Nothing would have been worse than slinking back to London, admitting failure and having to explain to her entire family what she’d done.
She didn’t want to have to admit that she’d been wrong, to herself or anyone else.
But mostly to herself.
Sir Phillip had proven to be an enjoyable supper companion, even if he wasn’t quite so glib or conversational as she was used to.
But he obviously possessed a sense of fair play, which Eloise deemed essential in any spouse. He had accepted—even admired—her fish-in-the-bed technique with Amanda. Many of the men Eloise had met in London would have been horrified that a gently bred lady would even think of resorting to such underhanded tactics.
And maybe, just maybe, this would work. Marriage to Sir Phillip did seem a harebrained scheme when she allowed herself to think about it in a logical manner, but it wasn’t as if he were a complete stranger—they had been corresponding for over a year, after all.
“My grandfather,” Phillip said mildly, gesturing to a large portrait.
“He was quite handsome,” Eloise said, even though she could barely see him in the dim light. She motioned to the picture to the right. “Is that your father?”
Phillip nodded once, curtly, the corners of his lips tightening.
“And where are you?” she asked, sensing that he didn’t wish to talk about his father.
“Over here, I’m afraid.”
Eloise followed his direction to a portrait of Phillip as a young boy of perhaps twelve years, posing with someone who could only have been his brother.
His older brother.
“What happened to him?” she asked, since he had to be dead. If he lived, Phillip could not have inherited his house or baronetcy.
“Waterloo,” he answered succinctly.
Impulsively, she placed her hand over his. “I’m sorry.”
For a moment she didn’t think he was going to say anything, but eventually he let out a quiet, “No one was sorrier than I.”
“What was his name?”
“You must have been quite young,” she said, counting back to 1815 and doing the math in her head.
“Twenty-one. My father died two weeks following.”
She thought about that. At twenty-one, she was supposed to have been married. All young ladies of her station were expected to have been married by then. One would think that would confer a measure of adulthood, but now twenty-one seemed impossibly young and green, and far too innocent to have inherited a burden one had never thought to receive.
“Marina was his fiancée,” he said.
Her breath rushed over her lips, and she turned to him, her hand falling away from his. “I didn’t know,” she said.
He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. Here, would you like to see her portrait?”
“Yes,” Eloise replied, discovering that she did indeed wish to see Marina. They had been cousins, but distant ones, and it had been years since they’d visited with one another. Eloise remembered dark hair and light eyes—blue, maybe—but that was all. She and Marina had been of an age, and so they had been thrust together at family gatherings, but Eloise didn’t recall their ever having very much in common. Even when they were barely older than Amanda and Oliver, their differences had been clear. Eloise had been a boisterous child, climbing trees and sliding down banisters, always following her older siblings, begging them to allow her to take part in whatever they were doing.
Marina had been quieter, almost contemplative. Eloise remembered tugging on her hand, trying to get her to come outside and play. But Marina had just wanted to sit with a book.
Eloise had taken note of the pages, however, and she was quite convinced that Marina never moved beyond page thirty-two.
It was a strange thing to remember, she supposed, except that her nine-year-old self had found it so astounding—why would someone choose to stay inside with a book when the sun was shining, and then not even read it? She’d spent the rest of the visit whispering with her sister Francesca, trying to figure out just what it was that Marina was doing with that book.
“Do you remember her?” Phillip asked.
“Just a little,” Eloise replied, not sure why she didn’t wish to share her memory with him. And anyway, it was the truth. That was the sum of her recollections of Marina—that one week in April over twenty years earlier, whispering with Francesca as Marina stared at a book.
Eloise allowed Phillip to lead her over to Marina’s portrait. She had been painted seated, on some sort of ottoman, with her dark red skirts artfully arranged about her. A younger version of Amanda was on her lap, and Oliver stood at her side, in one of those poses young boys were always forced to assume—serious and stern, as if they were miniature adults.
“She was lovely,” Eloise said.
Phillip just stared at the image of his dead wife, then, almost as if it required a force of will, turned his head and walked away.
Had he loved her? Did he love her still?
Marina should have been his brother’s bride; everything seemed to suggest that Phillip had been given her by default.
But that didn’t mean he didn’t love her. Maybe he had been secretly in love with her while she had been engaged to his brother. Or maybe he had fallen in love after the wedding.
Eloise stole a look at his profile as he stared sightlessly at a painting on the wall. There had been emotion on his face when he had looked at Marina’s portrait. She wasn’t sure what he had felt for her, but it was definitely still something. It had only been a year, she reminded herself. A year might make up the official period of mourning, but it wasn’t very long to get past the death of a loved one.