Once there were four young ladies who sat at the side of every ball, soiree, and party during the London season. Waiting night after night in a row of chairs, the wallflowers eventually struck up a conversation. They realized that although they were in competition for the same group of gentlemen, there was more to be gained from being friends rather than adversaries. And even more than that, they liked one another. They decided to band together to find husbands, starting with the oldest, Annabelle, and working down to the youngest, Daisy.
Annabelle was unquestionably the most beautiful wallflower, but she was virtually penniless, which put her at the greatest disadvantage. Although most London bachelors hoped for a wife with a pretty face, they usually settled for one with a handsome dowry.
Evie was unconventionally attractive, with flaming hair and abundant freckles. It was well-known that someday she would inherit a fortune from her father. However, her father was a common-born ex-boxer who owned a gambling club, and such a disreputable background was a difficult obstacle for a young lady to surmount. Even worse, Evie was cripplingly shy and had a stammer. Any man who tried to talk to her would later describe the encounter as an act of torture.
Lillian and Daisy were sisters from New York. Their family, the Bowmans, were astonishingly, vulgarly, almost unimaginably wealthy, having made their fortune with a soap manufacturing business. They had no good blood, no manners, and no social patrons. Lillian was a fiercely loving friend, but also strong-willed and bossy. And Daisy was a dreamer who often fretted that real life was never quite as interesting as the novels she read so voraciously.
As the wallflowers helped one another navigate the perils of London society, and consoled and supported one another through very real dangers, sorrows, and joys, they each found a husband, and no one referred to them as wallflowers anymore.
In every social season, however, there was no shortage of new wallflowers. (Then, as now, there were always girls who were overlooked and ignored by gentlemen who really should have known better.)
But then there was the Christmas when Rafe Bowman, Lillian and Daisy’s oldest brother, came to England. After that, life for one London wallflower would never be the same… .
It’s official,” Lillian, Lady Westcliff, said with satisfaction, setting aside the letter from her brother. “Rafe will reach London in precisely a fortnight. And the clipper’s name is the Whirlwind, which I think is quite apt in light of his impending betrothal.”
She glanced down at Annabelle and Evie, who were both on the parlor floor working on a massive circle of red velvet. They had gathered at Lillian’s London house, Marsden Terrace, for an afternoon of tea and conversation.
At the moment Annabelle and Evie were making a tree skirt, or rather trying to salvage the fabric from Lillian’s previous efforts. Evie was snipping at a piece of brocade ribbon that had been stitched unevenly on one side, while Annabelle was busy cutting a new edge of fabric and pinning it.
The only one missing was Lillian’s younger sister Daisy, who lived in Bristol with her new husband. Annabelle longed to see Daisy and find out how marriage suited her. Thankfully they would all be together soon for the Christmas holiday in Hampshire.
“Do you think your brother will have any difficulty convincing Lady Natalie to marry him?” Annabelle asked, frowning as she encountered a large, dark stain on the fabric.
“Oh, not at all,” Lillian said breezily. “He’s handsome, charming, and very rich. What could Lady Natalie possibly object to, aside from the fact that he’s an American?”
“Well, Daisy said he’s a rake. And some young women might not”
“Nonsense!” Lillian exclaimed. “Rafe is not at all a rake. Oh, he’s sown a few oats, but what red-blooded man hasn’t?”
Annabelle regarded her doubtfully. Although Lillian’s younger sister Daisy was generally regarded as a dreamer and a romantic, she had a streak of clear-eyed pragmatism that made her judgments quite reliable. If Daisy had said their oldest brother was a rake, there was undoubtedly strong evidence to support the assertion.
“Does he drink and gamble?” Annabelle asked Lillian.
A wary frown. “On occasion.”
“Does he behave in rude or improper ways?”
“He’s a Bowman. We don’t know any better.”
“Does he pursue women?”
“Has he ever been faithful to one woman? Has he ever fallen in love?”
Lillian frowned at her. “Not that I’m aware of.”
Annabelle glanced at Evie with raised brows. “What do you think, Evie?”
“Rake,” came the succinct reply.
“Oh, all right,” Lillian grumbled. “I suppose he is a rake. But that may not be an impediment to his courtship of Lady Natalie. Some women like rakes. Look at Evie.”
Evie continued to snip doggedly through the brocade ribbon, while a smile curved her lips. “I don’t l-like all rakes,” she said, her gaze on her work. “Just one.”
Evie, the gentlest and most soft-spoken of them all, had been the one least likely to capture the heart of the notorious Lord St. Vincent, who had been the definitive rake. Although Evie, with her round blue eyes and blazing red hair, possessed a rare and unconventional beauty, she was unbearably shy. And there was the stammer. But Evie also had a reserve of quiet strength and a gallant spirit that seemed to have seduced her husband utterly.