Simon Basset first meets Daphne Bridgerton when he is sixteen and she is twelve.
Anthony, her eldest brother and his roommate at Harrow, eyes Simon from across the library table, where they have their chemistry texts alongside their Latin workbooks.
“You aren’t going home for the hols, yeah?” he asks Simon.
Simon shakes his head mutely. No force on earth could force him to see his father. Their distant, tortured relationship stems from acute emotional distance, derision of a simple developmental vocal stutter, and a generational difference which felt epic. His father, the current Duke of Hastings, had been 47 when Simon was born. It was like communicating with bloody Prince Philip.
No, Simon, at the ripe age of sixteen, had a strong sense already that he and his father were never going to get on.
Anthony nods once, decisively. “Well, you’ll come back with me, then.”
And that is that. Anthony Bridgerton is a demanding bloke.
Simon enters the Bridgerton house armed with facts and photos of each sibling. He is not prepared for just how busy and warm and bright and loud the house is. Violet Bridgerton handles the ebbs and flows of her eight children with grace, wit, and a touch of firm tartness. The brothers immediately take him out to the yard for a football scrimmage every morning.
It’s here he meets Daphne, fearless and determined to play.
“You can’t stop me!” she calls to Anthony, moving the football clumsily between her feet. Her dark hair swings behind her in a ponytail. Simon grins to himself as Anthony frowns. It’s the first time he’s seen his friend cowed. He can’t help but enjoy it.
Daphne throws herself into the scrimmage as she does anything she’s asked to. It’s a Bridgerton trait, to jump head first, all in, damn the consequences. She plays as hard as any of them, though none of them will ever be good. Eloise, the next-oldest at ten, jumps in too, and it’s not long until the lawn is a melee of footballs and limbs. Simon never had a childhood like this, and he’s in awe.
That is, he’s in awe until Daphne takes his legs out from under him in a dive as he’s trying to pass to Benedict. The two of them fall flat to the hard cold earth and he yelps, turning his head to look at her.
Daphne, flushed and breathless, grins. Her dark eyes hold a hint of green, he thinks.
“Gotcha,” she says, breathing hard.
“Oi, it’s just a friendly game,” he protests, levering up onto his elbows.
The other Bridgertons shriek and holler at the other end of the lawn. Daphne jumps up to her feet and holds out her hand to him. The morning sun glimmers behind her. “All’s fair,” she says cheerily.
He can’t argue with that, and takes her hand. Together, they rejoin the group.
From that winter holiday onward, he is a welcome presence in the Bridgerton household. When off at St. Andrews for his uni, he comes back for winter and spring breaks. Violet treats him as another son, and he helps Daphne and her younger sisters studying for their A-levels and their college exams. When Daphne gets a job in communications with West Ham United, Simon, who works in player operations, helps her pick out business cards. When Anthony becomes a barrister, Simon is his first client. When Colin starts a travel blog, Simon bookmarks the site and visits with every update.
The Bridgertons know Simon as he is; his father only knows him in what he lacks and how. With the Bridgertons, there is no memory of a youthful speech impediment, or a mother’s death from childbirth, or cold holidays with only a nanny for company. With the Bridgertons, there is community, affection, congeniality. He can almost forget the weight of a ducal title, or the vagaries of the royal family to which he is distantly related. He can complain about girlfriends and press and wish that the West Ham owners were smarter about their money. He can take Daphne out with her brothers celebrating her promotion and not have it matter when photos are salaciously splashed across the Daily Mail,, because the Bridgertons don’t care about fame or publicity. They care about him.
He can almost forget there is another man out there who claims him, however remotely, but never cared for him.
Until the year of his thirtieth birthday, when he can’t almost forget any of it any longer.
“Simon,” Daphne says from the doorway of his office, looking out on Olympic Stadium.
He turns from the view and grins at her. “Daph.”
She looks pale and grim, her phone in her hand. “Anthony just called.”
Simon rises from his desk and approaches her, panic rising in his belly. She looks perfectly spring-like and professional in her red-print sheath dress, the color bringing out the darkness of her hair as it lays over her shoulders.
“Is something wrong with your mother? With Colin?” he asks, voice low.
“Oh – oh, no, Simon. I’m sorry,” she says, reaching out to touch his wrist.
He nearly jumps out of his bones at her fingers on his skin. The Bridgertons are easy with their affection, both physical and verbal, but Daphne over time is less and less so with him. Spends less time alone with him. In quiet moments, when there isn’t a girl of the hour or he’s not busy with the team or his friends, he wonders where she’s gone, even when she’s just a few floors away.
“Simon, your father died,” she says quietly.
Everything in him goes quiet. His breath lingers in his lungs. He thinks he ought to feel something else. But it’s just stillness, and nothing.
“I reckon I ought to be upset,” he says after a tense, silent moment, looking away from Daphne’s somber face.
Her fingers tighten against his wrist. “You can be whatever you want to be,” she says. “I won’t judge you.”
Swallowing with difficulty, he looks down at her shoes, sensible black ankle boots. He has a sudden urge to drape her in diamonds. She’s always so put together, so tidy. “You never do.”
There’s a hesitation in the air about her. He chances a glance up at her and finds her brow furrowed. “I’m not a saint, Simon. I have frustrations and judgements as anyone else. What do you want to do right now?” she asks.
His first instinct is to kiss her. He doesn’t know where it comes from. It’s an impulse perhaps stretching back fourteen years, when she tackled him into the ground over a football scrimmage.
He doesn’t kiss her, though.
“I – I don’t – “
He pauses, gaining mastery of his tongue. The last thing he wants is his speech impairment flaring back up. In times of emotional distress or excitement it can, but he tries very hard not to be too invested in anything to allow that to happen.
He really needs to start going back to that therapist.
“I don’t know,” he says at last, sighing heavily.
“All right,” she says, squeezing his wrist one more time before she releases him. “Anthony will want to talk to you.”
Shaking his head, he looks at her, at the firm line of her mouth. “Why didn’t he just call me directly?”
Her gaze skitters away for a moment. “Reckon he wanted someone to tell you in person. Since I work here… it was kinder,” she murmurs.
He smiles at her slightly. The urge to touch the curve of her cheek nearly strangles him. “I appreciate it, Daph. Stay, yeah? I’ll call Anthony.”
She sits down in the chair opposite his as he sits back behind his desk and pulls out his cell phone. Her presence, serene and quiet, is comforting. He doesn’t ever want to lose her, but he can’t think of it now. It’s April, and his father is dead. A dukedom calls.
“We have a problem,” Anthony says as Simon enters his office two weeks later, Westminster Abbey’s spires peeking over the buildings from the window at Anthony’s back.
Blinking, Simon settles into the chair opposite his oldest friend and barrister. The brown leather cushioning sinks under his weight. “Do we?”
Anthony Bridgerton raises one eyebrow. The genetics in that brood are too strong by half, Simon thinks. Daphne and Colin can do the same trick. It’s infuriating.
“Well, specifically, you do, mate,” Anthony says as he pushes aside his slim silver Mac and steeples his fingers. His dark gaze fixes with uncomfortable intensity on Simon.
“Is Brexit going to ruin me?” Simon asks, half-joking.
“No, but your father might,” Anthony comments lightly.
All of Simon’s muscles tense, his jaw clenching. He wills himself to relax, working his jaw and wetting his lips. “He’s dead. I’d bloody like to see how.”
Anthony’s mouth twitches. “He’s put a stipulation in the will. If you’re not married within the next year, you’re disinherited.”
His first instinct is to laugh, which Simon does. It’s a short bark, harsh in his throat. “Fuck off. Is this the fucking middle ages?”
“It was less than a hundred years ago that a man had to give up the British crown to marry. This isn’t some bygone bullshit from the bloody Regency.”
“In fairness, that was for the best, given all the fascism. And for the love of god, how could he have done this?” Simon exclaims. The collar of his crisp button-down feels much too tight to his throat. “And how am I just hearing about this? He died weeks ago!”
Letting out a deep exhale, Anthony glances at his laptop screen, his eyes moving quickly as he reads. Anthony was always the exceptional student at uni; Simon, compared to him, still feels like an inadequate heel. Might as well lean in, Simon thinks grimly.
“You aren’t the executor – obviously – and it’s taken time to detangle your father’s financial holdings – the executor just released the full will and the details this morning, which is why I told you to come over,” Anthony says after a moment. “If you are not married legally within the year – and stay married through the duration of the birth of a child – your title is stripped and your inheritance negated.”
“Well, bloody let them!” Simon exclaims, rising from his chair and beginning to pace the length of Anthony’s office. “My god, Anthony, what do I care for his godforsaken money?”
Running a hand through his hair, Anthony glowers at him, following him as he paces. “Because if you don’t inherit your bloody fascist Ukip second cousin does, and do you want to be responsible for what he uses his seat in Parliament and his money for?”
Fuck. Simon stops pacing and shoves his hands in his jeans pockets. He stares out the window, all the muscles in his jaw clenched. Anthony’s not wrong. Simon has plenty of charitable uses for the money his terrible father left behind; he doesn’t need the title and the money, he has a job he loves. But the thought of Gerald, his Nigel Farage loving cousin, getting ahold of opportunities like the ones this title and wealth would open up, might be too hard a cost to bear.
“Why the hell did he do this?” Simon mutters under his breath.
“You swearing to let his genes die out was your dramatic last word. I reckon this is his,” Anthony says.
Huffing out a hard breath, Simon shrugs. “Well, I’m not getting married tomorrow. And I’m not seeing anyone. So – “
“So I’ll tell his executor that we conditionally accept the terms, and I’ll try and figure out a loophole. We’ve got some time. You’re right, we aren’t in the goddamn nineteenth century any longer,” Anthony says firmly.
“Could have fooled me,” Simon mutters. The May sun glimmers in the candy blue sky, but there’s no such light in his step.
“Married?” Colin Bridgerton yelps, dropping his rocks glass to the smooth table.
Simon rolls his eyes as Anthony punches his younger brother in the upper arm. The pub, one of their favorites, is full enough that Colin’s voice doesn’t attract too much attention. It’s typical Colin to put his foot right in it, though.
“Utterly delightful,” Benedict Bridgerton murmurs.
“Oh, do you think so?” Simon said acidly, glaring at the second-oldest Bridgerton.
“This is what you get for being one of our closest friends,” Anthony says with a shrug.
Taking a long swallow of his scotch, Simon leans back against the back of the booth and sighs. “Reckon so,” he mutters.
“You love us,” Colin says lightly, drinking down his scotch.
“Jury’s out on that, mate,” Simon retorts.
“God knows we even hardly know if we love each other half the time,” Benedict murmurs.
Colin throws a wounded look to his older brother. “What are you going to do?” he asks Simon.
Sighing, Simon drags the bottom of his glass along their table, back and forth, back and forth. “Not tell anyone. Except you lot.” He looks at them directly. “Don’t tell your other siblings or your mother or your partners, I mean it.”
“It’ll get out,” Benedict says, quite somberly. “The tabloids love this shit.”
“The drama of it all. Blood against blood. All that content,” Colin adds with a nod.
Rubbing the back of his neck, Simon finishes his drink and sets down the empty glass. “I’m going to keep a low profile until we figure out a way out of it. I won’t even date anyone. I don’t want to give my wretched cousin any ammunition,” he murmurs.
Colin whistles under his breath while Anthony looks heavenward and Benedict tips his pint glass to Simon. “Good luck.”
“You’re going to need it,” Colin mutters, earning another solid punch in the upper arm from Anthony.
Simon just groans and orders another drink.
What Simon doesn’t account for, is that Daphne Bridgerton has the instincts of a bloodhound.
“Something’s wrong with you,” she says as they sit in the staff boxes for the West Ham match on a bright July afternoon. The summer rains have cleared, leaving blue skies, warm temperatures, and green fields to play on.
Simon leans back in his chair, his eyes following the players along the pitch as the first half draws to a close. “When isn’t there something wrong with me?” he retorts.
Daphne scowls, crossing her legs at the knee. Her royal blue shirt-dress hits her knees, revealing the curve and shape of her calves. She pleats her hands into her lap, and his eyes are drawn to the striped belt under her bust, the lines of her arms as revealed by the cap sleeves of her dress. Everything about her is casual and pretty and he wants to peel off her dress button by button, because he can’t stop thinking about her damned face and eyes and the way she looks at him like she can see right through him.
“You haven’t been on a date in weeks. Months, even,” she points out, sipping her water.
He shifts uncomfortably, focusing on the match at hand. “Am I required to have a specific number of women I’m interested in on a monthly basis, Daph?” he asks archly.
“No, but you are a well-known flirt,” she mutters. “My god, Simon, the tabloids might as well think you’re dead. What’s going on with you?”
“When have you ever cared about my dating life?” he shoots back, annoyed and fascinated.
She looks very discomfited, a flush rising on her cheeks. “It’s not that I care – it’s just – it’s out of the ordinary,” she says.
He doesn’t say anything, just watches the match. Next to him, she sighs quietly and doesn’t bring it up again. The scant inches between them in the box practically vibrates with tension.
He wonders what she would do if he asked her out.
“No progress at all?” Simon asks Anthony, feeling sick to his stomach.
Over chicken curry and rice at his flat, Anthony nods. “I’m trying my best. The will appears to be airtight.”
Simon shoves his hands into his hair and groans. “I can’t – what am I going to do?” he asks, feeling a bit desperate. “I can’t let Gerald inherit, but I’m not just going to marry someone!”
“Why don’t you date someone? It might lead to – “
“The second I am seen in public with any woman, Gerald will leak the terms of the inheritance. You know he will. And then any woman I’m with will either just want me for the title, or think I just want them for the same,” Simon mutters. His bloody cousin will go to the tabloids the second he feels it most profitable, and Simon doesn’t look forward to the prospect of being shopped around as a potential husband for every titled woman in the realm. He hadn’t wanted anyone’s pity, or any questions about the why of the will and its ridiculous conditions.
“You have woman friends, aren’t any of them of romantic interest to you?” Anthony asks around a mouthful of rice and chicken.
Going very still, Simon squints at his oldest and closest friend. Was Anthony suggesting what Simon thought? Had Anthony divined somehow how knotted-up Simon was over Daphne?
“Like Penelope, or Louisa,” Anthony continued after swallowing. “They’re old uni friends, they’re single, they can tolerate you.”
All of Simon seemed to internally deflate. Of course, not Daphne. No one was good enough for Daphne.
“I don’t know if I can risk it,” he says at last, defeated.
Anthony’s mouth twists. “You’re going to have to, mate.”
“You look positively grim.”
Simon smiles slightly and lifts his gaze to find Daphne standing in the doorway of his office. The kelly green of her printed dress brings out the hints of green in her dark eyes. He wonders if she knows how lovely she is, or whether he’s actually losing his mind in thinking about her so much. The late afternoon sun touches her dark hair, loosely pulled back from her face.
“Grim?” he asks, straightening up in his chair.
She smooths a hand over her waist and slips it into the side pocket of her dress, cocking her hip. “Frown lines, everywhere. For weeks. What’s going on?”
For a moment, he thinks of telling her. In addition to hiding it from the press, he asked Anthony and the other Bridgerton brothers to keep quiet with the rest of the clan and their mutual friends. His strained relationship with his father was common enough knowledge but he didn’t want the embarrassment of this particular getting out, or assistance. He especially didn’t want Daphne to know - she would immediately want to help.
He doesn’t know what that help would look like. But as he watches her, long legs and sensible black flats and the hollow of her throat exposed by the scoop neckline of her dress, he can’t help but wonder if there’s help that looks a little like a life together, and a proposal.
Good god. He blinks. A proposal?
“Simon?” Daphne calls, raising her eyebrow. “Where’s your head?”
Abruptly he grins at her. “Right on top of my neck.”
She rolls her eyes. “So what’s going on?”
He clears his throat. “Some odd bits with my dad’s will,” he says at last.
Her face changes, becomes more solemn. “I’m sorry. I know it was complicated.”
Shrugging, he logs off his laptop and closes it. “Nothing complicated about it. He was a bastard.” Standing, he comes around the front of his desk and walks towards her as she lingers in the doorway. “Want to grab a drink?”
She looks up at him, craning her neck just slightly. He loves the build and frame of her, the wide expressive sweep of her mouth. “Sure. Let me close down my office. Meet you in the lobby?”
He nods, touching his hand to her bare elbow briefly. There’s a crackle in the skin to skin touch. He wets his lips and watches her blink, her lashes dark against her cheeks. Lips twitching up into a smile, she steps back and heads down the corridor to the elevator. He can’t help but watch her go.
“Damn,” he exhales, rubbing his sternum through his button-down shirt. There’s an odd clenching in his gut, one he’s recognized before with Daphne. He thought it was just genial familiarity and affection. Now, he knows better.
Anthony’s going to kill him.
They head to Goldengrove, chatting aimlessly. The heat wave has disappeared, leaving candy-blue August skies and a light breeze that curls between them. Daphne’s let down her hair and it settles long and thick over her shoulders, curling at the ends. He’s distracted by the golden highlights, the shine of it. He wonders what it would feel like between his fingers.
He’s absolutely lost it.
They slide into their usual booth near the front windows, the blue stained glass at the edges of the windows reflecting against the rise of her cheek and her bare throat. She orders a Kilkenny and he a Glenfiddich on the rocks, and they watch each other from across the smooth dark-wood table. It’s quiet enough for the end of the workday, a bank holiday weekend ahead.
“You’re acting strange,” Daphne comments, tilting her head.
He leans back against the booth cushions. “I’m not,” he protests.
“I’ve known you 15 years, I think I would know,” she says archly. “Lord, Simon, you’ve spent the hols with us multiple times.”
“Truly, I’m fine,” he murmurs.
“Then why are you so twitchy?”
“I’m enjoying the company,” he says, with no smirk or artifice or snark. He’s truly relaxed for the first time in weeks, maybe months, here with her in a pub fifteen minutes from their office. She’s rosy-cheeked and beautiful, and he wonders what it would be like to kiss her, to fall asleep with her, to attend charity events with her, to do the Sunday Times crossword puzzle with her and take her to his 10-year St. Andrews’ reunion.
Somehow, Daphne Bridgerton has become the one woman he wants to spend all his time with. The realization leaves him comforted, excited, warm.
Wetting her lips, Daphne smiles and thanks the server as they bring their drinks. She takes a swallow of her beer and watches him carefully.
“Are you doing all right?” she asks at last. “With your dad and all.”
His jaw clenches on habit. He can remember the stuttering last words out of his mouth, thrown at his father in pure fury. He can’t regret them, though they have put him in his current legal predicament. “I am,” he says at last. “It was never a close relationship.”
“I know,” she says, drawing her fingertips along the damp sides of her pint glass. “I’d understand if it was still hard to process.”
“I have a therapist for that,” he says.
Her eyebrows shoot up nearly into her hairline. “Great,” she says warmly. “I’m so glad to hear that, Simon.”
He smiles slightly, the muscles in his face relaxing. He watches her as he sips his scotch, all his nerve endings alive with feeling. “You’re not seeing anyone, are you?” he asks after a moment.
He rolls his eyes. “No, Daph. A boyfriend.”
She snorts, and it’s just so charming that he laughs, all affection. “God, no. Where’s the time? Where are the men?” she says lightly. Her gaze lingers on him and he feels the warmth of it right in his chest.
“They’re around,” he says, waving a hand about. “You work with a bunch of them.”
“Who all think of me as one of the boys,” she deadpans. “It’s like having a team of annoying brothers, including the just the four I was born with.”
Simon sits up and leans forward. His hands slip over hers as they rest on the smooth wood table. Her gaze meets his, eyes widening.
“You’re not one of the boys,” he says quietly, voice without any sort of smirk or affect. “You’re funny and clever and smart and lovely.”
For a moment, he thinks she’s not breathing. She just watches him, a pink flush on the apples of her cheeks and the green flecks in her eyes shining in the light.
He turns her hands palm-up, skimming his thumbs over the lines there. “You’re brilliant, Daphne.”
“My A-levels would beg to differ. I am perfectly average,” she says, voice low. “Simon, what are you trying to say?”
Smiling slightly, he tilts his head as he keeps her gaze. “I reckon I’m trying to ask you out.”
He rarely has every seen Daphne shocked. Growing up with the Bridgertons means seeing a load of nonsense. She’s fairly self-possessed always and dealing with the sports media all day long only helps in the creation of her placid genial mask. But now, her mouth is open in surprise and her eyes are wide.
“You’re kidding,” she says faintly.
“I’m not,” he says, slightly offended. “Why would I joke about fundamentally changing the nature of our relationship forever?”
Her lips twitch, the corners turning upwards. “Simon. Did my moronic brothers put you up to this? As some sort of evil prank?”
He snorts. “Absolutely not. God, Anthony will probably murder me for asking.”
“He doesn’t own me,” she says tartly. “I’m not an object to be possessed.”
Stroking his thumbs over her open palms, he smiles, mouth crooked. “I don’t want to own you either,” he says intently. “I just – I’ve realized – “
“When did you realize all this?” she interrupts. She hasn’t moved away from him, which he finds promising.
He blinks. “I – Over time – “
“Is this because of your father dying? Are you having a crisis?” she interjects again.
“If you would let me answer – “
“I won’t be a grief shag,” she says. He can hear the faint tremble in her voice, and wonders if perhaps he’s misjudged her interest this whole time. Perhaps she has thought of him as something other than her brothers’ friend. “I won’t warm your bed temporarily.”
He wets his lips and curls his fingers into hers. “You’ll note I haven’t said anything of the sort,” he murmurs.
Her brow furrows as she watches him carefully. “So what is this, Simon?” she asks softly.
Simon wishes now for some sort of poetry in his soul. He was bollocks with sonnets and the like all through Harrow. “It’s – “
His tongue feels thick, as if the stammer is waiting at the back of his throat. He swallows and takes a deep breath. “It’s – It’s – Daph – I d-don’t know a better woman than you. I don’t think you’re perfect, but I think you might be just the right kind of imperfect for me.”
Her hands tremble in his grasp. “Really?” she squeaks. He’s never heard her voice so high before.
“Really,” he says. “And if you might feel the same way, then I’d like – I’d like this to be a date. A real one. Where I pay for dinner and we walk around at night hand-in-hand and I kiss you goodnight.”
Eyes glimmering, she bites her bottom lip and looks away briefly, outside towards the streets. Her fingers flex against his, but not in a way denoting escape. Her shoulders rise and fall with a long slow breath.
Simon might want to crawl away and die in a corner of his flat, but he stays put. Focused. It feels like conquering his stammer, or becoming friends with Anthony, or that last confrontation with his father; a point of focus leading to satisfaction.
“I would take this very seriously,” she says at last, looking back at him. “It wouldn’t just be dating, at this point. It would be a relationship. Is that what you want?”
His heart kicks into overtime, beating hard against his chest. “Yes,” he says.
She tilts her head, assessing him in that Daphne way of hers. Like she can see right through to the back of his spine. “Then, let’s go get some dinner and walk around,” she says, a smile twitching at the corners of her mouth.
The breath leaves him in a whoosh. “Really?” he blurts out, an echo of her earlier.
Her smile, wide and shining, changes her face, reaching her eyes. “Yes, Simon.”
They pay for their drinks and find a pizza place closer to her flat. The air between them isn’t tense, exactly; it’s anticipation. They have beers and breadsticks and pizza, and talk about her family; Francesca’s elopement with her ex-boyfriend’s cousin a month ago still has the family out of sorts. They don’t talk about his father but they do talk about football and the movies they’d like to see that they haven’t had time for. Simon watches her move her hands as she talks and feels a deep sense of rightness. He’s finally made a choice for himself that feels… good?
When he walks her to her flat, she smiles up at him from the doorway of the building. He kisses the smile on her mouth, and it’s like an electric shock to his heart. Their mouths fit together rightly after a bump of their noses and he puts one hand at the small of her back and the other slides into her hair, that shining brown wave over her shoulders. He sinks into her and she holds him as tightly as he didn’t know he needed her to, running her palms over the tense line of his back.
The memory of that kiss soothes him to sleep later, alone in his dark flat.
Simon and Daphne keep a low profile for the first month. Negotiating the change in their relationship is hardly their first concern; no, it’s the Bridgerton clan they have true worries about. Because they do not report to each other or work in the same department at West Ham United, they do not need to worry about that type of disclosure. They keep their friendly distance all the same – though he can’t help but imagine her sitting atop his desk in one of those adorable printed dresses.
No, Simon holds his breath for the first month because of two reasons: 1) he is certain Anthony will kill him for dating Daphne, on sheer principle; and 2) the second there is a more-than-platonic photo of the two of them in the press, information about the inheritance stipulations will leak. He doesn’t quite know how to have that conversation with Daphne, as it would complicate everything.
For the first time, he’s in a relationship which just fits. Daphne knows all his faults and he hers; the things there are to discover are all good, such as favorite exotic sexual positions and who sleeps on what side of the bed, and that she hogs the blankets as the nights grow cooler and autumn sweeps into London. He loves slinking into dark wine bars with her, he loves ordering in Thai and fighting over the scallion pancakes. When they watch the Premier League matches together, they curl up on his sofa or sit close enough in the West Ham employee box to touch hands. He’s never felt more like himself with another person.
He can tell she wants to ask him about his father. He knows he should tell her. He knows he should tell her a lot of things. But he can’t bring himself to.
The first weekend in October, with rain pelting the windows and the sky a slate grey, they hide away in his flat. Wearing a jersey of his from his St. Andrews’ days and sweatpants, Daphne lounges against him as they sit on his sofa, idly flipping through movie options on Netflix. He tucks an arm around her, his hand curved to the rise of her ribs.
“We ought to tell my family, you know,” she says idly as they decide on yet another episode of Friends. “That is, if you’re still interested.”
He sighs. “Daph, I’m in this for good. I just – Anthony – “
“He’s worried,” she says, craning her neck to look him in the eye. “You’re avoiding him, he says.”
“I’m not! I just saw him Tuesday,” he sputters.
“You know what I mean. You’re not talking to him,” she retorts, sitting up slightly. Her dark hair falls in waves about her face, tangled at the ends. The grey light hints at the green in her eyes. “He’s not a total idiot.”
“He’s not at all an idiot,” he protests.
She waves her hand. “It’s – it feels strange, to not tell them what’s going on. Don’t you think they’ll be happy?” she asks. Her voice trembles just slightly. “They all love you, and – well, I know for a fact that Eloise is running bets on us getting together.”
“What?” he exclaims.
Grinning, she smooths a hand through his bedraggled hair. “Oh, for years. I hated her for it when I was in uni. It was excruciating to have one’s younger sister read them too well.”
“My god, your family is nuts,” he murmurs, catching her hand and pulling it to his mouth to kiss her palm.
She shivers, which pleases him greatly. “All I’m saying is that – if there’s a good reason you can give for not telling them still, I’m happy to discuss it. But, it’s been two months and you don’t seem to be bolting and I love you, so – “
His hand tightens around her wrist in shock. He stares at her. “You what?”
A pink blush fills her cheeks. “I love you, Simon. And as much as I love holing up in your flat, I’d like to be able to tell people that we’re together. Because it’s – I’m glad for it, and so happy.”
He is equal parts ecstatic and anxious, holding onto her wrist for dear life. “I’m happy too, Daph,” he says quietly. “I want to tell your family. I want to tell everyone.”
“So?” she asks, smoothing her fingertips over his brow. “What’s the issue?”
He ought to tell her, right now. About the will, the conditions. She loves him. She’ll understand.
But something in him stops it all from coming out.
“We will,” he says, nodding slowly. “I just want a little more time for you all to myself.”
Her lips twitch crookedly. “How much more is a little? I can’t keep showing up to my mother’s monthly family dinners and pretend not to love you beyond the platonic,” she says.
Every time she says she loves him, he feels it deep in his chest. He holds onto the moment, emblazoning it into his memory just as he did their first kiss. “Soon,” he says, and leans into kiss her.
She sighs and melts into him as she always does, and he pulls her onto his chest as the television goes on without them.
Two weeks later, when his phone rings at five in the morning on a Wednesday, Simon immediately knows he’s fucked.
He answers the call without looking at the number, grateful that it’s a morning alone. Daphne stayed at her own flat last night to catch up on work and to throw Eloise, who is now her flatmate, off the trail.
“’lo?” he murmurs into the blue darkness.
“Is it true?” Anthony’s low voice asks through the phone.
Damn. Simon sits right up in bed. “Is what true?”
“You’re dating my sister.”
Damn. “Did she tell you?” Simon asks, throwing off the bedclothes and searching for his boxers as he scrambles from the bed.
“No, the Daily Mail did. They have an anonymous source saying you’ve scooped up my sister in order to get your money, and there’s a picture of the two of you – well, I don’t like to imagine. But it’s clearly taken from somewhere opposite your flat,” Anthony says grimly.
Simon puts Anthony on speaker and flicks on the lamp on his nightstand. “Sounds like invasion of privacy to me,” he says, voice still thick with sleep.
“As your lawyer, I’ll get to that. As your friend, are you going to give me a straight fucking answer?” Anthony all but shouts through the phone.
Simon sits on the edge of the bed and scrubs his hands through his hair. “Yes, we’re seeing each other. For about two months or so. I didn’t – I d-didn’t want it to be about the money, so I didn’t tell you. Because it isn’t about the money. I would never do that to Daphne, or to the family,” he says, voice on the edge of pleading. His chest is tight with panic, a stuttering he remembers so clearly from every conversation and visit with his bloody father.
For a long moment, Anthony is silent on the other end of the line. Then, Simon hears him sigh. “You’re my best mate, Simon. I believe you. I don’t like finding out like this, but I believe you.”
Simon exhales, hands curling into loose fists on his thighs. “Good. Ok.”
“Daphne knows about the will, yeah?”
And just like that, Simon feels like he’s five years old and a constant disappointment to everyone. “I – I didn’t want her to think – I – “
“Fuck, Simon – she’s probably got a ton of messages about it. Eloise has Google alerts on all of us, she’s probably already told her. She’s going to – “
“I have to go,” Simon says shortly before hanging up. Anthony will understand.
Scanning #gossip Twitter, there’s royal nonsense and then there’s – yes, there he is. Simon Basset, scamming his best friend’s society-bred sister – and they bring up the morons she dated at King’s College, lovely – in order to trap her in marriage for his title and inheritance. And the photo – god, at least they’re clothed. He’ll have to move.
Seeing it on the screen of his iPhone is one thing. He shuts his eyes and rubs his hands over his face. It’ll be a whole other thing in print.
When he looks at his messages, there’s a few. Nothing from Daphne. Shit.
Simon leaves five voicemails for Daphne in the time between 5:30 and 7:30am, all of them a variation on Daph, please call me. When he stops by her flat, Eloise is just leaving for work. They run into each other on the front steps of the building, and Eloise fixes her dark narrow gaze on Simon.
“You know, Hyacinth has this year in the pool,” she says archly. “She only wins if you stay together, though. We don’t bet on one-night stands.”
“This isn’t – bloody hell, Eloise, where is Daphne?” he grounds out between his teeth, shoving a hand in his hair.
“At work, you idiot,” she says, brushing past him. “Anthony in our group chat told us all to give you the benefit of the doubt, and I’m willing to do so,” she adds, turning on her heel to look at him. That eyebrow jutted upwards, just like all those bloody Bridgerton eyebrows. “We all are.”
“Daphne too?” he asks, hating himself for it.
Eloise’s mouth curves downward. “She’s got some questions, certainly. I can’t say how she’s feeling. You’ll have to ask her.”
She turns and starts heading down the sidewalk. “We are rooting for you, though!” she calls from over her shoulder.
Rolling his eyes, Simon drags himself to work.
Anthony continues to text him updates concerning legal action against The Daily Mail, and communications from his father’s executor. Gerald, his terrible cousin, makes his opinion known via Twitter, saying that Simon will marry anyone for the title, including a plain girl like Daphne.
Simon nearly throws his phone against the wall of his office. He’s vibrating with the need to find Daphne, but he doesn’t want to cause a scene in the middle of their work. No one has said a word to him about it, which he appreciates.
At three in the afternoon, he’s just about to stalk down to communications and find her, damn the gossip, when she appears in his doorway.
Looking up, he chews on the inside of his cheek. Daphne looks tired and sad, but professional, her navy knit sweater dress flaring out at her waist. She steps inside and closes the door, pleating her hands together in front of her.
“Hi. I – I d-didn’t –“
She shakes her head, which silences him. He rises from behind his desk as she stands stock still, hafway between his desk and the door.
“For weeks, I tried to figure out why you’d want to hide this. Hide me,” she says softly. “I just assumed it was you being you. You never talk about your childhood, you never talk about your parents. But I know you – I thought I did – and I was fine with letting you work it out on your own time.”
Simon stares at her, nauseous. The back of his neck is damp with sweat.
Swallowing visibly, she flattens her hands against her skirt. “I don’t want to think that you’ve just settled for the first woman to say yes to you,” she says, voice wavery. But she doesn’t look away from him. “I’ve known you for over ten years, I know how you date, you could get any woman you wanted to marry you. If it were truly about the money and the title, I know you would have handled it months ago.”
“Daph – “
“So I know – I know this isn’t a money grab. Because I know you. I know part of you, anyway,” she continues. Her mouth trembles slightly and her eyes are dark and glassy, but she doesn’t slip. “What truly makes me ache is that you didn’t trust me enough to just tell me. That you thought I couldn’t handle it, or that I didn’t know you well enough to trust you. That I would love you even if you had a terrible father who fit in better with the Tudors.”
Now, now he feels absolutely dreadful. His tongue is frozen. He can’t speak, can barely breathe.
“I love you, Simon. It’s come on slowly, but I’ve known it for long enough now that I love you in your moronic moments and in your victorious ones. And I suppose – I suppose I just wanted to know that you loved me the same way. That you loved me enough to trust that I would trust you too,” she says, voice thin. “And right now, you don’t.”
“Daphne, no,” he interjects, low and even. “That’s not –“
“I don’t know what to do,” she interrupts, wrapping her arms around her middle. “I don’t know how to move forward with you, if you don’t think you can share even the worst things that have happened to you, then I don’t know how to share everything of myself.”
Anger at his father, at his children, burns deep, loosening his tongue. “You don’t – He hated me. He h-hated me, and my brain, and he ha-hated – “ he stops, breathing harshly.
She watches him carefully, face pale and lined. Schooling his face, he clenches his hands into fists at his sides. “I had a speech impediment when I was a boy. A stammer. It was crippling and delayed my development. He hated me for it. I worked for years to correct it, and he hated how long it took. I could do nothing right. I don’t like to think about it, or talk about it, unless I’m paying a therapist. Which you are not.”
Rolling her eyes, she plants her hands on her hips. “I’m not asking to be your therapist. I’m asking for transparency. You’re asking me to trust in you after lying about this momentous thing! And purposefully hiding the truth of it. How can I do that?”
“Maybe you can’t,” he mutters, looking away at the pale carpeted floor.
Daphne sucks in a sharp breath. “Well – I want to. But maybe you’re right,” she says softly. “I just – I need some time to think.”
He takes a deep breath and looks her right in the eye. “I understand,” he says evenly.
She blinks quickly and dashes the back of her hand over her cheeks. “If you had just told me…”
Trailing off, she turns on her heel and walks out of his office, shutting the door behind her.
Simon slumps back against the lip of his desk, and swears under his breath.
The next week is utter hell.
Simon has never felt like more of a bastard. He misses Daphne like a limb, misses her keen sense of humor and her steady presence during the day and the warmth of her in his bed. That first night after talking to her at work, he got wildly drunk in the privacy of his own flat and then called in sick the next day.
“I can’t believe I fucked this up so badly,” he says to Anthony on Saturday evening, nursing a scotch and watching his oldest friend from the other side of the living room of his flat. “I really was trying to do the right thing.”
“Your intentions aren’t the issue,” Anthony murmurs, also nursing a scotch. “And Daphne is refusing to talk to me or Colin or Benedict, so we can’t be helpful.”
“Why?” Simon asks, slumped into a corner of his couch.
Anthony scowls. “Well, we knew. And didn’t tell. So.”
Groaning, Simon shuts his eyes. “It was just – it was great to be happy for no other reason than for myself. I wanted to do this with her, and it just happened to occur now as opposed to three years ago or something. The timing sucked but I just – I wanted to be with her.”
“I think she wants to be with you too, or so Eloise tells me. It’s just… complex,” Anthony mutters.
Later that evening, sad and drunk and reliving every painful moment of his childhood, Simon opens up his laptop and starts writing emails to Daphne. He tells her about Christmases alone in a large manor house, and of only starting to speak when he was four years old. He tells her about the last argument with his father, and how much he hates his cousin and his politics, or else he wouldn’t even give a damn about the money and the title.
He writes about what it’s like to watch her watch sports, and how he thinks of their first meeting when he needs to be in a good mood. He writes for hours, until it’s dawn, and sends them all at once before he can second-guess himself. Then, he crawls into bed with chocolate biscuits.
It’s a sad, gloomy, awful week. He doesn’t see Daphne at all.
Until he decides, fuck it. He can at least ask how much time she needs.
After work on the next Thursday, he stands in front of her building, buzzing her apartment. It’s blustery and chilly, the leaves turning and the skies darkening earlier with purples and midnight blues. He wants to be under a blanket, with her. He wants to make that happen desperately.
“Yes?” Daphne’s voice crackles through the intercom.
“Hi. It’s Simon,” he says haltingly.
She’s silent. If he really listens hard, he thinks he can hear Eloise breathing in anticipation through the speaker.
Sighing, Simon leans his shoulder against the side of the brick in the entryway. “I know you need time, but I never asked how much. Because each day I’m not with you feels like a year. And I hate it. I hate how much I miss you, but I do.”
“I wrote emails – I was drunk – but you’re right. I’m scared of letting anyone see everything. I’m scared of what it looks like. But you deserve better than my fear. You deserve so much more. If you give me another shot, I can try to be worth it. I may not live up.”
He’s rambling now, but she doesn’t say anything in response. Taking a deep breath, he closes his eyes. “I can do better, and I can do it with you. I want to. Because I love you. You’re it, Daphne.”
The front door opens and he jumps. Daphne appears, still in work attire, the kelly green dress he remembers from their first real date.
“How – what – wait, did you hear – “
“I left during the fear and emails. Eloise is recording you for posterity. I'll catch up later,” she says, smiling faintly.
“Daphne,” he breathes.
She steps out onto the front steps with him, reaching out for his hands. She takes them and strokes her thumbs along his palms. He shivers with the contact.
“I’m glad you told me all those things,” she says somberly. “I’m sorry they happened to you. And I’m proud of what you’ve become.”
“I don’t – I don’t know what I’ve become,” he says, twining heir fingers together. “I know I can be better, with you.”
Smiling, she steps closer. “I believe you,” she says simply. “And I love you.”
Simon pulls her into his chest, releasing her hands so he can wrap his arms around her. They rock together on the front steps. He kisses her hair and she presses her face into his throat, humming.
“I love you, Daphne,” he murmurs.
Her lips touch the pulse thrumming in his neck. “The rest, we’ll figure out,” she whispers.
“Together,” he adds, and feels the answering smile against his skin.
Simon Basset and Daphne Bridgerton marry in early April of the next year, two weeks before the inheritance clause in his father’s will kicks in.
Hyacinth wins the Bridgerton pool and takes a victory lap at the wedding.