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feel the warmth underneath your wings

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*

Penelope Featherington has a garbage bag in one hand and her briefcase in another as she opens the front door to the apartment she (today, unfortunately) shares with Eloise Bridgerton. She is already running late for work, which is unusual; but Eloise, though she loves the girl like a sister, left the garbage to overflow for the third time this week, and Penelope can’t bear the thought of not taking it out. She lives a quiet life, a content life, and a neat life. She would like to keep it that way.

So, when she opens the front door, with her hair a mess and her make-up already sweating off of her and a fistful of garbage in her hand, the appearance of Colin Bridgerton on the other side is extremely vexing.

“Jesus Christ, Colin!” she shrieks, dropping her briefcase and the garbage bag. Immediately she claps a hand over her mouth, cringing as her curse echoes through the hallway of her building. Eight in the morning is still too early to be shouting and carousing.

With that familiar lopsided grin, he leans against the doorframe. He looks awfully tan, she thinks as she catches her breath and takes a good look at him. The Mediterranean has done him wonders.

“That’s not quite the greeting I was expecting, but I reckon I’ll take it,” he says cheerily. “May I come in?”

Dumbly she nods and shifts away from the door to let him pass. He has a duffle in hand and a knapsack on his back, which can only mean he’s fresh off the plane and trying to avoid his mother and his older brothers. For all Colin’s wonderful qualities, sometimes he is awfully good at avoiding responsibilities.

“Just get back then?” she asks, shutting the door and retaking the garbage in hand.

“An hour ago. Thought I’d pop in and see my favorite girls,” he says with a cheeky smile, setting down his bags next to the sofa and moving into the kitchen towards the refrigerator.

“Eloise isn’t here,” she says after a moment of merely watching him. He was so damnably comfortable in his own skin, in every room he walked into; she couldn’t help but be jealous of it. Penelope, an adult of 27, has tried to be as easy and free as all the Bridgertons seem (perhaps excepting Francesca, but there is always a quiet one), and while she is certainly happier living on her own with Eloise and their quaint apartment in the city than she ever was under her mother’s overbearing and carelessly callous thumb, she has never quite managed the ease she so desires. “She’s gone to work.”

“Good god, she’s still employed then?” he drawls, pulling out bread and ham.

“Are you honestly making yourself a sandwich right now?” she asks, exasperated.

Colin sends a shockingly wounded puppy-dog look across his broad shoulder. “Hell, Penelope, I thought you knew me.”

She does, unfortunately. Sighing, she reaches for her briefcase. “I assume you’ll be staying on the couch, then?”

At his bright grin, she sighs once more. “I’ll stop by the Tesco on the way home,” she mutters, turning for the front door once more.

“You’re the best!” he hollers as she shuts and locks the door behind her.

When she finally gets on the Tube, she texts Eloise.

Colin’s back.

Two minutes goes by, and then Eloise replies in the form of something akin to words: AUGH NOOOOOO.

I’m going to Tesco for supplies after work. Make sure he doesn’t break anything like last time, Penelope replies.

Stupid bloody moron.

Penelope smiles a little at Eloise’s response, and tries very hard not to think of Colin Bridgerton alone in her apartment. It’s too tempting for words.

*

Penelope is a content woman. Out from her overbearing mother’s thumb, she likes her job at the Telegraph; she likes her flat with Eloise; she likes her life. It’s quiet and perhaps routine, but it is hers, and she likes that.

Whenever Colin Bridgerton bursts into town from his many travels, grinning and charming and too clever for his own good, she is reminded of the have-nots of her life. Oh, she is successful and pays her bills and goes on dates and deals with the backhanded compliments from her family (excluding dear Felicity, of course) just as anyone else does. But Colin brings it all into sharp relief through his sheer involvement in all parts of her life. Eloise is her best friend, nearly a sister to her, and when Colin is in town, he is always camped out in their flat, snacking them out of hearth and home, and dragging them out to bars and clubs. He slides into London life with as much ease as he slides into country life at the Bridgerton seat in Kent as much as she imagines he slips into the life of the various countries he visits.

(She doesn’t have to imagine a lot; his travel blog is a massive hit on the internet, and has recently come under the umbrella of Conde Nast. She’s sure a book is in the works. He’s a lovely, gifted writer; another reason to admire him, she supposes.)

Penelope doesn’t have that ease of life. She is shy in large groups, though it is a massive improvement from her teenage years when she was first out in London society. Her father, rest his soul, was a partner of Edmund Bridgerton, rest his soul, in their estate and business investments, as well as being something of a political man, and thus the Featheringtons are a part of high London society. The season may not be the season as it once was, and the ton a silly figment of a richer past, but society is still society and they have their roles within it. Penelope never took to that; she likes sensible conversation and a little bit of adventure, not fancy appetizers and her mother’s terrible advice on clothing. She was never quite flirtatious or pretty enough to be a true socialite, but she didn’t mind.

Society and all its trappings brought her into the circle of the Bridgerton family, and there could be worse fates than that.

*

When Penelope arrives home from work, damp from a spring misting of rain, the shouting can be heard on the sidewalk.

She winces. Eloise beat her home, then.

“You know the ice cream is for me, you prat!” Eloise exclaims as Penelope steps into the flat and shuts the door.

How one lounges in a straight-backed wooden chair, Penelope will never know. But Colin manages it with aplomb. Of course.

“I hardly saw your name on it,” he says with a grin to Penelope. “Hello there.”

“Do we have anything left to make for dinner then?” Penelope says, smiling slightly.

His eyes go to the Tesco bags in her hand, hiding her briefcase. “Reckon we do now,” he says with a shit-eating grin.

Sighing, she sets down the grocery bags at the edge of the kitchen. It is that strange feeling of warmth in her chest whenever he looks at her, smiles at her. Friendship, she repeats to herself as she kicks off her rainboots and walks in stockinged feet towards her bedroom. Friendship is all she requires from Colin Bridgerton.

“Hardly at all,” Eloise snarls. “Not that he needs to worry about it.”

“Excuse you, I would like a sandwich or four at some point in the evening,” he protests.

“Oh, they’ll be food aplenty at Mum’s,” Eloise retorts, triumph in her voice.

Penelope shuts her door until just a crack of light seeps in from the kitchen to her room, but Colin’s howl of disapproval is halted by nothing.

“You told her? Bloody hell, Eloise!”

Smiling, Penelope strips off her blazer and pencil skirt, reaching into her open closet for comfortable jeans and a jumper.

“Of course I did, you moron. You’ve been gone for like, a year, and she is your mother,” Eloise retorts. Penelope can hear the triumph in Eloise’s voice. The relationships between the Bridgerton siblings never fail to surprise; one moment, they’re getting into fist fights in an alley behind their favorite bar in Kent for Francesca’s honor, and the next Eloise is putting frog leg mousse in Colin’s bed. It’s all quite mixed up, but Penelope loves it.

There is a part of her that wishes she could be one of them, instead of her passive-aggressive family. But, alas.

“I wasn’t ready to see her. I don’t want another lecture on settling down and tending to my responsibilities,” he mutters.

“Well, you are thirty-two,” Eloise says helpfully.

“No one’s trying to make you settle down,” he counters.

“Of course they have. I just refuse to listen.”

Penelope steps out of her room and back into the kitchen, moving to the refrigerator. “So you’ll be going to Bruton Street for dinner?” she asks, reaching for a Magners.

Colin says “no” just as Eloise responds with “yes.” Penelope glances between the both of them as they turn and glare at each other.

“Well, that settles it,” she murmurs, opening her cider and taking a long swallow straight from the bottle. No need for the formalities of a glass in her own flat.

“Colin, you must!” Eloise says tartly.

“What, and leave Penelope here alone?” he says, grinning at Penelope. Her heart flutters in her chest.

“Don’t use her as an excuse, she isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card for your convenience,” Eloise snaps.

“I’m not! We had dinner plans - didn’t we, Penelope?” he asks, blinking owlishly at her.

Bollocks. “We did, tentatively,” she says at last, deciding this one time to side with the brother over the sister. It’s the first time she ever has; she can’t explain the instinct. Except perhaps it’s time she started doing what she wants, as opposed to what’s expected. “If I’d known his mother would invite you both, I wouldn’t have agreed,” she adds hastily. “I do love Violet.”

“As do I, but not enough to sit through dinner with her less than twelve hours after getting off a plane,” he mutters.

Mouth gaping, Eloise snorts and throws up her hands. “I’ll call Mum and see if she’s got room for one more,” she says, glaring at Colin. “You’re not getting out of this.”

Eloise stalks down the hall to her bedroom and shuts the door. Hard.

“You’re a lifesaver,” Colin says with a grin.

“I have a feeling I’ll end up getting dragged to dinner with you now,” Penelope points out. “I’ve hardly spared you from your fate.”

“Yes, but now I’ll have someone to talk to,” he says with a laugh. “I’ve been gone for over a year, surely you have new things to report!”

“You’d think,” she says, a little uneasily, and sips her cider.

“Well, you definitely look - “ and he stops, quite abruptly.

Penelope glances at him over the lip of her bottle. He sits, watching her a little oddly, his eyes dark and focused on her. She can feel a blush start on her throat, and swallows hard. The jumper is loose, comfortable; she has never felt quite so aware of her body in her own home as she is right now. It’s taken years to feel truly comfortable, and while she’ll never be as slim as Philippa or Felicity, she likes herself. She likes how she feels, even if it isn’t the beauty her mother so wanted.

When he looks at her, she doesn’t feel shame. She only feels… different. In a warm and pleasant way.

“You look good,” he finishes at last, blinking heavy lashes.

“If not as tan as you,” she quips, trying to control her flush. Humor is her safety, her go-to. She can’t make sense of the way he’s looking at her right now.

A slow smile creeps over his mouth. “It’s nearly summer. Lay out on the roof with me and we can fix that.”

“It’s only April,” she protests, suddenly transfixed by the mental image of Colin in absolutely nothing, standing in the bright summer sunshine on their rooftop. “And raining.”

“You’ll look lovely tan,” he muses, reaching to grab an apple from the fruit bowl on the kitchen table. “Really, you ought to travel, Penelope.”

“One of these days,” she murmurs.

The room is full of crunching sounds as Colin’s teeth make their way around the apple. “Haven’t we talked about it? I could have sworn - “

“Now, now. You don’t want to ruin dinner conversation,” she says easily enough, through the pit of regret burning its way through her belly. She’s never studied abroad, and has only had the rare trip to Paris via the Chunnel, but never anywhere else. Her family’s financial situation, what with her father’s young passing, made such extravagancies difficult.

Colin shrugs and tosses the apple core in the garbage, sinking the shot with ease. “Be prepared to talk my ear off, Featherington. Or it’ll be my mother and her hopes for matrimony,” he teases, reaching for another apple.

“The horror,” she says with a slight smile.

Eloise comes back from her room just then, crowing her success at entrapping both Colin and Penelope into a Bridgerton family dinner. Penelope just sighs and moves back into her room to change into a suitable blouse; one doesn’t show up to dinner at Violet Bridgerton’s home in a ratty jumper.

She can hear Colin laughing at Eloise through her bedroom door. The sound heats her skin, makes her hyper-aware of her nakedness, however brief.

Lord, and he’ll be staying here.

*

The next day, Penelope comes home from work to find Colin at the kitchen table, pouring over a few black leather-bound journals. Dark hair falls across his brow, the tip of his tongue peeking out between his lips. He looks like quite the writer in his grey-lit nook, the rains from yesterday continuing today.

He’s still so utterly handsome, and it quite unsettles Penelope.

His head pokes upward as the front door opens and closes. A wide easy smile crosses his mouth.

“Penelope! Thank god. I’m bored out of my skull.”

Has anyone ever been quite so excited to see her? Penelope isn’t sure. But she likes that it’s Colin here, and not Eloise.

“I do apologize for the lack of entertainment in the flat,” she says lightly as she toes off her rainboots and hangs up her slicker.

Sighing, he closes his notebooks and leans back in his chair. “I would much rather be here than Bruton Street.”

“Your mother must wonder why you’re here and not there,” she says as she moves into the kitchen. Her eyes ache from close editing, her shoulders tense from sitting for hours. She likes her job, but daily news is a depressing, draining thing. Though, the society papers took note of Colin’s return. Where is the fantastic Colin Bridgerton holed up? They asked.

Holed up with plain old Penelope, she thinks ruefully. What a shock it would be.

“Trying to kick me out, Penelope?” he asks with a winning smile.

“Not in the least. Just curious,” she says, rolling her shoulders.

“I like your company,” he says with a shrug. His eyes fix on her unerringly. A flush creeps up her throat.

“Eloise’s? She’ll find that flattering and unbelievable,” she murmurs, leaning against the kitchen counter. “Where is she anyway?”

“Wouldn’t say where she was going,” he says, rising from the table.

Penelope’s brow furrows. Wouldn’t say? Eloise isn’t one for secrets. How peculiar.

“And I meant you, Penelope,” he adds as he approaches her, still eying her strangely.

What an odd day. Penelope tilts her head back as he comes near, watching him carefully. And really, an odd evening last night as well. Dinner had been perfectly lovely, and wonderful Violet Bridgerton, with her youngest girl Hyacinth the only one still at home, had been so pleased with the company of Eloise, Penelope, and Colin. Penelope had sat next to Colin nearly all night, in some way or another, and between the rise and fall of the Bridgertons and their constant banter, they had just… talked. It had been quite nice, to just talk. He’d talked to her almost non-stop last night at dinner, asking her about her job, her sisters, her life; it was all things he knew already, from the monthly emails they exchange while he is away, but still. It felt rather nice to be under his attention.

She’s always liked talking to Colin.

“How long are you staying in the country this time?” she asks as he opens the refrigerator and pulls out two beers. After opening both, he hands her one and leans up against the counter next to her. His shoulder and hip brush hers.

“I don’t really know. Reckon I miss it here a bit,” he says thoughtfully.

She can’t help it. She laughs.

“Why is that funny?” he asks with an answering chuckle.

“God, Colin, you’re paid to travel! It sounds brilliant. And you’re a wonderful writer. Surely, you must have a new destination at hand,” she says, taking a long swallow of her beer.

He blinks, eyes darkening. “You read my writing?”

Now she pauses, the color flushing her cheeks. “I – well – yes, I do,” she stammers out at last. “You’re quite good, Colin. I always feel as if I am there with you, when I read your posts.”

He smiles slightly. “That’s just the thing. I’m nearly always alone,” he says. “It’s bloody hard not having anyone to share it with.”

She tilts her head back and looks at him. “That’s something you could readily fix, I’m sure.”

“Are you?” he teases. “I am very particular.”

She smiles, a little sadly. He must be particular, if he’s let his past girlfriends go so easily. She remembers Cressida, Edwina, Victoria for certain. But Colin takes a special touch, she’s discovered over the years. He can be downright thick-skulled and myopic in regards to his own feelings, and those of his family’s, and he has something of a temper. But he is a good, decent man; smart, well-positioned, funny. He will find a woman who fulfills his needs, she’s sure of it.

He looks at her for a long moment, taking a long swallow of his beer. “You know, your emails keep me sane sometimes,” he says after a pause.

Leaning against the counter, she feels a flush rise on her throat. What the bloody hell does he mean by that?

“You’re such – your personality shines right through. It helps me feel like there’s someone there with me,” he adds, his eyes darkening.

Shrugging, she looks away, into the dark depths of her half-empty bottle. “It’s a pleasure to write to you.”

“Don’t stop,” he blurts out. “If I do end up going away again, I mean,” he amends. “I don’t want you to stop.”

The register of his voice drops near the end. It sends a shudder right down her spine. She wonders how obvious the flush is on her cheeks. “Colin – “

“Of course, if you find something better to do, I’ll understand,” he says lightly.

“I doubt I will,” she murmurs, turning away. She reaches for the handle to the cabinet door, busying her hands with bringing down a bag of rice, and a can of tomatoes. Dinner, she thinks. She must start dinner.

“Penelope, can I help?”

“If you’d like,” she says, studiously avoiding facing him. He still makes her feel like a young bashful awkward girl at garden parties. It’s the strangest thing.

“Rice and tomatoes? Got any onion?”

“Take a look. Have you some favorite recipe?” she asks, reaching for a skillet hanging over the stove.

“Something from Spain – oh, you have chicken! Fantastic,” he says. She can hear the smile in his words.

“Tell me about it,” she says impulsively, glancing at him. “Spain, I mean.”

He pauses just briefly in his emptying of the refrigerator, glancing at her. “I’ve blogged about it, surely.”

“Yes, but I like when you speak of it,” she says hurriedly. “I like hearing your stories.”

A slow bright smile spreads across his face. “All right, then.”

They make a steaming rice pot full of chicken, onion, peppers, tomatoes, cumin and cayenne and a touch of nutmeg, and as it cooks together into something like a stew, he tells her of Spain. Of the Pyrenees, of the Basque region, of the towering hills and the glimmering coasts. She can see everything in her mind’s eyes, and it sets her pulse afire. The urge to pack up and go with him, to tag along on his adventures, is a strange impulse. She swallows it down and listens to every word from his smiling mouth.

It is a pleasant evening. Penelope thinks she could get used to it. That, of course, is the trouble.

*

“What the hell is going on with you and Colin?”

Eloise’s question, in front of her year-younger sister Francesca and Penelope’s youngest sister Felicity, stops Penelope mid-swallow of her vodka soda. The bar is busy, if not crowded; Thursday nights are a popular time out for this neighborhood. All low lights and wood tables and counters, the four of them managed to commandeer a booth near the bar with just enough room for them all; Colin and Francesca’s fiancé Michael linger at the bar, fetching the next round.

“What?” Penelope asks, startled.

Rolling her eyes, Eloise throws a peanut at Penelope. “Come on. He’s been staying with us for two weeks, making no moves to vacate – “

“You must love that,” Francesca, the blue-eyed Bridgerton who was always a bit more reserved and reticent, pipes up with a smirk.

“Shut your mouth,” Eloise retorts. Across from Penelope, Felicity laughs and sips her martini. “And I’m serious. He hasn’t been in the country for this long in years, and he’s not even going out! He’s spending his nights at our flat, cooking and editing with you,” she says to Penelope, eyebrow arched.

Flushing, Penelope leans back in the booth. “We’ve always been friends, El. You can’t be so surprised,” she protests.

Eloise shrugs. “Sure. But he’s never lingered this long before.”

“You just want him out of the flat,” Francesca says with a low laugh.

“That would be a plus,” Eloise says primly, finishing off her beer. “But really, what is going on with you two?”

“Nothing,” Penelope says tightly. “You know we’re just friends.”

“You two are acting like old marrieds,” Eloise counters.

“He does like to sit next you every time we go out,” Felicity pipes up, smiling beatifically.

Penelope shoots her a glare. “This is what, the second time you’ve gone out with us?”

“He looks at you quite a lot,” Francesca adds.

Running a hand over her face, Penelope drains the rest of her drink. The vodka at the bottom of the glass burns on the way down. “Please – please don’t,” she says, glancing at Colin from the corner of her eye. “That crush of mine was years ago, and he doesn’t – “

“Maybe my idiot brother finally grew up,” Eloise says sharply. “But he’s not hanging around our flat for my company.”

“And really, who would?” Francesca adds, and then laughs as Eloise smacks her arm.

“Eloise is getting violent and it’s only eight o’clock. God help us all,” Colin intones as he and Michael return with a fresh round of drinks. Penelope takes hers and starts on it with enthusiasm, glancing around the table as Colin slips into the booth beside her.

“Shut up,” Eloise counters, raising a knowing eyebrow at Penelope.

Truth be told, something does seem peculiar concerning why Colin has been here for so long. He’s mentioned nothing of a new assignment or travel plans, but has made no move to settle into the room ready for him at his mother’s house. He’s spent almost every night at the flat with Penelope (and sometimes Eloise, though that girl keeps disappearing and Penelope can’t figure out where she’s going for the life of her), except for once when he went out with Michael and the elder Bridgerton brothers Benedict and Anthony. And tonight, of course.

It’s been entirely pleasant to have him around. He cleans while she and Eloise are at work, and he’s even fixed some of the nagging small issues around the flat, like the broken hinge on the bathroom cabinet. They spend their evenings making dinner, and sometimes he asks her opinion on his writings, which he’s attempting to fashion into a book of some kind, along the lines of Anthony Bourdain. Less snark, more poetry, she thinks, and it suits. In between, they just… talk.

It’s unfortunate because she thinks she may have fallen in love with him all over again. That will never do.

“When the hell are you leaving the country again?” Eloise demands of Colin, brow furrowing.

“This is the bosom of sisterly sentiment I miss so much when away,” he mutters, and Michael laughs.

“I want my flat back,” Eloise protests.

“It’s not as if you’re there at all anymore anyway,” he counters.

Francesca wheels on Eloise, blue eyes wide with surprise. “Who are you sneaking around with?”

Eloise gapes, reddening terribly. “I’m working late!” she sputters.

As Felicity laughs and Francesca narrows her eyes into an examination of her sister, Penelope suddenly feels the comfortable weight of Colin’s hand on her knee.

“She’s quite twitchy, isn’t she?” he says, his head canted towards hers.

All the color seems to rush to her cheeks. She’s sure he can feel it. “Your reasons as to remaining with us are quite opaque,” she says softly, turning her face towards his.

His eyes are very green in the dim bar lighting. The intensity of them sends a shock of heat right through her. “I’ve been trying to put it into words,” he says after a moment, his thumb shifting back and forth against the seam of her jeans. “But I’m having a bit of trouble.”

The touch of his thumb sends a shiver up her spine, between her legs. She wonders if she’s so drunk she’s imagining it. But this is only her second drink, and his; so…

“I’m glad you’re still here,” she says very softly, emboldened by vodka and the weight of his hand.

His palm slips up her thigh and she wets her lips. “Come with me,” he murmurs before he rises, takes a long swallow of his beer. “I’m having a smoke,” he announces, breaking up his bickering sisters.

Swallowing hard, Penelope sucks down half of her drink before she slides out of the booth to join him. “I’ll come.”

“You don’t smoke,” Eloise says, brow furrowed.

“And I thought you quit!” Francesca levels a glare at Colin.

“I need some air,” Penelope says, grabbing her purse and letting Colin guide her through the bar and towards the front door with a hand on the small of her back. He is broad and tall behind her, his breath warm on her exposed neck. Eloise hollers after them but she’s certain she hears Felicity shush her loudly.

The May evening is balmy and pleasant when they step outside. Penelope edges off to the side, glancing down the quiet streets. It’s mostly residential, their neighborhood in Chelsea; townhouses and flats and small little shops, an Italian restaurant and a sushi café, and this bar. The weeknights are quiet. She tips her head back to look up at the dark skies, clouds wispy through the air, and sighs.

“Penelope.”

She looks at Colin then. He is cigarette-less and somber, his gaze direct and fierce on her.

“You don’t smoke anymore,” she says softly, her heart suddenly beating a hard tattoo against her ribs.

He shakes his head, chestnut hair falling over his brow. That easy half-smile crosses his mouth.

“Come here,” he says, holding out a hand.

Wetting her lips, she takes it. His skin is callused and warm, sending shivers right up and down her arm.

“I just – “ he pauses, shaking his head. “I’m truly at a loss for words.”

“It would help if I had any idea what you were thinking,” she says quietly, watching in a kind of awe as he laces his fingers though hers and bring her hand to his mouth.

The touch of his lips to her knuckles thrills her, relaxes the muscles in her arm. He grazes his teeth against her skin and she swallows hard, stepping closer.

“Please tell me this isn’t just because you’re staying in our flat,” she says, voice pitching up a little desperately.

He shakes his head, eyes bright and glimmering. “Penelope – you’ve always been my friend. I’ve just been so bloody dumb about the rest of it.”

“What’s the rest of it?” she asks. The words tremble between them.

He releases her hand to cup her face between his palms. His fingers slide against her temples and into her hair. Penelope bites the inside of her lip, unable to look away from his dark, heated gaze. The world around them disappears to the small circle of sidewalk they stand in. Her hands fall to his sides, fingers flexing in the cotton of his shirt.

“The rest of it is this,” he murmurs, and leans in to kiss her.

The moment his lips touch hers, she feels her knees melt and a slow shudder of sensation ripple through her belly and between her legs. The nerve endings along her skin come alive. She clutches at his sides and shuts her eyes, parting her lips against his. He kisses her as if he wants to sink inside of her, and she cannot help but echo him, the hollowness within her slowly filling with every touch of his tongue, every nip of his teeth against her bottom lip. Every part of her feels flushed with hunger.

“Colin – if you’re drunk – “ she whispers against his mouth.

When he pulls his mouth away from hers, she opens her eyes. He drags his thumbs along the rise of her cheeks, watching her cautiously. “I’m not. Are you?”

She shakes her head.

Tilting his head, Colin smiles slightly, that crooked honest expression she’s loved since her teen years. “All right then. Can I take you home?”

Slowly, Penelope nods. Colin kisses her quickly once more, and then releases her face only to take her hand once more. As they walk, their fingers interlace. She can feel her pulse in her throat, beating rapidly. This was happening.

The walk home feels interminable. They are quiet, walking side by side, their hands fitting together. She doesn’t dare look at him and break whatever spell is on the night. When they arrive at her building, her fingers tremble as she types in the front door code, as she reaches for her apartment keys in front of their door. He doesn’t let go of her hand, just hovers near her side as she fits the key into the lock.

Abruptly, just as she gets the key in, he leans in and presses his lips to her throat, right at her throbbing pulse. She gasps and he grins against her skin.

“Penelope – “

Before he can say anything else, she turns to him and presses her lips against his, wrapping her arms around his neck. His arms go around her to pull her into his body and the warmth and firmness of his chest nearly shocks her. He turns her into the door and nudges her up against it until her back is against the wood and his hands are on her waist and he’s got a thigh between hers. She can feel his erection against her hip and she wants to shout with joy.

One large hand drops from her waist to the waiting key, and the door disappears from her back. Penelope stumbles back and gasps but Colin follows, keeping an arm around her waist as he edges her into the flat. He kicks the door shut behind him, his lips hunting for hers as they dance their way towards her bedroom, feet tangling as their limbs do.

Once in her bedroom, he shuts the door and flips on the small lamp on her bedside table. She watches him from a few feet away, keenly aware of the jeans draped over her desk chair, the shoes strewn about, the books stacked on her desktop, the silence but for their breathing. In the dim light he looks almost wild, pupils blown and hands clenching at his sides.

“Are – “ she pauses, tossing aside her purse to the floor. “Are you certain?”

At that, he smiles crookedly. “Penelope. You’re the one person I’m certain of. Come here.”

A blush warms her face. She toes off her shoes and in socked feet steps to him. His arms go around her as he kisses her again, and they tumble to her bed with a laugh. She can’t stop to think, to breathe. His hands slip under her blouse and she sucks in a sharp inhale as his bare hands caress her stomach. He straddles her thighs and perches atop her, tugging her blouse up over her head. She raises her arms to help, her hair loose and wavy about her shoulders. She’s never felt beautiful in her every day life, but with Colin watching her, his gaze ravenous, his fingers slipping over the cotton of her bra, she does feel something like it.

Colin lets out a slow breath and lowers himself to her, his elbow propped up near the side of her head. With his free hand, he traces the line of her throat, the rise of her breasts through her bra, the swell of her stomach to the band of her jeans. “You’re so lovely,” he murmurs.

Before she can say a word, he kisses her and touches her through her bra, rubbing the sharp rise of her nipples until she shudders and arches up. She reaches under her back to undo her bra and he helps draw it away, breathing shallow as she reveals more of herself. His mouth traces the curve of her neck, his teeth grazing her collarbones, his tongue tasting the bare line of her sternum. Restless under his touch, she tugs at his shirt and pulls it over his head. They are a mess of hands and clothes as they struggle out of their jeans and he curses as he pulls off his shoes. Naked but for her knickers, she can’t help but laugh softly as he struggles with his shoes, biting her lip.

“Laughing at me?” he asks with a grin, pulling down his jeans and boxers in one go.

She swallows as he reveals himself to her. There are delineated tan lines at his hips where swim trunks would lay, and his thighs are pale against the tan of his calves. His erection bobs at his thigh, ruddy and thick.

“You’re quite handsome, you know,” she murmurs, scooting herself up on the bed and kicking down her quilts. The urge to pull her knees up to her chest and hide the soft curves of her belly and breasts and the thickness of her thighs is strong and she cannot help but do so.

He crawls towards her on the bed and slides his hands over her calves, pushing gently on her raised knees. “I want to see you, Penelope,” he says, voice rough. “You’re beautiful.”

She flushes to the roots of her hair. “I – Colin – “

“Don’t argue,” he retorts.

“I’m not,” she protests.

He raises an eyebrow and rests his hands on her knees. “You are.”

Rolling her eyes, she drops her knees and spreads her thighs. He slides up her body, his bare erection pressed against her inner thigh as he rises over her, his eyes dark. “You fit so well,” he murmurs, holding himself above her on one elbow as his other hand cups her through her knickers, groaning as he feels how wet she is. She shudders and arches up into him as his fingers play with her, slipping under the cotton to touch bare flesh. His fingers circle her clit and she presses her lips together on a moan, pleasure sparking her every nerve.

“Every part of you feels so good,” he blurts out, rocking his hips against her as he teases her. His breath comes in pants against her shoulder as he drops his lips to her skin.

Shivering, Penelope slides her hands through his hair and down the taut line of his back, scraping her nails lightly down the muscled skin. She moans as he edges her higher towards orgasm and skims a hand across his hip to find his erection and wrap her fingers around him to tease him in kind.

A grunt rips from his throat and he hurriedly shoves her knickers down her thighs. She extricates herself from them as he lifts himself off her for a moment, eyes and hair wild and skin flushed. “Do we – condom – “

“I’m on the pill,” she says breathlessly. “And am clean. Are you – “

“Tested last month, all clean. Can I – “

“Yes, Colin – god – “ she moans as he kneels and pulls her up to him, edging her onto his lap. “Please – “

“I do like hearing that out of your mouth,” he murmurs, adjusting them on the bed so he sits against the headboard and she straddles him. “Say it again.”

“Colin!” she says, the sharpness melting into a whimper as he pushes into her. She gasps as he fills her, his one hand on the small of her back and the other guiding his cock, brushing against her wet flesh. She curls her hands around the nape of his neck, feeling the short hairs there.

He pulls her closer. Her knees sink into the bed and she rests her forehead against his, breathing heavily. He is just as strained, his fingers flexing hard into the skin of her back. His thumb circles her clit and she moans as she begins to move. It’s a slow and fraught dance, an echo of the years she pined and they danced around each other. He murmurs to her as he kisses her throat, the curve of her shoulder. She shudders as her orgasm overtakes her, clenching around him as she digs her fingers into his hair and arches her back.

Both his hands come to cup her face as she breathes through the last shivers of pleasure. He pulls her in for a kiss as he thrusts inside her once, twice more. He comes with an exclamation against her lips, his muscles trembling under and around her. He holds onto her as for dear life, panting against her cheek as he falls back against the headboard.

Sweaty and sated, she lies against his bare chest for a brief moment, pressing her nose into the hollow of his throat. His hands stroke through her hair and down her back, tender and careful.

“Good lord,” she murmurs at last.

He chuckles and shifts beneath her. “Brilliant,” he murmurs. “You’re brilliant.”

Lifting herself up, she bites her lip and shifts off of him, wary of her weight on him. He slips from inside her and she shivers at the feel of it. Disheveled, she rises on shaky knees. “I’ll – I’ll be back,” she murmurs, pulling her blouse and knickers back.

Colin watches her with interest as she slips out of her bedroom and towards the loo. The heat of his gaze lingers even as she flushes the toilet and washes her hands, splashing a bit of cool water on her face. What now?

When she comes back to her room, Colin is under the linens and quilt, thumbing through a biography of Jane Austen she had on her nightstand. He smiles when she returns. “Come to bed,” he murmurs, setting the book aside.

She wets her lips and slips into bed as he makes room for her. His arms go around her and he tucks her against his side, her cheek nestled against his shoulder.

“Are you freaking out?” he asks softly.

“No,” she answers, perhaps too quickly. When he doesn’t say anything, she sighs. “Maybe.”

He kisses the crown of her head. “This isn’t just a one-night fling for me, Penelope. You’re important. I want – I want to be with you.”

She raises her head to look at him in the eye, mouth pressed into a questioning line. “Yeah?”

He looks deadly serious. His hand strokes over her loose hair. “Yes. I want to work on my book with you, and talk about your writing, and take you to Italy and Portugal and anywhere else you want to go. Even if it’s just a tour of the United Kingdom.”

Tears smart behind her eyes. She laughs softly and kisses him, her hands resting on his chest.

“I’m sorry it took me too long to figure it all out,” he murmurs between kisses.

“You’re just in time,” she whispers, and sinks into his warm kisses and strong hold.

*

In the morning, Eloise pokes her head into Penelope’s room. Penelope, curled like a spoon in Colin’s hold, cracks an eye open into the morning sunlight at the sound of the door opening and flushes. Thankfully, they are covered to the shoulders.

“Ew,” Eloise hisses, covering her eyes.

Colin throws a pillow at her.

“Ow! Actually quite pleased!” Eloise calls as she retreats back out of the doorway. “Hyacinth wins the bet!”

“The bet?” Penelope mumbles.

Colin curses. “Fucking Bridgertons.”

Laughing softly, Penelope turns in his arms and kisses him. He pulls the quilt over their heads and the outside world disappears, if only for now.

*