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Romancing Mister Bridgerton: Chapter 22


Three hours later, Penelope was still in the drawing room, still sitting on the sofa, still staring into space, still trying to figure out how she was going to solve her problems.

Correction: problem, singular.

She had only one problem, but for the size of it, she might as well have had a thousand.

She wasn’t an aggressive person, and she couldn’t remember the last time she had a violent thought, but at that moment, she could have gladly wrung Cressida Twombley’s neck.

She watched the door with a morose sense of fatalism, waiting for her husband to come home, knowing that each ticking second brought her closer to her moment of truth, when she would have to confess everything to him.

He wouldn’t say, I told you so. He would never say such a thing.

But he would be thinking it.

It never occurred to her, not even for a minute, that she might keep this from him. Cressida’s threats weren’t the sort of thing one hid from one’s husband, and besides, she was going to need his help.

She wasn’t certain what she needed to do, but whatever it was, she didn’t know how to do it alone.

But there was one thing she knew for sure—she didn’t want to pay Cressida. There was no way Cressida would be satisfied with ten thousand pounds, not when she thought she could get more. If Penelope capitulated now, she’d be handing money over to Cressida for the rest of her life.

Which meant that in one week’s time, Cressida Twombley would tell all the world that Penelope Featherington Bridgerton was the infamous Lady Whistledown.

Penelope reckoned she had two choices. She could lie, and call Cressida a fool, and hope that everyone believed her; or she could try to find some way to twist Cressida’s revelation to her advantage.

But for the life of her, she didn’t know how.

“Penelope?”

Colin’s voice. She wanted to fling herself into his arms, and at the same time, she could barely bring herself to turn around.

“Penelope?” He sounded concerned now, his footsteps increasing in speed as he crossed the room. “Dunwoody said that Cressida was here.”

He sat next to her and touched her cheek. She turned and saw his face, the corners of his eyes crinkled with worry, his lips, slightly parted as they murmured her name.

And that was when she finally allowed herself to cry.

Funny how she could hold herself together, keep it all inside until she saw him. But now that he was here, all she could do was bury her face in the warmth of his chest, snuggle closer as his arms wrapped around her.

As if somehow he could make all her problems go away by his presence alone.

“Penelope?” he asked, his voice soft and worried. “What happened? What’s wrong?”

Penelope just shook her head, the motion having to suffice until she could think of the words, summon the courage, stop the tears.

“What did she do to you?”

“Oh, Colin,” she said, somehow summoning the energy to pull herself far enough back so that she could see his face. “She knows.”

His skin went white. “How?”

Penelope sniffled, wiping her nose with the back of her hand. “It’s my fault,” she whispered.

He handed her a handkerchief without ever taking his eyes off of her face. “It’s not your fault,” he said sharply.

Her lips slid into a sad smile. She knew that his harsh tone was meant for Cressida, but she deserved it as well. “No,” she said, her voice laced with resignation, “it is. It happened exactly as you said it would. I wasn’t paying attention to what I wrote. I slipped up.”

“What did you do?” he asked.

She told him everything, starting with Cressida’s entrance and ending with her demands for money. She confessed that her poor choice of words was going to be her ruin, but wasn’t it ironic, because it really did feel like her heart was breaking.

But the whole time she spoke, she felt him slipping away. He was listening to her, but he wasn’t there with her. His eyes took on a strange, faraway look, and yet they were narrowed, intense.

He was plotting something. She was sure of it.

It terrified her.

And thrilled her.

Whatever he was planning, whatever he was thinking, it was all for her. She hated that it had been her stupidity that had forced him into this dilemma, but she couldn’t stem the tingle of excitement that swept across her skin as she watched him.

“Colin?” she asked hesitantly. She’d been done speaking for a full minute, and still he hadn’t said anything.

“I’ll take care of everything,” he said. “I don’t want you to worry about a thing.”

“I assure you that that is impossible,” she said with shaking voice.

“I take my wedding vows quite seriously,” he replied, his tone almost frighteningly even. “I believe I promised to honor and keep you.”

“Let me help you,” she said impulsively. “Together we can solve this.”

One corner of his mouth lifted into a hint of a smile. “Have you a solution?”

She shook her head. “No. I’ve been thinking all day, and I don’t know…although…”

“Although what?” he asked, his brows rising.

Her lips parted, then pursed, then parted again as she said, “What if I enlisted the aid of Lady Danbury?”

“You’re planning to ask her to pay off Cressida?”

“No,” she said, even though the tone of his voice told her that his had not been a serious question. “I’m going to ask her to be me.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Everyone thinks she’s Lady Whistledown, anyway,” Penelope explained. “At least, quite a lot of people do. If she were to make an announcement—”

“Cressida would refute it instantly,” Colin interrupted.

“Who would believe Cressida over Lady Danbury?” Penelope turned to him with wide, earnest eyes. “I wouldn’t dare cross Lady Danbury in any matter. If she were to say she was Lady Whistledown, I’d probably believe her myself.”

“What makes you think you can convince Lady Danbury to lie for you?”

“Well,” Penelope replied, chewing on her lower lip, “she likes me.”

“She likes you?” Colin echoed.

“She does, rather. I think she might like to help me, especially since she detests Cressida almost as much as I do.”

“You think her fondness for you will lead her to lie to the entire ton?” he asked doubtfully.

She sagged in her seat. “It’s worth asking.”

He stood, his movements abrupt, and walked to the window. “Promise me you won’t go to her.”

“But—”

“Promise me.”

“I promise,” she said, “but—”

“No buts,” he said. “If we need to, we’ll contact Lady Danbury, but not until I have a chance to think of something else.” He raked his hand through his hair. “There must be something else.”

“We have a week,” she said softly, but she didn’t find her words reassuring, and it was difficult to imagine that Colin did, either.

He turned around, his about-face so precise he might have been in the military. “I’ll be back,” he said, heading for the door.

“But where are you going?” Penelope cried out, jumping to her feet.

“I have to think,” he said, pausing with his hand on the doorknob.

“You can’t think here with me?” she whispered.

His face softened, and he crossed back to her side. He murmured her name, tenderly taking her face in his hands. “I love you,” he said, his voice low and fervent. “I love you with everything I am, everything I’ve been, and everything I hope to be.”

“Colin…”

“I love you with my past, and I love you for my future.” He bent forward and kissed her, once, softly, on the lips. “I love you for the children we’ll have and for the years we’ll have together. I love you for every one of my smiles, and even more, for every one of your smiles.”

Penelope sagged against the back of a nearby chair.

“I love you,” he repeated. “You know that, don’t you?”

She nodded, closing her eyes as her cheeks rubbed against his hands.

“I have things to do,” he said, “and I won’t be able to concentrate if I’m thinking about you, worrying if you’re crying, wondering if you’re hurt.”

“I’m fine,” she whispered. “I’m fine now that I’ve told you.”

“I will make this right,” he vowed. “I just need you to trust me.”

She opened her eyes. “With my life.”

He smiled, and suddenly she knew that his words were true. Everything would be all right. Maybe not today and maybe not tomorrow, but soon. Tragedy couldn’t coexist in a world with one of Colin’s smiles.

“I don’t think it will come to that,” he said fondly, giving her cheek one affectionate stroke before returning his arms to his sides. He walked back to the door, turning the moment his hand touched the knob. “Don’t forget about my sister’s party tonight.”

Penelope let out a short groan. “Do we have to? The last thing I want to do is go out in public.”

“We have to,” Colin said. “Daphne doesn’t host balls very often, and she’d be crushed if we did not attend.”

“I know,” Penelope said with a sigh. “I know. I knew it even as I complained. I’m sorry.”

He smiled wryly. “It’s all right. You’re entitled to a bit of a bad mood today.”

“Yes,” she said, trying to return the smile. “I am, aren’t I?”

“I’ll be back later,” he promised.

“Where are you—” she started to ask, then caught herself. He obviously didn’t want questions just then, even from her.

But to her surprise, he answered, “To see my brother.”

“Anthony?”

“Yes.”

She nodded encouragingly, murmuring, “Go. I will be fine.” The Bridgertons had always found strength in other Bridgertons. If Colin felt he needed his brother’s counsel, then he should go without delay.

“Don’t forget to prepare for Daphne’s ball,” he reminded her.

She gave him a halfhearted salute and watched as he left the room.

Then she moved to the window to watch him walk by, but he never appeared. He must have headed straight out the back to the mews. She sighed, allowing her bottom to rest against the windowsill for support. She hadn’t realized just how much she’d wanted to catch one last glimpse of him.

She wished she knew what he was planning.

She wished she could be sure he even had a plan.

But at the same time, she felt oddly at ease. Colin would make this right. He’d said he would, and he never lied.

She knew that her idea to enlist the aid of Lady Danbury wasn’t a perfect solution, but unless Colin came up with a better idea, what else could they do?

For now, she would try to push it all from her mind. She was so weary, and so very tired, and right now what she needed was to close her eyes and think of nothing but the green of her husband’s eyes, the shining light of his smile.

Tomorrow.

Tomorrow she would help Colin solve their problems.

Today she would rest. She would take a nap and pray for sleep and try to figure out how she would face all of society this evening, knowing that Cressida would be there, watching and waiting for her to make a false move.

One would think that after nearly a dozen years of pretending she was nothing more than the wallflowerish Penelope Featherington, she’d be used to playing roles and hiding her true self.

But that was when her secret had been safe. Everything was different now.

Penelope curled up on the sofa and closed her eyes.

Everything was different now, but that didn’t mean that it had to be worse, did it?

Everything would be fine. It would. It had to.

Didn’t it?

Colin was starting to regret his decision to take a carriage over to his brother’s house.

He’d wanted to walk—the vigorous use of his legs and feet and muscles seemed the only socially acceptable outlet for his fury. But he’d recognized that time was of the essence, and even with traffic, a carriage could convey him to Mayfair faster than could his own two feet.

But now the walls seemed too close and the air too thick, and goddamn it, was that an overturned milkwagon blocking the street?

Colin poked his head out the door, hanging out of the carriage even as they were still rolling to a halt. “God above,” he muttered, taking in the scene. Broken glass littered the street, milk was flowing everywhere, and he couldn’t tell who was screeching louder—the horses, which were still tangled in the reins, or the ladies on the pavement, whose dresses had been completely splattered with milk.

Colin jumped down from his carriage, intending to help clear the scene, but it quickly became apparent that Oxford Street would be a snarl for at least an hour, with or without his help. He checked to make sure that the milkwagon horses were being properly cared for, informed his driver that he would be continuing on foot, and took off walking.

He stared defiantly in the faces of each person he passed, perversely enjoying the way they averted their gaze when faced with his obvious hostility. He almost wished one of them would make a comment, just so he could have someone to lash out at. It didn’t matter that the only person he really wanted to throttle was Cressida Twombley; by this point anyone would have made a fine target.

His anger was making him unbalanced, unreasonable. Unlike himself.

He still wasn’t certain what had happened to him when Penelope had told him of Cressida’s threats. This was more than anger, greater than fury. This was physical; it coursed through his veins, pulsed beneath his skin.

He wanted to hit someone.

He wanted to kick things, put his fist through a wall.

He’d been furious when Penelope had published her last column. In fact, he’d thought he couldn’t possibly experience a greater anger.

He was wrong.

Or perhaps it was just that this was a different sort of anger. Someone was trying to hurt the one person he loved above all others.

How could he tolerate that? How could he allow it to happen?

The answer was simple. He couldn’t.

He had to stop this. He had to do something.

After so many years of ambling through life, laughing at the antics of others, it was time to take action himself.

He looked up, somewhat surprised that he was already at Bridgerton House. Funny how it no longer seemed like home. He’d grown up here, but now it was so obviously his brother’s house.

Home was in Bloomsbury. Home was with Penelope.

Home was anywhere with Penelope.

“Colin?”

He turned around. Anthony was on the pavement, obviously returning from an errand or appointment.

Anthony nodded toward the door. “Were you planning to knock?”

Colin looked blankly at his brother, just then realizing that he’d been standing perfectly still on the steps for God only knew how long.

“Colin?” Anthony asked again, his brow furrowing with concern.

“I need your help,” Colin said. It was all he needed to say.

Penelope was already dressed for the ball when her maid brought in a note from Colin.

“Dunwoody got it from the messenger,” the maid explained before bobbing a quick curtsy and leaving Penelope to read the note in privacy.

Penelope slid her gloved finger under the envelope flap and nudged it open, pulling out the single sheet of paper on which she saw the fine, neat handwriting that had become so familiar to her since she’d started editing Colin’s journals.

I will make my own way over to the ball this evening. Please proceed to Number Five. Mother, Eloise, and Hyacinth are waiting to accompany you to Hastings House.

All my love,

Colin

For someone who wrote so well in his journals, he wasn’t much of a correspondent, Penelope thought with a wry smile.

She stood, smoothing out the fine silk of her skirts. She’d chosen a dress of her favorite color—sage green—in hopes that it might lend her courage. Her mother had always said that when a woman looked good, she felt good, and she rather thought her mother was right. Heaven knows, she’d spent a good eight years of her life feeling rather bad in the dresses her mother had insisted looked good.

Her hair had been dressed in a loosely upswept fashion that flattered her face, and her maid had even combed something through the strands (Penelope was afraid to ask what) that seemed to bring out the red highlights.

Red hair wasn’t very fashionable, of course, but Colin had once said he liked the way the candlelight made her hair more colorful, so Penelope had decided that this was one case upon which she and fashion would have to disagree.

By the time she made her way downstairs, her carriage was waiting for her, and the driver had already been instructed to take her to Number Five.

Colin had clearly taken care of everything. Penelope wasn’t sure why this surprised her; he wasn’t the sort of man who forgot details. But he was preoccupied today. It seemed odd that he would have taken the time to send instructions to the staff about her delivery to his mother’s house when she could have conveyed the order just as well herself.

He had to be planning something. But what? Was he going to intercept Cressida Twombley and have her shipped off to a penal colony?

No, too melodramatic.

Maybe he’d found a secret about her, and was planning to cross-blackmail her. Silence for silence.

Penelope nodded approvingly as her carriage rolled along Oxford Street. That had to be the answer. It was just like Colin to come up with something so diabolically fitting and clever. But what could he possibly have unearthed about Cressida in so short a time? In all her years as Lady Whistledown, she’d never heard even a whisper of anything truly scandalous attached to Cressida’s name.

Cressida was mean, and Cressida was petty, but she’d never stepped outside the rules of society. The only truly daring thing she’d ever done was claim to be Lady Whistledown.

The carriage turned south into Mayfair, and a few minutes later, they came to a stop in front of Number Five. Eloise must have been watching at the window, because she virtually flew down the steps and would have crashed into the carriage had the driver not stepped down at that precise moment and blocked her path.

Eloise jumped from foot to foot as she waited for the driver to open the carriage door; in fact, she looked so impatient that Penelope was surprised she didn’t brush past him and wrench the door open herself. Finally, ignoring the driver’s offer of help, she climbed into the carriage, nearly tripping on her skirts and tumbling to the floor in the process. As soon as she’d righted herself, she looked both ways, her face pursed into an extremely furtive expression, and yanked the door shut, nearly taking off the driver’s nose in the process.

“What,” Eloise demanded, “is going on?”

Penelope just stared at her. “I could ask the same of you.”

“You could? Why?”

“Because you nearly knocked over the carriage in your haste to climb inside!”

“Oh,” Eloise sniffed dismissively. “You have only yourself to blame for that.”

“Me?”

“Yes, you! I want to know what’s going on. And I need to know tonight.”

Penelope was quite certain that Colin would not have told his sister about Cressida’s blackmail demands, not unless his plan was to have Eloise harangue Cressida to death. “I don’t know what you mean,” she said.

“You have to know what I mean!” Eloise insisted, glancing back up toward the house. The front door was opening. “Oh, bother. Mother and Hyacinth are coming already. Tell me!”

“Tell you what?”

“Why Colin sent us that abominably cryptic note instructing us to stick to you like glue all evening.”

“He did?”

“Yes, and may I point out that he underlined the word glue?”

“And here I thought the emphasis was yours,” Penelope said dryly.

Eloise scowled. “Penelope, this is not the time to poke fun at me.”

“When is the time?”

“Penelope!”

“Sorry, I couldn’t resist.”

“Do you know what the note was about?”

Penelope shook her head. Which wasn’t a complete lie, she told herself. She really didn’t know what Colin had planned for this evening.

Just then the door opened, and Hyacinth bounded in. “Penelope!” she said with great enthusiasm. “What is going on?”

“She doesn’t know,” Eloise said.

Hyacinth shot her sister an annoyed look. “It figures you’d sneak out here early.”

Violet poked her head in. “Are they quarreling?” she asked Penelope.

“Just a little,” Penelope replied.

Violet sat next to Hyacinth across from Penelope and Eloise. “Very well, it’s not as if I could stop them, anyway. But do tell, what did Colin mean when he instructed us to stick to you like glue?”

“I’m sure I don’t know.”

Violet’s eyes narrowed, as if assessing Penelope’s honesty. “He was quite emphatic. He underlined the word glue, you know.”

“I know,” Penelope replied, just as Eloise said, “I told her.”

“He underlined it twice,” Hyacinth added. “If his ink had been any darker, I’m sure I would have had to go out and slaughter a horse myself.”

“Hyacinth!” Violet exclaimed.

Hyacinth just shrugged. “It’s all very intriguing.”

“Actually,” Penelope said, eager to change the subject, or at least to twist it slightly, “what I’m wondering is, what will Colin wear?”

That got everyone’s attention.

“He left home in his afternoon clothes,” Penelope explained, “and didn’t come back. I can’t imagine your sister would accept anything less than full evening kit for her ball.”

“He’ll have borrowed something from Anthony,” Eloise said dismissively. “They’re precisely the same size. Same as Gregory, actually. Only Benedict is different.”

“Two inches taller,” Hyacinth said.

Penelope nodded, feigning interest as she glanced out the window. They’d just slowed down, the driver presumably trying to navigate through the crush of carriages that were choking Grosvenor Square.

“How many people are expected tonight?” Penelope asked.

“I believe five hundred were invited,” Violet replied. “Daphne doesn’t host parties very often, but what she lacks in frequency she makes up for in size.”

“I’ll say,” Hyacinth muttered. “I hate crowds. I’m not going to be able to get a decent breath tonight.”

“I’m lucky you were my last,” Violet told her with weary affection. “I’d not have had the energy for any more after you, I’m sure.”

“Pity I wasn’t first, then,” Hyacinth said with a cheeky smile. “Think of all the attention I could have had. Not to mention the fortune.”

“You’re already quite the heiress as it is,” Violet said.

“And you always manage to find your way to the center of attention,” Eloise teased.

Hyacinth just grinned.

“Did you know,” Violet said, turning to Penelope, “that all of my children are going to be in attendance tonight? I can’t remember the last time we were all together.”

“What about your birthday party?” Eloise asked.

Violet shook her head. “Gregory wasn’t able to get away from university.”

“We’re not expected to line up according to height and sing a festive tune, are we?” Hyacinth asked, only half joking. “I can see us now: The Singing Bridgertons. We’d make a fortune on the stage.”

“You’re in a punchy mood tonight,” Penelope said to her.

Hyacinth shrugged. “Just getting myself ready for my upcoming transformation into glue. It seems to require a certain mental preparedness.”

“A gluey frame of mind?” Penelope inquired mildly.

“Precisely.”

“We must get her married off soon,” Eloise said to her mother.

“You first,” Hyacinth shot back.

“I’m working on it,” Eloise said cryptically.

“What?” The word’s volume was rather amplified by the fact that it exploded from three mouths at once.

“That’s all I’m going to say,” Eloise said, and in such a tone of voice that they all knew she meant it.

“I will get to the bottom of this,” Hyacinth assured her mother and Penelope.

“I’m sure you will,” Violet replied.

Penelope turned to Eloise and said, “You don’t stand a chance.”

Eloise just lifted her chin in the air and looked out the window. “We’re here,” she announced.

The four ladies waited until the driver had opened the door, and then one by one they alighted.

“My goodness,” Violet said approvingly, “Daphne has truly outdone herself.”

It was difficult not to stop and look. All of Hastings House was ablaze with light. Every window had been adorned with candles, and outdoor sconces held torches, as did a fleet of footmen who were greeting the carriages.

“It’s too bad Lady Whistledown isn’t here,” Hyacinth said, her voice for once losing its cheeky edge. “She would have loved this.”

“Maybe she is here,” Eloise said. “In fact, she probably is.”

“Did Daphne invite Cressida Twombley?” Violet asked.

“I’m sure she did,” Eloise said. “Not that I think she’s Lady Whistledown.”

“I don’t think anyone thinks that any longer,” Violet replied as she lifted her foot onto the first step. “Come along, girls, our night awaits.”

Hyacinth stepped forward to accompany her mother, while Eloise fell into line beside Penelope.

“There’s magic in the air,” Eloise said, looking around as if she’d never seen a London ball before. “Do you feel it?”

Penelope just looked at her, afraid that if she opened her mouth, she’d blurt out all of her secrets. Eloise was right. There was something strange and electric about the night, a crackling sort of energy—the kind one felt just before a thunderstorm.

“It almost feels like a turning point,” Eloise mused, “as if one’s life could change completely, all in one night.”

“What are you saying, Eloise?” Penelope asked, alarmed by the look in her friend’s eyes.

“Nothing,” Eloise said with a shrug. But a mysterious smile remained upon her lips as she hooked her arm through Penelope’s and murmured, “Let’s be off. The night awaits.”


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