ప్రధాన The Duke and I
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HAS THE DEVASTATING DUKE FINALLY FOUND A BRIDE? All the society papers say so. But only the Duke of Hastings and his "intended" know the truth. For the rresistible Simon Basset has hatched a plan to keep himself free from all those marriage-minded society mothers by pretending an attachment to the lovely Daphne Bridgerton. After all, it isn't as if the brooding rogue has any real plans to marry—though there is something about the alluring miss that sets Simon's heart beating a bit faster. And as for Daphne, surely the clever debutante will attract some very worthy suitors now that it seems a duke has declared her desirable... But as Daphne waltzes across ballroom after ballroom with Simon, she soon forgets that their courtship is a complete sham. Maybe it's the mesmerizing look in his intense blue eyes, or the way she feels in his strong arms, but somehow Daphne is falling for the dashing duke ... for real! And now she has to do the impossible and keep herself from losing her heart and soul completely to the handsome hell-raiser who has sworn off marriage forever! Copyright © 2000 by Julie Cotler Pottinger ISBN: 0-380-80082-9 THE DUKE AND I Julia Quinn For Danelle Harmon and Sabrina Jeffries, without whom I never would have turned this book in on time . And for Martha of The Romance Journal electronic bul; letin board, for suggesting I call it Daphne's Bad Heir Day . And also for Paul, even though his idea of dancing is standing still while he holds my hand and watches me twirl . Author's Note A portion of the author's royalties from the sale of this book will be donated to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Rock on, Elizabeth! Prologue The birth of Simon Arthur Henry Fitzranulph Basset, Earl Clyvedon, was met with great celebration. Church bells rang for hours, champagne flowed freely through the gargantuan castle that the newborn would call home, and the entire village of Clyvedon quit work to partake of the feast and holiday ordered by the young earl's father . "This," the baker said to the blacksmith, "is no ordinary baby." For Simon Arthur Henry Fitzranulph Basset would not spend his life as Earl Clyvedon. That was a mere courtesy title. Simon Arthur Henry Fitzranulph Basset— the baby who possessed more names than any baby could possibly need—was the heir to one of England's oldest and richest dukedoms. And his father, the ninth Duke of Hastings, had waited years for this moment . As he stood in the hall outside his wife's confinement room, cradling the squalling infant, the duke's heart near burst with pride. Already several years past forty, he had watched his cronies—dukes and earls, all—beget heir after heir. Some had had to suffer through a few daughters before siring a precious son, but in the end, they'd all been assured that their lines would continue, that their blood would pass forward into the next generation of England's elite . But not the Duke of Hastings. Though his wife had managed to conceive five times in the fifteen years of their marriage, only twice had she carried to full term, and both of those infants had been stillborn. After the fifth pregnancy, which had ended with a bloody miscarriage in the fifth month, surgeons and physicians alike had warned their graces that they absolutely must not make another attempt to have a child. The duchess's very life was in danger. She was too frail, too weak, and perhaps, they said gently, too old. The duke was simply going to have to reconcile himself to the fact that the dukedom would pass out of the Basset family . But the duchess, God bless her, knew her role in life, and after a six-month recuperative period, she opened the connecting door between their bedrooms, and the duke once again commenced his quest for a son . Five months later, the duchess informed the duke that she had conceived. The duke's immediate elation was tempered by his grim determination that nothing—absolutely nothing—would cause this pregnancy to go awry. The duchess was confined to her bed the minute it was realized that she'd missed her monthly courses. A physician was brought in to visit her every day, and halfway through the pregnancy, the duke located the most respected doctor in London and paid him a king's ransom to abandon his practice and take up residence at Clyvedon Castle temporarily . The duke was taking no chances this time. He would have a son, and the dukedom would remain in Basset hands . The duchess experienced pains a month early, and pillows were tucked under her hips. Gravity might keep the babe inside, Dr. Stubbs explained. The duke thought that a sound argument, and, once the doctor had retired for the evening, placed yet another pillow under his wife, raising her to a twenty-degree angle. She remained that way for a month . And then finally, the moment of truth arrived. The household prayed for the duke, who so wanted an heir, and a few remembered to pray for the duchess, who had grown thin and frail even as her belly had grown round and wide. They tried not to be too hopeful—after all, the duchess had already delivered and buried two babes. And even if she did manage to safely deliver a child, it could be, well, a girl . As the duchess's screams grew louder and more frequent, the duke shoved his way into her chamber, ignoring the protests of the doctor, the midwife, and her grace's maid. It was a bloody mess, but the duke was determined to be. present when the babe's sex was revealed . The head appeared, then the shoulders. All leaned forward to watch as the duchess strained and pushed, and then... And then the duke knew that there was a God, and He still smiled on the Bassets. He allowed the midwife one minute to clean the babe, then took the little boy into his arms and marched into the great hall to show him off . "I have a son!" he boomed. "A perfect little son!" And while the servants cheered and wept with relief, the duke looked down upon the tiny little earl, and said, "You are perfect. You are a Basset. You are mine . " The duke wanted to take the boy outside to prove to everyone that he had finally sired a healthy male child, but there was a slight chill in the early April air, so he allowed the midwife to take the babe back to his mother. The duke mounted one of his prized geldings and rode off to celebrate, shouting his good fortune to all who would listen . Meanwhile, the duchess, who had been bleeding steadily since the birth, slipped into unconsciousness, and then finally just slipped away . The duke mourned his wife. He truly did. He hadn't loved her, of course, and she hadn't loved him, but they'd been friends in an oddly distant sort of way. The duke hadn't expected anything more from marriage than a son and an heir, and in that regard, his wife had proven herself an exemplary spouse. He arranged for fresh flowers to be laid at the base of her funereal monument every week, no matter the season, and her portrait was moved from the sitting room to the hall, in a position of great honor over the staircase . And then the duke got on with the business of raising his son . . There wasn't much he could do in the first year, of course. The babe was too young for lectures on land management and responsibility, so the duke left Simon in the care of his nurse and went to London, where his life continued much as it had before he'd been blessed by parenthood, except that he forced everyone—even the king—to gaze upon the miniature he'd had painted of his son shortly after his birth . The duke visited Clyvedon from time to time, then returned for good on Simon's second birthday, ready to take the young lad's education in hand. A pony had been purchased, a small gun had been selected for future use at the fox hunt, and tutors were engaged in every subject known to man . "He's too young for all that!" Nurse Hopkins exclaimed. "Nonsense," Hastings replied condescendingly. "Clearly, I don't expect him to master any of this anytime soon, but it is never too early to begin a duke's education." "He's not a duke," Nurse muttered . "He will be." Hastings turned his back on her and crouched beside his son, who was building an asymmetrical castle with a set of blocks on the floor. The duke hadn't been down to Clyvedon in several months, and was pleased with Simon's growth. He was a sturdy, healthy young boy, with glossy brown hair and clear blue eyes . "What are you building there, son?" Simon smiled and pointed . Hastings looked up at Nurse Hopkins. "Doesn't he speak?" She shook her head. "Not yet, your grace." The duke frowned. "He's two. Shouldn't he be speaking?" "Some children take longer than others, your grace . He's clearly a bright young boy." "Of course he's bright. He's a Basset." Nurse nodded. She always nodded when the duke talked about the superiority of the Basset blood. "Maybe," she suggested, "he just doesn't have anything he wants to say." The duke didn't look convinced, but he handed Simon a toy soldier, patted him on the head, and left the house to go exercise the new mare he'd purchased from Lord Worth . Two years later, however, he wasn't so sanguine. "Why isn't he talking?' he boomed. "I don't know," Nurse answered, wringing her hands. "What have you done to him?" "I haven't done anything!" "If you'd been doing your job correctly, he"—the duke jabbed an angry finger in Simon's direction— "would be speaking." Simon, who was practicing his letters at his miniature desk, watched the exchange with interest. "He's four years old, God damn it," the duke roared. "He should be able to speak." "He can write," Nurse said quickly. "Five children I've raised, and not a one of them took to letters the way Master Simon has." "A fat lot of good writing is going to do him if he can't talk." Hastings turned to Simon, rage burning in his eyes . "Talk to me, damn you!" Simon shrank back, his lower lip quivering . "Your grace!" Nurse exclaimed. "You're scaring the child. " Hastings whipped around to face her. "Maybe he needs scaring. Maybe what he needs is a good dose of discipline. A good paddling might help him find his voice." The duke grabbed the silver-backed brush Nurse used on Simon's hair and advanced on his son. "I'll make you talk, you stupid little—" "No!" Nurse gasped. The duke dropped the brush. It was the first time they'd ever heard Simon's voice. "What did you say?" the duke whispered, tears forming in his eyes. Simon's fists balled at his sides, and his little chin jutted out as he said, "Don't you h-h-h-h-h-h-h—" The duke's face turned deathly pale. "What is he saying?" Simon attempted the sentence again. "D-d-d-d-d-d-d—" "My God," the duke breathed, horrified. "He's a moron." "He's not a moron!" Nurse cried out, throwing her arms around the boy. "D-d-d-d-d-d-d-don't you h-h-h-h-h-h-hit"—Simon took a deep breath—"me." Hastings sank onto the window seat, his head dropping into his hands. "What have I done to deserve this? What could I have possibly done ..." "You should be giving the boy praise!" Nurse Hopkins admonished. "Four years you've been waiting for him to speak, and—" "And he's an idiot!" Hastings roared. "A goddamned, bloody little idiot!" Simon began to cry . "Hastings is going to go to a half-wit," the duke moaned. "All those years of praying for an heir, and now it's all for ruin. I should have let the title go to my cousin." He turned back to his son, who was sniffling and wiping his eyes, trying to appear strong for his father. "I can't even look at him," he gasped. "I can't even bear to look at him." And with that, the duke stalked out of the room . Nurse Hopkins hugged the boy close. "You're not an idiot," she whispered fiercely. "You're the smartest little boy I know. And if anyone can learn to talk properly, I know it's you ." Simon turned into her warm embrace and sobbed . "We'll show him," Nurse vowed. "He'll eat his words if it's the last thing I do ." Nurse Hopkins proved true to her word. While the Duke of Hastings removed himself to London and tried to pretend he had no son, she spent every waking minute with Simon, sounding out words and syllables, praising him lavishly when he got something right, and giving him encouraging words when he didn't. The progress was slow, but Simon's speech did improve. By the time he was six, "d-d-d-d-d-d-d-don't" had turned into "d-d-don't," and by the time he was eight, he was managing entire sentences without faltering. He still ran into trouble when he was upset, and Nurse had to remind him often that he needed to remain calm and collected if he wanted to get the words out in one piece. But Simon was determined, and Simon was smart, and perhaps most importantly, he was damned stubborn. He learned to take breaths before each sentence, and to think about his words before he attempted to say them. He studied the feel of his mouth when he spoke correctly, and tried to analyze what went wrong when he didn't. And finally, at the age of eleven, he turned to Nurse Hopkins, paused to collect his thoughts, and said, "I think it is time we went to see my father." Nurse looked up sharply. The duke had not laid eyes on the boy in seven years. And he had not answered a single one of the letters Simon had sent him. Simon had sent nearly a hundred. "Are you certain?" she asked. Simon nodded . "Very well, then. I'll order the carriage. We'll leave for London on the morrow ." The trip took a day and a half, and it was late afternoon by the time their carriage rolled up to Basset House. Simon gazed at the busy London streetscape with wonder as Nurse Hopkins led him up the steps. Neither had ever visited Basset House before, and so Nurse didn't know what to do when she reached the front door other than knock. The door swung open within seconds, and they found themselves being looked down upon by a rather imposing butler . "Deliveries," he intoned, reaching to close the door, "are made in the rear. " "Hold there!" Nurse said quickly, jamming her foot in the door. "We are not servants ." The butler looked disdainfully at her garments . "Well, I am, but he's not." She grabbed Simon's arm and yanked him forward. "This is Earl Clyvedon, and you'd do well to treat him with respect. " The butler's mouth actually dropped open, and he blinked several times before saying, "It is my understanding that Earl Clyvedon is dead. " "What?" Nurse screeched . "I most certainly am not!" Simon exclaimed, with all the righteous indignation of an eleven-year-old . The butler examined Simon, recognized immediately that he had the look of the Bassets, and ushered them in . "Why did you think I was d-dead?" Simon asked, cursing himself for misspeaking, but not surprised. He was always most likely to stutter when he was angry . "It is not for me to say," the butler replied . "It most certainly is," Nurse shot back. "You can't say something like that to a boy of his years and not explain it ." The butler was silent for a moment, then finally said, "His grace has not mentioned you in years. The last I heard, he said he had no son. He looked quite pained as he said it, so no one pursued the conversation. We—the servants, that is—assumed you'd passed on. " Simon felt his jaw clench, felt his throat working wildly. "Wouldn't he have gone into mourning?" Nurse demanded. "Did you think about that? How could you have assumed the boy was dead if his father was not in mourning?" The butler shrugged. "His grace frequently wears black. Mourning wouldn't have altered his costume. " "This is an outrage," Nurse Hopkins said. "I demand you summon his grace at once. " Simon said nothing. He was trying too hard to get his emotions under control. He had to. There was no way he'd be able to talk with his father while his blood was racing so . The butler nodded. "He is upstairs. I'll alert him immediately to your arrival. " Nurse started pacing wildly, muttering under her breath and referring to his grace with every vile word in her surprisingly extensive vocabulary. Simon remained in the center of the room, his arms angry sticks at his sides as he took deep breaths . You can do this, he shouted in his mind. You can do this. Nurse turned to him, saw him trying to control his temper, and immediately gasped. "Yes, that's it," she said quickly, dropping to her knees and taking his hands in hers. She knew better than anyone what would happen if Simon tried to face his father before he calmed down. "Take deep breaths. And make sure to think about your words before you speak. If you can control—" "I see you're still mollycoddling the boy," came an imperious voice from the doorway. Nurse Hopkins straightened and turned slowly around. She tried to think of something respectful to say. She tried to think of anything that would smooth over this awful situation. But when she looked at the duke, she saw Simon in him, and her rage began anew. The duke might look just like his son, but he was certainly no father to him . "You, sir," she spat out, "are despicable." "And you, madam, are fired. " Nurse lurched back . "No one speaks to the Duke of Hastings that way," he roared. "No one! " "Not even the king?" Simon taunted . Hastings whirled around, not even noticing that his son had spoken clearly. "You," he said in a low voice . Simon nodded curtly. He'd managed one sentence properly, but it had been a short one, and he didn't want to push his luck. Not when he was this upset. Normally, he could go days without a stutter, but now ... The way his father stared at him made him feel like an infant. An idiot infant . And his tongue suddenly felt awkward and thick . The duke smiled cruelly. "What do you have to say for yourself, boy? Eh? What do you have to say?" "It's all right, Simon," Nurse Hopkins whispered, throwing a furious glance at the duke. "Don't let him upset you. You can do it, sweetling." And somehow her encouraging tone made it all the worse. Simon had come here to prove himself to his father, and now his nurse was treating him like a baby . "What's the matter?" the duke taunted. "Cat got your tongue?" Simon's muscles clenched so hard he started to shake. Father and son stared at each other for what felt like an eternity, until finally the duke swore and stalked toward the door. "You are my worst failure," he hissed at his son. "I don't know what I did to deserve you, but God help me if I ever lay eyes on you again. " "Your grace!" Nurse Hopkins said indignantly. This was no way to speak to a child. "Get him out of my sight," he spat at her. "You can keep your job just so long as you keep him away from me. " "Wait! " The duke turned slowly around at the sound of Simon's voice. "Did you say something?" he drawled . Simon took three long breaths in through his nose, his mouth still clamped together in anger. He forced his jaw to relax and rubbed his tongue against the roof of his mouth, trying to remind himself of how it felt to speak properly. Finally, just as the duke was about to dismiss him again, he opened his mouth and said, "I am your son. " Simon heard Nurse Hopkins breathe a sigh of relief, and something he'd never seen before blossomed in his father's eyes. Pride. Not much of it, but there was something there, lurking in the depths; something that gave Simon a whisper of hope . "I am your son," he said again, this time a little louder, "and I am not d—" Suddenly his throat closed up. And Simon panicked . You can do this. You can do this . But his throat felt tight, and his tongue felt thick, and his father's eyes started to narrow... "I am not d-d-d—" "Go home," the duke said in a low voice. "There is no place for you here." Simon felt the duke's rejection in his very bones, felt a peculiar kind of pain enter his body and creep around his heart. And, as hatred flooded his body and poured from his eyes, he made a solemn vow . If he couldn't be the son his father wanted, then by God, he'd be the exact opposite... Chapter 1 The Bridgertons are by far the most prolific family in the upper echelons of society. Such industriousness on the part of the viscountess and the late viscount is commendable, although one can find only banality in their choice of names for their children. Anthony, Benedict, Colin, Daphne, Eloise, Francesca, Gregory, and Hyacinth —orderliness is, of course, beneficial in all things, but one would think that intelligent parents would be able to keep their children straight without needing to alphabetize their names . Furthermore, the sight of the viscountess and all eight of her children in one room is enough to make one fear one is seeing double —or triple—or worse. Never has This Author seen a collection of siblings so ludicrously alike in their physical regard. Although This Author has never taken the time to record eye color, all eight possess similar bone structure and the same thick, chestnut hair. One must pity the viscountess as she seeks advantageous marriages for her brood that she did not produce a single child of more fashionable coloring. Still, there are advantages to a family of such consistent looks—there can be no doubt that all eight are of legitimate parentage . Ah, Gentle Reader, your devoted Author wishes that that were the case amid all large families.. . Lady Whistledown's Society Papers, 26 April 1813 "Ooooooooohhhhhhhhhh!" Violet Bridgerton crumpled the single-page newspaper into a ball and hurled it across the elegant drawing room . Her daughter Daphne wisely made no comment and pretended to be engrossed in her embroidery . "Did you read what she said?" Violet demanded. "Did you?" Daphne eyed the ball of paper, which now rested under a mahogany end table. "I didn't have the opportunity before you, er, finished with it." "Read it, then," Violet wailed, her arm slicing dramatically through the air. "Read how that woman has maligned us." Daphne calmly set down her embroidery and reached under the end table. She smoothed the sheet of paper out on her lap and read the paragraph about her family. Blinking, she looked up. "This isn't so bad, Mother. In fact, it's a veritable benediction compared to what she wrote about the Featheringtons last week. " "How am I supposed to find you a husband while that woman is slandering your name?" Daphne forced herself to exhale. After nearly two seasons in London, the mere mention of the word husband was enough to set her temples pounding. She wanted to marry, truly she did, and she wasn't even holding out for a true love match. But was it really too much to hope for a husband for whom one had at least some affection? Thus far, four men had asked for her hand, but when Daphne had thought about living the rest of her days in the company of any of them, she just couldn't do it. There were a number of men she thought might make reasonably good husbands, but the problem was—none of them was interested. Oh, they all liked her. Everyone liked her. Everyone thought she was funny and kind and a quick wit, and no one thought her the least bit unattractive, but at the same time, no one was dazzled by her beauty, stunned into speechlessness by her presence, or moved to write poetry in her honor . Men, she thought with disgust, were interested only in those women who terrified them. No one seemed inclined to court someone like her. They all adored her, or so they said, because she was so easy to talk to, and she always seemed to understand how a man felt. As one of the men Daphne had thought might make a reasonably good husband had said, "Deuce take it, Daff, you're just not like regular females. You're positively normal. " Which she might have managed to consider a compliment if he hadn't proceeded to wander off in search of the latest blond beauty . Daphne looked down and noticed that her hand was clenched into a fist. Then she looked up and realized her mother was staring at her, clearly waiting for her to say something. Since she had already exhaled, Daphne cleared her throat, and said, "I'm sure Lady Whistledown's little column is not going to hurt my chances for a husband." "Daphne, it's been two years!" "And Lady Whistledown has only been publishing for three months, so I hardly see how we can lay the blame at her door." "I'll lay the blame wherever I choose," Violet muttered. Daphne's fingernails bit her palms as she willed herself not to make a retort. She knew her mother had only her best interests at heart, she knew her mother loved her. And she loved her mother, too. In fact, until Daphne had reached marriageable age, Violet had been positively the best of mothers. She still was, when she wasn't despairing over the fact that after Daphne she had three more daughters to marry off . Violet pressed a delicate hand to her chest. "She cast aspersions on your parentage." "No," Daphne said slowly. It was always wise to proceed with caution when contradicting her mother. "Actually, what she said was that there could be no doubt that we are all legitimate. Which is more than one can say for most large families of the ton." "She shouldn't have even brought it up," Violet sniffed . "Mother, she's the author of a scandal sheet. It's her job to bring such things up. " "She isn't even a real person," Violet added angrily. She planted her hands on her slim hips, then changed her mind and shook her finger in the air. "Whistledown, ha! I've never heard of any Whistledowns. Whoever this depraved woman is, I doubt she's one of us. As if anyone of breeding would write such wicked lies. " "Of course she's one of us," Daphne said, her brown eyes filling with amusement. "If she weren't a, member of the ton, there is no way she'd be privy to the sort of news she reports. Did you think she was some sort of impostor, peeking in windows and listening at doors? " "I don't like your tone, Daphne Bridgerton," Violet said, her eyes narrowing . Daphne bit back another smile. "I don't like your tone," was Violet's standard answer when one of her children was winning an argument . But it was too much fun to tease her mother. "I wouldn't be surprised," she said, cocking her head to the side, "if Lady Whistledown was one of your "friends. " "Bite your tongue, Daphne. No friend of mine would ever stoop so low. " "Very well," Daphne allowed, "it's probably not one of your friends. But I'm certain it's someone we know. No interloper could ever obtain the information she reports. " Violet crossed her arms. "I should like to put her out of business once and for all. " "If you wish to put her out of business," Daphne could not resist pointing out, "you shouldn't support her by buying her newspaper. " "And what good would that do?" Violet demanded. "Everyone else is reading it. My puny little embargo would do nothing except make me look ignorant when everyone else is chuckling over her latest gossip. " That much was true, Daphne silently agreed. Fashionable London was positively addicted to Lady Whistledown's Society Papers. The mysterious newspaper had arrived on the doorstep of every member of the ton three months earlier. For two weeks it was delivered unbidden every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. And then, on the third Monday, butlers across London waited in vain for the pack of paperboys who normally delivered Whistledown, only to discover that instead of free delivery, they were selling the gossip sheet for the outrageous price of five pennies a paper . Daphne had to admire the fictitious Lady Whistledown's savvy. By the time she started forcing people to pay for their gossip, all the ton was addicted. Everyone forked over their pennies, and somewhere some meddlesome woman was getting very rich . While Violet paced the room and huffed about this "hideous slight" against her family, Daphne looked up to make certain her mother wasn't paying her any attention, then let her eyes drop to peruse the rest of the scandal sheet. Whistledown—as it was now called—was a curious mix of commentary, social news, scathing insult, and the occasional compliment. What set it apart from any previous society news sheets was that the author actually listed her subjects' names in full. There was no hiding behind abbreviations such as Lord S------and Lady G------. If Lady Whistledown wanted to write about someone, she used his full name. The ton declared themselves scandalized, but they were secretly fascinated . This most recent edition was typical Whistledown. Aside from the short piece on the Bridgertons—which was really no more than a description of the family— Lady Whistledown had recounted the events at the previous night's ball. Daphne hadn't attended, as it had been her younger sister's birthday, and the Bridgertons always made a big fuss about birthdays. And with eight children, there were a lot of birthdays to celebrate . "You're reading that rubbish," Violet accused . Daphne looked up, refusing to feel the least bit guilty. "It's a rather good column today. Apparently Cecil Tumbley knocked over an entire tower of champagne glasses last night. " "Really?" Violet asked, trying not to look interested . "Mmm-hmm," Daphne replied. "She gives quite a good account of the Middlethorpe ball. Mentions who was talking to whom, what everyone was wearing—" "And I suppose she felt the need to offer her opinions on that point," Violet cut in. Daphne smiled wickedly. "Oh, come now, Mother. You know that Mrs. Featherington has always looked dreadful in purple." Violet tried not to smile. Daphne could see the corners of her mouth twitching as she tried to maintain the composure she deemed appropriate for a viscountess and mother. But within two seconds, she was grinning and sitting next to her daughter on the sofa. "Let me see that," she said, snatching up the paper. "What else happened? Did we miss anything important? " Daphne said, "Really, Mother, with Lady Whistledown as a reporter, one needn't actually attend any events." She waved toward the paper. "This is almost as good as actually being there. Better, probably. I'm certain we had better food last night than they did at the ball. And give that back." She yanked the paper back, leaving a torn corner in Violet's hands . "Daphne!" Daphne affected mock righteousness. "I was reading it." "Well! " "Listen to this . " Violet leaned in . Daphne read: ""The rake formerly known as Earl Clyvedon has finally seen fit to grace London with his presence. Although he has not yet deigned to make an appearance at a respectable evening function, the new Duke of Hastings has been spotted several times at White's and once at Tattersall's.' " She paused to take a breath. "'His grace has resided abroad for six years. Can it be any coincidence that he has returned only now that the old duke is dead?'" Daphne looked up. "My goodness, she is blunt, isn't she? Isn't Clyvedon one of Anthony's friends?" "He's Hastings now," Violet said automatically, "and yes, I do believe he and Anthony were friendly at Oxford. And Eton as well, I think." Her brow scrunched and her blue eyes narrowed with thought. "He was something of a hellion, if my memory serves. Always at odds with his father. But reputed to be quite brilliant. I'm fairly sure that Anthony said he took a first in mathematics. Which," she added with a maternal roll of her eyes, "is more than I can say for any of my children. " "Now, now, Mother," Daphne teased. "I'm sure I would take a first if Oxford would only see fit to admit women." Violet snorted. "I corrected your arithmetic papers when your governess was ill, Daphne." "Well, maybe in history, then," Daphne said with a grin. She looked back down at the paper in her hands, her eyes straying to the new duke's name. "He sounds quite interesting," she murmured. Violet looked at her sharply. "He's quite unsuitable for a young lady of your years is what he is." "Funny how my 'years,' as you put it, volley back and forth between being so young that I cannot even meet Anthony's friends and being so old that you despair of my ever contracting a good marriage." " Daphne Bridgerton, I don't— " " —like my tone, I know." Daphne grinned. "But you love me ." Violet smiled warmly and wrapped an arm around Daphne's shoulder. "Heaven help me, I do. " Daphne gave her mother a quick peck on the cheek. "It's the curse of motherhood. You're required to love us even when we vex you. " Violet just sighed. "I hope that someday you have children—" "—just like me, I know." Daphne smiled nostalgically and rested her head on her mother's shoulder. Her mother could be overly inquisitive, and her father had been more interested in hounds and hunting than he'd been in society affairs, but theirs had been a warm marriage, filled with love, laughter, and children. "I could do a great deal worse than follow your example, Mother," she murmured . "Why, Daphne," Violet said, her eyes growing watery, "what a lovely thing to say. " Daphne twirled a lock of her chestnut hair around her finger, and grinned, letting the sentimental moment melt into a more teasing one. "I'm happy to follow in your footsteps when it comes to marriage and children, Mother, just so long as I don't have to have eight. " * * * At that exact moment, Simon Basset, the new Duke of Hastings and the erstwhile topic of the Bridgerton ladies' conversation, was sitting at White's. His companion was none other than Anthony Bridgerton, Daphne's eldest brother. The two cut a striking pair, both tall and athletic, with thick dark hair. But where Anthony's eyes were the same deep chocolate brown as his sister's, Simon's were icy blue, with an oddly penetrating gaze . It was those eyes as much as anything that had earned him his reputation as a man to be reckoned with. When he stared at a person, clear and unwavering, men grew uncomfortable. Women positively shivered . But not Anthony. The two men had known each other for years, and Anthony just laughed when Simon raised a brow and turned his icy gaze upon him. "You forget, I've seen you with your head being lowered into a chamber pot," Anthony had once told him. "It's been difficult to take you seriously ever since. " To which Simon had replied, "Yes, but if I recall, you were the one holding me over that fragrant receptacle ." "One of my proudest moments, to be sure. But you had your revenge the next night in the form of a dozen eels in my bed. " Simon allowed himself a smile as he remembered both the incident and their subsequent conversation about it. Anthony was a good friend, just the sort a man would want by his side in a pinch. He'd been the first person Simon had looked up upon returning to England . "It's damned fine to have you back, Clyvedon," Anthony said, once they'd settled in at their table at White's. "Oh, but I suppose you'll insist I call you Hastings now. " "No," Simon said rather emphatically. "Hastings will always be my father. He never answered to anything else." He paused. "I'll assume his title if I must, but I won't be called by his name. " "If you must?" Anthony's eyes widened slightly. "Most men would not sound quite so resigned about the prospect of a dukedom. " Simon raked a hand through his dark hair. He knew he was supposed to cherish his birthright and display unwavering pride in the Basset family's illustrious history, but the truth was it all made him sick inside. He'd spent his entire life not living up to his father's expectations; it seemed ridiculous now to try to live up to his name. "It's a damned burden is what it is," he finally grumbled . "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. " "Er, wasn't Daphne the one to do that? " "Yes, but I had to tell him. " "Not many brothers would allow their sister such latitude with their marriage proposals," Simon said quietly . Anthony just shrugged again, as if he couldn't imagine treating his sister in any other way. "She's been a good sister to me. It's the least I can do. " "Even if it means escorting her to Almack's?" Simon said wickedly . Anthony groaned. "Even then ." "I'd console you by pointing out that this will all be over soon, but you've what, three other sisters waiting in the wings? " Anthony positively slumped in his seat. "Eloise is due out in two years, and Francesca the year after that, but then I've a bit of a reprieve before Hyacinth comes of age. " Simon chuckled. "I don't envy you your responsibilities in that quarter." But even as he said the words, he felt a strange longing, and he wondered what it would be like to be not quite so alone in this world. He had no plans to start a family of his own, but maybe if he'd had one to begin with, his life would have turned out a bit differently . "So you'll come for supper, then?" Anthony stood. "Informal, of course. We never take meals formally when it's just family. " Simon had a dozen things to do in the next few days, but before he could remind himself that he needed to get his affairs in order, he heard himself saying, "I'd be delighted. " "Excellent. And I'll see you at the Danbury bash first? " Simon shuddered. "Not if I can help it. My aim is to be in and out in under thirty minutes. " "You really think," Anthony said, raising a doubtful brow, "that you're going to be able to go to the party, pay your respects to Lady Danbury, and leave? " Simon's nod was forceful and direct . But Anthony's snort of laughter was not terribly reassuring . Chapter 2 The new Duke of Hastings is a most interesting character. While it is common knowledge that he was not on favorable terms with his father, even This Author is unable to learn the reason for the estrangement. Lady Whistledown's Society Papers , 26 April 1813 Later that week, Daphne found herself standing on the fringes of Lady Danbury's ballroom, far away from the fashionable crowd. She was quite content with her position . Normally she would have enjoyed the festivities; she liked a good party as well as the next young lady, but earlier that evening, Anthony had informed her that Nigel Berbrooke had sought him out two days earlier and asked for her hand. Again. Anthony had, of course, refused (again!), but Daphne had the sinking feeling that Nigel was going to prove uncomfortably persistent. After all, two marriage proposals in two weeks did not paint a picture of a man who accepted defeat easily . Across the ballroom she could see him looking this way and that, and she shrank further into the shadows . She had no idea how to deal with the poor man. He wasn't very bright, but he also wasn't unkind, and though she knew she had to somehow put an end to his infatuation, she was finding it far easier to take the coward's way out and simply avoid him . She was considering slinking into the ladies' retiring room when a familiar voice stopped her in her tracks . "I say, Daphne, what are you doing all the way over here? " Daphne looked up to see her eldest brother making his way toward her. "Anthony," she said, trying to decide if she was pleased to see him or annoyed that he might be coming over to meddle in her affairs. "I hadn't realized you would be in attendance. " "Mother," he said grimly. No other words were necessary . "Ah," Daphne said with a sympathetic nod. "Say no more. I understand completely. " "She made a list of potential brides." He shot his sister a beleaguered look. "We do love her, don't we? " Daphne choked on a laugh. "Yes, Anthony, we do ." "It's temporary insanity," he grumbled. "It has to be. There is no other explanation. She was a perfectly reasonable mother until you reached marriageable age. " "Me?" Daphne squeaked. "Then this is all my fault? You're a full eight years older than I am!" "Yes, but she wasn't gripped by this matrimonial fervor until you came along. " Daphne snorted. "Forgive me if I lack sympathy. I received a list last year. " "Did you? " "Of course. And lately she's been threatening to deliver them to me on a weekly basis. She badgers me on the issue of marriage far more than you could ever imagine. After all, bachelors are a challenge. Spinsters are merely pathetic. And in case you hadn't noticed, I'm female. " Anthony let out a low chuckle. "I'm your brother. I don't notice those things." He gave her a sly, sideways look. "Did you bring it? " " My list? Heavens, no. What can you be thinking? " His smile widened. "I brought mine. " Daphne gasped. "You didn't! " "I did. Just to torture Mother. I'm going peruse it right in front of her, pull out my quizzing glass— " " You don't have a quizzing glass. " He grinned—the slow, devastatingly wicked smile that all Bridgerton males seemed to possess. "I bought one just for this occasion ." " Anthony, you absolutely cannot. She will kill you. And then, somehow, she'll find a way to blame me. " " I'm counting on it. " Daphne swatted him in the shoulder, eliciting a loud enough grunt to cause a half dozen partygoers to send curious looks in their direction . "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 tingeing 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— " Daphne punched him in the arm. "Kindly recall that there is a lady present, churl." But there was little ire in her voice. Of all her siblings, Colin was the closest to her in age—only eighteen months her elder. As children, they had been inseparable—and always in trouble. Colin was a natural prankster, and Daphne had never needed much convincing to go along with his schemes. "Does Mother know you're home?" she asked . Colin shook his head. "I arrived to an empty house, and— " "Yes, Mother put the younger ones to bed early tonight," Daphne interrupted . "I didn't want to wait about and twiddle my thumbs, so Humboldt gave me your direction and I came here. " Daphne beamed, her wide smile lending warmth to her dark eyes. "I'm glad you did. " "Where is Mother?" Colin asked, craning his neck to peer over the crowd. Like all Bridgerton males, he was tall, so he didn't have to stretch very far. "Over in the corner with Lady Jersey," Daphne replied . Colin shuddered. "I'll wait until she's extricated herself. I have no wish to be flayed alive by that dragon. " "Speaking of dragons," Benedict said pointedly. His head didn't move, but his eyes flicked off to the left . Daphne followed his line of vision to see Lady Danbury marching slowly toward them. She carried a cane, but Daphne swallowed nervously and steeled her shoulders. Lady Danbury's often cutting wit was legendary among the ton. Daphne had always suspected that a sentimental heart beat under her acerbic exterior, but still, it was always terrifying when Lady Danbury pressed one into conversation . "No escape," Daphne heard one of her brothers groan . Daphne shushed him and offered the old lady a hesitant smile . Lady Danbury's brows rose, and when she was but four feet away from the group of Bridgertons, she stopped, and barked, "Don't pretend you don't see me! " This was followed by a thump of the cane so loud that Daphne jumped back just enough to trample Benedict's toe . "Euf," said Benedict . Since her brothers appeared to have gone temporarily mute (except for Benedict, of course, but Daphne didn't think that grunts of pain counted as intelligible speech) Daphne swallowed, and said, "I hope I did not give that impression, Lady Danbury, for— " "Not you," Lady Danbury said imperiously. She jabbed her cane into the air, making a perfectly horizontal line that ended perilously close to Colin's stomach. "Them. " A chorus of mumbled greetings emerged as a response . Lady Danbury flicked the men the briefest of glances before turning back to Daphne, and saying, "Mr. Berbrooke was asking after you. " Daphne actually felt her skin turn green. "He was? " Lady Danbury gave her a curt nod. "I'd nip that one in the bud, were I you, Miss Bridgerton. " "Did you tell him where I was? " Lady Danbury's mouth slid into a sly, conspiratorial smile. "I always knew I liked you. And no, I did not tell him where you were ." "Thank you," Daphne said gratefully . "It'd be a waste of a good mind if you were shackled to that nitwit," Lady Danbury said, "and the good Lord knows that the ton can't afford to waste the few good minds we've got. " "Er, thank you," Daphne said . "As for you lot"—Lady Danbury waved her cane at Daphne's brothers—"I still reserve judgment. You"— she pointed the cane at Anthony—"I'm inclined to be favorable toward, since you refused Berbrooke's suit on your sister's behalf, but the rest of you ... Hmmph. " And with that she walked away . "'Hmmph?'" Benedict echoed. "'Hmmph?' She purports to quantify my intelligence and all she comes up with is 'Hmmph?' " Daphne smirked. "She likes me ." "You're welcome to her," Benedict grumbled . "Rather sporting of her to warn you about Berbrooke," Anthony admitted . Daphne nodded. "I believe that was my cue to take my leave." She turned to Anthony with a beseeching look. "If he comes looking for me— " "I'll take care of it," he said gently. "Don't worry. " "Thank you." And then, with a smile to her brothers, she slipped out of the ballroom . * * * As Simon walked quietly through the halls of Lady Danbury's London home, it occurred to him that he was in a singularly good mood. This, he thought with a chuckle, was truly remarkable, considering the fact that he was about to attend a society ball and thus subject himself to all the horrors Anthony Bridgerton had laid out before him earlier that afternoon . But he could console himself with the knowledge that after today, he needn't bother with such functions again; as he had told Anthony earlier that afternoon, he was only attending this particular ball out of loyalty to Lady Danbury, who, despite her curmudgeonly ways, had always been quite nice to him as a child . His good mood, he was coming to realize, derived from the simple fact that he was pleased to be back in England . Not that he hadn't enjoyed his journeys across the globe. He'd traveled the length and breadth of Europe, sailed the exquisitely blue seas of the Mediterranean , and delved into the mysteries of North Africa. From there he'd gone on to the Holy Land, and then, when inquiries revealed that it was not yet time to return home, he crossed the Atlantic and explored the West Indies. At that point he considered moving on to the United States of America, but the new nation had seen fit to enter into conflict with Britain, so Simon had stayed away . Besides, that was when he'd learned that his father, ill for several years, had finally died . It was ironic, really. Simon wouldn't have traded his years of exploration for anything. Six years gave a man a lot of time to think, a lot of time to learn what it meant to be a man. And yet the only reason the then-twenty-two-year-old Simon had left England was because his father had suddenly decided that he was finally willing to accept his son . Simon hadn't been willing to accept his father, though, and so he'd simply packed his bags and left the country, preferring exile to the old duke's hypocritical overtures of affection . It had all started when Simon had finished at Oxford. The duke hadn't originally wanted to pay for his son's schooling; Simon had once seen a letter written to a tutor stating that he refused to let his idiot son make a fool of the family at Eton. But Simon had had a hungry mind as well as a stubborn heart, and so he'd ordered a carriage to take him to Eton, knocked on the headmaster's door, and announced his presence . It had been the most terrifying thing he'd ever done, but he'd somehow managed to convince the headmaster that the mix-up was the school's fault, that somehow Eton must have lost his enrollment papers and fees. He'd copied all of his father's mannerisms, raising an arrogant brow, lifting his chin, and looking down his nose, and generally appearing as if he thought he owned the world. And the entire time, he'd been quaking in his shoes, terrified that at any moment his words would grow garbled and land on top of each other, that "I am Earl Clyvedon, and I am here to begin classes," would instead come out as, "I am Earl Clyvedon, and I am h-h-h-h-h-h— " But it hadn't, and the headmaster, who'd spent enough years educating England's elite to immediately recognize Simon as a member of the Basset family, had enrolled him posthaste and without question. It had taken several months for the duke (who was always quite busy with his own pursuits) to learn of his son's new status and change in residence. By that point, Simon was well ensconced at Eton, and it would have looked very bad if the duke had pulled the boy out of school for no reason . And the duke didn't like to look bad . Simon had often wondered why his father hadn't chosen to make an overture at that time. Clearly Simon wasn't tripping over his every word at Eton; the duke would have heard from the headmaster if his son weren't able to keep up with his studies. Simon's speech still occasionally slipped, but by then he'd grown remarkably proficient in covering up his mistakes with a cough or, if he was lucky enough to be taking a meal at the time, a well-timed sip of tea or milk . But the duke never even wrote him a letter. Simon supposed his father had grown so used to ignoring his son that it didn't even matter that he wasn't proving to be an embarrassment to the Basset name . After Eton, Simon followed the natural progression to Oxford, where he earned the reputations of both scholar and rake. Truth be told, he hadn't deserved the label of rake any more than most of the young bucks at university, but Simon's somewhat aloof demeanor somehow fed the persona . Simon wasn't exactly certain how it had happened, but gradually he became aware that his peers craved his approval. He was intelligent and athletic, but it seemed his elevated status had more to do with his manner than anything else. Because Simon didn't speak when words were not necessary, people judged him to be arrogant, just as a future duke should be. Because he preferred to surround himself with only those friends with whom he truly felt comfortable, people decided he was exceptionally discriminating in his choice of companions, just as a future duke should be . He wasn't very talkative, but when he did say something, he had a quick and often ironic wit—just the sort of humor that guaranteed that people would hang on his every word. And again, because he didn't constantly run off at the mouth, as did so many of the ton, people were even more obsessed with what he had to say . He was called "supremely confident," "heartstoppingly handsome," and "the perfect specimen of English manhood." Men wanted his opinion on any number of topics . The women swooned at his feet . Simon never could quite believe it all, but he enjoyed his status nonetheless, taking what was offered him, running wild with his friends, and enjoying the company of all the young widows and opera singers who sought his attention—and every escapade was all the more delicious for knowing that his father must disapprove . But, as it turned out, his father didn't entirely disapprove. Unbeknownst to Simon, the Duke of Hastings had already begun to grow interested in the progress of his only son. He requested academic reports from the university and hired a Bow Street Runner to keep him apprised of Simon's extracurricular activities. And eventually, the duke stopped expecting every missive to contain tales of his son's idiocy. It would have been impossible to pinpoint exactly when his change of heart occurred, but one day the duke realized that his son had turned out rather nicely, after all . The duke puffed out with pride. As always, good breeding had proven true in the end. He should have known that Basset blood could not produce an imbecile . Upon finishing Oxford with a first in mathematics, Simon came to London with his friends. He had, of course, taken bachelor's lodgings, having no wish to reside with his father. And as Simon went out in society, more and more people misinterpreted his pregnant pauses for arrogance and his small circle of friends for exclusivity . His reputation was sealed when Beau Brummel—the then recognized leader of society—had asked a rather involved question about some trivial new fashion. Brummel's tone had been condescending and he had clearly hoped to embarrass the young lord. As all London knew, Brummel loved nothing better than to reduce England's elite into blithering idiots. And so he had pretended to care about Simon's opinion, ending his question with a drawled, "Don't you think? " As an audience of gossips watched with baited breath, Simon, who couldn't have cared less about the specific arrangement of the Prince's cravat, simply turned his icy blue eyes on Brummel, and answered, "No. " No explanation, no elaboration, just, "No ." And then he walked away . By the next afternoon, Simon might as well have been the king of society. The irony was unnerving. Simon didn't care for Brummel or his tone, and he would probably have delivered a more loquacious set-down if he'd been sure he could do so without stumbling over his words. And yet in this particular instance, less had most definitely proven to be more, and Simon's terse sentence had turned out to be far more deadly than any long-winded speech he might have uttered . Word of the brilliant and devastatingly handsome Hastings heir naturally reached the duke's ears. And although he did not immediately seek Simon out, Simon began to hear bits and pieces of gossip that warned him that his relationship with his father might soon see a change. The duke had laughed when he'd heard of the Brummel incident, and said, "Naturally. He's a Basset." An acquaintance mentioned that the duke had been heard crowing about Simon's first at Oxford . And then the two came face-to-face at a London ball . The duke would not allow Simon to give him the cut direct . Simon tried. Oh, how he tried. But no one had the ability to crush his confidence like his father, and as he stared at the duke, who might as well have been a mirror image, albeit slightly older version, of himself, he couldn't move, couldn't even try to speak . His tongue felt thick, his mouth felt odd, and it almost seemed as if his stutters had spread from his mouth to his body, for he suddenly didn't even feel right in his own skin . The duke had taken advantage of Simon's momentary lapse of reason by embracing him with a heartfelt, "Son. " Simon had left the country the very next day . He'd known that it would be impossible to avoid his father completely if he remained in England. And he refused to act the part of his son after having been denied a father for so many years . Besides, lately he'd been growing bored of London's wild life. Rake's reputation aside, Simon didn't really have the temperament of a true debauche. He had enjoyed his nights on the town as much as any of his dissolute cronies, but after three years in Oxford and one in London, the endless round of parties and prostitutes was growing, well, old .