"No, no, nothing like that." He paused, let out a long breath, then raked his hand through his already mussed-up hair. "It's about Eloise."
"What is it?"
"I don't know how to say this. I—Do you have anything to eat?"
Penelope was ready to wring his neck. "For heaven's sake, Colin!"
"Sorry," he muttered. "I haven't eaten all day."
"A first, I'm sure," Penelope said impatiently. "I already told Briarly to fix a tray. Now, will you just tell me what is wrong, or do you plan to wait until I expire of impatience?"
"I think she's Lady Whistledown," he blurted out.
Penelope's mouth fell open. She wasn't sure what she'd expected him to say, but it wasn't this.
"Penelope, did you hear me?"
"Eloise?" she asked, even though she knew exactly who he was talking about.
"She can't be."
He stood and began to pace, too full of nervous energy to sit still. "Why not?"
"Because ... because..." Because why? "Because there is no way she could have done that for ten years without my knowing."
His expression went from disturbed to disdainful in an instant. "I hardly think you're privy to everything that Eloise does."
"Of course not," Penelope replied, giving him a rather irritated look, "but I can tell you with absolute certainty that there is no way Eloise could keep a secret of that magnitude from me for over ten years. She's simply not capable of it."
"Penelope, she's the nosiest person I know."
"Well, that much is true," Penelope agreed. "Except for my mother, I suppose. But that's hardly enough to convict her."
Colin stopped his pacing and planted his hands on his hips. "She is always writing things down."
"Why would you think that?"
He held up his hand, rubbing his thumb briskly against his fingertips. "Inkstains. Constantly."
"Lots of people use pen and ink." Penelope motioned broadly at Colin. "You write in journals. I am certain you've had your share of ink on your fingers."
"Yes, but I don't disappear when I write in my journals."
Penelope felt her pulse quicken. "What do you mean?" she asked, her voice growing breathless.
"I mean that she locks herself in her room for hours on end, and it's after those periods that her fingers are covered with ink."
Penelope didn't say anything for an agonizingly long moment. Colin's "evidence" was damning, indeed, especially when combined with Eloise's well-known and well-documented penchant for nosiness.
But she wasn't Lady Whistledown. She couldn't be. Penelope would bet her life on it.
Finally Penelope just crossed her arms and, in a tone of voice that probably would have been more at home on an exceedingly stubborn six-year-old, said, "It's not her. It's not."
Colin sat back down, looking defeated. "I wish I could share your certainty."
"Colin, you need to—"
"Where the hell is the food?" he grumbled.
She should have been shocked, but somehow his lack of manners amused her. "I'm sure Briarly will be here shortly."
He sprawled into a chair. "I'm hungry."
"Yes," Penelope said, lips twitching, "I surmised as much."
He sighed, weary and worried. "If she's Lady Whistledown, it'll be a disaster. A pure, unmitigated disaster."
"It wouldn't be that bad," Penelope said carefully. "Not that I think she's Lady Whistledown, because I don't! But truly, if she were, would it be so very dreadful? I rather like Lady Whistledown myself."
"Yes, Penelope," Colin said rather sharply, "it would be so very dreadful. She'd be ruined."
"I don't think she'd be ruined...."
"Of course she'd be ruined. Do you have any idea how many people that woman has insulted over the years?"
"I didn't realize you hated Lady Whistledown so much," Penelope said.
"I don't hate her," Colin said impatiently. "It doesn't matter if I hate her. Everyone else hates her."
"I don't think that's true. They all buy her paper."
"Of course they buy her paper! Everyone buys her bloody paper."
"Sorry," he muttered, but it didn't really sound like he meant it.
Penelope nodded her acceptance of his apology.
"Whoever that Lady Whistledown is," Colin said, shaking his finger at her with such vehemence that she actually lurched backward, "when she is unmasked, she will not be able to show her face in London."
Penelope delicately cleared her throat. "I didn't realize you cared so much about the opinions of society."
"I don't," he retorted. "Well, not much, at least. Anyone who tells you they don't care at all is a liar and a hypocrite."
Penelope rather thought he was correct, but she was surprised he'd admitted it. It seemed men always liked to pretend that they were wholly self-contained, completely unaffected by the whims and opinions of society.
Colin leaned forward, his green eyes burning with intensity. "This isn't about me, Penelope, it's about Eloise. And if she is cast out of society, she will be crushed." He sat back, but his entire body radiated tension. "Not to mention what it would do to my mother."
Penelope let out a long breath. "I really think you're getting upset over nothing," she said.
"I hope you're right," he replied, closing his eyes. He wasn't sure when he'd started to suspect that his sister might be Lady Whistledown. Probably after Lady Danbury had issued her now famous challenge. Unlike most of London, Colin had never been terribly interested in Lady Whistledown's true identity. The column was entertaining, and he certainly read it along with everyone else, but to his mind, Lady Whistledown was simply ... Lady Whistledown, and that was all she needed to be.
But Lady Danbury's dare had started him thinking, and like the rest of the Bridgertons, once he got hold of an idea, he was fundamentally incapable of letting it go. Somehow it had occurred to him that Eloise had the perfect temperament and skills to write such a column, and then, before he could convince himself that he was crazy, he'd seen the ink spots on her fingers. Since then he'd gone nearly mad, unable to think about anything but the possibility that Eloise had a secret life.
He didn't know which irritated him more—that Eloise might be Lady Whistledown, or that she had managed to hide it from him for over a decade.
How galling, to be hoodwinked by one's sister. He liked to think himself smarter than that.
But he needed to focus on the present. Because if his suspicions were correct, how on earth were they going to deal with the scandal when she was discovered?
And she would be discovered. With all of London lusting after the thousand-pound prize, Lady Whistledown didn't stand a chance.
He opened his eyes, wondering how long Penelope had been calling his name.
"I really think you should stop worrying about Eloise," she said. "There are hundreds and hundreds of people in London. Lady Whistledown could be any one of them. Heavens, with your eye for detail"—she waggled her fingers to remind him of Eloise's ink-stained fingertips—"you could be Lady Whistledown."
He shot her a rather condescending look. "Except for the small detail of my having been out of the country half the time."
Penelope chose to ignore his sarcasm. "You're certainly a good enough writer to carry it off."
Colin had intended to say something droll and slightly gruff, dismissing her rather weak arguments, but the truth was he was so secretly delighted about her "good writer" compliment that all he could do was sit there with a loopy smile on his face.
"Are you all right?" Penelope asked.
"Perfectly fine," he replied, snapping to attention and trying to adopt a more sober mien. "Why would you ask?"
"Because you suddenly looked quite ill. Dizzy, actually."
"I'm fine," he repeated, probably a little louder than was necessary. "I'm just thinking about the scandal."
She let out a beleaguered sigh, which irritat
ed him, because he didn't see that she had any reason to feel so impatient with him. "What scandal?" she asked.
"The scandal that is going to erupt when she is discovered," he ground out.
"She's not Lady Whistledown!" she insisted.
Colin suddenly sat up straight, his eyes alight with a new idea. "Do you know," he said in a rather intense sort of voice, "but I don't think it matters if she is Lady Whistledown or not."
Penelope stared at him blankly for a full three seconds before looking about the room, muttering, "Where's the food? I must be light-headed. Haven't you spent the last ten minutes positively going mad over the possibility that she is?"
As if on cue, Briarly entered the room with a heavily laden tray. Penelope and Colin watched in silence as the butler laid out the meal. "Would you like me to fix your plates?" he inquired.
"No, that's quite all right," Penelope said quickly. "We can manage for ourselves."
Briarly nodded and, as soon as he'd laid the flatware and filled the two glasses with lemonade, left the room.