Simon winced.

“And do you know why?” she demanded, her voice rising dangerously. “Do you?”

Anthony, in his somewhat belatedly arrived wisdom, held his tongue.

“It is all because he”—she jabbed her forefinger toward Simon—“was kind enough to feign interest in me last night at Lady Danbury's ball.”

Simon, who had been leaning casually against the edge of the desk, suddenly straightened. “Well, now,”he said quickly, “I wouldn't quite put it that way.”

She turned to him, her eyes remarkably steady. “And how would you put it?”

He didn't get much past, “I—” before she added, “Because I can assure you those men have never seen fit to call on me before.”

“If they are so myopic,” Simon said quietly, “why do you care for their regard?”

She fell silent, drawing back slightly. Simon had the sinking suspicion that he might have said something very, very wrong, but he wasn't positive until he saw her blinking rapidly.

Oh, damn.

Then she wiped one of her eyes. She coughed as she did it, trying to hide the maneuver by pretending to cover her mouth, but Simon still felt like the worst sort of heel.

“Now look what you've done,” Anthony snapped. He placed a comforting hand on his sister's arm, all the while glaring at Simon. “Pay him no mind, Daphne. He's an ass.”

“Maybe,” she sniffled. “But he's an intelligent ass.”

Anthony's mouth fell open.

She shot him a testy look. “Well, if you didn't want me to repeat it, you shouldn't have said it.”

Anthony let out a weary sigh. “Were there really six men here this afternoon?”

She nodded. “Seven including Hastings.”

“And,” he asked carefully, “were any of them men you might be interested in marrying?”

Simon realized that his fingers were gouging small holes in his thigh and forced himself to move his hand to the desk.

Daphne nodded again. “They are all men with whom I have enjoyed a previous friendship. It is only that they never viewed me as a candidate for romance before Hastings led the way. I might, if given the opportunity, develop an attachment for one of them.”

“But—” Simon quickly shut his mouth.

“But what?” Daphne asked, turning to him with curious eyes.

It occurred to him that what he wanted to say was that if those men had only noticed Daphne's charms because a duke had shown interest in her, then they were idiots, and thus she shouldn't even contemplate marrying them. But considering that he had been the one to originally point out that his interest would gain her more suitors—well, frankly, it seemed a bit self-defeating to mention it.

“Nothing,” he finally said, raising a hand in a don't-mind-me motion. “It doesn't signify.”

Daphne looked at him for a few moments, as if waiting for him to change his mind, and then turned back to her brother. “Do you admit the wisdom of our plan, then?”

“‘Wisdom’ might be a bit of a stretch, but”—Anthony looked pained to say it—“I can see where you might think it might benefit you.”

“Anthony, I have to find a husband. Besides the fact that Mother is pestering me to death, I want a husband. I want to marry and have a family of my own. I want it more than you could ever know. And thus far, no one acceptable has asked.”

Simon had no idea how Anthony could possibly hold out against the warm pleading in her dark eyes. And sure enough, Anthony sagged against the desk and let out a weary groan. “Very well,” he said, closing his eyes as if he couldn't believe what he was saying, “I shall agree to this if I must.”

Daphne jumped up and threw her arms around him. “Oh, Anthony, I knew you were the very best of brothers.” She gave him a kiss on the cheek. “You're just occasionally misguided.”

Anthony's eyes floated heavenward before focusing on Simon. “Do you see what I have to put up with?” he asked with a shake of his head. His tone was that particular timbre used only from one beleaguered male to another.

Simon chuckled to himself as he wondered when he'd turned from evil seducer back into good friend.

“But,” Anthony said loudly, causing Daphne to back up, “I am placing some conditions on this.”

Daphne didn't say anything, just blinked as she waited for her brother to continue.

“First of all, this goes no further than this room.”

“Agreed,” she said quickly.

Anthony looked pointedly at Simon.

“Of course,” he replied.

“Mother would be devastated if she learned the truth.”

“Actually,” Simon murmured, “I rather think your mother would applaud our ingenuity, but since you have quite obviously known her longer, I bow to your discretion.”

Anthony shot him a frosty look. “Second, under no circumstances are the two of you to be alone together. Ever.”

“Well, that should be easy,” Daphne said, “as we wouldn't be allowed to be alone if we were courting in truth, anyway.”

Simon recalled their brief interlude in the hall at Lady Danbury's house, and found it a pity that he wasn't to be allowed any more private time with Daphne, but he recognized a brick wall when he saw one, especially when said wall happened to be named Anthony Bridgerton. So he just nodded and murmured his assent.

“Third—”

“There is a third?” Daphne asked.

“There would be thirty if I could think of them,” Anthony growled.

“Very well,” she acceded, looking most aggrieved. “If you must.”



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