Penelope smiled. She couldn't help it.
"Did I hear you talking about Lady Whistledown when I arrived?" Eloise asked.
"I told Penelope," Felicity said, leaning rather inelegantly across her sister to speak to Eloise, "that they're going to be destroyed by Lady W later this week."
"I don't know," Eloise said thoughtfully. "She doesn't pick on the Smythe-Smith girls every year. I'm not sure why."
"I know why," cackled a voice from behind.
Eloise, Penelope, and Felicity all twisted in their seats, then lurched backward as Lady Danbury's cane came perilously close to their faces.
"Lady Danbury," Penelope gulped, unable to resist the urge to touch her nose—if only to reassure herself that it was still there.
"I have that Lady Whistledown figured out," Lady Danbury said.
"You do?" Felicity asked.
"She's soft at heart," the old lady continued. "You see that one"—she poked her cane in the direction of the cellist, nearly piercing Eloise's ear in the process—"right over there?"
"Yes," Eloise said, rubbing her ear, "although I don't think I'm going to be able to hear her."
"Probably a blessing," Lady Danbury said before turning back to the subject at hand. "You can thank me later."
"You were saying something about the cellist?" Penelope said swiftly, before Eloise said something entirely inappropriate.
"Of course I was. Look at her," Lady Danbury said. "She's miserable. And well she should be. She's clearly the only one who has a clue as to how dreadful they are. The other three don't have the musical sense of a gnat."
Penelope gave her younger sister a rather smug glance.
"You mark my words," Lady Danbury said. "Lady Whistledown won't have a thing to say about this musicale. She won't want to hurt that one's feelings. The rest of them—"
Felicity, Penelope, and Eloise all ducked as the cane came swinging by.
"Bah. She couldn't care less for the rest of them."
"It's an interesting theory," Penelope said.
Lady Danbury sat back contentedly in her chair. "Yes, it is. Isn't it?"
Penelope nodded. "I think you're right."
"Hmmph. I usually am."
Still twisted in her seat, Penelope turned first to Felicity, then to Eloise, and said, "It's the same reason why I keep coming to these infernal musicales year after year."
"To see Lady Danbury?" Eloise asked, blinking with confusion.
"No. Because of girls like her." Penelope pointed at the cellist. "Because I know exactly how she feels."
"Don't be silly, Penelope," Felicity said. "You've never played piano in public, and even if you did, you're quite accomplished."
Penelope turned to her sister. "It's not about the music, Felicity."
Then the oddest thing happened to Lady Danbury. Her face changed. Completely, utterly, astoundingly changed. Her eyes grew misty, wistful. And her lips, which were usually slightly pinched and sarcastic at the corners, softened. "I was that girl, too, Miss Featherington," she said, so quietly that both Eloise and Felicity were forced to lean forward, Eloise with an, "I beg your pardon," and Felicity with a considerably less polite, "What?"
But Lady Danbury only had eyes for Penelope. "It's why I attend, year after year," the older lady said. "Just like you."
And for a moment Penelope felt the oddest sense of connection to the older woman. Which was mad, because they had nothing in common aside from gender—not age, not status, nothing. And yet it was almost as if the countess had somehow chosen her—for what purpose Penelope could never guess. But she seemed determined to light a fire under Penelope's well-ordered and often boring life.
And Penelope couldn't help but think that it was somehow working.
Isn't it nice to discover that we're not exactly what we thought we were?
Lady Danbury's words from the other night still echoed in Penelope's head. Almost like a litany.
Almost like a dare.
"Do you know what I think, Miss Featherington?" Lady Danbury asked, her tone deceptively mild.
"I couldn't possibly begin to guess," Penelope said with great honesty—and respect—in her voice.
"I think you could be Lady Whistledown."
Felicity and Eloise gasped.
Penelope's lips parted with surprise. No one had ever even thought to accuse her of such before. It was unbelievable ... unthinkable ... and...
Rather flattering, actually.
Penelope felt her mouth sliding into a sly smile, and she leaned forward, as if getting ready to impart news of great import.
Lady Danbury leaned forward.
Felicity and Eloise leaned forward.
"Do you know what I think, Lady Danbury?" Penelope asked, in a compellingly soft voice.
"Well," Lady D said, a wicked gleam in her eye, "I would tell you that I am breathless with anticipation, but you've already told me once before that you think that I am Lady Whistledown."
Lady Danbury smiled archly. "Maybe I am."
Felicity and Eloise gas
ped again, louder this time.
Penelope's stomach lurched.
"Are you admitting it?" Eloise whispered.
"Of course I'm not admitting it," Lady Danbury barked, straightening her spine and thumping her cane against the floor with enough force to momentarily stop the four amateur musicians in their warm-up. "Even if it were true—and I'm not saying whether or not it is—would I be fool enough to admit it?"
"Then why did you say—"
"Because, you ninnyhead, I'm trying to make a point."
She then proceeded to fall silent until Penelope was forced to ask, "Which is?"
Lady Danbury gave them all an extremely exasperated look. "That anyone could be Lady Whistledown," she exclaimed, thumping her cane on the floor with renewed vigor. "Anyone at all."
"Well, except me," Felicity put in. "I'm quite certain it's not me."
Lady Danbury didn't even honor Felicity with a glance. "Let me tell you something," she said.
"As if we could stop you," Penelope said, so sweetly that it came out like a compliment. And truth be told, it was a compliment. She admired Lady Danbury a great deal. She admired anyone who knew how to speak her mind in public.
Lady Danbury chuckled. "There's more to you than meets the eye, Penelope Featherington."
"It's true," Felicity said with a grin. "She can be rather cruel, for example. Nobody would believe it, but when we were young—"
Penelope elbowed her in the ribs.
"See?" Felicity said.
"What I was going to say," Lady Danbury continued, "was that the ton is going about my challenge all wrong."
"How do you suggest we go about it, then?" Eloise asked.
Lady Danbury waved her hand dismissively in Eloise's face. "I have to explain what people are doing wrong first," she said. "They keep looking toward the obvious people. People like your mother," she said, turning to Penelope and Felicity.
"Mother?" they both echoed.
"Oh, please," Lady Danbury scoffed. "A bigger busybody this town has never seen. She's exactly the sort of person everyone suspects."
Penelope had no idea what to say to that. Her mother was a notorious gossip, but it was difficult to imagine her as Lady Whistledown.