Her mouth fell open. “Are you saying I talk too much?”

He shrugged, having too much fun teasing her to do anything else.

“I’ll have you know that I have been much quieter here than I am at home.”

“That’s difficult to imagine.”

“Sir Phillip!”

“Shhh,” he said, reaching out and taking her hand, then taking it again, more firmly this time, when she snatched it away. “We need a bit of noise around here.”

Eloise woke the following morning as if she were still wrapped in a dream. She hadn’t expected him to kiss her.

And she hadn’t expected to like it quite so much.

Her stomach let out an angry growl, and she decided to make her way down to the breakfast room. She had no idea if Sir Phillip would be there. Was he an early riser? Or did he like to remain abed until noon? It seemed silly that she didn’t know these things about him when she was seriously contemplating marriage.

And if he was there, waiting for her over a plate of coddled eggs, what would she say to him? What did one say to a man after he’d had his tongue in one’s ear?

Never mind that it had been a very nice tongue, indeed. It was still quite beyond scandalous.


What if she got there and could barely manage “Good morning?” He’d surely find that amusing, after teasing her about her loquaciousness the night before.

It almost made her laugh. She, who could carry on a conversation about nothing in particular and frequently did, wasn’t sure what she was going to say when she next saw Sir Phillip Crane.

Of course, he had kissed her. That changed everything.

Crossing the room, she checked to make sure that her door was firmly shut before she opened it. She didn’t think that Oliver and Amanda would try the same trick twice, but one never knew. She didn’t particularly relish the thought of another flour bath. Or worse. After the fish incident, they were probably thinking more along the lines of something liquid. Something liquid and smelly.

Humming softly to herself, she stepped out into the hall and turned to the right to make her way to the staircase. The day seemed filled with promise; the sun had actually been peeking out through the clouds this morning when she’d looked out the window, and—


The shriek ripped itself right out of her throat as she plunged forward, her foot caught behind something that had been strung out across the hall. She didn’t even have a chance to try to regain her balance; she had been walking quickly, as was her habit, and when she fell, she fell hard.

And without even the time to use her hands to break her fall.

Tears burned her eyes. Her chin—dear God, her chin felt like it was on fire. The side of it, at least. She had just managed to twist her head ever so slightly to the side before she fell.

She moaned something incoherent, the sort of noise one makes when one hurts so badly that one simply cannot keep it all inside. And she kept waiting for the pain to subside, thinking that this would be like a stubbed toe, which throbs mercilessly for a few seconds and then, once the surprise of it is over, slides into nothing more than a dull ache.

But the pain kept burning. On her chin, on the side of her head, on her knee, and on her hip.

She felt beaten.

Slowly, with great effort, she forced herself up onto her hands and knees, and then into a sitting position. She allowed herself to lean against the wall and lifted her hand to cradle her cheek, taking quick bursts of breath through her nose to try to control the pain.


Phillip. She didn’t bother to look up, didn’t want to move from her curled-up position.

“Eloise, my God,” he said, triple-stepping the last few stairs as he rushed to her side. “What happened?”

“I fell.” She hadn’t meant to whimper, but it came out that way, anyway.

With a tenderness that seemed out of place on a man of his size, he took her hand in his and pulled it from her cheek.

The next words he said were not ones that were often uttered in Eloise’s presence.

“You need a piece of meat on that,” he said.

She looked up at him with watery eyes. “Am I bruised?”

He nodded grimly. “You may have a blackened eye. It’s still too soon to tell.”

She tried to smile, tried to put a game face on it, but she just couldn’t manage it.

“Does it hurt very badly?” he asked softly.

She nodded, wondering why the sound of his voice made her want to cry even more. It reminded her of when she was small and she’d fallen from a tree. She’d sprained her ankle, quite badly, but somehow she’d managed not to cry until she’d made it back home.

One look from her mother and she’d begun to sob.

Phillip touched her cheek gingerly, his features pulling into a scowl when she winced.

“I’ll be fine,” she assured him. And she would. In a few days.

“What happened?”

And of course she knew exactly what had happened. Something had been strung across the hall, put in place to make her trip and fall. It didn’t require very much intelligence to guess who had done it.

But Eloise didn’t want to get the twins in trouble. At least not the sort of trouble they were likely to find themselves in once Sir Phillip got hold of them. She didn’t think they’d intended to cause quite so much harm.

But Phillip had already spied the thin length of twine, tightly drawn across the hall and tied around the legs of two tables, both of which had been tugged toward the center of the hall when Eloise had tripped.

Eloise watched as he knelt down, touching the string and twisting it around his fingers. He looked over at her, not with question in his eyes, but rather grim statement of fact.

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