Wallflower Gone Wild (Bad Boys & Wallflowers #2)(10) by Maya Rodale

“You must repel him by breaking the rules, remember?” Prudence said. “If only because it will be so much more entertaining for the rest of us.”

“It’s too bad we didn’t bring the sherry,” Emma said. “We could get Olivia ragingly drunk.”

“We should prepare better next time,” Prudence concurred. “Though it’s a pity to waste the opportunity this evening.”

“What else was on the list?” Olivia asked.

Prudence rummaged through her reticule, pulling out a folded sheet of paper.

“You brought it with you?” Olivia asked, mildly appalled.

“I thought we might need it,” Prudence said with a smirk because she was right.

Emma snatched the list from her hand and read, “ ‘Keep the company of known rakehells and scoundrels.’ ”

“Well one can’t swing a cat in this ballroom without hitting one,” Prudence said.

“Yes, but speaking to one will be another matter entirely,” Olivia said with a sigh, remembering the vision of Mr. Middleton launching himself into a shrubbery to avoid her and her mother. For the remainder of the party he was pulling twigs and leaves from his hair.

“We’ll just have to get crafty with our methods,” Prudence declared with what could only be described as an evil grin. “I daresay, this party just got interesting. We have not one but two missions: avoid the Mad Baron at all costs whilst keeping the company of rakes and rogues. Let’s hope your mother brought her smelling salts this evening.”

Rogan had persuaded Phinn to attend the ball, as it would afford him the opportunity to steal a moment alone with Lady Olivia. Or possibly make the acquaintance of another woman who wouldn’t mind marriage to a notorious man with a dark past.

Very quickly it became clear that both were daunting prospects. Young ladies glanced at him appraisingly—and when they caught glimpse of the scar or realized who he was—they turned away. Finding this tremendously irritating, Phinn scowled mightily, which probably didn’t help matters.

Lady Archer proved to be another obstacle to his plans. In her clutches, he was introduced to at least half of the ton—all of whom acted as if the scandal with Nadia had happened last week instead of six years earlier. He noted the nervous glances, as if they expected him to commit some violent act right here in the ballroom.

Phinn was reminded why he’d avoided coming down to London. The machinery in his workshop in Yorkshire—once he’d rebuilt it after the fire—didn’t give a damn about his reputation or bother him with inane conversation.

If he were not so fixated upon finding Olivia, it might have tried his temper. His legendary Radcliffe temper. That would give them something to talk about.

He had spotted her earlier in the evening with her friends. By the time he and Lady Archer managed their way through the crowds, they were gone. Fled, if he wanted to be precise about it, which, being scientifically inclined, he couldn’t help but do.

Things had been different when they first met. Before she knew who he was, they had shared a connection that was too strong for him to give up on after one disastrous meeting. Being a science-minded man, he wasn’t about to quit his courtship and begin anew after one failed experiment. He’d make another attempt to discern if they were truly incompatible or if they’d just gotten off to a rocky start.

If only he could do so without Lady Archer.

“Do you see Olivia?” she asked, fanning herself and craning her neck trying to peer through the crowds.

“I do not,” he lied. She was standing in a crowd around the lemonade table. He recognized an opportunity. Turning to his future mother-in-law, he asked, “Perhaps you’d like to find a seat and I shall bring you a lemonade?”

Lady Archer thought that would be lovely.

Phinn made his way toward Olivia, his gaze fixed on her. She looked beautiful tonight. Her hair was in some arrangement with tendrils that emphasized her slender neck. She looked as she did the night he first set eyes upon her—simply lovely and innocent.

Nadia had been dark and wicked. In comparison, Olivia looked like sunshine and happiness.

A shorter, rounder girl with reddish hair stood beside her. He watched them whisper furiously to each other in the terrifying way only women could. What were they discussing? Phinn wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

“Radcliffe!”

Phinn turned and saw the Duke of Ashbrooke. The duke had earned a reputation as quite the rake—before falling in love with his wife, Emma. What was less known was the duke’s mathematical genius. He’d conceived of the Difference Engine and how it would work. Through the Royal Society, he’d reached out to Phinn about drafting the plans and building the engine.

Hence, Phinn’s trip to London.

“Good to see you out, Radcliffe,” the duke said. “I wanted to introduce you to my wife, Lady Emma.”

Lady Emma was a petite brunette who gave him a slightly crooked smile.

“How do you do?” he asked, stealing a glance at Olivia.

“Very well, thank you,” Lady Emma replied. “I am quite keen to make your acquaintance, especially since you are courting one of my dearest friends.”

That caught Phinn’s attention.

“Small world, isn’t it?” Blake—the duke—mused.

“She’s really a lovely girl,” Emma said.

“Yes, I think so. Beautiful, too,” Phinn said. Much of women’s behavior seemed to defy logic to him, but he did know that what was told to one would be made known to the others. He ought to name this phenomenon. Publish a paper on it. Or use it to his advantage.

“We were surprised at your sudden courtship,” Emma said, and Phinn stored that information away. Too much, too soon. But what was to be gained by waiting? “We hardly know you.”

“What would you like to know?” Phinn asked.

Lady Emma glanced left, then right, then leaned in close.

“Did you do it?” she asked in a low voice.

“Emma!” Blake exclaimed.

“He’s intent upon marrying my best friend,” she explained. “I must inquire.”

“Women,” Blake muttered, shaking his head. Phinn grinned, not daring to show his agreement any other way.

Lord Archer hadn’t inquired. He’d merely said, I trust those rumors about your previous wife are nonsense, and then moved on to talk of Olivia’s generous dowry.

“Does your house truly have a dungeon?” Emma asked, and he peered at her curiously, wondering where the devil she got an idea like that. “And after the wedding—if there is one—will you really lock Olivia away in your vast and remote country estate?”

Phinn was still trying to fathom what the devil she was talking about.

“Pardon my wife and her intrusive—though entertaining—questions,” the duke said.

“We’ll see how the courtship goes first,” Phinn replied evasively.

“Yes, we shall,” Emma replied in a manner that made him distinctly uneasy.

A commotion by the lemonade table caught his attention. It involved Olivia—and her hands on another man. She wasn’t his, but Phinn still experienced a surge of possessiveness that woke his Radcliffe temper. He took a deep breath, forcing it back.

There was a mob around the lemonade table. Olivia and Prudence joined the crowd not for a drink, but to be in the vicinity of Lord Gerard, who had recently appeared in the gossip columns after suffering a carriage accident at first light, upon which it was discovered that his friend’s wife was in the carriage with him. Given their lack of attire, there was little doubt as to what they had been doing together. There was a duel, of course, and it was rather remarkable for him to show his face this evening.

“You ask him,” Prudence said, gently nudging Olivia, while eyeing Lord Gerard’s broad shoulders, clad in a fine black wool jacket. His tawny colored hair was long, curling around the collar.

“No, you ask him,” Olivia replied. He was such a tower of virile masculinity. The idea of talking to him made her feel out of sorts. She hadn’t prepared for this, and in her nervousness, her palms became damp.

“You’re the one who’s supposed to be cavorting with disreputable gentlemen,” Prudence pointed out in a whisper.

“Cavorting?” Olivia echoed. “I’m not sure I know how to cavort.”

“Just think what Lady Katherine would do,” Prudence advised. Olivia could just imagine it: she would probably purr and caress his arm while promising sin with her gaze. Could Olivia do that? Her heart started to pound. Nerves were certainly going to get the better of her. “I thought I just needed to be seen in the vicinity of a rake.”

“You are too good for your own good,” Prudence declared.

Mustering her courage, Olivia lightly pressed her gloved fingertips on Lord Gerard’s sleeve, getting his attention. He turned. Slowly. And then looked down at her.

Olivia peered up at the face that launched a thousand sighs among the ton. His features were sharply defined and utterly noble. He peered down at her with a jaded expression. Lord Gerard’s eyes were heavy-lidded and dark, making her wonder if he were tired or bored or hiding something.

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