Unspooled Thread - happilyinsane13 - Bridgerton (TV) [Archive of Our Own] (2024)

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  • Teen And Up Audiences
Archive Warning:
  • No Archive Warnings Apply
  • F/M
  • Bridgerton (TV)
  • Benedict Bridgerton/Penelope Featherington
  • Benedict Bridgerton
  • Penelope Featherington
  • Eloise Bridgerton
  • Daphne Bridgerton
  • Violet Bridgerton
  • Lucy Granville
  • Henry Granville
  • Genevieve Delacroix
  • Anthony Bridgerton
  • Colin Bridgerton
  • Portia Featherington
  • Marina Thompson
  • Archibald Featherington
  • Francesca Bridgerton
  • Gregory Bridgerton
  • Hyacinth Bridgerton
  • Simon Basset
  • Agatha Danbury
  • Lord Wetherby (Bridgerton)
Additional Tags:
  • Canon Rewrite
  • Non-Canon Relationship
  • Slow Burn
  • Acquaintances to Friends to Lovers
  • Personal Growth
  • Benedict Bridgerton/Penelope Featherington Happy Ending
  • Unrequited Love
  • The Unrequited Love is Temporary
  • Not Actually Unrequited Love
  • Regency
  • Penelope Featherington Needs a Hug
  • Strong Penelope Featherington
  • Coming of Age
  • communication is key
  • background canon relationships
  • Benedict's Rock Collection
  • Benedict and Eloise discover Penelope is LW from the beginning

Unspooled Thread



Benedict's life changed the moment Lady Danbury commanded,

“Follow that Featherington.”

The year is 1813 and Benedict's sister Daphne has just made her debut. He thought he knew how this season would go. Little did he suspect he would stumble on the youngest Featherington daughter's biggest secret.


A complete, Benelope canon re-write, starting from S1, Ep1 all the way through season 3.


So, this canon re-write has been in the works for a while. A reader on one of my older works gave me the idea and when I ran it past my friend and beta, itakethewords she told me to go for it.

And, well I did.

Each chapter will be a re-write of an episode from the show, with three interlude chapters that are wholly original. Some chapters will resemble an episode closely in plot and structure, as we go further along, many will not. You will also recognize many lines from the show. As this is a canon rewrite, many lines will remain the same. For this first chapter I used the published script for episode one, and after that used transcripts of each episode to get the lines. Some lines I do not change, some I do slightly, some completely.

There will still be many scenes that are wholly original, as this is a re-write. Benedict and Penelope will be in many of the same situations, and many different situations and scenes they were not in before.

I attempt to imbue some historical facts in my work, and will usually link to articles or paintings in the story when I think it may be a fact a reader might want to know more about.

This is a slow burn, or at least a much slower burn than my previous fics. To follow the emotional trajectory of our characters, it only made sense. So in the beginning, Penelope is still in love with Colin. That is a facet of her character that shapes her. Benedict will still have liaisons with other people in the beginning, this also shapes who he is throughout the show.

I try to give the characters some traits from their book counterparts. For Benedict, that is his more protective nature over his sisters. If you've read the books, you know ABC can be a little ridiculous when it comes to their younger sisters. Also we are reviving his rock collection. Cause I said so.

Thank you to itakethewords for beta'in, tossing around ideas, and believing in this story. As well as the GRAPHICS!

Chapter 1: Diamond in the Rough

Chapter Text

Unspooled Thread - happilyinsane13 - Bridgerton (TV) [Archive of Our Own] (1)

Benedict was covering for Anthony’s horsesh*t.


Lord knows how many times he made excuses for his elder brother when the Viscount had decided to miss the opera or a family meal in favor of his mistress. But Daphne’s presentation day? This was a new low.

As Benedict slid on his black riding gloves, adjusting them on his large hands, his mother marched up to him, full of anxious energy that no one outside his brood of siblings would notice. He knew before she even opened her mouth what she would ask, and he had to swallow to prevent the taste of bile hitting his tongue.

“Any sign of him?”

Benedict shook his head, not looking at her as he answered in the negative.

“Should your brother wish to be obeyed as Lord Bridgerton, he must act as Lord Bridgerton. Where is he, Benedict?”

Benedict looked down from his perch into his mother’s face, utterly calm in its hidden fury, and he fought the natural urge to gulp.

“I do not know,” he lied, trying to offer one of his winning smiles. He was a charmer and he knew it, but that very same charm never fooled his mother. She was much too clever for that. “But we must hurry, Mother. We cannot afford for dear Daphne to be late.”

Violet huffed, crossing her arms for all of a second before remembering that Lady Featherington was watching like a hawk from across the street.

“I know,” Violet said before sighing, rubbing her temple. “Benedict, if Anthony does not show–”

“Then I will gladly escort you and Daphne in,” Benedict soothed, while inside his stomach twisted uncomfortably. Benedict loved his mother and Daphne dearly. He would always act in their best interest, but Benedict had never desired to be a paragon of respectability (not that Anthony was), but even presenting the facade of responsibility made Benedict want to shiver in disgust.

Thank God he was a second son. Though, he thought with a grimace as he moved the horses and carriage that held his family into action, sometimes he wished he had been born even further down the line. As the third or fourth son, he’d truly have no responsibility then.

Anthony may be in charge of their financial well-being – which he was wonderful at – and their reputations – fine, except when it came to his own – but Benedict spent much of his time keeping Anthony’s affairs quiet. As a result of Anthony’s lordly responsibilities, Benedict had been active as the unofficial wrangler of children in the family. Since their father’s death, Anthony had taken on the role of Viscount and father, though the man proved he could be inept at balancing the two roles at times. Benedict, however, whenever he was home, was, well… sort of like a mother. When Violet had been so trapped within her grief she could barely stand to look at Hyacinth, it was Benedict and Daphne who split the duties as nurse and caretaker. When Violet couldn’t get out of bed or when Anthony was drowning in paperwork it was Benedict who ensured his siblings were up, dressed, and attending their lessons or eating their meals. Whenever Benedict was off at Cambridge, a reprieve from family life he felt guilty for enjoying, he knew it was Daphne who mothered their siblings to the best of her ability. It was a responsibility she should not have had to bear, making Benedict work twice as hard and be twice as pliable when he returned.

Even when Violet did emerge from her cocoon of sorrow, she unwittingly asked Benedict to perform many daily tasks that, he assumed from conversation with many of his peers, most young men in titled households were never asked to do.

“Benedict, could you check on Anthony for me? He has been avoiding me all day.”

“Ben, dearest, stop Gregory from pulling Hyacinth’s hair.”

“Oh, Benedict, Eloise had a spat with Francesca. Will you see what is wrong?”

It had gotten to the point where Violet didn’t even have to utter a word, Benedict could tell by the way she cradled her head or stared vaguely at a piece of paper that she simply wasn’t up to the task. Benedict would swoop in to make sure Colin wasn’t playing too rough with Gregory, to complement Daphne’s playing on the pianoforte or to usher the young ones out of a room when Anthony was about to explode.

It had always been Benedict and, to be honest, he had grown very tired of it.

When they finally arrived at St. James’ Palace, and Anthony joined them out of breath, Violet was staring him down. Benedict snickered with Colin. But as Daphne fussed over her feathers and the Bridgertons ushered themselves into the palace, Benedict hoped, maybe a little selfishly, that this season he could do something for himself. And only himself.

Of course, he had no way to predict how the universe would interpret his wish.

It struck Penelope that, somehow, she was nervous and bored all at once. How strange , she pondered, to be both completely indifferent to the farce she was about to participate in, and so full of nerves she might just be sick. It was not that the presentation to the Queen was nothing, or that it was unamusing. Penelope quite enjoyed looking around at all of the men and women in their finery just for a second or two of possible glory in front of the tempestuous woman they called Queen. Penelope liked observing the extravagance, hearing the various murmurs and whispers, the opulence of it all. The foppery of the gentlemen and tittering of the women fascinated Penelope like how some people became entranced when looking at the animals in Queen Charlotte’s menagerie.

No, the real farce was the fact that her mother, Lady Portia Featherington, had decided to debut all three of her daughters at once- well before at least two out of the three were ready. The humiliation of it was already weighing on Penelope’s shoulders, the only comfort being that she had gotten her first Lady Whistledown issue published in a hurry that very morning. In fact, it was the only solace she could have, in a dress that hugged her in all the wrong places, and her hair curled so tight she could’ve been mistaken for an oddly colored poodle. As her tyrant of a mother had prepared her and her sisters for their debut for three months before the day, the pit full of her insecurities widened, filling to the brim with only the very worst things to say about herself: Her figure, her complexion, her bookishness, her inability to speak up… It had all tipped over the boiling point when Cressida Cowper had, in the modiste only three weeks before their debut, commented on Penelope looking very much like an overripe orange in one of the dresses Portia had foisted upon her youngest. The modiste, Genevieve Delacroix, had given Penelope a pitying look but even Penelope couldn’t deny that Cressida was a tiny bit right.

So she had gone home, forcing her tears to stay in her eyes until she was alone in her room. In her embarrassment and fury she had angrily penned words to a page, in a voice so far from her own it was almost freeing. She imagined herself an older titled lady, one who could get away with doing or saying anything, like Lady Agatha Danbury or Queen Charlotte. Her words were arrows launched by the feathered bow of her quill and it was so incredibly thrilling, such a practice in release of her frustration that, when she was done, she had sat back, hawk feather tapping her lower lip, and for the first time had felt proud about something she had done.

So she continued the practice for her own amusem*nt. It had only been last week that her father’s solicitor, a man not lacking in patience for having to deal with her curmudgeon of a father, had found a collection she had left on the side table next to her when she had been writing in the drawing room. She was not used to people intentionally touching her things. If anything, her family was quite determined to avoid anything that concerned Penelope at all. It was with shock and delight that he, Mister Sotheby, had informed her he knew a printers shop he could connect her with to publish them.

Publish them?

Mister Sotheby was kind, but realistic. He knew how Portia and Archibald Featherington treated their daughters, and probably knew a fair bit more besides. So when he suggested Penelope publish, maybe make money for herself, a nest egg to sit on for her own security well… How could she say no?

The first pamphlet published had been free, of course, to tempt society for more. She was quite proud of her opening lines:

According to the much heralded poet Lord Byron: Of all bitches, dead or alive, a scribbling woman is the most canine.

But now she was here, waiting for what would certainly be a quick dismissal by the Queen as her mother herded them like cattle to the door as their names were announced.

There was no dignity in this, Penelope thought as she kept her head down towards the scarlet rug, walking towards the Queen. Not for her, at least. At least Whistledown had been published, maybe she could glean whether people liked it when this was over…

She didn’t know why but she felt a set of burning eyes upon her and when she peered up, she saw Eloise Bridgerton, clutching her hands, watching Penelope as if it was Eloise herself who was about to be sick all over the expensive carpet. No, Penelope corrected herself. She had two comforts today. Her column, yes, but also her dearest friend in the world. At least she had Eloise. It was also with some satisfaction that she noticed, briefly, that Eloise had a scrap of parchment in her hands. In fact, it looked like–

Yes, her column.

Oh, to have her best friend read her words! In that moment, nothing was more thrilling.

If only she could enjoy it.

She had predicted much of the outcome of that day’s events in general terms, so that the column could be published in haste that day. It had been easy to slander herself and her sisters, she’d known they would most likely be the laughingstock of the event. But more than that, what Penelope had been sure of, was that Daphne Bridgerton would outshine them all.

Attention torn back to reality, Penelope looked back to the floor as they approached the Queen, already looking quite irritated with the day's proceedings. The large white plumage on Penelope’s head felt heavier with each step she took until, finally, they were before Her Majesty. Penelope looked up briefly but was distracted by the scene around her, grand and intimidating in all respects. That is until her mother elbowed her hard in the ribs. Penelope winced, her face flushed, and she just knew she was turning the most unbecoming shade of tomato red. It was all made so much worse as Portia helped Prudence curtsy and Penelope knew Queen Charlotte was about to say something except–

The Queen looked at her.

In that fleeting moment, Penelope was confident that the Queen could see the thick cloak of mortification swallowing her whole and took pity. The Queen merely waved them away, and Penelope would have gladly taken the signal to go–

If Prudence hadn’t promptly fainted onto the floor.

Shocked gasps, whispers, people turning away from secondhand embarrassment, it was all too much. As her mother and sister scrambled to pull Prudence up, she took a quick look at Eloise. It was only then that Penelope noticed the whole Bridgerton brood, sans Daphne who was still waiting in the wings. All of them winced in various degrees of sympathy, though Hyacinth appeared to be scolded by Francesca for giggling. Out of all of them, it was Colin’s face she noticed, pinched with sympathy and, possibly, disdain.

God, Penelope wished, wished with all of her might, that she could separate herself from her family, from the constant shame that plagued them. If only she could become the best version of herself, for herself. If only her new weapon of choice could get her that far.

For I have at my disposal a most powerful weapon that even the Queen lacks. My pen. A weapon this author will wield most keenly. No matter who you are. Or what your name might be...

Believe it or not, the universe did hear her.

The only good thing about Lady Danbury’s Ball were the sights, sounds, and morsels of gossip Penelope overheard. Just as she had predicted, and helped happen, Daphne Bridgerton was named the season’s diamond. And why wouldn’t she be? Graceful, beautiful, and everyone’s friend, Daphne was the epitome of loveliness. Daphne had always been kind to Penelope whenever the young Featherington visited to play with Eloise growing up, and Penelope in turn looked up to Daphne, simultaneously in awe and jealousy. Penelope, many times, had wished she’d been born a Bridgerton, at times simply because she was never made to be seen as pretty in her own household. But more than that, because Penelope desired so much to be loved.

Then again, as Penelope watched Colin prance around the dance floor with yet another beautiful young lady, slim and doelike in appearance, Penelope simply wished she was the type of woman who would catch Colin’s eye. But she never would. At least, not compared to demure women like Miss Howe, or even vile creatures like Cressida who, what she lacked in manners she made up for her in golden hair and a lithe figure. Penelope guessed she should be at least grateful that she was mostly ignored rather than derided to her face.

In the dim, candlelit room she stepped away from her sisters, still studiously studying miniatures of the available bachelors while anxiously waiting to be asked to dance. She slipped away to mingle in the background, sighing over the reality of another birthday of hers uncelebrated. Eloise had taken her out to Gunter’s earlier that day for ice cream, which had been a balm upon her soul. But her own family said nothing, focused on readying themselves for Lady Danbury’s opening ball. She was everyone’s shadow, forever attached and forever unnoticed, disappearing as soon as the time was right. Penelope would attempt to sneak away from the ball to deliver a fresh column that night for the first time. Penelope may not be noticed by her family, but she was lucky enough that the servants they possessed knew and liked her as the polite bookworm of the family. So when she had asked Mister Harold Evans, one of their drivers, to stealthily bring along a second family carriage to bring her somewhere during the ball he had blinked.

“May I ask, Miss Featherington, what ya’ need it fer?”

Penelope had bit her lip, unsure, pondering her answer.

“Would it be too bold to say I’m planning a little rebellion that does not, in any way, compromise me?”

The lines at the corners of Evans’ weathered face crinkled as he tried not to laugh.

“If anyone deserves a tad o’ rebellion, it’d be you, Miss Featherington.”

So Penelope listened and observed, watching as Viscount Bridgerton made finding a suitor that much more difficult for Daphne, her shine diminished by his cold, dour glares at every man that passed by. The entrance of Simon Basset, Duke of Hastings, with his regal looks, powerful stance, and obvious annoyance with every society mama shoving their fresh debutant his way proved amusing. She of course watched Colin, she couldn’t help it, charm his way around the room. Lord Fife and Lord Cho played their odds, and Lord Ambrose attempted again to talk to Daphne. She listened from the wall as servants gossiped about which women were lightskirts who had simply not been caught, who had, and which rakes had already sequestered women into closets. Admittedly, there were intricacies about these affairs Penelope did not understand. Besides kissing, what could be so interesting that a woman would willingly lock herself in a broom cupboard with a man for?

But that was a mystery for another time.

After an hour of this, invisible and no dance in sight, Penelope felt she had collected what she needed for her next scandal sheet. As she approached the garden door so she could slip out and make her way around and out to the coaches, she made the grave mistake, one she had been certain she wouldn’t make, to be blocked by a small crowd of ladies beside a refreshments table. Instead of veering left to go around the back of the white-clothed table laden with lemonade, champagne, and canapes, she went to the right–

And landed in the direct eyeline of Lady Danbury and Mister Benedict Bridgerton.

Benedict pitied Daphne greatly.

Benedict was having a swell enough time at Lady Danbury’s Ball. Balls could be boring, tedious things, but Lady Danbury spared no expense, and she at least could be counted on for entertainment. Although, his respect and awe of her was tied up quite well with how terrified he was of the grand dragon. When he had first graduated Cambridge and had been set up in society by his mother, he had developed quite the tendre for the much older woman. While, of course, it amounted to nothing more than embarrassing memories of how he used to follow her around like a puppy, only to be snapped at and retreat with his tail between his legs, he still admired the woman greatly. Therefore, he would never miss one of her events.

But poor Daphne, who should’ve been having a good time dancing with gentlemen, was being stifled by their pigheaded older brother.

Benedict was protective too, as he once thought all older brothers were. (He’d learned rather rudely at White’s once with Anthony that not all men held their sisters in high regard. The two brothers had gotten matching black eyes in their efforts to show Mister Pickwick and Lord Cho how younger sisters should be treated). The undeniable responsibility it was to protect his little sisters from the men of the world, especially men like themselves, was powerful. If Benedict had been unfortunate enough to be the oldest, he had no doubt he’d act similarly to Anthony. But it was her first ball, for Heaven’s sake. She should be allowed some fun.

“We should really save Daph,” Colin said beside him, also watching the dreadful scene unfold before them. “It really is like observing a wolf viciously guarding the youngest of the pack.”

“That’s putting it nicely,” Benedict replied, frowning as Anthony chased away yet another potential dance partner for their sister with a look of pure, wintry disdain. “He’s more like a mother hen, pecking and squawking as he herds his chick about the farm.”

Colin guffawed, loudly. Yet, somehow, it was never rude when his brother laughed. That was Colin’s charm. The young man could commit murder and Benedict knew his mother, his siblings, Hell, the bloody magistrate, would take his side in the matter. Even if the young fool was holding the bloodstained knife.

“We really should help her,” Colin reiterated, peering around the space. “Is Mother nearby?”

“No, thank God, making this the perfect opportunity.” With that Benedict cupped one hand around the side of his mouth and called, “Anthony! Daph!”

As one, Benedict and Colin moved up to their siblings in the grand room, the lit chandeliers making everything gold and false glitter in the light. Benedict pondered for a moment whether his sister, any of his sisters, were not too honest for society. Oh, they knew how to play the game within their own household, but they had no experience of the world.

Although, he thought, he knew it’d be best not to say that around Eloise. She would have quite the rant for him…

Benedict tuned back in to his siblings conversation as Colin was excitedly relaying to Daphne that he’d start in Greece on his Grand Tour, but before Daphne could finish her reply, Anthony muttered, urgently,

“On guard!”

Properly signaled, the brothers in well-trained step formation spun on their heels to run away, Daphne bewildered, but they were out of luck.

“Too late. I already noted you.”

Whirling back around with his biggest smile plastered in place, Benedict bowed as he addressed Lady Danbury. Powerful, fierce, and resplendent as always she studied them with the keen eye of a feline studying its next meal. Draped in bright, creamy white gown, tiara settled upon her head, leaning on her heavy cane, she was a force to be reckoned with. Really, how could Benedict not have so fervently admired her in his youth? He was getting quite tired of Anthony and Colin always poking him about it. It’s Daphne’s empty dance card she spotted, making the sharp comment about Daphne being unable to even attempt to find a suitor with Anthony hovering. Of course, the lady was more subtle about the insult. She wasn’t always. But Benedict had to fight a grimace.

Poor Daphne.

Yet Colin distracted him, as his tall younger brother leaned into him, mesmerized by whatever he was drawn to.

“Who is that?”

Benedict peered up to see a lovely young girl, around Daphne’s age. She had dark brown hair in tight curls that were barely tamed by her hairstyle, but all the more lovely for it. Her brown skin and dark eyes were complimented by her light dress. An alluring woman to be sure, and it was quite clear that Colin was most… allured, but Benedict shrugged internally. Colin could be a flighty thing when it came to beauty.

“I am sure I have never seen her.” Benedict elbowed Colin gently in the ribs. “Go ask for a dance if you are so interested. Ask which family she belongs to. She certainly was not at the presentation.”

Colin just nodded dumbly, entranced. As the third Bridgerton child practically floated off in a haze, Benedict chuckled, raising his gloved hands to his lips to stifle the sound. But it died as soon as he caught the look on the youngest Featherington girl’s face. She stood in a corner of the room, dressed in a horrible lemon yellow dress that made her look paler than she already was. Her curls were too tight on her head and, to be frank, she appeared miserable. The poor girl watched, servants and rich alike passing her by unknowingly, as Colin couldn’t take his eyes off the new young lady.

Benedict pitied the redheaded girl, truly he did, for Eloise adored her above all else. Penelope Featherington had been Eloise’s best friend for as long as Eloise, or any Bridgerton for that matter, could remember. And Penelope had held a flame for Colin for as long as Benedict could remember, not that Colin noticed. While Benedict did not often pay attention to Penelope, she was quite forgettable in a crowd and he had always assumed she had liked it that way. In that moment he felt a pang in his heart for her. It had been insanity for her mother to foist all three Featherington girls out into society at once. None of the girls had much chance, it was a shame to say but it was true. It was well known that the Featheringtons were ostentatious, vain, and vapid. All but Penelope, but no one but the Bridgertons knew that.

“Mister Bridgerton.”

Benedict turned and grinned down at Lady Danbury. Assessing him with her eyes she appeared to reach some sort of conclusion before holding her arm out for Benedict to take.

“Escort me to the refreshments table, lad? Or are you still sore that I quite soundly kicked your enamored countenance to the curb eight years ago?”

Benedict felt a blush rise to his cheeks and burn the tips of his ears, but his smile did not lessen. If anything it only grew broader, making the corners of his eyes crinkle pleasantly.

“I would be honored, Lady Danbury. Truth be told, I am still quite enamored of you, do you not know? My proposal still stands.”

Lady Danbury’s cackle, he was sure, could only emanate the power of women like Hecate and Circe. Benedict didn’t mind. All the Bridgerton men had a healthy fear of women, but it was Benedict who, maybe a tad strangely, delighted in it. Clever women were the most beguiling but, unfortunately, Benedict had not met many of them amongst the women of the ton. Shame, really. With five intelligent women in his own household, and Lady Danbury counted as a friend among them, he had no idea why the rest of society’s females were so… airy.

But, Benedict considered as he let Lady Danbury lead him to a long table filled to the brim with drinks and canapes, that was being unfair. Eloise often told him that society was what men made of it. Who was to say that men had not created the haut ton’s definition of well-bred women?

“What do you make of your sister’s first ball out in society, Mister Bridgerton?” Lady Danbury asked, settling her weight on her cane as Benedict scooped up two glasses of champagne.

“Do you want my honest commentary, or a polite redirection?” Benedict sipped his champagne, handing the other crystal flute to his hostess. He scanned the room for his sister but did not see her or Anthony. Hopefully she had been able to find a reprieve.

“The truth, of course, Mister Bridgerton. I deserve nothing less, especially if it will force you to talk ill of your churlish brother.”

Benedict snorted into his drink, bubbles tickling his nose as he coughed. He hit his chest with a fist once, twice, before dislodging the remaining liquid from his lungs.

“So I do not have to say anything, you have already guessed at my worries!” Benedict swallowed a few times before daring to take another careful sip, Lady Danbury clearly amused. “But yes, I do fear my sister’s prospects will not be nearly so good if Anthony keeps scaring off every man within ten steps of her.”

Lady Danbury nodded, sipping her own drink as she once again studied the floor.

“And no little bird has caught your eye then, Mister Bridgerton?”

Benedict shrugged, glancing over all of the young women in their white and pastel frocks, dazzling tiaras, and beastly mamas. No, none spoke to his soul or his desires. That much was certain.

“Alas, Lady Danbury, no woman of the ton has captured my attention since you,” he said, dramatically clutching his heart. “I fear none ever shall!”

“Oh, you think you are so clever, Mister Bridgerton,” Lady Danbury said, dark eyes gleaming in the light of hundreds of flickering candles. “You are just like your maternal grandfather, I guarantee. No woman of the ton? So, that means plenty of women outside this gilded cage have obtained your interest, is that not so?”

Benedict felt his mouth dry up, caught in a trap of his own making. He quickly gulped the rest of his champagne as he tried to think of an answer but either fortune smiled on him or had a vendetta against redheads, because none other than Penelope Featherington stumbled in front of them.

“Ah, Miss Featherington,” Lady Danbury said, and Penelope froze like a gazelle being stared down by a lioness. “Now, remind me, which one are you? Your mother made the unfortunate mistake of giving you all similar names.”

Penelope’s face lit up like the sudden blaze of a bonfire and Benedict felt the need to step in. Even he was cringing for the poor girl.

“This is Penelope Featherington, Lady Danbury. The youngest. She is the closest of friends with my younger sister, Eloise.”

Penelope shot him such a look of shock and gratitude he felt that familiar ache in his chest, the one he felt when one of his siblings scraped their knee or when finding a baby chick that had fallen from its nest. She shouldn’t be grateful that he had simply remembered her name but, he supposed with a mother like Portia Featherington…

“All of your sisters are younger,” Penelope squeaked, much to Benedict and Lady Danbury’s astonishment. Penelope quickly placed her satin gloved hands over her mouth, if anything looking akin to the color of a strawberry wrapped in a lemon peel. “My apologies, I– I think I’m just so nervous. I have not been myself all day.”

Benedict smiled kindly but it was Lady Danbury who spoke, her head moving up and down as she studied Penelope keenly.

“Better out than in, most of the time,” Lady Danbury said, offering a smile that was as close to gentle as a baby crocodile’s. “No woman gets much farther than the marriage bed in life by staying silent. Oh, you do not have to be loud. Simply cunning. That’s how our voices are heard.”

Penelope actually offered a genuine, close-lipped smile at that. Benedict thought it was a shame how Lady Featherington seemed determined to downplay Penelope. Her little smile, warm and thoughtful, was quite cute. With more attention and confidence, Penelope could eventually find her footing in society.

“I cannot agree more, Lady Danbury,” Penelope said, bright blue eyes actually shining for the first time that night. She curtsied, nodding to both of them before excusing herself.

Lady Danbury watched her go, and it was only because the austere woman kept the girl in her line of sight that Benedict did as well. No one else appeared to see Penelope slip out of the back door into the garden. Alone. Unchaperoned.

Oh no.

“Mister Bridgerton,” Lady Danbury said, standing to her full height, setting her flute down just to pluck Benedict’s from his hold. “Follow that Featherington.”

“What?” Benedict gasped, gaping at Lady Danbury like she had grown two, no, three heads. “You cannot be serious! She just left out the back way, unchaperoned . If I was caught with her, I’d be forced to–”

Benedict stopped himself and looked at his toes, ashamed. Penelope was a good person, he knew that in the depths of his soul. Eloise, as rash as she could be, would never retain a friendship with someone she found lacking in character. But he did not want to end up in a situation where he would have to marry her. He didn’t want to marry anyone. Not now.

“Then do not get caught,” Lady Danbury stated, as if it was the simplest solution in the world. “You are a rake, are you not? I am sure you are quite acquainted with doing dirty deeds in the shadows.”

Benedict scowled. He had to make a decision now, while he still had time to catch up. Zounds, he was helpless. The more he thought on it, the more he knew what his choice would be. Benedict could never face his mother or sisters again with any dignity if he did not go to help a woman who, quite possibly, was about to ruin her reputation. Worse, Eloise would most certainly murder him if she found out he had not lifted a single toe to aid her best friend.

And Benedict did like Penelope. She was good . It was that simple.

“Fine,” he sighed. “But not a word of this to my family, or Miss Featherington’s for that matter. Who knows what Lady Featherington would devise.”

Lady Danbury mimed locking her mouth and throwing away the key, but Benedict caught her smirk as he dashed off to follow Penelope.

Whatever Benedict had been expecting, it had not been this. With his very own eyes he watched as Penelope Featherington entered Lady Danbury’s garden, rounded a corner and dug through a bush until she pulled out a carefully placed hooded cloak, the kind made for servants. Throwing it around her shoulders and pulling the hood to cover her tell-tale fiery curls, she dashed to the back servant's entrance that led to the street. Benedict followed her, trying to be light on his feet in the grass. This was not good. Penelope, disguising herself? What tomfoolery was the girl up to?

When she reached the gravel street, Benedict lurking around the servant’s entrance (no actual servant was in sight, all far too busy with the ball), Penelope entered a family carriage. Benedict thought the driver looked vaguely familiar, but he wasn’t wearing the Featherington family livery. Benedict cursed as the coach was set into motion. Luckily, the horses of many of the gentlemen in attendance were tethered in the back. Benedict spotted his, a gentle Welsh Cob named Rapscallion. While Anthony quite enjoyed riding thoroughbreds and racing, Benedict had no interest in the sport himself. So while Rapscallion, with his chestnut coat and large brown eyes, wasn’t considered a gentleman’s first choice, Benedict loved him all the same.

Benedict quickly untethered and mounted his beloved steed, urging the careful beast into a trot to catch up with the carriage. With any luck he could keep them in his vision as the streets grew dark, the only light emitted from the oil street lamps. Dim and flickering, the echo of the horses hooves on the ground mingled with the sound of growing nighttime revelry as they drew closer to the streets of Bloomsbury. The brothels were being filled, the alehouses and pubs bursted with riotous singing and drinking, and Benedict had no doubt the underground boxing rings and animal fights were just beginning. Penelope had no business being out here, especially alone. What the hell was she thinking? What could she be doing that she was brought out from the safety and comfort of Lady Danbury’s abode?

Benedict kept behind, watching as the carriage stopped and parked itself on the street. The hooded figure of Penelope jumped out, her hooded face looking around before dashing down the street. Benedict cursed, prompting Rapscallion to walk at a pace just a few feet behind. It was then he saw Penelope enter the back of a printers shop. Benedict dismounted, tying Rapscallion off to the nearest post before scurrying to the back door himself. What could Penelope want here? Could she be meeting a common born lover? Benedict dismissed the idea as soon as it came. Penelope was too young, too innocent for that. Just a month ago she had been over at their house and had joined in a game of hoops with Eloise! No, not a lover. But what else could bring her to this part of town?

It was as Benedict inched closer to the rickety wooden door, opened ajar, that he heard voices.

“My mistresses’ first issue di’ well, di’ it not? So she will pay the current price for printin’, but she wants twenty-five percent of the profit.”

Was that– Penelope’s voice? It sounded like her but… not. It was an Irish accent, unmistakable in lilt. Yet that was a woman’s voice, and a woman could only enter a print shop on business, rather than work there.

“Beggin’ your mistress's pardon, while I ran out of all those issues, there is still no guarantee they’ll sell for such a price!”

“It’s a gamble my mistress is willin’ to take, so ya’ best get printin’. For I’m sure this will make us all a tidy sum.”

A clink on a hard surface, the jangle of coins.

“Here’s extra for yer faith and discretion. She wants it distributed by midday tomorrow. Good evenin’ to ya.”

It was then that Benedict only had enough time to step back before the door creaked open. Penelope stepped out, and when she closed the door she gave an audible sigh of relief. That is, until she looked up into the wide, ocean eyes of Benedict Bridgerton.

Penelope had truly mucked up.

That was all she could think of when Benedict had all but dragged her to the opposite side street, grabbing his horse along the way. He’d looked around furtively before hurrying her into the alley, blocking them from notice with the use of his rather large , rather wide horse. The creature was docile, huffing with what Penelope could almost swear was amusem*nt as Benedict cornered her, hands on hips as if she was one of his younger sisters in need of scolding.

“What in the name of all that is good and holy are you doing in Bloomsbury? In a printers shop? With no chaperone? And pretending to be an Irish lady’s maid?”

“I do not think you are one to talk about good and holy ,” Penelope blurted before clasping her hands to her mouth. She’d spoken out of turn for the second time that night in front of Benedict Bridgerton. What was wrong with her?

Benedict’s jaw looked as if it had come unhinged from its sockets. He stared at her, mouth agape, looking like he was torn between laughing and throwing her across his knee for punishment. He settled for, it seemed, what came most natural to him; a smile. It was a genial smile, one meant to convey that he could and would keep a secret. Penelope had seen it often enough at Bridgerton House when he was trying to wriggle information out of his siblings. To her knowledge, he had always kept the knowledge imparted to him close to his chest.

“I–” Penelope started, mind darting frantically about, looking for an excuse. “You see–”

“Please do not lie to me, Miss Featherington. I have seven brothers and sisters. I have learned to tell when someone is lying.”

“Why is it any of your business, anyway?” Penelope whined, and oh she hated how childish she sounded. But she couldn’t help it. He could spoil everything before anything had begun!

Benedict blinked at her.

“Why? Because you are a young lady of the ton. Merely being out here alone could ruin your reputation. Something could have happened to you, there are no shortages of wastrels and cads about. And, most importantly, Eloise and Mother would flay me alive if I did not seek to protect you. So, quite frankly, it is very much my business what you are up to.” Benedict bent down, their noses almost tip to tip as he leveled her not with scorn, but that same kind smile he had bestowed upon her earlier that evening. “So, I will ask you again: What are you doing here? I promise to keep this between ourselves.”

Penelope bit her thumbnail, chewing pensively as she studied his face. It was open and honest, much like Colin’s or Eloise’s. Penelope had learned over the years that she was hopeless around the Bridgertons, so desperate for affection that any they gave her rendered her wet clay in their hands. She had not decided whether that was a character flaw just yet.

“You swear to keep it secret? On your life?” she asked, holding a tiny hand out for him to shake. Flummoxed for a moment he stared down at it, her tiny, little hand that could be broken so easily. Inhaling deeply he reached out and took it with his own, giving a firm shake.

“I swear on my life and the lives of my siblings I will take your secret to the grave, so long as it does not endanger your life.”

Penelope grunted at the addendum but took it with all the seriousness she could muster. When they released one another, Penelope stepped back, took a large breath, and said,

“I am Lady Whistledown. The author behind the scandal sheet that was published.”

Benedict stood there, completely frozen for a moment. But then he grinned, a sly, disbelieving grin.

“You are having me on,” he said. “Come on, Penelope. Really, you? Sweet, little Penelope Featherington throwing barbs around like alms for the poor?”

Penelope bristled at that. In fact she was quite sure if she had been a dog her hackles would be raised. How dare he insinuate she wouldn’t, couldn’t be the writer of a scandal sheet? How would it be so insane if she was the writer rather than Lady Danbury, or one of his sisters? Was he saying she wasn’t intelligent enough? Not brave enough?

Benedict seemed to realize he had misstepped badly as he, involuntarily, took a step back. The cool spring air no longer made Penelope shiver as she, boldly, removed a handwritten copy of what she had turned in that night from her bosom. Menacingly, she descended upon him, poking her parchment into his broad chest.

“How dare you? Just because I am a girl, green and new to society, you think me incapable? Unable to think of a possible enterprise for myself? Something that could both be profitable for me, but also keep me sane when all anyone ever does is ignore me? Who are you, to say I could not? And who are you, Mister Bridgerton, to deny me the right to something for myself, no matter how underhanded? I may be a mere girl to you, you absolute cad , but I see things. I know things. No one but a wallflower like myself could know what I know.”

Benedict, stunned, remained silent. Seconds, maybe minutes, passed as Penelope felt her heartbeat gallop in her chest, waiting with bated breath. The longer he remained quiet the more Penelope’s ire slowly faded, transformed into uneasiness. Realizing her pointed finger was still dug into his chest she withdrew, but not before he grasped the papers in her hand. With a yelp from her he took them perusing the words as he did. She jumped but he was too tall, keeping her work just out of reach.

“Oh, what is this here,” Benedict said playfully. “Calling out my brother, are we? And… mentioning a Miss Marina Thompson? Was that the new girl who was not at the presentation? And… oh! Well, I am not surprised that Lord Fife would do that. And–” Benedict’s amusem*nt turned sour, a frown marring his handsome features. “Berbrooke approached my sister? That man is a toad!”

“D-Does that mean you believe me?” Penelope stammered, cursing the retreat of her earlier bravado.

Benedict handed the paper back to her, co*cking his head. He ran a hand through his thick, dark brown hair, making it stick at odd angles.

“You have provided evidence, and you do not lack passion on the subject. I have no choice but to believe you, Miss Featherington.” Benedict rubbed his chest where she’d poked him, tapping one foot to the mud and gravel. “Very passionate, indeed. I must admit, there is much more to you than I originally thought.”

Penelope was not sure if Benedict realized how much of a backhanded compliment that was. Probably not. The Bridgertons led what could only be called a charmed life. They were very rarely subjected to insults or ignored, by account of their wealth, good looks, and vibrant personalities. She pursed her lips.

“So, you will keep my secret? You promised!”

Benedict tapped his chin, as if debating on whether he would keep his vow. But that lasted a mere second before he reached forward and, boldly, tweaked her nose.

“I will keep my promise, but you should stop publishing after this issue. It is dangerous for you. This endeavor requires sneaking around in parts of town that many of our set would find unsavory.”

“Does that include you?” she asked, raising one delicate eyebrow.

“No,” Benedict admitted. He crouched down, picking up a smooth, black rock from the gravel and pocketing it before continuing. “But the rest of the ton is not me, I fear. So stop this, Penelope. If I could find you out, others might.”

Penelope did not answer, but she let him escort her back to her carriage so she could return to the ball with no one the wiser. She let Benedict take that as a sign of victory. She had learned long ago with her father that men, for some odd reason, often took silence as an indication that they had somehow won the battle.

It was a good thing men had not discovered that it simply meant they were about to lose the war.

Benedict could not exactly pinpoint the feeling bubbling in his chest when he caught Penelope a few days later in Bloomsbury buying ink and quills. She was disguised once again in her lady’s maid cloak and, to a mix of pride and horror, unchaperoned.

He had decided, after using up all of his charcoal making sketches he then promptly threw away, to go fetch new supplies himself. It gave him an excuse to get out of the house and not witness yet another day where dear Daphne was subjected to the wiles of Anthony’s overbearing judgment, and the rapidly dwindling amount of suitors willing to put up with the Viscount’s nonsense.

He snuck up behind her, his brown paper bag of supplies tucked under one arm, placing his other hand on his hip. Eloise mocked him for it relentlessly, saying that he simply was not good at staying mad for long. That much was true. Benedict was better at defusing conflict rather than bearing a grudge. That was Anthony’s department. So he hunkered down, his mouth by the side of her hood, his breath a whisper in her ear,

“Alright, Lady Whistledown , you’re less demure than I thought. I should have known.”

Penelope jumped, Benedict moving away just in time so she didn’t smash her head into his chin. He couldn’t help the chuckle that burst forth from his chest, and she turned what was supposed to be a fury laden glare at him. She would have to work on that.

“So, you are beyond reason?” Benedict asked, leaning forward to push a stray ember strand of hair back into her hood. Damn the beacon of fire that was the Featherington hair. “You will not give up this venture as London’s current, most torrid gossip columnist?”

The young girl set her chin stubbornly and, he daresay, crossed her arms a tad petulantly. He knew it was supposed to be a show of defiance, but really she just looked like an adorably irate woodland creature. He bit his cheek to keep from laughing again.

“You may not see the endeavors of a woman, no less one writing a scandal sheet, anything worthy. But it is lucrative, clever, and mine. Lord knows, nothing else in my life is! So, no, Mister Bridgerton, I will not be giving up my enterprise!”

Benedict was suddenly startled. While the young Featherington may not look intimidating, the ferocity of her claim was compelling, dignified even. From how she endeavored to set back her shoulders, and tilted back her chin to meet his eyes— he admired it, truly. Benedict was finally starting to see what Eloíse so valued in her friend. He made a show of heaving a large sigh, before quickly giving up on the charade and grinned madly.

“Well, Miss Featherington, I did always enjoy watching things burn.”

It was Penelope’s turn to appear confounded by his statement, so he took advantage of her stillness to deposit coins in the merchant’s hands, collect her items, and whisk her away down the street.

“I will help keep your secret. The column you published this week was quite brilliant, although I don’t know how I feel about you remarking on my sister’s sudden lack of luster.”

Penelope chewed her bottom lip and peered up at him, her blue eyes, Benedict noticed, the color of a fine sky. It changed and wavered depending on her moods, just as the weather affected the airy domain above them. How curious.

“You must know I hold your family in the highest regard,” Penelope said hurriedly, trying to smooth any ruffled feathers. “But the biggest gossip is about… well, the Viscount sabotaging her prospects. I cannot claim to be completely altruistic in my observation, but I do hope the Viscount just might take note and back off?”

Benedict rolled his eyes, but the wicked grin remained on his face.

“At least you are honest. But I must query, before I allow you any further, would you publish any scandal that would ruin my family? Or any other esteemed members of the ton?”

“Never your family!” Penelope exclaimed before pursing her lips in a thin, white line, looking around again like a cornered animal. “Never you family, Mister Bridgerton. Eloise means the world to me, and I have always adored–” Penelope swallowed, slowing for a moment. Benedict did not let her stop, urging her forward down the street, deeper into the depths of the neighborhood where it was less likely members of polite society would see them. “Your family.”

Benedict had a sneaking suspicion that is not what, rather who, she meant.

“And what of others, Miss Featherington?” Benedict patted her forearm, and it would’ve been patronizing if Benedict hadn’t brought up a fair point. “You will surely uncover… misdeeds. What will you do if the scandals you find do not just entertain the ton for a week or two? But bring down ruin upon a whole family?”

Penelope sat with the question and Benedict let her, their footsteps echoing across the cobbled streets. The early spring air was still cool, blowing a breeze through the alley, kicking up the smell of muck, refuse, smoke, and produce in various stages of rot. It wasn’t pleasant but it was grounding. Benedict watched her tap the dimple in her chin, and was glad that she was taking the question seriously.

“I hope,” Penelope settled, nodding resolutely. “That I would have the wisdom to shelter those I could and expose those who truly deserve it.” She turned to him again, meeting his gaze, almost pleading. “And I hope to have someone who will help me, when I do not know the right course to take.”

Damn it all.

How in the nine circles of Hell was he supposed to refuse that?

“Gah, fine! I shall help you! Be your confidant, but there will be rules, Miss Featherington!” Benedict shook a forefinger at her, although the way the corners of his eyes crinkled betrayed his good humor. “I insist you employ me when you must deliver a column. No, no objections!” Benedict said as Penelope opened her mouth to object. “We must protect you, both bodily and in the eyes of the fickle ton! Or else you will become the definitive subject of your column. Speaking of–” He tweaked her nose again, and he wondered if this was to become a habit. “You must stop writing so horribly of yourself. You have only published twice and yet you have derided yourself and your family in abundance!”

Penelope, more daring now, stuck her tongue out at him, much to his glee.

“I begrudgingly agree to the first condition until I can think of an alternative,” Penelope said, raising her pert nose up as haughtily as she could. The effect was ruined when her hood slid down. He hastily fixed it for her, letting her scowl all the while. “But I cannot afford to do the second. I must divert all suspicion away from myself.”

It was Benedict’s turn to glower but he nodded in agreement, conceding to her logic.

“I have one more condition,” Benedict said, stopping them in the middle of the street, pressing them to a shop window as a horse and cart passed by. “You must tell Eloise.”

Penelope whipped her head up, jaw tight, eyes wide.

“But-” Penelope gulped. “I– If she were to know –”

Benedict could see she was struggling, and he wondered what her reasoning for not telling her dearest friend in all the world was. It only occurred to Benedict that maybe, just maybe, it was similar to his own desire to separate from his siblings. Just a bit, a toe over an invisible line. For he wanted something, anything, that was all his .

Did he just destroy that chance for Penelope?

“Miss Featherington.” He adopted the tone he often used when comforting one of his younger siblings, especially when one was crying. He prayed she did not think it demeaning, for that was not the way he intended it. It’s just all he knew. Plus, he had a very high success rate, especially amongst the females of his family. “Take it from me, it is better not to keep secrets from friends. Rather, we should keep secrets with them. I have very few precious friendships, and the reason for much of that is because I didn’t share what mattered to me with them. And because I could not share my sorrows, or my joys, those friendships fell away. Do you really want that to happen with Eloise?”

Penelope’s face fell and he knew he had won. Through underhanded, possibly despicable means, but he had tasted victory this day. If Penelope showed more of the mettle she had displayed today and during their last encounter, he had no idea how long this winning streak would last.

“Fine,” she grumbled, digging her nails into the black cloth of his jacket. “I shall inform her at the next available opportunity.”

“Which will be tea at my mother’s this Friday!” Benedict proclaimed, exuding that annoying air of excitement he used to bother his siblings and friends. “I shall ensure you receive an invitation this afternoon!”

Penelope groaned, slumping into his side, and Benedict found he didn’t mind.

Penelope walked into the Bridgerton drawing room for tea promptly at eleven o’clock on Friday. Before she had left Benedict’s company two days ago, he had thoroughly scolded her for taking a paid hackney to Bloomsbury by herself. Was that what it was like to have older brothers? They were always in one’s business, constantly lecturing? Penelope was suddenly very thankful that she only had sisters who readily ignored her.

Eloise glanced up from where she sat on the sofa, beaming the moment she saw her friend. Penelope noticed that Eloise had been reading the Lady Whistledown that had been published earlier that week. Benedict was slouched in the chair opposite Eloise, seated so that his long legs dangled off the wooden arm. He bobbed his head briefly in greeting, not bothering to stand as he absently sketched, charcoal staining his fingers.

Penelope swiveled her head around as she approached a bouncing Eloise, settling herself besides her excited friend.

“Where is everyone?” Penelope asked.

“Off on a promenade,” Eloise answered, waving the fact away as if it was of little consequence. “After Lady Whistledown’s latest, Mama thought it prudent for Daphne to mingle with bachelors in the fresh air. Of course, I think she was also trying to avoid Anthony.”

“Unfortunately for her,” Benedict chimed in, rubbing his chin as he studied his work, smearing charcoal across his cleft. “Anthony has been waking unusually early in order to chaperone Daphne. So Mother dragged Colin and the young ones along to try and mitigate any disasters.”

“Yet, neither of you are with them,” Penelope noted, trying to send a discreet glare Benedict’s way. He merely smirked.

“Mama knew you were coming for tea with me, and Benedict volunteered to stay to make sure we did not burn the house down.” Eloise rolled her eyes. “I think Benedict just wants to avoid the inevitable mood Mama will be in when she realizes Anthony will not be deterred by a mere promenade.”

“I think your brother is just excited to see what sort of havoc he can wreak here,” Penelope muttered. Belatedly realizing what had slipped from her mouth she inwardly cursed, as both Bridgerton siblings burst into raucous laughter. They had heard her quite clearly. Penelope buried her face in her hands for a moment, bemoaning her situation. After only two true encounters, she was becoming entirely too comfortable around Benedict Bridgerton. In fact, he was having much the same, liberating effect on her tongue that Eloise possessed. Both a blessing and a curse.

“Oh, Pen, I’m so happy you are here,” Eloise exclaimed, wiping a stray tear from the corner of her eye. “I wanted to discuss this Lady Whistledown! How intelligent, how powerful must this woman be to be so bold in her writing? Listing her subjects by name! It must be a pseudonym. Maybe we can discover who she is together!”

Eloise clapped her hands enthusiastically and Penelope heard a pause in the scratching of Benedict's drawing. Once again she found herself chewing her bottom lip. Really, it was a wonder there was any flesh left.

“Actually, El, I wanted to talk about that too.”

“Oh, really? Do you have any theories? I was thinking it could be someone like Lady Danbury, she’s rich and a widow–”


“Or the Queen herself, but when would she have time for that? Maybe another recent widow, like Lady Trowbridge–”


“But then I was thinking–”

“Eloise Bridgerton.” It was Benedict who finally managed to get Eloise to quiet, leveling her with a look that Penelope was now convinced only older brothers could master. “Miss Featherington is trying to tell you something, you must actually let her get a word in edgewise.”

Eloise did actually look a little shamefaced at the admonishment.

“Sorry, Pen. It has just… lit a fire under me. If a woman can do something like this all on her own, despite what society says, maybe I–”

Eloise pursed her lips, and Penelope recognized the expression on her friend’s face; she was trying to tamp down her emotions. Specifically, anything close to sentimentality. Eloise had no problem exhibiting outrage or giddiness, but any emotion resembling maudlin was simply not allowed.

“Oh, El.” Penelope grasped Eloise’s hand in her own, glancing at the wrinkled pamphlet on the sofa between them before looking to Benedict. Benedict nodded, his ocean irises unwavering. “Eloise, I–” Penelope gulped. “It is me. I am Lady Whistledown.”

It was so silent Penelope could have sworn they would have heard a mere piece of parchment fall to the floor as if someone was smashing a vase. Every possible reaction flashed across Eloise’s face rapidly; shock, grief, indignation, and then…

What was that on Eloise’s face?

Eloise’s expression settled suddenly, co*cking her head to the side, her hand never leaving Penelope’s grip. Benedict watched her closely too, and Penelope could’ve sworn he recognized whatever had just transpired because he had relaxed into the chair again, letting his arm hang lazily to the side.

“Of course it is you,” Eloise breathed, and Penelope felt tears sting her eyes, because she finally realized what it was.


Eloise was proud of her.

“Do not misunderstand me, I wish you had included me from the beginning!” Eloise said, turning her nose up but unable to hold the charade for more than a second. “But you are including me now! Oh, Pen, this is remarkable! All under the ton’s nose! How do you publish? Do you sneak–”

Eloise froze, whipping her head toward Benedict who merely stretched like a cat in the sun.

“We are going to have to work on your secret-keeping, dear Sister,” Benedict said, winking. “But you have nothing to fear. I already know. In fact, I caught Miss Featherington performing her business in Bloomsbury– twice!”

Eloise gasped, finally releasing Penelope to reach over and smack her brother on the shoulder.

“And you did not tell me?”

“Ow! Eloise, it was Penelope’s story to tell!”

Penelope noticed how Benedict had decided to omit that it had been him that had given her the ultimatum that she had to tell Eloise, or he would not let her pursue her enterprise. He was allowing her to take the credit. Penelope decided then that Benedict realized the benefit of secrets after all. They just had to be the right ones.

“Fair enough,” Eloise grumbled, crossing her arms as she attempted to blow a stray lock of chocolate brown hair that had come loose from her ribbon. “Pen, I have so many questions. But the first, of course, must be–”

“Why?” Penelope finished for her, shifting uncomfortably in her seat.

Eloise inclined her head, and Penelope noticed that Benedict had spun around, sitting in the chair. He leaned forward, elbows on knees, cradling his chin in his palms.

“I would like to know as well.”

Eloise and Penelope both spun their heads so fast their hair nearly flew out of their bows.

“I told you, Miss Featherington,” Benedict said, pointing meaningfully at her. “In order to continue your business, I will be escorting you when you make deliveries in Bloomsbury. We will have to come up with some sort of system. Either way, it would be nice to know why I am assisting.”

“Besides your inherent stubbornness and your desire to watch society burn around you?” Penelope snapped and she would have slapped herself. By God, she was becoming way too brash around the man. He was just so– so–

Oh, what was the word?

Eloise flared up, cheeks flushed angrily.

“How dare you say that Penelope cannot make deliveries alone just because she is a woman? Why do men get to go wherever they want unchaperoned, but we cannot?”

“Eloise, I’m not saying it is fair.” Benedict sat up, palms up placatingly. Penelope noticed he had stained the sleeves of his shirt and jacket with charcoal, along with the flesh of his hands and chin. “But if I could find out Miss Featherington, someone who does not care for her could as well. Because she is a woman, her reputation is at much greater risk than mine. Plus, she is unprotected. I would never forgive myself if something were to happen to her.”

Penelope’s stomach did a little flip. Small, but secretly delighted that in some small way, the man cared for her.

Then Benedict’s grin became coy, shifting on his face so he resembled something more lupine than human.

“Besides, whatever is the point of blackmail if I cannot gain some enjoyment out of it?”

Insufferable. That was the word she had been looking for. Insufferable.

“Oh, you complete rake!” Penelope spat, and Eloise giggled.

“Oh, Pen. I should have warned you that Benedict can be so incredibly incorrigible in his natural state, he practically evokes one’s ire by walking!”

Penelope rubbed her temples forlornly, before taking another steadying breath. She had been doing that quite a lot recently.

“I do owe you both an explanation, I suppose.” Penelope admitted. Settling further into the sofa, she began to pick at her cuticles. Penelope had developed anxious habits at an early age; picking her nails, biting her lip, chewing her cheek. She never knew what else to do with the nerves that would beset her, especially in times of uncertainty.

“I have always been a wallflower, you know this El. Someone derided, unnoticed. To be honest I’m used to it. Papa ignores me, Mama thinks I do not try as hard as Philippa or Prudence. My sisters… you have heard them. If it is not my figure they tease, then they will always pick apart at something. When Mama decided to introduce all of us to society at once, my Papa displayed more emotion on his face than I think I have witnessed in my entire lifetime. Well, except when he is betting on horses. He asked, ‘Even Penelope?’ And my Mama sighed – you should have seen her. She admitted I was hopeless, but it was better I learned that early on before I was relegated to being a spinster forever. That hurt, but again, I was used to it.”

Penelope shrugged, daring to glance up. Benedict’s eyes widened in horror, while Eloise’s mouth was set in a grim, white line.

“But if I’m honest… And you have asked for honesty, so I am trying to be honest. I think it was about a month ago, I came to visit you, Eloise. And remember, Gregory and Hyacinth invited us to play hoops in the garden? You started saying we were too old for such childish games, and Gregory started to argue. That you were his sister, not a woman. I told Gregory that I was a woman, about to debut in society. And he just said–” Penelope hesitated, resisting the urge to bite her thumbnail. She crossed and uncrossed her ankles, fidgeting. “He said, ‘But Penelope, you do not count.’”

Penelope closed her eyes, fighting back the biting, salty sting of tears. She felt Eloise wince beside her before putting an arm around her shoulders. Benedict hissed through his teeth.

“Miss Featherington–”

“I know Gregory did not mean it like it sounded to me,” Penelope rushed to add, tearing one of the ridiculous floral appliques on her tangerine dress. “But it made me realize how I have just accepted what my family have said, what people like Cressida Cowper have said about me as fact. All of my life. And I knew this season would be a disaster for me, that I will have no prospects, no suitors. So I just… wanted something that was mine. Something I could be proud of. That people would read and, even if it was inadvertently, they would respect me, revere me, maybe even fear me. Just a little. And that would be enough victory for me.”

Eloise laid her cheek on Penelope’s shoulder, and Penelope laid her own on Eloise’s head. Benedict crossed his legs, sitting back as he ruminated on her words. Penelope didn’t know if she had just lost him, if he believed this was all the venture of a silly little girl who wanted attention. But it was Benedict who leaned on his knuckles, offering her that kind smile again. Soft, warm, and comforting.

“Well, I cannot fault you for wanting something that is yours. Something that is, for you, positive. But I wonder, is that enough? Will it be enough in the end?”

Penelope sniffed, burrowing further into Eloise’s side.

“I cannot lie, with how well the last issue performed, a seed of ambition has been planted.”

“Oh?” Benedict wiggled his eyebrows. “And how lucrative has the venture been so far?”

When Penelope recited the sum of her earnings, Benedict’s face paled and his jaw dropped. Eloise sat up, knocking Penelope straight in the chin, and whooped.

“You certainly must continue, then!” Eloise was practically vibrating, squealing in delight. “Oh, come now! The three of us must plan how you deliver your columns safely, how you gather your news. If you were to build a big enough pile of money, Pen, you could use it to retire comfortably as a spinster. Oh! We could be spinsters together!”

Penelope’s heart warmed at Eloise’s words, even though she knew deep within her heart that being a spinster, even with Eloise, was not her dream. She still cherished the golden image of a marriage with Colin. A life where he finally saw her worth and swept her off her feet into a lifetime of wedded bliss. But she would hold onto the little dream for now, keep it close to her breast.

One look at Benedict also told her that he doubted, very much like Penelope, that Violet Bridgerton would let Eloise get away with being a spinster. But neither said anything. Why burst Eloise’s bubble now?

“Yes,” Penelope said instead, giving a small, but happy, smile. “That would be lovely.”

The unlikely trio began to plot. There was much to work out. And although a part of Penelope’s mind thought this was much more work with three people involved, she could not help the tiny bloom of joy blossoming in her chest.

They had agreed on a simple signal. Since Penelope’s bedroom faced Bridgerton House across the street, whenever she would need an article published within the next forty-eight hours, she would put up a bouquet of flowers in her window on the right side of the windowsill. If Penelope needed to see Benedict immediately, she would place the bouquet on the left side, and the two would meet in the Bridgerton’s back garden. Penelope had snuck in often enough to see Eloise. Every time she placed a bouquet out would be at eight o’clock in the morning, so any emergency rendezvous would occur by nine o’clock in the morning. The cluster of flowers themselves would be made of aster, azalea, and heather. Benedict had raised a curious eyebrow at the specificity.

“I’m afraid I’m not much attuned with the language of flowers like many young misses and many courting gentlemen. Does it have a meaning?”

Penelope blushed a little, running tiny fingers from the tight curls her mother made her wear.

“On their own, aster means daintiness, azalea signifies fragility, while heather relates to luck or protection. Together, it means being taken care of in a time of need.”

Penelope had refused to meet his eyes, but she could feel the strange tenderness in his voice when he had said, “I see.”

Though he promptly ruined the moment by throwing a piece of charcoal at her and Eloise, prompting mighty yelps of outrage.

It was an simple enough signal, one Benedict could keep an easy lookout for. He had bachelor’s lodgings in Piccadilly, but was rarely there as Violet Bridgerton had wanted her brood under her roof for Daphne’s first season. If, by some chance, Benedict did not see the bouquet she would wear a small part of the bouquet somewhere on her person for the next social event, one he could spot.

Eloise, at first, had wanted so badly to help with spying and snooping, but Penelope rightly pointed out how, since Eloise was not out in society, she could not come to nearly as many social events. Eloise pouted at first, but Penelope promised to run her columns by her to help edit for grammar, tone, and seek her opinion. Eloise was more than appeased by this, even a little smug as she stuck up her chin at her brother, as if to say, “Aha! I have a more important job than you!”

And so it began, a whirlwind of snooping, writing, flowers, and daring escapes. The next two weeks they put the system into practice, and it appeared to work fairly well. Benedict saw the flowers the day she placed them on her windowsill and was prepared to help her sneak away at whatever social event they had to attend the next evening. Benedict wasn’t sure about the family coach driver, Harold Evans, but Penelope assured him the elder man could be trusted. To be on the safe side, Benedict tossed a few coins the driver’s way. It couldn’t hurt.

Benedict was scanning Penelope’s final draft after they had snuck out the side door of the Drury Lane Theatre, the coach rattling as it pulled them over the uneven streets. Penelope had donned her disguise again, watching him a little apprehensively as he read.

‘And an even rarer jewel -- of only the most remarkable brilliance, fire and luster -has been unearthed. Her name, unknown to most, yet soon known to all, is Miss Marina Thompson .’” Benedict’s eyebrows furrowed as he read the last few lines aloud. “‘ This author is left to wonder whether Her Majesty might reconsider the high praise she once afforded Miss Bridgerton .’”

Benedict frowned, handing the parchment back to Penelope as he thought over the words.

“Are you not being just a little harsh on my sister? You seem to be inviting pushback from the Queen as well. The bit about the Queen possibly being wrong at the end? A dangerous game! Maybe you should leave the part about His Majesty out, though?”

Penelope fanned herself with the paper, suddenly hot. It had been one thing to write it, and when she had shown it to Eloise her friend had seemed rather pleased with it. Now that Penelope thought about it, Eloise seemed to wish– not that Daphne would fail, but that her older sister merely wouldn’t be so perfect. Penelope suspected that Eloise thought if Daphne could fail, just once, then it would not be so awful when Eloise was not up to par when she debuted. Not that Eloise could be anything less than wonderful. She was a Bridgerton. Pretty Bridgertons would always do well.

And as much as she loved them, there was a dark part of Penelope’s heart that held resentment for that.

“It is not so much you sister I’m trying to ridicule,” Penelope hedged, analyzing Benedict’s movements carefully. “Merely that the Queen acted swiftly, unable to account for the thorn in Daphne’s side that is Anthony. Also, Miss Marina really did surprise us all.”

Benedict steepled his fingers together, assessing.

“Yes, Colin has told me how full the calling hour is at Featherington House for Miss Thompson.”

Penelope stiffened, thinking to only just two days ago when Penelope had watched, unable to tear her eyes away, as Colin conversed with Marina warmly while Penelope played with the toy dog gifted by another suitor. It had been painful, disconcerting even. But Penelope shook it off. Colin was a charmer, everyone knew that. He would talk and dance with every pretty woman in the ton each season before moving on. It was just his way. But he wasn’t serious about her.

Was he?

Penelope pushed the thought away viciously.

“Do you wish me to amend the line about Daphne? Maybe be more explicit about it being the Viscount’s behavior that is deterring suitors, not Daphne herself?”

Benedict grinned, crossing his arms behind his head to lean against the back of the coach.

“Now, Miss Featherington, I would owe you a great favor if you did. I would owe you TWO favors, if it made Anthony’s face turn more than two shades of red in fury. Oh! And cut out the bit about His Majesty, I mean it. That’s just playing with fire.”

Penelope rolled her eyes heavenward but giggled before pulling out the carriage writing desk, whipping out a quill and small travel bottle of ink to make her amendment.


This author is left to wonder whether Her Majesty might reconsider the high praise she once afforded Miss Bridgerton, not because Miss Bridgerton is unworthy. Merely for the fact that no one took into account the dark, brooding lump of coal that is the Viscount Bridgerton – hurling himself into the path of any incoming suitor seeking treasure in the Bridgerton mines.

Benedict smirked as his brother’s face turned pink, cherry red, then, of all colors, a horrendous puce at the dining table as they broke fast, reading Lady Whistledown. The man hadn’t even noticed he’d sat his elbow in the butter dish in his outrage.

Oh, he would owe Penelope three favors for this.

All the while Eloise cackled madly by his side, and Benedict had to obey his mother’s glare to get Eloise to calm down before Anthony decided to unleash his wrath on the whole table.

“Hush, you!” Benedict whispered, pinching Eloise’s thigh.

Benedict reached for the platter of fruit and caught Daphne’s eye across from him. She too had a copy of Whistledown in front of her, and she looked torn between resignation and amusem*nt.

Maybe, just maybe, this would make Anthony ease up his apelike behavior. Daphne really did deserve the best chance at finding happiness.

Unfortunately, according to Eloise, it did not solve Viscount Bridgerton’s idiotic behavior. In fact, after the column, the only person willing to dare enter the Bridgerton drawing room was the odious Lord Nigel Berbrooke. Eloise related all of this to Penelope in whispers as they watched the spectacle of the many suitors attempting to dazzle Marina. At this moment, it was an increasingly painful poetry recitation from a Mister Harper.

“Although Daph and I do not often get along, I believe being merely in Lord Berbrooke’s presence is a fate worse than death. Anthony still has not changed his strategy, much to Daph’s dismay.”

Penelope sighed, wincing again at a particularly horrible line of poetry.

“I am sorry, El. I do not mean to make things harder for your sister.”

Eloise snorted.

“Daphne will persevere. She is perfect.” A moment of silence as Eloise shifted, and Penelope felt it wise to let her stew and think. That was the way with Eloise, often. One had to give her the space to think and digest, or else she’d panic like a fawn approached too quickly. “I do think my sister will find a way out of this mess. As much as I hate to admit it, she is rather clever.”

Penelope nodded, petting the little toy dog in her lap. She dared to glance over at Colin, mingling with the other suitors. His stare never left Marina, and although Penelope did not know what lust or love looked like (her parents were not exactly a good example), she did not think either of those emotions crossed his face. He was intrigued, yes, that was it. Surely. It gave her a modicum of comfort.

Besides, Penelope had to admit, Marina was beautiful, graceful and yet she had an inner fire that Penelope was beginning to admire. So far, Marina had never joined Penelope’s sisters in taunting her. Instead, Marina had actually spoken to her, asking about her likes and dislikes and had listened in interest. Penelope liked her.

Besides, Marina had a plethora of suitors to choose from. Surely she would not choose Colin, a third son, when she had lords vying for her attention. Colin was a flirt, it was natural.

It was fine.

“I will try to help in my next column. Hopefully the next ball will allow for some scandal or morsel of gossip to overshadow what is happening.” Penelope clapped weakly along with the rest of the room as Mister Harper finished with a flourish.

“Wonderful, wonderful. Gentlemen, thank you for your calls. Do not forget to bid Prudence, Philippa, or even Penelope farewell as you go…” Lady Featherington said faintly, and Penelope felt Eloise stiffen by her side. No matter how many times Eloise heard Penelope’s mother disparage her, she never got used to it. Penelope was unphased because a dark part of her heart agreed with her mama. Her mama had raised her, after all. That treatment, those words, were all she ever heard.

She was thrust from her thoughts when Colin walked by to greet them farewell. His bright eyes twinkled and his chestnut hair was perfectly styled. To Penelope, everything about him exuded sunshine, a perfect summer afternoon embodied in a person.

“A most wretched sonnet indeed,” he confided, leaning close to share, a smile playing upon his face.

“Lord Byron he is not,” Penelope quipped and she couldn’t help but be proud of herself. Often, she could not always find the words around Colin. He had a habit of taking all breath and coherent thought away from her. But there were times like this where she could play off him, however small, and it gladdened her heart for days afterwards.

“I do not believe so. Good day, Pen.”

Colin departed, leaving behind a jittering, excited sort of energy buzzing across Penelope’s skin.

“Now that all of the lackwits have departed,” Eloise drawled, eagerly leaning in towards Penelope’s still grinning face. “What shall Lady Whistledown do?”

“I was thinking of turning an eye on the Duke of Hastings. He has stayed longer than anyone expected.”

Eloise opened her mouth to reply before Marina unexpectedly joined them. She collapsed onto the sofa, sighing, slumping in her seat. Her dress rode up indecorously, but she didn’t seem to care, and Penelope couldn’t help but admire her for that.

“I’m so glad that is over,” Marina said, closing her eyes briefly. “How tedious.”

“But surely you have noticed a suitor to catch your eye,” Penelope ventured, petting the little dog a tad vigorously. “Someone like Colin?”

Eloise eyed Penelope as if she had suggested Marina liking a cow, but Marina simply raised an eyebrow.

“Which one was he? I honestly cannot keep any of the men straight, they all appear the same.”

Penelope’s shoulders sagged in relief while Eloise snorted.

“I may not be out, but that certainly seems to be the case. You do not want to entangle yourself with my brother anyway. Every single one of them are fools.”

Marina actually laughed boisterously, and both Penelope and Eloise shared a knowing smile.

“Noted, Miss Bridgerton. May I call you Eloise?” Marina asked, sitting up a little straighter to better look at the pair.

“Certainly!” Eloise beamed. “What do you think of all of this, Marina?”

“Quite honestly, it is silly. I did not want to leave home, but my father says the farm is in dire straits and an advantageous match would help. But it bewilders me. We are literally at war, and all any member of fine society in London can talk about is the marriage mart, the latest in fashion, or the next horse race.”

Penelope could see Eloise light up considerably and even Penelope was intrigued. She read about the war when she could sneak one of her father’s broadsheets when he left them around the house. The war with Napoleon was still raging on the continent, and there appeared no sign of the stubborn Frenchman giving up.

“If we were men we could go to sea, explore.” Penelope sighed at the thought. There were times like this, where she did envy the prospects a man had. To explore without restrictions. Hell, if she were a man she could write more freely, without a pseudonym or fear of a tarnished reputation ruining her whole life.

“With nothing but King and Country to worry about!” Eloise exclaimed, clasping her hands under her chin as she imagined it, letting the fantasy play in front of her eyes.

Marina leaned closer, her tight curls piled atop of her head swaying, the perfect image of friendly mischief.

“And men, especially soldiers, can do things that are much more fun.”

“Like what?” Eloise asked, tilting her head. Penelope also peered at Marina, the little dog shuffling in her lap. She felt as if something, a secret, a truth she was supposed to know, hung in the air. Marina was implying something, but for some reason it was completely lost to her.

Marina clasped the edge of the sofa and leaned back, the light through the windows brightening her whole countenance.

“Maybe I will tell you one day,” Marina said, before hopping up and suggesting a walk in the garden.

But Colin kept coming. Kept visiting Marina. And Marina would giggle in all of the right places as Colin told his jokes and his many stories about his siblings. Penelope watched from the floor, playing with the puppy, as she tried to fight the rising jealousy within her.

Penelope knew, deep inside, that Marina was doing what she was expected to do: A performance. No matter the suitor, one was expected to laugh in all of the proper pauses, fan one’s bosom at the right time, nod and say “Of course,” in all the right places. Penelope’s mama had reiterated this many times to her own daughters.

But it was Colin’s attention that stirred her, poked at her, needled her for hours. Colin was a flirt, charming beyond all belief. She knew this. He was supposed to embark on his Grand Tour at the end of the season. Surely he wouldn’t abandon it?

She couldn’t deny the bitterness and resentment that flowed through her like tainted blood when she wrote her next column. It was foul tasting, even to her, and she tried to swallow it back, bite her metaphorical tongue. But as she looked at what she wrote, a thousand times over, she could not discern what was valid and what was foul.

She needed another set of eyes.

That evening she set about putting together a fresh bouquet, ignoring her sisters’ remarks about buying herself her own flowers because no man would ever bring her any. Penelope felt a pang of guilt when Marina quickly, vehemently, came to her defense, shutting up Prudence and Philippa quite effectively. Dutifully she put it out at eight o’clock in the morning on her windowsill the next day… on the left side.

Penelope had no cause to use the left side signal before, so when she snuck away fairly easily into the Bridgerton back garden at nine o’clock, she half-expected no one to be there.

But there, standing before her dutifully, beautifully, were Benedict and Eloise.

A flood of warmth, slow but sweet, like honey languidly spreading across hot bread, flowed through her veins. Penelope never knew such a feeling could, honestly, exist. At least, for her. She so rarely felt… whatever this was, in her own home.

She explained her predicament, showing them the original draft of her column. She left out her jealousy of Marina, how she fervently wished for Colin to not take interest in her gorgeous cousin. Instead, she framed it as if it was the only gossip she’d seen of late that was of any notice.

“I think I may be… too harsh? And I have no idea whether mentioning Daphne will help or hinder her more,” Penelope babbled as the Bridgerton siblings bent their heads together to read. Benedict and Eloise were settled on the swings, as Penelope nestled herself in the soft grass in front of them. The smell of the damp grass, the hyacinths planted across the garden, calmed her rapid pulse.

Ambitious mamas, rejoice! For the new Duke of Hastings continues to grace our fair city with his presence. And oh, what an impressive presence it is. It should be noted that the Duke has been overheard announcing to mamas everywhere that he has no plans of EVER marrying. This Author wonders which brazen matchmaker shall rise to such a challenge? For this competition is certainly well underway.

It has reached my ears that the betting books at White's propose the most fascinating of pairings this season. If one is to trust these accounts, despite the fact they are all written by men, then Mister Colin Bridgerton shall be awarded the year's grand prize when he sweeps Miss Thompson from her pretty, little slippered feet.

In other news, a most peculiar suitor for Miss Daphne Bridgerton has emerged. Though this miss cannot possibly believe that the town idiot will be able to reverse her rather dire circ*mstances, can she?

“I don’t think the bit about the Duke is too much,” Benedict said slowly, brows furrowed, the lines on his forehead creased. Eloise swung slowly beside him, digging under a rock to secure a hidden stash of tobacco. Both Penelope and Benedict chided her, though Benedict was very half-hearted, taking some from her with a grin. “It is entertaining, no real harm. Oh, he will be quite annoyed, but nothing he does not deserve.”

“And the part about Marina and Colin is not untrue,” Eloise added, the smell of tobacco mixing with the grass. “If you are really lacking this week, I do not see how that will do much harm.”

Benedict looked at the parchment oddly, glancing up at Penelope every once in a while, pursing his lips. But he said nothing.

“The bit about Daph is not untrue either,” Eloise said, shrugging. Benedict, however, interceded,

“It will depress our sister, though. She is feeling rather hopeless. It is quite irritating that Anthony is not interceding when it comes to Berbrooke, and the man is rather... Frog like. I did not realize her suitors had dwindled to this extreme.”

“I thought you lived here for the season?” Penelope asked.

Benedict shifted uncomfortably.

“Most of the time, but I am often occupied.”

“Men,” Eloise scowled, crossing her arms. “They can go to clubs we cannot. Can go to galleries we cannot. Go to schools we cannot. Countries we cannot. How is this fair?”

“I never said it was fair,” Benedict insisted, pushing Eloise’s swing with his own, the two now swaying side to side like a pendulum. “Listen, I think you need to make it more clear that Berbrooke is the insipid one here, and it is not because of Daphne that he is suddenly her only suitor.”

“He did rather swoop in once all of the other suitors had vanished,” Eloise commented, gently tapping Penelope’s skirt-covered knee with her slippered foot. “Like he was lying in wait. Like a snake in the grass, waiting to strike!”

Benedict grimaced.

“I do not like that image in relation to our dear sister.”

“Most men are snakes, Brother. Surely you know that.”

Benedict shifted on the swing, looking decidedly uncomfortable.

“Do either of you have a quill and ink handy?” Penelope queried, snatching the parchment back, scanning the paragraph she planned to edit.

“I have graphite,” Benedict said, digging in his coat pocket to pull out twine wrapped graphite, sharpened to a point. He handed it to her, and she swiftly began crossing out lines and scribbling new ones. She stuck her tongue out in concentration, a light breeze ruffling the tight curls atop her head. The graphite point punctured the parchment a few times across her lap, but she continued. She could and would target Berbrooke more pointedly. Yes, that is what she had been missing. No one liked Berbrooke, although no scandal she knew of existed concerning him– well, except for his mere person. His grating personality rubbed everyone the wrong way, except for his mother. Surely there was something more to that…

After a few moments she held the new column out in triumph, handing it back to the siblings.

“There! How about this?”

In other news, a most peculiar suitor for Miss Daphne Bridgerton has emerged. Though this miss cannot possibly believe that the town idiot will be able to reverse her rather dire circ*mstances, can she?

No, Dear Reader. For Bridgertons not only have looks, they do have brains. And their clever, loving and ambitious Mama would never teach her daughters wrong when it comes to who a proper suitor could be. So, how could this come to pass?

It is quite clear that the fault, as usual, lies with the men. This comes in the forms of Lord Nigel Berbrooke and Viscount Bridgerton.

First, one must notice how Lord Berbrooke only swooped in like a cuckoo bird to claim a nest as his own. In this case, the Viscount Bridgerton had already pushed the other viable eggs out of the nest, leaving Lord Berbrook to put in his own and take his place. What could have prompted him to wait until all other competition was gone? He seems to consider himself ineligible, and only worthy of Miss Daphne Bridgerton’s attention when there is no one else in sight.

The second, is that even Viscount Bridgerton must admit he has scared every other potential match for his sister off like a wolf amongst sheep. Yet, he does not seem concerned with Lord Berbrooke, though I daresay it is more of an insult than a compliment. Might not the Viscount consider that he’s let the wrong sheep in the pen with his lambs? That the sheep may in fact be a fellow wolf in disguise?

I promise, Dear Reader, I intend to find out!

“Now that is brilliant.” Benedict’s eyes crinkled at the corners, one line going all the way back to his hairline, and something about it made Penelope trust his words. She preened. “That casts much more suspicion on Lord Berbrooke, and I do not mind criticizing Anthony. He is being a bloody prick.”

Benedict clamped his mouth shut, eyes widening a fraction as both Eloise and Penelope burst into unrestrained giggles.

“Oh, Mother will kill me. I should not have said that in front of young ladies.”

“But I am your sister!” Eloise reminded him, pushing his shoulder playfully.

“I am most certainly not his sister,” Penelope pointed out to Eloise, pointing at her very ginger hair, blazing in the sun. “No one could mistake me for one!”

“But you are his friend! You are our friend, so it is surely fine.”

Penelope blushed, though she had no idea why a sudden shyness overcame her. She swiveled her head towards Benedict, who appeared to be studying the new addition again, swinging gently from side to side.

“Are we friends, Mister Bridgerton?”

Benedict’s ocean blue-green irises met her sky blue ones, and there it was again – that crinkle. The crow’s feet were prominent, pleasant, taking over his face until it was all she could see.

“Miss Featherington, I would not do this for someone who was not my friend.”

Benedict resolved after the publication of the column to keep an ear closer to the ground about Lord Berbrooke. He had, quite possibly, not been as involved in Daphne’s debut as he should have been. To be honest, he had been desperately hoping that Daphne’s debut could symbol a sort of break for him – one where he could finally focus on himself. Gregory and Hyacinth were no longer in leading strings, and while his mother did often ask him to keep an eye on them or settle disputes, it was not nearly as often as it once had been. Francesca was soon going to Bath to practice pianoforte with Aunt Winnie, Eloise was often reading or visiting with Penelope, and Colin was old enough to begin his own pursuits.

In short, Benedict had been able to finally shed a sort of surrogate motherhood he had adopted when his father had died. Oh, Anthony was certainly the father figure, the lord in charge. But Benedict had carried a sort of emotional weight that many men, including his peers at Cambridge, would call womanly. So with Daphne’s debut, though he loved his sister dearly, he had desired a separation of sorts. Anthony was in charge of their siblings as adults, securing their futures and settling them financially. Benedict, happily, had no part in that.

But he would do his sister this kindness. He would keep his eyes and ears open in the club and elsewhere about Lord Berbrooke and report back to Anthony. Eloise had made a very good point; it was incredibly peculiar how the toad of a man appeared just as all of the other suitors had slunk away.

Benedict witnessed a sort of melancholy fire light within Daphne after the article was published. She was not hopeless, but she was angry. And maybe, just maybe, it would prove to be useful. Daphne had always been, since their father’s death, the perfect child, who did things perfectly. It was devastating, actually, the more Benedict thought on it. She had trained her whole life for this moment, and right now everything was cracking, but not because of her.

He saw Daphne go riding with Anthony one day only for Daphne to come back perfectly poised, ready to play pianoforte until supper while Anthony looked… shaken. Contemplative. Maybe Daphne had finally allowed herself to use that imperfect emotion – upset, disappointment – to fuel some carefully placed words against their eldest brother. It was similar after a trip to the opera house, although he glimpsed a similar determination in his own mother’s gaze.

And oh, Benedict had thought, taking a rather large gulp of brandy. That was absolutely terrifying.

He was proven right, of course. Because the next thing he knew, Simon Basset, the Duke of Hastings, had been invited over to dinner.

And had been sat right next to Daphne.

Benedict may have looked after the children growing up, but that had never diminished his respect and fear for his mother. Whatever she lacked, she made up for in ambition and cunning. The strange thing was, she did not desire for her children to conquer kingdoms, marry princes or princesses, or acquire riches. No, they were quite secure, at least financially. Violet Bridgerton sought a more fantastical prize; for all of her children to find true love, get married, and give her an army of grandchildren.

One would think that all mothers were the same, but many could not afford to be so. Some mothers would lie, cheat and steal for their daughters to marry into a better title or more wealth. Many would murder for their sons to climb the ranks of the army, become Archbishop, or have just an heir and a spare to secure a family line.

But Violet broke the mold. And she would pull every trick in the book to achieve her aim.

Benedict stuffed another bread roll into his mouth as he laughed at a joke Colin had said, one eye darting towards his mother as she chatted with the Duke. It was not hard to see what his mother was doing, but Benedict knew that Simon Basset was the absolute last person Anthony would see with his sister. Mostly because, everyone knew that Simon was a rake that rivaled Anthony in every way. Benedict tried to think about Simon courting Daphne and he felt his stomach turn, because all he could imagine was Simon in a dark corner, leaning towards his sister’s mouth and he shuddered. Nope. Nope. Not happening.

Besides, he thought, as a conversation on Lady Whistledown pricked his ears, the Duke may be a rake but he was honorable. He would never try and seduce or disgrace a lady of the ton. It was too dangerous a game to play.

“For all we know, Whistledown may be some interloper living in Bloomsbury of all places.”

Benedict couldn’t help but grin to himself. Penelope was certainly not living in Bloomsbury, but she frequented it often enough, with him in fact. Penelope was good at blending in though, talking to the delivery boys amicably, checking in on their pay and welfare. He had no doubt that if Penelope suddenly had to live in Bloomsbury, she’d acclimate to the people quite easily.

“What should be so terrible about Bloomsbury? Is it because people there actually work for a living?” Benedict took a sip of wine, daring his brother to disagree. He loved Anthony dearly, but the man was a superior arse of a man at times.

“She does seem to be someone with access,” Daphne observed, cutting her piece of beef with all of the refinement of a princess.

“Who knows if Whistledown is even a she?” Colin queried, and Benedict raised his eyebrows. It was a line of thinking Benedict should encourage. He hadn’t thought much before, how he and Eloise should maybe work to divert all possible suspicion away from Penelope when they talked of Whistledown to others.

“Fair point,” Anthony admitted.

“Oh, because she is simply too good to be anyone but a man?” Eloise said, furiously stabbing a piece of boiled potato. Benedict could have kicked her if she was close enough, but he settled for a glare, moving his head like a cobra readying to strike to get her to notice him. Let people believe such lies!

He sighed, sitting back. Eloise was only, in her own way, trying to protect her – their – friend’s dignity. Penelope was incredibly smart, smarter than Benedict had ever given her credit for in the past. He could see how Eloise would always attempt to defend her, even if no one knew it.

“I think it rather obvious that the writer is Lady Danbury,” Francesca added primly, the perfect copy of Eloise in looks, but of Daphne in mannerisms. Benedict had a feeling she would be well sought after when she finally debuted.

“Lady Danbury enjoys sharing her insults with society directly. She would never bother herself writing them all down,” Daphne said, and Benedict saw Simon smile. Benedict had to agree. Lady Danbury, that wonderful dragon of a woman, was far too proud and assured of her observations to keep quiet on them. And, well, she was usually right.

“Could it be Lady Featherington?” Hyacinth asked innocently.

The whole table of siblings burst out with a loud, “No!” The laughter that filled the room was bountiful, and Benedict had to admit he enjoyed nights like this. All of them around the table just being themselves. What was the point in having so many siblings if you couldn’t enjoy them? Laugh with them? Remind yourself why you would gladly sacrifice anything and everything to ensure their safety and happiness?

Benedict became lost in his thoughts for a bit, internally chuckling at Hyacinth's question. To know that it was Lady Featherington’s youngest daughter, alight and vibrant with her altar ego while hiding under the wallflower exterior. Lady Featherington didn’t even know how clever of an enterprising daughter she had, and a part of him wilted at the thought. Since getting to know Penelope, it was clear to him that she was not allowed to flourish or grow within the confines of her own home. He pondered, rather sadly, whether she was eating with her own family now, quiet and alone in a house that didn’t pay her any mind.

Maybe not completely alone. Eloise had said that Marina seemed to have taken a liking to Penelope.

He heard, vaguely, Eloise commenting to Hyacinth how Lady Whistledown writes of the Featheringtons themselves. Benedict gripped his fork a little tightly, his knuckles white, before setting it down and taking another gulp of wine. He hadn’t discouraged Penelope writing so horribly about herself and her family, blindly accepting her reasoning that it cast suspicion off of her. But he had a nagging feeling, wriggling in the back of his mind, that maybe Penelope actually believed the horrid things she wrote of herself.

That was a disturbing idea.

Benedict let himself be engaged in conversation with Colin about a spar with Mister Jackson. Soon Benedict forgot, for a few moments at least, his worries. His siblings had that effect on him, especially Colin. Colin, a man unburdened with responsibility of any kind. It was freeing, in a way, to look through his eyes.

Well, it was. Until Anthony shot the two of them a very pointed look. Benedict and Colin clocked it immediately and when Anhony jerked his head in the direction of the Duke and Daphne, they both swept their gazes over to the pair immediately. Benedict knew his cue, and while he may be attempting to be more hands off then in the past, his sister and her honor mattered to him. He and Colin both noticed the smile, wicked and lazy, form on the Duke’s face as he said something to Daphne. But Benedict also saw how his mother smiled and Anthony looked about ready to burst.

Benedict sat back, popping the last bit of the beef course into his mouth while Gregory surreptitiously tossed another pea onto Hyacinth’s plate.

Benedict knew one thing; he was certainly not getting in the middle of a fight between his mother and Anthony. Oh no.

He already knew who would win, anyway.

Tonight, a privileged selection of only the most fashionable guests will descend upon the most scandal prone grounds in all of London: Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. Its shaded garden walls, such as those of the Dark Walk, have covered for the most notorious of trysts. This Author wonders which persons of quality shall be discovered there tonight.

Or better yet, how many?

Benedict perused the column again in the carriage to Bloomsbury, letting his forefinger trace every word of the paragraph he perused. They were delivering it to the printer to be distributed by noon tomorrow, timely for the ball being held at the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens that night. There was a question percolating in the recesses of his brain, he knew there was. But for some reason he was unable to pinpoint it. Something about this paragraph, an implication. Did Penelope–

“Mister Bridegerton.”

Benedict turned his attention to the young girl in front of him. She had already donned her lady’s maid cloak, the hood covering the tight, blaze of curls on top of her head. He could see one of her cheeks hollowing, and he suspected she was chewing it with nerves. Her tiny fingers were interwoven in her lap, twisting and fidgeting.

“Miss Featherington?”

Penelope inhaled deeply, appearing determined to get the words out before she could bite her tongue.

“What, exactly, happens during a tryst?”

Oh f*ck.

That had been the question, he realized with a jolt. She had written of the Dark Walk, a path that Benedict himself had utilized a couple of times to enjoy certain… pleasures in the shadows. He had wondered whether she knew what was truly going on.

She had written as if she knew.

But her innocence, her naiveté, was on full display. Benedict could not help but squirm under her questioning stare, light blue eyes quizzical. This was not his domain. In fact, he was very well aware that answering this sort of question, defiling the purity of a young debutante’s mind, could land him a one way ticket down the aisle with Penelope. And, as much as he admired her, considered her a friend, neither of them wanted that.

Benedict did not want to marry.

And Penelope was in love with Colin.

He couldn’t do that to either of them.

“I cannot reveal that information,” Benedict said, awkwardly looking out the carriage window, as if someone could have their ear pressed against the glass of the moving vehicle. “It is not an appropriate topic for a lady.”

Penelope’s expression changed. All at once she shifted from wide-eyed girl to, dare he say, a woman scorned. She crossed her arms, huffed, her cheeks growing ruddy with frustration.

“Oh, it is not an appropriate topic to discuss with young ladies, but it is perfectly acceptable to drag any young lady a man may please onto the Dark Walk for whatever–” Penelope waved her hand in the air, searching for the right words. “Sordid deeds they desire? What right do you have, Mister Bridgerton, to tell me what I can and cannot know? Especially when it could affect me, or your sisters! How am I supposed to know what to do, if something were to happen? Not that any man would deign to drag me down the Dark Walk.”

Penelope scoffed and something strange happened then. A simmering, slow boil bubbled in his veins. It took him a minute to realize it was anger. He so rarely felt it, he hadn’t recognized it at first. It took him another minute to discover it was not Penelope the emotion was aimed at, but her idea of self-worth, and the thought of any man trying to take Penelope down the Dark Walk, or his sisters for that matter.

She was his friend, and he realized it would gut him for any man to use her so basely. Just like it would break him if that were to befall any of his sisters. Shame filled him, too. How his sisters, how Penelope, knew so little. How society was designed to keep them blind, deaf, and mute.

What was he to do?

“First, I would never desire for you or my sisters to be dragged down the Dark Walk,” Benedict grunted, looking back at her, not cowing to her indignation. “Secondly… I see your point.”

Penelope looked nothing short of astounded at his admission, and he chuckled.

“If I am to tell you… some of what happens, and not explicitly mind you, you must tell no one,” Benedict hurried, leaning forward, realizing that he still clutched her article in his hands. The carriage ran over an uneven patch of street and they both rocked in their seats. “It will also be considered one of the three favors I owe you.”

Penelope grinned, slow and sly. Benedict had to admit, she looked much more of a woman when she smiled like that.

“I thought I only had two?”

“You are lucky. Anthony put his elbow in a butter dish reading your article. I figured I owed you an extra boon.”

Penelope’s smile grew wide, her teeth finally showing, and it was something he had so rarely seen. Oh, in Eloise’s presence she was all giddiness. But Benedict realized it was a rarer occurrence than he first thought.

“Carry on, then. What happens during a tryst? I am sure you know. You and your brother are considered rakes, after all.”

Benedict actually blushed, running his long fingers through his dark, thick hair. He would have to edit his answer. Thoroughly.

“When… a man and a woman sneak off for a tryst,” he started, his throat growing tight, tongue suddenly dry. “And – well – they may start k-kissing.”

Oh lawks, had he just stuttered?

Benedict tried to center himself. Penelope was his friend, she was Eloise’s best friend. He could tell her the truth while… editing, a tad.

“There’s a lot of touching and kissing involved. You must understand, Miss Featherington, the amount of… touching, where it happens is greatly improper. Places one does not normally… display to the public.”

Penelope tilted her head, her cloak following her movements. The light blue of the cloak matched her eyes, the gray light filtered through the coach window somehow emphasizing her, and he was all too aware that it was taking her a moment to process his words.

“Not normally displayed? We all wear clothes, though. What–”

Benedict had to resist the physical urge to bury his face in his palms.

“Places that always must remain chaste for young ladies, Miss Featherington. Places we use for what we deem unsavory activities. Lower extremities.”

Penelope frowned, the cogs clearly turning in her head.

“Lower extremities used–”

Penelope’s eyes widened. She blinked once. Twice. Benedict saw the moment it clicked into place.

“Oh!” she gasped, covering her mouth with her delicate hands. He saw her legs cross under the movement of her skirts.

“Miss Featherington, you must never allow a man to take you on this walk, no matter what. Being seen even near the Dark Walk means being ruined. The things that happen there are not the chaste pecks of highly publicized novels, nor the gentle touches and innocent hand holding of great romances. It is the bawdy, lewd references in Shakespeare, the kind of desires that the debauched novel Fanny Hill –”

“Yes, Mama would not let me purchase it.”

Benedict just about choked on his own spit imagining little Penelope reading Fanny Hill .

“The point is, Miss Featherington,” Benedict bent forward and carefully, daringly, took Penelope’s hands in his own. He needed to make this clear, make sure she understood. For if he could keep Penelope safe, maybe she in turn could pass it along to other young ladies. Knowledge really was power. “Do not let any man take advantage of you, try to drag you there. If someone even tries, scream and I will come running. You should never have to do anything you do not want to, and I would not see your reputation besmirched.”

Penelope gifted him with a look of such tender, deprecating forlornness that Benedict felt a piece of him tear at the corner. He knew that look, it came with the blessing and curse that was having four sisters. Sad eyes, downturned face, an indulgent smile, as if the person in front of them was spouting the kind of white lies that were uttered out of kindness but hurt worst of all.

“No one would ever try to drag me down the Dark Walk for any of those sorts of activities,” Penelope said softly, squeezing his hands. “You have no need to worry. I do not possess a figure or beauty to be coveted by men.”

She slowly withdrew her hands from his, picking up the parchment that, at some point, had fluttered to the floor forgotten. It was as they stopped and Benedict escorted her to the print shop’s back doors, her false Irish accent carrying across the room, that he decided he would attend the event at the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens after all.

Penelope stood at the edges of the dance floor, watching the dancers take the floor for a reel with something akin to longing. Penelope had not been asked to dance once this season, and while not unexpected, it still stung. Penelope actually quite excelled at dancing when her parents had hired an instructor. The man had actually complimented her several times on her timing and lightness of feet, and Penelope had been able to ignore Prudence’s venomous remark about nothing Penelope doing being light.

So she watched and attempted to listen for gossip as servants passed with drinks and canapes, and she remained invisible. Ignored.

That was normal.


She startled, turning to see Colin approach her, Benedict staying a couple of strides behind him. Colin, bright and effortless. Colin, forever shining like a beacon, or a young Apollo. It was terrifying, how he was so perfect to her every time she saw him.

Penelope attempted to steady her rapidly beating heart, taking a few quick breaths before she said, voice higher than usual, “Colin. I did not know you would be here!” Benedict from behind Colin raised one eyebrow so high it nearly receded into his hairline. “A-and you, Mister Bridgerton. How delightful you could both make it!”

Benedict nodded while Colin gave her one of his bright, effortless smiles.

“Sorry to disappoint,” Colin said. “Have you seen Miss Thompson?”

Penelope felt her heart sink, dangerously close to the acid in her stomach. It hopped and lurched, and suddenly Penelope didn’t know what to feel. Jealousy, undoubtedly. But she liked Marina and now, knowing Marina’s particular… predicament, she did not think Colin was any real candidate for her hand in marriage any longer. But now this secret knocked away at her brain. Colin was her friend. Benedict and Eloise too, for that matter. Keeping this secret was agonizing.

But it would not do for Marina’s condition to be revealed.

“She is... ill. My mama stayed home with her. Papa had to chaperone.” She indicated her father, standing a few yards away with a group of other older men, chortling about something or other. The brothers looked as well, and while Colin nodded politely, she noticed Benedict’s brow crease. “I am quite enjoying the fact he is here. Mama would never allow me to wear a dress like this. Not yellow enough, I think.”

Colin’s eyes were kind, but it was Benedict who spoke.

“I like your hair as well, Miss Featherington. These looser curls frame your face well. They suit you.”

“I quite agree with my brother,” Colin said jovially. “Truly it suits you.”

Benedict nodded at his brother, as if approving his statement.

“O-oh,” Penelope floundered for an answer. “Thank you. I will be sure to tell my Mama. Maybe she will let me wear it like this mo–”

But Penelope was interrupted by the snide, overly ecstatic voice of Cressida Cowper, followed by her usual cronies.

“Mister Bridgerton, and Mister Bridgerton. How wonderful to see you both,” Cressida said, simpering and fluttering her eyelashes. She carried a glass of punch, held daintily in her hand. “Mister Colin Bridgerton, I believe you owe me a dance this evening. And I have only one more space remaining on my card. At present.”

“How convenient,” Penelope murmured. She couldn’t help it, the sour remark just slipped out. Cressida had a way of getting under her skin like no one else did. The constant thorn in her side that dug deeper and deeper with each encounter. Benedict seemed to be the only one that truly heard her, for he discreetly, carefully, pressed his hand to the small of her back before releasing her.

As Cressida leaned forward to present her dance card she spilled her punch… all over Penelope’s dress. It was utterly ruined, the patterned pink silk quickly absorbing the dark liquid, wet and obvious. Penelope turned away, frustrated near tears. Benedict put his hands out, hovering near her elbows, as if to steady her. Colin gaped at the scene.

“Penelope! I did not see you there!” Cressida exclaimed, her tone so patently false it was a wonder how anyone saw her as anything but the petty bully she was.

Penelope stepped away, turning out of Benedict’s hold, prepared to run away.

“Miss Featherington–” Benedict began, but Colin interrupted him.

“I am afraid I cannot offer you that dance, Miss Cowper. I am to escort Miss Featherington to the floor. At present, I think.”

Penelope’s heart stopped in complete disbelief as Colin gently grabbed her arm and escorted her out to the dance floor. Penelope only had time to see Cressida’s shocked face and Benedict, face unreadable, turned towards Cressida and mouth open as if to say something. But then Penelope was on the dance floor, under the open night sky in the light filled gardens. It was a dream, a fantasy, something that Penelope felt she could have only wished for up until now. They entered a lively jig, and Penelope could not help the smile and laughter that escaped as she finally got to dance. And with the man she was secretly in love with? Oh, she would cherish that forever. Colin was her knight in shining armor. She was sure of it.

Benedict watched Colin escort Penelope to the dance floor, leading them into a jig. A sense of pride briefly filled his chest, along with an odd, bittersweet feeling. His brother did the right thing, snubbing Cressida and taking Penelope out to dance. Penelope could enjoy herself and forget about the absolute – He stopped his train of thought, but the incident made his hair stand on end and his temples ache in frustration.

He turned to Cressida who now seemed to be aware she had come under his attention, and not for good.

“Miss Cowper,” he said coldly, calmly. He decided his best option was to imitate his mother’s icy anger, for that always succeeded in making anyone cower. “Your faux pas was not unnoticed by myself. I daresay it was very much contrived. If you do not leave my sight, and leave Miss Featherington alone, I will ensure your dance card remains completely empty for the rest of the season. Do I make myself clear?”

Incredulous, Cressida bent her head, nodded, before scurrying away with her pack of bitches. Benedict fought the very Anthony urge to snarl. If there was one thing he hated above all else, it was a bully.

He turned back to watch Penelope and Colin dance, comforted that Penelope was now laughing joyously as she spun and leaped. She was certainly a talented dancer, light on her feet across the floor. He could tell that even Colin was surprised and delighted by this fact. But the feeling returned, bittersweet and ominous. For all Colin’s kindness, Benedict did not think his brother carried any sort of romantic affection for Penelope. Not yet. He was too young, his eyes flitting about and wandering from pretty thing to pretty thing. Benedict knew, because he had once been the same.

Colin cared for Penelope. There was genuine friendship and affection there. Penelope could at times act a bit more restrained around Colin, but there was no denying that Colin brought out a sense of elation in her, something jubilant that allowed her to float on air. That was what that first, powerful tendre was, after all. The feeling that the person in front of you was the reason for everything.

But he feared the possibility that, one day, Colin would turn around and break her heart. Now that Benedict considered himself her friend, he did not wish that hurt upon her. For it would be savage, devastating in its wake. The girl had such a low opinion of herself to begin with. Colin’s rejection, should his brother never develop feelings, would surely break her.

When the dance ended and the master of ceremonies announced a spectacle to behold, Benedict sidled up to his brother and little friend. He knocked his elbow into Penelope’s side, offering his arm.

“May I have the honor of escorting you to the event, Miss Feathrington?”

Penelope and Colin both looked at him. Colin a tad confused, but too good-natured to ponder too much on it. Penelope, effervescent with her newfound experience, merrily took his arm.

“The honor is all mine, Mister Bridgerton!”

“Oi! What of my honor?” Colin asked, clasping his chest dramatically.

“You have none, Col,” Benedict grinned and they all laughed as they floated along the walk to whatever fantastic display awaited them.

Penelope stared in awe with everyone else as the fuse was lit and the little glass bulbs above their heads became filled with light. How marvelous! The ways of the future, ever expanding and epic in scope, never ceased to amaze her. It may not be gossip, but she would certainly write about the spectacle in her next column! As she gazed at the lights, sandwiched between Colin and Benedict’s warm sides, Benedict was jostled by a man next to him, pushing Penelope slightly and shifting her focus to–

Was that Daphne Bridgerton, storming away from a troubled Anthony Bridgerton?

And was she headed to the Dark Walk?

Penelope gaped as Daphne’s figure grew smaller the further she walked away from the light, and she bit her lip. She should tell Colin and Benedict beside her. Their sister was headed to a dangerous place.


It couldn’t hurt to follow, to see… If anything untoward were to happen, Penelope would scream. Benedict promised he would come running if she screamed. Yes, that would do. But she was curious, she had to look, had to know–

“I am just going to check on Papa,” she said faintly, slipping away as Benedict and Colin were still mesmerized by the lights. Benedict talked about how the light refractions would be an interesting challenge to paint and she used the opportunity to lift her skirts and scurry after Daphne, into the darkness.

Daphne’s legs were much longer than hers. Every one stride of the willowy woman was about two for Penelope, but she managed to catch up, slowing her pace as she followed Daphne’s figure into the darkness. The rows of hedges were so tall that it blocked all possible light but the moon and stars. Penelope stayed a calculated distance behind, ducking behind bushes and hedges as she went. Her dress snagged once or twice on a twig or a rock, but she ignored it. It was already ruined by Cressida’s punch anyway.

Along the way she heard sounds here and there, strange moans and gasps. She wondered, her face heating up as she did, whether these were due to the acts that Benedict spoke of. No one sounded… in pain. Maybe, hopefully, both parties had chosen to perform the act consensually. Penelope fanned herself, convinced it must be her dashing after Daphne causing this bout of sweat. Yes, that was it.

Penelope watched from behind great towering plant life as Daphne paced back and forth in the small garden space. While no light entered the Dark Walk, the sounds of the ball could still be heard distantly. Music and laughter in abundance drifted over their heads. But it was like all of the sound faded when Lord Berbrooke entered the scene.

Penelope could not hear the full conversation, just snippets and words said in ascending frustration and dismay.

“...as your husband–”

“...never marry you – mistake –”

“... better than me–”

And suddenly Lord Berbrooke had advanced upon Daphne, grabbing her arm. Daphne exclaimed, “Let go of me!” Penelope froze in fear. But she remembered Benedict’s face, pleading and desperate, and she could not let him down. Could not let this happen to an innocent woman, especially not Daphne. So Penelope took a big intake of breath, preparing to scream–

When suddenly two things happened.

The Duke of Hastings, dashing and gallant, rushed onto the scene from the opposite end of the garden, but not before Daphne punched Lord Berbrooke– square in the face.

Penelope gasped and no one looked as surprised as Daphne herself, staring down at Lord Berbrooke and her fist as if it had acted of its own accord. The Duke skidded to a halt by Daphne, looking thoroughly impressed. They began to talk in low voices that Penelope had no chance of hearing. A wave of relief washed over Penelope at that moment. Daphne was alright, she would be safe in the Duke’s hands. There was a palpable feeling, one in which she realized she would not have to disappoint Benedict. In the end, she had not had to scream. And, in the end, she did not feel it right to tell Benedict what she saw. For if she told Benedict, he would tell Anthony, and of course Colin would soon become involved.

And if word got out that Daphne had to punch Lord Berbrooke, it would be asked where and how it took place. Benedict had told her that a woman merely being on the Dark Walk could tear apart their reputation, and no matter how good Viscount Bridgerton’s intentions may be to protect Daphne’s honor, neither option would end well; a duel or marriage to the lout.

Penelope could not doom Daphne to be bound to Lord Berbrooke in any way. Especially after what she had witnessed.

So she snuck away, a mere whisper of wind amongst the foliage as she made her way back to the ball. She heard the sounds again, deep and guttural but she focused on the music ahead as she picked up her pace. She had to re-enter unseen which, luckily, was a talent of hers.

Which was why she didn’t expect Benedict Bridgerton to catch her arm a mere five paces out of the Dark Walk.

“What the hell were you thinking?” he hissed, pulling her along until they were near enough to the edge of the dance floor to be proper, but far enough not to be overheard. “You are lucky it was I that noticed you were gone, and I that saw you come out of the Dark Walk! I told you to stay away from there!”

His eyes were wide and panicked, his tone wavering as his pupils darted about, inspecting her as if she would have somehow gotten hurt. Was he… worried about her?

Something physically rooted itself in her chest, stretching and making itself at home. It was a physical, tangible feeling she could not put a name to.

“I am unharmed,” Penelope tried to sooth, placing a hand on the one that gripped her arm.

“You could have been ruined, could have been r–” Benedict stopped himself, clenching his jaw so tight Penelope swore she could hear his teeth grind.

She put on her best look of contriteness, and it wasn’t entirely false. She did feel awful for making him worry.

“I apologize. I let my curiosity get the best of me. I relied quite heavily on my talent for being invisible, and I was! I wanted to see if I could sniff out a scandal, a bit too ambitious. I am sorry, truly.”

She peered up at him through her lashes, but his tension didn’t ease.

“You – you didn’t – see anything did you?”

“Oh no,” Penelope said quickly, seizing the opportunity. “But I did hear some interesting sounds. They sounded like–”

“No, no. No, no, no, Miss Featherington. You have clearly heard enough! Let us go find you a lemonade. Join Mother, Anthony, and Colin, how about that? Although Anthony and Mother appear to be having quite the conversation… You know, do you want an eclair? Eloise says they are your favorite–”

Benedict continued to babble and Penelope could not help but smirk to herself. Distraction successful.

Fireworks boomed overhead, reflecting in the nearby lake. Spectacular and bright as they lit the night sky. As they joined Lady Bridgerton, the Viscount, and Colin, Benedict hustled Colin to go fetch Penelope an eclair, Penelope pondered a further question. Did she tell Eloise what she just witnessed?

Yes, Penelope decided, Anthony and Lady Bridgerton talking in hushed whispers beside her. She would tell Eloise. Women could understand the need to handle these matters themselves. Eloise would understand the need to keep quiet on the matter. Besides, she did not think it prudent to keep much from Eloise. She could only imagine Eloise’s resentment if she had gone with her original plan and had told no one about Lady Whistledown.

Penelope heard murmurs around them and she glanced up to see Daphne Bridgerton on the arm of the Duke of Hastings as he escorted her to the floor. Penelope cursed not having heard them in the Dark Walk, but she was intrigued all the same. What had happened when Penelope left that the two were now dancing, staring at each other like they were the last two remaining people on earth? Oh, now this was a story.

A column was already writing itself in her head, and although she would not reveal the altercation with Lord Berbrooke, she pledged to investigate. No man of such ill character, who could attack a woman thus, was scandal free. She would ruin him. He deserved it.

Anthony and Lady Bridgerton stared at the Duke and Daphne in each other’s arms, Violet beaming as her eldest son glared in disbelief. Colin appeared behind her, munching on the eclair he’d gone to fetch, watching the scene play out in front of him. Benedict pinched the bridge of his nose before he slapped the back of Colin’s head.

But Penelope watched, entranced as the Duke and Daphne danced. Graceful, enchanting even, as she saw their lips move as they talked. They only had eyes for each other, and she wondered what it was like to live in a moment like that, where it is only you and one other person.

She felt rather than saw Benedict bend down, his breath ghosted across her ear,

“Do you know anything about this development?”

Penelope granted him that smile, sly and slow.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”

For those not in attendance at the Vauxhall celebration, you missed the most remarkable coup of the season. It appears Miss Daphne Bridgerton has captured the interest of the newly returned Duke of Hastings. Perhaps she is the season's most precious gem -- incomparable and unbreakable -- after all. Of course, how Miss Bridgerton secured her newfound suitor is yet to be determined.

Yet if anyone shall reveal the circ*mstances of this match, Dear Reader, it is I.

Yours truly,

Lady Whistledown.

Chapter 2: Bewildered and Intrigued


Penelope uncovers a truth that only brings about more questions. Questions that only a rake can answer.


Thank you so much for the lovely responses I got on the first chapter! It means so very much to me!

Thank you again to itakethewords for being an awesome beta and even better friend and soundboard!

As usual, I try to link words or historical references one might not know in the chapter. There's some flashbacks in here, and a combination of scenes from the show, original scenes, and scenes that have changed. You'll notice the main difference is, of course, more interaction between Benedict and Penelope which changes certain courses of action. It's fascinating, getting to sit down and think how these supposedly small differences really can change the story! It's fanfiction, so I get that special privilege to imagine and write!

Chapter Text

Unspooled Thread - happilyinsane13 - Bridgerton (TV) [Archive of Our Own] (2)

Benedict had been ten and seven when Hyacinth, barely a few months old, wouldn’t stop wailing.

She’d been crying for two hours now, and Benedict had thought she would have at least tired herself out. But no, Hyacinth fussed, screaming and wriggling in his arms as he rocked her in the nursery. He had attempted to hand her off to the wet nurse, surely she’d been hungry. But after twenty minutes of waiting outside, the nurse maid came out, shaking her head apologetically. Hyacinth refused to latch onto her breast, crying until her face was near purple. Benedict checked if she needed changing, but she was completely clean. He checked for a fever, feeling her forehead and cheeks, but besides the irritation she was putting herself in, she wasn’t overly warm.

For all intents and purposes, she was screaming bloody murder for no reason.

But there had to be a reason, there just had to! It made no sense. The entire house could hear her wails, every sibling coming in to check on Benedict’s non-existent progress. Daphne even stayed, the ten year old girl hovering near his side, anxious to help but unsure of what to do.

Violet was nowhere in sight.

Benedict, by the end of hour two, wanted to scream himself. His temples were throbbing, his eardrums aching, and his own mother could not seem to bother to get out of her bed just three doors down the hall. He knew she must hear her daughter’s pitiful cries, but the matriarch of the family did not stir.

It was one of those days. One of those weeks.

There were some days where Violet forced herself out of bed, bathed, dressed in mourning black, and dutifully checked on Hyacinth and the children before retiring to her private quarters to blindly embroider or stare out the window. She never joined them for meals.

Then there were days like this, where nothing, not even God himself, could stir her from bed.

Nothing would, unless his father magically rose from the dead.

So he tried to rock Hyacinth, removing her little bonnet as she thrashed in his embrace. Daphne was tripping over her skirts around him, her arms outstretched helplessly, and it was all too much, he was going to explode–

A tiny whimper from the nursery entrance, and he turned. There was Eloise, covered in dirt and muck, hair tangled in twigs and leaves, sniffling, tiny fists balled up, trying to rub away the tears. Her skirts were torn, her right knee had a vicious looking scrape…

And he could do nothing, because Hyacinth was still crying.

Before he knew it tears were flooding his own eyes, desperate to run freely in rivulets down his face. God, his head was pounding, his breathing labored, why was this all happening at once?

Daphne, good, sweet Daphne who tried so hard to be perfect, tugged his jacket, saw his frustration, and said, “Brother, I will take care of El. I know where Governess keeps the bandages, I shall do it. Do not worry, Ben, please.”

Daphne dashed forward to sweep Eloise in her arms, a child holding a child. Benedict thought on how Daphne sang to Eloise the night of Hyacinth’s tumultuous birth, singing Lavender’s Blue over and over again to block out the sounds of their mother screaming–

Daphne was gone, having ushered Eloise from the room. And Benedict was alone with a weeping, wailing Hyacinth and he couldn’t stop his furious sobs from escaping him.

So he and his baby sister cried together, neither knowing why the other was filled with such sorrow.

“Mister Bridgerton? Mister Bridgerton!”

Benedict was startled out of his memory, and he looked down at the insistent tug on his arm. Penelope Featherington was peering up at him through her blue lady’s maid cloak, eyes wide with concern as they stood, frozen, at the back of the printer’s shop. She moved her tiny, glove-free hand to the arm that held hers, squeezing it. “Mister Bridgerton, are you alright? Are you concerned about the column? It is all in praise of your sister, but I assure you, I can edit it if you so wish–”

“No, Miss Featherington,” Benedict said, trying to give her a comforting smile, though he knew by the way his cheeks ached it was quite strained. “It is not that. I just became…lost in thought.”

Penelope nodded slowly, still not taking her worried sky blues off of him. They were quite penetrating, the more he saw them; intuitive, sharp, even calculating. He never would’ve thought such a thing a mere month or so ago. Yet now, he was well aware of the rampant thoughts and decisions that happened under that blazing red hair.

“Your hair,” he said awkwardly, pointing at the ginger tresses under the hood of the cloak. “The curls are much more relaxed now. I gather your mama finally listened.”

“It helped that you, at my request, very loudly proclaimed how much better my hair looked this way in front of my sisters at Vauxhall.” She patted his arm again before retrieving the column reporting said event from the valley between her breasts. Benedict pointedly did not look as she did this. He should probably say something about propriety, Penelope had become quite lax around him when it was just them or even with Eloise. But a small part of him decided against it. He did not wish to embarrass her or make her uncomfortable. No, it was best if she was as relaxed around him as possible. It would not do for her to close up, not when there was so much at stake for a girl of ten and seven, putting the whole of polite society in their place.

“So, you will not tell me what was on your mind?” Penelope queried one last time.

Benedict looked at her again, sharply. She really was more astute than people thought. The air was still and stank of manure, waste, and the hot ink of the printers. The clattering of the print shop could be heard inside, yet for a moment all he could hear was Hyacinth’s screams.

“Not today,” he said gently, and this time it was her hand he took in his own, giving it an apologetic squeeze. “But one day, when I am ready, I will. Promise.”

Penelope tilted her head up at him, patient and steady before turning back to the printer’s shop door and opening it.

There will forever be just two words that come to This Author’s mind the morning after any good party, “shock” and “delight.”

Well, Dear Reader, the scandalous accounts from last night’s soiree at Vauxhall are quite shocking and delightful indeed. Emerging, phoenix-like from the ashes of irrelevance, is one Miss Daphne Bridgerton. The illustrious debutante was seen dancing not once, but twice with the season’s most eligible and most uncatchable rake, the Duke of Hastings.

Benedict couldn’t help the chuckle that escaped him as he read the paragraph mentioning his sister in the latest Lady Whistledown issue. Penelope had been quite proud of the phoenix reference and, Benedict had to admit, he was intrigued by his sister’s sudden attachment to the Duke. Simon seemed like a pleasant enough fellow, but Anthony had been insistent that his best friend was determined not to marry. Benedict was not exactly comfortable with the idea of Daphne courting a well-known rake, but he had told himself to step back. Both for Daphne and himself. Anthony had both Benedict and Colin covered with his overbearing protectiveness anyway.

But he had resolved to keep his ear to the ground about Berbrooke. Eloise and Penelope had a point, the timing of Berbrooke’s suit was oddly fortuitous for the toad. So Benedict sipped his scotch, eyeing the crowd at White’s that afternoon. He sat in the corner by the bookcases, back to a wall of dead philosophers as he analyzed the various deeds and misdeeds of the gentlemen in the room. A room full of idle men with nothing to do, avoiding their wives, gambling their fortunes, and just…existing.

For Benedict wasn’t sure if one could call this living. At least, not for himself. He came often for drinks and conversation, but he’d been contemplating, lately, if this was indeed the life for him. He wasn’t a typical second son. He’d not elected to become a clergyman nor join the army. Neither appealed to him, and his parents had always been indulgent enough to let him get away with it. His mother, in particular, let him do very much as he pleased, which meant Anthony had to loosen the reins upon him. That wasn’t hard, he was Anthony’s favorite brother (Benedict would almost venture to say favorite sibling, but Daphne took that title some days), and his best friend long before Simon Basset came along.

Benedict wanted to be an artist. It was one of the few things he consistently loved and stuck to. He remembered, from the time he was a little boy, doodling on his rolls of parchment where his notes and equations were supposed to go, or sketching trees and bits of wildlife in the margins of Greek tragedies and treatises on advanced mathematics (he’d got several canings for that at Eton). But it stuck, even after Cambridge he would buy sketchbooks, go to art galleries, try to memorize every aspect of a painting he particularly enjoyed, then attempt to recreate it. He was not one who saw the world through harrowing scripture, conquests of land and sea, or sums of what was bought, sold, and leased.

To Benedict, everything had line, texture, color, form, and light. The marvels of the world around him could be interpreted through a medium where just the slightest change in light source or if one chose oils or watercolors made vast amounts of difference. It rendered the scenery and the people around him anew. He wanted nothing more than to be a part of that.

But Benedict these days never liked anything he sketched. He’d sit and attempt to draw one thing for hours; a hand, an apple, Eloise’s face in side profile. But sooner rather than later, he’d rip the page out in frustration, crumple it up, and throw it in the bin.

He wondered, vaguely, if Penelope ever did that. If she at times couldn’t find the right words, the right synonym or adjective to describe and just tossed it all aside in a fit of vexation.

The difference was, of course, at least Penelope was actually publishing. Even if it was under a false name, a girl ten years his junior and with significantly less freedom than himself, was at least doing something.

Benedict shook his head, attempting to shake off the sudden swell of bitterness as he attempted to re-focus. Now wasn’t the time. He could not blame Penelope for his own floundering and indecision just because she had decided to take a leap while he was still scared, looking over the edge.

He took another sip of scotch and spotted Lord Berbrooke settling onto the leather sofa in the middle of the room, broadsheet in hand and ready for perusing. Now this was a fine opportunity. Gossip amongst his fellow gentlemen was always best when the subject of recent events had walked into a room. Benedict stood, drained his drink, and made as if to go get another one, sauntering over as slowly as possible. As he thought, his fellow gentlemen were murmuring to each other, taking surreptitious glances at Berbrooke reading on the sofa.

“Got ousted by Hastings, did he not?”

“Can you blame the chit? Hastings is far more handsome, and he is a Duke–”

“A rake though–”

“...help her prospects–”

“Berbrooke must be down on his luck–”

“Financial troubles–”

“...why else would he wait until–”

On and on it went as Benedict made his way to order another scotch. It didn’t surprise him that much of the mutterings died when he approached, not wanting to offend him. It was well-known that the Bridgerton brothers were quite protective of their sisters, and any ill-talk of them would result in a thorough beating. Mister Hendricks had realized that last year when he had made an unwise comment about how potentially prolific any of the Bridgerton sisters would be if their mother was anything to go on.

It hadn’t been pretty. Anthony, Benedict, and Colin had been there, and Hendricks was not seen at the club for at least three months after that.

But what Benedict had been able to hear was telling. No one appeared to think very highly of Lord Berbrooke. He didn’t seem to have any real friends, and if even the likes of Lord Fife and Lord Cho were talking poorly of him, whispering of possible financial problems, that was a bad sign. But he had nothing concrete to give Anthony. Not yet. And Anthony could be quite stubborn if someone chose to contradict him. Anthony appeared to think, judging by how the imbecile got away unscathed for the past few weeks courting Daphne, that there was nothing amiss about the frog-like man. Benedict would need to listen more closely.

As he made to return to his seat, he heard some shouting from the adjacent card room. Looking over he frowned to see Lord Featherington losing at the cards table, and quite badly. It appeared the detestable man, for Benedict had never liked him, was losing money left and right. Yet he still agreed, begged for another round.

It had never occurred to him that Lord Featherington’s gambling addiction could be negative, especially when it served him and his brothers so well for winning. But now all he could think about was Penelope and how this could affect her. He did not imagine her and her sisters finding anyone willing to marry them this season (Prudence was vile, Philippa was vapid, and Penelope was not yet a woman grown) but that was not the point. How their father presented himself and his dealings could hurt their futures.

Benedict sank into his seat again, staring at the amber liquid in the crystal-cut glass. He had much to ruminate over.

“Because her condition is catching.”

Penelope’s mother’s words rang in her ears as she walked down the street with Eloise, side by side as her best friend ranted about Daphne’s supposed courtship with the Duke. Penelope was glad to see Eloise, although she was not fond of their lady’s maids following them around. They were far back enough that conversation between them could go on unheard, but Penelope was sure that Eloise’s own maid would be more suspicious if Eloise wasn’t loud.

“So, Daphne may be in love. Does she think it an accomplishment? What exactly has she accomplished, then? She certainly did not build that man or bake him. He simply showed up. Now he straggles about. He likes her face, probably. Perhaps her hair. Having a nice face and pleasant hair is not an accomplishment. Do you know what is an accomplishment? Attending university! If I were a man, I could do that, you know. Instead, I shall have to stand by and watch dear Mama appear proud because some man should like to admire my sister’s face and hair and fill her up with babies!” Eloise finally looked up from her tirade and Penelope was, a little ashamed to say, while she had technically heard Eloise, she was not exactly listening. “ Oh, Penelope, you are not listening to a word I say.”

Caught. It was time to admit the whole truth.

Penelope quickly pulled Eloise close to her, arm-in-arm, and Eloise startled with a great big, “Oh!” and widening eyes. Knowing something was about to be revealed, she leaned in a bit closer as Penelope talked, as quiet as she could without alarming their maids.

“Eloise, I must tell you of two things. First in regards to your sister–” Eloise bent down so her ear was closer to Penelope’s frantic words. “And Eloise, you must swear to not tell Benedict or your other siblings of this knowledge.”

Eloise whipped her head towards her, her loose brown locks hitting Penelope’s cheek.

“What? Pen, I cannot promise that entirely. Benedict is my favorite brother… Well, my favorite sibling, actually. It used to be Colin, but then–”

“El! Focus!” Penelope hissed, and Eloise, with difficulty, clamped her mouth shut. “I swear once you hear what I have to say, you will know why you cannot tell your family. Especially your brothers.”

Eloise sighed but nodded, and the only sound for a moment as Penelope gathered her courage was their slippered feet on the paved sidewalk, weaving past other gentlemen and ladies about their day.

“Eloise, your sister went on the Dark Walk at Vauxhall,” Penelope said, looking around to ensure no one else was listening. Eloise gasped and Penelope pushed on before she could be interrupted. “And Lord Berbrooke followed her, and he tried to–” Penelope almost could not say it, how awful it had been, to witness such a violent, terrifying attack against a fellow woman. Eloise stilled, and it was only Penelope’s persistent tugging that made her stumble forward again. “Luckily, the Duke of Hastings was close at hand. Daphne punched Lord Berbrooke in the face and the Duke was there to verify her innocence.”

“I– I am honestly impressed,” Eloise said faintly, her voice, for once when discussing Daphne, a little in awe. “I never would have thought Daph had it in her to punch someone. Well, other than us siblings. So she is courting the Duke out of… What, gratefulness?” Eloise narrowed her eyes, suddenly, a furious fire building behind them. “Did he blackmail her?”

“No, no, nothing of the kind,” Penelope said quickly. “You must understand I heard and saw only parts of what happened. All I know is when I saw your sister safely with the Duke, I left as fast as I could.”

“So you were also on the Dark Walk?” Eloise said, a little too loudly, and Penelope reached up her pink gloved hand to cover Eloise’s mouth. “Mmph!”

“Everything alright, Miss?” called Penelope’s lady’s maid, Maevis.

“Yes, yes, Maevis. Miss Eloise had a fly land on her mouth!” Penelope called out before glaring at her best friend.

“Sorry,” Eloise whispered when Penelope finally removed her hand.

“I got enough of a scolding from your brother, thank you,” Penelope said.

“I am assuming you mean Benedict, I have four irritating brothers if you recall.” Eloise rolled her eyes. “So you did tell him what happened?”

“No. He saw me come out and I told him I had been curious. El, you must realize that if the rumor of your sister being alone on the Dark Walk with Lord Berbrooke, even for a moment, and her punching him got out, it would completely ruin her? This is why we cannot let your brothers know. They would either challenge Lord Berbrooke to a duel, and both outcomes of said duel would have a horrific cost, or worse, force her to marry him.”

Eloise grimaced, her blue eyes suddenly hard as flint.

“You are right, Pen. As much as Daphne at times may…irritate me, I would not wish Lord Berbrooke upon her. Or anyone for that matter.”

“You see my point then,” Penelope said, nodding sagely as they sidestepped another couple on the pavement. “But there is something even more concerning I must tell you.”

“More concerning? How?”

“I know of someone…with child.”

Eloise stumbled again, and Penelope supported her friend as they continued on, looking back at their maids. They could not tell if the flat looks upon their faces were suspicion or resignation.

“Is it your mama? Is she not advanced in age?” Eloise asked, nose wrinkling in disgust. “I suppose your father should still want a boy…”

“It is not Mama,” Penelope interjected, and here was the moment she had been dreading. Lying to Eloise, even in part. But it was Marina’s secret, and not only was Marina her friend (for what else could she call Marina, who was kind to her and giggled over sweets with her before bedtime?), but also because the scandal was in direct relation to her own family. Penelope may degrade herself, mother, and sisters within the confines of her column. But this? This would ruin any prospects for them, no matter how weak they were. And Penelope still held on to that tiny kernel of hope, that one day Colin would notice her and she’d be worthy enough for him to marry. So, yes, she had to lie. “It is a maid.”

“Which one of your maids is married?” Eloise asked, and Penelope darted her eyes around them, pausing for a moment to let two gentlemen pass them in the street.

“She is not married.”

There was no pause. Eloise was quick, her mind working faster than Penelope believed the many members of the Royal Society could. It really was a shame that Eloise could not go to university or seek a career in exploration, politics, or science. She would be terribly good at it.

“How did she become with child if she is not married?”

“I do not know, but I will find out,” Penelope said, shivering a little as her mother’s words came back to her. “Mama says it is catching, and that worries me! But it also makes no sense. Plenty of women of the ton have been pregnant once married and around society. And we have not caught it before. Is it only with unmarried women?”

“Oh, lawks! You must find out, Pen. Otherwise, how can we make sure it never happens to us? We have accomplishments to acquire!” Eloise shuddered, and Penelope could only imagine the horrors filling her mind that also assaulted Penelope. Being with child, with no father to claim it. Alone and growing a human being within your belly… How terrifying it must be!

Penelope resolved to talk to Marina. She must be scared, and Penelope had to know. She just had to.

Benedict had been enjoying a perfectly peaceful late morning; Daphne practicing pianoforte, Hyacinth and Gregory pestering one another, Colin by his side before they took off for a round of fencing, teasing Daphne about her evening at the ball and how now she was apparently courting the Duke. All perfectly lovely, and all perfectly normal.

Trust Eloise to completely blow that to smithereens.

“How does a lady come to be with child?”

The question positively boomed in the room. Daphne’s playing abruptly stopped, their mother looked just about to keel over in shock, and even Hyacinth and Gregory paused their constant state of motion. Benedict and Colin shared a look before staring at Eloise. This would not go over well.

“Eloise, what a question!” his mother exclaimed, clearly flummoxed.

“I thought one needed to be married,” Eloise persisted and Benedict could literally feel his stomach dropping lower and lower until it attempted to settle amongst his guts. This was certainly not how any of them expected the morning to go. He could see Colin grinning like a mad fool beside him and he pinched his thigh in warning.

“What are you talking about?” Daphne inquired, twisting in her seat on the padded bench, clearly wanting Eloise to elaborate.

“Apparently, it is not even a requirement,” Eloise said, splaying her hands out in exasperation. Benedict clocked the exact moment on his mother’s face when she flipped from bewildered to closed off, adamant.

“Eloise, that is enough!”

Eloise gave their mother a rather put out look, and as Violet encouraged a confused Daphne to keep playing, Eloise sauntered over to the sofa in which Benedict and Colin sat. She promptly flopped between them, sagging in the seat, before hitting both of their legs to ask,

“I take it the two of you know?”

“Do not look at me,” Benedict said, working hard to not even move his head even a centimeter towards his sister. God, why now? Why was she asking this? He knew his sisters knew next to nothing of the marital act, how babies were made, the conditions the various acts of pleasure could come about in…and he was starting to wonder if that was wise. It was how it was done, yes. No man, apparently, wanted ladies of the ton made aware of sex and its consequences. Because, of course, if they knew the realities of sex, what was going to keep them from finding themselves scandalously forced into marriages?

It was common, of course, for well-bred ladies to seek their own pleasure in extramarital affairs after marriage, as long as they had provided an heir first. It was certainly not expected for men to be loyal to their wives. Benedict did hope, if he ever decided to marry, that would not be the case with him. He did not want that to be true for any of his siblings. All eight of them secretly desired to possibly have a match as true and loyal as their parents had been (well, except maybe Anthony, but that was an issue for later. Or Eloise, who was determined not to marry at all). But Benedict also knew the unlikelihood of this. His parents had been the exception, not the rule.

Benedict was snapped from his ponderings when Colin asked all too innocently,

“Have you ever visited a farm, El?”

He promptly smacked the back of Colin’s head, upsetting Eloise’s own noggin in the process, and she hit them both in turn. Only of course, for Violet to promptly scold them. But Colin was on fire that morning, making a comment about whipping out their sticks. Colin really could get away with anything, the bastard.

As Benedict made to move, Eloise grasped his forearm, pulling him down so she could whisper in his ear, “I will demand an answer you know! I shall hunt you down!”

Benedict winked playfully, though his mind wrestled with itself.

“We will see if you catch me.”

It was as he and Colin were exiting to go for that round of fencing that they witnessed the deluge of gentlemen callers making their way into the house. My goodness, Benedict smirked. Penelope’s column, and his sister’s supposed courtship, were really working wonders on her prospects.

Seven year-old Penelope was alone.

That wasn’t unheard of. In fact, it was quite common.

Penelope had sat alone in the hall, forlornly picking at her buttercup yellow skirts. Her sisters had refused to let her play hoops with them in the garden, and the sound of their laughter was a painful taunt echoing from the open veranda doors. Her mama had ignored her when she pulled on her violently pink skirts, asking if her mama could play with her. She had been shooed away; a thick, white face cream covered her mama’s face, and she told Penelope in no uncertain terms she was not to be disturbed.

Papa was gone, again. Whenever Penelope asked where he went her mama rolled her eyes, snorted,

“Doing what men do, Penelope. My dear girl, let me tell you. While you must aim to be married, never expect to see a man around the home. That is just wishful thinking.”

So Penelope never expected to see her papa, except in the morning as they broke fast, perusing his broadsheets. Penelope often picked them up when he was done, attempting to read them. When she grew tired of deciphering the tiny print, she’d attempt to fold little paper boats that would never set sail on the Serpentine. Though she wished they would.

The governess, one of the only people who actually paid attention to Penelope, was not there that day and the nanny was minding Prudence and Philippa.

Because Penelope was often alone. So she knew how to be alone. To pull herself into a small ball, sit in a corner, and stay quiet.

She was invisible.

But one day, Penelope sat alone again in the hall, her buttercup skirts an eyesore when the Cook, Missus O'Carroll, spotted her. It was often the servants who pitied her, Missus O’Carroll most of all. Missus O’Carroll didn’t understand the rich, especially her own masters. To have so much money, so much time, and not want to spend even a moment of it with their own children? How did that make sense? Missus O’Carroll simply couldn’t spend much time with her own girls, and that was only because she worked day and night to provide for them.

So Missus O’Carroll ushered her downstairs to the kitchen, sat her on a stool, and gave her fresh scones with honey and butter, and a battered book, torn and frayed at the edges, spine cracked and well-loved. Penelope let herself feel safe and warm, savoring the scones and honey her mama often did not let her have. She licked her fingers clean with relish, swiping her tiny, pink tongue across her lips for stray crumbs. Politely she asked for a wet cloth to wipe her hands, she was a lady after all. She did not want to get the book dirty.

And then, with the same curiosity she set to her studies, she opened the book and began to read.

It was the first fairytale she had ever read. Mama had not been very invested in her children reading beyond their basic letters so they could study matters of purportment. But Penelope was different. When with her governess, she devoured every little piece of literature, every single dot on a map, and every little letter or word presented to her in some shape or form. How one could move and shuffle letters to create words, phrases, sentences, and whole paragraphs that spanned for pages and pages. It was fascinating!

But this little fairytale showed her the true power of a story.

A woman trapped in a tower, held there by a witch. A prince who finds her, climbs her long, golden hair and they fall in love. But the witch finds out, steals the girl away and tricks the prince so he climbs her shorn tresses and falls to the briars below, blinded and scarred.

Penelope turns the pages, enchanted by every word, until she flips to see what happens when the prince wanders the desert and–


Penelope thumbed the page, thinking they may have stuck together with stray honey or butter. But nothing. As she inspected the spine, she found that the page had been torn out. She turned to Missus O’Carroll, childishly indignant.

“What happened to the last page? Now I shall never know the ending!”

Her little face was flushed, cheeks puffed, lips pursed, and Missus O’Carroll had to make quite the effort not to chuckle.

“Well,” Missus O’Carroll said matter-of-factly, turning back to the pie crust she was kneading for that evening’s fish pie. “Write yer own, then!”

Penelope’s tiny brow furrowed in confusion.

“My own?”

“Yes, ya’ wee wain. Yes!”

Missus O’Carroll wiped her hands on her apron before shuffling over to a drawer in the kitchen counter. She rummaged around before holding up a piece of graphite triumphantly. She shuffled over, setting it in Penelope’s tiny, pudgy hands.

“There ya’ go!”

Penelope sat, staring at the blank back page of the book cover, twirling the little piece of graphite in her hands. It smudged her fingers gray, she’d get scolded for that later, but she didn’t care. She set the tip to the back cover, and began to write.

The prince wandered the desert, weak and helpless. It was dry, hot, and it seemed all was lost. So one day he sat in the sand, and let himself wither away.

But he did not know the love of his life, was just around the corner, also alone.

But she had grown used to it.

Penelope wished what had come out of her wasn’t a sad ending. Truly. She wanted the prince to save the damsel in distress. She wanted love, marriage, and hope for the future.

But that just wasn’t what she knew.

Penelope found herself in Marina’s room, sharing cake and concerns. Marina had let her in many times in the evening, and they had often shared sweets and a laugh. It was the first time that Penelope had felt such kinship with anyone in her household besides the servants. It was glorious and warm, to actually be close to her cousin and revel in stories together. Penelope hoped tonight, Marina would share more.

In her bright green dress, not the worst gown her mama had ever made her wear to a ball, Penelope listened with rapt attention as Marina told her how her “condition” came about, teasing her about the cake, and then relaying the sweet courtship between her and Sir George Crane. It was a lovely, beautiful story – something that Penelope thought was worthy of its own telling in a novel. The love letters between her and Sir George as he fought in Spain were inspiring, and Penelope delighted in them.

But the answer, that it was love, that caused her pregnancy was simply…unsatisfying. It, first and foremost, didn’t make sense. She wasn’t certain of many things about her parents' own marriage, but she knew that Lord Archibald Featherington and Lady Portia Featherington were certainly not in love. Yet they had three daughters! So, no, love could not be it, or at the very least it could not be all. There was certainly something missing.

Penelope had also decided that the condition could not be catching. That was nonsense! All women across the classes would be pregnant constantly (or not at all) if that were the case.

She understood why Marina perhaps could not tell her. She was under Penelope’s mother’s roof, and Lady Featherington would certainly punish Marina harshly if she knew that she’d told Penelope how a woman came to be with child. Though, Penelope thought bitterly, it might also be because Marina saw Penelope as naive. That wasn’t untrue, but it still hurt to think on.

Why couldn’t anyone give Penelope the power, give her the agency, to be knowledgeable so she could grow into a woman? Surely the knowledge would help, rather than hinder.

She thought back to the carriage ride, where she had asked Benedict about the Dark Walk. He had refused at first, but he had, in the end, told her the truth. Or, at least, as much of the truth he could feasibly get away with.

Penelope smiled then as she gathered her skirts and went to meet her mother and sisters so they could depart for the ball. Perhaps she would pass by her room and gather a heather from the bouquet by her bedside and tuck it into her hair. Benedict would have to approach her then, and then she could make inquiries.

He still owed her two boons after all.

Penelope stood in the corner of the main room that served as the entrance, hidden once again even in a frock as ostentatious as hers. While she knew her mother hoped that such loud, ‘happy’ colors would make her daughters stand out amongst the creams and pastels, really it just made people turn the other way. So people steered clear of Penelope as she absent-mindedly fiddled the small piece of purple heather she’d grabbed before her mother screamed for her presence.

She watched and waited, and could not help the leap of joy she felt when, just behind Daphne and the Viscount Bridgerton, were Benedict and Colin escorting the Dowager Viscountess. Her heart performed the regular little dance it did when she saw Colin, but she knew she had to focus. If she and Eloise were to get the answers they sought, it was Benedict they needed to speak to. Penelope could not even imagine asking Colin such a question!

Penelope hurriedly stuck the little piece of heather in her looser curls. At least her mother had allowed her, once again, to wear the looser style rather than the tight poodle curls atop her head. It made her feel a tad more comfortable in her skin. She tried to catch his eye, but Lady Danbury and the Duke of Hastings approached, and she saw with a giggle that Lady Danbury sufficiently whisked the disgruntled looking Viscount away as the Duke led Daphne to the dance floor.

Benedict seemed to leave Violet in Colin’s care as he walked forward, possibly for a chance to tease Anthony about Lady Danbury all but hauling the proud lord away. But Penelope needed this chance now, so she took a deep breath and weaved through the crowd to reach him. Luckily, it appeared she was just as invisible in motion as she was standing still. So she passed and squeezed through people, gaining on Benedict, but his legs were so long, and she was behind–

“Mister Bridgerton!”

Her voice came out as barely more than a wisp on the wind, but somehow, though no one else heard, though no one else turned or blinked, he stopped. Benedict moved, spinning slowly around and he saw her, just a few steps behind him, standing there with her hands clasped in front of her chest nervously, wringing her hands.

He smiled.

“Miss Featherington.”

He glided towards her and a part of her couldn’t believe it, but he was there. Her friend was there, and there was something about that feeling, blooming with delight in her lungs, that made her feel that…something. She still didn’t have a name for it. But it was there.

Benedict paused, eyeing the piece of heather in her hair. With a nod he offered his arm, his eyes crinkling at the corners.

“A dance, Miss Featherington?”

Although she knew it was just a ploy so they could talk undisturbed, their words drowned out by music, it still was an exciting prospect, to be asked by a gentleman to dance. To actually get to dance, one of her favorite things to do and yet something she often did not get to enjoy.

“I would be honored, Mister Bridgerton,” Penelope said, taking his arm and following him out to the floor. She spotted the Duke and Daphne preparing to dance as well, and she couldn’t hide the glee on her face. Seeing them up close was quite exciting!

Benedict followed her line of sight and raised an eyebrow,

“A curious development, do you not think? It certainly helps Daph’s prospects if nothing else.”

“She is free of Lord Berbrooke, then?” Penelope asked as he bowed and she curtsied, the quartet beginning to play.

Benedict narrowed his eyes.

“What do you mean? He may have been the only suitor for a while, but now she has plenty.”

Penelope coughed, thinking hurriedly. She really was far too comfortable around Benedict now. She had a feeling he was like that, someone you felt you could tell anything and it would be kept close to his chest.

“Yes, yes. I only mean that now with so many options, she may be rid of him!”

“I believe that is now the case,” Benedict said as he took her hand and began to lead her in a dance. “Though I’ve been trying to listen for anything against Berbrooke at the club… Nothing concrete. But I do not like it–”

Penelope pondered this as he moved her across the floor. Benedict was a competent dancer, though not as graceful or jubilant as Colin. However, Benedict made up for it by how secure he held her, firm and steady.

“Well, actually, Benedict. I have called upon you not just for a column, as I will be publishing tonight,” Penelope hedged, biting her lip nervously. “But Eloise and I have a pressing question–”

Benedict’s eyes immediately lit up in understanding, and she inwardly cursed. Eloise and her big mouth!

“No, Miss Featherington. I cannot possibly inform you how that particular happenstance comes to be.”

Penelope, imperceptibly, pinched his arm.


“Why does no one seek to inform us what is to happen to our own bodies? Keep us in the dark? It is women who must carry babies, not men! Eloise and I simply seek to know so we may protect ourselves!”

Benedict’s brow furrowed, his ocean blue-green irises waving curiously, pensively.

“You,” Benedict swallowed, leading her along the dance floor, the movement about to come to an end. “Have a point.”

“Plus you still owe me a boon, a favor!” Penelope pressed and Benedict pouted, sticking his bottom lip out imploringly.

“You are to use my honor against me?”

“Quite, if it serves my purpose!”

Benedict sighed but it broke into a little grin and as the violin strings hummed and the cello faded, he boldly, habitually, tweaked her nose.

“Cunning thing. Fine. Meet me and Eloise in the garden after tonight’s ball. Might as well make a long night of it.”

The music ended and Penelope's lone dance of the night came to an end, as they were about to part ways Penelope glanced at Daphne and the Duke. The way they stared at each other… Penelope could not pinpoint the emotion, but the air was thick and heady around them.

“They look good together,” Penelope commented.

Benedict opened his mouth to reply but Anthony strode up to his brother’s side, completely ignoring Penelope, and said gruffly,

“Go dance with your sister.”

Benedict huffed incredulously.


“Because I said so!”

“Ugh,” Benedict groaned. Shooting Penelope an apologetic look, he walked away to take his sister’s arm. Penelope watched the Duke go into the refreshment room and Lord Berbrooke and Anthony followed.

Maybe, just maybe, there was something interesting brewing. She snuck forward to follow.

She was invisible, after all.

Benedict watched as his sister left his arms to talk to the Duke and his elder brother stormed toward him, a look of stony fury on his face. Benedict followed him outside, trying to catch up. He was taller than Anthony but his brother, in all his anger, could be quite quick when trying to escape something.

“Anthony! Ant!” Anthony didn’t turn around until they were out the front entrance, down the steps, and Anthony paced in the gravel, practically pulling his hair out.

“Brother, what is the matter?” Benedict asked, watching as his brother seemed determined to dig himself a grave with his boots alone.

Anthony did not pause but rubbed his face with his palms furiously.

“Lord Berbrooke attempted to assault our sister on the Dark Walk last night,” Anthony said gravely, and Benedict felt as though a stone had been dropped in his stomach. There was a protective, simmering fury that was working its way to a boil. How dare that toad of a man touch his sister? He did not deserve to inhabit the very space she existed in!

“Have you challenged him?” Benedict asked, striding up to his brother and forcing him to stop with his hands. While the thought terrified him and dueling was illegal, he knew many men still settled matters in such a way. Anthony, with all of his hot-headedness, certainly would.

“No, and you must not either,” Anthony said. “I’ve told him to stay away from Daphne unless he wants to end up six feet underground. But we cannot risk such action without word getting out how he got his black eye.”

Benedict had to pause, thinking for a moment when it dawned on him. Despite himself, despite his overwhelming anger he guffawed, letting go of Anthony to slap his knees.

“She planted a facer? Oh, good show, Daph!”

Anthony could not help but let the tiniest grin escape.

“Yes, she never fails to amaze me.”

Benedict and Eloise waited in the garden, settled on the swings as the cool night air blew gently against their cheeks. Eloise sat simply in her dressing gown, while Benedict had removed his jacket and rolled up the sleeves of his shirt. He hoped Penelope wasn’t too scandalized, though the subject they'd be endeavoring to discuss already threw the idea of propriety out of the proverbial window. Eloise was currently trying to grab the thick stack of folded parchment he’d brought with him from upstairs, but he held it aloft from her with one hand, batting her away with the other.

“Oh, Benedict, let me see–”

“No! I refuse to have this mortifying conversation twice! We shall wait–”

“El! Mister Bridgerton!” The siblings turned forward to see Penelope hurtling forward through the damp grass, her dress as bright and green as the limes imported from the tropical parts of the Empire. “I am here!”

Penelope placed one hand on her chest, pausing to catch her breath. Benedict stood up, steering her towards his seat on the swing set. She smiled up in thanks, ember curls now a halo of frizz around her face. Collapsing onto the grass, he opened his mouth to begin only to find his words die in his throat. Penelope and Eloise were staring at him expectantly, leaning forward, eyes wide and curious and he…

Zounds, Anthony and his mother would murder him if they ever found out.

“I do not know if I can do this,” and Benedict flushed as his voice came out a tad more like the squeak of a mouse then the tone of a man.

“You promised, Brother!” Eloise exclaimed, hands flying to her hips in indignation. She looked scarily like Violet when she did that. “We are cashing in Penelope’s favor, you must pay up! As you and our brothers so often say, you are a gentleman.” Eloise said the last part quite sarcastically, and Benedict thought he should perhaps feel offended.

“Maybe just pretend we are Colin or Gregory?” Penelope suggested, sticking her pointer finger in the night air thoughtfully. “Pretend we are young boys who actually get to have this knowledge. Will that help?”

“The pair of you are clearly not Gregory, let alone boys,” Benedict scoffed, staring up into the tree branches as if asking the Lord above for guidance. They would be the death of him, he was sure.

“I think I could pass as a boy if I cut my hair and wore shirts and breeches,” Eloise mused, toeing the grass with her slippered feet. “What do you think, Pen?”

“You certainly could,” Penelope concluded. “I would be hopeless though.”

“Yes, binding your bre–”

“Enough!” Benedict pleaded, for he certainly did not want to hear a discussion about Penelope’s bosom, thank you very much. He may be a gentleman, but he was still a man. “The point is, you are both clearly not boys.”

“How so, Brother? Care to elaborate?” Eloise raised an eyebrow, daring him to speak. Benedict resisted the very powerful urge to push her off the swing.

“That is unfair,” he mumbled.

“Zounds! Mister Bridgerton, if you must close your eyes as you speak then go ahead. Though I daresay,” Penelope said, pointing at the thick folds of parchment he still held firm in his grasp. “If those are what I think they are, it may make pointing out the bits of anatomy tricky.”

Benedict let himself fall back into the grass, not caring how his shirt soon became soaked with dew. It at least cooled the growing flush creeping up his chest and back. The smell of damp earth along with what must’ve been Penelope’s perfume, warm ginger and spices, permeated his nostrils.

“This task, I have decided, counts as two boons, Miss Feathrington!” He raised two fingers and waved them in the air.

Penelope, the stubborn girl, snorted.

“It counts as one. Blame society and our mamas for never bothering to tell us how our own bodies work.”

Benedict ran a hand over his face before forcing him to sit up.

“Fine. Sit down here, both of you. Let us get this over with.”

The best friends looked at each other before sliding off their swings and onto the ground, scooting closer to him until they formed a tiny circle, their knees touching. Benedict took out the thick wad of parchment and unfolded it, blushing furiously as he handed them the first piece of paper.

“I figured we should start with anatomy. As you can see, I referenced an old textbook I found in the library about the proper labels–”

“Which textbook?” Eloise asked and he glared, flicking her forehead.

“None of your business. Now, a-as you can see, there’s the f-female anatomy, I do not think I need to tell you much on that.”

At least he hoped not. The girls stared, brows furrowed, nodding.

“And on the other side,” Benedict pointed to the other end of the parchment. “Is the male a-anatomy.”

God, could he not stop stuttering?

The girls studied it, turning the parchment this way and that, and Benedict felt like he was developing a high-grade fever the longer they peered at the image. This had been a bad idea, why did he agree to this madness?

“So,” Penelope said slowly, pointing to a particular bit of the drawing. “What do you call that piece of anatomy, Mister Bridgerton?”

Benedict peered over and gulped, wanting desperately for this conversation to be over.

“Um,” Benedict swallowed. He looked at Penelope who was all open curiosity, an eagerness to learn, and fondness for his newfound friend nearly overshadowed his embarrassment. Nearly. “I think if we are to continue having this conversation, please just call me Benedict.”

Penelope paused, tips of her ears pink before she gave him that small, closed mouth smile that was all secrets and cunning.

“You must still answer my question…Benedict.”

His name off her lips made the whole situation much more intimate and Benedict squirmed. He saw that Eloise was also waiting for an answer, her eyes darting from the drawing to Benedict’s face, ever more quickly the longer she stared.

“Well, uh,” Benedict swallowed again, scratching the back of his head. Why couldn’t he just say it? “It’s the–”

“The STICK?” Eloise exclaimed, something clicking into place in her mind. “The stick Colin referenced, Brother? Is that what it is?”

Benedict wanted nothing more than for the ground to open up and swallow him whole. This, he concluded, was his own personal level of Hell.

It was an agonizing hour in which Benedict stuttered and spluttered through explanations on how a male and female joined in sex, how the act could result in children, specifically without protection, and the difference between willing sex and rape. He had especially not wanted to go over the latter, but he knew within the depths of his soul that it was important, that they had to know they had a right to reject a man and if said man forced themselves on them–

“I will kill them.”

Eloise eyed him, face a little green.

“Brother, you of all the men I know are the least viol–”

“I will kill them,” he said again, tone hard as flint.

And that was that.

He provided sketches of the most common positions a couple would take during sex. (He was not about to go into any sort of explanation on the myriad of ways one could receive pleasure. No. Nope. He refused.) They asked questions, like scientists trying to get to the bottom of a great mystery or problem, and Benedict did his best to answer them as he periodically, nervously, glanced up at the house windows, praying that none of his family would suddenly awaken. It was dark, they could barely be seen but by the moon’s light. It was only thanks to Eloise’s hidden pack of matches that they were able to glance at some of the finer details. And when he explained the very mere basics of childbirth, which he only knew because of his mother’s many pregnancies, both girls recoiled.

By the end of it, Benedict was strangely relieved to hear Eloise gag, saying, “I am never, ever having children! If there is no guarantee I can be protected from pregnancy at all times, what ever is the point of the marital act? Ugh, disgusting. No! Just, no! Gah!”

Eloise shuddered, kicking her feet out at the grass and shaking her limbs as if to rid herself of some gross, coating of filth covering her skin. Penelope sat still, a little lost in thought, her eyes drifting in and out of focus.

“Well,” Penelope sighed. “At least now we know the truth.”

“And better yet, we can protect ourselves from it!” Eloise added, gripping Penelope’s hand in her own. “It is a simple solution, Pen. We shall just be spinsters together as we have planned!”

Benedict caught the waver in Penelope’s smile and his heart went out to her. It was clear that Eloise was unaware that her dear friend might not share her dream, but that was something they’d have to talk out on their own.

Benedict tentatively took back the drawings from the middle of their circle, folded them carefully, and shoved them in the band of his breeches. He would burn the lot of them in his fireplace the moment he returned to his room.

“Now, your column, Penelope,” he said, and it was different for her given name to roll off his tongue. It was quite pleasant, like playing up the scale on the pianoforte, or dotting a canvas with paint. “Let us see it.”

Penelope reached into the bodice of her dress and Benedict politely pretended to look behind them for any intruders. He glanced at his pocket watch. It was late, or rather quite early, he would need to get Eloise to bed soon. Penelope handed the siblings the column and they began to scan it. There were some murmurings on an affair of Lord Fife’s, commentary on the recent bout of boxing matches, but soon they came to the paragraph on Daphne.

This Author has often thought the heart a most curious of instruments, heeding neither reason nor rank. For what possible explanation might Miss Bridgerton have for entertaining the suit of a mere baron when she seems to have secured a duke? Could the debutante’s mind not be the only thing amiss? Let it be known, Dear Reader, that if this bizarre behavior portends yet another scandal, then be sure that I shall uncover it, for there is nothing like an excursion into nature to lift the spirits and loosen the tongue.

“It comes off quite…” Benedict paused to search for words. “Condescending. At least on Daphne’s part, and it is not her fault that Berbrooke continues to pursue her.”

Eloise pursed her lips.

“As much as it pains me to admit it, Benedict may have a point.”

Penelope bit her thumbnail, crossing her arms. She was afraid of this. She knew she was coming off…well, like she was accusing Daphne of being daft. But Penelope didn’t want to reveal what she had overheard between the Duke, the Viscount, and Lord Berbrooke earlier that night. It was a juicy bit of gossip to be sure, but she had no intention of revealing Daphne’s incident on the Dark Walk, that would be far more scandalous.

She also knew that part of her, when writing that bit of the column, had been trapped in resentment. The Duke of Hastings was, as far as she could tell, quite kind, humorous, and of course very rich. It had appeared easy to Penelope who Daphne should let pursue her. But also, Penelope’s secret bitterness, how she wished she could have such a dilemma, had reared its ugly head.

Glancing between the two siblings, she was suddenly quite thankful she was not taking on this enterprise alone. Penelope was suddenly quite sure that her girlish reasoning and jealousies would have taken over at times, if she did not have such companions to bounce her ideas off of.

“The personality of Lady Whistledown is biting,” Penelope admitted, cupping her chin. “All the eyes of the ton are on this new pairing, and yet Lord Berbrooke persists.”

“Then redirect your bite,” Benedict offered. “Aim it, once again, towards Berbrooke. Or even Anthony. God knows, it turns out he was a lousy judge of character…”

Benedict trailed off and although Eloise shot him a curious look, Penelope did not push it. She wasn’t sure how well she could lie to Benedict if it turned out he finally knew what she had known since the night before. But maybe–

“I did overhear the Viscount tell Lord Berbrooke to stay away from Daphne,” Penelope offered, and both siblings blinked at her. “I did not hear why, but maybe we could focus upon that? That maybe your elder brother has finally discovered something unsavory about Lord Berbrooke?”

“Oh, yes!” Eloise clapped her hands excitedly. “Now that would be interesting. I would love to see the look on that foul man’s face!”

With a flourish Benedict offered Penelope his graphite, and Penelope scratched out and edited the paragraph.

This Author has often thought the heart a most curious of instruments, heeding neither reason nor rank. For what possible explanation might Lord Berbrooke have when he still attempts to gain the affection of Miss Bridgerton? Surely his brain is addled if he cannot clearly see that the young debutante is enchanted with the much more handsome, much richer, and much more graceful Duke of Hastings. Even more curiously, it is rumored that the Viscount Bridgerton finally saw something in Lord Berbrooke that was most unsavory, kicking him out of the Bridgerton nest before promptly sitting back on his brood of seven eggs. As This Author predicted before, could there have been a dastardly reason that Lord Berbrooke targeted our fair diamond? Let it be known, Dear Reader, that if this bizarre behavior portends yet another scandal, then be sure that I shall uncover it. For there is nothing like an excursion into nature to lift the spirits and loosen the tongue.

“The image of Anthony as a Mother Hen will never not cease to bring me boundless entertainment and joy,” Eloise said, clasping her hands to her bosom as if she was about to swoon in delight. “Brother, if you ever decide to draw cartoons, I demand that it be your first one.”

“Noted, El,” Benedict said, glancing at his silver pocket watch again and nearly groaning. It was going on five in the morning. “Well, Penelope. Best make haste to the printers!”

He showed the girls his timepiece, both flopping to the grass in defeat. Benedict, despite his exhaustion, let out a full-bellied laugh.

Nine year-old Penelope sat under the shade of a willow tree in Hyde Park. A book propped up on her knees as she followed the words with one small, pointer finger. It was an unusually sunny spring day, so her mama had decided to drag the whole lot of them for a picnic in their tent at Hyde Park. To see and be seen.

Prudence and Philippa sat in the shade of their tent, munching on treats as their papa read that day’s broadsheet, and mama stood at the entrance to the tent, calling out to any lord or lady she deemed worth their time. Penelope had snuck away to read in the sanctity of the willow’s bower, periodically staring up at the glittering surface of the Serpentine. She saw a few young girls and an older boy with green-blue eyes that glittered in the sun attempting to sail paper boats on the surface.

The smallest curl of jealousy and longing twisted in her gut before she directed her attention back to the page. It wasn’t until a shuffling of skirts on the grass and a new shadow loomed over her that Penelope looked up again to peer into the bright blue eyes of a little brunette girl about her age. Her white dress was covered in dirt, her smile wide and disarming.

“What are you reading?” she asked, plopping herself right beside Penelope in the nestle of roots.

“O-oh, um,” Penelope stuttered. "Grimm’s Fairy Tales."

“Can I read with you?” the little girl asked excitedly, looming very close to Penelope’s face, almost nose to nose.

“I-I do not know your name,” Penelope said. She had been taught, after all, to always secure an introduction.

“Oh! Of course!” The little girl smiled, holding out her dainty little hand to shake. “I am Eloise Bridgerton!”

Penelope, hesitantly, took Eloise’s hand and shook it. “Penelope Featherington.”

“Oh! Do you live in Grosvenor Square too?” Eloise asked excitedly, beginning to jump on her bottom with glee. “The house across the way? I remember Mama saying the Featherington’s lived there. We reside in the house across from you!”

Penelope blinked in wonder. She knew exactly the house Eloise referred to. It was beautiful for its red brick, elegant gate, and bright, beautiful purple wisteria that bloomed every spring. Penelope had often imagined the lives of the people who lived in such an airy, welcoming looking abode. It must be a fairytale within the confines of those walls.

“So, may I read with you?” Eloise asked again, looking eagerly down at the page Penelope was turned to. Penelope offered a hesitant smile, and turned back to the beginning of the story, Aschenputtel, translated to Cinderella.

“Okay,” Penelope whispered, a warm blossom of feeling unfolding for the first time in her chest. She couldn’t put a name to it.

So they read together for what must have been hours, reading through four stories, giggling and “ahhhing” all the while. It wasn’t until a young man approached them and grabbed their attention that Penelope suddenly noticed the sun was setting over the water. She looked into the man’s bright blue-green eyes, saw his dark chestnut hair, and knew immediately this was one of Eloise’s many siblings she had informed her of.

“Ben! Look! I made a friend!” Eloise yelled excitedly, promptly hugging Penelope’s arm to her side as if it was always meant to be there. It hurt, in a good way. And Penelope couldn’t believe that someone was actually calling her friend.

The man smiled gently. Although it was clear he was young, his eyes crinkled deeply at the corners, kind but weathered.

“Benedict Bridgerton at your service, Miss–?”

“Penelope Featherington,” Penelope squeaked, suddenly shy again, curling into herself, pushing her back into the bark of the tree.

Benedict appeared unphased, his smile growing wider as he offered both girls his hands.

“Lovely to meet you, Miss Featherington. We are neighbors I believe. Allow me to escort you back to your family.”

Penelope looked up and around, remembering for the first time in hours that she was here with her family at all. As she thought about it, she hadn’t heard her sisters’ shrill laughter for a while. It was with a sudden, sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach that she realized, with no ostentatious pink tent in sight, that they were gone.

They had forgotten her.

Penelope wasn’t sure what to be more upset by. That they had left her, forgetting she even existed. Or that this wasn’t a surprise to her at all.

“They are not here,” she whispered, tears filling her eyes despite her attempt to blink them back. She wiped the back of her hands across her eyes, trying to appear resilient. Her mama and papa hated it when she cried. Surely the Bridgertons wouldn’t appreciate it either.

“What do you mean?” Benedict asked, his eyebrows creasing, shifting on his feet, crouched before them.

“They are not h-here,” she choked, swallowing furiously. “They must have forgotten me. Their tent is n-no longer h-here.”

She pointed to the spot where the tent had been and Benedict turned, frowning.

“Are you sure it was there, Miss Featherington?”

Penelope nodded weakly and Eloise came to her defense like a little knight in shining armor.

“If she said it was there, it was there!” Eloise stood up and stomped her foot before turning to Penelope, her face a mask of righteous fury. “It was the big pink one, right?”

Penelope was speechless and could only nod again.

“See?” Eloise said, turning back to her brother and crossing her arms. “They left her! How stupid could they be?”

“Eloise!” Benedict chided, but Penelope shook her head.

“I would not call them stupid,” Penelope said, fighting back a sniffle. Somehow it turned into a hiccup. “I am just forgettable.”

Benedict looked at a loss for words, opening and closing his mouth a bit like a fish. Once again, it was Eloise who came to her rescue.

“No you are not! You are smart and nice! I could see and remember your hair from a mile away, it is like fire! You shared your fairytales with me. How could you be forgotten?”

Penelope bit her lip as it tried to quiver. The tears were pushing harder against her eyelids, to her mortification. But now it was big, strong hands that grasped her arms, pulling her gingerly forward so she was forced to look into Benedict’s blue-green eyes.

“It is okay to cry,” he said, smoothing her curls behind her ear. “What happened is upsetting. It is okay to cry.”

And Penelope did. Great, big, heaving sobs and before she knew what was happening strong arms were lifting her up. She felt her book slide out of her hands, Eloise shuffling to grab it, and although she was a little too old to be carried, Benedict Bridgerton let her weep into his shoulder as he moved her to the blue Bridgerton family tent.

As they approached, Penelope kept her face buried into the fine material of Benedict’s jacket. She couldn’t bear to look up, dare to see what Eloise’s family must think of her. To be so easily forgotten by her parents and sisters? They would see. They would see how little she mattered, how forgettable she was.

And Eloise would forget her too.

So she refused to look up, dampening Benedict’s shoulder as he walked along the slope of grass. She felt when the sun went away, when they entered the shade of what must be their tent, and heard two drastically different voices.

“Benedict, what in the blazes–”

“Oh, dearest, what has happened?”

One was deep, commanding, not rough but something fine that had been frayed at the edges. The other was… What was it? Penelope wasn’t familiar with gentle, it was practically a foreign concept to her except when it came to how she handled her books. But she thought, just maybe, that the second voice was gentle.

Such a nice word, Penelope thought, still refusing to look up.

Before Benedict could say anything, Eloise had jumped in, talking a mile a minute.

“Mama! Mama! You see, I made a new friend. That is Penelope! Penelope Featherington, and I said– I said, we should read together! And we did, we read for hours and hours! But then, but then– when Ben came to fetch me, we looked up and Penelope’s family was gone! Mama! Just gone! They left her! It is horrible, Mama! Horrible!”

“Eloise,” Benedict sighed, but it was a soft, feminine gasp that pricked Penelope’s ears.

“They forgot her? Oh, if I could give Portia a piece of my–”

“Mother,” another voice sounded, a little lighter, soothing even. Another young man – boy – between a young man and a boy. “We shall return her home, will we not? She must be very scared.”

“Of course we will! Oh, Benedict, give her here.”

Benedict gingerly tugged on Penelope but she tightened her grip around his neck, eyes squeezed shut. She couldn’t look at any of them. How mortifying this all was… She felt how her face flushed red and knew it would stand out against her horrid, yellow dress. How she hated this.

“I do not think she is ready to let go, Mother,” Benedict observed, shifting his weight and bouncing her up to get a better grip on her.

A shuffling of fabric and Penelope felt warm breath caress the ginger strands at the top of her head.

“Penelope, please look at me.”

Penelope hesitated, seeking safety in the warm darkness of Benedict’s shoulder.

“It is alright, Pen! Mama will not hurt you!” Eloise said firmly, as if this was an absolute truth.

Pen? No one had called her Pen before. She’d never been given a nickname.

Penelope, very slowly, lifted her gaze to stare into the eyes of one of the most kind looking women she ever saw. Blue eyes the mirror image of Eloise’s, mahogany brown hair perfectly braided and tucked away. She had the soft, lovely crinkles at the corners of her eyes that Benedict had, laugh lines near her mouth, and a dusting of freckles across her face from the sun.

Nothing like her mama. Where Lady Featherington was pale, cool, smooth skin and fierce eyes, Eloise’s mama was tan, warm, with wrinkles that showed she smiled, and eyes that displayed she cried. Penelope was convinced at that moment that maybe only warm mothers actually shed tears. It would explain a lot. To her, at least.

“I am Violet Bridgerton, Penelope dearest,” she cooed, stroking Penelope’s hair with all of the assuredness of a mother who had done it a thousand times. “I apologize for what happened. But we will take you home, yes? You are just across the square from us. It is no trouble. You are no trouble.”

Penelope stared at Violet, the skin around her eyes red and puffy. They would surely be swollen all day tomorrow. But Violet looked unconcerned about her crying. She just appeared, well, Penelope wasn’t sure. These were very new faces, very new emotions she was contending with. A boy – the boy from earlier by the lake – was peering at her too, as tall as his mother and probably still growing. Green-blue eyes, darker than Benedict’s, sparkled like gems alight in his face, and he offered her a large smile.

“I am Colin,” he said. “We shall take you home, Penelope.”

There were various nods and verbal assents, and as the family and servants packed their belongings and began the journey back to Grosvenor Square, Penelope still firmly in Benedict’s arms, she wished this moment in time wouldn’t end. It was warm, bountiful, and safe. And suddenly, now discovering what a family could be, she was afraid to return to the quiet, cold confines of her own home.

For surely, the Bridgertons would forget about her come the next morning. Once she was out of sight, she’d be out of mind. It was simply the way of things.

Little Penelope sat in the hallway, as usual, curled up with a book. A small book of poetry this time, though she was struggling to understand them all. She had realized this morning that Eloise still had her book of fairytales, and although it saddened her to lose them, she was glad that Eloise had a piece of her, even if the Bridgerton girl wouldn’t remember.

Penelope was avoiding her family for once, rather than the other way around. Lady Featherington had not been pleased to be scolded by the Dowager Viscountess Bridgerton, her son, the esteemed Viscount Bridgerton, looming behind her. Eloise had been forced to stay in the carriage, but Penelope had seen the moment Benedict had finally coaxed her down to the floor, when Eloise had stuck her tongue out in the direction of her mother while Violet’s and Anthony’s backs were turned. Benedict had hidden a snigg*r behind a cough, and Penelope giggled. For a moment at least, until her mama’s glare was directed at her and she bowed her head immediately. All three Bridgertons frowned.

But it was a new day, and she was invisible again. At least she had the memory. She was sure she’d cherish it as long as she lived. That is, until the front doors opened and a footman announced, “Mister Benedict Bridgerton and Miss Eloise Bridgerton.”

The footman, Francis, Penelope noticed, saw no need to alert the actual owners of the house. He winked at her.

Eloise, in a freshly pressed lavender dress, her hair done up in matching ribbons, rushed up to Penelope in her little corner of the world. Benedict sauntered in slowly behind her, hands behind his back, studying Penelope curiously.

“Pen! Pen!” Eloise squealed, tackling Penelope in a hug so tight she barely knew what to do with herself. “Oh, Pen, I have come to invite you to play! And I brought you your book! I figured afterwards we could read more stories!” Eloise released Penelope and held up the book, beaming like manna from Heaven was raining down. “We are going to make paper boats and see if they float!”

“R-really?” Penelope asked, swiveling her head between the two siblings, one full of incredible energy, the other thoughtful and…

Gentle. That word again. It slid slowly, softly down the tongue and settled in her belly like the most refreshing drink in the heart of summer.

“Of course, Miss Featherington,” Benedict said, holding out his hands for both girls to take. “We could never forget Eloise’s dearest friend in all the wide world.”

Penelope took his hand, less trepidation than ever before, and as they sauntered off into the cool spring day, Penelope thought she finally knew something more.

Benedict remembered that day, that little girl in the ridiculous yellow frock, the wild hair, and the hopeless, forlorn eyes. And something in Benedict had recognized something incredibly familiar; that ache of being lost. Of wanting something more.

As Benedict nodded off, protected from the elements under the shade of the tent, images of little Eloise and Penelope flitted across his mind’s eye. He absently wiped crumbs from his vest, trying to shake off the blanket of slumber determined to wrap him up on such a warm, cloudy day. A scone still lightly gripped in one hand, he watched through half-lidded eyes as Penelope dashed over to meet Eloise midway between their family tents.

It was sweet, really. How the two girls flourished in each other’s presence, how they seemed to grow and expand outside of the shells they donned when around their mothers. Benedict knew that, as loving as his mother was, that Violet Bridgerton was just as determined to marry off Eloise as she was Daphne. And Eloise, despite her best efforts, was a girl who could not gain an edge over their mother’s machinations.

It comforted him then that Eloise and Penelope had found one another. While the memory made Benedict’s blood boil in anger towards Lord and Lady Featherington, it also caused him to ache with such tenderness toward Penelope he had to wonder if something was bruised. Little, nine year old Penelope had reminded him of himself. Misplaced within her own household, unsure as to what her purpose must be.

Hell, the girl Penelope was in 1813 still resembled the child of 1804. At least in spirit.

Though Benedict had to admit as his eyelids fluttered shut on Penelope and Eloise’s approach, she worked hard to find her place in the world. A small, soft part of him glowed with pride at the thought.

The picnic at Hyde Park with all of the colorful tents, children playing games, and families taking their tea made Penelope feel a mixture of emotions. It was a sumptuous delight for the eye, to be sure, but there were too many memories attached to the occasion.

Yet it was maintained, and Penelope always sought out the company of Eloise during it.

It was cloudy, but not raining, leaving the atmosphere pleasantly cool.

It was as she excused herself from her mother’s presence, dashing in quite an unladylike manner to link arms with Eloise, that Penelope realized how young they still were. Her first instinct, even with all of the knowledge she and Eloise had acquired the night before from Benedict, was still to go off and play. Strangely, she was thankful she would attract no suitors, especially now. She had a feeling she was not yet ready.

Not that anyone would ever ask.

Eloise yawned, not even attempting to cover her mouth as she did so. This, immediately, made Penelope yawn, and they both took turns yawning as they wandered closer to the Bridgerton tent. Much to their delight, Benedict was half-asleep in one of the chairs, a scone falling from his limp hand to his chest, covering his decorative waistcoat in crumbs. They giggled, trying to capture the image in their minds to tease him later.

“How do you feel, now so knowledgeable about how a woman comes to be with child?” Penelope asked, bumping her shoulder into Eloise’s.

“Both relieved and scandalized,” Eloise replied. “And very much disgusted. I assure you, dear Pen, you shall never see me willingly taking part of such acts! Don’t you agree, it’s rather beastly?”

Penelope blushed as she thought back to the sketches Benedict had drawn for them before taking them to be burned in the fire grate of his room. They were incredibly intimate. Penelope had never known it was possible to be so close to another human being before, to physically let someone inside. She remembered how her thoughts as she drifted to sleep had journeyed to Colin, how he could join in such a way with her…

Red, hot heat flew up her chest to tinge her neck and cheeks.

“W-Well, men are beasts themselves, are they not?” Penelope said quickly before pivoting. “Come, we should wake your brother before he falls out of his chair.”

“Oh, but it would be so fun!” Eloise whined, but went along anyway as they decided to set to poke and prod Benedict awake. As they began to dig their fingers into Benedict’s arms and side, Penelope observed Daphne with a copy of the Whistledown she had delivered early that morning with Benedict while talking to Anthony. Their conversation looked quite serious and she hoped the column had not caused too much distress. She had edited it, taking Benedict and Eloise’s concerns into account. Penelope had successfully tamped down the resentment she knew brewed within her, her jealousy that other women would always outperform her in terms of beauty and prospects. She then turned to Colin playing with Hyacinth and Gregory. Colin was sunshine to her, his green-blue eyes forever laughing, wonderful, and exceedingly full of good-humor.

How was she not to have fallen in love with him, truly?


Penelope snapped her neck, shocked, to see Benedict staring up at her, his eyes half-lidded with slumber. It had been him, who called her name so quietly, a little choked with tiredness. They had agreed after last night to use their given names in private, but this was the first time he had done it in front of people who were not…well, Eloise. It was something truly sweet, remarkable, and theirs. A sign of true friendship and Penelope appreciated it greatly. She did not have many friends.

However, Benedict’s expression was a little too knowing as he lazily swiveled between her and Colin. So she quickly changed the subject,

“Come, Benedict, before you are covered in so many crumbs you become a feast for the fierce waterfowl that call the Serpentine home!”

He chuckled weakly and, just as he made to get up, brushing off sticky crumbs as he did, all hell broke loose in the form of the bouncing toad that was Lord Berbrooke. The man’s face was black and purple, horribly bruised and near pulpish in its appearance. Lord Berbrooke was raving on about a special license, about how Daphne was ‘his’ unless everyone wanted to know about the Dark Walk. Benedict was in front of Penelope and Eloise instantly, shielding them behind him until the Duke of Hastings tried to step in, and Benedict was forced to grab him, pushing him back to prevent a violent altercation.

Penelope could not believe what was happening in front of her, and a small tiny part of her wondered whether this could’ve been avoided if she had told Benedict what had happened on the Dark Walk right when it happened. A look at Eloise said her best friend was thinking the same. They clutched each other's hands as poor Daphne increasingly appeared resigned, her gaze downcast, her shoulders slumping, and not even Anthony, with all his power, was able to do little more than read the special license as if it was a notice for execution.

As soon as Lord Berbrooke had stalked off, much of the family was surrounding Daphne or Anthony, trying to comfort or obtain information. But before Penelope could so much as step forward, a hard grip took hold of her bicep and was dragging her down towards the old willow tree, away from prying eyes.


Benedict yanked her along, pushing her to move, his face stone in its upset.

“B-Benedict, please, you are hurting me!”

Benedict stopped, looking down and promptly releasing her arm as if it had burned him. He stood, back towards the roots of the great willow, his jaw clenched, the vein at his temple visibly pulsing.

“You knew,” Benedict hissed, clenching his fists at his sides. “You knew what happened on the Dark Walk and you did not tell anyone!”

“I told El–” Penelope started and Benedict, somehow, appeared even more furious. The tips of his ears were turning bright red, and he turned towards the trunk of the tree as if he could not stand to look at her.

“So both of you thought it best for Daph, for this family, to keep such a grave instance to yourselves?”

“Daphne herself kept it from you,” Penelope pointed out, and she knew she might be considered childish for not wanting to take all of the blame. But, really, wasn’t it obvious why no one told them? Were they really so blind? “You said so yourself when warning me that just merely being on the Dark Walk as a woman could be ruinous, but to be found with a man? And the fact she punched him? That was Daphne’s secret to tell, I could never share it.”

“We could have protected her!”

“But you did not! None of you were there! It was the Duke who stepped in on Daphne’s behalf! If you had known, Anthony would have immediately demanded satisfaction, and the ton would have wanted to know why! You think Lord Berbrooke is honorable enough to keep such information quiet? You know he is not. It was safer for your sister to keep quiet and seek the Duke’s protection. El and I decided it was better this way. You cannot understand, as you are a man! A man’s scandal is forgotten within a season. A woman’s lasts a lifetime!”

Benedict stiffened, his back taut under his jacket, his shoulders set back, his knuckles white. Penelope wondered if she had stepped too far, been too honest, loose-tongued. But soon his shoulders sagged, his fingers unfurled, and he slowly pivoted on the spot. He still wasn’t looking at her, turned towards the ground. He appeared quite… helpless.

“I had resolved this season to be less involved with my siblings affairs so I could find… something for myself.” He laughed bitterly, expression utterly bereft of humor. “But maybe that was the wrong choice. If I had been more attentive, then maybe Daph would never have–”

“Don’t say that,” Penelope said fiercely, coming closer to him, reaching to take his hand– But then she remembered where she was and stepped back. People could be watching. The last thing she wanted to do was accidentally trap Benedict. Not that anyone would believe that anyone would willingly court her, but Penelope wanted to avoid such a misunderstanding all the same. “Benedict, you do deserve something for yourself, something that is all your own. Your sketches are quite good!”

He snorted indelicately and she blushed, remembering how she was introduced to his drawings.

“But Benedict, this probably would have happened, whether you had been attentive or not. You cannot give up on finding something that will satisfy you, give you passion in life.” She again reached her hand out hesitantly, and he glanced at it, his own fingers twitching by his side. “You let me pursue mine, so I could feel even a small ounce of freedom and pride. I will not let you give up on yourself.”

Benedict, in absence of anything else, leaned against the trunk of the willow, and a chilling wind made the long, green leaves on the hanging branches blow.

Penelope turned to look out over the grounds, and noticed the absence of her family’s tent. She sighed, but unlike in childhood no tears came. It had happened several times since, and she was far too used to it. She was, for lack of a better word, numb.

“Looks like they left,” she commented idly and Benedict followed her eyes to see the spot her family’s tent had been a mere half an hour earlier.

She heard Benedict amble down the grass to her side and, much more gently, tenderly than earlier, he offered his arm.

“You are much too old to carry now,” he said as they both turned their attention to the Bridgerton tent being packed up, Eloise and Colin both waving at them to get their attention. “But I shall take you home, Penelope.”

It was a tad cramped in the second family coach. Eloise had decided she wanted to see if she could get more information on what happened with Daphne so she sat in the first carriage with their mother, Anthony, and Daphne. In the second carriage were Benedict, Colin, and Gregory on one side with Penelope and Hyacinth on the other. Gregory had tried, quite valiantly, to sit next to Penelope, moon-eyed boy that he was. He had a rather large tendre for Penelope, and it was normally sweet. But, considering the emotionally draining circ*mstances and the cramped space of the coach, Benedict had no desire to make Penelope uncomfortable with the overeager antics of his younger brother. So Benedict, with Colin’s assistance, had wrangled the young boy onto their laps. It had not been Benedict’s ideal situation, half of Gregory’s bony arse on his lap and the other on Colin’s. But Penelope’s comfort came first, and he knew Gregory would be all too eager to take advantage of Penelope’s kindness.

There was technically room next to Penelope, but Benedict would not have it. Although, he was wondering whether he made the right choice. As the carriage rumbled down the dirt and gravel streets, it bounced causing Penelope’s bosom to, well…respond with the coach’s natural motion. Gregory was getting quite the eyeful, and it was then Benedict decided to push Gregory to the side, over Colin’s lap and crammed into the corner of the carriage, so that he was facing Hyacinth instead. Gregory’s answering pout was all Benedict needed to affirm he made the right choice.

“I am so terribly sorry, Pen,” Colin said, a mixture of sympathy and pity. Benedict winced. “I feel like this happens often. Not that we mind your company! It simply means we get to monopolize you more!”

Colin’s wide, toothy smile was genuine and Penelope’s answering blush told Benedict that she didn’t feel slighted by how he noticed her unfortunate predicament with her family. Instead, she felt noticed. Benedict wondered if that was good or bad but quickly shrugged it off. It wasn’t really his business.

“It is no issue, Colin. You’re much more pleasant company than my sisters. They cannot seem to stop talking about the different suitors, none of whom shall ever visit us. It is growing quite tedious.”

Benedict frowned but Colin laughed, and Benedict wondered at both the rapport between the two, as well as her self-deprecating humor. Benedict wasn’t sure how to feel about it. Penelope was his friend, he wanted her to have some confidence in herself if no one else would. And, really, ever since she had convinced her mother to relax her hair style, it had been quite the improvement – At least if it was looks Penelope was worried about.

“You are always quite good with little barbs, Pen,” Colin chuckled.

“Yes, you are!” Gregory quickly chimed in, not wanting to be left out.

“Of course she is! Because she reads so much!” Hyacinth said, nose in the air as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

“Some people can read all they want and never be near as clever,” Colin said, and once again Benedict noticed Penelope’s cheeks go as red as her hair. The flush faded faster than a runaway carriage though as soon as Colin asked, “Oh, how is Miss Thompson? Is she faring any better?”

Penelope blanched, twisting her fingers together in her lap. Benedict could tell how one cheek hollowed that she was chewing it in nervous thought, and he wondered how he already knew that about her. He glanced towards his younger brother and was amazed to see that Colin didn’t seem to notice.

“She is recovering, albeit slowly,” Penelope offered, before Benedict saw her bite her other cheek. “I know Mama wants her to…rejoin us soon.”

“I hope to see her at the next social event,” Colin remarked a little dreamily. Benedict resisted the urge to kick him. “She is quite charming.”

“Quite,” Penelope squeaked, taking a sudden interest in the moving scenery outside.

As they approached Bridgerton House, Benedict quickly offered to escort Penelope to her door. Penelope accepted, barely able to look up as Colin bid her a cheery farewell. Benedict, against his better judgment, pitied her. It was as he had suspected, Colin was not ready, if he ever would be, to return her affections. His eyes were still moved by material beauty, flitting from one superficial vision to another. Benedict was not immune to it either, but he had grown from the desire and recognized it for what it was: lust. Lust was a powerful thing, and Benedict heeded it when it needed to be followed. He exorcized it, then moved on. That was the beginnings of a man of their society.

But to Colin, every emotion, however fleeting, was powerful and overwhelming.

He was still a boy.

And as Benedict walked Penelope over to her doorstep, each step careful and measured, he knew by the look of confusion and pain on her face that she was still a girl.

They would grow, to be sure. But he was afraid that one’s journey may be more painful than the other’s.

As she started to ascend the steps she paused, revolved on her heel and stepped back down until she was just level with his face. They could’ve touched nose to nose.

“Will you and Eloise meet me in the garden again? Tonight?” she asked quietly, studying his expression. “I think we can help Daphne, but I cannot do it alone.”

Benedict shouldn’t have doubted her. He had, briefly, under the willow tree when he had realized she had known Daphne’s plight since Vauxhall. But he shouldn’t have. He knew she had the will, the cunning, and now the growing power to fix his sister’s predicament. Benedict’s own guilt wouldn’t let him settle. If given the opportunity he would take it, and she was offering him a small chance of redemption.

“Alright. Eleven?”

“Yes, that should do.”

He held her sky blues a moment longer, his brain in its constant tumble of thoughts and feelings turning over stones at a rapid pace.

“Did you mean what you said earlier?” he asked.

She shuffled her hideous pink skirts, fanning them out before smoothing them again. The air was cool, a bit humid, as her loose curls frizzed around her head.

“Yes,” she said. “No one should feel trapped just because of their family. Whether that family is good or bad. Everyone deserves to find themselves, I suppose.”

With that, she spun to ascend the steps to her family’s door. Benedict watched her go and disappear inside. Guilt once again wriggled in the corners of his mind, though for what he could not say.

Benedict entered the garden slowly, the darkness of night rendering Eloise into a mere shadow under the tree. The faint light from the house windows and the moon above his only guide, he followed her shape until he smelled the tobacco smoke.

“Eloise Bridgerton.”

He did his best to level a glare at her, despite the fact he had shared a smoke with her not long ago. It was always a little fun to tease, to toe the line between older brother and friend. It was also entertaining to keep Eloise on her toes. She stiffened at first before rolling her eyes, flicking a bit of ash into the ground.

“Go on, then,” she said defiantly. “Chastise me.”

She took another long inhale from the daintily rolled bit of tobacco and he just couldn’t hold it together any longer.

“Spare one for me?”

She grinned, reaching down for her hidden stash to hand him one. He took it and the matches gratefully, lighting the cigarillo with ease. He inhaled the bitter smoke into his lungs, holding it there until it burned. They sway for a moment, enjoying the silence. He was about to ask when she though Penelope would join them, when Eloise suddenly said,

“Suppose I desire something different.”

He glanced at her curiously.

“How do you mean?”

“Just different.” She paused, inhaling a steady stream of smoke before easily exhaling it from her lungs. Benedict probably should scold her, but he knew he wouldn’t. “I watch Daphne prepare for these balls with all of those dresses and the many suitors, and I am exhausted. Suppose I want a different life, that I truly believe I am quite capable of something more, even when I am not allowed to have anything else.”

“Then I would say…” Benedict twisted towards her, dangling the rolled tobacco from his fingertips. “That you are not the only one.”

They grinned at one another, that little one that was just between them. They knocked their knees together, swaying in the swings. They were so engrossed in their own thoughts that when they heard the rustle in the grass they both hastily blew out the smoke, trying to wave the evidence away as if their very mother was encroaching upon them.

“At ease, Bridgertons,” came a light giggle. “Your naughty actions have not been caught by mother or foe.”

Eloise and Benedict sighed in relief, bobbing their heads as Penelope approached. Benedict was taken aback. Penelope had decided to cross the road in her lady’s maid cloak, hood lifted to mask her face. When she finally reached them she sighed and lowered the hood, carefully untying the cloak to settle it in the grass. Underneath she wore, quite clearly, a light pink dressing gown. It still was not complimentary to her skin, but it was certainly more flattering than the other ostentatious frills her mother made her wear. But his confusion was set off twofold. A disguise over something so casual? And how was he to feel that she had suddenly deemed it fine to wear something completely inappropriate around him?

She really was at ease around him now, and he wasn’t sure if that was entirely positive. At the same time though, he couldn’t find it within himself to correct her.

“Do you plan on making a delivery tonight?” Benedict asked, sliding down from the swing to sit in the grass in front of her. Eloise mirrored his actions, shuffling over to adhere to Penelope’s side.

Penelope waved her hand dismissively.

“No, not at all. Mama has just been–” She stopped, biting her lip as she considered her words. Benedict’s curiosity piqued. “More on edge lately. Stressed. I felt it best to wear a disguise just in case.”

Eloise hummed, satisfied. Benedict, however, was not quite convinced.

“So,” Benedict started slowly. “The two of you knew about Berbrooke’s assault on Daph.”

Eloise and Penelope both had the good grace to look a little ashamed.

“Understand, Brother, we did not tell you for Daphne’s sake,” Eloise implored, actually looking quite contrite. That was a first. “But it looks like Berbrooke has successfully found a way around such a scandal. Who would believe poor Daphne’s words over a man’s?”

“This is why we must do something,” Penelope said, covering her friend’s knee with her hand. “If we could uncover something horrible about Lord Berbrooke–”

Benedict rubbed his temples, at a loss.

“Anthony himself said he could find no trace of scandal about him. I have heard mere whispers of financial problems at White’s, but that is not enough.”

“That’s because you are asking the wrong people,” Penelope said primly, sitting up straight, looking for their little group to seem much like the Queen when she was in one of her imperious moods. “People of our class only know so much about each other after all.”

Benedict co*cked his head, puzzled, but it was Eloise who caught on first. She bounced on the ground in her white nightgown, clearly thrilled.

“The servants!” Eloise burst out. “They know everything!”

It was then it dawned on Benedict what her idea was, and he couldn’t stop the fizzle of anticipation that flared through his veins. Is this what she felt whenever she set about to uncover a secret? How thrilling.

“We must all ask our servants to ply the rumor mill about Lord Berbrooke having financial problems. Eventually, his servants will not be able to resist sharing whether it’s true or not. They might possibly uncover something bigger. Implore your mother to do the same. I could even use my disguise, go down to Bloomsbury–”

“No,” Benedict said firmly. “We have discussed this. You cannot go down there alone, and what if your own servants catch you? They will report you to your mother and then you would be locked up in your house for the rest of your life.”

“Maybe not your whole life,” Eloise said unhelpfully. “But definitely until she finds some old man to marry you off to.”

Penelope shivered.

“Fine. Point taken.”

She stuck her tongue out childishly at Benedict and he tweaked her nose in response.

“El, I think you should approach Mother with the idea, it will make more sense coming from you.”

Eloise bristled, trying to sit up taller than her much larger brother.

“Why? Because I am a lady and therefore supposedly love to gossip?”

“Because I, shamefully, have not been very involved. It would be strange if I suddenly had some grand idea to help Daph,” Benedict said, poking his sister’s cheek. “But as you’ve said, you’ve had a front row seat to everything. I believe you could do it. I will still implore my valet to talk amongst the other servants though.”

Eloise relaxed, inclining her head a little rudely.

“I suppose that makes sense,” she conceded.

Benedict and Penelope shared a grin.

“Alright then,” Benedict said cheerfully. “Operation Boil the Frog is under way!”

Both girls gave him unimpressed looks and he shrugged, before grinning lazily, reaching for another cigarillo.

“What? I think it is hilarious.”

They quickly set to work. With Penelope’s coaching and Benedict’s encouragement, Eloise plucked the courage to approach her mother the next morning. Apparently Violet had experienced a rather harrowing conversation with Daphne, and the idea was just what Violet needed. Eloise had been surprised that her mother had actually taken her words seriously, so used to her loud opinions being ignored, but Penelope had assured her that her mother was probably just as desperate to rescue Daphne from Lord Berbrooke’s clutches as they were. Violet quickly arranged for Lady Berbrooke to be invited over for tea later that day before Violet would see the Queen the next morrow.

“It will be considered last minute, but you must insist,” Violet had pushed as she sent off the letter with the fastest post boy. Both Benedict and Eloise were impressed.

Benedict, in his turn, set to work with the male servants, telling his valet to see if he could dig up any information. To Benedict’s shock his valet, Radcliffe, actually shot Benedict a knowing smile, small as it was.

“Mister Bridgerton, I know exactly where Lord Berbrooke’s valet and footman frequent.”

So it was now Benedict’s turn to sneak into Penelope’s back garden, followed closely by Eloise. Eloise instructed him to pick up gravel from the drive and, aiming at a lit window on the third floor, Eloise began to throw the pebbles with expert ease. Benedict gaped at her briefly before following her lead, barely missing Penelope’s forehead as she abruptly opened the window.

“Keep it down!” she hissed from above, wrapped in his pink night robe, her hair pulled back in a simple braid. “Have you news?”

“Better!” Eloise whispered as loudly as possible. Benedict pondered if there was an actual word for that. “Don your disguise! We must make haste!”

Penelope was down within ten minutes, wrapped in her lady’s maid cloak and out the servants entrance. It was now close to midnight and if they were to overhear the conversation Radcliffe was setting up for them, it was essential they hurry. They took a Bridgerton coach, heading into one of the corners of Covent Garden known for its brothels. Benedict bribed his coachman to wait two blocks back.

“Keep watch, El,” Benedict said, narrowing his eyes as if she already disobeyed his orders.

“Oh, why can I not come?” Eloise whined.

“Because you do not have a disguise,” Penelope tried to reason, tucking her fiery hair within her hood.

“And you have a loud mouth,” Benedict finished before shutting the carriage in an aghast Eloise’s face.

“Oh, you should not have done that,” Penelope giggled as Benedict pulled her along the paved side street, gravel streets and muddy alleyways.

“She will forgive me eventually. I am still her favorite!”

Penelope resisted the urge to roll her eyes as Benedict took her by the hand, practically sprinting until they began to reach a street corner. At every turn there were men and women plying their trade, attempting to catch any man with a purse’s eye.

“Still quite busy,” Penelope remarked. “Even without Harris’s List!”

Benedict glanced at her sharply.

“And how exactly do you know about that?”

Penelope flushed and hid her face in her cloak, a little ashamed.

“You forget who my father is,” was all she said before carting him forward. Benedict felt a little ill at her words, suddenly imagining a poor, little Penelope rifling through her father’s papers, only to find old issues of such a craven publication.

Before he could say anything close to comforting, however, he spotted Radcliffe in position outside the brothel, milling about by the entrance. Benedict checked his pocket watch, they were just in time. Tucking Penelope into his side, he inclined his head towards his loyal valet, keeping his top hat low over his eyes. He rounded the corner, both keeping their head down so they were just out of sight, but just in hearing distance of the entrance. Some people leered at them as they walked by, some barely noticed them. But Benedict pressed Penelope further into his side. He risked much by bringing her to such a place. If anyone recognized them–

Well, Benedict rather not think about it.

So he waited and listened, until he heard the telltale, deep voice of Radcliffe call out, “Williams! Granger! You absolute devils, I was hoping I’d find you here!”

“Do me eyes deceive me? Radcliffe?” That voice was gruff, older, probably a man in his forties.

“Is the proverbial angel on our shoulder actually joining in the fun tonight?” The other voice was much younger, slick, even a tad polished.

“Nah, waiting on my master, the terrible sod!” Benedict could practically hear Radcliffe rolling his eyes and shrugging in a what can you do sort of manner. If Benedict didn’t know any better, he’d really think Radcliffe didn’t like him in this instant.

There were “Ahhhs,” and “Oh yes,” from the other two.

“The bloody rich and their appetites. I like a good tumble, but I swear they’re not as discreet as they think. Spending all of their money, gambling it away or using it in whor*houses. The rate it’s going, none of us will be getting paid!” Radcliffe continued, steering the conversation just as Benedict had wanted him to.

“Be blessed if y’er getting paid much, keep an eye on y’er master,” the older man growled. “We’re getting paid pittance now, ‘cause of milord’s financial troubles.”

“Oh?” Radcliffe asked, all ears.

“That’s why he’s after y’er master’s sister, ain’t he? That family is loaded. I doubt y’er boy will spend it faster than I ‘ear ‘is brother makes it.”

“Let us hope,” Radcliffe agreed.

Benedict turned to Penelope and both of them were practically vibrating with excitement. This was just the sort of news they needed to hear!

“It gets worse,” the younger man said, and Benedict realized that the slickness he had heard in the man’s voice was actually the looseness of sweet alcohol. “The master see, he knocked up one of the maids a few years ago. And what does he do? Sends her, pregnant, to the country with no money to speak of!”

Benedict felt his jaw unhinge, dropping to hang loose in the air. Now this he had not expected. From Penelope’s tiny gasp, he doubted she did either.

“Oi! You can’t be blurting that around–”

“I’ll do as I please! Cause what does the blaggard do? He’s gone and tupped another maid, my sister! She's with child and scared. He’ll do the same to her once he finds out, I guarantee it.”

“My master is many things,” Radcliffe said, and Benedict peered to see him patting the young servant’s shoulder. “But he is no villain. I am sorry for your sister.”

“Thanks, mate.”

The conversation dwindled on and started to drift, but Benedict and Penelope shared a knowing look. They had exactly what they needed to be rid of Berbrooke once and for all.

When they arrived back at the carriage, Benedict hurried to tell Eloise everything as Penelope gathered the portable writing desk, dipping a quill in fresh ink, before nodding to Benedict. Eloise lurched forward to hold the ink bottle and keep it from spilling as Benedict banged the roof of the carriage, “Bloomsbury!”

It has come to This Author’s attention that the ton is abuzz with a most sordid tale.

It is said one cannot judge a book by its cover. But in the case of the bumbling Baron Berbrooke, it seems his displeasing appearance is quite an apt metaphor for the state of affairs in his household. I would not be surprised if Lord Berbrooke were called away to the country on alleged business…

Business which, perhaps, might involve sending some much overdue funds to one former maid and young boy, who we can only hope takes after his mother. He may take quite a permanent leave soon, as it has also been heard that he may have recently acquired another charge he may try to shirk responsibility for. My Dear Readers, it seems the water in Lord Berbrooke’s pond has reached a boiling point without him knowing. I am not one for the French delicacy of frog’s legs, but I’m sure there are many people who would just enjoy skewering him.

Benedict had to physically hold back from cackling in delight as he saw Lord Berbrooke sweat, reading Lady Whistledown on the sofa at White’s as his bulging eyes flickered around the room nervously. Every man was watching him with great distaste and nothing was more satisfying than watching the dastardly man practically hop out of the room as if he was being boiled alive or fried in hot oil.

Benedict would be sure to save this particular issue. He felt a tinge of pride at Penelope’s reference to his little joke. He knew she’d see it as quite humorous.

With the Lady Whistledown issue and his mother’s rapidly successful campaign to spread the same gossip she had received from Daphne’s lady’s maid after tea with Lord Berbrooke’s mother yesterday, the scandal had snowballed into a catastrophe of epic proportions. Lord Berbrooke would be all but run out of town, and Daphne was free to pursue her viable options at last. Benedict settled back with a great sigh of relief. Maybe, just maybe, he could now relax as well. Ever since his sister’s debut and the revelation of Penelope as Lady Whistledown, he did not feel he’d gotten much time to breathe.

Though, he had to admit, working with Penelope on such clandestine work was quite exhilarating. Knocking back his drink he stood, ready to depart and to have Eloise go call upon Penelope for a secret meeting. He knew just how to celebrate.

“Is this night three? Four? No, three?” Eloise asked a little hazily, wobbling in her spot on the grass as she took another swig of wine from the bottle. “We have not slept properly for so many nights in a row, I cannot possibly know numbers now.”

In front of the three of them in their little circle by the swings, Benedict had laid out a small feast of cakes and two bottles of red wine.

“One bottle for me,” he had said. “And one for the two of you to share.”

Both Eloise and Penelope, simultaneously, clutched at their chests in mock outrage. Any sort of effect they wanted to give was ruined by the fact they were both in their embroidered night robes.

“You think we cannot hold our drink because we are women?” Eloise accused.

“I think you cannot hold your drink because you are inexperienced,” he replied calmly, uncorking the bottle for them. “And because you are both incredibly tiny.”

Penelope snorted, opened her mouth–

“Not one word about yourself, Penelope,” Benedict scolded, and her blue sky eyes widened in shock. “Tonight is a cause for celebration. One that you helped create. As your friend, I will not tolerate such cruelty towards yourself.”

Penelope sat stunned for a moment as Benedict popped a piece of orange cake in his mouth. Eloise actually patted Benedict’s knee with something close to approval before taking a rather large swig from the bottle, choking in her exuberance. They talked and laughed for hours until they were a strange set on the ground, lined up like matchsticks, their heads knocking into each other as they stared at the night sky through the tree branches.

“This is certainly unladylike,” Penelope commented, her speech slightly slurred. “Absolutely inappropriate.”

“Indeed,” Benedict agreed.

Eloise muttered something nonsensical.

“Beyond the bounds of propriety, even?” Penelope asked.

“Most certainly,” Benedict replied.

“Then why are you here, Benedict? Indulging the whims of girls?”

Benedict laid there with the question, puzzled over it in order to give it the answer it deserved. He wasn’t that drunk, and Penelope deserved an honest answer, even if she wouldn’t remember it in the morning.

“El is my sister, and you are my friend,” he said softly, and while he didn’t look at her he could feel her autumn fire curls tickling his skin, becoming stuck in the stubble gracing his cheek. “And no one should be alone when they’re sad or when they want to celebrate. Do you not agree?”

He felt Penelope nod beside him, her fiery strands tugged on the brown stubble, whispering against his skin.


Her voice was growing more heavy now, Benedict could tell that the alcohol and slumber were pulling her down and away from consciousness.

“Yes, Penelope?”

“Do you like stories? Comedies or tragedies?”

Benedict dared to turn toward her, and felt the cool blades of grass press into his face along with more of her glowing tresses. She was still looking up at the shrouded sky, Eloise now snoring beside her.

“I prefer a comedy. They have happy endings.”

Penelope looked pensive, fighting sleep as her eyelashes fluttered, her girlish round cheeks puffed out in thought, a funny purse to her lips. Then, as if by magic, it all relaxed, taking on a slack, dreamy quality.

“I hope to write one someday, a comedy,” she murmured, growing fainter by the second. “When I know in my soul how one ends.”

“I am sure you will,” Benedict said, a beleaguered ache in his chest as he watched her fall asleep.

He’d let her dream a while, before he woke her to go home. He hoped Morpheus would grant her wish.

Chapter 3: A Practice in Friendship


The gallery at Somerset House puts several new things in perspective for Benedict. Penelope learns that love, unfortunately, is not the thing of fairytales.


Hello friends!

While this is a shorter chapter than the first two, there's a lot going one! Episode 3 is always a big on in Bridgerton!

I've linked to the artworks listed in this chapter so you can see what they actually look like!

Thank you again to itakethewords for being my beta and designing the art! I loooooovveee youuuu!

Also, forgive me, I'm sleep deprived these days.

Chapter Text

Unspooled Thread - happilyinsane13 - Bridgerton (TV) [Archive of Our Own] (3)

The trio had all begged off the ball the very next night, far too hungover and sleep deprived to do much else. Even Penelope was willing to sacrifice the potential gossip. The scandal on Berbrooke would last the whole week until the greedy ton craved more blood, so she figured she and her dear friends earned the respite.

Friends, Penelope couldn’t help but think gleefully, even as she winced in bed when her lady’s maid drew the curtains and light assaulted her face, making her temples throb. It was not just she and Eloise anymore. She could now count Benedict among them.

Though, suddenly, Penelope thought with a frown, taking the sip of water Maevis offered her, she felt a little guilty. Colin was her friend, and yet she had hardly been able to spend time with him. Not that they were glued to the hip as she and Eloise were, but they always had an amiable rapport, and, well, Colin filled her stomach with butterflies and made her feel as if she was floating on air. She thought she was enamored of him ever since she saw him setting paper boats to float on the lake when she was nine, but it was when she was thirteen and she’d knocked him off his horse with her bonnet that had changed everything. By all accounts he should’ve been mad, annoyed at least. But he had just laughed, and oh how she had fallen in love with his laugh.

She was convinced if a doctor could find a way to bottle up Colin’s laughter and make it into medicine, it would cure the world. Wasn’t that what it felt like to be in love? To believe that the right kind of person could fix everything?

But it could not be helped. Colin was a young gentleman and he was occupied with a young gentleman's pursuits. Penelope was not always completely sure what those were, but she was convinced that for Colin they must be important. Besides, Benedict himself admitted that at present he wasn’t sure what he would do further with his life. Benedict was also determined not to let Penelope pursue her enterprise alone, stubborn man that he was. She rolled her eyes fondly before wincing and clutching her head. She begged Maevis to inform her mother she was ill, and it would just hurt Prudence and Philippa’s chances if she was seen sniveling all over the ball tonight. As Maevis left the room, Penelope hastily gulped down the rest of her water. She had a feeling she would need a lot of it today.

Dearest Gentle Reader,

It is often said that those who marry in haste must repent at leisure, a sentiment that is clearly shared by Miss Daphne Bridgerton, who has apparently rejected not one, not two, but three proposals already this week. Some believe she is showing admirable forethought in her deliberations, but I would venture a different conjecture, that she, like This Author, is still waiting on the only suitor of note.

Benedict sighed as he closed the Lady Whistledown issue, sipping his tea thoughtfully as he let the usual family chaos of the drawing room surround him. It had been a week and a half since the closure of the Berbrooke incident. For the first few days afterwards he had simply laid in bed, recovering from his lack of sleep and his persistent hangover. His sister had been no better, not leaving her room the first day and padding over to his chambers the second day just so she could snore on the sofa by the fireplace in his room.

“Inappropriate,” he groaned, too weak to even get up to kick her out. “You have your own room.”

“Your room has a fireplace,” she said, weakly yet still incredibly petulant. “Now shut up and let me sleep.”

Unfortunately, their mother would not forget them for too long and on the third day she’d forced the pair of them up, had them bathed and properly dressed to sit through the agony of watching suitor after suitor fill the drawing room to woo Daphne. It was a peculiar type of torture, and he was convinced his mother knew they were currently too weak to escape.

But it had been enough time and Penelope was back to writing as his sister’s apparent courtship with the Duke continued. Daphne was promenading with the man at that moment, with Violet and Lady Danbury as chaperones. Benedict lay on the sofa, his legs so long and lanky they hung over the wooden arm at the end. He folded up the scandal sheet before slipping it into the pages of the sketchbook nestled on his lap. He picked up the sketchbook and retrieved the graphite he tucked behind his ear to attempt to continue his sketch.

Eloise sat across from him, nose in a book, as Hyacinth and Gregory played marbles on the floor between them. Colin was at the table, eating a scone as he read his own book, a sparse one on travels in Greece. Travel books were only just gaining some popularity, though the most common ones were about traveling the English countryside. With the war against Napoleon still raging on the Continent, Benedict had honestly been surprised that Anthony and Violet were allowing Colin to embark on a Grand Tour at all.

Benedict looked up, sketchbook and graphite slightly limp in his hands. He’d been trying to draw a side profile of a female face; pert nose, stubborn chin, and round cheeks. But he couldn’t get it exactly right, so he bobbed his head towards Colin to ask,

“Still planning on Greece, Col?”

Colin looked up, mouth a little full like a chipmunk as he chewed and swallowed his bite of scone.

“Why would I not be, Brother?”

“Well,” Benedict hedged, tapping the tip of his graphite on the page in front of him. “You seem quite enamored of Miss Thompson…”

He winced, almost regretting bringing it up. But there was a part of him that had to know. Penelope was his friend now, and anyone who wasn’t willfully blind (such as Eloise, or Colin himself) could see that Penelope carried a torch for his bright, affable younger brother. He wanted, in his own small way, to protect her from the ravages of heartbreak. They spent so much time together, even if it was due to the demands of the work Penelope set for herself, and he saw within her the girl who was infatuated, in rapture with her first love. Benedict knew Colin well and therefore he knew Colin had not even thought of Penelope as anything more than a friend. To some degree, he thought Penelope knew that. But young hope, having not been snuffed out yet, could be strong and illusory.

“She is the most lovely lady of the season, to be sure,” Colin said amiably, adjusting his book in his hands. “I do worry about her illness, as she’s been absent for the past few social events. But until then, I must focus on what is already planned, Brother.”

Colin shot him a smile before returning to his pages on ruined temples and the Aegean Sea. Benedict could not help the worried frown that crossed his face.

Penelope could not believe the audacity of her mother.

Well, that wasn’t exactly true. She could believe it. It was just her actions appeared so incredibly, indescribably crass that she could barely stand it.

Penelope had checked the mail every day for Marina, looking for letters from her beloved Sir George. Alas, nothing had come, and her mother had caught her consorting with Marina, kicking her out of the room. But of course, Penelope listened at the door and gasped to learn her mother was forcing Marina back into society to quickly snag a husband before her pregnancy was revealed.

“I do not want–” Marina had began, but Lady Portia had quickly interrupted her,

“What you want became immaterial long ago. You shall wed and you shall do it as soon as possible.”

Penelope could not let this happen. Marina truly had become a dear friend. No one had so eagerly sought to confide in her, at least not someone who was a part of her family. Marina was kind to her and truly listened when Penelope spoke. And there was a fire in Marina, one that reminded Penelope so much of Eloise. She could not let her mother try to douse it out, especially not with Marina’s relationship with Sir George at stake.

Marina had shown Penelope their love letters, and now with the knowledge Benedict had given her about how children were created, that such acts were done for pleasure, without the intention of procreation… Well, so many words and phrases suddenly found new meaning, causing Penelope to blush as she read–

Your body a temple in which I enter, worshiping you as a goddess.

– miss your lips, as they create bountiful opportunities for pleasure…

Divine, inspired, my love. I long to hold you–

The letters went on and on. Beautiful, salacious words that Penelope could only dream could one day be directed at her. She felt herself grow hot just thinking about it. If Colin were to ever write such words of passion to her, she’d follow him to any battlefield.

So she had to help Marina escape the machinations of her mother. It was something she would resolve to do. For true love. For, in her heart, so desperate to believe that fairytale endings could be achieved, she wanted to see their love succeed.

Penelope could not help but be disappointed when she could not find Benedict among the men at Almack’s. She smoothed her bright pink floral skirts carefully, trying to fight off the tinge of sadness. She had hoped to see her friend and observe the madness surrounding the arrival of Prince Friedrich with someone who might find it as amusing as she did. Alas, she was relegated to the corner as her sisters fought over who could gain the Prince’s attention.

“The prince is from Prussia, and I dare say that I just caught his eye,” Prudence said, pushing forward through the crowd.

“I love Russia! I could swoon,” Philippa added and Penelope had to fight not to hide her face in her gloved hands out of embarrassment.

She did, however, observe the easy camaraderie between the Duke of Hastings and Daphne with glee. She wasn’t even noticed when Prince Friedrich introduced himself to Daphne, complimenting her dress, only for Daphne to respond with a snort of a laugh. Penelope had to hide a giggle, it was so unusual to see Daphne so…well, relaxed. The Duke did wonders for her disposition, even lowering her guard so she made such a faux pas in front of the Prince and the Queen. It was sweet, truly, and Penelope wondered idly if Marina’s Sir George made her laugh the same way, little inside jokes that would cause a random spurt of giggles when she saw something to remind her of it.

Colin made Penelope laugh. He was a fan of puns and a good joke, as lighthearted as he was. But she shared no inside jokes, no quips that only the two of them would understand. Rapidly, she was filled with a sore kind of longing, empty and painful. As she let such feelings take her away for a moment, she did not notice the Duke of Hastings approach her.

“Miss Featherington.”

Startled, she looked up to see Simon Basset, Duke of Hastings, standing regally in front of her. With his well fitted jacket and gold and blue cravat, he could honestly be just as dashing as any prince, though he did have the hint of a rogue about him. Penelope looked around her, maybe he was speaking to someone else? One of her sisters? But the Duke merely gave her a polite, kind, close-lipped smile. His dark eyes, she noticed for the first time, glowed with an inner warmth.

“Yes, Miss Featherington, I am speaking to you.”

“Oh, Your Grace!” Penelope quickly curtsied, realizing how belated the action was, her face flushing. “Is there anything I can help you with?”

“I was wondering if you would accompany me for the next dance,” he said, offering her his hand.

Penelope stared at it a little dumbly.

“But, Miss Bridgerton–”

“Is currently dancing with some other dandy,” the Duke said, pointing to where Daphne, willowy and beautiful, the dainty feather in her hair waving about, was indeed on the arm of another suitor. “And I would kindly ask of you to help a lonely man in need of a dance partner.”

“Ah!” Penelope said, hesitantly taking his hand. “You need help warding off other eligible debutants!”

The Duke frowned, and Penelope began to wonder if that had been the wrong thing to say, too forward, until he said,

“Miss Featherington, while partially true, there is something even more important that has led me to ask you.” He smiled again, a bigger smile than before, a little more true. “You have kind eyes.”

Penelope was speechless as the Duke of Hastings led her to the dance floor. No one particularly noticed or cared, except Daphne who actually gave her an encouraging smile and practically radiated approval when she looked at the Duke leading Penelope on the floor. They chatted about the weather, about the horse races, about silly mamas and sillier daughters and it was all incredibly pleasant and genuine. When the dance was done, he pointedly led her across the room away from Penelope’s family, stationing her snugly by the refreshments table.

“Miss Featherington,” he said, peering over his shoulder to spot Penelope’s mother and sisters, who seemed to be yawning behind their fans, not at all concerned about Penelope dancing with the Duke. Penelope knew that they already saw it for what it was; nice, but meaningless when it came to Penelope’s marriage prospects. “Please know, that family never need define you.”

With those cryptic words he bowed, and glided away to join Daphne’s side again, leaving Penelope strangely light but bewildered.

Benedict watched the gambling taking place from the corner of the room at White’s with a sick, twisted feeling in his gut.

The haze of tobacco smoke hovered in the room and was filled to the brim with lords and other gentlemen crowding the various betting and cards tables, raucous and greedy. He’d been there all night, watching Lord Featherington bet and lose, bet and lose; his money, various items from the Featherington estate, and when he had no more money on him, then his very word. It was incredibly painful to watch.

Benedict was supposed to be with Colin, watching him have another friendly spar with Jackson at the boxing gym. Yet Benedict felt called here. As Benedict grew closer to Penelope, he became hyper aware of Lord Featherington’s activities within the club, at various gambling hells, the whor*houses, and at animal baiting arenas… He just couldn’t let it go. Penelope was his friend, a girl who he had insisted rely on him for protection. How could he not observe how Lord Featherington could very well be ruining his own family?

So it was with a well of shame as he leaned in the corner against a bookcase, strangely situated between the Greek tragedies, as he watched his older brother and the Duke of Hastings absolutely run away with Lord Featherington’s money. Penelope’s money, for what else should a lord’s money be used for other than the well-being of his family and his tenants? Benedict was not, and never desired to be, the Viscount of the vast Bridgerton estate. But even he knew where his responsibilities, his honor and duty, would lay if he did.

He winced, watching yet again as Anthony and the Duke won again, and he was suddenly incredibly thankful that Penelope had come up with Whistledown. She was slowly, carefully building a nest egg she could use. Though, Benedict thought, it would be better if she never had to use it at all. At least not for the support of a family who, apparently, thought not one wit about her when gambling their fortune away.

The round coming to a close, Benedict pushed off of the bookcase, fully intent on talking to Anthony. As he approached, he heard Anthony comment,

“Restraint is not among Lord Featherington’s skills,” Anthony said.

“Well, then, neither is gambling,” Simon replied.

Benedict gritted his teeth, sidling up to his brother’s side.


“Ah, Brother!” Anthony exclaimed, apparently in quite good spirits. “Come to see our winnings?”

“Actually,” Benedict began. “I thought, perhaps, you could go easy on Lord Featherington for a while. Maybe do not encourage his worse impulses–”

“And why would I do that when his ‘impulses’ pay the rest of us so well?” Anthony crowed, clapping his brother’s shoulder as if Benedict were all but an idiot.

The Duke glanced thoughtfully at Benedict, his dark eyes calculating. Benedict swallowed.

“We have always known him to be a horrible gambler, Anthony. He must be losing great amounts of his fortunes at this rate. Please, think of his daughters–”

“I would hope that Lord Featherington would not gamble with money he does not have,” Anthony said dismissively, patting Benedict’s cheek condescendingly. “But if he is, well, he must reap what he sows. Come, Hastings.”

“Call me Basset,” Simon reminded him, shooting Benedict an apologetic look as they left to join the chatter of the adjacent room.

Benedict watched on, frustrated and a little helpless, as he turned to see Lord Featherington make another absurd bet.

I have always thought that an appreciation of the arts is what lifts us beyond mere animals. It stirs the passions and moves the spirit, and, This Author hopes, inspires more newsworthy pursuits. A new wing at Somerset House is to be opened today, where several attractions will be on display… like the lovely Miss Marina Thompson, newly recovered from her mysterious illness and expected to finally rejoin the season.

Of course, there is today’s royal attraction as well, Prince Friedrich of Prussia. His Highness has come to our shores in want of a fine Fräulein. Could this be the reason a certain language tutor has been seen visiting Cowper House all week?

“I find no fault with this column!” Eloise exclaimed, studying the parchment extensively by the little light emitted from the Bridgerton House windows. They sat in the garden, waiting for Benedict to join them so Penelope could make her delivery. The whole of the haut ton would set upon Somerset House, home to several Royal Societies and the Royal Academy, tomorrow for the art exhibition, and she wanted to make sure the column was distributed first thing in the morning. “Capitalizing on the Prince’s arrival is certainly best, and all of those silly debutants vying for his affection, prancing about like painted birds with not another thought in their brains!”

Eloise rolled her eyes and Penelope could not help but snort at the look of disgust on her friend’s face. She shivered slightly in the spring night air. She’d taken her blue cloak off, leaving her in a simple, pastel pink woolen day dress to compensate for the slight chill. It was one of the least offensively ostentatious things she owned and only because her mother, when she wore the dress in winter, usually forced some horrific, gaudy floral coat over it.

“He is certainly making the whole of the ton chitter more than birds at St James’ park, I must say,” Penelope concurred. “Though I feel if your sister was not so attached to the Duke, the Prince would be pursuing her instead of Cressida.”

Eloise wrinkled her nose in distaste.

“That would be just what I need. Daphne becoming a princess! Mama would expect me to marry no less than an Earl then. Lawks, I do not believe I could stand it!”

Before Penelope could reply, a jovial voice joined the fray,

“What’s this? The two of you out of bed and gossiping?”

The girls stiffened. That was certainly not Benedict’s voice and as they turned their heads they gaped to see Colin Bridgerton grinning down at them.

“None of your business!” Eloise screeched, a little more loudly than Penelope thought she meant to, as Eloise frantically shoved Penelope’s column right down her bosom. Penelope tried to sneakily shove her lady’s maid cloak behind the tree, hoping the darkness would make it look like a rock or mound of dirt.

“That titillating?” Colin asked with a grin before flopping down on the grass to peer at the both of them. “Come on! If you tell me, I promise not to tell Mother how Penelope snuck out of bed to see her closest friend.”

He grinned warmly and Penelope immediately knew it was an empty threat, said in jest to rile up Eloise. Which worked, because next thing she knew, Eloise said,

“W-well, just to mitigate that, I am going to– to– gather forces against you!”

And suddenly Eloise was up and dashing across the lawn towards the house, leaving Penelope alone with Colin. Penelope felt her cheeks heat up under his gaze as he chuckled, turning his disarming smile to her.

“Will you be the stone I can squeeze blood from, Pen?” he teased.

Oh zounds, Penelope thought. He didn’t know how right he was.

“We were just discussing the Prince’s arrival,” Penelope said, cursing the way her voice came out at a slightly higher pitch. “And Cressida’s rather um…” Penelope tapped the dimple in her chin to find a more polite way of saying what she thought, but decided there was no way around it. “Cressida’s rather peaco*ck-like strutting to get his attention. She seems to forget that it is the male of the species with any real value to their plumage, and so she’s coming off rather pale and flat.”

Colin laughed uproariously, great booming laughter that burst across the garden like shots from a canon. Penelope’s heart swelled with pride that she had made him make such a sound. It had been because of her, not Marina a dark part of her whispered, that he was currently clutching his stomach and laughing so heartily.

“Oh, Pen,” Colin gasped, wiping tiny tears from the corners of his eyes. “You are a good friend, I needed a laugh!”

And all at once her heart sank again, though she tried to pull threads of positivity from it to shield herself from the sinking cold taking over. A friend was better than nothing. A friend could be a firm foundation for something, couldn’t it?


Penelope turned to see Benedict taking long, easy strides towards them, Eloise shuffling behind his easy gait. Penelope observed that Benedict’s smile was a bit too wide, his eyes darting around the dimly lit garden as if searching for others lurking around the corner.

“This is your great defender, El? Poor choice. I am much better at boxing than he is!” Colin said jovially.

“And I excel at fencing, we are at a draw, Brother,” Benedict said before bowing to Penelope. It took her a moment to realize that she should probably curtsy, it would look strange to Colin for her to have much familiarity with his older brother. A little belatedly she scrambled to her feet, lowering her gaze and curtsying. “Miss Featherington, I have been recruited to accompany you to the safety of your home.”

“I can do it, Brother,” Colin chirped, standing up and brushing off his breeches. “I know the way to the servants entrance, and I could enquire about Miss Thompson!”

Penelope felt another horrible pang in her chest, keeping her gaze to the ground, her shoulders shrinking in on herself. If she hadn’t known that Marina was steadfastly loyal to Sir George, she’d almost hate her good cousin. But it wasn’t Marina’s fault she was beautiful and caught Colin’s eye. Marina had played her part well as she waited for news from her lover, and Penelope willed herself to tamp down the ugly jealousy causing her lungs to seize and her stomach to turn. She saw Benedict’s boots shift in the grass.

“Normally I would let you, Col, but I’m afraid, uh, Gregory requires your presence.”

“Greg?” Colin asked, perplexed.

“Yes,” Benedict said smoothly, hands clasped behind his back, entirely amiable. “Ever since your spar with Jackson, he’s been completely inconsolable that he could not see it. You know he admires you so, and he will not let Mother rest until he hears you recount the venture in excruciating detail.”

“Huh,” Colin said, blinking. “I did not know it would upset him so. He is keeping Mother up?”

“Yes, and you know how Mother gets when she is lacking in sleep.”

All three Bridgertons, if Penelope was correct, shuddered in abject fear. She bit her cheek, the corners of her lips fighting to tilt up.

“Ah, well, it cannot be helped then.” With another smile that made Penelope’s heart do somersaults, he gave a small bow. “Another time, Pen.”

With that he was gone, ambling up towards the house. The three co-conspirators waited until he was well out of sight before they heaved a collective sigh of relief.

“I apologize, Penelope, I did not mean to be delayed,” Benedict said, sauntering over to her as Penelope retrieved her cloak.

“No harm done, Benedict,” she replied, though she did feel like her pride and confidence had taken a solid hit. “Let us be off before any of your other siblings decide to pop out from the hedges!”

Benedict held out his arm, and Eloise retrieved Penelope’s column, presenting it to her with a flourish.

“Watch out for her, Benedict,” Eloise said rather seriously.

“When do I not?” Benedict asked, gently flicking Eloise’s chin before tweaking Penelope’s nose.

As they were off towards the coach, Penelope settled into easy steps by Benedict’s side, who shortened his strides so she could keep up. At least this was easy. This, indeed, was a comfort.

Benedict rolled the little stones across and his fingers, using his thumb to control the two rocks' trajectory across his skin. He’d dismissed his valet as he waited to be called upon by his mother to set off the Somerset House. The shiny white stone stolen from a manicured flowerbed and a little gray rock, a piece of gravel in truth, were warm from being held in his palm. The weight of them was a comfort, along with the reminder of the moments he sought to remember.

The morning of Daphne’s presentation, one he’d pilfered from the palace grounds.

The evening he’d discovered Penelope was Whistledown.

He couldn’t wait to add them to his collection, tucked safely away at My Cottage. The light fighting to make itself seen beyond the clouds that clogged the London sky made them blink prettily up at them. They weren’t particularly shiny stones, but he found them beautiful nonetheless.

His mother’s voice called his name and he tucked the rocks safely away in his writing desk.

He eagerly wondered if he’d find a reason to collect more this season.

When the Bridgertons arrived at Somerset House, Penelope had to laugh as she carefully tucked the bit of purple heather she’d snuck from the house behind her ear. Eloise, of course, rushed to her side like the devil was on her heels. Penelope had to hide an indecorous smile as she saw Violet try to rope the Viscount then Benedict into some sort of scheme, both running away like gazelles being chased by a predator. It was sweet Colin who ended up arm-in-arm with his mother and Penelope’s heart warmed at the sight.

“It is terribly familiar, yet I am sure this is the first time I have seen it.” Penelope tilted her head up at the oil painting, naked nymphs frolicking in the wood.

“That is because, like all of these paintings, it was done by a man who sees a woman as a decorative object,” Eloise said snidely. “They are like…”

“Human vases!” Penelope said eagerly before turning and noticing her mother dragging Marina towards a grotesque older man conversing with her father in the middle of the room. She quickly excused herself, hoping Eloise would understand and dashed off. She couldn’t ignore Marina’s plea for help.

It was as awful as it appeared. Her mother clearly had every intention to shove Marina at any old, eligible bachelor who was without heirs. Lord Middlethorpe was balding on top of his head with wisps of white hair, a tad portly, and blatantly fake teeth. If he had no heirs now, Penelope doubted it was actually in his power to create any.

She did her best, trying to excuse Marina away. Marina, with all her inner fight that Penelope so admired, rudely turned the lord away. Penelope marveled at Marina’s confident rebuke, her self-assurance. Many days Penelope wished she was that strong, that brave, to be able to simply tell people, like her mother, “no.”

Like in this mortifying moment, as Penelope took the verbal beating, eyes downcast, when her mother hissed,

“You are a meddlesome little wench.” Lady Portia’s glare was angry enough that Penelope was convinced it should be shooting daggers. “And you–” she started, turning towards Marina until an icy, masculine voice interrupted,

“Excuse me.”

Benedict could not believe what he had just heard.

He had approached from behind, deciding it was time to talk to his friend as Eloise had sent him urgent looks to rescue Penelope from the clutches of Lady Featherington. Plus, he had glanced at the hint of purple heather, tucked behind Penelope’s ear. He’d seen the bouquet that morning as he dutifully looked out the window across the street, but clearly she’d wanted to be sure. He’d come over quietly, expecting Lady Portia to be lecturing the young women in her care about the eligible bachelors. But he never imagined that he’d stumble upon the woman, who had suddenly grown even more vile in his esteem, to lob such cruel, awful words at her own daughter.

No wonder Penelope had no confidence in herself.

“Excuse me,” he said coldly, and Lady Featherington jumped, spinning around to face Benedict, all of the blood having drained from her face.

“M-Mister Bridgerton,” Lady Featherington said, clutching her bosom like her heart was about to leap out of her chest. “I-I did not hear you approach.”

“Clearly,” Benedict gritted out. “For I would hope you would refrain from using such words to address your daughter in front of me.”

Penelope was staring up at him with surprise, utterly taken aback. This gave Benedict pause. Did no one stand up for her against this harpy of a woman? Was this normal?

“I came to ask if Miss Featherington would accept my company for a turn about the room,” Benedict said, voice increasingly tight.

“M-Miss– You mean Penelope? How about Miss Thompson, Mister Bridgerton, she would–”

“I think Marina would like to see our friend Eloise, your sister, Mister Bridgerton?” Penelope cut in, not even looking at her mother, grasping Marina’s gloved hand.

“Yes,” Marina joined in. “I quite like your sister, Mister Bridgerton. May I have your leave to join her?”

Benedict recognized collusion when he saw it, being one of eight siblings. So he nodded towards the young woman who shot him and Penelope a gracious smile, before hurrying off towards Eloise. Lady Featherington gaped, speechless for once.

“Miss Featherington.” Benedict offered his arm, and Penelope took it gratefully.

Benedict nodded curtly at Lady Featherington before whisking Penelope away, grumbling under his breath, “That complete– How dare– Penelope, does she always speak thusly to you?”

Penelope didn’t look at him, simply patted his arm as he directed her to a stretch of portraits on the wall. She picked at an applique on her hideous yellow bodice, before saying,

“Ah, Benedict, look. A portrait of Lady Hamilton!”

That was all the answer Benedict needed, and he felt something soft and open inside him fray at the seams. It was wrong for a mother to speak in such a way to her child. Maybe it was his family, his mother, who were odd amongst society. Penelope acted as if her parents' cruelty and neglect were nothing out of the ordinary. His mother had her failings, but she would never call them such names.

“It’s much too cold. Where’s any sense of the subject’s spirit? And the light! Given the quality, I do wonder why the piece was not skyed with the other daubs,” Benedict said, a little co*ckily. Penelope still hung on his arm, tilting her head to try and see what he saw. They had been looking at a long stream of portraits now, many of them rich, beautiful women. Many had been boring, but, to be honest, she actually quite liked this portrait. The woman appeared demure, yes, but not lacking in vitality.

But maybe that was the point of art. That one would not always agree upon it.

Lady Danbury sidled up with a dapper looking man dressed in a berry red velvet coat, his hair perfectly styled into smooth, dark blonde waves.

“Perhaps we should ask the artist,” Lady Danbury said slyly, and Penelope’s eyes widened. She tugged on Benedict’s sleeves, trying to warn him. The man on the other side of Lady Danbury actually caught her eye, winking at her. Penelope increased her tug upon his jacket, but Benedict ignored her.

“That would be something, Lady Danbury,” Benedict replied, once again a little high in the instep.

“Hmmmm… Mister Granville, why was your piece not skyed?” Lady Danbury turned to the slightly older man beside her, and Penelope had to resist the urge to bury her face in Benedict’s arm. She saw the moment Benedict’s eyes widened in panic and she could practically feel his pulse racing where her fingers rested in his wrist.

“Mister Granville, I–” Benedict tried to say, but Mister Granville quickly excused himself,

“If you will excuse me, um, I must find my wife.” With that the man walked off and Benedict turned his horrified gaze between Penelope and Lady Danbury, finally focusing on the older woman, who was snickering mercilessly.

“You diabolical… How could you let me rattle on like that?” Benedict wheezed, cheeks flushing.

“How could I not, my dear Mister Bridgerton?” Lady Danbury smirked. “It was riotously funny, you must admit. Miss Featherington tried to warn you. You really should listen to the women in your life more often.”

Benedict swiveled his face down towards Penelope, who shrugged.

“In this case, I must agree with Lady Danbury. I believe we are the more tactful of the sexes.”

Benedict groaned, gripping Penelope’s hand on his arm and shaking it playfully.

“Don’t the two of you ever join forces. It will be the death of me!”

“Oh, Mister Bridgerton,” Lady Danbury said, clacking her cane on the floor, the sound echoing like a gavel. “I think you just gave me a marvelous idea!”

Benedict, with a mixture of terror and awe, shuffled a giggling Penelope away.

“Stop, Penelope,” Benedict moaned, as she was utterly unable to control the giggles that burst and popped from her lips like champagne bubbles. “I am mortified enough as it is.”

“I apologize,” Penelope said, gasping for air as they swept along the crowded wall of paintings. “Let us talk of another painting then.”

“I am afraid to open my mouth, for fear of further shoving my foot in it.” Benedict’s shoulders slumped, and Penelope squeezed his arm in what she hoped was a comforting manner. “Then let us only look at dead artists' work, you cannot possibly insult them.”

“Watch me be haunted by offended spirits tonight,” he muttered, and Penelope had to muffle another flurry of laughter.

They walked along the wall, looking at several classical and biblical scenes rendered in vivid oils. Benedict was explaining how Joshua Reynolds, in his famous lectures, ‘The Seven Discourses on Art,’ proclaimed that depicting such scenes were the highest form of art a painter should aspire to create. Penelope pursed her lips, studying the many paintings, filled with depictions of nymphs, gods and goddesses, Old Testament catastrophes, and New Testament miracles.

“Do you agree?” she asked, studying one of many scenes of lithe nymphs bathing in a stream. “That these sorts of paintings are the best, purest form of art?”

Benedict looked at her, suddenly speechless. co*cking his head, he looked with her as they moved to Joshua Reynolds own Cupid and Psyche . The play of the candlelight as Psyche illuminated her previously faceless lover was haunting and surreal. It was fascinating, and yet–

“I do and I do not,” Benedict said. Penelope glared at him and he tweaked her nose. “Let me finish. While I think the scenes depicted are lively, admirable, beautiful even, I feel the very same could be done with real, living human beings who tell their own stories. This scene between Psyche and Cupid could be any intimate moment of discovery between lovers. Yet it’s believed that if we do not render such tender, exposing scenes under the veil of Homer or the Bible, then they are lewd and obscene.”

“So us mere mortals are lacking? Impure? How sad a view to have,” Penelope commented. “Is it not a farce, then? To paint such scenes as an excuse to study the female form or portray emotion that is so human, yet apparently obscene to be portrayed in art by real people?”

Benedict moved his free hand to cover her own that rested on his arm. He was now looking at her with something akin to wonder, his crows feet prominent and crinkled kindly.

“I could not have put it better myself,” Benedict said.

As they moved along, they stopped to look at more portraits of Classical and Biblical scenes, but something was…different about these.

“Oh, Penelope,” Benedict said, turning around at the sound of a screech across the floor. “Can you wait on me for one moment? Gregory is pulling upon Hyacinth’s ribbons–”

Penelope waved him away, not turning her gaze from the artwork in front of her.

“I shall stay right here, Benedict.”

She felt him squeeze her hand gratefully before darting off. Growing distant, she could hear him say, “Greg, let go of Hy this instant, we are in public–”

But as his voice faded, Penelope’s entire focus was transfixed by the group of paintings sitting in their gold frames. She was trying to place the commonality among them, besides the fact that they were all grand and by the same artist, Peter Paul Rubens. From The Judgement of Paris , Samson and Delilah , to The Three Graces , something was eerily familiar, an innermost memory–

She analyzed with a blush the way Samson fell across Delilah in carnal lust when it came to her with a flash.

The women, the goddesses, in the paintings all had bodies similar to her own. Soft bellies, rolls of flesh and fat gracing their back and sides, their thighs thick and plentiful. Delilah’s breast was heavy and full for her lover, not pert and apple sized like many of other paintings of women around the room. None of these mythical figures were willowy, yet they still attained a grace and allure that was undeniably sensual. They were painted as beautiful.

As she marveled at such a treasure, a wave of incredible hope washed over her. Could she be lucky enough, one day, for one man to see her how Rubens had seen Aphrodite or Delilah?

Penelope peered over her shoulder, wondering if Colin was in the room. She spotted him across the vast space, at his mother’s side, conversing with a pretty wisp of a young debutante, all dainty wrists and ankles. She bowed her head before turning back to the handsomely painted Paris debating on which round, gorgeous goddess to bequeath his apple too. Penelope didn’t want the apple. The admiration, the look, Paris bestowed upon the goddesses before him, embodied in a man, would be enough for her.

Benedict tore apart his youngest siblings with some effort, as Hyacinth was particularly furious about the state of her new ribbons. Benedict did not want to do this, lawks, he was tired. Quite frankly, he’d been having a good time with Penelope before his two wild siblings had decided to thoroughly act up in the middle of Somerset House. Being banned from such a lauded establishment would not do.

“If the two of you do not march right up to Anthony or Mother and follow them like good little ducklings,” he said, crouching down to their level to make sure they knew he meant business. “I will tell Cook that neither of you is allowed to have syllabub after supper for a whole month.”

“A month? Brother, no!” Gregory whined, and Benedict did a little jig of victory in his soul when Hyacinth promptly piped up, “It will not happen again, Benedict! I shall go seek out Mama immediately!”

With that she turned on her heel and ran to where their mother was subjecting Colin to conversation with Miss Francis. He didn’t know whether to feel more sorry for the young debutante, who clearly wished to be anywhere else, or his brother who stood a little nonplussed.

“Well, I’m not following her,” Gregory huffed, pouting. “I want to stay with Anthony.”

“Go on then, you scamp!” Benedict pushed him forward before standing back up, watching Gregory weave through the crowd to be Anthony’s adorable annoyance for a while.

As Benedict blinked the sun from the great skylights out of his eyes, he saw a collection of paintings from Dutch artists on the stretch of wall in front of him. He looked left to check on Penelope and, seeing she was still engrossed in what was in front of her, he stepped forward to take a quick look.

It was a painting by Pieter de Hooch, titled simply Woman and child by a window, with maid sweeping . This was the kind of painting Joshua Reynolds, brilliant artist though he was, would’ve scoffed at. The dark palette of the majority of the painting gave the illusion of the wide room being in shadow, the sun sinking over an invisible horizon. While the elderly maid, her face almost a blur, existed within this darker space, the young woman with her child in the background of the painting, to the corner was swathed in a careful beam of sunlight from the window. Her face was lit beautifully, almost tenderly, as she looked down at her child and Benedict felt like he could hear the sound of a town winding down at the end of the day, a child wriggling in his mother’s lap as she soaked in the warmth of the last rays of an autumn sun. The focus of light, the careful choice between where detail was heightened and where it was blurred, made something within him stir. The story behind such domesticity, such normalcy, it just…calmed him.

He thought of summer days at Aubrey Hall, his father chasing them all around in the garden as his mother laughed, stomach swollen with child. He felt the chill of quiet winter nights when all he wanted to do was stretch out by the fire and wait for the apricity of a bright morning. And the careful quiet days, the very rare ones where he retreated to My Cottage in Wiltshire, and let the hours slow to a crawl as he sketched in his blooming garden.

It was artistry and peace, rolled into one, and he so wished he had the talent and power to create such a piece.

He stared for a few moments longer before shaking his head, and retreating to retrieve Penelope.

“For a moment I thought you would never return,” Penelope joked as he approached her. He saw that she was still studying Rubens’ paintings, and it was with a painful pang that he thought he knew why. She’d never seen a body like hers painted so reverently before.

He’d never really pondered on it before, how different, how meaningful it might be to see your own body reflected back at you in a great work of art or even literature. Penelope thought, he knew, that she was no beauty. And while it was true that her mother dressed her in unflattering dress cuts and colors, that she had the aspect of girlhood still about her, Benedict thought she could most certainly grow into herself. The more he had gotten to know her recently, the more he fervently admired her wit, ambition, and loyalty to his sister, daresay his family. Since her mother allowed her to wear her hair in the looser style Penelope preferred, her round face held more light to it. Face bare of rouge, her innocence, despite her newfound knowledge, was palpable. She had started to mature, to grow, he could see its beginnings. But for now she was just a girl, unsure of where to step in this society.

She deserved friendship, loyalty, and small, quiet revelations.

“Now, Penelope, do you not know by now?” he said, more gently than he meant to. “I will always come back.”

Penelope turned to him, her sky blue eyes incredibly wide and bright. He fumbled for a moment, unsure of what to say next, until suddenly there were loud gasps and a small scream from the adjacent room. Turning towards the noise, Benedict immediately took Penelope’s arm and escorted her to see what the fuss was.

They were joined by Daphne and the Duke and the four of them pushed their way to the entrance to the next gallery where Prince Friedrich was supporting a swooning Cressida on the floor.

Benedict’s ears perked up as he heard Daphne and the Duke joke about Cressida’s swoon, something they found hilarious, as others explained how it happened.

“I dare say it was the most romantic thing I’ve ever seen,” Penelope and Benedict heard Philippa say, as Prince Friedrich helped support Cressida on the floor. Penelope actually snorted, and Benedict clipped her hip gently with his own.

“Behave, you,” he whispered, though he could not keep the grin off his face.

“Me? It is clearly Miss Cowper you need to tell to behave! What will she do next? A manufactured wardrobe malfunction?”

“Penelope!” he whispered, though he felt nothing but enchantment at Penelope’s display of some attitude, some bite that proved she was not the wilting wallflower so many people thought her to be.

Her delighted dismay was infectious, and soon his lungs were burning from the very real effort of keeping his laughter bottled up.

“You are a menace,” he whispered, shoulders visibly shaking.

Penelope beamed at him, and he was once again struck with just how charming she could be when she wasn’t weighed down by her many insecurities.

“I aim to be so,” she said, sky blues sparkling as they both held in another burst of laughter as Cressida daintily took a sip of water while trying to stare deeply into Prince Friedrich’s eyes. “In every possible way.”

That very evening, in the safe bower of the tree that held Eloise’s beloved swings, Eloise was reading Penelope’s column to be published the next day. Benedict had been wrangled into helping put a still too excited Gregory and Hyacinth to bed, so they waited on him, nestled in the soft, cool grass.

These days, the modern young lady must display a miscellany of talents in her quest for a suitor. She must be a witty conversationalist, an accomplished musician, and an expert in the art of the swoon. For managing to faint with nary a petticoat out of place is a most coveted talent indeed. Of course, not everyone has fallen victim to the royal fever sweeping through London Town. One diamond in particular seems quite immune, making this author wonder if the crown has lost its luster.”

Eloise finished reading the paragraph aloud, frowning down at the bit of parchment in her hand. She was already in her white nightgown, twisted around her knees from Eloise impatiently shifting and stirring in her spot, unable to stay still. Penelope tore at the blades of grass with her fingers, shredding them nervously.

“You dislike it?”

Eloise sighed, handing the parchment back to Penelope.

“It is not that, Pen.” Eloise fingers twitched, and Penelope knew she was itching for one of her hidden cigarillos. “I just…all of this about Daphne and her suitors, getting married. I see how much it distresses her, and yet it’s still her lifelong ambition to be a wife and mother. I do not understand her! She does not lack intelligence, as much as I complain about her. Why can she not see her potential? And, arguably more important, why does she not understand how I may not want the life she wants? The life that my family seems so desperate to carve out for me?”

Penelope reached forward to grab Eloise’s hands and Eloise took hold, gripping so tight that Penelope felt her knuckles grind against one another.

“Marriage, childbirth… It terrifies me, Pen,” Eloise whispered, looking at Penelope with eyes as wide and frightened as a rabbit being hunted. “I remember the night of Hyacinth’s birth– Mama’s screams. She nearly died, and for over a year, it was like Mama was dead anyway. All because she lost Papa. I do not desire to put my life and heart in danger like that. I want to live as a man does. Nurture my wit and speak my mind! What is so wrong with that?”

“Oh, El,” Penelope murmured, and she suddenly felt consumed with a strange sense of guilt she could not assuage. Guilt that she could do nothing for Eloise, not for this battle. “It is not wrong to feel that way, to want such things. But the world, the men who rule it…”

Penelope didn’t know what to say after that, the ugly truth hanging in the air. Eloise sniffled before laughing bitterly.

“Men would rather see the return of the plagues of Exodus then let women go to university,” Eloise huffed, though all of her vehemence had drained from her. “They would probably find a way to blame it on us, anyway.”

Eloise shifted and scooted across the ground until she could rest her head on Penelope’s shoulder.

“At least I have one small comfort,” Eloise said. “That we shall always be together, as spinsters you and I. We shall never be parted.”

Penelope swallowed, trying to fight back the tears that stung the back of her eyes. She didn’t know what was worse, feeling like she was lying to her best friend by not admitting that their dreams were not the same; or that Eloise believed just as much as Penelope that finding a suitor for the youngest Featherington was a useless endeavor.

So Penelope said nothing, allowing Eloise her tiny bit of peace.

Nothing was coming out right.

Penelope threw her quill to the side before crumpling up the piece of parchment in front of her, staining her hands with the still wet ink. She didn’t care. There had been no valuable news since the art gallery, as everything seemed to revolve around the Prince, Daphne, the Duke, and Marina.


Poor Marina was waiting on news from Sir George. Penelope kept trying to reassure her, that a love as strong and beautiful as theirs could not be beaten by distance or a war. Surely that was the truth, it’s what all the fairytales and novels said. That a pure, good, true love would conquer all. No witch’s curse, evil stepmother (or in this case, conniving Lady Featherington) could beat it. So Penelope had sworn to Marina she would do everything in her power to aid her cousin in avoiding her mother’s machinations.

A love like Marina’s should flourish and thrive, it was only right. Penelope daydreamed about it often, Sir George coming home on a snow white steed, coming to take Marina away from the awful clutches of her Featherington cousins, for which only Penelope could be called a friend. He would thank her, and say Penelope would always be welcome in the home he and Marina made together. She and Marina would write often and Penelope could visit every summer!

And then maybe–

Maybe Colin would see her. Notice her. See that his loyal friend had more wit to her, more than enough to make up for her lack of beauty. He’d write her long, beautiful love letters, just as, if not more, romantic than Sir George’s. It could be another love story for the ages, one they would tell their children. One she would write about one day. She’d finally write that comedy she told Benedict she wanted to create; one with a wedding and dancing at the end.

She sighed, resigning herself to a night of reading rather than writing. She bustled over to her stack of books, in pride of place by her bed. From the stack, she pulled out the well-loved copy of Grimm’s Fairytales, and flipped to the beginning of “Rapunzel”: Once upon a time there was a man and a woman who had long, but to no avail, wished for a child…

Benedict probably shouldn’t have been indulging Eloise’s smoking habit, but he was nothing if not an indulgent older brother with his sisters. And, these days, especially with Eloise. He’d taken care of them all for so long, that he’d forgotten how much fun it was to be a co-conspirator rather than a surrogate parent. And Eloise understood him, reflected him in a way none of his other siblings did.

“Oh,” Eloise said, flicking a bit of ash into the dark garden. “I found bits of your sketchbook in the fireplace.”

“Are you spying on me now?” Benedict asked, disgruntled. He hadn’t meant for anyone to see those horrid attempts at drawing. Could he truly even call them sketches when they appeared, to him, to be mere scribbles? No better than a child’s drawings? It was simply embarrassing.

“You would actually have to be interesting for me to bother spying on you,” Eloise scoffed, grinning mischievously. “I see you so often now, anyways. There’s no real secret about you.”

Benedict bowed his head, the cigarillo dangling between his long fingers. Was it so awful, that the first thing he thought of was that he so desperately wished for a secret from his siblings? Something that was all his, something to treasure and covet like a dragon hoarding its treasure.

“The drawings in that sketchbook were abominable. I could not stand to look at them.” Benedict took another drag, the tobacco smoke scorching his lungs as he held it a little longer than he should.

“I believe that is why they call it a sketchbook. I write in my diary, which is not the same as writing in my novel,” Eloise admitted. Was she admonishing him? “It must be very difficult to want something and not be able to get it.”

Ah, there it was. The bitterness Eloise held so close to her breast. Benedict worried one day it may fester into something awful and rotten, something she couldn’t control unless she found some sort of outlet.

“Eloise…” he began, but she interrupted him, taking on a fervid, frustrated pitch, as if verbally taking him by the shoulders and attempting to shake sense into him.

“If you enjoy drawing but need practice, then practice. Hire a drawing master. Find a young lady to act impressed. If you desire the sun and the moon, all you have to do is go out and shoot at the sky!” Eloise appeared so lost then, flinging her arm out to the dark night angrily, as if cursing the heavens for her predicament, for her womanhood. “Some of us cannot. Look no further than dear Pen! She possesses a huge talent for writing, and yet she must hide away and publish under a false name.”

“Yes, because if anyone knew who Whistledown truly was, she’d be strung up for what she said.” Benedict felt sick to his stomach then, the tobacco smoke making him nauseous. God, had he done the right thing, letting Penelope go forward with Whilstledown? “Maybe we shouldn’t have let Penelope continue Whistledown–” he started but Eloise cut him off.

“That is not my point.” Eloise’s expression was hard now, tired. “Pen is a woman, a mere girl to many who behold her, therefore she has nothing, and still she writes. You are a man, therefore you have everything. You are able to do whatever you want. So do it! Be bold. At least that way I can live vicariously through you.”

“El,” Benedict said, staring at her as she stood, blowing smoke into the cool night air. “Is there nothing I can do to help?”

“Pen letting me help with Whistledown is enough for now,” Eloise admitted, flicking the ashen remains of her cigarillo on the ground before stomping them out. “That will be satisfactory until I figure out what I can do to achieve what I want.”

“And what is that?” he asked.

“I do not know. More, Benedict. Just more.”

Penelope gently placed the new bouquet she had rushed to buy on the windowsill, conspicuously on the left hand side. Emergency. It was later in the morning than usual and she had no guarantee that Benedict would see it. But she had to hope, she had to try. Nodding resolutely, she rushed back to Marina’s room to comfort the still wailing woman.

That morning a letter from Spain had finally come, and where Penelope had thought it would bring unmeasured joy, it only brought about the most fearsome and ferocious heartbreak Penelope had ever seen. The only heartbreak she had ever seen, besides the small ones of her own throughout her childhood. It was devastating to witness, and she tried to sooth Marina by rubbing her back, letting her cousin sob in her lap as she screamed herself hoarse.

Penelope felt tears break free, sliding down her own cheeks but she didn’t dare call attention to them. Marina needed her…

How could Sir George do this? Had her mother been right all along? Were men truly so fickle, so dishonest, that they would do anything to just have sex with a woman before tossing them aside? These were the kinds of men Benedict had warned her about, the ones who would pull a poor, unsuspecting girl onto the Dark Walk without a second thought.

But Sir George’s letters had seemed so heartfelt, so filled with admiration and honesty. Were men just natural born liars and flatterers? Were all of the fairytales, princes coming to the rescue on the backs of their trusty steeds, lies?

She stayed as long as she could. Poor Marina, exhausted, fell asleep. Penelope did her best to clean up Marina’s face with a wet handkerchief, not wanting her cousin to awake with the sticky tracks on her face as a reminder of her grief. When she was done, she rose on unsteady legs and made her way to the back entrance to sneak into the Bridgerton’s garden.

Benedict looked up from where he swayed on the swing set when he heard the familiar rustle of skirts. Penelope appeared, head down as she approached on her slippered feet. Benedict’s greeting died in his throat the second he took in her countenance; face downcast, shoulders slumped, her little fingers wringing the fabric of her ridiculous frock. Benedict was up faster than he would have expected, his hands awkwardly outstretched, a little unsure how to act. Why? He had comforted before, many times with his sisters. Why was he so unsure?

“Penelope?” he whispered. “What ever is the matter?”

Penelope took one look into his ocean eyes with her sky blue ones, and immediately burst into tears. Horrified, Benedict did the only thing he knew how to do and took her into his embrace. She was so short, the top of her head barely coming to the middle of his sternum, but his arms wrapped around her shoulders and back snugly, easily, as he tried to calm her tears.

She shook her head against his chest and just continued to sob. She was broken, awful coughs and hiccups were the only interruption between her distressed cries. Benedict hadn’t expected how much the sight could hurt him, make him feel rotten, useless, like he had somehow failed at protecting this girl from some ugly aspect of the world.

Benedict was unsure how much time passed before her crying began to subside, soft sniffles taking over. She carefully pulled her face from his chest, but he didn't release her. She gasped softly, and he saw she was staring through red, swollen eyelids at the wet splotch on his shirt, right above his waistcoat.

“Oh, Benedict, I am–”

“Do not apologize,” he insisted. “It will dry. Come now, let’s sit down.”

He led her to the shade of the tree, bobbing his head around to ensure no one was watching them. He was used to being alone with Penelope, he had accepted the risk. But it was usually at night, hidden by a cloak of darkness, her maid disguise, within a carriage, or even Bloomsbury. This was broad daylight, the servants meandered about, and there was no Eloise to act as a buffer. If Anthony or, worse, his mother were to find out it would have repercussions for both of them. Penelope loved Colin, and though he was sure his brother didn’t return her affections, Benedict refused to trap her when her heart so firmly belonged to someone else. And he didn’t want to be married, simple as that.

He settled her on one of the swings and, as he lowered her to the wooden seat, he was reminded of when she was a child who had sobbed into his shoulder when her family had left her at the park. How he had set her down on the floor of the Featherington House and had almost snatched her back up in his arms at her mother’s awful sneer and clear neglect. But she was safe here. As safe as she could be, at least. Benedict sat beside her on the other swing, digging into his coat pocket to pull out his handkerchief. He handed it to her and she blushed, attempting to make quick work of her face. As she tried to clean the sticky tear tracks from her now blotchy face, he tried again to ask,

“Penelope, what happened?”

Penelope wiped the tear drops that clung to her eyelashes away, like dew upon a spider web, before she began to wring the tiny piece of cloth in her lap.

“I– I cannot tell you the full truth,” Penelope confessed, looking between Benedict and the ground. The air was still around them, full with the scent of grass and the hyacinths blooming beyond. Benedict felt a weight drop in his stomach. “It is not because it is my secret, not like Whistledown. But another’s. Please believe me, I would tell you if I could.”

Penelope chewed her bottom lip, tearing it to shreds. Benedict leaned over and gently pulled her lip from her teeth with the pad of his thumb.

“Alright,” Benedict said, not unkindly. “I will not push you for answers. Tell me what you can.”

“I– I know someone, a maid in my household. She is with child,” Penelope started, his handkerchief becoming a twisted wad of fabric in her hands. “She is unmarried but had a man she loved. They wrote letters often, gorgeous ones.”

The cogs in Benedict’s brain turned, piecing bits and pieces together. So this was why Penelope and Eloise suddenly had wanted to know how babies were made. It was making much more sense in his mind’s eye, the sudden demand for knowledge, the desperation to be aware of how their bodies could change. They had been shown an unfortunate circ*mstance, a possibility for pregnancy in one of the worst situations.

“Penelope, I do not mean to sound crass, but how do you know so much about this maid’s personal life?”

Penelope blushed, staring down at the wrinkled mass of wet cloth in her grasp, wrapped around her fingers.

“She was kind to me,” Penelope said simply. “In my household, that was enough. So I returned that kindness and she trusted me.”

Benedict felt a great wave of pity wash over him that he tried to tamp down. He knew, without a doubt, that Penelope would not appreciate it.

“Her lover is in Spain with Wellington,” Penelope explained. “And she wrote to tell him of the baby and…and his letter came this morning. He– He–”

It was an ugly realization, something that spoke to Benedict’s knowledge of men and himself that made him understand at once. Filled with no small amount of disgust, he said,

“And he did not want the baby.”

“He didn’t want the baby or her anymore.”

Tears were gathering in her eyes again and she dabbed at them furiously with his handkerchief. Inhaling deeply, she tried to speak again, her voice coming out hoarse, her face so downtrodden Benedict almost squirmed with the discomfort his sympathy brought him. He clutched the wooden ropes suspending the swing to keep his hands steady.

“I just do not understand,” Penelope admitted. “His letters– his devotion seemed sincere. Yet he had no issue with breaking her heart. I thought, maybe, true love could exist for some people. That he’d come one day, and take her away so they could find their happy ending.” Penelope blotted at her eyes again, her now loose curls falling into her face. “But my mother was right… Men only want one thing from women and will abandon them when they see the consequences it brings. Look only so far as Lord Berbrooke! He sent his maid, carrying his child, away without a penny! Men find pleasure by paying brothels full of women for their time, disloyal to their wives. Marriages are business arrangements, made for money and protection. Love…it does not seem to exist. Not in the way I thought.”

Benedict was speechless. The truth of the matter was, Penelope was not exactly wrong in her assessment. Marriages, in full honesty the majority, were ones of convenience. It was mistresses who were kept for love and pleasure, though the minute any woman besides a married wife fell pregnant, they were abandoned. In his own affairs and dalliances, Benedict had worked hard to ensure that conception wouldn’t take place. The only solutions to pregnancies out of wedlock were barbaric: Claiming or abandoning the bastards, backdoor abortions by doctors who, more than likely, would kill the woman too, or a marriage that would ostracize the male from polite society. Was that really love, if men were so willing to abandon the women they swore devotion to because of a pregnancy?

Benedict thought not, and he would prefer never to have to find out if he was capable of such cruelties.

But he didn’t want Penelope to lose her faith in love, not completely. She should have a more realistic view of it, yes, but he didn’t want her to become jaded right while she was on the cusp of womanhood. It seemed cruel to let her hopes be dashed so terribly. Especially when she swayed the opinions of others among the ton, depending on her moods when she wrote. But, more than anything, Benedict did not want his friend to give up on the best ending for herself, even if it wasn’t straight from a fairytale.

All of this flashed through his mind but he still struggled to speak. How did he articulate this? What did one say to a friend, a friend who was female and that he had already broken all bounds of propriety with, to mend a slightly tattered heart? For he saw it, now, within her. She was like a stuffed toy, well-worn not from love but neglect and abuse, and the one thing giving her some sense of vitality was now mercilessly ripped away from her.

“Will you go to the ball tonight?” Penelope blurted suddenly, shocking him out of his contemplation. “I mean– I know you have not been to many of the balls lately, but… I would like a friend. And I must make a delivery afterwards. So I just thought–” She shook her head, started to backtrack, “Forget I said it.”

“I will go,” Benedict said, gripping the ropes of the swing so hard he could feel it itch and burn his palms. “I will go.” He gave her a small smile, trying to cheer her in any way he could. “I would have probably just drunk myself silly at White’s anyway. At least this way, I can drink myself silly with you. I am sure Mother will not mind.”

Penelope, even though her eyes were still puffy, her cheeks still a mottled red, and her fiery curls a lank curtain over her face, raised her gaze to smile back. It was a tiny, infinitesimal, thing but it was honest.

“Thank you, Benedict.”

Benedict was bewildered when Daphne and his mother hung back in the carriage to be announced last. He co*cked his head at his sister curiously, but she assured him she’s alright with a strange little smile he’d never seen before. Benedict turned to his mother, who simply nodded, rather distressed.

“Go on, dearest. Your sister and I will be there in a moment.”

Benedict, not sure how he could refuse, nodded before entering, being announced on his own. He hurried down the staircase, not really minding the slightly scandalized looks. He’d already spotted from the top of the stairs a girl with hair of autumn fire in a disastrous shade of lemon yellow, easy to spot. He hurried over to her with all of the dignity he could muster in his haste. She stood by her cousin, Miss Thompson, and the palpable relief that came from her as he took a place by her side was apparent. She’d fixed herself up, as he’d made her keep the handkerchief. Her cheeks were no longer an angry red or pink, and her eyes were not as swollen.

“Where is your sister and mother?” Penelope asked, spinning a little as if they were hiding somewhere amongst the crowd.

“They will be in shortly,” Benedict said, not able to help the crease of his brow. “I am not entirely sure–”

But the audible gasps he heard diverted his attention. Following everyone’s stares, he saw Daphne making her way down the stairs, resplendent in her sparkling white dress. Her strawberry blonde hair was done in elaborate curls that hung down her back, demurely waving a feather fan across her chest. It was so obviously coquettish, near brazen, words he would have never associated with his younger sister before. He trailed her line of sight, only to see Daphne not looking at the Duke across the room but at the Prince.

Benedict felt his jaw unhinge, his mouth become agape, and he couldn’t close it fast enough, even when Penelope elbowed his side. What in the bloody blazes was happening. Prince Friedrich moved forward, enchanted by the spell his sister was creating and as they both reached the bottom of the stairs at the exact same time, Daphne dropped her fan. The ploy was obvious, but Benedict still could not believe what he was seeing. Daphne’s eyes were calculated, assured, as the Prince picked up her fan before offering his arm. Benedict looked around the room to make sure his eyes were working correctly. Was this real? For this felt like some nightmare where his sweet, maternal sister had been replaced with… He knew not what. He saw Cressida actually looking completely hurt, torn asunder. Simon’s face was of stone, but the false kind, the one with obvious cracks trying to hide the anguish underneath. It was a flurry of emotions and as Benedict watched Daphne be escorted to the dance floor by the man, he felt like he didn’t know his sister at all.

He shared a look with Penelope before she directed her eyes to the Duke of Hastings, who was attempting to make a swift exit from the room. Benedict saw, once again, Penelope’s faith be shaken. She had believed there was an honest attachment between Daphne and the Duke. While Benedict had been trying to distance himself from the whole affair of his sister’s courtship, he had also thought that maybe, just maybe, there had been a genuine care between the two. But now Daphne was aiming for the Prince of Prussia, with a strategic ruthlessness he had only seen in his sister on the Pall Mall field.

Had he been in the wrong, to hold himself so separate from Daphne this season? If he had paid closer attention, talked to her more, would he have been able to help, to intervene? The Daphne he remembered was a little girl of ten who acted as if she was thirty, trying to prove herself by helping Benedict mother their siblings. Always underfoot but constantly earnest. The only time her true age was revealed would be when she was visited by nightmares, sneaking into his room so he could cuddle the monsters away.

But now she was a stranger and he couldn’t help but wonder if he was partially to blame.

He felt a small tug on his jacket. It was Penelope looking a bit like his mother had when she had escorted Daphne down the stairs; sick. Benedict would not make the same mistake twice. He would be there for Penelope at least. He’d committed himself to being her friend, a supporter of sorts. At least he was doing that right. Apparently he’d been an awful brother of late.

“Why?” was all she asked.

Benedict carefully placed her pink gloved arm on his.

“I have not a clue,” he replied honestly. “I think I will need a few drinks to parse that one out.”

Penelope turned towards her cousin, asking quietly, “Marina, will you be alright?”

Miss Thompson studied Benedict for a moment before turning to Penelope with a half-smile. She was dressed in Featherington yellow, though it did not diminish her as it did Penelope. The young woman set her shoulders back and laid a hand briefly on Penelope’s shoulder.

“I will be fine, Cousin. I must jump back into the fray whether you accompany me or not.”

They both shared a knowing look, one that Benedict often saw traded amongst his sisters when they knew something their brothers didn’t. It was best he didn’t ask, that always led to trouble.

“Come,” Penelope said, leaning on him a little as they sought the refreshments table. “I promised to watch you drink yourself silly.”

It was around eleven o’clock that they snuck out of the ball, into the darkness of the damp London streets.

“Where–” he began to ask as she pulled her cloak from behind a well-manicured bush near the servants entrance, but she shook her head.

“Evans is sick,” she said, wrapping the lady’s maid cloak around her, quickly pulling the hood over her tell-tale red curls. She stripped her arms of her ridiculous pink gloves, shoving them in the coat’s pocket. “We must take a hired hack.”

“We are not taking a hired hack,” Benedict growled, hands on hips. “We shall take Rapscallion.”

Penelope blanched.

“Oh, um–”

“Come now, Penelope. Do not tell me you have never ridden a horse before.”

“Um,” she repeated, and for the second time that night Benedict’s jaw bone lost all ability to stay in place.

“You were never taught to ride?”

“Mama did not think – She was not –” Penelope started but Benedict waved a frustrated hand.

“I do not even want to hear what horrible reasoning your mother could have. Come on!”

With that he led Penelope, scurrying behind his long strides, to where Rapscallion was tethered, waiting for his master. It didn’t take long for him to teach her how to mount the gentle beast, once she was sure the large horse wouldn’t trample her underfoot. He knew it was quite scandalous, improper, to teach a lady to ride astride. But Anthony had taught all of their sisters how to ride side saddle and astride, in the case that they would need to make a quick getaway under any circ*mstances. It would not hurt to teach Penelope the same.

So Benedict found himself trotting along the muddy streets, one hand leading the reins and the other firmly wrapped around Penelope’s waist. Her hood was lowered as far as it would go, hiding her tell-tale Featherington features. She’d added the last few paragraphs of her column hurriedly in an empty room at the ball, using Benedict’s graphite as he kept look-out from the entryway. Much of his time was spent staring at Daphne, as if he could eventually puzzle his sister out. When he had brought it up to Penelope as she exited the room, she appeared incredulous.

“Benedict, I thought you knew,” she said frankly. “A woman must grasp the highest rank of protection she can to ensure her safety. As I now know…” She gulped. “Love does not always factor into the equation.”

Now, on his beloved steed, he could feel, no, he could hear Penelope’s mind whirring in a dark spiral, hurtling to a lonely, miserable, hopeless conclusion.

And, for some reason unknown to him, he couldn’t allow that.

“Have I ever told you that my first love was Lady Danbury?” he queried, already feeling the blood rush to the tips of his ears.

Penelope straightened, bending her neck back to peer up at him as Rapscallion trotted along, her hood falling off. He was caught between chuckling and cursing as he, very briefly, removed his arm from her waist to adjust her hood and tilt her head back into a less painful position.

“Eyes ahead,” he ordered. “This is precarious enough as it is.”

“Lady Danbury?” she gasped.

“Why so surprised?” He asked, pretending to sound outraged, though he couldn’t pull it off. “She’s a formidable woman. Powerful, graceful, unafraid of anything! And she’s still quite beautiful.”

“She’s older than your mother!”

He secured his arm around Penelope’s waist again, pulling her more securely against him.

“Yes,” he conceded. “But many men who are old enough to be your grandfather are married off to girls your age.”

Penelope gave a little “hmph,” of thought, and it tickled him to know he could hear how her thoughts clanged around in her head sometimes, like some great contraption trying to get all of its moving parts to work to create a conclusion, a tangible product. Around him and Eloise, her mind could clatter and bang around as much as it wanted, but he saw her around others: how she shushed it, muted it, until it was more of a whisper of wind created by a bird’s wings as it tried to assess what prizes it had collected that day.

“So, clearly she did not accept your suit,” Penelope said slowly, and Benedict feigned a mighty wince.

“Ouch. It is still a tender subject, Penelope. My heart is still mending itself back together!”

But Penelope ignored him, he could practically envision her rolling her eyes in the way she’d learned from Eloise before she asked,

“What happened?”

Benedict had to resist the urge to scratch his head bashfully. Instead he led Rapscallion right along another street, now entering a busier part of London. People stumbled and laughed on the side streets, ale houses were full to near bursting, and Benedict could hear the calls of prostitutes plying their trade. Young, working class children ran across the street shrieking as they went, barely dodging the horses and carriages plodding along.

“My feelings were unrequited. I was enamored of her, Penelope. I was young, fresh out of Cambridge. She was – is – intriguing, with all of her independence and wit. No other woman seemed to compare, and I thought myself old enough, dashing enough, smart enough to at least capture her interests. And I did fall in love with her, in my own way. My heart was soundly broken when she finally put me in my place after following her around like a puppy for half a season.”

Penelope giggled, a welcome sound to Benedict’s ears.

“I can hardly imagine you to be a lovesick puppy. Surely you jest!”

“Afraid not, I was in earnest by the end. I think, at first, I saw her as some impossible conquest. A challenge to undertake. But after a while, I truly found all of her qualities, even the unsettling ones, endearing. It suddenly did not matter that she was much older than me, that she would never truly accept my affections. I could not shake the infatuation.” He shook his head. It really had been quite pathetic, his younger, gangly self constantly asking her to dance and being shot down. He’d invaded every conversation she was a part of just to pick her mind on a new topic, from art to politics. His mother had been absolutely mortified. Anthony thought it was hilarious. “But I think, when she realized I was actually starting to develop true and honest feelings, that’s when she told me that there was no man who could ever convince her to marry again. That she could never love me, and she could no longer humor me. And you know, I spent the rest of the night crying into my port in Anthony’s study.”

Penelope shifted a little in his hold, and he could tell how badly she wanted to look back into his eyes. But it was too risky now, they were now in the hubbub of London, where anyone could recognize them.

“Why are you telling me this?” she asked simply.

“Because Penelope, I do not think love is ever the same, ever simple. My mother makes it out to be this grand yet obvious event because her and my father found each other so quickly. But she is an exception, not the rule. Fairy tales and novels make romance into a grand adventure that can conquer all, and that is not always the case.” He pressed his gloved hand into the soft flesh of her side, feeling the outline of her ribs even through the layers of fabric, skin and muscle. “But I do not think that means love does not truly exist, or that it is not worth it even when it breaks our hearts. First love, whether it is fleeting or all-consuming, often hurts us. People betray us, people reject us… But Penelope, I truly do not believe that we can give up on such rich feelings. It will hurt us, but we can grow from that hurt and learn to love others. Even if that love must be born from a sense of duty or security. Maybe your friend, the maid, will find love through another man willing to protect her. Maybe Daphne will learn to love the Prince. I do not wish for my sister to do anything she does not want to do, but I will understand if she does what she has to do.”

“You truly believe that?” she breathed.

“I do,” he said, gingerly guiding Rapscallion’s reins again as they made another turn. “Love is born from all sorts of everyday events. Some are struck by lightning, some look up one day and realize the person in front of them was there all along, and others work hard to build something, anything, that will sustain them. While I hope, I pray, that the two of us will be lucky, and that my sister will make the choice best for her heart, I understand that most of us, especially women, must choose the third option. To work hard to build something lasting, even on a shaky foundation.”

Penelope was silent the rest of the journey, one of her hands absentmindedly reaching forward to stroke Rapscallion’s mane once in a while. He could hear the cogs in the machine turning in her mind.

Could it be true? The season’s diamond even more precious and rare a stone than previously thought? For it now appears this treasure is set to join the likes of the Queen’s ever-so-cherished crown jewels themselves. The Duke of Hastings, I hear, was left looking rather tongue-tied last night, as Miss Bridgerton seems to have finally grown tired of waiting for him to pose that all-important question. Or, perhaps, the young miss has simply traded up.

Surprising? Quite.

Unreasonable? Of course not.

For a woman, my Dear Readers, cannot simply wait. While men may travel, gamble, and sow their wild oats well into middle-age, supposedly growing and spreading like an aged oak or a bottle of fine wine, women are told they will rot the longer they are left on the shelf. Like a delicate flower or a sweet honey cake, women wilt and mold, unable to sustain themselves unless a man deigns to save them from societal death.

Oh, women dream of love, and it exists. But is it lasting in the face of the rapid ascension women must take in order to merely survive? When men are allowed to take their time. This Author cannot be sure. This is, surely, why married couples soon take the pleasures of the marriage elsewhere once the heir and the spare are born.

But This Author cannot help but hope, vainly, that my bitter views could be wrong. That, perhaps, it is a matter of building love within a match given the foundation one has. Perhaps Miss Bridgerton, like all women of the ton, is making the best of the situation handed her by society. We fervently hope that the best decision, for her security and her heart, can be reached.

Chapter 4: A Lesson in Love


A secret. A discovery. A duel.

Benedict and Penelope both unearth scandal and neither is entirely sure what to do with the information.


As usual, thank you again to itakethewords for being an awesome beta and even better friend and soundboard!

In this chapter, we're moving right along with quite a few personal discoveries. Penelope does a bit of growing up learning the way of the world, and Benedict becomes aware of problems other than his own.

In this chapter you'll notice a lot from the show that is the same but also takes a pivotal change. Penelope's and Eloise's chat in the market is a good example of something that starts out looking similar but changes drastically because of the knowledge El now holds. Another example is Benedict's reaction to certain events at the boxing match.

I also have tried to add some qualities I liked from the books I thought would add nicely in subtle ways to this fic. Some of you may have noticed Benedict's rock collecting, for example. I also added a slightly more protective element to his care for his sisters, at least in terms of him being very mindful of it and why he chose to step back this season.

I identify a lot with Benedict. In many ways he faces the challenge many people have in their thirties, which is separating their individual identity from their familial identity. It's hard, confusing, and painful.

No real historical notes for this chapter. Except for the confusion over when to capitalize a title and when not to. I probably still got half of it wrong. Haha.

Thank you for reading!

Chapter Text

Unspooled Thread - happilyinsane13 - Bridgerton (TV) [Archive of Our Own] (4)

In a town filled with ambitious mamas and fortune-hunting gentlemen, marrying above one’s station is an art form, indeed.

But Miss Daphne Bridgerton’s advance from future duch*ess to possible princess is an achievement that even This jaded Author must applaud.

Though This Author cannot dismiss the Duke of Hastings quite so soon. He may have let the diamond slip through his fingers for now, but I shall wager he is not a man to ever hide from a fight.

As we all know, there is nothing This Author loves more than a scandal, and tonight’s soiree promises more than its fair share, courtesy of the recently widowed Lady Trowbridge. Some may call her celebrations too provocative, and I would caution any young lady from getting caught up in the sensual nature of her fêtes.

For one scandalous move between an unwed couple, a wayward touch, or heaven forbid, a kiss, would banish any young lady from society in a trail of ruin.

Penelope hated the column. As discreetly as possible she crumpled the paper in her hand, trying to resist throwing it across the room. The writing itself was not awful, but it just… It just…

It hurt.

Despite Benedict’s kind words, his reassurance on the matters of love, Daphne’s courtship with Prince Friedrich was moving forward. Even Benedict seemed a bit despondent in the face of it, for neither of them saw a glimmer of hope, of spark, that signaled that something solid could be built between Daphne and the Prince. But Penelope was no expert, maybe she was wrong.

But, then, there was Marina’s predicament.

Penelope’s mother was growing more desperate by the second. Penelope had to admit, at least her mother was trying to do something. Penelope’s father had not moved an inch to help his wife solve the predicament of Marina’s pregnancy and it was even frustrating Penelope. How could her father be so callous? But the men her mother was digging up were horrid; old, putrid, and terribly off-putting.

“Show me a smile, girl,” Lord Rutledge said as he paced around Marina, like a farmer examining its prized animal to sell at market.

“I beg your pardon?” Marina asked, lovely brows furrowed, totally affronted.

“Your teeth, I want to see them. Is she simpleminded?” Lord Rutledge asked Penelope’s mother, Lady Featherington, and Penelope could see her mother fighting off a terrible headache. It would ensure her mother was not in a good mood the rest of the day. Not that she was often in a good mood anyway.

“Goodness, no! Oh, you are droll!” Her mother chuckled, fake and desperate as she plastered on a wide smile. “Miss Thompson, um, show Lord Rutledge your lovely smile.”

Marina hesitated, frowning, and Penelope had to hold back a very visible wince. It was painful to watch Marina being treated like chattel. She had never seen what Eloise often ranted and raved about so clearly before, and it made her shiver. Penelope almost felt she was trapped in some sort of vision of a possible reality for her.

“Miss Thompson?” Lord Rutledge implied, and Marina was forced to bare her teeth for inspection.

Lord Rutledge prattled on about his false teeth, disgustingly acquired, before claiming he’d see how Marina would purport herself at the Trowbridge Ball in the evening. Penelope was frozen, terrified by a premonition of the future. Not just Marina’s, but her own. When her mother grew tired of waiting for Penelope, the daughter she saw as the most unappealing, the most worthless, what old, vile man would she sell Penelope off to? The thought made a chill shoot up her spine

Lord Rutledge, finally, left and Marina fought yet again, claiming she would not marry that man, that beast. Penelope was filled with equal parts dread and admiration for Marina. She wished she could one day stand up to her mother as well. But, as usual, her mother fired back with a cold, unyielding yet practical view of the world. It was why Penelope hardly refuted her. Lady Portia Featherington was a master at shutting people down.

“Even if a miracle occurred, and one of them married you tomorrow, how do you imagine they would react six months hence when that whelp of yours pops out looking the picture of health?” her mother said, as if she was tiring herself by explaining basic arithmetic to a child. “Lord Rutledge is in want of an heir. He will not ask questions!”

The look of rage and horror on Marina’s face was already enough to make Penelope sick with pity, but her mother’s conniving and her father’s utter indifference were much, much worse.

Penelope hesitated. She had promised Eloise to go shopping with her but if Marina wanted her to stay–

But Marina, powerful but good to her, told her to go ahead. Penelope didn’t know why, but she felt all the more worse for it as she departed.

“I have never understood the fashion for feathers in the hair,” Eloise said, snarling. “Why would a woman want to draw notice to the fact that she is like a bird squawking for a man’s attention in some bizarre ritual?”

The market was a blaze of bright, vibrant colors around them. It was nothing like the local markets in Bloomsbury, Penelope noted. Bloomsbury had all of the essentials, with no added bits of fluff or ostentation. This, however, was carefully curated for polite society, made palatable for their delicate sensibilities and constant need for entertainment.

“Then why are we looking?” Penelope asked.

“Because I would rather do anything than stay a moment longer in that house while everyone flutters around Daphne, cooing over her prospects.” Eloise appeared more than frustrated or disgusted. She seemed absolutely done with the constant clamor around her sister, and Penelope felt a smidgen of guilt for contributing to the buzz around Daphne’s courtship.

“Is Prince Friedrich still courting her? I imagine you cannot wait for the engagement,” Penelope commented. “Then all the talk will be over.”

“Pen, once they are engaged, I shall be next in line,” Eloise said, an undercurrent of fear making her voice unsteady. “If anything, I hope Daphne stays on the shelf forever.”

“She must marry eventually,” Penelope said. “It is the way of things. She is the first daughter of your family. If any of you must marry, it is her.”

“Why must our only options be to squawk and settle or to never leave the nest? What if I want to fly?” Eloise sounded so sad, so lost then. “You, Pen, you are flying. Even within our gilded cage, you’re finding your wings, beating against the doors, fighting your way out. I do not even know where to start.”

“Oh, El,” Penelope said, biting her lip, clutching her friend’s arm close to her side. “You must…understand. A major factor in my decision was because I felt I did not fit in with the ton, that I would never find a place.”

“Because you are far too clever, just like me! We are both too smart for all that is vain and vapid around us,” Eloise exclaimed.

Penelope bit her cheek. It was now or never. If she could not admit to Eloise her biggest dream, her most laughable secret, how could she claim to be Eloise’s best friend? It seemed silly at first, to be afraid of Eloise’s opinion. The more Penelope thought on it, the more she realized it would tear her apart if her dearest friend thought less of her.

“Partly,” Penelope admitted. “But, El, that does not mean – I do have dreams, sometimes, El. What it would be like to be married, have a love match.”

Eloise stopped and stared at Penelope, people milling past them as they stood still. The cacophony of the market around them attempted to drown them out, but Penelope swore the world went quiet as she waited for her friend to speak.

“You–” Eloise started, eyes darting about as if she was struggling to comprehend. “You want to be married?”

“I do not believe it will ever happen!” Penelope hurried to say, afraid of her best friend’s discontent. “And El, if it is as I think, I will happily be spinsters with you, grow old with you.”

Penelope turned towards Eloise, grasping her hands in her own, despite the fact people were passing them by from either side. She’d never been so brave publicly.

“El, you are my best friend. But please understand, I was not raised by a loving family who indulged my thoughts and feelings. I know your mother will put pressure on you to find a suitor, but I truly think it comes from a place of maternal feeling on her part. My own just wants me out of her house, no longer the rat scurrying around her shoes.”

Eloise clutched Penelope’s gloved fingers in her own, eyes wide and impossibly soft. The Bridgertons all had that in common, eyes that were so expressive they could have entire conversations with them alone.

“Oh, Pen. You know you are not, right? You are not a rat. You are incredibly valued and loved by me.”

Penelope sniffled and blinked rapidly to fight off the sting of tears.

“Just as you are to me. So you understand?”

Eloise paused for a moment before sighing, taking Penelope’s arm again to resume their walk.

“I cannot claim to understand your dreams, Pen. But as your friend, I will try.”

Penelope felt that now familiar feeling she felt with Eloise, a blossom of warmth in her chest that made her feel light from her head to her toes.

“How is Marina, by the way?” Eloise asked. “She is still ill?”

“Uh, recovering,” Penelope said, inwardly wincing. This was the one thing she hated, keeping this secret from Eloise. Even from Benedict. But it was Marina’s secret to tell and any chance of the news getting out would be ruinous for the whole of the Featherington family. “It would be cruel of me not to be by her side when she comes back out. But I promise, whenever I am not being thrown at events like a piece of meat in a bear baiting ring, I will help you figure out how we can help you fly.”

Eloise leaned her cheek on Penelope’s fiery curls for a moment.

“Thank you, Pen.”

Benedict had honestly been shocked that Anthony had allowed Daphne to attend the boxing exhibition. Such events were attended by gentlemen and working class alike, but the women who attended were usually working women or mistresses draped all over the arms of their rich providers. So to see Anthony escort their sister over to Prince Friedrich put Benedict’s head in a bit of a spin. His sister deserved a good time, deserved levity, but he never imagined her enjoying bloodsport. So, clearly, this played into her plan to capture the Prince’s hand.

Which would all be well and good if he hadn’t caught her staring at the Duke of Hastings on the other side of the ring supporting Will Mondrich like he was the only man in the room.

He wondered for a moment, as he settled into his seat in the stands with his brothers beside him, if he’d have been ignorant to Daphne’s movements across the chess board that was the marriage mart if he hadn’t gotten involved in Lady Whistledown. Hell’s bells, would he even have noticed his sister’s burning gaze if he hadn’t witnessed her power play at the ball the other night? Penelope was certainly observant; she heard and saw things he’d never notice because he was noticeable. Penelope had been right. She’d told him on one of her deliveries that a Bridgerton amongst polite society naturally brought attention: “Pretty, perfect, rich Bridgertons. An entirely faultless, flawless combination to constantly be sought after.” She’d said it wistfully, with a touch of envy that made his heart ache.

But she had been right. Benedict could never overhear the servants or his fellow members of the ton like she did; he entered a room and they all looked.

But Penelope knew how to blend in, quiet and thoughtful as she listened. People took their cues from her vile parents, he supposed. For who would bother paying her any mind if her own parents didn’t deem her worthy?

Benedict’s attention was diverted as the fight started, the pugilists fists flying, the wet slap of skin being soaked in blood and sweat and the vicious crack of bone. It made adrenaline rush and men lose their senses as they stood and cheered. It was happening fast, Mondrich and Gillespie, both giving their all. The duke had taken his jacket off, rolled up his shirtsleeves as he yelled direction and encouragement–

And there it was again, his sister’s face. Her eyes never left the duke. Benedict saw the moment she seemed to recognize something, whether it was her error or something deeper or more uncomfortable he couldn’t say, and she rose to her feet, yelling at the top of her lungs,

“Go on, Gillespie! Plant a facer!”

He barely noticed when Anthony slipped away, he was so focused on his sister at first. Fire had possessed her, controlling her actions and it frightened him. Fire, as everyone knew, could burn. It could destroy, indomitable and indiscriminate.

Then his attention was diverted again, and he looked to the row in front of him where Lord Featherington was yelling himself hoarse until he was purple in the face. Benedict already could see the problem; Lord Featherington had certainly bet an untold number on one of the fighters and knowing the irresponsible lord’s track record, it was probably the one that would lose.

It was over so quickly Benedict could barely react, his mind so muddled and distracted as it was. The light filtering in through the tall windows lit up the flying spittle, the glistening sweat, the dust motes in the air and the blood on the floor. It was a riot of noise when Will Mondrich came out victorious over the Prince’s man, but Benedict did not miss how Lord Featherington cursed or how the Duke of Hastings, at Mondrich’s side, directed a heated stare at Daphne.

Benedict was overwhelmed and, lawks, he couldn’t fix everything.

The crowd began to disperse to collect their winnings, chatter about the fight, or grab a drink, the trio of brothers fought their way through the throng to retrieve their sister from the Prince. As they bumped shoulders, Colin saying something beside him, Benedict couldn’t help but feel a bit hopeless. He loved Daphne, more than anything, just as he loved all of his siblings. But this was something he couldn’t solve for her, not as he had done when she was a little girl with her nightmares. Her heart, her feelings and where they would lead her, what decision she’d choose to make – that had to come from her. He was not Anthony, seeking to control in order to protect. Benedict knew he had to let Daphne make her own decisions.

Though, he promised to himself that if any man dared to hurt her, there would be hell to pay.

But the issue of Lord Featherington, he’d sworn he’d tell Penelope what he knew. He was positive the thoughtless man was gambling his fortune away, and that had a direct impact on his friend. He could at least warn her. With the information she would be clever enough to sniff out the truth of the matter.

He resolved to head to White’s once Daphne was safely sent home and try to gather how much the Baron Featherington had lost.

But, Benedict wondered as they headed out to the carriage, just when he would have a moment to breathe, to think about himself.

Benedict could barely watch as Lord Featherington tried to appease the collectors and the other gentlemen he owed, yelling furiously in one big circle around him. It made him queasy to watch, to overhear. There was only one place where Benedict had Penelope beat when it came to gathering information, one of the few places she wasn’t allowed to go. And at White’s, members just assumed that whatever they said within its old walls would never leave, never see the light of day or reach the ears of their wives and mothers.

“You guaranteed my money,” a burly man said, shaking his fist at the discomfited baron, who was vainly trying to wave them all back.

“Gentlemen! I assure you, on my good name, each of you will receive your payments. I merely need two days to raise the blunt,” Lord Featherington cried, which barely appeased the men around him. Benedict knew, could feel in his bones, that the lord must be in much more debt than he originally thought. The idiot man must have been banking a lot on the boxing match if he couldn’t pay off a single person in the room.

He had no choice but to tell Penelope.

Benedict shook his head and turned to stare at the painting on the wall again. The plaque clearly said the artist was Henry Granville, the man who he’d accidentally insulted at Somerset House. Well, he didn’t accidentally insult the painting. Though he’d never intended for the comment to actually reach the artist’s ears. Just the mere memory made him blush with embarrassment.

“What do you think, Bridgerton? This one more to your liking?”

Benedict startled briefly, turning to look down into the face of Mister Henry Granville, giving him a wry smile. He was dressed smartly in a red wine colored jacket with a matching cravat, his eyes twinkling under his styled dark blonde hair.

“Mister Granville…” Benedict started, feeling the tops of his ears begin to burn as if they were being exposed directly to the sun on an unusually hot day.

“Perhaps they should take it over to Somerset House so it can be skyed right next to mine,” Mister Granville said, smirking at Benedict’s obvious discomfort. Benedict squirmed before swallowing, trying to regain a scrap of dignity.

“I believe I owe you an apology, sir,” Benedict said, very much in earnest.

For Benedict knew, deep down, he may be a lover of art but he was no expert. It was a dream, really, something he wanted but felt unworthy to grasp. Eloise would scold him, hit him over the head if she heard him say that. But he couldn’t help it.

“Unnecessary. I actually quite enjoy the eloquent stings of your critique,” Mister Granville said with much more joviality than Benedict expected. He gestured with his hand, pointing towards another painting. His eyes were inviting, clearly asking a question. Benedict decided to play along, mend the bridge he thought he had burned. Mister Granville appeared game enough.

“Mm,” Benedict considered, crossing his arms.

“So?” Mister Granville inquired. There seemed to be no trick about him.

“A touch morose for my taste,” Benedict admitted, peering at the dark landscape, a winter bitten wood, bare and desolate.

Mister Granville gestured to the next one, and Benedict couldn’t help the smile that played upon his face, his shoulders relaxing slightly.

“A tragedy. The hound deserved better,” Benedict quipped and Mister Granville chuckled, much to Benedict’s delight.

“Where is yours?” Mister Granville asked, looking along the wall as if to find Benedict’s name amongst one of the many plaques.

Benedict felt the blood drain from his face, suddenly cold.

“My…” he hedged, trying to sidestep the question to no avail.

“Your work,” he clarified. As suddenly as the chill had filled him with dread, the mortification came and Benedict could feel his face heating up. Mister Granville clocked it at once. “Are you to tell me you are not an artist yourself?”

“Well, I… I suppose sometimes I like to…” Benedict stammered. “Well, I mean, I almost…”

“I believe ‘yes’ and ‘thank you’ are the words you seek,” Mister Granville said, not unkindly. Benedict noticed that about him, his eyes were weathered and understanding in a way he’d never seen worn so openly before. Mister Granville reached into his pocket and pulled out his card, his details printed neatly on the white bit of rigid paper. “But either way, you should come by my studio. The pieces I do for myself are there and I think you will find my real work far less, um… Oh, how did you put it? Cold and lacking inner life?”

Benedict felt all at once relieved and embarrassed. Mister Granville was being exceedingly good-natured, making a joke of his insult. Benedict huffed a small laugh, before he said,

“Mm. I shall never live that down, shall I?”

Mister Granville smiled and nodded goodbye before strutting away. Benedict glanced between the mysterious artist and the card. For that’s what Mister Granville was, mysterious. He had that smile, the same sort of smile he’d see Penelope wear once in a while, especially when conducting Whistledown business. Secretive, full of words they were determined to leave unsaid. If Benedict couldn’t catch up, that was on him.

Benedict smiled to himself; he realized his heartbeat had been hammering against his chest and it was finally slowing down. Excitement filled him, thrummed like bolts of lightning hopping along his skin, like the remnants of a thunderstorm humming in the air. Could this be the start of something? The start of something that was all his?

Quite frankly, the world must have been spinning on a different axis than Penelope was used to, for she was absolutely dizzy from everything going on around her.

First had been the vulgarity of Marina being thrown at Lord Rutledge the moment they arrived. Penelope wished she could help more overtly, but ever since the gallery viewing at Somerset House, her mother had been keeping a closer eye on Penelope when it came to helping Marina. It was horrid, absolutely awful, the way Lord Rutledge simultaneously leered at Marina while remaining utterly unconcerned for her thoughts and feelings.

It seemed that Lord Rutledge and her father were made of the same stock. For then her father was making strange comments, how there was no chance any of his daughters would marry that year, that Philippa would not marry Mister Finch…and it was unsettling that for once, Penelope agreed with her own mother. She could feel her mother’s concern, utterly appalled at her father’s callous, even heartless, words. Why would he ever even think to deny Philippa a marriage? The Featherington sisters were on the low end of society as it were, he should be dancing a jig at the chance of marrying one of them off to anyone who showed interest!

It made no sense and immediately set Penelope completely on edge.

Penelope had to mull it over later, though. She still had gossip to collect while looking out for Marina, as she had promised.

Penelope observed the widow, Lady Trowbridge, as she bounced her young son, the new lord, in her arms. She studied carefully, a slight, knowing grin blooming on her face as she observed the vivid red hair of the child…and that of the footman, constantly by Lady Trowbridge’s side. Lady Trowbridge’s deceased husband had possessed decidedly very dull, thinning blonde hair.

She bit her lip before turning her concern back to Marina, who was stuck dancing with the ancient, decrepit Lord Rutledge. Marina was making faces at her, rolling her eyes at the predicament she found herself in, and Penelope watched all the while, torn between gentle laughter and genuine worry for her cousin. This scheme of her mother’s was entirely undesirable and Penelope really did want her cousin to be happy, or as happy as she could be without Sir George. That reminder was still a bitter pill for Penelope to swallow, and she tried to send Marina a reassuring smile as she was practically thrown about by the awful old lord. She’d promised Marina to look after her…

“Our host looks a bit fussy,” Colin joked, coming up from behind Penelope, startling her a bit. She smiled, looking up at him then down to smooth the folds of her hideous, buttercup yellow dress. “Do you think if he goes to bed, we all have to leave?” Colin paused only a moment, before continuing, slyly, “It is lucky the lady produced an heir before the old earl croaked, no?”

“Lucky, indeed,” Penelope replied, with just as much, if not more, guile. “But do you not think the boy bears a passing resemblance to Lady Trowbridge’s footman?”

Penelope almost thought she’d gone too far in her assessment, no matter how true or witty it might be, but Colin’s tone was nothing but roguish delight when he said,

“Penelope! What a barb!” The smile he shot her made Penelope’s stomach, nay, her entire chest cavity, fill with fluttering butterflies, beating their wings furiously against her rib cage. She smiled back, a moment held a beat too long, and Penelope realized she was blatantly staring. She bowed her head quickly, and Colin broke the silence, “I have tried to get in front of Miss Thompson all night. Surely she cannot be interested in Lord Rutledge, can she?”

Colin’s words swiftly culled the beating beasts inside her, all fluttering, tickling, ceased to be replaced by an odd combination of confusion and jealousy. But the second she looked at her cousin again, nothing but pity filled her heart. Her cousin was now sending desperate, pleading looks, begging for help from the hellscape she found herself in.

“I think the only thing Miss Thompson is interested in is a swift rescue, indeed,” Penelope said honestly, hiding a wince as Marina was shoved around the floor by Lord Rutledge with all the grace of a bull in a china shop.

“I believe you are right.” Colin was suddenly on the move, weaving his way through the crowd.

“Oh, Colin, I did not mean–” Penelope tried, but her voice was lost to the people milling around her and she watched, forlorn, as Colin made his way over to where Marina was trapped on the dance floor.

And then the jealousy flooded back again. It was ugly, terrible in force and flavor, like bile rising up the throat. She didn’t want to feel this way. Colin was affable and good, of course he would go and rescue Marina, in the way a man could, from Lord Rutledge. And Marina was beautiful, willowy in stature, her dark eyes alluring in a way Penelope’s would never be. Penelope couldn’t blame Marina for that, resplendent in her white gown with black embroidery, while Penelope was stuck looking like some exotic bird that was, suddenly, too big and ostentatious to attract the right partner.

But as she looked at Colin, sweeping Marina off her feet, she felt physically ill. She had to look anywhere, at anyone else before the horrible feeling inside her grew too great. The deep breath she took did nothing to center her as she walked away, though she attempted to convince herself she had a column to write. She should be gathering gossip. Yes, that’s what she must do.

But her heart still ached as she walked away, and once again, she bemoaned the nature of love. How painful and traitorous it could be, even when the person she was in love with had technically done nothing wrong.

Why did it still feel like he had inflicted such a grievous injury upon her?

As she wandered she spotted Daphne with Prince Friedrich and, if she wasn’t mistaken, Daphne looked just as sick as Penelope felt. In fact, Daphne looked like she could barely breathe and a strange ominous prickle crawled up Penelope’s spine as she watched Daphne rush away past a bewildered Cressida. Penelope saw the moment Cressida, with a vehement look upon her face, climbed the stairs to the windows on the next floor. Oh, Penelope knew exactly what Cressida planned to do. Penelope bit her thumbnail through her hot pink glove, unsure of what to do. If she followed Daphne, it could be a repeat of the dangers of the Dark Walk. Lady Trowbridge’s abode, settled on Hampstead Heath, had vast gardens, dark and perfect for trysts. She could hear Benedict’s warning in her head, to be careful and guard herself. Plus, there was the danger of Cressida seeing her.

But her curiosity was getting the better of her. Also, what if Daphne needed help? Surely it was better for Penelope to follow. In fact, if Cressida saw the two of them together, it would be much less of a scandal then Daphne being on her own.

And if she heard a juicy tidbit or two along the way, that was certainly helpful.

Mind made up, she nodded to herself as she picked up her skirts and weaved her way through the throng of polite society with the ease of one who was barely even recognizable as decoration. She’d seen Daphne head to the gardens, and just as Penelope caught up to the glass doors and stepped out to round the corner, ready to say something, she came to a sudden halt. She saw Daphne, diamond necklace discarded, apparently arguing with the Duke of Hastings. Penelope took a step back, unable to hear anything without taking a step closer, where she would surely be seen. Soon, Daphne was running off into the hedges, out of sight, the duke calling after her.

Penelope was stuck, frozen a bit in fear. She angled her gaze up at the window, and saw Cressida through the panes of glass, smirking before disappearing.

Oh zounds.

This was bad.

Penelope took a deep breath, gathered her courage, and rushed into the garden after them. They had to be told, if they did not rectify the situation quickly, Cressida would ruin Daphne’s reputation permanently. Penelope might get a thrill, make her living off scandal, but this was certainly not what she had in mind for the next column.

She cursed her short legs as she attempted to catch up, following the sound of raised voices. It was hard to make out what they said, and she came to a wall in the hedge where she could approach on the left or right. She chose the left, seeing an extension of the hedge wall that formed a sort of barrier where she could hide if need be. Scurrying over, slippers wetter with dew by the second, Penelope turned the corner and covered her mouth to muffle her gasp.

Hastings and Daphne were locked in a passionate embrace, kissing wildly, his long arms reaching down to ruck up her skirts, to press into her, to touch her–

Penelope felt something strange; part discomfiture, part some sort of edgy agitation. An awakening in her belly, as if Benedict’s drawings from all those weeks ago had come to life. Were – were they about to–

But suddenly there was another voice, a furious, deep voice that Penelope recognized immediately. She threw herself behind the corner hedge once more, peeking out to observe the scene.

“Bastard!” The Viscount Bridgerton yelled, throwing a punch right into his best friend’s face.

“Anthony!” Daphne frantically screamed, appalled at her brother’s act of violence. Penelope did idly wonder why she was so surprised. The viscount had made no secret of his protectiveness toward her, no matter how pigheaded it may be. There were shouts, punches being thrown, and once again Penelope found herself frozen as Daphne attempted to pull her brother off of his former best friend. The duke seemed to be letting the oldest Bridgerton throttle him, not really seeking to defend himself. Penelope, paralyzed in her horror, not for the first time wished she was braver.

“You will marry her!” Anthony exclaimed, so incredibly wild in his wrath it nearly stunned her. She briefly wondered whether her father would ever be that furious on her behalf before pushing it aside. The answer was no , of course.

“What?” Daphne asked incredulously.

Penelope couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow, her gloved hands gripping the leaves and vines of the hedge, though she stopped as they crumbled audibly. Did Daphne truly not understand? This sort of action had to lead to marriage, Penelope knew that now. After Benedict’s teachings, she was well aware of the dangers of being caught taking such liberties. Had…

Had no one ever told her? She must know, she had known the implications of scandal on the Dark Walk!

“Immediately,” Anthony demanded, pointing a shaking finger at the Duke. He was one spark away from exploding, Penelope saw that. “We can only hope no one saw you take such liberties, and my sister is saved further mortification. You will marry her!”

“Brother!” Daphne cried again.

Was she attempting to object? Or was she simply shocked by her brother’s vehemence? But before Penelope could contemplate on it, she heard the answer that shook her to her core.

“I cannot marry her,” Simon said, and Penelope could have sworn he actually seemed upset about it. Heartbroken even.

But what was he to be heartbroken about when it was he who was rejecting Daphne? Damning her to a life of spinsterhood and ruin? Possibly even damning her younger sisters, to be seen as untouchable on the marriage mart for years to come?

His countenance was agony, hurt, yearning… and yet he spurned her. Was love truly so fickle? Or was lust truly that much of an inhibitor of sense, that once it returned and one was forced to face the consequences, men recoiled like they had been burned?

Penelope had thought there’d been an honest connection between Daphne and the Duke of Hastings. Of friendship, if nothing else. But Hastings was acting as if it had all been a mistake. First the Prince, and now this…

Did love…have no power at all?

Penelope once again, had no time to ruminate over this vast question. She thought she’d been shocked before but the next words out of the Viscount Bridgerton’s mouth made her knees buckle. She had to catch herself on the hedge, heart pounding, as the viscount said,

“I must demand satisfaction.”

It was as if the very air around them had been sucked away. Penelope could not breathe.

“A duel? Anthony, you cannot…” Daphne tried to say, but the viscount interrupted her.

“He dishonors you, sister. He dishonors you and me and the very Bridgerton name. I have misjudged you, indeed. You have duped us both, but I shall not see my sister pay for my own misdeeds. We will settle this as gentlemen.”

“I understand. I shall see you at dawn,” Simon said, and it was his face, even in side profile, that spoke volumes. The resignation…

He was going to die.

Penelope didn’t stay a second longer, picking up her skirts again she ran as fast as her little legs could carry her. She had to get to Benedict and Eloise. Had to warn them somehow. Maybe they could stop Anthony, calm his ire. If anyone could talk Anthony down, surely it was Benedict! And Benedict would forgive her for going into yet another dark garden alone if she warned him, surely.

She contemplated telling her mother she was leaving but decided against it. It would take too much time and, unfortunately, her mother had a habit of rendering Penelope speechless. Penelope didn’t want to get tongue-tied or forced into staying. She had a duty to Eloise and Benedict, as their friend, to tell them of the disastrous events. As she scurried back into the ballroom, heading for the exit where the family coach was waiting, a hand at her elbow slowed her stride.

“Pen!” Marina whispered excitedly, coming in close, a dazzling smile upon her pretty face. “Where are you going? I must tell you how Colin rescued me! He’s just gone to get drinks.”

“O-oh,” Penelope said, and she felt her guts twist, her stomach roil. So it wasn’t exactly untrue when she tried to say, “Actually, Marina, I am feeling a little i–”

“Pen, he is kind and funny and a surprisingly accomplished dancer. And, well, I’m sure you’ve seen him with the small Bridgertons. He will be a wonderful father,” she whispered, careful of the crowd around them. But her face was alight with an inner glow, her dark brown eyes whirling with thoughts, and Penelope realized with a dawning alarm what Marina is beginning to plan.

“Surely, though, Colin is a tad young for marriage. You do need someone who will propose soon.” Penelope wanted to run, but was also fixated in a horrific trance. Was this really happening? Was her beatific, down-on-her-luck cousin, the only family member who had ever been kind to Penelope, going to try and trap Colin Bridgerton in marriage?

“But that is why Mister Bridgerton is so perfect. Did you see the way he rescued me? He’s not like the other young men who play games and guard their affections.”

Marina could barely contain herself and Penelope sadly assumed that this was what a broken heart did to a woman. Especially a woman in Marina’s situation, desperate to save her reputation and the livelihood of her child. Penelope wanted to understand that, she did.

But this was Colin they conversed about.

Penelope shook her head. No, she would have to deal with this issue tomorrow. If she didn’t hurry, she wouldn’t be able to tell Eloise in time. For all she knew, while she had been conversing with Marina, Anthony and Daphne could have made a swift exit.

Penelope’s eyes, unbidden, sought out Colin. He seemed to be now with his mother who, surprisingly, looked to be well in her cups.

“I – I must go, Marina. I really do not feel well,” Penelope begged, slowly extricating herself from Marina’s grip.

Marina frowned sympathetically, patting Penelope’s shoulder.

“Oh, of course, Pen. I shall see you at home if you are not abed.”

“Y-yes,” Penelope stuttered. “Please tell Mama where I have gone. I shall send the coach back.”

And with that Penelope flew away from the ball, though not from the now many problems she possessed.

Penelope had been lucky. She’d snuck into the back garden, thinking she would have to find pebbles to hurl at Eloise’s window, but she found her friend there, smoking. Penelope would have normally found this funny, but the mad order of events that night left no room for such levity.


Eloise looked up, anxiously blowing out the smoke in her mouth before she caught sight of Penelope, still in her gown. Eloise smiled, striding over to greet her.


“El, there’s no time!” Penelope grabbed Eloise’s hand and began to drag her back to the house, Eloise yelping and trying to stomp out her cigarillo behind her. “We must warn Benedict! Your brother, the Viscount Bridgerton, has challenged the Duke of Hastings to a duel over Daphne’s honor!”

Eloise let out a laugh that quickly died in her throat when Penelope shot her a hard look.

“You are not jesting?” Eloise asked, eyes widening like an owl’s. “Anthony has challenged the duke to a duel?”

“I cannot explain everything now. All I know is that Benedict might be the only one who can talk him down!”

Eloise nodded faintly and picked up her pace. They both ran to the back entrance, ignoring some of the servants who were still up. These footmen in particular, especially John, were quite used to Penelope sneaking in to see her friend. As long as the viscount never asked them directly if Penelope had been there, they wouldn’t say anything.

They ran to Benedict’s room first, Eloise throwing open the door with no warning. Penelope covered her eyes, knowing it was highly inappropriate to see Benedict’s private quarters.

“Damn! He’s not here!” Eloise cursed and they were off again, hurrying down the stairs and down a back hall to check the kitchens. No luck there. As they came back out towards the main entrance hall, they heard voices. Immediately both recognized the hard, clipped tones of the viscount and the furious pleas of Daphne. They ducked behind a pillar, watching as an argument played out. Though they could not hear what they said, it was quite obvious what it was about. Daphne looked frustrated, distraught, and as if any moment she might actually punch her brother in the face. Too soon Benedict entered, and Daphne was ordered to bed as Anthony dragged Benedict away.

Penelope’s heart sank into the acid of her stomach. They were too late. Benedict was going to be dragged into the whole affair blind.

“Oh, Benedict,” Eloise murmured. As if he heard her, Benedict turned his head, making eye contact with Penelope and Eloise. His brows raised imperceptibly before he was pushed into his brother’s study, the dorm slamming behind them, and right into poor Daphne’s face.

Benedict had been having a lovely night. When he had shown up at Mister Granville’s door, led down a hallway full of paintings and marble busts, then through the door where artists were sketching the nude models in charcoal, quite frankly Benedict thought he’d died and gone to some bohemian version of heaven.

“I do not know what I was expecting, but it surely was not this,” Benedict said in awe as he turned his head. Men and women alike were in front of easels, sketching the models in their own styles, telling their own stories in charcoal and graphite. It was incredible, and although he had thought that Mister Granville would surprise him, this hadn’t been his guess.

“Oh, simply a gathering of like-minded souls,” Mister Granville said airily. “Here, let me show you what I’ve been working on.”

The older man led Benedict to the right side of the room to show him his own easel, and as they passed the people smoking and drawing, Benedict heard snippets of conversation. True, learned conversation, not the vapid, meaningless talk of the ton at one of the many events held during the week. It was even between a man and a woman, discussing goings-on as equals.

“They speak of war abroad as if it will distract from inequities at home,” one of them said, waving a hand as he flickered his gaze between his models, his work, and the woman beside him.

“They do not need a war to be distracted. Why, this Whistledown is enough to turn their eyes from the needs of ordinary people,” the woman replied, and Benedict grimaced briefly. It was certainly true. Penelope’s writing did distract the upper echelons of society from the grievances of war and the poverty at home.

Not that the lords and ladies cared much for the poor to begin with.

“What do you think?” Mister Granville asked, proudly displaying his work of the nude models. They were sensual in a way none of the Classical and Biblical paintings could be. His art displayed the female form in all its honesty, for the beauty of it alone, without the half-baked excuse of telling some moral tale.

“Hmm. It is a far cry from Somerset House, I must say,” Benedict responded, barely able to tamp down his astonishment. He was trying to cover it with a cool nonchalance, but in this moment, he was failing. He hadn’t truly seen an artist at work before, in a space so free and uninhibited.

“I shall take that as a compliment,” Mister Granville replied.

“And I must say, I am truly jealous. Is this your life?” Benedict asked eagerly, looking about the room again. The artists clearly came from all classes, working or the rising merchant class. It was incredible, really, the ease in which conversation flowed, in which artistry – uninhibited by expectations – flourished. How had Mister Granville managed it? He was a part of the same social class as he was, born into a wealthy family. He was sure his brother was titled, though for the life of him he didn’t remember who.

“There are advantages to being the second-born. Heirs have the responsibility, second sons have the fun,” Mister Granville winked at him, yet there was something about the way he said it. Calm, reassuring, like they were sharing a precious, well-kept secret. Benedict had been rather good at keeping secrets lately. “So…why not go have some fun?”

Mister Granville led Benedict to a blank easel, primed and ready to be used. The blank, white drawing people sat before him, and for a moment Benedict hesitated. That usual fear gripped him before he drew, that he was untalented, unworthy, no near good enough to even put charcoal to paper. But he turned his face up to see the woman beside him offer him a smoking cigarillo. He took it gingerly, gratefully, and with a great inhale, he began to draw.

It all started off as lines at first. Mere lines that became shapes, soon connected together by curves. Smudges became the details in the women’s hair, a tiny wayward ‘v’ became a nose, or a knee, and a lopsided ‘u’ became a bountiful, bare breast. It didn’t come easily, he was still terribly filled with doubts. But it was easier. At times the woman to his side would talk to him, from politics, the war against Napoleon, how the Royal Academy wouldn’t allow women to apply, and even to Whistledown.

It was strange, wonderful even. No one in here except Mister Granville knew he was a Bridgerton, and he doubted they would have cared. They didn’t care about the trust his brother set up for him, why he wasn’t a clergyman or in the army. They picked at his mind, offered critique and guidance. And something in Benedict's chest sparked, flickering, whispering: This, this, this, it’s THIS.

As the night dragged on, the moon waning out the window, the candlelight the soft source of light, Benedict lost his jacket, so intent on his work he lost all track of time. The soft chatter around him quieted somewhat, as if in his focus the world had faded away. Eventually he sat back, studying his work when Mister Granville, cigarillo lit between pointer and middle finger, came up behind him.

“Hmm. You have great potential,” he commented, assessing Benedict’s work with a critical eye.

“It’s nothing,” Benedict shrugged off, though he felt a small swell of pride from the compliment balloon between his ribs.

“Though, for such a staunch critic of others, you certainly lack a clear eye for your own work,” Mis Granville admonished gently, though he raised his eyebrows so they approached near his hairline.

“It is the lines. Not what they are supposed to be,” Benedict said, staring back at the sketch. If he stared too long he could see every little mistake, every little flaw, and that tiny shadow of doubt creeped through the folds of his brain again, leaking out like fog through narrow alleyways.

“Take the compliment, Bridgerton. There is no expectation or judgment here. You left all of that back in Mayfair,” Mister Granville waved his cigarillo in the air, before clasping Benedict’s shoulder. It was comforting, the weight of his hand heavy, and Benedict felt like someone was actually taking the time to guide; usher him along a path he’d been searching for. “You can feel free to be yourself here…if that’s what you should like. It’s what works for me, at least. And I haven’t been dissatisfied with my lines in… Well, quite some time.”

Benedict couldn’t help the genuine smile that he could feel stretching his lips. He couldn’t deny, the open invitation felt wonderful. A chance to explore this life, a possibility, a trajectory for himself, and just himself.

“Well, I have done worse, I suppose, really,” Benedict said, and Mister Granville clapped his shoulder indulgently, like a professor or mentor giving into their young student’s whim, before releasing him.

“Mm. Fair enough,” Mister Granville said.

Benedict looked out to the sky through the window. His siblings should be coming home from the Trowbridge Ball right about now. If his brother’s murmurs were right, Daphne could very well come home engaged to Prince Friedrich. Benedict didn’t want to miss the news. He did want to be there for his sister, whatever her decision may be.

“I seem to have enjoyed myself too much this evening. I should be on my way.” Benedict stood, picking up his jacket to shrug off, glancing at his work one last time with a smidgen of pride.

“As you wish. But know you are welcome back any time for practice or even conversation.” Mister Granville placed an arm around his shoulders to lead him out. Benedict was sad to see the room, and the other artists, go. He hoped he’d be coming back soon. “I’ll see you out. And Bridgerton, feel free to call me just ‘Granville’ or even ‘Henry’ in private. Niceties can be quite tiresome.”

Benedict had felt his steps grow lighter on the way home, and he could not wait to tell Penelope and Eloise about his progress that night. While he was joyous to find the beginning of something that could be all him, he had this sense that they would understand and encourage him. Penelope especially. He imagined his friend’s small smile, mysterious but uplifting.

Yet what greeted Benedict as he arrived home in fairly high spirits was not at all what he had gambled on.

He stumbled upon Daphne and Anthony arguing fiercely, his sister’s hackles raised. Benedict had not seen Daphne so angry in his presence since the time Colin had thought it a good idea to cut Daphne’s bangs while she was napping on the sofa. Colin had very nearly died that day. But this… Something told Benedict this was far more dire.

He had barely asked what was going on before Anthony yanked him aside. Daphne tried in vain to follow but she was too small to keep up with her brothers’ long strides. The look of horror on her face was enough to make the hair all along his arms rise and gooseflesh prickle across his skin. Before he was thrown into his brother’s study he caught the horrified glimpses of a hiding Eloise and Penelope, looking at him as if he was a pig for slaughter. But just as soon as he’d caught sight of them, Anthony had slammed the door right in Daphne’s face.

“What in the blazes is going on?” Benedict hissed. “Was that really necessary to treat Daphne so? Did she say no to the Prince? Honestly, Ant–”

“The Duke of Hastings compromised our sister in the gardens at the Trowbridge Ball and then refused to marry her to save her honor and reputation,” Anthony said quickly, brown eyes as hard and unmoving as packed earth. “He defiled her, so I challenged him.”

Benedict felt his lungs seize, his mind stutter to a halt, and for a few moments he was frozen in place. Ice threaded through his veins as the image of Daphne, his little sister, the first girl born to his mother, the child his father had made him and Anthony swear to protect, being sullied by a rake.

It was odd how frigid and icy his anger was. It took him a moment to parse out that he wasn’t just furious with Simon (though he was filled with the desire to beat the lout into the ground if his brother was to be believed) but with Anthony too.

It was another disaster, another matter, a mess, that Anthony had made that Benedict would have to help clean up for family honor. He hated the word in that moment. Where he had been a mere hour ago, no dumb, small, antiquated version of family honor existed. If this duel had been instigated by anything less than Daphne being taken advantage of, he would’ve scoffed. But here he was, and he knew with a sinking feeling of dread, like pure lead being dropped in his stomach, what Anthony would ask of him. Worse, he knew the consequences of the question, and he did not like the sight of the blurry visions slowly solidifying in his mind’s eye.

Even though within the very fiber of his muscles he knew this was wrong, that he was bloody scared, he would be obligated to stand by Anthony’s side. He was the second son, he’d be expected to. One look at his brother’s face told him it would be hard to talk Anthony down from this course of action. He could, would, try.

For Daphne, he would try.

“And what does Daphne think of this? She appeared displeased–”

“She does not understand how it is not just her honor at stake, but this entire family’s,” Anthony snapped, striding around the room with a frantic energy, gathering the polished wooden box that contained his dueling pistol. Benedict had hoped he’d never have to use it. “Without defending it, our other sisters’ chances at a life where they can be married and taken care of are at stake!”

Benedict was convinced he’d be sick all over the floor. Bile climbed up his throat, acrid and sour, and he swallowed multiple times to fight the urge to vomit. The anger was there again, icy pricks at the back of his mind.

“I will need you to stand as my second,” Anthony said.

“What if you get yourself killed?” Benedict asked bitterly, though he knew the answer. But he needed Anthony to say it out loud. He needed to know that Anthony actually understood what he would willingly wrought upon his closest brother.

“Then the title and estates will pass to you.”

“And if you kill Hastings?”

Anthony leveled Benedict with his dark, brown gaze. Anthony knew, with all the weight and seriousness it entailed, what he was asking Benedict to do.

Damn him.

“Then I shall have to leave the country, and you will be head of the family in every way that matters.”

Benedict had the sudden sensation he was falling, even though the floorboards didn’t open up and swallow him whole like he so wished. He wondered if Anthony could tell that in mere seconds, Benedict saw the two options, terrifying premonitions, flash across his mind.

The first, where Anthony would be dead. It would be hell on earth, and Benedict already knew, deep within the marrow of his bones, that his mother would never recover from the loss of her eldest son. Their father’s death had nearly killed her. She could not suffer another blow. He saw long stretches, lonely days where Benedict could not seek the artistic fulfillment he had felt not too long ago that very evening. Bent over a desk, managing money, tenants, leases, and his siblings’ marriages and welfare. By God, he did not envy Anthony the position. It was demanding, often thankless, and Benedict knew he was being selfish when he so desired to keep away from it, ensuring it was Anthony who kept it.

The second vision was worse, in a way. In no world would Benedict wish his brother dead. But at least if Anthony didn’t run away, Benedict wouldn’t feel so abandoned. Was that what Anthony wanted? To shirk the responsibility that had firmly, unfairly, been thrust upon him at the mere age of nineteen? Benedict never thought it was fair but, damn it, Benedict had done his part! He’d managed the children, made sure his mother ate, kissed papercuts and broken up fights. Did he not deserve something for it? Something of his own?

Benedict knew, in his heart, he was luckier than Anthony in many ways.

Then why did it feel like a curse, that Anthony knew Benedict would step up to the title of viscount if he needed to? That, no matter how much he might want to, he’d never abandon his family?

Because family, his family, had always been his everything. Their everything. The Bridgertons had been raised to love and protect each other like wolves protecting their pack.

And Benedict hated himself for despising that fact in that moment.

But even though Benedict felt a surge of resentment to how incredibly, intricately bonded he was with his family, so much so he did not always know who he was… He still loved them. His siblings, his mother…they were the very arteries that kept his heart beating. And right now, two of them were being squeezed, suffocated so tight that his blood flow had become sluggish.

Daphne had been dishonored. Worse, she had been humiliated and made to feel disparaged. Possibly unloved.

While Anthony needed him, whether it was to watch him die or help him commit a great escape.

Benedict loved them.

Which is how he knew, with a horrible resignation, that he would not leave Anthony’s side. If Anthony was to die, Benedict would hold his brother’s hand until the last. If Anthony was to run, Benedict would bribe, cheat, and steal to get his brother safely to the Continent.

And at that moment, Benedict hated that about himself.

A sound of drunken laughter, slurred words caught their attention. It was Colin, coming home with their mother. Anthony strode to the door and opened it slightly, enough to see and hear Colin tell their sloshed mother goodnight (what was that about? Benedict hadn’t seen his mother so in her cups since… Well, he couldn’t remember). It was as Colin turned to catch Anthony’s eye, the eldest angling his head to signal Colin to sneak in like a bandit, that Colin said,

“Good God. Did someone die?”

And Benedict couldn’t help but snort. It was awful, ill-timed, but his emotions were so heightened he couldn’t help it.

Anthony glared at him before ushering Colin in, slamming and locking the door again. Swiftly, Anthony relayed to Colin what he’d just told Benedict.

“That absolute bastard!” Colin raged, throwing his hands in the air while looking wildly between his brothers. “I never would have expected such behavior from Hastings, Anthony, you talked so highly of him–”

“I was duped, fooled,” Anthony growled. “Clearly, I should have been more careful. I did not suspect–”

“Truly?” Benedict couldn’t help but ask, incredulous. “Did you not see the way they look at each other, Brother? I admit, I would have been blind to it if I had not seen Daphne at the ball where she first indulged the Prince’s affections. You can see it, the difference with how she looks at the Prince and how she looks at Hastings.”

“Are you saying our sister is to blame?” Anthony snapped, easily riled in his fury and self-loathing.

“No!” Benedict exclaimed, placing his hands on his hips. “Never! But I am not surprised your supposed best friend went after her!”

“He is certainly no longer any friend of mine!”

“If what you said he did to Daphne is true, then he should not be,” Colin cut in. “But I must admit, brother, a duel? I know the code of honor, but Daph would be devastated were you to get yourself…”

Colin hesitated, biting his lower lip.

“Killed?” Benedict shrugged. “Go ahead and say it, Col. That is what our brother is risking. His life.

“I know very well what I am embarking upon has consequences!” Anthony strode over to the bar cart, picked up the decanter of scotch and, after a moment, uncorked the crystal decanter and took a swig right from the source.

“Could this not have been handled quietly?” Colin implored.

Benedict had wondered the exact same thing, his lips set into a thin, white line. He had wanted to ask, to plead that Anthony simply beg Hastings to go away and never repeat the incident to anyone. Grovel at Daphne’s feet, and then let Benedict and Colin soundly beat him before sending him off on his ship. But Benedict had already decided he had no bleeding choice but to stand by Anthony’s side as the second born. However, Colin could ask these questions, bless him. Anthony might consider him young, a tad naive, but he might listen.


“It is not just about handling things discreetly,” Anthony scolded, as if Colin were a child who’d come to the wrong answer when solving an equation. “This is about family honor. By defiling then refusing to marry Daphne, he dishonors every single one of us. I cannot let that pass, even if it costs my life and livelihood.”

There was a silence then, as Anthony took another long drink from the decanter. Benedict watched slightly queasy but unable to look away.

“And what of us?” Colin asked quietly. “Losing you… What of the rest of us?”

Anthony wouldn’t look at them, just stared into the amber liquid, shining through the crystal decanter as it sloshed around, flickering in the candlelight.

“The family will be fine,” Anthony murmured. “You will have Benedict.”

And Benedict felt, once again, like he was falling into a dark abyss; flightless, sightless, straight toward a ground he could not see.

Benedict stormed angrily into the garden. It was close to a quarter after three in the morning, and Anthony had clearly gone to some whor*house or mistress to seek comfort in his final hours, leaving Benedict and Colin alone. Before leaving, he had informed Benedict of his duties, to safeguard their sister’s dowries, see the solicitor, comfort their mother… In truth, Benedict was still very much torn between screaming like a bloody maniac or vomiting all over his shoes. Anthony had strictly told Colin that while Benedict was his second, Colin was in charge of ensuring Daphne didn’t do anything stupid. She was still up, pacing and irate when Benedict had walked Colin to her room. He could hear her through the door, mumbling angrily, actually cursing (a very rare instance indeed), and the minute Colin had waltzed through the door, he heard the beginnings of what would be a very long interrogation. Benedict did not know whose task was worse, his or Colin’s.

To watch their brother die or be exiled, or to watch their sister suffer.

He hated it.

He saw Eloise and Penelope huddled together in the grass, both wrapped up in woolen blankets they must’ve taken from Eloise’s room. They were hidden in the tree’s bower, their heads leaned against each other, slightly nodding off. It wasn’t until Benedict was toe to toe with them, crouched to see their faces, that they warily blinked their eyes.

Eloise, of course, broke the quiet first.

“Is it true? Will Anthony be dueling the duke?”

Benedict nodded slowly, before releasing a long sigh, settling into the grass himself.

“I am to be his second.”

“Oh, Benedict,” Penelope whispered, her sky blue eyes shining with sympathy in a way that made him feel oddly tender. “I am so sorry. If I had gotten here sooner–”

“So you did know?” Benedict asked. “I suspected, the minute I saw you hiding with El.”

Penelope began that nervous habit of hers, twisting whatever was in front of her. She began to wring the corners of her blanket around her fingers.

“I – I know I should not have, but I noticed Daphne looking…unwell at the ball. She all but ran away from the Prince. I followed, just to check on her! But the duke got there first. She ran away from him, into the garden. He followed, then I followed. And, well… By the time I caught up, they were–”

Penelope blushed furiously, and Benedict felt heat creep up his own cheeks.

“Trust me, Penelope, you do not have to tell me,” Benedict moaned, digging the heels of his palms into his eyes. “I really do not desire to envision my sister in such a…position.”

Penelope nodded quickly.

“I did not see how the kiss came to be, who initiated it,” Penelope admitted. “But the next thing I knew, the Viscount was there. Terribly angry and–” She shrugged. “The rest you know.”

Eloise bumped Penelope’s shoulder, eyes wide and imploring.

“You must tell him the last of it, Pen.”

“The last of it?” Benedict asked. “Lawks, I am unsure what else I can handle tonight! First, you go against my advice again and go into a dark garden unchaperoned, the Duke of bloody Hastings takes liberties with Daphne, Anthony is dueling him, and now there is something else ?”

Penelope gulped audibly, scooting up so she was sitting straighter against the tree trunk.

“Cressida Cowper saw them,” Penelope said faintly. Benedict just felt like he had been doused in cold water. “She did not see them kiss! But she was watching from a window. She saw them enter the garden together.”

Benedict buried his face in hands, trying to fight the urge to scream in frustration.

“Another bloody mess I must solve.” Benedict closed his eyes, letting darkness consumed him for a moment. The bright future he had begun to see for himself mere hours ago was slipping away. “You know what I was doing before coming home to this disaster?” Benedict laughed wryly. “I was at Mister Granville’s, drawing! With the other artists, like I was their equal, someone who had talent. For one glorious moment, I thought I had finally discovered what I wanted to do! And now, no matter the outcome of this duel, I will become the viscount. And I deplore how much I do not want it. I tasted freedom, the pursuit of…of something great! And I hate myself because I am blaming Anthony for it, but I cannot leave him.”

Ugly, bitter tears stung Benedict’s eyes.

“Ben,” Eloise said, taking one of his hands in her own and prying it away from his face. “There must be a way. Maybe the duke will come to the field and change his mind. Maybe Anthony will calm down. You cannot give up!”

Benedict kept his eyes glued shut until he felt another pair of hands, smaller than Eloise’s, grab the fingers of his other hand, placing them in her own. He opened his eyes, his tears falling as the two girls stared at him, gazes sad on his behalf.

His blue-green irises met Penelope’s light blues one.

“I have not achieved even half of what you have accomplished by seven and ten,” he said. “And I am quite envious. I thought that maybe tonight–”

He choked, unable to say it. How he thought he’d finally found the confidence, a safe place, to do what he always wanted to do. Yet this duel, his own brother, was cruelly taking that chance away from him.

“I know,” Penelope said simply. “I know. And I am sorry.”

They sat like that for a long while, nothing but the light wind, and the occasional burrow of a fox or hedgehog in the distance making any noise. Mayfair, for once, was quiet.

“Eight and ten,” Eloise said, and Penelope shot her a warning look.

“What?” Benedict asked.

“Pen is eight and ten,” Eloise said, despite Penelope attempting to pinch her side through the thick, brown woolen blanket. “Her birthday is April 8th, it was the day of Lady Danbury’s opening ball.”

Benedict whirred his head around to Penelope, her crimson tinged cheeks all the answer he needed.

“Why did you not say anything?” he blurted.

“It is not exactly celebrated,” Penelope hedged. “Besides, the ball was more important.”

Benedict could read between the lines. Her own family hadn’t celebrated their youngest daughter’s birthday, in favor of throwing their girls at all of the eligible bachelors of the ton during that day's events. The constant picnics, pleasure gardens, teas, and balls. Yet, not once, had they acknowledged Penelope’s day of birth. It made his very blood boil.

“Pen does not like to mention it,” Eloise chimed in, able to read the simmering anger under her brother’s face. His second sister knew him too well. “We went and got ice at Guenther’s, did we not Pen?”

“Yes,” Penelope chimed in more cheerily. “And that was lovely!”

But Benedict’s chest still felt bruised and torn. If he hadn’t known any better, he would’ve thought someone had decided to use his body as a punching bag while he had been unaware. The emotional weight and pain of it all, the duel and now this, a birthday of a friend being ignored–

He could kill the Featheringtons. Or, to be more accurate, he would tell his mother and let her handle it. Her maternal rage was quite powerful.

The Featheringtons–

Hell’s bells.

“While I refuse to let your birthday slide by uncelebrated by me, your other, more handsome friend,” he winked, attempting to be playful, and it did make Eloise gag and Penelope giggle, so he’d take that as a win. “I do have something to tell you, Penelope. Something you must know.”

Penelope’s face sobered quickly, her fingers still grasping his own tightening.

“What is it?”

Benedict took a deep breath, wiping away the remains of the sticky mess on his cheeks.

“Well your father likes to gamble,”

“Everyone knows that, Ben,” Eloise huffed, but Benedict shushed her with a look.

“Penelope, I have reason to believe your father is squandering the family fortune on his bets. I have witnessed him be rather reckless of late, more impulsive, unable to pay up–”

Penelope blanched, and Benedict could see those magnificent cogs in her brain turning, working, putting the pieces of a puzzle together.

“Oh no,” she muttered. “That would– That would explain why he would deny my sister a marriage. Mister Finch wants to marry her, but Papa said something to him–”

Benedict bobbed his head and Eloise wrapped her arms around Penelope’s shoulders.

“We shall get to the bottom of it, Pen,” Eloise assured. “I promise, I will never let anything horrid happen to you. And you are making money with Whistledown! Should your father really be so foolish, we can find a way to squirrel your money away. Make a nest egg!”

Penelope leaned into Eloise’s side, and Benedict thanked the stars for probably the hundredth time in nine years that Eloise stumbled upon little Penelope that day in the park.

“I am sorry I even had to mention it, I thought you should know.” Benedict looked at the sky. It was still dark, but there were signs of an early spring day. A light graying of the sky, like the softest filter of light being painted across the velvety night. “I will stay a while longer, then I must go meet Anthony,” Benedict said. “But when I return, viscount in name or not, we shall take a moment to celebrate your birthday. Alright?”

“Benedict,” Penelope started. “You do not have–”

“Please,” Benedict pleaded, tweaking her nose. It had become a habit, something lovely. “Give me something good to remember tonight.”

Penelope smiled, her little closed mouth smile that wrapped so many unspoken words between her lips. He leant forward and, in a rare intimate act of affection, embraced them both. He stayed like that, Eloise and Penelope’s chins on his shoulders, as he counted down every dreaded minute until he had to ride into an uncertain future.

“We shall wait for you.”


“We shall wait for you.”

Benedict had expected many things from the duel. He had expected blood, gunshots, a body on the ground. He had (and had not) expected his brother to hand them their father’s old timepiece and swear he would take care of the lady, a mistress, whose name was tucked away in his desk drawer should he die. He had expected agony, anguish and an emptiness to soon fill him.

What he had certainly not expected was Daphne to charge in at a gallop, headfirst, into the middle of a duel just as his brother’s shot rang out.

“Stop!” Daphne cried, and as the ugly shot echoed across the field, the gunpowder flaring, Daphne’s horse had reared and she’d fallen to the wet patch of earth with a hideous thud.

“Daphne!” The duke shouted, lowering his pistol from the sky as he dashed to Daphne’s side.

“Sister!” Anthony yelled, the panic Benedict felt flashing clearly through Anthony’s expression.

Oh God. Oh Christ. What if she was dead? What if she’d been shot? This was worse than anything else that could have happened. Any of the other possibilities Benedict had foresaw. If Daphne was dead, his mother would perish but not before taking Anthony with her. No, no, no, Daphne, his sister – the little girl who hovered around his knees, begging to help, to ease his burdens – she could not be, please.

“Sister!” Benedict felt himself shout, hastily placing the gun box on the ground before running over as well. Hastings and Anthony already crouched near her head, Anthony trying to push the taller man out of the way,

“Stand aside!”

There was a moment, as Benedict knelt at Daphne's feet, Colin running over from his own horse (Benedict would have to deal with him later) where time stopped. Nothing stirred, nothing moved and Benedict was half convinced that even the birds had frozen in flight.

Until Daphne shifted under her powder blue cloak, shakily lifting herself from the ground, and Benedict felt his lungs take in air, his heart beat, and his brain start to work again. He let out a great shuddering breath, rubbing his palms over his face. Daphne was alive, she was moving. It had been too close for comfort, he had already been imagining what he would tell his mother, tell the family. He would have rather been shot himself then try to fight through the grief Daphne’s death would have brought…

“Oh, good God,” Anthony gasped, looking as if he’d been running through the same scenarios as Benedict had.

“Are you hurt? Tell me!” The duke commanded and Benedict glanced at him sharply. Who was he, to demand such a thing of his sister? This man who had apparently no problem taking her innocence, but would not marry her? Yet the look on Hasting’s face, worried, desperate, was not the expression of a man who didn’t care.

Daphne rose to her feet, furiously straightening her cloak, eyes ablaze with anger at their stupidity, “I am perfectly well, no thanks to you idiots!”

“What are you playing at?” Anthony yelled, in the way only an older brother can and Benedict was resisting the urge to smack every single one of his siblings present over the head. Was no one thinking straight today? Colin had apparently let Daphne decide she was going to stop a duel that Anthony had declared. Zounds, he could murder them all. He’d tell their mother they had run away to a farm in the countryside. Because right now Benedict didn’t know if he could bear to look at them.

“Says the man who just shot at me!” Daphne shrieked.

“You rode into the middle of a duel!” Anthony countered, clearly torn on whether to be glad his sister was okay or angry at her recklessness.

Daphne straightened her cloak again, her strawberry blonde hair loose and wavy around her shoulders. She glanced between all of the men present before they settled on the Duke of Hastings, her bright eyes boring into his dark ones.

“I require a moment with the duke,” Daphne said, in what Benedict imagined was her best attempt at civility in such a heated moment.

“Daphne…” Anthony started, but Daphne – Daphne! – cut him off.

“I require a moment with the duke,” she demanded, and Benedict had to lunge forward to step in front of his brother as Hastings made to follow Daphne.

“Brother, we must let Daphne have a say. It is her future,” Benedict insisted, and was rewarded when Daphne shot him a grateful look, though surprised. “But make it brief.”

As they wandered off, Benedict wasn't sure what to expect. All he knew, after observing so much through Penelope’s eyes that season, was that Daphne had to be able to say her piece. She had so little control, so little volition, that she must seize what she could. Was that not what was fair?

Though Benedict had to admit, the last thing he had expected was for his sister to say, just as the duel was about to start again,

“There will be no need to resume. The duke and I are to be married.”

Benedict studied his sister’s face and realized, not for the first time, that his sister was a woman. But beyond that, Benedict understood with a sliver of despair that he no longer really knew Daphne. He used to know all of her secrets, the ones she’d tell him in hushed tones in the dark of night as a thunderstorm raged outside the windows or when snow fell on the ground outside of Aubrey Hall. As soon as he returned home from Eton or Cambridge she was in his arms, so small and willowy it was like she could break, and she’d ramble about her adventures with Colin, how she’d impressed her governess, and how it was no fun to play Pall Mall without him. It dawned on him that the older they had become, she’d delved farther into the need to be the perfect first born daughter, an example to her younger siblings, someone flawless to make their mother proud. And suddenly there were no secrets in the dark between them anymore. Her secrets were now kept close to her chest.

And that hurt him.

As Anthony and Colin worked to rush Daphne home before the household arose, Benedict paid off the Doctor (once again, cleaning up the mess) and observed Hastings and his friend, Will Mondrich, walking away. Hastings appeared…devastated. Not the sort of look that was of a man trapped, but like he had broken something tangible, delicate, and pure.

He’d been so ready to die, aiming his pistol in the air, and that had been the first signal to Benedict that they were missing something. Something essential that had happened between his sister and the forlorn lord.

But, it appeared Hastings would keep this secret too and Benedict was left feeling bereft.

Benedict rubbed the back of his head, the morning mist beginning to clear, and as he made his way over to where Rapscallion waited patiently, he glanced over to see a small bunch of wildflowers. It wasn’t much, just some southern marsh orchids , but he smiled and bent down to pick them anyway. Nestled in between the stalks of the pretty blooms, was a jagged little rock, speckled white and black like a bird’s egg. He picked it up too, pocketing it safely in his waistcoat.

When Benedict finally returned, he headed straight to the garden, knowing he must swiftly get Eloise to her room and Penelope back home. Though he knew this, he was still pleasantly surprised, warmed even, that the two girls had waited. They were asleep under the tree in their blankets, cuddled around each other. It looked a tad uncomfortable, but they must’ve been exhausted.

He hurried over, gently shaking their shoulders to rouse them from slumber.

“Eloise, Penelope,” he murmured softly. “You must wake.”

He lightly tapped his sister’s cheek a few times before she stirred, groaning as she slowly sat up, attempting to stretch.

“Brother, what happened?” she asked, trying to sound urgent but the remnants of sleep clogging her usually quick brain. “Is Anthony–”

“He is alright and home safe. No one died,” Benedict soothed, and he could see Penelope blinking from the corner of his eye, her nose wrinkling. “I will explain later. But we must get you to bed before anyone sees.”

“You are not the viscount?” Penelope asked groggily, still upon the ground, her fiery hair a riot of tangled curls around her head.

“I am not, thank goodness,” Benedict chuckled, and he allowed himself to feel true relief and levity for the first time in hours. “I would have been dreadful at it.”

As Eloise stood on wobbly legs he helped Penelope up with one arm.

“I could not acquire anything nice, I fear,” Benedict said. “I promise we shall celebrate properly later, but happy birthday.”

With that he presented her with the clump of marsh orchids, their petals a soft purple-pink like the color of the sky during a summer sunset.

“Oh.” She didn’t move at first, just staring at the flowers a little in awe before hesitantly taking them. “I–” She paused, swallowed. “I have never received flowers before.”

“They are just wildflowers,” Benedict admitted. “But I thought they would do for now, until we can get you something proper.”

Benedict felt a swell, a balloon, really, of contentment when he saw how reverently Penelope handled the flowers. She was marveling at them, and Benedict gingerly took her arm. “Father used to tell us, every birthday,” Benedict said. “‘I am happy you were born.’”

Penelope looked up curiously, almost hopefully. Benedict could feel Eloise lean against his side, as if in silent approval for what he was about to say next. Penelope was their friend, she deserved to know.

“Penelope,” he said, with a smile that came, he knew, from the very depths of kindness his father fought to instill in them all. “We are happy you were born.”

Chapter 5: The Artist and the Scribbler


A scandalous party, a small wedding, and the birth of jealousy.


As usual, thank you again to itakethewords for being an awesome beta and even better friend and soundboard! You are amazing!

Seriously, itakethewords is amazing. They help me come up with plot, throw things against the proverbial wall to see if it sticks. There would be none of this story without them.

This chapter is where A LOT changes in terms of where this plot may head. Pay close attention and please, take guesses on where you think this will go! I'm a firm believer in even the slightest change can alter a path. :)

Now, first, Marina is NOT a villain in this story. And Penelope does not see her that way. But Penelope's emotions are complicated. Such is life. Much of Pen's POV is going to deal with how she feels conflicted about Marina's plan.

Second, remember, this is a Benelope HEA, but a slow burn. Benedict is still going to go through some of his plot points before he reaches his HEA. But never fear, there are still changes. Let's just say most people become team Benelope in the story. Haha.

Chapter Text

Unspooled Thread - happilyinsane13 - Bridgerton (TV) [Archive of Our Own] (5)

One may say modesty is a virtue, yet This Author is hardly a virtuous woman. It is therefore my great pleasure to announce the news others questioned, but I never doubted. The diamond of the season has made her match, officially betrothed to the Duke of Hastings. The bride, undoubtedly, is giddy with anticipation over the impending nuptials… An event that will apparently take place sooner rather than later.

Of course, there are only two reasons to procure a special license and race to the altar: true love, or concealing a scandal.

Penelope was completely, utterly, entirely exhausted. She’d obtained restless sleep in the Bridgertons’ garden before Benedict returned from the duel, the air cool and misty as he woke her. She’d been sleepy when he’d given her the clump of wild marsh flowers, their pinkish purple petals sparking a warm glow in her heart.

We are happy you were born.

Or was it the words?

When she’d been snuck into the back of her home, she’d begged Benedict to hold on for a moment. She needed to publish the column on Daphne’s engagement that day, or else it would allow too much time for people to question the validity of the engagement. Just the night before, Daphne had been seen entertaining the very serious attentions of Prince Friedrich. It was essential that Penelope controlled the narrative now, before the ton could form their own opinions.

His brows furrowed.

“Penelope, why—”

“It will sound legitimate coming from Lady Whistledown,” Penelope said firmly. “And she would report it, anyways. If she is the first, it could quell any rumors of a duel or any sort of violence last night. We must speak before Cressida does!”

Benedict moaned, rubbing his tired face with a dirty hand.

“I am loath to admit you have a point. I shall await you around the corner. May we secure your coach?”

“It is just late, or, rather, early enough, I would not,” Penelope admitted, beginning to bite her bottom lip. She couldn’t risk the Featherington coach being seen too frequently in the heart of Bloomsbury, at least not during the light of day. Absentmindedly, he tore off his black leather glove and gently pried the flesh from in-between her teeth, using the pad of his thumb to pull her plump bottom lip down and away. It vaguely registered with him how soft the skin was as his thumb dragged the flesh away for a moment, skirting against the skin of her dimpled chin before falling back to his side. “We could take a hack…”


“We cannot take Rapscallion,” Penelope insisted. “There is no other choice.”

Benedict sighed before nodding wearily. Penelope knew he would have fought harder on the subject usually, but Benedict, first and foremost, was almost asleep on his feet. It was obvious he was still so relieved that the viscountcy would not fall upon his shoulders that Penelope could have probably convinced him to do anything short of marrying her.

“For my sister, and for you…fine.”

Penelope used her free hand to squeeze his arm reassuringly before fleeing through the back servants’ entrance. She did her best to sneak through the kitchen but met the eye of Missus O’Carroll, dusting flour off her arms. The kindly old woman rolled her eyes.

“Hurry, ya’ wee wain! Ya’ know the house will be stirrin’ within the next few hours!”

Penelope gave her a bright smile before rushing to the laundry basket where she kept the ladies maid cloak. She carefully pressed the flowers in Missus O'Carroll's hand. “Please see these are put in water and…keep them down here. They will probably live longer if Mama cannot see them.”

Missus O’Carroll nodded in understanding before pushing Penelope’s hip with her own.

“Hurry, child! As if the Devil ‘imself was on y’er heels!”

Penelope threw the cloak around her shoulders, tucked her vivid ember curls beneath the hood, and rushed back outside to where Benedict waited. Without a word, he took her hand and they dashed to the street to hail a hackney off to Bloomsbury.

It only took ninety minutes to conduct her Lady Whistledown business and while Benedict returned to Bridgerton House to try and sneak in some sleep, Penelope still had business to do. Her family was breaking fast and Missus O’Carroll, bless her, had covered for her by telling Penelope’s own lady’s maid to say she felt ill. Penelope was reminded how good and essential the household staff were to her everyday life. They had truly cared for her since she was young and in return, Penelope had learned kindness when her sisters had not. Penelope had no illusions that she was wholly good, not really, but she was aware how essential it was to treat the staff well.

Penelope quickly shuffled through her father’s ledger and various papers. Scanning the contents rapidly, her heart hammering in her chest, perspiration lining her forehead.

It was as Benedict had suspected. Her father had gambled and spent nearly every pound they possessed, including the dowries of all three Featherington sisters. She knew her father could be callous, neglectful. But she had never suspected he would so willingly ruin their futures, their only chances at safe, secure homes. Her stomach turned and she felt bile climb up her throat that she forced herself to swallow down. The recklessness of it all, of her father’s actions, brought him down to the level of men like Berbrooke. How could she raise her head even an inch high amongst society when her father was thus?

No wonder he had denied Philippa (who Penelope actually pitied, she’d never thought she’d see the day) the opportunity to wed Albion Finch. Even with no title, the Finch family was respectable enough to recognize how unwise it would be to marry a daughter with no dowry, even a titled daughter of a baron. It spoke volumes to the state of their coffers. Suddenly it clicked into place why Marina was also present within their home, as Penelope found the name of one Mister Thompson amongst the people who her father owed. Securing Marina a home and match for the season must’ve been part of some deal to settle the debt.

Fatigue assaulted her body, her vision growing blurry, her mood plummeting into what felt like an unfathomable depth. It could not possibly get any worse.

“Mister Colin Bridgerton for Miss Thompson!” Briarly’s booming voice called, echoing up the stairs.

She stood corrected.

With terror seizing her lungs, she rushed down the stairs, her anxious brain working through problem after problem. If they were in debt, she had no doubt that after last night her shrewd Mama had probably done the same snooping Penelope had done. If that was so, Lady Portia Featherington would double her efforts to help in Marina’s new scheme to ensnare Colin into marriage without informing him of her pregnancy. Her mother, if nothing else, was practical in the ways of marriages and men. With little options left, she would throw herself in ensuring they would have a Bridgerton relation; the youngest, most good-hearted, and therefore most gullible, one.

Shaking in her garish citrus dress and slippers, she came into the drawing room just in time to see Marina complimenting a new bouquet of flowers that Colin had given her. They were lavish, clearly expensive, and Penelope thought of her tiny bunch of marsh orchids, their tiny blooms reaching for the sun in the kitchen window. Even through her tiredness, Penelope felt a simultaneous pang of jealousy and a rare little tendril of warmth that sought to comfort.

“Oh, Mister Bridgerton, these are beautiful!”

“I applaud you, Miss Thompson. I bring you flowers on each of my visits, and yet you react with admirable surprise every time,” Colin commented with his signature, affable smile, and Penelope felt her heart palpitate, the blood roar in her ears, and a queasy ache in her gut. “I shall need to bring you something unexpected. A bushel of tomatoes, perhaps.”

“Oh!” Marina exclaimed softly, delighting in Colin’s humor, but now Penelope saw deception anywhere. Out of everyone in her household, she had not thought Marina… No, she had known that Marina was capable of trickery, cunning, and wiliness. It was one of the reasons Penelope liked her so well, because Penelope thought she, too, capable of it.

But this… She couldn’t– not to Colin.

“Marina hates tomatoes,” Penelope blurted unthinkingly, rudely interrupting the conversation. Penelope had to resist the urge to yawn, her lack of sleep catching up with her. She wondered if she would have made the same inane comment even fully rested, and she concluded she would. She didn’t do well when stressed on a normal basis, and this was certainly out of the ordinary.

Marina sent her a discreet, bewildered look before rushing in to assure Colin, who’d also given Penelope a strange stare.

“That is untrue. I love tomatoes.”

Penelope’s mouth was just going now like a runaway carriage, unable to stop as it throttled past common sense and headed straight to disaster.

“Colin, you know where I have heard you can get excellent tomatoes? Greece!” Penelope said, a little desperately. She realized her voice was taking on an unattractive whiny, almost petulant edge but zounds, she couldn’t stop herself. “Perhaps you could bring back a tomato plant for Miss Thompson as a souvenir when you return from your travels this year.”

While Marina turned towards Penelope again, incredulous, Colin barely spared her a glance. And, oh, that was so much worse.

“I am uncertain of my travels at the moment, Pen,” Colin said, rather tightly.

“But you were so keen to travel,” Penelope pressed, stepping forward. She knew she was acting silly, childish even in her efforts, but why couldn’t Colin see? He was usually so smart. His observations keen, his retorts witty. And yet, all he saw was Marina’s charm and beauty, enveloping him in a haze of infatuation, maybe even lo–

Penelope could not even think it without feeling like her heart was breaking. She glanced over at her mother in the corner, completely blind and inattentive to the exchange. Penelope could not help but wonder whether it was simply because she, her mother’s youngest and most inconsequential daughter, was part of the display.

“It is true,” Colin admitted. “But, were I to go, there may be things in London I should miss even more than seeing the world.” Colin never took his besotted gaze away from Marina, and Penelope saw Marina preen from the insinuation, the idea that her plan was working. Marina had chosen the kindest, amiable, and most caring of the eligible bachelors of the ton. Colin, Penelope knew, was a charmer, but he was also someone who liked to take care of people and things at his core. Like his brothers, especially Benedict, Colin did not care to see vulnerable people misused.

It was like Colin sensed that Marina needed him, or someone like him to save her without her even having said anything.

It was a boon to him, in a way, and made her love him all the more. But Marina… How was she meant to feel about Marina now?

Realizing with her half-delirious, distraught brain she was going to get nowhere during this call, Penelope sequestered her mother into the hall while Colin was offered tea. She eyed them again as they sat next to one another on the sofa before, braver than usual, approaching her hawk-like mother.

“Mama? Do you think this is wise?” Penelope asked, as calmly, demurely, as she could.

“Whatever do you mean?” Lady Featherington asked, looking down her nose at her youngest daughter.

It was not disdain on her face. Penelope believed, and maybe it was foolish to do so, that her mother did love her deep within the depths of her heart. But her love was a prickly, almost poisonous thing, quicker to sting than to soothe. Lady Portia Featherington was the type to think that cruelty was kinder in the end, for it prepared her daughters for the realities of a harsh world. Penelope still wasn’t sure if that had been the right choice.

“Colin is young, years from seriously thinking about marriage,” Penelope continued, trying to make the argument as rational and logical as she could. Her mother, despite what many people thought, appreciated cold facts, rather than speculation based on feeling. “I would hate to think Marina is simply wasting her time, time she simply does not have, of course. That is all.”

Her mother actually seemed to ponder this, turn it over in her head. Even when Penelope was dismissed, she thought it quite possible that she’d gotten through to her mother. She didn’t want Marina to end up with Lord Rutledge, truly she did not. But Colin–

Penelope rushed to her room and collapsed into the wooden chair at her mahogany writing desk, more of a comfort than even her own bed. She pulled out a fresh sheet of parchment and just let herself feel the textured piece, trying to find some sort of serenity. But it never came, as all that she thought had been so clear, straightforward, was now muddled and complicated. The one family member she could count on, who had been kind to and defended her, planned on tricking the man she loved into a marriage under false pretenses. How was she meant to feel about that? When it had been any other available man, Penelope had been sympathetic to Marina’s plight. Yet now that it was Colin, the situation had been flipped on its head.

She knew in the dark depths of her heart that a great deal of this was due to jealousy. Unlike the beginning of the season when Colin could have been written off as a mere flirt, his courtship of Marina appeared to be turning quite serious now. Especially if he was considering forgoing his Grand Tour. A Grand Tour was incredibly difficult to organize these days, especially with the Continent thrown into war against Napoleon. The fact that the Viscount and the Dowager Viscountess had even given Colin permission to go had been astounding.

But he was throwing it away… Throwing it away on a woman who did not love him, who would force him to take care of a baby that would obviously not be his own.

But Penelope also tried to understand Marina’s situation. She was thinking about the safety of her child. Without a secure marriage, Marina could be thrown out of society with no money or connections. Penelope would be able to do little to stop it and on top of it all her family’s name would be dragged through the mud as well for being clear co-conspirators in Marina’s plan.

Separately, she could think about her secret love and her dear cousin clearly.

But throw their names together; Colin and Marina, Marina and Colin…and all Penelope wanted to do was curl onto the floor and sob, retch, and tear her heart out for all the good it did her. It appeared while love did exist, it never went to plan. Her mother and father, in a marriage with three daughters born from obligation, not love. For surely, if her father had held even a modicum of love for them he would not have squandered their very livelihood. Daphne had Hastings, but at what cost to herself and reputation if the wedding didn’t go over smoothly? Marina had been rejected by Sir George and in her spurned state, was aiming to use any means necessary to secure her child’s safety. Colin, with all of his affection for Marina now, could not be guaranteed to hold it if he were to marry Marina and find he had been duped.

And Penelope?

She possessed no one’s heart, but, then again, her heart has never been her own. Torn this way and that between first love, friendship, and duty… If she had known this was to be the consequences of entering polite society, she would’ve run away from the start.

It was with this in mind that Penelope began to write. The brief column she’d written that morning to be published had been heralded as a special edition to announce the Duke of Hastings and Daphne’s upcoming nuptials. She still had to write the “real” column, one that would entail all of the gossip and drama from the Trowbridge Ball. There would need to be something. Either a story that could overshadow the jilting of the Prince (for that was indeed what it was, there was no way around it), or provide some sort of reasonable excuse. Her earlier column had hinted at chemistry and love between Daphne and Hastings that could not be thwarted. The story had to be solidified in the minds of the ton for the wedding to go off without a hitch.

So Penelope wrote and wrote, letting the ink take up every available space on the page. She gave praise to Lady Trowbridge’s lavish, in some ways obscene, ball, throwing the barest description of her child and his flaming red hair (she felt no need to mention the footman. It was enough of a hint without outright disgracing the widow and her child, for she did not want his legitimacy to be questioned). Penelope talked of Cressida Cowper’s vain attempts to steal back Prince Friedrich’s attentions, then reported on Marina’s dances with Lord Rutledge and Colin (not much choice there). After dithering a bit about her mother’s atrocious taste in gowns, and even the bewildering calling off of Philippa’s courtship (Penelope wrote this angrily, her quill stabbing the page, nearly blotting out the words. She hoped, she prayed, it shamed her father), until finally she painted the Duke of Hastings as the dashing hero who swooped in and claimed his undying love for Daphne. Who could resist such a proclamation? Surely no swooning young debutantes and mamas at least. Plus, it was the story that Daphne and her betrothed would have to sell.

With a trembling flourish, Penelope finished and carefully blew on the ink to speed the drying process. She hurried to her window, intending to put flowers in but cursed. Her latest batch she had bought herself had died and been thrown out it seemed. If she was lucky, maybe Benedict was still sleeping in his room at Bridgerton House. Though, she winced as she checked the clock along her fireplace mantle, it was now nearly six in the evening. She’d been so wrapped up in her wallowing and writing she’d completely lost track of time.

Benedict would surely be out by now, whether at the gentleman’s club or some other engagement. Penelope had already begged off any social event her parents had said yes to that evening. Luckily her mother, in her single-minded focus to see Marina wed before the baby began to grow much more in Marina’s belly, easily dismissed Penelope completely and allowed her to stay in.

Surely… Surely delivering one column without Benedict’s help couldn’t hurt? Penelope would be as quick as a flash in her disguise, and while her usual driver, Evans, had been used to transport her family to Almack’s or Vauxhall or wherever her family was going that night, she could take a hired hack again. It wasn’t hard, and there were plenty to be found in Mayfair and in Bloomsbury. As long as she kept her head down, she would be fine.

Penelope knew she had already decided. She was incredibly stubborn, especially when she was weary and shattered. She was positive it must be some sort of defense mechanism to ensure no harm would befall her. It was amazing how swiftly she’d donned her plainest (and favorite) day dress, as it was not so gaudy, and was at least an acceptable dusky pink rather than an outlandish orange or yellow. Over it she donned her blue lady’s maid cloak, along with plain, white gloves that only went up to her wrist. With her column tucked safely in her bosom, she fled out the back of the house, glancing at her now cherished bunch of wildflowers on the way out before she fled into the early evening. She turned and scurried to Mount Street before flagging down a hackney and giving her destination.

Yes, it would be fine. She’d be in and out before anyone noticed.

Benedict noticed. Of course he did.

He’d gotten just enough rest that afternoon to regain some of his better senses, including his sharper eyesight and the use of his intelligence. He also, even when deprived of slumber, could now recognize that blue lady’s maid cloak anywhere.

He’d been enjoying his evening stroll to Henry Granville’s residence in Bloomsbury, having decided to walk half the way. It was a rare, balmy spring evening and as the sun had descended beyond the reaches of London’s brick and stone buildings, he’d spotted her across the street, trying to hail a hackney.


It was the glimpse of the pale face with the pert nose and bright sky blue eyes that had clinched it. At least she had done a fair job of hiding the tell-tale Featherington red hair but, damn it, was she trying to send him to an early grave? She was young, alone, and a woman. Even with her disguise, it was these three traits alone that would make her a target to less than honorable men. The mere thought of someone trying to take advantage of Penelope set his teeth on edge and made his blood boil. It was horrendous, uncouth, what some men did to women. Benedict had four sisters after all, and he could not go by one day without fearing for their safety.

How could she do this a mere day after what had happened to Daphne? Did she not understand the possible consequences? She would be considered lucky if she was caught in a situation where she was only forced to marry. But in this area of town, she could be used and abused without the slightest thought to her welfare, thrown to the curb. With the type of family she possessed, it was likely the Featheringtons wouldn’t hesitate to ship her off to the country, never to be seen again.

He felt his fingers curl into fists.

Before he was truly aware, his feet moved across the street. Soon, he loomed over her and he could’ve sworn his expression must’ve been as menacing as Anthony’s on a good day, because Penelope actually jumped back, startled. It took her a moment to recognize him, and the moment she did, her pale complexion became absolutely pallid.

Good, Benedict thought. He knew it was petulant, even cruel. But she should have been scared. Fear of retribution was what kept them safe.

“What the bloody hell are you doing?” he hissed, grabbing her wrist without hesitation as he began to haul her across the street, dodging carriages and carts on their way.

“B-Benedict,” she squeaked. “I-I can explain.”

“Oh, you very much will!” As soon as they reached the paved sidewalk he drew her close, her covered wrist held against his breast as he breathed heavily, blue-green eyes boiling. “Because this is now the third time you have put yourself in danger against my advice. I am not even counting the first two times I caught you in Bloomsbury alone. Those were forgivable in your tenacity and ambition. But now…this is just reckless!”

Penelope shrank away from him, cowed under his gaze, and Benedict realized that she’d never really done that before.

He was scaring her.

And though a dark, horrible and vindictive part of him reveled in it, the rest of him felt suddenly ashamed.

Closing his eyes, he inhaled deeply through his nose before releasing the air like he was spouting water from his mouth. He tried to will his pulse to slow, to regain his sense of self, to reach for his gentleness and pull–

“I am sorry,” he breathed, opening his eyes and releasing his harsh grip on her wrist. Instead, he gently pressed his flat palm to the back of her hand and pressed it against his heart. “I should not have lost my temper. But please, Penelope. You are giving me a heart attack. Anything could have happened to you. Why did you not call upon me?”

Penelope squirmed uncomfortably under his stare and it was then he noticed the purple-blue circles under her eyes and the way she swayed unsteadily. The clear blue color of her irises brightened under a glassy sheen.

“You were not home,” she said simply. “And I had to– To ensure Daphne and the Duke’s story rang true, that it was love… I had to write a more fully-fleshed article. To boost their claim and possibly draw attention away from them by highlighting other gossip. I… I have been muddled all day, Benedict. I just thought I could get the job done this once without bothering you.”

Benedict felt himself soften like chocolate in the warm sun. Running fingers through his hair, he couldn’t help but sigh, keeping Penelope’s hand on his chest.

“You have not slept, have you?”

Penelope shook her head.

“Well, I am not sending you home alone in a hack,” Benedict said firmly. “But I will not be missing out on a good time either. I had plans, you know!”

He clucked his tongue at her, looping her arm through his own and walking her down the street.

“Oh, Benedict. I am sor–”

“No,” Benedict said, holding up a finger to silence her, tweaking her nose with his free hand. “I will think of some momentous, lavish, incredibly heartfelt grand gesture you can do for me later. For now I am keeping my eye on you! But I will not sacrifice my frivolity to do it!”

With that, he quickly led her up the stairs to the stoop of a nice townhouse and knocked upon the door.

Mister Henry Granville opened the door with a casual smile. One which, Benedict noticed, strangely only widened upon seeing the rather put out looking Penelope Featherington. Benedict observed Henry’s eyes analyze her, lingering on the blue cloak meant for a maid.

“Ah, Bridgerton! I am glad you made it. But to what do we owe the pleasure of this other guest? All are welcome, of course.”

“I found this little bird outside the confines of her gilded cage,” Benedict said, directing his best attempt at an admonishing glance at Penelope. She shot him a flat, banal look in return. “Flying around with no regard to what hunters lurk in the dark. She is an artist too… Of a sort.”

“Ah,” Henry regarded Penelope with open curiosity, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “You are one of Lady Portia Featherington’s doves are you not?”

Penelope actually snorted.

“Less a dove, more a chick at the peck and call of a tyrannical mother hen,” Penelope bit out before she could stop herself. There was a pause in which Benedict could tell that Penelope had started to curl in on herself most likely afraid she had horribly misstepped. She had become too used to speaking her mind in front of him, and yet Benedict found himself with no desire to correct her.

Henry broke out into a roar of laughter and Benedict’s mouth twitched unwillingly into a grin.

“A writer then! How marvelous, I do so enjoy them. Come in, you two. Come in.”

They entered the abode, Penelope lowering her hood in order to marvel at the artwork that lined the walls and the marble busts that sat proud and regal on various decorative columns. As they headed further down the hall, Benedict heard the muffled chatter of the artists as they worked on their drawings based on the models Henry had hired. It was with a light pinkening of his cheeks he realized that those models would most likely be the very same as they were last time– completely nude.

“Uh, Penelope–” Benedict started, but Henry interrupted with a playful grin.

“On a first name basis with our feathered writer, are we?” Henry asked, eyes alight with mischief. “Something you must share?”

Benedict felt a flush creep up his chest. Another mistake: He and Penelope had allowed themselves to be too informal, though he doubted Henry would really care. Before Benedict could answer, Penelope huffed a small laugh, and Benedict could’ve sworn it was partially self-deprecating.

“Mister Granville, Benedict is my friend at best and sees me as an extension of his little sister at worst.” She said all of this with ease, quite confident in her assessment. “I have no doubt that Benedict’s lovers are of great beauty.”

Benedict’s ears grew hot, not only at the implication of what his lovers were but what Penelope wasn’t.


But Henry interrupted again, his brows furrowed but his eyes crinkled in kindness as he spoke to Penelope.

“Well, great friends are hard to come by. And I have no doubt that Benedict would only allow a very great friend to come to this little soiree with him.” Henry turned and continued to guide them down the hall. “I must warn you, Miss Penelope, you might find the state of the models shocking to your sensibilities. It is very intimate and a tad avant-garde.”

Penelope’s nose wrinkled for a moment before her brow smoothed in understanding.

“Ah, well,” she gave a nervous smile, and Benedict instinctively gripped her elbow. “Technically nothing I have not seen before. I received ample instruction on anatomy.”

“Have you now?” Henry asked, turning his head again, his eyes flickering between the two of them. Benedict thought he would sink into the floor or be sucked into the adjacent wall. Or he could just die. That would be fine. He could feel heat radiate off Penelope beside him.

“O-oh! I mean– that is– not– Benedict only helped– No! I mean, he did but it was not– he made sketches–”

Benedict, boldly and without much thought, clasped his hand over her mouth. She let out a little mmph of surprise, much to Henry’s very obvious delight. He laughed heartily as he finally ushered them into the candlelit room, windows open, artists gathered in a semi-circle sketching the two models. It was a male and a female this time, locked in an embrace. Both models faced forward but the man had one powerful arm wrapped around the woman’s curvy waste and the other crossed across her chest, his fingers locked upon her shoulder. Her eyes were closed and turned away from him as her head rested upon his chest, long black hair falling in waves between their bodies.

They were, as Benedict predicted, stark naked.

To Penelope’s credit, while the apples of her cheeks flared pink, she said nothing as Henry led them over to two available easels in the corner. Henry reached out his hands in offering to Penelope, silently indicating her cloak. Tentatively she removed it and handed it to Henry to put away. Benedict was taken aback. Along with her looser curls (thank the heavens he’d made sure to compliment them at Vauxhall so she was no longer forced to look like a poodle) she wore a dusky pink muslin dress with absolutely no special adornments whatsoever. It must have been one of the rare gowns that she had a say in, and Benedict had to admit she appeared more comfortable in her skin, more like the woman she was expected to be rather than the half-girl she was.

“Thank you, Mister Granville,” Penelope said. She bit the inside of her cheek in that way that instantly told Benedict she was deciding on whether to ask a question when she glanced at the drawing paper set up on the easel. Benedict had already sat on his stool and in the process of removing his cloak. “I fear I have no real propensity for drawing, however.”

“Oh, dear, no! I do not expect you to draw,” Mister Granville chuckled. “I quite expect you to write! You are a writer, are you not?”

“W-write?” Penelope stuttered, taken aback.

“Why yes. Why not? These models here,” he waved an airy hand at the figures frozen in their embrace. “We doodlers draw what we see. If we have imagination we may create a landscape around them, some sort of scene frozen in time. But you! You could write a poem, a scene, a chapter, a whole novel inspired by this one moment!”

Henry smiled indulgently before nodding at the piece of twine-wrapped graphite on the easel’s ledge. “Is that not exciting, Miss Penelope, that you can twist and turn this pose any which way you want?”

Penelope stared, her cupid’s bow lips parted a little in awe before turning to study, really analyze, the models before her. Without a word she sat down, picked up the graphite and clutching the wooden edge of the easel in her left hand to steady herself, began to write. Henry and Benedict grinned, and Benedict met Henry’s gaze and mouthed, “Thank you.” Henry simply shrugged it off good-naturedly. Around the semi-circle, the group conversed quite happily. The same woman from before offered Benedict her cigarillo again before picking up a glass of red wine from the side table and sauntering over to Penelope, handing it out to her. Penelope glanced up a little shyly but accepted the drink as the woman inquired about Penelope’s work.

“I’m Bess,” the woman smiled, charmingly crooked canines peeking from beneath her upper lip.


“Do ya’ think it’s a love story?” Bess asked, peering between the sentences Penelope had constructed so far and the models.

“Yes,” Penelope said, tilting her head to get a better look. Benedict was trying to draw exactly how the man’s grip at the woman’s waist indented the plush skin. “I do not know if it ends tragically or happily yet, though I think the embrace is tragic.”

“What makes ya’ say that?” Bess studied the models again, squinting her eyes as if to parse out an expression or angle she hadn’t caught. “I was going for carnal m’self, like he needs to possess her, every inch of her.”

“But is that not tragic in its own way?” Penelope wondered, and Benedict’s ears pricked up. “What if she had no say? No way of knowing that he plans on keeping her forever, with no knowledge of his true self? Or what if this is just one last embrace before they part?”

“On the other hand,” Bess pressed, “What if this is their first time after surrendering to their desires? What if they’re overcome by the passion of finally being in each other’s embrace after a long time without?”

Penelope nodded slowly and Benedict could almost hear the cogs in her mind turning as she attempted to dissect their expressions.

“I hope so. It would be nice to write something that ends well.”

Bess and Penelope talked for a few more minutes before the artist returned to her work. Benedict was working on smudging some graphite to create the shadow across the woman’s torso, tongue peeking out from between his lips.

“That looks wonderful, Benedict!”

Benedict blushed for what felt like the tenth time that evening, his skin growing hot around his cheekbones.

“I– the shading could be better, and I am still working on the lines–”

“Benedict,” Penelope said, tilting her chin down and peering at him through her lashes as he was the one in need of a scolding that night. “Take the compliment.”

Benedict huffed, rolling his eyes and leaning over to playfully smudge graphite across her cheek. She attempted to swat his wrist away but failed as he successfully smeared gray across the apple of her cheek.

“Henry said the same last time I was here,” Benedict confessed, settling back into his seat to smile a little shyly.

“I knew Mister Granville was intelligent,” Penelope remarked, frowning at a phrase she’d just written and crossing out a word.

Benedict’s lips tilted upwards in an almost bashful smile. He felt nearly compelled to admit that it had been nice, wonderful even, for someone as talented and worldly as Henry to compliment his work no matter how small. It was much more than Benedict had ever dreamed of doing or achieving before, alone in his room, constantly sketching before furiously ripping the mess of lines and shadow from his sketchbook and tossing it in the fire. Henry was starting to help Benedict see his lines more clearly, his shadows as purposeful rather than random or wrong, and there was a new, wonderful way he could sit back straight and look at what he produced with a little more confidence.

“He is,” Benedict agreed before reaching out, graphite still tucked between middle and forefinger, to gently tuck a stray curl behind Penelope’s ear. “Henry’s even promised to help me with various painting techniques. Teaching me the value of underpainting or the use of chiaroscuro. I am really interested in alla prima…”

He trailed off slightly when he noticed Penelope had a rather odd expression on her face. In the dim light, the purple bruising from lack of sleep around the soft skin of her eyes wasn’t as obvious; but nothing could disguise the sag of her shoulders, the faint sallowness to her cheeks, or how she’d occasionally, in a moment of absent thought, close her eyes and nearly fell off her stool until she recovered her equilibrium. But, more than anything, there was something inexplicably heavy and troubling pulling her down and if Benedict did not pinpoint the problem soon, Eloise would never forgive him. Quite frankly, Benedict would never forgive himself.

“Penelope,” he soothed, setting his twine-wrapped graphite down onto the wooden easel’s ledge. “What really happened today? You have clearly not slept. In fact, I very much doubt you have even supped.” Swiveling on his stool, he reached out to grasp her hand tenderly in his own. It didn’t feel so improper within these walls, so dangerous to grab a young girl’s hand who needed his comfort and protection. Not that he obeyed many bounds of propriety with Penelope when it was just them and Eloise, but at least in this room it seemed normal. All Benedict was doing was comforting a dear friend and that would never be put into question. Nothing more would be demanded of him. He stroked her knuckles with his thumb, her skin incredibly soft like rubbing against silken sheets. “Penelope, surely you must know by now you may confide in me. Surely I have proven myself to be a stalwart protector and most loyal of secret keepers.”

Penelope peered up at him then, and while he did not wring the giggle he had hoped for, it meant so much that she was looking up at him with her watery blue eyes.

She took a deep breath, closing her eyes for only a moment, gripping his large hand between her tiny fingers. When she met his gaze again she said, voice quavering,

“You were right. My father has been gambling away all of our money.”

Benedict felt as though someone had just shoved a boulder down his throat, landing with a horrible, leaden splash in his stomach.

“Papa has successfully gambled away our entire fortune,” Penelope pushed on, her words tumbling out a little faster like a landslide gathering speed with no signs of stopping. “It is why he took Miss Thompson in. He owed her father money too, and the ledger stated if he took her in and found her a match that debt would be forgiven. But there are so many debts, Benedict. From the horse races, the boxing matches both legal and illegal, the co*ckfights, gambling hells, brothels…” It appeared as though Penelope was on the precipice of crying, yet not a tear fell. Benedict felt a strange emptiness in his chest at that. How sad, how hollow it must be to deny yourself the simplest of releases. “He even gambled away all of our dowries!”

Benedict’s heart stopped dead in his chest.

What had it been… A mere 24 hours ago, less than that, when Anthony had been certain he may die and forced Benedict to swear above all else to protect their little sisters’ dowries in order to ensure their future, their protection and livelihood? If there was one thing Benedict could not live with, could never forgive himself for, was to ruin any prospective endeavors or futures his sisters could take when they were limited in scope as they were. Was it not the sacrifice Daphne was making herself? Saving herself from scandal to protect the chances of her younger sisters’ fortunes and matches? Anger, hot and red and bubbling, begged to explode from his skin.

“T-that villain did what?” Benedict’s voice was no longer his own, deep and gravelly in a way he rarely heard. He felt her tiny fingers thread through his own and he was momentarily distracted when he realized she was clutching it to her soft belly, like one would do with a cherished childhood blanket or toy.

“I am not a fool, Benedict. I knew my chances on the marriage mart were small to begin with. I am not slim like my sisters or beautiful like yours.” Benedict opened his mouth to say something, anything to dismantle her fears but Penelope kept going, unable to stop. “The only security and means to possibly tempt a man to marriage was my dowry and now I have none. I cannot use my Lady Whistledown funds, it would be too risky for my family to have knowledge of them. So I am…bereft of options, of choices. The only thing I work hard for, that I made the conscious choice to do, I must continue in secret.” She bowed her body over their enjoined hands and Benedict could feel the softness of her, her warmth and sorrow enveloping his palm like a liquid tear embodied in a person. “I wish I could be you, Benedict. I so desperately wish I could be a man and take my time, do what I want creatively and have no worries on when to find a match. Even with no fortune I could risk it all on an occupation, or make money that my father would have no claim on. If I were a man–”

She stopped suddenly, her body still bent forward, her ember curls a curtain over her face. No one else existed in that room; not the artists, the models, or even Henry who Benedict noticed was standing a bit off to the side, pointedly making an effort not to look at them. But it was only Benedict and Penelope, and Benedict was at a sudden loss on how he could be of any assistance to the girl he swore to protect. The one man that was supposed to put her interest above his own, her father, was worth less than sewer rat. Yet it was still Baron Archibald Featherington who held the actual power in that family, and if he was determined to drag his daughters into destitution with him, he would.


Penelope sat up and his hand suddenly felt cold without the heat her body had provided. She carefully placed Benedict’s palm back on his knee, patting his knuckles almost absentmindedly before returning to her easel. Plucking her graphite from the ledge she began to write again, her focus trained once more on the models.

“Tell me more of alla prima, Benedict. I have never heard of it before.”

Benedict reeled, taken aback by her sudden change of topic.

“Penelope,” he started and he found himself biting his lower lip, much like she did in times of nerves or stress. “Please, we must talk about this. Surely you know, I would never allow you to fall into disrepute. Eloise–”

“Tell me of alla prima,” Penelope repeated.

“Penelope, we must discuss–”

“No, Benedict.”

The way she said his name, as if her very voice was tearing at the seams, broke something inside him.

“Benedict, please,” she said weakly as she continued to write. “Please, talk of something else. Something happy. Tell me about alla prima.”

As she wrote upon the page, a story Benedict would no doubt find tragic yet lovely, he picked up his own graphite and worked on the curve of the female model’s stomach as he began. Her frantic scribbling made him stare at her for a long moment and, for reasons unknown, he imagined her as Ariadne. Lovely Ariadne, spinning her ball of thread for her lover Theseus as she sought to defy her father. It was an image that overtook him for a moment, unsure as to why…

But if she could spin a story for her comfort, for her distraction…then so could he.

Alla prima means ‘wet-on-wet.’ Essentially, you apply wet paint to the first layer of paint before it dries so you can mix and blend colors–”

“Is she alright?”

Benedict turned to see Henry staring kindly at Penelope a little ways ahead of them in the hallway as she shrugged on her cloak.

“I–” Benedict swallowed. “I will try to ensure she will be.”

“Is it just you and your sister then? Who are her friends?”

Benedict pondered this for a moment. He was honestly quite sure that the Bridgertons were the only people in the whole of London who called themselves Penelope Featherington’s friends and that stung more than he thought it would.

“My other brother, Colin, would also name Penelope a dear friend. But she does not have many companions. People can be quite…”

“Cruel,” Henry said, nodding in understanding. “Rest assured, she will make others soon. She is growing into herself. True friendships usually follow.”

Benedict only nodded, though was unsure of the truth of it. When Benedict thought of the many flimsy birds of the ton, his nose wrinkled and he was tempted to scoff. None of those flighty ladies really had the qualities that would make a good friend for Penelope. Only his sisters so far had met such requirements, but Eloise could not be with Penelope all of the time since she had not yet debuted.

“Will you be coming to the party tomorrow night?” Henry asked instead in a low voice as they drew closer to Penelope, waiting patiently by the door. “Your Penelope is more than welcome to join.”

Benedict frowned, unnerved for some reason.

“I have a feeling such a party is not as tame as this gathering,” Benedict said. “Tonight worked out, but Penelope is a lady of good breeding despite her parents' efforts for it to be otherwise. I could not in good conscience bring her.”

Henry hummed, giving a little smile and wave to Penelope who, Benedict was gladdened to see, brightly waved back.

“Then another conscience is required.”


“Pay no heed to my ramblings, Benedict. It will do you no good.” Henry patted Benedict’s shoulder heartily before taking Penelope’s hand and laying a gentle kiss upon her fingers. “Goodnight, Miss Penelope. I am sure I will see you soon.”

Benedict left with Penelope on his arm, more than a little confused about the exchange.

Penelope was shocked the next mid-morning after finally obtaining some sleep, to receive an invitation from Missus Lucy Granville for tea later that afternoon. The calling card was white, crisp, and beautifully embossed. No one was as stunned as her mother when Penelope showed her the invitation, asking if she could take one of the carriages and go with a lady’s maid.

“What would she want to do with you?” her mother asked, imperiously drawn eyebrows raised.

Penelope let the comment slide off her back like water from a duck. She was too used to such remarks by now.

“I talked briefly to Missus Granville and her husband, the artist, at Somerset House during the exhibition,” Penelope lied quickly. “I guess she must have taken a liking to me. May I please go, Mama? I doubt I will be missed on the promenade today.”

Lady Featherington briefly mulled this over before letting out a sigh, as if she was being incredibly magnanimous for even entertaining Penelope’s request.

“Very well, then. It does not hurt to make connections. I believe she has a male cousin or two who is unattached. Enquire after them for Prudence. I have my hands full with Miss Thompson.”

With that, Penelope’s mother shuffled away, leaving Penelope feeling oddly cold.

Penelope arrived at the Granville's residence again, a mere twelve or so hours from when she had departed its threshold. She’d brought no lady’s maid, despite what she’d told her mother. Penelope had a gut feeling that it was wiser not to, not for this place. The less servants, no matter how loyal, the better.

Her suspicions were proven correct when Penelope’s knock was answered not by a servant, but by a lady with dark black curls pinned to her head, light brown skin, and dark brown eyes. She wore a royal purple dress with no gloves. Her pointed nose and direct stare made Penelope feel as if she was being mentally dissected, assessed in order to determine whether she was friend or foe.

By the slow smile that spread across her face, Penelope gathered she’d passed the test.

“You must be the Miss Penelope that my Henry has told me so much about,” the woman, who Penelope assumed to be Lucy Granville, said. “The little writer. He is quite excited about you. Insisted you would fit right in with me and my fellow ladies. And I must say, his instinct appears to be correct. The fact you brought no servant with you already tells me you’re shrewd. I like quick learners.”

Lucy stepped aside to allow Penelope inside the townhome.

“Thank you for inviting me,” Penelope said, biting her cheek as she stepped into the hall lined with paintings and sculptures every which way. “Though, I must say, I am not sure Mister Granville gave an accurate account of me. I am not particularly interesting.”

Lucy laughed heartily, the sound much like a magpie’s raspy chatter, yet it sounded near musical coming from the woman.

“It is exactly because you said that I know my Henry was right. He told me you would attempt to downplay yourself. But he read your short story last night. I hope you do not mind, he shared its contents with me.”

Penelope blushed furiously. She forgot that in her mental state, absolutely shattered as she was, she’d left the story there upon the easel. As if sensing her rising embarrassment, Lucy entwined their arms and said, very gently, “It was incredible, despite its tragic nature. I particularly adored the ending where she perished on her own terms, even after scorning love. There is something to say about a woman who chooses her own path, even if it is not what she first dreamed of.”

Penelope could not help but beam with pride as Lucy led her down a hall, past the room Penelope now knew was used for Henry’s artist gatherings, and to a slightly more private sitting room. The room was decorated in rich, dark velvets; burgundies, purples, and greens. In the middle sat an embroidered sofa along with a long chaise lounge, and a chair or two. Almost every seat was full with various women, two Penelope recognized immediately. Sitting next to each other were the modiste, Genevieve Delacroix, and the soprano, Siena Rosso. Both were beautiful in their casual dresses, mostly dark colors that were not fashionable with high society but that Penelope thought were much lovelier.

Penelope tried not to wince when she saw Genevieve stiffen slightly at the sight of her and, looking around the room, Penelope gathered that besides Lucy and maybe one other woman, she was one of the only members of the ton here. Lucy sensed this as well and said,

“Henry has vouched for Penelope Featherington and I believe my husband to be a good judge of character. Do you not agree?”

“Oh of women, yes, a great judge of character,” one woman chortled, her dark blonde hair titled and secure up in a bun. Her well-worn but lovingly stitched emerald dress was tight around the bodice, lifting up her ample breasts. Penelope noted that the woman was actually around Penelope’s size, full-bodied and thick, just an inch or two taller. “But I think with men he does have a habit of judging the book by its cover.”

The women shrieked with laughter, even Lucy, and Penelope felt just a little out of her depth. Before she could puzzle over it for too long, Lucy bustled Penelope over to sit in-between Siena and the dark blonde woman, Genevieve watching Penelope carefully from Siena’s other side. The woman who had made the quip about Mister Granville was the first to stick out her hand for a shake.

“No fancy protocols here,” she said jovially as Penelope took her hand, small like hers but hard with callouses. “Charlotte Addams. Like the Queen, but definitely more fun than that snooty cow. Pleased to meet ‘ya!”

“Oh, um, Penelope Featherington.”

“Oh, I know,” Charlotte said with a wink. “Your father frequents the establishment enough. And I don’t mind telling ‘ya I’ve never had dealings with him, or else I wouldn’t be able to look ‘ya in the eye!” Charlotte seemed to rethink this a moment, tapping her chin as Penelope struggled with the swirl of feelings surrounding her father upsetting her stomach. She realized she was most definitely talking to a prostitute and, for some reason she was quite proud of, it didn’t bother her much. “Mind you, I did have dealings with a husband and wife once, neither of which knew I was seeing the pair of them separately. Handled that alrigh’.”

“Maybe it would help Mama loosen up a bit,” Penelope found herself saying, unsure where the courage came from. “If they both saw the same woman, I think that is the closest they would come to warming the same bed for eighteen years.”

This got an unexpected guffaw from not only Charlotte, but Genevieve and Siena as well.

“I may have been wrong about ya’,” Genevieve said, and Penelope realized the modiste was talking with a very specific London accent. “If you can recognize your own mother as the witch she is, you must have some sense.”

“Mind you, I shan’t trust you fully,” Siena chimed in, and Penelope noticed there was a strange anguish about her eyes, tired in a way that did not speak to lack of sleep. “Your lot are flighty, jumping from bed to bed or entertainment to entertainment with nothing of substance to hold you firm. But it does not mean I cannot grow fond of you.”

Penelope took that as the backhanded compliment it was before Lucy said,

“Now, with Penelope’s permission, we can get our soiree started today. I thought with a writer now in our midst, we could talk of various pieces, starting with Penelope’s own short story if she’ll allow us!”

Lucy held out a carefully folded bit of parchment, rather large as it had been on an easel hours before.

“Indulge us, Penelope. We must hear the story in your own voice!”

Penelope blushed furiously, her sudden penchant for wit fleeing at the sign of attention.

“I-I… That is, it is not good–”

“Spare us such insecurities,” Siena said, snatching the parchment from Lucy’s grasp to wave it in Penelope’s face. “It gets one nowhere. No, if you want to improve you need an audience! That was the only way I learned, to practice before others!”

“What Si is trying to say,” Genevieve said. “Is we are constructive critics. We are not the birds of your pastel colored ton who peck at one another for sport. If we have something to say, it is because we mean it. And nothing leaves these sacred walls. Not our faults or troubles, or any of our secrets.” Genevieve eyes Penelope meaningfully and she understood that if she was to repeat anything she learned here, she wouldn’t be allowed back.

Something tangled and tight in Penelope’s chest unwound, loosened in a way that let her breathe smoothly for the first time. It also meant that whatever Penelope did or said was safe here, protected by Lucy’s extension of friendship. Titles were done away with, only given names used. It was an intimacy Penelope had never been offered by other women who were not Eloise before.

With slightly trembling hands, Penelope took the parchment, carefully unfolding it and smoothing out the creases in her lap. She held the story up, inhaled, and began to read.

Benedict arrived at Henry’s door close to eleven o’clock that night, the streets dark and cool. Society was still very much awake, only finishing with their first events of the evening. Daphne’s wedding was but a few days away and yet the air of Bridgerton House was thick with Daphne’s resignation rather than her happiness. As Daphne had gone to bed, Benedict had made a hasty exit. It was a coward’s move, he knew this, but his sister’s struggle weighed upon him. He needed release, he needed fun, and he needed to forget.

“Bridgerton!” Henry exclaimed. “I am so glad you came.”

“I dare not miss it,” Benedict said, stepping into the abode as Henry led him down the hall. The rooms were suddenly filled with people, many of whom were in various states of drunkenness, amorous encounters, or both. Benedict suddenly felt very overdressed and like he was dipping his toes into uncharted waters.

“Please, come in. Make yourself at home. I would show you around, but host duty calls,” Henry said, throwing him a playful wink before disappearing into the crowd.

Benedict marveled at the party, at this hedonistic world around him where this form of debauchery, the seeking of pleasure and those who sought it were not judged. The ton had its own pleasurable pursuits of course, high-end brothels, gambling hells, animal baiting, and various other establishments desires could be bought for near any price. But this was an intermingling of people and class Benedict had not participated in before. Men in corsets and braided wigs, women in suits, people naked as they f*cked upon the stairs, opera singers dancing, even poets attempting to sing. It was almost too much to take in.

“What are you doing here?”

Benedict turned around to see a gorgeous, alluring woman trussed up in a black corset, dainty French cigarette holder in hand, smoke drifting from the end. She had glossy black curls, a beauty mark over her impossibly full lips. She was mature and more regal than any women he’d seen among the bright colors and fancies of the ton, excepting Lady Danbury. In fact, Benedict thought, he wondered if Lady Danbury had been much like this woman when she was young.

“Apologies. Have we met?” Benedict asked, licking his lips as he took in her figure, ravishing her body with only his eyes.

“We do not need to have met. You are a Bridgerton, yes?” the woman asked, rather unimpressed.

“I see my reputation precedes me,” Benedict said and he knew it was a dumb line as soon as he uttered the words, but it did not matter. He wanted distraction, he wanted pleasure and he was quite sure that the woman before him could meet his needs.

“Not exactly a virtue,” she said, it was almost a sneer and yet Benedict felt his breeches grow tight. Oh, she could admonish him any time and he had a feeling he would be quite alright with that.

“Anything that gets me your attention is a good thing, I rather think.” Benedict sounded much like a puppy begging for his master’s attention. He was reminded a bit of his actions when he had made it his mission to follow Lady Danbury around in his youth, co*cksure that she would discover that he was a man who could give what she needed. Benedict often found that he could be rather full of himself around women. While modest about his art, he was not when it came to his own body.

“You should go. Home to your brother, perhaps.”

“But I am receiving far too warm a welcome here.”

The woman wandered away as he turned to explore, up the stairs and around corridors. Along the way he lost his jacket as he evaded couples in the throes of passion, grabbed a fruity concoction and drank it in one gulp, wandered through a haze of cloying smoke and sultry eyes.

Yes, this was exactly what he needed before Daphne’s wedding. The weight of the decision his sister made lay heavy upon his heart. Though he knew how ridiculous that sounded when it was Daphne who actually had to deal with the fallout of the Duke’s actions. But he couldn’t stand watching his mother for another minute convince herself that Daphne was marrying for love, and in return see the pained expression on his sister’s face as she perpetuated the lie.

He just couldn’t. And he knew it was selfish.

In a flash, he thought of Penelope just the night before, bent over his hand, seeking comfort one moment then pushing it away the next. Could she sense that within him? The truth? That he was empathetic, yes, but often tried to push it away to seek his own escape?

He made a vow not to let that happen with Penelope or Eloise. His sister’s fate was sealed, nothing to do about that. But he could and would help Penelope, once he drowned in pleasure, in forgetfulness, his own River Lethe.

He remembered – as he began to open doors, seeing some things as innocent as lively debates about the war against Napoleon amongst traders, an errant lord and what looked like a French Catholic nun, to rooms that were decidedly, steamily occupied – that Henry had invited Penelope to come along. Benedict was glad he had dismissed Henry’s idea. Penelope, despite their friendship, was still a girl. Teaching her the realities of sex, taking her to an artists’ gathering was one thing. But this?

No, surely the young girl would faint from shock. It was best she wasn’t there.

He didn’t want to think of her being pulled into one of these rooms anyways.

But it was as he opened another door that he caught a sight he’d never expected to see.

There were two men, locked in an embrace against a marble mantle. Both completely nude, one rutted furiously into the other, their moans and gasps of pleasure suddenly a roar in Benedict’s ears. One of them looked back at him and it with a wave of shock that Benedict recognized it was Henry Granville f*cking Lord Wetherby.

There was a flash of recognition in Henry’s eyes before his attention was turned back to his lover and Benedict closed the door, processing what he’d just witnessed. He wasn’t an idiot, he knew of men who took lovers of the same sex, frequented establishments whose clientele had very specific tastes. But it had never been a reality for him, held up right to his face until that moment.

He was distracted at the foot of the stairs when he heard someone loudly whisper,


It was the woman from earlier, who he’d learned was called Genevieve, curling her finger and inviting him to the embrace of a settee and the arms of another dark-haired woman. Without thought, he fell into their embrace, kissing and touching and letting fire reign in his veins as he sipped the cool waters of the River Lethe from their lips.

Penelope hadn’t intended to hear. She hadn’t.

But of course, with the kind of luck she possessed, she'd heard everything from outside Marina’s door.

“If I were to marry Mister Bridgerton, you would be connected to what I gather is a very powerful family, indeed. Think what that could do for your girls. Give me until Saturday. If I have not secured a proposal from Mister Bridgerton by then, I shall accept Lord Rutledge with a smile on my face.”

Marina’s voice was so calm, so assured, so calculating as she laid out her plan that Penelope could barely believe her own ears. Penelope had known, had seen, that Marina was going after Colin with the steadfastness and accuracy as Artemis on the hunt but this… To hear it so plainly, the plan to trap a man who was her friend, a good man who hadn’t even gone on his Grand Tour yet, the man she loved so fully it felt like her heart might burst when she thought of him–

It hurt.

Penelope had never been sure what betrayal felt like, but this must have been close. It wasn’t fully because Marina was stealing any chance Penelope had with Colin. Penelope knew those feelings were there, that jealousy and resentment. She couldn’t deny them, they were so foul and bitter tasting in her mouth. But Marina had never known the candle she held for Colin Bridgerton, so despite her childishness, Penelope could not fully blame Marina for targeting him.

It was because she was fine with fooling, tricking an honest man into marriage. That she had no intention to tell Colin the truth.

Penelope had been fine, she admitted, with her mother and Marina’s scheme when it had involved any other gentlemen. Marina needed to protect her child and herself, and the rest of the men of the ton in Penelope’s eyes were mostly either daft fools or bullheaded imbeciles who would deserve it.

But Colin? Any of the Bridgertons?

No, Penelope could not bear it.

“My girl, you are six months away from motherhood, seven if you are lucky,” Penelope heard her mother say, snapping her attention back to the matter at hand. “And even if a miracle were to occur, and Colin Bridgerton proposed tomorrow, the wedding wouldn’t be for weeks.”

“That is only assuming we wait until the wedding night to consummate the union,” Marina said, and Penelope felt her heart drop into the acid of her stomach.

“You will seduce him?” Lady Featherington asked and Penelope could hear her mother calculating and testing the soundness of the plan in her head, weighing the pros and cons.

“I will do what I must,” Marina answered.

Penelope knew, without a doubt, that Marina would.

Penelope secluded herself the rest of the day, alternating between sobbing into her pillows and hesitating near the handle of her door. What did she do? Did she confront Marina? Marina sounded so sure of herself, of her plan. And while Marina treated Penelope kindly, it was becoming more than clear Marina did not view Penelope exactly as a peer when it came to womanly pursuits. She had never fully explained how she’d gotten pregnant, Penelope had to team up with Eloise to beg Benedict for that knowledge. Marina also knew that Penelope was never asked to dance at balls, except for what was seen as pity dances by Colin, Benedict, and on one or two occasions, the Duke of Hastings.

No, Marina would not listen to her. At least, not directly.

She debated going down to the shops and putting flowers in her window, as to summon Benedict and Eloise to try and work out the problem. But…she couldn’t. As much as she wanted their advice, she still held a thread of loyalty to Marina and her secret. If not Marina, it was the child in her belly that needed protecting. To make matters worse, the security of her own family’s reputation was at stake. With no dowry to speak of, a fall from grace like this would shatter Penelope and her sisters' chances at marriage more than they already were.

So Penelope cried and cried until her eyes were too swollen to fully open anymore. She fell asleep exhausted.

When she awoke the next morning to find another invitation to Lucy’s all-female salon, she felt her brain begin to work again. Nothing could ever leave the sanctity of those walls. Maybe, just maybe, if anyone could have advice, they would.

So with less fuss than before, Lady Featheirngton absentmindedly allowed Penelope to depart (though Penelope would have gone even without her mother’s permission) and hurried over to Lucy’s in the plainest yellow day dress she owned. Unfortunately, it wasn’t much.

Ushered in and amongst the woman, Penelope observed more than she had the previous visit. She watched as fiery debates went on around her about art, the war, or worker’s rights; arguments they could never be allowed with men and certainly not in public. She studied some of the women giggling and fluttering their eyelashes before they, hand in hand, disappeared out of the room. Others brought out art pieces they’d been working on. Genevieve actually brought out samples of designs inspired by the latest fashion in Paris (despite the war, the city did still aim to be fashionable) and everyone offered their constructive opinions.

Penelope felt that feeling again and something settled in her chest. She was safe here, amongst these women from all different experiences and walks of life.

She was safe.

“Penelope, dear?”

Penelope looked up to see the immediate women around her, Lucy, Charlotte, Genevieve, and Siena, staring at her curiously.

“What’s the matter?” Charlotte asked bluntly. “Ever since you entered the room, there’s been a cloud hangin’ over ‘ya.”

Penelope shifted under their intent gazes but sighed.

“You must swear–”

“Yes, yes, we’ll keep our pretty mouths shut and all that rot,” Siena said, rolling her eyes before leaning in close. Penelope was taken aback. She was finding that Siena could be quite frank. “Come now, get it off your chest.”

Penelope wrung her hands and chewed her lips before finally beginning.

“I know someone with child.”

It fell out of her in much the way it had when she’d confessed to Benedict about how her father had put the family in debt. Penelope was careful to omit names so nothing could be directly pointed back to Marina, the Featheringtons, or Colin but she had the sneaking suspicion that at least one of the women saw through her attempts at secrecy.

“So, she plans on luring my… This nice man into marriage by seducing him. I know she must protect her baby, I do! But why him? Why this man?”

“I fear I cannot give good advice on this particular plight, none you shall like anyways,” Siena said, crossing her arms and leaning back. “I currently am of the opinion that all men are swine, no matter how caring they appear to be. If she is to take him for all he is worth to protect herself, I see no issue.”

Penelope gaped and Genevieve sighed, waving a dismissive hand.

“Pay her no mind, Penelope. Si is still very bitter about a man who did her wrong,” Genevieve explained. “Are there truly no other options for the girl?”

“None that she sees,” Penelope said forlornly.

“And trying to dispose of the babe isn’t in the cards?” Charlotte asked bluntly.

Penelope found herself speechless again, before stuttering,

“O-Oh, I mean, not that I know of. I doubt… I don’t know.”

Charlotte sighed, patting Penelope’s hand sympathetically.

“Done it once myself, when one bloke wasn’t careful. It’s…painful. But more common than you think. But I guess rich ones wouldn’t consider it.”

Penelope shrugged, unsure of what to say. She tried to convey her apologies by squeezing Charlotte’s hand.

“You can’t exactly blame the girl,” Genevieve said softly. “It’s a desperate situation.”

“I know! But the man she’s chosen he’s… He’s good. Truly good! He does not deserve to be tricked!”

Lucy eyed her pitifully, coming over to hug Penelope’s shoulders.

“Penelope, unless you can sway her eye towards someone else, there’s not much you can do short of telling the truth. That’s a dangerous risk to take.” Lucy leaned her mass of curls against Penelope’s own, and something about the heaviness of Lucy’s head against her own soothed the young redhead.

“How about this; I shall send word to your mother that I must have you over for dinner. We are having a party tonight. Stay awhile! Genevieve and Charlotte will dress you appropriately.” All four women eyed Penelope’s garish yellow gown, causing her to flush red again. “And you shall enjoy yourself. Forget your troubles! We might not have a solution, but distraction and friendship is certainly something we can offer.”

Penelope found herself nodding. It would be nice to forget, even for just a while.

Benedict liked forgetting, lost in Genevieve’s mouth and Lucy’s hands. The give and take of lips at they sucked and nipped, hands as they roamed up the back of his shirt, nails scratching up his spine and pressing into his shoulder blades. It was beyond compare to let himself float with alcohol and lust, to not be kept grounded and weighed down with gravity’s problems.

Until he felt Genevieve pull away and in a fond, admonishing, tone said,

“Now, Penelope, I thought we told you to stay in the music room with the bluestockings.”

“You cannot invite me to a party and expect me to not explore!”

Benedict’s eyes snapped open and he turned to see Penelope Featherington, with a pretty blush on her round face, eyeing them nervously as she talked to Genevieve.

Penelope Featherington.

At a party.

That was essentially an excuse for an orgy.

“What in the blazes–”

Benedict stood up quickly before remembering his very hard predicament. He awkwardly scrambled to snatch his coat from the floor, tying it off around his waist so the back of the coat covered the front of his breeches. Penelope co*cked her head, bewildered, and for some reason that made Benedict all the more determined to whisk her away. He could feel Genevieve and Lucy’s eyes on him as he grasped Penelope’s upper arms, pulling her to him as if his body could shield her from the activity around them.

“Hello, Benedict,” she grinned shyly, not really making eye contact with him. He realized she had just caught him in an amorous embrace with two women and he felt his whole body grow unbearably hot. If he hadn’t been holding onto her, he’d have attempted to close the collar of his shirt, wide open and displaying his freckled chest.

“What are you doing here?” he hissed, holding her tight against him. His sea blue eyes searched and flickered about the room as if to check for danger. “You should not be here– This is not a place–”

“I invited her,” Lucy said in a quite superior voice from behind him. “Is that a problem?”

Benedict flinched at the edge in the woman’s voice as he turned his glare upon her, determined to make his point. Penelope was a girl, a genteel lady, he had to protect her. This was no place–

He hadn’t realized he’d been saying all of that aloud until Genevieve unashamedly slapped the back of his head, much to his chagrin.

“It is none of your business how Penelope became our friend, that is between us ladies,” the modiste said, raising a superior eyebrow. “And she is entitled to some fun, just as much as you. We’ve dressed her for the part, look. She is no simpering highborn lady now.”

Benedict took a step back and properly took Penelope in.

She was most certainly in a dress that did not belong to her. It was a dark navy velvet, plush and soft that wrapped around her body like a secret. The hem was a tad too long, and despite the longer sleeves that billowed and cuffed at her dainty wrists, it certainly matched the party more than the usual monstrosities her mother forced her in. It distracted Benedict briefly, how suddenly she just seemed to fit into the room around her, how a simple color change could make her more comfortable in her skin.

Without thinking, he tucked a curl behind her ear and tweaked her nose. Idly, he could feel eyes on him, burrowing into the back of his skull. But Penelope needed him, surely. Was that not what he’d sworn to do? Be there when she needed him?

But Penelope smiled at him before stepping out of his hold. He felt Genevieve and Lucy’s hands back on him, sucking him down into carnal oblivion.

“I will be alright,” Penelope said calmly, though she was biting her cheek. He could tell by how it hollowed slightly on one side. “I will not let a strange man pull me into a room, I promise.”

Benedict almost bolted upright at that but Genevieve and Lucy held firm, pulling him back upon the sofa.

“She is alright, Bridgerton,” Genevieve whispered into his ear before nibbling his earlobe. “Your girl is safe.”

Benedict lost himself again, for a while at least, not even realizing he’d never refuted that Penelope was his.

As soon as Benedict was spent, satiated like a cat who got the cream, his mind cleared. He jumped up from the sofa, jostling Genevieve and Lucy as he went. Desperately grabbing his shirt and breeches he hastily made to pull them on, jumping on one foot as he struggled to find the proper hole to put his right leg in.

“What’s the rush?” Lucy called lazily, lying on Genevieve’s lap with her hooded gaze focused on him.

“I need to find Penelope,” Benedict said hastily, finally getting his foot in the right hole.

Genevieve stared at him, assessing him with those dark, knowing eyes. He imagined she was taking him apart and piecing him together like any of her swaths of fabric.

“Penelope is fully grown, Bridgerton. And this is not one of your silly balls with stuffy expectations; Penelope does not need a chaperone.”

“She needs– I swore,” Benedict stuttered, becoming unexplainably frustrated. “Look, I just need to ensure she is alright.”

With that he stalked off, going from room to room, looking for that vibrant shock of autumn fire tresses. It didn’t take long before he found her in a small parlor, drinking wine and laughing with a woman with dark blonde hair. They appeared to be conversing about the state of the war and Benedict felt a tad... Odd. A bit foolish but also strangely proud. Genevieve had been right, she was alright. Look at her. Benedict leaned against the doorframe, contentedly watching as she drank and debated with abandon. She was growing up in a way, widening her scope. Benedict, a little full of himself, felt partially responsible.

Benedict grinned, a little silly and ridiculous. He was convinced, in some small way, she still needed him. He hadn’t forgotten about her father’s villainous behavior in robbing her family of everything, but they could sort that out later. After the wedding, when all was quiet. Let them forget just a little while longer.

Benedict regretted, slightly, a bit, letting Penelope and himself continue to forget. At least well into three in the morning. Both of them were incredibly sloshed. So much so, Benedict was sure that even Rapscallion was judging his comportment. The loyal horse pressed his snout to Penelope’s palm when she offered it, her giggle bouncing off the stone townhouses on the dark street. Rapscallion appeared to glare at Benedict, as if blaming his master for the girl’s drunken state. Genevieve had to lend Penelope a cloak so she wouldn’t be recognized on the streets and it was quite honestly a miracle that even Lady Featherington had not noticed her daughter’s long absence.

Benedict had a feeling he’d be properly mad about it tomorrow.

By the time they reached Grosvenor Square, Penelope was still swaying in his hold, soft and loose like a cloth doll. There was no way he’d be able to sneak her back into Featherington House, not in this state. So, in a haze, he led them to their bower in the garden, lying her down beneath the swings to sober up.

“You know,” Penelope slurred, gripping the black wool cloak around her like a blanket as she stared up into the tree’s leafy branches, mere shadows in the darkness. Benedict plopped in the grass by her side. He peered down to watch as her lips moved, a pretty pink bow that floated through the night air. “Colin has been giving Marina so many flowers.”

Benedict felt his mind stutter and pity well up inside his breast.

“I know,” he cooed, using his long fingers to push her curls out of her face. He prayed she wouldn’t remember this in the morning. “I am sorry. I know.”

“I know I am not pretty,” Penelope went on as if she didn’t hear him. “But just once, I wish he would give me flowers. It would not matter why…just once. Before it all hurts.”

“Penelope…” Benedict looked up at the sky and inhaled, exhaled, before turning back to her. What was he to say to that? When the person you loved didn’t even know enough to kindly reject you? At least Benedict had that. Lady Danbury had let him down, killed his hope in the quietest way possible, something a young man could bear and learn from. Penelope didn’t have that. “You should be given flowers because someone believes you to be beautiful, because they want you. Nothing less.”

“Then it will never happen,” she chortled wetly, closing her eyes as she settled into the grass.

Benedict didn’t say anything, just thought of the wildflowers he’d given her for her birthday.

Eloise put another scoop of lemon ice in her mouth as Penelope sat across from her, taking slow bites of her own bowl of vanilla ice. Something was definitely up, though Eloise couldn’t quite put her finger on it.

Benedict had woken her that morning, eyes tired, asking Eloise to invite Penelope out that day for a day of shopping and ice at Guenther’s. Benedict even volunteered to chaperone despite his knackered state. He had left them at Guenther’s, telling them to stay there until he had gotten back from an errand. She was fine with that, it allowed her some alone time with her best friend.

“Pen,” she said, keeping her voice low as she leaned forward over the table. “Is something upsetting you? You appear awfully tired…”

Penelope set down her spoon in the crystal bowl, massaging her temples.

“There is a lot, El. I cannot say it all here for fear of being overheard.”

Eloise nodded in understanding.

“What can you say?”

Penelope bobbed her head around the room for a moment, making sure no patrons were close enough to overhear her before getting as close as she could, her bosom resting on the little round table.

“I tried to deliver a column myself a few days ago… Benedict caught me and took me to an artist gathering to keep an eye on me–”

“What?” she squawked before Penelope shushed her. Eloise rolled her eyes before whispering angrily, “What? That absolute dunderhead! He has never brought me anywhere risqué or fun–”

“El, not the point of the story,” Penelope continued, poking Eloise’s forehead. She let herself pout, knowing Penelope would understand. “I told him that I discovered that... That…” Penelope’s voice somehow got quieter and Eloise had to strain to hear her over the chatter and clatter of the other diners. “Papa has squandered our entire fortune.”

Eloise’s eyes grew as round as saucers, words lodged in her throat for the first time in, well, as long as she could remember. Various emotions spread through her veins; indignation, frustration, anger, pity, and then a sort of horrible, cold understanding. Because in the end, it did not surprise Eloise that her dearest friend’s neglectful father would recklessly waste the only insurance of a decent future for his daughters.

“We’ll… We’ll fix this, Pen. I promise, I would never let anything bad happen to you. I would not allow you to become destitute!”

Penelope gave her a small smile.

“Benedict said the same. I am so lucky to have you both as friends.”

Eloise opened her mouth to reply when Benedict sidled up to them, his arms holding two small bouquets; one of white and light pink apple blossoms and the other of dark pink crabapple blossoms.

“Talking about me, now?” he asked quietly before handing the pretty apple blossoms to a stunned Penelope.

“Benedict, what–”

Penelope started, brows furrowed in confusion. A shadow passed over Benedict’s face, something unreadable before he smiled again.

“Can I not get flowers for my friend? Those marsh flowers will not last forever, you know.”

Penelope blushed but held the flowers close to her breast, and Eloise co*cked her head. Before she could say anything her brother thrust the hideously, outrageously vivid pink crabapple blossoms into her face. She squawked indignantly.

“And for my dear sister, who would have been an absolute terror if I had not bought her anything as well.”

“Excuse me! I am a gem of a sister and an even better human being.”

“Such modesty.”

“Oh shush, you dunderhead.”

She fumbled with the bouquet in her hands as her older brother turned to the sound of Penelope’s soft giggle. Eloise settled in her seat, raising an unheeded eyebrow as she observed her favorite brother and her dearest friend stare at each other a little bashfully.

She knew her friendship with Penelope like the back of her hand, what made Penelope so dear and precious to her.

It was the first time Eloise had to ponder, as she studied the shy grin on Benedict’s face, what made her so precious to others.

How did Penelope always end up overhearing conversations she was not meant to? Truly, it must be a sign that she had chosen the right vocation, even if it was a secret.

“He cannot have children,” Daphne told her lady’s maid in the shroud of the Bridgerton’s garden. Penelope really had meant to simply retrieve Eloise’s hidden stash of cigarillos to sneak up to her room. Of course, instead she stumbled upon information she wasn’t meant to have. “I shall not pretend to understand the extent of his physical impediment, but I imagine it is a source of great pain for the Duke, indeed.”

There was a short period of time where the lady’s maid, Rose, attempted to comfort Daphne. It was a good, honest effort. Rose was undoubtedly kind and the story of her aunt and uncle in Greenwich, Penelope had to admit, was incredibly sweet.

But Penelope could also tell that none of this was easing the tension in Daphne’s body.

Penelope held her breath and waited, crouched behind a well-manicured bush as Daphne finally dismissed the maid. Penelope waited until the shuffle of skirts was gone and, thinking the coast was clear, she sighed and stood, dusting off her lemon yellow skirts.

Only to be met face to face with Daphne Bridgerton.

Penelope fought the very real urge to bury her face in her hands and pretend she was simply a garden ornament as the two women stared at each other, trapped in an awkward silence. Daphne, with all of her grace despite the humiliating situation, broke the quiet first.

“I kindly ask,” she said, a little tightly. “That you not repeat what you heard.”

“Oh!” Penelope immediately rushed to reassure Daphne, desperate for her to know she’d never betray that sort of confidence. “Oh no, no! Never! I am so sorry, it truly was an accident! I was just visiting Eloise, and then she asked– and I went, and you see, I did not want–”

Daphne’s lips twitched as Penelope continued to bumble and stumble over her words.

“Oh, I am making a fool of myself,” Penelope moaned, and Daphne finally did chuckle, though it was faint.

“Thank you, Miss Penelope,” Daphne said, giving a small, genuine smile, hands clasped in front of her light muslin nightgown. “I needed that.”

Penelope flushed but nodded mutely as Daphne began to glide past her across the grass. Penelope didn’t know what possessed her to speak again, what moved her forward to clutch Daphne’s nightgown like a child, but everything she’d seen, she’d experienced recently concerning love and happiness… She wanted to say something, anything of comfort.

“I often wondered why Mama and Papa bothered having children, more of us, when they did nothing but snipe and ignore each other in equal measure,” Penelope said. Daphne didn’t turn, but she didn’t move away either, her light skirt still clasped in Penelope’s hand. “It made for a quite miserable childhood. Many times I thought I’d be happier…if I’d never been born at all. No existence surely was better than being surrounded by such bitterness.”

Daphne still did not move, but Penelope recognized a shift in her stance, like she had re-aligned her focus, her thoughts.

“If it is a happy marriage between the two of you with no children, at least you have each other. But if it is not, then there will be no one else harmed by such coldness.”

Daphne finally pivoted her head so her face was in side profile, one light blue eye meeting Penelope’s sky blue ones.

“I never thought of that,” Daphne confessed. “And while I do not know if I agree, I also know I can never understand what it is like to grow up in a house without love.”

Daphne tenderly took Penelope’s hand, removing it from her dress, gave it a careful squeeze, before walking away back into Bridgerton House.

The wedding had been bearable.

That was the only way Benedict could describe it. Was it physically beautiful, small and intimate? Yes. But at no point had Benedict felt secure that his sister was entering a marriage where she would be cherished as much as she was within the familial embrace of his family.

And that worried him.

There was not much he could do about it. Anthony had the final say when it came to the futures of his sisters and Benedict was starting to hate it. Anthony loved their family dearly, but in some ways Benedict felt like they, as brothers, had failed Daphne.

This was compounded at home when, a few days prior, Eloise had informed him and Penelope that Daphne and Hastings had been forced to make their case to the Queen to allow the wedding to happen at all. It had apparently worked, someone had put on an impressive show at least. The Queen herself was there at the wedding breakfast, smug as always with her ladies in waiting and manservant as they snacked on the finger foods his mother was providing.

Benedict could see Daphne’s worry, it was written all over her face as she was forced to mingle. The Duke wasn’t much better. It was such an oppressive feeling that Benedict immediately grabbed Eloise and made a beeline for Penelope the moment her family came through the doors.

Friends, that’s what was needed. Friends who, despite their own plethora of problems and worries, could chase away his own.

As Benedict approached, Eloise plodding along by his side, he could hear Penelope pointing out gentlemen to Marina.

“What about him? He seems…pleasant. Or him! Kind eyes–” she said something else, something Benedict did not catch before he heard Marina’s response.

“Pen, I neither know nor have time for any of these men,” Marina said, clearly frustrated, standing on her toes to peer around the room. “Now, where is Colin?”

Benedict felt like he had just entered the makings of a storm as Penelope’s face grew downcast and peculiarly exasperated. She opened her mouth to say something but Benedict dove in, afraid of what may come out. Penelope’s jealousy was valid, completely allowed, but he couldn’t let his young friend make a fool of herself at his sister’s wedding breakfast.

“Miss Penelope, we have found you!” Benedict exclaimed and he saw how Penelope’s lips snapped shut, an odd panic making her pupils flicker between them and Marina. There, she must’ve realized her near folly. Benedict had interrupted in the nick of time. “We must ask you to take a turn about the room with us. Eloise and I find these events ever so boring. Right, El?”

“Quite,” Eloise was quick to nod, though she stepped on her brother’s toe when he had discreetly pinched her side to prompt her response. To his credit, he barely winced. “You will not mind, will you?”

Marina shook her head, still looking around the lavishly decorated room.

“Not at all! Would you happen to know where your brother, Mister Colin Bridgerton, would be?”

Penelope’s face paled and she began opening and closing her mouth like a fish. Benedict frowned, gently grasping her elbow in his gloved hand.

“First rule about my brother, Miss Thompson. Where there is food, there will certainly be Colin. I advise checking the refreshments table.”

Marina laughed politely before she curtsied and departed. Benedict watched as Penelope followed Marina’s form the entire time, looking utterly helpless.

Benedict could feel his forehead crease, his mind working to try and find the right words to say. He had known for years of Penelope’s infatuation with Colin, but it had not been until recently that he knew her to see him as her very first love. She was on her way to certain heartbreak if she let this jealousy, this devastation rule her so completely. Yet he knew, as he’d known before, his situation had been different. How was Penelope to get over Colin until he himself made it so he was unavailable? There would always be a spark of hope in her heart otherwise.

He opened his mouth to say something but before he knew it, Lucy of all people had approached, clutching Penelope’s shoulders and giving what appeared to be a comforting hug. What was she doing here? Surely she wasn’t–

“Ah, Bridgerton!” Henry Granville approached, a bright but nervous smile upon his face. “I see my wife has made herself known to you!”

Lucy’s dark eyes twinkled from under her lashes and Benedict choked on his spit, sending him into a coughing fit.

“Oh, brother, you always embarrass me!” Eloise said indignantly. “I shall fetch you a drink.”

Eloise glided off to find a beverage while Benedict continued to splutter on his simultaneous surprise and mortification. Lucy was Henry’s wife? He had slept with Henry’s wife?

Oh, Lord, he would soon be smote. He was sure of it, and he was not even a religious man.

Henry chuckled as Lucy pulled Penelope a little ways away, talking in hushed tones with the younger girl.

“Do not worry yourself, Benedict. I am well aware of Lucy’s…activities. Just as she is well aware of…” Henry pulled on his cravat, trying to loosen the tie. “Of my own. What you saw–”

“Did I see something?” Benedict asked, shooting Henry a conspiratorial grin. “I was not aware there was anything to see. I am sure I did not.”

Henry’s shoulders relaxed immediately, his entire face alighting with that inner kindness Benedict had discovered the older man possessed in spades. Benedict knew he had made the right choice. Henry was a good man who did not deserve to face the gallows simply because of who he desired. Benedict had discovered that his own proclivities from time to time were not always so straightforward. If Henry and Lucy were honest with each other, he saw no harm.

“I was hoping Mister Bridgerton’s ridiculous face would make you laugh,” Lucy said gently, holding Penelope to her side as people milled about the room. “Yet you barely cracked a smile.”

“I am so sorry, Lucy, I just–” Penelope started, trying to bite back the wave of tears that threatened to overwhelm her as she tried to keep an eye on Marina.

“Was that the girl?” Lucy whispered. “The one targeting the good man?”

Penelope nodded glumly.

“And is that man… Colin Bridgerton?”

Penelope hesitated for only a second before telling the truth. It was so tiring, so exhausting, to hold the weight of such truth to herself. At times she thought she’d be crushed, like a witch under the heft of boulders being stacked upon her chest.

“Oh, yes.”

“Oh dear,” Lucy whispered and Penelope glanced up just in time to spot Marina being escorted by Colin out of the room.

“Oh no,” Penelope gasped, making to move but Lucy held her back.

“Penelope, dear girl, if you were to follow them and catch them in any way, innocent or not, you’d simply speed up the wedding,” Lucy said low into her ear. “Your best option is not to follow. For his sake and for yours.”

Penelope furiously rubbed at the corners of her eyes, nodding a little pathetically. Lawks, she felt pathetic. Unable to tell her very best friends about what Marina was planning on doing to their own brother out of what loyalty she had for Marina’s predicament and her own family’s reputation. And on top of it all, her heart was breaking.

“You love that boy, do you not?” Lucy asked. Penelope looked up at her, lips quivering and Lucy pulled her back and close, trying to attract the least amount of attention. “Oh, dear girl, it will be alright. You must… I know it is hard. But I do not see a way around that girl’s determination. There are many different kinds of love, and she is desperate. There is love for the self and love for the child that grows inside the womb that can drive a woman to do great, terrible things.”

“But would you do that to someone, Lucy?” Penelope asked.

“Undoubtedly,” Lucy said confidently. “Though thank heavens I never had to make that choice. I was destined for a bad marriage when Henry, my dearest friend, proposed a marriage that would save us both, allow us freedom and a partnership for life that I will cherish above all else.”

“Partners?” Penelope asked.

Lucy nodded sagely. “Penelope, it does not matter who I or Henry love romantically. We cannot be with them in the way we want. But Henry and I protect each other, and I always know he will be my very dearest friend.”

“But your marriage is not based off of a lie,” Penelope insisted. “You were honest with each other from the beginning.”

Lucy sighed, conceding that point.

Lucy didn’t get to say much more before Benedict stormed over.

Benedict had discovered something about himself from a very young age.

When he had been all of ten years old, Daphne had cried for the first time. A true, proper cry, not because she was hungry, needed changing or throwing a temper tantrum. She had sobbed, so small, wailing in his arms when his father had ridden away on a business trip. Little Daphne had been so sad at the prospect of not seeing her father for a whole month and it had shifted something integral inside him. Ever since, Benedict couldn’t stand to see people cry, well and truly cry. It hurt in a way that left him feeling more sore than a bruised rib.

And to see tears on Penelope’s face, even a few that she swiftly wiped away, caused him to hear the rush of blood in his ears.

“Penelope?” he asked frantically, Henry hot on his heels. “Are you alright? What has upset you?”

“Oh, Benedict, no it is–” Penelope started but Benedict had taken Penelope from Lucy’s arms, weaving her small forearm to rest upon his own. Benedict could feel Lucy and Henry, who had gravitated towards each other again, eyeing him in amusem*nt. At least, that’s what it seemed to be. Benedict, for the life of him, didn’t understand why. “It is just a lot, Benedict. That’s all. I have not been myself lately.”

“Lucy and I will circle around back to you in a bit,” Henry said kindly. “We will grab a few morsels for you on the way, Miss Penelope. You look a tad faint. Is that alright?”

“Thank you, Mister Granville. That’s incredibly thoughtful,” Penelope replied politely, though the small smile she shot him was warm and familiar.

Henry and Lucy departed to circle the room while Benedict kept a hold of Penelope’s arm.

“You know,” Benedict said a bit hesitant, hoping he was not about to muck up. “Remember when I told you about my past tendre?”

Penelope briefly rested her temple on his arm and gave a simple nod before straightening up, her gaze glued to a corner of the room. Benedict trailed her line of sight, but took her action as permission to continue.

“Penelope, the feelings we have, those tendres, our first loves… They have a way of overpowering us,” he chuckled, embarrassed. “I remember when Lady Danbury first charged into a room–” Benedict thought about that statement and felt his ears go very red. “I- I mean… Getting back on track– W-when our feelings are not r-reciprocated, everything’s just…more.” He flinched in on himself. Hell’s bells, he was quite rubbish on conversations about love, apparently. At least subtle ones. He much preferred to be straightforward. Benedict glanced at Penelope but she still stared blankly at the corner of the room, as if waiting for something to appear. It was so vacant that it became incredibly sad, more than anything. “Everything we feel when we’re hurt is true, real, and is made to be felt. But there are some feelings we…shouldn’t act on. We must move forward and grow from that experience.”

Benedict was quite proud of his subtlety, even though he’d stuttered a bit. He’d never been terribly good at it, it wasn’t a Bridgerton family trait. But he thought he’d done a rather good job this time. Yet, as he checked on Penelope again, he found she was now watching Daphne make a hasty exit up the stairs after saying something rushed to Anthony. Penelope met his ocean eyes, her sky ones wavering. Penelope often looked unsure, especially at events such as these when she took up her resident status as a wallflower, taking everything in but not confident enough to contribute. But he’d never seen her so at a loss, not even when she told him about her father’s folly.

“Is the Duke of Hastings your sister’s first love?”

Benedict was taken aback, and his eyes immediately sought out his sister fleeing up the stairs at her own wedding breakfast. He thought her eyes were full of tears and he felt the bit of his heart reserved for Daphne rip at the seams just a little.

“That is what she claims,” he admitted quietly.

“Then how sad,” Penelope said. “She will never get to move forward if he does not love her back.”

Benedict’s voice lodged in his throat. He didn’t know what to say to that.

They stood in silence, almost oppressive but unwilling to leave each other’s side as she pivoted her face back to a corner just in time to see Colin and Marina back in the crowd. Benedict followed her line of sight but now had no words. Nothing wise or subtle that could help ease what she must be feeling.

Thank the heavens above for Eloise, always a ball of chaotic energy who could provide distraction at the most opportune times. Eloise flew to their side, her hair falling out of its pins and ribbons, face flushed, chest heaving in her distress and excitement.

“The Q-Queen,” Eloise gasped. “The Q-Queen was talking about Whistledown to L-Lady D-Danbury, trying to find her!”

Both Benedict and Penelope froze in their spots. Benedict felt Penelope squish herself against his side, trying to get desperately closer. He held her arm tightly, using his other hand to pull Eloise over to block their closeness from view.

“El what–” Penelope began, her voice much more lively than it had been a moment ago.

“I-I was not thinking,” Eloise blurted. “I lied, told Lady Danbury I had a theory on who Lady Whistledown was, that it could be her, and she laughed in my face. But the Queen heard me and demanded I tell her my theories, that I help in her search!”

“Oh, bloody hell,” Benedict murmured, rubbing his face with his palm as he wished for patience. “El, tell me you did not.”

Eloise grimaced.

“I told her I thought Lady Whistledown was a rich widow, and a few other lies… And I said I would give her any leads I may find.”

When both Benedict and Penelope continued to gape at her, Eloise huffed quite petulantly, crossing her arms across her chest. “I thought I was quite clever! I can feed her lies to throw her off our scent!”

“Our scent?’ Penelope asked with a little giggle, and Benedict felt a huge wave of relief hearing the sound for the first time that day.

“Yes! We are a team, aren’t we?” Eloise asked, sticking out her lower lip in a pout.

“Yes,” Penelope said. Benedict was impressed in that moment. He’d have never known about her earlier bout of jealousy. “Of course we are.”

Chapter 6: Alla Prima


A fight, internal turmoil, the dinner from Hell, and finally the discovery of a plot.

But, most of all, forgiveness.


As usual, thank you again to itakethewords for being an awesome beta and even better friend and soundboard! You are wonderful!! Thank you for telling me when I need my commas taken away, but also keeping this story coherent, emotionally sound, and making sense.

Also please forgive any format errors for now. I’m updating this on my phone on a train! I shall come back and check properly.

Chapter Text

Unspooled Thread - happilyinsane13 - Bridgerton (TV) [Archive of Our Own] (6)

Dearest Gentle Reader,

I must send felicitations to the new Duke and duch*ess of Hastings. Congratulations and stamina as they embark on the most exhilarating time in a young couple’s life. I am, of course, talking of the honeymoon. Is there a more romantic notion? To retreat from society together, finally leaving watchful eyes behind. While This Author, along with the rest of the ton, will certainly miss its most-remarked-upon couple back in London, perhaps we might find solace in the promise of the Duke and duch*ess returning to us bearing a surprise.

It had pained Penelope to include the paragraph about the Duke and Daphne, but she knew what would be expected. But the canard was essential in order to perpetuate the supposed romance around Daphne and the Duke of Hastings’ hasty marriage. Penelope knew her alter ego would have to speculate on the honeymoon as well. She wondered, if Daphne read the paragraph, whether it would greatly pain the woman, knowing she could not be a mother because of her husband’s infertility? Penelope knew it probably would and the thought was terrible, making Penelope’s guts twist with guilt. But Penelope had thought in order to keep the secret she had overheard, it would be best to perpetuate the idea that Lady Whistledown, at least, was none the wiser about the unfortunate circ*mstances surrounding Daphne’s marriage.

It had been a tad embarrassing when Eloise and Benedict had read over the paragraph, both siblings dramatically gagging at the thought of their sister having marital relations. Penelope had not even fought the unladylike urge to roll her eyes.

“For a full grown man and quite the superior young lady, you’re both being incredibly immature about this,” Penelope said wryly.

“You try to imagine one of your sisters having marital relations with someone,” Eloise sputtered, shuddering at the thought.

Penelope grimaced.

“That is not nearly as disturbing as the thought of my parents having relations,” Penelope muttered idly and the Bridgerton siblings' horrific gagging and dry retching began anew. Penelope giggled and both Eloise and Benedict had pushed her off the swing she sat on in retaliation.

Penelope stood in her light pink dress splattered with obnoxious rose florals, dainty gloved hands clasped in front of her as she let herself laugh between Benedict and Eloise at a tedious garden party. It had been difficult to laugh lately. With Daphne’s wedding a mere few days before and the increasing weight of multiple secrets she kept from her dear friends (at least Lady Whistledown wasn’t one of them. She'd go absolutely mad if she was keeping Whistledown to herself on top of Marina’s pregnancy and the Duke’s infertility) it had been hard to find anything that gave her joy. But Benedict and Eloise were a blessing, poking and prodding in that delightful way only friends can get away with.

It was what she needed, especially when she had been unable to have a private conversation with Colin since the Trowbridge Ball. Colin’s courting of Marina had increased in earnest, so every time she saw Colin, Marina was glued to his side. It made Penelope anxious, not just because she couldn’t get a word in edgewise with Colin (though she’d admit to the petty jealousy that rose from that), but also because it meant Marina had not altered her plan. The only thing that could delay the venture was Colin himself.

So she tried to let her heart go and laugh, praying that Colin was too honorable a man to want to marry Marina hastily. Benedict and Eloise were snigg*ring over the woman who would be the subject of Penelope’s next column, a Missus Howard that, quite hysterically, was the true head of her family estate. It was rumored that she arranged her late husband’s horseback riding accident and put her young son, who she controlled rather easily, in charge of the family fortune. They doubted the murder aspect of the story was true, and Lady Whistledown would be sure to dispute that. Instead, it was the way Missus Howard moved her son around like a puppet that was both humorous and admirable. Lady Whistledown planned to write a good paragraph singing her praises. Penelope could not help but admire the cunning of the woman, the way she’d admired Marina’s before. Of course, Penelope’s admiration had only dulled in the wake of Marina picking Colin to be her target; her newfound discomfort with her cousin had nothing to do the plan itself.

“You know, if Mother had a bad bone in her body, she’d do as Missus Howard has done,” Benedict commented, watching as the woman steered her son of three and twenty years around the garden like a dog on a lead. “She’s quite clever.”

“Oh, but she does use her wit for evil, Brother,” Eloise chimed in, and Penelope had to stifle a breathy gasp at the accusation.


“No, no, hear me out, dear Pen,” Eloise said, raising a gloved pointer finger in the air like she was a lecturer at one of the Royal Societies. “Mama’s machinations are simply of a different design! She uses well-placed words of guilt, stories about true love, and the most preposterously timed invitations to try to snag us into marriage! Genius, really. I’d appreciate it more if it was not so diabolical!”

The three of them laughed uproariously and for a moment, Penelope was able to forget the miasma of fear, uncertainty, and agony inside her breast.

“Oh, speak of the Devil!” Benedict whispered with a smirk. “I must make a hasty exit!”

“Benedict, what–” Penelope began but she followed his gaze to see a determined Violet Bridgerton striding towards them across the lawn.

“You traitor!” Eloise hissed and Benedict just laughed as he tweaked Penelope’s nose and poked Eloise’s cheek before scampering off to converse with Anthony and a few ladies.

Penelope decided to excuse herself as well, even as Eloise made a desperate attempt to grab at her arm. Eloise glared at her as Penelope stifled a small giggle and waved as Violet set upon trying to discuss Eloise’s debut next season. As much as Penelope wanted to be there for her best friend, for she knew that the idea of debuting into society was one that Eloise despised, it was best not to get in-between a determined mama and their daughter. Penelope wanted to maintain a good relationship with Lady Bridgerton and she knew she’d be a better support for Eloise if she did not presumptuously try to mediate between Lady Bridgerton and her second daughter. She could only be Eloise’s constant support if she was still allowed over for tea after all.

Penelope bobbed her head around the garden, searching until her eyes finally landed on Colin. For once, he was alone. Although her family, including Marina in a butter yellow dress, stood not far behind him. Penelope swallowed before biting her bottom lip nervously. Maybe now was her chance to warn Colin in some way that would not reveal Marina’s secret. Perhaps she could try again to convince him to go on his Grand Tour? Or perhaps she could try and insult her own family, making them unappealing to be related to. For honestly, who would want to marry into a family where they would have to deal with her mother? It was a valid concern.

Penelope breathed in the cool air of the garden on that cloudy spring day. She could feel an oncoming rain storm in the air though she knew not when rain would burst forth from the sky. She moved forward, creating a large circle to appear as if she was just getting a glass of lemonade from the refreshments table. As she made a wide berth around the guests she could now see Colin from the other side, as well as Anthony and Benedict in conversation with two young ladies, Lady Bridgerton and Eloise only a few paces in front of them. Just as Penelope inched closer, digging deep into the wells of her courage she had the wind knocked out of her by two screeching little bodies. Gregory and Hyacinth yelled brief apologies as they sped past her. Penelope couldn’t help but shake her head, dusting off her skirt while she retained her balance. When she straightened up, she knew her face must have appeared crestfallen. For in the short amount of time it had taken for the youngest Bridgertons to knock into her, Marina was by Colin’s side. They were talking in low voices, both sharing secret, sweet little smiles that made Penelope’s blood curdle in her veins. An ominous sense of premonition came over her just as Colin raised his crystal glass to tap it with a silver utensil.

The clear ring vibrated across the garden, the bell tone of the glass being struck hummed in the moist air. Suddenly all eyes were turned towards Colin Bridgerton, poised perfectly next to Marina Thompson. Penelope felt her stomach sink further into her guts. No, no, no, no she thought, it could not be…

“May I have everyone’s attention? I would like to make a small but important announcement,” Colin said, his voice boomed proudly across the green space. Penelope could even see Colin’s own family staring at him incredulously. Oh lawks, Penelope thought. They did not even know what Colin was about to do. She thought her lungs had stopped working, frozen in her chest as she fought to breathe. “I have happy news to impart. I have asked Miss Marina Thompson to be my wife… and she has accepted.”

Penelope’s vision swam in and out of focus as she tried to simply breathe. If she did not soon, she would suffocate, she was sure of it. But in that moment, oblivion had a certain appeal. Already, she could not bear to look at the presumably happy couple as cries of “Congratulations!” and “Bravo, sir!” rang across the garden space. Penelope registered the look of simmering fury on the Viscount Bridgerton’s face as well as the wary smile upon the Dowager Viscountess’. They truly had not known and Penelope instinctively knew this plan, this surprise engagement, was concocted by her Mama and Marina. Penelope did not think Marina had successfully seduced Colin as the original plan had been, but she did not doubt that Marina would find a way to get Colin down the aisle as swiftly as possible.

Penelope stumbled away. She needed to catch her breath. Zounds, she could not think straight. Her brain was trapped in a maudlin fog, dragging her down into an abyss that had too-powerful a pull to climb out of. As Penelope tripped over her skirts, entering the safety of a closed of hedge after a turn or two, she heard the faint shuffle of feet behind her like the calculated movements of the fox upon the heath.


Penelope turned, already knowing the owner of the voice. Rich, a tad nasal in a way that let the timbre of his voice travel up and down in a way that betrayed his inherent kindness, Benedict stood there. He approached her slowly and wordlessly he reached out to lightly hold her in the circle of his long arms. His usually joking, amiable face almost roguish in quality, was so unbearably soft and pitying Penelope could hardly meet his stare. Instead, she glanced between where her hands had settled in the middle of his broad chest and the intricate embroidered pattern of his waistcoat.

“Penelope, I— I know this must be upsetting to you. Colin has always been kind to you, very dear in your heart.” Penelope’s eyes widened, physically flinching in his hold.


“Penelope,” Benedict continued, his face pinched in that unrelenting, wretched pity. “It’s been clear as day to see. It’s understandable, your jealousy, it is, but you must not act on it.”

Penelope could not believe what she was hearing. Did Benedict truly think so little of her to assume she had not been wrestling with these facts already? To assume it would only be mere jealously motivating her actions and emotions in Marina’s presence?

He thought her a child.

And somehow, that realization gutted her in a way that left her open, raw, ready for infection.

Before she truly knew what she was doing, she raised her hand to slap him but paused just in time. She was too short in stature to reach him and it would only prove his theory about her; that she was childish, petulant even. With a force she had not known she possessed, she pushed on his chest, wrenching herself from his hold. She could feel her mouth twist in disgust, her eyes burning as Benedict stared at her, arms outstretched and looking for all the world like she had smacked him. The blue-green of his irises appeared dark in the dim, overcast light and his mouth was parted in surprise, like he had a word stuck in his throat much like an errant piece of fruit.

Brilliant. Let him steep in astonishment.

Let him hurt.

“How wonderful,” she spat, anger blinding her, filling her with a strange rage she had never felt before. “To discover that one I considered a friend sees me as nothing but a spoiled child, ready to scream and complain if she does not attain her desired toy.”

Filled with a pain so acute, so jarring she was almost knocked off balance, she met his startled green-flecked blue eyes with her own light blue ones. She wondered if Benedict could hear the thunder she felt clamoring beneath her breast. He took a step forward and she retreated two paces behind in the soft grass. His arms were still outstretched, his forehead furrowed in something akin to confusion.

“Penelope, please, you misunderstand. I did not mean— that is to say—“

“I usually find when one is at a loss for words, Mister Bridgerton,” she hissed, incredibly aware of the chatter still going on just beyond the hedge, people congratulating the ebullient couple. “It is because they’ve ascertained how they’ve mucked up quite incredibly when spilling a thought they should’ve kept locked away.”

Penelope bit her cheek, blinking back tears. She refused to let them fall, not now.

“You are putting your own bitter thoughts behind my intentions, twisting my meaning! Be sensible!”

A heavy, horrible tension settled between them. Benedict retreated a bit into his body, awkwardly clenching and unclenching his fists at his side, as if unable to decide what to do with them. For once, the corners of his eyes crinkled not in happiness but confusion, a deep crease settling across his brow. Penelope studied him, donning the kind of cool, uncaring air she had been forced to create and adopt whenever her family acted thoughtlessly towards her. Benedict appeared to recognize this, a flush crawling on his cheeks, his eyes darting about between her eyes and the hedge. He had never been at the end of her ire, at least not one so incredibly excruciatingly intimate before. Because there was something incredibly personal about Benedict’s accusation. He had known her since she was a mere child who could fit into his arms, be settled upon his shoulder. To know that he still thought of her thus…

It nettled more than she liked to admit.

“Penelope, please. I only said what I said because—“

“It doesn’t matter why,” she said flatly, turning her body away from him. “Only that you said it. I may be young and more inexperienced than you in many regards, Mister Bridgerton,” she felt more than saw him flinch at her formality. “But I’m a woman with her own experiences, secrets, and heartbreak.”

Penelope spared him a glance, just one. He seemed frozen to the spot and she had the odd feeling no one had ever been truly angry at him before. Not really, not like this. Not in the way where being at odds with a friend left a stabbing pain in one’s side, or made one feel hopeless and roughly torn open like a child, careless with their doll.

Bloody Bridgerton men. Fine. Then let this be the first.

“I’m a mere eight and ten, but by society’s standards, I’m ready for marriage, motherhood, the running of a home. While men are allowed to wait and wait until it suits them in their middle age. I wonder what that truly says about our experiences and our maturity?”

She turned the moment she saw the hurt flash across his face, the tightening of his jaw. Somehow despite her fury, she couldn’t bear it.

“Good day, Mister Bridgerton. I won’t allow you to suffer my childish presence any longer.”

And she swept from the sanctity of the hedges, making a mad dash for Eloise. She knew if she did not, she would fall to the ground and sob.

Eloise took one look at Penelope’s round, red cheeks, her wet eyes, and how her lower lip trembled before curling her gloved hands into fists.

“What did my complete imbecile of a brother say?”

“W-what? I do not know– El, I was not…”

“I saw him follow you out beyond the hedges. What did he do?”

Eloise took Penelope’s hand and dragged her off to the hidden crevice of another hedge, this one with pink roses in bloom. Perfect, with her horrific pink dress she’d blend right in. It was only with a quick glance across her shoulder that she saw Benedict watching them, his shoulders slumped, thumbs hooked under the top of his breeches, and looking utterly helpless. She turned away before regret could sway her.

“What’s wrong, Pen? Benedict may be my favorite brother but you are my dearest friend in all the world and if he has hurt you–”

“My pride, yes,” Penelope admitted with a sniff, wiping furiously at the corners of her eyes with her gloved fingers. Tears were beginning to leak out but she refused to cry now. “I do not believe I will be able to look him in the eye for awhile though.”

“What did he say?”

Penelope gripped her friend’s hand, both for support and to give herself time to think of an excuse. Call it pride, but she refused to consider that Eloise might know of her feelings for Colin too. It would hurt too much to suddenly recognize the pity in her eyes. A half-truth, then. She did not want to lie to Eloise, not more than she already was.

“I– I have just been overwhelmed, El. What with managing Lady Whistledown and not knowing how to handle the knowledge of my family’s debt. Benedict tried to comfort me, but I’m afraid I was insulted when he implied that I would, well, handle things childishly.”

Eloise’s dark brows came together in concern, a grimace of chagrin settled onto her face.

“Childish? Oh! Brothers of mine… I swear, if it was a man who was as burdened and concerned as you, they’d take it seriously! But when it is a woman, suddenly we are being hysterical!”

Eloise rolled her eyes, her grip tightening on Penelope’s hand. Penelope breathed a small sigh of relief. It had been exactly the right thing to say and, in a way, Eloise was right. She had no doubt if she was a man feeling such an ache or suffering problems, Benedict would have given her a stiff drink, shuffled her to the gentlemen’s club, and listened patiently to her concerns without once implying her youth had anything to do with her outburst of emotions.

Penelope knew Benedict had been trying to be kind, that he was concerned for her well-being. That much was obvious. Ever since that day in the park where he’d scooped her up in his arms and let her sob into his shoulder, she believed she had a fair measure of the man. Strong in a way not many men were; able to withstand the onslaught of emotions that many other men would call soft but were really just… overwhelming. He had an uncanny knack to study a person and discover what they needed. Benedict was excellent at this and Penelope had witnessed him be that person; both a pillar of strength and a malleable entity who shifted and changed his approach depending on what someone needed. He excelled at the practice with his siblings.

But it appeared Benedict had miscalculated with Penelope herself. Penelope pondered if it was because he had decided to treat her as a sibling and not a friend, an equal. The thought made her stomach clench uncomfortably.

“Men do underestimate us,” Penelope said thinking of Colin and Marina, even her own father and mother. “They expect very little of both our minds and hearts.”

“Yet it is men who thrust countries into wars, put communities in debt, and make fools of themselves by declaring last minute engagements,” Eloise scoffed.

Penelope’s small smile vanished as quickly as it had appeared.


“I admire Marina, truly,” Eloise said, releasing her hold on Penelope to pick at a stray, robin’s egg blue thread on her bodice. “But Colin is a fool if he believes he can just declare an engagement without consulting Mama or Anthony first. It’s their approval he shall need, we all know that.”

“True,” Penelope admitted. She dared not think that the Viscount or Lady Bridgerton could put a stop to the engagement without an adequate reason. Marina was far too determined and Colin was…

Penelope felt the familiar lump in her throat.

“Help me compose a column, Eloise,” Penelope said, looping her arm through her friend’s and leading her on a walk away from the happy couple, away from Benedict. “While Colin’s engagement will have to make an appearance, there must be other gossip. Did you hear much? I overheard the Earl–”

Penelope babbled on, grateful that Eloise latched onto the conversation. Eloise could always be relied upon for distraction and that was what Penelope would need if she were to get through this disaster.

Later that day Penelope was already in Bloomsbury, alone.

She’d hastily written a draft of a column with Eloise while everyone was distracted with Colin and Marina’s engagement. Penelope had made it a habit to carry around spare bits of parchment and a bit of twine-wrapped graphite so she could jot down ideas or paragraphs quickly when inspiration struck. More accurately, when she heard something particularly scandalous.

It had been so easy, with Eloise by her side and everyone else knotted around the happy couple, calling congratulations.

Everyone except for Benedict Bridgerton, who had stood to the side watching her with sharp, narrowed eyes.

A chill raced up her spine and she somehow knew that he was all too aware of what she was doing, what she was planning. Which was why she begged Eloise to distract Benedict while Penelope made a mad dash for the family coach. She had no choice but to go home with her family but, luckily, the minute they arrived home, she would pretend to go inside and sneak out the back to have Evans take her to Bloomsbury.

It had been the perfect plan.

No member of the ton thought Penelope was fast when they looked at her. With her incredibly short stature, many people thought she was slow. However, Penelope had the ability to move her legs incredibly fast, slipping through crowds of people with relative ease. She enjoyed it, truly. The sensation of her blood pumping through her thighs and calves as she jumped from dirt to cobblestones in the streets of Bloomsbury. Penelope had to be quick anyways. It was broad daylight and she would not put it past Benedict to have attempted to thwart her, if only to scold her recklessness.

What she had not counted on was running into Genevieve Delacroix in the middle of a busy street, looking over wholesale bolts of fabric and strips of lace.

Genevieve’s mouth parted open, sultry brown eyes widening. Penelope’s first instinct was to run, but before her brain could command her body to move, Genevieve had grabbed her wrist and pulled her aside into an alley. Mud squelched under Penelope’s slippered feet, dirtying the hem of her lady’s maid cloak.

“What,” Genevieve hissed, “are you doing out here? Disguised as a maid?”

Penelope bit her lip, chewing on the delicate skin. Genevieve assessed her shrewdly and it was with a sudden realization that Penelope remembered the modiste was currently involved in an affair with Benedict. Even if Benedict did not catch her, Genevieve coud report her whereabouts to him and…

Why did that matter to her?

She had done this partly to hurt, to punish Benedict. So why did the idea of Genevieve telling him suddenly fill her with embarrassment and shame?

Maybe Benedict had been right. She was acting the child, although not in the way he had expected.

Genevieve was studying her closely, looking back towards the direction Penelope had come from, the state of her gloved hands, her disguise.

“You are a writer,” Genevieve said slowly, and it was as she said it that Penelope saw the older woman make the connection. “Oh mon dieu!”

It was kind of funny, a little bit of hilarity for the clearly local London woman to still speak in that French accent in front of her. Maybe it was her heightened emotions, her anxiety, or her exhaustion, but she actually had to fight back a giggle.

“Figured it out?” Penelope asked, resigned.

“I see now why Benedict is always so frantic over you,” Genevieve murmured. “Quite risky, this little operation you have.”

Penelope’s throat closed up at the sound of Benedict’s name. She hated it. No matter what, she’d been filled with nothing but hurt and a sense of betrayal, no matter who she thought of that day. Colin, Marina, her mother, Benedict… There was no escaping the discomfort that made her stomach feel like it had knives trying to dig their way out.

Penelope peered at the mud below while Genevieve sighed.

“Come on. This appears to be a conversation best had with wine and privacy.”

Benedict knew he had f*cked up quite terribly.

He had never known he could be that devastated before, broken down with just one look of betrayal and a few bitter truths. While nowhere near the kind of pain he had felt in the wake of his father’s death, Benedict had been unaware that there would be another kind of pain that could, in the moment, feel nearly unbearable. To hurt another person, someone he cared about, was a unique experience he had no desire to repeat.

Penelope had avoided him the rest of the garden party and she had quite pointedly written a Whistledown column with Eloise. Oh, no one else may have noticed but he knew that Penelope was all too aware of his eyes on her. He knew what she was about to do before she had done it. Benedict should have calculated that Eloise would side with Penelope over him in this situation. The second Penelope had run off in a flurry of rose pink skirts and autumn fire curls, Eloise hung off him like an anchor, dragging him down so that it was far too late to stop Penelope from undertaking her venture alone. By the time he’d made it to Bloomsbury, desperately searching amongst the crowd of maids, merchants, and apprentices, she was nowhere in sight.

His heart had quickened in fear when he could not find her, thrown into such a state of panic that when he arrived at Genevieve’s shop that evening, he had every intention of telling her he would have to cancel their rendezvous. He had still not found Penelope and Eloise refused to tell him whether she had made it back to Featherington House.

“Genevieve, I am sorry. Truly. But Penelope has disappeared, I have been searching all day and I must–”

“Calm yourself, Bridgerton,” Genevieve said, thrusting a very full glass of red wine into his hand. “Before you have an apoplectic attack. Penelope is safe. She just returned home not an hour ago from the Granvilles.”

“The Granvilles?” Benedict asked, incredulously. He couldn’t deny the knot in his chest eased. “What was she doing there?”

“I caught her in Bloomsbury,” Genevieve said, raising her eyebrows, clinking his glass with her own before taking a sip. “On certain business.”

Benedict nearly spat out his wine.

As he choked and spluttered, Genevieve moved to his side and hit his back twice sharply with the palm of her hand. It just made him choke on his spittle.

“The poor girl told Lucy and I everything. Lady Whistledown, you and your sister’s involvement… It all makes sense now. Why you brought her to that artist gathering where she caught Henry’s eye. Her spirit, her tenacity for more. But it seems you’ve hurt the poor girl’s feelings.” Genevieve hit him again, this time for no discernible reason Benedict could devise other than as vengeance for Penelope herself. “Called her childish?”

“I– I did not intend–” But Benedict stopped, remembering Penelope’s words. “I guess it does not matter what I intended.” Benedict downed his glass of wine in one mighty gulp before striding in Genevieve’s small hidden sitting room, slumping onto the blood red velvet sofa. “I hurt her today, and I do not know how to beg her to forgive me. To make it right.”

“Beg?” Genevieve asked, her hips swaying as she approached him. She lifted a bare foot to toe his thigh on the sofa, her dress rising just enough to reveal her slim calf. Benedict caught her ankle, stroking the bone with his thumb. “I did not know a Bridgerton would know how.”

He chuckled weakly, trying to let the softness of Genevieve’s brown skin under his hand soothe him. Yet he could not help but still see Penelope’s furious, anguished face flash across his mind. It must have been clear on his expression that his mind was still elsewhere because Genevieve shook her head in exasperation before removing her foot from his hold. She settled beside him on the sofa.

“I will only say this once, and then I would like to be able to tell my young friend with a clear conscience that I have not discussed her when about to have sex with her friend,” Genevieve said and Benedict felt a blush stain his cheekbones. “Penelope, as I’m sure you know, has been under great duress of late. She does not need a lecture on how to act, Benedict. She just needs you to listen. Believe me, most women come up with solutions on their own. But that does not mean they do not require someone who will patiently hear their trials and tribulations.”

She ran her long, callused fingers through his thick hair and he leaned into the comfort. Benedict thought vaguely of tweaking Penelope’s nose, cupping her cheek in his hand…

“She will accept your apology when she is ready,” Genevieve said. “Just do not give up on her.”

Benedict nodded before leaning forward to capture her lips. He was quite done talking, and he needed to push the peculiar guilt worming its way through his mind away.

Benedict was about to lose his sanity, patience worn thin. His reprieve last night with Genevieve had helped in the moment; allowed him to forget about his younger brother’s idiocy, his mother’s stress, and his disastrous fight with Penelope. But that feeling of release, of distraction, fled as soon as Genevieve’s door had shut behind him.

And now here he was at the breakfast table, his mother reading the latest Lady Whistledown, (Penelope had delivered the column without him, a fact that made him vibrate in frustration), staring in mute discontent at the gossip sheet while Benedict had to mediate an argument between Gregory and Hyacinth.

“He took your ribbon? Did you take the ribbon?” Benedict questioned, turning from Hyacinth to Gregory with a tired frown.

Unfortunately, Gregory was all too practiced at denying his wrongdoing. Benedict felt sorry for Gregory, truly. He was the youngest boy, born ten years after Colin. As a result, he was much closer to his sisters, especially Hyacinth. However, Benedict knew that Gregory often felt left out, too young to really join in with any of the activities his brothers participated in but hating the idea of doing girlish activities with his sisters. As a result, Hyacinth often suffered as a result of Gregory’s discontent.

Not that Hyacinth could not give twice as much hell as Gregory gave her. Benedict feared for the state of the world when Hyacinth inevitably came into her full power.

“Dunno what you’re talking ab…” Gregory started but was quickly interrupted.

“I saw him do it,” Hyacinth whined.

Benedict resisted the urge to rub his temples in a vain attempt to dull the throbbing that was beginning to make itself known. He knew if he did, he would look too much like Anthony and he’d never be able to live it down. He pushed his barely touched breakfast plate forward, leaning forward to try and catch Gregory’s avoidant gaze.

“I did see something in your pocket,” Benedict said sternly, making sure to keep his voice level. “What is it?”

He was much too tired for this but when he flickered his pupils towards his mother, she was still looking at the column, forehead cradled in her lithe fingers, completely ignoring the argument. Benedict gritted his teeth.

Gregory glared down at his toast as if it had sat up and slapped him.

“Exactly! It’s not fair, he does it every time,” Hyacinth countered, turning towards Benedict, pouting.

Oh no, Benedict would not be taken in by that. Even if, for once, Hyacinth was not trying to pull the wool over his eyes.

“Oh, just show it. Just give it back,” Benedict sighed, reaching his palm out.

Suddenly, Gregory flung the strand of pink ribbon, along with a piece of kipper across the table right towards Hyacinth’s face. It hit her water glass instead, bouncing off and falling to the table with a clatter. Benedict saw red for just a second before forcing himself to calm down.

“Gregory, stop!” Benedict scolded, Hyacinth screeching at his side. He was just about to stand up so he could properly reprimand his youngest brother when an awkward cough made its presence known.

“Good morning.”

The whole table except for his mother turned to look at Colin, who stood at the entryway a little unsure. Benedict was struck by how boyish Colin appeared standing there, shoulders hunched, trying to force their mother to notice him by shifting from foot to foot. But Benedict knew their mother was in one of her moods, unwilling and unable to handle her anger with anything other than icy coldness. She thought she was being kind when she did this, by not exploding like Anthony would. Benedict did not have the heart to tell her that most of his siblings would much prefer Anthony’s volcano-like anger; it was quick, hot and terrible but swiftly rendered to ash. Their beloved mother’s cold disapproval was like frostbite, numbing and bitter until the rotten flesh decayed and died.

“Morning, brother,” Benedict said. He tried to force some joviality into his tone but it just came off as almost… sarcastic.

Or had he meant it that way?

He turned to lift his tea to his lips. Benedict was filled with loathing towards himself and he found he tried in his darkest moments since the garden party yesterday to direct it at Colin. Penelope was heartbroken over his brother, and the boy did not even know it. Could Colin truly not see how he was hurting their dear friend? Benedict attempted to bite back the unrighteous blame. It was not his responsibility to correct Colin’s ignorance, he doubted Penelope would thank him for that.

“Colin, your engagement is in Whistledown!” Hyacinth exclaimed, injustice over her stolen ribbon promptly forgotten.

“Hyacinth!” Eloise scolded and Benedict, despite himself, smiled against his teacup. He’d forgotten she was behind him at the serving board and, despite the fact she was still upset with him, he couldn’t help a swell of pride. She really was a good sister when she needed to be; firm with Hyacinth in a way that actually made the little girl listen.

“What? It is!”

Benedict spared his mother another glance before turning to Colin. Colin had always been rather close to their mother. Like Daphne, he’d been rather eager to please as a child. He’d do anything to make her smile, truly, and Benedict knew that Violet’s disapproval must have been eating Colin away on the inside.

“Very well. Everyone out, I think,” Benedict said, ushering Hyacinth out of her chair.

Gregory, thankful that the attention was no longer on him, practically skipped out of the room. Benedict cuffed his neck, leading him out at a more dignified pace, though Eloise ruined the image by balancing a plate of eggs in one hand while she held a pear in her mouth as they exited the room.

Benedict finally released Gregory once they were well out of earshot from the breakfast room. Gregory ran down the hall, Hyacinth soon chasing after him. Benedict let them. He had no doubt their governess would wrangle them soon enough.

“Eloise,” he said before she could slither off with her food. She pivoted on her heel, pear still hanging precariously in her mouth. She raised a single eyebrow. “Have you heard from Penelope?”

Eloise took a rather obnoxious bite of the pear, catching it in her hand as it fell from her lips. She licked the juice clean from the side of the green fruit even whilst chewing. Benedict flicked her forehead.

“Manners. People will think we raised you in a barn.”

She swallowed and stuck her tongue out at him.

“I’ve not heard from Penelope since yesterday,” Eloise said, glowering at him before licking another stripe of sticky pear juice that had dribbled down the side of her palm. “Do not worry, Brother. She clearly delivered her… business yesterday without a smug man’s assistance.”

“Listen, Eloise–”

“No, Brother, you listen,” Eloise straightened to her full height and while her forehead barely met his shoulder, she looked quite impressive. She would hate to admit it, but she really did inherit their mother’s talent for intimidation. “I do not know exactly what you said to Penelope yesterday but what I do know is she came away feeling chastised and childish. You of all people should know how shameful it feels to be belittled as someone who is unworldly or not ready for society, when you yourself have faced hardship. Penelope may be younger than you, but we both know she is facing problems this season that we cannot even comprehend. If you are her friend, truly her friend, treat her as your equal and wait for her to come to you.”

With that Eloise stuck the pear back in her mouth and gave a curt nod before turning on her heel to march away.

Benedict had not known it was possible to feel worse until that moment.

Penelope walked into the drawing room, book in hand, to see Marina sitting with Philippa and Prudence like they were fast friends, co-conspirators in a great, elaborate charade. It sickened Penelope, though she knew it was partly jealousy, for it had been she Marina giggled with over tea not so long ago. Penelope had to acknowledge that it was partly Penelope’s own fault for drawing away.

When she had cried in Lucy and Genevieve’s arms yesterday she had confessed nearly everything: her double life as Lady Whistledown, her family’s debt, and the engagement between Colin and Marina. Lucy had kindly filled Genevieve in about how it was Marina that had been the pregnant woman Penelope had previously spoken of.

“Penelope, I know it is hard but you must endeavor to be patient, kind even with Marina,” Lucy said, stroking Penelope’s riot of ginger curls. “There is a time to be ruthless and a time to be gentle. I think it is more likely Marina may listen to you if you display an understanding, a shade of the friendship the two of you had before.”

So Penelope swallowed down the sarcastic comment she had wanted to make when Marina had commented about the Featherington fortunes turning. Instead Penelope silently retreated to the sofa by the window, opening her book but not really reading the words on the page. Truthfully, she was not even sure what novel she had picked up. She looked at the spine and her heart sank. It was a collection of poetry by the late Scottish poet Robert Burns.

Benedict had recommended it.

“You look very lovely today, Penelope.”

Penelope heard Marina’s words with painful clarity just like how she felt the warmth of Marina’s leg against her own as the fabric of her dusty pink skirt rustled against Penelope’s pineapple yellow one.

“Do not mock me,” Penelope muttered petulantly before wincing inwardly. That wasn’t kind, the bitterness and sarcasm. She was already forgetting Lucy’s advice.

“It pains me you should think every compliment a mockery,” Marina said softly, and Penelope wondered whether her words were true. She was so muddled, she honestly could not tell fact from fiction anymore, lie from truth.

Penelope forced herself to look up and meet Marina’s soft brown eyes. They reminded Penelope of the kind of eyes that some writers would describe as doe-eyed, wide, shiny, almost innocent.

Innocent was not exactly the right word, Penelope thought. But Penelope acknowledged that Marina’s expression was open with her, earnest even. Penelope’s heart ached as she tried to glance surreptitiously at Marina’s belly.

Kindness and patience, Penelope, sometimes is much more effective than heavy-handedness.

Penelope prayed Lucy was right in this case.

“Please understand, Marina. It feels like you now simply pity me and my… perceived ignorance and viewpoint.”

“I do not pity you, Penelope. I respect you. You have been a true friend since I arrived here, and I rely on your continued friendship and sympathy.” Marina did not reach for Penelope’s hands which Penelope was glad for. She wasn’t sure if she would accept the touch and Marina seemed to understand that.

“Marina… if you must marry Colin, could you not tell him the truth?” At Marina’s astonished gaze, her mouth falling open, Penelope rushed on. “I just mean, you yourself admit Colin is a kind, good man. Surely he would understand! Marry you regardless of your condition. I know it must seem silly, Marina, that I was willing to accept you tricking any other man. But I have been friends with the Bridgertons for a very long time. It does not appear fair to Colin.”

“It is not fair to anyone, Pen,” Marina said not unkindly. “Not to me, my baby, and… yes, not to Colin either. You are correct, Colin is a good man. Which is why I cannot bear to even take the slightest risk that he may reject me over the pregnancy. I’m sorry, Pen. But I will not tell him.” Marina must have seen Penelope’s face crumple, for before Penelope could try to beg again Marina said, “I want you as my friend, Pen. Can you not try to understand and be a little pleased for me?”

Penelope felt like a horse had just kicked her in the ribs.

“Marina… I want your baby safe. That is true, and I will not betray your trust for not only would it hurt you but our entire family.” Penelope gripped the book of poetry in her hands, trying to keep a desperate grip on the pages. Lucy’s words swam in her mind but the tidal wave of fury, jealousy, and sorrow kept trying to drown out the message. “I cannot condone lying to Colin–”

But before Penelope could continue, her mother called Marina away for an appointment at the modiste. They were to arrange Marina’s trousseau.

So Penelope sat there, frustration hammering on the walls of her chest as her sisters giggled. She couldn’t read Burns’ words without seeing Benedict’s face, so she tossed down the book in frustration.

It was only a few hours later that Penelope received a missive, asking Penelope to join Lucy for a spot of afternoon tea. Penelope frowned at the address, it was most certainly Genevieve’s shop…

Had something happened?

With great haste Penelope had Evans take her to the street lined with shops a few blocks down from Genevieve’s. Her mother and Marina were still out, so she got away with not taking a lady’s maid. She wandered forward, pretending to admire the trinkets in the window, trying to act like she had a confidence and security she did not actually possess. Soon she slipped down a side street to the back of the shops, quickly finding Genvieve’s and rapping her knuckles on the door.

Genevieve opened the door with a crack and sighed in relief to see Penelope, allowing the young girl to scuttle in.

Lucy was already sitting on Genvieve’s blood red velvet sofa, a glass of red wine in her hand.

“I’ve not seen that kind of tea before,” Penelope said dryly and the women laughed before Genevieve handed Penelope her own glass.

Penelope was barely settled beside Lucy before Genvieve slumped into her own chair and pointed a warning finger at the young redhead.

“Watch out for that Miss Thompson, Penelope. After dealing with her ruthless cunning this afternoon, I no longer agree with Lucy that kindness will sway her.”

Penelope let out a soft gasp while Lucy tutted, taking another sip.

“What happened?”

“The chit recognized I was not actually French,” Genevieve said, taking a big gulp of wine, licking her lips. “She threatened to expose me in French if I did not give her the trousseau free of charge. As you know, your family is behind on paying for your account.”

She shot Penelope a sympathetic look and Penelope hung her head in shame.

“I am so incredibly sorry, Genevieve. I– I will discreetly pull from my Whistledown funds to try and settle part of the account. If you swear not to tell anyone where it came from, I could manage it.”

Genevieve let her wine glass dangle from her lithe, pretty fingers before letting her upper lip curl prettily. The beauty mark above her mouth seemed to wave at Penelope, and Penelope understood why Benedict found the modiste so incredibly alluring.

“I will allow it so far as it pertains to your own wardrobe,” Genevieve conceded. “But not your sisters.”

Penelope could not help but grin at that before finally taking a sip of the wine, full-bodied and dry on her tongue. There was a slight hint of blackberries, though Penelope couldn’t be sure. Sometimes she thought she simply wished or imagined these flavors upon the wines she drank, simply to make it more interesting.

“Well, I must admit,” Lucy said in a rather resigned tone. “Her behavior towards Gen changes my previously understanding disposition towards her. But I am trying to remember that she is desperate, doing this for the security of the child in her belly.”

Penelope caught how Genevieve huffed while Lucy threw her a sorry smile.

“I must warn you, Penelope,” Genevieve said. “Lady Bridgerton and your friend Eloise were here at the same time. It seems your family will be hosting dinner tonight for the Bridgertons. You must be prepared. I have no doubt that scheming mother of yours will be angling for something.”

“She will probably negotiate a way for Marina to get married without a dowry before the fish course is served,” Penelope remarked wryly. “Shame she was not a man. I have no doubt she would have talked Napoleon out of world conquest by the mere sound of her voice.”

The three women cackled like a gathering of keen ravens and sly foxes, yet it was incredibly pleasant to Penelope’s ears. Loud and boisterous. She had not realized how one could forget such a joyous sound when locked in melancholy.

When the laughter died, Genevieve turned to Penelope once more, her dark eyes twinkling.

“Now, Penelope, will you do me the favor of forgiving Bridgerton sometime soon?”

“W-what?” Penelope asked, flabbergasted. “I am not… I am not ready today, Gen.”

Genevieve shrugged.

“As long as it is soon. I must tell you, my friend, it’s quite disappointing when you’re in the throes of passion with a man and his mind is quite clearly on another woman.”

She winked and Penelope hastily gulped down her wine to distract from the heat she felt working its way up her neck. It went down the wrong way and she coughed and spluttered, Lucy patting Penelope’s back gently.

Genevieve laughed again.

“My Lord, the two of you are quite the pair when embarrassed!”

Penelope did not know what to say to that.

All too soon, the time for the dreaded dinner came. Penelope wished she had managed to drink more of Genevieve’s wine before she’d been rushed home so her family wouldn’t notice her absence. A part of her desperately wished that Eloise or even Benedict would be present at the dinner as well, though she doubted it. It was more likely that only Colin and the heads of his family would be there.

Penelope stood in single-file with her sisters as her mother acted as the general, constructing a battle plan before the Bridgertons arrived. Her father, as usual, stood silent and impotent at his mother’s side. Penelope felt awkward in her pale pink dress and was simply glad her mother no longer made her wear the tight curls reminiscent of a poodle. Still, it galled her a color that appeared resplendent upon Marina or Daphne simply made Penelope look washed out.

Penelope’s mother told Marina to swish, examining her side profile for any imperfections. Penelope thought she could see the faintest outline of a baby bump under the dress but honestly was not sure. She did not remember her mother’s pregnancies at all, since she was the youngest child. She wondered if Lady Bridgerton would notice.

“Good. You have done well thus far, Miss Thompson. Tonight, I shall need to raise the matter of a swift wedding,” Portia said, smiling at Marina as if proclaiming a sure fire strategy to win a battle.

Penelope could not help the snicker that fell from her lips. It was cruel, horrible, even she knew how trite and petty it sounded. But after hearing about Genevieve’s encounter this afternoon, she suddenly cared a lot less about being subtle or kind.

“I am… very sorry. But this plan of yours, I find it wanting,” Penelope said, swiveling her head between her mother and Marina. How could they not see or understand the flaws in their idea? “Deceiving Colin is one thing, but being at close quarters with his mother, that is quite another. Lady Bridgerton is shrewd. She has had eight children. Trust she knows when she is being managed.”

Penelope actually smirked before returning to staring at the wall. She felt her father’s eyes on her, a look of bewilderment as if he did not know her from Adam. Fine, let him get a glimpse of her, even the darkest, most awful bit. He never paid her attention anyway, so why should he be gifted with any of her good graces?

From the corner of her eye, she saw her mother give Marina a worried look.

Penelope waited with her bitter little smile. She was sure the dinner from hell would commence soon.

Penelope had been right. This was truly, awfully, most embarrassingly, a dinner that could have only been devised and executed in the ninth circle of Hell.

Her thoughts were akin to a swarm of hornets were buzzing around in her skull, angrily bumping and stinging the soft tissue of her brain until it was swollen and full of thoughts that were not even coherent. The only thing she had managed to register were the seating arrangements. She’d been correct in her assumption that only the Viscount and the Dowager Viscountess would arrive, along with Colin. Penelope’s parents were at either end of the table, Penelope found herself between Violet and Prudence with Philippa on Prudence’s other side. Directly across from Penelope was Marina with Colin to her right and the Viscount to her left.

If it had been any other family, Penelope would have loved to pick apart every juicy morsel and put it in Whistledown. But this was not any other family. This was Penelope’s.

Though, at times, she sometimes forgot which family she belonged to.

“Have you traveled at all beyond England, Miss Thompson? It has long been Colin’s greatest ambition to travel the world.” Violet asked, and Penelope was forced out of her thoughts. She realized she was holding out her glass for a servant to refill, on her second glass of white wine already.

Lawks, this entire situation was going to make her a lush.

“Never. Though it is now a great ambition of mine as well,” Marina said sweetly, and if Penelope did not desperately need the wine in her hand to make its way down her throat so it could ease the angry buzzing in her head, she might have crushed the crystal in her grip.

“I am sensing a honeymoon in foreign parts. What think you, Lord Bridgerton?” Portia asked, angling that smile she wore when she wanted something towards the young Viscount.

“I would not like to speculate,” Viscount Bridgerton said, and Penelope paused.

It dawned on Penelope that Colin’s older brother might be against the marriage just as much as she was. For a plethora of reasons, he had no way of possessing the knowledge of Marina and her parents’ deception. But maybe, just maybe, the Viscount could convince Colin not to marry by his mere displeasure alone. Penelope never thought she could be in agreement with the Viscount on anything, but it was an odd comfort that they were in accord on this, even if he had no idea.

She stole a glance towards Colin’s face and the tiny, miniscule spark of hope the Viscount had ignited died a swift, cold death. Colin’s face was set in mutinous determination, shooting his brother a look of displeasure before giving Marina one of his wonderful, wide smiles. The very sun could be held in his smile, Penelope thought. It was so incredibly warm and bright.

Colin determinedly spent much of dinner complimenting and defending Marina, even at the expense of his own sisters’ accomplishments. Each bit of praise is like a dagger to Penelope’s heart and she finds herself drinking more and more to dull the agony. It nagged at her, pulled at the edges of her mind. Had Benedict been right about her? Was she merely motivated by jealousy, a desire to covet Colin for herself? She knew she would not be even attempting to stop Marina if it was any other man from any other family sitting across from her now, being duped into marriage to claim a baby that was not his.

If Colin had chosen someone else, anyone else in the ton that season, would she be working this hard to stop it? Would it still hurt this much?

She was not sure anymore. Or, maybe, she did not want to be sure. Examining the darkest, thornie*st parts of her soul was not appealing.

But, Penelope reasoned with herself, she had provided Marina with the ideas to choose someone else or tell Colin the truth. She had tried to reason with her. While, yes, it would still be near unbearable to watch Colin marry Marina, if he had known about Marina’s pregnancy and still chosen her, Penelope would have been forced to accept it. But this… she could not abide it. Not for someone she loved. Suddenly unwilling to even touch her meat course, she set her knife and fork down and made her decision; she would try to tell Colin not to go through with the marriage, without revealing Marina’s secret.

How she would do this… that would require the rest of dinner to think about.

Penelope was reminded why she usually vacated a room the minute Prudence sat at a pianoforte. By God, her singing truly should have been classified as a crime against the good people of London. The only thing worse would be the annual Smythe-Smith Musicale, although at least the poor Smythe-Smith girls were likable.

Unfortunately, it proved difficult for Penelope to think of a coherent plan on what to tell Colin while her sister’s shrill voice echoed throughout the room. That buzz from earlier, the wasps between her ears, grew louder and her temples throbbed. It was mortifying, truly, this whole spectacle. Viscount Bridgerton had been stiff and dismissive the whole night, his comments sarcastic and his mouth set in a thin line. Lady Bridgerton tried desperately to be kind but that was the problem, how obvious it was that she was trying.

She excused herself into the hallway when she saw Colin make an escape, not that anyone paid much attention to her. Partly out of a desperation to leave the room, partly because she saw a chance arise to speak to Colin, but mostly because of that unusual brand of courage that too much alcohol could give a person.

“Colin? Might I have a word?” Penelope asked, hating at how small and insistent she sounded. But she had to do this, had to try and warn him.

The long hall was quiet except for the faint, terrible trill of her sister’s voice still determined to warble through the whole song. Philippa’s own halting, amateur playing of the piano doubled the sheer mortification of the whole fiasco. Neither were musically inclined but, like the Smythe-Smiths, were oblivious to their lack of talent. Penelope blushed and it only became worse when Colin looked down at her and smiled. His tall, broad frame was snug in his dinner jacket and his boyish smile made her heart do its usual somersault.

“Pen, of course,” Colin said kindly, hunching over slightly to better meet her eyes.

Penelope found it even harder to hold his gaze when he did that, when it came to a matter as delicate as this. She bit her lip, chewing on the spot she’d torn into the past few days. There was a sore already forming there, tender that tasted metallic as if she held a ha'penny in her mouth. She realized with an abnormal twist in her gut that she had not torn a wound on her bottom lip since Benedict had discovered her as Lady Whistledown.

“It… is a rather delicate matter. I wish I did not have cause to raise it, but I believe you deserve to know,” Penelope forced herself to say, clasping her gloved hands together. She peered up at him through her eyelashes and realized that Colin had not stopped smiling.

“Is there something on my face? Has it been there all evening? It has, hasn’t it?” Colin joked, his grin fading when Penelope’s expression of solemnity did not falter. “Sorry. Um, go on.”

Lawks, she really had to say something now. She had gotten this far. Why was it so much harder to tell the truth as Penelope Featherington, when it was so incredibly easy when she was anonymous? Lady Whistledown, a gossipy old biddy who did not care what people thought? The hideous truth was that Penelope did care what people thought about her. She had never had the luxury to allow herself not to care.

She swallowed.

“I have wanted to talk to you since the engagement was announced, but we’re always in company,” Penelope hedged, twisting her fingers together. She pulled a little too hard on her ring finger and she felt the joint pop.

“So, this is something about Marina?”

Penelope felt the edge of her temples begin to sweat, the palms of her hands under her satin gloves becoming moist and sticky. She did not want to do this. Why had Marina not listened to her?

It was with that thought Penelope realized as she looked up into Colin’s curious face, how much Colin truly cared about Marina. That what she was going to try to tell him would break his heart. Penelope was not sure what was more awful; Colin marrying Marina or Penelope hurting Colin by telling him the truth.

Penelope took a deep breath.

“I– As you know, Marina came to us from her father in the country. He asked for my parents to help Marina find a husband.”

“So I must send him a great, long letter of thanks for sending Marina to London? Duly noted,” Colin grinned again, that wonderful grin that could brighten up any space. But Penelope shook her head, despairing when his joy was snuffed.

“Please, Colin, I’m worried. You see… I found out recently that our family is in… dire straits. Our accounts are not as in order as they should be. There had been a growing amount of desperate situations, one on top of the other. I– I worry that Mama is trying to hurry the marriage along for unsavory reasons. I am also worried that Marina may be determined to marry you for… just, not for the reason you think.”

It was a partial truth. In her anger, bitterness, and frustration earlier she had considered telling Colin about George’s letters, how Marina had been so in love with him. Yet, even after Marina’s take down of Genevieve in the older woman’s own shop, it was Lucy’s voice she heard in her head. How Marina was desperate, how she would do anything to provide for the child in her belly, to protect it and herself from shame.

Penelope would have hated how good of an influence the Granvilles were being on her, if she did not like and admire them so much.

So she found she couldn’t do it…

Colin gave her another smile, this one smaller, softer. The type of smile one gave a friend or sibling who was trying to help with a task they were not yet ready for.

Penelope’s heart felt like it had been stabbed with a pitchfork.

“Pen, you are a true friend. It could not be easy to tell me of your family’s troubles and how your parents might try to… manipulate a situation in their favor.” He patted the side of Penelope’s upper arm and she felt all the more despondent. “But I assure you, Marina and I have the utmost love and trust in each other. I shall ensure a marriage arrangement where both parties shall be satisfied. Be happy, Pen. We are to be family soon.”

No, not a pitchfork. Her heart was being thoroughly, methodically, surgically lanced.

“Oh. Have we moved the party to the corridor?”

Penelope spun around to see Marina, her dark eyes knowingly assessing. Penelope knew in that moment that there would be no way to convince Colin of Marina’s duplicity. He was too… He was too…

He was too in love.

When Marina told Penelope the bald-faced lie that her mother was looking for her, she dashed off, embarrassed and defeated.

Penelope sat by the window in the drawing room, blissfully empty in the early morning. With a vicious headache and her abdomen cramping in pain, she’d taken only a glass of water as she skipped breakfast. In her utter humiliation at being dismissed by both Colin and Marina, she needed the peace of an early morning to think.

Which was why it shocked Penelope when her father entered the room, sat on his favorite corner of the sofa, unfolded his broadsheet, and began to read.

Penelope stared at him blankly as he sat across from her, his face hidden behind the tiny newsprint. While her papa truly enjoyed reading his morning paper, she rarely saw him in the drawing room this early. It was barely past eight o’clock and she was well aware now of his late night habits at the gambling hells and brothels. She wrinkled her nose in distaste before trying to return once again to Robert Burns. She blindly picked up the book again and the dull ache of her head, doubled with the now fresh pang in her heart, made it all the more difficult.

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;

Ae fareweel, and then forever!

Deep in heart-wrung tears I'll pledge thee,

Warring sighs and groans I'll wage thee.

Who shall say that Fortune grieves him,

While the star of hope she leaves him?

Me, nae cheerfu' twinkle lights me;

Dark despair around benights me.

She frowned as she read and re-read the first stanza. Nothing was making sense to her this morning. And, of course, the first poem she finds herself studying is about heartbreak. How much worse could the morning get?

Her silent question is apparently answered when she feels a weight sink into the seat next to her on the sofa. When she turned to meet the uncomfortable, shifty eyes of her father, she could have sworn she must have actually still been locked in a wine-induced nightmare.

Maybe not a nightmare, but definitely a very unusual dream.

“Papa?” she ventured, wondering if he was feeling ill.

He crossed his legs, rustling his now folded broadsheet in his hands. He gave her a sidelong look, not away but not fully in the face either. His hawk-like nose was pointed towards the corner of the room, and his weathered face creased in something related to befuddlement or confusion.

“Are you having a good season, dear Penelope?” her father asked.

Penelope gawked at him. Was… was her father being serious? She knew he was oblivious. She knew this probably better than anyone. It had always been Penelope that was left behind at the park, looked over at balls, and standing in the corner at Almack’s with no one paying her any heed. It was Penelope who was able to sneak out of social events and her own home to travel to Bloomsbury to publish her column with none of her family the wiser. In fact, her own father barely noticed her when she entered a room in the house, barely glancing past his paper to acknowledge anyone, even his own wife.

And now he was asking her how her season was going?

Penelope slumped in her seat, her book going limp in her hands. She was suddenly so incredibly exhausted.

“Papa, I’ve received no callers of any kind, and I’ve never been asked to dance unless Lady Bridgerton has found it in her heart to pity me and asked her sons to take me on the floor for a jig. I– I did not want to debut this season, Papa.”

It was nice to be honest, even with her father. In a way it was… safe. Penelope had no doubt her father would forget this conversation ever took place later when he was in his cups, betting on an underground all-female boxing match. According to his ledgers, he betted quite a bit on all manner of boxing lately.

To Penelope’s surprise, her father’s face furrowed, his lips pinching together, perplexed.

“You did not want to debut? But your mother–” Her father paused, fiddling with the paper in his hands, folding and unfolding it constantly, the sound filling the room. He sighed. “If I had known, Penelope, I would have let you wait a year.”

Penelope blinked.

“You– You would have? Truly, Papa?”

The nod of his head came off more stilted but he finally met her gaze. Firm hazel eyes stared back at her and, for once, Penelope knew her father spoke the truth.

“Yes, Penelope. You are my daughter. I do not want you to ever enter an arena you are not ready for.”

As abruptly as he had come in, he was gone, the seat next to her suddenly vacated and cold. The only evidence that her father had been there, the slight indent in the upholstered seat, already fading as the fabric began to smooth out and right itself.

Benedict had not been sure what had possessed him to accost Colin for a fencing match so early in the morning. Going on nine o’clock, quite early for the males of the Bridgerton brood, and Benedict had already hurried a barely awake Colin to the garden with their fencing equipment, foils in place.

“Benedict, it is too early,” Colin whined, rubbing his eyes before patting his stomach quite pitifully. “I swear the co*ck has barely crowed, and you wouldn’t let me have a third helping of eggs!”

Benedict rolled his eyes before tossing Colin his saber which his younger brother deftly caught.

“There are no co*cks in London, at least not of the feathered kind,” Benedict grinned, getting into position on the grass. The sun was peeking out from behind a scattering of long, silvery gray clouds. The London sky was mercurial, having not yet decided on its mood that day. “Now, tell me of the dinner at the Featheringtons last night.”

“I should have known you just wanted to hear of my misery,” Colin groaned, getting into position as well. “Anthony was an absolute churl.”

“En garde,” they both exclaimed before their conversation was joined by the quick shuffle of their feet across the ground and the clanging of their sabers.

“You, of all people, know that Anthony is a churl,” Benedict said, parrying a thrust. “What did you expect?”

“At least for him to be half-civil in front of my betrothed,” Colin exclaimed, missing his footing and cursing when Benedict struck a point. “He could not even find it in himself to be kind to Marina’s family! Mother was doing the heavy lifting all evening.”

“Not even P– Miss Penelope?” Benedict asked, floundering over his wording. Why not just call her Penelope? Benedict did not seek to keep his friendship with the young lady a secret. But there was something insurmountable when it came to Colin, about sharing his newly found friendship with Penelope with his younger brother. Colin had been friends with Penelope for far longer than Benedict had and maybe that was why Benedict felt strangely… covetous about his relationship with her.

Not that Penelope had given him the time of day lately.

Benedict hissed as Colin struck a point, Benedict retreating as he readjusted his grip.

Colin did not seem to overanalyze Benedict’s words as he simply co*cked his head for a moment, pondering his answer.

“To be quite frank, he ignored her, politely I guess. Most people ignore Pen, unfortunately. They just do not recognize what a wit she is. A good friend too.” Colin shrugged before resuming his stance. “Oh well. It just means El and I reap the benefits of her friendship for ourselves. Hardly a hardship.”

Benedict bristled.

It unsettled him, his brother’s words. Not so much that Colin clearly valued Penelope’s friendship. In fact, that truth was a welcome relief in the sea of discomfort and heartache it had been to watch Penelope’s face crumple when Colin had announced his engagement. No, it was the insinuation that Penelope being ignored by the ton was just fine as long as he could have her to himself.

Did he not see that while Penelope may accept her lot, make self-deprecating jokes about her looks and status, that it pained her to see other women be asked to dance while she was ignored? Did Colin not understand that Penelope was not a wallflower by choice, but by the mere fact that her parents' lack of faith in her had taught the young woman to have no faith in herself? Why could he not see that Penelope wanted so badly to be noticed, to make a mark upon the world in her own way? So much so that she risked her reputation, her very life, to stand above it all?

Benedict, distracted by his thoughts, was struck again. He gritted his teeth.

With new, incredible vigor he re-entered the fray.

This was most certainly a new low for Penelope. She knew it.

But something had been eating away at her all day, once her head had cleared from the terrible hangover. While she had lamented about not telling Colin about Sir George, she had begun to think upon the letter he had sent Marina, rejecting her and the baby.

The letter… did not make sense.

Penelope spent much of her time around writing, whether she was reading it or jotting down her own original work. One could tell a lot by a person’s handwriting, their signature, whether they filled every corner of space or were willing to pay for the expensive parchment while barely writing a word. Every person had an individual voice: curt, eloquent, succinct, or loquacious. Sir George’s previous letters to Marina had all been of the long, romantic sort. One could almost assume that the young soldier had packed a volume of Shakespeare’s sonnets right next to a rifle when heading off to Spain.

So Penelope was bothered.

She found herself digging through Marina’s room with the original damning letter, the one that had started this whole fiasco in the first place. She unearthed all of Sir George’s old love letters, each more heartfelt than the last and began to compare them to the one ostracizing Marina from his life. The tone, the voice– it was all a little strange but… but…

The signature.

“Penelope, what are you…? How dare you!”

Penelope whirled around, her skirts flaring a little as she faced an indignant Marina, her expression stormy.

“Look,” Penelope demanded urgently, hurrying over to present the two letters she held in her hands. “Look at the signature on Sir George’s last letter, and this one from many months ago.”

“So?” Marina asked, looking between the two with no comprehension on her face.

Penelope wanted to scream, to shout. Couldn’t she see? Look, just look, Penelope wanted to beg. But she had to retain a drop of calm, just a bit. Surely Marina would see…

“So, they are not the same. The slant of the lettering, it is all wrong,” Penelope said triumphantly, shaking the parchment insistently.

“Penelope, I am tired. I haven’t…” Marina sighed, and Penelope had to admit her face looked pale in the flickering firelight. But Penelope was too far gone now, too determined to make Marina see the evil, the cruelty her mother had committed.

“This one. It was in a drawer on the back of Mama’s desk. She, or even Missus Varley, practiced George’s signature, but even they could not get it perfect,” Penelope said, pointing at the slant at the beginning of the G and the tailend of the e. “That last letter, the one where he broke your heart… It was a forgery, Marina. George never wrote those things to you. He never denied loving you. He never denied your child.”

Any bit of hope Penelope had at this revelation began to slowly wither and die at the sight of Marina’s blank face.

“Perhaps,” Marina said flatly.

“Marina…” Penelope began, desperate to get a foothold in the rapidly failing conversation. This was not how she imagined this would go.

“Even if you are correct…” Marina said, shaking her head slightly before waving a dismissive hand.

“I am correct. You cannot deny…” Penelope started but was interrupted.

“Even if it is true, George has still not replied to my letters. He has abandoned me, while Colin has embraced me,” Marina said definitively, almost coldly. She was closing herself off from Penelope. No, not from Penelope. From George.

“I thought you loved him. George,” Penelope tried, her voice coming out higher, more distraught than she wanted. Was love truly so fickle? Or was it just that devastating? That weak?

“I was a fool. This changes nothing.”

There was a brief silence as Penelope tried to absorb her cousin’s words. She glanced to the side towards Marina’s trunk and she felt her whole body go cold, a heavy stone drop in her stomach.

“Why is your bag packed?” Penelope asked, eyes wide with frightful understanding. “Tell me you are not going to Gretna Green! Marina! What will you do when Colin realizes the child is not his? That day will come. He is not simple.”

No, Colin was not simple. Oblivious? Maybe a little but only because he was so good, so kind. He believed the best of everyone, trusting people’s words and intentions with nary a doubt. How could Marina target a man like that? Anyone else could have done, but she had gone after one of the truly honest men of their petty society.

“What I will do is live safe in the knowledge that my husband is a good and kind man. He would never turn me out on the street. He will care for us both, come what may,” Marina said gently and Penelope knew Marina was right. Colin was too good to ever throw his wife out on the street even if he knew she had lied.

The thought made her love him all the more and Christ it hurt.

“Then at least do what I suggested earlier, tell Colin the truth!” Penelope was truly desperate and as much as it broke her heart, she thought again how Colin would never leave Marina and a baby destitute. Marina must understand, if she at least was honest with Colin it would be leagues better than marrying him blind. “He is a truly wonderful man, you said so yourself! Tell him the truth, and he may still marry you despite everything–”

But suddenly Marina was staring at her as if seeing her in a new light, her mouth slightly agape, her brow unwrinkling as if all had become clear.

“You love him.”

Penelope blinked, her mouth suddenly as dry as paper.

“What?” Penelope asked blankly, though she could feel her heart thudding in her chest like a soldier’s drum.

“No, it makes sense now. Your objections, your meddling. You love Colin Bridgerton,” Marina said.

What made it all the more worse was Penelope recognized the tone of her voice: Pity.

“You know not of what you speak,” Penelope tried to deny, curling in on herself like a wild animal caught in a trap. Marina took a step forward now, her face almost… soft. Penelope would not call it gentle. Marina looked like she was about to do something she truly did not want to do, like culling a baby bird after it fell from the nest, too broken to get back up.

“I believe I know so much more than you, Pen… Of Colin, of the world. If I am to be the executioner of this childish infatuation, then so be it,” Marina’s voice was calm, almost detached and Penelope flinched. “Your love is an unrequited fantasy. Colin sees you as you are and regards you no differently than he does Eloise, or even little Hyacinth. He sees me as a wife, a woman. And as a woman, I must make these difficult choices for myself and for my child. Even if they hurt your feelings.”

Penelope felt as though she had been slapped. No, worse. Punched in the belly and left to curl in on herself as she wheezed, gasping for air. There was no oxygen left in the space between them and Penelope wondered how it came to be this way. Just weeks ago, she would have sworn to be Marina’s most incredible defender. Marina had recognized Penelope’s loneliness, had been nothing but warm in a way that Penelope thought a good sister should be.

But a chasm had opened between them, so sharp and wide, Penelope had no idea how it could ever be breached. She retreated from the room, tears stinging her eyes and Penelope understood how much words could hurt. She thought herself a master of them, a poisonous pen that could wreak havoc upon the lives of others. Before she realized it she was blindly writing a column; terrible, scathing, and blistering with hurt.

But even as she blew on the ink to let it dry, she thought of the friendship she lost… and of ones she had gained. Lucy, Genevieve, Charlotte, even Siena… they would not approve of this.

And when one more face swam in Penelope’s mind’s eye, his crow’s feet crinkling, she knew what she must do.

Benedict sat on the swing in the garden, the night dark and cool. There was a liminal nature to the end of the day; the in-between, shaky stasis before an oncoming storm. He could smell moisture in the air and hear the susurrus of the leaves in the branches of the tree swaying in the wind. It should’ve been a perfect, peaceful night. He had returned from the hot, carnal embrace of Genevive Delacroix a mere hour ago and yet…

He found himself despondent.

Penelope’s avoidance of him had weighed on his mind since their argument at the garden party, incredibly terrible, pressing down on his lungs like iron weights. Even Genevieve remarked upon it, pinching his bare stomach as he lay in her bed, smoking a cigarillo and staring at the ceiling.

“I cannot take any more of your moping, Bridgerton,” Genevieve had scolded, throwing his breeches at his face. “Go reconcile with your Penelope, or I shall refuse all calls upon me!”

He scowled, twisting the rope of the swing tightly around his palms until he could feel the steady cease of blood flow. He knew what he’d said to Penelope had been… ignorant at best and cruel at worst. It was clear by the way she had looked up at him, desperately holding back tears like he had betrayed her in some intimate way. He supposed he had, underestimating not only the weight upon her shoulders but the breadth and depth of her feelings.

Had Penelope not, this entire season, endeavored to take on a tremendous task of her own? For glory, yes, but for security? Security she desperately needed under the terrible knowledge that she had no dowry, no fortune to rely upon?

He had vowed to protect her. From the moment he’d first caught her delivering that column in Bloomsbury, he’d sworn to keep her safe. Benedict had promised he’d help the girl who’d become his friend.

Yet, somehow, he had failed miserably. By hurting her, she’d turned away from him, publishing one column without him as she avoided his company as if he was riddled with cholera or consumption. Part of him was furious with her, to risk herself further. Another part of him just felt… bruised. As if someone had punched him right over his left breast, and it twinged and throbbed the longer the silence between them stretched.

Benedict sighed, releasing the ropes of the swing and letting blood flow return to his fingers. He felt the peculiarly cold, tingling sensation spread down his fingers, causing him to twitch. He scuffed the toes of his boots in the grass, but it was the soft shuffle ahead that caused him to lift his gaze up to the garden entrance.

There before him in a lemon yellow dress and shawl, her face ruddy, blue eyes raw and red, was Penelope. Her ember curls were a mess around her head, fly-aways sticking to her face or frizzing in the humid hair. Without thinking he rushed to her, his legs pumping as he caught her in his arms, the corded muscle flexing as he supported her weight. She collapsed against him, sobbing uncontrollably. He tried to smooth the gossamer strands of hair that flew about in the night air and his heart stilled for a beat as she rested upon him, his shirt becoming damp.

“Shhh,” he whispered, encircling her in his embrace, his grip tightening. “Penelope, shhh. Whatever it is, it’ll be alright. I will help you, whatever it is. Shall I get Eloise? Oh, Penelope–”

“B-Benedict,” she spluttered, coughing slightly on her sobs. “I’m so sorry. I tried to s-stop h-her. I s-swear. I do not k-know–”

She could not continue, dissolving into her cries like sugar in the rain, sagging into his hold. He lowered them into the cool grass, taking a quick glance around before adjusting his body so his feet were planted on the ground, knees in the air as he spread his thighs to settle Penelope between them. Penelope leaned her side into his chest, her left cheek resting below his shoulder. Benedict did his best to thumb away her tears, even as they escaped her eyes almost faster than he could keep up.

“Penelope, take a deep breath. Just breathe until you can speak,” he said gently. The fraught tension between them the past week was not forgotten, but it had died down a little, settling like a lull between the tides. “I will wait.”

Penelope’s shaking and despair began to calm as she took in great, big gulps of air. Benedict tried to imagine what had set her off, who could have propelled her into such a state of despair. Her mother, perhaps? Penelope had mentioned a woman… Benedict clasped Penelope harder to his chest, his body going rigid at the thought. Had that vile woman hurt her? Forced Penelope to do something? Maybe to settle the debts? Benedict grit his teeth, feeling them squeak like nails upon the new chalkboards that had been introduced at Cambridge when he was a student. He would make that woman pay if she–

Benedict’s terrible, loathsome thoughts were interrupted when he saw Penelope move, reaching into the valley of her bosom to pull out a folded bit of parchment. Benedict did not even have time to blush as she thrusted it into his face with trembling hands. She did not utter a word, simply trembled against his chest as he gingerly took the note from her fingers, unfolded it, and began to read:

All is fair in love and war, but some battles leave no victor, only a trail of broken hearts that makes us wonder if the price we pay is ever worth the fight. The ones we love have the power to inflict the greatest scars. For what thing is more fragile… than the human heart? The bond between man and bride is private, sacred. But I must tell you, I have learned that a grave fraud is afoot. As if the Featheringtons did not have enough to be dealing with, Miss Marina Thompson is with child… and she has been from the very first day she arrived in our fair city. Desperate times may call for desperate measures, but I would wager many will think her actions beyond the pale. Perhaps she thought it her only option, or perhaps she knows no shame. But I ask you, can the ends ever justify such wretched means?

Benedict’s breathing stopped, his eyes widened, and the edges of the parchment where he held it in one hand crumpled.

It could not be.

“Penelope, tell me this is a falsehood.”

Penelope said nothing, shrinking between his legs as she folded in on herself, as if suddenly terrified that he might shove her away. When her red-rimmed eyes met his own, he knew without a doubt that nothing but the truth was written within that damning paragraph.

“Penelope,” he gasped. “Christ… is this the secret you’ve been keeping? All on your own?”

Penelope barely let out a whimper in response before she fell into his lap, her head on his thigh, her back nestled into the crook between his legs. She curled her legs in on herself, tucking into a ball. It was with sudden clarity, Benedict realized that Penelope had been holding the secrets, the burdens, of her entire family for weeks. A family that, except for maybe Miss Thompson, barely gave her scraps of affection to live on. No wonder she’d been so torn, so desperate for her cousin to look at any other man. Her loyalties had been pulled mercilessly between the family she loved out of obligation and the family she loved out of choice.

Benedict had only seen half the picture. No, that wasn’t it. He’d seen an outline, a sketch, really. But he’d been blind to the proper shadows and color that completed the complex story that unfolded before him.

“Oh, Nel,” he breathed, barely registering the nickname he gave her. A moniker of affection that had suddenly been bestowed. Pen didn’t feel right. That was what Eloise and Colin called her for years and years. But Nel was something all his, just for their friendship. “I swear we’ll make this right. You did not publish this, yes? That’s why you’ve come. You want to find another solution?”

Penelope nodded again against his thigh and he could faintly feel the brush of her eyelashes through the fabric of his breeches. Because of the angle of his knee her cheek rested more on his hip so he straightened his leg out in the grass, allowing her to pillow her face on the top of his thigh better.

“I will make this right, I swear to you, Nel. You’ve done the right thing, warning me.” He combed her tangled tresses back, plucking a few strands off of her sticky, damp cheeks. “We’ll come up with a plan so you’re not implicated. I know your… your mother would not like it. But I must get Eloise, you understand? Can you wait here for me?”

“No need, brother.”

Benedict’s face shot up to see Eloise standing in her nightgown, face waned and heartbroken at the sight of Penelope pathetically curled up in his lap. It was amazing, really. Nothing short of miraculous how Eloise just sensed that Penelope needed her.

“Oh, Pen,” she said, falling to her knees so she was at Benedict’s side, her hand reaching to tentatively cup Penelope’s shoulder. “What has transpired? What can I do?”

“Penelope,” Benedict bent forward, one of his hands held her soft stomach in his gentle grip. She was incredibly close, too close for propriety but Benedict didn’t give a damn. He needed her safe, and if that was in the bower of the garden, cradled between his thighs, so be it. “I think to form the best plan, we must hear what happened from your lips.”

Penelope breathed against him, her warm breath a ghost across his clothed thigh. He registered the moment that the cogs in her head started to turn again, having been clogged up with her stress and despair. Eloise laid down so her own cheek rested upon Benedict’s boney knee, the two women’s noses almost touching. Finally, finally Penelope’s shoulders stopped quaking, her breath evened out and her swollen eyes stayed fixed upon Eloise. She barely twitched upon the grass, nuzzling closer into the nook Benedict sheltered her with.

“M-my father put us in debt, as you well know,” Penelope said hoarsely, swallowing a couple of times before continuing. “Taking Marina in and ensuring she made a good match would settle a portion of that debt. We will still be destitute. But she… she…”

“It is alright, Pen,” Eloise said quietly. “We will not tell Marina you disclosed her confidence. Clearly if it has upset you thus, it’s quite important.”

The corner of Benedict’s mouth twitched. Eloise had no idea just how right she was.

“Marina had a…lover. They wrote letters to each other, he’s in Spain for the war effort. But one day, he stopped replying and we found out that Marina is…is…”

Penelope bit the inside of her cheek, Benedict could always tell by the way one side would hollow out. He furrowed his brow, his brain moving fast, but it seemed Eloise was putting the pieces together just one step ahead of him. Eloise gasped, clapping one hand over her mouth, eyes wide.

“It was not a maid who came to be with child, was it Pen?”

Benedict felt like he’d just been boxed in the ears, as if a mighty clap of thunder was crashing across his eardrums from one side of his head to the other. The truth dawned on him with a strange mixture of horror and pity.

“Does Colin know of Miss Thompson’s pregnancy?” Benedict asked hurriedly, unknowingly clutching Penelope’s stomach tight, pulling her towards his warmth.

She shook her head.

“When Mama and Papa found out about her pregnancy, they became determined to marry her off to anyone who might overlook it. Marina resisted at first, loyal to her Sir George Crane. But then she received a letter, supposedly from him, rejecting her and the baby. Marina found new resolve to find a man to marry, but not anyone Mama tried to foist upon her. She recognized Colin’s gentleness and chose him.” Penelope’s eyes welled with tears again and Benedict felt the warm liquid drip onto his breeches. “I just found out earlier tonight Mama and Missus Varley forged the letter from Sir George, but Marina is still determined. She believes he’s abandoned her and– and she and Colin plan to elope to Gretna Green tomorrow morn at first light.”

There was a beat of terrible silence before Benedict broke it with one word, slipping off the tongue unbidden.


“Alright, the two of you know the plan? The story?” Benedict hissed, glancing behind him to the door of Anthony’s office, waiting for it to burst open any minute.

“You had suspicions that Colin was being duped, particularly because you heard of Lord Featherington’s debt. That he could be manipulating Marina in order to get at the Bridgerton fortune,” Eloise recited as Penelope nodded, fiddling with the shawl around her shoulders. “So you asked Penelope and I to investigate, ask Marina questions.”

Benedict turned to Penelope, pointing his nose down at her to prompt her lines.

“We asked questions and I snooped in Marina’s room only this night and found the letter detailing her pregnancy,” Penelope said as if reading the lines from a particularly difficult play. “Upon confirming your suspicions, I came to Eloise who took me to you.”

“Good,” Benedict said, glancing back at the door again. “Penelope, it’s essential you do not tell my brother or mother you knew of the knowledge before tonight. Mother may be understanding, but Anthony… Well, he can be a right prick. We will use your testimony for Mother and Anthony, and Mother can lie about how she can spot pregnancies blindfolded or some rot. Honestly I am surprised she didn’t notice, but the clues will be enough that your family and Colin need not know of your involvement.”

Penelope’s pupils were blown wide, nervously darting about the room. Benedict gingerly tweaked her nose in an effort to calm her with the familiar gesture. Just when it had become so easy, second nature, he was unsure.

“Nel,” Benedict said softly, and he noticed that Eloise shot him a look, one imperious brow raised. “Eloise and I will not allow your family’s name to be dragged through the mud, but you must be brave. I know that you are.” He gave her a small, close-lipped smile and the crows feet at the corners of his eyes crinkled kindly. “You are the infamous Lady Whistledown, after all. You possess courage unmatched.”

Penelope appeared to stand a little straighter at his words, a modicum of confidence helped her set her shoulders back. The light blue of her irises peered up at him with gratitude and no small measure of astonishment. Benedict grew a little hot and shifted on his feet, wanting to turn away. It unnerved him when her gaze took on that quality, like he had said something wondrous and all together revelatory. She shouldn’t be shocked or surprised by her own brilliance, her own worth. He felt his fists tighten at his sides. The Featheringtons had truly done what, at times, felt like insurmountable damage to Penelope’s sense of self.

Before he could ponder the surge of protective anger any further, the great wooden door burst open. Anthony strode in clearly disheveled but, Benedict was glad to see, mostly sober. His eldest brother still wore a shirt and breeches, along with his solemn black waistcoat. However, his collar was open and absent a cravat, his shirtsleeves rolled up to the elbows. Their mother hurried in after him, her hair down in a simple braid, a cornflower blue nightgown with starched ruffles enshrouding her figure. She looked harried and tired, clearly roused from slumber hastily. Benedict quickly stepped away from Penelope, letting Eloise entwine her arm with her dearest friend.

“Benedict, what is the meaning of this?” Anthony demanded, rounding behind his desk before he noticed Penelope behind Benedict’s tall frame. “W-what in the blazes– Miss Featherington?”

“Oh, dear,” Violet muttered, shuffling to Eloise and Penelope’s side, straightening her robe as she went. “Penelope, it is so incredibly late for you to be here without a chaperone. If you were discovered–”

“She has important news regarding Colin’s engagement, Mother,” Benedict interrupted though it was Anthony’s stare he held. “She has risked much to give us some vital information I asked her to retrieve for me. We must ensure no one outside this room discovers she was here at all.”

Anthony’s dark brown eyes narrowed while Benedict watched his mother halt fidgeting with Eloise and Penelope’s hair, her mouth parting in shock.

“What have you uncovered, Benedict?” Anthony demanded.

With a small flick of his wrist and a gentle grin he beckoned Eloise and Penelope forward until they were in front of him. Benedict towered over them, spreading his stance a little wider as if to indicate that the two young women were under his protection. Anthony bristled slightly, but wisely said nothing.

“We shall explain.”

It had taken half an hour to relay their concocted story in full, the half-truths flowed off Benedict’s tongue smoothly, though they tasted bitter in his mouth. Eloise and Penelope played their roles brilliantly with Eloise forever the co*cksure friend and Penelope no more nervous than she might normally be in front of the Viscount Bridgerton. Which was quite nervous, but it worked in her favor.

When they were done, Anthony fumed and Benedict could have sworn that smoke practically seeped out of his brother’s ears. His mother swayed, hand to her mouth and Benedict quickly came to her side to support her weight.

“That little, conniving–” Anthony swore but Benedict leveled Anthony with a sharp look.

“Brother, please do not insult Miss Featherington’s family in front of her.”

Penelope shifted on her feet, wringing her fingers together.

“I do not blame you, Viscount Bridgerton, for your anger at my parents and my cousin’s deception. But please, I beg of you do not let our name be ruined. My sisters and I…” Penelope trailed off and Benedict saw she could not fully finish, unable to lie again. To claim that she and her sisters had known nothing. His heart gave an awful pang of pity. But the method seemed to work and Anthony, surprisingly, reined in his temple. The older man pinched the bridge of his nose, huffing a sigh as Violet rushed to reassure Penelope,

“Of course, my dear. This is no judge upon your character. And while my heart aches for my son,” Violet sighed, crossing her arms over her chest. Violet’s brow furrowed and Benedict recognized the expression she wore when she was torn about something. “As a mother myself, I know I would risk it all to protect my own children. I cannot help but pity Miss Thompson, though my indignation still outweighs the goodness of my heart.”

“Do not let your kindness overtake you, Mother,” Anthony commanded sharply. “We must be shrewd. It is late, or should I say early? I have no doubt Colin is already packed and ready to make his escape. We must handle this discreetly before sunrise. I shall confront the Baron and Lady Featherington myself.”

“Allow dear Pen to sneak back into her house before then, brother. Give her twenty minutes!” Eloise said, clutching Penelope’s bicep tightly. Benedict was grateful for Eloise’s loyalty; truly, his little sister, as they all were, was incredibly good. “Then go and do what you must.”

“Mother and I will deal with Colin,” Benedict said, standing tall despite the dread and exhaustion that threatened to overtake him. “After Eloise and I escort Miss Featherington through the servant’s entrance to her home, I will help Mother ensure Colin does not leave and that he knows the truth.”

Violet frowned at Benedict, pursing her lips.

“Benedict, dearest, that is highly improper–”

“It would be worse to send Miss Featherington by herself, Mother,” Benedict pointed out. “And we must limit how much the servants are aware of.”

Violet’s lips became a thin line but she said nothing.

“We will be able to silence the Featheringtons for a day with our knowledge,” Anthony commented, gripping the edge of the old oak desk, knuckles white. “But if we do not come up with a solution to Miss Thompson’s condition within the day, we are in danger of being ruined by our mere awareness of the situation. I have no doubt the Featheringtons will use that to their advantage.”

“I will come up with something, brother,” Benedict swore. “I swear. We know that no matter what has happened to Sir George Crane, Miss Thompson is desperate enough to protect herself and her child. I will find a suitable arrangement.”

Anthony moved his head up and down, assessing Benedict in a new light. Benedict felt his elder brother taking greater stock of his ability and he could not stop the swell of pride and indignation that filled his chest.

“I will leave it to you then, Benedict.”

It was as Benedict and Eloise made sure the back courtyard was clear and Penelope made her way to the kitchen door that Benedict stopped her. He grabbed her hand, intertwining their fingers together and he couldn’t pinpoint why he was so full of flaming nerves making the hairs on his arms stand on end.

“Nel,” he whispered. “I still have not– for the other day, I am so sorry. You were right. I was unaware of the burden you carried, that you still have weighing upon your shoulders. You are a woman, with your own mind and responsibilities. I must apologize for implying anything less.”

Penelope squeezed his fingers with her own, the knuckles of their fingers rubbing together almost painfully. For the first time in days she granted him one of her small, secret smiles and Benedict felt something inside him unspool.

“Thank you, Benedict. I forgive you.”

In a flash, she was gone through the door and out of sight, Eloise’s tug on his sleeve the only movement that forced him back into the present. He gritted his teeth as they jogged to the square, headed back to Bridgerton House. Benedict was not looking forward to the task set before him.

Chapter 7: Pontes Fluminum


A plan executed, resulting in another small wedding, an unleashing of feelings, and, of course, more trouble for Whistledown.


To my dearest itakethewords, you are literally one of the lights of my life. Thank you for being an amazing friend and having as much passion for this story as I do. You edit, you toss ideas around with me, and you sit on eight hour long calls fleshing out the story. You are magnificent, a gem, and a wonder.

No real historical notes for this one. Instead, note that a, uh, major plot change happens here that affects the rest of the story.

Chapter Text

Unspooled Thread - happilyinsane13 - Bridgerton (TV) [Archive of Our Own] (7)

Telling Colin what had transpired and come to light in the last few hours had been as unpleasant as Benedict had expected.

Benedict abhorred seeing anyone in pain. It made his chest physically ache, his stomach churn and opened up a well of overflowing feeling inside him that, these days, he tried to keep sealed shut. No one told children or adults how much it hurt to be empathetic, to identify with the person in front of one’s self as if their wounds could be shared.

So when Benedict shook Colin awake and told his younger brother of Marina Thompson’s pregnancy, Colin’s immediate denial struck Benedict squarely in the chest, as if they were fencing again.

Violet stood awkwardly behind Benedict’s crouched form, wringing her hands. Benedict gritted his teeth and kept his focus on Colin, who now sat on the edge of his four-poster bed. Benedict had already known his mother would not be that much help in this matter. She could be relied upon often for calm advice and some comfort, but she had been overwhelmed lately with Daphne. Their mother had been forever altered by their father’s death and could only deal with one sibling crisis at a time before she was overcome and shut down. She relied upon him and Anthony greatly, and Benedict did his best to shove down the rising resentment.

“Colin, I would not lie about a matter so grave,” Benedict said calmly, placing a heavy hand on Colin’s bare shoulder.

“No… Marina loves me, we respect one another. This must be a misunderstanding.”

Benedict tried not to grind his teeth together in frustration. He felt for Colin, truly he did, but he was being naive. Benedict had no reason to lie or get this sort of information wrong.

“All the same,” Benedict insisted, “Anthony has headed to the Featheringtons to stop you and Miss Thompson’s foolish elopement to Gretna Green.”

Colin’s face drained of what little color had remained and Benedict cursed his tongue. In his frustration, he had said something quite unwise. How should Benedict know of the elopement if not through someone at the Featherington house? He had sworn to Penelope to protect her friendship with Colin as well as any indication she had known about the pregnancy from the beginning. His mind worked overtime as Colin gaped at him and Benedict wished his mother would say something, anything–

“One of the maids noticed your packed trunk,” Violet said and Benedict had to hold back a sigh of relief. “It was not hard to put together after that disastrous dinner the other night. It also made sense that Miss Thompson would go along with such a plan after Benedict unearthed the truth.”

Colin narrowed his eyes, flicking them between his mother and brother. There was a swell of rancor building behind his eyes and Benedict struggled not to flinch.

“Anthony was absolutely boorish to Miss Thompson, I could not tolerate such disrespect. While I understand that you are concerned for me, Brother, I must insist that you have gotten your information wrong.”

The refusal to believe him hurt more than Colin could ever know. Was that a sign of true love? To believe anything your beloved said even over the word of your own family? Benedict would not know. He had never been put in the type of situation where he would ever have to choose between his family and someone else. The prospect was slightly terrifying.

“Col,” Benedict squeezed his brother’s shoulder again, trying to be reassuring. “Truly, I pray that I am wrong. But we must assess the situation before we make any decision about your engagement.”

“I must see her.”

“No, Col.”

Colin bristled, pulling away from Benedict’s hand as if his older brother were a leper. Benedict tried not to let that sting. Colin’s anger was but a flash in the pan most of the time. He did not dwell on what made his blood boil beneath his skin for long. Colin did, however, have a penchant for the melancholy like all Bridgertons did.

“I am an adult,” Colin insisted, “and I want to talk to my betrothed.”

“You are an adult,” Benedict agreed. “But Anthony is the Viscount, the head of our family, and it is him who has the right to interrogate the Featheringtons. Mother has instructed him to rein in his temper with Miss Thompson, to act cautiously. Right, Mother?”

Benedict tried to pull her back into the conversation, desperately yanking at that maternal tie he knew she possessed. He had no doubt she loved her children, would throw herself on a burning pyre for any of them, but her despondency could be a yawning black pit of nothingness. It was honestly worse than any anger she could spew.

“Yes,” Violet nodded vigorously. “Do not worry, my dearest. I had a stern talk with Anthony on how he was to act the gentleman.”

Benedict rose on tired legs. He wanted nothing more than to sleep dreamlessly in his soft bed but he had more work to do. Since returning Penelope to her home, a plan had been forming in his mind, one that he knew was clever but bothered him on a moral level. He was not sure if it would even work, whether it would be agreed upon.

But for the sake of Penelope, for the sake of Colin and both of their families, he had to try.

It was the ungodly hour of six o’clock in the morning when Benedict banged on the Granvilles door. He knew this was improper, way beyond the pale, but there was no time to spare. Anthony had been at the Featheringtons since five o’clock and tried to take comfort that his elder brother probably received a much cooler welcome than any he was about to receive. After another minute of relentless banging, a harried maid finally opened the door, linen cap askew on her head.

“Pardon, sir, but what–”

“I am deeply sorry,” Benedict said, brushing past her and he felt a twinge of guilt at her rising indignation. “Truly I am, young miss. But this is a matter of terrible urgency. I must speak to your master and mistress. I swear upon my good name that it is an emergency.”

The maid looked him up and down from his now dusty leather boots, wrinkled but well-tailored indigo waistcoat, and slightly ruffled but matching cravat. She was probably trying to discern whether he had enough wealth about him to merit a good name at all.

“Your name, sir?”

“Benedict Bridgerton.”

“Then you may wait in the drawing room while I fetch Mister and Missus Granville. I will throw you out if you are not who you claim to be.”

“I expect nothing less.”

The maid gave a quick curtsy before leaving him to walk to the drawing room alone. Benedict had not had many interactions with the Granvilles’ servants before and wondered idly if they were permitted to speak so freely normally or if he had accidentally disturbed the young girl in some way. Either way, it did not matter. What was most important was to handle the matter at hand quickly.

Benedict had forgone sitting in the darkly upholstered sofa, standing a little awkwardly as another maid stoked a fire to life in the modest marble fireplace when Henry and Lucy strode in, both only wearing plush velvet night robes of matching vermillion.

“I pray you do not mind the casualness of our dress, Bridgerton. You have seen us in less,” Henry remarked dryly as he firmly shook Benedict’s hand before Benedict bowed to Lucy.

“And as you have called upon us at an unspeakable hour of the morning,” Lucy said, eyeing him curiously before gesturing for Benedict to sit in the emerald green upholstered chair next to the sofa. “Lucinda said you claimed an emergency?”

“Yes,” Benedict said gravely, waiting for Henry and Lucy to sit side-by-side on the sofa before he followed suit. “I fear that Penelope’s problem with Miss Thompson has come to a head. She told me the truth that I feel you, Lucy, have known. That Miss Thompson is pregnant and we have just thwarted an attempt by her to run away and elope with my brother to Gretna Green.”

Henry actually cursed under his breath and Lucy placed her thin, delicate hand over her heart. Her dark eyes overflowed with understanding.

“How is Penelope? Is she alright?” Lucy asked, brushing back a few tight curls from her face. “Please understand, I could not break Penelope’s confidence to you. She was in great pain about it, believe me.”

“I–” Benedict swallowed. He knew what she implied, that he might be furious with Penelope or even Lucy for keeping this truth from him. But in reality, Benedict understood. If it had been any of his sisters he would have lied, cheated, and stole to ensure their safety and good reputations. He had failed in many regards with Daphne, but had he not been a perpetrator when it came to the lie of how Daphne had married the Duke of Hastings? Assisted in a falsehood so that Daphne could be safely ensconced in a prosperous marriage to Simon, whether she truly loved him or not? The thought made his stomach churn, but he would do it again. He would do worse. “I am not angry with Penelope or even you, Lucy. More at myself for not noticing the signs sooner, for not trusting that Penelope’s feelings were not mere childish jealousy. That I was blind to the burden my friend carried. That is what galls me.”

A weary sigh filled the room, coming to slow life under the warmth of the fire and the gray light beginning to seep through cracks in the drawn curtains. Benedict had no idea who had released the sigh, it may have been him for all he knew. Exhausted like a horse who had been forced to gallop for miles with no rest, Benedict desired nothing but sleep. But he could not. He still had more work to do.

“I very much doubt you woke Lucy and I just to inform us of this news,” Henry said slowly, assessing Benedict with his shrewd gaze. “I like to believe we have become friends, and heaven knows my wife and I are quite fond of your Penelope. So I think you have come to ask for a favor?”

“It is a very delicate matter,” Benedict admitted, placing his elbows on his knees before rubbing the heels of his hands into his crusty eyelids. “To save both of our families from ruin, we cannot let the truth of Miss Thompson’s condition get out. But we cannot let her marry Colin, either. We must find her a husband, one who needs an heir but will grant her freedoms. I do not doubt Miss Thompson would expect nothing less.” Benedict looked up to see the dawning realization flitter over Henry and Lucy’s faces. “A marriage like yours. I have noticed your lover, Lord Wetherby, courting many young women of the ton. I believe he has danced with Miss Thompson a few times.”

The words were a strange, acrid film coating his tongue. In truth he did not know how he felt about the Granvilles’ marriage. He had no problem with Henry’s preference for men, that did not bother him. But to have a wife and then a man on the side… Benedict was a romantic at heart. He always dreamed that one day, in a far off glittering future, when he married he would be so in love with his wife that he would never dream of straying, of entertaining anyone else in his bed.

So he had to know. He had to know how this worked, if he was making the right decision for Miss Thompson. She may have done something against his family, lied to their faces but he knew it was borne from desperation. And in all of her anger, jealousy, and sorrow, Penelope loved her cousin. Benedict had no desire to hurt who or what Penelope loved.

“I would simply like to understand your…situation. I would just like to understand,” Benedict started, swiveling his head back and forth between Henry and Lucy. “Please. Before I even propose the idea half-formed in my mind, I need to know what I would be asking Miss Thompson to do.”

“It is simple. I am in love with Lord Wetherby,” Henry stated calmly, leaning his head on a gently closed fist while Lucy took his other hand in hers.

“You are married.”

“And our marriage affords my wife her freedoms and protections. It is a happier union than most of the people in the haut ton, I assure you.” Henry’s stare penetrated him, though it was not hard or full of fury. Henry simply analyzed him, trying to read Benedict’s reaction. Benedict observed how Henry angled his body towards him but not so he could get a better view; he appeared to be shielding Lucy.

“Henry saved me from a potentially harmful marriage where I would have been miserable,” Lucy explained. “And the two of us have always shared a kinship. We are partners, friends above all else.”

“What is the advantage for the young ladies Lord Wetherby is courting? Do they also share this understanding? What about honor? Romance?” Benedict inquired, an unexplainable swell of self-righteousness rising to the surface. He was a romantic at heart, and while there was an honest rapport between Henry and Lucy, that did not mean that Lord Wetherby had been courting any of the young ladies of the ton with integrity.

“What would you know of either?” Henry asked, cutting right to the quick. “You are a romantic, Benedict Bridgerton, but you have yet to act upon any feelings of great love. At least not in the way that is risky, all-consuming, like jumping off of a cliff. We live under constant threat of danger. I risk my life every day for love. You have no idea what it is like to be in a room with someone you cannot live without…and yet still feel as though you are oceans apart. Stealing your glances, disguising your touches. We cannot so much as smile at each other without first ensuring no one else is watching. It takes courage to live outside the traditional expectations of society. You talk of doing the same but perhaps it is merely just that… All talk.”

Benedict pondered his words for a few moments, Henry’s words like a decisive punch to the gut delivered by an expert pugilist. He was strangely thankful to be trapped within the Granvilles’ drawing room, for if this had been a public event, he would have slinked off in shame. But Benedict was rooted to his seat, forced to reckon with his opinions, how his view of the world had been challenged. Henry did not love Lucy in the way Benedict’s father had loved his mother, not completely at least. Lucy did not love Henry in that way either, in the way that passion set blood alight like a match to a line of gunpowder before hitting an explosive. They were friends, companions, steady in a storm and constant under pressure. In reality, how much different was their marriage from most of the ton? The majority of gentlemen had mistresses after they were married, and once a lady bore an heir, most sought their own sexual freedom. Benedict knew this, but his parents' love story was a pillar upon which the Bridgerton family was built– integral to their cores.

But Benedict had no right to expect the world around him to comply with his own desires.

After a few moments, Benedict said,

“I am sorry. I have grown up…incredibly sheltered. Privileged even more so than most in our class. Not only is my family wealthy, but my parents were incredibly in love. I have known, of course, this was an exception and not a rule. But in a family like mine, spoiled rotten by love and fed tales of great romance… I have not thought of others' struggles. I have not thought of the reality behind keeping a love like yours safe. I had never given one moment’s consideration for the plight of girls like Miss Thompson, who are tricked into marital relations without knowing the consequences and must make drastic decisions for their unborn child. I had never allowed myself to see how women like Penelope struggle, expected to marry and yet ignored, disdained when her only chance of safety is marriage or a secure spinsterhood. Lawks, Henry… I am so sorry.”

Henry studied him for a few more moments, letting his hand bear the full weight of his head. Hazel eyes roamed over Benedict’s tired face as if testing his sincerity before the older man finally sighed. He leaned forward to clap Benedict’s knee.

“You are forgiven, Bridgerton. You have not yet realized your own great love story, though I have no doubt it will hit you like a bolt of lightning soon enough. Funny thing about thunderstorms, you don’t realize you're in the middle of one until… Well, until you do.”

Benedict’s eyebrows furrowed, his nose wrinkling in confusion. But before Benedict could even begin to ask Henry what he meant, Henry continued,

“I believe Wetherby could be convinced of the match. He seeks to be married by the end of the season and, while he had been prepared to lay with his wife in order to obtain an heir, he would be delighted if it was not strictly necessary. If we are lucky, the child will be a healthy boy, and I guarantee that Wetherby would treat Miss Thompson with the utmost respect.”

A knot in Benedict’s chest loosened slightly, allowing him to breathe properly for the first time in hours.

“Could he be persuaded to call upon Miss Thompson today?”

Henry stood up, squeezing Lucy’s hand in his before letting her go.

“Let us ask him, shall we? You can stop hanging by the door, my love.”

From the shadows behind the drawing room door kept ajar emerged the tall, young and handsome figure of Lord Wetherby. A robe of deep royal purple hung off his frame, not even tied, his bare chest exposed for all to see. He wore a rumpled pair of black breeches but his feet were unadorned. Clearly he felt quite comfortable in the Granvilles’ home. He ambled about with an easy-going confidence that even made Benedict gulp.

“An interesting plan,” Wetherby said, his grin jovial and not the least bit ashamed for being caught listening at the door. “Start from the beginning, Mister Bridgerton. If I am to propose marriage, I need to know a little bit more about my future wife.”

Penelope had not slept in twenty-four hours now. But, even though she could feel her body sagging from the weight of sleep deprivation, the tension in the Featherington drawing room kept everyone just on edge enough to make sleep impossible. Penelope had barely managed to change into her nightgown and her pink night robe before Anthony had burst into the house, demanding the Featheringtons’ presence at once. The entire household had been pulled into an uproar when the Featherington women, Marina, and the Baron had been called down in only robes to cover their nightclothes.

The Viscount Bridgerton waited in the drawing room like a predator preparing to strike, and he very clearly indicated his power when the Featheringtons settled into the room and he blocked the door with his body.

“My lord, what is the meaning of this?” Lady Featherington gasped, her deep auburn curls, for once, free down and tumbling down her back, her eyes wide as she stood at the center of the room. Penelope’s father was already sitting on the sofa, looking removed from the whole spectacle. Philippa, Prudence, Marina, and Penelope stood in a little group behind Lady Featherington like an odd group of goslings. Penelope kept to the back, attempting to appear as shocked as the rest of her family.

“I should be the one asking questions, Lady Featherington,” the Viscount said tightly and Penelope could tell the intimidating man was actually holding back. His upper lip twitched as if he was tempted to curl it back in a snarl but he refrained. The eldest Bridgerton’s eyes flitted amongst the family members, landing on Penelope for a moment before settling on Marina. “Like how you have kept Miss Thompson’s pregnancy secret from the ton this entire season, and how you planned on marrying her to my brother, hoping we would be none the wiser until it was too late.”

Penelope finally knew what one meant when they said a silence could be heavy. The quiet that permeated the room was thick, oppressive like the thick, sticky heat of summer that made one feel like they could not breathe properly. She felt it stick to her skin, clog her throat so that she could not help but contribute to the ugly, accusatory atmosphere. Penelope felt Marina sway slightly at her side and glanced over to see that Marina had actually paled, her eyes wide like a doe caught at the end of a marksman’s rifle.

“M-my lord, there must be a mistake–” Lady Featherington tried but Viscount Bridgerton cut her off.

“Do not even try to deny it. I have irrefutable proof collected by my brother, Mister Benedict Bridgerton, to the truth. My own mother noticed a few peculiarities. She is quite…” The Viscount smirked, “ shrewd in these matters.”

Penelope quite frankly could have swooned at his choice of words, they were so close to her own. Luckily none of her family even looked at her, not even Marina. Not for the first time, Penelope was faced with the unpleasant truth that they thought so little of her as a woman of any capability.

And so Viscount Bridgerton stood vigil at the door, proclaiming no one would leave until Benedict arrived with his solution to save both of their families from ruin. The Featheringtons had scattered about the room, for once utterly silent. Lady Featherington sat on the sofa at the opposite end of her husband, Prudence and Philippa between them. Penelope sat herself at the table and, surprisingly, Marina sat across from her. Despite their vicious fight, Marina sought Penelope’s company, though she said nothing and it made Penelope’s heart pang with guilt.

As the morning dragged on, Missus Varley parted the curtains to let gray morning light into the room, Penelope carefully pulled out a piece of parchment from her robe, along with a piece of graphite. She would have preferred a quill, but Benedict had correctly pointed out that graphite was easier for transport and quick use. It had become a habit to carry one around, so she began to compose a letter. It would probably be seen as impertinent, writing a letter to this recipient. She did not know the woman, not really. But Colin needed all of the help he could get.

Marina watched her without really seeing her. Penelope had been surprised how silent Marina had been in the face of the Viscount’s outrage. Marina had stood up to Portia Featherington for months now, fighting for the kind of husband she wanted for herself and her baby. Maybe Marina was now just weary, ready for it all to be over. The thought filled Penelope with a certain kind of dread. She prayed that Benedict could execute the plan he had kept to himself when he had departed early that morning. Penelope feared Marina might do something drastic if it did not meet her needs.

A little past eight o’clock in the morning, as Penelope was slipping the letter she had written into her robe and various plates of untouched toast grew cold, Briarly announced the arrival of Mister Benedict Bridgerton and Lord Andrew Wetherby. Penelope’s mind began to whir as she blindly stood to greet their guests despite their completely inappropriate attire. Did Benedict mean to do what Penelope thought? Oh, she knew about Mister Granville and Lord Wetherby now, it was no secret amongst the women invited to Lucy’s afternoon soirees. Lucy herself had inclinations towards both sexes but Penelope never would have imagined that Lord Wetherby would willingly offer himself up to be the matrimonial cover for Marina’s pregnancy.

Then again, Penelope thought as Lord Wetherby bowed and Benedict looked around the room bewildered, he needed his own type of disguise if he was to keep his relationship with Mister Granville.

“Anthony, what is the meaning of this?” Benedict asked, aghast, his blue-green eyes landing on Penelope and taking in the state of her unbound hair, wrapped in her pink night robe. She blushed and looked down at her feet. “You did not allow them to even be dressed properly?”

“I could not take the chance that Miss Thompson would sneak out to meet our brother,” the Viscount said unapologetically. “While Mother may be watching him, we both know he’s nothing short of crafty when he wants to be.”

Benedict sighed, massaging his temples briefly before turning towards Penelope’s mother and father who had risen hesitantly from the sofa.

“Baron Featherington, Lady Featherington, may I introduce Lord Wetherby. He is willing to offer for Miss Thompson’s hand–”

Two things happened at once.

Lady Featherington practically shrieked her assent, desperate to salvage the situation as best she could. Philippa and Prudence were looking more clueless than usual while Baron Featherington proceeded to just let things happen around him.

Marina also finally spoke,


“Lady Featherington, cease your chatter!” Viscount Bridgerton commanded, and while the woman shut her mouth, she did look highly offended. Even without her imperiously drawn-on eyebrows to help her.

Lord Wetherby turned to Marina and bowed again, his face quite soft and kind.

“Miss Thompson, please do not be nervous. I would never marry you without your full consent–”

“She has no choice unless she wants to lead this entire family to disgrace!” Lady Featherington interrupted, her face flushing with barely constrained frustration.

“If I am to even consider marriage to Miss Thompson, the one thing I require is that it is her choice to be bound to me for the rest of our lives. It is no small feat I ask for.”

Penelope could not help but admire Lord Wetherby in that moment, proud and quietly fierce in front of her mother. He did not bluster and growl as Viscount Bridgerton did but instead remained unphased in the face of her mother’s domineering. Cool and collected, Penelope could see why it would have been easy for Mister Granville to fall in love with this man.

“I require a few minutes alone with Miss Thompson so I may gauge her true thoughts and feelings on the matter,” Lord Wetherby continued, hands clasped behind his back. “I shall ask Mister Bridgerton to stay on my behalf.”

The Viscount scoffed, looking at his younger brother in disbelief.

“Benedict, this is highly irregular! I am head–”

“I know, Brother, but I must ensure this marriage will happen at all before the hardest part of all falls to you,” Benedict said, smoothly soothing his brother’s ruffled feathers. Penelope was impressed. Benedict usually knew exactly what to say. “It will be up to you to contact a solicitor and make sure a contract is properly drawn up and the ink dried before the day is out.”

Anthony pondered this for a moment before grudgingly nodding his assent, dark brown eyes as hard as the frosted earth.

“Then I want Penelope by my side, to represent myself and my own interests,” Marina said, hands clasped so hard in front of her cream colored robe her knuckles were white. Her voice, however, never wavered.

“What? No!” Lady Featherington snorted. “Penelope is not needed in such matters, she is ignorant of the world!”

Penelope felt the insult strike her keenly like a kick to the ribs but she did not flinch or falter, merely chose to move her stare from Marina to the fireplace. She learned long ago if she did not look at her mother’s face directly when receiving such a verbal assault it was less likely she would cry.

Penelope was shocked to hear her own father’s voice speak,

“Oh let it be, Portia.”

Penelope’s head snapped to her parents, eyes wide as tea saucers. Her own mother’s face mirrored her own as they both gaped at the Baron Featherington, who merely appeared bored. With that her father began to exit the room, flicking his wrist in a gesture so the rest of the family followed him. It took two nudges from Philippa and Prudence to motivate their stunned mother to move out of the room, Anthony following after them and closing the door behind him with a firm click.

A silence followed, less oppressive than before, and Penelope dared to look into Benedict’s blue-green irises. They had always reminded her of the ocean, changing color depending on his mood like the waves depending on the weather. In that moment, Benedict’s eyes were slightly apprehensive, a sea made dark by a cloudy sky unsure if a storm would break or not. Marina reached out tentatively and, without thinking, Penelope took her hand. It was the least she could do.

“Miss Thompson,” Lord Wetherby said softly. “I must be clear, Mister Bridgerton told me of your predicament. I swear upon my life and honor that I will never tell a soul, even if you reject my suit. In return, I shall tell you a secret of mine, why I have come to willingly ask for your hand. I would claim your child as my own, raise it as my own, and they would inherit everything I possess. You would have freedom to run the household as you like, do as you like, love who you like. I will not restrict you.”

“To offer such freedom, my lord, is tempting indeed,” Marina said cautiously, her eyes narrowed. “Your secret must be a grave one to offer it.”

Lord Wetherby’s smile turned sad, and Penelope’s heart actually broke for him.

“I am here to ensure, Miss Thompson, you will not tell a soul what you hear from Lord Wetherby, whether you marry him or not. It is quite literally a matter of life and death,” Benedict added.

Marina’s lips pursed and Penelope felt Marina squeeze her hand, her knuckles grinding together under the pressure. Penelope knew the question Marina wanted to ask without any words.

“He is not violent, Marina, I assure you,” Penelope said. “Are you, Lord Wetherby?”

“I could not so much as crush a spider, I am afraid,” Lord Wetherby replied. “No, I would never lay a hand on you, Miss Thompson. I will gladly swear to be struck down by Bridgerton here if that proves to be false.”

“It would be me you would have to worry about,” Marina sneered and Lord Wetherby actually chuckled.

“You can take care of yourself. Good. I admire that in a person.”

In two quick strides Lord Wetherby towered over Marina and Penelope in his wrinkle-free suit, lavender waistcoat and matching cravat perfectly fitted and in place.

“I am going to whisper in your ear, Miss Thompson. After that, make of it what you will.”

With that, the young lord leaned down, his full lips hovering near the shell of Marina’s ear. To anyone with no inside knowledge, it would truly appear like a secret between lovers. Penelope registered when Marina’s eyes widened, her eyebrows raised, and when she tilted her head closer to Lord Wetherby’s mouth. After a few moments, he withdrew, his expression incredibly vulnerable. It was humbling in a way, Penelope thought, to see a powerful lord exposed and at the mercy of a young woman.

Marina finally, slowly, took her hand from Penelope’s and pressed both of her palms to her belly.

“That must have been difficult to confess to me,” Marina said. “I am thankful for your courage and understanding. For Lord Wetherby, even if that was not the case, I could not bring myself to love a man again, I think.”

“As I could never bring myself to love you as more than a friend and life companion,” Lord Wetherby admitted. “But I do promise friendship, liberty for yourself, and safety for our child. I promise I would love your child as my own as long as I live, for it would be you granting me with a lifelong favor and gift I could only hope to receive.”

Penelope marveled at the scene in front of her, struck by an emotion unexpectedly powerful in its force. It was not romantic love, not the type Penelope used to dream about growing up whenever she read her fairytales or gazed upon Colin’s face. But this was, she realized, a different kind of love that could be planted, nurtured, and cared for. She remembered in the studies she had clung to growing up, always begging her governess for more long after Philippa and Prudence retired, that the Greeks had different types of love; eros was the most commonly known of course. A deep, sexual, romantic love. But this… Penelope was reminded of philia , an affectionate love, that of friendship. Like what Henry and Lucy had.

For the first time in days, perhaps weeks really, Penelope actually began to hope again. A yearning for proof that love really did exist in this faulty society of theirs.

Marina studied Lord Wetherby a bit longer, assessing him closely. Ever so slowly she nodded her assent.

“Then I accept your proposal, Lord Wetherby.”

It had all been a bit of a rush afterwards. Anthony and Penelope’s father had immediately been called back in to help draw up the contract. The solicitors of Lord Wetherby, Lord Bridgerton, and Lord Featherington were summoned to write and sign the contract before anyone could change their mind about the whole thing. Lord Wetherby left, gracefully kissing Marina’s knuckles as he bid farewell, saying he would ensure they retrieved a special license to marry by the end of the week.

Penelope stood in a fog for a bit, seeing and yet a little bewildered by the flurry of activity happening around her. Yet, all too quickly, someone called her name.


It was a whisper, deep and concerned. She craned her neck up to face Benedict, the lines at the side of his eyes creased deeply in concern, like the ravines of a river. Penelope blinked.

“Benedict,” she whispered back, her pupils darting around the room so as not to be overheard. Marina stood in the hallway, staring out at the space Lord Wetherby had just vacated as Lord Bridgerton and Penelope’s father discussed a few final points. “I do not know what to say, other than I do not believe I can ever repay this debt.”

Benedict hesitated, making sure no one was watching before he caressed her cheek, the round skin fitting perfectly in his rough palm.

“You were brave, to tell me the truth,” he said quietly. “You owe me nothing. You will never owe me anything, Nel. All I want is your trust. All I want is to help carry your burdens. Have I not proven capable?”

Penelope blushed but let her cheek rest in his hold. Benedict was always so fervent, so passionate in the words he said honestly that, sometimes, she was unsure of how to respond. It left her feeling raw in a way she was not accustomed to. She had never realized that such a close friendship with a man could feel so intense at times. If Eloise had spoken the same words, Penelope would have accepted them gladly, heart warm with little thought. But when something so honest and tender left Benedict’s lips, well… Lately she started to feel like her very skin was the sheerest of fabric, translucent, her entire self apparent.

“I have never had a friend quite like you,” she said truthfully. “But yes. You have more than proven yourself, though you did not have to.”

“I did not, but I wanted to.”

Frozen in time just for a moment, they were both startled when Anthony barked, “Benedict! We must depart!”

Benedict dropped his hand from her face as though she were made of fire. It felt more than true for how incredibly hot her skin burned. They both turned to see Anthony had already stepped out the door, clearly expecting Benedict to follow him. Benedict took a step back. His long legs put at least a foot between them.

“I will see you soon?” he asked.

Was that hope she heard in his voice?

“You will,” she said with a small smile. “And be quite sick of me I am sure.”

“Never,” he grinned, and then he was gone, hurrying after Anthony into the now bright, humid spring day.

Penelope stood still for a few moments, wondering idly if she could sneak off to bed, though she stood lost within a swirl of emotion she could not recognize.


Once again, Penelope was ripped from her reverie but this time it was Marina who faced her. They were both still wrapped in their robes and Penelope was starting to sweat uncomfortably under the warm fabric as the morning chill dissipated. As much as she wanted to beg off Marina’s attention, Penelope had a feeling this next conversation would be a turning point. Whether good or bad, she couldn’t say.

“He’s a good man,” Penelope blurted. Marina looked at her, her wrists primly crossed in front of her body as if she did not know how to wield them. “Lord Wetherby, I mean. I have met him through Mister Granville, he’s–” Penelope could feel the sweat beading in the valley between her breasts and resisted the urge to wipe it away. “I guess you know who he is.”

“I do now,” Marina said wryly. “I could never have foreseen such an outcome.” Marina squeezed then flexed her fingers, not able to keep completely still. “I guess you will have your chance with Colin now.”

Marina stated it plainly, as if it was simply fact. That did not stop the terrible pain that ripped through Penelope’s chest, as if a knife was physically tearing at the muscle within.

“You were right,” Penelope said before she could think better on it. “Colin’s feelings for me… I know you are probably right. Nothing but a sibling yet–” Penelope had never admitted it aloud, ever. But all she wanted in that moment was a singular moment of clarity between her and her cousin. “Though that does not ease my feelings for him, I fear.”

There, out in the open. It was true. Penelope did not know why, but even though Marina’s words had hurt Penelope terribly, Penelope’s love for Colin was still undimmed. She thought of him now, how he must be grieving over the loss of the woman he loved, the web of lies that had been spun around him, and it made her stomach churn.

“I am sorry,” Penelope bit her cheek, tasting copper on her tongue. “For what I said. I could have been more understanding.”

Marina sighed, inhaling deeply before taking Penelope’s hands in her own. They were linked together suddenly, like young children playing a game at the park. A pure, tethered connection.

“While I cannot apologize for taking the actions I needed to for myself and my child,” Marina said. “I am sorry for the hurtful words I said to you. I meant it, Pen. You have been my dearest friend in this house. I wish for us to remain so.”

Penelope’s guilt multiplied tenfold even as she felt warmed by Marina’s desire to maintain their friendship. Marina would still always be the bright, assertive girl who had befriended Penelope upon the moment she entered the house. That would always mean something to Penelope, a golden memory that could never be replaced.

“Pen, just because one man may not see you the way you want them to, does not mean that another will not,” Marina said with a small, coy smile.

Penelope co*cked her head in confusion, and she thought she must look like a magpie studying how it may best obtain a scrap of food.

“Marina, you know no one has come to call on me this season.”

Marina shrugged.

“I never said it was someone who has called upon you.”

Penelope huffed a little laugh, for the first time feeling the kind of ease she’d felt with her cousin mere weeks ago.

“Do not talk in riddles again, Marina. I now know babies are not made by eating cake!”

The two girls smiled, clasping each other's hands. For a few blissful minutes, all seemed right with the world.

Until Colin Bridgerton strode in, determined, as Briarly was barely able to announce him while the young man crossed the threshold. Instead of Penelope’s heart skipping its usual beat at the sight, it stuttered to a halt entirely. Lady Bridgerton stumbled in behind her third son, face ruddy and flyaway strands of chocolate brown hair escaping its usual chignon.

“Marina,” Colin sighed in relief at the sight of her, now standing so close that Penelope could smell his musky cologne. “You must tell me that my family is mistaken. What they say, it cannot be true.”

Marina had dropped one of Penelope’s hands as Colin talked. Colin reached for her but Marina drew it away.

“But it is,” Marina said, her chin raised high, no hint of shame in her voice.

“You are with child?” Colin’s voice began to tremble with disbelief and Penelope did not know what to do. She wanted to stand by Marina, help the young woman tell the truth that Colin needed to hear. But she wanted to embrace Colin too, take him in her arms and hold him until his shaking subsided. “I do not understand. We were to be wed. You… You said you loved me.”

Marina never stuttered, never faltered, and never let her shoulders slump as she met Colin’s gaze. The only signs of nervousness Marina betrayed was when her grip on Penelope’s hand tightened. Lady Bridgerton stood behind Colin, unsure of what to do, hovering between despair and pity.

“Colin, I hold you in the greatest esteem,” Marina said but Colin’s new anger burst forth,

“‘Esteem’? You are a cruel woman indeed to stand here and talk of friendly affection, as if you have not just committed a grave sin against me.”

“Colin, please,” Penelope tried, but Colin ignored her. It was as if she was mere air in the space beside Marina, clear nothingness. Penelope tried to understand, he was blinded by a broken heart.

“Speak not of sin, Mister Bridgerton. I did not come here to be shamed by you, nor anyone else,” Marina never once broke her powerful hold on Colin’s gaze. It was what Penelope had always admired about her, how she would endeavor to command a room until she was heard. “I did not know better. You may think me a villain, but I did what I thought I must. No one ever truly helped me, or guided me in a different direction. I had no choice. I needed to wed. And you, you were the only man who offered me even a glimpse of happiness.” Marina faltered slightly, clearly thinking about the life she could have led if her original plan had achieved fruition. “But your brothers have saved you, found me another man to marry. You should be satisfied you have a chance to start anew.”

Penelope winced. She could not help it. As much as she admired Marina, she had a way of speaking thorny truths when they should not always be shared. Ignorance was bliss, after all.

“So I should feel flattered, then? Consider myself lucky that you chose me, lied to me, tried to trick me into a fraud of a marriage?” Tears were now making their way down Colin’s handsome, boyish face and Penelope was once again seized with the urge to embrace him. He looked truly miserable. “I shall take my leave of you for the last time, Miss Thompson. You wish to know the cruelest part of your deception?” Colin’s eyes were rapidly becoming pink and irritated as he held back a sheen of furious tears. Penelope’s heart broke, soundly and surely in her chest. She felt torn in twain between her understanding and affection for Marina and her overwhelming love for the young man in front of her. “If you had simply come to me and told me of your situation… I’d have married you without a second thought. That is how in love I believed myself to be. But I see now that was all a lie.”

Marina’s face changed, as if someone had slapped her. Penelope imagined she looked much the same, for the first time, hated the fact that, for once, she had been right. The knowledge that Colin was not only good enough, but had also adored Marina enough to marry her despite the baby, if only she had told him the truth, tore a little corner of Penelope’s soul that had been more vital than she ever realized. Colin walked hurriedly out of the room, Lady Bridgerton shooting an apologetic look towards the girls before hurrying after them.

It was only then that Marina finally allowed herself to sob, sagging into Penelope’s tight embrace.

Dearest Gentle Reader,

In a surprising turn of events, the lovely Miss Thompson who had many suitors indeed twirling her across the luminous dance floor and braving the vicious harpy claws of Lady Featherington to call upon the spritely beauty, has become engaged. Again.

It had appeared that young Colin Bridgerton, third son of the late 8th Viscount Bridgerton, had captured her heart when he announced at a recent garden party the engagement between himself and Miss Thompson. However, it has come to This Author’s attention that sometimes there are greater forces than just the desire to marry and that even sometimes true love knows no bounds. It turns out that Miss Marina Thompson is no longer engaged to Mister Colin Bridgeton (so many sons to keep track of, it makes This Author exhausted) but to the virile, handsome Lord Wetherby.

It turns out that the thunderclouds surrounding Lord Anthony Bridgerton, his stern attitude, coupled with the enticement of love by an Earl rather than a third son, was the sort of heady co*cktail that would of course drive a young lady to choose the more secure option. It appeared that Miss Thompson truly cared for Mister Bridgerton, choosing him when Lord Wetherby had not made a move. But Lord Wetherby, upon hearing about the engagement and desperate to right his wrongs, confronted Miss Thompson on a cloudy evening in St. James’ Park merely a night ago. All could hear it within several paces, including This Author, a befuddled Lord Lumley, and a shocked Mister Benedict Bridgerton. The desperately in love Earl got on his knees and tearfully professed his love. Miss Thompson was further torn between the love offered by the kind, third Bridgerton son and the reciprocal passion she felt with the Earl.

You can guess, Dear Reader, who she chose.

For one, This Author cannot blame Miss Thompson for her actions. Did not the former Miss Bridgerton, now duch*ess of Hastings, follow her own heart and reject a Prince in favor of the Duke she loves? With this in mind, Dear Reader, we know this will hurt the young Mister Colin Bridgerton for some time. But he will bounce back and find purpose anew. Additionally, it must be a great relief for the Viscount Bridgerton to be free from shackling himself to the Featherington family forever, by all accounts he seemed to find the idea quite odious. But for a young lady, where the window to control one’s future is relatively short, Miss Thompson made the right call by listening to her instinct. Lord Wetherby will surely be a fine, adoring husband who can grant her protections and freedoms unmatched. But, in addition, Lord Wetherby’s public declaration and Miss Thompson’s relieved acceptance appeared to prove that love, one built on mutual trust, cannot be outmatched.

Trust me, Dear Reader, if there are any more developments surrounding this swirl of events, This Author will discover the truth.

Benedict frowned down at the column in his hand, pursing his lips. He sat cross legged in the garden, Penelope and Eloise seated on the swings, their toes gliding across the grass as they swayed in the breeze.

“Did I get something wrong?” Penelope asked, placing a short pointer finger on the top of the parchment and pushing down, as if trying to read upside down. “I know our little incident at the park did not have as many witnesses as I describe, but I think that was rather the point, no? People will simply want to pretend they were in the middle of such drama.”

Benedict grimaced slightly and shook his head. Their scheme had gone off without a hitch; Benedict had sent a hurried missive to Penelope mere hours after he had left the Featherington abode, realizing they would need some sort of performance for society so the engagement made sense. Preferably in a public enough place where Lady Whistledown could possibly hear and write about it. Benedict had even run the plan by Anthony, leaving Penelope’s involvement out secret, and his prickly brother had approved. With great haste, Benedict arranged to take a walk with Lord Wetherby in St. James’ Park, the Granvilles accompanying them. They just happened to run into Penelope and Miss Thompson with a lady’s maid, taking a rejuvenating stroll when Lord Wetherby fell to his knees to profess his undying love for Miss Thompson and how he could not bear to see her married to another. The absolute look of shock that graced Benedict’s face had been no act. Truly, if Lord Wetherby had not been born into nobility, he would have been made for the stage. Benedict also had the feeling that he was being kind in his own way, making a fool of himself to make Miss Thompson laugh. It nearly worked, for Miss Thompson’s little twitch of a smile appeared genuine, even though her eyes were still red and swollen. Even Penelope and the Granvilles had to work doubly hard not to ruin the charade with unrestrained giggles.

It had been a perfect plan, not too many people had been out but the affable and slightly dense Lord Lumley had been witness to the whole thing, along with a smattering of a few others. But Lord Lumley, ever the poet, would surely write sonnets in honor of the event at White’s that evening.

So, no, it was not that Benedict had taken an issue with.

“You say that my brother would never want us shackled to your family,” Benedict said slowly. “As if it would be a terrible fate.”

Penelope shared a glance with Eloise, both clearly understanding something he did not.

“Benedict, it would be a terrible fate,” Penelope insisted. “It’s already horrible enough for me. We are penniless, remember? That would have come to light soon enough when my parents decided to try and use the Bridgerton fortune to help them out of the hole Father has put us in. I have no doubt he may try it with Lord Wetherby. And, well… Quite simply, they are not exactly a joy to be around.”

Benedict thought of Lady Portia Featherington in all of her scheming and cruelties, as well as the Baron and his indifference, his utter callousness. No, they were not pleasant, that was true. Though, Benedict had to admit the Baron had surprised him today when he had, in his own way, stood up for Penelope. Benedict himself had felt indignation rise up like building pressure in his chest but before he had spoken, Penelope’s father had. According to Penelope’s own stunned face, her father’s defense on her behalf was not a normal occurrence.

Penelope’s own sisters were not great company either. Philippa seemed harmless enough if a little vapid, but Prudence desired to be a copy of her mother. The problem was, Prudence simply did not possess the intelligence Lady Featherington had in spades. It was a particular hardship for Benedict to admit that Penelope’s mother was cunning, but it was true. Lady Featherington had gotten Miss Thompson this far without discovery, after all.

But much to Benedict’s chagrin, he still did not like the implication that marrying into the Featherington family would be a death sentence. Though it could not be denied that if news of their destitution got out, marrying a Featherington daughter would not be high on any young lord’s list. It was with a start that Benedict realized the reason he did not care for the observation in the column was because of what it implied about Penelope, that it would be madness to marry any of the Featherington girls if it meant being associated with the family itself.

Benedict scowled. If any man was put off Penelope simply because of her family, they did not deserve her.

“I just do not like it,” Benedict groused stubbornly, causing Eloise to roll her eyes.

“It is a small comment compared to the many Penelope has thrown at herself this season, Brother. For now, it is more important to make sure Miss Thompson’s marriage to Lord Wetherby goes smoothly. Right, Pen?”

Penelope nodded at her best friend happily and Benedict could not help but pout. Penelope was wearing her plainest dress again, an unadorned dusty pink that actually did not overwhelm her pale skin or her flaming red hair. It always showed when Penelope was comfortable and Benedict found he wanted to give her as many chances as possible to feel like she belonged in her own skin.

“Fine,” Benedict said, standing up and brushing the dirt and debris that clung to his breeches before holding out his hand to Penelope. “Shall we announce an engagement, Lady Whistledown?”

Benedict had no idea why, but as soon as the words left his mouth, he felt heat flare up his chest, climb his neck, and light the tips of his ears. Lawks, he really could be a complete fool sometimes. It was moments like these where he wondered if he had crossed some invisible line with Penelope, one he could not step back over. Yet, he felt he was not fully across the border either. He straddled it, a state of limbo he did not fully understand.

But Penelope gave him one of those smiles; close-mouthed, the slightest upward curve, a promise to spill a thousand secrets in his ear, similar to how the lines and color of a painting recounted to him its story.

She put her hand, small and ink-stained, in his own.

“Let us set the ton ablaze… Again.”

Lord Wetherby had been true to his word and obtained a special license swiftly. A small wedding was set up in a smaller church. Unobtrusive, simple, and quiet. The only observers were the Featheringtons, Lord Wetherby’s frail mother and his two sisters, and Benedict as a friend and impartial witness. Though Benedict stood in the pews with Lord Wetherby’s family as the ceremony proceeded, the vicar droning on and on about the sins of carnal lust and the benefits of holy matrimony in the eyes of God, it was Penelope he wished he was standing next to. It was as her friend that he had come, even though Lord Wetherby had asked for his presence to witness the ceremony in case others of the ton asked.

Benedict had briefly wondered if the Granvilles would come but dismissed it. Henry may have been more than happy to help his lover secure a marriage that would protect him from the scrutinizing eyes of society and the law, but that did not mean he would want to be privy to their legal union. Benedict felt his heart go out to Henry. How much must it pain his mentor and friend, to love someone but never be able to acknowledge it in the light of day? To be committed in soul to one another, but by law to someone else?

Henry loved Lucy, Benedict could see that now. But not in the way he was in love with Lord Wetherby. To the jovial young lord’s part, he was doing his best to bring Miss Thompson cheer and comfort, and he thought the man might actually win the young woman over as a dear friend. But they would never be in love, it was impossible. Not just because Lord Wetherby’s love and inclinations leaned the opposite direction, but because Miss Thompson’s heart still belonged to another man even though it seemed to frustrate her.

The ceremony finally ended and the families surrounded the now Lord and Lady Wetherby, Miss Thompson solemnly pretty in a mauve gown, trimmed with embroidered roses along the cap sleeves, waist, and the hem. Lord Wetherby himself was handsome in black with an ivory waistcoat and cravat. His two sisters chatted happily with him, his mother’s weathered face sincere as she engaged the new lady of the house in quiet conversation. It was for the best, for her to be married into a family that accepted without too many questions. It helped when your husband was the head of the house.

Penelope snuck to his side, as quiet as a church mouse. But he felt her next to him all the same, her short body radiating heat by his side. She wore her family’s customary yellow, this particular shade though was pale almost white like a lemon ice. Dainty daisies lined where the waist fell and it honestly was…pretty. Benedict wondered if Genevieve was working her magic, taking a more tender approach when she could with her new young friend’s wardrobe. It warmed his heart. The ember flames of Penelope’s hair curled softly around her shoulders, her blue eyes as clear as the sky outside that day. He took it as a good omen, he had to. There was no other option.

“I can barely believe it,” Benedict said softly, his eyes trailing the movements of the small crowd of people in front of them. “Did we really pull this off?”

“It appears that way,” Penelope said, her tone one of utter disbelief. “Our families have escaped relatively unscathed. Colin being spurned is much easier to come back from than an elopement.” She hesitated for a moment, biting her lip and Benedict moved his left hand to grip his right, keeping them in place. “How is he?”

Benedict stared at the stone ceiling.

“Upset still. Embarrassed, I think, for being duped. But Daphne’s arrival yesterday has helped him.” He did not mention how Daphne had barged in, fierce in her desire to comfort her favorite brother, yes. But there had been something new to her eyes, the way she held herself. She knew something now, something of the world that put weight on her shoulders and made the positive girl he had once known into a weary, cautious woman. It cracked something inside him, made him feel like he had failed in some way.

At least in this, he had succeeded.

Penelope nodded, fidgeting with her pale skirt.

“I am glad to hear it.”

“Seems we have you and Eloise to thank for it. Daph said she received your letters practically back to back.”

Penelope blushed furiously, biting her lip again and Benedict clenched his jaw, tightening his hold on his right wrist.

“I had no idea El and I had the same idea.”

“The two of you are best friends for a reason. Sometimes I think Eloise would trade all seven of us siblings if she could have you as her sister.”

“I do not know about that,” Penelope giggled. “But I would gladly trade my entire family to have El as my sister.”

“I would trade six out of seven siblings for you,” Benedict joked, though for some reason he could not discern his throat constricted and it came out a little bit broken. “I know you would not agree if Eloise was not a part of the deal.”

“You would trade six siblings so I could be your sister?” Penelope asked lightly. “Strong statement.”

“No,” Benedict said without thinking though he found it to be true. “No. Not as my sister. Just as you are.”

He was unsure as to where the mysterious truth had come from; somewhere deep, dark, hidden and unwilling to be discovered just yet.

Penelope’s face shot him a startled look, her cupid’s bow lips parted slightly but their conversation was disrupted when Lord Wetherby and his new bride approached them.

“Bridgerton, I am so glad you made it,” Lord Wetherby said, his smile wide and actually genuine. Wetherby kept surprising Benedict, that was for sure. He was ashamed to admit that he had briefly villainized the man after he had found out his connection with Henry and yet was courting various women. All Benedict could think about was what he would do if Lord Wetherby had been courting one of his own sisters; he had tried to court Daphne early in the season. With a rush of guilt Benedict knew he would not have allowed any of his sisters to marry Lord Wetherby, for a Bridgerton was a romantic to the very marrow of their bones.

But he saw now that Lord Wetherby was a good man, dedicated to the well-being of his own mother and sisters, the estate he was forever tied to. He was a man who knew how to treat a woman well, even if he could never fall in love with one.

“Would never dream of missing it,” Benedict said, sharing a mischievous look with Penelope. He felt a pair of eyes on him and he glanced up to meet Lady Marina Wetherby’s curious, shrewd gaze. Was she assessing him? Labeling him friend or foe? She had every right to hate him, it was him who had arranged this whole affair.

But there was no malice behind her dark brown irises, simply what appeared to be understanding.

She stepped towards Penelope to embrace her and Benedict was glad to see Penelope actually return the hug.

“Once my pregnancy is over, you must come to visit,” Lady Wetherby said, pressing her light brown cheek against Penelope’s pale one. Benedict had the thought that they appeared more as sisters than Penelope with Prudence or Philippa. “My dearest friend will always be welcome in my home.”

Penelope’s eyes shimmered and she blinked rapidly as she said, “Of course I will visit, for I shall miss you terribly.”

Benedict felt she truly meant it, and he saw that Lord Wetherby was observing the two with a tenderness that Benedict recognized immediately: that of a man who had sisters he adored. Benedict fervently wished he had become acquainted with Lord Wetherby earlier, he had a feeling they had more in common than previously thought.

“Any friend of the Granvilles and of my now dear wife is a friend of mine,” Lord Wetherby said. “You may visit any time whether at our country estate or Wetherby House in London. Call upon us if you need any favor.” He rose his warm hazel eyes to meet Benedict’s own, the green ring around his pupils bright against the brown. “That goes for you as well, Bridgerton.”

Benedict nodded, a little bashful.

“Will the pair of you stay in London awhile?”

Lady Wetherby turned up her face to her new husband and he shrugged good-naturedly at her, indicating that she was free to speak. Benedict had a feeling Lord Wetherby would have no problem letting his wife do most of the talking if that was what she wished.

“We are going to retreat to Andrew’s country estate until a few months after the child is born,” she said. “That way my child will be old enough that no one can readily dispute the time period of my pregnancy.”

Our child,” Lord Wetherby said gently. “I have sworn I shall love the child as my own. I meant it and I plan to start now.”

Lady Wetherby actually granted him what must have been the first genuine smile Benedict had ever seen on her and he thanked the heavens that Penelope had gathered the courage to tell him the truth. He had no doubt that Marina Wetherby née Thompson would have been miserable with his brother, what with such lies between them.

Benedict settled onto the stool with a sigh of release, a great weight finally lifting from his shoulders. The wedding was over, the small wedding breakfast done with, and Lord and Lady Wetherby were off and headed to his estate in West Yorkshire. Henry chuckled beside him in front of his own easel and offered Benedict his smoking cigarillo. He took it gratefully, pulling a long drag until he felt the lovely burn in his lungs before he released the smoke into the air.

It was just them and a smattering of others. That day’s practice was a still life of a vase of beautiful flowers; maidenhead fern, white poppies, and acacia blossom. It was a strange arrangement, and if Benedict knew the language of flowers better, he might understand the meaning. He had a suspicion though.

“Do you miss him?” Benedict asked before he could think better of it.

Henry, eternally patient with him it seemed, hummed softly as he sketched the delicate shape of the acacia blossoms, reminding Benedict of the pictures he had seen of a pair of lungs in an anatomy book.

“Of course,” Henry replied. “I miss him terribly whenever he is not near. But I trust him and I even trust Marina. They both hold each other’s secrets, secrets that could literally be life or death for the pair of them. I have no doubt they will take it to their graves.”

“It still must hurt,” Benedict observed, pausing in his shading of the vase, the thumb he had used to smear the graphite slowly dragging down the page.

Henry continued drawing even as he met Benedict’s stare for a brief moment, wistful and a little forlorn.

“It does, even though it is the safest option for everyone. Oceans apart, remember?” Henry placed his graphite down on the ledge of his easel with a soft clack before beginning to roll up his shirt sleeves. “At least you only have a river to leap across. Once you pull your head out of your arse.”

Benedict whipped his head so hard he thought he heard his neck crack with the force.

“And what in the blazes do you mean by that?”

Henry chuckled, stealing back the cigarillo hanging from Benedict’s lips and placing it in his own mouth.

“Nothing at all, Bridgerton.”

“Now that one catastrophe has been avoided,” Eloise said airily while Penelope sipped her tea. “What shall we do about your father’s idiocy?”

Penelope snorted into her cup, a spray of black tea with a dash of cream erupting and spurting up her nose. Leave it to Eloise to state things so plainly, in ways that most others would consider crass. While at times the words that came out of Eloise’s mouth could seem cruel in their candor, Penelope did appreciate it. She understood Eloise, how fervently her dearest friend despised the glittering masks of flattery and false sincerity the rest of society dons. Eloise’s blunt ways were her rebellion, her armor. She wouldn’t be Eloise otherwise.

“I fear I cannot think of much,” Penelope dabbed at her mouth with a spare handkerchief, clean but fraying at the edges. “Except to continue to hide the money I earn as Whistledown for emergencies.”

They were alone in the drawing room. It was oddly quiet without the rest of the family, but apparently most of the Bridgertons had been forced on a promenade by Lady Bridgerton. The formidable Dowager had insisted the family needed to prove they were recovering after Colin’s rejection by Marina. Public image was incredibly important, and Lord help anyone who stood in Violet Bridgerton’s way. Eloise gleefully recounted to Penelope how the entire family had moaned and groaned at the proclamation, save Eloise herself, who had the perfect excuse to stay home in the form of her best friend visiting for tea. Benedict had apparently stuck his tongue out at Eloise as she cackled in victory, and Penelope had to admit that would have been hilarious to witness.

“When certain women in our society cannot even open their own accounts at the bank, I guess there is no other option.” Eloise snorted, crossing her arms as she slouched in her chair, her dress rucking up to bunch at her hips, her hem now halfway up her calves. Penelope thought it would be quite the scene for Benedict to paint: Eloise righteously indignant. Penelope thought that Eloise could cross the goddess Athena in a battle of wits or might and win – At least in a couple of years.

Before Penelope could respond, they were interrupted by the soft swing of the door and Daphne glided in, full of poise and grace. The image was instantly ruined when the duch*ess frowned at the near empty drawing room.

“Where is everyone?”

Penelope held back a giggle in favor of a polite smile while Eloise answered,

“On a promenade to demonstrate that Colin is healed and ready to be thrown into the lion’s den again. Mama insisted.”

It surprised Penelope to see Daphne actually roll her eyes at that. If Eloise’s face was any indication, it surprised Penelope’s best friend as well.

“Of course,” Daphne muttered. “We must all maintain an image, mustn’t we?”

Eloise furrowed her brows as Daphne grabbed a spare chair from beside the settee on the left side of the room and dragged it to the table by the window where Penelope and Eloise sat. Curiouser and curiouser. In Penelope’s experience, Daphne always acted poised, collected, and… Well, perfect . It was one of the reasons, during Eloise’s darker moments, she would confess to Penelope that she resented Daphne at times. How could one live up to such perfection, when Eloise was so utterly human? Penelope could empathize, even she could feel jealousy intertwined with her admiration for the eldest Bridgerton daughter at times.

But it seemed Daphne was tired of that image, of constantly maintaining perfection. At least, in that moment.

“Sister,” Eloise edged cautiously. “Are you alright?”

If Eloise was concerned enough to actually ask her older sister how she was fairing, then Penelope knew for certain that Daphne was acting unusual.

Daphne closed her eyes for a brief moment, cradling the right side of her head in one dainty hand.

“I am afraid, Eloise, that I have become exhausted by the fabric of pretense Mama has insisted on weaving for each of us before thrusting it upon our shoulders, expecting us to maintain it for years without the proper guidance.”

The response did not assuage Penelope’s or Eloise’s concern, and Eloise opened her mouth to say something but Daphne clearly was not willing to continue along that vein of thought.

“I still have not thanked the two of you for writing to me of Colin’s plight. I appreciate it greatly that you both sought to tell me the truth so I could help our brother.”

Penelope merely nodded, but Eloise actually flushed slightly, looking as if she did not know what to do with the praise from her sister. So Penelope hurried to fill any silence that may crop up.

“How is Colin? I have not seen him since the day he confronted Marina.”

Daphne sighed, turning her sharp blue gaze on Penelope. She lifted her pink lips in a weary smile.

“He is better. Heartbroken, of that there is no doubt. But it is better that it was broken now, for it would have been much worse if it had occurred after being trapped in marriage to a woman he did not truly know.”

Daphne’s gaze suddenly appeared unfocused, as if she was not truly looking at Penelope any longer, but at something far away. The expression was troubling, possibly even disturbing. So Penelope decided to ask a potentially impertinent question but one that had been weighing on her mind,

“Your Grace, would you happen to have connections to the military?”

Daphne’s eyes snapped back to attention and she straightened, tilting her head curiously. She took a moment to smooth her lavender skirts, her strawberry blonde hair only slightly mussed from where she had grasped her head.

“Penelope, we have known each other too long. You must still call me Daphne in private,” Daphne said. “My husband might. To be honest I am unsure. Why do you ask?”

Penelope shared a look with Eloise. They had both been wondering the same thing, discussing if they should try and ask Benedict or Anthony to help with their inquiry. But Daphne had a more subtle touch, which was what the situation required.

“Even though Marina is now married, I know Sir George Crane’s fate being unknown weighs heavily upon her. That chapter of her life will never be closed if she does not know why he stopped writing to her,” Penelope admitted, even as Daphne narrowed her eyes.

“Marina was wronged as well, Daph,” Eloise interjected. “A man had marital relations with her, then left her to reap the consequences when he went off to fight in Spain. Surely she deserves an answer.”

That far away look took over Daphne’s face again, distant and almost cold. It sent a shiver up Penelope’s spine. What had happened to her?

“I am sure I could unearth information,” she admitted. “I will inquire from various sources. Maybe at the Queen’s luncheon. I am sure there may be an officer’s wife or some sort from whom I can gain information.”

“Maybe we should also check Debrett’s. If he’s titled, surely the family may be listed there. It could narrow down the search,” Penelope suggested.

Daphne nodded before idly taking a butter biscuit from the tea tray, though she did not raise it to her lips. She stared out the window, looking as if she had given up. It reminded Penelope of her namesake, the Penelope of legend, looking out to sea waiting for a husband that she now barely knew to return to the turmoil trying to upheave the world around her. That unsettled Penelope more than she wanted to admit.

Penelope was somehow shocked that the Featheringtons were allowed into the Queen’s luncheon with little fanfare. The whirlwind that had been Colin’s engagement to Marina, the breaking of that engagement for a quick wedding to Lord Wetherby, and the return of the Duke and duch*ess of Hastings had somehow only happened over the span of a few days.

Standing in a corner with Benedict and Eloise, the gray light of the cloudy day doing little to warm them, Penelope tried to at least casually admire the many flowers kept in bloom amongst the Queen’s well-manicured hedges. The garden was much like a maze, but instead of deadly minotaurs or riddling sphinxes, one would come upon a row of exotic cherry blossoms or elegant stone statues. Penelope picked at a frayed edge of the hideous older rose pink dress her mother had forced her to wear, but at least her curls were relaxed and simply pinned back on her head. She really did owe Benedict a boon for inadvertently convincing her mother to relax her hair style. Penelope often felt that without the tight curls fixed atop her head, she could think more clearly. At the very least, her head ached less.

Penelope turned to her two friends, as they waited for the Queen to appear. They were both dressed in blue, Eloise in bright, calming blue like a robin’s egg while Benedict was favoring a turquoise velvet coat that day with a matching satin cravat. Finishing off the look with his gold waistcoat he appeared for all to see like a proud peaco*ck strutting about the yard. Penelope released a giggle at the thought.

Right on cue, both siblings turned their curious blue eyes towards her, brown eyebrows arching so perfectly in-sync that Penelope actually guffawed.

“Pray tell, Pen, what do you find so terribly amusing?” Eloise asked, the quirk of her lips curving into a grin.

“Yes, Nel, tell us truly what you think of us. I daresay unless you are laughing at the ridiculousness of Miss Cowper’s hair, then it can only be us you would dare make fun of.” Benedict paused for a beat, blue-green eyes darting around the space before settling on her again. “It is good to hear you laugh.”

Penelope almost blushed. Almost. There was no reason to, Benedict was her friend. It amazed her still, how he’d evolved over the many weeks since the beginning of the season. His role in her life had transformed: best friend’s brother, protector, mentor, and friend. It was a marvel that her prickly indignation that she had treated him with at the beginning when he had caught her in Bloomsbury, so far from the shy persona that took over her countenance at society gatherings, had endeared her to him. Eloise, obviously, adored Penelope’s intelligence but it had been Benedict who had unlocked the hidden box that housed Penelope’s honesty. Throughout her life, she had become so used to masking her true thoughts and feelings; she had learned early on that her mother did not appreciate it.

Marina was not the only one to have suffered a bruised cheek from her mother’s hands.

So Penelope drew on a careful mask. The mask was not completely false, she was shy and not at all confident due to her upbringing, that much was true. But even at times with Eloise, she found herself hiding her bluntness or the sharpest edges of her wit. With Benedict, there had been no time to think before she acted in her best interest, exposing the raw core of herself that barely saw the light of day.

This allowed her to open up even more around Eloise, share more of the truth of things. And together, the Bridgerton siblings honed what was rough and jagged inside her, smoothing the edges until she began to find her natural shape.

Penelope shook herself out of her reverie when she noticed Eloise and Benedict’s eyes on her. She had stayed silent for too long. So Penelope made a show of huffing, giving them a small smile before flicking a long strand of fiery hair over her shoulder.

“If you must know, I was thinking on how Benedict greatly resembles a peaco*ck today. If he’s not careful, the Queen will make him a part of her famed menagerie.”

Eloise let out a burst of gut-busting laughter, turning several heads in their direction. Benedict fought back a grin, crossing his arms as he tried to appear insulted. He failed miserably though and, with another quick look around, he tweaked her nose.

“I dare you to write that in your next column,” he smirked. “I will cut it out and put it beside my bed to remind myself of how best to amuse you.”

Penelope…did not know what to make of that. Before she could even respond, the Queen entered, her immaculate white wig a near beacon amongst the green foliage of the garden. She was resplendent and haughty in shades of purple and white that day and she quickly approached the Duke and duch*ess of Hastings. Penelope tilted her head, letting her pupils roam the garden. The Cowpers were, as usual, clearly strategizing what young bachelor to throw Cressida at next. Penelope’s own mother had been attempting to talk to Lady Bridgerton, though the Dowager Viscountess was quite efficiently shutting her neighbor out with a more frigid demeanor than the fabled Snow Queen. Colin was off to the side as well, having what looked like a stilted conversation with a few other gentlemen. He looked eerily silent and it made Penelope’s heart twinge. It felt unnatural for Colin to be anything other than the happy-go-lucky man with a sunny disposition. Though, Penelope wondered, was that unfair of her to expect? Lady Danbury shadowed the Queen, clearly aiming to talk to the Duke and duch*ess next, while the Granvilles mingled with other guests.

Penelope desperately wanted to steer their little group to converse with the Granvilles. She had grown to feel quite comfortable in their company and she knew Benedict did as well. It was freeing, to shed the outer layers they built for themselves just to deal with society. Penelope knew if Eloise got to know them, she would feel the same way. And besides, Penelope already had begun scheming on how she could convince Benedict to allow Eloise to attend Lucy’s lady soirees next year when Eloise was officially out in society. It would be a tough sell; Penelope was one thing, but Eloise was Benedict’s little sister and his favorite at that. Penelope figured she could draft a mental battle plan over the summer and start trying to convince Benedict over the autumn months when everyone returned to London for Parliament.

Penelope sighed.

“I am afraid duty calls. As much as I favor talking to the two of you all day, if I did, I would be neglecting my job.”

Eloise had another silent conversion with her brother before turning to Penelope again.

“Shall we be seeing you tonight?”

“I need to publish something tomorrow, even if it is a column declaring I have nothing of note to say.” Penelope waved her hand airily. “Unless I hear anything of note at this luncheon. But it seems the only true scandal is the one I cannot write about.”

They all shared a knowing look then, though it was no longer as grave a matter as it had been a mere few days ago. It was with an odd sense of accomplishment now.

The three of them went their separate ways. She saw Benedict wander over to the Granvilles, while Eloise quickly got swept up by Brimsley, the Queen’s right hand man, and Penelope frowned. More about Whilstledown, probably. She would have to ask Eloise later.

But it was a conversation between the Cowpers that made Penelope’s ears prick.

“I wonder what Lady Featherington has done to offend Lady Bridgerton?” Lady Cowper asked her daughter, disdain lacing her otherwise sweet tones.

“Does it matter, Mama? The Featheringtons are an embarrassment, the lot of them. With Miss Thompson’s sudden marriage to Lord Wetherby, I would not be surprised if the girl was a lightskirt who had seduced the poor man!”

Anger and embarrassment heated Penelope’s cheeks. How dare the Cowpers judge Marina, judge any of them when baseless manipulation tactics were not beyond them as well? Penelope’s voice stuck in her throat, wanting to say something but too afraid to do it. Penelope knew she could be a coward at times, especially when it came to Cressida but this was a new low. Hot shame flooded her veins until she heard the clipped voice of Daphne snapping at the women,

“What exactly are you insinuating, Miss Cowper?” Daphne turned, the material of her dress the color of violent storm clouds ready to dispel their fury on those below. “You forget an important tenant to live by: Judging not, lest we too be judged. You could learn much from such a lesson, Miss Cowper.”

With that, Daphne stalked off into the garden, weaving her way until she disappeared amongst the hedges. Penelope took a step forward and was surprised to find the Duke of Hastings had turned his eyes to her, as if he had been aware of her presence the entire time. He studied her for a moment, like a hunter who could not quite decide if their quarry was to be shot or released. But he shook his head, making a small motion with his hand as if to say, “After her, then.”

Penelope did not need to think very hard on it. As discreetly as possible, she hurried off on her slippered feet across the gravel and grass, following Daphne’s trodden path. She twisted and turned until she heard voices. Lawks, how did Penelope always find herself in these situations? Well, she knew. Because Penelope snooped. But truly, it appeared every time she followed Daphne out of a desire to help in some way, she ended up eavesdropping on a dreadfully fraught conversation instead.

Benedict and Eloise would probably find it funny, if it were not for the fact it was always their sister she listened in on.

Penelope peered beyond the edge of the hedge. Daphne and Lady Bridgerton stood in front of a statue of Athena, situated before a wall climbing with blooming, purple wisteria. It was as if Lady Bridgerton had interrupted her daughter as she made a plea to the goddess of wisdom, a supplicant seeking answers.

“Do you know what might have truly helped matters?” Daphne snapped, clearly in the middle of berating her mother for something. “If your motherly advice had actually prepared me to wed.”

Penelope watched as Lady Bridgerton’s face appeared stunned, as if her own daughter had slapped her.

“Whatever do you mean?”

“I mean you sent me out into the world no better than a fool. You taught me how to play pretend, but nothing of the realities of married life, of marital relations.”

Daphne was full of pent up fury, Penelope saw it clear as day. That bitterness that had seeped from the very pores of her skin like a festering wound at tea the other day was now on full display. Penelope gasped quietly when she felt a tap on her shoulder and saw Lady Danbury had snuck up on her, regal as always with her cane and top hat. But there was a resigned understanding to her eyes as she shook her head at Penelope, silently urging her to go. Penelope dashed off, but not before hearing Daphne’s parting shot.

“If you had informed me about the things that were truly important, if I’d have known the truth, then perhaps I–”

Penelope approached the noise of the luncheon party again and slowed her steps in the grass, trying to catch her breath. Had Daphne worried something horribly wrong had gone on during marital relations? Penelope flushed slightly and took several deep breaths. What filled Daphne up with so much anger and despair that it filled every room she walked into? Oh, she was a good actress in front of the ton. But amongst those who knew her, women who knew her…it was the clear sign of a woman whose worldview had been upset by a man.

Biting her lip she stepped back into the more crowded space. Did she tell Benedict and Eloise what she overheard? She quickly dismissed the thought. No, she could not tell them exactly. But she could encourage them to talk with their sister, just as Daphne had been encouraged to talk to Colin. It was clear the eldest Bridgerton daughter needed someone, and unfortunately that someone was not going to be Lady Bridgerton right then.

Penelope was not watching where she was going when a pair of lithe hands stopped her.

“Miss Penelope.” Penelope turned to see Lucy’s smiling face, her dark hooded eyes twinkling at her. It was a little strange, to hear the formality of Miss on her lips, but they were in public amongst many others who would be bewildered to see too much familiarity between them. It was a comfort, though, for her friend to seek her out in public.

“Missus Granville,” Penelope said, a weight in her chest easing. “I am so pleased to see you.”

“And I you,” Lucy said gently. “I wanted to invite you to another soiree of mine next week. It is the same day as the Hastings Ball, though early in the afternoon. I have none planned this week, as Lady Danbury’s own late night soiree for married ladies and widows is scheduled. And she rivals even me in terms of hedonism.”

Lucy laughed, that magpie-like sound echoing, gravelly but pleasant. Penelope could not help but think that Lucy was a woman of the very earth itself, free to spread her reach far and wide due to her privileged marriage. Lady Danbury was much the same in her widowhood and, now that Penelope thought about it, Genevieve was in her business enterprise, tied down to not one person. Maybe that was what Benedict liked, admired, even loved about these women: Their willingness to take the proverbial bull by the horns and steer it in the direction that they so pleased.

She blinked before giving Lucy one of her small, closed-mouth smiles.

“Of course, Missus Granville. I would love to.”

Lucy’s pupils widened slightly, her irises nearly as dark. She hovered her fingers over Penelope’s forearm before stroking it lightly, gently.

“Do not be quick to give that smile to just anyone,” Lucy murmured. “Not until the right moment. He will get jealous before he even knows what it means.”

The gentle wind was warm despite the clouds overhead, making the air hefty with the scent of damp earth and flowers. The heady scent fogged Penelope’s brain a bit, doubling her confusion. But as she parted her mouth to ask what Lucy meant, three things happened at once: Lucy left on swift, soundless feet back to where her husband stood with a drink in hand a few feet away, Benedict strode over from that spot with an intent look upon his face, and Eloise barreled into Penelope’s side.



They bracketed her now, and Penelope looked from one to the other. Benedict’s hands flexed and twitched by his side, his gaze at the forearm Lucy had caressed. But Eloise clasped her arm so tightly Penelope was afraid it would bruise. There was an urgency, a fear in her eyes that made Penelope forget about Benedict’s odd stare or Daphne’s fight with her mother.

“Pen,” Eloise whispered. “It is the Queen.”

Benedict had been having a rather nice conversation with Henry when Lucy wandered over to Penelope. It did not so much as surprise Benedict, now knowing that Penelope had made fast friends with the Granvilles, Genevieve, and their other acquaintances. It was freeing actually, to share such an experience with another person who felt as trapped in this buttoned-up society as he did. He knew Eloise did as well, of course, but Penelope was not his sister. While he had sworn to look after Penelope, she still managed to carve her own way amongst some of the artists and working class. Hell, she worked directly with them. In a way, it was an extreme comfort, to share part of that experience and company with someone he did not have to tutor from the ground up. Benedict was also just happy that Penelope had friends who weren’t Bridgertons.

But as Benedict solidified plans to come to Henry’s for another drawing lesson (Benedict suspected Henry was a tad lonely for company with Lord Wetherby on his honeymoon. While Lucy was his constant companion, Henry also appreciated that he and his wife had social lives outside of each other.) when Benedict saw it from the corner of his eye; Penelope’s smile. The closed-mouth one, the one that carried all of her secrets that, until this moment, he had not realized he wanted so desperately to one day discover.

And she was aiming it at Lucy.

He could not see Lucy’s face, but her light, nimble fingers traced Penelope’s forearm and Benedict remembered how Lucy’s fingers had felt against his own skin. The sudden thought that the sort of touch Lucy was directing at Penelope could be of a similar nature…

“Rein in your green-eyed monster, Bridgerton.”

Benedict snapped his head back to Henry who seemed to be leveling him with a pitying gaze.


Henry sighed, running a nimble hand through his perfectly styled dark-blonde waves.

“You are going to be one of those.” Henry chuckled at some joke Benedict was not privy to. “It is going to strike you like lightning, and you will be f*cking paralyzed.”

But Benedict barely had time to reel from the comment, unsure what it meant, when he saw Lucy begin to walk away from Penelope. The short redhead’s expression was nothing short of surprised. Benedict’s legs moved of their own accord and, before he knew it, he was at Penelope’s side just as Eloise practically tackled her.

Benedict hardly registered Eloise’s panic until she had said,

“It is the Queen.”

That was enough to knock sense back into Benedict’s head, his mind leap-frogging from possibility to possibility.

Eloise opened her mouth again to elaborate but Benedict hissed, “Not here.”

Not here, in front of so many people.

“She needs to know now ,” Eloise insisted, tugging Penelope’s arm.

“Come on,” Penelope whispered and, with as much poise as she could muster, led them amongst the hedges to an alcove garden with a statue of Athena and wisteria flowers climbing the wall.

Penelope and Benedict whirled on Eloise then.

“What happened?”

With that, Eloise relayed how Brimsley had led her to the Queen so she could check on Eloise’s progress hunting Lady Whistledown. When Eloise had fumbled for an adequate response, Queen Charlotte had urged her to look faster, that her patience was wearing thin.

“I am running out of excuses to give her,” Eloise moaned. “I do not know how to lead her astray without blaming someone innocent.”

Penelope chewed her bottom lip again. Instinctively, Benedict used his thumb to pry her pink lower lip from between her teeth. He tried to ignore how he felt the muscles in her face slacken as he did so, softening as he tugged upon the tender flesh.

“Maybe tonight,” Benedict started a little cautiously. “You deliver what you said you may deliver. A column reporting on nothing.”

“Nothing?” Penelope asked blankly.

Benedict noticed how his thumb lingered upon her soft skin a beat too long and he quickly clasped his hands behind his back.

“Nothing,” Benedict repeated. “You said so yourself that there is little of note being said. Maybe by reporting that there is nothing of import happening, the Queen may get bored and lose interest.”

Eloise snapped her fingers, practically bouncing down on the balls of her feet.

“I think,” Penelope said, leveling the siblings with a determined stare. “You may be right.”

Benedict eased slightly though the knot that had formed in his gut would not completely untangle itself. Part of him wanted to say something, to argue that Penelope should quit Whistledown for a while, until the Queen was distracted. But he knew Penelope would scoff at the idea, if not slap him for the insult. She had proven early to him that her stubbornness rivaled even that of Eloise’s. Besides, he could now not bear the thought of smothering her ambition.

“Put the flowers in your window when you are ready to meet us within an hour,” Benedict said. “I will keep watch for it.

Benedict desperately hoped he could watch out for Penelope as well.

Dearest Reader, a question.

Is anything more exhilarating than taking a gamble?

For it is often the highest risk that carries the greatest reward. Yet, wager wrongly, and you might find yourself left with nothing but regret. Of course, one can never know for sure whether a wager will make a fortune or ruin it, unless one chooses a more secure pursuit. But as the season continues, the biggest gamblers have yet to truly show their hand…which leaves gossip in short supply in recent days. In fact, This Author can think of no other event that merits a mention.

After the publication of the column with nothing to report, the days seemed to grow dry in terms of gossip if not weather. While the air was sticky and humid, the ton seemed to agree that in the final days of the social season they would pull together to behave, at least in public.

So Penelope sat, stupefied out of her wits on the sofa by the window, her only entertainment the now familiar tome of Robert Burns’ poetry in her hands, when Briarly’s announcement of a visitor perforated the dull silence:

“Sir Phillip Crane!”

Penelope dropped her book, the pages falling open with a flutter to the floor, louder than it had any right to be. The entire room stilled, frozen in some sort of paralytic state that sucked the very air from the space. Penelope’s mother had been on the opposite sofa, worrying over the fact that the girls would have to reuse dresses for the remaining events of the season, much to Penelope’s boredom. But now Penelope’s mother was openly gaping as a young man stepped in with brown hair, deep blue eyes, and an impossibly tender, sorrowful countenance. Even Prudence and Philippa appeared to grasp the gravity of the situation, shifting uncomfortably with their embroidery next to their mother.

It was Penelope and her mother who recovered their wits first, standing up to curtsy while Prudence and Philippa followed a step behind. Penelope had heard from Eloise that Daphne had used the information she had acquired from Debrett’s and cross-referenced that information with a woman at Lady Danbury’s soiree. But it was bewildering, an utter shock that the letter must have reached the Crane estate so quickly, so that now someone who must have news about Sir George was there–


But Briarly had called their guest Sir Phillip Crane…

An ominous dread made Penelope’s entire body break out in a cold sweat. No. it could not be–

“Please pardon my intrusion,” Sir Phillip said, his voice heavy with some sort of horrible weight. “But I received notice that, uh, Miss Thompson may want to know news of my brother, George. I just found out they had been carrying on a correspondence, and that Miss Thompson was–” Sir Phillip hesitated, rocking on his heels with his hands clasped behind his back. “Compromised by my brother.”

Penelope glanced quickly at her mother to see her brain already cycling through various scenarios faster than a runaway carriage. Marina was now married and out of the house, it was safe to say that Portia had finally shed the worry that had hung like a proverbial noose around her neck, at least when it came to Marina’s pregnancy. But to admit to Sir Phillip Crane that they had known? And had married her off to another?

“O-oh dear!” Penelope’s mother cried, and Penelope already knew what her mother was going to do: lie through her teeth. “Sir Crane, we had no idea! If we had known, we would have accommodated her better. As of a week and a half ago, Miss Thompson is now Lady Wetherby.” She bit her cheek. A habit Penelope had learned from her. “H-how came you by this information?”

It was now Sir Phillip’s turn to hollow out his cheeks in worry, and Penelope wondered what he would say.

“My brother…died on the battlefield in Spain. When his belongings were returned, I found his letters with Miss– I mean, Lady Wetherby.”

Portia’s shoulders relaxed a little, imperceptible to anyone who did not know her well.

“I see… I am terribly sorry for your loss.”

Penelope bowed her head to indicate her own sympathies. And daringly, oh so daringly for Penelope, she asked,

“Mama, Sir Phillip has surely traveled a long way. Might we ask him to stay for tea at least?”

Penelope expected the sharp look shot at her but inwardly crowed in victory when her mother agreed and rang for tea service. Lady Portia Featherington was many things, but she would adhere to social niceties when the situation called upon it.

When the tea service was brought up and everyone was settled with their sandwiches and saucers, Penelope sat at the edge of her seat. She studied Sir Phillip’s face, trying to read him. Oh, his grief was palpable that much was true. It was clear he loved his brother dearly, she just hoped that love did not turn sour when he thought upon Marina. Penelope prayed he understood that Marina had made the best decision she could for herself and the baby.

But then…this all meant Sir George had never ignored Marina’s letters. He had died before he could write back to her.

He had loved her; fervently, ardently, and as deeply as the letters claimed.

“I admit, I had come here to offer for Miss– uh, Lady Wetherby’s hand. My brother did her a great wrong, though he clearly loved her. She had written him of the child in her womb, and he had begun a letter back about how he would return to start a life with her…but that letter was never sent.” Sir Phillip shifted in his seat uncomfortably, sandwich and tea untouched. “I cannot blame her for needing to do what was best for her baby, especially with no word from George. You have my word I shall say nothing on this matter.”

Penelope’s heart warmed at the man’s generosity of spirit and it appeared that even her calculating mother was contemplative, taking in his words.

“We thank you, Sir Phillip. That is most gallant of you.”

He shrugged off her praise, and for once, Penelope thought her mother had truly meant her words.

“I guess it is now my duty to inform Lady Wetherby of my brother’s death.”

Penelope felt her stomach clench painfully. Zounds, how would Marina feel to learn that George had not abandoned her, that he had died? Would it be a mercy to finally know the truth? That she had been loved until the end? Or was it more of a kindness to keep the knowledge from her, as Marina had only pursued marriage with Colin so hard because she thought she had been tossed aside? Would it not be cruel to inform her that she had been wrong?

Once again, Penelope’s mother surprised her when she cleared her throat, setting her tea delicately on the table.

“Sir Phillip, far be it of me to make suggestions about your business, but Lady Wetherby is at least four months along in her pregnancy. I think the shock of learning of your brother’s death at this juncture may,” Portia bit her lip for only a fraction of a second, brows furrowed before smoothing her face into that cool, collected facade Penelope knew so well. “Prove harmful to her pregnancy. Great shocks can hurt the chances of a successful birth. I think it is wise to wait until she has delivered the baby before telling her the news privately.”

Penelope stared at her mother openly, trying not to gape. Had her mother actually shown a modicum of concern? She was not completely sure. There were probably a myriad of reasons behind her mother’s words: ensuring that Marina’s marriage to Lord Wetherby was cemented, that the baby was born and claimed as Lord Wetherby’s, and that Marina did not try something foolish if she heard the news. But Penelope did not think she was mistaken when she heard something akin to…not care, exactly, but a cousin to it in her voice. The only reason Penelope knew it was there was because she had never heard such a tone come from her mother before.

Maybe Penelope’s mother had a begrudging respect for Marina in the end, or maybe she truly just did not like the idea of a potential miscarriage. Penelope would never know, for she would never ask. She long ago learned it was a moot point to ask her mother about anything pertaining to emotions.

Sir Phillip hesitated, his tea cup actually rattling against the saucer on his bouncing knee. But, eventually, he nodded.

“I bow to your expertise, Lady Featherington. I have no children or wife of my own, so I would not know better.”

It was Penelope’s turn to bite her lip, suddenly not hungry. Another secret to keep close to her chest, one she could not tell Marina. The two of them had already exchanged one set of letters since she had settled in at Wetherby’s country estate. It was an awful feeling, guilt. Like a rat gnawing inside the lining of her stomach to make her squirm.

It was as that rat took a particularly vicious bite at her conscience that Eloise burst in unannounced. Had Penelope invited her for tea? She was so discombobulated she honestly could not remember.

Eloise made a beeline for Penelope, completely oblivious to Sir Phillip’s presence.

“Pen! Oh, dear Pen, I must discuss this with you! I finally bribed Benedict into giving me a copy of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women ! Mama would not let me read it, which is ever so frustrating. It was written over fifteen years ago, but the ideas are still incredibly relevant–”


Penelope tried to say as her Mama’s fake eyebrows rose higher and higher, her eyes twitching, her hands tightened into fists in her lap.

“She has a daughter, also named Mary, not really the point. But–”

“Oh,” Sir Phillip said, startled but Penelope was pretty sure, intrigued. He leaned forward in his chair, angling towards Penelope and Eloise, no longer trembling. “What did you think on Wollstonecraft’s argument on the education of young girls shifting? I thought her arguments were quite sound.”

Eloise turned slowly on her heel, only just now noticing that people other than Penelope were there. But Sir Phillip’s question had lit up a familiar fire behind Eloise’s eyes and Penelope noticed that for the first time since Sir Phillip entered the house, he did not look as if he would be swallowed whole by sorrow.

“Permission to speak freely?”

Sir Phillip nodded, gesturing his hand so Eloise would sit beside Penelope, not that it was his place to give such leave. But Penelope’s mother must have truly used up all of her mental energy for the day, for she dared not criticize a Bridgerton about her reading choices, even a female one. So Penelope was treated to the sight of her mother sitting there, looking as if she was continuously sucking on a sour lemon as Eloise entered a lively conversation with the gentle, sad Sir Phillip.

Penelope watched on as Eloise and Sir Phillip conversed for nearly as hour and a half about Wollstonecraft’s ideas of the rights of women before Eloise began interrogating the demure man about his own endeavors. This was how Penelope learned Sir Phillip was an educated botanist, who had never expected to inherit the family title or care of the estate. Their conversation volleyed back and forth like a professional tennis match, back and forth across a court designed with rules of their making.

Penelope herself found herself to be the unexpected umpire of the event, chiming in when required to calm any Eloise like outburst or to coax Sir Phillip to repeat an idea in a way that allowed their greater understanding. Even Penelope hated to admit that although Eloise and herself were well-educated, that could never compare to being allowed to learn in the sacred, male-dominated halls of Oxford or Cambridge.

Portia had tried and failed to insert Prudence into the conversation and at this moment had a look of one who had entered a trance-like state. Penelope knew that her mother’s mind was thinking of other things, now just praying that the young lord would just leave. Or, more accurately, that Eloise would depart, as it was her who kept spurring on the discussion. Penelope would have thought she was hosting a salon or, more scandalously, the kind of debate deserving of the coffeehouses of Covent Garden.

“So, you are experimenting with growing plants native to the Americas on English soil? How are these species obtained?”

“Well, I do my utmost to retrieve the specimens in legal and humane ventures, usually hiring my own crew. Seeds for crops native to the former colonies, such as corn and tomatoes–”

Penelope thought, bittersweetly, about how Marina detested tomatoes.

“Have you tried to grow tobacco? I daresay, you could become a very rich lord indeed if you somehow managed to grow such a crop on our fair isle.”

Penelope stifled a giggle at that comment, wondering what Benedict would think of this conversation between his little sister and the academic Sir Phillip Crane. There was a part of her heart that yearned to tell him, every single detail. She had no doubt he’d find it amusing. But the logical part of her, and a dearer part that was forever loyal to Eloise, knew she could not. No matter how loving and accepting Benedict was, he was Eloise’s brother first. Benedict had shown glimpses of a protective nature he kept well-hidden up his sleeve. In fact, after the duel and the fiasco that was Colin’s engagement, even Penelope’s own troubles as Lady Whistledown, she intrinsically knew that Benedict had been actively hiding a sense of duty and overprotectiveness. It was something, she suspected, he’d developed over many years of being the brother who took care of his siblings' emotional needs and wants. The only reason he must’ve forced it down this season could only be out of Benedict’s fierce desire to build his own, singular identity. It was not hard to decipher how much Benedict yearned to discover who he was unattached to his family name.

She saw how he now was thrown into a whirlpool of regrets over that, wondering if he’d done the right thing as he watched Daphne suffer.

No, she wouldn’t tell Benedict of this burgeoning acquaintance between Eloise and Sir Phillip. Eloise deserved her own quiet rebellion.

It could very well be a one time thing after all.

Genevieve was honestly quite flabbergasted as the carriage rocked from side to side, Benedict on her left side as Eloise and Penelope sat on the bench opposite her.

Apparently the trio within the carriage, which Genevieve started to realize were quite inseparable in many respects, had escaped an orchestra concert early. While Genevieve had planned on Benedict certainly picking her up, she did not account for Penelope’s or Eloise’s presence. Genevieve was not completely sure how she felt being studied by Benedict’s little sister. Though the modiste certainly believed that Penelope would not choose her dearest friend unwisely, Genevieve really had not intended on being scrutinized by a protective younger sister.

But, she had to admit, it was enlightening to study the banter between the three of them. More specifically, the way Benedict interacted with Penelope was fascinating.

Benedict carefully kept his hands clasped tightly on his lap. That made sense, while Penelope had seen Benedict in the beginning of the throes of passion, he had his reservations, especially while sober. More than that, Genevieve knew Benedict was honorable enough that he would never dare tease Genevieve in front of his own sister.

Yet his blue-green eyes, incredibly bright and full of a fervor she did not even see when caught up in his lust with her, were focused on Penelope.

They were discussing poetry, specifically the work of Robert Burns. The banter was easy, though scathing in places. It was not the same kind of quippy flirtations, sultry but a little insulting, that flared between Genevieve and Benedict in the heat of the moment. With Penelope, well… Benedict was not even trying . Their banter flowed easily, his entire self intent upon every word that fell from Penelope’s lips.

Genevieve liked to experiment. With styles, fabrics, daring cuts and bold colors. She would not be in London forever. She dreamed of one day running her business in a gray stone shop in Paris, once the bloody war ended.

But experimenting with people was also quite interesting. Lucy had told her of an incident at the Queen’s luncheon the other day, her eyes alight in mischief. Genevieve would conduct her own experiment, to compare results with Lucy of course.

As soon as a lull in conversation happened, Genevieve piped up in her fake, French accent for Eloise’s benefit,

“Penelope, Lucy tells me you are coming to her soiree next week. We have much to catch up on, so much has happened the past two weeks.”

Penelope aimed a small but bright smile at her. She really was pretty, a classical beauty. But her mother appeared determined to force the poor girl into unflattering dress cuts that hid her figure, or colors that washed her out. No matter, Penelope’s beauty would make itself known with a build in confidence.

“Yes, Gen. And I have much to hear from all of you! I miss Charlotte especially, I have been wondering about her welfare.”

Genevieve snorted as Eloise pivoted her head between them, a furrowed brow that Genevieve chalked up to slight jealousy. Not because Genevieve had an ease with Penelope, no, but because Penelope was getting to participate in activities Eloise could not.

“You mean her riotous escapades? She will make us all laugh uproariously I’m sure.” It was then Genevieve chose to lean forward and place her long, calloused fingers against the ember-headed woman’s thigh. Her bright orange dress, close to the shade of a tangerine, creased where she gripped. Penelope appeared none the wiser; touch was free and common amongst the women at Lucy’s gatherings. Genevieve’s chest swelled with a little pride, knowing she had helped facilitate that comfort.

But Benedict did not know that.

She felt how Benedict’s gaze heated the back of her hands, following her middle finger as it made one languid stroke across the satin fabric of Penelope’s dress.

“And after we have all had a good laugh, we can do something more…relaxing.”

Penelope nodded, oblivious, but quick as a flash, Benedict's hand shot out to clutch Genevieve’s wrist. Slowly, carefully, he pulled her back and released her wrist like it shocked him. Genevieve turned to see that Benedict’s smile was now strained, his eyes narrowed in a warning that she did not think he even realized was there.


Benedict turned towards where Penelope and Eloise watched him curiously, but before much could be said the carriage had come to a halt in Grosvenor Square. As the footman opened the door and Eloise ambled out, Penelope close behind her, Benedict actually stood as much as he could to help her out, grasping her fingers as he steadied her. His back was bowed at an awkward, painful angle but he did not seem to mind.

“Goodnight,” he told Penelope, and Genevieve could no longer see Penelope but she saw how Benedict’s grip tightened for the briefest of moments before gingerly letting Penelope’s small fingers slip from his own.

Genevieve could not hear Penelope’s response but even when Benedict closed the door and banged the roof of the carriage to begin their journey to the party, he stared at the spot Penelope had been.

But as soon as they were out of the confines of the square Benedict turned to level a stern glare at Genevieve.

“She is off limits.”

“Oh? But what if dear Penelope wants to…explore a little, Bridgerton?”

Benedict’s face was harder than she’d ever seen it, usually so jovial, relaxed, and a little wry.

But this had apparently been a line not to cross.

“She is in love with another,” Benedict snapped, running a hand through his thick chestnut hair and tugging.

“Ah, that fool brother of yours? Tell me, Bridgerton, will it truly help Penelope to pine after such an oblivious boy? Someone should provide release for her, give her attention and care. She’s growing into herself, people will notice eventually. I am just unsure as to whether your brother will be one of them.”

Benedict shook his head, tugging his thick brown strands again before settling back, not looking at her.

“She is off limits.”

Genevieve could not resist the chuckle that escaped her as Benedict, for once, was incredibly succinct. She would have to end this affair soon, either when she arrived or when she got back from Paris at the end of summer. But it was all too fun now to end just yet. Penelope was unaware, still too caught up in her pure infatuation, hero worship, of Colin Bridgerton. There was no way Penelope would even see her feelings, like a bloom trying to grow in the undergrowth, waiting for the sun to finally shine upon it so it could grow.

But she pitied Benedict, truly. He had no idea just how fast and hard he was already falling.

The humidity of the spring night thickened the air; Penelope felt like she could feel the moisture in the air filling her lungs and settling there, simulating the sensation of drowning. The world around her was heavy, pulling her down as she desperately tried to just breathe . But even the usually comforting scent of wet earth and blooming hyacinths were too much, too cloying. The smell entrenched itself in her nostrils and throat, making her feel nauseous. Penelope tried to register what Eloise had just told her, she did. But while the words settled into the crevices of her brain like barbs in the grass, she still could not fully comprehend.

Penelope sat, shell-shocked as Eloise finished relating to her what the Queen had said at the orchestra performance. They swung slowly in the garden, not yet ready to depart each other’s company. But Penelope was now slowly coming to a stop, the motion of the swing now simulating the horrible, queasy swoop in her stomach. How had this happened? How was everything she felt like she had just started to build now crumbling around her like a castle built upon sand?

She wouldn’t ask why . That way lay madness.


Eloise swallowed, fiddling with the cornflower blue ribbon she had ripped from her hair. Penelope could see how her friend’s hands trembled even as she wound the ribbon between the web of her fingers, tying it tight until the skin turned white and mottled red before she released her hold to start the process all over again. If Eloise herself could be stunned, scared into near silence, then Penelope knew it was bad. With a horrible sense of foreboding, Penelope grabbed the rope to Eloise’s swing and pulled her friend closer to her, silently pleading to say something, anything than what she had just said moments before.

Penelope was not so lucky.

It was obvious the amount of effort it took Eloise to meet Penelope’s wide-eyed stare with her own. Penelope thought she was truly going to be sick.

“I would have told both you and Benedict in the carriage, but I did not count on Madame Delacroix’s presence. The Queen has hired Bow Street Runners, Penelope. To try and catch you .”

Chapter 8: Comes the Light


The drama of the season comes to a head as Benedict wrestles with his desire for individual identity and his belief he failed as a brother. Eloise strikes up a new friendship, while Penelope gathers the courage to admit a truth that could bring great joy or grave disappointment.

All the while, several others realize there is more to Benedict and Penelope's friendship than they claim.


Holy crabapples, we've somehow made it to the end of season 1! So not fret! Obviously there's more, as this fic will go through seasons 2-3 as well. But the emotions in this chapter are HIGH.

I shall forever be thankful to itakethewords, as they are my beta, my friend, my planner who sits on EIGHT HOUR CALLS WITH ME plotting this story out, and makes all of the lovely graphics. Truly, they are a blessing upon this world, and I could not do this fic without them.

The only historical notes I have here is 1. When writing the boxing scene I actually found out underground female boxing rings were a thing in Regency England. I don't have time but, uh... if someone has the time and energy to write an underground boxing au with Penelope and Eloise (and whatever pairing you want but you all know what I'm partial to) please let me know.
2. Trying to figure out how to spell 'Madam' (the female head of a brothel). I was like, "Is it 'Madam'? 'Madame'? AHHHHH!!" I searched the internet and chose 'Madam' in the end.

Also, yes, Benedict is this dense about his feels I will be taking no notes.

Take a shot every time Pen or Ben claim they're just friends. Heehee.

Chapter Text

Unspooled Thread - happilyinsane13 - Bridgerton (TV) [Archive of Our Own] (8)

The fastest courtship upon record occurred during the markedly wet season of 1804, when Miss Mary Leopold secured a betrothal over a plate of sugared almonds and licorice in just four and a half minutes.

Of course, Miss Leopold and her new husband would leave London mere hours after their wedding.

Reason unknown.

Of all that I have imparted to you, Dear Reader, there is but one bit of wisdom you must heed most. One can never know the truth of a marriage hiding behind closed doors.

Beware indeed, blushing newlyweds. You know not the future that awaits.

Will there be hardship…

…or indignity?

Or will one’s future see the rarest accomplishment of all, a true love match?

As for which of these fates await the eager matches of the season of 1813, only two things will tell…

Time, and, as always, This Author.

Penelope fidgeted while Benedict read her latest column, one they planned to run to the printers after their evening at one of Henry’s little artist gatherings. Penelope now had an open invitation to come whenever she wished but, although she was adept at sneaking about unseen, it was still quite risky for her to go out as often as Benedict unchaperoned . So her appearances usually coincided to when Benedict would help her deliver a column. They sat at their easels, Benedict reading as he tried to balance his graphite on a puckered upper lip. He kept moving and swaying as the graphite teetered under his nose, and Penelope attempted not to giggle just to spite him, the fatwit.

Penelope shook her head demurely rather than stick her tongue out at him, turning away to look at the evening’s model again. It was Charlotte who posed that evening, clothed in a beautiful Grecian chiton in a lovely light mauve that highlighted her thick blonde hair. She laid upon a settee as if sleeping or overcome by some tragedy, her arm closest to the back wall bent so that her forearm covered her eyes in a kind of swoon. Penelope stifled another giggle, simply because, knowing Charlotte, it was taking all of the woman’s strength and energy to resist talking. She knew Henry must have paid her a tidy sum, if not a bit extra, to ensure she did not decide to lean over to gossip with the artists.

“Nel,” came a nasally whine and Penelope looked over to see Benedict had dropped his graphite in his lap due to a comical pout now etched on his face, his lower lip jutted out. “You’re not even paying me any mind.”

“I pay no heed to childish exploits in order to garner attention,” Penelope wrote a line of description about Charlotte, frowning as she pointedly turned her head away from Benedict. “If you give a dog too many treats, it will become quite lazy.” She smirked, hearing Benedict’s huff of mock indignation. “We do not want to overindulge you, do we?”

“What if I want to be overindulged?” Benedict asked, his voice oddly raspy. Penelope swiveled her head to meet his eyes and, for the first time in many weeks, she could not discern the odd look behind them. Penelope did not even think Benedict was aware because the next thing she knew he had turned, shaking his head before handing her the draft of her column back with one hand.

His jacket had been abandoned on the floor thirty minutes ago, his cravat loosened and his shirt sleeves were rolled up to the elbows. A muscle in his forearm twitched when her fingers brushed his own to retrieve the parchment. It seemed he’d now decided not to look at her.

“It is all well in order,” Benedict said, shrugging his shoulders before attempting to add texture to the waves of Charlotte’s hair with the graphite. “Though I do not fully comprehend the bit about marriage… Is there something you wish to tell me?”

Penelope sighed. She was still resolute in her conviction not to tell Benedict exactly what she’d overheard between Daphne and Lady Bridgerton at the Queen’s luncheon. But a little hint couldn’t hurt. Benedict had made it clear several times now that he had felt like he had failed Daphne that season as one of her older brothers. He deserved a chance to make some sort of amends.

“I have two things of import to tell you,” Penelope admitted, striking out a word and replacing it with a synonym before turning to Benedict. He was finally looking at her, a little serious at her words, his knees and upper body now angled in her direction. “The first is… I cannot tell you the details, but I think you might want to talk to Daphne. Check on her well-being. I overheard…something I should not have been privy to.”

Benedict’s eyes narrowed, one fist clenched the black fabric of his breeches, the other his graphite and Penelope realized what she might have insinuated.

“She has not been maltreated! Not physically harmed by her husband!”

Benedict’s grip loosened only slightly.

“You say she has not been physically harmed, but if he has verbally abused her I will rip him limb from limb,” Benedict growled.

Penelope felt an odd flutter in her stomach, something that sent a flare of heat throughout her lower body that she didn’t understand. She shook her head, clearing her senses.

“You are not a violent person, Benedict. You have to be one of the most amiable people I have ever known. You detest conflict! That’s Anthony’s domain, not yours.”

Benedict unclenched one fist from his breeches, stretching the joints before cracking his knuckles against his knee.

“I am,” he conceded. “Unless it concerns my younger siblings, especially my sisters. I would commit untold horrors for them if that is what they needed. I could not abide it if Daphne was being mistreated.” The corners of Benedict’s eyes suddenly downturned, frown deepening as he peered down at his feet in what looked like shame. “I have already failed her so much this season.”

Penelope’s heart went out to him, ached keenly at his perception of failure.

“You did not fail her,” Penelope whispered. “Yes, you might have done more, but in the end, Daphne did make her own decisions. You are a good brother, Benedict. I would be so happy to have a brother such as you.”

Benedict startled slightly and Penelope became confused as Benedict’s expression morphed not into one of acceptance, pleasure, or even friendly jest. He looked a bit like she had taken her graphite and thrown it straight at his face.

Benedict turned again, now absently tracing over a line of Charlotte’s chiton that he’d already drawn.

“I shall talk to Daph tomorrow. I best do it soon before her ball,” he nodded, pinching the bridge of his nose before shooting Penelope one of his wide smiles. It was a bit too bright, but Penelope decided not to press him on it. “What was the second thing?”

Penelope blushed. Penelope had to admit that even though she had made Eloise swear not to tell Benedict about the predicament with the Queen until Penelope did, she had not fully expected her dear friend to follow through. Benedict was Eloise’s favorite brother and she trusted Penelope to Benedict’s care. Penelope had at first not wanted to spoil any night that Benedict spent with Genevieve over the news, but then two days had passed and Penelope still had not garnered the courage to tell him. It was not that Penelope thought Benedict would be furious with her or beg her to quit Whistledown. No, he knew she would refuse. But for some reason she dreaded Benedict’s potential ire and worry more than anything. Penelope had done her best to report nothing of real note over the past week but the Queen was still bloodthirsty for the woman behind the poison pen.

Benedict had done so much for her, sacrificed so much, given her innumerable minutes of his time, more than he needed to or probably wanted to. Even if they were friends, surely the man had his limits. Always looking after a girl such as her could not be very high on his list of priorities.

But when Penelope met his blue-green irises, his face having softened with her silence, how he’d scooted his stool and easel over with a rough hump and small screech across the wooden floor, one hand palm up as if in supplication– well, she felt the truth slip through her lips like spilled wine.

“The Queen told Eloise at the orchestra concert that she hired Bow Street Runners to track me down.”

Benedict’s whole body tensed.

Penelope witnessed a plethora of emotions cross his face, made all the more difficult to translate when he was barely lit by the candlelight of the dim room. Shadows flickered and though she downturned her head, unable to hold his gaze, she saw how his shadow upon the floor stayed completely still. Would he abandon her now? A tidal wave of fear threatened to overtake Penelope’s whole being, culminating in a well of tears collecting in her eyes. She blinked but the salty water collected in drops upon her lashes. Would Benedict now decide that this was enough, a line he could not cross? Would he pull away from her to be caught on her own, dragging Eloise with him until she was that girl again, huddled on the floor by the great staircase of her family’s home with only a book for company?

She blinked again, several tears escaping to run rivulets down her cheeks and that’s when she saw Benedict’s shadow move. Before she knew it, he was kneeling before her, hands outstretched and cupping her cheeks in his palms, thumbing away her tears. The room suddenly seemed to shrink in size as if it now only contained the two of them; there was no Charlotte reclining, no artists scattered around the room, not even Mister Granville who Penelope knew sat at the easel directly across the space from them. No, it was only her, filled with insecurities, and Benedict, with his tender touch trying to wipe away every single one.

“I refuse to leave you,” he swore and Penelope marveled at how he’d somehow identified her fears as easily as he could identify the colors used in a Dutch masterpiece. “I admit, this is a development I had willfully not planned on. Careless on all of our parts. But Nel, you must trust me. I feel like I am constantly saying that as of late, but I feel as if you do not yet believe me. I will not abandon you to the wolves.”

Penelope tried to huff a laugh though it came out more as a watery, clogged sob.

“I– I am sure, Benedict, that I could figure this out alone. I have been marooned most of my life, you know, on a little island of my own devising.”

She tried to smile, truly she did, but she saw something startling, something akin to pity in Benedict’s eyes. But she knew pity well, she had seen it on Benedict’s face before and this was not it. But she did not know this emotion.

He curled one tentative finger to gently stroke up each of her long lashes, catching the droplets there to collect upon the side of his second knuckle.

Gently. That word still made Penelope’s toes curl and her stomach somersault. She had not known the meaning, the real definition of the word until that day in the park when she was nine years old, held in Benedict’s arms as Eloise buoyed her, Colin smiled at her, and Lady Bridgerton comforted her. Gently, she thought, was her absolute favorite word. Synonymous with the proper noun Bridgerton, she was sure.

“You could,” he conceded, his voice nothing more than the ghost of a whisper between them. “But that does not mean you should have to.”

He drew no closer, but Penelope knew that this was…intimate. In a way she didn’t fully understand. If they were caught like this anywhere else, their mothers would be banging down the door and demanding they march down the aisle. If the Viscount Bridgerton didn’t beat them to it. But here at the Granvilles’, it just felt safe. Like he could hold her if he wanted to as she sobbed in relief and no one would let it leave this room.

With trembling fingers, Penelope set her small hands on either side of Benedict’s neck. The pounding of his pulse danced over her palms and she squeezed gingerly, her thumbs sliding on the space where the bottom of his jawline connected with his neckline.

“Thank you,” she murmured. “I just– I know it’s difficult for me to trust. But…thank you.”

Penelope wasn’t sure how long they stayed like that, breathing only each other’s air. But she knew something was shifting. Trust, maybe? Now she fully, irrevocably trusted him beyond measure; with her secrets, her well-being, her friendship. Yes, that must be it.

Slowly, oh so slowly, Benedict pulled away and the room widened again, coming back into clarity and focus. As they both returned to their easels, Penelope glanced up to see Mister Granville staring at them very intently, though his hand never wavered from his drawing. But he looked at them, not at Charlotte who was still posed along her back.

Benedict coughed slightly as he picked his graphite up again.

“So, what are you writing?”

Yes, safe territory.

“I keep going back and forth whether to portray Charlotte as Psyche or as Ariadne,” Penelope admitted, frowning at the few lines she had been able to produce. Benedict tilted his head, signaling her to elaborate. “Psyche always impressed me. She was not particularly strong and she nearly gave up many times, but she succeeded in winning back Eros after loving him in the dark for so long. But Ariadne… She plotted and schemed against her own family for her love of Theseus, only to be abandoned on Naxos. But then Dionysus picked up the pieces holding her together, loved her, married her…and saw her worth. I have always adored that story. Two beings who were underestimated coming together, I suppose.”

Benedict hummed as he smudged the shadow of the settee onto the paper with his thumb.

“Far be it from me to tell you what to do, but–”

“When have you ever not taken up the opportunity to inform me of your opinion?”

Benedict chuckled, light and lovely on the warm air.

“Point taken. But I think you appear more drawn to Ariadne. Try it. If it does not flow smoothly you can always attempt Psyche’s story instead. Henry has been trying to teach me not to let my mistakes overshadow my potential.”

Even with her cheeks dampened and sticky, Penelope felt herself give a small smile.

“Mister Granville certainly is a good mentor.”

“That he is.”

A few minutes of comfortable silence passed where the two of them worked. Penelope chewed her bottom lip as she concentrated on the words she wrote.

Ariadne’s grief consumed her, leaving her motionless upon the rocks of Naxos, the crashing waves of the sea nothing but a reminder of her dread isolation. She would die here scared, alone and abandoned. The fabric of her chiton already began to tear upon the jagged rocks she lay upon, desperate for any pain that would distract from the breaking of her heart. Ariadne did not know how long she lay supine there, mere hours or days, her arm blocking the light of the sun or moon from her vision. But gentle, warm hands eventually cupped her cheeks, a stream of a breath that smelt of summer vines and freshly poured wine close to her lips,

“I have watched you suffer long enough, Ariadne of Crete. Come home with me, and let me ease your sorrow, strip you of your heartbreak until you can rebuild yourself anew. Come home with me.”

Ariadne finally removed her heavy, tired arm and blinked back the weariness from her eyes. Eyes as sparkling as the Aegean Sea–

Penelope frowned again. She had meant to describe Dionysus’ eyes as the deep green-blue of Colin’s eyes. She had always been fascinated by them since that day in the park so long ago in her childhood. They had the sheen of a fresh blade of grass with the sun shining through it, the blue highlighting the tender plant. Yet Dionysus’ eyes were coming out more…blue. Although she had never seen the Aegean Sea, only read about it in books, something in her instinctively told her that the ocean there must be a dazzling blue…

As she contemplated this, Benedict spoke again, forcing her out of her reverie.

“Francesca is coming home from Bath, did you know? She is the most reserved out of all of us and yet, the house somehow felt quieter without her. Is that not strange?”

Penelope bobbed her head as she observed the actual current of excitement in Benedict’s voice. He really did adore his siblings, even while at the same time wanting a life that was separate from them.

“Are you excited for her return?”

“I have missed her terribly,” Benedict confessed, scratching his temple with the point of his graphite, causing a slightly gray smear to appear. “I did not think I would, if I am honest. But I discovered my siblings are strange phantom limbs, always a part of me. It was the same when Daphne left. I felt her loss more keenly than expected in the quiet moments. When I realized no one was playing the pianoforte, or there was no one to team up with to wrangle Gregory or Hyacinth. Even in the mornings, when suddenly she was no longer demanding I move my gangly legs so she could read on the sofa next to me. It aches something terrible.”

“I wish I could feel the same about my own sisters,” Penelope said, resigning herself to the state of Dionysus’ eyes. She’d puzzle that out later. “Or, selfishly, I wish they could feel that way about me. But I could disappear tonight. Take the money I’ve made and run to… to…” Penelope floundered for a moment, noticing how Benedict appeared to wear an amused smile, though slightly melancholy. “Liverpool!”

“Liverpool?” Benedict guffawed, slapping his knee as if Penelope had told the most riotous joke. “Nel, for all of that imagination inside your head, you pick Liverpool to run away to?”

Penelope blushed but stuck out her tongue.

“It’s not as if there are many options. Running off on my own to the Continent would be a death sentence with the war going on, at least by myself.”

Benedict’s countenance softened again, almost imperceptibly but she could identify it now. The way his muscles relaxed and the crinkles of his eyes turned a little sad. It nearly hurt to look at him when he got like this.

“Whether to Liverpool, the Americas, or the Russian Empire… I beg you not to run away. I cannot speak for your family, but I can speak for ours. We would miss you terribly.”

Penelope snorted.

“Oi! None of that,” Benedict admonished, reaching forward to tweak her nose. “We would. One day, Penelope, you will make a family of your own and I know you will make it as warm and loving as you deserve.”

Penelope pondered that for a moment, letting an unbidden vision fill her mind. A warm, loving home decorated in cool colors: blues, creams, greens and purples. She imagined having children, a desire that was hard to admit to anyone. It had been especially difficult to confess such a dream to Eloise, but she could not deny it. She wanted children with all her heart; children that she would love so loudly that they would never question their worth. In that beautiful daydream, though it flickered, was Colin by her side. Bold, confident, his bright demeanor lighting the room of her fantasy. He was the center of it, more so than her or the imaginary children that surrounded them.

Colin had always been the center of that dream for years.

“Do you want children?” Penelope asked, pivoting away from him.

Benedict nearly choked on his own spit. He sputtered and spat and Penelope giggled as Benedict began to cough, dramatically pounding the center of his chest in a vain effort to dislodge the offending spittle.

“Oh, sure,” he wheezed, coughing again as Penelope clutched her sides in mirth. “Laugh yourself giddy as I perish. Do not bother to help poor me. This is humiliating.”

Penelope believed Benedict was much relieved when Mister Granville joined them. The older man had quietly sauntered from the other side of the room, going around the semi-circle until he stood behind them. He pounded Benedict’s back a little harder than necessary.

“Bridgerton, please do not execute such a lamentable death in my household. I would rather not face the Viscount or the duch*ess and explain that their brother died of embarrassment on my rather nice hardwood floors.”

Benedict glared at Mister Granville, though there was no bite in his gaze. His coughs finally subsided and Mister Granville and Penelope shared a look as Benedict cleared his throat.

Mister Granville sighed, crossing his arms and leaning back against the window ledge behind them. The sky was dark outside and it was a new moon. No light filtered in through the glass, the clouds blocking out any possible starlight. He was attired similarly to Benedict; his coat had been abandoned along with his cravat. His short collar hung open and his sleeves were rolled up. The lines creased in his forehead marked his fatigue, causing Penelope to worry. She bit her bottom lip, as was her habit, and did not even notice when Benedict tugged it out from between her teeth.

“Mister Granville, what troubles you?” Penelope asked.

Mister Granville had been studying the two of them but at the question he sighed again, running a hand through his dark blonde waves.

“I hope you do not take this as an insult, Bridgerton, but I spent the better part of today painting your sister’s official portrait as duch*ess of Hastings. I must admit it was rather…more demanding than expected.”

Benedict’s eyebrows knitted together and he leaned his forearms upon his knees as he looked up at his friend.

“She is usually quite serene while sitting for portraits. Was she ill at ease or sick? Is my sister alright?”

Penelope’s heart warmed at the honest concern in Benedict’s tone. He really was a good brother even though she knew he felt like he hadn’t been that season. At least not to Daphne. But Penelope had no doubt at all that Benedict would do anything for his siblings if they asked.

Mister Granville shrugged and shook his head, his kind, watery blue eyes firm with resolve.

“I cannot say much more than that. I do my best not to air my clients' troubles to the wide world. But you are her brother. I highly suggest you talk to her and check on her welfare. That is all I will say on the matter.”

Penelope saw the exact moment where Benedict’s resolve hardened, like a steel sword in the final stages of its creation, hardening under a skilled blacksmith’s hands. She did not know exactly when she had come to know Benedict so well that she could see it in the straightening of his back or the way his fists clenched in his lap. What she did know was that Benedict would contrive a way to have a discussion with Daphne and that Hastings better pray the problems beleaguering the Duke and duch*esses’ marriage did not solely lay with him.

Benedict was not a man of conflict or violence.

But when it came to his siblings, Penelope realized he could become a tad more unpredictable.

Benedict cursed himself for oversleeping as he weaved in and out of the colorful market stalls, assaulted by pastel greens, yellows, pinks, and purples while dodging florists, fruit sellers, leatherworkers and cobblers. He had stayed up too late at the Granvilles’ home, working well into the night with Penelope as they chatted. They should have left sooner to deliver her column, but once the modeling was done, Charlotte had immediately wanted to converse with Penelope. The older woman chattered nonstop about the recent goings on at the brothel, some stories that made even Benedict’s ears turn pink.

He’d been further distracted when, while Penelope was distracted by her friend, Henry had shuffled him over to his own easel.

The image had made Benedict’s heart stutter.

It was not an image of Charlotte that greeted him.

Instead, it was a detailed sketch of the moment Benedict had completely forgotten himself and had kneeled before Penelope, cupping her face in his large hands. Benedict couldn’t help himself in that moment; just as he hated conflict, he despised suffering. To witness Penelope’s tears, her terror that he would leave her, abandon her in her time of need– It had made him fall to the floor with a terrible, painful tug in his chest, as if her sorrow pulled and frayed on the very tissue of his heart. There was no choice but to comfort her, to hold her as tightly as he could until her tears stopped.

It had been instinct.

But being confronted with the tender moment, immortalized in graphite, startled him.

Henry observed him staring at the work.

“I will not share it, if that worries you. The two of you are quite recognizable. But I would like to keep it, the pose itself is quite an inspiration. Would you grant me permission to retain it?”

Benedict did not know how to reply. He wasn’t sure if he wanted anyone other than him and Penelope to possess that moment between them. But he had nodded mutely instead, knowing he owed his mentor much in the way of gratitude and apology. So he would let Henry be the one other partner of that private moment, a witness.

Benedict tugged at his hair as he continued to search the crowded market, desperately trying to find Daphne and his mother. After staying too late at Henry’s, Penelope and himself actually had to stay up until the early morning to catch the printer for publishing. As a result, Benedict had slept in longer than he meant to. By the time he had forced himself out of bed and stumbled down the stairs, Humboldt had informed him (with a very knowing, disdainful look, the crafty know-it-all) that his sister and mother had gone to do some shopping for the Hastings Ball being held at the end of the week.

So Benedict weaved in and out, in and out, constantly and repetitively between couples, lady’s maids, scheming mamas, and gossiping widows to try and find Daphne. Henry’s words had troubled him last night, along with the knowledge from Penelope that Daphne was having…trouble. Eloise hinted at it as well, that Daphne was different, changed in some way since she had left for her honeymoon. Furthermore, her mood towards their mother had been icy at best, signaling to Benedict that the situation was dire.

Daphne, amazingly, held no bitterness towards their mother for the period of time where Violet had been so lost in her grief she could not see her own children growing up and apart without her. Daphne performed tasks of motherly care without complaint, always willing to pick up the slack when Benedict was overwhelmed or had to go back to Cambridge. Daphne helped Eloise with her letters, entertained Francesca with music (it was probably why Fran loved the pianoforte so much – She wanted to play just as well, if not better, than Daphne), tucked Gregory into bed, and sang to Hyacinth when she cried. Daphne had always been a mother, molded to the job since the age of ten. Even after all of that responsibility and stress, Daphne had adored and looked up to their mother. She had never lost faith that dear Mama would return one day, and it made Benedict’s eyes sting to think of little Daphne on the birthday she turned one and ten, everyone present at the table except her mother and father. Those first two years it had been like both of their parents had died, in truth. So even while Anthony glanced bitterly at the door to the breakfast room, hoping their mother would show, it was Daphne who had looked up at Benedict (he held her in his lap as a small form of comfort. When she had been little he would always hold her in his arms as he read her a story or allowed her to play with charcoal on paper) and said,

“Do not be cross at Mama, Ben. I think when Papa’s soul went to Heaven, Mama’s went with him to guide him. It will just take a while for it to travel back again.”

What kind of child of one and ten said such things? Their society was one in which they all grew up quickly, that much was true. But Daphne’s childhood had been sacrificed far too soon and, Benedict admitted, there were nights where his resentment would surface and he felt indignation on her behalf. He had similar feelings for Anthony, though those were slightly tempered by Anthony’s vicious ability to ruin a moment with sarcastic cruelty. It was his older brother’s defense mechanism, Benedict knew. Anthony didn’t want anyone, not even his siblings, to peer too close at the absolute ruin of his very being.

Benedict saw it anyway.

Daphne had gone through all of the drastic ups and downs that had encapsulated the two years after their father’s death and still idolized their mother. Benedict had thought that would never change. Until now, that is.

It was as Benedict made his second circuit around the market into a section heavily used by florists where he heard them. He spun on his heel slightly, finally seeing his sister’s perfectly done strawberry blonde hair next to his mother’s dark, walnut brown tresses. He would’ve proceeded, he was close enough behind them, a now clear path between himself and them. But when he took two steps forward, the words he heard tumble from his sister’s lips with such finality and surety stopped him dead in his tracks.

“I have made my decision. The Duke and I are going our separate ways. It is for the best, truly.”

Benedict barely absorbed the words, he only had as long as his mother’s hesitation in what he assumed was a stunned silence. But within that miniscule space of time, questions already flew through Benedict’s head like a flurry of clashing birds in the sky. Go their separate ways? What could have happened for Daphne to risk such the possibility of a scandal surrounding husband and wife living separately? Had the Duke wronged her? Had his little sister been hurt? Was any of the care Benedict hoped he’d seen between the Duke and his sister real? Or had it been a desperate lie Benedict had told himself so he would not feel so guilty in the aftermath of the duel?

Benedict’s spiraling thoughts only got so far until his mother spoke in a nervous, maybe desperate, tone.

“I know I do not always say the right things. And then the things I do say, well… They are not always what you wish to hear.” Benedict could not see his mother’s face but just by the sound of her voice he could envision it; startled but determined. A mother who understood they were on slightly uneven footing with their child but also sure of their own knowledge. “I am only able to offer you what I know. However difficult forgiving someone may be, it is necessary to move forward.”

He could tell Daphne was not even looking at their mother as she went from item to item, vendor to vendor, acting as if she was truly interested even as the words she gave were made of brittle ice.

“That is not up to me, Mama. The Duke is choosing to nurture some grudge against his father instead of allowing himself any…any kind of happiness.” He caught a side profile of his sister’s face as she turned to look at a bundle of lilacs, her blue eyes not even lighting up at the sight. She used to adore flowers. “However am I supposed to forgive that? However are we supposed to move forward from there?”

Once again, Benedict was thrown into a state of confusion, endless questions. A grudge against his father? What sort of grudge against one’s dead father could drive such a wedge between a married couple? Anxiety began to gnaw at the inside of Benedict’s stomach as if someone had decided to drop a rat inside to scrabble and chew until he was eaten alive. Had he truly failed so terribly to protect Daphne? Had he been so neglectful in his pursuit of his own interests, assuaging any guilt he felt by assuring himself he made up for it by protecting Penelope and Eloise?

He really was a terrible brother…

It was in this state of self-inflicted agony that Lady Portia Featherington and her trusted servant, (Benedict did not remember her name, just that she always looked like she was sucking on a particularly sour lemon), practically accosted his sister for an invitation to her ball. He stepped back, pretending to look at a fresh selection of apple blossoms, hiding his face amongst the petals. Penelope never mentioned that her family hadn’t been invited to the ball, probably because of the perceived personal slight against Colin. Yet, despite his mother’s blustering anger, Daphne extended a personal invitation that made Benedict sigh a little in relief. His sister was not completely hardened, then. The ice had thawed for only a moment, but Daphne had always liked Penelope. He had no doubt it was she Daphne thought of when telling a clearly desperate Lady Featherington that they could come to the event.

It gladdened Benedict that he would see his friend there but also that Eloise would not be alone. She would have felt terribly uncomfortable and out of place at her first official ball without the comfort of her dearest friend beside her. Benedict felt the furrow in his brow soften at the image of Penelope and Eloise side by side. Yes, it would be lovely.

Benedict waited another moment for Lady Featherington to disappear once more into the crowd before clearing his throat and calling out with false cheer and bravado,

“Mother! Daph!”

Both women whirled around with identical looks of incredulity. He would have chuckled under normal circ*mstances; in moments like these it could not be more clear that they were mother and daughter.

“Benedict, dearest, what–” his mother began but Benedict knew he had to be swift. He looped Daphne’s arm with his own and gave their mother a wily grin.

“I must abscond with Daphne for just a moment, Mother. A bit of advice is needed. Do not fret. I shall return her to– uh,” Benedict glanced around at the merchants’ wares before shrugging. “Your floral arranging or whatever you do to set up for a party, soon.”

With that he winked and all but dragged his sister away. Daphne appeared too astonished for a moment to speak as he maneuvered them through the throng of people once again until they were outside the market, into a wider space. Benedict breathed deeply, finally feeling less claustrophobic. God, how could anyone breathe in that space? How could anyone think?

“Benedict, what on earth is the matter?”

Benedict turned down to see Daphne glaring up at him, her free hand anchored to her hip in a menacing fashion. He was reminded of their mother again, not that he would tell her that. He breathed again, trying to take in as much air as possible. The scent of dirt, manure, flowers, oncoming rain– it was enough to center him.

“I wanted to talk to you,” Benedict admitted, turning so his body was angled towards her, almost like a shield. He had no intention to be overheard. “I needed to talk to you. I was worried before, sister, but… I overheard your conversation with Mother about your husband. I am now doubly concerned.”

Daphne stiffened and for a moment Benedict feared she would tear herself away from him and bolt. But like the duch*ess she was born to be, she stood perfectly still and poised, only the darting of her pupils told Benedict he had reason to be worried. No one would be able to decipher the look on her face except her siblings.

“Daph…has he harmed you in any way? If he has, I swear on Father’s grave, I will challenge him myself–”

“Why do you suddenly care?” she snapped, her blue eyes no longer cold ice but blazing with a fury that had been steadily building, ready to burst forth. “It is not as if you have paid me much mind this season. Throughout my many disasters and a tumultuous courtship, you have kept yourself apart!”

The urge to recoil battled with the equally powerful instinct to pull his sister closer. Benedict knew he deserved the criticism. A small, masoch*stic part of him even welcomed it. But it did not make it feel any less than like a horrible blow to the face.

Benedict fought the very real urge to hug his sister. Except for the day she left for Clyvedon after her wedding breakfast, he hadn’t given her a proper hug in an embarrassingly long time. As she’d gotten older it had seemed unnecessary. She was a grown woman now, he’d reasoned. She didn’t need assurances of his affections.

He was starting to think he’d been wrong.

“I–” Benedict swallowed. Daphne’s glare had not lessened in intensity. He squeezed her hand that lay upon his forearm. It always surprised him how thin, lithe and delicate her fingers were. He could feel her bones through the satin gloves. “Daph, I cannot begin to apologize enough for how I have neglected my duties as your older brother this season. This is arguably when you needed me most but I was more than happy to let Anthony take the reins. I trusted him blindly when I should have been an advocate for you, someone who could fight against Anthony’s worse impulses. I wanted to be free and unattached to my siblings, find myself, when I should have been seeking a balance.”

Benedict bent his head just enough to briefly press his brow to the crown of Daphne’s head, an action he used to do often when she was a child. Daphne, when she’d been small, begged him to play with her or protect her from the ghosts hiding in her armoire. In answer to her pleas, he used to press his forehead to her gently, a quiet assent between the two of them. He hadn’t realized how much he missed that.

It only took a few seconds before he straightened up but it made all the difference. Daphne’s eyes crinkled at the corners a bit like his own, the softest upward tilt of her lips betraying her.

“Daph, I know it may be too little too late. But you know I love you, right? That you are the best of sisters? That I would do anything for you?”

Daphne let her mouth succumb to a playful smirk.

“Do not let Eloise hear you say that. She would be devastated.”

Benedict shared in her amusem*nt. This was easy, the camaraderie he remembered. They had liked to joke often that if there was ever a sibling civil war in their household it would most likely be an easy split between the elder four siblings and the younger four. It had always been the elder four of them that remembered a life with their father best, and a time where their mother had been whole. After the travesty that followed the aftermath of that bee sting, it had been the four of them against the world. At least, that was what it had felt like. Anthony, Benedict, Colin, and Daphne worked to build a safe foundation for their younger siblings over the years. There’d been no other choice after their father died. Always the four of them that acted in the better interest of the family. They’d each performed different roles, but the goal remained the same; to protect and nurture their family.

“More like an avenging fury,” Benedict commented, squeezing her hand again. “So we shan’t tell her, will we?”

Daphne shook her head before laying it gently upon his bicep. He ached for a moment, feeling as if she was trying to share her load with him without so many words.

“What is between my husband and I is between us. I can promise you that he has not physically harmed me in any way. It is…a mess of our own devising, I’m afraid. Yet, I must bear it. A woman can do little else.”

What lay unsaid between them made the air thick with tension, and Benedict wished he had wise words to offer her like he used to, often with a bit of humor:

Daph, you must sound out the letters as you write them, to check if they are correct. Like so: BEN-E-DICT IS MY FAV-O-RITE BRO-THER.

Daph, ghosts do not live in little girls’ armoires. They live in big, abandoned houses with crotchety old men. So never visit Anthony when you are fully grown.

Shhhh, Daph. It’s just a little cut upon your finger. Take a deep breath and count to ten.

But for once, he had no words. Daphne moved beyond him to a challenge in life he had not yet met. Benedict had no idea what it was like to be married. He knew a little of love, of youthful heartbreak, of lust, even of things yet unnamed. He thought of fiery red hair for a moment until his brain blocked the image. Benedict knew what it was like to have hopes and dreams, expectations even. Yet his sister’s problem was uniquely her own and he had no advice to give. He wondered if his father would have known what to say. He liked to believe that his late father would have had the perfect words to say to his daughter.

“I can see you thinking, Ben,” Daphne muttered, her jaw flexing along his arm as she spoke. “Brother, I forgive you. There is nothing you can fix. But I do appreciate that you would aid me if I asked.” She turned her face up to him, craning her neck and she appeared so small. “All I will say is be careful with your own heart, Benedict. I fear us Bridgertons have a tendency to be fanciful romantics. You are empathetic to a fault. Do not let it set you up for an impossible love and a greater heartbreak.”

Benedict became speechless and she led him back to the market where their bewildered mother waited. He felt a dreadful sense of foreboding that seeped and settled into his skin.

May 15, 1813

Dearest Pen,

I write to you from the country estate up in West Yorkshire. It is much cooler here than in London, but the vast green hills comfort me. There is much more wild terrain than the farm I grew up on but it is beautiful nonetheless. I feel more connected to nature here, centered in a way I never was in London. Andrew lets me walk the grounds and visit the stables whenever I like. His mother has been slowly teaching me my duties with a patience I could only wish to emulate. His sisters, Georgiana and Louisa, treat me as one of their own.

Georgiana is actually older than Andrew, though you would never think so. She is striking and Andrew says she grows more beautiful as she ages. Yet she has rejected every suitor who has ever come knocking upon their door. She is two and thirty, a spinster on the shelf. When I asked Andrew if this bothered him, he told me he has plenty of money to support her, so why not let her make decisions that make her happy?

Can you imagine, Pen? I do not think even the Viscount Bridgerton would allow Eloise such freedom. I admit, it made my heart warm to him all the more.

Louisa is the youngest, only a year above us at nine and ten. Andrew said she will debut next year. I cannot yet tell if she will want to find a husband but she did ask if I would help with her dance steps before I have grown too round with pregnancy.

Our baby has started to move within my belly. It is still strange to think of it as ours, Andrew’s and I’s. But he insists I call the baby ours. It makes my heart ache, but for the life of me I cannot discern whether it is warmth or heartbreak that makes it so.

George broke my heart, whether he meant to or not. My mind cannot bear to fathom much more beyond that terrible fact. It is as if every time I try, a stone wall or iron gate slams shut, forcing me not to look any further. It is all well and good. I do not think I could bear it.

How are you, my dear Pen? Has the season gotten any better? I am sure you are glad it is almost over and done with. There was certainly too much chaos being thrown about, I think. And none of the men, besides the now married Duke of Hastings, Colin Bridgerton, and my own husband, were stellar catches.

Although I must ask, how did you come to be such good friends with Mister Benedict Bridgerton? He appeared quite…protective of you. An upstanding man indeed. Not only did he work to save his own family, but he found me a husband who would accept my situation and entire self. There are not many men like that.

Andrew says that we may return to London next season with our baby. I know he will be anxious to see Mister Granville. They exchange letters often, you know. I admit if I was not so jaded, I would find it quite sweet. But it is now a friendly joke between Andrew and I. I am proud to say no bitterness lies there.

I admit, I believe he is becoming a dear friend.

If your mother will let you, maybe you can visit in the summer?

Your Loving Cousin,

Lady Marina Wetherby

Penelope exhaled in relief as she pressed the letter to her chest, closing her eyes for just a moment to allow the the weak rays of gray light kiss her eyelids, nose, and cheeks. She sat at her writing desk, facing the window with its curtains thrust wide open. She delighted in it, sitting by a window to write or read, looking out at a world that passed by while she sat still. It was as if multiple worlds and stories were happening all at once; the one outside her window, her own, and the story she wrote or read in her hands.

Taking a deep breath she read the letter again, piece by piece as if to memorize every line. Marina appeared to be content. Maybe not just content, she seemed to be on her way to happiness. Nothing could have gladdened Penelope’s heart more especially in the wake of Sir Phillip Crane’s visit.

Penelope had worried greatly after the kind botanist turned lord’s appearance on their doorstep. All she could think about was if they had made a terrible mistake marrying Marina off to Lord Wetherby in haste before ensuring that George Crane was alive or dead? Would it have been better to have Marina’s child raised by their uncle? Some familial connection to their father?

But after Marina’s missive, Penelope was appeased. Lord Wetherby was not only compassionate but possessed a sense of levity that comforted Marina. One of the qualities Marina had liked in Colin was a sense of humor, and while Sir Phillip was no doubt an intelligent man, Penelope doubted he was made of the more barbed sense of humor Marina at times preferred. She knew she could be wrong, she had only been in Sir Phillip’s presence for a few hours. But even if he was made of sterner stuff than Penelope thought, she somehow doubted that Marina would have taken kindly to being constantly reminded about George whenever she looked into Sir Phillip’s face.

No, Lord Wetherby was a much more suitable match. Both of them had their hearts closed off to romantic love with one another, and it was a mutual understanding and respect that had quite quickly founded together. Penelope’s only lingering guilt hovered like a dark cloud above her head whenever she thought of not telling Marina about George’s fate. She feared Marina would never forgive her withholding such information…

But, as much as Penelope hated to admit it, her mother was right. Informing Marina of the loss now would endanger her pregnancy and well-being.

Penelope let her mind wander to Sir Phillip again as she gingerly folded the correspondence and placed it on the desk. The poor man, lost in his grief, also seemed to be miserable at the prospect of handling the estate himself. The man was a botanist, not raised to be head of the household. Though, Penelope was curious as to how George had managed to be head of the estate and run off to fight in the war. She very much doubted he had told his brother before running off.

Just as Penelope had flattened out a piece of fresh parchment and uncorked a bottle of ink, her door burst open to reveal an absolutely frenetic Eloise.

“Oh, I do not understand why my presence should be required at this ball!” Eloise moaned, flopping her back onto Penelope’s bed.

The loud thump and the way Eloise bounced softly a few times made Penelope swallow back a laugh.

“Your mother is pushing you to make a public appearance?”

“She believes that I must practice for my debut next season.” Eloise dug the heels of palms into her eyelids. “Why can I not wait another season or two before my debut? Are she and Anthony so keen to be rid of all of us daughters?”

Penelope noticed a tinge of fear in Eloise’s irritation and moved to sit next to Eloise. The mattress dipped under her and Penelope gently clasped Penelope’s hand.

“El, are you nervous?”

“Nervous, yes. But not just because it is a large social event, or even because I believe it to be truly foolish for a woman to be judged based on looks or how fine she is at dancing.” Eloise squeezed Penelope’s hand, staring up with wide eyes at the ceiling. “But…now it is my turn to set an example for our sisters. I cannot be perfect like Daphne. Even worse, I do not think it is the kind of deportment I want to attempt to model for Fran and Hy.”

Penelope nodded softly, feeling sorry for her friend. Eloise had always been a girl of curiosity, fire, and independence. If no one succeeded in feeding and nurturing those aspects of her personality, then she became like a dragon without its hoard; puffing smoke, glaring, with fire flaring out of her nostrils.

“El, I will not leave your side,” Penelope reassured, laying down so her bright ginger hair tangled with her best friend’s chestnut brown strands. “I think you can convince your mother and brother that you do not want marriage just yet. Besides, if anyone could escape a marriage by pure will, it would be you.”

Eloise snorted and a smile fought its way onto her face. Penelope matched it with one of her own.

“You– you want to marry though, Pen.”

Penelope stayed silent for a few moments, chewing her bottom lip pensively.

“Marriage to a kind man, one who can give me children. One I may be friends with, if I was lucky.”

Penelope shifted to lay on her side, and she felt the mattress bend and heard the rustle of fabric before meeting Eloise’s gaze.

“But El, I will always be your best friend. Though it is probably more likely we will be spinsters together. In honor of your friendship, I will look after you at balls.”

“Were you not scared this year to debut?”

“Of course I was,” Penelope sighed. “But I was never expected to be perfect. Mama and Papa lost faith in any kind of success on my part years ago.”

Eloise scrunched her nose in that way Penelope knew meant her friend was feeling an uncomfortable bout of sympathy. Penelope felt an odd ache in her side, studying Eloise closely. To Penelope, ever since that day in the park when she was nine years old, Eloise had appeared larger than life. Atalanta encapsulated in the body of a child; wild, brave, intelligent, and brash. All of the brilliant attributes that Penelope desperately desired to see in herself. But Eloise’s tautened shoulders, blown pupils, and the steady gnawing of a now masticated thumbnail betrayed her nerves. Penelope reached out to gently rub the side of Eloise’s upper arm.

Eloise deserved a life where she could be free to make her own choices, a girl out of time and place. Penelope thought that maybe Eloise’s family didn’t understand, except perhaps Benedict, that if they simply allowed Eloise to choose her own timeline it wouldn’t be so difficult for Eloise to forge her own path in society.

Because forcing Eloise to do anything just led to disaster.

“You can always use me as an escape, El,” Penelope promised. “I will be there at every single ball, I am sure. I know Benedict would never let you do something you do not want if you told him.”

Eloise’s brow was still furrowed in worry and Penelope reached to smooth out the wrinkles.

“Thank you, Pen,” Eloise whispered.

They basked in the now comfortable silence for a few moments before Eloise spoke again.

“How is the situation with Marina? Sir Phillip? Have you told her…”

Penelope shook her head as best she could, her ember tresses becoming tangled on the sheets as she did.

“I’ve heard from Marina but, like I said, Mama deemed it best to inform her of George’s fate after the pregnancy. For once, I am in agreement with her.”

The two friends giggled and it felt as if the very air lightened around them, gravity no longer so heavy.

“A very rare occurrence indeed,” Eloise said. For a moment she hesitated and began to bite her thumbnail again and Penelope pulled the digit away from her teeth. “Do you think I should send Sir Phillip a letter sending my condolences about his brother? He was kind enough to engage in intelligent conversation with me when I came to visit. Though no man should ever be worried that a woman cannot handle civil conversation, as if we’re dumber than farm animals. But, I mean, he was quite eager–”

Eloise rambled and Penelope became all the more confused. Was Eloise actually nervous? Concerned about what someone might think of her? Eloise bit her lower lip again, inwardly cursing when she felt the familiar taste of copper hit her tongue. Penelope technically should not encourage correspondence between a bachelor and an unmarried woman. But Eloise obviously was, even if she did not want to admit it, grateful for Sir Phillip’s attention and how he’d patiently listened to her opinions.

What could one letter hurt?

“I suppose it could not hurt,” Penelope said, interrupting Eloise mid-thought on how women should be allowed to speak in public forums. “I am sure Sir Phillip would take comfort that you thought of his grief. Just…do not let your brothers or mother see it. Really, any of your family. You know how society sees letters between unmarried individuals of the opposite sex.”

Eloise harrumphed, causing Penelope to laugh.

“Well, that’s another ridiculous notion! As if mere letter writing is an indication of bad behavior. It is an absolute travesty–”

Penelope just settled more firmly into the bed, a small smile plastered onto her face as she listened to Eloise go on one of her long diatribes. Yes, Eloise deserved more. Penelope resolved in that moment to help Eloise get through her first season unscathed. Eloise had been an unwavering source of support to her, and Penelope was confident that if she and Benedict combined forces, they could give Eloise enough time to discover herself and what she wanted.

Genevieve stretched languidly on the bed, arching her back as Benedict reached to light a cigarillo beside her. Genevieve particularly relished the aftermath of sex as the room cooled, causing her sweat soaked body to shiver pleasantly. She felt her muscles stretch and a joint pop pleasantly as Benedict sat up against the headboard, taking a long drag of the tobacco. As he exhaled the smoke his taut stomach hollowed out slightly and she resisted the urge to trace her fingers along the pale skin that would inevitably lead to another round of f*cking.

No, she had to gather some information today. She needed to create an exact timeline of events to this little arrangement she and Benedict had. While all fun and good, Benedict could never possess her heart, not that he wanted to. Genevieve had two great loves in life; Lucy and her career. Lucy was more than understanding about Genevieve’s passion for fashion and design, it was only an accident of birth that had led Lucy down the road to marriage. Both Lucy and Genevieve also understood that there were some sexual needs that, unfortunately, could only be fulfilled by a man for the both of them. Besides, the love that existed between them was too strong to be broken by anybody, a trust so deeply rooted that it could never fully be removed.

Besides, even if Benedict was so inclined to attempt anything more serious, not only did his social standing get in the way but the fact that his heart was already halfway to being placed in the delicate hands of another. The foolish man was oblivious to what was happening right in front of his eyes. It entertained her to no end and she, Lucy, and Henry had now spent many an hour hypothesizing when exactly the unlikely pair would remove their heads from the sand.

“How is dear Penelope?” Genevieve asked casually, turning to her side to look up at him, pulling a sheet over her naked form so he would not become distracted.

Benedict arched a dark eyebrow at her, the mole just above it moving up as well.

“You are still not planning to seduce her, I hope,” Benedict said tightly, taking another drag from the cigarillo and exhaling smoke into the air. “I have made it clear she is not to be trifled with. I will not allow her to be hurt.”

“By anyone but your younger brother, you mean?” Genevieve noticed him wince. Satisfaction curled in her belly. “I do not plan on seducing the dear girl. She is my friend now, and I will not act on any urges of that particular nature unless she expresses an interest first.” Benedict opened his mouth slightly, his blue eyes clouding over like a stormy sea but Genevieve continued. “I am genuinely interested. What with her cousin’s hasty marriage, her family’s debt, and the end of the season with neither her or her sisters engaged it must be stressful for her.”

Benedict seemed to ponder this for a moment before he sighed and relented. He stubbed out the cigarillo on the chipped crystal ashtray on the bedside table before he spoke.

“It is to be expected. Nel is incredibly worn down… No, that’s not right. She’s…” Benedict looked up into the bed’s canopy, as if the right word would appear out of thin air. “Frayed at the edges. Like one of your fine, well-loved dresses that has been overused and mishandled. She needs…mending.”

Genevieve stayed patient, quiet as Benedict ran a hand through his mussed, chestnut hair. He wasn’t seeing now, not really, as he peered into the dim space of her bedroom. She imagined he was looking at something else. Someone else.

“Her family constantly uses and discards her, with no regard to the care it takes to keep her…whole. I believe Penelope has responded by trying her own methods to help herself, and she’s been partly successful. But it is a lot for one person to take on alone.” He paused, entwining his own fingers together before he began to wring them nervously. “No one is meant to be alone.”

“So, do you intend to be the mender? Rescue her from her fate?” Genevieve asked a little derisively. There was nothing she hated more than a man who believed himself to be some hero, a rescuer of females because they thought women couldn’t save themselves.

“God, no,” Benedict pulled at the strands of his dark hair absently, shifting his legs to bend his right ankle under his left knee. He bit his bottom lip, a nervous habit she’d noticed he’d developed in the past few weeks. “Not exactly, at least. I’m not…qualified to be… We are friends.” His tone, which had wavered before, became firm as he said the word friends. “I feel a responsibility to look after her, to help her. She is not a damsel to be saved. But that does not mean she could not use the aid of a friend or two.”

Genevieve hummed in approval, watching as Benedict’s body settled and relaxed again. Truly, the man before her certainly was pulling the wool over his own eyes. Genevieve wondered idly if it was because Benedict had seen Penelope as no more than a child, his little sister’s best friend up until recently. The friendship between Benedict and Penelope itself had changed, from one of simple-minded protection to one of…partnership? Genevieve would have to ponder over the idea some more. Preferably with Lucy, Henry, and many glasses of wine.

Genevieve co*cked her head, letting her tight, black curls spill over her bare shoulder. The room’s previous atmosphere, thick with heady need, musty sweat and darkness had dissipated. Now it was cool, light, as Benedict began to share more about Penelope’s writing during Henry’s sessions. It seemed he was unaware that Henry frequently discussed Penelope’s writing with Genevieve and Lucy. It was fascinating that even though Benedict was all too aware that Genevieve knew Penelope was Lady Whistledown he was careful not to discuss her other writing. Possibly he felt possessive of that side of Penelope, that it was a precious secret he relished holding close to his chest no matter how many other people became privy of it. Genevieve knew, one day, she could use the information to her advantage if Benedict needed a little push in the right direction. But at that moment, Genevieve decided that committing time to studying Benedict’s words and actions was more important. Benedict unknowingly gave Genevieve more insight into how fast and deep his fall was becoming.

“She’s quite descriptive, you know. I think if she tried to write a novel, with enough support, she could get it published. It would sell well! I would buy it, certainly–”

On and on he went, and Genevieve relaxed into her thin sheets as he prattled. Zounds, he was utterly unaware that he was talking about Penelope incessantly. If Genevieve had been a woman with actual expectations of this man, she’d be furious.

But she simply gave him a close-lipped smile, her dark eyes sparkling as she silently encouraged him to babble on.

Her decision was made.

Genevieve would not continue her affair with Benedict. She loved Penelope too much to block any attempt at happiness she could have. Genevieve liked Benedict, truly, even if she did concur he was being just a tad thick. While Genevieve knew it would take a mighty effort for the youngest Featherington to get over her love for the younger Bridgerton brother, she had no doubt that once Benedict realized the depth of his feelings, he would be up to the task of winning Penelope’s heart.

At least, she hoped so. He better not turn out to be one of those self-sacrificing idiots.

Genevieve despised the eldest Bridgerton, for being so recklessly careless with Siena’s heart. She’d thought Benedict would be no better, and if he had ever shown such tendencies she wouldn’t have let him within a mile of Penelope. But Benedict had proved her wrong. At the party where Penelope had appeared, he’d immediately leapt from the carnal embrace he’d been in. He didn’t seem to realize how terribly intimate he had seemed, holding Penelope in his arms, checking her for harm, his gaze lingering just a second too long on the cut of her dress and the warm flush of her cheeks.

Yes, she would help Benedict. Though if he f*cked it up, there would be hell to pay.

Genevieve mapped it all out in her head while Benedict talked. She already had a ticket to France, despite the dangerous climate, to study continental fashion for the summer. She would write a letter from there to break off the affair. Benedict would have the summer in the country to get over her, she doubted it would take long, and maybe have time for his brain to catch up with his heart.

And when she returned, bright and ready to dress the young ladies of the ton for the new season, she would help get these two fools to recognize what was right under their noses.

Baron Archibald Featherington, quite frankly, had not fully thought his plan through.

He believed he had quite the perfect, foolproof plan. But somewhere in the back of his rather over-inflated brain, even he could recognize the high risk.

But high risk, high reward. Surely it was reason enough to risk the last thing he had to his name: the deed to his London home. Mondrich had agreed to lose the match, giving Archibald the chance to replenish a great chunk of the fortune he had lost. He felt the old organ in his chest squeeze slightly. While he and his wife did not often see eye to eye, she had been right about one thing; he’d trampled his daughters future happiness and security by betting and losing their dowries.

Sometimes he’d wondered if he would have been more motivated to be more mindful about his gambling if he’d been blessed with a son, but he shrugged the thought away. He’d learned long ago there was no use thinking about what if’s.

He sidled up to two rough, burly men with an air of co*ckiness he was starting to feel. Mondrich had already agreed to throw the match, there was no way this could go wrong.

“I want to place a sizable wager on this match, and I am told you two can manage serious transactions,” Archibald said, setting his shoulders back and standing as tall as he was physically able. While the men had an advantage of height, Archibald would not forget that he had every advantage of birth over these brutes. “My money is on The Beast.”

One of the men with a hardened face, his dark eyes as unmoving as flint, scoffed.

“With Mondrich heavily favored?”

“There’s only one reason a flash cull lord would come to us with such a bet,” the other one said with a sneer. “Anyone who knows you must know your word is worthless.”

Archibald raised himself slightly on his tip-toes, feelings beads of sweat accumulate along his hairline. He refused to falter here. The biggest opportunity to replenish his fortune, his daughters dowries, and to get his wife off his back had presented itself. He had no choice but to press forward.

“You don’t need to take my word,” Archibald shrugged nonchalantly. “Instead… you can take the deed to my house. Should I lose, it’s yours.”

The two thighs eyebrows raised as they eyed him then each other, a silent conversation happening between them. But Archibald could see the moment they had decided to take him for a fool. A lord’s house was a mighty offer, heaven knows what they would do with it.

Archibald ignored the curling in his gut. This had to succeed and then everything would be fixed and as it should be. He had it all planned out. He’d go straight to his wife with the money to appease her obsession with their daughters’ wardrobe, then he’d treat himself to the finest whor*house in London. Everything would finally go his way.

Blast it.

Baron Archibald Featherington was certainly a vile bastard born under a halfpenny planet.

Benedict fisted his hands at his sides as he observed the brazen-faced, leery eyed man who dared to call himself Penelope’s father weave away from the company of certain unsavory men. While Benedict did not know the shifty men personally, he did know them by sight. Scum who helped run the many local gambling hells, ones that had serious consequences for men who couldn’t pay what they owed.

Benedict pulled his top hat as low over his forehead as it would go, hiding behind the wooden planks that made up the support for the stands. A sense of horrible dread nibbled at his guts as the two broad men, clearly strong enough to rough up any fop and dandy there to watch the fight unfold, lumber away. They murmured to each other, and as they passed Benedict by, all he could make out was,

“No payment will be enough–”

Before they faded away into the growing crowd.

Benedict’s heart sank as he slunk back to his top seat where Anthony and Colin waited for him. If there was no amount of money that could possibly clear Baron Featherington’s debt, what chance did he have at helping Penelope salvage a dowry?

Benedict admitted he did not have much of a plan before this moment. It would be befuddling to Lord Featherington why Benedict would concern himself in his affairs if the second Bridgerton son approached him personally. While he could at least now feign interest in the Featheringtons finances due to the hidden scandal involving Colin, it was not ideal. But so far, Benedict’s best idea was that if he could use the incident as leverage (alright, blackmail ) he could somehow convince Lord Featherington to stop gambling or accept some form of help. Lady Featherington might be mortified, but according to Penelope, her mother was much cleverer with numbers and figures than her father was. Benedict doubted Lady Featherington would stand in his way when the livelihood of her daughters and herself were on the line.

But it only appeared much more hopeless. As Benedict reached his seat, sitting next to an excited Colin with Anthony on Colin’s other side, he stared down at Penelope’s father who stood particularly close to the boxing ring. He felt his eyes narrow and a white hot fury flooded his veins. How dare this man play around with his family’s livelihood? How could he literally gamble away Penelope’s only safe chance at a future? It made Benedict’s very blood simmer until it roiled, and Benedict had to shake himself. Christ alive, was this how Anthony felt all the time with that temper of his? It was near unbearable.

No, there had to be something else Benedict could do. If Baron Featherington would not protect Penelope’s chance at a future she would be comfortable with, he would. Wasn’t that what friends should do? Eloise would never let him do anything less.

As the final bets took place around him, the little leap frog in Benedict’s brain hopped from thought to thought, idea to idea, connecting the pieces until finally it all made sense. His pupils landed on a man a few rows below him, clearly perusing the latest issue of Lady Whistledown. Penelope earned money from the publication and she had admitted to Benedict and Eloise that she hid her funds somewhere in her room where her family couldn’t find it. It was not the best hiding place in the long run, Benedict knew that. Sooner or later her ruthless mother or bloodhound of a housekeeper would find the stash.

But if Penelope could invest it…

If Benedict could invest it, open an account for Penelope, a trust that was all hers that she could one day use as she pleased…then Penelope could have some semblance of a future. Some slight possibility of independence.

It wasn’t exactly what the young woman had envisioned for herself. To one day have to emerge to use secret funds so she may take care of her needs. Penelope would not be able to freely advertise the money; it would look suspicious, and he had no doubt her parents may try to take anything she accumulated from her. In this respect, the youngest Featherington wouldn’t be able to use it for a dowry to entice a potential husband.

Something sour curdled in his stomach at the thought of Penelope having to try to tempt a man to marry her. She deserved to be courted because she was admired, desired, and loved. He knew it was a rather fanciful notion, this season had proved just how unlikely love matches could be. But Benedict desperately hoped his young friend could be cherished by someone who deserved her.

If only Colin could see it…

Benedict was startled out of his thoughts by the sudden roar of the crowd as Will Mondrich and the fighter known as The Beast entered the ring. Benedict resolved to converse with Penelope, run the idea of him creating a bank account for her to invest money in. If nothing else, at least it could fund a comfortable life of spinsterhood with Eloise.

Though that image which used to bring him comfort, no longer lit him up with joy.

The fight began with a mighty roar and even though Benedict tried to feign the level of excitement Colin was exuding beside him, he kept becoming distracted by Baron Featherington’s reactions. With every excruciating right hook Mondrich would land on The Beast, Penelope’s father grew agitated. And with every eventual uppercut The Beast landed in return, the older man screamed in unfettered anticipation. With the clear light streaming through the many windows of the domed roof, the violence and the reactions it incited were incredibly easy to see.

With every word someone yelled, whether it was the Baron, Colin, or his brother-in-law down by the ring – Benedict increasingly felt sick.

“Hit him!”

Benedict’s blue coat tightened around his chest.

“Knock him out!”

Benedict’s top hat suddenly felt heavy and too small, squeezing his temples until his head throbbed.

“Make me some money!”

Benedict actually tasted acrid bile rise up his throat.

“Come on! Come on, The Beast!”

Benedict forced his gaze away from a purple-faced Lord Featherington to watch just in time to see the mighty, powerful Will Mondrich take a blow, fall to the ground…

He and Colin stood up abruptly, concerned. Mondrich had been an excellent fighter all season, surely the man would get up.

But the pugilist did not stir.

“Get up, Mondrich!”

Benedict heard the roar of the crowd, the faint echo of time being called, and he turned with a horrific sense of foreboding as Baron Archibald Featherington cheered so loud, so boisterously, that it would be a wonder if the man didn’t lose his voice. The sight should have brought Benedict reassurance. If the Baron had won, that was a positive for the Featheringtons’ wealth.

Yet Benedict could only see, out of the corner of his eye, the burly, sly men from earlier. They were leering over at the bloody old fool, jumping up and down where he stood like a maniac. It caused Benedict’s very blood to run ice cold.

Baron Archibald Featherington never won anything.

And that frightened Benedict most of all.

Bridgerton House had been abuzz since the return of Francesca. Benedict gratefully embraced his younger sister, a welcome distraction since his thoughts had been swirling since the boxing match the day before. He squeezed her tight before placing his chin on top of her head and putting half his weight on her as he bent down to annoyingly fluff out her salmon pink skirts.

“Brother,” she laughed, poking him in the ribs in retaliation. “You are too heavy for me!”

“I have always been too heavy for you. That’s half the fun,” he smirked, straightening back up to cup her chin, tilting her head this way and that to better look at her. Her cheeks were still round in a way that belied the last bits of childhood and her smile still gentle. However, much to his dismay, her forehead now reached his collarbone.

“Am I, as El would put it, a farm animal being placed up for auction?” she teased, though the grin suddenly died from her lips as she peered up at him. “Benedict?”

He blinked, realizing he’d stared a tad too long at his little sister. Her comment sent an odd chill up his spine and he realized that Eloise’s words had a point.

sh*t. He was never going to hear the end of it.

He pulled Francesca in again, this time letting her plump cheek rest upon his upper chest.

“Just stop getting older,” he whispered into her chestnut hair so much like his own. “Please?”

Before Benedict knew it Francesca was pulled away from him, being nearly torn in two by Hyacinth and Gregory in equal measure as they dragged their older sister to the drawing room. Eloise sidled up to him, hands clasped behind her back. She knocked her hip with his own. Well, she tried. She clipped his thigh instead.

“Are you turning into some sentimental sap?” Eloise asked, raising a mischievous eyebrow. Her light lavender day dress, so incredibly muted it was almost gray, swished slightly as she rocked on the balls of her feet.

Benedict pondered answering her honestly. He usually did with Eloise. But he still felt incredibly tender from seeing Francesca return, caught between being a girl and a woman. Eloise's debut next year caused his lungs to constrict. All he had appeared to learn from watching Daphne and Penelope’s struggles were that the waters of society were shark infested, and if a young debutant was not willing to join the predators, they often became the prey. It terrified him.

And he wasn’t willing to admit that to Eloise just yet.

Instead, he clasped a hand to his heart, his hand making a loud slap over his chest. He sighed dramatically, closing his eyelids as he leaned heavily on Eloise’s shoulder, nearly toppling her to the ground.

“Oh, El, I’ve just become so sensitive! So overcome with emotion. I’m completely overwrought. Hold me, dear sister!”

Ew, gross! Get off me. You complete, dunderheaded buffoon.”

Benedict smirked as his ploy worked, Eloise hastily shoving him off of her. She twisted her body so he nearly fell flat on his face to the hard wooden floor but he belly laughed all the same. Smacking his shoulder for good measure, his little sister rolled her light blue eyes before grabbing his forearm. As she led them both to the drawing room, she said,

“I invited Pen over for tea in half an hour,” she tilted her head up to assess him, lowering her voice. “Will you broach her about your plan?”

Ah, yes, his plan. When he’d returned home from the boxing match yesterday, he’d told Eloise all about his idea to convince Penelope to let him create a bank account for her, depositing her Lady Whistledown income in a safe place. Eloise approved of the idea, though she grumbled for an hour about the unfairness that most women could not even create their own accounts without the assistance of a man. Benedict usually counted himself as a very indulgent brother to Eloise’s wiles and radical opinions. But he had not been just indulgent, he’d also been indignant.

All he had been able to think of since the fight was Lord Featherington’s face alight with victory, a slight madness highlighting his puce face.

He had no intention of telling Penelope of that particular worry. He was probably overreacting, but this plan was something he could do for her. To protect her.

To, possibly, give her freedom one day.

“Yes, if we can get a quiet moment alone with her from the rest of the family,” Benedict said.

Eloise waved a careless hand.

“They’ll all be too excited over Francesca’s return and the Duke visiting to notice anything we say.”

Benedict frowned just as they entered the drawing room, Francesca already sat at the pianoforte talking animatedly to Anthony. Anthony nodded and hummed at everything Francesca said, his dark brown irises warm and attentive. Benedict knew that Anthony must’ve missed her just as terribly, if not more so, than the rest of them. Not that he’d ever admit it, the tosser. Eloise released Benedict’s arm and quickly swept by the tea service spread on a table, swiping up an entire box of candies for herself. Benedict snorted before shedding his coat and tossing it on a sofa, much to his mother’s displeasure, and wandered over to converse with Francesca and Anthony.

Even as he talked, his mind couldn’t help but be full to the brim with two concerns: Daphne and Penelope. His sister had refused to explain what the problem between herself and Hastings was. It must be rather large, insurmountable even, if Daphne was going to physically separate from her husband. Then there was Penelope, hiding from the Bow Street Runners and family in desperate need of money. Sometimes, Benedict honestly wasn’t sure if it was an asset to care so much. He had tried to shove it down this season, abandoning his empathy to pursue his own hedonistic wants.

But discovering Penelope as Whistledown had changed everything.

She was there, a little reminder, a beacon in the night with her hair that glowed like embers in candlelight, clear blue eyes as expressive as the sky, and a small smile full of secrets he wanted to persuade her to spill. Every time he turned around and thought he could shed his compassion and shrug on a jovial coat of nonchalance, she pulled him back. She made him ruminate on how he could balance the life he now wanted, one as a free artist, while still being the big brother he prided himself on being. Surely, he could combine those two identities into one singular man.

Penelope didn’t have that sort of luxury. To be at once Penelope and Whistledown to the wider world. It was unfair.

Though selfishly, Benedict was glad that he got to see both sides of her. He coveted it. It was a secret, one that he shared with Penelope, and only Penelope (and Eloise, but Benedict was of the firm opinion that his favorite younger sister simply did not count).

Benedict and Penelope both straddled the class divide, living one life while seeking another. It was only natural that he would find a friend in her and, as a result, they would balance one another. He tempered her impulses. She reminded him of his kindness.

And with a sudden, thud of his heart against his ribcage, Benedict realized that was f*cking terrifying.

Benedict was snapped back to the conversation at hand as Anthony regaled Francesca with the story of the boxing match yesterday.

“I am confident I could last a few rounds in a boxing ring,” Anthony said, smiling in a charmingly smug manner at Francesca.

Benedict leaned against the pianoforte, shaking his head.

“Well, that is certainly a match I would like to see.”

The whole room swiveled to see Daphne walk in, resplendent in a lavender dress that matched Benedict’s cravat. His brother-in-law stood behind her, tall and handsome if not a tad out of his element. The Duke of Hastings studied the room just as the inhabitants studied him; with an eye to see who would make the first move.

All except Hyacinth who, in the wake of Daphne and Francesca’s reunion, rushed up to latch herself upon Hastings’ arm.

“Simon! When will I be able to visit Clyvedon?” Hyacinth asked, bouncing up and down like a soap bubble in the air with all of her enthusiasm.

“Allow the Duke to find a seat before you trouble him,” his mother called, clearly trying to avoid any potentially uncomfortable situations.

Benedict felt his knees bend, prepared to move–

But Simon astonished him, the man’s face breaking into a soft smile. His dark, brown eyes beheld Hyacinth as if she was the only one in the room, which was a surefire way to the youngest Bridgerton’s heart. Benedict knew Hyacinth often felt left out and overlooked amongst their rowdy brood.

“Well, you are certainly allowed to visit at any time,” he said.

A tense knot in Benedict’s chest loosened and he shared a look with Anthony that expressed his older brother felt the same. Maybe, just maybe, things were improving over at Hastings House.

When Daphne joined Francesca at the pianoforte, Benedict observed his first sister for a moment. Her countenance was gentle, incredibly encouraging as she always was with Francesca. The new layer to Daphne, the one that told Benedict she’d discovered things that could never be taken back, was still evident in her eyes. But… But there was an unexpected lightness there, an air of acceptance that hadn’t been there before.

It gave Benedict just a little bit of hope.

Out of loyalty, however, he still co*cked his head at Hastings, who seemed to enjoy entertaining Hyacinth and Gregory. Daphne clocked the moment and as Benedict passed her on the way to join Eloise on the sofa he carefully grabbed and squeezed his sister’s fingertips. She squeezed back, not looking at him but her mouth tilted upward slightly.

Benedict plopped on the sofa besides Eloise, who shifted the box of candies to the left on her lap out of Benedict’s grasp. He tried to grab one but she leaned all the way to the left, the side of her body now flush with the cushions to keep it out of his reach.

“I do not share!”

Benedict scoffed, sitting back to the side as Eloise righted herself, popping another lemon drop into her mouth.

“You will share with Nel when she comes, surely,” Benedict remarked casually. “I daresay she’s the only one you share with.”

“Since when did you start calling her Nel, by the way?” Eloise shifted the confection from one side of her jaw to the other, the faint outline of the ball poking through her cheek. “I do not recall you calling Penelope anything other than her name in… Well, a while.”

Benedict felt heat travel up his neck to make his cheeks flare. He didn’t know why he was so embarrassed, Eloise had seen that moment– Penelope cradled between Benedict’s thighs as she sobbed in the safety of the garden, held together by his arms. His fingers twitched as he recalled the tender feeling of her soft belly beneath his palm, her damp cheek nestled on his thigh. It was overwhelming in the extreme and nothing in the world had felt more natural than to comfort her, to call her Nel with a familiarity he hadn’t used before.

But he found himself inexplicably tongue-tied, saved only by Daphne settling gracefully on Eloise’s other side, delicately plucking a lemon drop from the box.

“Oh, is Penelope visiting today? I’ve been meaning to speak to her.”

Both Benedict and Eloise tensed for a moment, Eloise quickly stuffing another candy into her mouth so she wouldn’t have to speak. The pulse in his neck throbbed nervously. Benedict wasn’t ashamed of his friendship with Penelope, far from it. But the closeness of their friendship could be easily misconstrued. Colin got away with calling Penelope Pen because he was… Well, because he was Colin. The absolute charmer could say or do anything and his words or actions would come off as completely normal. If Daphne knew Benedict called Penelope Nel and was frequently alone with her, it would raise questions about his intentions. Yet, whenever Colin talked to Pen or found himself in her company, no one batted an eye.

For some reason he could not name, Benedict felt as though a gaping maw was snapping and tearing ferociously inside his stomach at the thought.

“El invited Pe– Miss Penelope over for tea today,” Benedict said neutrally.

“How wonderful,” Daphne replied, still holding the little oblong shaped candy between her forefinger and thumb. “I have always liked her, Eloise. She is a good friend to you and, if I may be forgiven for saying so, not at all like the rest of her family.”

Before Eloise could even respond, Benedict guffawed and he couldn’t help the words that escaped his mouth,

“That’s an understatement.”

Daphne leveled her astute gaze to his own and Benedict suddenly felt like he may have misstepped.

“Indeed,” Daphne said, finally placing the tart candy into her mouth.

Benedict and Eloise were not near as subtle as they thought themselves to be.

Daphne shook her head, equal parts fondness and exasperation, as she led Penelope in a turn about the room. Her brother and sister were practically chomping at the bit on the sofa where she had abandoned them in order to abscond away with their best friend. The moment Penelope had entered the room as Colin sang had been particularly…enlightening. Penelope, of course, stared at Colin as if he was the sun itself, all bright rays and nourishing light practically blinding her where she stood. Daphne was familiar with this, it was no secret amongst much of the Bridgerton family how Penelope felt about Colin. The only ones who seemed unaware were Anthony, Colin, Eloise, and the two youngest. It didn’t surprise Daphne that Eloise was unaware, as the clever but stubborn girl mostly only paid heed to how Penelope existed in her own orbit. Although, Daphne thought, as she watched Eloise take in the occupants of the room, her younger sister seemed to be growing more astute.

Eloise’s reaction to Penelope’s entrance was also just as expected, practically pushing Daphne off the sofa to make room for her dearest friend. But it was Benedict’s expression that had made Daphne pause a moment.

His whole face had lit up and he had taken advantage of Eloise’s distraction to push her over so Penelope could sit between himself and Eloise. Quite frankly the whole room was technically too relaxed as Penelope entered, the men without their coats and their shirt sleeves rolled up. If they were a proper family, they’d never allow someone who was not related to see them like this. But Penelope had always just been there and Benedict was different from the times before. While he had always been exceedingly kind and generous with Penelope, he’d never vibrated with such barely constrained eagerness to see and speak with her. Daphne could tell he had so many words just on the tip of his tongue, ready to be said the moment Penelope approached them.

Which was when Daphne had promptly ruined her siblings’ plans by standing up and whisking Penelope around the room before she could even say two words to her friends. Benedict and Eloise had shot Daphne such incredulous glares (well, Benedict’s had been incredulous. Eloise’s had been downright venomous) as she languidly began to walk Penelope to the opposite end of the room.

Penelope wore one of her mother’s hideous choices of dresses that day; a combination of vivid yellow and deep pink that assaulted the vision. But Penelope herself was shy and lovely, her light blue eyes clear.

“I apologize for stealing you from my siblings, but I knew if I did not do so immediately, they would monopolize your entire afternoon with us.”

“Oh,” Penelope said, mouth genuinely rounded in a little o of surprise. “Surely not, Your Grace. They have many a varied interest.”

Daphne resisted the urge to roll her eyes.

“Short attention spans, you mean? And call me Daphne, Penelope. I have told you so.”

Penelope gave a small, closed mouth smile.

“Of course.”

Daphne let a few moments of silence pass them by as they rounded the end of the room, and Daphne watched as Simon made a paper horse for Hyacinth and Gregory. The co*ckles of her heart ignited with a fervent, warm glow that would not abate no matter how she tried. He really would make an excellent father, if he could ever let go of the devastating shadow his own had left behind. Daphne looked at Penelope to see she had placed a small palm over her mouth to stifle a giggle and as she followed her gaze she realized she was looking at Benedict and Eloise, who were staring at her, pouting pathetically. Benedict had even stuck out his lower lip, letting it quiver like a puppy in the cold rain.

“Overdramatic, the lot of them,” Daphne said and Penelope nodded her head in agreement.

“Sometimes I feel as if the two of them are delicate flowers. If not watered often they’ll wilt.”

“Oh, you must surely tell them that. That they are so immature that if they do not receive enough attention they will simply die.”

“They seem unphased.” Penelope shrugged, her expression exceedingly fond as Eloise appeared to be mouthing something particularly obscene to get Penelope to abandon Daphne and join her and Benedict instead. “Lucky for them, they’re quite entertaining. I do not think I could survive without their attentions either.”

Daphne patted Penelope’s arm that was entwined with one of her own. Penelope had been a girl who had been deprived of love and affection in her own home. It had been no surprise to Daphne that Penelope relished being showered with attention here, even on the Bridgertons most boisterous days.

“I wanted to thank you, Penelope,” Daphne said, lowering her voice so only the two of them could hear. “For your discretion over the conversation you heard before my marriage. I wanted to inform you… I was wrong about my husband’s…condition. I cannot go into specifics, but it was not at all exactly as originally thought.”

Penelope’s eyes widened before the young woman quickly schooled her expression into something more placid. Daphne noted and filed away her skill at masking her emotions for later. There was clearly more to Penelope than she originally thought.

“That is…good?” Penelope asked hesitantly and Daphne had to wonder just how much else Penelope knew about the state of her marriage. It was possible, if the youngest Featherington was closer to Benedict than Daphne had originally thought, that he may have confided in her. But Daphne suspected there may have been more incidents at overhearing private conversations that Penelope may be involved with.


“Keep in mind, Penelope, for when you get married one day yourself,” Penelope huffed a small, bitter chuckle at Daphne’s words. Daphne ignored it with all of the grace of a duch*ess. “Marriage is hard. There is nothing easy about it, for every day requires an intense amount of work. I have learned that complete honesty between both partners is essential to the health of the union. And, as much as I hate to admit it, forgiveness might be as well. Can one love their partner so completely that they’re willing to forgive them? Accept them as they are? That is perhaps the greatest test of all.”

Daphne felt Penelope’s surprise in the way she stumbled slightly, but Daphne kept them gliding back across the room. All too soon they were back at the sofa and the pair of siblings boldly grabbed Penelope’s hands to force her to sit between them. Daphne glowered half-heartedly at Benedict and he had the grace to look a little cowed, releasing Penelope’s hand quickly. Really, he was being far too obvious. Did he truly forget himself so much when she was near that he didn’t even realize his actions? He was lucky that in Bridgerton House, Penelope was such a staple presence in their lives that no one paid particular heed.

But Daphne did. She watched Penelope’s eyes wander back to look at Colin, still positioned by Francesca at the pianoforte. The longing in her eyes as she stole glimpses at his happier demeanor. He really had recovered greatly since the debacle with Miss Thompson. But then Daphne saw the moment Benedict had also witnessed where Penelope’s gaze had traveled. He angled himself to the side, his thigh pressing against Penelope’s own, long arm draped on the back of the sofa. He pressed for her attention just slightly, saying her name in a low voice full of intent Daphne did not think he meant to imbue.

But when Penelope turned to face him, a small, closed-mouth smile upon her lips, Benedict melted, softened like malleable clay under an artisan’s expert hands.

Oh, Daphne thought. She backed away, not ready to handle a problem that was not her own right now. Before she could focus on what she’d just witnessed, she had to resolve the matter of her own marriage first.

But once she did, oh, Benedict would be hearing quite a lot from her.

The trip to the modiste was incredibly…odd.

Penelope felt a tad like an owl forced to try and assess her surroundings by daylight as she kept blinking incessantly while Genevieve fitted her new dress. These gowns had been specifically put together for the Hastings Ball and Penelope didn’t despise this dress, as Genevieve had done her best to make it such a light yellow it was almost more of a cream. But she couldn't help but feel uncomfortable. Penelope knew their family’s coffers were empty, thanks to her father’s recklessness. So how was it possible that their mother could afford to pay Genevieve for brand new gowns?

Penelope tried to meet Genevieve’s gaze as the modiste adjusted her hem, but her friend gave the slightest shrug and shake of the head. They couldn’t talk here and it appeared that Genevieve was just as bewildered as she was.

The thought of her finances and Genevieve brought Benedict’s face to mind, as he had whispered fervently in her ear the day before at Bridgerton House. The excitement that spilled from his lips as he relayed his idea, Eloise nodding fiercely beside him: to let him open up a bank account for her where she could deposit her money in a safe place, somewhere her family could never touch it. Penelope had been flabbergasted.

“Benedict, I– that’s a huge risk on your part. If anyone found out–”

“If they did, then I would accept the consequences wholeheartedly. You deserve an out, Nel. A nest egg that can grow, that only you have control of.” He’d shifted closer to her on the sofa, the hard line of his body discreetly pressed into her side. “It is no burden if it is you.”

Penelope almost lost herself to the gravity in his voice before Eloise briefly laid her head atop Penelope’s, brown and red strands becoming entangled.

“It will ensure you will never be destitute, Pen. Ben and I will be alright. Let us help ensure your future is safe, my dearest friend.”

The memory flooded Penelope’s veins with tendrils of warmth, flames that did not burn but sustained.

Naturally Penelope’s mother doused the burst of feeling when she said,

“Madame Delacroix, do you not think that particular shade of yellow is too dour? It is almost cream!”

Penelope gritted her teeth as Genevieve subtly patted her ankle.

“Your order was rather last minute, Madame Featherington. I must make do with what I ‘ave.”

Penelope hid a grin at Genevieve’s deflection as her mother huffed and muttered before moving onto Prudence and Philippa.

“But my other girls' dresses are astonishing, Madame Delacroix!”

Penelope did not miss how Genevieve’s fingers twitched at the hem, her nose scrunching.

“Because you were able to pay in advance this time, and since I happened to have some fabrics no one else seemed to want…” Genevieve trailed off, meeting Penelope’s eyes again before they both had to look away before they began to giggle incessantly.

“You see, young ladies, everything works out in the end,” their mother exclaimed, and Penelope could not help but frown. Where was this money coming from? “And Philippa, perhaps Mister Finch might even reconsider his proposal, now that, um, you have your dowry again.”

Penelope stiffened and she felt even Genevieve’s hands still in their deft work. Penelope knew she and her sisters were supposed to be ignorant of the loss of their dowries. A sign of carelessness, Penelope noted, and her mother usually wasn’t so careless when it came to valuable information. Penelope’s mind itched with curiosity and a sense of apprehension.

“Again?” Philippa asked, tilting her head in befuddlement as she adjusted her bodice.


“Well, did I lose it somewhere the first time?”

Turning at Genevieve’s direction, Penelope resisted the urge to slap a hand to her forehead in secondhand embarrassment. Philippa at times could be rather dense, but it baffled Penelope on how often that still surprised her.

As her dress was adjusted Penelope let her mind wander again to Benedict’s and Eloise’s promise to help her. For the first time in a long while, Penelope allowed herself to imagine a future where she could be secure. The money she earned could never be advertised, or else she would be under threat of her earnings being taken away by her parents. With that in mind, it could never be used for a dowry. It was a nest egg, one she could use to secure a safe life as a spinster, possibly with Eloise.

Penelope tried to be soothed by the thought. She did. But she couldn’t help but feel a sense of loss when all she could see was the lovely fantasy of her by Colin’s side, happy, healthy, and surrounded by chestnut-haired children.

The final ball of any season is distinguished by one of two things, anticipation…or dread.

For, while those who have been successful in the year’s marriage market look forward to flaunting their perfect, joyous unions…others shudder at the thought of spending one last night before the discerning eyes of the ton.

As they know, indeed, just what the evening signifies, that their time is officially up. And yet, to those who may still find themselves out of both choices and hope, fear not.

For who knows when and where one’s fortunes may change?

Penelope fiddled with her wine glass as she sat on the sofa at Lucy’s afternoon soiree, pondering the article Benedict had helped her deliver early that morning for today’s publication. She thought it had been a hopeful way to end that season’s string of gossip columns. Indeed, much of the season had been focused on the prospects of love and marriage, and Penelope wanted to imbue a bit of wishful thinking, for others as well as herself.

Though she knew nothing of particular note would happen to her.

Penelope accepted her role, her outer persona, as a wallflower. It was a fact she had accepted long before her societal debut. But that didn’t mean she wanted to live in the shadows forever.

At least, not when it came to Colin.

Colin was everything bright, sunshine after the rain. She could never be sure that she could match his natural radiance, and Colin needed someone who could compete with his shining personality and charm.

Penelope wanted to be that so badly. But more than that, even if she never could, she at least wanted to drop the weight on her chest. To inform him of her feelings. There was a part of her that wondered how he could not already know. The skills she’d perfected over the years for masking her emotions, intentions, subtly changing the direction of conversations were admirable. But her tendre for Colin? She knew that she’d not been so successful at keeping that hidden up her sleeve. Marina proved that.

So, surely Colin knew? Had an inkling? If so, why did he not say something?

Penelope chewed her bottom lip, gripping the crystal glass a little too tight when a voice chimed in,

“Now that’s a bad habit to get into.”

Penelope peered through her lashes just in time to see Siena settle onto the sofa next to her. Penelope was always a little in awe of Siena. Her frankness coupled with her beauty never ceased to stun her. Hooded eyes, delicate beauty mark, and a voice that was at once blunt and vulnerable. Penelope admired her greatly, though she knew her considerably less than she did Genevieve, Lucy, or even Charlotte.

“You are friends with the second Bridgerton brother, correct?” Siena inquired, taking a great gulp of brandy straight from a decanter. Had she secreted it from Henry’s study?

“Uh, yes,” Penelope hedged, bewildered. Usually people referred to her as Eloise’s friend, though more and more of Henry’s acquaintances knew her as either Lucy’s friend or, at times, Benedict’s friend. Somehow, Penelope knew it meant entirely different things, though she wasn’t sure what.

“Is he much like the eldest? Entitled, arrogant, self-serving?”

Penelope felt the moment her jaw unhinged, unable to regain her bearings for several moments.

“N-no! I do not know Lord Bridgerton well, but I do know that Benedict is kind, empathetic to a fault, even! He is incredibly patient, an excellent listener and–”

“Are you in love with him?”


Penelope felt the world shrink around her until it was only her and Siena cramped into one tiny corner of the earth. Just them with Siena's dark, all-knowing eyes studying her like she probably did a piece of music while preparing for a performance.

“N-no,” Penelope stuttered, and it was the truth. She was not in love with Benedict. But she did care about him, deeply so.

He was her friend.

“Someone else, then?”

Penelope felt heat surge up her chest and crawl up her neck all the way to the tips of her ears. If she didn’t look like a freshly plucked strawberry in appearance, she’d be surprised. Somehow though, Penelope felt compelled to be honest.

“Yes,” Penelope shakily set her wine down on the side table, unable to meet the opera singer’s gaze. “With another.”

She heard Siena sigh and before she knew it, Siena had used the hand not clutching alcohol to grip Penelope’s chin and level her with an open stare. It was raw, damaged, and it hurt to look at.

“Let me speak candidly,” Siena said gruffly. “Be honest about your feelings as soon as they appear. Do not hide or shrink away from them, for it is better to be forthright about your intentions from the start, and let go of something that may never work from the beginning. The minute I knew I was falling for that prick of a lord, I should have told him of my expectations. I want and need to be taken care of, but I will never sacrifice who I am. I am a proud working woman, who will do whatever I deem necessary to survive. I must let go of the viscount because he may think he wants to save me, but it is I that will save myself for the life I want. You must also be straightforward and honest, so you do not end up in a situation where your feelings are trapped, festering inside you. A man may expect you to be the damsel, but it is you that is the heroine.”

Siena released Penelope’s chin and handed Penelope the decanter. She could smell the strong, sweet, almost burnt-like scent that brandy emitted.

“Drink up for some courage.”

Penelope took the decanter and carefully took a swig before coughing and spluttering. Siena laughed, though it was not cruel in nature. She patted Penelope’s back before taking back the drink.

“T-thank you, I suppose,” Penelope choked.

Siena tilted her head, her eyes sad as her thick brown hair fell down her slim shoulder.

“I do not want you to be some dainty debutante,” Siena admitted. “Gen likes you, as well as Lucy. I would hate to see the world eat you up and swallow you whole.”

Penelope just tried to breathe. The Hastings Ball was, unsurprisingly, gorgeous. Held in the courtyard of their London home, it was clear that Daphne had spared no expense to make the closing ball of the season as beautiful and elegant as the duch*ess herself. Penelope stood to the side, watching the dancing take place on the floor as she fiddled with her empty dance card. She’d been abandoned shortly after they’d arrived, her mother pushing Philippa to seek out Mister Finch while Prudence trailed behind. Their father, of course, was nowhere to be seen. It wasn’t abnormal for her father to miss social events in favor of gambling hells and whor*houses, but Penelope couldn’t deny the horrible sense of unease that gripped her guts in a vice. Eloise had arrived earlier with her mother, looking as if she may faint on the spot while she descended the grand staircase. Poor El, was all Penelope could think of, but it appeared that some words exchanged between Eloise and Daphne had settled Eloise somewhat.

The best friends had clung to each other for thirty minutes until Eloise remarked that she was going to see if she could inquire about the search for Whistledown with the Queen, see where Penelope’s safety stood. Penelope had smiled wanly when Eloise departed, leaving her alone, not that it was unusual.

Penelope’s lungs froze for a moment though when she saw Benedict and Colin make their way down the stairs. A riot of emotions welled within her like a tidal wave. While Benedict’s presence inspired warm, tender feelings of comfort, Colin’s easy posture and light smile made her feel as if someone was beating her heart with a battering ram. Suddenly, her whole body was alight as she tried to claw back the courage she’d gathered just that afternoon after her talk with Siena. She had to be brave and be honest, tell Colin how she felt. Even if it led to nothing, to let it out in the open would be a relief, surely. She would be released from the manacles of secrecy… Well, for one secret, at least.

It was Benedict who met her eyes first, his stare appraising as he took her in. Even from a distance she could see how his pupils widened, then he nodded, as if he understood what she was about to do. Benedict turned to Colin, who had just noticed Penelope as well, and a look that only the Bridgertons seemed to share passed between them. Benedict veered off to the right to grab champagne and join a group of his peers while Colin made a beeline straight towards her. Frantically, she straightened out her light, muted gown and she became so determinedly distracted she almost missed Colin’s first words to her since his upset over Marina.

“Enjoying your evening?”

Penelope startled and resisted the urge to curl in on herself as she did so many times in nerve-inspiring situations.


“Are you enjoying your evening?” Colin repeated with his usual kind smile. Penelope could practically feel her insides become liquid, even as she scrambled for something to say.

“Ah… Y… Yes. I just came from the dance floor,” Penelope stuttered, wincing as she did so. She had not danced at all, of course. No one asked her to dance except the Bridgerton brothers, and everyone knew it was born out of pity.

“I did not see you,” Colin replied, looking around as if he could spot the specter of her gliding across the dance floor. Penelope fought back the horrible grip of embarrassment that caused her chest to constrict.

“I was in the back of the dance floor. It was quite crowded,” Penelope insisted. She hesitated for only a moment before recalling Siena’s further words to her as the soiree had gone on that afternoon. The opera singer had been a fountain of knowledge, truly, one that sprung from her heartache. If I had stopped expecting him to read my mind and had told him from the beginning, maybe it all would have been different. “So… Colin–”

But Colin interrupted her, talking over her words so smoothly she barely noticed.

“Pen… I owe you an apology,” Colin’s gaze bored into her with a sincerity she’d never witnessed from him before. At least, not directed at her. “I did not see it at first, but I know you were only trying to prevent me from heartache with Miss Thompson, and…” He paused for only a second before boldly admitting, “And I was a fool.”

Penelope found herself shaking her head vigorously, her ember curls shaking with the force. She took a small step closer and from here she could smell his cologne; citrus and sea salt, light and breezy like him. The words tumbled from her lips unbidden but honest, spilling up, up and over like a freshly popped bottle of champagne.

“You were not a fool. You merely believed yourself in love. One should never apologize for that,” she insisted, full of the devastating fire of longing and anticipation. There were people all around them but, because it was her no one paid much mind, and for once she was thankful. The only pair of eyes she noticed vaguely from a corner were a wild blue-green, glancing every now and then. “One finds oneself in such an incredible position, and, well, one should declare it… assuredly, fervently…loudly.” Penelope exhaled then inhaled again, trying to settle the frantic pounding of her heart against her ribs. “One must be honest. Courageous, even. Colin, I wish to tell you something.”

But before Penelope could continue, Colin cut in again in that unfathomable way of his, as if the conversation had been his to steer all along.

“I have something I wish to tell you as well, Pen. I am leaving,” Colin gave her a small smile, eyes never wavering in their amiability. But Penelope’s spine stiffened and she felt a chill make its way through every bone in her body. “First thing tomorrow morning, I begin my tour. I am to start in the Mediterranean. It was actually you who inspired me. You kept reminding me how much I longed for travel,” he kept going. Oh, God, it had been she to remind him of his desire to explore? He was leaving and yet he wouldn’t even let her get a confession out? She was the cause of his restlessness? “Oh, um… What was it you wished to say?” Colin finished, faintly registering the panic and hurt that crossed Penelope’s face.

She quickly schooled her expression into one of excitement and understanding, though she knew it was weak. It was weak because how could one keep up a facade when their heart was breaking?

“I don’t remember,” Penelope huffed a small, incredulous laugh.

She laughed at herself, her foolishness. Her bravado had melted away more swiftly than sugar in the rain. All of her determination to tell Colin how she felt was torn asunder with his words. How could she ever compare to a life of adventure and discovery? A man never needed a woman, not really. Not when the world was their oyster and they had a plethora of options ahead of them.

And, out of all of the women in the world, why would Colin ever want her?

“Shall we dance, Pen?” Colin asked, breaking her out of her whirling thoughts.

“No. Um… I am all danced out for the night, Colin,” Penelope just wanted to run, to leave, to get out of this humiliating situation and hide for the rest of the night. But not in her empty home, no. No, she wanted to hide under her second skin. Under the personality that made her bold and reckless. And she couldn’t do that here. “Good luck on your tour.”

Penelope first turned right to make her retreat but was further mortified to find Benedict watching, looking from Colin to Penelope, realization dawning on his face.

She turned to the left before she could see even a hint of pity take over his features, not getting far as she felt both Bridgerton brothers stare after her until Eloise all but barreled into her. Penelope studied Eloise in her light blue dress, elegant and refined, a beautiful tiara sitting upon her head and Penelope suddenly felt dowdy in the dress Genevieve had worked hard to make bearable for her. What she’d thought had made her passably pretty now just seemed lackluster in the face of Eloise’s elegant dress and Bridgerton good looks. Even if this was not the life Eloise wanted, she fit in seamlessly. At least, from the outside.

“Pen! Look, the Queen. She is here. Now is my chance to find out her plans for yo– I mean Whistledown,” Eloise said in a rush, practically bouncing on her feet in a flurry of anxiety and nerves. “I had tried to catch her earlier but Mama dragged me off to introduce me to some truly boring people and– Pen, is everything all right?”

Eloise’s face furrowed in concern, her fingers tightening slightly on Penelope’s arms. Penelope would have taken more time to marvel over her friend’s growth this season, how much more observant she was becoming, if Penelope hadn’t been consumed by a desperate itch to get away from this place. She’d gathered enough gossip she’d saved over the week, even a few morsels she’d overheard at the ball. Penelope didn’t want to be Penelope right now, the poor, lonely, dejected wallflower.

She wanted to be the daring, brazen, cunning gossipmonger instead.

“Entirely all right. The Queen,” Penelope made a gesture to indicate where Queen Charlotte stood, surrounded by her many ladies in waiting and Brimsley. “Go before you miss your chance.”

Eloise, in her chaotic way, flitted away, thoroughly distracted. Unsure why, Penelope peered over her shoulder to see Benedict conversing with Colin, an unnatural glare settled upon his face. Before he could realize she had been staring, she hurried away, her slippered feet making no noise across the stone floor then the grass that led her to the side and to the servants quarters. She had not planned on publishing tonight, so all she had in the coach was a garish yellow cloak. But Evans was the one driving and that was enough.

She dashed to the coach, giving Evans’ the briefest of instructions before throwing herself into the seat without assistance, pounding on the roof, before bursting into tears.

All of the things she was unable to say were trapped in her chest, clawing to be freed. Her lungs physically hurt as her confession lay there, caged by her ribs and needing to burst. It felt as if she couldn’t breathe, as if someone held her underwater and the air in her lungs burned, screamed, begged to be released. The pain would only go away if she could finally gasp for air, releasing her feelings into the world so at least she was no longer held captive by them. Frozen, encapsulated in ice, Penelope had the epiphany that it hurt so much more to never be free from this torment. There was a rejection in Colin’s words, she sensed it, but it wasn’t clear, wasn’t straightforward. Lawks, him telling her he hated her would have been better than this.

At least then, she’d have an answer.

At least then, she’d be liberated.

Benedict was supposed to have snuck away by now, having planned to meet Genevieve at one of the Granvilles’ parties.

He should have been in the sultry embrace of the modiste and sweet, sweet alcohol.

But instead, he stalked towards his daft younger brother after witnessing Penelope’s heart break in half. It had been written all over her face as Colin spoke. Although Benedict had not heard the words, Benedict knew Penelope well enough by now to discern when she had to pull on a facade just to limp her way through the rest of a conversation.

He was going to beat his brother to within an inch of his life if he had been cruel to her.

Deep within, Benedict knew Colin would never be harsh or cutthroat when talking to Penelope. It was Penelope. Besides, Colin couldn’t bear to be vicious to anyone. Colin knew how to stand his ground, but unlike Anthony, Colin had honed the valuable skill of being firm while also being kind. It was a fine balance but one Colin had mastered early on.

So why in the ever-loving, ninth circle of hell had Penelope attempted to put what looked like an entire continent’s worth of distance between them?

As Benedict finally reached Colin’s side, he noticed Eloise had found Penelope and gave an inward sigh of relief. Eloise would take care of Penelope, and Benedict could deal with his brother.

“What did you say to her?” Benedict hissed, curling his fingers into fists for a moment before placing his hands on his hips.

Colin blinked up at him, scratching the back of his head awkwardly. Benedict could smell moisture in the air, the inevitable taste of a thunderstorm on his tongue. He tried to let it center him but he only became more flustered.

“I simply told Pen about my Grand Tour, that I'm heading to Greece tomorrow,” Colin shrugged innocently. “She was going to tell me something, but forgot.”

The corner of Benedict’s mouth twitched in a frown. He physically resisted the urge to slap his palm over his eyes.

“That’s all you said?”

“I thanked her for being a true friend to me. She tried to warn me about Marina, I had been to blind to see it. Then told her of my travels and how she inspired me to reconsider my Grand Tour.”

Benedict clenched his jaw, feeling the back of his teeth grind together. Benedict had known intuitively that Penelope had probably every intention of confessing her feelings for Colin sometime soon. It had been evident with every glance she’d sent Colin’s way the other day at Bridgerton House, her nervous energy when delivering her last column, and the way her face flashed through a myriad of nervous yet hopeful emotions at the beginning of her and Colin’s conversations. While the idea had, for some inexplicable reason, made Benedict’s stomach turn, he knew it was for the best. Penelope could be set free with an acceptance or a rejection. It was better than letting her feelings grow and fester inside.

Yet it sounded like Colin had beat her to it.

And as a result, Penelope hadn’t been allowed to unburden herself.

The mere thought of Penelope stewing in hurt, rejection, unable to be given any sort of emotional release made Benedict’s skin crawl.

“You really couldn’t guess what Penelope might have wanted to say to you?” Benedict asked, his tone suddenly too light.

A flash of something flickered across Colin’s face and Benedict felt his eyes widen. Was that…guilt?

Could Colin have–

If he had, this changed everything.

If he had, Benedict was going to have words.

As Benedict opened his mouth, ready to unleash a verbal lashing he hadn’t given to Colin since he was eight and had ripped the head off of Daphne’s favorite doll, a harsh tug on his arm made Benedict completely lose his balance and momentum.


He swiveled his head down to see Eloise in all of the finery she hated aggressively pulling on his arm, trying to lead him away.

“Not now, Eloise–”

But Benedict looked up and saw that Colin had slipped away, the absolute tosspot! He’d known Benedict had been about to give him a lecture and had scampered the first chance he got.

“Brother, please!” Eloise whispered fiercely, standing on her tiptoes to reach his ear. He bent obligingly, even though he was still incredibly annoyed at this turn of events. “The Queen’s man told me they’re going to ambush Whistledown tonight. Pen is in danger!”

“What?” Benedict craned his neck up, searching the area for a flash of fiery, ginger hair. He found the other three Featheringtons quickly, but no Penelope in sight. He groaned, wiping a palm over his face. Penelope must have been so upset by Colin’s news that she’d dashed off to publish a column alone. She made terrible, reckless decisions when she was in an emotional state. He really had to discuss with her how to seek help from friends before she decided to conduct her risky exploits on her own in these situations.

“They discovered that Pen delivers her columns to the printer on Lombard street during events like this! We must warn her, or the Bow Street Runners will catch her and… and…”

Benedict’s blood ran cold. He finally knew what it meant to feel near paralyzing fear. If Penelope was caught, she would be arrested. Worse, she could be hanged for what she had written about the Queen and her subjects.

“Come on,” Benedict whispered, looping his sister’s arm though his own. She had a death grip upon his bicep as he led her away, walking as quickly as he could without drawing undue attention to themselves. As they made their way through the house, out the front door, and to the line of tethered horses and waiting carriages, Benedict barely noticed the other people and finery. He barely recognized how furious his mother would be if she realized both he and Eloise were skipping Daphne’s ball. But at the moment, none of that mattered. Only Penelope’s safety was paramount.

Benedict steered them toward Rapscallion, tethered to a post amongst many other horses. He had intended to take his loyal steed alone to the party he was supposed to meet Genevieve at, but all thoughts of hedonistic merriment had been chased away by the adrenaline pumping through his veins.

You are going to take John and the carriage, and go the typical route to Lombard street,” Benedict insisted, adjusting Rapscallion’s saddle before hoisting himself up onto the horse. “I will take the back way. One of us is bound to catch up to her if we go fast enough.”

“If one of us catches her, what do we do?” Eloise asked, clutching her hands in front of her chest. “It may be too dangerous for her to return home.”

Benedict bit his lip, a habit he realized he’d picked up from Penelope.

“Tell her to take the long way to the Granvilles’, she’ll know what to do,” Benedict said. “Make haste, El!”

As Eloise dashed to the Bridgerton carriage, Benedict kicked his horse into action and he was off down the dark streets of London.

Benedict galloped, which he knew was highly improper and highly dangerous to do on the crowded city streets. Even at night, London was full to bursting with people. But all of those damn summers where Anthony had drilled horsemanship into Benedict like a bloody general commanding an army had paid off. Benedict was swift, skilled, knowing exactly how to make sharp turns, and slow Rapscallion just in time when a person appeared on the road through the fog.

Benedict sweated bullets, keeping his eyes open for Evans atop the Featherington carriage. Maybe Eloise had caught her, he prayed she had. He was getting closer to Lombard street, too close, what if he was too late?

But as he turned the last corner he saw it, the carriage with the Featherington coat of arms emblazoned on the polished side. With a final kick he spurred Rapscallion on until he was side by side with Evans, yelling “Pull over! Now!”

Evans, so taken aback and frightened, listened on command, pulling the reins so hard, the horses came to a sudden halt and Benedict heard a thump and a yelp in the carriage itself. Stopping Rapscallion, Benedict leaped off his steed and practically yanked the carriage door off its hinges to see Penelope draped haphazardly in smoky gray cloth, the cloak nothing like her usual lady’s maid uniform. She was sprawled across the carriage, groaning as her front side rested against the opposite seat from where he assumed she had sat, her knees on the floor.

“Nel, get out now.”

Penelope’s head shot up but she moaned again, clutching her forehead.

“Benedict, what–”

“The Queen has laid a trap for you on Lombard street,” Benedict said quickly, reaching in to pull Penelope out himself. “We must divert your course!”

Penelope’s already pale face drained of what little color had remained.

“Oh God,” she muttered, but Benedict was already moving.

“Evans,” he called up, and it was a testament to the built familiarity between the two men that the coach driver sat at attention, ready to listen. “Take the carriage back to the Hastings Ball to pick up Penelope’s family. Take the longest way you can. Say Penelope went home early with a cold and is already abed.”

Evans nodded, giving one last worried look towards Penelope before whipping the coach back to life and taking off into the fog. Benedict helped Penelope mount Rapscallion, who snorted in greeting.

“We must get Eloise, now,” Benedict clicked his tongue, urging the sturdy cob forward at a much more sedate pace than he had come charging in on. “Pull your hood well over your head, hide your hair.”

Benedict deduced that Penelope must have been incredibly in shock for her to follow his orders so blindly. But, he admitted, he was thankful. He really did not need to be arguing over his domineering efforts right now.

Benedict trotted Rapscallion at a more leisurely pace, trying to appear casual. As he rounded onto Lombard Street he did not see his sister’s carriage, but he saw Eloise in her own blue cloak watching from around a corner, anxiously looking from left to right over and over again. As his horse’s hooves echoed across the dirt road Eloise looked up and smiled in relief. Benedict waved and tried to convey a sense of calm, despite the very obvious group of men lingering along every corner in various states of alertness.

“Stay here,” he whispered into Penelope’s ear as he dismounted. He saw John watching from around the sharp angle of the stone building and breathed a sigh of relief.

“Eloise,” Benedict said lowly, his voice not much more than a mumble. “Have John take you to the Granvilles’ abode. Better yet, have him follow me. We will take the long way, then I will dismiss John and have him tell Mother that you became ill and retired early. I will vouch for you if she asks.”

“Is Pen okay?” Eloise asked, twisting her fingers together.

Benedict glanced back up at Penelope, utterly still.

“She will be,” Benedict said before pushing her along. “Get in the coach. Have John follow me.”

The entire ride to the Granvilles’ home was silent. Benedict didn’t know whether to be grateful or afraid. If this had been the time before his friendship with Penelope, Benedict wouldn’t have batted an eyelash over it. He had known Penelope as quiet and shy, nothing out of the ordinary.

But now? Her silence nonplussed him. Scared him, even.

He wanted her to do something, anything. To rail, to scream, to sob her beautiful, blue eyes out.

But she simply sat there, leaning against his chest, her hood shielding her expression from him.

Benedict entered the Granvilles’ entryway without even a knock on the door, Penelope and Eloise hanging on each of his arms. John was already rushing to return the Bridgerton carriage to the Hastings Ball to feed his mother the lie Benedict had concocted. If he vouched for it in the morning, his mother should believe him… Hopefully.

The minute the front door clicked shut behind him, Penelope lowered her hood, her face oddly vacant but her shoulders relaxed a little. Eloise, however, gaped like a fish.

“You will catch a fly, Sister, if you do not shut your hanging jaw,” Benedict teased softly.

Eloise shut her mouth but glared fiercely at him, which looked rather ridiculous when coupled with her shining tiara, satin gloves, and crystal blue dress.

“You have been gallivanting off to such parties while I have been stuck at home with Mama critiquing my needlework?” she hissed. “Oh, if I had been born a man…”

Benedict briefly removed his arm from Eloise’s grasp to pluck her tiara from her head and ruffled her hair, before tossing the jewelry somewhere to the side. His sister gaped at him before pinching the place above his ribs mercilessly, and he tried not to wince as she painfully pulled at the sensitive flesh under his coat.

“Ow! El–”

“That tiara is made with real diamonds!”

“And you have at least a dozen more. You do not even like them, El.”

Eloise grumbled, taking his arm again as she used her free hand to comb her fingers through her hair, releasing her dark brown tresses from their constraints so it fell to her shoulders. Benedict nudged Penelope with his hip but, to his dismay, she didn’t react. The redhead continued to stare numbly ahead at the swirl of revelers around them.

It was a sea of people, some dressed in finery while others wore nothing at all. It was to be expected from the Granvilles; they offered a safe space from the world for people from all over the stratum of classes. But once a man wearing nothing but a pair of stag antlers on his head pranced across the hall, Benedict remembered his company and hurriedly covered both Eloise and Penelope’s eye sockets. While Eloise complained and spluttered as he steered them through the masses, Penelope gently removed his palm from blocking her vision, entwining their fingers by his side instead. She didn’t even look at him as she did it, but her grip on his hand was oddly reassuring.

Penelope appeared to know exactly where they were headed, her pace quickening along with Benedict’s as he attempted to clutch Eloise to him tightly, refusing to wince as she clawed at his large digits clasped firmly over her upper face.

“Brother, you cannot bring me to a party and not expect me to look!”

Benedict was about to respond when a seductive purr of a London accent joined in,

“Oh, so Miss Bridgerton is more like Penelope than I thought. But she is a Bridgerton, through and through.”

Benedict and Penelope turned, dragging a still wriggling Eloise with them. Genevieve stood in her black corset, her dark skin glowing in the candlelight, the elegant cigarette holder she favored held between her pointer and middle finger.

“I apologize for the unexpected guests, Gen,” Benedict started but Genevieve shook her head, her unbound curls bouncing across her shoulders.

“It is quite alright. Penelope has a standing invitation,” her smile was curved, enchanting even as she winked at Penelope. Yet, when Penelope didn’t respond, her grin fell and she raised an eyebrow at Benedict.

“I promise to explain later,” Benedict said, clutching the quiet woman’s hand in his like a lifeline. “You can find us in the music room. I am afraid I cannot–”

It hung in the air, unspoken, the original plans for that night ashes on the floor between him and Genvieve. He expected anger, at the very least displeasure. But to his relief Genevieve stepped forward to kiss Penelope’s cheeks.

“Take care of our girl,” Genevieve tucked stray ember curls behind Penelope’s ears. Penelope actually looked up, silent tears now falling down her cheeks. “I will let Lucy and Henry know that revelry is not on the agenda for the three of you.”

Benedict sighed gratefully and bent down to kiss her. At the last moment Genvieve turned so his lips grazed her cheek.

“Go,” she said, shooing them away. “The music room is relatively empty.”

Benedict nodded, choosing not to think too closely on the chaste kiss. It was Penelope who needed him, he had an obligation to her. He wanted to comfort her. She was his friend, after all.

After successfully maneuvering their small group into the music room, blissfully sparse on people, he finally released his younger sister. She swatted his hand, petulantly sticking her tongue at him before re-focusing on her friend. Her expression significantly grew somber when she caught a glimpse of the tears rolling down Penelope’s face.

“Oh, Pen. What happened?”

At the simple question, Penelope’s resolve crumbled and dissolved like a sand castle that met the tide. Her face crumpled and she scrunched her nose, making a valiant effort not to start sobbing in the middle of the room. Eloise took Penelope’s hand from Benedict’s, leaving him oddly bereft. Before truly knowing what he was doing, he prompted both young women to a settee that had been pushed against the wall, layered with cushions. He grabbed the fabric and threw them to the floor, making a sort of nest before lowering them down and out of direct eyesight from the few men and women in the room. Penelope’s tears had briefly distracted the group sat by the pianoforte, a group of bluestockings and radicals talking politics who, thankfully, averted their gaze.

“Nel,” Benedict implored, but was distracted when two sets of hands thrust glasses and two wine bottles into his face.

There stood Henry and Lucy, all kind eyes and gentle smiles.

“I think you may need some medicinal aid,” Henry shrugged.

Benedict scratched his head before taking the proffered bottles while Lucy passed out the glasses, wiping away Penelope’s tears and whispering sweet nothings as she did so.

“Let us know if you need anything else,” Henry said, clapping Benedict’s shoulder. “Take good care of our girl.”

Benedict couldn’t help the snort he emitted, much like Rapscallion when the great beast thought he was being ridiculous.

“I know. She was my friend first. Why does everyone keep telling me that?”

“It always bears reminding,” Lucy said after giving Penelope a tight hug, straightening up. “Especially in the beginning.”

Benedict furrowed his brows.

“The begin–”

But he was cut off when Henry leaned down to kiss Penelope’s head, the married couple waving as they left the room as swiftly and quietly as they came. A strange flutter in his chest that both made him want to squirm and stay frozen in place took over for a moment before he shook it off. The wine was quickly poured and he waited for Penelope to take several, calming sips before trying again.

“Nel, what happened?” When Penelope stared at him blankly he needled a bit more. “You usually only decide to publish by yourself so recklessly when you become…emotionally compromised. You were conversing with Colin before you fled the ball. What transpired?”

Penelope bit her bottom lip, worrying the tender flesh between her teeth. Like clockwork, Benedict carefully pulled her lower lip down and out of harm’s way, his thumb pad lingering on the pink skin until Eloise spoke, startling him.

“Pen, please. If Colin was an ass in any way, I will throttle him myself.”

Penelope huffed a wet, bitter laugh that caused Benedict to scoot closer to her side, as if he could absorb not only the sound but the pain with his body.

“He told me he was going to Greece, that is all,” Penelope sniffled, taking another fortifying sip of red wine. “He thanked me for my friendship and then told me he was leaving.”

While Eloise co*cked her head in confusion, Benedict untied his cravat, loosening the tight hold on his windpipe. He’d had an inkling as to the information Penelope wasn’t filling in for them. He had always known, as many of them had, that Penelope’s tendre for Colin had been strong since she was a child. It appeared Penelope might have finally found the courage to try and tell him and had been soundly, carefully pushed aside in a desperate attempt to keep the status quo.

Colin was incredibly kind, but there were some changes in life he feared above all else. The world could advance, the scenery could fluctuate. None of that bothered the third Bridgerton brother. But after their father’s death and now with Lady Wetherby’s betrayal and new marriage, Colin did not want to see change in his relationships with others.

It was too frightening.

“Did you try to inform him of your feelings?” Benedict asked, his palm settling on the creamy fabric draped over her thigh.

Penelope stiffened as Eloise’s eyes widened bigger than a barn owl’s.

Penelope could barely glance at Eloise, utterly mortified, tears anew formed in her eyes. Benedict suddenly realized he’d probably made quite the faux pas. It had been one thing, for it to have been an unspoken acknowledgement between them. That Penelope’s love for Colin was transparent to him.

But he’d just carelessly revealed that truth in front of Eloise. A friend to Penelope, yes. But she would undoubtedly scoff at the idea of Colin being a man of interest to anyone. Especially her dearest friend.

“You have feelings for Colin?” Eloise hissed, nose wrinkling though she kept a firm hold on Penelope’s arm. It appeared she couldn’t decide whether she was disgusted, astonished, or anything in-between.

Benedict grimaced, taking his own sip of wine. He let the dry, tangy flavor sit on his tongue for a moment, centering his thoughts. Blackberries seemed to burst on the back of his tongue and he wondered vaguely how the flavor would transform if he pressed closer to inhale Penelope’s ginger scent. It’d be like mulled wine at Christmas, he was sure.

“Forgive me, Penelope. But it became, um, obvious to me when you were a child. You had not seemed to let your affections go as you grew, so I just assumed.”

Benedict tried to shrug nonchalantly. It was best not to inform the poor woman that both he, Daphne, Francesca, and even Violet had discussed it in passing at times. Well, the women of his family had, all while he eavesdropped like the gossip mongrel he was. (Truly, how no one had accused him of being Lady Whistledown was shocking). The only reason Hyacinth remained unaware was simply because she was too busy mocking Gregory for his own tendre for Penelope. Anthony was oblivious in that regard, Eloise was too focused on Penelope being her friend, while Colin… Well, he was far too intent on preserving his friendship with the youngest Featherington.

Penelope moaned before gulping down the rest of her glass of wine. The wine bottle almost magically appeared in Penelope’s hand as she refilled her glass. Benedict would normally stop her, but he had a feeling she would need all the liquid courage she could get to unburden herself of her personal embarrassment.

“Why did you never tell me?” Eloise asked and Penelope shot Eloise a guilty, sidelong look.

“I was afraid you would mock me for it. I know you dream of us being spinsters together one day, and being in love with your brother…”

Eloise took a sip of her own wine before resting her cheek on Penelope’s shoulder.

“I mean, you are not exactly wrong,” Eloise admitted and Benedict glared at her. “All of my brothers are complete fools, even my favorite. But, Pen, I would have listened to you. You’re my dearest friend.”

Benedict was not exactly sure if that statement was true. Oh, he knew Eloise believed it to be and that she loved Penelope more than the rest of her siblings put together. The Eloise of now would have listened to Penelope’s heartaches, after poking fun at her for a few glorious moments. But the Eloise of even a few months ago? Benedict wasn’t so sure she wouldn’t have exploded at the idea of anyone else monopolizing Penelope’s attention other than her.

Pride swelled in his chest though at his sister’s support. Still Eloise, a little sharp at the edges, but full of a fierce love that couldn’t be dampened.

“Thank you,” Penelope whispered. “It’s just, I wanted to tell him how I felt. So I could at least be rejected, so I could let go… But he spoke first. He is leaving and in a way it was like a rejection. An admission that he could never even think of me in such a way. Yet I am still left with these feelings tangled up inside me, unable to release them. It hurts, El.”

Finally Penelope began to sob, small little hiccups that vibrated her chest and caused her to curl in on herself.

“Pen,” Eloise tucked herself closer into her friend’s side, a tad unsure.

Benedict could see how his sister searched in vain for words on how to comfort her friend. Love and the heartache it could bring was not a subject she was familiar with, nor did Eloise seek to become acquainted with romance on any level. Instead, Eloise sought out her wine for answers and Benedict had to resist massaging his temples in frustration. He would soon have two very sloshed, very forlorn, possibly crying women to contend with. Wine and sad women were never a clever combination.

But before Benedict could offer any advice, a voice high and shrill carried through the corridor outside.

“Oh, Lord Almighty, what a night! Murder, Gen! I ‘ad to contend with murder!”

“Shhhh, Charlotte! My dear, what in the bloody blazes–”

“Lord Featherington, it was! Came in all high and mighty, ready to have his co*ck sucked off. And the Madam led him to the best room, where they waited for him! Those skeezy men who own the gambling hells. Forced ‘im, they did. To drink poison–”

Benedict’s sharp eyes could see Genevieve from the hallway glancing frantically into the music room, pushing Charlotte out of earshot. But the damage was done, it was far too late. By the pallid color of her skin, Penelope had heard everything.

Whatever little control Penelope maintained broke violently, wracking sobs consuming her, filling the small room with such noise that the remaining occupants stared in horror. Eloise rose to her feet, shooting daggers with her stare alone as she hustled them out and away. Benedict wasted no time. Without thinking of himself or propriety, he wrapped his hands around Penelope’s hips and lifted her between his legs. Swiftly he untied his cravat, ready to use it to clean her cheeks later. He settled her so she wailed into the crook of his neck, one of his hands caressing her belly while the other cradled her head. His knees bent up to create a protective shield around her as he kissed her forehead, urging her to breathe.

When the door slammed shut, Eloise hurried over and settled on Penelope’s other side in front of her brother’s shins, bracketing her between the two siblings.

“Shhhhh, Nel, shhhhhh,” he soothed, his lips brushing across her tangled fiery tresses. Eloise worked to remove all remaining pins from Penelope’s hair, tossing them haphazardly to the scarlet carpeted floor. “God, Nel, I am so sorry. But we are here, we understand.”

Eloise’s chin wobbled as she gently worked her fingers through Penelope’s unbound hair.

“We know what it is like to lose a dear papa,” Eloise said, her voice breaking. “Oh, Pen, I am so sorry. Maybe she got it wrong.”

But the words sounded blatantly hollow and untrue.

“W-What a-am I to d-d-do?” Penelope stuttered, and Benedict felt the wetness on his neck drip down his sternum like a knife tearing through the sensitive flesh. “Without P-Papa, w-we will truly h-have n-nothing.”

“You have us,” he breathed into her hair, the smell of salt and ginger making him feel at a loss. “Bridgertons take care of their own. You have us.”

Penelope had finally fallen asleep in his lap early in the morning. The blankets that Lucy and Charlotte had brought to cover Benedict’s friend and sister had been tucked around their bodies. Charlotte felt awful after she’d learned that Penelope had not only been at the party but had heard Charlotte’s tactless account of the event. The woman promised Benedict to look more closely into the baron’s death, swearing she’d do anything to help the distraught redhead in his arms.

The music room had settled and Benedict’s right leg had gone completely numb with the weight of Penelope’s head on his thigh and Eloise’s propped up with a pillow against his knee. While Eloise snored, sprawled out in the carpeted space, her arms and legs already sticking out of the red, woolen blanket that Lucy had covered her with, Penelope remained tucked compactly into the space between his thighs. Her back pressed against him as he held her round stomach, holding her fast as her sticky cheeks dried. Absentmindedly, he used his cravat to dab at drying trail of tears. Her eyes were red and swollen even in sleep, and Benedict feared she would sob anew when she woke and remembered the losses that befell her that night; Colin’s rejection and her father’s murder.

Shifting his weight so the leg of the sofa behind him supported more of him, his lower back aching and stiff, he gingerly began to run his fingers through her tangled curls. The fire that licked across his skin, wrapping around his knuckles, glowed in the dim candlelight of the room. He was struck, suddenly, by Penelope's choice of inspiration when they had drawn Charlotte a few nights ago. Was that only a few nights ago? It felt like an eternity.

Ariadne, abandoned on Naxos, laying across the rocks in her grief. Abandoned by Theseus after working so hard to literally weave a new life for herself. She defied her father, aided in the murder of her brother, all for the sake of love and freedom… Yet she was left to rot by the treacherous sea. A steady rising of something warm and liquid filled his chest, his very lungs, like red wine being poured into a waiting glass. He wanted to be her comfort, her Dionysus who took her away from the world that treated her so cruelly. He wanted to shower her with all of the affection and endearments until she felt cocooned in safety, just enough to allow her to finally grow so she could one day flourish.

God, in that wretchedly tender moment, that was all he wanted in the world.

He refused to analyze it too closely as he bent over her, detangling her fiery red tresses, circling her belly, his mouth so close to her face that his warm breath was a caress on her cheek.

He refused to define the emotion, and he refused to acknowledge Henry lingering at the edge of the entryway, watching them intently.

It was too raw, too real. Part of Benedict wanted to run.

But as his hand moved against her belly, the rise and fall of her chest moved her stomach. Knowing air flowed in and out of her body settled him as he held her.

And Benedict knew, in that moment, he could do nothing but stay.

Penelope didn’t come to say goodbye until Colin had rode off and out of sight.

Benedict knew, however, that she’d watched from her window. He’d seen the flash of her fiery hair through the glass as Colin glanced up at the Featherington home. Avoiding Colin’s searching gaze could now be added to the long repertoire that Penelope was refining. But Benedict felt a little hollow at the thought. It still meant it would take much effort for Penelope to release her heart from Colin’s grip.

If she ever could.

“Will Pen be alright?” Colin asked from atop his horse, still staring at the house now filled with mourning.

Benedict bit back his sardonic retort: If she will not be, would that actually stop you from leaving?

Benedict already knew the answer.

Instead, he replied,

“Eloise will support her every step of the way.”

As will I.

Colin lifted his top hat in goodbye to his family, all but Eloise who had headed straight towards Featherington House as soon as it was appropriate. As Colin trotted off to catch his boat to the Continent, Benedict loathed himself. There was a part of him that wanted to beg Colin to stay for Penelope’s sake.

But a slightly larger part of him wanted Colin to leave, not look back, and let Benedict take care of her.

He didn’t know what that said about himself.

But later that day when the whole family packed their belongings into carriages, ready to close their London home until autumn, Penelope crossed the street to say farewell. Benedict and Eloise chatted as he packed his saddle bags. He would be spending the first half of the summer at his country property in Wiltshire, My Cottage. There would be nothing better to do but to sit and soak in the air and scenery. He couldn’t wait for the thunderstorms that would bring his small garden of strawberries to life, and lazy afternoons where he’d simply lay out under the sun. He loved nothing more than to sketch and dream in the haze of summer, serene and languid.

Eloise hugged Penelope so hard Benedict actually heard her back pop.

“Write to me?” Eloise asked, stepping back, swinging her friend’s hands between them.

“Every day,” Penelope replied, her voice faint and hoarse from crying.

Benedict stepped forward then and peered around to make sure no one, especially his mother, was watching. He cupped Penelope’s cheek, letting his palm absorb her warmth before trailing his fingers across the round skin to gingerly tweak her nose. A faint blush spread across her cheeks and he reveled in it.

“Write to me as well?” he asked. “I will grow jealous if Eloise gets to have all of the fun.”

“I doubt I will have anything of note to report,” Penelope rolled her eyes, brushing invisible lint from her dark, mourning dress.

“Then I shall tell you of all of my dazzling exploits,” Benedict tupped her chin before smiling so wide he could feel the corners of his eyes crease. “And you can tell me what a twat I am.”

That brought forth the giggle he wanted, that he craved to hear, bubble from her lips once more. The little victories mattered, after all.

“Will you be in London or your country estate?” Eloise asked.

“If you were to ask Mama, we would be going to our country home. But,” Penelope hesitated for only a moment before continuing. “We have lost all of our staff except Missus Varley. The money Papa lost… We have nothing. We cannot afford the servants and upkeep to stay there this summer, so we will be staying here in London.”

Benedict and Eloise shared a nervous look with each other. The Featherington women were utterly destitute, and Penelope could not risk using her Whistledown funds without fear of her mother finding out and stealing it.

“That is why,” Penelope said, with more bravado than she probably felt. “I have come to give you this.”

Penelope reached into the valley of her breasts and Benedict pointedly looked up at the sky, feeling his neck flush from more than the summer heat. He swore he heard Rapscallion huff behind him. He heard a jangle of coin and he looked down to see that Penelope had somehow been concealing a large bag of coins. She opened the drawstring and grabbed a handful of them, counting carefully she shoved a few each into Eloise and Benedict’s grasps.

“What? Pen–”


“Hush,” she commanded, smiling despite her still ruddy face. “That is your wages for helping me this year. I will not take it back!” She then pushed the bag into Benedict’s chest and he had to scramble to catch it. “And the rest of that shall be put into the account you promised to open for me. It is my only salvation now. I cannot risk anyone taking what I have earned from me.”

Benedict clutched the money to his chest as though she had given him the crown jewels or her very heart.

“Nel, I swear I shall make sure this shall be safeguarded in a secure account for you. You deserve freedom and safety.”

Penelope swiped a bit of moisture from the tops of her cheeks.

“I am glad you agree.”

Benedict wanted to hug her, hold her impossibly close. Tell her over and over that all would be set right in the end.

Instead he made a show of counting the coins she’d given him.

“What? Why, Lady Whistledown, is this how you pay your employees? I would like to ask for a wage increase!”

She laughed again and, even as Eloise hit him, it was Penelope’s laughter that filled his soul and echoed through his mind the whole ride from London to Wiltshire.


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Unspooled Thread - happilyinsane13 - Bridgerton (TV) [Archive of Our Own] (2024)


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