When John Barnesworth is forced to take his brother’s place as viscount, he discovers that not only are the estates bankrupt, he’s been contracted into an engagement with a cruel debutante. Now he’s looking for a way out—some way to save the estates and the people who work on them without shackling himself to a lady who sees him for what he is—broken, defective, and unworthy of being the viscount.
Lady Charlotte Stirling has been in love with her brother’s best friend since they were children. But his return to London was not what she’d hoped. Not only is he betrothed to her mortal enemy, he’s determined to return to America. So, she sucks up her feelings and sets out to find him an American heiress whose dowry can pay off his debts and who would be happy to have a life in America. But the more time they spend together on the marriage mart, the more it becomes clear that the only bride he needs is the one who's been by his side all along.
Release date: December 13, 2022
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Print pages: 368
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How to Win a Wallflower
London, April 1825
Well, this is a damned mess.”
John winced as Edward, Duke of Wildeforde, dropped the stack of papers he’d been reviewing onto the duke’s orderly desk.
It was a damned mess. Every aspect of Walter’s passing had been a nightmare—from his drunken plunge over the edge of the king’s pleasure barge into the filthy Thames to the discovery of his cast-aside account books that showed that he, Viscount Harrow, had run the estates into the ground.
“I’m glad to have you home, finally,” Wilde continued. “But I’m sorry it’s under these circumstances.”
John didn’t share his friend’s sentiment. He was not glad to be home. Had his brother not died, leaving John with the title and estates, he’d have been perfectly happy in his tiny shack on the edge of the American wilderness. He would never have returned into the jaws of London society if he’d been given a choice.
He ran his hand through his hair, tugging at the ends of it. The extent of his brother’s folly became more and more apparent each day. “I can’t understand it. They kept lending him money. What p-p-possessed them?” John winced at the stumble of his words. Thinking of Walter made his chest tighten and tongue trip over itself so that he once again felt like a scrawny, stuttering outcast about to be ridiculed.
Wilde showed no sign that he noticed John’s faltering. “Your brother hid his situation well. There was not a whisper of money troubles amongst our circle.”
“Of course not.” John shouldn’t be surprised. Walter had always been the charming brother. He’d used his good looks and silver tongue to maneuver every situation to his benefit. No doubt each person he owed money to assumed they were the only person to whom he was in debt, and that it was a one-off—a loan made in an exceptional circumstance that was no fault of Walter’s at all.
The accounts were clear. Walter had lived as though he were flush, yet he’d not spent a cent on anything he should have.
For the past three months, John had been traveling from one estate to another, fulfilling his blasted duties. He beheld the same sight over and over: farmers’ cottages in terrible states of disrepair, fields unsown, wages unpaid, and the viscount’s houses stripped of artwork, furniture, and silver tea sets. The books presented to him by haggard estate managers were in equally poor condition, so full of red ink they resembled a slaughterhouse.
Walter had completely bankrupted the Harrow estates and then died, leaving John to manage the fallout.
“Can any of the estates be sold?” Wilde asked.
“No.” Damn the bloody entail. If he could sell even one of them, he’d be able to prop up the rest for long enough to find a solution. Now every move, every breath, took him one step closer to his own bankruptcy.
“And the money you had personally, before your brother’s death, the income from your steam trains and Fi’s matches?”
John looked at the ceiling as if there were an answer somewhere behind the chandelier sconces. “If I sink every cent I have into it, there’s enough money to fix the worst of the problems—patch leaks in the tenants’ roofs, purchase enough seed that we could sow next season, pay back wages to the staff. But there’s not enough money to support everyone who relies on Walter—me—until the next harvest. And there’s not enough blunt to satisfy all the debts he racked up in town. They are considerable.”
The thought of hardworking tailors and other folk having to absorb a loss to their business because of his brother’s irresponsible decadence made John’s stomach roil.
“I can loan you money.” Edward opened his top drawer as if to satisfy the issue then and there. “It won’t be enough to put everything to rights, but it will pay off his debts here in London and tide you over for a few months.”
John shook his head. He didn’t want Wilde’s handout. It might ease the pressure in the short-term, but it wouldn’t solve the real problem. It would only put strain on their friendship when, in six months, he would still have no way of paying off the debt.
“I’d rather not.”
Wilde frowned but nodded and closed his drawer before leaning back in his chair, clasping his hands behind his head. “There is one surefire way to raise the blunt you need. And to raise it quickly.”
John straightened. He would accept any solution that didn’t include borrowing more money.
“Marry an heiress.”
His split second of hope sputtered like an engine out of steam. “That’s not an option.” He tried to keep the frustration from his tone. It wasn’t Wilde’s fault John was in this mess. He was just trying to offer a helpful suggestion. But the thought of being forced onto the marriage mart was nauseating.
Finding a wife would require wooing one—throwing himself headfirst into a whirlwind of balls and dinners and long walks through Hyde Park with women who would, no doubt, be whispering behind his back, mocking his stutter and his awkward small talk, and wishing he was his handsome and charming brother.
Even if John survived the process, he couldn’t bear the thought of having to share a life, a house, and a bed with another person. He preferred his solitude and always would.
His friend raised an eyebrow. “You’re a viscount now. From an ancient and well-respected line. The cits and Americans will line up for the chance to make their daughters Lady Harrow. A decent number of the ton too, at least until they discover how deep in the hole you are.”
“I c-can’t.” His heart raced at the thought of it. “I’ve only returned to England to settle Walter’s affairs and ensure responsible stewards are in place. Once I’m out of this mess, I’ll be on the next ship back to Boston.”
No, marriage was not in the cards. He would need another way to raise the blunt.
Wilde didn’t press the issue. Instead, he crossed to the liquor cabinet and retrieved two cut-crystal glasses. “Stay for a late dinner. Fi is desperate to see you again, and it will be one less meal you have to pay for.”
John snorted as he accepted a glass of brandy, grateful for lighthearted teasing. Wilde had been finding ways to drag John out of his head since they were in boarding school. “You don’t have anywhere to be?” Surely a duke had social commitments lined up.
Wilde retook his seat, shrugging as he did so. “The Bradenstocks’ ball. He and I had planned to discuss a proposed survey of new farming technology and how it could help the economy, but Charlotte will be there. She’ll remind him of its value.”
* * *
Across town, as the night was wearing on, Charlotte sat on a stool behind potted palms in the ladies’ room at the Bradenstocks’ ball, easing her feet from the too-small shoes she’d squeezed them into. Grace had warned her not to wear them. The lady’s maid had predicted this situation exactly, but the shoes were pretty. The trimming matched her gown perfectly, and so she’d ignored Grace’s eye roll and worn them anyway. And then had suffered through three excruciating dances, because a Wildeforde kept her commitments and a lady wouldn’t abandon her dance partner.
Besides, Edward needed help to push his agenda forward, and the right word in the right ear during a country dance could have a greater impact on wider society than most would think.
She pressed gingerly on her heel. The skin bubbled. At this rate, the blister would be rubbed raw before the night was out, which was problematic because she had plenty more dances to go and conversations to have.
She could plead a headache and go home, but that would be its own form of discomfort. Her eldest brother and sister-in-law both worked long hours. When they had free time, they cleaved to each other. In the past, she’d sought William’s company, but he’d been gone for almost four years. The younger Stirling brother’s letters had been few and far between since he left to fight the war in Burma.
Which left Wildeforde House feeling a little lonely. And anything was preferable to loneliness, so she would dance until her feet could hold her no more, regardless of the blister.
There was a soft snick as the door opened, and she quickly dropped her skirts back over her knees, ready to stand and announce her presence. And then she heard it, the snide, nasal voice of her sworn enemy. Luella.
“This entire night is dreadfully dull. I’m ready to peck out my own eyes for some entertainment.”
“Don’t do that, Lulu. That’s such a pretty dress and Madame Genevieve would be livid to see it bloodied.”
Charlotte didn’t need to see Luella to picture the syrupy smile her nemesis would be doling out to her minion. The hairs on the back of Charlotte’s neck rose and she couldn’t help but grit her teeth.
“Why thank you, Annie. Lord knows it cost my father a pretty penny.”
Charlotte could believe that. Every season that went by, Lord Heywood invested considerably more money into ensuring his daughter was the finest dressed young lady of the ton. As if that could make up for Luella’s personality. But you could wrap a viper in pearls and it would still try to eat you.
“I know it’s early, but have we made a decision about this year’s debutantes?” came the voice of one of Luella’s hangers-on.
As stealthily as she could, Charlotte pressed one of the palm leaves aside so she could get a better look at the gaggle of girls. Luella, Lady Anne Ridley, and Miss Howard. The two younger girls looked at Luella with what bordered on adoration. Luella only looked at herself in the mirror, touching at her perfect coiffure.
“They’re all insipid,” Luella said. “When was the last time a debutante took London by storm?”
“Lady Elizabeth Feversham, last year,” Miss Howard said.
Luella shook her head. “No. She was pretty and had a decent sense of style. But her dowry was paltry, and she only garnered three proposals.”
Charlotte was fairly certain Lady Elizabeth only garnered three proposals because the men of London were observant enough to see she was madly in love with Lord Hillington, to whom she became engaged a scant two weeks into the season. Luella’s dismissal sounded an awful lot like jealousy.
“Miss Stansgate. Two years ago? She turned down six proposals before she accepted Lord Pearson.”
Luella wrinkled her nose. “Her eyes were set too close together. How seven men saw past that, I will never understand.”
Yes, the jealousy was strong in Luella’s voice. Charlotte was surprised the others couldn’t hear it.
“Lady Charlotte Stirling. The Duke of Wildeforde’s sister. Four years ago.”
Luella’s eyes narrowed and her lips thinned. She grunted in response, and Charlotte took petty pleasure in being a lemon on Luella’s tongue. Before she could say anything, though, Lady Anne piped up. “Truly? Lady Charlotte?”
The disbelief in the young girl’s tone rubbed like sandpaper. Was it so unbelievable that she had burst onto the London scene like a firework?
Luella’s eyes turned to flinty stone as she ignored the conversation. Miss Howard, never the first to sense an undercurrent, turned to her friend to respond. “Oh yes. She had twenty proposals in her first season. No one has had that many in almost two decades.”
A crease formed between Lady Anne’s brows. “And yet she remains unmarried. Was there some sort of scandal?”
“No.” In the mirror’s reflection, Luella grabbed hold of Lady Anne’s gaze like a snake choking a puppy. “The rest of society simply realized what I had from the start. Lady Charlotte is an insufferable, sanctimonious do-gooder. Her constant charity-pushing is grating. Her perfect manners and perfect dress and perfect conversation make her perfectly uninteresting. She should have accepted a proposal when she had the chance, before she’d bored everyone. I’d be surprised if she landed a baron now.”
Oooh. That woman. No one could get Charlotte’s temper up like Luella. She shoved her foot back into the dratted shoes and stood. The potted palms that had concealed her rustled and three heads swept in her direction.
Two faces fell in horror when they saw who stood there. The third, Luella’s, simply smiled, and Charlotte had the distinct impression that Luella had known she was sitting there all along.
She took a deep breath, ready to fling insults back in their direction, because she would not let this woman best her. But as she opened her mouth, the words died on her lips. Because a Wildeforde did not engage in conflict publicly. Even if it was with the worst woman in London. A Wildeforde was measured and thoughtful, because one never knew when Edward would need her influence, and so her behavior had to be above reproach.
She snapped her mouth shut and Luella snorted, aware she’d won yet another battle.
Charlotte squared her shoulders and walked straight past them through the door. But it did not close quickly enough to avoid the words that floated through it.
“Do you see? I told you. Completely uninteresting.”
I am not uninteresting.” Charlotte sat at the dresser while Grace made quick work of the pins holding up her hair.
Her lady’s maid’s expression was completely sincere as she responded. “No, my lady.”
“And I am not sanctimonious.”
“Not at all.”
“And I am not a do-gooder.” Ugh. The word conjured up images of pious spinsters. Of bland women with nothing else to do but convince other people to support their cause. Which was not her at all. She had plenty of things in her life besides her projects.
“I mean, obviously I do good. I am a duke’s sister, after all. It’s my job to help the needy. I’m supposed to put the weight of the Wildeforde name behind worthy causes. But since when is that a bad thing? It’s something that should be aspired to.”
At that, Grace raised her eyebrows. “Your efforts mean a lot to many people, my lady. Don’t let some unkind words stop you from making a difference.”
The assurance mollified her somewhat. She was making a difference. More of a difference than any other young woman of the ton—except, perhaps, for Fiona. But no lady could compete with Charlotte’s sister-in-law when it came to impacting society. No lady had Fiona’s unique education or her experience as a businesswoman.
Instead, young ladies were supposed to turn their hands to social causes, rather than scientific. Charlotte had managed to increase the standing of several female playwrights through her patronage. She had launched a program to help destitute women find a life in service, started an animal rehoming organization for farm animals that had outlived their usefulness, and she had taken an active interest in the welfare of orphans.
She was helpful. She solved problems. She was who people turned to when they needed assistance. Drat Luella.
“I am not uninteresting. Luella is a spiteful cow, excuse my horrendous language, who resents me because I foiled her plot to trap my brother into marriage. That’s why she spreads such unkind rumors.”
It was infuriating. Charlotte worked so hard. She said yes to every committee she was asked to join; she was at every social event worth noting, and she still found time to lend her presence to those newer to society—the ones who needed a duke’s sister to make their ball a success. Her dance card was full night after night because the more bashful gentlemen of the ton knew she’d not embarrass them with a rejection.
She was beloved, even if she’d yet to find true love. Her future as a grande dame was set.
And then there was Luella. Equally sought after for no good reason.
“She is just awful, Grace. And how dare she criticize me for not yet finding a husband? She’s been out two years longer than I have and she remains unwed.”
Finishing the last of Charlotte’s braids and securing it with a ribbon, Grace caught her mistress’s gaze in the mirror’s reflection. “She may well be jealous, my lady. She had no proposals after that first one, and she is only human, not actually bovine.”
Charlotte only just held back a growl. She didn’t want logical and empathetic responses. She wanted somebody to agree that, yes, Luella was the devil. Certainly, her maid was right, but that knowledge gave Charlotte no satisfaction.
“This is not how it works, Grace. You are supposed to support me in all of my endeavors. Even my petty, myopic, self-indulgent ones.”
Grace laughed, and despite the clear affection in her tone, Charlotte still felt her companion pull away another fraction. Four years ago, Grace would have loyally agreed and helped to plot Luella’s demise, but since getting married last year to Swinton, Edward’s driver, the friendship had changed, almost as though Charlotte was being outgrown.
Grace hadn’t spent the night in Charlotte’s room since her wedding and Charlotte no longer felt she could share all of her secrets without sensing an undertone of you-will-understand-when-you’re-married in the responses.
It was not unlike the undertone that had worked its way into her closest friendships when one after another got engaged, then married, and were now even bearing children.
“Perhaps you should seek your sister if you wish for partial advice.”
“Perhaps I shall,” Charlotte said, trying not to let her disappointment show. She would seek Fiona. There was no one more used to cruel things being said about her than a Scottish female chemist, common born, who’d worked in a factory and had worn men’s clothing before marrying a duke and being subjected to all sorts of slander.
No one ever said Fiona was uninteresting, though. Odd, perhaps. Scandalous. An upstart—all insults that Fiona barely registered. She was who she was, and she made no apologies for it.
It was admirable. And if Charlotte was a little jealous that her new sister had changed the world, impressed half of society without bending backward for it, and found the love of her life, well, that jealousy was to be expected, surely.
Grace held out a dressing gown for Charlotte to step into. “Will you need me again, my lady?”
“No. Thank you. Please ask a footman to bring some hot milk to the study.” She tied her dressing gown with a knot and stepped into the slippers on the floor by the bed.
Fiona and Edward would be having a nightcap in their shared office. After Luella’s attempt to force Edward into marriage, there was no chance either of them would mirror Grace’s tolerance of Luella’s behavior.
Halfway down the corridor, her slippers began to chafe against the blisters. She kicked them off and picked them up, letting them hang from her fingers. It might raise an eyebrow with the footmen on duty, but both Ned and Fi had seen her in worse states of undress than this.
As she got closer to the study, she could hear Fiona’s laugh through the open door. Smiling to herself, she picked up her pace. David, the footman standing by the doorway, started forward, his eyes wide as he saw her in her nightclothes, barefooted with her hair in braids. He moved to block her entrance.
“Oh, David. It’s fine,” she said, rolling her eyes and stepping around him. “It’s not as though we have visit—” She stopped still, both her words and her feet, because they did have a guest. Seated in the armchair opposite Fiona was John Barnesworth, relaxed and smiling.
John, who had been the subject of all her childhood dreams.
John, whose name she’d scrawled over and over in her diaries.
John, who had never returned to London once he’d left for Oxford.
John, who had left for Boston years ago and she thought she’d never see again.
John, who was Lord Harrow now.
He was every bit as lovely as he had been when she last saw him. His longish chestnut hair, much in need of a trim, flopped into his eyes in a roguish manner. It was streaked with gold from the American sun. His skin was a shade darker than she remembered, and his emerald eyes stood out in contrast.
Emerald eyes that looked up as she entered, flaring in surprise. He stood quickly and bowed fluidly. She had always admired that about him—the gentleness and grace with which he moved. Her brothers were both overly tall, with a bulkiness that drove their seamstress to despair. John was all long, slender lines and graceful movement. He was the embodiment of a perfect gentleman.
As he moved, an urge to reach out to him almost overwhelmed her. As his gaze traveled her person, her dressing gown, and landed on her bare feet, she hugged herself instead, her slippers knocking against her side.
She had fantasized about seeing John again so many times, and in all of those fantasies, she’d been in a ballroom, surrounded by other men, dressed in her finest clothing. His eyes were drawn to her, and he would have a moment of double take as he realized the beautiful young woman in front of him was the grown-up version of the gangly girl he’d barely noticed.
She did not imagine him seeing her with her hair in braids and wearing nightclothes, as though she was unchanged from the child she’d been when he last visited.
“What are you doing here?” She regretted the words the moment she said them. It was bad enough that she was dressed as she was. Now she’d let her embarrassment make her churlish.
He raised an eyebrow as he straightened. “Leaving.” He gathered his jacket from the back of the chaise longue and slung it over his elbow. From the small table, he picked up a notebook, tucking it under his arm. He nodded to Edward and Fiona, the latter of whom rolled her eyes. “Get gone then, if ye dunnae want to stay. We’ll talk more of this tomorrow.”
As he passed Charlotte, he gave her a smile that was really more of a grimace, and left without a backward glance.
“Well,” she said, mortified. “That was rude.” Of course, he’d simply answered her rudeness in kind. She had no one but herself to blame if he didn’t bother with a basic greeting after all these years.
“Don’t mind John,” Edward said. “He wasn’t expecting to see a half-dressed girl appear wielding a pair of slippers.”
“I’m not wielding anything. My feet hur—” She narrowed her eyes as her brother chuckled. “Oh, you are bothersome,” she said, annoyed that he’d once again gotten a rise out of her. “What is he doing here?”
“John? He has returned to England.” Edward didn’t take his eyes off her as he swirled the brandy in his glass, an infuriating knowingness in his stare.
She knew exactly what he was doing, what he expected her response to be, yet she couldn’t put on the disaffected expression she wanted to.
“Clearly,” she ground out. Of course, John had returned to England. She’d been expecting his arrival for months. One couldn’t ignore a summons from the crown, and when one became a newly minted viscount, that was as good as a summons. “What is he doing here? At midnight? While I’m in my nightclothes?”
Edward cocked his head. “I don’t think any of us could have anticipated you being home this early, let alone ready for bed.”
Charlotte rubbed her forehead. “You’re being deliberately obtuse, brother.”
Edward sighed and rubbed the crease between his brows. “Given he’s Fiona’s business partner and my friend, he joined us for dinner. His cook has been…indisposed. But Char—”
“Well, it would have been nice to have been invited.” She knew Edward was about to scold her, and she interrupted before he could. “In my own home. After all the dinner parties I’ve thrown on your behalf, you can’t even invite me to this one.”
“Char…” There was a faint note of warning in his tone. They had argued about John before. Edward had a ridiculous notion that she and John would not be a good match, which might have been true when John was a second son who never ventured out into society, but he was the viscount now. And in London. He would have to be out in society. John would be a perfectly acceptable match.
“The least you could do is inform me that we’re having guests for dinner, given that it will throw my entire meal plan off for the week.”
“He is not for you and you are not for him,” Edward said bluntly, ignoring her comment.
Charlotte’s face heated. “You’re being quite presumptuous to think that he’s even on my mind.” But of course, he had been. The moment she’d heard of the previous Lord Harrow’s passing, the possibility of John returning had wormed its way into her brain.
Her silly little heart had leapt and the equally silly voice in her head had whispered that he was who she was waiting for. He was why she’d never accepted a proposal, even when she’d decided she would. He was why the word no had snuck out of her mouth every time, unbidden. She’d never have admitted it to herself when he was gone from England and unlikely to return, but now that he was home, she couldn’t hide from the fact of it.
And Edward suspected the truth. She was sure that he did. She would not give him the opportunity to wrest it out of her, though. “Good night, brother,” she said before their conversation became a spat that the duke would inevitably win. “I’m going up.”
* * *
John’s cheeks burned the entire walk home. It wasn’t a long walk—Harrow House was on the other side of the Mayfair block. The two homes even shared a garden wall—and by the time he strode up the front stairs, his embarrassment had not abated.
His behavior had been unacceptable. It had been unacceptable for a viscount, who would be expected to manage basic conversation, and unacceptable for a gentleman, who would be expected to treat his friend’s younger sister with at least a modicum of cordiality.
But John hadn’t been prepared to talk with anyone other than Wilde and Fi tonight. Socializing with strangers consumed an enormous amount of energy, and untangling his brother’s financial knots had left him with little to spare. The sight of Charlotte, grown now into a woman, had felt—big. Consequential. He couldn’t accurately describe it.
It was as though the very sight of her burn. . .
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