The marriage of the season seems to have gone sour. The Duchess of Hastings (formerly Miss Bridgerton) returned to London nearly two months ago, and This Author has seen neither hide nor hair of her new husband, the duke.
Rumor has it that he is not at Clyvedon, where the once happy couple took their honeymoon. Indeed, This Author cannot find anyone who professes to know his whereabouts. (If her grace knows, she is not telling, and furthermore, one rarely has the opportunity to ask, as she has shunned the company of all except her rather large and extensive family.)
It is, of course, This Author’s place and indeed duty to speculate on the source of such rifts, but This Author must confess that even she is baffled. They seemed so very much in love . . .
LADY WHISTLEDOWN’S SOCIETY PAPERS, 2 August 1813
The trip took two days, which was two days longer than Simon would have liked to be alone with his thoughts. He’d brought a few books to read, hoping to keep himself distracted during the tedious journey, but whenever he managed to open one it sat unread in his lap.
It was difficult to keep his mind off Daphne.
It was even more difficult to keep his mind off the prospect of fatherhood.
Once he reached London, he gave his driver instructions to take him directly to Bridgerton House. He was travel-weary, and probably could use a change of clothing, but he’d done nothing for the past two days but play out his upcoming confrontation with Daphne—it seemed foolish to put it off any longer than he had to.
Once admitted to Bridgerton House, however, he discovered that Daphne wasn’t there.
“What do you mean,” Simon asked in a deadly voice, not particularly caring that the butler had done little to earn his ire, “the duchess isn’t here?”
The butler took his deadly voice and raised him one curled upper lip. “I mean, your grace”—this was not said with particular graciousness—“that she is not in residence.”
“I have a letter from my wife—” Simon thrust his hand into his pocket, but—damn it—didn’t come up with the paper. “Well, I have a letter from her somewhere,” he grumbled. “And it specifically states that she has removed herself to London.”
“And she has, your grace.”
“Then where the hell is she?” Simon ground out.
The butler merely raised a brow. “At Hastings House, your grace.”
Simon clamped his mouth shut. There was little more humiliating than being bested by a butler.
“After all,” the butler continued, clearly enjoying himself now, “she is married to you, is she not?”
Simon glared at him. “You must be quite secure in your position.”
Simon gave him a brief nod (since he couldn’t quite bring himself to thank the man) and stalked off, feeling very much like a fool. Of course Daphne would have gone to Hastings House. She hadn’t left him, after all; she just wanted to be near her family.
If he could have kicked himself on the way back to the carriage, he would have done so.
Once inside, however, he did kick himself. He lived just across Grosvenor Square from the Bridgertons. He could have walked across the blasted green in half the time.
Time, however, proved not to be particularly of the essence, because when he swung open the door to Hastings House and stomped into the hall, he discovered that his wife was not at home.
“She’s riding,” Jeffries said.
Simon stared at his butler in patent disbelief. “She’s riding?” he echoed.
“Yes, your grace,” Jeffries replied. “Riding. On a horse.”
Simon wondered what the penalty was for strangling a butler. “Where,” he bit off, “did she go?”
“Hyde Park, I believe.”
Simon’s blood began to pound, and his breath grew uneven. Riding? Was she bloody insane? She was pregnant, for God’s sake. Even he knew that pregnant women weren’t supposed to ride.
“Have a horse saddled for me,” Simon ordered. “Immediately.”
“Any particular horse?” Jeffries inquired.
“A fast one,” Simon snapped. “And do it now. Or better yet, I’ll do it.” With that, he turned on his heel and marched out of the house.
But about halfway to the stables, his panic seeped from his blood to his very bones, and Simon’s determined stride turned into a run.
It wasn’t the same as riding astride, Daphne thought, but at least she was going fast.
In the country, when she’d been growing up, she’d always borrowed Colin’s breeches and joined her brothers on their hell-for-leather rides. Her mother usually suffered an attack of the vapors every time she saw her eldest daughter return covered with mud, and quite frequently sporting a new and startling bruise, but Daphne hadn’t cared. She hadn’t cared where they were riding to or what they were riding from. It had all been about speed.
In the city, of course, she couldn’t don breeches and thus was relegated to the sidesaddle, but if she took her horse out early enough, when fashionable society was still abed, and if she made certain to limit herself to the more remote areas of Hyde Park, she could bend over her saddle and urge her horse to a gallop. The wind whipped her hair out of its bun and stung her eyes to tears, but at least it made her forget.
Atop her favorite mare, tearing across the fields, she felt free. There was no better medicine for a broken heart.
She’d long since ditched her groom, pretending she hadn’t heard him when he’d yelled, “Wait! Your grace! Wait!”
She’d apologize to him later. The grooms at Bridgerton House were used to her antics and well aware of her skill atop a horse. This new man—one of her husband’s servants—would probably worry.
Daphne felt a twinge of guilt—but only a twinge. She needed to be alone. She needed to move fast.
She slowed down as she reached a slightly wooded area and took a deep breath of the crisp autumn air. She closed her eyes for a moment, letting the sounds and smells of the park fill her senses. She thought of a blind man she’d once met, who’d told her that the rest of his senses had grown sharper since he’d lost his sight. As she sat there and inhaled the scents of the forest, she thought he might be right.
She listened hard, first identifying the high-pitched chirp of the birds, then the soft, scurrying feet of the squirrels as they hoarded nuts for the winter. Then—
She frowned and opened her eyes. Damn. That was definitely the sound of another rider approaching.
Daphne didn’t want company. She wanted to be alone with her thoughts and her pain, and she certainly didn’t want to have to explain to some well-meaning society member why she was alone in the park. She listened again, identified the location of the oncoming rider, and took off in the other direction.
She kept her horse to a steady trot, thinking that if she just got out of the other rider’s way, he’d pass her by. But whichever way she went, he seemed to follow.
She picked up speed, more speed than she should have in this lightly wooded area. There were too many low branches and protruding tree roots. But now Daphne was starting to get scared. Her pulse pounded in her ears as a thousand horrifying questions rocked through her head.
What if this rider wasn’t, as she’d originally supposed, a member of the ton? What if he was a criminal? Or a drunk? It was early; there was no one about. If Daphne screamed, who would hear her? Was she close enough to her groom? Had he stayed put where she’d left him or had he tried to follow? And if he had, had he even gone in the right direction?
Her groom! She nearly cried out in relief. It had to be her groom. She swung her mare around to see if she could catch a glimpse of the rider. The Hastings livery was quite distinctly red; surely she’d be able to see if—
Every bit of air was violently forced from her body as a branch caught her squarely in the chest. A strangled grunt escaped her lips, and she felt her mare moving forward without her. And then she was falling . . . falling . . .
She landed with a bone-jarring thud, the autumn brown leaves on the ground providing scant cushioning. Her body immediately curled into a fetal position, as if by making herself as small as possible, she could make the hurt as small as possible.
And, oh God, she hurt. Damn it, she hurt everywhere. She squeezed her eyes shut and concentrated on breathing. Her mind flooded with curses she’d never dared speak aloud. But it hurt. Bloody hell, it hurt to breathe.
But she had to. Breathe. Breathe, Daphne, she ordered. Breathe. Breathe. You can do it.
Daphne made no response. The only sounds she seemed able to make were whimpers. Even groans were beyond her capability.
“Daphne! Christ above, Daphne!”
She heard someone jump off a horse, then felt movement in the leaves around her.
“Simon?” she whispered in disbelief. It made no sense that he was here, but it was his voice. And even though she still hadn’t pried her eyes open, it felt like him. The air changed when he was near.
His hands touched her lightly, checking for broken bones. “Tell me where it hurts,” he said.
“Everywhere,” she gasped.
He swore under his breath, but his touch remained achingly gentle and soothing. “Open your eyes,” he ordered softly. “Look at me. Focus on my face.”
She shook her head. “I can’t.”
She heard him strip off his gloves, and then his warm fingers were on her temples, smoothing away the tension. He moved to her eyebrows, then the bridge of her nose. “Shhhh,” he crooned. “Let it go. Just let the pain go. Open your eyes, Daphne.”
Slowly, and with great difficulty, she did so. Simon’s face filled her vision, and for the moment she forgot everything that had happened between them, everything but the fact that she loved him, and he was here, and he was making the hurt go away.
“Look at me,” he said again, his voice low and insistent. “Look at me and don’t take your eyes off of mine.”
She managed the tiniest of nods. She focused her eyes on his, letting the intensity of his gaze hold her still.
“Now, I want you to relax,” he said. His voice was soft but commanding, and it was exactly what she needed. As he spoke, his hands moved across her body, checking for breaks or sprains.
His eyes never once left hers.
Simon kept speaking to her in low, soothing tones as he examined her body for injuries. She didn’t appear to have suffered anything worse than a few bad bruises and having the wind knocked out of her, but one could never be too careful, and with the baby . . .
The blood drained from his face. In his panic for Daphne, he’d forgotten all about the child she was carrying. His child.
“Daphne,” he said slowly. Carefully. “Do you think you’re all right?”
“Are you still in pain?”
“Some,” she admitted, swallowing awkwardly as she blinked. “But it’s getting better.”
“Are you certain?”
She nodded again.
“Good,” he said calmly. He was silent for several seconds and then he fairly yelled, “What in God’s name did you think you were doing?”
Daphne’s jaw dropped, and her eyelids started opening and closing with great rapidity. She made a strangled sort of sound that might have metamorphosed into an actual word, but Simon cut her off with more bellows.
“What the hell were you doing out here with no groom? And why were you galloping here, where the terrain clearly does not allow it?” His eyebrows slammed together. “And for the love of God, woman, what were you doing on a horse?”
“Riding?” Daphne answered weakly.
“Don’t you even care about our child? Didn’t you give even a moment’s thought to its safety?”
“Simon,” Daphne said, her voice very small.
“A pregnant woman shouldn’t even get within ten feet of a horse! You should know better.”
When she looked at him her eyes looked old. “Why do you care?” she asked flatly. “You didn’t want this baby.”
“No, I didn’t, but now that it’s here I don’t want you to kill it.”
“Well, don’t worry.” She bit her lip. “It’s not here.”
Simon’s breath caught. “What do you mean?”
Her eyes flitted to the side of his face. “I’m not pregnant.”
“You’re—” He couldn’t finish the sentence. The strangest feeling sank into his body. He didn’t think it was disappointment, but he wasn’t quite sure. “You lied to me?” he whispered.
She shook her head fiercely as she sat up to face him. “No!” she cried. “No, I never lied. I swear. I thought I’d conceived. I truly thought I had. But—” She choked on a sob, and squeezed her eyes shut against an onslaught of tears. She hugged her legs to her body and pressed her face against her knees.
Simon had never seen her like this, so utterly stricken with grief. He stared at her, feeling agonizingly helpless. All he wanted was to make her feel better, and it didn’t much help to know that he was the cause of her pain. “But what, Daff?” he asked.
When she finally looked up at him, her eyes were huge, and full of grief. “I don’t know. Maybe I wanted a child so badly that I somehow willed my courses away. I was so happy last month.” She let out a shaky breath, one that teetered precariously on the edge of a sob. “I waited and waited, even got my woman’s padding ready, and nothing happened.”
“Nothing?” Simon had never heard of such a thing.
“Nothing.” Her lips trembled into a faintly self-mocking smile. “I’ve never been so happy in my life to have nothing happen.”
“Did you feel queasy?”
She shook her head. “I felt no different. Except that I didn’t bleed. But then two days ago . . .”
Simon laid his hand on hers. “I’m sorry, Daphne.”
“No you’re not,” she said bitterly, yanking her hand away. “Don’t pretend something you don’t feel. And for God’s sake, don’t lie to me again. You never wanted this baby.” She let out a hollow, brittle laugh. “This baby? Good God, I talk as if it ever actually existed. As if it were ever more than a product of my imagination.” She looked down, and when she spoke again, her voice was achingly sad. “And my dreams.”
Simon’s lips moved several times before he managed to say, “I don’t like to see you so upset.”
She looked at him with a combination of disbelief and regret. “I don’t see how you could expect anything else.”
“I—I—I—” He swallowed, trying to relax his throat, and finally he just said the only thing in his heart. “I want you back.”
She didn’t say anything. Simon silently begged her to say something, but she didn’t. And he cursed at the gods for her silence, because it meant that he would have to say more.
“When we argued,” he said slowly, “I lost control. I—I couldn’t speak.” He closed his eyes in agony as he felt his jaw tighten. Finally, after a long and shaky exhale, he said, “I hate myself like that.”
Daphne’s head tilted slightly as furrows formed in her brow. “Is that why you left?”
He nodded once.
“It wasn’t about—what I did?”
His eyes met hers evenly. “I didn’t like what you did.”
“But that wasn’t why you left?” she persisted.
There was a beat of silence, and then he said, “It wasn’t why I left.”
Daphne hugged her knees to her chest, pondering his words. All this time she’d thought he’d abandoned her because he hated her, hated what she’d done, but in truth, the only thing he hated was himself.
She said softly, “You know I don’t think less of you when you stammer.”
“I think less of myself.”
She nodded slowly. Of course he would. He was proud and stubborn, and all the ton looked up to him. Men curried his favor, women flirted like mad. And all the while he’d been terrified every time he’d opened his mouth.
Well, maybe not every time, Daphne thought as she gazed into his face. When they were together, he usually spoke so freely, answered her so quickly that she knew he couldn’t possibly be concentrating on every word.
She put her hand on his. “You’re not the boy your father thought you were.”
“I know that,” he said, but his eyes didn’t meet hers.
“Simon, look at me,” she gently ordered. When he did, she repeated her words.“You’re not the boy your father thought you were.”
“I know that,” he said again, looking puzzled and maybe just a bit annoyed.
“Are you sure?” she asked softly.
“Damn it, Daphne, I know—” His words tumbled into silence as his body began to shake. For one startling moment, Daphne thought he was going to cry. But the tears that pooled in his eyes never fell, and when he looked up at her, his body shuddering, all he said was, “I hate him, Daphne. I h-h-h—”
She moved her hands to his cheeks and turned his face to hers, forcing him to meet her steady gaze. “That’s all right,” she said. “It sounds as if he was a horrid man. But you have to let it go.”
“You can. It’s all right to have anger, but you can’t let that be the ruling factor in your life. Even now, you’re letting him dictate your choices.”
Simon looked away.
Daphne’s hands dropped from his face, but she made sure they rested on his knees. She needed this connection. In a strange way she feared that if she let go of him right now she’d lose him forever. “Did you ever stop to wonder if you wanted a family? If you wanted a child of your own? You’d be such a wonderful father, Simon, and yet you won’t even let yourself consider the notion. You think you’re getting your revenge, but you’re really just letting him control you from the grave.”
“If I give him a child, he wins,” Simon whispered.
“No, if you give yourself a child, you win.” She swallowed convulsively. “We all win.”
Simon said nothing, but she could see his body shaking.
“If you don’t want a child because you don’t want one, that’s one thing. But if you deny yourself the joy of fatherhood because of a dead man, then you’re a coward.”
Daphne winced as the insult crossed her lips, but it had to be said. “At some point you’ve got to leave him behind and live your own life. You’ve got to let go of the anger and—”
Simon shook his head, and his eyes looked lost and hopeless. “Don’t ask me to do that. It’s all I had. Don’t you see, it’s all I had?”
“I don’t understand.”
His voice rose in volume. “Why do you think I learned to speak properly? What do you think drove me? It was anger. It was always anger, always to show him.”
A bubble of mocking laughter erupted from his throat. “Isn’t that just too amusing? I hate him. I hate him so much, and yet he’s the one reason I’ve managed to succeed.”
Daphne shook her head. “That’s not true,” she said fervently, “you would have succeeded no matter what. You’re stubborn and brilliant, and I know you. You learned to speak because of you, not because of him.” When he said nothing, she added in a soft voice, “If he’d shown you love, it would have made it all the easier.”
Simon started to shake his head, but she cut him off by taking his hand and squeezing it. “I was shown love,” she whispered. “I knew nothing but love and devotion when I was growing up. Trust me, it makes everything easier.”
Simon sat very still for several minutes, the only sound the low whoosh of his breath as he fought to control his emotions. Finally, just when Daphne was beginning to fear she’d lost him, he looked up at her with shattered eyes.
“I want to be happy,” he whispered.
“You will be,” she vowed, wrapping her arms around him. “You will be.”
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