Kate nodded. “I think we might have been issued a late invitation. We met Lady Bridgerton only just last week.”

“Well, I know I just said I was surprised, but I’m actually not surprised. Lord Bridgerton has been paying much attention to your sister.”

Kate flushed. “Er, yes,” she stammered. “He has.”

“That is what the gossips say, at least,” Penelope continued. “But then again, one can’t always trust the gossips.”

“I have rarely known Lady Whistledown to be incorrect,” Kate said.

Penelope just shrugged and then looked down at her gown with disgust. “She certainly is never incorrect about me.”

“Oh, don’t be silly,” Kate said quickly, but they both knew she was just being polite.

Penelope gave her head a weary shake. “My mother is convinced that yellow is a happy color and that a happy girl will snare a husband.”

“Oh, dear,” Kate said, snorting a giggle.

“What she doesn’t grasp,” Penelope continued wryly, “is that such a happy shade of yellow makes me look rather un happy and positively repels the gentlemen.”

“Have you suggested green?” Kate inquired. “I think you’d be smashing in green.”

Penelope shook her head. “She doesn’t like green. Says it’s melancholy.”

“Green?” Kate asked with disbelief.

“I don’t even try to understand her.”

Kate, who was wearing green, held up her sleeve near Penelope’s face, blocking the yellow as best as she could.

“Your whole face lights up,” she said.

“Don’t tell me that. It will only make the yellow more painful.”

Kate offered her a sympathetic smile. “I would loan you one of mine, but I’m afraid it would drag on the floor.”

Penelope waved away her offer. “That’s very kind of you, but I’m resigned to my fate. At least it’s better than last year.”

Kate raised a brow.

“Oh, that’s right. You weren’t out last year.” Penelope winced. “I weighed nearly two stone more than I do now.”

“Two stone?” Kate echoed. She couldn’t believe it.

Penelope nodded and made a face. “Baby fat. I begged Mama not to force me to come out until I turned eighteen, but she thought a head start might be good for me.”

Kate only had to take one look at Penelope’s face to know that it hadn’t been good for her. She felt a certain kinship with this girl, even though Penelope was nearly three years younger. Both of them knew the singular feeling of not being the most popular girl in the room, knew the exact expression you put on your face when you weren’t asked to dance but you wanted to look as if you didn’t care.

“I say,” Penelope said, “why don’t the two of us go down to supper together? It seems your family and mine are both delayed.”

Kate wasn’t in much of a rush to reach the drawing room and the inevitable company of Lord Bridgerton, but waiting for Mary and Edwina would delay the torture by only a few minutes, so she decided she might as well head down with Penelope.

They both poked their heads into their respective mother’s room, informed them of the change in plans, and linked arms, heading down the hall.

When they reached the drawing room, much of the company was already in attendance, milling about and chatting as they waited for the rest of the guests to come down. Kate, who had never attended a country house party before, noted with surprise that nearly everyone seemed more relaxed and a bit more animated than they did in London. It must be the fresh air, she thought with a smile. Or perhaps distance relaxed the strict rules of the capital. Whatever the case, she decided she preferred this atmosphere to that of a London dinner party.

She could see Lord Bridgerton across the room. Or rather she supposed she could sense him. As soon as she spotted him standing over by the fireplace, she’d kept her gaze scrupulously averted.

But she could feel him nonetheless. She knew she had to be crazy, but she’d swear she knew when he tilted his head, and heard him when he spoke and when he laughed.

And she definitely knew when his eyes were on her back. Her neck felt as if it were about to go up in flames.

“I didn’t realize Lady Bridgerton had invited so many people,” Penelope said.

Careful to keep her eyes away from the fireplace, Kate did a sweep of the room to see who was there.

“Oh, no,” Penelope half whispered, half moaned. “Cressida Cowper is here.”

Kate discreetly followed Penelope’s gaze. If Edwina had any competition for the role of 1814’s reigning beauty, it was Cressida Cowper. Tall, slender, with honey-blond hair and sparkling green eyes, Cressida was almost never without a small bevy of admirers. But where Edwina was kind and generous, Cressida was, in Kate’s estimation, a self-centered, ill-mannered witch who took her joy in the torment of others.

“She hates me,” Penelope whispered.

“She hates everyone,” Kate replied.

“No, she really hates me.”

“Whyever?” Kate turned to her friend with curious eyes. “What could you possibly have done to her?”

“I bumped into her last year and caused her to spill punch all over herself and the Duke of Ashbourne.”

“That’s all?”

Penelope rolled her eyes. “It was enough for Cressida. She’s convinced he would have proposed if she hadn’t appeared clumsy.”

Kate let out a snort that didn’t even pretend to be ladylike. “Ashbourne isn’t about to get hitched anytime soon. Everyone knows that. He’s nearly as bad a rake as Bridgerton.”

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