They both smiled, and for a moment Daphne thought that all would be well again, but as soon as the smiles faded, an uncomfortable silence fell across the room.

“Are your eyes feeling any better?” she finally asked. “They don't look quite as swollen.”

“Do you think?” Simon turned so that he was facing a large gilt mirror. “I rather think the bruises have turned a spectacular shade of blue.”

“Purple.”

He leaned forward, not that that brought him appreciably closer to the mirror. “Purple then, but I suppose it might be a debatable fact.”

“Do they hurt?”

He smiled humorlessly. “Only when someone pokes at them.”

“I shall refrain from doing so, then,” she murmured, her lips quirking in a telltale twitch. “It shall be difficult, of course, but I shall persevere.”

“Yes,” he said, with a perfectly deadpan expression, “I've often been told I make women want to poke me in the eye.”

Daphne's smile was one of relief. Surely if they could joke about such things, everything would go back to the way it was.

Simon cleared his throat. “I did have a specific reason for coming to see you.”

Daphne gazed at him expectantly, waiting for him to continue.

He held out a jewelers' box. “This is for you.”

Her breath caught in her throat as she reached for the small, velvet-covered box. “Are you certain?” she asked.

“I believe betrothal rings are considered quite de rigueur,” he said quietly.

“Oh. How stupid of me. I didn't realize…”

“That it was a betrothal ring? What did you think it was?”

“I wasn't thinking,” she admitted sheepishly. He'd never given her a gift before. She'd been so taken aback by the gesture she'd completely forgotten that he owed her a betrothal ring.

“Owed.” She didn't like that word, didn't like that she'd even thought it. But she was fairly certain that that was what Simon must have been thinking when he'd picked out the ring.

This depressed her.

Daphne forced a smile. “Is this a family heirloom?”

“No!” he said, with enough vehemence to make her blink.

“Oh.”

Yet another awkward silence.

He coughed, then said, “I thought you might like something of your own. All of the Hastings jewelry was chosen for someone else. This I chose for you.”

Daphne thought it a wonder she didn't melt on the spot. “That's so sweet,” she said, just barely managing to stifle a sentimental sniffle.

Simon squirmed in his seat, which didn't surprise her. Men did so hate to be called sweet.

“Aren't you going to open it?” he grunted.

“Oh, yes, of course.” Daphne shook her head slightly as she snapped back to attention. “How silly of me.” Her eyes had glazed over slightly as she stared at the jeweler's box. Blinking a few times to clear her vision, she carefully released the box's clasp and opened it.

And couldn't possibly say anything besides, “Oh, my goodness,” and even that came out with more breath than voice.

Nestled in the box was a stunning band of white gold, adorned with a large marquis-cut emerald, flanked on either side by a single, perfect diamond. It was the most beautiful piece of jewelry Daphne had ever seen, brilliant but elegant, obviously precious but not overly showy.

“It's beautiful,” she whispered. “I love it.”

“Are you certain?” Simon removed his gloves, then leaned forward and took the ring out of the box. “Because it is your ring. You shall be the one to wear it, and it should reflect your tastes, not mine.”

Daphne's voice shook slightly as she said, “Clearly, our tastes coincide.”

Simon breathed a small sigh of relief and picked up her hand. He hadn't realized how much it meant to him that she liked the ring until that very moment. He hated that he felt so nervous around her when they'd been such easy friends for the past few weeks. He hated that there were silences in their conversations, when before she'd been the only person with whom he never felt the need to pause and take stock of his words.

Not that he was having any trouble speaking now. It was just that he didn't seem to know what to say.

“May I put it on?” he asked softly.

She nodded and started to remove her glove.

But Simon stilled her fingers with his own, then took over the task. He gave the tip of each finger a tug, then slowly slid the glove from her hand. The motion was unabashedly erotic, clearly an abbreviated version of what he wanted to do: remove every stitch from her body.

Daphne gasped as the edge of the glove trailed past the tips of her fingers. The sound of her breath rushing across her lips made him want her all the more.

With tremulous hands, he slid the ring on her finger, easing it over her knuckle until it rested in place.

“It fits perfectly,” she said, moving her hand this way and that so that she could see how it reflected the light.

Simon, however, didn't let go of her hand. As she moved, her skin slid along his, creating a warmth that was oddly soothing. Then he lifted her hand to his mouth and dropped a gentle kiss on her knuckles. “I'm glad,” he murmured. “It suits you.”

Her lips curved—a hint of that wide smile he'd come to adore. Maybe a hint that all would be well between them.

“How did you know I like emeralds?” she asked.

“I didn't,” he admitted. “They reminded me of your eyes.”

“Of my—” Her head cocked slightly as her mouth twisted into what could only be described as a scolding grin. “Simon, my eyes are brown.”



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