A rush of air blew past his lips. Eloise thought she might have heard the words “Thank God,” and then she was in his arms, and he was kissing her, and whatever else she’d been thinking, it was gone.

Phillip supposed that he should have devoted a bit more of his mental energy to his wedding, but the truth was, he couldn’t keep his mind on the events of the day, not when the events of the night loomed tantalizingly close. Every time he looked at Eloise, every time he even sniffed her scent, which seemed to be everywhere, standing out among all the delicate perfumes of the Bridgerton women, he felt a telltale tightening in his body, a shiver of anticipation as he recalled what it felt like to have her in his arms.

Soon, he told himself, forcing his body to relax, then thanking God that he was actually successful in the endeavor. Soon.

And then soon became now, and they were alone, and he couldn’t quite believe how lovely she was with her long, chestnut hair cascading in soft waves down her back. He had never seen it down, he realized, never imagined the length of it when it had been tucked away in a tidy little bun at the nape of her neck.

“I always wondered why women kept their hair up,” he murmured, once he’d finished with his seventh kiss.

“It’s expected, of course,” Eloise said, looking puzzled at the comment.

“That’s not why,” he said. He touched her hair, ran his fingers through it, then lifted it to his face and breathed in the scent. “It’s for the protection of other men.”

Her eyes flew to his with surprise and confusion. “Surely you mean the protection from.”

He shook his head slowly. “I’d have to kill anyone who saw you thus.”

“Phillip.” Her tone was meant to be scolding, he was quite sure of that, but she was blushing and looking rather absurdly pleased by his statement.

“No one who saw this could resist you,” he said, winding a length of her silky hair around his fingers. “I’m quite sure of it.”


“Many men have found me quite resistible,” she said, offering him a self-deprecating smile as she looked up at him. “Quite a lot, actually.”

“They’re fools,” he said simply. “And besides, it only proves my point, does it not? This”—he held one long thick lock up between their faces, then tickled it against his lips, breathing in its heady scent—“has been hidden away in a bun for years.”

“Since I was sixteen,” she said.

He tugged her toward him, gently but inexorably. “I’m glad. You’d never have been mine if you’d tugged out your hairpins. Someone else would have snatched you up years ago.”

“It’s just hair,” she whispered, her voice a little trembly.

“You’re right,” he agreed. “You must be, because on anyone else, I don’t think it would be nearly so intoxicating. It must be you,” he whispered, letting the strands drop from his fingers. “Only you.”

He cradled her face in his hands, tilting it slightly to the side so that he might more easily kiss her. He knew what her lips tasted like, had kissed them, in fact, just minutes earlier. But even with that, he was startled by her sweetness, by the warmth of her breath and her mouth, and the way his body turned to fire from one simple kiss.

Except that it would never be just a simple kiss. Not with her.

His fingers found the fastenings of her gown, small fabric-covered buttons marching down her back. “Turn around,” he ordered, breaking the kiss. He wasn’t so experienced at seduction that he could slip them from their loops without the advantage of sight.

Besides, he rather enjoyed this—this slow disrobing, each button revealing another half inch of creamy skin.

She was his, he realized, sliding one finger down her spine before attending to the third-to-last button. His for eternity. It was hard to imagine how he had been so lucky, but he resolved not to wonder at his good fortune, just to enjoy it.

Another button. This one revealed a square of flesh near the base of her spine.

He touched her. She shivered.

His fingers went to the last button. He didn’t really need to attend to it; her dress was more than loose enough to slip from her shoulders. But somehow he needed to do this right, to disrobe her properly, to savor the moment.

Besides, this last one revealed the curve of her buttocks.

He wanted to kiss her. He wanted to kiss her right there. Right at the top of her cleft while she stood facing the other way, shivering not from cold but from excitement.

He leaned toward her, pressed his lips to the back of her neck as both of his hands found her shoulders. There were some things that were too wicked for an innocent like Eloise.

But she was his. His wife. And she was fire and passion and energy all wrapped into one. She wasn’t Marina, he reminded himself, delicate and breakable, unable to express emotion other than sorrow.

She wasn’t Marina. It seemed necessary to remind himself of this, not just now, but continually, throughout the day, each time he looked at her. She wasn’t Marina, and he didn’t need to hold his breath around her, afraid of his own words, afraid of his facial expressions, afraid of anything that might cause her to sink into herself, into her own despair.

This was Eloise. Eloise. Strong, magnificent Eloise.

Unable to stop himself, he sank to his knees, holding Eloise’s hips firmly between his hands when she let out a soft murmur of surprise and tried to turn around.

And he kissed her. Right there, at the base of her spine, in the spot that had tempted him so, he kissed her. And then—he didn’t know why; his experience with women had been limited, but his imagination was clearly making up for that lack—he ran his tongue along that central line, down her spine to the beginning of her cleft, tasting the sweet saltiness of her skin, stopping—but not removing his lips—when she moaned, putting her hands out against the wall to support herself when she could no longer stand.

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