Hyacinth just shrugged. "It's all very intriguing."
"Actually," Penelope said, eager to change the subject, or at least to twist it slightly, "what I'm wondering is, what will
That got everyone's attention.
"He left home in his afternoon clothes," Penelope explained, "and didn't come back. I can't imagine your sister would accept anything less than full evening kit for her ball."
"He'll have borrowed something from Anthony," Eloise said dismissively. "They're precisely the same size. Same as Gregory, actually. Only Benedict is different."
'Two inches taller," Hyacinth said.
Penelope nodded, feigning interest as she glanced out the window. They'd just slowed down, the driver presumably trying to navigate through the crush of carriages that were choking Grosvenor Square.
"How many people are expected tonight?" Penelope asked.
"I believe five hundred were invited," Violet replied. "Daphne doesn't host parties very often, but what she lacks in frequency she makes up for in size."
"I'll say," Hyacinth muttered. "I hate crowds. I'm not going to be able to get a decent breath tonight."
"I'm lucky you were my last," Violet told her with weary affection. "I'd not have had the energy for any more after you,
"Pity I wasn't first, then," Hyacinth said with a cheeky smile. "Think of all the attention I could have had. Not to mention the fortune."
"You're already quite the heiress as it is," Violet said.
"And you always manage to find your way to the center of attention," Eloise teased.
Hyacinth just grinned.
"Did you know," Violet said, turning to Penelope, "that all of my children are going to be in attendance tonight? I can't remember the last time we were all together."
"What about your birthday party?" Eloise asked.
Violet shook her head. "Gregory wasn't able to get away from university."
"We're not expected to line up according to height and sing a festive tune, are we?" Hyacinth asked, only half joking.
"I can see us now: The Singing Bridgertons. We'd make a fortune on the stage."
"You're in a punchy mood tonight," Penelope said to her.
Hyacinth shrugged. "Just getting myself ready for my upcoming transformation into glue. It seems to require a certain
"A gluey frame of mind?" Penelope inquired mildly.
"We must get her married off soon," Eloise said to her mother.
"You first," Hyacinth shot back.
"I'm working on it," Eloise said cryptically.
"What?" The word's volume was rather amplified by the fact that it exploded from three mouths at once.
"That's all I'm going to say," Eloise said, and in such a tone of voice that they all knew she meant it.
"I will get to the bottom of this" Hyacinth assured her mother and Penelope.
"I'm sure you will," Violet replied.
Penelope turned to Eloise and said, "You don't stand a chance."
Eloise just lifted her chin in the air and looked out the window. "We're here," she announced.
The four ladies waited until the driver had opened the door, and then one by one they alighted.
"My goodness," Violet said approvingly, "Daphne has truly outdone herself."
It was difficult not to stop and look. All of Hastings House was ablaze with light. Every window had been adorned with candles, and outdoor sconces held torches, as did a fleet of footmen who were greeting the carriages.
"It's too bad Lady Whistledown isn't here," Hyacinth said, her voice for once losing its cheeky edge. "She would have
"Maybe she is here," Eloise said. "In fact, she probably is."
"Did Daphne invite Cressida Twombley?" Violet asked.
"I'm sure she did," Eloise said. "Not that I think she's Lady Whistledown."
"I don't think anyone thinks that any longer," Violet replied as she lifted her foot onto the first step. "Come along, girls,
our night awaits."
Hyacinth stepped forward to accompany her mother, while Eloise fell into line beside Penelope.
"There's magic in the air," Eloise said, looking around as if she'd never seen a London ball before. "Do you feel it?"
Penelope just looked at her, afraid that if she opened her mouth, she'd blurt out all of her secrets. Eloise was right. There was something strange and electric about the night, a crackling sort of energy—the kind one felt just before a thunderstorm.
"It almost feels like a turning point," Eloise mused, "as if one's life could change completely, all in one night."
"What are you saying, Eloise?" Penelope asked, alarmed by the look in her friend's eyes.
"Nothing," Eloise said with a shrug. But a mysterious smile remained upon her lips as she hooked her arm through
Penelope's and murmured, "Let's be off. The night awaits."
Penelope had been to Hastings House a number of times, both for formal parties and more casual visits, but never had she seen the stately old building look more lovely-—or more magical—than it did that evening.
She and the Bridgerton ladies were among the first to arrive; Lady Bridgerton had always said that it was rude for family members even to consider fashionably late entrances. It was nice to be so early, though; Penelope was actually able to see the decorations without having to push through crushing crowds.
Daphne had decided not to use a theme for her ball, unlike the Egyptian ball last week and the Grecian one the week before. Rather, she had decorated the house with the same simple elegance with which she lived her everyday life. Hundreds of candles adorned the walls and tables, flickering in the night, reflecting off the enormous chandeliers that hung from the ceilings. The windows were swathed in a shimmery, silvery fabric, the sort of thing one might imagine a fairy to wear. Even the servants had changed their livery. Penelope knew that the Hastings servants usually wore blue and gold, but tonight their blue was adorned with silver.
It could almost make a woman feel like a princess in a fairy tale.
"I wonder how much this cost," Hyacinth said, eyes wide.
"Hyacinth!" Violet scolded, batting her daughter on the arm. "You know that it's impolite to ask about such things."
"I didn't ask," Hyacinth pointed out, "I wondered. And besides, it's only Daphne."
"Your sister is the Duchess of Hastings," Violet said, "and as such she has certain responsibilities to her station. You would do well to remember that fact."
"But wouldn't you agree," Hyacinth said, linking her arm around her mother's and giving her hand a little squeeze, "that it's more important simply to remember that she's my sister?"
"She has you there," Eloise said with a smile.
Violet sighed. "Hyacinth, I declare that you will be the death of me."
"No, I won't," Hyacinth replied. "Gregory will."
Penelope found herself stifling a laugh.
"I don't see Colin here yet," Eloise said, craning her neck.
"No?" Penelope scanned the room. "That's surprising."
"Did he tell you that he would be here before you arrived?"
"No," Penelope replied, "but for some reason I rather thought he would."
Violet patted her arm. "I'm sure he'll be here soon, Penelope. And then we'll all know what this big secret is that has him insisting we remain by your side. Not," she added hastily, her eyes widening with alarm, "that we view it as any sort of chore. You know we adore your company."
Penelope gave her a reassuring smile. "I know. The feeling is mutual."
There were only a few people ahead of them in the receiving line, so it wasn't very long before they were able to greet
Daphne and her husband Simon.
"What," Daphne asked without preamble, just as soon as she was sure her other guests were out of earshot, "is going on
/> with Colin?"
Since the question appeared to be directed mostly at her, Penelope felt compelled to say, "I don't know."
"Did he send you a note as well?" Eloise asked.
Daphne nodded. "Yes, we're to keep an eye on her, he said."
"It could be worse," Hyacinth said. "We're to stick to her like glue." She leaned forward. "He underlined glue."
"And here I thought I wasn't a chore," Penelope quipped.
"Oh, you're not," Hyacinth said breezily, "but there's something rather enjoyable about the word glue. Slides off the tongue rather pleasingly, don't you think? Glue. Glooooooo."
"Is it me," Eloise asked, "or has she gone mad in the head?"
Hyacinth ignored her with a shrug. "Not to mention the drama of it. I feel as if I'm a part of some grand espionage plot."
"Espionage," Violet groaned. "Heaven help us all."
Daphne leaned forward with great drama. "Well, he told us—"
"It's not a competition, wife," Simon put in.
She shot him an annoyed look before turning back to her mother and sisters and saying, "He told us to make sure she stays away from Lady Danbury."
"Lady Danbury!" they all exclaimed.
Except for Penelope, who had a very good idea why Colin might want her to stay away from the elderly countess. He must have come up with something better than her plan to convince Lady Danbury to lie and tell everyone that she was Lady Whistledown.
It had to be the double-blackmail theory. What else could it be? He must have uncovered some horrible secret about Cressida.
Penelope was almost giddy with delight.
"I thought you were rather good friends with Lady Danbury," Violet said to her.
"I am," Penelope replied, trying to act perplexed.
"This is very curious," Hyacinth said, tapping her index finger against her cheek. "Very curious indeed."