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"Colin? " Eloise exploded with laughter. "Oh, that's rich."

"That's what I told her, but you know how she is once she gets an idea in her head."

Eloise chuckled. "Rather like me, I imagine."

"Tenacious to the end."

"Tenacity can be a very good thing," Eloise reminded her, "at the proper time."

"Right," Penelope returned with a sarcastic smile, "and at the improper time, it's an absolute nightmare."

Eloise laughed. "Cheer up, friend. At least she let you rid yourself of all those yellow frocks."

Penelope looked down at her morning dress, which was, if she did say so herself, a rather flattering shade of blue. "She stopped choosing my clothing once she finally realized I was officially on the shelf. A girl with no marriage prospects isn't worth the time and energy it takes her to offer fashion advice. She hasn't accompanied me to the modiste in over a year! Bliss!"

Eloise smiled at her friend, whose complexion turned the loveliest peaches and cream whenever she wore cooler hues. "It was apparent to all, the moment you were allowed to choose your own clothing. Even Lady Whistledown commented upon it!"

"I hid that column from Mother," Penelope admitted. "I didn't want her feelings to be hurt."

Eloise blinked a few times before saying, "That was very kind of you, Penelope."

"I have my moments of charity and grace."

"One would think," Eloise said with a snort, "that a vital component of charity and grace is the ability not to draw attention to one's possession of them."

Penelope pursed her lips as she pushed Eloise toward the door. "Don't you need to go home?"

"I'm leaving! I'm leaving!"

And she left.

* * *

It was, Colin Bridgerton decided as he took a sip of some truly excellent brandy, rather nice to be back in England.

It was quite strange, actually, how he loved returning home just as much as he did the departure. In another few months—six at the most—he'd be itching to leave again, but for now, England in April was positively brilliant.

"It's good, isn't it?"

Colin looked up. His brother Anthony was leaning against the front of his massive mahogany desk, motioning to him with his own glass of brandy.

Colin nodded. "Hadn't realized how much I missed it until I returned. Ouzo has its charms, but this"—he lifted his glass—"is heaven."

Anthony smiled wryly. "And how long do you plan to remain this time?"

Colin wandered over to the window and pretended to look out. His eldest brother made little attempt to disguise his impatience with Colin's wanderlust. In truth, Colin really couldn't blame him. Occasionally, it was difficult to get letters home; he supposed that his family often had to wait a month or even two for word of his welfare. But while he knew that he would not relish being in their shoes—never knowing if a loved one was dead or alive, constantly waiting for the knock of the messenger at the front door—that just wasn't enough to keep his feet firmly planted in England.

Every now and then, he simply had to get away. There was no other way to describe it.

Away from the ton, who thought him a charming rogue and nothing else, away from England, which encouraged younger sons to enter the military or the clergy, neither of which suited his temperament. Even away from his family, who loved him unconditionally but had no clue that what he really wanted, deep down inside, was something to do.

His brother Anthony held the viscountcy, and with that came myriad responsibilities. He ran estates, managed the family's finances, and saw to the welfare of countless tenants and servants. Benedict, his elder by four years, had gained renown as an artist. He'd started with pencil and paper, but at the urging of his wife had moved on to oils. One of his landscapes now hung in the National Gallery.

Anthony would be forever remembered in family trees as the seventh Viscount Bridgerton. Benedict would live through his paintings, long after he left this earth.

But Colin had nothing. He managed the small property given to him by his family and he attended parties. He would never dream of claiming he didn't have fun, but sometimes he wanted something a little more than fun.

He wanted a purpose.

He wanted a legacy.

He wanted, if not to know then at least to hope, that when he was gone, he'd be memorialized in some manner other than in Lady Whistledown's Society Papers.

He sighed. No wonder he spent so much time traveling.

"Colin?" his brother prompted.

Colin turned to him and blinked. He was fairly certain Anthony had asked him a question, but somewhere in the mean-derings of his mind, he'd forgotten what.

"Oh. Right." Colin cleared his throat. "I'll be here for the rest of the season, at least."

Anthony said nothing, but it was difficult to miss the satisfied expression on his face.

"If nothing else," Colin added, affixing his legendary crooked grin on his face, "someone has to spoil your children. I don't think Charlotte has nearly enough dolls."

"Only fifty," Anthony agreed in a deadpan voice. "The poor girl is horribly neglected."

"Her birthday is at the end of this month, is it not? I shall have to neglect her some more, I think."

"Speaking of birthdays," Anthony said, settling into the large chair behind his desk, "Mother's is a week from Sunday."

"Why do you think I hurried to return?"

Anthony raised a brow, and Colin had the distinct impression that he was trying to decide if Colin had truly rushed home for their mother's birthday, or if he was simply taking advantage of some very good timing.

"We're holding a party for her," Anthony said.

"She's letting you?" It was Colin's experience that women of a certain age did not enjoy birthday celebrations. And although his mother was still exceedingly lovely, she was definitely of a certain age.

"We were forced to resort to blackmail," Anthony admitted. "She agreed to the party or we revealed her true age."

Colin shouldn't have taken a sip of his brandy; he choked on it and just barely managed to avert spraying it all over his brother. "I should have liked to have seen that."

Anthony offered a rather satisfied smile. "It was a brilliant maneuver on my part."

Colin finished the rest of his drink. "What, do you think, are the chances she won't use the party as an opportunity to find me a wife?"

"Very small."

"I thought so."

Anthony leaned back in his chair. "You are thirty-three now, Colin ..."

Colin stared at him in disbelief. "God above, don't you

start on me."

"I wouldn't dream of it. I was merely going to suggest that you keep your eyes open this season. You needn't actively look for a wife, but there's no harm in remaining at least amenable to the possibility."

Colin eyed the doorway, intending to pass through it very shortly. "I assure you I am not averse to the idea of marriage."

"I didn't think you were," Anthony demurred.

"I see little reason to rush, however."

"There's never a reason to rush," Anthony returned. "Well, rarely, anyway. Just humor Mother, will you?"

Colin hadn't realized he was still holding his empty glass until it slipped through his fingers and landed on the carpet with a loud thunk. "Good God," he whispered, "is she ill?"

"No!" Anthony said, his surprise making his voice loud and forceful. "She'll outlive us all, I'm sure of it."

"Then what is this about?"

Anthony sighed. "I just want to see you happy."

"I am happy," Colin insisted.

"Are you?"

"Hell, I'm the happiest man in London. Just read Lady Whistledown. She'll tell you so."

Anthony glanced down at the paper on his desk.

"Well, maybe not this column, but anything from last year. I've been called charming more times than Lady Danbury has been called opinionated, and we both know what a feat that is."

"Charming doesn't necessarily equal happy," Anthony said softly.

"I don't have time for this," Colin muttered. The door had never looked so good.

"If you were truly happy," Anthony persisted, "you wouldn't keep leaving."

Colin paused with his hand on the doorknob. "Anthony, I like to travel."


"I must, or I wouldn' t do it."

'That's an evasive sentence if ever I've heard one."

"And this"—Colin flashed his brother a wicked smile— "is an evasive maneuver."


But he'd already left the room.


It has always been fashionable among the ton to complain of ennui, but surely this year's crop of partygoers has raised boredom to an art form. One cannot take two steps at a society function these days without hearing the phrase "dreadfully dull," or "hopelessly banal." Indeed This Author has even been informed that Cressida Twombley recently remarked that she was convinced that she might perish of eternal boredom if forced to attend one more off-key musicale.