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?”



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