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The off season.

That too brief time of year when young men turn their thoughts to conditioning regimens and free agent contracts. Players from around the league will be scattering to their hometowns to lift weights and fish and wait for their agent to call. While most players will scatter to small towns spread far and wide across the Great White North, we in New York are lucky enough to have three of the NHL's finest call our fair city home.

Long time readers will undoubtedly remember the prior antics of the Brothers Bridgerton. For those that are new to our column, the trio consists of Anthony (Center, New York Rangers), Benedict (Goalie, Buffalo Sabres), and Colin (Defenseman, Vancouver Canucks). (It is our understanding that there is a fourth brother, but as he is still in middle school, he falls outside the scope of our current conversation.) The Bridgerton boys fall into what we call the category of what we call UHHPs--Unattached, Horny, Hockey Players. To their credit, they all abide by the motto of work hard, play hard, but make no bones about it, these boys like to play. Stay tuned for tales of their exploits this summer. Your author promises to keep her ear very close to the ground.

Speaking of people who like to play hard, rumor has it that current Colorado Avalanche winger Simon Basset is looking to sign a major free agent contract with the New York Rangers. Simon and Anthony Bridgerton were college teammates for one brief season during their misspent youth. One can only wonder if Anthony will be giving his former teammate a hard sell this week when they meet up at the NHL Awards in Las Vegas. We'll see if what happens in Vegas really stays in Vegas...

~ Excerpted from Sources Say, The New York Post

***

"But I love you, Laffy!"

Simon winced. He hadn't meant to eavesdrop on someone's drunken confession of love when he snuck away from the press. All he had wanted was a moment to clear his head before another round of questions about where he was going to sign in free agency. There were only so many ways he could say he was listening to all offers with a smile on his face, especially since no one believed him anyway.

"Nigel, I'm sorry, but you know I don't feel the same way," said the woman that Simon assumed was Laffy. "We talked about it, remember?"

"But Laffy--"

Simon frowned. He didn't want to intrude, but he also didn't want to listen to anyone pressure a woman to do something she didn't want to. It seemed like it was maybe the time to intervene. He stepped around the corner, and--

Nigel hit the floor. Over him stood Laffy, who was shaking her hand out and wincing in pain.

"Oh, Nigel," she muttered. "Why?"

"Are you alright?" asked Simon.

She spun towards him, a remarkably pretty brunette with a frown on her face. "Have you been there all along?"

"Long enough," he said. He stepped closer and looked down at the visible red spot on Nigel's jaw. "You must have a hell of a right hook."

"Brothers," she said. "Look, can you help me?"

"Of course," he said. "But maybe we could trade names first? Unless you really are Laffy."

"Daphne," she said, extending her hand for him to shake. "And I know who you are."

Simon raised an eyebrow, intrigued. "Oh?"

She snorted. "Please. Like your face hasn't been all over the hockey blogs since the Avs season ended. Shame about missing out on the playoffs, by the way. You were all coming on strong at the end. And you would have been a tougher matchup for the Kings than the Wild."

Carefully, Simon studied her. Long brown hair that was tied up in a ponytail. A black dress that was more demure than he often saw from women at events like this. Red shoes that he wanted to see her wear with nothing else. Nothing about her screamed puck bunny, but-- "Publicist?"

"PA," she said, shrugging her shoulders. "Well, and sister."

"Sister?" Simon looked at her more closely. Wait, he knew that face. "Are you--"

"Daphne Bridgerton," she said, with a dimpled smile. "Sorry, did I not say that?"

***

Daphne couldn't help it--she loved the expression on Simon's face. She was too used to people knowing who she was and thinking that she was the avenue to contact with her brothers. Watching them run away when she disabused them of that notion was satisfying enough, but still, seeing someone just see her--well, she wanted it to happen far more often than it did. And if the people noticing happened to be built hockey players, so much the better.

"You're Anthony's sister," Simon said flatly.

She lifted a shoulder and shrugged. "And Benedict's. And Colin's. And Gregory's too, but you wouldn't have ever played against him since he's thirteen. And I have sisters." She peered up at him from beneath her lashes. "But I suspect it's Anthony that troubles you, specifically. Would you care to elaborate?"

"No," Simon said.

He seemed to have no interest in expanding further, which she personally found very intriguing. It wasn’t the only thing about him she found interesting. She hadn't imagined the heat in his eyes when he looked at her. She certainly hadn't imagined her own reaction to that heat. If he had asked her to peel off her dress the same way he'd been peeling it off with his eyes, she would have only asked if he wanted her to keep on her heels. She suspected he would have said yes.

"You mentioned help?"

Daphne blinked, startled out of her rather nice fantasy. Couldn't they just go back to flirting over Nigel's unconscious body? But Simon's look had shifted from lust to impatience and so she pushed ahead. "Yes," she said. "I can't just leave him here, can I?"

"I would," Simon said.

Daphne repressed the urge to roll her eyes. "Yes, but you're a hockey player. You're used to being hit and waking up in strange places. Nigel works in the commissioner's office."

"And that excuses assault?" Simon said, folding his arms across his chest.

"He wasn't assaulting me," Daphne hedged.

Simon looked down at her, eyebrow raised. It was an eerie mirror of Anthony's, which was not a thought Daphne particularly wanted to be having about a man she wanted to have sex with.

"Much," she conceded. She looked down at Nigel's body. "Maybe you're right."

"I know I'm right," Simon said, so imperiously that Daphne had to laugh.

"Fine," she said. She raised her own eyebrow back at him, daring him. "Escort me back?"

Now mister sure of himself didn't seem quite so sure. "Aren't your brothers here?"

Daphne nodded. "All of them. Well, except Gregory."

"Lucky Gregory," Simon muttered.

"What was that?"

"Poor Gregory," Simon said smoothly. "I'm sure that a thirteen year old would be in hockey heaven at one of these things."

Daphne softened, just a little. "He would be but my mother seems to have developed some ideas about the things that might happen in Las Vegas. I can't imagine where she got them."

"Your mother must be a wise woman," Simon said.

It was Daphne's turn to mutter, "Don't tell her that."

"Excuse me?"

"I tell her that every day," Daphne said, looking him straight in the eye and selling the lie with every fiber of her being. "And if you tell her any different, they'll never find your body."

"Fair enough," Simon said.

They stood there, grinning at each other like idiots, for Daphne didn't know how long. They might have stood there longer, but Nigel moaned, just a little, and they both looked down at him.

"We should go," Simon said.

Daphne held out a hand, repeating her earlier dare. "Escort me back?"

Simon eyed her hand like a live snake. "Are you sure that your brothers have had their shots?"

"Cross my heart and hope to die," she promised. "They don't bite--much, anyway. And almost never with people who aren't family."

Simon took her hand, engulfing her much smaller hand in his much larger one. "I'm not above using you as a human shield, you know."

Daphne smiled to herself, as they walked down the hall back towards the party. "Simon, I think we're going to get along just fine."

***

Simon spotted Anthony as soon as he walked into the hall with Daphne on his arm. He saw Anthony look from Daphne to him and back to where Daphne's hand was wrapped around his arm.

Anthony's eyes narrowed. He started towards them, more quickly than the crowded room really allowed for.

SImon nudged Daphne with his elbow. "About that protection you offered..."

"Hm?" said Daphne.

Simon nodded his head in Anthony's direction.

She sighted her incoming brother and sighed. "Oh, Anthony."

"Where are the other two?" Simon asked.

"They'll find us," Daphne said darkly. "And then they'll wish they hadn't."

Anthony reached them and reluctantly, Simon withdrew himself from Daphne so that he could shake his hand. "Bridgerton. How are you this evening?"

"Better now," said Anthony meaningfully. He nodded to his sister. "Daff."

"You are a ridiculous person and a terrible brother," said Daphne, leaning in to kiss his cheek. "I don't know why I put up with you."

"Hear, hear," said another voice from behind them, and Simon was more than a little surprised at his negative reaction to the apparent joy that lit up Daphne's face.

She spun around, her arms already open. "Colin!"

If the name hadn't relaxed Simon, the freakish resemblance would have. Simon watched as Daphne hugged her brother, waited as Colin and Anthony exchanged a manly embrace. Then he held out his hand. "Simon Basset."

"Colin Bridgerton," he said, shaking Simon's hand. "We've met before, I think. When you and Anthony were at Harvard."

"There are so many of you Bridgertons," Simon said, with a shake of his head. "I'm afraid I don't remember you specifically."

"That's because he's not as memorable as he thinks he is," said yet another voice. "Hello, family."

"Benedict," said Daphne with delight. "I wasn't sure if you were coming."

"The league looks askance at its nominees not coming to the awards," said Anthony. "Hello, Ben."

There were more hugs and more handshakes all the way around. Simon studied the four assembled Bridgertons.

"You all look freakishly alike," he said. "Are the rest of you like this too?"

Daphne nodded. "And none of us look like our mother. It's a constant source of irritation to her."

"Eight of you," Simon said, shaking his head. "I can't even imagine."

"I'm more interested in just one of us," Anthony said. "How did the two of you happen to meet?"

Simon looked down at Daphne, not sure how much she wanted to reveal about the Nigel situation. She shrugged and so he spoke, omitting details as he saw fit. "I needed a break from the red carpet and so stepped out into one of the exterior halls. I came across Daphne doing the same and we struck up a conversation. There was nothing sordid about it, if that's what you're thinking."

Rather than reassure them, the Bridgerton brothers seemed to grow more menacing as he spoke.

Daphne leaned closer, and spoke in a staged whisper. "You shouldn't have used the word sordid. I'm not allowed to be anywhere near it."

She turned to her brothers. "You're all ridiculous and I hate you."

"We know," said Colin. "Come sit with us anyway."

Daphne looked up at Simon. "Will we see you after the awards?"

Simon had not planned to attend any of the after parties, but the look on Anthony's face changed his mind. "Yes."

The wide smile on Daphne's face as her brothers dragged her away was all Simon needed to know he made exactly the right choice.

***

The awards themselves were boring, but Daphne hadn't expected anything else. She'd come to her first one of these when Benedict had been a rookie and was up for the Calder. It had been fun to star watch, but helping to wrangle her younger sisters and Gregory and fighting with her very first strapless dress had taken some of the luster off the evening.

Being old enough to drink helped considerably. As did watching Simon accept his NHL Foundation Award with boyish bashfulness. She hadn't known about his charity for kids with speech disorders or about his own history with stuttering. Hockey players weren't exactly known for baring their weaknesses to the world and knowing that he used his to help kids, well, it made her think even better of him.

Watching him accept, she'd elbowed Anthony in the ribs. "Why didn't you ever bring him home with you?"

Anthony had gripped the arms of his seat with white knuckles. He didn't answer her except to say, "no," and promptly went back to ignoring her.

Even now, while she was dancing with Simon among the crowd of players and their WAGs, she could feel Anthony's watching eyes on them.

She tangled her fingers in the hair that brushed against Simon's collar, both to spite her brother and because she really wanted to. "You must be so proud," she said, for what must have been the fifth time. "Simon Says sounds like it does such good work."

"Stop," he ordered, with both a blush and a laugh. "You're giving me too much credit. The people working for there are the ones who do the really important work."

"Well, if you don't want to talk about what a good person you are, you'll have to tell me something else about you," Daphne said. She almost hoped it was something terrible. The blush was far too precious for her no hockey players policy. "Do you secretly have some hidden flaw that's enough to make up for your charitable impulses, talent, wealth, and good looks?"

"Tell me more about my good looks," Simon said, spinning her out and making her laugh. He spun her back in and she caught herself against his chest. His eyes darkened as he looked down at her. "In detail."

It would be so easy for Daphne to reach up and tug his head down to hers for a life ruining kiss. It would be good between them, she knew that as surely as she knew her own name. But-- "I don't date hockey players," she blurted out.

To his credit, Simon recovered quickly. "I don't date my friend's younger sisters," he said.

Daphne smiled up at him, a little sadly. "An impasse."

"Friends then?" Simon asked, with such lightness that at least half of it had to be forced.

It was gratifying to know that this was hurting him as much as it was hurting her. And well, Daphne wasn't the type of person who ever turned down a new friend. That was mostly how she'd ended up in the situation with Nigel to begin with. But that was off the point and Simon was waiting for her answer.

"Friends," she said with a nod. "Do we shake on it?"

"I think we go back to dancing," Simon said, nudging them into doing just that. "People who aren't your brothers are beginning to look."

"Oh," said Daphne, looking around them and noticing more eyes on them than had been there before. "I hadn't noticed."

"I'd tell you how gratifying that is, but we're friends now," Simon said.

She gave him her best admonishing look.

"Sorry," said Simon, not sounding in the least bit sorry. "Female friends are new. I'm going to need lessons."

Daphne didn't laugh, though she wanted to. Instead, she shook her head and smiled just a little. "Changing the subject now. Have you decided where you're going to sign?"

"Now, Miss Daphne, you know that teams can't make contract offers until free agency has started."

Daphne let out a decidedly unladylike snort. "Sure. And?"

Simon shrugged. "I have a pretty good idea of where I want to sign. We'll see if the contract comes together."

"Is it in New York?" she asked.

Now he gave her an admonishing look.

"Oops," she said, her eyes wide with feigned innocence. "Was I not supposed to know that's why the Rangers sent Anthony out here?"

Over her shoulder, Simon caught Anthony's eyes and lifted a hand in a wave. "I'm not sure that they're getting what they wanted out of him."

"I suppose that's my fault," Daphne said.

Simon snorted. "Well, it's not mine."

"Anthony," Daphne said decisively. "When in doubt, everything can be blamed on him."

"I'm good with that," Simon said. "But in answer to your question--well, I've always looked good in blue."

That was the last they talked about it, because Colin came along to cut in and by the time Daphne could look for him again, Simon had disappeared from the party. She was sure that Anthony had something to do with it, but when she confronted him, he had sworn up and down that he hadn't even spoken with Simon, let alone threatened him with bodily harm.

It was too bad, but if Simon did end up a Ranger, Daphne would end up seeing him again soon enough. And if he wasn't, well, she knew all of Anthony's passwords and wasn't above stealing Simon's phone number.

They were going to be friends and friends had each other's phone numbers. That was Daphne's story and she was sticking to it.

***

Simon signed with the Rangers.

The team held the obligatory press conference where he held up a Rangers sweater and smiled nicely for the local media. He shook hands with the team captain and listened to the press officer praise his charitable endeavors and ask if he had any plans to expand the reach of Simon Says into New York.

Through all of it, he wondered how he was going to get Daphne Bridgerton's phone number.

He could have asked Anthony to give it to him, to be certain, but he didn't really think Anthony would and even if he did, there would probably be questions Simon wasn't prepared to answer about why exactly he wanted it so badly.

"...assistant?" asked John Stirling, one of the Rangers media liaisons. "Mr. Basset?"

"Simon," he said absently. An idea was forming, a fairly diabolical one if he did say so himself. "Did you say assistant?"

John smiled and adjusted his glasses. "We're almost done, I promise. I know that it's a lot for a first day."

"I should have been listening," Simon said. "I apologize. Assistant?"

"Do you have one? The team is happy to steer you in the direction of a local agency if yours won't be making the trip east with you. We're happy to communicate with you directly, of course, but I'm sure you'll be sick of the influx of charity invitations and the like soon enough."

"I shared one with several teammates in Denver, so no, she won't be following me to New York."

John nodded. "Would you like the number for the agency then?"

Simon leaned forward, giving John his most innocent and charming smile. "Actually, I think I might have my own lead on someone, but I seem to have misplaced her contact information."

"Who is it?" John asked, reaching for his phone. "We work with almost everyone, I'm sure I have their number."

"Daphne Bridgerton," Simon said. "What about her?"

***

There was only one hard and fast rule for dinner at Violet Bridgerton's table and it was that no cell phones were allowed.

Of course, being the 21st century, this was also a rule that her children shamelessly broke. The rule breaking seemed to move in waves with the assorted Bridgerton siblings covering for each other depending on who was home, and it was Daphne's turn to be the one to continually sliding her phone out of her skirt pocket to see if there were any new messages.

There weren't any.

Colin elbowed her from his spot next to her and leaned his head against hers. "You're going to get caught."

She turned enough so that she could glare at him effectively. "If I do, I'm telling Mom about what you were really doing when you kept getting up from the table last Christmas."

"What are you two whispering about?" asked Violet Bridgerton, from the head of the table. "Hyacinth, stop throwing your peas at Gregory."

"I didn't!" protested Hyacinth.

"You did," said Violet calmly, picking a pea off Gregory's plate and throwing it back at her youngest daughter. "Daphne?"

"Yeah, Daphne," Colin said. "What were we talking about?"

"When you're going back to Vancouver," she said with a glare. "He was thinking about heading back early to get in some training with team people, Mom."

Violet's face fell. "But Colin, you just got home!"

Colin shot Daphne a look that promised retribution. "I was just thinking about it," he assured their mother. "I'm not getting on a plane tomorrow."

Daphne's pocket vibrated. Despite knowing that Colin was waiting for a chance to throw her under the bus, she slid her phone out just far enough so she could see the message.

917-555-1234
This is Simon.

917-555-1234
Simon Basset.

917-555-1234
Would you like to meet for drinks?

"That's quite a smile on your face, Daphne," said Violet. "Something to share?"

Daphne looked up, guilty as charged. She'd never been any good at lying to her mother and there was no reason to believe she'd develop the skill in the next five seconds.

The weight of her phone disappeared from her pocket and Daphne turned her head first to Colin, who held up his hands to protest his innocence. Her head whipped to her other side. "Eloise!"

"This is Simon," Eloise read from the lock screen. "Simon Basset. Would you like to meet for drinks? He's the new Ranger, right?"

"I am going to murder you," said Daphne, through gritted teeth. "You won't miss one of us, will you, Mom?"

"Simon Basset?" asked Violet, an eager look on her face. "Why is he texting you?"

"Yes," said Anthony, suddenly menacing on the other side of the table. "Why is he texting you?"

"We're friends," Daphne said defiantly. "He just wanted to say hello now that he's here."

"And get drinks," said Violet. "You should go. Now. Immediately."

Daphne groaned. "Mother!"

"I'm just looking out for your best interest, dear," Violet said. "I remember Simon being a very nice young man."

"I don't date hockey players," Daphne said.

"Keep it that way," commanded Anthony. "It's a good policy. I approve of it."

Someone let out a low whistle. Across the table, Daphne could see Francesca and Benedict shaking their heads at Anthony.

"You approve of it?" Daphne repeated, willing to give her brother a chance to take his foot of his mouth. "Really?"

Anthony nodded, obviously not aware at all of the red flag he was waving in front of her face. "Hockey players make terrible boyfriends. Always on the road, too unavailable. You're better off."

"Right," said Daphne, standing up and setting her napkin down on the table. "May I be excused, Mom?"

"Of course, dear."

Daphne circled the table, plucking her phone from Eloise and hitting Anthony on the back of the head, before bending to kiss Violet's cheek goodbye.

"Call me tomorrow?" Violet asked.

"I will," said Daphne. She straightened and glared straight at Anthony. "I'll tell you all about getting drinks with Simon."

She bolted from the dining room to her siblings roundly mocking Anthony and Violet doing nothing to stem the tide against him. Daphne smiled to herself, despite knowing that she'd just indulged one of her mother's most closely held fantasies, that of Daphne marrying some incredibly rich man who would take care of her in the lap of luxury.

It wasn't a delusion that Daphne liked to feed, but she could be excused on account of annoying Anthony and besides she did want to meet SImon for drinks to see how he was settling in.

Make mother happy. Annoy older brother. Do what she wanted to do anyway.

She was killing three birds with one stone. She should get a medal.

She texted him back.

Me
When and where

***

Simon waited for Daphne in a Midtown bar. He'd picked the fake English pub because it seemed non-threatening, like a place where a man who wasn't trying to pick up a woman might meet someone for drinks. Of course, on the inside, it was evident that there was still plenty of that going on, but the die had been cast. It had been years since he spent any real time in Manhattan, and he didn't know anywhere else.

He took another drink of his beer and tried not to look at his phone. She had said she had to take the subway in from her mother's in Brooklyn. There was no reason for him to worry that she wasn't coming.

The door to the bar opened again and his head turned automatically toward it. Daphne was standing there in the doorway, wearing one of those ridiculous long flowy dresses and a cropped denim jacket, even though it was a million degrees outside. Her smile lit when she spotted him, and he raised his hand in greeting. She brushed aside the hostess and made her way to the bar, weaving through the crowd of people like a seasoned pro.

"Hi," she said, beaming up at him.

He slid off his barstool and offered it to her. "Hello."

She boosted herself up onto it, and let out a heavy sigh. "I almost melted on the train."

Simon barked a laugh and brushed his hand against the rough material of her coat. "And yet you're wearing long sleeves."

She waved her hand through the air. "That was for dinner with my family. My mother does not allow hoochie mamas at her dinner table."

Simon raised an eyebrow in amusement. "Why do I think that's a direct quote?"

Daphne grinned cheerfully. "Because it is." She transferred her smile to the bartender who appeared in front of her. "I'll have whatever he's drinking, please. Thanks."

The bartender nodded and Daphne looked back up at him. "So I have to ask--how did you get my number?"

Simon considered. He didn't want to sell out John, because he know that the man had the power to make his life miserable if he wanted. But he also didn't want to lie to Daphne. "Are you mad that I have it?" he asked finally, in lieu of an actual answer.

She frowned. "No. But I also don't want my number being passed around to strangers willy nilly. I'm a woman working in a very male industry. Can't be too careful."

Oh. He hadn't thought about it like that. Throwing John under the bus it was. "John Stirling, with the Rangers media office? You know him, right?"

Her face eased a little. "Yes, of course. That's fine." She patted Simon's hand. "Don't worry. I'll make him pay and he won't know why or be able to trace it back to you."

"Thank you," Simon said.

"I am really glad you texted," Daphne said softly.

Something clenched in his chest. "Daphne…"

If she felt the moment between them, she didn't show it. The stool next to her emptied, and before Simon knew what had happened, he'd been pulled down onto it.

"That's better," Daphne said. "I get enough of being loomed over at home and the rink. It's not fair how much height skates add to you giants, you know."

Simon laughed. "You're ridiculous."

She smiled back at him. "I know." She patted his hand again. "So tell me about your first day, Mister New York Ranger. How was it?"

He shrugged. "Fine. Strange. Fine."

She propped an elbow up on the bar and rested her head against it. "That strange needs unpacking, I think."

"I don't think so," he said. "Just adjusting to a new place. Well, a sort of new place. New team. New front office. Just a lot of new. I'll get over it."

"What do you mean a sort of new place?" Daphne asked, taking a drink. "Did you used to live here or something?"

"My father," he said, as briefly as he could. "I grew up in Boston with my mother."

She made a sympathetic face. "Bad divorce?"

"Something like that," he said. "I don't really talk about it."

"Fair enough," Daphne said. "What do you want to talk about instead?"

Simon counted to ten so that he didn't say the first thing that popped into his mind, namely what it would take to get her to come back to his hotel room. "The media people mentioned a lot of charity stuff over the summer."

Daphne nodded. "Nice deflection. But yes, they like to take advantage of whatever players stick around the city for training to get in some extra charitable appearances, keep interest up in the team, and all that. They want you to do some?"

"They want me to do all of them," he corrected. "I don't mind the skate with little kids or visiting hospitals part, that's just part of the gig. But fundraising dinners? Black tie events?"

She eyed him with something more than friendship. "I don't know, I think I see the appeal. I bet you look tremendous in a tuxedo."

"Daphne," he warned.

She blinked. "Right. Friends. Friends do not eye their friends like that, I imagine."

"I don't have a lot of experience with female friendship, but I'm thinking no."

"Sorry," she said. "It's just… Well, look at you."

"Look at you," he countered.

She made a face. "I'm cute. I'm not hot. There's a difference."

He frowned at her. He couldn't explain it, but the idea that she didn't know just how attractive she was was incredibly offensive to him. "Who says you're not hot?"

"Everyone?" she said. "It's fine, Simon, I made my peace with it a long time ago. We can't all be Miss Universe, right?"

"You're plenty hot," he countered. "Don't sell yourself short."

"You're sweet," she said, with a shake of her head. "But eight years of dating history tells me otherwise. Ugh, why are we talking about this." She took a long drink from her glass. "Next subject please."

Simon didn't want to leave it there, but he suspected this wasn't the moment to press. But still, this gave him an idea. He didn't want to go to every charity dinner in the city by himself. He'd seen what happened to athletes who did that, hell, he'd enjoyed the experience a time or two. But he wasn't in the mood for women trying to fuck him for his name or money. And Daphne, well, maybe if other people saw them together, more men would realize what an amazing woman they'd been missing out on.

"How would you feel about being my fake girlfriend?" he asked.

***

Daphne stared at him, certain that she hadn't heard him correctly.

Because what Simon had said was insane. Not worthy of acknowledgment. But there he sat, not taking it back, not doing anything but looking at her with utterly sincere eyes. She should turn around and leave and leave this insanity behind her where it belonged, but--

"What the fuck?" said Daphne.

Simon looked surprised. "You curse?"

Daphne resisted the urge to roll her eyes. "Three older brothers. But the cursing is what you chose to focus on?"

"What was the question again?" Simon asked, not even bothering to conceal his grin.

It was adorable, but she couldn't focus on that now. "You want me to be what?"

"Right," Simon said, nodding his head. "I should probably explain my offer, shouldn't I?"

Daphne nodded, not trusting herself to speak. There were equal chances she'd reach across the space between them and strangle him or kiss him.  

Simon angled his body closer, leaning in and eating up what personal space Daphne had left. His eyes intent on hers, he said, "It's a win-win situation. I get a date who won't grab my ass or my wallet at all the charity dinners the Rangers want me to attend and you get a bunch of men seeing you on the arm of a NHL player. Do you know what spikes men's interest more than anything, Daphne?"

"Big boobs," she said, rolling her eyes. "But I suspect you have a different answer."

"You're not wrong about the breasts, but I do," Simon said. He leaned even closer, so close that he whispered the word in her ear. "Unavailability."

Daphne frowned. "I'm supposed to want a bunch of men who couldn't be assed to notice me when I was single? Pass."

"If the men themselves don't intrigue you, what about distracting your mother? She's the marrying you off as soon as possible kind, isn't she?"

"She doesn't mean it like that," Daphne said weakly. "She just wants me to be happy."

Simon just looked at her.

Daphne sighed.

It wasn't that she didn't see any merit in Simon's proposal. She did. What he said about the assholes of his species was probably true and though she didn't need those men, there might be others at these events that she just hadn't met. As for her mother, Daphne loved her mother more than anyone on the planet, and though she understood her mother's desire to see every last one of her children in the same type of blissfully happy relationship Violet had enjoyed for too short a time, it didn't mean Daphne wanted to be pushed into anything at the ripe old age of twenty four.

She was young. There was plenty of time for marriage and family and all the things that her mother wished for her.

And yet…

"If I agreed," Daphne said slowly, still considering, "how long are we talking about?"

Simon's eyes lit and Daphne knew that she was sunk. "Just until the start of the season. Two months, two and a half tops."

"And how does it end?" she asked. "You know my brother is going to kill you, don't you?"

"However you want it to end," Simon said. "Big showy breakup, or quiet one, whatever you want."

"And Anthony?"

"I can take care of myself with your brother," Simon said. His eyes were firm on hers, the look on his face one of utter seriousness. He reached over, took her hand. "Say yes."

And god help her, she did.

***

A month after convincing Daphne that pretending to be his girlfriend was a good idea, Simon was certain it was the worst one that he had ever had.

Somehow, despite being a reasonably intelligent human being, Simon hadn't put together just how much time two people who were pretending to be in a relationship would be expected to spend together. It was his own fault; too many years spent trying to be the best player he could be and not having time for more than meaningless flings had left him without a foundation of necessary relationship knowledge. Now, it seemed like he was either working out or dealing with moving his entire life cross country or out somewhere with Daphne.

And it wasn't that he minded spending time with her. On the contrary, he enjoyed it too much for someone who was only faking their romantic interest in someone for the benefit of others.

First, she was beautiful.

Simon had spent a lot of time around beautiful women during his career and he was human, so he wasn't immune. But he was used to noticing and then dismissing it once the women opened their mouths and knew nothing about hockey. With Daphne, every time he saw her, he noticed something else about her that he couldn't forget. One day it was the ring of green around her eyes. Another it was the curve of her wrists as she spoke with her hands. And he noticed the obvious things too, the way the her waist fit into the curve of his arm and the way that she felt in his arms when they danced.

But Daphne was so much more than all of those things, and that's what Simon couldn't stop noticing.

He watched her manage her brothers across multiple time zones, always letting them think that they were in charge when really they did exactly what she wanted. He watched her help her mother with her younger siblings without ever complaining, even when Francesca called in the middle of the night wanting to know if she could crash at Daphne's place that night. She knew everyone and always remembered them and had a personal word or gesture for them, and it never seemed feigned.

There were things he didn't like, of course, like the fact that she refused to learn to skate even though three of her brothers made their living on the ice. She hated Thai food and it was his favorite. Once she found out that he hated the sight of blood, she delighted in making him watch slasher movies when they were just hanging out.

And worst of all, she was a toucher and it was driving him slowly insane.

Touching was expected, of course, since they were impersonating a couple. But the touching wasn't limited to holding hands at parties or discreet kisses when people were looking. She would reach over and touch his arm when they were at a dinner and it would feel like his skin was on fire. She had a way of standing exactly the right degree of close to him so that he couldn't not touch her and so that he could smell just the faintest trace of her perfume and want to smell it on her skin. Once, she touched his knee while they were watching a presentation about disadvantaged children and he was hard for the rest of the night. He'd had to give the charity a massive donation to make up for his totally inappropriate reaction.

In short, Simon had enjoyed every single day of the past month and it was giving him ideas that he really shouldn't be having.  And acting on them at a party for the Young Survival Coalition was probably going to send him straight to hell.

Next to him, Daphne nudged him discreetly with her elbow. "What's wrong?"

He turned his head, just enough to look at her. He smiled faintly at the look of concern on her face. "I'm fine. What did I miss while I was elsewhere?"

Daphne looked back at him with what he recognized as her stubborn face. He could tell she wanted to push, but somehow she managed to resist. Instead, she took his hand in hers and squeezed.

It undid Simon completely.

"Want to dance?" she asked.

"I think that's supposed to be my line," Simon said. He stood, drawing Daphne up with him. "And yes."

***

Dancing was a terrible idea, Daphne realized that immediately.

It wasn't that she wasn't always intensely aware of just how...male Simon was, but there was a difference between knowing when sitting next to him and knowing when she was pressed up against his body and could feel it. A very substantial difference.

"Are you alright?"

Daphne blinked and looked up. Simon was looking down at her with concern, and she mentally cursed at herself. This had been meant as an olive branch in the form of a distraction, and here she was, the one who was distracted.

"It's hot in here, isn't it?" she said inanely.

Simon manfully choked back a laugh, and she shook her head at him, laughing where he wouldn't.

It only made Daphne feel fonder things about him, and she didn't need help in that department. The past month had given her nothing but fond feelings towards Simon and that fondness was threatening to reach critical mass.

She couldn't afford to fall for her brother's teammate, but she was afraid she'd already crossed that line.

"Daphne?"

She looked up again, expecting more concern. And she saw that, yes, but she saw something more there too. Something that looked a lot like the confused mess of attraction and denial and friendship and guilt that she was all too familiar with.

And seeing that on his face, even if it was only for a second, was enough to make her bold.

"Let's get some air."

Without waiting for an answer, she took Simon's hand in hers and drew him towards the doors that let to the hotel's inner courtyard. If people were surprised at the sight of polite Daphne Bridgerton dragging a grown man through a ballroom, she didn't notice. She didn't notice anything until she'd reached her objective and taken them outside the view of prying eyes of New York's finest philanthropists.

She stopped, spinning around so that she faced Simon.

The worry had accelerated to something like panic. "Daphne, what's going--"

Daphne stopped his mouth with a kiss.

***

Daphne was kissing him.

Simon knew there were a million reasons why this was a terrible idea that started with their deal and ended with who she was, but he couldn't think of any of them. She was kissing him and it wasn't for the benefit of any of the people they were trying to fool. It was just the two of them here and she was kissing him and he wasn't stupid enough to say no to something he'd been wanting for weeks now.

He kissed her back and he put some goddamn effort into it.

Her arms around his neck, his back against a pillar. One kiss turned into another, which turned into a third. His hands dislodged the pins in her hair. Her nails dug into his back as she fought to reach skin.

When she finally did, he broke away and panted against her neck. "We have to stop."

"Stop?"

She looked distraught at the idea and he couldn't blame her. He was pretty goddamn upset at the idea himself. He kissed her again, so there wouldn't be any misunderstandings. "Not here, that's all."

Understanding dawned on her pretty face, and she kissed his throat.  "Not into exhibitionism?"

He wanted to growl, did when she used her teeth. "Not the first time I fuck you."

She shuddered in his arms and her hands came up to grip at his coat. "Which will be now." It wasn't a suggestion.

God, he was crazy about her.

"Now," he agreed, prying her hands loose and taking one of them in his. "Let's go."

He took her back to his father's penthouse apartment, where he hadn't stayed since he was in high school and his mother still made him visit once a month. He could have taken her back to the hotel room he was still living in, but she deserved better than that, even if it was a five star one. And god knew that whatever his father had lacked in basic human characteristics, the man had more than made up for in material things.

When they walked in the door, Daphne gaped.  "You have this?" she asked, sounding confused. "Simon, why--"

He didn't give her a chance to finish her question, but kissed her and lifted her in his arms to carry her back to one of the bedrooms.

***

After, Daphne curled up against Simon's chest.

It had been amazing sex, probably the best sex of her life. Maybe neither of them was very good at using their words to talk about how they felt, but they hadn't had any problems communicating with their bodies. She knew what happy relationships looked like, she'd seen it every day growing up with her parents. She knew they needed open and honest dialogue and that however good the sex was, it wasn't enough if the other pieces weren't there.

But goddammit, that had been some spectacular sex.

Still, maybe a baby step wouldn't be amiss. She lifted her head, looked up at the bottom of Simon's jaw. "Simon?"

"Yeah?" he said, sounding hesitant.

Daphne chose to believe that was because he was nervous she was going to ask for some kind of declaration, not because he had thought the sex had sucked. "Where are we?"

His chest rumbled with a laugh. "That's what you want to talk about?"

She shrugged and dropped her head back to his chest. "I've seen your hotel. It's very nice. But I don't know why you'd be living there if you had a place in the city already."

He didn't answer and Daphne had just started to worry he wouldn't when he finally spoke. "It was my dad's place. I inherited it a few years ago."

She sat straight up, stricken. "Simon, I'm so sorry."

He sighed and sat up, too. "We weren't close. We were never close. I didn't even have a room here growing up for the one weekend a month that I had to spend with him, I just stayed in the guest room."

"That's terrible," Daphne said, indignant on past-Simon's behalf. "Every kid should have a room, even if it's only theirs part time."

"My father didn't agree," Simon said. He raked his hand back through his hair, looking for a moment like a sad, lost boy. "Anyway, it's mine and I don't know what to do with it. It seems like a waste to sell it, but I can't really see myself living here either. Hence, the hotel."

Daphne scooted closer and put her head on his shoulder, craving the contact as much for his sake as her own. She wanted to cuddle this man and make his hurts go away, and if that wasn't a sign of just how far gone she was, she didn't know what was. "Maybe if you made it yours? Exorcised him from the place."

"Maybe," Simon said. He didn't sound convinced, but he didn't seem to be dismissing the idea either. It was progress enough, so she didn't push. He turned and brushed a kiss against the top of her head. "You're too good for me, Daphne Bridgerton."

Daphne thought she should be the one to decide that, but that Simon probably wasn't in the mood to hear it.

But even if they were done with sharing for the night, there still was the really great sex to consider. She swung a leg across his lap, straddling his thighs. She leaned in, brushing against him in all of the most interesting places she could. "Simon?"

He didn't look up from her breasts. "Yeah?"

"Want to have sex again?"

In a sneaky move that befit the hockey player that he was, Daphne found herself flat on her back before she knew what had happened.

She laughed as he kissed her, and there was no more talk of inheritances or exorcisms.

***

Fake girlfriend sex was pretty fucking great, Simon discovered.

For a month, he and Daphne kept up their careful public appearances, both for the charity events that had started it all and around her friends and family. They'd had to tell Anthony what they were up to before his head exploded, but the rest of the Bridgertons all were convinced by their act. Simon certainly knew that Violet Bridgerton was convinced that he was head over heels for her daughter--and Simon wasn't sure she was wrong.

Sometimes he caught Daphne looking at him with an expression in her eyes that he couldn't read; he thought it looked a lot like the way that he looked at her when she wasn't looking at him. But they never talked about it.

Instead, when they were done pretending in public, they'd go back to his apartment and do an entirely different type of pretending.

Nothing about the way they touched each other was fake. But despite that, they never managed to escape the ruse they were pulling over on everyone else. It was always there between them, hovering over them, clouding every moment they shared.

Simon didn't know how to move past it.

Just before the start of training camp, the Rangers threw a party at Madison Square Garden for corporate sponsors. Players were expected to attend and to be on their very best behavior and gladhand the suits who knew nothing about the game they were helping to pay for.

Wives and girlfriends were encouraged to attend. It helped soften their image, the team said.

Simon didn't give a fuck about softening anything. He brought Daphne anyway.

The party was every bit as boring as Simon had expected, but she helped make it bearable. Where he wanted to glower, she smiled. When he wanted to hit someone for asking what icing was, Daphne jumped in with an understanding nod. And whenever she sensed he was at a boiling point, she would reach over and take his hand or squeeze his arm or lean in for a kiss.

Something about the night was making Simon itchy, and he didn't know what it was. This wasn't any different from any of the other nights he and Daphne had spent doing the charity circuit that summer, but--

That was it.

They'd agreed to a fake relationship for the summer and it was almost fall. The season would start soon and there would be no more reason for them to spend all their time together. No reason except that was all that Simon wanted to do and he was almost certain that Daphne felt the same way.

"Excuse us," he said to the couple in front of them, not caring at all if they were offended. He grabbed Daphne's hand and dragged her down the tunnel, towards the locker rooms.

"Simon!" Daphne said, when he finally stopped in the main dressing area. Her hands fisted at her sides, she looked up at him. She looked baffled. She looked angry. She looked hot. "What the--"

He kissed her, and it wasn't nice. It was a kiss filled with months of frustration and feelings that he hadn't wanted to have or admit to. He hauled her against him, wrapping his arms tight enough around her that she'd have had no chance to escape even if she'd been trying, which she wasn't.

She was kissing him back in exactly the same way he was kissing her, her hands pulling at his clothes, seeking skin. She moved closer, pushed him back, until he was sitting in one of the lockers, Daphne in his lap.

She stripped him of his shirt. He pushed her skirt up, so that he could fill his hands with her perfect ass. She groaned, as he stroked her, and she fumbled with his belt buckle.

Nothing existed but them and what they were doing. Simon's senses were full of Daphne and there wasn't room for anything else.

Neither of them heard the tour group come down the tunnel. Neither of them knew that her brother was the player showing off the team facilities to a very easily offended team shareholder.

There was a crash, and something shattered.

Simon and Daphne split apart, both of them reacting in horror to the disapproving faces that greeted them. Simon tucked Daphne behind him, trying to move her out of the sight of prying eyes, especially those of Anthony.

It was a futile gesture, because as soon as his sister was out of the way, Anthony was moving forward, his hands already balled into fists. "Why you--"

Simon held up his hands, trying to placate him. "It's not what you--"

Anthony punched him in the jaw.

***

Daphne stopped trying to right her clothes and inserted herself between her brother and Simon. "What do you think you're doing, Anthony Bridgerton?"

His eyes spitting fire, Anthony didn't even look at her, which only made Daphne angrier. "Just for show? What was that you told me, Basset?"

"Anthony," Daphne hissed, cognizant of the many prying eyes still in the dressing room, none of whom seemed to show the slightest inclination to leave. "Shut up."

Now Anthony looked at her. "I'm your older brother. Am I just supposed to watch this--" he seemed to struggle to find the right word to describe how bad a person Simon was "--degenerate put his hands all over you and not do anything about it?"

"Yes! I'm an adult. And it's none of your business."

Simon put his hand on her shoulder and if Anthony could have incinerated it with a glare, he would have.

"I don't need your protection, Daff," Simon said.

Anthony snorted. "But it's convenient, isn't it?"

"You're supposed to be friends," Daphne said. "You morons." She looked up at Simon, as furious with his reaction as she was with Anthony's. They should have been in this together, but he was all but offering himself up to Anthony's anger as a sacrificial lamb.  "You're going to let him hit you again, aren't you?"

"It's what I deserve," Simon said simply. "Bridgerton--"

It was all the she could stand.

Daphne hit him and she walked away.

***

Matters only declined from there.

Simon and Anthony were escorted to the press office, and left there to cool their heels like a pair of naughty schoolboys.

He made one attempt to apologize further to Anthony, but Anthony cut him off and refused to listen. It made Simon want to hit him, but he was pretty sure that if any more punches were thrown, he'd be traded immediately.

Instead, he focused on Daphne.

To say that this was bad was an understatement. All he wanted to do was show up at her apartment and make her listen to him, but he was also sure that if he did that, he'd ruin whatever chance he had left with her after this. And he wanted that chance, he wanted that chance more than he'd wanted almost anything in his life, maybe more than anything.

Right now, in this moment, he wanted Daphne more than he wanted hockey and that wasn't a thing he'd ever felt before.

The door to the office they were being held in opened, and Agatha Danbury, head of PR walked in looking like an incredibly pissed off avenging angel.

"You unbelievably moronic jackasses," she started, first pointing a finger at Simon, and then at Anthony. "What the ever loving hell were you thinking?"

Simon and Anthony traded glances, and she held up a hand. "Don't answer that. I don't care what you were thinking. I don't care what you are thinking right this minute. What I care about is how you're going to fix this for me." She glared at them. "Ask me how you're going to fix it."

Simon jumped out in front of Anthony, because he was at least going to get this part right. "How?"

She actually cackled. "Since you two apparently can't stand each other, we're going to use that to raise money for the Garden of Dreams Foundation. I'm thinking some sort of competition to show off just how stupid you are. I'll figure out the details tomorrow. Just know that whatever I want, you're going to do and neither one of you is going to complain about it. Understand me?"

"Yes, ma'am," said Anthony.

"Yes, ma'am," said Simon.

"Good," she said. "Now get the fuck out of my office before I throw things at you for being so goddamn stupid."

Simon did not need to be told twice. He bolted from the office, Anthony hot on his heels.

When they were free, he looked sideways at his oldest friend. He thought he should probably try again, even if it was hopeless. "Bridgerton--"

"Save it," Anthony said. "And stay away from my sister."

He stalked away, leaving Simon standing there alone. He should do what Anthony wanted, he knew that. It was the right thing to do for the sake of the team and for a friendship that had spanned a decade. But it was also the only thing that Simon knew with complete certainty that he couldn't do.

He loved her.

He sure as hell wasn't walking away from Daphne now, and he didn't give one good goddamn if Anthony didn't like it. The only thing that mattered was finding a way to convince Daphne that he meant it and that she shouldn't walk away from him.

Because that was an outcome he wasn't willing to accept, not under any circumstances. And if there was one thing Simon had going for him it was sheer and utter stubbornness. He might as well use it to his advantage.

***

Eloise and Francesca were waiting for Daphne when she got home, along with red wine and Ben & Jerry's.

Daphne blanched when she saw them sitting on her couch. "It's out already?"

Her sisters traded ominous looks. Daphne groaned, and sank down onto the couch in between them.

"There's a blog post," said Eloise, an apologetic look on her face.

"It's vague, though," Francesca countered. "It doesn't really say anything."

"Just that Simon and Anthony got in a fight," Eloise said. "Nothing about you."

"No pictures," Francesca said reassuringly. "Just the blog post. And really, it wasn't even long enough to be that. Like, two lines. Tops."

Daphne sighed, heavily. Pictures had been her biggest concern. Nothing like literally having your ass out on the internet. She would have had to change her name and move to another continent. "That's something anyway." She accepted the glass of wine that Eloise handed her and drank heavily. "No more fancy parties for Daphne."

"You liked the fancy parties, though," said Eloise. She handed Daphne a spoon next and Francesca handed her a pint of Chunky Monkey.

"She liked Simon," Francesca said. She looked sideways at her sister. "Still likes him, I think."

"Oh, I think it's gone well beyond like," Eloise argued. "If she's not in love with him, I'll actually eat what Gregory makes for dinner next time it's his turn to cook."

They all shuddered. It was a horrifying prospect, since their brother was still learning how to cook and believed that ketchup covered up all mistakes.

"I'm going to hold you to that," Francesca threatened. She nudged Daphne in the side. "I have a witness."

"Yes, but I'm not going to need to torture myself, because she is." Eloise nudged her now. "Admit it."

Daphne drank more wine and set the ice cream on the coffee table untouched. "Yes."

She felt her sisters looking at her behind her head. She laughed and rested her head on Eloise's shoulder.

"Aw," said Eloise, patting Daphne's shoulder. "It's going to be okay."

"We're pretty sure he loves you too," Francesca said. She put her around Daphne's other shoulder. "He texted us, you know."

Daphne sat straight up. "What?"

Francesca nodded. "He wanted to make sure you got home safe. I don't know how he got our numbers."

"I'm pretty sure mom gave him the Bridgerton family phone tree at some point," Eloise said. "She is… invested."

Daphne laughed. "That's a nice word for it. Obsessed, would be another."

"She cares about you," said Francesca diplomatically. "And we thank you for it, because it means she doesn't have time to focus on our love lives."

"I'm so glad that my misfortune is to your advantage, Frannie," said Daphne, rolling her eyes at her sister.

Francesca beamed and hugged her. "You're our very favorite older sister, Daff."

Daphne groaned at the joke. She wasn't sure what was more hopeless, her family or being in love with an idiot. "What am I going to do?"

"About Simon or about mom?" Eloise asked.

As one, Francesca and Daphne turned to glare at her.

Eloise shrugged, not at all sorry. "I'm just saying, there's different advice to be had depending on which problem she's trying to solve."

"I'm not sure there's actually a way to solve mom," Daphne said.

Francesca nodded. "So, Simon then."

"Go to his place, call him an idiot, jump his bones, slip in the part about you being in love and wanting to marry him and have his babies when you're post-coital," said Eloise, with a shrug. "He's a man. He won't know what hit him."

Daphne narrowed her eyes at her sister. "And you would know this how? Have you been keeping secrets, Eloise?"

"Sadly, no," Eloise said, looking mournful. "But I read a lot."

Francesca laughed, stopped at Daphne's pointed look. "She was funny!"

"No jokes when Daphne's in crisis, got it," Eloise said. "I stand by my suggestion, though. What doesn't work about it?"

"I don't know how he feels about me," Daphne said. She picked at the fuzz on the couch, avoiding both her sister's eyes. "What if he doesn't love me back?"

"Then he's a moron and we come back with ice cream and wine," Francesca said.

She hugged Daphne from one side, and Eloise hugged her from the other.  

"Tell him, Daff," Francesca whispered in her ear. "It'll be okay."

And somehow, despite Francesca being the younger sister, the one who normally came to Daphne for advice about life and men, Daphne believed her.

***

When Simon woke up the next day, it was to his phone blaring and the worst hangover he'd had since his one year in college.

He groaned and buried his head in the pillow while trying to stop the phone from ringing. He answered it instead.

"Get up, Basset," came Agatha Danbury's crisp voice. "I need you at the rink, ASAP. I've figured out how you and Bridgerton are going to fix this little PR crisis for me."

"Ug-m," mumbled Simon.

"Noon, Basset," said Agatha. "Any later than that, and I start running up fines. Hate to have you lose that nice signing bonus so soon."

She hung up and Simon went back to sleep.

***

The next day, fortified by Chunky Monkey and cabernet and her sisters all piling into her bed and hogging the covers just like they were teenagers again, Daphne set out from her apartment with a plan.

Step one of the plan involved going to Anthony's to yell at him for not remembering that she was an adult who got to sleep with whoever she damn well wanted to. When she got to his building, she smiled her nicest smile at the doorman and went to check in at the desk.

"I'm here to see my brother, Carl," she said. "Is he home?"

"Sorry, Daphne," he said. "Took off like a bat out of hell about 30 minutes ago. I think he had us get him a cab to go to the rink. Maybe he was late for practice?"

Daphne frowned. It was team physical day and Anthony had already done his, so she wasn't sure why he'd have needed to do in.

"That's strange," she said, more to herself than to Carl.

He shrugged. "Want to go up and wait?"

"No, that's alright. Don't tell him I stopped by, will you? I have a surprise for him."

"My lips are sealed," said Carl. "Have a good one."

Dismissed, Daphne pulled out her phone and headed for the door. She blinked in surprise at the number of missed texts in the five minutes since she'd put it away.

She scrolled through them with increasing confusion. All seemed to say some variation of get to the rink immediately and had no details as to why. She was about to call Eloise to demand an explanation, when the google alert that she'd set with her name went off.

NEW YORK RANGERS TEAM FEUD OVER CAPTAIN'S SISTER?

Daphne swore, and clicked on the link. By the time she finished reading, she was running for the subway.

***

"I feel like an idiot," Simon muttered.

He stood in the tunnel at Madison Square Garden, with Anthony next to him. They were both dressed in inflatable sumo wrestling suits and were waiting for their cue to go on and entertain a herd of children that Danbury had scrounged up from god knew where. Of course, accompanying them, were plenty of cameras and press, because god forbid, they do anything without getting the team plenty of fawning coverage for their charitable endeavors.

Simon knew that he deserved this, knew too that this was getting off easy compared to what Danbury could have come up with. But that didn't mean he had to relish the opportunity to make an ass out of himself in front of a rink full of complete strangers. Especially since he could have been using this time to fix things with Daphne.

"You look like one," said Anthony.

Simon glared. "What does that make you?"

"It makes the pair of you no better than elementary school children," scolded Agatha Danbury. "Really, boys? You're supposed to be professional hockey players. Shouldn't you have better insults than that?"

Simon didn't care for the fact that she had a point.

When neither of them responded, she clapped her hands together and said, "Any last minute questions? Remember, nothing that can cause permanent damage and at the end you have to shake hands and smile and play nice for the cameras. I am not starting the season with rumors that our captain and our new star acquisition are at odds."

Simon nodded. Anthony nodded.

"Good," said Agatha. "Now get your asses out there already."

She smacked them both on their padded costume behinds and with a final glare at each other, they went down the tunnel, jostling each other all the while. When they made it to the makeshift ring, they had to be helped up onto the platform, Simon to one corner and Anthony to the other.

In the middle of the ring, the team president stood dressed as referee. "Ready, boys? We're doing five rounds, first one to knock the other down wins the round. We want a good clean fight here, understand?"

They both nodded again and the president raised the tiny bullhorn that was to signal the start and end of rounds. "On your marks. One, two--"

"Waaaaaaaaaaaaait," came a yell from the tunnel.

Simon's head swiveled. He knew that voice.

It was Daphne.

***

Daphne raced down the players tunnel, not sure what she was going to see when she hit the floor. None of the blog pieces knew what Simon and Anthony were going to be facing off doing, just that they were doing it. And she knew her brother, and she knew Simon, and she knew that with both of them in the moods that they were in, them competing over anything was likely to end in blood and tears, with both of them doing that in equal measure.

She reached the rink. She stared.

Through her fight to get to Madison Square Garden, she thought she'd prepared herself for whatever form of competition that the team might have decided on from a chess match to a cook-off to one-on-one basketball. Sumo wrestling had never crossed her mind.

She started to laugh and she couldn't make herself stop, even as she kept walking towards the ring. Oh god, how was she going to talk when there were tears running down her face from how hard she was laughing?

"Daphne?" said Simon. He looked worried, which was absurd considering what he looked like. "Are you okay?"

Helpless, she lifted a hand to point at him, then at Anthony, and she only laughed harder.

"You--" she managed. She doubled over. "Sumo!"

Anthony looked annoyed at her. Simon seemed to have moved on to relieved that she was talking to him at all.

The team president, on the other hand, was all business. "Miss Bridgerton, we're in the middle of something there. So if you don't mind?"

It was phrased as a question, but obviously wasn't, and it was what Daphne needed to sober up.

"Just one second," she said, and she boosted herself into the ring. She took Simon's hands in hers and looked him in the eye. "I love you. I want to be with you for real. What do you want?"

"Daphne--" protested Anthony from behind her.

She didn't take her eyes off Simon. "I also don't care what my idiot brother wants. What do you want, Simon?"

Slowly, miraculously, a smile bloomed on Simon's face. "I want to not be wearing this dumb suit."

She almost growled at him.

"And you," he said quickly. "Did I forget to say that part?"

The crowd yelled, "You did!"

Daphne laughed again, and then she was trying to kiss Simon despite not being able to reach him. Together, they fell to the floor of the ring, both of them laughing and trying to reach the other.

The crowd cheered, just like they'd scored a goal.

And Daphne knew that they had.

***

Rumor has it that former UHHP Simon Basset and his girlfriend of nearly a year, Daphne Bridgerton, are looking to make things official after the NHL playoffs come to an end. Despite  worries that there would be on the ice conflict with Daphne's brother and Ranger captain, Anthony Bridgerton, the team has outperformed their pre-season expectations and find themselves on the verge of the Stanley Cup Finals.

All of this leads this author to wonder, which would get a bigger party from Clan Bridgerton: a Stanley Cup or an engagement? Watch this space to find out.

~ Excerpted from Sources Say, The New York Post