Once Upon a Wallflower

By: Wendy Lyn Watson
Chapter One

May 30, 1809

Mira Fitzhenry sat at her dressing table, gazing forlornly at her reflection in the chipped and cloudy mirror. She knew she would never be a fashionable beauty: her curves were too bold for the diaphanous gowns, her feet were too large for the dainty slippers, and her hair was too…well, red. Not a rich auburn or a sunny strawberry blond, but a true and tawdry red.

She felt ridiculous even trying to look the part of the lovely young debutante. She rather favored mathematics over minuets, anyhow.

Her brow furrowing in consternation, she stabbed a pin in her hair and tilted her head to the left. She caught sight of the folded copy of the Times resting on the corner of her dressing table. Against her volition, she leaned forward to read again the brief announcement that had changed her life forever:

Mr. George Fitzhenry announces the engagement of Miss Mirabelle Fitzhenry to The Right Honorable, The Viscount Ashfield.

She grabbed another hairpin from its box, but paused before working it into her tresses. Her hand in marriage had been lost in a card game, traded to Ashfield’s father, Lord Sebastian Ellerby, Earl Blackwell, to cover her Uncle George’s staggering gambling debt. Did a bartered bride really need to impress her fiancé?

As she pondered that question, Mirabelle Fitzhenry the Younger, known to friends and family as Bella, burst into Mira’s bedroom without so much as a by-your-leave.

“There you are!” she exclaimed as she moved to the end of Mira’s bed, and, with a little hop, perched herself there.

Mira continued to fuss with her hair, deciding that she should strive to look her best whether anyone cared or not. “Yes, here I am. Where else would I be?”

Bella kicked her slipper-shod feet back and forth. She did not even attempt to keep the smirk from her face or her voice when she responded. “I don’t know. Given that you are about to meet a murderer, I thought you might have fled. After all, you are promised to him for the rest…of…your…life,” she concluded with melodramatic flair.

Mira shot a disgruntled look at her cousin in the mirror. “I am not at all certain this marriage will ever take place. Neither Blackwell nor Ashfield are fools. Once they realize they have been duped, handed the proverbial cuckoo’s egg, Ashfield will cry off. It is as simple as that.”

Bella shook her head, sending her own perfect blond ringlets bouncing. “I would not count on Ashfield jilting you just because you’re a trifle long in the tooth and, well, plain. Maman says Ashfield cannot cry off because it is not the gentlemanly thing to do.”

Giving up on her hair, Mira turned to face Bella. “There is a quite grievous flaw in Aunt Kitty’s logic, Bella. Blackwell is desperate to find a bride for his son because he is an alleged killer.” She swallowed and forced herself to go on, the voice of reason in this madness. “If he is guilty of those crimes, then he is surely no gentleman. Ergo, we cannot rely upon him to act as a gentleman in regards to the engagement, and there is a very real possibility that he will cry off. So I, for one, shall not be the least surprised when he publicly rejects me and denounces our entire family. Not surprised in the least.”

Bella rolled her eyes. “Mira, Mira, Mira. It’s more than manners! Ashfield can hardly expect a better match, being a murderer and all. Maman says that even if Ashfield wishes to cry off, Blackwell will not allow it. I believe you are well and truly stuck with Ashfield. And I am so very glad that you will marry him rather than me.” With a shiver of delicious dread, Bella continued, “I would not wish to marry a murderer.”

Mira did not travel in Society as much as did Bella, but she had friends and those friends did, on occasion, indulge in gossip. She had heard the stories about Ashfield, the man some called the “Butcher of Bidwell.” About how he spent his days locked away in a tower practicing the black arts. About how he roamed the countryside at night, when the moon was new, searching for young innocents to sacrifice for his evil endeavors. About the one young woman promised to him who guessed his dark secrets and paid the ultimate price. Under other circumstances she would have found the tales wickedly, delightfully dramatic…and utterly preposterous. As it was now, she could not help the foreboding that shivered through her at the very mention of Ashfield’s name.

But she also knew that she had little choice but to go through with the meeting. If she refused Ashfield’s suit, or attempted to undermine his interest in her, Aunt Kitty and Uncle George would turn her out. She would find herself on the streets, utterly without means. Women died—or worse—on the streets of London every day. So, no matter how frightened she was of the man, or how guilty she felt about the deception her family was perpetrating against him, Mira would meet Ashfield. She would be gracious and as charming as she could be. And, whatever it took, she would get herself out of this mess.

Fussing now with the bodice of her gown, or, rather, Bella’s gown, which Aunt Kitty had decreed Mira must wear, Mira huffed a sigh of exasperation. “It remains to be seen whether either of us will marry him. As for him being a murderer—a point you seem determined to dwell upon—that is, as far as I know, merely gossip.”

Hoping to put an end to the conversation, Mira added, “You might show a bit of gratitude. You know perfectly well that your papa intended to trade you away to Ashfield, and Blackwell is expecting you to walk across the ballroom floor tonight. If Blackwell finds a way to maneuver through this evening, you may find yourself engaged to the Butcher of Bidwell come tomorrow morning.”

Obviously stung by her older cousin’s reminder of her ever-so-close call, Bella glared at Mira, and for a moment she looked like Kitty Fitzhenry’s daughter. By all accounts, Bella bore little resemblance to her mother…or her father. Indeed, she was considered quite a beauty, and the whole family counted on that beauty translating into a lucrative match on the marriage mart. If she played her cards right, she would bring some handsome, wealthy, young buck up to scratch by the end of this, her first Season, or early the next.

“Maman will never allow that to happen. She loves me,” Bella snapped.

“Bella,” Mira said briskly, “if Ashfield killed three women, including his first fiancée Olivia Linworth, the authorities would have arrested him. This is England, after all. We have laws.”

Bella snorted indelicately. “Arrest Blackwell’s son? I doubt it. Blackwell is wildly rich and even more powerful. Besides, it is not as though anyone saw Ashfield kill those girls.”

“Precisely,” Mira said. “There is no proof that Ashfield did anything wrong at all. And without proof, you have nothing.”

Bella lifted one expressive shoulder. “Sometimes you don’t need proof, Mira. You simply know something is true.”

“Nonsense. As I said before, Bella, the rumors of Ashfield’s misdeeds are merely that: rumors. I am not the least concerned.” She stood and fluffed her skirts, annoyed at the tremor in her hands.

Hopping down from Mira’s bed, Bella cut her cousin a sly look. “You say that now, but I would wager you my new white hair ribbon you will faint dead away the instant Ashfield pins you with his evil gaze.”

“I’m made of stronger stuff than that,” Mira scoffed.

“Very well,” Bella said. “You seem so certain that Ashfield will cry off because you are not me. I will wager you my new white hair ribbon and that sapphire colored pelerine you so admire that you will cry off before he does.”

Mira paused to consider the offer for a moment. Bella could scarcely fathom being forced to do something one did not wish to do. Her position in the household was secure. But Mira knew where she stood in the Fitzhenry clan. She could not cry off, no matter how much she might want to. If the engagement were to end, it would have to be Ashfield’s doing.

“Done,” she said. “I will accept your challenge.”

Bella merely shrugged and headed for the door, but before she got there Kitty Fitzhenry appeared.

“Mira, it is time to go. Let’s have a look at you, then.”

Mira dutifully turned in a circle for Aunt Kitty’s inspection. She knew that the white muslin dress did little to favor either her figure or her complexion. No matter how tight she drew her stays, the dress refused to follow her curves, snug where it should drape and gaping where it should be snug.

The corners of Kitty’s mouth turned down in disapproval.

“You look like a blancmange. A blancmange with lopsided hair.” Kitty sighed. “Well, I suppose it is the best we can hope for. One cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, after all. Let us hope that Ashfield is short-sighted…or dim-witted. Come now, the carriage is waiting.”

Bella tilted her head and batted her lashes coquettishly. “Why can I not come, Maman? Emily Armbrust said that the Farley ball is sure to be a crush. Everyone who is anyone will be there.”

Kitty held up a hand in warning. “Bella, enough. You know you cannot go. We cannot risk confusion about which Mirabelle Fitzhenry is promised to Ashfield. It is crucial that Mira and Ashfield are linked publicly, so if Ashfield cries off it will be Mira who is disgraced, not you. Bella, my dear, you may be a social success, but I fear you could not weather such a blow to your reputation. Mira…well, Mira has no prospects, so she does not have so much to lose.”