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"Do not think I mean to criticize your parents," she said with an expression that was innocent and sly at the same time.

"I would never dream of implying that you were spoiled in any way."

He nodded graciously.

"It's just that"—she leaned in, as if imparting a grave secret—"I rather think you could get away with murder if you so chose."

He coughed—not to clear his throat and not because he wasn't feeling well, but rather because he was so damned startled. Penelope was such a funny character. No, that wasn't quite right. She was ... surprising. Yes, that seemed to sum her up. Very few people really knew her; she had certainly never developed a reputation as a sterling conversationalist. He was fairly certain she'd made it through three-hour parties without ever venturing beyond words of a single syllable.

But when Penelope was in the company of someone with whom she felt comfortable—and Colin realized that he was probably privileged to count himself among that number— she had a dry wit, a sly smile, and evidence of a very intelligent mind, indeed.

He wasn't surprised that she'd never attracted any serious suitors for her hand; she wasn't a beauty by any stretch, although upon close examination she was more attractive than he'd remembered her to be. Her brown hair had a touch of red to it, highlighted nicely by the nickering candles. And her skin was quite lovely—that perfect peaches-and-cream complexion that ladies were always slathering their faces with arsenic to achieve.

But Penelope's attractiveness wasn't the sort that men usually noticed. And her normally shy and occasionally even stuttering demeanor didn't exactly showcase her personality.

Still, it was too bad about her lack of popularity. She would have made someone a perfectly good wife.

"So you're saying," he mused, steering his mind back to the matter at hand, "that I should consider a life of crime?"

"Nothing of the sort," she replied, a demure smile on her face. "Just that I rather suspect you could talk your way out of anything." And then, unexpectedly, her mien grew serious, and she quietly said, "I envy that."

Colin surprised himself by holding out his hand and saying, "Penelope Featherington, I think you should dance with me."

And then Penelope surprised him by laughing and saying, "That's very sweet of you to ask, but you don't have to dance with me any longer."

His pride felt oddly pricked. "What the devil do you mean by that?"

She shrugged. "It's official now. I'm a spinster. There's no longer a reason to dance with me just so that I don't feel left out."

"That's not why I danced with you," he protested, but he knew that it was exactly the reason. And half the time he'd only remembered to ask because his mother had poked him—hard—in the back and reminded him.

She gave him a faintly pitying look, which galled him, because he'd never thought to be pitied by Penelope Featherington.

"If you think," he said, feeling his spine grow stiff, "that I'm going to allow you to wiggle out of a dance with me now, you're quite delusional."

"You don't have to dance with me just to prove you don't mind doing it," she said.

"I want to dance with you," he fairly growled.

"Very well," she said, after what seemed to be a ridiculously long pause. "It would surely be churlish for me to refuse."

"It was probably churlish of you to doubt my intentions," he said as he took her arm, "but I'm willing to forgive you if you can forgive yourself."

She stumbled, which made him smile. "I do believe I'll manage," she choked out.

"Excellent." He offered her a bland smile. "I'd hate to think of you living with the guilt."

The music was just beginning, so Penelope took his hand and curtsied as they began the minuet. It was difficult to talk during the dance, which gave Penelope a few moments to catch her breath and gather her thoughts.

Perhaps she'd been a bit too harsh with Colin. She shouldn't have scolded him for asking her to dance, when the truth was, those dances were among her most cherished memories. Did it really matter if he'd only done it out of pity? It would have been worse if he'd never asked her at all. She grimaced. Worse still, did this mean she had to apologize?

"Was something wrong with that eclair?" Colin inquired the next time they stepped toward each other.

A full ten seconds passed before they were close enough again for her to say, "I beg your pardon?"

"You look as if you've swallowed something vile," he said, loudly this time, for he'd clearly lost patience with waiting for the dance to allow them to speak.

Several people looked over, then stepped discreetly away, as if Penelope might actually be sick right there on the ballroom floor.

"Do you need to shout it to the entire world?" Penelope hissed.

"You know," he said thoughtfully, bending into an elegant bow as the music drew to a close, "that was the loudest whisper I've ever heard."

He was insufferable, but Penelope wasn't going to say so, because it would only make her sound like a character in a very bad romantic novel. She'd read one just the other day in which the heroine used the word (or one of its synonyms) on every other page.

"Thank you for the dance," she said, once they'd reached the perimeter of the room. She almost added, You can now tell your mother that you've fulfilled your obligations, but immediately regretted her impulse. Colin hadn't done anything to deserve such sarcasm. It wasn't his fault that men only danced with her when forced to by their mothers. He'd always at least smiled and laughed while doing his duty, which was more than she could say for the rest of the male population.

He nodded politely and murmured his own thanks. They were just about to part ways when they heard a loud female voice bark out, "Mr. Bridgerton!"

They both froze. It was a voice they both knew. It was a voice everyone knew.

"Save me," Colin groaned.

Penelope looked over her shoulder to see the infamous Lady Danbury pushing her way through the crowd, wincing when her ever-present cane landed on the foot of some hapless young lady. "Maybe she means a different Mr. Bridgerton?" Penelope suggested. "There are quite a few of you, after all, and it's possible—"

"I'll give you ten pounds if you don't leave my side," Colin blurted out.

Penelope choked on air. "Don't be silly, I—"


"Done!" she said with a smile, not because she particularly needed the money but rather because it was strangely enjoyable to be extorting it from Colin. "Lady Danbury!" she called out, hurrying to the elderly lady's side. "How nice to see you."

"Nobody ever thinks it's nice to see me," Lady Danbury said sharply, "except maybe my nephew, and half the time I'm not even sure about him. But I thank you for lying all the same."

Colin said nothing, but she still turned in his direction and swatted his leg with her cane. "Good choice dancing with this one," she said. "I've always liked her. More brains than the rest of her family put together."

Penelope opened her mouth to defend at least her younger sister, when Lady Danbury barked out, "Ha!" after barely a second's pause, adding, "I noticed neither of you contradicted me."

"It is always a delight to see you, Lady Danbury," Colin said, giving her just the sort of smile he might have directed at an opera sing


"Glib, this one is," Lady Danbury said to Penelope. "You'll have to watch out for him."

"It is rarely necessary that I do so," Penelope said, "as he is most often out of the country."

"See!" Lady Danbury crowed again. "I told you she was bright."

"You'll notice," Colin said smoothly, "that I did not contradict you."

The old lady smiled approvingly. "So you didn't. You're getting smart in your old age, Mr. Bridgerton."

"It has occasionally been remarked that I possessed a small modicum of intelligence in my youth, as well."

"Hmmph. The important word in that sentence being small, of course."

Colin looked at Penelope through narrowed eyes. She appeared to be choking on laughter.

"We women must look out for one another," Lady Danbury said to no one in particular, "since it is clear that no one else will do so."

Colin decided it was definitely time to go. "I think I see my mother."

"Escape is impossible," Lady Danbury crowed. "Don't bother to attempt it, and besides, I know for a fact you don't see your mother. She's attending to some brainless twit who tore the hem off her dress." She turned to Penelope, who was now exerting such effort to control her laughter that her eyes were glistening with unshed tears. "How much did he pay you not to leave him alone with me?"

Penelope quite simply exploded. "I beg your pardon," she gasped, clasping a hand over her horrified mouth.

"Oh, no, go right ahead," Colin said expansively. "You've been such a help already."

"You don't have to give me the twenty pounds," she said.

"I wasn't planning to."

"Only twenty pounds?" Lady Danbury asked. "Hmmph. I would have thought I'd be worth at least twenty-five."

Colin shrugged. "I'm a third son. Perpetually short of funds, I'm afraid."

"Ha! You're as plump in the pocket as at least three earls," Lady Danbury said. "Well, maybe not earls," she added, after a bit of thought. "But a few viscounts, and most barons, to be sure."