Daphne could remember no part of her day. From the moment she had woken up, to the very point of standing at the top of the stairs, nothing came to mind. There had to have been breakfast, and tea, and there was a dress appointment, and a ride to the ball, but the only thing she could remember was the feeling of her fingers sliding between her folds, touching a part of her body that she had never before explored, and thinking of Simon. Thinking of him touching her. Not there , of course, but-
Each time their hands touched, although through her gloves. The way his fingers brushed at her back, the top of her dress as he held her close. She thought about the way he looked at her when they spoke, as though he truly saw her. She thought about how close they would dance, when he held her body close to his. She thought about the tingles and tumbles that went through her belly when she was in his presence, so similar to the tingles and tumbles she had felt as her fingers moved through the slickness, how her body had felt on the edge, much like when his eyes locked onto hers, and the little breaths-
He stole her breath with his mere presence. It was impossible to ignore any longer. It was not love, of that she could be certain, because love between them was impossible - he was rude, a rake, a womanizer, a-
He saw her, he looked right into her soul and he knew her, knew what she wanted in a husband, what she wanted in her life, and he listened to her when she talked about it, about what she did not know and what she wished, and he-
It was not love. She did not know what love was, but it could not be this. No, this was lust. It had to be. He had bewitched her, somehow, and now all she craved was his presence once more, his eyes upon her, being held in his arms…
She had missed their standing lunch appointment, which her mother had cancelled on her behalf, citing that Daphne had looked unwell. They had been to meet for ice cream again, which always brought a new set of desire as she watched him enjoy every bite, but it had given her time to breathe, to rest in her rooms all afternoon.
She had considered touching herself once more, but… she had already done it three times the night before, each one more unimaginable than the last. She had touched herself until her fingers cramped and she had had to change her nightgown from how damp the fabric felt on her skin, and come the morning, she had hidden the extra nightgown, which she had used to wipe the inside of her legs.
She did not want to explain that to her mother. Not even slightly.
Fluttering her fan in front of her, Daphne tried to ignore how her skin burned as she looked out into the room. Simon was there, his eyes on her, as he stood near Lady Danbury. She licked her lips, remembering the way he had licked the spoon a few weeks past, and imagined him licking her like that, her lips, her fingers, her skin even? She did not fully understand what occured in the marriage bed, still, but now…
The possibilities were endless. She wanted to ask more, to learn from him, to press until he told her everything, but the thought of asking him what came next, now that she knew how it began… She felt faint once more.
“If you are unwell, we can return home,” her mother said beside her.
Turning to look at her mama, Daphne shook her head, then took another deep breath in. She should be thinking about other things, like finding the husband that would actually do such things to her… except, what if he did not? It had taken some time to find that perfect spot, and what if her husband had no interest in such things? Now that she knew it existed, how could she ignore it?
The Prince stood at the foot of the stairs, but Daphne barely acknowledged him with more than a polite nod, walking with her mother towards Lady Danbury. She ignored Simon as she smiled at her mother’s friend, fanning herself as she did so, and then finally, allowed her eyes to look towards the Duke, who was looking at her with some concern.
“My dear, you are flush already,” Lady Danbury said, looking her over. “Are you well?”
Daphne smiled politely, trying to remember how to breathe, but it was hard when he was so close. His hand had moved to her forearm, touching out of concern, and she imagined his fingers trailing higher, to the top of her glove, to drawing it down her arm… “Yes, I am, thank you. I think I might already need to step outside. It is so warm this evening, is it not?”
She went to take her mother’s arm, to be escorted out onto the terrace, when Lady Danbury interrupted her.
“Fetch the girl a drink, Simon, and then escort her out into the cool night air. I shall chaperone.”
It sounded a final decision, one which Daphne could not stop from occurring, and she gave the Lady a polite nod, stepping to her side as Simon bowed, excusing himself to find them all drinks. Her mother hovered a few steps away, clearly allowing Lady Danbury to, indeed, chaperone.
Daphne suspected, of course, that Lady Danbury’s idea of chaperoning was much different from what Anthony would consider to be a chaperone. A good thing her brother was not here, then, except it meant that she would be, in essence, alone with him once more.
Indeed, she now did feel quite faint.
Simon did not know what was wrong with Daphne this evening, but at the sight of her at the top of the stairs, all thoughts and plans had disappeared from his mind. After their last promenade, the discussion they had had… it was unacceptable. He never should have allowed this to go so far. The only thing to do, was to end it, before she asked anything else of him that would compromise her further. Telling her of night time activities, of what she could do when she was alone?
When she had cancelled their meeting, or her mother had, he had imagined the worst, that she never wanted to see him again. Of course, it was what he wanted, right? To end this, whatever it was. He was in far too deep, unable to escape his orbit around Miss Daphne Bridgerton. He was still not certain how she had done it, but she had drawn him in, and he was caught by her, always hovering nearby, answering her every whim. He had to end it, without question.
But, for her to withdraw from him… had he pushed it too far? What if she told someone, what he had said. The idea that she might have actually gone through with it had not crossed his mind… of course she would not do such a thing as he had described. She knew so little, her eyes had been wide… she knew nothing of even touching herself! Why would she do such a thing at his urging...
Seeing her, though, at the top of those stairs, she had looked radiant. There had been a glow about her, with her cheeks flushed, the white feather fan in her hand, and he had been unable to look away. Her eyes were locked with his, and for a moment, just a breath of a moment, he imagined that she looked as she did for him, had put in extra care because she wanted to attract him, because - because, she was here to catch a husband… and he was well and truly caught.
She had walked past the Prince, walked past everyone else, until she arrived at his side, although, as she approached, her attention had instead gone to his Lady Godmother, who had that look in her eyes as though she was plotting something, or figuring it out. Simon knew that he should be wary of such a gaze, but when he turned to look at Daphne, she looked near to fainting, her cheeks red from the heat, even her collarbones red with a blush. Her hands were even shaking slightly - the excitement of the evening, then, although he was not certain as to what might have caused it.
Perhaps… perhaps her mother had been correct in cancelling their meeting. Daphne did not look well at all. Well… a part of him thought she looked much like the sun, a glow certain about her, even more so than normal. He knew, however, because he knew her, that her cheeks were never normally as red as her lips.
A drink, yes, a drink - he went to collect one for himself and one for Daphne, and when he returned to her, he offered her his arm, ready and willing to escort her from the room so that she might collect some air. A pity her elder brothers were not here - surely, she must be here at the urging of her mother. Unacceptable.
It was not until they stepped out onto the terrace, and he could no longer hear the click of Lady Danbury’s cane, that he realized what had occurred. Played. He had been tricked and maneuvered by the older woman, who seemed to know something she did not, because now, Daphne was looking out into the gardens, her skin still flushed, with him just a step away. They were not alone, of course, as they had a chaperone, but they could speak freely, truly, without a concern of being overheard.
Daphne was paying him no mind, so she was no part of this plan to isolate them. What was it, then, that the older woman saw? She looked tinier than normal, her shoulders hunched, and her hands shaking slightly, the free one wrapping itself up in her skirts. She was still so flushed, the redness running down her neck, onto her chest, and her gaze… it flicked towards him, and then her cheeks darkened once more. To have such a reaction at the sight of him, not the heat then, and not a fever…
Blushing. She was blushing.
Why would she be-
“You are still rather flushed, even in this cool night air. Are you certain you do not want to return home?” he asked politely, hoping she would say yes. It became clear to him, now, what was going on… but how would, how could - how had Lady Danbury known . And know, she had to. Had she overheard the conversation between them? If another observed them, would they suspect that something improper had occurred?
You are not a real suitor she had said… But, what if he was? Everyone else thought he was… what if…
You will know when you know he had responded to her question about what she was to be looking for. What if… what if…
She had looked up at him with the biggest of eyes when he had mentioned touching yourself, as though she had no true idea… the blush on her skin now… Did she know what it was, then, that happened at night? Did she know what it felt like, to explore your body, to know true pleasure?
Did she know, then, what she wanted from her future husband? What he should make her feel? Who had she thought of, what had she thought of…
They had been so close to one another when he spoke of the pinnacle, of the peak. He had felt her breath on his lips, could see the brilliant diamonds in her eyes, sparkling and shining. She was a true Diamond, and he might not be a real suitor, but in that moment, he had wished he was. He had wished that she imagined those things with him-
It was why he had planned to pull away. It was why he could not.
What was happening between them, it had to end. It had to end now. Before he fell even deeper with her.
“Returning home does not seem the best of ideas,” she finally responded, and he blinked, realizing he had grown lost in his thoughts as he stood there, waiting for an answer. “Being at home right now… no. I think I spent quite enough time alone last night.”
He blinked, staring right at her, and saw that blush once more spreading down the back of her neck, across her back, onto her chest. Her clear embarrassment was adorable, but he craved to know exactly why she was so embarrassed… even though he had a good suspicion.
“And what was it, that you did, while alone last night,” he asked, his voice becoming more and more breathy with each and every word. He should stop this, should walk away now, excuse himself, leave her in the capable hands of Lady Danbury, but he could not. Walking away, it would mean the end of this. He could not walk away from her. Not until he knew about what she had done. Not until he knew whether or not she knew what kind of man to be looking for.
Not until he knew whether or not he stood a chance.
Her breath had caught in her throat, and he watched Daphne drain the glass, then set it upon the terrace wall. He set his own glass there, and then reached towards her, unable to help himself. His fingers touched the silk of her glove on her forearm, and she froze. He watched her gaze, watched how her eyes moved to where he touched, and then her big eyes looked up at him, fear clear in them. Fear, and desire.
“You know exactly what I did,” she breathed out in response, and he could not stop himself as he shifted closer. Their breath mixed in the cold air, and he could nearly taste her. It would be effortless, to kiss her, and he doubted their chaperone would even stop them. “You know exactly what I… what I enjoyed.”
His brain seemed to escape him, all of the blood rushing to other parts of his body, and he wanted to adjust himself, but he could not move, his eyes studying hers as he tried to process her words. He could guess, he could…
“You… enjoyed it, then?” he asked, and he tried to run exactly what he had told her before through his mind. They had been discussing how she would know what to look for in a husband, and it was not something he could teach. It was… “Do you know, then, what you are seeking?”
She took in a deep breath, her chest rising and falling so much that the gems at her throat were sparkling in the lamp light, and he wanted to draw her closer, to draw another noise such as that from her throat. Never before had he been so close to a Lady, to a woman he should not desire, but he did. He craved her. He burned for her.
“Simon,” she whispered.
His name had never sounded so beautiful on her lips.
“Yes?” he asked, and his hand fell from her arm to go to her lower back, meaning to draw her closer.
“A husband… a husband would do such things to me?” she asked, and her eyes were so wide as she looked up at him, so vulnerable. He wanted to tell her the truth, that most men would not, but he would. If he were her husband, he would bring her to that peak over and over again.
“I - A husband would do that, and so much more,” he confirmed, and he wanted to correct himself, to tell her that he would do that to her every day, but he held his tongue.
“But what if-” She cut herself off, and then she was pulling away from him, turning to look out at the gardens. He chased after her a step, his hand resting on the wall beside hers, and he gave her a moment to breathe.
“Ask your question, Daphne,” he murmured into her ear, trying to resist the urge to draw her into his embrace.
“Simon,” she whimpered, whimpered , and he resisted the urge to groan, but he had to know now, would claw at her until he knew what it was she wanted to know, what it was that was on the tip of her tongue.
“Ask me, Daphne. Tell me what it is…” Tell me what you thought of .
Her eyes closed, and he could see her hands shaking. He had to resist the urge to cover them with his own hands, knowing…
They were too close. Far too close. He had chased this for too long. It was not proper. She was trying to find a husband, to start a family. She was trying to find happiness, and love. And he? He was still committed to ending this, to ending all interaction with her. He had to leave London.
Had he not just said as much to Lady Danbury, not ten minutes ago?
“What if… What if the person that makes me feel such things… what if they do not desire me in the same way?” she asked, and her eyes were not on him, instead off in the garden, but he could see it, a tear running down her cheek. She was crying. She was crying for someone. For someone that made her feel such wonderful things.
He had made a vow, a vow of hate, a vow to cruely hurt the man that had destroyed him. That vow had fueled him, year after year, through every lesson, through every goal, through every step he took. His hatred had been what helped him succeed. Had helped him to survive.
Love Conquers All .
It was not love, whatever it was between them, but if Daphne looked at another with love and adoration, he might die. Hate would no longer be enough to keep his heart beating within his chest, for it would surely break.
It would be cruel of him to deny her her Prince… but would the Prince give her pleasure? Would he worship her, worship her very being? Would he enjoy laughing and talking with her? Would he crave her affection and attention? Would he give her every bit of happiness she deserved?
Simon had never been a selfish man, but in this moment… would it be selfish, though, to let himself fall in love with Daphne Bridgerton? To break his vow, to love her, to spend his life with her? Would it be selfish, to want to be the one that gave her eternal happiness?
Fuck. Fuck . The blush on her cheeks, the way she looked up at him, the way that she trusted him. He had been cruel, cruel to himself, to imagine that he might walk away from one such as Daphne Bridgerton. He had endured such cruelty all his life. How could he continue to punish himself, to allow his father’s cruel words to continue. Did he not deserve happiness as well? Did he not deserve to feel the warmth of her sunlight?
“Daphne,” he whispered, his hand reaching up to brush her cheek. He had touched her skin so rarely, she had gasped at his touch, her gaze going immediately up to his. “Daphne… there is no man alive, that does not desire you in all ways.”
Her lips shook, and another tear fell down her cheek as she looked up at him, fear clear in her eyes. “No man?”
He should deny her. He should send her back into the ball, tell her it was over. He should end this, here and now. He should-
He could love her, just like this. He could fall desperately, madly in love with her. He could do it. He would do it. He was already in too deep to escape. He would marry her.
“You should go home,” he finally said, and he swallowed hard, trying to choke down the words that were eager to spill from his throat.
“I should?” she asked, her eyes flicking between his, surprise clear on her face.
“Yes,” he said, and he prayed for strength as he spoke, withdrawing his hand, trying to resist the urge to pull her to him. “You should go home, and wait, for in the morning… In the morning, a man that is not worthy of you, but would love nothing more than to give you such happiness, will be arriving for tea. If, of course, you will have him.”
She looked on the verge of tears again, and he had to stop himself from kissing them away from her cheeks, had to resist the urge to draw her close and whisper into her skin how much he adored her, how much he desired only her.
He was going to do this. He would not allow himself to back out now.
If he sent her back into the ball, the Prince would approach, and if he lost her to the prince…
“Simon, please, you must know-”
He took her hand, covered in her silk gloves, and pressed a kiss to the back of it. Oh, how he wanted to draw the fabric from her arms and feel her bare skin once more.
Instead, he withdrew, taking a few steps back.
“Lady Danbury,” he called towards the old woman, who was watching them with her shrewd eyes. “I must escort Miss Bridgerton to her mother. She is still feeling unwell, and must return well.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that,” Lady Danbury said as she approached, looking Daphne over.
“Yes, quite unfortunate to end our evening so early… but I shall call on her first thing, of course, to check on her wellbeing.”
Lady Danbury looked them both over once more, then gave a nod.
“I shall return home as well. Such excitement already this evening. You will escort me, your Grace,” the woman said.
He gave the woman a nod, then offered his arm to Daphne, trying to not say anything else. He had much to plan, much to think about, much-
“Will your brother be home in the morning, Miss Bridgerton?” he asked, looking down at her.
Daphne stiffened slightly, then gave a slight nod.
“Excellent. I think… I think I would speak with him in the morning, after we have visited.”
Daphne tightened her grip on his arm, and he stopped just in the doorway, then looked to Lady Danbury, whose eyes were now up on the balconies above.
“Promise me,” she whispered, looking up at him. “Promise me, that you will come in the morning.”
She looked on the verge of tears, on the verge of a smile, and he thought to ask her now, but first… first, they must have a conversation. A conversation that might end their courtship, for good.
“I promise,” he vowed, and for the first time in so long, it was a vow made out of love, not hate.
Love . Yes… yes, he liked that word indeed.
“Good night, Miss Bridgerton,” he said, seeing her mother approach them where they stood.
“Good night, your Grace,” she said, and she released his arm, going straight to her mother, who was looking at them both with a question in her gaze.
He watched them walk away, then felt the tap of a cane on the side of his leg. He did not flinch, however, his eyes still following Daphne as she and her mother left the ballroom, Daphne’s eyes still wide even as her mother questioned her.
“You made your decision, then,” Lady Danbury asked.
He did not look to the woman, just gave a nod. “I cannot… I can deny it no longer. It was a ruse at first, but-”
The woman snorted, and he shot his gaze over to her, his brow raising.
“The only two people that thought it to be a ruse was the pair of you. Neither of you whisper very quietly. It was a matter of time, however. She will do well, as your wife.”
He swallowed hard, imagining, processing that idea. His wife . Daphne Bridgerton might be his wife .
“Only if she accepts,” he finally said.
Daphne felt the world going about her in a blur, until finally, the carriage was arriving home. Her mother stepped out first, then wrapped her arms around Daphne. The woman had been concerned the entire way, asking what was wrong, asking what the Duke had said, had even asked if she should send for Anthony. The memory of Simon mentioning her elder brother was enough to bring Daphne back into the moment, and she nodded as they walked up the steps of their home, her gaze still lost in the distance.
“Yes, mama. It would be best if you send for Anthony.”
Her mother gasped, asking once more what it was that Simon had told her, what he had done, what impropriety…
He had taken her hand, kissed it…
What had she said, what had she done, to change his mind? How long had he felt the same as she did? Had he felt it from the beginning? No, no. There had been nothing in the beginning, save for a mutual need for the other.
When had it become something more? When had it all meant more? She had called him not a proper suitor just the day prior, so what had changed? Had it been a change within her? A change within him?
She had dreamt of him… but that meant nothing. Of course not. One could not control their dreams. Dreams were not some sort of sign. No, no, it was simply his proximity to her that caused such dreams, except…
Except, she had desired him, the night before. She had noticed him before that. Had noticed the way that he looked into her eyes, how he had touched her, how he had listened to her, laughed with her. Some of it was for show, of course, to make others believe they were deeply in love, but not all of it. Not the hours of conversation, nor all of the laughter. Some of it had been real, surely.
Had it all been real? Had they been falling in love since the beginning? Or, had they simply started as friends, and then fallen in love along the way?
“Mama, how do you know that you are in love?” she asked, pausing as they stepped into the house.
Her mother blinked at her, then took her hand gently, leading her towards the stairwell.
“Well… it is a funny feeling, at times. Deep, within your stomach. A fluttering at first, and then something more with time.”
That sounded much like Daphne had experienced the night before, but she doubted that was what her mother meant. It also sounded like when Simon touched her, when he looked into her eyes, when he listened to her. It had started small.
“And then? How do you know that it is true?”
Her mother smiled kindly at her, brushing her fingers over Daphne’s cheek, then gave a nod. “If you are questioning the Duke’s feelings for you, I can tell you, he is the picture of devotion.”
“But it was not real,” she said, interrupting her mother. “None of it. He asked me, if we might have an arrangement, to form an attachment to one another. It would keep the other mamas of the ton from approaching him, and in turn, it would gain me the attention of every eligible bachelor, all wanting to see what it was that made the Duke fall in love with me. It was all entirely a ruse.”
“Whatever do you mean, Daphne? A ruse? It was not all… But-” Her mother sounded flustered, processing what her daughter had just told her, but Daphne heard none of it, turning on the top step to look back at her mother as she spoke.
“Mama… it was never meant to be like this. It was all for show.”
Her mother shook her head, eyes wide as she looked at her daughter. “Daphne, the way that man looks at you… not all of it was show. I have never seen a man so in love.”
Did her mother speak true, or had Simon truly tricked them all?
The fluttering had been building with time, but it went far beyond when she touched herself. Her heart raced when he smiled at her, and she burned for him at times, burned for him to simply look her way. She felt nerves when waiting for his arrival, and grew saddened when their time together came to an end.
She had been pursuing another husband, yes, but why? Because Simon had not wanted a wife? Was that the only reason she had not previously allowed herself to entertain the notion of being his? Because he had never expressed interest?
It had made him feel safe, the idea that he was not by her side because he wanted her , simply that he wanted protection by being at her side. There was no chance of romance, for either of them… and within that, they had become friends. Real and true friends. She enjoyed his conversation, his opinion, his laughter, his knowledge, and his company.
In fact, she enjoyed his company so much… she did not think she could bear it much longer, to be separated from him. To be with him, always. To be his best friend. To be his wife.
If Simon Basset, Duke of Hastings, asked her to marry him… there was only one answer she could give.
“Mama, Anthony must be here in the morning. Simon will need to speak to him. I think… I think he means to ask me to marry him...”
Her mother was silent as Daphne reached her bedroom door, and then, her mother’s voice, a gasped whisper- “Oh thank God.”