Whatever the case, he needed to make his apology, and he needed to do it soon. He had to apologize for the kiss, because she was a lady and he was (most of the time, at least) a gentleman. And he had to apologize for behaving like a raving idiot afterward, because it was simply the right thing to do.
God only knew what Penelope thought he thought of her now.
It wasn't difficult to find her once he entered the ballroom. He didn't bother to look among the dancing couples (which angered him—why didn't the other men think to ask her to dance?). Rather, he focused his attention along the walls, and sure enough, there she was, seated on a long bench next to— oh, God—Lady Danbury.
Well, there was nothing else to do but walk right up. The way Penelope and the old busybody were clutching each other's hands, he couldn't expect Lady Danbury to disappear anytime soon.
When he reached the pair of ladies, he turned first to Lady Danbury and swept into an elegant bow. "Lady Danbury," he said, before turning his attention to Penelope. "Miss Featherington."
"Mr. Bridgerton," Lady Danbury said, with a surprising lack of sharpness in her voice, "how nice to see you."
He nodded, then looked to Penelope, wondering what she was thinking, and whether he'd be able to see it in her eyes.
But whatever she was thinking—or feeling—it was hidden under a rather thick layer of nervousness. Or maybe the nervousness was all she was feeling. He couldn't really blame her. The way he'd stormed out of her drawing room without an explanation ... she had to feel confused. And it was his experience that confusion invariably led to apprehension.
"Mr. Bridgerton," she finally murmured, her entire bearing scrupulously polite.
He cleared his throat. How to extract her from Lady Danbury's clutches? He'd really rather not humble himself in front of the nosy old countess.
"I'd hoped ..." he began, intending to say that he'd hoped to have a private word with Penelope. Lady Danbury would be ferociously curious, but there was really no other course of action, and it would probably do her good to be left in the dark for once.
But just as his lips were forming his query, he realized that something strange was afoot in the Macclesfield ballroom. People were whispering and pointing toward the small orchestra, whose members had recently laid their instruments down. Furthermore, neither Penelope nor Lady Danbury were paying him the least attention.
"What is everyone looking at?" Colin asked.
Lady Danbury didn't even bother looking back at him as she replied, "Cressida Twombley has some sort of announcement."
How annoying. He'd never liked Cressida. She'd been mean and petty when she was Cressida Cowper, and she was meaner and pettier as Cressida Twombley. But she was beautiful, and she was intelligent, in a rather cruel sort of way, and so she was still considered a leader in certain society circles.
"Can't imagine what she has to say that I'd want to listen to," Colin muttered.
He spied Penelope trying to stifle a smile and flashed her an I-caught-you sort of look. But it was the sort of I-caught-you look that also said And-I-agree-completely.
"Good evening!" came the loud voice of the Earl of Macclesfield.
"Good evening to you!" replied some drunken fool in the back. Colin twisted to see who it was, but the crowd had grown too thick.
The earl spoke some more, then Cressida opened her mouth, at which point Colin ceased paying attention. Whatever Cressida had to say, it wasn't going to help him solve his main problem: figuring out exactly how he was going to apologize to Penelope. He'd tried rehearsing the words in his mind, but they never sounded quite right, and so he was hoping his famously glib tongue would lead him in the right direction when the time came. Surely she'd understand—
Colin only caught the last word of Cressida's monologue, but there was no way he could have missed the massive collective indrawn breath that swept the ballroom.
Followed by the flurry of harsh, urgent whispers one generally only hears after someone is caught in a very embarrassing, very public compromising position.
"What?" he blurted out, turning to Penelope, who'd gone white as a sheet. "What did she say?"
But Penelope was speechless.
He looked to Lady Danbury, but the old lady had her hand over her mouth and looked as if she might possibly swoon.
Which was somewhat alarming, as Colin would have bet large sums of money that Lady Danbury had never once swooned in all of her seventy-odd years.
"What?" he demanded again, hoping one of them would break free of her stupor.
"It can't be true," Lady Danbury finally whispered, her mouth slack even as she spoke the words. "I don't believe it."
She pointed toward Cressida, her extended index finger quivering in the flickering candlelight. "That lady is not Lady Whistledown."
Colin's head snapped back and forth. To Cressida. To Lady Danbury. To Cressida. To Penelope. "She's Lady Whistledown?" he finally blurted out.
"So she says," Lady Danbury replied, doubt written all over her face.
Colin tended to agree with her. Cressida Twombley was the last person he'd have pegged as Lady Whistledown. She was smart; there was no denying that. But she wasn't clever, and she wasn't terribly witty unless she was poking fun at others. Lady Whistledown had a rather cutting sense of humor, but with the exception of her infamous comments on fashion, she never seemed to pick on the less popular members of society.
When all was said and done, Colin had to say that Lady Whistledown had rather good taste in people.
"I can't believe this," Lady Danbury said with a loud snort of disgust. "If I'd dreamed this would happen, I would never have made that beastly challenge."
"This is horrible," Penelope whispered.
Her voice was quavering, and it made Colin uneasy. "Are you all right?" he asked.
She shook her head. "No, I don't think I am. I feel rather ill, actually."
"Do you want to leave?"
Penelope shook her head again. "But I'll sit right here, if you don't mind."
"Of course," he said, keeping a concerned eye on her. She was still terribly pale.
"Oh, for the love of..." Lady Danbury blasphemed, which took Colin by surprise, but then she actually swore, which he
thought might very well have tilted the planet on its axis.
"Lady Danbury?" he asked, gaping.
"She's coming this way," she muttered, jerking her head to the right. "I should have known I'd not escape."
Colin looked to his left. Cressida was trying to make her way through the crowd, presumably to confront Lady Danbury and collect her prize. She was, naturally, being accosted at every turn by fellow partygoers. She seemed to be reveling in the attention—no big surprise there; Cressida had always reveled in attention—but she also seemed rather determined to reach Lady Danbury's side.
"There's no way to avoid her, I'm afraid," Colin said to Lady Danbury.
"I know," she grumbled. "I've been trying to avoid her for years, and I've never succeeded. I thought I was so clever." She looked to Colin, shaking her head with disgust. "I thought it would be such fun to rout out Lady Whistledown."
"Er, well, it was fun," Colin said, not really meaning it.
Lady Danbury jabbed him in the leg with her cane. "It's not the least bit fun, you foolish boy. Now look what I have to do!" She waved the cane toward Cressida, who was drawing ever closer. "I never dreamed I'd have to deal with the likes of her"
"Lady Danbury," Cressida said, swishing to a stop in front of her. "How nice to see you."
Lady Danbury had never been known for her pleasantries, but even she outdid herself by skipping any pretense of a greeting before snapping, "I suppose you're here to try to collect your money."
Cressida cocked her head to the side in a very pretty, very practiced manner. "You did say you would give a thousand pounds to whomever unmasked Lady Whistledown." She shrugged, lifting her hands in the air and then twisting th
em gracefully until her palms were up in a gesture of false humility. "You never stipulated that I couldn't unmask myself."
Lady Danbury rose to her feet, narrowed her eyes, and said, "I don't believe it's you."
Colin liked to think that he was rather suave and unflappable, but even he gasped at that.
Cressida's blue eyes blazed with fury, but she quickly regained control of her emotions and said, "I would be shocked if you did not behave with a degree of skepticism, Lady Danbury. After all, it is not your way to be trusting and gentle."
Lady Danbury smiled. Well, perhaps not a smile, but her lips did move. "I shall take that as a compliment," she said, "and allow you to tell me that you meant it as such."
Colin watched the stalemate with interest—and with a growing sense of alarm—until Lady Danbury turned quite suddenly to Penelope, who had risen to her feet mere seconds after she had.
"What do you think, Miss Featherington?" Lady Danbury asked.
Penelope visibly started, her entire body jerking slightly as she stammered, "What... I... I beg your pardon?"
"What do you think?" Lady Danbury persisted. "Is Lady Twombley Lady Whistledown?"
"I—I'm sure I don't know."
"Oh, come, now, Miss Featherington." Lady Danbury planted her hands on her hips and looked at Penelope with an expression that bordered on exasperation. "Surely you have an opinion on the matter."
Colin felt himself stepping forward. Lady Danbury had no right to speak to Penelope in such a manner. And furthermore, he didn't like the expression on Penelope's face. She looked trapped, like a fox in a hunt, her eyes darting to him with a panic he'd never seen there before.