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Romancing Mister Bridgerton: Chapter 23

Penelope had been to Hastings House a number of times, both for formal parties and more casual visits, but never had she seen the stately old building look more lovely—or more magical—than it did that evening.

She and the Bridgerton ladies were among the first to arrive; Lady Bridgerton had always said that it was rude for family members even to consider fashionably late entrances. It was nice to be so early, though; Penelope was actually able to see the decorations without having to push through crushing crowds.

Daphne had decided not to use a theme for her ball, unlike the Egyptian ball last week and the Grecian one the week before. Rather, she had decorated the house with the same simple elegance with which she lived her everyday life. Hundreds of candles adorned the walls and tables, flickering in the night, reflecting off the enormous chandeliers that hung from the ceilings. The windows were swathed in a shimmery, silvery fabric, the sort of thing one might imagine a fairy to wear. Even the servants had changed their livery. Penelope knew that the Hastings servants usually wore blue and gold, but tonight their blue was adorned with silver.

It could almost make a woman feel like a princess in a fairy tale.

“I wonder how much this cost,” Hyacinth said, eyes wide.

“Hyacinth!” Violet scolded, batting her daughter on the arm. “You know that it’s impolite to ask about such things.”

“I didn’t ask,” Hyacinth pointed out, “I wondered. And besides, it’s only Daphne.”

“Your sister is the Duchess of Hastings,” Violet said, “and as such she has certain responsibilities to her station. You would do well to remember that fact.”

“But wouldn’t you agree,” Hyacinth said, linking her arm around her mother’s and giving her hand a little squeeze, “that it’s more important simply to remember that she’s my sister?”

“She has you there,” Eloise said with a smile.

Violet sighed. “Hyacinth, I declare that you will be the death of me.”

“No, I won’t,” Hyacinth replied. “Gregory will.”

Penelope found herself stifling a laugh.

“I don’t see Colin here yet,” Eloise said, craning her neck.

“No?” Penelope scanned the room. “That’s surprising.”

“Did he tell you that he would be here before you arrived?”

“No,” Penelope replied, “but for some reason I rather thought he would.”

Violet patted her arm. “I’m sure he’ll be here soon, Penelope. And then we’ll all know what this big secret is that has him insisting we remain by your side. Not,” she added hastily, her eyes widening with alarm, “that we view it as any sort of chore. You know we adore your company.”

Penelope gave her a reassuring smile. “I know. The feeling is mutual.”

There were only a few people ahead of them in the receiving line, so it wasn’t very long before they were able to greet Daphne and her husband Simon.

“What,” Daphne asked without preamble, just as soon as she was sure her other guests were out of earshot, “is going on with Colin?”

Since the question appeared to be directed mostly at her, Penelope felt compelled to say, “I don’t know.”

“Did he send you a note as well?” Eloise asked.

Daphne nodded. “Yes, we’re to keep an eye on her, he said.”

“It could be worse,” Hyacinth said. “We’re to stick to her like glue.” She leaned forward. “He underlined glue.

“And here I thought I wasn’t a chore,” Penelope quipped.

“Oh, you’re not,” Hyacinth said breezily, “but there’s something rather enjoyable about the word glue. Slides off the tongue rather pleasingly, don’t you think? Glue. Glooooooo.”

“Is it me,” Eloise asked, “or has she gone mad in the head?”

Hyacinth ignored her with a shrug. “Not to mention the drama of it. I feel as if I’m a part of some grand espionage plot.”

“Espionage,” Violet groaned. “Heaven help us all.”

Daphne leaned forward with great drama. “Well, he told us—”

“It’s not a competition, wife,” Simon put in.

She shot him an annoyed look before turning back to her mother and sisters and saying, “He told us to make sure she stays away from Lady Danbury.”

“Lady Danbury!” they all exclaimed.

Except for Penelope, who had a very good idea why Colin might want her to stay away from the elderly countess. He must have come up with something better than her plan to convince Lady Danbury to lie and tell everyone that she was Lady Whistledown.

It had to be the double-blackmail theory. What else could it be? He must have uncovered some horrible secret about Cressida.

Penelope was almost giddy with delight.

“I thought you were rather good friends with Lady Danbury,” Violet said to her.

“I am,” Penelope replied, trying to act perplexed.

“This is very curious,” Hyacinth said, tapping her index finger against her cheek. “Very curious indeed.”

“Eloise,” Daphne suddenly put in, “you’re very quiet tonight.”

“Except for when she called me mad,” Hyacinth pointed out.

“Hmmm?” Eloise had been staring off into space—or perhaps at something behind Daphne and Simon—and hadn’t been paying attention. “Oh, well, nothing to say, I suppose.”

“You?” Daphne asked doubtfully.

“Precisely what I was thinking,” Hyacinth said.

Penelope agreed with Hyacinth, but she decided to keep that to herself. It wasn’t like Eloise not to weigh in with an opinion, especially not on a night like this, which was growing more and more shrouded with mystery as each second passed.

“You all were saying everything so well,” Eloise said. “What could I have possibly added to the conversation?”

Which struck Penelope as very odd. The sly sarcasm was in character, but Eloise always thought she had something to add to a conversation.

Eloise just shrugged.

“We should be moving along,” Violet said. “We’re beginning to hold up your other guests.”

“I shall see you later,” Daphne promised. “And—Oh!”

Everyone leaned in.

“You will probably want to know,” she whispered, “that Lady Danbury is not here yet.”

“Simplifies my job,” Simon said, looking a bit weary of all the intrigue.

“Not mine,” Hyacinth said. “I still have to stick to her—”

“—like glue,” they all—including Penelope—finished for her.

“Well, I do,” Hyacinth said.

“Speaking of glue,” Eloise said as they stepped away from Daphne and Simon, “Penelope, do you think you can make do with only two batches for a bit? I should like to step out for a moment.”

“I will go with you,” Hyacinth announced.

“You can’t both go,” Violet said. “I’m certain Colin didn’t want Penelope left with only me.”

“May I go when she’s back, then?” Hyacinth grimaced. “It’s not something I can avoid.”

Violet turned to Eloise expectantly.

“What?” Eloise demanded.

“I was waiting for you to say the same thing.”

“I’m far too dignified,” Eloise sniffed.

“Oh, please,” Hyacinth muttered.

Violet groaned. “Are you certain you wish us to remain by your side?” she asked Penelope.

“I didn’t think I had a choice,” Penelope replied, amused by the interchange.

“Go,” Violet said to Eloise. “Just hurry back.”

Eloise gave her mother a nod, and then, much to everyone’s surprise, she reached forward and gave Penelope a quick hug.

“What was that for?” Penelope asked with an affectionate smile.

“No reason,” Eloise replied, her returning grin rather like one of Colin’s. “I just think this is going to be a special night for you.”

“You do?” Penelope asked carefully, unsure of what Eloise might have figured out.

“Well, it’s obvious some thing is afoot,” Eloise said. “It’s not like Colin to act with such secrecy. And I wanted to offer my support.”

“You’ll be back in just a few minutes,” Penelope said. “Whatever is going to happen—if indeed anything is going to happen—you’re not likely to miss it.”

Eloise shrugged. “It was an impulse. An impulse born from a dozen years of friendship.”

“Eloise Bridgerton, are you growing sentimental on me?”

“At this late date?” Eloise said with a look of mock outrage. “I think not.”

“Eloise,” Hyacinth interrupted, “will you leave? I can’t wait all night.”

And with a quick wave, Eloise was off.

For the next hour, they just milled about, mingling with the other guests, and moving—Penelope, Violet, and Hyacinth—as one giant being.

“Three heads and six legs have we,” Penelope remarked as she walked toward the window, the two Bridgerton women bustling right alongside her.

“I beg your pardon?” Violet asked.

“Did you really want to look out the window,” Hyacinth muttered, “or were you just testing us? And where is Eloise?”

“Mostly just testing you,” Penelope admitted. “And I’m sure Eloise was detained by some other guest. You know as well as I that there are many people here from whom it is rather difficult to extract oneself from conversation.”

“Hmmph,” was Hyacinth’s reply. “Someone needs to recheck her definition of glue.”

“Hyacinth,” Penelope said, “if you need to excuse yourself for a few minutes, please do go ahead. I shall be just fine.” She turned to Violet. “You as well. If you need to leave, I promise I shall remain right here in the corner until you return.”

Violet looked at her in horror. “And break our word to Colin?”

“Er, did you actually give him your word?” Penelope asked.

“No, but it was implied in his request, I’m sure. Oh, look!” she suddenly exclaimed. “There he is!”

Penelope tried to signal discreetly at her husband, but all her attempts at circumspection were drowned out by Hyacinth’s vigorous wave and holler of, “Colin!”

Violet groaned.

“I know, I know,” Hyacinth said unrepentantly, “I must be more ladylike.”

“If you know it,” Violet said, sounding every inch the mother she was, “then why don’t you do it?”

“What would be the fun in that?”

“Good evening, ladies,” Colin said, kissing his mother’s hand before smoothly taking his place beside Penelope and sliding his arm around her waist.

“Well?” Hyacinth demanded.

Colin merely quirked a brow.

“Are you going to tell us?” she persisted.

“All in good time, dear sister.”

“You’re a wretched, wretched man,” Hyacinth grumbled.

“I say,” Colin murmured, looking about, “what happened to Eloise?”

“That’s a very good question,” Hyacinth muttered, just as Penelope said, “I’m sure she’ll be back soon.”

He nodded, not looking terribly interested. “Mother,” he said, turning toward Violet, “how have you been?”

“You’ve been sending cryptic notes all over town,” Violet demanded, “and you want to know how I’ve been?”

He smiled. “Yes.”

Violet actually started wagging her finger at him, something she’d forbidden her own children from ever doing in public. “Oh, no, you don’t, Colin Bridgerton. You are not going to get out of explaining yourself. I am your mother. Your mother!”

“I am aware of the relation,” he murmured.

“You are not going to waltz in here and distract me with a clever phrase and a beguiling smile.”

“You think my smile is beguiling?”


“But,” he acceded, “you did make an excellent point.”

Violet blinked. “I did?”

“Yes. About the waltz.” He cocked his head slightly to the side. “I believe I hear one beginning.”

“I don’t hear anything,” Hyacinth said.

“Don’t you? Pity.” He grabbed Penelope’s hand. “Come along, wife. I do believe this is our dance.”

“But no one is dancing,” Hyacinth ground out.

He flashed her a satisfied smile. “They will be.”

And then, before anyone had a chance to comment, he’d yanked on Penelope’s hand, and they were weaving through the crowds.

“Didn’t you want to waltz?” Penelope asked breathlessly, right after they’d passed the small orchestra, the members of whom appeared to be taking an extended break.

“No, just to escape,” he explained, slipping through a side door and pulling her along with him.

A few moments later they had ascended a narrow staircase and were secreted in some small parlor, their only light the flickering torches that blazed outside the window.

“Where are we?” Penelope asked, looking around.

Colin shrugged. “I don’t know. It seemed as good a place as any.”

“Are you going to tell me what is going on?”

“No, first I’m going to kiss you.”

And before she had a chance to respond to that (not that she would have protested!) his lips found hers in a kiss that was hungry and urgent and tender all in one.

“Colin!” she gasped, in that split second when he took a breath.

“Not now,” he murmured, kissing her again.

“But—” this was muffled, lost against his lips.

It was the sort of kiss that enveloped her, from her head to her toes, from the way his teeth nibbled her lips, to his hands, squeezing her bottom and sliding across her back. It was the sort of kiss that could easily have turned her knees to water and led her to swoon on the sofa and allow him to do anything to her, the more wicked the better, even though they were mere yards away from over five hundred members of the ton, except—

“Colin!” she exclaimed, somehow breaking her mouth free of his.


“Colin, you have to stop!”

He looked like a lost puppy. “Must I?”

“Yes, you must.”

“I suppose you’re going to say it’s because of all the people just next door.”

“No, although that’s a very good reason to consider restraint.”

“To consider and then reject, perhaps?” he asked hopefully.

“No! Colin—” She pulled herself from his arms and moved several feet away, lest his nearness tempt her into forgetting herself. “Colin, you need to tell me what is going on.”

“Well,” he said slowly, “I was kissing you….”

“That’s not what I meant, and you know it.”

“Very well.” He walked away, his footsteps echoing loudly in her ears. When he turned back around, his expression had turned deadly serious. “I have decided what to do about Cressida.”

“You have? What? Tell me.”

His face took on a slightly pained expression. “Actually, I think it might be best if I didn’t tell you until the plan is under way.”

She stared at him in disbelief. “You’re not serious.”

“Well…” He was looking longingly at the door, clearly hoping for an escape.

“Tell me,” she insisted.

“Very well.” He sighed, then sighed again.


“I’m going to make an announcement,” he said, as if that would explain everything.

At first she said nothing, thinking that maybe it would all become clear if she just waited a moment and thought about it. But that didn’t work, and so she asked, her words slow and careful, “What sort of announcement?”

His face turned resolute. “I’m going to tell the truth.”

She gasped. “About me?”

He nodded.

“But you can’t!”

“Penelope, I think it’s best.”

Panic began to rise within her, and her lungs felt impossibly tight. “No, Colin, you can’t! You can’t do that! It’s not your secret to reveal!”

“Do you want to pay Cressida for the rest of your life?”

“No, of course not, but I can ask Lady Danbury—”

“You’re not going to ask Lady Danbury to lie on your behalf,” he snapped. “That’s beneath you and you know it.”

Penelope gasped at his sharp tone. But deep down, she knew he was right.

“If you were so willing to allow someone else to usurp your identity,” he said, “then you should have just allowed Cressida to do it.”

“I couldn’t,” she whispered. “Not her.”

“Fine. Then it’s time we both stood up and faced the music.”

“Colin,” she whispered, “I’ll be ruined.”

He shrugged. “We’ll move to the country.”

She shook her head, desperately trying to find the right words.

He took her hands in his. “Does it really matter so much?” he said softly. “Penelope, I love you. As long as we’re together, we’ll be happy.”

“It’s not that,” she said, trying to tug her hand from his so that she could wipe the tears from her eyes.

But he wouldn’t let go. “What, then?” he asked.

“Colin, you’ll be ruined, too,” she whispered.

“I don’t mind.”

She stared at him in disbelief. He sounded so flip, so casual about something that would change his entire life, alter it in ways he couldn’t possibly imagine.

“Penelope,” he said, his voice so reasonable she could barely stand it, “it’s the only solution. Either we tell the world, or Cressida does.”

“We could pay her,” she whispered.

“Is that what you really want to do?” he asked. “Give her all the money you’ve worked so hard to earn? You might as well have just let her tell the world she was Lady Whistledown.”

“I can’t let you do this,” she said. “I don’t think you understand what it means to be outside of society.”

“And you do?” he countered.

“Better than you!”


“You’re trying to act as if it doesn’t matter, but I know you don’t feel that way. You were so angry with me when I published that last column, all because you thought I shouldn’t have risked the secret getting out.”

“As it turns out,” he remarked, “I was right.”

“See?” she said urgently. “Do you see? You’re still upset with me over that!”

Colin let out a long breath. The conversation was not moving in the direction he’d hoped. He certainly hadn’t intended for her to throw his earlier insistence that she not tell anyone about her secret life back in his face. “If you hadn’t published that last column,” he said, “we wouldn’t be in this position, that is true, but the point is now moot, don’t you think?”

“Colin,” she whispered. “If you tell the world I’m Lady Whistledown, and they react the way we think they will, you’ll never see your journals published.”

His heart stood still.

Because that was when he finally understood her.

She had told him before that she loved him, and she had shown her love as well, in all the ways he’d taught her. But never before had it been so clear, so frank, so raw.

All this time she’d been begging him not to make the announcement—it had all been for him.

He swallowed against the lump that was forming in his throat, fought for words, fought even for breath.

She reached out and touched his hand, her eyes pleading, her cheeks still wet with tears. “I could never forgive myself,” she said. “I don’t want to destroy your dreams.”

“They were never my dreams until I met you,” he whispered.

“You don’t want to publish your journals?” she asked, blinking in confusion. “You were just doing it for me?”

“No,” he said, because she deserved nothing less than complete honesty. “I do want it. It is my dream. But it’s a dream you gave me.”

“That doesn’t mean I can take it away.”

“You’re not.”

“Yes, I—”

“No,” he said forcefully, “you’re not. And getting my work published…well, it doesn’t hold a candle to my real dream, which is spending the rest of my life with you.”

“You’ll always have that,” she said softly.

“I know.” He smiled, and then it turned rather cocky. “So what do we have to lose?”

“Possibly more than we could ever guess.”

“And possibly less,” he reminded her. “Don’t forget that I’m a Bridgerton. And you are now, too. We wield a bit of power in this town.”

Her eyes widened. “What do you mean?”

He shrugged modestly. “Anthony is prepared to give you his full support.”

“You told Anthony?” she gasped.

“I had to tell Anthony. He’s the head of the family. And there are very few people on this earth who would dare to cross him.”

“Oh.” Penelope chewed on her lower lip, considering all this. And then, because she had to know: “What did he say?”

“He was surprised.”

“I expected as much.”

“And rather pleased.”

Her face lit up. “Really?”

“And amused. He said he had to admire someone who could keep a secret like that for so many years. He said he couldn’t wait to tell Kate.”

She nodded. “I suppose you’ll have to make an announcement now. The secret is out.”

“Anthony will hold his counsel if I ask him to,” Colin said. “That has nothing to do with why I want to tell the world the truth.”

She looked at him expectantly, warily.

“The truth is,” Colin said, tugging on her hand and pulling her close, “I’m rather proud of you.”

She felt herself smiling, and it was so strange, because just a few moments earlier, she couldn’t imagine ever smiling again.

He leaned down until his nose touched hers. “I want everyone to know how proud I am of you. By the time I’m through, there won’t be a single person in London who doesn’t recognize how clever you are.”

“They may still hate me,” she said.

“They may,” he agreed, “but that will be their problem, not ours.”

“Oh, Colin,” she sighed. “I do love you. It’s an excellent thing, really.”

He grinned. “I know.”

“No, I really do. I thought I loved you before, and I’m sure I did, but it’s nothing like what I feel now.”

“Good,” he said, a rather possessive gleam appearing in his eyes, “that’s the way I like it. Now come with me.”


“Here,” he said, pushing open a door.

To Penelope’s amazement, she found herself on a small balcony, overlooking the entire ballroom. “Oh. Dear. God,” she gulped, trying to yank him back into the darkened room behind them. No one had seen them yet; they could still make their escape.

“Tsk tsk,” he scolded. “Bravery, my sweet.”

“Couldn’t you post something in the paper?” she whispered urgently. “Or just tell someone and allow the rumor to spread?”

“There’s nothing like a grand gesture to get the point across.”

She swallowed convulsively. As gestures went, this was going to be grand. “I’m not very good at being the center of attention,” she said, trying to remember how to breathe in a normal rhythm.

He squeezed her hand. “Don’t worry. I am.” He looked out over the crowd until his eyes found those of their host, his brother-in-law, the Duke of Hastings. At Colin’s nod, the duke began to move toward the orchestra.

“Simon knows?” Penelope gasped.

“I told him when I arrived,” Colin murmured absently. “How do you think I knew how to find the room with the balcony?”

And then the most remarkable thing happened. A veritable fleet of footmen appeared as if from nowhere and began handing tall flutes of champagne to every guest.

“Here’s ours,” Colin said approvingly, picking up two glasses that were waiting in the corner. “Just as I asked.”

Penelope took hers silently, still unable to comprehend all that was unfolding around her.

“It’s probably a little flat by now,” Colin said in a conspiratorial sort of whisper that she knew was meant to set her at ease. “But it’s the best I could do under the circumstances.”

As Penelope clutched Colin’s hand in terror, she watched helplessly as Simon quieted the orchestra and directed the throng of partygoers to turn their attention to his brother and sister on the balcony.

His brother and sister, she thought in wonder. The Bridgertons really did inspire a bond. She never thought she’d see the day when a duke referred to her as his sister.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Colin announced, his strong, confident voice booming throughout the hall, “I would like to propose a toast to the most remarkable woman in the world.”

A low murmur spread across the room, and Penelope stood frozen, watching everyone watching her.

“I am a newlywed,” Colin continued, beguiling the partygoers with his lopsided smile, “and therefore you are all required to indulge me in my lovesick ways.”

Friendly laughter rippled through the crowd.

“I know that many of you were surprised when I asked Penelope Featherington to be my wife. I was surprised myself.”

A few unkind titters wafted through the air, but Penelope held herself perfectly still, completely proud. Colin would say the right thing. She knew he would. Colin always said the right thing.

“I wasn’t surprised that I had fallen in love with her,” he said pointedly, giving the crowd a look that dared them to comment, “but rather that it had taken so long.

“I’ve known her for so many years, you see,” he continued, his voice softening, “and somehow I’d never taken the time to look inside, to see the beautiful, brilliant, witty woman she’d become.”

Penelope could feel the tears trickling down her face, but she couldn’t move. She could barely breathe. She had expected him to reveal her secret, and instead he was giving her this incredible gift, this spectacular declaration of love.

“Therefore,” Colin said, “with all of you here as my witnesses, I would like to say—Penelope—” He turned to her, taking her free hand in his, and said:

“I love you. I adore you. I worship the ground you walk upon.”

He turned back out to the crowd, lifted his glass, and said, “To my wife!”

“To your wife!” they all boomed, caught up in the magic of the moment.

Colin drank, and Penelope drank, even though she couldn’t help but wonder when he was going to tell them all the real reason for this announcement.

“Put down your glass, dear,” he murmured, plucking it from her fingers and setting it aside.


“You interrupt far too much,” he scolded, and then he swept her into a passionate kiss, right there on the balcony in front of the entire ton.

“Colin!” she gasped, once he gave her a chance to breathe.

He grinned wolfishly as their audience roared its approval.

“Oh, and one last thing!” he called to the crowd.

They were now stamping their feet, hanging on his every word.

“I’m leaving the party early. Right now, as a matter of fact.” He shot a wicked, sideways grin at Penelope. “I’m sure you’ll understand.”

The men in the crowd hooted and hollered as Penelope turned beet red.

“But before I do, I have one last thing to say. One last little thing, in case you still don’t believe me when I tell you that my wife is the wittiest, cleverest, most enchanting woman in all of London.”

“Nooooo!” came a voice from the back, and Penelope knew it was Cressida.

But even Cressida was no match for the crowd, none of whom would let her pass, or even listen to her cries of distress.

“You might say that my wife has two maiden names,” he said thoughtfully. “Of course you all knew her as Penelope Featherington, as did I. But what you didn’t know, and what even I was not clever enough to figure out until she told me herself…”

He paused, waiting for silence to fall over the room.

“…is that she is also the brilliant, the witty, the breathtakingly magnificent—Oh, you all know who I am talking about,” he said, his arm sweeping out toward the crowd.

“I give you my wife!” he said, his love and pride flowing across the room. “Lady Whistledown!”

For a moment there was nothing but silence. It was almost as if no one even dared to breathe.

And then it came. Clap. Clap. Clap. Slow and methodical, but with such force and determination that everyone had to turn and look to see who had dared to break the shocked silence.

It was Lady Danbury.

She had shoved her cane into someone else’s arms and was holding her arms high, clapping loud and proud, beaming with pride and delight.

And then someone else began to clap. Penelope jerked her head to the side to see who…

Anthony Bridgerton.

And then Simon Basset, the Duke of Hastings.

And then the Bridgerton women, and then the Featherington women, and then another and another and more and more until the entire room was cheering.

Penelope couldn’t believe it.

Tomorrow they might remember to be angry with her, to feel irritated at having been fooled for so many years, but tonight…

Tonight all they could do was admire and cheer.

For a woman who had had to carry out all of her accomplishments in secret, it was everything she’d ever dreamed of.

Well, almost everything.

Everything she’d truly ever dreamed of was standing next to her, his arm around her waist. And when she looked up at him, at his beloved face, he was smiling down at her with such love and pride that her breath caught in her throat.

“Congratulations, Lady Whistledown,” he murmured.

“I prefer Mrs. Bridgerton,” she replied.

He grinned. “Excellent choice.”

“Can we leave?” she whispered.

“Right now?”

She nodded.

“Oh, yes,” he said enthusiastically.

And no one saw them for several days.


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