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Isn't That a Wonder

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Seven Years Earlier…

Waiting outside a Buffalo hotel in April was not the best decision Penelope Featherington had made in her life. It wasn't winter cold, but it certainly wasn't the spring they were experiencing in Brooklyn.

But the lobby had been full of the entire Yale hockey team and their families, and Penelope decidedly wasn't one of them. She was sure that Mrs. Bridgerton and Eloise would insist otherwise and claim she was one of the family, but Penelope knew better. She also knew she needed a minute to herself before she joined the entire Bridgerton clan in taking Colin out to celebrate Yale's national championship. And besides all that, she needed to psych herself up to be able to speak more than two words to him.

Colin Bridgerton had the ability to turn her into a stuttering, blushing twelve year old and the worst part was that he didn't even know it.

The sliding doors to the Hyatt opened and Penelope turned her head to look to see if it was anyone she knew. Sure enough, Colin and Eloise stepped through the doors and they were having an argument of some kind, if Eloise's emphatic hand waving was anything to go by and after a decade of friendship, Penelope was fairly sure she was fluent.

She sunk back behind the pillar she was standing next to. She definitely didn't want to be involved in whatever that fight was about.

"No," said Colin, when they were close enough for her to hear. "Absolutely not, Eloise."

"But why?" argued Eloise, right back. "I'm telling you, you'd be lucky to go on a date with Penelope. She's sweet and she's kind and she actually has a brain in her head, unlike most of the groupies who float around ice rinks."

"I go to Yale," Colin said. He scrubbed his hands across his face, looking frustrated. "Look, I'm sure Penelope is all those things. She seems like a really nice girl. But I'm probably moving across the country in a few weeks and even if I wasn't, I just don't see her like that."

Behind the pillar, Penelope made a noise. She didn't mean to, she absolutely didn't want anyone to know she was standing there, having her heart broken into a million pieces at her feet.

But Eloise turned, and her eyes went wide. "Pen--"

Penelope shook her head, frantically, trying to stop her from finishing. It was too late.

Colin's head snapped in her direction and his eyes went wide, in a horrible mirror of his sister's. They'd never looked more alike. "Penelope."

She closed her eyes, took a breath. She summoned every bit of courage and dignity she'd learned as a wallflower at every middle and high school dance and wrapped it around herself like a shield. "Congratulations, Colin."

He looked distraught. She was sure he was. Whatever else she knew about Colin Bridgerton, he wasn't cruel. "I didn't know you were standing there. I'm so--"

She held up her hand to stop him. "Don't," she said

"But--" he tried again.

"It's not necessary," she said. If he apologized, she would lose it. And if she lost it, she would only humiliate herself further. "I didn't hear anything."

Eloise frowned at her. "But--"

"Nothing," repeated Penelope. "Do we all understand each other?"

Eloise and Colin traded looks, neither of them particularly happy ones.

"Yes," said Eloise.

"Yes," said Colin.

"Good," said Penelope. She checked her watch. "Aren't we supposed to be meeting everyone for dinner right now?"

As if on cue, the rest of the assorted Bridgerton clan tumbled through those same doors that Colin and Eloise had come through only minutes before. Penelope lost herself in the group, steering as far away from the two that had witnessed her complete and utter humiliation as possible.

But it didn't matter.

For once, Colin Bridgerton couldn't take his eyes off her. For once, he knew that she, Penelope Featherington, existed.

Penelope wished she had never heard his name.

Another trade deadline has come and gone with nary a blockbuster deal to be found. Remind me again why we still care about this artificial hockey holiday?

The day was not without any drama, however. Rumors began swirling early that Colin Bridgerton, long rumored as a potential trade deadline rental on an expiring contract, was not available after all. Post-deadline, Vancouver announced that Mr. Bridgerton suffered a season ending ankle injury, effectively ending his career in a Canucks uniform.

Will the long wandering Bridgerton brother be coming home at last? We'll tell you when we find out.

~ Excerpted from Sources Say, The New York Post

"Colin's going to be pissed," Eloise said, dropping her her phone to the couch. "I don't understand how she always knows first. If I didn't know I wasn't her, I'd think that I had to be for all the Bridgerton scoops she's gotten over the years."

Penelope looked up from her laptop. It wasn't the first time this topic of conversation had come up over the years. After five years of being roommates, she knew how this played out. "You think Sources Say is a woman?"

Eloise sat up and glared at Penelope from across the room. "You know that I do."

"I think you're being awfully gender essentialist is all," said Penelope. "Plenty of men enjoy a good gossip session. It wouldn't be such a popular column otherwise."

Eloise groaned. "I know you're right, but there's no way that it's not a woman. You work there, how do you not know?"

"Above my paygrade, I'm afraid," Penelope said lightly. This was the trickiest part of the conversation. Early deflection was key. "Us lowly research assistants never hear any of the good dirt."

"You're lying, but I'll let you get away with it, because I'm too happy that Colin is coming home." She grinned. "And so is my mother."

"Uh oh," said Penelope, her eyes fixed firmly on the laptop. No article she'd ever worked on was more interesting than what was on the screen in front of her. "Does he know he's in for the wrath of the matchmaking mama?"

"He's not stupid," Eloise said. "So I have to think yes. I question his choice to move back in with mom, though, even if it's temporary. You couldn't pay me to live there again."

"Are you doing his move, then?" Penelope asked. "Vancouver to New York is a lot."

Eloise nodded. "As if I would let anyone else handle it. And Colin's not foolish enough to try. He's always been my favorite brother for a reason."

Penelope stifled a laugh. Eloise still hadn't forgiven Anthony for trying to hire someone else to coordinate his family's move out to Connecticut. "I'm sure he realizes what a great honor that is. You have so many brothers to choose from."

Eloise threw a pillow at her. It landed about two feet away from her, on the ground.

"My point stands," Penelope said. She looked at her laptop one more time and closed it in disgust. She wasn't getting anything done, so she might as well stop pretending she was. "Want to order dinner?"

"Can't," said Eloise. "Mom wants all Bridgertons in city limits to be there when Colin's flight gets in tonight. You could come if you want."

Penelope shook her head. It wasn't that she'd avoided Colin since that night--she couldn't, not when she was best friends with his sister. But she made it a point to limit being where he was as much as humanly possible. "I'm sure that your mom would rather it was just family. Colin, too. That's a long flight."

Eloise stood. "Are you sure?"

"Yes. I'll call my sister--the good one," Penelope added, before Eloise could think to add any form of commentary. "Since your sister will be otherwise occupied this evening, maybe she'll want to come over and watch Netflix and order Thai with me."

"Save me the leftovers!"

With an order and a goodbye, all in one, Eloise darted for the door. Penelope watched her go with amused fondness. She loved her friend, truly she did, but spending so much time talking to her staff and clients online sometimes had a negative effect on her in person communication skills. Why do something as pedestrian as saying a farewell, after all, when you had an automated signature block that took care of that problem for you?

With a sigh, Penelope picked up her own phone to text Felicity. There was a good chance that she'd be out with her new boyfriend, Geoff.

Maybe they could both come over if she promised to feed them. College students liked that.

It was official. Penelope was old.

***

Colin Bridgerton was hungry, but that wasn't really a surprise. He was always hungry.

He was particularly hungry now, though, because he'd been on a flight for almost six hours and then had to go through customs while on crutches and that wasn't anyone's idea of a good time, least of all his. It was a good thing that he was paying Eloise to ship almost all of his life back to New York, because if he'd had to carry more than the bag on his back, he would have either done a murder or sat down and cried in the JFK airtrain.

"More sandwiches?" his mother asked, holding a plate out in front of him.

He took two and looked up at her, with a sheepish smile. "Thanks, mom."

She didn't ruffle his hair, but Colin could tell she wanted to. "I'm just glad to have you home. Even if you're going to double my grocery order."

"Triple," said Anthony, from across the room. He sat with his two year old son, Edmund, on his knee. The kid was making a valiant effort to stay awake after what Colin was sure was his bedtime, but he was clearly fading fast. Not even the bouncing that Anthony was doing seemed to be having an effect.

Their mother noticed too. "Anthony, that child should be in bed."

Anthony looked at the clock and winced. "Kate's going to kill me, isn't she?"

Violet nodded. "Your sister put the girls down upstairs in her old room. You can tuck him in with them."

"Where is Daff anyway?" Colin asked, looking around the room. His sister--and her husband, for that matter--seemed to be missing.

Only five of his siblings had made it home for his inglorious homecoming. Benedict was in Buffalo, of course, and Francesca was off in Canada learning to own a professional sports franchise. But Eloise and Hyacinth were sitting on the couch together, having a hushed debate over something on one of their phones. Anthony was taking his son upstairs to bed. And Gregory was sitting across from him at the table, stuffing his face in a way that Colin was certain the Devils trainer would make him pay for the next day. But then that was one of the joys of being only twenty years old. His eldest sister was conspicuously absent.

His mother put on her best I don't know what you're talking about face. "They must be upstairs checking on the girls."

"Nope," said Eloise, from the couch.

Violet frowned at her. "In the kitchen, then."

"Still no," said Hyacinth.

"Maybe they went for a walk to take advantage of having a house full of baby-sitters," Violet said through gritted teeth. "It's very difficult to manage that kind of time to yourselves when you have children, which is something I hope all of you learn some day."

"If that's the case, why are they having another kid?" Gregory asked, between bites of food. "Because Daff totally bolted for the bathroom after you brought the sandwiches in."

Colin looked at his brother. So did his sisters and mother.

"What?" asked Gregory defensively. "I'm not, like, a cretin. I've seen her do this twice before."

"Sadly, he's right," said Daphne coming back into the room, Simon at her heels. "Surprise! You're going to have another niece or nephew."

The room erupted in hugs and belly pats and Daphne bearing it all with the good humor that she was known for, while Simon looked on proudly and with concern. Colin didn't imagine his brother-in-law was looking forward to the prospect of the facing down a post-season run while his wife was day by day increasingly pregnant.

"At least someone in this family managed to announce a pregnancy before that horrid gossip column got ahold of the news," said Violet. She patted Daphne's arm. "I'm so thrilled for you. Three grandchildren!"

"You read that column first thing every morning," said Hyacinth.

Violet flushed to her ears. "Can I help it if it's the only way to keep up with my children's exploits?"

"Sure, Mom," said Eloise. "We'll go with that."

"How did they find out you were moving home?" Violet asked, turning to Colin with naked determination to shut down other forms of conversation written large on her face. "You hadn't even told me yet."

Colin shrugged. He didn't know and he didn't especially want to. He didn't like his every move being watched like that, but he'd learned a long time ago that it came with the territory. "Wasn't hard to figure out, I guess. Not a whole lot keeping me in Vancouver with my contract up and my bum ankle."

Violet cleared her throat delicately. "Not even a special lady friend? Or a special man, I'm really not picky these days."

"Oh, ho ho," chortled Eloise. "Welcome home, Colin. You are officially on Mother Bridgerton's marriage hot seat and let me tell you, you are welcome to it."

Violet started protesting, but Colin had a horrible feeling that his sister was right.

He'd just moved back in, but he had to get out of the house. Immediately.

***

Penelope was waiting to meet Eloise for lunch in Bryant Park. It was unexpectedly warm for March, and so it seemed like the entire city had had the same idea. Eloise was late, which wasn't a surprise, but Penelope hoped that she'd show soon. Her stomach was growling so loudly that she was afraid passers-by would hear it and stare.

Finally, Penelope spotted her. She started to raise her arm, to wave Eloise over, when she realized that Eloise wasn't alone. Her arm hung there, in half raised limbo, not sure whether to actually alert Eloise to her presence or to run away and lose herself in the crowd.

Because Eloise had brought Colin, and Penelope was not at all prepared to see him. She'd learned to manage being around him, sure, without giving away the embarrassment of seven years earlier that still had her wanting to sink into the floor. But that was when she had time to prepare, not when he was thrust on her completely unawares.

This was mean of Eloise. And what's more, it was probably the point. Eloise didn't like that her best friend and her brother had trouble being in the same room together, so she was going to fix it. Too bad that no one had asked her.

Eloise and Colin reached her and Penelope lowered her arm in what she hoped was the least awkward way possible. "Hi, there," she said stiffly. "You brought Colin!"

Colin frowned at his sister. "You told me Penelope knew I was coming."

Eloise waved a hand through the air. "I meant to tell her this morning, but she left for work early." She squeezed Penelope's arm. "You don't mind, do you?"

Penelope forced a smile. "Of course not. Welcome home, Colin."

"Thanks," he said, leaning in to give her an air hug, and Penelope tried not to be stiff as a board as he did so. "Appreciate you letting me crash. I had to get out of the house for a little while. Mom was driving me nuts."

"I can only imagine." She nodded towards the cane he was using. "No more crutches?"

"Nah," he said. "They gave me a walking boot and the cane and told me not to over do it."

"So of course he is," interjected Eloise.

"I'm sorry, are you my mother?" asked Colin.

Penelope could see where this was going. "Not to get in the way of a sibling spat, but lunch? Some of us are on the clock."

"Sorry, Pen," said Eloise. "Chopt, maybe?"

"Sure." Penelope wasn't at all in the mood for a salad, in fact her appetite had gone entirely off, but at least it was close. "Colin?"

"It's your party," he said. "I'm the intruder, remember?"

Yes. She remembered. It was the entire problem.

"Great!" Penelope said brightly. "Overpriced salads it is. Shall we go?"

***

Contrary to public opinion of professional athletes, Colin wasn't an idiot. He'd gone to Yale and he'd graduated, which he couldn't have done if he was a complete moron.

Well. There was the small matter of the 43rd President to consider.

But even if he was book stupid, he was great with people and he could read a room and the room was telling him that Penelope Featherington didn't want him within a city block of her. It stung a little, because Colin liked being liked and he'd thought--maybe naively--that they'd put the truly unfortunate incident of almost a decade ago behind them.

Everything about Penelope's body language, though, said that it was still sitting there on a shitty wooden table in the middle of Manhattan.

Colin didn't like it. And on top of that, he didn't know when he'd become just so aware of Penelope's body. Because he could tell himself that it was just about it being awkward all he wanted, but that was another lie.

He was looking at Penelope and he was liking what he was seeing.

A pair of fingers snapped in his face, and Colin startled, knocking into his glass of water. Penelope caught it and righted it before it could do any damage and Colin turned to glare at his sister. "What the fuck was that for?"

"You were on planet Colin," Eloise said. "Care to share?"

"No," he said shortly. He looked at Penelope. "Good reflexes. You should have been a goalie."

"Ew, no," said Eloise. "Too many hockey players in my life already. But Penelope's been taking boxing classes, so maybe that's where it came from."

Colin eyed Penelope with even more interest. Never in a million years would he have imagined her doing that. "Boxing, huh? I'd like to see you."

Penelope flushed and looked down at her salad. "It's good exercise."

"You should take him to your gym sometime!" Eloise said. Colin looked sideways at his sister, and he swore it was like she was trying to stop herself from clapping her hands together. "Weren't you telling me you needed a new hobby since you're in rehab?"

"Yes," he said. "But I'm not sure that throwing punches and dancing around a boxing ring are the light exercise my physical therapist prescribed."

Eloise snorted. "Neither was taking the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan, and yet here we are."

Colin looked at Penelope, who was trying to fight back a smile and losing terribly. "I'd apologize for my sister, but since you live with her, I'm sure none of this is a surprise to you."

Penelope shook her head. "I don't know, sometimes she's worse. You must be a bad influence."

"Penelope!" Eloise said, aghast. "You take that back. But not the part about him being worse. Because that's definitely true."

"I don't know how your mother made it through eight of you," Penelope said. "Do you frequently send her gifts thanking her for not leaving you all to be raised by a pack of wolves? Because you should really consider it."

Well, look at that. The shy kitten wasn't a kitten at all. Colin looked at his sister. "Did you know she had claws?"

Eloise looked at him like he was stupid. "She's my best friend."

And that was fair enough. No one was going to keep up with his sister for long if they didn't have the ability to stand up for themselves. "Anyway, could I come to your gym sometime, Penelope? I don't know if I can get in the ring yet, but I'd like to see it. Maybe I can take it up later this summer after the ankle heals up some more."

"Sure," said Penelope. She looked square at him, and her next words were a dare. "If you think you're up for it."

Colin smiled.

There were few things he responded to in life better than dares. Maybe it came from being the third brother, or the member of the family who had to work hardest at hockey, or maybe it was just who he was. But a dare, once issued, was sacred. He didn't forget and he didn't walk away. Penelope had just guaranteed herself a sparring partner, and she didn't even know it.

"You're on."

Dearest readers, lest you think that I'm nothing like you, know that I spent last week's warm spell reacquainting myself with the parks in our fair city, just like all of you did. And while I was enjoying Mother Nature's bounty, do you know what I spied with my own two little eyes?

Colin Bridgerton. In Bryant Park. Sharing lunch with two women.

Now, judging by appearance, one of the women could only have been a Bridgerton sister, so that's not of any real interest to those of us who love our gossip. And sadly, the other woman didn't seem at all like the type to attract a hockey player. (Too mousy.) Still, beggars can't be choosers, and we'll keep our eyes out in case we spot her with him again. Maybe then she'll be worth tracking down to get a name.

~ Excerpted from Sources Say, The New York Post

"Featherington! Get in here."

Penelope winced and pushed her rolling chair back from her desk. When the sports editor bellowed, you went, even if you were in the middle of fact checking ten different stories for tomorrow's edition.

She pushed open his half-closed door. "You rang?"

George Rokesby looked at her over his laptop screen. "Close the door and sit down."

She obeyed him on the former, but stayed standing, her hands gripping the back of one of his visitor chairs like a vise. "What's going on?"

"Explain today's column. What are you doing in it?"

Ah. Well, she'd thought he'd have questions about that. It was nice to be able to predict someone's reactions after nearly seven years of working together. "I'm not mentioned by name."

George snorted. "Next answer."

Penelope sighed, and this time she sat. "I didn't see a way around it. I did have lunch with Colin and his sister, and if I didn't mention the sighting, someone would have written in saying Sources Say was out of date. At least this way it sounds far more salacious than it is and my part of it should be quickly forgotten."

"I wouldn't be so sure about that," said George grimly. "I got a call from the gossip columnist at the Daily News. She was mighty interested in the identity of Bridgerton's mystery woman."

Penelope was struck by the very sudden urge to throw up. "Cressida Cowper?"

"Sounds right. It was some stupid fancy name like that." He eyed her suspiciously. "Do you two know each other?"

"She was in my class at CUNY." She paused, tried to think of how to say the next part without sounding like a pathetic bullying victim, even if that's exactly what she was. "We didn't get along."

"You're usually a better liar," George said.

He was right. God knew, she wouldn't be sitting in this office if that weren't true. "What's the bottom line, George"

"Cre-whatever seemed pretty determined to out you--column you, not you you--so I'm just warning you, Penelope, that you need to be careful. Stay away from places you'll be seen with any single Bridgerton men, would you?"

Penelope stared at him, shocked. To her complete surprise, he seemed almost genuinely concerned. "Are you worried about me?"

"I just don't want to have to replace you in the middle of the playoffs," he said.

Ah. That was the George she knew. She stood, brushing the front of her pants. "Sure thing, boss. Avoid all public entanglements with Bridgertons. Shouldn't be a problem, seeing as I live with one."

"Get out."

Penelope went and she was smiling, but that smile was a cover for the sheer, unrelenting panic that was gripping her stomach. She'd always had a fear of being outed to the public, but something about the hunter being Cressida made it a million times worse. Still, she had been hunted before, and by better journalists, and she'd managed to stay under wraps.

But those people were hunting Sources Say. Cressida was hunting Penelope.

And she wasn't at all sure which she was more afraid of being revealed.

***

Colin wasn't sure what the worst part of living with his mother as a 29 year-old man was.

It could have been that his mother thought nothing of barging into his room looking for enough clothes to top off her load of laundry. It could have been that his mother had more of a social life than he did, and that half the time he came home from physical therapy he found her gone with a note telling him to not wait up and the other half, the house was filled with friends who couldn't wait to either pinch Colin's cheek or set him up with their daughters.

And none of that was even counting that he couldn't even take advantage of being close enough to go watch his brothers play, because when he'd tried, every sports page in the city had printed rumors about his free agent intentions.

Colin's only intention was to play hockey again. It was too bad no one believed him.

"Why don't you go out?" his mother asked one evening, while she was getting ready to go see Anthony and Simon play at the Garden, and he was sitting around with his ankle propped up, flipping through the channels on her television. "Go find some bar where they're not showing sports and deny who you are if anyone asks."

He lifted his foot. "This is kind of a dead giveaway if someone is asking who I am."

"Pfft," said Violet, waving a hand in the air. "You forget that I lived through your teenage years. I have every confidence in your ability to lie to people who aren't your mother."

He laughed. "Have fun, Mom. Give Daff and Kate kisses for me."

"All right," she said. She came to stand next to him and smoothed down his hair. "You know I'm just worried about you, don't you? I can't imagine you lived like a hermit in Vancouver, even if I don't quite want to imagine just how you lived at all."

"I'm not being a hermit," he said. "I'm...recovering."

His mother let that pass. "You could call Eloise? Maybe you could spend some time with her and Penelope."

Colin groaned. "Because needing my younger sister so I can have a social life isn't even more pathetic. Thanks."

Violet threw her hands up in the air and headed for the door. "I give up! Become a shut in. Eat all my food. See if I care."

"Love you too, Mom."

Violet waved goodbye at him over her shoulder as the door to the brownstone fell shut behind her.

Alone, Colin turned the television off.

He turned it back on.

And off.

His mother was gone, so she didn't have to know that he'd listened to her and called Eloise, did she? Surely, he could be to and from Eloise's apartment before his mother completed a round trip to Manhattan with a hockey game in between. And wasn't part of the reason he'd come home that he missed his siblings? He missed being around when a new niece or nephew was born or all of the Sunday dinners that he'd only ever been able to Skype in for. Surely solo hanging out was the logical next step now that they were all in the same time zone again.

Except he wasn't actually sure about Francesca. Who could keep track of Canadian time zones?

"Screw it," he said, and stood.

What was the saying that his brothers had always spouted off before they all did something they knew would get them in trouble? Something about it being easier to ask forgiveness than permission, he was pretty sure.

He'd just show up.

***

The sound of their buzzer made Penelope jump.

She looked at Eloise, who was sprawled out on their couch, feet up on the coffee table and a carton of sesame chicken in her hand. "Are you expecting someone?"

"On Bachelor night?" Eloise snorted. "Everyone knows better."

"Right," said Penelope. Somehow, despite more than a decade of friendship, she was still surprised by just how seriously Eloise took reality television. But she knew better than to laugh. Laughing got you stuck watching MTV reality shows that had passed their prime before Penelope was old enough to watch them without disabling the parental controls. "I'll just get that, shall I?"

Eloise waved a hand, which Penelope took as acceptance.

She got up from the couch and crossed over to the door and pressed the call button. "Yes?"

"It's Colin," came the garbled voice on the other end. "Can I come up?"

Penelope turned back to Eloise. "Colin?"

Eloise shrugged. "My mom said she might guilt him into hanging out. Let him in."

"On Bachelor night?"

Eloise grinned, and it was evil. "That's what he gets for spending so much time on the other side of the continent."

Harsh, but probably fair. Penelope pressed the buzzer to let him in.

The knock came sooner than she was expecting. He was still gimpy and they did live on the fifth floor of a six story walkup. But then he was a professional athlete. She opened the door and found him, cane in hand and not even breathing the slightest bit hard. Life was not fair.

"Hello," she said.

"Hi," Colin answered. He smiled at her, his eyes crinkling at the corners. "Can I come in?"

"Yes, but before you come in, I feel like I should give you a warning." Penelope stepped back, and gestured towards the living room. "Your sister's favorite reality show is due to start any minute and you may see or hear things that scar you for life."

Colin came into the apartment and looked at Eloise. "She looks normal enough."

"Just wait."

"Ominous," said Colin. "I like it."

"You should listen to her," said Eloise. "It's starting!"

Penelope shook her head. "Alcoholic beverage? We have wine. And I think a bottle of vodka in the freezer."

"I can drink wine," Colin said.

"It's pink," Penelope warned.

He smiled at her again, slowly this time, and with intent. "My masculinity isn't as fragile as all that."

Despite everything, Penelope wanted to throw herself into his arms and let him prove just how un-fragile his masculinity really was. Instead, she poured him a glass of wine and then led him the few short steps into the living room. She took her place on their big, overstuffed chair, and let Colin claim the opposite side of the couch from his sister.

He'd see what she meant soon enough.

***

Halfway into the two hour episode and Colin was willing to admit that Penelope had been right.

His sister was scary. The show was terrible. And he really didn't know Penelope at all, but the more time he spent with her, the more time he wanted to.

He leaned over the arm of the couch, stretching his body out until he was close enough to Penelope to whisper. He'd already been punished by his sister for speaking at a normal volume.

"I'm going to get you for this," he said.

The corners of Penelope's mouth turned up just the smallest fraction. "I did warn you."

"I'm not sure there is warning for this."

"Out!" Eloise said, pointing her finger at the kitchen area. "Whatever it is, get it out of my two-on-one date, you're ruining the mood."

He didn't dare look at Penelope for fear that he would laugh. He stood and kissed the top of his sister's head and headed for the kitchen, Penelope following at his heels.

"Sorry," he said once they were clear of the blast zone. "I didn't mean to get you benched too."

"Are you kidding?" Penelope asked. "This is not my favorite part of my week, believe me. I'm only a loyal participant because your sister buys my favorite wine."

Colin laughed, loudly at first and then immediately quieting at Penelope's hand signal. Right. His crazy sister in the next room. "What are you going to do instead?"

Penelope shrugged. "Go hang out in my room, probably. Maybe harass my sister to see how her date went."

"Felicity?"

Penelope nodded. "I'm surprised you remember."

"I remember everyone willing to tolerate Hyacinth for more than five minutes," Colin said. "It's a very short list."

"Too loud!" yelled Eloise. "Go get a drink or something and leave me to my art."

Colin looked at Penelope, who was looking at the floor. "Want to? You guys have a bar next door, don't you?"

Penelope looked up, surprised. He saw the indecision warring on her face, and he supposed he couldn't blame her. It was an invitation that sounded awfully date-like and though they never talked about it, he remembered the night in Buffalo as well as he was sure she did. But he wanted her to say yes, with a desperation that surprised him. He wasn't supposed to feel desperate about Penelope Featherington, but it seemed that he did.

"Please?" he asked.

It was enough.

She nodded her head, just once and grabbed a purse off the rack next to the door. "Be normal again when I come back!" she yelled to Eloise, who only laughed evilly in response.

"Are you sure you want to?" he asked. "Come back, I mean."

In the open door, Penelope turned to look at him. "I suppose that entirely depends on you."

That sounded suspiciously like Penelope had just dared him again. This time, his goddamn foot wasn't going to stand in the way.

***

She had lost her mind. That was the only logical explanation for what she'd said to Colin upstairs and for the fact that she was sitting next to him at a bar, when she should be upstairs catching up on her reading or really, doing anything else.

Colin nudged her arm. "You don't have to stay."

"What?" she said, trying to cover up for the fact that she'd been considering how she could accomplish just that. "We just got here."

"And you don't seem into it," he said. "I won't be mad."

The bartender, Sam, set their drinks down in front of them with a wink at Penelope. "Not used to seeing you in here without Eloise."

"It's Bachelor night," Penelope said.

Sam nodded knowingly. "And who is this handsome gentleman? Haven't seen him in here before. I'd have remembered."

"Colin," he said, interjecting and holding out his hand. "Eloise's brother."

"Are you one of those hockey players?"

"Guilty as charged." He looked down at his foot. "Or at least I was. I suppose we'll see if I still am at the end of the summer or not."

"You'll always be a hockey player," Penelope said. She hesitated, not sure if she had the right to ask what she wanted to, too much a journalist to not want to anyway. "Are you thinking about not playing anymore?"

"No," he said, slowly. Now he hesitated, clearly thinking about the rest of his answer. "But I'm almost thirty. That's the downside of a career. Just starting to think about what's next."

"And?"

He looked at her, and for a split second, Colin Bridgerton looked racked with the same kind of self-doubt that plagued Penelope almost every day of her life. Then his cheerful rogue mask fell back into place. "Well, it's not going to be living with my mother, that's for damn certain."

To oblige him, Penelope laughed. "She's a lovely woman."

"She is," Colin agreed. "She's also nosey, loud, and entirely too perceptive for my liking. But I guess I'll keep her."

Penelope snorted and took a sip of her drink. "You don't know how good you have it."

Colin turned his body towards hers, blocking them off from the rest of the bar. "Oh? I guess i don't know that much about your family. That seems strange."

"It shouldn't," she said. She gave him a smile, but knew it was a weak one. "We've never exactly been close, Colin."

"Ouch," he said lightly. "And yet true."

She shrugged. There really wasn't anything else to say on that subject.

But then he did a thing that surprised her to the very core of her being. He picked up her hand, and looked her in the eye. "But does that mean we can't be now?"

Penelope had no idea what to say.

***

He waited for her answer, with a knot in his stomach. It mattered to him what she was going to say, more than he ever would have guessed it could.

But that was Penelope, he was learning. Constantly a surprise to him. He didn't have enough of those in his life and he was coming to realize just how much this one had come to mean to him.

She wasn't answering.

He tried to smile, to lighten the moment, even though it hurt him to do it. "Too soon, I guess. We can come back to it. This is nice, too. Just drinks between not quite friends. I wonder if--"

Penelope put her hand over his. "Colin."

He made his eyes meet hers. It wasn't often that he was scared to hear what a woman was going to say to him, but he was now and he didn't like it. "Yeah?"

"We can be friends," she said simply, and his entire body lightened.

"Are you sure?" he made himself ask. He didn't want Penelope's pity friendship. "I've been told I can, ah, charm people into doing things. I don't want you to feel pressured to take pity on a lonely, injured hockey player."

She rolled her eyes. "I say no to Eloise all the time. What makes you think I wouldn't say no to you too?"

He was both relieved and amused. And maybe a little mad at himself for not realizing just who Penelope was sooner. He could have had her in his life for years. And instead he was just now figuring out how smart and funny she was.

"I'm an idiot," he said.

Penelope nodded sagely. "I wasn't going to say anything, but if you're admitting it…"

He tried to glare at her, but failed and laughed instead. "Just for that, you're buying the next round."

"Deal," she said. "Friend."

***

The next morning, Eloise cornered Penelope before she had even made her first cup of coffee.

"So you were out late with my brother," Eloise said. She was disgustingly chipper and Penelope hated her for it. "Want to tell me what happened?"

"Why don't you tell me what you think happened?" Penelope countered. "I'm sure that's a more interesting story."

"Probably," Eloise admitted. "But really--did you have fun?"

"Yes," said Penelope slowly. She found herself reluctant to share with Eloise, which was ridiculous because they told each other almost everything and anyways, nothing had happened. Still, what had happened felt important and she wanted to keep it hers, to protect it. But Eloise wasn't a fool and anyway, she'd find out eventually. "We decided we're friends now."

Eloise waggled her eyebrows. "Friends? Or friends?"

"Friends," said Penelope firmly. "Give me the milk, since you're blocking the fridge."

Eloise obeyed, setting the bottle on the counter. "And you're happy with this?"

"Are you trying to warn me off or set me up with your brother?" Penelope asked. "I can't keep up."

"I take offense at the question," Eloise said with a sniff.

"You also didn't answer it," Penelope said, grinning. She put a lid on her to-go mug. "Look, we both know what happened almost ten years ago. I'm not that girl anymore. Colin isn't that boy. We're going to try to be friends. That's it."

"Okay," said Eloise.

Penelope stared. It wasn't like Eloise to give up that easily. "That's it?"

"Like you said, you're a big girl." She pulled her phone out of her pajama pants pocket and waved it in the air. "And I have a business full of errand requests that won't run themselves. So if you're sure that you've got this, I'm going to take your word for it."

"How very mature of us," Penelope said. She looked down at her watch and winced. "And I'm late. I'll see you tonight?"

"Are you sure you don't have plans with my brother?"

Penelope narrowed her eyes and Eloise held up her hands.

"Sorry," Eloise said, with a laugh. "I can't help who I am. You know this."

"I love you anyway," Penelope said. "Dinner. No brothers invited."

"You're on," said Eloise. "Have a nice day, dear."

Penelope shook her head and laughed, not bothering to answer as she headed for the door. Sometimes she wondered what her life would be like if she hadn't met Eloise in middle school. She suspected it would be a great deal more boring.

The playoffs are upon us once again!

To those teams who didn't make the cut, we'll see you in the fall.

To those teams who are still in the thick of the hunt, it's a cliche, but cliches are cliches for a reason, right? We want good games. We want exciting series.

And by god, we want the Stanley Cup in Madison Square Garden at the end of it all.

(Failing that, your author will take an especially juicy gossip exclusive, but honestly, we'd prefer the Cup.)

~ Excerpted from Sources Say, The New York Post

Without realizing, Colin found his routine in New York.

He had breakfast with his mom. He went to physical therapy and the gym. He had lunch with Hyacinth at Columbia. He spent afternoons wandering around the city, relearning the place that he'd grown up in and had left more than a decade before. And at night, he rotated between his siblings places for dinner, visiting Anthony and Kate in Connecticut, Simon and Daphne in Manhattan, Gregory in New Jersey, and Eloise closest to home in Brooklyn.

Visiting Eloise was his favorite. It wasn't because of his sister.

No, he was honest enough that his new found desire to spend time with his second oldest sister was entirely due to her roommate. He was pretty sure it was obvious to his mother too, since she kept giving him smug, satisfied smiles when he said he was going to spend the night at Eloise and Penelope's apartment, but since she seemed to be keeping it to herself, he tried not to let it bother him.

He needed her to keep it to herself, because he had no idea if Penelope was enjoying his company as much as he was enjoying hers. He didn't want to be building up anything in his head if Penelope really did just think they were only being friends. And he was her friend. That just wasn't all that he wanted to be, and he was rapidly losing his will not to tell her that despite knowing it was too soon.

That didn't mean he couldn't try to nudge her in that direction, though, which is why he had kidnapped his niece Amelia for the afternoon, and was bringing her to lunch with Penelope. Women liked men who could take care of kids, didn't they?

Daphne had laughed at him when he showed up to her and Simon's apartment, though, which wasn't the most promising of signs. And he had to admit, he hadn't at all been prepared for the amount of stuff that a single kid required. He'd taken backpacks camping that weighed less than what Daphne had loaded him down with.

"Uncle Colin?"

He looked down at Amelia, who was tugging on his hand. "What's up, kid?"

"I want to go on the carousel. You promised!"

He squatted down beside her. "We have to wait for Penelope to get here and then we'll go for a ride, okay?"

She looked at him, lip stuck out and brown hair escaping from her braid, and Colin swore it was just like looking at Daphne when she was a little girl. "Two rides."

He tapped her Rangers ball cap on the brim. "Two rides. Someone got their negotiating skills from their mother, I see."

Amelia frowned. "What are nego-tiat-ing skills?"

"It means you learned to haggle from your mom."

Colin stood back up and spotted Penelope, raising his hand to call her over. He looked down at Amelia one last time. "Be cute, okay?"

"Three rides," Amelia said.

"Fine, okay," said Colin hurriedly. He beamed at Penelope as she reached them. "Hi, Pen." He leaned in and kissed her cheek. "Glad you could escape the dungeon."

"My boss isn't that bad," she said. She crouched down next to Amelia. "Hi sweetie, do you remember me? I live with your Aunt Eloise."

Amelia smiled at her, a little shyly. "You watch me sometimes. You bring cookies."

"That's right," Penelope said, standing back up. She looked at Colin. "You needed a witness?"

"A shield," he said.

Penelope looked around the park where all the single women were shooting her evil looks and looking at Colin and Amelia with barely concealed lust in their eyes. "I don't think that worked the way you wanted it to."

"On the contrary," he said, without elaborating. He scooped up Amelia onto his hip and slipped his hand into Penelope's. "Come on, let's go eat. I promised Amelia a ride on the carousel after."

"Three rides," Amelia said.

"Three rides it is," said Penelope, sounding amused.

But she didn't let go of his hand. Colin considered it a victory.

***

Penelope didn't think she was one of those women that went mushy at the site of a grown man and a small child, but that was before she'd seen Colin with his niece. Seeing him bent down at Amelia's level, listening intently to whatever was telling him, was almost too much for Penelope to take.

Discreetly, she snapped a picture. She'd send it to Daphne later, she rationalized. Or maybe she wouldn't.

Colin stood, hand in hand with Amelia. "Someone has decided that two rides on the carousel were enough, and that she'd like to trade in her last one for ice cream." He smiled winningly at her. "Can we tempt you?"

God, she wanted to go. But she could almost see the work piling up on her desk while she enjoyed this already too long of a lunch. She shook her head. "Rain check?"

"It's a date," Colin said. He looked down at the top of Amelia's head, and then back up at Penelope. He suddenly looked very serious. "Ah, maybe without the chaperone?"

Her heart stopped. Had he just--had she heard him--

Amelia tugged on Colin's hand. "Uncle Colin, I have to go potty."

Colin's eyes went wide and panicked. It was enough to kick Penelope out of her stupor, and she had to try very hard not to laugh at his expression. Surely Daphne had warned him about child sized bladders.

"You'd better find her a bathroom," Penelope said. "I think there's a Starbucks on the other side of the park."

"Thanks, Penelope," Colin said gratefully. He looked down at Amelia, who was doing the legs together wiggling dance of toddlers the world over. "We should go. Right now."

Colin didn't bother with a goodbye, and Penelope laughed, watching them walk away, faster than a three year old could manage. That Colin picked her up and started moving faster, made her laugh harder.

She still had a smile on her face when she got back to her desk. That lasted until she noticed the copy of the Daily News sitting on top of her keyboard. Her heart sank.

"Open it," said George.

Penelope folded her hands on top of it instead. "Why don't you just tell me, since I can tell you're dying to say I told you so?"

"She put out a bounty on your head," George said flatly. "One thousand dollars to the person who gives her your name."

Penelope refused to give him the satisfaction of a visible reaction, though her stomach was rapidly becoming a series of knots. "I wonder where she got the money. Last I heard, her trust fund sprung a ponzi scheme sized leak."

George snorted and walked away. He called back over his shoulder, "Page eight. Read it!"

Despite him knowing exactly what she was going to do, Penelope waited until he was out of sight to open the paper. It was worse seeing it in print.

REWARD OFFERED FOR THE IDENTIFY OF AUTHOR OF SOURCES SAY, the headline read. Beneath it, for the ultimate indignity, was the smug, smiling picture of Cressida that Penelope had always loathed.

She made herself read the article. It was largely as George had said; a thousand dollars for Penelope's name, and Cressida promised to publicly credit the tipster in her column exposing Sources Say for all the world. What he hadn't mentioned was the mocking tone, the sly insinuations of what would make someone choose to hide behind a column without ever revealing their name. If Cressida could be this nasty about someone she didn't even know, Penelope didn't want to think about what Cressida would do once she knew it was Penelope.

It would be the worst thing that ever happened to Penelope. Of that she was certain.

But what could she do? She'd come too far to walk away from the column now, and besides, she wasn't going to give Cressida the satisfaction of chasing her off. When she'd left college, she certainly hadn't planned on a career as a gossip columnist, but she was good at what she did and she was proud of what she'd achieved. Cressida wasn't taking that away from her.

She'd just have to be more careful, Penelope decided. And she'd have to stay away from the Bridgertons.

No matter how much she didn't want to.

***

Colin couldn't figure out why Penelope was dodging him. He'd thought they'd left the park on the verge of agreeing to an actual date, but ever since, he couldn't get so much as a returned text.

It didn't make sense. Everyone called Colin charming, something that usually irritated the shit out of him, but there was a grain of truth to it. He wasn't used to being ignored when he wanted a woman's attention. If Penelope were a different type of woman, he'd think she was playing hard to get, but Colin wasn't sure he'd ever met a more honest person in his life.

He would just have to corner her somewhere she couldn't escape, that was all. And lucky for him, Anthony and Kate were hosting a party at their home in Connecticut to celebrate her sister's Tony nomination.

He'd not so subtly probed Eloise to find out if Penelope was going too, and though she'd looked at him funny, she'd told him what he wanted to know.

Now he just needed to figure out a way to get her alone. He didn't think it would be hard, not considering the size of that house. But it paid to have a plan, which is why he volunteered to go out to Greenwich early to help set up.

This had also earned him a funny look from his mother and from Kate, but neither of them said no to another set of hands. Colin had counted on that, especially since Anthony was still in the middle of the playoffs

And he did help--mostly by looking after Edmund, thus freeing up his nanny to help Kate and Violet do what they needed. Colin honestly wasn't sure why they were doing so much of the work themselves, when it wasn't like Kate and Anthony couldn't pay someone to come in and take care of everything for them, but when he'd raised that point, he'd gotten a lot of pitying looks and mutters about idiot men. Colin didn't ask anymore questions after that.

The party was meant to look informal, which amounted to a catered cookout. Torches were scattered across the lawn that led down to the pond in their backyard. All the smallest Bridgertons were running around, playing tag with whichever of their aunts and uncles could be persuaded that it was their turn to be it.

Colin watched the door anxiously, waiting for Eloise and Penelope to arrive. Despite Eloise telling him she'd be there, Colin was worried that Penelope would back out at the last minute and not come after all. But finally, finally, they arrived and Eloise was dragged to the lawn by her nieces, Amelia and Belinda.

That left Penelope alone.

Colin pounced.

He grabbed her hand and steered her back into the house, down the wide stone steps that led to the lowest level of the house. Other than a yelp when he'd grabbed her, Penelope didn't put up a fight.

He closeted them in Anthony's mostly empty wine cellar. The light overhead was dim, but it was enough for him to see Penelope's face. She didn't look happy, but she didn't look surprised.

Good. That simplified things.

"Why," he asked, crossing his arms over his chest, "have you been avoiding me?"

"Work has been killer," she said. "I don't know if you know this, but hockey isn't the only sport in the world. Spring is killer. All the sports have something going on."

She was trying very hard to look like she was telling the truth. She wouldn't have to try so hard if she was.

"You're still avoiding me," he said.

She sighed. "Not everything is about you, Colin."

That stung, but it was undeniably true. "You don't think avoiding me is about me?"

"Actually?" she said. "No, I don't."

He started to speak, but she held up her hand and barrelled on.

"You think I wouldn't rather be taking you to my boxing gym and knocking you on your ass or drinking at Sam's or watching you let a little girl boss you around? Yes. I would much rather be doing all these things and I can't, and that's why I'm avoiding you and I'm sorry about it, but I--"

He couldn't take anymore. He kissed her.

***

Penelope wasn't sure what had happened. One minute she was lecturing Colin and the next he was kissing her and she didn't know why she was even thinking.

Colin Bridgerton was kissing her. It was all she had wanted for years and years. If ever a moment called for not thinking, this was it.

She wound her arms around his neck and she kissed him back.

He made a surprised noise, but immediately got with the program and settled his hands at her hips. He kissed her as he walked them backwards, until Penelope was pressed back against the door. He caged her in with his strong arms, trapping her and kissing her and Penelope had never know that this was something she liked.

Maybe it was him. Maybe it was them. Penelope wanted it to last forever.

As if sensing the best way to disoblige her, Colin raised his head, just enough to part their lips. "Is this okay?" he asked.

She nodded and tried to pull him back down to her, but he held firm.

"I need you to say yes," he said. "Please, Penelope."

"Yes," she breathed, and his mouth was back on hers in an instant. She'd been shocked by the intensity before, but this was somehow more. His hands went to the hem of her shirt and and hers went to his, and together they pushed them up over their heads, hands and arms tangling together.

When their skin touched, Penelope sighed. It was so much more sensation than she'd ever imagined. None of the fumbling she'd done with boys--and they had all been boys, she saw that now--had prepared her for this, for him. His hands were hot on her skin, and his mouth was hotter against her throat, and when they met in the middle, his hands ruthlessly stripping her bra from her chest and his lips paying homage at her breasts, Penelope thought she would combust.

He kissed her fiercely again, and put her idle hands on his miracle of a chest. "Touch me," he begged. "Please."

So she did, and this too was more than she'd imagined. There were planes to his body that she'd only seen in magazines, muscles that she'd never dreamed of being able to actually touch. He was hard where she was soft, and it was all she could do not to feast on him.

His hands fell to the button on her capris. "Yes?"

She nodded, started to say the word, but there was a banging on the door.

"I know you're in there!" said Eloise. "Unhand my best friend, you scurvy cur!"

Colin groaned and Penelope let her forehead fall against his head.

"She's not going to go away, is she?" Colin asked, with resignation.

"I heard that!" said Eloise. "That's what I get for coming to warn you that your absence was noticed--Mom wants everyone for a toast or something. You've got just about enough time to get back before she sends out the dogs, and by dogs, I mean the hoard of nieces and nephews and I don't think you want them finding you in flagrante delicto, do you? Good luck explaining that one."

Penelope looked at Colin, barely managing to not laugh. "Pass me my bra?"

Obligingly, Colin scooped it up off the floor and held it out for her, but when she went to grab it from him, he pulled it back.

"Are you sure I can't have it?" he asked. "It would make a great souvenir."

Her jaw dropped. "Colin!"

He laughed, and bent his head swiftly to kiss the tops of both her breasts. "I'm kidding. Sort of." He gave her the bra and then her shirt, and only then did he put his own back on.

Penelope hated to lose the view. She smoothed her hands against her hair. Without a mirror, it was hard to tell how much damage had been done. "Am I decent?"

"Well," he said, somewhat guiltily. "Maybe Eloise can help."

"Gee, thanks," she said, with a roll of her eyes. She put her hand on the door to leave, but his covered hers, stopping her motion. She looked back over her shoulder.

"I'm not going to let you forget this," Colin said.

"I don't want to," Penelope answered, and then she slipped out of the room to where Eloise was waiting.

***

They didn't speak again for the rest of the party. Penelope kept Eloise by her side like a shield, and Colin supposed he didn't blame her, not if she wanted to keep her clothes on for the rest of the night. But every so often, no matter who they were with, their eyes would meet and there would be heat and purpose, and there was no way that Colin was letting her leave the party without him.

He waited through the toast to Edwina and her Tony nomination, and the endless round of goodnight hugs and kisses to his nieces and nephews who were in attendance. He listened to his brothers struggle to not talk about hockey, because that was who all of them were but the playoffs weren't over and there was a chance that Gregory and Anthony's teams would meet in the second round. He teased Daphne about out eating him for a change, and she called him awful and then made him get her another burger.

He watched for Penelope to make her move for the exit and when she did, he pounced.

He took her by the hand and led her towards one of the cars that Anthony had hired to ferry people back to the city, ignoring her startled expression and the smug one on Eloise's face. He didn't push her into the car, but it was close, and he climbed in after her.

"Where to?" the driver asked.

Penelope spared him a glance. "Yes, Colin, where to?"

He rattled off Penelope's address and then raised the barrier between them and the driver. He looked at Penelope. "Hi."

"I'm pretty sure this is kidnapping," she said, and Colin was relieved that she didn't really seem mad.

"Who ever heard of a kidnapper taking someone home?" Colin countered. He touched her hand, because it was all he trusted himself to do. If he touched, say, her knee, he might get ideas. And he didn't think Penelope was the type of woman who would be comfortable making out in the back of a car, even with the partition up. "Sorry. I live with my mother. I didn't want to take you there."

"It's fine," Penelope said. "But you do know she was staying at Kate and Anthony's, don't you?"

He scowled. He had known that. But Penelope had a way of making him forget everything. "Your place is still better."

"I live with your sister," she reminded him.

"She won't be coming home," he said. "Not if she knows what's good for her."

Penelope's jaw dropped, and it was the cutest thing he'd ever seen. "Colin!"

"Check your phone. Ten dollars says she's already texted you saying she'll crash at Kate and Anthony's."

"That… sounds like exactly like something Eloise would do," Penelope admitted. "Fine. You seem to have this all planned. Tell me, what happens when we get back to my apartment, Colin?"

"First, you tell me why you think we can't be together," Colin said. "The rest, I figured we'd play by ear."

***

Penelope unlocked the door to her apartment. She could feel Colin behind her, not touching, but with deliberate nearness.

She stepped into the apartment and he followed on her heels. She dropped her keys to the kitchen counter, locking the deadbolt behind them.

She looked at Colin. He looked back at her.

"Drink?" she asked, but it was rhetorical because she was already moving towards the cabinets. She pulled out a wine glass and uncorked the partially empty bottle of red that was next to the fridge. She filled the glass to just below the brim and drank half of it down without pausing.

When she looked at Colin, he was looking back at her with what might have been only incredible fondness, but what might be something so much more.

"Penelope," he said, and he took the wine glass from her hand and set it down. He kissed her forehead and her cheek and ever so gently, her lips. "Whatever it is, it will be fine. We'll be fine." He cupped her face in his hands and looked her in the eye. "I promise."

She closed her eyes and took a shuddering breath. When that didn't settle her, she took another. When she opened her eyes again, Colin was still looking at her.

She nodded. "Okay."

He kissed her forehead again and released her face, taking her hand and leading her to the couch in the living room. He kept her hand in his. "Say it fast."

She took one more deep breath. This was the moment she'd dreaded for seven years, the moment she'd tried so hard to avoid having to ever face. But it was here, and she was done letting this secret control her life. Not when the promise of another life had never been more in her reach.

"I write Sources Say."

***

Of all the things that Penelope could have said, Colin never could have predicted she would say that. He stared at her, shocked.

Penelope couldn't write that column. It wasn't possible. Was it?

"Colin?" she said.

He looked at her. She was still Penelope, still the best person he knew. It made no sense. "How?" he croaked.

"It's a long story," she said.

He looked at her incredulously, and laughed when he saw that she was serious. It was mean, but he was glad to see her flinch at the sound. He didn't sound like himself. Well, she didn't sound like herself either. It was only fair.

"I've got the time," he answered.

Penelope nodded, once. "Right. I don't even know where to start, I've never told anyone this story before."

He felt himself soften, just a little. Just enough. He squeezed her hand. "I'm honored?"

Now it was Penelope's turn to laugh. "I think we both know you're not."

"No, I am," Colin said, and he was surprised to find it was true. "I'm surprised, yes. Am I hurt? Maybe. It sort of depends on you. But does it help to know that I'm the person you're trusting with this? Yeah. It does."

Penelope looked at him like he'd just handed her the greatest gift in the world. It made him want to be the person who deserved that.

"Tell it to me from the beginning," he said. "How did it even start? You would have had to be in college, right?"

"Yes," Penelope said, with a nod. "I was interning at the Post and I'd…hear things, from the reporters and from my boss and from whoever was around, really. And sometimes I'd write them down, trying to make them sound especially salacious--just for fun, you see." She tried to smile at him. "Being an intern can be kind of boring sometimes."

"Lots of coffee runs?"

"Let's just say the baristas at Starbucks used to feel sorry for me." She shook her head, as if to clear it, and refocused. "Anyway. I was writing all of this just for myself, but I forgot to lock my computer one day when I went to grab my lunch and when I came back, the sports editor was standing at my desk reading the column I'd been working on. I thought for sure I was getting fired."

"But he liked it," Colin finished.

"He loved it," she said. "He's a nice guy, George, he's always looked after me. But sometimes I wish that I'd locked my computer that day. Because after that, there was never any chance he was going to let me be a real sports reporter."

"What do you mean?" Colin asked.

"I can't go around interviewing players and executives when behind their backs, I'm writing a gossip column. And when I could give him the gossip column, I was too valuable to him to let me really work the beat. Without working the beat, I couldn't even try to get a new job. What reporter goes years without any stories to their name? I couldn't win. There wasn't a way out."

She looked so completely miserable, he had to hug her. He tugged on her hand and pulled her close enough that he could wrap his arms around her. She was stiff at first, but he held on and she softened, her head resting on his shoulder. They sat there like that, for Colin didn't know how long.

Despite everything, it felt good. It felt right.

Penelope was the one to break the silence between them. She spoke, her voice muffled from his shirt. "Do you hate me?"

He know what it must have cost her to ask. She deserved a serious answer. Gently, he put his hands to her shoulders, pulled her out of his chest. He put one hand under her chin, tilted it up. Her eyes were closed.

"Hey," he said. His fingers brushed against her face, tracing her temple and cheek. "Look at me. Please."

Her eyes opened, and they were full of worry and doubt.

"No," he said, as clearly and as firmly as he could. "I don't hate you, Penelope. I don't think I ever could."

***

Penelope wanted to weep.

In her wildest dreams, she'd never thought that telling Colin would go like this. He was someone she'd written about more times that she could count, written about his family more times than that, and he was telling her that he didn't hate her. It gave her hope that maybe there was a chance that she could tell the world, and it wouldn't hate her either.

"Penelope?" Colin said, and Penelope realized how long she'd been staring at him, unable to find words for the depth of her gratitude.

"Thank you," she said, on a shuddering breath. "I don't think I knew how badly I needed to hear you say that."

Colin kissed her forehead. "I meant it."

She felt all aglow with the warmth of his trust and affection. There was a warmth in her chest that she recognized, that she'd only ever felt for him. She was pretty sure that meant that she'd slid back into loving Colin Bridgerton without realizing it was happening. Only this was better, because this time, she knew him.

He wasn't an ideal to her any longer, or just the older brother of her best friend, who was always kind. He was a real person, with faults and flaws and a heart the size of a ocean.

"I love you," she said, and she saw Colin's eyes go wide. "I'm sorry, I know it's too soon."

Colin shook his head. "It's not that," he said. "And don't apologize for that."

"Then what?" she asked.

He hesitated, and looked the smallest bit uncertain. She braced herself for whatever was going to come out of his mouth. "It's just--I don't want your gratitude, Penelope."

She stared at him. He was looking back at her, with such an earnest expression, as if this was something he was really worried about. She couldn't help it; she burst out laughing, collapsing against his chest.

"I'm going to take that as a no," Colin said, his hands stroking over her hair. "You didn't have to let me down so gently."

"I'm sorry," she managed, between bouts of laughter. "But Colin, really?"

"Look, it's not every day that women tell me that they love me," he said. "And today has been a lot. I just wanted to know that you meant it."

At that, she sobered up. She sat back, taking his hands in hers. She looked up at him, her eyes on his. "I do. I guess I always have."

He closed his eyes, nodded once. When he opened them again, he said, "I love you, too."

She didn't want to believe him. It would hurt too much if it wasn't true. But the way he was looking at her, imploring her to trust in his sincerity, was her undoing.

She leaned up and she kissed him with all the feeling she'd ever had for him. She kissed him for the girl that she'd been and the woman that she was, and all the Penelope's she'd been in between. He kissed her back the same way, the both of them making up for years of time spent becoming who they were in this moment.

It was perfect. Until it wasn't.

A terrible thought intruded, and Penelope pulled back, gasping for air. "Wait," she said. "I didn't tell you about Cressida trying to ruin my life. Shouldn't we talk about that first?"

Colin shook his head, his hands already reaching for her. "Later. Much, much later."

Penelope did not take much convincing.

***

Several weeks later...

Finally, my very dear readers, it is with the utmost regret that I must tell you that our time together must come to a close. We have been through a lot together, you and I; seven years, two Stanley Cups, and too many trades and wins and losses to count. But as the expression goes, all good things must come to an end and so too must this column. Your author is no longer that person that they were when this endeavor began, and with your (and my editor's) indulgence, I'd like to introduce myself to you at long last.

My name is Penelope Featherington. It's very nice to meet you at long last.

~ Excerpted from Sources Say, The New York Post

"What are your mentions like?" Colin asked, leaning over her shoulder as she checked twitter.

Her last column had gone live a few hours earlier, as well as her obligatory tweet revealing that she was joining The Athletic. It had been a busy few weeks, between the Rangers winning the Cup again and plotting her escape route from her secret identity. She and Colin had spent most of that time sneaking around, so as to not prematurely tip off Cressida that a reveal was imminent. She had it on good authority that howls could be heard from the Daily News newsroom when the goodbye column was posted.

She wouldn't lie. If it weren't for Colin, knowing she had gotten one up on Cressida at long last would be the best part. But there was Colin. And he was very definitely the best thing to happen to her.

She closed twitter and and turned to look at him. "No better or worse than I expected." A woman in sports media could only expect so much, after all. It was what it was.

"You excited to start your new job?"

Penelope nodded. The day after the party, they'd had a long talk about what Penelope's options were and what she wanted to do next. She'd thought of a lot of different options, starting her own site, trying to get a job as a beat writer at a different paper, freelancing. But what she really wanted to do--what she'd always wanted to do, really--was write about hockey stats. And for that, there wasn't a better option than The Athletic.

She'd summoned every bit of her courage to pitch herself to them, trusting them to keep her confidence regarding Sources Says. It had worked. She was going to spend the summer writing introductory articles and then in the fall, she'd dive into coverage in earnest. And the best part was that she could do her job from anywhere, so wherever Colin ended up in free agency, they'd be able to be together.

Because they were together now. They were a we. They made decisions for their future together, knowing that what affected the one also affected the other. They'd made no official promises to each other, but they were implied in every word and action between them.

Penelope had never been happier.

"You ready for everyone to know that you're dating the enemy?" she teased, shifting so that they were face to face, their arms around each other.

Colin snorted. "Please. The only people whose opinions I care about are my family and they're only furious that I didn't have the good sense to snap you up years ago."

"Your mother was very happy," Penelope agreed, with a laugh. She bit her lip. "I wish I knew what Eloise really thought, though."

After the party at Kate and Anthony's, Eloise had disappeared, resurfacing in upstate New York. She said she needed a break from the city and was visiting a friend, but Penelope worried that despite Eloise pushing her at Colin for years, the reality wasn't quite what Eloise had expected.

"Hey," Colin said. He touched her lip where she'd bitten it. "None of that. Eloise is a big girl. She'll come home when she's ready."

"I know," Penelope said. "It's just…"

"You miss her," Colin said.

Penelope nodded, relieved he got it. "She's always been there. And now she's not. It's like I'm missing part of myself."

"Maybe we should go visit her," Colin suggested. "Surprise her. It's no less than she deserves."

Penelope brightened. "Really?"

Colin shrugged. "Why not? As long as I can get in touch with my agent for free agency, I can do my rehab anywhere." An evil expression crossed his face, and Penelope braced. "Besides, someone needs to remind Eloise that she's next up on Mother Bridgerton's coupledom list. I think it should be me, since she was so happy to rub my face in it when I came home."

Penelope groaned.

Colin grinned. "On the other hand, I'm sure you can think of some way to distract me--"

Penelope kissed him. Eloise could wait.