Colin turned to his mother. “I tried for ten, but she wouldn’t budge.” And then to Penelope: “Not nearly far enough.”
Violet sighed. “I ought to scold you for that.”
“But you won’t.” Colin flashed her a grin.
“Heaven help me,” was her only reply.
“Heaven help whatever chap is mad enough to marry her,” he remarked.
“I think there is more to Hyacinth than the two of you allow,” Penelope put in. “You ought not to underestimate her.”
“Good Lord,” Colin replied, “we don’t do that. ”
“You’re so sweet,” Violet said, leaning forward to give Penelope an impromptu hug.
“It’s only through sheer force of luck she hasn’t taken over the world,” Colin muttered.
“Ignore him,” Violet said to Penelope. “And you,” she added, turning to Colin, “must head immediately to the church. The rest of the men have already gone down. It’s only a five-minute walk.”
“You’re planning to walk?” he asked doubtfully.
“Of course not,” his mother replied dismissively. “And we certainly cannot spare a carriage for you.”
“I wouldn’t dream of asking for one,” Colin replied, deciding that a solitary stroll through the fresh morning air was decidedly preferable to a closed carriage with his female relations.
He leaned down to kiss his wife’s cheek. Right near her ear. “Remember,” he whispered, “no telling.”
“I can keep a secret,” she replied.
“It’s far easier to keep a secret from a thousand people than it is from just one,” he said. “Far less guilt involved.”
Her cheeks flushed, and he kissed her again near her ear. “I know you so well,” he murmured.
He could practically hear her teeth gnashing as he left.
Eloise started to jump from her seat to greet her, but Hyacinth, who was supervising the dressing of her hair, jammed her hand on her shoulder with a low, almost menacing, “Down.”
And Eloise, who normally would have slain Hyacinth with a glare, meekly resumed her seat.
Penelope looked to Daphne, who appeared to be supervising Hyacinth.
“It has been a long morning,” Daphne said.
Penelope walked forward, pushed gently past Hyacinth, and carefully embraced Eloise so as not to muss her coiffure. “You look beautiful,” she said.
“Thank you,” Eloise replied, but her lips were trembling, and her eyes were wet and threatening to spill over at any moment.
More than anything, Penelope wanted to take her aside and tell her that everything was going to be all right, and she didn’t have to marry Sir Phillip if she didn’t want to; but when all was said and done, Penelope didn’t know that everything was going to be all right, and she rather suspected that Eloise did have to marry her Sir Phillip.
She’d heard bits and pieces. Eloise had been in residence at Romney Hall for over a week without a chaperone. Her reputation would be in tatters if it got out, which it surely would. Penelope knew better than anyone the power and tenacity of gossip. Plus, Penelope had heard that Eloise and Anthony had had A Talk.
The matter of the wedding, it seemed, was final.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” Eloise said.
“Goodness, you know I would never miss your wedding.”
“I know.” Eloise’s lips trembled, and her face took on that expression one makes when one is trying to appear brave and actually thinks one might be succeeding. “I know,” she said again, a little more evenly. “Of course you wouldn’t. But that does not lessen my pleasure in seeing you.”
It was an oddly stiff sentence for Eloise, and for a moment Penelope forgot her own secrets, her own fears and worries. Eloise was her dearest friend. Colin was her love, her passion, and her soul, but it was Eloise, more than anyone, who had shaped Penelope’s adult life. Penelope could not imagine what the last decade would have been like without Eloise’s smile, her laughter, and her indefatigable good cheer.
Even more than her own family, Eloise had loved her.
“Eloise,” Penelope said, crouching down beside her so that she might put her arm around her shoulders. She cleared her throat, mostly because she was about to ask a question for which the answer probably did not matter. “Eloise,” she said again, her voice dropping to a near whisper. “Do you want this?”
“Of course,” Eloise replied.
But Penelope wasn’t sure she believed her. “Do you lo—” She caught herself. And she did that little thing with her mouth that tried to be a smile. And she asked, “Do you like him? Your Sir Phillip?”
Eloise nodded. “He’s…complicated.”
Which made Penelope sit down. “You’re joking.”
“At a time like this?”
“Aren’t you the one who always said that men were simple creatures?”
Eloise looked at her with an oddly helpless expression. “I thought they were.”
Penelope leaned in, aware that Hyacinth’s auditory skills were positively canine. “Does he like you?”
“He thinks I talk too much.”
“You do talk too much,” Penelope replied.
Eloise shot her a look. “You could at least smile.”
“It’s the truth. But I find it endearing.”
“I think he does as well.” Eloise grimaced. “Some of the time.”
“Eloise!” called Violet from the doorway. “We really must be on our way.”
“We wouldn’t want the groom to think you’ve run off,” Hyacinth quipped.
Eloise stood and straightened her shoulders. “I’ve done quite enough running off recently, wouldn’t you say?” She turned to Penelope with a wise, wistful smile. “It’s time I began running to and stopped running from.”
Penelope looked at her curiously. “What did you say?”
But Eloise only shook her head. “It’s just something I heard recently.”
It was a curious statement, but this wasn’t the time to delve further, so Penelope moved to follow the rest of the family. After she’d taken a few steps, however, she was halted by the sound of Eloise’s voice.
Penelope turned. Eloise was still in the doorway, a good ten feet behind her. She had an odd look on her face, one that Penelope could not quite interpret. Penelope waited, but Eloise did not speak.
“Eloise?” Penelope said quietly, because it looked as if Eloise wished to say something, just wasn’t sure how. Or possibly what.
“I’m sorry.” Eloise blurted it out, the words rushing across her lips with a speed that was remarkable, even for her.
“You’re sorry,” Penelope echoed, mostly out of surprise. She hadn’t really considered what Eloise might say in that moment, but an apology would not have topped the list. “For what?”
“For keeping secrets. That wasn’t well-done of me.”
Penelope swallowed. Good Lord.
“Forgive me?” Eloise’s voice was soft, but her eyes were urgent, and Penelope felt like the worst sort of fraud.
“Of course,” she stammered. “It is nothing.” And it was nothing, at least when compared to her own secrets.
“I should have told you about my correspondence with Sir Phillip. I don’t know why I didn’t at the outset,” Eloise continued. “But then, later, when you and Colin were falling in love…I think it was…I think it was just because it was mine. ”
Penelope nodded. She knew a great deal about wanting something of one’s own.
Eloise let out a nervous laugh. “And now look at me.”
Penelope did. “You look beautiful.” It was the truth. Eloise was not a serene bride, but she was a glowing one, and Penelope felt her worries lift and lighten and finally disappear. All would be well. Penelope did not know if Eloise would experience the same bliss in her marriage as she’d found, but she would at least be happy and content.
And who was sh
e to say that the new married couple wouldn’t fall madly in love? Stranger things had happened.
She linked her arm through Eloise’s and steered her out into the hall, where Violet had raised her voice to heretofore unimagined volumes.
“I think your mother wants us to make haste,” Penelope whispered.
“Eloeeeeeeeeeeeese!” Violet positively bellowed. “NOW!”
Eloise’s brows rose as she gave Penelope a sideways glance. “Whatever makes you think so?”
But they didn’t hurry. Arm in arm they glided down the hall, as if it were the church aisle.