In 2009 Penelope Featherington was seventeen. By that time, it was already several years since she had developed a massive teenage crush on her best friend Eloise Bridgerton’s brother Colin.
The Bridgertons and the Featheringtons had known each other forever. Both families had lived in the same quiet Kent village for years. The Bridgertons lived at Aubrey Hall, the largest property in the area. They were genuine aristocrats, although Ellie’s eldest brother Anthony, the current Viscount Bridgerton, did not use his title in his professional career as a stockbroker in the City of London. He had inherited the house and title as a teenager, his father having died when all the Bridgerton children were quite young.
Lady Bridgerton, the mother of Ellie, Anthony and their siblings, was a mainstay of village life, the president of the local Women’s Institute, the chairwoman of numerous charity committee meetings and one of the organisers of the annual Flower Show. Penelope and her sisters had grown up referring to Lady Bridgerton as Aunt Violet.
The Featheringtons lived five minutes’ walk down the road from Aubrey Hall, in the mellow Georgian riverside house known as The Willows. The Bridgerton and Featherington children had been in and out of each other’s houses since they were very young, and Ellie and Penelope had been inseparable since their days at the pre-school playgroup in the Village Hall. All the Bridgerton and Featherington girls had gone to the same prestigious girls’ school five miles away as day girls, while the Bridgerton boys had gone to Tonbridge as boarders.
Penelope, as a teenager, had devoutly hoped that neither Ellie, Colin nor any other member of their two families would ever find out about the fervour of her teenage crush on Colin. All the Bridgerton boys were tall, good-looking and had wavy dark chestnut hair. Anthony, being older, had been a bit more remote when Penelope and Ellie were growing up, tending to look down on “the kids”. Ben, the second brother, was always friendly and kind towards his siblings and their friends, but tended to be more private. A talented artist, he liked to go off by himself to find privacy for his drawing and painting. Colin was the extroverted, chatty brother – always restless, always raiding the fridge in the Aubrey Hall kitchen for snacks and always happy to tell his sisters and their friends about all the fabulous places around the world he planned to explore when he was grown up and free from education.
As a small child, Penelope had always thought Colin was the nicest of Ellie’s brothers, but her crush on him did not really manifest itself until the day when she and Ellie, aged about thirteen, had been in the garden at Aubrey Hall playing with the new kittens owned by Ellie and her next sister Francesca. Colin had come speeding around the corner of the house on his bike just as one of the kittens had scampered into his path. Penelope and Ellie had both shrieked, convinced that the poor little kitten was about to meet a ghastly death under Colin’s bike wheels. Colin had swerved to avoid the kitten, lost control of his bike on the gravel path and landed face-first in a wide flower bed which had been newly-mulched with manure. (Violet Bridgerton was very proud of her garden and frequently won prizes at the Flower Show). Ellie had rushed to gather up the lucky kitten while Penelope, appalled, had looked on as sixteen-year-old Colin prised himself out of the flower bed, his face, hands and clothes filthy and reeking with manure. Penelope had expected him to start shouting and cursing, but instead…Colin had laughed. He had laughed loudly as he climbed to his feet, wiped his hands down his stained shirt and said cheerfully, “Well, that wasn’t very clever of me, was it? Is the kitten all right?”
And, just like that, Penelope had fallen in love. From that day onwards any encounter with Colin made her heart beat faster, her teenage hormones go into overdrive and her face flush embarrassingly. She knew perfectly well how unlikely it was that Colin would ever have any interest in any of Ellie’s friends, let alone the rather dumpy one with the puppy fat, the frizzy reddish hair and the glasses.
Throughout her tricky teenage years, Penelope listened to Ellie’s contemptuous comments about the spotty local boys who asked her out. “Please,” Ellie would snort, “like I’m interested in listening to Ian Taylor going on about his rusty old motorbike or who Spurs are playing this weekend. I’d rather do homework.” She was equally scathing about most of her elder sister Daff’s boyfriends – Daff being undeniably gorgeous, she had a lot of admirers. Even Penelope herself went out on a few dates, but her teenage heart belonged irrevocably to Colin Bridgerton.
Until, that is, the awful day in 2009 when Penelope, at the age of seventeen, was so humiliated that she vowed to get over herself and banish her feelings for Colin Bridgerton forever.
Penelope and Ellie had been revising for exams in Ellie’s bedroom at Aubrey Hall, listening to music and discussing the latest sixth-form gossip. Colin had come home from university the previous day to spend a weekend at home. He was downstairs shoving his bag of dirty laundry into the washing machine and being interrogated by his mother about his love life – because, Violet Bridgerton said helpfully, if he hadn’t met anyone at university yet, there were lots of nice girls at home –
“Oh my God, Mum, just because I’m not going out with anyone at the moment doesn’t mean…!” Penelope and Ellie, leaving Ellie’s room in search of snacks, could hear Colin’s voice raised in irritation before they even started downstairs. “I’d actually like to wait to meet the right person, and I can find a girlfriend for myself – I don’t need my mother to help me! Next you’ll be trying to set me up with any random girl – Cressie Cowper, maybe? Nigel Berbrooke’s little sister? Ellie’s friend Penelope? It’s not happening, Mum!”
At this point, the exasperated Colin had turned the corner at the foot of the stairs and barged straight into Penelope, who staggered back into Ellie’s chest, causing her friend to clutch the bannisters for support. There was a moment of horrified silence. Colin’s jaw dropped and Violet, following him, looked dismayed. Penelope’s brown eyes were wide with hurt and her face was flushed with embarrassment but after a few seconds she managed to lift her chin and control her voice.
“Don’t worry, Colin, I wouldn’t go out with you if she did try to set us up.”
She walked towards the kitchen door, proud of herself for not bursting into tears. Ellie followed her, shooting her brother a very dirty look as she passed him. Colin spluttered for a few seconds before diving after them and catching Penelope lightly by the arm. She turned to face him. “I’m sorry Pen, I didn’t mean that like it sounded, really, I was just annoyed with Mum –“
Penelope managed a smile and hoped it was convincing. “It’s okay. Really. Don’t worry about it.”
But it wasn’t okay at all.
It was just another blow to Penelope’s already fragile self-confidence, and a particularly crushing blow. Colin Bridgerton, casting round for examples of girls he would never go out with, had come up with her name. Of course he had.
“My brother’s a total tool,” Ellie said loyally, as she and Penelope started to make sandwiches in the kitchen. “He’d be lucky if someone like you even looked at him, never mind shagged him. Yuck.”
Penelope knew this wasn’t true, but she squeezed her friend’s hand gratefully. And made a firm mental resolve to herself that from that day on she would grow up, conquer her crush on Colin Bridgerton and make sure that no one would ever, ever know about it.