It was, of course, him.
"Colin!" she said in a slightly embarrassed voice, holding still as she waited for him to reach her side. "What a surprise."
He looked like he was trying not to smile. "Were you dancing?"
"Dancing?" she echoed.
"It looked like you were dancing."
"Oh. No." She swallowed guiltily, because even though she wasn't technically lying, it felt as if she were. "Of course not."
His eyes crinkled slightly at the comers. "Pity, then. I would have felt compelled to partner you, and I've never danced in Berkeley Square."
If he'd said the same to her just two days earlier, she would have laughed at his joke and let him be the witty and charming one. But she must have heard Lady Danbury's voice at the back of her head again, because she suddenly decided she didn't want to be the same old Penelope Featherington.
She decided to join in the fun.
She smiled a smile she didn't think she'd even known how to smile. It was wicked and she was mysterious, and she knew it wasn't all in her head because Colin's eyes widened markedly as she murmured, "That's a shame. It's rather enjoyable."
"Penelope Featherington," he drawled, "I thought you said you weren't dancing."
She shrugged. "I lied."
"If that's the case," he said, "then surely this must be my dance."
Penelope's insides suddenly felt very queer. This was why she shouldn't let whispers from Lady Danbury go to her head. She might manage daring and charm for a fleeting moment, but she had no idea how to follow through.
Unlike Colin, obviously, who was grinning devilishly as he held his arms out in perfect waltz position.
"Colin," she gasped, "we're in Berkeley Square!"
"I know. I just finished telling you I've never danced here, don't you recall?"
Colin crossed his arms. 'Tsk. Tsk. You can't issue a dare like that and then try to weasel out of it. Besides, dancing in Berkeley Square seems like the sort of thing a person ought to do at least once in his life, wouldn't you agree?"
"Anyone might see," she whispered urgently.
He shrugged, trying to hide the fact that he was rather entertained by her reaction. "I don't care. Do you?"
Her cheeks grew pink, then red, and it seemed to take her a great deal of effort to form the words, "People will think you are courting me."
He watched her closely, not understanding why she was disturbed. Who cared if people thought they were courting? The rumor would soon be proven false, and they'd have a good laugh at society's expense. It was on the tip of his tongue to say, Hang society, but he held silent. There was something lurking deep in the brown depths of her eyes, some emotion he couldn't even begin to identify.
An emotion he suspected he'd never even felt.
And he realized that the last thing he wanted to do was hurt Penelope Featherington. She was his sister's best friend, and moreover, she was, plain and simple, a very nice girl.
He frowned. He supposed he shouldn't be calling her a girl anymore. At eight-and-twenty she was no more a girl than he was still a boy at three-and-thirty.
Finally, with great care and what he hoped was a good dose of sensitivity, he asked, "Is there a reason why we should worry if people think we are courting?"
She closed her eyes, and for a moment Colin actually thought she might be in pain. When she opened them, her gaze was almost bittersweet. "It would be very funny, actually," she said. "At first."
He said nothing, just waited for her to continue.
"But eventually it would become apparent that we are not actually courting, and it would..." She stopped, swallowed, and Colin realized that she was not as composed on the inside as she hoped to appear.
"It would be assumed," she continued, "that you were the one to break things off, because—well, it just would be."
He didn't argue with her. He knew that her words were true.
She let out a sad-sounding exhale. "I don't want to subject myself to that. Even Lady Whistledown would probably write about it. How could she not? It would be far too juicy a piece of gossip for her to resist."
"I'm sorry, Penelope," Colin said. He wasn't sure what he was apologizing for, but it still seemed like the right thing to say.
She acknowledged him with a tiny nod. "I know I shouldn't care what other people say, but I do."
He found himself turning slightly away as he considered her words. Or maybe he was considering the tone of her voice. Or maybe both.
He'd always thought of himself as somewhat above society. Not really outside of it, precisely, since he certainly moved within it and usually enjoyed himself quite a bit. But he'd always assumed that his happiness did not depend upon the opinions of others.
But maybe he wasn't thinking about this the right way. It was easy to assume that you didn't care about the opinions of others when those opinions were consistently favorable. Would he be so quick to dismiss the rest of society if they treated him the way they treated Penelope?
She'd never been ostracized, never been made the subject of scandal. She just hadn't been ... popular.
Oh, people were polite, and the Bridgertons had all befriended her, but most of Colin's memories of Penelope involved her standing at the perimeter of a ballroom, trying to look anywhere but at the dancing couples, clearly pretending that she really didn't want to dance. That was usually when he went over and asked her himself. She always looked grateful for the request, but also a little bit embarrassed, because they both knew he was doing it at least a little bit because he felt sorry for her.
Colin tried to put himself in her shoes. It wasn't easy. He'd always been popular; his friends had looked up to him at school and the women had flocked to his side when he'd entered society. And as much as he could say he didn't care what people thought, when it came right down to it...
He rather liked being liked.
Suddenly he didn't know what to say. Which was strange, because he always knew what to say. In fact, he was somewhat famous for always knowing what to say. It was, he reflected, probably one of the reasons he was so well liked.
But he sensed that Penelope's feelings depended on his next words, and at some point in the last ten minutes, her feelings had become very important to him.
"You're right," he finally said, deciding that it was always a good idea to tell someone she was correct. "It was very insensitive of me. Perhaps we should start anew?"
She blinked. "I beg your pardon?"
He waved his hand about, as if the motion could explain everything. "Make a fresh start."
She looked quite adorably confused, which confused him, since he'd never thought Penelope the least bit adorable.
"But we've known each other for twelve years," she said.
"Has it really been that long?" He searched his brain, but for the life of him, he couldn't recall the event of their first meeting. "Never mind that. I meant just for this afternoon, you ninny."
She smiled, clearly in spite of herself, and he knew that calling her a ninny had been the exact right thing to do, although in all truth he had no idea why.
"Here we go," he said slowly, drawing his words out with a long flourish of his arm. "You are walking across Berkeley Square, and you spy me in the distance. I call out your name, and you reply by saying ..."
Penelope caught her lower lip between her teeth, trying, for some unknown reason, to contain her smile. What magical star had Colin been born under, that he always knew what to say? He was the pied piper, leaving nothing but happy hearts and smiling faces in his wake. Penelope would have bet money—far more than the thousand pounds Lady Dan-bury had offered up—that she was not the only woman in London desperately in love with the third Bridgerton.
He dipped his head to the side and then righted it in a prompting sort of motion.
"I would reply..." Penelope said slowly. "I would reply.. ."
Colin waited two seconds, then said, "Really, any words will do."
> Penelope had planned to fix a bright grin on her face, but she discovered that the smile on her lips was quite genuine. "Colin!" she said, trying to sound as if she'd just been surprised by his arrival. "What are you doing about?"
"Excellent reply," he said.
She shook her finger at him. "You're breaking out of character."
"Yes, yes, of course. Apologies." He paused, blinked twice, then said, "Here we are. How about this: Much the same as you, I imagine. Heading to Number Five for tea."
Penelope found herself falling into the rhythm of the conversation. "You sound as if you're just going for a visit. Don't you live there?"
He grimaced. "Hopefully just for the next week. A fortnight at most. I'm trying to find a new place to live. I had to give up the lease on my old set of rooms when I left for Cyprus, and I haven't found a suitable replacement yet. I had a bit of business down on Piccadilly and thought I'd walk back."
"In the rain?"
He shrugged. "It wasn't raining when I left earlier this morning. And even now it's just drizzle."
Just drizzle, Penelope thought. Drizzle that clung to his obscenely long eyelashes, framing eyes of such perfect green that more than one young lady had been moved to write (extremely bad) poetry about them. Even Penelope, levelheaded as she liked to think herself, had spent many a night in bed, staring at the ceiling and seeing nothing but those eyes.
Just drizzle, indeed.
She snapped to attention. "Right. Yes. I'm going to your mother's for tea as well. I do so every Monday. And often on other days, too," she admitted. "When there's, er, nothing interesting occurring at my house."
"No need to sound so guilty about it. My mother's a lovely woman. If she wants you over for tea, you should go."
Penelope had a bad habit of trying to hear between the lines of people's conversations, and she had a suspicion that Colin was really saying that he didn't blame her if she wanted to escape her own mother from time to time.