“I need to talk to you,” she whispered, her words coming out in a single, urgent rush of air.
“I need to talk to you, too.”
Daphne ushered him in, and then, after a quick glance up and down the hall, shut the door. “I'm in big trouble,” she said.
The blood drained from her face. “You do?”
Colin nodded, his green eyes for once deadly serious. “Do you remember my friend Macclesfield?”
She nodded. Macclesfield was the young earl her mother had insisted upon introducing her to a fortnight ago. The very night she'd met Simon.
“Well, he saw you disappear into the gardens tonight with Hastings.”
Daphne's throat felt suddenly scratchy and swollen, but she managed to get out, “He did?”
Colin nodded grimly. “He won't say anything. I'm sure of it. We've been friends for nearly a decade. But if he saw you, someone else might have as well. Lady Danbury was looking at us rather queerly when he was telling me what he'd seen.”
“Lady Danbury saw?” Daphne asked sharply.
“I don't know if she did or if she didn't. All I know is that”—Colin shuddered slightly—“she was looking at me as if she knew my every transgression.”
Daphne gave her head a little shake. “That's just her way. And if she did see anything, she won't say a word.”
“Lady Danbury?” Colin asked doubtfully.
“She's a dragon, and she can be rather cutting, but she isn't the sort to ruin someone just for the fun of it. If she saw something, she'll confront me directly.”
Colin looked unconvinced.
Daphne cleared her throat several times as she tried to figure out how to phrase her next question. “What exactly did he see?”
Colin eyed her suspiciously. “What do you mean?”
“Exactly what I said,” Daphne very nearly snapped, her nerves stretched taut by the long and stressful evening. “What did he see?”
Colin's back straightened and his chin jolted back in a defensive manner. “Exactly what I said,” he retorted. “He saw you disappear into the gardens with Hastings.”
“But that's all?”
“That's all?” he echoed. His eyes widened, then narrowed. “What the hell happened out there?”
Daphne sank onto an ottoman and buried her face in her hands, “Oh, Colin, I'm in such a tangle.”
He didn't say anything, so she finally wiped her eyes, which weren't exactly crying but did feel suspiciously wet, and looked up. Her brother looked older—and harder—than she'd ever before seen him. His arms were crossed, his legs spread in a wide and implacable stance, and his eyes, normally so merry and mischievous, were as hard as emeralds. He'd clearly been waiting for her to look up before speaking.
“Now that you're done with your display of self-pity,” he said sharply, “suppose you tell me what you and Hastings did tonight in Lady Trowbridge's garden.”
“Don't use that tone of voice with me,” Daphne snapped back, “and don't accuse me of indulging in self-pity. For the love of God, a man is going to die tomorrow. I'm entitled to be a little upset.”
Colin sat down on a chair opposite her, his face immediately softening into an expression of extreme concern. “You'd better tell me everything.”
Daphne nodded and proceeded to relate the events of the evening. She didn't, however, explain the precise extent of her disgrace. Colin didn't need to know exactly what Anthony had seen; the fact that she'd been caught in a compromising position ought to be enough.
She finished with, “And now there is going to be a duel, and Simon is going to die!”
“You don't know that, Daphne.”
She shook her head miserably. “He won't shoot Anthony. I'd bet my life on it. And Anthony—” Her voice caught, and she had to swallow before continuing. “Anthony is so furious. I don't think he'll delope.”
“What do you want to do?”
“I don't know. I don't even know where the duel is to be held. All I know is that I have to stop it!”
Colin swore under his breath, then said softly, “I don't know if you can, Daphne.”
“I must!” she cried out. “Colin, I can't sit here and stare at the ceiling while Simon dies.” Her voice broke, and she added, “I love him.”
He blanched. “Even after he rejected you?”
She nodded dejectedly. “I don't care if that makes me a pathetic imbecile, but I can't help it. I still love him. He needs me.”
Colin said quietly, “If that were true, don't you think he would have agreed to marry you when Anthony demanded it?”
Daphne shook her head. “No. There's something else I don't know about. I can't really explain it, but it was almost as if a part of him wanted to marry me.” She could feel herself growing agitated, feel her breath starting to come in jerky gasps, but still she continued. “I don't know, Colin. But if you could have seen his face, you'd understand. He was trying to protect me from something. I'm sure of it.”
“I don't know Hastings nearly as well as Anthony,” Colin said, “or even as well as you, but I've never even heard the barest hint of a whisper about some deep, dark secret. Are you certain—” He broke off in the middle of his sentence, and let his head fall into his hands for a moment before looking back up. When he spoke again, his voice was achingly gentle. “Are you certain you might not be imagining his feelings for you?”
Daphne took no offense. She knew her story sounded a fantasy. But she knew in her heart that she was right. “I don't want him to die,” she said in a low voice. “In the end, that's all that's important.”