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"Can you believe it?"

"What will I read with my breakfast?"

"How will I know what happened if I miss a party?"

"We'll never find out who she is now!"

"Lady Whistledown has retired!"

One woman fainted, nearly cracking her head against the side of a table as she slumped gracelessly to the floor. Apparently, she had not read that morning's column and thus heard the news for the first time right there at the Macclesfield ball. She was revived by smelling salts but then quickly swooned again.

"She's a faker," Hyacinth Bridgerton muttered to Felicity Featherington as they stood in a small group with the Dowager Lady Bridgerton and Penelope. Penelope was officially attending as Felicity's chaperone due to their mother's decision to remain home with an upset stomach.

"The first faint was real," Hyacinth explained. "Anyone could tell that by the clumsy way she fell. But this ..." Her hand flicked toward the lady on the floor with a gesture of disgust. "No one swoons like a ballet dancer. Not even ballet dancers."

Penelope had overheard the entire conversation, as Hyacinth was directly to her left, and so she murmured, "Have you ever swooned?" all the while keeping her eyes on the unfortunate woman, who was now coming awake with a delicate fluttering of eyelashes as the smelling salts were once again wafted under her nose.

"Absolutely not!" Hyacinth replied, with no small measure of pride. "Swoons are for the tenderhearted and foolish," she added. "And if Lady Whistledown were still writing, mark my words, she would say the exact same thing in her next column."

"Alas, there are no words to mark anymore," Felicity answered with a sad sigh.

Lady Bridgerton agreed. "It's the end of an era," she said. "I feel quite bereft without her."

"Well, it's not as if we've had to go more than eighteen hours without her yet," Penelope felt compelled to point out. "We did receive a column this morning. What is there yet to feel bereft about?"

"It's the principle of it," Lady Bridgerton said with a sigh. "If this were an ordinary Monday, I would know that I'd receive a new report on Wednesday. But now ..."

Felicity actually sniffled. "Now we're lost," she said.

Penelope turned to her sister in disbelief. "Surely you're being a little melodramatic."

Felicity's overblown shrug was worthy of the stage. "Am I? Am I?"

Hyacinth gave her a sympathetic pat on the back. "I don't think you are, Felicity. I feel precisely the same way."

"It's only a gossip column," Penelope said, looking around for any sign of sanity in her companions. Surely they realized that the world was not drawing to a close just because Lady Whistledown had decided to end her career.

"You're right, of course," said Lady Bridgerton, jutting her chin out and pursing her lips in a manner that was probably supposed to convey an air of practicality. "Thank you for being the voice of reason for our little party." But then she seemed to deflate slightly, and she said, "But I must admit, I'd grown rather used to having her around. Whoever she is."

Penelope decided it was well past time to change the topic. "Where is Eloise this evening?"

"Ill, I'm afraid. A headache," Lady Bridgerton said, small frowns of worry creasing her otherwise unlined face. "She hasn't been feeling the thing for almost a week now. I'm starting to grow concerned about her."

Penelope had been staring rather aimlessly at a sconce on the wall, but her attention was immediately brought back to Lady Bridgerton. "It's nothing serious, I hope?"

"It's nothing serious," Hyacinth answered, before her mother could even open her mouth. "Eloise never gets sick."

"Which is precisely why I'm worried," Lady Bridgerton said. "She hasn't been eating very well."

"That's not true," Hyacinth said. "Just this afternoon Wickham brought up a very heavy tray. Scones and eggs and I think I smelled gammon steak." She gave an arch look to no one in particular. "And when Eloise left the tray out in the hall it was completely empty."

Hyacinth Bridgerton, Penelope decided, had a surprisingly good eye for detail.

"She's been in a bad mood," Hyacinth continued, "since she quarreled with Colin."

"She quarreled with Colin?" Penelope asked, an awful feeling beginning to roil her stomach. "When?"

"Sometime last week," Hyacinth said.

WHEN? Penelope wanted to scream, but surely it would look odd if she demanded an exact day. Was it Friday? Was it?

Penelope would always remember that her first, and most probably only, kiss had occurred on a Friday.

She was strange that way. She always remembered the days of the week.

She'd met Colin on a Monday.

She'd kissed him on a Friday.

Twelve years later.

She sighed. It seemed fairly pathetic.

"Is something wrong, Penelope?" Lady Bridgerton asked.

Penelope looked at Eloise's mother. Her blue eyes were kind and filled with concern, and there was something about the way she tilted her head to the side that made Penelope want to cry.

She was getting far too emotional these days. Crying over the tilt of a head.

"I'm fine," she said, hoping that her smile looked true. "I'm just worried about Eloise."

Hyacinth snorted.

Penelope decided she needed to make her escape. All these Bridgertons—well, two of them, anyway—were making her think of Colin.

Which wasn't anything she hadn't been doing nearly every minute of the day for the past three days. But at least that had beenin private where she could sigh and moan and grumble to her heart's content.

But this must have been her lucky night, because just then she heard Lady Danbury barking her name.

(What was her world coming to, that she considered herself lucky to be trapped in a corner with London's most acerbic tongue?)

But Lady Danbury would provide the perfect excuse to leave her current little quartet of ladies, and besides, she was coming to realize that in a very odd way, she rather liked Lady Danbury.

"Miss Featherington! Miss Featherington!"

Felicity instantly took a step away. "I think she means you," she whispered urgently.

"Of course she means me," Penelope said, with just a touch of hauteur. "I consider Lady Danbury a cherished friend."

Felicity's eyes bugged out. "You do?"

"Miss Featherington!" Lady Danbury said, thumping her cane an inch away from Penelope's foot as soon as she reached her side. "Not you," she said to Felicity, even though Felicity had done nothing more than smile politely as the countess had approached. "You," she said to Penelope.

"Er, good evening, Lady Danbury," Penelope said, which she considered an admirable number of words under the circumstances.

"I have been looking for you all evening," Lady D announced.

Penelope found that a trifle surprising. "You have?"

"Yes. I want to talk with you about that Whistledown woman's last column."


"Yes, you," Lady Danbury grumbled. "I'd be happy to talk with someone else if you could find me a body with more than half a brain."

Penelope choked on the beginnings of laughter as she motioned to her companions. "Er, I assure you that Lady Bridgerton—"

Lady Bridgerton was furiously shaking her head.

"She's too busy trying to get that oversized brood of hers married off," Lady Danbury announced. "Can't be expected to

know how to conduct a decent conversation these days."

Penelope stol

e a frantic glance over at Lady Bridgerton to see if she was upset by the insult—after all, she had been trying to marry off her oversized brood for a decade now. But Lady Bridgerton didn't look the least bit upset. In fact, she appeared to be stifling laughter.

Stifling laughter and inching away, taking Hyacinth and Felicity with her.

Sneaky little traitors.

Ah, well, Penelope shouldn't complain. She'd wanted an escape from the Bridgertons, hadn't she? But she didn't particularly enjoy having Felicity and Hyacinth think they'd somehow pulled one over on her.

"They're gone now," Lady Danbury cackled, "and a good thing it is, too. Those two gels haven't an intelligent thing to say between them."

"Oh, now, that isn't true," Penelope felt compelled to protest. "Felicity and Hyacinth are both very bright."

"I never said they weren't smart," Lady D replied acidly, "just that they haven't an intelligent thing to say. But don't worry," she added, giving Penelope a reassuring—reassuring? whoever heard of Lady Danbury being reassuring?—pat on the arm. "It's not their fault that their conversation is useless. They'll grow out of it. People are like fine wines. If they start off good, they only get better with age."

Penelope had actually been glancing slightly to the right of Lady Danbury's face, peering over her shoulder at a man who she thought might be Colin (but wasn't), but this brought her attention right back to where the countess wanted it.

"Fine wines?" Penelope echoed.

"Hmmph. And here I thought you weren't listening."

"No, of course I was listening." Penelope felt her lips tugging into something that wasn't quite a smile. "I was just... distracted."

"Looking for that Bridgerton boy, no doubt."

Penelope gasped.

"Oh, don't look so shocked. It's written all over your face. I'm just surprised he hasn't noticed."

"I imagine he has," Penelope mumbled.

"Has he? Hmmph." Lady Danbury frowned, the corners of her mouth spilling into long vertical wrinkles on either side of her chin. "Doesn't speak well of him that he hasn't done anything about it."

Penelope's heart ached. There was something oddly sweet about the old lady's faith in her, as if men like Colin fell in love with women like Penelope on a regular basis. Penelope had had to beg him to kiss her, for heaven's sake. And look how that had ended up. He'd left the house in a fit of temper and they hadn't spoken for three days.

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