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

Obviously, she did no such thing. But imagining it kept a smile on her lips and her eyes dry.

Sometimes, that wasn’t enough. When her mother was by her side, the aversion was even more obvious. At Lady Farnsworth’s garden party, Mr. Middleton actually launched himself into a hedge to avoid the Archer women.

There were many people Olivia would have launched herself into a hedge to avoid. Like Lady Katherine Abernathy, Lord Derby, or Lord Eccles. But young ladies smiled and made polite conversation. They did not seek refuge in the shrubbery. And yet, she admired Mr. Middleton for doing as he wished, hang propriety.

As the calling hours and evening soirees ticked by, Olivia discovered that being a young lady was not all it was cracked up to be. But everyone said if she behaved and followed the rules, happiness would be hers. Lady Penelope had impressed this upon her students. Olivia’s mother drilled it into her daughter. All the conduct books and purse-lipped dowagers only confirmed it.

Mr. Middleton and the hedge wasn’t the worst. Not by a long shot.

She’d been named London’s Least Likely to Cause a Scandal. Olivia had the distinct displeasure of learning this by overhearing a conversation between a group of young bucks, just down from Oxford. She’d eyed them longingly. They were the sort of men that made a girl’s pulse race with nervous anticipation. She was no exception. Mustering her nerve, she forced herself to step closer, perhaps in their line of vision. Perhaps where one might notice her and ask her to dance.

She straightened her spine and tugged down her bodice as low as possible (admittedly not very far). Lingering nearby, she adopted Lady Katherine’s pout, which men seemed to find irresistible.

The gents hardly noticed; they were in the throes of a lively conversation.

“After all, when could she cause a scandal? She’s too busy with her hair ribbons and embroidery,” said a tall, dark-haired stranger. Lud, he was handsome. Olivia inched closer, prepared to laugh at the silly girls who only bothered with hair ribbons and embroidery.

But then a ginger-haired fellow said, “Don’t forget her watercolors and singing.”

Olivia froze, afraid they were talking about her. Slowly, she started to inch backward, ashamed for thinking one of them would want to dance with her.

“Even if Prissy Missy were so inclined,” another one said—and she knew they were speaking of her—“with that mother of hers constantly by her side, how could she even attempt anything scandalous?” The lot of them groaned at the mention of her mother.

“Lord save us all from the Archer ladies,” another one said, and the others heartily agreed.

Olivia slinked away, heartbroken and horrified. Perhaps happily-ever-after was not for her.

Chapter 1

Lord Castleton, who embarked on his ritual grand tour and extended it by quite a few years, has sent word that he will soon return to England.

—“FASHIONABLE INTELLIGENCE” BY A LADY OF DISTINCTION

THE LONDON WEEKLY

Lady Olivia’s fourth season

As Olivia stood along the perimeter of the ballroom, amongst the wallflowers, she was achingly aware of the minutes ticking by. Minutes in which her prospects for marriage grew dimmer. She tried to calculate how many minutes were remaining before Lady Penelope’s Ball commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the school, and thus how many minutes remained before she was a confirmed spinster, a failure on the marriage mart, and an utterly hopeless case.

No graduate in the history of the school had failed to make a match within four seasons. Except, perhaps, for Olivia. They might as well call her London’s Least Likely to Marry.

“Is everything alright?” Prudence asked just when Olivia was trying to divide forty-four days by the number of minutes in a day. “You look ill.”

“I’m trying to do maths,” Olivia explained, before giving up. She was terrible with numbers.

“It’s not a good look for you,” Prudence told her in the way that only a dearest friend would.

“What do you think of taking a turn about the ballroom?” Olivia asked. She was impatient just standing there. Waiting. Always, waiting.

“Yes, let’s. How diverting,” Prudence murmured. Arm in arm they ventured from the wallflower corner into the rest of the ballroom where, all around them, men and women flirted and conversed and arranged for marriages or assignations. They found their way to the balcony that lined the upper portion of the ballroom.

“There you both are!” Emma exclaimed. “I want to introduce you to some friends of Blake’s.”

Both Olivia and Prudence frowned. Blake was the Duke of Ashbrooke, and until he married Emma, had been a notorious libertine. His friends were not interested in the likes of London’s Least Likely.

“I think that perhaps . . .” Olivia began. There was something about being foisted on uninterested gentlemen that her confidence couldn’t quite take this evening. Much as she wanted to fall in love and marry, she was just exhausted with the constant failure of trying. It was time to consider what she might do instead. Perhaps she and Prudence could share a house and be spinsters together.

Emma was having none of that, though.

“Oh, do come!” she exclaimed before practically dragging Prudence with her.

“I’ll be right there,” Olivia said. “I just need a moment.”

Slowly, she paced along the balcony, allowing her fingers to trail upon the balustrade. Gazing down, she watched the surge and pull of the crowd, enjoying the view of the dancers spinning in circles from high above . . . but oh how she wished to be among them. She was so tired of standing by, waiting.

And then she saw him.

Rather, she saw how the crowd moved around him. They seemed to step aside as if he were Someone of Great Importance. Like every other man in the room, he wore a suit of evening clothes. But the similarities seemed to end there. This man was taller, his shoulders broader. The way he moved suggested he was a man of determination and action. His hair was cut short but tussled, as if he’d pushed his fingers through it rakishly or . . . as if he’d wickedly come from a woman’s bed.

One could easily imagine him as a rogue or a pirate. In fact, one did.

Intrigued, Olivia strolled slowly along the balcony, keeping pace with this man as he walked through the ballroom. Who was he? She didn’t recognize him from previous parties. Perhaps he was the Lord Castleton mentioned in the newspapers—the one who was expected to return to town after an extended period abroad. Olivia didn’t care: whoever he was, he was new and thus he didn’t know that she was Prissy Missy or one of London’s Least Likely. Her heart started beating in triple time at the possibilities.

And then, inexplicably, he turned and looked directly at her.

Her heartbeat stopped.

Her breath caught in her throat.

He was beautiful. And he was gazing intently at her. Until this moment, Olivia had no idea that one could feel another person’s gaze from across the ballroom. She had never been hit by lightning, but she could imagine it might have felt something like this. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t breathe. She felt the spark of intrigue, the spark of lust, the spark of possibility.

She watched as he murmured something to a nearby friend before he started walking toward the stairs leading up to the balcony.

She had to meet him. Immediately.

Olivia walked quickly to the stairs leading down to the ballroom. Was this the moment she met the love of her life? All had seemed lost—was this the moment her lucked changed and her life truly began?

The handsome stranger was waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs. As Olivia made her way down, step by step, she thought how Lady Penelope’s education had prepared her for this moment: after hours of walking up and down stairs with books on her head, she was now able to hold his gaze as she descended the stairs.

“Hello,” he said. His voice was everything a man’s ought to be: low and strong, and somehow the sound of it made her feel warm from the inside out.

Ladies did not converse with gentlemen to whom they were not introduced. She heard her mother’s voice in her head, reminding her of the rules. But what was she to do—run off and find someone to introduce them? The spell would be broken. Even though it went against everything she’d been taught, she fought her instincts and whispered, “Hello.”

The handsome stranger reached for her hand, which she gracefully extended. His fingers closed around hers. He pressed a kiss upon her hand. It was a perfectly proper gesture and yet it felt . . . wicked. She had never felt wicked before. Why had no one told her how thrilling it was?

For a moment they just gazed at each other.

And then, not having much practice speaking with gentlemen, she blurted out the first thing that came to mind: “Your eyes are very green.”

Indeed they were: green, and shadowed by dark lashes, and when he smiled—as he did now—his eyes crinkled slightly at the corners. It was then that she noticed the scar. It was a thin slash stretching from his temple to his cheekbone.

Who was this man? Where had he been these past four seasons?

He took a step closer to her and gazed down at her mouth. Her lips parted. Was this the moment of her first kiss? Olivia’s every nerve tingled. It was those sparks again.

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