And blast it, it was cold.
She pulled her shawl closer around her shoulders as she walked along, rather enjoying finding her way with only the dim moonlight to guide her. But then, as she approached the portrait gallery, she saw the unmistakable light of a lantern.
Someone was there, and she knew, even before she’d taken another step forward, that it was Phillip.
She approached quietly, glad that she’d worn her soft-soled slippers, and peered through the doorway.
The sight she saw nearly broke her heart.
Phillip was standing there, stock-still, in front of Marina’s portrait. He moved not at all, save for the occasional blink of his eyes. He just stood there, looking at her, looking at his dead wife, and the expression on his face was so bleak and sorrowful that Eloise almost gasped.
Had he lied to her when he’d said that he hadn’t loved Marina? When he’d said he hadn’t felt passion?
And did it matter? Marina was dead. It wasn’t as if she was a true competitor for Phillip’s affections. And even if she was, did it matter? Because he didn’t love Eloise, either, and she didn’t—
Or maybe, she realized, in one of those flashes that knock the very breath from one’s lungs, she did.
It was hard to imagine when it had happened, or even how it had happened, but this feeling she had for him, this affection and respect, had grown into something deeper.
And oh, how she wanted him to feel the same way.
He needed her. Of that she was quite sure. He needed her maybe even more than she needed him, but that wasn’t it. She loved being needed, being wanted, being indispensable, even, but there was more to her feelings.
She loved the way he smiled, slightly lopsided, a little boyish, and with a little lilt of surprise, as if he couldn’t quite believe in his own happiness.
She loved the way he looked at her, as if she were the most beautiful woman in the world, when she knew, quite patently, that she was not.
She loved the way he actually listened to what she had to say, and the way he didn’t allow her to cow him. She even loved the way he told her she talked too much, because he almost always did it with a smile, and because, of course, it was true.
And she loved the way he still listened to her, even after he told her she talked too much.
She loved the way he loved his children.
She loved his honor, his honesty, and his sly sense of humor.
And she loved the way she fit into his life, and the way he fit into hers.
It was comfortable. It was right.
And this, she finally realized, was where she belonged.
But he was standing there, staring at a portrait of his dead wife, and from the way he was so still and unmoving . . . well, God only knew how long he’d been doing that. And if he still loved her . . .
She choked back a wave of guilt. Who was she to feel anything but sorrow on behalf of Marina? She had died so young, so unexpectedly. And she’d lost what Eloise considered every mother’s God-given right—to watch her children grow up.
To feel jealous of a woman like that was unconscionable.
And yet . . .
And yet Eloise must not be as good a person as she ought, because she couldn’t watch this scene, couldn’t watch Phillip staring at the portrait of his first wife without envy squeezing around her heart. She’d just realized she loved this man, and would, to the very last of her days. She needed him, not a dead woman.
No, she thought fiercely. He didn’t still love Marina. Maybe he’d never loved Marina. He’d said the morning before that he hadn’t been with a woman for eight years.
It sank in, finally.
She’d spent the past two days in such a flurry of emotion that she hadn’t really stopped and thought—really thought—about what he’d said.
It was not what she would have expected. Not from a man such as Phillip, who clearly enjoyed—no, clearly needed—the physical aspects of married love.
Marina had only been dead for fifteen months. If Phillip had gone without a woman for eight years, that meant they hadn’t shared a bedroom since the twins had been conceived.
No . . .
Eloise did some mental arithmetic. No, it would have been after the twins had been born. A little bit after.
Of course, Phillip could have been off in his dates, or perhaps exaggerating, but somehow Eloise didn’t think so. She rather thought he knew exactly when he and Marina had last slept together, and she feared, especially now that she had pinpointed the date of it, that it had been a terrible occasion indeed.
But he had not betrayed her. He had remained faithful to a woman from whose bed he’d been banned. Eloise wasn’t surprised, given his innate sense of honor and dignity, but she didn’t think she would have thought less of him if he had sought comfort elsewhere.
And the fact that he hadn’t—
It made her love him all the more.
But if his time with Marina had been so difficult and disturbing, why had he come here tonight? Why was he staring at her portrait, standing there as if he couldn’t move from the spot? Gazing upon her as if he were pleading with her, begging her for something.
Begging the favor of a dead woman.
Eloise couldn’t stand it any longer. She stepped forward and cleared her throat.
Phillip surprised her by turning instantly; she’d thought that he was so completely lost in his own world that he would not hear her. He didn’t say anything, not even her name, but then . . .
He held out his hand.
She walked forward and took it, not knowing what else to do, not even knowing—as strange as it seemed—what to say. So she just stood beside him and stared up at Marina’s portrait.