"No, Colin, I—"
"There is nothing you can say—" he said, jabbing her in the shoulder with his index ringer.
He turned around to gather his belongings, rudely giving her his back while he spoke. "Not a thing that could justify your behavior."
"No, of course not, but—"
Penelope felt the blood drain from her face. Colin's yell was one of real pain. His name escaped her lips in a panicked whisper and she rushed to his side. "What's—Oh, my heavens!"
Blood was gushing from a wound on the palm of his hand.
Never terribly articulate in a crisis, Penelope managed to say, "Oh! Oh! The carpet!" before leaping forward with a piece of writing paper that had been lying on a nearby table and sliding it under his hand to catch the blood before it ruined the priceless carpet below.
"Ever the attentive nurse," Colin said in a shaky voice.
"Well, you're not going to die," she explained, "and the carpet—"
"It's all right," he assured her. "I was trying to make a joke."
Penelope looked up at his face. Tight white lines were etched in the skin around his mouth, and he looked very pale. "I think you'd better sit down," she said.
He nodded grimly and sagged into a chair.
Penelope's stomach did a rather seasickish sway. She'd never been terribly good with blood. "Maybe I'd better sit down, too," she mumbled, sinking onto the low table opposite him.
"Are you going to be all right?" he asked.
She nodded, swallowing against a tiny wave of nausea. "We need to find something to wrap this," she said, grimacing as she looked down at the ridiculous setup below. The paper wasn't absorbent, and the blood was rolling precariously along its surface, with Penelope desperately trying to keep it from dripping over the side.
"I have a handkerchief in my pocket," he said.
She carefully set the paper down and retrieved the handkerchief from his breast pocket, trying not to notice the warm beat of his heart as her fingers fumbled for the creamy white scrap of cloth. "Does it hurt?" she asked as she wrapped it around his hand. "No, don't answer that. Of course it hurts."
He managed a very wobbly smile. "It hurts."
She peered down at the gash, forcing herself to look at it closely even though the blood made her stomach turn. "I don't think you'll need stitches."
"Do you know much about wounds?"
She shook her head. "Nothing. But it doesn't look too bad. Except for... ah, all the blood."
"Feels worse than it looks," he joked.
Her eyes flew to his face in horror.
"Another joke," he reassured her. "Well, not really. It does feel worse than it looks, but I assure you it's bearable."
"I'm sorry," she said, increasing pressure on the wound to staunch the flow of blood. "This is all my fault."
"That I sliced open my hand?"
"If you hadn't been so angry..."
He just shook his head, closing his eyes briefly against the pain. "Don't be silly, Penelope. If I hadn't gotten angry with you, I would have gotten angry with someone else some other time."
"And you'd of course have a letter opener by your side when that happened," she murmured, looking up at him through her lashes as she bent over his hand.
When his eyes met hers, they were filled with humor and maybe just a touch of admiration.
And something else she'd never thought to see— vulnerability, hesitancy, and even insecurity. He didn't know how good his writing was, she realized with amazement. He had no idea, and he was actually embarrassed that she'd seen it.
"Colin," Penelope said, instinctively pressing harder on his wound as she leaned in, "I must tell you. You—"
She broke off when she heard the sharp, even clatter of footsteps coming down the hall. "That will be Wickham," she said, glancing toward the door. "He insisted upon bringing me a small meal. Can you keep the pressure on this for now?"
Colin nodded. "I don't want him to know I've hurt myself. He'll only tell Mother, and then I'll never hear the end of it."
"Well, here, then." She stood and tossed him his journal. "Pretend you're reading this."
Colin barely had time to open it and lay it across his injured hand before the butler entered with a large tray.
"Wickham!" Penelope said, jumping to her feet and turning to face him as if she hadn't already known he was coming. "As usual you've brought far more than I could possibly eat. Luckily, Mr. Bridgerton has been keeping me company. I'm certain that with his help, I'll be able to do justice to your meal."
Wickham nodded and removed the covers from the serving dishes. It was a cold repast—pieces of meat, cheese, and fruit, accompanied by a tall pitcher of lemonade.
Penelope smiled brightly. "I hope you didn't think I could eat all of this myself."
"Lady Bridgerton and her daughters are expected soon. I thought they might be hungry as well."
"Won't be any left after I'm through with it," Colin said with a jovial smile.
Wickham bowed slightly in his direction. "If I'd known you were here, Mr. Bridgerton, I would have trebled the portions. Would you like me to fix you a plate?"
"No, no," Colin said, waving his uninjured hand. "I'll get up just as soon as I... ah ... finish reading this chapter."
The butler said, "Let me know if you require further assistance," and exited the room.
"Aaaaaahhh," Colin groaned, the moment he heard Wickham's steps disappear down the hall. "Damn—I mean, dash it—it hurts."
Penelope plucked a napkin off the tray. "Here, let's replace that handkerchief." She peeled it away from his skin, keeping her
eyes on the cloth rather than the wound. For some reason that didn't seem to bother her stomach quite as much. "I'm afraid your handkerchief is ruined."
Colin just closed his eyes and shook his head. Penelope was smart enough to interpret the action to mean, I don't care. And she was sensible enough not to say anything further on the subject. Nothing worse than a female who chattered forever about nothing.
He'd always liked Penelope, but how was it he'd never realized how intelligent she was up till now? Oh, he supposed if someone had asked him, he would have said she was bright, but he'd certainly never taken the time to think about it.
It was becoming clear to him, however, that she was very intelligent, indeed. And he thought he remembered his sister once telling him that she was an avid reader.
And probably a discriminating one as well.
"I think the bleeding is slowing down," she was saying as she wrapped the fresh napkin around his hand. "In fact, I'm sure it is, if only because I don't feel quite so sick every time I look at the wound."
He wished that she hadn't read his journal, but now that she had...
"Ah, Penelope," he began, startled by the hesitancy in his own voice.
She looked up. "I'm sorry. Am I pressing too hard?"
For a moment Colin did nothing but blink. How was it possible he'd never noticed how big her eyes were? He'd known they were brown, of course, and... No, come to think of it, if he were to be honest with himself, he would have to admit that if asked earlier this morning, he'd not have been able to identify the color of her eyes.
But somehow he knew that he'd never forget again.
She eased up on the pressure. "Is this all right?"
He nodded. "Thank you. I would do it myself, but it's my right hand, and—"
"Say no more. It's the very least I can do, after... after ..." Her eyes slid slightly to the side, and he knew she was about to apologize another time.
"Penelope," he began again.
"No, wait!" she cried out, her dark eyes flashing with... could it be passion? Certainly not the brand of passion with which he was most familiar. But there were other sorts, weren't there? Passion for learning. Passion for... literature?