His face took on a strange expression, a little sheepish, a little defiant, almost as if he were embarrassed that he'd been
caught, and at the same time daring her to ask more.
"May I look at it?" she asked, keeping her voice soft and, she hoped, unthreatening. It was strange to think that Colin was insecure about anything. Mention of his journals, however, seemed to bring out a vulnerability that was surprising ... and touching.
Penelope had spent so much of her life regarding Colin as an invincible tower of happiness and good cheer. He was self-confident, handsome, well liked, and intelligent. How easy it must be to be a Bridgerton, she'd thought on more than one occasion.
There had been so many times—more than she could count—that she'd come home from tea with Eloise and her family, curled up on her bed, and wished that she'd been born a Bridgerton. Life was easy for them. They were smart and attractive and rich and everyone seemed to like them.
And you couldn't even hate them for living such splendid existences because they were so nice.
Well, now she was a Bridgerton, by marriage if not by birth, and it was true—life was better as a Bridgerton, although that had less to do with any great change in herself than it did because she was madly in love with her husband, and by some fabulous miracle, he actually returned the emotion.
But life wasn't perfect, not even for the Bridgertons.
Even Colin—the golden boy, the man with the easy smile and devilish humor—had raw spots of his own. He was haunted by unfulfilled dreams and secret insecurities. How unfair she had been when she'd pondered his life, not to allow him his weaknesses.
"I don't need to see it in its entirety," she reassured him. "Maybe just a short passage or two. Of your own choosing.
Perhaps something you especially like."
He looked down at the open book, staring blankly, as if the words were written in Chinese. "I wouldn't know what to
pick out," he mumbled. "It's all the same, really."
"Of course it's not. I understand that more than anyone. I—" She suddenly looked about, realized the door was open, and quickly went to shut it. "I've written countless columns," she continued, "and I assure you, they are not all the same. Some I adored." She smiled nostalgically, remembering the rush of contentment and pride that washed over her whenever she'd written what she thought was an especially good installment. "It was lovely, do you know what I mean?"
He shook his head.
"That feeling you get," she tried to explain, "when you just know that the words you've chosen are exactly right. And you can only really appreciate it after you've sat there, slumped and dejected, staring at your blank sheet of paper, not having a clue what to say."
"I know that," he said.
Penelope tried not to smile. "I know you know the first feeling. You're a splendid writer, Colin. I've read your work."
He looked up, alarmed.
"Just the bit you know about," she assured him. "I would never read your journals without your invitation." She blushed, remembering that that was exactly how she'd read the passage about his trip to Cyprus. "Well, not now, anyway," she added. "But it was good, Colin. Almost magical, and somewhere inside of you, you have to know that."
He just stared at her, looking like he simply didn't know what to say. It was an expression she'd seen on countless faces, but never on his face, and it was so very odd and strange. She wanted to cry, she wanted to throw her arms around him. Most of all, she was gripped by an intense need to restore a smile to his face.
"I know you must have had those days I described," she insisted. "The ones when you know you've written something good." She looked at him hopefully. "You know what I mean, don't you?"
He made no response.
"You do," she said. "I know you do. You can't be a writer and not know it."
"I'm not a writer," he said.
"Of course you are." She motioned to the journal. "The proof is right there." She stepped forward. "Colin, please. Please may I read a little bit more?"
For the first time, he looked undecided, which Penelope took as a small victory. "You've already read almost everything I've ever written," she cajoled. "It's really only fair to—"
She stopped when she saw his face. She didn't know how to describe it, but he looked shuttered, cut off, utterly unreachable.
"Colin?" she whispered.
"I'd rather keep this to myself," he said curtly. "If you don't mind."
"No, of course I don't mind," she said, but they both knew she was lying.
Colin stood so still and silent that she had no choice but to excuse herself, leaving him alone in the room, staring helplessly at the door.
He'd hurt her.
It didn't matter that he hadn't meant to. She'd reached out to him, and he'd been unable to take her hand.
And the worst part was that he knew she didn't understand. She thought he was ashamed of her. He'd told her that he
wasn't, but since he'd not been able to bring himself to tell her the truth—that he was jealous—he couldn't imagine that
she'd believed him.
Hell, he wouldn't have believed him, either. He'd clearly looked like he was lying, because in a way, he was lying. Or at
least withholding a truth that made him uncomfortable.
But the minute she'd reminded him that he'd read everything she'd written, something had turned ugly and black inside of him.
He'd read everything she'd written because she'd published everything she'd written. Whereas his scribblings sat dull and lifeless in his journals, tucked away where no one would see them.
Did it matter what a man wrote if no one ever read it? Did words have meaning if they were never heard?
He had never considered publishing his journals until Penelope had suggested it several weeks earlier; now the thought consumed him day and night (when he wasn't consumed with Penelope, of course). But he was gripped by a powerful fear. What if no one wanted to publish his work? What if someone did publish it, but only because his was a rich and powerful family? Colin wanted, more than anything, to be his own man, to be known for his accomplishments, not for his name or position, or even his smile or charm.
And then there was the scariest prospect of all: What if his writing was published but no one liked it?
How could he face that? How would he exist as a failure?
Or was it worse to remain as he was now: a coward?
* * *
Later that evening, after Penelope had finally pulled herself out of her chair and drunk a restorative cup of tea and puttered aimlessly about the bedchamber and finally settled against her pillows with a book that she couldn't quite make herself read, Colin appeared.
He didn't say anything at first, just stood there and smiled at her, except it wasn't one of his usual smiles—the sort that light from within and compel their recipient to smile right back.
This was a small smile, a sheepish smile.
A smile of apology.
Penelope let her book rest, spine up, on her belly.
"May I?" Colin inquired, motioning to the empty spot beside her.
Penelope scooted over to the right. "Of course," she murmured, moving her book to the night table next to her.
"I've marked a few passages," he said, holding forward his journal as he perched on the side of the bed. "If you'd like to read them, to"—he cleared his throat—"offer an opinion, that would be—" He coughed again. "That would be acceptable."
Penelope looked at the journal in his hand, elegantly bound in crimson leather, then she looked up at him. His face was serious, and his eyes were somber, and although he was absolutely still—no twitching or fidgeting—she could tell he was nervous.
Nervous. Colin. It seemed the strangest thing imaginable.
"I'd be honored," she said softly, gently tugging the book from his fingers. She noticed that a few pages were marked with ribbons, and with careful fingers, she opened to one of the selected spots.
14 March 1819
The Highlands are oddly brown.
"That was when I visited Francesca in Scotland," he interrupted.
Penelope gave him a slightly indulgent smile, meant as a gentle scolding for his interruption.
"Sorry," he mumbled.
One would think, at least one from England would think, that the hills and dales would be a rich emerald green. Scotland resides, after all, on the same isle, and by all accounts suffers from the same rain that plagues England.
I am told that these strange beige hills are called tablelands, and they are bleak and brown and desolate. And yet they stir the soul.
"That was when I was rather high up in elevation," he explained. "When you're lower, or near the lochs, it's quite different."
Penelope turned to him and gave him a look.
"Sorry," he mumbled.
"Maybe you'd be more comfortable if you didn't read over my shoulder?" she suggested.