The Wicked Wallflower (Bad Boys & Wallflowers #1) by Maya Rodale

Prologue

London, 1821

ANY MINUTE NOW Lady Emma Avery’s life would truly begin. Glittering parties, rakish rogues, breathtaking romance . . . all those things that only ever happened in books would finally, finally happen to her.

Any minute now Emma would be announced at her first London ball. The great husband hunt would finally, finally begin. She’d spent four years preparing as a student at Lady Penelope’s Finishing School for Young Ladies. She spent the entire afternoon forcing her brown hair to curl and enduring fittings for a lovely ivory silk and lace gown, even though she would’ve rather been reading.

All the preparation would be worth it when some rogue swept her off her feet in a whirlwind of romance, which would happen, oh, any minute now.

“Lord and Lady Avery. Lady Emma.” The butler at Lady Wrotham’s ball announced their arrival. No one in the crowded ballroom took note.

Emma kept her head held high. She was new to London.

At the first opportunity, Emma found her two dearest friends from Lady Penelope’s: Lady Olivia Archer and Miss Prudence Payton. They had staked out a position in the corner of the ballroom, where they watched the other ­couples dancing, flirting, and conversing.

“I hardly have any names on my dance card,” Emma said, slightly despairing. This was not how she imagined her debut.

“There are just four names on mine,” Olivia said. “But I think the gentlemen only agreed to escape my mother. I really can’t blame them.”

“I haven’t any,” Prudence replied glumly.

“The night is still young,” Emma declared. “And this is only our first ball of our first season.”

“I wager her dance card is full,” Prudence said. They all turned to look at Lady Katherine Abernathy—­blond, beautiful, and mean—­surrounded by a gaggle of young, handsome suitors. She smiled like a cat in cream.

“Oh, hello!” she called out to them. The three tensed, for Lady Katherine had never, in the history of their acquaintance, had a kind word for any of them.

“My friends from Finishing School,” she explained to her swarming pack of beaux. First she introduced Lady Olivia and Miss Prudence. Then Lady Katherine paused to smile wickedly. “And Lady Emma. But we all called her the Buxom Bluestocking.”

The gentlemen, desperate to please or perhaps mistaking this cruelty for wit or humor, burst into uproarious laughter. Emma felt her cheeks flame red. She had actually prayed for Lady Katherine to drop that horrid nickname. And this was how God answered.

“Have I died and gone to hell? Tell me I have,” she pleaded to her friends.

“I’m afraid this is actually happening,” Prudence said sorrowfully. Olivia clasped Emma’s hand.

“This is not how the evening was supposed to go,” Emma said through clenched teeth. It was bad enough that she blushed while everyone laughed at her—­tonight, of all nights.

She. Would. Not. Cry.

Through their laughter, Emma didn’t hear the orchestra begin playing the third waltz. But she did see a handsome gentleman awkwardly attempting to push his way through.

Mr. Benedict Chase. They had been introduced earlier. He was one of the few to pencil his name on her dance card. She wouldn’t blame him if he cried off. Who could possibly want to waltz with a girl known as Buxom Bluestocking?

But no, as Lady Katherine and her suitors watched, he bowed before Emma and then led her to the dance floor.

“The Buxom Bluestocking?” Mr. Chase inquired.

Emma bit her lip and looked away.

“I love a woman who reads,” he said kindly. Emma’s gaze locked with his; she saw he wasn’t teasing. He liked her—­when everyone else laughed at her expense. She also noted that he was handsome. He looked at her mouth as if he wanted to kiss her.

Emma promptly fell in love with Mr. Benedict Chase.

He whirled her around the ballroom; she felt dizzy from it. Or was that the heady, intoxicating sensation of true love? She smiled happily. Her cheeks were still pink—­but from pleasure, not embarrassment.

This is what she had prepared for. If only this moment could last forever.

This moment came to an abrupt stop when a large, hulking masculine body stepped backward and bumped into her. The force of their collision sent her sprawling to her knees on the parquet floor.

Emma peered up at the horrible, inconsiderate brute and found herself peering at the most breathtakingly handsome man she had ever seen. He could only be the Duke of Ashbrooke, an infamous scoundrel who made frequent appearances in the gossip columns.

“My apologies. Didn’t see you there,” the duke said with a smile that was renowned for melting hearts and weakening women’s resolve.

Emma just scowled.

He had ruined her perfect moment with the man she loved.

Then, like a gentleman and not the rogue he was reputed to be, the duke offered her his hand. Not to be outdone, Benedict did as well.

Emma glanced from the duke to Benedict, each reaching out for her hand. She didn’t hesitate. Her choice was clear. She chose the man who saw her. She chose love.

Chapter 1

The graduates of Lady Penelope’s Finishing School for Young Ladies make excellent matches . . . eventually.

—­PROMOTIONAL PAMPHLET

London

April, 1824

Lady Emma Avery’s Bedroom

AS GRADUATES OF Lady Penelope’s Finishing School for Young Ladies, it was expected that Lady Emma Avery and her friends, Lady Olivia Archer and Miss Prudence Payton, would make good matches on the marriage mart within a season or two of their debut. They had done no such thing.

Having endured Lady Wrotham’s ball celebrating the start of the 1824 season earlier that night, the girls returned to Emma’s house, procured a bottle of sherry, and proceeded to face a dire truth.

“To our fourth season,” Emma said with a sigh, raising her glass. Reluctantly, Olivia and Prudence did so as well, clinking the cut crystal goblets together and taking small ladylike sips.

“As of tonight, there are just three months until Lady Penelope’s Anniversary Ball,” Prudence said, giving voice to the dreadful fact that had been weighing on all of their minds.

At the end of every season, all the graduates—­and their husbands—­gathered to celebrate the anniversary of the school’s founding, as well as announce the matches made that season and pray for those yet unwed.

To miss the event was simply not done.

To attend the event without a husband was excruciating.

“Thus if we are not married by within three months time, we shall be the first batch of spinsters in the history of the school,” Olivia said in a small voice. “No one has ever ended their fourth season unwed. Except for us.”

Olivia, seated primly on the pale blue carpet, nervously fussed with her skirts. Emma leaned back against the bed, bumping her head on the post. Prudence sighed.

There was also the unspoken truth that they all wanted romance, love, families of their own and happily-­ever-­after. With each year that went by, it became harder and harder to smile at another of their classmates’ weddings or the birth of another baby. Inside, the same aching, desperate feeling: When will it be my turn? When? When?

“In the one-hundred-year history of the school, it was bound to happen,” Prudence said. “Mathematically speaking.”

“Lady Katherine Abernathy is also still unwed,” Olivia pointed out.

“By choice,” Emma replied. “She has refused numerous proposals. She need only say yes to one of them.” Beautiful, blond, and despicable Lady Katherine Abernathy had delighted in tormenting Emma and her friends at Lady P’s with cutting remarks, cruel pranks . . . always followed by demands for help with her lessons from the Buxom Bluestocking.

“I suppose it doesn’t need to be said that we haven’t received any proposals. At all. Whatsoever,” Olivia said glumly.

“No, it doesn’t,” Prudence said. “I am well aware that I have received none and shall not receive any, so long as the ton calls me Prude Prudence.”

“At least you are not known as Prissy Missy,” Olivia replied. “The name does not seem to entice gentlemen. Surprisingly.”

“Neither of those are as bad as the Buxom Bluestocking,” Emma said, shuddering at the horrid nickname she had earned thanks to her figure and her penchant for reading.

With life on the marriage mart cruel to a girl known as the Buxom Bluestocking, she had retreated even more into her books, which only made things worse.

Prudence refilled their empty glasses and raised hers in toast. “To London’s Least Likely,” she declared wryly.

Olivia pursed her lips and Emma groaned. The prior season, the “gentlemen” at White’s had concocted a cruel new game in which they named London’s Least Likely to Cause a Scandal (Olivia), Misbehave (Emma), Be Caught In Compromising Position (Prudence).

The revelation of this did not enhance their marital prospects.

They weren’t tragic. They just weren’t it.

“Something must be done,” Olivia said. “I cannot bear the thought of standing there while our class takes a bow and we are the only unmarried ones in the lot. My mother will probably weep openly at what a failure I am.”

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