She’d said that she was looking for a husband, but he suspected that her reasons had as much to do with what she’d left behind in London as they did with what she hoped to find here in the country.
And then she’d said—in my haste.
Why had she left in a hurry? What had happened there?
“I have already contacted my great-aunt,” he said, helping her back into her bed even though she quite clearly wanted to do it herself. “I sent her a letter the morning you arrived. But I doubt she could be here any earlier than Thursday. She only lives in Dorset, but she’s not the sort to leave her home at the drop of a hat. She will want time to pack, I’m sure, and do all those things”—he waved his hand about in a slightly dismissive manner—“that women need to do.”
Eloise nodded, her expression serious. “It’s only four days. And you’ve a great many servants. It’s not as if we’re alone together at some remote hunting box.”
“Nonetheless, your reputation could be seriously compromised should people learn of your visit.”
She let out a long exhale, then lifted her shoulders in a fatalistic gesture. “Well, there isn’t much I can do about it now.” She motioned to her eye. “If I returned, my current appearance would cause more comment than the fact that I left in the first place.”
He nodded slowly, signaling his agreement even as his mind flew off in other directions. Was there a reason she was so unconcerned for her reputation? He’d not spent much time in society, but it was his experience that unmarried ladies, regardless of their age, were always concerned for their reputations.
Was it possible that Eloise’s reputation had been ruined before she’d arrived on his doorstep?
And more to the point, did he care?
He frowned, unable to answer the latter question just yet. He knew what he wanted—no, make that what he needed—in a wife, and it had little to do with purity and chastity and all those other ideals that proper young ladies were meant to embody.
He needed someone who could step in and make his life easy and uncomplicated. Someone who would run his house and mother his children. He was quite frankly pleased to have found in Eloise a woman for whom he felt a great deal of desire as well, but even if she’d been ugly as a crone—well, he’d have been happy to marry a crone as long as she was practical, efficient, and good with his children.
But if all that were true, why did he feel rather annoyed by the possibility that Eloise had had a lover?
No, not annoyed, precisely. He couldn’t quite put his finger on the correct word for his feelings. Irritated, he supposed, the way one was irritated by a pebble in one’s shoe or a mild sunburn.
It was that feeling that something wasn’t quite right. Not dreadfully, catastrophically wrong, but just not . . . right.
He watched her settle herself against the pillows. “Do you want me to leave you to your rest?” he asked.
She sighed. “I suppose, although I’m not tired. Bruised, perhaps, but not tired. It’s barely eight in the morning.”
He glanced at a clock on a shelf. “Nine.”
“Eight, nine,” she said, shrugging off the difference. “Whichever, it’s still morning.” She looked longingly out the window. “And it’s finally not raining.”
“Would you prefer to sit in the garden?” he inquired.
“I’d prefer to walk in the garden,” she replied pertly, “but my hip does ache a bit. I suppose I should try to rest for a day.”
“More than a day,” he said gruffly.
“You’re most probably right, but I can assure you I won’t be able to manage it.”
He smiled. She wasn’t the sort of woman who would ever choose to spend her days sitting quietly in a drawing room, working on her embroidery or sewing, or whatever it was women were supposed to do with needles and thread.
He looked over at her as she fidgeted. She wasn’t the sort of woman who would ever choose to sit still, period.
“Would you like to take a book with you?” he asked.
Her eyes clouded with disappointment. He knew that she’d expected him to accompany her to the garden, and heaven knew, part of him wanted to, but somehow he felt he had to get away, almost as a measure of self-preservation. He still felt off balance, desperately ill-at-ease from having had to spank the children.
It seemed that every fortnight they did something that required punishment, and he didn’t know what else to do. But he drew no pleasure from the act. He hated it, absolutely hated it, felt almost as if he might retch every time, and yet what was he supposed to do when they misbehaved that badly? The little things he tried to brush aside, but when they glued their governess’s hair to her bedsheets while she slept, how was he supposed to brush aside that? Or what about the time they had broken an entire shelf of terra-cotta pots in his greenhouse? They had claimed it was an accident, but Phillip knew better. And the look in their eyes as they protested their innocence told him that even they hadn’t thought he’d actually believe them.
And so he disciplined them in the only way he knew how, although thus far he’d been able to avoid using anything other than his hand. When, that is, he did anything at all. Half the time—more than half, really—he was so overcome by memories of his own father’s brand of discipline that he just stumbled away, shaking and sweating, horrified by the way his hand itched to swat them on their behinds.
He worried that he was too lenient. He probably was, since the children didn’t seem to be getting any better. He told himself he needed to be more stern, and once he’d even strode out to the stables and grabbed the whip . . .