And then suddenly his hands were on her shoulders, and he was holding her so tightly she could barely breathe.
"Why couldn't you just let it die, Penelope?" His voice was urgent, his eyes blazing. It was the most feeling she'd ever seen in him, and it broke her heart that it was directed toward her in anger. And in shame.
"I couldn't let her do it," she whispered. "I couldn't let her be me."
"Why the hell not?"
Penelope could do nothing but stare for several seconds. "Because ... because ..." she flailed, wondering how she was supposed to explain this. Her heart was breaking, her most terrifying—and exhilarating—secret had been shattered, and
he thought she had the presence of mind to explain herself?
"I realize she's quite possibly the biggest bitch..."
"... that England has produced in this generation at least, but for God's sake, Penelope"—he raked his hand through his hair, then fixed a hard stare on her face—"she was going to take the blame—"
"The credit," Penelope interrupted testily.
"The blame," he continued. "Do you have any idea what will happen to you if people find out who you really are?"
The corners of her lips tightened with impatience ... and irritation at being so obviously condescended to. "I've had over a decade to ruminate the possibility."
His eyes narrowed. "Are you being sarcastic?"
"Not at all," she shot back. "Do you really think I haven't spent a good portion of the last ten years of my life contemplating what would happen if I were found out? I'd be a blind idiot if I hadn't."
He grabbed her by the shoulders, holding tight even as the carriage bumped over uneven cobbles. "You will be ruined, Penelope. Ruined! Do you understand what I am saying?"
"If I did not," she replied, "I assure you I would now, after your lengthy dissertations on the subject when you were accusing Eloise of being Lady Whistledown."
He scowled, obviously annoyed at having his errors thrown in his face. "People will stop talking to you," he continued.
"They will cut you dead—"
"People never talked to me," she snapped. "Half the time they didn't even know I was there. How do you think I was able to keep up the ruse for so long in the first place? I was invisible, Colin. No one saw me, no one talked to me. I just stood and listened, and no one noticed"
"That's not true." But his eyes slid from hers as he said it.
"Oh, it is true, and you know it. You only deny it," she said, jabbing him in the arm, "because you feel guilty."
"I do not!"
"Oh, please," she scoffed. "Everything you do, you do out of guilt."
"That involves me, at least," she corrected. Her breath was rushing through her throat, and her skin was pricking with heat, and for once, her soul was on fire. "Do you think I don't know how your family pities me? Do you think it escapes my notice that anytime you or your brothers happen to be at the same party as me, you ask me to dance?"
"We're polite," he ground out, "and we like you."
"And you feel sorry for me. You like Felicity but I don't see you dancing with her every time your paths cross."
He let go of her quite suddenly and crossed his arms. "Well, I don't like her as well as I do you."
She blinked, knocked rather neatly off her verbal stride. Trust him to go and compliment her in the middle of an argument. Nothing could have disarmed her more.
"And," he continued with a rather arch and superior lifting of his chin, "you have not addressed my original point."
"That Lady Whistledown will ruin you!"
"For God's sake," she muttered, "you talk as if she were a separate person."
"Well, excuse me if I still have difficulty reconciling the woman in front of me with the harridan writing the column."
"Insulted?" he mocked.
"Yes! I've worked very hard on that column." She clenched her fists around the thin fabric of her mint-green morning dress, oblivious to the wrinkled spirals she was creating. She had to do something with her hands or she'd quite possibly explode with the nervous energy and anger coursing through her veins. Her only other option seemed to be crossing her arms, and she refused to give in to such an obvious show of petulance. Besides, he was crossing his arms, and one of them needed to act older than six.
"I wouldn't dream of denigrating what you've done," he said condescendingly.
"Of course you would," she interrupted.
"No, I wouldn't."
"Then what do you think you're doing?"
"Being an adult!" he answered, his voice growing loud and impatient. "One of us has to be."
"Don't you dare speak to me of adult behavior!" she exploded. "You, who run at the very hint of responsibility."
"And what the hell does that mean?" he bit off.
"I thought it was rather obvious."
He drew back. "I can't believe you're speaking to me like this."
"You can't believe I'm doing it," she taunted, "or that I possess the nerve to do so?"
He just stared at her, obviously surprised by her question.
"There's more to me than you think, Colin," she said. And then, in a quieter tone of voice, she added, "There's more to me than I used to think."
He said nothing for several moments, and then, as if he just couldn't drag himself away from the topic, he asked, practically between his teeth, "What did you mean when you said I run from responsibility?"
She pursed her lips, then relaxed as she let out what she hoped would be a calming exhale. "Why do you think you travel so much?"
"Because I like it," he replied, his tone clipped.
/> "And because you're bored out of your mind here in England."
"And that makes me a child because ... ?"
"Because you're not willing to grow up and do something adult that would keep you in one place."
Her hands came up in an I-should-think-it-was-obvious sort of gesture. "Like get married."
"Is that a proposal?" he mocked, one corner of his mouth rising into a rather insolent smile.
She could feel her cheeks flushing deep and hot, but she forced herself to continue. "You know it's not, and don't try to change the subject by being deliberately cruel." She waited for him to say something, perhaps an apology. His silence was an insult, and so she let out a snort and said, "For heaven's sake, Colin, you're three-and-thirty."
"And you're eight-and-twenty," he pointed out, and not in a particularly kind tone of voice.
It felt like a punch in the belly, but she was too riled up to retreat into her familiar shell. "Unlike you," she said with low precision, "I don't have the luxury of asking someone. And unlike you," she added, her intention now solely to induce the guilt she'd accused him of just minutes earlier, "I don't have a massive pool of prospective suitors, so I've never had the luxury of saying no."
His lips tightened. "And you think that your unveiling as Lady Whistledown is going to increase the number of your suitors?"
"Are you trying to be insulting?" she ground out.
"I'm trying to be realistic! Something which you seem to have completely lost sight of."
"I never said I was planning to unveil myself as Lady Whistledown."
He snatched the envelope with the final column in it back up off the cushioned bench. "Then what is this about?"
She grabbed it back, yanking the paper from the envelope. "I beg your pardon," she said, every syllable heavy with sarcasm. "I must have missed the sentence proclaiming my identity."
"You think this swan song of yours will do anything to dampen the frenzy of interest in Lady Whistledown's identity? Oh, excuse me"—he placed one insolent hand over his heart—"perhaps I should have said your identity. After all, I don't want to deny you your credit."