Wallflower Gone Wild (Bad Boys & Wallflowers #2)(7) by Maya Rodale

Olivia did not like the sound of that. Rambling meant vast distances between his and the next. Privacy meant no one would see if she were in trouble. She helped herself to another biscuit. So much for her fantasy of living in a house with neighbors close by for frequent visits.

“How large is your house?” her mother inquired.

“Five stories, including the attics and basements,” he answered, with a glance at Olivia, who frowned.

Did he have to mention attics and basements? Everyone knew that if one were to keep maidens captive, or conduct any sort of nefarious activity, one didn’t do it in the drawing room, but in dusty attics and damp basement dungeons. He had said dungeons, hadn’t he?

Olivia availed herself of another biscuit.

“The estate itself is lovely,” he continued, with an uneasy glance her way. “Very quiet, and remote. There is a lot of dense forest.”

Underneath all of her face paint, Olivia paled. Remote meant there would be no one to hear her scream. Not that ladies ever screamed. Unless their lives were in danger. Which hers would be. Oh dear God.

She sharply set down her teacup and it clattered loudly against the saucer. Her mother frowned. Olivia felt a surge of anger: how could they think of marrying her to this man?

“There’s not much society,” he added with a faint smile. Was it a regretful smile, or one that promised evil mischief? She stole another glance. Definitely the latter.

She would be left alone, utterly alone, with this man! Olivia blinked back tears, which made her eyes burn when they mixed with the kohl. She dabbed at them with one of her embroidered handkerchiefs, ruining it forever.

“And how fares your scientific endeavors?” her father inquired, ascertaining that a subject change was in order.

“They keep me occupied from morning to night, really,” Radcliffe answered. “Some find the work dangerous, but I think it’s fascinating and enjoy the challenge.”

Dangerous work? Dear God, what did this man do? Gentlemen were supposed to play cards, write poetry to ladies, drink port, and little else. At their clubs. In London.

If the two of them were to marry—which they most certainly would not do—she faced a wretched solitude, without even Emma or Prudence to provide solace in her decades of exile. She would lose her wits entirely. She’d stroll the halls in her ghostlike, virginal dresses mumbling to herself (“I won’t marry him, I won’t!”) and carrying on conversations with imaginary friends. She would be known in all the London papers as the Mad Baroness.

“One reason I have come to town is to work with the Duke of Ashbrooke on the Difference Engine,” Radcliffe explained, and that caught Olivia’s attention.

Emma’s husband was involved in this? Olivia would have Words with her friend. Perhaps she’d ask Emma to implore the duke to send this Mad Baron away and leave her in peace. In the battle for her freedom and future happiness, Olivia resolved that all possible avenues be explored.

“I do believe that wasn’t the only reason you came to town, Lord Radcliffe,” her mother added, almost flirtatiously. Olivia rolled her eyes because ladies did not roll their eyes. She’d always wanted to try it.

“I did come with the intention of taking a wife,” Radcliffe said, gazing at her intently. Her pulse started racing with pure terror. “It’s time for me to try again.”

Again. There it was: the cold fact of his previous wife. Whom he murdered. Allegedly.

“And you have done just that! Isn’t that so, Olivia,” mother said, turning toward her. “He came just for you.”

She ought to murmur How lovely or something obliging like that. Instead, Olivia replied: “I don’t think I had much to do with the matter at all.”

Her mother pursed her lips. Her father started turning pink again. The Mad Baron quirked his brow.

“Have you given any thought to the wedding, Lord Radcliffe?” Lady Archer asked, even though there had been no proposal. Olivia quite feared the words “marry me” would be the next ones out of his mouth.

Instead he said, “If it comes to that, I shall allow you both to make the plans. I’ll be busy with my work on the engine. I also understand that ladies delight over matters like these and it’s best if men stay out of their way.” The Mad Baron added, “Whatever you wish, Lady Olivia.”

“You say that now,” she drolled.

“Olivia!” Her father shouted.

“I beg your pardon?” Radcliffe asked. Poor man was quite confused. Was he daft as well as mad? How could he not know that she—or any other woman in London—would not wish to marry him? Just because she almost kissed him in a dimly lit corridor didn’t mean she wished to marry him now that she knew who he was and the violence he was capable of.

“It doesn’t signify,” Lady Archer snapped with a sharp look to her daughter.

“Truly, it doesn’t,” Olivia said earnestly, in spite of the furious glares of her parents. Oh, she was going to have an earful later. Better that than a lifetime with this scarred man with his dangerous occupation and violent past, who potentially seduced maidens in dimly lit corners of the ballroom.

“Perhaps you could tell me about yourself, Lady Olivia. What do you like to do?” the Mad Baron asked.

Olivia opened her mouth to give a snarky reply, but nothing came to mind other than the tragic truth that she did not know what she liked to do. It would probably break her mother’s heart to learn her daughter didn’t absolutely delight in floral arrangements or practicing the pianoforte or any of her other hobbies.

“Olivia likes to watercolor,” Lady Archer said before Olivia could utter a word. “Embroidery is one of her pastimes; she is excellent with a needle. Floral arranging is another of her talents. She will be an excellent household manager.”

“Just what I need,” Lord Radcliffe said with a smile that might have been handsome were he not condemning her to a short life managing the linens and planning menus with the chef.

Just what I do not want to be.

Any hopes for love and companionship in a marriage would be lost if she did find herself reluctantly walking down the aisle with this man. He thought her a silly female who would be content to manage his servants and languish in utter solitude. The scars did nothing to assuage her fears. Neither did the way he looked at her. The makeup had not been enough. She would have to be worse.

Chapter 4

Let any maiden tremble in terror should she find herself alone with the Mad Baron.

—THE MAD BARON: THE GRUESOME STORY OF AN INNOCENT MAIDEN’S TRAGIC LOVE AND UNTIMELY DEATH. A TRUE STORY.

When Phinneas Cole—formally known as Baron Radcliffe, and popularly known as the Mad Baron, though he preferred to be called Phinn—first set eyes on Lady Olivia Archer at a ball, he understood magnetism in a way he never had before.

Given that he was something of an expert in it, this was remarkable.

He knew about the materials and forces at work, but he’d never viscerally understood the unseen force until he couldn’t tug his attention from her. He’d never felt it. Once he saw her, looking away was a physical impossibility.

She had been standing alone on the balcony circling the ballroom, as if she were lonely in a crowded room. It was a feeling he knew all too well and one he didn’t expect to share with a woman. For a moment Phinn stood there, disengaged from the crowd, peering up at her, and observed. She had lovely fair hair and a pale complexion. Her every movement—from the slight tilt of her head to the way she traced her fingers along the balustrade—was controlled and graceful.

In a glance, he could see she was the opposite of Nadia, which was all he wanted in a wife.

Phinn walked purposefully through the crowds until he met her at the bottom of the stairs in that darkened corridor. For his second wife, he meant to do everything right, from the first introduction to the proposal.

Meeting like this—having not been introduced, and being without a chaperone—was awfully roguish. But he couldn’t leave. When she was knocked into his arms, he had a hard time letting go. Phinn wanted her, wanted to lose himself in her.

He couldn’t blame her for panicking and fleeing, but he wished she had stayed. He wanted to know her. He would know her.

Later, he inquired about her to his friend, Lord Rogan.

“That chit? Lady Olivia Archer. Better known as Prissy Missy. And she’s one of London’s Least Likely, but I can’t recall if she’s one least likely to misbehave or be caught in a scandal.”

That was all Phinn needed to hear. He’d come to town to help build the Duke of Ashbrooke’s Difference Engine to debut at the Great Exhibition, and to marry a woman who would keep his house, warm his bed, and otherwise wouldn’t cause him any trouble or distract him from his work.

It seemed he found her on his first night in London. When he found the perfect woman, upon whom he was transfixed, why wait to make her his wife?

He hadn’t managed an introduction that night, but obtaining permission to court her had been the matter of a quick interview with her father. Phinn was glad; he had feared the business of finding a wife would drag on, eating up time better spent on his work.

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