“You didn’t tell her?”
Penelope Bridgerton would have said more, and in fact would have liked to say more, but words were difficult, what with her mouth hanging slack. Her husband had just returned from a mad dash across the south of England with his three brothers, in pursuit of his sister Eloise, who had, by all accounts, run off to elope with—
Oh, dear God.
“Is she married?” Penelope asked frantically.
Colin tossed his hat on a chair with a clever little twist of his wrist, one corner of his mouth lifting in a satisfied smile as it spun through the air on a perfect horizontal axis. “Not yet,” he replied.
So she hadn’t eloped. But she had run away. And she’d done it in secret. Eloise, who was Penelope’s closest friend. Eloise, who told Penelope everything. Eloise, who apparently didn’t tell Penelope everything, had run off to the home of a man none of them knew, leaving a note assuring her family that all would be well and not to worry.
Not to worry????
Good heavens, one would think Eloise Bridgerton knew her family better than that. They had been frantic, every last one of them. Penelope had stayed with her new mother-in-law while the men were searching for Eloise. Violet Bridgerton had put up a good front, but her skin was positively ashen, and Penelope could not help but notice the way her hands shook with every movement.
And now Colin was back, acting as if nothing were amiss, answering none of her questions to her satisfaction, and beyond all that—
“How could you not have told her?” she said again, dogging his heels.
He sprawled into a chair and shrugged. “There really wasn’t an appropriate time.”
“You were gone five days!”
“Yes, well, not all of them were with Eloise. A day’s travel on either end, after all.”
Colin summoned just enough energy to glance about the room. “Don’t suppose you ordered tea?”
“Yes, of course,” Penelope said reflexively, since it had not taken more than a week of marriage to learn that when it came to her new husband, it was always best to have food at the ready. “But Colin—”
“I did hurry back, you know.”
“I can see that,” she said, taking in his dampened, windblown hair. “Did you ride?”
“Wiltshire, actually. We retired to Benedict’s.”
He smiled disarmingly. “I missed you.”
And Penelope was not so accustomed to his affection that she did not blush. “I missed you, too, but—”
“Come sit with me.”
Where? Penelope almost demanded. Because the only flat surface was his lap.
His smile, which had been charm personified, grew more heated. “I’m missing you right now,” he murmured.
Much to her extreme embarrassment, her gaze moved instantly to the front of his breeches. Colin let out a bark of laughter, and Penelope crossed her arms. “Don’t, Colin,” she warned.
“Don’t what?” he asked, all innocence.
“Even if we weren’t in the sitting room, and even if the draperies weren’t open—”
“An easily remedied nuisance,” he commented with a glance to the windows.
“And even, ” she ground out, her voice growing in depth, if not quite in volume, “were we not expecting a maid to enter at any moment, the poor thing staggering under the weight of your tea tray, the fact of the matter is—”
Colin let out a sigh.
“—you have not answered my question!”
He blinked. “I’ve quite forgotten what it was.”
A full ten seconds elapsed before she spoke. And then: “I’m going to kill you.”
“Of that, I’m certain,” he said offhandedly. “Truly, the only question is when.”
“Might be sooner rather than later,” he murmured. “But in truth, I thought I’d go in an apoplexy, brought on by bad behavior.”
She stared at him.
“Your bad behavior,” he clarified.
“I didn’t have bad behavior before I met you,” she retorted.
“Oh, ho, ho,” he chortled. “Now that is rich.”
And Penelope was forced to shut her mouth. Because, blast it all, he was right. And that was what all of this was about, as it happened. Her husband, after entering the hall, shrugging off his coat, and kissing her rather soundly on the lips (in front of the butler!), had blithely informed her, “Oh, and by the by, I never did tell her you were Whistledown.”
And if there was anything that might count as bad behavior, it had to be ten years as the author of the now infamous Lady Whistledown’s Society Papers. Over the past decade, Penelope had, in her pseudonymous guise, managed to insult just about everyone in society, even herself. (Surely, the ton would have grown suspicious if she had never poked fun at herself, and besides, she really did look like an overripe citrus fruit in the dreadful yellows and oranges her mother had always forced her to wear.)
Penelope had “retired” just before her marriage, but a blackmail attempt had convinced Colin that the best course of action was to reveal her secret in a grand gesture, and so he had announced her identity at his sister Daphne’s ball. It had all been very romantic and very, well, grand, but by the end of the night it had become apparent that Eloise had disappeared.
Eloise had been Penelope’s closest friend for years, but even she had not known Penelope’s big secret. And now she still didn’t. She’d left the party before Colin had announced it, and he apparently had not seen fit to say anything once he’d found her.
“Frankly,” Colin said, his voice holding an uncharacteristic strain of irritability, “it’s less than she deserved after what she put us through.”
“Well, yes,” Penelope murmured, feeling rather disloyal even as she said it. But the entire Bridgerton clan had been mad with worry. Eloise had left a note, it was true, but it had somehow got mixed into her mother’s correspondence, and an entire day had passed before the family was reassured that Eloise had not been abducted. And even then, no one’s mind was set at ease; Eloise might have left of her own accord, but it had taken another day of tearing her bedchamber to bits before they found a letter from Sir Phillip Crane that indicated where she might have run off to.
Considering all that, Colin did have something of a point.
“We have to go back in a few days for the wedding,” he said. “We’ll tell her then.”
“Oh, but we can’t!”
He paused. Then he smiled. “And why is that?” he asked, his eyes resting on her with great appreciation.
“It will be her wedding day,” Penelope explained, aware that he’d been hoping for a far more diabolical reason. “She must be the center of all attention. I cannot tell her something such as this. ”
“A bit more altruistic than I’d like,” he mused, “but the end result is the same, so you have my approval—”
“I don’t need your approval,” Penelope cut in.
“But nonetheless, you have it,” he said smoothly. “We shall keep Eloise in the dark.” He tapped his fingertips together and sighed with audible pleasure. “It will be a most excellent wedding.”
The maid arrived just then, carrying a heavily laden tea tray. Penelope tried not to notice that she let out a little grunt w
hen she was finally able to set it down.
“You may close the door behind you,” Colin said, once the maid had straightened.
Penelope’s eyes darted to the door, then to her husband, who had risen and was shutting the draperies.
“Colin!” she yelped, because his arms had stolen around her, and his lips were on her neck, and she could feel herself going quite liquid in his embrace. “I thought you wanted food,” she gasped.
“I do,” he murmured, tugging on the bodice of her dress. “But I want you more.”
And as Penelope sank to the cushions that had somehow found their way to the plush carpet below, she felt very loved indeed.
Several days later, Penelope was seated in a carriage, gazing out the window and scolding herself.
Colin was asleep.
She was a widgeon for feeling so nervous about seeing Eloise again. Eloise, for heaven’s sake. They had been as close as sisters for over a decade. Closer. Except, maybe…not quite as close as either had thought. They had kept secrets, both of them. Penelope wanted to wring Eloise’s neck for not telling her about her suitor, but really, she hadn’t a leg to stand on. When Eloise found out that Penelope was Lady Whistledown…
Penelope shuddered. Colin might be looking forward to the moment—he was positively devilish in his glee—but she felt rather ill, quite frankly. She hadn’t eaten all day, and she was not the sort to skip breakfast.
She wrung her hands, craned her neck to get a better view out the window—she thought they might have turned onto the drive for Romney Hall, but she wasn’t precisely certain—then looked back to Colin.
He was still asleep.
She kicked him. Gently, of course, because she did not think herself overly violent, but really, it wasn’t fair that he had slept like a baby from the moment the carriage had started rolling. He had settled into his seat, inquired after her comfort, then, before she’d even managed the you in “Very well, thank you,” his eyes were closed.
Thirty seconds later he was snoring.
It really wasn’t fair. He always fell asleep before she did at night as well.
She kicked him again, harder this time.
He mumbled something in his sleep, shifted positions ever so slightly, and slumped into the corner.
Penelope scooted over. Closer, closer…
Then she organized her elbow in a sharp point and jabbed him in the ribs.
“Wha…?” Colin shot straight awake, blinking and coughing. “What? What? What?”
“I think we’re here,” Penelope said.
He looked out the window, then back at her. “And you needed to inform of this by taking a weapon to my body?”
“It was my elbow.”
He glanced down at her arm. “You, my dear, are in possession of exceedingly bony elbows.”
Penelope was quite sure her elbows—or any part of her, for that matter—were not the least bit bony, but there seemed little to gain by contradicting him, so she said, again, “I think we’re here.”
Colin leaned toward the glass with a couple of sleepy blinks. “I think you’re right.”
“It’s lovely,” Penelope said, taking in the exquisitely maintained grounds. “Why did you tell me it was run-down?”
“It is,” Colin replied, handing her her shawl. “Here,” he said with a gruff smile, as if he weren’t yet used to caring for another person’s welfare in quite the way he did hers. “It will be chilly yet.”
It was still fairly early in the morning; the inn at which they had slept was only an hour’s ride away. Most of the family had stayed with Benedict and Sophie, but their home was not large enough to accommodate all of the Bridgertons. Besides, Colin had explained, they were newlyweds. They needed their privacy.
Penelope hugged the soft wool to her body and leaned against him to get a better look out the window. And, to be honest, just because she liked to lean against him. “I think it looks lovely,” she said. “I have never seen such roses.”
“It’s nicer on the outside than in,” Colin explained, as the carriage drew to a halt. “But I expect Eloise will change that.”
He opened the door himself and hopped out, then offered his arm to assist her down. “Come along, Lady Whistledown—”
“Mrs. Bridgerton,” she corrected.
“Whatever you wish to call yourself,” he said with a grand smile, “you’re still mine. And this is your swan song.”
As Colin stepped across the threshold of what was to be his sister’s new home, he was struck by a sense of relief that was as unsurprising as it was unexpected. For all his irritation with her, he loved his sister. They had not been particularly intimate while growing up; he had been much closer in age to Daphne, and Eloise had often seemed nothing so much as a pesky afterthought. But the previous year had brought them closer, and if it hadn’t been for Eloise, he might never have discovered Penelope.
And without Penelope, he’d be…
It was funny. He couldn’t imagine what he’d be without her.
He looked down at his new wife. She was glancing around the entry hall, trying not to be too obvious about it. Her face was impassive, but he knew she was taking everything in. And tomorrow, when they were musing about the events of the day, she would have remembered every last detail.
Mind like an elephant, she had. He loved it.
“Mr. Bridgerton,” the butler said, greeting them with a little nod. “Welcome back to Romney Hall.”
“A pleasure, Gunning,” Colin murmured. “So sorry about the last time.”
Penelope looked to him askance.
“We entered rather…suddenly,” Colin explained.
The butler must have seen Penelope’s expression of alarm, because he quickly added, “I stepped out of the way.”
“Oh,” she started to say, “I’m so—”
“Sir Phillip did not,” Gunning cut in.
“Oh.” Penelope coughed awkwardly. “Is he going to be all right?”
“Bit of swelling around the throat,” Colin said, unconcerned. “I expect he’s improved by now.” He caught her glancing down at his hands and let out a chuckle. “Oh, it wasn’t I,” he said, taking her arm to lead her down the hall. “I just watched.”
She grimaced. “I think that might be worse.”
“Quite possibly,” he said with great cheer. “But it all turned out well in the end. I quite like the fellow now, and I rather—Ah, Mother, there you are.”
And sure enough, Violet Bridgerton was bustling down the hall. “You’re late,” she said, even though Colin was fairly certain they were not. He bent down to kiss her proffered cheek, then stepped to the side as his mother came forward to take both of Penelope’s hands in hers. “My dear, we need you in back. You are her main attendant, after all.”
Colin had a sudden vision of the scene—a gaggle of chatty females, all talking over one another about minutiae he couldn’t begin to care about, much less understand. They told each other everything, and—
He turned sharply. “Don’t,” he warned, “say a word.”
“I beg your pardon.” Penelope let out a little huff of righteous indignation. “I’m the one who said we couldn’t tell her on her wedding day.”
“I was talking to my mother,” he said.
Violet shook her head. “Eloise is going to kill us.”
“She nearly killed us already, running off like an idiot,” Colin said, with uncharacteristic shortness of temper. “I’ve already instructed the others to keep their mouths shut.”
“Even Hyacinth?” Penelope asked doubtfully.
“Did you bribe her?” Violet asked. “Because it won’t work unless you bribe her.”
“Good Lord,” Colin muttered. “One would think I’d joined this family yesterday. Of course I bribed her.” He turned to Penelope. “No offense to recent additions.”
“Oh, none taken,” she said. “What did you give her?”
He thought about his ba
rgaining session with his youngest sister and nearly shuddered. “Twenty pounds.”
“Twenty pounds!” Violet exclaimed. “Are you mad?”
“I suppose you could have done better,” he retorted. “And I’ve only given her half. I wouldn’t trust that girl as far as I could throw her. But if she keeps her mouth shut, I’ll be another ten pounds poorer.”
“I wonder how far you could throw her,” Penelope mused.