That was how it was supposed to be, but it had all changed on a battlefield in Belgium.
England had won the war, but that had been little comfort to Phillip when his father had dragged him back to Gloucestershire, determined to mold him into a proper heir.
Determined to change him into George, who had always been his favorite.
And then his father had died. Right there, right in front of Phillip, his heart gave out in a screaming rage, surely exaggerated by the fact that his son was now too large to be hauled over his knee and beaten with a paddle.
And Phillip became Sir Phillip, with all the rights and responsibilities of a baronet.
Rights and responsibilities he had never, ever wanted.
He loved his children, loved them more than life itself, so he supposed he was glad for the way it had all turned out, but he still felt as if he were failing. Romney Hall was doing well—Phillip had introduced several new agricultural techniques he’d learned at university, and the fields were turning a profit for the first time since . . . well, Phillip didn’t know since when. They certainly hadn’t earned any money while his father had been alive.
But the fields were only fields. His children were human beings, flesh and blood, and every day he grew more convinced that he was failing them. Every day seemed to bring worse trouble (which terrified him; he couldn’t imagine what could possibly be worse than Miss Lockhart’s glued hair or Eloise’s blackened eye) and he had no idea what to do. Whenever he tried to talk to them, he seemed to say the wrong thing. Or do the wrong thing. Or not do anything, all because he was so scared that he’d lose his temper.
Except for that one time. Supper last night with Eloise and Amanda. For the first time in recent memory, he’d handled his daughter exactly right. Something about Eloise’s presence had calmed him, lent him a clarity of thought he usually lacked when it came to his children. He was able to see the humor in the situation, where he usually saw nothing but his own frustration.
Which was all the more reason he needed to make sure Eloise stayed and married him. And all the more reason he wasn’t going to go to her tonight and try to make amends.
He didn’t mind eating crow. Hell, he would have eaten an entire flock if that was what it took.
He just didn’t want to muck up the situation any worse than it already was.
Eloise rose quite early the following morning, which wasn’t surprising, since she’d crawled into bed at only half eight the night before. She’d regretted her self-imposed exile almost the moment after she’d sent the note down to Sir Phillip informing him of her decision to take supper in her room.
She’d been thoroughly annoyed with him earlier in the day, and she’d allowed her irritation to rule her thinking. The truth was, she hated eating by herself, hated sitting alone at a table with nothing to do but stare at her food and guess how many bites it might take to finish one’s potatoes. Even Sir Phillip in his most obstinate and uncommunicative of moods would have been better than nothing.
Besides, she still wasn’t convinced that they wouldn’t suit, and dining apart wasn’t going to offer her any further insight into his personality and temperament.
He could be a bear—and a grumpy one, at that—but when he smiled . . . Eloise suddenly understood what all those young ladies were talking about when they’d waxed rhapsodic over her brother Colin’s smile (which Eloise found rather ordinary; it was Colin, after all.)
But when Sir Phillip smiled, he was transformed. His dark eyes assumed a devilish twinkle, full of humor and mischief, as if he knew something she didn’t. But that wasn’t what sent her heart fluttering. Eloise was a Bridgerton, after all. She’d seen plenty of devilish twinkles and prided herself on being quite immune to them.
When Sir Phillip looked at her and smiled, there was an air of shyness to it, as if he weren’t quite used to smiling at women. And she was left with the feeling that he was a man who, if all the pieces of their puzzle fell together in just the right way, might someday come to treasure her. Even if he never loved her, he would value her and not take her for granted.
And it was for that reason that Eloise was not yet prepared to pack her bags and leave, despite his rather gruff behavior of the previous day.
Stomach growling, she made her way down to the breakfast room, only to be informed that Sir Phillip had already come and gone. Eloise tried not to be discouraged. It didn’t mean he was trying to avoid her; it was entirely possible, after all, that he had assumed she was not an early riser and had elected not to wait for her.
But when she peeked into his greenhouse and found it empty, she declared herself stymied and went looking for other company.
Oliver and Amanda owed her an afternoon, didn’t they? Eloise marched resolutely up the stairs. There was no reason they couldn’t make it a morning, instead.
“You want to go swimming?”
Oliver was looking at her as if she were mad.
“I do,” Eloise replied with a nod. “Don’t you?”
“No,” he said.
“I do,” Amanda piped up, sticking her tongue out at her brother when he shot her a ferocious glare. “I love to swim, and so does Oliver. He’s just too cross with you to admit it.”
“I don’t think they should go,” replied their nursemaid, a rather stern-looking woman of indeterminate years.
“Nonsense,” Eloise said breezily, disliking the woman immediately. She looked the sort to tug on ears and rap hands. “It is unseasonably warm and a bit of exercise will be quite healthful.”
“Nevertheless—” the nursemaid said, her testy voice demonstrating her irritation at having her authority challenged.