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"Well, don't worry over him," Lady Danbury said quite suddenly. "We'll find you someone else."

Penelope delicately cleared her throat. "Lady Danbury, have you made me your project?"

The old lady beamed, her smile a bright and glowing streak in her wrinkled face. "Of course! I'm surprised it has taken you so long to figure it out."

"But why?" Penelope asked, truly unable to fathom it.

Lady Danbury sighed. The sound wasn't sad—more wistful, really. "Would you mind if we sat down for a spell? These old bones aren't what they used to be."

"Of course," Penelope said quickly, feeling terrible that she'd never once considered Lady Danbury's age as they stood there in the stuffy ballroom. But the countess was so vibrant; it was difficult to imagine her ailing or weak.

"Here we are," Penelope said, taking her arm and leading her to a nearby chair. Once Lady Danbury was settled, Penelope took a seat beside her. "Are you more comfortable now? Would you like something to drink?"

Lady Danbury nodded gratefully, and Penelope signaled to a footman to bring them two glasses of lemonade, since she didn't want to leave the countess while she was looking so pale.

"I'm not as young as I used to be," Lady Danbury told her once the footman had hied off to the refreshment table.

"None of us are," Penelope replied. It could have been a flip comment, but it was spoken with wry warmth, and somehow Penelope thought that Lady Danbury would appreciate the sentiment.

She was right. Lady D chuckled and sent Penelope an appreciative glance before saying, "The older I get, the more I realize that most of the people in this world are fools."

"You're only just figuring that out now?" Penelope asked, not to mock, but rather because, given Lady Danbury's usual demeanor, it was difficult to believe that she hadn't reached that conclusion years ago.

Lady Danbury laughed heartily. "No, sometimes I think I knew that before I was born. What I'm realizing now is that it's time I did something about it."

"What do you mean?"

"I couldn't care less what happens to the fools of this world, but the people like you"—lacking a handkerchief, she dabbed at her eyes with her fingers—"well, I'd like to see you settled."

For several seconds, Penelope did nothing but stare at her. "Lady Danbury," she said carefully, "I very much appreciate the gesture ... and the sentiment... but you must know that I am not your responsibility."

"Of course I know that," Lady Danbury scoffed. "Have no fear, I feel no responsibility to you. If I did, this wouldn't be half so much fun."

Penelope knew she sounded the veriest ninny, but all she could think to say was, "I don't understand."

Lady Danbury held silent while the footmen returned with their lemonade, then began speaking once she had taken several small sips. "I like you, Miss Featherington. I don't like a lot of people. It's as simple as that. And I want to see you happy."

"But I am happy," Penelope said, more out of reflex than anything else.

Lady Danbury raised one arrogant brow—an expression that she did to perfection. "Are you?" she murmured.

Was she? What did it mean, that she had to stop and think about the answer? She wasn't unhappy, of that she was sure. She had wonderful friends, a true confidante in her younger sister Felicity, and if her mother and older sisters weren't women she'd have chosen as close friends—well, she still loved them. And she knew they loved her.

Hers wasn't such a bad lot. Her life lacked drama and excitement, but she was content.

But contentment wasn't the same thing as happiness, and she felt a sharp, stabbing pain in her chest as she realized that she could not answer Lady Danbury's softly worded question in the affirmative.

"I've raised my family," Lady Danbury said. "Four children, and they all married well. I even found a bride for my nephew, who, truth be told"—she leaned in and whispered the last three words, giving Penelope the impression that she was about to divulge a state secret—"I like better than my own children."

Penelope couldn't help but smile. Lady Danbury looked so furtive, so naughty. It was rather cute, actually.

"It may surprise you," Lady Danbury continued, "but by nature I'm a bit of a meddler."

Penelope kept her expression scrupulously even.

"I find myself at loose ends," Lady Danbury said, holding up her hands as if in surrender. "I'd like to see one last person

happily settled before I go."

"Don't talk that way, Lady Danbury," Penelope said, impulsively reaching out and taking her hand. She gave it a little squeeze. "You'll outlive us all, I am certain."

"Pfffft, don't be silly." Lady Danbury's tone was dismissive, but she made no move to remove her hand from Penelope's grasp. "I'm not being depressive," she added. "I'm just realistic. I've passed seventy years of age, and I'm not going to tell you how many years ago that was. I haven't much time left in this world, and that doesn't bother me one bit."

Penelope hoped she would be able to face her own mortality with the same equanimity.

"But I like you, Miss Featherington. You remind me of myself. You're not afraid to speak your mind."

Penelope could only look at her in shock. She'd spent the last ten years of her life never quite saying what she wanted to say. With people she knew well she was open and honest and even sometimes a little funny, but among strangers her tongue was quite firmly tied.

She remembered a masquerade ball she'd once attended. She'd attended many masquerade balls, actually, but this one had been unique because she'd actually found a costume— nothing special, just a gown styled as if from the 1600s—in which she'd truly felt her identity was hidden. It had probably been the mask. It was overly large and covered almost all of her face.

She had felt transformed. Suddenly free of the burden of being Penelope Featherington, she felt a new personality coming to the fore. It wasn't as if she had been putting on false airs; rather, it was more like her true self—the one she didn't know how to show to anyone she didn't know well— had finally broken loose.

She'd laughed; she'd joked. She'd even flirted.

And she'd sworn that the following night, when the costumes were all put away and she was once again attired in her finest evening dress, she'd remember how to be herself.

But it hadn't happened. She'd arrived at the ball and she'd nodded and smiled politely and once again found herself standing near the perimeter of the room, quite literally a wallflower.

It seemed that being Penelope Featherington meant something. Her lot had been cast years ago, during that first awful season when her mother had insisted she make her debut even though Penelope had begged otherwise. The pudgy girl. The awkward girl. The one always dressed in colors that didn't suit her. It didn't matter that she'd slimmed and grown graceful and finally thrown out all of her yellow dresses. In this world—the world of London society and the ton—she would always be the same old Penelope Featherington.

It was her own fault just as much as anyone else's. A vicious circle, really. Every time Penelope stepped into a ballroom, and she saw all those people who had known her for so long, she felt herself folding up inside, turning into the shy, awkward girl of years gone past, rather than the self-assured woman she liked to think she'd become—at least in her heart.

"Miss Featherington?" came Lady Danbury's soft—and surprisingly gentle—voice. "Is something wrong?"

Penelope knew she took longer than she should have to reply, but somehow she needed a few seconds to find her voice.

"I don't think I know how to speak my mind," she finally said, turning to look at Lady Danbury only as she uttered the final words of the sentence. "I never know what to say to people."

"You know what to say to me."

"You're different."

Lady Danbury threw her head back and laughed. "If ever there was an understatement... Oh, Penelope—I hope you don't mind if I call you by your given name—if you can speak your mind to me, you can speak it to anyone. Half the grown

men in this room run cowering into corners the minute they see me coming."

"They just don't know you," Penelope said, patting her on the hand.

"And they don't know you, either," Lady Danbury quite pointedly replied.

"No," Penelope said, a touch of resignation in her voice, "they don't."

"I'd say that it was their loss, but that would be rather cavalier of me," Lady Danbury said. "Not to them, but to you, because as often as I call them all fools—and I do call them fools often, as I'm sure you know—some of them are actually rather decent people, and it's a crime they haven't gotten to know you. I—Hmmm ... I wonder what is going on."

Penelope found herself unaccountably sitting up a little straighten She asked Lady Danbury, "What do you mean?" but it was clear that something was afoot. People were whispering and motioning to the small dais where the musicians were seated.

"You there!" Lady Danbury said, poking her cane into the hip of a nearby gentleman. "What is going on?"

"Cressida Twombley wants to make some sort of announcement," he said, then quickly stepped away, presumably to avoid any further conversation with Lady Danbury or her cane.

"I hate Cressida Twombley," Penelope muttered.

Lady Danbury choked on a bit of laughter. "And you say you don't know how to speak your mind. Don't keep me in suspense. Why do you detest her so?"

Penelope shrugged. "She's always behaved quite badly toward me."

Lady Danbury nodded knowingly. "All bullies have a favorite victim."

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