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 good-bye, and led him from the room. And then, as if by magic, the remaining beaux murmured their hasty farewells and followed suit.



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