Simon just smiled and waved off her apology.

“The captain tells me we're nearly there,” Violet explained. “We should gather up our things.”

Simon rose to his feet and extended a helpful hand to Daphne, who took it gratefully, wobbling as she stood.

“I haven't my sea legs yet,” she laughed, clutching his arm to steady herself.

“And here we're merely on the river,” he murmured.

“Beast. You're not supposed to point out my lack of grace and balance.”

As she spoke, she turned her face toward his, and in that instant, with the wind catching her hair and painting her cheeks pink, she looked so enchantingly lovely that Simon nearly forgot to breathe.

Her lush mouth was caught somewhere between a laugh and a smile, and the sun glinted almost red on her hair. Here on the water, away from stuffy ballrooms, with the fresh air swirling about them, she looked natural and beautiful and just being in her presence made Simon want to grin like an idiot.

If they hadn't been about to pull into dock, with her entire family running around them, he would have kissed her. He knew he couldn't dally with her, and he knew he would never marry her, and still he found himself leaning toward her. He didn't even realize what he was doing until he suddenly felt off-balance and lurched back upright.

Anthony, unfortunately, caught the entire episode, and he rather brusquely insinuated himself between Simon and Daphne, grasping her arm with far more strength than grace. “As your eldest brother,” he growled, “I believe it is my honor to escort you ashore.”

Simon just bowed and let Anthony have his way, too shaken and angered by his momentary loss of control to argue.

The boat settled next to the dock, and a gangplank was put into place. Simon watched as the entire Bridgerton family disembarked, then he brought up the rear, following them onto the grassy banks of the Thames.

At the top of the hill stood the Royal Observatory, a stately old building of rich red brick. Its towers were topped with gray domes, and Simon had the sense that he was, as Daphne had put it, at the very center of the world. Everything, he realized, was measured from this point.

After having crossed a good portion of the globe, the thought was rather humbling.

“Do we have everyone?” the viscountess called out. “Hold still, everyone, so I may be sure we are all present and accounted for.” She started counting heads, finally ending on herself with a triumphant, “Ten! Good, we're all here.”

“Just be glad she doesn't make us line up by age any longer.”

Simon looked to the left to see Colin grinning at him.

“As a method of keeping order, age worked when it still corresponded with height. But then Benedict gained an inch on Anthony, and then Gregory outgrew Francesca—” Colin shrugged. “Mother simply gave up.”

Simon scanned the crowd and lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “I'm just trying to figure out where I'd fit in.”

“Somewhere near Anthony, if I had to hazard a guess,” Colin replied.

“God forbid,” Simon muttered.

Colin glanced at him with a mix of amusement and curiosity.

“Anthony!” Violet called out. “Where's Anthony?”

Anthony indicated his location with a rather ill-tempered grunt.

“Oh, there you are, Anthony. Come and escort me in.”

Anthony reluctantly let go of Daphne's arm and walked to his mother's side.

“She's shameless, isn't she?” Colin whispered.

Simon thought it best not to comment.

“Well, don't disappoint her,” Colin said. “After all her machinations, the least you can do is go and take Daphne's arm.”

Simon turned to Colin with a quirked eyebrow. “You might be just as bad as your mother.”

Colin just laughed. “Yes, except that at least I don't pretend to be subtle.”

Daphne chose that moment to walk over. “I find myself without an escort,” she said.

“Imagine that,” Colin returned. “Now, if the two of you will excuse me, I'm off to find Hyacinth. If I'm forced to escort Eloise, I may have to swim back to London. She's been a wretch ever since she attained the age of fourteen.”

Simon blinked in confusion. “Didn't you just return from the Continent last week?”

Colin nodded. “Yes, but Eloise's fourteenth birthday was a year and a half ago.”

Daphne swatted him on the elbow. “If you're lucky, I won't tell her you said that.”

Colin just rolled his eyes and disappeared into the small crowd, bellowing Hyacinth's name.

Daphne laid her hand in the crook of Simon's elbow as he offered her his arm, then asked, “Have we scared you off yet?”

“I beg your pardon?”

She offered him a rueful smile. “There is nothing quite as exhausting as a Bridgerton family outing.”

“Oh, that.” Simon stepped quickly to the right to avoid Gregory, who was racing after Hyacinth, yelling something about mud and revenge. “It's, ah, a new experience.”

“Very politely put, your grace,” Daphne said admiringly. “I'm impressed.”

“Yes, well—” He jumped back as Hyacinth barreled by, squealing at such a pitch that Simon was certain that dogs would start howling from there to London. “I have no siblings, after all.”

Daphne let out a dreamy sigh. “No siblings,” she mused. “Right now it sounds like heaven.” The faraway look remained in her eyes for a few more seconds, then she straightened and shook off her reverie. “Be that as it may, however—” Her hand shot out just as Gregory ran past, catching the boy firmly by the upper arm. “Gregory Bridgerton,” she scolded, “you should know better than to run thus through a crowd. You're liable to knock someone over.”



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