"Felicity," Mrs. Featherington interrupted, "why don't you tell Mr. Bridgerton about your watercolors?"
For the life of him, Colin couldn't imagine a less interesting topic (except, maybe, for Philippa's watercolors), but he
nonetheless turned to the youngest Featherington with a friendly smile and asked, "And how are your watercolors?"
But Felicity, bless her heart, gave him a rather friendly smile herself and said nothing but, "I imagine they're fine, thank you."
Mrs. Featherington looked as if she'd just swallowed a live eel, then exclaimed, "Felicity!"
"Yes?" Felicity said sweetly.
"You didn't tell him that you'd won an award." She turned to Colin. "Felicity's watercolors are very unique." She turned back to Felicity. "Do tell Mr. Bridgerton about your award."
"Oh, I don't imagine he is interested in that."
"Of course he is," Mrs. Featherington ground out.
Normally, Colin would have chimed in with, Of course I am, since he was, after all, an exceedingly affable fellow, but doing so would have validated Mrs. Featherington's statement and, perhaps more critically, ruined Felicity's good fun.
And Felicity appeared to be having a lot of fun. "Philippa," she said, "weren't you going to go after the food?"
"Oh, right," Philippa replied. "Forgot all about it. I do that a lot. Come along, Nigel. You can keep me company."
"Right-o!" Nigel beamed. And then he and Philippa left the room, giggling all the way.
Colin reaffirmed his conviction that the Berbrooke-Featherington match had been a good one, indeed.
"I think I shall go out to the garden," Prudence suddenly announced, taking hold of her husband's arm. "Penelope, why
don't you come with me?"
Penelope opened her mouth a few seconds before she figured out what to say, leaving her looking a little bit like a confused fish (but in Colin's opinion a rather fetching fish, if such a thing were possible). Finally, her chin took on a resolute mien, and she said, "I don't think so, Prudence."
"Penelope!" Mrs. Featherington exclaimed.
"I need you to show me something," Prudence ground out.
"I really think I'm needed here," Penelope replied. "I can join you later this afternoon, if you like."
"I need you now."
Penelope looked to her sister in surprise, clearly not expecting quite so much resistance. "I'm sorry, Prudence," she reiterated. "I believe I'm needed here."
"Nonsense," Mrs. Featherington said breezily. "Felicity and I can keep Mr. Bridgerton company."
Felicity jumped to her feet. "Oh, no!" she exclaimed, her eyes round and innocent. "I forgot something."
"What," Mrs. Featherington asked between her teeth, "could you possibly have forgotten?"
"Uhh ... my watercolors." She turned to Colin with a sweet, mischievous smile. "You did want to see them, didn't you?"
"Of course," he murmured, deciding he very much liked Penelope's younger sister. "Seeing as how they are so unique."
"One might say they are uniquely ordinary," Felicity said with an overly earnest nod.
"Penelope," Mrs. Featherington said, obviously trying to hide her annoyance, "would you be so kind as to fetch Felicity's watercolors?"
"Penelope doesn't know where they are," Felicity said quickly.
"Why don't you tell her?"
"For God's sake," Colin finally exploded, "let Felicity go. I need a private moment with you, anyway."
Silence reigned. It was the first time Colin Bridgerton had ever lost his temper in public. Beside him, Colin heard Penelope let out a little gasp, but when he glanced at her, she was hiding a tiny smile behind her hand.
And that made him feel ridiculously good.
"A private moment?" Mrs. Featherington echoed, her hand fluttering to her chest. She glanced over at Prudence and Robert, who were still standing by the window. They immediately left the room, although not without a fair bit of grumbling on Prudence's part.
"Penelope," Mrs. Featherington said, "perhaps you should accompany Felicity."
"Penelope will remain," Colin ground out.
"Penelope?" Mrs. Featherington asked doubtfully.
"Yes," he said slowly, in case she still didn't understand his meaning, "Penelope."
Colin gave her such a glare that she actually drew back and folded her hands in her lap.
"I'm gone!" Felicity chirped, sailing out of the room. But before she closed the door behind her, Colin saw her give a quick wink to Penelope.
And Penelope smiled, love for her younger sister shining clearly in her eyes.
Colin relaxed. He hadn't realized just how tense Penelope's misery was making him. And she was definitely miserable. Good God, he couldn't wait to remove her from the bosom of her ridiculous family.
Mrs. Featherington's lips spread into a feeble attempt at a smile. She looked from Colin to Penelope and back again, and then finally said, "You desired a word?"
"Yes," he replied, eager to get this done with. "I would be honored if you would grant me your daughter's hand in marriage."
For a moment Mrs. Featherington made no reaction. Then her eyes grew round, her mouth grew round, her body—well, her body was already round—and she clapped her hands together, unable to say anything other than, "Oh! Oh!"
And then, "Felicity! Felicity!"
Portia Featherington jumped to her feet, ran to the door and actually screamed like a fishwife. "Felicity! Felicity!"
"Oh, Mother," Penelope moaned, closing her eyes.
"Why are you summoning Felicity?" Colin asked, rising to his feet.
Mrs. Featherington turned to him quizzically. "Don't you want to marry Felicity?"
Colin actually thought he might be sick. "No, for God's sake, I don't want to marry Felicity," he snapped. "If I'd wanted to marry Felicity, I'd hardly have sent her upstairs for her bloody watercolors, would I?"
Mrs. Featherington swallowed uncomfortably. "Mr. Bridgerton," she said, wringing her hands together. "I don't understand."
He stared at her in horror, which then turned to disgust. "Penelope," he said, grabbing her hand and yanking her until she was pressed close to his side. "I want to marry Penelope."
"Penelope?" Mrs. Featherington echoed. "But—"
"But what?" he interrupted, his voice pure menace.
"It's all right, Colin," Penelope said hastily. "I—"
"No, it is not all right," he exploded. "I've never given any indication I'm the least bit interested in Felicity."
Felicity appeared in the doorway, clapped her hand over her mouth, and quickly disappeared, wisely shutting the door behind her.
"Yes," Penelope said placatingly, shooting a quick look at her mother, "but Felicity is unmarried, and—"
"So are you," he pointed out.
"I know, but I'm old, and—"
"And Felicity is an infant," he spat. "Good God, marrying her would be like marrying Hyacinth."
"Er, except for the incest," Penelope said.
He gave her an extremely unamused look.
"Right," she said, mostly to fill the silence. "It's just a terrible misunderstanding, isn't it?"
No one said anything. Penelope looked at Colin pleadingly. "Isn't it?"
"It certainly is," he muttered.
She turned to her mother. "Mama?"
"Penelope?" she murmured, and Penelope knew that her mother wasn't asking her a question; rather, she was still expressing her disbelief that Colin would want to marry her.
And oh, but it hurt so much. You'd think she'd be used to it by now.
"I would like to marry Mr. Bridgerton," Penelope said, trying to summon up as much quiet dignity as she could manage. "He asked me, and I said yes."
"Well, of course you would say yes," her mother retorted. "You'd have to be an idiot to say no."
"Mrs. Featherington," Colin said tightly, "I suggest you begin treating my future wife
with a bit more respect."
"Colin, it's not necessary," Penelope said, placing her hand on his arm, but the truth was—her heart was soaring. He might not love her, but he cared about her. No man could defend a woman with such fierce protectiveness without caring for her a little.
"It is necessary," he returned. "For God's sake, Penelope, I arrived with you. I made it abundantly clear that I required your presence in the room, and I practically shoved Felicity out the door to fetch her watercolors. Why on earth would anyone think I wanted Felicity?"
Mrs. Featherington opened and closed her mouth several times before finally saying, "I love Penelope, of course, but—"
"But do you know her?" Colin shot back. "She's lovely and intelligent and has a fine sense of humor. Who wouldn't want to marry a woman like that?"
Penelope would have melted to the floor if she weren't already holding on to his hand. "Thank you," she whispered, not
caring if her mother heard her, not even really caring if Colin heard her. Somehow she needed to say the words for herself.
Not what she thought she was.
Lady Danbury's face swam before her eyes, her expression warm and just a little bit cunning.