Font Size:  

He scowled, which didn't surprise her. When people were convinced they had problems, the last thing they wanted to hear was a simple, straightforward solution.

"It's not that simple," he said.

"It's exactly that simple." She stared at him for the longest moment, wondering, perhaps for the first time in her life, just who he was.

She'd thought she knew everything about him, but she hadn't known that he kept a journal.

She hadn't known that he possessed a temper.

She hadn't known that he felt dissatisfied with his life.

And she certainly hadn't known that he was petulant and spoiled enough to feel that dissatisfaction, when heaven knew he didn't deserve to. What right did he have to feel unhappy with his life? How dare he complain, especially to her?

She stood, smoothing out her skirts in an awkward, defensive gesture. "Next time you want to complain about the trials and tribulations of universal adoration, try being an on-the-shelf spinster for a day. See how that feels and then let me know what you want to complain about."

And then, while Colin was still sprawled on the sofa, gaping at her as if she were some bizarre creature with three heads, twelve fingers, and a tail, she swept out of the room.

It was, she thought as she descended the outer steps to Bruton Street, quite the most splendid exit of her existence.

It was really too bad, then, that the man she'd been leaving was the only one in whose company she'd ever wanted to remain.

Colin felt like hell all day.

His hand hurt like the devil, despite the brandy he'd sloshed both on his skin and into his mouth. The estate agent who'd handled the lease for the snug little terrace house he'd found in Bloomsbury had informed him that the previous tenant was having difficulties and Colin wouldn't be able to move in today as planned—would next week be acceptable?

And to top it off, he suspected that he might have done irreparable harm to his friendship with Penelope.

Which made him feel worst of all, since (A) he rather valued his friendship with Penelope and (B) he hadn't realized how much he valued his friendship with Penelope, which (C) made him feel slightly panicked.

Penelope was a constant in his life. His sister's friend— the one who was always at the fringes of the party; nearby, but not truly a part of things.

But the world seemed to be shifting. He'd only been back in England for a fortnight, but already Penelope had changed. Or maybe he'd changed. Or maybe she hadn't changed but the way he saw her had changed.

She mattered. He didn't know how else to put it.

And after ten years of her just being ... there, it was rather bizarre for her to matter quite so much.

He didn't like that they'd parted ways that afternoon on such awkward terms. He couldn't remember feeling awkward with Penelope, ever—no, that wasn't true. There was that time ... dear God, how many years ago was it? Six? Seven? His mother had been pestering him about getting married, which was nothing new, except this time she'd suggested Penelope as a potential bride, which was new, and Colin just hadn't been in the mood to deal with his mother's matchmaking in his usual manner, which was to tease her back.

And then she just hadn't stopped. She'd talked about Penelope all day and night, it seemed, until Colin finally fled the country. Nothing drastic—just a short jaunt to Wales. But really, what had his mother been thinking?

When he'd returned, his mother had wanted to speak with him, of course—except this time it had been because his sister Daphne was with child again and she had wanted to make a family announcement. But how was he to have known that? So he had not been looking forward to the visit, since he was sure it would involve a great deal of completely unveiled hints about marriage. Then he had run into his brothers, and they'd started tormenting him about the very same subject, as only brothers can do, and the next thing he knew, he announced, in a very loud voice, that he was not going to marry Penelope Featherington!

Except somehow Penelope had been standing right there in the doorway, her hand to her mouth, her eyes wide with pain and embarrassment and probably a dozen other unpleasant emotions that he'd been too ashamed to delve into.

It had been one of the most awful moments of his life. One, in fact, that he made an effort not to remember. He didn't think Penelope had ever fancied him—at least not any more than other ladies fancied him—but he'd embarrassed her. To single her out for such an announcement...

It had been unforgivable.

He'd apologized, of course, and she'd accepted, but he'd never quite forgiven himself.

And now he'd gone and insulted her again. Not in as direct a manner, of course, but he should have thought a bit longer and harder before complaining about his life.

Hell, it had sounded stupid, even to him. What did he have to complain about? Nothing.

And yet there was still this nagging emptiness. A longing, really, for something he couldn't define. He was jealous of his brothers, for God's sake, for having found their passions, their legacies.

The only mark Colin had left on the world was in the pages of Lady Whistledown's Society Papers. What a joke.

But all things were relative, weren't they? And compared to Penelope, he had little to complain about.

Which probably meant that he should have kept his thoughts to himself. He didn't like to think of her as an on-the-shelf spinster, but he supposed that was exactly what she was. And it wasn't a position of much reverence in British society.

In fact, it was a situation about which many people would complain. Bitterly.

Penelope had never once presented herself as anything less than a stoic—perhaps not content with her lot, but at least accepting of it.

And who knows? Maybe Penelope had hopes and dreams of a life beyond the one she shared with her mother and sister in their small home on Mount Street. Maybe she had plans and goals of her own but kept them to herself under a veil of dignity and good humor.

Maybe there was more to her than there seemed. Maybe, he thought with a sigh, she deserved an apology.

He wasn't precisely certain what he needed to apologize for; he wasn't certain there was a precise thing that needed it.

But the situation needed something.

Aw, hell. Now he was going to have to attend the Smythe-Smith musicale this evening. It was a painful, discordant, annual event; just when one was sure that all the Smythe-Smith daughters had grown up, some new cousin rose to take her place, each more tone deaf than the last.

But that was where Penelope was going to be that evening, and that meant that was where Colin would have to be as well.


Colin Bridgerton had quite the bevy of young ladies at his side at the Smythe-Smith musicale Wednesday night, all fawning over his injured hand.

This Author does not know how the injury was sustained— indeed, Mr. Bridgerton has been rather annoyingly tight-lipped about it. Speaking of annoyances, the man in question seemed rather irritated by all of the attention. Indeed, This Author overheard him tell his brother Anthony that he wished he'd left the (unrepeatable word) bandage at home.

Lady Whistledown's Society Papers, 16 April 1824

Why why why did she do this to herself?

Year after year the invitation arrived by messenger, and year after year Penelope swore she would never, as God was her witness, ever attend another Smythe-Smith musicale.

And yet year after year she found herself seated in the Smythe-Smith music room, desperately trying not to cringe (at least not visibly) as the latest generation of Smythe-Smith girls butchered poor Mr. Mozart in musical effigy.

It was painful. Horribly, awfully, hideously painful. Truly, there was no other way to describe it.

Even more perplexing was that Penelope always seemed to end up in the front row, or close to it, which was beyond excruciating. And not just on the ears. Every few years, there would be one Smythe-Smith girl who seemed aware that she was taking part in what could only be termed a crime against auditory law. Whi

le the other girls attacked their violins and pianofortes with oblivious vigor, this odd one out played with a pained expression on her face—an expression Penelope knew well.

It was the face one put on when one wanted to be anywhere but where one was. You could try to hide it, but it always came out in the corners of the mouth, which were held tight and taut. And the eyes, of course, which floated either above or below everyone else's line of vision.

Heaven knew Penelope's face had been cursed with that same expression many a time.

Maybe that was why she never quite managed to stay home on a Smythe-Smith night. Someone had to smile encouragingly and pretend to enjoy the music.

Besides, it wasn't as if she were forced to come and listen more than once per year, anyway.

Still, one couldn't help but think that there must be a fortune to be made in discreet earplugs.

The quartet of girls were warming up—a jumble of discordant notes and scales that only promised to worsen once they began to play in earnest. Penelope had taken a seat in the center of the second row, much to her sister Felicity's dismay.

"There are two perfectly good seats in the back corner," Felicity hissed in her ear.

"It's too late now," Penelope returned, settling down on the lightly cushioned chair.

"God help me," Felicity groaned. Penelope picked up her program and began leafing through it. "If we don't sit here, someone else will," she said.

"Precisely my desire!"

Penelope leaned in so that only her sister could hear her murmured words. "We can be counted on to smile and be polite. Imagine if someone like Cressida Twombley sat here and snickered all the way through."

Felicity looked around. "I don't think Cressida Twombley would be caught dead here."

Penelope chose to ignore the statement. "The last thing they need is someone seated right in front who likes to make unkind remarks. Those poor girls would be mortified."

"They're going to be mortified anyway," Felicity grumbled.

"No, they won't," Penelope said. "At least not that one, that one, or that one," she said, pointing to the two on violins and the one at the piano. But that one"—she motioned discreetly to the girl sitting with a cello between her knees—"is already miserable. The least we can do is not to make it worse by allowing someone catty and cruel to sit here."

"She's only going to be eviscerated later this week by Lady Whistledown," Felicity muttered.

Penelope opened her mouth to say more, but at that exact moment she realized that the person who had just occupied the seat on her other side was Eloise.

"Eloise," Penelope said with obvious delight. "I thought you were planning to stay home."

Eloise grimaced, her skin taking on a decidedly green pallor. "I can't explain it, but I can't seem to stay away. It's rather like a carriage accident. You just can't not look."

"Or listen," Felicity said, "as the case may be."

Articles you may like