Wallflower Gone Wild (Bad Boys & Wallflowers #2)(9) by Maya Rodale

“I am not in the habit of watching young women ogle statues,” Phinn replied.

“You really need to get out of your study more,” Rogan said matter-of-factly and probably not incorrectly.

“I really want this to work, Rogan.” His housekeeper had been nagging him to take a wife—“a nice one this time”—and the thought of a woman to share meals and his bed did hold a certain appeal. Especially if this wife wouldn’t cause trouble or distract him from his work. And then there was the matter of the strange force that drew him to Olivia. But he couldn’t say such rubbish, and especially not to Rogan, who would never let him live it down. Instead, he said, “I’d hate to have to start at the beginning.”

“Feats of strength, I tell you,” Rogan said confidently. “Or at the very least, you must get her away from her mother. In fact, see if you can steal a moment alone with her at a ball. Women love stolen moments in dark, secluded places with gents. They’re not supposed to, but they do. Trust me.”

Chapter 5

This week in unexpected couplings: there are rumors that Lady Olivia Archer, better known as London’s Least Likely to Cause a Scandal, is being courted by none other Lord Radcliffe, better known as the Mad Baron by trembling young maidens.

—”FASHIONABLE INTELLIGENCE” BY A LADY OF DISTINCTION,

THE LONDON WEEKLY

Upon Olivia’s arrival at a ball, three things always happened. First, she contrived to lose her mother in the crowd. Then she made her way through the throng of guests with her head held high, pretending that she didn’t see all the men who subsequently made themselves scarce as soon as they became aware of her approach.

Finally, she found Emma and Prudence standing near the lemonade table. It was likely that Olivia and Prudence would remain there, off to the side, for the duration of the ball, save for the occasional trip to the ladies’ retiring room just to liven things up.

But tonight was different.

Olivia was distinctly aware that instead of averting their gazes, people gave her looks that could only be described as pitying. The women offered half smiles—before turning to whisper to their companions. The men still looked away, but without their usual alacrity.

Olivia concluded the obvious: the ton was aware that the Mad Baron was courting London’s Least Likely to Cause a Scandal. Her throat constricted at the thought.

She had spotted Emma and Prue just ten paces away when Lord Dudley, of all the people in England, stepped in front of her.

She stepped to the right, intending to walk around him, for that bounder couldn’t possibly mean to speak to her. But Dudley also stepped to the right, blocking her path.

She stepped to the left. So did Dudley.

Lady Olivia’s polite vocabulary lacked the words to describe him, other than to say that he was universally disdained because of his cruel wit and hotheaded behavior. And yet the scoundrel was invited everywhere due to his father’s influence.

Thus when Dudley stepped before Olivia, obviously intent on speaking to her, a knot formed in the pit of her stomach. This could not be good.

Other people nearby were of the same mind, for they turned to stare in expectation of a scene. The constantly tormenting Lady Katherine was smirking. For the first time in four seasons, Olivia found herself the center of attention.

“Lady Olivia,” Dudley said, bowing deeply. “I understand congratulations are soon to be in order.”

Olivia didn’t reply because she didn’t have anything to say—though not for lack of want or effort. Tomorrow at breakfast she would think of a devastating retort. For now . . . nothing.

“I have something you may find interesting,” Dudley said with a smirk.

“I rather doubt it,” she replied. Nearby, someone chuckled.

Dudley was not dissuaded. He handed her a broadside. With just a glance she could read the title, printed in large letters: The Mad Baron: The Gruesome Story of an Innocent Maiden’s Tragic Love and Untimely Death. A True Story.

It had published six years ago—shortly after the Murderous Incident. Olivia knew this because a fellow student at Lady Penelope’s School for Young Ladies had procured a copy. All the girls had eagerly passed it around, relishing in all the gory details of the sordid story and praying they’d never, ever have to marry him.

“Go on, take it,” Dudley said with a smirk. “You’ll want to know what you’re in for on your wedding night.”

“I have already read it,” Olivia told him, hoping she sounded bored and not terrified. But Dudley shook the leaflet at her, leaving her no choice but to take it. Then, with her lip quivering from the cruel reminder that she was to possibly wed the worst man in the world, she walked past Dudley toward the wallflowers. She let the broadside fall to the ground, to be trampled on by the hordes of satin slippers.

“What was that all about?” Emma asked. Even though she was a duchess now, she still spent a fair portion of every ball with Prue and Olivia.

“Dudley is the worst,” Prudence said vehemently. The other girls agreed.

“He wished to give me a copy of the broadside about the Mad Baron.”

“Remember reading that at Lady Penelope’s?” Prudence asked. “I had nightmares for weeks. Truly terrifying stuff.”

“Prudence!” Emma exclaimed. Prue ignored her.

“Remember the part where he had his brother killed so he could seduce his intended?” Prudence asked with gruesome relish.

“Only to eventually kill her, too,” Olivia said. “Oh, I remember.”

“Your mother is bearing down toward us at a furious pace,” Emma remarked.

The girls turned to look. Lady Archer meant well. Her sole task in life was the suitable marriage of her daughter, and Lord help anyone who stood in her way. If only she might spend more time embroidering or painting or doing charitable works and less time trying to find a husband for her daughter.

“And she has the Mad Baron for company,” Olivia muttered when she spied him with her mother. If she didn’t know better, she might have thought he looked dashing in his evening clothes. But she did. So she didn’t.

“You didn’t say he was handsome, Olivia!” Emma exclaimed, tapping her on the shoulder with her fan. Honestly, her friend had gone soft. Romance had wrecked her. The Duke of Ashbrooke had made a muddle of her brains.

“Handsome in a terrifying sort of way,” Prudence murmured.

The Mad Baron stood in stark contrast to the other gents. He was taller, broader in the shoulders. Everyone else wore brightly colored waistcoats; his was dark gray.

Looking at him through the eyes of her friends, Olivia noted his strong chiseled features, which would have been softened by a smile. Or a lack of that dramatic slash of a scar. He wasn’t handsome. He was dangerously beautiful, but fear clouded her vision so much that she could only see dangerous.

“Good looks don’t signify when he’s a murderer,” Olivia lectured. “I’ll hardly care that he has nice green eyes when his hands are closing around my neck.”

“I want to meet him,” Emma said, glancing curiously in his direction.

“I as well,” Prudence added. “I’ve never met a murderer before. That I know of.”

“And I need to visit the ladies’ retiring room,” Olivia said. Her heart was pounding furiously, like a poor gazelle aware of a lion stealthily advancing toward it. “Urgently.”

They expertly maneuvered through the crowd in the ballroom and along the corridor. With the door locked, Olivia exhaled a sigh of relief and lay down on the settee.

“Are you just going to avoid him all night?” Prudence asked.

“Yes. That is precisely what I intend to do,” Olivia replied. “He can’t possibly propose if he can’t speak to me. If he doesn’t propose, then I needn’t marry him.”

“I confess that I want to meet him,” Emma said. Again.

“Have your husband introduce you,” Olivia suggested. “I cannot believe he hasn’t already. In fact, I cannot believe you didn’t mention that your husband was involved in this disaster.”

“Honestly, I had no idea!” Emma protested. “He mentioned an acquaintance coming down from Yorkshire to help with the engine, but I didn’t put two and two together. Apparently, in addition to terrifying young ladies, the Mad Baron is also an expert in machines. They are constructing the engine at a warehouse that had been converted from stables on Devonshire Street. Blake hasn’t had him come ’round to the house. At least not while I was at home.”

“Even Blake thinks he is a danger to young women everywhere,” Olivia muttered.

“And he is at large in this ballroom,” Prudence said in a hushed whisper, purposely designed to make the hair on Olivia’s neck stand up.

“You may succeed in avoiding his company this evening,” Emma said. “But what about the rest of your life?”

“What do you mean?” Olivia asked. “My plan to avoid him is perfect. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner.”

“You know your parents will put you two together at every opportunity,” Emma said practically.

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