The Duke and I (Bridgertons 1) - Page 17

He could practically hear her teeth gnashing as he left.

“Penelope!”

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 then 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!”

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.

And then—

“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 she 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.

“Who would have thought we’d both marry within months of each other?” Penelope mused. “Weren’t we meant to be old crones together?”

> “We can still be old crones,” Eloise replied gaily. “We shall simply be married old crones.”

“It will be grand.”

“Magnificent!”

“Stupendous!”

“We shall be leaders of crone fashion!”

“Arbiters of cronish taste.”

“What,” Hyacinth demanded, hands on hips, “are the two of you talking about?”

Eloise lifted her chin and looked down her nose at her. “You’re far too young to understand.”

And she and Penelope practically collapsed in a fit of giggles.

“They’ve gone mad, Mother,” Hyacinth announced.

Violet gazed lovingly at her daughter and daughter-in-law, both of whom had reached the unfashionable age of twenty-eight before becoming brides. “Leave them alone, Hyacinth,” she said, steering her toward the waiting carriage. “They’ll be along shortly.” And then she added, almost as an afterthought: “You’re too young to understand.”

After the ceremony, after the reception, and after Colin was able to assure himself once and for all that Sir Phillip Crane would indeed make an acceptable husband to his sister, he managed to find a quiet corner into which he could yank his wife and speak with her privately.

“Does she suspect?” he asked, grinning.

“You’re terrible,” Penelope replied. “It’s her wedding.”

Which was not one of the two customary answers to a yes-or-no question. Colin resisted the urge to let out an impatient breath, and instead offered a rather smooth and urbane “By this you mean . . . ?”

Penelope stared at him for a full ten seconds, and then she muttered, “I don’t know what Eloise was talking about. Men are abysmally simple creatures.”

“Well . . . yes,” Colin agreed, since it had long been obvious to him that the female mind was an utter and complete mystery. “But what has that got to do with anything?”

Penelope glanced over both shoulders before dropping her voice to a harsh whisper. “Why would she even be thinking about Whistledown at a time like this?”

Tags: Julia Quinn Bridgertons Romance
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