"It's not so bad now," Penelope said. "But back when we were both out—when she was still Cressida Cowper—she never could resist the chance to torment me. And people ... well..." She shook her head. "Never mind."
"No, please," Lady Danbury said, "do go on."
Penelope sighed. "It's nothing, really. Just that I've noticed that people don't often rush to another's defense. Cressida was popular—at least with a certain set—and she was rather frightening to the other girls our age. No one dared go against her. Well, almost no one."
That got Lady Danbury's attention, and she smiled. "Who was your champion, Penelope?"
"Champions, actually," Penelope replied. 'The Bridgertons always came to my aid. Anthony Bridgerton once gave her the cut direct and took me in to dinner, and"—her voice rose with remembered excitement—"he really shouldn't have done so. It was a formal dinner party, and he was supposed to escort in some marchioness, I think." She sighed, treasuring the memory. "It was lovely."
"He's a good man, that Anthony Bridgerton."
Penelope nodded. "His wife told me that that was the day she fell in love with him. When she saw him being my hero."
Lady Danbury smiled. "And has the younger Mr. Bridgerton ever rushed to your aid?"
"Colin, you mean?" Penelope didn't even wait for Lady Danbury's nod before adding, "Of course, although never with quite so much drama. But I must say, as nice as it is that the Bridgertons are so supportive...."
"What is it, Penelope?" Lady Danbury asked.
Penelope sighed again. It seemed a night for sighs. "I just wish they didn't have to defend me so often. You'd think I could defend myself. Or at least comport myself in such a manner so that no defending was necessary."
Lady Danbury patted her hand. "I think you get on a great deal better than you think you do. And as for that Cressida Twombley..." Lady Danbury's face soured with distaste. "Well, she got her just desserts, if you ask me. Although," she added sharply, "people don't ask me as often as they should."
Penelope could not quite suppress a little snort of laughter.
"Look where she is now," Lady Danbury said sharply. "Widowed and without even a fortune to show for it. She married that old lecher Horace Twombley and it turned out he'd managed to fool everyone into thinking he had money. Now she has nothing but fading good looks."
Honesty compelled Penelope to say, "She is still quite attractive."
"Hmmph. If you like flashy women." Lady Danbury's eyes narrowed. "There is something far too obvious about that woman."
Penelope looked toward the dais, where Cressida was waiting, standing there with a surprising amount of patience while the ballroom quieted down. "I wonder what she is going to say."
"Nothing that could possibly interest me," Lady Danbury retorted. "I—Oh." She stopped, and her lips curved into the oddest of expressions, a little bit frown, a little bit smile.
"What is it?" Penelope asked. She craned her neck to try to see Lady Danbury's line of vision, but a rather portly gentleman was blocking her way.
"Your Mr. Bridgerton is approaching," Lady Danbury said, the smile edging out the frown. "And he looks quite determined."
Penelope immediately twisted her head around.
"For the love of God, girl, don't look!" Lady Danbury exclaimed, jamming her elbow into Penelope's upper arm. "He'll know you're interested."
"I don't think there's much of a chance he hasn't figured that out already," Penelope mumbled.
And then there he was, standing splendidly in front of her, looking like some handsome god, deigning to grace earth with his presence. "Lady Danbury," he said, executing a smooth and graceful bow. "Miss Featherington."
"Mr. Bridgerton," Lady Danbury said, "how nice to see you."
Colin looked to Penelope.
"Mr. Bridgerton," she murmured, not knowing what else to say. What did one say to a man one had recently kissed? Penelope certainly had no experience in that area. Not to mention the added complication of his storming out of the house once they were through.
"I'd hoped ..." Colin began, then stopped and frowned, looking up toward the dais. "What is everyone looking at?"
"Cressida Twombley has some sort of announcement," Lady Danbury said.
Colin's face slid into a vaguely annoyed frown. "Can't imagine what she has to say that I'd want to listen to," he muttered.
Penelope couldn't help but grin. Cressida Twombley was considered a leader in society, or at least she had been when she'd been young and unmarried, but the Bridgertons had never liked her, and somehow that had always made Penelope feel a little better.
Just then a trumpet blared, and the room fell silent as everyone turned their attention to the Earl of Macclesfield, who was standing on the dais next to Cressida, looking vaguely uncomfortable with all the attention.
Penelope smiled. She'd been told the earl had once been a terrible rake, but now he was a rather scholarly sort, devoted to his family. He was still handsome enough to be a rake, though. Almost as handsome as Colin.
But only almost. Penelope knew she was biased, but it was difficult to imagine any creature quite as magnetically good-looking as Colin when he was smiling.
"Good evening," the earl said loudly.
"Good evening to you!" came a drunken shout from the back of the room.
The earl gave a good-natured nod, a tolerant half-smile playing along his lips. "My, er, esteemed guest here"—he motioned to Cressida—"would like to make an announcement. So if you would all give your attention to the lady beside me, I give you Lady Twombley."
A low ripple of whispers spread across the room as Cressida stepped forward, nodding regally at the crowd. She waited for the room to fall into stark silence, and then she said, "Ladies and gentleman, thank you so much for taking time out of your festivities to lend me your attention."
"Hurry up with it!" someone shouted, probably the same person who had yelled good evening to the earl.
Cressida ignored the interruption. "I have come to the conclusion that I can no longer continue the deception that has ruled my life for the last eleven years."
The ballroom was rocked with the low buzz of whispers. Everyone knew what she was going to say, and yet no one could believe it was actually true.
"Therefore," Cressida continued, her voice growing in volume, "I have decided to reveal my secret.
"Ladies and gentleman, I am Lady Whistledown."
Colin couldn't remember the las
t time he'd entered a ballroom with quite so much apprehension.
The last few days had not been among his best. He'd been in a bad mood, which had only been worsened by the fact that he was rather renowned for his good humor, which meant that everyone had felt compelled to comment on his foul disposition.
There was nothing worse for a bad mood than being subjected to constant queries of, "Why are you in such a bad mood?"
His family had stopped asking after he'd actually snarled—snarled!—at Hyacinth when she'd asked him to accompany her to the theater the following week.
Colin hadn't even been aware that he knew how to snarl.
He was going to have to apologize to Hyacinth, which was going to be a chore, since Hyacinth never accepted apologies gracefully—at least not those that came from fellow Bridgertons.
But Hyacinth was the least of his problems. Colin groaned. His sister wasn't the only person who deserved his apology.
And that was why his heart was beating with this strange, nervous, and completely unprecedented rapidity as he entered the Macclesfield ballroom. Penelope would be here. He knew she'd be here because she always attended the major balls, even if she was now most often doing so as her sister's chaperone.
There was something quite humbling in feeling nervous about seeing Penelope. Penelope was ... Penelope. It was almost as if she'd always been there, smiling politely at the perimeter of a ballroom. And he'd taken her for granted, in a way. Some things didn't change, and Penelope was one of them.
Except she had changed.
Colin didn't know when it had happened, or even if anyone other than himself had noticed it, but Penelope Featherington was not the same woman he used to know.
Or maybe she was, and he had changed.
Which made him feel even worse, because if that was the case, then Penelope had been interesting and lovely and kissable years ago, and he hadn't the maturity to notice.
No, better to think that Penelope had changed. Colin had never been a great fan of self-flagellation.