The Willful Wallflower

At the tender age of fifteen, Emilie Pelham fell for a handsome older man of eighteen who kissed her and then never wrote or sought out her company again. Five years later, Emilie is a happy wallflower who wants nothing to do with men—and especially not one in particular, now the Marquess of Willingham. And yet that is precisely who the matchmaker, hired by her mother, insists is Emilie’s soulmate. Well, she would rather see the surprisingly thoughtful nobleman disgraced than marry him. She is formulating a plan to do just that for she is not one to change to her mind once it’s made up.
Gabriel, the Marquess of Willingham, was a young man ruled by his passions, but he learned his lesson. Now, he keeps a tight rein on his emotions. Since inheriting his father’s title, however, his grandmother has insisted he begin looking for a wife. He is happy to marry, just so long as no emotions are stirred. This is not good enough for Gran, though, who hires a matchmaker to find Gabriel’s soulmate. When the woman pairs him with the beautiful girl who opened his eyes to the dangers of passion, however, he annoyed when the same feelings try to overpower his newfound control.
Neither Emilie nor Gabriel are prepared, however, for the feelings they stir in each other. Neither could have foreseen that a passion sparked years ago could possibly rekindle no matter how hard they fight against. Will hearts be broken a second time or will love prevail?
In this cat and mouse game, it’s possible they both might lose—or both might win.

Chapter One

 

1810

Lady Emilie Pelham had been having a perfectly wonderful evening with the rest of the wallflowers at Lady Hardcastle’s ball. The strains of the music being played wafted over her and her friends as they stood on the far side of the ballroom. As usual, Miss Merrill had been sighing over Lord Dunright. Miss Smyth had been making snide comments about all the girls dancing, criticizing their gowns, their hair, and even the way they giggled; and Miss Winter had been complaining about her mother and how the woman never made any sort of effort to introduce her to eligible gentlemen because she was too busy throwing herself at them instead—not that she would do anything improper, of course. Baroness Winbourne just liked to flirt, as Miss Winter assured them all again and again.

Emilie was simply content to listen to the other girls and keep an eye out for whoever her mother might force on her next. Every time they went to a party, there was one poor fellow who her mother would hound until he finally gave up and asked Emilie to dance. Every single time she would have her toes stepped on and have to suffer through twenty minutes of inane conversation just so her mother would leave her alone for the rest of the party.

They had an unspoken understanding, Emilie and her mother. Emilie would dance once with a gentleman of the lady’s choosing, and then she would be left alone for the rest of the evening to do as she pleased—which was to watch and feel sorry for all the other girls dancing and having their toes stepped upon. Since her mother was still convinced that Emilie was going to find a husband—despite her arguments to the contrary—and insisted she at least try, this seemed to be the best arrangement Emilie could hope for.

This evening she had already had her dance. It had been with Lord Boring, er, Borling, it was Borling. Goodness, she’s nearly called him Lord Boring to his face! She’d caught herself just in time, she remembered with a little laugh.

“What’s so funny?” Miss Smyth asked. “Is it Miss Talbot? Is it that dress she’s wearing with the… what is it? Twelve flounces? I don’t know—I’ve lost count.” Miss Smyth gave a little smirk.

“What? Oh, no. I was just remembering how I nearly called Lord Borling Lord Boring,” Emilie told her.

Miss Merrill spun toward her. “You didn’t!”

“I didn’t, but it was a near miss,” Emilie said with a little giggle.

Miss Smyth nearly laughed right out loud but caught herself just in time. Instead, the crinkle of her mud-brown eyes was the only way to tell that she was laughing inside. She wasn’t a bad-looking young woman, but she did have rather sharp features and a strong chin. She looked as if she never ate a thing, although Emilie had seen her consume an almost indecent amount of food once.

“Girls, I am so glad to see you are enjoying yourselves this evening,” Lady Tremelling, Emilie’s mother said, coming up to them with a young gentleman in tow. The lady herself was looking as lovely and determined as ever. Her deep-blue gown made the steel gray of her eyes stand out sharply as she took in the girls all standing in a row. Her hair was still the same color as Emilie’s—a rich dark brown—but there was a stray glint of silver caught by the light every so often.

What was this? Emilie thought. She’d already done her duty for the night. A second dance was not part of their deal.

Emilie’s friends all immediately lost their smiles and stepped away from the man, as if he had the plague.

“We are, thank you, Mother,” Emilie said, deliberately ignoring the gentleman.

“Excellent. Lord Easton, may I present my daughter, Lady Emilie Pelham?” her mother said, turning to the man. He was handsome enough with broad shoulders and good height, but it was clear that he didn’t miss a meal and enjoyed them immensely.

He smiled at Emilie and bowed. “It is an honor, Lady Emilie.”

Emilie pulled up a polite smile as she curtsied. “How do you do?”

“Quite well, thank you,” he answered, as if she actually cared. “Lady Emilie, might I lead you out for the next dance?”

Emilie narrowed her eyes momentarily at her mother. This was most definitely not part of their understanding, and she wasn’t going to put up with it. She gave the man a sad smile. “I am so very sorry, my lord, but I’m afraid I turned my ankle when I danced with Lord Borling and it is paining me ever so much. You will please excuse me?”

“Oh dear, I am so very sorry to hear that,” the gentleman said, feigning concern, but in truth, Emilie wasn’t entirely certain there was a hint of relief in his eyes.

“Perhaps a slow promenade about the room instead. That shouldn’t hurt your ankle,” her mother suggested, putting undue stress on the last word. It was clear she didn’t believe Emilie’s excuse for the slightest moment.

“Oh, I don’t—” Emilie started.

“Yes, of course! What a brilliant idea, Lady Tremelling,” the gentleman said, giving her mother a nod. “We will, of course, go slowly so as not to aggravate your injury.”

“You are too kind, my lord,” Emilie said. She had no choice but to take the man’s arm and allow him to lead her away. She didn’t even look at her mother to see the self-satisfied smile she was certain was hovering on the lady’s lips.

Later that evening as they drove home in their carriage, Emilie didn’t hold back. “Mother, how could you bring a second gentleman over for me to meet? I’d thought we had an understanding.”

“Understanding? What understanding?” her mother snapped. She was clearly just as unhappy with Emilie.

“That you would only force one gentleman on me per evening,” Emilie spelled out for her.

Her mother’s jaw dropped, and her eyes widened. “Well, I never agreed to such a thing!”

“But it’s what you’ve always done,” Emilie argued.

Her mother paused, thinking about it. She gave a sniff. “Well, if it is, it is only because you are so ungrateful and unwilling to even give any of the very kind gentlemen I introduce to you a chance.”

“I give them a chance. I never complain when they step on my toes as we dance. I always make polite conversation. I hold up my end of the bargain.”

“You dance with them and then don’t speak with them the rest of the evening.”

“I stand with my friends,” Emilie pointed out.

“You stand with all the other wallflowers when you could be out enjoying yourself and meeting eligible men. You will never find a gentleman to marry if you only dance with one man at every party we go to.”

“I told you. I have no interest in—”

“Yes, yes,” her mother waved away her words with a nonchalant hand. “And I have told you that you will marry, whether you want to do so or not. Dancing with one man per evening will never get you to the altar. What a ridiculous notion! Now, am I going to have to ask your brother to find a husband for you, or will you cooperate?” Her voice had suddenly become much sharper as she turned to stare right at Emilie despite the darkness of the coach.

“I will not—” Emilie started again.

“That’s enough! Enough of this absurdity, Emilie. I am through with coddling you. You will find a gentleman to marry or… or…”

“Or what?” Emilie asked, challenging her.

“Or I will find one for you. No, wait.” Her mother stopped speaking and turned to look out the window for a moment. “I just remembered something. I overheard Lady…” Her voice trailed off as she struggled to remember whatever it was. She then said softly to herself. “Yes. I will have to send ‘round a note… or better yet, pay her a call.” Lady Tremelling turned back toward Emilie with much more determination. “Don’t you worry about a thing. I shall handle everything.”

“Worry? Indeed, I am very worried—now.”

~*~

Gabriel, Marquess of Willington, followed the sound of his grandmother’s voice. It wasn’t a difficult task as it could be heard throughout the ground floor of the enormous, ancient Kilby Castle. He found her in the middle of the great hall, dwarfed by the enormous fireplace that took up a great deal of one stone wall.

“What do you mean you can’t beat this tapestry?” His grandmother stomped her cane on the floor to emphasize her words. “Why in all that is right can you not do as you are told?”

“Maybe because that tapestry has been hanging on that wall for the past four hundred years, Gran,” Gabriel asked, approaching the Dowager Marchioness. Her pale-blue eyes glittered with anger. “If she beats it, who’s to know what might come out? Or it might simply fall apart all together, or fall off the wall where it has hung for so very long,” he suggested, giving the maid, who was standing nearby looking terrified, a reassuring smile.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Willington. The maids have beaten this tapestry for the past fifty years with no mishaps whatsoever. It is only this one girl who is too scared to even get near it. Look at her cowering, standing a full five feet away from it,” his grandmother snapped.

“And I don’t blame her. Sally, why don’t you go fetch Thomas and tell him I said he should be the one to beat the tapestry, and to do so gently—just in case.”

“Gently? How will it get clean if it is beaten gently?” Lady Willington asked. She turned her scowl to Gabriel.

“Well, we don’t actually want it destroyed, now, do we? Goodness only knows what drafts it is keeping hidden behind it.”

“What vermin, you mean,” his grandmother said.

“Well, there could be that too. Although, I haven’t seen a mouse since you took over the running of the castle.”

“I should say not!” his grandmother said, affronted. Then she added more quietly, “Your mother was never one for housekeeping, I’m afraid.”

“No, she wasn’t,” Gabriel agreed. His mother hadn’t been interested in very much beyond her paints and her most recent lover—and all too frequently, the one found himself duplicated in the other. Gabriel had disposed of more paintings of naked men after his mother died than he’d care to remember. He refocused his attention on his grandmother. “And I think it is high time you took a break from these labors as well.”

“What? Whatever can you mean?” his grandmother asked, walking over to the sofa, her beautifully carved cane tapping loudly on the black-and-white marble floor before it was muffled by the red and cream carpet, delineating the seating area before the fireplace.

“I think we should go to London,” he said, following her and, once she had seated herself on the red damask sofa, took the matching chair across from it. “The Season has already started, but I’m certain once word has gotten about that you are returned, we will be inundated with invitations.”

“But it’s barely been…”

“It’s been a year and a half since my parents died. I’m certain it doesn’t feel that long to you since you were ill and then recovering for an extended period of time, but it has most definitely been long enough,” he said, his voice becoming gentler.

His grandmother gave a heavy sigh. “I suppose it has been,” she agreed.

“So, it is high time you returned to London and left the poor servants here to manage as they have always done so.”

“Not very well,” she snapped half-heartedly.

He gave her a smile, leaning forward toward her. She reluctantly lifted a corner of her lips as well.

“Do you think anyone will remember me?” she asked, sounding slightly nervous.

“Gran, you’ve been gone from society for less than two years. I’m certain everyone will remember Watchful Willington.”

She gave a little snort of laughter. “Better than what they used to call your moth—” She stopped abruptly, but Gabriel knew what she’d been about to say.

The scandal sheets had dubbed his grandmother “Watchful Willington” for the way she watched out for the young ladies of the ton, ensuring that everyone who wanted to dance had a partner to do so. His mother, on the other hand, had been called “Too Willing Willington” in reference to all the men she took to her bed. He still didn’t know how his father had resisted the urge to bring her here and lock her in the highest tower. No, he’d just ignored it. Ignored her. Ignored Gabriel. Ignored everyone. He had shut himself up here rather than deal with the sniggering behind his back and the parade of men going in and out of his townhouse.

Gabriel still didn’t understand how his father had managed to stay so calm, to keep himself above it all. But it was that uncaring, that lack of feeling which Gabriel respected most in his father… and what he strived to attain himself. He’d already felt—too many times—the consequences of not locking away his feelings, of letting his passions rule. It had never led to anything good.

As if reading his mind, his grandmother cocked her head at him. “Well, if I am going to return to society, it will be with one goal in mind, Gabriel.”

He blinked at her. It was never a good thing when she called him by his given name.

“You are going to marry, my boy,” she informed him with a wag of her finger.

His immediate reaction was to say no, but he stopped with the word on his lips as he thought about it.

His grandmother continued for him. “You need an heir now that you’re the marquess. You need companionship. And, to be quite frank, you could use some happiness in your life.”

“First of all, you bring me all the happiness I could need,” he started.

She chuckled but shook her head. “You don’t need grannie happiness. You need a wife who will make you happy. It’s a very different thing.”

“Which brings me to my second point—a wife won’t necessarily bring me happiness, Gran.”

“Of course she would! If you choose the right one.”

“And how do I do that?” he asked with a disbelieving smile.

“You meet women. You speak with them. You fall in love,” she said, leaning forward slightly.

Gabriel just shook his head. “I am not going to fall in love.”

“Why not?”

“I…” he paused. How could he explain to his grandmother that he’d done so once already, and it had turned out disastrously? He might have only been nineteen at the time, and he might have only known the girl for a short time, but it had been enough. More than enough, really. He’d been ruled by his emotions in his youth. He’d allowed his passions to rule his head and his heart. And he learned the hard lesson of where that got him—with a face full of fist from her angry brother and the loss of not only the girl, but a good number of friends at school as well. No, no, he was never going to do that again.

No, if he ever married—and he was not against the institution at all—it was going to be a traditional society match without an ounce of feeling involved.

“I think it’s an excellent idea,” he said, finally.

His grandmother’s mouth nearly fell open.

He gave a short laugh. “You were expecting me to argue,” he stated.

“I was,” she agreed.

“But you’re right, I do need to marry, so go right ahead, Gran, choose a bride for me.”

His grandmother frowned. “I am not going to choose your bride—that’s for you to do.”

Gabriel shook his head. “I don’t really care who she is, so long as she’s passably pretty.”

“But what about love?”

He waved the idea away. “I have no interest in it.”

“What? How can you say that, Willington? Love is… is the most wonderful—”

“I am not interested in love. It’s not for me,” he repeated himself.

She lowered her eyebrows and peered at him. “So, what they say is true. You are a cold, unfeeling man—just like your father.”

The words hurt even though it was not only the truth, but something he’d worked very hard at. And he’d had enough of this conversation. “I have work that I need to return to. We’ll leave by week’s end.” And with that, he got up and walked away.