But then the impossible had occurred. Penelope Featherington, Eloise’s closest friend for nearly a dozen years, had married. And what’s more, she’d married Colin. Eloise’s brother!

If the moon had suddenly dropped from the sky and landed in her back garden, Eloise could not have been more surprised.

Eloise was happy for Penelope. Truly, she was. And she was happy for Colin, too. They were quite possibly her two most favorite people in the entire world, and she was thrilled that they had found happiness. No one deserved it more.

But that didn’t mean that their marriage hadn’t left a hollow spot in her life.

She supposed that when she’d been considering her life as a spinster, and trying to convince herself that it was what she really wanted, Penelope had always been there in the image, spinster right beside her. It was acceptable—almost daring, even—to be twenty-eight and unmarried as long as Penelope was twenty-eight and unmarried, as well. It wasn’t that she hadn’t wanted Penelope to find a husband; it was just that it had never seemed even the least bit likely. Eloise knew that Penelope was wonderful and kind and smart and witty, but the gentlemen of the ton had never seemed to notice. In all her years in society—eleven in all—Penelope had not received one proposal of marriage. Nor even a whiff of interest.

In a way, Eloise had counted on her to remain where she was, what she was—first and foremost, Eloise’s friend. Her companion in spinsterhood.

And the worst part—the part that left Eloise wracked with guilt—was that she’d never given a thought to how Penelope might feel if she married first, which, in truth, she’d always supposed she would do.

But now Penelope had Colin, and Eloise could see that the match was a splendid thing. And she was alone. Alone in the middle of crowded London, in the middle of a large and loving family.

It was hard to imagine a lonelier spot.

Suddenly Sir Phillip’s bold proposal—tucked away at the very bottom of her bundle, at the bottom of the middle drawer, locked away in a newly purchased safebox, just so that Eloise wouldn’t be tempted to look at it six times a day—well, it seemed a bit more intriguing.

More intriguing by the day, frankly, as she grew more and more restless, more dissatisfied with the lot in life that she had to admit she’d chosen.


And so one day, after she’d gone to visit Penelope, only to be informed by the butler that Mr. and Mrs. Bridgerton were not able to receive visitors (uttered in such a way that even Eloise knew what it meant), she made a decision. It was time to take her life into her own hands, time to control her destiny, rather than attending ball after ball in the vain hope that the perfect man would suddenly materialize before her, never mind that there was never anybody new in London, and after a full decade out in society, she’d already met everyone of the appropriate age and gender to marry.

She told herself that this did not mean she had to marry Sir Phillip; she was merely investigating what seemed like it might be an excellent possibility. If they did not suit, they would not have to marry; she’d made no promises to him, after all.

But if there was one thing about Eloise, it was that when she made a decision, she acted upon it quickly. No, she reflected with a rather impressive (in her opinion, at least) display of self-honesty, there were two things about her that colored her every action—she liked to act quickly and she was tenacious. Penelope had once described her as akin to a dog with a bone.

And Penelope had not been joking.

Once Eloise got her claws into an idea, not even the full force of the Bridgerton family could sway her from her intended goal. (And the Bridgertons constituted a mighty force, indeed.) It was probably just dumb luck that her goals and those of her family had never crossed purposes before, at least not over anything important.

Eloise knew that they would never countenance her going off blindly to meet a man she’d never met. Anthony would have probably demanded that Sir Phillip come to London to meet the entire family en masse, and Eloise couldn’t imagine a single scenario more likely to scare off a prospective suitor. The men who’d previously sought her favor were at least familiar with the London scene and knew what they were getting into; poor Sir Phillip, who had—by his own admission in his letters—not set foot in London since his school days, and never participated in the social season, would be ambushed.

So the only option was for her to travel to Gloucestershire, and, as she came to realize after pondering the problem for a few days, she had to do it in secret. If her family knew of her plans, they might very well forbid her to go. Eloise was a worthy opponent, and she might prevail in the end, but it would be a long and painful battle. Not to mention that if they did allow her to go, whether after a protracted battle over the subject or not, they would insist upon sending at least two of their ranks to accompany her.

Eloise shuddered. Those two would most probably be her mother and Hyacinth.

Good gad, no one could fall in love with those two around. No one could even form a mild but lasting attachment, which Eloise thought she might actually be willing to settle for this go-around.

She decided that she would make her escape during her sister Daphne’s ball. It was to be a grand affair, with hordes of guests, and just the right amount of noise and confusion to allow her absence to go unnoticed for a good six hours, maybe more. Her mother had always insisted that they be punctual—early, even—when a family member was hosting a social event, so they would surely arrive at Daphne’s no later than eight. If she slipped away early on, and the ball did not wind down until the wee hours of the morning . . . well, it would be nearly dawn before anyone realized she was gone, and she could be halfway to Gloucestershire.

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