Lady Danbury beamed, then all at once her face scrunched into a frown. "I suppose I'll have to give her the fortnight to come up with her 'proof.' Fair play and all that."
"I, for one, will be very interested to see what she comes up with," Hyacinth put in. She turned to Penelope and added,
"I say, you're very clever, did you know that?"
Penelope blushed modestly, then she turned to her sister and said, "We must be going, Felicity."
"So soon?" Felicity asked, and to his horror, Colin realized that he'd mouthed the very same words.
"Mother wanted us home early," Penelope said.
Felicity looked truly perplexed. "She did?"
"She did," Penelope said emphatically. "And besides that, I am not feeling well."
Felicity nodded glumly. "I shall instruct a footman to see that our carriage is brought around."
"No, you stay," Penelope said, placing a hand on her sister's arm. "I will see to it."
"I will see to it," Colin announced. Really, what was the use of being a gentleman when ladies insisted upon doing things for themselves?
And then, before he even realized what he was doing, he'd facilitated Penelope's departure, and she left the scene without his ever having apologized to her.
He supposed he should have deemed the evening a failure for that reason alone, but in all truth, he couldn't quite bring himself to do so.
After all, he'd spent the better part of five minutes holding her hand.
It wasn't until Colin woke up the following morning that he realized he still hadn't apologized to Penelope. Strictly speaking, it probably was no longer necessary that he do so; even though they'd barely spoken at the Macclesfield ball the night before, they seemed to have forged an unspoken truce. Still, Colin didn't think he'd feel comfortable in his own skin until he spoke the words, "I'm sorry."
It was the right thing to do.
He was a gentleman, after all.
And besides, he rather fancied seeing her that morning.
He'd gone to Number Five for breakfast with his family, but he wanted to head straight for home after seeing Penelope, so he hopped in his carriage for the trip to the Featherington home on Mount Street, even though the distance was short enough to make him feel utterly lazy for doing so.
He smiled contentedly and lay back against the squabs, watching the lovely springtime scene roll by his window. It was one of those perfect sorts of days when everything simply felt right. The sun was shining, he felt remarkably energized, he'd had an excellent morning meal...
Life really didn't get better than this.
And he was going over to see Penelope.
Colin chose not to analyze why he was so eager to see her; that was the sort of thing an unmarried man of three-and-thirty didn't generally care to think about. Instead he simply enjoyed the day—the sun, the air, even the three neat town-houses he passed on Mount Street before spying Penelope's front door. There was nothing remotely different or original about any of them, but it was such a perfect morning that they seemed unusually charming butted up next to each other, tall and thin, and stately with their gray Portland stone.
It was a wonderful day, warm and serene, sunny and tranquil...
Except that just as he started to rise from his seat, a short flurry of movement across the street caught his eye.
She was standing on the corner of Mount and Penter streets—the far corner, the one that would be not be visible to anyone looking out a window in the Featherington home. And she was climbing into a hired hack.
Colin frowned, mentally smacking himself on the forehead. It wasn't interesting. What the hell was he thinking? It wasn't interesting at all. It might have been interesting, had she been, say, a man. Or it might have been interesting if the conveyance into which she'd just entered had been one from the Featherington mews and not some scruffy hired hack.
But no, this was Penelope, who was certainly not a man, and she was entering a carriage by herself, presumably heading to some completely unsuitable location, because if she were doing anything proper and normal, she'd be in a Featherington conveyance. Or better yet, with one of her sisters or a maid, or anyone, just not, damn it, by herself.
This wasn't interesting, it was idiotic.
"Fool woman," he muttered, hopping down from his carriage with every intention of dashing toward the hack, wrenching the door open, and dragging her out. But just as his right foot left the confines of his carriage, he was struck by the same madness that led him to wander the world.
Several choice curses were grumbled under his breath, all of them self-directed. He couldn't help it. It was so unlike Penelope to be taking off by herself in a hired hack; he had to know where she was going.
And so, instead of forcibly shaking some sense into her, he directed his driver to follow the hack, and they rolled north toward the busy thoroughfare of Oxford Street, where, Colin reflected, surely Penelope intended to do a bit of shopping. There could be any number of reasons she wasn't using the Featherington carriage. Perhaps it was damaged, or one of their horses had taken ill, or Penelope was buying someone a gift and wanted to keep it a secret.
No, that wasn't right. Penelope would never embark on a shopping expedition by herself. She would take a maid, or one of her sisters, or even one of his sisters. To stroll along Oxford Street by herself was to invite gossip. A woman alone was practically an advertisement for the next Whistledown column.
Or used to be, he supposed. It was hard to get used to a life without Whistledown. He hadn't realized how accustomed
he'd been to seeing it at his breakfast table whenever he was in town.
And speaking of Lady Whistledown, he was even more certain than ever that she was none other than his sister Eloise. He'd gone over to Number Five for breakfast with the express purpose of questioning her, only to be informed that she was still feeling poorly and would not be joining the family that morning.
It had not escaped Colin's notice, however, that a rather hefty tray of food had been sent up to Eloise's room. Whatever ailed his sister, it had not affected her appetite.
He hadn't made any mention of his suspicions at the breakfast table; truly, he saw no reason to upset his mother, who would surely be horrified at the thought. It was difficult to believe, however, that Eloise—whose love of discussing scandal was eclipsed only by her thrill at discovering it— would miss the opportunity to gossip about Cressida Twombley's revelation of the night before.
Unless Eloise was Lady Whistledown, in which case she'd be up in her room, plotting her next step.
The pieces all fit. It would have been depressing if Colin hadn't felt so oddly thrilled at having found her out.
After they rolled along for a few minutes, he poked his head outside to make sure his driver had not lost sight of Penelope's carriage. There she was, right in front of him. Or at least he thought it was her. Most hired hacks looked the same, so he was going to have to trust and hope that he was following the right one. But as he looked out, he realized that they'd traveled much farther east than he would have anticipated. In fact, they were just now passing Soho Street, which meant they were nearly to Tottenham Court Road, which meant—
Dear God, was Penelope taking the carriage to his house? Bedford Square was practically right around the corner.
A delicious thrill shot up his spine, because he couldn't imagine what she was doing in this part of town if not to see him; who else would a woman like Penelope know in Bloomsbury? He couldn't imagine that her mother allowed her to associate with people who actually worked for a living, and Colin's neighbors, though certainly well enough born, were not of the aristocracy and rarely even of the gentry. And they all plodded off to work each day, doctoring and lawyering, or—
Colin frowned. Hard. They'd just rolled past Tottenham Court Road. What the devil was she doing this far east? He supposed her driver
might not know his way around town very well and thought to take Bloomsbury Street up to Bedford Square, even though it was a bit out of the way, but—
He heard something very strange and realized it was the sound of his teeth grinding together. They'd just passed Bloomsbury Street and were presently veering right onto High Holborn.
Devil take it, they were nearly in the City. What in God's name was Penelope planning to do in the City? It was no place for a woman. Hell, he hardly ever went there himself. The world of the ton was farther west, in the hallowed buildings of St. James's and Mayfair. Not here in the City, with its narrow, twisting, medieval roads and rather dangerous proximity to the tenements of the East End.
Colin's jaw dropped progressively lower as they rolled on ... and on ... and on ... until he realized they were turning down Shoe Lane. He craned his head out the window. He'd only been here once before, at the age of nine when his tutor had dragged him and Benedict off to show them where the Great Fire of London had started in 1666. Colin remembered feeling vaguely disappointed when he'd learned that the culprit was a mere baker who'd not dampened the ashes in his oven properly. A fire like that should have had arson or intrigue in its origin.
A fire like that was nothing compared to the feelings coming to a boil in his chest. Penelope had better have a damned good reason for coming out here by herself. She shouldn't be going anywhere unaccompanied, much less the City.
Then, just when Colin was convinced that Penelope was going to travel all the way to the Dover coast, the carriages crossed Fleet Street and ground to a halt. Colin held still, waiting to see what Penelope was up to even though every fiber of his being was screaming to leap out of the carriage and tackle her right there on the pavement.
Call it intuition, call it madness, but somehow he knew that if he accosted Penelope right away, he would never learn of her true purpose here near Fleet Street.
Once she was far enough away so that he could alight unnoticed, he jumped down from the carriage and followed her south toward some church that looked decidedly like a wedding cake.
"For God's sake," Colin muttered, completely unaware of blasphemy or puns, "now is not the time to find religion, Penelope."
She disappeared into the church, and his legs ate up the pavement after her, slowing only when he reached the front door. He didn't want to surprise her too quickly. Not before he found out what exactly she was doing there. His earlier words notwithstanding, he did not for one moment think that Penelope had suddenly developed a desire to extend her churchgoing habits to midweek visits.
He slipped quietly into the church, keeping his footsteps as soft as he could. Penelope was walking down the center aisle,
her left hand tapping along each pew, almost as if she were...
Colin frowned as she picked her pew, then scooted in until she was in the middle. She sat utterly still for a moment, then reached into her reticule and pulled out an envelope. Her head moved the teeniest bit to the left, then to the right, and Colin could easily picture her face, her dark eyes darting in either direction as she checked the room for other people. He was safe from her gaze at the back, so far in the shadows that he was practically pressed up against the wall. And besides, she seemed intent upon remaining still and quiet in her movements; she certainly hadn't moved her head far enough to see him behind her.
Bibles and prayer books were tucked in little pockets on the backs of the pews, and Colin watched as Penelope surreptitiously slid the envelope behind one. Then she stood and edged her way out toward the center aisle.
And that was when Colin made his move.