At the age of seventeen, Penelope Featherington meets Eloise Bridgerton, and nothing in the world comes more naturally than their friendship.
Penelope’s never had a friend before, not really. Her older sisters are lovely (in their way), but the three of them don’t have very much in common; Felicity is too young to be a true companion, and of course her season has been an utter disaster in every respect, including her interactions with the other girls. But with Eloise, she talks as if she’s thinking out loud, and Eloise always understands exactly what she means to say. There are no uncomfortable pauses or awkward silences or double meanings or poorly hidden barbs. Simply two girls sharing their thoughts and hopes and dreams and quite a bit of laughter.
They even dance together; Penelope is out in society, but Eloise still undergoes lessons with a dance master to ensure she’s perfected what she needs to know for her debut next year. The brothers of hers who still live at home endeavor to be impossibly occupied whenever those lessons are scheduled, so more often than not it’s Penelope who stands in for her partner, which means that more often than not, lessons end with the two girls collapsed into giggles and Monsieur Lafarge throwing his hands up in despair and muttering under his breath in French.
“Why do I even need a season?” Eloise jokes, beaming at Penelope after they’ve recovered from their mirth, sprawled next to each other on the sofa in a terribly unladylike manner. “I’ve clearly already found the best dance partner I could hope for.”
“I wish I could say the same,” Penelope says in mock mournful tones; Eloise hits her with a pillow, and they dissolve into helpless laughter once more.
For the next four years, Penelope’s dreams are of Colin, his beautiful face and his devastating eyes, but her days are full of Eloise and the other Bridgertons. She doesn’t think that she can be blamed for preferring them to her own family; they’re kinder, easier to talk to, even smarter (Penelope feels terribly cruel for even thinking it, but really, it’s true). Their home is lovely and welcoming, and Lady Bridgerton—Violet—has always treated Penelope like one of her own, ever since she and Eloise became best friends.
So it’s not unusual for her to spend plenty of time at Number Five, Bruton Street, and it’s not unusual for her to run across the elder three Bridgerton brothers standing near the door of their mother’s home, talking.
And considering Penelope’s luck, it’s also not unusual for her to overhear something terribly uncomplimentary to herself.
“…and I am certainly not going to marry Penelope Featherington!”
The words hurt more than she would have believed possible. She hadn’t thought, not truly, that she still had any hope left about her prospects with Colin—and yet, there it is, recognizable for its absence.
Still, to her everlasting pride, she manages to say the right thing in response to the terrible situation, make a dignified exit, and depart—if on the arm of a Bridgerton brother with whom she’s not hopelessly in love.
As they arrive at her house and they pause at her doorstep, Anthony turns to Penelope. “This likely isn’t my place to say,” he says quietly, but his face is grave and earnest, and whatever words may follow, Penelope knows he means them well.
“I am sure that… that you wish to be out of the company of others right now,” he says, and his face and voice are so sympathetic she wants to cry, even more so than she already did. It ought to be humiliating, but something about him is so reassuring, so paternal. He’s had a lot of practice, she knows, figuring out the right thing to say to his younger siblings in times of pain.
“But if I may give you a piece of advice: once that mood passes, I believe you ought to seek out Eloise. I think you would benefit from seeing her again.”
Penelope blinks at him. Whatever advice she was expecting, it certainly hadn’t been that. “I only just saw her,” she tells him slowly, as if concerned that he might have forgotten exactly where they came from.
A little smile quirks the corner of Anthony’s mouth, small and soft. “I often find,” he says, sounding a little wistful, “that even when I desire a moment alone, or feel I require time away from my wife—I miss her within minutes, and welcome the chance to see her again.”
Penelope blinks again, now utterly confused. She wonders if this has shifted to a different conversation, one she wasn’t at all aware of having. “That is understandable,” she says, still in that same slow tone. “She is your wife. But—Eloise isn’t mine.”
Anthony stays still for a moment, as if lost in thought, then focuses his gaze on Penelope again, smile still on his face. “Of course,” he murmurs, giving her a polite little nod. “Hardly the same thing. However, I’d beg your indulgence in at least considering the idea.”
Penelope nods, still bewildered, and says, unsure of what else to do, “Thank you for accompanying me home.”
“It was my pleasure, I assure you,” Anthony says, and Penelope watches him leave, then steps inside and gives in to the urge to cry.
And when she’s done, to her surprise, she finds herself thinking that seeing Eloise again quite soon might be just the thing, after all.
“I must say I’m looking forward to meeting your Miss Featherington,” Sophie says as she dresses Eloise’s hair. It has to be said that as lady’s maids go, she isn’t terribly accomplished at this particular task, at least in technical terms; somehow she’s never able to master complicated or elaborate hairstyles, and the curling tongs seem to impossibly elude her. But whatever simple style she produces always manages to look lovely, fresh and elegant, and the one ball Eloise has attended since Sophie began to serve them had netted her multiple compliments on her hair, so she certainly does not mind.
Eloise smiles at Sophie in the mirror. “I must say I’m looking forward to introducing you two. I’m certain you’ll like her.” She isn’t sure why she’s certain of this; it isn’t as if Penelope is universally admired, although of course Eloise fervently believes she ought to be. But she thinks Sophie will appreciate Penelope’s wry humor, subtle observant tendencies, and quick intelligence. Most women wouldn’t worry about their dearest friends and their lady’s maids getting along, but she likes Sophie a great deal, and her opinion of Penelope will certainly matter to Eloise.
“Any woman you hold in such high esteem must be someone quite special,” Sophie says, and Eloise feels a little lump in her throat. “What a lovely thing to say, Sophie,” she murmurs, suddenly emotional.
“Oh, hush,” Sophie replies, lightly poking Eloise’s shoulder with the handle of her hairbrush, and both of them giggle, the seriousness of the moment successfully dissolved.
“Tell me more about Miss Featherington,” Sophie says after a moment, pulling up a few sections of Eloise’s hair, twisting them back and reaching for pins to fasten them to the back of her head. “Lady Bridgerton says you’ve been friends ever since you came out?”
Eloise smiles faintly at her first memory of Penelope. She had been heavier than she is now, more prone to flushing and spots, and still dressed in colors that did absolutely nothing for her complexion. But so kind, so ready to befriend Eloise at first sight—and, as Eloise quickly learned, not at all ready to spare her from her sharp wit, her shrewd insights, and her far-too-perceptive comments on just about everything.
“It feels like a lot longer,” Eloise admits. “It’s hard to believe we haven’t been friends all our lives. I’m closer to her than even Francesca. She understands me as no one else does. I can talk to her about anything at all. It’s as if we can read each other’s minds sometimes—she can guess what I’d think about most things, and I can often predict what she’d say about most things. That’s why I’m certain she’ll like you, too.”
Sophie’s smile is wistful as she pulls the rest of Eloise’s hair back in a low pony’s tail. The more casual style would never be appropriate in a ballroom, but for tea with family and close friends, it’s perfect. Eloise tells her so, and Sophie smiles again. “It sounds lovely,” she says, turning the subject back to Eloise and Penelope’s friendship. “Having someone who knows you so well. To whom you can turn for anything.”
“I can,” Eloise says softly. She already can’t imagine her life without Penelope; she’s assumed for years that they would be friends forever. Even after she marries, she has to believe Penelope will be just as present in her life. “No subject is too minor for her if it’s important to me. And she always says exactly the right thing.”
“The world seems a better place for you because she’s in it,” Sophie says, now sounding a little dreamy. “Just knowing her makes you a better person, because she’s so good.”
Eloise tips her head up, a little startled. “Yes,” she says slowly, “that’s it exactly.” She’s never thought about it that way, but—both of those things are certainly true. Still, it seems as if Sophie has lost herself in thought and might perhaps be talking about what someone else is to her, rather than what Penelope is to Eloise.
Sophie starts, flushing in embarrassment as she meets Eloise’s eyes. “Forgive me,” she says softly, flustered. “I—I don’t know what came over me.”
Eloise certainly has some suspicions in that vein, but she’s going to keep those to herself for now (and perhaps her mother later). “No apologies necessary,” she says, tone brightening now. “At any rate, you and Penelope are certain to get along. Do you think you’re ready to head down soon?”
Sophie is still looking more than a little flustered, but she’s also now looking at Eloise a little strangely, as if on the brink of saying something, or as if something about Eloise looks different. She thinks about mentioning it, but Sophie’s now plastering a bright, obviously false smile on her face. “Yes,” she says, giving Eloise’s hair a final adjustment. “I believe so. Let’s meet your Miss Featherington. I truly can’t wait.”
…while I am certain my letters can only provide so much solace, dearest Francesca, I do appreciate your indulgence in pretending that they have played a significant role in your recovery. I can so easily imagine you at your escritoire, tipping your chin up just a little, looking amused as you think, “Ah, Eloise will never stop trying if I don’t pretend to be cheered by her letters. I must allow her some measure of false success.”
(Did that make you laugh? I admit I’m trying very hard. Even a moment of laughter in your day might help you.)
I must admit the end of your letter confused me somewhat. I may have misinterpreted your words—you can be as inscrutable in your letters as you are in person—but it seems to me as if you believe I would know what it was like to have someone in my life with whom I am always in accord, whose thoughts I can all but read, who knows me better than I know myself, as you did with John. I cannot imagine who you would mean; the only person outside of the family it might describe is Penelope, and surely you don’t believe that the relationship you shared with your husband is akin to that of mine and Penelope’s. It’s certain I’ve misread you, but I needed to ask you to clarify, just to be certain…
—from Eloise Bridgerton to her sister, Francesca Bridgerton Stirling, about a year after the death of her husband, the Earl of Kilmartin
“I can’t believe Penelope told Lady Danbury that she believes she could be Lady Whistledown,” Hyacinth says after Penelope, Kate, and Colin have left Number Five and Violet has shooed her daughters out to their rooms to rest before tonight’s ball. “To her face!” She sounds awed, delighted, a little bit stunned, and more than a little bit full of hero worship.
To be honest, Eloise can’t quite believe it either. She fully believes that Penelope would think it; it’s exactly the kind of clever thing her mind would leap to, that Lady Danbury would propose the game as a way of throwing others off of her scent, all the while keeping herself free of suspicion. And she isn’t surprised that Penelope would share the theory with them, more as a way of reveling in its possible cleverness than of showing off her own.
But she can’t believe that Penelope would actually say so to Lady D’s face. That goes against every aspect of the Penelope Eloise thought she knew—the Penelope who, among people she trusts and loves, is endlessly witty, highly intelligent, and just a little cynical, but whose tongue is often tied in crowds, who hates being the center of attention. She can only imagine, she thinks in deep sympathy, just how profoundly Penelope must have hated the stares that would have followed her pronouncement.
She has to admit she’s quite proud of her, doing something Eloise never dreamed she could. She’s certain it shows a stronger character than most of the ton possesses.
“I know,” she finds herself saying, her pride plain in her voice, as if it’s due to her that Penelope is so accomplished when all she’s really done is be herself. “Isn’t it lovely?”
“Quite,” Hyacinth agrees firmly, still beaming. “You’re so lucky.”
“To know her?” Eloise asks quizzically, turning to face Hyacinth. “But so do you. I’d wager she even believes the two of you are friends as well, although of course not quite as close.”
“No,” Hyacinth agrees, her tone suspiciously hearty, as if she’s enjoying a joke at some sort of double meaning in the words. “Certainly nowhere near as close.”
Eloise’s eyes narrow in suspicion. “Hyacinth Bridgerton,” she says, slow and dubious, “what on earth are you talking about?”
Hyacinth gives her a strange look, then her expression shifts, slowly, halfway between incredulity and delight. “You don’t know,” she says, sounding both appalled and ecstatic. Eloise would believe Hyacinth were funning her if she didn’t look so genuinely pleased by the situation.
“You actually don’t know,” Hyacinth is saying, still sounding as if she can’t decide between shock or joy. “This is the single greatest moment of my life. I can say for certain that I have never felt more intelligent, and given my intelligence, that’s saying quite a great deal.”
Eloise scowls. There is genuinely nothing worse than knowing less than one’s obnoxious little sister—except, she supposes, knowing less than one’s obnoxious little brother. Thank goodness Gregory is off at Eton and thus can’t know things Eloise doesn’t (apart, of course, from what’s being taught there, which is something she’s often angry about, but at the moment isn’t pertinent).
“Hyacinth,” Eloise says, as patiently as she can possibly make herself, “I am going to give you one more chance to tell me what you’re going on about.”
But Hyacinth just beams at her, far too innocent to be genuine, and all she says is, “If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m certainly not going to ruin the surprise for you.” And she shoots Eloise a sunny smile and sails out of the room, with Eloise completely bewildered in her wake.
Penelope can’t believe how today is going. First Colin calls on her—Colin! In her home!—to discuss a potential problem with Eloise—and now he’s telling her that he thinks Eloise is Lady Whistledown.
For many, many reasons, it’s an absolutely absurd thing to suggest.
“Eloise?” she asks, unsure if she’s heard him correctly, and he nods. “She can’t be.”
She watches as he stands and begins to pace back and forth. “Why not?”
For the briefest, giddiest moment, Penelope contemplates saying “Because I am.” She allows herself to enjoy the purely unrealistic image of his shock and disbelief and awe and delight. And then she actually says, “Because… because… because there is no way she could have done that for ten years without my knowing.”
Colin eyes her a little dubiously, but to her surprise, he doesn’t question this. While Penelope knows for a fact that Eloise could not possibly keep a secret of that magnitude from her for so long—not to mention that she also knows for a fact that Eloise isn’t Lady Whistledown—Colin is so tenacious, she would expect him to question the issue a little further.
Instead, though, he lays out his evidence, and if she weren’t the only person in London with proof positive of Lady Whistledown’s identity, it would seem damning indeed. But she tries to make it seem as if she isn’t convinced, solely on the basis of just knowing Eloise that well.
“Listen to me,” Colin insists as he almost-fully shuts the door, which is enough to tell Penelope that what’s on his mind is very, very serious indeed.
Still, she attempts to distract him. “Don’t you want something to eat?”
He does, of course (it’s Colin, after all), but he finishes the cheese in record time, then says, “Even if Eloise isn’t Lady Whistledown—and mind you, I still think she could be—it doesn’t matter. Because if I suspect she’s Lady Whistledown, then surely someone else will as well.”
“Your point being?” she asks, and Colin’s brow furrows, his expression uncommonly serious.
“You must speak to her,” he says, soft and grave. “Get her to see sense.”
It’s the last thing on earth Penelope expected him to say. “I beg your pardon?”
“She can’t be behaving so suspiciously,” he says, and he looks so intense, as if he might reach for Penelope at any minute. She can’t tell, under the circumstances, if she wants him to or not. “If someone points his finger at her, she’ll be ruined. No one can suspect her. You have to tell her so that she can protect herself, regardless of whether she is Whistledown or not.”
Penelope stares at him, bewildered. “Why are you asking me?” she demands, incredulous. “You have six other siblings. You could ask your mother. What makes you believe Eloise would listen to me over any of you?”
“Because—” Colin begins, sounding impatient, and then he breaks off and he stares at her, more closely than he ever has before, so closely that she begins to grow slightly uncomfortable under the intensity of his gaze. How many times has she dreamed of Colin looking at her like this? Circumstances being what they are, though, it’s far less romantic than she might have imagined.
“She would listen to you,” Colin says at length, lacing his fingers together, gaze still focused on Penelope. “More than anyone in the family. She values your opinion highly. If you impressed upon her the seriousness of her situation—”
“But I don’t believe it’s all that serious at all,” Penelope puts in, feeling deeply off-balance at how surreal this day has become so quickly. She’s never seen Colin in a mood like this, and she would have said as of this morning that she knows him better than anyone else. She knows his tone seems to be implying something past what he’s actually saying, but for the life of her she has no idea what it could be. “She isn’t Lady Whistledown.”
“But how could she prove it?” Colin shoots back. “Once a rumor is started, the damage is done. It develops a life of its own.”
“Colin,” Penelope attempts, doing her best to sound patient and understanding, but he breaks in again.
“Eloise trusts your word and values your opinion above all others.” He pauses after this pronouncement, again as if he’s trying to say something else, something beyond the surface meaning of the words. “Do you understand that? Do you realize what that means?”
“Yes,” Penelope says, bewildered. “Of course I do. And I’m aware of what we mean to each other, Colin. We’ve been best friends for eleven years.”
Colin looks at her for a moment as if expecting her to say more—what, she wonders in confusion, could there possibly be left to add?—and when it becomes clear that she isn’t going to, he huffs out a breath and glances briefly upward, as if praying for strength. “Penelope,” he says slowly, and then he shakes his head. “Never mind.”
Penelope loves him more than she can bear, but she thinks she might strangle him. “Colin,” she says, with the very thin strand of patience left to her. “You haven’t made a scrap of sense since you came in here today. Will you please tell me what you’re talking about?”
Colin sighs, covering his face with his hands for a moment. When he lifts his head, he looks a little calmer, though he’s still looking at Penelope with an expression she’s never seen before. “I’m sorry, Penelope,” he says at length. “I’m—obviously not myself. It appears I’m not immune from society’s Whistledown fever.”
He gives her a reasonably good approximation of his usual cheerful, slightly sheepish smile, but Penelope knows him too well to believe it’s genuine. “It’s all right,” she says, knowing she sounds more than a little impatient. “But Colin, what is it?”
He rubs his temple with his fingertips, sighing. “I truly am worried about Eloise,” he says, and now he sounds as if he means it. “I told you—if I suspect her, someone else surely must.”
“But she isn’t Lady Whistledown,” Penelope repeats again, as calmly as she can. “I’m sure of it, Colin.”
He huffs out another long sigh. “I suppose you would know better than anyone else. I truly don’t believe Eloise could hide something like that from you.” And before Penelope can question that assertion further, because it seems like another statement rife with double meaning, he’s adding, “But if she is accused, the truth won’t help. Would you talk to her about it anyway? Make certain she isn’t behaving suspiciously?”
Penelope suppresses the urge to point out that she’s fairly certain Colin is the only person who would characterize Eloise’s behavior that way, and says instead, playing along, “Wouldn’t it be even more suspicious if she suddenly changed her behavior, just as society is trying to decide who might be Lady Whistledown?”
Colin blinks at her as if she’s speaking another language—then, after a long moment, he begins to laugh, sounding so genuinely amused that Penelope finds herself smiling, too.
“Penelope Featherington,” he says, slow and appreciative, “I can’t believe how grateful I am that Eloise has you. You are everything she needs.”
It’s, Penelope thinks, a bit of a strange thing to say, even by the standards of this very strange conversation, but it floods her chest with warmth regardless. She likes to think that she and Eloise work well together for those reasons—that she’s levelheaded where Eloise is impulsive, that Eloise is stubborn where Penelope is diplomatic, that Eloise is outgoing where Penelope is quiet, that their senses of humor and wit mesh well together. It pleases her that it’s something Colin has noticed, and that he appreciates that that’s the way it is.
“Thank you,” Colin says, giving her the warmest smile she’s ever seen on his face, and he grabs several scones from the platter of food before getting to his feet to head out the door, before Penelope can even ask him what he’s thanking her for.
After that particularly unusual conversation with Colin, Penelope doesn’t see him for a few days. And it’s very well, too, as she’s preoccupied with the precise wording and timing of the publication of the last Whistledown column.
It’s time, she’s decided. It’s already gone on far longer than she ever dreamed it would, as a terribly awkward debutante who had only invisibility and talent with a quill and a turn of phrase to her advantage. And truly, she can’t let society’s insistence on discovering her alter ego’s identity spoil anyone’s life. She thinks of it in generalities, but the truth is that Eloise is at the heart of it. Colin’s suspicion troubled her enough to make her seriously consider the consequences, and while nothing in the world could make her regret the body of writing she’ll always think about with warmth and pride, she would never forgive herself if her life’s work ruined her dearest friend.
Of course she expected the final column to be the talk of the Macclesfield ball, but it’s still a little overwhelming. Especially in the presence of Lady Bridgerton and Hyacinth, who are reminding her of the strange way Colin was acting and of how concerned she is upon hearing that Eloise isn’t feeling well and that she’s quarreled with Colin (about Whistledown, Penelope thinks? If so, she’s done a very good thing indeed by ending it, though perhaps not the wisest action in terms of discouraging Colin’s theory).
But then Lady Danbury approaches her, offering the perfect escape, and Penelope finds herself a little distracted as she sees someone she thinks might be Colin, but isn’t—she finds herself looking forward to seeing him, not because of her usual joy at his presence, but just to see how he’s reacting to the Whistledown column. To hear his thoughts and to see if she can direct them away from suspicion about Eloise.
She’s jerked back to attention, though, by Lady Danbury’s comment about fine wines, and of course she has to murmur something about being distracted, and to her surprise, Lady Danbury’s expression softens just a little as she says, “She isn’t here.”
Penelope’s eyes fly to Lady D’s. “What?” she asks blankly, too startled to be polite.
“She isn’t here,” Lady Danbury repeats, sounding a little impatient, and looking even more so when Penelope continues staring at her, bewildered. “The middle Bridgerton sister, the one who’s always attached to your hip. E, isn’t it? She isn’t here.”
Penelope blinks a few more times, not even sure where to begin processing these statements. “Eloise,” she says after a moment. “I know. She isn’t feeling well. I wasn’t looking for her.”
“You weren’t? Hmmph.” Lady Danbury looks rather put out, for reasons Penelope can’t begin to fathom. Likely she just hates being wrong, but why had she assumed that Penelope was searching for Eloise? If she’d arrived, it would have been in the company of her mother and sister—whose own company Penelope had recently vacated, so she would of course know very well that Eloise wasn’t present.
But before she can begin to figure out how to ask any follow-up questions, Lady D demands, “Then who were you looking for? Oh, don’t tell me—her brother, no doubt.”
Penelope feels her face heat, even as she wonders why on earth Lady Danbury sounds so disappointed. Though she shouldn’t be quite so obvious about it, of course, so she feels compelled to add, “We spoke about Whistledown several days ago. I—I wanted to hear his thoughts on the final column.”
“Of course you did,” Lady D mutters, and as if making a decision, she turns abruptly back to Penelope. “The older I get,” she says, “the more I realize that most of the people in this world are fools.”
It’s an unexpected beginning to a conversation that slowly becomes more and more unexpected; Penelope leads the countess to two nearby chairs to continue it, requesting that a passing footman bring them some lemonade, and soon Lady Danbury is saying that she likes Penelope and wants to see her happy.
“But I am happy,” Penelope protests, and Lady Danbury arches an eyebrow and asks, quietly, “Are you?”
And Penelope realizes, as she never has before, that contentment isn’t the same thing as happiness. And she finds herself wondering for the first time what it would take for her to respond to Lady Danbury’s question in the affirmative—and if such a thing would be within her reach.
“I like you, Miss Featherington,” Lady D is saying now. “You remind me of myself. You’re not afraid to speak your mind.”
Penelope stares at her in shock, because surely a less accurate assessment of her personality has ever been spoken. “I don’t think I know how to speak my mind,” she manages at last. “I never know what to say to people.”
“You know what to say to me,” Lady Danbury points out.
“You’re different,” Penelope shoots back, and Lady D laughs, long and hard.
“You never seem to have trouble speaking to what’s-her-name,” she says once she’s done. “That middle Bridgerton. E-something.”
Penelope grins at her reproachfully. “You know very well her name is Eloise. And—I suppose I don’t.” It’s been one of the loveliest things about their friendship, that from the very beginning, she’s never felt as if she’s had to be anyone but herself with Eloise, since the person she is seems to please her friend so much. They just fit. “I’ve often felt quite at ease with all of the Bridgertons.”
“She’s your favorite, though,” Lady D points out, and Penelope can’t imagine why the statement makes her flush.
“I suppose,” she murmurs, bewilderingly flustered about it, and the countess chuckles, patting Penelope’s hand.
“Penelope,” she says, “I hope you don’t mind if I call you by your given name—and I hope you don’t mind my giving you two pieces of advice.”
“Could I possibly stop you?” Penelope murmurs teasingly, and Lady Danbury cackles in delight.
“I always knew I liked you. Well, first, you never ought to underestimate the value of people to whom you can speak your mind.” Her expression is glittering with a certain weight, and Penelope would think, given what she’d said earlier, that Lady D is just paying herself a compliment, were it not for the barely suppressed emotion in her voice. For the life of her, though, she can’t detect what the significance of it might be.
Still, she can’t miss the fact that Lady D clearly finds the words highly important, and Penelope wants to listen to them. Especially when she goes on to say, “And second, whatever it is you require to be happy—you oughtn’t let anyone or anything stand in your way. Find what it is, Penelope, and don’t allow what society deems right or proper stop you from chasing it.”
Penelope feels a swell of emotion in her chest, realizing that she was just thinking the same thing—and at the same time, not knowing at all where to begin, or what Lady Danbury could be referring to by speaking in such meaningful tones.
“Do you know what I mean?” the countess says, speaking so softly Penelope has to lean in a little to be able to hear her, and with such intensity that it quite steals Penelope’s breath.
So she’s a little ashamed to have to admit, quietly, “No—I’m sorry, Lady Danbury, I really don’t.”
Lady Danbury sits back a little, looking faintly disappointed, but she reaches out to pat Penelope’s hand again nonetheless. “You’ll figure it out,” she says softly, unusual warmth in her tone, sounding so confident in Penelope it nearly breaks her heart. “You’re an intelligent young woman, and I’d like to see you settled. I know you have what you need to make it happen.”
And before Penelope can inquire further, or tell Lady Danbury exactly what her faith and warm words mean to her, the countess is craning her neck towards some commotion near the musicians’ dais, and she asks, “Hmmm… I wonder what is going on.”
The knock on Eloise’s door is the last thing she wants to hear, but she knows that she can’t object without seriously raising her family’s suspicions, especially when she hears her mother’s voice at the door calling, “Eloise? May I come in?”
“Of course,” Eloise calls, barely managing to suppress a sigh. If Violet is interfering, there isn’t the slightest chance Eloise is going to be left in peace until her mother’s figured out exactly what’s wrong.
And, really, it’s not so much that anything’s wrong. It’s just that things don’t quite… feel right. Between how strange her family’s been acting and Colin’s bizarre accusations the other day, things feel strange, off-balance. And spending any time among the ton, under the circumstances, just didn’t appeal to her at all.
But, well, there’s no chance that she can plead something being wrong with her family without it resulting in an investigation. She could only hold off Hyacinth for so long, and her mother can’t be put off in the least.
Violet enters Eloise’s room, closing the door behind her, and sits down on the bed, opposite the desk where Eloise is perched. She’s put away her letters for the day, but her fingers are still stained with ink, which reminds her of Colin’s accusations, which puts her all out of sorts again. Still, she manages to smile faintly at her mother, as reassuringly as possible. “I’m feeling much better, Mother. I appreciate your concern, but—”
“Eloise,” Violet says, her tone gentle but firm. “Will you please tell me exactly what it is that’s bothering you?”
And Eloise, of course, crumbles. Her mother is so, so good at this. She can only hope she might one day be half as good of a mother to her own children. She sighs as she shifts to properly face Violet, her posture slumping.
“I had a very unusual conversation with Colin the other day,” she says, slow and resigned. “It wasn’t an argument, I don’t think, but—”
She pauses, unable to quite put it into words. She doesn’t want to reveal too much of the conversation, strange though it was—Colin had seemed on edge but earnest, imploring her to take care of her reputation in a way he never has before, and the emphasis was on—
“It’s all right,” Violet says, reaching out to rest her hand over Eloise’s. “Only tell me what you want to.”
Eloise smiles shakily, and she finds herself blurting out, “It was about Penelope. A lot of it. And I don’t—I don’t understand what it was he meant to say.”
He had accused her of being Lady Whistledown, and when she had denied it, he’d said it didn’t matter—that someone else was sure to suspect her, too, and that she needed to take more care with what she was doing, to protect herself from the rumors that were likely to spring up, because if he had noticed them, someone else was sure to as well.
Think of Penelope, he’d said, much to Eloise’s bewilderment. What will happen to her if your reputation is ruined? How can you do this to her?
“He seemed to think that if—if my reputation were to be ruined in any way—not that it’s likely to be,” she adds hastily, as Violet goes pale. “But if it were—he thought it would affect Penelope deeply. That she would be as hurt as I would. And she’s—she’s my dearest friend, of course, but I can’t—I couldn’t imagine why he would believe that that would be a convincing argument over any other.”
Violet studies Eloise for a moment, her expression inscrutable but sympathetic. She squeezes Eloise’s hand, but she doesn’t speak for a long moment, long enough to make Eloise a little nervous.
Eventually she speaks, slowly, tentatively, a little uncertain. “Do you know why I haven’t said a word about your rejection of six proposals of marriage?”
Eloise raises both eyebrows. While her mother has in fact been extraordinarily patient with Eloise’s lack of marital success, that is absolutely not how she would characterize Violet’s reactions.
To her credit, Violet looks a little embarrassed. “Very well, I wasn’t precisely silent on the subject, but—I knew that none of those men were right for you.”
Eloise smiles, faint and affectionate. She’s always been grateful that her mother has been so understanding, her protests notwithstanding—surely no mother is meant to be happy that her daughter is a spinster. “I always thought that might be it,” she murmurs. “If I had wanted a marriage based on factors other than love, you would have supported me. But you’ve always wanted love matches for your children, and I am so grateful that you have never tried to push me towards anything else.”
Violet smiles, squeezing Eloise’s hand again, but she looks—well, not quite embarrassed, but close. As if she isn’t certain how to say what she wishes to say next. “There was another reason as well,” she says at length, raising her other hand to cover Eloise’s, as if to steady herself.
Eloise frowns faintly, unsure of what’s coming next. “What was it?” she asks.
Violet pauses, then takes a deep breath, closing her eyes for a moment. “I rather thought,” she says, “that it was possible that you had—already met someone about whom you—you felt strongly. And that no man you might meet in society could match those feelings.”
Eloise’s mouth drops open. “What?” she demands blankly. “Who?”
Violet’s expression softens, into sympathy so deep it’s almost pity. “Oh, Eloise,” she murmurs, and Eloise has never been more confused in her entire life. “You truly don’t know?”
“No,” Eloise exclaims, impatient. “What are you talking about?”
“Penelope,” Violet finally says, and Eloise practically falls off of her chair in shock.
“Penelope?” she exclaims, and Violet nods, looking surprisingly calm. “Mother,” she says, unable to believe it, “you cannot possibly mean this.”
“Why not?” Violet asks, as if this is a perfectly normal conversation to be having.
“Why not?” Eloise echoes, incredulous, as she shoots to her feet, pacing from one end of the room to the other in swift, nervous strides. “Mother—” She can’t believe she’s having this conversation. She can’t believe she actually has to say this. “Penelope is a woman.”
Violet nods, looking quite unruffled. “I know you’re—in many ways—still an innocent about so many things.” Her gaze shifts away from Eloise’s in embarrassment, her words growing more halting. “But you—you ought to know that such a thing is possible. Between—between two men or two women.”
“Really?” Eloise stops in her pacing, momentarily diverted. She’s never so much as considered such a thing. She wonders if she’s ever met anyone in society with such an inclination.
Violet nods again, still flushed. “I’m not one to engage in baseless society gossip,” she lies blatantly, “but I’ve even heard—well, in her youth, Lady Danbury caused a bit of a stir when—”
“Lady Danbury?” Eloise demands, stunned. She knows the countess is unconventional, and likely had been so even in her youth, but she never, ever would have expected that.
“I’m getting off topic,” Violet mutters, face red as she waves a hand dismissively through the air. “My point is—Eloise, I don’t believe you could ever find a gentleman about whom you feel the way you feel about Penelope. She is the one you wish to spend the rest of your life with. When you talk about being a spinster, it’s always under the assumption that you’ll forever be in her company. She is your closest, dearest friend. Who could you ever love more?”
“But that’s—that’s different,” Eloise splutters, still unable to quite fathom that this entire conversation is real. “I love Penelope, of course, more than nearly anyone, but I’m not—it isn’t the same.”
“Why not?” Violet asks, implacable, and Eloise stammers out an unintelligible reply. She can’t believe her mother doesn’t understand. It isn’t the same. It just isn’t.
“Eloise,” Violet says, patting the chair again, and Eloise sinks back down into it, feeling more than a little shell-shocked. Her mother takes her hand again, and her tone is much softer this time as she says, “What is it that you’ve been looking for in a potential husband?”
Eloise huffs a deep breath. Good. This is good. They can discuss this logically, and then Violet will understand just how mad this whole endeavor is. “Well,” she says slowly, “I would like someone who… who understands me. Who knows my sense of humor and who realizes that I talk too much when I’m nervous—and who can calm me when it happens. Who balances my love for company with a love for solitude, and who can make intelligent conversation with me. Who can be my strength when I’m weak, and for whom I can be the same. Someone who’s kind and generous and understands what family means to me—who would always put our own family first. Who could always cheer me and make me smile. And who would—who would love me. Truly love me, the way Father loved you, the way Anthony and Benedict and Daphne and—well, what Francesca had.” A pang tears at Eloise’s heart at the memory of her widowed sister, and she sighs softly, gazing at a spot on the floor, missing the knowing expression on Violet’s face.
“Eloise,” her mother says again, even gentler this time. “Can you tell me which of those criteria aren’t met in full by Penelope?”
Eloise opens her mouth to deny it, but finds, much to her horror, that she can’t—that her mother is completely right.
“No,” she says weakly, turning her wide-eyed gaze back to her mother’s wise, understanding one. “No. It’s—it’s different.”
“How?” Violet asks, and Eloise finds herself—for the first time—actually considering it, not just dismissing the notion out of hand as obviously, absurdly out of the question.
The truth is that Violet is right, that Penelope does fulfill most of the expectations Eloise would have for a husband. And the truth is that a great deal of what she expects from a husband is also what she would expect from a friend, and the best friend that she has is—had always been—Penelope.
Eloise realizes that she has never thought of her future as holding anything but Penelope in it. She has, of course, thought about getting married, but as the years went on it became a more and more distant thought, and she began to look forward to retiring with Penelope to a seaside cottage somewhere, becoming marvelous old spinsters together, simply enjoying one another’s company. Even if she were married, she realizes that she has never considered what it might mean for her friendship with Penelope. She has always expected them to go on, much as they always had—and she realizes now that if she were married, that would more likely than not cease to be a possibility.
And the thought quite simply breaks her heart.
She realizes that Penelope is the person she turns to when she needs to feel better—when she has news to share—when she wishes to discuss an idea. She realizes that she relies on Penelope to make her smile and to listen to her thoughts as she does no one else. She realizes that Penelope balances her, that seeing Penelope’s face is often the best part of her day. She realizes that she is a better person for having known Penelope, that there is not a single thing in the world she wouldn’t do for her friend.
And she finds herself thinking of how much lovelier Penelope looks now that she’s able to dress in ways that flatter her complexion, and how beautiful her eyes have always been—an unusual, light shade of brown—and how her hair has always caught the most flattering glints of red, and how proud Eloise has been to watch her grow calmer and more confident in society, not realizing that those things, too, have made her even more beautiful.
And she realizes that if it weren’t for this conversation, she might never have felt any of these realizations—and the thought horrifies her to the core.
Even though she’s sitting, her knees go weak. She slumps back against the chair as it all hits her, all at once. “Oh… my… god,” she breathes, and she knows it’s a mark of great lassitude that her mother isn’t reprimanding her for blaspheming.
She raises both hands to cover her face, expression completely frozen in shock. “I love her,” she says, her voice barely above a whisper. “Penelope. I love her. I love her—so much. How could I ever have thought I could marry someone, with her in my life?”
“You can’t, of course,” Violet says, sounding amused; Eloise raises her head to look at her, and she’s smiling, looking a little wistful and a little smug. “It took me a long time to suspect it, but—I’m glad you’ve figured it out, Eloise. You would have been miserable, marrying someone else and leaving her behind.”
“I would.” Eloise is marveling at it all over again. How could it have taken her so long to realize that what she feels for Penelope is far deeper than she ever could have imagined—so all-encompassing, she can hardly bear it? Exactly the sort of love she’s always dreamed of, and it was right in front of her all along. She’s always known exactly how it would feel because she already had it.
“How did you know?” she asks, her eyes wide as she looks at her mother. “How did—how did you figure it out, even when I didn’t? How did you know to tell me because I couldn’t realize it myself?”
Violet’s smile widens. “As I said, it took me a long time. Years. After you rejected your fifth proposal, I began looking a little more closely. If I were any less worldly, I daresay it would never have occurred to me, but—I have lived with true, real love for years, with a man who was my dearest friend as well as my husband. I have watched the friendship between Daphne and Simon blossom into love, and the bickering between Anthony and Kate, and the accord between Francesca and John, and the—attraction between Benedict and Sophie.” She fans herself briefly, rolling her eyes in mock embarrassment, then fixes Eloise with another soft, warm gaze. “And I realized that you had all of those things in one person, and it wasn’t someone you would ever be likely to marry.”
Eloise is still stunned by the truth of it when Violet continues, “And it was Colin who figured out that you didn’t know. I thought you must have—you spent so much time with Penelope, and you turned down so many marriage proposals without seeming too worried about your future. You seemed to have a plan, to live together as spinsters. I thought you had an understanding. And then you and Colin quarreled, and he told me that he believed you genuinely might not be aware that such a thing was even possible, let alone of your own true feelings. And I decided I had to tell you, in case—in case you needed to be told.”
“I’m so glad you did,” Eloise murmurs fervently, squeezing her mother’s hand. “I might never have realized. I didn’t—” And she looks at her mother again, closely, more critically than she ever has before. “You… how can you be all right with this?” she asks slowly. “I mean, this can’t be—” she fumbles for the words, finally feeling woefully inadequate as she settles on “—well, socially acceptable. I’ve never heard of such a thing. I’ll be—I can’t be—open about it. I could never marry her or anything.” The thought saddens Eloise, but it’s certainly nothing compared to the thought of living with someone other than Penelope, trying to love and cleave to them instead.
Violet looks a little uncomfortable, but she braves through, and it makes Eloise love her all the more. “I admit it’s strange to me—I never expected it to happen to one of my children. But more than anything, I want all of you to be happy, with whatever you choose to make of your lives. I would have supported Benedict if Sophie had remained just a maid, without the adjustment in her status—though I made sure he knew that it would be very, very difficult.” Violet’s gaze is serious as it fixes on her. “And I would make sure to tell you the same thing. Women who live outside of society—spinsters—they are pitied. They are looked down on. They will be whispered about in corners and sometimes even given the cut direct, regardless of your familial connections.”
Eloise nods. It’s nothing with which she hasn’t made her peace, through the last long decade of fruitless seasons. She knows as she gets older, it’ll be worse, and that the gossip would be worse still if she were to stay with Penelope and Penelope alone. But when she thinks about it, she knows that though it’ll be hard—though she’ll miss the embrace of society, the popularity she has always enjoyed along with her other siblings—her family will always be there, and that as long as she has them and Penelope, her life will be full indeed. She doesn’t need anything else, and to live without Penelope would be a sacrifice she can’t imagine making.
“I know,” she says softly, and Violet smiles.
“I know you do. You’re so stubborn.” Her smile widens at Eloise’s faint, startled scowl. “I mean it as a compliment, my love. Anyone who would give up too easily wouldn’t be able to face the troubles that would come with such an unconventional arrangement. But you—you would never let anything stand in the way of what you truly wanted. You seize life with both hands. You would never settle for a life that was less than everything you felt you deserved.”
Eloise smiles, feeling as if she might be on the verge of tears. Her mother always knows exactly what to say, and it makes her feel far more capable of bearing the future she wants than she did a minute ago.
“Thank you, Mama,” she whispers, and she leans forward to give Violet a tight hug. Both of them are more than a little misty-eyed when they pull away, and Eloise says, a little wry, “There’s only one problem now.”
Violet’s eyes are wide. “What is it?”
Eloise laughs, a little hoarse. “What if she doesn’t love me back?”
Violet blinks, startled, then laughs, more out of surprise than anything else, and hugs Eloise again. “Darling,” she says, with so much warmth Eloise nearly bursts into tears right then and there. “I can’t imagine how anyone couldn’t.”
Penelope cannot believe how quickly the day has deteriorated.
It was an errand like any other—going to the church where she always leaves her Whistledown columns in emergencies, an act that’s never been discovered or marked as unusual before. She’s done it dozens of times per year, hundreds of times in her life, and no one has ever found her or so much as suspected that she’s done anything out of character.
And now she’s in Colin’s carriage, with Colin practically seething across from her, and he knows.
Colin, of all people.
Penelope almost can’t bear it. She smoothes the paper on her lap, then refolds it as carefully as she can—anything to avoid Colin’s gaze. She has no idea what to say, and she finally settles on a feeble, joking, “Did you guess?”
Given that the answer is extraordinarily obvious, she isn’t surprised that when she does finally gather the courage to look at him, he’s so angry that his features appear frozen, stuck in a harsh mask she doesn’t recognize at all.
“I’ll take that as a no,” she says weakly.
“Do you know what I am trying to do right now?” Colin all but thunders, and Penelope winces. “I am trying to decide what, precisely, I am most angry with you about. Because there are so many things—so very many things—that I am finding it extraordinarily difficult to focus upon just one.”
He begins by railing at her for taking a hired hack into the City—not that she ever truly worried about it, under the circumstances—and she, of course, manages to distract him right back onto the subject of Whistledown, which is probably the thing he should be angriest about.
And he is angry about it—he’s furious, humiliated and bewildered, and his anger is fully in proportion to the degree of her deception. She’s imagined telling him before, of course, a million times, but she never actually thought she would. So she wants him to understand, more than anything, that she simply couldn’t do it—couldn’t tell anyone, of course, and still doesn’t want to tell anyone, but just cannot let Cressida Twombley, of all people, take the credit.
And though his reaction is understandable, she also doesn’t want to be treated like a child, and she can barely manage to choke out the words, “Do you really think I haven’t spent a good portion of the last ten years of my life contemplating what would happen if I were found out? I’d be a blind idiot if I hadn’t.”
He actually grabs her by the shoulders then, his grip firm and implacable. “You will be ruined, Penelope. Ruined! Do you understand what I am saying?”
“If I did not,” she shoots back, “I assure you I would now, after your lengthy dissertations on the subject when you were accusing Eloise of being Lady Whistledown.”
She intends the words to jar him back into sense, but if anything they actually make him look angrier still. “I think,” he says, his voice low, his tone dangerous, “that that is what makes me angriest of all. That you did not for a moment consider her feelings in this ruse.”
Penelope jerks back, so surprised that she pulls free from his grip entirely. “What?” she asks blankly.
Colin arches an eyebrow, so arrogant and condescending she actually finds herself wanting to hit him for a moment—Colin, the man she’s always adored. “I take it,” he drawls, sarcasm dripping from his every word, “she, too, has no knowledge of your so-called identity?”
She flinches away from the malice in his tone, but she also flinches because he’s right. Eloise has never, to Penelope’s knowledge, kept a single secret from her—she even told her how she and Francesca bribed a maid to tell them the secrets of the marriage bed, before they’d even come out in society. That Penelope has been keeping a secret of this magnitude… that she has never told Eloise, has actively lied to her dearest friend for years…
“Have you spared a single thought for what it would do to her, having you revealed?” Colin’s voice is ice cold, each word delivered with the precision of a blow. “How seeing you ostracized would hurt her—how she would be cut, too, for standing by your side, defending you?”
Penelope blinks as she processes his words, bewilderment beginning to edge out shame. What is he talking about? “Surely Eloise wouldn’t be the only one,” she whispers. “Surely Felicity—and the rest of your family—you wouldn’t abandon me, would you?”
Colin freezes, and for a brief moment his expression softens, just barely. “Of course not,” he murmurs, his tone gruff. “We would never. But—Penelope, Eloise is different.”
Penelope blinks a few more times. “Well,” she says slowly, “I know she’s my dearest friend, but—”
“For God’s sake, Penelope,” Colin finally snaps, as if every last thread of his patience has been broken, “you’re in love with her!”
Penelope tumbles right off of her seat and onto the carriage floor.
“Are you all right?” Colin exclaims, fury forgotten in concern, and leans down right away to help her back up, but once she’s in the seat again she jerks away from him, appalled.
“What are you talking about, Colin?” she demands, barely able to process his words. “I’m—I’m not—what?”
“You’re in love with Eloise,” Colin repeats, tone slow and patient. “And she’s in love with you. I know everyone believed you knew already, based on how you acted together, but it was high time that you were both told—”
“I’m not in love with Eloise!” Penelope exclaims, shock propelling her through the confession. “I’m in love with you!”
There’s a brief, awful moment of silence, in which Penelope curses the day she was born. She cannot believe she just said it—over ten years of pining silently, loving him from afar, she blurts it out just like that, under what must be the strangest circumstances imaginable.
Colin stares at her in stunned silence for just a minute, then his expression melds into something much more considering, and just as the quiet is stretching out long enough to be uncomfortable beyond imagining, he says in a thoughtful tone, “No, I don’t actually think you are.”
Penelope’s mouth drops open. “Excuse me?” she gasps.
“I believe you had strong feelings for me at one point in your life,” he says, as if it’s an issue of academic curiosity and not the second-biggest, most mortifying secret of Penelope’s life. “Possibly you still do. But it’s nothing compared to what you have with Eloise.”
“I—I don’t have anything with Eloise,” Penelope splutters out, then gasps again in realization at what she’s just said. “I don’t mean—I mean, I do—our friendship means the world to me, but—”
“Penelope,” Colin says, his voice firm and, suddenly, far more gentle. He actually takes both of her hands, likely in an attempt to still her rising panic. The gesture makes her heart flutter, though she has to admit it’s more than likely from nerves as much as anything else. “Look at me.”
She does. All trace of anger is gone from his expression, and he looks softer, kinder than Penelope has ever seen him. The expression should make her melt, but she’s too confused, too set off-center, to have any sort of reaction but pure bewilderment.
“Why do you love me?” Colin asks.
Penelope lets out a choked, horrified little noise and forcibly yanks her hands from Colin’s. “Can we discuss any other subject in the world instead?” she exclaims, feeling her face heat.
“Humor me,” Colin says, and though his voice is still soft, there’s an undercurrent of steel to it. Penelope has a feeling she won’t be leaving this carriage until the matter is settled.
So she heaves a huge, anxious sigh as she turns back to him, trying to compose herself as much as possible (knowing it’s, under the circumstances, more than likely impossible). “Well,” she says slowly, reluctant to even attempt putting her secret feelings of over a decade into words, “you’ve always been so—kind. Not just to me; you know how to put anyone at ease. Talking to you always feels so simple.”
Colin nods along, listening intently, and says once she’s done, “The same could be said of Eloise, you know. You clearly have never had any trouble speaking to her, and she’s viewed as being very charming. For reasons far beyond me, naturally.”
Penelope lets out a little snort of laughter, which surprises her. She would have thought herself far beyond amusement at this point. “You also have a wonderful sense of humor,” she adds. “And you’re very intelligent.”
“Much as it pains me to admit,” Colin murmurs, “those are true of my sister as well.”
Penelope realizes what he’s doing, and it infuriates her. However, she finds herself determined to prove Colin wrong. There are reasons she loves him, reasons past the commonality he shares with Eloise. There have to be.
“You’re very dashing,” she says, unable to believe she’s actually getting these words out, to Colin’s face. “You have so much charm—you always know exactly how to behave in any sort of company, under any circumstances—”
“I don’t know if I would describe my sister, or in fact any woman, as ‘dashing,’” Colin muses. “But apart from that—yes, all of those describe Eloise perfectly, too.”
“You’re terribly handsome,” Penelope blurts, desperately. “Your face—your hair—your eyes—all of it is quite perfect.”
Colin looks deeply amused, as well as faintly flattered. “Guilty as charged,” he murmurs. “But surely in all your seasons you’ve overheard at least one member of society discussing how very alike all of us Bridgertons look? Our features, our hair—though only one of my siblings shares my exact eye color.” His smile is slow and devastating, but for reasons very different than usual. “Care to hazard a guess as to who it might be?”
Of course Penelope knows it’s Eloise. She’s seen Eloise’s eyes a million times in her life, has often marveled at their similarity to Colin’s. Why is he doing this to her?
Her tone is even wilder now, more desperate. “You—you’re impatient, you’re stubborn, you—you would never settle for anything but the best—you want everything from life and you aren’t afraid to reach for it—”
Colin is laughing now, overtly incredulous. “You’ve met me, haven’t you?” he demands, grin wide and satisfied. “Surely you must realize that none of those things are true of me in the least. You’re blatantly describing Eloise.”
He’s right, Penelope realizes, horrified. She knows very well that none of those things are true of Colin, who’s patient and easygoing and ready to yield a point if it becomes too difficult, who coasts through life with ease and runs from town when life becomes too boring.
Eloise, on the other hand, has rejected six proposals of marriage rather than enter into a union that wouldn’t have been right for her. She talks too quickly and she never, ever lets anything go. She’ll spend hours at the dressmaker to find the exact shade of blue she wants for a new gown, and she’ll hold her head high if she’s whispered about at balls because she knows she can make her life what she wants it to be if she just keeps trying as hard as she can.
Eloise is good-hearted and quick-witted, intelligent and kind and easy to talk to, and she always knows what to say or do in any given social situation. She’s charming and polite and ambitious and funny; she loves children and small animals and she would do anything for her family. And she’s beautiful, her cheekbones high, her lips full, her eyes wide and bright and brilliantly colored, her hair long and thick and lush, her figure perfect.
Penelope looks forward to seeing Eloise every day, and feels out of sorts if too much time passes between their visits. They are always in accord, and have lively debates about subjects on which they disagree, but always treat one another with respect and love. She is the person on Penelope’s mind more often than not, and every decision Penelope makes is influenced by her, however subtly. Penelope is a better person for the presence of her kindness, humor, intelligence, and comfort in her life.
“Tell me something,” Colin murmurs, jarring Penelope out of her whirring thoughts, just for a moment. “If I were to propose to you, and I told you a condition of our marriage was that you could never see Eloise again—would you accept? Or would you rather stay unmarried and retain her friendship?”
The latter, Penelope thinks in a rush of awful realization. She would never, ever accept that condition, even for Colin, her ideal. She would rather give up anything else in her life than Eloise.
“Oh my god,” she whispers, stunned, sinking back into the seat of the carriage. “Oh, my god. I’m in love with Eloise.”
Colin sits back in his own seat, looking deeply satisfied. “I rather thought you might be.”
“How is this possible?” she says, more to herself than as a genuine question. “I know myself so well. I spend most of my time with my own thoughts. How did I not know?”
Colin pats her hand, sympathetic. Funny how the gesture has how suddenly become purely reassuring—not a single flutter. Penelope looks at him with new eyes. He’s still breathtakingly handsome, still the only man in society who could make her feel comfortable with herself, put her entirely at ease. He’s still charming and intelligent and kind. But—it’s different now. Had she simply been in the habit of thinking herself in love with him? Had she not noticed her feelings change from love to friendship, still strong enough to overwhelm her? Did she assume that she couldn’t love anyone else, and thus overlooked entirely her feelings for Eloise?
She realizes now that what she’s always believed to be the feelings of deepest friendship have for years been the love that’s dominated her life. She has never thought before to compare what she feels for Colin to what she feels for Eloise—they were, she thought, different things entirely. But the truth is that any love she thought she felt for Colin is dwarfed by the sheer vastness of her feelings for Eloise—love, friendship, attraction, the fact that her life has quite simply been defined by her.
“I don’t blame you for not realizing,” Colin is saying. “Women—even spinsters—are often sheltered from the reality that such things are possible. I’ve known a few men who prefer men to women, but never women inclined in the same direction. It was Anthony who first put the idea in my head, about the two of you.”
Penelope’s mouth falls open. “Anthony?” she demands, shocked. “Anthony knows as well?”
Colin looks halfway between embarrassed and amused, a sheepish expression she still can’t help but find utterly adorable. “Well,” he says slowly, dragging the word out to several syllables, “by now I would say that it’s likely the whole family knows.”
Penelope lets out a wordless, appalled exclamation and covers her face with her hands, falling back against the seat. “All of you?” she wails in dismay. She can’t imagine anything more humiliating than the entire Bridgerton family, whom she’s always adored, discussing her romantic life, which all of them seem to know more about than she does herself.
“It’s become more obvious the longer the two of you went unmarried,” Colin says, clearly attempting to be reassuring. “It seemed as if—well, as if there must be a reason for it. Eloise rejected six offers of marriage, after all. It seemed likely the two of you had made plans to… stay together.”
The entire conversation feels quite surreal. “We hadn’t,” Penelope murmurs. “I mean—we had, in a way. But not consciously. Not as an active alternative to marriage, just—it seemed as if we might have no choice. I never even received a single proposal to reject.”
“The men of London are idiots,” Colin says loyally, and Penelope feels a surge of affection for him, softer than usual, the warm feeling of what a friendship ought to be—not the consuming, profound love she feels for Eloise. “But you never seemed to be quite as upset about it as one might think you would be, did you?”
Penelope shakes her head, marveling. “I always thought it was—well, I didn’t think I would fall in love with anyone else as long as you were in my life.” She still can’t look at Colin as she says it; it’s still too embarrassing, the memories of her feelings too raw. “But I think it was because I already had everything I could ask for in a husband with Eloise. Why would I need to look elsewhere?”
When she looks back at Colin, he’s smiling at her, faint and affectionate, and Penelope feels that rush of pure fondness again. She isn’t in love with him, she knows that now, but he’s such a good man, and she’s so grateful to know him. His anger, it seems, was from love of his sister, wanting the best for her, and she can hardly fault him for that. Not when she loves Eloise so very much herself.
“Do people do this?” she finds herself asking, a little breathless, staring up at Colin with wide eyes. “Do people ever—find someone and just—just live together, outside of society, as if they were married but knowing they won’t ever be?”
Colin nods, looking meditative. “It isn’t common—but yes, they do. It helps if they’re supported by their families—as you would be, of course.” Penelope smiles, faint but a little shaky. She isn’t at all certain how her mother or sisters will react; Felicity, she thinks, might stand by her, as she always has. But if nothing else, she’ll have the Bridgertons, who have supported her even without her knowing she needed it.
“And you think—” She pauses, feeling her heart in her throat. She feels uncertain and awkward discussing something like this with Colin, but somehow, she knows it’ll be all right. Sitting here, discussing her love for his sister, a love that’ll shape her future in ways she never could have imagined, she feels closer to him than ever. “You think that she—she loves me, too?”
And at that moment, the carriage stops, and Penelope looks out of the window in surprise to see them right outside of Number Five, Bruton Street.
She turns to Colin, and he opens the door, broad smile on his face. “There’s only one way to find out.”
Eloise is just about to give up on pretending that she’s reading the book in her lap when Wickham enters the sitting room and intones, “Miss Penelope Featherington is here to see you.”
Eloise nearly falls right off of the chair, startled both by Penelope’s arrival and the fact that Wickham is actually announcing her, something he hasn’t done for years.
Does that mean something? Or is she just overthinking things, now that she knows that everything between them is different?
“Send her in,” Eloise manages to say, getting to her feet and smoothing her skirts, a clearly futile gesture.
Wickham nods, and a minute later Penelope rushes into the room, stopping just past the doorway, breathless and flushed. Eloise’s heart threatens to beat right out of her chest at the sight of her.
How has she never noticed Penelope’s beauty before? She’s wearing a lovely mint green dress that brings out her peaches and cream complexion and the red in her loosely pinned hair, and her eyes are glowing. She looks impatient and nervous and delighted all at once, and hope flutters in Eloise’s chest, because she’s pretty sure the very same look is on her own face.
“Eloise,” Penelope says, and “Penelope,” Eloise says back in the same tone, and then both of them are laughing, because this has to be the first time that they’ve ever been so nervous around one another.
“I have to tell you something,” Penelope says, and Eloise beams at her. “I have to tell you something, too.”
Penelope looks sheepish, taking half a step back. “Actually,” she says, “I have to tell you two things.”
Well, that’s a little unexpected, but Eloise takes it into stride, nodding. “In that case, you ought to start.”
Penelope nods, looking a bit at a loss, and Eloise gestures vaguely to the sofa. “Should we—we ought to sit, oughn’t we?”
Penelope nods again, looking relieved, and the two of them laugh again, nerves still in the air, as they sit—a little further from one another than usual.
Eloise forces a deep breath, and she tries to make her voice as calm and gentle as possible as she turns to Penelope and says, “What was the first thing you wanted to tell me?”
Penelope takes a deep breath of her own, and loosely clenches her hands in the folds of her skirts, and she looks up at the ceiling, and she closes her eyes, and she opens them again and she says, all in a rush, “I am Whistledown.”
Eloise nearly collapses off of the sofa again. “What?”
A sheepish smile crosses Penelope’s face. “I am Lady Whistledown,” she says again. “I’ve been her all along.”
Eloise can’t believe it. She wouldn’t have expected this, not in a thousand years. “You,” she manages to say, slow and incredulous, and then “what?” again, because really, she can’t quite manage anything else just yet.
A small, wry smile crosses Penelope’s face. “Take your time,” she says. “I know it must be a—a bit of a shock.” Then a thought occurs to her, and she reaches into her reticule, removing a piece of paper and handing it to Eloise.
Eloise takes the paper and unfolds it carefully, completely unsure of what to expect as she bends to read it.
There is nothing I despise more than a gentleman who thinks it amusing to give a lady a condescending pat on the hand as he murmurs, “It is a woman’s prerogative to change her mind.” And indeed, because I feel one should always support one’s words with one’s actions, I endeavor to keep my opinions and decisions steadfast and true.
Which is why, Gentle Reader, when I wrote my column of 19 April, I truly intended it to be my last. However, events entirely beyond my control (or indeed beyond my approval) force me to put my pen to paper one last time.
Ladies and Gentleman, This Author is NOT Lady Cressida Twombley. She is nothing more than a scheming imposter, and it would break my heart to see my years of hard work attributed to one such as her.
“Oh my god,” Eloise whispers, raising a stunned gaze to Penelope. “Oh my god, Penelope.”
She smiles, embarrassed. “I know.”
“Penelope,” Eloise says again as a thousand small things slot into place. Penelope’s intelligence, wit, and observational skills. How often she’s hovered at the edge of a ballroom, taking everything in. Some particular conversational quirks of Whistledown’s that come close to Penelope’s, the times she’s read the column and felt like she was talking to an old friend.
Eloise looks at her dearest friend and the love of her life with new awe and pride. “I can’t believe it,” she whispers. “You’re Whistledown. You’re Whistledown.”
Penelope nods. “I am so very, very sorry that I didn’t tell you. It’s been so difficult, keeping the secret for so long—”
“Are you mad?” Eloise exclaims, finally finding her voice. “Of course you shouldn’t have told me. I could never have kept a secret like this.”
Penelope’s startled into a laugh, and she beams at Eloise, still looking more than a little embarrassed. “I didn’t think you could,” she admits, and now both of them are laughing, helplessly, Eloise’s tinged with just a hint of hysteria.
“Are you very angry with me?” Penelope asks after a moment, biting her lip. “I know you—you agree that you couldn’t have kept the secret, but—it’s still possibly the largest secret imaginable. I’ve lied to you for years, for nearly the entirety of our friendship.”
Eloise opens her mouth to say no, of course not, because it’s what she ought to say—but she owes Penelope the truth, so she pauses and she thinks about it.
It’s a huge secret, of course, of earth-shattering magnitude. Eloise has never lied to Penelope about anything, except to minimize the way certain awful dresses looked on her, whereas Penelope has lied to her about Whistledown constantly. But they’ve both agreed that there was reason for it, that the secret would have come out instantly if she’d told Eloise.
And of course Eloise understands, as the middle child in a family of eight, how it feels to want something entirely your own.
So she says, at length, “No,” and considering how long of a pause she took before saying it, she doesn’t blame Penelope for looking dubious and asking, “Really? You’re certain?”
“Yes,” Eloise says, firmly. “I know why you had to. And you’re telling me now—that’s what matters.” She reaches to take Penelope’s hand, the gesture imbued with a significance as never before, and she finds herself thinking that if she had found this out a few days ago, her reaction might have been altogether different.
Now, though, she loves Penelope, and so rather than any jealousy she might have of a friend, she’s instead so full of pride for the love of her life that she might burst. How lucky she is, to be in love with someone so singular, so thoroughly remarkable.
“I am so proud of you,” she says, her voice a little breathless as she squeezes Penelope’s hand. “Keeping everyone in the dark for so long—everything, all the work it must have taken, the logistics—and to write so well every week, for so long, keeping the entire ton enthralled—I can’t believe it. It’s magnificent, Penelope.”
“Really?” Penelope flushes, looking more than a little shocked.
“Really.” Eloise beams at her. “I don’t want to get distracted—we have other things to discuss, I think—but I want to hear everything, Penelope. How you started, how you did it, what gave you the idea, why you kept going, why you retired—everything.”
Penelope laughs, but she looks embarrassed and delighted as she does. “I retired because of you,” she blurts out, and Eloise stares at her, shocked. “Me?”
Penelope nods, tipping her head down and smoothing her skirts. “Well—not entirely, of course, but I—Colin told me that he suspected you, and I—”
Eloise can’t help the brief gasp of laughter that escapes her. “Oh, that must have been entertaining for you.”
Her lips quirk upward in a wry smile. “I’ve been subject to my fair share of speculation regarding Whistledown’s identity. I’m quite used to it.” She continues, “He told me he suspected you, and I said that I was certain it couldn’t be you. And he said that it didn’t matter either way, that if he suspected, someone else was bound to, and the rumor would be enough to ruin you.”
Eloise feels her eyes water, and presses a hand to her chest. “Penelope,” she whispers, so touched she can hardly speak.
Penelope’s smile is gentle, soft, filled with so much love it takes Eloise’s breath away. “In truth I had been thinking about retiring for some time,” she says softly, sounding more wistful than a woman her age should. “It had gotten harder, and Lady Danbury’s wager, with so much speculation and gossip emerging, would have made it harder still. But that was what truly made me see it was time. I couldn’t let anything happen to you. I couldn’t bear it.”
“Penelope,” Eloise says again, soft and awed, and knowing she’s doing absolutely nothing to hide how much love is written on her face.
“I love you, Eloise,” Penelope whispers, leaning in just a little, holding Eloise’s hand a little more tightly. “I—I am in love with you. I have been for years, but I didn’t—I only just realized—”
“I love you too,” Eloise blurts out, impulsive as always, not the slightest bit of finesse to her confession. But the look of joy and fondness on Penelope’s face makes her unable to wish that it had been any other way. “My family may have had to tell me to get me to realize it, but that makes it no less true, and it has been for—for just as long as you, I’d wager.”
Penelope laughs, though tears are glinting in her eyes, and Eloise’s own vision is getting more than a little blurry as well. “Colin was the one who told me.”
“Colin?” Eloise exclaims, before remembering their conversation last week—how insistent he’d been on keeping her reputation pristine for Penelope’s sake. Now she realizes what he had been trying to say, and she’s so grateful for it.
“He tried to tell me, too,” she admits, sheepish, “but I didn’t understand. It was my mother who told me.”
“I think Lady Danbury tried to tell me, too,” Penelope says, eyes wide in awe, “in her own way. I can’t believe she knew, and that she supports this.”
“All of my siblings knew, I think,” Eloise says ruefully. “Francesca has suspected for a long time, and even Hyacinth—”
“Colin told me it was Anthony who first realized it, years ago—”
They trip over their words and talk over one another, laughing helplessly, still holding hands. When they finally still, smiling at each other like fools, Penelope says softly, “We are so very, very lucky to have so many people who are looking out for us—who want us to be happy. Even if it isn’t in the most conventional of ways.”
“I’m so lucky to have you,” Eloise says, daringly, still not accustomed to speaking this way, as a lover would. It isn’t anything she hasn’t said to Penelope a dozen times over in their friendship, but of course everything is different now, and the flush on Penelope’s face makes her grateful for trying. “I never realized that I was comparing all of my potential courtships to the relationship I had with you, and finding that they all fell short because—well, because I already had exactly what I thought I was looking for.”
“I always thought I was a little jealous that you’d received so many proposals,” Penelope murmurs, “but it turns out I was a little jealous of the thought of someone else taking you away from me, of changing what we had.”
“Can I—” Eloise flushes, looking furtively at the open door. Wickham is giving them privacy, and her family won’t be home for a while longer—but she’s still embarrassed by the prospect of asking the question. Still, it’s too tempting to resist, and she drops her voice even lower. “Can I kiss you?”
Penelope flushes, too, her eyes widening, and for a moment Eloise fears she’s overstepped—but though she still looks embarrassed, she’s nodding, leaning in.
So Eloise leans in, too, and she touches Penelope’s cheek lightly, and after a moment of relishing their closeness, of marveling at the length of Penelope’s eyelashes and the ring of gold around her pupils, she closes the distance between them and kisses her.
It’s a soft kiss, barely more than a press of their lips together; Eloise is fairly certain it’s Penelope’s first kiss, and she wants to make it as meaningful as possible, signifying the beginning of their lives together. And it doesn’t last long, but it’s the best kiss she’s ever had, and she’s breathless when they pull apart.
“Eloise,” Penelope whispers, her eyes wide with wonder, and Eloise can’t believe how full her heart feels.
A little smile flits across Penelope’s face and she scoots closer, leaning her head against Eloise’s shoulder; Eloise rests her head against Penelope’s, feeling a sense of peace deeper than any she’s ever known before. “Where will we go?” she asks, a little laugh in her voice. “We can’t live in society—it’ll cause a true scandal. We’ll have to live elsewhere.”
“A seaside cottage,” Eloise muses, dropping an impulsive kiss to the top of Penelope’s head. “Away from everything and everyone. Lovely views, a room full of books, perhaps a cat or two—”
Penelope laughs again. “I’ve always wanted to visit Italy. Do you think we could find a villa there?”
“The world is our oyster,” Eloise murmurs, wrapping an arm around Penelope’s waist and squeezing tightly.
“We’ll figure it out, won’t we?” Penelope says, tilting her head up, eyes so wide and hopeful that Eloise can’t do anything but bend to kiss her again, more quickly this time.
“Of course we will,” she says, voice firm, a soft smile on her face. “We have each other. There’s nothing we can’t do.”