A misapprehension that could only lead to his death and dismemberment. They didn’t seem the sorts to allow anyone to lay a hand on their sisters, much less blacken an eye.

“Just tell them the truth, Eloise,” Phillip said wearily.

“It was his children,” she said, wincing on the words. But Phillip didn’t worry. As close as they’d come to strangling him, they didn’t seem the sort to harm innocent children. And certainly Eloise would not have said anything if she’d thought it might place Oliver and Amanda in peril.

“He has children?” Anthony asked, eyeing him with a slightly less derogatory expression.

Anthony, Phillip decided, must be a father as well.

“Two,” Eloise replied. “Twins, actually. A boy and a girl. They’re eight.”

“My felicitations,” Anthony murmured.

“Thank you,” Phillip answered, feeling rather old and weary in that moment. “Sympathies are probably more to the point.”

Anthony looked at him curiously, almost—but not quite—smiling.

“They weren’t especially keen on my presence here,” Eloise said.

“Smart children,” Anthony said.


She shot him a decidedly unamused look. “They set a trip wire,” she said. “Rather like the one Colin”—she turned to spear him with a hostile glare—“set for me in 1804.”

Colin’s lips twisted into a disbelieving expression. “You remember the date?”

“She remembers everything,” Benedict commented.

Eloise turned to glare at him.

Aching throat notwithstanding, Phillip was actually beginning to enjoy the interaction.

Eloise turned back to Anthony, regal as a queen. “I fell,” she said simply.

“On your eye?”

“On my hip, actually, but I didn’t have time to break my fall, and I hit my cheek. I imagine the bruising spread to the eye area.”

Anthony looked down at Phillip with a ferocious expression. “Is she telling the truth?”

Phillip nodded. “On my brother’s grave. The children will own up to it as well, should you feel the need to interrogate them.”

“Of course not,” Anthony said gruffly. “I would never—” He cleared his throat, then ordered, “Stand up.” But he tempered his tone by offering Phillip his hand.

Phillip took it, having already decided that Eloise’s brother would make a far finer ally than enemy. He eyed the four male Bridgertons warily, though, and his stance was defensive. He stood no chance if all four decided to charge at him at once, and he wasn’t convinced that that was not still a likely possibility.

At the end of the day, he was going to find himself either dead or married, and he wasn’t quite prepared to let the Bridgerton brothers take the matter to a vote.

And then, after Anthony silenced his four younger siblings with nothing more than a stare, he turned to Phillip and said, “Perhaps you should tell me what happened.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Phillip saw Eloise open her mouth to interrupt, then close it again, sitting down on a chair with an expression that, if it wasn’t meek, was at least meeker than anything he’d ever expected to see gracing her face.

Phillip decided that he needed to learn how to glare like Anthony Bridgerton. He’d have his children in line in no time.

“I don’t think Eloise will be interrupting us now,” Anthony said mildly. “Please, go on.”

Phillip glanced over at Eloise. She looked about ready to explode. But still, she held her tongue, which seemed a remarkable feat indeed, for one such as her.

Phillip briefly recounted the events that had led to Eloise’s arrival at Romney Hall. He told Anthony about the letters, beginning with Eloise’s letter of condolence, and how they had begun a friendly correspondence, pausing in his story only when Colin shook his head and murmured, “I always wondered what she was writing up in her room.”

When Phillip looked at him quizzically, he held up his hands and added, “Her fingers. They were always ink-stained, and I never knew why.”

Phillip finished his tale, concluding with, “So, as you see, I was looking for a wife. From the tone of her letters, she seemed intelligent and reasonable. My children, as you will come to realize should you remain long enough to meet them, can be rather, er”—he searched for the least unflattering adjective—“rambunctious,” he said, satisfied with his word choice. “I’d been hoping she would be a calming influence on them.”

“Eloise?” Benedict snorted, and Phillip could see from their expressions that the other three brothers agreed with his assessment.

And while Phillip might smile at Benedict’s comment about Eloise remembering everything, and even agree with Anthony about the muzzle, it was becoming apparent that the Bridgerton males did not hold their sister in the regard she deserved. “Your sister,” he said, his voice coming off sharp, “has been a marvelous influence upon my children. You would do well not to disparage her in my presence.”

He’d probably just issued his own death warrant. There were four of them, after all, and it wasn’t in his best interest to be insulting. But even if they had charged halfway across the country to protect Eloise’s virtue, there was no way he was going to stand here and listen to them snort and snuff and make a mockery of her.

Not Eloise. Not in front of him.

But to his great surprise, not a one of them had a retort, and in fact Anthony, who was still clearly the one in charge, held him with a level stare, assessing him as if he were peeling the layers back until he could see what lay hidden in his core.

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