"Oh, pish and tosh. I don't believe for one moment that Cressida is Lady Whistledown, and I can't believe that you do, either."
"Probably not," Penelope allowed. She knew that her secret would be better protected if she claimed to believe Cressida's story, but anyone who knew her would have found that so out of character that it would have been quite suspicious indeed.
"Cressida just wanted the money," Eloise continued disdainfully. "Or maybe the notoriety. Probably both."
Penelope watched her nemesis, holding court on the other side of the room. Her regular crowd of cronies milled about, but they were joined by new people, as well, most likely curious about the Whistledown gossip. "Well, she's succeeded with the notoriety, at least."
Eloise nodded her agreement. "I cannot even imagine why she was invited. There is certainly no love lost between the two of you, and none of us like her."
"Colin insisted upon it."
Eloise turned to her with gaping jaw. "Why?"
Penelope suspected that the main reason was Cressida's recent claim to be Lady Whistledown; most of the ton wasn't sure whether or not she was lying, but no one was willing to deny her an invitation to an event, just in case she really was telling the truth.
And Colin and Penelope shouldn't have had any reason to know for certain otherwise.
But Penelope couldn't reveal this to Eloise, so she told her the rest of the story, which was still the truth. "Your mother didn't want to cause any gossip by cutting her, and Colin also said..."
She blushed. It was really too sweet.
"What?" Eloise demanded.
Penelope couldn't speak without smiling. "He said he wanted Cressida to be forced to watch me in my triumph."
"Oh. My. Word." Eloise looked as if she might need to sit down. "My brother is in love."
Penelope's blush turned a furious red.
"He is," Eloise exclaimed. "He must be. Oh, you must tell me. Has he said so?"
There was something both wonderful and horrible in listening to Eloise gush. On the one hand, it was always lovely to share life's most perfect moments with one's best friend, and Eloise's joy and excitement were certainly contagious.
But on the other hand, they weren't necessarily warranted, because Colin didn't love her. Or at least he hadn't said so.
But he acted like he did! Penelope clung to that thought, trying to focus on that, rather than the fact that he'd never said
Actions spoke louder than words, didn't they?
And his actions made her feel like a princess.
"Miss Featherington! Miss Featherington!"
Penelope looked to her left and beamed. That voice could belong to no one other than Lady Danbury.
"Miss Featherington," Lady D said, poking her cane through the crowd until she was standing right in front of Penelope and Eloise.
"Lady Danbury, how nice to see you."
"Heh heh heh." Lady Danbury's wrinkled face became almost young again from the force of her smile. "It's always nice to see me, regardless of what anyone else says. And you, you little devil. Look what you did."
"Isn't it the best?" Eloise asked.
Penelope looked to her closest friend. For all her mixed emotions, Eloise was truly, honestly, and forever would be thrilled for her. Suddenly it didn't matter that they were standing in the middle of a crowded ballroom, with everyone staring at her as if she were some sort of specimen on a biology plate. She turned and gave Eloise a fierce hug, whispering, "I do love you," in her ear.
"I know you do," Eloise whispered back.
Lady Danbury banged her cane—loudly—on the floor. "I'm still standing here, ladies!"
"Oh, sorry," Penelope said sheepishly.
"It's all right," Lady D said, with an uncharacteristic level of indulgence. "It's rather nice to see two girls who'd rather embrace than stab each other in the back, if you must know."
"Thank you for coming over to congratulate me," Penelope said.
"I wouldn't have missed this for the world," Lady Dan-bury said. "Heh heh heh. All these fools, trying to figure out what you did to get him to marry you, when all you really did was be yourself."
Penelope's lips parted, and tears pricked her eyes. "Why, Lady Danbury, that's just about the nicest—"
"No, no," Lady D interrupted loudly, "none of that. I haven't the time nor the inclination for sentiment."
But Penelope noticed that she'd pulled out her handkerchief and was discreetly dabbing her eyes.
"Ah, Lady Danbury," Colin said, returning to the group and sliding his arm possessively through Penelope's. "Good to see you."
"Mr. Bridgerton," she said in curt greeting. "Just came over to congratulate your bride."
"Ah, but I am surely the one who deserves the congratulations."
"Hmmmph. Truer words, and all that," Lady D said. "I think you might be right. She's more of a prize than anyone realizes."
"I realize," he said, his voice so low and deadly serious that Penelope thought she might faint from the thrill of it.
"And if you'll excuse us," Colin continued smoothly, "I must take my fiancée over to meet my brother—"
"I've met your brother," Penelope interrupted.
"Consider it tradition," he said. "We need to officially welcome you to the family."
"Oh." She felt rather warm inside at the thought of becoming a Bridgerton. "How lovely."
"As I was saying," Colin said, "Anthony would like to make a toast, and then I must lead Penelope in a waltz."
"Very romantic," Lady Danbury said approvingly.
"Yes, well, I am a romantic sort," Colin said airily.
Eloise let out a loud snort.
He turned to her with one arrogantly arched brow. "I am."
"For Penelope's sake," she retorted, "I certainly hope so."
"Are they always like this?" Lady Danbury asked Penelope.
"Most of the time."
Lady D nodded. "That's a good thing. My children rarely even speak to one another. Not out of any ill will, of course. They just have nothing in common. Sad, really."
Colin tightened his hand on Penelope's arm. "We really must be going."
"Of course," she murmured, but as she turned to walk toward Anthony, whom she could see across the room, standing near the small orchestra, she heard a loud and sudden commotion at the door.
The blood drained from her face in under a second. "Oh, no," she heard herself whisper. This wasn't supposed to happen. Not tonight, anyway.
Monday, her mind screamed. She'd told her printer Monday. At the Mottram ball.
"What is going on?" Lady Danbury demanded.
Ten young boys were racing into the room, nothing more than urchins, really, holding sheaves of paper, tossing them about like large rectangles of confetti.
"Lady Whistledown's final column!" they all yelled. "Read it now! Read the truth."
Colin Bridgerton was famous for many things.
He was famous for his good looks, which was no surprise; all the Bridgerton men were famous for their good looks.
He was famous for his slightly crooked smile, which could melt a woman's heart across a crowded ballroom and had even once caused a young lady to faint dead away, or at least to swoon delicately, then hit her head on a table, which did produce the aforementioned dead faint.
He was famous for his mellow charm, his ability to set anyone at ease with a smooth grin and an amusing comment.
What he was not famous for, and in fact what many people would have sworn he did not even possess, was a temper.
And, in fact, due to his remarkable (and heretofore untapped) self-control, no one was going to get a glimpse of it that night, either, although his soon-to-be wife might wake up the next day with a serious bruise on her arm.
"Colin," she gasped, looking down at where he was gripping her.
But he couldn't let go. He knew
he was hurting her, he knew it wasn't a terribly nice thing that he was hurting her, but he was so damned furious at that moment, and it was either squeeze her arm for all he was worth or lose his temper in front of five hundred of their nearest and dearest acquaintances.
All in all, he thought he was making the right choice.
He was going to kill her. As soon as he figured out some way to remove her from this godforsaken ballroom, he was
absolutely going to kill her. They had agreed that Lady Whistledown was a thing of the past, that they were going to