"Listen to me," Colin said, jumping to his feet and moving the door so that it almost rested against the doorframe (but remained technically open, should anyone quibble about proprieties).
"Don't you want something to eat?" Penelope inquired, holding aloft a plate that she'd filled with various small snacks.
He snatched a piece of cheese, ate it in two rather indelicate bites, then continued, "Even if Eloise isn't Lady Whistledown—and mind you, I still think she is—it doesn't matter. Because if I suspect that she's Lady Whistledown, then surely someone else will as well."
"Your point being?"
Colin realized that his arms were reaching forward, and he stopped himself before he reached out to shake her shoulders. "It doesn't matter! Don't you see? If someone points his finger at her, she'll be ruined."
"But not," Penelope said, appearing to require a great deal of effort to unclench her teeth, "if she's not Lady Whistledown!"
"How could she prove it?" Colin returned, jumping to his feet. "Once a rumor is started, the damage is done. It develops a life of its own."
"Colin, you ceased to make sense five minutes ago."
"No, hear me out." He whirled to face her, and he was seized by a feeling of such intensity that he couldn't have ripped his eyes from hers if the house were falling down around them. "Suppose I told everyone that I had seduced you."
Penelope grew very, very still.
"You would be ruined forever," he continued, crouching down near the edge of the sofa so that they were more on the same level. "It wouldn't matter that we had never even kissed. That, my dear Penelope, is the power of the word."
She looked oddly frozen. And at the same time flushed. "I... I don't know what to say," she stammered.
And then the most bizarre thing happened. He realized that he didn't know what to say, either. Because he'd forgotten about rumors and the power of the word and all of that rot, and the only thing he could think of was the part about the kissing, and—
Good God in heaven, he wanted to kiss Penelope Featherington.
He might as well have said he wanted to kiss his sister.
Except—he stole a glance at her; she looked uncommonly fetching, and he wondered how he hadn't noticed that earlier that afternoon—she wasn't his sister.
She definitely wasn't his sister.
"Colin?" His name was a mere whisper on her lips, her eyes were quite adorably blinking and befuddled, and how was it he'd never noticed what an intriguing shade of brown they were? Almost gold near the pupil. He'd never seen anything like it, and yet it wasn't as if he hadn't seen her a hundred times before.
He stood—suddenly, drunkenly. Best if they weren't quite on the same latitude. Harder to see her eyes from up here.
She stood, too.
"Colin?" she asked, her voice barely audible. "Could I ask you a favor?"
Call it male intuition, call it insanity, but a very insistent voice inside of him was screaming that whatever she wanted had to be a very bad idea.
He was, however, an idiot.
He had to be, because he felt his lips part and then he heard a voice that sounded an awful lot like his own say, "Of course."
Her lips puckered, and for a moment he thought she was trying to kiss him, but then he realized that she was just bringing them together to form a word.
Just a word. Nothing but a word beginning with W. W always looked like a kiss.
"Would you kiss me?"
Every week there seems to be one invitation that is coveted above all others, and this week's prize must surely go to the Countess of Macclesfield, who is hosting a grand ball on Monday night. Lady Macclesfield is not a frequent hostess here in London, but she is very popular, as is her husband, and it is expected that a great many bachelors plan to attend, including Mr. Colin Bridgerton (assuming he does not collapse from exhaustion after four days with the ten Bridgerton grandchildren), Viscount Burwick, and Mr. Michael Anstruther-Wetherby.
This Author anticipates that a great many young and unmarried ladies will choose to attend as well, following the publication of this column.
Lady Whistledown's Society Papers, 16 April 1824
His life as he knew it was over.
"What?" he asked, aware that he was blinking rapidly.
Her face turned a deeper shade of crimson than he'd thought humanly possible, and she turned away. "Never mind," she mumbled. "Forget I said anything."
Colin thought that a very good idea.
But then, just when he'd thought that his world might resume its normal course (or at least that he'd be able to pretend it had), she whirled back around, her eyes alight with a passionate fire that astonished him.
"No, I'm not going to forget it," she cried out. "I've spent my life forgetting things, not saying them, never telling anyone what I really want."
Colin tried to say something, but it was clear to him that his throat had begun to close. Any minute now he'd be dead. He was sure of it.
"It won't mean a thing," she said. "I promise you, it won't mean anything, and I'd never expect anything from you because of it, but I could die tomorrow, and—"
Her eyes looked huge, and meltingly dark, and pleading, and...
He could feel his resolve melting away.
"I'm eight-and-twenty," she said, her voice soft and sad. "I'm an old maid, and I've never been kissed."
"Gah ... gah... gah ..." He knew he knew how to speak; he was fairly certain he'd been perfectly articulate just minutes earlier. But now he didn't seem able to form a word.
And Penelope kept talking, her cheeks delightfully pink, and her lips moving so quickly that he couldn't help but wonder what they'd feel like on his skin. On his neck, on his shoulder, on his ... other places.
"I'm going to be an old maid at nine-and-twenty," she said, "and I'll be an old maid at thirty. I could die tomorrow, and—"
"You're not going to die tomorrow!" he somehow managed to get out.
"But I could! I could, and it would kill me, because—"
"You'd already be dead," he said, thinking his voice sounded rather strange and disembodied.
"I don't want to die without ever having been kissed," she finally finished.
Colin could think of a hundred reasons why kissing Penelope Featherington was a very bad idea, the number one being that he actually wanted to kiss her.
He opened his mouth, hoping that a sound would emerge and that it might actually be intelligible speech, but there was
nothing, just the sound of breath on his lips.
And then Penelope did the one thing that could break his resolve in an instant. She looked up at him, deeply into his eyes, and uttered one, simple word.
He was lost. There was something heartbreak
ing in the way she was gazing at him, as if she might die if he didn't kiss her. Not from heartbreak, not from embarrassment—it was almost as if she needed him for nourishment, to feed her soul, to fill her heart.
And Colin couldn't remember anyone else ever needing him with such fervor.
It humbled him.
It made him want her with an intensity that nearly buckled his knees. He looked at her, and somehow he didn't see the woman he'd seen so many times before. She was different. She glowed. She was a siren, a goddess, and he wondered how on earth no one had ever noticed this before.
"Colin?" she whispered.
He took a step forward—barely a half a foot, but it was close enough so that when he touched her chin and tipped her face up, her lips were mere inches from his.
Their breath mingled, and the air grew hot and heavy. Penelope was trembling—he could feel that under his fingers— but he wasn't so sure that he wasn't trembling, too.
He assumed he'd say something flip and droll, like the devil-may-care fellow he was reputed to be. Anything for you, perhaps, or maybe, Every woman deserves at least one kiss. But as he closed the bare distance between them, he realized that there were no words that could capture the intensity of the moment
No words for the passion. No words for the need.
No words for the sheer epiphany of the moment.
And so, on an otherwise unremarkable Friday afternoon, in the heart of Mayfair, in a quiet drawing room on Mount Street, Colin Bridgerton kissed Penelope Featherington.
And it was glorious.
His lips touched hers softly at first, not because he was trying to be gentle, although if he'd had the presence of mind to think about such things, it probably would have occurred to him that this was her first kiss, and it ought to be reverent and beautiful and all the things a girl dreams about as she's lying in bed at night.
But in all truth, none of that was on Colin's mind. In fact, he was thinking of quite little. His kiss was soft and gentle because he was still so surprised that he was kissing her. He'd known her for years, had never even thought about touching his lips to hers. And now he couldn't have let her go if the fires of hell were licking his toes. He could barely believe what he was doing—or that he wanted to do it so damned much.