There was, honestly, nothing wrong with the man courting the youngest Miss Featherington. But, Colin thought to himself as he watched the man swing her around the ballroom, he was just doing it wrong.
“Anthony,” he greeted his brother in the corner of the room where he had made camp to avoid the single ladies and their matchmaking mamas. Benedict had joined him, charcoal in hand, and, though he was currently entertaining his wife on the dancefloor, Hastings had been with them for a large part of the night, as well. “Who is the man dancing with Penelope?”
Both of his older brothers shared a quick look, but Anthony’s voice betrayed nothing as he answered, “That, little brother, is younger Mr. Locheland, the second son of Mr. Locheland of Wetherby Hall. He’s well-off, polite, never been in trouble with the law, if untitled. Not at all a bad match for Miss Featherington.”
Colin’s face pulled down. “How do you know all of that?”
Benedict snickered. “Did you not ask for information?”
Anthony rolled his eyes. “He approached Penelope and Eloise at the last ball--”
“--when you were quite occupied with the Murphy sisters,” Benedict added, always unhelpful.
“--so I looked into him, just in case he had an interest in our sister,” Anthony continues, full of First Son bravado. But he shrugged, then, making eye contact with his brother. “But he seems to only have eyes for the youngest Featherington. And, with the scandals of last season, he seems to be a good match for her.”
“Yes,” Benedict chimed in, winking at Colin. “She does seem happy with him, does she not?”
It was always easy to spot Penelope on the dancefloor. Her hair, a bright red shock of curls, no matter how high it was piled and covered with the strange decorations her mother insisted on, was like a beacon. And, though he figured it was from their familiarity, his eyes always caught sight of her first, even when it wasn’t even her that he was looking for at the moment.
But she did look happy with Mr. Locheland. Her head was thrown back in a laugh, that, though he could not hear it over the sound of the music and the gossip of the ton, he knew was loud and unrestrained. Penelope, for all of her shyness and awkwardness, never hesitated to laugh genuinely.
And the gentleman, himself, positively glowed at her reaction to whatever probably buffoonish thing he probably said. Colin’s stomach flipped at that, though he didn’t know why.
“A second son,” he muttered, rolling his eyes. “She could do better.”
“Really, Colin,” Eloise snorted, approaching Benedict and handing him a cup of punch. Probably, Colin thought, after wounding a suitor’s pride and walking away none the wiser. “Did you forget that you’re a third son?”
“Of a Lord,” he said with a mild glare.
Benedict laugh echoed and a few people turn to look at them. He put his head back down to his art, though his smile did not slip from his face. “Our sister has a point.”
So Colin turned to Anthony. “Do you think Mr. Locheland would be a suitable match for Eloise?”
Eloise’s face grew dark. “Don’t you dare--”
“No,” Anthony answered. “She can do better, especially now that Daph is the Duchess.”
“Precisely!” Colin returned, looking back out to the dancefloor. The song was ending and the participants were bowing their thanks for the dance. Mr. Locheland kissed Penelope’s hand and Colin’s jaw clenched. “Then, certainly, he could not be suitable for Pen--”
“Contrary to popular belief, Colin,” Benedict said, standing and offering a hand to their sister after catching the scathing look from their mother. Eloise did not look thrilled but took it anyway. “Eloise and Penelope are not actually sisters. Penelope is not a Bridgerton.”
“She may as well be!” he said, just barely stopping his arms from flailing. All of his siblings looked at him, amused and perhaps a tad bit bewildered. Turning to Anthony, he tried a different tactic as Benedict led Eloise out to dance. “Where is your honor, brother? You know the Featherington sisters have no older male in their life to help with these sorts of things and, if Penelope were to find herself entrenched in scandal, do you think our sister would--”
“Colin,” he interrupted, standing to his full height. “Do you have a point to all this?”
“She practically grew up with us,” he tried. “We have a duty to make sure he is suitable. Truly suitable.”
Anthony caught the eye of his aria singer and, dismissing Colin, he sighed, “Look, brother, I shall make you a deal. If you can provide proof that Mr. Locheland is a rake or a villain or, I do not know, otherwise unworthy of marrying your dear Penelope, I will speak to her mother. Until you have such proof, I am afraid to inform you that the matter of the gentleman courting the youngest Miss Featherington is, simply, none of your business.”
He took his leave of his brother, then, leaving him standing along in the corner of the room.
Mr. Locheland was currently dancing with another partner, leaving Penelope to make awkward chitchat with a girl from the neighborhood. Colin’s eyes narrowed at Mr. Locheland, who was smiling down at the new girl as Pen looked on forlornly. What an absolute bastard! To dance with her and then flirt with another right in front of her! Well, no more, not if Colin had anything to do about it.
If Anthony needed proof, he would very well get that proof.
Step 1: Reconnaissance.
Narrowly avoiding the same Murphy sisters that distracted him from intercepting the first contact between Mr. Locheland and Pen, Colin made his way over to where his favorite redhead was now standing, looking at the punch like she wanted a big glass but refusing for the sake of propriety. He grabbed two of the small glasses on his way and, as he approached, took in the wide, surprised look on her face.
“Colin,” she greeted, smiling up at him as she took one of the glasses. “Hello.”
“Good evening, Pen,” he said, unable to help his own small smile. A man came up and asked the neighbor girl to dance, leaving them alone. “How are you tonight? Did you enjoy your dance?”
She blinked at him. “I did. I didn’t think you noticed.”
He ignored that. “And how is Mr. Locheland? Treating you well?”
Her cheeks went red. “He is perfectly polite, thank you.”
He narrowed his eyes again. “No strange behavior? No… inquiries about your financial situation? No untoward comments?” He pauses and frowns, looking her up and down. She did look quite well tonight, though she was still dressed in that horrible shade of yellow her mother preferred. “No wandering hands?”
“O-okay,” she said, finishing her drink and setting it on the nearby table. “No? He’s been a perfect gentleman, if a little eager--”
Colin frowned. “He’s not pressuring you into courting--”
Penelope looked at him like he might be a touch mad. “Pressuring me? No, of course not, but it’s not as if he has any competition…” She shook her head as if clearing it. “What is this about, Colin? Why do you care?”
“Well, you see, Anthony is taking care of Eloise’s suitors--well, he would be if any men were brave enough--and Benedict has always been her protector, so I figured you might--”
“I’m not your sister.”
Her eyes lost the usual warmth and she swallowed heavily, looking anywhere but at him.
He blinked down at her. “Well, yes, of course, but someone needs--”
The dance ended. Mr. Locheland, immediately and without any concern for his latest partner, approached Colin and Penelope, a nervous smile on his face. He bowed his head at Penelope first and, then, with more hesitation, at Colin. “Mr. Bridgerton, it is nice to meet you. Miss Featherington speaks highly of your family.”
Colin only nodded in response, jaw tense.
Penelope looked between them, confused, before smiling up at Mr. Locheland, asking, “Is there something…?”
He nodded, offering his hand to her. “If you would do me the great honor of a second dance…”
“Penelope is not a fan of this waltz,” Colin interrupted, frowning at the man. And this was the man courting her! He knew nothing about her! “Besides, she and I--”
“I would be honored,” she interrupted Colin, sparing him only a small glare before accepting Mr. Locheland’s hand. “My dance card is free for however many dances you would like, Mr. Locheland. Thank you for offering.”
They walked off together, Penelope barely sparing Colin a glance as the waltz started. He stared at her, at the way she easily joined the dance and the way she easily smiled at this new man. Eloise, apparently reaching her own limit at one dance, approached her brother.
"How’d that go for you?” she asked, amusement lacing her tone.
He barely heard her, too busy wondering why his chest felt tight as the night went on.
The next time Colin saw Penelope, she was visiting his sisters at their home a few weeks after the ball. As he entered their sitting room, he came upon Eloise, Francesca, Hyacinth, and Penelope giggling to each other on their favorite couch.
“Colin!” Hyacinth called out upon seeing him, smiling widely and waving him over. He, as he usually does whenever his sisters call for him, went willing, only hesitating at her next words. “Come look at the beautiful necklace Mr. Locheland gifted to Pen! Isn’t it just wonderful?”
He caught himself before he stumbled too much, but, catching sight of the jewelry, he frowned as he sat opposite of them. Well-crafted, certainly, and, admittedly, quite fetching on her pale neck, but entirely the wrong color. “But Pen doesn’t like the color yellow.”
Penelope, who had smiled up at him, warm and genuine as always, frowned. “Colin--”
“It is entirely wrong for you,” he told her, frowning back. “And, indeed, most inappropriate for someone who is not even officially courting--”
“We are courting,” Penelope corrected him, eyes shining. “Officially.”
“Oh,” he responded, entirely without words for a moment. “Why?”
Her response was slow, measured. “Because he asked.”
“Surely, Pen,” he answered, ignoring the strange looks his sisters were currently giving him as he leaned forward on the couch and looked her in the eyes. “You must know that a second son of an untitled gentleman isn’t suitable for you.”
Her eyes flash with hurt. “I know I am not a Bridgerton, but I am the daughter of gentleman--”
“I mean to say,” he corrected himself quickly. “That you deserve more than that. You deserve someone from a better family, someone who knows that you do not care for yellow--or green for that matter, considered your mother’s tastes--someone who knows you better than that--”
“Then where is he?” she demands of him, standing up and swallowing. “He does not exist, it seems, Mr. Bridgerton.” The formal title stings. “Or, if he does, he has no interest in gifting me such things.” She sighs and, putting on a fake smile for his sisters, she continued, “I’m sorry, girls, I think I must be home now for dinner. It was nice visiting with you all.”
The door slammed shut with her exit. His sisters were silent until Eloise snorted a laugh.
“You know,” she said to him, leaning back and eating a chocolate. Her voice was humorous but her eyes were dark. Angry. Pen was, afterall, her dearest companion. “I thought Anthony to be the dumb one, but you’re certainly giving him a run for his money.”
By some strange stroke of luck, he ran into Mr. Locheland before Pen after. On his way through the market, he witnessed the gentleman in question with another girl! Standing in front of a stall selling feathers and ribbons, they laughed together, quite merry! She was young, but her hemmed confirmed that she was out, and Colin felt a moment of vindication, then, for he knew he was a rake all along!
Still, he took a deep breath and composed himself before approaching the happy couple.
“Mr. Locheland,” he said, voice just a bit lower than normal. His eyes flickered down to the girl on his arm. Pretty, but too young for him, certainly. Still, the girl looked up and blushed at him. “How nice to see you out on the ton. With your...friend.”
“Mr. Bridgerton,” the second son greeted, surprised but polite. “Quite nice to see you, here, as well. May I introduce you to Miss Kenzington? She is new to the ton but excited to spend her first season--”
“Cheers,” Colin managed to utter to the girl, who only opened her mouth before Colin was speaking again. “Tell me, Mr. Locheland, do you find a perverse joy in courting my dear friend and then showing off another girl on your arm, or have you already broken off your courtship with Miss Featherinton?”
Mr. Locheland opened his mouth and closed it again quickly. Finally, he managed, “Mr. Bridgerton, this is my cousin. Her father, my father’s brother, has asked if I could help acclimate her to the ton during her first season.” He paused. “I introduced her to Penelope yesterday.”
Colin’s stomach dropped at the familiarity in his tone when he mentioned Pen. So much so that he could hardly feel the embarrassment of accusing a man of something so untoward for something completely gentlemanly.
Either way, Colin glanced up and down at the man. “Very well. Have a splendid day, sir.”
“Uh,” Mr. Locheland said as Colin stormed away. “You, as well, Mr. Bridgerton!”
Colin asked around the ton, reaching out to friends and gentleman all around to get more information about the mysteriously pleasant Mr. Locheland. Though he was sure the man was the worst sort, preying on the sweetest, most beautiful of the women of the ton, no one had a single bad thing to say about it.
And, when he complained of this to Benedict and Anthony over a glass of brandy, they looked at him as if he had grown another head. Benedict questioned him thusly, “Why, pray tell, is that a bad thing? Do you not want to see Penelope happily matched? She seems content.”
Colin merely shook his head. “He’s wrong for her. I’m not sure why. But he is.”
His brothers shared a look and he was, at this point, quite sick of that. “What?”
“What sort of man do you think she deserves?” Anthony asked, raising one dark brow.
“A good man,” Colin answered straight away. “Kind, smart, handsome. Someone that can make her laugh, someone who loves her and she loves in return. Someone from a good family, even if he does not have a title. Someone who knows her. Someone to protect her and care for her and love her unconditionally.”
“Well,” Benedict said, draining his glass and heading to bed. “I can only think of one man who meets all of your lofty requirements, but he’s a bit slow on the uptake. Maybe, someday, he’ll figure it out, though.”
Colin’s stomach clenched at the very though of Benedict knowing this perfect man. “Who?”
Anthony clapped him on the shoulder. “You’ll meet him soon enough, I’m sure.”
The next ball, a few weeks later, was equally as mind-numbingly boring for Colin, but he kept himself occupied with brushing off the offers to dance from ladies and their mamas and keeping two eyes on Mr. Locheland and Penelope.
“Come now, dearest,” his mother chided him at one point and calling his attention away from the couple for a moment. “There are not enough men here to satisfy all the ladies, you must dance a few dances, at least. The older Murphy girl asked about you at church and--’
“Mother,” he sighed, frowning at her. “I am quite preoccupied.”
“With staring at Miss Featherington, yes, I know,” she snapped at him. “Eloise told me about the incident at our house. And Mrs. Rogers overheard your botched confrontation at the market, Colin. I’m not sure how you got the idea in your head that you’re her...protector or some nonsense, but, unless you plan on dancing with her, surely you should enjoy another’s company--”
Though it was the middle of the song, Colin nodded at his mother. “What a splendid idea, Mother. I will dance with Miss Featherington.” And, when he squinted his eyes, he noticed that Mr. Locheland’s hand was resting far too low on Penelope’s back for propriety, and he took off to interrupt them.
“Oh, that is not what I meant!” his mother cursed. Eloise approached, then. “What is that boy up to?”
“Pissing her off,” Eloise answered, earning herself a glare. She sipped her punch. “This will not end well.”
Colin tapped Mr. Locheland on the shoulder. The man, reasonably confused, looked up at him.
“Mind if I cut in?” Colin asked, though he was already moving between the two.
“Uh,” the man said, stepping back and looking at Penelope with surprise. “I suppose--”
“Great, I appreciate it,” Colin dismissed him, taking Penelope’s hand and getting back into the dance. “Great music, isn’t it, Pen? The orchestra is particularly lively tonight, is it not?”
Pen’s eyes were wide as she mouthed an apology to her suitor before looking down at her feet to get her bearings. It was harder to dance with Colin, if only for the height difference. When she was well settled back into the song, she could not help but echoed Hyacinth’s vocabulary by asking, “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
He was slightly surprised, himself, at the word, but Pen rarely edited herself in front of him. “Whatever do you mean, Pen? We’re dancing.”
“No, I was dancing with Fitzwilliam,” she retorted. “And you’re interrupting.”
“Oh, it’s Fitzwilliam now?” he countered, frowning at her. “So familiar. Not to mention how he touches you--”
“Yes,” she snapped, finally. “I am familiar with my fiance.”
He missed the next step of the dance.
He had been gut punched by his brothers with less of an effect.
“My fiance,” she snapped again, even as they spun around each other. “The man who proposed marriage to me and the one I accepted. My mother started the paperwork today, in fact--”
“Penelope,” he said, swallowing as he looked down at her. His heart felt like ice in his chest. This… couldn’t be true. The man was a rake! A villain! Penelope deserved so much better.... “This is a jest to be sure.”
“Oh, yes,” she was yelling now, as she frowned at him while the song faded in the back. People were looking at them, now. Her cheeks were bright red and her eyes were shining with tears. “Because the very idea that a good man--a smart, kind, handsome man with absolutely nothing wrong with him--could be interested in me could only be a jest. Of course, thank you, Mr. Bridgerton, for pointing out how absolutely hilarious you find the mere fact that men could find me good enough to court, let alone marry. Thank you, truly, it means so much, especially coming from you, the man I--”
“The man you what?” he asked, reaching out to her.
She laughed but it was not warm or genuine. That hurt him more than anything. “Nevermind, Colin. Nevermind.” She brushed the tears on her cheeks away, and, with one glance at the crowd around them, all keeping their eyes down but obviously listening, she took another step and away from him. “With your permission, sir, I must go.”
And, like an absolute fool, he let her.
The carriage ride home was silent. Eloise glared at him the entire time and, when they arrived at home, she had gone immediately to her room to write to Penelope. He opened his mouth to call out an apology to her, but her door slammed before he could.
Helpless, he looked to his mother.
Sighing, she said, “I don’t want to hear anything until you go apologize to that poor girl.”
“Now?” he asked, swallowing around his tight throat.
“In the morning,” Benedict answered instead. “Give her time to cool off. For your own safety.”
The next day, on his way to the Featherington house, he picked up flowers for Pen. Pink ones, her actual favorite colors, and a few cookies from the patisserie that Eloise had mentioned once before as being her favorite. He suspected, however, that gaining entrance would be difficult and an audience with her even more difficult.
But, when he arrived, lifting his hand to the door to knock, it opened before his knuckles could even brush the wood. Mr. Locheland, eyes red and face matching, bursted through the doors, nearly flattening the both of them.
“My apologies--” the man started, cutting himself off when he recognized the Bridgerton man. His eyes narrowed then and, for an instant, Colin wondered if he would have to use the boxing moves he learned from Simon. But Locheland did nothing but slump in on himself, shoulders drooping. “I hope you’re happy, sir. Congratulations. You won.”
“What did I win?” he asked in return, raising an eyebrow.
The man stared at him and then spit on the ground. “Why don’t you ask her?”
He left, then, tearing off down the street like he had been threatened. Maybe he had.
Quiet chatter from inside the house. The door was already opened, and, knocking on the frame a few times, he called out, “Hello? It’s Colin Bridgerton. I’m here to call on Miss Featherington.” The chatter quieted but no one came to greet him. He tried again, “Penelope, please. I’m here to apologize.”
Mrs. Featherington, in all her exaggerated beauty, stepped out of the sitting room. “I’m sorry, but Penelope isn’t feeling well, Mr. Bridgerton. Perhaps, you could return tomorrow--”
“Mrs. Featherington,” he said, taking one bold step inside the house. “Please.”
She looked him up and down, eyes finally settling on the expensive flowers in his hands. “Fine.”
“Thank you,” he told her.
She nodded once. Before he got too far, she managed to say, “Be careful with her. Be kind.”
She was not known to be a charitable woman, but he nodded. “I will. I swear.”
Inside the sitting room, Penelope was facing away from the door, looking out the windows at the street. Her shoulders were dotted with freckles and, for just instant, he imagined all the constellations he could find there. If only given the chance.
“Pen?” he asked, barely loud enough for the girl to hear. “Can I come in?”
“Why are you here?” her voice trembled with the question.
“To apologize,” he answered, swallowing. Though she wasn’t looking at him, he held up the items he brought. “I come bearing flowers and chocolates. I really am sorry, Pen. Can we just talk for a second?”
“Just leave them on the table and go,” she said. “Apology accepted. Now go.”
He opened his mouth to answer--to argue? To agree?--but then she sniffled. Like she was holding back tears and not even propriety could stop him from closing the distance between them, then.
“Penelope, what’s wrong?” He asked, turning her around and, with two hands on her jaw, making her look up to him. “What happened?” He thinks of the man at the door and fear boils in his veins. What if he was too late? “Did he--did something happen with Mr. Locheland?”
Her laugh was sad, bitter, but he wouldn’t let her push him away. Not when she was crying.
“Yes, Colin, something happened.”
His heart turned to stone. “Do I need to duel him for your honor?”
She shook her head and one of the bobbles nearly fell off. “No, he was perfectly honorable. Honorable and kind and handsome and perfect.” Another laugh and then a sigh. “Not that it matters, it turns out.”
He frowned. “What do you mean? He’s your betrothed, of course, it--”
“Not anymore,” she laughed, pushing away from him to stand by the piano and brush her fingers along the shiny, black surface. “We broke off the engagement. I wish I could say it was a surprise, but, honestly, I cannot blame him.”
His face darkened. “Don’t say that. He’s an idiot--”
“I don’t blame him,” she repeated, turning her back to Colin again. Her next words could scarcely be heard, but she was strong enough to speak them. “I would not want to marry someone in love with another man, either.”
His entire body froze, then, as horror took hold of him. His brothers hinted at a man actually worthy of her, but to know she had already met him? He felt sick to his stomach.
“Who?” he asked, voice cracking.
“You’re not an idiot,” she snapped at him. “You know the answer.”
“I don’t.” He shook his head. “Pen…”
“Sometimes I think of all the advice you and Eloise gave me about courting. Wait for a man who knows you don’t like yellow, Pen,” she mocked him. His face began turning pink. “Wait for a man who knows you don’t like green. Wait for a kind man, a smart one, a handsome one. Wait for one who knows that my favorite flowers are pink roses and the name of my favorite palace to by chocolates. Wait for a man who loves you. Wait for a man you love in return.”
“Penelope,” he tried, but his tongue was too heavy to say more.
“And, when I met someone who was most of those things,” she continued, closing her eyes and trying to stop the next tears from coming. She was not successful. “Someone who did love me and treated me kindly, who bought me jewelry even if it wasn’t perfect, who asked me to dance at every ball…”
She wiped her eyes with her sleeve, shrugging impolitely.
“Well, it didn’t matter. Because I couldn’t love him back.”
He reaches out, hand on her cheek and brushing her tears away. “Why not?”
“He was sick of competing with someone he already lost to, regardless of the fact that he didn’t want me back.”
“It’s fine,” she muttered, taking a deep breath and gaining her courage again. She was so small and so soft, but she had more backbone than anyone that he’d ever met. “I don’t...I don’t expect anything from you. Just...go, okay?”
“I can’t.” He trembled but couldn’t stop himself from reaching out again. “Pen...I’m sorry, I was just trying to protect you. I didn’t realize…” Shaking his head. “I was just making sure no one unfit tried courting you and I made it all the worse. I cannot apologize enough, Penelope.”
“I am in love with you,” he declared all at once. “I have been, for quite sometime.”
She turned to a marble statue, cold and beautiful all at once.
“My brothers tried to tell me,” he started, words coming from his mouth like the water in the fountains in Rome. “They tried to, I don’t know, warn me that I was being so stupid. So fucking blind, Pen, I was. A good man, someone who makes you laugh, someone from a good family who would protect you and care for you and love you unconditionally. It’s me, Penelope, I’m the right man for you.”
She opened her mouth. And closed it. And opened it again to say, “I must be dreaming.”
He shook his head, careless of how he looked as he dropped to his knees in front of her. “I have been...well, an unmitigated ass, certainly, and I would understand if you had me escorted from your house, but, Penelope Featherington, I love you.”
“You…” she tilted her head to the side as if he were speaking Latin. “Love me?”
“Unconditionally,” he answered, nodding. “Ardently.”
“Really?” the question was surprised, unsure.
He snorted a laugh. “Really, Pen. I think I have for a long time. I’m just…” How did Benedict put it? “Slow on the uptake, sometimes. But loving you doesn’t make up for how poorly I treated you or Mr. Locheland, so this is a declaration but it is still an apology.”
“You really hurt me,” she responded, lip wobbling. “You treated me like your little sister until someone else came and treated me like a woman. Are you just saying this because you’re jealous that I’m not trailing after you like a lost puppy anymore?”
“Maybe,” he answered truthfully, grabbing her hands when she winced at the honesty. “Maybe that’s why I started this witch hunt against Mr. Locheland, but it was because I love you and I killed me to see you with someone else.”
“I’m not sure I can forgive you for that, yet.”
Disappointment colored his vision blue. “Ah. Okay.”
“But,” she said softly, lifting his gaze with her hand on his chin. “I love you, too.”
“Really?” he echoed her earlier shock.
Wiping her tears with her other hand, she explained, “Surely, you must know that. I have...for as long as I remember, been in love with you, Colin Bridgerton. You just never noticed me as anything other than your little sister’s silly friend.”
Feeling bold, he kissed the palm of her hand. “I will spend my entire life making up for that, if you let me, Penelope.”
She let out the smallest of laughs, genuine and incredulous at his words. “You can start by courting me. Correctly. Pink jewelry and proper waltzes and my favorite flowers and chocolates, the whole thing, okay?”
“Whatever you want,” Colin answered, finding that he meant it more than anything. “Forever.”
“Forever,” she echoed. “I like the sound of that.”