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Penelope twisted, even as her feet continued to follow Colin. Briarly never panicked. About anything. If he didn't think she and Colin ought to enter the drawing room, he had to have a very good reason.

Maybe even—

Oh, no.

Penelope dug in her heels, skidding along the hardwood floor as Colin dragged her along by the arm. "Colin," she said, gulping on the first syllable. "Colin!"

"I really think—Aaack!" Her skidding heels hit the edge of the runner carpet, sending her flying forward.

He caught her neatly and set her on her feet. "What is it?"

She glanced nervously at the door to the drawing room. It was slightly ajar, but maybe there was enough noise inside so that her mother hadn't yet heard them approaching.

"Penelope ..." Colin prompted impatiently.

"Er..." There was still time to escape, wasn't there? She looked frantically about, not that she was likely to find a solution to her problems anywhere in the hall.

"Penelope," Colin said, now tapping his foot, "what the devil is the matter?"

She looked back to Briarly, who simply shrugged his shoulders. "This really might not be the best time to speak to my mother."

He raised one brow, looking rather like the butler had just seconds earlier. "You're not planning to refuse me, are you?"

"No, of course not," she said hastily, even though she hadn't truly accepted the fact that he even intended to offer for her.

"Then this is an excellent time," he stated, his tone inviting no further protest.

"But it's—"


Tuesday, she thought miserably. And it was just past noon, which meant—

"Let's go," Colin said, striding forward, and before she could stop him, he pushed open the door.

Colin's first thought upon stepping into the drawing room was that the day, while certainly not proceeding in any manner he might have anticipated when he'd risen from bed that morning, was turning out to be a most excellent endeavor. Marriage to Penelope was an eminently sensible idea, and surprisingly appealing as well, if their recent encounter in the carriage was any indication.

His second thought was that he'd just entered his worst nightmare.

Because Penelope's mother was not alone in the drawing room. Every last Featherington, current and former, was there,

along with assorted spouses and even a cat.

It was the most frightening assemblage of people Colin had ever witnessed. Penelope's family was ... well... except for

Felicity (whom he'd always held in some suspicion; how could one truly trust anyone who was such good friends with Hyacinth?), her family was ... well...

He couldn't think of a good word for it. Certainly nothing complimentary (although he'd like to think he could have avoided an outright insult), and really, was there a word that effectively combined slightly dim, overly talkative, rather meddlesome, excruciatingly dull, and—and one couldn't forget this, not with Robert Huxley a recent addition to the clan—uncommonly loud.

So Colin just smiled. His great, big, friendly, slightly mischievous smile. It almost always worked, and today was no exception. The Featheringtons all smiled right back at him, and—thank God—said nothing.

At least not right away.

"Colin," Mrs. Featherington said with visible surprise. "How nice of you to bring Penelope home for our family meeting."

"Your family meeting?" he echoed. He looked to Penelope, who was standing next to him, looking rather ill.

"Every Tuesday," she said, smiling weakly. "Didn't I mention it?"

"No," he replied, even though it was obvious her question had been for the benefit of their audience. "No, you didn't mention it."

"Bridgerton!" bellowed Robert Huxley, who was married to Penelope's eldest sister Prudence.

"Huxley," Colin returned, taking a discreet step back. Best to protect his eardrums in case Penelope's brother-in-law decided to leave his post near the window.

Thankfully, Huxley stayed put, but Penelope's other brother-in-law, the well-meaning but vacant-minded Nigel Berbrooke, did cross the room, greeting Colin with a hearty slap on the back. "Wasn't expecting you," Berbrooke said jovially.

"No," Colin murmured, "I wouldn't think so."

"Just family, after all," Berbrooke said, "and you're not family. Not my family, at least."

"Not yet, anyway," Colin murmured, stealing a glance at Penelope. She was blushing.

Then he looked back at Mrs. Featherington, who looked as if she might faint from excitement. Colin groaned through his smile. He hadn't meant for her to hear his comment about possibly joining the family. For some reason he'd wanted to retain an element of surprise before he asked for Penelope's hand. If Portia Featherington knew his intentions ahead of time, she'd likely twist the whole thing around (in her mind, at least) so that she had somehow orchestrated the match herself.

And for some reason, Colin found that exceedingly distasteful.

"I hope I'm not intruding," he said to Mrs. Featherington.

"No, of course not," she said quickly. "We are delighted to have you here, at a family gathering." But she looked rather odd, not precisely undecided about his presence there, but certainly unsure of what her next move should be. She was chewing on her lower lip, and then she darted a furtive glance at Felicity, of all people.

Colin turned to Felicity. She was looking at Penelope, a small secret smile fixed to her face. Penelope was glaring at her mother, her mouth twisted into an irritated grimace.

Colin's gaze went from Featherington to Featherington to Featherington. Something was clearly simmering under the surface here and if he weren't trying to figure out (A) how to avoid being trapped into conversation with Penelope's relations while (B) somehow managing to issue a proposal of marriage at the same time—well, he'd be rather curious as to what was causing all the secret, underhanded glances being tossed back and forth between the Featherington women.

Mrs. Featherington cast one last glance at Felicity, did a little gesture that Colin could have sworn meant, Sit up straight, then fixed her attention on Colin. "Won't you sit down?" she asked, smiling widely and patting the seat next to her on the sofa.

"Of course," he murmured, because there was really no getting out of it now. He still had to ask for Penelope's hand in marriage, and even if he didn't particularly want to do it in front of every last Featherington (and their two inane spouses), he was stuck here, at least until a polite opportunity to make his escape presented itself.

He turned and offered his arm to the woman he intended to make his bride. "Penelope?"

"Er, yes, of course," she stammered, placing her hand at the crook of his elbow.

"Oh, yes," Mrs. Featherington said, as if she'd completely forgotten about her daughter's presence. "Terribly sorry, Penelope. Didn't see you. Won't you please go and ask Cook to increase our order? We'll surely need more food with Mr. Bridgerton here."

"Of course," Penelope said, the corners of her lips quivering.

"Can't she ring for it?" Colin asked loudly.

"What?" Mrs. Featherington said distractedly. "Well, I suppose she could, but it would take longer, and Penelope doesn't mind, do you?"

Penelope gave her head a little shake.

"I mind," Colin said.

Mrs. Featherington let out a little "Oh" of surprise, then said, "Very well. Penelope, er, why don't you sit right there?" She motioned to a chair that was not quite situated to be a part of the inner conversation circle.

Felicity, who was seated directly across from her mother, jumped up. "Penelope, please take my seat."

"No," Mrs. Feat

herington said firmly. "You have been feeling under the weather, Felicity. You need to sit."

Colin thought Felicity looked the picture of perfect health, but she sat back down.

"Penelope," Prudence said loudly, from over by the window. "I need to speak with you."

Penelope glanced helplessly from Colin to Prudence to Felicity to her mother.

Colin yanked her in closer. "I need to speak with her as well," he said smoothly.

"Right, well, I suppose there is room for both of you," Mrs. Featherington said, scooting over on the sofa.

Colin was caught between the good manners that had been drummed into his head since birth and the overwhelming urge to strangle the woman who would someday be his mother-in-law. He had no idea why she was treating Penelope like some sort of lesser-favored stepchild, but really, it had to stop.

"What brings you this way?" yelled Robert Huxley.

Colin touched his ears—he couldn't help himself—then said, "I was—"

"Oh, goodness," fluttered Mrs. Featherington, "we do not mean to interrogate our guest, do we?"

Colin hadn't really thought Huxley's question constituted an interrogation, but he didn't really want to insult Mrs. Featherington by saying so, so he merely nodded and said something completely meaningless like, "Yes, well, of course."

"Of course what?" asked Philippa.

Philippa was married to Nigel Berbrooke, and Colin had always thought it was a rather good match, indeed.

"I'm sorry?" he queried.

"You said, 'Of course,'" Philippa said. "Of course what?"

"I don't know," Colin said.

"Oh. Well, then, why did you—"

"Philippa," Mrs. Featherington said loudly, "perhaps you should fetch the food, since Penelope has forgotten to ring for it."

"Oh, I'm sorry," Penelope said quickly, starting to rise to her feet.

"Don't worry," Colin said through a smooth smile, grabbing hold of her hand and yanking her back down. "Your mother said Prudence could go."

"Philippa," Penelope said.

"What about Philippa?"

"She said Philippa could go, not Prudence."

He wondered what had happened to her brain, because somewhere between his carriage and this sofa, it had clearly disappeared. "Does it matter?" he asked.

"No, not really, but—"