"Eloise," Daphne suddenly put in, "you're very quiet tonight."
"Except for when she called me mad," Hyacinth pointed out.
"Hmmm?" Eloise had been staring off into space—or perhaps at something behind Daphne and Simon—and hadn't been paying attention. "Oh, well, nothing to say, I suppose."
"You?" Daphne asked doubtfully.
"Precisely what I was thinking," Hyacinth said.
Penelope agreed with Hyacinth, but she decided to keep that to herself. It wasn't like Eloise not to weigh in with an opinion, especially not on a night like this, which was growing more and more shrouded with mystery as each second passed.
"You all were saying everything so well," Eloise said. "What could I have possibly added to the conversation?"
Which struck Penelope as very odd. The sly sarcasm was in character, but Eloise always thought she had something to add to a conversation.
Eloise just shrugged.
"We should be moving along," Violet said. "We're beginning to hold up your other guests."
"I shall see you later," Daphne promised. "And—Oh!"
Everyone leaned in.
"You will probably want to know," she whispered, "that Lady Danbury is not here yet."
"Simplifies my job," Simon said, looking a bit weary of all the intrigue.
"Not mine," Hyacinth said. "I still have to stick to her—"
"—like glue," they all—including Penelope—finished for her.
"Well, I do," Hyacinth said.
"Speaking of glue," Eloise said as they stepped away from Daphne and Simon, "Penelope, do you think you can make do with only two batches for a bit? I should like to step out for a moment."
"I will go with you," Hyacinth announced.
"You can't both go," Violet said. "I'm certain Colin didn't want Penelope left with only me."
"May I go when she's back, then?" Hyacinth grimaced. "It's not something I can avoid."
Violet turned to Eloise expectantly.
"What?" Eloise demanded.
"I was waiting for you to say the same thing."
"I'm far too dignified," Eloise sniffed.
"Oh, please," Hyacinth muttered.
Violet groaned. "Are you certain you wish us to remain by your side?" she asked Penelope.
"I didn't think I had a choice," Penelope replied, amused by the interchange.
"Go," Violet said to Eloise. "Just hurry back."
Eloise gave her mother a nod, and then, much to everyone's surprise, she reached forward and gave Penelope a quick hug.
"What was that for?" Penelope asked with an affectionate smile?
"No reason," Eloise replied, her returning grin rather like one of Colin's. "I just think this is going to be a special night for you."
"You do?" Penelope asked carefully, unsure of what Eloise might have figured out.
"Well, it's obvious something is afoot," Eloise said. "It's not like Colin to act with such secrecy. And I wanted to offer my support."
"You'll be back in just a few minutes," Penelope said. "Whatever is going to happen—if indeed anything is going to happen—you're not likely to miss it."
Eloise shrugged. "It was an impulse. An impulse born from a dozen years of friendship."
"Eloise Bridgerton, are you growing sentimental on me?"
"At this late date?" Eloise said with a look of mock outrage. "I think not."
"Eloise," Hyacinth interrupted, "will you leave! I can't wait all night."
And with a quick wave, Eloise was off.
For the next hour, they just milled about, mingling with the other guests, and moving—Penelope, Violet, and Hyacinth—as one giant being.
"Three heads and six legs have we," Penelope remarked as she walked toward the window, the two Bridgerton women bustling right alongside her.
"I beg your pardon?" Violet asked.
"Did you really want to look out the window," Hyacinth muttered, "or were you just testing us? And where is Eloise?"
"Mostly just testing you," Penelope admitted. "And I'm sure Eloise was detained by some other guest. You know as well as I that there are many people here from whom it is rather difficult to extract oneself from conversation."
"Hmmph," was Hyacinth's reply. "Someone needs to recheck her definition of glue."
"Hyacinth," Penelope said, "if you need to excuse yourself for a few minutes, please do go ahead. I shall be just fine." She turned to Violet. "You as well. If you need to leave, I promise I shall remain right here in the corner until you return."
Violet looked at her in horror. "And break our word to Colin?"
"Er, did you actually give him your word?" Penelope asked.
"No, but it was implied in his request, I'm sure. Oh, look!" she suddenly exclaimed. "There he is!"
Penelope tried to signal discreetly at her husband, but all her attempts at circumspection were drowned out by Hyacinth's vigorous wave and holler of, "Colin!"
"I know, I know," Hyacinth said unrepentantly, "I must be more ladylike."
"If you know it," Violet said, sounding every inch the mother she was, "then why don't you do it?"
"What would be the fun in that?"
"Good evening, ladies," Colin said, kissing his mother's hand before smoothly taking his place beside Penelope and sliding
his arm around her waist.
"Well?" Hyacinth demanded.
Colin merely quirked a brow.
"Are you going to tell us?" she persisted.
"All in good time, dear sister."
"You're a wretched, wretched man," Hyacinth grumbled.
"I say," Colin murmured, looking about, "what happened to Eloise?"
"That's a very good question," Hyacinth muttered, just as Penelope said, "I'm sure she'll be back soon."
He nodded, not looking terribly interested. "Mother," he said, turning toward Violet, "how have you been?"
"You've been sending cryptic notes all over town," Violet demanded, "and you want to know how I've been?"
He smiled. "Yes."
Violet actually started wagging her finge
r at him, something she'd forbidden her own children from ever doing in public. "Oh, no, you don't, Colin Bridgerton. You are not going to get out of explaining yourself. I am your mother. Your mother!"
"I am aware of the relation," he murmured.
"You are not going to waltz in here and distract me with a clever phrase and a beguiling smile."
"You think my smile is beguiling?"
"But," he acceded, "you did make an excellent point."
Violet blinked. "I did?"
"Yes. About the waltz." He cocked his head slightly to the side. "I believe I hear one beginning."
"I don't hear anything," Hyacinth said.
"Don't you? Pity." He grabbed Penelope's hand. "Come along, wife. I do believe this is our dance."
"But no one is dancing," Hyacinth ground out.
He flashed her a satisfied smile. "They will be."
And then, before anyone had a chance to comment, he'd yanked on Penelope's hand, and they were weaving through the crowds.
"Didn't you want to waltz?" Penelope asked breathlessly, right after they'd passed the small orchestra, the members of
whom appeared to be taking an extended break.
"No, just to escape," he explained, slipping through a side door and pulling her along with him.
A few moments later they had ascended a narrow staircase and were secreted in some small parlor, their only light the flickering torches that blazed outside the window.
"Where are we?" Penelope asked, looking around.
Colin shrugged. "I don't know. It seemed as good a place as any."
"Are you going to tell me what is going on?"
"No, first I'm going to kiss you."
And before she had a chance to respond to that (not that she would have protested!) his lips found hers in a kiss that was hungry and urgent and tender all in one.
"Colin!" she gasped, in that split second when he took a breath.
"Not now," he murmured, kissing her again.
"But—" this was muffled, lost against his lips.
It was the sort of kiss that enveloped her, from her head to her toes, from the way his teeth nibbled her lips, to his hands, squeezing her bottom and sliding across her back. It was the sort of kiss that could easily have turned her knees to water and led her to swoon on the sofa and allow him to do anything to her, the more wicked the better, even though they were mere yards away from over five hundred members of the ton, except—