“Where did she find the letter?” Eloise asked. Not that it mattered, but she couldn’t help her curiosity.
“It had fallen behind your desk.” Anthony crossed his arms. “Along with a pressed flower.”
Somehow that seemed fitting. “He’s a botanist,” she whispered.
“I beg your pardon?”
“A botanist,” she said, more loudly this time. “Sir Phillip. He took a first at Cambridge. He would have been an academic if his brother hadn’t died at Waterloo.”
Anthony nodded, digesting that fact, and the fact that she knew it. “If you tell me that he’s a cruel man, that he will beat you, that he will insult you and demean you, I will not force your hand. But before you speak, I want you to consider my words. You are a Bridgerton. I don’t care who you marry or what your name becomes when you stand up before a priest and say your vows. You will always be a Bridgerton, and we behave with honor and honesty, not because it is expected of us, but because that is what we are.”
Eloise nodded, swallowing as she fought the tears that were stinging in her eyes.
“So I will ask you right now,” he said. “Is there any reason you cannot marry Sir Phillip Crane?”
“No,” she whispered. She didn’t even hesitate. She wasn’t ready for this, wasn’t yet ready for the marriage, but she wouldn’t sully the truth by hesitating on her answer.
“I thought not.”
She stood still, almost deflated, not certain what to do or say next. She turned, aware that Anthony had to know she was crying, but not wanting him to see her tears, nonetheless. “I’ll marry him,” she said, choking on the words. “It’s just that I—I’d wanted—”
He held silent for a moment, respecting her distress, but then, when she did not continue, he asked, “What did you want, Eloise?”
“I’d hoped for a love match,” she said, so softly she barely heard herself.
“I see,” he said, his hearing superb as always. “You should have thought of that before you ran off, shouldn’t you?”
She hated him in that moment. “You have a love match. You should understand.”
“I,” he said, the tone of his voice indicating that he did not appreciate her trying to make the conversation about him, “married my wife after we were caught in a compromising position by the biggest bloody gossip in England.”
Eloise let out a long breath, feeling stupid. It had been so many years since Anthony had married. She’d forgotten the circumstances.
“I didn’t love my wife when I married her,” he continued, “or,” he added, his voice growing a bit softer, more gruff and nostalgic, “if I did, I did not yet realize it.”
Eloise nodded. “You were very lucky,” she said, wishing she knew if she could be that lucky with Phillip.
And then Anthony surprised her, because he didn’t scold, and he didn’t reprimand. All he said was, “I know.”
“I felt lost,” she whispered. “When Penelope and Colin married . . .” She sank into a chair, letting her head drop into her hands. “I’m a terrible person. I must be a terrible person, horrible and shallow, because when they married, all I could think about was myself.”
Anthony sighed, and he crouched beside her. “You’re not a terrible person, Eloise. You know that.”
She looked up at him, wondering when it was that this man, her brother, had become so wise. If he’d yelled one more word, spent one more minute speaking to her in that mocking voice, she would have broke. She would have broke, or she would have hardened, but either way, something between them would have been ruined.
But here he was, Anthony of all people, who was arrogant and proud and every inch the arch nobleman he’d been born to be, kneeling at her side, placing his hand on hers, and speaking with a kindness that nearly broke her heart.
“I was happy for them,” she said. “I am happy for them.”
“I know you are.”
“I should have felt nothing but joy.”
“If you had, you wouldn’t be human.”
“Penelope became my sister,” she said. “I should have been happy.”
“Didn’t you say that you were?”
She nodded. “I am. I am. I know that I am. I’m not just saying it.”
He smiled benignly and waited for her to continue.
“It’s just that I suddenly felt so lonely, and so old.” She looked up at him, wondering if he could possibly understand. “I never thought I would be left behind.”
He chuckled. “Eloise Bridgerton, I don’t think anyone would ever make the mistake of leaving you behind.”
She felt her lips curve into a wobbly smile, marveling that her brother of all people could actually say the exact right thing. “I suppose I never really thought I’d always be a spinster,” she said. “Or, if I was, then at least that Penelope would always be one, too. It wasn’t very kind of me, and I don’t even think I really thought about it much, but—”
“But that’s just how it was,” he said, doing her the kindness of finishing the sentiment. “I don’t think even Penelope ever thought she’d marry. And to be honest, I doubt Colin did, either. Love can rather creep up on a person, you know.”
She nodded, wondering if it could creep up on her. Probably not. She was the sort of person who would need it whacked over the head.
“I’m glad they’re married,” Eloise said.