It was difficult to keep his mind off Daphne.

It was even more difficult to keep his mind off the prospect of fatherhood.

Once he reached London, he gave his driver instructions to take him directly to Bridgerton House. He was travel-weary, and probably could use a change of clothing, but he'd done nothing for the past two days but play out his upcoming confrontation with Daphne—it seemed foolish to put it off any longer than he had to.

Once admitted to Bridgerton House, however, he discovered that Daphne wasn't there.

“What do you mean,” Simon asked in a deadly voice, not particularly caring that the butler had done little to earn his ire, “the duchess isn't here?”

The butler took his deadly voice and raised him one curled upper lip. “I mean, your grace”—this was not said with particular graciousness—“that she is not in residence.”

“I have a letter from my wife—” Simon thrust his hand into his pocket, but—damn it—didn't come up with the paper. “Well, I have a letter from her somewhere,” he grumbled. “And it specifically states that she has removed herself to London.”

“And she has, your grace.”

“Then where the hell is she?” Simon ground out.

The butler merely raised a brow. “At Hastings House, your grace.”

Simon clamped his mouth shut. There was little more humiliating than being bested by a butler.

“After all,” the butler continued, clearly enjoying himself now, “she is married to you, is she not?”

Simon glared at him. “You must be quite secure in your position.”

“Quite.”

Simon gave him a brief nod (since he couldn't quite bring himself to thank the man) and stalked off, feeling very much like a fool. Of course Daphne would have gone to Hastings House. She hadn't left him, after all; she just wanted to be near her family.

If he could have kicked himself on the way back to the carriage, he would have done so.

Once inside, however, he did kick himself. He lived just across Grosvenor Square from the Bridgertons. He could have walked across the blasted green in half the time.

Time, however, proved not to be particularly of the essence, because when he swung open the door to Hastings House and stomped into the hall, he discovered that his wife was not at home.

“She's riding,” Jeffries said.

Simon stared at his butler in patent disbelief. “She's riding?” he echoed.

“Yes, your grace,” Jeffries replied. “Riding. On a horse.”

Simon wondered what the penalty was for strangling a butler. “Where,” he bit off, “did she go?”

“Hyde Park, I believe.”

Simon's blood began to pound, and his breath grew uneven. Riding? Was she bloody insane? She was pregnant, for God's sake. Even he knew that pregnant women weren't supposed to ride.

“Have a horse saddled for me,” Simon ordered. “Immediately.”

“Any particular horse?” Jeffries inquired.

“A fast one,” Simon snapped. “And do it now. Or better yet, I'll do it.” With that, he turned on his heel and marched out of the house.

But about halfway to the stables, his panic seeped from his blood to his very bones, and Simon's determined stride turned into a run.

It wasn't the same as riding astride, Daphne thought, but at least she was going fast.

In the country, when she'd been growing up, she'd always borrowed Colin's breeches and joined her brothers on their hell-for-leather rides. Her mother usually suffered an attack of the vapors every time she saw her eldest daughter return covered with mud, and quite frequently sporting a new and startling bruise, but Daphne hadn't cared. She hadn't cared where they were riding to or what they were riding from. It had all been about speed.

In the city, of course, she couldn't don breeches and thus was relegated to the sidesaddle, but if she took her horse out early enough, when fashionable society was still abed, and if she made certain to limit herself to the more remote areas of Hyde Park, she could bend over her saddle and urge her horse to a gallop. The wind whipped her hair out of its bun and stung her eyes to tears, but at least it made her forget.

Atop her favorite mare, tearing across the fields, she felt free. There was no better medicine for a broken heart.

She'd long since ditched her groom, pretending she hadn't heard him when he'd yelled, “Wait! Your grace! Wait!”

She'd apologize to him later. The grooms at Bridgerton House were used to her antics and well aware of her skill atop a horse. This new man—one of her husband's servants—would probably worry.

Daphne felt a twinge of guilt—but only a twinge. She needed to be alone. She needed to move fast.

She slowed down as she reached a slightly wooded area and took a deep breath of the crisp autumn air. She closed her eyes for a moment, letting the sounds and smells of the park fill her senses. She thought of a blind man she'd once met, who'd told her that the rest of his senses had grown sharper since he'd lost his sight. As she sat there and inhaled the scents of the forest, she thought he might be right.

She listened hard, first identifying the high-pitched chirp of the birds, then the soft, scurrying feet of the squirrels as they hoarded nuts for the winter. Then—

She frowned and opened her eyes. Damn. That was definitely the sound of another rider approaching.

Daphne didn't want company. She wanted to be alone with her thoughts and her pain, and she certainly didn't want to have to explain to some well-meaning society member why she was alone in the park. She listened again, identified the location of the oncoming rider, and took off in the other direction.



----