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To Form a Diamond

Chapter Text

Something was off with the Bridgertons, Lady Danbury was sure of it.

 

She loved them dearly- mostly Violet but one or two of her brood showed some inkingly of promise- but their behavior at her season’s opening ball was awkward.  The Dowager Lady Bridgerton could be seen parading the newest debutante daughter around, but there was a twitch in her eye throughout.  It could be the Viscount traveling with his new bride created a lapse in order.  Lord Bridgerton may often be a fool, but he at least knew his responsibilities to his family.  Mr. Benedict Bridgerton was no taskmaster.  Not long after escorting his mother and younger sisters into the ball, he flitted off somewhere not to be seen again.  Hopefully he hadn’t taken anything that would cause a repeat of his wild behavior at the disastrous dinner between the Sharmas and Bridgertons last season.  Lady Danbury did not want to surrender her deposit to the conservatory because some foolish gentleman expelled bile over priceless pineapples.  Unfortunately for Violet, the Duchess of Hastings pleaded exhaustion and declined her invitation to the ball.  A follow-up letter from Simon confirmed what Lady Danbury expected- she was again with child.  A happy blessing indeed.  However, her absence meant Violet was left handling her two daughters on her own.  At the very least, Miss Francesca Bridgerton was dutiful, if a bit quiet.  A hard nut to crack, that one.  As for the other one, she let her feelings known.  Miss Eloise had settled herself in a corner and simply scowled at any would-be suitors.  The smarter ones scampered away.  

 

Wait, there was another Bridgerton, wasn’t there?  Lady Danbury went through her alphabet (as ridiculous as the Bridgertons’ naming conventions were, they did have some use): Anthony was in India, Benedict was likely drinking somewhere around here, Colin was- Where was Colin?  Oh, yes, after Lady Whistledown published her scathing last article telling the Ton that the once Charming Colin had turned into Cruel Colin by publicly maligning poor wallflower Penelope Featherington at her own mother’s ball, the man in question attempted damage control by traveling once again to another far off locale in the hopes that the Ton (with their rather limited memory) would forget the slight by the time he returned.

 

That reminded her: where was that poor, shy wallflower?  Lady Danbury always liked that one.  She was the only Featherington who seemed aware of the foolishness around her.  And any young lady who had the ability to ingratiate herself into the Bridgertons had something to recommend her. 

 

Immediately, she looked towards Eloise’s hiding spot.  Not there, which was odd.  At most social events those two would be found attached at the hip.  Perhaps the youngest Featherington was on the search for some refreshments?  With her eyes opened for red hair and citrus colored gowns, Lady Danbury surveyed the room.  Lady Featherington was gossiping with Lady Cowper- Lord help any unsuspecting bachelor that came their way.  The tall Featherington daughter was being forced to dance with the odious Lord Shively.  Where was Miss Penelope?

 

Lady Danbury’s hunt was interrupted by an approaching retinue of ladies in white silk gowns with unfashionably wide skirts and powdered wigs.  It could only mean one thing.

 

“Lady Danbury!” Queen Charlotte said as she approached.  She appeared pleased as punch.  Hopefully she hadn’t brought that snuff box of hers into the ball.  Lady Danbury hated the stuff.  An absolute inelegant vice.

 

Lady Danbury curtsied to her queen.  “Your Majesty,” she said, “It is an honor to receive you at my ball. I hope you-”

 

“Yes, enough with the formalities,” the queen said impatiently, “I found you because I have decided on my diamond.  She’s perfect!  Let’s see Lady Whistledown find fault with this one.”

 

Not this again.

 

“If I may say so delicately, ma’am,” Lady Danbury started.  The queen scoffed.  ‘Delicate’ was not a word often associated with Lady Danbury.  “Perhaps since we have not heard from our infamous gossip monger since the end of last season, she has decided to retire her quill?  We have typically heard from her by now.  I imagine you must have scared her off.  Perhaps it is time to retire the hunt?” 

 

“Highly unlikely,” Queen Charlotte said with an impervious air, “Even if she has retired, I still want to find her out and make an example of her.  We are close, I can feel it.”

 

Given the fact that the queen had failed to do so in the past two seasons, Lady Danbury doubted they were as close to unmasking Lady Whistledown as Lady Featherington was to becoming the next Queen of France.  She was not going to be the one to tell her monarch that.  A busybody she may be, but she’d like to keep her head on her neck.  

 

Instead, she pivoted.  “Well, who is this diamond?  I am simply dying for you to tell me,” she drawled.

 

“While I do enjoy the anticipation, I suppose I shall tell you.  My diamond shall be Miss Fairfield.”  Her queen stood as if she was awaiting applause.

 

Too bad Lady Danbury was not one to share her praise lightly.

 

“Miss Angelica Fairfield?  Interesting.”  

 

The queen must have caught something in her voice, as she asked, “Do you disapprove, Lady Danbury?”

 

Lady Danbury considered her words carefully.  “Admittedly, she is quite the beauty, given her Italian mother’s looks.  However, after being introduced to her this evening, I fear she is- at best- vain and- at worst- a viper in disguise.  And I cannot help but be concerned with the behavior of her father, Baron Linton.  Is it wise to promote the family of such a man?”

 

Baron Linton was infamous among the Ton for many reasons: his fondness for liquor, his cruelty to his staff and tenants, shady deals to get what he wanted.  The man would do practically anything for more power: lie, cheat, steal.  He even married his older daughter off four years ago to a Belgian nobleman thrice the girl’s age because the man owned stakes in a diamond mine.  Perhaps murder was a step too far, but time would only tell with that.

 

“Nonsense, Lady Danbury,” the queen sniffed, “My diamond is exceptionally well-behaved.  If you must, think of it as me rescuing the girl from a bad situation.  Besides, my eldest son owes Baron Linton quite a bit of money from what I have gathered and it would surely vex him if I praised his daughter.”

 

Ah, if the Prince Regent was involved, there would be no convincing her to pick a different diamond.  The man clouded his mother’s judgment perhaps even worse than Lady Whistledown.

 

“I suppose it is your decision.  You are the queen,” Lady Danbury demurred.

 

“Yes I am,” Queen Charlotte said with that glint in her eye.  “And what of you?  Have you bet on a horse in this race?”

 

“As you well know, Viscount Bridgerton has helped Lady Mary and Miss Edwina Sharma establish their own house in Mayfair.  While I may keep my eyes on your last diamond, I am quite confident she will succeed this year.”  Her eyes followed Miss Sharma as she charmed a quartet of young, handsome noblemen attempting to curry her favor.

 

“But of course, she has my backing still,” the queen said, “Does that mean you have no students of the Danbury Way this year?  You have been quite successful these past few seasons.  Getting Hastings to settle down with my diamond.  I suppose the new Lady Bridgerton was under your tutelage as well last season.  But, of course, they were quite easy marks.”

 

Danbury’s interest was peaked.  “What are you saying, your majesty?”

 

“The Duke of Hastings had everything he needed to bag such a gem as Miss Bridgerton, except a nudge in the right direction.  And Miss Sharma- well, she was very pretty.  A bit old, but still pretty.  And already so educated.  She just needed her defenses broken down.  What I am wondering, Lady Danbury, is if you can take the most pitiful creature of the Ton and mold her into a gem?  Perhaps not a diamond, but at the very least a ruby.  A sapphire, maybe.”

 

Lady Danbury harrumphed.  “Do you truly doubt me, my queen?  I could do it in my sleep.”  She did not agree that Simon or Kate were “easy marks”.  Both were as stubborn as mules that needed much more than a nudge in the right direction.

 

Queen Charlotte’s haughty gaze met hers.  “How about a challenge, then?   You enjoy those, do you not?  Find an ugly duckling and transform her into a swan.  Find her, transform her, and find her a better match than my diamond.”

 

“An interesting proposition.  What do I get when I win?”

 

If you win, Lady Danbury, if ,” the queen said with a predatory smile, “Bragging rights, of course.  And I suppose I will drop the hunt for Whistledown.  You find it exhausting, do you not?”

 

Her eyebrows rose almost to her hairline.  That was an enormous prize.  Unlike the queen, Lady Danbury found Lady Whistledown amusing.  The woman was witty and ever so clever.  She had to be in order to escape unmasking for two years now, especially with the watchful eye of the crown on her.  Watching the more foolish members of the ton scramble when their bad behavior was illuminated was delicious fun as well.  Revealing the woman would make the season boring again.

 

“Perhaps,” Lady Danbury said, “And are there parameters to this challenge?”

 

“No interfering with the other woman’s prospects, I suppose.  No lying, of course.  No bribery.  No forcing the girl into a potentially scandalous position to get ahead,” the queen said.

 

“And how do we decide who won?  A ‘better match’ could mean any number of things: rank, suitability, monetarily,” Lady Danbury argued.

 

Queen Charlotte considered that for the moment.  “Let us let the mothers of the Ton decide.  At my end of the season ball, if both of our picks have been wed, we poll the mothers to see who made the best match,” she decided, “Is that fair enough for you, Lady Danbury?”

 

She considered it.  Being the wife of the monarch, Queen Charlotte did have an inordinate amount of sway.  She could easily influence the vote if she wished.  An idea popped into Lady Danbury’s head.

 

“Instead of the end of season ball, let’s have the vote at my last ladies’ only party of the season.   That way the men do not know what we are up to.  And to keep things truly fair, the ladies can write whatever new match this season was the most impressive, not just our picks.  The votes will be written down on paper in private and put into a jar.  A neutral party tallies the votes.  That way, neither of us gets undue influence.”

 

“You drive a hard bargain, Lady Danbury, but I suppose I accept your terms.  Who shall be your new protégé?”

 

Without hesitation, Lady Danbury named her, “Miss Penelope Featherington.”

 

A hearty laugh escaped the queen’s lips.  “Portia’s youngest daughter?  My, you are committed to this challenge.”

 

Lady Danbury held her head high, “I look forward to it.”

 

The queen looked at her with a smug smile.  “Good luck, Lady Danbury.  You will need it.”  With a sweep of her skirts, the queen and her train left the dowager to find her next victims.

 

“I don’t need luck.  She’s perfect.”

Chapter Text

Penelope Featherington was in her own little circle of hell. Was hell too strong a word? Was it blasphemy? She was not sure, but it felt true nonetheless.

It was a beautiful hell though, unsurprisingly, as Lady Danbury’s season opening ball was always beautiful. The candlelight was romantic, the scenery was lush, and the musicians were both talented and up to the latest trends. Too bad Penelope was not enjoying herself.

How could she? Her personal life was in tatters. After the subpar apology Colin gave over what she had reported in Whistledown, her mother had whisked her and Prudence off to their family seat in order to avoid the pitchforks that were likely coming for them. It was a true sign of her mother’s desperation that she was willing to hide out in the country. Penelope wasn’t sure what was worse: spending the off-season dealing with Prudence moping over a failed engagement she didn’t want in the first place or watching her mother scheme and fret over their finances. Only Penelope’s frantic letter to her father’s solicitor- the first person who knew of her identity as Lady Whistledown- had merited any sort of solution to their problems. Together, they concocted a ruse in which to use Penelope’s Lady Whistledown funds: Penelope would pay a spinster great-aunt of hers in Ireland to pretend that she had come into some money by marrying a wealthy widower and was bestowing her some of her wealth on her nieces to help them in their time of need. It may drain some of Penelope’s funds, but it wasn’t as if she could use them herself without drawing suspicion. However, some of it did get put away for an eventual dowry. The other part of the solicitor’s plan was convincing Lady Featherington to rent the large family estate to some nouveau riche tradesman at quite a tidy sum and live in the dowager's house on the property. It had taken her mother a bit of time to agree to the idea, but eventually the solicitor made her see reason. Both of them were more than willing to forge Cousin Jack’s signature. Most of the rent money would go to slowly paying back the members of the Ton that were conned out of their money for the ruby mine scheme while her “aunt’s gift” was used for the three Featherington ladies.

It had been an exhausting several months.

The Featheringtons’ standing amongst the Ton was still on shaky ground. Some still gave them the cut outright. Notably, they had not been invited to the debut at court. The more understanding members of the peerage took pity on her mother’s sob story and hesitantly welcomed them into society. Truly, Portia Featherington belonged on the stage. Penelope had a theory that Colin’s public rejection of her had earned the family some sympathy too. Lady Bridgerton, well the Dowager Lady Bridgerton, had called on the family upon their return to London and expressed her regret over her son’s behavior. Only Benedict had come with her.

The unfortunate part of her mother’s new means of income meant a few new dresses. Somehow she had been convinced not to spend it on entirely new wardrobes. Given the fact that some of the previous servants returned to work, Mrs. Varley likely had something to do with it. But Penelope and Prudence both received a few new gowns for bigger functions, which is how Penelope ended up wearing orange to Lady Danbury’s ball. Apparently yellow was “too happy” for their situation. Orange had become increasingly popular amongst the Ton as well. Penelope’s mother believed the family had finally become trendsetters, but Penelope had an inkling the rise in the color’s popularity had more to do with the fact that Kate Sharma wore an orange dress to the Featherington Ball last season and had snagged herself a viscount. Too bad very few people could pull off that color as well as the new Lady Bridgerton. Penelope certainly couldn’t.

With Eloise still refusing to talk to her, Penelope went back to her usual behavior at balls: hiding in the shadows and watching the action, ears open for any morsel of good gossip. Things seemed to be going as normal. A new group of wallflowers formed their own little clump as they looked wistfully at the dance floor. Mothers updated each other on their winters in the countryside, letting Penelope hear quite a few scandals that would go nicely in her column. Two rakes were competing to impress the recently widowed Lady Bowers into their beds. Observing the room, she noticed Eloise had ensconced herself in her own little corner. Unfortunately for her, the gentlemen willing to look past her radical behavior in order to win her sizable dowry easily found her. Eloise really didn’t understand how to blend into her surroundings. Wearing blue and trying to hide near a bouquet of sunflowers, really. It’s as if she wanted to be found. If Penelope were her, she would have picked a spot near the wall of blue hyacinths. Occasionally, Penelope noticed her childhood friend’s eyes dart around the room. Whether she was on the lookout for fortune hunters, her family, or Penelope herself, she had very little idea.

Penelope tried to not let her thoughts be occupied by the Bridgertons. She was still upset with Eloise for never listening to her. She had tried to warn her friend that going to see Theo was absurdly dangerous- on the day of her brother’s wedding of all days! Did she listen? No! Did she ever ask about the Featheringtons’ problems? No. Her brother was no better. Colin did not listen to her when she had tried to tell him about Marina. While he appeared to be cognizant of her family’s troubles, unlike Eloise, and attempted to fix them, he caused completely new ones by denying she was worthy of courtship to a group of marriable men. Fools, the lot of them. However, Penelope did feel bad that Lady Bridgerton was left trying to wrangle her least sociable children at this ball. Eloise’s problems were obvious. Benedict Bridgerton could be incredibly charming, but he never seemed comfortable around this set. On paper Francesca seemed destined for becoming the Queen’s diamond, but her shyness often came across as aloofness. More than one gentleman seemed intimidated by her.

“Oh, hello Miss Penelope!” a gentle yet cheery voice brought her back into her immediate surroundings.

“Good evening, Miss Edwina, or rather it is Miss Sharma now, is it not?” Penelope greeted the diamond in return. Edwina Sharma looked lovely in her yellow frock. It was a color that worked wonderfully against her skin.

Edwina smiled. “I suppose it is now, with Kate being Lady Bridgerton. Is it not strange how us younger sisters’ titles change when our sisters get married?”

“Very strange, but I have gotten to keep my same title with two sisters ahead of me,” Penelope replied.

“How is your family?” Edwina asked earnestly, “I am so sorry about what trouble that cousin of yours has put you ladies in.”

“We are surviving,” Penelope said. If anyone else had asked her the question, she would have said “fine” and moved on with the conversation. It was Edwina’s genuine concern and kindness that made her want to be at least somewhat honest. “It will likely be some time before my mother can pay everyone who bought into Cousin Jack’s scheme back, but we are renting our country estate out to a wealthy tradesman and that at least gives us regular income. But Phillippa is with child and that is exciting.”

“Oh, Penelope! May I call you that? I feel we are friends, yes?”

“We are friends, yes,” Penelope said shyly.

Edwina smiled. “And you must call me Edwina.” She took one of Penelope’s hands and said, “I know times seem difficult, I know after my father passed it seemed like nothing was going to be right again, but you Featheringtons seem very resilient. It is important to stick together as a family. You must be so excited to be an auntie! I know I cannot wait until Kate tells me I am to become one as well.”

Penelope sniffed back tears that were threatening to fall and squeezed her new friend’s hand. She didn’t have the heart to tell her that she was not nearly as close to her mother and sisters as Edwina was to hers. “Thank you, Edwina,” Penelope said softly. She then took a breath and teased, “Can you imagine how stubborn any child born to your sister and Lord Bridgerton will be? Are you sure you are excited for that?”

Edwina giggled. “Perhaps their children will inherit the more relaxed mannerisms of their aunties and uncles.”

“Have you met the Bridgertons?” Penelope whispered, laughing, “Especially when they get competitive?”

Edwina struggled to hold back riotous laughter, tears welling up in her eyes. “I have! They are horrible! I thought I would die during their Pall Mall game. But maybe their children will take after me.”

“Let us pray that they do!”

Of course their giggles had to be interrupted by the worst possible person.

“Well, if it isn’t the two girls so publicly embarrassed by the Bridgertons. Are you in hiding? I know I would be,” Cressida Cowper’s icy voice immediately smothered their glee. Her two cronies tittered behind her.

Perhaps it was the knowledge that she had very little ways to fall or perhaps it was the months of lost sleep, but Penelope couldn’t help but quip, “Actually, we were just forming a social club on the subject. Cressida, would you care to join?”

Penelope could hear Edwina give a shocked little laugh. Cressida’s friends gasped.

“Pardon me?” Cressida asked, somewhere between unamused and shocked.

Her ire made Penelope falter. Eyes in the crowd were turning their way. Not enough to stop everything around them, but enough to tell that they were attracting curiosity. Penelope’s heart was racing and her mouth was drying up. Why was it that she could write such scathing and clever things but struggle when she’d speak them aloud in front of a group? She looked imploringly at Edwina.

“It is not as if you have had much more success with the Bridgertons either, Miss Cowper,” Edwina said matter-of-factly, “It is nothing to be ashamed of. Most of us have not. Most of us will not. The odds simply are not there.”

Cressida gave a tinkling laugh, if the tinkling was the sounds of a broken glass hitting the floor. There was an edge to it. “You poor dears, trying to make yourselves feel better. At least I still have a chance,” she said.

With whom? Gregory? Penelope thought to herself.

“Good evening ladies,” A new voice asked. Penelope looked up to see Lady Danbury of all people in their midst. “How are you enjoying my ball?”

With varying degrees of hidden nerves, except Edwina who was as cool as ever, the group of young ladies complimented the dowager’s party. Cressida and her friends were at least aware that Lady Danbury was held in high esteem by the queen and could get them ahead if she so wished. Cressida herself was laying it on thick.

Lady Danbury hit her cane on the floor to silence them. “I have had enough simpering flatteries for one evening, thank you. Now, I could not help overhearing a portion of your conversation and I have some input of my own.”

“Naturally,” Penelope muttered to herself. She froze when Lady Danbury caught her eye, but she only smirked and turned to Cressida.

“Miss Cowper, please inform me how you consider it wise to openly mock two young ladies who have strong ties to a family whom you admire so greatly? A family whose sons you wish would court you? Need I remind you that Miss Penelope is a dear friend to the Bridgerton family and that Miss Sharma’s beloved sister is now Lady Bridgerton? What would stop either of these ladies from telling one of the Bridgertons how rude you have been to them?”

Cressida sputtered inelegantly.

One of Lady Danbury’s eyebrows rose. “Did you not consider that? I am disappointed in you, Miss Cowper. You certainly act sneakier than that. Perhaps you are not as clever as you believe.”

“I believe I see my mother waving for me,” Cressida said stiffly before leading her friends away.

“You certainly have a way with words, Lady Danbury,” Penelope noted. With Cressida gone, all the previous eavesdroppers scampered away, lest they be the next victim of Lady Danbury’s. Penelope wondered how it felt to have that much power.

“Yes, I do,” Lady Danbury said proudly.

“Did you have another reason for coming over here, Lady Danbury, other than scaring off Cressida?” Edwina teased.

“Not that we are complaining, mind you,” Penelope added. If she never had to interact with Cressida Cowper again, she would happily stay by Lady Danbury.

“I came to tell Miss Sharma that your mother would like to see you. She’s in the seating area for the chaperones on the far side of the dance floor.”

“Of course,” Edwina said, “Thank you Lady Danbury for finding me. Penelope, shall we speak sometime soon?”

Penelope’s stomach fluttered. “Of course!” she said breathlessly. She could use a friend. And it didn’t hurt that Edwina of all people deemed her worthy enough to call ‘friend’.

“Good! I will call on you soon,” Edwina said as she left to find her mother.

Penelope expected Lady Danbury to go her own way but, oddly, the dowager stayed put. She had a few previous interactions with this impressive woman, but never without the presence of someone else. They had maybe exchanged a handful of words in her entire life.

“That Cowper girl is a nasty piece of work,” Lady Danbury huffed.

“I am surprised she’s willing to go after a mere second or third son, considering how ambitious she is,” Penelope said in agreement.

Lady Danbury turned her intense gaze unto her. “Quite an astute observation, Miss Penelope,” she said in that dry way of hers.

Penelope scoffed. “Hardly. Anyone with eyes can see that she prefers men who will have titles higher than ‘mister’.”

“Did that Bridgerton boy ever apologize to you, Miss Penelope?” Lady Danbury asked after a momentary silence, completely flipping the subject.

Penelope opted not to play coy. Lady Danbury often called out members of the Ton for not saying what they meant. It would be an insult to both of them if Penelope pretended that she had no idea what Lady Danbury was asking. It was in Whistledown, after all. “Yes,” she sighed, “but it was not very satisfactory.”

“Why not?” Lady Danbury asked.

“He sent a bouquet of daisies.”

“That is not such-”

“I am allergic to daisies,” Penelope interrupted.

“Was that something he should know?” Lady Danbury asked archly.

“I am quite certain I have told him before. Besides, he could always confer with his sisters or his mother. Both Eloise and Francesca know, as well as Lady Bridgerton. She once tried teaching us all flower arrangements and a handful of daisies sent me into a sneezing fit so bad I had to lay down,” she explained.

“Ah,” Lady Danbury said, “Was there a note attached to the illness-inducing daisies?”

Penelope signed again. “Yes. It was something along the lines of ‘I am so sorry. I did not mean the way it came out. It was nothing against you as a person, but it was more to do with my feelings toward marriage at the moment. I hope you know how much I value our friendship.’ Et cetera. Overall, it was extremely route. I did not need or want a marriage proposal from him, but he could at least have done me the courtesy of apologizing to my face if he was to talk behind my back,” she spat. Penelope did not intend to bare her feelings to Lady Danbury, but she had been holding this up inside her soul for several months. No one asked her what her feelings were about this before.

“And how did your mother take this?” Lady Danbury asked.

Penelope shook her head. “She was much more worried about other things. I think she expected Colin to hurt my feelings one day. She always hinted as much.”

After her final Lady Whistledown column was released, her mother had just sighed “Oh, Penelope” and patted her head before moving onto the other metaphorical fires around the house. It hadn’t exactly been the motherly comfort Penelope yearned for.

“Hmm,” Lady Danbury hummed, scoping out her collection of revelers for some reason. After a moment, she said something shocking to Penelope: “How would you like it if I offered to sponsor you this season, Miss Featherington?”

If she had been taking a sip of lemonade at that moment, Penelope was sure she would have spit it out. Thankfully she didn’t. However, all the manners she learned went out the window. “Why?” she asked.

“You intrigue me,” Lady Danbury said, “Most people of the Ton look right past you. All they see is the quiet, sad daughter of Lady Featherington. Yet when you actually open your mouth, you are incredibly clever. And funny. Very few seem to realize that about you, including your own family. I think you aren’t even aware of it, Miss Featherington. But I see the potential in you. I may not be that much of a gardener, but even I know some flowers will not bloom properly without the right conditions. Usually, those are the most special ones. I think you are much the same. You have not had the right conditions to be as magnificent as you truly are.”

Penelope wanted to cry. No one had ever said something that kind to her. Not even Eloise or Colin. Her own mother certainly hadn’t. Could she get out of her family’s shackles if she accepted Lady Danbury’s help? Dare she hope for a decent match? As much as she longed for love and affection, she was pragmatic. A decent, kind man with a comfortable living would be more than good enough if it meant escaping Mama’s schemes and control. But still, she had questions.

“I do not wish to offend you, Lady Danbury, but what would this sponsorship entail?” Penelope asked carefully.

“I would have you stay with me for the season, of course. You will get a new wardrobe and lessons, should I find your education not up to snuff. And I will use my many connections to help you find a husband.”

As tempting as this possibility was, Penelope Featherington was no fool. One did not become London’s most notorious gossip columnist and escape being revealed without being cautious. This could be a trap. Lady Danbury was close with the queen, was she not? Why waste money on her?

Penelope mustered up her courage and asked boldly: “And what do you get in return?”.

Lady Danbury seemed surprised by her question. “Is Christian charity not enough reason for you?” she drawled after regaining her slipped composure.

“I am sorry, Lady Danbury, but I have been hurt one too many times to believe in such a thing,” she said earnestly, not meeting Lady Danbury’s eyes. Her parents used Marina and Marina used them right back. Cousin Jack may have had some good intentions, but his failed ruby scheme further ruined the Featherington’s already tarnished reputation. And Colin… Well, Colin liked to play the hero to help his own ego rather than a desire to actually help the Featheringtons. His comments to the other gentlemen revealed what he really thought.

“It is rather stuffy in here,” Lady Danbury said casually as if Penelope wasn’t close to spilling her heart out in the make-shift ballroom, “I fancy a breath of fresh air. Would you join me, Miss Featherington, for a walk in the gardens?”

Immediately, Penelope picked up the hint: Lady Danbury didn’t want this conversation to be overheard by the gossip mongers. Ironic that she was about to confide in the biggest gossip of them all, wasn’t it?

“A walk outside sounds refreshing,” Penelope said.

She followed her elder out to the garden. The thump of her cane was actually somewhat soothing to Penelope’s nerves. It was incredibly steady as no one bothered to stop them. Why would they? Everyone was scared of Lady Danbury and most pitied Penelope. The darkness outside was slightly staved off by the glow emitting from the large conservatory windows. Still, Lady Danbury led her to a shadowy corner of the garden where a small bench sat. If Penelope desired to hunt for couples out for a rendezvous, this was the exact spot she would pick.

“You are incredibly astute for a girl your age,” Lady Danbury said as she settled onto the bench.

“Thank you?” Like many things Lady Danbury said, it was hard to decipher if that was meant to be a complement or an insult.

“Do not fret, I meant it as a compliment,” Lady Danbury explained.

Penelope nodded.

“As to your question of what I get out of my proposal: I get many things. Firstly, it was to do with my pride. I did not originally intend to tell you this when I came up to you, but I see you are much too smart for me to withhold information,” Lady Danbury sighed before continuing, “You see, the queen has told me the young lady whom she plans to name her diamond. I, perhaps inadvisedly, disagreed with her choice.”

Penelope was dying to ask who the queen’s choice was, but smartly kept her mouth shut.

“She questioned who I was championing this year and when I told her I had no one, she questioned my matchmaking abilities. As you so sneakily pointed out earlier with Miss Cowper, I have problems keeping my opinions to myself. But you and I know I am always right.”

“Of course,” Penelope agreed.

“Smart girl,” Lady Danbury sniffed, “Because I could not keep my mouth shut, the queen issued me a challenge to turn an ugly duckling into a swan and make a better match than her diamond.”

“And she picked me?” Penelope asked. She had an odd feeling that she had attracted the queen’s eye, even if it was for her pathetic nature.

“No, I did.” Penelope must have made a noise of some sort because Lady Danbury continued, “Oh, do not take it as an insult, Miss Featherington. I picked you because I do see potential in you. I meant what I said when I called you a rare flower. Even in the few moments we have spent together this evening, I see even I have underestimated you. There is a spark within you that I think if we can harness it, you can shine brighter than any of the queen’s diamonds.”

“You are mixing your metaphors, Lady Danbury. Am I a flower? Or a jewel? Or a flame?” Penelope quipped, trying to slyly wipe away the stray tears that had escaped her eyes.

Lady Danbury barked out a laugh. “I like you, Miss Penelope.”

“And I am mildly terrified of you. Though I am beginning to think you may be a softie underneath all the prickliness.”

“Do not dare reveal all my secrets, Miss Penelope,” Lady Danbury said crossly.

“I promise your reputation is safe with me.”

After a moment, Lady Danbury continued on her explanation, “Helping you would also give me peace of mind. Miss Penelope, I have seen how your mother treats you like an afterthought. Not explicitly cruelly, perhaps, but as if she has written you off when compared to your sisters. You might not believe it, Miss Featherington, but I have not always been the imposing force you see before you. There have been… situations in my past when I should have stepped in to help sooner. Or at all. Those have been my biggest regrets. Your mother may love you- I am sure she does in her own way- but I have seen how neglect affects a child. How a lack of faith in a child affects them. I do not want to see that happen again.”

Penelope wanted to defend her mother- she was her mother after all- but Lady Danbury spoke to that hurt voice inside her. Perhaps her mother was trying her best in a bad situation, but that didn’t make up for all the hurt she had dealt Penelope.

“I understand,” Penelope whispered. A part of her wanted to say no if the queen’s eyes were to be focused on her, but Penelope was tired of how her life had been thus far. She was tired of being in control of every little thing. Of being hurt again and again. Having at least one more person in her corner, willing to help, would be lovely. She wanted to carry even an iota of Lady Danbury’s strength. “I am willing to go along with this plan, but I fear you will have to convince my mother to agree. And she is not easy to convince.”

“Oh, do not fret. Leave your mother to me.”

Chapter Text

Portia Featherington was at her wit’s end and the season had barely begun. As soon as Jack had left, irate men of the Ton demanded he either be found or they get their money back from her .  Some of these cruel men threatened legal action, so she chose to flee to the countryside to decide on her next steps.  She thought things might be finally turning around for her and her girls when Aunt Eileen wrote that she had finally found herself a husband and was bestowing them with some money in thanks for their charity over the years. However, it had been a paltry sum compared to the mountain of debt she found herself under. 

 

Unfortunately, she could see in hindsight that helping that dreadful Jack Featherington had been a mistake. It was not as if she had better options at the time. Thanks to his horrendous gambling habits and love of loose women, Archibald had practically left her and her girls penniless. Add the money Jack had stolen from the stupider gentlemen of the Ton and things had become even more desperate. A decent portion of the money she had stolen from Jack had gone to paying off the rest of Phillippa’s dowry, as the Finches seemed to be growing tired of Portia’s excuses.  Now, she had to suffer the embarrassment of renting the family seat out to a tradesman in order to slowly pay those foolish gentlemen back. She was a baroness for Christ’s sake! This shouldn’t be happening!

 

Of course, of course , this had to be the season Prudence attracted some male attention. Lord Shively or Robert Huxley would not be her first choices as her potential son-in-law, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. Shively was practically Portia’s age and had a string of bastards from various opera singers and dancers. It was not a life she wanted for her darling daughter.  Maybe if Prudence gave him an heir, he’d die quickly and Prudence could raise her son in peace. Huxley was clearly the better option despite only being heir to a baronetcy, rather than a viscount. He was only five years Prudence’s senior and no known vices. Too bad he was a dullard who talked too loud thanks to one too many hunting rifles going off near his ears.  Maybe his partial deafness could be a blessing as he didn’t have to hear Prudence sing. It was still early enough. Maybe Prudence could attract some bigger fish now that others had shown interest. But she would need a refresh of her wardrobe. Varley had threatened to quit if she didn’t have at least a cook and a handful of maids at her disposal, so limiting the household was out.

 

Penelope was sulking about more than normal, which wasn’t helpful. Why did her only intelligent daughter have to also inherit her father’s naivety about the world? Portia didn’t like to see her baby girl heartbroken, but she had warned her that Colin Bridgerton was not her “friend”. Men like that never went for girls like her. At best, he would only see her as a sisterly figure. At worst? He could see her as a willing, warm body and leave her with a bastard as he went gallivanting about the globe. Penelope should thank every lucky star she had that it was only the former and not the latter. Perhaps she would finally wisen up and listen to her mother. Portia didn’t ask for much from her youngest. Only for her to lose two stone, happily wear her yellow dresses, and to show off the other accomplishments she had that Portia had paid for beyond reading. 

 

At least Phillippa had done the one thing asked of her: married and gotten with child. Portia hoped that it was a little boy, so everyone could breathe a little easier. 

 

Potential salvation arrived in the form of an envelope sealed with a crimson ‘LD’ in wax.  

 

Why on Earth Lady Danbury had invited Portia, Prudence, and Penelope to a private tea at her home was anyone’s guess.  Agatha Danbury was often unpredictable.  The woman seemed to thrive on throwing members of the Ton into chaos whenever she was bored.  However, Portia Featherington was never one to turn down an opportunity to get ahead.  Lady Danbury was respected both by the members of the Ton and Queen Charlotte herself.  She could prove a useful ally.

 

The Featherington carriage rolled up to Lady Danbury’s home precisely at tea time.  As much as she dreaded reusing clothes, Portia had put the girls in lovely pink dresses from last season.  At least the dresses had been refreshed with new trims.  Hopefully Lady Danbury’s advancing age would be to their advantage.  The butler led the Featheringtons to the front parlor, where the old dowager was waiting.  An elaborate tea service had been set up prior to their arrival.  There were cakes and biscuits frosted elegantly and no doubt their sweetness would melt on the tongue.  Even Portia found her mouth watering as such decadence, but she knew she had to watch her figure.  She only hoped her daughters would have such restraint.

 

The three curtsied in greeting and Lady Danbury nodded in return.

 

“Lady Danbury, I must say, I was quite surprised to receive an invitation for a private tea from you,” Lady Featherington said, “But I am honored all the same.”

 

“I do like to check in with my fellow widows from time to time,” Lady Danbury said proudly, “Though I apologize for my failure to do so last season.  Between the Sharmas staying with me and you getting settled with the new Lord Featherington, I suppose it had escaped my mind.”  Considering Lady Danbury’s friendships with both Violet Bridgerton and Mary Sharma, her fondness for widows wasn’t exactly a surprise, even if it was a tad irksome that she hadn’t gotten in touch with Portia last season.

 

“That is very kind of you,” Portia simpered, “Things have been so difficult.  I believe only the other widows understand how I feel.” That wasn’t entirely true, but Lady Danbury didn’t need to know that.  As much as she liked Violet Bridgerton, she was envious that she actually had had a good marriage and multiple male heirs to take care of her.

 

“Of course.  Widowhood can be difficult.  It’s why we dowagers must help each other.” Lady Danbury gestured to the table in front of her.  “Sit, please, ladies.  I cannot eat all these cakes by myself!” she jokingly ordered.

 

As the three ladies settled themselves, Lady Danbury poured the tea.  “Any updates on that wayward young lord of yours?” she asked Portia. She surely got to the point.

 

Lady Featherington heaved a sigh.  “Unfortunately, no.  I figure he’s made his way back to the Americas by now.  Or perhaps the Continent?  Anyway, I am glad to be rid of him.  He was such a horrid man, much like his father.  Forcing himself on dear Prudence, even if it was just a mere kiss, and leaving her before they could be wed.  Scamming upstanding gentlemen.  Leaving us poor women to the hands of society.  Isn’t that right, girls?”

 

Prudence looked puzzled.  Never been a wit, that one.  However, a glare in her direction thankfully stopped her from opening her mouth.  Penelope just sighed forlornly into her teacup.  

 

Lady Danbury nodded in sympathy.  “Terrible, indeed,” she said, “Have you had any good news since the end of last season?  How is your other daughter, Mrs. Finch?  I noticed she turned down an invitation to my ball.  Is she unwell?  Or should we be expecting happy news?”

 

“Oh!  You reminded me of our good news!” Lady Featherington exclaimed, “Phillippa is with child!  She’s quite far along, actually.  The babe should be here in late May, perhaps early June.”

 

As much as she loathed to admit that she was old enough to be a grandmother, Portia was excited to become one.  As much as her daughters vexed her from time to time, they were still her biggest blessing.  A baby would be another.  

 

“Your first grandchild!  That is such a blessing,” Lady Danbury said kindly.

 

“Yes, it is.  It is one of the few good things we have right now,” Lady Featherington admitted.

 

“You seem to have such a weight on your shoulders, Portia, between one daughter about to have a child and two other daughters to marry off, I do not know how you manage,” Lady Danbury said.

 

“I had a few suitors call yesterday!” Prudence butted into the conversation.

 

“Yes!  Lord Shively called on us yesterday and Mr. Robert Huxley took Prudence on a ride in his curricle,” Portia said as cheerfully as she could muster.

 

“My, however shall you make a choice between two such…promising options?” Lady Danbury said dryly.  Prudence preened at the perceived compliment.  

 

Penelope let out a snort that she tried to hide as a cough.  Too clever by half, that one.  Portia had to put her in her place.

 

“Penelope, I have told you to eat slowly,” Lady Featherington chastised her youngest daughter.

 

“Yes, Mama,” Penelope said hollowly, likely aware she had been caught.  Her sister tittered over the girl’s embarrassment.

 

Portia turned back to Lady Danbury with a smile.  “I suppose it is quite a bit to juggle.  And it is still quite early.  I think Prudence will certainly be popular this season,” she explained.

 

“She certainly will be,” Lady Danbury said with a plastered-on smile, “Though that makes me worry for poor Miss Penelope.”

 

“Why is that?” Lady Featherington asked.  Why would Lady Danbury care about Penelope?  Maybe Violet had spoken to her.  The woman seemed uncommonly fond of her.  Perhaps it was gratitude that that wild Eloise had a friend that could encourage more ladylike behavior.  Lord knew she needed it.

 

“Well, between Mrs. Finch’s upcoming babe and juggling a bevy of suitors for Miss Featherington, I fear you will be spread so thin that Miss Penelope will not be able to find a suitable husband,” Lady Danbury said sympathetically.  

 

That thought had occurred to her.  “There is always next season, I suppose,” Lady Featherington sighed, “But she will be older so it will be much more difficult.”  Not to mention that Penelope often resisted her suggestions.  As she aged she got more stubborn about it.

 

“Of course, of course.  The gentlemen tend to prefer the younger ladies,” Lady Danbury agreed.  

 

“That they do,” Prudence mumbled under her breath, clearly still bitter that Phillippa had found a match before her.  Portia opted to ignore that comment.  Thankfully, everyone else did as well.

 

Lady Danbury spoke again.   “At my ball the other night, I had quite a pleasant conversation with Miss Penelope about the books we are both fond of.  I considered having her over to read to me once a week, as I get so lonely here by myself, but I see that you will be so busy that I doubt we can arrange that.  I can see if one of the Bridgerton girls is available-”

 

Portia sat up straighter, alarmed.  Perhaps Penelope’s love of reading could be of some benefit to the family.  “Certainly we can find some sort of arrangement,” she interrupted, “Penelope has such a lovely reading voice.  I love when she reads to me.”

 

“Oh, I do not want to trouble you, Portia,” Lady Danbury said, “I have an idea of what that rascal put you in financially and it would not be fair to ask you to spare a maid just so Miss Penelope could visit me once a week.”

 

Lady Featherington considered this line of reasoning.  Between Phillippa and Prudence, she would have her hands full.  Phillippa was already fretting that everything had to be perfect.  And as last season showed, Prudence needed more than ample guidance in husband hunting.  Varley, although loyal, would likely be annoyed at her if she sent a maid out with Penelope just so she could read to an old widow for a few hours a week.  There were their financial and social situations to consider, which was to say: bleak.  Perhaps if Penelope were to ingratiate herself in with Lady Danbury, she could introduce Prudence to higher caliber suitors.  Maybe Lady Danbury had a bookish relation she could introduce Penelope to that would let her youngest finally forget her little crush on Colin Bridgerton.  An ingenious idea popped into her head.  Decision made, crocodile tears welled up in her eyes and she put a hand to her forehead.  “Oh, Lady Danbury.  May I speak honestly, widow to widow?” she asked.

 

“Of course,” the old dowager replied.

 

“I like to show a brave face to the world- so have my girls- but things have been difficult for quite some time.  Lord Featherington has left us in such a tangle that I fear we shall be forced to beg the Finches for support sooner rather than later.  As much as it pains me to ask, as I adore Penelope so much, would you possibly consider taking her in as a ladies’ companion?  She is such a bright young lady and has excellent manners.  And she speaks so highly of you.”

 

Lady Danbury smiled before taking a sip of tea.  “Oh, Miss Penelope is much too young to seek employment as a ladies' companion,” she dismissed.

 

That comment alarmed her.  Certainly, she had gotten the old woman’s pity.  “I know, but we are-”

 

Lady Danbury elegantly held up a hand to silence her.  “Do not fret, Lady Featherington.  I am more than willing to sponsor Miss Penelope for the season, much like I did for the two Miss Sharmas last season.  I shall like her to stay with me, of course, as I do long for company.”

 

“Of course,” Portia parroted.

 

“Given my advanced age, I have more than my fair share of connections.  There are a few that immediately come to mind that might capture Miss Penelope’s attention.  Perhaps I shall send a few more your way, Miss Featherington,” Lady Danbury said.

 

“You are extremely kind, Lady Danbury,” Portia exclaimed.

 

“Miss Penelope, would this arrangement satisfy you?” Lady Danbury asked Portia's youngest daughter.

 

Penelope’s eyes went wide.  “I shall miss my mama and my sisters very much,” she said shyly, “but I am honored by your kindness, Lady Danbury.”

 

“Oh, Penelope, we shall still see each other at balls and other events,” Portia explained.  

 

Penelope nodded.

 

Lady Danbury smiled at them all.  “Then it is settled,” she said, “When you leave, I shall have a room set up for Miss Penelope.  I trust you shall have her packed by tomorrow morning, Lady Featherington?”

 

“Of course!” Portia said.  This was going better than she expected.  

 

“Perfect.  I will pick Penelope up from your house at eleven o’clock sharp tomorrow.”

 

Portia could hardly contain her giddiness the rest of the visit.

Chapter Text

“Why hasn’t Penelope visited yet?” 

 

Eloise looked up from her book to glare at the annoying figure of her youngest and nosiest sister, Hyacinth.  

 

“We had a row,” she deadpanned before going back to her book.

 

“What about?” Hyacinth couldn’t help but ask.  It was known amongst the Bridgertons that if you answered one of Hyacinth’s questions, be prepared for seven more.

 

“Yes, Eloise, what about?” Gregory chimed in, “We miss her.  She’s always been nicer to us than you.”

 

His smile was the same one that crossed Colin’s face when he was in a devious mood.  Cheeky idiot.  Lord help them all now that he was heading into his teenage years.

 

“That’s because she doesn’t have to live with you,” Eloise snapped, sending him a glare over the now swimming words in her book.

 

“Seriously, El.  We are worried about you,” Benedict had to give his thoughts as well.  Why was everyone in this family so opinionated? “You have been, well, crankier than normal.  Certainly we can figure out something.”  

 

That was rich, coming from Benedict.  Ever since he found out Anthony had donated his way for Benedict to get into art school, the man had been moping about whatever home he was in while often reeking of alcohol.  As much as Eloise understood Benedict’s feelings, it was hardly enough to feel sorry for him. If Eloise had the opportunity to do something with her life, she would have taken it even if her brother used his connections for it to happen.

 

Life was so unfair.  Why could Benedict and Colin go out on their own and she couldn’t?  Why was she stuck inside all the time, forced to practice “accomplishments” that meant very little?  Why did Penelope have to be correct that she was all talk and no action?

 

Already sick of her siblings’ badgering, Eloise shouted, “Am I not allowed to be upset about my friend betraying me?!”  Her siblings looked at her with wide eyes.

 

Oh no, she didn’t mean to say that.  It just slipped out.  As mad as she had been with Penelope, she wasn’t planning on telling anyone her biggest secret.

 

“Betrayed?” Ben asked in disbelief, “What on Earth has Penelope done to betray you?”

 

Eloise thought quickly.  “She criticized me for what Lady Whistledown reported,” she said. That wasn’t untrue. Penelope had repeatedly tried to warn her that running off to see Theo was dangerous. Yes, it was likely to save her own secret, but she had warned it would hurt her reputation if it came out. 

 

“El, what you did was incredibly reckless, need I remind you,” Benedict said, “Going to political rallies unchaperoned?  You could have been seriously hurt. Not to mention arrested.”

 

“But I wasn’t!” Eloise argued.  Well, that wasn’t entirely accurate.  Her heart got broken, but her siblings absolutely did not need to know that.  Anthony would have a fit if he found out she had been secretly meeting a boy and a lower class one at that.  Then there was the entire thing with the Queen, which was arguably much worse than being arrested.  But she would be damned if she got a lecture on stupid behavior from one of her brothers.  At least she was trying to better herself.

 

“I think they sound like fun,” Hyacinth said.

 

Eloise pointed to Hyacinth while looking at Ben as if to say ‘see’.  

 

“No offense, Hy, but you’re a child,” Benedict said, “Your opinion on safety doesn’t count for much.”

 

“Since when have you turned into the family fun killer?” Eloise asked while crossing her arms.  He sounded like Anthony, not himself.  Benedict was always supposed to be on her side.  Her two younger siblings giggled.

 

“Unfortunately, that’s the spare’s job when the heir is on his honeymoon,” Benedict said.

 

“Well, technically, you are the heir right now.  Until Anthony and Kate have a son.  Anthony is the viscount, not the heir,” Hyacinth said smartly.  Eloise rolled her eyes.

 

“Let me revise my previous statement then,” Benedict said with a laugh, “Unfortunately, that’s the heir’s job when the viscount is on his honeymoon.”

 

“And Mother is running an errand,” Gregory added.

 

“Quite right, Greg,” Eloise said proudly, “Just because Anthony is technically the head of the family because he just so happened to be born a man doesn’t mean Mother isn’t actually in charge.”

 

“Oh, am I in charge?” Violet Bridgerton asked as she entered the drawing room, “Why is it then that no one seems to listen to me?”

 

“In fairness, no one really listens to Anthony either,” Francesca said, following behind her mother. She gracefully set herself on the unclaimed chaise. How Francesca could make lounging about look downright elegant was a mystery unknown to all. 

 

“How was the modiste or haberdashery or wherever respectable ladies go?” Benedict asked, sparing a teasing glance at Eloise.  She glared at him in return.

 

“We went to the stationary shop,” Lady Bridgerton said, “to pick out new calling cards with our new address.”

 

The family had just moved a few blocks away to a house they simply named Number Five in order to give Anthony and Kate privacy for their inevitable return home from their honeymoon.  It was a smaller home, but still more than spacious enough for them.  Eloise’s main complaint was that now she’d have to visit her former home to scour the library, as this house did not have one.  

 

“And you didn’t invite me for my artistic input? I am offended, Mother,” Benedict joked. 

 

“I did invite you, but you were groaning into your porridge about something or other,” Lady Bridegerton pointed out. 

 

“I recall it was about not waiting to go out in the ‘damned sunlight’,” Francesca said quietly. Eloise, being the only one who heard it, snorted into her hand.

 

“I suppose it was for the best,” Ben dramatically sighed.  A mischievous look crossed his face and he looked straight at Eloise.  “Who knows what those three would be up to without an adult around?”

 

If Benedict wanted her to make a quip, she wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction.  She silently went back to her book.

 

The younger children took Benedict’s bait, however.  “Hey!  We would be perfectly fine without you,” Hyacinth argued.

 

“Well, I would be,” Gregory said, “Hy would put a frog in someone’s bed.”

 

Typical for them, Hyacinth and Gregory began arguing.  It was impossible to follow as they kept yelling over one another.  The noise made Eloise even more agitated than she already was.

 

“Mother,” she said while standing up, “I have a splitting headache.  May I go lie down in my room?”

 

“Of course, darling,” Violet said, “I hope you feel better soon.  We have errands to run this afternoon.”

 

Eloise thanked her mother and fled.

 

Her bedroom, no matter the house she was staying in, had become her sanctuary since her fight with Penelope.  Between Anthony’s marriage to Kate, Colin’s departure to Italy, and moving the rest of the family to Number Five, everyone seemed to assume Eloise was still upset about the reveal of her association with political radicals.  Or that she was cranky about  being under strict surveillance.  As her family had given her a wide berth of space- a rarity in the Bridgerton family- she did not wish to correct them.  Today was the first time anyone seemed to have noticed anything about Penelope.  No one had noted Eloise hadn’t received a letter from her, nor had she sent one off in return.  She had to give her friend credit for being right: most people did seem to ignore her.  Even a family that liked her did.  That thought almost made Eloise want to cry. 

 

She felt the sting of tears in her eyes threatening to leave when there was a subtle knock on her door.  “Eloise, darling, may I come in?” her mother’s soft voice could be heard through the thick oak.

 

“I suppose,” Eloise croaked out.  

 

There was the sound of her door quietly swinging open and then clicking shut.  Her mother’s footsteps were softened by the room’s plush rug.  The bed sank as Violet Bridgerton perched on the edge.  Eloise felt the tips of her fingers push back her fringe.  

 

“Hyacinth told me that you and Penelope had a row?  Are you all right?” Violet asked softly.

 

Eloise shook her head no.

 

“When was this?”

 

“During the Featherington’s ball last season,” Eloise whispered.

 

“No wonder you have been out of sorts these past months.  I thought you were just upset about the move.  I apologize for not catching on sooner,” Violet said.

 

“That makes two of us,” her daughter thought.

 

When Eloise didn’t speak, Violet tried again, “Do you wish to talk about it?”

 

Eloise sighed.  “It was about a lot of things,” she admitted.  She had bottled things up inside for months and she wanted to come clean.  Well, mostly.

 

“Like what?”

 

“Can I tell you everything and you wait to lecture me until the end?” Eloise asked.

 

“I can certainly try,” Violet said, rubbing her shoulder.  

 

Eloise chose not to physically face her mother while telling her story as it would be too hard to face her disappointment.  Instead, she faced the wall.  “So, I may have been doing more than associating with political radicals,” she started.

 

She felt her mother take a sharp intake of breath.

 

“Please make no judgments until the end!” Eloise said frantically.

 

“Alright,” Violet said and squeezed her arm to continue.

 

“That pamphlet on dog grooming?  You remember that?  I thought the paper looked similar to Lady Whistledown’s, so I decided to pay that printer a visit to see if they published her, so I could try to talk to her.  See if she could discuss things of more consequence.  I met the printer’s apprentice there and he refused to tell me anything about Whistledown, but he gave me a fascinating publication on women’s rights.  Some weeks later, I saw him again at a lecture on women's education and we debated points in the article he gave me.  I may have developed an…affection for him.  His name is Theo.  At first it was intellectual curiosity and friendship, but it developed into fondness.  Though I promise I never acted on my affection!  But we met a few times.  Penelope knew about it.  She warned me that it was unsafe to keep going back to the printer’s shop, but I did not listen.  The last time I went to see Theo, he told me that he was discouraged from seeing me, given our statuses, and that I was privileged because of my family.  We ended our visits.  Then Lady Whistledown’s article about me came out.  I couldn’t handle the attention at the Featherington’s Ball, so I went to hide in Penelope’s room.  I found out a secret she had been keeping from me.  She found me there.  We argued about the situation with Theo and other things.  We said absolutely awful things to one another and I told her that I never wanted to see her again.  And I feel so bad because she was my dearest friend in the world and I miss her, but I am still upset with her.”  

 

Sobs wracked Eloise’s body as she let everything out.  She hadn’t cried in such a long time.  As much as it hurt, there was a feeling of release now that she had finally told someone her thoughts.

 

“Oh, Eloise,” her mother sighed, “That sounds like quite a mess.”

 

Eloise turned over and buried her head in her mother’s lap to cry some more, like she had as a little girl.  Her mother stroked her hair all the while.  

 

After all the tears left her body, Eloise tried to calm down and breathe.  

 

“Are you ready to talk things through?” Violet asked.

 

“I supposed I don’t have much of a choice,” Eloise grumbled as she sat up and wiped her eyes.  Her mother gestured for her to lay her head on her shoulder.  She did.  Violet laid a comforting arm around her.  

 

“First off, I am sorry you found yourself heartbroken by that young man.  I am going to trust what you said that nothing untoward happened and as long as you promise not to do something that reckless again, it shall become our little secret,” Violet said.

 

“I promise,” Eloise said.  If it meant Anthony wouldn’t hear about it, she would agree to almost anything, lest she end up forced to wed some idiot her brother picked.

 

“Good.  As much as I want you to pursue your passions, I don’t want you to get yourself hurt- physically or emotionally.  It can be dangerous for us in certain areas of town.  Unfortunately, there are certain bounds we find ourselves in as women of our status and they are extremely difficult to break.  Sometimes we can only work within the means we have.  Perhaps, if you want to improve women’s lives directly, the two of us can find a charity to support?  Like one for war widows and orphans?  Is that acceptable?”

 

“I suppose.”  It wasn’t the worst idea that had been suggested.  In fact, she could work with it.  See how other women lived.  

 

“Maybe if you find yourself desiring to go to another lecture, we can talk to Benedict about escorting you.”

 

Eloise perked up at that.  “Really?” she asked.

 

“I cannot make promises, but maybe after a while, we can bring it up to him.  I am sure he would have some ideas on how to go about it,” her mother said, “As for Penelope, I am sorry that happened, but I feel you two can work it out.”

 

Eloise was skeptical.  “How?” 

 

“You two have been dear friends since you were Hyacinth’s age.   I think you just need to talk things through.”

 

Eloise raised her eyebrows at her.  Violet took both of her daughter’s hands in hers.

 

“Darling, think about what you just told me.  You were going through a difficult time.  Heaven knows Penelope has been through enough, especially in the past few years.”

 

“What do you mean?”  Eloise asked, “I know her father’s passing was unfortunate and her mother and sisters can be a bit ridiculous, but I do not think their scandals have been any worse than ours.”

 

Violet looked at her daughter in confusion.  “Surely you’ve seen how, heard that…oh dear.  I hate to spread gossip, but there are things I think you should know, Eloise.  Do you remember how Lord Featherington’s death was rather sudden?”

 

Eloise nodded. 

Her mother looked at the door before leaning in to whisper, “There are some…disagreements amongst various members of the Ton about who or how, but practically everyone is in agreement that Lord Featherington’s death was not natural.”  

 

Eloise gasped.  “What?” she asked.  How had she not been told this before?

 

“From what the rumor is, he had an inordinate amount of gambling debt.  Most people suspect he did not pay back the right people in time.  Very dangerous people.  Do you understand?”

 

“Yes,” Eloise said quietly.  Poor Penelope.

 

“I am sorry to upset you, but I felt you should know,” her mother said sympathetically, “Then, of course, the new Lord Featherington tricked all those men out of money and ran off.”

 

“Wait, what?” 

 

“Eloise, it’s all everyone talked about for months,” Violet said in disbelief, “You must have been truly upset if you failed to notice the Featheringtons left for the countryside after their ball.”

 

Sadly to say, she hadn’t noticed the Featheringtons’ absence for a fortnight.  The news that Penelope was Lady Whistledown had put her into a fog for a long time.  She certainly did not read the last Whistledown.  Any mention of it had made her snappish, so her family didn’t divulge the contents to her.  Eventually, she had heard news of some ruby mine scandal, but had not heard that Lord Featherington was behind it.  Penelope was right, she really didn’t notice things if they didn’t pertain to her.

 

“Oh.”

 

“I do not know how Lady Featherington plans to bounce back from this scandal,” Violet sighed.

 

“It’s not her fault that those men caused the family scandal!” Eloise said in Lady Featherington’s defense.  She couldn’t believe she was saying that.

 

“Yes, I know,” her mother said carefully, “And I do often sympathize with her, but sometimes her solutions to these scandals can be reckless and further damage the family’s reputation.  I highly doubt she did not know of Miss Thompson’s pregnancy before her failed marriage to Colin. And, at least to me, she likely orchestrated Prudence and the new Lord Featherington’s engagement.  They were found in an orchard together, but no one had observed any particular affection between the two of them before then.  Nor after.  Lord Featherington clearly had his eyes set on Cressida Cowper, as he had gifted her a necklace.  I would not be surprised if Lady Featherington had thrown Prudence in his path out of sheer desperation.  And look where it got her.  It is downright cruel to force those girls into another season in town when a decent portion of the Ton is angry about Lord Featherington’s scam, even if it wasn’t Lady Featherington’s fault.  Their reputation is in shambles.  Besides, no one knows what their financial situation is.  Who knows if either girl has a proper dowry?  I am of half a mind to ask if Penelope can stay with us before Portia can hurt her specifically.  Heaven knows she’s belittled her enough.  It makes my blood boil whenever I hear her criticize Penelope like she does.”  

 

Eloise was shocked by all this information.  She knew Penelope had difficulties with her mama and her sisters, but she had assumed it was about wearing colors she didn’t like or not fitting in like Eloise with her own family.  If what her mother was saying was true, no wonder Penelope spent all her time with the Bridgertons.  Lady Featherington was a snake.  Eloise always found the woman ridiculous, but she was clearly more cunning than she let onto the world.

 

How had she failed to notice her best friend’s problems?  While Penelope was clearly good at hiding some of her secrets, as it had been pointed out to her, sometimes Eloise failed to listen.  It happened before.  In her self-isolation, Eloise poured over Penelope’s letters and compared them to Lady Whistledown’s columns.  The syntax was similar.  Both writings showed a fondness for puns and contained quick wit.  Some of Penelope’s early letters were definitely juvenile, but the core of what would become Lady Whistledown’s Society Papers were present.  The proof had been there all along and she had been too blind to see it.  Looking back on it, Eloise recalled how quiet Penelope would be in her mama’s presence.  The hurt that would cross her face when Lady Featherington made a spectacle of herself or her family.  How little Lady Featherington drew attention to Penelope.  The only thing she was not sure of was whether Penelope was aware of the extent of her father’s gambling problem, but being perceptive, she might have.

 

“I am sorry, Eloise, for going off like that,” Lady Bridgerton said, “I just do not understand how a mother can put her children in harm’s way the way Lady Featherington does.  Perhaps I am being unfair to her-”

 

“No!” Eloise said, “I think that you have been more than fair to her.  Looking back on it, she does treat Pen rather poorly.  I just feel awful that I failed to notice it.  I’m a terrible friend, aren’t I?”

 

“Oh, Eloise.  I don’t think you are.  When you are passionate about something, you may become too focused on it, but we can work on that.  I do not want you to lose your passion, but it would be wise to widen your worldview.  You are young and you haven’t much life experience.  Besides, you had a very fortunate upbringing.  Your father and I loved each other very much. That unfortunately isn’t common among married couples of our station.  And as bossy and stubborn we find Anthony, he did step up to his responsibilities at a very young age.  He loves all of us and has taken great care of this family, like your father before him.  You have never had to worry about family finances or your health or whether you will have a place to live in the future.  Perhaps I should have tried harder to help you understand and I apologize for that.  We can take this as a learning experience.”

 

“Alright,” Eloise said bashfully, “And thank you for listening.  And telling me everything.”

 

“You’re welcome, Eloise,” Lady Bridgerton said, tucking a stray lock of hair behind Eloise’s ear, “I hope you can resolve things with Penelope.  I rather like her, you know.  I’ve wanted her to make her an official Bridgerton for years.”

 

Eloise wrinkled her nose.  “She’d have to marry Benedict or Colin to be official.  And even I wouldn’t subject her to that.”

 

Her mother laughed.  “Oh, your brothers aren’t so bad.  I’ll leave you to fresh up.  We have a fitting with Madame Delacroix in an hour.”











If Penelope hoped for a sincere goodbye from her mother and sister, she was sadly mistaken.  Prudence seemed bitter that Penelope of all people was getting special attention.  Her behavior wasn’t surprising, even if it was disappointing.  Neither was Lady Featherington’s behavior.  Ever since they got back into their carriage after Lady Danbury’s tea, her mother had constantly switched between downright glee over their good luck and badgering Penelope with “advice” and “reminders”.  She clearly did not believe that Penelope knew had to conduct herself as a guest in someone else’s home.

 

The one good thing from Penelope’s frustrating venture in the country was that her Lady Whistledown funds were now safely ensconced in a bank.  She didn’t have to find a place to stow them in Lady Danbury’s house or pray that her mother, sister, or maids wouldn’t find her hiding spot.  Instead, she watched calmly as her mother and Mrs. Varley instructed the couple maids still in their employment in proper packing techniques.  Penelope already packed more personal items in an old sewing box: letters, the first quill she used to write Whistledown, an embroidered handkerchief she had gifted her papa, the dance card from the first time she danced with Colin.  As much as she wanted to burn Colin’s letters after what he said to Lord Fife, she found couldn’t do it.  They were so wonderfully written.  His descriptions of the magnificent Acropolis in Athens held the same weight as a simple olive grove in the countryside.  As they were one of her few escapes to the world outside her home, she was unable to destroy them.  Instead, they were tied with a blue ribbon and stowed away amongst her dearest possessions.  

 

Lady Danbury arrived promptly at eleven o’clock the next morning in her fine carriage.  Penelope watched from her typical perch at the window as a footman helped the dowager down.  A peculiar mix of excitement, anticipation, and dread bubbled in her stomach.  What if her mother suddenly decided she couldn’t stay with Lady Danbury?  What if this was all a trap set up by the queen to expose her secret?  What if she failed to impress this woman?  What if she had to go back to her mother’s house?  

 

“Penelope!” her mother called, “Quit your daydreaming and get ready to leave!  I won’t let this opportunity go to waste because of your dillydallying!”

 

“Yes, Mama!” 

 

Penelope grabbed her reticle and went to the front hall where Lady Danbury was now entering.  As Prudence had been whisked away for another curricle ride by Robert Huxley ten minutes earlier, there was only her mother and Mrs. Varley to say goodbye to.  Varley spared a nod and muttered “good luck”.  Her mama brought her into an awkward hug.

 

“Oh, my baby!” she cried, “This house will be so quiet without you!”  Penelope was glad her mama’s shoulder masked the brunt of her responding snort.  Of all the words to associate with Penelope, “chatty” was not one of them.  

 

Her mama broke their hug and held her at arms’ length.  “I will see you at the next ball?”

 

“Yes, Mama,” Penelope said dutifully.

 

“Be sure to write Mrs. Finch out in the countryside.  I know she would love to hear from you.”

 

“Yes, Mama.”

 

“And don’t gorge yourself on sweets-”

 

Now Penelope was becoming impatient.  “ Yes , mama,” she sighed.

 

“Lady Featherington,” Lady Danbury said, “As much as I hate to interrupt this…touching goodbye, I must remind you that she will only be a few streets away.  It is not as if I am whisking her away to the Continent.  There will be plenty of opportunities to see one another soon.” 

 

Lady Featherington let her daughter go.  “Of course!  How silly of me, Lady Danbury!  I am just so rarely separated from my girls.  You know how it is,” she said with forced good humor.  

 

“Of course,” Lady Danbury said gracefully, “Are you ready, Miss Penelope?”

 

“Yes, Lady Danbury,” she said before turning back to her mother, “Mama, I will see you sooner than you think, but I will miss you all the while.  But do not fear because I will be in Lady Danbury’s capable hands.  Please give Prudence my love when she returns.”  She stood on her tiptoes and placed a kiss on her mother’s cheek.  “Goodbye, Mama.”

 

“Goodbye my Penelope.”

 

With a final squeeze of her mother’s hand, Penelope turned her back and joined Lady Danbury.

 

Once safely in the carriage, Lady Danbury spoke, “I know we just left your home, but would you be accepting to a visit to the modiste before we go back to my home?  I feel it would be better to place an order with Madame Delacroix as soon as possible.”

 

Oh, right, a new wardrobe was part of the arrangement.  She was curious what Lady Danbury had in mind for her.  Hopefully, she would be allowed some input.  It was only her mama’s distraction with Prudence and limited funds that let her have an iota of choice last season.  She was just beginning to enjoy that freedom.  “I suppose,” Penelope said.

 

“I do not mean to offend you, but if you are fond of yellows and oranges-”

 

“I am not,” Penelope interrupted.

 

“Oh, good,” Lady Danbury said, looking genuinely relieved, “I take it they are all your mother’s doing?”

 

“She says they are ‘happy colors’ and that ‘happy girls find husbands’,” Penelope explained, “While they are beautiful in nature and perhaps as a room color, I do not think they look particularly good on me.”

 

“What colors would you like to wear?” Lady Danbury asked.

 

Oh, so she might be getting input in her wardrobe after all.  “I do like pink,” Penelope admitted, “But not as bright of a shade my mama is fond of.  More of the colors you would find in flowers.  Perhaps purple would be nice, like a lilac? Um, I would like to wear more greens and blues.  I had to conspire with Madame Delacroix in order to get a green dress made for me once.”

 

“Was it the one you wore to Aubrey Hall?” Lady Danbury asked.

 

“I am surprised you remember, but yes, it was,” Penelope said with a smile.

 

“It was a lovely dress on you.”

 

“Thank you,” Penelope said bashfully.  When Genieve had shown her that sketch, Penelope fell in love with it instantly. The dress was a perfect shade of spring green. The flowers at the neckline and the hem were saved from being overpowering by their uniform color.  Falling fully under her bust, the bodice would be extremely flattering for her figure.  The two of them used Lady Featherington’s distraction over Prudence to their advantage. During ordering, Madame Delacroix said it would be yellow.  When it arrived at the Feathington house in green the day before they were set to leave for Aubrey Hall, she blamed a new apprentice for not being able to read her handwriting.  As an apology, Genieve offered a discount on the dress.  Lady Featherington only let Penelope wear it because she couldn’t possibly let her rewear a dress to the Bridgertons’ house party and she had no other new dresses to wear.

 

“Well, I think the colors you mentioned will be more than satisfactory,” Lady Danbury said, “Of course, you shall have to wear some of the dresses you packed until Madame Delacroix is able to furnish your new wardrobe.  But I suppose we will just have to pick the ones that do not give us a headache.”

 

Penelope laughed.

 

After some further conversation, the carriage stopped in front of the modiste’s shop.  Penelope slightly feared what Genieve would think of Lady Danbury’s sponsorship.  The older woman always complained about Lady Featherington’s gaudy taste in private with her, but she could be just as worried as Penelope over Lady Danbury’s noisiness.  Her livelihood was as much on the line as Penelope’s.  She had agreed to continue to help Penelope with Whistledown and hopefully she would not back out.

 

No one was in the front when Lady Danbury and Penelope entered.  

 

Genieve’s heavily accented voice called out, “I shall be with you in a moment!  I am with a customer.”

 

Another voice could be heard.  An extremely familiar voice to Penelope.  “Really, Mother?  Amethyst?  It is like you want people to mistake me for Daphne.”

 

“It is for the Queen’s Bejeweled Ball, Eloise,” Lady Bridgerton’s sensible voice responded, “It was either amethyst or rose quartz and I thought you would prefer purple.  You wear it all the time.”

 

A wave of nausea hit Penelope.  Eloise was here?  They hadn’t spoken since their fight at the Featherington ball.  Would Eloise say something rude?  Or would she ignore her entirely?  Penelope was not sure which option was worse.

 

“Are you alright, Miss Penelope?  You suddenly seem a hair terrified,” Lady Danbury asked.

 

“Eloise and I had a fight,” Penelope explained, “We have not spoken in many months.”

 

“I was not aware of that,” Lady Danbury said, “I would offer an escape with my carriage, but I did send it back to my house so the maids could unpack your things.”

 

“Of course,” Penelope thought.  She honestly wouldn’t be surprised if Lady Danbury had arranged the whole thing.

 

“Speaking as a woman of advanced age,” Lady Danbury said slyly, “sometimes fate has a nasty habit of interfering in our problems.  Who are we to question it?  This could be a golden opportunity to resolve your issues with Miss Bridgerton.”

 

“I only hope you are correct,” Penelope sighed.

 

“Oh!  Lady Danbury!  Miss Penelope!  What a surprise to see you together,” Genieve said, entering the main area of the shop, “How may I help you?  The Bridgerton ladies are almost done.”  If she was alarmed over their appearance, she quickly squashed it down.

 

“Madame Delacroix, I hate to inconvenience you with the season already starting, but I have decided to sponsor Miss Featherington this year,” Lady Danbury explained, “While I admire your excellent craftsmanship in her old gowns, I wish to order a new wardrobe for Miss Penelope that is more suited to her coloring.”

 

A small smirk crossed Madame Delacroix’s face and then her professional demeanor returned.  “That shall be quite a bit of work and with the queen’s ball fast approaching, I will be very busy, but I think I can manage to complete a few dresses for Miss Penelope before the end of next week.”

 

Lady Danbury looked towards Penelope, who nodded.  “I think that will be acceptable, Madame Delacroix.”

 

“I am so happy, Lady Danbury.  You two can look around the shop while I finish with Lady Bridgerton.  We can discuss ideas when I return.”  With a swish of her skirts, Madame Delacroix went back to the Bridgertons.

 

Hesitantly, Penelope walked toward a display of blue fabric.  

 

“Good heavens, girl, the fabric is unable to bite you,” Lady Danbury quipped, “There is no need to be afraid.”

 

Penelope turned over her shoulder.  “I fear my mama is going to pop out behind a screen any moment to stop me,” she said sheepishly.

 

Lady Danbury softened.  “Then I would trip her with my cane,” she said.

 

Penelope listened as Lady Danbury’s footsteps and cane took her to the counter where a book of fashion plates resided.  There was the occasional page flip and grumble.  While many of those drawings were lovely, Penelope wondered if she could convince Lady Danbury and Genieve to let her wear some of Genieve’s original designs.  She was quite fond of the ones that she had seen.  

 

The Bridgertons entered the main room while Penelope was admiring a lovely green silk brocade.  

 

“Oh, Penelope!  Lady Danbury!  What a pleasant surprise to see you both here,” Lady Bridgerton said in her warm tone, “But, Penelope, dear, are you here unchaperoned?  I do not see your mama.”  She looked quizatively around the room, as if anyone could miss Lady Featherington in her bright colors.

 

Penelope was at a loss for words.  How should she explain her situation?   Fortunately, Lady Danbury stood tall and said, “Actually, Lady Bridgerton, she is here with me.  I have decided to sponsor Miss Featherington this season.”

 

Relief shown on Lady Bridgerton’s face.  “My goodness, really?” she asked.  Francesca remained as impassive as ever, but Eloise’s eyes darted between Lady Danbury and Penelope.

 

“Yes,” Lady Danbury said, “I had quite a delightful conversation with Miss Featherington at my ball over our favorite books.  Given her normally quiet nature, I was pleasantly surprised to discover how clever and witty she is.  Considering the Featheringtons’ current predicament and my own loneliness after the Sharmas moved into their own lodgings, I thought sponsoring Miss Featherington would be the perfect solution.”

 

Lady Bridgerton smiled.  “That is wonderful.  As you know, we Bridgertons are extremely fond of Penelope and I hope you find her as pleasant company as we do.”

 

“I think I already do,” Lady Danbury said before leaning on her cane conspiratorially, “I could not help but overhear, but I assume you ladies were having gown fittings for the Queen’s Bejeweled Ball, is that right?”

 

“Yes, we were,” Lady Bridgerton said, “There are little changes needed here and there, but I think they will turn out beautifully.”

 

“I look forward to seeing them.  You have wonderful taste,” Lady Danbury said.

 

“Thank you.  As do you, Lady Danbury.”

 

Lady Danbury shifted in thought, “You know, I find fashion to be often a younger woman’s game.  I fear that I will make Miss Penelope into a matron before her time without some assistance from younger eyes.  If you have nowhere else to be, I am certain Miss Penelope and I would appreciate you ladies’ input.  Isn’t that right, Miss Penelope?”

 

Oh, Lady Danbury was good.  Penelope would be mad about the meddling if she wasn’t so impressed.  As much as Penelope dreaded time with Eloise, perhaps her mother and sister acting as buffer would help.  “If it is not too much trouble,” Penelope said, adding, “If you are busy, I am certain we will be in good hands with Madame Delacroix.”  

 

“Oh, we have no further errands to run, dear.  We would love to help, wouldn’t we, girls?”  Lady Bridgerton asked.  While Francesca smiled, Eloise looked paler than a ghost.  “Francesca, darling, would you help me look over fashion plates with Lady Danbury?  Eloise, why don't you look at fabric with Penelope?”

 

Penelope and Eloise stared at each other while the rest of the shop seemed to bustle around them.  Penelope hadn’t seen her friend this close in so long it was odd seeing her again.  Really, she looked terrible.  Much like herself, the dark circles under Eloise’s eyes indicated a lack of sleep.  Her skin was flushed like she had cried recently.  Penelope feared that she didn’t look much better.

 

After what felt like eons, but was in truth only a minute, Lady Danbury snapped, “Miss Bridgerton, I was unaware standing helplessly in the middle of a shop constituted looking at fabric.”

 

Stunned out of her stupor, Eloise looked over at the matriarchs.  “Of course,” she said shakily.  After taking a deep breath, she walked towards Penelope.

 

Once she was within touching distance, Penelope muttered, “Good afternoon.”

 

“Good afternoon.”

 

Penelope's mind was blank as she tried to think of what to say next.  All she could do was pet a piece of royal blue velvet that was likely meant for a coat.  The softness comforted her in this uncomfortable situation.

 

“That, um, would make a nice riding habit or a hunting ensemble,” Eloise said awkwardly.

 

“Huh?” Penelope asked.

 

“The velvet,” Eloise said, “Kate has an entire riding habit made out of something similar.  Perhaps a bit darker.”

 

“Oh,” Penelope said, “I do not really ride that often.”  

 

“Right.”

 

They stood in silence a moment longer.  How could their conversation be so stilted?  When was Eloise ever this quiet?  Normally, she could chatter endlessly about nothing.  Well, if this experience was to teach Penelope self-confidence, she figured she better say something .  She mustered up all the courage she had to speak.

 

“Eloise-”

 

“Pen-” 

 

They realized they spoke at the same time.  Eloise gave a dry laugh as Penelope giggled at the awkwardness of it all.

 

“Go ahead,” Eloise said.

 

“No, you first,” Penelope deferred.

 

“Are you sure?” Eloise asked.

 

Penelope considered it.  “No, I want to hear what you have to say.”

 

“All right,” Eloise nodded.  For a moment she was silent, as if she was trying to conjure the correct words.  “I would, um, like to apologize,” her friend whispered, “for many things.  I have been made recently aware that my circumstances are not everyone’s circumstances.  When I said…the things that I said…I thought our circumstances were more similar than they were.  Looking back on it, I can now see that I was incredibly wrong.  I feel foolish for not realizing how bad things were at your home.  The signs were right there and I was too blind to see it and I should have listened to you more often.  I was wrong to call you cowardly.  You are clearly one of the bravest people I have met and stronger than anyone has ever given you credit for, including myself.  Even if I disagree with some of your methods and am certainly still mad at a few things, in all honesty, I was jealous when I put everything together.  You are incredibly brilliant and clever, Penelope.  I am in awe of what you accomplished.  If you give me the opportunity to repair our friendship, I will try and work harder to understand your perspective.”

 

Penelope was not going to cry in public like this.  She tried sniffing back a few tears, but it didn’t work.  Her bottom lip began to wobble and tears sprung from her eyes.

 

“Oh, don’t cry, Pen!” Eloise said, wrapping her in her arms, “You’re going to make me cry.  And then Lady Danbury is going to make fun of us the rest of our lives.  Well, at least the rest of her life.  Though if anyone could become a ghost just to mock others, it is her.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Penelope sobbed, even while laughing at Eloise’s comment.

 

“Oh, don’t apologize for crying,” Eloise said through tears.

 

“No, I’m sorry for everything else,” she said into Eloise’s shoulder, “I just didn’t know what to do.I probably should have tried harder to get through to everyone-”

 

“In fairness, we are all incredibly stubborn,” Eloise interrupted, “And refuse to think things through.”

 

“Don’t interrupt me!”

 

“Sorry! Sorry!”

 

“I am sorry I hurt your feelings.  You are so brilliant, I mean, really.  If anyone can pressure Oxford or Cambridge to accept women, it’s you.  Out of pure stubbornness alone.  And I’ve missed you so much!  I just want you back as my friend!  Even if you refuse to stop talking!”

 

Eloise laughed.  “You will come to regret those words.”

 

Penelope shook her head ‘no’.  She looked over her surroundings, trying to wipe away her tears.  After fishing out a handkerchief out of her reticule, she indelicately blew her nose.

 

“Oh no, I left mine at home,” Eloise groaned.  Silently, Francesca came up to them and offered Eloise her handkerchief.  “Thanks, Fran.”

 

Breathing under control and tears wiped away, Penelope asked Eloise, “Will you ever forgive me?”

 

“Oh, please.  You are stuck with me forever,” Eloise said.

 

“Good.”

 

The two girls jumped when Lady Danbury spoke.  “As happy as I am to see that you two have reconciled, can we please get back to the matter at hand?”

 

“Of course, Lady Danbury,” Penelope said.

 

After an hour of multiple inputs, a couple discarded outfit sketches, and several stifled complaints from Eloise, the group was almost done.  Surprisingly to Penelope, everyone deferred to her opinions above all else.  No one scoffed at a fabric choice if she picked it.  No one tried to dissuade her from her color palette.  Lady Bridgerton or Lady Danbury did not refuse her love of floral embellishments, the one thing Penelope could agree with her mother on.  It was the most relaxed she had been gathering a wardrobe in her life.  As Penelope secretly knew how Genieve worked better than anyone else in attendance, she made sure to not overtax her friend’s workload.  Everyone had been more than impressed at the modiste’s designs when she finally retrieved her sketchbook.  Even Eloise had expressed interest in a design or two.

 

“Now there is just the matter of the Queen’s Bejewelled Ball,” Genieve said, “That is the only one unaccounted for with known themes.”

 

“I want Penelope to stand out.  This will be her big debut,” Lady Danbury said.  Penelope wasn’t exactly thrilled at drawing attention to herself in front of her majesty, but if Lady Danbury had her mind set on it, who was she to refuse.

 

“How do we manage that?” Lady Bridgerton asked.

 

“Well, what do we expect everyone else to be wearing?” Francesca asked, “Other than jewels?”

 

“I imagine most of the Ton picked diamonds, pearls, and other light gemstones.  Isn’t that right, Madame?” Penelope asked.

 

Oui .  Most of my customers wanted silver or white and intricate beading.”

 

“Aquamarine would be lovely on Penelope.  It would bring out her eyes,” Lady Bridgerton said.

 

“That is true,” Lady Danbury agreed, “But I do not possess any jewelry with it for her to use.  Do you?”

 

“Unfortunately, just a simple bracelet,” Lady Bridgerton said.

 

“Opals are lovely,” Francesca said dreamily.

 

“It is quite difficult to achieve that effect in fabric, mademoiselle ,” Madame Delacroix said gently.  

 

Eloise popped up.  “I remember the queen said her favorite necklace contained emeralds!  Imagine a sea of silver and white and gold and suddenly Penelope enters wearing green!  That would stand out.”

 

Everyone stared at her.  

 

“What?” Eloise asked, “I know I am not as good at this ‘fashion’ thing as the rest of you but is my idea really that bad?”

 

“It is mildly unorthodox, but it is not a bad idea, Eloise,” Lady Danbury said, “In fact, I rather like it.”

 

“Really?” Eloise asked, surprised.

 

Lady Danbury nodded.  “I have a lovely set made out of emeralds and pearls.  It would go nicely against Penelope’s hair.”

 

“That sounds perfect,” Lady Bridgerton said, “Good idea, Eloise.”

 

“I can work with that idea,” Madame Delacroix said, “I have an emerald silk in the back that I think will be just the thing.  Let me find it-”

 

“Look at me, I had a good fashion idea,” Eloise said proudly to Penelope and her sister as the older women chatted.

 

“Yes, even a blind squirrel catches a nut sometimes,” Francesca muttered with a smirk.

 

Penelope let out a huge laugh while Eloise exploded at her sister.  She missed this.





Chapter Text

Italy had been a mistake.  It was odd to think such a thing as the landscape was beautiful, the culture fascinating, and the food delicious, but something had been missing for Colin Bridgerton. After a few months of traveling he realized what it was: human connection. Yes, he was traveling with a guide and a few other young gentlemen but he still felt lonely.  Honestly, some days he felt much more camaraderie with the guide than the men around his own age.  The three of them were wild young bucks who were not inclined to deep thought and had very little interest in art or culture.  Instead of taking this opportunity to learn about the world, they chose to behave wildly, gambling whatever fortunes they had away or causing general mayhem.  Oftentimes, Mr. Renaldi would have to bail them out of some sort of trouble and leave Colin to his own devices with instructions to meet them back at whatever lodgings they were staying in.  Colin, being Colin, made friends along his solo adventures, but they weren’t the sort of friends that he could spill his soul to. They were more the sort to share a friendly drink over dinner or to joke with on a tour of a historic landmark. Perhaps there would be a moment of shared awe over what they saw, but it didn’t last. No serious conversations were to be had. 

 

Colin’s letters to his family hadn’t helped matters. His siblings had always been lackadaisical correspondents and that certainly hadn’t changed in his absence. As much as he desired to learn about Anthony’s experiences in India, the time it took for letters to be sent and received rendered that exercise impractical. Besides, the two letters he had received from his eldest brother had been very Anthony: short and blunt. Benedict, usually his fellow poet, mostly complained about all the work he had to do in Anthony’s absence.  Eloise rarely wrote.  The rest of his family’s missives were mostly of no consequence: just information about their daily lives, the occasional bits of gossip, complaints about lessons.  From his last trip, Colin knew that they did not expect or want his philosophical musings about what he saw.  They preferred simple updates and amusing anecdotes.  A people pleaser to a fault, Colin obliged them.

 

All of this made Colin miss his correspondence with Pen.  She had faithfully responded to his letters during his trip to Greece, encouraging his musings and challenging him with wordplay.  He had gotten whiffs on her cleverness during their chats in ballroom corners, but it really showed in her writing.  Her puns were funny and her barbs were sharp.  On more than one occasion, Colin had laughed so hard at one of her jokes that he lost breath.  She was more than funny though; she was kind and encouraging.  When he first apologized for what Eloise would likely call a “boring ramble” of his thoughts about how insignificant he felt among the bedrock of civilization, Pen wrote back that she understood his feelings and she wished she could travel to put her problems into perspective.  Her kind words had often been a balm when he was feeling homesick.  Traveling through Italy without them made Colin kick himself over and over again.

 

It was Colin’s own stupidity that ended their correspondence.  Eloise had once told him that he was like a lost puppy that was desperate for scraps of affection and approval.  He had vehemently denied that claim, but in hindsight he could see she was right.  Somewhere in his past he had gotten it into his head that it was better if people liked him than not.  Perhaps it had been a long forgotten incident at Eton or something a stupider, younger version of one of his brothers told an impressionable Colin.  Be agreeable.  Make friends, not enemies. He wasn’t really friends with Lord Fife, Lord Cho, or any of those other men.  Why had he been so desperate for their approval?  In the early days, Colin tried to convince himself that on a high from saving the Featheringtons, he wanted to help more people.  The perfect solution was to bring men into Mondrich’s club.  He had stumbled upon this group of lordlings- more Anthony’s friends than his own- and they had invited him into their conversation.  Those men had just been disparaging their hosts when Fife asked if Colin was courting Penelope.  None of them would have taken him seriously for recommendations if he admitted his friendship with a member of one of the most ridiculous families of the Ton.  That’s why he denied it.  After months of introspection, Colin admitted to himself that rationalization was utter bullshit.  Even if his intention was to support Mondrich, the way he went about it had been a mistake.  Will would not want men like that in his club.  They were pompous, arrogant, and preferred status and looks over all else.  A real gentleman would have told those lords off for loudly insulting their hosts.  He could have denied courting Penelope by saying she was a dear family friend.  There was no reason to dismiss her as he had.  He definitely shouldn’t have laughed alongside them.  Instead, he had been cowardly and cruel to one of his closest friends.  Fife’s mocking tone had embarrassed him, plain and simple, and he panicked.  

 

Of course, the comment had been overheard and gotten to that gossip columnist.  He would have claimed that the shrubbery had ears, but a clump of inebriated gentlemen were not exactly known for being quiet.  Anyone in the garden could hear them.  No wonder Lady Whistledown got wind of it.  Her commentary on the matter had stung because it rang true.  The chewing out Colin received from his mother at the breakfast table exacerbated the headache he received from his overindulgence at Mondrich’s club and then later White’s.  He let himself experience the hangover for once because he deserved the pain.  With a pounding head and a dry mouth, he wrote his friend an apology.  Even in his hungover state, he knew what he wrote to Pen had been lackluster.  But silence was not an option.  As the thought of being assaulted by the numerous smells at the florist made his stomach turn, he sent a footman with his apology letter and instructions to buy her a bouquet of flowers.  Stupidly he thought Pen’s understanding nature would smooth things over.  Instead he received a tersely written, ‘I do not accept your apology.  PS: I am allergic to daisies.’  Her family was gone by the time he finished writing a better apology once he sobered up.

 

That had been the last letter he received from Penelope.

 

Many times in Italy, Colin tried to put ink to paper and write to her.  None of his attempts were ever good enough.  How could one quantify their regret at potentially ruining a young lady’s chances of happiness?  Or even the chance of a comfortable, safe future?  How unfair it was of him to hurt her feelings when she had been nothing but supportive and kind to him?  When he had just promised to protect her?  If one young lady deserved to have a devoted husband and a gaggle of beautiful children, it was Pen.  She was incredibly kind and had a pure heart.  A hastily written apology by a drunkard too cowardly to show his face had been inappropriate.  She certainly deserved better than one sent to her from a sea away, written in the hand of a privileged idiot not even enjoying things she would likely never see.  No, it had to be in person and sincere.

 

At a shop in Naples, Colin spotted a beautiful collection of leatherbound journals.  A rather pretty one embossed with a floral design caught his eye and he knew it would be a perfect gift for Pen.  In their many conversations, Penelope admitted that she went through quills quickly.  She had to be writing more than the customary amount of letters young ladies wrote to friends and family.  Colin imagined she must have some story in that brilliant mind of hers or maybe she kept a diary.  Either way, his gift would be of some use. The beautiful journals tempted Colin himself.  It wasn’t uncommon for travelers to keep records of their trips, so why shouldn’t he?  There were so many thoughts in his head and no one to share them with.  He might as well write them down.  So in addition to the one for Pen, he bought three for himself.  He figured it would be more than enough for this trip.    

 

The time he would have spent writing to Pen was now devoted to writing in his new journal.  It became filled with stories he gathered from other travelers, events that he witnessed both big and small, places he explored, locals he met, and musings about life.  The first journal filled up quickly.  Then the second.  Eventually, he had to buy another one in Florence because he could barely read his own handwriting in the third, the words were so small.  The other men- boys, really- would tease him for the amount of time he wrote, but Colin ignored them.  While writing didn’t entirely cure the loneliness he felt, it helped. 

 

Eventually, it was time to head home.  The sea journey had left Colin exhausted, irritable, and ravenous.  Damn Napoleon and his quest for power.  Another reason Italy had been a mistake.  It was incredibly idiotic to go so near to where the former emperor was exiled, let alone leave from there.  Of course with Colin’s luck, his ship towards England left mere days before Napoleon escaped his imprisonment.  He was fortunate enough that they hadn’t had a run-in with the Napoleonic forces, but the ship dealt with searches by the English and royalist French navies.  Although he couldn’t blame them for their diligence, Colin was annoyed that the searches held up his travel back home.  

 

Home wasn’t truly home anymore.  Thanks to Anthony’s marriage to Kate, his mother opted to move the family to their own home in order to give the newlyweds “privacy”.  On one hand, Colin understood the decision.  He did not want to walk into his brother and sister-in-law in a scandalous position as much as anyone else in his family.  However, he felt his mother could have waited a few more months for this move.  The newlyweds were not due back in the country until practically halfway through the season.  Colin wanted to fall into the comforting embrace of his own bed and smell the wisteria that hung below his window.  The room in his mother’s new home would be unfamiliar, even if she promised that it would suit him.  As comfortable as it might be, it was not the same.

 

After much travel and even more delays, Colin found himself outside Number Five.  Was he to knock?  Or just to waltz inside?  It was technically his home, but there would likely be entirely new staff.  He knew he should have sent word of his arrival at the docks.  The cab he hired had not been thrilled with the load Colin had brought with him and he had to help the cabbie unload his trunks.

 

“Are you just going to stand there? Or are you planning on knocking?” a voice called from the street.  Colin looked over his shoulder to discover his older brother Benedict standing near the gate.

 

“Ben!” Colin called and ran over to him.  His brother embraced him then led him to the door.

 

“Your face has quite an unfortunate fuzz on it.  Do not tell me that the new fashion in Italy is half-formed beards,” Benedict joked as they entered the house.

 

Colin scratched at the growth on his cheeks.  “More like rough seas and razors do not mix.”

 

“Ah,” Benedict exclaimed before giving directions to a nearby footman to bring Colin’s belongings to his room.  “I was at Bridgerton House for a meeting with our solicitors and stewards, so I am unsure who is here at the moment.  Let me tell you, I discovered why Anthony is miserable all the time.  It’s all these bloody meetings.”

 

“I thought it was dealing with you,” Colin said as Benedict opened the door to the drawing room.

 

“Look who I found on the street! The Prodigal Son returns!” Benedict yelled to the assembled party.  His mother, Francesca, and Hyacinth looked up from their needlework.

 

Hyacinth’s face shown with glee.  “Colin!” she cried as she discarded her hoop to embrace her brother.  

 

“Oh, you have to stop getting so tall!” Colin laughed as they parted.

 

“Not until I am as tall as you,” Hyacinth responded and quickly switched subjects, “You have to let me practice my Italian with you! Miss -”

 

“Hey!  Other people still need to greet him!” Gregory shouted as he pushed Hyacinth out of the way before giving Colin a quick hug.

 

“Why are you out of breath?” Benedict asked their youngest brother.

 

“Because he ran from his lessons, clearly,” Francesca answered before Gregory could, “I am glad to see you back safely.”

 

“Thank you, Fran.” He could only spare a hand to squeeze hers, as the two youngest Bridgertons refused to leave his side. 

 

While they wouldn’t leave for Fran, Hyacinth and Gregory got out of the way for their mother. 

 

“Where on Earth have you been?” Lady Bridgerton asked while enveloping Colin in a hug, “We have not received any letters from you after your one announcing your intention to head home.  I thought you would have been back by the time the season started.”

 

“You can thank Napoleon for my delay,” Colin sighed, “He escaped Elba around the same time I left Italy and given how slowly news travels on the sea, my ship was boarded and searched multiple times.”

 

His two youngest siblings exclaimed and began to barrage him with questions.  His mother opted to ignore them and asked, “My goodness!  Are you alright?” 

 

“I am perfectly fine,” Colin said,  “It was only our navy and our allies.”  

 

“Oh good,” Lady Bridgerton said, “Though that does make me worry for Kate and Anthony’s travels home-”

“They will be fine, Mother,” Colin said comfortingly, “Their route is different from mine.  Besides, I doubt the French can keep Anthony or Kate from returning home.  They are both too stubborn to let that happen.”

 

His mother smiled.  “Yes, of course,” she said, “But no more travels until this thing with Napoleon is sorted, do you understand?”

 

“Of course,” Colin agreed.  There was a snort from someone in the room.

 

Lady Bridgerton knew where it came from and turned to one of the sofas.  “Eloise, don’t you want to greet your brother?” she asked.  

 

Eloise was reading, as always, as she lounged on one of the sofas.  “No,” she said as she flipped a page, refusing to look up.  So she was in one of her moods, Colin figured.

 

“Eloise,” Colin said, “I am sorry I am provided the opportunity to travel and you are not.  You know I cannot do anything about that.”

 

Eloise rolled her eyes.  “Gregory,” she said, avoiding Colin’s gaze completely, “Can you tell our brother that I will not be speaking to him until Penelope receives a sufficient apology?”

 

“Colin, Eloise won’t talk to you until you apologize to Penelope,” Gregory said.

 

“Yes, Greg, I heard her,” Colin sighed.  Was she still mad at that?  If Penelope was, he’d understand.  He was upset with himself as well.  But Eloise?  Yes, she was a loyal friend, but she made her opinions about marriage clear enough.  More than clear, actually.  Perhaps she had changed her tune? “I will apologize to her soon, I promise,” he said.

 

Eloise continued to look unimpressed.  Before Colin could defend himself, his mother pulled him aside.  “Let me show you your room,” she said.

 

“Of course, Mother,” Colin said.

 

After his mother pulled him into the hall, Colin asked, “What was that about?  Has Eloise changed her mind on marriage all of a sudden?”

 

“Oh, Colin, you have missed so much,” his mother said, leading him to the staircase, “But, no, not entirely.  You see, Eloise didn’t know what you said until very recently.”

 

Colin barely stopped himself from tripping.  “What?”

 

His mother silently took his arm.  “She and Penelope had a row the night of the Featherington’s ball.  For obvious reasons, she didn’t read Whistledown that next morning.”

 

“That’s why she was acting funny during the wedding,” Colin said, “I thought it was because Pen had left.”  He had noticed Eloise was particularly quiet during that time.  Colin mostly tried to avoid her in case he became the focus of her ire.  

 

“She had been acting like that the entire time you’ve been gone.  Barely talking to anyone, sulking about.  I tried to get her to talk multiple times, but she wouldn’t.  Not even to Benedict,” his mother explained, “She only opened up to me a week and a half ago about what happened.  We talked through the issue and I encouraged her to talk to Penelope.  Thankfully, we ran into her at the modiste the same day and they resolved their problems.  Eloise has been a lot happier ever since.  But Penelope did tell her what you said and why it hurt her.  You are extremely lucky you did not arrive that day.  Eloise probably would have killed you.”

 

“I would not blame her if she tried,” Colin said, “What I said about Pen was awful and I intend to go to the Featherington’s house to apologize as soon as possible.  Today, even.”

 

His mother stopped him in front of a door.  “Oh, darling, as much as I want you to apologize, we need to stop with impulsive actions.  That’s gotten you and your siblings in so much trouble.”

 

“I’m not being impulsive,” Colin said, “I practiced my apology on the ship!  I have a plan.”

 

Shaking her head and sighing, his mother said, “Colin, it’s late afternoon.  Much past proper calling hours.”

 

“Then I shall call on her in the morning,” Colin said.  Instinctively, he started to head to his bedroom, but stopped when he realized he had no idea where it was.

 

“Tomorrow is the Queen’s ball.  She will be much too busy.”

 

“Certainly Lady Featherington can spare her for half-an-hour,” Colin argued.  Like a caged animal, he found himself pacing around the hallway.  Why was his mother trying to delay his apology?  She was the one who encouraged him to apologize in the first place!

 

Huffing, his mother said, “But she is not staying with her mother.  Lady Danbury is sponsoring her this season.”

 

Colin was so shocked that he froze.  “Oh,” he said, “Really?  Why?”

 

“Yes,” his mother said, “Lady Danbury likes Penelope and with the Featherington’s situation being what it is, she decided to help her.”

 

An odd feeling settled in Colin’s stomach, but he could not place it.  “That’s good, I suppose,” he said.

 

“It is good, Colin,” his mother said emphatically, “But you know she will not be as…lenient a guardian as Lady Featherington.  You cannot just waltz on into her home at any time of day to speak with Penelope.  Even if you do not intend to court her.”  That last bit was said rather pointedly.  

 

“But we are friends,” he said pathetically.

 

His mother seemed frustrated.  There was a crease in her brow and she groaned aloud.  “Colin,” she said, “I understand that your desire to apologize to Penelope is sincere.  I want you to apologize to her, but you have to play by society’s rules.  You two are no longer children.  Penelope is no longer the little girl who played games with your sisters.  She is a young lady of marriageable age and you have to treat her as such.  Even if you are friends.  Unless you want to ruin her reputation amongst our peers, you can only call on her during proper visiting hours with a chaperone present .  I know your intentions are honorable, but not everyone is going to make that assumption.  And you cannot be offended when someone mistakes your friendship as something else.  Do not doubt that if I or Lady Danbury or one of your siblings gets even a whiff of impropriety between the two of you, you will be asked to do the right thing.  Do you understand?”

 

Blood rushed in Colin’s ears.  Had he really been using Penelope that poorly?  Thinking back on his previous behavior, he could see how some of it could be construed that way.  Fife clearly had seen something that Colin himself did not see.  “I understand,” Colin whispered.

 

His mother softened.  “Oh, Colin, dear,” she said, placing a hand on his arm, “I do not mean to dissuade you from your friendship with Penelope.  She has been an excellent friend to this family and I know you care for her deeply.  I just want you to think of how your actions may look to others, especially if you indeed do not plan to court her.  The poor girl has already been through too much and I do not wish to see her hurt again.”

 

Colin nodded.  “I understand.  I do not wish to hurt her again either,” he said softly.

 

“I know you don’t,” his mother said.  After a moment of shared silence, she changed her tone, “Now, I understand you are likely tired from your journey.  Your room is only a few more doors down, let me show you.  Take a rest.  We are staying home tonight and dining as a family.  I will send someone to fetch you when the food is ready.  Alright?”

 

Colin nodded numbly and followed his mother.  As soon as Colin’s body hit his new bed, he was out like a light.