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let matters lie. This was not supposed to happen. She was inviting disaster. Ruin.

"This is fabulous!" Eloise exclaimed, snatching a newssheet from the air. "Absolutely, positively smashing. I'll bet she came out of retirement to celebrate your engagement."

"Wouldn't that be nice?" Colin drawled.

Penelope said nothing, but she looked very, very pale.

"Oh, my heavens!"

Colin turned to his sister, whose mouth was hanging open as she read the column.

"Grab one of those for me, Bridgerton!" Lady Danbury ordered, swatting him in the leg with her cane. "Can't believe she's publishing on a Saturday. Must be a good one."

Colin leaned down and picked up two pieces of paper from the floor, handing one to Lady Danbury and looking down at the one in his hand, even though he was fairly certain he knew exactly what it would say.

He was right.

There is nothing I despise more than a gentleman who thinks it amusing to give a lady a condescending pat

on the hand as he murmurs, "It is a woman's prerogative to change her mind." And indeed, because I feel one should always support one's words with one's actions, I endeavor to keep my opinions and decisions steadfast and true.

Which is why, Gentle Reader, when I wrote my column of 19 April, I truly intended it to be my last. However, events entirely beyond my control (or indeed my approval) force me to put my pen to paper one last time.

Ladies and Gentleman, This Author is NOT Lady Cressida Twombley. She is nothing more than a scheming imposter, and it would break my heart to see my years of hard work attributed to one such as her.

Lady Whistledown's Society Papers, 24 April 1824

"This is the best thing I have ever seen," Eloise said in a gleeful whisper. "Maybe I am a bad person at heart, because I have never before felt such happiness at another person's downfall."

"Balderdash!" Lady Danbury said. "I know I am not a bad person, and I find this delightful."

Colin said nothing. He didn't trust his voice. He didn't trust himself.

"Where is Cressida?" Eloise asked, craning her neck. "Does anyone see her? I'll bet she's already fled. She must be mortified. I would be mortified if I were her."

"You would never be her," Lady Danbury said. "You're much too decent a person."

Penelope said nothing.

"Still," Eloise continued jovially, "one almost feels sorry for her."

"But only almost," Lady D said.

"Oh, for certain. Barely almost, truth be told."

Colin just stood there, grinding his teeth into powder.

"And I get to keep my thousand pounds!" cackled Lady Danbury.

"Penelope!" Eloise exclaimed, jostling her with her elbow. "You haven't said a word. Isn't this marvelous?"

Penelope nodded and said, "I can't believe it."

Colin's grip on her arm tightened.

"Your brother's coming," she whispered.

He looked to his right. Anthony was striding toward him, Violet and Kate hot on his heels.

"Well, this rather upstages us," Anthony said as he drew up alongside Colin. He nodded at the ladies present. "Eloise, Penelope, Lady Danbury."

"I don't think anyone is going to listen to Anthony's toast now," Violet said, glancing about the room. The buzz of activity was relentless. Errant newssheets still floated in the air, and all about them, people were slipping on the ones that had already landed on the floor. The hum of the whispers was constant and almost grating, and Colin felt like the top of his skull was going to blow off.

He had to get away. Now. Or at least as soon as possible.

His head was screaming and he felt too hot in his own skin. It was almost like passion, except this wasn't passion, it was fury, and it was outrage, and it was this awful, black feeling that he'd been betrayed by the one person who should have stood by him without question.

It was strange. He knew that Penelope was the one with the secret, the one with the most to lose. This was about her, not him; he knew that, intellectually, at least. But somehow that had ceased to matter. They were a team now, and she had acted without him.

She had no right to put herself in such a precarious position without consulting him first. He was her husband, or would be, and it was his God-given duty to protect her whether she desired it or not.

"Colin?" his mother was saying. "Are you well? You look a bit odd."

"Make the toast," he said, turning to Anthony. "Penelope isn't feeling well, and I need to take her home."

"You're not feeling well?" Eloise asked Penelope. "What's wrong? You didn't say anything."

To Penelope's credit, she managed a rather credible, "A bit of a headache, I'm afraid."

"Yes, yes, Anthony," Violet said, "do go ahead and make the toast now so that Colin and Penelope may have their dance. She really can't leave until you do."

Anthony nodded his agreement, then motioned for Colin and Penelope to follow him to the front of the ballroom. A trumpeter let out a loud squawk on his horn, signaling the partygoers to be quiet. They all obeyed, probably because they assumed the ensuing announcement would be about Lady Whistledown.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Anthony said loudly, accepting a flute of champagne from a footman. "I know that you are all

intrigued by Lady Whistledown's recent intrusion into our party, but I must entreat you all to remember our purpose for gathering here tonight."

It should have been a perfect moment, Colin thought dispassionately. It was to have been Penelope's night of triumph, her night to shine, to show the world how beautiful and lovely and smart she really was.

It was his night to make his intentions well and truly public, to make sure that everyone knew that he had chosen her, and just as importantly, that she had chosen him.

And all he wanted to do was take her by the shoulders and shake her until he ran out of strength. She was jeopardizing everything. She was putting her very future at risk.

"As the head of the Bridgerton family," Anthony continued, "it gives me great joy whenever one of my siblings chooses a bride. Or groom," he added with a smile, nodding toward Daphne and Simon.

Colin looked down at Penelope. She was standing very straight and very still in her dress of ice-blue satin. She wasn't

smiling, which must have looked odd to the hundreds of people staring at her. But maybe they would just think she was nervous. There were hundreds of people staring at her, after all. Anyone would be nervous.

Although if one was standing right next to her, as Colin was, one could see the panic in her eyes, the rapid rise and fall of her chest as her breathing grew faster and more erratic.

She was scared.

Good. She should be scared. Scared of what could happen to her if her secret came out. Scared of what would happen to her once they had a chance to talk.

"Therefore," Anthony concluded, "it gives me great pleasure to lift my glass in a toast to my brother Colin, and his soon-to-be bride, Penelope Featherington. To Colin and Penelope!"

Colin looked down at his hand and realized that someone had placed a glass of champagne in it. He lifted his glass, started to raise it to his lips, then thought the better of it and touched it to Penelope's mouth instead. The crowd cheered wildly, and he watched as she took a sip, and then another and another, forced to keep drinking until he removed the glass, which he did not do until she was finished.

Then he realized that his childish display of

power had left him without a drink, which he badly needed, so he plucked Penelope's glass from her hand and downed it in a single gulp.

The crowd cheered even harder.

He leaned down and whispered in her ear, "We're going to dance now. We're going to dance until the rest of the party joins us and we're no longer the center of attention. And then you and I will slip outside. And then we will talk."

Her chin moved in a barely perceptible nod.

He took her hand and led her onto the dance floor, placing his other hand at her waist as the orchestra began the first strains of a waltz.

"Colin," she whispered, "I didn't mean for this to happen."

He affixed a smile on his face. This was supposed to be bis first official dance with his intended, after all. "Not now," he ordered.


"In ten minutes, I will have a great deal to say to you, but for right now, we are simply going to dance."

"I just wanted to say—"

His hand tightened around hers in a gesture of unmistakable warning. She pursed her lips and looked at his face for the

briefest of moments, then looked away.

"I should be smiling," she whispered, still not looking at him.

"Then smile."

"You should be smiling."

"You're right," he said. "I should."

But he didn't.

Penelope felt like frowning. She felt like crying, in all honesty, but somehow she managed to nudge her lips up at the corners. The entire world was watching her—her entire world, at least—and she knew they were examining her every move, cataloguing each expression that crossed her face.

Years she'd spent, feeling like she was invisible and hating it. And now she'd have given anything for a few brief moments of anonymity again.

No, not anything. She wouldn't have given up Colin. If having him meant that she would spend the rest of her life under close scrutiny from the ton, it would be worth it. And if having to endure his anger and disdain at a time like this was to be a part of marriage as well, then that would be worth it, too.

She'd known that he would be furious with her for publishing one last column. Her hands had been shaking as she'd rewritten the words, and she'd been terrified the entire time she'd been at St. Bride's Church (as well as the ride to and from), sure that he was going to jump out at her at any moment, calling off the wedding because he couldn't bear to be married to Lady Whistledown.