Winning the Wallflower
It Could Only Happen in a Fairytale
Lady Lucy Towerton
Plain and tall. (According to the lady herself.)
Titled, and irreproachably proper. (According to her fiancé.)
Until, overnight, she becomes
Lady Lucy Towerton
Heiress. (Thanks to an aged aunt’s bequest.)
Belle of the Ball. (So say the fortune hunters of the ton.)
In charge of her own destiny (finally!), Lucy breaks her engagement and makes up her mind to never be proper again…
Warning! In describing relations between characters, I may wreck a book for you by making it clear who someone marries, or the outcome of a book. Please do not read about The Inside Take if you're wary of knowing who is paired with whom!
When I was in middle school, I was a wallflower, though we didn’t use the word. At that point there were only two or three boys taller than me in the class, and I was mortified. It was actually quite cathartic to give my mortification to Lucy, and then bestow her with a fortune (and some wisdom as regards men who care about trivialities like height).
“Filled with wit, sexual tension, steamy situations, engaging characters, delightful banter, second chances and true love, this is a story you will want to read more than once.”
~ Romance Junkies
“James’s signature wit, well-drawn characters and sensual romance make this holiday tale one to treasure.”
~ The Romance Dish
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The Summers Ball
“It’s like a fairy tale! One moment Lucy is a younger daughter with virtually no dowry, and the next she’s an heiresses,” exclaimed Mrs. Martha Brindle, sitting down beside her sister. “You truly had no idea that Towerton’s great aunt planned to leave her a fortune?”
“Not the faintest,” Lady Towerton replied, shaking open her fan and poising it before her face so that she could speak freely. “The truth is that I met his aunt only once, and though I’ve wracked my brains, I can’t recall that she paid the children any particular attention. We presume that she must have fixed on Lucy as the only unmarried girl in the family.”
“I wonder if she would have changed her will had she known that Lucy is to marry? Her fiancé must be very pleased.”
Lady Towerton’s triumphant smile evaporated. “The very first thing my daughter will do—this evening, if Ravensthorpe makes an appearance—is bring to an end that wretched betrothal. I am glad to say that she can now look considerably higher. We look for a title at the very least. A connection such as that is beneath her, beneath any member of my family.”
There was a short pause while Mrs. Brindle reminded herself that her sister Agnes had faced tribulations that mitigated her tactless snobbery. “They haven’t been betrothed long, have they?”
“A matter of weeks. Towerton and I insisted on a long betrothal, given the connection, as you can surely understand. I most dislike associating with the merchant classes, let alone giving my daughter to a man of that caste.”
Mrs. Brindle opened her mouth to make a sharp comment about their own ancestors, but thought better of it. “You speak as if she were moving to Bermuda, Sister,” she tried instead. “By all accounts Ravensthorpe is absurdly wealthy; he may well buy her a house in Grosvenor Square next to yours.”
“You know how I feel about the sort of scandal that hangs over that family,” Lady Towerton said with a sniff. “What’s more, Ravensthorpe is no more than a glorified tradesman. I understand he made the money himself. It certainly isn’t from the family; as a solicitor, his father likely lives on his wife’s dowry. I could not have associated with Lucy on a social basis had she married him, no matter where she lived. Not in the same way.”
Mrs. Brindle opened her own fan and lowered her voice. “But to be absolutely candid with you, Agnes, not every man would be comfortable marrying dearest Lucy. Are you quite certain you should cut this tie? After all, a bird in the hand, as they say. It’s three years since her debut.”
Lady Towerton narrowed her eyes. “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re saying, Martha. Now that Lucy is dowered as befits her birth, I am quite certain that gentlemen will flock to her side.”
“How does she feel about the prospect of breaking her engagement? He’s so handsome, isn’t he? Mr. Ravensthorpe, I mean.”
“Handsome is as handsome does. As I said, he’s a man of no birth—”
“But what a fortune!” Mrs. Brindle put in. She was starting to enjoy herself; wrangling with Agnes brought her back to the schoolroom.
“Lucy no longer need entertain such concerns. We no longer need lower ourselves in order to secure her future.”
“True. Yet when a man has Ravensthorpe’s looks, he doesn’t need a title to make a girl fall in love with him.” Mrs. Brindle gave her sister a knowing smile.
“Lucy would never fall in love with a man so beneath her in blood.” Lady Towerton snapped her fan shut. “Never!”
One can hardly blame Lady Towerton for her ignorance. Mothers are rarely informed when their daughters have fallen into an ignominious, bewildering, and altogether overwhelming infatuation.
“She told me that I must break it off tonight,” Lady Lucy said to her friend, Miss Olivia Mayfield Lytton. Not having seen each other in some time, they had hidden themselves behind three potted palms. Lady Summers was suffering from a mania for all things Egyptian, which had resulted in palm trees lining the ballroom like a row of dowagers in extravagant plumes. “Needless to say, she did not ask for my opinion,” Lucy added.
“Because of your great aunt’s bequest?” Olivia asked.
“Mother is entertaining fantasies about my ability to catch a title—which is absurd, though I can’t seem to make her understand it. Just look at me!” Lucy swept her hand down her body. “The size of my dowry isn’t enough to disguise my height.”
“You’re lovely,” Olivia said with conviction. “And you’re an heiress now. Your mother is right.”
Lucy rolled her eyes. “Be serious. There’s a reason that no one dances with me. Do you see this gown, Olivia?”
“To see it is to covet it,” Olivia said promptly. “I adore the pleats on your sleeves. All that embroidery isn’t really done with pearls, is it?”
“Pearls? My father would never pay for pearls. They’re glass beads.”
“My mother still refuses to allow me to wear any color other than white, which makes me look as round as an egg. An ostrich egg. Whereas you look wonderful in that violet-blue color.”
“My point is that when we ordered it, the modiste made a joke to the effect that I would have the only dress this color in London, since she had to use the entire bolt to make my gown. And that is nothing to the sort of jests that men made regularly in the days when my mother was forcing every eligible male in the room to dance with me. If I break it off with Ravensthorpe, I’ll have to face all that over again.” She shuddered.
“Those men are absurd to focus on something so trivial. Your eyes are a lovely silvery blue. I’ve never seen anything quite like them. And your hair is the fashionable color too, for all it won’t take a curl. Men like yellow hair.”
“Don’t!” Lucy said it rather savagely. “I should have one friend at least who can acknowledge the truth, Olivia. I’m practically a giantess compared to most of the ladies in this room. Most gentlemen do not want to marry someone as tall as me; they don’t even want to dance with me.” It was liberating to say it aloud, though it didn’t make the truth any less disagreeable.
Olivia opened her mouth, then closed it. “Ravensthorpe does,” she said after a moment. “He’s a normal man.”
“He wants me merely because he is trying to become respectable,” Lucy replied, her voice wavering a bit, to her horror. She’d already cried herself sick that morning; she couldn’t break out again in the middle of a ball. “He’s on the tall side himself, so he doesn’t mind as much.” She stripped off her gloves and began looking for a handkerchief. “Do you know, I’ve done nothing but cry since I heard the news? That has to be a first: woman goes into a blue funk due to becoming an heiress.”
“Ravensthorpe is wickedly handsome,” Olivia said, passing her a handkerchief when Lucy couldn’t seem to find one in her reticule, “as well as taller than you, and I think he wants you for more than respectability, and I mean that in the best possible sense.”
Lucy surprised herself with a watery chuckle. “You would be wrong. The last six weeks have been like some sort of lovely dream. I kept waiting for him to realize he could do so much better and drop me like a hot brick.”
“No, he couldn’t,” Olivia exclaimed. “For goodness’ sake, Lucy, he asked you to marry him. The man is enamored.”
“No. He’s not,” Lucy said flatly. “He hasn’t tried to kiss me, or even speak to me in private.”
Olivia frowned. “But you’ve been engaged for weeks! Are you saying that you haven’t even seen him since the proposal? I did wonder why you were still referring to him as Ravensthorpe; it seems so formal.”
“I think of him as Ravensthorpe, which tells you a good deal about our betrothal. At any rate, I have indeed seen him. Six times, to be precise. The very day after my father accepted his request for my hand, he brought me a letter from his parents, welcoming me to the family.”
“Very proper. Though it’s rather odd that they didn’t pay you a call in person. They live just outside London, do they not?”
“Yes, but they don’t move in society. I don’t know all the details but I gather his mother caused a huge scandal by falling in love with the family solicitor. I think they might even have run to Gretna Green. My mother is rather horrid about it and insists that Cyrus was born several months too early.”
“ ‘Family solicitor’ isn’t quite accurate,” Olivia exclaimed. “Mr. Ravensthorpe, Sr. is famous. I follow all his cases, if only to shock my mother with details of the criminal classes. At any rate, that scandal was years ago. Surely people have forgotten.”
Lucy threw her a look. “Not my mother. She chucked their letter into the fire in front of him, and then said—in the most unconvincing voice imaginable—that it flew from her hand.”
“Truly?” Olivia’s jaw actually fell open for a second before she snapped it shut. “Your mother is very lively. And I mean that word too in the best possible sense, naturally.”
“Neither of us is fortunate in that department,” Lucy said, but kindly, as she rather thought that Olivia’s mother was even more impossible than her own. “The letter incident cast a bit of a pall over the room, as you can imagine.”
“Actually, I can’t imagine. Do you suppose that your mother and Ravensthorpe’s could have been deadly rivals thirty years ago? Her reaction seems out of proportion.”
“As the daughter of an earl, his mother would have been of higher rank than mine, so it’s quite possible. My mother dislikes people of higher status than herself only slightly more than she loathes those of lower status.”
“Whereas my mother worships anyone of any rank whatsoever.” Olivia pulled back a palm frond. “Look, your mother and aunt are surrounded by bachelors, which suggests that the news of your good fortune is spreading.”
“Just look at the way she’s chattering to Lord Bessleton,” Lucy said gloomily. “She looks like a butcher’s wife boasting about a good cut of beef.”
“You being the beef in question?”
Olivia let the frond fall back into place. “Let’s go back to Ravensthorpe. Did his blood boil at the insult to his mother?”
“Not so you’d notice. We played a rather dispirited game of backgammon. Then he left, without reiterating his proposal in person, as I had expected him to do.”
“Did you win? I would hate it if only your friends fell before your fiendish game-playing skills.”
“I did win. But I turn silent and quite unlike myself around him, Olivia. He’s as beautiful up close as he is across the room. It does something to my brain and I can’t say a word.”
Olivia raised an eyebrow. “I don’t see the problem. That’s just what I would like in a marriage: a daily opportunity to ogle a beautiful man.”
“It’s a good thing your mother didn’t hear that,” Lucy remarked.
“Yes, it’s quite amazing how I continue to shock my mother even after all these years together,” Olivia agreed.
“The worst of it is that Mother would have allowed us to take a stroll in the garden or a ride in the park, but he has never asked,” Lucy burst out. “And I’m not brave enough to suggest it. For the past few weeks he has paid us a morning call once a week, during visiting hours, stayed for precisely forty minutes, and then left. Politely.”
“He hasn’t even escorted you to a ball? Or take you to Vauxhall? Or even an outing in the park?”
“No. Generally we have a cup of tea, and then I take out the backgammon board, because it’s just so awkward to sit there with my mother airing her disdain at every opportunity.”
Olivia shuddered. “It sounds perfectly dreadful. Didn’t you talk about anything?”
“We did have a discussion about Lord Byron’s poetry two weeks ago. He thinks that it’s strident, self-indulgent, and over-emotional, and he thinks even worse of Byron himself. Needless to say, the topic was quickly exhausted, and I haven’t dared to bring up literature since.”
“Most men don’t like poetry,” Olivia pointed out. “It’s a defect in their sex, but he’s hardly singular.”
“It’s just so frustrating because he doesn’t say anything when we’re together. And I’m tongue-tied by the mere sight of him. So we sit in stony silence and move game pieces around.”
“I don’t think I’d mind a silent man if he had a face like your fiancé’s,” Olivia said with a naughty chuckle. “He sounds like a pretty statue that you can gaze at all you like without having to bother with listening to rot about his horses or his carriage or his new cravat.”
“You are growing far too cynical,” Lucy said, narrowing her eyes.
“One must accept one’s limitations with a humble heart,” Olivia replied, looking anything but remorseful. “You should stop fussing about your fiancé being quiet, Lucy. Just imagine how irritating it would be if one’s fiancé—soon to be husband—rattled on all the time, like some men whom I know.”
“But that’s the point! Ravensthorpe is not my fiancé anymore,” Lucy said, her throat tightening again. “I do think that over time I could have talked him into meeting my eyes—because most of the time he doesn’t, Olivia. He just looks off into the distance as if I were boring him to distraction—at any rate, I…I would have loved to try. But now mother says that I must break off our betrothal immediately.”
“And you don’t want to break it off.”
“Would you?” Lucy met Olivia’s eyes. “No man like Ravensthorpe has ever looked at me. I’m not only the same height as most men, but I don’t light up a room. I’m boring. I can’t make men laugh, the way you do.”
“You are not boring!” Olivia said indignantly. “At least, you aren’t when you stop talking about how tall you are. Honestly, you’re just like my sister. The two of you are so perfectly behaved that you never act like normal people around your suitors.”
“It seems to have escaped your notice that Georgiana and I don’t have suitors,” Lucy agreed glumly. “We’re both wallflowers, but at least she’s of normal height. Where is Georgiana tonight?”
Olivia peered through the palm tree again. “She’s sitting over there in the dowagers’ corner.”
Lucy shuddered. “After tonight, I suppose I’ll be back over there with her, desperately hoping that some fortune hunter will ask me to dance. When Ravensthorpe made his proposal and I realized I could forget the utter humiliation of looking for a husband, I was so grateful. It’s such a relief being engaged, Olivia. You can have no idea.”
Olivia was still peering through the palm fronds, but she threw a wry look over her shoulder. Lucy felt her cheeks heating with embarrassment. “Of course you know what it’s like to be engaged!” she said hastily. “I’m a duffle-headed fool.”
“I often forget it myself,” Olivia said. “And speak of the devil, there’s my fiancé. Oh no, I think he caught sight of me.” She drew back quickly.
“I rather like Rupert,” Lucy said, leaning forward to take Olivia’s place.
Olivia scowled at her. “I deserve honesty from you as well. I’m marrying the village idiot, and there’s no point in trying to paint Rupert in any other light.”
Lucy reached out and gave Olivia’s hand a squeeze. “I know, Olivia. I’m so sorry. It’s just that you’ve been betrothed so long that I…well…”
“Don’t worry,” Olivia said with a sigh. “There are very few betrothals that stretch to eighteen years. Although there is some hope that my wedding day will actually happen soon. Not only has Rupert turned eighteen, but he’s learned to dance. Surely that signals a man is ready for marriage.”
“I did see the marquess dancing earlier this evening,” Lucy commented, but thought it best not to mention that Rupert and his partner had caromed into another couple and broken up the set. “He must have seen you, Olivia, because he is coming directly to our corner. Where’s his father, by the way? I thought the marquess never came to this sort of event without an escort.”
“Oh, the duke is here as well,” Olivia said. Her voice had taken on a particularly bleak undertone that Lucy hated to hear. “Quick, Lucy, put on your gloves.”
Lucy threw her a confused frown, but obediently pulled her gloves back on.
At that moment the palms rustled, and Rupert Forrest G. Blakemore, Marquess of Montsurrey, heir to the Duchy of Canterwick, stood beaming down at them. Rupert likely would have been quite good-looking, if things had been different. But as they were, his blue eyes were vacant, and his mouth hung open in a glistening pout.
“Hello, Olivia!” he said cheerfully. “Hello, hello, hello! Saw you there. Saw just a bit of your eye, but knew it was you directly. And…” he hesitated. “And this is Lucy light…no, Lady Lucy! That’s how I memorize names. Lucy…light…see? Your hair is shiny as a penny.”
Lucy curtsied. “That’s a very good way to master names, Lord Blakemore.”
“Never have mastered them,” Rupert admitted, grabbing her gloved hand and depositing an enthusiastic—and wet—kiss on the back. “Not so many people I can name in the room, to be honest. Olivia, dance?”
“We just danced,” Olivia said, smiling in a rather fixed way. “We can dance together only twice, Rupert, and we’ve already done that.”
He frowned. “Really? No, surely…Really?”
Lucy decided to intervene. “Lord Blakemore, would you be so kind as to bring me a lemonade?” She sank back into her chair. “It’s perishingly hot in here.”
He beamed. “Of course.” And he bustled off.
“You won’t get your lemonade,” Olivia said. “You know that, don’t you? He may get to the refreshment table, but by that point he won’t remember precisely why he’s there. He has some difficulty with follow-through.”
Lucy reached out and gave Olivia’s hand a tight squeeze. “I’m sorry. I’m just so sorry.”
Olivia’s smile was steady and not at all miserable. “I’ve had a great deal of time to get used to the situation. And besides, I’m a plump woman with a terrible weakness for bawdy jokes. Who would have me, if not Rupert?”
Lucy started to speak, but Olivia shook her head. “You may be tall, but you’re slim, and rounded in all the right places. What’s more, you behave like a perfect lady. I can’t seem to, but lord knows, Rupert will never notice. We’re suited in that.”
“I would give anything to look like you,” Lucy said with a snap in her voice. “I’m so tired of being able to look over the heads of most men. I can’t stand the way they shift from foot to foot, and then move away from me as soon as they can. They won’t ask me for a dance unless someone forces them to it. They make plays on my surname, always jokes on towers. And Mother thinks that one of those men will suddenly be enthusiastic about marrying me, even given the money? One of those?”
“Marriage is all about money. You should know that by now.”
“And what will my marriage be like? The fortune hunter who stooped—or I should say, stretched—to marry me won’t feel any more comfortable after we’ve walked the aisle, you know. He will have married a beanpole, and every time he looks across the breakfast table, he’ll remember it.”
“There are men in the world who are taller than you,” Olivia pointed out. “Ravensthorpe is only one of them. You needn’t pick a short one. Your mother is right: an heiress has a great number of men to choose from, tall and short.”
“But it’s not as if I will have the choice of those men, any more than you did,” Lucy retorted. “My parents care only for a man’s title, not his measurement. They’re talking about the Duke of Pole; everyone knows he needs a fortune, given his gambling. Surname notwithstanding, he’s shorter than I am, and besides, I don’t like him. If I had my choice, I would marry Ravensthorpe even if he had no dowry and no birth.” She brushed away a tear rolling down her cheek. “He’s so handsome…so…so…”
An arm wound around her. “Then you should marry him,” Olivia said into her ear. “Listen to me, Lucy. You’re right to say that I don’t have a choice. I was promised to Rupert before either of us was born. If I don’t marry him, not only would my parents expire from shame, but my sister would never have a dowry. I’m making my father write Georgiana’s dowry into the marriage settlements.”
Lucy sniffed inelegantly. “Surely your parents would understand…I mean, Rupert…”
“Rupert will be a duke someday. And it’s not as if he’s violent, or truly mad. My point is that you don’t have the reasons I do, Lucy. Your parents did agree to the match with Ravensthorpe. Tell them that you refuse to be so unethical as to break it off.”
Lucy couldn’t help but smile at the very idea of her mother’s reaction to that argument. “You are assuming that ethical behavior ranks above a title. Not so, at least not to my mother.”
“Then threaten to take your inheritance and move to Scotland. You should marry whom you wish. It doesn’t seem fair that neither of us should be able to choose a spouse.”
Lucy squeezed Olivia’s hand. “We could run off to Europe. This island isn’t large enough to contain myself and my mother if I disobeyed her.”
“Go to Europe—and leave Mr. Ravensthorpe behind?”
The idea sent a little arrow through Lucy’s chest.
Olivia laughed. “If I felt that way about someone, I’d hand Rupert off to my sister.”
“I’m not sure he cares for me in the least, Olivia. He only danced me once before he asked for my hand.”
“I’m not saying he didn’t regret it after you trounced him at backgammon all those times,” Olivia said, giving Lucy a little poke. “I hate to say the obvious, but if you and your fiancé were found in a compromising situation this evening, your parents would not be able to fish for a title. The betrothal would stand.”
Lucy gasped. “Olivia!”
“It’s merely a matter of being caught kissing your own fiancé. I’m not suggesting that you throw your virtue to the wind. Although,” she added thoughtfully, “if I had a penchant for Ravensthorpe, I might well. He has the most wonderful shoulders; have you noticed?”
Lucy had noticed. “His shoulders are irrelevant, given that he has never kissed me, even once. In fact, he’s never asked to speak to me alone, or even invited me onto a balcony.” She paused and then added bluntly, “I don’t think he wants to kiss me, Olivia.”
“Then he’s a fool. I would definitely want to kiss you, were I a man.”
Lucy gave her a wobbly smile.
“How much do you want him?” Olivia demanded. “If I had a practical alternative to Rupert, I would throw myself at him, whether the man welcomed it or no. I’d strip off my own gown in the garden if—well, that’s neither here nor there. You needn’t act like a hoyden. Just arrange to be seen kissing the man, and the Duke of Pole will be out of the question. By the way, isn’t Pole related to Ravensthorpe somehow?”
Lucy nodded. “They’re first cousins, but apparently they don’t speak. Pole is as superior in his attitudes as my mother. I’m sure he doesn’t approve of Ravensthorpe’s father having a profession. And while I can’t say I know my fiancé well, I can’t imagine that he would ever gamble away a fortune, the way the duke has.”
“Well, that settles it,” Olivia said. “Do you want to marry the penniless and supercilious Duke of Pole—who is, by the way, not nearly as delectable as Mr. Ravensthorpe and barely taller than I am—or do you want to fight for your fiancé?”
“I’ll kiss Ravensthorpe,” Lucy said, with sudden determination. “I could even tear my bodice. Mother would die, but that would do the trick.”
“I should think that a kiss will be sufficient.” Olivia gave her a mischievous smile. “I’ll keep an eye out and try to surprise the two of you, shall I? I’ll tell my mother that I feel overheated and drag her around till we find you. Be sure to kiss him as soon as you see me coming. Mother will be genuinely horrified, which will give the occasion a terrific sense of drama.”
Lucy put her hands on her cheeks. “Oh lord…”
“If you’re going to fight for him, Lucy, it’ll have to be tonight.” Olivia rose. “Your mother cannot announce your newly eligible status until the betrothal is formally ended, which gives you a very small window. I can see Rupert wandering aimlessly with a glass of lemonade, so I suppose I’ll have to rescue him before—” She stopped abruptly.
“Oh, dear. He’s dropped it down Miss Elton’s back,” she remarked a second later. “What a pity her gown was white. The yellow shows up so boldly; it looks as if someone emptied a chamber pot over her head. I must go, Lucy.”
Lucy stayed hidden behind the palms, trying to gather courage. How on earth did one entice a man who has never shown the faintest interest in kissing her to do just that—in front of an audience?
She might die of humiliation.
But at least she would expire having been kissed by Mr. Ravensthorpe, Esq., the most beautiful man in London, at least once.
It seemed like a fair trade.
End of Excerpt
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Winning the Wallflower is a novella in the Fairy Tales series.
The full series reading order is as follows: