Wayward Wallflowers Series, Book 1
NEVER SEND A DEBUTANTE…
William Ryder, Earl of Castleton, is at the end of his noble rope. Not only has he broken ties with his longtime mistress, his mother has publicly announced her wish for him to marry a suitable young lady—if only to help him raise the twins left in his care. Hiring a governess should solve some of Will’s problems…but when he meets the candidate in question, he finds himself in an entirely new predicament.
TO DO A WALLFLOWER’S JOB
Miss Margaret Lacey is brainy, beautiful, and, once upon a time, Will’s betrothed. But she bowed out of the engagement—and, since then, has never been the same. A tragic accident robbed her of everything, and now, at age twenty-three, her marital prospects are slim to none. Penniless but not without pride, Meg convinces the vexingly handsome Will to hire her for the job. What neither of them could have expected from this arrangement, however, is an attraction that burns stronger than ever. Are these two lost souls finally ready to be schooled in the art of love?
My Brown-Eyed Earl
“One bliss-giving read…witty and whimsical.”
—USA Today Happily Ever After
“Heart, humor, and a hot hero. Everything I want in a great romance novel!”
—Valerie Bowman, best-selling author of the Playful Brides series
“Heartwarming and joyous…A delightful read!”
—RT Book Reviews
“I’m gonna need a minute or two to have a swoon over the Earl of Castleton! Oh. My. Word. What a hero! My Brown-Eyed Earl gave my heart a flutter, had me fighting back a grin more than once, and simply left me charmed.”
— Herding Cats & Burning Soup
London, May 1817
Miss Margaret Lacey—Meg, to her family and friends—had the odd but unshakable feeling that the next half hour could alter the course of her life. Forever.
Which was just as well, because heaven knew that she and her sisters couldn’t remain on their current paths—not if they wished to keep a roof over their heads and food in their bellies.
“Trust me, Meg. You’re perfect for this position.” Her friend Charlotte linked an arm through Meg’s and bustled her down the street toward a row of elegant Mayfair townhouses.
“Perfect is a bit of a stretch.” Meg had hoped to find work as a companion to an aging dowager, fetching fans and lemonade. Elderly people, she understood. Persons under the age of twelve were another matter entirely. “Shouldn’t a governess have a way with children?”
“You’ve two younger sisters,” Charlotte said.
“They’re only a few years younger, and the only useful thing I’ve taught them is how to ignore insults from puffed-up debutantes.”
“Nonsense. You’re kind, intelligent, and patient. I’ve no doubt you can manage a pair of six-year old girls.” Charlotte stopped and faced Meg. “Show me your best governess expression.”
Meg glanced sideways at her friend and gave her an encouraging sort of smile.
“That will never do.”
Charlotte sighed. “The look is your primary weapon.”
“Weapon? You said they were six.”
“Suppose the twins complain about doing their sums. A good governess does not deign to argue with her charges. She simply gives them the look. Now, let’s see it.”
“Very well.” Meg did her best to imitate the withering, mildly disdainful expression that had seemed etched onto her own governess’s face.
Charlotte grimaced and bit her bottom lip.
Oh dear. “They’re not going to do their sums, are they?”
“Heavens no. They’ll think you’ve eaten a bad kipper.” Charlotte took her arm, pulling her along once more. “Never mind—we shall work on that. But I can assure you that you are qualified. Honestly, Meg,” she added with a warm smile, “any child would be lucky to have you as a governess.”
Meg swallowed. She liked children, truly she did, in spite of their tendency to be terrifyingly unpredictable. “Let us hope I can convince my potential employers.”
And convince them she must. Dear Uncle Alistair would never admit it, but Meg and her sisters had been a tremendous burden on him and his dwindling fortune. He’d generously taken them in after the unexpected and tragic deaths of her parents eight years ago. But now she was twenty-three, old enough to venture out on her own—and to try to save Uncle Alistair from debtor’s prison.
“Employer, actually,” Charlotte corrected. “He is a bachelor, and apparently at a loss for what to do with the twins.”
Meg arched an eyebrow. “A bachelor with twins?”
“I don’t know the details of his situation, but I’m certain you’ll learn more during the interview.” Charlotte pulled a scrap of paper from the pocket of her cloak and compared the address on it to the one above a stately town house entrance boasting polished stone steps and a gleaming black door. “This is it. You don’t want to be late.”
“No, of course not.” Meg smoothed her hands down the skirt of her lilac dress, which was three years old and the nicest she owned. “Wait. You haven’t told me his name.”
“He’s an earl.” Charlotte consulted her paper. “Lord Castleton.”
Oh no. The edges of Meg’s vision turned fuzzy, and she stumbled on the pavement.
Charlotte steadied her. “You look as though you’ve seen a ghost. What’s wrong?”
Everything. Lord Castleton was the man her parents had chosen for her to marry.
She’d been a sullen, spot-faced fifteen-year-old when they’d summoned her to the drawing room to meet him. Mama and Papa assumed she’d be thrilled with the arrangement. After all, he was a handsome, strapping young man who would one day be an earl—more than the plain daughter of a vicar could hope for. And it wasn’t as though they’d be wed right away. He and Meg could get to know each other over the next few years—easily accomplished, as his family owned the estate next to their humble cottage.
Meg hadn’t objected to the match in theory—she wasn’t daft. But she had objected to the way he’d looked at her, with the thinly veiled dread and horror of a young man receiving a life sentence in Newgate.
Her pride simply wouldn’t tolerate it.
So she had tossed her head, crossed her arms, leveled her gaze at him, and said, “I would sooner shave my head and enter the convent than marry you.”
Burning at the memory, Meg pressed her gloved palms to her cheeks and turned to her friend. She’d never revealed that particular chapter of her past to Charlotte. It was tied up with too many painful memories. And did not cast her in a favorable light. “I can’t do it.”
“But you must! He’s expecting you.”
“Are you certain? That is, is he aware that I’m the candidate?”
Charlotte shrugged. “I’m sure Lord Torrington informed him. Why are you suddenly so anxious? Do you know the earl?”
Meg swallowed. “I used to—before he inherited the earldom.” She’d been careful to avoid him once she and her sisters came to London, which was easy, for they did not move in the same circles. He was the ton’s golden boy, while she lived in the shadows. “I fear I made an awful impression.”
“You are being far too dramatic,” Charlotte said. “He probably doesn’t even remember the encounter.”
Meg knew the words were meant to comfort and reassure, but the idea that he might have forgotten their meeting—the one that haunted her daily—pained her even more. “I suppose you are correct.” He had no doubt moved on. Still, it was horribly awkward to be in the position of needing his approval now.
Charlotte narrowed her pretty gray eyes. “Why do I feel like there is more to this story?”
“I promise to tell you the whole of it. Later.” Meg drew a long breath and willed her heartbeat to slow to a civilized pace. “Suffice it to say that if I was nervous before, I’m doubly so now. The earl is not likely to overlook my lack of experience.” Not when paired with her past indecorous behavior.
“It’s natural to feel some trepidation before an interview,” Charlotte said kindly. “Is there more to it than that? Have you changed your mind about wanting the position?”
Meg hesitated only a moment. “No. Of course I still need it. It was just a shock, learning that my prospective employer is the earl.” She could not afford—quite literally—to let her pride overrule her good sense. “If he’s willing to consider entrusting his children to me, the least I can do is meet with him.”
“Please, forget everything I said before. Just be your usual, charming self.”
Meg squeezed Charlotte’s hands. “Thank you for arranging the interview. I shall endeavor not to embarrass you or Lord Torrington.” She winked at her friend. “But no promises.”
“Go on. You’ll be late.” Charlotte gave her a little push toward the grand town house. “Tea this Sunday afternoon?”
“With any luck, you’ll be a governess by then.”
Meg’s belly twisted in knots, but she managed a cheerful smile as she ascended the stone steps on wobbly legs. “Yes, luck. And there’s some comfort in knowing the interview can’t possibly go as badly as the ghastly scene I’ve conjured in my mind.”
* * * * *
“The young lady applying for the governess position is waiting for you in the drawing room, my lord.”
William Ryder, the Earl of Castleton, peeled his face off the surface of his mahogany desk and growled. “Damn it, Gibson. I asked not to be disturbed.”
Unperturbed, the butler set a tray on the corner of the desk. “Yes, I am quite aware, my lord. But you made that request three hours ago. I hoped that your, ah, condition would be much improved by now, and—”
“For the love of God, call it what it is.”
The butler’s forehead creased. “Begging your pardon?”
“It’s not a condition. It’s the devil of a hangover.”
“So it would seem. In any event, I assumed that you would wish to keep the scheduled appointment. However, if you would like me to send her away—”
“No.” Will rubbed eyelids that felt like they’d been singed from the inside out. “I need to deal with the problem.”
As if on cue, one half of the problem slid down the hall outside his study, squealing in an octave that set Will’s teeth on edge.
“My turn!” called her sister, a matching blond-haired sprite. A second later she, too, glided over the polished floorboards on stockinged feet, colliding with the first twin and sending the pair of them sprawling onto the floor.
“You should have waited,” cried the first.
“You should have moved out of the way,” retorted the second.
Will pressed his fingertips to a throbbing temple. “Gibson!”
“Allow me, my lord.” Turning to the girls, he said, “Diana. Valerie. Young ladies do not skate across the floor in their stockings.”
“They should,” said one. “It’s quite fun.”
The butler cleared his throat, and two spots of color appeared on his cheeks. “I suggest that the two of you return to the nursery,” he said sharply. “At once.”
With another chorus of head-splitting squeals, the twins scrambled to their feet and tore down the hallway.
“I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you so flustered, Gibson.” Will smiled. “I daresay I’m feeling a little better.”
“All too happy to serve as a source of amusement,” the butler said dryly. He plucked a cup from the serving tray on Will’s desk, filled it with steaming, pungent coffee, and set it in front of him.
“I suppose I shouldn’t add anything to this,” Will said, taking a few scalding sips.
“It would rather defeat the purpose.”
“Fine. Let’s get this interview over with. Bring the governess here.”
Gibson’s gaze flicked around the room as though he were mentally cataloging all the reasons why a respectable young miss should not enter the decidedly male realm: the snifter of brandy and half-filled glass on the sideboard, the painting of a nude Aphrodite above the mantle, the discarded cravat draped over the arm of his chair. “If you’re certain, my lord.”
“I am.” This was killing poor Gibson.
“Shall I ring for Phelps?”
Will leaned back in his chair and spread his arms. “Why would I need my valet?”
“Forgive me for mentioning it, my lord, but you look somewhat disheveled. I thought perhaps Phelps could tidy you up.”
“Blast it, Gibson. I don’t require tidying. I’m looking for a governess, not a mistress.” But then, maybe his butler was trying to tell him something. “Wait. Is she…?”
“Is she what, my lord?”
Will wanted to say comely or beautiful. “Young?”
“She is. And not at all your usual sort of companion.”
“Then why all the fuss, damn it? Show her in here.”
The butler’s nostrils flared in his otherwise stony face. “As you wish, my lord.” He turned stiffly and headed toward the drawing room at a glacial pace.
Hell. Will leaned forward on his elbows and pinched the bridge of his nose. Somehow, in the space of a week, his highly ordered, luxurious life had fallen apart.
First, Marina, the beautiful widow he’d been seeing, hinted that she wanted more than the mutually pleasurable arrangement they’d agreed to, forcing Will to break things off with her.
Next, his recently deceased cousin’s mistress showed up on Will’s doorstep with the twin girls, threatening to leave them at an orphanage unless he took them in.
And then last night, he attended a dinner party in honor of his mother’s birthday. In front of a dozen guests, she announced her sole wish: that her son marry before she turned fifty—in exactly one year. After choking on his wine, Will promised to give the matter some thought.
Then he had gone directly to his club and drunk himself into oblivion.
Jesus. He stood, ran his hands through his hair, and checked his reflection in a mirror between a pair of bookcases. Gibson was right—he looked like hell.
Bad enough to scare off a potential governess.
He swiped the cravat off his chair, slung it around his neck, hastily tied it in some semblance of a knot, and buttoned his jacket. There was nothing to be done about the stubble on his chin or the faint imprint the desk blotter had left on his cheek, so he threw back the rest of his coffee and congratulated himself. Within the hour he’d have a governess to manage the twins, and at least one aspect of his life would be set to rights.
Gibson was already shuffling down the corridor. “My lord,” he intoned from the doorway, “may I present Miss Lacey.”
Will blinked. Lacey … it was a common name. Surely the potential governess couldn’t be—
She glided into the study and cast a wary look his way. “Good afternoon, Lord Castleton. It’s a pleasure to see you again.”
Dear God. It was her. The vicar’s daughter who thought she was too damned good for him. Standing in his study, cloaked in a drab dress that might have been lilac once but now more closely resembled gray. No ribbons adorned her brown hair. No ringlets framed her face. In fact, the only decoration she wore was the light smattering of freckles across her nose.
The butler raised his bushy brows. “I was not aware that you were already acquainted.”
“Thank you, Gibson. That will be all.”
The butler left reluctantly, closing the door behind him.
Miss Lacey pressed her lips together as though she longed to say something and silence herself at the same time. From what he recalled of her tongue, it was best kept under lock and key.
“What on earth are you doing here?” Will demanded.
“Applying for the governess position. I assumed you knew.”
“No,” he said curtly.
“I see.” She glanced over her shoulder at the door. “Perhaps it would be better if I—”
“Be seated, Miss Lacey.” He inclined his head toward the armchair in front of his desk.
She hesitated, and for a moment he thought she’d refuse. But then she walked toward the chair, looked at the seat, and froze. Just as stubborn as he remembered, unbiddable as ever.
He bristled. “Perhaps you’d prefer to remain standing for the entire interview?”
“No. It’s only…”
“You object to meeting in my study?”
She narrowed eyes that were not quite green, but not quite brown either. “No, but I hoped to avoid sitting on this.” In one, fluid motion she leaned over the chair, picked up a pink, lace-edged scrap of satin between her thumb and index finger, and dangled it in front of his face.