Anthony, Benedict, and Colin all started at his shout, but Daphne's frantic shake of her head kept them in their places.

“Why can't you marry me?” she asked in a low voice. “I know you care for me. What is it?”

Simon wrapped his hand across his face, his thumb and forefinger pressing mercilessly into his temples. Christ, he had a headache. And Daphne—dear God, she kept moving closer. She reached out and touched his shoulder, then his cheek. He wasn't strong enough. Dear God, he wasn't going to be strong enough.

“Simon,” she pleaded, “save me.”

And he was lost.

Chapter 12

A duel, a duel, a duel. Is there anything more exciting, more romantic…or more utterly moronic?

It has reached This Author's ears that a duel took place earlier this week in Regent's Park. Because dueling is illegal, This Author shall not reveal the names of the perpetrators, but let it be known that This Author frowns heavily upon such violence.

Of course, as this issue goes to press, it appears that the two dueling idiots (I am loath to call them gentlemen; that would imply a certain degree of intelligence, a quality which, if they ever possessed it, clearly eluded them that morning) are both unharmed.

One wonders if perhaps an angel of sensibility and rationality smiled down upon them that fateful morn.

If so, it is the belief of This Author that This Angel ought to shed her influence on a great many more men of the ton. Such an action could only make for a more peaceful and amiable environment, leading to a vast improvement of our world.

LADY WHISTLEDOWN'S SOCIETY PAPERS, 19 MAY 1813

Simon raised ravaged eyes to meet hers. “I'll marry you,” he said in a low voice, “but you need to know—”

His sentence was rendered incomplete by her exultant shout and fierce hug. “Oh, Simon, you won't be sorry,” she said, her words coming out in a relieved rush. Her eyes sparkled with unshed tears, but they glowed with joy. “I'll make you happy. I promise you. I'll make you so happy. You won't regret this.”

“Stop!” Simon ground out, pushing her away. Her unfeigned joy was too much to bear. “You have to listen to me.”

She stilled, and her face grew apprehensive.

“You listen to what I have to say,” he said in a harsh voice, “and then decide if you want to marry me.”

Her bottom lip caught between her teeth, and she gave the barest of nods.

Simon took in a shaky breath. How to tell her? What to tell her? He couldn't tell her the truth. Not all of it, at least. But she had to understand…If she married him…

She'd be giving up more than she'd ever dreamed.

He had to give her the opportunity to refuse him. She deserved that much. Simon swallowed, guilt sliding uncomfortably down his throat. She deserved much more than that, but that was all he could give her.

“Daphne,” he said, her name as always soothing his frazzled mouth, “if you marry me…”

She stepped toward him and reached out her hand, only to pull it back at his burning glare of caution. “What is it?” she whispered. “Surely nothing could be so awful that—”

“I can't have children.”

There. He'd done it. And it was almost the truth.

Daphne's lips parted, but other than that, there was no indication that she'd even heard him.

He knew his words would be brutal, but he saw no other way to force her understanding. “If you marry me, you will never have children. You will never hold a baby in your arms and know it is yours, that you created it in love. You will never—”

“How do you know?” she interrupted, her voice flat and unnaturally loud.

“I just do.”

“But—”

“I cannot have children,” he repeated cruelly. “You need to understand that.”

“I see.” Her mouth was quivering slightly, as if she wasn't quite sure if she had anything to say, and her eyelids seemed to be blinking a bit more than normal.

Simon searched her face, but he couldn't read her emotions the way he usually could. Normally her expressions were so open, her eyes startlingly honest—it was as if he could see to her very soul and back. But right now she looked shuttered and frozen.

She was upset—that much was clear. But he had no idea what she was going to say. No idea how she would react.

And Simon had the strangest feeling that Daphne didn't know, either.

He became aware of a presence to his right, and he turned to see Anthony, his face torn between anger and concern.

“Is there a problem?” Anthony asked softly, his eyes straying to his sister's tortured face.

Before Simon could reply, Daphne said, “No.”

All eyes turned to her.

“There will be no duel,” she said. “His grace and I will be getting married.”

“I see.” Anthony looked as if he wanted to react with considerably more relief, but his sister's solemn face forced a strange quietude on the scene. “I'll tell the others,” he said, and walked off.

Simon felt a rush of something utterly foreign fill his lungs. It was air, he realized dumbly. He'd been holding his breath. He hadn't even realized he'd been holding his breath.

And something else filled him as well. Something hot and terrible, something triumphant and wonderful. It was emotion, pure and undiluted, a bizarre mix of relief and joy and desire and dread. And Simon, who'd spent most of his life avoiding such messy feelings, had no idea what to do about it.

His eyes found Daphne's. “Are you certain?” he asked, his voice whisper soft.

She nodded, her face strangely devoid of emotion. “You're worth it.” Then she walked slowly back to her horse.



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