“Miss Bridgerton,” he said, “I don’t need your advice on how to raise my children.”
“I didn’t say a word on the subject,” she returned, “although I might point out that you do appear rather desperate to find them a mother, which would seem to indicate that you do want help.”
“Until you agree to take on that role,” he bit off, “you may keep your opinions to yourself.”
She speared him with a frosty stare, then turned her attention back to her soup. After only two spoonfuls, however, she looked back up at him defiantly, and said, “They need discipline.”
“Do you think I don’t know that?”
“They also need love.”
“They get love,” he muttered.
“They get that, too.”
Phillip might have been aware that he was far from being a perfect father, but he was damned if he would allow someone else to say so. “And I suppose you have deduced their state of shameful neglect during the twelve hours since your arrival.”
She snorted her disdain. “It hardly required twelve hours to listen to them this morning, begging you to spend a paltry few minutes in their company.”
“They did nothing of the sort,” he retorted, but he could feel the tips of his ears growing hot, as they always did when he was lying. He didn’t spend enough time with them, and he was mortified that she’d managed to figure that out in such a short amount of time.
“They practically begged you not to be busy all day,” she shot back. “If you spent a bit more time with them—”
“You don’t know anything about my children,” he hissed. “And you don’t know anything about me.”
She stood abruptly. “Clearly,” she said, heading for the door.
“Wait!” he called, jumping to his feet. Damn. How had this happened? Barely an hour ago he’d been convinced that she would become his wife, and now she was practically on her way back to London.
He let out a frustrated breath. Nothing had the ability to turn his temper like his children, or the discussion thereof. Or, to be more precise, the discussion of his failings as their father.
“I’m sorry,” he said, meaning it, too. Or at least meaning it enough not to want her to leave. “Please.” He held out his hand. “Don’t go.”
“I’ll not be treated like an imbecile.”
“If there is one thing I’ve learned in the twelve hours since your arrival,” he said, purposefully repeating his earlier words, “it’s that you’re no imbecile.”
She regarded him for a few more seconds, then placed her hand in his.
“At the very least,” he said, not even caring that he sounded as if he were pleading with her, “you must stay until Amanda arrives.”
Her brows rose in question.
“Surely you’ll want to savor your victory,” he murmured, then added under his breath, “I know I would.”
She allowed him to reseat her, but they had only one more minute together before Amanda came shrieking into the room, her nursemaid hot on her heels.
“Father!” Amanda wailed, throwing herself onto his lap.
Phillip embraced her awkwardly. It was some time since he’d done so, and he’d forgotten how it felt. “Whatever can be the problem?” he asked, giving her a pat on the back for good measure.
Amanda pulled her face out of its burrowed position in his neck and pointed one furious, shaking finger at Eloise. “It’s her,” she said, as if referring to the devil himself.
“Miss Bridgerton?” Phillip asked.
“She put a fish in my bed!”
“And you dumped flour on her head,” he said sternly, “so I’d say you’re even.”
Amanda’s little mouth fell open. “But you’re my father!”
“You’re supposed to take my side!”
“When you’re in the right.”
“It was a fish,” she sobbed.
“So I smell. You’ll want a bath, I imagine.”
“I don’t want a bath!” she wailed. “I want you to punish her!”
Phillip smiled at that. “She’s rather big for punishing, wouldn’t you agree?”
Amanda stared at him with horrified disbelief, and then finally, her lower lip shaking, she gasped, “You need to tell her to leave. Right now!”
Phillip set Amanda down, rather pleased with how the entire encounter was progressing. Maybe it was Miss Bridgerton’s calm presence, but he seemed to have more patience than usual. He felt no urge to snap at Amanda, or to avoid the issue altogether by banishing her to her room. “I beg your pardon, Amanda,” he said, “but Miss Bridgerton is my guest, not yours, and she will remain here as long as I wish.”
Eloise cleared her throat. Loudly.
“Or,” Phillip amended, “as long as she wishes to remain.”
Amanda’s entire face scrunched in thought.
“Which doesn’t mean,” he said quickly, “that you may torture her in an attempt to force her away.”
“What did I just say?”
“But she’s mean!”
“I think she’s very clever,” Phillip said, “and I wish I’d put a fish in your bed months ago.”
Amanda stepped back in horror.
“Go to your room, Amanda.”