"Now you're just being ugly," she said, a little voice at the back of her brain wondering why she wasn't crying by now. This was Colin, and she'd loved him forever, and he was acting as if he hated her. Was there anything else in the world more worthy of tears?
Or maybe that wasn't it at all. Maybe all this sadness building up inside of her was for the death of a dream. Her dream of him. She'd built up the perfect image of him in her mind, and with every word he spat in her face, it was becoming more and more obvious that her dream was quite simply wrong.
"I'm making a point," he said, snatching the paper back from her hands. "Look at this. It might as well be an invitation for further investigation. You're mocking society, daring them to uncover you."
"That's not at all what I'm doing!"
"It may not be your intention, but it is certainly the end result."
He probably had something of a point there, but she was loath to give him credit for it. "It's a chance I'll have to take," she replied, crossing her arms and looking pointedly away from him. "I've gone eleven years without detection. I don't see why I'm in need of undue worry now."
His breath left him in a short punch of exasperation. "Do you have any concept of money? Any idea how many people would like Lady Danbury's thousand pounds?"
"I have more of a concept of money than you do," she replied, bristling at the insult. "And besides, Lady Danbury's reward doesn't make my secret any more vulnerable."
"It makes everyone else more determined, and that makes you more vulnerable. Not to mention," he added with a wry twist to his lips, "as my youngest sister pointed out, there is the glory."
"Hyacinth?" she asked.
He nodded grimly, setting the paper down on the bench beside him. "And if Hyacinth thinks the glory at having uncovered your identity is enviable, then you can be sure she's not the only one. It may very well be why Cressida is pursuing her stupid ruse."
"Cressida's doing it for the money," Penelope grumbled. "I'm sure of it."
"Fine. It doesn't matter why she's doing it. All that matters is that she is, and once you dispose of her with your idiocy"— he slammed his hand against the paper, causing Penelope to wince as a loud crinkle filled the air—"someone else will take her place."
"This is nothing I don't already know," she said, mostly because she couldn't bear to give him the last word.
"Then for the love of God, woman," he burst out, "let Cressida get away with her scheme. She's the answer to your prayers."
Her eyes snapped up to his. "You don't know my prayers."
Something in her tone hit Colin squarely in the chest. She hadn't changed his mind, hadn't even budged it, but he couldn't seem to find the right words to fill the moment. He looked at her, then he looked out the window, his mind absently focusing on the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral.
"We really are taking the long way home," he murmured.
She didn't say anything. He didn't blame her. It had been a stupid non sequitur, words to fill the silence and nothing else.
"If you let Cressida—" he began.
"Stop," she implored him. "Please, don't say any more. I can't let her do it."
"Have you really thought about what you'd gain?"
She looked at him sharply. "Do you think I've been able to think of anything else these past few days?"
He tried another tactic. "Does it truly matter that people know you were Lady Whistledown? You know that you were
clever and fooled us all. Can't that be enough?"
"You're not listening to me!" Her mouth remained frozen open, in an odd incredulous oval, as if she couldn't quite believe that he didn't understand what she was saying. "I don't need for people to know it was me. I just need for them to know it wasn't her."
"But clearly you don't mind if people think someone else is Lady Whistledown," he insisted. "After all, you've been accusing Lady Danbury for weeks."
"I had to accuse someone," she explained. "Lady Danbury asked me point-blank who I thought it was, and I couldn't very well say myself. Besides, it wouldn't be so very bad if people thought it was Lady Danbury. At least I like Lady Danbury."
"How would you feel if your journals were published with Nigel Berbrooke as the author?" she demanded.
"Nigel Berbrooke can barely string two sentences together," he said with a derisive snort. "I hardly think anyone would
believe he could have written my journals." As an afterthought, he gave her a little nod as an apology, since Berbrooke was, after all, married to her sister.
"Try to imagine it," she ground out. "Or substitute whomever you think is similar to Cressida."
"Penelope," he sighed, "I'm not you. You can't compare the two. Besides, if I were to publish my journals, they would hardly ruin me in the eyes of society."
She deflated in her seat, sighing loudly, and he knew that his point had been well made. "Good," he announced, "then it is decided. We will tear this up—" He reached for the sheet of paper.
"No!" she cried out, practically leaping from her seat. "Don't!"
"But you just said—"
"I said nothing!" she shrilled. "All I did was sigh."
"Oh, for God's sake, Penelope," he said testily. "You clearly agreed with—"
She gaped at his audacity. "When did I give you leave to interpret my sighs?"
He looked at the incriminating paper, still held in his hands, and wondered what on earth he was meant to do with it at this moment.
"And anyway," she continued, her eyes flashing with an anger and fire that made her almost beautiful, "it isn't as if I don't have every last word memorized. You can destroy that paper, but you can't destroy me."
"I'd like to," he muttered.
"What did you say?"
"Whistledown," he ground out. "I'd like to destroy Whistledown. You, I'm happy to leave as is."
"But I am Whistledown."
"God help us all."
And then something within her simply snapped. All her rage, all her frustration, every last negative feeling she'd kept bottled up inside over the years broke forth, all directed at Colin, who, of all the ton, was probably the least deserving of it.
"Why are you so angry with me?" she burst out. "What have I done that is so repellent? Been cleverer than you? Kept a secret? Had a good laugh at the expense of society?"
"No," she said forcefully. "You be quiet. It's my turn to speak."
His jaw went slack as he stared at her, shock and disbelief crowding in his eyes.
"I am proud of what I've done," she managed to say, her voice shaking with emotion. "I don't care what you say. I don't care what anyone says. No one can take that from me."
"I'm not trying—"
"I don't need for people to know the truth," she said, jumping on top of his ill-timed protest. "But I will be damned if I allow Cressida Twombley, the very person who... who ..." Her entire body was trembling now, as memory after memory swept over her, all of them bad.
Cressida, renowned for her grace and carriage, tripping and spilling punch on Penelope's gown that first year—the only one her mother had allowed her to buy that wasn't yellow or orange.
Cressida, sweetly begging young bachelors to ask Penelope to dance, her requests made with such volume and fervor that Penelope could only be mortified by them.
Cressida, saying before a crowd how worried she was about Penelope's appearance. "It's just not healthful to weigh more than ten stone at our age," she'd cooed.
Penelope never knew whether Cressida had been able to hide her smirk following her barb. She'd fled the room, blinded by tears, unable to ignore the way her hips jiggled as she ran away.
Cressida had always known exactly where to stick her sword, and she'd known how to twist her bayonet. It didn't matter that Eloise remained Penelope's champion or that Lady Bridgerton always tried to bolster her confidence. Penelope had cried herself to sleep more times than she could remember, always due to some w
ell-placed barb from Cressida Cowper Twombley.
She'd let Cressida get away with so much in the past, all because she hadn't the courage to stand up for herself. But she couldn't let Cressida have this. Not her secret life, not the one little corner of her soul that was strong and proud and completely without fear.
Penelope might not know how to defend herself, but by God, Lady Whistledown did.
"Penelope?" Colin asked cautiously.
She looked at him blankly, taking several seconds to remember that it was 1824, not 1814, and she was here in a carriage with Colin Bridgerton, not cowering in the corner of a ballroom, trying to escape Cressida Cowper.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
She nodded. Or at least she tried to.
He opened his mouth to say something, then paused, his lips remaining parted for several seconds. Finally, he just placed his hand on hers, saying, "We'll talk about this later?"
This time she did manage a short nod. And truly, she just wanted the entire awful afternoon to be over, but there was one thing she couldn't quite let go of yet.
"Cressida wasn't ruined," she said quietly.
He turned to her, a slight veil of confusion descending over his eyes. "I beg your pardon?"
Her voice rose slightly in volume. "Cressida said she was Lady Whistledown, and she wasn't ruined."
'That's because no one believed her," Colin replied. "And besides," he added without thinking, "she's ... different."
She turned to him slowly. Very slowly, with steadfast eyes. "Different how?"
Something akin to panic began to pound in Colin's chest. He'd known he wasn't saying the right words even as they'd spilled from his lips. How could one little sentence, one little word be so very wrong?
They both knew what he'd meant. Cressida was popular, Cressida was beautiful, Cressida could carry it all off with aplomb.
Penelope, on the other hand ...