Actually, the day couldn't be more perfect. At least for a lady. For a lady of Daphne Bridgerton's standing, there were only a few things in life that should matter: good weather, always beautiful ball gowns, a healthy family, a husband from as rich a home as possible and many healthy children. For the eldest daughter of a family, it was even more important to marry a wealthy man, as this would secure the future of her sisters. Accordingly, Daphne should have been happy. The sun was shining brightly in the sky, it was a warm morning and she had only been engaged for a few hours. Not to some gentleman, but to a duke. The duke she had taken to her heart. After all, she had wanted a love match for herself. So why couldn't she really be happy about it? She had every reason to rejoice. She would marry a respected man, live in a large estate and run her own household. Her choice had a positive influence on the future of her three younger sisters, who would move in higher circles through her. Marriage had always been her only goal. So why didn't she dress like a happy bride-to-be and walk through the park with her husband-to-be?
Thoughtfully, Daphne sat in the drawing room by the window. She felt the tiredness in her bones and yet she had not been able to sleep. Only a few hours ago, she had hurriedly left the estate at dawn with her brother Colin to save her brother and her soon to be husband from a huge foolishness. She could only shake her head when she thought about the fact that the two of them had wanted to duel just to save her honour. Daphne still didn't understand how they could have done that to her. Anthony and Simon, both of whom could have been killed. Plus Benedict, who had allowed himself to be persuaded by Anthony. Fortunately, she still had her reasonably clever brother Colin, who had accompanied her after eternal persuasion. So they had been able to prevent worse. If only someone had warned her that she would get engaged so quickly. But she had found no other way out of the situation. Her mother had known for a few hours and now possibly the whole family, which only concerned her sisters. After all, her dearest brothers had been present at her glorious engagement.
She closed her eyes and shook her head to banish that cruel morning from her mind. But suddenly she heard loud voices outside the room.
"So Daphne is not going to marry the prince after all?" she heard Hyacinth exclaim. "I'm not going to be a princess's sister, am I?"
"How many times do I have to tell you, sister?" she heard her sister Eloise's voice. "Daphne will be a duchess, not a princess, because she will marry the duke. Do you understand now?"
"But why? I thought she was going to marry the prince..."
Eloise gave an exasperated, loud groan as she too opened the door to enter theatrically. When she noticed Daphne, the sound caught in her throat and she stopped in surprise.
"Daph," she exclaimed in a mixture of surprise and overwhelm. "I heard about your engagement. Congratulations!"
"Thank you, Eloi-"
"That means Mother won't take her eyes off me now." Eloise wiped her hand across her face in annoyance. " Now that you have smiled upon a handsome man, of course I must do the same. Couldn't fate have spared me that? "
"Are you really thinking only of yourself all the time?" asked Daphne, too annoyed at her current situation to think about her words.
"As long as it's all about you for mother ... yes," Eloise replied challengingly.
"My marriage will decide your future husband, Eloise."
"You're starting that again," Eloise groaned angrily. "Not everyone has to follow in your footsteps."
"You won't have a choice!"
"You'd better worry about your own future," Eloise retorted sharply.
"Why are you always so angry when it comes to me?" asked Daphne, confused. She didn't know whether to be shocked or sad. Lately, her relationship with Eloise had not been the best. Ever since Daphne had been on the lookout for potential suitors. At first she had been supportive, but lately things had been quieter between the two sisters.
"Because it's ALWAYS about you," Eloise replied louder. "From morning till night it's all about how you look, what you're doing and when you're going to get married."
"But I thought you'd be pleased that the attention isn't on you yet this season?" asked Daphne. "Mother did allow you to sit out this year for that very reason, didn't she?"
Eloise sighed in resignation. Her expression showed indecision, and the way she bit her lip and shook her head slightly emphasised that image.
"I..." she began hesitantly and took two steps towards her sister. Her gaze was steadily fixed on the floor. "I don't know." She closed the distance between them and joined Daphne on the sofa. Still avoiding her gaze. "It's not about you getting married or me not being the centre of general attention."
"Then what is it about?" asked Daphne, reaching for her sister's hand. The latter looked hesitantly at her clasped hands.
"I think it's the idea of becoming like you myself," she confessed softly.
"You make it sound like it's a bad thing," Daphne concluded, looking patiently at Eloise. She was still confused about her sister's behaviour, as she was not at all familiar with her emotional world.
"Maybe it's not so bad for you," Eloise replied, looking her older sister in the eye again. It was as if she was looking into an empty shell. Where Eloise's eyes usually shone, they were now expressionless. "For me, this future is the worst thing that can happen to me. But you can't understand that..."
Daphne squeezed her hand a little tighter. "I can try if you explain it to me." She smiled at her encouragingly. The corners of Eloise's mouth twitched, as they always did when she couldn't handle someone's sympathy. She often felt that no one could understand her. That no one understood her views and that she was basically alone. She had not expected anyone to take the time to understand her. After all, she didn't try too often herself.
"This whole subject of marriage just drives me crazy," the brunette finally confessed. "Watching you make yourself pretty...listening to you talk about all your suitors and who you're going to dance with next...listening to you practise the piano forte...and whenever Mother looks at me with that meaningful look, it makes me feel different. It feels like I suddenly get so heavy on my heart." She let her gaze wander around the room. "The idea of having to be subordinate to a man someday-"
"But you're not subordinate to him-"
"He earns all our money, does all the business and owns all the property," Eloise interrupted her. "How could I be his equal?"
Daphne looked at her humbly. "I didn't mean it like that, Eloise. But if you really love someone, then your status won't matter."
"That's exactly what makes us both different, Daphne," Eloise said. "You believe in true love. You dream of one day being the lady of a house you can walk through all day and look pretty."
"What would you rather do?" asked Daphne curiously. She had never had such a conversation with her sister. Usually the two ignored their different views and accepted how the other was and why. They had never talked about each other's intentions.
"I don't want to be the wife of a gentleman or an earl or a duke," Eloise confessed. "I feel that I am destined for much more. And it is precisely this knowledge that drives me mad. It drives me mad that I was born into a distinguished and wealthy family. It is only for this reason that such things are expected of me. Because society prefers to look at other people instead of focusing on itself. My life is more interesting than many others. And I wonder why, Daphne. Why do people care who I marry and why?"
"We have to marry to protect the family's reputation and to produce many heirs," Daphne explained, her face contorting at how rote that had sounded. But that was exactly how it was. As the eldest daughter, these words had been handed down to her. As much for her as for Anthony. With the difference that he could decide against marriage at any time.
"That's just it," Eloise complained, looking up at the ceiling in annoyance. "We marry to make other people happy. To fulfil their ridiculous need for perfectionism and gossip. When do we get to decide for ourselves how we want to live our lives?" She looked at her sister expectantly. Knowing Daphne very well, she no longer even hoped that she would necessarily understand her.
Daphne opened her mouth to say something, but then thought of something else. Eloise's question was not so far-fetched. She had just never thought about it. In general, she had noticed lately that Eloise seemed to ask such unusual questions more and more often. At first she had dismissed it as silly, but now it struck her that her sister was not so wrong. As a second-born daughter, she had other things to concentrate on. While Daphne had to practice the piano, she was allowed to sit in the library and read a book. Even though Daphne had often got into mischief with her brothers in the past, she had to get rid of this improper behaviour quite quickly. Not that she didn't harbour a desire to roll over the grass like a child and laugh together with her siblings. Without an ulterior motive of courtly constraint and manners. But Eloise had always been different. She had not cared for dresses or balls and Daphne had never understood this behaviour. She had simply accepted that she and Eloise were completely different in character. But on closer inspection, this was not the case at all. Admittedly, they were very dissimilar in their way of thinking, but in her opinion this was due to their different upbringings. Much like Benedict and Anthony. Certainly, they each pursue their own interests, but nevertheless they are all the same pawns in this society. Daphne had just never dared to ask herself these questions. But since she had met Simon, she had learned a lot of new things. Her experiences with the duke, the prince and Lord Berbrooke had taught her better. Gradually, she began to understand her sister better.
"I would like to give you an appropriate answer, Eloise," she finally said hesitantly. "But I cannot. All I know is that it has been going on for generations."
Eloise nodded in understanding. "I know, sister. I don't have an answer to the question either. Which doesn't change the fact that I don't want to live like this."
Daphne reached for her hand again. "Then don't." Eloise looked up in surprise. Daphne sighed. "I know I have shown little sympathy for your current life. I am truly sorry for not trying to understand you. I was brought up to believe that marriage was our greatest goal. That is precisely why I am engaged. But I've also been your sister for seventeen years and even though we don't always get along perfectly, we are family. And I can't stand to see you unhappy."
Eloise shook her head slowly. "You don't have to apologise, Daphne. After all, I wasn't really trying to understand you either. I was talking to Benedict the other day about how I just don't understand why you're so happy to be made pretty and dance with men at balls."
"I wouldn't really call it joy," laughed Daphne. "It's more the excitement of what's happening. That you never know what's going to happen and if you're not engaged the next morning."
"And that's exactly what I can't imagine at all," Eloise interrupted her.
"You don't have to," Daphne replied. "Marrying and producing heirs is my job. As terrible as that statement may sound."
"It sounds horrible," Eloise agreed. "As if you have no other purpose in life."
"But I do," Daphne murmured, looking at her blissfully. "I have my family and they will always be the most important thing to me, no matter what. It doesn't matter how the marriage to the Duke turns out or how far away I move...I will still always come back here."
"At least you'll divert attention from me," Eloise laughed, but her expression was slightly panicked. "Just thinking about it, it's my turn next season-"
"You'll do an excellent job," Daphne reassured her, "in your own way. If you don't want to marry, refuse all proposals. Attend the balls, but don't dance with anyone. Most important of all, don't let Anthony tell you anything."
Eloise joined in her laughter.
"Stick to Benedict or Colin and enjoy the evenings," Daphne continued, "The rest is up to you. With my highly respected marriage, there won't be so much pressure on you. And if anyone does get on your nerves, you write to me and you come and stay with us at Clyvedon or I'll come home."
Eloise smiled happily at her. "Thank you sister. I wonder why we haven't talked about this before."
"Because we were stupid and inexperienced," Daphne said. "We blindly assumed that the other wouldn't understand us."
Eloise nodded in agreement. "Thank you very much. For being so perfect."
"And I thank you," Daphne added. "Thank you for showing me that you don't have to take everything as it comes."
"You mean as surprising as your engagement?" asked Eloise mischievously. Then her face became serious again. "Are you even happy with that decision?"
Daphne took a deep breath. "I think so."
"That doesn't sound very convinced."
"I'll see," Daphne continued. "I don't know the duke well, but I will get to know him and my new duties very soon."
"And again you talk of duty," said her younger sister.
"I'm afraid it is my duty," Daphne replied. "A duty I am happy to perform in order to provide for my family in the long run."
Eloise looked at her thoughtfully for a moment, then merely nodded. They silently decided to let the subject rest. Eloise felt a wonderful peace settle between them. There were no more unspoken thoughts and incomprehension between them. They both smiled blissfully at each other and enjoyed the peace that had developed.
"Gregory!" came from the hallway, making the sisters flinch.
Daphne burst out laughing. "I swear to you, no matter how long I'm married, I'll be happy to come back here any time. Simply because you can get up to all sorts of mischief here without being punished with incomprehension."
Eloise grinned broadly at her as the door was pushed open. Gregory followed by his little sister ran into the drawing room.
"Gregory, give her back to me at once," cried the youngest Bridgerton.
"What's the matter now, Hyacinth?" asked Eloise, annoyed.
"Gregory has stolen my doll!"
"I didn't," Gregory defended himself, looking innocently at his sisters.
"What do i see behind your back?" asked Daphne mischievously.
Gregory looked at her in surprise. Then his gaze darted quickly between the three girls.
"Give it to me, Gregory," Daphne said with a smile and stood up from the bench.
A devious expression appeared on her youngest brother's face. "Never," he shouted and left the drawing room. Eloise and Daphne gave each other brief glances that seemed to ask whether they should really indulge in this immorality or rather sit dutifully and read books. Daphne seemed to be waiting for a sign from her sister. Eloise just shrugged her shoulders, put on a big grin, turned around and ran after her brother.
"Gregory, stop," she called as Daphne and Hyacinth followed her out of the room. The little boy ran into the entrance hall where he suddenly ran into his three older brothers. They seemed to be still talking about the duel as they looked at Gregory in surprise.
"What happened to you?" asked Anthony.
"You must let me pass," cried Gregory hurriedly, jumping from one foot to the other. "They're right behind me."
"Who?" asked Colin, confused.
"Did you steal Hyacinth's doll again?" asked Benedict knowingly.
"I'm not giving her up without a fight," Gregory declared proudly. The three eldest Bridgertons smiled knowingly at each other. After all, they had been just as ambitious as children.
"We can't let our brother lose his honour to three young ladies," Anthony said, running to the back door and opening it so Gregory could escape. Just in time as his sisters came down the stairs to follow him. "After him quickly," Colin shouted and pulled his brothers into the garden as well. Gregory was already a few metres ahead and so all the siblings quickly found themselves in the large garden of the estate. The sun was still high in the sky and it was wonderfully warm outside. Eloise and Daphne aproned their dresses as they gave direct chase. Because of their size, they were able to catch up with Gregory quickly, but had completely lost sight of their older brothers. On the last metre, Gregory threw the doll to the right directly into the hands of the second oldest. "At him," shouted Eloise. Benedict barely had time to react before his two sisters pounced on him. Together they went down and wrestled for the toy. "Leave him alone," shouted Gregory and rushed into the fray, but was thrown to the ground by Hyacinth.
"Give us the doll, Benedict," Daphne shouted with a laugh and tried to take it from him. But Benedict held it ironclad and looked at her defiantly. "Go and get it."
"I think I know what will help," said Eloise mischievously and began to tickle her brother's sides. He made a high-pitched screaming sound and dropped the toy without further ado. Instead, he wrapped his arms around his sisters and hugged them tightly to restrict their movement.
"On them," they heard Anthony shout at that moment, and Daphne felt a weight on her body.
"Colin, you are heavy. Get off me," Eloise shouted, playfully offended.
"We Bridgerton men never give up," shouted Gregory, trying to push Hyacinth off him.
Eloise continued to try and snatch the doll from Benedict and Daphne stood up to her other brothers. Laughing loudly, they wrestled in the grass, oblivious to their surroundings until they heard a loud voice.
Startled, they all instantly stopped what they were doing, paused in their movement and turned towards the source of the noise. Violet Bridgerton stood on the pavement and looked at her children in shock. She was used to such behaviour from her two youngest at most, but not from her other children.
"Anthony," she continued. "Why are you all lying on the floor fighting over a doll?"
Anthony looked at his mother, unmoving. Daphne and Eloise exchanged brief, doubtful glances. At any moment they expected Anthony to give in and submit to morality. Then all the fun would end instantly. Apparently, however, they were not the only ones to feel this way. Benedict, who was still lying directly on the ground holding his two sisters, had to twist his head questioningly to see his older brother's reaction. Colin, who was half lying on top of Eloise, looked at Daphne. Gregory and Hyacinth dared not move a muscle. This whole moment had lasted only two seconds, but Anthony did not change his expression. He was still looking deadly serious at his mother when he opened his mouth to reply. "We are only defending our brother's honour, Mother," he said tonelessly. "This is a matter for the Bridgerton siblings, who are now resolving it amongst themselves. If you would excuse us?!"
Daphne and Eloise looked at each other open-mouthed. The sisters could feel their brother quivering with suppressed laughter beneath them. Hyacinth and Gregory grinned mischievously at each other. Violet's expression changed from surprised to loving. She looked at her children with warm eyes. She was sure she hadn't seen them so happy and carefree in a long time. "Of course. You go about your business. I'll wait for you with lunch." With that she turned and disappeared. There was a brief silence in which everyone had to process what had happened.
Then without warning Anthony poked Eloise in the side, who immediately tried to defend herself. Without much conversation, the scuffle was back in full swing. Liberated laughter filled the otherwise quiet family garden. In a brief moment, Daphne let go of Benedict and lifted her gaze to meet her sister's. Eloise just threw her brother off her and met Daphne's gaze with an equally blissful smile. It was as if time stood still for a moment as the two sisters shared this intimate moment. This moment of belonging and understanding.
Together they let their siblings pull them into this weightlessness where there was nothing but joy, security and carelessness.