And the fact that they'd hated his father on his behalf—well, somehow that had never made him feel better. He hadn't been—and, to be honest, still wasn't—so noble-minded that he didn't take a certain satisfaction in his father's lack of popularity, but that never took away the embarrassment or the discomfort.

Or the shame.

He'd wanted to be admired, not pitied. And it hadn't been until he'd struck out on his own by traveling unheralded to Eton that he'd had his first taste of success.

He'd come so far; he'd travel to hell before he went back to the way he'd been.

None of this, of course, was Daphne's fault. He knew she had no ulterior motives when she asked about his childhood. How could she? She knew nothing of his occasional difficulties with speech. He'd worked damned hard to hide it from her.

No, he thought with a weary sigh, he'd rarely had to work hard at all to hide it from Daphne. She'd always set him at ease, made him feel free. His stammer rarely surfaced these days, but when it did it was always during times of stress and anger.

And whatever life was about when he was with Daphne, it wasn't stress and anger.

He leaned more heavily against the fence, guilt forcing his posture into a slouch. He'd treated her abominably. It seemed he was fated to do that time and again.

“Simon?”

He'd felt her presence before she'd spoken. She'd approached from behind, her booted feet soft and silent on the grass. But he knew she was there. He could smell her gentle fragrance and hear the wind whispering through her hair.

“These are beautiful roses,” she said. It was, he knew, her way of soothing his peevish mood. He knew she was dying to ask more. But she was wise beyond her years, and much as he liked to tease her about it, she did know a lot about men and their idiot tempers. She wouldn't say anything more. At least not today.

“I'm told my mother planted them,” he replied. His words came out more gruffly than he would have liked, but he hoped she saw them as the olive branch he'd meant them to be. When she didn't say anything, he added by way of an explanation, “She died at my birth.”

Daphne nodded. “I'd heard. I'm sorry.”

Simon shrugged. “I didn't know her.”

“That doesn't mean it wasn't a loss.”

Simon considered his childhood. He had no way of knowing if his mother would have been more sympathetic to his difficulties than his father had been, but he figured there was no way she could have made it worse. “Yes,” he murmured, “I suppose it was.”

Later that day, while Simon was going over some estate accounts, Daphne decided it was as good a time as any to get to know Mrs. Colson, the housekeeper. Although she and Simon had not yet discussed where they would reside, Daphne couldn't imagine that they wouldn't spend some time there at Clyvedon, Simon's ancestral home, and if there was one thing she'd learned from her mother, it was that a lady simply had to have a good working relationship with her housekeeper.

Not that Daphne was terribly worried about getting along with Mrs. Colson. She had met the housekeeper briefly when Simon had introduced her to the staff, and it had been quickly apparent that she was a friendly, talkative sort.

She stopped by Mrs. Colson's office—a tiny little room just off the kitchen—a bit before teatime. The housekeeper, a handsome woman in her fifties, was bent over her small desk, working on the week's menus.

Daphne gave the open door a knock. “Mrs. Colson?”

The housekeeper looked up and immediately stood. “Your grace,” she said, bobbing into a small curtsy. “You should have called for me.”

Daphne smiled awkwardly, still unused to her elevation from the ranks of mere misses. “I was already up and about,” she said, explaining her unorthodox appearance in the servants' domain. “But if you have a moment, Mrs. Colson, I was hoping we might get to know one another better, since you have lived here for many years, and I hope to do so for many to come.”

Mrs. Colson smiled at Daphne's warm tone. “Of course, your grace. Was there anything in particular about which you cared to inquire?”

“Not at all. But I still have much to learn about Clyvedon if I am to manage it properly. Perhaps we could take tea in the yellow room? I do so enjoy the décor. It's so warm and sunny. I had been hoping to make that my personal parlor.”

Mrs. Colson gave her an odd look. “The last duchess felt the same way.”

“Oh,” Daphne replied, not certain whether that ought to make her feel uncomfortable.

“I've given special care to that room over the years,” Mrs. Colson continued. “It does get quite a bit of sun, being on the south side. I had all of the furniture reupholstered three years ago.” Her chin rose in a slightly proud manner. “Went all the way to London to get the same fabric.”

“I see,” Daphne replied, leading the way out of the office. “The late duke must have loved his wife very much, to order such a painstaking conservation of her favorite room.”

Mrs. Colson didn't quite meet her eyes. “It was my decision,” she said quietly. “The duke always gave me a certain budget for the upkeep of the house. I thought it the most fitting use of the money.”

Daphne waited while the housekeeper summoned a maid and gave her instructions for the tea. “It's a lovely room,” she announced once they had exited the kitchen, “and although the current duke never had the opportunity to know his mother, I'm sure he'll be quite touched that you have seen fit to preserve her favorite room.”

“It was the least I could do,” Mrs. Colson said as they strolled across the hall. “I have not always served the Basset family, after all.”



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