The children, he thought, pausing to savor the silence. Clearly, they had been vacated from the premises. Nurse Edwards must have taken them out for a walk.
And, he supposed, Eloise would still be abed, although in truth it was already nearly ten, and she did not seem the sort to laze the day away under her covers.
Phillip stared down at the roses in his hand. He’d spent an hour choosing exactly the right ones; Romney Hall boasted three rose gardens, and he’d had to go to the far one to find the early-blooming varieties. He’d then painstakingly picked them, careful to snip at the exact right spot so as to encourage further blooming, and then meticulously sliced away each thorn.
Flowers he could do. Green plants he could do even better, but somehow he didn’t think Eloise would find much romance in a fistful of ivy.
He wandered over to the breakfast room, expecting to see food laid out, awaiting Eloise’s arrival, but the sideboard was tidy and spotless, signaling that the morning meal had come to an end. Phillip frowned and stood in the middle of the room for a moment, trying to figure out what he ought to do next. Eloise had obviously already arisen and eaten breakfast, but deuced if he knew where she was.
Just then a maid came through, holding a feather duster and a rag. She bobbed a quick curtsy when she saw him.
“I’ll need a vase for these,” he said, holding up the flowers. He’d hoped to hand them to Eloise directly, but he didn’t feel like clutching them all morning while he hunted her down.
The maid nodded and started to leave, but he stopped her with, “Oh, and do you happen to know where Miss Bridgerton might have gone off to? I noticed that breakfast has been cleared.”
“Out, Sir Phillip,” the maid said. “With the children.”
Phillip blinked in surprise. “She went out with Oliver and Amanda? Willingly?”
The maid nodded.
“That’s interesting.” He sighed, trying not to envision the scene. “I hope they don’t kill her.”
The maid looked alarmed. “Sir Phillip?”
“It was a joke . . . ah . . . Mary?” He didn’t mean to finish his sentence on a questioning note, but the truth was, he wasn’t quite certain of her name.
She nodded in such a way that he couldn’t be sure whether he’d gotten it right or she was just being polite.
“Do you happen to know where they went?” he asked.
“Down to the lake, I believe. To go swimming.”
Phillip’s skin went cold. “Swimming?” he asked, his voice sounding disembodied and hollow to his ears.
“Yes. The children were wearing their bathing costumes.”
Swimming. Dear God.
For a year now, he’d avoided the lake, always taken the long route around, just to spare himself the sight of it. And he had forbidden the children from ever visiting the site.
Or had he?
He’d told Nurse Millsby not to allow them near the water, but had he remembered to do the same with Nurse Edwards?
He took off at a run, leaving the floor littered with roses.
“Last one in is a hermit crab!” Oliver shrieked, tearing into the water at top speed, only to laugh when it reached his waist and he was forced to slow down.
“I’m not a hermit crab. You’re a hermit crab!” Amanda yelled back as she splashed around in the shallower depths.
“You’re a rotten hermit crab!”
“Well, you’re a dead hermit crab!”
Eloise laughed as she waded through the water a few yards away from Amanda. She hadn’t brought a bathing costume—indeed, who would have thought she might need one?—so she had tied her skirt and petticoat up, baring her legs to just above her knees. It was an awful lot of leg to be showing, but that hardly mattered in the company of two eight-year-olds.
Besides, they were having far too much fun tormenting each other to give her legs even a passing glance.
The twins had warmed up to her during their walk down to the lake, laughing and chattering the entire way, and Eloise wondered if all they truly needed was a bit of attention. They’d lost their mother, their relationship with their father was distant at best, and then their beloved nurse had left them. Thank heavens they had each other.
And maybe, perhaps, her.
Eloise bit her lip, not sure whether she ought even to be allowing her thoughts to veer in that direction. She hadn’t yet decided whether she wanted to marry Sir Phillip, and much as these two children seemed to need her—and they did need her, she just knew they did—she couldn’t make her decision based on Oliver and Amanda.
She wasn’t going to be marrying them.
“Don’t go any deeper!” she called out, mindful that Oliver had been inching away.
He pulled the sort of face boys do when they think they are being mollycoddled, but she noticed that he took two large steps back toward the shore.
“You should come in further, Miss Bridgerton,” Amanda said, sitting down on the lake bottom and then squealing, “Oh! It’s cold!”
“Why did you sit down, then?” Oliver said. “You knew how cold it was.”
“Yes, but my feet were used to it,” she replied, hugging her arms to her body. “It didn’t feel so cold anymore.”
“Don’t worry,” he told her with a supercilious grin, “your bottom will get used to it soon, too.”
“Oliver,” Eloise said sternly, but she was fairly certain she’d ruined the effect by smiling.
“He’s right!” Amanda exclaimed, turning to Eloise with an expression of surprise. “I can’t feel my bottom at all anymore.”