How to Be a Wallflower

Book 1 in the Would-Be Wallflowers series

From New York Times bestseller Eloisa James, a new Regency-set novel in which a heiress with the goal of being a wallflower engages a rugged American in a scorchingly sensual, witty wager that tests whether clothing does indeed make the man—or the wallflower!

Miss Cleopatra Lewis is about to be launched in society by her aristocratic grandfather. But since she has no intention of marrying, she visits a costume emporium specifically to order unflattering dresses guaranteed to put off any prospective suitors.

Powerful and charismatic Jacob Astor Addison is in London, acquiring businesses to add to his theatrical holdings in America—as well as buying an opal for a young lady back in Boston. He’s furious when a she-devil masquerading as an English lady steals Quimby’s Costume Emporium from under his nose.

Jake strikes a devil’s bargain, offering to design her “wallflower wardrobe” and giving Cleo the chance to design his. Cleo can’t resist the fun of clothing the rough-hewn American in feathers and flowers. And somehow in the middle of their lively competition, Jake becomes her closest friend.

It isn’t until Cleo becomes the toast of all society that Jake realizes she’s stolen his fiercely guarded heart. But unlike the noblemen at her feet, he doesn’t belong in her refined and cultured world.

Caught between the demands of honor and desire, Jake would give up everything to be with the woman he loves—if she’ll have him!


Note from Eloisa: A must-read prequel: The heroine of My American Duchess appears in How to be a Wallflower—with her kids!

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    Book Reviews
  • “James’s newest series won’t disappoint, with her signature abundance of banter, humorous situations, and strong-willed characters determined to have their way, creating sizzling sexual tension.”

    ~ Library Journal

  • "…delivers the humor, charm, and historical richness that James’ readers adore."

    ~ Kirkus Reviews

  • "The romance galaxy is filled with luminous stars, but few twinkle as brightly as James who once again dazzles readers with superbly conceived characters, a sublimely sensual love story, and sparkling wit."

    ~ Booklist - Starred review

“The romance galaxy is filled with luminous stars, but few twinkle as brightly as James who once again dazzles readers with superbly conceived characters, a sublimely sensual love story, and sparkling wit.”

~ Booklist - Starred review

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Chapter One

Faubourg’s Hotel
March 15, 1815

Miss Cleopatra Lewis looked at her reflection with satisfaction. Her hair was pulled into a dowdy knot, and the jet beads encircling the high neck of her gown made her skin look sallow rather than interestingly pale.

On the other hand, the black fabric made her hair turn from auburn to fire red.

“I need a turban,” she told her dresser, who was scowling, due to taking personal offence at Cleo’s appearance.

“You must be jesting!” Gussie cried with all the horror of Lady Macbeth confronting her cowardly husband. “You’re trying to provoke me.”

Cleo allowed a chill to creep into her voice. Years of managing her own fortune—including the wildly successful, if indelicate, business she inherited from her father, Lewis Commodes—meant that she had long practice in quelling rebellion.

“I am resolved, Gussie. A turban, if you please.”

“You’ll look a proper quiz!” Gussie retorted. “Not that you don’t already.”

“That’s the idea,” Cleo said, mustering patience. “I am resolved to be a wallflower.” She gave her maid an apologetic smile. “I do collect that my appearance won’t reflect your abilities.”

“You look like a crow as got his head stuck into a red paint pot.”

“I am in mourning,” Cleo pointed out.

“Your mother—heaven rest her—has been gone these nine months, so half-mourning at the most. Your mourning gowns weren’t frumpish.” Gussie sucked in a dramatic breath. “It’s more than I can bear.”

“You must bear it, just as I must bear the tiresome series of events that makes up the London season,” Cleo said. “I promised my mother I would debut. But that doesn’t mean I have to collect a train of followers who will waste my time. The obvious solution is to be a wallflower.”

“Barbarous,” Gussie moaned. But she began poking through a trunk to the side of the dressing table. “The only turban we have is a Marmeluke cap, out of date these three years!”

“Think of it as a new role. I couldn’t have a better maid, given your background in the theater,” Cleo said encouragingly.

“You as a wallflower is a casting choice that I would never make. You was never meant to be a wallflower.” Gussie straightened, holding a limp piece of gray fabric. “I didn’t care for this cap even when your mother dressed it up with feathers.”

“Costumes make the role,” Cleo reminded her. “Just think of how many plump Henry VIIIs turn out to be lean and hungry without their padding.”

“What of your grandfather?” Gussie demanded, shaking out the layers of gray muslin that made up the turban. “The viscount will be mortified to see you looking like a quiz. You know how sorry your mother was to have been estranged from him. She’d want you to make the old gentleman happy.”

Gussie’s right, her mother announced, deep in the recesses of Cleo’s mind. Cleo had been somewhat dismayed to find that in the months after Julia’s death, some errant part of her memory persistently offered up her commentary.

It was because Cleo missed her so much, of course. Julia had dazzled: clever, witty, beautiful. Erratic, but always entertaining.

“He and I have exchanged several letters. I warned the viscount that I had no wish to marry a duke and that I planned to be a wallflower. He indicated that he will happily sit with me at the side of the room.”

Her grandfather, Viscount Falconer, seemed lonely and desperately sad about her mother’s death. Unfortunately, Julia hadn’t cared to stay in touch with her family. Cleo did want to spend time with him.

Yet after eight years of caring for her mother, she had been looking forward to doing what she wanted: expanding Lewis Commodes into the most powerful corporation in Europe, not to mention learning French, improving her vocabulary, visiting Paris the moment Napoleon was evicted, and ignoring the silly rules governing polite society.

Cleo had no fear of the season. Her mother may have been a free spirit in some respects, but Julia never forgot that she was the daughter of a viscount, and Cleo had mastered ladylike comportment by the age of ten.

Even at that age, Cleo preferred to shadow her father in his offices, not practice quadrilles with a dance master imported from London to Nottingham at huge expense. A yawning feeling of boredom loomed at the very thought of accompanying her grandfather to one ball, let alone night after night of them. Still, it was her mother’s last wish, and not to be disregarded.

Gussie was entertaining no such foibles. “You can try to be a wallflower.” She started to fit the cap over the hair coiled at Julia’s neck. “It’ll never work. It’ll be like when I played the flower seller in My Fairest Lady! You’ll walk into a ballroom. There across the room you’ll see a tall man with piercing eyes—”

“I’ll promptly look the other way,” Cleopatra interrupted. “Don’t forget that Reggie Bottleneck played the hero, Gussie, and he got two women with child, though the production only had a four-month run.”

Gussie grimaced. “Not his piercing eyes. Better ones.”

“I know too much about men,” Cleopatra told her. “I don’t need one of them getting in my way, not to mention claiming my fortune. Just look at all the men who Mother… well, with whom she was acquainted.”

“May heaven rest her, your mother had a tender heart for a leading man. Drat it!” Gussie muttered as the turban dislodged a couple of hairpins and Cleo’s curls sprang free.

A soft heart was a tactful description. Julia rarely met a handsome actor whom she didn’t instantly adore—and invite to her bed, both during her marriage and thereafter. Cleo had decided early in life that nurturing illusions about her mother would be disastrous.

Her level-headedness was precisely why her father had left his fortune to his fourteen-year-old daughter, rather than his wife. On occasion, Cleo had made use of it by paying off a particularly fervent lover who wouldn’t accept that Julia had lost interest in him.

Cleo’s opinion of the male sex had fallen lower and lower as actor after actor strode through her mother’s bedchamber door.

“I’m not tender-hearted, like my mother,” she said flatly. “I’m…I’m inimical to men.”

“Word of the day?” Gussie asked. “I’m thinking ‘inimical’ means you don’t like men which, begging my pardon, Miss, we both know isn’t true. You were betrothed to Foster Beacham only a year ago.”

“Briefly,” Cleo stated.

“You can’t let one broken engagement sour you on the pack of them.”

“I shan’t. I would simply prefer to cater to my own interests rather than someone else’s. Still, Lord Falconer is my only relative, and I shall enjoy being his companion, though that reminds me that we must visit a modiste. I need everything from gowns to parasols in—in wallflower mode, if you see what I mean.”

“Your mother hated drab clothing.” Gussie paused. “Heaven rest her.”

“You needn’t say that quite so often,” Cleo said.

“Mrs. Lewis wasn’t restful, was she? I do hope she’s at peace now.”

“Mother’s version of heaven likely includes a great many handsome actors, and as many romantic plays as anyone can watch.”

That’s right, Julia murmured, with a naughty chuckle.

“Half-mourning suits my mood,” Cleo said. “I needn’t want to wear black any longer, but I miss her.”

Gussie put her hand on Cleo’s shoulder for a moment. “The sadness will go away with time. You do realize that French modistes won’t want to dress a wallflower?”

“They will create whatever garments I require,” Cleo stated, confident in the power of the almighty pound.

“We’d do better with a costumier. My dear friend Martha has her own emporium now and outfits the best theater companies.”

“I don’t want to stand out,” Cleopatra warned.

“That’s not how it worked in My Fairest Lady, nor yet in that other play your mother loved so much, So Dear to My Heart. Remember The Highland Rogue? The heroine—”

“Exactly: those are heroines,” Cleo interrupted. “Think of me as a bit player, Gussie. I need to be costumed accordingly.”

“A wallflower, I can’t promise. You just don’t fit the role, Miss, if you don’t mind my saying so, no matter what you’re wearing. But Martha would do her best.”

Cleo looked in the mirror. Her reflection looked back at her: passable features, blazing red hair mostly caught up under the turban, a pointed chin that she secretly disliked. In her opinion, what would make her a wallflower wasn’t only her clothing: it was her expression. She was too old at twenty-two to bother with looking demure, let alone shy.

“Men from the gentry and nobility want ladylike wives,” she pointed out.

Gussie shook her head. “You will be catnip to a tomcat.”

“Nonsense. Gentlemen fondly believe they’re desirable. If you aren’t interested, they scamper off to women who will flatter them.”

“Your mother—may Heaven rest her—would chase after any fellow who caught her eye, but it didn’t make them fall in love with her, did it? Most times she lost interest, but others dropped her and disappeared.”

“Men are fickle,” Cleo said flatly.

Gussie chuckled. “Not when they see something they really want.”

“Pooh,” Cleo replied. “I don’t care what they really want or don’t want. I shall spend time with my grandfather as Mother wished. After I’ve learned French, I will travel to the Continent. Enough fussing with the turban, Gussie. I have to be back here by four in the afternoon to meet with the hotel manager as he’s considering a renovation, with our commodes, obviously.”

“I didn’t like this headpiece even when your mother wore it with two white feathers sticking straight into the air,” Gussie said, pulling it over Cleo’s ears.

“Didn’t she pin an emerald brooch in front as well?”

Gussie nodded, with the air of someone biting her tongue.

The curls on your forehead resemble a bushy hedge in autumn, Julia observed in the depths of Cleo’s mind.

“Perhaps we can fit in a visit to a milliner,” Cleo said.

“Martha also makes headdresses,” Gussie said. “Now you look more like an old maid than a wallflower. May I point out that one follows the other, like night and day?”

Cleo shrugged.

“Lip color?”

She shook her head.

“It’s not natural,” Gussie said mournfully. “What if we was to meet that piercing-eyed gentleman right here on a London street? What then?”

“He’ll walk straight by me,” Cleo told her. And smiled.

Frightened off by that turban, her mother put in, having the last word, as usual.

End of Excerpt

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How to Be a Wallflower is available in the following formats:

ISBN: 978-0063139534
March 29, 2022

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How to Be a Wallflower is Book 1 in the Would-Be Wallflowers series.

The full series reading order is as follows:

Book 1: How to Be a Wallflower
Book 2: The Reluctant Countess
The Reluctant Countess