For a split second Simon thought Anthony might strangle her.

“What are you laughing about?” Anthony demanded.

It was only then that Simon realized that he had snorted a laugh. “Nothing,” he said quickly.

“Good,” Anthony grunted, “because the third condition is this: If I ever, even once, catch you in any behavior that compromises her…If I ever even catch you kissing her bloody hand without a chaperone, I shall tear your head off.”

Daphne blinked. “Don't you think that's a bit excessive?”

Anthony leveled a hard stare in her direction. “No.”

“Oh.”

“Hastings?”

Simon had no choice but to nod.

“Good,” Anthony replied gruffly. “And now that we're done with that, you”—he cocked his head rather abruptly toward Simon—“can leave.”

“Anthony!” Daphne exclaimed.

“I assume this means I am disinvited for supper this evening?” Simon asked.

“Yes.”

“No!” Daphne jabbed her brother in the arm. “Is Hastings invited for supper? Why did you not say something?”

“It was days ago,” Anthony grumbled. “Years.”

“It was Monday,” Simon said.

“Well, then you must join us,” Daphne said firmly. “Mother will be so delighted. And you”—she poked her brother in the arm—“stop thinking about how you may poison him.”

Before Anthony could reply, Simon waved off her words with a chuckle. “Do not worry on my behalf, Daphne. You forget that I attended school with him for nearly a decade. He never did understand the principles of chemistry.”

“I shall kill him,” Anthony said to himself. “Before the week is out, I shall kill him.”

“No you won't,” Daphne said blithely. “By tomorrow you will have forgotten all of this and will be smoking cheroots at White's.”

“I don't think so,” Anthony said ominously.

“Of course you will. Don't you agree, Simon?”

Simon studied his best friend's face and realized he was seeing something new. Something in his eyes. Something serious.

Six years ago, when Simon had left England, he and Anthony had been boys. Oh, they'd thought they were men. They'd gambled and whored and strutted about society, consumed with their own importance, but now they were different.

Now they were men in truth.

Simon had felt the change within himself during his travels. It had been a slow transformation, wrought over time as he faced new challenges. But now he realized that he'd returned to England still picturing Anthony as that twenty-two-year-old boy he'd left behind.

He'd done his friend a great disservice, he'd realized, in failing to realize that he, too, had grown up. Anthony had responsibilities Simon had never even dreamed of. He had brothers to guide, sisters to protect. Simon had a dukedom, but Anthony had a family.

There was a grave difference, and Simon found that he couldn't fault his friend for his overprotective and indeed somewhat mulish behavior.

“I think,” Simon said slowly, finally answering Daphne's question, “that your brother and I are both different people than we were when we ran wild six years ago. And I think that might not be such a bad thing.”

Several hours later, the Bridgerton household was in chaos.

Daphne had changed into an evening dress of dark green velvet that someone had once said almost made her eyes look not quite brown, and was presently idling about in the great hall, trying to find a way to calm her mother's racing nerves.

“I cannot believe,” Violet said, one hand fluttering on her chest, “that Anthony forgot to tell me he invited the duke to dinner. I had no time to prepare. None at all.”

Daphne eyed the menu in her hand, which began with turtle soup and marched through three more courses before finishing with lamb à la bechamel (followed, of course, by a choice of four desserts). She tried to keep her voice free of sarcasm as she said, “I do not think the duke will have cause to complain.”

“I pray that he won't,” Violet replied. “But if I had known he was coming, I would have made sure we had a beef dish as well. One cannot entertain without a beef dish.”

“He knows this is an informal meal.”

Violet shot her an acerbic look. “No meal is informal when a duke is calling.”

Daphne regarded her mother thoughtfully. Violet was wringing her hands and gnashing her teeth. “Mother,” Daphne said, “I don't think the duke is the sort to expect us to dramatically alter our family supper plans on his behalf.”

“He might not expect it,” Violet said, “but I do. Daphne, there are certain rules in society. Expectations. And frankly, I do not understand how you can be quite so calm and disinterested.”

“I'm not disinterested!”

“You certainly don't look nervous.” Violet eyed her suspiciously. “How can you not be nervous? For goodness sake, Daphne, this man is thinking of marrying you.”

Daphne caught herself just before she groaned. “He has never said as much, Mother.”

“He didn't have to. Why else would he have danced with you last night? The only other lady he so honored was Penelope Featherington, and we both know that that had to be out of pity.”

“I like Penelope,” Daphne said.

“I like Penelope, too,” Violet returned, “and I long for the day her mother realizes that a girl of her complexion cannot be dressed in tangerine satin, but that is beside the point.”

“What is the point?”



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