He'd seen Penelope uncomfortable, and he'd seen her pained, but he'd never seen her truly panicked. And then it occurred to him—she hated being the center of attention. She might poke fun at her status as a wallflower and a spinster, and she'd probably have liked a little more attention from society, but this kind of attention ... with everyone staring at her and awaiting the merest word from her lips ...
She was miserable.
"Miss Featherington," Colin said smoothly, moving to her side, "you look unwell. Would you like to leave?"
"Yes," she said, but then something strange happened.
She changed. He didn't know how else to describe it. She simply changed. Right there, in the Macclesfield ballroom, by his side, Penelope Featherington became someone else.
Her spine stiffened, and he could swear the heat from her body increased, and she said, "No. No, I have something to say."
Lady Danbury smiled.
Penelope looked straight at the old countess and said, "I don't think she's Lady Whistledown. I think she's lying."
Colin instinctively pulled Penelope a little closer to his side. Cressida looked as if she might go for her throat.
"I've always liked Lady Whistledown," Penelope said, her chin rising until her bearing was almost regal. She looked to Cressida, and their eyes caught as she added, "And it would break my heart if she turned out to be someone like Lady Twombley."
Colin took her hand and squeezed it. He couldn't help himself.
"Well said, Miss Featherington!" Lady Danbury exclaimed, clapping her hands together in delight. "That is exactly what I was thinking, but I couldn't find the words." She turned to Colin with a smile. "She's very clever, you know."
"I know," he replied, a strange, new pride brimming within him.
"Most people don't notice it," Lady Danbury said, twisting so that her words were directed to—and probably only heard by—Colin.
"I know," he murmured, "but I do." He had to smile at Lady Danbury's behavior, which he was certain was chosen in part to annoy the devil out of Cressida, who did not like to be ignored.
"I will not be insulted by that... by that nothing!" Cressida fumed. She turned to Penelope with a seething glare and hissed, "I demand an apology."
Penelope just nodded slowly and said, "That is your prerogative."
And then she said nothing more.
Colin had to physically wipe the smile from his face.
Cressida clearly wanted to say more (and perhaps commit an act of violence while she was at it), but she held back, presumably because it was obvious that Penelope was among friends. She had always been renowned for her poise,
however, and thus Colin was not surprised when she composed herself, turned to Lady Danbury, and said, "What do
you plan to do about the thousand pounds?"
Lady Danbury looked at her for the longest second Colin had ever endured, then she turned to him—dear God, the last
thing he wanted to do was get involved in this disaster—and asked, "And what do you think, Mr. Bridgerton? Is our Lady Twombley telling the truth?"
Colin gave her a practiced smile. "You must be mad if you think I'm going to offer an opinion."
"You're a surprisingly wise man, Mr. Bridgerton," Lady Danbury said approvingly.
He nodded modestly, then ruined the effect by saying, "I pride myself on it." But what the hell—it wasn't every day a man was called wise by Lady Danbury.
Most of her adjectives, after all, were of the decidedly negative variety.
Cressida didn't even bother to bat her eyelashes at him; as Colin had already reflected, she wasn't stupid, just mean, and after a dozen years out in society, she had to know that he didn't much like her and certainly wasn't about to fall prey to her charms. Instead, she looked squarely at Lady Danbury and kept her voice evenly modulated as she asked, "What shall we do now, my lady?"
Lady Danbury's lips pursed together until she almost appeared mouthless, then she said, "I need proof."
Cressida blinked. "I beg your pardon?"
"Proof!" Lady Danbury's cane slammed against the floor with remarkable force. "Which letter of the word did you not understand? I'm not handing over a king's ransom without proof."
"One thousand pounds is hardly a king's ransom," Cressida said, her expression growing petulant.
Lady Danbury's eyes narrowed. "Then why are you so keen to get it?"
Cressida was silent for a moment, but there was a tightness in everything about her—her stance, her posture, the line of her jaw. Everyone knew that her husband had left her in bad financial straits, but this was the first time anyone had hinted as such to her face.
"Get me proof," Lady Danbury said, "and I'll give you the money."
"Are you saying," Cressida said (and even as he despised her, Colin was forced to admire her ability to keep her voice even), "that my word is not good enough?"
"That's precisely what I'm saying," Lady Danbury barked. "Good God, girl, you don't get to be my age without being allowed to insult anyone you please."
Colin thought he heard Penelope choking, but when he stole a glance at her, there she was at his side, avidly watching the exchange. Her brown eyes were huge and luminous in her face, and she'd regained most of the color she'd lost when Cressida had made her unexpected announcement. In fact, now Penelope looked positively intrigued by the goings-on.
"Fine," Cressida said, her voice low and deadly. "I will bring you proof in a fortnight's time."
"What sort of proof?" Colin asked, then mentally kicked himself. The last thing he wanted to do was embroil himself in this mess, but his curiosity had gotten the better of him.
Cressida turned to him, her face remarkably placid considering the insult she'd just been dealt by Lady Danbury— before countless witnesses. "You shall know it when I deliver it," she told him archly. And then she held out her arm, waiting for one of her minions to take it and lead her away.
Which was really quite amazing, because a young man (a besotted fool, from all appearances) materialized at her side as if she'd conjured him by the mere tilt of her arm. A moment later they were gone.
"Well," Lady Danbury said, after everyone had stood in reflective—or maybe stunned—silence for nearly a minute. "That was unpleasant."
"I've never liked her," Colin said, to no one in particular.
A small crowd had gathered around them, so his words were heard by more than Penelope and Lady Danbury, but he didn't much care.
He turned to see Hyacinth skidding through the crowd, dragging along Felicity Featherington as she barreled to his side.
"What did she say?" Hyacinth asked breathlessly. "We tried to get here sooner, but it's been such a crush."
"She said exactly what you would have expected her to say," he replied.
Hyacinth pulled a face. "Men are never good for gossip. I want exact words."
"It's very interesting," Penelope said suddenly.
Something about the thoughtful tone of her voice demanded attention, and in seconds the entire crowd had quieted.
"Speak up," Lady Danbury instructed. "We're all listening."
Colin expected such a demand to make Penelope uncomfortable, but whatever silent infusion of confidence she'd experienced a few minutes earlier was still with her, because she stood straight and proud as she said, "Why would someone reveal herself as Lady Whistledown?"
"For the money, of course," Hyacinth said.
Penelope shook her head. "Yes, but you'd think that Lady Whistledown would be quite wealthy by now. We've all been
paying for her paper for years."
"By God, she's right!" Lady Danbury exclaimed.
"Perhaps Cressida merely sought attention," Colin suggested. It wasn't such an unbelievable hypothesis; Cressida had spent the bulk of her adult life trying to place herself at the center of attention.
"I'd thought of that," Penelope allowed, "but does she really want this sort of attention? Lady Whistledown has insulted quite a few people over the years."
"No one who means anything to me," Colin joked. Then, when it became obvious that his companions required an explanation, he added, "Haven't you all noticed that Lady Whistledown only insults the people who need insulting?"
Penelope cleared her throat delicately. "I have been referred to as an overripe citrus fruit."
He waved off her concern. "Except for the bits about fashion, of course."
Penelope must have decided not to pursue the matter any further, because all she did was give Colin a long, assessing stare before turning back to Lady Danbury and saying, "Lady Whistledown has no motive to reveal herself. Cressida obviously does."