"You're smarter than that, Penelope Featherington," Cressida said. "You know I know."
Penelope kept staring at the single, incriminating sheet of paper, unable to tear her eyes from those fateful words—
It would break my heart.
Break my heart.
Break my heart.
"Nothing to say?" Cressida asked, and even though Penelope could not see her face, she felt her hard, supercilious smile.
"No one will believe you," Penelope whispered.
"I can barely believe it myself," Cressida said with a harsh laugh. "You, of all people. But apparently you had hidden depths and were a bit more clever than you let on. Clever enough," she added with noticeable emphasis, "to know that once I light the spark of this particular piece of gossip, the news will spread like wildfire."
Penelope's mind whirled in dizzying, unpleasant circles. Oh, God, what was she going to tell Colin? How would she tell him? She knew she had to, but where would she find the words?
"No one will believe it at first," Cressida continued. "You were right about that. But then they'll start to think, and slowly but surely, the pieces of the puzzle will fall into place. Someone will remember that they said something to you that ended up in a column. Or that you were at a particular house party. Or that they'd seen Eloise Bridgerton snooping about, and doesn't everyone know that the two of you tell each other everything?"
"What do you want?" Penelope asked, her voice low and haunted as she finally lifted her head to face her enemy.
"Ah, now, there's the question I've been waiting for." Cressida clasped her hands together behind her back and began to
pace. "I've been giving the matter a great deal of thought. In fact, I put off coming here to see you for almost a full week until I could decide upon the matter."
Penelope swallowed, uncomfortable with the notion that Cressida had known her deepest secret for nearly a week, and
she'd been blithely living her life, unaware that the sky was about to come crashing down.
"I knew from the outset, of course," Cressida said, "that I wanted money. But the question was—how much? Your husband is a Bridgerton, of course, and so he has ample funds, but then again, he's a younger son, and not as plump in the pocket as the viscount."
"How much, Cressida?" Penelope ground out. She knew that Cressida was drawing this out just to torture her, and she held little hope that she would actually name a figure before she was good and ready.
"Then I realized," Cressida continued, ignoring Penelope's question (and proving her point), "that you must be quite wealthy, too. Unless you're an utter fool—and considering your success at hiding your little secret for so long, I've revised my initial opinion of you, so I don't think you are— you'd have to have made a fortune after writing the column for all those years. And from all outward appearances"—she gave a scornful glance to Penelope's afternoon dress—"you haven't been spending it. So I can only deduce that it is all sitting in a discreet little bank account somewhere, just waiting for a withdrawal."
"How much, Cressida?"
"Ten thousand pounds."
Penelope gasped. "You're mad!"
"No." Cressida smiled. "Just very, very clever."
"I don't have ten thousand pounds."
"I think you're lying."
"I can assure you I'm not!" And she wasn't. The last time Penelope had checked her account balance, she'd had £8246, although she supposed that with interest, it had grown by a few pounds since then. It was an enormous sum of money, to be sure, enough to keep any reasonable person happy for several lifetimes, but it wasn't ten thousand, and it wasn't anything she wished to hand over to Cressida Twombley.
Cressida smiled serenely. "I'm sure you'll figure out what to do. Between your savings and your husband's money, ten
thousand pounds is a paltry sum."
"Ten thousand pounds is never a paltry sum."
"How long will you need to gather your funds?" Cressida asked, completely ignoring Penelope's outburst. "A day? Two days?"
"Two days?" Penelope echoed, gaping. "I couldn't do it in two weeks!"
"Aha, so then you do have the money."
"One week," Cressida said, her voice turning sharp. "I want the money in one week."
"I won't give it to you," Penelope whispered, more for her own benefit than Cressida's.
"You will," Cressida replied confidently. "If you don't, I'll ruin you."
Penelope looked up to see Dunwoody standing in the doorway.
"There is an urgent matter which requires your attention," he said. "Immediately."
"Just as well," Cressida said, walking toward the door. "I'm done here." She walked through the doorway, then turned around once she reached the hall, so that Penelope was forced to look at her, perfectly framed in the portal. "I'll hear from you soon?" she inquired, her voice mild and innocent, as if she were talking about nothing more weighty than an invitation to a party, or perhaps the agenda for a charity meeting.
Penelope gave her a little nod, just to be rid of her.
But it didn't matter. The front door may have thunked shut, and Cressida might be gone, but Penelope's troubles weren't
Three hours later, Penelope was still in the drawing room, still sitting on the sofa, still staring into space, still trying to figure out how she was going to solve her problems.
Correction: problem, singular.
She had only one problem, but for the size of it, she might as well have had a thousand.
She wasn't an aggressive person, and she couldn't remember the last time she had a violent thought, but at that moment, she could have gladly wrung Cressida Twombley's neck.
She watched the door with a morose sense of fatalism, waiting for her husband to come home, knowing that each ticking second brought her closer to her moment of truth, when she would have to confess everything to him.
n't say, I told you so. He would never say such a thing.
But he would be thinking it.
It never occurred to her, not even for a minute, that she might keep this from him. Cressida's threats weren't the sort of thing one hid from one's husband, and besides, she was going to need his help.
She wasn't certain what she needed to do, but whatever it was, she didn't know how to do it alone.
But there was one thing she knew for sure;—she didn't want to pay Cressida. There was no way Cressida would be satisfied with ten thousand pounds, not when she thought she could get more. If Penelope capitulated now, she'd be handing money over to Cressida for the rest of her life.
Which meant that in one week's time, Cressida Twombley would tell all the world that Penelope Featherington Bridgerton was the infamous Lady Whistledown.
Penelope reckoned she had two choices. She could lie, and call Cressida a fool, and hope that everyone believed her; or
she could try to find some way to twist Cressida's revelation to her advantage.
But for the life of her, she didn't know how.
Colin's voice. She wanted to fling herself into his arms, and at the same time, she could barely bring herself to turn around.
"Penelope?" He sounded concerned now, his footsteps increasing in speed as he crossed the room. "Dunwoody said that Cressida was here."
He sat next to her and touched her cheek. She turned and saw his face, the corners of his eyes crinkled with worry, his lips, slightly parted as they murmured her name.
And that was when she finally allowed herself to cry.
Funny how she could hold herself together, keep it all inside until she saw him. But now that he was here, all she could do was bury her face in the warmth of his chest, snuggle closer as his arms wrapped around her.
As if somehow he could make all her problems go away by his presence alone.
"Penelope?" he asked, his voice soft and worried. "What happened? What's wrong?"
Penelope just shook her head, the motion having to suffice until she could think of the words, summon the courage, stop the tears.
"What did she do to you?"
"Oh, Colin," she said, somehow summoning the energy to pull herself far enough back so that she could see his face. "She knows."