My review contains spoilers and they're mostly my thoughts as I went with the book...
Wendy Lyn Watson’s Once Upon A Wallflower was a pretty good read. Having never read anything by her prior to this book, I was drawn by the word ‘wallflower’. I love a good romance where the so-called wallflower heroines turn out to be a force to reckon with! In that regard, I wasn’t disappointed cause I could definitely see myself making friends with Mira.
At the beginning of the story, we find our h Mirabelle quite desolate over the engagement that’s currently looming over her. ‘Mira’, as she’s called by her family consisting of her rather timid uncle, one harridan of an aunt and their spoiled young daughter Mirabelle. Mira’s cousin is called ‘Bella’ by everyone else. Now the distinctions, which are made as to no one mixes Bella up with the ‘Other Miss Fitzhenry’ (as Mira is inevitably called), are based upon the facts:
1. Mira is the plain, spinsterish relation her uncle’s family doesn’t care about, while Bella is the beautiful one with all the ‘social graces’ go with the package. While reading, I did have my doubts on that regard though, hmmm...
2. Mira is a full-figured girl who has bright red hair with wild curls, so not what the society deems as a ‘beauty’ (hence my displeasure with the cover, it’s beautiful mind you but doesn’t portray Mira correctly), while Bella is... well, a petite girl with perfectly coiffed blonde hair.
3. Mira is smart, while Bella is... um, not. But she’s good at social thingies, a veritable society belle.
4. Mira is even-tempered and logical, while Bella is spoiled and prone to throwing tantrum (only child and all that).
5. Mira is down to earth, a good-natured girl while Belle is vain and petty.
So you see, making the distinction was very much necessary when they shared a name and maybe, the need of husbands (I’m not even going into the story of how they came to be sharing that name). In everything else, they’re like oil and water. I damn sure was happy that Mira was Mira and Bella was... well, Bella!
Then I begin reading more about Mira’s very mean family, and it was apparent that the fruit hasn’t fallen far from the tree. Kitty, Bella’s mother, may not look anything like her daughter but in temperament, she’s the same; pretty and mean spirited. These two never, once, lose the chance to remind Mira of what an all around loser she is, how she’s so ‘old’ at her early 20s and without so much one prospect of a husband as she never had a suitor. Doesn’t matter that the girl was never even given a season as Mira became an orphan and came to live with her uncle’s quite young. Belle is, of course, the best of the family; she’ll bring them all the riches they need to live in luxury and pay the debts that Mira’s wuss of an uncle collected over the years.
And then, said uncle lost a bet and his own daughter to the Lord of a wealthy and venerable family, the Ellerbys. Lord Blackwell wants this girl for his son who is known to be a murderer. Of course, the best solution was to foist Mira on them because, how can Bella, their golden girl, marry a murderer? Nah-ah, not happening! Everything is set but of course, no one even bothered considering Mira’s feelings in this matter as it doesn’t count. When you read Bella and Kitty’s barbs and jibes toward her, you’re reminded over and over again of this fact.
And you know why Mira has been desolate over this engagement, and the upcoming wedding, that will take place very soon.
But Mira knows this will not work. When the man in question, known murderer or not, sees her, he’ll definitely flee, breaking off the engagement. Mira’s self-esteem has gone down a spiral over the years, thanks to Bella and Kitty, so she’s sure no man would want to marry her. Especially when they compare her to Bella, they take a detour. It was sad, and I felt for her. Though she’s not very sure of her looks and ability to ‘snag’ a man, Mira knows her brain and she’s happy with it, burying herself in books whenever she can; another fault to pile up on her ever growing list of ‘inadequacies’.
Next, Mira and the Fitzhenrys are invited to the ball where she’d meet her very soon-to-be fiancé for the first time. The man in question, Ashfield, lives in the wilds of Cornwall at the family estate called Blackwell. It’s rumored that he has killed his fiancée last year at Midsummer. Even before that, he’d killed two other young girls. Well, no one caught him doing the murders but the superstitious Cornish people deem him ‘odd’ and so, it’s very convenient to make him the scapegoat. The murderer was never caught and Lord Blackwell, who is an Earl, has seen to it that Ashfield is never charged.
Mira’s apprehension turns into intrigue the moment she sets her eyes on the dark and brooding Ashfield. With that, all her thoughts of bowing out of the marriage (if he doesn’t do it before her, that is) goes out the window. Ashfield is very tall and broad-shouldered, with lean muscles and a head full of dark hair. But his eyes, when she’s introduced to him, the stormy gray eyes, to Mira, don’t look like a murderer’s. After the introduction, she finds him studying her rather intensely, then requesting for a dance. While dancing, they talk and Mira figures that underneath this brooding man lies a hidden gem that only needs a bit unearthing. He doesn’t seem to be hurrying to bail out of the marriage either. Mira can’t wait to find out more about Ashfield and if possible, if he, indeed, is a murderer.
I was cheering for Nicholas from the first moment we met him. He has a rather witty sense of humor which he uses frequently to cope with the unfair rumors swirling about him, marring his reputation over the years. It was plain to see that he’s no murderer but the harm these rumors have done to his self-esteem is also apparent. Nicholas is also haunted by the dreams of his suicidal mother, whom he saw jump off a cliff when he was young. The pain of not being able to save her has never left him.
They all deem Nicholas ‘odd’ because he’s a recluse. He hurt one of his legs rather badly after a fall (I think it was the day his mother committed suicide, on an attempt to save her). Though he can walk with both legs, it’s a chore for him as the bad leg gives him trouble. This is another burden on Nicholas’s psyche, a blow to his self-esteem. Moreover, Nicholas is an artist, something no one thinks a man should be. Because he loves keeping to himself and lives in the tower house, the people here marked him as a weirdo, hence the blame of these murders. It didn’t help matters that his fiancée, Olivia, died somewhere near the tower house where Nicholas lives. And so, the poor guy has come to live with this and resigned to his fate... until the day his father told him that a bride has been chosen for him and that he needs to hie himself to London to meet her. Not once he thought that this time fate has planned on something entirely different for him.
Blackwell is a notorious womanizer; a roué to be precise. Even in his advanced years he’s not showing any sign of slowing down. This guy is a pervert who loves young, ‘fresh’ girls. He never cared for his family that much, except for that he had an heir. I don’t think his first wife’s death bothered him that much. Then, after marrying a young debutante and foisting another son on her, he acquired the spare too. Blackwell doesn’t even live in the estate, coming home twice a year for couple of days to check on the estate matters. Not that he leaves his debauched lifestyle at London. He does his fair share of skirt-chasing in and around Blackwell too. It’s apparent that Nicholas’s younger half-brother, Jeremy, is aptly following their pater’s footstep and is already a known rake. Man, talk about disgusting stuff! This gave me a better idea of why Nicholas likes to keep to himself and how his father’s callous behavior linking to his mother’s death has affected him. I’d like to mention here that he’s nothing like the two other Ellerbys.
Both Blackwell and Nicholas were given the impression that the bride-to-be was Bella Fitzhenry, so Nicholas was expecting a tepid young miss with blonde hair; qualities that only made him wanna run. But what he finds is a fiery redhead with sparkly blue eyes and a figure to die for. Then there was the dance and the conversation with her, that he, after so many years of self-imposed seclusion, enjoyed very much. Nicholas finds himself very intrigued indeed. Blackwell, as expected, is unhappy because Bella wasn’t among the Fitzhenrys. He deemed that he’d gotten the ‘bad bargain’, cheated off the ‘better goods’. When an incensed Blackwell, later, decides to break off the engagement, Nicholas surprises him by saying that he’s happy with Miss Mira Fitzhenry, and that he wants to go forward with the wedding.
Until she runs from him... but before that, Nicholas wants to savor these moments.
A few days later, the Fitzhenrys are invited to Blackwell’s Midsummer festivities, which is to take place at their infamous Cornish estate. The marriage is also supposed to take place at this time. Mira, accompanied by her family, goes to meet her ‘doom’... or so everyone else thought. In truth, Mira is determined to solve this puzzle and clear Nicholas’s name. If it’s Nicholas, then she can’t marry him and foist upon their children, if they have any, a life full of misery because they’d always be colored by this stigma. But somewhere inside her, Mira feels that Nicholas is not the culprit. Now it’s up to her to figure this all out in just about a week or so before everything is final and they’re married for good.
Mira and her family are very unsurprisingly not welcomed with open arms. Beatrice, Nicholas’s stepmother, alongside the other guests, deems them as upstarts, hence not really fit for their company. Nicholas knows it, yet he can’t find the courage to meet her. Later though, he tries his best to make appearances at the dinner and other occasions so that Mira doesn’t feel left out or unwelcomed.
It was really fun to watch Mira and Nicholas together. You’d love the way Nicholas starts calling her ‘Mira-mine’. It just felt so natural that he should call her something so lovable, cause there was no doubt of the appreciation that he held for her. There was also the fact that Mira accepted him. Even if he doesn’t know for how long but she did and that meant a lot to Nicholas. A life mired in so much unwanted gossip and scandal, something he didn’t deserve, can’t be good for a man. Except only for his valet Pawly’s questionable companionship, Nicholas has lived a life of a hermit so far. So Mira’s acceptance, her smiles, shy looks and blushes to his words worked like the balm.
Yet with that, came the vulnerabilities too. You see, Nicholas is scared. After a long time, his life has taken a rather positively interesting turn that involves a woman. He feels the anticipation in his bones, yet he knows this probably won’t end well. I really, truly felt for him. He was such a good guy, only superbly misunderstood and misrepresented by all the gossips. I was so glad that Mira saw through it and wanted to help him.
Their relationship went deeper with each conversation, each walks together. Then there was the time when Nicholas very astutely defends Mira from Jeremy’s snide comments. The drunk a$$hole didn’t lose a moment to remind Mira that she’s intended for the ‘rotten’ material of the family, that she’s such a loser (thanks to Bella’s helpful(?) information) to have been stuck with Nicholas. Mira was hurt but also comforted that Nicholas was there. Now she’s even more determined to find out who’s behind these all. For that, she seeks out Nicholas’s help. He very reluctantly agrees when she notes some valid points (including their future children and their fate) that this should be done.
I might’ve been a little skeptical in the beginning, as to how a bookish, rather unsocial girl can go and solve a murder case... no, make that three murders, in about a week. But I didn’t let it bother me much cause the next couple of chapters took me by storm. Mira finds some valuable information on the dead girls. Except for Olivia Linworth, Nicholas’s fiancée, the other two supposedly were with a wealthy protector right before their murder, who promised them ‘more’ in the future. One of the girls was pregnant at the time of the murder. And the only wealthy family in this part of Cornwall is the Ellerbys. This leaves three men; Nicholas, Lord Blackwell and Jeremy. Each murder took place during the Midsummer festivities. Mira zooms in on Blackwell himself, his penchant for fresh young girls making him an instant suspect, also his presence at each Midsummer. She tells Nicholas of her suspicion, who tries hedging it by changing the subject. This gives Mira a pause. Is she wrong then? Is Nicholas trying to hide something from her? If so, what?
While they’re at it, things at the Blackwell takes a new turn when Bella confesses to Mira, of all people, that she’s in love with Jeremy and they’re planning to elope. It’s given that none of the family will consent to this. Jeremy’s mother is too protective of her son to marry him off to an upstart, while Bella’s mother wants prospects with money, which Jeremy doesn’t possess. Not the amount they want anyway. Mira, the voice of reason, tries her logic with Bella on her newest rash decision. But Bella is angry when Mira refuses to help her and is so mean to her that I wanted to smack her really bad. I don’t know how Mira stood there and took it all in. I would’ve gone straight for that girl’s hair.
I must mention that this story was not as steamy and little lacking on the romance because Mira spend the majority of it trying to solve the murders. The story itself is not that long. But I'm not complaining. Mira and Nicholas’s fate was bound together from the first moment, which helped them forming an awkward bond out of necessity. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t any beautiful scene between them. One would be that scene when Mira goes to Nicholas’s tower room to sit for a portrait. Mira was already very impressed by his artistic endeavors and flattered that he’d ask her to sit for him! This time, Nicholas, with his artist’s eyes, made it a rather sensual experience for them both. There were also heated kisses and caresses. Though those didn’t go any further, I could feel the passion and the attraction.
One day, Mira is rather forced to go to the village alone to do some more investigation. Nicholas was to accompany her. He has taken up the task of following his predatory father so that he doesn’t hurt anyone. But the night before, he ends up drunk, hence, couldn’t make an appearance. Mira is followed by a mysterious rider bend on murdering her. This individual almost succeeds in doing so..... It was such a gripping scene that I was left contemplating Mira’s fate. But Nicholas follows her trail and finds her. With his valet’s help, he saves her too and takes her to a nearby cottage. After tending to them, Pawly returns to Blackwell. Things take a different turn and Mira and Nicholas become intimate. But the next day, when she wakes up to the sound of someone entering the cottage, Mira comes down to find some evidence left there for her to see. This instantly makes her doubt everything she thought about Nicholas, so much so that she runs from him that instant.
Seriously, Mira? You so disappointed me here. Tell me why would a seasoned murderer, whom no one has been able to identify so far, would leave these evidences in the open for everyone to see? Would he be that clumsy, if Nicholas was indeed that person? I don’t know but I think Mira’s brain wasn’t working well after a night of vigorous sex. :p We all have those days.
Even though it wasn’t stressed, I believe I felt Nicholas’s hurt and disappointment at Mira’s sudden reluctance in him. He could taste the pain and bitterness of losing another person he loves very soon. Though he’s determined to give up on this, thinking this is for the best, Pawly’s words struck home. Indeed this time he can act and save himself from another lifetime of pain. Misunderstandings were bound to happen but Mira chooses to trust Nicholas and not run even when the means are offered to her. She’s even more determined to draw a conclusion to this mystery, once and for all.
Inevitably, it’s on the eve of the annual Midsummer festivities is when things finally begin to unravel...
I was holding my breath to see who it turns out to be, because it so happened that throughout the story, just when you think you know who it is you’re diverted to a new possibility. I had 3 in mind, who, I felt, had the motive. I was relieved to find that it was one of them. Saying that, I must confess- though I don’t condone what was done in any way, I couldn’t help but end up feeling some sympathy for said murderer. If you read the book I think you’ll understand why I said that.
But I also ended Once Upon A Wallflower with huge grin on my face for both Mira and Nicholas, especially that realization of how their guardians’ machinations brought them together, yet it turned out to be the best thing that could ever happen to them. That must count for something! A solid 4 stars, recommended.