“You'd best get used to it,” Anthony said pragmatically, “because that's what everyone will call you.”

Simon knew it was true, but he doubted if the title would ever sit well upon his shoulders.

“Well, whatever the case,” Anthony added, respecting his friend's privacy by not delving further into what was obviously an uncomfortable topic, “I'm glad to have you back. I might finally get some peace next time I escort my sister to a ball.”

Simon leaned back, crossing his long, muscular legs at the ankles. “An intriguing remark.”

Anthony raised a brow. “One that you're certain I'll explain?”

“But of course.”

“I ought to let you learn for yourself, but then, I've never been a cruel man.”

Simon chuckled. “This coming from the man who dunked my head in a chamber pot?”

Anthony waved his hand dismissively. “I was young.”

“And now you're a model of mature decorum and respectability?”

Anthony grinned. “Absolutely.”

“So tell me,” Simon drawled, “how, exactly, am I meant to make your existence that much more peaceful?”

“I assume you plan to take your place in society?”

“You assume incorrectly.”

“But you are planning to attend Lady Danbury's ball this week,” Anthony said.

“Only because I am inexplicably fond of the old woman. She says what she means, and—” Simon's eyes grew somewhat shuttered.

“And?” Anthony prompted.

Simon gave his head a little shake. “It's nothing. Just that she was rather kind to me as a child. I spent a few school holidays at her house with Riverdale. Her nephew, you know.”

Anthony nodded once. “I see. So you have no intention of entering society. I'm impressed by your resolve. But allow me to warn you—even if you do not choose to attend the ton's events, they will find you.”

Simon, who had chosen that moment to take a sip of his brandy, choked on the spirit at the look on Anthony's face when he said, “they.” After a few moments of coughing and sputtering, he finally managed to say, “Who, pray tell, are ‘they’?”

Anthony shuddered. “Mothers.”

“Not having had one myself, I can't say I grasp your point.”

“Society mothers, you dolt. Those fire-breathing dragons with daughters of—God help us—marriageable age. You can run, but you'll never manage to hide from them. And I should warn you, my own is the worst of the lot.”

“Good God. And here I thought Africa was dangerous.”

Anthony shot his friend a faintly pitying look. “They will hunt you down. And when they find you, you will find yourself trapped in conversation with a pale young lady all dressed in white who cannot converse on topics other than the weather, who received vouchers to Almack's, and hair ribbons.”

A look of amusement crossed Simon's features. “I take it, then, that during my time abroad you have become something of an eligible gentleman?”

“Not out of any aspirations to the role on my part, I assure you. If it were up to me, I'd avoid society functions like the plague. But my sister made her bow last year, and I'm forced to escort her from time to time.”

“Daphne, you mean?”

Anthony looked up in surprise. “Did the two of you ever meet?”

“No,” Simon admitted, “but I remember her letters to you at school, and I recalled that she was fourth in the family, so she had to start with D, and—”

“Ah, yes,” Anthony said with a slight roll of his eyes, “the Bridgerton method of naming children. Guaranteed to make certain no one forgets who you are.”

Simon laughed. “It worked, didn't it?”

“Say, Simon,” Anthony suddenly said, leaning forward, “I've promised my mother I'll have dinner at Bridgerton House later this week with the family. Why don't you join me?”

Simon raised a dark brow. “Didn't you just warn me about society mothers and debutante daughters?”

Anthony laughed. “I'll put my mother on her best behavior, and don't worry about Daff. She's the exception that proves the rule. You'll like her immensely.”

Simon narrowed his eyes. Was Anthony playing matchmaker? He couldn't tell.

As if Anthony were reading his thoughts, he laughed. “Good God, you don't think I'm trying to pair you off with Daphne, do you?”

Simon said nothing.

“You would never suit. You're a bit too brooding for her tastes.”

Simon thought that an odd comment, but instead chose to ask, “Has she had any offers, then?”

“A few.” Anthony kicked back the rest of his brandy, then let out a satisfied exhale. “I've allowed her to refuse them all.”

“That's rather indulgent of you.”

Anthony shrugged. “Love is probably too much to hope for in a marriage these days, but I don't see why she shouldn't be happy with her husband. We've had offers from one man old enough to be her father, another old enough to be her father's younger brother, one who was rather too high in the instep for our often boisterous clan, and then this week, dear God, that was the worst!”

“What happened?” Simon asked curiously.

Anthony gave his temples a weary rub. “This last one was perfectly amiable, but a rather bit dim in the head. You'd think, after our rakish days, I'd be completely without feelings—”

“Really?” Simon asked with a devilish grin. “You'd think that?”

Anthony scowled at him. “I didn't particularly enjoy breaking this poor fool's heart.”