"No!" she exclaimed, jumping to her feet. "I'm glad you asked. Very glad. I'm just... surprised, I must say."
He closed his eyes, thoroughly disgusted with himself. "I can't believe I just asked you that."
"No, Colin, don't be silly. It's really rather... sweet that you asked. And I can't even begin to tell you how flattered I am that you would come to me when—"
"Daphne..." he said warningly. She had a way of wandering off the topic, and he really wasn't in the right frame of mind to follow her errant thoughts.
Impulsively, she reached out and hugged him; then, her hands still on his shoulders, she said, "I don't know."
"I beg your pardon?"
She gave her head a little shake. "I don't know how you know it's love. I think it's different for everyone."
"How did you know?"
She chewed on her lower lip for several seconds before replying, "I don't know."
She shrugged helplessly. "I don't remember. It's been so long. I just... knew."
"So what you're saying," he said, leaning against the windowsill and crossing his arms, "is that if one doesn't know one's in love, then one probably isn't."
"Yes," she said firmly. "No! No, that's not what I mean at all."
"Then what do you mean?"
"I don't know," she said weakly.
He stared at her. "And how long have you been married?" he muttered.
"Colin, don't tease. I'm trying to be helpful."
"And I appreciate the attempt, but truly, Daphne, you—"
"I know, I know," she interrupted. "I'm useless. But listen to me. Do you like Penelope?" Then she gasped in horror.
"We are talking about Penelope, aren't we?"
"Of course we are," he snapped.
She let out a relieved sigh. "Good, because if we weren't, then I can assure you I would have had no advice whatsoever."
"I'll go," he said abruptly.
"No, don't," she pleaded, placing her hand on his arm. "Stay, Colin, please."
He looked at her, sighing, feeling defeated. "I feel like an ass."
"Colin," she said, guiding him to the sofa and pushing him down until he sat, "listen to me. Love grows and changes every day. And it isn't like some thunderbolt from the sky, instantly transforming you into a different man. I know Benedict says it was that way for him, and that's just lovely, but you know, Benedict is not normal."
Colin very much wanted to take that bait, but he just couldn't summon the energy.
"It wasn't like that for me," Daphne said, "and I don't think it was like that for Simon, although truthfully, I don't think I've ever asked."
She paused while her mouth was forming a word, leaving her looking like a surprised bird. "Why?"
He shrugged. "So you can tell me."
"What, do you think it's different for men?"
"Everything else is."
She grimaced. "I'm beginning to develop a fair dose of pity for Penelope."
"Oh, absolutely you should," he agreed. "I'll make a dreadful husband, to be sure."
"You will not," she said, batting his arm. "Why on earth would you say that? You would never be unfaithful to her."
"No," he agreed. He was quiet for a moment, and when he finally spoke again, his voice was soft. "But I might not love her the way she deserves."
"But you might." She threw up her hands in a gesture of exasperation. "For heaven's sake, Colin, just the fact that you're
sitting here asking your sister about love probably means you're more than halfway there."
"Do you think?"
"If I didn't think so," she said, "I wouldn't have said so." She sighed. "Stop thinking so hard, Colin. You'll find marriage a lot easier if you simply allow it to be."
He eyed her suspiciously. "When did you grow so philosophical?"
"When you came by to see me and forced the issue," she said promptly. "You're marrying the right person. Stop worrying so much."
"I'm not worrying," he said automatically, but of course he was worrying, so he didn't even bother to defend himself when Daphne shot him an extremely sarcastic look. But it wasn't as if he were worrying whether Penelope was the right woman. He was certain of that.
And he wasn't worried about whether his marriage would be a good one. He was certain of that, as well.
No, he was worrying about stupid things. About whether or not he loved her, not because it would be the end of the world if he did (or the end of the world if he didn't), but because he found it extremely unsettling not to know exactly what it was he was feeling.
He looked over at his sister, who was regarding him with a rather bemused expression. He stood, intending to leave before he embarrassed himself beyond repair, then leaned down and kissed her cheek. "Thank you," he said.
She narrowed her eyes. "I can't tell if you're serious or are teasing me for being an utter lack of help."
"You were an utter lack of help," he said, "but it's an honest thank-you, nonetheless."
"Points for effort?"
"Something like that."
"Are you going over to Bridgerton House now?" she asked.
"Why, so I may embarrass myself with Anthony next?"
"Or Benedict," she said. "He's there, too."
The thing about large families was, there was never a lack of opportunity to make a fool of oneself with a sibling.
"No," he said with a small, wry smile, "I think I'll walk home."
"Walk?" she echoed, gaping.
He squinted toward the window. "Do you think it might rain?"
"Take my carriage, Colin," she insisted, "and please wait for the sandwiches. There is sure to be a mountain of them, and if you leave before they arrive, I know I'll eat half, and then I'll hate myself for the rest of the day."
He nodded and sat back down, and was glad he did. He'd always been partial to smoked salmon. In fact, he took a plate
with him in the carriage, staring out the
window the whole way home at the pouring rain.
* * *
When the Bridgertons threw a party, they did it right.
And when the Bridgertons threw an engagement ball... well, had Lady Whistledown still been writing, it would have taken at least three columns to chronicle the event.
Even this engagement ball, thrown together at the last minute (due to the fact that neither Lady Bridgerton nor Mrs. Featherington were willing to allow their children the possibility of changing their minds during a long engagement), easily qualified as the party of the season.
Although part of that, Penelope thought wryly, had little to do with the party itself and everything to do with the continued speculation over why on earth Colin Bridgerton would choose a nobody like Penelope Featherington to be his wife. It hadn't even been this bad when Anthony Bridgerton had married Kate Sheffield, who, like Penelope, had never been considered a diamond of the first water. But at least Kate hadn't been old. Penelope couldn't even begin to count the number of times she'd heard the word spinster whispered behind her back during the past few days.
But while the gossip was a bit tedious, it didn't really bother her, because she was still floating along on the cloud of her own bliss. A woman couldn't spend her entire adult life in love with one man and then not be almost stupid with happiness after he asked her to marry him.
Even if she couldn't quite figure out how it had all happened.
It had happened. That was all that mattered.
And Colin was everything anyone could dream of in a fiancé. He stuck to her side like glue the entire evening, and Penelope didn't even think he was doing it to protect her from gossip. In all truth, he seemed rather oblivious to the talk.
It was almost as if... Penelope smiled dreamily. It was almost as if Colin were remaining by her side because he wanted to be there.
"Did you see Cressida Twombley?" Eloise whispered in her ear while Colin was off dancing with his mother. "She's green with envy."
"That's just her dress," Penelope said with an impressively straight face.
Eloise laughed. "Oh, I wish Lady Whistledown were writing. She would skewer her."
"I think Lady Whistledown is supposed to be her," Penelope said carefully.