He’d thought almost any female body would do, but it was now quite clear to him that there was a reason he’d never availed himself of the services of the whores and barmaids who’d expressed their willingness. There was a reason he’d never found himself a discreet widow.

He’d needed more.

He’d needed Eloise.

He wanted to sink himself into her and never come out.

He wanted to own her, to possess her, and then to lay back and let her torture him until he screamed.

He’d had fantasies before. Hell, every man did. But now his fantasy had a face, and he feared he was going to find himself walking around with a constant erection if he didn’t learn how to control his thoughts.

He needed a wedding. Fast.

He groaned, giving his hands a quick wash in the basin. She didn’t know she’d left him in such a state. She didn’t even realize. She’d just looked at him with that blissful smile, too caught in her own passion to notice that he was ready to explode.

He pushed open the door, his feet moving quickly along the marble floor as he made his way back to the lawn. He’d have plenty of time to explode soon enough. And when he did, she’d be right there along with him.

The thought brought a smile to his lips, and very nearly sent him back into the washroom.

“Ah, there he is,” Benedict Bridgerton said as Phillip walked toward him across the lawn. Phillip saw the gun in his hand and stopped in his tracks, wondering if he ought to be worried. Benedict couldn’t possibly know what had just happened in his wife’s office, could he?


Phillip swallowed, thinking hard. No, there was no way. And besides, Benedict was smiling.

Of course, he could be the sort who would enjoy picking off the spoiler of his sister’s innocence . . .

“Er, good morning,” Phillip said, glancing at everyone else in an attempt to gauge the situation.

Benedict nodded his greeting, then said, “Do you shoot?”

“Of course,” Phillip replied.

“Good.” He jerked his head toward a target. “Join us.”

Phillip noted with relief that the target seemed to be firmly in place, indicating that he would not have to play that role. “I didn’t bring a pistol,” he said.

“Of course not,” Benedict replied. “Why would you? We’re all friends here.” His brows rose. “Aren’t we?”

“One would hope.”

Benedict’s lips curved, but it wasn’t the sort of smile that inspired confidence in one’s well-being. “Don’t worry about the pistol,” he said. “We’ll provide one.”

Phillip nodded. If this was to be how he was to prove his manhood to Eloise’s brothers, so be it. He could shoot as well as the best of them. It had been one of those manly pursuits his father had been so insistent he learn. He’d spent countless hours outside Romney Hall, his arm outstretched until his muscles burned, holding his breath as he aimed for whatever it was his father was out to destroy. Every shot was accompanied by a fervent prayer that his aim would be true.

If he hit the target, his father wouldn’t hit him. It was as simple—and desperate—as that.

He walked over to a table with several pistols on it, murmuring his hellos to Anthony, Colin, and Gregory. Sophie was sitting about ten or so yards away, her nose in a book.

“Let’s get on with this,” Anthony said, “before Eloise returns.” He looked over at Phillip. “Where is Eloise?”

“She went off to read the letter from your mother,” Phillip lied.

“I see. Well, that won’t take long,” Anthony said with a frown. “We’d better hurry, then.”

“Maybe she’ll want to reply,” Colin said, picking up a gun and examining it. “That’ll buy us a few extra minutes. You know Eloise. She’s always writing someone a letter.”

“Indeed,” Anthony replied. “Got us into this mess, didn’t it?”

Phillip just looked at him with an inscrutable smile. He was far too pleased with himself this morning to rise to any bait Anthony Bridgerton cared to offer.

Gregory chose a gun. “Even if she replies, she’ll be back soon. She’s fiendishly fast.”

“At writing?” Phillip queried.

“At everything,” Gregory said grimly. “Let’s shoot.”

“Why are you all so eager to get started without Eloise?” Phillip asked.

“Er, no reason,” Benedict said, at precisely the same moment Anthony mumbled, “Who said anything about that?”

They all had, of course, but Phillip didn’t remind them of it.

“Age before beauty, old chap,” Colin said, slapping Anthony on the back.

“You’re too kind,” Anthony murmured, stepping up to a chalk line someone had drawn in the grass. He lifted his arm, took aim, and fired.

“Well done,” Phillip said, once the footman had brought forth the bull’s-eye. Anthony had not hit dead center, but he was only an inch off.

“Thank you.” He set his pistol down. “How old are you?”

Phillip blinked at the unexpected question, then replied, “Thirty.”

Anthony jerked his head toward Colin. “You’re after Colin, then. We always do these things by age. It’s the only way to keep track.”

“By all means,” Phillip said, watching as Benedict and Colin took their turns. They were both good shots, neither dead center, but certainly close enough to kill a man, had that been their goal.

Which, thankfully, it didn’t seem to be, at least not that morning.

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