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PRESENT DAY

Usually, when there’s a knock on the door this early in the morning, Penelope ignores it. Mostly since it endlessly annoys her roommate Eloise who’s a notorious late riser. However, Eloise had practically moved out in the past month or so, spending most of her days - and nights - at her girlfriend’s. So instead, when there’s a knock at the door, Penelope leaves her half-drunk coffee on the kitchen table and shuffles her feet to open it.

Of course, since Penelope never checks to see who’s there first, when she swings the door open in her ratty t-shirt and baggy shorts, hair knotted on top of her head and eyes still crusted over from sleep, she immediately swings the door shut again.

Because she looks like a mess and - and well, Colin Bridgerton is at her door.

Colin Bridgerton is at her door.

He knocks again. “Pen? You okay?”

Penelope has had a lot of practice internally screaming around Colin, but in this moment she must finally lose herself, because her voice is definitely a squeak when she replies, “Fine! Just! You surprised me! What are you doing here?” She tries to flatten out her hair and her clothes but - well, would he mind waiting outside for just a moment longer - 

“I’ll tell you when you let me in.”

Closing her eyes and sighing, Penelope opens the door. Squinting through one eye, she lets herself look at him. He’s - well, he’s fucking handsome, of course he is, in worn jeans and a sweater and a couple day’s scruff that she knows feels soft against her fingers and that familiar smirk, mischievous and curious and so Colin that Penelope has to exhale to keep her heart in her chest. 

Not that it’s much use - Colin’s owned her heart for as long as she could remember.

“Hi,” he says, hands in his pockets. 

“Hi,” she says, one hand wrapped around her stomach and the other buried in the dripping collar of her shirt. Naturally, she is not wearing a bra, but hopefully the shirt is thick enough to hide anything untoward. 

Colin tilts his head. “Can I come in?” 

Penelope blinks before nodding rapidly. Colin slips into the apartment and the scent of his cologne is familiar and potent. Trying not to melt on the spot, she shuts the door and leans against it as Colin begins to study the living room. 

“Where’s El?”

“At Marina’s.” 

With a knowing look, Colin sheepishly shuffles his feet, hands still in his pockets. It’s an odd look from him - usually confident and smooth - but not unwelcome. Especially when he tilts his head and smiles. “Happy birthday, Pen.”

“Oh.” She blinks, calculating in her head and then - “ oh. I forgot.”

“You forgot it was your birthday?” Colin laughs. “Well, I’m glad I’m here to remind you.”

Penelope hopes her blush isn’t too obvious and just smiles instead. “Well - thank you.” Arms still wrapped around herself, she slides closer to her bedroom. “Let me just - uh - ” Now she’s sure she blushes, because to say out loud grab a bra is nearly impossible, so instead she disappears without another word.

Colin is probably confused.

Penelope grabs a hoodie lying on the floor and rushes back. Instead of confused or startled or upset at her sudden disappearance, he has a small smile on his lips as he studies a picture on the bookshelf by the television. 

“That was a good day.” Colin glances back at her, still smiling and Penelope tries to ignore the fluttering in her stomach. She tilts her head as Colin traces his own face. It’s the three of them - Colin, Penelope, and Eloise - at her graduation from university, her in the middle between her best friend and - well, her other best friend.

Colin turns to face her completely. “I thought it was a hard day for you. I know you and, uh, what was his name - ”

“Thomas,” she says, making a face and waving his name - and memory - away. “It was sad, of course, but in the end…” Penelope shrugs. “It was time to move on, you know? Grow up.”

Colin stares at her, his gaze unwavering yet soft, as if he’s calculating something in his head. Penelope doesn’t see this look often, but when she does, nothing good can follow. Colin takes a step forward. “Pen, do you remember your senior prom?”

Penelope freezes. “What - what about it?”

Except - she knows exactly what he’s referring to and it’s suddenly very difficult to breathe, especially when Colin’s eyes grow darker and his body grows closer. He’s so tall , but he doesn’t tower, exactly, just… hovers. His voice lowers, but there’s a rasp to it, as if - as if there’s something swirling in his throat from his heart and emotions are crawling to get through. 

“It’s your birthday.” He reaches out, cradling her hand in his own. “You’re 30. I’m 30. And we’re both not married.”

“Don’t you have a girlfriend?” It comes out without thought, because internally she’s pressed the panic button. A defense mechanism, for sure, and while logically Penelope knows she should just remain calm and listen, all her instincts scream abort abort abort. “I thought I saw - ”

Colin frowns and takes her other hand too. She’s not really sure why she hasn’t pulled back yet, other than his thumbs run across the inside of her wrists. “I don’t have a girlfriend. I haven’t had a girlfriend in - ” He cuts off, his eyes flickering downwards - almost as if embarrassed - before catching her gaze again. “I don’t have a girlfriend.”

Penelope opens her mouth - starts to say… something - but then closes it again. Blinking rapidly, she looks anywhere but at him, her mind whirling - 

Penelope remembers, of course, their deal. She vividly remembers feeling like the walls were closing in and the loneliness was almost suffocating but then - then, Colin… charming and smiling and kind, Colin… 

“If, when we’re both thirty years old, we’re both still single…well, let’s promise that we’ll marry each other.”

It’s her birthday, today, now. She’s thirty years old. He’s five years older - and she remembers his birthday, in that club in Spain, very vividly too - so now they’re both at least thirty.

And Colin is here, single. She’s single - and he’s - he - 

“Colin, what are you doing?”

Pulling her hands against his chest, he steps closer. “Marry me.” 

“No.” The answer is instinctual. “You’re joking, right?” She shakes her head so vigorously, she feels her hastily tied bun loosen. “You’re crazy.”

His hands stiffen in hers, but he doesn’t let go. “I’m not joking.” Something’s changed in his stance, however; he’s no longer as soft or as intense. Slowly, like he’s readjusting his mask, his words lighten. “I’m not crazy. Marry me.”

Penelope shakes her head again. “No.”

Sighing, Colin releases her hands and takes several steps back. “Okay.” She pulls back the disappointment threatening to escape her throat and instead dawns her own mask. Especially when Colin doesn’t look away from her, even as he rubs the back of his neck. “Okay,” he says again, but this time it’s more determined. 

Penelope frowns. “That’s it?”

“I’ll see you tonight at your party, right?” It’s really Violet’s party, but Penelope knows it’s thrown in her honor, despite her protests otherwise. She nods. Colin nods too. “Then, yeah, that’s it.”

He moves to the door. He never even got past the living room, and he’d just proposed to her.

Asked her to marry him.

Colin pauses at the doorway, one hand on the knob and the other sunk deep into his pocket. His eyes flicker across her body - absorbing her, scanning her, memorizing her. She feels like he’s calculating again, maybe even capturing her image for… something.  

She feels vulnerable and beautiful and confused all at once.

With a small smile, Colin twists the handle. “I’ll see you tonight, Pen.”

He slips out of her apartment. 

Penelope rests her forehead against the door as she locks it behind him. Her heart - her heart races, pounding so loudly it feels like the bass line of Eloise’s favorite songs. His words echo over and over - marry me, marry me, marry me - but processing anything feels futile right now.

Exhaling, Penelope returns to the kitchen, dumps out her old coffee, and makes a new batch. 

She knows she’ll need it.


FIVE YEARS AGO

Colin wakes up on his thirtieth birthday and decides to start his day with an eclair. He knows this seems counterintuitive - he’s in Spain after all, not France - but it’s his birthday so he’ll do what he wants.

After finding a cafe that sells French pastries, Colin sits at an empty table outside and enjoys his treat. Once finished, he finally unlocks his phone and handles all the notifications. The messages and Snapchats from almost-strangers are easy - a quick like, or just deleting them altogether. But it’s the several messages from the family group chat that require the majority of his attention.

 

 

hyacinth: happy biiiiirthday to youuuu

Daphne: happy birthday to youuuuu

gregory: happy birthday to COLIN GREGORY BRIDGERTON

francesca: happy birthday colin we love you, hope you’re having fun but not too much fun, etc. etc. etc.

benedict: happy birthday to you!!!!

hyacinth: FRAN you ruined it AGAIN

benedict: this is sophie i have stolen ben’s phone <3 <3 <3

eloise: greg you do know his middle name isn’t gregory right?

eloise: it’s important to me that you know that

gregory: mum and dad kept trying out the name until it stuck

gregory: so you’re welcome hyacinth

hyacinth: you are my least favorite sibling i hope you step on a lego and hit your elbow on the corner of the kitchen counter

gregory: love you too sis

Anthony: happy birthday C - kate says happy birthday too

Colin: thanks all 

Colin: *picture of half-eaten eclair*

Colin: wish you were all here so i could eat this in front of you and not share

Daphne: since it’s your birthday i’ll let you believe that it wouldn’t have been stolen away from you by now

Colin: thank you

Colin: i can’t believe i’m gonna say this

francesca: don’t do it it’s not worth it

Colin: but i think i miss you guys… it’s kinda of… quiet nowadays

hyacinth: I KNEW YOU MISSED ME

hyacinth: I’LL JUST JUMP ON A PLANE RN I CAN BE THERE IN THE NEXT HOUR

Anthony: with what money?

eloise: don’t pretend you wouldn’t fold immediately

benedict: she got you

benedict: this is Benedict btw Sophie has been told to use her own damn phone

Daphne: but she’s not part of this gc

Anthony: we are not going to start a gc with all of our significant others Daphne

Daphne: pleaseeeeee

Anthony: no

gregory: you just don’t want to deal with michael hitting on your wife all the time

francesca: *angel emoji* *devil emoji*

eloise: oh colin where exactly in spain are you?

Colin: madrid. why?

eloise: oh perfect pen’s there too

hyacinth: oh she IS is she??? on his birthday????

gregory: ooooh we love to see it

Colin: oh cool i’ll reach out to her and see if she wants to hang out

Daphne: *eye roll emoji* of course she’ll want to hang out 

eloise: yeah take her out around the town pls she needs to be distracted

benedict: distracted from what?

Colin: distracted from what?

Colin: what he said

eloise: i’ll let her tell you she’d kill me if i spilled her secrets in the family gc

Daphne: she wouldn’t have to worry about it if we could just…

Anthony: no

 

 

Colin: hey! eloise tells me you’re in madrid

Pen: yes!!! they sent me here for an article i’m working on

Pen: wait are you here too?

Colin: yep (:

Pen: WAIT

Pen: happy birthday!!!!!

Pen: what’re your awesome spanish plans to celebrate?

Colin: no plans actually

Colin: except to see you, hopefully? maybe we can check out this club i’ve been hearing about?

Pen: did el tell you to take me out tonight

Colin: …what’s the correct answer here

Pen: ....yeah ok i’m in

 

 

They end up meeting for a late dinner. Colin treats her to modern Spanish cuisine, but Penelope insists she pays for dessert. So that’s how they end up wandering the streets eating Spanish custard with the sun setting against their backs.

“Happy birthday,” says Penelope suddenly. “I don't think I've actually said it yet, so - ” She licks her spoon clean before diving in for another bite. “How does it feel to be a whole thirty years old?”

Colin shrugs, mixing his custard absently. “Not any different than twenty-nine.” When he scoops up another spoonful of custard, the flavors swirling on his tongue, he considers his next words. “I just wonder if maybe I’ve - maybe - ” he pauses, swallowing, and Penelope just stares up at him, waiting patiently. Something squeezes in his chest. “Maybe it’s time for something different.”

“Different from visiting a new country every month?” Penelope raises an eyebrow, but he knows she’s teasing with that wry smile on her lips. She shakes her head. “I don’t know if you remember - it’s been years now - but you said you’d never settle down, get married. But - you’re thirty now.” When she looks down at her dessert, Colin works to keep his face completely blank, because he thinks he knows exactly what she’ll say next. “Remember that deal you made?”

Of course he remembers. Colin pretends he doesn’t but there’s a corner of his brain dedicated to that image of her in the bright pink, poofy dress, curled up on the floor and looking at him with wonder in her eyes. But Colin just grins like usual. “You mean the deal we made?” He shrugs nonchalantly, scooping out the last of his dessert. “What about it?” he says through a mouthful of custard, tossing the trash away.

“Well, obviously it was a joke,” she says, with a tiny roll of her eyes. Her smile almost looks self-deprecating but Colin doesn’t linger on that thought. “But I guess you really knew what you were talking about.” Here, finally, she catches his eye again and although she’s smiling, it’s sad and maybe even… disappointed. “You’re the great-wander, never settling down. Marriage isn’t worth it for you.”

Colin feels shivers down his spine. He isn’t sure if it’s because Penelope glows in the final slivers of sunlight or if it’s because her words contrast so loudly with the growing feeling of discontentment settling in his bones. But he isn’t ready to untangle the knots in his stomach so he clears his throat and looks away.

“Tell me about this new assignment of yours.”

 

 

 

“What about the one in the green?” Penelope takes a sip of her drink not at all subtly nodding towards a woman a few feet to her left in the crowded club. Colin doesn’t look over, instead stepping closer to Penelope to let someone pass behind him. There are people surrounding them on all sides and the music is loud, so she’s practically shouting, straining on her tip-toes to make sure he can hear her. Her head barely comes up to his shoulders, so her hair tickles his jaw whenever she leans in.

“Pen, stop trying to hook me up with someone.” This is, of course, the third such woman Penelope has tried to point out to him. As she scans the crowd, he studies her, maneuvering her through throngs of people and refilling her drinks. He nurses his own coke spiked with a splash of rum, but Colin’s more drunk off the music and the noise and the mob of people than any alcohol.

Penelope pouts, sipping through her straw. “You’re supposed to be entertaining me!”

“I’m supposed to be distracting you,” says Colin with an eye roll and a small smile. She’s cute like this, slightly drunk and determined. “And I don’t like this form of distraction.”

“Well, what types of distraction do you approve of?”

The flashes are quick and descriptive - tangled limbs on twisted sheets, his lips on hers, his tongue tasting her skin, her mouth around his cock, sinking deep inside of her - but Colin clears his throat. If he ignores the fire threatening to burn him whole, he can pretend he just leans closer so she can hear him better. He places a hand on her lower back to steer her out of the way of a group of drunk clubbers, not to pull her closer. And when he whispers in her ear, it’s so that he’s distracting her, not because he wants to kiss her neck and hear her moan.

“Let’s dance.”

Penelope looks at him with surprise, but only waits a moment before shrugging and letting him direct her to the middle of the dance floor. His fingers tingle against the small of her back - her dress is tight and black and practically a second skin, and Colin tries very hard not to imagine how it would feel to peel it off her.

The music is standard for a club - loud and bouncy, techno-heavy. Vaguely, he recognizes the pop lyrics, but more of his attention is focused on how Penelope moves - how her hips circle the air, in rhythm to the song, her arms snaking up her body. When her hand slides through her own hair, Colin feels a growl in his throat. Grabbing her free arm, he intertwines their hands, clutching them at his chest. Her other hand falls to his shoulder and together, they sway as the music builds. Around him, people are screaming out lyrics, but his throat is clogged with desire, especially when Penelope laughs, her fingers crawling up his neck. 

Her chest grazes his; his other arm snakes around her back, pulling her closer and Penelope closes her eyes. She’s moving, feeling, and Colin can only just stare at her and try to mirror how the music flows through her movements while resisting the urge to bury his face in her hair and leave kisses over every inch of reachable skin. When the song switches again, something sultry and smooth, Penelope steps closer and her face lifts up. Her eyes are dark, drunk, and hypnotic, and Colin wants to drown in them, in her. The sway of her hips moves her closer to him, the warmth of her body seeping into his pores, into his skin and bones. His blood pounds in time with the rhythm and his hand sneaks higher up her back, resting just between her shoulder blades. Maybe her fingers tangle in his hair, and maybe her breasts are against his chest so he can feel the synergy in their breathing and the music, and maybe hair sticks to her face and her breath is hot against his neck and her pink lips are wet and her tongue peeks out and maybe, maybe, just maybe - 

A body bumps into his back and the momentum brings Penelope straight into his arms. It reminds him of - of years ago, an embrace, her laugh and her smiles, the flutter in his heart and fire in his blood. It reminds him of why he ran, all those years ago.

But right now Colin doesn’t want to run. He wants to stay, right here, with Penelope grinning in his arms.

And as that realization dawns on him, Penelope laughs loudly, clearly drunk. “I need water!” she shouts against his shoulder. Nodding, he navigates them out of the crowd and back to the bar. Perching on a stool in the corner, Penelope leans against a wall. Colin keeps an eye on her while he fetches her a drink.

As he waits for the bartender to fill his order, a shadow crosses his vision, blocking Penelope from his view. Frowning, he looks over - and an attractive woman in a green dress with long legs beams back at him. “Hello,” she says, lingering just inches too close. “Quiero bailar?”

No. The answer is immediate and unquestionable and it’s the first time that Colin’s first answer isn’t a quip and a charming refusal. But tonight, he doesn’t feel like investing the energy in a nice put-off… so he just smiles and shakes his head. “Sorry, I’m with someone.”

The woman tilts her head and sighs. “Of course you are,” she says, switching to English. With a shrug, she smiles sadly. “Oh well! Enjoy your night.” And she disappears, no name or lasting impression.

Colin retrieves two cups of water and heads straight for Penelope. Her face is covered by a curtain of her frizzy hair as she bends over her phone. And it hits Colin in that exact moment: it doesn’t matter what they could be doing right now, he’d want to do it with her.

Everything feels more, with her.

She feels like home. She is home.

Penelope looks up, frowning. He quickly meets her, standing just in front of her stool. “Here you go,” he says, hovering, really, but there’s nowhere else to be. Penelope still frowns, but flips her phone face down on her lap before accepting the cup. “Everything okay?”

Penelope drowns her water before answering. “Remember how you’re supposed to be distracting me?” She squeezes the plastic cup in her hand before tossing it in the trash can behind him. “You failed.”

“Wanna tell me what’s going on?”

For a moment, she considers before sighing. “Walk me home?” 

So after chugging his own water and leading her out of the club, Colin walks beside her and listens. Their skin touches on occasion, the sway of their arms not quite in sync. The night has embraced the city, but it’s still alive, dancing and drinking and laughing. But even as they walk down the lively streets, Colin’s attention is solely on her.

“So I was dating this guy from work,” Penelope finally reveals. She doesn’t really look at him, arms crossed over her chest. Luckily it’s warm tonight since neither of them have jackets. Besides, it looks like Penelope holds herself in defense, not because of the cold. “He’s nice and all - but he just…” She falters, glancing at him, and he hopes his face looks reassuring, like a friend, and does not reveal the jealousy bubbling beneath the surface. “He doesn’t seem committed, you know? And I mean, he’s been texting all night, but…” Sighing, Penelope shrugs, shrinking a bit into herself. “I don’t know.”

Colin stops walking, forcing her to as well. Lifting her chin so she has to look him straight in the eye, he works hard to keep his voice steady. He keeps his words soft, holding back the hints of anger that threaten to bubble over. He’s not angry at her, and she shouldn’t be the target of it anyway. “You deserve someone who will put you first, Pen. No matter what.” For a moment, he loses the battle he’s been fighting all night, and his thumb slides across her cheek, but he quickly pulls his hand back. “Okay?”

Penelope gazes up at him. He wants to imagine that it’s stars he sees in her eyes, but maybe she’s just drunk. “Okay.”

They don’t say much the rest of the walk home. When they reach her hotel building, she thanks him. “Happy birthday, again.” Chewing her lip, she pauses for a moment before closing the distance between them and throwing her arms around him.

Colin closes his eyes and hugs her back, holding her head against his chest, his nose lingering by her temple. “Thanks, Pen.”

After thirty seconds - he counts - Penelope slides out of his arms and disappears into the hotel.

 

 

 

Half an hour later, Colin lies on his bed staring at the ceiling of his own hotel room. His thumbs hover over the screen of his phone, until…

 

 

Colin: thanks for spending the night with me

Colin: made my birthday

Colin: i’m happy you’re in my life

Pen: anytime <3

Pen: me too, Colin… Eloise is my best friend, but you are too, you know?

Pen: anyway i have an early morning flight!

Pen: sleep well old man xx

Colin: night pen

 

 

Absently, Colin scrolls up through their messages. 

 

 

 

 

 

Pen: the way you talk about your travels is inspiring you know

 

Colin: you’re my best friend so of course i had to tell you first

 

Pen: saw this and thought of you and then proceeded to eat the entire thing in your honor

 

 

As Colin stares up at the ceiling of his almost stifling hotel room, he realizes that the feeling in his gut - the one that squeezes at his heart, makes his rib cage feel like it might burst - must be important . He recalls a conversation with Daphne years ago, when she first had issues with her new-husband. About - falling - how it’s not always sudden, but sometimes gradual, strings overlapping and intertwined, until one day you open your eyes and things are just -

Different.

More.

The pressure against his ribs feels bigger. Encompassing. Different.

Colin rubs his chest. 


PRESENT DAY

Penelope shows up to her own birthday party with a bottle of wine and a tray of brownies. The moment she steps into the Bridgerton house, Violet shakes her head. “It’s your birthday, darling! We should be bringing the wine and chocolate to you.” The items are promptly swept out of her arms and dumped into someone else’s - Penelope thinks she spots Gregory eying the brownies until Kate pokes his hand away - before Violet wraps her arm around Penelope’s shoulder and leads her through the madness.

Penelope is used to the madness of the Bridgerton variety, of course. But sometimes it’s nice to not think about navigating between tiny children and Hyacinth’s questions and whichever sibling has decided they’ve found the newest, funniest meme. It’s especially nice when all Penelope can think about is -

“Hi Pen.”

Penelope swallows, trying to wet her throat. “Colin.”

Although he’s not wearing the same outfit, Colin is still growing out his beard and the new sweater is a shade of green that matches perfectly with his eyes. Her heart thumps against her ribs, as if it wants to escape to cuddle against his, and Penelope tries to ignore his voice in the back of her head - marry me marry me marry me.

“Happy birthday.” He tilts his head, sly smile on his lips. “Again.”

Violet raises her eyebrows. “Again?”

Colin shrugs, sheepish, but there’s a glint in his eye that Penelope isn’t sure she likes. Especially as the chaos around them seems to quieten - Penelope knows Bridgertons, and she knows they love to eavesdrop, and it appears that Colin is just making it easier. They stand in the middle of the living room, various siblings in mixed pairs around them, but they all have an eye or ear on them. “Well I visited Penelope this morning. Actually - ” His eyes lock onto hers and really, how can she love and hate those eyes so much at the same time? Truly, the worst - “Was I the first one to wish you a happy birthday?”

Resisting the urge to twirl a lock of hair around her finger out of sheer nervousness - she’s very much aware of all the curious stares on them - Penelope bites her lip. “Uh, yes, I guess you were - ” 

“Where were you?” asks Violet, thankfully interrupting and directing her question at Eloise. 

Despite the narrowed eyes and frown her mother sends her way, Eloise waves it off as she sinks into the couch in the living room. “Around. Out. Not important.” Violet opens her mouth, but Eloise gets there first, leaning around Hyacinth. “Why were you at the apartment, Colin?”

Penelope does not appreciate Eloise changing the subject.

Colin, however, merely grins, hands stuffed in his pockets. He looks like the radiant image of innocence to anyone who didn’t know him - but everyone in that room, including her, knows better. “It’s her 30th birthday. Wanted to see her.”

“Well isn’t that very nice of you,” says Benedict, leaning against a wall. He raises an eyebrow. “Why is it important that it’s her thirtieth . I thought we shouldn't discuss a lady’s age.”

Penelope rolls her eyes. “You all know how old I am, that isn’t important - ”

“Pen and I have a deal.” Penelope wonders if she's just losing her mind, or if time itself has stopped, because when she whirls to face Colin, her eyes catch his and all she can do is breathe heavily and not look away. Because he’s staring at her, intensely, like he knows exactly what he’s saying, and who else is around them. And maybe the others are reacting or not paying attention, but all Penelope knows is Colin is talking straight to her. “If we were both thirty and still single - ”

“Colin - ” She doesn’t know what she wants to say, words tangled and knotted in her throat, but she knows what he’s doing. He’s making it clear, but -

“Wait,” says Eloise, practically crawling over Hyacinth at this point. It’s easier to watch them, Hyacinth trying to shove her off and Eloise ignoring her altogether, than it is to meet Colin’s eyes. “Are you two together?”

“No!”

“Not yet,” says Colin and now Penelope has to look at him because he’s crazy again. “Not yet,” he repeats softly, as if only for her ears, a reminder and a promise.

The slow-burning embers in her stomach spark restlessly and turn hotter.

“Then what exactly is the deal?” Penelope glances backward to see Kate leaning her head against Anthony’s shoulder. Her dark curls lay like a cape around them both. “This sounds suspiciously like that time Meera Aunty tried to trick Edwina into - ” Kate cuts off suddenly, Anthony’s elbow near her stomach and she glares at him. 

Penelope opens her mouth to correct her, but - 

“We agreed that if we were both thirty and single, we would marry each other.” Colin stuffs his hands in his pockets again, as if he’s not looking at her with promise in his eyes; as if there isn’t something serious about the way he voices this fact. Penelope wants to shake him and kiss him, maybe at the same time, maybe neither at all.

All she knows is that Colin is looking at her like he wants to devour her and worship her and Penelope is scared. So she laughs, loudly, and shakes her head. “Clearly, it was a joke.” She waves her hand in his general direction, instead focusing on Eloise. Hopefully she tracks Penelope’s help me eyes and steps in, fast. “Colin was just kidding, trying to make me feel better.”

Eloise catches her eye and, although she frowns, looks like she’s about to be the best friend Penelope needs. But then Penelope freezes, because her hand is plucked from the air.

“Pen,” says Colin, forcing her to look at him. Her hand feels warm in his. And Colin, again, says, looking her straight in the eye, “I’m not kidding. I’m serious.”

There are moments that feel like they are suspended in time, drawn-out and stretched, like they’ll never end. There are also moments that are fleeting, barely a blip in an otherwise steady rhythm, a momentary crack in the system. 

And then there are moments like this, with Colin holding her hand and looking at her like never before, with his entire family around them, where Penelope isn’t sure if she’s floating or grounded firmly. A moment where she only knows this: a rush of warmth envelopes her, a moment of peace, where everything just feels like it just is .

In that moment, it feels like a softness unfolding in her chest, cradling her heart, her ribs acting like fingers, reaching within and handing over her most prized possession straight to him. And the only reason to believe that Colin will take it, treat it with the same care she would for him is - faith.

So the moment passes, a breath passing through her lips like an exhale. “Oh.”


EIGHT YEARS AGO

The snap of the camera flash blinds him for just a moment, so Colin blinks rapidly. When his vision clears, he gazes down at Penelope, who glances back at him with a smile. “Send that to me, will you?” he asks, documenting her face in that moment. Her eyes are tinted red - no doubt leftover from tears over Thomas , the fucker - but her smile is soft and proud and serene. Colin aches to embrace her, pull her close, remind her that she’s strong and incredible and so, so brilliant.

He has years worth of text messages and emails to prove it.

It’s been a while since he’d seen Penelope in person. A year in Europe, two and a half in Asia, and then the last handful of months in Australia - Colin has been busy and can’t say he’s spent more than a collective month with his family. Part of him misses them, a lot; but the thirst in his blood to see, to explore isn’t quite quenched.

Besides, Penelope needed him to see the world for her.

The woman in question laughs at something Eloise says, their arms interlocked together. Colin catches the tail end of Eloise’s rant - his name, followed by some choice curse words and insults, and then a commanding reassurance of Penelope’s worth. Colin is glad his sister is on the same page. 

“Are you excited to start at the Times?” asks Colin, interrupting smoothly, since he can’t let Eloise dominate the conversation. 

Penelope beams, because she is sunshine and light, especially on this spring afternoon, when the weather is hot and humid, but her laugh is a breath of fresh air. “So excited.” She practically bounces on her heels - which, much to Colin’s amusement, do nothing for their height difference - arms hugging her fake diploma to her chest. “I’m ready to move on, you know? Explore the world - ” She rolls her eyes. “I mean, not like you explore the world, but on my own terms, you know?” Shaking her head, she shrugs sheepishly. “I’m just… ready.”

Colin’s heart skips a beat. “And - you know - him? ” He takes a step closer, hopefully blocking Eloise’s view for the moment. “You sure you’re okay?”

Penelope smiles, a little sad and a little resigned, but there’s a glint in her eyes. He isn’t sure if he’s seen in before, at least not on her, but he likes it. Strength is layered in each of her bones, echoed in her words and built into her actions. “I’m okay, Colin. You can say his name. It is what it is. No - ” she stops, frowning for just a moment, before the smile returns, wider and brighter. “No, it’s a good thing. Thomas was - he was right for what I needed. But now - I’m moving on, and moving up, and that’s okay too.”

Something in his brain snags on for what I needed , but if he thinks too hard he isn’t sure he’d like that pathway of thought. So instead, he grins down at her. “I’m proud of you, you know.” Penelope matches his grin with her own. “I don’t know if the world is ready for you, but I’m sure you’re ready for it, Pen.”

There’s a moment here, where everything stills - where Penelope stares at him as if his heart is exposed, just blood and veins and feelings. Then Colin blinks and she has her arms around him, hugging him. He doesn’t hesitate, just automatically wraps her up too, her head against his chest and his lips just whispers against her hair. They fit like this, wrapped up in each other and breathing in sync, and Colin’s heart trips over itself.

When he looks up, just barely resting his chin on her head, his gaze catches Eloise. His sister frowns, but there’s something in her eyes - hope, acceptance, knowing. And that’s when Penelope lets go, stepping back. Colin notes her blush, her embarrassed smile, her tiny shrug. But he waves it away and ignores it, because he feels colder now. Like a cold draft seeping into his skin, tempering the warmth of before. 

Penelope smiles at him and he smiles back, but it doesn’t feel as wholesome.

A few hours later - after a celebration dinner with the three of them, plus their mother, and minus hers, Colin slips out the side door of the restaurant. 

Of course, it’s not that easy.

“Where are you going?” Eloise walks up from behind, frowning at him.

Colin sighs, glancing back at her, but his gaze strays over to the window. Penelope smiles at his mother, probably discussing her future and her dreams and her goals - and Colin knows this is the right decision but he wonders why it hurts so much.

“Well?” repeats Eloise, crossing her arms and raising an eyebrow.

Colin runs a hand through his hair. “I’m leaving.”

Eloise’s face falls. “So soon?”

Shrugging, Colin looks at the ground. It’s always been hard to hide from his sisters - Daphne and Eloise, in particular, have an odd ability to read him. That charming mask he wears so easily feels flimsy around them. “Can’t miss my flight, El.” 

Eloise doesn’t say anything at first, but the disappointment is clear in her eyes. His mind whirls, too many emotions and thoughts warring against each other - Penelope is his friend, he wants the best for her, she feels so good in his arms, her laugh makes his heart soar, she’s about to realize her dreams, he’s still finding his - Colin massages his temple.

With a deep breath, he forces himself to finally meet her eyes. “It’s what I do, you know. Run away.” He shrugs, as if it means anything, and makes sure he does not look back into that window. “Tell them I had to go?”

“You should tell them yourself.” Eloise tilts her head. “You can’t run forever, you know that right? It’s going to catch up to you eventually. And Pen - ” She stops, chews on her words, then sighs. “She’s not going to wait forever.”

“You’re probably right.” Colin straightens, shaking away the cobwebs in his brain, the fog of confusion threatening to drown him. “But for today at least, I can run as fast as I want.”

Eloise shakes her head and kisses him on the cheek. “Mum and Penelope are going to be really upset you didn’t say bye yourself.”

“They’re used to it.” Eloise rolls her eyes. “Thank you. I love you.”

She shoves him away so he leaves.

His flight boards only a few hours later.


PRESENT DAY

Awkward silences don’t last long at Bridgerton family celebrations, so the night moves on and no one brings up Colin and Penelope’s deal, or their seeming disagreement on where it currently stands.

At dinner, Colin sits at the opposite end of the table, so Penelope can pretend to listen to Sophie and Kate, half-heartedly process Francesca’s stories about her new fiance John. Eloise nudges her frequently throughout the meal and just before dessert - a giant pink cake, of course, and Penelope almost cries at the sight of it - Eloise steals her away. But Penelope just shakes her head and Eloise hugs her tightly.

“He’s so used to running, Pen, that if he says he’s going to stay - then he’s going to stay… Maybe it’s your turn to take a leap of faith, okay?”

Her words stir in her chest, mingling not unkindly with Colin’s - marry me, marry me, marry me - and by the time the night winds down, Penelope just wants to pretend that none of it has happened altogether.

And for the most part, she is successful - until it’s time to leave.

After thanking Violet and waving goodbye to various Bridgertons, she finds Colin leaning against the front door, car keys in hand.

“What are you doing?” she asks, even if she knows the answer. It feels important to hear him say it.

Colin tilts his head and stands straight. Although he towers over her and she needs to crane her neck to catch his eye, the height difference has never really bothered her. She can still see a glimmer in his eyes. “I’m going to drive you home.” He scratches the side of his neck. “If that’s okay with you?”

Penelope lets herself smile. “Yes, that’s okay.” As she readjusts the bags in her hands - presents, from various people despite her insisting that she didn’t want them - Colin grabs a few to lighten her load. “Thank you. I’d rather not have to spend money on an Uber anyway.”

Grinning, Colin opens the door for her to exit first. “Well, let me be your Uber driver for the night.” With his arm, he motions dramatically towards his car. “Your carriage awaits.”

Giggling in spite herself, Penelope tries to bite back her grin. Her insides roll, not quite settled, still uneasy. It feels like life is happening to her; she’s not quite caught up with living the events as they unfold in front of her. She slips into the car and silently chews her lip as Colin drives her home.

The sun has long set, the darkness of night settled across the horizon. It’s quiet, little traffic. They’ve stopped at a stop sign when Colin sighs. And Penelope takes in a deep breath before facing him.

Colin stares straight ahead, fists tightly gripping the steering wheel. “Why don’t you want to marry me?” He glances at her sideway, just a quick glance, before the light turns green. As he eases the car forward, his words fall quickly from his lips. “Is it someone else? I’d understand if you want to marry for love and you don’t love me anymore - ”

“Anymore?” Penelope cuts him off, frowning. She turns to face him completely, ignoring the twisted seat belt cutting into her arm. “You knew.”

His jaw ticks. “Of course I knew.” His entire body softens. “Or - or I strongly suspected at least.” Another sigh, louder, resigned, as if he’d rather avoid the entire conversation altogether. It confuses Penelope - did he expect that she would just say yes and never question anything - but Colin nods to himself. “I think - at your graduation. When you were so upset about Thomas - but just didn’t seem to care? And Eloise - ” One hand runs over his jaw, tickling the scruff there. “She may have hinted at it - not on purpose - ” he adds quickly, and Penelope admires that despite everything, he wants to protect her friendship with his sister, “but, well. Yeah.”

“If - if you knew,” says Penelope, fiddling with the seatbelt stretched across her body and avoiding his eyes, “then you know that - this - you - you asking me to - you know - ”

“Marry you?”

“Yes. That.” Penelope exhales and makes herself look back at him. He’s tense, focused on driving, but his eyes flicker to hers for a brief moment before returning to the road. “You know how seriously I take this. And that’s why I said no.” Biting her lip, she pauses, letting the words unscramble themselves. She needs to be - delicate. She needs the words to make sense even if her thoughts and feelings don’t. “I - this isn’t a joke to me, Colin.”

Colin doesn’t respond for a while, and Penelope doesn’t mind, the silence more companionable than thick or suffocating. It’s actually freeing, handing the control back over to him; it’s clear he’s pondering over his words, his next move, and Penelope doesn’t mind waiting.

She’s waited this long, she can wait just a bit more, just to afford him the courtesy of a moment to consider.

Because this - marriage, feelings, them - it’s not as simple as Penelope used to think it would be. There are too many people, too many complications - their webs are too tangled and weaved together. So she understands that Colin may need a moment to fit the pieces together, to make a decision.

Colin stays silent and she matches him until they pull up in front of her apartment. He parks the car - but when she moves to open her door, he turns off the engine but doesn’t unlock the doors. Penelope freezes. She waits, and waits, and waits - until - 

“Let me show you how little of a joke this is to me.” His hard eyes meet hers, but it’s not anger or frustration there… he’s determined and that makes a rush of heat spread through her.

“And how, exactly,” she asks, voice quiet, the simmering tension from his gaze lingering in her throat too, “are you going to do that?” 

Colin unbuckles his seatbelt, then hers. Leaning towards her, his eyes darker than she’s ever seen them before, Colin brings his hand to her face. His fingers linger just on her cheeks, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, his thumb lingering just by her throat. Penelope isn’t sure if she’s breathing or just existing, because her eyes flutter close.

“Pen,” he says, “look at me.” She forces her eyes open and although he’s not smiling, there’s a twinkle in his eyes. His deep voice feels raspy in the air. “I’m going to kiss you, okay?”

Penelope nods. A beat, a moment - her hand slides up his chest, cradles his neck. And then, she exhales. “Kiss me, Colin.”

And he does.

His lips are gentle but insistent, gliding against hers earnestly. His arm somehow wraps around her waist, pulling her over the center console, and then she’s in his lap, his hands sliding between waist and up her back. Swallowing her gasp of surprise, Colin swipes his tongue across her teeth, nibbles at her lower lip, and captures her following moans. 

“You taste amazing,” he says, kissing the corner of her lips, her jaw. As his mouth travels down her neck, licking and nipping, her fingers tightened in his hair, down his shoulders and arms. He flexes, and her thumbs massage his muscles. He’s strong to the touch, especially when he holds her so reverently. He swirls his tongue against her collarbone. “Oh Pen, you’re so beautiful like this. Flushed and glowing in my arms.”

Penelope is sure she’s blushing, her skin on fire, but if this is how she burns, then let her melt against Colin’s lips, let his hands finger through the ashes. His teeth scrape against the lace of her dress, his tongue lapping at her cleavage. Squirming in his lap, Penelope feels his growl despite her avoiding what appears to be a growing hardness. His hands creep up her ribs until he cups her, his thumbs circling her nipples.

“God, I’ve wanted to hold you like this for so long.” One hand tugs down the straps of her dress until her strapless bra is visible. Colin tugs down the cup on one side until his bare skin is on hers and Penelope kisses his temple to muffle her moan. “You are beautiful.”

“Colin - ” Whatever words rising to her mouth quickly disappear because his mouth is on her breast, his tongue drawing spirals across her skin, his teeth gently scraping against her nipple. Penelope knows there’s wetness pooling at her center and she tries to use the friction of his thighs to relieve the pressure, but Colin is holding her tightly against him. “Colin, please.”

Somehow he knows, because without stopping, his mouth continues lavishing her breast, but he adjusts her on his lap so one of his thighs is perfectly aligned with her center. When Penelope grinds down, she groans because it feels so good - 

“You close?” he whispers in her ear. His tongue swipes across Penelope, circles her hips, and presses down, hard. Whimpering, she nods, burying her head in his neck, leaving kisses across his shoulder. “Good girl. What do you need from me?”

The praise, mixed with his constant touch - his thumbs rolling her nipples, his mouth behind her ear - sends her higher. “Keep - doing that - with your hands.” He pinches her nipples and she preens. “Yes, god, that! And your mouth - I liked it when you sucked on them too.”

She can feel his smirk and his smugness makes her tighten her grip on his hair and push his face towards her chest. “Glad we’re on the same page,” he says, before obeying her wishes, tugging down her dress and bra further so both breasts are free. With one hand on one side and his mouth on her other, he guides her when she circles her hips or squeezes her thighs around his. The friction strokes her higher, especially when continues to play with her, until the pressure is too much - Colin bites, sucking at her tit, and then Penelope comes.

“Oh, oh, oh - Colin - ” 

He keeps kissing her skin, across her collarbone and shoulders, arms wrapped firmly around her, as she shakes through the rest of her orgasm. “Holy shit, you’re gorgeous.” Penelope doesn’t know what he looks like, the darkness behind her eyes still covered in stars, but she kisses him back when he captures her lips. “Pen - ”

“Colin,” she mutters. “I - ” She leans back suddenly, realizing they’re in the middle of the parking lot. She blushes. “Oh, um - ”

One of his hands cradles her face, his thumb running across her cheek. The other sides down her arm until their hands intertwine. “Penelope,” he says, savoring each syllable of her name, “if you invite me upstairs, I’m going to pleasure you until you scream my name. And if that doesn’t convince you to marry me, then I’ll leave and never mention any of this again.”

“Okay,” she says, because it is okay and the anticipation swirls within her, heat pooling in her center. “Come inside.”

But before she can squeeze out the door, Colin kisses her again, fingers twisted in her hair. And Penelope melts into him before they separate, secret smiles as they sneak upstairs, fingers intertwined, ready to begin a new journey.


TEN YEARS AGO

 

From: colinbridgerton3@gmail.com

To: penelope.featherington@uomf.edu

Hi Pen!

So Eloise told me you’re taking a Spanish class this semester - I was just in Spain and thought I’d send along some poems that I came across. El told me they might be of help? I love sharing fun things about where I visit so let me know if you ever need some inspiration.

Always,

Colin

 

 

From: penelope.featherington@uomf.edu

To: colinbridgerton3@gmail.com

Colin -

These are lovely! And perfect too - I had to analyze a Spanish work of writing for class, so this was timely. 

I’ve always wanted to see the world like you do. Please send any pics/stories/etc.! I’m incredibly jealous and would love to live vicariously through you.

Sincerely,

Penelope

 

 

From: colinbridgerton3@gmail.com

To: penelope.featherington@uomf.edu

I’ll admit, I’m jealous you get to have the whole college experience. Anthony enjoyed it, and so did Daph, but it was never for me. So I guess I’ll live vicariously through you - tell me all about the parties and the alcohol and the dorm room shenanigans. 

I’m in France now and the best part is definitely the food. I mean the art and the culture is great… but the FOOD. I wish I could send you a care package of just macarons, but instead here are a bunch of pictures of food before I eat it.

Your friend,

Colin

 

 

From: penelope.featherington@uomf.edu

To: colinbridgerton3@gmail.com

Those look DELICIOUS. Please keep the pictures coming! Dorm food isn’t bad but it’s definitely not French cuisine!

And you overestimate my social life, Colin Bridgerton. I’m not the one trouncing through Europe leaving women in his wake.

El has made it her mission to drag me to some parties though, so maybe you’ll get your wish.

Pen

 

 

From: colinbridgerton3@gmail.com

To: penelope.featherington@uomf.edu

Don’t do anything you aren’t comfortable with, Pen. I know my sister… you’re allowed to say no.

And I don’t have time for girlfriends or anything. There’s so much to see, so much to eat. More pictures for you :)

 

 

From: penelope.featherington@uomf.edu

To: colinbridgerton3@gmail.com

Didn’t say girlfriends.

Went to a party last weekend. It was exactly what you would have expected - a lot of sloppy drunk people, really loud music. Smelled like weed. I did get to dance though! El got bored pretty quickly too so we left and went back to our dorm to eat brownies and watch a movie with the guys from the floor above us. It was way more fun.

I’m not sure if you’re planning to head out to Asia next or just sticking with Europe soon, but I’ve always wanted to see Japan or Korea or Thailand. My new friend’s parents are from Korea so we've been trying the new food and I’ve been learning about the culture and it seems like something you would enjoy :)

 

 

From: colinbridgerton3@gmail.com

To: penelope.featherington@uomf.edu

Hmmm, yeah sounds like a nightclub around here, so it looks like neither of us is missing much.

And I’m glad you got to dance! I know you’ve always loved it. It’s definitely the best part of parties. Hope you’re not letting any of these guys take advantage of you… and no, I’m not going to Asia right now. I think I might come home in a couple of weeks.

 

 

Colin: *picture of a bright pink cupcake* 

Colin: reminded me of you in that prom dress

Pen: wait who is this

Pen: Colin?

Colin: oh shit yeah hi

Colin: El gave me your number

Pen: of course she did

Colin: you hadn’t emailed back so i figured you were busy with school but i was in a cafe and ordered this and thought of you

Pen: i think my mother burned that dress

Pen: and yeah school has been really busy

Colin: i’m probably going to be in town next week to visit - you wanna join El and me for dinner on Saturday? i think Ben’s bringing his new boyfriend too

Pen: oh i thought they broke up

Pen: and i can’t Saturday

Colin: oooh got big plans? a hot date?

Pen: yeah actually

Colin: oh

Colin: hey that’s great! tell me about him

Pen: well his name is Thomas and he’s an engineering major and he’s very sweet and kind and he lives on the floor above Eloise and i

Pen: i really like him

Colin: im happy for you Pen

Colin: you deserve to be happy

Pen: thanks colin

Pen: i am

Pen: happy that is

Colin: and he doesn’t mind that we talk or anything right? Because that might be a deal-breaker…

Pen: oh no! he’s totally cool with it he knows you’re El’s brother

Colin: ok good

Colin: i like living vicariously through you

Colin: plus you’re the only one who actually enjoys my travel pics

Pen: im sure that’s not true

Pen: what about Violet?

Colin: she’s my mother she has to enjoy them

Pen: aww poor colin 

Pen: no one appreciates him dropping money on first-class tickets and lavish hotels

Colin: ok ok i get your point

Colin: you sure you aren’t going to be free at all this weekend? i hate not getting to see you

Pen: we can grab coffee or something on Saturday afternoon? maybe you could even meet Thomas!

Colin: let me see if we can work something out


PRESENT DAY

After round three - or maybe it’s four, she truly isn’t keeping track - Penelope and Colin lay cuddling in her bed, both completely naked. She has her leg laid out across both of his, one of her hands cradling his bicep - her current pillow - and the other playing with the hair across his chest. His hand switches from her ass to her breast without any urgency; they’re spent and satisfied, just enjoying and exploring.

When Colin turns his head, she can hear his voice clearly even if she can only see the skin of his collarbone. “So you’ll marry me, right?” he asks her hair.

Penelope tries not to smile against his shoulder. “Not if that’s how you ask me.” Adjusting so can peer up at him, she raises an eyebrow. “Try again.”

Colin shifts and suddenly she’s on her back, Colin hovering above her, the muscles in his arms only just straining to keep his weight off of her. Tangling her hands into his hair, she pulls him closer and his hands slide up her sides, over her breasts; his thumbs caress her throat until his fingers rest in her hair. Holding her face, Colin steadies her gaze onto his.

“Will you marry me?”

And even though Penelope expected the question, it still leaves her breathless. Her gasp falls from her lips in time with what might be a tear. Colin wipes it away and Penelope can only nod, again and again, laughter escaping between her tears. 

This time, Colin’s smile is softer, in awe, almost surprised at his luck and Penelope just laughs and cries some more. “Is this a yes?” he asks, in between laughs of his own. “Because, uh, I think I need to hear you say - ”

“Yes!” She pulls his face down to hers and captures his lips in a hard, wet kiss. “Yes, I will marry you.”

And Penelope can taste his joy as he deepens the kiss, their smiles in between the clashing of teeth and tongue, and their laughter turning into moans. With his naked body pressed up against hers, she wraps her thighs around him and he grinds against her center.

Penelope nips at his ear. “Get the condom, now.” Colin responds with another kiss - hard, pushing her back into the mattress, his thumb playing with her nipples as his dick rests right by her core. It would only take one thrust - and he could be inside her so easily - 

Colin quickly slides off the bed and goes searching through his pockets again. Before, he pulled out his wallet along with a pack of condoms; this time, he pauses, looking at the opening flap. 

“What?” Penelope’s racing heart skips momentarily, watching him - the corner of his lip curls upward, that familiar smirk she loves so much. When one hand tosses yet another condom onto the bed - she doesn’t know how or why he carries so many, and frankly, she’s only going to take it as a blessing - the other digs through the open pocket of his wallet. When the wallet falls to the floor, Colin crawls on his knees on the bed until he’s beside her - but Penelope is still staring at his hand.

“Colin - ”

A diamond ring, simple and elegant and perfect, and Penelope doesn’t want to cry but Colin is reaching for her left hand and she’s laughing because her heart glows in her chest, full and light and content, especially when Colin slips the ring onto her finger. Lifting her hand to his lips, he lays a gentle kiss just beside the ring before kissing her lips too.

“I love you,” he says, quiet and firm. “I don’t know if I’ve actually said that in-between - ” he shakes his head, his sad smile deprecating. “Doesn’t matter, I’m saying it now.” His fingers intertwine with hers, both hands now at his chest, right beside his heart. He rests his forehead against hers so his words sink into her skin. “I love you, Penelope, with all my heart. I’ve loved you since that day I saw you in the bright pink prom dress and I’ve been in love with you since I saw you smile at graduation. It took me a while to realize that all those texts and emails were not just from my sister’s best friend - ” He shakes his head again, kissing her hair, drawing her even closer with one arm while the other squeezes her hand. “No, you’re my best friend too. And I love you, and when you left me in Spain after my birthday, I bought this ring and I’ve been holding onto it ever since.”

Penelope doesn’t stop the tears from falling, just squeezing his hand as tightly as she can. “That long?”

Colin nods. “That long.”

The burst of laughter feels inevitable, like them, like her heart crawling out of her chest. “You’re so dumb,” she says, with the most fondness and Colin growls kissing her temple, her cheek, her neck. “I love you too.”

Colin kisses the confession off her lips with need, pinning her back down on the bed. The urgency in his movements matches her own; she’s wet and needy and ready, especially when all she can think about is his lips and his tongue and his hands. Absently, she notes the sound of a wrapper ripped and when Colin separates to put on the condom, she takes it from him instead.

Without a word, he watches as she holds his cock in her hands, rolls on the condom, and squeezes his thighs. His eyes catch hers, dark and endless. “I want you on top of me, riding me. I want to see you take my cock and pleasure yourself.” Penelope swallows when his hands reach out to cradle her hips, holding her, guiding her. “Is that okay with you?”

Penelope nods, but Colin shakes his head, not moving. Biting her lip, she exhales. “Yes, I want that too.”

Grinning, Colin pulls her up, positions her thighs around him, and draws her body as close as possible. Chest to chest, heart to heart, all their limbs tangled up and twisted, Penelope guides his cock to her center and welcomes him when he pushes in.

“Oh god, you’re so tight, Pen.” His voice is hoarse, but quieter than before. Those times were rushed, frantic. This - this is -

“You’re so deep,” she whispers into his ear. “I feel - full.” And for a few moments, they remain like that - entangled and deep, Colin inside of her, a pulsing promise. But the pressure is too much, the need too great, and Penelope circles her hips. “Colin, please - ”

Colin brings her hands to his chest. “You’re in control, Pen. You take what you want.”

So she pushes him down, so his back hits the mattress, and moves so she’s on her knees, the tip of his cock just teasing her entrance. His hands slide up and down her ribs until they squeeze her breasts and Penelope takes the hint - she bears down, taking all of him inside of her, and almost screams.

“That’s it, love,” he says, as she slowly rises and falls, over and over. “Take all of me. Make yourself feel so good. I want to hear you.”

“Oh, Colin - Colin, it feels so good. I love it - ” Her words feel nonsensical, because all she knows is that Colin loves her and she loves him, and the friction feels so good especially with Colin coaxing her, with his words and his hands, occasionally thrusting up to go even deeper - 

“Good girl,” he says, meeting her thrust for thrust, as she moves faster, the pressure building, every slide of his cock through her folds making her tighter, increasing the friction, until it’s so much and too much and - 

“Colin, oh, god, Colin - ” Penelope comes, with his names on her lips, vibrating in his arms. Colin catches her, holds her, kisses any inch of skin he can reach. “I love you,” she whispers against his heart and she isn’t sure if he can hear her, but his arms hold her even tighter. Penelope squeezes her inner muscles around his still hard cock and Colin groans. “Make me come again.”

Of course, Colin takes the challenge with grace - arms around her, he thrusts up while she pushes down, until she’s panting and moaning again, the flutters of an orgasm building, and his hand sneaks down. His fingers circle her clit and she feels tighter around him, wetter, the slide so deliciously good and Colin moves faster and faster - with his hips and his fingers - until she’s shaking and coming and he bites her shoulder when he comes too.

Before they separate, Colin takes her left hand and holds it over his heart. Penelope knows his silence in this moment matches hers - no words, just touch and feelings and a deep understanding. Penelope looks at her diamond ring against the coarse hair of his chest, covering the space where his heart would be. A commitment, a promise, a choice to be together.

She understands, without any of his usual words.

She loves him too.


TWELVE YEARS AGO

Colin sees the bright pink dress before he sees her.

It’s very poofy - something Daphne calls tulle peeking out beneath the skirts - and spreads out across the bathroom floor. In fact, if it wasn’t for the edges of the fabric peeking out through the door, he might have missed her all together.

Frowning, he knocks. “Pen? Are you okay?”

A loud sigh. “Yeah.”

“Can I come in?”

There’s no answer for a bit, just silence. Then there’s another sigh. “Yeah.”

For a moment, Colin hesitates. But there’s no running water and she did say yes, so even though he’s learned never to interrupt a woman in a bathroom, he gently pushes open the door.

He isn’t sure what he’s expecting, but it’s not Penelope sitting on the floor, just to the left of the doorway, eating a chocolate eclair. Colin pauses for a moment and decides to move to the other side of the bathroom, just next to the cabinets, and sinks to the floor too.

Colin is very glad his mother made them clean the bathrooms so well.

“Are you going to share?” he asks motioning to the half-eaten eclair in her hands. She looks like she’s debating whether to even finish it, which feels like a crime to Colin. When her eyes flash with an emotion Colin can’t quite recognize, but acknowledges he doesn’t really like, he tilts his head. “You know I’m always hungry.”

The small smile that floats onto her face is definitely worth sitting on cold tile. “You can have the rest if you want.”

Colin raises an eyebrow. “But do you want it?”

She considers for a moment, studying the eclair very closely, as if it isn’t just a sweet dessert covered in chocolate. After a sigh, she nods. “Yeah, I do.” She then proceeds to stuff the rest of it in her mouth.

Colin laughs in surprise, impressed. “I didn’t think you would do that.” She shrugs, appearing to resist the urge to lick her fingers, and Colin clears his throat. “Why are you sitting in the bathroom dressed like that?”

Resting her hands in her lap, Penelope avoids his eyes. “Eloise’s idea.”

“Naturally.” His eyes scan her dress before something clicks. “Isn’t tonight Prom?”

Her head snaps up. “Yeah.” She clears her throat. “Eloise said Prom would be lame so we decided to dress up and stay home and watch movies and drink milkshakes.”

“And eat eclairs.”

The smile returns, just a bit. “Can’t say that was part of the plan.” Her knees curl up and she wraps her arms around herself. “Why are you home? Shouldn’t you be hanging out with Anthony or Benedict?”

Colin pretends he doesn’t notice that she knows his schedule for when he’s in town. “Already did the rounds… was planning on hanging out with Francesca tonight, but turns out she had a date with some John dude.” He shrugs. “So figured I would crash your movie night with El.” Something about her words sticks with him, however. “You said Eloise said Prom would be lame. Did you not want to go?”

Penelope opens her mouth, almost as if the answer is automatic - before stalling. Her mouth closes instead and she frowns, clearly pondering her words. Colin finds himself waiting, anticipating whatever she has to say next. “I don’t think I would have minded,” she finally says, like a confession. “I didn’t expect to have a date or anything, but - ” she shrugs, hugging her knees closer, “I wouldn’t have minded.”

“I’m sure you would have found a date.”

Colin has known Penelope for years - he isn’t sure of the exact number - but this may be the first time he hears her laugh like this. Head thrown back, holding her stomach, bright and loud. Colin should be insulted - she’s laughing at him after all - but really, he might be mesmerized. Only for a moment though, because he’s just here to comfort his sister’s best friend, this girl who’s practically family. 

Penelope’s laughter dies down, just enough for her to say, “I’m not expecting to go on a date anytime soon.” Shaking her head, her smile remains. “Maybe I’ll date in college, but I don’t think I’m getting married before I’m thirty.”

Colin tilts his head. “I’m definitely not getting married anytime soon. Thirty even seems too soon.” 

“Why not? You could have any girl you wanted.” She blushes as if she’s said too much but Colin ignores it.

“Doesn’t matter what I want. I want to marry someone who wants me too, you know.” Honesty isn’t a conscious decision; the words just flow like honey through his lips. Lying to Penelope doesn’t really ever feel like an option. “Besides, marriage isn’t for me. I’m going to be traveling all around the world - the idea of settling down seems…” He shrugs, studying a piece of lint on his knees, “not worth it.”

“Don’t tell your mum that.” 

Colin considers that for just a moment. He’s expressed to Anthony how little he looks forward to getting married, and he’s told his mother plenty of times he loves traveling and wants to continue doing so for a very long time. He’s told his entire family he doesn’t see himself doing the family thing - settling down or marriage or kids. Colin isn’t meant for that life.

But his mother - well, Colin loves his mother.

The idea seems silly even as he says it, but somehow it also feels… right. “Let’s make a deal,” says Colin, hoping Penelope can see just how much he means it. Her eyes meet his, reserved, but also curious. 

“A deal?”

“If, when we’re both thirty years old, we’re both still single…” Colin grins, naturally and freely, and for once it doesn’t feel like a chore, “well, let’s promise that we’ll marry each other.”

Penelope stiffens but can’t seem to look away. “What?”

“If we’re both still single when we’re thirty, let’s marry each other.”

Her mouth hangs open, just a little, and Colin finds it amusing. Shocking Penelope doesn’t seem to happen very often, so he takes pride in the fact that it appears he can. She shakes her head. “You’re not serious.”

Colin sticks out his hand. Penelope stares at it, so he rolls his eyes, scoots forward, and grabs her hand to place it in his. He shakes their hand while she keeps staring at him. “There. It’s a deal.” Penelope retrieves her hand, staring at it with a frown and mostly disbelief, and Colin chuckles. “Now, it probably won’t matter because you’ll find yourself a boyfriend in university and get married and whatnot. But, you never know.”

As Colin stands, dusting off his pants, Penelope stares up at him. “You’re - something, Colin Bridgerton.”

“You’re definitely something, Penelope Featherington.” He winks. “See you, future bride.”

Colin slips out the bathroom, managing not to trip over Penelope’s dress, and although he pretends not to remember the moment for many, many years - he never, ever forgets.