The Lord and the Wallflower
The Culpepper Misses, #3
Formerly titled Brette: Intentions Gone Astray
They’ll either be a match made in heaven, or an utter disaster…
Vicar Alexander Hawksworth didn’t miss his former rogue days terribly—until Brette Culpepper arrived in London. Now, he’d love nothing more than to attend parties and balls with her. When he unexpectedly inherits an earldom, Alex sees it as an opportunity to make the lovely miss his countess. But then he’s accused of murdering the previous earl and everything changes…
Brette adores the whirlwind social scene. She especially loves verbally sparring with the devilishly handsome young vicar. But when dark secrets from her family tree are spilled and a new guardian is appointed to control her, she fears she’ll lose her chance with Alex forever. Who knew romance in Society could be so complicated?
If Alex and Brette want to be together, they’ll have to solve a murder, clear Alex’s name, and rescue Brette from an arranged marriage to the last man she’d ever choose. It’s going to be a long, challenging road to happily ever after…
This book may contain adult content and language.
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See what readers are saying!
“I cannot wait to read the next Culpepper lady’s adventure and I can’t recommend picking up this story highly enough.” ★★★★★ ~Night Owl Reviews Top Pick
“…impressively dramatic conclusion the third book in the Conundrums of the Misses Culpepper series, Brette: Intentions Gone Astray should not be missed!” ★★★★★ ~Jenerated Reviews
“Once again, Ms. Cameron has written a captivating, yet thought-provoking…masterfully written story.” ★★★★★ ~My Book Addiction Reviews
“Finally, the sexy rector gets his story…The humorous interactions and dialog between the characters are always what makes me excited to read a book in this series.” ★★★★★ ~Lampshade Reader
“Collette knows how to add surprise after surprise to keep you enthralled to the very end….Her writing is witty, sharp, smart and delightful to read.” ★★★★★ ~The Reading Wench
“These charming characters were lively and likable.” ★★★★★ ~Books And Benches
“…fun and effervescent series and Brette’s story is a great additional to this enjoyable series.” ★★★★★ ~A Girl and Her Books
“The characters are colorful, the banter made me smile throughout, and I am sooo looking forward to the stories of the two younger sisters, hopefully soon to come! I highly recommend this book to romance readers.” ★★★★★ ~Tresjax
“Brette is another delightful story by Collette Cameron. The characters are realistic and lovable, at least most of them. Within the story are splashes of humor, mystery, and surprise.” ★★★★★ ~Peggy C.
“This is a clean story, romance builds slowly and only kisses happen. There are many twists that I didn’t expect and added nicely to the story. Our h is smart, witty and caring, as is our H. They made a wonderful couple. We get drama near the end that didn’t drag forever, a great ending and satisfying HEA and no cliffhanger.” ★★★★★ ~Navy Waves
Chapter One Excerpt
The English Countryside
Late August 1822
Brette Culpepper peeked around the carved door case, her stomach flipping in excitement.
Engrossed in the objects before him, Lord Danfield hadn’t a clue he’d played straight into her and Ophelia Thurston’s plans.
Jolly good fun, this.
Bent at the waist, his expression one of awed concentration, the viscount closely examined the carved jadeite and white nephrite collection displayed beneath the glass covering.
Just as Brette had intended.
Well, more aptly, she’d hoped he couldn’t resist the temptation. After she’d learned of his fascination with the foreign trinkets during supper last night, she’d broadly hinted at the vast assortment housed in Bristledale’s library.
A library conveniently situated on the opposite side of the manor from where dignified footmen roamed scorching rooms, offering cooled champagne to overheated guests.
Brows furrowed, Lord Danfield lifted his head and stared outside through the open French windows, murmuring something while grazing his fingers along his jawline. Moonlight lit the veranda beyond, and a scant summer breeze carried a fountain’s lyrical burbling into the house.
Even from her position by the door, Brette caught a faint whiff of jasmine.
No surprise the rather bashful lord had escaped this evening’s noisy throng and made his way to the figurines. Wise move on his part. He’d been spared Major Wilkerson’s exuberant vocal rendition. Lowing cattle claimed more musical aptitude than the jovial officer.
More than one disconcerted guest had emptied their champagne flute in a single swift pull before eagerly seizing another, as if hoping to mute the effects of the next amateur performer. If those presentations were anything like Major Wilkerson’s, several more glasses of champagne might be in order before the entertainment recommenced.
“Utterly fascinating.” Lord Danfield leaned nearer the case, paying particular attention to the more risqué carvings arranged along the back row. His red-tinged ears glowed noticeably; a close match for the shot of fiery hair topping his head.
To smother an undignified laugh, Brette clamped her teeth together. She, too, had blushed scarlet the first time she’d gazed upon the more scandalous statuettes. Tristin, the Marquis of Leventhorpe, their host and her cousin-in-law, possessed several such sculptures, which Lord Danfield seemed determined to commit to memory.
Down to every last naughty detail.
Danfield glanced toward the entrance for an instant, and Brette ducked behind the doorframe.
Had he heard her? Seen her?
She turned and, waving her hand, beckoned Ophelia.
The sable-haired beauty hovered near a curtained window, darting anxious glances up and down the corridor’s length. As arranged earlier, they’d left the others on the pretense of needing to visit the ladies’ retiring room during the musical intermission. After seeking Mrs. Thurston’s permission, of course.
Ophelia’s mama had nodded distractedly, a pinched look upon her lightly powdered face.
Apparently, after sitting through the major’s vigorous performance, she’d needed a few moments’ reprieve to collect herself. Next time, she might consider stuffing a scrap of cloth in her ears as Brette intended to.
Ophelia, her frilly ivory and rose pink skirts swishing in her haste, whisked to Brette’s side.
She fiddled with her fan’s lacy edge. “Danfield’s inside? Alone?”
“He is, indeed.” Brette’s tummy gave another giddy quiver.
She adored this part—bringing star-crossed sweethearts together. So romantic and daring.
Like a story from a gothic novel except without all the drama and gloom.
Her fifth matchmaking jaunt since entering society, and so far, three rousing successes. The fourth—
She grimaced, the spasm in her middle caused by sick remorse rather than glee.
That had been a colossal disaster. So much so, she’d briefly considered forfeiting her newly self-appointed profession as Cupid’s assistant. And she’d been having so much fun, too. Plus, the meddling—no, no, I’m helping people—gave her a purpose.
By Jove. This time would be different. She’d made sure of it.
Unlike her last unpleasant matchmaking escapade, Brette had investigated this moon-eyed pair thoroughly, and nary a scolding wife or piqued betrothed would caper along to interrupt her plan.
It honestly hadn’t occurred to her that either person mightn’t have been honorable in asking her to arrange a tryst. The ways of the upper ten thousand continued to baffle and frequently appall her. Fairly new to elite circles, she wasn’t familiar with many haut ton members’ connections, and she’d blundered by arranging for an affianced widower to meet with a humble, but sweet, newly-come-into-her-vulgarly-large-inheritance debutante.
If it hadn’t been for Rector Alexander Hawksworth—Alex in her most private of thoughts— happening upon Brette as she’d opened the conservatory’s door to permit Miss Marshall her rendezvous… A slight shudder rippled across Brette’s shoulders, raising the hairs at her nape to rigid attention. Gads. She swallowed and pressed her palm to her stomach. The notion didn’t bear pondering for long, or the dainties she’d nibbled earlier might sour in her stomach.
The rector had averted a monumental disaster when, less than a minute later, the widower’s betrothed—the influential Lady Covington—famous for her swift temper, cutting tongue, and unforgiving nature had sailed their way.
“Given your humble origins, Miss Culpepper, you’d do well to apply your energies to acquiring a measure of decorum and social acceptance.” Superior nose elevated and tone condescending, Lady Covington had flounced away. Stern disapproval had lined her lovely, but haughty, face as she towed her philandering, a-decade-her-junior intended to the ballroom, giving him an earful as they went.
The incident haunted Brette still.
Not only would Miss Marshall have been ruined, so, too, would Brette’s family. Lady Covington, on intimate terms with a number of Almack’s peeresses, would’ve seen them yanked from Society’s loftiest perch and tossed into London’s festering gutters. Never mind that Brette claimed a marquis and an earl as kin now. A featherless duck would’ve gained entrance to an assembly before the Culpeppers ever set a foot inside an elite parlor or drawing room again.
And unlike her sister and cousins, Brette adored the social whirlwind, though she diligently kept that secret to herself. Preferring the country’s serenity to Town’s chaos, her family would have been nonplussed, at the least, and disapproving, at worst, if they’d known of her fascination with metropolitan life. They probably wouldn’t have objected an iota if Lady Covington succeeded in having them blackballed.
According to Alex, Lady Covington was most unforgiving, and her betrothed, Phillip Lapley, a notorious womanizer. In order to get his hands on Miss Marshal’s fortune, he’d have compromised the girl to force her into marriage.
Shaken to her core, for two weeks afterward, Brette diligently refrained from all forms of plotting whatsoever. Except in her mind, of course. No harm in fantasizing and matchmaking there. Oh, she’d merrily united several woebegone wretches in the private alcoves of her imagination. But there the lovesick couples stayed, forever doomed to worshipping from afar, no one the wiser, save she.
Until, at another house party, she’d spotted Ophelia lurking within a curtained nook, peering dreamily at Lord Danfield as he spoke to Mr. Waters, a kindly merchant. Earlier that same day, Brette had stumbled upon the viscount loitering behind the shrubbery in the gardens near a secluded gazebo. An expression of moon-eyed adoration had wreathed his face as Ophelia and her brothers passed by.
If ever two people were destined to make a smashing match, Ophelia Thurston and Patrick, Viscount Danfield were. A shame if they should miss their chance at happiness, especially since Brette possessed the means to bring them together.
How could she have said no when Ophelia, wringing her hands, her doe-like eyes glimmering with tears, confessed her undying love for Lord Danfield? She’d begged Brette to arrange an assignation. Nothing too scandalous, of course. Simply a short, respectable few moments to speak together without Mrs. Thurston’s eagle eye watching her daughter’s every move.
However had Ophelia learned of Brette’s hush-hush hobby? Surprised, but pleased, Brette had nudged Alex’s warning into a remote corner of her mind, hidden it beneath a blanket of good intentions, and eagerly agreed to help.
“He’s inside, waiting,” Brette whispered with another harried glance along the corridor’s length.
Not waiting, precisely, but he’d welcome Ophelia’s unexpected appearance. No doubt about that.
Brette would allow them five minutes, discreetly hovering outside the open door for propriety’s sake. Afterward, she’d escort the enraptured young woman to her protective mother’s side. Mrs. Thurston seldom permitted Ophelia out of her sight unless in the company of her trio of brothers. The moment must be seized. Another mightn’t come along anytime soon.
A lilting whistle carried to them, and Brette and Ophelia exchanged troubled glances before peering into the passageway.
Botheration. Someone approached.
Probably Alex Hawksworth. Worse than a songbird with his perpetual, cheerful warbling, but my, could he sing. Even better than he whistled, which said something.
Why hadn’t he been impressed upon to entertain this evening?
Now that Brette would’ve enjoyed. He possessed a lovely baritone, and many a lady, from aged dowagers to knobby-kneed girls fresh from the schoolroom, sighed rapturously when he sang. Or spoke. Or walked into the room—all masculine grace, power, and beauty.
And when he smiled— Lord help the woman he directed that devastating flash of teeth toward. Including her. Come to think of it, she responded in the most peculiar fashion whenever he drew near. Most disconcerting.
His appearance right now, however, was a major inconvenience. He’d disapprove of her interfering. The last time, he’d scolded her, kindly but soundly.
“No matter how well-intended you might’ve been, Miss Culpepper,” he’d insisted with a look not quite patronizing but not benevolent either, “when it comes to matters of the heart, people should let Nature take her course.”
Showed how little he knew of love. Obviously, he’d never experienced the emotion.
She hadn’t either, but she’d read several novels on the subject. Besides, it didn’t take someone with extensive practice to realize that people, afraid of making a mistake or looking an unrequited fool, needed a slight prod in the right direction. Particularly if they’d each confessed their tendre to a mutual third party. Say, a well-meaning miss, fresh from the country with too much time on her hands and too little to do.
“Hurry, Ophelia.” Brette gripped Ophelia’s elbow, tossing a frantic glance toward the muted chatter and laughter filtering to them from the other guests. They’d be missed soon, if they hadn’t been already. “You’ve only a minute or two now before we must return.”
In the midst of a fancy trill, the whistling ended abruptly.
Alex had spotted them.
Brette dug her nails into the woodwork. He’d ruin everything she’d worked so hard to organize. Did he think it easy to arrange these stolen moments for others?
She wrinkled her nose. For pity’s sake. Unmarried women were guarded more closely than the king’s treasury.
What could possibly happen in five little minutes?
Naturally, his position required his disapproval of romantic ventures, but surely even he, pledged to uphold morality and abstinence from fleshly corruption, possessed an amorous speck beneath his stark and entirely proper clothing. Poise and prim all the time. For a handsome man, he was positively stuffy.
Her conscience gave her a disappointed jab. Not true. Not at all, actually. Mayhap she merely wished it, to make him less appealing.
He possessed a delightful sense of humor, and she’d never have guessed he was a man of the cloth when they’d first met. In fact, he’d been so charming and grand, his looks so arresting and charismatic, her cousin, Blaire, had assumed him an actor or opera singer, despite his somber togs.
Brette mistook him for a valet.
Until he spoke, and the notion dissolved as rapidly as finely ground spice in stew. With his angular cheeks, full lips, and strong jaw, he would’ve been brilliant on the stage and amassed a following in short order.
As it was, his parish pews overflowed with enamored ladies, from dewy-eyed misses to dames long past their prime. Given the impossibly scanty bodices Brette observed on Sundays, a sermon on modesty wouldn’t have gone amiss. Last week, if Miss Lacewell had sung any more exuberantly, Brette had truly feared that her bosoms would escape the straining fabric’s confines, and the reverend would’ve had to preach with his eyes pinched closed.
“Too bad he cannot claim position or wealth.” Attention glued to the golden-haired man strolling in their direction, Ophelia whispered in Brette’s ear, her voice annoyingly breathy. “Mr. Hawksworth by far the handsomest man I’ve ever laid eyes upon. Godlike even, but pauper poor.” She sighed theatrically. “Mama says I must marry a man with a title. She’s determined it should be so. And I do favor Lord Danfield more than other lords.”
And his wealth, too, I’ll be bound.
“Money and station aren’t everything.” Brette sneaked the rector a sideway look. Alex was one of the most decent men she’d met since her sister, Brooke, married Heath, the Earl of Ravensdale.
Nonetheless, in the immoral and pretentious upper circles, wealth and position ranked near the top. Pitiful, really. To place such importance on two criteria having nothing to do with a person’s character and which could in no way guarantee happiness or contentment.
“Rather too bad, isn’t it? An infinite waste of superb manhood.” Ophelia sighed wistfully again. “He’ll probably marry a mousy, plain-faced, flat-as-a-washboard-chested dowd who’s memorized an annoying amount of scripture.”
For someone madly in love with the viscount, she sounded most inappropriately enraptured.
Her pink tongue trailed her lower lip as her gaze trailed to Alex’s groin.
Hmm. And not as innocent as her big, rich caramel eyes and virginal gown suggested.
“Ah, Miss Culpepper. Miss Thurston.” Alex strode toward them, his fair brow cocked meaningfully and a barely restrained smile twitching his mouth’s corners. “Your mother inquires after you, Miss Thurston. I told her I thought I’d last seen you in the corridor outside the peach parlor. I’m sure that’s where you’re away to now, isn’t it? No one lurked about when I passed moments ago. You should escape notice if you hurry along.”
Ophelia formed her rosy bowed mouth into a moue, and after an extended, regretful glance at the cracked doorway, tossed her glossy chestnut curls and flounced off in the direction she’d come.
Brette pressed her forefinger to her upper lip and shook her head once. Had she misjudged Ophelia’s interest in Lord Danfield? Did his title and wealth enchant her, rather than any true affection? Surely not.
Alex joined Brette at the door and toed it open another inch.
Danfield had gravitated to the case’s other side and now faced the door, though his attention remained riveted on the knickknacks.
My, he certainly seemed intent on satisfying his curiosity.
Alex drew her away and bent near her ear—a considerable distance since her head barely reached his shoulder. Of the five Culpepper misses—well, two were married now—she alone possessed a petite stature and greenish tinted eyes. She assumed she resembled a forgotten ancestor.
“Danfield’s rather a lackluster sort,” Alex whispered as if an authority on the chap. “Always has his nose in a fusty tome and would rather study ancient specimens than flirt with young, empty-headed misses.”
Brette glanced upward, almost returning his infectious grin. Almost. She mightn’t be terribly miffed, but he wouldn’t be forgiven just like that either.
He boasted the most mesmerizing eyes, a spectacular green, like newly sprouted spring grass. Bright, cheery, and framed by honey-tipped lashes so lush, they appeared coffee-brown from a distance. He smelled wonderful too. Sandalwood, starch, and a woodsy, soapy smell. Clean and fresh. Quite irresistible. If she were the type to be taken with such, which, being a practical sort, she was not.
His gaze, oddly mesmerizing, held hers and for an instant, she quite forgot her purpose for being in the passage.
“Particularly flighty, title-hunting ninnies,” Alex said.
What? Oh, he meant Ophelia.
True, Ophelia was flighty, and she did seek a titled husband, but if she were enamored with the gentleman, surely that made all the difference.
Careful to keep her voice subdued, Brette murmured, “Shows what you know, Al—Mr. Hawksworth.” Blast me twice. Did he notice her blunder?
“I’ve asked you, repeatedly, to call me Alex or Hawk.”
Yes, he had. Heat crept from her neck to her hairline, and she snapped her fan open, welcoming the faint breeze.
His smile widened, crinkling the corner of his eyes in a merry manner. He sniffed lightly. “I like your perfume. Is it new?” He bent near her again and boldly smelled her hair.
Such an intimate, improper thing to dare.
Brette’s jaw hung slack momentarily before she collected herself. Hadn’t she just been thinking how pleasant he smelled? It rather disconcerted her to have his mind marching along the same path as hers.
He flashed another disarming smile, and her stomach’s renewed flopping had nothing to do with her matchmaking exploits. She fanned herself faster.
Did Alex’s smile expand the merest iota more? As if he knew caterpillars, and butterflies, and all sort of ill-mannered insects cavorted about in her middle?
“Gentleman do not sniff ladies’ heads, Mr. Hawksworth.” What she’d intended as a sternly whispered reprimand came out as an amused observation. Nevertheless, reminding him of his position should put him in his place nicely.
“They do when they smell as lovely as you, and since you’ve forgotten again, I’ll remind you that I’ve asked you to address me as Hawk or Alex.” His melodic whisper held not a jot of repentance.
He most assuredly wasn’t cut from the typical clerical cloth.
She’d never noticed the citrine flecks rimming his pupils before. When he was amused, they danced, and he definitely found something funny right now. Her.
Folding her fan, she considered him. Should she be flattered or annoyed?
“That’s too familiar, even if you are one of my brother-in-law’s dearest friends.”
She canted her head toward Lord Danfield, still absorbed in the treasure trove. “Besides, he and Miss Thurston have a tendre for each other. They may not seem well-suited, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t be happy together. Who has the right to decide except them?”
Cupping her elbow, his hands surprisingly strong for a cleric, Alex guided her away from the library. An accomplished pugilist, he practiced at least twice weekly, Heath had mentioned once in passing. That probably accounted for Alex’s robust grip on her arm. With his parish responsibilities, when did he find the time to spar?
Come to think of it, how had he managed to escape his duties for this house party?
Of much more importance, could she possibly arrange another tryst for Danfield and Ophelia? Brette pivoted halfway around to consider Danfield.