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So really, there was no urgent need to move up the wedding.

Except that he wanted to.

So he had a little "talk" with the mothers, in which he conveyed a great deal without actually saying anything explicit, and they hastily agreed to his plan to rush the wedding.

Especially since he might have possibly misled them to believe that his and Penelope's intimacies had occurred several

weeks prior.

Ah, well, little white lies really weren't such a large transgression when they were told to serve the greater good.

And a hasty wedding, Colin reflected as he lay in bed each night, reliving his time with Penelope and fervently wishing she were there beside him, definitely served the greater good.

The mothers, who had become inseparable in recent days as they planned the wedding, initially protested the change,

worrying about unsavory gossip (which in this case would have been entirely true), but Lady Whistledown came, somewhat indirectly, to their rescue.

The gossip surrounding Lady Whistledown and Cressida Twombley and whether the two were actually the same person

raged like nothing London had heretofore seen or heard. In fact, the talk was so ubiquitous, so utterly impossible to escape, that no one paused to consider the fact that the date of the Bridgerton-Featherington wedding had been altered.

Which suited the Bridgertons and the Featheringtons just fine.

Except, perhaps, for Colin and Penelope, neither of whom were especially comfortable when talk turned to Lady Whistledown. Penelope was used to it by now, of course; nary a month had gone by in the past ten years when someone had not made idle speculation in her presence about the identity of Lady Whistledown. But Colin was still so upset and angry over her secret life that she'd grown uncomfortable herself. She'd tried to broach the subject with him a few times, but he'd become tight-lipped and told her (in a very un-Colin-like tone) that he didn't want to talk about it.

She could only deduce that he was ashamed of her. Or if not of her, precisely, then of her work as Lady Whistledown. Which was like a blow to her heart, because her writing was the one segment in her life that she could point to with a great sense of pride and accomplishment. She had done something. She had, even if she could not put her own name on her work, become a wild success. How many of her contemporaries, male or female, could claim the same?

She might be ready to leave Lady Whistledown behind and live her new life as Mrs. Colin Bridgerton, wife and mother, but that in no way meant that she was ashamed of what she had done.

If only Colin could take pride in her accomplishments as well.

Oh, she believed, with every fiber of her being, that he loved her. Colin would never he about such a thing. He had enough clever words and teasing smiles to make a woman feel happy and content without actually uttering words of love he did not feel. But perhaps it was possible—indeed, after regarding Colin's behavior, she was now sure it was possible—that someone could love another person and still feel shame and displeasure with that person.

Penelope just hadn't expected it to hurt quite so much.

They were strolling through Mayfair one afternoon, just days before the wedding, when she attempted to broach the subject once again. Why, she didn't know, since she couldn't imagine that his attitude would have miraculously changed since the last time she'd mentioned it, but she couldn't seem to stop herself. Besides, she was hoping that their position out in public, where all the world could see them, would force Colin to keep a smile on his face and listen to what she had to say.

She gauged the distance to Number Five, where they were expected for tea. "I think," she said, estimating that she had five minutes of conversation before he could usher her inside and change the subject, "that we have unfinished business that must be discussed."

He raised a brow and looked at her with a curious but still very playful grin. She knew exactly what he was trying to do: use his charming and witty personality to steer the conversation where he wanted it. Any minute now, that grin would turn boyishly lopsided, and he would say something designed to change the topic without her realizing, something like—

"Rather serious for such a sunny day."

She pursed her lips. It wasn't precisely what she'd expected, but it certainly echoed the sentiment.

"Colin," she said, trying to remain patient, "I wish you wouldn't try to change the subject every time I bring up Lady Whistledown."

His voice grew even, controlled. "I don't believe I heard you mention her name, or I suppose I should say your name. And besides, all I did was compliment the fine weather."

Penelope wanted more than anything to plant her feet firmly on the pavement and yank him to a startling halt, but they were in public (her own fault, she supposed, for choosing such a place to initiate the conversation) and so she kept walking, her gait smooth and sedate, even as her fingers curled into tense little fists. "The other night, when my last column was published—you were furious with me," she continued.

He shrugged. "I'm over it."

"I don't think so."

He turned to her with a rather condescending expression. "And now you're telling me what I feel?"

Such a nasty shot could not go unreturned. "Isn't that what a wife is supposed to do?"

"You're not my wife yet."

Penelope counted to three—no, better make that ten—before replying. "I am sorry if what I did upset you, but I had no

other choice."

"You had every choice in the world, but I am certainly not going to debate the issue right here on Bruton Street."

And they were on Bruton Street. Oh, bother, Penelope had completely misjudged how quickly they were walking. She only had another minute or so at the most before they ascended the front steps to Number Five.

"I can assure you," she said, "that you-know-who will never again emerge from retirement."

"I can hardly express my relief."

"I wish you wouldn't be so sarcastic."

He turned to face her with flashing eyes. His expression was so different from the mask of bland boredom that had been

there just moments earlier that Penelope nearly backed up a step. "Be careful what you wish for, Penelope," he said.

"The sarcasm is the only thing keeping my real feelings at bay, and believe me, you don't want those in full view."

"I think I do," she said, her voice quite small, because in truth she wasn't sure that she did.

"Not a day goes by when I'm not forced to stop and consider what on earth I am going to do to protect you should your

secret get out. I love you, Penelope. God help me, but I do."

Penelope could have done without the plea for God's help, but the declaration of love was quite nice.

"In three days," he continued, "I will be your husband. I will take a solemn vow to protect you until death do us part. Do you understand what that means?"

"You'll save me from marauding minotaurs?" she tried to joke.

His expression told her he did not find that amusing.

"I wish you wouldn't be so angry," she muttered.

He turned to her with a disbelieving expression, as if he didn't think she had the right to mutter about anything. "If I'm angry, it's because I did not appreciate finding out about your last column at the same time as everyone else."

She nodded, catching her bottom lip between her teeth before saying, "I apologize for that. You certainly had the right to know ahead of time, but how could I have told you? You would have tried to stop me."


They were now just a few houses away from Number Five. If Penelope wanted to ask him anything more, she would

have to do it quickly. "Are you sure—" she began, then cut herself off, not certain if she wanted to finish the question.

"Am I sure of what?"

She gave her head a little shake. "It's nothing."

"It's obviously not nothing."

"I was just wondering ..." She

looked to the side, as if the sight of the London cityscape could somehow give her the

necessary courage to continue. "I was just wondering ..."

"Spit it out, Penelope."

It was unlike him to be so curt, and his tone prodded her into action. "I was wondering," she said, "if perhaps your unease with my, er..."

"Secret life?" he supplied in a drawl.

"If that is what you want to call it," she acceded. "It had occurred to me that perhaps your unease does not stem entirely

from your desire to protect my reputation should I be found out."

"What, precisely," he asked in a clipped tone, "do you mean by that?"

She'd already voiced her question; there was nothing to do now but supply complete honesty. "I think you're ashamed of me."

He stared at her for three full seconds before answering, "I'm not ashamed of you. I told you once already I wasn't."

"What, then?"

Colin's steps faltered, and before he realized what his body was doing, he was standing still in front of Number Three,

Bruton Street. His mother's home was only two houses away, and he was fairly certain they were expected for tea

about five minutes ago, and...

And he couldn't quite get his feet to move.

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