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The Rake and The Widow

Chapter Text

Penelope was beautiful. He had never noticed that before now. She and Eloise had always seemed like two sides of the same coin. A giggling, plotting hydra wrapped in ribbons and lace. To look at her with interest would have been tantamount to looking at his own sister. Those days had long since passed, however, and in the two years since Anthony Bridgerton had last seen her, the former Ms. Featherington had become quite a striking woman.

“Lady Melton looks well, don’t you think?”

Benedict sidled up to him and handed him another glass of champagne. If Anthony didn’t know better he would have thought he noticed a gleam of mischief in his younger brother’s eye.

He took a casual swig of his drink and mentally chastised himself for thinking about Penelope in such a way. She was newly widowed, for God’s sake.

“Quite well.”

He gave Benedict a tight smile.

“Mother’s looking for you. It seems there are some young ladies she wants you to meet.”

“Dear Lord,” Anthony muttered under his breath.

He was 33 now, long past the time when he should have taken a wife. His mother had made it her personal mission to see him married off before this season was over. This year she had a steely resolve about the whole matter that filled Anthony with dread.

He stole another glance at Penelope, who was surrounded by a gaggle of women, including Eloise and Daphne. Her hair was pulled up into complicated knot and her somber dress flattered her curves in a way that was so very becoming. Anthony gritted his teeth. Unseemly thoughts about a widow. This was too much, even for him.

He threw back the remainder of his drink and clapped Benedict on the back.

“Might as well find Mother, then.”

Maybe it would distract him. He doubted it, though.

Chapter Text

It took two hours and two more drinks before Anthony had the courage to ask Penelope to dance. It was ridiculous, really. He had never hesitated to ask a woman to dance in his entire life. There was something about her that made him inexplicably nervous and he didn’t like that at all.

“Time to face your fears, old chap,” he muttered to himself as he downed the last of his champagne and placed it on a passing serving tray.

He crossed the room to Penelope who was, mercifully, not currently surrounded by a group of admirers.

“Anthony Bridgerton,” she said, smiling up at him. “I wondered when you would come see me.”

“Lady Melton. May I give my sincerest condolences on the passing of your husband.”

“Thank you,” she said softly, sadness drifting into her eyes. Anthony cursed himself for his blunder.

Trying to salvage the moment, he blurted out, “I was wondering if you might like to take a turn on the dance floor with me.”

A small smile crossed her lips.

“I’ve only been widowed six months. People will talk, Lord Bridgerton.”

Anthony groaned internally. He should have anticipated this, but the drinks had muddled his head.

“You’re right, of course. Forgive me, I –“

Penelope placed a hand on his arm, lightly.

“Fortunately for you, Lord Bridgerton, one of the good things about being a widow is that I can do as I please. Lead the way.”

With that, she threaded her arm through his and they walked to the dance floor.

Anthony was relieved that the quartet was playing a slow waltz. It was, on the whole, more seemly if they danced to something more sedate. There would still be whispers of impropriety, of course, but he was going to take a page out of Eloise’s book and not care a whit what anyone else thought.

He didn’t have much time to worry about the gossip of others before the full effect of Penelope took hold on him. God, she felt good in his arms, all luscious curves and creamy skin. And she smelled like roses, which had always been one of his favorite scents.

“Thank you,” Penelope said, breaking through his thoughts.

“For what?” He smiled down at her.

“I haven’t danced in a long time. I thought perhaps I never would again.”

“You look too beautiful not to dance.”

He wanted to take the words back as soon as they left his lips, not because he didn’t mean them, but because they made him sound like an awkward boy just out of leading strings.

Penelope’s lips curved up into the barest hint of a smile.

“You flatter me, Lord Bridgerton. It’s been a long time since anyone’s accused me of being beautiful.”

Anthony wanted to protest, to tell her that she was, indeed, beautiful and that someone should tell her everyday, but he knew that to do so would be the height of impropriety, so he changed the subject.

“Will you be attending Lady Danbury’s ball next week?”

“Of course. Mother and my sisters wouldn’t hear of me staying home. They want me to re-enter society as soon as possible and to look for a husband. I’m happy as I am, but I’ll humor them. If I’m being honest, though, I quite missed all this. Lord Melton was sick for much of our marriage and we spent all our time in the country to try and improve his health. It’s good to be back among friends.”

She smiled up at him and he momentarily caught his breath at the sparkling green of her eyes.

He was jolted out of his reverie when the music picked up and he realized their dance had ended.

“Thank you for the dance, Lord Bridgerton,” Penelope said.

“Anthony, please. We’ve known each other too long to rest on formality.”

Her lips curved up into that irresistible smile once more.

“Thank you for the dance, Anthony.”

With that, she drifted back into the crowd.

It was at that moment that Anthony realized that he was, inexplicably and unavoidably, smitten with Lady Penelope Melton.

He needed another drink.

Chapter Text

Anthony relaxed into his chair. He was relieved to be out of the house. Being at home just meant being henpecked by his mother and Eloise.

He raised his glass to Simon, who was seated across from him. It had been an age since he had seen the other man, Simon preferring to spend his free time with Daphne and the children rather than at the club. Anthony envied him. The happiness that radiated from Simon and Daphne was something he had long since resigned himself to never having.

“Remember that unfortunate time I challenged you to a duel?”

His brother-in-law raised an eyebrow.

“I do.”

“Biggest mistake of my life. You and Daph are disgustingly happy.”

Simon threw back his head and laughed.

“We are at that. You could have that kind of happiness, too, old man. Just say the word and your mother will have you married off within the year.”

Anthony fiddled with his glass.

“She would indeed. But I don’t want it. All the young ladies she introduces me to are rather boring. All they can talk about is embroidery and the latest fashions. I can’t do that for the rest of my life, Simon.”

Simon paused a moment before answering.

“So you need a woman, not a girl just out of leading strings.”

“Women are harder to come by,” Anthony said with resignation. “And then there’s the question of an heir.”

“For God sake’s man, she doesn’t need to be seventy years old. Go and find yourself a wealthy widow.” Simon replied. “Lady Melton---“

He paused, appraising his friend shrewdly.

“You danced with her at the ball last week. That’s what this is all about, isn’t it? You have your eye on Penelope.”

Anthony shushed him, glancing around the room to make sure no one had overheard.

“Yes, I am quite intrigued by Lady Melton. God, it seems so ridiculous to call her that. I remember when she and Eloise were practically joined at the hip.”

“Things change,” said Simon.

“Indeed. Do you think I should call on her? Would everyone be scandalized?”

“I don’t see why. You’re an eligible bachelor. She’s been widowed six months. She has no children and a gigantic fortune. You won’t be the only one to come calling, I’m sure.”

“Tomorrow, then. Tomorrow I’ll pay her a visit,” Anthony said, nodding his head.

Simon raised his glass.

“To happiness, then.”

“To happiness,” responded Anthony.

Chapter Text

To say that things did not go according to plan would be an understatement.

Anthony had arrived at 10:00, half expecting to see a line of carriages outside Penelope’s front door. To his relief, his was the only one to be seen. He knocked, was announced, and a servant escorted him to the drawing room, where Penelope sat on the settee, looking radiant in a mauve-colored dress. He had the passing thought that he would love to see her in the yellow she wore in her youth. It suited her personality much better than these dark colors, but he knew what was expected of the newly widowed. Penelope would be in mourning colors for at least another six months, if not longer.

Anthony was initially startled by the lack of a chaperone, but then realized that, as a widowed woman, the expectations for Penelope’s virtue and reputation were far different than a young woman who had never been married. Penelope could do as she pleased, within reason.

She greeted him warmly and called for tea to be served. They made small talk for ten minutes or so. It brought Anthony back to the years before Daphne and Simon had gotten married, when all of the Bridgertons had lived under the same roof, and when Eloise and Penelope had been inseparable.

He was startled out of his reverie by Penelope’s voice.

“Is your mother still trying to marry you off to the eligible young ladies of the ton?”

There was a teasing note in her voice.

“Ah, well,” Anthony began, realizing that this was his opening to the topic he had hoped to broach. “I actually wanted to speak to you about that.”

“Oh?”

“Lady Melton – Penelope – I was wondering if you might be amenable to my courting you.”

“To what end?” Penelope asked abruptly.

“Well, marriage, of course,” said Anthony, taken aback.

Penelope’s tinkling laugher sounded throughout the room.

“Oh, Anthony. You must know that I have no intention of ever marrying again.”

“But, surely –“

“I can assure you, Anthony. Once was enough,” Penelope said, voice suddenly firm.

Anthony sat back in his chair as though he had been slapped.

“But your estate? You must want someone to manage it? And children? It is my understanding that most women want those.”

Penelope took a deep breath and responded slowly, as though speaking to a child.

“I am perfectly capable of managing my own affairs. And children are…”

She trailed off and knotted her hands together before meeting his gaze with a steady look that contained a trace of regret.

“Children are not a priority for me at this time.”

Anthony was aghast.

“Not a prior----“

“So good of you to come, Lord Bridgerton,” Penelope cut in smoothly. “It was so wonderful to reacquaint ourselves. I’ll have Travers escort you out.”

She rang the bell and, before Anthony knew what was happening, he had been unceremonious seen to the door. He stood on the sidewalk outside the Melton mansion, ruffled in a way that was completely foreign to him.

Manage her own affairs. Children not a priority.

“Insufferable woman,” Anthony muttered under his breath as he marched to his carriage.

Anthony Bridgerton had always liked a challenge, particularly if that challenge came in the guise of a beautiful woman. He had no intention of being cast aside like an annoying child. If Penelope was going to be difficult, then so was he. He had to admit, though, as the carriage carried him home, that Penelope’s stubbornness was rather alluring.

Chapter Text

Anthony Bridgerton had only ever fallen in love with one woman and he had vowed to never let it happen again. Which is why the fact that he was home, in bed, on a perfectly fine evening, when his friends were out at a brothel, was so vexing. Oh yes, he had wanted to go. He had gotten ready and had a carriage waiting. When it came time to leave, however, Penelope’s face flashed through his mind. It wasn’t that he thought she would care that stopped him. It was that she wouldn’t care at all. It bothered him so much he didn’t have the stomach for his usual carousing.

“Damnable woman,” he grumbled to himself as he twisted in the sheets.

He told himself it didn't bother him. It did.

He told himself she wasn’t as beautiful as he had thought. That, too, was a lie.

He told himself he didn’t care about her. That was the biggest lie of all.

Realizing that sleep wasn’t a possibility in his current state, Anthony got up from bed, pulling his dressing gown around himself, and tramped down the stairs to the drawing room.

Eloise was curled on the sofa, a book in one hand and a candle in the other. She was the person he had least wanted to see.

“You!” she exclaimed, pointing a finger at him.

“Eloise, not now,” he said, irritably.

“I know what you’re up to,” she continued, completely ignoring him. “Penelope said that you called on her.”

“Shhh,” Anthony hissed. “You’ll wake the whole house. But, yes, I did call on her, which I have every right to do. And, if you must know, she turned me down.”

“I know,” said Eloise in a somewhat quieter, if not gentler tone.

It was at this moment that Anthony realized he had been avoiding his best source of information. He perched himself on the edge of the sofa. This conversation would require a delicate, discreet approach.

“She said that she had no intention of ever marrying again.”

“And she doesn’t,” responded Eloise, popping her eyes at him and closing her book with a thud. “And, now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to bed.”

She started to rise from her perch, but Anthony gently took hold of her sleeve.

“Please, El.”

His younger sister sighed and sat back down.

“I suppose you’re wanting an explanation as to exactly why she’ll never marry again?”

“Not every single detail, but the broad strokes, yes,” Anthony replied. “She was rather vague on the subject.”

Eloise folded her hands in her lap, taking a deep breath.

“I have no desire to betray my friend’s confidence, Anthony. But, I love you and I want what’s best for you, so you might as well know the story. “

Anthony pulled his dressing gown tighter around himself. Eloise had the look that said she was preparing for a monologue and the room was rather chilly.

“You remember when Penelope agreed to marry Lord Melton?”

“Vaguely,” said Anthony, somewhat ashamed. In his defense, he had only seen her as his younger sister’s friend at the time and he had been rather tied up with other affairs. Two affairs, in fact - one with an actress and one with a countess.

Eloise shot him a look of disgust.

“Lord Melton was forty years her senior. He was in ill health for the majority of their marriage, leading ultimately to his death six months ago. Their marriage was not a love match. It is my understanding from Penelope that he was a cold man and disinterested in her most of the time.”

Eloise lowered her voice tactfully.

“This was Lord Melton’s first marriage. He had devoted the first half of his life to building his fortune and never got around to taking a wife. He was, of course, terribly concerned with the idea of an heir. Despite his illness, they attempted to conceive a child. This was, under the circumstances, rather unpleasant for Penelope. As you know, they never succeeded in this endeavor. She believes Lord Melton may have been incapable due to his illness. I believe this, ah," Eloise groped for the right phrase, “.... unpleasant experience… is why she intends never to marry again. She doesn’t want to be under another man’s control.”

Anthony’s blood boiled at the idea of someone misusing and treating Penelope so coldly.

“So she intends to be alone the rest of her life?”

“That’s what she says,” Eloise replied. “And, now, dear brother, I wish you good night.”

She leaned over, kissed Anthony on the cheek, and flounced out of the room, leaving him to his thoughts.

Anthony was gobsmacked. He had been blissfully ignorant, thinking for two years that Penelope had made a good match with a man who would care for her. Eloise had certainly never said anything, so he had presumed that no news was good news. He was filled with a rush of tenderness and protectiveness towards Penelope. And he was more resolved than ever to win her favor.

Chapter Text

It was only Simon’s level-headedness that kept Anthony from becoming involved in yet another duel. When he saw that Anthony was preparing to have words with Benjamin Haversham, he swiftly extracted his brother-in-law from the situation. Anthony bristled in the moment, but later had to admit to himself that a duel would have been the only option, given what he had planned to say to the other man.

It had started innocently enough. It was the usual joking that happened as the men relaxed at their club, discussing the gossip of that season. At some point, however, Benjamin had taken it too far and used the phrase “used goods” in reference to Penelope. Anthony’s vision had gone red at that point and he had only managed to squeeze out the words “better than you would ever deserve” before Simon had grasped him firmly by the arm and dragged him out of the room.

“Get a grip on yourself,” Simon had said as he propelled Anthony into their waiting carriage, took a seat opposite him, and tapped the ceiling to signal the driver.

“Did you hear what he—“ Anthony was spluttering as the carriage began to move down the street.

“We all heard, Anthony. It’s the same thing that goes on every year. It’s the worst kind of talk, I agree, but it’s not worth getting yourself into trouble over. You’re no use to anyone if you’re dead.”

Anthony relaxed against the seat.

“Penelope wouldn’t even notice if I died, I expect.”

Simon sighed.

“You’re still pining away, I take it?”

“I don’t pine,” said Anthony, petulantly.

“Well, then?”

Anthony shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Simon was not only his brother-in-law, but also his best friend, so he knew the other man would see right through any untruths.

“I’ve never had a woman reject me so thoroughly.”

“So this is about your pride then?”

“No,” Anthony said, after a pause. “It’s more than that. Eloise told me some things --“

Simon held up a hand to stop him from going further.

“We’ll protect the lady’s dignity. You don’t need to tell me.”

Anthony nodded in agreement.

“Regardless, I want…” he trailed off for a moment before composing himself and beginning again. “I would find it regrettable if Lady Melton resigned herself to a life of loneliness and isolation.”

Simon was silent for a moment, considering.

“As someone who is lucky enough to be in a happy union, I would find that regrettable as well. I don’t know Penelope well, but she’s always struck me as a kind woman. It would be a shame for her to be doomed to that kind of life. But, if that’s what she had said she wants, I’m not sure what recourse you have. She has more than enough money to live her life as she chooses.”

Anthony nodded tightly, looking out the window.

“On the other hand,” Simon continued, “if someone were to show her that marriage between two people that love each other could be gratifying…”

Anthony raised an eyebrow.

“You want me to seduce Penelope?”

“If it were a scandal, it would only be a small one, Anthony, and it certainly wouldn’t ruin either of you. You are unattached and she’s been married before. The expectations are different for both of you than if she was a young woman only coming into society.”

Anthony considered the proposal for a moment.

“And you think it will work?”

“It might not, but it’s your only option at this point.”

“And how should I proceed?” Anthony asked, genuinely hoping that Simon would have the answer.

“Let the lady come to you. Sometimes these things take time.”

“But what if someone else comes along? What if she falls back in love with Colin?”

“Well,” said Simon, “Colin is abroad for at least another six months, so I doubt it. And if she’s as resolute as you say she is, I’m sure she’ll send any other men on their way as she did with you.”

Simon leaned over and cuffed his brother in law on the shoulder.

“Chin up, old man. You’re Anthony Bridgerton. You’ve seduced many a young lady. If anyone can do this, it’s you.”

Anthony nodded, but the memory of Penelope’s rejection followed him all the way home.

Chapter Text

For a man who had seduced countless women since he was old enough to do so, Anthony found himself rather stymied at the idea of seducing Penelope. He considered most of his usual tactics to be rather unseemly when he thought about her. Generally, the goal was to discreetly remove oneself from a young lady’s life after the actual seducing had been accomplished. What to do if one wanted very much to remain in the woman’s life after said seduction? Anthony had only had this problem once before, which had not ended successfully. He winced at the thought of Siena and firmly pushed her out of his mind. That had been another lifetime.

In the end, Anthony decided to press his luck and call on her again. Lady Danbury’s ball was that night, which gave him an excuse to remove himself if things went poorly.

Penelope received him warmly, as she had the first time. It was like any other visit he had paid to countless other women over the years -- small talk, a smattering of gossip. Except, miraculously, upon this occasion, Anthony made the discovery that he could make Penelope laugh. And, God, what a laugh it was. It wasn’t the tittering, affected giggle he was used to hearing from the other ladies. It was a full-throated laugh that rang through the room and warmed him down to his toes. It also gave Anthony a wide variety of ungentlemanly thoughts about the other noises he longed to hear her make.

It was because of this comfortable atmosphere between them that he almost hesitated to bring up the reason for his visit.

“Lady Melton – Penelope – I wonder if we might revisit our conversation of last week.”

Rather than ringing for a servant to immediately escort him from the house, Penelope smoothed her skirts and laced her fingers together in her lap.

“I, too, thought we might revisit that subject.”

Anthony hadn’t considered the possibility that she might have changed her mind, which threw him rather for a loop.

“You did?”

“I took a great deal of time to consider what you had said the last time we spoke,” she said carefully.

“And?”

Penelope moved from the settee across from him to sit beside him on the sofa.

“I think it may be time I took a lover.”

Anthony let the comment hang in the air. It was decidedly not what he had expected.

“A lover,” he said, flatly.

“Yes. Someone with whom I could enjoy all the…pleasures…that life has to offer. A companion of sorts.”

“I see,” said Anthony, heart sinking.

“And I thought that you might be a perfect candidate for such an arrangement.”

Anthony’s mind was in overdrive. He had not anticipated any of what was happening and was having to quickly reorganize his plan of action.

“And why would you view me as the perfect companion, exactly?”

Penelope fixed him with a knowing look.

“This would be the perfect arrangement for you. I’m a willing woman who doesn’t want a cent from you and certainly doesn’t need a commitment. What more could you desire?”

Anthony’s heart sank. Because, as of that moment, what he wanted very, very much was the kind of commitment that Penelope had just referenced.

“So you want to enter into a scandalous arrangement with me to what end?”

Penelope looked down at her hands.

“I want to experience joy again, I suppose. Tenderness. A tiny bit of the affection that others seem to share.”

She sniffed and looked up at him, her gaze intense.

“But I want none of the strings and control that comes with marriage. Never again.”

She shook her head firmly.

Anthony’s head was in a muddle. After a moment, he gently took Penelope’s hands in his and placed a kiss on each one before looking into her eyes.

“May I consider your offer?”

Penelope smiled sadly, as though he had already rejected her.

“Of course, Lord Bridgerton.”

Anthony nodded as she rang the bell for a servant to come escort him out.

“Will you be at the ball this evening?” he asked.

“Mama wouldn’t hear of me not attending,” she said.

“Then I’ll look forward to seeing you there,” Anthony replied, leaning over to kiss Penelope’s hand in a gesture of farewell.

She smiled at him then and he would have given all the world to be able to pull her into his arms and ravish her right there on the floor of the drawing room.

Instead, he put on his hat and headed for his carriage. He had much to think about and only a few hours in which to do it.

Chapter Text

Anthony mulled over the events of the afternoon as he prepared for the ball.

The woman was full of surprises. He had no idea that she would turn the tables on him. His plan to seduce her had hinged on the assumption that he would convince her to marry him in time. Now that she willingly wanted to enter into a relationship with him, with the idea of marriage firmly off the table… He had no idea what to do.

He knew that a scandal wouldn’t ruin either of them, so that wasn’t his concern. What made him hesitate was the fact that he was inevitably and irrevocably falling in love with Penelope Melton and the bone deep knowledge that, should she cast him aside, he would be a shattered man.

He was also aware that, should he refuse her offer, she would just find someone else. God forbid, Colin would be back in six months. She had always had an eye on Colin.

Anthony gritted his teeth. She had given him an impossible choice. To say no would be to lose her completely. To say yes would mean inevitable heartbreak once their affair came to an end.

It was with these dark thoughts that he rode to Lady Danbury’s ball, hoping that he could make his choice before the evening ended.

Chapter Text

It took Anthony all of sixty seconds to make his decision: the first thirty to enter the ballroom, the next twenty to greet Lady Danbury, and the next ten to see Penelope in her burgundy dress, her reddish golden hair framing her face. He was lost and he knew it. Whatever she wanted -- whatever she would give him -- he would accept.

He didn’t approach her for the first hour of the ball, as she was engrossed in discussion with Eloise. Finally, as the dancing started, Simon caught his gaze across the ballroom and gave him a pointed look. Anthony glanced over at Penelope and realized she was alone. He crossed the room, managing to evade anyone who might pull him into conversation.

“Lady Melton,” he said, smiling down at her, the air between them thick with things unsaid.

“Lord Bridgerton.”

“I thought perhaps you might grant me the honor of this dance.”

“I might,” she said, teasingly, setting her drink on a nearby table and taking his hand.

“Have you given any though to my proposal, Lord Bridgerton?” Penelope asked as they slowly spun their way across the dance floor.

“I have.”

“And?”

Anthony took a deep breath.

“I accept.”

She smiled up at him, her face radiant in the light of the ballroom.

“Truly?”

“Yes, truly.”

He had so much more that he wanted to tell her, but it wasn’t the appropriate time.

“I’m not quite sure what to say,” said Penelope. “I was sure you would turn me down.”

“Why ever would you assume that?”

“Because I’m not much to look at and –“

Anthony gritted his teeth together. She really was the most vexing woman.

“Not much to look at? Why in God’s name would I have asked you if I could court you with a view towards marriage if I thought you were unattractive?”

“I assumed you felt sorry for me,” Penelope said. “That it was a proposal made out of pity rather than anything else.”

It took every inch of effort for Anthony not to stop dead still in the middle of the ballroom floor and show her exactly how much he didn’t pity her.

“I assure you, that was not the case,” he said, gathering himself.

“Well,” she said, briskly, as the song was drawing to a close, “since I’ve never conducted a torrid affair before, I do believe I’ll leave the details to you. You have more experience in these matters.”

The song had stopped and Anthony was aware of the eyes upon them as they gazed at each other.

The band struck up another song, a lively one this time, and Anthony made a show of kissing Penelope’s hand to thank her for the dance.

“Meet me at my carriage. I’ll be waiting,” he whispered to her, before turning and melting into the crowd.

Chapter Text

The minutes ticked by and Anthony became afraid that Penelope had lost her nerve. He caught his breath when she finally slid into the carriage, a rosy glow on her cheeks.

“I’m sorry,” she said, apologetically. “I got pulled into conversation with your mother, of all people, and –“

She was cut off as Anthony leaned across the carriage and pressed his lips firmly to hers.

She tasted better than he had dreamed about, like honey and apples, and she let out a low hum as she wrapped her arms around his neck to draw him closer.

Anthony pulled her from her seat into his lap, the pleasant weight of her pressing into his thighs.

“Oh my,” she said, breathlessly, as he broke their kiss. “I, um – well – that was ---“

Anthony kissed her again, his hands sliding up into her hair, his mouth exploring every inch of hers.

Penelope moaned against his lips and he had to remind himself to go slowly.

Anthony pulled back and let his hands gently settle on her waist.

“Let’s take a moment, dearest.”

Penelope raised an eyebrow at him.

“Dearest already, is it?”

“Well, I hope you don’t expect me to call you ‘Lady Melton’ when we are in…intimate situations,” Anthony said, with a hint of exasperation.

Penelope planted a kiss on the tip of his nose.

“Dearest it is.”

Anthony patted the seat next to him and Penelope resettled herself beside him.

He took her hands in his.

“Penelope, dearest – I think we should discuss, before we begin, how much…experience you have in these matters. You were married, obviously, so you aren’t a girl just out of leading strings. But, before I presume ---“

Penelope fixed him with a look.

“I have more than enough experience, Anthony Bridgerton. It might not have been pleasant and it might not have been enjoyable, but I’m not a young, starry-eyed maid who has no idea how these things work. Now kiss me.”

Anthony obliged.

He had been with other women, of course, but he had never taken so much enjoyment in figuring out what a woman actually wanted. In the fifteen minute carriage ride, Anthony was able to ascertain all manner of things about Penelope Melton, including the fact that she liked it when he pulled her hair and she loved it when he nibbled her bottom lip, two pieces of information which he filed away for later.

By the time the carriage had stopped in front of Penelope’s manor, Penelope’s hair had fallen down out of its coiffure and both of them were in a state of noticeable dishevelment.

Penelope smoothed her dress and hair before reaching for the carriage door.

“The servants will be asleep, but my housekeeper will have waited up for me. Wait five minutes, then come to the back door. I’ll let you in.”

She planted a kiss to his lips before exiting the carriage.

Chapter Text

The five minutes between Penelope leaving the carriage and when she met Anthony at the back door of the manor house were the longest of his life.

She carried a candle in one hand and held her shawl around her shoulders with the other. He could see she was wearing a plain white night dress underneath.

“Everyone’s asleep,” she said in hushed tones. “You can come up now as long as you’re quiet on the stairs.”

He nodded in agreement and followed her silently up to her bedchamber.

They both breathed a sigh of relief when the door was closed and bolted behind them.

Penelope placed the candle down on the nightstand and, to Anthony’s shock, positioned herself on the bed on all fours, rump in the air.

When he didn’t follow her, she glanced behind her.

“Is this not what you prefer? If you would like, I can –“

Things were finally starting to fall into place for him and he walked over to the bed, sitting down beside Penelope, who sat back on her heels awkwardly. He patted the spot beside him and she positioned herself next to him, tucking her legs beneath her and looking at him questioningly.

“Did I do something wrong?”

Anthony took her hand, kissing her knuckles before posing the question as tactfully as he could.

“Was that the position that Lord Melton preferred?”

Penelope nodded.

“The only one?” Anthony asked gently.

“Yes,” Penelope admitted, eyes downcast.

“And he expected you to keep your night clothes on?”

Penelope nodded furiously, tears beginning to brim in her eyes.

“There are other ways, Pen,” Anthony said, brushing another kiss across her hand. "Ways that will be more pleasurable for you. And, when people care for each other, the act is usually performed nude.”

“I suppose it was because he never wanted to see me,” Penelope said, softly, brushing the tears from her cheeks.

Anthony pushed away his feelings of rage at her late husband and gently placed a kiss on her forehead, gathering her into his arms and holding her tightly.

“You’re beautiful, dearest,” he said, gazing down into her eyes. “And I want to see you. I want to see all of you.”

Penelope wiped the remaining tears from her face and sniffed, smiling up at him.

“I would like like that,” she said. “Where should we begin?”

Anthony placed a tender kiss on her lips.

“Well, seeing that we have all night, we should start at the beginning. I’ll remove my clothes and then we can remove yours. Is that agreeable to you, dearest?”

Penelope nodded enthusiastically and slid off of Anthony’s lap so he could stand next to the bed.

He carefully removed each item of clothing, self-consciously folding them and placing them on a chair

Penelope appraised him silently and, for a moment, he was almost afraid that she was going to ask him to leave.

Finally, she stood and placed her hand against his heart, fingers toying with his chest hair.

“I didn’t know that you would look like…this,” she said, a touch of awe in her voice, as she looked up at him.

“Do you not like it?” he asked.

“No, it’s…wonderful,” she responded, somewhat sheepishly. “My late husband never let me see him without night clothes on. I just didn’t know.”

Her hand gently moved down his body to stroke his cock and he hissed.

“Did I hurt you?” she asked, pulling her hand back as thought she had been burned.

“No, my dearest. It feels very good when you do that. Too good, almost.”

This newfound power brought a smile to her lips and she wrapped both hands around him. He closed his eyes, simply basking in the feeling of her touching him.

Penelope stepped away after a moment and pulled her nightdress over her head with both hands, letting it drop to the floor with a gentle swish. She instinctively covered her breasts with her hands before letting them fall away. She squared her shoulders, waiting for his approval.

She was even lovelier than he had imagined, the candlelight perfectly accenting the curves that he so desperately wanted to gather into his hands.

Anthony slowly closed the gap between them and, stroking her cheek, placed a gentle kiss on her lips. She moaned against his mouth, pressing her body against his. He slowly backed her over to the bed until her knees hit the edge and she fell softly onto the sheets. Hovering his body over hers, Anthony trailed soft kisses over her nose and cheeks, moving down her body until he reached her breasts. He took a rosy nipple in his mouth, tongue swirling.

Penelope gave a moan that sent tremors directly to Anthony’s cock.

“More of that, please,” she begged, voice ragged with need.

He alternated between her breasts with feather-light kisses and touches, finally continuing his trail down her body and placing a kiss on the roundness of her belly.

She lifted her hips instinctively and Anthony gently drew her thighs apart.

Penelope gave a small shriek of surprise when Anthony’s lips landed on her most intimate parts, but the shriek soon turned to a moan as he lapped at the wetness between her thighs. She writhed against him, hands fisted in the sheets, as he licked and sucked, his tongue doing the wickedest things imaginable.

He could tell she was close by the small circles of her hips and the way her eyes were squeezed tightly shut. It didn’t take long before she shattered in his hands, biting her lip and throwing her head back as her body shook. He held her as she rode out her orgasm, finally collapsing against him.

He brushed her hair back from her face as she caught her breath.

“That was…that was…”

She didn’t finish her sentence, instead pulling him down for a kiss.

“I take it that I pleased you?” Anthony asked, a chuckle in his voice.

Penelope nodded enthusiastically, although he could see tiredness creeping into her eyes.

“What’s next?” she asked, barely suppressing a yawn.

“A good night’s sleep, dearest,” he said firmly.

“But you –“

“Don’t worry about me,” he said, pulling her against him so that he was spooning her body.

Penelope twisted to look at him.

“Are you going to leave?”

“No,” he said.

She relaxed at this, her body molding to his. After he was sure Penelope was asleep, Anthony discreetly spent himself into a waiting handkerchief. He resumed his position behind her, wrapping his arms around her tightly and savoring the feel of her against him. Her face was perfectly peaceful and he felt a tightening of possessiveness in his chest as he studied her features in the candlelight. He placed a soft kiss to her sweat-glazed temple before letting himself drift off to the most restful sleep of his life.

Chapter Text

Anthony awoke to find Penelope curled up against him, her head pillowed in her hand. She looked so peaceful that he hated to wake her up, but he knew that the household would soon be up and about. He thought about leaving without waking her, but knew that her trust in him was still a fragile thing that could be broken at any moment.

He gently stroked her hair back from her face and her eyes blinked open. Her beautiful lips curved upwards into a smile and she pulled him down to kiss her.

“Good morning, Lord Bridgerton,” she murmured.

The look on her face was so thoroughly satisfied and happy that all thoughts of evading the servants left Anthony’s head at once. He was a man who had never hesitated to leave a lady before the sun rose, but the knowledge that he had put that expression on her face made him want to stay in bed with her all day, scandal be damned.

“Good morning, dearest,” he said, kissing her again.

“Did you sleep well?” she asked, nuzzling his jawline.

“Never better.”

“I suppose you have to go,” she said, her voice still raspy with sleep. “I don’t want you to, but the servants will want to clean my room soon. Will I see you at the ball tonight?”

“The ball?”

“At Hawthorne Manor,” Penelope replied. “Don’t tell me you didn’t get an invitation.”

“I did,” he reassured her. “The season is so long that sometimes it all blends together. I had forgotten it was tonight.”

He gently disentangled himself from Penelope and, collecting his clothing from the chair, began to get dressed.

“Will you dance with me again?” Penelope asked, wrapping a sheet around herself and sitting up.

“You and no one else,” Anthony said, giving her a very thorough kiss.

Penelope pulled back and swatted his shoulder.

“Anthony Bridgerton. People will talk if you don’t dance with anyone else. You must dance with at least three other ladies or it will be a scandal. Promise me.”

“I promise,” he said, pulling his second boot on and dropping a kiss on the top of her head. “But I won’t enjoy it at all.”

Penelope laughed, throwing her head back and clapping her hands together, and the sound filled Anthony with joy that he hadn’t felt in years.

“Go on,” she said, composing herself. “I’ll see you tonight. Take the back stairs.”

Anthony planted another kiss on her lips and headed for the door. He managed to make it outside without being seen and remembered that he had sent his coachman away the night before, assuming he would walk home the next morning. He knew that his light-heartedness and the spring in his step were all due to Penelope and the memory of her face brought a smile to his lips as he walked in the front door of the Bridgerton house.

He had entered the foyer and placed his gloves upon the table when a familiar voice rang out behind him.

“Brother!”

Colin strode towards him, arms outstretched.

“I thought you were abroad for the rest of the year!” Anthony exclaimed, embracing his younger brother.

“That was my plan, but I have to admit that I missed my family,” Colin replied, giving Anthony a thump on the back before they broke apart.

“Has Mother seen you yet? She’ll be overjoyed,” Anthony said.

“Yes, I just spoke with her. Believe it or not, I’ve only been home two hours and she’s insisting that I attend the ball tonight. She won’t hear otherwise.”

“The ball?”

“Yes,” Colin said, lowering his voice. “Apparently, Penelope Melton has re-entered society after the death of her husband and Mother hopes that I can re-acquaint myself with her. I haven’t seen her in ages.”

Anthony’s jaw twitched, but he feigned a disinterested air.

“Oh? Are you eager to…re-acquaint…yourself with her?”

“Penelope always was a lovely girl,” Colin said, casually. “We’ll see.”

He breezed past his brother towards the stairs.

“Mother wanted me to tell you,” he called out over his shoulder, “we're leaving at six.”

Anthony ground his teeth together. He had never wanted to commit murder more than he did at that moment.

Chapter Text

In the end, it was decided that Eloise, Colin, and Lady Bridgerton would share one carriage while Anthony and Benedict would share another, which suited Anthony just fine. He could barely stand the sound of Colin’s voice. The memory of how Penelope used to moon over him when they were younger made Anthony want to punch something, preferably Colin.

“Are you quite alright?” Benedict asked as the carriage bumped along the cobblestones. “You’ve been in a mood since lunch.”

“Fine,” muttered Anthony.

“This wouldn’t have anything to do with were you disappeared to last night?” Benedict asked, carefully.

Anthony would normally have brushed his younger brother’s enquiries aside, but he had never needed a confidant more than he did in that moment.

The ride to Hawthorne Manor was at least fifteen minutes and it took Anthony ten to unravel the tale of his relationship with Penelope, leaving out some of the more personal details, and his concerns about Colin returning home.

When he had finished, Benedict sat silently, his face thoughtful.

“I’m not sure what to do,” Anthony said after a moment, looking down at his gloves.

Benedict nodded.

“Have you told her that you love her?”

Anthony’s head whipped up.

“I never –“

Benedict raised an eyebrow.

“Don’t lie to yourself. You’re in love with her. It’s plain as day.”

Anthony shook his head, ruefully.

“I don’t want to overwhelm her. She’s made it clear that she doesn’t want a lasting commitment. That this is simply an affair. Marriage is off the table, apparently. I fear that I am simply a…plaything…and that after she is done with me…”

He trailed off, looking out the carriage window.

Benedict chuckled.

“Don’t you think you’re being a tad dramatic? This is not some stranger, Anthony. This is Penelope. We’ve known her for her entire life. She’s Eloise’s best friend. You might not have been paying attention until recently, but the rest of us were. She’s a kind and gentle person. A woman of quality. I don’t think she’s playing with you.”

The carriage rumbled to a halt.

Benedict went first, opening the door. Before he stepped down, he looked over his shoulder at his brother and dispensed one last piece of wisdom.

“I’ll say this: don’t wait too long to tell her. Not if you don’t want to lose her.”

With that, Benedict exited the carriage.

Anthony sat for a moment, considering his brother’s words. Then he collected his coat and hat, and went to find his family.

Chapter Text

True to his word, Anthony danced with four other ladies, each one more boring than the last. His mother certainly approved. She beamed at him each time he asked another young lady for a turn around the ballroom floor. Anthony, for his part, was more concerned with sneaking surreptitious glances at Penelope.

Colin had, indeed, renewed his acquaintance with Penelope, even dancing with her twice. Anthony had to admit they made a handsome couple. It made his blood boil.

He finally saw his chance to speak with her late in the evening. He was borderline rude, cutting into a conversation she was having with a dowager countess to ask her to dance. But he was so very desperate to be alone with her. Penelope excused herself, took his hand, and followed him to the ballroom floor.

“You kept your promise,” she said, a teasing note in her voice. “I believe I counted at least four other young ladies you graced with a dance.”

“I did. I see that you didn’t have any problem finding other partners either.”

Penelope’s face faltered and Anthony cursed himself for his blundering jealousy.

“I’m sorry," she said, softly. "It was only Colin. I didn’t think….”

Anthony, who had spent a lifetime trying to avoid having feelings, much less talking about them, found himself at a loss. He knew he should apologize. He knew he should say something, but his tongue was tied.

“I am very tired,” Penelope said, decisively. “I should be heading home soon. I do hope you will excuse me.”

She walked from the ballroom floor, leaving Anthony standing alone, unable to stop her.

Benedict cornered him a few moments later.

“Lady Melton left rather early, I noticed,” he said, casually.

“She was feeling unwell,” Anthony said, trying to hide his level of distress.

Benedict fixed him with a look.

“Go. I’ll ride home with Mother and I’ll make excuses for you. Just go.”

Anthony patted his brother on the shoulder and discreetly excited the ball, making his way to the carriage. It had started to rain heavily and his clothes were soon soaked through.

It took ten minutes longer than usual to make it to the Melton Manor because of the weather. Once outside, Anthony was paralyzed by indecision. He couldn’t very well go to the front door. He didn’t want to bring scandal, no matter how small, onto Penelope’s head. He decided to risk the back door.

He knocked tentatively and a servant answered the door.

“Is your mistress home?” he asked. “I must speak with her.”

Every discreet, the young woman nodded. She was gone several minutes before Penelope came to the door. Her wrap was pulled tightly around her and her eyes were puffy and red. Anthony’s heart sank when he realized that he was the cause of her distress.

“I must apologize to you,” he said, trying to speak over the sound of the rain. He was felt drenched to the bone, but the only thing that mattered now was Penelope. “The way I behaved was unacceptable. I was jealous. You and Colin made a handsome couple and I thought..”

It was at this moment that Penelope launched herself into his arms, mouth fumbling for his, the downpour soaking them both.

“I thought you understood the depth of feeling that I have for you,” Penelope said between kisses, sobbing, the rain mingling with her tears. “I don’t want Colin. I haven’t wanted Colin for years. I just want you.”

The tightness in Anthony’s chest subsided as he held her close.

“You’ll catch a chill,” Penelope yelled over the sound of the increasingly steady rainfall, pulling back from his embrace. “Come upstairs.”

Anthony took her hand and let her lead him up the back stairs.

Chapter Text

Penelope pulled Anthony into her room, her lips crashing into his as soon as the door was closed.

“Take off your clothes,” she murmured against his lips, her fingers already fumbling with the buttons on his vest.

After they had both undressed each other, Penelope took him by the hand and led him over to the bed, gently pushing him back and climbing on top of him to straddle his waist.

“Are you sure, dearest?” he said, pushing her hair back from her face as she bent down to kiss him. “There can be other steps between what we did last night and full intimacy.”

“I think you’re forgetting that I was married, Anthony,” she said, fixing him with a look. “I have an idea of the basic mechanics.”

“And,” she said, pressing a kiss to his lips, “I want you.”

She looked so beautiful, lips puffy from his kisses and hair falling down around her face, that Anthony knew he would do anything for her in that moment.

He pulled her down for another kiss, his fingers lightly trailing over her hip and down to her most intimate parts. She let out a moan as he slipped a finger inside of her. It only took a few seconds of teasing and stroking to make her panting and wet.

“Please,” she whimpered, eyes closed tightly, rolling her hips against his hand.

“Please what?” he whispered, a small smile playing at the edges of his lips. Heaven help him, he loved that he could do this to her.

“I want you inside me, please,” she begged.

In a move he was suddenly very thankful he had perfected over the years, Anthony smoothly rolled them over so their positions were reversed and he was hovering between Penelope’s thighs.

“Are you sure?” he asked, staring down into the depths of her green eyes.

She nodded, lifting her hips.

He eased himself inside her, reminding himself sternly to go slowly, although all he wanted was to sheath himself inside her tight wetness.

She moaned softly, her hands cupping his behind to pull him closer until he was fitted snugly inside of her.

Anthony gave a gentle thrust of his hips and Penelope bit her lip.

“Are you alright?” he asked.

She nodded vigorously.

“It’s just so good,” she murmured.

Anthony gradually increased the intensity of his thrusts, spurred on by Penelope’s small moans and whimpers. He knew she was close as her breathing hitched and she fisted her hands in the sheets.

“Anthony…” she gasped, clinging to him, body shaking against his.

After one final thrust, he pulled away from her, spending himself in the sheets.

He lay next to Penelope and rolled over so their foreheads touched, his arm wrapped around her waist.

“That was most impressive, Lord Bridgerton,” she whispered, a smile breaking across her face.

“I’m glad it pleased you,” he said, kissing the tip of her nose.

She snuggled against him, her head pillowed on his chest.

“Stay with me?” she asked, sleepily.

“Of course,” he said, ghosting a kiss on the top of her head.

It wasn’t long before she had drifted into a heavy and peaceful sleep.

He tightened his arms around her and whispered, “I’d stay with you forever.”

It took longer for sleep to take him this time. But, by the time it did, he knew that Benedict had been right. He was well and truly in love with Penelope.

Chapter Text

Most of the season passed this way – Anthony and Penelope occasionally sharing a dance at a ball, mostly staying away from each other in society so as not to attract attention, and spending their nights tangled up in Penelope’s sheets, making love and then talking until morning.

Anthony found out things he had never known about Penelope. That she had only married her husband to save her family from financial ruin. That he had never once said “I love you,” or given her a kind word. That the years she had spent growing up with Eloise had been the best of her life. That she hated embroidery above all else. That she enjoyed writing, passionately missed being able to wear the color yellow, and she dreamed of one day seeing the ocean.

Anthony shared parts of himself he had never revealed to another woman. His fear of death after his father had passed away. His many ill-advised affairs. The weight on his shoulders of having to take care of his family. The pressure from his mother to marry a debutante.

Still, he could not bring himself to tell her how he felt. It was not that he had doubts. It was that, by this time, he was so very afraid to lose her. He knew a reckoning was coming, probably by way of his mother. Another season had passed in which had showed no interest in any of the young ladies she tried to send his way. She had repeatedly caught him trying to discreetly enter the house at an un-godly hour of the morning. She hadn’t asked, as it would be unseemly, but he knew she had her suspicions and that, one day, she would want to have a conversation about it.

He had not brought up the idea of marriage with Penelope in months, which he knew could certainly be the topic that made her pull away from him. She was, as she had said, very good at managing her own affairs and certainly capable of running her own life. He could see the reasons for her hesitation, particularly as she revealed more and more about her late husband, and the resentment and coldness at the heart of their marriage.

Colin had seemingly lost interest in the idea of pursing Penelope, much to Anthony’s relief. He was currently courting a young debutante, and Lady Bridgerton had high hopes that they would be engaged by the end of the season, which was only two months away.

This didn’t mean, however, that the men of the ton weren’t showing interest in Penelope. Much to Anthony’s chagrin, Penelope still received callers. It would have been a breach of etiquette not to. She had received at least three proposals, although she did nothing to encourage them, all of which she had turned down. People were starting to talk, however. Anthony took comfort in the knowledge that any revelation of their affair would only be a minor scandal, which certainly wouldn’t ruin either of them. But the thought of Penelope being embarrassed or ashamed by their relationship disturbed him. He wanted so badly to protect her from anything that might cause her harm.

Above all, he tried to avoid thinking about the end of their affair. He, having to marry a boring debutante and Penelope, spending her life alone. The idea of chaining himself for the rest of his life to a woman who was not Penelope and whom he did not love made his chest tighten with grief. Having children with someone who was not Penelope. Growing old with someone who was not Penelope. Dying with the knowledge that he had loved only Penelope and that he had wasted his life. And all this while he had to see her at balls and parties and never acknowledge her again except for the occasional polite greeting.

As the season passed, this knowledge weighted more and more heavily on his shoulders until he thought he could bear it no more.

Relief finally came in the form of a conversation with the person he least wanted to speak with about his situation.

Chapter Text

Anthony was in the study, going over the accounts, when his mother entered the room. She had the look on her face that meant that she wanted to talk. He had to remind himself not to let out a sigh of exasperation.

“Hello, Mother. How are you?”

He tried to make himself look busy by shuffling papers, but, to his chagrin, she sat down at the opposite end of the desk.

“Anthony, please don’t be angry with me. I am your mother. I want what’s best for you. I’ve noticed a change in you these past months. I’ve heard you laugh again, seen you smile in a way you haven’t smiled in years. I want to understand. I want to understand what’s making you so happy. And I want to understand why you still refuse to even consider…

“There is a woman…whom I love,” Anthony blurted out, against his better judgement. “A woman of quality. But she refuses to marry me.”

Lady Bridgerton studied him for a moment and then reached over the desk and squeezed his hand.

“And this young lady, does she return your feelings?”

“She has said she has a deep affection for me. I do not know if she returns my feelings of love.”

“And how do you feel when you are with her?” Lady Bridgerton asked.

“The happiest I’ve ever felt in my life.”

“Is she your friend?”

“My best friend,” he admitted.

“I can see why that would be a hard thing to let go of,” Lady Bridgerton said quietly. “And it would be rather hypocritical of me, after years of saying that friendship is the key to a happy marriage, to pressure you into cutting off your…relationship…with this young woman.”

She took a deep breath and Anthony knew what was coming.

“However, Anthony, there are some harsh realities you may have to face in the coming months. Could we come to an agreement? Tell this young woman your feelings. If she accepts, you have my full support. If not, would you at least consider one of the debutantes next season?”

Anthony nodded, reluctantly.

“You know,” she said. “Your father had to ask me three times before I accepted his proposal. I was young and I knew I loved him, but the idea of marriage was frightening to me. And, then, one day, I realized I was potentially giving up something that people only find once in a lifetime. Of course, it helped that he was patient, yet persistent. We were together over 20 years and he gave me all my beautiful children.”

She stood and placed a hand on his shoulder.

“This young woman…she wants to know she is loved, Anthony. You must talk to her. Be honest. Tell her how you feel, no matter how hard that may be.”

With that, she walked out of the room, leaving Anthony with his thoughts.

Chapter Text

Anthony planned to broach the subject of his feelings with Penelope when they were snuggled in bed, but, as with all well-laid schemes, life had other ideas.

“The end of the season is coming up,” Penelope said one night, resting her chin on his chest after a session of passionate love-making. “I’m sure your mother is rather vexed that you haven’t chosen a debutante to court.”

“I don’t want a debutante,” Anthony said, pressing a kiss to her palm.

Penelope sat up, abruptly.

“Perhaps you should think about it, Anthony. You’re the eldest son. There are certain expectations. We both know that.”

“I don’t want to think about it,” he said, sitting up beside her. “I just want to be with you.”

“This has been wonderful while it has lasted,” she responded, knotting her fingers together. “But it can’t go on forever. What about your family? What about heirs?”

“Then marry me,” he said, taking her hands in his. “Marry me and let’s be happy together.”

The hope in his heart was dashed when she pulled away, coldly.

“I think you should go,” she said.

“Pen—“

She stood up from the bed and shoved his clothes at him.

“Out, now,” she said, quietly.

“Dearest—“

“Please just go, Anthony. If you care for me at all, you will go and you will forget our acquaintance.”

“Our acquaintance…” he said, dismayed. “Is that all this has been to you?”

“It has been both enjoyable and memorable,” she said. “But, for both our sakes, I think our arrangement is at an end.”

“I’m in love with you, dammit,” he said quietly, voice quivering with emotion.

“If you do not go, I will ring for a servant,” she said, tonelessly

The look on her face was of such resolve that he knew there was no way to argue with her.

Anthony nodded and, wishing to avoid a scandal for her sake, left the room, making his way to the street.

He had experienced heartbreak before, but it had been nothing like this. Avoiding the temptation to punch the nearest tree, he squared his shoulders and began the walk home. As he walked, he came to a resolution. He would simply make the decision to feel nothing. He would feel nothing as he courted another woman, he would feel nothing as he married her, he would feel nothing as they conceived children together, and he would feel nothing as he spent his life with someone he did not love.

Because to open the floodgates to emotion would mean that Anthony Bridgerton would be a shattered man. And he didn’t think he could survive it.

Chapter Text

The weeks ticked slowly by, until the closing night of the season. Lady Bridgerton was in a tizzy over the final ball, hoping that Colin would propose, a subject upon which he was coy.

Anthony spent the day trying to distract himself as much as possible. His plan to feel nothing had not been as nearly successful as he had hoped. The pain was unbearable and the ache in his chest never went away.

He had made excuses for the balls held the previous three weeks, but Lady Bridgerton wouldn’t hear of him skipping the final night of the season. He found it easier to acquiesce.

He knew he had been wrong to ask for Penelope’s hand in marriage again. If he could have taken it back, he would have. If only he had told her that he would take a lifetime of secrecy and possible scandal with her over anything else. If only he hadn’t been arrogant enough to think he could change her mind.

Simon had attempted to talk to him, as had Benedict, but he had rebuffed both of them. He had no desire to speak about what he had lost.

He knew he would see Penelope at that night’s ball. He wondered if she had taken another lover. The thought of someone else tangled up in her sheets, touching her skin, kissing her, and holding her made him want to punch something. The thought of never dancing with her again, or making her laugh, or hearing her moan his name was unimaginable.

As they prepared to leave, Anthony found himself in the unfortunate position of sharing a carriage with Eloise. He presumed Penelope had told her everything and he prepared himself for a tongue-lashing. Much to his surprise, they spent the carriage ride in companionable silence until they came to a halt in front of the manor.

Before Anthony could move to exit the carriage, Eloise grabbed him by the sleeve, taking a deep breath.

“I love her, but she was wrong,” she blurted out.

“But she’s your best friend,” Anthony said, surprised.

Eloise leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek.

“And you’re my brother,” she said, simply, and slipped out of the carriage.

Chapter Text

Anthony was both relieved and disappointed that Penelope was not in attendance at the ball. He kept himself busy with dancing and champagne, even flirting with a few of the debutantes that his mother presented to him.

It was late in the evening when he suggested to the young lady he was dancing with that she should meet him in the garden. She was a pretty young thing – pleasant enough, but forgettable. He knew he had to start somewhere, though, and a garden assignation with a perfectly agreeable young lady seemed like a good enough place to begin.

They had been talking for mere moments on a stone bench, looking up at the stars, when Penelope’s voice rang through the garden.

“Imogen Carrington, you get back inside before I go and tell the entire ton you are out in the garden with a confirmed rake.”

She stood mere feet away, dressed in a lavender gown, looking so beautiful that it took Anthony’s breath away.

“But –“ Imogen whined.

“Now,” said Penelope in a tone that brooked no argument.

The young woman flounced out of the garden, skirts swishing with irritation.

“It wasn’t enough to leave me heartbroken?” Anthony asked, coldly, as Penelope moved closer. “Must you also ensure that I remain alone for the rest of my life?”

She sat down beside him and the smell of her – so familiar – made the ache in his chest increase tenfold.

“You don’t have to spend your life alone,” she said, softly.

“No. Just trapped in a loveless union,” he retorted, bitterly.

“It doesn’t have to be loveless,” she replied, tenderly taking both of his hands in hers.

“My first marriage was arranged by my mother,” she continued. “I didn’t have any choice in it. And then when I did have a choice – when you gave me a choice - it terrified me. But I’ve realized that the thing that terrifies me even more is the thought of living without you.”

She took a deep breath.

“At the risk of sounding foolish and hopeful, and with no expectations that you will forgive me -- will you marry me, Lord Bridgerton?”

Anthony felt the anger and pain of the past weeks fall away, replaced by nothing but relief and joy. He squeezed her hands, letting the words that he had wanted to say to her for so long slip out.

“Are you certain? We don’t have to marry,” he said, quickly. “I will do whatever makes you happy, follow you anywhere. I never should have pressured you. Let Benedict and Colin have the heirs. I don’t care anymore. Let people talk. I want to spend my life with you, even if it has to be in secret and even if we risk a scandal.”

Penelope shook her head, smiling.

“No. I want to be your wife. Not because of what people will think or because of duty, but because I think about you morning, noon, and night. Because your smile is the most wonderful thing I’ve ever seen. And because you make me better and happier than I’ve ever been. I love you.”

“Then I accept your proposal,” Anthony said, cradling her face in his hands and kissing her gently.

Penelope threw her arms around his neck, tears coursing down her cheeks.

“I suppose we should go inside,” she said after a moment. “Your family will wonder where you are.”

Anthony took her hand, helping her off the bench.

“What will we tell them?” she asked, as they walked inside, hand in hand.

“The truth,” Anthony said.

“And what’s that, Lord Bridgerton?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.

“That the most eligible bachelor of the season is engaged to the most beautiful woman in the entire ton.”

She threw back her head and laughed, squeezing his hand.

It was the happiest Anthony had ever been in his life.