“‘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?”
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.”