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When she had been doing the column, the actual writing of it hadn't taken too terribly long, but she always had to be on the alert, watching and listening. And when she wasn't writing the column she was thinking about writing the column or desperately trying to remember some clever turn of phrase until she could get home and jot it down.

It had been mentally engaging, and she hadn't realized how much she'd missed having her mind challenged until now, when she'd finally been given the opportunity again.

She was jotting down a question about Colin's description of a Tuscan villa on page 143 in volume two of his journals when the butler knocked discreetly on the open door to alert her to his presence.

Penelope smiled sheepishly. She tended to absorb herself entirely in her work, and Dunwoody had learned through trial and error that if he wanted to get her attention, he had to make some noise.

"A visitor to see you, Mrs. Bridgerton," he said.

Penelope looked up with a smile. It was probably one of her sisters, or maybe one of the Bridgerton siblings. "Really?

Who is it?"

He stepped forward and handed her a card. Penelope looked down and gasped, first in shock, and then in misery. Engraved in classic, stately black on a creamy white background were two simple words: Lady Twombley.

Cressida Twombley? Why on earth would she come calling?

Penelope began to feel uneasy. Cressida would never call unless it was for some unpleasant purpose. Cressida never did anything unless it was for an unpleasant purpose.

"Would you like me to turn her away?" Dunwoody asked.

"No," Penelope said with a sigh. She wasn't a coward, and Cressida Twombley wasn't going to turn her into one. "I'll see her. Just give me a moment to put my papers away. But..."

Dunwoody stopped in his tracks and cocked his head slightly to the side, waiting for her to go on.

"Oh, never mind," Penelope muttered.

"Are you certain, Mrs. Bridgerton?"

"Yes. No." She groaned. She was dithering and it was one more transgression to add to Cressida's already long list of them—she was turning Penelope into a stammering fool. "What I mean is—if she's still here after ten minutes, would you devise some sort of emergency that requires my presence? My immediate presence?"

"I believe that can be arranged."

"Excellent, Dunwoody," Penelope said with a weak smile. It was, perhaps, the easy way out, but she didn't trust herself to be able to find the perfect point in the conversation to insist that Cressida leave, and the last thing she wanted was to be trapped in the drawing room with her all afternoon.

The butler nodded and left, and Penelope shuffled her papers into a neat stack, closing Colin's journal and setting it on top so that the breeze from the open window couldn't blow the papers off the desk. She stood and walked over to the sofa, sitting down in the center, hoping that she looked relaxed and composed.

As if a visit from Cressida Twombley could ever be called relaxing.

A moment later, Cressida arrived, stepping through the open doorway as Dunwoody intoned her name. As always, she

looked beautiful, every golden hair on her head in its perfect place. Her skin was flawless, her eyes sparkled, her clothing was of the latest style, and her reticule matched her attire to perfection.

"Cressida," Penelope said, "how surprising to see you." Surprising being the most polite adjective she could come up with under the circumstances.

Cressida's lips curved into a mysterious, almost feline smile. "I'm sure it is," she murmured.

"Won't you sit down?" Penelope asked, mostly because she had to. She'd spent a lifetime being polite; it was difficult to

stop now. She motioned to a nearby chair, the most uncomfortable one in the room.

Cressida sat on the edge of the chair, and if she found it less than pleasing, Penelope could not tell from her mien. Her

posture was elegant, her smile never faltered, and she looked as cool and composed as anyone had a right to be.

"I'm sure you're wondering why I'm here," Cressida said.

There seemed little reason to deny it, so Penelope nodded.

And then, abruptly, Cressida asked, "How are you finding married life?"

Penelope blinked. "I beg your pardon?"

"It must be an amazing change of pace," Cressida said.

"Yes," Penelope said carefully, "but a welcome one."

"Mmmm, yes. You must have a dreadful amount of free time now. I'm sure you don't know what to do with yourself."

A prickling feeling began to spread along Penelope's skin. "I don't understand your meaning," she said.

"Don't you?"

When it became apparent that Cressida required an answer, Penelope replied, somewhat testily, "No, I don't."

Cressida was silent for a moment, but her cat-with-cream expression spoke volumes. She glanced about the room until her eyes fell on the writing desk where Penelope had so recently been sitting. "What are those papers?" she inquired.

Penelope's eyes flew to the papers on the desk, stacked neatly under Colin's journal. There was no way that Cressida could have known that they were anything special. Penelope had already been seated on the sofa when Cressida had entered the room. "I fail to see how my personal papers could be of your concern," she said.

"Oh, do not take offense," Cressida said with a little tinkle of laughter that Penelope found rather frightening. "I was merely making polite conversation. Inquiring about your interests."

"I see," Penelope said, trying to fill the ensuing silence.

"I'm very observant," Cressida said.

Penelope raised her brows in question.

"In fact, my keen powers of observation are quite well known among the very best circles of society."

"I must not be a link in those impressive circles, then," Penelope murmured.

Cressida, however, was far too involved in her own speech to acknowledge Penelope's. "It's why," she said in a thoughtful tone of voice, "I thought I might be able to convince the ton that I was really Lady Whistledown."

Penelope's heart thundered in her chest. "Then you admit that you're not?" she asked carefully.

"Oh, I think you know I'm not."

Penelope's throat began to close. Somehow—she'd never know how—she managed to keep her composure and say, "I beg your pardon?"

Cressida smiled, but she managed to take that happy expression and turn it into something sly and cruel. "When I came up with this ruse, I thought: I can't lose. Either I convince everyone I'm Lady Whistledown or they won't believe me and I look very cunning when I say that I was just pretending to be Lady Whistledown in order to ferret out the true culprit."

Penelope held very silent, very still.

"But it didn't quite play out the way I had planned. Lady Whistledown turned out to be far more devious and mean-spirited than I would have guessed." Cressida's eyes narrowed, then narrowed some more until her face, normally so lovely, took on a sinister air. "Her last little column turned me into a laughingstock."

Penelope said nothing, barely daring to breathe.

"And then..." Cressida continued, her voice dropping into lower registers. "And then you—you!—had the effrontery to

insult me in front of the entire ton."

Penelope breathed a tiny sigh of relief. Maybe Cressida didn't know her secret. Maybe this was all about Penelope's public insult, when she'd accused Cressida of lying, and she'd said—dear God, what had she said? Something terribly cruel, she was sure, but certainly well deserved.

"I might have been able to tolerate the insult if it had come from someone else," Cressida continued. "But from someone such as you—well, that could not go unanswered."

"You should think twice before insulting me in my own home," Penelope said in a low voice. And then she added, even

though she hated to hide behind her husband's name, "I am a Bridgerton now. I carry the weight of their protection."

Penelope's warning made no dent in the satisfied mask that molded Cre

ssida's beautiful face. "I think you had better listen to what I have to say before you make threats."

Penelope knew she had to listen. It was better to know what Cressida knew than to close her eyes and pretend all was well. "Go on," she said, her voice deliberately curt.

"You made a critical mistake," Cressida said, pointing her index finger at Penelope and wagging it back and forth in short tick-tocky motions. "It didn't occur to you that I never forget an insult, did it?"

"What are you trying to say, Cressida?" Penelope had wanted her words to seem strong and forceful, but they came out as a whisper.

Cressida stood and walked slowly away from Penelope, her hips swaying slightly as she moved, the motion almost like a swagger. "Let me see if I can remember your exact words," she said, tapping one finger against her cheek. "Oh, no, no, don't remind me. I'm sure it will come to me. Oh, yes, I recall now." She turned around to face Penelope. "I believe you said you'd always liked Lady Whistledown. And then—and to give you credit, it was an evocative, memorable turn of phrase—you said that it would break your heart if she turned out to be someone like Lady Twombley." Cressida smiled. "Which would be me."

Penelope's mouth went dry. Her fingers shook. And her skin turned to ice.

Because while she hadn't remembered exactly what she'd said in her insult to Cressida, she did remember what she'd written in that last, final, column, the one which had been mistakenly distributed at her engagement ball. The one which—

The one which Cressida was now slapping down onto the table in front of her.

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.

Penelope stared down at the words even though she knew each one by heart. "What do you mean?" she asked, even though she knew her attempt to pretend that she didn't know exactly what Cressida meant was futile.