“A solid punch,” Anthony said, rubbing his arm.

“A girl can't live long with four brothers without learning how to throw one.” She crossed her arms. “Let me see your list.”

“After you just assaulted me?”

Daphne rolled her brown eyes and cocked her head in a decidedly impatient gesture.

“Oh, very well.” He reached into his waistcoat, pulled out a folded slip of paper, and handed it to her. “Tell me what you think. I'm sure you'll have no end of cutting remarks.”

Daphne unfolded the paper and stared down at her mother's neat, elegant handwriting. The Viscountess Bridgerton had listed the names of eight women. Eight very eligible, very wealthy young women.

“Precisely what I expected,” Daphne murmured.

“Is it as dreadful as I think?”

“Worse. Philipa Featherington is as dumb as a post.”

“And the rest of them?”

Daphne looked up at him under raised brows. “You didn't really want to get married this year, anyway, did you?”

Anthony winced. “And how was your list?”

“Blessedly out-of-date, now. Three of the five married last season. Mother is still berating me for letting them slip through my fingers.”

The two Bridgertons let out identical sighs as they slumped against the wall. Violet Bridgerton was undeterred in her mission to marry off her children. Anthony, her eldest son, and Daphne, her eldest daughter, had borne the brunt of the pressure, although Daphne suspected that the viscountess might have cheerfully married off ten-year-old Hyacinth if she'd received a suitable offer.

“Good God, you look a pair of sad sorts. What are you doing so far off in the corner?”

Another instantly recognizable voice. “Benedict,” Daphne said, glancing sideways at him without moving her head. “Don't tell me Mother managed to get you to attend tonight's festivities.”

He nodded grimly. “She has completely bypassed cajoling and moved on to guilt. Three times this week she has reminded me I may have to provide the next viscount, if Anthony here doesn't get busy.”

Anthony groaned.

“I assume that explains your flight as well to the darkest corners of the ballroom?” Benedict continued. “Avoiding Mother?”

“Actually,” Anthony replied, “I saw Daff skulking in the corner and—”

“Skulking?” Benedict said with mock horror.

She shot them both an irritated scowl. “I came over to hide from Nigel Berbrooke,” she explained. “I left Mother in the company of Lady Jersey, so she's not likely to pester me anytime soon, but Nigel—”

“Is more monkey than man,” Benedict quipped.

“Well, I wouldn't have put it that way precisely,” Daphne said, trying to be kind, “but he isn't terribly bright, and it's so much easier to stay out of his way than to hurt his feelings. Of course now that you lot have found me, I shan't be able to avoid him for long.”

Anthony voiced a simple, “Oh?”

Daphne looked at her two older brothers, both an inch above six feet with broad shoulders and melting brown eyes. They each sported thick chestnut hair—much the same color as her own—and more to the point, they could not go anywhere in polite society without a small gaggle of twittering young ladies following them about.

And where a gaggle of twittering young ladies went, Nigel Berbrooke was sure to follow.

Already Daphne could see heads turning in their direction. Ambitious mamas were nudging their daughters and pointing to the two Bridgerton brothers, off by themselves with no company save for their sister.

“I knew I should have made for the retiring room,” Daphne muttered.

“I say, what's that piece of paper in your hand, Daff?” Benedict inquired.

Somewhat absentmindedly, she handed him the list of Anthony's supposed brides.

At Benedict's loud chortle, Anthony crossed his arms, and said, “Try not to have too much fun at my expense. I predict you'll be receiving a similar list next week.”

“No doubt,” Benedict agreed. “It's a wonder Colin—” His eyes snapped up. “Colin!”

Yet another Bridgerton brother joined the crowd.

“Oh, Colin!” Daphne exclaimed, throwing her arms around him. “It's so good to see you.”

“Note that we didn't receive similarly enthusiastic greetings,” Anthony said to Benedict.

“You I see all the time,” Daphne retorted. “Colin's been away a full year.” After giving him one last squeeze, she stepped back, and scolded, “We didn't expect you until next week.”

Colin's one-shoulder shrug matched his lopsided smile to perfection. “Paris grew dull.”

“Ah,” Daphne said with a shrewd look in her eye. “Then you ran out of money.”

Colin laughed and held up his hands in surrender. “Guilty as charged.”

Anthony hugged his brother, and said gruffly, “It's damned fine to have you home, brother. Although the funds I sent you should have lasted you at least until—”

“Stop,” Colin said helplessly, laughter still tinging his voice. “I promise you may scold me all you want tomorrow. Tonight I merely wish to enjoy the company of my beloved family.”

Benedict let out a snort. “You must be completely broke if you're calling us ‘beloved.’” But he leaned forward to give his brother a hearty hug all the same. “Welcome home.”

Colin, always the most devil-may-care of the family, grinned, his green eyes twinkling. “Good to be back. Although I must say the weather is not nearly so fine as on the Continent, and as for the women, well, England would be hard pressed to compete with the signorina I—”



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