of them in a trice. She let out a satisfied sigh and resumed her watch of her daughter, now on the other side of the ballroom, her hand nestled comfortably in the crook of the duke's elbow. They made a most handsome couple. Yes, Violet thought, her eyes growing misty, her daughter would make an excellent duchess. Then she let her gaze wander briefly over to Anthony, who was now right where she wanted him_out of her hair. She allowed herself a secret smile. Children were so easy to manage. Then her smile turned to a frown as she noticed Daphne walking back toward her_on the arm of another man. Violet's eyes immediately scanned the ballroom until she found the duke. Dash it all, what the devil was he doing dancing with Penelope Featherington? Chapter 6 It has been reported to This Author that the Duke of Hastings mentioned no fewer than six times yestereve that he has no plans to marry. If his intention was to discourage the Ambitious Mamas, he made a grave error in judgment. They will simply view his remarks as the greatest of challenges. And in an interesting side note, his half dozen anti-matrimony remarks were all uttered before he made the acquaintance of the lovely and sensible Miss (Daphne) Bridgerton. Lady Whistledown's Society Papers, 30 April 1813 The following afternoon found Simon standing on the front steps of Daphne's home, one hand rapping the brass knocker on the door, the other wrapped around a large bouquet of fiendishly expensive tulips. It hadn't occurred to him that his little charade might require his attention during the daylight hours, but during their stroll about the ballroom the previous night, Daphne had sagely pointed out that if he did not call upon her the next day, no one_least of all her mother_ would truly believe he was interested. Simon accepted her words as truth, allowing that Daphne almost certainly had more knowledge in this area of etiquette than he did. He'd dutifully found some flowers and trudged across Grosvenor Square to Bridgerton House. He'd never courted a respectable woman before, so the ritual was foreign to him. The door was opened almost immediately by the Bridgertons' butler. Simon gave him his card. The butler, a tall thin man with a hawkish nose, looked at it for barely a quarter second before nodding, and murmuring, "Right this way, your grace." Clearly, Simon thought wryly, he had been expected. What was unexpected, however, was the sight that awaited him when he was shown into the Bridgertons' drawing room. Daphne, a vision in ice-blue silk, perched on the edge of Lady Bridgerton's green damask sofa, her face decorated with another one of those wide wide smiles. It would have been a lovely sight, had she not been surrounded by at least a half dozen men, one of whom had actually descended to one knee, gales of poetry spewing from his mouth. Judging from the florid nature of the prose, Simon fully expected a rosebush to sprout from the nitwit's mouth at any moment. The entire scene, Simon decided, was most disagreeable. He fixed his gaze on Daphne, who was directing her magnificent smile at the buffoon reciting poetry, and waited for her to acknowledge him. She didn't. Simon looked down at his free hand and noticed that it was curled into a tight fist. He scanned the room slowly, trying to decide on which man's face to use it. Daphne smiled again, and again not at him. The idiot poet. Definitely the idiot poet. Simon tilted his head slightly to the side as he analyzed the young swain's face. Would his fist fit best in the right eye socket or the left? Or maybe that was too violent. Maybe a light clip to the chin would be more appropriate. At the very least, it might actually shut the man up. 'This one," the poet announced grandly, "I wrote in your honor last night." Simon groaned. The last poem he had recognized as a rather grandiose rendition of a Shakespearean sonnet, but an original work was more than he could bear. "Your grace!" Simon looked up to realize that Daphne had finally noticed that he had entered, the room. He nodded regally, his cool look very much at odds with the puppy-dog faces of her other suitors. "Miss Bridgerton." "How lovely to see you," she said, a delighted smile crossing her face. Ah, that was more like it. Simon straightened the flowers and started to walk toward her, only to realize that there were three young suitors in his path, and none appeared inclined to move. Simon pierced the first one with his haughtiest stare, which caused the boy_really, he looked all of twenty, hardly old enough to be called a man_to cough in a most unattractive manner and scurry off to an unoccupied window seat. Simon moved forward, ready to repeat the procedure with the next annoying young man, when the viscountess suddenly stepped into his path, wearing a dark blue frock and a smile that might possibly rival Daphne's in its brightness. "Your grace!" she said excitedly. "What a pleasure to see you. You honor us with your presence." "I could hardly imagine myself anywhere else," Simon murmured as he took her gloved hand and kissed it. "Your daughter is an exceptional young lady." The viscountess sighed contentedly. "And such lovely, lovely flowers," she said, once she was finished with her little revel of maternal pride. "Are they from Holland? They must have been terribly dear." "Mother!" Daphne said sharply. She extricated her hand from the grasp of a particularly energetic suitor and made her way over. "What can the duke possibly say to that?" "I could tell her how much I paid for them," he said with a devilish half-smile. "You wouldn't." He leaned forward, lowering his voice so that only Daphne could hear. "Didn't you remind me last night that I'm a duke?" he murmured. "I thought you told me I could do anything I wanted." "Yes, but not that," Daphne said with a dismissive wave of her hand. "You would never be so crass." "Of course the duke would not be crass!" her mother exclaimed, clearly horrified that Daphne would even mention the word in his presence. "What are you talking about? Why would he be crass?" "The flowers," Simon said. "The cost. Daphne thinks I shouldn't tell you." "Tell me later," the viscountess whispered out of the side of her mouth, "when she's not listening." Then she moved back over to the green damask sofa where Daphne had been sitting with her suitors and cleared it out in under three seconds. Simon had to admire the military precision with which she managed the maneuver. "There now," the viscountess said. "Isn't that convenient? Daphne, why don't you and the duke sit right there?" "You mean where Lord Railmont and Mr. Crane were sitting just moments ago?" Daphne asked innocently. "Precisely," her mother replied, with what Simon considered to be an admirable lack of obvious sarcasm. "Besides, Mr. Crane said that he has to meet his mother at Gunter's at three." Daphne glanced at the clock. "It's only two, Mother." "The traffic," Violet said with a sniff, "is nothing short of dreadful these days. Far too many horses on the road." "It ill becomes a man," Simon said, getting into the spirit of the conversation, "to keep his mother waiting." "Well said, your grace." Violet beamed. "You can be sure that I have expressed that very same sentiment to my own children." "And in case you're not sure," Daphne said with a smile, "I'd be happy to vouch for her." Violet merely smiled. "If anyone should know, it would be you, Daphne. Now, if you will excuse me, I have business to attend to. Oh, Mr. Crane! Mr. Crane! Your mother would never forgive me if I did not shoo you out in time." She bustled off, taking the hapless Mr. Crane by the arm and leading him toward the door, barely giving him time to say farewell. Daphne turned to Simon with an amused expression. "I can't quite decide if she is being terribly polite or exquisitely rude." "Exquisitely polite, perhaps?" Simon asked mildly. She shook her head. "Oh, definitely not that." "The alternative, of course, is_" "Terribly rude?" Daphne grinned and watched as her mother looped her arm through Lord Railmont's, pointed him toward Daphne so that he could nod his goodbye, and led him from the room. And then, as if by magic, the remaining beaux murmured their hasty farewells and followed suit. "Remarkably efficient, isn't she?" Daphne murmured. "Your mother? She's a marvel." "She'll be back, of course." "Pity. And here I thought I had you well and truly in my clutches." Daphne laughed. "I don't know how anyone considered you a rake. Your sense of humor is far too superb." "And here we rakes thought we were so wickedly droll." "A rake's humor," Daphne stated, "is essentially cruel." Her comment surprised him. He stared at her intently, searching her brown eyes, and yet not really knowing what it was he was looking for. There was a narrow ring of green just outside her pupils, the color as deep and rich as moss. He'd never seen her in the daylight before, he realized. "Your grace?" Daphne's quiet voice snapped him out of his daze. Simon blinked. "I beg your pardon." "You looked a thousand miles away," she said, her brow wrinkling. "I've been a thousand miles away." He fought the urge to return his gaze to her eyes. "This is entirely different." Daphne let out a little laugh, the sound positively musical. "You have, haven't you? And here I've never even been past Lancashire. What a provincial I must seem." He brushed aside her remark. "You must forgive my woolgathering. We were discussing my lack of humor, I believe._ "We were not, and you well know it." Her hands found their way to her hips. "I specifically told you that you were in possession of a sense of humor far superior to that of the average rake." One of his brows lifted in a rather superior manner. "And you wouldn't classify your brothers as rakes?" "They only think they are rakes," she corrected. "There is a considerable difference." Simon snorted. "If Anthony isn't a rake, I pity the woman who meets the man who is." "There is more to being a rake than seducing legions of women," Daphne said blithely. "If a man can't do more than poke his tongue into a woman's mouth and kiss_" Simon felt his throat close up, but somehow he managed to sputter, "You should not be speaking of such things." She shrugged. "You shouldn't even know about them," he grunted. "Four brothers," she said by way of an explanation. "Well, three, I suppose. Gregory is too young to count." "Someone ought to tell them to hold their tongues around you." She shrugged again, this time with only one shoulder. "Half the time they don't even notice I'm there." Simon couldn't imagine that. "But we seem to have veered away from the Original Subject," she said. "All I meant to say is that a rake's humor has its basis in cruelty. He needs a victim, for he cannot imagine ever laughing at himself. You, your grace, are rather clever with the self-deprecating remark." "I just don't know whether to thank you or throttle you. "Throttle me? Good heavens, why?" She laughed again, a rich, throaty sound that Simon felt deep in his gut. He exhaled slowly, the long whoosh of air just barely steadying his pulse. If she continued laughing, he wasn't going to be able to answer to the consequences. But she just kept looking at him, her wide mouth curved into one of those smiles that looked as if it were perpetually on the verge of laughter. "I am going to throttle you," he growled, "on general principle." "And what principle is that?" "The general principle of man," he blustered. Her brows lifted dubiously. "As opposed to the general principle of woman?" Simon looked around. "Where is your brother? You're far too cheeky. Surely someone needs to take you in hand." "Oh, I'm sure you'll be seeing more of Anthony. In fact I'm rather surprised he hasn't made an appearance yet. He was quite irate last night. I was forced to listen to a full hour's lecture on your many faults and sins." "The sins are almost certainly exaggerated." "And the faults?" "Probably true," Simon admitted sheepishly. That remark earned him another smile from Daphne. "Well, true or not," she said, "he thinks you're up to something." "I am up to something." Her head tilted sarcastically as her eyes rolled upward. "He thinks you're up to something nefarious." "I'd like to be up to something nefarious," he muttered. "What was that?" "Nothing." She frowned. "I think we should tell Anthony about our plan." "And what could possibly be the benefit to that?" Daphne remembered the full-hour grilling she'd endured the previous night, and just said, "Oh, I think I'll let you figure that out for yourself." Simon merely raised his brows. "My dear Daphne." Her lips parted slightly in surprise. "Surely you're not going to force me to call you Miss Bridgerton." He sighed dramatically. "After all that we've been through." "We've been through nothing, you ridiculous man, but I suppose you may call me Daphne nonetheless." "Excellent." He nodded in a condescending manner. "You may call me 'your grace.' " She swatted him. "Very well," he replied, his lips twitching at the corners. "Simon, if you must." "Oh I must," Daphne said, rolling her eyes, "clearly, I must." He leaned toward her, something odd and slightly hot sparking in the depths of his pale eyes. "Must you?" he murmured. "I should be very excited to hear it." Daphne had the sudden sense that he was talking about something far more intimate than the mere mention of his given name. A strange, tingling sort of heat shot down her arms, and without thinking, she jumped back a step. "Those flowers are quite lovely," she blurted out. He regarded them lazily, rotating the bouquet with his wrist. "Yes, they are, aren't they?" "I adore them." 'They're not for you." Daphne choked on air. Simon grinned. "They're for your mother." Her mouth slowly opened in surprise, a short little gasp of air passing through her lips before she said, "Oh, you clever clever man. She will positively melt at your feet. But this will come back to haunt you, you know." He gave her an arch look. "Oh really?" "Really. She will be more determined than ever to drag you to the altar. You shall be just as beleaguered at parties as if we hadn't concocted this scheme." "Nonsense," he scoffed. "Before I would have had to endure the attentions of dozens of Ambitious Mamas. Now I must deal with only one." "Her tenacity might surprise you," Daphne muttered. Then she twisted her head to look out the partially open door. "She must truly like you," she added. "She's left us alone far longer than is proper." Simon pondered that and leaned forward to whisper, "Could she be listening at the door?" Daphne shook her head. "No, we would have heard her shoes clicking down the hall." Something about that statement made him smile, and Daphne found herself smiling right along with him. "I really should thank you, though," she said, "before she returns." "Oh? Why is that?" "Your plan is a brilliant success. At least for me. Did you notice how many suitors came to call this morning?" He crossed his arms, the tulips dangling upside down. "I noticed." "It's brilliant, really. I've never had so many callers in a single afternoon before. Mother was beside herself with pride. Even Humboldt_he's our butler_was beaming, and I've never seen him so much as smile before. Ooops! Look, you're dripping." She leaned down and righted the flowers, her forearm grazing the front of his coat. She immediately jumped back, startled by both the heat and power of him. Good God, if she could sense all that through his shirt and coat, what must he be like_ Daphne colored red. Deep, dark red. "I should give my entire fortune for those thoughts," Simon said, his brows rising in question. Thankfully, Violet chose that moment to sail into the room. "I'm terribly sorry for abandoning you for so long," she said, "but Mr. Crane's horse threw a shoe, so naturally I had to accompany him to the stables and find a groom to repair the damage." In all their years together_which, Daphne thought acerbically, naturally constituted her entire life_Daphne had never known her mother to step foot in the stables. "You are truly an exceptional hostess," Simon said, holding out the flowers. "Here, these are for you." "For me?" Violet's mouth fell open in surprise, and a strange little breathy sound escaped her lips. "Are you certain? Because I_" She looked over at Daphne, and then at Simon, and then finally back at her daughter. "Are you certain?" "Absolutely." Violet blinked rapidly, and Daphne noticed that there were actually tears in her mother's eyes. No one ever gave her flowers, she realized. At least not since her father had died ten years earlier. Violet was such a mother_Daphne had forgotten that she was a woman as well. "I don't know what to say," Violet sniffled. "Try 'thank you,' " Daphne whispered in her ear, her grin lending warmth to her voice. "Oh, Daff, you are the worst." Violet swatted her in the arm, looking more like a young woman than Daphne had ever seen her. "But thank you, your grace. These are beautiful blooms, but more importantly, it was a most thoughtful gesture. I shall treasure this moment always." Simon looked as if he were about to say something, but in the end he just smiled and inclined his head. Daphne looked at her mother, saw the unmistakable joy in her cornflower blue eyes, and realized with a touch of shame that none of her own children had ever acted in such a thoughtful manner as this man standing beside her. The Duke of Hastings. Daphne decided then and there that she'd be a fool if she didn't fall in love with him. Of course it would be nice if he returned the sentiment. "Mother," Daphne said, "would you like me to fetch you a vase?" "What?" Violet was still too busy sniffing blissfully at her flowers to pay attention to her daughter's words. "Oh. Yes, of course. Ask Humboldt for the cut crystal from my grandmother." Daphne flashed a grateful smile at Simon and headed for the door, but before she could take more than two steps, the large and forbidding form of her eldest brother materialized in the doorway. "Daphne," Anthony growled. "Just the person I needed to see." Daphne decided the best strategy was simply to ignore his churlish mood. "In just a moment, Anthony," she said sweetly. "Mother has asked me to fetch a vase. Hastings has brought her flowers." "Hastings is here?" Anthony looked past her to the duo further in the room. "What are you doing here, Hastings?" "Calling on your sister." Anthony pushed past Daphne and strode into the room, looking rather like a thundercloud on legs. "I did not give you leave to court my sister," he bellowed. "I did," Violet said. She shoved the flowers in Anthony's face, wiggling them so as to deposit the greatest amount of pollen on his nose. "Aren't these lovely?" Anthony sneezed and pushed them aside. "Mother, I am trying to have a conversation with the duke." Violet looked at Simon. "Do you want to have this conversation with my son?" "Not particularly." "Fine, then. Anthony, be quiet." Daphne clapped her hand over her mouth, but a snuffly-giggly sound escaped nonetheless. "You!" Anthony jabbed a finger in her direction. "Be quiet!" "Perhaps I should fetch that vase," Daphne mused. "And leave me to the tender mercies of your brother?" Simon said in a mild voice. "I think not." Daphne raised a brow. "Do you imply that you are not man enough to deal with him?" "Nothing of the sort. Merely that he ought to be your problem, not mine, and_" "What the hell is going on here?" Anthony roared. "Anthony!" Violet exclaimed. "I will not tolerate such unbecoming language in my drawing room." Daphne smirked. Simon did nothing more than cock his head, regarding Anthony with a curious stare. Anthony threw a dark scowl at both of them before turning his attention to his mother. "He is not to be trusted. Do you have any idea what is happening here?" he demanded. "Of course I do," Violet replied. "The duke is paying a call upon your sister." "And I brought flowers for your mother," Simon said helpfully. Anthony gazed longingly at Simon's nose. Simon had the distinct impression that Anthony was imagining smashing it in. Anthony whipped his head around to face his mother. "Do you understand the extent of his reputation?" "Reformed rakes make the best husbands," Violet said. "Rubbish and you know it." "He's not a true rake, anyway," Daphne added. The look Anthony shot at his sister was so comically malevolent Simon nearly laughed. He managed to restrain himself, but mostly just because he was fairly certain that any show of humor would cause Anthony's fist to lose its battle with his brain, with Simon's face emerging as the conflict's primary casualty. "You don't know," Anthony said, his voice low and nearly shaking with rage. "You don't know what he has done." "No more than what you have done, I'm sure," Violet said slyly. "Precisely!" Anthony roared. "Good God, I know exactly what is going on in his brain right now, and it has nothing to do with poetry and roses." Simon pictured laying Daphne down on a bed of rose petals. "Well, maybe roses," he murmured. "I'm going to kill him," Anthony announced. "These are tulips, anyway," Violet said primly, "from Holland. And Anthony, you really must summon control of your emotions. This is most unseemly." "He is not fit to lick Daphne's boots." Simon's head filled with more erotic images, this time of himself licking her toes. He decided not to comment. Besides, he had already decided that he wasn't going to allow his thoughts to wander in such directions. Daphne was Anthony's sister, for God's sake. He couldn't seduce her. "I refuse to listen to another disparaging word about his grace," Violet stated emphatically, "and that is the end of the subject." "But_" "I don't like your tone, Anthony Bridgerton!" Simon thought he heard Daphne choke on a chuckle, and he wondered what that was all about. "If it would please Your Motherhood," Anthony said in excruciatingly even tones, "I would like a private word with his grace." "This time I'm really going to get that vase," Daphne announced, and dashed from the room. Violet crossed her arms, and said to Anthony, "I will not have you mistreat a guest in my home." "I shan't lay so much as a hand on him," Anthony replied. "I give you my word." Having never had a mother, Simon was finding this exchange fascinating. Bridgerton House was, after all, technically Anthony's house, not his mother's, and Simon was impressed that Anthony had refrained from pointing this out. "It's quite all right, Lady Bridgerton," he interjected. "I'm sure Anthony and I have much to discuss." Anthony's eyes narrowed. "Much." "Very well," Violet said. "You're going to do what you want no matter what I say, anyway. But I'm not leaving." She plopped down onto the sofa. "This is my drawing room, and I'm comfortable here. If the two of you want to engage in that asinine interchange that passes for conversation among the males of our species, you may do so elsewhere." Simon blinked in surprise. Clearly there was more to Daphne's mother than met the eye. Anthony jerked his head toward the door, and Simon followed him into the hall. "My study is this way," Anthony said. "You have a study here?" "I am the head of the family." "Of course," Simon allowed, "but you do reside elsewhere." Anthony paused and turned an assessing stare on Simon. "It cannot have escaped your notice that my position as head of the Bridgerton family carries with it serious responsibilities." Simon looked him evenly in the eye. "Meaning Daphne?" "Precisely." "If I recall," Simon said, "earlier this week you told me you wanted to introduce us." "That was before I thought you'd be interested in her!" Simon held his tongue as he preceded Anthony into his study, remaining silent until Anthony shut the door. "Why," he asked softly, "would you assume I would not be interested in your sister?" "Besides the fact that you have sworn to me that you will never marry?" Anthony drawled. He had a good point. Simon hated that he had such a good point. "Besides that," he snapped. Anthony blinked a couple of times, then said, "No one is interested in Daphne. At least no one we'd have her marry." Simon crossed his arms and leaned back against the wall. "You don't hold her in terribly high regard, do y_?" Before he could even finish the query, Anthony had him by throat. "Don't you dare insult my sister." But Simon had learned quite a bit about self-defense on his travels, and it took him only two seconds to reverse their positions. "I wasn't insulting your sister," he said in a malevolent voice. "I was insulting you." Strange gurgling sounds were coming from Anthony's throat, so Simon let him go. "As it happens," he said, brushing his hands against each other, "Daphne explained to me why she has not attracted any suitable suitors." "Oh?" Anthony asked derisively. "Personally, I think it has everything to do with your and your brothers' apelike ways, but she tells me it is because all London views her as a friend, and none sees her as a romantic heroine." Anthony was silent for a long moment before saying, "I see." Then, after another pause, he added thoughtfully, "She's probably right." Simon said nothing, just watched his friend as he sorted all of this out. Finally, Anthony said, "I still don't like your sniffing about her." "Good God, you make me sound positively canine." Anthony crossed his arms, "Don't forget, we ran in the same pack after we left Oxford. I know exactly what you've done." "Oh, for the love of Christ, Bridgerton, we were twenty! All men are idiots at that age. Besides, you know damn well that h_h_" Simon felt his tongue grow awkward, and faked a coughing fit to cover his stammer. Damn. This happened so infrequently these days, but when it did, it was always when he was upset or angry. If he lost control over his emotions, he lost control over his speech. It was as simple as that. And unfortunately, episodes such as this only served to make him upset and angry with himself, which in turn exacerbated the stammer. It was the worst sort of vicious circle. Anthony looked at him quizzically. "Are you all right?" Simon nodded. "Just a bit of dust in my throat," he lied. "Shall I ring for tea?' Simon nodded again. He didn't particularly want tea, but it seemed the sort of thing one would ask for if one truly did have dust in one's throat. Anthony tugged at the bellpull, then turned back to Simon and asked, "You were saying?" Simon swallowed, hoping the gesture would help him to regain control over his ire. "I merely meant to point out that you know better than, anyone that at least half of my reputation is undeserved." "Yes, but I was there for the half that was deserved, and while I don't mind your occasionally socializing with Daphne, I don't want you courting her." Simon stared at his friend_or at least the man he thought was his friend_in disbelief. "Do you really think I'd seduce your sister?" "I don't know what to think. I know you plan never to marry. I know that Daphne does." Anthony shrugged. "Frankly, that's enough for me to keep you two on opposite sides of the dance floor." Simon let out a long breath. While Anthony's attitude was irritating as hell, he supposed it was understandable, and in fact even laudable. After all, the man was only acting in the best interests of his sister. Simon had difficulty imagining being responsible for anyone save himself, but he supposed that if he had a sister, he'd be damned picky about who courted her as well. Just then, a knock sounded at the door. "Enter!" Anthony called out. Instead of the maid with tea, Daphne slipped into the room. "Mother told me that the two of you are in beastly moods, and I should leave you alone, but I thought I ought to make certain neither of you had killed the other." "No," Anthony said with a grim smile, "just a light strangle." To Daphne's credit, she didn't bat an eyelash. "Who strangled whom?" "I strangled him," her brother replied, "then he returned the favor." "I see," she said slowly. "I'm sorry to have missed the entertainment." Simon couldn't suppress a smile at her remark. "Daff," he began. Anthony whirled around. "You call her Daff?" His head snapped back to Daphne. "Did you give him permission to use your given name?" "Of course." "But_" "I think," Simon interrupted, "that we are going to have to come clean." Daphne nodded somberly. "I think you're right. If you recall, I told you so." "How genteel of you to mention it," Simon murmured. She smiled gamely. "I could not resist. With four brothers, after all, one must always seize the moment when one may say, 'I told you so.' " Simon looked from sibling to sibling. "I don't know which one of you I pity more." "What the devil is going on?" Anthony demanded, and then added as an aside, "And as for your remark, pity me. I am a far more amiable brother than she is a sister." "Not true!" Simon ignored the squabble and focused his attention on Anthony. "You want to know what the devil is going on? It's like this." Chapter 7 Men are sheep. Where one goes, the rest will soon follow. Lady Whistledown's Society Papers, 30 April 1813 All in all, Daphne thought, Anthony was taking this rather well. By the time Simon had finished explaining their little plan (with, she had to admit, frequent interruptions on her part), Anthony had raised his voice only seven times. That was about seven fewer than Daphne would have predicted. Finally, after Daphne begged him to hold his tongue until she and Simon were done with their story, Anthony gave a curt nod, crossed his arms, and clamped his mouth shut for the duration of the explanation. His frown was enough to shake the plaster off the walls, but true to his word, he remained utterly silent. Until Simon finished with, "And that's that." There was silence. Dead silence. For a full ten seconds, nothing but silence, although Daphne would have sworn she could hear her eyes moving in their sockets as they darted back from Anthony to Simon. And then finally, from Anthony: "Are you mad?'" "I thought this might be his reaction," Daphne murmured. "Are you both completely, irrevocably, abominably insane?" Anthony's voice rose to a roar. "I don't know which of you is more clearly the idiot." "Will you hush!" Daphne hissed. "Mother will hear you." "Mother would perish of heart failure if she knew what you were about," Anthony retorted, but he did use a softer tone. "But Mother is not going to hear of it, is she?" Daphne shot back. "No, she's not," Anthony replied, his chin jutting forward, "because your little scheme is finished as of this very moment." Daphne crossed her arms. "You can't do anything to stop me." Anthony jerked his head toward Simon. "I can kill him." "Don't be ridiculous." "Duels have been fought for less." "By idiots!" "I'm not disputing the title as regards to him." "If I might interrupt," Simon said quietly. "He's your best friend!" Daphne protested. "Not," Anthony said, the single syllable brimming with barely contained violence, "anymore." Daphne turned to Simon with a huff. "Aren't you going to say anything?" His lips quirked into an amused half-smile. "And when would I have had the chance?" Anthony turned to Simon. "I want you out of this house." "Before I may defend myself?" "It's my house, too," Daphne said hotly, "and I want him to stay." Anthony glared at his sister, exasperation evident in every inch of his posture. "Very well," he said, "I'll give you two minutes to state your case. No more." Daphne glanced hesitantly at Simon, wondering if he'd want to use the two minutes himself. But all he did was shrug, and say, "Go right ahead. He's your brother." She took a fortifying breath, planted her hands on her hips without even realizing it, and said, "First of all, I must point out that I have far more to gain from this alliance than his grace. He says he wishes to use me to keep the other women_" "And their mothers," Simon interrupted. "_and their mothers at bay. But frankly"_Daphne glanced at Simon as she said this_"I think he's wrong. The women aren't going to stop pursuing him just because they think he might have formed an attachment with another young lady_especially when that young lady is me." "And what is wrong with you?" Anthony demanded. Daphne started to explain, but then she caught a strange glance pass between the two men. "What was that all about?" "Nothing," Anthony muttered, looking a trifle sheepish. "I explained to your brother your theory on why you have not had more suitors," Simon said gently. "I see." Daphne pursed her lips as she tried to decide whether that was something she ought to be irritated about. "Hmmph. Well, he should have figured that out on his own." Simon made an odd snorting sound that might have been a laugh. Daphne leveled a sharp look at both men. "I do hope my two minutes do not include all of these interruptions." Simon shrugged. "He's the timekeeper." Anthony clutched at the edge of the desk, probably, Daphne thought, to keep himself from going for Simon's throat. "And he" he said menacingly, "is going to find himself headfirst through the goddamned window if he doesn't shut up." "Did you know I have always suspected that men were idiots," Daphne ground out, "but I was never positive until today." Simon grinned. "Allowing for interruptions," Anthony bit off, shooting yet another deadly glare in Simon's direction even as he spoke to Daphne, "you have a minute and a half left." "Fine," she snapped. "Then I'll reduce this conversation to one single fact. Today I had six callers. Six! Can you recall the last time I had six callers?" Anthony just stared at her blankly. "I can't," Daphne continued, in fine form now. "Because it has never happened. Six men marched up our steps, knocked on our door, and gave Humboldt their cards. Six men brought me flowers, engaged me in conversation, and one even recited poetry." Simon winced. "And do you know why?" she demanded, her voice rising dangerously. "Do you?" Anthony, in his somewhat belatedly arrived wisdom, held his tongue. "It is all because he"_she jabbed her forefinger toward Simon_"was kind enough to feign interest in me last night at Lady Danbury's ball." Simon, who had been leaning casually against the edge of the desk, suddenly straightened. "Well, now," he said quickly, "I wouldn't quite put it that way." She turned to him, her eyes remarkably steady. "And how would you put it?" He didn't get much past, "I_" before she added, "Because I can assure you those men have never seen fit to call on me before." "If they are so myopic," Simon said quietly, "why do you care for their regard?" She fell silent, drawing back slightly. Simon had the sinking suspicion that he might have said something very, very wrong, but he wasn't positive until he saw her blinking rapidly. Oh, damn. Then she wiped one of her eyes. She coughed as she did it, trying to hide the maneuver by pretending to cover her mouth, but Simon still felt like the worst sort of heel. "Now look what you've done," Anthony snapped. He placed a comforting hand on his sister's arm, all the while glaring at Simon. "Pay him no mind, Daphne. He's an ass." "Maybe," she sniffled. "But he's an intelligent ass." Anthony's mouth fell open. She shot him a testy look. "Well, if you didn't want me to repeat it, you shouldn't have said it." Anthony let out a weary sigh. "Were there really six men here this afternoon?" She nodded. "Seven including Hastings." "And," he asked carefully, "were any of them men you might be interested in marrying?" Simon realized that his fingers were gouging small holes in his thigh and forced himself to move his hand to the desk. Daphne nodded again. "They are all men with whom I have enjoyed a previous friendship. It is only that they never viewed me as a candidate for romance before Hastings led the way. I might, if given the opportunity, develop an attachment for one of them." "But_" Simon quickly shut his mouth. "But what?" Daphne asked, turning to him with curious eyes. It occurred to him that what he wanted to say was that if those men had only noticed Daphne's charms because a duke had shown interest in her, then they were idiots, and thus she shouldn't even contemplate marrying them. But considering that he had been the one to originally point out that his interest would gain her more suitors_well, frankly, it seemed a bit self-defeating to mention it "Nothing," he finally said, raising a hand in a don't-mind-me motion. "It doesn't signify." Daphne looked at him for a few moments, as if waiting for him to change his mind, and then turned back to her brother. "Do you admit the wisdom of our plan, then?" "'Wisdom' might be a bit of a stretch, but"_Anthony looked pained to say it_"I can see where you might think it might benefit you." "Anthony, I have to find a husband. Besides the fact that Mother is pestering me to death, I want a husband. I want to marry and have a family of my own. I want it more than you could ever know. And thus far, no one acceptable has asked." Simon had no idea how Anthony could possibly hold out against the warm pleading in her dark eyes. And sure enough, Anthony sagged against the desk and let out a weary groan. "Very well," he said, closing his eyes as if he couldn't believe what he was saying, "I shall agree to this if I must." Daphne jumped up and threw her arms around him. "Oh, Anthony, I knew you were the very best of brothers." She gave him a kiss on the cheek. "You're just occasionally misguided." Anthony's eyes floated heavenward before focusing on Simon. "Do you see what I have to put up with?" he asked with shake of his head. His tone was that particular timbre used only from one beleaguered male to another. Simon chuckled to himself as he wondered when he'd turned from evil seducer back into good friend. "But," Anthony said loudly, causing Daphne to back up, "I am placing some conditions on this." Daphne didn't say anything, just blinked as she waited for her brother to continue. "First of all, this goes no further than this room." "Agreed," she said quickly. Anthony looked pointedly at Simon. "Of course," he replied. "Mother would be devastated if she learned the truth." "Actually," Simon murmured, "I rather think your mother would applaud our ingenuity, but since you have quite obviously known her longer, I bow to your discretion." Anthony shot him a frosty look. "Second, under no circumstances are the two of you to be alone together. Ever." "Well, that should be easy," Daphne said, "as we wouldn't be allowed to be alone if we were courting in truth, anyway." Simon recalled their brief interlude in the hall at Lady Danbury's house, and found it a pity that he wasn't to be allowed any more private time with Daphne, but he recognized a brick wall when he saw one, especially when said wall happened to be named Anthony Bridgerton. So he just nodded and murmured his assent. "Third_" "There is a third?" Daphne asked. "There would be thirty if I could think of them," Anthony growled. "Very well," she acceded, looking most aggrieved. "If you must." For a split second Simon thought Anthony might strangle her. "What are you laughing about?" Anthony demanded. It was only then that Simon realized that he had snorted a laugh. "Nothing," he said quickly. "Good," Anthony grunted, "because the third condition is this: If I ever, even once, catch you in any behavior that compromises her. If I ever even catch you kissing her bloody hand without a chaperone, I shall tear your head off." Daphne blinked. "Don't you think that's a bit excessive?" Anthony leveled a hard stare in her direction. "No." "Oh." "Hastings?" Simon had no choice but to nod. "Good," Anthony replied gruffly. "And now that we're done with that, you"_he cocked his head rather abruptly toward Simon_"can leave." "Anthony!" Daphne exclaimed. "I assume this means I am disinvited for supper this evening?" Simon asked. "Yes." "No!" Daphne jabbed her brother in the arm. "Is Hastings invited for supper? Why did you not say something?" "It was days ago," Anthony grumbled. "Years." "It was Monday," Simon said. "Well, then you must join us," Daphne said firmly. "Mother will be so delighted. And you"_she poked her brother in the arm_"stop thinking about how you may poison him." Before Anthony could reply, Simon waved off her words with a chuckle. "Do not worry on my behalf, Daphne. You forget that I attended school with him for nearly a decade. He never did understand the principles of chemistry." "I shall kill him," Anthony said to himself. "Before the week is out, I shall kill him." "No you won't," Daphne said blithely. "By tomorrow you will have forgotten all of this and will be smoking cheroots at White's." "I don't think so," Anthony said ominously. "Of course you will. Don't you agree, Simon?" Simon studied his best friend's face and realized he was seeing something new. Something in his eyes. Something serious. Six years ago, when Simon had left England, he and Anthony had been boys. Oh, they'd thought they were men. They'd gambled and whored and strutted about society, consumed with their own importance, but now they were different. Now they were men in truth. Simon had felt the change within himself during his travels. It had been a slow transformation, wrought over time as he faced new challenges. But now he realized that he'd returned to England still picturing Anthony as that twenty-two-year-old boy he'd left behind. He'd done his friend a great disservice, he'd realized, in failing to realize that he, too, had grown up. Anthony had responsibilities Simon had never even dreamed of. He had brothers to guide, sisters to protect. Simon had a dukedom, but Anthony had a family. There was a grave difference, and Simon found that he couldn't fault his friend for his overprotective and indeed somewhat mulish behavior. "I think," Simon said slowly, finally answering Daphne's question, "that your brother and I are both different people than we were when we ran wild six years ago. And I think that might not be such a bad thing." * * * Several hours later, the Bridgerton household was in chaos. Daphne had changed into an evening dress of dark green velvet that someone had once said almost made her eyes look not quite brown, and was presently idling about in the great hall, trying to find a way to calm her mother's racing nerves. "I cannot believe," Violet said, one hand fluttering on her chest, "that Anthony forgot to tell me he invited the duke to dinner. I had no time to prepare. None at all." Daphne eyed the menu in her hand, which began with turtle soup and marched through three more courses before finishing with lamb a la b?chamel (followed, of course, by a choice of four desserts). She tried to keep her voice free of sarcasm as she said, "I do not think the duke will have cause to complain." "I pray that he won't," Violet replied. "But if I had known he was coming, I would have made sure we had a beef dish as well. One cannot entertain without a beef dish." "He knows this is an informal meal." Violet shot her an acerbic look. "No meal is informal when a duke is calling." Daphne regarded her mother thoughtfully. Violet was wringing her hands and gnashing her teeth. "Mother," Daphne said, "I don't think the duke is the sort to expect us to dramatically alter our family supper plans on his behalf." "He might not expect it," Violet said, "but I do. Daphne, there are certain rules in society. Expectations. And frankly, I do not understand how you can be quite so calm and disinterested." "I'm not disinterested!" "You certainly don't look nervous." Violet eyed her suspiciously. "How can you not be nervous? For goodness sake, Daphne, this man is thinking of marrying you." Daphne caught herself just before she groaned. "He has never said as much, Mother." "He didn't have to. Why else would he have danced with you last night? The only other lady he so honored was Penelope Featherington, and we both know that that had to be out of pity." "I like Penelope," Daphne said. "I like Penelope, too," Violet returned, "and I long for the day her mother realizes that a girl of her complexion cannot be dressed in tangerine satin, but that is beside the point." "What is the point?" "I don't know!" Violet very nearly wailed. Daphne shook her head. "I'm going to find Eloise." "Yes, do that," Violet said distractedly, "and make sure Gregory is clean. He never washes behind his ears. And Hyacinth_Good God, what are we to do about Hyacinth? Hastings will not expect a ten-year-old at the table." "Yes, he will," Daphne replied patiently. "Anthony told him we were dining as a family." "Most families do not allow their younger children to dine with them," Violet pointed out. "Then that is their problem." Daphne finally gave in to her exasperation and let out a loud sigh. "Mother, I spoke to the duke. He understands that this is not a formal meal. And he specifically told me that he was looking forward to a change of pace. He has no family himself, so he has never experienced anything like a Bridgerton family dinner." "God help us." Violet's face went utterly pale. "Now, Mother," Daphne said quickly, "I know what you're thinking, and I assure you that you don't have to worry about Gregory putting creamed potatoes on Francesca's chair again. I'm certain he has outgrown such childish behavior." "He did it last week!" "Well, then," Daphne said briskly, not missing a beat, "then I'm sure he's learned his lesson." The look Violet gave her daughter was dubious in the extreme. "Very well, then," Daphne said, her tone considerably less businesslike, "then I will simply threaten him with death if he does anything to upset you." "Death won't scare him," Violet mused, "but perhaps I can threaten to sell his horse." "He'll never believe you." "No, you're right. I'm far too soft-hearted." Violet frowned. "But he might believe me if I told him he would be forbidden to go on his daily ride." "That might work," Daphne agreed. "Good. I shall go off and scare some sense into him." Violet took two steps then turned around. "Having children is such a challenge." Daphne just smiled. She knew it was a challenge her mother adored. Violet cleared her throat softly, signaling a more serious turn of conversation. "I do hope this supper goes well, Daphne. I think Hastings might be an excellent match for you." "'Might'?' Daphne teased. "I thought dukes were good matches even if they had-two heads and spit while they talked." She laughed. "Out of both mouths!" Violet smiled benignly. "You might find this difficult to believe, Daphne, but I don't want to see you married off to just anyone. I may introduce you to no end of eligible men, but that is only because I would like you to have as many suitors as possible from which to choose a husband." Violet smiled wistfully. "It is my fondest dream to see you as happy as I was with your father." And then, before Daphne could reply, Violet disappeared down the hall. Leaving Daphne with second thoughts. Maybe this plan with Hastings wasn't such a good idea, after all. Violet was going to be crushed when they broke off their faux alliance. Simon had said that Daphne might be the one to do the jilting, but she was beginning to wonder if perhaps it wouldn't be better the other way around. It would be mortifying for Daphne to be thrown over by Simon, but at least that way she wouldn't have to endure Violet's bewildered chorus of "Why?" Violet was going to think she was insane for letting him get away. And Daphne would be left wondering if maybe her mother was right. Simon had not been prepared for supper with the Bridgertons. It was a loud, raucous affair, with plenty of laughter and thankfully, only one incident involving a flying pea. (It had looked as if the pea in question had originated at Hyacinth's end of the table, but the littlest Bridgerton had looked so innocent and angelic that Simon had difficulty believing she had actually aimed the legume at her brother.) Thankfully, Violet had not noticed the flying pea, even though it sailed right over her head in a perfect arc. But Daphne, who was sitting directly across from him, most certainly had, because her napkin flew up to cover her mouth with remarkable alacrity. Judging from the way her eyes were crinkling at the corners, she was definitely laughing under the square of linen. Simon spoke little throughout the meal. Truth be told, it was far easier to listen to the Bridgertons than actually to try to converse with them, especially considering the number of malevolent stares he was receiving from Anthony and Benedict. But Simon had been seated clear at the opposite end of the table from the two eldest Bridgertons (no accident on Violet's part, he was sure) so it was relatively simple to ignore them and instead enjoy Daphne's interactions with the rest of her family. Every now and then one of them would ask him a direct question, and he would answer, and then he would return to his demeanor of quiet observation. Finally, Hyacinth, who was seated to Daphne's right, looked him straight in the eye, and said, "You don't talk much, do you?" Violet choked on her wine. 'The duke," Daphne said to Hyacinth, "is being far more polite than we are, constantly jumping into the conversation and interrupting one another as if we're afraid we might not be heard." "I'm not afraid I might not be heard," Gregory said. "I'm not afraid of that, either," Violet commented dryly. "Gregory, eat your peas." "But Hyacinth_" "Lady Bridgerton," Simon said loudly, "may I trouble you for another helping of those delicious peas?" "Why certainly." Violet shot an arch look at Gregory. "Notice how the duke is eating his peas." Gregory ate his peas. Simon smiled to himself as he spooned another portion of peas onto his plate, thankful that Lady Bridgerton had not decided to serve dinner a la russe. It would have been difficult to stave off Gregory's certain accusation of Hyacinth as a pea-tosser if he'd had to summon a footman to serve him. Simon busied himself with his peas, since he really had no choice but to finish off every last one. He stole a glance at Daphne, however, who was wearing a secret little smile. Her eyes were brimming with infectious good humor, and Simon soon felt the corners of his mouth turning up as well. "Anthony, why are you scowling?" asked one of the other Bridgerton girls_Simon thought it might be Francesca, but it was hard to say. The two middle ones looked amazingly alike, right down to their blue eyes, so like their mother's. "I'm not scowling," Anthony snapped, but Simon, having been on the receiving end of those scowls for the better part of an hour, rather thought he was lying. "You are, too," either Francesca or Eloise said. Anthony's tone of reply was condescending in the extreme. "If you think I am going to say 'am not,' you are sadly mistaken." Daphne laughed into her napkin again. Simon decided life was more amusing than it had been in ages. "Do you know," Violet suddenly announced, "that I think this might be one of the most pleasant evenings of the year. Even"_she sent a knowing glance down the table at Hyacinth_"if my youngest is tossing peas down the table." Simon looked up just as Hyacinth cried out, "How did you know?" Violet shook her head as she rolled her eyes. "My dear children," she said, "when will you learn that I know everything?" Simon decided he had a great deal of respect for Violet Bridgerton. But even still, she managed to completely confuse him with a question and a smile. "Tell me, your grace," she said, "are you busy tomorrow?" Despite her blond and blue-eyed coloring, she looked so like Daphne as she asked him this question that he was momentarily befuddled. Which had to be the only reason he didn't bother to think before he stammered, "N-no. Not that I recall." "Excellent!" Violet exclaimed, beaming. "Then you must join us on our outing to Greenwich." "Greenwich?" Simon echoed. "Yes, we've been planning a family outing for several weeks now. We thought we'd take a boat, then perhaps have a picnic on the shores of the Thames." Violet smiled at him confidently. "You'll come, won't you?" "Mother," Daphne interjected, "I'm certain the duke has any number of commitments." Violet gave Daphne a look so frigid Simon was surprised that neither one of them turned to ice. "Nonsense," Violet replied. "He just said himself that he wasn't busy." She turned back to Simon. "And we shall be visiting the Royal Observatory as well, so you needn't worry that this will be a mindless jaunt. It's not open to the public, of course, but my late husband was a great patron, so we are assured entry." Simon looked at Daphne. She just shrugged and apologized with her eyes. He turned back to Violet. "I'd be delighted." Violet beamed and patted him on the arm. And Simon had the sinking sensation that his fate had just been sealed. Chapter 8 It has reached This Author's ears that the entire Bridgerton family (plus one duke!) embarked upon a journey to Greenwich on Saturday. It has also reached This Author's ears that the aforementioned duke, along with a certain member of the Bridgerton family, returned to London very wet indeed. Lady Whistledown's Society Papers, 3 May 1813 If you apologize to me one more time," Simon said, leaning his head back against his hands, "I may have to kill you." Daphne shot him an irritated look from her position in her deck chair on the small yacht her mother had commissioned to take the entire family_and the duke, of course_to Greenwich. "Pardon me," she said, "if I am polite enough to apologize for my mother's quite obvious manipulations. I thought that the purpose of our little charade was to shield you from the tender mercies of matchmaking mothers." Simon waved off her comment, as he settled deeper into his own chair. "It would only be a problem if I were not enjoying myself." Daphne's chin lurched backward slightly in surprise. "Oh," she said (stupidly, in her opinion). "That's nice." He laughed. "I am inordinately fond of boat travel, even if it is just down to Greenwich, and besides, after spending so much time at sea, I rather fancy a visit to the Royal Observatory to see the Greenwich Meridian." He cocked his head in her direction. "Do you know much about navigation and longitude?" She shook her head. "Very little, I'm afraid. I must confess I'm not even certain what this meridian here at Greenwich is." "It's the point from which all longitude is measured. It used to be that sailors and navigators measured longitudinal distance from their point of departure, but in the last century, the astronomer royal decided to make Greenwich the starting point." Daphne raised her brows. "That seems rather self-important of us, don't you think, positioning ourselves at the center of the world?" "Actually, it's quite convenient to have a universal reference point when one is attempting to navigate the high seas." She still looked doubtful. "So everyone simply agreed on Greenwich? I find it difficult to believe that the French wouldn't have insisted upon Paris, and the Pope, I'm sure, would have preferred Rome." "Well, it wasn't an agreement, precisely," he allowed with a laugh. "There was no official treaty, if that is what you mean. But the Royal Observatory publishes an excellent set of charts and tables each year_it's called the Nautical Almanac. And a sailor would have to be insane to attempt to navigate the ocean without one on board. And since the Nautical Almanac measures longitude with Greenwich as zero . well, everyone else has adopted it as well." "You seem to know quite a bit about this." He shrugged. "If you spend enough time on a ship, you learn." "Well, I'm afraid it wasn't the sort of thing one learned in the Bridgerton nursery." She cocked her head to the side in a somewhat self-deprecating manner. "Most of my learning was restricted to what my governess knew." "Pity," he murmured. Then he asked, "Only most?" "If there was something that interested me, I could usually find several books to read on the topic in our library." "I would wager then, that your interests did not lie in abstract mathematics." Daphne laughed. "Like you, you mean? Hardly, I'm afraid. My mother always said that it was a wonder I could add high enough to put shoes on my feet." Simon winced. "I know, I know," she said, still smiling. "You sorts who excel at arithmetic simply don't understand how we lesser mortals can look at a page of numbers and not know the answer_or at least how to get to the answer_ instantly. Colin is the same way." He smiled, because she was exactly right. "What, then, were your favorite subjects?" "Hmm? Oh, history and literature. Which was fortunate, since we had no end of books on those topics." He took another sip of his lemonade. "I've never had any great passion for history." "Really? Why not, do you think?" Simon pondered that for a moment, wondering if perhaps his lack of enthusiasm for history was due to his distaste for his dukedom and all the tradition that wrapped around it. His father had been so passionate about the title.But of course all he said was, "Don't know, really. Just didn't like it, I suppose." They fell into a few moments of companionable silence, the gentle river wind ruffling their hair. Then Daphne smiled, and said, "Well, I won't apologize again, since I'm too fond of my life to sacrifice it needlessly at your hands, but I am glad that you're not miserable after my mother browbeat you into accompanying us." The look he gave her was vaguely sardonic. "If I hadn't wanted to join you, there is nothing your mother could have said that would have secured my presence." She snorted. "And this from a man who is feigning a courtship to me, of all people, all because he's too polite to refuse invitations from his friends' new wives." A rather irritable scowl immediately darkened his features. "What do you mean, you of all people?" "Well, I." She blinked in surprise. She had no idea what she meant. "I don't know," she finally said. "Well, stop saying it," he grumbled, then settled back into his chair. Daphne's eyes inexplicably focused on a wet spot on the railing as she fought to keep an absurd smile off her face. Simon was so sweet when he was grumpy. "What are you looking at?" he asked. Her lips twitched. "Nothing." "Then what are you smiling about?" That she most certainly was not going to reveal. "I'm not smiling." "If you're not smiling," he muttered, "then you're either about to suffer a seizure or sneeze." "Neither," she said in a breezy voice. "Just enjoying the excellent weather." Simon was leaning his head against the back of the chair, so he just rolled it to the side so he could look at her. "And the company's not that bad," he teased. Daphne shot a pointed look at Anthony, who was leaning against the rail on the opposite side of the deck, glowering at them both. "All of the company?" she asked. "If you mean your belligerent brother," Simon replied, "I'm actually finding his distress most amusing." Daphne fought a smile and didn't win. "That's not very kind-hearted of you." "I never said I was kind. And look_" Simon tipped his head ever so slightly in Anthony's direction. Anthony's scowl had, unbelievably, turned even blacker. "He knows we're talking about him. It's killing him." "I thought you were friends." "We are friends. This is what friends do to one another." "Men are mad." "Generally speaking," he agreed. She rolled her eyes. "I thought the primary rule of friendship was that one was not supposed to dally with one's friend's sister." "Ah, but I'm not dallying. I'm merely pretending to dally." Daphne nodded thoughtfully and glanced at Anthony. "And it's still killing him_even though he knows the truth of the matter." "I know." Simon grinned. "Isn't it brilliant?" Just then Violet came sailing across the deck. "Children!" she called out. "Children! Oh, pardon me, your grace," she added when she spied him. "It's certainly not fair for me to lump you with my children." Simon just smiled and waved off her apology. "The captain tells me we're nearly there," Violet explained. "We should gather up our things." Simon rose to his feet and extended a helpful hand to Daphne, who took it gratefully, gobbling as she stood. "I haven't my sea legs yet," she laughed, clutching his arm to steady herself. "And here we're merely on the river," he murmured. "Beast. You're not supposed to point out my lack of grace and balance." As she spoke, she turned her face toward his, and in that instant, with the wind catching her hair and painting her cheeks pink, she looked so enchantingly lovely that Simon nearly forgot to breathe. Her lush mouth was caught somewhere between a laugh and a smile, and the sun glinted almost red on her hair. Here on the water, away from stuffy ballrooms, with the fresh air swirling about them, she looked natural and beautiful and just being in her presence made Simon want to grin like an idiot. If they hadn't been about to pull into dock, with her entire family running around them, he would have kissed her. He knew he couldn't dally with her, and he knew he would never marry her, and still he found himself leaning toward her. He didn't even realize what he was doing until he suddenly felt off-balance and lurched back upright. Anthony, unfortunately, caught the entire episode, and he rather brusquely insinuated himself between Simon and Daphne, grasping her arm with far more strength than grace. "As your eldest brother," he growled, "I believe it is my honor to escort you ashore." Simon just bowed and let Anthony have his way, too shaken and angered by his momentary loss of control to argue. The boat settled next to the dock, and a gangplank was put into place. Simon watched as the entire Bridgerton family disembarked, then he brought up the rear, following them onto the grassy banks of the Thames. At the top of the hill stood the Royal Observatory, a stately old building of rich red brick. Its towers were topped with gray domes, and Simon had the sense that he was, as Daphne had put it, at the very center of the world. Everything, he realized, was measured from this point. After having crossed a good portion of the globe, the thought was rather humbling. "Do we have everyone?" the viscountess called out. "Hold still, everyone, so I may be sure we are all present and accounted for." She started counting heads, finally ending on herself with a triumphant, 'Ten! Good, we're all here." "Just be glad she doesn't make us line up by age any longer." Simon looked to the left to see Colin grinning at him. "As a method of keeping order, age worked when it still corresponded with height. But then Benedict gained an inch on Anthony, and then Gregory outgrew Francesca_" Colin shrugged. "Mother simply gave up." Simon scanned the crowd and lifted one shoulder in a shrug. "I'm just trying to figure out where I'd fit in." "Somewhere near Anthony, if I had to hazard a guess," Colin replied. "God forbid," Simon muttered. Colin glanced at him with a mix of amusement and curiosity. "Anthony!" Violet called out. "Where's Anthony?" Anthony indicated his location with a rather ill-tempered grunt. 'Oh, there you are, Anthony. Come and escort me in." Anthony reluctantly let go of Daphne's arm and walked to his mother's side. "She's shameless, isn't she?" Colin whispered. Simon thought it best not to comment. "Well, don't disappoint her," Colin said. "After all her machinations, the least you can do is go and take Daphne's arm." Simon turned to Colin with a quirked eyebrow. "You might be just as bad as your mother." Colin just laughed. "Yes, except that at least I don't pretend to be subtle." Daphne chose that moment to walk over. "I find myself without an escort," she said. "Imagine that," Colin returned. "Now, if the two of you will excuse me, I'm off to find Hyacinth. If I'm forced to escort Eloise, I may have to swim back to London. She's been a wretch ever since she attained the age of fourteen." Simon blinked in confusion. "Didn't you just return from the Continent last week?" Colin nodded. "Yes, but Eloise's fourteenth birthday was a year and a half ago." Daphne swatted him on the elbow. "If you're lucky, I won't tell her you said that." Colin just rolled his eyes and disappeared into the small crowd, bellowing Hyacinth's name. Daphne laid her hand in the crook of Simon's elbow as he offered her his arm, then asked, "Have we scared you off yet?" "I beg your pardon?" She offered him a rueful smile. "There is nothing quite as exhausting as a Bridgerton family outing." "Oh, that." Simon stepped quickly to the right to avoid Gregory, who was racing after Hyacinth, yelling something about mud and revenge. "It's, ah, a new experience." "Very politely put, your grace," Daphne said admiringly. "I'm impressed." "Yes, well_" He jumped back as Hyacinth barreled by, squealing at such a pitch that Simon was certain that dogs would start howling from there to London. "I have no siblings, after all." Daphne let out a dreamy sigh. "No siblings," she mused. "Right now it sounds like heaven." The faraway look remained in her eyes for a few more seconds, then she straightened and shook off her reverie. "Be that as it may, however_" Her hand shot out just as Gregory ran past, catching the boy firmly by the upper arm. "Gregory Bridgerton," she scolded, "you should know better than to run thus through a crowd. You're liable to knock someone over." "How did you do that?" Simon asked. "What, catch him?" "Yes." She shrugged. "I have years of practice." "Daphne!" Gregory whined. His arm, after all, was still attached to her hand. She let go. "Now, slow down." He took two exaggerated steps then broke into a trot. "No scolding for Hyacinth?" Simon asked. Daphne motioned over her shoulder. "It appears my mother has Hyacinth in hand." Simon saw that Violet was shaking her finger quite vehemently at Hyacinth. He turned back to Daphne. "What were you about to say before Gregory appeared on the scene?" She blinked. "I have no idea." "I believe you were about to go into raptures at the thought of having no siblings." "Oh, of course." She let out a little laugh as they followed the rest of the Bridgertons up the hill toward the observatory. "Actually, believe it or not, I was going to say that while the concept of eternal solitude is, at times, tempting, I think I would be quite lonely without family." Simon said nothing. "I cannot imagine having only one child myself," she added. "Sometimes," Simon said in a dry voice, "one has little choice in the matter." Daphne's cheeks turned an immediate red. "Oh, I'm so sorry," she stammered, her feet absolutely refusing to take a step. "I'd forgotten. Your mother." Simon paused beside her. "I didn't know her," he said with a shrug. "I didn't mourn her." But his blue eyes were strangely hollow and shuttered, and Daphne somehow knew that his words were false. And at the same time, she knew that he believed them one hundred percent. And she wondered_what could have happened to this man to make him lie to himself for so many years? She studied his face, her head tilting slightly as she took in his features. The wind had brought color to his cheeks and ruffled his dark hair. He looked rather uncomfortable under her scrutiny, and finally he just grunted, and said, "We're falling behind." Daphne looked up the hill. Her family was a good distance ahead of them. "Yes, of course," she said, straightening her shoulders. "We should get going." But as she trudged up the hill, she wasn't thinking of her family, or of the observatory, or even of longitude. Instead, she was wondering why she had the most bizarre urge to throw her arms around the duke and never let go. * * * Several hours later, they were all back on the grassy banks of the Thames, enjoying the last bites of an elegant yet simple luncheon that had been prepared by the Bridgertons' cook. As he had the night before, Simon spoke little, instead observing the often boisterous interactions of Daphne's family. But Hyacinth apparently had other ideas. "Good day, your grace," she said, seating herself next to him on the blanket one of the footmen had laid out for their picnic. "Did you enjoy your tour of the observatory?" Simon couldn't quite suppress a smile as he answered, "Indeed I did, Miss Hyacinth. And you?" "Oh, very much so. I especially appreciated your lecture on longitude and latitude." "Well, I don't know that I'd call it a lecture," Simon said, the word making him feel just the slightest bit old and stodgy. Across the blanket, Daphne was grinning at his distress. Hyacinth just smiled flirtatiously_flirtatiously?_and said, "Did you know that Greenwich also has a most romantic history?" Daphne started to shake with laughter, the little traitor. "Really?" Simon managed to get out. "Indeed," Hyacinth replied, using such cultured tones that Simon briefly wondered if there were actually a forty-year-old matron inside her ten-year-old body. "It was here that Sir Walter Raleigh laid his cloak upon the ground so that Queen Elizabeth would not have to dirty her slippers in a puddle." "Is that so?" Simon stood and scanned the area. "Your grace!" Hyacinth's face reverted to ten-year-old impatience as she jumped to her feet. "What are you doing?" "Examining the terrain," he replied. He cast a secret glance at Daphne. She was looking up at him with mirth and humor and something else that made him feel about ten feet tall. "But what are you looking for?" Hyacinth persisted. "Puddles." "Puddles?" Her face slowly transformed into one of utter delight as she grasped his meaning. "Puddles?" "Indeed. If I'm going to have to ruin a cloak to save your slippers, Miss Hyacinth, I'd like to know about it in advance." "But you're not wearing a cloak." "Heavens above," Simon replied, in such a voice that Daphne burst into laughter below him. "You do not mean that I will be forced to remove my shirt?" "No!" Hyacinth squealed. "You don't have to remove anything! There aren't any puddles." "Thank heavens," Simon breathed, clasping one hand to his chest for added effect. He was having far more fun with this than he would have ever dreamed possible. "You Bridgerton ladies are very demanding, did you know that?" Hyacinth viewed him with a mixture of suspicion and glee. Suspicion finally won out. Her hands found their way to her little hips as she narrowed her eyes and asked, "Are you funning me?" He smiled right at her. "What do you think?" "I think you are." "I think I'm lucky there aren't any puddles about." Hyacinth pondered that for a moment. "If you decide to marry my sister_" she said. Daphne choked on a biscuit. "_then you have my approval." Simon choked on air. "But if you don't," Hyacinth continued, smiling shyly, "then I'd be much obliged if you'd wait for me." Luckily for Simon, who had little experience with young girls and not a clue how to respond, Gregory came dashing by and yanked on Hyacinth's hair. She immediately took off after him, her eyes narrowed with the single-minded determination to get even. "I never thought I'd say this," Daphne said, laughter in her voice, "but I believe you have just been saved by my younger brother." "How old is your sister?" Simon asked. "Ten, why?" He shook his head in bewilderment. "Because for a moment, I could have sworn she was forty." Daphne smiled. "Sometimes she is so like my mother it's frightening." At that moment, the woman in question stood and began to summon her children back to the boat. "Come along!" Violet called out. "It's growing late!" Simon looked at his pocket watch. "It's three." Daphne shrugged as she rose to her feet. "To her that's late. According to Mother, a lady should always be home at five o'clock." "Why?" She reached down to pick up the blanket. "I have no idea. To get ready for the evening, I suppose. It's one of those rules I've grown up with and deemed best not to question." She straightened, holding the soft blue blanket to her chest, and smiled. "Are we ready to go?" Simon held out his arm. ""Certainly." They took a few steps toward the boat, and then Daphne said, "You were very good with Hyacinth. You must have spent a great deal of time with children." "None," he said tersely. "Oh," she said, a puzzled frown decorating her face. "I knew you had no siblings, but I had assumed you must have met some children on your travels," "No." Daphne held silent for a moment, wondering if she should pursue the conversation. Simon's voice had grown hard and forbidding, and his face. He didn't look like the same man who had teased Hyacinth mere minutes earlier. But for some reason_maybe because it had been such a lovely afternoon, maybe it was just because the weather was fine_she faked a sunny smile and said, "Well, experience or no, you clearly have the touch. Some adults don't know how to talk to children, you know." He said nothing. She patted his arm. "You'll make some lucky child an excellent father someday." His head whipped around to face her, and the look in his eyes nearly froze her heart. "I believe I told you I have no intention of marrying," he bit off. "Ever." "But surely you_" "Therefore it is unlikely that I shall ever have children." "I.I see." Daphne swallowed and attempted a shaky smile, but she had a feeling she didn't manage anything more than a slight quivering of her lips. And even though she knew that their courtship was nothing more than a charade, she felt a vague sense of disappointment. They reached the edge of the dock, where most of the rest of the Bridgertons were milling about. A few had already boarded, and Gregory was dancing on the gangplank. "Gregory!" Violet called out, her voice sharp. "Stop that at once!" He stilled, but didn't move from his position. "Either get on the boat or come back to the dock." Simon slipped his arm from Daphne's, muttering, "That gangplank looks wet." He started moving forward. "You heard Mother!" Hyacinth called out. "Oh, Hyacinth," Daphne sighed to herself. "Can't you just keep out of it?" Gregory stuck out his tongue. Daphne groaned, then noticed that Simon was still walking toward the gangplank. She hurried to his side, whispering, "Simon, I'm sure he'll be fine." "Not if he slips and gets caught in the ropes." He motioned with his chin to a tangled mess of ropes that were hanging off the boat. Simon reached the end of the gangplank, walking casually, as if he hadn't a worry in the world. "Are you going to get moving?" he called out, stepping out onto the narrow piece of wood. "So that I might cross?" Gregory blinked. "Don't you have to escort Daphne?" Simon groaned and moved forward, but just then, Anthony, who had already boarded the small yacht, appeared at the top of the gangplank. "Gregory!" he called out sharply. "Get on this boat at once!" From down on the dock, Daphne watched with horror as Gregory spun around in surprise, losing his footing on the slippery wood. Anthony leapt forward, making a frantic grab with his arms, but Gregory had already slid to his bottom, and Anthony caught only air. Anthony fought for balance as Gregory slid down the gangplank, clipping Simon rather neatly in the shins. "Simon!" Daphne croaked, running forward. Simon went tumbling into the murky water of the Thames, just as Gregory wailed a heartfelt, "I'm sorry!" He scooted up the gangplank backwards on his behind_ rather like a crab, actually_not at all looking where he was going. Which probably explained why he had no idea that Anthony_who had almost managed to regain his balance_was only a few short feet behind him. Gregory rammed into Anthony with a thud on his part and a grunt on Anthony's, and before anyone knew it, Anthony was sputtering in the water, right next to Simon. Daphne clapped a hand to her mouth, her eyes wide as saucers. Violet yanked on her arm. "I highly suggest you don't laugh." Daphne pinched her lips together in an effort to comply, but it was difficult. "You're laughing," she pointed out. "I'm not," Violet lied. Her entire neck was quivering with the exertion required to keep her laughter inside. "And besides, I'm a mother. They wouldn't dare do anything to me." Anthony and Simon came stalking out of the water, dripping and glaring at each other. Gregory crawled the rest of the way up the gangplank and disappeared over the edge. "Maybe you should intercede," Violet suggested. "Me?" Daphne squeaked. "It looks as if they might come to blows." "But why? It was all Gregory's fault." "Of course," Violet said impatiently, "but they're men, and they're both furious and embarrassed, and they can't very well take it out on a boy of twelve." Sure enough, Anthony was muttering, "I could have taken care of him," just as Simon growled, "If you hadn't surprised him." Violet rolled her eyes, and said to Daphne, "Any man, you'll soon learn, has an insurmountable need to blame someone else when he is made to look a fool." Daphne rushed forward, fully intending to attempt to reason with the two men, but one close look at their faces told her that nothing she could possibly say could imbue them with as much intelligence and sensibility as a woman would have in such a situation, so she simply pasted on a bright smile, grabbed Simon's arm, and said, "Escort me up?" Simon glared at Anthony. Anthony glared at Simon. Daphne yanked. 'This isn't over, Hastings," Anthony hissed. "Far from it," Simon hissed back. Daphne realized that they were simply looking for an excuse to come to blows. She yanked harder, prepared to dislocate Simon's shoulder if need be. After one last burning glare, he acquiesced and followed her up into the boat. It was a very long trip home.

  • The Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Hard Luck /  .   (by Jeff Kinney, 2013) -   The Diary of a Wimpy Kid:
  • Pollyanna /  (Porter, 2014)    Pollyanna /
  • A Christmas Carol /    (by Charles Dickens, 1997) -    A Christmas Carol /
  • Live and Let Die /     (by Ian Fleming, 2010) -   Live and Let Die /

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