Wallflower Gone Wild (Bad Boys & Wallflowers #2)(3) by Maya Rodale

Stupid thoughts intruded, this time in the voice of Lady Penelope herself: Ladies did not engage in unchaperoned interludes with gentlemen, acquainted or not.

If she kissed him now, he might think she was That Sort of Girl. According to everything she’d been told, men did not marry That Sort of Girl. And given the almost palpable attraction between her and this stranger, she didn’t think one kiss would be enough. Given that her sole aim in life was to marry, and immediately . . .

Olivia sighed, with wanting to be wicked and yet feeling so reined in by the rules.

Just as she started to consider throwing caution to the wind, wrapping her arms around this handsome stranger, and pressing her lips against his, the sharp and cruel voice of Lady Katherine intruded. Worse, she was accompanied by her coven of shrewish friends, including the Ladies Crawford, Mulberry, Falmouth, and Montague.

“Lady Olivia, is that you? With a gentleman?” Lady Katherine’s incredulousness was all too clear. Olivia bit her lip in annoyance. Of course she would have to ruin this moment by intruding and informing this handsome stranger that he was with one of London’s Least Likely. “I never thought I’d see the day.”

The gentleman lifted his brow questioningly. Olivia wanted to die. Or perhaps flee. However, both the gentleman and the vicious pack of ladies blocked her path back to the ballroom.

She turned to glare at Lady Katherine as she passed by on the stairs. But Katherine just gave a cruel smile before pushing Olivia into the man’s arms with a sudden nudge of her elbow.

He caught her, of course. Olivia gasped as she hit the firm wall of his chest. His arms closed around her for one precious, maddening second. Breathing deeply, she found herself intoxicated by his scent. For just a moment, she closed her eyes, wanting all the rules to vanish, along with Lady Katherine and the rest of the haute ton who called her Prissy Missy and London’s Least Likely. She just wanted to be and she wanted to just be with this man, whoever he was.

Young ladies do not amorously embrace gentlemen to whom they are not married.

Her mother’s voice intruded upon her thoughts with yet another rule, although . . .

“Oh my God,” Olivia muttered. That was her mother’s voice she heard nearby, inquiring if anyone had seen her daughter. Fearing her mother would discover her thusly—and ruin everything by having a hysterical fit or worse, telling her to enlighten this man about her embroidery—Olivia scrambled out of his embrace and fled into the safety of the crowded ballroom, where her mother found her and demanded they return home directly because Lady Archer was feeling unwell.

Olivia went to sleep dreaming of that handsome stranger and how they might meet again.

Chapter 2

Lady Penelope requests the attendance of her graduates and their husbands at a ball celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of the school.

—AN INVITATION

Lord Archer’s library

The following day

Olivia reluctantly joined her parents in the study for what was likely to be another dreadful interview about her marital status. For approximately ten minutes the previous evening she thought there might be hope for her yet. If only she could see that handsome stranger again . . .

“Splendid news, Olivia!” her mother exclaimed with a bright smile upon her face.

“Oh?” Olivia said cautiously, having long ago learned they had very different ideas of splendid. “What is it?”

“Your father has an excellent prospect for your hand in marriage.”

“Who is it?” The hair on the back of Olivia’s neck stood up in warning. Her parents had, in their previous efforts, shown a deplorable definition of what made a gentleman excellent. She didn’t dare entertain the possibility the handsome man from the night before had tracked her down and asked to wed her already.

“It’s a good match!” Lady Archer said brightly. Perhaps even too brightly. Olivia’s eyes narrowed. “His lordship has an income of ten thousand a year and . . . well, he is titled. He has asked to court you and has expressed an interest in marriage already!”

A formal agreement of courtship was tantamount to a betrothal, especially once the news hit the ton.

“Yes, but who is it?” Olivia asked impatiently. Was it that man with the green eyes? She hadn’t any suitors, just a few gentlemen who asked for the occasional waltz or politely conversed with her when they found themselves idling in a ballroom. Not one of whom seemed to possess anything resembling an ardent passion for her, or even a remote inclination toward matrimony . . . or a title and ten thousand a year.

Her mother smiled. Her father cleared his throat.

“ ’Tis Lord Radcliffe.”

Olivia gave a startled cry as she leapt to her feet. “The Mad Baron? You cannot be serious!”

Every girl in London was familiar with the Mad Baron, who served as a cautionary tale of the perils of what lurked on the marriage mart. His first wife died under his roof—and under mysterious circumstances—after they had fought bitterly. Some say she’d been poisoned, others said she’d been strangled. What was agreed upon was that the circumstances were highly suspicious and not natural.

He never ventured into society, for who would receive him?

Every girl feared finding herself betrothed to the likes of him—a vile, reclusive, murderous seducer.

“You want to marry me off to the Mad Baron who reportedly killed his previous wife?” Olivia choked out the words and tears stung her eyes.

“He was never charged,” her father remarked. A strangled sob escaped Olivia.

“Really, there is no need for hysterics,” her mother said briskly. “It’s just gossip. Ladies do not gossip.”

“I do not want to be courted by him and I absolutely do not want marry him!” Olivia protested, finding it very difficult to modulate the tone of her voice.

“Nonsense! You don’t even know him,” her mother cried.

“Which is one of the reasons I would not like to be married to him,” Olivia replied. She carried on, even though her father’s face was pink and darkening into angry shades of scarlet. “We are strangers. What kind of man inquires about marrying a woman he’s never met?”

The kind who was so reprehensible no woman would have him unless he resorted to such secretive and manipulative measures. Had they been properly introduced at a ball, she might have rebuffed him. But no, he’d now enlisted her parents in a formal courtship, which left her little recourse.

“He has seen you. And made inquiries about you,” her father said. “Told me that he had come to London to find a wife and learned you were the kind of girl that didn’t make trouble, which was exactly what he was looking for. I told him you were a docile, biddable girl who would make him a fine wife, and he was pleased to hear it.”

“See, Olivia!” her mother said with glee. “All of our efforts have come to fruition. You are the perfect lady and shall make the perfect wife for this gentleman.”

Olivia fell silent. She’d prepared her whole life to be the perfect lady and perfect wife for a perfect gentleman. Not a Mad Baron. Not a man who cared so little for her heart or mind or feelings that he wouldn’t even arrange an informal meeting before a formal courtship. Not a man who murdered his wife.

She’d never been disobedient in her life. Even last night, when she’d had every temptation to act recklessly, she hadn’t because good girls made good matches. The slow burn of regret started to smolder in her belly. If only she had done things differently in the beginning . . . or at least kissed that man last night. If only . . . if only . . .

It was too late for all that.

Or was it?

“I won’t do it,” Olivia said firmly. “Tell him that I said no.”

“Olivia!” her mother shrieked. Even though ladies did not shriek.

“You must marry!” her father thundered. “Young ladies marry! That is what they do.”

She knew it was pointless to explain that she wanted to marry. She just didn’t want to marry the Mad Baron.

“No, thank you. I am ever so flattered by his attentions,” she said with a nod toward politeness. “But the answer is no.”

Her mother and father exchanged the sort of concerned glances that spoke volumes. There was a sinking feeling in her stomach and she wasn’t quite sure she could breathe. This couldn’t be happening. Not him. Not her. She’d been so good.

She did not deserve this.

“Well you see, daughter, the matter is all but settled,” her father said gravely. “I have given my permission to the marriage. The contracts have been drawn up. All that awaits is a perfunctory courtship and your acceptance. Do you recall our conversation last season?”

“How could I forget?” Olivia asked bitterly.

“The fact of the matter is that you need to marry and you have shown that you require assistance in the endeavor,” her father said. “We have made a suitable match for you. Lord Radcliffe has a title and a good income.”

“His estate isn’t too far from our country seat, so we can come make frequent visits,” her mother said encouragingly.

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