Excerpt: The Wicked Wallflower
In which a duke and a wallflower meet for the very first time…after their engagement announcement appears in the newspaper.
Though they were in full view of everyone in the drawing room, Emma and the Duke of Ashbrooke could not be heard, thanks to the French Doors that the duke deliberately closed behind them—with an apologetic grin to all the ladies, of course. Not one of whom moved, other than to obtain a better view of the unfathomable sight of Emma strolling arm in arm with London’s Most Eligible Bachelor Of All Time Ever.
She inhaled deeply, discovering the duke’s manly scent of fresh linen and wool mingling with the fragrant flowers of the garden. She exhaled slowly. None of this could be real. At any second now, everything would return to normal, or perhaps even worse.
What cursed person had sent the announcement to the newspaper? And heaven’s above, what was the duke actually doing here, in her garden, his muscled arm linked with hers?
“It seems we are engaged,” Ashbrooke remarked casually. As he were only commenting on the weather. As if they were acquainted, and not complete strangers to each other.
“We did nothing to dispel the rumors,” Emma replied.
“Rumors? It was printed in the paper.”
“Very well, libel,” Emma corrected. “But you could still cry off.”
She so kindly gave him the opportunity to live down to her expectations. She found herself holding her breath and glancing up at his impossibly handsome profile while she still had the opportunity to do so.
“Do you not want to marry me?” he asked, as if that had anything to do with it. She had not even considered it.
“Your Grace, I don’t even know you.”
“A minor detail, and one that is easily remedied.” Then he glanced down at her with dark eyes and a suggestive smile. “It would be a pleasure to become better acquainted.”
He said this, of course, in a manner that left no doubt as to what sort of pleasure or acquaintance he intended. Emma felt her temperature rising, but would not allow herself engage in his flirtations. She did not want to be swept away upon some flight of fancy, only to come crashing down when the world inevitably restored itself to the proper order in which the likes of him did not engage with the likes of her.
“I should think our lack of acquaintance is a significant detail, actually,” she said. “And one not necessarily in need of a remedy.”
The duke paused, and turned to face her. She was struck by the perfection of him. She, who had a crooked smile and plain brown hair and perfectly fine features could not even imagine possessing such beauty as he.
He didn’t even seem aware of how utterly handsome he was, and how it made a girl lose her wits around him.
Emma resolved then and there that she would be immune to the Ashbrooke Effect. She would not be yet another simpering, silly girl that flung herself at his feet. While the world as she’d always known it no longer made sense, Emma stubbornly clung to one truth: the likes of her and the likes of Ashbrooke could not belong together. Therefore, there was no point in acting prettily as if she could 1) suddenly learn to flirt and as if 2) something would come of it.
No, she wanted Benedict and their little townhouse full of books and babies. She wanted to be with a man who was safe, steady and constant.
“I have a proposal for you,” the duke said, clasping her hands. His were large, warm and he scandalously did not wear gloves.
He laughed, a rich, low, velvety sound and she was overwhelmed by a flush of heat and pleasure just from the vibrations of it. Though she may have fleeting suffered a sensation that might have been the infamous Ashbrooke Effect, she would perish before admitting it.
They did not belong together. She would do well to remember that.
She promptly forgot as he dropped to one knee.
“What in blazes are you doing?” Emma tried to yank him up to stand, but he held onto her hand firmly. She glanced, panicked, at the group of ladies pressed up against the drawing room window.
The duke remained on one knee, peering at her with an earnest look in his eyes and a hint of a smile on his lips.
“Emily, will you marry me?”
“Are you mad?”
“Smile, darling, they’re watching,” he murmured.
“Your Grace, we both know this betrothal announcement is…a joke. It’s not real,” she told him. That much had to be said. She owed him that.
“I’m not an idiot, Emma,” Blake said frankly, though he smiled as if he were in the midst of a proposal, because he remained on bended knee. “I know that someone with a warped sense of humor or twisted idea of vengeance thought it’d be an amusing prank to announce an engagement between two people who have never met. I don’t know what kind of unhinged person would do such a thing.”
Emma declined to offer further intelligence on the matter. In fact, she vowed to take the truth of the letter’s authors to her grave, just as she vowed to seek revenge upon the horrible person who had actually sent it.
“But now I am proposing in truth. I beg you to say yes,” he said so solemnly, she almost considered it. She narrowed her eyes, finding this proposal highly suspicious. She’d wager that when the duke awoke this morning, he didn’t even know she was alive. And yet here he was, on bended knee insanely proposing that they marry. He could not be serious.
Perhaps he was insane.
Or perhaps the duke had an ulterior motive. While she did not want to be unwed at Lady Penelope’s ball, she also didn’t want throw her life away on a whim to suit an addled aristocrat.
She wanted Benedict. The man she loved. The man who actually and truly knew her.
Benedict! Where was he? Why was he not here? Probably because he thought her engaged to a man who towered above him in rank. He probably thought she lied and deceived him, too. Which is why she had to end this farce and explain to Benedict the truth. They could then elope and live simply in the country or in that townhouse on Curzon Street.
That was the happily-ever-after of which she dreamed. She would not be the plain and forgotten wife of an infamous scoundrel, notorious rogue and dashing duke.
“Thank you, Your Grace. But I cannot accept.”
She, a lowly, impoverish wallflower on her fourth season had just done the unthinkable: refused a wealthy duke. She must have gone mad.
In spite of her rejection, Ashbrooke just smiled. Then he stood, towering over her, and he gently lowered his mouth to hers and brushed his lips across her own. It was only an instant, but she felt sparks.
She felt the snap and sizzle of a fire flickering to life.
And she became aware that she’d never felt that with Benedict.
A lot could happen in an instant.
“What are you about?” she asked, dazed. He gently pushed a lock of hair away from her cheek. It was the affectionate caress of a lover.
“A kiss to celebrate our betrothal. For making me the happiest man in the world when you said yes.”
“I did no such thing,” she declared. Good God the man was daft. All beauty and no brains.
“According to that dozen of gossips in there,” he said, inclining his head and never once taking his eyes off her face, “you just did.”
“They couldn’t hear me—“ she said as the truth dawned. He wasn’t daft at all. He was devious and she had just fallen neatly into his trap.
“But they could see,” he murmured, devastatingly.
They could see that he had proposed on one knee—again, presumably. They could see that he had kissed her. They would never, ever, ever, ever, ever consider that Emma would refuse him.
Emma touched her fingers to her lips. They burned. Still burned. One fleeting kiss in the garden, and she was betrayed. Ruined. One fleeting kiss and the duke of Ashbrooke had robbed her of her hopes, her dreams.
They were as good as married now. There would be no more Benedict, no little townhouse. She’d be the lonely duchess, married to a man far more attractive than she, and always the subject of cruel whispers. What does he see in her? She could just imagine the gossip columns: To the surprise of no one, the duke of Ashbrooke continues his rakehell ways despite his marriage to the buxom bluestocking who at least has books to comfort her.
It was not the life she had planned, nor was it a life she wished for.
Emma would never forgive him that.
I am a wallflower, she wanted to protest. I love another. But she was a smart girl. Thus Emma knew none of that mattered anymore. Not after a duke kissed her in the garden, in full view of at least two dozen of London’s greatest gossips. In a way, that was more official than actually signing the marriage contracts.
“Welcome to happily ever after,” Ashbrooke said, linking his arm with hers. “Allow me to explain.”
“Please do,” she said in a strangled whisper. Rage had a way of tangling up words.
“You are one of London’s Least Likely,” the duke said smoothly and she bit down on her lip.
“Really, you are going to start with that? I had heard you were considered an expert seducer. Clearly, that rumor is an outrageous exaggeration.”
“As you pointed out, I have, over the years, acquired a reputation as something a rake.”
“That’s an understatement,” she said. “One might say a ruthless scoundrel, a notorious libertine, a horrible jackanapes.”
“Think, Emma, of how this betrothal could serve each other,” Ashbrooke said, keeping is voice even and his grasp on her secure. “My reputation would be mended by an engagement with a respectable girl.”
“Words every girl wants to hear to describe herself. Really, I cannot fathom how you got your reputation for being such a seductive charmer.”
“On my arm, you will become a sensation,” Ashbrooke said plainly. “Let us face the facts: No one noticed you before, but everyone will want you now. When you cry off in a few weeks, I shall be inconsolable and take an extended visit away from London and you shall have your pick of suitors.”
Hope flickered. Then died.
“I’m not sure the world works like that,” Emma said. The world was a different place for those that were not charming, powerful, wealthy dukes. “I would be seen as The Duke Of Ashbrooke’s jilted fiancé. Hardly the stuff of other men’s dreams.”
“That’s where you are wrong,” he stated flatly.
“I knew you would be arrogant,” Emma muttered “I am not pleased to be proven correct.”
“It’s not arrogance, it’s the facts,” he said with an impatient sigh.
“Why should I not cry off now? Because I really would like to.” Emma glared stubbornly up at him. She detected a hint of a smile, a spark of appreciation in his eyes. She scowled all the more.
“You could jilt me now,” he said slowly. “Even though two dozen women are already spinning stories of our whirlwind romance and romantic stroll in the garden. Everyone will think this was just a joke. You will be no better of than before. You’d be worse, even. And if you cried off now, we wouldn’t have the fortune.”
Her breath caught. Hope flickered again. If she had a fortune, she and Benedict could marry.
“My dear aunt Agatha is holding a house party at which she shall determine who will inherit her enormous fortune. She is also ancient.”
Hope flickered again, and a flame burst forth. And then it died again.
“Allow me to confirm that I am understanding you correctly,” Emma said slowly. “You would like us to pose as a betrothed couple to swindle your wealthy, elderly aunt out of her fortune.”
“It does sound nefarious when phrased like that, I grant you,” he said, grinning. “But it’s all part of The Fortune Games, a mad scheme of Agatha’s own creation.”
“Ah yes, Lady Agatha Grey’s Fortune Games. I have heard the most intriguing things about it. You have never won, have you?” Emma asked, eyes narrowed. Why should I team up with a loser? She didn’t dare say it, but she hoped her expression conveyed it.
“With you as my blushing bride I would,” he said, so confidently. “We would.”
“And then I may jilt you and keep my portion of the reward?”
“If that’s what you wish,” he replied, eyeing her curiously. He obviously could not fathom that she might not with to be with him. She was not at all sorry to provide this rude awakening to him.
“It is exactly what I wish,” she said firmly. It was her one and only one chance to still attain the life she dreamt of. So long as she won the fortune and didn’t do something ridiculous, like fall for the duke.
“Is there anything you wish to tell me, Emma? Is there another man? Are you in a particular condition?”
“We might pose as a happily betrothed couple, but you should know my heart belongs to someone else,” she said, oddly delighted that he thought she, London’s Least Likely To Misbehave, could possibly have gotten herself ruined or in a particular condition.
“So you’ll say yes,” he repeated.
“Apparently I already have,” she remarked dryly. For the fortune. For Benedict.
Ashbrooke broke into a smile, a grin of such pure happiness. The force of such radiant, beautiful joy hit her like a runaway carriage pulled by a half dozen charging stallions.
The duke wrapped his arms around her, swept her off her feet and whirled her around—right there, in the garden, with all the gossips of London watching. And then he kissed her—another swift brush of his warm, firm mouth against hers. She thought of fireworks and a strange feeling of warmth and desire surging through her. She did not think of Benedict.
She thought of the Ashbrooke Affect.
It was real. It knocked her breath away, along with her wits.
“Pack your bags, Emma Wallflower,” Ashbrooke said in a happy, laughing voice. “We have a house party to attend and a dowager to charm out of her fortune.