But even as he thought that, he opened his watch for one more check. Three minutes prior to seven. Excellent. That would give him just enough time to ascend the stairs and meet her outside her door with precisely one minute to spare.

He grinned, enjoying his warm flush of desire at the thought of her in an evening gown. He hoped it was blue. She would look lovely in blue.

His smile deepened. She would look lovely in nothing at all.

* * *

Except when he found her, upstairs in the hall outside her bedchamber, her hair had gone white.

As, it seemed, had the rest of her.

Bloody hell. “Oliver!” he bellowed. “Amanda!”

“Oh, they’re long gone,” Eloise bit off. She looked up at him with fuming eyes. Fuming eyes which, he couldn’t help but note, were the only part of her not covered with a remarkably thick coating of flour.

Well, good for her for closing them in time. He’d always admired quick reflexes in a woman.

“Miss Bridgerton,” he said, his hand moving forward to help her, then retracting as he realized there was no helping her. “I cannot begin to express—”

“Don’t apologize for them,” she snapped.


“Right,” he said. “Of course. But I promise you . . . I will . . .”

His words trailed off. Truly, the look in her eyes would have been enough to silence Napoleon himself.

“Sir Phillip,” she said . . . slowly, tightly, looking very much as if she might launch herself at him in a furious frenzy. “As you can see, I’m not quite ready for supper.”

He took a self-preservational step back. “I gather the twins paid you a visit,” he said.

“Oh, yes,” she replied, with no small measure of sarcasm. “And then scampered away. The little cowards themselves are nowhere to be found.”

“Well, they wouldn’t be far,” he mused, allowing her the well-deserved insult to his children while he tried to carry on a conversation as if she didn’t look like some sort of hideous ghostly apparition.

Somehow it seemed the best course of action. Or at the very least, the one least likely to result in her wrapping her fingers around his throat.

“They’d want to see the results, of course,” he said, taking another discreet step back as she coughed, sending up a swirling cloud of flour. “I don’t suppose you heard any laughter when the flour came down? Cackling, perhaps?”

She glared at him.

“Right.” He winced. “Sorry for that. Stupid joke.”

“It was difficult,” she said, so tightly he wondered if her jaw might snap, “to hear anything but the sound of the bucket hitting my head.”

“Damn,” he muttered, following her line of sight until his eyes fell on a large metal bucket lying on its side on the carpet, with a small amount of flour still inside. “Are you hurt?”

She shook her head.

He reached out and took her head in his hands, trying to inspect her skin for bumps or bruises.

“Sir Phillip!” she yelped, attempting to squirm out of his grasp. “I must ask you to—”

“Be still,” he ordered, smoothing his thumbs over her temples, feeling for welts. It was an intimate gesture, and one he found oddly satisfying. She seemed just the right height next to him, and had she been clean, he wasn’t sure he’d have been able to stop himself from leaning down and dropping a soft kiss on her brow.

“I’m fine,” she practically grunted, wrenching herself free. “The flour weighed more than the bucket.”

Phillip leaned down and righted the bucket, testing its weight in his hand. It was fairly light and shouldn’t have caused too much damage, but still, it wasn’t the sort of thing with which one wanted to be struck on the head.

“I shall survive, I assure you,” she bit out.

He cleared his throat. “I imagine you will want a bath?”

He thought she said, “I imagine I will want those two little wretches on the end of a rope,” but the words came out under her breath, and just because that was what he would have said—well, it didn’t mean she was as uncharitably inclined.

“I’ll have one drawn for you,” he said quickly.

“Don’t bother. The water from my last bath is still in the tub.”

He winced. His children’s timing couldn’t have been more on the spot. “Nonetheless,” he said hastily, “I shall see that it is warmed with a few fresh buckets.”

He winced again at her glare. Bad choice of words.

“I’ll just see to that now,” he said.

“Yes,” she replied tautly. “Do that.”

He strode down the hall to give the order to a maid, except that the minute he turned the corner, he saw that a half dozen servants were already gaping at them, and had in fact set up a betting pool on how long the twins would last before Phillip tanned their hides.

After sending them on their way with instructions to draw a new bath immediately, he returned to Eloise’s side. He was already dusted with flour, so he saw no harm in taking her hand. “I’m terribly sorry,” he murmured, now trying not to laugh. His immediate reaction had been fury, but now . . . well, she did look rather ridiculous.

She glared at him, clearly sensing his change of mood.

He quickly assumed a sober mien. “Perhaps you should return to your room?” he suggested.

“And sit where?” she snapped.

She had a point. She was likely to ruin anything she touched, or at the very least necessitate a thorough cleaning.

“I’ll just keep you company, then,” he said, trying to sound jovial.

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