Anthony was already shrugging out of it.
Simon turned back to Daphne and locked his eyes on hers. “Are you ready?” he asked softly.
She nodded, and maybe it was his imagination, but he thought she seemed a little calmer now that her eyes were focused on his face.
After making sure that no branches were still stuck to her skin, he pushed his arms farther back into the bramble, and then around her body until his hands met and locked together behind her back.
“On the count of three,” he murmured.
She nodded again. “One…Two…”
He yanked her up and out, the force sending them both sprawling.
“You said three!” Daphne yelled.
“I lied. I didn't want you to tense up.”
Daphne might have wanted to pursue the argument, but it was at that moment that she realized that her dress was in tatters, and she squealed as her arms flew up to cover herself.
“Take this,” Anthony said, thrusting his coat at her. Daphne gratefully accepted and wrapped herself in Anthony's superfine coat. It fit him to perfection, but on her it hung so loose that she could easily wrap herself up.
“Are you all right?” he asked gruffly.
“Good.” Anthony turned to Simon. “Thank you for pulling her out.”
Simon said nothing, but his chin dipped in acknowledgment of Anthony's remark.
Anthony's eyes darted back to Daphne. “Are you certain you're all right?”
“It stings a little,” she admitted, “and I'll surely need to apply a salve when I get home, but it's nothing I can't bear.”
“Good,” Anthony said again. Then he drew back his fist and slammed it into Simon's face, easily knocking his unsuspecting friend to the ground.
“That,” Anthony spat out, “is for defiling my sister.”
“Anthony!” Daphne shrieked. “Stop this nonsense right now! He didn't defile me.”
Anthony swung around and glared at her, his eyes burning. “I saw your—”
Daphne's stomach churned, and for a moment she feared she'd actually cast up her accounts. Good God, Anthony had seen her breast! Her brother! It was unnatural.
“Stand up,” Anthony grunted, “so I can hit you again.”
“Are you mad?” Daphne cried out, jumping between him and Simon, who was still on the ground, his hand clutching his injured eye. “Anthony, I swear if you hit him again, I shall not forgive you.”
Anthony pushed her aside, and not gently. “The next one,” he spit, “is for betraying our friendship.”
Slowly, and to Daphne's horror, Simon rose to his feet.
“No!” she yelled, jumping back between them.
“Get out of the way, Daphne,” Simon ordered softly. “This is between us.”
“It most certainly is not! In case no one recalls, I'm the one who—” She stopped herself in mid-sentence. There was no point in speaking. Neither man was listening to her.
“Get out of the way, Daphne,” Anthony said, his voice frighteningly still. He didn't even look at her; his gaze remained focused over her head, straight into Simon's eyes.
“This is ridiculous! Can we not all discuss this like adults?” She looked from Simon to her brother, then whipped her head back to Simon. “Merciful heavens! Simon! Look at your eye!”
She hurried to him, reaching up to his eye, which was already swelling shut.
Simon remained impassive, not moving even a muscle under her concerned touch. Her fingers skimmed lightly over his swollen skin, oddly soothing. He ached for her still, although this time not with desire. She felt so good next to him, good and honorable and pure.
And he was about to do the most dishonorable thing he'd ever done in his life.
When Anthony finished with his violence, finished with his fury, and finally demanded that Simon marry his sister, Simon was going to say no.
“Move out of the way, Daphne,” he said, his voice strange in his own ears.
“Move!” he roared.
She fled, pressing her back up against the very hedge in which she'd been caught, staring in horror at the two men.
Simon nodded grimly at Anthony. “Hit me.”
Anthony looked stunned by the request.
“Do it,” Simon said. “Get it over with.”
Anthony's fist fell slack. He didn't move his head, but his eyes flitted to Daphne. “I can't,” he blurted out. “Not when he's just standing there asking for it.”
Simon took a step forward, bringing his face mockingly close. “Do it now. Make me pay.”
“You'll pay at the altar,” Anthony replied.
Daphne gasped, the sound drawing Simon's attention. Why was she surprised? Surely she understood the consequences of, if not their actions, their stupidity in getting caught?
“I won't force him,” Daphne said.
“I will,” Anthony bit out.
Simon shook his head. “By tomorrow I'll be on the Continent.”
“You're leaving?” Daphne asked. The stricken sound of her voice sliced a guilty knife through Simon's heart.
“If I stay, you'll forever be tainted by my presence. It's best if I'm gone.”
Her lower lip was trembling. It killed him that it was trembling. A single word fell from her lips. It was his name, and it was filled with a longing that squeezed his heart in two.
It took Simon a moment to summon the words: “I can't marry you, Daff.”
“Can't or won't?” Anthony demanded.
Anthony punched him again.
Simon hit the ground, stunned by the force of the blow to his chin. But he deserved every sting, every shot of pain. He didn't want to look at Daphne, didn't want to catch even the barest of glances at her face, but she knelt beside him, her gentle hand sliding behind his shoulder to help him right himself.