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Freeing You

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“Do you need something, Penelope?” Colin asked, slightly annoyed as he had felt his wife staring at him from the doorway of his library for the past few minutes. They had just gotten back from dinner with his family and she had seemed fine at dinner, except for some oddly long, heartfelt goodbyes with his siblings. On their ride home and since they had walked in the door, she had seemed pensive. If you had given Colin a thousand guesses as to what she would say next, he would not have guessed it.

“I need you to divorce me.” His head jerked up and looked at his wife standing there clasping her hands and looking at the floor.

“What are you talking about? Have you had too much to drink?” She was clearly speaking nonsense. He hadn’t been enthusiastic about this marriage and had, in fact, argued quite ardently against it to Anthony. But Penelope’s father had come to Anthony before his unfortunate end and made Anthony promise to look after Penelope in particular. It would seem that Lord Featherington knew his days were numbered and was aware that his viper of a wife would look out for herself and her other daughters, but he wanted to ensure that someone was concerned with Penelope. Anthony and his mother apparently decided that a marriage between Colin and Penelope would kill two birds with one stone: it would ensure the care of Penelope and tame their listless and yet somehow restless third son. However, he had no desire to be domesticated. He had not felt comfortable sharing it with his family yet, but he wanted to travel full-time and experience all there was to life. To be tied down, particularly to someone he was not in love with, was his worst case scenario.

Penelope squared her shoulders, ignoring the comment on her drinking, and finally looked him in the eye. “When the marriage was arranged, I tried to be sympathetic to how clearly miserable it made you. On my part, I was overjoyed. It was everything I ever wanted, a life with the man I loved. However, I was not blind. I knew you didn’t feel the same way. That you didn’t want to be married, particularly not to me. You made that quite clear.” At this, Penelope cringed as if remembering the past hurts before she shored up the confidence to continue. “But I thought that it would change with marriage. We would live together and make memories. We would have good times and bad. We would....be intimate, raise children. I was hopeful that you would grow to love me. But none of that ever happened. You can’t imagine the pain that comes with having just a shadow of the life you long for. When I look in your eyes and see the resentment, when I know that just my existence in your life causes you pain, it’s like a knife is piercing my heart.” Penelope clutched her chest. She took a deep breath and decided to get to the point of this conversation. “Despite this, my love for you has only grown. I want only happiness and light for you. So, I’m asking you--no, begging you really--to divorce me.”

“That’s ridiculous!”, he seethed.

“It’s certainly unorthodox, but not entirely ridiculous. I’ve put a lot of thought into this. I know that it’s not accepted, but the only person who stands to be ruined by this is me. The only thing I ask is that you be the one to initiate it. If I leave you, it’ll be even worse for me. I think it’ll be easier if I’m the pitiable party, a role with which you know I’m quite familiar.” She had hoped to earn a smile from Colin. They used to share so many jokes when they were friends, before she became an intolerable obligation to him. When his mouth remained a straight line, she continued, “If you file, there might be some scandal but it’ll pass for you. I promise to leave town, if you agree to fund a small allowance for me. I have found a small home in Bath that has everything I’ll need.”

“A home? Bath? How long have you been planning this little farce?”, Colin snapped. The truth was that she had been planning it for some time. After trying desperately for the first year and a half of their marriage, it became very clear that Colin would never warm to her. They had never spent the night together and they lost even the close friendship they once had. Since then, she had been considering how she could free them both from this. Colin continued on “Why divorce? There are plenty of couples that lead separate lives; the husband in the city while the wife lives in the country estate.”

This was the truly painful consideration. But his true freedom was part of the reason she was doing this. “Well, this way, you will be free to remarry. You do not want to be married at all right now, but someday you will be. You are not happy with me, Colin, but you will find a woman you want.” And then, as if out of some desire to hurt herself, Penelope added, “Someone who could make you happy. Make you smile. You had such a lovely smile and I haven’t seen it in years.”

“And you? Do you intend to find someone else to marry? Perhaps you already have somebody in mind.” Colin sneered. The image of Penelope being held in the arms of some faceless man popped into his head; the man sweeping the bright curls away from her neck to lay a kiss there. Strangely, it made Colin angry. Sure, he limited physical contact with Penelope, but that did not mean he would allow another man to touch his wife. Even he did not stray outside of his marriage, though it was far more common for the husband to do so. It’s less common for the wife to have affairs, but not unheard of. Is this what prompted this? Had Penelope found love? He seemed to have touched a nerve with Penelope, his usually sweet wife erupted in anger.

“Already have somebody in mind?! Are you seriously accusing me of being unfaithful? I swear, sometimes it’s like you are determined to be cruel. You know my character better than that and, even if you did not, surely you remember that men were never exactly eager to court me. And I haven’t really had the opportunity, through this marriage, to practice the art of seduction, have I?” Penelope said, injecting her a little of her own cruelty into her words. She took a deep breath to center herself and said, “I apologize. That was mean-spirited. You have not been cruel in our marriage. You have been kind; you are a kind man. This is really not meant to be a punishment or an argument. It is a discussion. I know your initial reaction is negative, but can you promise me to at least think about it?”

When Colin had sat there silently for several moments, Penelope decided to strategically retreat to her chambers. She had planted the seed and would give him time to think. Inwardly, she understood the irony that she had to work so hard for an outcome with which she would be miserable. “Well, no decisions need to be made tonight. Just think about it please.”

With that, Colin was alone. His brain was a scramble of emotions, but mostly confusion. How had they gotten here? He searched his memory for how he could have caused Penelope Featherington (now Bridgerton) to shun her traditional upbringing and suggest something as unprecedented as divorce. How had he pushed this angel of a woman to the brink?

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Colin slammed the door of Anthony’s office and was not surprised to see Eloise lurking outside the door, with Penelope trailing behind. That was always the dynamic with these two. Eloise naturally inclined to rebellion and Penelope only dragged along because of her own natural inclination towards loyalty.

“Well, he’s committed to this truly ludicrous idea and it would seem our mother has joined him in his lunacy. Penelope, we are to be married in a month. I’m so sorry, but I was not able to talk them out of it!” Colin caught Eloise giving Penelope a sympathetic look that he assumed was based on her being forced into a marriage. At that, Violet came out of the office and dragged the girls away. Colin stormed out of the house, not knowing where he was going but unable to breathe in that house anymore.

As the reluctant groom, Colin was able to avoid most wedding plans and, by extension, able to avoid seeing Penelope. He did overhear from Francesca and Hyacinth that Mother had won the fight against Lady Featherington to pick the wedding dress. He spent the month of the wedding trying to soak up every last bit of freedom. He drank, he gambled, he gallivanted, and he spent time with women. He knew that he should feel regret and he probably would if he had any romantic connection to Penelope. He knew that he would not want to be the type to cheat within a marriage, even a sham marriage such as this. So it was imperative that these wild oats be sowed now.

At the church on the big day, he realized that he had not spoken to the woman he was supposed to meet at the altar in some time. He snuck away from his brothers and found the small room he knew contained his future wife. He knocked lightly and Eloise opened the door with a glare. It seems that Eloise is always glaring at him these days. Particularly when she witnessed him stumbling home one morning smelling of whiskey and seductive perfume.

“Can I talk to Penelope alone for a minute, El?” When it seemed like Eloise was going to refuse, he heard Penelope call her name from behind the door and instruct Eloise to let him in. Eloise slipped by him and he made his way through the door and immediately stopped. Penelope was standing at the mirror with the sun shining in the windows behind her. She appeared to be glowing, like a goddess visiting Earth. The dress was simple, but elegant. From his limited understanding, it wasn’t a dress that was currently in style but it was an infinitely more flattering fit on Penelope. Penelope was bigger than most girls of the ton, he’d known that. But he hadn’t realized how much of that image of her came from how unfortunately the dresses she usually wore fit her. In the trendy dresses of the time, she looked stocky. This dress was an entirely different story. This dress accentuated her breasts, hugged her torso, and flared with her hips. She looked womanly and soft. Her hair was not her usual riot of curls. It was pinned back with a few delicate tendrils touching her face and shoulders.

“You look beautiful, Pen”, he finally managed to say.

She smiled and replied, “Yes, your mother did her absolute best. I am likely still not ‘diamond of the season’ material, but I feel more confident that I won’t embarrass your family or mine.” She laughed and ran her hands down the front of the dress where his attention was drawn to her waist, a waist that has never before been so evident. He had not been lying. She looked beautiful, but that did not make him any more eager to be married.

“We haven’t had an opportunity to talk very much lately. You’ve been wedding planning and I’ve been...busy.” He blushed slightly, having almost admitted to her that he was enjoying his freedom. He would have to get used to Penelope not simply being his friend with whom he could share everything. “I just wanted to see you to say once again how sorry I am that I was not able to stop this. I know this is not the way either of us wanted to enter into marriage. I’m sure you had dreams of a love match and I’m not certain I had ever entertained the idea of marriage at all. We may not want to be man and wife, Penelope, but we can remain friends.”

Penelope’s smile seemed sad. She walked over to him and placed a hand on his arm. It was more physical contact than they usually had, but he doubted anyone would object given that they were mere moments from the altar. She patted his arm and said, “Colin, there is nothing to apologize for. I know this is not the ideal situation for you and it is not how either of us saw our future. But everything will be well. I am happy. Please do not worry yourself that I am unhappy.” Colin knew that this situation was different for Penelope. He was not blind to her crush on him and, as a woman, she did not have the option of travel. She would eventually have to marry and he was certainly one of her better options.

Colin was an intelligent man, but not always a smart one. Because though he meant only that she was limited in her choices by her gender, where he was not, what came out of his mouth was “Of course. At least for you, there were far worse options.” Penelope recoiled her hand like he was on fire. She crossed the room and studied the view out of the window. He had not meant to imply that she was the worst of his options. He started towards her “Penelope--”

“I think it’s best if you go to the altar, Colin. It should be starting shortly.” When he said her name again, she surprised him by loudly calling for Eloise. Ladies never raised their voice and Penelope was very much a lady. Eloise gave him her standard glare as she moved into the room and crossed to Penelope. When Eloise reached Penelope and looked at her face, the glare only intensified. At that, Colin left the room and moved to the altar feeling like his stomach was made of stone.

When the music began, the doors opened and Penelope began her progression. With her father having passed, Penelope walked the aisle alone. Anthony and Benedict had both offered and she had turned them down. Initially, she had thought it a beautiful statement that Colin was all she needed, but now she thought it an adequate metaphor for how lonely she was destined to be for her whole life. Penelope Featherington, eternally unloved and unwanted, even in marriage. As she approached the altar, she kept her head down. She had been unable to completely avoid tears at Colin’s casually hurtful comment and she knew her eyes showed it. When Colin saw her red-rimmed eyes and noticed her attempts to hide it, his heart clenched. While he made the typical vows outloud, he made a secret vow to himself. He could not promise to be a loving, doting husband, but he could be kind and generous and that likely included pretending to be loving and doting in public. He would not embarrass Penelope like he had to today. He would not be a husband who made his wife cry.

And that was the dynamic of their marriage, starting at the reception when Lady Danbury tried to impress upon Colin how lucky he was to have a smart wife. “Be grateful, boy. You young pups look for the prettiest face and ignore the brain behind that face. Looks fade, but Miss Featherington’s intelligence and loyalty will serve you for the rest of your life. See that you appreciate it,” Lady Danbury threatened him. Penelope looked mortified by Lady Danbury’s comment and looked shocked further still when Colin responded, “I agree. A very practical choice indeed. How very fortunate I am that she is so beautiful to look at as well.” He patted Penelope’s hand on his arm while she beamed up at him. Penelope’s whole body warmed at his compliment. While she expected Colin to be kind, that compliment was more than she expected. She felt the flutter of hope in her chest, that he had come to a sense of peace about this marriage. That she would, in fact, be able to please him tonight. She blushed even thinking about it and Lady Danbury chuckled at her blush.

When they left the reception and proceeded to their new shared home, Penelope was buzzing with anticipation. While Colin stopped to discuss something with the butler, she moved to their room and undressed with the help of her ladies maids and blushed to new levels when they helped her into her nightgown, made special for tonight. It was the least modest thing she had ever worn. She was unsure what to do, where to stand. Do I stand and wait? Should I lay down in the bed? Oh, this is so awkward. She waited and waited for an hour. Then two. She was trying to be patient, but certainly nothing that important could be holding Colin up. It was their wedding night. At the very least, he should be coming in here to get changed. Now that she had that thought, she noticed that there wasn’t really a sign of him in this room. She had not thought that odd as this was the first night they had spent in it as a married couple. However, she quickly went through the room opening all drawers and collapsed into a sitting position on the bed. Nothing. Colin had not had his possessions moved into this room. It was then that she realized. He wasn’t coming. Colin had no intention of consummating this marriage.

She did not know why she sought him out, as if it would make a difference. But she had to know where he was. Perhaps part of her was worried that he was enjoying his wedding night, just not with her. She saw a light down the hallway. When she pushed the door open, she saw a library with two armchairs by a fireplace. Colin was slumped in one chair, with a half empty liquor bottle on the table next to him. He had drunk himself to a stupor, rather than be with her. Penelope returned to their--her room, she corrected herself. She cried herself to sleep, but not before her eternally optimistic heart whispered, “This is just day one. You have all the time in the world to make him love you.”

And so she tried for a year. She initiated contact with Colin, creating opportunities for them to spend time together. She was the perfect wife. She made sure there was always food available for Colin’s seemingly endless appetite. She read whatever book she saw him reading so that she could be an adequate conversation partner. She never bothered him about where he went and who he saw, even though it clawed at her heart. Now in control of her own wardrobe, she made sure her clothing was flattering, but modest and in an appropriately neutral color. Finally freed of her mother’s hideous dresses and all the pressure that comes with being an unmarried woman, she charmed everyone at the balls.

Quickly she realized that Colin was far more affectionate around other people, even his own family. When they would return home, he would bid her a good night with a smile and then disappear into his quarters. When they were at home, she was always the one following him around. But in public, he doted on her and rarely left her side. So she accepted every invitation and, on nights when there were no events, she hosted one. She basked in his attention, in the brief physical contact that was acceptable in public. It also helped with her work as Lady Whistledown. If there was one failing in her as a wife, it was the secret she still kept from her husband. She had intended to tell Colin the morning of their wedding, but after his hurtful comment, she could not bring herself to be even more vulnerable with him. And since they’d been married, she honestly just hadn’t wanted to give him further reason to doubt their relationship. It had been troublingly simple to keep it from Colin, separated as they were at home. It was only after Colin confronted her and complained saying, “I would just like a few nights of being able to stay home, where I can truly be myself,” that she realized she had shown too much of herself, of her desperation. She agreed to slow down their social calendar, mostly because it was what Colin wanted and in part because the other married women had started to ask about their plans for children. And though Penelope was certainly not fully apprised on sex, she was certain that the hand-holding they did would not result in children.

She decided to change her tactic, she would let Colin take the lead. She had been pushing and forcing it. Perhaps if she allowed him to guide the relationship, he would find his way to her naturally. They attended only the absolutely necessary social engagements and, due to this, she had stopped her work as Lady Whistledown. She did not purposefully seek him out at home. That did not last long because, after six of the loneliest months of her life, it became clear that if she was not seeking him out, they did not interact. He was polite, but they no longer joked. They had meals together where they discussed the household and family, but he never talked about his passions again. And there were times, when he did not know she watched, that she saw the bitterness with which he viewed their life together. There were nights where she watched himself drink alone in the library, paging through other people’s travel journals.

It was odd. Penelope cried almost every day for 1 year and a half, only ever alone right before she fell asleep. But on the day she came to the realization that Colin would never love her, her eyes were dry. It was almost a relief. She had tried so hard for a year to be perfect. Then she had spent 6 months waiting for Colin to make a move. Now there was nothing to be done, no impression to be made. It did not matter if she was at her best, Colin would never love her, would never want this marriage in its truest form.

So she spent the next 6 months putting her considerable intellect into solving her problem. She considered staying in London and just allowing him to travel endlessly or have a mistress. The idea broke her heart. She could not walk through their empty house, haunted by thoughts of where he was. She considered moving to the country while he remained in the city. But ultimately that was not freedom for her or for him. He was not happy in this marriage, but she did not think he was opposed to being married in its entirety. After the last tea she had with her mother, where the woman had viciously gossiped about a distant relation that had gotten divorced, the idea stuck in her head. She would be ruined, could never remarry. But that was fine with her, she had no intention to. She was sure Colin would get to the other side not exactly unscathed but still desirable. He was a Bridgerton, for Heaven’s sake. He could go on to do a great many things. She need only assure that she had somewhere to live out the rest of her days. And she had her money from Lady Whistledown that she could use sparingly. Maybe she could even write something other than a gossip column, maybe a novel.

They were at Number Five listening to Hyacinth play the piano. Colin had her hand in his resting on his thigh. She looked around and was overwhelmed by how much she loved these people. They were such a wonderful family and she had been so lucky to be part of it for 2 years. This was perhaps the part of the divorce plan that she struggled with most. Colin would not be hers, which was bad enough, but now his family would not be hers either. But she also looked at all of the happy couple which comprised this family and knew that she had to get out. Lately, since she finally accepted that there was no happy ending for them, the charade Colin and her put up for these people made her a little nauseous. For now, she pulled her hand out of his and back in her own lap. He gave her an odd look, but she just smiled and he shrugged it off. If she gave everyone an extra long hug that evening, that was her own business. She even ensured that she hugged the usually distant Anthony. She would miss how much Colin riled him up. She would tell him tonight. And soon, these bright, wonderful people would not be her family anymore.

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Colin spent all night thinking and had passed out in a chair in the library. He didn’t wake up any fresher, but he woke up with some semblance of a plan. Looking back on their years together and knowing now that Penelope was not a similarly reluctant part of their marriage, Colin felt a little sick. Even knowing she had a crush, he had assumed she resented this arranged marriage as much as he did. That they were both resigned to just living as friends. He had thought he was at least being kind, but his indifference had been hurting her. When he truly gave the idea of divorce thought, it made his chest hurt. Sure, he could travel. But when he’d traveled in the past, he’d always thought of how much Penelope would love everything and she was always his main correspondent. He could be with other women, but he did not think it would ever not feel dirty and wrong. And as with last night, he did not like the idea of Penelope finding comfort in some git from Bath. So the idea of life entirely without Penelope held no appeal.

He would not lie. He did not think he loved his wife, certainly not with the steady passion she loved him. But he did care for her and, even with the distance he had put between them, she was his closest friend. So many of Colin’s choices had been made for him throughout his life and he was, at his core, a romantic. He had been furious to have his wife chosen for him, something he thought would not be his lot in life given his position as a third son. So out of indignation, he had put distance between Penelope and him when they were alone. He would not give in to this marriage, he refused to enjoy it. And in the process, he had denied Penelope any enjoyment of it either. Could he have grown to love her as she said? He didn’t really know because he had never really tried. His wife was charming, smart, and inexplicably kind to a world that has never been kind to her. He has not failed to notice that she had blossomed now that she was able to make her own choices regarding her appearance. At every ball, they were surrounded by a small crowd of people connecting with Penelope. She always had a moment to listen and give advice; she always remembered names and children’s names. As Lady Danbury had failed to make clear to him, Penelope was a beautiful woman with a beautiful spirit and he should have appreciated her. He did not really deserve it, but dammit, he wanted a second chance.

He did not want a divorce initially because of the scandal. But after thinking about it, he realized that he did not want a divorce full stop. He could not ask her to go back to their life as it was, but he believed there was an option other than divorce. He would court her. There was an imbalance in their marriage where all effort was on Penelope’s side. He would be the one to try now, for as long as she would allow it. He would allow himself to enjoy Penelope’s company and maybe, in time, his affection for her would become romantic.

It was still very early so he left the library and moved to the room that should be their shared room, but had become Penelope’s room. He considered knocking, but ended up turning the knob and quietly entering the room. He stared down at Penelope’s cherubic face. Even in sleep, she did not get the peace she deserved as he could see that her eyes were swollen from crying and her eyebrows were drawn together. He would fix this. He could not change the past, but he could change their future.

I’m going to make you happy, Pen. Colin thought as he pushed a tiny red curl off the soft skin of her forehead before leaving the room.