“Who is most probably going to get married this year,” Penelope reminded her. “If the gossips are correct.”

“Bah,” Kate scoffed. “Lady Whistledown herself wrote that she doesn’t think he’ll marry this year.”

“That was weeks ago,” Penelope replied with a dismissive wave of her hand. “Lady Whistledown changes her mind all the time. Besides, it’s obvious to everyone that the viscount is courting your sister.”

Kate bit her tongue before she muttered, “Don’t remind me.”

But her wince of pain was drowned out by Penelope’s hoarse whisper of, “Oh, no. She’s coming this way.”

Kate gave her arm a reassuring squeeze. “Don’t worry about her. She’s no better than you.”

Penelope shot her a sarcastic look. “I know that. But that doesn’t make her any less unpleasant. And she always goes out of her way to make sure that I have to deal with her.”

“Kate. Penelope,” Cressida trilled, drawing up alongside them, giving her shiny hair an affected shake. “What a surprise to see you here.”

“And why is that?” Kate asked.

Cressida blinked, obviously surprised that Kate had even questioned her pronouncement. “Well,” she said slowly, “I suppose it is not such a surprise to see you here, as your sister is very much in demand, and we all know that you must go where she goes, but Penelope’s presence…” She shrugged daintily. “Well, who am I to judge? Lady Bridgerton is a most kindhearted woman.”

The comment was so rude that Kate could not help but gape. And while she was staring at Cressida, openmouthed with shock, Cressida went in for the kill.

“That’s a lovely gown, Penelope,” she said, her smile so sweet that Kate would swear she could taste sugar in the air. “I do love yellow,” she added, smoothing down the pale yellow fabric of her own gown. “It takes a very special complexion to wear it, don’t you think?”

Kate ground her teeth together. Naturally Cressida looked brilliant in her gown. Cressida would look brilliant in a sackcloth.

Cressida smiled again, this time reminding Kate of a serpent, then turned slightly to motion to someone across the room. “Oh, Grimston, Grimston! Come over here for a moment.”

Kate looked over her shoulder to see Basil Grimston approaching and just barely managed to stifle a groan. Grimston was the perfect male counterpart to Cressida—rude, supercilious, and self-important. Why a lovely lady like Viscountess Bridgerton had invited him, she’d never know. Probably to even up the numbers with so many young ladies invited.

Grimston slithered over and lifted one corner of his mouth in a mockery of a smile. “Your servant,” he said to Cressida after sparing Kate and Penelope a fleeting, disdainful glance.

“Don’t you think dear Penelope looks fetching in that gown?” Cressida said. “Yellow truly must be the color of the season.”

Grimston did a slow, insulting perusal of Penelope, from the top of her head to the tips of her feet and back. He barely moved his head, letting his eyes travel up and down her frame. Kate fought a spasm of revulsion so strong it nearly brought on a wave of nausea. More than anything, she wanted to throw her arms around Penelope and give the poor girl a hug. But such attention would only single her out further as someone who was weak and easily bullied.

When Grimston was finally done with his rude inspection, he turned to Cressida and shrugged, as if he couldn’t think of anything complimentary to say.

“Don’t you have somewhere else to be?” Kate blurted out.

Cressida looked shocked. “Why, Miss Sheffield, I can hardly countenance your impertinence. Mr. Grimston and I were merely admiring Penelope’s appearance. That shade of yellow does so much for her complexion. And it is so nice to see her looking so well after last year.”

“Indeed,” Grimston drawled, his oily tone making Kate feel positively unclean.

Kate could feel Penelope shaking next to her. She hoped it was with anger, not with pain.

“I can’t imagine what you mean,” Kate said in icy tones.

“Why, surely you know,” Grimston said, his eyes glittering with delight. He leaned forward and then said in a whisper that was louder than his usual voice, loud enough so that a great many people could hear, “She was fat.”

Kate opened her mouth to give a scathing retort, but before she could make a sound, Cressida added, “It was such a pity, because there were so many more men in town last year. Of course most of us still never lack for a dance partner, but I do feel for poor Penelope when I see her sitting with the dowagers.”

“The dowagers,” Penelope ground out, “are often the only people in the room with a modicum of intelligence.”

Kate wanted to jump up and cheer.

Cressida made a breathy little “Oh” sound, as if she had any right to be offended. “Still, one cannot help but…Oh! Lord Bridgerton!”

Kate moved to the side to allow the viscount into their small circle, noticing with disgust that Cressida’s entire demeanor changed. Her eyelids began to flutter and her mouth made a pretty little cupid’s bow.

It was so appalling Kate forgot to be self-conscious around the viscount.

Bridgerton shot Cressida a hard look but did not say anything. Instead, he turned quite deliberately to Kate and Penelope and murmured their names in greeting.

Kate nearly gasped with glee. He’d given Cressida Cowper the cut direct!

“Miss Sheffield,” he said smoothly, “I hope you will excuse us as I escort Miss Featherington in to dinner.”

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