What a Wallflower Wants (Bad Boys & Wallflowers #3) by Maya Rodale

Prologue

London, 1820

Lord and Lady Blackburn’s Ball

“ARE YOU THERE, God? ’Tis I, Prudence.”

Her voice wavered. Her knees buckled and she sank to the ground, her back sliding down against the wall.

God didn’t answer, which was just as well. Prudence didn’t have the words to describe this thing that had just happened to her. One minute she was waltzing and the next—

A sob caught in her throat. She drew her knees against her chest and wrapped her arms around them. Slowly she rocked on the ground, back and forth, back and forth, holding herself close. Her memories were hazy, with a few sharp, piercing moments. She could still smell him on her skin—a noxious mixture of stale smoke and wine.

She was faintly aware of the sound of the orchestra mingled with the dull roar of hundreds of people laughing and chatting. They had no idea that just down the hall a girl had been stripped of everything. Only eighteen, she was an innocent girl on her first season with her life stretching out before her, rich with possibilities.

Was.

Everything was different now.

Just an hour ago she had believed in love, romance, and happily ever after. She had believed in God’s mercy and trusted that heroes came to the rescue. But that was before. No one had answered her pleas. No one had come to save her.

From now on, Prudence would be on her own.

Chapter 1

Somewhere in Wiltshire, 1824

Nine days before Lady Penelope’s Ball

If a young lady is traveling west on the London road and a young rogue is traveling east on the London road, at which point shall they meet?

EVER SINCE HER first season, Miss Prudence Merryweather Payton had known that she would never marry. By her third season, she had made peace with the sad truth that love and marriage were not in the cards for her. Which was fine. FINE. Truly, she was not bothered in the slightest at the prospect of a long, boring spinsterhood. Why, think of all the needlepoint or charity work she might do.

Or so she had thought.

But that was before the invitation had arrived. A delicately worded missive, written in an elegant script, inviting her to the one-hundredth anniversary of her finishing school, Lady Penelope’s Finishing School for Young Ladies of Fine Families.

With that invitation had come the mortifying and heartbreaking truth: no graduate had ever taken more than four seasons to land a husband.

Except Prudence.

Until recently, she had not been alone in her matrimonial failures—her friends Emma and Olivia had also been wallflowers with hardly any suitors amongst them. Prudence had envisioned a future for the three of them, living happily in a cottage by the sea. She had known this invitation, this ball, this moment would come, but Prudence had always thought she’d confront it with her very best friends by her side. But then Emma had landed a duke and Olivia had found love with the most unlikely man. Prudence was happy for her friends—truly. No one deserved love and happiness more than Emma and Olivia.

Now Prudence was on her own.

The last wallflower.

Given that marriage was not an option for her, this put her in something of an indelicate position. By indelicate, she meant angsty, stomach-knotted, quietly panicked, a constant state of terror.

She could either be the one failure in one hundred years, or she could face her fears and make one last attempt to secure a husband. With a spark of hope that surprised her and a fortitude she didn’t know she possessed, Prudence embarked on one last-ditch effort to wed.

Thus, Cecil.

Prudence stared at the sleeping man across from her in the mail coach. Convinced that there was no one for her in London, Prudence had left for Bath with her aunt and guardian, Lady Dare. It was in the Bath Assembly Rooms that she’d struck up an unlikely acquaintanceship with Cecil, Lord Nanson, who tended to seek refuge in the wallflower corner during balls. They came to the realization that a quick, clandestine marriage of convenience would suit them both.

Thus they were traveling to his estate, where they would marry by special license.

It was almost the stuff of romance, except that he had no romantic interest in her, nor she in him. Cecil wanted two things: his mother to stop plaguing him to marry, and Lord Fairbanks. After their perfunctory wedding, Prudence and Cecil planned to promptly return to London, where she would prove to everyone that she wasn’t the sole failure in the one-hundred-year history of Lady Penelope’s Finishing School for Young Ladies, and then . . .

She didn’t know what then.

She knew only that she had to attend and that she could not face that ball without a ring on her finger. Otherwise The Beast would have won.

In the years since, Prudence had become rather adept at pretending that the awful thing had never happened. She’d told no one and had proceeded to pretend with Emma, Olivia, and Lady Dare that she was the same girl she’d always been. Sometimes she almost believed it.

But then The Beast was there—a shard of a memory, or at the same party—reminding her that she had no future. No man would ever want her or love her. Which no longer mattered, because she had no interest in being with a man intimately. Yet every so often she felt a hot flare of determination to prove him wrong.

Thus, a husband for Lady Penelope’s Ball.

Cecil, with his round, pale cheeks and floppy blond curls, would never hurt her. Of that she was certain. As he slept, he breathed faintly through his parted lips. Prudence tried not to be immensely irritated by this. She deliberately avoided thoughts of a lifetime sleeping next to a man who breathed through his mouth. Beggars could not be choosers.

Besides, knowing her and knowing Cecil, they would keep separate bedrooms. Cecil, she suspected, had as little interest in bedding her as she him. The way his gaze had strayed to Lord Fairbanks when they’d all conversed in the assemblies at Bath hadn’t escaped her notice. He wouldn’t hurt her. Nor would he touch her. That suited her just fine.

The prospect of a marriage of convenience didn’t provide the relief she had sought. This wasn’t what she had dreamt for herself. She had wanted love: all-consuming, passionate, can’t-stay-away, shout-from-the-rooftops, die-without-you kind of love.

But at least she wouldn’t be a spinster. At least she wouldn’t be the one failure in the hundred-year history of her school.

She could do this.

It was her best option. It was her only option.

There was no reason for her stomach to be in knots. There was no reason for her heart to ache a little more with every beat. And there was no point in being sad for what she’d lost.

Everyone else in the mail coach slept. Everyone else included a portly middle-aged man and his equally portly wife, one wiry young man with spectacles, and a vicar. None of them breathed through their mouths.

Prue looked out the window and watched the countryside roll by in the moonlight. Fields gave way to a thicket of forest. Instead of the usual luscious green of old trees and expansive meadows, a drought had made everything dry up, stiff, crackly, and brown.

They ought to have arrived at Chippenham hours earlier, but the journey had been fraught with delays. First, Cecil’s private carriage had broken irreparably. Her insistence that they return to London in time for Lady Penelope’s Ball had meant that travel by the mail coach was their only option.

Her maid and his valet had taken the first coach, having been sent ahead to prepare the household. Prudence and Cecil had remained behind for lunch whilst he’d written a letter to his mother in town announcing their imminent marriage. An hour later, they’d been on the road again, this time stuffed into the mail coach with strangers.

Unfortunately, her bad luck had continued. Someone had failed to properly secure the luggage, and somewhere around the village of Corsham it had all tumbled off with a great rumble. Valises, trunks, and some of their contents—a man’s unmentionables, a crushed bonnet, leather gloves—had been strewn about the dusty road.

They were delayed.

It was now late.

Her small valise hadn’t made it back on top of the carriage and was now nestled at her feet. She longed to stretch her legs. She really wished to lie down on cool sheets in a dark room. Perhaps wash the dust from her limbs and face with a cold, wet cloth. She wanted to be alone, behind a locked door.

The carriage stopped abruptly. A few passengers stirred, blinking their eyes sleepily. Beside her, Cecil woke up. The night was dark, quiet. Because they were all silent, waiting, they could hear the highwayman’s voice loud and clear.

“Stand and deliver!”

The occupants of the carriage stirred awake to the sound of someone approaching and nervous horses pawing at the ground, whimpering.

They started to argue then—the carriage driver and this highwayman—their low, angry voices like a threatening rumble of thunder in the night. Prue’s heart started to pound. She wanted so badly to reach for Cecil’s hand. Instead, she reached for her valise and hugged it to her chest.

The matron started weeping. The vicar started mumbling under his breath. Prayers, presumably.

“Cecil, do something,” Prudence whispered fiercely. He was a man, her protector in the big bad world, and danger was approaching. She needed him. Everyone knew that no good came of encounters with highwaymen. It was rare to walk away still in possession of one’s valuables and virtue. Prudence was not a lucky girl.

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