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. Their 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.”