No—he slumped back into his desk chair, groaning—it was his fault. If he was in a bad mood, if he was ready to yank someone's head off with his bare hands, it was his fault and his fault alone.
He shouldn't have kissed Penelope. It didn't matter that he'd wanted to kiss her, even though he hadn't even realized that he wanted to until right before she'd mentioned it. He still shouldn't have kissed her.
Although, when he really thought about it, he wasn't quite sure why he shouldn't have kissed her.
He stood, then trudged to the window and let his forehead rest against the pane. Bedford Square was quiet, with only a few men walking along the pavement. Laborers, they looked to be, probably working on the new museum being built just to the east. (It was why Colin had taken a house on the west side of the square; the construction could get very noisy.)
His gaze traveled north, to the statue of Charles James Fox. Now, there was a man with a purpose. Led the Whigs for years. He hadn't always been very well liked, if some of the older members of the ton were to be believed, but Colin was coming to think that perhaps being well liked was overrated. Heaven knew that no one was better liked than he was, and look at him now, frustrated and malcontent, grumpy and ready to lash out at anyone who crossed his path.
He sighed, planting one hand on the window frame and pushing himself back to an upright position. He'd better get going, especially if he was planning to walk all the way to Mayfair. Although, in truth, it really wasn't that far. Probably not more than thirty minutes if he kept his pace brisk (and he always did), less if the pavements weren't littered with slow people. It was longer than most members of the ton cared to be outside in London unless they were shopping or fashionably strolling in the park, but Colin felt the need to clear his head. And if the air in London wasn't particularly fresh, well, it would still have to do.
His luck that day being what it was, however, by the time he reached the intersection of Oxford and Regent Streets, the first splats of raindrops began to dance against his face. By the time he was turning off Hanover Square onto St. George Street, it was pouring in earnest. And he was just close enough to Bruton Street that it would have been really ridiculous to have tried to hail a hackney to take him the rest of the way.
So he walked on.
After the first minute or so of annoyance, however, the rain began to feel oddly good. It was warm enough out that it didn't chill him to the bone, and the fat, wet sting of it almost felt like a penance.
And he felt like maybe that was what he deserved.
The door to his mother's house opened before Colin's foot had even found the top step; Wickham must have been waiting for him.
"Might I suggest a towel?" the butler intoned, handing him a large white cloth.
Colin took it, wondering how on earth Wickham had had time to get a towel. He couldn't have known that Colin would be fool enough to walk in the rain.
Not for the first time it occurred to Colin that butlers must be possessed of strange, mystical powers. Perhaps it was a job requirement.
Colin used the towel to dry his hair, causing great consternation to Wickham, who was terribly proper and surely expected Colin to retire to a private room for at least a half an hour to mend his appearance.
"Where's my mother?" Colin asked.
Wickham's lips tightened, and he looked pointedly down at Colin's feet, which were now creating small puddles. "She is in her office," he replied, "but she is speaking with your sister."
"Which sister?" Colin asked, keeping a sunny smile on his face, just to annoy Wickham, who had surely been trying to annoy him by omitting his sister's name.
As if you could simply say "your sister" to a Bridgerton and expect him to know who you were talking about.
"Ah, yes. She's returning to Scotland soon, isn't she?"
Colin handed the towel back to Wickham, who regarded it as he might a large insect. "I won't bother her, then. Just let her know I'm here when she's done with Francesca."
Wickham nodded. "Would you care to change your clothes, Mr. Bridgerton? I believe we have some of your brother Gregory's garments upstairs in his bedchamber."
Colin found himself smiling. Gregory was finishing up his final term at Cambridge. He was eleven years younger than Colin, and it was difficult to believe they could actually share clothing, but he supposed it was time to accept that his little brother had finally grown up.
"That's an excellent idea," Colin said. He gave his sodden sleeve a rueful glance. "I'll leave these here to be cleaned and fetch them later."
Wickham nodded again, murmured, "As you wish," and disappeared down the hall to parts unknown.
Colin took the steps two at a time up to the family quarters. As he sloshed down the hall, he heard the sound of a door opening. Turning around, he saw that it was Eloise.
Not the person he wanted to see. She immediately brought back all the memories of his afternoon with Penelope. Their conversation. The kiss.
Especially the kiss.
And even worse, the guilt he'd felt afterward.
The guilt he still felt.
"Colin," Eloise said brightly, "I didn't realize you—what did you do, walk?"
He shrugged. "I like the rain."
She eyed him curiously, her head cocking to the side as it always did when she was puzzling through something. "You're in a rather odd mood today."
"I'm soaking wet, Eloise."
"No need to snap at me about it," she said with a sniff. "I didn't force you to walk across town in the rain."
"It wasn't raining when I left," he felt rather compelled to say. There was something about a sibling that brought out the eight-year-old in a body.
"I'm sure the sky was gray," she returned.
Clearly, she had a bit of the eight-year-old in her as well.
"May we continue this discussion when I'm dry?" he asked, his voice deliberately impatient.
"Of course," she said expansively, all accommodation. "I'll wait for you right here."
Colin took his time while he changed into Gregory's clothes, taking more care with his cravat than.he had in years. Finally, when he was convinced that Eloise must be grinding her teeth, he reentered the hall.
"I heard you went to see Penelope today," she said without preamble.
Wrong thing to say.
"Where did you hear that?" he asked carefully. He knew that his sister and Penelope were close, but surely Penelope
wouldn't have told Eloise about that.
"Felicity told Hyacinth."
"And Hyacinth told you."
"Something," Colin muttered, "has got to be done about all the gossip in this town."
"I hardly think this counts as gossip, Colin," Eloise said. "It's not as if you're interested in Penelope."
If she had been talking about any other woman, Colin would hav
e expected her to give him a sidelong glance, followed by a coy, Are you ?
But this was Penelope, and even though Eloise was her very best friend, and thus her finest champion, even she couldn't imagine that a man of Colin's reputation and popularity would be interested in a woman of Penelope's reputation and (lack of) popularity.
Colin's mood shifted from bad to foul.
"Anyway," Eloise continued, completely oblivious to the thunderstorm that was brewing in her normally sunny and jovial brother, "Felicity told Hyacinth that Briarly told her that you'd visited. I was just wondering what it was about."
"It's none of your business," Colin said briskly, hoping she'd leave it at that, but not really believing she would. He took a step toward the stairwell, though, always optimistic.
"It's about my birthday, isn't it?" Eloise guessed, dashing in front of him with such suddenness that his toe crashed into her slipper. She winced* but Colin didn't feel particularly sympathetic.
"No, it's not about your birthday," he snapped. "Your birthday isn't even until—"
He stopped. Ah, hell.
"Until next week," he grumbled.
She smiled slyly. Then, as if her brain had just realized it had taken a wrong turn, her lips parted with dismay as she mentally backed up and headed in another direction. "So," she continued, moving slightly so that she better blocked his path, "if you didn't go over there to discuss my birthday— and there's nothing you could say now that would convince me you did—why did you go see Penelope?"
"Is nothing private in this world?"
"Not in this family."
Colin decided that his best bet was to adopt his usual sunny persona, even though he didn't feel the least bit charitable toward her at the moment, and so he slapped on the smoothest and easiest of his smiles, quirked his head to the side, and asked, "Do I hear Mother calling my name?"
"I didn't hear a thing," Eloise said pertly, "and what is wrong with you? You look very odd."
"You're not fine. You look as if you've been to the dentist."
His voice descended into a mutter. "It's always nice to receive compliments from family."
"If you can't trust your family to be honest with you," she volleyed, "who can you trust?"