Daphne nodded, a reluctant smile playing across her lips. “But of course.” She waited a moment before saying, “I wasn't expecting you this evening.”
He shrugged, the black cloth of his evening jacket wrinkling slightly with the movement. “I was bored.”
“You were bored so you decided to come all the way out to Hampstead Heath to attend Lady Trowbridge's annual ball?” Her eyebrows arched up. Hampstead Heath was a good seven miles from Mayfair, at least an hour's drive in the best of conditions, more on nights like tonight, when all the ton was clogging the roads. “Forgive me if I start to question your sanity.”
“I'm starting to question it myself,” he muttered.
“Well, whatever the case,” she said with a happy sigh, “I'm glad you're here. It's been a ghastly evening.”
She nodded. “I have been plagued by questions about you.”
“Well, now, this grows interesting.”
“Think again. The first person to interrogate me was my mother. She wants to know why you never call upon me in the afternoon.”
Simon frowned. “Do you think it's necessary? I rather thought my undivided attention at these evening affairs would be enough to perpetrate the ruse.”
Daphne surprised herself by managing not to growl in frustration. He didn't need to make this sound like such a chore. “Your undivided attention,” she said, “would have been enough to fool anyone but my mother. And she probably wouldn't have said anything except that your lack of calls was reported in Whistledown.”
“Really?” Simon asked with great interest.
“Really. So now you'd better call tomorrow or everyone will start to wonder.”
“I'd like to know who that woman's spies are,” Simon murmured, “and then I'd like to hire them for myself.”
“What do you need spies for?”
“Nothing. But it seems a shame to let such stellar talent go to waste.”
Daphne rather doubted that the fictitious Lady Whistledown would agree that any talents were being wasted, but she didn't particularly want to get into a discussion of the merits and evils of that newspaper, so she just shrugged off his comment. “And then,” she continued, “once my mother was through with me, everyone else set in, and they were even worse.”
She turned an acerbic look on him. “All but one of the questioners were female, and although they all vehemently professed their happiness on my behalf, they were clearly trying to deduce the probability of our not becoming betrothed.”
“You told them all I was desperately in love with you, I assume?”
Daphne felt something lurch in her chest. “Yes,” she lied, offering him a too-sweet smile. “I have a reputation to maintain, after all.”
Simon laughed. “So then, who was the lone male doing the questioning?”
Daphne pulled a face. “It was another duke, actually. A bizarre old man who claimed to have been friends with your father.”
Simon's face went suddenly tight.
She just shrugged, not having seen the change in his expression. “He went on and on about what a good duke your father was.” She let out a little laugh as she tried to imitate the old man's voice. “I had no idea you dukes had to look out for one another so much. We don't want an incompetent duke making the title look bad, after all.”
Simon said nothing.
Daphne tapped her finger against her cheek in thought. “Do you know, I've never heard you mention your father, actually.”
“That is because I don't choose to discuss him,” Simon said curtly.
She blinked with concern. “Is something wrong?”
“Not at all,” he said, his voice clipped.
“Oh.” She caught herself chewing on her lower lip and forced herself to stop. “I won't mention it then.”
“I said there is nothing wrong.”
Daphne kept her expression impassive. “Of course.”
There was a long, uncomfortable silence. Daphne picked awkwardly at the fabric of her skirts before finally saying, “Lovely flowers Lady Trowbridge used for decoration, don't you think?”
Simon followed the motion of her hand toward a large arrangement of pink and white roses. “Yes.”
“I wonder if she grew them.”
“I haven't the faintest.”
Another awkward silence.
“Roses are so difficult to grow.”
This time his reply was just a grunt.
Daphne cleared her throat, and then, when he didn't even so much as look at her, asked, “Have you tried the lemonade?”
“I don't drink lemonade.”
“Well, I do,” she snapped, deciding she'd had enough. “And I'm thirsty. So if you will excuse me, I'm going to fetch myself a glass and leave you to your black mood. I'm certain you can find someone more entertaining than I.”
She turned to leave, but before she could take a step, she felt a heavy hand on her arm. She looked down, momentarily mesmerized by the sight of his white-gloved hand resting against the peach silk of her gown. She stared at it, almost waiting for it to move, to travel down the length of her arm until it reached the bare skin of her elbow.
But of course he wouldn't do that. He only did such things in her dreams.
“Daphne, please,” he said, “turn around.”
His voice was low, and there was an intensity to it that made her shiver.
She turned, and as soon as her eyes met his, he said, “Please accept my apologies.”
But he clearly felt the need to explain further. “I did not…” He stopped and coughed quietly into his hand. “I was not on good terms with my father. I—I don't like to talk about him.”