Simon looked him evenly in the eye. “Meaning Daphne?”

“Precisely.”

“If I recall,” Simon said, “earlier this week you told me you wanted to introduce us.”

“That was before I thought you'd be interested in her!”

Simon held his tongue as he preceded Anthony into his study, remaining silent until Anthony shut the door. “Why,” he asked softly, “would you assume I would not be interested in your sister?”

“Besides the fact that you have sworn to me that you will never marry?” Anthony drawled.

He had a good point. Simon hated that he had such a good point. “Besides that,” he snapped.

Anthony blinked a couple of times, then said, “No one is interested in Daphne. At least no one we'd have her marry.”

Simon crossed his arms and leaned back against the wall. “You don't hold her in terribly high regard, do y—?”

Before he could even finish the query, Anthony had him by throat. “Don't you dare insult my sister.”

But Simon had learned quite a bit about self-defense on his travels, and it took him only two seconds to reverse their positions. “I wasn't insulting your sister,” he said in a malevolent voice. “I was insulting you.”

Strange gurgling sounds were coming from Anthony's throat, so Simon let him go. “As it happens,” he said, brushing his hands against each other, “Daphne explained to me why she has not attracted any suitable suitors.”

“Oh?” Anthony asked derisively.

“Personally, I think it has everything to do with your and your brothers' apelike ways, but she tells me it is because all London views her as a friend, and none sees her as a romantic heroine.”

Anthony was silent for a long moment before saying, “I see.” Then, after another pause, he added thoughtfully, “She's probably right.”

Simon said nothing, just watched his friend as he sorted all of this out. Finally, Anthony said, “I still don't like your sniffing about her.”

“Good God, you make me sound positively canine.”

Anthony crossed his arms, “Don't forget, we ran in the same pack after we left Oxford. I know exactly what you've done.”

“Oh, for the love of Christ, Bridgerton, we were twenty! All men are idiots at that age. Besides, you know damn well that h—h—”

Simon felt his tongue grow awkward, and faked a coughing fit to cover his stammer. Damn. This happened so infrequently these days, but when it did, it was always when he was upset or angry. If he lost control over his emotions, he lost control over his speech. It was as simple as that.

And unfortunately, episodes such as this only served to make him upset and angry with himself, which in turn exacerbated the stammer. It was the worst sort of vicious circle.

Anthony looked at him quizzically. “Are you all right?”

Simon nodded. “Just a bit of dust in my throat,” he lied.

“Shall I ring for tea?”

Simon nodded again. He didn't particularly want tea, but it seemed the sort of thing one would ask for if one truly did have dust in one's throat.

Anthony tugged at the bellpull, then turned back to Simon and asked, “You were saying?”

Simon swallowed, hoping the gesture would help him to regain control over his ire. “I merely meant to point out that you know better than anyone that at least half of my reputation is undeserved.”

“Yes, but I was there for the half that was deserved, and while I don't mind your occasionally socializing with Daphne, I don't want you courting her.”

Simon stared at his friend—or at least the man he thought was his friend—in disbelief. “Do you really think I'd seduce your sister?”

“I don't know what to think. I know you plan never to marry. I know that Daphne does.” Anthony shrugged. “Frankly, that's enough for me to keep you two on opposite sides of the dance floor.”

Simon let out a long breath. While Anthony's attitude was irritating as hell, he supposed it was understandable, and in fact even laudable. After all, the man was only acting in the best interests of his sister. Simon had difficulty imagining being responsible for anyone save himself, but he supposed that if he had a sister, he'd be damned picky about who courted her as well.

Just then, a knock sounded at the door.

“Enter!” Anthony called out.

Instead of the maid with tea, Daphne slipped into the room. “Mother told me that the two of you are in beastly moods, and I should leave you alone, but I thought I ought to make certain neither of you had killed the other.”

“No,” Anthony said with a grim smile, “just a light strangle.”

To Daphne's credit, she didn't bat an eyelash. “Who strangled whom?”

“I strangled him,” her brother replied, “then he returned the favor.”

“I see,” she said slowly. “I'm sorry to have missed the entertainment.”

Simon couldn't suppress a smile at her remark. “Daff,” he began.

Anthony whirled around. “You call her Daff?” His head snapped back to Daphne. “Did you give him permission to use your given name?”

“Of course.”

“But—”

“I think,” Simon interrupted, “that we are going to have to come clean.”

Daphne nodded somberly. “I think you're right. If you recall, I told you so.”

“How genteel of you to mention it,” Simon murmured.

She smiled gamely. “I could not resist. With four brothers, after all, one must always seize the moment when one may say, ‘I told you so.’”



----