The Rogue and the Wallflower
The Honorable Rogues®, Book Five
Formerly titled The Wallflower’s Wicked Wager
He loved her beyond anything and everything—precisely why he must never marry her.
Love—sentimental drivel for weak, feckless fools.
Since an explosion ravaged Captain Morgan Le Draco’s face and cost him his commission in the Royal Dragoons, he’s fortified himself behind a rampart of cynicism and distrust. He’s put aside all thoughts of marrying until he risks his life to save a drowning woman. At once, Morgan knows Shona’s the balm for his tortured soul. But as a wealthy noblewoman, she’s far above his humble station and can never be his.
Love—a treasured gift reserved for those beautiful of form and face.
Scorned and ridiculed most of her adult life, Shona Atterberry believes she’s utterly undesirable and is reconciled to spinsterhood. She hides her spirited temperament beneath a veneer of shyness. Despite how ill-suited they are, and innuendos that Captain Le Draco is a fortune-hunter, she cannot escape her growing fascination.
Two damaged souls searching for love.
Shona is goaded into placing a wicked wager. One that sets her upon a ruinous path and alienates the only man who might have ever loved her. Is true love enough to put their pasts behind them, to learn to trust, and to heal their wounded hearts.
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“I read this book in one sitting. I could not put it down…one of my favorite things about this author is she never let me down…story has charmed me.” ★★★★★ ~Uncaged Reviews
“When Shona and Morgan first meet, I had tears in my eyes; both see the good person behind the unfashionable facade, it is such a touching moment…” ★★★★★ ~Mo
Chapter One Excerpt
Davenswood Court, Buckinghamshire
A droplet of perspiration trickled between Shona’s breasts leaving a dribbly, sticky trail despite her frantic fanning and the conservatory’s open doors.
Would this summer’s sweltering temperatures never cease?
How was she to appear dignified and fresh when moisture beaded every part of her person, from her brow to her toes tucked into quaint new turquoise slippers?
Desperate for relief, and despite the impropriety, she’d removed her bonnet and gloves—who would know anyway? They, along with her parasol and the book she’d thought to read but abandoned, now lay atop a charming wrought iron bench situated beside the far door.
Cloying tendrils of hair stuck to her temples, and she feared her Indian sprigged muslin gown—chosen specifically for the fabric’s airiness—exhibited humiliating damp spots in mortifying places.
Fingers spread, she held one hand beneath the miniature waterfall cascading from the upper level of the burbling fountain centered in the greenhouse. Even the water felt warm to her touch, and she would’ve forsaken shortbread for a month if she could stand beneath the Falls of Bruar’s gushing flow at this very moment.
She patted her forehead and then her cheeks with her wet fingers.
The lush greenery and colorful flowers artfully displayed throughout Davenswood Court’s hothouse, including a lemon and an orange tree, thrived in the tropical atmosphere.
Not so Shona. She wilted like a pansy plopped in freshly-poured oolong tea.
Selecting the most humid building on the estate to steal a few moments alone hadn’t been the wisest of decisions. But even amidst this torrid heat, she relished the peace and privacy she’d filched by doing so.
Truth to tell, she’d also fled Miss Rossington and her two cohorts, the Dundercroft sisters. That trio of mean-spirited chits had been nothing but malicious since Shona had arrived yesterday.
Lacy fan splayed in her left hand, and lifting her skirts to a most indelicate height with her right, Shona ventured to the conservatory’s other door. Once there, she covertly surveyed Davenswood Court’s sprawling, neat-as-a-tailor’s-seams lawns. She saw no one addlepated enough to attempt a stroll beneath the late-afternoon sun’s punishing rays.
A bittersweet smile tipped her mouth. She wasn’t ready to face the house party’s growing throng just yet.
Never would, truth be told.
She was, to say the least, completely, hopelessly, and chronically socially inept.
Oh, put her in a room with family members or close friends, and she produced the wittiest dialogue, the most intelligent, thought-provoking conversations. Even humorous ripostes. But amongst casual acquaintances or, worse yet, strangers?
A chair cushion or a teacup displayed more finesse and cleverness.
A wistful sigh escaped her as she eyed the sparkling indigo lake beyond the well-tended greens.
Bordered by a grove of towering, thickly-leafed, gnarly-branched oaks, the refreshing water beckoned. What she wouldn’t give to strip her stockings and slippers from her sweaty legs and feet and soak her toes in the cool depths.
Out of the question, of course.
More’s the pity.
Despite the heat, an icy shudder scythed across her shoulders.
Och. Just imagine the elevated brows, pinched mouths, and censured superior glances from the hoity-toity upper crust even now mingling within the manor house. The upper ten thousand weren’t all pretentious and judgmental, of course. Regrettably, she seemed to be a magnet for those who were.
Hence, Shona had determined to remain as inconspicuous and innocuous as possible for the interminable seven days, eleven hours, and—she squinted at the blazing sun—however many torturous odd minutes remained before her zealously anticipated departure.
Too bad this wasn’t Wedderford Abbey, her Scottish estate—her blessedly temperate, mild-weather home. There she could frolic about barefoot, gown hiked to her thighs, or swim naked as a robin if she wished.
Which, naturally, being a reserved and modest creature of twenty—one-and-twenty tomorrow—and possessing a title in her own right, she didn’t.
Verra much. Verra often.
Last evening, several male guests—originally dismissing her as a frumpy, somewhat plump, beneath-their-touch Scot—became comically attentive and moon-eyed upon learning of her position and not-so-modest fortune. Worse than hunting hounds in full cry, once they’d caught the scent of her money and power.
A lady Lord of Parliament.
Shona had finally stopped trying to explain the complicated title to the cod-pated popinjays. She wished the Scots referred to the noble rank as a barony like the English did. So much simpler.
And why, for heaven’s sake, couldn’t whoever dreamed up the classification have created a feminine equivalent for women holding the rank?
Because in that, as in most things, men deem women irrelevant, incapable, or insignificant.
A movement caught her eye, and suddenly tense and alert, she swung her wary consideration toward the motion.
A tall man, his rather longish hair glinting with bronze streaks, strode with animal-like grace across the clipped lawn.
Headed straight for the lake, she’d be bound.
The stranger held one bare hand angled against his forehead, no doubt shading his eyes from the unrelenting sun. Still, his profile’s silhouette revealed the sharp blade of a patrician nose, the slashing angle of high cheeks, and a sculpted chin.
A strong face. Ruggedly handsome. Arresting, in a sort of untamed, almost predatory way.
As he marched along, anger exuded from him in every stalking step of his powerful legs.
The fuggy air stalling in her lungs, like a doe in a hunter’s sights, Shona stood stock still, fearful of detection.
Or so she told herself.
What other rational reason could there be for her breath to snag and her pulse to pitter-patter?
She was a sensible miss.
Not a totty-headed nincompoop given to histrionics, giggling, pouts, waterworks, swooning, or any other absurd feminine dramatics. No indeed. No coy twirling of parasols, fluttering of fans, artfully-dropped gloves. Good thing she had no inclination to flirt, for the artifice was so far beyond her scope, her maladroitness would bring further shame upon her.
Nevertheless, despite her complete and total lack of feminine wiles, her dratted attention remained curiously—disturbingly—riveted on the gentleman.
His jacket’s fabric strained against his biceps and shoulders, and with each long stride, the back of his coat hitched up, revealing what was surely one of the finest manly behinds she’d ever had the pleasure of observing.
Not that she made a regular habit of inspecting gentlemen’s posteriors. Generally, when dashing men were near, she seldom lifted her focus from the floor or her slippers’ toes.
She needn’t have fretted he’d catch her staring, for not once did he glance her way.
His Spanish brown coat, biscuit-colored pantaloons, and ebony boots blended with the oaks’ tawny-gray trunks, and in a few moments, he disappeared.
Suddenly, a touch cross and uncertain why, she muttered, “Too much to hope, I suppose, that the country air would be cooler than London.” She fervently resumed waving her fan and gave her face a brisk cooling.
A much-coveted breeze wafted past, carrying the essence of several late-blooming flowers and vines. Her nostrils quivered, and she drew in an appreciative breath.
At least it smelled scads better here.
Town reeked most days. However, in the summer, the stench became intolerable. If required to venture outdoors, she often covered her nose with an orange-blossom scented handkerchief. She far preferred the fresh, invigorating air of the country—the Highlands in particular.
Wheels crunching on gravel drew her reluctant attention to the ostentatious mansion’s circular drive. The portentous sound meant only one thing.
More guests for the Viscount and Viscountess Wimpletons’ week-long house party.
An almost intractable, child-like frown pulled her brows together and turned her mouth downward.
Why did the Wimpletons have to be such gracious hosts and all-around nice people? Favorites amongst the upper echelons, to be sure.
Three dust-coated carriages rumbled to a stop, and half a dozen maroon-and-black liveried footman rushed down the stairs to assist with the passengers’ luggage.
Over sixty of Society’s finest had descended on Davenswood Court already, and the party didn’t officially commence until tomorrow and then concluded with a grand ball.
A masque ball, at that.
Such a wonderful, if somewhat small, reprieve.
A strip of satin across Shona’s eyes would allay her discomfiture a touch, and was a trifle better than hovering in an alcove or hiding behind potted plants and vast columns. Or the humiliating awkwardness of sitting—overlooked and disregarded—with the other wallflowers and spinsterish misses. False smiles dredged from their pitiful reserve of pride couldn’t conceal the hope warring with disappointment in their half-lowered gazes.
Despite a masque’s welcome anonymity, she awaited the dance with the same enthusiasm as she might anticipate having a molar extracted or a carbuncle lanced. Not, mind you, that she’d ever experienced either. But Mama had, and she’d been a veritable bear for days before and afterward.
Mama is a crotchety, unreasonable, demanding bear all of the time.
Over one hundred guests, plus their servants, were expected, according to the maid helping Shona dress this morning.
For a week.
A whole, unbearably long, uncomfortable, angst-ridden, sure-to-make-a-cake-of-herself week. With the haut ton’s elite members milling about, constantly underfoot, noting every little faux pas or gaffe. And likely not another peaceful, relaxed moment to herself until she reached Wedderford Abbey.
Depending on how many guests did, indeed, accept the invitation to the Wimpletons’ much-coveted annual summer event, Shona might very well be obligated to share her assigned room with a stranger.
God help her if she found herself saddled with a chit of Miss Rossington’s petulant ilk.
What a perfectly horrid notion.
Perhaps she could feign an illness?
No need to pretend. Shona swallowed the dread-induced queasiness throttling to her throat.
Why did she have to be such a coward?
Nae, not a coward.
Just wretchedly cow-handed and fearful of making social blunders. Which she did with astonishing regularity and generally humiliating results.
Chagrin-born flames licked her face.
Now her round cheeks even more resembled two ripe, riddy apples.
Stepping through the doorway, mindful to remain within the building’s shade lest the sun reach her easily-freckled skin, she worried her lower lip. How she wished to escape to the lake for the rest of the afternoon.
Probably some social rule against unaccompanied, unmarried females wandering the estate. Until such a female was soundly on the shelf, and then the restrictions were eased a smidge.
Not enough to suit her, by thunder and turf.
Most people thought her an insipid milk-and-water miss, which wasn’t accurate in the least. But neither was she a piss-and-vinegar chit either. She actually possessed a rather vibrant spirit—a verve she studiously kept subdued beneath her bashful mannerisms. But nothing so forward or unacceptable as actual brazenness, or—
What was that colorful expression she’d overheard the stable hand mutter last week? Nose scrunched, she shut her eyes.
Ah, that was it.
The cheeky boldness of a bloke with bull-sized ballocks.
Oh, to be able to claim the merest jot of such incontestable confidence. Not the ballocks part, of course. Just the boldness.
Years of maternal abuse had turned Shona into a timorous mouse of a thing, and she hated it. Loathed being a dowdy, bashful, gaffe-prone wallflower. Just once, she’d like to hold her head high, poised and self-assured.
Once, dare something a trifle wicked or wanton.
Her nape hairs prickled a warning, and she darted an uneasy peek over her shoulder.
No one approached the greenhouse.
Must she be so jumpy, for pity’s sake?
Her errant focus glided back to the lake. If only she possessed the nerve to test the inviting water. But such rash action would bring censure on those she cared for.
If she had an ounce of steel in her, she’d use this house party to her advantage. Perhaps even get herself kissed for the first time. Oooh. At the masque ball. Or better yet, set her cap, her handkerchief—by heavens, her parasol and gloves too—for a gentleman she found striking.
He must be kind. And patient. And not given to raising his voice or poking fun at her weight or figure.
She’d had a lifetime of being lectured and screeched at, and too many biscuits, sweet meats, and pastries as a child had developed into excess curves she couldn’t seem to rid herself of no matter how many reducing diets she tried, food choices she restricted, or lengthy daily walks she took.
Even the multiple occasions when Mother had locked her in her room for days with scarcely anything to eat hadn’t willowed her form.
Shona’s mouth twitched on one side.
Likely due to her figuring out how to pick the lock and helping herself to whatever she pleased from the kitchen. Much to Cook and Mama’s consternation. Neither could fathom where the food disappeared to, but never knowing when Mama would choose to deprive her of meals again, Shona always wrapped a supply to stash in her chamber.
Her dearest friend, Katrina, the Duchess of Pendergast, had tried to convince Shona that she wasn’t prone to plumpness.
Pooh. What benevolent drivel.
The looking glass Shona peered into every day didn’t lie. Her bosoms were … well … big. And her hips flared out, generous and full, from her waist.
She formed a small pout with her mouth.
Och. To have slender, narrow hips and thighs. What a lovely thing that would be.
True, no flabby flesh jiggled about beneath her chemise, but at soirée after rout after assembly—when she’d braved lifting her gaze from her hands neatly clasped in her lap—she’d witnessed gentlemen flocking to the lithe, svelte misses. Or the full-bosomed ones with willowy hips, while chuffy, unexceptional lasses such as herself were seldom spared a second glance.
“I’m positive I saw our Lady Atterberry slip out the terrace doors, Clarence, dear.”
A familiar grating voice penetrated Shona’s turbulent musings.
Hangnails and hoary toads.
From behind a potted palm, which did little to conceal her, Shona peeked through the other door. A frustrated groan escaped her pursed mouth.
Confound it. She’d been discovered.
Beneath a purple-fringed parasol, Clarence Olson and his domineering mother tramped toward the conservatory, red-faced and perspiring like lathered racehorses.
“And when she did, I purposed to find you at once,” Mrs. Olson said. “It’s providence, surely. She’ll welcome your addresses, darling. How could she not? You’re third in line to a viscountcy.” Pomposity dripped from each affected word. “Trust me. Mothers know these things.”
What colossal windbaggery.
Shona wouldn’t have had Clarence Olson if the peacocks wandering the estate started singing opera. In Gaelic.
Jaw set, she folded her fan and reached into the hothouse to drop it onto the bench with her other belongings. If the Olsons thought she was ripe for the plucking, they’d find themselves gravely mistaken.
“I believe I saw movement near the greenhouse.” Slightly breathless, Mrs. Olson rattled on, “Surely a bashful Scots drab such as she realizes the honor you bestow on her with your attention.”
“Hardly a drab, Mother,” Mr. Olson denied with an impatient shake of his sandy blond-haired head. “She’s really most comely, and I find her accent quite charming.”
Shona barely stifled a derisive snort.
Been nipping his flask of brandy a bit early today, had he?
She wasn’t in the mood for those two.
Like dogs trailing a fox, they’d pursued her relentlessly since Lady Wimpleton had introduced them.
Shona was no fool.
Neither Mrs. Olson nor her bird-witted fop of a son had given her a second look until someone addressed her as Lady Atterberry. Then at once, the rapacious pair had openly questioned several guests about her status. Suddenly, they’d became as attentive as miserly bankers counting their hoarded bank notes.
Fisting her skirts, Shona lifted them scandalously high, exposing the entirety of her calves, and tore from the greenhouse as if hell’s hounds nipped at her satin-covered heels. She’d have preferred the devil’s own dogs to the Olsons’ importuning presences.
The oak grove wasn’t so very far away, and the chance of someone else seeing her pelting, neck or nothing, was slight. She hoped.
“Lady Atterberry. Wait.”
Mrs. Olson’s shrill voice raked down Shona’s spine, like a freshly-honed gardening claw.
I think not.
Breathless from her charge across the grass, her lovely slippers hopelessly stained, Shona plowed into the oaks’ delicious shade. Glorious coolness engulfed her. Despite her frantic flight, she sighed in appreciation. This was where she ought to have hidden away. Next time—
“Lady Atterberry?” Mr. Olson’s reedy voice rang far too near. “Where’d the gel git to?”
“She’s in the trees, of course,” Mrs. Olson said, peevishness sharpening her voice.
Tossing a frantic glance over her shoulder—the dratted pair were still hell-bent on finding her—Shona stumbled over a massive root snaking across the ground.
A wee squeal escaped her. Arms flailing, she fought to regain her balance. From the corner of her eye, she saw the man in brown sprinting toward her, his hands outstretched.
The instant before she plummeted headfirst into the lake, her gaze met his piercing, sky-blue eye.