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.