"Oh!" The word slipped over her lips before she could even think, the squeal of it piercing the air like an off-key whistle.
The three Bridgerton men turned to face her with identical horrified faces, and Penelope knew that she had just entered into what would certainly be the most awful five minutes of her life.
She said nothing for what seemed like an eternity, and then, finally, with a dignity she never dreamed she possessed, she looked straight at Colin and said, "I never asked you to marry me."
His cheeks went from pink to red. He opened his mouth, but not a sound came out. It was, Penelope thought with wry satisfaction, probably the only time in his life he'd ever been at a loss for words.
"And I never—" She swallowed convulsively. "I never said to anyone that I wanted you to ask me."
"Penelope," Colin finally managed, "I'm so sorry."
"You have nothing to apologize for," she said.
"No," he insisted, "I do. I hurt your feelings, and—"
"You didn't know I was there."
"You are not going to marry me," she said, her voice sounding very strange and hollow to her ears. "There is nothing wrong with that. I am not going to marry your brother Benedict."
Benedict had clearly been trying not to look, but he snapped to attention at that.
Penelope fisted her hands at her sides. "It doesn't hurt his feelings when I announce that I am not going to marry him." She turned to Benedict, forcing her eyes directly on his. "Does it, Mr. Bridgerton?"
"Of course not," Benedict answered quickly.
"It's settled, then," she said tightly, amazed that, for once, exactly the right words were coming out of her mouth. "No feelings were hurt. Now, then, if you will excuse me, gentlemen, I should like to go home."
The three gentlemen immediately stood back to let her pass, and she would have made a clean escape, except that Colin suddenly blurted out, "Don't you have a maid?"
She shook her head. "I live just around the corner."
"I know, but—"
"I'll escort you," Anthony said smoothly.
"That's really not necessary, my lord."
"Humor me," he said, in a tone that told her quite clearly she hadn't any choice in the matter.
She nodded, and the two of them took off down the street. After they had passed about three houses, Anthony said in a strangely respectful voice, "He didn't know you were there."
Penelope felt her lips tighten at the corners—not out of anger, just out of a weary sense of resignation. "I know," she replied. "He's not the sort to be cruel. I expect your mother has been hounding him to get married."
Anthony nodded. Lady Bridgerton's intentions to see each and every one of her eight offspring happily married were legendary.
"She likes me," Penelope said. "Your mother, that is. She can't see beyond that, I'm afraid. But the truth is, it doesn't matter so much if she likes Colin's bride."
"Well, I wouldn't say that," Anthony mused, sounding not so much like a highly feared and respected viscount and rather more like a well-behaved son. "I shouldn't like to be married to someone my mother didn't like." He shook his head in a gesture of great awe and respect. "She's a force of nature."
"Your mother or your wife?"
He considered that for about half a second. "Both."
They walked for a few moments, and then Penelope blurted out, "Colin should go away."
Anthony eyed her curiously. "I beg your pardon?"
"He should go away. Travel. He's not ready to marry, and your mother won't be able to restrain herself from pressuring him. She means well...." Penelope bit her lip in horror. She hoped the viscount didn't think she was actually criticizing Lady Bridgerton. As far as she was concerned, there was no greater lady in England.
"My mother always means well," Anthony said with an indulgent smile. "But maybe you're right. Perhaps he should get away. Colin does enjoy travel. Although he did just return from Wales."
"Did he?" Penelope murmured politely, as if she didn't know perfectly well that he'd been in Wales.
"Here we are," he said as he nodded his reply. "This is your house, is it not?"
"Yes. Thank you for accompanying me home."
"It was my pleasure, I assure you."
Penelope watched as he left, then she went inside and cried.
The very next day, the following account appeared in Lady Whistledown 's Society Papers:
La, but such excitement yesterday on the front steps of Lady Bridgerton's residence on Bruton Street!
First, Penelope Featherington was seen in the company of not one, not two, but THREE Bridgerton brothers, surely a heretofore impossible feat for the poor girl, who is rather infamous for her wallflower ways. Sadly (but perhaps predictably) for Miss Feathering-ton, when she finally departed, it was on the arm of the viscount, the only married man in the bunch.
If Miss Featherington were to somehow manage to drag a Bridgerton brother to the altar, it would surely mean the end of the world as we know it, and This Author, who freely admits she would not know heads from tails in such a world, would be forced to resign her post on the spot.
It seemed even Lady Whistledown understood the futility of Penelope's feelings for Colin.
* * *
The years drifted by, and somehow, without realizing it, Penelope ceased to be a debutante and found herself sitting with the chaperones, watching her younger sister Felicity— surely the only Featherington sister blessed with both natural beauty and charm—enjoying her own London seasons.
Colin developed a taste for travel and began to spend more and more time outside of London; it seemed that every few months he was off to some new destination. When he was in town, he always saved a dance and a smile for Penelope, and somehow she managed to pretend that nothing had ever happened, that he'd never declared his distaste for her on a public street, that her dreams had never been shattered.
And when he was in town, which wasn't often, they seemed to settle into an easy, if not terribly deep, friendship. Which was all an almost twenty-eight-year-old spinster could hope for, right?
Unrequited love was never easy, but at least Penelope Featherington was used to it.
Matchmaking mamas are united in their glee—Colin Bridgerton has returned from Greece!
For those gentle (and ignorant) readers who are new to town this year, Mr. Bridgerton is third in the legendary string of eight Bridgerton siblings (hence the name Colin, beginning with C; he follows Anthony and Benedict, and precedes Daphne, Eloise, Francesca, Gregory, and Hyacinth).
Although Mr. Bridgerton holds no noble title and is unlikely ever to do so (he is seventh in line for the title of Viscount Bridgerton, behind the two sons of the current viscount, his elder brother Benedict, and his three sons) he is still considered one of the prime catches of the season, due to his fortune, his face, his form, and most of all, his charm. It is difficult, however, to predict whether Mr. Bridgerton will succumb to matrimonial bliss this season; he is certainly of an age to marry (three-and-thirty), but he has never shown a decided interest in any lady of proper parentage, and to make matters even more complicated he has an appalling tendency to leave London at the drop of a hat, bound fir some exotic destination.
Lady Whistledown's Society Papers, 2 April 1824
"Look at this!" Portia Featherington squealed. "Colin Bridgerton is back!"
Penelope looked up from her needlework. Her mother was clutching the latest edition of Lady Whistledown's Society Papers the way Penelope might clutch, say, a rope while hanging off a building. "I know," she murmured.
Portia frowned. She hated when someone—anyone—was aware of gossip before she was. "How did you get to Whistledown before I did? I told Briarly to set it aside for me and not to let anyone touch—"
"I didn't see it in Whistledown," Penelope interrupted, before her mother went off to castigate the poor, beleaguered butler. "Felicity told me. Yesterday afternoon.
Hyacinth Bridgerton told her."
"Your sister spends a great deal of time over at the Bridgerton household."
"As do I," Penelope pointed out, wondering where this was leading.
Portia tapped her finger against the side of her chin, as she always did when she was plotting or scheming. "Colin Bridgerton is of an age to be looking for a wife."
Penelope managed to blink just before her eyes bugged right out of her head. "Colin Bridgerton is not going to marry Felicity!"
Portia gave a little shrug. "Stranger things have happened."
"Not that I've ever seen," Penelope muttered.
"Anthony Bridgerton married that Kate Sheffield girl, and she was even less popular than you."
That wasn't exactly true; Penelope rather thought they'd been on equally low rungs of the social ladder. But there seemed little point in telling this to her mother, who probably thought she'd complimented her third daughter by saying she'd not been the least popular girl that season.
Penelope felt her lips tightening. Her mother's "compliments" had a habit of landing rather like wasps.