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…”



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