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The Woman Underneath

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Colin wanted nothing more than to eavesdrop on Penelope and Anthony’s “conversation”.

Colin wanted there to be no more secrets between him and Penelope. Colin wanted Penelope completely, but Penelope no longer seemed to be complete. She appeared lost and divided internally.

Colin had been processing and intaking an excess of information about Penelope for a fortnight, but this evening had been more enlightening than even the one spent at Lady Danbury’s ball. Colin’s thoughts were racing, but one thought stood out in particular. Colin was beginning to understand why Penelope was afraid of marrying him. Colin knew that Penelope cared for him (maybe even loved him), but until that moment he had never comprehended the implications of what a person was willing to do for love. Penelope was willing to force distance between them because she thought her behavior was shameful. Penelope thought she would bring disgrace to him and his family. She was already trying to spare her own family’s unstable reputation while taking numerous risks, and now she had rejected him in an attempt to spare the Bridgertons any possible embarrassment as well.

It had to be why Penelope was so determined to see her sisters married first. She wanted them to be protected in case her secret life caused a scandal. If she was ruined, and her sisters were already married off, then they would likely survive the fallout.

Then the horrible realization struck Colin. Penelope had every right to be as cautious and fearful as she appeared to be, because it was true. It was all true. Penelope’s behavior was absolutely as scandalous, ruinous, and potentially devastating as she thought it might be. She had been caught by the Bridgertons at an inappropriate party, drunk, and gambling against wealthy elite gentlemen over a game of chess. It made Colin shudder to think that someone else might have recognized her at the party and spread the word around the town.

Penelope had also claimed that she had maintained her virtue, but it would not matter if someone dared to say otherwise. She would be labeled a fallen woman and society would turn their back on her and her sisters. Even with Anthony and the rest of the Bridgertons support, their influence would only reach so far. If Penelope was caught, written about in Lady Whistledown, exposed by Weatherby or disastrously otherwise, then the fallout would be unforgivable. If Colin chose to marry Penelope regardless of the scandal and insinuation, then society would turn their back on them.

Thinking back, Colin had been extremely nervous about how the ton would react after Lady’s Danbury’s ball when it had been circulated throughout the party that Penelope knew the elusive ring leader, Michael Delaney, and his performers, personally. Colin and the rest of the ton knew that Lady Whistledown’s word would be all but law among the ton’s members.Yet when Lady Whistledown, who had famously regularly mocked the Featherington’s in her papers on a nearly weekly basis chose to compliment Penelope and her family for their professional input into a show that had previously been regarded as garish, unrefined, and unsuitable, the ton had seemed to accept it. Whistledown’s words were perhaps even consequential in elevating Featherington's popularity around the ton in quite an unconventional manner. The writer might have been willing to give Penelope and the Featheringtons a break simply because the circus proved to be a success. However, Colin had a feeling Whistledown would not be so merciful with the latest development about Penelope’s time in the city.

Colin just wanted Penelope to trust him. To trust that he wouldn’t let her get hurt. To trust that he would help her look out for her family. To trust that he wanted her unconditionally. Because Colin Bridgerton did want Penelope Featherington unconditionally.

As a Bridgerton, Colin and the rest of his siblings, most especially Anthony, felt the weight of their last name. The weight of the Bridgerton name carried a different stigma in comparison to the weight the Featherington’s had attached to their name. Colin’s family had always been respectable. The family business had long since been established and flourished under their leadership. In addition, the Bridgertons were afforded free social clout as an unspoken part of the family inheritance.

Colin and his siblings each had one true responsibility as the “spares” of the Bridgerton family and it was to simply marry for love. But also, it was to marry members of their social class who would bring more dignity to their family.

Colin would only admit it to himself, but that is what scared him the most about his future with Penelope. If Penelope were to be publicly ruined, could Colin still be able to marry her? The answer was a firm yes. However, would Colin and Penelope also have the support of his family? Likely, considering his family was sometimes unbearably loving. Lastly, would the community that Colin and Penelope had both been raised in support their marriage? The answer was a simple no. If word had spread that Penelope’s virtue was compromised by a stranger in the city, and Colin married her regardless, the vile words would never end.

And it wasn’t even that Colin was concerned about himself, because he knew that women were treated differently, and that the majority of the ton would revile Penelope, not him.

The Bridgerton men were extremely powerful figures among the ton and quite capable of withstanding scandal. Although Anthony had shared with his two closest brothers about how at the end of last season, Anthony had wanted to bring an actress with whom he had been having a liaison with to Daphne’s ball. Of course, the actress had had better sense than his eldest brother, and had chosen to not attend the ball with Anthony in public. It had broken his brother’s heart, but it had saved them both from the cruelty of society. Anthony and his actress would have been obliterated in Lady Whistledown, and society would have been critical. Colin doubted the Bridgerton name would have been able to withstand the kind of scandal his brother had nearly brought to their doorstep.

However, if Anthony had really and truly loved the actress, would Colin have supported his brother as Colin suspected his brother would support him? Colin wanted to say yes, unconditionally, but when Anthony had told him that story, Colin had been secretly relieved. Colin had been relieved the actress had let his brother go for both of their sakes, and it made Colin feel sick to his stomach for thinking it.

Is that what Colin truly wanted for his brother? For Anthony to be miserable at the cost of protecting his family and their name. No, Colin didn’t want that. Although, Colin felt that his circumstance with Penelope was vastly different from Anthony’s circumstance with the actress. An actress was not given any respectability among their social class, but Penelope was of a noble family background, and as long as Penelope’s virtue remained unchallenged, then she was still a respectable choice for a bride.

Colin hated acknowledging that if either he or Benedict were to marry a woman outside of the bounds of respectable society, it would be different than if it was Anthony. Certainly, Benedict or Colin would easily lose face among the ton, but the Bridgerton name would survive so long as the offending brother and his bride left the ton and Anthony remained the heir.

It was really an unfair world, but Colin would not give up Penelope. Not for anything, he decided. If it meant having to leave a demerit next to the Bridgerton name to take Penelope to be his, then he would do it without any regrets, only apologies. If being with Penelope meant his family turning their back on him and cutting him off from his inheritance, then he’d find a way to support Penelope and any subsequent children they would have another way. It would be a blessing to have a wife as intelligent as Penelope.

Although, it seemed that Penelope thought Colin was intimidated by her intelligence. Penelope had indicated that she thought that Colin might be more interested in a ninny as a wife during their conversation on the ride home. Penelope could not be further from the truth, because he desperately wanted an intelligent wife. He liked smart women with whom it was easy to hold a conversation, and he found so very few of those in his social circles. So very few respectable and educated women in their world, and it was Colin’s luck that Penelope was both.

Colin found he could muster some serious admiration for Penelope’s tenacity and independent spirit, but it did not negate the fact that what she was doing was dangerous. It was a dangerous world for independent women, and Penelope was taking risks with her safety that no other respectable woman would. Colin was worried and he certainly wanted Penelope to stop, but it did not make him any less interested in having her as his wife.

It was clear Penelope was resourceful, because she had to have been in order to survive living in the city with her mother and sisters to look out for. Penelope had also “worked”, which was highly unusual for women in their class. She had “worked” with Weatherby at the bank. She had “worked” at the circus with Michael Delaney. She had created this “Madam Noire” character to gamble amongst men. Colin had to surmise based on what he had seen of Penelope that evening, that she had to have been quite practiced in her alter ego. It had been an utter miracle that word of Penelope “working” had not made its way back into the ton before Penelope had returned. Gossip from the city made its way into the ton all the time, but if the subject of the gossip was still in the city, it made it quite easy to question one’s reputation when they were out of sight.

Colin made another realization with a deeply unsettling emotion that he couldn’t quite define. The Bridgertons had not been able to find Penelope or the rest of the Featheringtons for months. Penelope had been in the city the whole time, going off to work with Weatherby at the bank and with Delaney at the circus, and playing chess at gentlemen’s parties in the evening. The city was enormous, and not everybody in London knew everybody, but surely one contact somewhere would have been able to find Penelope. Penelope and her family were arguably well-connected members of the ton. The Featherington patriarch may have for all appearances left his wife and children destitute, but it was not necessarily as if the Featheringtons had been forced from the ton in disgrace. The Featherington’s had left on their own accord, and perhaps Colin conceded with a wince, maybe they and most especially Penelope had just not wanted to be found.

It had been quite the feat when Whistledown had allegedly been unable to find and therefore report on the normally flamboyant family for months. Colin had suspected that Whistledown would have eyes and ears everywhere, and would have been able to find them from anywhere in the country. Although, Lady Whistledown wrote on many subjects and perhaps simply didn’t care enough to keep up with her seemingly favorite punching bags.

A chilling thought crossed Colin’s mind. Was it possible? Was the unthinkable possible. Was the reason that Penelope and the Featheringtons were able to survive the self-induced exile from the ton, because Penelope was the writer and had protected her family.

Penelope was brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. But to have remained anonymous for so long and to have been the elusive gossiping bat under all of the ton’s noses. For Penelope to have been behind the voice behind all the...chaos.

It was a preposterous thought! Or was it?!

Whistledown was quite simply...a little menace. An entertaining successful little menace. A little menace that had a particular penchant for critiquing the Featherington women quite unrelentingly. It just wasn’t possible. Surely, Whistledown might have had her own agenda for being...less critical of Penelope’s history of “educating the circus” while she lived in the city. The ton could have been easily swayed in either direction by Lady Whistledown about whether they should revile Penelope or subtly applaud Penelope for her endeavors. When Lady Whistledown had written of her subtle approval of Penelope to her audience, her audience had been willing to look at the situation with Penelope “working” with more “open mindedness”. After all, if Lady Whistledown wasn’t hinting at any impropriety on behalf of Penelope, then there was no reason for anyone to think there had been any impropriety at all. It seemed that Penelope and Michael’s interactions at the ball had been appropriate enough to all the eyes watching and waiting for something to happen between them so that they could pick it apart and label Penelope and Michael’s display as unbecoming.

In that sense, it would be a blessing if Penelope was somehow in control of her own gossip as the mysterious writer. However, was it possible that Penelope was Lady Whistledown, or perhaps that Penelope might know the writer personally? From the way that Lady Whistledown wrote of Penelope’s family, it was a neither overly flattering nor critically detrimental spotlight, but like the ramblings of a critical aunt. An aunt who was no novice to embarrassing and criticizing her family in order to improve (perhaps quite passive aggressively) when the occasion called for it.

If Lady Whistledown were a friend, then like the Bridgertons she might have truly been unaware of Featherington's whereabouts. If Lady Whistledown was a family member, close friend, or Penelope herself, then it would have been wise to write the Featherington’s out of the gossip papers for a few months, especially while Penelope was indulging in the risky behavior that Colin could clearly see that she had been partaking in during her time away.

Colin had to concede with a bit of pride and a dash of jealousy that Penelope being Whistledown was in fact a veritable possibility and perhaps not as preposterous of an idea as he had initially thought. Although, he couldn’t know if it was Penelope for sure. Colin could also admit out both a bit of jealousy and selfishness, that he did not want Penelope to be Whistledown. Colin felt that if Penelope was Whistledown and if it was ever discovered that she was Whistledown, it would be something he couldn’t protect her from.

In contrast, Colin felt like he and his family would be able to protect Penelope from any fall out that might have been conceived that evening in Ashbury’s home. Colin was sure of it. However, Whistledown was famous, and if her identity was revealed to the public, he was sure the woman would be shunned from society for all the harsh comments and rumors she had publicly published about the ton’s most prominent families. The response would likely be unfavorable no matter who the mystery writer was.

Colin didn’t want to ponder the possibilities any longer. He just wanted to know Penelope’s truth. Her entire truth. What does Penelope want? What does Penelope need? Colin wanted the answer to these questions, but Penelope had become such a reserved woman. Colin hoped that if anything would come from his absence in his brother’s study with Penelope and Anthony in it, Colin hoped it would encourage Penelope to open up to his brother at least. Head of family to head of family.

It was time that Colin thought of Penelope the way Anthony had seamlessly begun too. Anthony had surprised Colin twice that evening when he had first bet “on” Penelope, and then when he had insisted that he speak with Penelope privately “as the head of her family”. Colin hadn’t expected for Anthony to treat Penelope any differently than he would have his younger siblings, but instead Anthony was truly giving Penelope the respect she obviously deserved and commanded.

Colin was glad his brother was being so cordial with Penelope, but Anthony had been furious with Penelope less than an hour earlier. Anthony had been discussing different ways with Colin in which he and Colin should “punish” Penelope for her dangerous actions. Anthony had asked him what he would do if Penelope was his wife? And he had asked him what if it had been one of his sisters in Penelope’s position? Well, it was an unspoken understanding about what any one of the Bridgerton men would have done to their siblings. They would have had to ground their sisters at home, only after they had sufficiently made her understand why she was in trouble to begin with. There was no other way to go forward.

As Anthony had said earlier, there was no way that the situation with Penelope could be “ignored” any further.

Anthony and Penelope had only been standing and arguing in Anthony’s study for only several moments, but Penelope had already begun to deeply regret letting Colin walk away from them.

Penelope had thought it would be easier to face down one Bridgerton man at a time. And specifically for that Bridgerton man to not have just proposed to her. Now in hindsight, Penelope was positive that she had just made an enormous mistake. Maybe, Penelope debated internally, Colin would have been the more sensible choice, because he was the one who had just proposed to her.

Penelope had learned to live with her choices though, and she had not wanted to appear weak in front of Anthony, so she refused his paltry offer of a seat and decided she would face him down instead. This was a now or never moment for Penelope to get her story straight with Anthony and the rest of the Bridgertons. She needed to be firm with him and make him understand that Coli and him were not helping her, but instead making her mess bigger and far too noticeable.

But when Anthony had just all but begged Penelope to just let him help her, it had made Penelope upset.

The whole situation with the Bridgertons made Penelope upset. The Featherington’s had been left in an indeterminate state after her father had killed himself, and Penelope had single handedly managed to provide for her and her family while keeping them in considerable refinement. Now that they returned to the ton in that very state of refinement she fought tooth and nail for, the Bridgertons felt safe enough based on their outward appearances to invite them inside their home.

The Bridgertons had greatly miscalculated their “charity”. Penelope was riddled with all sorts of secrets that would cause scandal. The Bridgertons thought they were saving her and her family from scandal, but instead they were risking their own reputation by associating with someone who kept so many damning secrets.

They should have known. Independent women do indecent things. Or so society dictated.

Penelope had been able to keep her family in a low profile and yet fashionable and comfortable boarding home for months while maintaining “respectability” with her discretion and dexterity to move around as if she was invisible. Penelope was oh so good at being invisible and often found it a small blessing that her invisibility had seen her avoid finding herself in precarious positions. However, the Bridgertons and even Michael were giving he too much visibility and it would mean that the line she was walking would just get thinner and thinner.

Penelope had tried to protect Colin, Eloise, and the rest of the Bridgertons. She tried to push them away, and Penelope was starting to wonder if she had pushed them away hard enough. She had tried to tell them that she was capable of making decisions for herself, and she had tried to show them through her and her family’s appearance that she was okay.

Now, Colin and Anthony were going to tear Penelope’s heart apart. She cared for them, she cared for all of them, and she had tried to protect them, but they had caught her.

The Bridgertons had caught Penelope in the precarious position that she had been so diligently avoiding with her invisibility skills. Although Penelope should have known that the risk of being caught by someone she knew at a gentlemen’s party in the ton would have been a near inevitable outcome. Yet, Penelope had still taken that risk with the hopes of not being discovered, but still desiring the opportunity to make more money. So, really it was her own fault she had been caught.

Unless, one of the Bridgertons had followed her there. She doubted that they cared enough to do something ridiculous like follow her. But the way Colin sounded, and how Colin had sounded when he had asked about her virtue, several times it felt like, maybe Colin really did care about her enough to follow her. Colin said he didn’t care about her virtue as much as he was jealous at the thought of someone else kissing her.

Penelope shouldn’t have lied to Colin.

Michael had kissed her. Although, if Colin thought a kiss was the definition of being ruined then he had ruined her in the carriage that very night. And by no means did Penelope nor Colin indicate or surmise that he had ruined her that evening. Yes, it would be quite a large demerit against the Bridgertons and even more so against the Featherington’s should it have been revealed, because then Penelope would be ruined. She would be just as ruined if word spread that she had kissed Michael before she left the city, and Penelope could hardly imagine the scandal should both stories see the light of day.

Penelope thanked God every day that she knew neither story would ever see the light of day, because she was in control. She was Lady Whistledown. And Michael and Colin were supposedly gentlemen. Penelope was thankful for that too.

Penelope didn’t want Colin to think less of her for Michael having kissed her. She hadn’t initiated the kiss, but she hadn't hated it either. There was also the “small problem” that Penelope really did care about Michael, and Penelope had been internally debating going back to the city where she would reside as a writer or going back to Michael who wanted to travel and raise his daughter with Penelope as her step-mother.

Michael would be giving Penelope a family, but she would be practically separating them too. Penelope had told Michael her thoughts about living a nomadic lifestyle with his circus. She didn’t think long periods of travel were good for raising a family. She wanted to raise her family in mostly one place, but she was supportive of taking short trips and perhaps a seasonal journey from time to time. Penelope would be able to help Morgan get a fine education, and eventually married to a worthy working gentleman whom she would love. Penelope would no longer be connected to the ton, especially if she left to marry an older widow from the working class with a daughter. It was not so much his position as a widow, but as a single father who was also the ring leader of a circus. Of course, society would also frown once she revealed herself to be an incredible writer at the very same time Whistledown retired her column. Only a few of the smart ones might be able to put that one together.

Penelope adored Morgan, and she could admit it would be an honor to be her mother, but Penelope did not think she could sacrifice her desire for stability. Morgan was always happiest when she was with her father, even if she had developed a wonderful connection with Penelope. It wouldn’t be the same for Morgan, and Penelope imagined that both Morgan and Michael would resent the time they spent apart. They would both resent that Penelope was the cause for them being apart. They would resent her for being selfish and Penelope wouldn’t blame them for it.

Michael and Morgan might say differently now, but Penelope deep down knew that while her and Michael would be happy together, they would not be compatible for the long term. Michael lived for his business and while it wouldn’t be hard to be a writer while traveling, and perhaps she might even find a few foreign subjects to write about while on the road, but Penelope knew she would only be happy for short periods of time on the road before she desired to return “home”.

Michael was a busy man and Penelope had experienced the person Michael was when he was dividing his attention between his show, Morgan, and Penelope. And Penelope lost every time. Certainly, Michael had given her proper attention. He had given her wine and he had given her a purpose within his wonderful world. Within his show. They had enjoyed each other’s company. Respectfully.

Even though it hadn’t been respectful. Not really. Not when they had been alone and drinking and without a chaperone in sight.

Michael had made Penelope feel so very confident and intelligent. Michael had talked about this intellectual connection they had and claimed that he had never met a woman so talented and humble. And then the bold, brash man that Michael was, he had kissed her right before she left the city and begged her to return to him.

All of this, Michael had divulged after Penelope had told him about her desires to follow her passion as a writer, but to still have a sense of family, stability and community. The performers made a wonderful community, but Penelope was sure that even some of the performers would eventually find traveling to be just as tedious full time as Penelope could only imagine it was.

Colin travelled for months during the year, and then he returned home for months during the year. Penelope had always thought Colin was away so long and updates on his life had been so rare because mail from him would arrive from all over Europe at different speeds. The Bridgertons might have received a letter in mid to late April that had been addressed in mid February, after they received a letter that had been addressed in mid March. Penelope would subtly ask for news about Colin from Eloise and was always decisively confused with the mail patterns. Penelope had decided if she was ever in the position of marrying Colin Bridgerton that if he ever wanted to travel he had to take her with him, and that she would ask that he travelled less for Penelope’s sake

But Michael wanted to travel in a completely different manner than Colin. Michael wanted to tour, and Penelope simply did not want to compromise anyone’s happiness. Including her own. Penelope thought that she knew what she wanted, and it unfortunately wasn’t the same thing as what Michael wanted.

She wanted to disappear into the city, live independently, and move away from rigid expectations that had plagued her all her life. Penelope also wanted to fall in love. Not the kind of love that was obsessing over Colin Bridgerton, but the kind of love where nothing else matters but each other.

Michael would always put his daughter first, and Penelope did not want to hear anything less. Penelope did not fear Michael’s love. She wanted it. She just doubted she deserved it.

Michael Delaney was not Colin Bridgerton.

And it was a wonderful thing Michael wasn’t Colin because Penelope would have never realized how important it was for a woman to truly understand the type of man she is marrying. Courtships were short lived in the ton, but with Michael, Penelope felt she had a months long courtship with Michael where she really got to know him. Penelope knew exactly what Michael wanted and she knew exactly what she wanted. Kinda. And unfortunately, Penelope didn’t see a compatible future…romantically.

However, that did not mean things could not change between Michael and Penelope. Michael was in the ton. Michael would not let Penelope be sequestered in the Bridgerton home without requesting a formal audience with her. It would be entirely appropriate for Michael to call upon the woman with whom he had made a professional acquaintance with in the city last fall. Surely, as long as there was a “chaperone”, Penelope would be able to speak with Michael. Penelope had no doubt he would be calling on her the morning before the opening night of his show on Friday. Michael always gave his performers a rest day before the opening night.

Michael had probably chosen to give Penelope space to ride the wave of gossip while he had probably been rehearsing his cast rugged. He had an annoying tendency to do it, but she found it to be somewhat endearing.

“Penelope,” Anthony addressed her by her first name as he approached her figure. She was currently still looming over his desk refusing to take a seat.

“What do you want to know?” Penelope asked.

Anthony was completely taken by surprise for perhaps the infinitesimal time since Penelope had returned from the city. A completely different girl. A girl. Penelope was a girl. Yes, Anthony could concede, Penelope looked like a woman and was intelligent as a woman, but a woman had a different connotation than a girl in their society.

Daphne became a woman the night she married Simon. Girls became women on their wedding night, and that is how women matured in their society. A woman was experienced and a girl was not.

Penelope for all appearances appeared to be...experienced, and yet she appeared to be inexperienced as well. It was unknown what might have occurred while Penelope was away from the ton, but it would seem that society had no reason to believe that Penelope and the Featheringtons would dare risk the virtue of each other, and that a maid must have been hired upon their arrival in the city. Which was possibly true, but a maid in the city would undoubtedly be capable of serving as a full time chaperone to boarding home residents who would not require one.

Anthony, like his brother Colin, had conceded to many realizations that evening. The most prominent being that Penelope was a danger to herself. She needed to avoid scandal at all costs.

And Anthony saw an easy fix for Penelope, which was to simply marry Colin. The Bridgertons could help the Featheringtons and Penelope had to know that.

“Everything,” Anthony stated now, seeming to look her over as she loomed over the table. Immediately, Penelope pulled away from the front of the desk and seemed to start lazily promenading around the room as she studied it.

“Miss Featherington?” Anthony asked haughtily with a mix of condescension and light hearted teasing

“This study feels completely different than my father’s, but there is something both of your studies have in common,” Penelope noted as she walked a steady, slow pace and her eyes continued to wander around the room.

“Which is?” Anthony probed.

“The distinct scent of suffocating male,” Penelope quipped.

Anthony stood up rigidly in offense to her comment.

“I apologize if I offended you, but it’s not entirely a bad thing,” Penelope said, finally delicately sitting down on one of the masculine leather couches in the corner.

“Being described as suffocating is hardly ever an un-entirely bad thing,” Anthony answered.

“That’s not true,” Penelope stated firmly. “There is a way for suffocating male pheromones to be something...almost comforting. Like for example, I can tell your father loved you and that you loved him. I can feel all the love that’s in this room. Did you ever have the opportunity to visit my father’s study when he was alive?” Penelope asked.

“A time or two,”

“There was no warmth in it. No love. Except for his chess set at his side table. I spent a lot of time listening to my father and his friends make horrible deals, and comments about women. About my mother. My sisters. Me.” Penelope stated.

Anthony flinched at how defeated Penelope sounded.

“He would have surely traded all three of his daughters for a single son like you,” Penelope whispered softly, straightening her dress and looking anywhere but at Anthony.

Anthony hadn’t expected to feel so...sympathetic. Logically, he’d been sympathetic to Penelope’s cause since the very beginning, but now he felt like Penelope had thrown him off balance. Anthony found it difficult to discuss his father with most people. He found it even difficult to share with his youngest siblings the memories he shared with his father. Anthony felt terrible about cheating his younger siblings out of hearing more stories about their father, but Anthony despised expressing his emotions in front of his siblings.

Anthony had been prepared to lecture at Penelope until his voice grew hoarse and Penelope had conceded to his “recommendations”. Instead, she had somehow caused a complete shift in feelings from anger and frustration to sympathy and concern.

Penelope had been doing a good job distracting Anthony from his goal, but Anthony had to stay focused on the situation.

“What happened after your father died?” Anthony asked.

“You don’t know?” Penelope scoffed in disbelief.

Anthony had a general sense of what had happened, but he had wanted to hear it straight from the horse's mouth, in a manner of speaking, which would undoubtedly be deemed horrendously impolite.

“Could you perhaps fill me in on the specifics? If we are being perfectly honest, I am most curious about your relationship with Weatherby and this Michael Delaney fellow. Should anyone accuse Weatherby or Delaney of...compromising you. Then you know what the consequences would be, it is a miracle that someone in the ton has not exposed you,” Anthony found himself nearly seething in Penelope’s direction as he had become increasingly disgusted by the direction of his thoughts.

“I have been extremely discreet, Viscount” Penelope sneered at his title on an impulse and immediately stood up from her seat on the couch, no longer wishing to be seated in front of him. Penelope had heard the anger in his voice and all the anger she had been holding back had nearly expelled itself from her mouth. Instead she found herself being deliberately clear with Anthony about her feelings. “I have nothing to fear, because I can handle myself and my family in a respectable and responsible manner. It is your family that is at risk of destroying everything I have built for myself. I do not know how you can stand here and act as if I was a destitute orphan, because if you had found my family and I in poverty, you would have probably been just another disappointment in our life. I know the fact that my family is flourishing financially under a woman must have you so confused, but women are capable of more than just being chattel for fathers and brothers to sell their daughters and sisters. I know it’s what I am doing with my own sisters, but that’s because that is the way things are and I have no hope of changing it. None. But when my father died, my sisters and I were granted freedom. My sisters will have their own money, and they may take any husband they choose, without our father there to turn their marriage into something that benefits him. It’s why I admired your family so much, because your mother would always tell mine how she hoped each of her children would find a perfectly suitable love match. My mother would scoff, because her daughters didn’t stand a chance at having that kind of happiness, but now her daughters will. Thanks to me and what I did. I managed to remain discreet, and all you have to do is remain discreet yourself, and I assure you both of our families will make it through the rest of the season unscathed. So, do we have a deal?” Penelope asked, reaching out her hand.

Anthony’s mouth had progressively lowered throughout her tirade, but it seemed as if at the end of Penelope’s speech, she appeared to have...blackmailed him.

“How can you make that assurance?” Anthony demanded.

Penelope scoffed. “Surely after tonight you can see how well connected I am.”

“You know Lady Whistledown?” Anthony asked.

“Hard to say,” Penelope answered honestly.

“How do you know you can protect yourself from a person’s suggestion about what happened this evening?” Anthony demanded.

“I can’t,” Penelope answered honestly, again.

“You sounded confident a moment ago that you could,” Anthony pushed.

“All I said was if I had your discretion and you had mine, then we could avoid public exposure about what may or may not have occurred this evening,” Penelope answered slyly.

“I won’t continue to talk in circles with you. I agree to remain discreet and quiet about what I saw this evening, but that does not mean I agree to ignore it.”

“What do you mean?” Penelope asked innocently.

“Your behavior is reckless and concerning. You say you won’t marry Colin, but I think you will, and I think you need to forget any ideas you have about returning to the city. Why would you want to do that? What is there for you?” Anthony demanded.

“I’d be free of society’s prying eyes!” Penelope cried out instinctually. “I’d be free to love who I wanted. I wouldn’t be forced into some quick marriage to a man I barely know. I’d be able to follow my interests with music and art...maybe even some writing,” Penelope added.

“Are you saying you don’t love my brother?” Anthony asked.

“No! I’m saying I don’t really know your brother...but if your brother would give me time and his patience as we get to know each other more, then I could eventually love your brother in the way a wife ought to love her husband. It’s just that I want my husband to love me the way a husband ought to love his wife too. I don’t want us to be miserable because we got married fast and had no time to really know each other.” Penelope explained honestly.

“Penelope, our society...well, marriages tend to take place rather expediently,” Anthony stated.

“Why?” Penelope asked.

“S-so a man and wife can begin...building a family, of-of course,” Anthony stuttered out with a blush.

“I’m not asking him to wait for me forever, but I do want to make sure we make a good match. It’s for his benefit as much as mine,” Penelope said.

“Should I be worried about this Michael Delaney?” Anthony asked after a moment.

“Hardly,” Penelope hoped silently.

“Hardly,” Anthony repeated, as if testing the word out. “Does hardly mean ‘a little bit’?” Anthony asked.

“I doubt he’ll make trouble for us. He cares about me,” Penelope said.

“Will he make trouble for Colin?” Anthony asked in a deadly quiet voice.

“Impossible,” Penelope found herself choking out.

Anthony narrowed his eyes at Penelope who had long since abandoned meeting his stare.

“I don’t want you going anywhere near Weatherby and if Delaney approaches you, then you must be chaperoned at all times. I’ve noticed you’ve picked up an acquired taste for drinks that are unsuitable for you,” Anthony said softly as he approached her close enough to put his arm on her shoulder. “I know of a doctor that specializes in working with certain women's illnesses,”

Penelope pulled away from him in horror. “I don’t need a doctor. I’m fine. I’m completely fine.” Penelope pressed.

“Perhaps you should avoid social events for a while, and we can go over your estate after I bring back your bank documents to review tomorrow,” Anthony said.

“What?” Penelope cried.

“I care about you Penelope and you need to take some time to rest.” Anthony stated firmly.

“No!” Penelope cried.

“Hush now, Penelope. Colin!” Anthony called to his brother who he knew had been standing outside the door. Colin came into the study less than a second later, as he had heard Penelope’s cry of distress.

Penelope was feeling trapped standing in front of Colin and Anthony Bridgerton, and she felt powerless, and she felt the overwhelming urge to punish them for their protectiveness.

Penelope found herself taking a deep breath.

“You overstep your place, Viscount Bridgerton,” Penelope said icily.

“Drop the formalities, Penelope. What choices do you have? Certainly not the mysterious circus owner, Mr. Delaney? How about the cousin you’ve never met? Good lord, Weatherby!?” Anthony nearly shouted.

“I have choices!” Penelope found herself nearly shouting back.

“You do, Penelope. You do. Please. Please just make it the easy one,” Colin said, finally walking toward her to grab her hand.

Penelope didn’t want to fight them anymore. She really didn’t, but she would find to make them pay for this another day. Colin wanted her to make the easy choice.

But was it the only choice?

“We shall have a truce. For my sisters sake. We will work together to ensure my reputation and our families reputation until both of my sisters marriage papers are signed. But in exchange for my cooperation, I shall not be kept away from my own affairs, including public ones. Anything you want to see from the bank will not be seen without my knowledge. You have no right to my private documents without my consent. I know that you have certain influence over members of the bank, but if you respect me as much as I am trying to believe that you do, then you will not go behind my back. You will also not speak to Mr. Weatherby or Mr. Delaney about me. Do we have an understanding?” Penelope asked, pulling her hand away from Colin’s and not meeting his eyes.

Anthony seemed to be contemplating her words carefully. Anthony and Colin found that where Penelope wasn’t looking at either one of them, they had agreed silently they would play by her rules. Anthony understood that he was most likely overstepping where Penelope was concerned, but he could hardly help himself. Neither Anthony nor Colin had the stomach for seeing Penelope looking as dejected as she did. So, Anthony found himself making another choice he would have never have once thought of offering. Cooperation.

“We have a deal, but only for so long as my brother can’t convince you to marry him.” Anthony found himself unable to bite back his teasing.

That’s when Penelope looked up at Anthony Bridgerton with her red tired eyes. Then her eyes shifted to Colin Bridgerton’s stunning blue. And she gave them both the most deceiving demure smirk one could manage in her state.

There was no doubt that Penelope had a soft spot for the Bridgertons.

There was no doubt they had tapped into such desires of stability and acceptance. A family she always wanted. Exactly, the family she always wanted.

But would they ever accept her? Would they ever forgive her? Or would she always be the black sheep? Always there, but never participating.

Penelope Featherington was going to have to show the Bridgertons just how capable she was.

And to make a decision about her future with Colin and the rest of the Bridgertons.

Or her future with Michael, Morgan, and everyone else she had grown to think of as one big family .

Or perhaps, she would risk her reputation on her talents and go to city by herself, to become a writer, and leave the rules and responsibilities of society behind to experience the most life had to offer.

So, there was no harm in Penelope having a little fun while she sobered up and made her choice. Her own choice for herself that is.