His anger was entirely unwarranted. He had no right to expect that Penelope share her secrets with him. They had no commitments to each other, nothing beyond a rather nice friendship and a single, albeit disturbingly moving, kiss. He
certainly wouldn't have shared his journals with her if she hadn't stumbled upon them herself.
"Colin," she whispered. "Please ... don't."
She'd seen his secret writings. Why shouldn't he see hers? Did she have a lover? Was all that nonsense about never having been kissed exactly that—nonsense?
Dear God, was this fire burning in his belly ... jealousy?
"Colin," she said again, choking now. She placed her hand on his, trying to prevent him from opening the envelope. Not with strength, for she could never match him on that, just with her presence.
But there was no way ... no way he could have stopped himself at that point. He would have died before surrendering that envelope to her unopened.
He tore it open.
Penelope let out a strangled cry and ran from the church.
Colin read the words.
And then he sank to the pew, bloodless, breathless.
"Oh, my God," he whispered. "Oh, my God."
* * *
By the time Penelope reached the outer steps to St. Bride's Church, she was hysterical. Or at least as hysterical as she'd
ever been. Her breath was coming in short, sharp gasps, tears pricked her eyes, and her heart felt...
Well, her heart felt as if it wanted to throw up, if such a thing were possible.
How could he have done this? He'd followed her. Followed her! Why would Colin follow her? What would he have to gain? Why would he—
She suddenly looked around.
"Oh, damn!" she wailed, not caring if anyone heard her. The hack had left. She'd given specific instructions to the driver to wait for her, that she'd only be a minute, but he was nowhere in sight.
Another transgression she could lay at Colin's door. He'd delayed her inside the church, and now the hack had left, and she was stuck here on the steps of St. Bride's Church, in the middle of the City of London, so far from her home in Mayfair that she might as well have been in France. People were staring at her and any minute now she was sure to be accosted, because who had ever seen a gently bred lady alone in the City, much less one who was so clearly on the verge of a nervous attack?
Why why why had she been so foolish as to think that he was the perfect man? She'd spent half her life worshiping someone who wasn't even real. Because the Colin she knew— no, the Colin she'd thought she'd known—clearly didn't exist. And whoever this man was, she wasn't even sure she liked him. The man she'd loved so faithfully over the years never would have behaved like this. He wouldn't have followed her—Oh, very well, he would have, but only to assure himself of her safety. But he wouldn't have been so cruel, and he certainly wouldn't have opened her private correspondence.
She had read two pages of his journal, that was true, but they hadn't been in a sealed envelope!
She sank onto the steps and sat down, the stone cool even through the fabric of her dress. There was little she could do now besides sit here and wait for Colin. Only a fool would take off on foot by herself so far from home. She supposed she could
hail a hack on Fleet Street, but what if they were all occupied, and besides, was there really any point in running from Colin? He knew where she lived, and unless she decided to run to the Orkney Islands, she wasn't likely to escape a confrontation.
She sighed. Colin would probably find her in the Orkneys, seasoned traveler that he was. And she didn't even want to go to the Orkneys.
She choked back a sob. Now she wasn't even making sense. Why was she fixated on the Orkney Islands?
And then there was Colin's voice behind her, clipped and so very cold. "Get up," was all he said.
She did, not because he'd ordered her to (or at least that was what she told herself), and not because she was afraid of him, but rather because she couldn't sit on the steps of St. Bride's forever, and even if she wanted nothing more than to hide herself from Colin for the next six months, at the moment he was her only safe means home.
He jerked his head toward the street. "Into the carriage."
She went, climbing up as she heard Colin give the driver her address and then instruct him to "take the long way."
They'd been moving a good thirty seconds before he handed her the single sheet of paper that had been folded into the envelope she'd left in the church. "I believe this is yours," he said.
She gulped and looked down, not that she needed to. She already had the words memorized. She'd written and rewritten them so many times the previous night, she didn't think they'd ever escape her memory.
There is nothing I despise more than a gentleman who thinks it amusing to give a lady a condescending pat on the hand as he murmurs, "It is a woman's prerogative to change her mind." And indeed, because I feel one should always support one's words with one's actions, I endeavor to keep my opinions and decisions steadfast and true.
Which is why, Gentle Reader, when I wrote my column of 19 April, I truly intended it to be my last. However, events entirely beyond my control (or indeed beyond my approval) force me to put my pen to paper one last time.
Ladies and Gentleman, This Author is NOT Lady Cressida Twombley. She is nothing more than a scheming imposter, and it would break my heart to see my years of hard work attributed to one such as her.
Lady Whistledown's Society Papers, 21 April 1824
Penelope refolded the paper with great precision, using the time to try to compose herself and figure out what on earth she was supposed to say at a moment like that. Finally, she attempted a smile, didn't quite meet his eyes, and joked, "Did you guess?"
He didn't say anything, so she was forced to look up. She immediately wished she hadn't. Colin looked completely unlike himself. The easy smile that always tugged at his lips, the good humor forever lurking in his eyes—they were all gone, replaced by harsh lines and cold, pure ice.
The man she knew, the man she'd loved for so very long— she didn't know who he was anymore.
"I'll take that as a no," she said shakily.
"Do you know what I am trying to do right now?" he asked, his voice startling and loud against the rhythmic clip-clop of the horses' hooves.
She opened her mouth to say no, but one look at his face told her he didn't desire an answer, so she held her tongue.
"I am trying to decide what, precisely, I am most angry with you about," he said. "Because there are so many things—so very many things—that I am finding it extraordinarily difficult to focus upon just one."
It was on the tip of Penelope's tongue to suggest something—her deception was a likely place to start—but on second thought, now seemed an excellent time to hold her counsel.
"First of all," he said, the terribly even tone of his voice suggesting that he was trying very hard to keep his temper in check (and this was, in and of itself, rather disturbing, as she hadn't been aware that Colin even possessed a temper), "I cannot believe you were stupid enough to venture into the City by yourself, and in a hired hack, no less!"
"I could hardly go by myself in one of our own carriages," Penelope blurted out before she remembered that she'd meant to remain silent.
His head moved about an inch to the left. She didn't know what that meant, but she couldn't imagine it was good, especially since it almost seemed as if his neck were tightening as it twisted. "I beg your pardon?" he asked, his voice still that awful blend of satin and steel.
Well, now she had to answer, didn't she? "Er, it's nothing," she said, hoping the evasion would reduce his attention on the rest of her reply. "Just that I'm not allowed to go out by myself."
"I am aware of that," he bit off. "There's a damned good reason for it, too."
"So if I wanted to go out by myself," she continued, choosing to ignore the second part of his reply, "I couldn't very well use one of
our carriages. None of our drivers would agree to take me here."
"Your drivers," he snapped, "are clearly men of impeccable wisdom and sense."
Penelope said nothing.
"Do you have any idea what could have happened to you?" he demanded, his sharp mask of control beginning to crack.
"Er, very little, actually," she said, gulping on the sentence. "I've come here before, and—"
"What? " His hand closed over her upper arm with painful force. "What did you just say?"
Repeating it seemed almost dangerous to her health, so Penelope just stared at him, hoping that maybe she could break
through the wild anger in his eyes and find the man she knew and loved so dearly.
"It's only when I need to leave an urgent message for my publisher," she explained. "I send a coded message, then he knows to pick up my note here."
"And speaking of which," Colin said roughly, snatching the folded paper back from her hands, "what the hell is this?"
Penelope stared at him in confusion. "I would have thought it was obvious. I'm—"
"Yes, of course, you're bloody Lady Whistledown, and you've probably been laughing at me for weeks as I insisted it was Eloise." His face twisted as he spoke, nearly breaking her heart.
"No!" she cried out. "No, Colin, never. I would never laugh at you!"
But his face told her clearly that he did not believe her. There was humiliation in his emerald eyes, something she'd never seen there, something she'd never expected to see. He was a Bridgerton. He was popular, confident, self-possessed. Nothing could embarrass him. No one could humiliate him.
Except, apparently, her.
"I couldn't tell you," she whispered, desperately trying to make that awful look in his eyes go away. "Surely you knew I couldn't tell you."
He was silent for an agonizingly long moment, and then, as if she'd never spoken, never tried to explain herself, he lifted the incriminating sheet of paper into the air and shook it, completely disregarding her impassioned outcry. "This is stupidity," he said. "Have you lost your mind?"
"I don't know what you mean."
"You had a perfectly good escape, just waiting for you. Cressida Twombley was willing to take the blame for you."