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London, 1846

Georgiana Crane stares down at her feet, resolutely avoiding her mother’s gaze. She’s been sitting in her uncle’s study for exactly seven minutes, six of which she spent alone, waiting for her mother to join her. One minute ago, Eloise Crane came in, without a word, and sat down at Uncle Simon’s desk.

Georgiana’s not an expert timekeeper by any means, but she and her siblings figured out years before that six minutes was always the amount of time Eloise chose to let her children wait when they had done something wrong and were waiting to hear how they would be punished. Six minutes is the perfect length of time for them to fidget and stew without lapsing into irrevocable boredom, to contemplate their misdeeds long enough to feel appropriately contrite, and to allow any anger to disperse into acceptance of (usually well-deserved) punishment.

Her mother, Georgiana has long ago realized, is a very wise woman.

Eventually Eloise lets out a little sigh and Georgiana raises her eyes, afraid of what she might see on her mother’s face. She sees disappointment, which makes her heart sink, but she also sees confusion. Eloise is resting her chin in her hand, and she’s gazing at her daughter as she asks, softly, “Georgie, why?”

She doesn’t sound angry or blameful, but quiet, resigned. The tone still tugs at Georgiana’s heartstrings, but she knows it’s honestly no more than she deserves. This is the tone that girls hear when they’re ruined their reputations.

“I’m—I’m sorry, Mama,” Georgiana whispers, unable to help her eyes dropping. She feels like a child who’s broken a cherished family heirloom, not a young woman at the start of her third season. “I know it was a mistake. It never should have happened. I’m so sorry.”

Eloise makes a sound that’s almost a snort of laughter, and Georgiana’s gaze snaps up again. Her mother doesn’t look amused, not quite, but the corner her mouth is twisting upward just a little.

“Georgiana,” she says, more briskly, “you’re not a stupid girl. I know that better than anyone. I have complete faith that I have raised you to know what is right and wrong. There’s not the slightest doubt in my mind that you know what you did was a terrible mistake.

“That is why I chose to ask you the question I did.” Eloise’s gaze sharpens, and Georgiana’s fingers twine together nervously. “You’re an intelligent girl who knows how to behave. I trust you, as I trust all of my children, to do what is smart and what is right. That is why I want to know why you did it.”

The combination of trust and scolding in Eloise’s voice completely undoes Georgiana. She knew how serious of a mistake she’d made, but she hadn’t realized until just then how this reflects upon her family—the upbringing her parents gave her, even her sister’s chances at a good marriage. She feels her eyes fill with tears, the shame knotting itself heavily in her chest.

She hadn’t felt this way when she had heard the shriek of surprise and sprang away from Samuel Darlington as if scalded. Then she felt panic, pure and simple. She was prepared to run away, but Samuel, collected as always, stopped her. He smoothed her hair, readjusted her dress, and told her to go meet her parents, that running would simply cause even more of a scandal.

It was a surprisingly friendly gesture, considering he had aided and abetted her ruin (not that she hadn’t participated ardently—had initiated it, even). And it was exactly what she needed to do. It took her parents only a few minutes to find her in the hallway and for Eloise to send her upstairs to Uncle Simon’s study to await discussion—and containment—of the situation.

In those six minutes before Eloise’s arrival, Georgiana felt panic and fear and self-pity aplenty. She felt righteously angry and defensive until it burnt out, leaving her empty. And she felt shame, but for herself alone. What she now feels for embarrassing her family and possibly ruining her sister, too, is more than she can bear.

And as her chest tightens and her eyes burn, she finds herself blurting out, “Because I wanted to know what it was like.”

Eloise blinks, clearly not having expected this response. “What it was like,” she repeats slowly, her expression blank. “What it was like—to be ruined?”

Georgiana flinches to hear her mother say the word out loud, feeling her cheeks flush as she presses forward, tripping over the words. “To be kissed.”

Eloise’s eyes widen, and she looks even more taken aback than she did at Georgiana’s first response. After a moment, she asks, her tone completely different, “You mean to say that Mr. Ridgely hasn’t…”

“No!” Georgiana exclaims miserably, looking down at her shoes. A lovely emerald green, edged with golden embroidered leaves, perfectly matching the trim of her dress. She’d been so happy with it, to finally be able to wear bolder colors out in society. She wonders if she’ll ever be able to look at it again without thinking of this night and how terrible she feels now. “No, he hasn’t.”

There’s a silence between mother and daughter for a long moment, into which Eloise finally mutters, “Well, I always knew men were idiots.”

Georgiana stares at her mother, openmouthed—whether in horror or delight, she’s not quite certain. Eloise colors and adds hastily, “Not that I would ever encourage you to behave in an improper manner, of course. But when a courtship has gone on for so long, one assumes that a man would—would—and when an understanding has been formed—”

“It hasn’t, though,” Georgiana objects sadly, slumping into her chair. It’s an abominable way to sit, but under the circumstances, and considering Eloise has declined to scold her, she doesn’t see the need to adjust herself. “But I thought it might be. I hoped it would be soon. And it has been so long, I thought—but I could hardly ask him to.”

“And yet you asked Samuel Darlington?” Eloise asks, raising an eyebrow.

“I was not planning on marrying Mr. Darlington,” Georgiana grits out, face hot with embarrassment.

Eloise’s manner sobers. “Georgiana,” she says quietly, her tone the sort that makes Georgiana sit back up, “you may have to, now.”

Georgiana finds herself wanting to cry again. “I know,” she whispers, and she sees Eloise’s face soften. She doesn’t deserve it, she knows. She’d been fully aware of the risk when she approached Samuel tonight.

“I would never force you to do anything that I believed was wrong for you,” Eloise says gently, and Georgiana feels the tears begin to burn in her eyes again. “Or that would make you truly unhappy, and neither would your father. You know that, don’t you?” Georgiana gives her a watery nod. “However, society is not as forgiving as I am, and you know that too. None of us have any desire for your reputation to be ruined. So please tell me now, and tell me the truth: how would you feel about marrying Samuel Darlington?”

Georgiana sighs, a soft little gust of air. For a moment, she considers lying, saying something that would make it impossible for her parents to force her hand. But she respects them, and Samuel, and herself, too much to tell anything but the truth.

“It would be all right,” she says quietly. And it would be. It isn’t as if she doesn’t like Samuel, and she knows that beyond the society façade of devil-may-care rake, he’s a truly good man. But she doesn’t believe she’ll ever love him, and she knows he likely won’t love her either. It would be a fine marriage, but nothing like what her parents have, or her aunts and uncles. Nothing like what she’s always wanted and what she thought—really, truly thought—she might actually have.

Eloise studies her daughter for a moment, then gets to her feet and crosses the room to crouch down next to Georgiana’s chair, her expression very serious. “I do not wish to mislead you,” she says solemnly. “You must know that Mr. Ridgely may very well jilt you. Most men would, and society would not blame any of them. But he is a good man, and he may listen to you, if you explain. And there is a chance that he might not hear the gossip, or that it’ll spread in a less accurate form—we simply don’t know yet. We won’t make any announcements or decisions until he calls upon you, and then we will all discuss what to do next.”

She reaches out to brush a tear away from the corner of Georgiana’s eye, then smiles, faint but true. “You are my daughter,” she whispers. “No matter what, you are my daughter, and I love you more than life. We will weather this together, as we always do.”

Sniffling helplessly, Georgiana throws herself into her mother’s arms and clings as if she’ll never let go.

 

Penelope is waiting for her in the hall, because her sister is the truest friend in the world. Before she asks any questions, she opens her arms, and Georgiana steps into them, leaning her head against her sister’s shoulder.

After squeezing tightly, Penelope releases her, though she keeps an arm around her for support, and hands her a handkerchief. Not that Georgiana expects it to do much good; her entire face becomes red and blotchy when she cries, and wiping her eyes and nose will hardly fix that. “What did she say?” Penelope asks quietly.

Georgiana blows her nose one more time. “Exactly the right thing,” she says morosely, and her sister lets out a little snort.

“She’s rather awful like that, isn’t she?” she says wryly, and Georgiana gives a startled little laugh.

“Absolutely terrible,” she agrees, looking up at her sister. Where Georgiana is petite and curvy, Penelope is three inches taller and far slimmer, but she has always been just as solid and stable as Georgiana could ask for in an older sister. The two are closer in age than any of the other Crane siblings (excepting, of course, Oliver and Amanda), and they have always been one another’s best friends.

“I’m sorry, Penny,” Georgiana says, feeling a fresh wave of remorse. Her sister has never done anything but support her, listen to her hopes and dreams and fears, staunchly take her side when their parents scold or punish. And in a moment of weakness, Georgiana might have ruined not just her own future, but Penelope’s, too.

In true fashion, though, Penelope airily waves a hand, as if the problem of ruin by proxy can be dismissed in an instant. “I am not the concern right now,” she murmurs, taking Georgiana’s hand and squeezing. “We’ll figure out what to do with me in due time. But Father’s coming this way, so I’ll ask quickly if there is anything else that you need right now.”

Georgiana winces—she’s not looking forward to seeing her father right now, even less than she had her mother—but she shakes her head. “No,” she says with a little sigh. “It’s time for me to face it alone.”

“I hate it when you have to face things alone,” Penelope says, a little grumble in her voice as their father approaches.

“Georgiana,” he says, his voice low, his brows descended darkly over a stormy gaze. “What is the meaning of this?”

“Phillip,” Eloise intervenes smoothly, emerging from the study. “Come inside. Let’s talk.”

Phillip huffs a sigh so low it’s almost a growl, forcing an evenness to his tone as he says, “Penelope, will you give us a moment with your sister?”

Penelope’s expression seems to ask if she’s truly being given a choice, but with admirable restraint, she nods before giving Georgiana another quick hug. “Once more into the breach, dear friend,” she whispers into her sister’s hair, and Georgiana manages a faint smile.

 

After Penelope assures herself of her sister’s well-being and her parents’ relative equilibrium (Phillip looks rather as if he might throttle the next person who so much as looks at him, but Eloise seems more or less calm, and she gives Penelope a reassuring nod as she shepherds her husband and youngest daughter into the study), she makes her way back to the ballroom.

She knows that it’s far from the wisest place for her to be. If anyone who’s heard the story (which if she thinks optimistically will be next to no one, and if she thinks realistically will be almost everyone) spots her, she’ll be mobbed with questions. And while she’s a reasonably good liar if she’s had time to prepare, she absolutely loathes being the center of attention, and she’s certain to stammer out something incomprehensible and terribly unhelpful, and things will be ruined even further.

She just wishes that Georgiana had told her what she intended to do; she might have been able to talk her out of it. Then again, she thinks grimly, that’s surely why her sister didn’t do just that.

She tries to tell herself that it’s not that bad. As far as family gossip goes, it probably doesn’t even crack the top ten best stories. Why, practically all of her aunts and uncles were married in some unexpected and wildly scandalous way.

Over the years, Penelope’s heard almost all the stories, and compared to—

1. Uncle Anthony and Aunt Kate being caught in a compromising position, after Uncle Anthony had been courting Aunt Edwina;
2. Uncle Simon and Aunt Daphne being caught in a compromising position, followed by Uncle Anthony challenging Uncle Simon to a duel;
3. her own parents’ story: her mother, who had resigned herself to spinsterhood, running away and spending days with her father, unchaperoned, before they had been caught by the Bridgerton brothers and forced to marry in haste (Eloise would definitely not be pleased by how many details her children knew about the whole situation);
4. Aunt Sophie, who was a bastard, serving as a lady’s maid in Grandmama Violet’s house, and actually being thrown in jail by her wicked stepmother, and being rescued by Grandmama and Uncle Benedict;
5. Uncle Gregory interrupting Aunt Lucy’s wedding to another man, and having to rescue her from a blackmail plot;
6. Aunt Penelope, her namesake, being revealed as the most popular gossip columnist in the history of London (which, granted, had nothing to do with her and Uncle Colin’s courtship, and was really quite fantastic, but had certainly caused quite a stir at the time);

—well, one little kiss doesn’t seem nearly as terrible.

Penelope’s general sense of fairness, though, compels her to admit that in every one of those situations, the two people involved in the compromising situation had ended up married. The only one who had even been displaying interest in anyone else was Uncle Anthony, who had still married the woman he had compromised. It doesn’t bode well for Georgiana and Mr. Ridgely. What, what had her sister been thinking?

But since what’s done is done, and Penelope can’t change that, she’s going to do the next best thing. There’s no point in upbraiding Georgiana, who will be the one most suffering the consequences. But there was another party involved in the events of the night.

Penelope is good at staying unnoticed, and after observing the ballroom for nearly a quarter of an hour, she sees Samuel Darlington slip into the hallway and follows him out. She hopes that he isn’t leaving to partake in some other scandal—she wouldn’t put it past him, but after all, how many could one man cause in an evening?—but he seems to be alone, which is a good thing, and making himself as unobtrusive as possible, maybe waiting for his carriage in order to leave.

She wants to storm right up to him and inform him exactly what she thinks about his behavior, but she forces herself to hang back, to calm herself a little. And as she does, she takes the time to study him. He’s breathtakingly handsome, of course, as all three of the Darlington children are. They could hardly be otherwise, with a mother who was once viewed as the most beautiful woman in London (and who’s still so lovely that most of Penelope’s male cousins can’t so much as greet her without gaping stupidly).

Samuel is possibly the best-looking of all of them, though—tall and golden-haired, with eyes more than one young lady has claimed to be able to drown in and a smile so devastating women regularly swooned upon seeing it (usually into the arms of another eligible gentleman). He’s charming, a delightful conversationalist, a superb dancer, and the perfect balance of a rake who has still managed to stay firmly on the side of respectability. The ton adores him.

Penelope loathes him.

Oh, very well, that isn’t strictly true—she barely knows him. But more often than not she can’t stand the men that society fawns over, how arbitrary it all is, and she’s always thought that Darlington must be empty-headed and terribly full of himself, given the attention he receives. And she does loathe the fact that he’s only ever spoken to her in brief, cursory ways, as if she’s not worthy of his full attention, even though her favorite cousin is a friend of his. (And hopelessly in love with him, of course, though he doesn’t know it. Penelope finds Agatha’s fluttering over him absurd, and has always maintained that she would be far better served showing some interest in Samuel’s steadier, far less notorious twin brother, Everett.)

Penelope knows that even though she has the willowy figure preferred by society, she isn’t more than passably attractive on her best day—she’s too pale, with the most awkward of her father’s bold features, the grey of her eyes jarring with the darkness of her hair. And perhaps more importantly, she lacks Georgiana’s delicate prettiness or her easy manner in any given situation. Penelope tries, she truly does, but more often than not she talks too much or too little, and she isn’t a very good dancer, and feeling nervous makes her clumsy and she’s always nervous at society affairs, and—well, let it simply be said that she’s hardly surprised she has made it to her fourth season with only one proposal.

Apart from her dowry and impeccable birth, she isn’t a matrimonial prize, and she knows it. But she’s kind and friendly and responsible and intelligent and quick-witted, and dash it all, if nothing else, she is a Bridgerton—three of her uncles are in the peerage, and most of her cousins are wildly popular—and surely that merits being treated with more than cursory politeness?

But ever since she didn’t take in society, it’s been the same story with nearly every single eligible gentleman for the past two years, and Penelope is so heartily sick of it, and after all of Agatha’s praise, she really, truly hoped that Samuel Darlington might be different. But tonight proves that he’s exactly the same as every other shallow, arrogant male favored by society simply due to looks and charm, and such a man doesn’t deserve to have his name mentioned in the same breath as Penelope’s beloved sister, let alone be allowed to treat her this way.

Well, she thinks wryly as she takes a deep breath, so much for letting her anger dissipate.

The hall is still empty, so no one else is there to hear Penelope stalk up to Darlington and hiss all but into his ear, incredulous, “How could you?”

He yelps and jumps half a step back, looking around wildly until his eyes settle on her. Then he calms, straightening and readjusting his cravat. “Miss Crane,” he says solemnly, sketching out a half-bow to her. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

His elaborate politeness, clearly intended to make a point, simply serves to stoke her rage, especially as this is one of the longest sentences he’s ever uttered to her. “You know exactly to what you owe it,” she snaps out.

Darlington arches an eyebrow. “Is that entirely grammatically correct, I wonder?” he murmurs, his manner entirely casual.

Nothing could infuriate Penelope more. “Is that really the pertinent issue at the moment?” she exclaims (if quietly; she has no intention of starting rumors about two Cranes being compromised on the same night, by the same man).

He spreads his hands, as if he is the sane one, being plagued by an unreasonable woman. “How can I possibly divine the pertinent issue, Miss Crane,” he drawls—drawls!—“given that you accosted me, quite unexpectedly—”

“You ruined my sister tonight,” Penelope practically spits out, so angry she’s shaking. “How could you possibly not expect this?”

Darlington’s eyes widen, to hear her say it so bluntly. He looks around the hallway to make sure that they’re alone, then leans in, his devil-may-care expression melting to a more serious one. “There were two parties on that balcony, Miss Crane.”

Penelope gasps, actually rearing a step back. “How dare you!” she breathes, horrified. “If you mean to imply that my sister is—is a woman of loose morals, the sort of woman who—”

“I meant nothing of the sort,” Darlington interrupts her impatiently. “I simply mean to say—”

“Because nothing could be further from the truth! My sister knows exactly what is right and wrong and exactly how to behave in society, and one simple, minor, insignificant lapse—”

“Oh, I am a lapse,” Darlington says, and his tone is laden with so much sarcasm that Penelope’s actually a little impressed, despite the circumstances. “How flattering.”

“Did you really expect anything else?” Penelope seethes. “She made a mistake, but you—you are older, and more experienced, and a gentleman, Mr. Darlington, or so you are purported to be—”

“I say,” Darlington interjects, his brow furrowing. “That’s going too far, Miss Crane—”

“—after everything Agatha says that you are, the saddest thing is that I was truly expecting better! Everything I know about you led me to expect better! I have met your parents, and they are perfectly lovely people, and I have met your brother and sister, and either of them are easily worth ten of you!”

Darlington, amazingly, doesn’t interject to argue or to counter that. Love for one’s siblings is a trait that Penelope values highly, so her estimation of him grudgingly rises by a fraction of a percent.

She’s nowhere near finished, though. “How such a family could spit you out is a miracle to me. You behaved abominably tonight, Mr. Darlington. Absolutely beyond the pale. You ignored the dictates of society and led an impressionable young woman into scandal—you might ruin her chances at an excellent marriage simply for a moment of fun—I cannot imagine what you were thinking, what could have led you to such action. And society will not punish you in the least—you will simply continue to be seen as a charming rogue, and ladies will continue falling at your feet year after year as if you are the grandest possible prize on the Marriage Mart. And—and you don’t even have the decency to be ashamed of yourself!”

Penelope is somewhat surprised to note that she appears to have said everything she intended to. She also notes, pleased, that nobody has rushed out of any other rooms to confront them, which means her voice must have remained at a reasonable volume. She’s impressed by her own restraint.

Darlington is staring down at her, wide-eyed. They really are terribly fine eyes, Penelope can’t help noticing—a pure, brilliant blue, lined with lashes a few shades darker than his golden hair. It’s truly a shame they’re wasted on someone like him.

“You’re right,” Darlington finally says, and Penelope, certain she can’t have heard him correctly, splutters out, “I beg your pardon?”

“You’re right,” Darlington says, and she almost falls over in shock. He actually sounds contrite. “I behaved in a way that belies my parents’ efforts in raising me, and I ought to have known better, and though I know it can only do so much, I fully intend to make my apologies to every party injured by my thoughtless actions. You’re wrong on only one count, Miss Crane—”

And he takes a step closer to her, and for some reason Penelope finds herself unable to look away from his eyes. He looks sincere, more so than she’s ever seen him, and she finds herself thinking how unfortunate it is that he’s only behaving this way now, when her poor opinion of him is already formed.

“I am ashamed of myself,” he says, quietly, and Penelope believes him.

He bows to her, and he exits to his carriage, and she finds herself standing alone in the hallway, thoroughly bewildered.

 

Georgiana’s first season went just about as well as any girl could dream. She was received brilliantly, as assured by a combination of her looks, her dowry, her personality, and her illustrious family connections. She was invited everywhere, and she drew the attentions of more than a few eligible men. She had gently discouraged all of them, though; she’d never had any attention of marrying in her first season. She wanted to enjoy herself first. It never occurred to her that she might not eventually find someone to fall in love with and marry, and she felt as if she had all the time in the world.

And then she met Julian Ridgely.

At the time, he was not the most eligible bachelor of the season. That honor went jointly to his elder brother, William, Lord Mayfield, and Georgiana’s cousin David, Lord Clyvedon—both young, handsome, charming heirs to dukedoms. There were plenty of other attractive peers available for young ladies to set their sights on, and many preferred them to the untitled Mr. Ridgely. But he was still the son of the Duke of Ashbourne, and he had still inherited his father’s good looks and cool reserve, and that made him a fixture at every gathering of the ton.

Georgiana had been introduced to him, of course, but it had been cursory and it had been clear neither of them had made a strong impression on the other, and so she didn’t take much notice of his comings and goings. And at a ball near the end of the season, she hadn’t been paying attention to where she was walking, and she turned at exactly the wrong time, and in quite possibly the least graceful action she had ever taken, she tripped and she spilled a nearly-full glass of punch all over Julian Ridgely’s impeccable evening kit.

He had stared at her, incredulous, and Georgiana had clapped both hands to her mouth in horror, which wasn’t enough to keep a stream of near-incomprehensible apologies from escaping her. She’d grabbed for the napkins at the table and reached for him, quite inappropriately, babbling all the while about how she hadn’t seen him, and of course that wasn’t any excuse, but she would of course never mean to do such a thing, and she was so sorry

Mr. Ridgely had just looked at her, expression completely inscrutable, and said, quite simply, “Accidents are known to happen, Miss Crane.”

And he had left, and after an enormously awkward pause, conversation around the ballroom had resumed, and Georgiana was quite unsure if she should feel reassured or snubbed.

That should have been the end of it, but she couldn’t let it go. It simply wasn’t in her nature. So she had spent a week thinking and planning, and four days on a mad jaunt to her father’s greenhouse at their home in Gloucestershire and back to London (unbeknownst to her parents; her sisters had used an impressive array of misdirection, avoidance, and outright lies to keep them from finding out, and the coachman and butler had required quite a hefty bribe). And at one of the last balls of the season, she approached Mr. Ridgely in the hallway and offered him a plant.

“I realize you likely haven’t anywhere to store it,” Georgiana said, trying very hard not to stumble over her words. (Both she and her sister had inherited their mother’s tendency to talk too quickly when nervous; Georgiana had always been grateful that while poor Penelope was uncomfortable in social situations more often than not, not much tended to affect her own calm.) “In general, I mean—although also right now, I suppose, since you can’t exactly carry a plant around with you at a ball. You might leave it in your carriage, as it does thrive in warmer environments and it’s really been quite unseasonably hot this month, so I don’t believe it would suffer much for it.”

Mr. Ridgely stared at her, completely bemused. “What is it?” he asked after a moment.

Had she really not said so yet? “It’s a basil plant,” she explained, feeling rather foolish by now, as she was still holding it out and it seemed he may have no intention of taking it. Smuggling the plant into the ball had been difficult enough; she had no idea if she could try to take it back out without causing a disruption. “Sweet basil, to be exact—ocimum basilicum. It’s highly aromatic and can be used to flavor food, though I assume your cook already has her own store, so your primary use for it would likely be ornamental.” She stopped, clearing her throat, attempting to regain some measure of control over the situation, then set her jaw and offered the plant again, more firmly. “More importantly, it symbolizes good wishes, as well as the banishing of evil—which is a bit extreme for our circumstances, I suppose, but I wished to make full amends for our prior encounter and to beg your forgiveness again, in a more formal way.”

Mr. Ridgely stared at her again, then down at the plant, then back up at her face. Georgiana really wished he weren’t so good at hiding his thoughts behind a society mask; all she could tell now was that he was confused, which she supposed was reasonable. Likely strange girls didn’t often try to accost him at balls to force him into accepting potted plants from their father’s greenhouses. “A basil plant?” he said eventually, as if he still wasn’t quite sure it was actually there.

“Yes,” Georgiana said impatiently. She knew that she really had no cause for it, given that the entire situation was highly irregular, but couldn’t he at least attempt to put her a little more at ease? She was trying to do something kind for him, for heaven’s sake. “I could have brought you flowers, but that isn’t exactly proper, don’t you think?”

It wasn’t exactly proper for her to be giving him anything at all, and a plant was hardly more acceptable than flowers, but at least Mr. Ridgely forbore pointing this out. “A basil plant,” he said again, sounding as if he were talking to himself.

“Yes,” Georgiana ground out, by now feeling extremely foolish indeed. “Do you want it or not?”

Mr. Ridgely looked up at her, and for a moment she was struck by how green his eyes were. His brothers and sister both resembled their mother at least a little, but he looked just like a younger version of his father, who was still one of the most handsome men in society. And his second son had his devastating eyes exactly.

“Only if you answer a question for me,” he said slowly, “and answer it honestly.” He looked down the hallway, then in the other direction, then leaned in a little, lowering his voice—Georgiana found herself leaning, too, caught up in the solemnity of his features. “Is there a severed head buried inside the pot?”

Georgiana’s eyes widened, and she clapped a hand to her mouth to stifle her highly unladylike shriek of laughter. He was very, very lucky that her parents both enjoyed poetry, and so she had read a great deal of it growing up; it was quite a risk to mention severed heads to a lady at all, let alone to gamble that she was familiar enough with the work of Keats to understand the reference.

Then again, she supposed he had had quite a few hints that she was not the most conventional of young ladies.

“It’s a bit small to hold such a thing, wouldn’t you say?” she murmured, lifting the pot critically. To fit any sort of head inside would have been a very impressive feat, and much more gruesomely executed than she cared to contemplate.

Mr. Ridgely smiled at her then, and it quite took Georgiana’s breath away. It wasn’t dazzling, deliberately charming, or even very wide. It was simply a small, genuine smile, the sort exchanged at a shared joke, the sort that was given freely and simply because one felt like smiling. It made Julian Ridgely the most attractive man she had ever seen.

“If anyone could do it, Miss Crane,” he said, taking the pot from her, “I believe it would be you.”

 

And then, of course, the season ended, and so she didn’t see him again for months.

When her second season came around, Georgiana had to wonder if Mr. Ridgely even remembered her. Surely an improper encounter over a pot of basil would rank as nothing more than an aberration in his mind, and surely he had far better prospects to pursue. (Because at the end of the last season, David had married, and just before the start of this one, Lord Mayfield had shocked the ton by eloping quite suddenly, and so his brother had catapulted forward in the ranks of eligible men.)

But she had barely made her initial greetings at the first ball of the season when Mr. Ridgely materialized at her side, bowing over her hand with a small smile, and asking her to dance—and so it seemed very clear that he had remembered her.

He courted her that entire year, sending her small but entirely proper gifts (he never sent her flowers), seeking out her company for walks and rides and well-chaperoned outings, and dancing with her exactly once every night that they attended the same balls. They never had any encounters that were less than proper—nothing even close to the basil incident—but they spent plenty of time together, talking and laughing and exchanging stories from their childhoods.

Georgiana liked him. She felt comfortable around him, and she delighted in her ability to make him smile, and she enjoyed his company more than that of any gentleman she’d ever met, and she truly believed that given time, she could fall in love with him. (That she had not yet done so, she attributed to the always-appropriate nature of their chaperoned excursions—nobody could fall in love with one’s mother or aunt or maid hovering off in the not-too-far distance—and the fact that though they spoke plenty, it had never been particularly deep, passionate, or revealing conversation. Surely there would be time for that, though, once they were married.)

Her parents had been delighted by her coup, attracting the attention of one of the ton’s most eligible bachelors with hardly any effort. (They were never, ever going to find out about the basil plant.) Well, her mother had been delighted. Her father had never cared much for the goings-on of society and mostly appreciated that Mr. Ridgely was an immensely proper and polite young man who treated him with all the deference due the father of the girl one was courting. Mr. Ridgely’s mother, the Duchess of Ashbourne, liked Georgiana, too, and the feeling was very much mutual; Emma Ridgely was a spirited woman who, even after four children and decades in the peerage, clearly did not place much stock in convention. Georgiana was thrilled by the prospect of having her as a mother-in-law—and it seemed very much as if she would, quite soon.

Except the weeks went by, and Mr. Ridgely didn’t propose—and the months went by, and he didn’t propose—and then the season was over, and he still hadn’t proposed.

Georgiana would have been devastated if she hadn’t been so confused. There had been no change in Mr. Ridgely’s demeanor towards her, no indication that he had changed his mind about his intentions. He had continued acting towards her in a manner that could singularly be described as courting, and he had not shown any preference for any other girl, and he had said nothing to her that made her think he had chosen to end their relationship. There was no reason for him not to have progressed in his intentions toward her.

Eloise declared herself at her wit’s end, and the family retreated to the country, as they always did at the close of the season. And Georgiana was left to wonder what she had done wrong—and always coming to the conclusion that it had been absolutely nothing, she was left totally bewildered again.

Was it that he didn’t desire her? She knew that he liked her, that he respected her, that he preferred her company above others—that much was clear from the tenor of the time they spent together. And yet he had never tried to kiss her. True, they had never had an unchaperoned moment together, but they could have. He had never so much as attempted it, though. Was that enough reason to decide not to marry someone?

She and Penelope discussed the issue at length that whole summer. Penelope hardly knew any more about men than Georgiana did, but as she wasn’t terribly close to most of her married cousins (almost all of whom were far older than she was), it wasn’t as if she had anyone else to talk to. She could have talked to Amanda, but though she adored her eldest sister they, too, were so far apart in age that it would have felt more like asking an aunt. (That, of course, was out of the question, as was talking to Eloise.)

But Penelope had witnessed most of Georgiana and Mr. Ridgely’s courtship firsthand, and she knew every single one of Georgiana’s secrets, so Georgiana could always speak plainly with her. She could ask someone else to confirm that Mr. Ridgely’s interest in her had not seemed to flag (it had not), that she had not appeared to do anything improper or discouraging (she had not), and that it was strange that their courtship had not moved forward in one entire season (it was). Penelope was determined to be very reasonable about the fact that Mr. Ridgely had not kissed Georgiana; she agreed that some men would have at least attempted such a liberty, but that he had not done so indicated that either he did not desire her (unlikely, Penelope insisted loyally) or that he was being extremely proper, wanting no hint of scandal attached to his future bride (Penelope liked this option very much; well, Georgiana did too, and she had to admit it was probably not out of the question).

During these conversations, Penelope often wondered why Georgiana didn’t simply ask Mr. Ridgely what he intended. It would have been irregular, and Penelope was usually very insistent on proper behavior, but she would point out that the situation was causing Georgiana so much distress, and surely if Mr. Ridgely cared for her, he would wish to know this so as to avoid causing her more. And Penelope pointed out, as delicately as she could, it was really, really not like Georgiana to let such a matter go unaddressed for so long. (Georgiana recalled hitting her sister with a pillow after that.)

It was true, though, that under any other circumstances, preferring to address conflict directly and face her problems readily, Georgiana would have simply asked what Mr. Ridgely’s intentions were. But this was different. This was everything she wanted—this was her future, and the more time she spent with Mr. Ridgely, the more she felt as if she could not imagine a different one. And she was so very, very good at speaking without thinking; what if she said the wrong thing and ruined everything? She would never have forgiven herself for that.

Either way, she and Penelope ended every conversation in agreement: a season-long courtship without a proposal was unusual, but not so far beyond the pale as to be unacceptable. Surely Mr. Ridgely would not continue like this when the season began again. Surely, surely a proposal couldn’t be too far away.

Several weeks prior to the start of the season, the entire family received an invitation to a house party held at the Ashbourne country estate, and it seemed as if that might be the moment—but the day before they were to depart, Georgiana fell from her horse and badly twisted her ankle, and was left bedridden for half a month. Her only consolation was receiving a lovely letter of well-wishes for a speedy recovery from Mr. Ridgely, so warm and affectionate that her heart soared with hope every time she read it.

And then the season began, and at the first ball Georgiana attended, Mr. Ridgely approached her to ask for a dance, and he was all solicitous kindness, inquiring about her ankle and how she was enjoying the warm autumn and whether her brother had sent any letters from his first year at Cambridge yet? And his manner was one of the polite interest one would show an acquaintance, and he said absolutely nothing to indicate that he had been courting her for over a year now, without any hint as to a forthcoming proposal.

It was enough to test even the most patient of ladies, and Georgiana had never been patient.

But a single dance in Mr. Ridgely’s arms after not seeing him for months had pushed her to the brink. She had forgotten just how handsome he was, just how much she adored his smile, just how easy and comfortable she felt around him. And when he touched her, when he drew her close for a waltz, and she could feel the warmth of his body and his hand through her gloves—it was too much for her to bear.

She wanted him. Perhaps that was scandalous beyond measure—dash it all, it was scandalous beyond measure, and she knew it—but she couldn’t help it. She knew herself, and she knew how she felt, and she wanted him.

They had been courting for over a year and the most physical contact they had had was Mr. Ridgely helping Georgiana into or out of carriages, onto or off of horses, rare and fully proper kisses on the hand, and, of course, their regular dances. And he had not shown any indication that he wished for this to change, even after not seeing her for months. Hadn’t he missed her at all? Didn’t he feel what she felt in his presence, this overwhelming need to be close to him, the feeling that her chest might quite simply burst open if he smiled at her again?

It was driving Georgiana absolutely mad, and by the time the dance was over, she couldn’t wait a single moment longer, so she summoned all of her boldness and asked Mr. Ridgely to take a walk in the garden with her.

And Mr. Ridgely turned her down. Politely, of course, as he did everything else, and with words designed not to cause the sting of rejection. And he kissed her hand, and he promised to call upon her the next day, and he left.

He left!

Feeling bitterly rejected regardless of his intentions, Georgiana had thrown herself into a dance with Samuel Darlington, which she knew would not cause any undue speculation, as he was a friend of her cousin’s and was clearly not going to marry anyone for years and years, if at all. And when she asked him to step outside to the garden, he had agreed.

It had taken her a little more convincing to get him to kiss her. Very well, it had taken a great deal of convincing, if “convincing” could be stretched to mean wheedling, pleading, begging, a touch of false tears, and a dash of blackmail. Samuel had warned her that it would be a mistake, told her that he was extremely opposed to the action, and promised her that no good could come of it, but in the end, he had kissed her. And it had been wonderful.

She hadn’t thought about getting caught. She wasn’t even planning on telling anyone about the kiss. (Perhaps one of her older cousins—but not Agatha, who was in love with Samuel—or Amanda, but certainly not Penelope, who hated him.) She had simply intended on carrying it with her as a memory of rebellion, an action taken when she’d been faced with an untenable situation. Her own small, private way of fighting back, a memory to cherish.

She certainly hadn’t expected to enjoy the kiss as much as she did. Samuel was quite skilled, which didn’t surprise her given his reputation, and it had been absolutely thrilling to feel a heavy, warm male body so close to her own. Although she was unable to completely silence the little voice at the back of her head telling her that this should have been Mr. Ridgely, that she would have enjoyed it so much more if it had been.

But she hadn’t been so lost in the kiss as to not hear a gasp, and the rustle of clothing, and she had sprang apart from Samuel immediately, her eyes huge with dismay, to see her Berbrooke cousins standing mere feet away, mouths open in horror.

She supposed she was lucky to have been caught by family, whose fault was not in their loyalty but in their absolute inability to keep their mouths shut. No matter how little desire they had to ruin her, there was no chance at all that they would let it stay a secret.

Within minutes, it had reached her parents’ ears, and it was much too much to hope for that by the next day, Mr. Ridgely wouldn’t know.

 

Georgiana rises early the morning after her scandal, dressing as swiftly and simply as she can. Her maid arranges her hair in a loose bun at the nape of her neck, and she’s wearing a rose-pink muslin, the simplest and most fashionable of her day dresses. She looks lovely and fresh and not at all as if she spent hours staring at her ceiling last night. Not at all as if she could be hours away from complete social devastation.

She doesn’t come downstairs for breakfast because her stomach is tied in knots, and when she does descend, she meets her mother outside the parlor. Eloise opens her arms without hesitation, and Georgiana steps into them, closing her eyes tightly so as not to cry.

“We will survive this,” Eloise whispers into her hair. “No matter what happens, we will survive it. You know that, don’t you?”

Georgiana nods, her throat too tight for words.

Eloise smiles at her and kisses her forehead. “I’ve given Aldridge his instructions. We are at home for no one but Mr. Ridgely—and family, of course. And I imagine their sense will overcome their curiosity and none of them will call until well after he’s had a chance to.” She smoothes the front of Georgiana’s gown, clearly a gesture intended to calm nerves rather than actually straighten appearances. “Chin up,” she says, her tone both brisk and reassuring—the tone of a woman who knows how to get things done—and leads her daughter into the parlor.

Only to be greeted by her husband and three of her other four children, all sitting on the large sofa opposite the door and looking as if they have no intention of moving.

Eloise stares at each of them in turn, then crosses her arms and says, firmly, “Out. All of you.”

All four of them exchange looks, and Oliver is the first one to speak. “Mother, may I remind you that this is my house?”

Georgiana supposes he has a point. Before Penelope and Georgiana had come out in society, the Cranes almost never came to London. Oliver, however, had decided to make it his primary residence shortly after finishing at Cambridge, and had leased a house big enough to fit his family whenever they spent time in the city. They had spent the past three seasons there, Oliver claiming he didn’t mind having his bachelor’s lifestyle interrupted by his family for a few brief months. Georgiana imagines, now, that he must be thinking otherwise.

Eloise fixes him with a glare, and Georgiana watches him wilt. “You,” she says firmly, “ought to be married by now. If you were married, we wouldn’t be in your house. Out.”

Oliver automatically opens his mouth, but once it becomes obvious that he doesn’t have a ready counter to this argument, he heaves a sigh and obediently leaves the room, muttering something about being too old for mothers as he does. But he pauses to squeeze Georgiana’s shoulder in support first, which means more to her than she can say.

Eloise turns to her oldest daughter next. “Amanda, you are married. Surely Charles and your children are missing you right now.”

Georgiana blinks. Her mother is hardly renowned for her subtlety, but she can usually manage a little more than that.

Amanda smiles up at her, all innocence. This is her first time accompanying her family to London; Eloise had decided the entire family ought to be in town for Georgiana’s surely-forthcoming engagement. Instead, they’re all in town for her surely-forthcoming scandal.

“The children are taken care of,” she says placidly. Amanda’s little family has been leasing a townhouse not far from Oliver’s; Georgiana’s a little impressed she managed to make it here so early, but she doesn’t put much past her eldest sister. “And Charles is well aware of where I am, and so very curious about how today’s events will transpire.”

“You may convey all to him,” Eloise grinds out, “after they have already transpired.”

And even Amanda knows better than to cross their mother when she uses that tone, so with a sigh of defeat followed by a quick, encouraging smile at Georgiana, she swiftly vacates the room as well.

Penelope is looking a little wilted herself, now that her siblings have disappeared, but she still sits up straight and looks Eloise in the eye when she casts her gaze to her next. “I feel it’s dreadfully unfair,” she says with dignity, “to force Georgie to deal with this by herself. Surely she deserves some support.”

“Actually,” Georgiana interjects from behind Eloise, “I feel quite comfortable dealing with this by myself.” It’s not, strictly speaking, true, but she knows it is something she must face alone—and besides, she has to admit that she’s enjoying this terribly, and she has to take what she can get.

Penelope shoots her a wounded look, and Eloise points to the door. “You heard your sister,” she says, in the tone that brooks no argument (a tone all of the Crane children have heard dozens if not hundreds of times throughout their childhood). “Out you go.”

Penelope huffs a sigh, but she leaves too, shooting a look at Georgiana that she interprets as a combination of an accusatory how could you? and a demanding tell me everything once it’s over! Georgiana stifles a small smile and nods to her.

Finally, Eloise turns to Phillip, whose expression is implacable. Georgiana watches her parents in fascination. They’ve been married for twenty-two years; surely they’ve both developed strategies for how to handle moments such as these.

“Phillip,” Eloise says first, and Phillip leans forward, his hands on his knees, his expression dark.

“Eloise,” he says, in the same tone. “She is my daughter. My youngest daughter.”

“Mine as well,” Eloise reminds him acerbically. Georgiana presses her lips together to keep from smiling.

Phillip’s jaw twitches, just a little. “I do not intend to allow Ridgely to say anything to her alone,” he says, his tone steelier than any Georgiana’s ever heard from him.

“They won’t be alone,” Eloise retorts. “I shall be with them.”

Phillip pauses, clearly considering his words. “While myself, our children, and everyone in your family are well aware that you are a force to be reckoned with,” he says eventually, “you cannot deny that men behave differently when there are other men in the room than when they are with women alone.”

Eloise opens her mouth to reply, then closes it, her expression changing. “You think that he would say something hurtful to Georgiana?”

“He has been publicly humiliated,” Phillip says. “That can make a man behave uncharacteristically.”

“No,” Georgiana says without thinking. Her parents’ eyes swivel to her, and she knots her fingers together in front of her, taking a deep breath. “No,” she says again, more firmly. “I don’t believe that Mr. Ridgely would do such a thing.”

“Georgiana,” Phillip begins, shifting forward on the sofa, but she breaks in, speaking over him.

“And even if he does, I will accept the consequences of my behavior, and admit that he is not the man I thought he was.” She can feel her spine straighten, confidence in her decision making her bold. “And I would very much appreciate being able to speak with him with only Mother there. Please?”

Phillip looks from his daughter to Eloise, clearly torn. He’s always had trouble refusing his youngest daughter anything she asks, but it must go against his deepest instinct to protect his children, to consider this.

“I will offer a compromise, Phillip,” Eloise says evenly, after a moment’s pause. “You may say whatever you wish to say to Mr. Ridgely, alone—”

“Mother!” Georgiana exclaims, stung. Phillip looks pleased.

“—if, and only if, you allow Georgiana to speak with him first, in my presence,” Eloise concludes, shooting Georgiana a look clearly meant to imply that she’s a fool for doubting, even for a moment, that her mother could arrange the situation to everyone’s benefit.

Phillip’s the one who looks terribly betrayed now, but Georgiana’s satisfied. She’s certain her father will still want to have words with Mr. Ridgely, but perhaps her conversation with him might stave off a true explosion.

“Come along,” Eloise says gently, moving to help Phillip off of the sofa (and prompting him to move along). Georgiana watches her murmur something in his ear as she guides him out, Phillip grumbling along the way, and she suppresses a smile. She can’t wait to have that sort of marriage—something with an understanding beneath it, the sort of bond that allows for such suppressed conversations, held in some secret marital shorthand.

She feels her smile falter. Maybe that future won’t happen for her anymore. Maybe she won’t have the husband with whom she knows she’d be happiest. Maybe it’s all ruined—

Stop, she tells herself firmly. There’s no use dwelling on it. Soon enough she’ll know what her future holds, one way or another, and there’s only so much she can do about it.

Soon enough, Eloise returns to the room, shooting Georgiana a small, encouraging smile. Georgiana tries to return it, but she can tell that it’s not quite convincing. She’ll have to try to calm down before Mr. Ridgely arrives.

It doesn’t really work. With each minute that goes by (the two of them sit in silence; Eloise knows better than to try to make her daughter talk at a time like this), Georgiana’s nerves stretch tighter and tighter. Where is Mr. Ridgely? Is he coming? He must be. Surely he is. What is she going to say to him? What will he say to her? Is there any way that this might turn out for the best? Can there be a chance that they—

And then Georgiana hears a knock at the door, and the sound of low male voices, and her hands are clenched around fistfuls of her skirt, and every muscle in her body feels as tightly wound as a violin string ready to snap.

“This is it,” Eloise whispers, very softly, and Georgiana tries to force her expression into something neutral and pleasant.

A moment later, Aldridge, Oliver’s butler, steps into the room. “Mr. Julian Ridgely,” he says, his tone perfectly polished and devoid of emotion, though of course he must be aware of the situation.

Eloise looks over at Georgiana, allowing her to make the invitation, and Georgiana feels, for the first time, like an adult. She moves to the edge of the sofa, straightening her posture until it’s perfect, and says to Aldridge in the most level tones she can muster, “Send him in, please.”

When Julian Ridgely enters the room, Georgiana’s breath catches. (She can’t remember when she started breathing again; she’d been certain she’d stopped.) He actually looks disheveled—Mr. Ridgely, who’s always impeccably dressed in the height of fashion, perfectly pressed and presentable. He still, of course, looks completely acceptable by society’s standards, but what might be a hint of disorder on another man is so unusual for him as to be all but complete dishabille. His cravat is askew by what Georgiana estimates is half an inch; his trousers look as if they haven’t been pressed for a day, perhaps even two. His hair looks as if his valet spent several fewer minutes on it than usual, and his shirt—has he misbuttoned it, or is that a trick of the light?

Georgiana raises her eyes to meet his gaze and sees concern on his face, his brow furrowed, his tone scattered as he executes a quick bow to Georgiana and Eloise. “Lady Crane,” he says, his gaze just barely skipping to Eloise. “Miss Crane.”

And just like that, Georgiana’s nerves disappear completely.

Perhaps it should be the other way around. Perhaps she should feel worse now that her fate is so close to being sealed. But instead, she feels relieved that either way, it will all be over soon. She just wants to know. She wants it to happen so that she can move on, if she must.

And besides, this is Mr. Ridgely. No—though he’s never given her leave to use his given name, and so she’s tried not to even think of him that way before, this is Julian. And no matter how nervous he’s made her in the past, how uncertain she’s been for most of their courtship, she has also felt right with him, and that hasn’t gone away. She had thought it might, thought that all of the scandal and fear and shame might overshadow it. She’s relieved beyond measure that that isn’t the case.

So she smiles at him, genuinely, and she offers him her hand (he takes it and kisses it, gently, properly, as always), and she says, quietly, “Mr. Ridgely.”

“Won’t you sit down, Mr. Ridgely?” Eloise says, offering him the couch next to Georgiana. He sits, and she smiles briefly at him before crossing to the other side of the room with a book. It puts her as far away from them as she can possibly be; she’s giving them as much privacy as she can, under the circumstances.

Mr. Ridgely—Julian; she doesn’t know if she can think of him any other way now—doesn’t waste any time as he turns to Georgiana, his expression grave. She feels a rush of affection for the seriousness of his face, even under the circumstances, the handsome severity of his cheekbones and his heavy black brows. “Miss Crane,” he says, very softly, “I am sorry for burdening you with such common gossip, but people have been doing nothing but sharing rumors with me—very distressing rumors, some of them increasingly vicious, many of them exceedingly unkind. I have heard defenses of actions I cannot believe you could have taken, and I have heard the worst slanders I would not repeat to anyone. And I could not bring myself to even listen to much of what was said before I gave you the courtesy of hearing you tell me, yourself, exactly what happened last night.” His tone falters, just a little, and he finishes, quietly, “Please.”

It’s the last word that undoes Georgiana. She’s been so sure that she could carry this through like a lady—her head held high, her tone level and genuine, telling the whole story as thoroughly and honestly as she could—but her head tips down at that, her gaze downcast, her lower lip trembling.

It’s clear from Julian’s tone that he desires, more than anything else, for Georgiana to tell him that all he’s heard is wrong, entirely false, pure fabrication. That those who had defended her (she must ask him who they were; she’s grateful that anyone was even willing to do that) had the right of it. And she wishes, more than anything else, that she could give that to him.

Instead, she tells him, in soft, slightly shaky tones, that she convinced Samuel Darlington to go to the balcony with her, that she asked him to kiss her, that she was caught kissing him. And though she tried to convince herself to be courageous enough to look him in the eye as she confessed her actions, now that the time is here, she finds that she can’t bring herself to see the disappointment on his face. Can’t bear to see if anything like anger or cruelty is there, little though she wants to believe it of him.

“I cannot tell you,” she says finally, very quietly, “how sorry I am, Mr. Ridgely. I have dishonored both of us—I’ve brought so much embarrassment to you, I can hardly bear to think about it. Nothing can excuse what I did. I have no explanation that I can give. I am so, so sorry.”

There’s silence following her little speech, and Georgiana can’t bring herself to look up just yet. She studies the sofa instead, the one corner of the cushion that’s slightly frayed because it’s Oliver’s favorite place to sit. His maid really ought to sew the tiny hole back up. It’s not too obvious unless one is doing anything to avoid the gaze of a prospective suitor, but in that particular situation, it happens to be terribly distracting.

“Miss Crane,” Julian says eventually, and his tone is gentler than Georgiana expected, so she forces herself to look up.

His face is severe, because it always is, but though he looks serious, he doesn’t look angry. Perhaps, Georgiana thinks optimistically, he’s heard so many awful rumors that the truth is actually a relief?

“Thank you for your honesty,” he says, and his tone is as soft as hers was, as if he, too, is holding great emotion in check (or so she hopes). “I know it can’t have been easy—telling me the truth. I am grateful that you did.”

His tone is stiff, but Georgiana thinks it must be simply awkwardness. She’s heard him freeze up like this before in situations that make him uncomfortable. She knows that situations over which he feels he has no control make him speak this way, cool and remote and a little condescending.

“Miss Crane,” he says again, a little lower this time, tugging at his cravat and clearing his throat. He reaches for her hand, and she slips it into his (out of the corner of her eye, she notices her mother setting her book aside and making no pretense of not watching them). “Miss Crane—I have no intention of ending my pursuit of you.”

“You don’t?” Georgiana blurts without thinking, her hand tightening in his, her face brightening with hope—she feels embarrassed to have spoken so abruptly, but she’s grateful she did, because it hid the little squeak of joy her mother gave. She barely manages to suppress a smile at Eloise’s embarrassed expression.

Julian smiles, faintly—still a little distant, still a little shaky. But genuine, she thinks. He means it. He truly means it. “I don’t,” he repeats, squeezing her hand in turn, gently. “I wish for our courtship to continue. You are still the woman that I wish to spend my time with, the one I prefer above all others. Nothing between us needs to change.”

Over Julian’s shoulder, Georgiana sees the relief and happiness on her mother’s face. And for a moment, she feels it too. She isn’t ruined; she won’t have to marry Samuel Darlington. She can marry Julian, the man with whom she feels safe, happy, at home. The man she might one day love. He’ll continue courting her. Nothing will have to change. Everything can stay the way it was before.

But, she thinks as her joy drains away, therein lies the problem. She doesn’t want everything to be the way it was before. She’s had a taste of something more, and she doesn’t want to let it go. And so she knows what she has to do

She takes a deep breath, straightens her spine, and looks Julian directly in the eye. She smiles, and she withdraws her hand from his, and she says, steadily, “Thank you, Mr. Ridgely. I’m flattered by your regard, and so grateful for your generosity in overlooking my mistakes. But I’m afraid I must decline your suit.”

Eloise drops her book and her jaw.

Julian blinks at her, then does it again, confusion edging into his features. “I beg your pardon?” he says after a moment, uncertainly.

Georgiana smiles at him, doing her best to make it polite and regretful rather than sunny and radiant, like she wants it to be. She’s taking a gamble, she knows, but she’s never been more certain about a course of action in her life. “I must decline your suit,” she repeats patiently. “I’m sorry, Mr. Ridgely, but you deserve a bride who will come to you with her reputation unstained, unbesmirched by impropriety. After last night, I’m simply not that woman. My actions show that I am not worthy of you, and I must beg of you to look elsewhere for your wife.”

Eloise’s mouth is now opening and closing, helplessly; her eyes are bulging out, too, making her look rather like a fish. Julian is staring at Georgiana, his brow slowly furrowing, his expression completely bewildered. “You wish to decline my suit?” he finally says, sounding as if the words are in a foreign language.

Georgiana supposes she can’t blame him. Any other woman would be thrilled by what he offered. She’s certain her mother is in the throes of a complete nervous breakdown, judging by the slightly green color she’s turned. Her refusal is an action no sensible woman would ever have taken.

She supposes she’s never been particularly sensible.

She nods at Julian, casting her gaze down, as would befit a penitent. “Yes, Mr. Ridgely. With my sincerest apologies and best wishes for your future.”

By now, Eloise is making little choking noises; fortunately, Julian is too busy staring at Georgiana as if he’s never seen anything like her before to notice.

“And you’re certain,” he says slowly, his brow furrowed, “that this is what you wish?”

Georgiana tips her head up, her eyes widening deliberately. “It isn’t about what I wish, Mr. Ridgely,” she says earnestly, reaching to press her hand gently over his. “It’s about what is proper—what is right. You deserve better. Truly.”

I deserve better, she thinks.

Julian keeps staring at her, unblinking, and it is all Georgiana can do not to lose herself in his eyes. They’re truly stunning, the exact shade of brightly polished emeralds, vivid in his pale face, ringed with dark lashes, the most handsome feature on an exceedingly handsome face.

Slowly, his expression changes—and to Georgiana’s immense relief, she sees understanding trickle into his gaze. The corner of his mouth twitches gently, and his expression creases in interest.

“Very well,” he says slowly, raising Georgiana’s hand to his lips to press a kiss to it—and this time, for once, he lingers, his eyes not leaving hers. “I believe I understand perfectly. I will call upon you tomorrow, Miss Crane—if you’ll have me.”

And, as he gives his regards to Eloise, who summons enough manners to stammer out a farewell though her mouth is still ajar, he leaves, leaving her to turn her incredulous gaze to her daughter.

“What—” she demands in a splutter, but Georgiana presses her finger urgently to her mouth; from the hall, they hear Phillip approaching Julian, a swift, muffled conversation taking place between them till Aldridge shows Julian out.

Eloise is still staring at Georgiana when Phillip comes back into the room, a bewildered expression on his face. “Georgiana,” he says slowly, “I just had the strangest chat with young Mr. Ridgely.”

“Did you?” Georgiana asks pleasantly, smoothing her skirts. “I knew you were speaking with him, of course, but sound does not carry so well that we could make out the content of the conversation.”

Phillip shoots her a sharp look, which she returns with a sunny smile. He generally has a far easier time getting information out of Penelope, whose manner of blunt speaking matches his own; Georgiana, on the other hand, delights in the nuances and circumlocutions of polite conversations. Especially when she’s so thoroughly pleased with the success of her plan, and especially when she’s so thoroughly bamboozled her own mother—no mean feat.

“He told me,” Phillip continues, a touch dubiously, “that you had told him you wished for him to end his courtship of you, because you were ‘not worthy’ of his attentions anymore.”

“That does seem to match my own recollections of our conversation,” Georgiana replies brightly, and Eloise lets out a few more strangled noises.

“May I ask,” Phillip says, his tone still light and polite but now sounding more than a little forced, “why exactly you said that?”

Georgiana beams at him. Of course her father doesn’t believe for a minute that she wishes for Julian to no longer court her, nor that she actually is not worthy of him anymore. It would take far more than a single mistake, even one as monumentally foolish as hers had been, for her to feel anything less than completely confident in her own worth as a person. If nothing else, her parents have taught her that much.

“I believe that Mr. Ridgely likes me as a person,” she says, folding her hands in her lap. “I believe that he thinks that I would make him a good wife, not because of my birth or my dowry or my connections, but because of who I am. I believe that he appreciates that we get along well, that we laugh together, that we are comfortable around one another—that we have a harmony together befitting of those who would marry.

“However,” she continues, looking from her puzzled father to her utterly baffled mother, “I also believe that that is all he is willing to pursue at the moment, and that he continues to court me because it is convenient. It is clear to me that he doesn’t wish to develop a deeper relationship, and he doesn’t wish to marry soon. So he is keeping me on the string—enjoying the presence of a likely bride without the trouble of getting to truly know her or actually taking steps to wed her. It would be a perfect plan with some women, but I do not wish to be kept on the string. I don’t wish to be convenient. I wish to be pursued, and I wish to be known. I wish to actually wed the man I have chosen for my husband.”

Both Phillip and Eloise are staring at her at the end of her speech, and Eloise bursts out, “And you believed the best way to do this was to reject his suit?”

“He said that nothing would have to change,” Georgiana replies simply, calm even in the face of her mother’s distress. “That was unacceptable to me.”

“Of course it was,” Phillip says, and Eloise lets out a little squeak of disbelief; Georgiana turns to her father and beams at him, delighted to see that he’s smiling. “Well done, Georgie.”

Eloise lets out another incredulous sound, but Georgiana’s smile widens. She knew, just knew, that her father would understand. She has her mother’s hair and her smile, her ease in any sort of company and her perfect aim, her talkative nature and her stubbornness—but past all of that, at her core, in the stuff her spirit is made of, she is exactly like her father. They don’t need discussions or explanations to understand one another; they simply do.

“Mother,” Georgiana says, very quietly, looking at Eloise’s agonized face. “I don’t need you to understand. But I believe that Mr. Ridgely does, and I knew he would. You’ll see—everything will be better now. I know that this was the right thing to do. I just hope that you will allow me to conduct this courtship in my own manner.”

Eloise lets out a long huff of air, looking at her daughter—and Georgiana feels it again, feels her mother looking at her as an adult. “I don’t understand it,” she admits freely (an effort for her, Georgiana knows). “But—this is your life, Georgiana. Goodness knows I didn’t find my husband in the most conventional manner.” She shoots a smile at Phillip, who returns it, affection clear on his face. “You deserve the chance to act on your own to find your happiness.”

She reaches for Georgiana’s hand, and Georgiana clutches at her tightly, wanting for a moment to be a girl again, to trust that her mother knows best and will take care of everything. But those days are gone, and it’s with grave softness that Eloise adds, “I just hope you know what you’re doing, Georgie.”

Georgiana hopes so, too.

 

It has been, Penelope thinks to herself as she removes her gloves, quite a successful day.

Item the first: Georgiana’s courtship with Mr. Ridgely appears settled. Eloise is still fluttering about it uncertainly, occasionally muttering under her breath when she thinks none of her children can hear her, but Georgiana seems happy, which is all that matters to Penelope.

She, of course, heard the full story mere minutes after Mr. Ridgely left, when Georgiana rushed upstairs to give her all of the details, her eyes shining, her words practically tripping over one another. Her sister has always been so expressive, it’s the easiest thing in the world to tell when she’s happy—and happy she was, all but glowing with it. Though Penelope barely understands what Georgiana’s planning, she’s purposeful and confident, clearly convinced of her actions, and that’s all that Penelope needs to know.

Item the second: gossip about Georgiana and Darlington seems to be reasonably contained, as the extensive Bridgerton family has reported. Most of the day, after Mr. Ridgely departed, was spent calling on family to investigate the state of the gossip and inform them of what had happened—and three aunts, four married female cousins, and the wives of three male cousins were powerful sources of information indeed.

They had all found that no one was quite sure what had happened with Georgiana and Darlington; the advantage of the Berbrooke cousins’ well-meaning attempts at foiling gossip and utter inability to keep their mouths shut was that several different stories, most of them outlandish and impractical, had circulated, along with reports that nothing at all had happened and that someone was trying deliberately to ruin Georgiana by spreading falsehoods. As a result, only the meanest-spirited members of society thought it positive that Georgiana was ruined, and everyone else was not quite sure what to believe. Everyone was certain that Mr. Ridgely and Georgiana’s renewed courtship would do much to quell the rumors and restore Georgie to society.

(Penelope has to spare a moment of sheer relief that Agatha is traveling on the continent with her parents this season; she misses her favorite cousin terribly, but she is absolutely not looking forward to telling her about all this. She hopes no one brings it up to her until she’s back in town.)

Item the third: she is now returning from a shopping expedition in which she found a lovely lace cap, the pale violet accents perfect against her dark hair. (Perhaps not as noteworthy an event as the rest, but honestly, after all the hubbub, she thinks she deserves to take a little pleasure in the simpler things.)

She’s reaching for her parcel, excited to see how the hat looks against one of her favorite gowns, when Aldridge approaches her, presenting her with a calling card on a salver. She frowns faintly—have they been expecting company?—and lifts it to see the name Samuel Darlington.

Penelope groans. It’s unladylike, but only Aldridge can hear her, and he’s certainly witnessed her being less than ladylike before. Her parents have gone to update Amanda on the gossip, Oliver’s likely at his club, and Georgiana met some friends on their way home and decided to go to Gunter’s with them (keeping up the impression that everything is fine and she’s partaking in the activities of polite society as usual). That means she’s the only one here to receive Darlington, and in between Mr. Ridgely’s renewed courtship of her sister and the way Penelope confronted him the night before, she certainly doesn’t relish having that conversation.

“Tell him I’ll be with him in a moment,” Penelope tells Aldridge with a sigh, and goes to change into a different gown—one that matches her new hat. There’s nothing like wearing new clothing to make one feel more confident.

“Mr. Darlington,” she says half an hour later, entering the parlor accompanied by her maid (who immediately takes a seat in the corner, badly pretending to be engrossed in her mending), polite smile on her face. She’s clad in a cream-colored gown that offsets the fairness of her skin, her new hat perfectly arranged in her loosely pinned curls. “This is certainly a surprise.”

“Is it, Miss Crane?” Darlington asks wryly, turning towards her. He looks splendid, as always, blue eyes bright, hair glinting gold in the early afternoon sunlight, expression engaging. He’s holding, Penelope’s dismayed to see, an enormous bouquet of flowers, white and pink roses with perfect, velvety soft petals.

They’re gorgeous, of course—likely the best money can buy—but they herald the fact that this promises to be a deeply uncomfortable conversation.

“I daresay I won’t offend you by assuming that you are the only member of your household present to receive me,” Darlington drawls, arching a sardonic eyebrow. “Surely if you’d known I was here, you would have made excuses not to return till sundown.”

Penelope can’t help a quiet little snort of laughter, which would have been embarrassing did she care at all about what Darlington thought of her. She’s clearly shown him the worst side of herself; his opinion surely can’t deteriorate too far. “You are correct in your first assumption, as you well know,” she murmurs. “But I am, of course, pleased to receive you.”

Darlington grins (it’s devastatingly handsome, of course), clearly seeing right through her. “Of course you are, Miss Crane. May I tell you how lovely you look today?”

“You certainly may,” she replies wryly, “but that would mean that both of us are lying, and that’s hardly the ideal way to start a conversation.”

Darlington laughs at that, long and hard, and grins at her again. Penelope finds herself smiling back, feeling strangely comfortable despite not having any idea why he’s here or what else she can say to him.

Best just to say it, probably. “I am the only one here, Mr. Darlington,” she adds, clasping her hands in front of her, “as you know. Which means my sister is out. And just so that you are aware, she has spoken to Mr. Ridgely, and there is still an understanding between them that their courtship will continue. So you ought not to call on her again.”

Darlington looks startled, but genuinely (to Penelope’s eyes, at least) pleased. “I’m glad to hear it, if that’s her wish. Georgiana deserves every happiness.” And before Penelope can wonder when on earth her sister gave Darlington permission to use her given name, he’s adding, “But I didn’t come to call on your sister. I came to call on you.”

And he offers her the flowers. Penelope’s jaw drops.

“M—Me?” she squeaks out, feeling her face flame with color (hating her pale complexion more than ever). She actually stumbles a step back, and Darlington pursues, flowers still outstretched. He’s smiling broadly now, teasing rather than charming.

“To my knowledge,” he says, “you are the only other unmarried woman who lives here. Lady Crane is lovely, but I believe your father would have some words with me were I to bring her flowers.”

“Mother would have some words with you, too,” Penelope says without thinking, and Darlington laughs again.

“Miss Crane,” he says, more gently, offering her the bouquet again. “I chose these because they made me think of you. Please—accept them.”

Penelope feels her face flame again. His face looks earnest, more so than she’s ever seen it. His eyes are shining, and his smile is genuine. And the roses do perfectly match her complexion.

“Thank you,” she finally says, her voice a little strangled as she takes the flowers. She turns to see Aldridge already there, holding a vase, and she takes a moment to engage in arranging them, hiding her face among the flowers to inhale their scent (beautiful, of course).

After she finishes, though, she can’t stop herself, and she turns to blurt out, “Why? Why did you bring me flowers? Why are you calling on me?”

Darlington smiles as if he was expecting the question (he must have been, of course, under the circumstances), and tilts his head thoughtfully. “I have to confess that I’m not entirely certain.”

Penelope stares at him in horror. “No! No. You aren’t going to say that and leave it there. You almost ruined my sister, and you call on me the next day when we’ve barely ever spoken before? You owe me more than that!”

Darlington looks startled by the outburst, then thoughtful. “You are endlessly surprising to me, Miss Crane,” he murmurs, tucking his fingers under his chin. “I don’t know very many women who are willing to be so forthright with me.”

“Well,” Penelope says slowly, surprised that he hasn’t figured it out yet, “most women want to marry you, which means that they’re willing to tell you what you want to hear and not much more.”

Darlington wrinkles his nose, a strangely boyish gesture on him. “And yet I’m not too many years out of university. I’ve never courted an eligible young woman. I’ve never given any indication that I’m interested in marriage. I’ve done nothing to encourage any woman into thinking I would wish to marry her. Why is it that society loves a man who isn’t interested in marriage? Tell me, Miss Crane, what could I possibly do in order to discourage them?”

“Next to nothing,” Penelope says bluntly. “You’re a very handsome man in possession of a fine fortune. You’re the son of an earl and the brother of a viscount, your sister married quite well, and your mother is still one of the most beautiful women in London. And worst of all, everyone likes you. You’re absurdly charming. Short of disfiguring yourself, there’s really nothing to be done about your popularity.”

Darlington laughs again, this time so hard that he nearly doubles over. Penelope can’t help a smile as she watches him suffused with mirth, feeling oddly proud of herself.

“I don’t believe anyone has ever said so many pleasant-sounding things about me so disparagingly,” he says when he surfaces at last, smiling at her. “I’m pleased to hear your view of me is so favorable.”

“Favorable?” Penelope echoes in disbelief. “‘Handsome’ and ‘charming’ say absolutely nothing about the content of your character. If you truly believe those are the best things to which you can aspire—”

“No,” Darlington interrupts, looking—is it possible?—embarrassed. “No, that isn’t what I meant. It’s clear, Miss Crane, that you have the wrong opinion of me altogether if those are the only values you believe that I hold dear.”

Penelope shrugs, feeling only a little guilty. He seems truly stung, but… “I must be honest, Mr. Darlington; you haven’t given me much cause to think otherwise. All I see of you is a typical empty-headed society gentleman, whose only care is for looking his best and charming as many women as he possibly can.”

Darlington gives an exaggerated wince, clasping a hand to his chest. “You wound me, Miss Crane,” he murmurs, shooting her a doleful gaze. “A direct hit.”

Penelope rolls her eyes, although truth be told, she’s enjoying this just a little. “Truly, what have you done to dispel this impression? I only ever see you with the most beautiful women in society on your arm.”

“Am I or am I not friends with Agatha?” Darlington shoots back, and Penelope gasps, appalled.

“I cannot believe you said that! Agatha is a perfectly lovely woman—”

Darlington winces, clearly immediately regretting his words. “I know—I didn’t mean—”

“She certainly doesn’t fit the societal standard for beauty, and she isn’t at her best in crowds, but she’s kind and witty and has the loveliest eyes, and she is the smartest person I know—”

“Miss Crane, I didn’t mean it,” Darlington interrupts, rubbing at his temple. “Agatha is a wonderful woman, and I care for her very much. As you pointed out, though, she is not a diamond of the first water—yet I am her friend, not because of her looks but because of the person she is. Surely that shows that I’m not so shallow.”

“Agatha is the exception,” Penelope tells him, “not the rule. Other than her, I’ve never seen you dance with or even talk to a wallflower. And despite the fact I am Agatha’s favorite cousin, this is the longest conversation you have ever had with me by a factor of about twenty.”

Darlington has the grace to look ashamed by that. “Is that why you’ve always hated me?”

Penelope’s face is not likely to be restored to its normal color at any point during this conversation, and she probably ought to accept that as soon as possible. “Have I been terribly obvious about it?”

“You’re an abysmal liar, Miss Crane.” Darlington is smiling at her now, something almost like fondness on his face. “I’m sure it’s what makes you dislike society so much. You’re really not well-suited for it.”

Penelope scowls. It rankles her a little that he can read her so well. Of course she’s always known that she isn’t very good at dissembling, and that her emotions will almost always show on her face. It’s why she’s tried to find it an advantage that she babbles when she’s uncomfortable—otherwise she might not ever talk.

And, if she’s being honest with herself—and she usually is, or at least makes an effort to be—it really bothers her that he can read her so well because it’s swiftly appearing that she’s been, at best, misled about him, and at worst terribly mistaken.

“I always thought that you not speaking to me was a sign of how shallow you were,” she admits, twining and untwining her fingers together. This is the most honest conversation she’s ever had with a gentleman, and she isn’t quite sure what to do with herself—but she forces herself to keep talking. “I told myself that—that if you ever did—it would mean that I was wrong about you.”

She shrugs, uncomfortable, and sees guilt and regret stark in Darlington’s expression. “But you never did. And then you kissed my sister on the balcony, where anyone could see you, after another man had been courting her for a year—”

“It was a mistake,” Darlington says, and his voice is a little hoarse. “I should never have done it. I knew it even as it was happening. I am—impulsive, much of the time. I’m not very good at thinking before I act. And I tend to be quite lazy. My life has been quite easy. I’ve rarely had to work for anything I wanted. If someone presents me with a proposition, I tend to accept it. If a woman approaches me, I will allow her to do so. It’s simpler that way.

“And sometimes—I have trouble seeing what happens to be right in front of me.” He takes a step closer, his eyes never leaving Penelope’s, and she feels her heart begin to beat faster. Something—something is happening here. She can’t name it, and she doesn’t understand it, but she knows it’s here.

“I’m a bit of an idiot sometimes,” he admits, his tone more wry, and Penelope lets out a quiet, choked little giggle.

“I could tell,” she murmurs, and both of them are laughing now, the easy, comfortable sort of laugh that Penelope has shared with siblings, cousins, and friends, but never with a gentleman.

It makes her bold, and it makes her ask, tone soft but unyielding, “Mr. Darlington, I think you know why you called on me today.” She sits down at last, spreading her skirts around her, her gaze level as she looks at him. “I’d like to know it, too.”

Darlington sits on the opposite side of the sofa and looks back at her, and she feels a little breathless, like she’s never quite noticed how stunning his eyes are before. Absurd, she tries to tell herself—she’s known it ever since she first met him. Maybe it’s just that she’s never seen his expression quite so serious before.

After a moment, he says, just as quietly, “Julian Ridgely paid me a visit this morning.”

Penelope can’t help a quiet, startled gasp, and his expression turns wry. “To ease your mind, it wasn’t to call me out.”

“I wasn’t concerned about you,” she shoots back, and he chuckles quietly. “I didn’t know—are you friends?” It would, she thinks in horror, add a new and appalling dimension to the whole thing.

Darlington, though, is shaking his head. “No—we’ve never had reason to be anything but civil toward one another, but we’ve never been close, either.” He pauses, then, his gaze drifting to the window, his face contemplative. “He told me that he had spoken to Georgiana, and that they had reached an understanding. He said that he thought he understood why she had done it, and he thought he could forgive me my part in the debacle.”

Penelope thinks about challenging his choice of words—“debacle” is so mild, and it seems to deflect from the seriousness of his actions—but this is a side of Samuel Darlington she has never seen, and she isn’t so sure she wants to scare it away. So she stays quiet as he keeps talking.

“He told me that there would be rumors, however muddled, and that he prefers events to be as confused as possible, as it deflects attention from… well. The truth. And he asked me what I intended to say, if I was asked directly what had happened.”

He looks back at Penelope then, giving a long, slow shrug. “I had to admit I hadn’t thought about it. And he asked me if I would be willing, in order to save Georgiana’s reputation, to make it seem as if it had been my idea. As if I had convinced her to do it, led her astray. All while being certain not to confirm a particular set of events, of course.”

Penelope’s breath catches. She feels torn between her basic principles of honesty—how could Mr. Ridgely ask such a thing?—and her desire to do anything for her sister—how could he not, to protect Georgiana? Society would be far kinder to a man who seduced an innocent than to a woman who sought her own ruin, but the consequences would still be there.

“It could spoil many of your marriage prospects,” Penelope says softly. “Mothers don’t want their daughters marrying a man who deliberately sought to ruin someone. You’ve always stayed respectable, no matter your reputation. I wouldn’t blame you for choosing not to risk that.”

Darlington’s eyes are wide and serious when they meet hers. “I didn’t hesitate for a moment,” he says, so quiet she has to lean in to hear him. “I have never been—I do not like to admit when I’ve made a mistake. But I have tried hard, my entire life, to atone for them when I do. And no mistake has ever been as serious as this one. If the choice is my future or Georgiana’s—how can that be a choice at all? Haven’t I done enough to jeopardize her prospects?”

Penelope finds herself, in that moment, quite literally without breath. It’s as if her lungs have been deflated entirely, and she doesn’t quite know how she has enough air to whisper, “Are you in love with her?”

Darlington looks startled, but he shakes his head. “No,” he says, then again, like the question is so surprising he has to be certain of his answer, “no. But I like her very much. She is a truly fine person, and I—I will be damned if I cause any more damage to her life through my thoughtlessness.”

In that moment, Penelope realizes two things: one, that she cannot quantify the degree to which she has misjudged Samuel Darlington. She feels as if every positive thing Agatha has said about him, everything she’s dismissed out of hand as her cousin’s lovestruck delusions, is slotting into place, helping to form a new and far more complete understanding of him. And two, that judging by the look in his eyes and the censure in his quiet but fierce tone, nothing she said last night could possibly be as harsh or as critical as the things that Samuel Darlington says to himself.

“I do not tell you this,” he says after a moment, expression distant, “to try to court your good opinion. I don’t expect your forgiveness. But I wanted you to know.” He meets her gaze again, stark and earnest, and Penelope again feels as if all of the air has fled her chest. “You said you would have expected better of me. I wanted to tell you that I expect better of myself, too. I wish to do whatever I can to rectify the situation. I wish to be more thoughtful, more responsible. I wish to be the sort of man that my parents can be proud of. I wish to be the sort of man who might—one day—earn your respect.”

In this moment, he is that man, but Penelope is too stunned to even think about telling him this.

The silence stretches between them, and the corner of Darlington’s mouth quirks, slow and wry and a little heartbreaking. “At any rate, as I said,” he says, his tone deliberately light, “I have no wish to be married anytime soon. Perhaps by the time I’m ready, the scandal won’t be so fresh. Perhaps my prospects will have improved.”

Penelope manages a little nod. Speech, it seems, is still far beyond her.

After another moment of silence, Darlington stands. “Miss Crane,” he says, soft and grave, by way of farewell, and he’s halfway to the door when she shoots to her feet and exclaims, “Mr. Darlington!”

He turns, and she doesn’t want to think about why there might be a little bit of hope in his features. “Miss Crane?”

She takes a deep breath (her lungs seem to be functioning again) and she smoothes her skirts, and she says, “I—I believe there might be one way for your eligibility to be restored, in the eyes of society.”

Now he looks surprised and a little intrigued, and he takes a step closer. “Yes? What might that be?”

To her endless surprise, Penelope finds herself smiling, just a little. “You might—after an appropriate amount of time, of course—express a desire to reform, by displaying consistent interest in a woman of good birth, good connections, and reasonable good looks. A woman, perhaps, who has never been terribly popular, and who has received very few proposals in the past. A woman whose family has vocally admired your regret at your rash actions and your dedication to becoming an upstanding member of society again. And if you are courting one woman, then all but the most persistent of your other admirers might be discouraged—allowing you to be more selective in whom, in time, you choose to pursue.”

Darlington stares at her for a moment, as if he’s never seen her before, or as if he’s seeing her in a completely new light; then, slowly, he smiles. “Miss Crane,” he says, “you are a visionary. A genius, even. It’s a brilliant plan. I have only one question for you—where might I find such a woman for such an undertaking?”

Penelope feels laughter bubbling up inside her, lighter and more natural than ever before. “Oh—I think I may have just the woman for you.”

 

It takes weeks for society’s interest in the renewed courtship of Georgiana Crane and Julian Ridgely to die down. At first, Georgiana finds it mildly amusing; then she finds it extremely irritating, but it eventually cycles back to amusing again. After all, things are going so well for her that she can’t bring herself to truly complain.

Things with her and Julian have been wonderful. He calls on her almost every day. They take rides together; they walk together; he escorts her to the opera and to balls and on aimless outings simply to spend time with her. And they talk for hours and hours.

Things are different between them now. No less comfortable and no less easy, but more in every way. Julian looks at her now with interest sharp in his gaze, clearly committing every word she’s saying to memory. She can feel his eyes following her when she walks around a room, and she knows that he’s paying attention to her as never before.

A man worthy of her, Georgiana knows, would have realized exactly what she was doing when she rejected his courtship, and would have respected her more for it, seen her in a new light, acknowledged her cleverness and courage and risen to her challenge. She had hoped that Julian was such a man, and she’s being proven right every single day.

Their conversations are less formal now, easier. The content at first is no different than before—nothing deeper, nothing more significant—but Julian’s tone and manner have changed drastically. Before he would always keep the proper distance from Georgiana at all times, treat her with the utmost courtesy even when they were relatively alone, never once say anything that was less than proper. There was never anything dishonest in him, of course, but he would say nothing that would raise eyebrows or cause so much as a smidgen of gossip.

Now, though, Julian sits so close to her that she can feel the warmth of his body, even through the layers of their clothing. Now he holds her hand as if it is nothing, as if it is the easiest thing in the world. Now, when she speaks, he leans into her. Now, when he teases her, his voice is light, openly flirtatious, with a subtle, intimate edge to it—not the tone of a young gentleman to a young lady he’s courting, but that of a man to his wife.

And to Georgiana’s delight, he almost never takes his eyes off of her. Whether he’s watching her speak with open interest or letting his gaze follow her when she walks, he looks at her so openly that society gossips can talk of little else. Sometimes, Georgiana sees speculation in his gaze, deep thought, as if he’s trying to figure out everything about her. Perhaps if he’s trying to deduce whether she’s always had the depths he might not have seen in her before.

His newfound freedom with her gives her leave to be the same with him. Whereas before she was too afraid to speak to him too openly, too concerned that she might do or say the wrong thing and put him off, she now knows that everything will be all right. So she teases him easily, and she says what’s on her mind, and she feels bold enough to even shove him lightly or gently swat his shoulder, as she would with her siblings. From the wideness of his smiles, he clearly isn’t offended by her boldness.

Soon, the tenor of their conversations changes as well. It starts with Julian asking her advice about a minor staffing matter at his country home, one of the ancestral houses of the dukedom given to his care several years ago. The importance of the question isn’t lost on Georgiana; not only is he showing that he values her mind and her opinions, but he’s giving her a chance to be involved in the care of what could be her future home.

After that, their conversations become deeper. They’ve shared opinions and thoughts before, of course—they have courted for a year—but it’s different now. Now, they talk as two people who wish to share a future. Julian tells her how he’s always felt a bit apart from his family, with his vibrant mother and far more openly charming brothers and sister; how he adores his brother William, but his dearest friend in the world is his cousin Edward, his mother’s cousin’s son; how he feels terribly protective of all six of his cousins and his two younger siblings, as the second eldest in the family; how he’s often afraid of not living up to expectations, how it feels to be a younger son, regarded as the handsome one or the serious one without much thought for what might be beneath his surface.

Georgiana, in turn, tells him how she wishes her entire family could be physically closer to one another, how strange it is for them to all be so scattered but so close in their hearts; how she adores that her eldest cousin is twelve years her senior and her youngest born when she was fourteen, how she loves falling squarely in the middle of the sprawling set of nearly three dozen Bridgertons; how she loves her oldest siblings more than nearly anyone else, but sometimes feels a little separate from them—not because they came from different mothers, but because they went through such a great tragedy in their youth, and their early childhood was so very different from hers, and it’s difficult to feel that she, with her own near-idyllic life, can ever measure up; and her biggest secret of all, how she wishes more than anything that she could study botany at Cambridge as her father did, how she loves working with him in the greenhouse and how much more there is for her to learn, if only she could.

“You would leave all of this behind?” Julian asks her when she tells him this during an outing; his tone is more than a little wry as he gestures to the expanse of the park and, beyond it, the city. It’s been nearly three weeks now, and most people’s heads don’t automatically turn in blatant curiosity when the two of them walk by, though they’re still a prime subject of interest.

“Abandon society in favor of your plants? Become an academic recluse in the countryside?” Julian continues, his tone growing lighter and more teasing. “I’m shocked to hear of this plan of yours, Miss Crane.”

Georgiana giggles, shooting him a brilliant smile. “This plan to become exactly like my father, you mean?” she shoots back, and Julian grins down at her.

“Your words, not mine,” he reminds her, tucking her arm more firmly into his. “From what I know of him, your father is brilliant.”

“And reclusive,” Georgiana replies, clearly not taking any offense to the description. “He loathes being here, you know. Four seasons in a row—it’s near torture for him. But we’re his youngest daughters. He must go with us, to see what sort of trouble we manage to get ourselves into.”

“Trouble?” Julian murmurs, affecting surprise. “From you, Miss Crane? I can hardly conceive it.”

Georgiana giggles again. “I really don’t seem the sort, do I?” she says brightly. “Not on short acquaintance, at least. But I’m far, far more stubborn than Penelope, and she cares much more about propriety than I do. It’s simply that my desires and society’s desires for me don’t often conflict.”

Julian smiles down at her, his expression warm and open. It’s hard for Georgiana to imagine, at moments like this, that she ever found him distant or serious. The planes of his face still slope in lines that lend themselves to a solemn expression, but it’s amazing how well smiling suits him. The upward quirks of his mouth soften his stark cheekbones, and his eyes sparkle with warmth. It’s completely irresistible.

“I feel,” he murmurs, shaking his head a little, “that that is best for everyone involved. I shudder to think what you might accomplish if you set out to do something truly scandalous.”

“What, such as abandon society and live in the country with my plants?” Georgiana grins up at him, twirling a loose lock of hair around her finger in contemplation. “No—I wouldn’t want that. Not really. I want a conventional life. I want to spend time in the city for the season. I want a husband and children, a family like my own. I just also wish… I wish that I could educate myself more thoroughly. There’s so much I don’t know.”

“If you knew much more than you already did, Miss Crane,” Julian says thoughtfully, reaching to gently tuck her hair behind her ear (his fingertips lingering at her earlobe, making her shiver), “I believe you would not hesitate to take over the world. A truly alarming thought.”

“I would be a very benevolent dictator, I promise,” Georgiana says brightly. “Are you trying to tell me you wouldn’t wish for me to be educated further?”

In the past, she would never ask a question like that; it’s far too bold a thing to say, and she would have been too nervous about the answer. Now, though, she’s sure that she knows what he’ll say. And even if she didn’t, her teasing quips tend to draw flattery from him, as if he recognizes that there hasn’t been nearly enough of it between them.

And sure enough, the smile that slips onto his face is gentle, intimate, warm. “I would wish for you anything that you would wish for yourself,” he says, soft and earnest. “As long as I did not believe it would end poorly. I feel I ought to tell you that I would try to stop you, were that the case, no matter how much you wanted it.”

Good enough of an answer, Georgiana thinks. In a family of stubborn, overprotective men, she truly didn’t expect to hear anything else, but the emotion behind the words pleases her anyway. “I’m glad you said ‘try,’” she says, leaning playfully against him with a smile.

Julian grins down at her, a little wry. “I know you well enough, I think,” he murmurs, “not to assume I could prevent you from doing anything at all.”

And both the words and the sentiment behind them warm Georgiana to her core.

Not long afterward, Julian kisses her for the first time, and it’s truly a kiss worth waiting for.

They’re at a ball held by Baron Stannage, who’s good friends with Julian’s parents, and so when Julian whispers “Come with me” after their second dance and tugs her away from the crowd, vanishing into a dark hallway, she trusts that he knows what he’s doing, and it’s only anticipation and delight fluttering their way through her stomach.

He pulls her into a room with low-burning lamps and closes the door behind them, after making a show of looking down the hallway in one direction, then the other. When he turns back to her, his face is lit with mischief and boyish delight; he looks young and full of energy, and so handsome it actually hurts Georgiana’s heart.

She’s never seen him like this, so willing to play. She wants to savor it, almost as much as she wants to kiss him.

She gives him a low, exaggerated curtsey, giggles catching in her throat, and he bows to her before hooking an arm around her waist, leading her in a spirited reel around the room (which appears to be a study of some sort, as far as Georgiana can tell). She’s trying desperately to muffle her laughter as she stumbles after him, and soon he, too, stops paying any attention to the dance as he gives in to the laughter as well.

They stand there for a moment, their bodies still close together, their hands clasped, faces flushed with mirth and eyes bright with joy—and, slowly, the expression on Julian’s face grows more intense, and the laughter dissolves in Georgiana’s chest, replaced with something infinitely sweeter.

Julian watches her as if he wants to chronicle the most minute alterations of her expression, his eyes focused only on her face. Slowly, he raises a hand to brush his fingertips from her hairline down her cheekbone and to her jaw, gently hooking his fingers under her chin to tip it up. Georgiana finds, all of a sudden, that she can’t breathe.

“You are,” Julian whispers, his voice shaking just a little, “so beautiful. The most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”

Georgiana knows, in the rational part of her mind, that that’s not true—that while there’s certainly nothing wrong with her, physically speaking, that she inherited the famous Bridgerton bone structure and good looks, with just enough influence from her father to give her face an extra dashing boldness, she is far from the loveliest girl of her season, let alone in society as a whole.

Here, though, with Julian—with his gaze focused on her as if it would kill him to look away, his voice more intense than she’s ever heard it—she believes it. She feels it in her heart.

“Julian,” she says, the word little more than a breath, the first time she’s ever used his name aloud.

His expression is fierce in its exultation, and he leans in, tilting her chin towards him again. “Georgiana,” he whispers in return, and he pulls her close and kisses her.

It’s, of course, completely different than the kiss she shared with Samuel. For one thing, they’re very different men. Samuel kisses with great skill, but any passion in it is manufactured—she knew the entire time that he was kissing her that he didn’t desire her, not really, that he was only kissing her because she had asked him to. So it had been exactly what she expected: a kiss that was enjoyable, but largely impersonal.

Julian’s kiss is anything but impersonal. The first touch of their lips is gentle, but in less than a minute he’s wrapping an arm around her waist, pulling her to him, parting her lips for his tongue, exploring every inch of her that he can reach, the tender absorption of his mouth as thorough as it was in his eyes. He kisses her like he’s a starving man and she’s a feast, like she is the air he needs to breathe, and she can do nothing but melt against him, clutching his shoulders for support.

It’s clear that Julian has kissed women before, but there’s less skill and more passion in his kiss. There’s nothing remote in the way he splays his hands against Georgiana’s back to pull her closer to him, how he finally pulls his mouth from hers to trail kisses along her cheek and jaw to her neck, the heated motions of his lips and tongue drawing a whimper from Georgiana.

She never dreamed it could be like this. The most significant difference between Samuel and Julian, of course, is that she’s never wanted Samuel even a fraction as badly as she wants Julian.

Julian’s mouth slips below the curve of Georgiana’s shoulder exposed by the cut of her dress, his mouth lightly nuzzling the tops of her breasts—Georgiana’s so startled she almost lets out a little shriek, but she finds herself desperately curious; would he kiss her there?—and all of a sudden she feels him tense, then straighten, drawing back enough to look at her face. He’s even more flushed now, his hair in disarray (Georgiana hadn’t even realized her hands were in his hair, and she regrets not having paid attention to its texture).

“I know,” he says, slowly, sounding as if he’s speaking underwater, “that you may have thought—or feared, at least—that I’ve never kissed you because I did not desire you. I hope you now understand that nothing could be further from the truth.”

She certainly does, she thinks dazedly, blinking up at him through a haze; her eyes don’t seem prepared to focus properly just yet.

“The truth is that I—I was afraid that I might not be able to stop, if I touched you in a way that wasn’t entirely proper.” Julian’s words are still coming out too thick, but Georgiana can’t help but be impressed that he’s managing to be even this articulate, under the circumstances. “And you deserve more respect than that.”

“I’m not sure that I do,” Georgiana murmurs without thinking, and Julian lets out a sound that’s half laugh and half groan as he bends to kiss her again, his hands gentle on her upper arms, his mouth not straying from her lips this time. She returns the kiss eagerly, pressing closer to him, loving the feeling of the lines of his body beneath his formal clothing. It makes heat rise to her face, to think what he might look like without it.

It’s probably for the best, she thinks in profound embarrassment, that this is the first time Julian has kissed her. If she’d known what it would be like months ago, there’s a very good chance that she would have made a convincing attempt to talk him out of his restraint.

Eventually, Julian pulls away, looking even more dazed this time, and Georgiana smiles up at him like a fool, unable to contain the happiness bubbling inside her. She’s known all along, of course, that if Julian rose to her challenge they would marry—but she feels it more strongly than ever now. He is the man for her, she the woman for him, and they’re going to be deliriously happy together for the rest of their lives. She just knows it.

“We should return,” Julian says, and Georgiana’s smile widens at the reluctance in his voice. She trusts his control, trusts that he could resist even if she tried to urge him otherwise, but she loves that he sounds so doubtful.

“If we must,” she murmurs in response, stepping away from him to try to tuck the loose strands of her hair back into her coiffure (there aren’t many; he’s been much more careful with her hair than she was with his), and Julian gives a brief, shaky laugh.

“Georgiana Crane,” he pronounces slowly, taking her face into his hands and pressing his lips briefly to her forehead, “you are a terrible influence.”

And Georgiana imagines him saying Georgiana Ridgely in the same fond tones, and she smiles at him with all the joy in her heart.

 

Penelope couldn’t be happier for her sister; she really couldn’t. Georgiana walks around these days with a near-permanent smile on her face, and she has the most engaging smile of anyone Penelope has ever seen—so wide it takes up half her face, her eyes sparkling like gems, her entire body radiating joy. Because Georgiana has been so happy, everyone in the house has been happy, too. It’s impossible not to be affected by it.

But it’s more than that. After facing a year of uncertainty and weathering a scandal, it’s wonderful to see Georgiana take charge and steer her courtship and her life in the direction she wanted it to go. Penelope has always liked Mr. Ridgely very much, and thought him an ideal match for her sister. He’s serious enough to ground her sillier impulses, forward-thinking enough to indulge her more unusual tastes, and witty enough to match her sense of humor. There’s an easy accord between them that’s obvious to even the most casual observer, and whereas Penelope has always been reasonably certain their courtship would end in marriage, it used to be because she couldn’t imagine any other outcome for a gentleman courting a proper young lady. Now, it seems inevitable simply because they are so clearly meant to be together.

But Penelope can’t help the fact that her sister’s happiness, her newfound joy in a courtship so clearly intended to end quite soon, has awakened a hollow little place in her heart that longs for the same thing. It’s her fourth season, and she’s only had one proposal of marriage, and from a man so clearly wrong for her—too old, too dull, too uninterested in everything about her—that her father had barely let him finish speaking before turning him down flat. Surely it’s natural, she thinks every time she feels disloyal for resenting, even slightly, even for a moment, Georgiana’s happiness. Surely she’s not meant to be so purely overjoyed for someone else that she can’t feel a little sad, a little wistful that every year, her chances of having the same joy diminish.

Her mother, though, seems to think that the false courtship with Darlington will elevate her chances of doing just that. She seemed pleased when Penelope told her about it, which had shocked Penelope; she had been expecting incredulity and disapproval, and probably would have been better off not telling Eloise at all. But she’s always been an abysmal liar, so she’s learned over the years that in difficult matters, straightforward honesty is her best policy.

“I heard Samuel Darlington called upon you yesterday,” Eloise said the next morning, with all the subtlety for which she’s always been renowned. It wasn’t as if Penelope had been hoping to lie to her mother or mislead her, but Eloise had, as always, beaten her to the punch.

“He did,” Penelope replied, taking a seat next to her mother and taking a deep breath. “He brought me flowers, and I suggested that he make amends to the family for the scandal, then pretend to court me so that his reputation might be restored.”

Eloise stared at her for a moment, then burst out laughing, reaching to wrap an arm around her daughter’s shoulders and pull her closer. “You are,” she said, leaning her cheek against the top of Penelope’s head, “the only one of my children who can be more blunt than I am. You don’t know how happy that makes me.”

“That you have a child who can be more blunt than you,” Penelope asked, grinning up at Eloise, “or that you only have one?”

Eloise laughed again, hugging Penelope to her more tightly, then releasing her to fix her with a more serious look. “Now. Tell me what on earth happened between you and Mr. Darlington.”

So Penelope did, and she didn’t leave anything out. She was deeply sheepish when she explained how she’d confronted Darlington—Eloise pursed her lips but didn’t say anything (Penelope suspected that though she didn’t approve of the tactics, she couldn’t really fault one of her children supporting and defending another)—but a smile crossed her face and didn’t leave when Penelope described their interaction yesterday.

“So,” she murmured slowly, “he has allowed his reputation to suffer to protect Georgiana’s. I must say it makes me think better of him.”

“Me too,” Penelope confessed. “I was—surprised. I wouldn’t have expected of him. And he says he isn’t in love with Georgie, either.”

Eloise shook her head slowly. “No, he wouldn’t be,” she said, and before Penelope could ask her to explain that particular remark, she added, “And you offered to let him court you to restore his social standing? That’s very generous of you, Penny.”

Penelope felt herself flush. “As I said, I misjudged him. I though it also might help him—he claims he has no wish to marry yet, so I thought it would also help him discourage marriage-minded women from pursuing him quite so ardently. I thought his gesture of goodwill ought to be rewarded.”

A quick smile that Penelope couldn’t read flashed across Eloise’s face, then shifted into a more serious expression. “Did you think about what might happen when the courtship comes to an end?”

Penelope shrugged; she hadn’t, honestly, but she was able to wave it off with relatively little trouble. “We’ll think of something, I’m sure. I’m doing him a favor, so he’s likely to allow me to call it off. Then he might face more marriageable prospects out of sympathy alone.”

Eloise smiled again, looking thoughtful in a way that did not put Penelope entirely at ease. “I see. Well, you’ll cross that bridge when you come to it, I suppose.”

Penelope looked at her mother suspiciously, eyes narrowing a little. “I’m surprised you seem to be taking this so well,” she said slowly. “I didn’t expect it. I would have thought… I’m in my fourth season and I’ve only had one proposal. Shouldn’t you be encouraging me to engage in a proper courtship? A real one?”

This time, Eloise’s smile was tinged with open fondness. “I’ll be more than happy to do so,” she said, “once the current crop of men out in society matures into something less flimsy and empty-headed. Oh, you know I’m right,” she added briskly when Penelope let out an extremely unladylike snort of laughter. “Penelope, darling, I wasn’t wed till I was far older than you, and do you know what my mother said, when I asked her if she had given up on me?”

Penelope shook her head, eyes wide. The moment had become serious; she understood, all of a sudden, that whatever her mother was going to say next… she would remember it for the rest of her life.

“She said that she thought I might surprise all of them in the end.” Eloise’s face was wistful now, as if she was back in that moment, all those years ago. “That I frequently did.”

Then she turned back to Penelope, and her face was so full of love that Penelope thought her heart might just burst. “Of all of my children,” she said softly, “you are the most like me. You will never settle for anything but true happiness, all of the joy and love that you deserve. And I, of course, want nothing less for you. And I have always thought that you, too, might surprise me.”

And just as Penelope’s eyes were beginning to well at the sweetness of her mother’s words, Eloise’s tone became brisk again as she sat back, clasping her hands in front of her. “And, of course, I certainly have no opposition to your forming a friendship with a popular young man. I think it’ll help you put yourself in a better position to meet those you might not otherwise and gain some confidence with the sort of gentlemen who should pursue you.”

Penelope hadn’t even considered that, but she had to admit that it was a good point. “I would still never have expected that this would be all right with you,” she said, unable to help feeling a little suspicious. “Especially considering the person involved.”

Eloise shook her head. “I have nothing against Mr. Darlington,” she said, then—as Penelope shot her a look of incredulity—added, “his little… ah, indiscretion with Georgiana aside. It was a mistake, and it appears he’s done everything he can to atone for it. Men of his age and popularity are bound to do things they will regret with more maturity, after they stop being idiots. You wouldn’t believe what your uncle Colin got up to when he was that age.”

“I am highly uninterested in learning any more about that,” Penelope said darkly, and Eloise laughed.

“Mr. Darlington is a perfectly lovely young man,” she continued, “of great intelligence, excellent breeding, and a kind heart. He’s rather lazy and he could certainly stand to think before he acts, but he’ll become a very fine person once he’s grown up a bit, and it won’t hurt you at all to align yourself with him. As long as you don’t allow him to lead you into another scandal, you’ll be highly sought after by men you might actually wish to marry once your courtship is over.”

Penelope nodded slowly, still feeling a little disconcerted by Eloise’s ready agreement, but she supposed there were certainly worse reactions she could be facing—she might as well accept it. “Well, I’m pleased you think it’s a good idea. I just wanted you to know what was truly happening, once he makes his overtures.”

So nearly three weeks later—as advised in the highly secretive correspondence he had been exchanging with Penelope—Samuel Darlingon approached Phillip and Eloise Crane on the night of the Bevelstoke ball, and no one in society knew quite what had been said between them, but they were able to report that Mr. Darlington appeared solemn and penitent, and Sir Phillip and Lady Crane had appeared grave but cordial, and he had shaken the baronet’s hand and kissed his wife’s, and greeted all three of their daughters with flawless courtesy. And in the following week, he had approached Penelope while she was out in the city nearly every day—never when she was alone, never in anything but the most casual and respectful of ways, and always where others could take note. And they would engage in a brief conversation that always ended with smiles on both of their faces (and more often than not, Penelope trying desperately to stifle laughter at a terrible attempt at a joke or a highly inappropriate whispered comment).

And last night, at a ball held by one of Penelope’s many Featherington cousins, Samuel Darlington had, for the first time, asked her to dance.

And it had been perfectly executed—a lovely, lively quadrille, after which they had exchanged smiles and went their separate ways, not to speak again for the rest of the evening—and it had been more than enough for speculation and gossip to reach Penelope’s ears by the end of the evening.

When they got home, Georgiana made a point of praising Penelope for how well the plan had gone. (Penelope had told her about it, of course; there was never any use in hiding anything from her sister, even when she was highly preoccupied. She’d seemed much more enthusiastic about it than Penelope had anticipated, spouting something about how she hoped Penelope and Samuel would be good for one another—an annoyingly cryptic remark she’d refused to explain further.) Eloise and Amanda seemed pleased, too; Penelope assumed Eloise had let Amanda know what was going on, though she was reasonably certain no one had told Oliver. He hadn’t joined them that night, and he was never the most subtle of men, anyway.

Phillip hadn’t said anything then; he hasn’t said anything to Penelope about the plan at all. This doesn’t surprise her, given that her father is a taciturn man who couldn’t care less about society or its trappings. She’s relatively certain he must know, though, and while he probably isn’t thrilled that the man who almost ruined one of his daughters will be falsely courting another, he hasn’t tried to talk her out of it or treated Mr. Darlington with any overt hostility. She supposes she can count that as a good thing.

To her surprise, another good thing has been her correspondence with Mr. Darlington. It didn’t start as much, just short notes planning their false courtship strategy, but Penelope quickly found herself looking forward to sitting down to write to him, and even more to receiving his letters. It’s strange, being friends with a man, but she thinks that that’s what they’ve been doing—becoming friends.

In addition to their plans, Mr. Darlington would usually include a quip of some sort, which of course Penelope couldn’t resist responding to as wryly as possible. Slowly, it shifted to comments about their days, gossip, discussion about their families and their lives. Despite the pauses between their responses, it feels easy, lighthearted, comfortable. Since there isn’t any pretense between her and Mr. Darlington, and he’s made it clear that he likes her blunt honesty, she doesn’t have to worry about watching her tone as she writes or agonizing over each word. Mr. Darlington’s already familiar with her family from his friendship with Agatha, so there’s always something to talk about in her notes if she’s ever stuck, and he’s always ready with a response.

Ever since Mr. Darlington’s frank recitation of his faults, Penelope has found it remarkably easy to interpret him in a good light. Any careless or foolish remark he makes in his letters is simply him not thinking, acting on impulse—and Penelope finds she likes the fact that he writes honestly, without worrying about every word he puts on paper. And when he actually does put thought into his words, they’re quite insightful and never hurtful. If he tries to goad Penelope into doing something she doesn’t want to do, it’s due to his impatience, and he’s usually repentant if she firmly declines. Whenever he says something infuriating, it’s his laziness; he doesn’t want to put the effort of acting genuinely, so he simply withdraws with casual words and a mocking tone.

She has been, Penelope realizes the morning after her first dance with Mr. Darlington, looking forward to seeing him every day. She has been thinking about how their dance would be, and she has to admit to herself—here, alone in her room, with only herself to answer to—that it surpassed her every expectation.

She closes her eyes, and she spares a moment to be profoundly grateful that Agatha isn’t here to witness the execution of this plan. Because she can brush it off in letters, and she can laugh about it when she eventually relates it to Aggie as an amusing anecdote, long past—but if she had to look her cousin in the eye now and tell her about their dance, she doesn’t think she’d be able to deny that when their hands touched, her heart fluttered.

 

A month into Julian’s renewed courtship, a week after he kisses Georgiana for the first time, her father asks her, when everyone else has retired from the supper table, to take a walk with him.

It’s been an unseasonably warm fall, but even so, Georgiana takes a light wrap. Her arm tucked into Phillip’s, they walk down the street, the soft glow of the lamps lighting their way. There’s a gentle breeze, and the stars are so bright that Georgiana can see some of them, even here in the middle of London.

They’ve reached the end of the street and are turning back before either of them says anything. It isn’t unusual for Georgiana; while she enjoys conversation, she’s perfectly comfortable with silence, especially around people she adores and understands deeply enough not to have to speak. Phillip, too, is someone who has no patience for idle chatter, and she’s used to sitting in silence with him.

“I remember the day you were born as if it were yesterday,” Phillip says, quietly, and Georgiana turns to look up at him, startled. Whatever she’d thought he’d taken her out to tell her, this comes as a surprise.

“Do you?” is all she can think to say, and a small, wistful smile crosses Phillip’s face.

“I couldn’t believe it, when the doctor put you in my arms. You would think that the third birthing wouldn’t be nearly as nerve-wracking as the first two, especially since you were such a joy for your mother to carry.” This, Georgiana thinks with a smile, is an oft-told story. Penelope had been difficult but more than bearable, as Eloise had been overjoyed to be carrying her first child; Frederick, meanwhile, had been a misery from the very first (this was where one of his siblings usually interjected that not much had changed).

On the other hand, Eloise’s pregnancy with Georgiana had been incredibly easy from start to finish. She hadn’t even realized she was carrying at first, since she never felt sick; she had increased in size far less, barely felt discomfort or pain, and her mood had remained good for the entire nine months. It had gone so well that she and Phillip had honestly been concerned that something was wrong with Georgiana.

But— “You were perfect,” Phillip says, his smile growing. “I was so scared, but when I first held you—everything about you was perfect. You were so small. Not that you still aren’t,” he adds, grinning down at her.

Georgiana scowls at him from nearly a foot below. Certainly she’s not very tall, especially as compared to the rest of her family, but she’s still several inches above five feet. Surely that counts for something.

“So small—and so beautiful,” Phillip murmurs, his eyes softening again. “I had no way of knowing you would be my youngest daughter, but I knew how much I would adore you the second you wrapped your tiny fingers around my thumb. It has never ceased to amaze me how much room each of my children have carved into my heart, without taking any space from the others.”

Georgiana feels her eyes fill with tears. Her father doesn’t often speak so honestly or with such open emotion, and she’s surprised to hear it now.

“I don’t love any of you more than the others—you know that. But you have always been the child that I understand best.” He shrugs, the gesture almost sheepish. “I don’t know why. But ever since you were a little girl, I always seemed to know exactly what to say to you. And if I was in the wrong, or in a temper, you knew exactly what to do to make me understand or cheer my mood.”

Georgiana thinks to one of the earliest memories she has of her father; she must have been three or four, and Phillip was frustrated with everyone and everything, irritated by a failure in the greenhouse and short-tempered because Franklin had been screaming all through the night. She, very carefully, gathered together an assortment of fallen rose petals from the bushes outside and arranged them in her little hand like a true flower, then presented it to him with a bright smile. He immediately cheered, placing the flower on the table to preserve it and hugging her tightly.

The next year, he grew a cultivar of roses with differently-colored petals and named them after her. They’re still her favorite flowers on the grounds.

“And I like to think that I’ve always been able to understand you, too,” Phillip continues, and Georgiana nods right away, wondering if he’s recalling a specific memory, too. It doesn’t make any sense that there should be such a perfect understanding between them, the quieter of the parents and the most social of the children. Phillip so rough, blunt, and distasteful of society—Georgiana graceful, tactful, and adoring the company of others. But somehow, they’ve found moments of the purest peace with one another, and it doesn’t need explaining.

“I’ve been watching you during young Ridgely’s courtship,” Phillip says, his mouth twisting a little. Georgiana can’t read his expression; is he regretful that it’s taken so long? Does he not approve? She’s been so sure that he did. “You’ve seemed—to me—to be happier than I’ve ever seen you, especially this last month.”

“I am,” Georgiana says immediately, stopping in order to look up at her father with huge eyes. “I am, Father. Mr. Ridgely is so—we’ve formed such a lovely understanding. We talk so easily, about anything and everything. I can tell him whatever’s on my mind, and I know he speaks to me just as openly. He makes me laugh, and he makes me think. He makes me happy. I truly can’t imagine spending my life with anyone else.”

Phillip smiles down at her, fondly. “So you think it’s going well?”

She scowls up at him again, playfully. “Quite well, thank you. I think—” She stops, heart in her throat, looking for a moment down at the ground. She’s barely allowed herself to think this, let alone say it—but here, with her father, she wants to. “I think that he will propose soon,” she says slowly, looking up at him with all the joy she feels on her face. “I truly think he will. And—and I will say yes, of course. I want nothing more than to marry him. I—I love him, Father.”

Phillip’s smile widens knowingly, and Georgiana stops dead, dropping his arm and staring at him incredulously. “No! Has he spoken to you? Did he come to tell you about his intentions? Have you already talked to him? Father!”

Phillip bursts out laughing, shaking his head. Georgiana is still glaring at him mutinously. “Oh, no. You’ve demonstrated that you’re perfectly capable of taking care of your own courtship. I’m not going to tell you anything.”

Georgiana lets out a little noise of frustration, actually jumping up and down a little in her impatience. “Oh, how could you do this to me? I won’t be able to look him in the eye now!”

“I didn’t do anything,” Phillip retorts, but his grin belies his words. “You’ll simply have to wait like any other woman being courted.”

“You’re the worst father in the entire world,” Georgiana says with an overdramatic pout. Phillip laughs again, offers her his hand, and Georgiana rolls her eyes with a loud sigh before taking it.

He tucks her hand into his arm and they proceed down the street again, now merely a few minutes away from the house.

“I don’t think anyone ever becomes accustomed to seeing their children grow up,” Phillip says after a moment, low and thoughtful, and Georgiana looks up at him, startled by the seriousness of his tone. “I was lucky—I had nine years between Oliver and Amanda and Penelope. I had eight years between Amanda marrying and Penelope’s debut to try to accustom myself to the idea that my two baby girls were going to be women. That you might marry in as little as a year or two.”

“Fortunately, you didn’t have to worry about that,” Georgiana teases. “You had more time than you thought with me, and goodness only knows when Penelope will wed.”

“It took your mother twenty-eight years,” Phillip says with a slight smile. “I think I can wait that long.”

“You should probably despair entirely of Oliver,” Georgiana adds, “and at this rate, Franklin too.”

Phillip shakes his head, looking back at her. “Don’t think I don’t see what you’re doing,” he says easily, reaching his free hand up to lightly squeeze hers. “You’ll be married soon, Georgiana. You’ll have a husband, and a home of your own, and God willing, a family. It’ll be difficult to let you go.”

Georgiana pushes back her instinct to tease. He wants to have a serious moment, and she wants to let him, if that’s what he needs. He’s a father about to give away his youngest daughter in marriage; he deserves it. “It’ll be all right. You know Mr. Ridgely will treat me well, and I’ll see all of you as often as I can.”

Phillip’s smile is genuine, if a little sad. “It still won’t be the same. But that is what it means when children grow up, and grow up they must.”

They’re in front of the house by now, and Phillip stops to take both of Georgiana’s hands and squeeze them, tightly. “I hope you know, every day,” he says, his voice low and a little hoarse, “how proud of you we are—your mother and I. Of all of you. We’ve done everything we can for you, and we will always be here for you. No matter what the rest of your lives hold.”

Georgiana’s eyes fill with tears, and she throws herself into her father’s arms. She hasn’t thought much about what it means, marrying and starting her own life—but she realizes now that in addition to a happy beginning, it’ll also be a bittersweet end. To her childhood, to her family, to the life she’s always known. Nothing will be the same anymore, and she didn’t realize it before this moment.

“I love you,” Georgiana whispers, hugging her father tightly, letting the tears spill from her eyes. “I will always love you.”

“And I you, sweetheart,” Phillip replies, kissing her forehead and holding her close. “And I you.”

 

“Do you really think this is a good idea?” Penelope finally says, unable to help it.

They’re at a ball hosted by Lady Everly, Mr. Darlington’s sister-in-law, which means the two of them are slightly more secure in standing in a hallway just outside the ballroom, sipping their glasses of lemonade. It’s stiflingly hot in the ballroom, which is crowded and overheated; they’ve taken a moment to step out and catch some air.

Mr. Darlington turns toward her, arching an eyebrow in surprise. “That depends,” he says slowly.

“On what?”

“On what you mean,” he replies with a grin. “I think any number of things are good ideas, and any number of other things are terrible ones.”

Penelope rolls her eyes. “You are the most exasperating man in the world,” she mutters, even knowing she’s being slightly unreasonable about it. “I mean—this. Between you and me.” She looks left, then right, then lowers her voice. “The false courtship. Do you really think it’s a good idea?”

Mr. Darlington’s eyebrow creeps higher. “This is a little late to be expressing doubts, isn’t it?” he asks, his own tone dubious. “Do you no longer think it’s a good idea? Is that the problem?”

Penelope lets out a little huff and stamps her foot, much to her shame. “Mr. Darlington! Don’t trivialize me when I am trying my hardest to raise an actual point with you. This is exactly the sort of thing I mean to bring up!”

Mr. Darlington blinks at her a few times, his expression mildly puzzled. “I promise that I am not trying to dismiss your feelings, Miss Crane,” he says slowly, “when I tell you that I have no idea whatsoever what our false courtship and my trivializing you have to do with one another. Would you please enlighten me?”

Penelope sighs, long and hard, and slumps against the wall in a most unladylike posture. Mr. Darlington, now looking mildly concerned, leans on the wall next to her.

“I’m having doubts,” Penelope says, after a long moment of silence, “that this is what is best for you, Mr. Darlington.”

He blinks at her again, bewildered. “Need I remind you that it was your idea, Miss Crane?”

“No,” Penelope grumbles, sighing again. “You needn’t. Believe me, I am flattered that you aren’t the one calling the wisdom of my ideas into question.”

“I would never,” Mr. Darlington says solemnly, then laughs when Penelope slants a dubious sideways glare at him. “I mean it, Miss Crane! You are by far the most intelligent woman of my acquaintance.”

Penelope shakes her head, automatic, but his expression turns more serious. “I mean that, too. In addition to thinking quickly, you’re remarkably good at putting ideas together, and you’re quite witty. You’re a very quick observer and you have a fantastic memory, especially for things you’ve read. It’s really very impressive.”

Penelope feels her face flush. During the week of their false courtship, they’ve spent plenty of time together on outings or at balls, and Mr. Darlington has paid attention to her as a man would to a woman he’s truly courting—he’s been solicitous, complimentary, charming, gracious, kindness itself. He takes her hand to gallantly help her around the smallest of obstacles; he goes out of his way to do her the most minuscule of favors. The first words out of his mouth, whenever he sees her, are always extravagant compliments about the arrangement of her hair or the cut of her dress or the color of her accessories. And, quite unlike a woman truly being courted, every time this happens, Penelope finds herself dissolving into very unladylike giggles, because she simply can’t bring herself to take it too seriously. Meanwhile, Mr. Darlington is taking it too seriously by making a positive game out of it; every time he behaves excessively, Penelope laughs, then he chastises her for laughing at his earnest efforts, which only makes her laugh harder.

For once, though, he seems to be entirely sincere—no acting, no drawling tone, no sarcasm. He’s being genuinely complimentary, quite out of nowhere, and Penelope isn’t sure how to react.

“What is it about this that’s causing you doubt, Miss Crane?” Mr. Darlington asks, as if he hasn’t just given Penelope a series of the loveliest compliments she’s ever heard in her life.

Penelope sighs, fiddling with the dance card on her wrist. “It seems to me,” she says slowly, “that you are really not—benefiting from this very much.”

Mr. Darlington tilts his head, thoughtful. “We discussed this,” he says. “Making amends to your family rehabilitates me as pertains to most of society, and courting you deflects attention from the women most interested in pursuing me. It’s barely been a week—too soon, I think to address true success—but I do believe I have already noticed fewer women approaching me. By that measure, I’m already benefiting. So what is your concern? Have you decided that this isn’t proving of any use to you?”

“That isn’t the point,” Penelope protests, flushing. “I’m not concerned about that at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. My mother predicts that if we end our false courtship amicably, having been courted by you will increase my status and make me appear more appealing to men, and I happen to agree with her. It actually ought to do me more good than it does you, in the end.”

For a moment, Penelope thinks that she might see a flash of displeasure, almost like jealousy, on Mr. Darlington’s face, and she feels hope flame in her chest in response, which surprises her. She didn’t realize until that particular moment that she wanted him to feel jealous, or at least unhappy, at the idea of other men courting her. Best not to think too hard about what that might mean.

“Then what is it?” he asks, his face slipping back into an expression of confusion and concern, nothing more. “Why do you believe that this might not be good for me anymore?”

Penelope sighs, slumping a little further against the wall. “It seems to me,” she says again, making sure to pick her words carefully (the last thing she wants is to offend Mr. Darlington), “that this is—an easy option for you. That that was the only reason you went along with this idea.”

Mr. Darlington frowns faintly, clearly turning her words over in his head. “It does require some effort for me,” he eventually points out. “I’ve never courted a woman before. I’ve been going places I might not go otherwise, paying a great deal of attention to you—”

“And has that been such a chore?” Penelope shoots back, unable to help a smile. It’s too easy to not be serious with Mr. Darlington; it’s too much fun to banter, to tease. He aims a mock scowl at her before smiling in return.

“Why is it,” he asks lightly, “that my legendary charm fails only around the woman I am supposedly courting? My life would have been much easier if you had simply succumbed.”

Penelope rolls her eyes, reaching up to lightly swat him on the shoulder. “You ought to have started far sooner if you wished to succeed there,” she tells him, then sighs again.

Their letters and their conversations have never delved particularly deeply, but Penelope has still gotten to know Mr. Darlington far better over the last month. He doesn’t much like to talk about his future, but it’s not hard for Penelope to guess that as the youngest of the family, he feels overshadowed—by the accomplishments of his parents, by the spectacular match his sister made to the eldest son of a marquess, by the serious, scholarly nature of his brother, Viscount Darlington, their father’s heir. That he feels that the only way he can really stand out is in his societal successes, and that if he isn’t an empty-headed charmer, loved by the masses, then he really doesn’t have very much at all.

Penelope honestly can’t tell if Mr. Darlington even wants to marry—if he wants a home of his own, a wife to love, children to spoil. She doesn’t even know if he knows whether he wants any of those things. He avoids all discussions of his own hopes and dreams in much depth (again, taking the easy way out), and the thought has been at the back of Penelope’s mind for some time now, getting stronger and stronger until it had been impossible to ignore this week—is she really doing him a favor?

“I mean that apart from paying attention to me in particular, and perhaps going on outings more often than you otherwise would, this truly requires no effort for you. You don’t even have to be particularly charming, since you aren’t interested in me; you just behave as you would anyway. We’re attempting to reach a goal for you and I’m not at all sure why you want it. Why do you want less attention in society? What are you hoping to achieve?” She looks up at him, her eyes wide. “After our courtship ends—what will you do then? What do you want to do?”

Mr. Darlington looks more and more surprised to be confronted by these questions, until he half-slumps against the wall in turn, more than a little shell-shocked. Penelope feels a little guilty. “You don’t have to tell me any of those things,” she says as she straightens a little, reaching out to touch his arm. “Not right now. Not at all. I’m just afraid that you’ll never think about them, and you truly ought to. You cannot live your life in the short term, Mr. Darlington. You must—”

“Samuel,” he interrupts, raising his head to look right at her. His expression is suddenly so focused, so intent, that Penelope wants to take a step back, but finds herself unable to move.

“What?” she asks faintly.

“Samuel,” he repeats, leaning in, the intensity in his gaze pinning her to the spot. “Call me Samuel. Please.”

Penelope shakes her head, stunned, her throat too dry to speak.

He leans in just a little more, his eyes—so profoundly blue they seem unreal—never leaving hers. Penelope isn’t sure what she sees there, but whatever it is manages to be both terrifying and exhilarating. “Please,” he says again, his voice soft and low, the moment charged beyond what she can believe.

“Samuel,” Penelope whispers, the word emerging before she can think twice about it, and she sees something flare in his gaze—something hot and triumphant and powerful.

She wonders, for a wild moment, if he’s going to kiss her, and she can’t bear how much she suddenly wants him to.

“I just,” she begins, then swallows, her mouth still dry. “I just want you to—to discover what you want. I want you to be happy.”

Mr. Darlington—Samuel—nods, slowly, still only a few inches away from Penelope, staring at her as if he’s never seen her before and as if he can’t look away. “Thank you,” he says, very softly, and Penelope wants to ask for what, but she’s afraid of breaking the spell over the moment.

It feels like hours, and it feels like a second, the time that Samuel stands and stares into Penelope’s eyes, her breath coming short and her entire body taut, as if waiting for something she can’t explain. And, finally, he reaches to catch Penelope’s hand lightly in his, and without looking away from her, slowly raises it to his mouth, his lips lingering at the back of her hand. And then he straightens, and he returns to the ballroom, leaving Penelope alone with her thoughts—and the hopes that have suddenly filled her heart.

 

The evening marks six weeks exactly since the renewal of Georgiana and Julian’s courtship, and she can’t help but feel the promise of the night to come in the air.

The entire Crane family is attending the Macclesfield ball this evening, as is every branch of the Bridgerton family currently in town; Georgiana is pleased that they’re all arriving at different times, as it would likely take an hour simply to greet everyone in her family at once, let alone speak to any of them. Still, simply knowing that they’re there is enough to make the night feel magical to Georgiana.

She knows that she looks lovely, in a sky-blue gown with small puffs of sleeves just off of her shoulder and lacy pale blue layers peeking out through the full skirts, her hair intricately braided and pinned at the back of her neck, a fine string of pearls woven into the twist. But even past that, she knows that she’s glowing. She’s shining from the inside with joy and hope and the promise of the future that is everything she wants it to be.

She’s not the only one, either. Penelope, to Georgiana’s surprise, looks gorgeous this evening. It doesn’t surprise her because Penelope isn’t usually lovely, which she is, but simply because Penelope usually doesn’t care for making sure she looks her absolute best. Tonight, though, she’s in a gown of soft white and pink embroidered in floral patterns, draped with silk and lace to create the appearance of an actual rosebud. The dress perfectly drapes her slim frame, the color adds a touch of pink to her cheeks, offsetting her usual paleness, and her hair is arranged around her face in a way that makes her bold, narrow features appear fuller, more delicate.

Her beauty makes Georgiana feel even happier, like the two of them are reflecting off of one another, each enhancing the other’s appearance. Penelope’s been terribly secretive about what’s making her so happy, but Georgiana doesn’t need to know what it is; her sister is allowed her secrets. All she knows is that they’re both glowing with joy, and they both look their best, and that tonight is going to be simply wonderful.

Julian finds Georgiana almost immediately, much to both her and her parents’ beaming pleasure. Phillip is looking a little wistful, Eloise actually a little teary, and Georgiana herself extends her hand to Julian in utter, unparalleled delight.

He leads her to the dance floor and they waltz in silence, simply smiling at one another. And after it’s over, they dance again, and when that one is over, Julian asks her to walk in the garden.

“Georgiana,” he says quietly as they’ve walked out of earshot of the other couples outside, resting a hand atop hers. “I want to be honest with you—completely honest—because you deserve that. Will you listen?”

Georgiana turns to him, curious, and nods. Of course she will; she always will.

“I want to apologize to you. Formally, that is.” Julian’s tone is stilted but sincere, and Georgiana gives him her full attention. “I have hoped that my actions over the last few weeks have been an apology of sorts, and I fully intend to keep making it up to you throughout our lives, but—I’m getting ahead of myself.” He coughs, embarrassed, and Georgiana hastily suppresses a smile.

“But I never properly—fully apologized for how I treated you last year,” he continues, stopping now to turn towards Georgiana and take both of her hands in his. His face, so familiar and so dear to her, is grave and earnest. “Georgiana, I am truly sorry. You deserved far, far better than what you had from me.

“I know that you must have thought that—that I did not care for you, or that I did not desire you, or that something was happening of which you weren’t aware, and that perhaps it was your fault. But you must know that you did nothing wrong. You have—from the first day we truly spoke, you have been everything that any man could want. Perhaps not a terribly conventional man,” he adds, a little wry, and Georgiana barely smothers a giggle. “But everything a man could want, if he knew what truly mattered. Everything that I never knew I wanted until I met you.

“Since I was a child, I’ve been—sensible. Levelheaded, practical. The serious one of my family. I’ve rarely succumbed to strong emotions. I love my family, of course, and I would do anything for them, but I’ve never been what you would call demonstrative. I’ve rarely found something in life that has ignited my passion. I did excel in mathematics at school, but that’s hardly the stuff poets write about, is it?

“I always thought I’d choose my bride with the same degree of detachment. I hoped to find love, of course, as my parents did, as my brother did, but I have to admit I was doubtful. I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like. I didn’t think it could eclipse the way I felt about my family. I thought I would choose someone suitable, and that fond feeling would follow, or that of the girls I selected, I would feel more warmly towards one of them, or—” He gives a brief, dismissive gesture, then his face slips from its solemn recollection to a brief, fond smile.

“And then I met you. Or, I had met you before, of course, but that wasn’t nearly as memorable. I couldn’t believe it. Who among the ton would ever try to give me a plant at a ball?”

Georgiana smiles, her grip on his hands tightening for a moment as she recalls that night. “A very ridiculous girl,” she supplies wryly.

“A very unusual girl,” Julian corrects, smiling affectionately down at her, releasing one hand to tuck a curl behind her ear. “A girl who not only didn’t pay the strictest attentions to the rules, but who had such a kind heart that she couldn’t help but bend society’s edicts to make amends she thought were necessary. How could I be anything but intrigued?

“I spent that summer thinking of you, wondering if I would see you again and what I would do if I did. I imagined any number of implausible flaws that you might have.” He chuckles softly, his mouth tipping in a manner both sardonic and apologetic. “It was too good to be true, you see. I didn’t want to hope too much that you might be exactly what I needed. Easier to imagine what might be wrong with you so that I could turn my search elsewhere.”

He smiles again, more warmly this time. “And then the season began—and I saw you again—and you were charming and kind and witty and so much more. The ideal wife for any man who had eyes to see. We got along brilliantly, and you made your preference for me clear, and it was all going so well, and…”

He stops, taking a deep breath, taking both of Georgiana’s hands in his own again, squeezing lightly. “And… I was afraid.”

Georgiana blinks. Whatever she had been expecting to hear, it certainly wasn’t that. “Afraid?” she repeats, blankly.

Julian nods, his expression guilty. “I began to feel too much for you,” he says softly. “It was so intense. I was completely taken aback—I didn’t know how I ought to react. I wasn’t used to feeling this way at all. I thought that if I tried to ignore it, if I never treated you with anything other than friendly and polite attention, that it might lessen. That I might be able to keep you at a distance. That we might have the sort of marriage that I had always believed would be my fate.

“But as you might imagine, feelings such as these don’t tend to diminish with time, but rather grow stronger. No matter how I tried to keep my distance from you, everything you did was unbearably charming to me, and you worked your way further and further into my heart. After not seeing you for an entire summer, it was almost more than I could bear, keeping my distance from you. When I heard about you and Darlington—“

“Julian,” Georgiana whispers, her eyes wide, feeling a stab of shame sharper than ever before at his words. “I am so very, truly—”

Julian shakes his head, staving off her apology. “I was hurt, at first,” he admits, “and jealous. I couldn’t imagine why you had done it. And then I thought for a moment: couldn’t I? How had I treated you, in my quest to keep you distant? Had I at all considered how you might feel as I was trying to control my own feelings? Was this not truly my own doing?” He shakes his head again, more slowly. “No—I knew, then, that I was to blame, and that things couldn’t continue the way they had. Something had to change.

“I tried to tell you that,” he adds, looking rueful. “But the words couldn’t come out. I couldn’t make myself change my entire demeanor towards you, no matter how I tried. It didn’t feel natural. So I am so glad that you took it upon yourself to do so—to make it clear that things had to change. It gave me hope that you felt the same way.”

Georgiana smiles up at him, her eyes brimming with tears. It’s an overwhelming moment, in every sense of the word; she never expected Julian to express himself so eloquently, to say so many sincere and lovely things to her. “I did,” she whispers softly, tightening her hold on his hands. “Feel the same way. I do.”

“I know.” Julian smiles at her, taking a step closer to her, lifting her hands to his lips. “Georgiana—I must tell you how sorry I am. We’ve wasted a year because of my own misguided ideas, my attempts to believe that I could control my feelings. But I should have known from the start that anything I tried would be doomed to fail. I should have known from the start that I would care for you more and more every day from the first day we truly spoke.”

Georgiana can feel the tears pushing at her eyes, threatening to spill out. “Julian,” she whispers, and he steps closer to kiss her, brief but warm, lingering.

“I love you, Georgiana Crane,” he says, his voice soft and full of promise. “I love you like I have never loved anyone before, and never intend to love anyone again. Whatever else my life holds, if you are not at my side, it can only be empty.”

And before she can say anything in response, Julian is pulling away and dropping down to one knee, pulling a small box from his jacket and opening it in his hand.

Georgiana’s hands fly up to cover her mouth. She can’t see every detail of the ring in the dark of the night, but she can see the pale gold band, the small but flawlessly cut emerald at the center, flanked by two tiny diamonds. She can see that it’s delicate and lovely, beautiful without being overwhelming—exactly the sort of ring she would have chosen for herself.

“I vow to spend the rest of my life trying to make you as happy as you deserve to be, every single day,” Julian says, his voice thick with emotion, his eyes never leaving Georgiana’s. “Will you marry me?”

Georgiana bursts into tears, but retains enough presence of mind to nod fiercely, sobbing out a fervent “yes” as Julian stands to slide the ring onto her hand. She flings her arms around him, kissing him with feverish enthusiasm and breathes “I love you, too,” against his mouth, unable to stop looking at his face, the face that holds the promise of her future.

 

“Do you suppose they’re engaged yet?” Eloise asks her middle daughter without preamble, joining her where she’s standing near the corner, glass of lemonade in her hand. Penelope isn’t fazed, though; she’s used to her mother talking as if they’ve simply left off in the middle of a previous conversation. “Your father thinks it will take them longer—seems young Mr. Ridgely intends to make a speech—but I think they’ll decide they’ve waited long enough, don’t you?”

Penelope smiles at her mother with open affection. Not simply allowing Georgiana to continue a highly unusual courtship, but attempting to gamble on its outcome—she’s certainly gotten quite lucky to have the family that she does. Not one woman in a thousand would make half so fine a mother as Eloise Crane.

“I just hope nothing else happens tonight to upstage their engagement,” Penelope tells her, taking a sip of lemonade. “Georgiana deserves a night to herself. And she’ll love the attention.”

“You two are not at all alike,” Eloise observes, smiling faintly at the startled look on her daughter’s face. “Oh, I’m not saying anything I haven’t known for years. All five of you are quite different, actually. It’s very impressive. But it’s only to be expected with Oliver and Amanda, under the circumstances, and Franklin is the youngest and a boy—you and Georgiana are only a year apart, and you were raised so similarly. It’s unusual that you would be so very different.”

“You and Aunt Francesca are only a year apart,” Penelope points out, unsure of what her mother intends to say, “and you two are quite different. Even more so when you were young, from what I’ve heard.”

Eloise smiles at her warmly. “Certainly true,” she admits. “It does happen. I think it’s interesting that you are so much more like Phillip and Georgiana more like me, and yet it’s clear which parent either of you prefer.”

Penelope feels her face flush, and for the thousandth time curses the fairness of her complexion. “It isn’t that I don’t love Father,” she protests, and Eloise waves it off.

“Of course, both of you love both of us, and we both adore every single one of you. But Georgiana has always been happiest when she’s spending time with Phillip and Phillip alone, and you’ve always come to me first for everything, be it good news or bad.”

“You always know exactly what to say to me,” Penelope whispers, her eyes fixed on her mother’s. “You think about things very differently from me—you always tell me exactly what I need to hear.”

Eloise smiles, a little shakily, clearly moved by her daughter’s words. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do,” she replies, just as softly. “It pleases me beyond what you can imagine that I’ve succeeded.”

Her gaze turns back to the ballroom crowd and she watches them for a minute or two, until Penelope can’t bear her curiosity. “Why did you say that?” she asks, unable to help herself. “About me and Georgiana being so different?”

Eloise starts in surprise, then looks thoughtful. “With Georgiana’s engagement all but settled, it’s been on my mind,” she says, laying a hand on Penelope’s shoulder to tug her a little closer. “I can’t help but think of how you might react in a situation similar to hers. Quite differently, I’m afraid.”

Penelope pulls back, startled, and Eloise adds hastily, “I don’t mean to say—it isn’t a bad thing, Penny. But Georgiana has always been much more decisive than you are, and far more stubborn. She knows exactly what she wants and she pursues it. She doesn’t worry about other people’s opinions, not when they might stand in the way of her happiness. Once she realized what was missing from her courtship, she took action to improve it, and it’s ending exactly the way she wanted it to.

“But you—” She smiles warmly at Penelope, open affection on her face. “You’re much more conservative. You’re more outspoken about what you believe, so people think you’re the unconventional one. But all you want is to live your life quietly, without disruption, and you’re so honest that you take most things at face value.” She pauses, looking a little wistful. “Of course, so often life requires looking beyond that. And I’m afraid that if you have a chance at happiness staring you in the face, if it isn’t what you’ve always thought it might be, you could miss it.”

Penelope goes silent, trying to process her mother’s words—far more serious and insightful than she’d expected on a night like this—when Eloise looks out into the crowd again and exclaims, “There’s Mr. Darlington. Looking for you, I expect?”

Penelope’s face flares with color, yet again. “Probably,” she mutters under her breath, avoiding her mother’s eye. She’s sure that Eloise could tell, if she looked into her daughter’s face, that something had happened between her and Mr. Darlington (Samuel, her treacherous brain whispers)—although, really, Eloise can probably even tell now. She’s like that.

“He looks quite purposeful,” Eloise points out conversationally, but Penelope isn’t fooled for a minute. Eloise never says anything that casually; her brain is always working five times quicker than the average person’s. “There—he’s spotted us.” And she waves to him, returning his charming smile with one of her own, utterly unselfconscious.

Penelope wants to let out an unladylike groan and sink to the ground, but instead she turns towards Mr. Darlington and smiles back at him, too. He’s still far enough away so as to be in the crowd, but something in his face changes when he sees Penelope. Looking at her quite intently, he gives her a long, slow bow, then raises a finger—wait a minute—before turning and walking away.

“So,” Eloise says, her voice thick with satisfaction and curiosity, and Penelope is quite, quite certain that her face is far past red by now.

“We… had words,” Penelope says, because it’s the only way that she can accurately sum up what happened between her and Mr. Darlington without outright lying to her mother.

Eloise lets out a little sound that’s not quite a scoff, and Penelope can practically hear her rolling her eyes. “Surely you’ve noticed,” she says, “gifted observer that you are—the way he looks at you?”

Penelope has never been more embarrassed in her entire life. She decides to try making a list of places that she would rather be than here, in this ballroom, having this conversation with her mother, but quickly decides that it’s easier to list places she would not rather be. It’s essentially comprised of the bottom of the ocean and in a ballroom having this conversation with her mother, but with the entire rest of her family also present for it. She supposes she should be grateful none of them are within earshot right now.

“We’re conducting a false courtship,” she whispers, barely able to look Eloise in the eye. “You know this.”

Eloise nods, a patently false expression of patience on her face. (Penelope knows it’s false because anyone who has ever met Eloise Crane knows that she is anything but patient.) “I do know this,” she replies. “And you know this. And perhaps Mr. Darlington knows this as well, but it seems as if he has, at least for the moment, forgotten.”

Penelope feels the flush cover her entire body now, remembering the moment in the hall. She was certain that he had wanted to kiss her, and she was certain that she had wanted him to as well. It had been a moment unlike any she’d ever felt before, and every moment she’s spent with Mr. Darlington since, every dance and every chaperoned outing, has held shades of it. And her mother’s gentle prodding forces her to admit it to herself: she doesn’t want their courtship to be false, either. She wants it to be real.

“Did I ever tell you,” Eloise says, her voice startlingly, deliberately casual after the seriousness of her prior tone, “that your Aunt Daphne once conducted a false courtship with a gentleman, too?”

Penelope’s instantly suspicious, both of the tone and the words. Her family has so many stories from their past—with such a large and popular family, it’s only natural—she doesn’t think she’s heard this one before. But there’s almost certainly an ulterior motive to her mother telling it to her now. “Did she?”

“Oh, yes.” Eloise’s smile is the faint, slightly wry one of fond reminiscence. “It escalated rather quickly. Your uncle Anthony caught her with the gentleman, kissing and—well—slightly more.” Her smile widens at Penelope’s slack-jawed expression of shock, and she adds dryly, “You can see why we weren’t more distraught about Georgiana’s scandal.

“The gentleman refused to marry Aunt Daphne, so Uncle Anthony challenged him to a duel. It didn’t happen, of course—Aunt Daphne was able to diffuse the situation.” Eloise smiles at Penelope again, sunny and innocent. “By convincing him to marry her after all. The gentleman was, of course, your Uncle Simon.”

Of course it was, Penelope thinks, resigned.

She had known about the duel, of course—it’s practically family legend by now—but not the false courtship that had led to it. And just as she’s about to protest that the same thing won’t happen to her, that she can’t count on the same happy ending, Eloise bends to whisper in her ear, gentle and warm, “Remember what I said. Do not miss a chance that is right before your eyes simply because it didn’t wear the colors of happiness when you first saw it.”

And before Penelope can fully process the words, her mother’s squeezing her hand and walking away, and Mr. Darlington—Samuel—is standing before her as the strands of a waltz begin to play, and he extends his hand to her with a smile.

It might be that he so clearly planned this waltz, yet he’s acting as if it were a happy coincidence; it might be her mother’s words and his presence directly afterward, impeccably timed. It might be that his smile—rather than his usual easy society grin, oozing with charm—is simple, small, and full of genuine happiness. It might be all of those things or it might be none of them, but instead a sense of inevitability, that everything between them has been leading up to this moment.

Whatever it is, Penelope doesn’t hesitate before stepping forward to take his hand.

They spend the first minute of the waltz in silence, their hands clasped together, the exact appropriate amount of space between their bodies. But their eyes are locked, and neither of them looks away, though it’s certain to cause gossip. For her own part, Penelope can’t help but feel that the crystalline shade of Samuel’s blue eyes is the center of the world, and to look away would be to immediately feel cast adrift—and from the intensity in his gaze as he stares back at her, he may well feel the same way.

It is Samuel who finally speaks, his voice low enough not to carry past Penelope’s ears. “I’ve figured it out.”

“What?” Penelope asks blankly, startled by the ease and confidence of his tone.

“What I want,” he clarifies, giving her an expert little twirl before catching her hand again, the small, warm smile back on his face. “I’ve thought about it, as you said I should. You were right to say that it has never truly been on my mind before, so I brought it to the forefront, and I thought it over, and I’ve made a decision. I now know what I want.”

Penelope’s eyes are wide as she stares up at him, captivated by the purpose in his tone. He’s never sounded like this, so assured. True, he’s always been brimming with self-confidence, but this—the direction in his tone—this is different. This is a new man.

“What?” she finds herself asking again, breathless, her eyes locked onto his. She registers dimly that they’re barely moving by now, simply planted in the middle of the dance floor, swaying back and forth, staring at each other. It must be causing talk, but she can’t bring herself to care. “What do you want?”

Samuel smiles at her, and gathers her closer to him. It’s subtle, and she’s sure that no one watching them would be able to tell that they’ve moved just that little bit closer, but it means everything to her. It means that she senses the warmth of his body ever so slightly more, and that the hand he has at her waist feels as if it’s burning—but far from unpleasantly so, a sensation that’s as exciting as it is dangerous.

“I want,” he says, very slowly, so that she can’t mistake any of the words, “to talk to your father. To ask his permission to court you—truly court you.”

Penelope feels the happiness bubbling up inside of her, so sudden that she wasn’t aware it was beginning to make a home inside her chest until it’s so big that she feels she can hardly contain it. It’s something she was only beginning to admit to herself; it wasn’t until Samuel spoke that she discovered she’s wanted it for far longer than she realized.

“I wanted to tell you first,” Samuel continues, and it’s only then that Penelope notices that while his tone is purposeful, that he sounds confident and clear in what he wants, he also sounds cautious. He’s meeting her gaze with an expression that’s almost shy, and it melts away what’s left of her defenses. “I wanted to tell you what I wanted—so that I could know if it is what you want, as well. I won’t make any decisions about which we aren’t in accord. Not now—not ever.”

Penelope’s breath catches in her throat along with her heart, and she looks at him. She sees a man who loves his family, who makes his friends laugh, who accepts his weaknesses and works to make them better. She sees a man who can always bring a smile to her lips, who only wants attention if it’s earned on his own merits, who will respect those to whom he chooses to cleave himself, and who will never, ever let anyone in his life be disappointed in him for long.

She looks at him and finally, finally, she sees her own happy ending.

“Yes,” she whispers, thinking of the possibility of his lips on hers and the presence of his hand on her waist, and the smile on his face and the promise in his eyes. “That’s what I want, too.”