Penelope shook her head and moved forward, Hyacinth hot on her heels. When she reached Colin, he was standing next to the newlyweds and had his arm linked through Eloise’s and was smiling down at her as if he had never once considered:
A) Teaching her to swim by tossing her in a lake.
B) Cutting off three inches of her hair while she slept.
C) Tying her to a tree so that she did not follow him to a local public inn.
Which of course he had, all three of them, and two he’d actually done. (Even Colin wouldn’t have dared something so permanent as a shearing.)
“Eloise,” Penelope said, somewhat breathless from trying to shake off Hyacinth.
“Penelope.” But Eloise’s voice sounded curious. Which did not surprise Penelope; Eloise was no fool, and she was well aware that her brother’s normal modes of behavior did not include beatific smiles in her direction.
“Eloise,” Hyacinth said, for no reason Penelope could deduce.
Penelope turned to her husband. “Colin.”
He looked amused. “Penelope. Hyacinth.”
Hyacinth grinned. “Colin.” And then: “Sir Phillip.”
“Ladies.” Sir Phillip, it seemed, favored brevity.
“Stop!” Eloise burst out. “What is going on?”
“A recitation of our Christian names, apparently,” Hyacinth said.
“Penelope has something to say to you,” Colin said.
“I do, ” Penelope said, thinking quickly. She rushed forward, taking Eloise’s hands in her own. “Congratulations. I’m so happy for you.”
“That’s what you needed to say?” Eloise asked.
And from Hyacinth: “I am enjoying myself immensely.”
“Er, it’s very kind of you to say so,” Sir Phillip said, looking a bit perplexed at her sudden need to compliment the host. Penelope closed her eyes for a brief moment and let out a weary sigh; she was going to need to take the poor man aside and instruct him on the finer points of marrying into the Bridgerton family.
And because she did know her new relations so well, and she knew that there was no way she was going to avoid revealing her secret, she turned to Eloise, and said, “Might I have a moment alone?”
It was enough to make Penelope wish to strangle someone. Anyone. “Yes,” she said patiently, “with you.”
“And me,” Colin put in.
“And me,” Hyacinth added.
“Not you,” Penelope said, not bothering to look at her.
“But still me,” Colin added, looping his free arm through Penelope’s.
“Can this wait?” Sir Phillip asked politely. “This is her wedding day, and I expect that she does not wish to miss it.”
“I know,” Penelope said wearily. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s all right,” Eloise said, breaking free of Colin’s grasp and turning to her new husband. She murmured a few words to him that Penelope could not hear, then said, “There is a small salon just through that door. Shall we?”
She led the way, which suited Penelope because it gave her time to say to Colin, “You will say nothing.”
He surprised her by nodding. And then, maintaining his silence, he held open the door for her as she entered the room behind Eloise.
“This won’t take long,” Penelope said apologetically. “At least, I hope it won’t.”
Eloise said nothing, just looked at her with an expression that was, Penelope had just enough presence of mind to notice, uncharacteristically serene.
Marriage must agree with her, Penelope thought, because the Eloise she knew would have been chomping at the bit at such a moment. A big secret, a mystery to be revealed—Eloise loved that sort of thing.
But she was just standing there, calmly waiting, a light smile touching her features. Penelope looked to Colin in confusion, but he was apparently taking her instructions to heart, and his mouth was clamped firmly shut.
“Eloise,” Penelope began.
Eloise smiled. A bit. Just at the corners, as if she wanted to smile more. “Yes?”
Penelope cleared her throat. “Eloise,” she said again, “there is something I must tell you.”
Penelope’s eyes narrowed. Surely the moment did not call for sarcasm. She took a breath, tamping down the urge to fire off an equally dry rejoinder, and said, “I did not wish to tell you on your wedding day”—at this she speared her husband with a glare—“but it seems I have no choice.”
Eloise blinked a few times, but other than that, her placid demeanor did not change.
“I can think of no other way to say it,” Penelope plodded on, feeling positively sick, “but while you were gone…That is to say, the night you left, as a matter of fact…”
Eloise leaned forward. The movement was slight, but Penelope caught it, and for a moment she thought—Well, she didn’t think anything clearly, certainly nothing that she could have expressed in a proper sentence. But she did get a feeling of unease—a different sort of unease than the one she was already feeling. It was a suspicious sort of unease, and—
“I am Whistledown,” she blurted out, because if she waited any longer, she thought her brain might explode.
And Eloise said, “I know.”
Penelope sat down on the nearest solid object, which happened to be a table. “You know.”
Eloise shrugged. “I know.”
“Hyacinth told me.”
“What?” This from Colin, looking fit to be tied. Or perhaps more accurately, fit to tie Hyacinth.
“I’m sure she’s at the door,” Eloise murmured, with a nod. “In case you want to—”
But Colin was one step ahead of her, wrenching open the door to the small salon. Sure enough, Hyacinth tumbled in.
“Hyacinth!” Penelope said disapprovingly.
“Oh, please,” Hyacinth retorted, smoothing her skirts. “You didn’t think I wouldn’t eavesdrop, did you? You know me better than that.”
“I’m going to wring your neck,” Colin ground out. “We had a deal.”
Hyacinth shrugged. “I don’t really need twenty pounds, as it happens.”
“I already gave you ten.”
“I know,” Hyacinth said with a cheerful smile.
“Hyacinth!” Eloise exclaimed.
“Which isn’t to say,” Hyacinth continued modestly, “that I don’t want the other ten.”
“She told me last night,” Eloise explained, her eyes narrowing dangerously, “but only after informing me that she knew who Lady Whistledown was, and in fact the whole of society knew, but that the knowledge would cost me twenty-five pounds.”
“Did it not occur to you,” Penelope asked, “that if the whole of society knew, that you could simply have asked someone else?”
“The whole of society wasn’t in my bedchamber at two in the morning,” Eloise snapped.
“I am thinking of buying a hat,” Hyacinth mused. “Or maybe a pony.”
Eloise shot her a nasty look, then turned to Penelope, “Are you really Whistledown?”
“I am,” Penelope admitted. “Or rather—” She looked over at Colin, not exactly certain why she was doing so except that she loved him so much, and he knew her so well, and when he saw her helpless little wobbly smile, he would smile in return, no matter how irate he was with Hyacinth.
And he did. Somehow, amidst everything, he knew what she needed. He always did.
Penelope turned back to Eloise. “I was, ” she amended. “No longer. I’ve retired.”
But of course Eloise already knew that. Lady W’s letter of retirement had circulated long before Eloise had left town.