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"Do not think I mean to criticize," Portia said, suddenly all concern. "In truth, I am glad for your spinsterhood. I am alone in this world save for my daughters, and it's comforting to know that one of you shall be able to care for me in my older years."

Penelope had a vision of the future—the future as described by her mother—and she had a sudden urge to run out and marry the chimney sweep. She'd long since resigned herself to a life of eternal spinsterhood, but somehow she'd always pictured herself off in her own neat little terrace house. Or maybe a snug cottage by the sea.

But lately Portia had been peppering her conversations with references to her old age and how lucky she was that Penelope could care for her. Never mind that both Prudence and Philippa had married well-heeled men and possessed ample funds to see to their mother's every comfort. Or that Portia was moderately wealthy in her own right; when her family had settled money on her as a dowry, one-fourth had been set aside for her own personal account.

No, when Portia talked about being "cared for," she wasn't referring to money. What Portia wanted was a slave.

Penelope sighed. She was being overly harsh with her mother, if only in her own mind. She did that too often. Her mother loved her. She knew her mother loved her. And she loved her mother back.

It was just that sometimes she didn't much like her mother.

She hoped that didn't make her a bad person. But truly, her mother could try the patience of even the kindest, gentlest of daughters, and as Penelope was the first to admit, she could be a wee bit sarcastic at times.

"Why don't you think Colin would marry Felicity?" Portia asked.

Penelope looked up, startled. She'd thought they were done with that subject. She should have known better. Her mother was nothing if not tenacious. "Well," she said slowly, "to begin with, she's twelve years younger than he is."

"Pfft," Portia said, waving her hand dismissively. "That's nothing, and you know it."

Penelope frowned, then yelped as she accidentally stabbed her finger with her needle.

"Besides," Portia continued blithely, "he's"—she looked back down at Whistledown and scanned it for his exact age— "three-and-thirty! How is he meant to avoid a twelve-year difference between him and his wife? Surely you don't expect him to marry someone your age."

Penelope sucked on her abused finger even though she knew it was hopelessly uncouth to do so. But she needed to put something in her mouth to keep her from saying something horrible and horribly spiteful. Everything her mother said was true. Many ton weddings—maybe even most of them—saw men marrying girls a dozen or more years their junior. But somehow the age gap between Colin and Felicity seemed even larger, perhaps because...

Penelope was unable to keep the disgust off her face. "She's like a sister to him. A little sister."

"Really, Penelope. I hardly think—"

"It's almost incestuous," Penelope muttered.

"What did you say?"

Penelope snatched up her needlework again. "Nothing."

"I'm sure you said something."

Penelope shook her head. "I did clear my throat. Perhaps you heard—"

"I heard you saying something. I'm sure of it!"

Penelope groaned. Her life loomed long and tedious ahead of her. "Mother," she said, with the patience of, if not a saint, at least a very devout nun, "Felicity is practically engaged to Mr. Albansdale."

Portia actually began rubbing her hands together. "She won't be engaged to him if she can catch Colin Bridgerton."

"Felicity would die before chasing after Colin."

"Of course not. She's a smart girl. Anyone can see that Colin Bridgerton is a better catch."

"But Felicity loves Mr. Albansdale!"

Portia deflated into her perfectly upholstered chair. "There is that."

"And," Penelope added with great feeling, "Mr. Albansdale is in possession of a perfectly respectable fortune."

Portia tapped her index finger against her cheek. "True. Not," she said sharply, "as respectable as a Bridgerton portion, but it's nothing to sneeze at, I suppose."

Penelope knew it was time to let it go, but she couldn't stop her mouth from opening one last time. "In all truth, Mother, he's a wonderful match for Felicity. We should be delighted for her."

"I know, I know," Portia grumbled. "It's just that I so wanted one of my daughters to marry a Bridgerton. What a coup! I would be the talk of London for weeks. Years, maybe."

Penelope stabbed her needle into the cushion beside her. It was a rather foolish way to vent her anger, but the alternative was to jump to her feet and yell, What about me? Portia seemed to think that once Felicity was wed, her hopes for a Bridgerton union were forever dashed. But Penelope was still unmarried—didn't that count for anything?

Was it so much to wish that her mother thought of her with the same pride she felt for her other three daughters? Penelope knew that Colin wasn't going to choose her as his bride, but shouldn't a mother be at least a little bit blind to her children's faults? It was obvious to Penelope that neither Prudence, Philippa, nor even Felicity had ever had a chance with a Bridgerton. Why did her mother seem to think their charms so exceeded Penelope's?

Very well, Penelope had to admit that Felicity enjoyed a popularity that exceeded that of her three older sisters combined. But Prudence and Philippa had never been Incomparables. They'd hovered on the perimeters of ballrooms just as much as Penelope had.

Except, of course, that they were married now. Penelope wouldn't have wanted to cleave herself unto either of their husbands, but at least they were wives.

Thankfully, however, Portia's mind had already moved on to greener pastures. "I must pay a call upon Violet," she was saying. "She'll be so relieved that Colin is back."

"I'm sure Lady Bridgerton will be delighted to see you," Penelope said.

"That poor woman," Portia said, her sigh dramatic. "She worries about him, you know—"

"I know."

'Truly, I think it is more than a mother should be expected to bear. He goes gallivanting about, the good Lord only knows where, to countries that are positively unheathen—"

"I believe they practice Christianity in Greece," Penelope murmured, her eyes back down on her needlework.

"Don't be impertinent, Penelope Anne Featherington, and they're Catholics!" Portia shuddered on the word.

"They're not Catholics at all," Penelope replied, giving up on the needlework and setting it aside. "They're Greek Orthodox."

"Well, they're not Church of England," Portia said with a sniff.

"Seeing as how they're Greek, I don't think they're terribly worried about that."

Portia's eyes narrowed disapprovingly. "And how do you know about this Greek religion, anyway? No, don't tell me," she said with a dramatic flourish. "You read it somewhere."

Penelope just blinked as she tried to think of a suitable reply.


nbsp; "I wish you wouldn't read so much," Portia sighed. "I probably could have married you off years ago if you had concentrated more on the social graces and less on ... less on..."

Penelope had to ask. "Less on what?"

"I don't know. Whatever it is you do that has you staring into space and daydreaming so often."

"I'm just thinking," Penelope said quietly. "Sometimes I just like to stop and think."

"Stop what?" Portia wanted to know.

Penelope couldn't help but smile. Portia's query seemed to sum up all that was different between mother and daughter. "It's nothing, Mother," Penelope said. "Really."

Portia looked as if she wanted to say more, then thought the better of it. Or maybe she was just hungry. She did pluck a biscuit off the tea tray and pop it into her mouth.

Penelope started to reach out to take the last biscuit for herself, then decided to let her mother have it. She might as well keep her mother's mouth full. The last thing she wanted was to find herself in another conversation about Colin Bridgerton.

* * *

"Colin's back!"

Penelope looked up from her book—A Brief History of Greece—to see Eloise Bridgerton bursting into her room. As usual, Eloise had not been announced. The Featherington butler was so used to seeing her there that he treated her like a member of the family.

"Is he?" Penelope asked, managing to feign (in her opinion) rather realistic indifference. Of course, she did set A Brief History of Greece down behind Mathilda, the novel by S. R. Fielding that had been all the rage a year earlier. Everyone had a copy of Mathilda on their bedstand. And it was thick enough to hide A Brief History of Greece.

Eloise sat down in Penelope's desk chair. "Indeed, and he's very tanned. All that time in the sun, I suppose."

"He went to Greece, didn't he?"

Eloise shook her head. "He said the war there has worsened, and it was too dangerous. So he went to Cyprus instead."

"My, my," Penelope said with a smile. "Lady Whistledown got something wrong."

Eloise smiled that cheeky Bridgerton smile, and once again Penelope realized how lucky she was to have her as her closest friend. She and Eloise had been inseparable since the age of seventeen. They'd had their London seasons together, reached adulthood together, and, much to their mothers' dismay, had become spinsters together.