"Not unless you're given to tragedies."
"Oh, come, now, it couldn't be a tragedy. It would have to be a romance. You're getting your happy ending, after all."
Penelope smiled. As strange as it was, she was getting her happy ending. Colin had been a lovely and attentive fiancé, at least for the three days that he'd been playing that role. And it couldn't have been particularly easy; they'd been subject to more speculation and scrutiny than Penelope could have imagined.
She wasn't surprised, though; when she (as Lady Whistledown) had written that the world would end as she knew it if a Featherington married a Bridgerton, she rather thought she'd been echoing a prevalent sentiment.
To say that the ton had been shocked by Penelope's engagement would have been an understatement, indeed.
But much as Penelope liked to anticipate and reflect upon her upcoming marriage, she was still a bit disturbed about Eloise's strange mood. "Eloise," she said seriously, "I want you to tell me what has you so upset."
Eloise sighed. "I'd hoped you'd forgotten about it."
"I've learned tenacity from the master," Penelope commented.
That made Eloise smile, but only for a moment. "I feel so disloyal," she said.
"What have you done?"
"Oh, nothing." She patted her heart. "It's all inside. I—" She stopped, looked to the side, her eyes settling on the fringed
corner of the carpet, but Penelope suspected that she didn't see much of anything. At least nothing beyond what was rumbling about in her mind.
"I'm so happy for you," Eloise said, the words tumbling forth in odd bursts, punctuated by awkward pauses. "And I honestly think I can really, truly say that I'm not jealous. But at the same time ..."
Penelope waited for Eloise to collect her thoughts. Or maybe she was collecting her courage.
"At the same time," she said, so softly that Penelope could barely hear her, "I suppose I always thought you'd be a spinster right along with me. I've chosen this life. I know that I have. I could have married."
"I know," Penelope said quietly.
"But I never did, because it never seemed right, and I didn't want to settle for anything less than what my brothers and sister have. And now Colin, too," she said, motioning toward Penelope.
Penelope didn't mention that Colin had never said he loved her. It didn't seem like the right time, or, frankly, the sort of thing she cared to share. Besides, even if he didn't love her, she still thought he cared about her, and that was enough.
"I would never have wanted you not to marry," Eloise explained, "I just never thought you would." She closed her eyes, looking quite agonized. "That came out all wrong. I've insulted you terribly."
"No, you haven't," Penelope said, meaning it. "I never thought I would marry, either."
Eloise nodded sadly. "And somehow, it made it all... all right. I was almost twenty-eight and unmarried, and you were already twenty-eight and unmarried, and we'd always have each other. But now you have Colin."
"I still have you, too. At least I hope I do."
"Of course you do," Eloise said fervently. "But it won't be the same. You must cleave unto your husband. Or at least that's what they all say," she added with a slightly mischievous spark in her eyes. "Colin will come first, and that is how it should be. And frankly," she added, her smile growing a bit sly, "I'd have to kill you if he didn't. He is my favorite brother, after all. It really wouldn't do for him to have a disloyal wife."
Penelope laughed out loud at that.
"Do you hate me?" Eloise asked.
Penelope shook her head. "No," she said softly. "If anything I love you all the more, because I know how difficult it must have been to be honest with me about this."
"I'm so glad you said that," Eloise said with a loud, dramatic sigh. "I was terrified you'd say that the only solution would be for me to find myself a husband as well."
The thought had crossed Penelope's mind, but she shook her head and said, "Of course not."
"Good. Because my mother has been saying it constantly."
Penelope smiled wryly. "I'd be surprised if she hadn't."
"Good afternoon, ladies!"
The two women looked up to see Colin entering the room. Penelope's heart did a little flip upon seeing him, and she found herself oddly out of breath. Her heart had been doing little flips for years whenever he walked into a room, but it was somehow different now, more intense.
Perhaps because she knew.
Knew what it was like to be with him, to be wanted by him.
To know that he would be her husband.
Her heart flipped again.
Colin let out a loud groan. "You ate all the food?"
"There was only one small plate of biscuits," Eloise said in their defense.
"That's not what I was led to believe," Colin grumbled.
Penelope and Eloise shared a glance, then both burst out laughing.
"What?" Colin demanded, leaning down to press a quick, dutiful kiss on Penelope's cheek.
"You sounded so sinister," Eloise explained. "It's just food."
"It's never just food," Colin said, plopping down in a chair.
Penelope was still wondering when her cheek would stop tingling.
"So," he said, taking a half-eaten biscuit off of Eloise's plate, "what were you two talking about?"
"Lady Whistledown," Eloise said promptly.
Penelope choked on her tea.
"Were you?" Colin said softly, but Penelope detected a definite edge in his voice.
"Yes," Eloise said. "I was telling Penelope that it is really too bad she's retired, since your engagement would have been quite the most newsworthy piece of gossip we've had all year."
"Interesting how that works out," Colin murmured.
"Mmmm," Eloise agreed, "and she surely would have devoted an entire column just to your engagement ball tomorrow night."
Penelope did not lower her teacup from her mouth.
"Do you want some more?" Eloise asked her.
Penelope nodded and handed her the cup, although she very much missed having it in front of her face as a shield. She knew that Eloise had blurted out Lady Whistledown's name because she did not want Colin to know that she had mixed feelings about his marriage, but still, Penelope fervently wished that Eloise had said anything else in reply to Colin's question.
"Why don't you ring for more food?" Eloise asked Colin.
"Already did so," he answered. "Wickham intercepted me in the hall and asked if I was hungry." He popped the last bite of Eloise's biscuit into his mouth. "Wise man, that Wickham."
"Where did you go today, Colin?" Penelope asked, eager to get the topic firmly off of Lady Whistledown.
He gave his head a beleaguered shake. "Devil if I know. Mother dragged me from shop to shop."
"Aren't you thirty-three years old?" Eloise inquired sweetly.
He answered her with a scowl.
"Just thought you'd be beyond the age of having Mother drag you about, that's all," she murmured.
"Mother will be dragging all of us about when we're doddering old fools, and you know it," he replied. "Besides, she's so delighted to see me married, I really can't bring myself to spoil her fun."
Penelope sighed. This had to be why she loved the man. Anyone who treated his mother so well would surely be an
"And how are your wedding preparations coming along?" Colin asked Penelope.
She hadn't meant to pull a face, but she did, anyway. "I have never been so exhausted in all my life," she admitted.
He reached over and grabbed a large crumb off of her plate. "We should elope."
"Oh, could we really?" Penelope asked, the words flying from her lips in an unsummoned rush.
He blinked. "Actually, I was joking, mostly, although it does seem a prime idea."
"I shall arrange for a ladder," Eloise said, clapping her hands together, "so that you might climb to her room and steal her away."
"There's a tree," Penelope said. "Colin will have no difficulty with it."
"Good God," he said, "you're not serious, are you?"
"No," she sighed. "But I could be. If you were."
"I can't be. Do you know what it would do to my mother?" He rolled his eyes. "Not to mention yours."
Penelope groaned. "I know."
"She'd hunt me down and kill me," Colin said.
"Mine or yours?"
"Both. They'd join forces." He craned his neck toward the door. "Where is the food?"
"You just got here, Colin," Eloise said. "Give them time."
"And here I thought Wickham a sorcerer," he grumbled, "able to conjure food with the snap of his hand."
"Here you are, sir!" came Wickham's voice as he sailed into the room with a large tray.
"See?" Colin said, raising his brows first at Eloise and then at Penelope. "I told you so."
"Why," Penelope asked, "do I sense that I will be hearing those words from your lips far too many times in my future?"
"Most likely because you will," Colin replied. "You'll soon learn"—he shot her an extremely cheeky grin—"that I am almost always right."
"Oh, please," Eloise groaned.
"I may have to side with Eloise on this one," Penelope said.
"Against your husband?" He placed a hand on his heart (while the other one reached for a sandwich). "I'm wounded."
"You're not my husband yet."
Colin turned to Eloise. "The kitten has claws."