Once a Wallflower At Last His Love

 Book 6 in the >Scandalous Seasons Series

Responsible, practical Miss Hermione Rogers, has been crafting stories as the notorious Mr. Michael Michaelmas and selling them for a meager wage to support her siblings. The only real way to ensure her family’s ruinous debts are paid, however, is to marry. Tall, thin, and plain, she has no expectation of success. In London for her first Season she seizes the chance to write the tale of a brooding duke. In her research, she finds Sebastian Fitzhugh, the 5th Duke of Mallen, who unfortunately is perfectly affable, charming, and so nicely… configured… he takes her breath away. He lacks all the character traits she needs for her story, but alas, any duke will have to do.Sebastian Fitzhugh, the 5th Duke of Mallen has been deceived so many times during the high-stakes game of courtship, he’s lost faith in society women. Yet, after a chance encounter with Hermione, he finds himself intrigued. Not a woman he’d normally consider beautiful, the young lady’s practical bent, her forthright nature and her tendency to turn up in the oddest places has his interests… roused. He’d like to trust her, he’d like to do a whole lot more with her too, but should he?

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Chapter 1

Surrey, England

Dukes never wed impoverished young ladies, who were one step away from societal ruin. It was shocking and scandalous and…

And it was another rubbish attempt. With a huff of annoyance, Miss Hermione Rogers wrinkled the sheet and tossed the piece of paper into the rapidly growing pile at the foot of her desk. She tapped the tip of her pen against her lip and then dipped the tip into the crystal inkwell and tried again.

For the seventh time that morning.

Dukes never wed impoverished young ladies, who were one step away from societal ruin. She paused to read over the line once more. Well, that part, though not eloquent, was at the very least true. It is why such tales of stern-faced, brooding dukes invariably made the most wonderful stories. Wicked stories of forbidden love and great sacrifice.

Inspired once more, Hermione dipped her pen into the inkwell (yet again) and blinked down at the collection of words, and came up—empty. Giving up on her writing for the morning, she set her pen aside with a sigh. Filled with a restive energy, she shoved back her chair and rose, hurrying across her chambers, past the opened trunks and valises littering the small space. She stopped beside the window and peeled back the curtain, staring out the crystal windowpane, down into the gardens below.

A warm sun bathed the overgrown greenery and flowers in a shimmering glow, reflecting off the pool upon a watering fountain. She pressed her forehead against the glass, gaze fixed on the water contained within. A breeze stirred ripples atop the surface, transporting her back to different water, a different day. For a moment she pressed her eyes closed to blot out the agonized reminder of the last day of normalcy. When she opened her eyes, the clear windowpane reflected her meager belongings laid out atop her bed. Those piles of books and journals and gowns, returned her to the current moment—the eventual parting.

Because she—just as all the young, unwed heroines in the books she secretly penned, whose family were on the cusp of ruin—had little recourse but to get herself to London for a Season…and make a suitable match.

Her lips twisted in a wry smile. Or in her case, any match.

The door opened with a soft click. She jumped as her eleven-year-old sister, Adeline, closed the door and skipped into the room. “Hullo.” The little girl skidded to a stop beside Hermione.

“What are you—?”

“Hiding from Aunt Agatha,” Addie groused.

“Be nice,” Hermione chided, the response nearly automatic. And then…. “What did she do now?” The ‘she’ in question was none other than their aunt who’d swept into their little corner of Surrey, and declared her intentions to move the entire Rogers family to London, all to give her cherished niece a Season.

“It’s not what she did, it’s what she said.” Her too serious child’s eyes stared down into the gardens at their elder sister. Then she raised her gaze to Hermione’s. “Papa said we’d all be ruined.” She jerked her chin toward Hermione. “But especially you and I.” Well, that much was true. “Aunt Agatha said no one would dare forgive what Elizabeth had done.” She touched Hermione’s arm. “What did Elizabeth do?”

Hermione’s stomach tightened painfully. Fury, regret, and agony all roiled in her belly as a potent brew. “She’s done nothing.” It was what was done to sweet, innocent Elizabeth, more child than woman. Polite Society would never see it that way though.

“That’s not what Aunt Agatha said.”

No, what had happened could never, would never, be forgiven by Polite Society, and it certainly wasn’t fit discussion for a child. So, she settled for a vague truth. “She didn’t do anything that was her fault, Addie,” she said softly. Because it wasn’t. She sighed. It was, however, an act that could never be undone.

A noisy laugh called her attention to the grounds below to the tall, willowy young woman, with sun-kissed blonde hair ambling through the gardens.

“Was it that Lord Cavendish?” Addie asked, unknowingly twisting the blade of guilt all the deeper. “He seemed very nice and did have splendid blond curls.”

Hermione choked on the vitriolic words that threatened to spill out. Even with all the stories she penned, she’d never have suitable words for the bastard who’d taken advantage of her gentle, wide-eyed older sister. She tapped her sister gently on the tip of her nose. “Let us not speak of Lord Cavendish.” The man who’d coaxed Elizabeth into doing things no young lady should ever do and left her with nothing more than a babe in her belly and a tattered name should anyone uncover the truth, which invariably they would; particularly when the babe was born. “I would much rather hear about what Aunt Agatha had to say to Papa.”

Having tired of staring down into the gardens, Addie sprinted across the room and evaluated Hermione’s belongings scattered about the room. “Papa said you’ll make a match and save us all to which Aunt said ‘mph-mph.’”

Hermione looked at her sister quizzically. “What?” Aunt Agatha, their late mother’s only sibling had upended their lives but a week ago. In that time, the lady had spoken with the clear, clipped tones to rival the best English governess.

A slightly crooked grin split the young girl’s cheeks. “I couldn’t hear what she said because the door was closed.” And because the Countess of Pemberly clearly had greater discretion than her flighty brother-in-law, the impoverished baronet with a scandalous family. “I’m sure it was all splendid things about how lovely you are.”

“You’re just being loyal.”

“Well, a bit.” Hermione’s lips twitched at her girlish honesty. “Aunt Agatha said you must make a match immediately.” Worry gleamed in her eyes. “She said even with Elizabeth being simple she could still have any duke in the realm. But you’re also lovely.” Yes, how very faithful Addie was. Her sister continued. “Papa said lovely enough to at least make a favorable match.” Addie hitched herself onto the edge of the bed. “Though not the best match. To be entirely honest, I’m not altogether certain what would be the best match. I’d personally prefer to have a gentleman with golden curls like Lord Cavendish…”

As her sister prattled on and on, Hermione looked below at Elizabeth once more. Feeling Hermione’s gaze, Elizabeth’s looked up. “Hullo, Hermione!” she shouted, excitement tinging her words.

Hermione mustered a smile and waved in return. “Hullo,” she mouthed.

Elizabeth shook her head, cupping a hand about her ear. “I canna hear you, Hermie,” she shouted, her words no longer the articulate ones of a cultured young lady but rather garbled and rolled together. “Speak louder.” Then, this was her sister and where strangers might struggle to make sense of those inarticulate words, Hermione heard them as though it were a language only they two spoke.

“Are you listening, silly?” Addie called out loudly from her spot upon the bed.

Hermione gave Elizabeth one more wave and then returned her attention to Addie. “Indeed.” She let the curtain fall and returned to her desk. “You were saying?” she asked with a wink.

“Are you excited to finally have a London Season?”

She sighed and slid into her uncomfortable, but familiar writing chair. “Yes.” No. It was a total waste of their already non-existent funds. All in the hope of growing the coffers with a lofty match.

“I do wish I was the one having a London Season.”

Hermione trailed her fingertip over the last words she’d written. “Someday you will.” She’d see to it that her sister did.

The younger girl stretched her legs out in front of her and hooked them at the ankles. “Do you suppose you’ll be forced to wed some odious, horrid, corpulent gentleman with rotted teeth and garlic-scented breath?”

Hermione’s lips twitched with amusement at the colorful image presented by her older than her eleven years, romantic of a sister. “Do you imagine our father would wed me off to some odious, horrid, fat gentleman with rotted teeth?”

They looked at each other and shared a grin. Addie wagged her finger. “Do not forget the garlic-scented breath.”

“Of course.” Hermione laughed. “How could one ever forget the garlic-scented breath?” Her merriment faded on a sigh. The greater likelihood is that he’d wed her to the first gentleman to ask for her hand—if such a gentleman existed. “Perhaps I’ll not have a garlic-scented gentleman or a lofty lord. Perhaps I’ll be content to become an old spinster penning my stories.”

Addie laughed. The lines of her plump cheeks settled into a somber mask. “Hugh said it is not enough. He said you can sell a story every day for the rest of your life, and it still wouldn’t manage to cover…” She tapped her lip. “Whatever it is we require funds for.”

Food. The handful of servants they retained to maintain a respectable household. Elizabeth’s nursemaid—a woman, who’d been with their family since Elizabeth’s birth who still cared for the young lady. That was what they required funds for. She winged one eyebrow upwards. “Never tell me you have so little faith in my abilities to make a match.”

Addie hopped up. “Don’t be silly.” She skipped over and stopped at Hermione’s elbow. “I know you’re outrageously talented. I always tell Hugh if you’d been born a gentleman then none of us would need to ever w… Is this a new story?” Without seeking permission, she made a greedy grab for one of the wrinkled pages.

“It is.” And coming along rather poorly. When all the other stories had just come… This one did not.

Addie opened the crumpled sheet, smoothing her small palm over the wrinkled mess. She quickly scanned the page. “Humph.” That noncommittal, ambiguous humph no writer ever cared to hear, was far worse than mere silence.

“What is it?” Hopefully, Addie in her infinite wisdom would know just why this story wouldn’t come.

Her shoulders moved up and down in a slight shrug. “It seems…” She set the page down and moved to the next.

“Yes?” Her sister had been her most loyal supporter. Well, between Addie, Hugh, and Papa. The rest of the world would never, could never, know of the work she penned. She picked up the most recently completed page and perused it.

Addie peered over her shoulder and read. “It certainly isn’t your finest work,” she said, her little mouth screwed up in concentration.

Perhaps Hermione preferred the humph and silence after all.

Addie plucked the lone page from her hands. “The duke stood, a nefarious grin upon his lips. He strode toward her. Very, very deliberately….”

Hermione’s lips pulled in a grimace, hating her sister’s unerring accuracy in this. Her stories contained tiny pieces of her soul and this particular one of the dark, brooding duke had proven rather soulless. The blasted story would not come. She wrinkled the page back into a ball and tossed it to the floor.

Yes, by far not her most inspiring work.

Work was not something a young lady did. No, the polite young lady starved with a smile on her lips and a deferential curtsy rather than ever do anything as plebian as to earn wages. Desperately needed wages to provide for her eldest sister. Or more exact, a half crown for every story penned as Mr. Michael Michaelmas.

Horrid name. She really wished she’d have put a bit more thought into the nom de plume.

Her sister glanced up from another wrinkled sheet. “It’s really not your worst book.”

A sharp laugh burst from Hermione’s lips. “Er, well thank you. I think.”

Addie returned her attention to the page. “Perhaps it is…” She shook her head forlornly. “It is so, so…”

“So?” She hated that she wanted to know. But if her greatest supporter became her most difficult critic, then she really needed to know the string of words following that ‘so’.

“Uninspired!” The words exploded from Addie. She picked up another discarded piece in her spare hand and alternated her gaze between the sheets. “From just three pages, I cannot see him. And he is so important. Your duke,” she clarified. “The Nefarious Duke, it is a clever title and yet I don’t see him on any of these pages.” Her little legs began to beat a frantic pace over the floor. Back and forth. Back. Then forth.

As a poor baronet’s daughter tucked away in the countryside, her world was rather small. “I’ve never known a duke.” She knew nothing of dukes and princes. Nor had she journeyed to London since she’d been a girl, younger than Addie herself.

Her sister snorted. “You’ve never known a highwayman either yet you did an admirable job with that telling.”

“Thank you,” she said automatically.

“I didn’t mean it as a compliment.”

Her lips twitched and she stifled the smile lest Addie believe she was making light of her. She wasn’t. Addie had been her staunchest supporter and avid reader. She’d not mocked her for submitting her stories to Mr. Werksman’s company, or dreaming of worlds upon a page. Addie took her role as story adviser seriously. Very seriously.

Hermione looked down at her seventh attempt upon this particular page. As her sister continued her frantic pacing, she stared at the ink-marked sheet. Perhaps all the stories before this were of a young lady in the countryside with a dark, mysterious nobleman who found his way into her corner of the world. This… She scanned the page…This tale was of a world she didn’t know nor understand. A story set in London with the loftiest of all the noble titles.

Addie paused mid-stride. “I have it!” She jabbed a finger at the air.

Hermione really hoped her sister had something because she was remarkably out of ideas. “What is it?”

“You need a duke.”

Hermione blinked several times. “I need a duke?” She cocked her head. She had a greater chance of success sprouting wings and flying across the English Channel than landing a duke.

Her sister laughed. “Not to wed, silly. Dukes don’t wed impoverished young ladies from the country.”

Ah, even innocent young girls knew that much. “Indeed, they don’t,” she said dryly.

“You merely need a duke for your story.”

Hermione considered the discarded pages littering her floor and then looked back to her sister. “I know. Mr. Werksman asked me to deliver a story featuring a duke within the month. I—” Addie slapped the sheet against Hermione’s chest. “Oomph.”

“Not for your story. You need a duke for your research.”

She tossed aside the paper and tickled her sister in the sensitive spot at the crook of her elbow until the little girl squirmed breathlessly. “But I thought you said I don’t need to meet someone to write of them.”

Great snorting laughs escaped her lips. “S-stop! I—I s-said…” Another bleat. “S-stop.”

She relented.

A cautious glint entered Addie’s eyes and she inched away. “What I was saying is that if you can’t find inspiration within yourself, you must seek it without.” Her grin widened. “If you can’t write a story about a person you’ve not met, well then, you must meet him.” Eager excitement sparkled in the girl’s eyes and she clapped her hands. “You require a duke.”

For the inherent silliness in her sister’s explanation, there was, to Hermione’s writer’s mind, a good deal of sense in those words. Except… “I can’t merely drum up a duke for research purposes.”

Addie waved a finger in front of her face. “Ah, in Surrey perhaps not. But when you go to London, you shall.” She slapped the pages down upon Hermione’s desk. “I see no other choice.” Then in a dramatic flourish she swept the back of her hand across her brow. “If you fail to find one, then your story shall never be told.” She straightened. “Or, your story shall never be told well.” She picked up one of Hermione’s many books. “London’s Most Spectacularly Seedy Establishments.” Her eyes formed moons in her face. “Are we going to go to these seedy—?”

“No.” Hermione ended the question before it could be asked. Even though they did accompany her on her research trips, her younger siblings were certainly not going anywhere remotely seedy.

“But your research!”

She laughed. “How very dedicated you are to my research.”

“Well, someone must be,” Addie mumbled.

Hermione bristled. “Whatever does that mean?” She didn’t care to have her dedication to her craft questioned—even if it was by a judgmental eleven-year-old younger sister.

Addie shrugged. “Of all the authors I know, you’re—”

“I’m the only author you know.”

The girl merely continued over her. “—the only one who writes of dashing noblemen and powerful princes set amidst the dark world of London, yet you’ve never been there.”

Hermione folded her arms. “I’ve been there.” Even if there was merit to the claim, no author liked to have the integrity of her work called into question.

Her sister snorted. “When you were six.”

“Seven,” Hermione said defensively. “And what do you know of it?” She never spoke of those long ago days or the city of London, largely because Addie was indeed correct—she remembered nothing but the thick of fog and the heavy grey clouds overhead.

“Partridge mentioned that our family hadn’t always remained shut away. She said we—you,” she amended, “Elizabeth, Mama, Papa…” She waved a hand about. “That you used to go places.” An excited glimmer shone in her eyes. “And now I, too, shall go to London and have an adventure!”

Regret pulled at Hermione’s heart. She’d become so accustomed to how their small, broken family had been forever transformed by Elizabeth’s illness and their mother’s subsequent death, that too often she forgot how those events had robbed Hugh and Addie of so many experiences known by other children. She dropped a kiss atop her sister’s brow.

Addie wrinkled her nose. “What was that for?”

“Just because I love you.” Had it been Hugh, he’d have run from the room in disgust from the kiss alone. The words of love would have sent him tearing down the old Roman roads, as far away from any such sentimentality as fast as his little legs could take him. Addie however, smiled widely. Hermione pointed to the door. “Now, if you’d rather debate my abilities to write those stories that you claim to love than get ready for our grand adventure…”

Her sister giggled. “You know I adore them.”

“I know you do.” She smiled. “Now, go. There are some final things I must see to.”

“Very well,” Addie said with a sigh. She skipped from the room, not bothering to close the door behind her.

With purposeful strides, Hermione strode over to the damaged violin atop her stack of research books. She trailed her fingers over the wood, once smooth and immaculate; the cherished instrument of a child who’d been so very proficient in all things musical. Violin in hand, she made her way from her room, down the cold, dark corridors of their modest cottage. The silence occasionally punctuated by the bustling steps of the two maids in their employ who hurried to prepare the Rogers family for their impending departure.

She picked her way down the steps and walked to the back of the house, through the kitchens and outside into the overgrown, once well-loved garden. Hermione paused at the threshold. Sunlight bathed her face, warm and comforting and she raised a hand to shield the glare of the rays from her eyes.

Unmindful of propriety or the fabric of her gown, Elizabeth knelt on the ground, still damp from last evening’s rain. She tipped her head toward a rose bush and inhaled the scent. The actions of her lovely sister, now twenty-five and possessed of a golden beauty, were more suited to a young woman, tending her gardens, happily wedded. Then, impulsively, Elizabeth grabbed the bloom by its thorned stem.

Shaken from her reverie, Hermione raced down the slick grass onward to her weeping sister. “Hurt. Hurt. Hurt.”

Partridge jumped up from the chipped stone bench but Hermione reached Elizabeth first.

She fell to a knee beside her sister and set aside the violin. “What happened, love?” she asked gently.

Her sister rocked back and forth. “B-bit me. The rose bit me and…” She let loose another round of noisy tears.

Hermione drew her into her arms and simply held her until she quieted. She drew back and brushed her fingers over Elizabeth’s tear-dampened cheeks. “Better, now?”

Elizabeth sucked on her injured digit. “No.”

“What if I say I brought you this?” Hermione asked, and reached for the violin.

An excited squeal replaced all previous upset and Elizabeth made an awkward grab for the instrument. “I play. You say I play.”

“Of course you can play,” she said handing over the violin.

Elizabeth sank into an inglorious heap; her skirts rucked up about her legs, Hermione forgotten. Her sister tugged clumsily at the strings with stiff, awkward fingers, periodically emitting a coarse whine as a discordant song filled the air.

Hermione brushed a hand over her sister’s silken tresses. “I have to leave, love,” she said softly.

Her sister never picked her head up, giving no indication she heard or was outwardly affected by the truth that her sister, once best friend, now useless protector, would leave.

Partridge held Hermione’s gaze and gave a sad, knowing smile.

She tried again. “Did you hear me?” But Elizabeth remained fixed on her damaged violin. A pang struck Hermione’s heart. She didn’t know what Elizabeth understood, how she felt; it was as though she’d become trapped in a world of her own. “I have to leave.” She stroked the top of Elizabeth’s head. “I’m going off to London.” To be somber and serious and not at all happy. She stared at a butterfly fluttering about from one wildflower to the next.

The memory of those words uttered a lifetime ago, on the edge of a river before their world had been thrown into upheaval danced silently through the air.

How eerily wrong Elizabeth had been. On the last day of their normal happy existence, Elizabeth had imagined they had their whole lives to be somber and now, staring at her so blissfully unaware of the impending doom facing them, there was nothing somber about her elder sister.

It would fall to Hermione to set her family to rights. As her sister Addie had pointed out, all she needed to do was find one duke to tell her story. She had six weeks to find a duke, conduct her research, and tell her story.

How difficult could it be to find a dark, brooding duke at the height of a Season? Why, London should be fairly teeming with dukes of all sorts. All she needed to do was pluck one from a gathering…

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