Do your worst, ladies and gentlemen of the ton. You haven't a prayer of solving this mystery.
Lady Whistledown's Society Papers, 12 April 1824
Precisely three minutes were required for news of Lady Danbury's outrageous dare to spread throughout the ballroom. Penelope knew this to be true because she happened to be facing a large (and, according to Kate Bridgerton, extremely precise) grandfather clock when Lady Danbury made her announcement. At the words, "One thousand pounds to the person who unmasks Lady Whistledown," the clock read forty-four minutes past ten. The long hand had ad
vanced no farther than forty-seven when Nigel Berbrooke stumbled into the rapidly growing circle of people surrounding Lady Danbury and proclaimed her latest scheme "scrumbly good fun!"
And if Nigel had heard about it, that meant everyone had, because Penelope's brother-in-law was not known for his intelligence, his attention span, or his listening ability.
Nor, Penelope thought wryly, for his vocabulary. Scrumbly, indeed.
"And who do you think Lady Whistledown is?" Lady Danbury asked Nigel.
"No earthly idea," he admitted. "Ain't me, that's all I know!"
"I think we all know that," Lady D replied.
"Who do you think it is?" Penelope asked Colin.
He offered her a one-shouldered shrug. "I've been out of town too often to speculate."
"Don't be silly," Penelope said. "Your cumulative time in London certainly adds up to enough parties and routs to form a few theories."
But he just shook his head. "I really couldn't say."
Penelope stared at him for a moment longer than was necessary, or, in all honesty, socially acceptable. There was something odd in Colin's eyes. Something fleeting and elusive. The ton often thought him nothing more than a devil-may-care charmer, but he was far more intelligent than he let on, and she'd have bet her life that he had a few suspicions.
But for some reason, he wasn't willing to share them with her.
"Who do you think it is?" Colin asked, avoiding her question with one of his own. "You've been out in society just about as long as Lady Whistledown. Surely you must have thought about it."
Penelope looked about the ballroom, her eyes resting on this person and that, before finally returning to the small crowd around her. "I think it could very well be Lady Danbury," she replied. "Wouldn't that be a clever joke on everyone?"
Colin looked over at the elderly lady, who was having a grand old time talking up her latest scheme. She was thumping her cane on the ground, chattering animatedly, and smiling like a cat with cream, fish, and an entire roast turkey. "It makes sense," he said thoughtfully, "in a rather perverse sort of way."
Penelope felt the corners of her mouth twist. "She's nothing if not perverse."
She watched Colin watching Lady D for another few seconds, then quietly said, "But you don't think it's her."
Colin slowly turned his head to face her, raising one brow in silent question.
"I can tell by the expression on your face," Penelope explained.
He grinned, that loose easy grin he so often used in public. "And here I thought I was inscrutable."
"Afraid not," she replied. "Not to me, anyway."
Colin sighed. "I fear it will never be my destiny to be a dark, brooding hero."
"You may well find yourself someone's hero," Penelope allowed. "There's time for you yet. But dark and brooding?" She smiled. "Not very likely."
"Too bad for me," he said jauntily, giving her another one of his well-known smiles—this one the lopsided, boyish one.
"The dark, brooding types get all the women."
Penelope coughed discreetly, a bit surprised he'd be speaking of such things with her, not to mention the fact that Colin Bridgerton had never had trouble attracting women. He was grinning at her, awaiting a response, and she was trying to decide whether the correct reaction was polite maidenly outrage or a laugh and an I'm-such-a-good-sport sort of chuckle, when Eloise quite literally skidded to a halt in front of them.
"Did you hear the news?" Eloise asked breathlessly.
"Were you running?" Penelope returned. Truly a remarkable feat in such a crowded ballroom.
"Lady Danbuiy has offered one thousand pounds to whomever unmasks Lady Whistledown!"
"We know," Colin said in that vaguely superior tone exclusive to older brothers.
Eloise let out a disappointed sigh. "You do?" Colin motioned to Lady Danbury, who was still a scant few yards away.
"We were right here when it happened."
Eloise looked annoyed in the extreme, and Penelope knew exactly what she was thinking (and would most probably relate to her the following afternoon). It was one thing to miss an important moment. It was another entirely to discover that one's brother had seen the entire thing.
"Well, people are already talking about it," Eloise said. "Gushing, really. I haven't been witness to such excitement in years."
Colin turned to Penelope and murmured, "This is why I so often choose to leave the country." Penelope tried not to smile.
"I know you're talking about me and I don't care," Eloise continued, barely pausing to take a breath. "I tell you, the ton has gone mad. Everyone—and I mean everyone—is speculating on her identity, although the shrewdest ones won't say a word. Don't want others to win on their hunch, don't you know."
"I think," Colin announced, "that I am not so in need of a thousand pounds that I care to worry about this."
"It's a lot of money," Penelope said thoughtfully.
He turned to her in disbelief. "Don't tell me you're going to join in this ridiculous game."
She cocked her head to the side, lifting her chin in what she hoped was an enigmatic—or if not enigmatic, at the very least slightly mysterious—manner. "I am not so well heeled that I can ignore the offer of one thousand pounds," she said.
"Perhaps if we work together..." Eloise suggested.
"God save me," was Colin's reply.
Eloise ignored him, saying to Penelope, "We could split the money."
Penelope opened her mouth to reply, but Lady Danbury's cane suddenly came into view, waving wildly through the air. Colin had to take a quick step to the side just to avoid getting his ear clipped off.
"Miss Featherington!" Lady D boomed. "You haven't told me who you suspect."
"No, Penelope," Colin said, a rather smirky smile on his face, "you haven't."
Penelope's first instinct was to mumble something under her breath and hope that Lady Danbury's age had left her hard enough of hearing that she would assume that any lack of understanding was the fault of her own ears and not Penelope's lips. But even without glancing to her side, she could feel Colin's presence, sense his quirky, cocky grin egging her on, and she found herself standing a little straighter, with her chin perched just a little higher than usual.
He made her more confident, more daring. He made her more... herself. Or at least the herself she wished she could be.
"Actually," Penelope said, looking Lady Danbury almost in the eye, "I think it's you."
A collective gasp echoed around them.
And for the first time in her life, Penelope Featherington found herself at the very center of attention.
Lady Danbury stared at her, her pale blue eyes shrewd and assessing. And then the most amazing thing happened. Her lips began to twitch at the corners. Then they widened until Penelope realized she was not just smiling, but positively grinning.
"I like you, Penelope Featherington," Lady Danbury said, tapping her right on the toe with her cane. "I wager half the ballroom is of the same notion, but no one else has the mettle to tell me so."
"I really don't, either," Penelope admitted, grunting slightly as Colin elbowed her in the ribs.
"Obviously," Lady Danbury said with a strange light in her eyes, "you do."
Penelope didn't know what to say to this. She looked at Colin, who was smiling at her encouragingly, then she looked back to Lady Danbury, who looked almost... maternal.
Which had to be the strangest thing of all. Penelope rather doubted that Lady Danbury had given maternal looks to her own children.
"Isn't it nice," the older lady said, leaning in so that only Penelope could hear her words, "to discover that we're not exactly what we thought we were?"
And then she walked away, leaving Penelope wondering if maybe she wasn't quite what she'd thought she was.
Maybe—just maybe—she was something a little bit more.
* * *
The next day was a Monday, which meant that Penelope took tea with the Bridgerton ladies at N
umber Five. She didn't know when, precisely, she'd fallen into that habit, but it had been so for close to a decade, and if she didn't show up on a Monday afternoon, she rather thought Lady Bridgerton would send someone over to fetch her.
Penelope rather enjoyed the Bridgerton custom of tea and biscuits in the afternoon. It wasn't a widespread ritual; indeed, Penelope knew of no one else who made a daily habit of it. But Lady Bridgerton insisted that she simply could not last from luncheon to supper, especially not when they were observing town hours and eating so late at night. And thus, every afternoon at four, she and any number of her children (and often a friend or two) met in the informal upstairs drawing room for a snack.
There was drizzle in the air, even though it was a fairly warm day, so Penelope took her black parasol with her for the short walk over to Number Five. It was a route she'd followed hundreds of times before, a few houses down to the corner of Mount and Davies Street, then along the edge of Berkeley Square to Bruton Street. But she was in an odd mood that day, a little bit lighthearted and maybe even a little bit childish, so she decided to cut across the northern corner of the Berkeley Square green for no other reason than she liked the squishy sound her boots made on the wet grass.
It was Lady Danbury's fault. It had to be. She'd been positively giddy since their encounter the night before.
"Not. What. I. Thought. I. Was," she sang to herself as she walked, adding a word every time the soles of her boots sank into the ground. "Something more. Something more."
She reached a particularly wet patch and moved like a skater on the grass, singing (softly, of course; she hadn't changed so much from the night before that she actually wanted someone to hear her singing in public), "Something moooore," as she slid forward.
Which was, of course (since it was fairly well established— in her own mind, at least—that she had the worst timing in the history of civilization), right when she heard a male voice call out her name.
She skidded to a halt and gave fervent thanks that she caught her balance at the very last moment instead of landing on her bottom on the wet and messy grass.