and even better, i get to be the other half of you - ladywhistleblower (sunsetcurbed) - Bridgerton Series (2024)

Penelope thinks it’s just one of those wrong place, wrong time situations. She really does.

Because she’s not sure how else she ends up getting invited along on the yearly Bridgerton getaway and, moreso, how she ends up agreeing. She knows it’s a horrid idea, no matter how nice three weeks at a Sicilian villa sound. Honestly, she’s not sure she’ll be able to last three weeks seeing Colin Bridgerton shirtless under the Italian sun, which is why she finds herself glaring daggers at the man right now.

He had been the one to blurt out, “Can I not bring Pen?” as if this were somehow a good idea.

The whole room stops when he asks, and Penelope isn’t quick enough to stop the question she knows to be coming. Because as soon as she opens her mouth, Violet is leaning forward in her seat eagerly as she asks, “You two are together, then?”

Penelope exhales, staring at the ground.

“No,” Colin says, sounding confused, “but everyone else gets to bring their best friends—”

“Penelope is my best friend,” Eloise huffs indignantly.

And, everyone else is married to their best friend,” Benedict says. Though Penelope doesn’t lift her eyes, she can hear the smirk in his voice. “Do I hear wedding bells in your future, brother?”

“You’re wrong,” Colin says to Eloise, and then to Ben, “That’s beside the point.” He leans over in his chair and taps her upper arm with the back of his hand. She looks up at him, pressing her lips together to avoid scowling. Pointing at Ben, Colin tells her, “Tell him that’s beside the point.”

Penelope glances over at Benedict who lifts an eyebrow at her, challenging. She looks back at Colin, “I’m going to stay out of this.”

Colin’s jaw drops, and his hand falls back to the armrest. “I can’t believe my best friend would turn on me like this.”

“Not your best friend,” Eloise says.

Colin looks at her, eyes soft and gentle. “Pen, you’re my best friend, right?” He crosses his arms over his chest, staring at her with eyes that are too wide to be innocent.

Penelope looks at him, then Eloise, and then, wisely, repeats, “I’m going to stay out of this.”

Pen!

Ha!

“She didn’t say no!”

“She didn’t say yes, either!”

“I think it’s a wonderful idea,” Violet’s voice cuts off the argument.

Penelope’s head whips around to stare at the Bridgerton matriarch and it takes all of her willpower to keep her jaw from dropping.

Violet looks at her and smiles. “I’ve considered you a part of the family for years, dear, of course I’d be glad for you to join us.”

Penelope does drop her jaw at that. “Mrs. Bridgerton—”

“Now, you don’t have to agree,” Violet says, “but we would be delighted to have you.”

Her eyes roam the room. Around the group, Bridgertons and spouses are nodding their agreement with Violet, offering reassuring smiles. Penelope has dreamed about going on the Bridgerton family vacation for as long as she’s known them, but her dreams are rather different. Because in her dreams, she’s not tagging along as Colin and Eloise’s best friend, she’s… well.

She looks at Colin and finds him staring at her with wide, hopeful eyes.

Swallowing down the lump that’s rising in her throat, she quirks an eyebrow at him. They’ve always had a way of speaking without words, and she doesn’t want to vocalize her doubts in front of the entire family. Are you sure about this? she’s asking.

Colin’s eyes widen again. Pleeeeeeeeeease? he answers.

She narrows her eyes. Is this a good idea?

A boyish grin. It was my idea. Of course it is.

Penelope rolls her eyes but bites the inside of her cheek to keep from grinning.

Colin’s boyish grin transforms into something triumphant. He knows he’s won.

With an exaggerated sigh in his direction, Penelope turns to Violet and plasters a smile on her face. “When do we leave?”

Violet claps her hands together under her chin and beams at her, and Colin lets out a victorious whoop! Penelope glances at him quickly but doesn’t linger.

Because in all of her dreams of going on holiday with the Bridgertons, Colin is just as in love with her as she is with him.

(*)

The holiday is creeping up on Penelope sooner than expected. Her time at work had been approved off two weeks ago, and now she’s realized she’s only got three days to pack for three weeks. Of course their villa has washing facilities, but she’s trying to be economical about what she actually needs to bring.

A gala dress? Unlikely.

But a dress nice enough for a fancy dinner in the town? Very likely. This is the Bridgertons, after all.

She plans to get all of her packing done Thursday night, so she can enjoy her weekend before they leave Sunday afternoon. Because it’s a Thursday, she expects she’ll be by herself, moving quickly and efficiently through the process.

She really should have known better.

She doesn’t think about the text that she sent to her group chat between herself, Colin, and Eloise, but she realizes she really, really should have. When she picks up her phone to check the time, she sees a series of texts in the group chat and opens it.

regency era bitch fight

Penelope:
Just packing tonight! Probably going to turn on some Sicily travel videos to play in the background


Eloise:
do you need help packing?

Colin:
see if Wolters World has any on Sicily he’s good

Eloise:
i’m coming over to help pack

Colin:
she didn’t ask

Eloise:
lmao you wait to be asked to go over penelope’s and you think you’re her best friend?

Colin:
did mother’s etiquette lessons teach you nothing

Eloise:
yes
i choose to ignore them

Colin:
mother would have a fit if she knew you were showing up unannounced

Eloise:
i announced, it is not my fault if she doesn’t check her phone
am i picking you up on the way or no

Colin:
yes

She groans when she reads the messages. They were sent more than fifteen minutes ago, which meant that Eloise and Colin were sure to be at her apartment soon. Both of them had keys—the third spare set going to Colin over Portia because she trusts him far more than her own mother—so she doesn’t have to stop her packing to let them in.

She turns on a travel video on YouTube, and then gets back to packing. Two more shirts and a pair of shorts join the suitcase before she hears the sound of her front door opening. She ignores it and starts sorting through her drawers once again. She listens for their footsteps, and when she hears them at her door, she looks up.

“No Wolter’s World, but there was a Rick Steves episode,” Penelope says, motioning to the computer playing in the corner of her room.

“Ah, Rick,” Colin says.

“Yes, yes,” Eloise agrees, stepping out from behind her brother. “Good old Rick.” She crosses the room to the computer and stops the video.

“Hey,” Colin and Penelope protest simultaneously.

The younger Bridgerton rolls her eyes and begins inspecting the suitcase that’s sat open on the bed. Colin twists Penelope’s ponytail around his fingers as he passes, and lays down on her bed.

Penelope twists and throws her bathing suit at the suitcase, but—

“No,” Eloise says, catching the yellow bathing suit before it can land in the suitcase. “Not this one,” she says. “The blue and silver one.”

Penelope stares at her. “Why?”

“You look hot in it,” Eloise says easily.

She chokes, catching the yellow fabric as her friend throws it back at her. Colin lifts his head from her pillow and looks at her, then Eloise. “The one she wore when we opened our pool for the season?”

“Yeah,” Eloise nods.

“Ooh,” Colin says. “Agree. Bring that one.”

Fire dances across her skin as she looks anywhere but Colin. Still, she moves toward her drawers and swaps out the suits. As she folds it, she reminds them, “I’m not coming with you to look hot. I’m coming with you to take a break from work.”

“And to keep me from being the 27th wheel,” Colin adds.

“I think your math is off.”

“It’s somewhere around there,” he says, waving her off.

Eloise hums and moves across the room, and Penelope watches as the other girl begins going through her closet. “Is your goal for me to meet a rich Italian man, marry him, move to the Sicilian coast, and invite you down every year?” Penelope wonders. “Because it feels like that for the amount of work you’re putting into my holiday wardrobe.”

“Of course not,” Eloise scowls. “Obviously your Italian boyfriend would move back to England with you. You don’t think I’d accept seeing you only once a year, do you?”

Penelope rolls her eyes. “And where, may I ask, am I going to meet this man? Don’t we have private beach access?”

“You think we’re going to stay in the villa the entire three weeks?” her friend challenges.

“Well, no.”

“Good,” Eloise grins. “So you’ll pull your man when we go out—”

“Does Pen have any say in this?” Colin protests.

“Very little.”

Penelope drops her jaw. “Eloise!”

“What?” she frowns. “You almost married Alfred.”

“He was charming!”

“And a vegetarian.”

“You judge people on their diets now?”

“I do when I know how much you love a good steak!”

“He never minded that I ate meat.”

“I’m sure he didn’t,” she mutters, sharing a glance with Colin. The man doesn’t look entertained, however. His eyebrows furrow together and he crosses his arms across his chest. Eloise frowns, then continues, “He was gone all the time.”

“So is Colin.”

“Hey,” Colin says.

“You’re not marrying Colin. That Debling fellow was around for, what, two months of your relationship?”

Penelope shouldn’t have brought Colin into this. She feels herself recoil at Eloise’s words, a reminder of Colin’s outburst years ago to his brothers, declaring that he would not be dating Penelope Featherington. Of course she has had time to accept that fact, as opposed to when she was just a girl, still being young and hopeful, but it still stings to have it thrown in her face. So she sighs, sits down on the edge of her bed, and looks at Eloise. “I’d very much like to just enjoy a nice get away with you all,” she finally says. She feels the length of Colin’s shin press up against her back, silently supporting her.

Eloise purses her lips and tilts her head. The silence draws out for a long minute, and then finally, she nods. “Alright. But you’re still taking the blue and silver bathing suit.” She hangs the dress that she was holding back up, and turns to the door. “I’m going to find my phone to tell Phillip that he’ll have to hold out longer for those double dates.”

She marches from the room. Penelope watches as she goes until she’s out of sight, and then falls to the side, collapsing onto her left arm and groaning. The bed shakes, shifting as Colin moves about, and after a moment, he wraps his arm around her waist and pulls her into his chest. “She just wants to see you happy.”

Penelope groans again. “I know,” she says. “I do know, which is… such a shift from how it was just a few years ago. Before she met Phillip we were determined to be happy and single together.”

“She still knows you can be happy and single, right? You and I can be happy and single together.”

Sighing, she turns onto her back. “I think it’s just… she knows I don’t want to be single.”

Colin’s arm tenses around her. “You don’t?”

“No.”

“Then why are you?”

She scoffs. “Please, it’s not as if it’s easy getting any guy I want being me.”

Beside her, Colin lifts his head and shifts until he can look at her. “What is wrong with being you?”

It takes a minute for her to build up the courage, but she turns to look at him eventually. His face is much closer than she had anticipated and she has to draw in a steadying breath so she doesn’t flinch back. “Nothing, not really,” she says, even though she doesn’t quite believe it.

“Then why did you say it?”

I’m a mess, Penelope thinks, but doesn’t say. She huffs. “I don’t know, okay?” She knows if she mentions her inadequate looks and lacking personality, Colin is going to jump to her defense like any good friend does. She doesn’t particularly want to hear it from him, not when she knows that, even with all his kind reassurances, she’ll never be enough.

Enough for herself, enough for society, enough for him.

“Pen,” Colin says. He pushes up onto his elbow so he can stare down at her, and she feels exposed. Like no matter what she does, he’s going to find out all of her secrets anyway. There’s one person that Penelope Featherington can’t hide from, and he happens to be the one person who refuses to let her even try.

She turns on her side and cuddles into his chest, ignoring his protests. It’s an evasive maneuver and Colin knows that, but he’s also never been one to resist a good snuggle. Slowly his protests die off until he relaxes enough to rest his chin on top of her head. He warns her, “We’re not finished with this conversation.”

“Mmm,” Penelope hums, and closes her eyes. She’s been packing for a while now after all, a lie down will help reinvigorate her to finish strong and maybe even give her the confidence to toss in some of the pieces Eloise was pushing on her.

For now, she lets the scent of Colin Bridgerton wash over her and help her relax. That’s the point of this holiday after all, isn’t it? A nice, relaxing break.

Despite all of her doubts, all of her fears, all of her regrets and desires left at the door, she thinks that maybe she’ll be able to manage that in the end.

(*)

The villa was something that Penelope couldn’t have even dreamed up. Her family had grown up rather well off—had run in the same social circles as the Bridgertons—but nothing to the Bridgerton’s extreme. Plus, now that the Featheringtons have lost the majority of their wealth, the only way Penelope is going to see the inside of any villas is by her association to the Bridgertons. And by god did they deliver.

Their arrival at the villa had been efficient and productive, getting all of them moved in for their three-week stay in a timely manner. Penelope has grown up around the Bridgertons and knows each of them well. While she knew they weren’t slackers, she also knew they lived a very catered life, so she was almost… surprised when they were all tripping over themselves to help one another bring everything inside.

Maybe, like her, they just wanted to get it over with.

They take the first few days to enjoy being away from the city—though Penelope still catches every pair of parents calling their au pairs at least three times in five days. She spends much of her time between Eloise and Colin, with Phillip to the side as he studies the flora. When he finds a particularly nice find, he’ll beckon Eloise over and give her a short lecture, which she listens to with adoration on her face.

“Did you ever think she’d look at anyone like that?” Colin asks. They’re standing away from the couple and Eloise looks smitten, in a way that she only could with someone that she truly loved.

“I had hoped,” Penelope answers. “I know she never cared much for romantic relationships before Phillip, but I had hoped she’d find that happiness anyway.” She feels Colin look down at her and she lifts her head to find his eyes. She reconsiders her words. “Not… romantic happiness, necessarily. Just… contentment. In who she was and what she wanted. I don’t think she knew for a while.”

“No,” Colin says with a slight shake of his head. “I don’t think she did.” He glances around at his family surrounding them and her eyes follow. Some are in the sea, some are sunbathing, and a few are playing a rather intense game of volleyball. Colin had been playing until Kate had decided to join and he relinquished his spot on Benedict’s team. Seeing Kate and Anthony on opposite sides of the court had led Penelope to take a long walk away from the game, if only because she didn’t quite feel like watching blood spill on her nice holiday.

When she turns back to Colin, he’s presented an arm to her. He’s staring down at her with a mischievous smirk and bright eyes, and Penelope is helpless to do anything other than loop her arm with his. He smiles as she does, and then tugs her away from the chaos of his family.

They wander down the beach in silence, passing other villas and homes, taking in the sights that Punta Secca’s coastline has to offer. Penelope has been to the beach in England, but even in the summers it cannot compare to this. The sand, despite being hot against her skin, is nicer than the rocky shores that make up several of England’s beaches. The water is a pretty blue, unlike England’s grey waves. And the company… well.

She risks a glance at Colin’s face while he takes in the sights around them, and her shoulders loosen in response. There’s something so… relaxing about just existing with Colin, in a way that she hasn’t seemed to have found with anyone else. There are no expectations with him—she’s never felt the need to be anything other than what she’s feeling in the moment. So much so, that she doesn’t even feel the need to turn away when Colin turns his head and his eyes fall on her. Instead, she simply smiles.

Colin smiles back at her before he purses his lips and tilts his head. “Do you know?”

Penelope frowns. “Do I know what?”

“Who you are,” he says. “What you want.”

“Oh,” she murmurs. She looks away and back out to the sea and frowns, furrowing her eyebrows together.

“It’s just—you said before we left that you were looking for a relationship—”

“That I wanted one,” Penelope corrects. “Not that I’m looking.”

She thinks she must have stumped Colin, because he doesn’t say anything for a while. When he does, it’s a confused, “What does that mean?”

With a small sigh, Penelope starts walking again, tugging on Colin’s arm and giving him no choice but to follow alongside her. “Wanting a relationship is… a fantasy. It’s something I can think about and hope for, but that I don’t actually have to pursue. Looking for a relationship involves dating and getting to know others and putting myself out there, which I’ve never been good at, you know that,” she says.

“But fantasies and hopes don’t turn into anything real,” he protests. “They just stay in your mind.”

“And that’s where I want them to stay. I’ve fallen in love, I’ve experienced heartbreak, I don’t need to give my heart to someone to go through it all again.”

“You’ve fallen in love?” Colin asks. Actually, Penelope thinks, his tone is more of a demand than anything else.

She lifts her eyes to meet his. She wishes she knew him a little less than she does, because the betrayal in his eyes could almost convince her that she’s actually got a chance. She knows, of course, that it’s a matter of her keeping this secret from him, but in her mind, where her fantasies and hopes live, it’s something else entirely. “I have. And even with it ending in heartbreak, I can’t say I regret it. I got to have my one great love of my life, and I’m content with that.”

“Why did I never know? Who was it? That Debling fellow?”

Penelope laughs. “No, not him. I cared a great deal for him, but I don’t know if I ever could have truly loved him, even if we had ended up married.”

There’s a deep scowl on Colin’s face. “You deserve to fall in love.”

“I have.”

“Who were you with that I don’t know about?” he wonders.

“I was never with him.”

“Then how did you—”

“Just because we weren’t together doesn’t mean it wasn’t a love story,” Penelope says with a gentle smile.

That seems to stun Colin into silence, and his features take on a contemplative sort of expression. Penelope lets him digest her words as they continue down the beach, far enough that she can’t hear the rest of the Bridgertons anymore, even though she’s sure there must be shouts of frustration and victory during the volleyball game. She simply appreciates the sound of the waves on the shore, directing them closer to the water as they go.

“I’ve never had that,” Colin says after a long few minutes.

She flicks her eyes towards him, and then back to the sea. “I know.”

“But how?” he wonders. “You’ve had this entire love story without my knowledge, how could you possibly know I’ve not had my own?”

She chuckles, tugging on his arm until they’re standing in the water. “Colin, you wear your heart on your sleeve. Were there ever someone who you truly loved, you would have told the world. Assuredly. Fervently. Loudly. It’s just who you are.”

“And, what,” he murmurs, turning until they’re chest to chest. “That’s not who you are?”

Penelope smiles. “No.”

“Not even with me?”

“You more than anyone else,” she capitulates. “But a lady must keep her secrets.” She smiles up at him. “Even from her very best friends.”

“Does Eloise know?”

Humming, she stares off in the direction of Colin’s family, wondering if Eloise did know. The two of them had never spoken of it, but her friend did have a way of discerning things about Penelope that others could not. “I don’t know,” she admits. “It’s possible she has guessed, but I’ve never told her about it directly, no.”

The wind whips through her hair and Colin lifts his free arm, catching her hair on the backs of his fingers and tucking it gently behind her ear. His fingers trail down the length of her locks, twisting when they get to the end to take hold. He gently strokes the hair between his fingers, and then diverts his attention away.

“Tell me about him,” he says, staring out at the water. Penelope stares at him, unsure that she heard him properly. She can’t imagine how she could possibly tell Colin her great love story—not when he’s the other half of it. She remains silent long enough for him to return his eyes to her, a frown etched on his face. “Pen?”

“I… I don’t know where to start.”

“Where else?” he says, a teasing note in his voice. “The beginning.”

She smiles, but it feels tight. Still, she can’t deny this man anything, so she draws in a deep breath and begins.

She tells him about how they met young, and Penelope knew from the moment she heard his laugh that her heart would never be the same. How his kind words and actions plagued her day in and day out, when she was still figuring out who she was in the world, and how so much of how he treated her shaped the person that she became. How, sometimes, when he wasn’t around, she would write him letters even though she knows picking up a phone would have solved her issue of missing him, except for the fact that she didn’t think he missed her quite the way that she missed him. How even to this day, she can’t go a day without thinking about him, and she wonders if she’ll ever know peace.

“What happened to him?” Colin wonders when she stops speaking.

“Oh, he’s still well,” she admits. “I’m even still in contact with him. But I know he does not feel the same and so I have opted to move on.”

The silence draws out, and Penelope almost thinks she’s escaped any further love conversation with Colin until he repeats his earlier words. “I’ve never had that.”

Penelope nods, but keeps quiet. She thinks there’s something that Colin needs to realize before she can say anything further, so she turns them back in the direction of the villa and takes up a slow pace. She wants to give him time to think, but doesn’t want him coming to whatever realization he’s going to have in front of his family.

They’re about halfway back when Colin’s throat clears, and he tugs her to a stop. “I don’t know if I want that.”

Penelope stares at him, her jaw-dropping enough for a gasp to rush in. Of all the things she had expected Colin to say…

“What?”

Colin tilts his head. “All my life I’ve been surrounded by these… great stories of love. Mum and Dad, Daph and Simon—hell, my entire family. But I never thought… I’d never thought about loving and not being loved back. Is it really worth it? Does it hurt?”

She swallows a lump down in her throat and places her hand on top of his. “There are days it’s worse than others. But it will always be worth it. To know that someone can make me feel this way. To know that someone is that important to me and to… to welcome it with open arms. Because to give it up would be to give up a piece of myself. And as much as it matters that I love him, it matters more that I love myself too much to do that.”

“And you believe this love to be worth it? You’re happy with your situation?”

“I am content,” she repeats. “There will always be days I wish he were able to return my feelings, always be moments I’m convinced we could be something more, but despite that, these feelings will always be worth it.”

“Hmm,” he hums. “Sometimes I look at Mum, at how my father’s death… destroyed her. How my siblings worry for their partners and children. And now you tell me of this and I wonder, how can love be anything but a tragedy?”

“Love can be tragic, but it is not a tragedy.”

“How can you say that?” he presses. “There is some man out there, an idiot, might I add, who can’t recognize he’s been given the greatest gift of your love, and you’re telling me love isn’t a tragedy?”

“What’s really going on, Colin?” Penelope asks, resting a hand on his chest as she gazes up at him. “This isn’t like you.”

He frowns. “I’d always thought… love is love. It’s supposed to be the greatest thing to happen to you, but you—”

“He is the greatest thing to happen to me,” she tells him. “His feelings for me don’t make that any less true.”

“They should!” Colin huffs. “Love is… love.”

She shakes her head. “They don’t. Love is love, and everyone experiences it differently.”

“Will you introduce me to him?” he asks. “When we’re back in London?”

“Why?” she laughs. “So you can put the fear of the Bridgerton name into him? I don’t think so.”

“No,” he denies quickly. Then, after a moment, “Not entirely.”

“No, Colin. Maybe one day,” she promises.

He sighs, accepting her answer without fuss. She thinks that it’s no wonder her heart decided on this man to love.

“Let’s get back,” she decides. “I’m sure we’re going to be late to lunch if we linger much longer.”

“Hmm. I could use food.”

Penelope snorts. “I think you’re wrong,” she teases. When he looks at her with a confused expression, she tells him, “That you haven’t found your great love.”

“Who is it?”

Food.

Colin grins, dragging her closer into his side as they wander back to the villa, arm in arm.

(*)

Penelope thinks her talk with Colin may have been a mistake.

He seems to be carrying it around with him the rest of the day, into the next. She can see the weight of it on his shoulders, the way his belief in the world is twisting and turning as he grapples with figuring… something out. She isn’t quite sure what conclusion he needs to come to, but she’s sure that he has to find out on his own. Of course she wants to help him, but her feelings are hers alone, and his deserve to be his alone as well.

Still, it hurts to watch Colin of all people develop a distaste for love. For him to believe it’s nothing but a tragedy, that to fall in love is to condemn oneself.

Penelope thinks that couldn’t be further from the truth. Falling in love had given her a confidence that she’d never had before. Had given her hope for the world, even if she couldn’t share that same hope for herself. It made her days that were spent with Colin brighter, and she would never give those technicolored days up even for the promise of peace from her heartache.

Colin is much softer than others, though, and she doesn’t think he’s meant for a world as cruel as the one they have been dealt. He deserves the very best, and she’s not entirely surprised that he’s doubting love when he’d seen how it could break a person when he was just a boy.

Penelope doesn’t leave him to his own devices as he contemplates though. She sticks with him, mostly to keep his family away. If the Bridgertons sniff out a disgruntled family member, they’ll make it their jobs to fix that. And Penelope doesn’t think Colin needs to be fixed—not right now. She thinks he needs time.

She doesn’t think his belief in love is so shaken, so disrupted, that she can’t recover it if he decides it’s too much. It would be her responsibility, after all, to restore what she took from him. And with a family as filled to the brim with love as the Bridgertons are, she didn’t think it would be difficult.

At least not until dinner the following night.

The whole group hadn’t all had meals together every day, every meal, but they’d shared enough that it didn’t feel uncommon to find themselves surrounding the massive oak table on the patio. Voices came from all directions around the table as siblings and partners and in-laws chatted, and Penelope felt at peace—as she usually did—around the Bridgertons.

And then Benedict decided to ruin it.

“And praytell, Colin,” his voice rings out across the table, “when we might hear wedding bells in your future?”

“Yes,” Anthony joins in. “You’ve said you were looking to travel less and settle down at home, is there any… particular reason?”

The side conversations around the table die off until everyone is looking at the man sitting beside Penelope. She knows, logically, their eyes aren’t on her, but it doesn’t stop her heart from pounding as if they were.

“No reason,” Colin replies coolly.

“No particular… realizations coming to light?” Benedict pushes.

Colin lifts an eyebrow. “Do you believe I’m gay, Ben?”

“No, just an idiot,” Benedict sighs, flicking his eyes to Penelope. When his eyes meet hers, she looks down at her plate. Ben tries again, “Do you not wish to marry? You’re thirty-three.”

“No,” Colin says. “Not particularly.”

“What?” Violet’s voice sounds from the head of the table.

Penelope doesn’t lift her head, but does her best to watch Colin out of the corner of her eyes as he answers, “I simply do not think marriage is of the essence.”

“It’s always one of them,” Daphne moans, dropping her head into her hands.

“And what does that mean?” Colin wonders.

No one says anything for a moment, and then, likely unable to help herself, Hyacinth blurts, “She means you’re the family cynic now that Eloise is married.”

Colin chuckles. “Thank you, Hy.”

“No problem.” She turns to Gregory next to her and elbows him. “He just doesn’t want to get married and not have an excuse to bring Penelope on holiday anymore.”

“Ah!” Benedict cheers, and Penelope lifts her head, shooting daggers at the man to try and stop him before he says anything. He takes no notice and carries on, “That can be solved if our dear brother marries Penelope.”

Setting her fork down on the edge of her plate, she stares at Benedict. “Colin is not going to marry me so he can continue to bring me on holiday.”

“Well, he has to marry someone,” Sophie singsongs, ever the accomplice to Benedict’s crimes.

“Do I?” Colin asks. “I don’t actually think that’s a requirement for a fulfilled life.” He looks over Penelope’s head and calls on his sister. “Eloise, is marriage a requirement?”

She beams at him. “No. Not at all. In fact, with the rate of divorce, it’s almost smarter—”

“Do remember you’re sitting next to your husband, dear,” Violet says.

Eloise pats Phillip’s hand. “Oh, he’s aware of the statistics as well.”

“I guess there can be two family cynics,” Hyacinth grins.

“What has changed?” Violet demands. “You’ve never been opposed to marriage before.”

Colin shrugs. “I just don’t think it’s the most important thing to focus on right now. Besides, this way Pen can join us on future trips as well.”

“I still think the solution there is simple,” Benedict mutters to Sophie, quiet enough that Penelope can only hear it because she knows it’s coming.

“Very well,” Anthony says, clapping his hands together. “When we arrive back in London perhaps we can see about changing the terms of your trust fund so marriage is not a requirement.”

“Thank you, Anthony,” Colin says, raising his glass towards his brother.

Daphne glares at her oldest brother. “Don’t encourage this!”

“Encourage what?” Anthony frowns. “Colin has made an entirely respectable decision to hold off on marriage until he feels he is ready—if ever. If I had been afforded the same grace, perhaps my wife would not have wanted me dead for the first six months of knowing her.”

“Your wife still wants you dead,” Hyacinth muses.

“Life insurance policies do pay very, very well,” Kate grins.

The table dissolves into an argument of whether or not Kate would be caught if she were to kill Anthony, shifting the attention from Colin. Penelope takes the opportunity to look up at him, asking silently, Are you alright?

Colin co*cks his head to the side and purses his lips, but ultimately nods. Alright.

Do you need an escape? Penelope wonders, motioning to the villa with a slight tilt of her head.

He picks up his fork and shoves a bite of food into his mouth and grins around his full mouth. And leave my true love behind? No thank you.

Penelope laughs and turns back to her own meal. She keeps herself from jumping out of her seat when Colin’s knee presses up against hers and focuses on listening to the conversation around her to keep her from wondering why he never moves it away.

(*)

If she’s being completely honest, Penelope can’t blame anyone but herself.

She knows the night is going to take a turn when she sees Hyacinth and Gregory lugging a cool box the size of the youngest Bridgerton sibling down to the beach. She simply wishes she were as smart as Violet who takes one look at it and stands from her chair announcing, “Well. I believe that’s my signal for bed.”

“You don’t want to join us?” Gregory asks, lifting his side of the box. “We’ve brought plenty.”

“Oh,” Violet breathes. “Dear, no. I fear I am getting far too old for a night like I’m sure you’ll be having.”

“Let us walk you back to the villa,” Kate offers, wandering off the volleyball court to grab her waist wrap. Anthony follows, and the two of them escort Violet back after everyone else bids her a good night.

Once they’re out of earshot, Hyacinth turns to her family. “We must agree on a drinking game before Anthony is back.” She pops open the box and starts handing drinks out. As much as Hyacinth puts on a show of carelessness, Penelope also notices that the girl manages to hand everyone their alcoholic drink of choice. “I vote never have I ever,” she says while she hands a bottle to Phillip.

“We already know too much about each other,” Eloise protests.

“What about taboo?” Daphne suggests.

“Cheater,” Simon scoffs from beside her, pressing a gentle kiss to her temple to lessen the effects of his accusation. “You only suggest taboo because you never use any of the words or phrases we choose.”

“Are we purposely avoiding truth or dare for a reason?” Benedict frowns. “It’s a classic.”

“I don’t want to see you streaking down the beach,” Hyacinth gags.

“It is an unimaginative mind that cannot come up with any dares better than streaking,” Benedict says, raising an eyebrow.

Hyacinth looks at her brother, crossing her arms. “Is that a challenge?

Benedict smirks, and Penelope knows that he’s about to win. “Moreso an observation about your lack of creativity.”

“Fine,” Hyacinth declares, “truth or dare it is.”

Colin coughs from beside Penelope, causing the group to look at him. “Do any of us get a say?”

“No,” Hyacinth and Benedict answer in unison.

“Great,” Colin nods. “Just checking.” His eyes turn to Penelope and he shares a grin with her. She presses her drink to her lips and takes a long sip to keep herself from laughing out loud. For as strong-willed as Hyacinth is, she rarely sees when she’s being manipulated.

“But first,” Penelope hears off to the side. She turns away from Colin to watch as Sophie stands up and makes her way over to the cool box. She looks inside and then, with a triumphant cry, produces a bottle of vodka. “Shots!”

“I thought the point of a drinking game was to get drunk,” Fran asks cautiously. Sophie opens the bottle and Hyacinth grabs new plastic cups from the table to be filled, clearly ready to go along with Sohpie’s plan.

“Ah, dear Francesca,” Sophie smiles, “the point of a drinking game is to get plastered. Besides, if we’re not surrounded by cowards, no one will deny a truth or dare and have to take a drink.”

They pass out the shots and then Sophie circles the group to give everyone a second pour after they’ve downed the first.

Colin places his hand behind Penelope’s back and leans his weight onto it, crowding into her space as he murmurs, “This should be fun.”

“Oh, sure,” she laughs. “Siblings against siblings in truth or dare. This won’t get ugly at all.”

“I said fun,” he says, knocking his chest into her shoulder. “Not pretty.”

“Look at them,” Benedict’s voice interrupts. “Already conspiring.”

“Conspiring for what?” Anthony asks, joining the group once more with Kate by his side. Sophie hops up and grabs two new cups.

“Truth or dare, it would seem,” Daphne grins up at Anthony.

Anthony freezes. “Must we?”

“We must!” Hyacinth shouts, raising her drink. “There are drinks in the box for you and your better half.”

While everyone else gets settled, Penelope turns to Colin. “What are you going to dare the others? There are no potted plants around for them to hide food in.”

He smirks. “Are you looking for insider information?”

“Just curious.”

He hums, leaning into her space. His lips are at her ear as he whispers, “Thinking of making Anthony post something ambiguous on Instagram, hinting at a break-up.”

“He’d never,” Penelope laughs, feeling her thoughts start to get fuzzy. It’s either the alcohol or the feeling of Colin’s breath on her neck. Likely both.

“I think you underestimate my brother’s competitive instinct, how disappointing. I thought you knew your Bridgertons through and through.”

“Were Edwina to catch wind of such a rumor, Anthony’s life would be in danger,” Penelope reminds him. “Will a competitive instinct lead him to risk his life?”

“She’d give him ten seconds to explain himself before the maiming.” Colin flaps his hand in front of himself, actively waving her concern off. Penelope isn’t so sure Edwina would be so gracious, but at least Anthony and Edwina would be in two different countries during the fallout. Maybe he could survive it, by nothing more than the distance between them.

“Who’s going to start then?” Daphne says, loud enough to gather everyone’s attention.

“Why not the head of the family?” Eloise grins. “Truth or dare, Ant?”

Beside Penelope, Colin perks up like a puppy who has heard a squeaky toy. She knows he’s ready with his dare.

Anthony takes a drink from his bottle and sighs, slipping a charming smile onto his face. “Got to set the tone of the game early, don’t I? I’ll do a dare.”

Great,” Colin says. “Make it sound like you and Kate broke up on Instagram.”

Anthony’s features transform into one of horror.

Oh!” Eloise cheers. “That’s better than what I was going to say.”

The circle devolves into noise as everyone eggs Anthony on, suggesting wording and images to use until the deed has been done. Once the post shows up on everyone’s feed, they cheer and laugh and watch as Kate reassures him that she’ll protect him if Edwina shows up standing over their bed tonight.

So the game goes on, truths and dares jumping around the circle until the light of the day fades out. They light a fire and are on their way to being well and truly drunk. Penelope has grown up with this family, and yet she had never been included in a moment like this. She has never felt like one of them, has always been on the outside looking in. They never made her feel excluded, no, but she had never seen them like this. Anthony was always posh and proper, Fran was always strong and silent, Gregory always trying to impress his brothers and never just being himself.

Tonight, it feels like she’s one of them and—as she shares an exasperated look with Simon when Daphne has to archive the last 20 pictures of her children on Instagram, or giggles with Hyacinth as Benedict has to spin around and do a handstand for five seconds until he succeeds—she realizes she is. This is her family in every way that matters, and she’s thankful for them.

The second time Colin’s name is called, more than a hour after he was first prompted, it’s by Benedict. Penelope looks at him, interested to hear what he’s going to dare his brother to do, but when her eyes find him, he’s staring right back at her. Grinning. Maniacally.

After that dinner, she knows that Benedict knows. So Penelope widens her eyes and gives a subtle shake of her head hoping to dissuade him. In general Benedict is a respectful guy, but he seems to be too drunk to care about respect right now. No part of her is surprised when he looks to Colin and says, “It’s not a true game of truth or dare without a good snog. Share a kiss with dear Penelope.”

There are whoops! around the fire and siblings and spouses talking over one another, but Penelope can hardly pay attention, not with her ears ringing and her heart pounding.

“If it was unimaginative for Hyacinth to mention a streaking dare, do you not think it even more bland to give a snogging dare?” Penelope demands. She hopes to all hell that her voice is steadier than it feels.

“Not at all,” Benedict grins. “Besides, it’s not as if I could have dared anyone else. You’re the only two that it wouldn’t be… incestuous with.”

She lifts a brow. “Kate is not related to Simon but through marriage.”

No!” Anthony and Daphne shout simultaneously.

“C’mon,” Colin’s voice sounds in her ear. “This way I’ll have a one-up on Eloise. Bet she’s never snogged you as your friend.”

Penelope scoffs and turns to Colin to argue with him. As she twists her head, however, her nose bumps his. When did he get this close? she wonders, sucking in a breath that’s probably mostly the breath he’s just released. The ringing in her ears grows louder as she lifts her eyes to meet his. He’s watching her with a soft gaze and it breaks her entirely. Her resolve shatters and she thinks that this is it. This is her one chance to know what his lips feel like, taste like, and she shouldn’t throw it away just because she’s furious at Benedict for orchestrating it.

It’s just… if this is all she gets to have of Colin, for the rest of her life, she doesn’t want to pass up this opportunity. She’ll take anything she can get, even if it’s for the bit. Especially if it’s for the bit and she can pass it off as a game, and not something that she’s dreamed of for years. Maybe this will finally set her mind at ease—maybe she’ll finally know the feeling and will be able to quiet her thoughts when she thinks about how Colin would kiss. When she thinks about how it would feel to be kissed by him. She won’t have to wonder anymore.

Penelope sighs and nods once, which Colin must feel more than see. His eyes light up, the blue hue dancing in the firelight, and she feels a hand wrap around the back of her neck. Slowly, it guides her in and her eyes flutter shut. The hand shifts, and if Penelope weren’t so sure this was all a game to Colin, she might think it is nerves. But it can’t be, even Colin has suspended them in this moment for longer than her heart can reasonably handle.

Finally, warm lips brush against hers and she feels all the tension in her shoulders melt away. Their lips only touch for a moment—the briefest of kisses. She’s ready to pull back and accept that it’s over, but the hand on her neck tightens. She opens her eyes to find Colin’s still closed as he breathes out through parted lips.

She has no warning for when he ducks back in, reclaiming her lips against his own—far more intensely than he had the first time. Penelope doesn’t waste time—she returns the kiss with the same fervor that he’s putting into it. His lips part and hers follow, but there’s no exploring one another. She lets him breathe life into her, and doesn’t stop to feel guilty about taking from him. For once, she allows herself to give in to her wants, her desires, and she prays that this doesn’t come crashing down around her.

She doesn’t feel rushed kissing him, which is maybe odd considering she figured if she ever did get the chance to kiss him, it’d be quick and fast and hot in the back of a club where they’re piss drunk and needy. They’re very much still drunk, but this is slow, passionate… loving.

It’s the last thought that causes her to freeze and break the kiss, separating their lips even as Colin tries to chase after her mouth. She wonders how long it’s been since he’s kissed someone, and knows the answer must be too long. But she can’t let her mind fall into this trap. Of course she knows that Colin loves her, but not in the way she loves him. This is a game of truth or dare, not a loving kiss between partners.

So, even as her mind screams at her, she pulls away and blinks her eyes open. She sees his face up close—furrowed eyebrows and pursed lips—and has to swallow down a gasp. He looks caught up in the moment, which he is, she reminds herself. This is nothing more than a game and maybe a matter of Colin being horribly touch-starved.

She vaguely hears the rest of the group making noise around them, but her focus is on Colin. She couldn’t even begin to guess what his family was doing or saying.

“I think you one-upped Eloise,” she whispers.

His eyes snap open. “What?”

Penelope’s heart hurts as she slips her mask back on, but she reaches a hand up to pat his chest and tells him, “I promise Eloise has never snogged me, let alone like that.”

Colin’s breath rushes from his lips. His nose scrunches and he shakes his head. “I don’t care.”

Penelope frowns. “But—”

“I don’t,” he hisses.

She taps her hand against his chest again, trying, “Don’t be upset.” Even as it breaks her heart to see him react like this, she’s still entirely focused on what he needs.

“I’m not,” he says, pulling further away from her.

“It was a game, you—”

“Yeah, I know that,” he says, looking anywhere but her. She feels a chill go through her body at the tone in his answer. He sounds frustrated. Upset. Mad. He’s never been angry at her before. He seems to realize this at the same time she does and he bites down on his lip. “Penelope…”

“It’s alright,” she tells him. It’s not, it’s not, it’s not, her mind screams. “We can—”

“I should go,” he announces, jerking back from her. His hand drops from her neck, letting the night air touch it and freezing her to the core. He looks around the circle at his family. No one says a word. He turns back to Penelope. For a long moment he’s quiet, and then he starts, “I didn’t—”

“You didn’t what?” she whispers.

He bites his lip. “I should go,” he says again.

He stumbles to his feet, standing over Penelope for a long moment before glancing around the circle once more. “Good night, then.”

Colin disappears up the path without looking back. She feels her heart crack as she watches him go, but she puts all of her strength into holding it together.

Penelope sits, seething in the silence of the people surrounding her. None of them say anything and she doesn’t expect them to, not even once Colin has made it into the villa. So she turns angry eyes on Benedict and snarls, “Are you quite pleased with yourself?”

“Penelope—” he starts.

“I know we have never been close, but have I done something to offend you? Have I wronged you so horribly that you feel you must repay the deed? Because I cannot think of any offense—”

Benedict stares at her, wide-eyed. She thinks there are a few other weary eyes and gaped jaws turned onto her, but she’s not looking at them. She’s waiting for Benedict to bloody explain himself, which he struggles to do. “I’m not—I didn’t—”

“I know you know,” she says, still unable to admit the words out loud, as if the rest of the Bridgertons and spouses could still possibly not know, “but that was my business and my friendship that you went after.”

Despite being several shots and several drinks into the night, Benedict looks completely sober. “I thought…”

“Did you?”

“I’m sure he didn’t mean any harm,” Anthony interrupts.

Penelope closes her eyes and draws in a deep, steadying breath. “Just because he did not mean it does not mean he did not cause it.” She pushes herself to her feet. “I am also going to bed,” she tells them. “Good night.”

“Pen—” Eloise tries.

Good night,” she repeats.

On her way up to the villa, she lets her heart go, and feels it shatter into pieces.

(*)

Punta Secca is a small town on the Mediterranean Coast in Sicily. Penelope did a bit of research before their trip and had, at the time, been surprised by its tiny population. Now, as she walks around the city, she understands. This is a small village, full of history and culture and tradition. There isn’t too much to do, but she’s not worried about that. She is content to roam the village, taking in the community and culture.

There’s not much to the village. It’s not meant to be a tourist attraction—there’s a supermarket, some restaurants, and an ice cream stand or two. Nonetheless, it’s beautiful, and Penelope finds herself wandering all over the city in the early hours of the morning.

She’d woken up before the rest of the villa had started to stir and called a cab to bring her into town so she could… getaway. It was frustrating, really, that she needed to get away, when this holiday was meant to be her getaway, but… she isn’t sure that matters anymore. All that she really cares about is that she’s got some peace and quiet while she digests what happened last night.

She’d made it back to her room easily enough, but as soon as the door had shut behind her she had collapsed to the floor, clutching her arms around her torso as if she could hold herself together. It didn’t work and she fell apart, back against her door to keep anyone and everyone out. She didn’t make noise, even as she sobbed into her fists, because she knew Colin was only two doors down and, despite being upset himself, he’d surely come if he had any inkling of her pain.

Penelope smiles at the woman passing her in the street as she recounts this. Her mask had gone back on after the kiss, and then three more piled on top of it until she didn’t recognize who she was anymore. She’s gone from putting on her not in love with Colin Bridgerton mask to becoming completely detached from everything going on around her.

She feels guilty about letting loose on Benedict last night, but she doesn’t regret it. Not entirely. She knows he didn’t mean any harm by it, but just because he hadn’t intended it doesn’t mean the harm that came from it was all her imagination. No, Colin had panicked and he had been angry and he had run off. That was all very real, and for the first time in her life, Penelope didn’t know how she was supposed to act around him. Is he still going to be mad the next time he sees her? Has he figured out her feelings for him and trying to figure out the next step? What’s even going on in his mind?

That’s perhaps one of the scariest things. Penelope doesn’t know what Colin was thinking; she’s never felt so closed off from him. Penelope knows Colin better than anyone. Meaning both that there’s no one she understands better than Colin as well as there’s no one who understands Colin as well as she does. It’s just how they have always been. His family knows him well, but between Colin and Penelope, there are no secrets.

Except, of course, for her feelings.

Well, she thinks, that was a secret. Surely Colin has figured it out by now and… maybe his upset is as simple as the fact that she never told him. Maybe he was embarrassed that he had to find out in front of his entire family through a dare.

She wanders into one of the few cafes that Punta Secca has. It’s a small storefront—she thinks if there were more than four or five people in line it would begin to get uncomfortable. There’s a patio out front for patrons to eat and drink, however, which is what made her stop by.

She regrets it.

Standing in front of her, looking like he hasn’t slept a bit, is Colin.

Their eyes meet and she feels her mouth open, but no words come out.

“Pen,” he says, surprised.

“Colin,” she greets. “Sorry, I—”

He shakes his head. “Why are you sorry?”

“I… don’t want to make things uncomfortable. I can… go,” she says, pointing to the door.

“I can safely say that if you were to go now, it would make this infinitely more uncomfortable,” Colin tells her with a smile.

She bites down on the inside of her cheek. “I just thought… you wouldn’t want to be around me right now.”

He physically recoils at her words and frowns. “Why wouldn’t I?” he demands. “I always want to be around you.”

Penelope feels her lungs release a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. This is a good sign. It means that their friendship can still be repaired and that Colin is willing to make it work. That even though things are complicated right now, she’ll still have Colin once the dust settles.

“Of course,” she smiles. She doesn’t add that she always wants to be around him as well, even though it’s true. Now that Colin must know how she feels, she doesn’t want to make him feel obligated to make her happy. She knows he would.

The cashier calls Colin to the front. He orders and then beckons Penelope forward, smiling at the cashier and telling her, “And whatever she’s having.”

Penelope frowns. “You don’t have to—”

“I know,” he says. “Now order, you’re holding up the line,” he teases, though there is no one behind them.

A few minutes later they’ve got their food and drink and bring it to the patio. They’re sat across from each other, sipping their coffees and picking at their pastries and Penelope hates it. She wanted to escape having to think about this, not be confronted with it head first.

But it’s Colin and she wants to clear the air, so she says, “Colin?”

He looks at her.

“About last night—”

“Can I speak first?” he asks. She’s not sure what he wants to say, nor does she know if she wants to hear it. Still, she finds herself nodding. “I must apologize,” he says.

“What?”

“I’m sorry for how I treated you last night.” Colin sits forward in his chair, lifting his hand to reach across the table. As soon as she thinks he’s going to grab her hand, he drops it, laying it uselessly on the patterned surface. “My reaction was despicable, especially when it was I who pressured you to accept the dare. It was meant to be a game, a way to bond with our family, and I let it get in my head.” He casts his eyes downwards at the food on the table and admits, “In truth, I wasn’t expecting… I had no idea that… I wasn’t prepared for that.”

Penelope sighs. “You could have said no.”

“I didn’t want to, not at the time. And after… I just needed a moment to figure something out.” He looks up. “I’m… I’m still figuring it out.”

He’s not saying it, but she knows what’s hidden behind his words. That he’s still trying to figure out how to move forward as friends. She knows he wants to be her friend, but she also understands that Colin has never wanted to hurt her. Still does not. So the knowledge that he has been, the knowledge that, in truth, their friendship will always cause Penelope’s heart to hurt, must be hurting him in turn.

“I understand,” she nods. “If it’s any help, you’re my best friend, Colin. I’m sorry to have placed this weight on your shoulders.”

Colin scowls. “Please, Pen, you have done nothing wrong. I only want to make sure that, no matter what changes, you and I will be all right.”

“Of course,” she agrees. That’s the most important thing to her as well, so at least they’re on the same page.

“And do not think I did not catch your words, Pen,” he says, smirking. “That you have declared me as your best friend, not Eloise.”

Penelope groans. “I will never be free of this trap,” she moans. “Not in my entire life.”

Colin’s smirk softens into a smile. “As long as that means you’re planning to keep me around for your entire life.”

She smiles at him. “Every day,” she promises.

(*)

“We missed you for breakfast this morning.”

Penelope looks at the group, empty dishes clearly forgotten in favor of conversation. She looks at everyone, and then settles on Sophie, who had been the one to speak.

She smiles and waves the woman off. “I just went out to see the town a bit,” she says. “We had breakfast at a small cafe.”

As soon as she says we, she can feel a shift. They want to ask, she knows they do, but as well as she knows the Bridgertons, they know her as well. So none of them are surprised when she doesn’t elaborate, even though they want to ask her to. Perhaps one of the greatest things about befriending the Bridgertons is the mutual respect, something that her own family has never graced her with.

It’s part of why she’s out here instead of hiding in her room. While she’d shut herself off from her mother and sisters, the Bridgertons are different. Staying in her room when she’s around them would cause worry, would cause whispers. She wants to show them that she’s as fine as she can be and they don’t have to know that she’s not.

“That sounds nice,” Kate smiles. “Maybe we should do that this week?” she asks Anthony.

“I’ll tell you the cafe we went to,” Penelope offers.

“That’d be great,” Anthony nods.

She smiles at them before reaching into her pocket and pulling out her phone. “My co-workers have been bugging me for photos,” she says. “So I’m going to explore to get some for them.”

“I’ll join you,” Eloise says, standing quickly. Penelope knew Eloise was going to corner her at some point—the mutual respect only goes so far and if her friend knows that she is hurting, she’ll want to get to the bottom of it.

“Of course,” she says, not bothering to protest. Eloise links their arms together, but just as they’re about to leave, Penelope remembers—“Oh, Colin was looking for you, Daphne.”

The eldest Bridgerton sister looks surprised for a moment before smiling at Penelope. “I’ll go and find him. Thank you for letting me know.”

“And we’re going… that way,” Eloise says, yanking Penelope toward the beach.

A small victory in this is that Eloise says nothing until they’re far away from her family. The bigger loss is that as soon as she deems them far enough away, Eloise is demanding, “What the hell?”

“Hello to you too,” Penelope mutters.

“Yeah, sure, hi, good morning,” Eloise says. “Now, what the hell?”

She sighs. Colin and Eloise are very similar in the fact that they don’t let Penelope hide from her problems, but she much prefers Colin’s patience to Eloise’s demands. Not that she gets upset with Eloise—the woman is her best friend and she appreciates her through and through. But she often wants to know what’s going on before Penelope has processed it herself.

“Everything is going to be fine,” she tells Eloise, keeping her voice steady and confident.

“Of course it is. It’s you and Colin,” Eloise shrugs. “But what the hell was that kiss?”

Penelope frowns. “Benedict dared us.”

“Yes, yes. The action is not what I am curious about. It’s the… everything else of it.”

“There was nothing else to it.”

Eloise jerks her arm and stares down at Penelope with a doubtful gaze. “I’m sorry to say, I’ve never snogged a friend like that.”

“I’m sorry for you, too,” Penelope teases.

Pen,” she whines.

Penelope grimaces and stops walking. They’re nearing the water now, but she doesn’t want to get her shoes wet. “Let’s sit,” she decides, and they both take a seat. She buries her hands, clenching and unclenching her hands around fistfuls of sand. It calms her some, giving her enough power to start talking. “I’ve been in love with Colin for as long as I’ve known him,” she says. She doesn’t know if Eloise knows this or not, and she doesn’t care to look at her to see her reaction. “It’s always been a fantasy, you know? Just something I can dream about, but nothing I’d ever actually pursue. Especially after he was very determined to let your brothers know he’d never date me.”

“He did what?

“He didn’t mean any harm,” she shrugs. “After all, you wouldn’t be hurt if I were to say I’d never date you, would you? It’s just something that we both understand, it’s just… even though I always knew, there was a part of me that held out hope.”

“I’m going to kill him,” Eloise mutters.

“Don’t,” Penelope says, pulling one of her hands from the sand and laying it overtop Eloise’s arm. “He probably doesn’t even remember it. But… after that, I accepted my role in his life. I’m his best friend. He’s mine. That’s always going to be enough for me. Whatever pieces of him I can get… that’s enough, you know? I love him for who he is, not what he is to me.” She feels her eyes beginning to water and she shuts her eyes, trying to will the tears away. It doesn’t work and she feels a tear trace down her cheek. “I’m just scared I’ve ruined everything now.”

“You wouldn’t have.” Eloise shakes her head. “Colin loves you. I don’t know… I didn’t know how you felt, and I don’t know how he feels now, but Colin loving you is part of who he is. Whether that’s as your friend or your partner…”

“He just… He must know how I feel now.” Penelope lets herself think briefly about their kiss, about how she’d put so much of herself into it. About how she’d nearly let herself believe that Colin might feel the same before crashing back to earth.

“Even if he does, I really don’t think you were the only one invested in that kiss.”

She shrugs. “I don’t know. The way he ran away—”

Behind her, she hears footsteps approaching. She hurries to clear her face of any tears, but she knows her face will still be puffy. Nothing she can do about that except hope that whoever is trying to join them is not Colin.

“May I sit with you?” Benedict’s voice interrupts.

Eloise’s arms tighten around Penelope’s shoulders and, even though Penelope is staring at the ground, she can imagine the glare the girl shoots her brother. “Haven’t you done quite enough?”

“Yes,” Benedict agrees easily. “Which is why I’d like to apologize.”

Penelope lifts her head, twisting around to look up at him. As soon as his eyes land on her, his shoulders release, his features softening and taking on a look of pity. “Apologize?” Penelope asks.

He takes a seat on the other side of Penelope, placing a hand on her arm in a soothing manner. He leans forward and smiles at Eloise. “May I have a moment with Penelope?”

Eloise crosses her arms in front of her chest. “No.”

“Very well,” Benedict sighs. “But I’d ask you, Eloise, to stay silent as I get this out.” He doesn’t give her the opportunity to deny his request as he turns his attention to Penelope. “I’m afraid I’ve been the most foolish of brothers and friends,” he sighs. “With that dare the other night.”

“As much as I wish you would have been smarter, it’s not as if you knew this would happen,” Penelope shrugs. Next to her, she can feel Eloise shift. She’s sure her friend wants to say something, but Eloise has grown significantly in the past few years and Penelope is sure she’s willing to give her brother the benefit of the doubt—for now.

“You’re right,” he says. “I had, in fact, hoped for the opposite outcome.”

“What?”

Benedict drops his hand from her arm and places it in his lap. As he stares out at the beach, his fingers begin to twist, and his eyebrows knit together. “For years I’ve watched you two dance around one another,” he says. He glances at her out of the corner of his eye and smiles. “Do not worry, the rest of my family do not know. I think they all hope, but it’s hard to see two people who care for one another the way you and Colin do and not hope for the happiest of endings.”

“You were there,” Penelope reminds him. “When Colin clearly stated his lack of affections—”

“Not his lack of affections. His lack of intentions. My brother is many things. He is an idiot at times. He’s slow on the uptake. And you were both so young. To Colin, you were perhaps too young at the time—”

“I was twenty-one!”

“You were,” Benedict agrees. He smiles at her, looking unusually serious. “But you must remember that he was twenty-six. You were graduating uni and he’d been exploring the world for years on his own. You two weren’t… equals. And even though you were friends, there’s a difference between having a friend who is in a different stage of life than you, compared to having a partner who is in a different stage of life than you.”

Penelope stares. She struggles to find her next words, stammering out, “He still didn’t… didn’t… didn’t—”

“No,” Benedict says, agreeing with her unfinished thought. “I don’t think he loved you quite yet.”

“He still doesn’t!

“Maybe,” the man shrugs. He turns to face her full-on. “But what if he does?”

“Ben,” Eloise warns.

“Like I said,” Benedict continues before Eloise can get anything else out, “my brother is an idiot and slow on the uptake. But he gets there in the end. And I don’t want the two of you to be so closed off to one another that you can’t figure it out once he does get there.”

“Assuming, of course, that he actually gets there,” Penelope scoffs. “Have you considered that he simply does not feel the same?”

“Yes,” he says. “And then I laughed about it.”

“Well, I’m not laughing,” Penelope tells him. “Your brother is entitled to his own feelings, even if—especially if—they are not like my own.”

There’s a long pause before Benedict finally acquiesces. “Very well.” He stands, but doesn’t walk away, not yet. He seems to be debating something, which he settles on when he looks at Penelope again. “Just… consider telling him. If not for what could be, then at the very least because you do not deserve to carry this on your own.”

Benedict leaves them then. Eloise slips an arm around Penelope’s shoulders, pulling her into her side. “I’m sorry he’s a dick.”

She sighs. “He’s not, not entirely. If anything, I think it’s a bit… sweet that he thinks he was helping. It’s not his fault Colin doesn’t feel the same.”

Next to her, Eloise hums. “Far be it from me to get involved when I didn’t even notice my best friend was in love with my brother for nearly two decades, but… I don’t know that Colin doesn’t feel the same.”

“Oh god,” Penelope groans. “Not you too.”

“Just… talk to him,” Eloise begs. “I may be wrong, Benedict may be wrong, but you’re never going to know if you don’t take that chance.”

“I don’t know if I can,” she admits. “It’s been so long that I’ve been hiding it that I wouldn’t even know how to start. I wouldn’t know where to start.”

“You two can figure that out together. You know there’s nothing that will keep Colin from being your very best friend, don’t you?”

Penelope smiles. “Is that you giving up the best friend mantle?”

“Never,” Eloise huffs. “Simply recognizing you are his best friend. Of course I’m still your best friend. Always will be.”

“Oh, of course,” Penelope says.

There’s a long minute where they sit together in the silence before Eloise pleads once more, “You’ve got to figure this out with him.”

“Just… give me time,” Penelope asks.

Eloise looks at her, studying her face. Whatever she finds must be convincing enough because eventually her friend nods and agrees, “I can give you time.” Another beat. “A few days.”

“Eloise…”

“I’m an impatient person!”

“Eloise!”

“A few days!” she says, getting to her feet and walking off. “That’s it!”

“That’s not enough time!” Penelope yelps, scrambling to stand and follow. “Eloise!”

(*)

There’s a knock on her door early in the evening.

Penelope returned to her room only to exchange books, though it seems someone had followed her and was using the time away from the family to their advantage.

A piece of her hopes it’s Colin—finally ready to talk after days of awkward, stilted conversation, but when the door opens, she’s disappointed to see Eloise.

“Get dressed up,” Eloise demands. “Meet out front at half six? I made a reservation.”

Penelope doesn’t particularly feel like going out, but she’s hardly going to deny her friend’s wishes. So she quickly agrees and starts looking through the clothing that she’d brought while Eloise closes the door and disappears to who knows where. Likely to get ready herself, since it is already six o’clock.

If Eloise is telling her to get dressed up, the restaurant must be a fair bit nicer than the places they’ve gone to the past weeks. Penelope settles on the pale blue dress that she’d brought before she can think too much about it. She styles her hair in loose waves, pulling them over her shoulder, and adds a touch of makeup to her eyes before studying herself in the mirror. For a thirty-minute heads up, she’s pleased with the outcome.

After gathering up her clutch and her coat, she moves through the villa to the front drive, where she assumes Eloise will be waiting with a cab.

Instead, she finds Colin.

She stands, frozen to the spot, and when he looks up, he looks just as surprised.

“We’re sick of it,” Eloise’s voice comes from behind her. Colin’s eyes tear away from Penelope’s to look over her shoulder. She sees a scowl settle on his features.

“Sick of what?” he asks.

“Whatever… this is,” Eloise huffs. Penelope turns to look at her, surprised to see Benedict and Daphne standing there as well. She thinks she can see the other siblings standing behind the door. “This is our equivalent of locking you in a room together,” she tells them. “But… when in Rome!

“We’re in Sicily,” Penelope fires back, feeling her chest tighten with anxiety.

“You understood it though, which is all that matters,” her friend grins. And then, in an unusually serious manner, she nods at them. “Talk. And don’t come back until you’re not so sad to look at anymore.”

Penelope turns to look at Colin, who is staring right back. She lifts a brow. Well?

Colin’s lips twitch up at the corners and he tilts his head toward the waiting car. Let’s go. We can discuss revenge on my siblings in the car.

Alright, she thinks, maybe the revenge wasn’t something she could clearly read in his expression, but she knows him. She knows he hates being manipulated. So she draws in a breath and starts to the car. Colin opens the door for her and she slides in. When she’s settled, he closes the door and joins her from the opposite door.

“So we’re putting glue in all of their shoes, yes?” he murmurs as soon as his door latches shut behind him.

Penelope snorts. “Of course,” she agrees. “Though I think poor Fran looked scandalized by it all, so perhaps we leave her out of it.”

Beside her, Colin smiles. It’s the first time in days that she’s seen him smile, and her heart clenches at the sight. He looks at her. “Though, I will also have to thank them,” he admits. “I have wanted to speak to you, but… not under the watch of my family.”

“You have?”

“I have.”

“Well, uh,” Penelope stammers, “what did you want to speak about? Have you been bitten by the wanderlust bug again being on holiday? Are you going to leave me to fend for myself this autumn?”

“Not quite,” he chuckles.

“Then have you finished another journal? I quite enjoyed reading your Italy journal and I would love to read anything else you have.”

“Shockingly I am also not here to talk to you about my journals,” he teases.

“Then…”

“How are you, Pen?” he asks.

She stares. “You… want to know how I am?”

“I always want to know how you are,” he smiles. “And I think the conversation that I’d really like to have would be best done once we get to the restaurant.”

She swallows around the lump that’s forming in her throat. Realistically, she knows Colin isn’t going to publicly humiliate her. She also knows that he’s not going to hurt her—not in a way that he hasn’t been for years already. Not that he knows, of course. But… it’s still got to happen. He still has to tell her he doesn’t feel the same way because he must have figured it out by now, he must have known from that kiss that her feelings aren’t platonic. Have never been platonic. And she has to accept it all with a smile on her face.

So, in answer to his question, she is not doing well. And, because this is Colin, she can’t bring herself to lie. So she admits, “I’m scared.”

His eyes widen. “Of me?”

She shakes her head. “No. Never of you. You bring me comfort and peace. But it’s all… a lot right now. With your siblings and the dare and—”

“My siblings do not matter,” he murmurs, leaning across the middle seat. He ducks his head so his eyes can catch hers, and he offers a smile. “You and I, Pen. We’re all that matter.”

“I believe you’ve just made seven enemies with that statement.”

He smirks. “Funny that you assume they have not already made an enemy of me.”

“You’re too kind to hold grudges,” Penelope says, bringing a hand up to fix a piece of his hair that has fallen into his eyes.

And then, for the first time in their nearly two-decade long friendship, Colin freezes under her hands. He’s not moving, she can’t tell if he’s even breathing, but he’s still, and she is miserable.

She snatches her hand back and sets it on her lap. She looks out the window of the car, suddenly very anxious to get where they’re going. And then she can switch over to being anxious to leave where they’re going. She wants nothing more than to curl up in bed right now and drown the world out with some overly optimistic love story.

“Pen…” Colin whispers, his breathing shaky.

“When we get to the restaurant, yeah?” she says.

There’s a beat. “Yeah.”

The rest of the drive passes in silence, save for the sound of the tires on the road.

They arrive at a nice restaurant with a patio that backs right up to the waves. They’re greeted with enthusiasm and taken to the back corner of the said patio, where Penelope can glance over the railing and see the water lapping over the shore. She only looks for a brief moment before she settles into her seat. The waitress pours their water and hands them menus, telling them she’ll be back in a few minutes to take their orders.

Colin picks up the menu and stares down at it. His eyes trail over the words and then he smiles. “Your favorite,” he says, and she knows he’s about to read off something that is absolutely not her favorite before he even says, “alle vongole.”

Penelope pretends to gag, and it works as intended: Colin lets out a laugh that’s maybe a bit too much for the bit, but is filled with relief.

“Live a little,” he teases. “The world is your oyster, Pen.”

She narrows her eyes at him, though her lips are fighting against a smile. “It’s living I’m worried about.”

“One oyster won’t kill you,” Colin teases.

“The last time I had an oyster I gagged while it was still in my mouth and needed the heimlich,” Penelope tells him. “Not an experience I’d like to relive.”

Colin frowns. “When was this? I don’t remember that.”

“It was before I knew you,” she reassures him. “I was… eight? Nine?”

He looks troubled for some reason. After a moment he asks, “You were okay though?”

Penelope laughs, ducking her head. “I don’t know what’s funnier,” she muses. “The fact that you’re worried for a Penelope of twenty years ago or that you seem to think if I hadn’t been okay, you would have been able to solve it twenty years into the future.”

A sheepish grin crosses his face, but he doesn’t look embarrassed. “Well, I will always protect you.”

“Oh, but of course. The limitations of time and space can’t stop Colin Bridgerton from being the hero,” she teases.

“Only for you,” he says easily, shooting her a charming smile. “You’re the reason I’m going grey.”

“You’re thirty-three, Colin. You’re hardly about to have a head full of grey.”

“And?” he says. “Anthony asked me if I wanted his hairdresser’s information last month! And mentioned that he is adept at color matching, so no one will know I had it dyed to cover the greys.”

Penelope grins. “Well now I’ll know.”

“I happen to think I look dashing with a little bit of grey,” he grins, running his fingers through his hair. Penelope couldn’t disagree with him, but she didn’t want to voice her agreement with the discomfort between them, so she simply rolls her eyes and looks at the menu.

After the waitress returns to take their orders, they fall into a comfortable silence. Penelope doesn’t know how to start this conversation, and she thinks it’s more important for Colin to do it. She’s positive he knows how she feels now, so it’s his turn to make the calls. He gets to set what will surely be new boundaries, and he gets to decide how they move forward.

She’s scared—of course she is. Colin is her best friend, and she never wanted anything to change between them. Now it’s happening against her will, and all she wants to do is redo it all. Never kiss him, never tell him about her feelings, never agree to come on this trip.

While she’s pondering this alternate reality, Colin is watching the waves, deep in thought. She watches as his face cycles and recycles through various emotions, never settling for long enough to solidify into anything that she can work with. Were he upset, she would reassure him that their friendship remains intact. Were he sad, she would remind him it was not his fault. But she can’t pinpoint what his brain is going through right now, so she remains silent.

After several minutes, Colin turns to her. “I’m sorry,” he says.

Penelope isn’t entirely expecting that, but it wasn’t out of the blue, either. He had gotten upset with her for something that he pushed her to do. “It’s alright.”

“No,” he says, shaking his head. “I was out of order, I should not have stormed off like that after that happened.”

“You were drunk, you didn’t—”

“I was,” he agrees, “but that’s not why I… I didn’t…”

There are the words again—I didn’t.

She didn’t know what he was going to say that night, and she didn’t know what he was going to say now. Instead of coming up with scenarios in her head, she waits for Colin to continue.

It takes too long, though.

She’s sitting there for minutes—she’s not sure how many, but Colin seems to have completely forgotten that he was going to speak. He’s playing with the centrepiece on the table, seemingly ignoring the crushing weight of their strained relationships on his shoulders. Penelope has a brief moment to wonder if perhaps he doesn’t feel it, if maybe this relationship means more to her than it does to him, but she brushes that thought aside. It would be cruel to cast doubt on the friendship and love that Colin has given her over the years.

Still, she can’t help herself from prompting, “You didn’t… what?”

His eyes flick up to hers.

“You said that the other night, too,” she reminds him.

“I didn’t—”

He is cut off by the arrival of their plates and Penelope has never felt particular violence toward waiting staff, nor food, but she’s tempted to throw their waitress and dishes over the railing if it just means that Colin will tell her.

When the waitress leaves again, Penelope turns an impatient eye onto Colin. There will be no more interruptions and he’ll tell her exactly what he’s thinking, she knows.

Instead, he pivots.

“This man that you’re in love with—”

Frustration boils in her gut, but she can’t stop the laugh from falling from her lips. Penelope drops her head into her hands. “Oh, Colin,” she murmurs.

“What?” he frowns.

She looks up at him through her lashes and thinks: it’s now or never. “It’s you,” she says, laughing in relief that the secret is out. She’s terrified—absolutely paralyzed with fear—but she can feel her body relaxing in a way it hasn’t since she first met Colin Bridgerton. She had not realized the weight of her secret until just now, but having it out there, having spoken it to the man himself… it’s cathartic.

Colin stares. His jaw drops open and he can’t seem to find any words to say to her, but she knows him. She knows it will take a moment for him to process, and that she shouldn’t press him to hurry. So she sits, looking out at the water as she feels him thinking across the table from her. And then finally, “You said I was the best thing to ever happen to you.”

She bites down on her lip to keep the manic laughter in. She can’t believe this is what her life has come to. Once she’s sure that she swallowed her laugh down, she nods, asking, “Is that so surprising?”

“I… don’t know,” Colin admits.

“Surely you’ve had some idea of my feelings over the years.”

He looks up at her. “Have I?”

“I’ve not been entirely subtle,” she shrugs. “Though, to be fair, Benedict is the only one of your family who was not surprised by this, so perhaps I’m a better actress than I have realized.”

“I’ll say,” Colin says, scowling down at his plate. She’s never seen him look so upset with food that a laugh startles out of her. He looks up. “What?”

“Nothing,” she says with a shake of her head.

“No,” he protests. “I want to know.”

“It was just a silly thought,” she promises.

“I like your silly thoughts.”

Penelope smiles. “Just thought you’ve never looked so angry at food before. Told you it was silly.”

Colin’s lips twitch up at the corners. An offer of a smile while he’s still deep in thought. She waits him out once more, taking a small sip of her water and a bite of pasta. She’s never minded that Colin sometimes takes longer to settle on his words, but today it feels like torture. She wants to know what he’s thinking, everything that’s going through his head. She knows figuring out how to conduct a friendship when there’s love involved can be complicated, but she hopes that she and Colin can figure it out. After all, the love was always there, it’s just… out in the open now. She can be the same person she’s always been, he can be the same person he’s always been, and they can pretend this holiday never happened.

She’s about halfway through her pasta when Colin finally speaks again. He hasn’t touched his food at all, which is concerning, to say the least, but he seems resolved on whatever he’s going to say. “I spoke with Daphne.”

Alright, Penelope thinks, she was not expecting that. “Alright? How did that go?”

“Terribly,” Colin answers. “She was no help whatsoever.”

She laughs. “I’m sorry.”

“I think I know why, though.”

“Oh?”

Colin shifts in his seat. He looks at Penelope with determined eyes and Penelope has a moment of panic to think that this is it—this is the end of the line for their friendship as she knows it. Everything is going to change because he’s going to be caught up over her feelings and will feel too awkward about carrying on in their normal fashion. And then he speaks.

“I asked Daphne how someone would know if they’re in love,” he says. Penelope’s heart seizes in her chest. “She was truly useless, just spouting off that it’s different for everyone, and—can you believe—she doesn’t even remember how she knew it was love with Simon.”

“Let’s hope they never renew their vows,” Penelope says, her voice shaking. “The speech would be lacking.”

Colin laughs, and it’s bright and warm and everything Penelope thought she’d never get to have again. His face does something that Penelope has never seen before, and then he’s reaching across the table, taking her hand into his. “I spent hours thinking over her words. She had no idea how she knew, which was perhaps the most useless advice I’ve ever been given. I thought surely one must know if they’re in love to be in love.” He shakes his hand. “I don’t think that’s true anymore.”

“What?”

Colin squeezes her hand. A laugh bursts from him, seemingly by accident, because he presses his lips together for a moment after. And then he says, “You told me I was the best thing to ever happen to you. I didn’t know you were speaking of me at the time, and I was… I was perhaps a bit irrationally furious. Because, Penelope Featherington, you are the greatest thing to ever happen to me.”

“Colin—”

“I didn’t know,” he rushes to tell her. “All this time I just thought… she’s my best friend. I love her. And I do. I love you. But I had never realized I was in love, not until you kissed me and consumed me and left me with only the memory of your lips against mine—a feeling I have craved since the first touch.”

Colin—”

“I love you, Pen. I’m in love with you. It took me a minute, but I got here.”

Penelope stares. It’s everything she’s ever wanted being handed to her on a silver platter and yet she can’t wrap her head around it.

“Colin,” she whispers. “Do not say things you do not mean.”

Colin frowns, yanking her hand closer to his chest and holding it over his heart. “What on earth gave you the impression that my words are not sincere?”

“How long have you been thinking about this?”

“Since our kiss, but actually—”

“A week!” Penelope breathes. “It’s not even been a full seven days, Colin. You cannot have possibly fallen in love in a week.”

“I did not,” he shakes his head. “Years, Pen. I’ve fallen in love with you over years and it took me time to figure out what that feeling was, but I’m here now. I’m in love with you.”

“You cannot.”

Colin recoils. “Why not?”

Penelope feels her breath quickening. How is this everything she’s wanted and everything she’s feared all at once? “Because… because I am a mess,” she says.

He drops the hand he’s been holding this entire time and leans across the table, curling a hand around her jaw. His eyes flit between different thoughts and emotions and she can read on his face You’re not a mess and Isn’t everyone? and I want your mess. She can hardly believe it, even when he voices, “But you’re my mess.”

“Colin…”

“I want to be with you,” he says. “I want to marry you, raise a family with you, grow old with you. I want everything we have now and more. To be able to love you the way you deserve to be, but still laugh like we’re children together. To be able to show you how beautiful you are, and still find solace in every moment I spend with you, because no one loves me quite the way you do. You are the greatest thing to happen to me, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t spend the rest of my life telling you so.”

Penelope doesn’t say anything, mostly because she doesn’t know what to say.

“Do you think I am not also a mess? Everyone says love is messy. Does that not just mean two messes find one another and make a bigger mess?” he teases, but there’s also a challenge in his voice. She turns her face into his hand, unwilling to answer, because she cannot see him as anything other than perfect.

But… no, she thinks. He is not perfect.

He is childish and unserious at the best of times, and downright mischievous at the worst of times. He is jealous and possessive and, despite growing up in a household with seven other siblings, never quite learned how to share. He puts on acts in different groups, as if he doesn’t know who he is unless he has a homing beacon to bring him back to himself. His wanderlust cannot be satisfied and he’ll always be looking for his next adventure. He is slow on the uptake and makes decisions at the drop of a hat. He is everything Penelope thought she’d never have.

“Well,” she says finally, lifting a hand to pull his from her face. She twines their fingers together and squeezes gently.“It did take you years to figure out you’re in love with me, so I guess that can’t exactly be excused.”

Something beautiful takes over Colin’s face at her words, and it’s like she’s seeing him anew. She knows, logically, that he’s the same Colin he’s always been, but… perhaps she’s allowing herself to look at him differently. See more of him. Something that she’s always been scared to do for fear of falling even harder, but now she’s allowed. She lets out a disbelieving laugh at that, which Colin joins. They sit together in a crowded restaurant, giggling like school children together, without a care in the world.

Their laughter subsides until they’re just beaming at one another, until a look of determination comes across Colin’s face. He looks away from her, scanning the restaurant for something. She watches as he seems to find what he’s looking for and lifts a hand, and she realizes he’s motioning for the bill.

“Colin, you’ve not eaten at all,” she says.

He glances down at his plate. He hums. “No, it seems I haven’t.”

“Don’t you want to finish dinner?”

He lifts his eyes to hers. “I want you more.”

“Oh,” she says. She feels her face heat up and frowns at him. “Colin, we’re staying in a villa with your entire family.”

Waving her off, Colin smiles, broad and bright. “They must have known this was coming after the past week,” he assures her. “Besides,” he says, leaning toward her. “We’ve still got the whole taxi ride back.”

Penelope feels her face flush and she wants to argue that just because his family is expecting it doesn’t mean she wants them to know what they’re doing, but she’s stuck on the cab ride. Even with the partition, she thinks they’ll still leave their driver with irreparable psychic damage, but her stomach flutters and she can’t bring herself to care.

(*)

Penelope finds out that Colin was not joking about the cab ride. When they arrive back at the villa, she slips the driver a large tip. Her face is flushed and burning, but the driver is professional enough not to comment. Small victories and that.

She watches as the cab pulls off, then feels Colin step up behind her, wrapping his arms around her waist. “I did give him a tip, you know.”

“He deserved a bigger tip.”

“You don’t even know how much I tipped him,” he protests.

“And yet I still know that whatever it was wasn’t enough for… that,” Penelope hisses, turning in Colin’s arms to glare up at him.

He grins down at her, unabashed. “I did not hear you complaining the entire journey.”

Her face was already red, so she can’t even imagine what it must look like now. She buries herself in Colin’s chest and feels more than hears him laugh. His chest rumbles and his body shakes and Penelope realizes she has never wanted him more.

For as long as she’s known him she’s loved him, but in that time she had never entertained the possibility of… this. Even in her fantasies of them before she gave up hope, it was all longing and passion and desire. It wasn’t that she hadn’t accounted for their friendship in these fantasies, but that she had never thought she needed to think about it—they already were friends, she already knew his laughter and smile.

But she didn’t know his smile as he pressed his lips against hers, unable to contain his grin even as they were consumed by one another. She didn’t know his laugh as he held her against his chest, bringing her as close as he could manage without stripping them down. She doesn’t think her fantasies would have lived up to reality, even had she considered these things.

She pulls her head away from his chest and looks up at him. Colin is already gazing back at her with an expression of exhilaration and warmth. She presses onto her toes, offering her lips for a kiss.

Colin kisses her cheek.

“I’ll have you know,” he murmurs. “Gentlemen do not kiss on the first date.”

Penelope’s eyes snap open and she stares at him. “Have you forgotten the journey here?”

He beams. “Haven’t stopped thinking about it, actually.”

“Then surely you must remember that you, Colin Bridgerton, are no gentleman.”

He lowers himself until their lips are just barely brushing. “No. I suppose I am not.”

“Then kiss me.”

Colin does not need to be told twice. He brings his hands up to cradle her face and lets his lips crash down on hers.

Penelope hasn’t kissed many people in her life, and she’s never kissed someone that she was in love with, but she knows this is right. She knows this is how it is meant to be. The kisses she’s shared with Colin haven’t been perfect. They haven’t been life-affirming. But they’ve been right.

Kissing Colin feels like opening the curtains on a summer morning and letting the sun in. It feels like the score of a movie, crescendoing at just the right moment. Like hot chocolate warming her hands on a cold winter day as she watches the snow fall outside. It’s something so intrinsic to her world, so carved into her very being, that she doesn’t have to stop to question if this is how it should be. She simply knows.

If she’s being honest, she could stay in these moments with him forever. She thinks, by the way he holds her, that he has had the same thought. She knows Colin better than anyone else—perhaps better than she knows herself—and she knows that he feels it too. The finality of this choice. That for the rest of their lives and beyond, Penelope and Colin are it for each other. There will be no more what ifs and no more maybe one days, because they’re living in them. This is their world now.

They are going to have to find a way to part soon, if only so they don’t end up in a compromised position in the villa’s driveway. She’s contemplating how to actually pull herself away when there’s a sudden, “Bloody finally!

Penelope and Colin jump apart, whirling to face the door of the villa. Eloise and Benedict are standing in the open door, grinning at them. Behind them, Penelope can see everyone. Even Phillip and Simon, who have never been quite as entertained by the Bridgerton gossip mill as the others, are lurking in the back looking interested. Penelope thinks that now that she has kissed Colin, the world is welcome to open a hole to swallow her up so she can avoid dealing with this. Better yet, the hole can take both her and Colin so they can be together without his family staring at them.

“Sorry for the welcome home party,” Benedict says, “but we were all very eager to know if our plan worked, you see.”

“Obviously it was going to,” Hyacinth says, shoving her way to the front. “It’s Penelope and Colin. Did anyone see this ending any other way?”

No one says anything.

“Right,” Colin says. “Well. If that’s all, we’ll be off.” He reaches down and grabs her hand, pulling her into the villa and starting toward their bedrooms. Penelope feels her face flush as there are cheers from the rest of the family and she wants to scold Colin but she’s too focused on what’s going to happen next.

When they get to his room, he closes the door before backing her up against it. “I apologize for my family,” he murmurs, trailing his fingertips up her arm.

“It’s not like I didn’t know this was going to happen from the moment you told me you loved me.”

He hums. “You were thinking about how my family was going to react when I told you I loved you?”

Penelope grins up at him. “And what if I was?”

“This past week, every waking moment I have been consumed by thoughts of you. I have not been able to think of anything else. Not of this holiday, not of my family, not of my own name. I have been boiled down to only my love for you, as if that is all I am as a man.” His lips brush against hers, but she doesn’t know if she’d call it a kiss. It’s more like a tease. A promise. “If it is any indication of how I shall spend the rest of my days, I don’t mind it. A life consumed by Penelope Featherington is a life well lived.”

What can she say to that? What can encompass all that she feels in coherent words? She does not think the words she needs exist, so what else can she do besides capture his lips against hers and promise that she’ll be there?

“Every day,” she whispers.

“Every day,” he agrees.

They do not need words after that.

and even better, i get to be the other half of you - ladywhistleblower (sunsetcurbed) - Bridgerton Series (2024)

FAQs

Do you have to read Julia Quinn books in order? ›

I'm careful to write all my books so that they can be read in any order, but I do enjoy revisiting secondary characters, so some books do “go together,” and they are grouped as such on my Bookshelf page (in order from left to right).

Is Bridgerton based on a book? ›

Netflix's Regency drama "Bridgerton" is based on Julia Quinn's best-selling book series. Season one mostly follows the first book, "The Duke and I," but there were some major changes. Warning: Major spoilers and potential triggers ahead for the first season of "Bridgerton."

Who produced Bridgerton? ›

Bridgerton is an American series created by Chris Van Dusen and produced by Shonda Rhimes. It is based on Julia Quinn's novels set in the Regency era. It is Rhimes's first scripted Netflix show. Bridgerton's first season was released on Netflix on December 25, 2020.

Why is Bridgerton skipping book 3? ›

Because the Netflix series is only loosely based on the novels about the Bridgerton siblings, skipping the third book to focus on Colin and Penelope doesn't have a negative effect on the main storyline of the season. Colin and Penelope's book story, after all, plays out years later than it is playing out on the show.

Is the Bridgerton book series spicy? ›

Because the spiciness of a book is largely subjective, we can share what Pango readers have shared, but please keep in mind that their opinions may differ from you. The overall consensus is that compared to other adult romance novels, the Bridgerton series is a 3 out of 5 on the spice meter.

Is Lady Danbury the Duke of Hastings' grandmother? ›

Lady Danbury is like a mother figure to the Duke of Hastings, whose mother died shortly after giving birth to him—and the Lady and Duke's connection doesn't end there.

Why did they change Francesca in Bridgerton? ›

Why did they replace Francesca in Bridgerton? Ruby Stokes, who was playing Francesca Bridgerton, had to step away from her role in Bridgerton due to other filming responsibilities. She left the regency-era drama to film the supernatural drama Lockwood & Co, which is another Netflix show.

Who does Eloise Bridgerton marry? ›

Who does Eloise Bridgerton marry? In “To Sir Phillip, With Love” by Julia Quinn, Eloise is content with being single at 28. She receives an unexpected proposal from Sir Phillip Crane – a widower and single father – and the two end up living happily ever after.

Do you have to read the Brown Sisters books in order? ›

For the most comprehensive understanding of this trilogy, read the books in their proper order: Get a Life, Chloe Brown. Take a Hint, Dani Brown. Act Your Age, Eve Brown.

Do you have to read the Miss Julia books in order? ›

For those reasons, many readers recommend starting with the first book. On the other hand, if you happen to pick up a book 'out of order' and enjoy it, there's no reason you can't read the rest of them, either in or out of order. Are you Miss Julia? Absolutely not!

Do you have to read the Love and Gelato books in order? ›

Sarah This book is a stand-alone. The other books in the series feature different characters so they are not connected .

Do you need to read book series in order? ›

Reading a series in order is preferable, but not necessary with some exceptions as in the Left Behind series.

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