A Perennial Wallflower…
When Mira Fitzhenry's guardian arranges her engagement to one of the most scandalous lords to ever grace the peerage, all of society is abuzz. After all, the man has left a trio of dead young women in his wake, including his first fiancée. But Mira doesn't see a killer in Nicholas's moonlight eyes, and she resolves to find the real murderer before the wedding.
A Gothic Villain…
Expecting to scare the chit away within five minutes of meeting him, scarred and brooding Nicholas, the Viscount Ashfield, is intrigued by Mira's tenacious resolve to prove his innocence. She's not put off by his imposing appearance, but his family's dark secrets mean he cannot let her get close.
As the wedding approaches, Nicholas and Mira grow ever closer, yet so does the danger.
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Once Upon a Wallflower
By Wendy Lyn Watson, Erin Molta
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Wendy Lyn Watson
All rights reserved.
May 30, 1809
Mira Fitzhenry sat at her dressing table, gazing forlornly at her reflection in the chipped and cloudy mirror. She knew she would never be a fashionable beauty: her curves were too bold for the diaphanous gowns, her feet were too large for the dainty slippers, and her hair was too ... well, red. Not a rich auburn or a sunny strawberry blond, but a true and tawdry red.
She felt ridiculous even trying to look the part of the lovely young debutante. She rather favored mathematics over minuets, anyhow.
Her brow furrowing in consternation, she stabbed a pin in her hair and tilted her head to the left. She caught sight of the folded copy of the Times resting on the corner of her dressing table. Against her volition, she leaned forward to read again the brief announcement that had changed her life forever:
Mr. George Fitzhenry announces the engagement of Miss Mirabelle Fitzhenry to The Right Honorable, The Viscount Ashfield.
She grabbed another hairpin from its box, but paused before working it into her tresses. Her hand in marriage had been lost in a card game, traded to Ashfield's father, Lord Sebastian Ellerby, Earl Blackwell, to cover her Uncle George's staggering gambling debt. Did a bartered bride really need to impress her fiancé?
As she pondered that question, Mirabelle Fitzhenry the Younger, known to friends and family as Bella, burst into Mira's bedroom without so much as a by-your-leave.
"There you are!" she exclaimed as she moved to the end of Mira's bed, and, with a little hop, perched herself there.
Mira continued to fuss with her hair, deciding that she should strive to look her best whether anyone cared or not. "Yes, here I am. Where else would I be?"
Bella kicked her slipper-shod feet back and forth. She did not even attempt to keep the smirk from her face or her voice when she responded. "I don't know. Given that you are about to meet a murderer, I thought you might have fled. After all, you are promised to him for the rest ... of ... your ... life," she concluded with melodramatic flair.
Mira shot a disgruntled look at her cousin in the mirror. "I am not at all certain this marriage will ever take place. Neither Blackwell nor Ashfield are fools. Once they realize they have been duped, handed the proverbial cuckoo's egg, Ashfield will cry off. It is as simple as that."
Bella shook her head, sending her own perfect blond ringlets bouncing. "I would not count on Ashfield jilting you just because you're a trifle long in the tooth and, well, plain. Maman says Ashfield cannot cry off because it is not the gentlemanly thing to do."
Giving up on her hair, Mira turned to face Bella. "There is a quite grievous flaw in Aunt Kitty's logic, Bella. Blackwell is desperate to find a bride for his son because he is an alleged killer." She swallowed and forced herself to go on, the voice of reason in this madness. "If he is guilty of those crimes, then he is surely no gentleman. Ergo, we cannot rely upon him to act as a gentleman in regards to the engagement, and there is a very real possibility that he will cry off. So I, for one, shall not be the least surprised when he publicly rejects me and denounces our entire family. Not surprised in the least."
Bella rolled her eyes. "Mira, Mira, Mira. It's more than manners! Ashfield can hardly expect a better match, being a murderer and all. Maman says that even if Ashfield wishes to cry off, Blackwell will not allow it. I believe you are well and truly stuck with Ashfield. And I am so very glad that you will marry him rather than me." With a shiver of delicious dread, Bella continued, "I would not wish to marry a murderer."
Mira did not travel in Society as much as did Bella, but she had friends and those friends did, on occasion, indulge in gossip. She had heard the stories about Ashfield, the man some called the "Butcher of Bidwell." About how he spent his days locked away in a tower practicing the black arts. About how he roamed the countryside at night, when the moon was new, searching for young innocents to sacrifice for his evil endeavors. About the one young woman promised to him who guessed his dark secrets and paid the ultimate price. Under other circumstances she would have found the tales wickedly, delightfully dramatic ... and utterly preposterous. As it was now, she could not help the foreboding that shivered through her at the very mention of Ashfield's name.
But she also knew that she had little choice but to go through with the meeting. If she refused Ashfield's suit, or attempted to undermine his interest in her, Aunt Kitty and Uncle George would turn her out. She would find herself on the streets, utterly without means. Women died — or worse — on the streets of London every day. So, no matter how frightened she was of the man, or how guilty she felt about the deception her family was perpetrating against him, Mira would meet Ashfield. She would be gracious and as charming as she could be. And, whatever it took, she would get herself out of this mess.
Fussing now with the bodice of her gown, or, rather, Bella's gown, which Aunt Kitty had decreed Mira must wear, Mira huffed a sigh of exasperation. "It remains to be seen whether either of us will marry him. As for him being a murderer — a point you seem determined to dwell upon — that is, as far as I know, merely gossip."
Hoping to put an end to the conversation, Mira added, "You might show a bit of gratitude. You know perfectly well that your papa intended to trade you away to Ashfield, and Blackwell is expecting you to walk across the ballroom floor tonight. If Blackwell finds a way to maneuver through this evening, you may find yourself engaged to the Butcher of Bidwell come tomorrow morning."
Obviously stung by her older cousin's reminder of her ever-so-close call, Bella glared at Mira, and for a moment she looked like Kitty Fitzhenry's daughter. By all accounts, Bella bore little resemblance to her mother ... or her father. Indeed, she was considered quite a beauty, and the whole family counted on that beauty translating into a lucrative match on the marriage mart. If she played her cards right, she would bring some handsome, wealthy, young buck up to scratch by the end of this, her first Season, or early the next.
"Maman will never allow that to happen. She loves me," Bella snapped.
"Bella," Mira said briskly, "if Ashfield killed three women, including his first fiancée Olivia Linworth, the authorities would have arrested him. This is England, after all. We have laws."
Bella snorted indelicately. "Arrest Blackwell's son? I doubt it. Blackwell is wildly rich and even more powerful. Besides, it is not as though anyone saw Ashfield kill those girls."
"Precisely," Mira said. "There is no proof that Ashfield did anything wrong at all. And without proof, you have nothing."
Bella lifted one expressive shoulder. "Sometimes you don't need proof, Mira. You simply know something is true."
"Nonsense. As I said before, Bella, the rumors of Ashfield's misdeeds are merely that: rumors. I am not the least concerned." She stood and fluffed her skirts, annoyed at the tremor in her hands.
Hopping down from Mira's bed, Bella cut her cousin a sly look. "You say that now, but I would wager you my new white hair ribbon you will faint dead away the instant Ashfield pins you with his evil gaze."
"I'm made of stronger stuff than that," Mira scoffed.
"Very well," Bella said. "You seem so certain that Ashfield will cry off because you are not me. I will wager you my new white hair ribbon and that sapphire colored pelerine you so admire that you will cry off before he does."
Mira paused to consider the offer for a moment. Bella could scarcely fathom being forced to do something one did not wish to do. Her position in the household was secure. But Mira knew where she stood in the Fitzhenry clan. She could not cry off, no matter how much she might want to. If the engagement were to end, it would have to be Ashfield's doing.
"Done," she said. "I will accept your challenge."
Bella merely shrugged and headed for the door, but before she got there Kitty Fitzhenry appeared.
"Mira, it is time to go. Let's have a look at you, then."
Mira dutifully turned in a circle for Aunt Kitty's inspection. She knew that the white muslin dress did little to favor either her figure or her complexion. No matter how tight she drew her stays, the dress refused to follow her curves, snug where it should drape and gaping where it should be snug.
The corners of Kitty's mouth turned down in disapproval.
"You look like a blancmange. A blancmange with lopsided hair." Kitty sighed. "Well, I suppose it is the best we can hope for. One cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, after all. Let us hope that Ashfield is short-sighted ... or dim-witted. Come now, the carriage is waiting."
Bella tilted her head and batted her lashes coquettishly. "Why can I not come, Maman? Emily Armbrust said that the Farley ball is sure to be a crush. Everyone who is anyone will be there."
Kitty held up a hand in warning. "Bella, enough. You know you cannot go. We cannot risk confusion about which Mirabelle Fitzhenry is promised to Ashfield. It is crucial that Mira and Ashfield are linked publicly, so if Ashfield cries off it will be Mira who is disgraced, not you. Bella, my dear, you may be a social success, but I fear you could not weather such a blow to your reputation. Mira ... well, Mira has no prospects, so she does not have so much to lose."
No one paid the slightest attention to Mira's grumble of annoyance.
Kitty reached out to cup Bella's cheek tenderly, her tone melting in the face of her daughter's displeasure. "Believe your Maman when she tells you it is for your own good that you stay home tonight."
Bella stamped her tiny foot once more in annoyance. But there was no arguing with Kitty Fitzhenry, so Bella stood helplessly back while Kitty ushered Mira out to meet her destiny.CHAPTER 2
As predicted, the Farley ball was a crush. Nicholas Ellerby, Viscount Ashfield, stood in stoic silence, attempting to ignore the stifling heat ripe with the scent of Hungary water and humanity. Every now and then, he surreptitiously massaged the muscles of his left leg, still tense and cramped from his long ride.
His father stood at his side, his expression as bland as butter despite the wide berth the other partygoers afforded them. Nicholas rarely ventured out in London, but he'd long since grown accustomed to the curious stares and muffled conversations his presence prompted. His father on the other hand ... Nicholas knew that beneath his calm exterior, his father seethed at the humiliation of being ignored by people who should be groveling at his well-shod feet.
Father and son did not speak. It had been a tense evening.
Nicholas had been annoyed when his father summoned him to London from the estate in Cornwall, but he had been livid when he learned he would be handed his future bride, wrapped in a glittering blond bow, like a child receiving a sweet. Indeed, that is how Blackwell had described Mirabelle Fitzhenry: a yellow-haired confection, sweet as orgeat and malleable as mud. Nicholas could not imagine spending his life with such a creature.
Thankfully, the lovely Miss Fitzhenry was unlikely to wed him. He would stare at her intently, stand just a little too close to her so she would be reminded of his far-superior size, rest his large dark hand on her delicate wrist, and she would become overset. She would cry off before the night ended.
Blackwell scanned the room with his supercilious gaze. "Ah. There they are," he said, a note of smug satisfaction in his voice. He tutted softly. "I have no love for George Fitzhenry. No character, that one. But when I see him trailing behind that behemoth of a wife he has, it's hard not to feel a pang of masculine sympathy."
Nicholas followed his father's gaze and spotted a stately woman, bosom like the prow of a fine sailing vessel, a man in a pea green waistcoat scurrying behind. He searched around the pair for a virginal, yellow-haired debutante, but saw no likely suspects.
Blackwell must have reached the same conclusion. "Where is the chit? If Fitzhenry fails to deliver, I'll see the whole family in the poorhouse by morning."
Nicholas winced at the thought of a girl being delivered to him like a new horse or a pair of Hessian boots. He reminded himself that, with his menacing appearance and more menacing reputation, this farce would soon be over.
At long last, the Fitzhenrys made their way across the crowded ballroom. George and Kitty greeted Blackwell politely, the formidable Kitty actually blushing a bit as she traded niceties with one of the most dashing rakes of her youth.
Without further ado, Blackwell pinned George with his stare. "Well?" he queried.
"Oh. Yes, of c-course," George stammered. He grabbed the hand of a voluptuous redhead with a lopsided coif and a muslin dress stretched taut across her full breasts and thrust her inelegantly in Blackwell's direction, where she dropped into a neat curtsy. "My Lord, may I introduce Miss Mirabelle Fitzhenry."
Blackwell narrowed his eyes in suspicion, barely glancing at the girl. "I was given to believe your daughter had yellow hair."
George shot a nervous glance at his wife, who glared back at him. "Um, yes," he said. "My, uh, daughter is indeed blond. Miss Mirabelle Fitzhenry," he added, gesturing to the redhead at his side, "is my niece."
Blackwell closed his eyes. "Your niece."
Nicholas chuckled darkly at his father's annoyance. "It would appear the world is graced with two Miss Mirabelle Fitzhenrys," he murmured for his father's ears alone.
Blackwell sighed. While he was clearly disappointed with the particular Mirabelle Fitzhenry with which he was presented, the entire ballroom watched the exchange with eager eyes. With his scandalous son at his side, he would not make a scene.
Nicholas allowed himself a moment to study his would-be bride. Her solemn blue eyes were fixed on his face, but he could not read her expression. She was not conventionally pretty, her nose a bit too short, her brows a bit too straight, her hair an unfashionably brazen color. Still her features held a certain appeal: skin as pale and luscious as Devon cream, a mouth as succulent and voluptuous as her curvy body, and hair the vibrant red of Chinese silk. A far cry from a picture-perfect blonde, but infinitely more intriguing.
Shaking off her lingering befuddlement, Miss Fitzhenry dropped into another curtsy. In a thready voice she choked out a greeting. "Lord Ashfield. I am delighted —"
She looked up in surprise. He coughed slightly and continued, "Please, Miss Fitzhenry. I reside primarily in the country, where people do not stand so much on formality. I much prefer my Christian name."
She straightened and offered him a shy smile. "Nicholas. And my friends and family call me Mira. It avoids a great deal of confusion," she added, her smile turning wry.
He frowned. Young girls had been known to faint at the sight of him. They did not smile at him. Ever.
Before he could weigh the true gravity of that small smile, the Fitzhenrys tumbled forward to greet him, clearly eager to bask for a moment in his infamous light, and he lost Mira to his father's company.
Their small party was the subject of curious stares and whispered speculation, yet they all carried on as though the situation were perfectly normal, perfectly natural. Blackwell engaged Mira in a lively conversation about Lord Byron's recently published invective, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers — a conversation in which Mira appeared to be holding her own against Blackwell's overbearing opinions about the upstart Byron. Meanwhile, George and Kitty assaulted the reticent Nicholas with questions about hunting hounds and haberdashers.
The banality of the conversation pained Nicholas, yet every time he glanced toward Mira, he caught her smiling at him ... and that smile was driving him mad.
Kitty was in the midst of asking him about his tailor when he abruptly broke away from her with a muttered apology and took Mira by the arm.
* * *
Nicholas's grip was firm, yet surprisingly gentle for a man of his size. Without a word, he led her toward the dance floor.
This, she thought, would be her chance to employ the desperate plan she'd concocted on the carriage ride to the ball: allow Nicholas to end the engagement at the expense of Mira's honor. He would be spared from marrying a woman not to his liking, and she would be spared the possibility of being wed to a murderer. Her reputation seemed a small price to pay for the bargain. The icing atop the cake? She would win her wager with Bella.
Excerpted from Once Upon a Wallflower by Wendy Lyn Watson, Erin Molta. Copyright © 2013 Wendy Lyn Watson. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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