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Hell, now he was in pain. And he really couldn't do anything about it here in his mother's drawing room, even if Penelope would have been a willing participant.

He pulled back, letting his hand slip down her leg toward the edge of her skirt. "We can't do this here."

"I know," she said, sounding so sad that his hand stilled on her knee, and he almost lost his resolve to do the right thing and mind the dictates of propriety.

He thought hard and fast. It was possible that he could make love to her and no one would walk in on them. Heaven knew that in his current state, it would be an embarrassingly fast endeavor, anyway.

"When is the wedding?" he growled.

"A month."

"What would it take to change that to a fortnight?"

She thought about that for a moment. "Bribery or blackmail. Maybe both. Our mothers will not be easily swayed."

He groaned, letting his hips sink against hers for one delicious moment before heaving himself off. He couldn't take her now. She was going to be his wife. There would be plenty of time for midday tumbles on illicit sofas, but he owed it to her to use a bed for the first time, at least.

"Colin?" she asked, straightening her dress and smoothing her hair, even though there was no way she was going to make the latter look anything even approaching presentable without a mirror, hairbrush, and maybe even a maid. "Is something wrong?"

"I want you," he whispered.

She looked up at him, startled.

"I just wanted you to know that," he said. "I didn't want you to think I stopped because you didn't please me."

"Oh." She looked as if she wanted to say something; she looked almost absurdly happy at his words. "Thank you for saying that."

He took her hand and squeezed.

"Do I look a mess?" she asked.

He nodded. "But you're my mess," he whispered.

And he was very glad for that.

CHAPTER 16

Colin liked to walk, and in fact frequently did so to clear his mind, it was no surprise that he spent much of the next day traversing Bloomsbury... and Fitzrovia... and Marylebone ... and in fact several other London neighborhoods, until he looked up and realized that he was standing in the heart of Mayfair, in Grosvenor Square, to be precise, outside of Hastings House, town home of the Dukes of Hastings, the latest of whom happened to be married to his sister Daphne.

It had been a while since they'd had a conversation, anything above the usual family chitchat, that was. Of all his siblings, Daphne was the closest in age to him, and they'd always shared a rather special bond, even though they didn't see each other as much as they used to, what with Colin's frequent travels and Daphne's busy family life.

Hastings House was one of those enormous mansions that one could find scattered throughout Mayfair and St. James's. Large and square and constructed of elegant Portland stone, it was thoroughly imposing in its ducal splendor.

Which made it all the more amusing, Colin thought with a wry grin, that his sister was the current duchess. He couldn't imagine anyone less haughty or imposing. In fact, Daphne had had difficulty finding a husband when she'd been out on the marriage mart, precisely because she was so friendly and easy to be with. Gentlemen had tended to think of her as their friend and not as a prospective bride.

But all that had changed when she'd met Simon Bassett, Duke of Hastings, and now she was a respectable society matron with four children, aged ten, nine, eight, and seven. It still sometimes seemed odd to Colin that his sister was a mother, of all things, while he still lived the free and unfettered life of a bachelor. With only one year between them, he and Daphne had always passed through the various stages of life together. Even when she'd married, things hadn't seemed so very different; she and Simon attended the same parties he did and had many of the same interests and pursuits.

But then she'd started reproducing, and while Colin was always delighted to welcome a new niece or nephew into his life, each arrival had brought home the fact that Daphne had moved on in a way he had not.

But, he thought, smiling as Penelope's face drifted through his mind, he supposed all that would soon change.

Children. It was a rather nice thought, actually.

He hadn't consciously meant to visit Daphne, but now that he was here, he figured he might as well stop by and say hello, so he marched up the steps and gave the big brass knocker a sturdy clanking. Jeffries, the butler, opened the door almost immediately.

"Mr. Bridgerton," he said. "Your sister was not expecting you."

"No, I decided to surprise her. Is she at home?"

"I shall see," the butler said with a nod, even though they both knew that Daphne would never refuse to see a member of her family.

Colin waited in the drawing room while Jeffries informed Daphne of his presence, wandering idly about, feeling too restless to sit or even stand in one place. After a few minutes, Daphne appeared in the doorway, looking slightly disheveled but happy as always.

And why shouldn't she be? Colin wondered. All she'd ever wanted in life was to be a wife and mother, and it seemed that reality had more than surpassed her dreams.

"Hello there, sister," he said with a sloppy smile as he crossed the room to give her a quick hug. "You've got..." He motioned to his shoulder.

She looked down at her own shoulder, then smiled sheepishly as she saw the large dark gray smudge on the pale pink fabric of her dress. "Charcoal," she explained ruefully. "I've been trying to teach Caroline to draw."

"You?" Colin asked doubtfully.

"I know, I know," she said. "She really couldn't have picked a worse tutor, but she only decided yesterday that she loves art, so I'm all she's got on such short notice."

"You should pack her off to see Benedict," Colin suggested. "I'm sure he'd be happy to give her a lesson or two."

"The thought had already crossed my mind, but I'm sure she'll have moved on to some other pursuit by the time I can make the arrangements." She motioned to a sofa. "Sit. You look rather like a caged cat over there, pacing as you are."

He sat, even though he felt uncommonly fidgety.

"And before you ask," Daphne said, "I already told Jeffries to see to food. Will sandwiches be enough?"

"Could you hear my stomach grumbling from across the room?"

"From across town, I'm afraid." She laughed. "Did you know that whenever it thunders, David says that it's your stomach?"

"Oh, good God," Colin muttered, but he was chuckling all the while. His nephew was a rather clever little fellow.

Daphne smiled broadly as she settled down against the sofa cushions, folding her hands elegantly in her lap. "What brings you by, Colin? Not that you need a reason, of course. It's always lovely to see you."

He shrugged. "Just passing by."

"Did you visit Anthony and Kate?" she asked. Bridgerton House, where their eldest brother lived with his family, was just across the square from Hastings House. "Benedict and Sophie are already there with the children, helping to prepare for your engagement ball tonight."

He shook his head. "No, you're my chosen victim, I'm afraid."

She smiled again, but this time it was a softer expression, tempered by a fair dose of curiosity. "Is something wrong?"

"No, of course not," he said quickly. "Why would you ask that?"

"I don't know." She cocked her head to the side. "You seem odd, that's all."

"Just tired."

She nodded knowingly. "Wedding plans, I'm sure."

"Yes," he said, jumping on the excuse, although for the life of him, he wasn't even sure what it was he was trying to hide from her.

"Well, remember that whatever you're going through," she said with a peevish twist to her rips, "it's a thousand times worse for Penelope. It's always worse for women. Trust me."

"For weddings or for everything?" he asked mildly.

"Everything," she said promptly. "I know you men think you're actually in charge, but—"

"I wouldn't dream of thinking we're

actually in charge," Colin said, and not entirely sarcastically.

Her face pinched into a peevish expression. "Women have far more to do than men. Especially with weddings. With all

the fittings I'm sure Penelope has had for her wedding gown, she probably feels like a pincushion."

"I suggested eloping," Colin said conversationally, "and I think she rather hoped I was serious."

Daphne chuckled. "I'm so glad you're marrying her, Colin."

He nodded, not planning to say anything, and then somehow, he was saying her name. "Daff—"

"Yes?"

He opened his mouth, and then—"Never mind."

"Oh, no, you don't," she said. "Now you really have my curiosity piqued."

He drummed his fingers against the sofa. "Do you suppose the food might arrive soon?"

"Are you even hungry or are you merely trying to change the subject?"

"I'm always hungry."

She was silent for several seconds. "Colin," she finally asked, her voice soft and carefully gentle, "what were you going to say?"

He jumped to his feet, too restless to remain still, and began to pace. He stopped, turned to her, looked at her concerned

face. "It's nothing," he started to say, except it wasn't nothing, and—

"How does one know?" he blurted out, not even aware that he hadn't completed his question until she replied, "How does one know what?"

He stopped in front of the window. It looked like it might rain. He'd have to borrow a carriage from Daphne unless he wanted to get soaked on the long walk home. Yet, he didn't know why he was even thinking about precipitation, because what he really wanted to know was—

"How does one know what, Colin?" Daphne repeated.

He turned around and just let the words break free. "How do you know if it's love?"

For a moment she just stared at him, her large brown eyes wide with surprise, her lips parted and utterly still.

"Forget I asked," he muttered.

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