Font Size:  

Eloise claimed that she hadn't met the right person.

Penelope, of course, hadn't been asked.

"Did he enjoy Cyprus?" Penelope inquired.

Eloise sighed. "He said it was brilliant. How I should love to travel. It seems everyone has been somewhere but me."

"And me," Penelope reminded her.

"And you," Eloise agreed. "Thank goodness for you."

"Eloise!" Penelope exclaimed, throwing a pillow at her. But she thanked goodness for Eloise, too. Every day. Many women went through their entire lives without a close female friend, and here she had someone to whom she could tell anything. Well, almost anything. Penelope had never told her of her feelings for Colin, although she rather thought Eloise suspected the truth. Eloise was far too tactful to mention it, though, which only validated Penelope's certainty that Colin would never love her. If Eloise had thought, for even one moment, that Penelope actually had a chance at snaring Colin as a husband, she would have been plotting her matchmaking strategies with a ruthlessness that would have impressed any army general.

When it came right down to it, Eloise was a rather managing sort of person.

"... and then he said that the water was so choppy that he actually cast up his accounts over the side of the boat, and— " Eloise scowled. "You're not listening to me."

"No," Penelope admitted. "Well, yes, actually, parts of it. I cannot believe Colin actually told you he vomited."

"Well, I am his sister."

"He'd be furious with you if he knew you'd told me."

Eloise waved off her protest. "He won't mind. You're like another sister to him."

Penelope smiled, but she sighed at the same time.

"Mother asked him—of course—whether he was planning to remain in town for the season," Eloise continued, "and—of course—he was terribly evasive, but then I decided to interrogate him myself—"

"Terribly smart of you," Penelope murmured.

Eloise threw the pillow back at her. "And I finally got him to admit to me that yes, he thinks he will stay for at least a few months. But he made me promise not to tell Mother."

"Now, that's not"—Penelope cleared her throat—"terribly intelligent of him. If your mother thinks his time here is limited, she will redouble her efforts to see him married. I should think that was what he wanted most to avoid."

"It does seem his usual aim in life," Eloise concurred.

"If he lulled her into thinking that there was no rush, perhaps she might not badger him quite so much."

"An interesting idea," Eloise said, "but probably more true in theory than in practice. My mother is so determined to see him wed that it matters not if she increases her efforts. Her regular efforts are enough to drive him mad as it is."

"Can one go doubly mad?" Penelope mused.

Eloise cocked her head. "I don't know," she said. "I don't think I should want to find out."

They both fell silent for a moment (a rare occurrence, indeed) and then Eloise quite suddenly jumped to her feet and said, "I must go."

Penelope smiled. People who didn't know Eloise very well thought she had a habit of changing the subject frequently (and abruptly), but Penelope knew that the truth was something else altogether. When Eloise had her mind set on something, she was completely unable to let it go. Which I meant that if Eloise suddenly wanted to leave, it probably had to do with something they'd been talking about earlier in the afternoon, and—

"Colin is expected for tea," Eloise explained.

Penelope smiled. She loved being right.

"You should come," Eloise said.

Penelope shook her head. "He'll want it to be just family."

"You're probably right," Eloise said, nodding slightly. "Very well, then, I must be off. Terribly sorry to cut my visit so short, but I wanted to be sure that you knew Colin was home."

"Whistledown," Penelope reminded her.

"Right. Where does that woman get her information?" Eloise said, shaking her head in wonder. "I vow sometimes she knows so much about my family I wonder if I ought to be frightened."

"She can't go on forever," Penelope commented, getting up to see her friend out. "Someone will eventually figure out who she is, don't you think?"

"I don't know." Eloise put her hand on the doorknob, twisted, and pulled. "I used to think so. But it's been ten years. More, actually. If she were going to be caught, I think it would have happened already."

Penelope followed Eloise down the stairs. "Eventually she'll make a mistake. She has to. She's only human."

Eloise laughed. "And here I thought she was a minor god."

Penelope found herself grinning.

Eloise stopped and whirled around so suddenly that Penelope crashed right into her, nearly sending both of them tumbling down the last few steps on the staircase. "Do you know what?" Eloise demanded.

"I couldn't begin to speculate."

Eloise didn't even bother to pull a face. "I'd wager that she has made a mistake," she said.

"I beg your pardon?"

"You said it yourself. She—or it could be he, I suppose— has been writing the column for over a decade. No one could do that for so long without making a mistake. Do you know what I think?"

Penelope just spread her hands in an impatient gesture.

"I think the problem is that the rest of us are too stupid to notice her mistakes."

Penelope stared at her for a moment, then burst out laughing. "Oh, Eloise," she said, wiping tears from her eyes. "I do love you."

Eloise grinned. "And it's a good thing you do, spinster that I am. We shall have to set up a household together when we are thirty and truly crones."

Penelope caught hold of the idea like a lifeboat. "Do you think we could?" she exclaimed. And then, in a hushed voice, after looking furtively up and down the hall, "Mother has begun to speak of her old age with alarming frequency."

"What's so alarming about that?"

"I'm in all of her visions, waiting on her hand and foot."

"Oh, dear."

"A milder expletive than had crossed my mind."

"Penelope!" But Eloise was grinning.

"I love my mother," Penelope said.

"I know you do," Eloise said, in a rather placating sort of voice.

"No, I really do."

The left corner of Eloise's mouth began to twitch. "I know you really do. Really."

"It's just that—"

Eloise put up a hand. "You don't need to say any more. I understand perfectly. I—Oh! Good day, Mrs. Featherington!"

"Eloise," Portia said, bustling down the hall. "I didn't realize you were here."

"I'm sneaky as always," Eloise said. "Cheeky, even."

Portia gave her an indulgent smile. "I heard your brother is back in town."

"Yes, we are all overjoyed."

"I'm sure you must be, especially your mother."

"Indeed. She is beside herself. I believe she is drawing up a list right now."

Portia's entire aspect perked up, as it did at the mention of anything that might be construed as gossip. "A list? What sort of list?"

"Oh, you know, the same list she has made for all of her adult children. Prospective spouses and all that."

"It makes me wonder," Penelope said in a dry voice, "what constitutes 'all that.'"

"Sometimes she includes one or two people who are hopelessly unsuitable so as to highlight the qualities of the real possibilities."

Portia laughed. "Perhaps she'll put you on Colin's list, Penelope!"

Penelope didn't laugh. Neither did Eloise. Portia didn't seem to notice.

"Well, I'd best be off," Eloise said, clearing her throat to cover a moment that was awkward to two of the three people in the hall. "Colin is expected for tea. Mother wants the entire family in attendance."

"Will you all fit?" Penelope asked. Lady Bridgerton's home was large, but the Bridgerton children, spouses, and grandchildren numbered twenty-one. It was a large brood, indeed.

"We're going to Bridgerton House," Eloise explained. Her mother had moved out of the Bridgertons' official London residence after her eldest son had married. Anthony, who had been viscount since the age of eighteen, had told Violet that she needn't go, but she had insisted that he and his wife needed their privacy. As a result, Anthony and Kate lived with their three children in Bridgerton House, while Violet lived with her unmarried children (with the exception of Colin, who kept his own lodgings) just a few blocks away at 5 Bruton Street. After a year or so of unsuccessful attempts to name Lady Bridgerton's new home, the family had taken to calling it simply Number Five.

"Do enjoy yourself," Portia said. "I must go and find Felicity. We are late for an appointment at the modiste."

Eloise watched Portia disappear up the stairs, then said to Penelope, "Your sister seems to spend a great deal of time at the modiste."

Penelope shrugged. "Felicity is going mad with all the fittings, but she's Mother's only hope for a truly grand match. I'm afraid she's convinced that Felicity will catch a duke if she's wearing the right gown."

"Isn't she practically engaged to Mr. Albansdale?"

"I imagine he'll make a formal offer next week. But until then, Mother is keeping her options open." She rolled her eyes. "You'd best warn your brother to keep his distance."

"Gregory?" Eloise asked in disbelief. "He's not even out of university."


Articles you may like